Take I5 to Williams and get on the 30

We flew to Sacramento to pick up my Mercedes-Benz. There’s a story there, but it’s easy to remember so I don’t need to write it down.

On our way home to Seattle, we stop in a town called Williams to have breakfast and get the first tank of diesel. I decide to stop here because I see roadside signs advertising a charming-sounding place called Granzella’s, a place that offers an appealing deli, a dive bar, and a little restaurant that reminds me of something I’d see on Route 66. The restaurant is chock full of elderly people. In fact, the whole place is. After I eat a pretty damn good plate of eggs and bacon, my traveling companion takes a conference call while I take a walk.

As I walk away from the tiny tourist area occupied by Granzella’s and head into what’s left of the town, I feel like I’m crossing some kind of invisible barrier. The signs transition from English to Spanish and I feel all eyes on me.

Along the way into downtown, I see a realty shop with a sign that says "no rentals available" placed three feet from a sign advertising that the space the realty office is in is for rent. I see a tiny warehouse with white brick walls and grimy windows and a sign that says "Williams Motors", and I wonder when was the last time they sold cars.

As I’m taking pictures of interesting buildings dating back to the early 1900s, I’m accosted by a shopkeep.

"What are you taking pictures of?" he asks.

"Those palm trees," I say. "We don’t have them back in Washington."

"Why are you taking pictures?"

"I’m a tourist."

He nods and walks back into the convenience store. I look down the street with the palm trees and feel like it truly is a road going nowhere.

Trapped

It was getting harder to breathe. I didn’t know if my air was running out or if I was panicking. What breaths I could draw in were too warm and not nearly fresh enough. My clothes were stuck to my skin, and my eyes stung. My throat hurt from screaming.

I could hear the muffled sounds from the TV in the living room. “Is that the Rockford Files theme?” I said to nobody. I hoped it was, as it meant my dad would be home soon. It also meant that it had been almost an hour since I became trapped in the box.

I pushed on the lid. Harder. I yelled for my mom, again, but she was still one floor beneath me. I wondered what she would do when she found me. What state would I be in? What would she say? Would she be still be able to save me? Would my dad? He had saved people in the war. He had medals for it.

I imagined I was the Incredible Hulk, pounding on the walls of my prison, mustering the strength to burst out of the box and gulp fresh, clean air. I tried to get angry, angrier, so that I could transform.

My fingers hurt from scratching at the wood. My legs were tingling. My mouth was dry and I could barely feel my tongue. When I closed my eyes, I could see colors swirling and I felt like I was flying forward. I smelled sweat, and pine, and old paint.

“I’m going down to Liz’s,” my mom had said. “Come down if you need me.” I watched ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ on German TV. Der Alfred Hitchcock Heur. I was inspired: I was going to be a mummy. I shuffled into the bedroom that I shared with my two older brothers and walked over to the toy box. It was my dad’s old Army footlocker. I lifted the green wood lid, pulled out the action figures and chemistry set, crawled in, and closed myself inside. The latch fell shut. Who knows how many times that latch had been lifted, revealing Army-issue underwear, t-shirts, contraband, and letters from home. That box had survived basic training and two tours in Viet Nam, and had been schlepped all over the world, finally settling in West Germany, where it appeared to have become my coffin.

My clothes were wet and my skin was cold. I wanted to sleep. I had accepted my fate, given up, resolved my end. The lid opened, my mom screamed my name, and I said, “Can I have a Pepsi?”

loss and finding peace

Tonight I am thinking about loss. I’m listening to sad songs and reading people’s thoughts and feelings that they are compelled to share. There’s a story by a man who fathered a daughter in 1980 but the mother gave her up for adoption, and every year on his daughter’s birthday, he laments never knowing her and losing her mother as well.

Then another: “This is the song my dad listened to in the hospital as he took his last breath.” Same song. I know you’re out there somewhere, the lyrics go.

Everyone deals with loss in different ways.

The song has changed. So have the comments. “This was our wedding song,” she says, “and now 32 years later, he doesn’t love me anymore.” There are more sad stories, and occasionally, a bright spot, like the comment from a woman who danced to the song with her first love thirty-five years ago, and has found him again. They’re getting married and will dance together again.

A new song. Al Green, a cover. Pages and pages of comments from people with broken hearts. “This song reminds me of my first crush,” she says, “and I was too young for him. I watched him wash his car. I had all these feelings and didn’t know what to do with them.” The saddest comment: “Usually this is a song you listen to when she’s left you. I’ve just met someone I really like, but I’ve already thought of the things that will drive us apart in the end. And here I am.”

Perhaps one person sums it up best: “Love hurts people.”

The song has changed again. “This makes me think and remember many things…[it] makes me cry sometimes, for the hard things.” I can’t let this one finish. It affects me too.

And now, a song not about love, but about family. “Me and my dad used to listen to this song. This was our song. He passed away three months ago and I can’t listen to this song without crying.” I’ve never heard this song before.

Now it’s George Jones. The top comment says, “I’ve always loved her. I still love her. I will continue to love her until I die and then my soul will continue to love her.” Someone replies with, “Write her a letter and let her know this. You just never know.” The song is about a man who has lost his love, and he can’t stop loving her, but he finally does when he dies. This one makes me sad: “I’ve been divorced for eight years and when I die, that will be the day I stop loving her.”

One last song. “Every now and again I think back to him,” a commenter says, “and wonder why it was so easy for him to break my heart and lie to me and move on to every girl that crossed his path.”

The last comment sums up all of the rest:

“Part of the reason I lost the only real chance at love I’ll ever have was not being able to open up and show her how much I loved her. I said it in words at times but not in deed. Let this be a lesson for other men not to make the same mistake I did. Once it’s over, you can’t go back so if you have a good woman, don’t take her affection for granted. Show her you love her before you lose her forever.”

As I finish listening to these songs, I think about the permanence of loss. The woman who lost her father, the daughter who lost her husband in Afghanistan, the man who lost a child. These are pains I can’t imagine. If they’re anything like losing the one you love, then I hope that someday, someone will read my own comments and wish they could comfort me.

ruminations on the where

The most interesting part of a story can be its setting, and a great setting can turn a boring story into the most magical, thought-provoking, romantic piece, while a poor setting can drag down even the best intentions. Every high school English student knows this, but it’s the kind of thing that we forget once we complete our educations, until the day we’re watching a movie set in New York City and we say to ourselves, “Wow, what a beautiful place.”

Last night I saw a movie that took place in Chicago. Anyone who has been to Chicago in the Spring knows that it’s a beautiful and magical city, with gorgeous architecture, a sparkling blue lake, constant movement, and all the charm of the Midwest. Conversely, Chicago can be painted as a dark, dangerous, mysterious place like in the film "Road to Perdition." Even then, however, it’s beautiful.

One of my favorite uses of setting is in Charles Dickens’s novel, "Great Expectations." Pip’s home and surrounding countryside almost become characters in themselves, and in my mind everything is gray. As Pip makes his way in the world, the setting brightens and dims, light and dark, echoing Pip’s own experiences. It’s so impacting that I reread passages of the book on my Kindle just to feel that world for a few brief moments.

Setting isn’t limited to films and books. Listen to Joni Mitchell’s song "Both Sides Now":

Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere

This is an abstract representation of setting as it applies to the visualizations of Joni as a child. There’s a literal sense (canyons) with the fantastic (ice cream castles). When I listen to this song, I visualize perfectly what the lyrics present, and then my heart deduces the transcendent meaning.

In my own writing, I like to use setting in the modernist sense, as it is a place and time surrounding the underlying story and series of events, and in some cases, can expose. My characters, often myself, live in this setting. My essays often ignore setting entirely; they happen in some unknown, unreal place. My poetry deals almost entirely with thoughts, whose setting is only in the self, or feelings, which may exist entirely detached from everything.

For me, my own setting is so many layers deep that I often get lost in where I am, and as I move farther and farther out and in, the landscape changes so drastically that I begin to wonder what’s real and what’s not; it is then, that moment, that place in time, wherever I am, that I piece it all together, and discover in myself all of my vulnerability and strength, the shanty of my soul and psyche, a skein of self and presentation that drops with consequence, ending in confidence, and I stand up.

The longest night

Several years ago, I sat in a bar in downtown Dallas, drinking pear ale with one of my best friends while Joy Division played on the ancient jukebox and hipsters played chess all around us. My friend knew the bartender and we thus had a ceaseless supply of the best beers and an expectant bar tab.

Everyone around us milled about in their usual ways, a weekend dance orchestrated week-in and week-out with no visible variance or even a desire for change. Such as it was and would be, and as far as ruts go, it was certainly a satisfying one. We didn’t judge the other patrons; they were there for the same reasons we were there; their “there” was our there, and they’re there as we are there. That was a joke we made that night. One of many.

Another joke we made was a stream-of-conciousness scenario where we dressed as Roman gladiators and invaded a local goth bar. That joke was better as it was written and shared. It lost and loses its luster as time goes by. That’s the way most jokes are, at least the ones that are based on a specific observation at a specific time.

After we left the bar, and it may have been a different time and even with different people, or it may have never happened at all, my friend couldn’t find his car. The memory of that one movie with a title about the inability to find one’s car was still fresh in our minds, and whether it was the beer or a sense of foreboding about our surroundings, I’m not sure, the reference was made. We laughed.

We got in my friend’s car and he threw his trash on the ground. We laughed again. See, this friend is a tree-hugging liberal and he rebels by doing things that are contrary to his political leanings. Like littering. He once threw a Crystal’s cup, no wait, he lunged it, over the roof of his car as we drove down a dark street in suburban Dallas.

His name is JL and we laugh a lot. We laughed a lot, I mean. I don’t see him anymore because I moved away a few times.

Before we left the bar and that story about the movie title happened, and before he threw his trash on the ground and chunked his cup of soda out of his car, we talked about how hard it was to make friends, especially friends who understand the way we think and the things we say. “People are intimidated by you,” he might have said. Others have said it, anyway. I don’t know why, I said. I mean, I don’t know why people are intimidated by me, not why others have said it. But you know what I mean. I should have put that in quotes. “I don’t know why,” I said.

Joy Division had long given way to New Order, and we remarked about how much we liked the bar because of its old-school ‘waver scene. I said I wanted to sleeve my arms in tattoos and I was serious. I knew I was too old for that, but it didn’t change the fact that I wanted to stay young. I wasn’t 30 yet. Remember, I said this was several years ago. Several severals, it seems.

“So what difference does it make?” the jukebox asked. Jumping in front of flying bullets, it seems, made no difference at all.

JL drove us home, and the pear ales went away, and I found myself sitting where I had sat so many times before, and haven’t sat since; these are all distant memories that get cloudier as the weather of my years changes.

I only hope that everyone remembers me as I do.

Thoughts in Colors

When I was 17 I wrote an epic poem. It was about thirty pages long. I wrote it entirely in one sitting, with no edits whatsoever. I wrote it on an electric typewriter and I listened to Pearl Jam’s “Ten” on cassette over and over and over, nonstop, while I wrote the poem, clack-clacking each word. My stepfather had purchased the typewriter for resume-creation purposes, I think. I’ve always loved typewriters.

Now I use a computer, as you can see; several of them, in fact, with different purposes and intents one and many. I’ve been using computers to write stuff since, oh, the late 1980s (?), (a Commodore 64 with Electric Pencil or somesuch), but no power supply of my own so THAT was short-lived. The power supply I used belonged to a long-haired friend with thick tinted glasses and a hidden wealth that only those of us close enough to him discovered; my fondest memory of him, of course, is the visual of combing his hair over a typewriter such that his dander would fall into the keys, an act so vile and offensive to our typing teacher that my friend simply had to do it.

So yes, typewriters. I miss that sound. I miss that friend, and because I’m Funes the Memorious I can remember his name, how to get to his house, the details of his clothing and his car, precise conversations we had, but not the dates we had them.

I wrote that epic poem for an English class and I turned in the only copy of it, which my teacher mysteriously and predictably and promptly lost. “You should have made a copy,” she said, and my internal response was this is 1993, bitch. There ain’t no goddamn S3 yet, know what I’m saying?

I wrote that poem in a mobile home, and I want to say that the faux wood-paneled walls and overturned kerosene lamp (the victim of rough housing and such) were influences, but it was actually King Arthur, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Eddie Vedder.

When I was 17 I wrote an epic poem. It was about 20 years ago.

It’s been a long hot summer

I used to live in a mobile home out in the country, a single-wide 1970s-era dump that reeked of cigarette smoke and desperation. It was a wheeled paradise among the dead shrubbery of central Texas, waiting to be towed out of a small community known as Blue Stem, sitting precariously on rocks with a circular driveway having an in and out that would take apart the suspension of any car that dared travail. I saw it happen myself.

I lived in this house for the entirety of my senior year in high school, six miles from said school, riding the bus every morning and afternoon, my misery so intense that I can still taste it now, almost twenty years later. My younger brother and I made friends with some of the locals, whose own mobile homes required navigating a labyrinthine country road system that made us walk a mile while the house was half that distance directly.

It was on this road that I navigated through the community, and I spent many hours, days, weeks, and months walking around and around and around, listening to a Dead Milkmen single on cassette over and over and over. “I saw a cigar-shaped flying ship,” Butterfly Fairweather sang, “it landed outside on my lawn.” I would often look into the night sky, full of stars and so bright from the stark darkness of the country, and wonder if a cigar-shaped flying ship would ever come and take me away, ostensibly to my home planet.

In the long hot Texas summer, my brother and I watched the same kung fu movies over and over. All of Bruce Lee’s movies. Sometimes we’d walk over to a friend’s mobile home and watch satellite TV. These were the days of the massive dishes in the backyard, the size of radio telescopes, and navigating channels required knowing complex sequences of letters and numbers. HBO west coast would be on something like G.293-4. Our friend would type that code in and we’d wait the several minutes for the large dish to turn and point to the correct point in the sky where HBO would beam down to us. Sometimes the dish would fall off its pole and we’d have to go out into the insufferable heat to mount it. It was worth it, as his satellite TV was the only connection I had to the greater outside world.

There was a small lake in the community, and we’d occasionally camp out there, trying to make it through the night in a tent sitting on rocks, but we’d always pack it up and walk home in the middle of the night. The lake wasn’t fit for swimming, but it had its own beauty. There was a small creek that flowed from the lake down through the woods, creating a beautiful small waterfall that I discovered one day when I was lost in thought. My memory of that little lake is ended by television news footage of a teen’s drowned body being dragged out of it, the friend of a neighbor who killed my cat. I never went to the lake, or the creek, or the waterfall again, and for too long, I delighted in that neighbor’s guilt for letting his friend die.

This was where I lived when I found a new identity, my first girlfriend, and the immense emotional pain associated with both. I was a teenager, after all. It was in that house on that plot where I fooled around with the girl and my mom found out about it. I delighted in that because for a rare moment, I felt normal.

After I moved away and went to college, and found my own way, I drove out there for one final visit. Our mobile home had been moved several years prior, and where it stood were only the remnants of cinder blocks, a dog pen, and my former self.

Stand and watch my head

You told me once that you were told that your writing was too “flowery.” You were disappointed, frustrated, upset by this criticism. “Write with a flourish,” you said, “and people will remember what you say.” Then you brewed a pot of tea and made me a peanut butter sandwich, and we played Atari until it was time to go to bed. You watched over me when nobody else would.

We lived in a ghetto apartment that was nice by our standards. We spent time in the woods playing army with the real Army around us. We looked at rocks and tracks and we fished. You told me how to stop a charging bull. The neighborhood kids regarded you with reverence, as if you were some kind of legendary figure that would deliver them from their strifes. There were many.

You said, “This is Syd Barrett.” You said, “This is a Ouija board.” You said, “This is Otis Redding.” You said, “This is Doctor Faustus, and this is Faust.” You said, “This is tone, this is theme, and this is style.” You said, “This is Roy Orbison.” You said, “This is classical music.” You said, “This is poetry.” You said many things. I listened.

You told me I was smart. You told me when I was being dumb. You told me to stay out of your stuff, but I never did: you were full of wonder. You grew up too fast. You lost your way for a while. You started a new life, and I followed you. You taught me everything. You never said that nothing was too good.

You are my brother, and I still write with a flourish because of it.

The revolution is televised

Back in the 1990s, Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe made a movie called Virtuosity. It was terrible.

But it was a little prescient, as it foretold of an age when people would get lost inside of virtual worlds and our virtual creations would come to the real world and destroy us. Granted, it’s a bit of a reach to say that Facebook has unleashed Cthulu on our civilization, but not everything that destroys us comes in one giant flood.

As an aging yuppie-turned-hipster that appreciated irony long before the word was misappropriated, I remember the early days of the World Wide Web. Many people in my generation, the X one, can sit around the soft glow of a flatscreen and regale you with stories about how we used to have to type http:// for every web address. Those were the days when Netscape included an HTML editor with their browser so YOU TOO could make a crummy gray background with pictures of your dog and host it on Geocities. We all did.

My first email address was fractal@comland.com. Well, my first commercial email address was fractal@comland.com. My actual first email address was IFEK646@mail.utexas.edu. I spent many hours at the University of Texas Undergraduate Microcomputer Facility exploring what the Internet had to offer. First it was via Gopher, then later, Mosaic. That was sixteen years ago, one year before Virtuosity. That was the time when virtual reality was the Next Big Thing. Screw the Internet.

We all know how that turned out.

I refuse to be the curmudgeonly fellow that complains about kids these days and how they don’t appreciate what they have, because not too long ago, I was one of those kids. Yet, my generation was lucky in that we saw a tremendous amount of innovation in a short period of time and we were of the age where we had the income to purchase those things. Cell phones, flat screen television, TiVo, laptops, high speed internet. In a manner of speaking, I’m thankful for being able to experience all those things, but at the same time, I’m sad that it came at the cost of the idyllic life in Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.

Bradbury became famous through years of hard work writing exceptional stories and books. Even he couldn’t foresee a time when people could become instantly famous via YouTube or 4chan. I bet it’s because he had higher hopes for the human race.