May 14, 2001
Douglas Adams is gone, dead of a heart attack. That pretty well obliterates anything else I planned to write about.
Marc already wrote a very moving piece about Mr. Adams. I liked his books a great deal and want to talk about him myself.
I'd been bracing so long for Kurt Vonnegut's obituary that the Douglas Adams headline blindsided me. After all -- Vonnegut already wrote his Last Book, and Kilgore Trout already performed his epitaph at a clambake in Xanadu. The blinds have been drawn, the lights have been turned out. But Douglas Adams was still alive and glad to be here.
I don't know why Vonnegut comes to mind. Certainly he can be compared to Adams. Both wrote memorable sentences with humor and compassion. But Vonnegut's humor was a flashbulb to illuminate depths that otherwise would have been too huge to perceive. His whirlwinds of destruction were put together bit by bit, and turned loose at the end. His books implied: "Maybe not this particular catastrophe."
But Adams got his Armageddon out of the way in the first few pages. The Earth destroyed by construction workers who wrote bad poetry. Can you beat that? Even when writing about shortcomings and missed boats and death and the total destruction of all we know, Adams wrote with pure joy.
Douglas Adams is one of the very few science fiction authors I've read since high school. And I've read him over and over. No one else can do his act. Not even by reading his poetry in a silly voice.
Kilgore Trout eloquently defined why science fiction should exist, but not why anyone should read it. I find normal science fiction to be a pretty setting for the absence of soul. Coolness gets stretched as far and thin as it can go to cover the vacuum. I suspect Vonnegut deliberately avoided the appellation of "sci-fi writer" by turning the job over to Trout.
But Adams was all soul, the nucleus at the center of the almost complete emptiness that makes up any given atom. He wrote some amazing lines, and linked them together with crazy successions of places and ideas and characters. Sense and nonsense not only looked each other in the eye, but mated and had babies.
And he could draw the nicest places. His nonfiction book Last Chance to See made me want to see New Zealand. His descriptions of St. Cedd's College made me wish it existed so I could have gone to school there. And lingered over some indefinite thesis, which would have become even more indefinite tenure. A better place never to leave than where I live now.
My favorite paragraph: "Down the beach a magician wandered, but no one needed him."
Thanks, Mr. Adams -- for all the places you gave us to be, and all things you gave us to think about and play with.
May 7, 2001
My part-time officemate plays the radio when he's around. I have no fundamental objection to the radio -- I think of it as a kind of aural vibrator, a device to give you the illusion the world is nice -- but he plays commercial stations.
WEFT has spoiled me. I am entirely used to avoiding commercials. I can fast-forward through videotape, and mute the TV. (When I'm at a friend's house and I can't mute the TV, you should see me squirm. I act like someone with a big gob of chlorinated pool water in their ear).
But television at least makes a gesture toward basic decency and pretends it's not about the commercial endorsements. If Mike "Touch" Connors is menaced by a hood, and the scene dissolves into a monolithic box of Tide, you can be pretty sure that Mannix didn't spontaneously evolve into a space baby. No -- Mike will come right back after these messages and disarm the hood and save the rich Edwardian spinsters. Goodness, if not greatness, will prevail.
And video has its commercials right at the front (which may include crucial clips of what you're about to watch). So the commercials are a freakish bloody accident, and the FF button is a reliable, fairly non-psychotic "cleaner". Mess disposed of. On to your next contract killing.
But radio is a whole different level. If the music goes away, you have no idea when it's coming back. Listening to the radio for the music is like welcoming telemarketing calls because you can hum along to what's playing when you're on hold. But while your sense of hearing floats in that placental goo, remember what's going on behind the hold music. The telemarketing firm's data warehouse is revving into high gear. On the factory floor they're casting your mold and mass-producing perfect replicas of your tastes, inclinations, loves and fears. Ostensibly to serve you, but eventually to replace you. Because these clones pay their bills on time -- and you don't.
I remember a statement attributed to a sales director at a company I once worked for. She's supposed to have instructed the sales reps to keep mirrors on their desks. When a sales rep made a call, he or she had to look into the mirror and make sure there was a smile on his or her face. Because the customer can hear when you're smiling.
Whenever I hear commercial radio I think of that. I bet every single one of the DJs, jingle-singers and news-sports-and-weathermen has a mirror six inches in front of their face, held in place by lord-knows-what dental work -- probably with sensor-activated rubber bands to snap the soft palate if the announcer's face relaxes. And two five-minute breaks per day.
Which brings me to LeeAnn Rimes. School-age girl or marketing behemoth? One thing's for sure -- she's a fascinating clash of whitebread cultural forces. Her parents insist she's too young to date? Naturally! Popular culture demands that she sing about romance, love and heartbreak? Of course! Teenage pining is totally acceptable -- as long as it's nonspecific. As soon as "I need you like mercy from Heaven's gate" becomes "I need Bucky Baxter like I need a pack of Marlboro Lights", she's grounded for life.
Which brings me to marriage. Eric hit the nail on the head. There is something fundamentally awry with your blushing bride taking the name and title of your mother and grandmother. But I think this uneasy Oedipal thing has a sound and decent purpose: the cessation of marital relations. It works like a more unsettling version of Prozac. Which, I read, has the side effect of cutting down sexual activity -- but the effect went unrecognized for years because no one bothered to report it. Not with a bang, but with a whimper. (None of which interferes with my wishing Eric well. Sorry -- I get out of hand sometimes).
Which brings me to the freak whirlwind I survived yesterday. Some friends and I were flying kites -- or, rather, they were flying kites and I was crashing them -- in a field just north of Parkland College. The sky started to look menacing, but no badness looked imminent. But the horizon was a brownish color, and the brown grew larger. It looked like a dust cloud to the northwest, somewhere along I-74.
In seconds the temperature dropped at least ten degrees, and the wind blustered up out of nowhere. It had been a good kite-flying day, but this was something else. Rain spatted, and my friends claimed there was hail. Then, a few hundred yards to the north, bright blue flashes along the ground. Downed power lines. The relatively orderly job I'd been doing of winding kite string degenerated into hunched-over running with whatever I could carry.
Then the thing passed, going east. I found that the front, top and rear of my car -- but not the sides -- were covered with dust and grime. To celebrate my new racing stripe, I drove to McDonald's and got a root beer float.
It wasn't a tornado, or a microburst. I missed the local news, which explained what it was -- sort of a wall of wind. The Weather Channel claimed the winds were gusting to 46 MPH, but it must have been stronger to knock over power lines.
What a sense of joie de vivre, though. That's how I want to go. There doesn't have to be a voice out of the whirlwind. No big black shape, no eyes of fire. No telling people their desire. Just a big dust cloud, some War of the Worlds blue flashes along the ground, and me -- happy and not quite believing I'm actually seeing this. Dust cloud, hear my plea! Go forth and wreak Justice upon this accursed land!
May 1, 2001
It turns out I forgot all kinds of stuff last week. At the top of the list is my Mom's birthday. Next is an Afro-Cuban All-Stars concert that my folks got me tickets for on my birthday. I am messed up.
On the plus side, Eric called me a pouty-lipped genius. It's always nice to get compliments from brilliant, ruefully oversexed people. Thanks, Eric. Next time, though -- can you call my lips "bee-stung"? I have a secret desire to be Joey Heatherton.
You know -- every time I think I'm a little bit nuts for hanging on to the website of a radio show that went off the air nine months ago, I sit down and listen to a tape of What Jail Is Like. Then I realize I'm not being clingy (though I could be described as static) -- but that the radio show is objectively fantastic. Now that it's gone, I know of no other place I can get the kind of eats that DJs Marc, Eric and Matt dolloped onto my waiting cafeteria plate at 10 PM every Sunday. Mashed potatoes? Mashed just right. Gravy? No smell of the grave about it, as my pal Charlie Dickens might say. Carrots? Melt-in-your-mouth. Key lime pie? Never more than three days old, tops.
This website, unfortunately, can give you only a taste of the succulent Cool Whip that once graced that gleaming, quivering hunk of pie. That's why the site is moving soon -- to a place with ten times the space. Very soon you (the beloved listeners) will be able to hear -- almost as though it were live! -- any of a number of What Jail Is Like episodes. Now you, too, will be able to undo the grievous mistake of not having lived in East Central Illinois between 1998 and 2000, and not listening to WEFT 90.1 FM on Sundays. Through the Internet shall ye be redeemed.
Best of all, the new site will be a veritable supergroup of rock-star talent. Marc Heiden and Mike Saul will be there. Maybe more. The site may turn into a black hole of talent, sucking in a vast helium cloud of wit from a whole constellation of red-giant stars.
Keep your eye here for developments. Work on this journal (and the rest of the present website) will slow to a crawl as I spend time on the new stuff.
Speaking of the past coming back to life: after sixteen years, my high school is not finished doling out the pain. They sent a letter which turned out not to be one of their regular pleas for money -- but an invitation to their 5K race. Race to be run rain or shine.
Clearly, my high school didn't consider their audience. Me and track are old nemeses. For my first two or three years of high school I would get asthma when I ran. For some reason the coaches never remembered that -- hey -- he's the kid who can't breathe when he jogs. And I was too shy to jog their memories. One coach in particular (who wore a sweatshirt lettered "King of Pain") suggested I join the track team.
I don't know why he asked. It can't have been to make the rest of the team look good. My high-school didn't have the best basketball team -- once going two years without a win -- but their track team regularly made it to state championships. In regular gym class these young thoroughbreds would gallop at least twice as fast as I could go, and not even foam at the mouth. I was definitely petting-zoo quality, at best.
If I'd been born a little later, I would have made a comparison with Steven King's story The Long Walk. (Note: the action movie Running Man was not adapted from this story -- but from a Philip K. Dick story titled Do Anabolic Steroids Dream of Electric Schwarzeneggers? Historical accuracy must be retained). But I wasn't born later. And now I'm thankful -- because the pain of track would have been less dulled by time.
But -- heck -- maybe I'll go. They'll have the 5K run rain or shine. Perhaps I'll bring a parasol and a sarsaparilla. Or a whole picnic spread, just like the congressmen who went to watch the Union Army whip the rebs at the First Battle of Manassus. It'll be a hoot.
April 26, 2001
Another faux pas. I'm starting to make this a daily routine.
My boss, grandboss and I had another meeting. The topic drifted to travel arrangements, since my boss' daughter and son-in-law are moving to Texas. There are Byzantine travel arrangements being made centering around my boss, her two daughters and son-in-law, their stuff, a small hyperactive dog, and one ninety-pound Labrador with epilepsy.
My grandboss then talked about a trip she made with her brother -- she driving a truck, her brother driving a car -- to North Carolina to pick up her recently deceased mother's stuff. There were complicated transfers of stuff, and a time limit, and it all sounded kind of familiar -- so I blurted out "This sounds like the plot to Smokey and the Bandit."
Kids, heed me. If you attend a screening of 2001: a Space Odyssey in 70mm and then must go to work the next day: don't speak. Keep your newfound wisdom in your head. To do otherwise is to seal your doom.
Well...maybe not. My grandboss seemed to appreciate the joke. My boss gave a tight smile, like maybe the funny wasn't so ha-ha. Can't please everyone, I guess.
Yesterday's faux pas: our system administrator complained recently about PC users who customize their mouse pointer and turn it into a dog's head, and other such things. While writing him an email yesterday, I couldn't help but ask whether this mouse-personalization utility has a Son-of-Sam version. The idea being that, if once in a while a black Labrador wandered across my screen and said "I want you to go out and kill. Kill...kill...", then the rest of my life would seem more reasonable. I didn't get a reply.
I think I need to stay off the subject of Labradors. It touches a deep and ugly root in my subconscious.
2001. Man. What can I say. I had quite a few thoughts during the film, most of which I'm sure have been hashed and rehashed by community-college film classes. Let's see...there was a pig's head and a dead parachutist and a fat kid with glasses, right? Something about flies, I remember. I think. College was a long time ago.
None of which sullies the film. It is what it is. Heck...even before they fired up the projector, in that magnificent rococo movie palace the Virginia Theater, the frame that outshines almost any art placed in it, where the only bad part is that the seating gives just enough leg room for Zelda Rubinstein...even before they fired up the projector to show a stone-sober blue-and-white MGM logo, the sound system played one of those slow terrifying tone-cluster freakouts of György Ligenti's from the soundtrack, and I was awed. I was lost. Help me, Stanley Koo Brickanley. You're my only hope.
As Roger Ebert pointed out -- being the emcee of this shindig, he was free to point out anything he pleased -- analysis does the movie a serious injustice. It's first and foremost a physical experience. If it's done right, you're shaken like a baby in the awesome impersonal hands of Mother Nature. And ain't nobody gonna call DCFS on Gaia.
(I once saw a Monet painting that hit me in just the same way as 2001. Monet, of all people -- muted, placid -- toward the end of his life began to paint wild freaky stuff. Several years ago I walked through a Monet retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art, where many paintings Monet created in sequence were reunited for the first time since their creation. I found a picture that stopped me dead. It was a painting of Monet's Japanese footbridge at his home in Giverny. But everything, everything was literally exploding with vegetation. Wild arcing lethal snarls of plant matter, everywhere, covering every inch of even the discreet little footbridge as though the scene were caught at the moment of transformation. The vegetable kingdom's equivalent of a werewolf. There it was, caught just like in the Fallopian-tube scene at the end of 2001: that impersonal irresistible force of creation, different only from chaos because constructive, different only from indifference because living. See what I mean? I talk about it and I sound like a fifth-rate philosophy major trying to get laid. The force of creation is devious, my children. And the force of plagiarism even more so.)
Nevertheless, a couple of thoughts on the film. It occurred to me while watching the Dawn of Man that the hominids on screen were social animals, even before they could think. They had pecking orders and squabbles. Then came thought, and all the gadgets thought seems to revel in. But man was the same social animal. So social that his personality was buried alive in the roles he played. Here's an official secret, this is excellent service, that's a cracking good ham sandwich. And all the while killing critters by the millions to make the yummy ham.
One wonders how the universe could have benefited from human colonization. Except there would be more shiny pretty things, and official secrets.
Somewhere toward the end there was a call to a higher mode of thought, everything not essential torn away in the naked un-anthropomorphic enormity of space. Instead we've got Jesus, Dayaks and Britney Spears. Life marches on.
This oddly jived with a thought I had last weekend.
So far my life on Planet Earth resembles a giant stack of rock strata. Layer upon layer of squashed artifacts and muck. This layer here is the Devonian, where the tiny primitive Kurtobite once teemed among colonies of colorful Loc-Blocs. Here's the Precambrian, where the Kurtmetrodon first learned to live on land and laid hard-shelled, self-contained eggs at Easter. This layer shows the first great extinction, where ninety percent of all social skills were wiped out by a cataclysmic Adolescence. Here's the Jurassic, where fast, intelligent groups of popular kids stalked their prey, neatly disembowling it with razor-sharp hind claws. And here is the Cretaceous, where the floor of Kurt's first apartment shook beneath the feet of fierce, tiny-brained Alcoholics Rex. It's all in the fossil record.
What I mean is...prior modes of existence come to seem like former lives, if not past geological eras. Everything is neatly buried. Friends go extinct like species and are replaced by other friends. Hobbies disappear like ecological niches as others open up. Each time it's like starting over.
I was thinking about this in relation to today's expectations for "agility". Some CEO -- perhaps the one at Intel -- was recently quoted as saying that all labor should exist on a barge somewhere. The barge would go wherever was cheapest. How could anyone live like that? Picking up and leaving year after year, moving where the career dictates, the hole you vacate empty except for the tattered shreds of your Harper Valley PTA membership card.
It occurred to me that maybe such an emphasis is placed on career growth because personal growth is dead. When you leave you take nothing but your stuff. No one keeps in touch. Only your skills grow, multiplying like viruses, your faux-inspirational company-meeting keynote speeches infesting the heads of peons who just came for the buffet.
Then again, maybe that's too dark -- even for me.
Speaking of dark: I'd love to go sit in it now, to watch Songs From the Second Floor at the Virginia Theater. To be graced by the movie's surreal Swedishness and by the oddly beautiful, rubber-duck-like form of Roger Ebert. But I'm pooped. I wish that loving movies wasn't so exhausting.
April 23, 2001
I am stunned. I am mortified. I done a bad thing.
[CUT TO: morning meeting with my boss and her boss, my grandboss, who is an Assistant Dean at the college. The meeting is in its final stage: having got through a complicated litany of issues and tasks, we're winding down by talking about my grandboss' upcoming trip to North Carolina, and her long family history there.]
Grandboss: Of course I trust written records over family oral history.
Me: [as a family tale-teller] And when he sat down, he made Lake Michigan!
[Endless pause as it dawns on me that my grandboss is very much not the sveltest person in the world. While she's terribly nice and has a mordant sense of humor, she could well think I intended this variation on a well-known tall tale as a dig at her weight. No pun intended.]
[Exuent endless pause.]
[Then a flourish announces the entrance of another endless pause as I realize I don't know that my subconscious didn't mean it that way. Exuent all self-respect.]
Somehow the moment was got through, and the conversation finished smoothly. But I will pay dearly. Oh yes. I will. My grandboss won't hold a grudge, but I will be punished.
You see, I have a collection of those moments and pauses. My Knick-Knack Shelf of Shame. It's spindly, and the slightest vibration could send the whole thing crashing down and then I have to spend the whole day with a magnifying glass looking for the pieces and yet again I have to dig out the Krazy Glue and do my penance.
I deal with the presence of the Unholy Shelf by curling up in a corner and whimpering, hoping the gods of rickety housewares will take pity on me. But no such luck. If I watch a videotape, and something happens that remotely resembles one of my moments, there's an instant icepick in my skull. I literally flinch and yelp at the TV screen.
What are these moments? The only one I can think of happened fourteen years ago, during a high-school trip to what was then Leningrad. I was on a fairly uncrowded subway car. I remember the interior as being beige. Then a bunch of passengers got on: among them a young woman with a book, an older woman carrying bags, and an older man.
I thought about standing up to let the old woman take a seat. But some relay in my nervous system wouldn't connect. Maybe I thought it would be too patronizing or ostentatious. I don't know. My seventeen-year-old self had all kinds of crazy reasons for not doing things.
After a few minutes, the older man (who in my memory resembles Boris Yeltsin, though he probably didn't) barked at me. "Zdorovi", he said. I stared at him. Then he barked again. "Zdorovi". I kept staring. I knew what he wanted but was unable to move. Finally the young woman with a book stood and allowed the babushka to sit next to me.
I can only remember this moment because, with my life currently structured the way it is, I have the assurance that gruff men on subways will fail to growl at me in Russian. Everything else I have stored up would hit too close to home -- so it's all repressed. Until the next bit of cheesy movie dialogue pokes me with a branding iron. What is Hollywood for, if not this?
On a different tack: I have fantastic lips. Sensuous, bewitching. In complete ISO-9000 compliance with "sexy". These lips would look good on any face at any age, but as a thirty-three-year-old white man I have absolutely no right to them. And they look ten times better when I drink Fierce Berry Gatorade.
However, these lips are forced to exist in East Central Illinois. Which is not at all in ISO-9000 compliance with "sex life". So yesterday me and my lips got fed up. And we sez to East Central Illinois: screw ya, East Central Illinois. Me and my lips are going to a different part of East Central Illinois, where we'll get some appreciation.
So, after eating more Mexican food than was healthy, I drove to Allerton Park in the next county west. Allerton is a gigantic former private estate: mostly woodland around the Sangamon River. It has civilized and popular portions: huge gardens, a park full of grassy knolls, and bronze statues with schlongs. I forewent all of this for a deserted trail on the south bank of the river.
I go way back with this park. If my life were an experimental play this park would be the cloaked figure upstage, offering menace -- yet an odd comfort and peace -- to the white-clad maiden in the spotlight. At the end of the play the cloak enfolds her, and everybody claps. That's the script, anyway.
Fortunately my life is a better play than that. There were beautiful, beautiful things to see. Spring had already lost the primitive look it gets in the dead-center of April, where the sky is white and somehow steamy, the sun still coalescing from hydrogen, and the trees don't have leaves but rather fronds that from a distance look like paintings I once saw of the very first plants to live on land. That was all changed now. But Allerton more than made up for it.
There were white-eyed marys, bloodwort, and a few Virginia bluebells. And more things I don't know the names of: purple flowers that looked like Kool-Aid grasshoppers in mid-jump, and red-jawed plants that looked like something Godzilla could do battle with. There were red admiral butterflies all over the place, looking like mid-seventies interior decor with their brown and orange wings (illuminated by tasteful white tracklighting -- at least I think that's what evolution was trying to do with the spots). Then the few acres of prairie in Allerton, still dead tall grass from last year -- but dazzling when backlit by the lowering sun. It looked like a time-lapse photo of God.
On this two-hour-plus walk, there were only two points where I could not have peed in perfect safety. It was my kind of day.
I worry about people in college these days. They can't seem to get what they need. Back in my day, I was perfectly happy to tank a pristine GPA during what should have been my last semester and stay up all night reading Margaret Atwood, drinking Italian sodas or talking and walking with a friend of mine. Old-town Urbana was a fine place to walk at night, with old-fashioned incandescent globes on hexagonal stone supports. "Crime?" they shrugged. "What crime?" Yes, back in my day I was perfectly happy to delve into hours-long conversations to avoid, for a while longer, being scared crapless by the fact that my future wasn't tabula rasa but just plain old rasa, hold the whipped cream. It was utopia.
Then I look at Mike Saul's website. Mike Saul is not a timid man. Humble, maybe, given the picture I've seen of him tongue-washing the effigy of Christ -- but not timid. Yet I see in his Top-Five wishlist: "someone to hang out late at night just to talk with".
Sweet God. If college students can't find anyone to stay up and talk with we are dearly screwed. Sure, I and my friends are too backlogged and loaded down to have more than ritual meetings over coffee or X-Files -- which I can't watch by myself anyway. But somewhere in the back of my mind I had a golden vision of someone, some young person driven sufficiently by demons to stay up all night and talk of fantastic subjects in those irreplaceable three-AM overtones: intimate and sepulchral. But a vision is all it was. I pray for us all.
P.S. I'm not kidding.