Monday, August 29, 2011

Let's Do the Time Warp

I'm from another world. There. I said it. 

Well, maybe I should say I'm from another time? It’s surreal how time creeps by. 

I remember gathering in front of the neighbor’s black and white television, the room illuminated in silver and grey as we watched a man step on the moon. Of course I didn’t appreciate the historical significance of the thing at the time – I was five.

I remember the smell of Play-doh. It smelled like fortune cookies, or so I’d discover later in life. I miss Play-Doh. But does it still smell like fortune cookies? I mean, they change everything to make things “safer.” They ruin everything. I’m just sayin’.  

When I was a kid in the 60’s and 70’s we had toys made of metal with sharp edges: cars and firetrucks were METAL, not plastic. And things that got hot: the Creepy Crawler Thingmaker machine got hot. I mean it got HOT. You had to squirt Plastigoop into a metal mold and then put the metal mold into this HOT tray that cooked the goo. Then you removed the hot metal mold with metal tongs and dropped it into a water bath to cool off so you could peel the little rubbery bugs out of the molds. I burned myself often. And god knows what the hell was actually IN Plastigoop?

Mr. Potato Head – and his pals Pete the Pepper, Katie Carrot and Mr. Soda Pop Head – had hard, sharp, LITTLE pieces that you stuck into him to make goofy faces. Very small, swallowable pieces.
But somehow, despite the apparent mine field I walked through each day of my childhood, I managed to survive. I wonder how many kids died from 3rd degree Thingmaker burns or chocked to death on a Mr. Potato Head eye? Oh! And back then Mr. Potato Head SMOKED! He came with a pipe!

And whatever became of Jello-O 1 2 3 or Funny Face drink mixes? Funny Face was originally sweetened with calcium cyclamate, but calcium cyclamate was one of the victims of the sweetener witch hunts of the 60’s and 70’s. I guess it caused bladder cancer in rats. But how often do you see rats drinking artificially-sweetened drinks in the wild? I’m just sayin’. 

Oh, and smoking. Everyone smoked. A ride in the car (which didn’t have backseat seatbelts, by the way) was an adventure in chemical warfare when my grandfather was driving. At least he’d flick his ashes out the window… of course, they just blew back in and into the backseat and all over us. But that was the way it was.

I remember rushing back to my grandparent’s house to watch President Nixon’s resignation speech. Of course I didn’t appreciate the historical significance of the thing at the time – I was ten. 

I didn’t really get the whole thing with President Nixon. I mean, he seemed like a nice man to me – he’d been to see the Chinese and brought back pandas. How bad can a man with pandas be? I’m just sayin’.

All in the Family was remarkable, although I didn’t realize this until I watched it again in the new millennium. Though not nearly as extreme or venomous as Archie Bunker, words like “colored” and “chink” were used in my house. I remember. There was always talk of finding some aunt and uncle’s hooded robes stashed in a trunk.

But somehow, despite growing up in the tail end of an era where those words were commonplace and acceptable, I saw no difference between people. Even back then I didn’t understand why diversity was BAD. I still don’t. But I appreciate Archie Bunker and the lessons he taught in spite of himself. I’m just sayin’.

I remember the Iran hostage crisis. It all seemed stupid to me. Of course by then I did appreciate the historical significance of the thing – I was fifteen.  Childhood innocence was gone. The world was hostile and dangerous. Santa Claus was dead. There was no Easter Bunny. How had the time crept by so quickly? So unnoticed?

I remember when “simple” computers filled entire rooms. When “mobile” phones were the size of cereal boxes. I remember cassette tapes and records and even 8-track tapes. I remember the first “computer games” played by hooking a contraption up to your television and watching squares bounce back and forth between pixilated “paddles”. Even then I don’t think anyone could have seen what was coming; how we would soon become a cyber-world, connected across continents, microseconds to send messages half way around the world, yet so disconnected and isolated. I’m just sayin’.

Today we’re safe from danger – Big Brother watches out for us, taking the sharp edges off toys, taking away things that get hot, making everything safer, simpler, dumber. We self-edit and kneel at the altar of Political Correctness -- lest the simplest, most innocent word offend -- making everything safer, simpler, dumber. Computers take care of us – our finances, our schedules, our personal information, all of our secrets -- our souls -- making everything safer, simpler, dumber. What a utopia we live in. I’m grateful for the advances in medicine and technology and social thinking – don’t get me wrong. I just wonder if we can’t have some of the innocence back.  I’m just sayin’. 

Until next time from the House of Secrets,
The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
'Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I’ll give you fish, I’ll give you candy: The B-52’s and me.

So as anyone who follows me on Facebook knows, The B-52's played a concert in my home town last night -- three blocks from my house, in fact! I have a 30-year relationship with the band which I revel in. They have been an inspiration to me in ways I can't even express. I can honestly say, without exaggeration, that they changed my life -- I might even get as melodramatic as to say that they saved my life, because I can't imagine what unhappy path my life would have taken had they not come into it.
Back a few years ago I was on a thing historians call MySpace, and there I composed a proto-blog about this very subject, which I lazily copy and paste here. I don't know as I would phrase it any differently, anyway:

"I’ll give you fish. I’ll give you candy. I’ll give you everything I have in my hand". So said The B-52’s in Give Me Back My Man way back in 1980. What the hell does that mean? Nearly 30 years later I still don’t know, yet instinctively I GET IT.

There are those defining moments in your life when something inside you changes. Your first love. Your first sexual partner. The first death of a loved one. Your significant firsts. I count hearing The B-52’s for the first time way back in the fall of 1981 as one of my significant firsts. I was away from home and family for the first time, living in a dorm at college, meeting all of these new people and discovering this weird wide world for really the first time. 

I grew up very sheltered and alone. I didn’t go to parties or dances, I didn’t drink, never smoked, never tried drugs, never explored my sexuality. I had only a handful of people I could truly call friends, and they were outcasts like myself. I was the typical geek, outcast, loser loner. And growing up in middle class white bread America in the 70’s and early 80’s didn’t help. I’d never met a Jewish person or an openly gay person or even anyone from another country other than from neighboring Canada. There were less than ten non-white kids in my class. I’d never been away from home without the family.

That all changed the Tuesday after Labor Day in September 1981. I packed up my room and my life and went off to a State school to study English. I was terrified. There were all these people there. All these DIFFERENT people. And as I settled into my little antiseptic room that I had to share three ways I heard all this different music. And The B-52’s was among the first I heard -- one of my roommates put on the band’s first, self-titled album. It was a magical moment. This music was odd and different and weird and bizarre and wonderful. The lyrics made no sense, the music was layered with weird sounds, and the vocals were strange but harmonic. The band were like cartoon characters with their weird clothes and outlandish looks.Yet suddenly it all made sense to me. I understood. I just UNDERSTOOD it. It spoke to me -- to ME. To the outcast, loner, loser geek. I had an epiphany and my life would never be the same.

I knew of the whole punk/new wave movement and had heard of The B-52’s, of course, but that was all stuff from bizzaroworld. The few kids in high school who were into that stuff were the artsy weirdos, even more outcast than me. Punk and new wave may have been a way of LIFE in places like New York or L.A. or London, but in Lockport it was just so much nonsense.

Within a few weeks I was replacing my Barry Manilow records with The B-52’s, DEVO, The Ramones, The Clash, and all sorts of other weird, raw STUFF. I drank it in, heady and wonderful. An entirely different world opened up before my eyes. I started adorning myself proudly with safety pins and donning outrageous clothes: tuxedo coats with tails over some band t-shirt covered in safety pins and band pins. My hair would find streaks of black or fire engine red in it and bits of makeup were not unknown from time to time.

This -- THIS was the land of the outcasts and loners and geeks and the disenchanted. The punk and wave kids in the urban centers like New York and London had lots to be pissed off about. We weren’t pissed off, we were just bored and tired of cookie-cutter America. We wanted to express our uniqueness. We wanted to be noticed and puzzled over. We wanted to be loathed by the frat jocks and preppy princesses. We were sticking our collective middle finger up at safe, white, bland, mindless, middle class America. We would be lemmings no more.

Shortly thereafter I was drunk for the first time, tried pot for the first time and was friends with such a rich and diverse group of kids that people back home were shocked and seriously concerned about me. It was wonderfully liberating.

I flunked out of that first year of college, but it was worth every cent because I learned more about myself and life than I could ever have done at home. The following year newborn MTV showcased all sorts of oddball, artsy and wonderful British groups like The Thomspon Twins, Adam and the Ants, A Flock of Seagulls and a legion of other new wave bands influenced more by art and fashion than by anger and frustration. Punk wasn’t dead yet, but it was in very ill health. The army of new wave bands swept over America and changed the face of American tv, fashion and music. Being the greedy self-centric melting pot that we are, America eventually fully embraced the whole new wave movement and made it safe and sterile. It was pretty much over by then.

I stopped wearing the odd clothes and coloring strips of my hair. I got on coarse toward a career and a future. My musical and social preferences changed and adapted and expanded. But I always carried that first early punk and new wave spark in my soul. Today, as an ever-crumbling fossil, I live my life by the precepts of those heady, informative punk years. I embrace everyone, regardless of race or color or status or sexuality. I do not judge my peers. I do not accept blind faith or sheepishly following of the status quo. I try to look at every side of every situation. I look for the odd and unusual in life. I take art and music and literature into my life as much as I can. I speak honestly and with as much passion as I can for those things I believe in. I fight for the underdog and the outsider. I overlook mistakes and pasts. I accept everyone as he or she is, try to help but never to change. I love as openly and widely as I can. I deal with problems and people as soon and as directly as I can.

And now as I head toward the other end of my life I thank and am grateful to a weird and wacky group of outcasts and losers and weirdos who formed a little party band back in the late 70’s and who would touch my life and my soul like no one else. And I take comfort in the fact that they are growing old with me -- The B-52’s still record and perform, but they’ve grown older, fatter, slower. Yet their love and lust for life continues. They’ve avoided being sucked into the ever-so bland mainstream and continue to play by their own rules. And I still GET it, even if it makes no sense.

This is the first time in several years that I've read that and it still resonates with me, and I'm actually impressed at how-well written that is! The anticipation and build-up to last night's show reminded me a lot of my youth, and I smiled. A lot. I played a lot of The B-52's music over the past few weeks. And I smiled. A lot. I stood in a crowd of thousands last night enjoying the weird and whacky music and show of The B-52's. And I smiled. A lot. I don't normally smile a whole lot, so its been really nice. I feel reconnected with something very special in the core of myself. Its nice to GET IT again.

Until next time from the Hosue of Secrets,
Planet Claire has pink air,
All the trees are red,
No one ever dies there,
No one has a head....

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Post-Project Depression

I wonder if other authors suffer from post-project depression? Last night I finished something I have been working on for over 10 months and today I'm feeling a bit lost. The thing was beginning to become a real monkey on my back, but I found as I neared the end my enthusiasm and excitement for the project actually GREW. So I finished it with a flourish, dumped all the pieces into a single file, hit SEND and off it went. Yay! But now, although I have other things I have committed to and should be working on, I don't know what to do with myself!

So, what are these other obligations of which I speak? Can't say other than one is an undead theme and one a sort of cyberpunk thing. I have a strong, solid idea for the undead story, and should have started working on it already. Maybe today.... The cyberpunk thing not so much. This is brand new territory for me, so its going to take a little more effort and thought. I have a steampunk idea that I've been playing with for a long time, but that isn't quite the same thing, is it? I'm thinking maybe of returning to one of the baddies from an earlier story of mine for the cyberpunk story. I think it would work great, but who knows? We'll see. Also, it would be fun to do something completely different with something I've already done successfully once (why do I suddenly hear John Cleese saying "And now for something complete different. The penguin on top of your television is about to explode"?). There is also at least one other story I should write very soon for a book I REALLY, REALLY want to be in. I've already submitted something which I like a LOT, but I'm not completely confident its what the editor is looking for.

The problem with all of these commitments I have is that writing is an odd thing for me. I'm not prolific, and I have no sort of "work ethic" when it comes to writing. I can't force myself to just sit down and write. I envy those authors who can make themselves sit at a keyboard every day, on a regular schedule, and treat it like a JOB. I can't do that. It has to "come" to me. And my muse is a fickle bitch! Sometimes she burns hot and hard, and other times she's colder that an Eskimo's ass! (With my sincerest apologies to native peoples of the far north!) Some days I'm lucky to peck out a dozen coherent words, but then other days its like I'm possessed by a spirit and doing some weird automatic writing shit! Those days! Those glorious days I can crank out hundreds or even thousands of words without pause or conscious effort. And if an idea just isn't working for me after a couple tries I generally consign it to a oblivion with a tap of the DELETE key or by dumping it into a file on my computer labeled FICTION IN PROGRESS. Yeah, and there's stuff in there dating back to the 1980's, including an ill-fated vampire novel which I started BEFORE the big vampire craze of the 80's and 90's. I'm so SICK of the little bloodsucking fuckers now I'll likely never touch the story again. And I think it was a damn good one, and a different take still on the vampire. I resigned my vampire novel to its fate years ago when I saw -- honestly -- a book in a bookshop about vampire twin detectives! Yes! A piece of shit like that actually got PUBLISHED, and presumably PURCHASED (at least by the author's mom and siblings). Jump forward a couple decades and we have angsty, glittery vampires and I know for sure that its game over. Put a fucking STAKE in them and turn the lights off on your way out!

But I digress. Appropriate, maybe, as I feel like my life right now is one big digression. I don't know. Maybe that's a good thing? All I know is that I should get working on my undead story and thinking about my cyberpunk story, and do something else for that OTHER book I REALLY, REALLY want to be in. Wish it was easier, but then if it were I guess I'd be writing about angsty, glittery vampires.

Until next time from the House of Secrets,
I'll give you fish,
I'll give you candy,
I'll give you everything I have in my hands.