A friend of mine was talking about people who don’t own TVs and won’t shut up about it. They’re just pretentious. He said the same is true of pretentious readers, who brag about all the great stuff, but really “They’re just reading Latin ass-masters,” to keep their Pretentious dues up to date. (“Latin Ass Master” being the greatest quote Iv’e heard this month, and I’m totally stealing it)
Anyway, this has got me wondering if I’m pretentious or not w/r/t reading. I mean, I read Dante’s Inferno, but I didn’t understand a word of it. I’m more likely to blurt out “I read it” than “I didn’t understand it.” I will reluctantly admit that if questioned, though.
I read Gulliver’s Travels, which you can’t brag about because everyone thinks it’s a children’s book, but (A) it’s not and (B ) it’s a fucking HARD read! It’s 300 years old. It’s not as tough as reading Shakespeare, but it’s much harder than reading modern English. (If you point out in comments that Shakespeare is Modern English, then fuck you, you, sir, are the problem, not the solution. Also, it’s now considered ‘Early Modern English.’) I also read “Tale of a Tub,” which Swift thought his greatest book, and which was widely regarded as his funniest.
Comedy doesn’t age well.
It took me about three years to plow through that book, and while I got about a third of it (It’s an allegory about denominationalism in Christianity) I couldn’t quote a single thing from it from memory, and I don’t think I laughed once. (Conversely, I did laugh quite a bit at Gulliver during the Laputa adventure). Any discussion of “Tub” generally starts with me freely admitting I didn’t understand it, and making a joke out of the situation. I’m less likely to do that with Dante, which I understood less of. So basically I’ll volunteer that I’m an idiot on something I *kinda* got, but will only admit I didn’t get the other thing when I’m cornered and have no escape. Seems reversed from the norm, but probably still pretentious.
I read Caesar’s Gallic Wars mostly just to say I did it. (Years later I read it to Bey during homeschooling for history. He liked it better than I did, though. It is pretty fascinating, it just did’t pop my cork)
Everyone assumes that I’m this amazingly well-read guy, but if you made a stack of all the Classical Latin Ass-Masters that I’ve read, and the Star Trek novels I’ve read, I guarantee you the Trek pile is higher. And I don’t even *like* Star Trek.
Thing is, I don’t even read all that much. I mean, I used to read a lot more than I do. When I was a kid, if I was good for a week, my reward was a Hardy Boy’s Mystery (“The Case of the Caper about the Capers in the Case”), which I’d wolf down in a day. There were a billion of those, so it was an easy way for my mom to buy my loyalty.
And I did used to read much more, but never what you’d call “A lot.” And it was generally pretty lowbrow. Whatever the school library had in Science Fiction (Generally from the 50s) or Space stuff (Generally from the 60s). In college I’d raid the flea markets and bookshops for used stuff, but again mostly old SF. I got in the habit of keeping a book in my car to read when I was unpredictably stuck somewhere doing something – Jiffy-Lube, Doctor’s office, whatever – and had a half hour to kill, and I’d usually have another one or two in my room. So I might have 2 or 3 books going at a time, but that’s nothing special.
I always preferred Short Stories to novels. I’m Shallow. Short attention span. If you make a stack of all the SF I’ve read in my life and placed it next to the stack of ‘straight’ fiction – that is, stuff without rayguns and aliens and space ships (or at least submarines) – the trashy SF stack would tower above the ‘real’ fiction stack like Trump’s ego towers over the Burj Dubai.
Of course that cheap joke implies I’ve read a lot more than I have. It’d be more like a two-story house compared to a standard wheeled garbage can.
I’d have love affairs with some author. Iike I plowed through everything by Kurt Vonnegutt in one summer, and hence can not tell his books apart (They overlap a lot). Same with Philip K. Dick. (They overlap less, but he repeats himself a lot)
Thing is, after college I read a lot less, and then when I started writing my own stuff (12 years ago) I read less still (“Why listen to music when you can play it?”) and when my eyes started going REALLY nearsighted, I read even less still. And honestly, I don’t even write all that much anymore. 1/2 a book in three years? Unimpressive.
So am I a poser, or what? I totally do judge people who read Trek novels. Including myself. A standard Randy joke is to make fun of SF geeks who’ve never read any SF apart from tie-in novels to Star Trek, Star Wars, Stargate, and anything else with “Star” In the title. (BattleSTAR Galactica?)
I guess I am pretentious, slightly, as I take no efforts to correct people’s misapprehensions about me, but then again I don’t brag much, if at all (It conflicts with my fundamental self-loathing), so, hey, you decide.
I tend to ruin movies by making them better.
See, I’m one of those annoying people who, for entirely selfish reasons, tries to get his friends to watch movies I’ve already seen. The reasons? Mostly so I can have someone to talk about it with, and of course, validation. (“Yes, Randy, that was a good film that I would not have seen were it not due to your incessant nagging. You have good taste in film, and hence are a good person, and you can stop hating yourself now.”) I have a lot of issues on that front.
Anyway, the problem is that I’m a pretty shallow man and hence have pretty narrow tastes. Mostly I just watch Science Fiction films. Current ones, old ones, classics, sclock-fests, I don’t really care. I also like anything by the Coen brothers, up to and including that bootleg of a very drunk Ethan puking his guts out in a toilet, while his sibling is laughing so hard that he can barely keep the shot in frame. (“[Rowlf] For God’s sake, Joel, why aren’t you helping me? [Rowlf]) I also claim to like everything by Terry Gilliam, but I’m lying about that. I really only like three of his films. Some war movies are cool. I mostly pretend they’re happening in space, anyway. Theoretically I like any western that’s more than two hours long, but watching a marathon of Terrence Hill films a couple years ago has made me question that. Oh, right, and I used to like some foreign art films up until I turned 40 and suddenly started finding them all disturbing.
So, really, not a lot of depth there, if I’m honest. Which I just was.
Bottom line: Nobody is interested in the movies I’m interested in, nor have they ever been, nor should they be. Yes, everyone will go to see Star Wars IX: The Legend of Curly’s Gold, but everyone was going to see that anyway, right? I’m grateful to have something to talk to them about, but it’s completely lacking in the ‘validation’ thing I mentioned above. It’s not like I talked them into seeing Colosus: the Forbin Project, or The Andromeda Strain (Both of which are super-rad and bitchin’ by the way). Do you know how hard I had to work to get anyone to watch Blade Runner in the decade between its release and the time it spontaneously became popular? And now everyone thinks it’s the 2nd best SF film of all time, and half the people reading this were born after 1992, so you’ve never known a world in which it was just me and Ridley Scott saying, “No, honestly, it doesn’t suck! And it’s pretty!” And Ridley, honestly, didn’t seem that interested after “Legend” also bombed. (That one totally deserved it. It sucks)
Since nobody likes what I like, I have to kind of oversell it in order to pique their interest. I’m sort of bad at this, in that I tend to be honest. “Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat is, unquestionably, the most original and important thing to happen to the vampire mythos in 50 years. However all that important stuff is in the last five minutes, and you also have to suffer through a pre-acting-lessons Bruce Campbell, which, as you know is painful, but here’s a list of concepts that, while poorly executed through the rest of the movie, are still sort of interested. And again: the last five minutes are the absolute best thing in the entire history of best things themselves!”
Needless to say, my batting average is pretty low.
Which brings me to the way I ruin movies for everyone.
See, I grew up in a semi-abandoned citrus grove that only had three other widely-spaced houses, and the occasional biker gang. Oh, and rattlesnakes. Lots and lots of rattlesnakes. Needless to say I didn’t have a lot of friends to play with. My dad was a dad, and hence mostly interested in sports, and relaxing after a hard week at work. Movies were low on his priority list. My mom…wow. My mom worked as a ticket girl in the box office of a movie theater in the ‘50s, but never bothered to go in and watch any of the movies. In 1977 the last film she’d seen in a theater was “The Sound of Music.” That movie was two years older than I am, and I’m half-convinced that she only went to see it because she used to work for the Von Trapp family. (It’s true! She did!) There was absolutely no chance on selling her on seeing anything, ever.
I had a shot with my dad, though. The problem there was that his attention span for things he wasn’t already interested in – like football – was fairly short. It was even shorter when football was actually on TV while I was making my pitch. This meant I had a very narrow window of opportunity to make my sale. I’d wait for the extended commercial break between quarters, and I only had 15 minutes. Less if he needed to use the can.
Basically I’d stand directly in front of him, and run through the whole plot of the movie at lightning pace. I’d jump around to give an impression of any cool action scenes. I’d deliver dialog in different voices so there wouldn’t be any confusion as to who was speaking – because, remember, I didn’t have time, and he was only half-paying attention. I would quote any cool dialog I could remember, and other dialog I couldn’t quite remember verbatim I’d punch up on the fly. Sometimes I’d hum or whistle theme music. I would describe in glorious detail any cool visual scenes, and then, hopefully, I’d get to the conclusion before “…and we’re back. It’s the fourth quarter, and the Bucs are down 21 points against the Dolphins. For the third time in three seasons.”
I never had much luck with my dad, but I got really good at my weird little presentations. Being constitutionally incapable of selfconsciousness, I started doing them at school. I had a better memory in those days, so I could just launch into one whenever the opportunity arose. These were always extemperaneous, always tailered to whatever the person I was talking to would find cool. Spoilers? Pfeh. Here’s the truth: most people won’t watch movies if they don’t already know how they’re going to end. Audiences are lazy. Particularly with old films, and remember, there wasn’t much Science Fiction in theaters in those days, so much of the time I was just trying to get people to watch, “It: The Terror from Beyond Space,” or “Fantastic Voyage,” or acting out why people shouldn’t watch, “Creation of the Humanoids.” Yeah, that’s right, I could use my skills to plug or kill a movie. I’m just that good.
It got so people would ask me to explain a movie just becaue they wanted to watch my floorshow. My pitch for “Outland” was referred to by a teacher as, “A one man show stage version of High Noon.” Which is pretty apt, really. I did this in college, I did this after college, heck, I still do it now. It’s become reflex. As society’s attention span dropped ever-lower, I got more effective.
Which brings us to the part where I ruin movies:
At some point, people started saying stuff like, “Yeah, ‘Brazil’ was pretty good and all, but I liked your report on it better than watching the movie itself.” Or, “Honestly I think the death scene in ‘The 9th Configuration’ was better the way you did it, then in the film.” or “Your rendition of ‘Forbidden Planet’ didn’t really prepare me for how corny and stiff the dialog in the movie was.”
Eventually, “I liked the Randy version better,” became a common complaint.
“Well, you get so excited about them, and you’re so energetic, and you emphasize stuff they don’t and downplay stuff they emphasize, and some of your mis-remembered dialog is cooler than theirs, and you leave out the scenes that don’t work. I end up with a picture of the movie in my head, I go in expecting that and I get…just a movie. Not The Randy Version of the movie, which is more fun.”
“Oh, yeah, way the hell shorter. I really don’t have the attention span for a three-hour movie.”
I just got to thinking about how I miss my friend John Bennett. I haven’t thought about him in years, but he popped into my head on the way back from my kid’s school, and, dang, I miss hanging out with him.
John and I carpooled together when we were in high school. He was a somewhat-off, more-than-passingly shy guy who compensated with a sense of humor that I can only describe as random.
Example: One time we’d broken into an old building with lots of very old paint that was flaking.
John: I think this is lead paint.
John: Don’t eat the paint.
Me: [Laughing] Thank you for reminding me, John.
John: Don’t eat it!
Me: I won’t eat the paint.
John: Good. Because you shouldn’t.
Me: I wonder why this place was abandoned.
John: Maybe they all ate the paint and died.
Me: Ah, crap! Back up, back up, back up! We need to find another way!
John: Did you eat the paint?
Me: No, the hallway’s full of snakes! Run!
John: [Running, screaming] As bad as this is, it would be worse if you ate the paint!
If that makes him sound aspergery or really OCD, it wasn’t. He was struggling to keep a straight face every time he said it.
Though incredibly low key, he was always a hoot. We’d be at his house, and he’d be making me listen to backmasked messages on Mylon LaFevre albums (Mylon was a Christian musician) and then he’d say, “Let’s go make bombs!” Being of an engineering mindset, he was really good at bombs. Being of a Floridian mindset, I as entirely in favor of this. Then, we’d sneak out into the well-known makeout spot for the high-school kids in the woods (It goes without saying that as a couple geeky Juniors, neither of us could get any chicks) and set the bombs off (Harmlessly). This, of course, scared the crap out of the people, and there’d be screams, and half the cars would go screeching off into the night, and occasionally a whole bunch of the guys would see us lurking and chase after us while we hauled ass back to John’s car. The time he looked over his shoulder while running, then slammed into a tree is probably one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life.
We got back to the car, and he was more concerned about spiders than his bleeding wounds. Terrified of spiders.
His nickname was “Evil Genius,” which he chose for himself. Uhm, we’d get on the CB to see if any truckers were Catholics who could help us with our latin homework (nope). We’d sit on his hobie cat on the trailer on the back of his car while a friend would drive us around the Dunedin causeway, which sounded hilarious, but was utterly horrifying. Uhm…oh, he joined the Navigators, a Christian Youth Group, mostly in order to meet chicks. Eventually he realized that wasn’t gonna happen, hence their unfortunate group nickname, “The Never-daters.” One day in frustration, he asked for a garbage bag, then we packed up all their snacks in the bag and left. (We shared them with our friends and total strangers for the rest of the night.) We’d drive up to Newberry and go poking around in the caves.
John: Hey, watch what happens if I turn out the light
Me: DON’T TURN OFF THE LIGHT, JOHN!
He introduced me to the concept of comedy albums (Bob & Doug MacKenzie), and I remember us seeing A Fish Called Wanda together for the first time while visiting him in Gainsville. It about killed both of us
Another fun moment! We were hiking across the unused, shoreward part of Honeymoon island once, through the tall grass, on our way to the woods, to set off bombs. This was broad daylight. I’d never done it before, but past experience had taught John that being on an island well away from the beach gave us a LOT more time to get away before the cops showed.
One time we went out to the woods on Honeymoon Island, which is where he used to test out some of his homemade explosives. Walking through the tall grass, and I hear rustling.
Me: “You hear noises?”
Me: “Rats? Snakes? Rats and snakes?”
Kpjm: “No. We don’t want to step on them, though. Here, I’ll clear ’em out.”
He lit an M-80, then chucked it randomly. It exploded. Suddenly, at *LEAST* a half dozen couples of elderly gay men hopped up out of the grass and came running out of the woods, either naked, or in their underwear, or speedos, looking horrified. He threw another M-80 high enough that it exploded in the air. The elderly homosexuals kept running. I said at least six couples, but it was probably more.
“Just in case there’s any stragglers,” he said.
“Good thinking,” I said. “So I’m imagining the first time you came out here, you didn’t know this was a place where gay coots go for anonymous gay coot sex?”
“It was a pretty awkward discovery,” he admitted.
I should mention John was wearing a pith helmet at the time. Whenever we went out in the woods or to the beach or the islands or climbing through an abandoned building, or sometimes even just swimming, he always wore a pith helmet. If you asked him why, he’d mumble something about monkeys.
We went to different colleges and saw less of each other after that, but it was always a hoot. The last time I saw him was his wedding. This was before I’d met my wife, and I was recuperating from a bad breakup, so I wasn’t dating anyone at the time. I asked a friend of mine who was a model to come along as my plus-one. Since we’d known each other for years, and had an easy back-and-forth, and a bunch of jokes only we knew, everyone assumed we were together. Every time she got up to go to the bathroom, the guys at the table (Total strangers) would compliment me on her.
“Oh my God, man, she’s gorgeous!”
Yeah, she is.
“You’re lucky to have a woman like that.”
I know. Her and her live-in boyfriend were going to go camping this weekend, but there was a last-minute change in their schedule, so…
“How did an average-looking guy like you get a girl like her?”
She’s not actually mine. I’m just borrowing her for the evening.
“Seriously, dude, how did you get a girl like that?”
I called her boyfriend, and I said, ‘hey, Bob, I need someone to go to a wedding with me, and Heather’s busy. Can I borrow your girlfriend?
[One of the girls at the table] “I think it’s the hair.”
Oh, for God’s sa—Yes. Yes, yes, yes, it’s the hair. Chicks dig the hair. [My current profile picture is from around then. I did have gobs of pretty good hair]
Grumble grumble grumble. Then she’d come back.
“What did I miss?”
Everyone was talking about how much they like your dress.
“Oh, thank you!”
This lengthy digression is because evidently this is the reason I never saw John again. His wife was….uhm….not gorgeous. Not ugly or anything by any means. She just wasn’t a model, and all the other girls were basically normal-girl-shaped. By bringing a ringer, I’d inadvertently upstaged the bride at her own wedding, which was a terrible thing to do, and I had no idea that was going to happen. I later found out she was very upset. They never came back from their honeymoon, they started it here, went to Cancun or Fiji or Newark or some exotic place like that, and then ended it in Texas, their new home.
And that was that.
Probably going on 30 years ago. hadn’t thought about it in years, but now that I have, dang, I really miss my friend John.
I’m gonna make an ultimatum about ultimatums:
For the last two years or so now, we’ve all been getting posts from people saying “I love Trump, and if you disagree with me, you may as well just block me now,” or “I love Hillary, and block me now if you don’t agree,” or Bernie or whomever. I don’t like any of those people, but you know what I like less?
Being told that if I don’t measure up to someone’s standards of intellectual purity, I’m not worth knowing. I really hate that.
Firstly: It’s insulting. Not to brag, but I’m actually a really good guy. I’ve done a lot of really good things that have helped a lot of people in my life. I don’t expect or want any praise for that. It is clearly something that you don’t care about, however, if you want to ditch me because I don’t love/hate Trump/Hillary/Bernie/Whomever in the way you do. I’m also charming, funny, smart, and creative. I’ve written six full-length books, which I’m told are quite good. Presumably that means nothing to you, though, because we disagree on some random issue, like, say, abortion or gay marriage or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff act. In other words, in your eyes, *none* of my good or interesting qualities matter, *ONLY* the way I vote. If I don’t goosestep along with your liberal or conservative goon squad, then I’m not worth knowing.
Secondly: If I like someone, like *them,* flaws and all. I can name 30 friends who disagree with me bitterly about different things, but I sill like them. And they still like me. If I like someone, I like them as a person, not because of a rigid set of arcane political views. This is called “Friendship,” and “Tolerance,” which are things that folks who sling ultimatums around clearly aren’t really into. Because clearly people don’t matter to you, just dogma.
Thirdly: I suspect you’re hypocrites. Guys: The hottest Victoria’s Secret model you can imagine asks you out, you go to dinner, you hit it off, she clearly wants to jump your bones and as you’re making out in the cab on the way to her place, she mentions that she voted differently than you did. Are you *REALLY* gonna say “Stop the car, because despite this being *literally* my fantasy since I was 12, you think differently than me, and I don’t even care about your reasons.” Are you *REALLY* gonna say that? If not, then clearly you’re a hypocrite. Ladies, gender-swap that (I dunno what the male equivalent of a Victoria’s Secret model is, but I’m sure there must be something). My point being that *IF* your’e the kind of person who *wouldn’t* get out of the cab, then you lack the strength of your convictions, which means you really don’t have any convictions, and you’re just blowing hot air to make yourself feel better.
Which is fine: Spew all the venom you want, I really don’t care, but telling me – or anyone – “If you don’t agree, then just block me right now” is a really bad thing to do, and I don’t think you realize that. Or you don’t care.
I was raised to think, and not just react. To value people more than money. To never trust *any* politician. I was trained not to give way to anger, at least not in public. The only blanket standard I expect from people is that they *don’t* tell me I’m worthless because THEY, THEMSELVES, are intractable. In short, you people who say “Block me if you disagree?” Guess what: I’m *BETTER* than you. You are self-righteous and petty and mean and you do not value others at all. I don’t praise myself much. I really don’t even like myself much, but there it is.
I expect a lot of you are gonna block me for this
If so, I wish you well. Have a good life, and maybe try to grow up a little. Lose the anger.
I’ve been thinking about my dad a little bit lately.
He suffered a traumatic brain injury on Christmas Eve, 2011, and died the day before New Years Eve, so it’s not surprising, I guess.
I never got to grieve for him. My mom is – I’ll be charitable – mentally ill. I have no siblings, no close relatives nearby, so keeping her functional and arranging the funeral and delivering the eulogy and all that stuff fell upon me. I did a good job, I say with no small amount of pride. I don’t take compliments well, and I compliment myself even less, but being thrown in cold into a trauma like that, I think I genuinely did good.
Life got worse after he was gone and, as I said, I never got time to grieve. I almost would, but people were counting on me. I couldn’t afford to let myself to fall apart. There were taxes to settle, corporations to dis-incorporate, estates to settle, things to re-title to my mom, finances to shift. None of this unique, everyone has to do it at some point, I suppose, but in my case if tell on me. I did adequately. I’m great in a crisis, merely ok in an ongoing state of duress. Barely-functional under normal circumstances.
As a result of all this, I feel oddly numb when I think about him. I packed it down so tight, suppressed it so thoroughly, even banishing him from my daydreams. (I daydream a lot). I was very afraid that if I wrote down the things I was feeling – like how it’s been years and I still can’t bring myself to sit in his chair – it would all come flooding out, and I’d be a basket case, and life would get worse for everyone, particularly my mentally-ill mother. And me. I definitely feared it would roll back on me.
A week or so ago my dad turned up in my dreams. Because it was a dream I didn’t remember that he was dead. I just said, “Oh, hi dad,” and he nodded and sat down while I went on about whatever nonsense was going on in the story. Eventually I woke up to go to the bathroom (Because I’m 50), and when I laid back down again, I realized he’d been there. I was suddenly sorry I missed him. Not sad, oddly, but just sorry. I tried to will him back as I drifted off again, but, no luck, he was gone.
Now, I know it wasn’t him. My belief in the supernatural is…measured… at best. I believe in God and an afterlife, but not ghosts or sleepytime messages from beyond the grave. That stuff doesn’t happen. I know full well that whatever goes on in my unconscious mind is a product of my unconscious mind, something I’m telling myself, sometimes with a reason, but mostly just random. I know all that. More importantly, I believe it.
Still, the next morning I was sorry that I had largely ignored him in the dream. Even if it was my own subconscious speaking to me in his voice, it would have been nice to hear his voice again. It’s been so damn long.
Now, anyone who knew my dad could tell you he was a great guy. I called him “A living saint,” and he always bristled at that out of humility, but it’s really hard to stress how great a guy he was, and what a long shadow he’s cast as a result. He was a living Horatio Alger story, only without the creepy understated homoerotic elements.
His family was poor in the Great Depression. His mom ran off when he was three. He was homeless, but managed to survive and be a normal kid. Played with the kids with houses, went to school, slept in a coal cellar. Eventually the state picked him up and put him in an orphanage, which he hated. My grandfather eventually re-married so he could get custody of his kids back, then the entire family moved to Florida, where the Child Welfare laws were unreasonably lax even then.
They were still dirt poor, but they had a house. My dad took odd jobs, mostly as a delivery boy on his bike, and the family frequently lived off of stuff that washed up on the beach. Eventually he graduated high school, joined the USAF, served out the Korean War, GI Billed his way through college, became an Aerospace engineer, and ended up working for NASA in the Apollo/Skylab glory days.
Then he lost everything because Congress effectively shut down NASA in 1973/4.
He started over again. This time he went into business, and my mom went nuts, and we moved, and working – no joke – sixteen hours a day he managed to build a successful career for himself capable of supporting all of us in nearly-patrician fashion. He could easily have been a millionaire, but his opinion was, “What do you need all that money for? As long as you’re comfortable, isn’t that enough?” He was a deacon at the church, honest to a fault, a great guy. He built his life from scratch *Twice.* The second time in middle age.
He died at Eighty. He looked 60 or 65. He took care of my mom, and he took care of me (I’m mentally ill too, just in a more entertaining fashion than my mom) and while that wasn’t the life he wanted – come on, everyone wants a *normal* family – he never once complained. It was just his lot in life, and he accepted it and worked to make it better.
the impressive details of his life aren’t really why I’m thinking of him, though. I’m thinking of the “Living Saint” quality that he had, and it struck me today that really, he made it through life uncorrupted. He didn’t lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who did. He didn’t hate anyone, and he held true to his values even when they were unpopular. He treated people of all races equally long before that was the norm. He made it through life assuming the best of everyone, and because he so clearly assumed that, most people tried to live up to it. He made life better for the people around him, just by merely being him.
I mean, yeah, he had some negative qualities too, everyone does, but in his case they were trivial.
I’m told the definition of “Saint” comes from the latin word meaning “Set Apart.” If so, that’s definitely my dad. Somehow he made it from one side of life to the other still pure of heart like a child, still full of faith for all the good stuff in life, and still believing in the future. So many people don’t. So many people, like me, just kind of give up. My dad, though? He was a good man from start to finish.
I miss him. I feel numb about him, but when I think about his fundamental goodness, I can feel…something? I’m not sure what, but something more vital than the little glimmerings of all the memories I’ve compressed into a little ball in my soul. I can’t take him out of that ball and look at him, or think about him. It’s been too long. I couldn’t grieve now even if I had the option to. I’ve grown coarse and gnarled and complicated and sad and self-loathing in ways he never did. That opportunity is shot, and will not return.
But when I think about how good he was, it always makes me smile.
That’s not much, I know. It’s enough, though. For now, anyway.
I had an interesting realization this morning.
As my readers probably know, I work very fast. Inspiration hits, I start writing, and I don’t stop until the story is done. I might type for eight or ten hours straight, because if I stop for anything longer than a trip to the can, I’ll lose the holy fire of inspiration, and the story will die on the vine.
It’s really not a great way to run a railroad, I’ll be the first to admit. It limits me to short stories, rather than longer work, and undoubtedly it’s responsible for my giddy-yet-somewhat-unhinged style. It’s not bad, it’s kind of unique, but it’s also limiting.
I had always assumed this was the result of my fairly short attention span, but I just realized this morning that it’s really my anxieties.
No, seriously: I take a half hour off to get lunch, and I begin to dread going back to it. I think, “This is terrible, no one’s going to read it anyway, why am I doing this?” I begin to dread how much of the work still lies ahead of me. I put it off. I question myself. I berate my talent. (I know I have talent objectively, but the longer I postpone things, the more I begin to doubt it emotionally). I take the night off, and it’s almost a guarantee that the story will be abandoned.
That’s why, I think, I only do short stories: That’s as much as I can manage before my inherent “Randy can’t do anything” feelings grow too big to be ignored. If I do it the moment the inspiration hits, I can maybe manage to bang a story out before my subconscious notices and paralyzes me. If I delay, then I’m dead before I can do anything at all.
That’s my suspicion this week, anyway.
The cliche is “What is a man but the sum of his memories?” Cliches are used to the point that they’ve become trite, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently untrue. I think this one is true, or mostly so. There probably is more to me than my memories, but I can’t tell you what that is.
I’m religious. I believe in a soul, but I don’t think anyone has ever defined that very well, and I certainly don’t think I’m capable of it. In my limited imagination, however, the soul seems pretty much like a self-aware repository of memories. This brings up the question, “What is the soul but the sum of our memories?” That’s way too frustrating to deal with for me, and assuming anyone ever reads this, half of them probably won’t believe in an eternal soul anyway, so I’m not going to bore anyone with my fanfic theories of the afterlife.
Instead, I’m gonna talk about my friend John. He died in January of this year. He was a year or two younger than me. I wouldn’t say that his death messed me up, but it has affected me uniquely. John was my best friend for my last couple years in high school, and probably my first year or two in college as well, though he didn’t go to college, or at least not with me. We saw each other increasingly rarely, drifted apart. Eventually we hit that point in our relationships when we only talked about stuff we’d done in the past, nothing new, because there was nothing new. There’s something sad about that.
I bumped in to John entirely by coincidence in an airport one night. Bought him dinner while waiting for his plane. We told lots of stories from 1983-1987, some stories from 1988-1993, and really nothing after that. There was nothing after that. Pretty much half a lifetime apart, and only a few years together.
I’ve had people die before. Hell, I’m practically swimming in death. In the last six years I’ve lost my dad and his entire family. In the last year, I lost my aunt and uncle. I’ve lost friends, co-workers, bandmates, enemies, rivals both IRL and online. I used to point and laugh at those kids who took the “Death and Dying” classes in college because they’d been sheltered by their wimpy baby boomer parents. Me? The earliest funeral I can remember was my great aunt Ailene when I was about 3.
My point being that I’m depressingly jaded about death, and, though I didn’t think about it until just now, I’m something of an asshole to those people who aren’t jaded by it. Whups. Sorry ’bout that.
Just the same, John is the first best friend I’ve lost. He’s the first person’s death has made me think, “Well, what the hell was this all for?” This is the guy who used to work at JoAnn’s Chili Bordello, and who lusted after the waitress, Tobie, same as the rest of us. This is the guy who ended up as my subordinate in ROTC when he should have gotten my job simply because our teacher found him annoying. He’s the guy who chased after this girl for a year, went out to dinner with her, realized there was nothing there, then called me up and told me how strange that was. We used to sit around for hours on end listening to Huey Lewis, which was considered acceptable in those days. We’d talk about Star Trek – which was only just beginning to suck – endlessly. We both wanted to be filmmakers. I helped him move several times. I remember things that he himself had forgotten, like a hallucination he told me about once. I know he’d forgotten it because when I brought it up, he clearly had no idea what I was talking about. All trivial, but I remember them in vivid 70mm Eastman Kodak color with Dolby Surroundsound. (It was the ’80s, remember)
Why does this matter?
I don’t know. You know people in life, and they become part of your story. They’re your sidekick, and they probably see you as theirs. You drift apart, their story ends, and maybe you never even hear about it. Maybe you do, but you’re so removed in time and space that it means nothing. Somehow it’s different for me, though, because I feel like I was there at the beginning of the story.
I wasn’t, of course. John was 14 or 15 when we met. He had a big long life before that, and I did too. Maybe it’s just that I feel like it was kinda the beginning of my story. I sometimes don’t feel like I was really interesting prior to sixteen, but that’s a story for another day.
For whatever reason, though, I remember a million billion trillion things from “The start of the story” that seem to have no payoff now that the end credits have rolled. The day I was joking with him about this thing, or he insulted me about that, or we’d compare notes on girls we were too scared to ask out, of stories he’d told me he was going to write, but never did, not because his life was too short, but because he never really liked the act of writing. All those moments are….
Not lost. They’re locked in my head.
Another cliche is “Nobody is ever truly gone as long as we remember them.” Now that one truly is utter bullshit. It’s grossly unfair, too: everyone remembers Jeffrey Dahlmer, but very few people remember my friend John. People will remember the very bad man long after they’ve forgotten the perfectly average one. What the hell kind of piss-ass immortality is that? It’s bullshit, and I’ve never placed any stock in it. Not that I’d have to. I’m religious, as I said, so I believe in an afterlife, even if I don’t know anything about it. I don’t need to rely on Hallmark greeting card philosophy.
But I’m having trouble reconciling John’s loss because all those moments, all those stories, all those events, were building blocks leading up to, well, I assumed they were leading up to something other than a massive heart attack at 48 brought on by chain-smoking four or five packs a day for thirty three years. And now they are building blocks that lead up to nothing.
This isn’t about ‘a life cut short.’ Certainly he should have lived longer, and if John were alive to realize how badly he’d been ripped off in that department, he’d be madder than a wet hen. Just the same, people die all the time and I am depressingly desensitized to that. Likewise, people die without reaching their goals so often that we don’t even comment on it. We only mention it when they did end up the way they wanted, since it’s so rare.
So I guess this isn’t so much about his story getting cut short – tragic though that is – as it is trying to figure out how to reconcile it into my story.
I’m a writer and an editor. If my life were a book, or more likely a long series of really boring books that no one reads, John would turn up, play a major part, and then just sort of disappear. He plays no real role in the larger story. While he was alive it was always possible that he’d turn up again in the third act and do something remarkable, however unlikely. I wasn’t holding out hope for that. Truth is, I didn’t think about it at all. Now that he’s gone, though, I look back at this theoretical manuscript, and I see that introducing such a major character with no narrative payoff is simply bad writing. John would be the first thing chopped in the editing process.
This bothers me. He’s dead, I don’t want him edited away, too. And yet there’s this huge file in my brain of John Stuff. Funny stuff he said, dumb stuff he said, incredibly stupid things we both did, girls we fought over, movies I’m pretty sure only we saw. He and I went to see “Psycho Girls,” just a terrible, terrible movie. We were the only ones in the theater. I laughed so hard at one point that I fell out of my seat, the only time in my life I’ve ever done that.
Well, now John’s gone. This reduces the number of people who even *remember* “Psycho Girls” by probably 10%, and it reduces the number of people who remember me literally falling down laughing by half. What do I do with memories like that? Furthermore, his loss has kind of eroded the persistence of that moment for me, you know? Only the two of us were there, he’s gone, the moment seems less real somehow. That “So long as someone remembers them” bullshit cuts both ways. Whenever someone dies, there’s fewer people to remember you, too.
I remember once in the parking lot I told him that I’d decided I was one of the 15,000 greatest people ever to live. He laughed and said, “You’re not.” John’s life was…not great. He definitely got closer to the 15,000 than I did, but certainly a triumphant third act would have covered over a lot of stuff. As for me, I’m left with all these dangling plot threads. A million Checkov’s Rifles set on a hundred thousand mantles (John always tended to be doing several things at once), and most of them are still sitting there, never to go off. I don’t know what to do with all the dangling plot threads he left in my formative life. I don’t know how to incorporate what remains of his story into my story. I need closure on that anecdote, dammit!
I’m not saying anything new here, and I have no great insights or answers. I can’t even seem to express it very well. Basically, lots of stories started back in the mid-’80s, and they ended with as little resolution as most of us get in life, but I need to believe that all of John’s stuff back then meant something. I suppose maybe if his endless whining about girls and obsession with grade-z movies and student films and nametag jobs and crap like that meant something, then maybe my life means something, too. That’d be a help, as I really don’t think my life matters. (Being religious doesn’t mean you’re particularly optimistic. When I die, assuming heaven is even an option, I expect St. Peter to refer to me as “That waste of human skin from Florida.” Likewise I have to think Satan would find me singularly disappointing.) I’d like John’s giddy hobbies and good days and bad days and all those useless memories to mean something even if the story is – like most stories – begun and abandoned, because, I guess, it means that his existence would have had some meaning, or at least value, beyond a bunch of memories locked in my probably-dead-in-a-decade-or-so head. By extension, that would imply that I am not completely valueless, and perhaps I’m more than the sum of my memories, too.
Like I said, I don’t know what that would mean. Perhaps my memories are the sum of me, and not the other way around. Perhaps I have value, and the value of the memories is derived from that. Certainly I hope so, because the alternative is that all those first pages of the unfinished stories that made up John’s life, and my life, and all of our lives, are useless.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression the guy had aspergers or was stupid, he wasn’t. He was just a very linear thinker and very rigid. And very convinced that he was utterly brilliant. Anyone who wasn’t a rigid thinker wasn’t brilliant, they were confused.
Then there’s a 1990s friend of mine who couldn’t understand my books (fair enough. I’m not a very good writer), specifically because “It’s science fiction but you keep throwing God into it.” (For the record, God has never turned up in any of my books, though a fair number of my characters are believers in one thing or another) so? “So there will be no religion in the future.” Why? “Because rationalism will drive it out.” Sigh. This one I got into it with over cubism. Now, I don’t *like* cubism, but I understand it, and I’ve found that if you explain something to someone, unlock it, then they might enjoy it, or hate it less, or just view it as an interesting experiment that they don’t enjoy. Nope. “It’s stupid.” once again, art is pictures of mountains and sailboats, period, end of sentence. He also tends to just drop into religious conversations, troll people, and jump out, because he’s utterly convinced that anyone who doesn’t believe as he does is utterly stupid, whereas he is utterly brilliant. Oh, and all philosophy is dumb, he says.
Art might be a good shibboleth, as all of them seem perplexed or limited by it. All of them really like Star Trek, too, which might push them more towards the Aspergers cagetory, excepting that none of them have Aspergers.