Monday, July 08, 2002

On the Completion of my First Novel

I once harangued my friend Paul mercilessly about his seeming-inability to stop editing and re-editing his first novel, Enemy. Now that I’ve completed my own first novel, I’m keeping a little more quiet about it.

The truth is, finishing that first one really leaves you feeling empty. You look for movies to watch, books to read, music to listen to, but it really doesn’t help. When you finish the first one, those characters stand on the other side of the page, in that inevitable silver screen of a writer’s eye, and they look back at you. They all just stand there side-by-side, hero, villain, damsel, fool, sage, demon. They all stand up like the world’s most vivid curtain call. Except no one is clapping.

In stead of this troupe of fictions taking a bow to thunderous applause, it’s like you’re the only one in the theater, and the bow isn’t really worth it. They look at you from that stage in your mind and say;

“What now?”

But you can’t explain to them that you’re tired of writing and your eyes are scratchy and red from typing in front of a computer screen. You can’t explain to them that the story (for now, at least) is over. That’s all there is. Unless I find some way to continue my story (which in the event that I care to, I have left ample opportunity for), that’s all that has and will ever happen in the lives of these fictions I’ve created.

And on top of that, I have the audacity to suggest that I throw them out to the general public to read, scrutinize, judge, and interpret.

Paul used to write sometimes about his characters haunting him. Sometimes my characters haunt me too.

So then you think that the sure thing to cure your guilty responsibility to your fictions is to create NEW fictions. Think up a new story, a new bunch of fictions, a new style that’s exciting and different. But then you realize a page and a half into this new story that you’re really writing about the OLD characters. Instead of swords they carry guns, instead of demons being the villain, it’s the government.

Hey, wait a minute. Weren’t those old characters from a different story? A story that’s over?

The truth is, in the author’s mind, the story isn’t over. Somewhere, somehow, there’s something going on in the land of Vervenal. Somewhere Eric is pursuing a woman, Balter is sitting quietly in front of a map, contemplating the travel of an enormous army, Gomer is getting drunk and setting things on fire, and in some dark hideaway in a place where the sun never rises, Nmazim and, well… I won’t say his name here, are sitting atop two great black armored warhorses on a low hill.

These things are all happening somewhere in some small pocket of my mind, whether I want it to or not. The inevitable question then is, am I going to write down what these fictions are doing in my head, or and I going to pull the curtains on that little silver screen and just ignore them?

I’m not sure anyone but authors will understand why I say this, considering that these characters are a complete figment of my imagination, but part of me, hell, MOST of me, wants to know what happens next.

Saturday, July 06, 2002

A Few More Words About Evanston

Perhaps some of you may have gotten the wrong impression concerning Evanston, IL, the place where I live. Sure, I might bitch about the traffic and the grocery stores and the insane inhabitants of this little elitist upper class suburb, but there are some really BITCHIN’ things that you can have in Evanston that as far as I’ve seen exist nowhere else.

For example, the restaurants. You can open a phone book to the restaurant section, drop your finger on any name, and you are virtually guaranteed a delicious meal. I have lived here for just over nine months, and Beth and I eat out roughly twice a week. I have never had a bad meal in a restaurant here. The waiters speak whatever language that the restaurant motif purports to be. They speak Italian in Italian restaurants, Greek in the Greek, Yiddish in the delis, Spanish in Cuban or Mexican places, French in the Bistros, Lebanese in the delicious Lebanese place in downtown Evanston…

Jesus, LEBANESE, for Christ’s sake. I don’t think the people in the town I grew up in could point out Lebanon on a map if it meant a free double-wide.

I have to admit, all this food choice and selection and quality was downright intimidating to me at first. Being from Northern New York, I had been brought up principally on dishes containing beef and cheese. Any resemblance to actual ethnic foods that I happened to consume during those days was purely coincidental. My idea of Spanish food extended approximately as far as Taco Bell, and I was under the impression that the Lebanese probably ate other people’s garbage, bugs, or bullet casings for meals. Much to my surprise, their food is quite exceptional. Almost like Chinese food without so many vegetables and sauces.

And if you like Italian food, there is no place on earth, with the possible exception of Italy itself, with such an outstanding selection of restaurants. There is a place that is less than a mile from the front door of my condo that serves romaine salad with freshly-shaved (shaved, not grated) parmesan and asiago cheese and ground anchovies. The croutons are made of fresh Italian bread dipped in olive oil and rosemary and then flash fried. And that’s just the appetizer. They serve a chicken alfredo sauce with fresh mushrooms and gorgonzola cheese that, if and when I get to heaven, will be on the menu every night.

All right, I’ll knock off the food talk, even I’M drooling, now.

Next up is the fact that there are beautiful little parks everywhere. While admittedly they are sometimes mobbed with soccer moms wearing spandex and shirts three sizes too small, jogging along chasing after their wailing coddled spawn, these parks are very pretty and a welcome respite to the concrete jungle.

Oh, and I forgot to mention. There’s a great big beach the size of the one near where I lived in New York. Except the one in New York was on Lake Ontario and was about an hour away, and the one in Evanston is on Lake Michigan and is AT THE END OF MY STREET.

Finally, and not least, is the way people treat you here. You walk into any establishment, whether it be a hair salon, restaurant, even just the Blockbuster, and people treat you as though at any moment you might reach into your coat and hand them a fistful of hundred dollar bills. When I go and get my groceries, every weekend at about 11 AM on Sunday mornings, the person at the checkout counter always says, “Thank you Mr. Brand, would you like some help to your car?”

Now I don’t remember ever finding the necessity to have a pair of hundred pound high-school kids accompany me to my car and load the trunk of my Mustang for me. I generally have always assumed that responsibility myself. Nor, in fact, do I remember telling these wonderful people that my name was Mr. Brand. Somehow they paid attention. At first I thought it might be the credit card that I handed them, so just to test it, I used the debit card function of the register and typed my number in instead.

“Thank you Mr. Brand,” they said, as though it were a privilege to accept my money on behalf of their produce, “would you like any help to your car?”

I had to wonder, after a while, if there weren’t some huge, greasy taskmaster lurking somewhere back in the frozen foods section that would leap out, drag them aside, and flog these poor cashiers if they failed not only to remember my name, but to offer to do something for me that I obviously would have no trouble doing for myself.

So yeah, there are some really interesting and kind of “Hello, 007” sort of things in this town.

Someday I’m going to ask them to come and load my car for me, just to see what happens.

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

The White Man's Last Stand

For lack of anything more insightful or creative, tonight’s entry will be about one of the most poignant musical dynasties in the annals of organized sound.

Of course, I’m referring to the band Bon Jovi.

(brief pause)

All right, you in row four, that’s enough. Pick yourself up off the floor and stop that hysterical laughter.

I’m not just talking out of my ass here, folks. There is an actual message in my madness, and it is this:

WHEN YOU’RE BROUGHT INTO THIS WORLD, THEY SAY YOU’RE BORN IN SIN, WELL AT LEAST THAT GAVE ME SOMETHING I DIDN’T HAVE TO STEAL OR HAVE TO WIN.
THEY TELL ME THAT I’M WANTED, YEAH I’M A WANTED MAN. I’M A GOAT IN THE STABLE, I’M WHAT CANE WAS TO ABLE MISTER, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN.

Honestly, when was the last time a white guy wrote rock lyrics like that? Those aren’t the kind of lyrics that you write when you’re strung out on heroin (you can keep the Motley Crue anecdotes to yourself, they’re a whole different story). Those aren’t the kind of lyrics you write when your girlfriend leaves you or when your best friend gets shot in a drive-by.

WHEN IT’S YOUR OWN BLOOD YOU BLEED AND YOUR OWN TEARS YOU CRY, YOU’RE BROUGHT UP TO BELIEVE THAT IT’S THE STRONG WHO SURVIVE.
NEVER SAY DIE.

Those are the kind of lyrics you write when your face is rough from hard travel and your life is spiraling downhill and money and love is out of your control, and instead of hiding in a closet and whining in a low voice (see also: “Staind”), you grit your teeth, say “fuck you” to the world, and go ahead and make your life what it should be.

Bon Jovi is a caricature of himself these days because time has moved on and left him behind. Now he stars on the last few dying-gasp episodes of Alley McBeal and occasionally emerges to spurt out a Christmas album. He is essentially the Kenny Rogers of the 1980’s. Not dead, just faded away.

But you have to be old enough to remember a time when Bon Jovi played arenas that were filled with more people than have ever gone to an Incubus or Staind concert. Bon Jovi used to command Madonna-size crowds. It wasn’t because his music was particularly good, but because he was an icon for the young white man. And even with that weight on him, he didn’t resort to lyrics like “Nice to know you, goodbye” or “You only think about yoooooorself.” or “inside you’re ugly, ugly like me”, or “I did it all for the nookie”. Bon Jovi got high, stepped out on stage, picked up his microphone, tossed back his androgynous hair, dodged a few onstage pyrotechnics and said:

WE GOTTA HOLD ON TO WHAT WE GOT, IT DOESN’T MAKE A DIFFERENCE IF WE MAKE IT OR NOT, WE’VE GOT EACH OTHER AND THAT’S A LOT. FOR LOVE, WE’LL GIVE IT A SHOT.

Fuck yeah, Bon Jovi!

Maybe it’s pretentious of me to say this and totally uncalled for, but can you imagine how many young white kids might not have gone out and bought guns and slaughtered their classmates if they had sat in sadness and listened to “Living On A Prayer” instead of Marylin Manson or Metallica? You’re right, it was uncalled for, but you still have to wonder…

I mean just listen to that song one time and tell me honestly, is it not inspirational? Does it not make even the hardest shit in your life seem like just a pissing contest with God? It hits you deep in that place where the male members of our species carry their stugots. It says, “yeah man, life’s a bitch sometimes, but suck it up and don’t be a pussy.”

But somewhere in the mid-nineties, after rap had taken over so much of the music industry, young white men just started listening to whatever shit they could get their hands on to avoid the rising reality that their dominant form of music was being subjugated by a form in which they were the uber-uncool. Rap music made white guys seem like spineless little white worms, and like worms they slunk away by the thousands and bought albums made by whoever the record biz was taking a chance on at the time.

The Fuck You attitude of young white men was quelled, and their spirit has yet to be rekindled. They receded into the dark corners of popular music and either succumbed to the lure of rap music, which could by its nature never fully reach them, or they hid in their closets and listened to Metallica tell them how “nothing else matters.”

So yeah, originally this was intended to be a piece about Bon Jovi, but it turned into a piece about how shitty music is now for young white guys. We’re stuck digging into the past to dredge up old tunes that our parents listened to, or consigning ourselves to the frigid turpitude of dumbasses like Fred Durst or Aaron Lewis. Shit people used to wonder if Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne albums had subliminal lyrics suggesting violence or suicide and just the mention of it made people go crazy with suspicion and alarm. Now you have mainstream songs whose lyrics just flat out say “yeah, dude, life is worthless. A bullet is quicker than another decade of rap.” And the PMRC doesn’t say SHIT if it has a MOUTHFUL.

Ok, Ok, I’m raving now. Those of you who are too young to even remember a time when Jon Bon Jovi was pretty much the pinnacle of masculine popular culture (even though he dressed like a cartoon and wore hair that was nothing short of androgynous), you’re excused.

But the rest of you listen up:

There was a time when music was better, music was hopeful and honest at the same time, and white men were truly cool. It’s just been so long that you’ve forgotten it. All you need for proof is the album Slippery When Wet.

If there are still some doubting Thomases amongst you, ask yourself. When was the last time you slow-danced to a song written by a white guy?

LORD I GOTTA ASK A FAVOR AND I HOPE YOU UNDERSTAND
I’VE LIVED LIFE TO THE FULLEST, LET THIS BOY DIE LIKE A MAN.

Fuck yeah, Bon Jovi, FUCK YEAH.

Tuesday, July 02, 2002

Second City Punk

How far I've come in such a short time. I have to admit, I'm better off
now that I ever expected to be a year ago. The most expensive house in my
hometown costs less than the cheapest house in the town where I live now.

In my hometown, my neighbors were farmers or teachers or sometimes
unemployed. In Evanston, my neighbors are doctors and lawyers and the CEO's
of businesses. There are a dozen four-star restaurants within twenty miles
of my condo. At home, the best food was often cooked and served on a
barbecue or in the sweaty kitchen of a pizzaria. At home I drove a rusted
old blue Chevrolet Cavalier and no one gave me a second glance. Here, I
drive a brand new Mustang and no one gives me a second glance.

Despite how affluent I appear to be now, there is still something just
wrong about all of it. When I go to the grocery store, people look at me
funny if I buy frozen burritos and a case of ginger ale. The grocery store
I go to has at least a dozen different brands of soy milk but only one kind
of frozen burrito. They have gourmet salad dressings that cost eight
dollars for six ounces, but they can't bring themselves to sell regular
French's mustard.

Is North Shore Chicago really so different that they've evolved beyond the
need for generic foodstuffs? If I picked up a random dozen Evanston
residents and plunked them down in the middle of rural New York would they
all starve to death?

Even though people all park on the street and I have to constantly swerve
like a drunk between parked cars to get to work, there is still at LEAST
fifteen feet of grassy front lawn in front of every condo. People are so
concerned about having fifteen feet of non-functional lawn that they accept
the fact that streets built to have four lanes now have less than two. And
even THEN the stupid fuckers park their $90,000 Lexus SUVs and $100,000
Mercedes on the street. There is a street where people are allowed to park
on both sides near my condo. It is barely wide enough for me to squeeze my
Mustang through in some spots, and I shit you not there is a guy who owns a
red Ferrari 355 and parks it BUMPER TO BUMPER on this little street.

In what world does it make any sort of sense to pay $350,000 for a tiny
single-floor bungalow house on a street where you have to park your $175,000
car on the curb?

There are very few real houses in Evanston. The ones that there are, are
preposterously expensive. I'm talking $2-$4 million. These are the
naturally proportioned houses. Two or three stories, garage, back yard,
patio, more than fifteen feet of space to your neighbor's yard. The kind of
house most people with children desire. Or so I thought.

You could probably buy half the homes in my home town for $4 million.

So yeah, here I am, I beat the odds. I came from a little town, went to a
high-powered school, got a high-powered degree in the hardest field of study
there was, managed to take on a SECOND degree, and even had a hell of a time
doing it. I lost my fiancée, I lost the career I wanted to get into, and I
lost most of my friends and the home that St. Lawrence had become. Less
than a year later, I have it all back. The job, the girlfriend, even the
friendship of a new family that seems to like me very much. On top of that
I have an ass-kicking car and every toy I could possibly want. I am
practically swimming in luxury. Beth and I even started pricing
housekeepers last week because we decided it would be nice to have.

But then, when I drive home from work, with my windows down and my stereo
up, why do I still feel like I don't belong here? When I drive past the
homes, any three of which are worth more than my entire hometown and
everything in it, why do I feel like a punk? A rogue invader that is
bringing a distasteful glimpse of real life to a place where the people have
either forgotten or never knew how the other 99.9% of the world lives. As
I'm driving down the cobblestone residential streets, dodging beamers and
Porsches and Lexuses, why do I feel like I'm little orphan Markie taking the
tour of my new house, Daddy Warbucks' house, and instead of making myself at
home, I'm continually asking which part of it do they want my to clean
first.

I have to admit, though. The look on the yuppie soccer-mom's face when I
pull up next to their Lexus 300 SUV with the Beastie Boys or the Chemical
Brothers blasting out of my windows like the harbinger of hell... That look
is pretty funny.

Monday, July 01, 2002

Minor Crises

You know, Dyingdays was a whole lot easier to write for when I was a struggling college kid who had no money, no relationship, no job, and very little hope.

I’m determined to be a regular writer again, but that’s not me anymore, and for the most part, I’m GLAD that’s not me anymore. But then the question is, what do I talk about in a place where you bare your soul when my soul is on a plateau and rising from my newfound fortune and good luck? I’ll tell you:

Minor crises.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in the last year on my own it’s that life can be boiled down into a series of seemingly never-ending minor crises. At first, these had mostly to do with finding a job and whatnot, but now that I have a job, the little anxiety mice have found a different way into my house.

College loans. Shit I could write a whole entry just about how miserable THOSE were to get under control. The loan companies really have graduates by the balls, and if there are any of you reading this right now, take my advice and make sure you know what you owe and when you owe it. I can personally guarantee you that (even though they somehow always can find you by phone) the loan companies will send your statements everywhere. I changed addresses two times in the past year, and my loan statements all went to different places, including my old college address. I just got a notice in the mail from the wonderful low-interest Perkins foundation who offer the special loans for economic need. I owe them close to $300 because the first three statements were sent to the wrong address.

So that’s the minor crisis for this week.

Last week (or maybe it was the week before, I don’t remember) I backed my car up in the parking lot at work and took about 8 inches of paint off my rear bumper scraping it against a coworker’s bumper. $350 to completely refinish my bumper. Thankfully, the other person’s car wasn’t damaged.

The week before THAT I was sick and had to go to see an internist on short notice. I don’t get a middle aged white guy, as is so often the case with doctors, but instead I end up seeing a lady who looks like the Bride of Frankenstein and speaks with an accent that belies an ancestry whose homeland ends in “-istan” or “-ania”. She goes through a complete medical history with me and, discovering my family history of diabetes and colon cancer, she immediately suggests that I have blood tests performed. I immediately begin to sweat because, as anyone who knows me will attest, I’m quite terrified of needles. I once let a podiatrist tear off a third of my right big toenail without anesthetic because I was too afraid to let him give me a shot.

She also suggested I undergo a procedure called a “colonoscopy”. This is a word derived from the Latin “colonoscopis” meaning “to have a four-foot long piece of fiber optic cable embedded in a stainless steel casing shoved up your ass and around the corner.” I thought briefly of explaining to this woman that we live in what is known as an “Industrialized” country, and while I understand that the men where she comes from might be a different breed altogether, men in this country would rather knife fight you to the death than have their bowels probed.

In the end, she surrendered to my overpowering Western male swagger and she wrote me a scrip for some antibiotics and an antihistamine for the RUNNY NOSE AND HEAD COLD that I had originally come to see her about. You know it’s some serious shit when a guy that works at a physician’s office is afraid of going to a physician’s office. I was though. It was like I was ten years old all over again.

Antibiotics $20, Copay and deductible for office visit: $49, avoidance of painful and humiliating medical diagnostics: Priceless. Minor Crisis Number 3473822749287 status: averted.

The next minor crisis is just around the bend, and I have begun to just accept them like I accept every other mild discomfort of real life.

But hey, at least I’m not whining about feminists anymore, right?