Category Archives: My Past

One for the Little Twerp

So I’m currently reading Driving Like Crazy, the newest book by P.J. O’Rourke, the funniest man in the world1. In one of the later chapters in this book, which is a collection of his automotive writing, he refers to a young police officer who tickets him for speeding as a “Twerp.”

And the word sent me rocketing into the past, almost as if I hadn’t seen or heard the word in 30 or 40 years. And maybe I haven’t. After all, it’s a faily mild invective, one that’s almost quaint in an era where more and more of George Carlin’s “Seven Words” can be said on television.

The memory that came rushing back was that of Little Twerp, our quaint name for one of the Playground Ladies when I was in 6th grade. The nickname came about because she was little, almost down to my size, which at that point in my life found me as traditionally The Smallest Kid In Class. You know, the one with the target painted on his back.

Anyway, Little Twerp had a craggy face and pre-Britain’s-Got-Talent Susan Boyle hair, a stocky frame, and a voice that could peel paint, especially when she yelled “All right people, up on the playground!” when recess was over. It was a voice that carried for blocks and earned noise complaints from bowling alleys and the airport. It was also widely imitated by my group of friends, and most of us could gravel up our voices in a fair imitation, this in the years before Monty Python’s Pepperpot Ladies.

But we always obeyed because we were afraid of her.

The whole reason I’m telling you about Little Twerp now is because I just realized, after all this time, that even though she spent her time herding us off the playground, she treated us with respect – she said, “All right people“, not “All right boys and girls”. Something in retrospect that becomes important later, even though I doubt most of us would have been considered civilized enough to be “people” for at least another decade. But she did it consistently, every day, sun or snow.

I suspect she’s gone now, but this is my nod to a woman whose name I never knew, someone who did her job and whose influence, like that of some of those rare memorable teachers we encounter in our lives, would not be felt – or even fully comprehended until years later.

So I tip my hat to you, LT. And I hope that Gillette Junior High has someone like you prowling the schoolground as I write this, making sure that people stay in line, smile, and play nice.

  1. At one point, Bantam Books asked me to come up with a list of people they should send Ferman’s Devils to with an eye toward getting a blurb , and the top name on my list was O’Rourke. Nobody on the list responded, but O’Rourke had his wife call me to thank me for thinking of him – he was literally on the way to some foreign country when the request came in, and wouldn’t have time to read the book. Funny, and a nice guy.

Sixteen Things About My Father

Some of my Facebook friends have recently posted some Father’s Day thoughts that were more ache than memory – accounts of absentee fathers, dads who were never there, dads who didn’t care. It makes me realize all the more how blessed I was to have the father I had for the time that I had him.

This isn’t to one-up my friends who have father issues. I hurt for them because I was blessed with one of the good dads, and wish I could have shared him. I guess I’m writing this to inspire the rest of you to think about your fathers. If they have a list like this coming, perhaps it’s time you made one. And most importantly, if they’re still around, perhaps it’s time to share it with him.

1) My dad dropped out of high school. I didn’t know this until after he died – he kept it a secret from me, and rightly so, I suspect. It explains a lot about how he spent his life, always seeking to learn new things. He taught himself calligraphy, how to brew beer, and even invented his own chili recipe. He did dozens of other things, too, all with only the help of books from the public library.

2) My dad was a great carpenter. When I was a junior high brat, we went to one of those tourist trap shacks where the gravity is supposedly screwed up. They showed us a two by four full of nails, most of which had been bent during hammering. The tour guide said, “I’ll bet you can’t drive a nail straight. It’s because of the gravity.” I tried and the nail bent right over. Then my dad took the hammer. After the third nail sank in the wood up to the head, the tour guide suddenly said, “And over in this next room, we have…” That was one of those cool moments where I thought my dad could do anything in the world. And I think of him every time I try to nail two boards together and they end up out of plumb.

3) When I was in first grade or so, I sent off some money to a kid’s magazine and got a kit to make my dad a present for Father’s Day. It was in the shape of a medal, only big – about ten inches long and four across, with all sorts of fake jewels set into it and a large cardboard piece that said, “WORLD’S GREATEST DAD”. He said he liked it so much he was going to wear it when he went golfing with one of his clients. When he got back that evening, he had a huge smile on his face as he told me, “There wasn’t one other daddy on the golf course that had one of these.” When I looked at the medal, it was dirty and worn and some of the fake jewels had fallen off. And that meant the world to me because I knew he had actually worn it, on the golf course, all day long.

4) I think my dad wondered what to do with me sometimes. I remember him trying to teach me things like how to golf and bat, but it turned out that even though I’m right handed, I do many things left handed, and they didn’t have left handed kid golf clubs back then. I was physically inept, and not much of a carpenter, but at least I paid attention when I helped him build stuff. He supported me in the things I turned out to be good at – he sat through plays when I had a bit part as a window cleaner; he admired the trophies I brought home from the speech team; and he read all the science fiction novels he lived to see, and commented on them, even though I knew he hated science fiction and would rather have been reading a western.

5) My dad could read a book, watch a football game on TV, and listen to a high school football game via a transistor radio plugged into one ear. And at any given time, he could tell you what was happening in any given one.

6) The tube on the TV might spend months fading into oblivion… but we always managed to get a new set in time for football season.

7) I laugh at things nobody else thinks are funny. My wife has gotten used to having this happen in public places. I inherited this from my dad. One time he came to see me in another play (I had a bigger role this time) and one of the lines really set him off. He laughed for the next ten minutes, upstaging everyone in the cast. “Who is that guy laughing out there?” the director moaned. “It’s my dad,” I confessed. But secretly it made me very happy.

8) I learned to be a good husband from my dad. He always made sure that he maintained an exclusive relationship with my mother, even though they had kids. They would always go out to dinner together at least once a month. When I got old enough, they would buy me a steak at the grocery store and I would cook it myself while they went out to dinner. That was a big deal for me. Dad would hold hands with mom when we went places together. He’d also buy her clothes for Christmas and Birthdays. I’d do that for my wife, but I have absolutely no eye for color. That’s what gift certificates are for.

9) My parents met on a train when he was a soldier during World War II. If that sounds romantic, it was, although crafty person that he was, he sort of engineered it. Theirs was a storybook meeting and courtship, accomplished mostly through writing letters and the occasional rare phone call.

10) My dad was an ordinance officer in World War II. He taught other people how to blow things up.

11) In a politically incorrect sort of way, I owe my life to the Atom Bomb. After VE day, America began to gear up for the invasion of Japan. My dad was pulled from ordinance duty and trained to be a tailgunner on a B-24. Not an enviable place to be. He got his orders to fight in the Pacific and got on the train to ship out. When he got off the train at his destination, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was in all the headlines. The war was over.

12) My dad had this odd way of whistling when he was working with his hands. He’d blow air between his teeth and tongue, and it would come out not so much a full blown whistle as a musical sort of hiss with some whistleish overtones. I catch myself doing that sometimes. I suspect I do it more that I realize.

13) My dad died 6 weeks before my daughter was born and The Company Man was published. But he’d read the book, and Desperate Measures as well, the former in galleys and the latter in manuscript form. I knew that his time was probably short, and wanted to make sure he knew that this writing thing of mine wasn’t a one-shot deal.

14) My dad died at age 66, thanks in part to smoking. I figure I’m owed 10 years somehow. But it’s funny – even though he could be considered a cigarette casualty, I’m still libertarian when it comes to smoking. After all, no amount of money is going to give me that 10 years, and it would be an insult to my dad to deign to put a price on them.

15) My parents were close friends with a couple who were known for their warring ways. The oldest son of that couple once told someone, “I wish that Charlie Faust had been my father.” I can think of no higher honor for a man, and as a result, I’ve always tried to treat other people’s children with respect. No easy feat for me, since one of my claims to fame is that I don’t have much use for kids other than my own.

16) I still miss my dad. Every day.

Maybe I’ll do one of these about my mom for Mother’s Day. But be patient, it might take me a couple of years. That wound is still pretty fresh.

What I Have Learned from Keeping Fish

I’m slowly getting back into keeping tropical fish again. I just restocked the betta vase in my day job office with a Crowntail Betta1, and on my bookcase is an Eclipse 6 aquarium that I’m slowly setting up to house a few White Clouds and Guppies. If the bug of my youth returns as a result, I may have a large tank in my house by fall. We’ll see.

I’ve kept fish on and off for a long time, and started thanks to Tide laundry soap. I had had turtles and a goldfish bowl in my early youth, but they went the way of all things. Then, when I was in junior high, I went to the grocery store with my mother one day to see that there was a huge, shallow tank of goldfish just inside of the checkout aisles. There was a promotion – buy a box of Tide, get two free goldfish. Mom was buying Tide anyway, so I picked out a gold and a calico goldfish, named them Patton and Rommel (yeah, I was that kind of a kid), got a bowl and some food and took them home.

After a couple of weeks the calico died2. For some reason, instead of taking it in stride after the Flush Funeral, I got it in my head to do some research of why that happened. That’s when I discovered the world of tanks, filters, gravel, pumps, and heaters.

So I saved up and got a five gallon tank that I wisely decided would be heated by the incandescent bulb in the hood. Into it went Patton, and eventually he was joined by a Cory Cat, a pair of Kissing Gouramis, and a handful of plain guppies – a fish I still have a lot of affection for, even though my fish of choice are cichlids.

Though my high school years the hobby grew until I had three or four tanks up to about 20 gallons in size. I went on hiatus for college, and after returning to Wyoming as a married man, our mobile home had a 29 gallon tank whose principal occupant was a large Jack Dempsey cichlid that I raised from tiny size. My young son called it a “Jack Fish.”

The hobby went on hiatus when we moved to Ohio, and I didn’t get back into it until someone at the marketing company where I worked abandoned a 29 gallon tank and hood in his office that I claimed, rehabilitated, and filled with cichlids. When the company got rid of me the tank followed me home and stayed around until time and space limitations crowded it out of my life.

So now things are slowing a bit and fish might be coming back into my life. That’s good. I’ve always enjoyed keeping them, and while they don’t seem to have the intelligence of or the emotional return of a cat or a dog (although some cichlid fans I know of claim that an Oscar or Dempsey is more of a pet than a cat), they do bring a certain serenity into your life3.

Besides that, you learn things from fish. No, this is not going to be “learn the responsibility of caring for a dependent living thing, blah blah blah” – I’m talking about lessons with a real life analogue4.

My first job was at the fish store where I bought all of my supplies and livestock. I was there on Saturday afternoons, doing light tank maintenance and waiting on customers. It was my introduction to the joys of working retail and the exposure to working with the public that it entails.

Fortunately, most of the Saturday crowd were other dedicated aquarium keepers, and I learned a lot of practical information.

But that’s also where I had the eye-opening experience of seeing that adults were fallible. Not only that, but I also had the experience of realizing for the first time that I knew more than a grownup did.

And it wasn’t just keeping an adult from making a beginner mistake like putting a couple of cichlids into a tank full of Neon Tetras. That’s part of why I was at the store. No, this was my first up-close and personal with an adult who should have known better – an adult who was just plain wrong.

It played out something like this. A guy comes into the store. In the course of conversation, I learn that he keeps Angelfish (a popular cichlid that I never had much interest in). He asked me what I liked. I said I was enjoying guppies, which were so prolific that I always had a stable population in my tank.

“Oh no,” he said. “I hate guppies.”

“Why?” I asked. Not that I cared, but it was polite.

“There’s too much protein in guppies.”

I gave him a funny look.

“I bought a bunch of feeder guppies and put them with my Angels. But there’s too much protein in guppies, and it went right to the Angels’ fins. Their fins started looking ragged after eating guppies.”

And that was the moment when I knew that I knew more than an adult.

See, it wasn’t that there was too much protein in a guppy for an Angelfish to handle. I knew from my research that guppies had one flaw (some people consider their prolific breeding habits a flaw as well, but let’s move on). They are notorious fin nippers. They can’t resist taking a bite out of something long, wavy, and slow moving, which is why you don’t want to put them in with Bettas or, yes, Angelfish.

Now I suppose I should have politely told him that, but I also had the feeling that he wouldn’t have believed me. I was just a kid who kept guppies, for crying out loud. So this was also the first time that I kept silent to let someone bask in their own wrongness.

That’s a trait I’m trying to relearn, and it’s interesting to me that it comes at a time when fish are trickling back into my life. I seem to be going through a phase of my life where I am being ignored. No, check that. I’ve been ignored all of my life, but at this particular juncture, I have just become exceedingly aware of the extent of it.

I’m fascinated by passages in the Old Testament when it is prophesied about the life of someone as they are born – Ishmael being a ‘wild ass of a man’ and how Esau is lesser than Jacob, all of that. And I can’t help wonder if when I was born that it was said, “His name will be Joe, and he will be full of great ideas. But lo, nobody will heed them, let alone listen to them, and he shall be unappreciated for all of his days.”

Perhaps it is fortuitous, then, that fish are slowly coming back into my life. Maybe I need to re-learn the fact that it is probably better to keep one’s mouth shut and let others continue to eat protein-heavy guppies.

  1. Before some of you die-hard enthusiasts freak, let me assure you that, when my wife gave me this vase as a gift several years ago (she felt bad that I no longer had an aquarium), I had enough fish smarts to know that the fish would not live off the plant roots and the plant off of the fish’s waste products. The fish is fed regularly and the vase gets regular water changes and complete cleanings. The original betta lived happily for 18 months (their life span is two years) and was comfortable enough with his environment that he built a bubble nest on a couple of occasions. I expect this one will do the same.
  2. I can’t recall if the Calico was Patton or Rommel. Since historically Rommel died first, we’ll say it was Rommel. Not that it really matters.
  3. And no, fish are not the low maintenance pets of myth – but you can determine how much time you want to spend on them by the fish you choose. I’ve always wanted to keep Discus cichlids, but they are almost as much trouble to keep as a saltwater aquarium – and saltwater setups are for people with no other life).
  4. Although I did also learn that I didn’t like goldfish. Wait, scratch that. Goldfish are great pond fish. I just don’t like them in an aquarium.

My Baby’s On the Other Side of the World and Other Stories

1. My Baby’s On the Other Side of the World. It’s not my wife or girlfriend baby. It’s my youngest child. And she really is on the other side of the world, 14 time zones away1 in Siberia. Actually, she’s in what is called “Far East Russia,” but we all say “Siberia” because people give you a blank look if you say “Far East Russia.”

How did she get there? The Rotary Youth Exchange program.

Why did she go? She took some Post Secondary classes in Russian and fell in love with the language. She wants to major in Russian Translation. Why Russian? She has a gift for languages. And she saw a Russian copy of one of my books and thought it would be neat to be able to read it. So on a whim, she took a class that turned into several classes and is now the direction she wants her life to go in. So now my baby is on the other side of the world, and I’m responsible.

And if I hadn’t raised her to want to go, and If I hadn’t been willing to let her go, I’d have been a rotten father.

It’s been an ordeal getting her prepped and away. And now, in the space of six short months, my wife and I have become empty nesters (my adult son took a job promotion and moved from Ohio to Saint Paul in February of this year). We’re still adjusting.

So if you’ve sent me an e-mail in the last six-to-eight weeks and haven’t gotten an answer yet, that’s the reason. Our lives were uprooted trying to get everything in order. But now things are calming down, and I’m making my way slowly through the list of unanswered emails. Hang in there.

2. He Had a Voice Like an Angel and He Could Have Been a Star. No, his name wasn’t Johnny. It was Clifford. That’s where my middle name came from. He was my uncle and he passed away over the weekend. Now both of my namesake relatives (I was also named after his oldest sister, Jo) are gone.

Clifford had a boxer’s nose, the result of early and primitive surgery during childhood to correct a deviated septum; it turns out to be a genetic trait that I also have. I’ve opted to keep mine as a souvenir.

In spite of the compromised sinuses, Clifford had a beautiful singing voice. But he had more than that. He had an exquisite sense of phrasing and timing. He didn’t sing songs, he acted them out, played them, became the narrator. Most singers have to learn it. He did it naturally.

Once upon a time, some men heard Clifford sing and approached him with a deal. “We know people,” they said. “We have record company connections and concert hall owners and promoters. We can make you rich and famous. All you have to do is tell people that you’re one of us.”

They were from the Communist Party.

Clifford told them to take a hike.

So you’ve never heard of Clifford Faust, the pop singer who was famous throughout the 50’s and 60’s, and had a variety show like everyone else in the early ’70’s. That’s because he went to war instead, as a radio operator in a plane that dropped bombs over Italy. His plane was shot down so many times they called him and his colleagues The Hard Luck Crew. On one trip back his oxygen was shot out and he had to be revived on returning to base.

Instead of being a star, he carried the invisible scars of his service to his country throughout the rest of his life.

And I should have written this while he was still able to appreciate it.

3. Everything Must Go. I’ve about got Version 8.0 of this web site finished. When it is, I’m going to do something that I should have done long ago. I’m going to have my host company wipe out everything currently on my server space before posting it. After 9 1/2 years of this site, there’s an awful lot of clutter out there. So I’m cleaning out the cellar and starting all over again, fresh.

A lot of stuff isn’t going to come back, including the archives of the writing blog. I’ve seen the stats, and all it is doing is wasting server space – it’s not even wasting bandwidth.

I have it all backed up, and I have a couple of ideas of what to do with the material, including nothing. A few highlights will be recycled into v 8.0, but for the most part everything must go. If you want to make a stab at reading my literary mind, do so now while the stuff is still up.

4. HappyBlogiverary to Me – This and $3.10 Will Get Me a Grande Skim Latte at Starbucks. Still recovering from sending my baby to the other side of the world, I missed the actual anniversary date. I started on September 6, 2002. This is my fifth year of blogging. A lot has changed. There’s been a bust in the blog audience all over the net. I’m not the same me I was five years ago. Funny how much can change. Wonder if I’ll even be around in another five years. Maybe nobody will.

Ah, such morose thoughts. You’d think I was Russian or something.

There’s lots I have to be cheerful about. I’m just out of writing time right now.

Heh.

  1. Okay, technically I suppose she’s only 10 time zones away if you go west. But there are only two portal cities into Russia, and she had to travel east through Moscow, which means instead of going the short way, she had to go 2/3 of the way around the world to get to her destination – through 14 time zones.

Mister Engineer Man

Thirty-one years ago this month, I walked onto the campus of a college and met with an adviser, who asked me what I wanted to do for a living. And I told him that I wanted to be a recording engineer. I wanted to work in a recording studio, recording and mixing albums for different artists. There was even a technical school for teaching this in the city where the college was, and I said that perhaps something could be worked out so there could be a transfer of credits.

My adviser gave me a pained look and said, “What do you really want to do?” Well, that was what I really wanted to do, but something inside made me sheepishly mumble, “Advertising.” That’s what I ended up majoring in at a school that, at the time, did not have much of a Mass Comm program, which in turn ended up being one of three or four reasons why I ended up leaving there without a degree (no, it wasn’t all their fault).

I tell you that story so I can tell you this: Saturday night I went to my son’s house. He had recently finished recording his first album (for the most part) on his multi-track recorder, and wanted me to come and help do all the engineering things that he had no idea how to do.

So I spent some time with his recorder’s manual last week, and Saturday night went to his house. We put on one song and I started messing around along the learning curve for making it sound better. It took the better part of the evening, but we managed to get through one song by the night’s end.

We went through each song, track by track, and EQ-ed (equalized) them (tweaked the High, Midrange, and Low frequencies), came up with an idea for a rough mix (which he already knew he wanted), added panning (the position in the “space” of stereo sound), and then found a mastering algorithm that we think would work for the entire album.

Talk about being a kid in a candy store. I had a great time. I think my son had fun, too, because I was able to take a track that sounded all muffled and monophonic and breathed some life into it – the life that he put into the writing and recording – it just had to be engineered into stereo.

Now I’m going to admit that I’m nowhere near the professional at this, but I like to think that I’ve got a good pair of ears, and even if what I did wasn’t maybe exactly by the book, it sounded better when I came out than when I went in. And from my son’s point of view, for the price of half a pizza and some root beer, I’m sure the price was right.

So one track 90% done, nine to go. But the slow part of the learning curve is over, and I made copious notes as to settings so we can start there for the remaining songs and just tweak from there.

Then we master the lot of them, mix down to a stereo master, and rip ourselves a master CD.

Yeah, I’m looking forward to this.

And as for the advisor who nudged me away from doing this all those years ago… well, he, like the bully in junior high who terrorized me in band class until I gave up the instrument that he also played (drums), probably saved me from a life of sex and drugs and rock and roll. At this point, some of you may be crying “but what’s so great about that?”

Well, from my point of view, knowing now what I didn’t know then, if my life had taken that different career path all those years ago, then I wouldn’t have had the experience of sharing last Saturday night with my son. And the experience ahead of several more evenings of pizza and root beer and twiddling knobs on a cool piece of electrical gadgetry.

The Lord knows how to work things, does he not?

NP: Jean Michel Jarre, Equinoxe, Part VII (Equinoxe)

Scary Monsters

More fodder from my friend Scoob, spinning off of an e-mail discussion we were having about comic books part of which was referenced here. Only this part of the conversation has to do with fear. Namely, things that scared me as a child.

Growing up in the 1960’s was a fairly idyllic time, at least in the front half of the decade. During the back half, my father became convinced that anarchy might break out at any time, given all the increasing rioting over the Vietnam war, and one day he brought something home. He was prone to doing that, bringing home surprises from his long days on the road. But instead of a chiming table clock or a Rouvaun album, he brought home a blue steel Smith and Wesson .38 special. Took me out in the middle of nowhere to shoot at a coffee can, and when I had gone through a cylinder full of bullets, he smiled and said, “You’re a better shot than your mother.”

That didn’t scare me, though, because this took place in Worland, Wyoming, a sleepy little town on the badlands side of the Bighorn Mountains, where the most threatening thing was the ash from the sugar factory that settled over everything overnight. The fighting in the jungle and on college campuses that I saw on the TV didn’t seem real to me, and to his credit, Dad never told me why he bought the gun – I pieced that together over the years. He didn’t want me to worry, I guess, because he was worried enough for all of us.

No, I was scared of more important things. Things that mattered to a nine year-old kid. Here are some of my childhood fears, in chronological order:

  • The opening to the TV series The Outer Limits
    That ringing rrrrrrrrrrrrr sound and that voice… “We control the horizontal… we control the vertical…” They were controlling our TV set from far away! Never occurred to me that a), that opening was probably the scariest thing about the show, and b), I had control of the TV myself in the form of the OFF switch. Tell that to a six year-old.
  • Daleks
    I’ve mentioned here before how, before we moved to Worland, we lived in Canada for enough time for me to come back spelling and talking funny – and how I got to see episodes of Doctor Who fresh off the boat from being filmed in the U.K. I’ve seen that lost episode about Marco Polo (he was scary, too), but nothing matched the Doctor’s eternal enemy the Daleks for sheer hide-behind-the-couch terror (and I should confess at this point that I always went back for more). This would endear me to the Britcom Coupling many decades later, when the lead character declared that the only thing couches were good for was “hiding from Daleks.”
  • That horrible villain who took away the Blackhawks’ senses
    A World War II fighting team co-created by the brilliant Wil Eisner, by the 1960’s the Blackhawks were being shoved into superhero molds by D.C. comics. I still loved them as only a little kid can, at least until they came out with this cover, which showed each Blackhawk losing something that was really important to him – touch, sight, sound, etc. It was just too creepy for a little kid like me. I never bought the issue.
  • Virus X
    In a sleepy drug store in sleepy Worland, Wyoming there was a sleepy rack of comic books where I made my selection every week. That is, until Superman got Virus X, a form of Kryptonian leprosy. Noooo! Worst of all, there was no cure! Superman… super leper! I looked at the comic in the store, but was too terrified to buy it. I think I might have been afraid that I would carry Virus X home with me if I did. Worst of all, it was a serial story, so I had to go back each month to see what happened to Superman in what had to be his darkest hour.

    Interestingly enough, before the run was over, I had my first peek of writer’s prescience. At one point in the story arc, something happened that clicked inside of my ten year-old brain. That’s it! That insignificant thing that happened is going to be what cures Superman!. And sure enough, the next month, that’s what happened.

    Now that I’m a grownup, I’ve decided to collect this run of comics for the sake of sheer nostalgia. You’ll also be interested to know that I wasn’t the only kid terrified out of his socks by this story – check out a complete synopsis, along with another confession of terror in this excellent write up of the Virus X story arc.

  • Classic Trek
    As a kid I was also lucky enough to see the adventures of James T. Kirk and the Enterprise first run. And a couple of the episodes scared me to death. It wasn’t the people with rays coming out of their eyes (although the strangulation scene made me nervous). Nor was it the salt-seeking creature that wanted to fix it’s suction cup paws on McCoy’s face. No, what scared me to death was Operation: Annihilate!, where blobby creatures injected a stinger that wrapped itself around your spine and made you go insane. And that disease in Miri, (which took place on a carbon copy of Earth), where this disease made the kids live a long time, but the grownups got this blue-green fungus that rotted them away.

Interestingly enough, from this list you can see the core of what my base childhood fear might have been – invasive, icky diseases. Maybe that’s because I went through the whole regimen of Chicken Pox, Measles and Rubella, and the idea of getting sick with something that presented on your skin was just too much for me to take. Nowadays, I’m no longer terrified of them, but I do find them rather horridly fascinating, like that Morgellon’s thing that’s cropping up right now.

So why bring any of this up at all? Because, with a little work, you can channel your fears, old or new, into your work – with the prospect of having a fresh idea you can deal with, more writing under your belt when you finish it, and perhaps even a little personal exorcism while you’re at it. That’s three birds with one stone.

Regular readers might be leaping up at this moment and saying, “so that’s where that icky disease in A Death of Honor came from!” Well, yes and now. Childhood fears did influence Honor, but it wasn’t disease. It was part of my extended family.

About the time I was busy being scared by Virus X and creepy Star Trek diseases, I realized something else. There were certain relatives that I dreaded visits from. And even while the comic and TV terrors faded, the dread of these relatives would linger on for several more years.

They were what I call doom ‘n’ gloom conservatives. When they got together, they would all talk about the state of the handbasket was that this country was in. One used to brag, “When the Commies take over, I’m going to be the first one they shoot!” Virus X couldn’t begin to contend with the fact that the Soviets were massing tanks at the North Pole, and Canada (“Nothing more than a socialist puppet state!”) would do nothing to hinder them from rolling south across the border until they were in the town square, where they would hang people from the sleepy lamp poles.

By the time I was in my twenties, I wasn’t scared any more. Not even by Jimmy Carter’s playing of the Nuclear Fear card during a debate with Ronald Reagan (“I asked my daughter Amy what the most pressing issue facing mankind was and she said, ‘Nuclear war'”). I might have been angry about all of that nonsense I had to listen to as a kid, but mostly I think I was fed up. Honor wasn’t supposed to be a political novel at all, but I decided to use the nightmare scenario of a Soviet-dominated world just to wash some of whatever debris remained out of my system.

And, well, you know the rest.

It can be argued that writers are exploiters. They exploit things around them, mostly in a very benign way, in order to construct their stories. Tales or incidents from folks. Things that happen to others. Stories written by others that they have put their own unique twist on. So why not exploit your own fears? Planned or not, I probably saved a bundle on psychotherapy bills.

Plus I got six grand and a published novel out of the deal.* You can’t beat that with a stick.

Listening:
Celebrate we will
‘Cause life is short
But sweet for certain hey
We climb two by two
To be sure these days continue
Things we cannot change

(via iTunes)

*Your individual neurosis may vary. Current performance is not an indicator of future results.

Vinyl

Once upon a time, music came on black vinyl discs 12 inches across (okay, there were other sizes and other colors of vinyl, but stay with me here – I’m writing for atmosphere). This vinyl was fragile, more fragile than CD’s, and the very act of playing them wore them out because they had grooves that this thing called a needle rode in, and the tip of this needle was a diamond, the hardest substance known to man, so of course it was going to degrade the sound as it went. The needle picked up the movement of these grooves and sent them into an amplifier which made bigger vibrations on a speaker, and that produced something we heard as music.

And in spite of all it’s disadvantages, I miss it. I really do miss vinyl.

Not that I’m a vinyl snob, one of those folks who insist that there’s something missing from digital recording because it’s not a continuous thing, it’s series of samples – never mind that there are so many samples a second that our ears supposedly can’t tell the difference. I’ve never A/B’ed vinyl against a CD of the same recording through the same stereo, so I can’t give an opinion. No, there’s something else about vinyl I miss.

First off, I’m missing a lot of music because it never made it to CD. Just a couple of days ago I was ready to spend $130 – $150 on either a USB turntable which would let me plug into my iBook and rip some of my old vinyl, or else on equipment that would let me retrofit my old turntable with a new stylus (needle) and a black box that would let me do the same thing – the cost of doing either was about the same.

And I wanted to make this big investment because of… one album. That’s right. I haven’t heard fenetiks, an album by Jules and the Polar Bears in decades. It was one of my favorite albums when it came out, and it’s on my list of fifteen favorite albums. Lucky for me, I suppose, is that I discovered that fenetiks was on a lot of other people’s lists as well, because a company named Wounded Bird Records had the good taste to reissue it on CD along with some rare bonus tracks from the same period.

So I saved a ton of money, but the bad news is that fenetiks got me to thinking about what other great music I was missing from my still-consuming-space vinyl collection. A quick tour of my old vinyl rendered In The World by a pre-Saturday Night Live G.E. Smith; the Twisting by the Pool EP by Dire Straits; the Beat Surrender EP by The Jam; the three lives sides of Al Stewart Live/Indian Summer (available as Live at the Roxy, but that’s not the point), also Stewart’s Russians and Americans (rare on U.S. vinyl, rarer as a CD); You Won’t See Me the posthumous album by Triumvirat’s Helmut Koellen; Joe Jackson’s rare un-used soundtrack for Mike’s Murder; Strange Man Changed Man and Funland by Bram Tchaikovsky; I Advance Masked and Bewitched by Robert Fripp and Andy Summers (the former available on an out-of-print CD, but I’m not paying inflated collector’s prices for it) and Fripp’s collaboration with David Byrne God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners; Nash the Slash’s authorized bootleg Hammersmith Holocaust; North Star by Phillip Glass; Sound On Sound by Bill Nelson’s Red Noise (also an overpriced collector’s CD); Chaz Jankel and Questionnaire by Chaz Jankel; Stick Figure Neighborhood, Talkback and Bridges Over Borders by Spoons; and Woody Allen’s The Night Club Years (which features material cut from a later compilation).

This is not to mention old vinyl that has original mixes of material that’s not available on CD (the original pressing of Mike Oldfield’s Hergest Ridge; bits of The Original Sin by Cowboys International); albums I have for only a couple of songs (Lake and Lake II by -who else? – Lake; Steve Hackett’s Defector; Sides by Anthony Phillips); and 12-inch singles with unavailable alternate mixes (Icehouse’s I Can’t Help Myself and Soft Cell’s extended version of Torch).

There’s some musical nostalgia here, but most of this is music that I’d like to have available. But there is a certain nostalgia to vinyl, and maybe that’s why I’m feeling so sentimental about it. It really does represent an era that no longer exists.

See, it used to be when you bought an album, you were getting more than music. There was this whole experience of going to a record store and browsing for albums – looking at these big 12″ by 12″ that had beautiful, cool, or intriguing artwork. Some was ingenious – like the cover of Ambrosia’s Somewhere I’ve Never Travelled, which folded into a pyramid (supposedly so the listener could harness this new age energy source for him/er self), the enigmatic work turned out by the art house Hipgnosis for the likes of Pink Floyd and 10cc, or Roger Dean’s turnips-in-space visions for Yes.

Aside from the art itself, the covers also contained vital information that might appeal to your desire to buy. Try getting the list of instruments Mike Oldfield played on Tubular Bells on the back of a CD, along with the other art, the bar code, and all of the legalese stuff that goes on nowadays (okay, I bought that one for more than one reason – the cover was also intriguing, and the clerk in the record section of the department store where I spotted it said that her rack jobber said it was the best rock album he’d ever heard. I think the sticker on the outside connecting the music with The Exorcist pushed me over the edge, too… the accumulating circumstances were too irresistible). I used to be so into synthesizers, that I used to blindly buy records if the list of personnel listed a guy who played “synthesizers” (not keyboards – there was a difference). That was how I ended up with The Dream Weaver by Gary Wright, which, once you get past the obligatory title cut/single, is a pretty good album.

I also picked up, during the height of my Who fandom, a white album cover with a thin line drawing of an artist on it – Pinball by Brian Protheroe. I almost dismissed it as a Who ripoff, but turned it over. All the lyrics were printed on the back. I read the words to the title cut and was hooked. I bought the record and have followed Protheroe ever since.

I used to find music other ways. Until I got to Oklahoma City and found a good record store (the late, great Wilcox Records, where I would end up working in college), most of my buying was done blind, because Gillette, Wyoming didn’t have a record store and only a country AM radio station. So I started reading Creem and Circus and Rolling Stone, making sure my folks didn’t see them in the house (my Mom once saw the cover of Edgar Winters’ They Only Come Out At Night and asked me to get rid of it – I just hid it spine-in under “W”). I got into Jethro Tull because my record buying buddy and I were listening to Moontan by Golden Earring, which has great prog stuff on it once you get past Radar Love. One cut featured Barry Hay playing flute and my buddy said, “This is what Jethro Tull is supposed to sound like, because Ian Anderson plays the flute.” He couldn’t have been more wrong about the sound, but inside of a week or two, I had my first Tull album, A Passion Play, which I still listen to.

I would also following certain record labels or imprints – Stiff and Virgin, the monsters of our era, with great punk and new wave, and great prog rock, respectively.

You know what it was? It was mining for gold. It was such a wonderful, reckless era… buying up records, hoping to find some gold in all the sludge.

And there are some great moments associated with just the records themselves that have nothing to do with the music. The day my son decided to put one of his Disney records on my turntable – but first he took off one of my Pat Metheny records – with fingers covered with peanut butter. The time in the dorm I decided, for some odd reason, to convince two of my friends that I was drunk. And I couldn’t do it until I took an album off the turntable and put my fingers on the vinyl. Vinyl was even responsible for my first date (of sorts) with the girl I would end up marrying. I was making a student film for a class, and my copy of the album I was to use for background music, Oxygene by Jean Michel Jarre, was accidentally destroyed. In a rush to the record store, I ran into a girl I knew and on impulse asked her if she wanted to come along for the ride. For reasons she can’t explain, she said yes… and so it began.

I don’t know how this little obsession is going to end. I suspect I’ll eventually get the electrical plumbing I need to rip my vinyl, but I miss that whole experience of shopping for music. That’s not something you can do now unless you browse the halls of CD Baby (where I discovered the genius of Jim Bauer) – and there’s still no 12″ by 12″ artwork to go with.

Sometimes, compact isn’t better.

I once told Scoob, one of my die-hard music friends from college, that I had a plan for our retirement. What we need to do, I said, is find a city where we both want to live (he prefers state capitals) and both move there and start up a used and new vinyl store. No CD’s, no mp3’s, no bubblechips, or whatever the technology is when we reach retirement age. Vinyl. Just vinyl. And because this store would be the endeavor of our twilight years, I had the perfect name for the store…

Final Vinyl.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m not so much still in love with vinyl as that I’m enamored of what it stood for in my past. In which case, I don’t think I’m living in the past. Not at all.

I just want to be able to listen to it.

Listening:
They don’t want to see you dancing
Got their feet nailed to the floor
They say we’re moving somewhere new
But we’ve been there before

(via iTunes shuffle play)