Rob

Gamer, composer, writer, coder, nerd, expat. Living the dream since just about now.

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Just got back from a nice long vaca in the States. (I just flew in from Bashton, and bahy, ah mahy ahms tahred.) It was still too short, but I was lucky enough to catch up with friends and family, and even solidify a new friendship. Heck, I even got a story out of it.

(Note that this narrative only superficially follows the classic three-act structure, and doesn't obey contemporary models for "good storytelling," because Life doesn't care if anyone options my screenplay.)

So...

Michellle had to head home after two weeks, which gave me an extra eight days to hang out and get up to all sorts of nonsense. I made the most of it, renting a car to go hither and thither. My BFF from Boston had driven down to DelCo, and we split a hotel room in Media, PA. For four days they went their way, I went mine, and we both saved a few bucks. The last of those days was a trip to Reading, PA. It was swell driving up there on some of the old rural roads I used to frequent, and swell seeing my absolutely screwy friend who makes really bad life decisions.

It's about 10:30pm when I'm ready to head back to Media. Normally I'd take those beloved rural roads, but it's too dark to see the sights, gas is expensive, and the dashboard has been telling me since I picked up the car that the rear driver's side tire is about half pressure. So I say "oh well" and do the sensible thing: take the shortest route by heading east (southeast) on 422, toward King of Prussia, where I'll pick up Rte 252S, which gets me right to the hotel.

422 is boring. No real lighting except at exits, and most of the exits are to "nowhere." Not much traffic that time on a Tuesday night. WOGL is playing so many repeats from the last three days, it's hard to believe they own more than one "greatest hits of the 80s" album. You can credit this tedium for my noticing that the tire pressure was getting lower in that sad sack of a wheel. I couldn't feel it, only see it on the display. The PSI should be close to 40. It had been steady 20 for three days. Now it's 10, 9... Fuck.

I take the very next exit as the PSI hits 5: Rte 363/Trooper. I've passed this exit a hundred times back when I took 422 to my job in Collegeville, but I never actually got off here. And... there's nothing at the top of the offramp, just more road with occasional street lights. No traffic. Shit. I randomly pick "left." PSI: 3.

Thankfully, that random pick was a good one, as 1.4 miles later there's an all-night WAWA open in an otherwise-closed mall-ey area, and it's surprisingly busy. I pull in at about 11pm, PSI 0.

(Some context is in order here. My cell phone plan is one of the cheapest in Canada, and the provider has no international coverage. I have a choice: roam and pay through the nose, or pay $12/24 hour period for unlimited US calling/data. I've managed to avoid it so far, and dammit, I really don't want to pay $12 a day for cell service. Now, back to our story...)

My immediate concerns are that using my phone will cost me, and that I have no US change for the air pump. I could go in and buy something at WAWA -- hell, I even have my old WAWA coffee mug with me, but ho!, the pump is free! Woot!

The tire won't inflate. I hear it hissing wetly. Fuck. And fuckin' cheap-ass phone plans. Fine. Fuck.

I call the roadside assistance number on my rental contract, and hear the cash register ring twelve times. They want the street address. I'm like, "WAWA on 363, outside Trooper, just off 422." I'm gently reminded that this is a national service, and that this info is meaningless to them. So I disconnect and use my now-"free" roaming mobile data to check Google maps. I call back with the address. They inform me it will be $78 to change the tire through them, or I can do it myself, or use a third party provider also on my dime. It hadn't even occurred to me that there'd be a tire and tools in the back for me to work with -- I haven't had to change a tire in like a decade, and forgot such things are possible. Turns out there are tools, and a tire, but it's a donut. It's also 11pm, and dark-ish in the parking lot, and I've lost muscle mass in the past few years, and heck, if I change it and don't do a great job, I could kill myself and/or become liable for whatever happens to the car. So I say fuck it, send someone. ETA: 58 mins.

I get coffee, then wait in the car listening to more crappy hair metal repeats, and watch the parking lot in my mirrors. There's someone pushing a loaded shopping cart back and forth, occasionally stopping at cars, which seems weird for this location at midnight. Another car pulls up and uses the air pump. People come and go. 63 minutes later, I get a text update: 23 more mins. Cool. Cool.

Dude shows up 3 mins "early." I think his wife is in the passenger seat. He very quickly and efficiently puts on the donut (nice to have a fancy powered machine in your truck). He finds 2 nails in the tire. Oy. He loads the flat into the back of the rental, says there's nothing to pay because he bills the service. But I tip him $20, despite some legit protestations that it's not necessary.

This is where the narrative takes its "surprising but inevitable turn." (EDIT: No, it's the moment the hero accepts the call to adventure that leads into Act II. Though Joe Campbell would prefer I first refuse, then accept the adventure after an additional consternating event, I'm more a Dan Harmon Story Wheel guy.)

See, I'm in a pretty good mood. I have just hit a landmark of privilege: from my rental car, at midnight, in a foreign country, I fixed my problems with, essentially, a simple "bill me." It's 12:40am, I can't drive more than 50mph, I may or may not be able to put in a claim on my 3rd party travel insurance I bought prior to the trip, but I'm like, "I adulted." I am pleased with myself.

So when the young woman pushing the shopping cart comes up to me and says, "Sir, could you please drive me a mile down the road to the bus stop," I say, "Yes."

The tire guy says, "You're braver than me." I reply, "Paying it forward." And I mutter my new mantra: "Say yes to adventure!"

Note that I'm carefully looking around for her compatriots, and assessing the chances of a carjacking. But I see nothing, and she seems in earnest, and I begin to entertain visions of my heroic, TV-worthy efforts in self-defense should the need arise.

I help her load all her stuff into the back seat. She gets in the front passenger seat and immediately changes the radio to a station mixing rap and pro-Black commentary. It took me five minutes to figure out the radio, but she's a natural, and apparently the new radio boss. And at least it's not Richard Marx. As I start the engine, she explains that her baby daddy threw her out and she has nowhere to go. The abandoned cart drifts through the parking lot on the warm breeze.

She directs me back down 363 the way I had come, pointing at an intersection and then, as I'm about to pull in, says, "No, it's the next one." Oh, okay. We do it again. Again. Well, fuck. And sure enough, the place she finally says is the correct turn is the ramp back onto 422, heading toward KoP. So, it seems, I'm the bus.

Then she says, "Could you help me out with some money?" I lie that I just gave the last of my cash to the tire guy. "Could you help me out with a room tonight?" I gently decline, saying I wish I could do more.

I make sure we don't get on I-76 heading into Philly, and instead end up on Rte. 202 at the KoP mall, which is closed. But she says, "Keep going." She repeats her story, and her request, going so far as to suggest I pull into a hotel on 202 where maybe I could help her out with that room. Oy.

When I again refuse, she tells me to pull into this 7-11-looking place. But it's closed, and I say I don't feel right leaving her off somewhere dark and alone. We keep going. Another room request, another refusal. A more agitated, "Turn here." It's a big intersection. Right after the turn is Pantry Food Mart where she says she can get milk for her baby. Note that there is no baby in the car, and we're now quite a ways from where she started. Also, it's closed. I again state my reluctance to leave her alone in a dark parking lot, so she directs me into the very-open, very well-lit parking garage of the Target across the street.

She says she needs a cart. Lo and behold, a maverick cart is right there. I figure this is the moment, and agree to drop her here. I turn off the car, pocket the keys, then check out the cart. The cart is locked, but she doesn't care. I help her unload her stuff, some onto the sidewalk, some into the cart. I repeat that I wish I could do more, and express my sincere hope that things work out for her, and, less sincerely, I atheistically say, "God bless you." It's then, under these bright lights, that I first notice that she's in an unbuttoned shirt and bikini top, and is several months pregnant. Sigh.

The drive back to Media from there is longer than I remember, longer still on a donut. I almost hit a deer on 252, but it's a place I've hit one before, so I was cautious and it paid off. I pull into the hotel parking lot at 1:28am, a little self-satisfied, but also disappointed that I couldn't -- or wouldn't -- do more. I climb out, reach behind the passenger seat for my bag...

And this is where the narrative takes its final, inevitable turn, because OF COURSE my bag is not there.

At first, I consider blowing it off. I left my computer in the hotel room, after all. I mean, that bag only had my... passport, two credit cards, two pairs of prescription glasses, a tie clip from my dead uncle, recently-acquired pictures of my nephew and niece, and Canadian cash for my return. FUCK. FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK.

The younger me might have shrugged and called it a night. Mostly out of fear, but rationalized. I can get another passport, cancel credit cards. The lost cash is annoying, and won't help her much, but hey, she needs it more than me, and if she can figure out an exchange, fine. I can get more pics, and I'm not super attached to that tie clip (which is in the form of Reddy Kilowatt ). The glasses will cost me, alas.

The 55-year old me said, "Nope." I got back in, and started back to KoP.

EDIT: Et voila, the turn into Act III.

I'm livid. Engraged. And outraged. I want to drive very fast, but a donut and a few cop cars in the shadows keep me to a civil pace. I genuinely tried to help her. I'm sorry I wasn't willing to buy her a room, or risk whatever she might do to it after I left. I'm sorry I wasn't willing to hand her cash. But to steal from someone who'd been nothing but polite and kind... LIVID.

I started practicing what I'd say -- or do -- when I found her. IF I found her. I imagined driving around for an hour looking for her. I imagined getting into an altercation, and police being called. I imagined finding my stuff gone (hidden, maybe), and being forced to call the police on someone who's evidently having a real shitty time of it and doesn't need more shit. And then I had this inspired notion, a kinder approach, maybe enough to head off any more trouble.

I was almost surprised to find her where I left her, sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by her stuff. And my bag's there. I leave the car, pocket the key. I kneel and start going through my stuff and say, "It looks like you grabbed my bag by mistake." Genius, right? She gets an out, it's non-aggressive, etc.

And she says -- I'm still wowed by this -- she says, "I thought you said I could have it."

And for only the second time that night I looked deeply into her face, and I'm telling you that I'm not sure she didn't believe it. She was not altogether there, whether because of chemical impairment, brain stuff, or just having had enough of this world. She sat there, passive, blank.

She had rifled the bag, moved some things, but everything was still there. Maybe she didn't think I'd come back for it. Maybe she didn't need anything she found, or didn't look too hard. Dunno. I repeated my affirmations just the same. I hope the false God was listening.

On the drive back, I quickly moved from self-congratulation for my "calm bravery" to feeling again that I should have done more. Like, why not use my already-paid roaming data to look for a shelter? Why not give her the American cash I really did have? I know I can't solve her problems, or fix her. But it gave me some real hard perspective on how far removed I am from the troubles of people in her place that I spent way more thought on my bag and our confrontation than I did on how to improve her situation. Still, the anger at the "betrayal" lingered. And still I went back to the hotel.

Got back at 2:30am, and was too wound up to sleep right away. I had to get up at 6:30am (my Boston friend is an early riser), get brekkie, and return the car to the airport by 10am. The tire cost me $145 all in (the changing service, plus the tire), which turns out not to be covered by the 3rd party insurance I purchased. My friend picked me up from the airport, we drove the five hours (plus one hour in additional stops) to the Boston area, where we spent time with their chaotic family and the dogs who really hated me, before I got to bed around 11pm, and slept until 10:30am Wednesday. Slept so late, we didn't get into the city that day.

My friend told my story to their sister, a public defender in Massachussetts, who said I had made a really bad call. What if the cops had stopped us on the road, and she had drugs, a weapon, or a warrant? What if she claimed I had kidnapped or assaulted her? Note that in Mass, being caught carrying a gun in a car is a mandatory 6-month jail sentence -- the sister sometimes represents truckers who are stopped, searched, and jailed for that. PA isn't so strict, but the point is well-taken. I had been concerned first for my own safety, then hers, but not the potential legal risks if things had gone south. So add that to all the other stuff I didn't consider.

I was poor for a couple years, and really poor briefly. Worked a low-end job and made bad decisions (read as "chased trim"). Spent a winter in a cheap, shitty "apartment" with on-again-off-again heat (couldn't pay the propane bill -- the water in the toilet froze over), eating pasta sandwiches for dinner with the one light on, etc. But even then I still had a shelter. And food of sorts. And a car I could gas up to get back and forth to the job I had. Way better than her situation. Nowadays if things turned real bad, I could work at a gas station, liquidate some inheritance and stay afloat, couch surf with friends in a pinch, and, as God as my witness, never go hungry again. But her? Homeless, pregnant, young, black, alone, possibly not of tremendous mental capacity (temporarily?), maybe under-educated... And she's not even in the lowest possible place.

I believe that people in positions of privilege -- like being a middle-aged, college-educated white male professional -- owe more to the community than someone like her does, and that we're all in this together in the end. As a super Lefty, I'm really disappointed -- angry -- with myself that I didn't stop to think beyond "get this woman out of my life" and "I want my bag back." (Wanting my shit returned is 100% okay, as is being angry about the theft. I'm not beating myself up over that.) I could have given her $20, or $40, or gone to a drive-thru, or gotten some groceries. TBH, I could have gotten her a room. I could have slowed down to think about her instead of myself, to at least ask if she would consider a shelter if I could find one. I had enough going for myself to get my rental's tire fixed in the middle of the night, and didn't use it when faced with a real person in need, a person looking me in the face, not some abstract point of sociopolitical discussion among friends. I mean, I even have the privilege of moral self-flagellation via blog while sitting unemployed on the couch in my home, after a three-week international vacation, while complaining that I don't want to do "mindless shit work" just to make a few bucks. And where is she now?

In short: when it was inconvenient, I lacked the courage of my convictions. This stuff -- social justice, poverty, homelessness, etc. -- matter to me. But if people like me find reasons to not step up, or shirk the opportunities that almost literally fall into our laps, how are things going to get better?

My new mantra remains, "Say yes to adventure." My new wisdom is, "Think it through." But my new moral code is, "Do better."

I hope she's okay.

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Oof
Yarp. So many oofs.
Rob 7/15
Glad you’re okay.
 

I argued with myself on posting this, and lost. It's TMI, pure ugly catharsis. Probably won't be up long. At least it's better at the end. Not seeking anything with it.

A few months back, a Family Guy rerun introduced me to the term "yacht rock," aka "dad rock," or, as I learned it: "soft rock." Peter is whisked to a happy place upon hearing Bob Welch's solo recording of his older Fleetwood Mac song, "Sentimental Lady." I recalled it from the radio back in the day, though I couldn't claim to know - or perceive - the lyrics. Not to worry, they're not very good. And the album, French Kiss, is also better left imagined. Still, that particular recording is...effective. Affective. Buckingham's arrangement and the post production are sublimely transformative of "meh" material. The lyrics could be a cornbread recipe for all I care. That sound is a blanket of stardust, and I am snuggled, tell you what. Wish it were eight minutes long.

Not having heard it in forever, I immediately went to YouTube (along with numerous Family Guy viewers). The AI there recommended "related" videos. Thus it began. A playlist. A private, indulgent, embarrassing, guilty playlist. Of it I will say only that track one is Player. And me without a yacht. A dinghy, even.

"Sentimental Lady" charted in 1977. I was ten. My cousin and I were just months apart, the oldest kids. Above us were only adults; the three youngest were over 35, the rest a generation or two further removed, and all conservative and old-fashioned in disposition even for their ages. Our car radios only seemed to pick up "soft rock," "oldies," and Country. Oldies aside, there were America, Carly Simon, Charlie Rich, Debby Boone, 5th Dimension, Dionne Warwick, the Carpenters, those new Billy Joel and Barry Manilow kids. "Chevy Van," "Wildfire," "Blue Bayou" (Ms. Ronstadt, if you please), "Wichita Lineman," "Here You Come Again." For reasons too tenebrous to go into here, I had burrowed into Classical and Big Band, so in my room were Grieg, Brahms, and Artie Shaw. No, not for me the disco, the KISS, the new punk thing. I listened to both Engelbert Humperdincks. My pop-pop crooned Al Jolson, and fried scrapple and muskrat to his Ray Conniff 8-track tape. My uncle wanted to leave my aunt for Connie Francis. We watched Lawrence Welk, Hee-Haw, and The Donny & Marie Show.

While the taxonomy of "yacht rock" can be debated, I'm particularly enamoured of a specific subspecies, all under a bell curve with limits at 1970 and 1982, much of it charting under the "easy listening" category back in the day. Mostly guitars and electric pianos, string sections a plus. Mostly not rockin'. In this milk crate is no disco, soul (well, there's David Soul), metal, folk, protest, novelty, prog, dance, or ambient. Some of the artists normally classified as "yacht" aren't to be found: Ambrosia, yes, Toto, no; Gary Puckett, yes, Al Jarreau, no; Seals & Crofts, but not Hall & Oates. Likely to do with the stations selected and approved for me circa 1977. This was the pop music that shaped my primordial self, before I really listened to lyrics. Before I was introduced to The Beatles, The Who. Before New Wave. Before Like a Virgin and Thriller. Before Colour By Numbers, Synchronicity, Suzanne Vega, Faith, Tracy Chapman, Vivid, Now and Zen, Control, Document, et al. This yacht-ey stuff formed the baseline soundtrack for adulting.

My top secret, ultra-private playlist currently stands at 87 songs, in no meaningful order. More will be added as I'm reminded. But that's not what this post is about. It's about what happens as the music runs.

I'm not dropped into my 10-year-old brain as expected. I don't think about waiting in the station wagon with my dad and brother for Mom to finish up with "her doctor." I'm not running around the yard dodging dog poop, not begging to stay up on Easter night to watch The Ten Commandments, or five months later the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon. I'm not making Rube-Goldbergs out of clay and Tinkertoys, practising the piano, nor wondering whether my elementary school music teacher will leave her new husband for me. No.

Instead, I'm downloaded into a younger, often thinner, less bald iteration of my adult self. My 20s and 30s, grazing the early 40s. 1988-2007. My lonely, miserable, confused, depressed, angry, childish adult years of social binge drinking, skirt chasing, periodic poverty, world-blaming, and passive-aggressive lashing out. An incel in the offing. A lost, sad, fearful, vaguely creepy, untherapized, misfit underachiever.

That man obsessed over approval and belonging, over people, mostly women, mostly old or current love interests, many unrequited. People I ached to know better, and others I wished I'd never met at all; these sets weren't mutually exclusive. But “people” was something I was terrible at, so mostly what I had to pore over were the missed chances, misread expressions, fights, breakups, confessions, disappointments, shocks, hurts, and humiliations. Angry rants, tearful apologies. Yearning. Jealousy. Theatrics. There were good memories tossed in like raisins, and relationships I would have given a toe to reignite, but even the best were poisoned with unrelenting sturm und drang. I inhabited a junk shop of moments in various states of disrepair. That house, that restaurant, that room, that highway, that town, that party, that day, that weekend, that trip, that tree, that shirt, that remark...each a precious, broken souvenir to rub featureless, or a memento to mourn over, like an urn.

Oh, the countless mistakes to erase. That tantrum because I couldn't win at Othello. That tennis racket I broke on a tree because I couldn't complete a pregame warm-up exercise. So many more outbursts of rage. The terrible things I said, and believed, of people. The unevenly knotted string of short-lived relationships. The very bad choices. That one time I drunkenly hit on a woman at a bar. And maybe one other, though it remains uncertain how much of that was invented by my pals. That time I threw up on myself at a bar. And the couple other times. And in someone's car. And out the open door of another car while it was moving. Sleeping it off in someone's den, rec room, living room floor, or porch. All those jokes about me and Red Death. All those invitations that dried up. All those hours driving drunk home alone from some dive or microbrewery, sometimes more than an hour at a time, through fog or snow on winding, hilly, country roads, sometimes on the interstate. That time one of my best friends wrote me off permanently because my drunkenness ruined her anniversary.

It goes on. It got worse. There are things I'll simply never admit to aloud, that I try not to think about even today. Maybe a few I was too blitzed to retain. Apologies I wouldn't have the balls to make even if the opportunities magically arose. Apologies would seem futile, anyway.

I trashed the first half of my adulthood, wrecked it and left wreckage behind. I had bailed out of school, kept a shitty job, was estranged from my family (which is, in truth, the highlight of those years), moved every 9-12 months, saved no money, totalled two cars, thought about nothing but trying to be happy and loved, but proved utterly incapable of making decisions or behaving in a way that would get me there. Others of similar age and academic achievement, folks who had escaped my orbit, were earning doctorates, winning Emmys, writing for newspapers, having kids, putting out records, touring Europe, teaching, filing for patents, owning businesses. I was waking up in a crust of my own exuding on a secondhand sofa in a trailer at the back of a Mennonite dairy farm wondering how I could get into the heart and pants of that new outbound sales rep at the office. Spoiler alert...

Compared to some folks - folks on the news, say - my escapades were tame, dare I say trivial. I never struck anyone. I never stole, broke into anything or any place, set anything ablaze, tried to hurt or end myself, lost a mortgage at the track, nor did anything criminal beyond speeding and habitual drunk driving, though the latter is obviously horrible and it's outrageous I wasn't caught sooner. I didn't do drugs harder than mixed drinks. I never disappeared down the oubliettes of violence, jail, addiction, disease, homelessness, any of that. These garbage years aren't the stuff of television movies. They aren't tragic, just pathetic. Sad and stupid, in the "wow, wasn't he third in his class?" sort of way. In the cautionary-ancillary-character-tale-in-a-movie-about-recovering-alcoholics way, and the she-always-dated-these-sorts-of-losers-until-she-learned-to-value-herself way. In the grow-the-hell-up-already way.

Undiagnosed, unmedicated depression, abyssal self-esteem, and childhood and anger issues are the eleven herbs and spices here, my friend. Which is no excuse, just the explanation. Others faced down their emotional problems; I celebrated mine, wooed them, got them shitfaced, fucked them in the dark and promised I'd never, ever leave. I raged and pitied myself, then patted my back for my endurance, my righteousness. I absorbed my faults. I dared anyone to take them from me. The Venom to my Eddie Brock. Take me or leave me. But please take me. No, leave me. Better yet, leave, but wish you could take me. You know, the way I do you. Isn't it better that way, us always longing and hurting and never needing to work at it and still not closing the door all the way? Nevermind, you just don't understand.

But, weirdly, Rob-boy's Complaint is also not what this post is about. Not exactly. It's true, merely contextual. It leads to the bit about a habit I got into amid it all, because of it all. A hobby of sorts. A balm.

I drove. Sober, I mean.

From 1991 through late 1999, I lived either with crummy roommates in decent places or alone in isolated rural shitholes at the top of my meagre price range. Going "home" after work wasn't a pleasant notion. So most every evening I would leave my 9-5 and drive for 4-6 hours, mostly over southeastern PA: Delaware, Chester, Montgomery, Bucks, Lehigh, Berks, Lancaster, Lebanon, York, and Dauphin counties. Delaware State as far as Middletown; later, as far as Milford. When I had to visit NJ for some legitimate reason, I'd come back the long way, covering four or five counties there. One Saturday afternoon, I went out for Burger King drive-thru, and on impulse didn't come back until Sunday night, after zig-zagging around PA, and avoiding toll roads. The town of Susquehanna, near the NY border; Clarion; Altoona; Lockhaven; Three Mile Island; York; Mount Hope; New Hope; Millersville. All associated with heartbreak of one kind or other, with grudges, missteps, regret, and longing. Later, after an LTR with a woman in MD, I added Harford, Cecil, and Baltimore counties to my routes. The backdrops of mental movies where I relived, redressed, and re-imagined things as they "should" have been.

Driving became a second job, something to do alone instead of playing a game or watching TV. A bizarre form of stalking, or maybe more like haunting, akin to going to see the house you grew up in though it had changed hands four times since. The people on my mind weren't even around anymore as far as I knew. I wouldn't stop anywhere, circle a block, or even slow down, linger, or necessarily get within a mile of a particular spot. Sometimes I didn't even know a particular spot. Just moving through the landscape was enough. Ah, Lititz, where so-and-so-I-crushed-on worked part time at the General Sutter Inn during her senior year, before I knew her. Next up, Manheim, and that diner a few of us went to on our way to the PA Ren Faire that one summer, that trip where I was the fifth wheel who wouldn't be dislodged. French Creek, a really good camping trip with friends who were friends no longer, noting drunkenness above. Other nights I'd just go pass places I once got falling down drunk while pining for or, hilariously, trying to impress someone - the Reading airport's wings joint, Shillington, Quarryville, Jennersville, Collegeville, Perkasie. Good times, good times.

Sometimes it was, in fact, good, if bittersweet. One Christmas Day, spent alone, I wanted to see snow. I lived in Cochranville at the time, and had to go as far as State College to spy small white patches in some scrubby copse off 322. The radio stations played goofy music. The skies were grey, but the air dry. The roads were almost empty. In truth I felt some measure of contentedness, and decided I'd found a new tradition - snow on Christmas, always. I haven't spent one alone since, which is good news, though I do feel I let my new tradition down, like returning an adopted puppy.

The driving wasn't therapy, but it was treatment. A controlled space, alone, anonymous, answering to no one, no need to explain or feel guilty for the wallowing. The focus needed for driving prevented a complete inward turn. Some days it was entirely pleasant. Little different from sitting home drinking, but different enough. Funny, I never got into that; all my drinking was social. But these long sober drives were good. Soothing. Somehow a bit less lonely than the four walls waiting at the end. As I said, a balm.

Though the MD LTR added territory, it also reduced my time (not the desire) for driving while the LTR was on. And it helped get me a little better at relationships upon my return to PA (this boast would surprise or amuse some folks I knew around this time; the relationships lasted longer, anyway, and didn't explode the way they used to, so that was a step, yes?). This homecoming was not long after 9-11, so things were weird “out there” on the road, in the country. Gas prices rose, and my job got more demanding. I also earned more, so my home wasn't so much a shithole. With less opportunity and reason to spend the money, the driving tapered off. Once a week, a month, a season. I started therapy in earnest in 2007, in the dusk of yet another failing LTR. By 2008 the impulse for drive-time had dulled. Single again, I returned to social drinking. And, at last, a long overdue DUI.

And we're finally getting closer to what this post is truly supposed be about, and what that playlist really evokes.

By the fourth or fifth song, I'm getting nostalgic for the road. By the tenth, I'm fighting the urge to open Google maps. Then I succumb. By the 20th, I'm sad in that old familiar way, and very - I'd wager "too" - comfortable with it. As the songs roll, I'm revisiting the self that was already sentimentally revisiting this music at his highest and lowest, at his most naive and self-delusional. I'm 30, 35, in the car on Rte 23, somewhere between Phoenixville and Marietta. I'm a passenger in that safe place where I can just think what I want and feel like shit and don't have to justify it and no one's bothered and there are no consequences.

I'm reminiscing about reminiscing. (Inception!)

Meanwhile, my partner of ten years is in another room unaware that I'm sport shooting my own aorta, and that the engraving on the Mauser's barrel reads, "PLAY ALL." Thankfully, my little wormhole, my Einstein-Rosen binge, collapses quickly once the music's off and I'm back in her presence. And I don't indulge this often. I can quit any time I want!

An exceptionally dumb part of this dark nostalgia for darker nostalgia is that none of this music was even playing while I was on the road. I had a few Paul Simon, Sting, and Tori Amos tapes on heavy rotation. I'd tune to alternative or college stations. One of these drives is when I first heard Nine Inch Nails ("Closer," and I lol'd the whole way through it). Worse, most of these playlist songs have nothing to do with the original memories or events. I never made out with anyone to Climax Blues Band or Roberta Flack, but that's what I wanted on the radio as I breezed through Shamokin.

These songs would play in my head because I grew up associating them with the sorts of experiences I was reliving. Leo Sayer's 1977 "When I Need You" was not to be heard when I fell for so-and-so in 1988. Yet, even though I was into Billy Joel and Bonnie Raitt at the time, and she was into Violent Femmes and Les Miserables, and she could barely stand me and we never got close to going out, and I dated other people, and she stopped speaking to me in 1991, conjuring an imagined relationship from West Chester in 1988 while driving past Schwenksville in 1997 with Ben Folds on the radio, what I heard was Sayer. The sound of the generation before me is the sound of my adult feelings filtered through my childhood and adolescence - the soundtrack I always thought should have been there. Not sure that makes a whole lot of sense as written, or at all, but there you go.

This is my island playlist from that time I was stranded on a large but isolated mass of volcanic moody badness. It took years, but I built a raft and caught a trade wind. I don't want to go back. But, in fact, secretly, sometimes I do. That was Home for a long-ass time. I remember every leaf and stone. Sometimes being miserable in an old way is attractive. Sometimes the familiarity, the certainty, beckons. A flyover is enough. Well, maybe stop for a bit, lunch on the beach. That's okay, right? Wasn't this the premise of Rescue from Gilligan's Island?

That's the depression speaking, of course. I know that. It's one thing to reflect, another to revert.

And that brings us to the catch. I'm not that guy anymore. I remain absurdly sentimental, and my depression is genetic, neurochemical, and therefore always skulking about somewhere, a stowaway stealing from the galley. (My raft had a galley. So sue me.) Still, I'm not him. Therapy, experience, perspective, a different class of social circle, all have done their jobs. I can't always fix my mood, but I can parse it. Now when I think about so-and-so A, or so-and-so's B through Double-Zed, or this-and-that, when I drive these roads in my mind, my longing isn't for old flames, but for resolution.

I want to wipe the slate. I'm over the heartaches, but not the embarrassment, the guilt of being a bad guy, the shame of being disdained or regretted. It sits in me, sometimes a stone, sometimes an acid stomach. I get sad that so-and-so's are left with that soiled image. I want them to remember me differently, to know that I made it off the island. It's not about connection anymore, it's about redemption, pride. That's better, yes?

Now the most maudlin part. I think. Hard to be sure after all this.

The ragged, seeping exit wound is the therapized now-me's realization that: these people don't think about me at all. We haven't seen one another in 10+ years? 20? 30? I was irrelevant to some even then, I know that now. All this emotional labour and mire isn't for naught just because reconciliation is impossible, but because I'm alone in wanting it. For all the scars I imagine I left, or the stupid humiliations from which I may never recover, I'm a blip to folks on the other side. Would so-and-so remember me smashing that tennis racket? Sure. Does she ever think about it, wonder what happened to that guy? Nope - why on earth would she be holding onto that? Does so-and-so recall cutting me out of her life after my drunken stupidity? Certainly. Does she think about it when driving past the old office we shared? Why - we've been strangers five or six times longer than we were friends. Does so-and-so regret knowing me? Her, definitely. How often? Best guess: next to never. Does anyone have a laugh over me failing to finish "Danny Boy" one sodden night at the Epicurean? Magic 8-Ball's sources say no.

Maybe the final hurdle in therapy is acceptance: that I could have done better, that apologies are all anyone can give or expect, that not all bridges can or should be rebuilt, and that some things will never be fixed or fixable. And especially that I simply wasn't the fixture in people's lives that they were in mine. If I ever get back to therapy, this/these will be at the top of my legal pad.

And after? Perhaps the greatest questions would remain: with acceptance achieved, what will come of this playlist? Would I ever again feel the impulse to drive through Leola or see the Reading pagoda? Will I get maudlin to Bread or Paul Davis?

One thing's for sure: you can pry the Carpenters from my cold, dead, tear-stained hands.

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5/30 '20 5 Comments
I love you, man.

that's an outstanding piece of writing and filled in a lot of backstory on a guy that I feel really lucky to have known for the past...how long? decade?

I feel like I'd have liked the person you were in those earlier incarnations if we had known each other back then, but I'm happy for both of us that we are and have been the people that we are now and have been for a while.

also, if this isn't in your collection, I think it deserves to be:
https://youtu.be/SZgIk2b68gQ
CM Adams 6/2 '20
That's very kind, and I love you like a dude I don't know well enough. I believe we met in 2004, on a night out with JK - karaoke, pool, drankin'. And there are reasons beyond raw, imperfect Rob-JK compatibility on why you didn't see much after that. A work in progress, but 2007-2010 was transformative in the best possible way.
Rob 6/2 '20
“But I feel much better now!”
Michele Grant 5/30 '20
Rob 5/30 '20edited
That was a beautiful read.
Karen Kuhl 8/29 '20
 

My local writers' guild has opened this year's Mentorship Program for Emerging Writers, for "members in good standing with a substantial work-in-progress in any genre." The program is free, but limited to a handful of participants. The first round of panel evaluation is ten pages of the manuscript, due mid-August. I've polished the first ten of my Chapter One, and sent it to some folks for feedback. Now I'm anxious. Approaching "clutched." Not many people see my work, fewer still when it's "in progress."

A second evaluation round may call for the remainder of the work. I have about 40k uneven first draft words toward what I expect is a 90k novel, and there's no way I can finish it by the end of August (when selected apprentices will be notified or additional materials requested). Still, I understand a couple folks got in last year with fewer, one with only 12k done. I'll be shoring up those 40k and reworking my outline (it needs help). But I'm already biting my nails, and haven't even officially submitted my application.

It doesn't help that I'm writing genre fiction: a superhero memoir. (Three things in which I have no direct prior experience - writing a novel, writing a memoir, and being a superhero.) I'm hoping the panel can find value in such a superficially silly opus. I'm aiming for seriocomic semi-literary meditative action, whatever the hell that is.

I'm already months past my self-imposed deadline for the first draft. This "block" is complicated, but largely a case of "I need a map." I have a programmer's brain; I code to spec, architect to solve a specific problem or meet a specific need. Give me a problem, I'll work it. Tell me what should appear in a paragraph, a line of dialogue, a scene, I'll write it. But crafting a novel is both the code (the prose) AND the spec (the story, characters, et al). Turns out, I'm not very good at "story." (Or probably quibbling things like characterization, pacing, dialogue, etc.)

I spent a lot of 2017 and 2018 diving into theories of narrative structure, from the good-ol' Hero's Journey (and its derivatives) through Shawn Coyne's Story Grid to John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, and pretty much everything between and adjacent.  Thing is, I've been framing this novel as a memoir, where such forms and formulae start to break down. My research into memoir, fictional or otherwise, hasn't been effective or revealing. I don't want to write formulaic hack shit (looking at you, Dan Brown), but dammit, maybe that's what I need to do to get moving? Ugh.

A degree program has crossed my mind. The local university offers an MFA, and on the (comparatively) cheap side for provincial residents. I'd hope such a program would sharpen my critical/analytical skills, help hone prose technique, and give feedback in the form of student and teacher reviews of submitted work. But will it? Can it?

So this mentorship program may be the ticket. It's only five months, it's free, it's personalized. Maybe it'd be enough to finish this thing, maybe enough to learn how to do the next one. If nothing else, maybe it would indicate whether an MFA would be worthwhile.

But if I don't get in or it doesn't really work for me, well... Hell. The whole "writing" thing may be on the table here. Guess I could always get back into coding. Become the stevedore I never always wanted to be. Say "good morning" to shoppers at a Mega-Lo-Mart.

It doesn't help that I'm such a snob about prose, especially mine. This is my other big "block." First drafts suck monster moosecock. Writing one is like practicing the piano, something else I could never stand long enough to benefit from. It's just constant failure until it's not. Practice sucks. Failure sucks. Not being good enough to do something well sucks. I want to write crystalline, erudite, heart-spearing prose to make the angels weep and the scholars delve and the poets green and all humans say, "yes, yes - perfection." You know, like no one ever has, ever.

I turn my nose up at so much stuff out there because it's not "smart" enough, not "literary." Bear in mind I read SF/F almost exclusively, so the stable is already small. Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Minister Faust, N. K. Jemison, Steven Erickson, even Clive Barker...yes. But I don't even like GRRM's prose enough to read GoT, let alone Anne Rice or S. King or literally most genre authors. I know I'm missing out on some great storytelling. I know I should suck it up and learn from what they obviously do so well, but...grrrrrrrrrr.

This bit crossed my path while writing this very post, from a free ebook offer - here's the description on Amazon:

A black-ops agency discovers hieroglyph-covered pyramids on Jupiter's moon Callisto. The government forcibly taps rebel archeologist Kaden Jaxx with only two instructions: 1) decode the ancient writings and 2) keep his overactive mouth shut...or else. But what if the writing spells out an ancient prophecy for Earth’s doom?

Seriously? "Rebel archaeologist?" "Kaden Jaxx?" Black ops on a moon? It's like Stargate fan-fic for a high school assignment. The name's even better. I mean worse. No, I won't share it here.

But you'll notice: that's on Amazon.

I'm not.

So who's the real tool here?

Maybe the mentorship program can teach me to get off my high horse long enough to write the fucking thing. I can always fix it later, right?

Right?


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7/30 '19 3 Comments
Bash It Out Now; Tart It Up Later
Robert Bryan 7/31 '19
As a tart, I approve this message.
seriously:
it sounds like you have impostor syndrome, which means you're treading new ground, which means you're doing this right.