(This is dedicated to Stephen Gill for some reason. He will know the reason. The numbers in parenthesis are there to indicate that there's more information about whatever the number is after in the Appendixitis! located after the entry. My advice is to read the stuff after reading the blog entry, and then go north and south with it.)
“Swami: We were speaking of belief; beliefs and conditioning. All belief possibly could be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus, the study of history is simply the study of one system of beliefs deposing another, and so on and so on and so on... A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, the conscious and subconscious, is unable to discern between the real, and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference, and most of us believe there is.
Am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To allow the unknown to occur and to occur, requires clarity. And where there is clarity there is no choice. And where there is choice, there is misery. But then, why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak, since I know nothing?
Sonny Liston: How’s about some more steam?”
-- quoted from the movie Head, featuring The Monkees (1).
Try as I might, I cannot let things go. I am cursed by memory – an inability to forget most anything, except that stuff that is relevant to day-to-day activities. For example, I can remember with great clarity the food I ate at a restaurant in Pueblo, Colorado when I was about 11 years old, but have trouble remembering if I told my wife who called last night (2).
There’s a lot of bad stuff to go with a memory like mine, but there’s also some pretty good ones. Take “The Moment”, which took place on the Wednesday afternoon of a trip I took to Calgary, which involved driving some-odd 300 miles north from Glacier National Park, which had, the day before, seen another 300 mile drive, from Yellowstone National Park to Glacier. All of this was part of a trip I took during the middle of July between my undergraduate and graduate years at OU.
I came up with the idea of flying up to Yellowstone as I headed towards my graduation from OU with mighty Bachelor’s Degrees in mighty useless degree programs. Which ones? Well, I can tell you the history of film, and the history of America in the same breath, and will starve to death trying to do so. I was going to begin OU’s English graduate degree program the next Fall, and would be teaching as part of my studies -- you know, First-Year Comp 1 and 2 -- and some film classes, since I was also going to work as the sole grad. student in the FVS department. At one point, I figured I was teaching over 300 students, and all with a collection of sweater vests to rival even the most stereotypical Harold’s-shopping professor. I’m sure I was an imposing sight – long hair done up in a professorial pony tail, sweater vest flapping in the breeze – but the kids seemed to dig me, so myeah.
Intimidated by the prospect of starting a degree program someone had basically blackmailed the department into letting me join (don’t ask), and not sure whether or not I could actually, well, teach, I wanted some time to get away from everything and everyone. Why not head to one of the most-visited national parks at the height of the season? I knew that I’d probably never have a chance to do this sort of trip again in my life, so I got my plane ticket, paid for two nights in a hotel room in Gardiner, Montana (one of the most serene and beautiful places on this planet), and reserved my rental car. It was when I got to the hotel room that I hatched my scheme to drive north to Calgary.
Rental cars from the Billings airport (think Wiley Post Airport (3), only older) have a limit of 1500 miles on them, and then it’s 25 cents a mile over it. I was flush with cash and credit, so I figured a 600 mile round trip to and beyond the Canadian border would ultimately only add about 100 bucks to the price of the car. I got out the road maps and started planning. Why Calgary? Good question. Probably because it seemed distant enough to be a “journey”, as opposed to just a trip, and I figured the scenery alone would be worth it. I figured that this part of Canada=Mountains, just like Montana. I knew nothing about the city itself, and assumed it was about the size of Tulsa. Oh, so wrong. So very wrong.
Tuesday afternoon of the trip, after a drive that seemed to include nothing but wheat fields, wheat fields, and more wheat fields, I hit city. There was some sort of major event going on, so I wound up having to look for a motel with vacancies and had to decide between a Holiday Inn for about 100 Canadian dollars a night, or an Econolodge for about 40. I chose the Econolodge to save some Canadian cash, and immediately regretted it when I found that to get to the bathroom, you had to climb over the bed. Awesome.
Calgary also turned out to have a population of about a million – nowhere near the large frontier city I’d thought it would be. I was alone in a city the size of Dallas, and had no idea what to do. I decided to do what I usually do in big cities, find the local university and sample the college life of Calgary. As some form of protest, except for breakfast Wednesday morning at the Canadian equivalent of a Grandy’s, I ate nothing but sushi the entire time I was there.
So the big-city trip turned out to be a bust. I drove around a lot, hit some local record stores, and went to the James Joyce Irish Pub, where I had an authentically poured Guinness. For those not in the know, this means it takes somewhere between two and three hours to fill the glass, and the thing has to be room temperature. You’re basically drinking bread. The only other plan I had for the two days I was going to be there was to hit a couple of hobby shops. I like hobby shops. They remind me of when I was a kid, and I used to assemble model kits. They also remind me of when I was a Doctor Who fan. Which is always.
By noon of the first day, I had decided to swallow the second night at the “motel” and head back down to Montana, probably to Great Falls to spend the night. Calgary meant nothing to me but a long drive wasted. The last hobby shop on my list was, nicely enough, supposed to be right off of the road that would take me out of town. I checked the address again, and headed towards the north side of Calgary, where it was located. As I kept heading norther and norther, I started getting worried. Had I gone the wrong way? The street numbers seemed correct, but I was beginning to worry that the shop was located even further north, possibly in Edmonton (that’s a Canada joke! Ha ha, eh!). Up ahead, a mall was becoming visible. Discouragement mounted. Imagine thinking you’re headed towards a nice, Nichols Hills-esque neighborhood, and you suddenly find yourself at Heritage Park Mall (4)(that’s a Midwest City/Del City joke! Ha, ha, fuckers!). I pulled in the parking lot, and it matched the address. Shit.
Fortunately, the shop was located directly inside the doors, so I didn’t have to worry about crossing the food court, with what I imagined were the rich combined smells of Poutine and back bacon (another Canada joke! Sorry, eh.). The shop itself kicked ass. They’d spent some money on decorations, and had an awesome tunnel instead of a doorway, which turned around and around slowly, like a Time Tunnel. It was more collector’s toy shop than actual hobby shop, and I was able to fulfill both childhood and adult fantasies by looking at sci-fi model kits and eventually purchasing an import K-9 action figure, which means nothing if you’ve never seen an episode of Doctor Who, and even less if I tell you it was one of those crappy Dapol toys (5). Never take’em out of the box, and don’t look too close, or you might see some resemblance to what the action figure is supposed to represent. The K-9 toy was cool, though – hard to mess that one up – and I felt like it was worth the long drive north. Not the whole damned drive into the wheat fields of Canada, mind you, just the long journey into the northern part of Calgary, where the wild things aren’t.
So, shop trip accomplished, I got back in the rental car (bumped up two levels for free, by the way, because the rental place didn’t have the type of car I’d reserved or the next level up, the first of many awesome surprises on the trip), and got ready to head for The America. In full, sort-of-but-not-kind-of ironic fashion, I had to head north out of the parking lot, and north again to make a U-turn. The left-turn light was red when I got to it. Turn signal clicking, 100-minute Maxell cassette tape of Americana music blaring (let’s make it Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road” for extra effect (7)), I sat there. And then I had The Moment.
Your brain thinks fast – the speed of electricity. This allows you to make a hundred decisions and revisions in less than a second -- a fantastic development that lets you think of something, decide to fully invest yourself in it, and then out of it, so The Moment really only lasted about three or four seconds, but seemed, as the cliché goes, much longer: possibly even longer in Canadian seconds.
I was about to turn south. In a literal sense, that meant that my vacation was half over. I had hit the crappy point in every vacation, when the journey itself is over and the trip home has to begin. I had to be at the Billings airport by 3:30 Friday afternoon for a 5:00 flight out. Yes, an hour and a half before the flight. I was not worried about traffic or overcrowding -- I always get to the airport early so I can get a great seat in the line for the plane. And to eat at the airport diner. I love airport diners. The trip had, aside from the trip to Calgary – and let me point out that Calgary is one of the cleanest, prettiest, friendliest cities I’ve ever been to, and all this bad talk is simply because it wasn’t what I expected – been extraordinary. The weather was perfect, people were not everywhere, and Montana had NO SPEED LIMIT at the time. If you ever have the chance to drive a car at 100 miles per hour legally, take it. The trip was everything I needed, and more so. But now it was time to head towards the endgame portion. I was a few hundred miles from the Billings airport. After a 70 kilometer-an-hour drive south through Alberta, I could again hit 80-90 miles an hour, getting passed only by people much sturdier than I and state troopers, who are by definition much sturdier than I. I could be in Great Falls by around 9PM, MST., then Billings the next morning. The people running the Econolodge would never know I’d skipped out the second night. Nor would they care, since I’d already paid for it.
Metaphorically, the u-turn meant something bigger, as metaphors always do. I was about to turn a corner in my life, and start a graduate degree program, a new job, and…well, there was something else going on at the time, which I’ll get to when the postcards are mailed, somewhere down south of here. In those 2-3 seconds, I felt the full impact of the huge change in my life that was about to happen. And I also knew one other thing: I was the furthest north I would probably ever be in my lifetime, and I was about to turn south. So I took The Moment.
I looked in the rearview mirror, saw that no one was behind me, and let the light turn green and then red again, still sitting there. I looked down at my little K-9 “action” figure, and remembered when I was a kid and staying up late on Saturday nights was the greatest thing for me. Doctor Who has been a part of my life for so long, I sometimes refer to my life as pre-“The Ark in Space”, and post-“The Ark in Space” (8). About 30 seconds later, the light turned green, there were now a couple of cars behind me, and I turned south, “homeward bound.” Next stop, adulthood -- fucking adulthood. And I was only in my early 30’s.
I’d purchased two postcards from a random gift shop Wednesday morning, and now I needed to mail them. First, though, I wanted to get the hell out of the city, and back to the frontier. It took about 30 minutes to drive all the way south through the city, and I eventually left the non-wilds of Calgary for the strangely familiar wheat fields of Canada. I grew up in Yukon, Oklahoma, where the old flour mills still stand. At one point, they even paid a crapload of money to relight the old “Yukon’s Best” flour mill sign, which glows like a multi-colored beacon in the night (9), attracting Martian spaceships who arrived at the actually pretty decrepit flour mills and left disappointed that they would not be able to make their delicious Martian pies. In a rage, they strafed El Reno. Or maybe it just looks that way. Maybe that was another reason to be disappointed with this part of the trip – it was too much like my old hometown, if it suddenly gained about a million people.
I hit some town about 20 minutes south of Calgary and mailed the two postcards – one to the now-named Sarah Mauldin, then Sarah Cooper, one of the 36 Tzaddikim (10). The other was mailed to my now wife, who was going to be married in a few months. Not to me. Yes, my wife is a divorcee. She was a fiancé at the time, and not mine. That’s what I was talking about somewhere up north in the story. Once I mailed them, with enough stamps to get them to the dwarf planet Pluto, I kept going.
I stopped to take a break in some small town right across the border from the U.S., mainly to stretch my legs, but also to take in the scenery again – wheat fields and flour mills, just like my hometown, except for the life-sized T. Rex statue they’d somehow/some reason put in the town park. Roar. With tiny useless arms.
The border crossing was uneventful. Unlike the trip over the border, this was very much like a drive-thru bank lane (pre 9-11, of course). I was asked one question:
“Do you have any Beanie Babies?”
The guard sighed. He’d gotten this response before, and was obviously embarrassed at the fact that instead of asking me if I had any guns or weapons-grade Plutonium, he’d been forced to ask me if I had any Canadian-only Beanie Babies (11) that were being smuggled across the border to be sold for dozens of dollars on the American Beanie Baby black market.
“No, sir,” I answered, as seriously as I could, to try and give him the respect he deserved – a man with a loaded gun and a badge asking me about some goddamned Beanie Babies.
“Have a good day, and a safe trip.”
I drove on.
The sun started to set. I was feeling lonely for the first time in the trip. The flat lands of Canada had given way to the more hilly parts of northern Montana, the sun was setting, and I kept pulling the car over to take pictures of the incredibly beautiful waves of golden light as the sun slowly sank between two hills, framed perfectly by them. The picture are amazing, except for the fact that I forgot to turn the damned date stamp off, and so the date is permanently etched on the photographs: July 22nd, 1998. Two days before the release of Saving Private Ryan (I had to kill some time in Billings that Friday morning).
Through a series of events, I wound up staying the night at a Best Western in downtown Great Falls, a hotel that had probably been the hippest place imaginable in 1964, but hadn’t changed a bit since then, and was now into full blown kitsch phase. It was surprisingly cheap for a downtown hotel, and may not have changed the rates since ’64. I checked in around 8:30, ate at a local diner where Leonard Nimoy had shot a movie (12), and then decided to hit the hotel bar before settling down in my room for the night.
The bar hadn’t aged, either. It was still 60’s-Camelot-era Tahitian Tiki style, grass skirting and mood indigo lighting, painted tropical island motifs on the walls, and was having a special on Blue Hawaii’s (13). I walked in and immediately smiled. The place was awesome. It had obviously gone from stylish to dated to kitsch to special local attraction for hip twenty-somethings over the course of 30-plus years. In a darkened corner, a group of probable college students had camped out, drinking fruity drinks from huge glasses with little umbrellas while wearing Hawaiian shirts (in Montana, mind you) and wearing leis. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a special. The bartender, an older gentleman, the kind you’d expect to see in a BAR somewhere in New York City, where they kick your ass if you order anything that isn’t clear and painful to drink, served me my fluorescent blue drink, two umbrellas for décor, and took my ridiculously large tip, probably embarrassed by the Hawaiian shirt he was forced to wear. Again, I was flush – for the last time in my life.
My mood continued to lighten as the entertainment started back up. I turned towards the sound of a piano and stopped at the huge window that was obviously set into the side of the hotel’s swimming pool: pure 1960’s. No one was swimming, but you knew that during the day you would see people swimming by the window and peering in towards the glowing blue drinks. I assume that any potential night swimmer would use the drinks in the bar as lights to swim by.
I continued my turn and stopped at the entertainment. Sitting in front of a piano – not a grand piano, but the kind you find in grade school vocal classrooms all across America – was a woman, probably in her early 80’s, peering down through her reading glasses at the songbook propped up on the piano in front of her. To her right was the coolest looking Casio keyboard ever. I knew that at some point in the evening, she would eventually resemble Keith Emerson (14) or Tori Amos, straddling the gap between the two keyboards, and playing both at the same time. It took a while for me to recognize the song she was playing: “I’ve Heard That Song Before”, by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn. She did not sing, but simply played the melody.
As she played, one of the college students walked up to the piano, put a couple of dollars in her tip glass – the same as the neon drinks were served in – and made a request. He walked off, happy as could be, and she finished the song. She pulled out a stack of songbooks, found his song, and started singing and playing: “Margaritaville”.
It was obvious she didn’t know the song, and was sight reading it, barely hitting the melody and just sort of speak-singing it, playing the chords and bobbing her head. The college kids thought it was awesome, and clapped and hollered. You know what? It was awesome. I spent an hour in the bar, listening to her fake her way through a couple of songs by The Beatles, which eventually required the Tori Amos straddle I predicted, and a bunch of old standards. I put a five in her glass and requested a song that reminded me of the love of my life, who loved me as much, but was going to marry someone else: Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”. She knew this one (15).
Glowing drink in hand, big grin on my face, I listened to her as she sang a song she seemed to actually like and I finished up. When she finished, I thanked her again and told her she was easily the greatest lounge act I’d even seen in my life, and I wished I lived in the town so I could come see her as often as possible. She thanked me and took a cigarette break.
I went back to my room and walked in. The room itself was also straight out of the Camelot-era, with big colored buttons to control everything set in a shiny steel panel next to the bed. Most of them even worked. I pushed on one and it smushed in with a loud “CLICK”, turning out the light by the door. They were not labeled. I eventually found the “TV ON” button and smushed it down with another “CLICK”. I got ready for bed as the sound of Headline News filled the room. The Moment was several hours old, and I still dwelled on it, but the hotel, bar, and entertainer had lightened the mood considerably.
I’d get to the airport Friday afternoon and my flight out would be delayed for three hours while they scooted air traffic around to avoid the runways, which were being re-tarmacked. I missed my connecting flight out of Salt Lake, and the airport had to bump me up to first-class on the first flight out Saturday morning, put me up in a bitching hotel for the night and paid for dinner. Saturday night, I would play my last-ever gig as a musician, singing at the final Prairiemen show, which would end with me still not speaking to my brother, the drummer, and not doing so for another couple of years. Never join a band with family (16).
My wife got married at the end of the year, called me at work a few months later, and then married me a few years later. How ‘bout that.
The Billings airport was still a couple of days away. Fading quickly, I smushed the button down to turn the TV off with a “CLICK”, and then smushed the button for the room’s main light.
I settled down and eventually fell asleep, Moment securely set in my memory, and neon-blue drink restless in my stomach.
I’m sure I dreamed about something.
1. Head is the infamous Monkee movie, co-written by Bob Rafelson and THE Jack Nicholson (17). Far from the kiddie film it was partially advertised as, it is actually a quite brilliant dissection of the power of celebrity in our society, the mythology of The Monkees themselves, the circularity of fate, and society's willingness to repeat history without thinking. It also contains "The Porpoise Song". The scene quoted to the north features Peter, the "dummy of the group", listening to his swami in a steam bath. Sonny Liston, who has previously knocked out Davy Jones in a dream sequence inside another dream sequence, is not impressed, and fills the room with steam, obscuring everything. Eventually, once the group is captured yet again inside the Black Box, Peter tries to teach the other three Monkees about the zen feeling of serenity that can come when one is faced with the prospect of not having any say in the matter, so why create tension in your life by fighting it, if you cannot win? This pisses Davy Jones off, he yells "That's it?!" and kicks down the fourth wall, allowing them to escape. They then try to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, only to be caught in the box again. Yup. They wrote it while extremely high. The scene is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFM4hvpyWNE
2. I have seen every extant episode of Doctor Who, and can recite some of them from memory. Behold, from "Revenge of the Cybermen":
VORUS, LEADER OF THE GUARDIANS: You have no proof of these absurd allegations.
TYRUM, LEAD COUNCILLOR OF VOGA, THE PLANET OF GOLD: Nevertheless, I believe it. Strange stories have reached my ears – your guards have never resorted to murder.
VORUS: It was a matter of internal discipline.
Later on, there’s one of the greatest lines ever written:
TYRUM: You’re insane, Vorus! You’ve brought about the destruction of our race!! (Cue Stephen Gill)
Yeah, I can go on.If you've never seen an episode of the original series of Doctor Who, this is not the one to start with. Start here: (8)
3. Yes, we all know that central Oklahoma's two major airports are named after people who died in plane crashes. Ha-frickin-ha. The airport is here: http://www.wileypostairport.com/
5. http://www.sevenzero.net/toyroom/eighties.htm The second paragraph is spot on.
6. Id. iii, verse 24.
8. http://www.bbc.co.uk/doctorwho/classic/episodeguide/arkinspace/ So let's explain the rather grand statement of life pre-Ark in Space and post-Ark in Space briefly. The first Doctor Who story I ever watched was "Robot", Tom Baker's (previously the most famous of the Doctors in America, before the new series) first story, and the first story broadcast in Oklahoma. The next story is "The Ark in Space," widely considered to be one of the best in the history of the series, and which scared me shitless as a 10-11 year-old. It also meant that, because the story scared, entertained, and enthralled me, that I would watch the series almost continuously for (my gods) 30 years. Thus, pre-Ark in Space, and post. The fact that the monster maggots in it are actually stuntmen in painted green bubble packing plastic wrap does nothing to its power. It is one of the best stories they've ever done. This was made in 1975.
9.http://www.route66photographs.com/photographs/neon_3.php A picture of the mill is about a third of the way down the page. You can even buy one there.
10. From Neil Gaiman's Sandman series:
DEATH: Did you ever hear the story of the 36 Tzaddikim? They say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints -- 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world.
which is of low quality, but Rick Moranis at 1:43 is pretty accurate.
16. If it seems like this obviously major event just got tossed in at the last minute, it’s because the reasons why, the during, and the complete pointlessness and stupidity of it all doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the fact that it ended, and Jerry and I are so much better now. Better than ever, frankly. The fact that it happened is so unimportant as compared to the outcome that it’s just not worth discussing any more than I do here.
By the way, #6 is a joke based on Eliot's The Wasteland .