Category: Personal (page 2 of 3)

We Built This Foot Up Your Ass

Assorted wiseacres on the Internet are mentioning a recent article at GQ.com telling the history of Starship’s “We Built This City,” ostensibly the most detested song in human history.

Friends, WBTC isn’t even the worst song from 1985. It’s not even the worst number one song from 1985. Take it from me: I was there.

Starship was an admittedly bizarre Frankenstein creation from the corpses of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship headlined by a Grace Slick who was surprised to have survived into the 80s. They released WBTC into the world on August 1, 1985.

In 1985, I was twelve and looked like this:

xmaspc2

Now, let’s leap into the Wayback Machine and see what else was cooking on the Billboard Hot 100 number one singles that year, shall we? Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” owned the month of January as it rightly should. “Careless Whisper” by Wham! at least brought us the suspendered saxophone man, so that’s acceptable. The week of May 18, we had “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds, unquestionably a great song. “The Power of Love,” “St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Take On Me”…that’s not a bad year. I’ve always disliked “Money for Nothing” and “Broken Wings,” but hey, I’ve heard worse since.

And there’s “We Built This City” for the weeks of November 16 and 23. Though I don’t want it played at my funeral or anything, I’ve always enjoyed WBTC somewhat mindlessly. It’s on my playlist for running even now, among a lot of other songs you hipsters would hate.

But lurking in the top singles of 1985 is the true worst song of that and every other year, the egregious insult to music for which we will all answer when alien invaders lay waste to our planet. The song, of course, is “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Foreigner, and it makes “We Built This City” sound like “Hey, Jude.”

Here it is for your listening and viewing enjoyment.

Listen carefully to that. Let it seep into your ganglia. Imagine someone trying to pick you up in a bar or lure you into his wolf-painted van by saying, “I want to know what love is and I think you can show me.” You would punch that person and never stop even when the police came to cheer you on.

I completely understand that it’s jarring to see the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane seem to sell out for a quick buck in the 80s. But let’s not forget that Grace Slick clearing her throat in a recording booth is still a thousand times better than half the poor assholes who actually meant their music. Grace Slick ordering a Happy Meal in a rickety McDonald’s drive-thru box is better than the entire Hall and Oates catalog. Grace Slick howling from stubbing her toe on a coffee table is better than “Sussudio” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or “Red Red Wine.”

“Old Time Rock and Roll”? “Stuck with You”? “Walk the Dinosaur”? For fuck’s sake, there’s a lyric in Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” that says, “I’ve seen a million faces and I’ve rocked them all.”

Bon Jovi rocked FACES in the 1980s.

If you think that “We Built This City” is the worst song of even the 80s, you either weren’t there or too hopped up on Pixy Stix to remember it.

A Real Pick-Me-Up

Someone I care about has recently been reminded that at the core, most human beings are one perceived deprivation away from crushing the skulls of anyone in their way. If you’ve been to the grocery store before a hurricane or stuck at a malfunctioning traffic light, you know this is true.

It would actually be a relief if there was evil, if perhaps something icy and conniving could creep into our spirits and make us do horrible things. Then we could call it a sickness, a syndrome, some kind of awful infliction like locusts or a storm.

But what I’ve seen throughout my life is that assholery is always the same simple equation:

A = Deprivation (real or perceived) + Opportunity + Rationalization * Mob Think

I write horror, so lots of people ask me what scares me. Here’s what scares me:

All of our belief, all of our conscience, all of our intellect can be subsumed by the ancient callings of our beastly hearts if it means even the slightest improvement to our safety or group status. When it happens, we are masters at rationalizing it as justice.

And worst of all, it’s likely to be either by accident or exigency. Much of the time we don’t even “mean” it. (I know I haven’t when I’ve been the malfeasor.)

Cosmic horror? We should be so lucky to have an uncaring and ambivalent evil like Cthulhu instead of the flailing want-monsters all around us every day.

I don’t hate people (truly). I don’t call cataclysm upon us all. I just wish people were more…attentive? Perceptive? Careful? Contemplative? I don’t know.  

I wish I could hand out little business cards that say, “Really? Is this what you’re doing with 200,000 years of consciousness?”  

How We Went Off to College in 1991

Twenty-five years ago today, I embarked on my  journey to Gainesville to start school at UF. By an interesting coincidence, my niece Katie is starting her OWN college career at UF this fall, and I’m sure my sister will take the same pictures of her in the dorms that she took of me.

It's a desk, it's a closet, it's a bed, all in one!

It’s a desk, it’s a closet, it’s a bed, all in one!

I arrived with a milk crate and maybe two boxes filled with the following:

  • The CD boom box you see here.
  • The CDs behind me, heavy in U2 and Guns N’ Roses but speckled with Journey and REO Speedwagon.
  • A giant box of 5.25” disks for my portable/luggable SX-64.
  • A thin quilt.
  • A towel.
  • Toothpaste and toothbrush.
  • A couple of portfolios to write and take notes in.
  • Some clothes, including my fancy Hypercolor t-shirt that changed color when you touched it, as was the style at the time.

Karen, realizing I was an idiot, took me out to buy a dorm refrigerator, a toaster, some eating utensils, sheets for the bed, and some food. If I’d chosen to go to any other school, I’d probably have died.

(Insanely, I only applied to UF because, what, they wouldn’t take me?)

It’s hard to overstate how staggeringly dumb I was at eighteen going to school, a weird mixture of feeling divinely destined to do great things but also completely ignorant of how to actually function in the world. My total savings for college from high school jobs was $150. My plan was to get an English degree, get famous from writing, and then run for President of the United States some day.

(Which, to be fair, is shockingly plausible in this election year.)

What I needed was advice from someone I believed. Karen was as helpful as a sister could be, and so was her husband Marty, but they weren’t privy to just how deranged I was.

So here’s my advice to myself back then. Maybe there’s something here for you if you or a loved one is going to school this fall, too.  

  • English, really? You’re going to take ten courses for the major and enjoy the reading for only three of them: Intro to Science Fiction, Poe, and Major Critics. There’s a reason we have to assign this shit so it doesn’t get forgotten.
  • It’s going to take about half a decade to recover from the turgid kind of writing you learn to do analyzing dead fiction.
  • You’re going to feel inspired and happy with both the lectures and reading for your History of Journalism class. Follow that feeling.
  • Take some classes in public relations and marketing. You might be surprised. It’s like making up hoaxes for money!
  • Man up and put yourself in the way of actually writing stuff. Take writing classes. Submit short stories. Don’t chicken out when The Alligator agrees to publish an op-ed and all you have to do is go down to the office and give it to them on a disk.
  • Basically all you have is a weak talent for saying and writing weird things in surprising ways, and all that crap about programming and law school and psychology is a blind alley.
  • No, you aren’t crazy. Those weird emotional fight-or-flight explosions are panic attacks. Go tell a doctor about them. In the meantime, lay off the caffeine because it’s basically liquid anxiety.
  • You’re going to discover a book called The Outsider and Others one night in Library West and it’ll be awesome, but for God’s sake, don’t write like that.
  • The moped is fucking ridiculous and it breaks down all the time because it’s made by angry Yugoslavian communists. Just keep the bike.
  • It turns out that you learn mostly by creating outlines of what you read and hear in your own words.
  • It’s probably a good idea to shut the hell up about politics for the next few years because you really don’t know what you’re talking about. In fact, keep that up the rest of your life.
  • Don’t install Doom or Wolfenstein when you get that 486 PC. You’ve finally shaken the video game habit.
  • That girl you’re in love with is a person, not a destiny.
  • There’s a lot more I can tell you, but it all basically boils down to lighten up, for Christ’s sake. Swear more. Use more contractions. Use fewer participial phrases. Read more Stephen King. Don’t be so pissy about noise and football crowds. History isn’t watching.   

Clarion, Wayward Will Part 1: On the Way

[This summer marks ten years since I attended the six-week Clarion science fiction and fantasy writing workshop, and I’m writing about some of the things I experienced and learned with the fresh perspective of a decade closer to the grave.]

It’s bizarre to imagine that ten years ago today, I departed from Washington DC for the 2006 Clarion writing workshop. Big changes were coming, though I didn’t know it then. I hoped for some and of course they arrived in strange ironic Monkey’s-Paw kind of ways.

I’d spent the week working at the Census headquarters and headed straight from there toward Michigan.

(Back in my day, that’s where we had Clarion, by God: in poorly ventilated dorms at Michigan State University. I brought my own window a/c unit.)

On the way to places that I hope will change me, I usually just drive in the general direction I’m supposed to go instead of following maps. I wound my way through DC and Maryland to Pennsylvania, and in the early afternoon, I came upon this odd sign.

"Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!"

“Come on down to my Flight 93 memorial in the basement. I got me some stuff I stole from the field!”

On 9/11, the passengers of Flight 93 saved many lives, possibly including my own. I was working near the Capitol building that day in 2001, one of the likely targets. It seemed a good opportunity to pay my respects, though the home-grown nature of the sign made me wonder if it was some guy’s makeshift memorial in a garage or something.

No, it was the field where the plane went down, and I stood there in quiet contemplation as busloads of children and Elks Lodge members came and went.

"Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we're taking them to Pennsylvania."

“Hey, your grandma made each and every one of these fucking things, so we’re taking them to Pennsylvania.”

I thought these were Mickey Mouse ears at first, some bizarre tribute from a country that thinks Walt Disney is our president, but they were wooden angels with black wings and American flag bodies. Never let it be said that our country holds back on any tacky expression of grief, and by God, when Grandma made those back home in Iowa, she meant for them to go straight to that field. Or to sell them at Cracker Barrel. 

A more meaningful memorial was the fence with mementos pinned to it.

93fence3

I lingered about an hour, watching the people and what they left behind — hats, flags, buttons, construction helmets, stuffed animals, license plates, and odd concrete tombstone-looking things on which they’d written messages.

93kid

Then I continued onward to Michigan, where things would only get weirder.

Stepfather’s Day

I’ve written a lot about my genetic father, in both fiction and non-fiction. I’m about as sick of him as all of you probably are, so I won’t waste another Father’s Day going on about how awful he was.

I want to talk about someone else instead.

In the late 80s, my mother met and married a man I didn’t like much at first.

motherlarry

After living for years with my terrifying but largely responsible father, Larry seemed dreamy and impractical and disconnected from reality — better suited to lazy afternoons watching the Sci-Fi channel or reading fantasy novels than, say, being anything approaching a husband for my mother or a father to me.

But as time went on, I discovered that his gentleness and imagination were just what my mother needed, and thinking back on it now, they were just what all the rest of us needed, too. He gave my mother years of safety and happiness, plenty of those long afternoons reading cool books and talking weird theories about the universe, and he did the same for my sister and I, too, not to mention my nieces.

He introduced me to Middle Earth. It was at his house that I first watched Star Trek: The Next Generation. He typed up my first serious story so I could submit it to magazines…when I was fourteen.

larryharry

He bore the brunt of my sullen teenage years, too, all the eye-rolling and fun-making of a person who seemed a total crackpot at the time. Larry had deeply felt spiritual beliefs that certainly weren’t like everyone else’s, and I didn’t have much respect at the time for a former hippie still keeping the faith twenty and thirty years later.

I do now, though. I admire Larry’s steadfast lifelong battle against everything practical, everything expected, everything dull and emotionless.

He won that battle a few years ago, dying with all of us around him. He seemed content, pleased to see us, and he was more than ready to go after months of having one organ after another replaced by uncomfortable machines. It was strangely appropriate, I guess, that a man almost solely of the spirit would slowly lose his body like that.

He didn’t really need it.

I don’t pray much, but when I do, I usually say, “Please let good happen. Let us recognize it when it does and endure when it doesn’t. Let us be its agents.” Larry was definitely one of its agents, and I miss him.

He helped provide space and safety for my imagination, and I’ll always be grateful. Toward the end, he couldn’t speak while on the ventilator but he could mouth words. I think he might have said he was proud of me, though it could just be my ego misinterpreting him. I hope so, and either way, I’ll do everything I can to live up to that.

I wish I’d recognized him sooner as the great father he was.

Twenty Five Years Ago Today: Dumped!

It’s hard to imagine, I know, that a seventeen-year-old with such a bright future in American letters could be cut loose from a relationship, especially one in which he’d written an epic poem called “Beowill” for his lady friend. But it happened.

It was 1991. My favorite album was U2’s Rattle and Hum, my favorite movie was Dead Poet’s Society, and my favorite television show was Twin Peaks. I owned an ancient Apple II computer that was nearly always open in a mass of improvised wires. I was a month away from graduating high school and I’d already been accepted to the University of Florida where I planned to major in English because, of course, that was the surest path to becoming a writer.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother's rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I wore that shirt a lot that summer. The baby brother’s rabbit suit? Not quite as much.

I lived with my mother, stepfather, and infant brother about nine miles outside of Arcadia, a little town in Florida’s bleak pale underbelly. Our house was surrounded by pastures and orange groves, punctuated by the occasional live oak tree leaning close to the ground, laden with Spanish moss.

Here's a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

Here’s a picture with my sister. I like how most places in Arcadia look like they could be in Jonestown.

I was dating a girl who probably doesn’t want her name publicized, and her birthday was on May 11. I was going to miss it, though, because another (admittedly female) friend had invited me at the last minute to the Florida Scholastic Press Association conference (for high school newspaper writers) going on at the same time. So I wrote a great note and left a convenience store rose in our shared locker because that’s what we did back in those days.

(I couldn’t call because my girlfriend’s phone was disconnected at the time. I couldn’t send her an email because the only people in 1991 who had access to that were nerdy college professors and the Defense Department.)

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ's sake.

This is what computers looked like back then, for Christ’s sake. I owned the one on the bottom left (TRS-80 Model 1) and the one on the far right of the middle shelf (Commodore 64), too. 

When I got back from the conference, I tried calling again in case her number had been reconnected, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it had. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked when she wanted to celebrate her birthday, but she seemed distracted and distant, telling me she wasn’t feeling well. We got off the phone pretty quickly.

Now, I’m not like this anymore, but back then, I was prone to melodramatic stunts and flamboyant emotional gestures. The thing to do, I reasoned, was to ride my bike the nine miles to town and surprise her for a belated birthday celebration.

(I had no car for a number of reasons, most of them involving the cost of insurance and my unpredictable income.)

So I saddled up and followed the treacherous two-lane highway into Arcadia on my bike. The journey took about an hour or so, but that was okay because that was the present: “Look! I risked my life to come here!”

Yeah, those aren't bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

Yeah, those aren’t bike lanes on the sides. And imagine trucks full of oranges rumbling past you, too, for the full effect.

I arrived at her house not too long before sunset. I propped my bike against a tree and knocked at the door. There was some shuffling inside and she answered, looking surprised and a little aghast, the exact responses I wanted from my romantic gesture.

(All I want in this world is for people to say, “Wow! How did he pull off that amazing stunt?” I’ll settle for, “Wow! Why would he pull off that amazing stunt?”)

She glanced into the house behind her and then back at me, but eventually she invited me in. Seated on the couch was a heavyset gentleman in a Wal-Mart uniform shirt. I nodded curtly to him and sat down. The three of us sat in silence on different pieces of furniture for about five minutes until my girlfriend finally pulled me away into her bedroom.

I'll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

I’ll admit I may have been influenced by emotion, but this is pretty much how I remember that room.

There, in a vase, was a huge display of roses she’d gotten for her birthday from the guy in the other room. At this point, I started to get an uneasy feeling that there would be a scene when we both told the guy he’d have to leave.

It took her a few tries, but finally she blurted out that yes, he’d sent her the flowers and yes, she knew him from work and yes, she liked him. I nodded, listening, not quite believing. When she stopped talking and it was just her looking at me expectantly, I realized I was the one being asked to leave.

After a nine mile bike ride.

I didn’t say anything particularly dramatic to either of them. I just mustered the little dignity I had, got on my bike, and rode away.

On the way to a friend’s house, I passed a vacant lot where I’d hung out as a kid. The county had cleared it but now it was all grown back, so I took that as a sign I’d be all right. Between that moment and “all right” was a trip to the prom with the girl who’d dumped me, but that’s a whole other story.

It was the start of a strange, dream-like summer that I wouldn’t change at all.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

It was a summer of much carpe-ing the diem.

On My Silences

I miss the blissful pre-online ignorance of not knowing what so many people think and believe. It was easier to pretend there were better ones living somewhere else in the world that way.

When I was a kid, you pretty much had to walk into a bar or a Moose Lodge to seek out so many ill-informed opinions at once on everything from car repair to macroeconomics. Now the Internet brings the bar and the Moose Lodge to me.

I used to blog (often angrily) a lot more about politics and culture, but then I had the epiphany that I really had no idea what I was talking about. And even when/if I did, the others who didn’t weren’t listening anyway.

Marketers, pollsters, and social media have convinced us all of the supreme power of opinion, of every person weighing in on every issue, mostly so we know what side they’re on and if it’s our own. Do you properly hate Donald Trump? Are you sufficiently horrified by abortion? Can we trust you to think always about the children?

The answer I see too infrequently is, “How the fuck should I know?”

Sustained and deliberate ignorance is a terrible thing. But temporary ignorance – something we might even call open-mindedness – seems just as terrifying to so many people.

It’s a fire hydrant culture where everyone feels compelled to splash a little of their scent on every issue.

So I talk less about these things, not because I don’t think about them but because I don’t see how opinions should matter much. We’re not the crowd at a football game, and “making more noise” doesn’t help much in the real world.

The disappointing truth is that despite what the websites and polls tell us, what we believe to be true has very little influence on what is actually true.

So you may never know how I’m voting in November or what I think about white supremacists on fiction awards juries or whether I’ll stop using $20 bills because Harriet Tubman is on them —  unless I can write something funny about it.

Should you stop sharing your beliefs? I’d never want to silence you. But I’ll say this:

Talking is how they distract us from doing, and never mistake a Post or Submit button for someone’s genuine interest or actual action in the world.

More on that Visit to a Children’s Mental Asylum

You know that feeling that the best achievements of your life are behind you? If the number of times I’m asked about it as anything to go by, I’m guessing that my greatest moment was climbing through a broken window at an abandoned children’s asylum.

I guess I’m okay with that.

A few people have asked me to provide some more details after yesterday’s brief entry, so here’s the story.

It starts with Joseph DeJarnette, who probably wishes you were never born.

He was the director of Staunton, Virginia’s Western State Hospital from 1905 to 1943, and in that time he performed hundreds of involuntary sterilizations of the “feebleminded,” whom I’m guessing were not in short supply only a few hours from the nation’s capital.

For DeJarnette, sterilization was less an unpleasant medical duty and more a gleeful hobby worthy of poetry:

This is the law of Mendel,

And often he makes it plain,

Defectives will breed defectives,

And the insane breed insane.

Oh why do we allow these people

To breed back to the monkey’s nest,

To increase our country’s burdens

When we should only breed the best?

 

(On the subject of “insane breed insane,” my father used to muse with a certain grudging respect about the virility of the patients at the mental hospital where HE worked, saying that “crazy sure likes to fuck.” Which did not, in fact, provoke a lightning strike of irony.)

Anyway, DeJarnette even argued to keep the United States at the forefront of eugenics:

“Germany in six years has sterilized about 80,000 of her unfit while the United States with approximately twice the population has only sterilized about 27,869 to January 1, 1938 in the past 20 years… The fact that there are 12,000,000 defectives in the US should arouse our best endeavors to push this procedure to the maximum.”

In 1932, the DeJarnette Sanitarium was named in his honor in much the same way that we now have the Richard M. Nixon School of Ethics in Government and the Reverend James Warren Jones Agricultural Seminary.

Weirdly, it was renamed in the 1960s to the DeJarnette Center for Human Development, because the word “sanitarium” was more offensive than “DeJarnette.” Then it became a children’s mental hospital in 1975 and was shut down for good in 1996.

It’s been abandoned ever since, though there have been discussions of making it into a “frontier museum” or condos or a mall of some kind. People sometimes break in and look around or vandalize the furniture and papers that are left behind.

papers

When I went inside in 2006 with Matthew Warner (and, truth be told, my now ex-wife), I didn’t feel any oppressive aura of suffering. It reminded me of most ill-kept government buildings, everything painted with thick flaking layers of pastels.

danglingfeet

If any feeling did seep into the structure, it was one of barely holding itself together — there were drawings and slogans on the wall that were meant to be “fun” in the way that earnest government employees try to manufacture fun.

super

friendly

One feature struck me as particularly interesting, the Universal Precautions Cabinet. How did I know that was what it was? Because someone labeled it, that’s why.

precautions

When I showed the pictures of DeJarnette to some of my friends from South Carolina, they shook their heads in disbelief that anybody would go into a place like that.

“Look at that shit,” said Jason. “Whatever went down in that place at the end took every fucking thing in the Universal Precautions Cabinet…and it still didn’t work.”

A few months later, I went to the Clarion writing workshop and had a bruising and demoralizing first critique of my work, a moment of deep personal doubt.

When Jason got wind of that, his advice was, “Next time you’re sitting with those people, you look around and ask yourself who there’s got the sack to go into an abandoned children’s asylum where even the Universal Precautions Cabinet didn’t help for shit.”

That helped. It still does.

And if you have doubts about the kind of person you are sometimes, you could probably do worse than remember that you’re the kind who goes places you’re not supposed to go just because you’re curious what other people did and how they felt.

It’s architectural empathy.

Though DeJarnette didn’t perform sterilizations at the center named for him (that was at Western nearby), I still wonder if any of the residents ever left that place feeling…better. Braver. More ready with their own internal Universal Precaution Cabinets.

Because I couldn’t bear if it was just me.

Ten Years Ago: Breaking into an Abandoned Asylum!

(I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on trespassing has gone by long ago.)

Ten years ago today, my buddy and fellow horror writer Matthew Warner and I decided to take a stroll around the abandoned children’s mental asylum in his town of Staunton, Virginia. I’d wanted to get some pictures of the exterior because it was a cool spooky place.

awesome

Then I happened to walk by a human-height broken window and thought, “Well, clearly I’m being invited inside.”

So I went in and Matt followed.

muralhall_1

Note the feet of hanging children.

Note the feet of hanging children.

dormeropen

handswall

mattwillgood

(There are more pictures here.)

I had a great time. We touched nothing, harmed nothing, and we respected the property and the pain of the people who once lived there. I think Matt has gone in with permission since then, but what’s the fun in that?

I know there are people who go into abandoned places for the danger and the risk of it, but I’m more interested in the stories those structures seem to absorb. I don’t have a lot of supernatural beliefs (this and the efficacy of democracy are the only two), but I do think that emotion can linger in places. And even if it doesn’t, I think it’s important sometimes to extend our empathy enough to pretend it does, to remember other people in other times.

I am not in any way advocating that you should enter a building this weekend and try to imagine the lives and feelings of the people who lived there. I’m not advocating, say, finding a bent section of fence where the police rarely go and gently stepping over. And I’m definitely not advocating that you should walk carefully through a dangerous ruin, taking no souvenirs but your own thoughts and maybe some pictures.

Stick to the living like everybody else. God knows they don’t express their every little thought often enough.

Huh. Surprised But Not THAT Surprised…

My father wasn’t the greatest man who ever lived, but it’s still a bit shocking to get this letter first thing after the new year!

bill bad news-2

Older posts Newer posts

© 2017 Will Ludwigsen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑