Monday, April 28, 2008

2007 Iowa State Fair: 13 Going on 30

(Personal Update 4/27/08: I didn't go to the burlesque show last night, but today I'm feeling more stable and secure than I've felt in a month. Given my sense of emotional security and the usual tedium of my life, I'm going to write about a day last summer. I tend to be much more interested in writing about my experiences months or, better yet, years after I've had them. There must be a word for that phenomenon. "Nostalgia." That's it.)

Last summer my mom and I went to Iowa for a weekend. My motivation was the Iowa State Fair, long a pastoral fascination of mine, along with the state itself. We stayed at the Dunn family farm (Mom's side) in central Iowa, where my grandparents used to live and for which one of my uncles is now the caretaker. It was an hour drive to Des Moines late Saturday morning. Mom would drop me off at the fair and go visit some relatives in town.

It was a scorcher and the sun was in full effect, therefore it was a deadbolt lock that Mom would insist I thoroughly cover my exposed skin with sunblock. I sullenly obliged, in that adolescent way of knowing your parents are right but detesting the humiliation of having to admit it. The fact that I was on the cusp of 30 didn't help. But let me set the scene so you'll have a full appreciation of my state of mind: There I was, a 29-year-old girlfriend-less man-child with a soul-deadening data-entry job and no car, sitting in my mom's car in a gas station parking lot in Des Moines, IA, applying sunblock while she supervised, with such nuggets as "Did you get your neck?" and "How about your legs?" And it was about 90 degrees out.

After extricating myself from that Sartrean hell, I walked between the fenced-in, packed-to-the-gills parking lots to the gate and purchased my admission. The people-watching is usually the highlight of any fair, and this day was to be no exception. Unfortunately, this had more to do with the uninspiring entertainments than the fairgoers. It was a predictable mix of strollers and nuclear families with stereotypical Middle American bellies and straining t-shirts. (It can't be healthy when a culture develops stereotypes about itself.)

I wandered through the masses with no destination in mind. Pretty soon I found myself alone at the edge of the fairgrounds. It was smaller than I remembered, which was disappointing, but I turned around and went into the art building, the one place I went every time (about 5 times) I made it to the Iowa State Fair. There were some good watercolors and charcoal sketches made by Iowans young and old, although it wasn't enough to revive my old "fair joy."

The next stop was a first for me. It was an old house that served as the fair's museum, displaying the history of the event. There were yellowed newspaper clippings, artifacts and videos with black-and-white archival footage, just the kind of things that would normally make my heart all aflutter, but I just wasn't feelin' it. One exhibit that caught my eye was a contest they used to have to determine Iowa's healthiest baby. They probably stopped that when they noticed its similarity to the cattle- and zucchini-judging.

According to Iowa State Fair: Country Comes to Town by Thomas Leslie, "Human specimens were judged alongside their animal brethren throughout the 1930s, with prizes given for healthiest babies, boys, and girls. These contests' uncomfortable echo of eugenics led to their immediate cessation after World War II." So it was the Nazis! That's interesting, as I would encounter their legacy later in the day. By the way, that excerpt accompanies a photo of an extremely "healthy" (read: not too plump, not too skinny, but not that cute) teenage girl in a one-piece swimsuit being "inspected" by a middle-aged (male, obviously) doctor wearing one of those old-timey doctor headbands with the reflective metal disc. She's smiling, though, so we know she wasn't being exploited. She's also wearing a nice watch.

From the museum I headed to a barn filled with old-fashioned technology. A crowd watched the blacksmith work in quiet admiration, seemingly amazed by his mastery of a nearly-dead skill. There was an awkward silence around the smithy, as if they wanted to ask questions but were afraid of exposing their ignorance. Exhibits of old washing machines and other household appliances stood rusting behind ropes, with no identification of their purpose or age. Maybe the exhibits were for people who already knew about that stuff or for elders to explain them to their children or grandchildren. Didn't do me much good though.

In another barn was a stage and folding chairs half filled with spectators. The entertainment was provided by guitars and singers, but I can't remember the style. Maybe bluegrass. Along the right wall towered the tallest cornstalks in Iowa. Red, white or blue ribbons marked the winning entries. Vintage iron and wooden toys lined display counters. A concession stand was selling lemonade. It seemed like the old folks and the families with young children were trying to recapture their know-your-neighbors, homemade, folk-music past, if only for an afternoon. Or maybe that was just me.

The third barn held many delights, both cute and creepy. There were children's books, toys, board games (including "Love Boat: The Game"), flea-market memorabilia (Elvis and the Beatles had their own sections side-by-side) and recreations of WW1 and WW2 tents with rifles, helmets and comic books of the eras. I examined a 1953 Allie Reynolds baseball card with amused awe. The year Reynolds, a New York Yankee, won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League, my dad was a Red Sox-loving, Yankee-hating kid from blue-collar Norwich, Connecticut visiting New York City with his dad for a Red Sox-Yankees game. They stopped by a hotel where the teams were staying and saw Reynolds. My grandfather asked my dad if he wanted the pitcher's autograph. My dad refused, because Reynolds was a Yankee, thereby thoroughly aggravating my well-intentioned grandfather.

I related this story to the vendor. He didn't seem too moved, so I moved on. The card was $60 anyway, out of my sentimental value price range. What I found next was somewhat disturbing. Arrayed across a large table were Nazi medals and armbands, a rare photo of Hitler bestowing a medal on a soldier and other Nazi mementoes for all your white-supremacist occasions. I know skinheads aren't the only ones interested in this stuff, but who in their right mind wants a souvenir of what might've been the most malevolent regime in world history? Why would you want a token of pure evil in your house? I just don't get it.

After I was done with the three barns I'd pretty much exhausted the intriguing possibilities of the fair. The video game tent was a dead end since I've had little practice on the recent generations of platforms. Even the sports titles I used to enjoy have evolved beyond my skill level, leaving me at the mercy of the teens and pre-teens who ruled the tent. The animal barns were monotonous, just rows and rows of animals standing in hay soaked with their own urine. The cow sculpted in butter was no big whoop, even with the mantequilla menagerie of Harry Potter and other current pop culture icons. As the afternoon wound down, I escaped the life-draining heat in an air-conditioned hall of living infomercials. There were whirlpools, never-dull knives and many more antidotes to modern life.

With the clock approaching five, I made my way toward the main entrance for the appointed rendezvous with Mom. En route I encountered the Iowa National Guard's collection of humvees and tanks, mixed in with the tractors and combines. Kids eagerly climbed inside the vehicles, captivated by these adult-sized toys. Throwing red paint on the war machines didn't even occur to me, which is surprising given my far left-wing politics. I was probably in the early stages of sun stroke.

After exiting through the understated main gate, I stood at the intersection and awaited the day's final indignity. The sun beat down on me for an hour as I watched my car-less compatriots get picked up or dropped off. When Mom finally showed up, she was anxiously apologetic. We had agreed to meet at "the main gate," but, for whatever reason, she assumed we'd reconnoiter at the gas station where she dropped me off. I bore some responsibility for the delay, because I'd let my cell phone battery die before she called me from the station.

I wearily waved off her apologies and asked to go "home," i.e. the farm. Despite my reddening sunburn and justifiably sour mood, she insisted on showing me a local marvel she'd just seen that day: a stone map of the U.S. laid out by the state capitol, in which each state was represented by a different-colored rock. I glanced out the window, acknowledged its existence and telepathically demanded we leave Des Moines immediately. She finally acquiesced and we began our journey home, although not until after a very long train forced us to make a detour on our way out of town.

We stopped at a nameless family restaurant in Ames for dinner. As I dismally tucked into a bland, Perkins-esque breakfast-for-dinner, the kind of meal that delighted me as a kid, Mom held up her end of a lopsided conversation. I sulked quietly, believing that virtually any other companion would've made the day salvageable. It was as if nothing had changed since I turned 13. I was still keeping silent guard over a king's ransom of resentment, and she was still trying to make polite conversation rather than acknowledge the 16-year-old wall between us. I should've known my ability to enjoy life wouldn't return until I grew out of this extended adolescence. But that knowledge still had a ways to go on the long journey from my head to my heart.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Putting It All on the Line

I see it's been two weeks since my last post, and two weeks passed between that post and the previous one. My emotional state is beginning to stabilize. I filled out a job application at Galactic Pizza yesterday. I wasn't even nervous about it, which is odd. After a month of being unemployed, I thought I'd be wary of re-entering the workforce, considering the insomnia I had the night before my last day at ING.

Last night I didn't get to sleep til after 3 am and didn't get up til after noon. I shouldn't've had that much trouble since I woke up at 11 yesterday thanks to my alarm. That was the first time I'd used my alarm just to make sure I'd get up before noon. Traditionally, during my periods of unemployment in Chicago, I'd sleep in later and later, but only for 8 hours a night. Now I'm sleeping almost 10 hours a night, although I had been able to get up before noon, until today.

I'm not sure how my body will react to re-employment. I've had some anxiety, since I quit my job, when I had a morning engagement. It's like my body didn't think these engagements were what I should be doing, like I was moving in the wrong direction. Actually, the only morning engagement I can think of was riding along with Noah for his Lasik consultation. It turned out to be pointless from a practical perspective, because Noah's car is a stick, which I don't know how to drive, and they didn't even dilate his pupils. Emotionally speaking, though, it was great, because we hung out in a coffee shop near the clinic in Bryn Mawr, tackled random subjects in "free writing" exercises and read each other our hilarious impromptu pieces.

Most likely, neither Noah nor my college friend Emily will be moving in with me, which kinda sucks. But I posted the vacancy on craigslist and set up a tour for tomorrow. By the way, if anybody knows somebody looking for a $400 apt in Uptown after May 15, e-mail me. Thanx.

It occurred to me today that submitting writing samples to City Pages and elsewhere might be an excellent way to get me through this "rough patch." Maybe putting everything I've got into writing (which I consider to be my calling) and handing my work over to (apparently) demanding literary authorities to be judged is just what I need to feel like I've accomplished something and am moving toward a worthwhile, fulfilling goal. I just wish it didn't sound so corny. If I wanted to, I could probly re-write it to sound cool, but this is my blog and no one can reject it since it's already published, so I'd rather keep the original, unadorned version of the sentiment. It feels truer.

I need to hang out with my friends more. I've been pretty isolated. That's by far the toughest part. Loneliness seems to be the great plague of our age. We've given up far too much meaningful human contact for technology. This afternoon I attended the Live Action Set's bowling party to celebrate their first year as a non-profit. It was really nice to hang out with those cool people. But I was anxious thinking about how soon it would be over and wondering when I'd get to hang out with those people (or people like them) again. Why should those times be the exception and not the rule? Seems like they had a lot more of that in the olden days.

My emotions continue to gain strength. At the bowling party I chatted with a girl who was really cute and nice and interesting, although I fell prey to the same old anxiety when she talked to other guys (esp. one young, attractive guy) or anyone else. It feels great to want things again (esp. girls, not that they're "things"), but there's a downside: the risk of losing them becomes real again too. This girl does burlesque and she's performing tonight. Not sure if I'll go without a companion, even though I have a car so I could go by myself. But don't bet on it.

Author's Note: If the title of this post evokes memories of sports training montages from 80's movies, then I've done my job.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Better, Quieter Week

(This was mostly written Friday afternoon.)

If you're wondering why I haven't been blogging, it's because I've been feeling better. I'd been writing out of desperation. Usually, writing is not my activity of last resort. In fact, traditionally, I write less when I'm depressed, probly to avoid dealing with my emotions. But my anxiety was so intense I couldn't ignore it.

I went home Saturday (April 5th) to watch the Final Four with Dad. It was nice, but the following day was tough. Mom and Theresa (sister) were showing off their souvenirs from China. I was anxious to return to Uptown. The night before my resistance to Mom melted away briefly. I kinda wanted to give her a hug, but she had a bad cold or flu and I was hesitant anyway. On Sunday my feelings boomeranged, as if she'd rejected my interior thoughts.

I got drenched yesterday (Thu, April 10th) walking from Hollywood to Ragstock. When I started it was mostly rain. By the time I got to where I was going, it was mostly snow. I got no problem with the April snow showers, as long as it don't stick. It was actually kinda nice to walk thru that and not freeze my ass off. Two days before at Hollywood I scanned the shelves for quite a while. That's something I should do more often. Wandering the aisles of a video store is one of the few joys of suburban life.

That's why I have reservations about the phenomenon of Netflix. Of course, with Netflix you can avoid the whole "I have a vague idea of what I'd like to see but none of these fits the bill" hassle. But my other problem with Netflix is I generally don't know what I wanna watch until that evening. My preferences are apt to change between the time I add the DVD to my queue and the time it arrives. So those are my thoughts on Netflix, in case you were wondering. I'd hate to leave you in suspense.

On Tuesday I finally decided on The Man Who Would Be King. It was OK. With Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Christopher Plummer, John Huston as co-director, awesome mountain vistas and a cracking yarn by Rudyard Kipling, ya think it'd be cooler. Yesterday I picked up Michel Gondry's "sampler" DVD. Interesting stuff so far.

I'm at Plan B Coffeehouse right now. It would be an ideal writing locale if not for the music. It's not too loud, but any music with lyrics can distract me. The fact that my WiFi connection only works when the laptop is on the coffee table (instead of my lap) is also annoying. The network isn't even Plan B's. I tried their password and it didn't work. God damn it! I'm typing this in WordPad to post later. I should probly go home and start on dinner. I gotta be at the Permaculture Film Festival at 6:30.

(The following was written today on my couch.)

The Permaculture Film Fest was mostly stuff I saw last summer. Once again, I flaked out on the Permaculture Workshop the following day. I had some insomnia on Thu nite. Even though I got maybe 8 hours of sleep I felt tired, so I was worried about being really sleep-deprived on Sat since the workshop started at 9 am. The irony is I woke up in time to go (without the alarm and despite being up til 2) and didn't feel tired, but I was afraid I'd crap out in the afternoon and I didn't know if I could handle spending all day with a bunch of strangers. The film fest had been slightly stressful.

Instead of the workshop I watched the Michel Gondry DVD (very good) and ventured out late in the afternoon for socks. The tube socks at Ragstock didn't look very thick, so I went next door to the new American Apparel store. The Cars were blaring over an undeniably early '80s decor. As I wandered toward the back, I saw a girl pulling on the waistband of some tights(?) in a dressing room. The curtain was pulled back, allowing a full view of her (clothed, except for the mid-riff) body. I must say, it was an awesome body, highlighted by an incredible rack. (Yes, that's right, Mickey's the kind of guy who uses the word "rack" in reference to the female form. Sorry to disappoint anyone who thought my brain inhabited loftier regions. I'm just a man.) She met my gaze just as I averted it. I successfully fought the urge to look again. It was almost cruel of her to leave the curtain open like that. If she was offended by my wandering eye, I'd have to say to her, "See here, miss. You are ridiculously hot, therefore you cannot leave the dressing room curtain open and expect men to keep their eyes to themselves. It is an unreasonable test of self-control." I'm sure then she'd understand.

Getting back to the socks, the only athletic kind they had were tube socks (again) and they were absurdly expensive. My sock expedition had come up empty, but on the way home I picked up a gyro and fries at the Soho Cafe, so all was not lost. By the time I finished my supper, I had to rush to get dressed for the Live Action Set's show at the Southern. I just barely missed the bus on Lyndale and waited 20 minutes for a taxi, much longer than I'd expected. I made it to the Southern in time to get one of the last standing-room-only tickets (half-price). Megan found me an empty seat next to the videographer, which was nice for a 90-minute show with no intermission.

The show, The Piano Tuner, was quite good and right up my alley, dealing with resource depletion driven by capitalism. It was like a theatrical companion piece to There Will Be Blood. The Piano Tuner is set in 1911, making the parallels all the clearer. There was a talkback after the show, during which I summoned the courage to ask a question. I blurted out, in what seemed like an unusually loud voice for me, "I'd like to know if the subject of Easter Island ever came up." Megan asked me to repeat the subject, which I did. (She was the director, mistakenly thinking that role would require less of her in the wake of her pregnancy.) They said it never came up, but I was just happy they answered my question.

After the long, inevitable round of socializing after the show, we headed 'round the corner to the Town Hall Brewery. I ended up chatting at length with a young (mid-20's) actor named Tony. I would've liked to spend more time visiting with Sarah and Noah and the rest, but I enjoyed the opportunity to lend guidance to an up-and-comer. Hopefully, Tony will benefit from my sage advice. I wound up rambling to Tim Cameron (who played the show's titular character) about the fall of the American Empire, Peak Oil and my accompanying nervous breakdown. I tried to keep it short and not sound too crazy. He was pretty quiet.

Noah generously drove me home, even though he lives in Dinkytown now. We amused each other and discussed the possibility of him moving in with me. Just that day my roommate Heather said she'd be moving out in a month to live (literally) across the street with some friends. Knowing that Noah was looking for a place after June, I called him right after she told me, simultaneously overjoyed at the prospect of rooming with Noah again and terrified by the chance it wouldn't happen. It was cool and kinda scary to want something so badly for the first time in quite a while. The initial euphoria has worn off, though, and I realize having Noah as a roommate again wouldn't fix all my problems. But it would be supercool.