Sunday, August 22, 2010

Road Trip 2010 Day 3: God made dirt and dirt will bust your ass

I rolled up to a toll booth in Illinois blasting Old Dirty Bastard's "Baby I Got Your Money" and as soon as the toll booth lady asked me for the $1.25, the chorus, where Kelis sings "Hey, say hey, baby I got your money, dontcha worry" kicked in. She didn't seem to notice.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Road Trip 2010 Day 3: The Angry Truck Driver

You see a lot of sketchy people in bathrooms along the interstate. 99% of the time, you ignore these people and they ignore you and everybody does their business and goes happily on their way. About 0.8% of the time you wind up talking to these sketchy people for some reason, and they turn out to be really pleasant, nice people (albeit with awkward weight/fashion/hygiene/what-have-you problems). The other 0.2% of the time, you wind up talking to these people for some reason and they turn out to be just as crazy as they look. Such was the case with The Angry Truck Driver.

TATD was pretty standard--beer belly, tee-shirt tucked into jeans, giant belt buckle, beard, baseball cap--except for the fact that he was washing his hands furiously in the Conoco convenient mart's bathroom. I was washing my hands as well and couldn't help but look over and notice his anxiety. He must have noticed me looking, because he said, very loudly, "This water is cold!"

I wasn't getting any hot water either, so I nodded, said, "Yeah, man," and gave a "what are you gonna do?" kind of shrug, but TATD wasn't done.

"This water is COLD!"

"Maybe we should talk to the manager?" I offered.

TATD huffed and shut off the sink, dried his hands just as ferociously as he had scrubbed his hands, said "Cold water doesn't kill fucking germs!" and walked out the door.

And that was The Angry Truck Driver.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Road Trip 2010 Day 2: Ambivalent about South Dakota

The first two times I drove through South Dakota I hated it. Kitschy tourist billboards and dinosaur-themed water parks obstructing the views of the beautiful Black Hills, crowds of gross tourists at Mount Rushmore, swarms of Harley-Davidsons and no hotel rooms--not my favorite place.But, driving through western South Dakota in the afternoon and evening of my second day, I began to reconsider. I-90 through Eastern Montana and Wyoming is empty. Like, really empty. Closes in the winter because there are no humans to plow it and it's under too much snow, no gas for 90 miles, never see another car kind of empty. This time it felt pretty good to see other people, suburban sprawl, and fast food restaurants--and Starbucks! I hadn't seen a Starbucks since Missoula, and while it's not my favorite coffee, it's a lot better than the swill McDonald's sells, which I became intimately acquainted with later on in the trip.

Anyway, I was starting to reconsider South Dakota. Maybe, in the right context, it was actually pretty cool. Any state that has Wall Drug in it can't be all that bad. I got a little less stoked when I stopped for a nap outside a visitor's center, lay in the grass, and felt something tickling my arm. I looked down to see a grasshopper the size of my fucking finger chilling on my arm.

Grasshoppers, the myth: cute, cuddly, look like Jiminy Cricket.

Grasshoppers, the reality: ugly, terrifying, look like the aliens from District 9.

It was so big I could see that it was looking at me with its beady little grasshopper eye, probably sizing me up, figuring out if it could take me. I brushed him off my arm and went to sleep.

My faith was further shaken when I reached eastern South Dakota, which is almost as empty as Wyoming. The entire region also reeks of cow poop. Eastern South Dakota is also home to approximately one thousand gajillion bugs, half of which committed suicide on my car's windshield. About one hour after the sun went down, I drove through a bug storm. It was actually pretty amazing. I've never seen anything like it. I was used to quite a few bugs splattering on my windshield after sunset--it happens--but I drove for several minutes through massive clouds of bugs that hit my car so fast and so hard it sounded like it was raining (and hard, New Englandy rain, not soft Seattle rain). I was afraid to turn my windshield wipers on and smear my windshield into a completely opaque mess of guts, wings and shattered carapaces, so I squinted through the splatter until I reached a gas station and spent a good five minutes scrubbing it down. I wish I had a working camera. Verdict is still out on South Dakota.

I would have felt pretty bad if I accidentally killed this guy. Such a gentleman.

Road Trip 2010 Day 1: Camaraderie

I planned on sleeping in my car as much as possible on the trip from Seattle to New Hampshire, because I am broke. By 11:30 on the first day I was tired of driving, so I pulled into a rest stop outside of Bozeman, Montana. I had my blanket, a rolled towel for a pillow (yep, forgot a pillow), and a big heavy wrench to defend myself in case I was set upon by a crowd of wild vagrants.

I was expecting to be a bit sketched out by the whole sleeping-at-a-rest-stop thing, but it turned out great! After some experimenting about how to get comfortable in my tiny car (pro tip: move all the luggage to the front and sleep on the back seat with your legs curled up however will work), I was good to go. And I was not the only person sleeping there, which helped.

There were at least half a dozen other cars camping out at the rest stop, including a van with a young couple and their kid (they had a mattress, though, wussies), and a few other traveling college/grad-school aged guys. I fell asleep to the roar of I-90 and the glow of the young mom's booklight.

We all woke up at about the same time the next morning, when the sunlight became too bright to sleep through. Everybody got out of their cars to stretch and look around, then we all went into the bathroom to wash up, brush teeth, etc. Everybody was smiling at each other like we were some weird, temporary I-90 family. It was great.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

This is the Road Trip Again

In about twelve hours I leave the northwest for the northeast. I hope my car survives, and I hope the weather cools off a bit (Washington is in the middle of a heatwave, but the national forecast looks promising). I've been so busy these last few days, what with getting trip stuff together, Sam and Jon's wedding, and Ashley and Kili in town--the fact that I'm leaving here is just now sinking in, and it's kind of got me in a funk.

I'm going to miss the northwest, and the people in it, a lot. This has been a most excellent summer, and I'm sorry to see it go.

As for the road trip itself, I would take pictures, but I accidentally broke my camera last night at the wedding. Dad and I tried to fix it today, and Dad eventually got it to a place where it will turn off and on, take pictures, and do everything but focus, so it's basically useless. Oh well. At the very least there will be some written blog entries. I might have to supplement them with pictures I find on the internet.

So Washington people, goodbye; New Hampshire people, get ready. I'll be switching coasts soon.

Saturday, August 7, 2010


Reading through my old blog entries, I found this paragraph in a post from April 21st.

So my goal for the summer is to try to spend less time in front of a screen. I'm not sure how well this is going to work out, since I'm going to try to bust out as much of my thesis as I can (goal for the summer is three-hundred pages of crappy first draft), and I have to work at least twelve hours a week for Smarthinking, but hey, it will be the summer. I'm going to go on runs, go on hikes, get outside, lounge in the sun and read a book--I also have an extensive reading list for the summer, which I plan to supplement with trips to used bookstores. We'll see how it goes.

So, how well did I do?

  • Less time in front of the screen. Hmm. While I definitely spent less time in front of the screen than I do during the school year, I still spent quite a bit, and I wasn't working on my thesis (see below). Mostly I was g-chatting, or watching movies, or listening to music (I found a lot of new music this summer), with a little bit of writing thrown in here and there. Still, it was nice to have a break from the nine months glued to a computer screen that is my school year.
  • Thesis. I totally failed in this category. Three hundred pages, Ian? Really? Wow. Well, at least I have a semi-legitimate excuse: I abandoned the project I was working on (for which I had written a good thirty pages of new material on top of the sixty I'd written in school) halfway through the summer in favor of a more manageable project. On this new project I've got twenty-five pages and a few homeless paragraphs floating around. So, in total, I wrote about fifty-five pages of thesis this summer, thirty of which don't count. I don't feel too bad about it, though. It's the summer, I've got another year and a half at least. It'll get done.
  • Getting outside. A bunch! I think I only ran once, and I'm not a big fan of lounging outside and reading a book when I could be lounging inside on a very comfortable bed or couch and reading a book, but I went on a ton of hikes and found out I really like hiking. So success!
  • Reading. I've read a bunch this summer, although surprisingly little from the reading list I set up. Still, I don't feel too bad. I've already written a lot about the books I read this summer in the "Books I've Read" posts (May, June, July), so I won't say much more here.

Also, happy first anniversary to this is no longer the road trip. I started this blog on August 7th, 2009, with a post about my dehydrated cat. A lot has changed since then. I've moved across the country, started a new program, become a hell of a better writer, gone to conferences and got fiction published, joined the world of singledom, moved back across the country, and gotten to know my niece and nephew. I hope this next year is just as interesting.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Books I've Read: July

The Story Thief by Joshua Young. Yeeeeeaaah! It's Josh's book, and I'll say little about it to prevent from spoiling it for all of you, dear readers, or from embarrassing its author. I will say that I loved it, and that it's not only Josh's prolificity (prolificness? prolificiness? I don't know, he freaking writes a lot) that drives me mad with envy, it's also his willingness to cut what he's revising to shreds and rebuild it, expand it, tweak it, and generally turn it from a solid first draft into an actual novel. Nice!

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. I picked this up because Jeff and Selena and I were talking about it and I haven't read it since high school and I wanted to see how I would react to it now. Strongly, it turned out. Bear with my huge, sweeping generalizations here: reactions to High Fidelity are pretty strongly divided along gender lines. Women often are bothered by it--Rob, the narrator is neurotic and whiny, the book is a find-the-right-woman-who-will-fix-you fantasy, who gives a shit about all those old soul records, etc. One WWU student I talked to actually had to get rid of the book because she said that having it on her night stand felt like "having a sketchy stranger in her room." Most men (and bear in mind that most men who have reactions to the novel High Fidelity are the kind of guys who seek the book out to read it) think that it is an incredibly accurate representation of the male mind at work. Jeff, in response to Selena's comment that Rob is whiny and neurotic, replied that yes, Rob is whiny and neurotic, but he gives voice to neuroticisms that most guys think about but would never in a million years actually talk about, which I think is a good way to describe it.

I was really torn by High Fidelity, and it's narrator especially. It is a find-the-right-woman-who-will-fix-you fantasy, and the last quarter of the book is mostly about Rob bumbling around and being a douchebag while Laura (the love interest) patiently tries to put his life together for him. Rob definitely doesn't earn points for likability. He's a self-consciously hip narcissistic hypocrite who sees the problems in his behavior and lets it eat at him, then does nothing whatsoever to change it. Unfortunately, Rob is also so similar to me that it's shocking. He's an A.V. nerd, like me and most of my male friends, and if he developed an obsession with twenty-year-old video games, we would probably be besties. This was upsetting for me to realize--I wanted to hate Rob, but I didn't. I couldn't! This needs more thinking about...

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley. Several people have asked me why I like these books and I have had a hard time explaining why--the plot sounds gimmicky and infantile, the art style is highly stylized (it appeals to me, but I can see how it would drive some people insane), and the narrator's comments often start to feel a bit dictatorial. But then I noticed the blurb on the back of the last book, from Joss Whedon: "Scott Pilgrim is the best book ever. It is the chronicle of our time. With Kung Fu, so, yeah: perfect." Word Joss Whedon! Basically the fact that Joss Whedon is blurbing this book should tell you why I like it--he could have written it. It has that same mix of angst and pop-culture references and ass-kicking that made Buffy the Vampire Slayer so awesome. In fact, now that I'm thinking about it, it's a lot like Buffy. Huh. Anyway, I was actually a bit disappointed with the ending of the Scott Pilgrim series. I'm not sure what I expected--it ended exactly how anybody could have predicted it would end all along--but it just felt a little too... easy? Not earth-shatteringly awesome? I'm not sure.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis. Ah! A male-coming-of-age novel with a narrator I can really love to hate. The Rachel Papers takes place in the five hours before Charles Highway turns twenty years old. He spends those five hours recounting the previous year or so of his life, with special emphasis on his relationship with Rachel, a girl he sets out to bed but with whom he winds up falling in love. Charles Highway is arrogant, manipulative, hypocritical, elitist, callous, disgusting on pretty much every level (including and especially the level of personal hygiene, his lack of which he spends a great deal of time describing), and is just an all around asshole. There's really nothing good to be said about him, at any point in the novel. That said, I didn't have to like the narrator to enjoy the novel. It was very funny, and much of the pleasure I got from it came from seeing what the hell Charles was going to do next--his willingness to tailor his musical tastes, conversational modes, and even his accent to suit the various women he tries to pick up is rather funny, and the used condom switcheroo is a great moment.

Yes, "the used condom switcheroo." This book is freaking filthy. I honestly have never read anything so crass. I'm trying to think of a good analog to help explain it, since--as my family reads this blog--there's no way in hell I'm going to quote some of it's more filthy passages (many of which run on literally for pages), but I'm having trouble finding one that's adequate. I guess it reminded me a bit of a British novel version of American Pie, only much, much, much raunchier and willing to describe the gritty details of... well, of just about everything that American Pie can only hint at if it wants to keep its 'R' rating. Its several pages dedicated to the symptoms of Charles bad case of gonorrhea were particularly memorable, and terrifying, and I also wondered how many different ways Martin Amis--who is, by the way, a very well-respected, very British novelist--could think of to describe bronchitic phlegm. Yeah, ick, ick, ick. I enjoyed the book, but if you're easily offended or disgusted or embarrassed, this is not the book for you.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. This is a book my professors and classmates were raving about all last year and one that I wasn't that interested in. Old people? Stories about grief? Small town life on the coast of Maine? It just didn't seem like there was a lot there that appealed to me. But man am I glad I read this book. It's solidly written and very compelling, and I love how Strout handles Olive. The book is composed of thirteen short stories that all share a setting and a character--cantankerous middle school math teacher Olive Kitteridge. Sometimes Olive is the focus of the story, sometimes she only passes through a scene or gets a mention, but she's always there. Olive is a fascinating character, and I was never sure whether to hate her for her domineering pushiness and cold passive aggression, or love her for her ability to push through all the horrible things that life piles in front of her (or sometimes, like in one of my favorite stories, "Security," love and hate her in great measures, at the same time). The book is definitely a downer, but it's worth it.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower. Maybe it's that I came to this short story collection after Olive Kitteridge, which puts its emotions right up front, but Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned bothered me. Wells Tower's name and some of his more successful short stories (like "Retreat," which I read here and in the Pushcart Prize anthology a few years ago) get tossed around a lot in writing programs, because he's young (mid-30s), hip, and regularly places work in places like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Wells Tower also writes like a young, hip dude. I'm curious to see if other MFAers (particularly fiction people) have noticed this, but there seems to be a certain mode that white male writers younger than forty-five tend to fall into. Emotion is hinted at but rarely mentioned outright. Everyone is very, very angry and/or callous. Outright statements of intent or emotion are passed over in favor of oblique images or dialogue. It's all about elision, deferment, and deflection. Think Raymond Carver but more ironic.

This is fine for a while, but after three or four stories in the same style, it gets really tiring. I found myself looking for the huge emotional crescendos in Olive Kitteridge, or the heart-on-your-sleeve angst of Scott Pilgrim. Still, this wasn't a complete waste of time. The title story is excellent, "Retreat," which I mentioned earlier, is flawed but interesting, and "On the Show" gives up Tower's typical narrative structure completely and gives us a collage of workers and guests at a small town carnival that's really, really awesome. Also, this is a good example of what I want not to do in my own writing: reticent white guy lit.