User-Agent: Microsoft-Outlook-Express-Macintosh-Edition/5.02.2022
Date: Fri, 12 Oct 2001 18:04:53 +0800
Subject: fractal piece originating from someone emailing me a question about my childhood.
From: tony <>
To: Dan Goese <>

Stephen King taught me this:  There is no such thing as a true story, only true fiction.  (The following started as a "true" account of an encounter with sex and ferrets, but became its own thing over the course of three beers.

But concerning my childhood:

I grew up in a tiny town called Charleston in East Central Illinois.  Its only saving grace was the mediocre university that resided there, Eastern Illinois University, my Alma Mater.

My parents got divorced when I was four, which screwed me up forever in just the right way for me to turn out to be a half decent tortured-artist type.

My mom is the opposite of me.  She remarried.  I consider her and her husband Steve (a very nice guy, by any measure), aliens originating from a planet far from mine.  They live in a log cabin in Montana, permanently retired to a life of no running water, no electricity, and a telephone in the nearest town, which is like thirty miles away and frequently accessible only by 4-wheel drive.

But now I'm talking about the present, and not my childhood.  I love how words flow!  There is no such thing as time!  There is only description of time.

My dad died in 1989 of a bizarre home accident.  Died of a broken nose, actuallly, or complications therefrom.  He was a Zen Episcopalian lay-preacher who moonlighted as a professor of Microbiology at... you guessed it... Eastern Illinois University.  I got to go to school free there because he died, which I always felt weird about.

I was a constant reader as a kid, and the first thing I ever remember telling anybody I wanted to be was a writer.  The first story I ever wrote was about a flashlight, and it was a love story.  I wrote it on the swingset in our back yard.  It was about the time that the grape vine that Dad planted on the back trellis petered out and there were no more secret, free grapes in our backyard.  It would be as fair as anything to say that I have spent the rest of my career trying to recapture the taste of those grapes in pictures, words, and sound.  The obvious thing to do would be to grow some grapes of my own, on my own trelllis, but I am no biologist.  My dad could grow anything.  He could plant bacon and grow pigs.  I haven't a green thumb, or even a thumb that could be represented by anything in the visible spectrum.  Plants cower in fear as I walk by, hoping beyond hope that I will not try to assist them.

So I write instead, going crazy out loud.  Going crazy was the only thing I was ever really, really good at.  For example, here's what happened in Target the other day:

I had my arms full of stuff, because I am one of those people (I love to put myself into meaningless categories) who always goes into the store thinking that they will only need a couple of items and therefore forgoes a cart or a basket.  I just need a towel and a candle holder.  That's it.

Later, after thirty perplexing minutes walking around Target looking for an ashtray to replace the one that I remembered I had broken, I finally entered the performance-art mode that I often use as a method for solving problems.  To a complete stranger, (a rather attractive darkish woman) I said, "Why don't they have a bad-health department?  I've been walking around for like twenty minutes and I cannot find anything that even resembles an ashtray."

She thought this assault was what most people usually think it is: a guy who thinks he's funny (and who is funny, on a regular enough basis, to keep the faith) trying to make conversation with a pretty girl.  But she joined my crusade.  "Mmmm... how about the gifts department?"

"Brilliant!" I shouted, and positively darted off in the direction of the gifts department.  
Little did I know that she had picked up my ashtray fever, and before I was ten steps away she asked a nametag-dangler Target droid if Target sells ashtrays.

The answer (which has a long story behind it, but this story in front of it) was, "Sorry, no, we don't."

Target does not sell ashtrays.  None.  The pretty dark woman whirled on me and said, "Hey, they don't have ANY ashtrays!"

"I knew it!" I shouted.  "I would have bet ten bucks on it!  But thanks for your help."

Still in performance art mode, and in a mood to improvise, I decided to walk around Target (carrying what had now become two giant bottles of gatorade, a toothbrush*, toothpaste, skim milk, vitamins and a Tom Clancy novel) until I found something that would WORK as an ashtray, even though it wasn't.  Forget about going to a sensible store that sells ashtrays.  I was going to make this work.  Walking to the candle department with a vague idea about how candle holders sometimes look like ashtrays, I saw the following:

A woman was kneeling in front of a giant shelf of tiny aquariums, an expression on her face that could only be interpreted as speechless amazement.  I probably wouldn't have stopped to look at the aquariums (what with the ashtray mission and all) but I was drawn into this woman's amazed vibe and did a double-take at the aquariums, and then froze.  I looked more closely at the tea-tin-sized plastic aquatic death chambers.

They contained tiny living frogs.  For an instant I was transported back to my childhood, post-divorce, just after winning a goldfish at the County fair by throwing a ping-pong ball into its bowl.  This, it seemed to me, was the Target version of this same basic aquatic product, but without the green food coloring and lacking the real thrill, the contest: man against ball against fish against food coloring.  I liked the feeling of the woman's amazement at seeing this in Target.  I gently anchored myself astride it, much like getting into a roller coaster.  She saw that I was speechless also, that I was at least a temporary believer in the Church of Being Freaked out by the Frogs in Target Thing.  She looked at me and shook her head.  "This is crazy.  It's hypnotizing me."

"Wow, frogs, " I said, in that conversational way that you fill silence with tone but no information.  "This is the last thing I would have expected to..."  I knelt, hefting my poorly arranged goods and trying to be cool about it, like hey, I can carry this many things.

Then one of the giant bottles of Gatorade (Lemon-Lime) leapt from the roller coaster and hit the floor and exploded like a bottle of gatorade would explode if it REALLY REALLY wanted to make an impression on people.  Blam!  Two liters of Gatorade everywhere.  The roller coaster stopped, and now the Target theme park was all about the idiot with the Gatorade.  It was so much better when it was about frogs and ashtrays.

I'm not an optimist, but I pretend to be one to get people off my back.  "Oh my God!"  I shouted.  "This is fantastic!"  She looked at me.  "Don't you realize," I continued, with manic enthusiasm, "that if we get married, this will be the story we will always tell people about how we met!"

I know a real laugh when I hear one.  This was no Californian laugh.  Delighted, I fled the scene with my remaining Gatorade and decided I had had enough good fortune for one evening.  Then, a horrible thought occurred to me.  I did a careful 180 and charged back to the scene, where the woman was recovering from what must have been a subtle kind of sensory overload.

"Wait," I said to her.  "This won't work unless I ask you out.  We can never be married and have this be the story if I don't ask you to come with me to coffee."

She looked very sad.  "Oh," she said, "I have a boyfriend."

In situations like this, I tend to get right down to the meat of things.  "Well," I said, "I didn't mean for it to be, like, sexual coffee or anything... just the kind of thing where people sit at a table and drink coffee and talk."

"Ah, yeah," she said.  "Well, my boyfriend's the jealous type.  It probably wouldn't go over very well.  He had a bad experience with his last relationship.  Got cheated on and everything."

"What a shame," I said.

"Yeah," she said.

I fled again, and found a candleholder that, with some identity counseling, could be convinced that it was an ashtray.

So I headed to the anarchic checkout with my knucklehead's armload of Target crap (minus a Gatorade: I figured I had hit my limit).  Next to me at the cashier, I heard the roller coaster hypnosis frog woman say, in response to the robotic "How are you," from the cashier:

"Horrible.  This is the worst day of my life."  She had no frogs.  Her ping-pong ball had missed, falling not into amphibians but into the jealous, sterile green food-coloring of my exploding gatorade.

My County Fair fish met a simiar fate, killed by love.  A child full of zeal, I dumped the whole container of fish food into the tiny bowl to make sure, ABSOLUTELY SURE, that my new friend would have enough to eat.  At least he ate well before he died, trapped in a slurry of sustenance that could not sustain life.

I have a favorite saying:  "My misspent youth is becoming my misspent adulthood."

*I buy toothbrushes by brand (Oral B) and bristle setup (Medium), not by color.  I grabbed a  medium Oral B off the shelf and then had a moment that I cannot say was good or bad, but I have not been able to forget about it since then.  I looked at the toothbrush in its plastic marketing spaceship as I slung it under my free arm.  I noticed it was a greenish pastel color.  I put it immediately back on the hook, and announced to the complete stranger next to me that I will never, ever buy a pastel toothbrush.  This comment, like the wonderful chaos-theory idea of the butterfly flapping its wings in Tokyo (somehow, it's always Tokyo) affecting the weather in New York City (somehow, it's always New York City), will have a small and possibly unidentifiable effect on something, someday.

Maybe it will cause Target to stop selling frogs and start selling ashtrays.


Tony Smith
Waveform Generator, catWave Project --

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