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ImageWhen I decided I wanted to be a writer, back in the miasmal swamps of prehistory, I was writing on an electric typewriter and using a lot of correction tape, Wite-Out, and erasers. Inevitably I did a lot of retyping when a page became too messy for submission. I also borrowed an idea from Ray Bradbury, who used 3×5 index cards to jot down story and title ideas. When he wanted to start something new, he could simply pull a card out of his little file box and let inspiration strike. I’ll pause a moment to let the kids Google “electric typewriter” and “Wite-Out” and “index cards.” There. Yes, we used to use those things. 

It was all very simple. Write story. Look up markets in the Writer’s Market. Affix appropriate postage to envelopes. Mail story. Get rejection slip. Rinse. Repeat. That’s what you did. Writers who paid a fortune to get a box of hardcovers printed by a vanity press were generally suckers who wound up with a lot of extra insulation in their attic. But now we’re in the twenty-first century, and it’s a whole new ballgame. 

Back in the day you really didn’t have to wonder how to be a writer. You just wrote and submitted. Boom. Now you can spend days surfing the net just researching self-publishing, traditional, hybrid, and what to do or not to do to best pursue each of those labels. Plus, buzzwords: platform, online presence, social media. 

A few months ago, as I pursued freelance editorial work, I contacted an online business that’s a perfect example of the new publishing. A collective of freelancers that helps authors get published in both eBook and print formats, providing editorial and design services. I was hoping I might get some editorial work with them. But their response was “Hey, great resumé for both editing and writing . . . but can you produce eBook files?” 

Ouch. Reality punch in the face. These days, you can’t simply be an editor, you also have to do eBook design. You can’t just be a writer, you also have to be a publisher. Agents are also trying to find their way in this new world, and they find themselves working with writers who aren’t interested in traditional publishers, which used to be the whole purpose for an agent. 

Everyone’s trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. It reminds me of Jack Lemmon’s character in Glengarry Glen Ross, the old-school salesman, Shelley “The Machine” Levine, desperate for some good leads to reenergize his sales and keep his job. Writers, editors, agents . . . we’re all looking for some good leads so we can just get back to what we love doing. 

As for me . . . I’m teaching myself a lot more about eBooks. I’ve got software for creating eBook files. I’m looking at my backlist of stories from two angles: what will I self-pub, and what will I continue to pursue traditionally. Long ago I came up with a name for my own imprint and got a simple logo designed (that’s it, there at the top of this post). We’ll see what happens. I’m working on a short collection of humorous vignettes and other silliness that I’ll self-pub when it’s ready. Stay tuned.

ImageMovies about writing often slather too much Hollywood sizzle onto the process to dress it up for the silver screen. The end result is far-removed from the everyday nuts and bolts of pounding away at the keyboard. But one of the movies that gets it right—as unlikely as this may seem at first—is Throw Momma from the Train

The movie has a number of it’s-funny-because-it’s-painfully-true moments that capture a writer’s life. There’s the hilarious writing class, where Billy Crystal’s character has to listen to the stilted work of student writers. Be honest: if you went back and read your first stories, they wouldn’t be that far removed from the clunkfest delivered by the mistakenly self-assured woman reading from her novel. We’ve all been there. 

But the scene that I always mention as the most realistic depiction of a writer in the history of cinema is during the opening credits when Crystal sits down at his typewriter (yes, it was that long ago) and tries to write. He fidgets. He shoots baskets with wads of paper. He gets a cup of tea. He gets a shot to add to his tea. He cleans his desk. He stretches tape across his face, becoming the “phantom of the novel.” In short, everything but actually hitting those keys. We’ve all been there, part two. 

My second favorite true fictional scene is from a different venue, and it’s not about a writer, but it still ties in nicely. On the sitcom Mad About You, Paul Reiser plays a filmmaker. While researching a documentary, he has to watch some classic comedians. His wife, played by Helen Hunt, is increasingly annoyed by his laughter and does not respond well to being told that he’s working. 

Similarly, any how-to on writing will emphasize the need of a writer to read, but how many people think of it as work when a writer is curled up on the couch reading a new sci-fi novel? If some sort of repair guy is reading manuals or a painter is researching new techniques, I think most people recognize that as part of their trade, but not so much when a writer is reading a novel. Like when a filmmaker is watching a movie. 

I do think it’s hard for people on the outside to recognize writing as actual work. It involves too much sitting. And the truth of it is—although the Crystal character was having bad writer’s block during that opening scene—even sitting at the keyboard not typing can be a part of the process, a priming of the pump. So pass me the tape, I’ve got work to do.

5036-Blue Beauty Oolong_largeI grew up in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest, surrounded by forests and farmland. Consequently, I didn’t spend my childhood in the 1970s biking around the block with the neighborhood kids; instead, I spent a lot of time wandering in the woods with my dog and visiting my grandparents and my grandma’s sister who lived close by, just a short walk across a hayfield.

My grandma and her sister were tough old Finnish women, and when they weren’t having their next pot of boiled-on-the-stove coffee, they would have tea with me. That was my introduction to tea . . . in tea bags and steeped in boiling water, no matter the variety. I always took sugar, because I found tea to be a little bitter. Still, I liked it, unlike coffee, which I never acquired a taste for.

Flash forward to 1983. I spent my sophomore year of college in Birmingham, England. Some rather large spots of tea were consumed. I often had at least four cups a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The tea was served English style, obviously, with milk and sugar. The tea itself was a basic black blend. I loved it. When I came back to the States, I continued drinking various teas. I still used tea bags and sugar.

Flash forward to 1998. We had just moved into a new house and at about the same time, a tea shop opened in our neighborhood, the TeaSource (where I now work part time; see my earlier post, “Unpredictable Staggerings and Other Life Choices”). I popped in one day and started chatting with the owner, Bill Waddington. In five minutes I learned more about tea than I had known for the quarter of a century I’d been drinking it. For instance, there is only one tea plant, and all the varieties of tea, white, yellow, green, oolong, puerh, and black come from it; it is how the tea is grown and processed that creates the different varieties. (The picture above is of the TeaSource’s fabulous Blue Beauty Oolong, one of my favorites.)

Another big revelation was learning about proper water temperature and steeping times. When my grandma and her sister had green tea, they boiled the bejeebers out of it like they did to their coffee. Green tea should be steeped in water no hotter than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, never boiling, which makes the tea bitter. And tea bags . . . tea bags are often made with tea dust (there are higher-end bags with whole leaves), basically what’s left over after the proper leaves have been prepared. There’s a time and place for the convenience of such bags, but that dust steeps a lot faster than actual leaves. And steeping tea for too long, black or green, will make it bitter.

In other words, I took sugar in my tea only because I’d been making it wrong! As I started trying various properly prepared teas at the TeaSource, I found that I didn’t need sugar. And no more tea bags for me, now I only want loose leaf. My next bit of fanaticism comes from being on the other side of the counter; we measure tea leaves by the gram when making a someone a cup or pot. It’s the only way to ensure consistency, as the variation in tea leaf styles—some are whole, some are finely cut—makes measuring by the “rounded teaspoon” largely subjective. Although I’ve been using the teaspoon method for sixteen years now, a couple months of using a scale has converted me, and I’m buying a small scale for home use.

A last word on sugar. I have become semiaddicted to chai, which is traditionally sweetened. As any tea fanatic will tell you, “chai” is simply the word for tea, but has become common shorthand for this particular way of serving tea with spices, milk, and sweetener. There are many ways of making chai, from easiest to traditional, but don’t confuse it with the chai lattes that coffee shops make. That is a steamed milk beverage with tea and spice flavoring, not a tea beverage with spices and milk. It can be a perfectly tasty drink, but they’ve inverted the base of the beverage from tea to milk. (This has been a very abbreviated chai lesson, glossing over some finer points, but you get the picture.)

In addition to sweetened chai, I still have a nostalgic fondness for English-style tea, so I occasionally have an English breakfast blend—loose leaf, of course—with milk and sugar. Other than that, I take my tea unsweetened. But the real last word on sugar is to use it as you like. I’m not going to tell you not to use sugar in your tea, but I will want to make sure that you’re not using sugar to mask incorrectly prepared tea!

[To keep this post from getting any longer, I’ve left out discussing herbal “teas,” which don’t actually contain tea leaves, and are more correctly called “tisanes” to make the distinction.]

My Harlan Ellison Story

ImageIn the early 1990s I worked at Barnes & Noble. It had been announced that Harlan Ellison was publishing his original teleplay for the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever.” This was exciting news; the bad blood between Ellison and Gene Roddenberry over the script was legendary. One customer placed a special order for the book, and as I was in charge of special orders, and was also a fan of Ellison and Trek, I was keeping a close watch for its arrival. The announced publication date came and went, but no book. 

I called up Borderlands Press to see what was going on and found myself speaking with the publisher, Thomas Monteleone, whose name sounded familiar to me. He explained that he was a writer too, and I realized I had read one of his books, The Secret Sea, a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We chatted about that a bit, and then he explained that Ellison’s book was running behind schedule but they were trying to get it wrapped up. 

Time passed. I checked back in with Borderlands a few times as the book came up on my unfilled special orders report. One day I was told that Ellison had instructed the publisher to have his increasingly impatient fans waiting for the book to call him directly. I was given a phone and fax number (yeah, fax . . . it was twenty years ago). 

I scoffed at the idea—like Ellison wants people calling him and nagging about the book—as I dialed the number. Someone picked up, and a gruff voice said, “Yeah?” 

Holy. Shit. I knew right away that this actually was Ellison. I was on the phone with Harlan Ellison! I explained why I was calling, then didn’t have a chance to say much else for maybe fifteen minutes as Ellison went off on one of his trademark rants against Gene Roddenberry and Paramount. He was hilarious, joking darkly that Roddenberry had died before Ellison could get even with him (Roddenberry had passed away the year before, in October 1991). He explained that his introduction for the script was still growing, that he just couldn’t stop adding stories about his long-running feud with Roddenberry. Outside of calls about getting published, it was the most amazing phone call I’ve ever had. 

More time passed. I had another brief call with Ellison, a nice little chat. Still more time passed. Then he won a Bram Stoker Award in 1993 for his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I felt like congratulating him, but felt self-conscious about phoning him again. I didn’t want to be that guy, taking advantage of having his number. I decided on a compromise: I would fax him my congrats and also ask about City, which still wasn’t out. I jotted a quick note and hit send. It seemed like the sheet of paper hadn’t even fed all the way through the machine when I was paged. 

“There’s a guy on the phone wants to talk to you,” my disbelieving coworker told me. “He says he’s Harlan Ellison.” 

Oh. Shit. Ellison does not come across as a guy who’s going to call some bookseller to thank him for the congratulations. Something must be wrong. I took a deep breath and answered the phone. 

“Did you just fax me?” Ellison growled. 

“Yes.” 

“Why? Just to chat?” 

“Yes, sir.” I think I did call him sir. Seemed like the thing to do. 

“Well, you just woke up my sick wife and me . . .” That was only the start of him ripping me a new one. Turns out his fax machine was in his bedroom, and—it belatedly hit me—it was two hours earlier in California. So now I was being Ellisoned. 

I quietly took my chewing out. When he had finished, I apologized, explaining that I had assumed I was sending the fax to an office, so I had not even considered the time difference between Minnesota and the West Coast. After a moment of consideration, he allowed that he could see that, but . . . 

“You have my phone number, too?” 

“Yes.” 

“Lose it.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

So that’s how I got Ellison’s phone number, had the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and then poured it all down the drain. 

The book eventually came out as a limited edition hardcover from Borderlands in 1995 and in an expanded paperback—with a longer introduction!—from White Wolf Publishing in 1996. It’s a must-read, really.

ImageOkay, sure, straight away, I admit it, this is (as the self-aware kids say) a first-world problem. But still. And settle in . . . this is a long one.

On February 7 I ordered Brave New World, an expansion pack for Civilization V, from GameAgent, Aspyr’s website for the Mac platform. Aspyr was having a 50% off sale for all the Civ V stuff in celebration of the release of Sid Meier’s Civilization V: The Complete Edition. When I tried to use PayPal for my purchase, the site crashed. I logged back in and tried again. It still seemed a little wonky, but soon after three emails popped up in my box from GameAgent: an invoice (for the sale price), order details, and an order confirmation. Two problems became quickly apparent.

First, none of the emails from GameAgent included the download code; they use Steam to deliver the software, and you need the code when you log into Steam. Second, I didn’t receive an email from PayPal confirming the transfer of funds. I logged into PayPal, and, sure enough, they showed no record of the transaction. It was clear the order had not actually completed, even though I had that confirmation email. So I sent GameAgent an email through a web form on their site.

On February 10, which was the last day of the sale, I got a reply from them telling me the order had been reset, so all I had to do was log in and complete it. They made no reference to the PayPal issue, so I tried paying with PayPal again because it was working with other sites. Once again the GameAgent order process crashed. I emailed GameAgent customer service again.

On February 11 I got an email telling me to “attempt a new order.” They didn’t say anything about their site’s inability to process a PayPal payment. I logged in and opened my shopping cart. Brave New World was still there, but now that the sale was over, it was at full price. The email had mentioned “If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.” But, of course, that link was already expired as of the day before. I emailed customer service, telling them I had been planning to use my credit card to avoid the apparent PayPal issue, but that I should still get the game at the sale price.

On February 14 they told me that they had to “investigate further this issue” before I could try ordering again. They also said, “This error could be the result of attempting several orders that fail, which would cause our credit system to detect possible fraudulent credit card use and then place a block against the credit card. This is for the protection of both our customers and our business. We take credit card fraud very seriously.”  Well . . . I’m glad they take credit card fraud seriously, but I had never tried to use my credit card and there was still no response to the pricing problem or the PayPal trouble. Hmmm. I was finally beginning to notice that their responses often didn’t jibe with the contents of my emails to them.

Later that day I was informed “we have reviewed your order and it is now ready to be completed.” Great. I logged in . . . and there was the game at full price. I emailed customer service, once again explaining that I had originally ordered the game during their sale and that they needed to give me a promo code for 50% off.

On February 16 I got their reply: “The Game Agent Online Store strives to offer the products at the lowest available prices. Unfortunately, we are unable to match prices and discounts available through other resellers.”

Okay, WTF? I wasn’t asking them to match another vendor’s price, I was asking them to sell me their own game from their own website at the price I had ordered it for during their own sale! It was more clear than ever that either their customer service staff is incredibly incompetent or that I had yet to get an actual real person on the other end, and this was just a computer program sending automated responses based on superficial keyword searches . . . and with fake names at the bottom. I said as much in my follow-up email and once again emphasized that I had ordered the game during the sale and had email proof that I deserved to get the game at the sale price.

Later that day I got another email: “Please attempt a new order. . . . If you are attempting to place an order from a promotional offer, please use the link provided by that offer.”

AAAAAGGGGGGH! The same frackin’ form response with no acknowledgment about the sale price problem. And there it was in my cart, still at full price. There’s just no way that this is coming from a person, unless the person is working with a traumatic head wound.

So I sent off another email, wrapping it up with this:

Why can’t anyone in customer service understand what I’m saying? Surely someone there has the ability to simply reset the price in my cart or give me a promo code for 50% off so I can get the game at the price I ordered it for. Come on, how is this difficult? I’ve tried to be patient, but now it’s been ten days since I ordered the game, and I still can’t get anyone to give me a clear, direct response that acknowledges the situation. These must be automated responses, which means that this current email of mine will have been just more of my time wasted without any resolution of the problem. This is the worst customer service I’ve ever received from any vendor in person or on line. You should just give me the game for free at this point.

I’ll update as the situation develops . . .

Update 1, February 17:

Shortly after I posted the above—I announced it on the Twitter with “On my blog, I try to buy a game from ‪@GameAgentStore & get the worst service short of them pooping on my iMac. ‪http://scottmpearson.wordpress.com/  ‪#FWP”—I got a response from Russ Looney (see below in comments), who works for Aspyr and helps with the GameAgent site. He apologized for my troubles and pointed me to a different help link, assuring me that the in-house support team would do much better than the Digital River team, the place that manages the GameAgent checkout cart. He even said to tell them he had sent me there, and that he would ask them to “add on a little something extra for my trouble.” Fabulous! So I have sent off my story to the new link and await hearing from them. Thanks again to Russ for stepping in.

Meanwhile, I got another email from the Digital River people, which I simply have to quote in full. This person, “Jaqueline A.,” is either punking me in response to the frustrated tone of my last email to them, or she has taken a big dose of psychadelic shrooms:

Thank you for contacting the Game Agent Online Store. Unfortunately, we require further information to assist you, as we assist thousands of vendors in the sale of their products to customers who shop online. 

Please provide additional information about the product you are inquiring about, the vendor’s home page address and the address where the product information is displayed. We will then try to assist you with your issue. 

Sincerely, Jacqueline A., Game Agent Online Store Customer Service 

Holy. Frack. Jacqueline, you’ve had a complete psychotic break. Not only was the product I’m having issues with mentioned repeatedly in all the previous emails, as was the vendor, GameAgent, you mention the vendor yourself RIGHT IN THE FIRST LINE OF YOUR OWN EMAIL AND AGAIN AFTER YOUR OWN NAME. Seriously, Jaqueline, seek medical attention.

I hope my next update will be about actually getting the game.

Update 2, February 18:

Got an email from GameAgent’s in-house customer service. It was an activation code for the game. Boom! On the house because of my week and a half of wrestling with the Digital River people. Now I have to send them that last email (as posted above in Update 1) so that they know the nonsense that’s going on over at the other place.

I close this post with another shout out to Russ Looney for stepping in and making this happen. That’s some great customer service.

ImageTwenty-eight years ago when I graduated college with the highly employable degree of Bachelor of Arts, English and Philosophy (the previous statement has been validated by the Sarcasmatron 9000), I just wanted to get some job I liked to pay the bills while I put most of my energy into my writing. That led to four years of working at a video rental store (there used to be these things called video rental stores) followed by four years of working at Barnes & Noble (there used to be these things called bookstores). I had a couple years at home unsuccessfully pursuing freelance work, and then became  employed as a stay-at-home dad for five years.

Shortly after I become a stay-at-home dad, we moved into a new house. About the same time we moved into the neighborhood, a tea shop, called TeaSource, opened up six blocks or so from our house, and I became a regular there, known to the people in the surrounding shops as “the guy with the baby in the stroller.” A couple times I proofed the TeaSource catalog and was paid in bulk tea. I did a lot of the editing of the true crime book Will to Murder there. The owner sometimes joked that I kept the shop open for the first year until business started picking up.

All during that time, from college through stay-at-home dad years, I was realizing a couple things. For one thing, as I did more freelance editing, I found that it didn’t wear me out on writing. I’d never considered a job in publishing because I thought working all day on editing would burn me out for my own writing. But that wasn’t the case. Another thing was that my writing wasn’t selling anyway. So when the kid started kindergarten, I took the plunge and got a day job as an editor. The following year I had a Star Trek story published by Simon & Schuster. Over the next several years I had two more stories and a novella published by S&S, and also had some small press success with short stories in a number of genres. Clearly, editing as a day job wasn’t hurting my writing.

When I was laid off last spring, I plunged into my freelance editing career. Or, rather, I plunged into trying to jumpstart my freelance editing career. It rapidly became clear I was not going to bring in the kind of paychecks I needed anytime soon. And although I had some good stuff going on with my writing, like my upcoming Trek eBook, I really needed to get a job.

There were two ways to go: get back into a full-time editorial position or reinvent my post-college strategy of getting some job I liked while, this time around, growing my freelance editing business and keeping the momentum going on my writing. I gave a shot at the full-time day job, but such positions are few and far between, and I didn’t get either of the positions I applied for.

So this brings us to my new job . . . I’m working part time at TeaSource! That’s just weird. For sixteen years I’ve been a customer, but now I’m brewing tea for people. I can walk to work, and, since I’m only working twenty-five to thirty hours a week, I’ve got good writing and editing time left over. I’m drinking lots of tea, I’m working on my steampunkish novel, and there are other various irons in the fire. It seems 2014 is going to be interesting . . . who knows which way I’ll stagger next.

ImageLooking back on 2013 is a mixed bag for me. In April I was laid off, and I have been without a day job ever since. A few new day-job opportunities didn’t come through, unfortunately, but my dream would be to go completely freelance anyway, working on my own writing while also doing freelance editing. So far, however, those pay checks have been few and far between. 

Looking on the bright side, though, my lay off was a good thing in many ways. The burdens placed on small publishers by upheavals within the book industry made my job increasingly stressful over the last few years, and after moving on my stress level went way down. Plus, around the same time I got a big freelance job and a contract with Simon & Schuster for a new Star Trek eBook, The More Things Change, due out this July. The extra “free” time also allowed me to pursue a pitch for a middle-grade tie-in book series for a TV show I’m not at liberty to mention. I wrote five sample chapters, an outline, and additional materials which are now being shown to publishers. It may well go nowhere, but this, along with other irons in the fire, has helped make the last several months the most active I’ve been in writing for years. That makes me happy. 

I also continue to develop my freelance editing business. I’ve had a few jobs over the last couple months, and in addition to maintaining a Yeahsure Editorial Services website and some related social media, I’m pursuing other internet opportunities. One interesting thing I’ve stumbled across is the website Thumbtack. Thumbtack facilitates connections between people who need some work done and people who can do that work. Basically, people post the available job and then receive quotes for the job from interested freelancers. The client can then pick the best freelancer for the work. I’ve now set up a page for Yeahsure Editorial Services on Thumbtack. This is a great way for people to find freelancers instead of just Googling “freelance editor.” There are small fees involved for the freelancers, which I consider a reasonable cost of doing business, like buying an ad. I look forward to the chance to bid on editing jobs.

On the writing side, I just plan on doing more this year. I’ve already started digging back into my long-suffering steampunkish novel, and I will maintain that momentum moving forward. Alongside that, I hope to write the occasional short story, both in various worlds I’ve already created as well as some new standalones. Overall I’m hopeful that 2014 will shape up to be a good year for my writing and editing!

ImageMany writers admit that it’s a constant struggle to get at the page. There are always things to distract you from the keyboard: family, friends, day jobs, chores around the house, freelance gigs with actual pay checks involved, various neuroses, and blogging about all of the above. As I’m doing right now. See what I did there? Got all meta on you.

One recurring victim of all of the above is my sort-of-a-steampunk novel. I’ve been kicking it around for a couple of years now, and all I have are three chapters, a complete outline, a bunch of notes and research, and some great feedback from friends. When I was laid off earlier this year, one of my first thoughts—after the immediate “holy shite” reaction and the disappointment following the realization that the bar next to my now former job wasn’t open yet as I walked down the sidewalk in the rain with my box of personal effects—was that I could get back to my novel. Here it is eight months later, and I’ve barely touched the thing.

Of course, I have also had a half-dozen freelance projects, worked on a couple of short stories (including “The Squid That Came to Phil’s Basement,” due out in January 2014 in Space and Time Magazine), written The More Things Change (Star Trek: The Original Series eBook due out July 2014), and written five chapters, an outline, and a series concept for a middle-grade media tie-in project that’s being shopped to publishers by an agent . . . but that is kind of the point. There are always reasons, often very good reasons, why something has been left on the stoop quietly waiting for you to swing by and pick it up. In the rain. Before bars open.

But I have finally gotten back at the thing. My first goal is to rewrite the three existing chapters while incorporating the changes suggested by beta readers. Let’s call the word-count goal 15,000. Having just started, I’ve only rewritten the first 637 words, as represented in the graphic below. I’ve already let putting lights on the solstice tree and writing this blog delay my work today, so I’m going to make shoveling the sidewalk wait for a while and get back into my alternate nineteenth century and have some fun.

 

637 / 15000
(4.25%)

ImageThe other night Sandra and I were both having trouble sleeping. She got up and went to the bathroom, and when she came back we started talking. Then I woke up and was still alone . . . I’d dreamed that she’d come back to bed.

So then she got back from the bathroom, and I told her that I’d just dreamed that she’d come back, and that it was a little weird. Then I was startled awake by one of the cats jumping onto the bed . . . I’d still been dreaming.

I thought, “Wow, that was really weird, I had a dream within a dream.” Since the cat was on the bed, I figured Sandra must have left the bedroom door open when she came back from the bathroom. So I got up, put the cat out of the room, closed the door, and went back to bed. And then I woke up. I’d still been dreaming!

I’d had a dream within a dream within a dream . . . a bit disorienting. I was still wondering if I was really awake. But I was. Sandra had gotten back for real and was already asleep.

At least I think that’s what happened. It’s kind of hard to tell.

[Original version posted August 21, 2008]

ImageWhen I was a kid three or four decades ago, I had a friend I’ll call Doug. Weird Doug. The phrase “marches to his own drummer” was made for him, and then he replaced the drummer with a kazoo player and marching with running on stilts. He was weird, but I use that as a term of respect for the oddball, the iconoclast. Weird things always happened around him. What follows are a sampling of Doug’s greatest weird hits. I swear they are true to the best of my ability to recall them after all these years. 

Once we were walking along some old railroad tracks. Hey, we grew up in the country in northern Minnesota, this was something you did. We came upon a couple of people walking the opposite direction. Doug said to them, “How far?” One of the guys replied, “A mile, mile and a half.” Then they and Doug happily resumed walking. Doug didn’t understand why I couldn’t stop laughing after this exchange. I had to explain, “You didn’t say how far to what. What were either of you talking about?” They could have been talking about where the body was for all we knew. 

Our families were good friends, and we all spent a lot of time at their house. One of those times it was decided that someone should go into town and get a big pile of food from Kentucky Fried Chicken (this was so long ago they hadn’t invented the initials “KFC” yet). One of Doug’s older brothers drove, and Doug and I went along to help. As we waited for the food in the restaurant, Doug paced around, always hyper. I stood patiently still. As he walked by in front of me, he tripped over my feet, stumbled forward, and fell to his knees as he slammed into a plate glass window which reverberated loudly throughout the restaurant. Everyone in the place turned to stare. He pulled himself to his feet using the curtains, walked back to me, and, while everyone was looking at us, said loudly, “Why’d you trip me?” By the time we got out to the car all three of us were laughing so hard that his brother couldn’t even drive, we had to just wait it out in the parking lot for a while. 

But that’s nothing. Doug was a bit of a pyromaniac and always had a Zippo lighter. Once again we were all over at his house, I think watching the Super Bowl. He went to his room to refill the fluid in his lighter. As he came back into the crowded living room, I glanced up and had to tell him, “Uh, Doug, your hand is on fire.” I kid you not. He had spilled lighter fluid on his hand, and as he came back into the room he had test flicked the Zippo and somehow didn’t notice that the fluid on his hand had ignited. It was just hanging at his side like normal . . . except for the flames. After I spoke he lifted his hand, looked at it, and then hopped around a bit as he shook it out. 

His pyromania went in odd directions. He became obsessed with making his own squibs. For nonmovie geeks, squibs are the little explosive charges used to simulate bullet hits. When I arrived at his house one day, he took me to an outbuilding to show me what he’d been working on. Either he or one of his older brothers had cut and welded a little steel plate, about the size and shape of a Petri dish. The squib (for various reasons I’m not going to detail the design of the explosive!) was placed within this and then the whole thing was strapped to his chest. He had a plastic bag of fake blood taped over the tiny charge. Then he handed me the switch to electrically detonate the squib. I found the whole thing questionable on a variety of levels, but I knew he’d just do it himself if I refused, and it would be better for someone to be with him as he set off explosives on his chest. Taking a deep breath, I hit the switch. There was a loud crack and all the fake blood somehow shot straight upwards, blasting into his face. His head snapped back in surprise. It was disturbingly realistic, and for a second I feared it wasn’t all fake blood and I think he had the same doubts . . . but it was all fake and he was fine, though our ears were ringing. That was the end of the squib experiments though. 

One year when Christmas rolled around, I was trying to figure out what to get Doug. But then I found out that his parents had gotten him a .22 rifle. You may be thinking, “Why would someone get this goofball a gun?” but this was the country, it was common to get a teenage boy a rifle as a gift, kind of a rite of passage, really (and it’s not like we’d told our parents we’d set off explosives on Doug). Problem solved, I thought, and I got him some ammo for his present. We went over to their house on Christmas Day. As we walked into the living room, there was Doug lying on the couch, a bandage on his forehead. “What happened?” we wondered. One of his older brothers said, “Doug accidentally shot himself in the head.” After he’d opened up his rifle, he’d gone out in the woods shooting. Apparently a bullet hit a tree, fragmented, and one of the pieces of shrapnel came back and hit him square in the forehead. “I pulled the trigger and then my head just snapped back,” he told us. It was actually a very small cut, and they’d pulled the sliver of bullet out themselves. And there I was with a nicely wrapped box of ammo for him. 

I can’t imagine Doug being a blog-surfing kind of guy, but, if you’re out there and have stumbled across this, how you doing, man? Remember that time—years before you got the rifle—you were moving that end table and accidentally hit me in the head with it? And how much my head wound bled? And how your mom almost fainted at the sight? Good times, bro, good times.

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