Sunday, June 18, 2017

Night Life

A culture is only as great as its dreams, and boy, do I have a lot of dreams.

At various points in my life, my dreams have been so vivid and compelling to me that I have kept dream journals to get it all down before the morning light banishes their shadows. I've long toyed with the idea of publishing them, and well, with my other three novels currently languishing in limbo, there's no time like the present. Transmissions from Agent J is my ridiculous compilation of highlights from my nocturnal doings, offered for your perusal as fiction.

But is it "fiction"? These dreams really occurred, so does that make the book non-fiction since I'm merely reporting the facts as they happened inside my skull? But since the events in the dreams are, of course, imaginary (depending on your interpretations of quantum physics, morphic resonance, and Jungian consciousness), would fiction not to be an apt way to describe them? It depends on where you're standing, I suppose.

Since the book relays both the private bric-a-brac of my subconscious dream life and personal details of my waking life, you might even find yourself mentioned within its pages, dear reader. (To keep some of the juicy gossip contained in the tome semi-curtailed, I'm thinking that it'll be released in print form only, no e-book, unless I change my mind between now and then.)

The idea isn't original (none of my ideas are) - William S. Burroughs published excerpts of his own dream journals as a book called My Education. But whereas Uncle Bill was a well known figure whose life was a matter of already-studied public record, the references to people and events in my own life are opaque to the reader. So, my book contains some expository backstory to explain the dreams when necessary. In so doing, this random holographic piecemeal mess of self-analysis just might be the closest thing to an autobiography I will ever write.

Don't ask me when the book's coming out. Soon. Very soon. I throw you this pork chop to stall for time while I finish Solar Station A, Matilda Heron, and The Tract of Blood.

An excerpt now follows; imagine 150 pages of this cryptic nonsense and whip out that credit card, Clyde.

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It's always the same and it's always different. Recurring dreams of an small but luxurious office, laid out rather like a section of an upscale hotel lobby with comfy plush chairs. Everything is black. Black upholstery, black curtains, black glass table. A man in a black business suit sits at a black desk and asks for my report. Ostensibly I am reporting on the minutiae of what I've been up to lately in my day-to-day life - the usual humdrum stuff like going to the grocery, feeding the cat, skimming leaves off the pool. But in the dream I am well aware that I am speaking in code of a sort, and the man understands, via reading between the lines, on what I am really reporting. I don't even know. But he knows. Evidently I am doing good work, because the meetings usually end with his face beaming and rising to shake my hand. There are often other, shadowy, figures also seated on the periphery and when he stands up, they take that as their cue to stand up too.

The man's office has a waiting room outside it, but it's only appeared in a couple of the many dreams. It's one of those elements that I can clearly see where the subconscious is drawing from: it was a dead ringer for the waiting room outside the office of dingbat psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi on The Sopranos. It even had a sculpture on a pedestal, but unlike Melfi's, it was of a castle with little figurines inside of it. You could tell by looking through its windows that it was fully realized on the interior, like a dollhouse.

The man's face is never quite the same from dream to dream. Sometimes older, sometimes younger, sometimes nebulous and seen-but-not-seen.

Sometimes the man asks pointed questions. I remember one in particular where he was very interested in a silly photo of plastic toy ducks I'd posted on Twitter. For weeks after the dream, I would stare at the ducks, wondering just what it was that the man found so significant. The ducks just smiled back in their beaky way, enigmatic as the Mona Lisa.

---

I am at the Publix supermarket in St. Petersburg, Florida. The one in the shopping center at the corner of Park and Bryan Dairy. There's a sign, hand-painted in an old-fashioned professional way as one would see on a 1960s jeweler's window. The sign says words to the effect of: "Yes, the world famous Buffalo Bob from TV's "Howdy Doody Show" is an employee here. The management asks that you treat him the same as anybody else and do NOT ask for an autograph and do NOT mention the show to him."

I push my cart around the aisles. Sure enough, there he is. Much older. Hair completely white, but obviously him. We share a glance and I think about asking him where the marshmallow fluff is, or something, just so I can talk to him. He looks up from unpacking crates of cans and glares at me, as if to say "Don't do it", as if he can sense the thought. I give him a polite nod and keep shopping.

---

When I was a toddler I developed, as many kids do (or once seemed to do), an "imaginary friend". It was a ghostly woman named Angela. My parents asked me how I came up with that name, I said I didn't, she's real, she came to me, and that's her name. Angela was the classic "Guardian Angel" who would cheer me in times of sadness and advise me in times of trouble, but her advice was often mischievous and anti-authoritarian. It wasn't until many years later I realized the obvious "angel" reference in her name, but this is something I was thoroughly unaware of as a toddler; I don't even think I knew what angels were at that age.

Angela said her spirit was present in all women, but some more than others. So from the age of four, I have assessed women for the degree of Angela-ness in them. Sure enough, it is subtle in some women but telegraphing loudly from others. It has nothing to do with their appearance, it's simply a recognizable life force. Some even seem to know it themselves, and behave as if they are Angela herself, or doing her bidding as her agent.

My "Angela dreams" are so numerous they could fill a book in themselves. There was a long spell in my teens where the dreams didn't occur as much, but they returned to make regular appearances in my early twenties and have continued unabated ever since. Usually there's no "plot", just a visitation from Angela with her talking to me. Occasionally she shows up and crashes other dreams, like a director interrupting a film scene by walking onto the set and yelling, "Cut!"

---

It's a sunny day and Ellen and I are sitting in the grass naked in Lexington Cemetery. This is in itself not an exceptional detail, because it's something we actually sometimes did. It was a big cemetery, very wooded, often completely unpopulated, and well, you know. What is an exceptional detail is that Ellen was, in the dream, somehow remotely DJing a live radio show via her smartphone. (Note: smartphones did not exist during the early 90s when we would undertake our skyclad cemetery picnics.) It was a classic "frustration dream": we'd kiss for a couple minutes, then she'd break away to check her phone. "Hang on, it's the top of the hour, I've got to do a Station ID" and "hold on, this song ends cold, I have to listen closely for the segue into De La Soul." After awhile, I started suggesting really long songs, like "This Corrosion" by Sisters of Mercy and Led Zeppelin's "Achilles' Last Stand". This worked for awhile, but then a record starting skipping, like stuck in a skip-loop. "Fuck," she said. "Now I have to walk down to the station and stop it." She dashed off, nude, out of the cemetery and down the street.

---

I'm in a restaurant with Dockery and some guy I don't know, sort of a slight variation a friend of Dock's named Meredith, otherwise known as "Mirth" because that's how the local rednecks, Meredith included, pronounce it. This quasi-Mirth is drinking from a Germanic porcelain beer stein the size of a mailbox. Dockery and Mirth do all the talking while I nurse a bottle of some kind of beer in a green bottle and realize I'm missing the latest episode of Mad Men. I whip out the Kindle and start watching it.

It's one of those times I wish it were possible to record dreams, because right there, inside my skull, played three-quarters of an episode of Mad Men that does not exist, at least in our world, and dammit, I want to watch it again. There was a lot of interaction in it between Jim Cutler and Betty Draper, who, so far as I can think, never actually interacted in the series.

I have also dreamed of reading entire books, and I awaken and wonder, where is that book now? Where is that episode of Mad Men? My waking brain has difficulty enough writing a book, and I'm now to believe that my subconscious mind generated one, in real time? This is the sort of puzzling evidence that convinces me that not all dreams are the synaptic flatulence of too many chia seeds before bedtime; sometimes we really are going... somewhere else.

---

Unfamiliar hotel. I'm in the company of a girlfriend I don't recognize. She is cold and grim and doesn't have much Angela in her. Some sort of scientist's convention is taking place. Continually introduced to a bunch of pompous people I don't know. As they blather on about organic chemistry I keep looking over to a table loaded with food, trying to find a good moment to break away from the conversation and get some baklava. The girlfriend senses my antsiness and stares daggers at me. I just want some baklava, dammit.

---

I am in a restaurant in Taos, New Mexico, eating lunch with Sherry. Gradually I become aware that there's a man, an old man, puckered, snarled-up face like he's bitten into a Sour Patch Kid concealed in his lasagna. I tell Sherry about it and tell her not to look over. Of course, she does. "That's Donald Rumsfeld," she whispers in astonishment. And it was. He was eating alone and recklessly chewed his food without much table manners.

Fact: Donald Rumsfeld does live in Taos, and I was aware of this, vaguely, prior to the dream. The front cover of one of his books, "Known and Unknown", shows himself on his Plaza Blanca ranch there. The book's title derives from a statement he infamously made, which goes:

"There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know."

This is one of the most algebraically elegant, illuminating, and jaw-droppingly truthful things I've ever heard come out of a politician's mouth, and here it is coming from a conservative Republican generally regarded as a shill for the military and mega-corporations.

I grokked Rumsfeld's remarks perfectly, but most people couldn't make sense of it and immediately his comments became the butt of jokes around the water cooler and among the media talking heads, who said he was talking gobbledygook. That's about the beginning of when I really started feeling like I was living in John Carpenter's They Live and I'm the guy with the special sunglasses.

---

DeForest Kelley is fiddling with some weird device in a hotel bar. I sit at the next adjacent stool and watch with interest, determined to play it cool and not ask for his autograph - perhaps having learned my lesson from the Buffalo Bob dream. To my surprise, he glances up and says "Oh, hi, Jeff" in his gentle voice, then goes back to his tinkering.

Fact: I did actually meet DeForest Kelley once, at a convention in Louisville in 1976. He wore a bright lavender leisure suit with shirt open showing gold chains around his neck.

---

Greyhound bus station in Atlanta. I've been here many times during my hobo years in the 1980s. I am waiting for the bus, waiting for a woman, I think, to arrive, yet for some reason I am carrying my old brown travel bag as if I am going somewhere. A group of young black men start heckling my goth platform shoes (which I did not wear during my hobo years.)

The bus never arrives. I grow impatient. It's suddenly night. I feel very cold and start to sense that I have no home and nowhere to go. I wake up wondering what I would have done next.

---

I dream that the phone rings. I answer it. An old man with a deep crispy voice tells me he wants to buy my paintings. Like, all of them. I lay there in bed debating whether to take this guy seriously or not when I wake up and realize the phone really is ringing. It's a woman from the cable company letting me know I'm about to get cut off if I don't pay my bill, but in the background I can hear a man speaking with the same voice as in my dream. After I've been awake for awhile longer, I realize that it was probably a TV playing. That old man's voice seems to haunt me in movies I watch - it's reminiscent of the creepy voice who tells Jim Garrison's young daughter she's won a beauty contest in Oliver Stone's JFK and the suicide hotline guy that gets prank-called in the film Basquiat.

Come to think of it, the voice is also rather like DeForest Kelley's.

---

I wasn't in Mexico for long, but dreams about it recur often.

Some explanation first: during my "missing years" hoboing around in the 1980s, I decided the time had come to make a pilgrimage to Mexico and follow in the footsteps of my heroes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. And so one morning, then, with little planning and forethought I jumped into my beat-up 1981 Chevy Citation and proceeded on my adventure - without a map.

Back then, I was definitely faint of heart when it came to drinking. I was strictly an amateur drinker and hard liquors and I didn't get along. So, what do I do when I find myself in a dangerous pulqueria somewhere in the bad part of Ciudad Juarez? Of course, I order one of the hardest liquors available in this spiral arm of the Milky Way: a glass of mezcal, straight. I sipped it gingerly, trying to find something "cool" about it. I failed. It tasted like burnt urine and kerosene to me. The bartender, obviously amused by this Gringo kid, kept watching me to see my reaction. I tried to play it casual, tipping the glass far back against my mouth to make it look like I was taking bigger gulps than I really was. I whistled along with the conjunto music, trying to second-guess the melody and make it seem like I was familiar with the song, in some ludicrous attempt to "fit in".

Gradually I became aware that I was the subject of whispered and increasingly sneering discussion by every other man in the place, and so I decided to high-tail it out and exit stage left before these surly-looking braceros and maquiladora workers decided to carve their initials on my spleen. Determined not to leave the drink unfinished, I downed it and exited the pulqueria - then I went to my motel and was up with pulqueria all night.

There was a painting of a nude woman on the wall behind the bartender, lounging proudly on a red bed. I can still see it clearly etched in my mind after all this time. Years later, during a nude photography session, I would take a photo of Erica in an identical pose, unintentionally, and only upon seeing the photo did I realize it was exactly like the painting - down to every last detail. But then I came to understand it was weirder than that - the painting didn't just look like Erica, the painting was Erica. Even though I was in Mexico before she was born, and the painting may have been made even before I was born.

Many, many years later, to my shock, a band called Deadbolt recorded a story-song called "It Was You" that basically tells this exact same incident right down to being set in Juarez, even. Convinced that some powerful forces were indeed at play here, I subsequently did my part to play ball with this conspiracy and worked the incident into my novel The Invisible Ranch.

Dreams of the pulqueria, and of the painting, still recur to this day. In some of them I am welcomed as a friend and a regular, in others I am, more realistically, fighting for my life. In still others, I am not myself but some other person, and watching the events from a distance as if watching a film. From my dreamer's perspective I try to influence the me-but-not-me person and get them to get the hell out of there while he still can. In these dreams, I am fully aware that I am dreaming, and my perspective keeps shifting from myself sleeping in bed to the me-but-not-me guy in the dream.

The moral of all this might be that Mezcal is powerful stuff. Tread lightly upon its footpath.

---

There's an outdoor nut vendor and I consider buying some cashews. The man is cleancut and smiling. I look down at the cashews, pondering my purchase. I look up at the man and he suddenly is groteque-looking and covered in filth. I look down at the cashews again and they are also now rotting and moldy. He yells something rude as I walk away.

---

Walking past the living room and I notice there is a sizable group of people on my front porch, all peering in the window. They get excited as I come closer, and they jump up and down with glee, pointing their cellphones at me. I open the door and greet them with a bemused grin and a haughty "Yes?"

Everyone starts talking at once. The group is a mix of all ages, from the elderly to elementary schoolers. From their wall of jabber I begin to glean that they are players of an online scavenger-hunt game not unlike Pokémon Go, except the sole purpose of this game is to lead people to my house. I woke up bounding forward like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, hugely relieved to find it was only a dream.

---

Two of the very earliest dreams I can remember having: one was literally as a baby in the playpen, barely able to walk, and by now my rememberings of it are actually duplications of my teenage self remembering my toddler self remembering it. Nevertheless, as I had photographic memory back then, it's still vivid today. It was the sort of dream you might expect a baby to have: I was toddling on uncertain legs in my baby shoes along a giant bridge that was, yes, a rainbow, leading across a vast chasm under surreal pinkish skies. My parents were with me, but suddenly they disappeared and I went into a blind panic. A giant monster, something like a prehistoric Styracosaurus, blocked my path ahead. I heard a woman's voice, not my mother's, reassuring everything was fine. The monster turned and fled. This may, in fact, be a proto-Angela dream.

The other dream was a while later. I was probably five. I ran out in front of a school bus and was hit by it. My field of vision became like a dirty parchment with a dim bug-bulb shining through it from the other side, and I could hear other people and children chattering around me, but it was muffled, echoey, and indiscernable, as if underwater, or a cliched cinematic effect signifying half-consciousness.

Another female voice, again possibly an early "precovery" appearance of Angela, suddenly spoke clearly in my head. She uttered a phrase I would, thirty years later, hear on a Dean Martin record which became one of me and Dockery's private in-jokes. She said, "Find me."

---

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Communication Lag

I've been fiddling around with the final-final-final draft of my science fiction opus, Solar Station A, and I have to confess it makes me more than a little sad to see the process of this particular volume come to a close.

That's because Solar Station A has gained something of a mythical status as being my "Chinese Democracy" - that ill-fated Guns N' Roses album which the band began recording in 1984 and didn't finish until a month away from the year 2009. Along that crazy-path the album took, there was much buildup, hype, fanfare, drama, and constant band lineup changes. (And of course, in the end, the album pretty much sucked and disappointed everyone.)

Solar Station A began its fermentation from the very start of the JSH Book Club. In 2011, I made a list of the pulp-fiction genres I wanted the first six books to represent - hard-boiled detective, American pioneer, western, war, science fiction, and pirate. (I have successfully ticked all these off the list except the war novel, and you may in fact be pleased to know that I currently do not have one planned.) I knew very early on what the title was - I didn't know why, I just liked the sound of it.

Soon a very rudimentary outline was formed, which was that a new scientific innovation has suddenly allowed ordinary citizens to zip around the solar system in spaceships of their own. But when they get out there, they discover that... well, let's leave it that. The lead was a mild-mannered guy who is appalled to learn that most of the people colonizing space are the same sort of rude people he'd hoped to escape by leaving Earth.

I was certain enough about the book's forward motion to include a brief synopsis of it in a "Coming Soon" section of The Moleskin Checklist, written in 2012 and published on January 1, 2013. Another book that didn't yet exist, The Bartender, was listed alongside it. That book made it to press; the other lingered, simmered, steeped.

Throughout the summer of 2013, I spoke often of the "final draft" of it being in the works, and coming "by summer's end", and then "by year's end." It never appeared. I am almost always late on deadlines, so it didn't seem too unseemly at this point. But by 2014, I had ceased talking about it entirely. And by 2015, it was becoming something of a joke, with only an occasional mention of it coming out "someday, maybe, I dunno."

Then, two things occurred that acted as catalysts: One, I made the decision to change the lead character from a man to a woman. Suddenly the writing flowed with this alteration and seemed, to me anyway, to be a major improvement of the story. Some people will inevitably say I don't know how to write a female character, and to them I will inevitably say, "go suck an egg."

The other factor was something that no one, myself included, could have foreseen in 2012: the election of Donald Trump. Since Solar Station A takes place in the very-near future, my idea of this fictional universe's history would be dramatically different than what I'd first envisioned. Giving the book a dystopian dose of Trump added some fuel to my fire to complete the damn thing and get it over with once and for all.

The curse hasn't stopped there, though. I originally announced the book would finally appear in January, then February, then March, and now it's pretty darn clear I'm gonna miss that deadline too. But we're close. Real close. Close enough to smell it. Why, I'm even tweeting teaser excerpts and everything. The coffee mugs and t-shirts can't be far behind now, right?

But will the book be any good? Oh, well....you know. It's pulp fiction, baby, short, sweet, and sassy. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. It ain't Dostoyevsky but hey, what is? Besides Dostoyevsky, I mean. Buy it when it comes out and give it scathing reviews!

(Meanwhile, I've already turned my attention down the road to the next books: the also hanging-in-limbo publication of my dream journals, called Transmissions From Agent J, my "Great American Werewolf Novel", Undomesticated, and a peculiar little number about an 18th-century actress called Matilda Heron.)