This Used To Be My Playground, Part 16: A Fantastic Voyage With Cousin Bob (Loser Chronicles, Vol. II)

“I have thought of fifteen hundred or two thousand incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet. I think that that stock will still be complete and unimpaired when I finish these memoirs, if I ever finish them.” – Mark Twain.

It was one of those rare three-cigar afternoons of the early spring, and I sat mulling over my Great 90’s Playlist. It dawned on me that I seem to spend as much time thinking/writing about “This Used To Be My Playground” as I do crafting the content itself…

#127. “Selling The Drama” – Live

Every once in awhile, I am confronted with the question what it is, exactly, I’m trying to do with this particular blog series. It has taken an unplanned drift from pop-culture commentary to almost pure autobiography, and the songs that are ostensibly under review have an increasingly tenuous connection to the life events I’m writing about. If all of these musings and reminiscences were scribbled down in a personal journal, the question of purpose wouldn’t be raised. But I’m throwing all of this out there in a public forum, and for some time I didn’t have a satisfactory answer to my own question of “why.” What is the point of an autobiography of a non-noteworthy person? I am the opposite of the guy in the Dos Equis commercial…

…He has two kids…he drives a ten-year-old Corolla…he teaches middle school and watches Top Chef…he is…The Most Boring Man in the World. “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do…I prefer…whatever’s on sale. Stay thirsty, my friends.”

So why is this little project – originally slated as something to keep me occupied during my summer break of 2009 – now celebrating the start of its third year, and still not halfway done? (And, if you’ve noticed, is now unfolding in almost real-time. I wrote about April/May of 1993 in April/May of 2010. We’re now in the spring of 2011 reviewing the spring of 1994. I gotta work faster. I will work faster.) What demon is driving this engine? The answer is pretty simple. The concepts of me writing this stuff and a dog licking his testicles have many parallels, but first and foremost: We do it because we can. I like to write. Internet technology allows me to have the illusion of an audience. Those two things are enough to keep me going, and I do hope the music I’m selecting is not lost in all the navel-gazing. I want the reader to let the songs trigger their own memories, or at least be aware of how different their “memory songs” are from mine. (You won’t find a lot of Fugazi or Tupac on my playlist. I wasn’t that cool.) [ED. NOTE: I’m more realistic about my reasons for writing this in Part 18, written three years after this entry.]

That being established, the next issue is – if this is truly an autobiography, how bluntly honest I should be about myself (and others)? I set out to tell the unvarnished truth all the time, but I find myself dissembling and omitting. And if I downplay certain unpleasant truths, what is being exaggerated on the other end of the spectrum? To what extent am I merely “selling the drama”? (See above, re: tenuous connections.) And the answer to that is — it doesn’t matter. It’s my story. If you think you can write multiple 2500-word chapters of unflinching honesty about yourself, and also manage not to exaggerate anything, I’d love to see your attempt. (Of course, you could simply lie to me and say it was total honesty and no exaggeration. And therein lies the true magic of autobiography.)

These musings have been triggered by my acquisition of the recently-published Autobiography of Mark Twain. (It’s the first of three-volume set, and it’s a five-pound, 700-page monster, chock-full of Twain’s own ramblings and copious amounts of explanatory notes and appendices. I’ve only just finished the 58-page introduction, and look forward to a pleasant summer wrestling with the rest.) Twain struggled with similar issues of honesty and exaggeration. He dealt with the question of being honest about other people by not allowing the full text to be published until he’d been dead for 100 years (he died in 1910), and long after the death of anyone whose feelings would be hurt. The question of being honest about himself was something he never quite resolved, so he took a compromise position of being honest about not being honest. And exaggeration was Twain’s stock-in-trade, so no one expected anything different.

An excerpt from a letter from one of Twain’s friends in response to his idea of writing an autobiography: “…I fancy you may tell the truth about yourself. But all of it? The black truth, which we all know of ourselves in our hearts, or only the whitey-brown truth of the pericardium, or the nice, whitened truth of the shirtfront? Even you won’t tell the black heart’s-truth. The man who could do it would be famed to the last day the sun shone upon.”

One last note before I let go of your sleeve on this topic. Twain’s autobiography refused to be tied to chronology. He wanted to be able to wander all through his life without a map. If an anecdote from his boyhood reminded him of an incident that took place when he was in his forties, then he would tell about it right then and there, and then return to his boyhood (or his twenties, or the previous week.) I have sadly committed to a more structured format. So many tales have occurred to me, and then I think, “Damn, I already wrote about the fall of 1992.” But Twain’s loose approach has at least given me permission to be as rambling and discursive as I wish, and not worry too much if I leave something out. And my promise to you, Gentle Reader, is that I will cleave as closely to the whitey-brown truth as I can.

#128. “Girls & Boys” – Blur

An early preview of the “Britpop”that would envelop even the American music scene in another eighteen months. I heard this song occasionally, kicking around on KWOD 106.5, or popping up late nights on MTV, never quite cracking the mainstream. I did not, at the time, pay any attention to the artist or what album it was from. Its repetitiveness skirted the line between catchy and irritating.

#129. “Vasoline” – Stone Temple Pilots

These guys would not go away. This was the fifth in what would end up being a run of seven monster hit singles in ’93-’94. The white-hot hatred they engendered amongst alt-rock diehards during the“they’re just a Pearl Jam rip-off” era of late ’92 was starting to fade, and while we would never love, or even much like, the band themselves, we grudgingly accepted that they had some good songs.

#130. “Backwater” – Meat Puppets

We learned in a previous entry that one of the primary reasons I got dumped was my complacency in remaining in my childhood bedroom in my parents’ house and my refusal to “grow up.” But Em and I were a pot and kettle that shared a very similar shade of ebony. She herself had thus far made only one token attempt to break free of the parental household. It seemed the mere attempt to live in her own place with a roommate garnered her grown-up points, even though she became tearfully homesick after a few weeks and fled her new living situation. I found out (much) later that she was hoping all along that I would man up and move in with her, but even though I was technically an employed adult, that particular move was still as foreign a concept to me as opening a 401K or having a gallstone removed.

Some time around her 20th birthday (this would have put it circa February of ’94), she acquired a sketchy, dirt-cheap apartment in the backwaters of east Marysville, and an even sketchier, dirtier roommate. I spent a few evenings there watching Frasier (still in its first season!) and being generally uncomfortable. The roommate was a piece of work. She somewhat resembled Janine, the Ghostbusters receptionist memorably played by Annie Potts. She wore glasses about a size-and-a-half too big for her face, was a self-proclaimed “lush” who emptied a box (yes, box) of red wine per night, collected “small things” (she had a shelf full of random small items), and provided a convenient excuse for Em to move out when she (the roommate) came home with a raging case of scabies from her job as an attendant at a sub-standard nursing home.

#131. “Fantastic Voyage” – Coolio

Remaining at home with her parents (for the time being), but working a full-time job that would provide decent independent living for any twenty-something single gal certainly provided Em with disposable income. So when she decided she wanted to go to Hawaii, it only took about four or five months of saving to get a travel agency package of first-class plane tickets and hotel lodgings right on the beach in Honolulu, and have enough spending money to act like minor central European royalty.

By the time the arrangements were finalized, we had split up. But paid-for is paid-for, so we decided to be mature and go as “friends.” We hoped to model our new relationship on Jerry and Elaine. On the first of June, we jet-setted out for a week of melancholy-tinged fun in the sun. A “fantastic voyage,” if you will. (See above, re: tenuous connections.) The in-flight movie was Four Weddings And A Funeral. And we did have fun. Fine dining. Shopping at the massive three-story Ala Moana center. A visit to Pearl Harbor. Snorkeling in Hanauma Bay. (Out among the waves and coral was the first of two times in my life that I’ve been propositioned by a gentleman of the gay persuasion. I was too freaked out to be flattered. I’m flattered now, looking back on it, of course.) Plus a couple of days set aside for just laying around Waikiki Beach. Any illusions I had about a week in tropical paradise healing the rifts in our union were quickly dashed. Em put a strict moratorium on any “relationship talk” during the course of the trip. And the trip was pretty much on her dime, so I had to comply.
This Used To Be Me — When it was still acceptable to have my shirt off in public. On closer examination, it was probably a bad idea even then

The one miscalculation on the itinerary was a bus tour around the island of Oahu – and folks, the island of Oahu is much bigger than you would think, so the bus tour became an incredibly tedious full-day slog through the “non-tourist” parts of central Oahu. Much of Hawaii doesn’t look like the Hawaii of popular imagination. The lush bits are around the edges. The central portions look a lot like the northern California I had just left, only with pineapple instead of tomatoes growing in the endless fields. Our bus driver, “Cousin Bob,” wasn’t shy about working the on-board P.A. system, either. Most tour guides are content with a quick “if you’ll look to your left, you’ll see the start of the trail that leads to the top of Diamond Head, which winds its way over 750 feet above sea level” and then leave you to ooh and aah. Not Cousin Bob. If he pointed out Diamond Head, he included lengthy lectures on mineralogy, Polynesian mythology, a detailed comparison of real estate prices on Oahu and Maui, an unrelated tangent on a piece of statuary he bought for his front yard, a second unrelated tangent about this guy he knew at bus-driving school, etc. His long-winded narration concluded just in time for him to point out the next interesting sight, and expound at length on it and any other unfiltered thought that flitted into his skull.

Also on the bus were a gaggle of sixteen- to eighteen-year-old Bible camp students, out from under close adult supervision for probably the first time in their lives. I thought only animals could smell hormones until I was trapped on a bus with a group of co-ed repressed Christian teens, trying to rub up against each other without looking like they were trying to rub up against each other, and filling the bus with exclamations of “hecka cool” and “gosh!” The musky pheromone scent — a blend of giddiness, shame, and guilt-heavy erections — was almost thick enough to see.

Taking a break from Cousin Bob

Before I knew it, the whole trip was over, and we were winging our way home, red, peeling, and sandy. The in-flight movie was Guarding Tess. The knot in my stomach over the break-up began to grow.

#132. “Loser” – Beck

Late in the evening Monday after we got back, I went over to her house to plead my case to stay together one last time. It didn’t work. Like a lot of guys at that age, I really believed there was something I could do or say, some magic button I could push, or some puzzle I could unravel and be rewarded with a continuation of how things were. It was almost as if she had nothing to do with it. It was all on me, I had to pull the plane out of the death-spiral. The reality was that it had everything to do with her, and she wasn’t budging. She wanted out. I ended that evening on the same front porch that I had ended hundreds of previous evenings with her, only this time I was sobbing and clinging to her. Not the most dignified display. She finally managed to peel me off (to her credit, her eyes were full of tears, too) and send me on my way. I’m sure she had to wash the shirt she was wearing immediately.

The rest of the month is a dismal haze. I remember O.J. Simpson fleeing the authorities in his white Bronco a few days later. (The memory is mostly auditory – I was at work and listened to the coverage on the radio.) I remember Pierce Brosnan being announced as the next James Bond. I remember it taking the Houston Rockets seven games to knock out the Knicks, me watching the games sprawled listlessly on my family room floor, a tiny electric fan blowing in my face, my stomach knotted. And I remember all of the songs listed above, but especially “Loser” by the oddball little newcomer Beck, which was the soundtrack to my hazy June. Its surreal stream-of-consciousness lyrics and bluesy acoustic slide guitar played in my head incessantly – the chorus rendered in my own voice as bitterly as possible. I made another couple of deeply pathetic visits to Em’s house that month, to once again try out the “Jerry-&-Elaine-friends” relationship.

It lasted until I discovered she was already seeing someone else. Then I left, and never went back. I had some pride.

I didn’t even set eyes on her for another year. She vanished, became as ephemeral as a ghost, a figment of my anguished imagination, and I was alone as I’d ever felt. I’m a loser, baby.

Life went on. I’ll tell you a little more the next time you stop by. It gets sort of depressing for awhile, but I’ll try to make it funny (for both of our sakes, Gentle Reader.)

And hey — get your copy of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 if you have the slightest literary bent or take an interest in the history of American letters.

I’m no nearer to opening a 401K, by the way.

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1 Comment

Filed under Music -- 1990s, This Used To Be My Playground

One response to “This Used To Be My Playground, Part 16: A Fantastic Voyage With Cousin Bob (Loser Chronicles, Vol. II)

  1. Pingback: This Used To Be My Playground, Part 18: Never Bring Laundry To A Mud Fight | Holy Bee of Ephesus

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