Monday, May 09, 2011

Phickle Thoughts

So, I've finally started watching The West Wing. It feels like a very epic undertaking. I've seen a couple episodes here or there before, but I always said I wanted to just watch it all at once, to do it justice. 2 episodes in, and I've had to pause the show several times to comment on its awesomeness. Yay.
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Also, it kind of makes me want to be president. I'm not folksy, or good at telling stories that prove a point, or even really insightful like President Bartlett. But I kind of aspire to be that. Sigh.
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So we're halfway through this pregnancy thing. The other night we babysat for neighbors who have a 3 month old. It was a little preview slice of life with a toddler and a baby. The baby was perfect. And I still found myself thinking "what have we gotten ourselves into?"
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I felt the baby kick for the first time the other day!
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I find it kind of hard to imagine how much I'll love the next kid. Mostly because how much I love my kid now has just continued to grow. When he was born, I loved him more than anything. Now, it's significantly more than it was then. It's a pretty cool thing: the heart's unending capacity for love. Looking forward to experiencing further growth.
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Finally, I'm still in this writing challenge thing. I even won immunity this past week. It's just been so much fun, and frankly, a real blast getting to read the cool stuff that other people come up with.

Anyway, this week's challenge was... rough. Basically, you had to write a story in which a miscommunication caused things to have a very different result than they otherwise would have had. Limit was 1200 words. It was a tough challenge because, especially when you're writing, it's tough to have the reader both 1. know what Character A intended in the communication and B. why Character B didn't understand. Plus, let's be honest, miscommunications don't really make for compelling plot arcs.

But I was pretty happy with what I came up with, so I'm gonna share it here. Enjoy!
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There was an energetic heat in the air that summer. We were all “Surfin’ USA” and my attic apartment smelt like ozone. I kept the fans blasting, so the computers wouldn’t overheat. It was a miracle that I ever managed to keep those old boxes running. The fans drowned out the sound of the Cubs, but that was just as well in ’63.

We’d moved ahead quickly in previous years: the great leap forward. They were primitive by today’s standards, but we could hardly believe what a computer could do. Sure, the Commies beat us into space, but I downloaded nudie pictures of Sophia Loren and a pirated version of Please, Please Me. Here’s to the triumph of Democracy.

I would stay up late almost every night that summer, my room glowing out into the dark, while Mr. and Mrs. Kaspersinski and their three little rotund dzieci rolled off to sleep. The dog, a white, yapping ball of fur during the daylight hours – poked and prodded by fat, sticky fingers – would find its quiet way to the top of the stairs, scurry into my room, and sit himself on my bed. He’d stay there, watching as I typed away at the keyboard. When finally I would pull myself across the room and sink down into the depths of sleep he would still be there, laying at the foot of the bed. His nightly sojourn away from the family was our little secret. Back then, the dog was the only one who got me. I was always on my own. Mom died when I was little and Dad wasn’t big on parenting. I’d started renting when I went off to school in the city, and hadn’t been home many times since.

In those days maybe a tenth of the country had a computer, and of those, maybe one in a hundred were using them for anything other than solitaire. We were on our way, but the technology was new. For me, computers opened up a passage, leading to little enclaves of new reality, sheltered from the world of heavy manufacturing and rubbery bratwurst – the world of the Kaspersinskis. Mrs. Kaspersinski would ascend the stairs once a week or so, broom in hand, pretending to sweep the little hall to the apartment I had rented. Her eyes bulged at the lengths of wire running like vines across the floor towards their vital energy sources. They hadn’t even thought to charge me for utilities, but I pitched in; juice was cheaper back then, but I used a lot of it.

The Kaspersinskis might never have understood, but I was connecting with a new breed of people. Chat rooms and instant messenger were the future and there was an elite group of us exploring the digital frontier. We even developed our own abbreviated language: “IMHO, LOL, L8R.” Most of us were men. There was a fair mix of suburbanite dads looking for an escape, ex-military technophile types, and students, like myself. We spent days discussing Ursula Andress and episodes of The Twilight Zone.

We all had handles at the time. No one knew who the others really were, and we liked it that way. So long as you had something to share – music, games, witticisms about the flaws of Dr. No – you were good in our eyes. You could be whoever you wanted, say whatever you wanted. It was the Wild West piped into our rooms, and we were fast on the draw. It was a world with impunity.

There was one week, towards the end of the summer, when things stopped moving. It was hot. The air was so heavy that the few insects that summoned the energy to fly found themselves suspended, heavenly bodies in the aether, a mere fraction of their regular wing speed required for flight, far greater energies expended avoiding the forces of combustion. Even the traffic online had ground down. All those suburbanites had taken their families to the lake. With the lack of material, I quickly ate through my usual forums, and started surfing around for something new. I stumbled onto a site recommended by one of the military guys. Most of it was too political. Stuff I didn’t get and didn’t really care to. But some of it was true slice of life for a guy like me. People who didn’t belong, searching out other lost souls.

I spent a day chatting with one guy. The Kaspersinskis were staying with a relative up north of Milwaukee, and I’d had the home to myself. I had set out that morning to buy some groceries, but only made it as far as the station on the corner. It was far too hot to go any further. I stocked up on cherry soda and chips and headed back to the attic around 11. Things started casually enough. He called himself LeeO, kind of like the lion. You could tell he was new to the world. He didn’t catch a lot of the lingo the first time through, and I found myself explaining most of the abbreviations to him.

He was married and had a kid, with another on the way. You might think a guy like that had it put together pretty well, but he seemed more desperate than that. Something was incomplete in his life. I knew how that felt, so we got to talking. Honestly, it felt good to open up a little. And he helped me see things weren’t so bad, provided some real perspective. Sure, I may have been a loner, but he was seriously dark. It was like a game of reverse upsmanship: every bad thing that I threw out there, he came up with something worse. Eventually I joined in, trying to out-bleak him.

“I’ve only got one parent, and he doesn’t even know I exist,” I wrote.
“Could be worse,” he replied, “He could die and leave you with the funeral costs.”
“LOL. What you got?”
“Here’s depressing: nobody knows I exist.”
“You could always make a name for yourself,” I suggested, “Shoot someone famous. jk.”

He just typed a smile, and our game was done.

If I had to pick one point in my life where things started to turn around, it probably would have to be that conversation. I started school again soon afterward, and with that healthy dose of perspective I began to make some real friends. We started up a computer club, and I got along with a bunch of the guys. We bonded over the tragedy that fall, and I still keep in touch with some of the group. I never heard from LeeO again, but I owe him a debt of gratitude. Sometimes a stranger can come into your life for the briefest of moments and it can have all the impact in the world.

If everybody had an ocean
Across the USA

6 comments:

mariatrueblood said...

I actually really liked how this turned out. The whole post really but your challenge in particular.

Stephanie said...

Loved the story.

Beau said...

plus, it won Matt immunity, again. He's been humble, but his writing has been phenomenal.

empeterson said...

How long does this writing challenge go?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Until I'm eliminated. And/or the final challenge. There are just 7 people left.

spookymilk said...

I liked this challenge specifically because of the degree of difficulty. A mere miscommunication is definitely not the most interesting genesis for a story, so coming up with a great concept was going to be harder than ever.