Happy Birthday, Eyeball Kid

Last week I got this limited edition pressing of Tom Waits’s The Mule Variations on Discogs:


Just today I found out from my good friend Dan that this week is the album’s 20th anniversary.

This is a pretty damn good track-by-track retrospective of what may have been his finest album ever. Tom Waits fans tend to divide themselves into periods. I have friends who like the oldest stuff best, friends who prefer the Small Change period or the era of Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years. Me, I love all of it. Even a couple of tracks from those early years, when he showed more promise than payoff.

The Mule Variations straddles all of those boundaries. It’s a primer on his whole career and an executive summary of the cuddly junkyard clang of his sensibilities. He croons, he screams, he digs up roots and pounds them to pulp on a hotel dresser. He creeps and growls and even thunders up a gospel song you could almost screw to.

“Pony” is my tired and lonely song. “Filipino Box Spring Hog” is my summer cicada stomp. I want to buy a banjo and a rooster so I can learn to play “Chocolate Jesus”. And “Picture in a Frame”? That song is me with shaking hands and a tattoo bandage, watching my wife come down the aisle.

Tom’s music was part of what sold me on her, incidentally. She made me a mixtape when we started dating, on an actual cassette. I was on board by the end of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” and in love by the end of “Train Song”. I spent two weeks memorizing “Step Right Up” and can still do the whole sales pitch. Hoped it might impress her. She stuck around.

I’ve sung his songs to babies and howled them blind drunk. I’ve torn my throat up on the loud ones and whispered the quiet ones like prayers. He’s laid down fully half of the soundtrack of my entire adult life. And The Mule Variations binds all of those songs together, the horse bone glue of a nearly half-decade-long body of work that I can’t imagine not having right at hand.

I suppose it should make me feel old, contemplating the 20th birthday of an album that fell out of the sky at almost exactly the same moment that my wife did too. But all I can feel is grateful that I was there when they both landed.

Memento Mori

I talk to myself. A lot. I don't feel like I've actually lived a day unless I got to spend at least 20 minutes of it talking to myself. Because I am a goddamn crazy person.

It started when I was a kid, I think mostly because I had trouble holding a coherent thought in my head unless I wrote it down or said it out loud. There was a semester or two there when I would study for philosophy exams by breaking into lecture halls and pretending to teach the course material to the empty room.

Yep, that's nuts. It's embarrassing. Doesn't seem like the sort of thing that a normal, healthy person does, right? But it's been over three decades now, and I'm not sure I know how to stop. Plus, confession time: I like doing it. Maybe it's narcissism, maybe it's my weird and contradictory relationship with quiet, I don't know. But I love talking to myself. It comforts me, grounds me.

So I'm in my car the other day and I've decided to spend my lunch break driving around and talking to myself. I'm driving around and I'm talking to myself about, I don't know, JavaScript or an ISO formatting issue or my kids or Neil Gaiman or whatever. I don't know. But it was nothing of import, just me thinking out loud. Like a crazy person.

And then a thought popped into my head, a derpily-obvious but nonetheless-there-it-is thought:

You are going to die.

It hit me as though it were going to happen sometime in the next ten minutes.

Earth-shattering, I know. But I had a french fry in my hand and form validation on my lips, and it broadsided me. I recoiled and gathered myself and said it out loud: "You are going to die." Then I said "Fuck." Then I asked myself a question.

Say you're going to die in three hours. You've already said goodbye and thanks and I love you to your friends and family. You even got to shake Grant Morrison's hand, to hug Brooks Hansen for writing The Chess Garden, to tell Tom Waits a dirty joke and join him in a round of "Goodnight, Irene". They've all been pulled away, and now you have three hours to do what you want with your time. What would you do?

You'd want to leave a marker behind, however temporary, right? I'd want to make something, and I'm better and faster with words than anything else, so: I would write.

What would I write? That's where it gets hard. But I think I would once and for all completely untether myself. Not a confession of sins, but one last stab at reaching for your hand and talking about the things we have in common and hide from one another.

Maybe it would be an essay, maybe a story. Maybe I'd do something clever and address my children while really talking to adults. Lord knows that's never been done before.

But I would write, and I would write something that mattered, if I had it in me to do so. I'd go deep purple on that motherfucker, too.

Which raises the obvious question of why I'm not doing more than dabbling infrequently with that now. Good question.

No, this isn't the typical "I'm going to quit my job and find my way as a writerly writer" revelation. I'm too smart to just shitcan what I've spent years building to pursue a life of poverty and frustration and predatory contracts. I like my job, I do, I just don't care about it all that much.

I think that has to mean that I'm going to start doing this more, so I have built myself a system that allows me to take writing breaks from my coding. Right now I'm typing blind on a covered iPad while staring at a monitor that says this:

    xtype: 'hiddenfield',
    flex: 1,
    fieldLabel: 'Label',
    name: 'documentationIndicator'

I'm writing this while I stare at that and the whiteboard at the other end of the table, just as Chuck Palahniuk wrote Fight Club while pretending to take notes in meetings. I'm going to write blind, every day, and when things come out that are post-worthy, I'm going to post them. No promises on frequency.

I'm going to do this because I've learned this about myself in the last year: My brain does not have a stable state. It's growing or dying, and only learning makes it grow.

Every day I fertilize it or poison it. I can fertilize it with a technical challenge even if the work I'm supporting is boring and mundane, but that all goes Agent Orange when I'm pushing 200 fields around a form or debugging a validation routine.

So I must fertilize, and if I cannot find a way to make my living doing something I truly love, then I will bring my love into my work, and I will do it in secret. Don't tell anyone.

I'll do it because I may be dead in three hours, and I want my children to open my Dropbox (kids: look in the "notesy" folder after Dad croaks) and find something sublime in there when I'm gone.

I was cleaning up that folder and found this in an unnamed textfile the other day:

It should have fun
It should be funny
It should have adventure
Heroes should fall
Heroes should rise
Things should go boom
No boobs, unfortunately
Han Solo should science a mammal

Yeah, I don't know either, but any ground where I can lose and find stupid shit like that needs to be tended.

Look: None of what I'm saying here is particularly profound or daring, I know. But it's hard. It's hard not to hide from it. When I was young, I used to sleep to hide from my anxieties and fears, and though I threw away that pacifier long ago, I found other, subtler ones. Now I'm trying to rid myself of them. Only in the last year or two have I felt like I'm waking up. And wow, the stuff I missed.

So the new plan is I'm going to spend the back half of my life writing my obituary, though I'll be damned if I know what form it will take. I'll try like hell to make it an honest one and a good one. There will be overwrought and overwritten weepy time stuff, and there will be dongs. Just you wait. But it will be my obituary, my testimony.

So I'll write the opening now, and then we'll start figuring out the backstory together.

Matt Reed was born on the 110th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination and died on its bicentennial because stories are tidy like that. He died, appropriately enough, in a theater, though he was not murdered.

He was watching a stage production of Daniel Pinkwater's seminal novel The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death when the nanobots in his bloodstream malfunctioned, swarmed to his brain, and over-stimulated the neurons that housed the combination to his brother's first bicycle lock. Experts are still trying to determine why this caused him to combust.

Onlookers reported that Mr. Reed had shouted "Sic semper tyrannis" in the manner of Marcus Junius Brutus and John Wilkes Booth, but a scan of the nanobot logs indicates that he had instead shouted a slurred "six two three two", which analysis suggests was the bike lock's combination.

Mr. Reed leaves behind his beloved if overly-sassed wife Jennifer; his son Jack, inventor of tiger invisible robot technology; and his daughter Georgia, Roving Warlady Empress of the Fourth Obfuscation.

Mr. Reed died as he lived: terrified, confused, and on fire.