Sunday, June 29, 2014

Some Assembly Required

This is a 1932 Chrysler Roadster. Or rather, a model of one.

The kit was purchased by my father some time in 1997, just before his long illness entered its home stretch. He picked up this one and one other, a 1964 1/2 Mustang, at the second-hand shop where my mother volunteered a couple days a week.

I'd never seen my father build a model. It had been a passionate hobby during his younger years, but by the time I came around he was chiefly preoccupied with programming computer systems for International Paper Company -- intricate detailing of a more intense nature, undoubtedly leaving him little headspace for hobbies. He'd put just one final kit together, right before or around the time I was born: an aircraft carrier. I recall it perched on a shelf near the kitchen and to me, at that age, it seemed credible the long plastic hull might be only slightly smaller than actual size. I used to poke the tiny planes, all glued down in a perfect line along the forward deck, to see if I could make them wobble. I never could.

Growing up in sun-bleached 1970s suburbia, I assembled my fair share of glow-in-the-dark monsters, giant insects, dinosaurs, superheroes, and space ships -- though never with much finesse. Of course I was just a kid, more interested in playing with the finished models than in building them. The build was a hurdle to be cleared before the real fun could begin. Which meant a cursing of sloppy paint jobs, clumsily fused joints, misaligned seams. Nothing like the precision decal work on the biplanes and X-Wing fighters hanging in suspended battle from the ceilings of my friends. And certainly nothing like Daddy's aircraft carrier, by then long disappeared in the shuffle of our semi-regular company-mandated moves across the Southeast.

By contrast, from 1998 onward the Roadster and Mustang model kits moved with me as though duty-bound, apartment to apartment, city to city, for fifteen years. I was waiting for, I don't know, the day I'd wake up with Master Model Builder Skills, by way of osmosis or alien intervention, whichever. To honor Daddy, I would do the job right: the contents of those boxes would suffer no wonky wheels, no thumbprints in the paint. None of the planes would wobble. So they waited in storage closets or on high shelves, blending into the shadows, seen often but noticed rarely, like most good intentions ultimately nothing more than the space they took up. Then one day last summer following the kind of run-of-the-mill health scare that comes as no exceptional surprise after a certain number of decades yet still inspires no quantum amount of mortal contemplation, I was puttering in the office -- shredding old bills, rearranging books, talking nonsense to myself, the usual -- when a shaft of magic afternoon sunlight struck those faded boxes out of their shadows, lifted the dust right off them.

My relationship with Daddy was something of a 50/50 split. As a child, I was too intimidated by the man to know how to love him: he seemed too distant, too stern, too heavily possessed of a clenched brow after a day's work at his keypunch machines. My inabilities at higher math seemed to greatly disappoint him, as did (so I supposed) my tendencies towards books and television rather than the woods and sports (passions of my older brother, as if he and I were expected be the same child). Eventually I assumed an unspoken truce had developed between us -- he would abide my whimsies so long as I stayed out of his way, so I did.

I was, as it turned out, wrong about all this, but remained clueless until my my teen years, a Saturday afternoon that found us staring together at a college basketball game, a moment he chose to tell me how much he had loved watching Pistol Pete play ball at LSU. Lo and behold, I learned my father was a connoisseur of the game, partook of his office bracket pool every spring when the tournament rolled around, had even played in high school. It was as simple as having a few conversations, next thing I knew, we were buddies. Had more in common than I had ever guessed. Stayed that way, until the end. (And damn if we never did discuss model building....)

Putting that Roadster together, so many years later, I found an obvious ghost at my shoulder. Wasn't he just out of sight, judging my work, giving me that cryptic line about how there are many ways to get a job done ... but only one right way? And then chuckling, like some wicked Zen master. And from there, of course, less superficial judging, because a child never runs out of questions for a departed parent. The last time Daddy saw me, I was a back-room bookstore clerk. How would he view my subsequent adventures, my trophies, my wrong turns, my happy landings?

My mother tells me Daddy bought these models for the same reason Mallory gave about climbing Everest. Makes sense; he never seemed particularly enamored of cars, looking mostly for value, not badassery, whenever the family needed a new sedan. (Excepting his mid-life crisis car, a Ford Maverick Grabber, which despite the orange color turned out to be a special kind of lemon.) What the model kits would add up to, whether a Roadster or a Mustang, didn't matter to him: he was interested in the process, in the doing. He just never got the time.

So, on his behalf, I took my time. And in so doing, in the meditative joy of whittling away imperfections in the plastic molding, of filling in cracks between pieces, of meticulously layering paint to various textures, I believe I glimpsed some reflection of a private joy my father might have taken in his work, programming computers in a time when information was shuffled among punched index cards. Patience. Attention to detail. More patience. Checking your work. And only then the satisfaction of watching a long string of processes come to a result, whether executed or printed out. Really, it's just a guess -- I was too inexperienced to have ever formulated any meaningful questions about work and what it can, should, and shouldn't mean to us, what it might have meant at least to Daddy -- but I knew him pretty well, and I can recall what sort of puzzles and challenges he liked to solve and how. This model building thing, this makes a certain sense.

Maybe the Roadster could have turned out better ... but for a second-hand kit -- missing parts, pieces warped, looked like some kid incorrectly fused some of the wheel parts and then gave up, same as I'd have done, maybe -- it turned out pretty well. I was too timid about my hand painting abilities, so other than tiny details everything is spray painted. But in the year since, I've completed several other kits (including a reissued creature-feature tableau I screwed up royally, back in the summer of '76), each time to no surprise growing a bit more fleet with the brush, more accurate with the glue, more tolerant of tacky paint (because model building is one part model building, eight parts watching paint dry). A lesson passed down, dusty boxes be damned: Turns out all you need to dissolve botched paint jobs and crooked joints and wonky wheels is just a little bit of ordinary time.

Aside from that poor old Forgotten Prisoner, I've built only cars. Maybe when I'm finished with that Mustang, I'll build an aircraft carrier. Or rather, a model of one.

Postscript, August 8 2014:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Famous Science Fiction Stories: Adventures in Time & Space (1946)

I wandered into my college career with a rough draft of a novel already under my belt: The Stonehenge Connection, a space opera in five "acts," scrawled in cheap black ink across 368 college-ruled pages when I should have been listening in high school Geometry class so that I'd now know how to hypotenuse a triangle, or whatever. The story of an Earthling recruited by a rebellious alien to save his own planet, it was absolutely nothing but a loose bag of cheaply imitated influences -- The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Blade Runner, Doctor Who, Time Bandits -- dropped into a plot worthy of Ed Wood. Then again, I enrolled in Creative Writing with the mere aim of learning how to write better sci-fi and horror potboilers. And I had some hope, early on -- the room where the classes met was nicknamed the "Star Trek Room" due to its being dominated by a gigantic oval conference table. But I don't recall Star Trek ever being discussed, not in a way I found interesting, anyway.

Time travel is a seductive folly partly because we like to imagine there are moments in our lives where, if we could return and intervene, whisper wisdom into the ears of our younger selves, we could avoid losing years to an unnecessary struggle down some errant path. (Also because if you could time travel, you could saddle up a T-Rex, but I digress.) Truth is, I don't recall a singularity wherein my low-key aspirations of being a sci-fi author with a cult following imploded. Maybe during a conversation with my instructor, being told I'd rather have the respect of my peers and publish in the Paris Review than peddle in Ye Olde Sewer of Genre. Maybe when I switched my major to Philosophy instead, because dabbling in Metaphysics seemed like it might bring me closer to understanding Tom Stoppard's brand of Existentialism. Or when I further shifted to Psychology, finally seeking some hard science about the mysteries of human wetware. Looking back, I think what I mostly did was manifest that old Steve Martin zinger about learning just enough to screw you up for the rest of your life. (I did always think that was a pretty funny joke, after all.)

When I more-or-less randomly grabbed this book for the purposes of mindlessly entertaining myself during a recent holiday car trip, I didn't expect to be derailed before reaching the first tale. The introduction is an ode to the editorial work of John W. Campbell, as many of the stories contained herein have his stamp of approval. By the time he became editor of Astounding in 1937, science fiction was moving into a graceless state, partly thanks to the kind of space operas penned by Campbell himself -- the thinking man's adventures posited by the likes of Wells and Verne had been trumped by pulp aspirations: silly science powered by purple prose. Campbell's new vision for the future of science fiction -- real scientific possibilities served by tight writing -- gave rise to the Golden Age and the careers of authors now seen as pillars of the genre: Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, Alfred Bester, A.E. van Vogt, Fredric Brown. Trends have come and gone, minor names have exited the mainstream the way they always do, but all these fellows are still in print and Campbell's most famous short story (one of several written as an exercise in "Okay, boys, here's the kind of fiction I'm looking for") has to date been been filmed thrice. Not bad for sewer-dwellers, as critics of their generation (and at least one more following) tried to paint it.

Emerson spoke of his Giant following him around -- a highbrow version of Wherever you go, there you are. It's not displayed anywhere, but I still have The Stonehenge Connection. And from time to time, I will take a moment to wonder why. The ugly plotting, the plagiarized characters, the cartoon dialogue, the misadventures in narrative only a naive and heavily pimpled teenage could love ... should anyone ever find it, my death certificate will read: spontaneous combustion brought on by acute embarrassment. But Campbell would be the first to tell me: There's no rough draft that can't be improved by hard work. Bet on ending somewhere very different than where you started, but hard work will lead to improvement every time. It's a form of simple math. I'm not looking to saddle up any dinosaurs; I know all too well that directionless travel -- whether through time, space, or both -- can be treacherous folly. But then again, sometimes an errant path will lead you to your Bliss.

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells Can't you remember anything I told you? and lets fly with a club.
     -- John W. Campbell, Jr. 

On a Related Note: Jason Sanford's Cosmic Mistakes

Monday, June 16, 2014

Rum Punch (1992)

IFC recently spent a few weeks running Jackie Brown (1997) with the same frequency AMC airs The Shawshank Redemption (1994). Even so, I never managed to catch the thing from the beginning, and always ended up distracted from the ending. On the other hand, that copy of Rum Punch (1992) lurking on the shelf the past couple years was a lot easier to catch from the beginning.

Stewardess Jackie Burke (Pam Grier, who for some reason Leonard keeps describing as a blonde) has been just down-on-her-luck enough to fall into the snares of gunrunner Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), acting as mule for his illegal cash during Caribbean hops. Until, that is, she's made by a couple ATF operatives (Michaels Keaton and Bowen, respectively) looking to bust Ordell, and who complicate matters by finding cocaine tucked among the cash bundles in her flight bag. Robbie uses the services of bail bondsman Max Cherry (Robert Forster) to bail her out. By exactly the sort of coincidence that often happens in crime novels, Cherry happens to be the employer of another associate of Ordell, Louis Gara (Robert DeNiro). Forster bails Grier, only to experience sexual tension during the car ride to her apartment, and even more once within the apartment, where she puts some classic soul on the turntable, just so there's no confusion. Tarantino is uncharacteristically coy here, whereas Leonard has no trouble getting down to business, shattered liquor glasses and everything. Anyway, turns out Grier has an idea to double-cross Jackson, give him over to the feds, make away scott-free with the money. Forster isn't so sure, or at least scrunches his face in order to play it that way. DeNiro whiles away the hours with stoned surfer chick Melanie (Bridget Fonda), who has Ordell in her double-cross-hairs as well. It all comes down to a tense shell-game finale -- who's got the money in which bag? -- that allows Leonard to explore the darker edge of a simple modern-day motivation: I'm getting long in the tooth, chances are slimming, how do I get what I really want in life? The book also features a massacre at a compound belonging to a neo-Nazi gun nut that I can't believe Tarantino omitted; maybe he already had Inglourious Basterds (2009) in mind and didn't want the two films to cover the same ground, or something. On the other hand, it's like Leonard wrote his dialogue with Samuel L. Jackson in mind. And since there's another novel (The Switch, 1978) featuring the characters of Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara, I know this won't be my last go-round with ol' Elmore.

But, figures: Since I finished this book, IFC hasn't shown Jackie Brown once.