I like to read before going to sleep, because the act of shifting my ever-active brain’s focus from real-life concerns to fantasy ones makes it easier to fall asleep in the first place. Sometimes I read Star Trek novels, sometimes other fiction from my favorite genres (sci-fi, fantasy, suspense, et al), and other times I read old stories that I myself wrote, going as far back as the late 1980s. It may seem self-indulgent, but everybody has their muse, and I tend to think of nostalgia as mine. Whenever I surround myself with things that helped stir my creativity in the past, or even the products of that creativity from years ago, it puts me in a “happy place” and often leads to better creative thinking here in the present.
Almost all of the stories I wrote between 1986 and 1992 were crafted on an IBM PC XT using PFS: First Choice, an old DOS-based word processor with about as corny as name as was possible. (But didn’t it seem like all productivity software had gimmicky names back in the mid-’80s?) As Microsoft has dropped native 16-bit code execution on modern 64-bit versions of Windows, like the one I’m running, First Choice no longer even runs. However, it runs just fine under DOSBox, the best x86 emulator around. Armed with this, I’ve been converting some of my old stories to Word format so that I can read them in this day and age.
There are utility programs that can handle this, although most of them cost money. I’ve found a far simpler solution: First Choice has the ability to save a file in plaintext ASCII format, if you change the filename extension in the save dialog from DOC to ASC. The software itself gives you no idea that this is possible, so if you lost the manual, good luck figuring that out.
To make the documents pleasantly readable, some additional work is necessary. First Choice’s ASCII format, unfortunately, adds hard carriage returns every 80 columns, so with a decent text editor that can do a find and replace on the carriage return character — my favorite is UltraEdit — you can have that problem licked in short order. Then, just copy and paste into Microsoft Word (or your modern word processor of choice) and you’re all set. The only other issue involves styles (boldface, italics, etc.) that you may have applied to your document in First Choice, because the ASCII format drops them. To reapply, you’ll have to review your document within First Choice line-by-line until you see styled text, then apply the same styles in your modern word processor. This is made more irritating by virtue of the fact that First Choice, being a pure text mode application, wasn’t able to show these styles on the text itself, so you have to highlight a block, open the Style menu and see for yourself which style(s) are applied. Bit of a pain, so hopefully you didn’t use styles too much!
Anyway, I recently converted another batch of those old First Choice stories, written when I was eight or nine years old, which I haven’t read in years. Back then, I often pilfered characters from my favorite childrens’ books that my mom read to me when I was very young, particularly the tales of Peter Rabbit and his friends, by Beatrix Potter, and the Winnie-the-Pooh books by A. A. Milne. (I guess I’ve always enjoyed seeing familiar characters in new situations, which is probably why I enjoy the Star Trek novels so much today.) The old stories I ran through my conversion process this week featured none other than Peter Rabbit, Benjamin Bunny and Pooh Bear themselves, although in roles so completely detached from those that made them famous, I doubt that either Ms. Potter nor Mr. Milne would have recognized them. Why I didn’t just invent my own characters is beyond me, since I discarded almost everything about these characters besides their names.
In this particular series of 10 stories, Peter and Benjamin are brothers in their late twenties or early thirties, each of whom is the owner of his own engineering firm in the automotive industry — something like Dana or Delphi, but on a much smaller scale. Our main character, Benjamin, was the “good guy” who practiced business ethically, was friendly and diligent, who enjoyed fast cars and the free spirit that comes with roaming the highways. His brother Peter, meanwhile, was the stereotypical “bad guy” who tried to screw over his employees, spy on his competitors, and who had been harboring a grudge against Benjamin ever since a tragic childhood incident. Pooh Bear is along for the ride as Benjamin’s straight-man friend (and recurring target of hostage-taking attempts by the evil Peter). The stories detail the exploits of Peter and Benjamin as they struggle to one-up the other on two separate battlefields: that of business, and that of the highway.
Yes, the highway. Even as a child I was into cars, and car chases, and all the action movie clichés that go with them. As such, each of these stories ties vehicular aggression into its plot somehow: car chases; frenzied shootouts on public roadways; drop-of-the-hat road trips used as escape mechanisms; and always lots of crashing, smashing and bashing the daylights out of one car or another. It’s mindless! It’s apropos of nothing! And yet, it’s seriously fun.
In reviewing these stories again, I often find myself having a good laugh. This is mostly due to the sheer naïveté baked into every plot and situation. I wouldn’t expect much else from the mind of a child, but what makes it even more amusing is the incredibly serious and dramatic way in which every story is written, like each one is an episode of a crime drama on prime time television. (The fact that I was heavily inspired by Miami Vice, which was a serious hit at the time, only contributes to this.) In short, the stories take themselves very seriously, but are so full of pure and total illogic that doing so becomes tantamount to impossible. I find myself experiencing what my parents probably felt when they read the stories I excitedly brought to them back then, printed out on tractor feed paper from a dot-matrix Epson LQ-800. It’s cute, and funny, but patently absurd.
Take, for example, the constant rivalry between good-guy Benjamin and bad-guy Peter. In the beginning of the series, Peter isn’t a convicted felon with a criminal record; he’s just a bad seed who grew up angry and has it in for his brother. Yet Benjamin pursues him with apparent intent to commit homicide, armed with a .357 Magnum that he repeatedly shows no compunction about firing at Peter in public places, including a supermarket [!]. Peter does eventually step up his game and joins the big leagues of armed assault, arson and even kidnapping, but throughout, we’re supposed to see Benjamin’s actions as 100% justified and Peter’s as 100% unjustified. A court of law wouldn’t really care that Peter has been a really mean brother when it tries Benjamin for vehicular homicide, wanton property destruction and attempted murder (or at least discharging a firearm in an unlawful manner).
Additionally, the main “A” plot is often so laughable that you find yourself just reading for the sake of enjoying the action scenes, because like the latest Michael Bay flick, they’re really the raison d’être. In the first couple of stories, there basically is no “A” plot, and the characters simply get into violent clashes spurred on by nothing identifiable whatsoever. The last two or three volumes in the series do show glimpses of semi-competent plotting, as the extra years I’d aged by then had brought with them a bit more experience, but they’re still as formulaic as all get out.
Being a “car kid,” I always described the vehicular aspects of my stories with almost preternatural levels of detail. This has been perhaps the greatest source of amusement for me this week, as I transport myself mentally back to 1990 and try to envision the ancient cars (and other technology, for that matter) that’s being described. Benjamin’s pride and joy is his white Ferrari Testarossa, totally Don Johnson style and lifted straight out of Miami Vice. (He also has a red 1970 Dodge Charger in his garage that he uses as his weekend toy.) The eeeeee-ville Peter Rabbit, meanwhile, is even more aggressive on the road, if that were possible, but apparently wasn’t blessed with the same good taste as Benjamin. He begins the series driving a clapped-out Chevy Chevette, but by the third story he upgrades himself to the absolute picture of automotive badassery…a car so scary that just to see it coming down the road is sufficient to set you quaking in your boots. Check it, and BE AFRAID:
Yeah. A freaking Pontiac Sunbird. Oooooo, that’s evil. In the stories, Peter is actually rocking a 1990 Sunbird GT powered by GM’s 2.0-liter turbo LT3. The one pictured above is a 1991 GT, which had the same 3.1L V6 that my Grand Prix had, but that red/black color scheme is the exact look I envisioned way back when I was writing these stories. So yeah, this car versus a Ferrari Testarossa. I laugh every time I read yet another scene where Peter somehow manages to “gain on” or “overtake” Benjamin in his twelve-cylinder Italian supercar, and trust me, it’s way too often.
I must have had a fascination with Sunbirds, because Benjamin’s scatterbrained friend Pooh Bear had one, too. He is written as a kindly but somewhat clueless dude who is apparently unemployed but also apparently wealthy, somehow, and who is also the automotive antithesis of the gearhead Benjamin. A constant fixture of the stories is Pooh’s gold 1986 Pontiac Sunbird that’s perpetually dirty and increasingly beaten up, because he Just Doesn’t Care™ about his car. In my mind’s eye, it looked pretty much exactly like this:
It isn’t just the cars that are funny, either — it’s the yester-tech that speaks to the era in which the prose was written. Everyone has to rush home to make a phone call because there were no cell phones — except Benjamin, who is fortunate enough to have one of those big honkin’ “car phones” hardwired into his Ferrari. TV consists of rabbit ears feeding you the major networks. One character orders a McDLT at McDonald’s and the cost for an average meal is around $5. When Peter tries to extort money from Benjamin’s company, a mere five thousand dollars is his lofty goal — practically nothing in the corporate world of today.
Despite all of my snarking, I’m having a good time revisiting these old gems from the past. Examining the product of your creativity from times past helps put the spotlight on how your skills have evolved since then (and hopefully they have). While I’ve gotten a lot better at writing fiction — though certainly not to a professional level — some things still ring true today: I still like to borrow someone else’s characters for my own situations, and I still like to write car chase scenes. (I figure I’ll never have the money or a reason to film one, so I might as well put them down in words.) One of the installments in this particular fictional series was never finished, and I’ve been half-seriously entertaining the idea of completing it. Part of me wants to do so in a self-aware manner, with the characters reacting to the illogic of their situations; “breaking the fourth wall” if you will. I enjoy that kind of stuff, perhaps a bit too much if I’m honest.
Believe it or not, I think engaging in this kind of introspection and nostalgic whimsy actually has a beneficial effect on on my creative processes in other walks of life. I spent an extra 30-45 minutes at work on Friday evening perfecting the product packaging artwork I’m developing, because I was really “in the zone” on it. I’ve also got some grand designs (metaphorically speaking) brewing on a redesign of our company website. I’m convinced that the frame of mind my pasttimes put me in are a significant contributing factor.
This stuff also helps keep me optimistic through life’s other vagaries, including the seemingly unending house selling bonanza. We had another prospective buyer arrive this morning, necessitating our early rising on a Saturday morning, something neither of us was all too happy about. But the buyer actually did show up, and took one of the flyers, which is all we can ask — and I hope they enjoyed the scent of those freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies, too. I know I’m going to enjoy eating them, nya ha ha!
Anyway, with my nostalgia cravings thoroughly satiated for another day, I’m about to head off and whip up some hamburgers for dinner. There’s a storm darkening the skies overhead, so another evening of playing Alan Wake on the Xbox sounds like a good plan. And if I know me, I’ll be knee-deep in a word processor by bedtime. After all, I’ve got to crank out something new to read back to myself in twenty more years!