The weather here in Thailand has been different this week. After nearly two straight weeks of rain, the sun came out, the cool breezes returned, and the wooden doors of our house finally started closing more easily again. I, however, was affected in a way more profound than simply not having to smell mildew in the open-air bathroom anymore. Something about the climate put me in the mood for nostalgia.
Yes, nostalgia. I’ve come to realize that it’s the greatest driving force behind my creativity. It’s why a part of me remains firmly anchored to my past, both good and bad, and why I still enjoy things I enjoyed as a kid or a teenager. I find no shame at all in this; rather, it’s more like a badge of honor. A badge that contributes to my resistance to change, yes; but a badge nonetheless.
When I unearth a piece of my past — like the MP3s I found of those old Star Trek childrens’ records that I borrowed repeatedly from the library — I get all giddy and want to tell somebody. “Look, it’s that old Star Trek album from Peter Pan Records where they had a guy playing Scotty who sounds more Italian than Scottish!” I’ll laugh, waving it around. Then I’ll listen to the godawful thing a whole slew of times. Then I’ll decide to use my knowledge of audio post-production and dub authentic Star Trek sound effects over the cheesy Moog synthesizer noises they used on the actual record. Yep: this is why it’s called Oddball Update, folks.
(Incidentally: The site where I found the Star Trek records also had an MP3 of the “McDonald’s Menu Song” promotional record that was issued as part of a $1,000,000 sweepstakes in 1988. So yes, there are other people who are every bit as weird as I am.)
This creeping nostalgic influence isn’t limited to silly old records from back in the day. Sometimes it applies to games. There are certain cassette tapes, songs and records from days gone by that immediately make me want to create some Wolfenstein levels. Mostly it’s because I remember listening to those recordings when I designed some of my best maps in 1994 and ’95. Still other times, simply watching a certain episode of Star Trek will suddenly remind me of a very specific circumstance, and even make me hungry for certain foods. Season one’s “Dagger of the Mind” makes me want some of my grandma’s home-cooked roast beef and dumplings, since I remember eating that at her house while watching that episode on her Betamax one time. Season three’s “The Empath,” meanwhile, brings to mind a balmy summer day in August, 1995, on which my parents went out for the evening, and I ordered a pizza and ate it while watching that episode. It’s like a Classical Conditioning exercise, or some kind of autonomic response.
Right now, though, the aura of nostalgia that surrounds me is struggling to manifest itself in a form of creative writing. It’s not that I’m nostalgic for the act of writing a story as much as I’m nostalgic for the settings and circumstances that I could write about. Today’s weather reminded me very much of a mild summer day in the Midwest; “back home on the ranch,” as it were, in Michigan. Unlike my current home of Florida, the Midwest is where the grass is green and soft, where driving doesn’t suck, and where there are actual deciduous trees that cast actual shade — but all only for six months out of the year. (See, there’s always a catch.) The mind always seeks what it cannot have, and while I have very little to complain about in my life today, some things I miss include the pleasure of driving on Midwestern roads, and the feel of soft grass beneath you as you eat a picnic lunch under the shade of a big, elderly tree.
Back in the Old Days, when I was first starting to realize that girls could be interesting and exciting (and subsequently becoming distraught over not having any as friends), I tried my hand at writing some romantic fiction. Yeah…with about all the success you would expect. Ohhhh, what horrible tripe. Still, nostalgia sometimes compels me to go back and re-read some of those old files, and I swear, each time I do, they get worse. This week was another one of those times, so I took a look and had a good laugh. Seriously…I’m glad I merely wrote about saying some of the things I did, so that I could see for myself how dumb I sounded and avoid actually saying them to a real-life woman.
You can rarely see nostalgia coming before it strikes, so I’ve made it a personal goal to be more flexible and more open to spontaneity when we return to the U.S. Apple and I both like things highly organized, so we have everything planned to the hilt, including all of our meals for a whole week at a time, most of the monthly pleasure expenditures, and just about everything else you can think of. Sometimes, though, I get into a situation where I really feel like something else — like going out for dinner, or running an errand early instead of later, or maybe just going out for a drive for no apparent reason. But there’s usually a sizable pull against such spontaneity because you don’t want the rest of your plan to collapse in a cascade failure brought about by your modifying it on the fly. The other day, it occurred to me that I think I’ve taken this a bit too far.
I was doing my daily pre-lunch workout routine and listening to my iPod; specifically, a recording I made in my car a couple years back after I dropped my mom off at the airport in Florida. Yeah…being a sound effects buff, I like to capture automotive sounds. But there wasn’t much to be heard that day other than idling, because traffic was at a historic nightmare level that has never since been duplicated. The epicenter of the mess was Germain Arena, where apparently some kind of event had just ended and everyone was leaving. Of course my route took me right by there, and I got stuck at the corner in a huge jam of people trying to get onto the freeway.
On the recording, I heard myself describing the traffic gridlock, mentioning the time of day (going on 6:00), and complaining about wanting to eat dinner. I mentioned there being a Chinese restaurant right there at the corner where I was stuck in traffic. So why don’t you just pull in and eat? I thought to myself as I pedaled away on the exercise machine. You’ll stop being hungry, and by the time you’re done, the traffic will be gone. Then when you get home you’ll have time to just do whatever you want.
But on the recording, after muttering the same idea to myself, I lamented not being able to follow through on it because there was dinner waiting for me at home. It would be one thing if it were a special dish Apple had made for me, but she was at work, and my meal consisted of a pound of ground beef and an Old El Paso taco kit. Worse yet, I had access only to the beef and taco shells. No lettuce, no tomato, no cheese, not even a side of wild rice or anything else to liven it up. For all the mega-planning we always do for our meals, it seemed I’d under-planned this one. (Comically, the recording also had a few moments of me wondering out loud if there were any couch cushions I could overturn in order to find the spare change necessary to buy a $1.99 bag of store-brand taco cheese, in the hopes of livening up my meal. Now that’s desperation.)
Anyway, I was momentarily floored by the idea that I sat through another hour’s worth of traffic destruction simply because there was food that could be eaten at home. Was that really the best use of my time (and gasoline, for that matter)? Could the ground beef not have been put in the freezer for another occasion? Would the Master Plan™ really have broken down beyond all hope of salvage if I’d grabbed some chicken broccoli and an egg roll at the nameless Chinese dive? I doubt it, but yet my brain’s ultra-orderly Logic Lobe labeled such an action as “Not an Option.”
This seemed doubly stupid in light of our present situation here in Thailand, where spontaneity is even harder thanks to the fact that Apple and I don’t have a way to get around by ourselves. It occurred to me that we take our American independence for granted — the ability to just get in the car and go, whenever you feel like it, and travel to anywhere you please, without having to clear it with a state bureaucracy first. It’s a freedom that’s only going to come under greater and greater attack from certain political elements in the coming years, and it occurs to me that perhaps we’d better do what we can to enjoy it now.
So I came up with my plan for us to enjoy a little spontaneity once in a while. Plan a week’s worth of meals as usual, but don’t be beyond shelving the blueprint for the day if, for instance, one of those moods strikes and you decide you’ve just gotta have some Italian food, or some Chinese take-out, or order a pizza and relive that long-past summer day in August one more time. Or if you’re caught in a massive traffic jam and it would make more sense to spend your time eating your evening meal instead of sitting and idling, waiting to get to that meal. And it’s not just food; the same goes for the feeling that you just have to get out of the house — why not just go? It doesn’t matter if you have a destination or not. There’s nothing wrong with a little cruising for cruising’s sake — that’s why you bought the fun car, for crying out loud!
When I told her about it, Apple was delighted with the idea. She even suggested that perhaps we could make two trips to the grocery store on certain weeks, which would allow us to buy more fresh produce, meat and fish and eat better meals. We both chuckled at our tendency to get bent out of shape over little things, and how that often applies to making our lives more rigid than they have to be. The lifestyle in Thailand helps you think outside the box and look at things from another angle, and seeing American life from this perspective, you sometimes realize how dumb it can be, when it really doesn’t have to be at all.
So that’s our New Year’s resolution — be more spontaneous, and sometimes just let yourself go with the flow. Hey, “go with the flow” is the only way to operate here in Thailand, so we’ve got to be getting pretty good at it by now.