Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bear Down

This is a long one.

Since the publication of my first book, once the mob violence receded, I began getting questions about my MFA thesis, and what it was about, and could you read it, and will it be published, and blah-all. Answers:

1) It's a collection of essays called People Who Choose to Run.
1a) Because the committee wouldn't let me call it "Here's Your @*^&#% Thesis", that's why.

2) The essays were about... people... running.

3) No.

4) Kinda. "The Waltz," which was published in Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Authors, is pulled from People Who Choose To Run.

One of my babies from the thesis is the titular one (Heh. "Titular"). It is my ugly baby. Nobody loves it but me. "People Who Choose to Run" has been smacked around by everybody from Vanity Fair to Sci-Fi Today to a smattering of eighteen-year-old, barely sober students under my tutelage. That's quite an accomplishment; I mean, you have to really, really have a special something to get rejection that broad-based. I now offer you, my dearest The Readers, the opportunity to hate it as well.

So I'm publishing it here. And then running.

ManMan’s last girlfriend smacked him around and Slinger’s brother was awaiting his next court date and Samurai had open sores on his arms that the doctors couldn’t figure out and I, LadyKenobi, was on three or four medications for the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder--we were par for the course, then, for a group of people who had met on the Internet.

This was Mayberry compared to the action in the hotel lobby, where two women wandered amongst the stained glass windows and mahogany banisters in khaki pants and vampire capes, and where, upon check-in, ManMan was accosted by a person who followed him about chanting the Oath of the Green Lantern.

I was covering this, I told people as I threw more VCR tapes than clothes into a suitcase bound for the Gateway Convention in St. Louis, for a science fiction website. It was work, it was necessary; a sociological safari deep within the womb of sci-fi obsession. It was…it was… crap, I was fooling no one, this was Donald Trump covering the Rich Arrogant Ass Olympics. I was traveling three hundred miles, on purpose, to meet people I had never met before, who didn’t know my first name but were fully apprised of the fact that LadyKenobi had two baby nephews and OCD.

When a television show wins its time slot, it’s a hit; when it pops up in syndication, it’s a classic; and when a tiny, frighteningly ardent pocket of the American population has the ability to name the guest star, the production assistant and the art director of Episode Fourteen, Season Nine… that is the kiss of Entertainment Tonight coverage death… that is a cult hit.

That is the case of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which ran for ten years on three different cable stations and, some time after the last episode aired, can still move legitimate numbers of licensed Post-It Note pads through its fan club. If you’ve not heard of the thing, or watched it with an indifferent, passing amusement, you are most likely well-adjusted. The sad and the gifted, the academic and the strange flock here, to a space-stranded astronaut and two robot puppets silhouetted before an old, bad movie, shouting derision at plots that go nowhere and heaving sighs over monsters with tie-on heads and zippers down the back.

There was precisely one camera angle. You could hear the puppet’s plastic mouths clack, for God’s sake. The MSTie— that is how one refers to oneself, when one is a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan--- delights in all this, because that’s real, that is real fakeness out there. There was no pretension to the contrary, and there are no digitally rendered characters in choreographed fight sequences-- these robots aren’t real, these movies are bad, and we are going to get through this thing together, you and I.

The MSTie is a variant non-subspecies of the Trekkie and the Star Wars freak. Star Trek is out there; it’s mall-available and it’s got its own line of Halloween costumes. Spock and Captain Kirk are doing commercials for Priceline.com. The MSTie spits upon the Trekkie-- anyone can buy a set of Vulcan ears and frighten away potential spouses; but the MSTie has to fashion his own replica robot puppets from scratch. It takes a real man, it takes a real woman, to be a MSTie.

Therefore when the MSTie enters the internet community and the internet community becomes flesh, it is reality whiplash. They were all in one place, these Internet phantoms, with skin on; I bought ice cream with ManMan and shared a bathroom sink with Slinger, these people who were formerly not people but formatted text on the laptop. They had bodies, it seemed, and luggage, and shampoo, and jobs.

Most of these parishioners, breathing the rarified oxygen of a shared passion, coexisted in a sort of peaceable if rollicking shared consciousness. But when a significant portion— or, in some cases, the entirety of— one’s social life revolves around a world in which the only other pulsing heartbeat is the cursor, any foreign element, any rift amongst the townsfolk, is analyzed and magnified and personalized and just beaten and kicked at until it is atoms.

We call it the World Wide Web, but there is something firmly American about the Internet: the flat democratic access, the flashing ads, the sudden blare of the splashpage. We have been creating and recreating ourselves since we rushed a Boston boat in the dark, thowing native headdresses over our pale foreheads. The Internet is there, and yet not there, words and images carefully arranged and scattered again with a click. It is at once stripped bare and laid out like glistening fish in a Plexiglass case, and if anyone chooses to see himself reflected in the eyeballs of a cable TV plastic puppet, this is the place.

We stood in line the first day, an endless ray of shifting pilgrims in blue-bordered nametags, its beginning point a cafeteria table where the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 held court at an autographing session. The line slid past the check-in desk, down the hall of conference rooms, around the elevator stall and into the hospitality suite, where a woman arrayed in black leather sold medieval codpieces, beaded hair ornaments, and t-shirts that read “Pimpin’ Is Easy When You’re This Good-Looking.”

Some of the lower-end beadwork was dangling from my bangs. I felt like Cleopatra; I look like David Bowie. When I moved my head the beads tinked and clicked and offset the low murmurs of the fans bending towards their heroes—the creators of a puppet show-- arrayed at the cafeteria table.

“Thank you. Thank you. You’re awesome..”

“Is the show coming back? We would love for the show to come back. Is it a money thing? Here’s a twenty, see if that won’t help.”

“Oh, dude… dude, man… you guys rule.”

Such things were said because one does not approach another human being and say what we really meant, which was, “You changed my life,” or, farther into the canyon, “You saved my life.”

And so ManMan merely smiled and said hello as he came face to face with the show’s host, Mike Nelson, and Slinger, when handing a writer her Mystery Science Theater Amazing Colossal Episode Guide did not say, “The show is just about the only thing that makes my dad laugh since the chemo started; we sit and watch and it’s just like it used to be.” Instead she clutched at the spine, fluttered the pages against her palm, stared softly down at the cover.

Later, at a Q and A session with Nelson, someone asked him if he was ever recognized on the street, and he looked pained and replied, “Never… but then perhaps I am, and people just choose to run.”


“I wonder if they ever think of it,” I said.

“Again with the thinking,” said ManMan.

“Mike Nelson and the others. The marriages that are made and the lawns that go unmowed an extra day and the Internet connections that get upgraded, all because of that show. I wonder if those guys ever think about all that.”

“It would probably freak them out if they did,” he said.

“Probably.”

The two of us were sitting on a bent-over wooden bench facing the cracked and weedy tennis courts. There was a white-gold moon that night over Twain country, and ManMan, who had grown up in Hawaii and lived in Colorado, tipped his head at the chick-chirring wail of the cicadas and asked what the hell it was. “Yet another bit of living you owe the Internet,” I told him during a crescendo, “because if you’d never met us online, and never have come to St. Louis, and you might have lived your entire life never having heard cicadas at all.”

He snorted, and was silent.

I scraped at the cracked wood with a fingernail, and knew he understood that far lesser things than a couple of puppets had built icebergs for oceanliners where wide, cold water used to be and carved the Y’s of roads less traveled.

We leaned up against one another, the closest contact we dared.

In the hotel rooms above, flickering in hazy multi-generational VHS reproduction on nineteen-inch screens, Mike Nelson and the robots sailed on, fighting off the lousy movies, orbit after orbit, never entirely sure of where they were or when they would get home. At the same time, those who had wrought them were at large in St. Louis-- maybe sleeping, maybe drinking, maybe holed up in one of their rooms just a few doors down, shaking their heads at the whole sorry lot of us, these pilgrims they had brought upon their own heads simply by doing well at their jobs, saying the same thing ManMan said to me that night under the Missouri moon: That’s real fakeness out there.

15 comments:

tamar said...

You don't have to run from us. :)
I have never watched MST, and haven't ever really had the urge to watch it....until now.

Is it available to rent anywhere?

Your words resonate with my inner-freak(geek, nerd, whatever word suffices).

MB said...

Some episodes of the show are available on DVD-- just type the name of the show in any movie rental website or Amazon. Join us! :)

mike knows people who went to uw-stout said...

Your baby's done some growing up, I see.

Lex said...

Hey, as a MSTie myself, I LOVED that story. Who cares what SciFi weekly and a bunch of idiot eighteen year old freshmen think? They will never know the glory that is Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, and Mike Nelson. Or Joe Don Baker, for that matter.

Poor, ignorant fools.

Jess said...

This made me tear up a little. Seriously. That was beautiful.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, ok, I get it. "What ever gets you through the night!"

Abby the Odd said...

I just want to point out that I made my own andorian/Yeoman Rand costume. Yes it had pipe cleaners for antennae and for an accessory there was a rabbit fur hat that is now a tribble. See, us Trekies can also scare away any normal human contact without shelling out money.

E said...

I thought it was fantastic

Danny said...

Your ugly baby is kinda cute. Some of the "people who chose to run" end up at the bottom of a bottle or the end of a self-constructed noose or living in oblivion in a cardboard box. Your ugly baby gets prettier the more I think about it...

Rachel said...

There are about 40 different episodes available on Netflix--so far.
As someone who routinely develops consuming passions for semi-ridiculous things . . . I thought that essay was really good.

red pill junkie said...

Powerful. You inadvertedly pick on very important subjects on that one. Very subtle, but it is there.

stacey said...

Impressive...and honest.

noni said...

Dear God. I flew to St. Louis for that very same convention, solely to inhabit the same space as The Man Who Was Tom Servo. (And the others. But, really: Tom Servo.) Nice to know I am not alone.

noni said...

(At least I think it was the same convention. Sketchy hotel with undeservedly grandiose name that I can't remember now? Terry Pratchett was there too? Mary Jo Pehl/Pearl Forrestor made a surprise appearance and nearly tripped over me in the hotel restaurant one night? That one?)

MB said...

The very, very one, noni. You and I were breathing the same regal air of the Henry VIII Hotel of St. Louis, MO.

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