Weston Ochse is the author of twenty books, most recently SEAL Team 666 and its sequel Age of Blood, which the New York Post called 'required reading' and USA Today placed on their 'New and Notable Lists.' His first novel, Scarecrow Gods, won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel and his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in comic books, and magazines such as Cemetery Dance and Soldier of Fortune. He lives in the Arizona desert within rock throwing distance of Mexico. He is a military veteran with 29 years of military service and currently returned from a deployment to Afghanistan. Please contact him through this site.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mothra Kills them All!

BTAM's Tale of  How He Defeated King Kong and Godzilla and Got the Girl

Romania Days 6 -12.

 
I met the Hammer and Sickle last night during an event at a local restaurant to which I’d been invited. A nationally known Pan flautist and her ensemble were present for a Grand Reopening of Café Bihoreana. The café is a typical European restaurant. It’s situated at the end of Strada Republica, a pedestrian walkway near Ferdinand Square in downtown Oradea, Romania. Outside eating can be done under tall trees. Inside is a study in dark and light Carpathian wood craftsmanship. That I was there with the Hammer and Sickle would have been strange enough had not King Kong and Godzilla arrived as well. But that’s at the end of the story, better kept until my week is more completely understood.

When last we left this weary traveler, he’d just finished running through Romania. You’d been provided his eccentric playlist and are probably still wondering how the hell Bony M made it into my lineup. That evening I was able to meet some of the folks I’d be working with over the next few days, including an American colleague and several Brits. We went across the street from the hotel to Café Piccolo to get to know each other. After about an hour of measuring and comparing our…accomplishments… we got down to ordering.  That the menu had fried brains as one of the appetizers wasn’t something we were going to shy away from so shortly after the measurement period. If you must know, they have the consistency of cold, oily scrambled eggs, with an Alpo aftertaste. I can now scratch Pig Brains off the list.

The next morning, I don’t know if was the brains or something I’d done while running, but I couldn’t get out of bed. My right foot wouldn’t support any weight at all. Nothing. And there was no previous warning, either. The night before it was just fine. Then, of course, while I slept, I suppose things shifted out of place. I had two dark red spots near my sole on either side of the ankle and about two inches forward towards my toes. These turned to dark purple for several days. Lucky for me, I was able to begin putting weight on it out of sheer will, determination, and girly screams, so that by the time I had to walk down for breakfast, I could limp. But my foot was swollen. The 1600 mgs of ibuprofen helped to reduce the swelling, but nothing more. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day when I took a few hours off from work to put my foot up and wrap it that it went entirely back to normal. And then on Wednesday it was as if nothing had happened. Needless to say there was no more running. 

On Wednesday night we went to Café Bihoreana for the first time and met Maria. Maria is a wide matron of a woman. There’s clear Romani blood running through her veins. Time has been an insensitive bitch to her features, but she is still a proud woman, capable of running a sizable restaurant. The café doesn’t have any English menus, so I found a young girl to help us translate. Imagine, eight of us asking over and over, “What’s this mean?” “And this? “And this?” Soon Maria came over and shooed the girl away so that she could attend us herself. She put her hands on my shoulders and spoke through me the entire evening. Everyone joked about it, but I thought it was fine. I was a gentle young American and was a great voice for her struggling English. And she answered all of our questions through me. We ordered wine and each of us was happy with our meals, even though the idea of medium rare cooked steak is something this part of the world doesn’t really understand. For myself, I had a Romanian house specialty of marinated white beans and pork. It was really spectacular. Also wonderful was the Pizza Putanescu which had a gloriously simple amount of anchovy juice waved above it to produce just the right amount of salty fish taste.


On the next night was an official dinner, supplied by our sponsors. We went out of town to Allegria Restaurant, which is part of a thermal spa resort. The food was probably the best. Then again, how can you go wrong when you stuff tenderloin with prosciutto and cheese, then bake it perfectly.  The Romanians have a thing about serving two-meat meals. Last night I had chicken stuffed with sausage. At any time, meat is their primary meal, sometimes twice. The national joke is that pork is their national vegetable. The most common non-starchy vegetable to get is mushrooms, which I tried to get with every meal, usually grilled. At least it was something. A man has to try.

There’s also something about the Old World architecture that takes my breath away. If you take a look at my pictures, you will notice some of this. Coming from America, where nothing is really that old, some of the buildings I see are stunning. I’ve tried to capture some of the most interesting aspects, but as you can imagine, the camera lens just can’t capture what the human brain magnifies through our own optic lenses. It is at once spectacular, disappointing, gross, and a martial monument to more than fifty years of Soviet rule. The statuary in this country is amazing. They imbue cultural memory and heritage into stone, wood and steel. It seems as if ever hero, heroine, great man and/or woman was so honored. I know my own country has at least as many of these great people. I wish it didn’t take wars and devastation to impress upon our government the need for the honoring of the few. They under-appreciate their ability to promote greatness. I’ve seen the power of the monuments. I’ve been affected by them myself. Even here, in this old country I watched a young boy staring up at the statue of a great old warrior. I could only imagine the hopes and dreams the horse-backed soldier inspired. Maybe the idea of greatness will make that boy someone special, someone spectacular to lead the Romanian people into the middle of the 21st century in some as yet unknown miraculous achievement. I can only say from my own experience, that the Renaissance man I strive to be today was first imagined in the mind of a young child reader of tales of Prestor John, Tolkien, and the magnificence between the pages of DC and Marvel comics, all which commanded a particular ideal—one could become as badass as one wanted to be, if only one tried and overcame, and tried and overcame, and kept damn trying. I am here now because I kept trying and I imagine that the young boy I saw on that bleak Romanian day might become the same, if only because of an impression made from the sight of a raised sword and a howl of victory caught for eternity against the crucible of an ever revolving sky.

Then came the Hammer and the Sickle. Maria had told me when she invited me that she was going to have some English-speaking Romanians sitting with me. She also mentioned that they might be pretty girls. I told her in unequivocal terms that I was a very happily married man and that she should not attempt to get me in trouble. She nodded and said she wasn’t trying to do that and that they weren’t those kind of girls. I made it clear that it shouldn't be. Even so, the Hammer and Sickle turned out to be two models hired to escort guests into the restaurant, tight shorts, tight shirts, and all that jazz. When they first came in and Maria escorted them to my table I laughed. They were too pretty and as much fun as I was going to have that night, I would suffer because of it. Maria smiled grandly. I really think she meant well.

So I made the best of the situation. I was polite and a gentleman. I spoke when spoken to. The event started and I barely saw them. I ate the appetizer, which consisted of some pieces of salami, a local mortadella, cheese, radishes and a lonely green onion. Incidentally, I call them the Hammer and Sickle for a reason. Long the symbol of Soviet dominance the device is absent from any edifice in Eastern Europe. IT’s been scratched, clawed, drilled, beaten and exploded into extinction by the residents, relieved to finally be free of the tyrannical rule. But it is still in the psyche. And an age ago I was a young man who joined an army to defeat it. So when I think of this part of the world, the reality of what it is palimpsests upon my memory of what it was. So the girl who was clearly from Russian genes was the Sickle, while the Gypsy was the Sickle.

Everything was going splendidly until King Kong and Godzilla walked into the room. When they were sat at my table, I laughed out loud, because I knew that whatever pain and agony I was going to get from this intersection of our lives had just been exponentially increased to an infinite number which could only be calculated by the combined efforts of the ghost of Carl Sagan and the mind of Steven Hawking. They sat at the table, unrolled their arms, lit impossibly long cigarettes and blew the smoke towards me. I don’t know what I was supposed to do but I coughed. And I kept coughing until they blew their smoke a different way. Thus was our relationship.

Kong as it turned out was a recently anointed Ms. Romania. She seemed to stand eleven feet tall with thirteen foot legs. She was pretty in that way someone is pretty when you look at them from the side, but into her eyes your gaze passes straight on through to the wall behind.


Godzilla was another matter entirely. She was the matriarch and head of a modeling agency that spanned 140 girls and several dozen countries.  She spoke English perfectly. She was smart. So smart, she noticed my wedding ring which I kept displaying prominently as if it were an adamantium shield of invisible supermodel protection. That’s when we began talking about my wife.

You might have heard of her, Yvonne Navarro Ochse. I am so proud and so in love with her that it is always a topic of conversation wherever I go. I’d already bragged about how great she is in the preceding week with Mark, Jimmy, James, and John. They told me about their wives and loves, and I couldn’t help but do the same. So it was with much pride that I began talking to this supermodel matriarch of supermodels about my wife: her beauty, accomplishments, and undying-never-ending love for dogs.  We talked through the main double-meat course. Then amidst a chiropractor’s dream of twisted necks as every man in the room turned to watch them go, they left. And then, after the door had closed and each man had looked down at his food and glanced back at his wife, all of their eyes found me. I could see them wondering, imagining, carving me into a hero. And I sat there grinning slightly, knowing that for one moment I was Tony Soprano, Huggy Bear in “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka,” John Travolta, and more importantly, Weston Ochse, man married to the gosh-damn-hottest-chick in the known universe. They all wished that they were me for that second. They thought that they knew what was great about the moment. They thought they understood. But what they missed, what wasn’t part of my smile, was that my happiness and confidence were far less a result of my interaction with the women than it was the knowledge that I would soon be returning to the coolest chick in all the land.

So mark your calendars and celebrate next year the date that Weston defeated the Hammer and the Sickle and Godzilla and King Kong. And believe it or not, it was much easier than you could imagine. In fact, it took almost no effort at all.

Now it is Sunday. It’s warm and inviting outside, but I want nothing more than to be home. Traveling is always a joy for the first half of the trip. But I love who I am. I love where I live and who I live with. I want them near. I want them with me.

In a strange intergalactic convergence, “Nights in Rodanthe” was on HBO when I awoke this morning and I watched the last 45 minutes, even knowing in advance how miserable it was going to get. Yvonne and I had watched it in miniature on the back of an airplane seat earlier this year returning from England. There’s a line in the movie that I thought of when I asked my wife to marry me. In fact, I might have said it through my fumbling, bumbling proposal. It goes something like this, with Diane Lane the main character, talking to her daughter: “There's another kind of love. One that gives you the courage to be better than you are, not less than you are. One that makes you feel that anything is possible. I want you to know that you could have that. I want you to hold out for it.”

This is the love I have for my wife.

Thank you all for adventuring with me through Romania. But as good as this place is, it isn’t as good as the worst place in her arms. It’s time to go home.

Until next time we talk.

As they say in Romania, Buono Sera.

Romanian Picture Album
Click for All Pictures

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Romani Day 4 - Writing and Running

I got up this morning and talked to Von by chat for a while, then went to breakfast. When I returned, I decided to take a bath. The hotel is built over a geothermal cap, so the water is gaseous, murky and hotter than hell. So I was careful. I sat in the water and sweated enough to fog up my old man glasses while reading the first story in Grisham's Ford County, loaned to my by my father-in-law. Blood Drive is an entirely believable story, as improbable as it seems. By the looks of it, the rednecks in Ford County aren't that different from the one's I grew up by in Hamilton County.

Then I did what every person in a foreign country does when they have an entire vista to explore. I took a nap. When I woke up, I dove into the story I'd been working on for an invitation only anthology about haunted things. I chose a haunted truck, in so far as used this picture as my inspiration. I only had one page done before I left on the trip and an idea of where it was going to go. But after yesterday and today it's finished. 6500 words. It's called The Milky Way Truck and is like of Stephen King's The Body were written by me channeling Cormac McCarthy. Or at least I think so. Anyway, it's done and I emailed the editor and he's happy, even though I'm going to sit in the story for a few days and let it percolate.

Now I can concentrate on my secret project, I shall refer to as CYP.

But before that, I had to conduct some maintenance on the old body. A few Leffe Blonds and some pasta weren't doing me any favors. So I filled up four empty two liter water bottles with nasty geothermal hotel water, put them in my rucksack, put on my UT sweatshirt, shorts, hightops, shades and mp3 player and went running. Or what I call running, which is a sort of mixture of staggers and walking and lurching and trying not to fall, doing all this as fast as my old bones will work. I managed four miles. I've provided some pictures to show you some of the things I passed. The dog's name is Igor and had a wire mesh mask on. I wanted to take a picture of that, because the dog looked positively Frankenstonian, but they took it off. Still, great looking Bull Terrier. I passed the almost deserted Olympic Complex used back in the Soviet Union Days, then crossed the river. I almost fell down the steps on the other side; well, I did fall down the steps, but I caught myself.

What was surreal was listening to my MP3 player and running by old Soviet era cars, homes, babushkas, young families dressed like they stepped off the set of the Sopranos, old men fishing, gypsies drinking on the bank of the river. Here are the songs I listened to in the right order. Besides being a pretty eclectic mix, imagine listening to some of these and seeing some of the things in the pictures, or what I described.

will.i.am - Heartbreaker
Riahanna - SOS
Thid Eye Blind - Jumper
Kevin Little - Turn Me On (Dancehall Remix)
Kilo- Lean Like a Cholo
Bony M - Daddy Cool



Eminem - Mockingbird
Earth Wind and Fire - Fantasy
Pink - Don't Let Me Get Me
Muse- Uprising
Papa Roach - Scars
Katy Perry - I Kissed a Girl


Pink - So What
Erin McCarly - Pony
Katy Perry - California Girls
New Radicals -You Get What You Give
Pink - Get the Party Started
Rihanna - Disturbia
Live Your Life - T.I.



By the way, the Katy Perry songs I blame on my daughter. I have no idea how they got in there.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Home Away From

Back in Romania for the fourth time in two years and it dawns on me that I’ve found a Home Away From. Don’t add the home. Because it’s not. It isn’t a home away from home. It’s just a home away from everything else. It’s a place where I am new, where everything else is new, where the horizon is empty, and the vibe runs bone deep. It’s called The Bridge and I can’t help but smile every time I go there.

This isn’t the first time I’ve found a home away from.
In 1991 I was in Beijing, China and I found a home away from. I was staying at the Beijing Toronto Hotel about a block from Silk Alley and six blocks from Tiananmen Square. China was still pretty closed down and just recovering from the shock of the student protests a few years earlier. I was sent to work at the embassy during the lead up and forty seven seconds of the Persian Gulf War. It was an experience that I will never forget. With all that said, I was a stranger in a strange land and unable to grok anything or anyone.

Then I found the Mexican Wave. It was a bar only open Thursday through Sunday on a side street around the corner from the hotel. It was owned by Peter, the son of the exiled crown prince of Uganda. Although he had a British accent, he’d spent his childhood living in California, hence the name the Mexican Wave- which was the weekends in Tijuana when all the Mexicans would return home in waves. We became great friends and I spent every night there (including the one’s it wasn’t supposed to be open) for the next two months. I was asked to join a dart league and became the secret weapon of the Zimbabwe Embassy Team, who won the championship that year for the first time. We did hash runs on the weekend. Me and the other fixtures at the bar formed the core of a pick-up soccer team that beat the Chinese National team on national television and was creamed by the Russian National team a week later. It was definitely a Home Away From and a place I think of with fondness whenever I reminisce about China. (Seems that it is still around. Didn't take long to discover that it has become prominent as an ex-Pat bar in China. I wonder if Peter is still there.) (Also incendetally, one of my first published stories, republished on the web at Fortean Bureau who has never taken it down is here. It kind of gives you a taste of the place. The story is called Cool Blue Pools.)

Then in 1994, I found a similar place in Papua New Guinea. It was a chicken shop called Big Rooster down the street from the embassy. I went there every day for lunch—nothing like fried chicken and garlic bread. We’d spend several hours each day during the height of the sun, soaking in the air conditioning and talking about damn near everything.

In 1995, I found another place in Korea. Although I’d been to the R.O.K. at least fifty time since 1985, including a one year tour, I’d never found a single place that was a Home Away From. But this time I spent four months there and soon we discovered a bar on hooker hill in Itaewon called Cheers. For those who know the locale, it was two doors down from Polly’s Kettle House. Hooker Hill has changed over the years. Seen here during the day, you'd have no idea  debauchery that occurs at night. When I first went to Itaewon in 1985 the alley that comprised Hooker Hill ran for three city blocks and trying to walk down the sidewalk without getting proposition was as likely as a wildebeest strolling casually across the Serengeti Plain without getting eaten. The last time I was there in 1997, it only ran for half a black, and even that was half-hearted. But back to Cheers. It was owned by a friend in the business named Tim and his Chinese-Korean wife, both of whom had deep ties in the Korean mafia. We spent every night at Cheers, playing darts, drinking, socializing. We got to know the club girls (hookers with a home) so well, that we became their own unofficial protectors, often threatening to beat the snot out of some 2nd ID boy down on leave when he refused to pay (wait—I think I just described a pimp).  It got to the point that when we left, we got mail from the bar owners. I even got a phone call one night from a club girl who was looking for one of the soldiers under my authority. Try explaining to your (then) wife why you’re getting middle of the night long distance calls from Asian hookers without sounding guilty.

Since then I’ve traveled to a lot more countries and been in a lot more bars, but I haven’t found a single place with even Home Away From potential. I don’t know what makes a place a Home Away From, but I do recognize one when I get there.
Today I had lunch at The Bridge (Click the link for the Website). From a posting earlier in the year (See link), I never thought I’d get to come back here. But Uncle Sam decided that I was the only one to do what I came here to do and I am back. It was about 65 degrees today and sunny. I sat on the porch watching the river. Betty served me. I had a Leffe Blonde and Ciorba de Burta (tripe soup) with vinegar, fresh sour cream, homemade bread and a sizzling hot Hungarian paprika pepper. Top ten music played on the speakers. Gypsies fished on the river. Romanian men dressed as if they’d watched too much Sopranos (all of them wore jogging suits) came and went. Across the water a wedding couple had their pictures taken in the shade of a willow. And I smiled the whole time. (Pictured is my friend Bram from one of our last trips. Wouldn't you know it, the battery was dead in my camera this time. Tomorrow I promise pictures.)

The Bridge is my Home Away From in Romania.

And remember, there is no Home Away from Home. Nothing can replace that. But there can always be a Home Away From.

When you find it, you’ll know.


Friday, November 12, 2010

Weston’s Invasion of Romania: Day 1 & 2

So there I was ready to leave Tucson, Arizona, on the way across the universe to a far off galaxy called Romania. I was sitting in an exit row aisle seat instead of a middle seat, something I was able to accomplish because of my mad charisma, fair use of puppy dog eyes, and my winning Eddie Haskell smile, that has gotten me what I wanted (and into more trouble) since I first learned the art of the suck up. Just before takeoff the flight attendant came to give us the rundown about the exit row, as if his few spoken words could ensure that us disparate twelve could actually save the lives of the rest of the passengers.  The conversation went something like this.

“As you all know you are sitting in an exit row,” he began.

The woman beside me began to cry. 

I glanced over and saw the fear etched on her face as tears poured down her cheeks. She began to sob uncontrollably.

“What’s wrong, ma’am?” he asked.

She only cried harder.

Suddenly I was aware of everyone around me staring at her, and kind of looking at me, as if I’d just done something like pinched her, or Von forbid, groped her. The woman was clearly of Mexican origin, possibly, but looked older, her skin worked by the constant heat of the sun.

“Ma’am, please.” The flight attendant had no idea what was going on, but his eyes started to roll back in his head like a calf about to be slaughtered, which might happen if he lost control of the passengers and the flight was forced to leave late.

“Hey,” I said, giving her everything Eddie Haskell ever taught me from repeated forced viewings of Leave It to Beaver, back when there were only four channels and you got what they gave you. “What’s wrong? Is everything okay?”

She sniffled and wiped her eyes. “Why are we in Mexico?”

Both the flight attendant and I exchanged a confused look.

“Ma’am, we’re not in Mexico,” he said.

“But you said.”

We both looked at each other again.

“You said I was sitting in Mexico,” she continued.

This time the truth was revealed. I started to smile, but hid it with thoughts of John McCain naked (something that might stun the normal person into coma, but usually only renders me with a sick feeling of the inevitable and will always keep me from laughing).

“No ma’am. I didn’t say anything of the sort.”

She stared at me.

With the cobwebs of a naked McCain still attached to my mind, I smiled a little weirdly and said, “He said we were sitting in an exit row.” Not sitting in Mexico. I pointed to the door and the extra leg room.

Relief and embarrassment crossed her face and soon, she was a normal passenger again, no longer in fear of the exit row. I wondered if she were illegal. If she was, and we had somehow gone to Mexico without her knowing it, she wouldn’t be able to get back across unless she paid the human smugglers anywhere from 1 – 10 thousand dollars and crossed the border on foot; and even then it was life and death dangerous. Regardless, the flight attendant was so happy that the situation was handled that he forgot to complete his complex briefing. Thankfully, we didn’t need to do what he never told us to do.

I arrived in Dallas with an hour until my next plane. This one was a 9.5 hour junket where we’d be packed like cattle to Frankfurt, Germany. The gods must have been smiling, because there were 100 open seats on the 777. I was in a five row all by myself. I watched Dinner with the Schmucks, which I found surprisingly amazing, and The Other Guys, which was a disappointment. Then I slept for three hours as the flight attendants tried to change the space-time continuum by making us feel like it was time to sleep, when it was actually seven P.M. The flight arrived in Germany at 7 AM local time, or midnight Eastern Standard Time.

I went through customs, grabbed my bags, then went to find the check-in counter for Romanian Air. The information desk girl had a good time at my expense. She sent me up the escalator, which was obviously wrong. On the way back down, I was so enamored with being able to take a cart filled with luggage up and then down an escalator, that I almost forgot about gravity. It was only at the last moment that I was able to reach out and grab by 60 pound pack and keep it from avalanching on the petite frauline in front of me. Still, by the sharp intake of breath from behind me, my attempt at Germanicide did not go unnoticed. 

Now I sit in a German bar in the airport waiting lounge. I just had an amazing pesto mozzarella foccocia sandwich and am drinking an heffeviesen. Mmm. Breakfast. The computer clock reads 1:23 AM Pacific Time, but my watch reads 9:23 AM local. My mind and body aren’t yet in synch.

Oh yeah, I also read The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano. I’m going to talk about that book in greater depth in an essay later. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s both incredible and not so incredible, which may say as much about me as it does the book.

Two hours until my flight to Bucharest. 

Time for a nap.

Addendum One. 

Am now in Bucharest.
 
I need more nap.

Waiting on a flight to Oradea.

It was delayed twice. 

Addendum 2.

I’m now in flying Tarom, Air Romania. On previous trips I flew CarpatAir, or Carpathian Airlines. I think the hub shut down, though, so I’m flying Tarom. Not so impressed so far. I’m jacked in so close to the guy next to me, we could share a colonoscopy. Plus, we’re flying in a refurbished AN-42 prop plane. Last time I flew in one of those I was 2150 feet above Bangladesh in 1993, watching as members of 1st Special Forces Group hurled themselves in to the wide subcontinental sky. That one had a rear ramp and benches along the sides. I think it held more people.

Sigh.

I need a nap.        
                             
And a drink.

Addendum 3.
I am in the hotel. I got upgraded to a two room suite.  Nice! It's late. I have a bottle of wine and a bottle of water. I bet I drink the water first. I'm dying of thirst. Notice this water is flat. You have to order it flat or still, which means the same thing, or with gas.  Different, huh?

Cheers. See you all in the morning,

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Desert Dogs Screenplay Available

As I announced earlier, my screenplay Desert Dogs recently won the 2010 Buffalo Screams International Film Festival. I've had some requests for information about the screenplay and have decided to put everything on one splashpage for easy access.

So I now have a page with the logline, two videos (trailer moments) and some background information regarding the screenplay. Please check it out if you have seven seconds or so.

If you'd like to read the screenplay, all you have to do is ask. No strings attached. It would be my pleasure. Especially if you want to turn these words into a movie starring Michael Cera as Justin and Hayden Christensen as Peter.

So follow this link and enjoy.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Romania: Once More With Feeling


I'm going to Romania in three days.

View from my hotel of Oradea and the Crişul Repede River
I’d been planning to attend TusCon 37 for the last year. I was guest of honor last year and it was a terrific time. Jim Butcher, of Dresden Files fame, is the guest of honor this year and I was keen to meet him. Plus, I was asked to write an appreciation in the program book for Ed Bryant who is the toastmaster almost every year. My appreciation isn’t what they expected. In fact, it will turn them on their ear. It’s titled “Ed Bryant: Teenage Pornstar” and is an expose into a man who you thought you knew. But alas, I can’t make it to TusCon this year, which means that I’ll miss Ed Bryant’s reaction when the police arrive; Jim Butcher playing semi-naked twister to Star Trek Filk music; and Yvonne bringing our Great Danes to the convention.

Instead, I will be returning to Romania for ten days. As many of you may remember, I was there earlier this year. I’d actually thought it was going to be my last trip. I even went so far as to say goodbye to the country. But a few weeks ago I was told that I needed to go, so going I am.

View of the same river in the spring (near Bridge Restaurant)


Knowing that there are a lot of you who would love to come with me, I will offer you this. Virtually every evening I will be at this restaurant (The Bridge), which is about a half mile from my hotel. If you can meet me here, I will buy you a beer (preferably Leffe Blond) or a glass of wine. We can have dinner of Pasta Piementese, preceded by a bowl of traditional Ciorba De Burta, or Romanian Sour Tripe Soup, which is actually amazing.

 

If for some reason you can’t make it, feel free to ping me on Facebook or email me around dinner tome 6-8 PM and you can be with me virtually. The Bridge has free Wifi and I'll have my netbook. Remember that there is a seven hour difference from American Eastern Standard Time to local Romanian time.

If you do come, dress warmly. The town of Oradea is in the Carpathian Mountains. It will be freezing temperatures, but character of the people is very warm.

Looking forward to seeing you.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

My Appreciation for Katherine Dunn

Katherine Dunn, Author
From The Breakfast Club Confession Series
Admirations from a Gate Guard of the Cult of John Hughes
by Weston Ochse (c) 2010

In 1989, Geek Love was a finalist for the National Book Award. It was a finalist along with Billy Bathgate, Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and The Joy Luck Club. I’ve read all of these books, and in addition to Geek Love, I have a candlelit corner in my soul where the Mambo Kings still play on. The winner for the National Book Award in 1989 was Spartina by John Casey, a coming of age tale of a man in the middle of his life. Miraculously, I’ve never read this book, but it must have been something to win over such a gilded-library shelf of long-lived novels. 
I wonder how Katherine Dunn, the author of Geek Love felt, when they announced the award. Was she disappointed? Did she turn the other cheek? Or did she take the high road and was just happy to be nominated.

I know on the occasions when I’ve been in her position, wearing a tuxedo, sitting among a crowd of other authors, bad chicken and wine coating my eager prayers as I wait for the speaker behind the microphone to call out my name that I’ve been emotionally and mentally tugged in both directions. While part of me is genuinely happy for the other writers, another part of me that is equally as loud has a well of disappointment that runs all the way to my core. The first time this happened I was sitting in Burbank with Director Mick Garris on my right, my wife on my left, and several writer friends around the table, who all seemed to be staring at me the moment my name wasn’t read. I felt the heat of their gazes and fought my face’s desire to tighten. It was a horrible moment, but one that was replaced later by a comment from another writer who said, “You didn’t win, Weston, but I’m going to remember your story for a long long time.” I’ve thought about that statement every day since. Sure awards are great, but isn’t the goal of every writer to create something with enough life that it lives on past the first reading?
 
Geek Love lives on for me.  At that moment when her name wasn’t announced, I wish I could have been there for Katherine to say the same thing to her that was said to me. “You didn’t win, Katherine, but I’m going to remember your story for a long long time.” But my hubris overtakes me. I’m deadly sure that someone already told her this.
 
So what was it about Geek Love that so turned me on?
 
Perhaps when I read it had a lot to do with my feelings towards the book. I was recently divorced and had just started writing. I found the book in my mother’s library, perched in the attic of a three story Victorian house on the hillside overlooking Deadwood, South Dakota. It was a dark and dusty space where one could lose oneself perusing the titles and sitting in the wide-armed easy chair my mother had selected and placed there just for that purpose. The title caught me first, then when I opened the book and began to read, the narrative held me.
 
No, it stunned me.
 
The idea that the plot would surround a family of carnival freaks who intentionally genetically mutated their children was beyond anything I had ever previously read. Additionally, Katherine’s narrator, Arty, creates his own religious cult wherein followers sacrifice their own body parts to show their devotion. Geek Love is such a morose and visceral staring-match at the lowest levels of the human condition that it transcended itself into high art. For amidst the pain, the suffering, the unholy mutations, and the almost bestial desire to be different, there are truisms regarding what it really is to be human.
 
Like in the Cult of John Hughes, where humanity exists exponentially, I was reminded of the character Watts from Some Kind of Wonderful played by a spike-haired Mary Stuart Masterson. The movie opens with her drum beats, as we are introduced to the cast. But it is the iconic image of her banging almost painfully against the drum set that has always stayed in my mind. She’s a pre-punk tomboy who has never really thought of herself as a girl, yet it is in the discovery of her own beauty that she becomes a full-fledged character. Her drumming has always served as my own internal beat of not belonging and the frustrations of not knowing how to change.
 
Not that Watts is anything like the evil Arty, or his Dr. Moreau-like parents. To me she represents the eternal need to find and own an identity. Growing up in the COJH (Cult of John Hughes), I share her character’s global angst, acknowledging that I wasn’t anything like I was supposed to be, and didn’t know how to be what everyone wanted me to be. And I wouldn’t until much later in life.
 
Publishers Weekly agrees with me, further pointing out that Geek Love is a “raw, shocking view of the human condition, a glimpse of the tormented people who live on the fringe, makes readers confront the dark, mad elements in every society.” You see, Geek Love is not just about individual identity. It’s about how people view others, and in that viewing, attempt to align them into some preconceived notion of what should be. Katherine Dunne used the carnival side-show as the gestalt for the dispossessed, handicapped and malformed, providing the reader a locus for ill attention.
 
At first I found myself shocked at the ugliness of the book’s characters.  Arty, better known as Aqua Boy, was born with flippers. Electra and Iphigenia are conjoined Siamese twins. Fortunato appears apologetically unmarred, but turns out to have telepathic powers, making him just weird enough to not get kicked out of the family, who holds its relationship with mutation with greater reverence than any bloodline. And the mother and father of this cheerful bunch of monsters? What about them? They created and followed a program of genetic mutation on their offspring, espousing the core philosophy of child rearing found in the missing chapter of the Doctor Spock book which poses the question “what greater gift could you offer your children than an inherent ability to earn a living just by being themselves?”
 
Because of the physical manifestations of their mutations, when I began reading Geek Love, the characters were completely alien to me. They might as well have been the offspring of monsters. Yet each of them had a colossal desire to be loved and that desire worked on me throughout the narrative. Performing to them was more than a way to earn money, it was a way to connect. For isn’t it true that the way we evaluate our own humanity or humanness s is through the eyes of others? And no one had the desire to connect more than Arty who created a religion around his own deformities.
 
As I read Geek Love, I grew to realize that my failure to understand the emotional nuances and needs of the characters was much like Principal Vernon’s inability to understand the emotional needs of his students. In The Breakfast Club, although everyone fell into a stereotype, they were at once different and the same. Old Dick Vernon couldn’t understand this and continues life to this day as a one-dimensional archetype of societal ambivalence.
 
If you remember the movie, a group of high school students are locked in the library of Shermer High School by the principal and told that they had to come up with an essay before they could leave at the end of the day. They decided to write a letter, and in the version of the letter produced at the end of the movie, the students indicted Principal Vernon by stating “you see us as you want to see us, in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions.”
 
I was guilty of that in Geek Love. I fell victim to Katherine’s literary strategy. I saw the freaks and geeks and took them for face value, assuming the mantle of Vernon and believing that that was all they were. I suppose it is part of our true nature as human beings to believe this. But by allowing myself to see them for who they wanted to be, rather than who I thought they should be, I ended up learning more about humanity in this one book than I have in library shelves of others. I could argue that I learned how to do this at the foot of my parents, or on my grandfather’s knee. They were and are great human beings whose desire to teach me to accept everyone forever shaped me. But just as we know that repetition is the key to good learning, I must offer John Hughes considerable thanks for providing me constant and entertaining instruction from his platoon of sparkly 1980s teenagers, who all became zeitgeist zen masters to my sometimes crippling natural desire to expect the universe to conform to my own desires.
 
I read Geek Love ten years ago sitting in my mother’s attic, feeling a little sorry for myself, not knowing completely who I was. It’s an interesting irony that Katherine’s mutations went a long way to making me feel whole and repairing the damage to my psyche caused by my own crashes along the road of life. I think of the book often. It is one of those books that when it is mentioned, I can’t help but smile as I energetically detail my own appreciation for the narrative and the raw power of the characterizations. I have not read it again, but I do occasionally pick it from my shelf and fondle it, maybe reading a few words here and there, or reconnecting with my lost friends inside.
 
Recently I received a copy of Paris Review (issue 193) and was exceptionally pleased to read a new story by Katherine. Called “Rhonda Discovers Art,” it begins with as powerful a characterization as Katherine is capable of producing. In a single sentence she deftly conveys many thoughts and ideas, merely by describing a character. “Tweezer Painton was a burly ten-year-old with a glower built into his square mug.” Because of my John Hughes cultural inculcation, I immediately thought of Elias Koteas’ character Duncan in Some Kind of Wonderful. Although he’s appeared in a hundred other roles, most convincingly as Thomas Dagot, unwitting knower of God’s truths in The Prophecy, I’ll always remember him as the skinhead bully with the square jaw and combat boots; an iconic image most recently recreated in his inglorious role as the pyromaniacal killer, Laeddis, in Scorcese’s Shutter Island. Of course the narrator of Dunne’s story is the Rhonda from the title, and it is Tweezer that she very quickly murders.
 
This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. This action creates within the title character the ability to do things that need to be doing. After all, Tweezer needed to be killed. In what “Rhonda called the Montessori moment, or the great gestalt switcheroo,” she discovers something else that needs to be done. A performance artist comes to town. A cross between Robert Mapplethorpe, Iggy Pop and Evel Kneivel, the artist places himself naked in a bathtub filled with water with a 20,000 volt circuit attached and a lever placed so that anyone could press it. The artist called his piece “Stir Fry” and was another in a long line of offensive creations he called art.
 
Tweezer had been offensive to everyone at school. There was no one he hadn’t picked on and his very existence was an anathema to student happiness. Rhonda knew that Tweezer needed to be killed and handled it. She was never caught. Now, she saw another person like Tweezer, whose assaults, although on the senses, were nonetheless violent.
 
“Rhonda Discovers Art” is very much like Geek Love in that all the characters are scarred. Many authors begin with normal characters, scar them within the narrative, then bring them back with a journey. But not Katherine. She scars her characters and unabashedly allows them to play upon the page, allowing them to use their scars as scythes, with which they sweep aside those in front of them who are either unwilling, or unable to get out of the way.
 
It’s an interesting literary philosophy. John Hughes used much the same techniques, but instead of mutated or scarred characters, he used teenagers. Of course I could argue that teenagers by their very physical and emotional presence are indeed scarred mutations of a reality we all seek to escape, but that might be too cliché. Let me just conclude by pointing out that the great lights of popular culture discover, master and use methods to provide the observer catharsis of sorts. In the case of John Hughes and Katherine Dunne, they created scarred characters, embraced their faults, and used them to demonstrate that amidst all the scars and mutations, the essence of the characters are as human as you and I.
 
No matter how horrific they seemed to be.
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Here's an interview with Katherine Dunn with the Paris Review.