Sunday, May 29, 2005

Car Tales: Weapon of Choice

Every weekday morning - which, for us, is Saturday through Wednesday - I drive CJ into work, and then go back to the apartment. This entails going (1) through a busy intersection, where all the trucks go to the docks, (2) over Garhoud bridge, where five lanes shrink down to three and there’s an inevitable tailback (especially if an accident happens), (3) all the way down to, and onto, Emirates road, since the road we used to turn down has been closed off forever while they complete an overpass/tunnel, (4) off of Emirates road, and then back around where the overpass/tunnel terminates, and into the warren of villas surrounding her school.

Got all that? That’s the easy part, driving and time-wise.

The hard part - at least in the mornings - is going back. Because then I have to deal with all the people who are going from Sharjah to Dubai for work, and it is a tailbacked, chock-a-block mess. That goes double around the school area, because there really is no way to get out that doesn’t involve waiting in a huge traffic line.

The way I used to get out was around the side, past the perpetual construction area (where they’re endlessly creating concrete for the new airport terminal) and then onto the road bordering Emirates Highway, which hooks up with the turnoff onto Airport Road. This eventually became impossible to use because everyone started using the bordering road, and I had to wait forever for someone to let me out.

So I switched tactics, went further into the warrens, and came out onto the border road further up, so I could go past the point where I used to have to wait in line. And this worked pretty well for a long time... until everyone and their uncle, their aunt and 20 assorted other relatives decided to use that road, too. As of the last month or so, it’s backed up almost past where I’d get onto it, and I sit for far, far too long.

(This is also complicated by the fact that people insist on driving - and being stopped - on both lanes of a two-way road. And there are huge construction vehicles at the place I used to turn right waiting to turn left. Every so often, some charitable soul lets one of them out, and then it’s a mad scramble over into the right lane as these huge concrete mixers come inching down the road, with highly-uncharitable (and unamused) drivers at the wheel. If an accident occurred, what could anyone say...?)

But there’s a problem: the alternative isn’t much better. The line to get back onto Emirates Road, going the opposite direction, is just as bad, if not worse. Imagine a lane of cars and trucks inching forward, one burst at a time, as everyone in the next lane over shoots ahead to try and cut in at the actual turn. Then imagine that everyone in that next lane has also gotten slowed down, and has tailed back, leading to the next lane over from that being slowed down as well. So once you realize you’re screwed, there’s no real way out.

And that, friends, is the situation I found myself in today. I made the turnoff into that horrendous line after five agonizing minutes, and then saw what I’d gotten myself into. It didn’t take long to realize that I was doomed to sit there for up to an hour if I didn’t get out. But what to do?

Every so often, when I’m faced with a suck-all situation like this, I’m fortunate enough to think of a good idea. The truth is that I’d probably think of these ideas more often if they weren’t blocked by fear of screwing the situation up worse, but every so often I give the idea a go and it works strangely well. This would be one of those times.

The idea was simple: why not get out of line - as soon as I could - go past all this crazy nonsense, find someplace to turn around, and turn off onto Emirates Road from the opposite side of the bridge? It would get me exactly where I needed to be, and past experience showed me that hardly anyone used the turnoff on that side.

But then, there’s always the fear of going off the map. In Dubai, there are times when you can’t trust to rationality or sense when prefiguring the untraveled road ahead. Just because it would make sense for there to be a handy spot to turn around in doesn’t mean that one is there. And that far outside of “town,” there is the legitimate worry of suddenly finding oneself hurtling down a literal road to nowhere, going out into the desert on a harshly-divided highway - next stop, the Empty Quarter.

However, anything - even the slow road to the Indian Ocean - was better than sitting in line for an hour, waiting to turn...

So I edged out into the traffic - made easier by some poor fool slamming his brakes in order to take advantage of the slimmest point of line entry in recorded history, much to the unamusement of the person right behind him - and went forward. As I passed the chokepoint, I saw that part of the problem was a lone policeman, standing in the zebra stripes, forcing those who cut through those stripes off the road so he could write them a ticket.

(I’ve often thought they should just have the cop snap photos of the license plates of offenders, so they can nail them by mail. It’d be a heck of a lot faster.)

After waiting at the intersection on the bridge for a time, I went ahead, over the hump and into the unknown. As the road leveled out, and I saw I wasn’t going into the deep desert just yet, my heart dared to hope. Would I soon see another flyover or - blessed be - a U-turn?

Right about then, just as “Weapon of Choice” came on the radio, what do I see but a sign announcing a roundabout in 500 meters!

I whooped with joy! My heart soared! Christopher Walken was dancing in my passenger seat!

I turned around the circle, came back at the bridge, and then went out onto the Emirates Road, simple as that. And as if to stress the good fortune of that maneuver, I didn’t have too long of a wait going back over Garhoud Bridge’s infamously slow flyover, or the intersection from Hell on the way to the docks.

Dubai, I love you, but you need to get that overpass/tunnel finished before I leave, just so I can tell myself all this crazy aggravation was worth it.

Sunday, May 08, 2005


Some of you may have noticed that there was no rANT Farm last week. I’m sure there was disappointment and relief in equal measure across the board, and I can only apologize for both.

There were, of course, extenuating circumstances. I was in the middle of putting the Wraith Project back together for another month, and working on getting the move back to the states going from zero to sixty. One is a labor of love, the other one of necessity, and neither of them are things you can really “do” and be done with: they are instead short, sharp bursts of activity leading up to a final product.

But I probably could have at least written something, if only to talk up one and harp on the other. It might not have been a spectacular something, but it would have met my own personal deadline. I’m proud of my ability to crank out a rANT every seven days, and don’t like falling down on that job.

But try as I might - and no matter how many column hooks were dangled in front of me - I just couldn’t make any words come out of my brain, much less my fingers. I thought and I thought and I thought, but somehow I just couldn’t get around that odd, gray nothing in my skull, right behind my forehead.

You’ve probably felt that nothing, before. It’s what you feel when the name of the band’s on the tip of your tongue but your brain just can’t shake it loose. It’s what you feel when you’ve exhausted all things to say but need to say something else - desperately - but can’t make the words come.

There’s a reason, other than convention, why I call it Writer’s Block: it really does feel like there’s a small, wooden block in my head. Normally I can feel my thoughts going down the groove between my hemispheres, out through the front and then back along the top in an endless circuit. But when the block’s acting up, they go only as far as the front of my noggin and then get held up and pushed back.

And how does it feel? Terrible. It’s a rubber blade through a electrical wire. It’s cold coffee on a hot keyboard. It’s a metal fork in the microwave. It’s “I’ve never been friends with you” after years of decent conversation, or, possibly worse, “I just want to be friends” in the middle of making out.

It’s a bastard, that hunk of wood. How many things could have been written, but for that block in the mind? How many bright, white pages tamed into manuscript? How many ideas fleshed out and given life?

The mind reels to count it all.

But sooner or later the wood relents, and then you’re so busy playing catch-up that you don’t pay the block much mind, again. After all, how often do you think of a traffic-stopping orange cone labyrinth when you’re cruising along at 75?

(Probably not that often, unless you’re heading right for one.)

And that was the story, last week - or its lack thereof. I had Writer’s Block, the thing was welded to my brain with Wood Glue from Hell, and it wasn’t coming off for man nor beast. Every time I tried to move a thought forward on a subject - any subject - for the Farm, it was like trying to throw a baseball through a garden shed: THUNK - THUNK - THUNK.

It wasn’t the worst block I’ve endured, by any means. The worst writer’s block I ever had was mostly self-induced, thanks to a combination of an idea that shook me to my core, and Type O Negative’s “Love You To Death” in my ears at full blast. The two of them had me pounding away at the keyboard, typing with such furious passion that I must have looked like some crazed manuscript scribbler working on the third illumination of the day.

And after I was done, most of the day later, my head was so fritzed that I literally could not dream. It wasn’t just a writer’s block, it was a brain block. I couldn’t think about anything at all.

Needless to say, that scared the shit out of me. It passed after the night, thankfully, but I will never forget how I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling and terrified that I’d damaged myself, somehow. The lesson learned was “never do a marathon like that with the likes of Peter Steele screaming in your ears.” And I’ve stuck to it - never, never, never again.

As for the “best,” well... when they’re so short you can’t even think about them, they’re hardly worth calling Writers’ Blocks. They’re more like Writers Hurdles, which you have to jump every time you come to the end of a thought and are uncertain of where to go next. Somehow you find the direction again, your fingers start moving over the keys... and you’re back up to speed before you even realize you’d stopped.

What I had last week was a standard case of “don’t push me, J.” I was so fixated on finishing one thing that trying to make the leap - however temporarily - to something else was just not going to happen. Not that I didn’t try to push it away or get around it, of course, but after a while I decided I needed to prioritize, and the Project came out on top.

(Priorities are important, given that I left my TARDIS on the Moon.)

Now, I suppose I could have pushed the issue, if my life had depended on it. And I bet you’re wondering what one does to remove the block, other than some do-it-yourself brain surgery or a near-criminal flash of inspiration from the muse? I’ll tell you, but please don’t be too disappointed if these are nothing new:

1) I usually try to work around it, and see if I can approach the stuck idea from a different angle. This fits in with my “Any Asshole” philosophy on writing, which is to say that “Any asshole could say X about Situation Y, but only I could say Z, Ö or !” And while I might sometimes be stuck with only X to say, I can at least make it my own X.

If that doesn’t work...

2) I go take a walk, allowing the thoughts to circulate as I do. You’d be amazed how many ideas unkinked themselves on the way to or from the grocery store, shopping mall or garbage chute. You’d also be amazed at how many ideas just jumped up out of nowhere, grabbed me by the lapels and said “Write me, you fool!” too.

And If walking doesn’t work...

3) I play with my Legos. You might also be amazed how unlocking the potential shapes of plastic blocks sometimes unlocks the way around the wooden one in my skull. You might also be shocked at the size of my collection, but I don’t want to hear about that.

And if that doesn’t work... I don’t get something to eat. Not only does it not tend to help, unless I’m writing about food, but when I eat I sometimes get sleepy. And sleep is not always a writer’s friend - especially when, after what’s supposed to be a one hour “power nap,” I don’t want to get back up again.

If none of those methods work, then I roll up my sleeves and...

4) I allow myself to be possessed by one of my altered egos. You have probably read the strange meanderings of Tim Foil or G. Gordon Luddite at the Farm, before? Well, sometimes they didn’t just spring out of my head like Athena, glistening with their own thing to say. Sometimes it was a rescue operation, and the ass on the line was mine.

But sometimes not even those two gentlemen, or any other, can save me from the tyranny of the blank Appleworks page.

So sometimes - just sometimes - I just have to say “later, dammit,” and go do something else that’s entirely unrelated to writing. I call this the Nuclear Option, and find that the block will usually clear itself after a day of this. I’ll be back at the keyboard on the morrow, speeding down the column road at 75++, and all will be well.

But sometimes I’ll still be flummoxed. I’ll sit down at my deck, but the usual solutions won’t work yet again. And I’ll have to give up and try them all once more the next day.

And the next. And the next. And...

*coughs, looks around*

Speaking of blocks, I’m somewhat flummoxed on how to end this column. My Personal Essay Instructor from college would be telling me that I need to find a way to take it to “the next level”: that is, take what I’ve said and apply it to some higher truth, or inner ideal, that the essay has helped lead me to. More than just a clever phrase, or boom and a crash, in other words.

I always had a real problem doing that in the course, and time after time, nothing I could come up with was good enough to climb that level in his eyes. So, in the end - harshly blocked from a “good” idea, and frustrated to the point of no longer caring about my grade - I wrote an essay about writing an essay about writing an essay. It was supposed to be a white flag of surrender wrapped inside a joke, but he loved it: an A paper, if I remember correctly.

And I guess that’s the often-unadmitted, non-nuclear method to defeating the block: turn the bastard upside down and make it work for you.

Like this.