It is fall, 1989, and I am a freshman at Bowling Green State University. When I begin the year, REM is on my radar only as that band who sang “The One I Love” and “Stand.” Although I am introduced to piles of amazing new alternative music that year, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” is the only REM song that comes into heavy rotation on my all-time favorites list, and I buy Document on tape at Madhatter Music Co. just for this song. Several years later, after my dad died, I got behind the wheel of the 1982 Corvette he had bought when I was a senior in high school, not long after he’d lost a kidney to cancer. It was the last time I drove that car, and I removed the T-tops, put this song on the tape deck, headed out between the cornfields and sang at the top of my lungs while the wind pulled drops from the corners of my eyes.
It is my sophomore year at Bowling Green, 1990-91. A girl I know introduces me to the beauty of Reckoning, with its Harborcoat and its Seven Chinese Brothers and Don’t Go Back to Rockville, and she lets me make a copy of her CD onto a cassette tape. These songs are tied to memories of my single-occupancy dorm room in Rodgers Quad and parts of the summer of 1991 where I’m living in an upstairs apartment with my friend Ivan and driving my beat-up Mazda station wagon around northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, and this is my second-favorite REM album.
That same year, I become good friends with a girl who loves Out of Time. We also hang out in the summer of 1991 and go dancing a couple times at the local alternative nightclub. On one trip, we wind up bouncing around to “Shiny Happy People”; on another visit, I try unsuccessfully to convince the DJ to play “It’s the End of the World as We Know It.” She smiles and makes it happen.
When Automatic for the People is released in October of 1992, I am submerged in the Dark Times and am in an unhealthy, destructive, alienating relationship. She gets pissed off because I go and buy this album the day it comes out, while she is at work. Over the next year and a half of my early twenties, this album will sit in my bloodstream, brooding and slow and angry and sad. When I move to Florida with this girl, Automatic keeps me company on those beautiful nights when she is at work and I sit on the back porch of our crappy apartment with a chemical-smelling mosquito repellent coil burning next to me on an overturned bucket while I try – and fail – to become an alcoholic writer who doesn’t write very much.
Somehow my Out of Time friend and I remain in touch, and when she visits me once on a trip to Florida, we talk about how great Automatic is, and how “Nightswimming” is the best, best, best REM song ever, and that’s the last time I see her alive, and this is the last REM album she will ever hear.
No other album hits me like this ever again. It occurs to me now that it is very likely none ever will, given how closely I associate it with that time of the chaotic tides of life and emotion – and of course, I am still in its grip when I emerge from the dark times and meet Jenn. When we listen to Automatic together, the world gets better.
REM releases Monster in 1994, I am working in the composing room of The Orlando Sentinel. I associate this loud, feedback wail sound with working the second shift and staying up to go to Denny’s until 3 a.m., and Jenn and I sharing our first home – half a duplex with a 1950s kitchen and a scrubby front yard on a busy street. Nearly a year later, we get up one morning at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the nearest Ticketmaster outlet and camp outside the doors to await the sales of REM tickets to a show in St. Petersburg. We are the third or fourth group in line. Months later, we attend the only REM concert either of us will ever see, on the band’s last tour with Bill Berry. “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” is the show-opener, and hearing those chords still gives me memory-induced goosebumps, and that song will never sound the same to me again. Jenn and I dance and scream and smile uncontrollably and get married eight months later.
There are other albums, and songs which make me grin kind of sadly (“Electrolite”) and others which beg me to roll down the car windows and say the hell with hearing loss (“Let Me In”,”Living Well is the Best Revenge”), but none which pull at me as completely as those I listened to almost 20 years ago.
Which is why, last Wednesday, after hearing about REM calling it quits – and I love, by the way, The AV Club’s description of Automatic as “the Pet Sounds of the alternative era” – I was glad to have an evening appointment which meant a half-hour drive each way out on some dark, quiet roads. Perfect for cracking the windows and singing along: The photograph reflects, every streetlight a reminder…
As I’m writing this, it’s been almost 29 hours since I finished running my 6.3-mile relay leg of the Akron Marathon, and my legs are still sore.
And while I may be wincing a little going up and down the stairs today (Hey – this was my first competitive run as a 40 year old: Go me!), inside I’m smiling a bit, because the pain reminds me that I pushed myself yesterday, and since I usually only run one competitive race per year, I hate feeling like I could have done better or that I fell short of my goal.
Our five-man relay – consisting of my brother Adam, his friends Scott and Jeremy, my friend Keith and me – managed a time of 3:21:28, which beat the 3:23:40 that Adam, Scott and I turned in last year with two other runners completing our team. We finished 58th overall in the field of 1,109 relay teams and 20th in the 120-team Men’s Division.
I had set my personal goal at 50 minutes, which meant averaging an 8-minute pace for my 6.3 miles. This was fairly ambitious by my standards: While Adam and I put some work in this summer on a 3.15-mile loop and gotten my average there to a best of about 7:25, I missed my 40-minute goal in a five-mile race back in 2008 and am generally pleased if I can keep things between 8-and-a-half and 9 minutes per mile when I’m going longer than 4 miles. At my best, I can reach a seven-minute mile, but I really have to work hard to sustain that for more than about a mile and a half.
My plan for Saturday was to go out and run at my limit for as long as I could, and then dial it back to a regular cruising speed, figuring that even as the miles wore on, they wouldn’t slow me to the point where I’d be losing the time I’d built up with a fast start.
Jeremy ran the first leg, so once the race had begun, Keith headed off to make his way to relay point number four while Adam and I walked to the first handoff location. A half-hour later, I watched as Jeremy passed our team’s fluorescent yellow slap bracelet (no baton carrying here) to Adam, and then I turned away to cover the nearly mile-long walk to the second relay point. It was a little past 7:30 at this point, still overcast and breezy enough to be chilly. I knew I’d warm up once I was running, so I had worn shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, but my hands were freezing and wouldn’t lose their purplish-blue color.
Adam handed off to me not long after 8 a.m., and I found myself getting into “The Zone” pretty quickly, although I was distracted somewhat by my running belt and its two small water bottles, which I wear when I’m going more than five miles. I don’t tend to wear it when I’m going for speed, and it shifted and bounced more than I thought it would. Still, the trip through the University of Akron campus went by quickly, and I was very pleasantly surprised at how good I was feeling when my Garmin Forerunner gave me the one-mile alarm and told me I’d done a 7:16 pace.
And I was really looking forward to mile two, which runs north and west of downtown and plunges down a steep quarter-mile hill before the route leaves the streets behind for the Ohio and Erie Canal Towpath trail. (If you’re familiar with the area, it’s the giant Howard Street hill that goes near Luigi’s. And yes, running down it is a total blast.) I let myself fly down that hill as much as I dared without losing control or letting my belt shake itself free, and when the Garmin beeped again, I saw that I’d run my first two miles in 14:11 – almost a full minute better than I’d ever run the Pro Football Hall of Fame two-mile race!
Now, of course, the remaining 4.3 miles lay ahead, and while I knew I couldn’t relax too much, I felt really good about where I was. Even as runners I’d passed earlier began to overtake me, I kept in mind that this had been part of my plan, and while I saw my average pace time began to creep up, it seemed like I was in a decent spot.
Still, after mile three, I had to start fighting a bit: My breathing was OK, but my legs were starting to object to the pace. I started doing things like lengthening my stride for a hundred steps at a time, and telling myself I wouldn’t check my pace again until I was around the next bend, or a hundred steps past the next bridge.
At 3.5 miles, I squeezed down a power gel as my overall pace moved into the 7:30-7:45 range, and I knew I really couldn’t let up too much more if I wanted to make my 8-minute goal.
Miles four and five were the toughest, and I kept having to remind myself that this summer, Adam and I had routinely run loops covering seven to ten miles, and while we didn’t push our pace on those, this run was going to be several miles shorter, and I should have the gas to finish.
When my Garmin let me know I had five miles behind me, I realized I was going to be cutting it really close: I was at 39 minutes, 56 seconds – just barely under my goal pace. I had 11 minutes and four seconds to do 1.3 miles, which, even though it should have sounded easy, did not.
With a mile to go, I didn’t even register my total time, and I started to let go of my measured breathing for the final push. A half-mile to go, and I took off the slap bracelet and clutched it like a baton, readying for the final quarter-mile climb that I knew was coming. The final stretch was harder than I remembered from two summers ago, when I ran both the second and third legs in training for that year’s full Towpath Marathon, and once I’d finally handed off to Scott, stopped my watch and doubled over to catch my breath, for a few seconds, I thought I was going to throw up.
The feeling passed quickly, and when I looked at my wrist, I saw my time as 50:17 and I almost whooped out loud because I’ll take it. Figuring in the few seconds from my own handoff before I started the timer, and another few after I’d passed the bracelet off, I was ecstatic. The Garmin measured my distance at 6.26 miles, for a pace of 8:02; the Marathon timers, activated by each runner passing through the checkpoints, had my time at 50:23, but counted me for an even 6.3 miles, marking a pace of ever-so-slightly under eight minutes per mile.
I caught the shuttle back to Canal Park, the baseball stadium where the runners come in across the outfield and charge to the finish line near first base, and met up with my brother and sister-in-law (who had been running with her own relay team). The sun came out and warmed things up, and we drank our Powerade and water and ate our free plain bagels and potato chips while we each talked about our parts of the relay and waited for our finishers to appear in right field.
It was a terrific morning.
And that’s why I’m so freaking happy to say that my legs are sore today.
Down at my mom’s recently, I noticed a couple of these glass globes floating in the fish pond next to her porch and asked her what they were.
I liked the thought of Dad halfway around the world in his early 20s, finding these things which were no longer useful, but thinking they were neat and unusual enough to keep a few, so I asked Mom if I could take one home to keep on my desk.
I jumped at the chance to read and review the new 20th Anniversary Edition of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire – my copy arrived last week and I just plowed through it so I could get this GeekDad piece written in time for the book’s release date.
And while I wrote a little bit at the beginning of that review about my introduction to the book back in the summer of 1991, there are many other memories tied to that summer and that book and what was going on in my life. Because while that summer was fantastic in so many ways, it also holds hidden in its gleaming moments origins of my Dark Times, which I wrote about in Collect All 21! –
When I was a freshman at Bowling Green State University, I went to my first Big Lots store. High on a shelf I found a whole stack of Star Wars record totes, sized to hold vinyl 45s. This was the fall of 1989, mind you, so grabbing one of these for 50 cents was a treat and a trip and many, many times since, I’ve realized that I should have gone back with a five-spot and bought a pile of them. I used it to collect my pens and pencils and desk clutter and that’s what it’s still for almost two decades later.
It was a good farewell to the ’80s and a great way to start the ’90s, stretching myself out in the flatlands of northwest Ohio. Between the old and new friendships, regular fights and tears and ridiculous joy, I can’t think of another time in my life where everything in every moment seemed to matter so much. It still feels very close and very real.
And yet within a few years, I’d made some stupid relationship decisions, alienated most of my friends and family, and moved a thousand miles away from everyone who mattered to me while my Dad was dying of cancer.
At the same time, there’s a thread of Star Wars running through the whole period, particularly during the years I call (only half-jokingly) the “Dark Times.”
The last good summer, 1991, my friend Ivan and I lived in a crappy, boxy apartment in BG to take summer classes and enjoy a little independence away from home. We had original Star Wars trilogy posters above the little black-and-white television set in the living room were we watched a lot of “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
That summer, my buddy Aaron came up for a day or two and told me about this book he’d started reading called “Heir to the Empire.” Aaron had never been a big reader, so I knew this had to be something special. I was hooked immediately, and I remember lying on an overstuffed, worn blue couch underneath the sole window in the living room reading while the hot breath that passed for a summer breeze wafted faintly through the apartment. Ivan scarfed the book down as quickly as I did – I think we may have even read the same copy simultaneously, passing it back and forth as we came in and out of the house from classes, summer jobs and WBGU radio duties.
[W]hen Aaron brought me that Timothy Zahn book, long after our sequel-writing and Star Wars RPG-collecting days had faded, I was psyched like I hadn’t been in a long time. A long time.
I’d never stopped being a Star Wars fan, but that book, that summer, was like hooking the jumper cables to the Landspeeder up on blocks in the back yard.
Over the next couple years, then, I coped with things (both the crap I brought upon myself and life’s punches over which I had no control) in large part by immersing myself in the resurgence of Star Wars, questing through comic stores and nostalgia shops and flea markets for old toys and books and at the same time eagerly awaiting the release of new Dark Horse comics, new Topps cards, and, of course, the other Timothy Zahn books.
Which means that even now, when I look back at what were without question the toughest couple years of my life, I find that I vividly remember those small moments of, well, not joy, necessarily, but relief and solitude and reminders of happiness and other, brighter days. And in the same way that flipping through a 1970s-era Marvel Star Wars comic can throw me back for a second or two to those endless-possibility elementary-school days, from time to time, the pages of Heir to the Empire strike bittersweet chords that have little to do with a galaxy far, far away, and everything to do with my memories of a personally chaotic time and place in my little corner of this planet.