The last few days have been nuts. I’ve been wrestling with tape drives, trying to get them to work on a brain-dead operating system from a company in Redmond whose project is headed up by a potty-mouthed ex-DEC employee. Its initials are N and T.
And, riddle me this, someone, please. On Unix, I just hook up the tape drive, then I type this:

tar -cf /dev/tape /home

Badda bing, badda boom, I got me a backup of all my user data, assuming the drive is good. One command, keyed in. One command that’s no harder to remember than the phone number of that pretty girl you met last week. (Or wish you met last week, whatever the case may be.) What’s hard about that?

In NT, you plug in the drive, you load device drivers, you load your backup software, it doesn’t recognize it, so you stop and start 47 services, then it finally recognizes the drive, and then you stumble around the backup software trying to figure out just how you tell it to make you a tape. By the time you figure all this out, in Unix, you’d have finished the backup.

Ugh. So, when I get home, I don’t want to have much of anything to do with these brain-dead machines infected with a virus written in Redmond. And the virus from Cupertino isn’t any better. I don’t have much appetite for my computers that run Linux either, because, well, it reminds me of the crap spewing out of Redmond and Cupertino. It’s kind of like a messy breakup, you know? You meet a girl who’s nothing like the last girl, but you don’t want to have anything to do with her because she’s female, breathes oxygen, and she’s carbon-based, so there’s the off chance she might remind you of that last disaster.

Hence the mail piling up in my inbox and the lack of updates for a couple of days.

So what have I been doing?

I’ve been reading books. I finished Dave Barry Turns 40 a couple of nights ago. It wasn’t as good as his later books, but it had a few howlers and part of a chapter that was actually sincere and serious and really made me think. It was about his mother after his dad died. They lived their lives together in this brick house he built himself, and after he died in 1984, she would write on her calendar, on April 24, “Dave died today, 1984. Come back Dave.” And on the day of their anniversary, she would write, “Married Dave, 1942. Best thing that ever happened to me.”

Finally, the house turned out to be too much for her to handle on her own, so she sold it and moved away.

And he went on for another page or two, talking about the last years of her life, trying to relate to her and failing miserably, as she wandered from place to place, living with relatives, never finding a place to call home, because what she really wanted was that brick house back with Dave Sr. in it.

As she died, she had that smile that all mothers have, that smile that tries to reassure her boy that everything’s going to be OK.

The story had a flashbulb effect on me. Partly because it came from Dave Barry, the guy who went on and on about cell phones, and how people who get cell phones have no escape at all, and sometimes they’re trapped in their cars for months, stuck on the phone, surviving on drive-thru food and peeing in the ashtray.

I can’t say I read very many things that jar me, but that short essay definitely did, especially the insight it gave on his parents’ relationship. How many people feel that way about the person they married 42 years ago? All too few, in this day and age. And since it came from the person I expected it from the least, it made it all the more jarring.

Since then, I’ve been reading White Palace. I understand it was made into a movie in the early 90s. It takes place in St. Louis. It’s a book about a relationship, and the relationship has absolutely zero substance. Sex sex sex sex sex sex sex. And more sex. (I wonder what that’s going to do to my Google rankings…) I really don’t want to like the book, especially after having my world rocked by a short essay that Dave Barry snuck into a comedy book and apologized about.

But I learned something.

The book has no plot. Guy meets girl in a bar. Guy and girl begin torrid affair. It’s a cheesy romance-novel plot. You find better plots laying outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot.

The book does have compelling characters. The main character is 27 and his beloved wife died tragically when they were both 25. I’m 27 so I can relate to the guy on that level. And all of us have lost someone that we miss. And there’s a lot more about the guy too. I won’t give it all away. His (ahem) girlfriend has more substance than a plastic blow-up doll, although it would have been very easy not to give the character any substance. She’s in her early 40s, she drinks a lot, and she forgets to pay her bills. (At least she has priorities.) She works in a fast-food joint, and at at least one point in the book, she stops dead in her tracks, looks the character in the eye, and asks, “Why are you so good to me?”

Heart-wrenching line, that.

OK, so the book’s got good, well-developed characters. It also has a good setting. It takes place in St. Louis, and you can tell from the way he describes it all that he’s actually lived here. The main character lives in Kirkwood, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. She lives in Dogtown, and any St. Louisan instantly draws a mental picture. He draws in places that St. Louisans are familiar with. He talks about Tony’s restaurant, and the book’s name comes from a fast-food joint that litters the St. Louis landscape (without infringing on a trademark). He even works in Concordia Seminary, and Cindy’s Motel. Any St. Louisan will instantly love the book because it describes home. I wonder how many St. Louisans utter aloud the words, “Where’d you go to high school?” while reading it.

He made St. Louis real, and he made it compelling.

Great characters, great setting… He didn’t need a plot.

And now I find myself itching to write fiction. I get that bug every couple of years. I wrote 100 pages’ worth of novel while I was in college. It was the opposite of White Palace. It had a good plot. Maybe even better than good, but I can’t be objective about my own work. But to the very few people I’ve described it to, it’s been riveting. But the characters were awful and so was the setting.

That manuscript is lost, as far as I know. Some version of it might be on my Amiga’s hard drive, but I wouldn’t hold my breath. No great loss. I intend some day to revisit that plot, plop it down in a compelling setting, and drop some compelling characters into it. There’s really only one question.

Have I lived enough yet to pull it off?

Who knows. Right now, who cares? I’m gonna go read some more. I think the UV from this monitor is getting to my head.