Updated: Aug 24, 2021
Garbage in Garbage Out
by Thoreau Lovell
We board the plane a little after 6pm for the short flight home to San Francisco from Portland. Next row over a young Asian man wearing a thick black sweatshirt stands up to get something out of his bag.
I notice there’s a cartoon on his back.
A block-headed white guy sitting in the back of a garbage truck, with coiled springs for eyes; a stretched-out, dead-tired, dog’s tongue dangling below his chin; and flabby over-sized muscles lumping up a too-tight t-shirt.
The caption, “So You Decided to Eat Garbage”
is written in chunky white lettering above the garbage truck.
A few seconds later, I hear the unmistakable fizzy pop of a beer can opening.
Looking over the top of my seat I see a can in the Asian man’s hand.
It could be a soda, or caffeinated energy drink.
But it isn’t.
A few minutes later the stewardess makes an announcement that it is illegal for passengers to drink alcohol that they bring on the plane themselves.
Is that a new law?
One of those January laws you don’t know exist until it’s too late?
That fizzy pop!
What a great precipitating event, marking the end of the exposition and the start of the rising action and complicating factors, or whatever the exact sequence is in the classic dramatic structure defined by Frytag in mid 19th century Germany.
Frytag may have written it down and gotten the credit, but what he said must have been true since the dawn of complicated story telling.
I bum a beer from Garbage Guy, embarrass my wife, cause a noisy fight in row 24, trigger the quick intervention of the attractive young stewardess with the copper-colored hair.
Would she scold me with a wink and a smile?
Or would she leap at the chance to make an impression.
Stop the plane on the runway.
Call for security.
And where’s all this going?
Why am I wasting my time spinning scenarios like this out in my head?
It makes me worry that something is going wrong in my brain.
Just a few minutes ago I couldn’t remember how to spell “loud.”
I sat in my seat with my pen in my hand paralyzed.
Only four letters, the first and the last clear as my own name, but the middle two remained obscured in shadow, unguessable.
After a few seconds I panicked and substituted the word “noisy.”
I took a deep breath, then put my notebook away.
I’ll be in trouble, I realized, if Artificial Intelligence develops as fast as the experts say it will.
Once it realizes how I write what I write, the AI will spew out alarms to my friends and family before it shuts my computer down and issues the fatal “delete all” command.
I Googled the phrase, “So You Decided to Eat Garbage” and found that it has something to do with skater culture and comics and some fake conflict between real skaters and fashion skaters.
Whatever that means.
My wife and I were in Portland for a romantic getaway and to attend one of the massive Women’s Marches protesting the Trump presidency.
It would be easy and not wrong to think that I was drawn to the phrase, “So You Decided to Eat Garbage” because I saw it as a clever comment on the state of America.
Something like Garbage In / Garbage Out on a national scale.
The text on the back of the sweatshirt did remind me of the march.
Was the march a precipitating incident?
Or the election of Trump?
Are we swept up in a moment of rising action rushing toward a sharp pointy climax?
It’s easy to despise the Orange Turd from where I sit in the bubble of North Berkeley.
The bubble of having a well-paying job, with healthcare, and a pension.
Trumpism does worry me.
But there’s another reason I’m attracted to the phrase, “So You’ve Decided to Eat Garbage.”
It’s an acknowledgement of what it means for me to try to write something like a journal. Which I’ve never been able to do for more than a month or two, max.
I think writing a journal means becoming a sewer worker of the soul.
That’s a terrible thing to say.
I’ll probably delete it later.
But right now, it’s perfect.
Next thing I know I’m sitting in a dentist office in Berkeley with my daughter at 7:30 in the morning thinking about The Tugboat in Portland.
The Tugboat is a brewery, restaurant, hangout with book-lined walls, paintings of local bridges, piles of board games, tables with couples or small groups of friends.
I’m remembering the table across from me, near the door, where a couple hunkered down on the bench facing the window, away from the room, with a stack of boxes creating a kind of barrier wall between them and the people coming and going through the door.
I never got a good look at them.
Except for the man’s left foot, which he stuck out to push the door closed whenever someone left it open.
A well-worn leather shoe.
I ordered a beer and started reading Mario Bellatin’s book, The Large Glass, which I had just bought at Powells Bookstore because a friend had recommended it.
After reading a few pages, I stopped because I found it boring and the thought, “being boring is easy” had popped into my head.
“But being boring in a way that people care about isn’t so easy,” I retorted to myself.
“Being extreme helps,” the first me countered.
For instance, being a one-armed Mexican Muslim who likes to talk about his testicles.
“These days, being extreme and boring at the same time is the magical combination.”
The second me offered, in the hope of bringing this silly fake dialogue to a quick conclusion.
I guess in a sense I’m copying Bellatin.
Or, at least I’m using him.
Last month I was using Knaussgaard.
The month before that it was Modiano.
Which just means I’m doing what a lot of people are doing.
But probably not as well.
In the café where I’m sitting after my daughter’s dentist appointment, there’s a flashing sign on the pinball machine shouting:
Black letters surrounded by a big fat pulsing arrow pointing at the money slot.
Guess it’s time to pay up.
Settle my debt.
Make everything square.
But who do I owe and how much?
Sometimes I want to give everything away.
Become a homeless monk wandering around the country with a rice bowl.
The dentist told me, one of your daughter’s wisdom teeth is pushing forward with its birth.
Like an ancient sprout buried in lava coming to life.
This dentist thinks we shouldn’t pull her wisdom teeth yet.
Give it 6 months, he says.
But another dentist has already told us to pull all four of them, right now, before they get any larger.
Do I need to talk to a third dentist to break the tie?
This is why work is good.
Not just to make money to pay for the dental work you child needs.
But to have something else to think about.
My wife arrived at the Tugboat an hour or so after I did.
I ordered another Kolsh from somewhere in Oregon.
She had a blackberry Cider.
She didn’t say anything about the shopping she did after we left Powell’s.
I like little stories, thoughtfully told, from the point of view of a strong personality.
So I was disappointed with her reticence.
About halfway through her cider she got up to look at the board games.
She returned to our table with one called, Women are from Venus, Men are from Mars.
A silent protest went off in my head.
She unfolded the board on the table and started reading the directions out loud.
“Too complicated,” she complained, and started to put the game away.
“Wait!” I said, “let’s just read the cards to each other.
It might be fun.
But first I need another beer."
It’s almost bedtime and I’m bouncing thoughts around in a bubble of sound.
I started listening to music in the kitchen while making Israeli Couscous with zucchini, kale, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and chili peppers.
Then I listened in the dining room, cleaning up for the dinner party my wife is hosting tomorrow night.
Then I moved my listening to the living room, where the big speakers are, thinking I would finally be able to relax.
That’s when I noticed the head of a German witch carved out of blond wood hanging on the wall across from where I’m sitting.
Deep wrinkles in her forehead, dark holes for eyes, knobby nose, three teeth, and enough chin hair to scare off most men, myself included.
In the bathroom, an idea popped into my head.
I got the MacBook Air from work out of my twelve-dollar Ikea backpack, sat back down on the couch and paused the music.
I couldn’t remember what it was that had occurred to me 60 seconds earlier.
It must have had something to do with this novel writing workshop I’m taking.
The workshop is called, Crossing the Ocean in a Bathtub.
Now that I think of it, it was this instructor who first told me about Frytag and his classic description of dramatic structure.
The name of the workshop is meant to suggest what an epic undertaking writing a novel is. And the sheer folly, the high likelihood of failure, unless you plan, have strategy, and execute.
The witch’s hissing laughter fills the room.
She knows I love to plan, to make lists, to outline, breakdown tasks, etc.
Except when it comes to writing.
Then spontaneity, improvisation, discovery are all that matter.
I make myself an espresso before anyone else is up.
Thinking about the film I saw last night.
The main character lived in an ancient Cairo apartment building made of sand and bone, held up by the oil of sad, tired hands.
The structure of the film is like a play-within-a-play, except it’s an unfinished-film-within-an-unfinished film.
It felt like Shakespeare without the dramatic arc.
There were four male filmmaker friends in their 30s.
One from Cairo, one from Beirut, one from Baghdad and one from Berlin via Baghdad.
And one absolutely lovely Egyptian woman, also in her 30s, with thick, luscious, almost sacred hair, lips like the curve of birds swooping over water, and dimples that danced on her cheeks.
The film had been shot in the weeks leading up to the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The story darkened by discussions about growing up in Beirut during the civil war and about how hard it still is to get a decent haircut in Baghdad.
One of the filmmakers asked an 85 year-old master calligrapher, “Where is the poetry?”
“It’s everywhere,” he replied, “waiting to be written.”
Right before the movie ends, the Baghdadi filmmaker is killed, his death implied.
He had sent a package containing a metal statue of a bicycle rider and a video of himself in a small boat bobbing down the Euphrates to the filmmaker in Cairo, who opened it while packing up all of his belongings—books, papers, old projectors and cameras, framed photographs—preparing to move into a new flat he hadn’t found yet.
After the old flat is completely empty the camera shows the slightly ridiculous bicycle rider left behind on a window sill.
My daughter comes downstairs and makes herself a cup of tea and a bowl of cereal for breakfast. Then she takes a box of coconut rice with her name and the day of the week written on it in a black Sharpie out of the pantry.
This week she’s incredibly organized.
She’s also planned some of the week’s dinners.
All I have to do is follow her directions.
After putting the rice on the stove, I get up on a chair and pull the crockpot out of the cupboard to make farmer’s bean soup, with multi-colored carrots, onion, garlic, fresh thyme and cherry bomb peppers.
Once the soup is cooking, I drive to the Alameda County Court house.
As Highway 980 curves around the southern end of downtown Oakland, gray-brown pollution clogs the air.
The sky looks like overexposed film with a mild chemical burn on the horizon.
The courthouse sits on the edge of Lake Merritt.
It fills the square block with a square building, another slightly smaller square sits on top of it, and a much smaller square pedestal or platform sits on top of that.
A flagpole rises out of the middle of all these squares flying a flag.
The jury summons room is nearly full, with upwards of 300 people, sitting on hard, square, squat chairs arranged in unexpected L- and U-shape patterns.
More people sit on the floor near the electrical outlets.
I find a seat and wait.
Check email and wait.
When my name is called, I put away my laptop, swing my backpack on my shoulder, and follow the summoned to the 7th floor.
In the courtroom I sit next to a very high window overlooking downtown, Lake Merritt and the hills.
The air looks better up there.
The smog almost unnoticeable.
The Honorable and loquacious Irish-American Judge, assisted by the quick and accurate Chinese-American court recorder, two highly organized Mexican-American clerks and the tough but friendly African-American bailiff make their presences felt.
We all look at the huge American flag hanging on the wall behind the judge’s bench.
My fellow citizens from Japan, Vietnam, India, China, Afghanistan, Mexico, Guatemala and many other places I’ve forgotten.
Charges are read.
The man sitting in front of us is accused of doing very bad things to very helpless people.
One prospective juror hurries out of the courtroom in tears.
I stand up when I’ve been excused and silently leave the building.
Outside it’s still a beautiful day with a warm and gentle breeze, light sparkling on the lake.
The street is crowded.
Most people look happy.
Unless you’re pushing a shopping cart, or lying on the sidewalk, head propped against the wall of a shuttered business, one shoe on, one bare foot splayed away from your body, like a