Alice Cooper was a popular guy in High School. Alice Cooper the rock star. His real name was Vincent-something. He went on to huge success in the mid 70’s by adopting a woman’s name and garish makeup, singing about teenage angst, dead babies and blowing up the school. He was an honor student; upper middle class son of a baptist minister and everybody knew and liked him. He believed that the name “Alice Cooper” would bring concert goers expecting to see a nice country western girl and he would be the big surprise. That never happened, but in general his formula worked and he made a lot of money. I bought his albums, listened to them over and over until the grooves wore out: “School’s Out Forever,” “I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want.” At sixteen that all sounded pretty good. At 40 one is expected to have moved beyond, significantly.
By the mid 1980’s a music reviewer summed up Alice as “forgotten but not gone.” Things were starting to look sad, the way that Boy George looks today in short hair and no makeup, singing a duet show-tune with Rosy O’Donnel at three in the afternoon between Barnaby Jones and Mannix.
It’s now two-thousand and four and Alice is still sporting long, lank hair, black mascara, and going out on tour between celebrity golf tournaments. Vincent-something admits that he is fifty six years old and supports George Bush, but he also claims that rock stars are morons and Alice is ageless; therefore he can continue to sing “I’m Eighteen” until the cows come home.
Canadian rock reviewers say his show is “Still really neato.” Roughly translated from Canadian this means “the cows have come home.” I finally believe that Alice Cooper is truly deranged and it isn’t just an act. Stick with illusions long enough. . . they yield something.
Male rock stars in heavy makeup, sometimes in drag, invariably draw a die-hard following of pubescent teenage boys. I was one of them, used to think I should have been a girl. Never made a show of it; no make-up, no dresses, didn’t change my name to mimic a country western star. I think if you’re a teenage boy, you might want to be a girl so you won’t be you some day. Because if you’re not you, then you’re not really there. It’s a normal stage of development, a brief pause between boy and man when we’re looking for some third option, a stopping place with new metaphysical possibilities. But within that pause, it feels infinite, like the end of time itself. For me, the being a girl part wore off eventually, the metaphysical part stuck like a meteor in soft mud.
Marilyn Manson is the modern version of “Uncle Alice.” He’s a clone, right down to the interview persona of a calm, well educated, politically astute young man. Big vocabulary, and he’s implacable in the face of horrified parents and their obscenity lawsuits. He can scream like a banshee onstage, but come across like a college professor in interviews; that’s the formula and it was Alice’s formula too, exactly. All part of the act. Marilyn is a success too, a little Gayer than Alice and a lot taller-- but he claims to have been an outcast in High School, a drama geek I’m guessing, unhappy as those kids at Columbine, not as well armed, but certainly as dedicated. Copycat. He gave me an idea.
At two O’clock in the morning weeknights, on channel fifty-five, the Hallmark Network, they’re showing reruns of a series called “Northern Exposure.” It saw it’s first life in the early nineties. Great show, even in resurrection. The name itself is a double entendre that alludes to opening your mind.
On the rust colored couch, that’s me, with the pale blue-green northern lights of my TV set illuminating my face. It used to be on at one A.M., but somehow “Walker, Texas Ranger” pushed it back further, towards dawn. Just when I thought we were progressing as a nation, big W from Texas shoves his way in, again, a rerun. Sometimes “Northern Exposure” makes me cry. I’m not sure yet whether it’s more pathetic to stay up until three AM, watching and getting all misty, or if taping the episodes that I’ve already seen several times damns my future more ultimately to frozen dinner hell. I somewhat worship the show, with reservations.
My reservations revolve mainly around the characters Joel and O’Connel. Maggie O’Connel, the Alaskan Bush pilot who looks like a model, and Joel Flieschman the New York Jewish doctor introduced to the tiny town of Cicely Alaska in the first episode. He hates it there. He can’t leave. He’s a bit cranky and very full of himself. It’s a long story, but those two are the principal characters, the ones with the ongoing romantic tension. We’re supposed to care if they’ll ever get together and of course they do, and then they don’t and then they do again. Meantime all they do is bitch and argue and misunderstand each other. Ugh.
The first time I stay up to watch it, here comes the commercial and surprise; there’s Janine Turner, the actress who plays O’Connel. She is fifteen years older, wearing about as much makeup as Alice Cooper, Marilyn Manson, or Ziggy Stardust, (Ziggy played guitar). She’s at every commercial break thereafter, selling a drug called “Restasis” to treat “chronic dry eye”.
At first I feel sad realizing that the poor woman seems not to have worked since the series, that was a long time ago, and now this commercial. Really cheesy commercial too-- “Then my doctor told me about Restasis. . .” the drug company must think it a real boon to have O’Connel hawking their product to those of us who must surely be drying up by now. Sad, until I realize how much better Janine is doing than myself. Broken down acting career beats no career any day.
So I can’t cry for O’Connel on the commercial breaks, but I gather satisfaction in knowing that she can’t cry for me either--not without chemical assistance. Alice Cooper looks like he’s always crying and his mascara is running, like an abused woman. Supposed to be scary. It is.
“Re-stasis” is an odd product name, what does that mean and what does it have to do with tears? I find myself wondering about it through every commercial break. It sounds like eye drops for time travel. So I look it up on the computer which sits right next to the stereo which sits right next to the TV. All that is right next to the bed which is right next to the couch, pretty much my whole universe.
“Stasis; noun, inactivity resulting from a static balance between opposing forces” according to the hyperdictionary. It’s like paralysis but with tension. Then there’s the “re” part. Like re-run, return, resort, back to a time when when two opposing forces annihilated all possibility of movement. The Cold War. A childhood maybe. Dried up tears. But really it’s all about keratoconjunctivitis sicca, treated with regular doses of cyclosporine opthamolic emulsion .05%. I like my definition better. I’ve heard the word “stasis” associated with health but I never understood it.
Ed is much more interesting than the principal characters. He’s the young Native American film maker on the show, half white and orphaned. He has visions of “One Who Waits” a tribal spirit guide who eventually leads him to a reunion with his father. Ed is largely guileless and innocent. He flies in his sleep. He eventually gets called to spiritual service as a Shaman, and isn’t entirely sure what to do about it. He messes up a lot but there is a certain rightness about him nearly all the time. I’m a lot like Ed, well, except I’m not Native American, not an orphan, not guilless nor a filmmaker, hardly ever screw up or make a mistake, but there is a wrongness about me. For Ed, all of life’s secrets are contained within the allegory of film, if you look hard enough. It’s one thing Ed and I have in common.
Shelly is also interesting, she has visions too, and gets afflicted with song when she is pregnant; can’t speak a word but sings constantly. Holling, her husband, has his moments, as does Maurice Minnifield the ex-astronaut. Marilyn, not Marilyn Manson, Marilyn Whirlwind, she is the Zen-like doctor’s assistant who is either incredibly wise or largely blank, but I’m not going to talk about all of them; watch the show. There are usually two or three subplots that are more interesting than the primary action could ever be, just like all the sub-characters, much more interesting than Dr. Fleischman and Maggie O’Connel could ever be. They’re the actors who have hardly worked since the series, they had their day in the sun, they’re me. Weeknights, two a.m. on Hallmark. But you’d better hurry, Walker pushed it back already. The next step is annihilation from the airwaves.
Marilyn Manson gave me ideas about Chris Stevens. Chris is the morning DJ on K-Bear, the voice of the borough of Arrowhead County, Cicely, Alaska. He’s also an accomplished sculptor, an ordained minister (from an ad in the back of Rolling Stone magazine) former petty thief and master philosopher whose prison self education seems to verge on a Ph.D. He’s lanky, tall and good looking. He somehow manages to afford a Harley Davidson on a rural DJ salary, doesn’t freeze to death riding it in Alaska out to his silver stainless-steel airstream trailer in the woods by a gorgeous lake outside of town. Chris is irresistible to women, but doesn’t seem to care if he has one (which may be a clue to his success, I’m not sure). He talks too much, but then he always has something to say. Frankly, he’s a little pedantic after a while, but the key to the whole thing: he is the only actor who has worked consistently since the series ended. “Sex and the City” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” the guy can’t lose for winning. I like his life, better than Ed’s, Maggie’s or Marilyn’s. I’m going to be Chris Stevens. Copycat; it’s been done before. It worked.
If being Alice Cooper worked for Marilyn Manson then being Chris Stevens should work for me. It’s four in the morning now, time for bed, but first I need an inventory. Item one; I’m not tall and lanky. I used to think of myself as good looking but now. . . now when I catch sight of myself in the big Cafe Mirror I see myself the way that bitchy pierced-nose twenty something lesbian Barista sees me: chubby cheeks, crooked teeth, and wish he’d just order and get out of here. I’m not mentioning the graying hair, that’s deliberate. Let’s just say, “check”.
Ordained minister: check. I didn’t answer an ad in Rolling Stone but may as well have. The Universal Life Church, it’s where I am ordained. The founder of the church carried a dictionary for two years thinking it was a bible. He couldn’t read. Not a joke. He eventually learned to read and founded this church. Kicked the bucket a few years ago but the church carries on. I can marry people. I can ordain other ministers. In addition to being part Pagan, part Wiccan, Buddhist, Taoist; etcetera, having a formal education in Religious Studies makes me one-up on Chris. Figure this makes me a few inches taller and maybe a little lankier too. It’s a points system. My ex-girlfriend is now a minister as well, same church. Lives up North. She’s taller than me, taller than Chris maybe.
Radio DJ: No experience. But it sounds like fun, probably harder than it seems. I can talk a blue streak but can’t pull interesting quotes out of my ass as readily as Chris Stevens. On the radio nobody can see you. Figure this puts my chubby cheeks on a par with Chris’ angular neck. Little known fact: most DJ’s are pretty damn ugly, which explains the attitude, which explains why most DJ’s are being put out of work by increased automation. Pay is lousy even if you get in, and I suspect that nobody gets to speak as freely on the radio as Chris Stevens did on TV, but then his lines were written for him by professional TV writers.
My friend’s dad was a DJ, back when I was in a band that Chris was never in. Come to think of it, dad was a DJ too, briefly, worked his way through college at a country western station where he met my mom. Anyway, my friend’s dad had red eyes and scaly skin, always peeling, and a deep raspy voice with a creepy resonance. He promised to introduce us to his friends in the record business, never did. He may well be dead now. I’m fond of saying that. You can say that about any older person whom you haven’t seen in decades. It’s oddly satisfying. Try it.
I never talked on the radio, but I can repair a lot of the gear that DJ’s use. Technicians, however, are always monosyllabic and cranky, beer belly, never get the girl, like on WKRP in Cincinnati. Been there, done that. I bet you don’t even remember the tech on WKRP, but he had to be there, he was vital, the behind the scenes fixer. You remember Dr. Johnny Fever though, Venus Flytrap, Loni Anderson as Jennifer, Less Nessman and of course, Bailey. I was totally in love with Bailey. Come to think of it, the DJ never really gets the girl either. Rockford always got the girl. Captain Kirk never failed to get the girl. But even Chris, you know, you always had the feeling he had a girlfriend but when did you ever see her? Have to think more about this. No check mark.
Sculptor/Artist. Kinda. I call myself an artist, in a philosophical way; good with a camera but that's more like hunting than art. Think about it: you can accidentally snap a great photo, you can't accidentally paint a masterpiece. Wouldn’t it be great to have a shop with lots of tools again? Welding torch, hammers, grinders, drills. I spend hours in the hardware store, looking, thinking, imagining projects. Eventually I get light headed and need to leave to find a hamburger somewhere before I pass out. It’s dark outside the hardware store, like Cicely, Alaska in winter. I’m carrying a bag with some double-A batteries, box of lightbulbs, a stubby phillips head screwdriver from a bin by the cash register. It has a clear plastic handle with red stripes that says on one side, “Master Mechanic” and “340000 USA 1/4 x 1-1/2” on the other side. I’m getting sleepy. What time is it?
General props and Chris’ character-details, synopsis: The Harley, Silver Airstream trailer in the woods by beautiful mountain lake, impervious to cold, irresistible to women but doesn’t seem to care much (i.e. seldom seen with a woman, almost never appears to be either heartbroken nor courting anyone). Slow down boy, slow down. The Harley I can do without; never really wanted one of those. Broke my knee on a motorcycle once, probably around the time that Chris was in prison. I was eighteen, and school was out for the summer. Afterwards I was in constant pain for more than a year and a half, could hardly sleep. Physical therapy twice a week which consisted of this huge ape-like guy wrenching on my knee. He said my moans sounded like his girlfriend. He seemed to like his job.
How come Chris was never raped in prison? Pretty boy like that--had to have been somebody’s bitch. I’m definitely skipping that part. Some character details don’t fit the mold. I’ve always been fond of Airstream trailers though, and high mountain lakes. Check.
I hear Washington is nice, Northern Exposure was filmed there: Cicely, Alaska is actually Roslyn, Washington where the series was filmed. That’s the beautiful lake, that’s the quaint little town with a population of about 800. So small it isn’t even on the map. I feel drawn, drawn North, but not to Rosyln exactly. Somehow I got it into my head that Seattle is the place to be; they have a good Grad school there. And everybody I talk to has good things to say about Seattle, except we’re in California where it doesn’t rain much and it’s pretty warm and sunny and all, so why leave that?
But it’s like buying an old Datsun pickup truck, like the first car I owned, the one I rolled over, driving too fast. I never noticed Datsun pickup trucks until I was driving one, then they were everywhere. And it was a great vehicle until I was upside down in it. I reached up and turned off the radio, lying on the partially caved-in roof, asked my passenger if she was all right. Then we crawled out the broken windows. We didn’t date after that. I now see Washington everywhere. I don’t trust it.
Chris Stevens has a half brother who is half black. I have a half brother who isn’t. Check. And a full brother, I have one of those. He’s full of good advice, but he doesn’t know about Northern Exposure, so he’s a little off sometimes. I’m serious, even the theme song makes me happy. Chris was raised in a dysfunctional family, so was I. But that doesn’t mean anything these days, everybody says that, or they used to. It’s probably out of style to say that now.
If I go to Cicely, Alaska, my crushed Datsun, my catapulted motorcycle that broke my knee, my short hair that used to be long, all my ghosts, my reruns, go with me. I don’t know where to put them. They will surely end up somewhere. I’m hoping for an artful blast-pattern of fallout that will lead to several seasons of intriguing and fun plot lines. Good drama is about tears which actually fall, not about infected ducts that have forgotten how to function, leaving eyes unblinking and fixed on a motionless blue glowing horizon. This is the way it is in Cicely: everything always moving, no stasis. It’s time for bed, really it is.
Chris has a catapult. A really big one, two stories tall; called a trebuchet, a medieval siege weapon. It became a semi regular character in the series. He was going to fling a cow, until he discovered that it had already been done (Monty Python and the Holy Grail). A cruel thing to do, to terrify a helpless animal like that, in real life it would land horribly. Joel tried to talk him out of it. Chris countered that it was, “To create a pure moment.” For who, the cow? Bullshit of course, or cow-shit in this case, but that’s Chris’ stock and trade after all, words. In the end he flung Maggie’s fire damaged piano instead.
You see, when Maggie’s mother came to visit she burned down Maggie’s house, all her belongings and everything that was important to her. She said she was sorry, you know. So did my mom, just the other day, for my whole childhood, which is going a bit far. That was a good episode. And one other time I remember; Chris flung the dead body of his best friend, Tooly, from prison, into that ice cold, pristine mountain lake, casket and all, because he couldn’t think what else to do with him. I didn’t like that episode.
A little over year ago I flung myself forward, North, bounced a few times and landed back where I started in California. The girlfriend stayed up North, I left her there. She’s the one who is a minister, tall and lanky, but not an artist or DJ, no Harley, no Airstream trailer. The whole episode gets me thinking, at my age, older than Marilyn but younger than Alice, about getting anything right at all. I wonder about being spectacularly disconnected from the earth like radio waves through space. Then I see myself waking up on a smoke-blackened piano, gripping it tightly while the keys are flying off and we tumble through the air: on a brief ride with a fatal landing, creating a pure moment. But that is another place and time, a different trajectory, and a different projectile. When I become Chris, Cicely will be my home. I will not be cold. And I will live forever young in syndication. Goodnight.
Chapter Two: Six months later.
Alice doesn’t live here anymore. We’re so sorry, uncle Alice. I have catapulted my way North, again. I know I will fall back downward, back to California, I just don’t know when. This time I raised the elevation and overshot Oregon by 500 miles. I’m giddy up here, dizzy near the Canadian border. Bellingham residents call themselves “hamsters” and they say this is the “city of subdued excitement” but I don’t know what that means. Hamsters get pretty excited, they breed like rabbits. So much so that you could say rabbits breed like hamsters.
Breeding is not my concern. I’m a 41 year old college intern. I don’t expect women to like me, though some seem to. It's my wrongness, coupled with my honesty, and possibly my slightly musky smell. I should probably look into that.
I’ve had extraordinarily good luck since moving here: the nearly perfect living arrangement, the nearly perfect job. Somehow a Religious Studies degree qualified me to be a newspaper reporter. Hired on Monday, made the front page by Friday. Did it again the next week, and the next, and the next. I earn the grand sum of seven cents per word, which is not enough to live on. Suddenly I am a professional photographer as well, at ten dollars per photo. But there is no stainless steel Airstream trailer by the gorgeous mountain lake, no flat head Harley, no DJ job or sculptors studio, no massive trebuchet by which to fling large objects and thereby give them meaning and momentary truth. And though I live closer to Cicely Alaska than I have ever been in my entire life, Chris Stevens would not approve.
Not a damn thing on TV here. When I got here there were two channels that my rabbit ears could pick up; one Canadian, one semi-Canadian. The Canadian station is gone without a trace. As if the US government has set up a massive jamming transmitter overnight. They may have, because near as I can tell, Canadians are far more intelligent and well educated than we are. This could be considered dangerous. Also Canadians are very polite, and they over-enunciate most of their vowels. It’s an irresistible combination. The Canadian border; so near, and yet so far.
Canadians seem to define themselves by the ways in which they are not like Americans. Americans are rude, crude and violent beasts, although a Canadians would never say as much, too polite to do so. They merely hint at it. Canadians are as into Hockey as Americans are into football. And when their hockey players greedily cancel the season, Canadians go on TV and in the papers and say, calmly, “I am very disappointed.” Canadian women are as excited about American men as Hamsters are about other Hamsters. They want to breed with us like rabbits. The US government doesn’t want to you to know this. The Canadian currency disparity is already bad enough. Sorry.
At seven cents per word I will have to write 642,857 words to pay off my college debts, not counting living expenses. It’s worth it though, because I will probably die long before I pay off my debt to the US government. That will teach them to jam my Canadian TV. Before I die I may want to become a Canadian. That will doubly show them. I haven’t seen Northern Exposure in months. I miss it. Roslyn Washington, is 168 miles south east of here, where they shot my favorite show. I could get there in 2 hours, 47 minutes. But nobody is home. They never were. It’s pointless to go there. I might as well go to Alaska, take all 57 hours and 57 minutes to drive there from Bellingham, and still not find Maggie, Fleischman, Chris, Ed or Maurice. I try not to think about that.
Last week my front page story was about a government meeting to discuss future meetings about eventually doing something to clean up the polluted lake that all 85,000 residents drink out of. The lake has been somewhat polluted since Northern Exposure went off the air. The headline story above my story, was about a building that sprung up encroaching onto public right of way. There was a photograph of the building. Last week there was a photograph of the same building, but from a different angle. My story had a photograph of a lady and her dog by the lake, which is the same photograph we ran a few weeks back. There is no drama here. I have invented my own. I am intensely angry that they won’t give me a raise. I am livid that I have no base weekly pay. I am righteously indignant that they would assign me a story and then not run it, or pay me for it for three weeks. I am nearly out of my mind with rage that they seem to want to short me on what little pay I get, week after week. I am tragically naive about the fact that they only took me on as a writer because I help them proofread on Thursdays, and answer phones on Fridays.
In future episodes I will be excited again; that I broke an important story about government corruption. I will be truly inspired when I interview the person who gives new direction to my life. I will be devastated and not know where to turn when the paper goes bankrupt out of sheer incompetence. I will walk out on a lonely bridge over turbulent water, staring moodily into the depths, and at that moment my cell phone will ring. It will be an editor from the New York Times, on vacation in Bellingham. He is so impressed by my story, “Dairy; A Player in International Politics” that he wants to meet with me. Walking home, I will meet a plucky, spunky blond who will say rude things to me and then, in an unexpected twist, ask me to call her. Season Finale.