Friday, October 21, 2005

Baby Animal Pusher

First the puppy, now panda cub video. I can't help it, man. They're just so darned cute.


That is, Thank God It's Not Another Post About Me Because I Just Can't Face It Right Now. I'm going to hold off on posting the last bit of the Alphabet o' Me for a couple of days, because I'm sick of talking about myself. Also, I can't decide what the "T" entry should be. Any suggestions?

In the meantime, some things:

One-Star Amazon Reviews of Time's 100 Best Novels; via Maud Newton. This is a genius idea. I am particularly fond of the dismissal of LOTR: "The book is not readable because of the overuse of adverbs."

Matt Cheney gives out the First Annual Mumpsimus "Cup of Coffee for a Genius" Award to Rudi Dornemann. The earth shakes.

My pal Lynda (I mentioned her under "O" below. "O" for Lynda. Also, she's on the sidebar) wrote a review of a creepy Korean flick called "A Tale of Two Sisters" for Strange Horizons. Check it out.

Two views on Serenity. One is from much-beloved Buffista Nilly, who writes a long, heartfelt, slightly scattered :-) but madly insightful post about her reactions to seeing it screened at a con in Israel. I remember asking for beta-readers for my Goblin Market manuscript, and being flattered and flabbergasted by Nilly's comments in return; she'd picked up on all the subtleties of the text, even some I didn't know I'd put in there. The other view is from Abigail Nussbaum, whom I suspect saw the film at the same screening; her focus is on Captain Malcolm Reynolds, and she has some interesting thoughts. Abigail makes some very thoughtful posts over there (even if she does believe that Dunsany's The Kind of Elfland's Daughter "falls short of perfection by a small yet significant margin." Blasphemy! One thing I haven't really seen anyone address about "Firefly" and "Serenity" is the Mal/Inara relationship, the gender politics of which have been snagging at me since a certain conversation this past weekend (thanks for putting that particular bug in my ear, Ms. Link).

Old news:

Apparently Marlene Dietrich hated sex. I find this unutterably depressing.

Ba Jin has died. I read his book Family for a course on the influence of Ibsen on Chinese writers around the time of the end of empires there. It's quite a good portrayal of a society in transition.

A gorilla in a Congo sanctuary is using tools. Well, he's using rocks to extract oil from palm nuts, but this is "considered among the most complex tool-use behaviors." Next thing you know they'll be saying "No."

Finally: Iceman!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Speaking of . . .

. . . the anxiety of influence (as I did under "Q," below--hey, it makes perfect sense! Doesn't the letter "Q" make you anxious? Particularly if you're playing Scrabble? Forget it) Dean Francis Alfar makes a great post about just that here. I quote:

[T]here comes a time in the personal evolution of a writer when you must deliberately engage in subversion, and, in effect, deliberately misread the text of your predecessors. This is one of the ways you can begin to grow beyond their influence, by finding flaws in something you once held sacrosanct and lacunae in what was once (to you) impervious. You learn to question and seek errors, and engage in act of misprision*.

Without this act, you cannot progress as a writer, will never find your own unique voice, never develop your own words. While it is impossible to be completely devoid of influences, you can determine to be conscious of just what is affecting you and take steps to distance yourself – aesthetically, intellectually, stylistically – or be condemned to act like your father (or fathers).

Dean's got a smart blog over there. Check it out.

*Misprision: A term used by Harold Bloom to describe the process by which strong writers misread or misinterpret their literary predecessors so as to clear imaginative space for themselves. According to Bloom, every poem is a misprision or misconstrual of a hypothetical parent poem. (See also Anxiety of influence.)

Get Over Myself, Part Three: N-S

More than you ever wanted to know about me, Part 3.

N - Norway: In the summer of 1997 I went to a summer school in Bergen, Norway. Bergen is like Norway's answer to Seattle; it's on the West Coast, temperate, mountainous, and gets lots of rain. Except that for whatever reason, that summer there was very little rain. It was in fact the driest summer in years, and it was gorgeous. My mother's side of the family is 100% Norwegian-American. Burros is not a common Norwegian name, but I was told that there are some in the Trondheim area; Wik is, I think, a more common name, though I'm not sure what region it's most common to. In any case, I wasn't able to spend time doing genealogical research, as I was there primarily to work on my language skills. At that time I was one semester away from completing my degree in Scandinavian Studies. Career track all the way, that's me! Hey, I got to take classes on Scandinavian History (Vikings! St. Olaf! Queen Christina!), on the Icelandic Sagas (Njal! Grettir! Snorri!), on August Strindberg (madness! misogyny! Absinthe!), on the mythology (Ragnarok! Iordmungandr! Odin hanging from the ash tree!) . . . I had the best classes. And I got to learn about my ethnicity to boot. Even so, traveling to Norway was almost an afterthought; I had never been to Europe, and I wanted to take a vacation. I wasn't at all prepared for how at home I would feel there, or for how utterly overcome with emotion I would become. It was the mountains that got me most of all, on an overnight trip. They call it "Norge i et nøtteskall," which means "Norway in a nutshell." It's a common activity for tourists. We took a train inland for a couple of hours, got out when we were high in the mountains, and started hiking down. When I'm hiking, I often like to go off on my own, since conversation distracts from the scenery. This was a good choice in this case, since I was practically in tears at points during the hike. The mountains east of Bergen are populated with countless foss or waterfalls, and a river ran through the valleys we were hiking down. At points the river rushed through rocky rapids. At one point water plunged into it from a cave high up on a mountain. At times it flowed past old farmland. Many Norwegians keep their old family homes as vacation spots--they don't bother to wire them for electricity or phones, they just go up there to hike, to read, to spend time. Who could blame them? These are the mountains where the tales of trolls and nisse came from, and walking past the walls of damp, moss-covered stone it was not hard to believe that the rocks might open their eyes and stretch and confront trespassers. We spent the night in a hotel amid the mountains. I don't remember what we ate there, but I'm sure there was salmon. Around Bergen the Norwegians ate salmon like we eat hamburgers or hot dogs, but it never got old. The next day we hiked the rest of the way down to the fjords, where we got on a boat which took us south along the dramatic coastline and back to Bergen. Along the way we saw thousand-foot cliffs with houses at the top of them, accessible only by long, switchbacking staircases which descended to tiny docks. By the time we got back to the harbor at Bergen--which had a lovely fish-market surrounded with lots of annoying tourist shops--I felt connected with the land in a way I had never felt before. I haven't made it back there yet. But I will.

O - Odyssey 1996: I could tell you about how it affected my writing, and it did, in profound ways. But the most important thing about it was that for the first time ever I didn't feel like a freak for wanting to be a writer and specifically for wanting to write the kind of stuff I did. I went in half-afraid that the workshop would be entirely populated by Comic Book Guy clones in Star Trek t-shirts, but instead I found a wide range of ages and genders, talented people who were hip to what was going on in literature (not just genre) and knew so much about so many things that I felt totally outclassed. I also took comfort in the geek factor, in people who had read LOTR as many times as I had, had gone through a mad and inexplicable Piers Anthony phase just like I had, who had obscure knowledge about classic genre stuff and wanted to share it. It was a community, and people like Carl and Dana and JoAnn and Derek and Lynda helped me feel a part of it. After Odyssey, we took advantage of the convenience of the new-fangled Internet and kept in touch over email. And 10 years after the fact, I still think of the spec fic blogosphere as an extension of Odyssey. Shucks, I'm getting all misty.

P - Pets: We've never had a cat. My dad's never liked them, and I can't say I blame him much. I've met cats whom I got along with OK, but cats aren't affectionate unless they want something. They cuddle when they're cold. They talk when they're hungry. This is my subjective experience, I know, so don't gush to me about your darlings--I know they're precious, and I'm happy you've found each other. When I get my many acres of land on which to build my cozy little cottage and my spacious library and my enormous guest house, we will have cats to keep the rodents at bay. But the land will be for the dogs to run around. Our first dog was Sammy, a Labrador/Saint Bernard mix. We were living in the Crocus Hill area of St. Paul at the time--this was before it got all chi-chi. We had a little yard, and Gretchen and I were little kids, and Sammy was a Big Dog. He used to knock Gretchen over with his tail. We have pictures of the two of us burying him in leaves, and it looks like the Aesir taunting Fenris Wolf. Eventually Sammy went to live with Grandma and Grandpa's neighbors up in Evansville; we used to glimpse him sometime as we drove past. Later, when we moved to suburbia and we were all a little older, we got a black lab named Fritz. Unfortunately, during the intervening years I had developed allergies to every substance known to man, including dog hair. (Nowadays I get a touch of the hay fever, but I've pretty much outgrown the rest of it.) So poor Fritz wasn't allowed in the house. He slept on the porch, usually, and not surprisingly he ran off every chance he got. Many, many, many times I ran through the neighborhood, sometimes in tears, screaming "Fritz!" and chasing him back and forth through people's yards. Funny thing about the suburbs; people don't come out of their houses unless your dog is pooping on their lawn. Helping a ten-year-old kid catch his drooling black hairball of a pet? You'd think no one lived in our neighborhood. More than once he disappeared so thoroughly that Dad had to pick him up from the pound. One day when Fritz ran off he got hit by a car; he survived, but he spent a few days beneath our neighbors' pine tree recovering. (The vet just said to check out his gums, and if they were pink he should be fine. I don't know why he didn't have us bring him in.) He got better, but not long after that he ran off and never came back. We didn't get another dog until I was in high school; my brother found a pet adoption service and a family with a beagle and no yard. This was Zach, or as his pedigree read, Zachary Edward. He'd been born to a prestigious line of breeding beagles, but since he had exhibited signs of epilepsy as a pup he wasn't going to be used as a breeder. There are big beagles and little beagles (seriously, there are, at least if you're not British), and Zach was a big one (over thirteen inches high). OK, I know that's not actually big. Quick! Look at the puppy!

Distracted you, didn't I? Anyway, we used to let Zach run around in the poolyard, which had an old concrete pool and a pump the size of the original Iron Man. (Not sure why we didn't let Fritz do that--possibly because Fritz was not very smart and would have fallen into pool continuously? Must ask.) ((Also, the pool is no longer there as it became too difficult and expensive to maintain. We now have yard (not the same as "going yard") with a lovely garden which my mom has built up over the years.)) Anyway, Zach was all nose, as many beagles are, and often climbed up on the compost to leap over the fence, or squeezed under it over by the raspberry bush. Then he would follow scents for hours. I mean hours. All nose means that when you're standing three feet from a beagle calling his name he doesn't hear you. He's too engaged in tracking the scent of the squirrel--"Whoa, was that a cat? Hooooowl! Got to--run--over--here--and . . . hm, no cat over here. People smells. Field mouse. Bird. What's that guy doing over there? What's he saying? Never mind--raccoon! Hooooowl!" So here's me (or Mom, or one of my siblings) chasing another dog through the neighborhood. Are we seeing a pattern? When I went away to school in Madison I missed Zach horribly, but we were still buds whenever I went back to visit. We all loved him. Then, when he was perhaps 10 years old, he developed some respiratory problems. They got bad enough that Mom took him to the vet, who gave him some sort of medication. The next day he was lying in his bed, hardly breathing. Mom picked him up to take him to the vet again, and he died in her arms. She was devastated. We all were. In Madison I went a little crazy with grief. I imagined that Zach was walking with me to my classes, that he was there waiting outside when I finished. It was hard to be away, to not have seen him those last few days. It still is sometimes. A few months later, after the winter had dulled some of the pain, my brother who was then living in North Carolina proposed that he get a beagle puppy from one of the nearby farms. As it turned out, the entire family went down to Chapel Hill for Spring Break, where we all met Eddie, the most cutest puppy ever in the history of all the world. (I can't help it, I'm regressing. Puppies do that to me. See above.) He flew home with my parents in a tiny kennel, and that's where he still lives. He's a smaller variety beagle, and named for Zachary Edward, don'tcha know. I'll be seeing him in a couple of weeks. One of these days I'm going to get a dog of my own, but I don't want to subject one to apartment living and my odd hours in and out. It wouldn't be fair to the dog.

Q - Quest Fantasy: From 4th Grade to 11th or so, this was my preferred genre. I read LOTR at least twenty times. At least a dozen of those happened during 7th and 8th Grades, AKA junior high, AKA the Worst Years of My Life. During those years I came to feel that I had no friends and that this was because I was a geek and a weirdo. I didn't know how to change this, either. I was horribly shy with most people, and didn't know how to make or keep friends; essentially I was socially retarded. It was in these years that I was first called a "creep," which was a stunning thing to hear. I think it was because I had a tendency to watch people interacting, as if I was trying to figure out how it worked. I was convinced they wouldn't notice me, as I was essentially invisible anyway. The idea that they not only noticed me but considered me unpleasant for watching them was a slap in the face. I used to go home and sit in my room and read and listen to music; at night I would lie awake recounting the ways in which I had embarrassed myself that day, and worrying about the ways in which I would humiliate myself again the next. This insomnia prevented me from sleeping more then four or five hours a night. On weekends I would sleep in, and if there was nothing else going on, I would take my Ballantine paperback editions of Tolkien and read them all; starting with the Hobbit, through the trilogy, and sometimes even parts of the Silmarillion--Middle-Earth lover though I was, I never did finish that one. The Hobbit usually only took a couple of hours to finish, and on a good Saturday I'd be halfway through with The Two Towers by the time I couldn't keep my eyes open. Sundays we had to go to church, but afterwards it was back to the books, back out of myself, away from the impending return to school, isolation, and humiliation. It's not an exaggeration to say that a dead British converted Catholic WWI vet saved my life. And yet . . . at some point, the books began to feel as though they were weighing me down. I didn't stop re-reading right away, but I moved on to lighter things like Douglas Adams and the Robert Lynn Aspirin Myth books and the above-mentioned Piers Anthony. (Piers takes a lot of shit nowadays, but he kept me reading and some of his books are great, so I don't want to hear a word about it. Aspirin I'm not so sure about; I've heard stories.) I did still read quest fantasies, but eventually David Eddings was the last straw. Talk about plug 'n play fantasy. And yet, my imagination was so much in J.R.R.'s shadow that I eventually had to work out my anxiety of influence with a quest fantasy heavily influenced by Marquez and Faulkner and Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy and Mircea Eliade and Knut Hamsun. Kind of worked out a lot of my anxieties on that one. I hope it sees print one of these days.

R - Roommate: I mention Marianne a lot, and yet she is something of a shadowy figure to many of you. I first met Marianne in 1991, when she started working at the Rath. (See Madison.) She was the girl everyone crushed on, most particularly my buddy John. John and Marianne ended up dating for a while, and during that time, between work and socializing, she and I hung out a bit. We weren't close friends, but we got along well. She eventually graduated--something it seemed like I might never do--and moved to Chicago. I stayed on in Madison for a while, then moved back to the Twin Cities, and then we suddenly ran into each other at the wedding of friends. We clicked, starting chatting on the phone and email, and when I had paid off my loans and was a) looking to move and b) thinking about library school, we decided to be roommates. It's a pretty laid-back arrangement, most of the time. We've both got our own stuff going on; Marianne places actuaries by day, plays cello, fiddle, and guitar by night. She and her friend T. take a lot of trips to various bluegrass and country festivals around the region. We hang out a lot, too; we see shows and movies and stuff like that, but a lot of times it's nice just to hang out at home with a bottle of red wine (or two, or three), some fancy (or notso fancy) cheese, and the DVD player. I introduced her to "Buffy" and "Homicide," she got me into "Six Feet Under" and "Sex and the City." We write stories together sometimes (well, one so far), and she's the first reader for everything I write. All in all, she's a good friend and a great person to have in my life.

S - Stewart Copeland: Should have punched Sting a few more times. Seriously, he's go the arm for it; listen to him spanking the skins on "Next to You" or "The Other Way of Stopping" and tell me he doesn't have the muscles to knock some sense into that pretentious nitwit. At the very least he could have spared us The Soul Cages. Rock on, Stewart! You were always the best part of the Police.

Coming up: Underwear! X-Men! The end of all me, all the time!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Kenya Headlines

500 "IDP"s (Internally Displaced Persons) from the Rift Valley region are suing for overdue reparations stemming from ethnic violence which preceded Kenya's first multi-party elections in 1992. Speaking of ethnic violence, some observers fear that the Mungiki, a religious splinter group of the infamous Mau Mau, are making a play for legitimacy. There's a hint of propaganda and fear-mongering about that article, I have to say.

Kenya ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's annual Corruption Index, but TI's director admits that he and the organizations representatives in Kenya may lack credibility due to their closeness to President Mwai Kibaki.

An excellent introductory article to the Kenyan constitutional debate. I haven't mentioned it here, but for illiterate voters the process has been reduced to colors; banana yellow for yes, orange for no. The middle has apparently begun referring to itself as fruit salad. I shit you not. In all seriousness, there is a lot at stake here, including abortion and gay rights, religious freedom, land rights, and the strength of labor unions. And there are plenty of dirty and/or illegal tactics being used to get out the vote.

Elephant Headlines

The Audubon Zoo in New Orleans is gradually recovering from the Katrina hit. There were surprisingly few casualties among the animals, but some of them seem to miss the crowds. The zoo won't be open to visitors until sometime around Thanksgiving, and the apes are skittish and suspicious due to the lack of human visitors. Panya and Jean, the zoo's elephants, have been helping out by eating downed branches and, apparently, putting on impromptu shows for National Guard troops stationed nearby.

Researchers in Kenya and South Africa are strapping cellphones to elephants in order to track their migrations. This has cut the cost of wildlife tracking by as much as 60%.

Do elephants enjoy polo? None of them were quoted for this story.

A call for the National Zoo to release its elephants to sanctuary, due to unhealthy conditions in their habitat.

An interesting editorial on the Kenyan government's transfer of authority over Amboseli National Park; the writer casts some doubt on the idea of peaceful co-existence between the wildlife there (elephants in particular) and the Maasai and their cattle.

We Briefly Interrupt the Me-Fest to Indulge a Particular Obsession


Get Over Myself, Part Two: H-M

Same caveats as the last: it's long, and it's all mememememe . . .

H - Heartbroken: Four times, maybe five. In what I suppose is a pattern for me, I blame myself. I always blame myself. If I'm the one getting hurt, then I should have known better, I should have seen the signs, I should have realized we were incompatible. If I'm the one hurting someone else, then I should have known better, I should have put a stop to it in the beginning, I should have realized we were incompatible. Damned Catholicism and its martyr complex! It would be comforting to put the blame on someone else once in a while.

I - Instruments: It started with Tuba. For some reason, when my brother and sister started taking piano lessons, I resisted. I think I had read something about a kid who hated piano lessons, so I decided they were no good. Nowadays I wish I had just gone and done it. I think my fingers would be suited for it--they are long and thin and fidgety. Anyway, it wasn't until 4th Grade that I started with the Tuba. Our music program at the elementary level wasn't much. Basically the teacher traveled around to all the elementary schools and gave us each one hour-long private lesson per week. I liked having a big instrument. (Oh, you dirty-minded people, you. I was ten!) Later on I played in the high school marching band and carried a gigantic fiberglass sousaphone on my shoulders. We used to march to a chop-step, which basically means that you drive the balls of your shoe into the pavement with each step; this means that when you're marching en masse the band sounds like an army even if no one's playing. It also helps you march with more precision, straight ranks and files and all that. You lose a tenth of a point for every person out of line, and we were a very competitive band--we won more than 90% of the parades we marched in. (Yes, many parades have competitions like this.) In high school I also started taking guitar lessons, and when the jazz ensemble needed a bass player our band teacher Mr. Statz (long may he reign) asked me if I could learn the bass guitar. So I took a crash course; it was a good halfway point between the principles of playing guitar and the range of the tuba. Jazz ensemble was great fun. I took great satisfaction out of playing the walking bass line to "Sweet Georgia Brown" flawlessly at least once. Nowadays my musicianship is pretty rusty, though I recently bought an acoustic guitar and am trying to re-learn everything I've forgotten. It's slow going.

J - Juggling: I never learned. I had--still have, actually--a trio of penguin beanbags known as the Flying Penguini. They came with instructions on how to juggle. There are diagrams. I can do just about one cycle of tossing and catching all three before it all goes to pieces. My arms start to flail and the Penguini take flight for their ancestral homeland in the Falklands. In other words, the whole venture goes south. I also never learned to use nunchaku or butterfly knives. I really think this is for the best.

K - Kin: Immediate family includes father John, 67, retired civil servant; currently keeps busy as an usher at the Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, and 12 days a year as a ticket-seller at the Minnesota State Fair. Mother Elaine, 58, teacher's aide in District 197's program for mentally and emotionally challenged kids. Sister Gretchen, 33, recently moved to California where she works for a mortgage company. Brother Stephen, 31, lives in St. Paul and works at the Golden Valley Humane Society. Sister Mary, 30, also lives in St. Paul and does placement for a temping company. Sometimes we are close, and sometimes not. I call my folks once a week or so, but I don't see them that often. My siblings and I are all very different people, with very different interests. We don't always relate or agree. I talk to Mary most often of the three, as she is found of calling me up to tell me unimportant things. She is aware they are unimportant; that's part of the shtick. "Dave," she'll say. "Eddie's mad." Eddie is my parents' six-year-old beagle. "What's he mad about?" I'll ask. "Because Mom and Dad are mean to him." "How are they mean to him?" "They won't let me take him home with me." This is Mary's constant refrain, that Eddie loves her best and should be allowed to live with her, but only when she feels like taking care of him. Also, sometimes she calls me up to tell her that Mom has hung up on her. Considering that Mary calls Mom at least five times a day and often ends up yelling at her over some trivial thing or another, this is not surprising. My brother Steve hangs up on Mary just for fun. "Mare, listen." Click. Steve's not a phone guy. Mary would probably die after 24 hours without phone access--not that she would develop a physical illness, but the people around her would kill her. Steve is, in contrast, quiet and bitingly sarcastic. He sleeps on the couch in my parents' house, not because he can't get his own place, but because he likes to be there with the dogs and he sleeps with the TV on all night. He has his own dog, Gracie, a Golden Retriever about three years old. He's also been doing a lot of woodworking lately, helping my parents renovate their 130-year-old house. He's building chairs and tables and rails and who knows what else. Gretchen lives in California with her fiance. She and I famously feuded for a long time; a few years ago it became clear that there was no reason to feud anymore, but in the meantime we had drifted so far apart that we have very little to talk about. Our priorities are different. It amazes me sometimes that my parents brought up such different kids. It also amazes me how much they've mellowed--when we were younger they seemed so strict, and now they are completely laid back. We tease them all the time. Mary calls them Smelly Ellie and Regular John. Smelly Ellie just to bug my mom, and Regular John because my dad is kind of a regular guy. Back in the day my dad and I had some horrible fights, but we get along well now. They're very supportive of all my choices, although there have been times (like with the dropping out of school twice) that they weren't as much. I love them dearly.

L - Libraries: I remember the library as a kid; reading Encyclopedia Brown, the Bobbsey Twins, Danny Dunn, John Christopher's books, everything I could find. There was a cozy little section for kids where I liked to hang out until the rest of the family had made their picks. Later, though, when I was not a boy, not yet a man (I stole that line from Britney), I felt set adrift in the larger adult confines of the library. There was stuff for me on those shelves, but it was mixed in with a lot of other things that I wasn't interested in. At some point I started making my own money, and I stopped going to the library, as it clearly wasn't for me at that age. I know for a fact that this is the age at which many of my peers, particularly the boys, stopped reading. This is one thing I'd like to do when I am a fully formed librarian man--give teens their own space within the library, with books and other media that fits their needs, where they will feel welcome and not just under surveillance. A space for them to socialize and do homework and participate in amazingly fun activities coordinated by yours truly. (Yeah, that last part's going to be the hardest.) Likely it's not going to be easy; whereas nearly 100% of libraries have a children's section, less than a quarter have dedicated space and staff for young adults. But I think it's worth doing, so I'm gonna.

M - Madison: I lived in Mad-town for almost nearly exactly ten years, from 1989 to 1999. At first I found it completely intimidating. I was a kid from the suburbs where nothing was within walking distance, and I always let my friends drive when we went somewhere because I was easily distracted and didn't know where anything was. (I'm still really bad at street names and directions, although in Chicago it's OK because everything is laid out so neatly in a grid. In general, though, I navigate much better by landmarks than by streets.) On foot, Madison seemed huge to me. I was constantly getting turned around, and probably should have gotten the campus map tattooed on the inside of my eyelids. Gradually I got to know the central campus, and State Street, and the student slums around West Mifflin; I also learned to drink, something I had done essentially not at all during high school. You could say it was a crash course. Sadly, the learning curve at school was not so favorable; I was a good student in high school, but I didn't know why I was in college. I had no goals, except that I thought I wanted to write something. I thought probably I should try learning computer programming, but not knowing what I was doing I blundered into a Pascal course and was utterly defeated by an assignment to write a program which would calculate bowling scores. Worse, because I was so uninterested in school I developed a paralyzing crush on a girl in my dorm, and proceeded to make a fool of myself on a regular basis. It became pretty clear that I wasn't accomplishing anything, so midway through my second semester I withdrew and went back home to work for the spring and summer. I returned to Madison and school in the fall, moved into an apartment with some dorm buddies, got a job at the Rathskeller in the Memorial Union. We called our apartment the Mifflin Street Animal Shelter and did the usual stuff--launching stuff from a giant slingshot left behind by the previous inhabitants, fighting over the shower and the dishes, blowing bubbles from our deck down over the Mifflin Street Block Party. I lasted another year and a half at school before I lost interest again and ended up on academic probation. I was still living with the Animal Shelter guys, but I was hanging out with a bunch of screwballs who lived together in what they called ReHo--short for Remedial House, since pretty much everyone who lived there had been on probation or actually been kicked out at least once. The apartment moved from year to year (part of the annual August 14-15 ritual student move, days when unwanted furniture lines the streets and there's not a rental truck or trailer to be had within forty miles of Madison), and the inhabitants changed, but there was a consistent attitude to it, one of nearly universal derision for everyone and everything. There was a lot of piss-taking, in the sense of giving each other tons of shit; sometimes it got a little tough to take, as I was probably the most thin-skinned of the group. But it was a lot of fun, too--I remember almost missing a shift at work because I got so absorbed in my first Bruce Lee movie, and I remember playing lots of Nintendo and Sega, and I remember parties where acts of terrible debauchery were committed. All this time I worked at the Rathskeller, mornings and afternoons and nights, sometimes all in one day (eighteen hour shifts were not unheard of in the summers, since everyone wanted to drink on the Terrace and we were always understaffed). There was lots o' beer, too, and buying comics, and I started writing during this time. Friends graduated, and little feuds erupted, and I moved from downtown out to Middleton and bussed all the way to Oscar Mayer to do temp work. I cleaned offices for a little while. I went back to the Rath and spent a whole summer running the Bratstand in the mornings, and I can cook a bratwurst better than you. Eventually I moved back into Madison and decided to go back to school and get the piece of paper. I had relationships during this time, too, but nothing lasting, and I still didn't know what I was doing. In 1996, the summer after I went back to school, I left Madison for six weeks to go to Odyssey, and that changed things. I got the degree and I worked but I spent most of my time writing. I hated the jobs I had, though--tech support, temp office work--and I wasn't making enough money to keep up with my student loan payments. So in 1999 I asked my folks if they'd let me move back in with them for a little while. It was a tough decision to make, but most of my friends had left Madison by that time. I was lonely and frustrated and ready for a change. Nowadays, I think about moving back.

Coming soon: Norway! Something that starts with Q! More me!

Get Over Myself, A-G

Someone mentioned to me over the weekend that even though they read my blog they feel like they don't know what's going on in my life. It's true that I don't talk about myself very much, because I am of the opinion that I Am Boring. So I generally prefer to talk about what I'm working on or point you at this cool thing or that little tidbit of news. But for those who are interested, I decided to do a little Alphabet of Me, adapted from various alphabet memes and some things that came right out of my own head, if you can believe it. This may get a little indulgent, so if that makes you roll your eyes I suggest you skip along, la la la, nothing to see here. And it's really turning out to be more of a What Has Gone Before than it is a chronicle of current events, so sorry about that.

It also is getting really damn long, so I'm just going A through G right here.

A - Age I became an atheist: 12 or 13. I was raised Catholic, see--it's one small step from there to complete disillusionment. Age I became an agnostic: 30-ish. The central hubris of atheism is the same as in any religion; the arrogance of believing that you know something. I don't know a damned thing.

B - Broken bones: 3, all fingers--a bike crash. No, I can't really call it a crash, because the only vehicle involved was me. A brand new bike, a long driveway, the exhilaration of going fast, the end of the driveway approaching, the front brake. I have also put a knife into my palm while separating frozen hamburger patties, and cut off a quarter inch of my right thumb slicing tomatoes in a rotary slicer. Ah, the joys of food service. Then there are the chicken pox scars, and the scar under my lip where I put a tooth through it--a complicated story of what passes for daredevil activity in a sheltered suburban home.

C - Candy: M&Ms and Gummi Bears (Haribo only--being a candy snob helps control the sweet tooth, though not by much). Other chocolate as needed. For many years I was not a chocolate fan, and I still tend to get my fill after half of an American-sized chocolate bar, but this is why chocolate truffles were invented. And M&Ms. M&Ms should probably be a controlled substance.

D - Dancing: not in public without alcoholic lubrication. One of these days I really want to learn to swing dance, though. In private, it's mostly Prince or Stevie Wonder that gets the feet moving, although I have been known to shuffle along to the Old 97s ("Singular Girl" in particular), to my roommate Marianne's fiddle playing, and to the music in my head. (It's a trip, it's got a funky beat, and I can bug out to it.)

E - Elephant obsession: As a child I was obsessed with the story of Noah's Ark. I had a little playset, with a ship that really floated, and a bunch of little plastic animal pairs. (My mom sold it at a garage sale when I was away at college. All that remains is a lone plastic koala.) When I was in fifth grade I became fixated on the idea of having animal companions. (I just checked, and this was before The Beastmaster was released, so I can't explain it with that.) I wanted a black panther named Innocence, a white horse named Freedom, and a hawk named for some other whacked-out virtue or other. Courage, maybe. Seriously, how weird was I? The point is, I find animals much more relatable than most people. And when, over the Nebula weekend, I got smacked in the head with "Hey! Elephants!" it was not so very out of the blue. Elephants are smart and beautiful and they love each other. The elephants were the ones who protected the little animals from the predators on the ark. At least, that was my theory. It's also my belief that the elephants tried to talk the unicorns into getting onto the ark, but them silly unicorns were too busy playing silly games.

F - First time: I had no idea what I was doing. First of all, it happened sort of late--I was nearly twenty. And it was something like when you read a word in books and you think you know it, but when you say it out loud everyone gives you a funny look because you're pronouncing it wrong. Actually, it was very like that, since I had read about sex a fair amount but never, um, watched it or participated (obviously). So there was fumbling and confusion and overall very poor pronunciation. I didn't tell the young lady in question of my inexperience until after the fact, and the relationship didn't last, but then they never do, do they? (Well, sure they do, sometimes.)

G - Grandparents: On Dad's side, Frank and Marguerite; on Mom's, Ernest and Hazel. (You know that Frank and Ernest comic? The one that isn't all that funny? I always think of my grandfathers when I see that.) Marguerite was a Cantwell, and a Duffy before that; she went to live with cousins in Milwaukee after her single-parent father fell off the Lutheran church he was roofing and died. Legend has it that the Catholic priest wouldn't let them bury Great-grandpa Duffy in the cemetery because he was a mason; he became one, of course, so he could get work as a roofer. Legend also has it that after he was buried in the Lutheran cemetery a bunch of his buddies got drunk, dug him up, and re-buried him in the Catholic cemetery in the dead of night. Whatever the truth of that story, the result of their father's death meant that Marguerite and her siblings were sent to live with various relatives, and she ended up with the Milwaukee Cantwells. One of the Madison Cantwells, my Great- or Great-great grandpa, ran a printing company; the building which bears his name is still there, across the street and up half a block from the Great Dane Brewery. Grandpa Frank was a journalist in Milwaukee for a while before he met Grandpa; then they moved to St. Paul and raised six kids, my dad being the youngest. I remember that they used to argue, and one time I told my parents I was very afraid that Grandpa wouldn't go to heaven because he yelled at Grandma. He died when I was four; I don't remember him well. Grandma Marguerite lived by herself for a while, in the old house at 1418 Como Parkway in St. Paul. Later she had a series of strokes and lived with us for a while. She was confined to a wheelchair, and her speech was somewhat impaired. She had the only color TV in the house at that time, and us kids used to go to her room to watch "CHiPs," which for some reason she really enjoyed (or perhaps it was just her chance to hang out with us, I don't know). The cousins that had raised Marguerite had money, and she had become somewhat accustomed to finer things. As time went on she was less certain of her surroundings, and one Christmas Eve when we were having a light lunch of sandwiches she was very quiet and finally asked to be moved back into her room. She had thought we were having cold cuts and carrot sticks for Christmas dinner. Eventually she needed more care than we could provide, and she moved into a nursing home near the capitol downtown, where my dad could visit her every day. She died in 1986.

My mother's parents had a farm up in Evansville, Minnesota, near Alexandria. Grandpa Ernest (Burros is the family name) got up every morning at 4 AM to milk the cows. When we were visiting he would always come in just as the rest of us were waking up. He always took one sugar cube in his coffee, and he would ask us to get the sugar cubes for him--then he would give one to us as a reward. He used to take mid-morning naps on the davenport in the entry, and when I was little I would lie there with him, pretending to sleep. (Davenport is one of those regional words; in this case it means a daybed or couch.) During the warmer months he would take us on the tractor and let us try to steer. I don't know if tractors nowadays have power steering, but Grandpa's didn't. I used all my strength to yank the steering wheel to one side, then had to rest my muscles to pull it back. I was incapable of driving straight. Grandpa died very suddenly, at least it seemed that way to me--it was 1978, I think. His funeral was the first time I had some awareness of what death was. As they took the coffin out of the church I realized I was never going to see him again, and I burst into tears, which set off my younger brother and sisters--four of us wailing, not really understanding, afraid. Grandma Hazel (family name Wik) made the best cake donuts and brownies I have ever had. When I go to bakeries I always look to see if they have cake donuts, but even when they do, they are never as good as hers. After Grandpa died she rented the farm out and moved into a small house in town. She took in laundry for all of Grandpa's bachelor brothers and worked part-time cleaning at the bank. Sometimes it seemed like Grandma didn't know how to relate to kids, but perhaps it was just city kids like us that confounded her. I wondered sometimes if she thought we were lazy because we weren't accustomed to doing daily chores. She died a few days before Kurt Cobain. I remember it because my brother drove down to Madison to take me to the funeral, and on the way we heard the news on the radio. So Grandma Hazel and Kurt Cobain, who probably had nothing in common in life, are forever related in my mind because of their deaths.

Up next: Heartbreak! Instruments! Libraries!