Saturday, August 27, 2005

and it wasn't like he even checked

My friend Mark told me about a book he'd gotten from the library. It was all about life and simple things to do to get the most out of it. More like an owner's manual than a self-help book, though. It had really helped Mark. I could see how much he'd changed since reading it, and he hasn't gotten a speeding ticket in months.

"Some of it's just mnemonics," Mark said. "Some of it's isometric exercises. A whole bunch of stuff. You should check it out."

What was dumb was that Mark didn't remember the title exactly. "Something kind of boring, actually," he recalled. "The Dynamics of Something Something Something. But, you know, not really 'something, something, something.'"

Mark found the notebook that he'd written the call number on, though, so I got the number and went down to the library a couple of days later to get the book and see what it was all about. I couldn't find it. Mark must have written it down wrong, because that sequence of numbers didn't seem to be where it was supposed to fall.

So I went to the guy who was working that floor of the library and showed him the number. He looked at it, but didn't really say anything. I told him what the book was and that it was The Dynamics of Something Something Something, and he just shrugged. "We don't have that," he said and looked back at his computer so he could ignore me.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Giving Kids the Business

(The Factory Owner’s Song, from the as-yet-unproduced Broadway musical O Socialism!)

[Interior of a spacious, almost cavernous bedroom, beautifully appointed with rich wallpaper, intricate moulding, decorative paneling in the doors, a massive fireplace at one end. Beside a wide picture window covered by crisp white draperies and heavy burgundy curtains is a large canopy bed. Horace Hardstubble, the Factory Owner, sleeps beneath the thick layers of blankets. The lighting from behind the window hints that dawn has just recently broken. As the scene begins, a servant in fine black dress enters from stage right and stokes the embers of the fire, producing a high, crackling flame. He then parts the heavy drapes to allow more light to filter into the room, then leaves. Hardstubble begins to stir, soon sits up and stretches, and in low tones begins his song. The tempo begins slowly, speeding up gradually after every few verses until we reach the rapid-fire, rousing end that sweeps us out of the room and onto the next scene.]

Each day I wake up early
And I’m feelin’ kind of surly
And I roust myself out of my feather bed

The servants stoke the fire
And the flames they burn much higher
As I take a shot of whisky for my head

I part the drapes and peer out
And I’m hoping it’s not clear out
’Cause the black clouds always brighten up my day

Fact’ry smoke is blowing
And I settle back then knowing
That my workers have arrived to earn their pay

’Cause we’re giving kids the business every day!
I don’t doubt the Church might like to have some say
But my profits stagnate when the kiddies play
None of them has got a future anyway
So we’re giving kids the business every day!

[Hardstubble finishes preparing to leave the house through these next verses. As he makes his way out the front door, the priest gives him a hello and a blessing. Hardstubble mounts his carriage, which whips off down the streets, occasionally running down a pedestrian, some of them kids.]

I eat and read the paper
Skipping stories of a caper
Between police and a shiftless, angry mob

My servants help to dress me
And the priest can’t help but bless me
Without me, no parishoner’d have a job

My carriage goes to lurchin’
As we hit the odd street urchin
Thank God Darwin has shown these accidents for

The way of Nature’s weeding out
The able worker from the lout
And it’s not like we don’t have a wealth of poor

So we’re giving kids the business, but what for?
They can work for me or they can find the door
There’s no kid too small or weak to do a chore
In fact, they’ll take work the grown-ups all abhor
So I’m giving kids the business AND what for!

[Arriving at the factory, Hardstubble strides into the main work area, where dozens of dirty, malnourished children are laboring away in hot, dirty, oppressive conditions. A few carry evidence of past injuries: bandages, noticeable limps, missing limbs. A couple have horrific accidents even as these next verses are sung. Any child who appears listless is berated by the obese, angry, florid foreman, who administers his instructions with a quick lash from a small whip.]

The fact’ry floor is teeming
With kiddies, some of ‘em screaming
As they lose an arm or leg between the gears

I wish they’d be more cautious
As their inj’ries make me nauseous
They rust all my machines with their damn tears

My foreman’s a drunken creep
But it matters more that he’s cheap
And he keeps the lads and lasses all in line

Through a fourteen-hour day
With only pennies for their pay
‘Cause I hate to part with money when it’s mine

And we’re giving kids the business, so don’t whine!
They’re all tougher than they look, they’ll be just fine
Not one of my kid’s a day younger than nine
It says so on the papers I make them sign
We’re giving kids the business unless they whine!

[Hardstubble makes his way to his office, which sits to one side of the main factory floor. He closes the door on the noise and the foul air, then shuffles angrily through papers on his desk. He grows increasingly angry and frustrated until by the end of these verses and the refrain verse, he’s shouting his lines out into the factory to warn all the kids not to complain. Then he slams the door and slumps down behind his desk.]

It’s true there’s some frustration
With the threats of legislation
It pays to keep lawmakers on the rolls

Social reformists hate me
Bloody do-gooders equate me
With a baby-eating, monstrous, evil troll

They all forget too quickly
Our economy was sickly
Before my smokestacks turned blues skies to gray

If they don’t like my money
And prefer their noontime sunny
Then they’ll need to find another place to stay

‘Cause we’re giving kids the business every day!
I own the means of production, so don’t say
That I have to let the rabble have their way
If I’ve a mind, I can always cut their pay
I’ll keep giving kids the business every day!

[Still working hard, the kids chime in after Hardstubble slams his door. They sing the first verse in unison.]

He’s giving us the business
Our lives are on the brink
If T.B. doesn’t get us
We might succumb to drink

[A young boy sings this next part. He jeers as he sings.]

Our parents aren’t much better
My dad is locked away
In prison as a debtor
That’s prob’ly where he’ll stay

[A girl of about twelve sings this part. She seems resigned to her fate, more tired than sad.]

Me mum is a streetwalker
To pay for drink and board
But I try not to fault her
Soon I’ll be on that road

[The kids in unison again.]

Don’t look for silver linings
We faithfully report
No hope is out there shining
For people of our sort
‘Cause life is nasty, brutish, and it’s short!

[A very small and dirty child pops out of a pile of coal.]

Like me!

Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Brnwgthldinn’n’th Saga

Toth was a giant of a man. Standing astride his domain, a yards-tall heap of steaming, decaying animal dung, he prompted fear and awe from lesser men. They had to crane their necks to gaze up at his towering four-foot-eight frame on those rare occasions when they dared get close enough to do so.

As she stood atop the dung heap and watched the thin clouds slide across the cold, gray skies, his sleek, oil-soaked loincloth flapped about his stout and hairy loins. Toth had seen many a terrifying winter, months of frigid temperatures, heavy blankets of snow, and relentless freezing rain just when he had gotten used to the first two elements. For as many winters as he could remember, his only defenses against the sharp, strangling cold were his inadequate loincloth, the thick, matted hair that covered most of his body, and the heat generated by the decomposition of the dung on which he dwelled. Usually, these basic facts satisfied him. It meant he had all that he needed.

Recently, however, he had started to think something was missing. Not that he could have put his finger on it, but Toth had a new and confounding problem. Not the crunchy crust of ice that encircled his feet from where they sank into the soft peat heaped on his pile of dung. Not the vicious running sores caused by severe vitamin depletion now that most of the plant life had died off and the herds had fled south. Not the fact that he believed his whole tribe to have been whisked away many winters ago by Grntltl, the mighty winter hare with teeth sharper than splintered bone. Not even the fact that he was completely mistaken about this, as his tribe had in fact abandoned him in the night when he’d suddenly become insanely obsessed with protecting against all reason the massive heap of reindeer dung the tribe used for fertilizer and fire.

No, Toth’s problem was more elusive. And to his mounting frustration, it was approaching him now.

Out of the pass through the high, red hills came Depthana, the woman who passed this way every few weeks as she gathered things for her own tribe. Toth watched open-mouthed from where he stood. She was very small from this distance, but he enjoyed watching her small figure stride across the blasted landscape from the pass on one side of the narrow valley to the next, where she always faded from sight. To an objective eye, Depthana did not so much stride as lope awkwardly, half-bent and skittering on rickety legs. Over her thin shoulders she bore a ragged, torn pelt holding together a collection of several score pounds of dried peat. The burden accentuated Depthana’s natural shuffling gait and made her appear even more sickly and infirm than did her poor wintertime diet. As always, Toth’s heart was inflamed with love at the sight.

Toth knew he must do something, but he had a limited supply of reactions to most things. She wasn’t prey, so he couldn’t approach her that way. He had tried that once, charging down the hill of dung, waving a club over his head, and shrieking at the top of his strangely high voice. But then Depthana had fled as quickly has her spindly, calcium-deprived legs could carry her. At the time, Toth at first thought there was something promising in the fact that she left her burdens behind her, that they were gifts of some sort, but it had never happened again.

Ever since, Depthana put a much greater distance between them. She walked well out of her way to give herself plenty of time to run away. So Toth started to think maybe she had been frightened the same way prey would be. It had taken him some months to work out these details. Ever since, he had simply stood and stared. Sometimes he made involuntary noises of longing in the back of his throat, but that was it.

Toth knew he knew he needed a new approach. But that was the only one he’d ever had. It had carried him through hunts, through raids on villages, through one-on-one combat over choice hunks of meat and gourds of fermented grain and spittle. It had gotten him everything he ever wanted. But it didn’t seem to work on Depthana. This was Toth’s problem, and he had only recently begun to understand its broad outlines.

He needed a new tactic. Something that would get Depthana’s attention without sending her screaming over the horizon. Toth reluctantly put down the club he had absent-mindedly been gripping. He picked it up again. Then he thought very carefully and very deliberately put it down. A weapon might frighten her. He would simply call out to her.

“Aaaaaggghhh!” Toth shouted cheerfully, waving his heavily-muscled arms over his slope-browed head. Depthana didn’t appear to react. She didn’t look at him, but she didn’t flee either. Toth considered it a minor success. But then he noticed that she gained speed as she passed the closest approach to his mound of dung. He wanted her to stop. “Uragh!” he ventured. Still she kept her eyes on the pass and hurried along. “Uragha ah!” Toth elaborated, trying to make his point clearer.

His beloved, the long strands of her greasy, sulfur-colored hair obscuring her fearful, wide-set eyes, still seemed to be in a hurry. She had just passed as close as necessary to him as she traversed the valley. Soon, Toth worried, she might not be able to hear him at all. How could he make himself clear? He had to get her attention.

Rooting around in the icy clods of dung surrounding his feet, Toth selected a hefty chunk of frozen feces and tested its weight. If his voice wouldn’t reach Depthana, maybe he something else would. He gauged the distance to her shrinking figure through squinting, watery eyes, then spun around a few times to build up some power and finally let fly with the missile in his adored’s general direction.

It soared through the crisp air, trailing a cloud of debris, and struck heavily on the hard, bare ground over which she was making her trembling way. The icy clod shattered only a few dozen feet in front of her. She tried to jump back at the impact, but her burden still weighed her down. A small avalanche of dried peat spilled from her pack. But rather than looking Toth’s way to witness the wild, over-the-head waves with which he greeted her, she shifted her sack and pressed on even more quickly.

Toth was dumbfounded. He was, however, generally pretty close to being dumbfounded on any average day, so he soon looked to further refine his courtship of the fair Depthana. He stooped to select a particularly round, hefty, and solid piece of dung, then steeled himself for a better throw. She would be impressed with his strength. She would see that he was presenting her with these gifts. She might realize that instead of walking to further valleys for dried peat, she could come to him for all the dung she could carry. Toth took four full spins, then sent the brown, crumbly sphere into the sky with all the might his mighty but malnourished body could muster.

The dung ball traced a gentle arc across the slowly darkening sky, seeming to defy the relentless pull of gravity. Toth followed its path with his whole body, bending himself to aid in its journey to the one who unknowingly held a fierce grip on his heart. Depthana trudged along as fast as she could, thankfully putting distance between herself and the fetid, steaming mound and its hairy, horrible protector. From his vantage point, Toth quietly grunted and tried to nudge the dung ball on its way with jerking movements of his head. Finally the clod reached its apex and began its rapid descent toward the point where Depthana picked her way across the blasted ground.

When it at last came into contact with her unshielded skull, it struck her instantly to the ground. Her massive bag of dried peat landed on her like a massive earthen pillow.

“Ooohhaalaa!” Toth shouted joyfully. He could not have been happier if a mastodon had wandered into the valley on the coldest day of winter and died of a brain hemorrhage at his feet. His heart spilled over with endless waves of excitement, love, and victory. He picked up his club and scrambled down toward the ground so he could rush out and introduce himself to the woman destined to be his bride.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

The Morally Ambiguous Boyhood Adventures of Me and My Evil Twin

I didn’t want to get a cat, but Abel did. We convinced our parents, and they said, Okay, but you have to take care of it. Meaning me. And then I realized that he was the one who convinced me about getting the cat, but now I’d have to be responsible for it.

“Let’s go to the movies,” Abel suggested. We couldn’t. We had to stay and make sure the cat was okay. It had been sick.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. But he couldn’t know that for sure. At least one of us had to stay home.

“But either way is bad,” he argued. “If you go, you’ll worry about the cat. If you stay, you’ll know you’re missing the movie.” But if that was the case, then how come he could go?

“Because I know the cat will be fine,” he said, putting on his jacket. “I’ll bring you back some Raisinets.” But the cat wasn’t fine, and the leftover Raisinets melted in Abel’s pocket before I got any.

+ + +

When the camp counselor took me aside and threatened to send me home, I couldn’t understand what I’d done.

“What you’ve done?” he asked me. “I’ll tell you what you’ve done. You scared that whole cabin of girls when you snuck into their showers this morning.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I knew someone who probably did know.

“And don’t accuse your brother again,” the counselor warned me. “I’m onto you. Every time you get caught, you pretend it was his fault.” I wanted to say no, it wasn’t me, but what was the point? If I didn’t give in, I probably would have been in more trouble.

Later I told Abel about it, and about how I was put on kitchen duty for the rest of the time at camp. “They can’t do that to you,” he said. “I’m going to straighten this out.”

After supper, Abel took me to the counselor. He told him it wasn’t fair. There was no way to be sure I had done anything.

“The girls know who they saw,” the counselor said. “They pointed him out. Unless it was you.”

“Memories are tricky,” Abel said. “Like, I’m not sure which counselor goes to meet the arts-and-crafts lady by the docks every night after lights out. Even though I've seen it myself.”

“Which lady? Miss Deery?” the counselor asked.

Abel nodded. “If everyone trusted their memories, people might start thinking that guy looked like you,” he said. “Which would be a bad thing for them to say, because what they do out there is against camp code.”

I asked if someone should tell anyway, if it was against camp code. If it was wrong, we should stop it. Abel looked at me. I shut up.

The counselor nodded. “I see your point,” he told my brother. He looked at me. “You’re lucky to have a brother to look out for you. Why don’t we all just forget this ever happened?”

Abel nodded. “That’s what I was thinking,” he said. I wasn’t so sure, but it meant that I didn’t have to have kitchen duty.

Two days later, another counselor said I’d broken into the mess hall and stolen some of the chocolate we used to make s’mores. “If we’d put you on kitchen duty the first time,” he told me, “I bet we wouldn’t be having these problems anymore.”

I agreed that was probably true.

+ + +

Our glee club won the all-district competition on a technicality. The other group had to forfeit. They couldn’t get their uniforms out of their dressing room in time to perform.

“They lost the keys,” our director told us. “So they have to award us the prize.”

“But that’s good if we win,” Abel said. “It will be the first championship for our school.” It didn’t seem totally fair to me.

“It’s still fair,” Abel said. “That’s why there’s the rule. And no one’s going to remember later if we had to sing or not. When they see our trophy at school, they’re just going to know that we won.”

“So it’s good for the whole school,” another kid agreed. Everyone liked the idea.

Later they engraved all of our names on the trophy. It didn’t say anything about the forfeit or about how the keys got lost. It just said that we came in first. Our parents took a picture of me and Abel in front of the trophy case when they came to open house.

+ + +

Abel threw some of his macaroni and cheese with hot dogs in the trash when our mother wasn’t around to see. I told him he shouldn’t. Mom always said there were kids who were starving in other countries.

“That’s the narrow view,” Abel said. “That’s just our species. The food won’t go to waste.” Unless someone got it from our trash to get it, I didn’t see how it was going to get eaten.

“Nothing is wasted,” he said. “Bugs will eat it. Or mold or something. It’s the cycle of life.” I didn’t know what he meant.

“Food is matter, and matter is energy,” he said. “And energy can’t be created or destroyed. Everything’s becoming. So the macaroni is just becoming something else. Just like you will one day.” I didn’t like the way that sounded, but I knew Mom still wouldn’t like it.

“Then don’t tell her,” Abel said. “Why does she have to know about things that would just upset her? It seems wrong to tell her.”

So we didn’t. When Mom came back to the kitchen, she saw that my plate was still full. She told me to eat up, to be more like my brother. I ate.

Friday, August 05, 2005

from The Astonishing Adventures of Pancakes Dunst

#1: Attack of the Left-Leaning Pundits
Earth is invaded by very calm and reasonable aliens bent on taking over the world in a peaceful but absolute manner. To mollify the people of Earth, the media is co-opted by a vast army of intelligent and well-spoken aliens, who try to quell all resistance with their restrained but impassioned arguments against humankind's being allowed to rule itself. Eight-year-old Pancakes Dunst realizes that she, the cleverest girl in the world, is the only thing that stands between freedom and complacent slavery of her planet.

#2: Ooze Gonna Help You Now?
Federated Fossil Fuels grounds an oil tanker off the coast of South Carolina, spilling the ship's experimental, high-performance new fuel into waters once contested by Civil War ironclads and coastal forts. Pancakes Dunst offers her assistance in planning the cleanup to minimize the danger to the ecosystem, but she never expected to have to face an army of Civil War zombies stirred up by the fuel spill. And what about that mile-long slick of ooze floating in the bay? Has it really started talking?

#3: Toeing the Maginot Line
Pancakes’s French Adventure! On a goodwill tour of the European continent, Pancakes finds herself in danger by shady men in long trenchcoats and red berets. The prophecy of the Moroccan Medium points to a family secret left over from World War II, a Swiss bank account in her grandfather’s name, and a lost cinema classic by a reclusive director. Even more baffling, the ghost of Gertrude Stein keeps leaving phone messages with the concierge at Pancakes’s hotel. Now she has no choice but to find the links between these seemingly absurd events and still clear up matters in time to attend a dinner with the President of France!

#4: Night of the Narcolator
How can the cleverest girl in the world fight a danger she can’t identify? Someone is brewing anti-espresso, a high-powered drink that puts people to sleep in seconds. And it’s so popular that entire cities are shutting down all over the world! Pancakes is on the case, but with no apparent motive and no one claiming responsibility, it’s unclear just what the case is. But maybe a new friend named Pipo has some answers. At least, he claims to be a friend….

#5: Calling All Crips!
It’s gang warfare on the airwaves, and no one knows how to stop it before it before someone gets hurt. The city erupts in chaos when citizens are taken over by rival DJs with mind control messages encoded into their music. At first they seem intent only on ridiculous pranks, but as they battle for dominance, the pranks turn more and more dangerous. Pancakes Dunst knows she has to put the scratch on their tracks, but the only people who can help are part of a hearing-impaired street gang. If they can’t hear the music, will they listen to the cleverest girl in the world?

#6: A Night in the Bunker, A Day at the Races
“Does art excuse all?” Professor Gulglitch asked Pancakes as they stood together on the train platform. The bleak, slate-gray sky met the featureless horizon almost seamlessly in the distance. The rain beat down without pity or care. “I don’t even think the train stops here anymore,” Pancakes replied. A feral cat hiding beneath the rotting wood of the platform growled its annoyance at the wet weather.

#7: The Man Who Grew Too Much
Pancakes’s science fair project gets attention from the U.S. military, so the cleverest girl in the world takes a special trip to the President’s Easter party! While talk show hosts debate the separation of church and state, Pancakes and her best friend Galen take a stroll around Camp David in search of colorful eggs and chocolate treats. That’s when Dr. Patchwork, Pancakes’s evil nemesis, decides to make a mockery of the event by scaring off the media with a monster-sized Easter Bunny. Only that bunny wasn’t a nobody. It was the Secretary of Defense in a costume, and now he’s forty feet high!

#8: (Inner) Space Is the Place!
The greatest challenge of her life faces Pancakes Dunst: the holiday play! Special guest appearance by May-tall and the Deuteronomy Crew.

Superspecial Holiday Edition!
Pancakes Dunst Doesn't Have Time to Play with Dolls!
A collection of four special stories, including
“The Last Taco Stand in Berlin”
“Why a Bowler’s Tour, Dad? Why?”
“Slow Boat to Monkey Island”
“What I Did On My Summer Vacation, by Pancakes Dunst”
Plus: Collectible Stickers!

Monday, August 01, 2005

update: a vast wasteland of pixels and light

So my question to all of you out there is ... uh, is there anyone out there?

The blog: Yeah, it's about ego. It's about self-promotion and instant gratification and "Look at me! Whoa-ho! Look at me! Look at what I'm doing!" Thousands of individuals with the impulses of a five-year-old. We may be better at dressing ourselves, and, okay, many of us have gotten a grip on concepts like cause-and-effect and the transient nature of time. Doesn't mean we're not all twirling and jumping and hoping that Mommy looks over and sees.

A simplistic critique? Hey, I'm not exempting myself. And I'm not even using it as a means to head off the essential message of this post: Look at me!

I know it's a silly request. I mean, if you're reading this (or even if you just stopped because you realized I was just going to keep going and you were wondering what happened to the little tennis girl), then you're looking. If you're not, well, my drawing your attention to a forum you're ignoring by communicating over a forum you're ignoring isn't likely to meet with massive waves of success.

This is simply the first time I'm breaking from my pattern of posting bits of fiction on here for you. Whoever you are. You know who you are. At least I hope you do. And since I'm breaking the pattern, I'll just clarify what I've been doing, in case it wasn't obvious. I'm ... oh, gosh, I gave it away just now, didn't I? I'm posting bits of fiction on here for you. Bits of fiction I wrote. Bits of fiction you may or may not have seen before. Bits of fiction you may or may not ever see again.

This isn't a testing ground, exactly. Most of what I'm putting here is in a state that's close to finished. Or I mean to say that it's finished for now, but if were called on to repurpose it for something or have it printed elsewhere, I wouldn't be able to resist giving it a touch-up. But this stuff was put down much as I intended to put it down, and only the passage of time and my own glacial learning process will give me the insight to do much better than I've done here. Also maybe some effort and encouragement. A promise of wine. A breezy tennis date ...

Uh ... oh, so there it is. I'm putting the stuff out there. If you read it, tell me something about it. That is, if you have any thoughts at all. If not, then maybe your communiques wouldn't be of much use to either of us. Too bad, because you seemed so nice at first.

In any event, I'll continue putting stuff here as long as I'm able to cull it, draft it, or crib it from someone else. Shout-outs to CO, Lil' Biscuit, and JR Guttertype. Peace out, ya'll. As my great-grandfather used to say, "Be yourself and you free yourself." We kids never really got what he meant, but when he said it, we knew he was finally tipsy enough not to watch the beer cooler too closely. That's all we'd been waiting for.

We learned so much from that old man.