31 May 2005
What We Gain
Peppermill Farside was in love. Then her man died and Peppermill’s heart broke. Ice cream, alcohol, work, and good friends helped put her on the mend, but whenever she saw the moon, with its relentless romantic glow, she felt the pain all over again. Peppermill arranged to have the moon dusted with a non reflective powder. It took many years to complete the task, but eventually the moon was no longer visible in the sky. Peppermill was happier. Lovers everywhere mourned, but the astronomers sent Peppermill a card. Thanks to you, it said, now we see the stars every night.
30 May 2005
Death brought his scythe to Petunia Funnybone Clownface for sharpening. Been busy lately? said Petunia. Death waved his hand at her. It's harvest season, he said. Tools get dull. Petunia laughed and pulled a mask over her face and applied Death's blade to her spinning grindstone. Bright orange sparks billowed up around her. Ever get tired of it? said Petunia. Ever think about doing something else with your life? Death sighed. I tell you, he said, no one appreciates the work I do. I have half a mind to give up the grind and start an emu ranch in Nevada.
29 May 2005
Swingshift Pulldate played guitar for many years. He called it his magic box of air and stood at subway stations playing hundred year old songs. Whenever anyone tossed a bill or some coins into the rumpled hat at his feet Swingshift acknowledged them with a smile or a slight nod. Most nights he made less than twenty dollars. Once a young woman working on a doctorate in urban folk music came to interview Swingshift. I don't know nothing about music, said Swingshift. She bought him a coffee and asked him questions. I need to understand people like you, she said.
28 May 2005
Happenstance Snowglobe leaned a ladder against his house. He climbed up to inspect the chimney, which had been dropping pieces of brick into the fireplace. While he was up there a neighbor took his ladder. Hey, said Happenstance, bring back my ladder. The neighbor ignored him. Happenstance was stranded, but he learned to adjust. He trapped birds for food, pulled up shingles for shelter, and thanked the mysteries every morning for the beautiful sunrises. Years later the neighbor put the ladder back where he found it. Happenstance stared at that ladder for a long time. Then he kicked it over.
27 May 2005
Babytalk Layercake was known in our town as a person of infinite serenity and generous benevolence. Visitors who were distressed became instantly relaxed in her presence. She loved cookies and would share her stash with anyone, no matter who they were or where they came from. People left her house swearing that Babytalk was some kind of holy healer. I went to her house one day. Babytalk told me to sit down. Let me tell you about my parents, she said. I curse them everyday for giving me this name. It makes me feel good. It really keeps me going.
26 May 2005
The Fine Art of World Building
I was in the waiting room at the dentist the other day. Also waiting were three young brothers, three, six, and eight years old. The oldest asked me what I was doing there. I said I had some teeth that needed taking care of. He asked me which ones. I showed him. And now you're waiting for your son? he asked. No, I told him, I don't have a son. He looked puzzled. But you're a father. No, I said. I don't have children. Then a look of pure incomprehensibility. He stared at me. Then what are you? he said.
25 May 2005
The Thank You Note Can Wait
Tungsten Tripwire got a gift wrapped package in the mail from his mother. He opened it and found a CD inside. He loaded the CD on his computer. A dialog box appeared on his monitor. Do you wish to activate your gift now? Tungsten pressed enter. Instantly a full sized hologram of his father appeared in front of him. Tungsten blinked. His father died twenty years ago. Hello Tungsten, the hologram said. Do you want to go fishing today? Would you like to play catch? Or have a few beers? It's been a long time. I've missed you very much.
24 May 2005
Happiness and Contentment
MacHacker Eyejelly built a castle on the bank of a creek. She placed every brick by hand. It took her ten years. She occasionally had help from friends, but mostly she did it alone, on weekends and evenings after work. When she finished her castle she quit her job and moved in. No one saw her much after that. MacHacker spent her days eating and waiting for the aliens. She believed castles were the most rational form of housing ever invented. When the aliens came, they would look for people in castles. MacHacker held on to this belief for decades.
23 May 2005
It's Good to Plan For the Future
Virginia Override got sick one day. Her friends brought her food and medicine, did her errands, and fed her cats. Virginia rather liked this arrangement. She decided she would fake illness for a while. Her friends caught on to her trick and didn't help her very much anymore. Virginia didn't care. She discovered that the sicker she got, the more her cats loved her. They spent all their time with her and this made Virginia very happy. She told them when she died, she would come back as a ghost just to be with them. The cats purred and purred.
22 May 2005
The Wisdom of Crowds
My parents felt unqualified to design my dna, and trusting to nature had become so yesterday. Instead they put up a template of human dna on the web and invited the world to revise it. I was the first open source baby. Millions of dna code writers worked collaboratively to create the perfect human being. And now here I am, optimized and streamlined, all grown up, healthy and happy. Sometimes one of those people who helped to create me asks how my life is going. I have a stock answer. I'm still figuring out love, I say, how about you?
21 May 2005
Spheres of Influence
Swampcooler Combover photographed wildflowers until he realized his camera made the blossoms wither on their stems and slide into the ground. He felt so awful about this that he destroyed all his equipment and took up painting instead. Swampcooler worked with feverish energy, making dozens of portraits of flowers in pastels using his old photographs as models. When he was finished, he returned to some of the places where the flowers had died under the influence of his camera. The flowers were back, bright and healthy as ever. Swampcooler was so relieved he sat down and had a good cry.
20 May 2005
Relaxing in the Grave
My friend Idaho Zoomlens died many years ago from a brain disease. I dream about him four or five times a month. In the dreams he shows me pictures of his family and his retirement house in Arizona. A year before he died, Idaho told me he had a feeling his time was up. We were college kids and owned nothing, but he made a will, giving me everything. Sometimes in the dreams he asks to see that document. I show it to him. Amazing days, he says, when we could write our lives on half a sheet of paper.
19 May 2005
Being Fully Aware
Marsha Mellow and Brick Walle fell in love the minute they met. They got married a week later. Marsha was a geologist. She went on long trips studying rocks. Brick usually went with her. He couldn't stand being separated from his sweetheart. When he was back home he worked at a candy factory. His specialty was chocolates with the creamy middles. He made thousands of them every week. Marsha would often come to meet him on his lunch break. Fate is a marvelous thing, Marsha would say. Yes, Brick agreed. We really have nothing to complain about on that score.
18 May 2005
We lived next door to Magma Instep one summer. She wore bright red hats and orange skirts. In the morning we usually found her in the front yard, dancing. Some of us would watch for a while, then go have breakfast. Others, especially the kids, would often go dance with her. Magma, we said, why do you dance every morning? No reason, she answered. Except that if I didn't dance, I'm sure I would wither away. When we moved north we missed Magma. We thought of her every time we saw a blossom or heard a mountain shuffle its feet.
17 May 2005
Dandelion Streetscape helped homeless sick people by placing her hands on them as they sat on the sidewalk. Every year she took a vacation at a village by the sea. She liked to walk on the beach and wade through waves lapping at her ankles. Once she fell on a rock and scraped her leg. It became infected. When she returned home she found many homeless people had moved into her house. We all have to help ourselves, they told her. Dandelion slept for days. When she woke up her visitors were gone. They returned to living on the sidewalk.
16 May 2005
Slow and Steady
Caffeine Junkdrawer began fasting on the full moon, intending to resume eating on the next new moon. However, the hallucinations proved to be too seductive. By the third day Caffeine was conversing with butterflies. In the second month he journeyed to the center of the Earth and spent a week partying with the ghosts collected there. A few weeks later creatures made of flame moved into his skull. They spoke to him nonstop. Caffeine carefully wrote down their manifesto, which came to three thousand pages. He was so thin and weak he had to tape the pen to his fingers.
15 May 2005
What I Didn't Know
What He Thought by Heather McHugh is my all time favorite poem. I first heard it on tape and was instantly moved by it. I have seldom been able to read it without tearing up near the end. Though it affects me deeply, I have resisted trying to figure out why. If I undertook and successfully completed that particular inquiry, I feel like I might then have created an alternate reality in which I understood more than I do in this world. But sometimes it is best to let the mystery be. The unexplained occasionally offers us a richer world.
14 May 2005
Far more people than usual had bad hair days the morning all the mirrors disappeared. Makeup was off kilter and men who shaved left more unshaven patches. People looked like tourists in their own towns. Folks who would ordinarily never consider looking into pools of water could be observed examining their wavering images in cups of coffee. Citizens looked into each other's eyes. They saw themselves floating like flotsam in substantial vats of fear and desperation. As night fell on that first mirrorless day, the moon was missing from the sky, and we wondered what had happened to the sun.
13 May 2005
Borges wrote many reviews of non-existent books. His point was that the writing of long books was a taxing and time consuming occupation. Why not pretend the book already exists, then write a review which encapsulates its essence? In a long career of extraordinary literary inventions, this conceit may be his most ingenious. It allowed him to explore dozens of subjects during his lifetime. This blog occasionally attempts a similar agenda: the distilling of long, hypothetical novels into compact short short stories. I imagine Borges reading these posts, at an internet station in the Universal Library, and nodding his approval.
12 May 2005
The Price of Power
When the queen died they discovered I was next in line for the throne. No one was more surprised than me. The first thing I did as king was toss my crown to a beggar in front of the palace. Then I abolished the monarchy, which turned out to be somewhat foolish, since it left the fate of the royal treasury up in the air. Lawyers got into it. Riots ensued. General chaos reigned. The beggar pawned the crown and lived well for half a year. Everyone else hated my guts. Don't blame me, I told them, freedom ain't pretty.
11 May 2005
Prometheus had his liver pecked out because the Greeks thought the liver was the seat of intelligence. They believed the brain was a cooling apparatus for the blood. Or so we have been told. Surely there were some Greeks who heard voices in their heads, as we do, and recognized them as their own thoughts. Why is it we have not heard of these thinkers? Did they hide their beliefs out of fear? Or did keeping the secret give them a feeling of power? Or maybe they didn't think the whole issue was worth the debate. Will we ever know?
10 May 2005
Once in Wyoming I stood outside in a flat field under an intricate cloudscape of roiling gray and black. In that brief moment I instantly knew the meaning of the phrases "big sky country," and "wide open spaces" as I had never understood them before. If I had been alone I would have been terrified of that wildness. I tasted a hint of desperation and fear then, as though I might be plucked from the surface of the earth at any time, like a rabbit seized by a hawk. In later years that vulnerability has been a source of wonder.
09 May 2005
Opening Scene of a B-Movie
The driver opens the car door. A wasp flies in. It buzzes over the rear window, taking delicate tastes, as though deciding if it wants to make a meal out of the glass. The driver opens all the doors and stands outside, leaning against the hood, waiting. The wasp has all the time in the world. It threads a meandering path in the back. Soon more wasps arrive. Dozens of them. Hundreds. They enter the car. The driver, wide-eyed, shakes his head and backs away from the car. The sound of the wasps is like the fury of carnivores chewing.
08 May 2005
Westerns & Romances
A classic formula for writing fiction (adapted from my former writing teacher, Algis Budrys): Create a sympathetic character. Give her or him a problem. Have them attempt to solve the problem repeatedly, failing each time and making their problem worse until their situation seems impossible. On the final attempt, she or he finally solves the problem. This is a ritual, isn't it? I didn't notice this fact for a long time, but story formulas are rituals. That's why they are so popular. Rituals give a feeling of power. They are tradition and belonging, all wrapped up in a potent package.
07 May 2005
We made plows and raised oxen to pull them. In our wisdom we worked the ground, harnessing it to our will. We gave thanks for the food we ate from the seeds we sowed. Creatures who lived in the dark world under the surface spoke to us. Thanks for the roots, they said, and welcome home. We've saved a place for you. Those few of us who understood the words attempted to return the greeting. Most of us, hearing only gibberish, scratched our heads and stamped our feet, sending up tiny bursts of dust that settled back on our shoes.
06 May 2005
The sun moved closer as the years wore on. At first none of us noticed, but after a few thousand years many of us agreed the summers had become much warmer and even the winters were not as cold as they had once been. We adapted by suppressing our automatic urge to shrink away from flames. We toughened up our skin, did without hair, and learned to enjoy bathing in the generous and benevolent body of the sun. Bonfires became feasts. Forest fires became bountiful harvests. No one whimpered. All became silent. We awaited the crackling end with quiet dignity.
05 May 2005
Once a child expelled a breath with a hiccup, then changed her mind. She wanted the breath back and spent hours looking for it. No one could help her. Her teacher said life doesn't work that way. Her brother laughed at her. Her father pretended to find her breath behind her ear. Once it's gone, her mother told her, you can't get it back. The child nodded, but secretly believed her mother was wrong. The child grew up and became an old woman. One morning she heard a little boy sneeze. Oh! she said. My mother was right after all.
04 May 2005
When the snow and ice melted, the river rose. It submerged houses, upended cars, and displaced creatures. Some of us moved up into the hills to wait for the water to recede. When the land reappeared below us, it was soggy and strewn with debris. Our caves, however, were warm, dry, and cozy. Most of us returned to the land to rebuild. A few of us remained in our caves. We have been here for years. Sometimes we look down at where we used to live. We savor the melancholy of seeing our past spread out like an old dream.
03 May 2005
The Many Faces of Censorship
At the fiction factory we have streamlined the process of novel writing by setting up an assembly line and hiring writers who are exceptionally proficient at each aspect of the task. We have the best scene setters, dialog writers, plot constructors, and character builders anywhere. We set them all out in a row. The manuscript crawls by on the conveyer belt. They each add their own special touch. We have cut the time it takes to write a novel by over eighty percent. Don't thank us. We are only too happy to make our contribution to literature in this way.
02 May 2005
Doll, Still Living
In retirement, Barbie spent her days chain smoking unfiltered Camels and watching soap operas. She understood the characters and their problems. Honey, she'd say to the TV, dump the dickless bastard. You can do better. Once, as she walked to her limousine to go shopping, some of her local fans surrounded her, bounced up and down, and screamed like teenage girls at a Beatles concert. Barbie's limo driver waited for her to finish signing autographs; then he handed her a tissue which she used to wipe away her imaginary Barbie tears. Thanks Ken, she sniffled, you glorious, hopeless, fucked-up wonder.
01 May 2005
Years ago, as an under grad, I balanced my checkbook with an abacus. My roommates were mystified. Why didn't I use a calculator? they asked. This is more fun, I said. We were all math majors, but they didn't get it. I liked the feeling the abacus gave of seeing the bare bones of a calculation, almost like an X-ray. My abacus was made of brass and mounted on a green marble base. The beads made a pleasant clinking sound as I moved them on the bars. I felt ancient using it. Like I had witnessed the beginning of time.