Friday, August 29, 2003

Operation Mindfuck
The dream started out simply enough. I was working on some thing or another when I got a call from some friends that they needed help on a video game. The first puzzle was a basic Tomb Raider-style puzzle, with swinging ropes that had to be times just right, and torches that had to be lit in just the right order. Appropriately enough, my avatar was a giant ape. The door opens, I walk through, and instead of the giant ape, I'm in my own body, with my friends. The next puzzle involved an Aztec temple that could only be opened right at sundown, and more of the usual stuff involved moving blocks and twisting wall decorations, all of which revealed a huge feast. Which gave us something to do, and something to eat, but still no way out. And unbeknownst to us, the same reveal that gave us the feast also released some animals, including a housecat, squirrel, coyote, and mountain lion. Once I'd saved the smaller animals from the larger, then we could move on.

The last level was called a "Narcissism Trap". The tunnel walls pulsed like capillaries, and were filled with robed creatures. Some had mirrors for faces, some had none, and others were simply beautiful men and women who locked eyes with you until you forced your way past them. The crowd pressed tight, the tunnels pulsed closed, burst open, and you're in the open, walking the streets of a college town on a Friday night. There's a party going in a couple of houses, and it's clear that's where we're supposed to go. One of your group has a sister that lives nearby, so you decide to use her apartment as a base of operations. You pick two of your number to reconnoiter the parties, but after an hour or two it's clear they're not coming back. It's your turn.

There's nobody you know at this party, but that doesn't make it any less alluring. The first room you enter is filled with people talking about art, movies, and literature with wit and intelligence. As you work your way toward the door on the opposite side of the room, at least three people ask your opinion and offer you a drink. The next room is the kitchen, where they're mixing drinks. Wonderful smells are coming from the stove, and the cook is holding out a spoon. "Taste this. It's missing something. Any ideas?" But your friends are not in this room, so you keep going. For the first time, you recognize people, as the next room is filled with celebrities. They know your name, and seem to know your private thoughts, as each seems to have a project he or she wants to work with you on that fits perfectly with what's been in your thoughts lately. But now you see the stairs, and work your way toward them.

Every few steps there is a beautiful woman who smiles at you. Some resemble women from your past, just enough to tug at the memory, but not enough to frighten you off. Several touch your arm flirtatiously as you pass. The upstairs landing is dark, and crowded, but the faces and voices of the crowd are indistinct. The first room come to is a bathroom, and you're surprised to find it both brightly lit and empty. You close the door behind yourself and savor the silence for a moment, then begin to look for someplace to go from here. There is a low cabinet in the corner, but as you reach for the handle, you hear a noise behind you. There is woman smiling there, a note-perfect mixture of every trait you've ever found attractive in a mate, friend, or stranger. "I'm glad you finally found me," she says, and you feel yourself stepping towards her before something in your gut reminds you there are friends to be found in this honeytrap of a house, and so you turn back to the cabinet.

Just inside the door, there is an opening in the floor. It is just a hair wider than your shoulders, oddly shaped, and moist looking. Oddly enough, it is not dark, but bright, as though the irregular walls were lit from within. You feel claustrophobia rising in your gut at the thought of going into that tunnel, but somehow know that's the next step. You turn back to the woman, and now she's nude, her hourglass figure glistening with the same greasy substance that seems to line the tunnel in the cabinet. Her still-smiling face is tilted to the side, like a curious kitten. Taking this as a sign, you raise your hands above your head and step into the tunnel feet first.

From there, things get weird. The game, or dream, or whatever the hell it is you're stuck in leaves behind the nominal logic that's driven it so far, and image piles on image with only a vague resonance to connect them. All that's left of your consciousness is the sense that you must keep moving, don't allow the game to win, but whether winning means staying in the dream or letting the morning pull you out is less than clear. Your alarm rings, and you let the noise roll over you for a while, but it ruins the flow of the dream, so you snooze it and slide back into the parade of images until the sun and the cat and the knowledge that you're going to be late for work pull you out of bed like a log on a chain, and you stumblingly start your day.

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

It's a good news/bad news kind of thing, I guess. I went down to my local mostly-independent record store to get the new Warren Zevon album today, and they were sold out. In fact, they sold out yesterday. I'm glad the record's doing well, but I was really looking forward to hearing it. I suppose I could go to the mall, but it would feel, well, weird. (And, of course, there's always Slackers.)

Sunday, August 24, 2003

Just watched a documentary on VH1 about Warren Zevon and the making of his last album. I'd like to have the clarity of mind and heart to put exact words to my feelings, but it's not possible. There's his music, for one, which popped up in my life for raucous good times and for fall to the floor heartbreak. But there's also his manner, dulled by morphine and cancer, reminding me of my friend Dave Craigmile who took time out from dying to try and cheer me up when I needed it. Or Ryan, who shaped my life in so many ways, not the least of which was dying way too fucking early. By the time I could get to his side, he was too far gone to speak, or even open his eyes, but he was there nonetheless, and still funny as hell, in a Harpo Marx dying from a brain tumor kind of way. Anyway. Sometimes life is grand; sometimes it's a son of a bitch. Sometimes it's both. For Warren, thanks for everything, and I'm glad you got to meet your grandkids. For Dave and Ryan, well, thanks for everything, too, and I wish you could have stuck around a little longer. I miss you both.
As Steve Martin's character said in Grand Canyon, "All life's riddles are answered in the movies." For example, a couple of years ago I was walking along wrestling with the fact that I was still head over heels in love with somebody who had recently decided she wasn't in love with me. I asked, out loud, how it was possible for me to love her so much, and so romantically, while she loved me "like a brother". Clear as day, I heard Danny Aiello's voice in my head, saying, "One thing's got nothin to do with the other." (The Professional)

Tonight's lesson then, comes from Ocean's Eleven: "You suicidal?" and the reply: "Only in the morning."

Now, I know we're talking about a throwaway line from a glib character in a glib movie, but I also know that when I'm at feeling glib is when I'm most likely to speak the simple truth. And the truth I take out of this is that everybody has their shitty times. Me, I'm never suicidal in the morning. Either I hop up, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, as my dad used to say, or I'm headachey and half-asleep until I'm showered and properly caffeinated. In the first case, I'm feeling good, and in the second, by the time I'm awake enough to feel depressed, I'm already up and going about my business, too busy for grim thoughts.

Nighttime on the other hand...

Today was a good day. Sure, I woke up stiff and sore, but that's hardly unusual. Christie and I went out for breakfast and a walk around downtown. The students are back in town, which on the one hand means more dumbass drivers, but on the other means a livelier downtown, and lots of pretty young girls in skimpy outfits. Yeah, I'm a dirty old man, but everybody needs a hobby. Christie and I talked possible futures, dream houses, furniture, and Halloween costumes. I went into a comics shop for the first time in ten years and picked up a copy of 1602, which looks like it'll kick ass (no surprise, as it's written by Neil Gaiman). I napped. God, I love naps. I spent the evening people watching, writing, and drinking coffee, all of which make me happy. I even had a complete stranger admire my Axim and folding keyboard. Definitely a good day.

But the drive home and the prospect of killing time in an empty house before bed put a pit in my stomach, and as much as I love my little hobbit hole of a house, it does, indeed, feel very empty right now. It probably doesn't help that just after I got to the coffee shop, I saw a familiar looking car dropping someone off, and thought "No, it couldn't be.." but, yeah, it was Carrie. It was just a glimpse of a woman I don't really miss, at least not most of the time, and just last night I was thinking how glad I am the divorce is just almost final, but the glimpse still brought up toxic thoughts, and while they were drowned out for hours by the crowds and the writing and coeds all dressed up for the last weekend before classes start, I guess they managed to stick around long enough to resurface in the silence of home.

But thoughts are just thoughts, and nighttime just happens to be my shitty time. It'll look better in the daylight, and if not, I can always build something. There's very little that can't be made better with power tools.

Friday, August 22, 2003

RIP Sally Baron. When writing her obituary, her children all agreed that as a memorial, money could be given in her name to organizations working to get Bush out of office. According to her daughter, "She'd always watch CNN, C-SPAN, and you know, she'd just swear at the TV and say 'Oh, Bush, he's such a whistle ass!'"

Amen.

Thursday, August 21, 2003

It's like a great big dogpile of happy thoughts
First of all, no pain. That is never to be underestimated, and is my absolute favorite thing about walking in the world after the migraine is gone. Secondly, according to weather.com, it is 77 degrees outside. It feels warmer than that to me, but after a week of 100 degree days and 85 degree nights, it's nice to see the mercury heading in a downward direction. Thirdly, Theron and I have a newly minted writing pact, and I already have pages to send him. Yeah, baby.

Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Woke up about 12:30 with that telltale pain behind my left eye. It wasn't much more than a twinge, but it clearly wasn't going away, not even with a handful of aspirin and an icepack. Around one, it occured to me that if this was going to be a migraine, then now was the time to kill it. Unfortunately, I was out of Imitrex, the best migraine medicine ever, and running low on Midrin and Tylenol 3 with Codeine, the sledge hammers in my pharmacological toolbox. So I got up, popped a Midrin, and sat down to putter at the computer.

I knew I was in for it when the hot flash hit. I'm sitting in my underwear in an 80 degree house, drenched with sweat. This is not a good thing. And the Midrin isn't doing shit. 3:30, and I decide to throw more drugs at it: 2 Midrin and some Codeine. I go to sit in the dark for a bit, and when I get up a few minutes later for some water, my left eye catches fire, and I'm holding myself up by the kitchen counter. I can feel my guts shifting gears. For a minute I think I can hold it together, and then my mouth fills up and I'm sprinting through the dark house to reach the bathroom before it happens again.

As I'm cleaning myself up, I can't help but look in the mirror. My body's covered in sweat, my eyes look beaten, and my hair would look just about right on a troll doll. Yeah, I'm stone cold sexy when I've got a migraine. The first order of business is the chug a glass of water so that I won't be dry heaving if the puking comes around again, which it usually does. I've got about a five minute window to get some drugs into my system before I puke 'em back up again, like I just did. I take the last of the Midrin and another Tylenol 3. I've got four of those left. And it's 5:30 am.

I gather my pill bottles and call the pharmacy. They don't open again for two hours, but I leave a message with the prescription numbers of the three drugs I need refilled. Two of them, the Midrin and codeine, require a doctor to sign off before they can refill them. My doctor, of course, is on vacation, but it's taken all the focus I've got just to make this one phone call.

It's 5:35 am. I'm supposed to be at work in two and a half hours. I have a meeting, and several terribly important things to do. It'd hardly be the first time I went into work after a night of fighting migraines, but I only do that when I win. I'm not winning. In fact, I'm getting my ass kicked. So I pull my shit together again and leave a message on my boss's answering machine that I'm not going to be there. While I'm still in the living room I send Christie an email letting her know what's up and asking if she could possibly bring me my drugs.

I take a sleeping pill and crawl off to bed, thinking back on the good old days when my ex got her wisdom teeth out and didn't use all the Vicodan they'd prescribed. At this point, I'd cheerfully shoot every person who ever used Vicodan recreationally if it meant that I could get a prescription for migraines, but at this point my aim would suck horribly, so there's no point. I can feel myself working up to a diatribe on doctors, pain management, and the war on drugs, but it just sort of comes out as a whimper as I collapse into bed, where I slip in and out of consciousness until the phone rings. It's Christie, saying, "Of course I will."

Time's a slippery bastard when I'm migraining, but within a couple of hours I can hear her come in the front door, then get a glass out of the cabinet and fill it. Then she's in my room handing me pills. And then, finally, real sleep, and no pain. Or, at least, pain slight enough I can ignore it. Ah, chemicals. Just before I fall asleep, I mutter to Christie, "You know, Alfred the Great had migraines..."

Monday, August 18, 2003

I have moments of poetry, but Wockerjabby's one of those people for whom metaphor is a mask across the eyes, or perhaps a frog in the throat, and so wrings beautiful words out of the fabric of her day to day. Go read her blackout experience.

Friday, August 15, 2003

Thing to Watch Out for No. 27
When you start getting your credit in shape, you'll start getting better credit card offers. The 0% fixed rate for __ months offer is inevitable. If you go ahead and transfer, be sure to check out the Purchases APR before you buy anything with that card, even if you plan to pay it off the next month. Most credit card companies have what is effectively a First In, Last Out policy. Your payments go to the lowest interest item first. So if you do a big transfer at 0%, then a small purchase at 15%, you'll be paying that 15% until the big chunk's paid down. Hey, why else would they offer you 0% interest on a big chunk of change? This is capitalism, not charity work.
Sharing my inbox again
NB: I tend to think that an email to a blogger has roughly zero assumption of privacy, unless there is horribly personal data in it and/or blackmail photos. This one had neither, so I'm posting it with the name redacted, because I liked some things in my reply. However, if the author has objections to being so spotlighted, I'll rectify the situation posthaste, and apologize. In that order.

> Recently employed as an Administrative Assistant (phone answerer)
> by a bureaucratic state agency, I have found myself fastly
> embittered by the 8-5.
>
> Having hid in academia for WAY too long, I reluctantly entered the
> real world (with the coveted medical benefits) but I never imagined
> that I could ever take on such an apathetic role - a role that
> violates my own personal code of ethics. Unfortunately, sheer volume
> of calls necessitates apathy - that or insanity on my part (which I
> am beginning to realize is a distinct possibility.)
>
> But working for a college textbook wholesaler? Over-inflated prices,
> "new" editions (usually encompassing the difference of a few words)
> that come out EVERY year disallowing the possibility of a) selling
> back the textbook for the mere 10% of the original $150 it cost, and
> b) buying a used copy at 90% of the original $150 cost. How do you
> sleep at night? Shame on you!
>
> Other than that, Love the site. Keep up the good work.
> Signed,
> _________


I'll start off by responding to something you didn't write: I reject outright the idea that there is something unethical about making a profit. There are lots of ideal systems that might, in an ideal world, work better than capitalism and keeping soul and body together while maintaining a certain base level of personal liberty (the baseline for which seems to be rising rather than falling). But in the real world, a capitalistic system with an appropriate (a magical weasel-word that allows infinite equivocation) level of market regulation really seems to work best. Now that the straw man is dealt with, we can move on.

I'll skip over the usual "where the hell do you get off" stuff, and I'll assume you're relatively familiar with the Mirror Principle.

I'll skip it because you've inadvertently pulled one of my strings, and so the rant that's coming will probably hurt you more than it'll hurt me.

Yes, college textbooks are expensive. But there are fixed costs with printing any book, and when you're dealing with a small marketplace, there are fewer consumers to share those fixed costs. If it costs $2,000 to set up the printer, then $5 a copy, then the per book costs will be higher when there's a 10,000 copy run than a 100,000 copy run. Also, textbooks tend to have more color printing in the internal pages, which, again, costs more.

In the last few decades, there's been a lot of consolidation among college publishers and an accompanying increase in the emphasis on profit. Publishers have tried to increase their profits by 'encouraging' you to buy new books by whatever means necessary. So there are packages (with CD, with Study Guide, etc.), online supplements, and my personal favorite, the shortened edition cycle. Rather than coming out with a new edition every four years, they make one every three, or even two, and so increase their sales.

And then there are the used books. Let me walk you through a typical buyback from the perspective of a wholesaler doing the buy (yeah, I've been the guy handing you your $2). In the old days, a textbook buyer would come onto campus, set up a table, and do "stack buys", meaning he'd look over your stack of books and name a price. Unfortunately (or fortunately, I guess, depending on your politics), girls in lowcut blouses and guys on the football team tended to get better prices than the rest of us. My company was actually the first to start computerized buys where everyone in the country got the same price for the same book in the same condition, regardless. As recently as five years ago, we were awarded the buyback at a major school because the company that had been doing it was ripping off students. So I sleep pretty soundly.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Buyback. The first thing we do is check if the store is using it again locally. If it's on that list, you get more. Sometimes as much as half, but that figure is set by the store, not the wholesaler. If it's not on the list, then what you get depends on how likely it is that we'll sell it again. This part is Economics 101. If it's popular and rare, it's worth more. If it's unpopular and common, it's worth less. There's a wrinkle in that the value also goes down if there's a new edition due out soon. No point in paying a bunch of $$$ for the 7th edition when the 8th'll be out before school starts up in the fall. But even if you're using the number one textbook in the world (The Little Brown Handbook, by the way), you still won't get close to the full value because we have to pay to ship the book back to Columbia, pay somebody to shelve it, pay to store it, and then if we sell it to a store in the fall, we'll have to pay somebody to take it off the shelf and put it in a box, then we have to pay to ship it to the store, who will probably sell it for something like 80% of what you paid for it. Of course, that's assuming we even sell it. As a booklover I hate to see it, but a lot of books get pulped because nobody wants them.

There's other stuff you never see, of course, like a programmer far enough outside the usual demographic he probably couldn't have gotten hired anywhere else, or the time a local church called our human resources director and said, "I've got a bunch of women coming in from Bosnia. They have no technology skills to speak of and know little if any English. Have anything for them?" They're taking English classes on their lunch hour now.

And then there's my job. I've created tools to help faculty research textbooks, built a site that lets publishers research the marketplace so they can make more intelligent decisions about their edition cycle and cut down on waste in their print runs (as well as prevent shortages that hurt students), and worked on projects that are changing the way people learn in colleges and universities, spare bedrooms, and aircraft carriers. I've never once been asked to do anything that violates my personal sense of ethics. Even when I'm doing marketing, it's all about finding the truth that sells the product, not about hiding its flaws.

Yes, my company makes a lot of money. But we also do a lot of business, and I'm very comfortable with the percentage we take off the top. We're the big dog in our field, but we got here by doing things fairly, intelligently, and creatively. We don't do everything right, in my estimation, but I'm more comfortable working here than I was working for MU, where the university got 18% of our federal grants just for signing a cover sheet on our grant applications, and academic stars pulled down six-figure salaries and taught two classes a year while adjuncts did the work that kept their department alive.

In every job, and in every company, there is good you can do and evil you can do. Answering phones, you're in a position to ruin thousands of days each and every week. But there's a flip side to that as well. A few years ago, I called our Department of Natural Resources to ask about areas in my part of the state that allowed camping. The woman I talked to was friendly as could be, took my name and address, and in two days I received an envelope containing maps to every nature preserve within a two hour drive of Columbia that allowed overnight camping. It's been years, but she still stands in my mind as an example of the good we can do in what might otherwise be mundane work. I've seen some very beautiful places thanks to her.

Have you read any Jon Kabat-Zinn? He's a medical doctor and mindfulness teacher who's done some very interesting work with folks in careers where it would seem impossible to maintain a sense of engaged compassion (like emergency medicine). You might find him a nice antidote to apathy.

Mike
On the Seductive Nature of Trust...
We're on Highway 8, heading east out of Steelville, looking for Onondaga Cave State Park. If I knew then what I know now, I'd never have said, "Sure, take this exit", but sometimes life just sort of takes on a theme, and the theme of this weekend was shaping up to be Mike Gives Bad Directions, or maybe Mike Invokes in Christie a Healthy Skepticism if you want to spin it a bit.

But it's a beautiful day, if a bit hot, and 8's a good highway, with just enough curves and vistas to make it an enjoyable drive even if you're stuck behind some schmuck going 55, which we are. We come around a curve, and the view opens up to include a huge, wide valley, and we can see both lanes of the road open to the hills across the way, a good mile distant. The no-passing zone ends, and I start encouraging Christie to pass. Not nagging, just encouraging. After all, it's a passing zone, we can all see that we're the only car on the road, excepting Mr. 55, and Christie's got six cylinders she's barely even using.

So she pulls out, but is just unsure enough of herself to ask, "Is it clear?"

"Sure," I say in a calm, even tone of voice, "Except for the giant--" She hits the brakes and pulls back in behind the Turtle.

"--invisible car."

The car is silent, except for a quiet chuckling from Christie's cousin in the back seat.

Thursday, August 14, 2003

The technical truth is that I'll be legally divorced in two weeks. All I have to do is do nothing. File no motions, that sort of thing. I have to admit, there's a voice in my head telling me it's not too late for some kind of idiotic romantic gesture to save my marriage. And maybe that's true. There's just one problem.

I don't want to anymore. God, it hurts to admit that.
It is finished.
There is no uglier phrase in the English language than "This marriage is irretrievably broken."

But at least it's done.

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

So, I got me one of those 0% interest for a limited time cards from MBNA America, but the rate was set to expire in August. My last bill said that as long as I paid everything off by the August due date, I would owe no interest. So I busted my ass to pay off the last chunk and thereby avoid any interest at all. I was a little surprised, then, to get a statement from them over the weekend. (Right after my grandmother died; have these people no shame!?) And on it was a $25 interest charge, even though it clearly showed that they'd received my payments.

Okay, so they lent me a huge chunk of change for over a year, and here I am trying to get out of paying them a lousy $25. Well, they've screwed me good and plenty over the years, so I am pretty much incapable of feeling sorry for these bastards. That's one thing. The other is that, according to their promises, I shouldn't owe them a thing. They made the deal, and now they're trying to change it. The fact that it was a dumb deal to make is their problem, not mine.

So I called them and fought my way through the touchtone maze to reach a real live operator, who proceeded to explain that you will pay interest if you don't pay the balance off every month. I appreciated the lesson, but, I explained, I had a no-interest account for most of the last year. Oh, well, she explained, the promotional rate was only for cash advances, not purchases, and the interest charge was for items I had purchased. No, I said, actually, the promotional rate was for both, and it was supposed to last until August 5th, 2 days after MBNA received my payment. No, she said, the rate actually expired July 5th, and it was my average daily balance for the next period that resulted in a charge.

She gave each explanation with an air of absolute certainty, even though it was completely wrong, and managed to convey very clearly that I was an idiot who was wasting her time. Naturally, all my documentation was at home, and I was calling from work, which means I need to go home and gather all my old statements together, then do it all over again tomorrow.

What pissed me off the most, however, was the way she switched from explanation to explanation, never losing the air of rectitude and self-righteousness, and never realizing that her various explanations were mutually contradictory. I won't stand for that sort of behavior in my president, and I won't have it in my credit card companies!

Monday, August 11, 2003

Until I was ten or so, my grandparents' house in La Cygne was perched on the edge of the world. It was twenty feet or so from their front step to the gravel over asphalt road, and across the street was nothing but grass and farmland between you and the horizon. Then one year we came down for the 4th of July, and there were dirt piles in the lot across the street, a perfect setting for bottle rocket wars. By Thanksgiving, there was a house, acting as a buffer between our feasting and all that nothing, marked into five-acre squares by an endless grid of gravel roads.

I learned to drive in that grid, behind the wheel of a two-tone blue stretch Ford Econoline, hands frozen at ten and two until I almost took us into a ditch trying to turn a corner, and my father explained that it was okay to move your hands around when making a turn.

I learned to spit in the backyard, tutored by my brother and our cousin Doug, who had, I thought, an unfair advantage in the contest that followed thanks to his fondness for Skoal. As ahead of the pack as an East German weightlifter or West African distance runner, Doug took the gold in both distance and accuracy.

In the living room I learned how to watch football and act like I not only knew what was going on, but cared. In the kitchen I learned that if you ate enough jello salad (my favorite was orange jello with grated carrots), nobody nagged you about not finishing your stringy roast beef.

Between my childhood joys and the pastimes of that house was an empty space bigger than Kansas, and I was too young to try and cross it, and my grandparents too old, so I spent most of my time there in either a book or a tree. At my grandfather's funeral, my cousin's described a man they'd known their whole lives that I only saw as senility set in. He loved the harmonica his whole life, apparently, but the first time I saw him play it, I was 28 years old.

At my grandmother's funeral, just yesterday, she was described as a kind and godly woman, which matches my memory of her exactly, but no matter how deep I search my memory, I can only think of one real story that features her in a role involving more than smiling in her apron, patting my arm and saying, "Bless your heart." I saw her several times a year for my entire life, but she had virtually zero impact on the trajectory of my life. She had her passions, certainly, but I know of them mostly second-hand.

La Cygne wasn't much of a place for movies, or books, and the news of the world took quite some time to filter its way down there. But a kid could wander all day, and I quickly acquired a matter of fact comfort with cows, pigs, snakes, spiders, ticks, barbed wire, and other facts of a slow-paced rural life. At the same time, my other grandmother was introducing me to downtown Kansas City, filling my head with stories of people from Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe, while filling my mouth with their cuisine, along with good old American staples like bread, pies, jellies and jams, all made in our own kitchen, frequently with the produce of her own garden. And then there were my parents. Programmers both, intellectually curious, and insanely patient with the endless questions and protestations of youth.

I'm a man now, and all three worlds are a part of what feels like home to me. It's my kitchen producing the food now, as well as the kitchens of various local restaurants and bakeries. I spend my days surfing and building the Internet, both asking and finding answers to questions. I live in a small but vibrant town, its downtown a bustling mess of sounds and smells and colors that could not be less like La Cygne's dusty streets, while Kansas City is only a couple of hours away. And New York, Boston, even Seoul and Tokyo have turned out to be closer than I'd ever have dreamed.

There are days I think I could give myself over to the city completely, but then I get an invite out to a friend's house in the country. There will be music, food, friends, and maybe even a fire, but it's enough for me just to drive on gravel roads again and to feel my legs taking bites out of the space between here and there on ground spiked course with grass that fights being pressed beneath my boots. Sometimes it's the best thing in the world to walk with no destination, in a place where there's nothing between me and the horizon but trees and grass and gravel roads.

The last of my family in La Cygne is in the ground now, though, and I don't know when I'll be there again.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

My grandmother died last night, so I'll be headed to La Cygne this weekend for her funeral.

As a part of the Practical Midwesterner tribe, I generally don't stop for death. There's work to be done, and if it's not other work, well, there's the work of getting ready for the funeral. There are phone calls to be made, an obituary to be written, pies to bake, and, well, somebody should buy a ham. Because there must be ham. It is the way of our people.

I can't imagine what it looks like from the outside, but from the inside it's a coping mechanism. In that first flash of grief, work provides something to occupy the hands, if not the mind, and at least keeps you on your feet. But I work sitting down, and my primary tool, besides the computer, is my brain. So it doesn't do the trick, and I catch myself playing the most asine tricks on myself to keep my mind away from, well, you know, it.

If I had a lick of sense, I'd sit with this a while, let myself grieve, but it is the ancient ways that provide meaning to our lives, and who am I to buck tradition? So I'm going to make bread.

Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Regime Change in Liberia.
Assignment: Compare and contrast the Bush administration's handling of Iraq with its handling of Liberia. Of particular note should be the presence (or absence) of other nations in the region, and their role in bringing about change. There is an ongoing element to the assignment as well. You will be expected to keep your eye on Liberia and the surrounding nations. The hard part is after the fighting, not during.
Democrats v. Democracy
From this week's Newsweek cover story on Dean:
But while Edwards was hurt by a weak performance in "the Russert primary" (NBC’s "Meet the Press"), Dean’s testy and unpresidential appearance on the show on June 22...didn’t hurt him at all. In fact, his fund-raising surged that Sunday, testament, perhaps, to a feeling among some liberals that the media are now on "the other side." In truth, Dean is no favorite of working reporters, who tend to like their candidates funny and solicitous. So do voters.
It's an amusing story, full of sound and fury, but that last sentence is my favorite. Let's go over this slowly (for the J-school graduates in the audience): The Dean fans you've spent the whole story talking about are, believe it or not, voters. The Dean ascendancy that landed him on the cover of your magazine? It's the result of his popularity with voters. Sure, some of it's fundraising, but even then the story is that he's raising that money from a large number of (here's that word again) voters. Hell, even some of the high school kids like Alex Doonesbury will be voters by the time the election comes around.

Last time we did this dance, the media told us roughly a year in advance who the candidates would be: Bush and Gore. People weren't particularly excited about either one, but whenever voters started to get excited about any of the other candidates, we were told in no uncertain terms that it didn't matter, because Bush v. Gore was "inevitable". Election day arrived and, with it, record low voter turnout. Big surprise.

The media likes a good story, and seems to prefer one that can be told in 20-30 seconds using a sixth-grade vocabulary. The result is that our presidential candidates get labeled like the seven dwarfs and are, like Tinkerbell, reduced to only having one emotion at a time. So Dean is renamed Angry, and all the normal human contradictions in his character are flattened out. From what I've heard he is "funny and solicitous", but that doesn't fit the media-issued template, so it doesn't make it into the story.

Except it does, actually. That's what makes the media coverage of Dean so entertaining. They'll talk about how popular he is, then say, "But who knows if he'll catch on with voters...", or show him joking with a crowd, then say "But voters like their candidates funny...". To get all postmodern on you for a moment, the media has created a narrative which the individual reporters are now struggling to escape. Whether they have what it takes to do so, however, remains to be seen.

Tuesday, August 05, 2003

I can't believe the folks at Gawker haven't seen Gigantic: a Tale of Two Johns yet. Don't get me wrong; it's a great film about a great band. It's just that I'm always surprised by how behind the times New Yorkers are. It's kind of sad, really. I mean, it's been, like, a month since the director, AJ Schnack, was in Columbia to present the film and talk about it. A month! That's, like, three years in New York time, right?

Monday, August 04, 2003

Reasons to love Neil Gaiman, version 3.4:
Today's weirdest request was from a TV movie channel who wondered if I'd host their Hallowe'en movie week. It's only when faced with trivial questions like that that I become deeply aware of what a serious and respectable business being an author is, and of one's responsibility to maintain the dignity of the profession.

"As a responsible and serious-minded author," I asked myself, "what kind of message would you be sending to the world by appearing as a cheesy horror host at Hallowe'en and introducing scary movies?"

I said yes immediately. I hope I get to climb out of a coffin at some point. I've always wanted to climb out of a coffin.

Friday, August 01, 2003

Her: Yeah, Mike got to see me do the spider dance last night.

Cousin One: So what happened?

Her: It was totally justified! I pulled the covers off the bed, and this big brown spider jumped out!

Me: Jumping back was justified. Screaming was justified even, maybe. Plucking at my shirt while I was trying to find it was not.

Her: I was trying to find it!

Me: That's okay. Now I can tell you the rest of the story. When I found it, it had jumped back into the corner. Your shoe wouldn't fit, which is why I went in with my pocket knife. My first shot took a couple of legs off, at which point another spider jumped out from behind the baseboard and attacked it. I figured the conflict was basically intramural, so I waited till the second spider killed the first, then I went after the second with the shoe. Then I got up, said "It's dead", then got ready for bed. I figured it was better to wait to tell you until morning.

Her: I wouldn't have slept a wink!

Me: Which is why I didn't tell you.

Her: You know, I almost believe you...

Me: Whatever gets you through the night.