Friday, February 29, 2008

The Desire Called Utopia and Other Political Fictions

A recurring theme here on my section of NFOTF has been the demise of the idea of utopia in the political rhetoric of the West.

I don't watch much TV, but my son has hooked me this year on the cathode ray crack of Lost (which itself has some interesting crypto-utopian threads -- who knew you could have a prime time hit series based on an updated Airport movie ensemble cast exploring the remnants of a 1970s social experiment gone astray (see the Dharma Initiative)). So, last night, watching it on actual broadcast TV rather than downloading it as usual, recovering from an intense week, I was curious to experience the newest Obama commercial.

I live in Austin, Texas. Our surprisingly important primary is imminent. The peppy 30-second spot brilliantly mirrors the commodified "live music capital" self-image of our town, with local images and a soundtrack that subtly positions Barack Obama as the official politician of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. (It seems to be working: there are viral Obama semiotes all over town, from restroom graffiti to rainbow-colored Warholian Obama faces posted by white collar workers in the windows of downtown skyscrapers -- the face of every race and no race.)

The ad is full of wonderful platitudes that have all the rhetorical vigor of newspaper horoscope entries: you can fill them with your own wishes and aspirations.

The best one, though, is the Utopian manifesto tagline (which I have also been hearing in his radio ads):

"The world as it is is not the world as it has to be."

The guy needs to hire some science fiction writers. Doesn't he know dystopia sells better than utopia?

Just ask John "hundred year war" McCain (via William Gibson):

Perhaps the general election campaign will be the perfect battle between Obama's communitarian Utopia and McCain's warrior dystopia. Stay tuned...

P.S. For the historically minded, check out the wonderful archive of vintage presidential campaign spots at The Museum of the Moving Image.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Michael Moorcock named Grand Master by SFWA

Famed British author Michael Moorcock will be honored as the next Damon Knight Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America during the upcoming Nebula Award Weekend® in Austin, Texas.

The moved was announced by SFWA President Michael Capobianco after consulting with the Board of Directors and participating past presidents. The Nebula Awards Weekend will be held April 25-27 at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown.

"As one of the early members of SFWA I feel especially honoured to receive the Grand Master award and particularly pleased that I'll be in Austin to accept it," Moorcock said.

Named one of the 50 greatest postwar British writers by The Times of London, Moorcock is best-known for his stories featuring the albino swordsman Elric of Melniboné. Other popular characters created by the prolific Moorcock include Jerry Cornelius and Hawkmoon, characters that, like Elric, are linked by their stories in what has come to be known as the Eternal Champion cycle. Among his many awards, Moorcock won the 1967 Nebula Award for Behold the Man, the 1993 British Fantasy Award and the 2000 World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement. Other notable works by Moorcock include The Dancers at the End of Time and Mother London.

Moorcock is the 25th writer recognized by SFWA as a Grand Master. He joins Robert A. Heinlein (1974), Jack Williamson (1975), Clifford D. Simak (1976), L. Sprague de Camp (1978), Fritz Leiber (1981), Andre Norton (1983), Arthur C. Clarke (1985), Isaac Asimov (1986), Alfred Bester (1987), Ray Bradbury (1988), Lester del Rey (1990), Frederik Pohl (1992), Damon Knight (1994), A. E. van Vogt (1995), Jack Vance (1996), Poul Anderson (1997), Hal Clement (1998), Brian Aldiss (1999), Philip Jose Farmer (2000), Ursula K. Le Guin (2003), Robert Silverberg (2004), Anne McCaffrey (2005), Harlan Ellison (2006) and James Gunn (2007).

Until 2002 the title was simply "Grand Master." In 2002 it was renamed in honor of SFWA's founder, Damon Knight, who died that year.

More details about the Nebula Awards Weekend are available at

Tuesday, February 26, 2008



Parric seemed to withdraw into his trance.


"What are you suggesting?" Parric said. "I'm asking you for informations. You're not having any for me."

"Look, if you want to know who's behind this thing, it might be more productive to come at it from a different direction," Knowicent said, sitting before Parric with legs crossed. "You've accumulated a few enemies, as I recall."

"Not that I am knowing of."

"What about the Eldminster of Hahn?"

"The Eldminster is at cross-purposings."

"And the T'choulic Taman?"

"Again, cross-purposings."

"I see. Okay then, which individuals you've been at cross purposes with in the past are capable of engineering this moironteau variant?"

"None are capabling."

"Aren't you even going to think about it?"

"No needings to. None are capabling. Not T'choulic Taman, not the Eldminster of Hahn, not even Condros Fane. None."

"You went up against Condros Fane? Why hadn't I heard about that?"

Parric gave her a withering stare.

"Look, without more data from your end my options are limited. If you're certain an old enemy--excuse me, cross-purposing--isn't behind it, then that doesn't leave much. A new enemy is pretty much all that's left. Someone you don't yet know you're in conflict with." Knowicent sighed. "I can give you everything I have on the moironteau. The data'll only be of limited relevance, though. This creature's been completely re-engineered--if it's an oxygen breather now, there's not way to tell what other alterations have been made."

"And the footheads?"

"No telling. I've got dozens of potential analogs--everything from finger-long sleacath to oceanic fraust large enough to swallow a moironteau whole. As far as convergent evolution goes, that one's fairly common across a wide range of cosms."

"I'm thinking as much," Parric said. "You may be going now."

"If I had a specimen, a tissue sample--"

"Yes, well, I am not having samples for you. You may be going now."

"Don't go alone," Knowicent said. "Take Rumbroid and Coreace. Or what about the Junsturs? You're on good terms with them, right?"


"Shit, Parric, I'd like to think we've moved beyond a purely client-customer relationship. But if you don't care about my concern for your well-being, think of Flavius. He wouldn't want you to get yourself killed, would he? I'll admit I don't know much about these things, but everything I do know points to these moironteau being designed to kill you. Unless you want them to succeed, the next time you venture out into the Nexus I suggest you do so armed to the beak and with lots of backup." She smiled. "Who knows? A great wizard like you, lots of hero-types would likely volunteer just for the glory. That's not even considering other magicians who'd want to learn by seeing you in act--"

"That is not being possible. Craftings are not magicings," Parric said. "Besides, what you're suggesting is againsting the tenets of my order."

"Right, right. Your all-powerful 'tenets of the order,'" Knowicent said. "Tenets which I've never learned from you in, what? Ten? Fifteen years? Care to enlighten me?"

"That is againsting--"

"--the tenants of your order. Right. Can't say I didn't see that coming." Knowicent ran her hand through the flickering mass of cables on her head. Her eyes narrowed an accusing glare at Parric. "And you've never broken them before?"

"Thanking you for the informations you're giving," Parric said, more sharply than before. "Payment for such is transferring to your accountings. You may be going now."

She started to protest, but Parric twitched an antennae. Knowicent's avatar dispersed in a spray of light.

Parric shifted, trying to regain his meditative state. His tail twitched. He breathed deeply then slowly exhaled.

Sighing, Parric sat up. He was too agitated now, too conflicted. Knowicent had that effect on him, always posing more questions than she was paid to answer.

His wing sent a sharp jab of pain in protest. Parric flinched, softening his movements. The wing would have to wait a little longer, until he'd regained his composure.

"And you've never broken them before?"

Knowicent, she who made a career of knowing everything, was oblivious as to how deep her words had cut. The tenets were meant to pose a continuing challenge. Many Crafters faltered. It was expected. But Parric had never heard of any Crafter of Onimik as lacking as he. He thought back to his multitude of failures against the moironteau and shuddered in shame.

He would do better the next time. He had no excuses.

Calmly, Parric extended his antennae and started Colloreep's Third Current. He hadn't performed the exercise in a very long time. He'd neglected all of his exercises for far too long. He'd start with an easy one, and work his way up from there.

Parric sealed the door, blocking it from all intrusion. Then he expanded the interior of his room seven leagues in every direction. Satisfied he now had enough space to practice the Third Current freely, he solidified the air, then inverted it before collapsing the entire mass into a singularity of pure energy.

Yes, he would definitely do better the next time.


Monday, February 25, 2008

Lost Books, Part VI: Moore! Moore! Moore!

Alan Moore's The Ballad of Halo Jones is, for me, a lost book in more ways than one. I lent my copy of the most recent edition to a friend, but I don't remember who, and none of the friends I trust enough to lend books to admit to having it. The frustrating thing is, the book is so good that I really can't blame them for wanting to keep it. And now it's out of print. Again.

In his introduction (I'm paraphrasing from memory here), Moore says that he wrote the comics for 2000 AD (a date that then meant 'the future') in an attempt to escape the magazine's formula of heavily armed muscle-bound men blowing things up. As a contrast, he told an sf story of an apparently ordinary young woman going shopping. Of course, the shopping trip involves robot dogs, cyberpunkish streetlife, non-lethal weapons such as Zenades (grenades which induce a Zen-like state of calm), and other diversions.

Halo Jones rises from hazardous poverty in a slum on Earth, to a crew position as a cetacean interpreter on a starliner, and finally to military service and genuine - but quiet - heroism in and after an interstellar war.

Like Gaiman's Sandman series, the book is essentially a collection of short stories with an overarching plot, where seemingly minor incidents and characters turn out to be incredibly important later. The moral of the ballad seems to be that there are no minor or unimportant people (or even unimportant rats): everyone matters.

If you don't like comics, close your eyes and have someone read "I'll Never Forget Whatsisname" to you, and you may change your mind about the entire genre. It's that good.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


Last November, my mother overpaid her phone bill with a check for $800. That was sixteen times her normal monthly phone bill. When I discovered this, I started trying to get either a reimbursement or credit on her future phone bills. Over the next three months I talked to numerous AT&T customer service representatives and ended up with a bricolage of conflicting advice about what number to call—how to make such a claim—even whether I could talk AT&T on my mother's behalf. With only one exception, AT&T's representatives seemed to be polite and fair. But AT&T's customer service system is broken.

The problem first appeared on Mom's bank statement. It was identified on the statement as AT&T SERVICES CHECKPAYMT. Mom told me she'd thought the November AT&T bill said she owed all that money. That was highly unlikely, because the October statement showed a balance of $0.00. I promptly called the AT&T Customer Service number. The representative told me that I should call the Electronic Payment Center (EPC). Then I got busy getting Mom moved into Assisted Living. Mistakes like this check were one of the reasons I wanted her in Assisted Living! When I subsequently called the EPC, I was told that no, EPC was not the right number to call since it wasn't a bank draft or online bill pay—it was an actual, physical check.

At that point I thought I better check with Mom's bank. They told me that with checks electronically transmitted to the bank—that's what CHECKPAYMT means—the bank never gets the physical check. A check image will never appear in the bank statement. However, a copy of the bank statement should substantiate the payment and prove to AT&T to prove that the money was paid to them. Great! I called the AT&T Customer Service number again. This time around, the person who took my call listened to my description of the problem, including what the bank had told me; picked up on the fact that my patience was wearing thin; and managed to TRANSFER MY CALL TO MOM'S BANK'S AUTOMATED CALL SYSTEM. In other words, she got rid of me, but in a way that certainly did not bolster my patience.

On my next try a more helpful customer service rep told me that no fax or copy of the bank statement was needed. She said was filling out a claim for the overpayment. The claim would be investigated. She gave me a claim number and said I should follow up on the claim in a couple of weeks. Great ... maybe. At this point I knew better than to believe the problem was being solved just because somebody in AT&T Customer Service said so.

By the way, the backstory on AT&T landline phone service in Georgia, where my mother lives, is that BellSouth was taken over by AT&T. That was after AT&T had been taken over by SBC. The considerations in play in those corporate takeovers must have included big profits and the (formerly) good name of AT&T. Considerations not in play apparently included customer service.

The next time I called AT&T Customer Service I got someone who handed me off to someone else. The second person told me that she could not tell me ANYTHING—not how the claim was coming along, even if I did have a claim number; not how problems of this general sort should be handled; she could tell me NOTHING unless my name was added to the account. Now, every AT&T representative with whom I spoke up to this point had asked for the PIN Number from Mom's bill. One or two of them asked for the last four digits of Mom's Social Security Number. This representative said (a) knowing the PIN Number did not permit me to be given information about this account. (b) Knowing Mom's Social Security number would not help either. (c) My Durable Power of Attorney on Mom's behalf wouldn't do any good. Huh? Durable Power of Attorney is supposed to be for handling someone else's financial affairs, including in the event of accident or illness. But no. (d) My mother MUST get on the phone and VERBALLY INFORM AT&T that she wanted my name on the account.

My mother lives four states away and it upsets her to have to talk to strangers on the phone. I asked a cousin to walk Mom through it, which they did. While my cousin had AT&T Customer Service on the phone, she asked about the $800 problem. Answer: this Customer Service representative firmly informed my cousin that the ONLY way to claim the overpayment would be with A PAPER TRAIL meaning the PHYSICAL check. Which, since AT&T electronically transmitted the check to Mom's bank, AT&T presumably has!

There's a distinct pattern here, and customer service is not an apt name for it. AT&T Customer Service (sic) having wasted much more of my time than I had time to spare, I was ready to write off Mom's $800 as Alzheimer-affected bad judgment and thank my lucky stars I got her into Assisted Living when I did. But was her $800, not mine to write off or not. So I tried again. This time I hit pay dirt. Of a sort. I learned that—

(a) Mom and my cousin did get my name onto the account as an authorized person. Hallelujah.

(b) Somebody at AT&T had finally investigated the problem, ten weeks after I first talked to them about it. They noted on the electronic accounts records the following:

(c) Mom's $800 check was received in an envelope with an account slip that had the name, address and $800 phone bill of one of her neighbors.

(d) AT&T therefore assumed that she intended to pay that bill

(e) AT&T can do absolutely nothing to help Mom get her $800 back.

I'll think of it as the Alzheimer's tax.

So far as I know, Mom only blew $2-3,000 on a fly-by-night contractor, six or ten ostensible law-enforcement-related fund-raising organizations, plus the neighbor's phone bill. For the Alzheimer's tax, $2-3000 isn't much. Some people afflicted with Alzheimer's lose far more money than that, either by making mistakes or by being conned by unscrupulous contractors or people they know. In Mom's case, my best guess is that the wrong AT&T bill was mis-delivered by the Postal Carrier. Mom saw how much it was for but didn't comprehend that it was for a completely different person at a different address. Alzheimer's tax.... The lost $800 would cover only ten (10) days in Assisted Living. Assisted Living is expensive. It's just that with Alzheimer's, the alternatives to Assisted Living tend to be even more expensive.

In an ironic footnote to this misadventure, you might note the (sporadic) insistence from AT&T's Customer Service representatives on Giving Out Account Information Only to Someone Authorized. It sounds like something resembling customer service—protecting the customer's information as a service to the customer. Ah, but if you Google "AT&T privacy warrantless" you can read all about AT&T giving customers' communications records to the National Security Agency. Caveat citizen.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Lone Star Sleuths

Live in Texas? Not got any big plans for this coming Saturday? Then why not head over to sunny San Marcos for the Lone Star Sleuths shindig?
The Wittliff Collections at the Alkek Library, Texas State University-San Marcos, will host an afternoon celebrating Lone Star Sleuths, the new Texas crime fiction anthology in the Southwestern Writers Collection Book Series with the University of Texas Press on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 2-5 p.m.

Fifteen of the contributing mystery writers and the three editors—Bill Cunningham, Steven L. Davis, and Rollo K. Newsom—will talk with guests and sign books. Jesse Sublett and Kasey Lansdale will perform acoustic noir songs.

Scheduled authors include: Susan Wittig Albert, Neal Barrett, Jr., Paula Boyd, Susan Rogers Cooper, Bill Crider, A.W. Gray, Rolando Hinojosa, Joe R. Lansdale, David Lindsey, Ben Rehder, Rick Riordan, Jim Sanderson, Jesse Sublett, Doug J. Swanson, and Mary Willis Walker. Several of these authors have archives housed at the Southwestern Writers Collection, including Lansdale, Riordan, Sublett, and Wittig Albert, who co-edited the recent SWWC anthology What Wildness Is This.

There's at least three authors in that list above who readers of this blog should be well acquainted with--Joe R. Lansdale, Bill Crider and Neal Barrett, Jr.. I suspect it's a violation of zoning laws to bring those three malcontents together in a confined space, but whatcha gonna do?

The real reason to attend isn't to meet any of those high-falutin' literary types, though. Those in the know are going to turn out to see Kasey Lansdale (yeah, that'd be Joe's little girl, all growed up) perform for the gathered throng. If you've never had the pleasure of hearing her sing, it's best described as Janis Joplin meets Patsy Cline. No foolin' here--the girl is good.

Oh, I plan to be lurking around the event as well, but don't let that deter you.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Ruby Slippers

Exclusive: Dallas County DA's office finds cache of JFK memorabilia

By JENNIFER EMILY / The Dallas Morning News

The Dallas County district attorney's office has unearthed a treasure trove of memorabilia from the aftermath of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in an old safe on the 10th floor of the courthouse.

It includes personal letters to and from former District Attorney Henry Wade, a gun holster, official records from the Jack Ruby trial, letters to Ruby and clothing that probably belonged to him and Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, said Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins.

And conspiracy theorists will rejoice over one find: a highly suspect transcript of a conversation between Ruby and Oswald plotting to kill the president because the mafia wanted to "get rid of" his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.


The purported Oswald-Ruby conversation took place on Oct. 4, 1963, at Ruby's Carousel Club on Commerce Street. It reads like every conspiracy theorist's dream of a smoking gun that ties the men to a plot to kill Kennedy.

Part of the two-page transcript reads:

Lee: You said the boys in Chicago want to get rid of the Attorney General.

Ruby: Yes, but it can't be done ... it would get the Feds into everything.

Lee: There is a way to get rid of him without killing him.

Ruby: How's that?

Lee: I can shoot his brother.


Ruby: But that wouldn't be patriotic.

Lee: What's the difference between shooting the Governor and in shooting the President?

Ruby: It would get the FBI into it.

Lee: I can still do it, all I need is my rifle and a tall building; but it will take time, maybe six months to find the right place; but I'll have to have some money to live on while I do the planning."

Later, Ruby warns Oswald that the mafia will ask Ruby to kill him if he's caught.

Gary Mack, curator of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, laughed when told of the transcript. He has not seen it or any of the other documents found in the safe.

Monday, February 18, 2008



The hand stroked Parric's head, passing through his antennae as if they had no substance.

"It is not necessary to be touching."

"Sorry. Sort of a reflex action there," Knowicent said, pulling back her avatar's hand. Her eyes glowed intensely blue. Faint circuitry traced the contours of her sleek, angular face. Two oblong lobes jutted out from the nape of her neckbase of her skull, with thousands of glowing hair-thin optic cables looping from them to her skull. "But what do you expect? I've never seen you in this condition before."

"Don't concerning yourself with my condition," Parric said, maintaining his trancelike state. "My healings will be swift."

Knowicent pursed her lips and arched her brow. "Let me rephrase that. I've never seen a Crafter of Onimik in this condition before. Come to think of it, I've never even heard of--"

"I'm understanding you the first time," Parric said.

"So then, are you going to tell me what did this to you or are you just wasting my time?"

"No. I'm needing your telling me what did this."

"You don't already know? Well, this is something." Knowicent's eyes lit up as she settled cross-legged in front of Parric. "Animal, vegetable or diety?"

"I'm suspecting it is a constructing," Parric said, describing the otherwhereian to her. "It is not feeling right to me. Entropy is clinging to it, as it were old and exhausting of all energy. But as you're seeing, it's not exhausting of anything. It's openings and closings of gaps don't match with limits of its thinkings."

Knowicent thought for a moment, her optic cables flickering many colors. "The moironteau matches the general form of your creature from a cosm in the 2.86443 negative variant range. But it doesn't have these 'footheads' you describe. It actually expells its stomach through the ventral side of its abdomen to envelop its prey. Lots of acid. Very nasty. And it's a chlorine breather. Was this one you fought breathing clorine?"

"Not that I am noticing."

Knowicent thought for a moment. "It's connected with this Flavius business, isn't it?"

"It is doing the killings."

"Then I'd agree with you that it's a construct--a very specific one at that." She ticked off her fingers. "Limited intelligence that's just enough to carry out the mission and associated variables. Physically powerful--overkill really, considering the target. The design... shit. The design's just insane. There's no long-term viability built into it. Whoever put this thing together wanted to make it as intimidating as possible and cost wasn't a consideration."

"It is very full of intimidatings."

"The design is a message. A blunt-force message, but that's not key. Practically anybody can build a musclebound bulk, almost. You build muscle, then send it through the Nexus using a carrier of some sort. It's quicker that way. Easier. Cleaner. But not this one. They build gap control into this one, and extended its physical presence into at least five dimensions so it could do that climbing trick. That blocking of your gap thing--"


"Wedging. Yeah. That's unique to you. To Crafters. I mean, I've got dozens of tacts on file someone could use to block the most common methods of gap access," Knowicent cocked her head to the side, "but none of those would work against you. Parric, you were anticipated. Killing Flavius may be this otherwhereian's primary task, but knocking you off has to be a close second."

"Then why am I still alive?"

"You Crafters are a mysterious sort." Knowicent shrugged. "My files on you are sparse, to say the least. Maybe this otherwhereian was somebody's best guess that wasn't quite good enough. You're just stronger than they anticipated."

For the first time, Parric moved, dipping his head as if burdened by guilt. "No," he said, barely audible. "I'm being weaker."

"Did you say something?"

Parric shook his head. "I'm needing more than that. Who is creating it? Who is sending it?"

"Parric, I can't tell you what I don't know. I do know that whoever it is has extensive knowledge of Flavius and yourself. They've got tremendous resources at their disposal. If they did patten this assasin after a moironteau--and I'm fairly convinced they did--you have to anticipate that they've got a data base nearly as extensive as mine to draw from. The moironteau's cosm is obscure, even for the chlorine zones."

"But you are not knowing who this might be."

"Specific names? No, I have no idea. But I know you've made more than a few enemies in the time I've known you. Make a list of the worst, and start there."

"Great," Parric said, sarcasm heavy in his voice. "Just what I'm needing."

"So. When are you going after Flavius again?"

Parric didn't answer. Silence fell between them. Knowicent sat patiently, concern creeping across her face.

"There'll be more, you know," she said at last. "That one you fought, whether it's dead or not, it's not a one-off. Wherever it came from, you have to expect there's more to come."


Further evidence the GWOT has jumped the shark

Coming soon, the ultimate stoner sequel: "Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay."

"North Korea and Al Qaeda, working together. This is bigger than I thought."

Yes, it apparently involves, inter alia, the dudes accidentally parachuting through the roof of the Crawford ranch and getting baked with W.

I love my country.

For a more sober explication, see this morning's NYT on Gitmo in popular culture.

Sunday Morning Psychogeography

Out for a Sunday morning stroll yesterday with the boy and his dog, Mothra the Rocky Mountain Skank Hound (a fierce puppy farm experiement gone wrong involving Chihuahua and pseudo-Jack Russell Terrier), we encountered this outstanding improvised human shelter in the interstitial woods between a freeway cloverleaf and the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks, also used by the Amtrak passenger trains that pass through here. I was particularly keen on the talismans over the entry: a picture of Santa Claus with kid and a plastic lightsaber hung from the luminescent blue strand strung across the entrance in a zig-zag like the fibers of some magical force field. What a perfect real-world variation on The Fisher King: the last Jedi is exiled in Texas, fighting the imperial phantoms that swim out from under the freeway at night. I shall return soon to begin my training.

A bit further along, we came across this beautifully damaged double-barreled gumball machine, incongruously installed at the edge of the train tracks. We were afraid that if we inserted a quarter, we would be transported to some grim dystopian Narnia.

Five minutes later or so, a pretty big coyote crossed the tracks fifty yards ahead of us, then walked on up toward Fifth Street. I was too astonished to think to get a picture. Perhaps he was headed to Whole Foods.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Parnassus endures?

I make no secret of the fact that Terry Gilliam is my favorite director, and that this damn curse hanging over him and his film projects has reached a despicable low with the untimely death of Heath Ledger. The fate of Gilliam's current project--and Ledger's last film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus has been in doubt since a month of filming in London had already been completed. Now, via Ain't It Cool (a site which actually used to be cool, before it became star struck and self-important) comes word that the film will go on, with Ledger's role being played by three--count 'em, three--additional actors:
We’ve heard rumors about who might be stepping in, but now we’ve got the names verified. Count on it.




I'm actually kinda surprised Brad Pitt isn't in the mix, since he gave what's been--by far--the best performance of his career in Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. Depp's not much of a surprise since he's reportedly been wanting to work with Gilliam again since the ill-fated demise of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (see Gilliam curse, above). Farrell and Law are both unexpected, but interesting, additions.

How is this going to work, you ask? Three additional actors playing Ledger's character doesn't seem possible, unless you do something odd like they did with I'm Not There, in which different actresses and actors played Bob Dylan through different phases of his life. Fortunately, this is a Gilliam movie we're talking about. Reportedly in the film, Ledger's character falls through a magic mirror/portal at various points, and different aspects of his personality are emphasized each time. Hence, different actors will represent these different aspects of character. It sounds kinda cool, actually. I hesitate to say it will be a better movie because of the change, but it will most certainly be a higher-profile movie because of these alterations and additions. Gilliam's in desperate need of a hit on the order of 12 Monkeys to ensure that he's able to keep making his wonderful films, and Ledger is in need of a fitting capstone to his too-short career. Hopefully, this will be both.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Dr. Benway and the Twentieth Century stake-out

One of the problems with my TV-weaned brain is that it recalls each television and film actor as the characters they played. Not a sum of individual performances, but as if it were all one continuous performance -- and all one part. The actors exist, one presumes, as actual human beings -- many, one suspects, as the sorts of shady almost-criminals Raymond Chandler saw in pre-WWII Hollywood. But their actual mundane existence is irrelevant (except insofar as it fuels the tabloid culture meta-narrative). What matters is the flickering blue screen shadow world of our consciousness, where narrative threads unintended by the chorus of creators unfold, each actor's electronic ghost imprinted on his or her own individual neuron, all of the lines and scenes and subtle glances aggregated into über-characters.

The death of Roy Scheider earlier this week is what got me thinking about this phenomenon. One of those second- or third-tier actors who manifested a certain potent ubiquity from the years of Nixon through the grey twilight of Bush the Elder. An imaginary man of action serving as a guide to the secret conflicts going on just offstage of our reality, from the 70s New York detective of The French Connection and The Seven-Ups to the Cold Warrior of Marathon Man and The Russia House to the existential distillation of it all in Friedkin's underrated Sorcerer. Always a master of dirty tricks. A cathode ray Charon, adapted for television by Mickey Spillane. An indelible part of the undocumented pantheon, at least for those of a certain age. Which is why, for Cronenberg, he was the perfect choice for Dr. Benway in Naked Lunch.

There was a time when this half-baked theory was of such prominence in my mind, I even tried to give it narrative articulation in a bit of channel-surfing Lovecraftian pastiche. Ah, youth:

I first noticed the absence of true characters during a night of delirious television viewing. It was a Thursday, I think, and I was in that cranial limbo where one is unable to sleep but too numb to think. So, like so many other nights, I lurched toward dawn cruising the channels on the fourteen-hundred dollar Blaupunkt “Weltmeister” I had rented to own.

The remote control for the thing is so huge you can barely use it with one hand. By 10 p.m. I was too lazy to reach over and pick it up, and I ended up watching the same channel for several hours. It was Channel 74.

The 10:30 movie on Channel 74 was "Saturn Sign," a weirdly impressionistic science fiction B from the early 1950s. Dick Bonham plays an architect who learns that the eccentric scientist for whom he is engineering an uncomfortably modern house outside Central City is sending and receiving strange radio messages to and from the ringed planet in preparation for an invasion. Janet Sargent plays the woman caught in the middle. Perhaps because of the brainy appearance his high forehead creates, Michael Reynold was selected to play the scientist. A satisfying picture, albeit with a rather strange ending in which the scientist villain fades into obscurity rather than being defeated in a dramatic and sudden fashion.

Following the film at 12:30 a.m. was a selection of syndicated situation comedies. The second was "Buster's Way," a forgotten single season program from 1963 concerning an aloof bachelor father raising three school-age boys. The father, oddly enough, was played by "Saturn"'s scientist Michael Reynold.

That evening's episode concerned the efforts of "Buster," the youngest and most mischievous of the boys, to procure a monkey as a pet. Early in the program, Buster visits his father in the elder's study. Michael Reynold as Mr. Johnson sits sternly behind his desk, smoking his pipe as he listens to Buster's plea for permission. The actor Reynold forces a smile, but an absence of pity or affection for the boy is apparent.

As the brief scene was about to end, I noticed some odd details in the scene. Mr. Johnson's book-lined study contained some unlikely arcana, particularly for a suburban father of the early '60s. An elaborate radio set sat prominently in the middle of the bookshelf, with numerous dials and exposed tubes but no apparent station indicator dial. Rather than a conventional globe, Mr. Johnson had a sphere featuring the cosmos in their relation to Earth. Similar star charts adorned the walls, along with a series of photographs of alien-looking cave paintings from Northern Africa. Cryptic plans full of arching, intersecting lines drawn in pencil were arrayed on the desk in front of Mr. Johnson. A quick look revealed the books on the shelves were mostly foreign titles, including a set of old, thick tomes in German near the radio -- Energiekraft, Atomartigewissenschaft und Verbindung Zwischenraum des Interwelters by von Kesseldorf.

It was as if the character of Mr. Johnson and the scientist of "Saturn Sign" were the same. My suspicion was furthered by a later scene, near the conclusion, where Buster finds his father in the basement working on electronic gear. To enable closer study of the phenomena, I taped the program the next night.

There could be no doubt, I concluded after scrutinizing Friday's episode. Thirteen minutes and twenty-three seconds into the program, Buster and his pal Whitey, who have snuck out after midnight on an evening when Whitey is sleeping over, tumble through the unlatched skylight into Mr. Johnson's attic study. As the scene cuts from the roof, with the boys trying to sneak back in, to the interior, with the boys crashing to the floor in a pile of dust, we glimpse 2.32 seconds of Mr. Johnson at work. It is very unsettling.

The frame-by-frame function on my video cassette recorder allowed me to review the brief images in meticulous detail, though the lighting is dim in the scene. Mr. Johnson sits before an elaborate radio transmitter, with a series of antenna lines hooked to the wall. Before him is a broadcast microphone, into which he is speaking. It is unclear precisely what he is saying -- except that it is clearly not a fragment of conversation in any known European language. Nor does it sound like an Asian tongue. Indeed, it barely sounds human, except perhaps to the extent it sounds like a human being speaking backwards.

This disturbing revelation brought me to watch more. Each evening on "Buster's Way," Michael Reynold as Mr. Johnson becomes increasingly aloof toward his children. It is obvious to any careful viewer that he finds the boys a distraction from his work; it is notable that he never actually leaves the house to go to a "job." With each episode, we see less and less of him, and when we do, he is emerging from or entering his study, often disheveled and unshaven. His inattention has a degenerative effect on the boys. They get into trouble more often, and the oldest, Robert, takes up drinking and consorting with the wrong crowd at school. By the final episode, Mr. Johnson has disappeared completely and Buster has lost his magical smile.

Ok, so maybe not.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Interviewing Flavius MacDuff

How about a show of hands of everyone here following my serialized story, MEMORY. Let's see... one, two, three-- Hmm. Not as many as I'd hoped. Huh. Well, for any of you who are interested in such things, I've just published an interview with the initial protagonist in the story, Flavius MacDuff, over on my own blog. It didn't quite turn out as I'd expected.

Monday, February 11, 2008



Parric flicked his antennae about, seeking sanctuary from the coarse, abrading gale of the Nexus. And the heat. The relentless heat.

His ribs throbbed. The pain in his wing had subsided into a dull ache, punctuated by sharp, stabbing agony every time his flight necessitated a change in direction. With the rush of battle now past, his body was giving out.

Thankfully, Parric soon felt the familiar texture of the Cosm he sought. With practiced ease he crafted a Wedging--a very small one this time, as this particular Cosm demanded no more--and slipped through the gap.

Parric emerged amidst a blaze of light and a cacophony of a hundred different voices. People pushed past him, some human, some almost-human and others far stranger. Some dressed themselves in brilliant, flamboyant colors, some in dull, simple clothes. A few strode through the crowd naked, adorned only with paint, tattoos or jewelry. All of them gave Parric a wide berth.

Parric recognized the place instantly: the westmarkt plaza of Tradefare's Digue district. He started to sigh, then thought better of it when his ribs protested. It was farther than he'd intended, but it could've been worse given the circumstances.

He reached into a pouch and pulled out two shimmering, translucent Potentials. He weighed them thoughtfully in his claws, then pressed them together, bleeding a fraction of the smaller one off into the larger. Then he inserted the smaller of the coins into the slot of a slender, fluted metallic post before him. Gap toll paid, he slithered off the circular tile mosaic that indicated an anchored Nexial Gap and joined the crush of bodies. Lights suspended a hundred yards above the plaza blazed in a grid pattern, blotting out the stars above and obliterating any hint that night had fallen. Night never really fell on Tradefare--the economy kept it at bay.

To Parric's left, a great black dirigible came through one of the reenforced industrial gaps, the moans of the stressed ship echoing across the plaza. A procurement detachment from one of the war-torn Dark Cosms, Parric guessed, always in search of new types of exotic weaponry.

To his right, the crowd gave a gap anchor an even wider berth than usual as three very hairy, over-large figures attacked the toll post with venomous rage. Parric ignored them. Tradefare's laws were... flexible by most standards, but one rule was ironclad. If you’re not paying the tollings, you’re not getting in. The constabulary would arrive soon enough to deal with them.

He made his way through the sprawling lattice-roofed pavilions and past the high-fenced stock yards with bizarre creatures from a thousand different Cosms. No matter how exotic the creatures' origins, the vile reek of dung was one constant they all shared.

Eventually, gap anchors grew scarce. The crowds thinned and the open trade pavilions gave way to girdered business centers and eventually humble general merchants. Parric turned up a side street, then down a flight of well-worn steps to the lower door of a slope-faced stone building. The ruddy door opened automatically to admit Parric.

Cool, blue light illuminated the interior. A sponge-textured, ivory substance paneled the walls. Several garish fractal images adorned the walls, steadily changing their patterns in a slow-motion metamorphosis. Several low-stance chairs lined the sides of a slender table that stretched the length of the room.

In one chair reclined a grotesquely fat woman with a curly, copper shag of hair, dressed in robes of green and orange that clashed harshly with the blue light. Before her floated a translucent screen, stock quotes and other financial data scrolling rapidly past. Instead of a mouth, she had three elongated nostrils buried amid fleshy flaps of skin that hung from the wide bridge of her nose to down below her chin. With a three-fingered hand she held an ornate forked pipework to her nose. Upon seeing Parric, her green eyes widened and she exhaled a fine, silvery mist.

"Parric! Do you know what hour it is? No, wait. Do you know what day it is? I was expecting you back a week ago tomorrow," she said, rolling her body to the side to face him. "And where's Flavius?"

"Still being dead, Ien," Parric muttered, slithering past her.

"Still dead? I thought you had that taken care of?" Ien said.

"I am taking carings of that," Parric said, glowering at her. She raised an eyebrow, and Parric shrugged his good wings. "There are... complicatings."

"Complicatings. Huh. The Nexus is full of 'complicatings.'" Ien shook her head, then replaced the piping to her nostrils. "Well, when you do get Flavius sorted out, remind him that he still owes me the better part of five Potentials."

"I am sure Flavius will be having rememberings of this on his own."

"It won't hurt any if you remind him, will it?" She turned back to her stock data.

"Ien, I’m in needing of Knowcient," Parric said.

"I'll flag her first thing in the morning."

"I’m in needing of Knowicent now."

Ien waved her hand at Parric without turning from her screen, a gesture equal parts acknowledgment and dismissal.

Parric went down the hall to his room. It was just wide enough to spread his wings fully without touching the sides, and had a single window opposite the door. Books, scrolls and random parchment sheets filled the shelves, along with hundreds of curious artifacts, fossils and various other strange items both organic and non in row upon row of small cubbies crammed beneath the shelves. Gossamer shrouds of varying shades of green draped from the ceiling, conveying, after a fashion, the sense of an ethereal forest.

Parric shrugged off his belts and pouches, laying the claymore apart from his other equipment. He picked one waterskin from a rack and drank down its yellowish contents. He repeated this with two others, chasing the liquid with several sprigs of herbs selected from the cubbies. He then coiled himself in the middle of the room, atop a pallet of modest cushions. Gingerly he spread his injured wing, wincing at the electric jolt of pain this invited. His other wings folded comfortably against his sides. His antennae relaxed. His breathing slowed. Parric slipped into a meditative trance to help speed his body's healing.

He lay motionless for several minutes, occasional voices or vehicles passing outside the only sound.

A soft whistle abruptly broke the silence. The air immediately in front of Parric shimmered. A swirl of sparkling motes coalesced into a tall, spindly figure. It looked around the room, then reached down for Parric’s head.

Parric did not stir.


Friday, February 8, 2008

Stardust and Ashes

A few years ago on Ash Wednesday, I attended the evening service—complete with imposition of ashes—in my Episcopal church, drove back to my end of town, stopped by my neighborhood grocery store, and quickly realized that I wasn't the only person in the store with an ashy cross on my forehead. A smattering of other shoppers had it too. The really interesting thing was the reaction of people who didn't know what it meant. Judging by their alarmed glances, some of the shoppers suspected cultists in their midst. I heard one shopper, a bearded white guy in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and sandals, ask a clean-cut black grocery store clerk what the smudged foreheads were all about. Answer: they're from the Catholic church across the street because it's a Catholic holiday.

Well. Ash Wednesday is not exactly a holiday, but a holy day, yes. The ashes come from palm fronds that were carried in festive procession around the church the previous year on Palm Sunday. At one point in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the priest traces ash on each congregant's forehead in the form of a cross with the words, "Remember that you are dust and to dust you will return." Remember that you will die.

We are stardust, carbon and oxygen and all of the other atoms heavier than hydrogen and helium, atoms forged in giant stars that exploded as supernovas. To scattered atoms and molecules we will return; that's one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is what I've been seeing for the past year: a parent with Alzheimer's. The human brain is the most complex thing we know of in the universe. Alzheimer's unravels it. The strands of cognition, perception, judgment, memory, intelligence and reason are normally tightly woven together into a supple fabric of mind that we take for granted. With Alzheimer's the strands pull loose and tangle like torn fabric. Remember that you are made of unthinking matter and to unthinking matter you will return. Remember that it may be a slow, painful, humiliating return, too.


In early December of 2006, I got a phone call from my mother's best friend to tell me that my mother was in trouble. The next day I flew from my home in Houston back to Columbus Georgia, where I did most of my growing up and my mother still lives. As soon as I got there it was obvious that Mom was not the person I've always known, sometimes liked and sometimes disliked, and generally been able to predict. She was different, unpredictably and in a way that had to do with cognition. She'd gotten lost driving to a doctor's office that she'd been to many times before. Her cable TV setup wasn't working right because she'd forgotten how to work it. She couldn't keep track of the day of the week. Some of the things she said were repetitive and paranoid. She couldn't think of basic vocabulary words. The window air conditioner was "that machine." It all added up to senile dementia and I didn't know how in the name of Heaven or Hell to cope with it.

Like everybody, I've had a few difficult Christmases: the Christmas in college when I had major depression; the Christmas, when I was eleven years old, that my beloved grandmother died; and probably the Christmas after my parents divorced, though I was very young and don't consciously remember that one. Anyway, for me or anybody else Christmas can be a season of crisis. In that case, it's not the kind of Christmas we Americans love to love—it's not like the birth of healthy child into a happy family in prosperous circumstances. More like the first Christmas: the birth of a problematic child to displaced, isolated people in a cold, uncomfortable and uncertain situation. In the Christian telling of the tale, comfort and joy broke into very unhappy circumstances.

So it was for me in December of 2006. Before then I'd only vaguely heard about care-giving agencies. But in a file where for years I'd been stashing information about aging that I might need to know someday, I discovered a newspaper article I'd clipped from the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. The article was a nice write-up about the local office of a national care-giving agency called Comfort Keepers. So I called them. My call came out of the blue in the middle of a busy day and I was just a random caller. But from the other end of the line, Al Abbot promptly gave me a rundown about the typical progression of Alzheimer's. He knew where I was coming from and he knew the lay of the land in question. His sympathy and knowledge made a huge difference to me that day. It was the first break in the gloom of not knowing what to do for Mom and for myself.

A few days later I called back to ask for a visit from the Comfort Keepers care coordinator. That's the first step taken with a prospective client. I had to return to Houston soon, but the care coordinator, Carla Teagle, managed to make the visit while I was still in Columbus. Compassionate, astute, and adept at conversing with Alzheimer's people and their badly rattled family members, Carla came to my mother's house, where she talked to both of us and suggested one of their caregivers to work with Mom. It's like matchmaking. The care-giver and the client need good chemistry with each other. We set up a once-weekly visit with a caregiver named Mary Ann.

Mary Ann started helping my mother once a week for four hours, usually but not always on Tuesdays. As quickly as that, a huge thorny burden rolled off my shoulders. I'd been wondering how I could possibly orchestrate the many doctor visits my mother needed to rule out treatable conditions that could cause dementia. With Mom unable to drive and most of her elderly friends in the same boat, the logistical problems were more than I could handle from Houston. Mary Ann promptly, kindly and effectively took care of it. Comfort indeed! Mary Ann drove my mother to doctors' appointments and relayed back news of how the appointments went and when new appointments had been scheduled.

In due time, Mom's neurologist determined that her condition was Alzheimer's. He prescribed the drugs Aricept and Namenda. Note to anybody who needs to know: Alzheimer's medications don't cure the disease. With luck, though, they slow the progression of it. They buy you time.

Mary Ann helped Mom get her new prescriptions filled and refilled along with a several more ordinary medications that her primary care physician had her taking. Besides doctor visits and prescription refills, Mary Ann drove Mom around for routine errands. So Mom had a weekly outing, an opportunity to enjoy shopping for groceries for herself and her cat, and a meal away from the house. She also benefited from a reliable companion who could be calm and pleasant with her. Take my word for this: it's very, very hard for an adult child (or spouse) of somebody with Alzheimer's to be their amiable companion. You're stressed out. You remember what your loved one was like and you lose patience with what they are now. When you glimpse what they will become as the disease inexorably progresses, you're scared silly. They, however, still have the basic human needs as everyone else; they need companionship once in a while. Companionship simply means your loved one sharing a few tasks, a laugh or two and a meal with someone who isn't shaken to the core just by being in their company.

Mary Ann was wonderful. Al and Carla were there at the Comfort Keepers office number when I had questions. They saved the year 2007 for me.

2007 was the worst possible year for my life to be potentially derailed by my mother's needs. My first novel came out in July. I experienced the whole enormous emotional roller coaster of reviewing galley proofs, negotiating edits with the copy editor, and finally seeing my mind child birthed. Then I had to promote the book with press releases, book signings, interviews and appearances at science fiction conventions. I also committed to teach two new classes in creative writing through the Rice University School of Continuing Studies. How I could have kept my career afloat and taken care of my mother without Comfort Keepers I can not even imagine. A wise friend of mine commented, "The people in a business like that know they aren't just there to help your mother. They're there to help you too."

My mother was able to remain in her own house for nine more months after she started taking medications for Alzheimer's. She had time to visit with the dire truth and, I think, realize how compromised and unhappy her life was going to be if she continued to live in a house by herself. She couldn't drive. She couldn't go first thing in the morning to walk in the park, as she loved doing for two decades. She could no longer write checks with enough accuracy not to overpay by hundreds of dollars. She couldn't put things in the right places or find them where she'd put them. In the confusion of her frayed brain, she became convinced that a neighbor was regularly breaking into her house—to steal her ratty old broom or to exchange a folded blanket in her hall closet for another, less desirable, blanket.

My Columbus cousins came to the rescue in several little house-related crises, such as Mom forgetting how to operate the window air conditioner or the clothes dryer and the latter actually going kaput. Thanks to Comfort Keepers, with additional thanks to my cousins, modern pharmacology, Meals on Wheels, Mom's friends Mickey and George, and the feline companionship of her cat Jazz, Mom remained at home for a full year after Alzheimer's entered the picture. She managed not to have an injurious accident, or overdose herself on her medications, or misuse the stove or space heater and burn the house down. Meanwhile I had the freedom to take care of my book and the time to plan the next, momentous step for Mom: assisted living.

Note to anyone whose loved one has Alzheimer's: caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's is one of the harshest jobs in the world. Many people are just not cut out for it. I'm not. I turned out to be rather good at logistics, finances, and making solid and compassionate arrangements for my mother. But being her care-giver was completely out of the question. Me trying to care for my mother in Columbus, in Houston, or anywhere between here and the uttermost ends of the Earth, would have been a disaster. If your resources can conceivably stretch to cover it, employ care-givers to take part of your load. And do it before the situation overwhelms you. Care-giving agencies, not to mention assisted living, do look expensive compared to living in a home that one owns. But you're not comparing those alternatives to somebody able to get along in their own home. You're making a comparison to the terrible financial, emotional, and physical costs and risks of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer's. To our society's credit, and to the even greater credit of the fine professionals in the field of care for the sick and disabled elderly, there are alternatives that didn't exist a generation or two ago.

Early on, I visited an assisted living facility in Columbus called the Gardens at Calvary. I loved it at first sight. The locale (beside a wooded stream valley with trees and birds), the architecture (up to date but not objectionably modern, with elder-friendly details and lots of natural light) and the pleasant professionalism of the staff deeply moved me. The place actually struck me as rather like a motel in or near a national park. If you enjoy traveling to marvel at nature, you may have stayed at such a place, and you'll recognize what I mean. A lodging place that's not excessively fancy, but with all the amenities you really need; right near of a remarkable natural destination; staffed by employees who feel lucky to work there; and with people staying there who have much in common and are enjoying themselves. It may be hugely counterintuitive that an assisted living facility struck me that way, but this one did.

One important consideration was that Mom wanted to stay in Columbus. I felt sure that being in Columbus with the birds and the trees and the light and weather she's used to would be good for her, not to mention having friends, nieces and nephews nearby. Also, I admit, I emphatically did not want my mother in Houston with me. In March 2007, Mom visited the Gardens at Calvary. She liked it as much as I had. We even saw a bluebird in a tree in front of the building. The bluebird of happiness, perhaps? Her name went on the waiting list.

Three times last year, Mom's name came up on the waiting list. The first two times I was in the throes of book promotion, including a sequence of four science fiction conventions in three months. My cousins reported that Mom was still getting along fine in her house. Mary Ann and Carla concurred. The third time, just before Thanksgiving, felt like the charm. I took a deep shaky existential breath and put the wheels in motion. Note to anybody who needs to know: the best time for an Alzheimer's person to move is before they lose so much cognition that they can never adapt. Back in March, Mom's neurologist point-blank advised us to look at assisted living and make it happen within a year. And we did.

My Columbus cousins had helped Mom move into her house 30 years ago. In December of 2007, they moved her from her house to assisted living. Mary Ann came for several more weeks to provide continuity and help Mom with odds and ends she needed. In the future, if Mom ever needs one-on-one care for a few days, if, for example, she sprains an ankle or has the flu, I can call on Comfort Keepers again. That's another thing they do, and it can keep an assisted living resident from having to being dispatched to a nursing home to recover from a serious but temporary ailment. By Christmas, Mom was in residing in the Gardens at Calvary.

For the first Christmas in my life, I didn't get a Christmas present from her. That felt sad and deeply unsettling. On the other hand, I got what I wanted for Christmas: Mom comfortable, safe and happy in her new home.

My first impressions were on target. The Gardens at Calvary is a good place. It offers nourishing meals and a full slate of activities for body, mind and soul. Nursing staff give my mother her medications, which eliminates the dangers of over- or under-dosing. There's companionship for her too. The other residents include people with many degrees of functioning and non-functioning bodies and minds. When the time comes—which it will, unless physical health crises trump the brain's unraveling—the Gardens has a Greenhouse. That's a wonderful new concept in Alzheimer's care: having architecture and daily routines that evoke a private home rather than an institution.

The Gardens at Calvary, Greenhouse and all, is even a joyful place, as surprising as that may seem. I felt joy in visiting my mother in her new studio apartment, in her showing me the floors and the sunny back porch and the chapel on New Year's morning, in meeting some of her new friends, and in hearing her look forward to the birds in the springtime. (Joy also happens to be the apt name of the indefatigable activities director!)

Well-designed surroundings, wholesome daily routines, and humane, effective care are what all assisted living facilities aspire to, and from what I can tell, a fair number of them succeed. What's good, right, and joyful about the Gardens at Calvary goes even deeper. It's a ministry of Calvary Baptist Church. The staff of the Gardens includes a chaplain. What an excellent idea! The residents are highly likely to experience illnesses and the deaths of friends and relatives while their own death is not too far off. The residents' adult children experience the emotional turmoil of having a parent in advanced age with illness, debilitation and/or Alzheimer's. An assisted living facility is on a par with a battlefield or hospital as the natural habitat of a chaplain.

And then there's that first impression I had. The counterintuitive impression of a national park motel: not luxurious but with all the amenities you really need, very near a remarkable natural destination, with staff who feel lucky to work there, and people staying there who may not be staying for a really long time, but who have much in common and are enjoying themselves. That impression has stayed through the visits I made since the first. Yes, there's the whole human spectrum of health and sickness, good days and bad days, various moods and motives. And yet: this assisted living community truly does seem to be near—and aware of being near—a remarkable natural destination, like a Grand Canyon, not made of rock and water, but rather in the landscape of the spirit. The natural, grand, nearby destination is breathtakingly obvious. It's death—the kind of death that ends a long journey through life and enters the nearer presence of God.


After Mom moved to assisted living, I had to get her settled, empty her house, give away/sell/throw away/gift away innumerable belongings loaded with memories, and prepare to sell the house. There were misplaced bills to uncover and missing documents to look for. I had to find a home for Jazz the cat. I had to figure out what to do the childhood mementoes of mine and the family furniture that remained at her home. And clarify and arrange her finances to pay for her assisted living. And on and on. I had tremendous help from my Columbus cousins. Very happily for me, they are in the estate sale business. They are pros at handling all of this stuff! It wasn't easy, but the house got cleaned up, the junk thrown out, the valuable possessions sorted out. I did all of this in a blaze of emotion and energy, a physical and emotional tour de force from which I'm still feeling the aftereffects.

It felt quite different from clearing a house when someone had suddenly died or is suffering in a hospital or nursing home. My mother was in her new place and happy. I had work to do, but it wasn't agonizing. It was, however, intense. Part of the work I had to do was salvaging memories. Not for my mother, but for me. My mother has never been good at remembering things. Not the major milestones in my life, much less things important to me for other various reasons; not vacations and trips we took together, much less anything I ever did on my own. Or if she ever remembered she was never able articulate it. In that regard, I've been on my own for a long time. One of the areas of failed memory pertained to my maternal grandmother. She helped raise me for seven years, between my parents' divorce and her own death. She loved me—I know that—but I've always had a mystifyingly hard time remembering her. That may have to do with the divorce, which was botched and went even worse for me than it had to. If your earliest experiences of relationship and loss go badly wrong, subsequent ones are very likely to follow suit.

In cleaning my mother's house I found myself recalling my grandmother. There were things of hers still in the house. It was easier to remember her ways and habits in that house than elsewhere else, and for the first time ever, my mother was not around. I could remember in solitude. It helped that the Columbus cousins reminisced about our grandmother. I soon realized that with her having been the industrious woman she was, there was no better way to remember her—almost channel her—than by rolling up my sleeves and doing hard work that needed doing for the sake of love.

Just before Epiphany, my uncle died. The oldest sibling of Mom's, and the only remaining one, he was very elderly and in poor health, so his death came as no surprise. It was nonetheless a shock. Fortunately I was still Columbus. I broke the news to Mom in person the day we cousins got the word. On the way into the Gardens at Calvary, I mentioned it to the people in the front office, just in case they wondered about why she was suddenly withdrawn or forlorn.

Chaplain Vern materialized almost immediately. He talked with Mom about her brother, and then was she able first to cry and then to reminisce about him. Chaplain Vern is good at what he does, and what he does is good.

I drove Mom to the funeral in Troy, Alabama. This was probably the last trip my mother will ever make. It was a surprisingly good one for her. All the way over she recognized favorite landmarks—the Alabam two-lane-road scenery, downtown Union Springs, North Three Notch Road in Troy. At the funeral home, we met up with a lot of members of the extended family, including people I hadn't seen in decades. They showed a lot of love for my mother. The graveside service took place in the cemetery where my grandmother and many other family members are buried. All in all it was far more a healing occasion than a hurting one.

Afterward, we visited another of my cousins at his home outside of Troy. He lives in the onetime farm house that my mother and another uncle helped build for my grandmother in the 1940's. He's remodeled it but, to my great joy, in doing so he respected the original integrity of it. It was where I lived with my grandmother and my mother right after the divorce; it's the very first home I can consciously remember living in. A good feeling has always suffused my memory of it. That came of my grandmother, I think. She was a deeply loving, greatly generous, incredibly hardworking woman. A southern lady and a school teacher in her younger days, she loved playing the piano. She played sacred and secular music, Broadway tunes and church hymns until arthritis finally afflicted her fingers to much for her to play the piano any more.

The last thing I did at my mother's house in Columbus was something I haven't done in many, many years: play a few notes on my grandmother's piano, in my grandmother's memory. My cousins and I think we've found a good home for the piano. If not, we'll keep looking. We want it to make music and make people happy again.


For obvious reasons, Epiphany makes me think about stars. Not ordinary main-sequence stars, but stars that suddenly brighten and blaze— novas or supernovas. This particular year, all the way through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany, I was in a blaze of physical and emotional energy. After it was done—the assisted living wheels set in motion, finances lined up, the move to assisted living orchestrated, house cleaned, stuff given away, mementoes stored at my cousin's place, Mom settled in, cat transferred to a good home, uncle buried, Grandmother channeled, house in Columbus said goodbye too, house in Troy said hello to, and a thousand other problems and opportunities, most of them highly emotionally charged—I finally returned home to Houston. For the whole three weeks since then, I've felt like a pile of burned-out ashes.

How fitting, considering what day it is as I write this: Ash Wednesday.

One of the best things about traditional, liturgical Christianity is that parts of the church year consist of holy days that are not happy holidays. There are four weeks of Advent, the season of waiting and watching in darkness, even while the secular world prematurely revels in Christmas. There are forty days of Lent, and though stores trot pastel Easter-related merchandise, in traditional churches, it's most emphatically not Easter until after Lent. Also, every Friday in the church calendar echoes the Friday called Good.

There's something utterly true about Advent and Lent, Good Friday and Ash Wednesday. Some days are dark. Some seasons are times of desolation. Someday your life will end. And yet: ashes signify not only desolation but also renewal, not only sorrow but also the hope of joy, not only death, but also transformation.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Aquaman v. the Internet

Boing Boing and Beyond the Beyond are both reporting the story of the mysterious severance of four undersea telecom cables carrying Internet and voice traffic. Barring photographic evidence that the Sub-Mariner is cranky again, I am inclined to look to sabotage by other friends of Poseidon.

As John Jeremiah Sullivan brilliantly outlines in the February issue of GQ, our former friends in the animal kingdom have had enough and are starting to fight back in earnest. Not only cutting off our routers. As recapped in the Washington Post (unfortunately, GQ does not have the article available online):

'The animals are coming after us and they're out for blood!

'The birds of the air and the beasts of the field are sick and tired of being hunted, caged, neutered, beaten and eaten. They're mad as hell and they've begun to fight back. It's not just grizzlies and sharks who are ripping people to shreds these days. Elephants, stingrays, dolphins, beavers, chimps, even chickens and hermit crabs are on the attack!

'The whole horrific story is laid out in "Violence of the Lambs," John Jeremiah Sullivan's article in the February issue of GQ magazine about "the coming battle between man and beast."

'Sullivan interviewed Marcus Livengood, a zoologist who blows the whistle on the alarming worldwide increase in animals attacking humans: In India, leopards invaded Mumbai, killing 22 people! In Albania, a pack of 200 wild dogs rampaged through the town of Mamurras, attacking humans! In Sonoma County, Calif., chickens turned on local children! In North Carolina, hermit crabs besieged a jogger on a beachside boardwalk!

'The animals are fighting back against human encroachment, says Livengood: "We are a threat to the animals. They're just doing what nature designed them to do." '

The best thing about this story: it boldly mixes fact and fiction, in a manner only revealed at the end. Bold genius in this reader's view, managing to construct a beautiful if rickety three-legged stool straddling Nova, Fortean Times, and Leonard Nimoy's In Search Of. Check it out.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Lansdale, Mayhar headline Nebula Awards

Lansdale, Mayhar named Nebula Awards toastmaster, author emeritus

AUSTIN, Texas -- Home-grown Texas authors Joe R. Lansdale and Ardath Mayhar have been named Toastmaster and Author Emeritus, respecitvely, by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America for the 2008 Nebula Awards® Weekend April 25-27 in Austin, Texas.

The event will take place at the Omni Austin Hotel Downtown. The event will be hosted by the Austin Literary Arts Maintenance Organization (ALAMO), with the assistance of SFWA members Elizabeth Moon, John Moore and Lee Martindale.

Joe R. Lansdale of Nacogdoches, Texas, is widely regarded as one of the most thoroughly Texan authors writing today. The author and editor of more than two dozen novels, short story collections and anthologies, he has won a variety of awards in multiple fields including the Edgar award for The Bottoms, the Bram Stoker Award six times and the British Fantasy Award. In 2007 he was named Grandmaster by the World Horror Convention. He has also written westerns, comics, dark suspense, humorous pieces and gonzo fiction that can only be described as “Lansdale-esque.” In addition to his writing, Lansdale is the founder and grandmaster of the martial arts system Shen Chuan and an inductee of the International Martial Arts Hall of Fame. His website can be found at

Ardath Mayhar of Nacogdoches, Texas, is widely known for her sweet, grandmotherly appearance which belies a quick wit and fast tongue. The author of 36 novels along with numerous short stories and poems, her publishing career began in 1979 with the philosophical fantasy How the Gods Wove in Kyrannon, and in 1982 she published Golden Dream: A Fuzzy Odyssey, a sequel to H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy. From there she published a wide variety of works including science fiction (The World Ends in Hickory Hollow), fantasy (Exile on Vlahil), westerns (under the pseudonym Frank Cannon), a mountain man series (under the pseudonym John Kildeer), horror (The Wall), folklore (Slewfoot Sally and the Flying Mule) and contemporary fiction (Medicine Walk). She also served on the Writers Digest instructional staff, passing her knowledge and critical eye on to younger writers. Her website can be found at

The Nebula Awards® are voted on, and presented by, active members of SFWA. Lloyd Biggle, Jr., the first SFWA secretary-treasurer, originally proposed in 1965 that the organization publish an annual anthology of the best stories of the year. This notion, according to Damon Knight in his introduction to Nebula Award Stories: 1965 (Doubleday, 1966) “rapidly grew into an annual ballot of SFWA’s members to choose the best stories, and an annual awards banquet.”

Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award. An anthology including the winning pieces of short fiction and several runners-up is also published every year. The Nebula Awards® banquet, which takes place each spring, is attended by many writers and editors and is preceded by meetings and panel discussions.

About SFWA

Founded in 1965 by the late Damon Knight, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America brings together the most successful and daring writers of speculative fiction throughout the world.

Since its inception, SFWA® has grown in numbers and influence until it is now widely recognized as one of the most effective non-profit writers' organizations in existence, boasting a membership of approximately 1,500 science fiction and fantasy writers as well as artists, editors and allied professionals. Each year the organization presents the prestigious Nebula Awards® for the year’s best literary and dramatic works of speculative fiction.

Monday, February 4, 2008



The otherwhereian lifted two legheads to strike, not bothering to turn itself around. Just my luckings, Parric thought as he thrashed to right himself, omnidirectional threatenings. I wondering where its brains is keeping?

The mouths opened wide. The rings of teeth gnashing together.

The English cannon fired. Grapeshot. Point-blank range.

The otherwhereian felt that.

It charged the new threat. Ragged flaps of flesh dangled from three of the legheads, and thick yellow blood oozed from shrapnel wounds on its body. It was upon the gun crews in an instant, before the second rank of cannon could be brought to bear.

Parric righted himself, swatting away three over-enthusiastic English footmen charging him with fixed bayonets. He took a quick inventory of himself. Several small but bloody cuts and two, maybe three, broken ribs. Parric couldn't remember the last time he'd suffered broken bones. His left forewing was worse off. It hurt too much for him to tell if it was dislocated or something more serious.

Parric glanced back at the otherwhereian. The English artillery had been a welcome distraction, but they were suffering dearly now. The otherwhereian's attention would turn back to Parric at any moment.

Cringing from the pain, Parric pulled in the injured left forewing and held it fast with his right. Then he took off.

Parric flew slower using only one pair of wings, but he could manage. He knew right where to go this time, as well. The claymore lay right where he remembered, splattered with muck and blood but undamaged. Parric picked it up and gave it a cursory shake--just enough to get the worst of the filth off of it--then slid it into the sheath fastened across his back.

A large cannon tumbled through the air overhead, crushing a rank of footmen as it crashed to the ground. The otherwhereian was back again.

Parric launched himself into the air, not giving the legheads a chance to strike. The otherwhereian lumbered after him with staggering steps, no longer so spry as earlier.

Parric once again flicked his antennae about, searching for a Nexial gap. He'd recovered the sword. Time to going.

He sensed one to the right. He veered toward it, crafting a Wedging to open it enough to slip through--

The otherwhereian slammed it closed.

Parric pulled up, stunned.

Obviously, the otherwhereian could open Nexial gaps. He'd seen it arrive through one, after all.

But block them?

Parric flicked his antennae, searching for another Nexial gap. And there one was, high overhead, above even the smoke of battle. Up Parric flew, his wings a furious blur as he strained to reach the gap. Shots whistled past him as confused musketmen tried to draw a bead on Parric through flighting breaks in the smoke. Parric ignored them. The gap was nearly within reach. His antennae stretched toward it as he crafted a Wedging--

And the otherwhereian slammed it shut.

"Kraaak!" Parric screamed, his antennae going into spasms. He glared down at the otherwhereian, murder in his heart.

It was following him.

The otherwhereian wasn't flying. It couldn't--it had no wings. But it followed all the same. The eight footheads extended in turn and bit into the Cosm itself, using the extra-spatial dimensions as scaffolding to clamber after Parric.

"I'm having enough of this," Parric said. "If you're wanting surprisings, I'm giving you surprisings."

Parric thrust his Wedging into the Nexial gap. He pushed forward as hard as his wings could carry him. The otherwhereian's block held. Parric crafted another Wedging. And another. And another.

The space around Parric began twisting, distorting. Far below, the smoke and fire, the mud and the corpses took on a reddish hue, as did the brooding gray rain clouds above. The rain fell at Parric as blue streaks, weaving around him at the last moment before turning crimson for the rest of their journey earthward. The chaotic din of battle receded into the distance.

The otherwhereian fought its way closer, nearly indigo as it heaved itself along the tortured, spasming reality.

Parric crafted another Wedging, then abruptly flattened his antennae and folded his wings tight against his body. "Breakthroughing."

The otherwhereian's block shattered.

The Nexial gap ripped asunder.

The rending was felt more than heard, a resonant wrongness that lodged deep in the bones and refused to leave. Void replaced the overcast, brooding sky. A thousand fissured radiated outward as the earth and sky crumbled away, sucked through the void into the maelstrom beyond.

Parric felt the convulsions of the wounded Cosm, shielded himself from them as best he could. He fought back the rising guilt. He'd had no choice. It wasn't as if he'd punched through solid reality. A gap had already existed there, albeit a small one. The Cosm would heal. Eventually.

Through the expanding fissures Parric plunged, into the Nexus of All Realities. His breath spilled from his lungs into the throbbing inferno. A howling wind more debris than air buffeted him, and Parric spread his wings again to stabilize himself. In the center of the maelstrom spun the pulsing, hellish heart of the Nexus, the physical manifestation of infinite universes clashing against each other at this one, singular point beyond any reality. The disparate sensations of infinity and oppressive claustrophobia were immediate and overwhelming.

The otherwhereian tumbled past him, clawing frantically at dissolving shreds of reality. Even though it could move from Cosm to Cosm at will, it apparently didn't do so well when such moves were involuntary.

Just to be on the safe side, Parric reached out and crafted a Turning around a rogue boulder the size of a small town tumbling through the Nexus. It was ancient--the remnant of some long-ago Cosm rupture--and covered with decompositional frothing. The Turning only needed to nudge it a little to change its course. The boulder slammed into the tiny, flailing otherwhereian and then both were gone, lost in the blur of the Nexus. With luck, the decomposition might even take root in the beast and dispose of it once and for all.

Satisfied the otherwhereian posed no more immediate threat, Parric flicked his wings to put more distance between himself and the rupture. Already dozens of screaming soldiers were falling through the gap as it widened to consume both armies. Smoke and rain, half a dozen horses, the odd tree and lots of dirt and sod tumbled through as well.

Parric didn't want to be around when bedrock started spewing through the hole. And if the rupture grew deep enough to reach magma...

No matter. Parric was never returning to that Cosm again.