Monday, December 31, 2007

Review of Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, by Tom Robbins

So now I've come across both a Switters and a switters, a character (upper case) and a person(a) (lower case--I'll try not to put him at the beginning of a sentence--you can find him rarely here, and also more regularly on Fierce Invalids is a "books for buds" selection, and one of the more obvious choices. A student of chemistry may come across the German prefix zwitter at some point, signifying the embodiment of dual and opposing characteristics. Tom Robbins and switters both embrace this concept philosophically (though surely not biologically--that's enough semantics for today, kids), finding a middle ground between light and dark, purity and prurience, id and ego, animal and divine, and at the very center, where Apollo is bitching at that slob Dionysus over the racket of the incessant waves of yin pounding at the eternal shores of yang, they discover a profound silliness. Or is it enlightenment? Are you going to tell me there's a difference?

I don't want to tell you this is anything new. It's got to predate Hegel and Freud by three thousand years, the Manicheans (who doesn't love a heretic?) and those krazy koan kats by at least a couple millennia. We've had midworlds between heavens and hells for as long as people imagined elsewheres for gods, and there's no shortage of writers who like to play in that sandbox.* The humor is a newer angle, and Robbins takes it as what separates the modern from the primitive, what divides the enlightened from the subhuman tools who take shit too seriously. There are plenty of absurdist writers these days too, but Robbins does go a little beyond jokes as a defense mechanism or a social equalizer. (Still, an omnipotent god with a sense of humor is about the only way such a divine existence can be forgivingly supposed and, I think, is the soundbite explanation of the Jewish tradition of comedy.) Robbins' dichotomy as a writer is that he acts like he's discovering all of these things for the first time, but also that he reinvents them so very well.

It helps a lot that I buy into it. This is a great theme, and fun to explore. Along with a more interesting central character, it helped raise my enjoyment level of this one relative to the other Robbins book I read. Fierce Invalids allows the sequence between them to be more linear, which gives it a more coherent feel, which is another plus in this author's case. Robbins can paint a picture, and it's lot of fun how he gets you to think, but he doesn't really excel at big plot mechanics, and if Switters is a memorable character, it's a damn good thing we have all the opportunities we do to look into his head. His joie de vivre is infectious and all, but there's a fine line between the rejection of false moralities (quite well and good) and on creepy amorality. A couple of times Robbins has to work hard to reveal his characters to be not quite over this divide.

This book (and Jitterbug Perfume too) is broken down into a multitude of sections not more than a couple pages long. Each of these is like a miniature essay or vignette or story, varying slightly in tone from one to another, and it allows the author to chuck in more than the usual variety of philosophical speculations, character sketches, drama elements, and jokes and keep it looking natural. There's another balance that Robbins must hold with his humor, keeping it enlightening but not distracting, the playfulness looking genuine and not forced, and usually he steps right. The highly subdivided structure makes it easy to reject the couple of stinkers as outlying data points. I think it's great that this works for him. I imagine him coming to the keyboard for a few hours a day and cranking one or a couple of these inspired little pieces out (it really makes for a lot of gems), inching his whole story along that way. Keeping the prose flowing over a long stretch is very difficult, and breaking it frequently is one of those things that the pros can do, but you can't.

The ending of this one was a little abrupt, and left many conflicts unresolved. I hope there is more Switters out there--and more switters--to get at the truth that lies in the humor that lies in all the inherent contradictions. Some people get it.

* Sparked by a couple shared props in The Anubis Gates, I found myself frequently comparing Robbins to the delightful Tim Powers, who occupies similar balances of metaphysics, language, erudition, and humor. I think I give the edge to Powers, who holds back a little on the disruptively goofy elements, and who also celebrates himself a little less.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas at St. Christopher's: Wolfman's Story

[The frame story was written by Kevin Fournier]

The snow fell crooked on Christmas Eve, blowing this way and that into every available gap, every orifice and cranny, swirling about and refusing to settle. Every time the doors to the emergency ward slid open to let someone in, a cat’s worth of snow would leap into the entranceway and dance in the air a while, as though animated not by the wind, but some impish inner will.

The doors never slid open to let someone out. One man had tried to escape that way, earlier in the day, deciding after seven hours waiting that maybe it wasn’t really that infected. But when he got to within three feet of those doors, he slipped on a puddle of melted snow and came down hard, twisting his ankle as he did a frantic dance to stay upright, and bruising his tailbone as he hit the floor.

The doors slid open after he fell – not to let anyone in, except some wind and snow, but almost as if to mock him. He was a middle-aged, business-looking man in an expensive suit; even as he fell, he hadn’t let go of his briefcase. His name was Martin, he said, and he sounded something between wistful and resigned as he thanked the young man. Henry wondered, as he helped drag the man off to the side, what a money-looking guy like that was doing, coming to a hospital like this. Maybe – like Henry himself – he was new to the city, and hadn’t known better. Or maybe the only money he really had was in his suit, his haircut and his briefcase.

The businessman was obviously embarassed. When he’d announced his departure – the only words he’d spoken since his arrival – he had, in a fit of bravado, given away his little ticket. His eyes briefly met the eyes of the woman he’d given it to, and then slid hurriedly away again, his face turning almost as red as his infected thumb. Massively fat and vaguely moustached, the woman sat around a pile of Christmas shopping like a silent brood-hen, and glared down anyone who even thought of sitting near her with those bulbous, wide and yellow eyes.

“I’ll go grab you a new one,” said Henry, patting the businessman gently on the shoulder and smiling. He was just glad to have something to do, and help him stay awake. The taxi driver had told him, as he’d dropped him off at the entrance, “Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.” And Henry could swear he’d heard laughter as the man had pulled away – that had worried him more than the warning itself.

He threaded his way down the crowded hallway, up to the nurses’ station, almost tripping over a chubby, pasty little boy on a leash. The other end of the leash was tied to the leg of a gurney where an old man lay moaning periodically; but whether the boy actually belonged to the old man, or had just been left leashed there for convenience, Henry couldn’t tell. The boy, who looked about four, was trying unsuccessfully to untie the knot; the old man was using the flaps of his hospital gown to fan his left testicle, which was swollen to about the size of a butternut squash. Overhead, the fluorescent lights flickered and popped, adding no warmth to the cold winter corridors.

As Henry pulled a new ticket from the red plastic dispenser – B-23, it said – the frosted glass window of the nurses’ station slid angrily open, and a nurse with a ferrety, suspicious face looked out. “I know you,” she said. “You already took a ticket, hours ago.”

“It’s not for me,” said Henry, looking past her. Inside the room, he could see gold and silver tinsel, several open cartons of eggnog, and – just before the nurse slid the window hurriedly closed – what looked suspiciously like a nurse perched on the lap of a man in a Santa suit, fake beard dangling half-off, and either whispering in his ear or giving him a hickey.

“A-92,” came the woman’s voice, distorted over the intercom: “Now serving A-92.” The digital display above the frosted window, which had previously sat at “B-11,” flipped over accordingly. Henry wondered again, as he checked his crumpled stub, if they were pulling numbers at random or working some arcane system of triage.

Down the corridor to his right, over by the washrooms, there was an excited commotion and a round of applause as a man stood up, yelling, “Me! That’s me!” and waving his ticket in the air. He was a small, cherubic looking East-Indian man with a pair of oversized tortoiseshell glasses on his face and his big toe in a ziploc baggy, and he beamed happily as he limped carefully past everyone in that stretch of corridor, accepting people’s congratulations with a gracious, “Thank you! Thank you! Merry Christmas. Yes, you too – than you very much.” He even grabbed Henry’s hand and squeezed it happily as he passed him, causing Henry to wince in excruciating pain – the man had grabbed the hand with the pieces of glass still stuck in it. Luckily the little man was too caught up in his excitement to notice, Henry would’ve hated to spoil his moment.

The reinforced metal doors swung open just enough to let the one man through. He turned around in the entranceway, pumped his fist victoriously in the air, and started to yell, “Merry Chris—” when the burly hand of an orderly reached out through the doorway, clapped down on his shoulder, and yanked him through. The door closed and the lock turned with a click.

Wolfman's Story:

Henry looked at the source of the noise. It was a man, another patient, hunched down in a leather jacket, showing not much more than a mass of brown hair and denim knees. He massaged a deck of cards in his hands, Henry saw, caressing it back and forth over itself. One, two and then three cuts, he drew the top half from the bottom in a gentle pulling motion, a temporary string of cards trailing before they snapped neatly back into his right hand. Three times he flicked it under the left-hand stack, and after the cuts he fanned out half the deck in each hand, spread out for a moment like a bow of faded red bicycles, and then threw them into one another to shuffle. He did this repeatedly, unthinking. It wasn't until Henry got closer that he saw how impressive this feat actually was. The third finger of the man's left hand ended at the first knuckle in a bandage, crusty and brown where it was taped badly to his hand. The edges of the cards, he saw, had similar stains, and some fresher crimson ones as well.

"Jesus, what happened to you?"

"Divorce," he said.

"Usually they just take your money."

The man chuckled once in a quick burst, and not as bitterly as Henry might have expected. One corner of the shaggy fellow's mouth curled into a smirk, and he lifted his head an inch.

"Henry," Henry said, and held out his right hand for a moment, before remembering the painful squeeze of just a few minutes before. He put it down and jerked out his left even as he noted his new friend's similar incapacity. He put both his arms down awkwardly.

The other patient only began cutting and shuffling again. "You can call me Wolfman, I guess. Everyone else does." He cocked his chin to think for a moment, fingers and palms on automatic. "You lucky in love, Henry?"


"You want to find out?" He looked around. "We're going to be here awhile. I can tell you."

"I guess I--"

"Excellent!" Wolfman finally looked at him, right in the eyes, and grinned. Henry could see how he earned the nickname. His hair was pulled back, not very effectively, from his face in a fuzzy brown knot, and the rest of it trailed haphazardly down his wide back. Smiling, his face assumed a triangular shape, with a broad, tanned forehead and a narrow jaw that was filled with fierce white teeth. He was strikingly handsome, and a loose, unpredictable charm seemed to hang around him like a scent. Henry was glad he was smiling. His long-fingered hands sped up with their motions. "Say when."

"Um, okay. When."

Abruptly, he stopped, and flipped the top card off of the left pile with his first two fingers. He pointed his face up at the fluorescents like they were the moon, shoulders heaving. "Oh man." He whimpered a little.

"Hey! What card is it?"

Wolfman handed it to him. The jack of hearts.

"So I'm lucky in love? Hearts are love, right?"

Wolfman wiped the corner of his eye. "Shit man, let's think about this. You've got the eleven card, let's start there. Odd number, and prime. The kings and queens, they're special in their obvious way. And yeah, the jacks are the lovable assholes of the gang, and they get some tail for sure, but that's not what we're saying here, we've got that one little guy, all alone. The prick." He looked at Henry knowingly. "The jack."

Henry sat down next to Wolfman in the next vinyl chair. "Long, lonely night, I take it." Henry thought of the nurses' party, and imagined he could hear the giggling all the way from here. He held up his own bleeding appendage. "And I'm not even left-handed."

Wolfman patted his shoulder. "Could be worse."

Some of the other patients were murmuring on the other side of the room. Henry saw that Walter had joined the group past him, and all of them were following their conversation from afar.

Henry blushed, but Wolfman grew expansive. He reached with his good hand into the inside pocket of his leather jacket, and pulled out a bottle of schnapps. He held both arms wide, as if expecting a hug. "Gonna be a long lonely night for all of us, looks like. You all want to hear about 'lucky in love?'" He shook the bottle. It was full.
Henry reached for it. "I'll have a pull, um, so to speak. What the hell." Behind him, the other patients shuffled tentatively closer. The man with the swollen balls moaned somewhere behind, but Henry didn't look at him. He didn't want to think about where a lonely night would end up.

Wolfman was not, strictly speaking, playing with a full deck. He was no more insane than your typical carnie, mind you, no more poorly grounded than your everyday roadie, occupations which would dot his lengthy resume if he'd bother to write one. No, his psychological profile didn't contain anything more defective than a mild obsession and compulsion, which in Wolfman's case, added to his overall rough mystique. He had a habit (you couldn't really call it a nervous habit, but it fit that sort of role) of manipulating, shuffling and working a pack that he always kept unbound in one of his jacket pockets. He'd learned all the hand motions during a brief career as a con artist (quit because he found his spirit was too generous for fleecing rubes), and had evolved it into a sort of lifelong tarot cult. Some people prayed to the gods--Jesus and Santa, because hey, it was the season--for meaning and guidance, but Wolfman's patron spirits occupied the deck. In the hijinks between the kings and knaves, lucky sevens and trusting fours, passionate hearts and cold diamonds, he could learn a little about himself and the people he touched. Lithographed nudes rode velocipedes on their red backs, and their powers grew stronger as the deck was broken in. When they revealed themselves in a significant way, Wolfman would retire them, which was why he didn't usually have all fifty-two. Once they had their say they were done, at least for that round. (The bloodstained deck he was currently working through, had taken him through this story, and it had turned out to be particularly powerful.) Not a full deck at all.

The carnival had been a brief affair, as all the jobs were, embarked because he impressed the cast with his dexterity. He'd done some card tricks for a show on that gig, and sometimes, on the side, would read people with them. He had strict rules for his personal deck. Red bicycle cards for one, and he'd only read for the people who interested him, whose lives would in some way affect his own. (Henry beamed a little at this part.) This was somewhat annoying for the carnival management, but to Wolfman this was no con: he believed completely in his powers of discernment, and thought it was only through his own semi-divine patrons he could get a glimpse of others' lives. Usually he'd offer a few a night for a fee, and with the modest percentage the owners pried out of it, they didn't make too much complaint.

The difficulty in the situation was with the fortune-teller already in the carnival's employ. The woman was a complete fraud, as much Gypsy as the Pope, as much crone as a pop diva, with latex warts and a plastic crystal ball. But she had been something of a scholar of the cards, and for this reason he interested her. Did Wolfman know, she'd go on, that there were originally a great deal more trumps? Did he know their significance? How coins and cups turned to diamonds and hearts? How they reflected the Zodiac, the thousand formal rules for how they talked to each other? Wolfman knew precisely zero of this esoteric nonsense, and moreover, he thought it was the was the most abject bullshit. He was too honest to not share this opinion, and he had to admit, he got a rise from knocking her off her perch. Unlike the crusty trumps in that moldy box, Wolfman had gotten to know the souls of his own suits, the numina of his numbers. What did formal rules matter when you had that connection? He'd worked out his own system, using common knowledge, a rudimentary numerology, and gut instinct, but unlike hers, it worked. What did an education have on that?

Their discussions got more heated and more frequent, and, perhaps inevitably, the rows gave way to violent passions. It should probably be noted that the fortune teller was married to the owner's brother. Lucky in love. Wolfman's career in the carnival business lasted about six months. On the day he ran, she tried to read him a fraudulent fortune. "Stay," she pleaded, practically moaning at him. That evening he turned over two cards of his own: the three of spades--a violent plot was starting to gel (spades as violence, as swords, he'd gotten on his own, and he took three to signify conspiracy)--and the ten of clubs--the card he'd come to associate with his own identity (great symmetry, easily underestimated, and he liked the black shamrocks for his brand of backhanded luck). It was time to go, and he did.

(But what happened to the finger, someone asked. What about those bloody Christmas cards? Pass that bottle.)

You could call this one a Christmas story. Start dates are as arbitrary as anything else in the constant rhythm of reshuffling and captured tricks and bad hands that life deals and deals again. There's a sort of universality to Christmas though, even to unbelievers, as the season descends down in late November. Probably it had something to do with the weather in these parts, the cold chasing the last wisps of an urban autumn away about then, but more likely it was because it's the only time of year that was really celebrated in the public square. Lights invade every staid storefront, garlands hang from lamp posts, seedy men dolefully ring bells on street corners, one bender away from being the very drunken bum that your nickel purports to save.

Christmas wasn't the beginning of his tale, but that's when it all started to wrap up. He'd been shacked up with Gwendolyn for the better part of a year by then, and was feeling pressure to find a way out. That she had him gift-shopping showed a particular disregard for his character, and he looked at every intersection as a freeway elsewhere, even if a Canadian winter was a less than ideal setting for flight, and too, there were certain attachments.

He'd come to associate this lover with the queen of spades. It wasn't any ethnic slur, but that character was cold, judgemental, and imperious, the card as much as the person. The deck's royal families had their part to play in explaining the world of course, but few people captured regality as a personal signature. (Few people, Wolfman noted, really channeled the spirits of any of the cards for very long, borrowing them, at best, in context and for a time. It might be a long, lonely night, he told Henry, but he'd yet to meet anybody who had Jack riding his back for a lifetime.) She was tall and cold and lovely, with dark lidded eyes as languid and as dangerous as a jungle cat's, a rounded forehead of unblemished chocolate, a luscious plum-colored mouth, and nostrils that would flare or contract those rare times when emotion gripped her (or those less rare times when passion did). She favored heels, red, black and white clothing, and furs, looking like some alternate-universe Cruella De Vil. She dressed precisely, and unlike many people, she wore her attire, mastered it. The clothes succumbed to her will as much as people did. Even naked, she wore her skin exactly as she wanted. She regularly gave Wolfman cash, but he didn't quite understand what she did for a living. Even after he'd moved in, seen all the trappings of professionalism, and uncovered some hints (a bit late, as it turned out), she tried to keep him apart from any aspect of her daytime self.

Back when she was beginning to show some real interest in him (he was, after all, lucky in love), he let himself turn over an ace of diamonds and an eight of clubs. The ace signified subsistence, not altogether a bad thing, but the eight was interesting. An eight is an infinity turned ninety degrees--he'd be eating for a while, it looked like, which at the time was exactly what he wanted--but more than that the twisty eight of clubs meant complication, depth, structure and the aforementioned prickly luck. The eight of clubs signified a story, which was by its very nature irresistable. (He winked at the patients in the corridor.) He would see where this one would take him.

There was a third hand in play here as well, a sad but mostly unpredictable little third, loyal as beaten cub, and, paradoxically, as independent as a panther. She had a great deal to do with why Wolfman did anything as undignified as braving the domesticated holiday shopping crowd, and why, despite the growing dissatisfaction with his current 'employment,' he had yet to walk. Lupe spent most of her time boarded away in the States, toiling in a miserable succession of private schools for the gifted, for the truant, for the difficult, for the criminal. Gwendolyn would surely have kept the child away from her pet if she could have helped it, but she'd shown up one afternoon early in the relationship, and unlike Gwendolyn's hypothetical coworkers, business associates, or clients, her niece Lupe had the household dialed in as home base.

It was early in the relationship, and Wolfman was still forbidden from visiting when the queen was not at home. He preferred, however, to mark his own boundaries, and Gwendolyn had left a second-floor window unlocked, which was practically an invitation. He'd be sure not piss in the corners. At any rate, he was rummaging around the delicate knicknacks, pricey art, and immaculate fixtures, rattling door handles for search of a pantry. He heard some bottles clinking behind him, and turned, shoulders up and lips peeled back over his teeth.

A taunting voice came out of nowhere. 'Hungry?' it said.

Hell yes he was hungry.

'You don't look much like Aunt Gwen's usual sort of pet. Not tame enough. She must be getting bored."

Wolfman was shocked. 'Aunt Gwen?' It fit the mind about as well as Aunt Grendel or Uncle Vader. Empress Gwendolyn did not lend herself well to domestic informality.

'You don't look like you're robbing the place anyway.'

'I'm not. Well, not much. Where are you?'

Bottles again clicked behind him. He wheeled around to see a scruffy girl of about ten or eleven, decked out in sweats and pigtails. Her hair was as fuzzy by nature as his was by neglect, skin as dark by genetics as his was by the sun. She leaned a hip on the door frame, half predator and half prey, a beer in each hand.

'You're a little young for those,' he said. 'Much too young. I better take at least one.' He took both. 'Where's the fridge again? This place is huge.'

'Let me see your hand first,' she said. 'Other one.'

Wolfman held it out, the left. She grabbed it and twisted it about, looking the silver ring he was wearing, admiring it for some time. Finally she said, 'Cards and dogs, hey? She gave this to you. Pet.'

'Wolves,' he said. 'People call me Wolfman.'

'Yeah, and I'm Frankenstein.'

'Glad to meet you, Frankenstein.'

'Usually her pets are tamer.'

'You should stop calling me that.' He cracked the top on one of the bottles, looked around, and put the cap in his pocket.

Can I have a smoke?' She motioned to rectangular bulge in the pocket where he'd put the cap.

'Not even if these were cigarettes.' He pulled out the pack of Bicycles, and whipped them into a fluorish before returning them to their home. 'Cards,' he added unnecessarily.

'That explains the ring,' Lupe said, doing her best to sound unimpressed. Her voice got quieter, and less snappish. 'No cards on mine,' she held out her hand. A puppy fled a boot around her brown finger, bills and coins trailing from its guilty mouth. 'We're both pets.'

Wolfman asked if she was hungry, and together they ventured to the palace kitchen, a mass of stainless steel, gas, and gadgetry. Wolfman was impressed with the first two, although he found an egg cooker about as useless as a sandwich maker, and couldn't have told you which was which if he didn't read the labels. Wolfmen, he explained to Lupe, end up in food prep a lot more often than they end up as pets. He'd worked in the filthiest diners imaginable and in the finest restaurants, frying up pretty much the same slop, but one with wild boar instead of hamburger, one with truffle oil instead of ketchup. He yanked on the handle of Sub-Zero to reveal an arctic wasteland of empty shelves, the sterile and icy expanses dotted with a few lonely food debris. He pulled out some eggs and held them to the tip of his nose to inquisitively sniff them (Lupe laughed at this), and fished around for some onions (sprouting), some potatoes (likewise), rejected the fuzzy cold cuts, but explained to the girl how since cheese was moldy milk anyway, you could always cut off the green and eat it fine. Ever have a frittatta?

'Do you know how to play crazy eights?' she asked him as they waited for the eggs to set.

Wolfman laughed, 'I'd say I'm learning pretty fast.'

Gwendolyn found them perched around the kitchen counter about an hour later, giggling and flipping cards at each other (a borrowed deck, thank you very much, and perfectly safe), shouting to go fish and munching eggs. Her nostrils flared, in and out, for a good thirty seconds before she spoke. 'Back from school early, I see. Again. And answering the door. Please go to your room, I will call the adminstrators tomorrow.' Lupe gulped, and obeyed.

'She didn't answer--' Wolfman started, but Gwendolyn stilled him with an indrawn breath.

'As it happens, I am glad you are here. The shower is upstairs on the right. I will meet you there. Go.'

And so Wolfman added babysitter to his lengthy resume. Lupe came home every six to ten weeks for a week or so at a time, either for holiday or as some disciplinary action (she explained to Wolfman that she had a habit of telling her teachers exactly what she thought), and over the course of the year she had made a habit of sneaking away on weekends too, typically long ones, typically carefully engineered around whatever clues could be gleaned in advance about Gwendolyn's mysterious high-powered schedule. Lupe's school transactions were always done in cash, and the girl always managed to squirrel some for bus trips home.

Lupe's primary defense against authority was to outwit it, whether in a battle of trivia, or, more her style, in a showdown of sophistry. Wolfman was neither educated nor stupid (nor particularly authoritative), and he met Lupe's precocious banter with either sincere interest in the first case, or with a certain constitutional imperviousness in the second. He wasn't in the habit of elaborate thought, but, as has been mentioned, had a knack for calling bullshit, and in Lupe's case, although he enjoyed the hot-air balloon of quips, comebacks, and rationalizations that she could hoist, he had little difficulty deflating it when she got out of hand. On the other hand, he had a genuine curiousity about her endless supply of facts, and he liked a story as much as anyone, chuckling in appreciation at her tales of getting the best of her instructors. His interest in her intellectual world was so honest and childlike that Lupe found herself not unwilling to bamboozle him to the extent that she did her teachers and her aunt. Moreover, he would check the things that most piqued him, and took some enjoyment himself of making other people explain things, even when, especially when, he judged them to be dishonest. He did research for their conversations. Unlike line cook, online kook was a very rare occupation for Wolfmen, but he found himself digging into libraries (of all places!), and on Gwendolyn's home computer (without permission of course) for information from previous conversations, which would then start future ones. 'Did you know those Roman dudes didn't use stirrups on their horses?' 'How does carbon dioxide make the atmosphere warm?' 'What's insider trading, and what's the big deal about it?' When the school called Gwendolyn's household for the usual disciplinary reasons, Lupe always tried to arrange it when only Wolfman was in the house.

Gwendolyn at first resisted his guardian role, preferring to keep both her ward and her lover tightly compartmentalized, but given Lupe's unfortunate spontaneity, she soon found the convenience an unobtrusive, undocumented nanny irresistable. Just the same, the two usually conspired their weekends in advance, when Gwendolyn made it known with a few fifties that a paramour's services would not be required. (Usually he'd just grab a meal and stash the rest.) Lupe's eleventh birthday passed this way, evidently beneath the notice of the queen. Wolfman improvised (having no friends and having never had a birthday celebration himself). He pulled together some amusing trivia about the number eleven (he winked at Henry here), took her on a daylong romp among the autumn leaves in the park, and, at the end, they snuck back into the palace to deliver the elaborate cake he baked himself.

'Read me a fortune, Wolfman,' she said.

He shook his head. 'Fortune-telling's not where it's at. It only works like those stock market scams we were reading about, it only works because you already know a secret. So I don't tell fortunes.'

'Then what about--'

'Now, the cards are a little different. Not cheating at all, just a little thinking, and a lot of listening. Hell, life doesn't ever offer a lot of fortunes.' He looked around at the high ceilings, the art, the pristine floors and dust-free furniture. 'Not to most of us.'

'Who cares about money? What do the cards say about me?'

He looked so pained that Lupe thought he might whimper. 'I don't want to ask. This is nice.'

'It's my birthday.' She did her best puppy-dog impression, big brown eyes like needy oilslicks.

With a sigh, he pulled out the deck. 'Do you want to say when, Frankenstein?'

'When Frankenstein.'

'But I still haven't--'

'I said when.'

'I'll give you three then, one for each second you could contain yourself.' He flicked a trio of suits onto the table. He looked at them. Scratched vigorously at the side of his head.


'Hard to say. We got two fours, I think the pair means me and you are attached, but fours are so, well, square. They're all innocent and strong, especially when they're together--it could mean my good influence,' they both laughed, 'or it could mean the cops or something. Fours aren't always bad, but I never trust them.' He scratched his scalp again, shaking out some flakes. 'And that five of diamonds is spiky and explosive, like claws. Man, it's a time bomb.'

'Time bomb,' she said. 'That's just what I asked for for Christmas!'

(About damn time you worked that in, one of the patients grumbled. Shut up, said another, something's gonna happen. The man with the elephantine nuts moaned again.)

Wolfman wasn't shopping for a bomb, but he could feel the ticking all day. Strange enough that she sent him out at all, as his lover wasn't the festive type, and she had, just a month ago, forgotten the little girl's birthday. If she felt guilty, or even knew that she'd forgotten, she gave no sign. But the task to buy the a gift had come directly from Queen Gwendolyn herself, and his first-ever foray into mainstream consumer life had left him feeling small and confused. From the view of the street, he had always associated the holiday with quiet dignity, lonely lights reflecting off of frozen squares, churches at midnight, that sort of thing, but seeing it from within was a nightmare of avarice and conformity, a swirl of snarling, empty-headed housewives with their screaming snot-nosed broods, of paunchy citizens, tame men in badly fitting clothing. He'd never been so close to so many of these people. He wanted to bolt.

Her Highness had meanwhile found a way to grow colder in that last month. She had nearly inhaled him that morning for answering the telephone (he'd been expecting the girl), but he kept in the character (Que bueno. El telefono ya trabaja, senora.), ingrained with a distrust of authority all his own. Investigatory panel of the CSA? It was his plan to look that up with Lupe as soon as the lioness was gone, although, as it turned out, he didn't get the chance.

He quit the gift quest early. The closest he got was to nearly take the advice to steal a book (said so right there on the cover) which contained all of the sorts of subversion that Lupe loved, but he figured it was more valuable for the girl to discover on her own, and there was, in his hairy bowels, some glimmer of culpability in the thought. He couldn't bring himself to go the opposite moral route, certainly no books that might contain lessons, and jewelry and clothing and toys all seemed too ridiculously irrelevant for him to comprehend. He'd try to get the queen to let him keep the money, he thought, even if he couldn't think of anything to buy with it. What Lupe might actually enjoy was getting online with him and maybe the two of them could figure out what this CSA thing was and how it worked, if she didn't know already. So he didn't respect Gwendolyn's wishes to be back late. When she gave him money, it usually meant she was traveling anyway, and he habitually disregarded such suggestions. Which is one reason he didn't see the gun.

He made a line for the computer, and was surprised to see Gwendolyn already there. She was quiet, sitting like a sculpture of road ice, and he could hear the street sounds beyond her slow, deliberate, breathing. 'I have been looking at my files here, Wolfman' (danger! she never used his nickname), 'and they have all been accessed, going back months in some cases. My browser history shows searches for very damaging, very illegal, things. Have you been in looking here, or was it the girl?'

'Hey, it was both of us, but it's coo--'

'I wish you didn't.'

The background sounds were not random, Wolfman realized, they were sirens, dopplering themselves closer, getting louder. His stomach went cold as he pieced some very obvious things together. He pointed behind him, and started to speak. 'Hey, I didn't have anything to do with--'

Gwendolyn put her hand on the pistol and raised it. 'You two shouldn't have been in my computer,' she said. 'Nobody can know about this. I'm very sorry.'

Wolfman growled, affronted, and suddenly alarmed at another obvious connection. 'Where's Lupe, you bitch?' He raised his hands and dove at her. A shot cracked, and he felt a gobbet of blood splatter his forehead before he went out.


Wolfman was standing on the chair, making pistols with his fingers when the intercom interrupted with the announcement of C-24. He looked down hopefully at his tab. "Hey, I'll be damned, that's me!"

"Wait," said one of the patients. "You can't stop now. What happened next? Where's Lupe?"

"Lupe? She's fine. She's admitted," said Wolfman. "She dragged me out of there actually. I came to, and we were in a parked cab. The dude taped up my hand, but he would only drive us straight here. Wouldn't even take any money." He held up the lucky four-fingered paw. "She musta hit the ring."

He looked back at the door, and then continued, muttering. "Couldn't get out of town tonight anyway. They yanked Lupe through those doors--she barely had a scratch--and wouldn't let me follow. I tried to push right through after them, but they locked 'em somehow."

"Wait a minute, were you talking about Gwendolyn Pryce?" said a pale, middle-aged woman. "From the news?"

"She was in the news?"

Walter coughed. "Gwendolyn Pryce was busted laundering money for the mob this afternoon, pumping it through investment vehicles somehow. Big showdown. She's likely going away for a long time."

"How 'bout that?"

"What about the police?" said someone else. "Won't they question you?"

"Nah, you think I gave 'em our real names? Doctors are almost as bad as cops. Worse maybe, you saw those nurses. Creepy. Anyway," he added, fluorishing his deck a last time, "we're going to be fine, Lupe and me." He flipped a card out into the room, where it landed face down. "I never had a daughter of my own, not that I know of, but I've always been lucky in love."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pie blogging, by request

Apparently, my wife and I aren't the only fans of crystallized ginger. It's delicious in apple pie (which is what got us hooked), and another favorite place to use the stuff is chopped up fine in cream cheese icing (itself a miracle of culinary inspiration, one of those pieces of simple perfection), and spread on carrot cake.

I can't claim too much credit for this recipe, it came from a book, a gift from my not-quite-yet-then mother-in-law ten years ago, almost to the day. Evidently it won a blue ribbon by somebody named Wende. The original recipe calls for Granny Smith apples, which I'm pretty sure we've never tried in any of our yearly attempts. Our own experiments are mostly to find the right variety of forbidden fruit, preferring it a little less firm, a little more flavorful. Gravensteins have been the best-tasting so far, which are available for about one delicious August week, but resulting pie the comes out a little soupy when warm, even if it sets nicely when it cools.

Also, even if you can get away with sweet-ass bourbon when you're cooking with it, that doesn't work with fruity liquors. You'll be better off here getting decent apple brandy.


- about 5 cups of sliced apples, enough to fill the plate well high of the top
- juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 cup of brown sugar
- 4 oz. (or so, we usually guess up) of crystallized ginger, chopped fine
- 2 tablespoons of cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoons of cinnamon
- butter (it makes everything better)
- pie crust (if you're considering buying one, you're not allowed to use this recipe)

Do the usual. Toss all the ingredients (except the butter) together and dump 'em into the bottom crust. Dot the top with butter, then put the top crust on. Do an egg wash if you like it shiny. Bake at 375 °F for an hour, or until the juices are nice and bubbly. Cool and enjoy.

Primordial Soup

My wife has been taking anatomy classes this fall, getting me closer to embracing a fact that I've been secretly flirting with for a while now: the human body is just fucking disgusting. It's true that people, and mammals in general, are less unappealing than the rest of the biosphere by virtue of being occasionally warm, soft, and dry on the outside, but it doesn't change the fact that we're still each of us a nasty sack of salty meat, every body filled up with a squishy assortment of quivering globes and slimy pustules shooting humors and ichors at one another. It's not pleasant to think of animals like this, nor to think of ourselves as animals, but we eat other animals with abandon, slurping them up in liquid bites, sucking down their nerves and veins like spaghetti, invading them on the cellular level with enemy acids and enzymes, apoptosizing their fundamental components, bursting them in our foul gaping maws and slowly turning them into excrement in our own fetid and swollen guts. Milk is one of the most wholesome fluids we can name, right? But thinking about it, it's foul: secreted out of a cow's gland, just like bile or spit, it amounts to a network of microscopic loogies suspended in a chalky plasma, flocculating and floating, splotching onto the sides of the glass, sliding down like a viscous slimy plaque across our equally slimy tongues and lips. Ever drink it warm and fresh? Might as well be sucking down blood or pus.

Our macroscopic topologies are simpler than the scrambled-eggs confusion of the subsystems of organs and tubules would have one believe, with the "insides" and "outsides" defined more by elaborate folds of the same gelatinous sheets than by actual closed-in geometries. On the microscopic level, a bunch of spiderwebbed protein networks and sloshing lipid membranes twist and congeal to make the twelve dozen or so kinds of specialized amoebas that work together to comprise people, transferring information around by nothing more than electrochemical diffusion and redox chemistry. True, a cell has the decency to be walled off and isolated by a little sheet of organized fat, a glorified soap micelle, with other little bubbles floating in it like tiny disembodied eyeballs, chasing around with other biomolecules a gummy little pile of DNA.

The body is, I can hardly deny, a fabulous machine, but the details of it seem needlessly complicated. I don't know what sort of addlepate could look at that pile of Rube Goldberg goop and scream "design," because frankly, it's such a mess that the miracle is less how it works, and more the fact that it works at all. It's as if one could shake up a trillion vats of biomolecules, and one of them might splatter around just so and manage to effectuate oxygen transport or waste removal or process some other damn thing we slathered into the soup, and now it's called life. Woo hoo. The fact that everything's chemical, that everything's diffusion screams inefficiency to an engineer. And isn't each one flawed in some way? Is not a defect-free individual a rarity worthy of celebration? A billion intra- and extracellular chemical signals and channels are a billion things that can go wrong. Never mind the usual macroscopic design flaws (the proverbial recreational areas built on waste sites, the bad knees, the self-destructing prostates, the dissolving bones, the myopia), but the microenvironment is also a mess. One botched transmission mechanism, and it's cancer, palsy, or a hundred horrible and debilitating varieties of autoimmune depth charges ticking away in half the population. Yuck!


None of these things, I'll add, makes me enjoy the experience less, it just makes the whole thing a little more absurd. This grotesque meatbag, beyond all expectations, is conscious, it garners sensation from it's ropy inefficient networks, lets its sloppy gelatinous computer feel a million variants of pleasure, enjoys the existence of all these other grotesque meatbags quite well, thanks very much. The medium is gross, but it doesn't mean that living in it isn't transcendent. In another little bit of divine or cosmic humor, the slimiest bits of us are also the most exciting ones. The drippy twitching orbs in our forehead are our most gorgeous and mysterious aspect. Our slippery, oozing genitals and that overmuscled sphincter of a mouth give the most tangled, overwrought, wrinkly organ of all (our brain) the most sublime perceptions of existence. And there's nothing wrong with that. A smile or a kiss? Making love? Who doesn't live for that sort of thing.


Somewhere in his scathing inside take on restaurant and food culture, Anthony Bourdain made a few points to would-be gourmands wondering why their food isn't as appealing as high-class chef's fare. One of the suggestions he makes is make your own stock, making the point that it's both easy and it tastes far better than the salty yellow or brown canned garbage that they peddle for convenience.

I'll add that the convenience is really overrated at that. Yes, it's easy to open up a can of broth, but it's easy to pull something you've already made out of the fridge too. It takes time to roast bones and to simmer things, I suppose, and there's cleanup at the end, but it's not as if the whole thing requires very much attention. And if you don't go through the minimal effort of making stock, then you'll fail to suffuse your home with the wonderful aroma of roasting things. This alone is worth it--you could go ahead and chuck out the pot when you're done, and just do it to enjoy the savory air freshener of caramelizing carbohydrates, denaturing proteins, rendering fats, and volatilized aromatics. The marketing assholes that brought you GladeTM have a lot to answer for.

If you go into the supermarket with the intention of producing your own broth, you'll find the items that go into it are suspiciously overpriced: it costs almost as much for a pound of marrow bones as it does for an (admittedly subprime) one-pound steak with a bone in it, as much for fatty ham hocks as it does for an actual ham. I'm convinced it's a ploy to sucker the casual cook. If your goal is to cook this way, with stock, it actually requires a cultivation of habit--prep your own meat (within reason--I'll admit I don't always have time) and utilize the scraps instead of throwing them away and then buying bones. I'll try and make stock whenever I cook meat, or sometimes when I've built enough vegetable matter that it has to be used. I've taken to saving the onion tops, carrot peelings, celery leaves and that sort of thing too. Along with the bones and offal, you're giving those foods one last fling at getting some flavor, getting just a bit more out of them, ennobling, perhaps, the poor dumb beast that gave his life for it all. Keep the fat even, and sauté with it, even for that very dish. I've got a goal of preparing a perfect meal this way, with nothing thrown away that I couldn't have extracted an atom of deliciousness from.

All those structures that were once so perilously balanced in the living organism now get broken down into fundamental bits, and you don't need a pound of psychobabble to understand how satisfying it is to smell them, to taste them. I'm bothered by eating some organs (but not others), but the stock pot is an equalizer in that regard, so chuck in the giblets and turn them into broth. A lot of that irrationality (if not all of it) disappears when the meats are broken down into constituent fats and proteins, all the same stuff in the end, and getting them there has such pleasant effects. Maybe in a more just universe, we could absorb all those primordial bits without having to first render plants and animals down to get them. But we are what we are, we have to draw the 'what's food' line somewhere, and it's perhaps an even bigger sin to consume without cognizance, enjoyment, or respect. As the man said, it's only messy when you're doing it right. When it comes to living this life, get the flavor you can.

Societal Phase Transitions

David Brooks is an interesting character: he can write in complete sentences, assume a reasonable tone, and sometimes, if time permits, even cough up a sketchy anecdote or two to support his reasoning.  Pretty much the minimum required resume for political writing: Brooks' analysis looks like a (mathematical or psychological) projection of the shape of the world: he reports only the truthy light that manages to fall on the distorted contours of his 50s-kitsch, white, exurban mind, mistaking, in other words, that mirror for a window.  He sometimes seems too smart to believe the crap he writes, but if he's cynically peddling the ethos of Pleasantville it's hard for me to tell you how the corporate masters reward him--well, with a job I suppose, but who would want to be a professional toady?  I'd rather be a whore.

Brooks wrote a masterpiece of selective reading yesterday. You'll be surprised at the punchline, not that China is the one achieving a "meritocratic corpocracy," but rather his odd belief that a "top-down memorization-based elite" is incompatible with a "flexible, innovative information [service] economy," unlike, you know, the touted success story of the United States.  Never mind how insulting I find his opinion that engineering is unlikely to produce innovation: as the smallest and most disposable cog in the military-industrial complex, I'm scratching my head as to what kind of starry-eyed retard (or glassy-eyed shill) could fail to note the paternalism, the political influence, the state support in the homegrown system.  The corporate fathers are aswfully close to the governing nannies, when they aren't the very same people.  In government contracting, that relationship is rather direct, but Papa makes friendly laws for lobbyists when it isn't actively subsidizing or bailing out those interests.  So it goes.

I'm not sure I'd go as far as to say that state and economic power are identical (credit IOZ), and it's not like the mixture of political and economic power is a new phenomenon, (and it's not like I trust Brooks' reduction for that matter), but China and the U.S. look like they are converging toward a similar point from ostensibly very different political ideologies.  In China, the economic market is opening up under the dictatorial political elite.  In the U.S. , the authorities are clamping down on individual freedom as state enterprises become ever more profitable.

My own political instincts tend to be contrarian.  Even if reading about political principles can be sometimes addictive, I think the game as it's practiced insults my intelligence too much to get into it.  The empty sloganeering bothers me, the obvious insincerity beside the less-than-obvious interests, the screaming pander beside the moral emptiness, the necessary condescension to the philosophies of collectives of idiots, and the do-nothing execution of them.  So I read the cranks as much as I can, hoping to identify myself somewhere in the political sphere.  Sadly, much as I'd like to find some ground there, you'll find nearly as much credulity among the self-labeled libertarian or anarchist follower types as you would in your typical Daily Kozzie.  (The personal exceptionalism can be as annoying at the patriotic exceptionalism.)  Is a bustling laissez-faire society going to provide individual justice?  (Of course the fuck not.)  Is the absence of a state power going to ensure personal liberties?   (Maybe for the five minutes until some asshole fills the void.)

This I believe: any political system at all can work with hardly any people.  Frontier libertarianism to make Ayn (rhymes with mine) Rand proud?  Sure.  Athenian democracy?  Okay.  Benevolent (or other) monarchy?  Why the hell not.  But with enough people, the political model can only take on a limited number of forms, depending on some combination of the wealth of resources, the technological base, population density, and age: the most obvious of these is either oppressed third-world shithole or top-dog empire.   Because if the machines make the society, they also give us a means to pack in the population, and all those bodies push the borders too, and all of those things need fuel. I believe that power will concentrate.  Whether it arises from an industrial base taking deep enough root that it necessarily employs the people and governs them, or if it comes top-down from a government committee wise enough to cut slack where it's needed in order to grow a viable economy, the result looks similar.  The power sectors willl coalesce into some incestuous monster: ask Lockheed, or Monsanto, or Carlyle.  A worker class and an innovator class is needed to support the governing one, and each of these can take a number of shapes, with more or less mobility, more or less abuse, but the overall structure doesn't change much.  They're all doomed for meritocratic corpocracy, for better or worse.  I believe that a big population density will push against its borders as much as it can, depending on how much resistance it's likely to receive.  I believe that empire has depended on its mobility and communications.  I believe that no empire yet has outgrown its resources, no matter what happy philosophical principal it may have been founded upon.   As anybody who has tried to get more than three people from one place to another in a timely manner, the egalitarian ideal has a tendency to devolve into clusterfuck, at least until someone starts issuing commands.

My goal here is less to generalize history, which would be endlessly trite (the differences are still important!), and more to universalize the human experience (the triteness of which is hopefully finite).  Twiffer, maybe indirectly, led me to a chemical analogy (and who doesn't love those?) about the human condition.  The deep mantle and the cores of the earth are of singular and necessary compositions appropriate to the temperature, pressure and composition down there.  They are hypothesized to exist in homogeneous phases of relatively invariate structure, packed together at optimal density over many cubic miles.  Essential silicates condense and sink while the rest of the crap floats up to the continents.  So it goes with people.  Squeeze enough of us in to the same place, and there are only so many ways we can fit.

Pressure.  Temperature.  Density.  Take a pure species, and compress it.  Chemically speaking, a phase (solid, liquid, or gas usually) is something that is phenomenologically continuous as you change these parameters.  It'll follow a smooth curve within its boundaries.  When there's almost no constraints on pressure or the available space, it'll spread and take any number of options for its existence.  The human gas existed briefly on the frontier, hunting and gathering.  Push 'em together, and those individuals are forced to interact with one another.  I like to think it's still fluid--surging past itself, splashing and mixing wildly--with lots of people bumping around, but still in any number of conformations for individuals and groups.  We just can't get very far apart.  One major difference between today's meritocratic corpocracies and the empires of old is the sheer number of people.  A bigger factor, perhaps, than the advancements of technology and philosophy. 

[IMG][/IMG]If you're varying one parameter of your fluid and keeping another fixed (moving at constant temperature say, and watching pressure change as you increase the density), then conditions will change continuously within a a point.  Nature actually has singularities--moving from one phase to another takes you over a sharp corner, where there's no mathematical derivative, just a nasty discontinuous step.   You're gliding along some smooth mathematical function, but then you hit some critical conditions and --boom--you're on a whole different curve.  Increasing the density of people may have the same effect.  Agriculture gets the nod for pushing the alleged sapients over the gate into civilization, but maybe that's just what happens when we find ourselves constantly bumping into one another, Malthus be damned.  Certain authors have wanked about a technological singularity, implying that the rate of a society's development is proportional to its knowledge, and at some point we'll accelerate fast enough to be unrecognizable to our current selves.  I'm doubtful, but perhaps, if there's enough fuel, we'll manage to populate our monkey bodies onto a separate post-civilization curve.  Some future Rousseau will romanticize the innocence of the corpocracy from the cramped efficiency of his own clamoring existence, wistfully imagining what life might have been like when all the empires started getting too damn close to avoid coalescence. Maybe someday, we'll even...

Ah fuck it.  That's just irresponsible.  It's something David Brooks would write.



*This is exponential growth by the way, which is very common but not singular.  But whatever.


Monday, December 10, 2007

Review of Claudine in School, by Colette

I read Claudine in School, written at the turn of the century, as another period piece for the (probably dead now) Diplomacy game. (My tenth-rate Colette micro-pastiche can be found here.) I'd like to tell you a better story of how it fit into the spirit of the times, but I'm unfortunately history-impaired. I can say that it's a breath of fresh and libidinous air compared to all those turgid and repressed Victorian novels that it followed. It's not just that the times moved on, Colette is also irrepressibly French, and unlike the Russians publishing about this time, I'd never be tempted to mistake her writing for anything American, not from 1900. Popular from the start, the French came to regard the Claudine novels as national treasures.

The most obvious thing to mention about Claudine in School is that it's sensual. I don't mean to tell you that it's some kind of depraved sinful boudoir romp, quite the opposite. We meet Claudine the truant, coming in scratched and refreshed from the woods, revivified from a natural existence. She doesn't spend the first five paragraphs observing the forest, but living it, immersing herself in the scents and the textures and tastes of leaves and moss, scarfed berries, birdsong. Her time in the school, which is (of course) most of the novel, is much the same. At one point, the girls bring a snowball into the class, and take turns joyously chomping on it. Everywhere there is a loving taste of something, a feel, a scent, or a sound. Claudine's attracted to the petty dramas circling the classroom, and even though they range from the trivial to the criminal, she revels in them without shame. She loves exerting herself on the playground, and manipulating the romantic attention of her peers and superiors (male and female). Claudine languors through her classes, gifted at writing and extemporization, succeeds effortlessly, and sticks around for the amusement. She's liberated, she disrespects the system, she thinks, and it's nearly impossible for the reader not to be fascinated by her too.

Claudine's sensuality is pre-sexual, but only just barely. If this story were told from another point of view, the young girl would be a temptress, a seductress, and totally corrupt. Indeed, people fall into ruin all around her. (I could imagine Dickens telling this story actually--he'd have a field day with the lecherous administrator Dutrerte, and, if they weren't women, with the uncomfortable triangle of the teacher, assistant, and gifted student. He'd play up the dirty foibles of the power figures with many thousands more words. The kid's innocence would perhaps be less true.) Claudine is certainly indiscriminate in her attractions, and it would be incorrect to call her nice. She's got a protege that she treats abominably, teasing her with alternate rejection and affection.

I try to imagine what separates Claudine in School from the innumerable examples of scandalous teen crap that's published in modern America (you know, other than the quality of the writing), and I think the Victorians have left there mark in too many places even today, and the Sweet Valley High (or whatever) version of this would usually offer a Lesson, and some sense of consequences, awareness, and growth. You could describe Claudine as benevolently amoral, and she succeeds at life (at school anyway) being what she is, without having to be taught the fact. It's an innocence that's shown in every chapter, every sentence of the book.

Like the other books in this pairing (Chekhov and Bacon), Claudine moves about with little in the way of plot. The stagings are a series of evocative vignettes, with a notable absence of character growth or philosophical asides. Claudine gets through a year of school, her affections come and go, and power and romance shifts above and around her. She takes her exam with little tolerance or attention for the formality of it, and looks forward to the next phase of her life. The conflicts don't involve her own self much, but provide instead a vehicle for her light, mocking opinion, and enjoynment of the human experience. It's infectious.