Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Politics of Climate Denial

Following on the heels of my "Warming in a Winter Wonderland" post of a couple weeks back, my fellow blogger at "Fracked Again" has posted a great video from the Rachel Maddow show connecting winter snowstorms to climate denial to the new Republican House leadership to the oil-funded organization Americans for Prosperity to . . . well, you get the picture. Thanks to the aforementioned blogger for this video, and watch it if you don't mind weeping profusely over the future of our planet and our species.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Putting the "Christ" Back in . . . The Movies

It's the end of the year, which means it's time for the big blockbuster serial kiddie fantasies that have become Hollywood's mainstay since the dawn of the Star Wars era. I saw the first part of the seventh part of Harry Potter with my son and daughter, and I'll probably go see the latest Narnia installment with them as well; I might even check out the Tron remake (sequel?) for kicks.

But I'll tell you, I'm starting to get a bit annoyed by the way in which the studios, influenced by the likes of Walden Media, are inserting subliminal Christian messages into all these kids' films.

With Harry Potter--not a bad film, by the way, though it could have used a couple fewer scenes of Harry and gang looking scruffy and confused out in the British countryside--there's the whole Savior/Satan thing, with Harry being "The Chosen One" and Voldemort being, well, a snake. With the Narnia films, there's the C. S. Lewis Christian allegory (which was the main reason J. R. R. Tolkien, as stauch a Christian as his friend Lewis but a far better fantasist, hated the books). A while back, there was Bridge to Terabithia, with its really unsettling discussion of whether one of the main characters was going to hell or not because she didn't attend church regular; earlier this year there was the final Toy Story installment, with its title characters very nearly being consumed in a junkyard incinerator that was as vivid an image of hell as can be. So we're getting a good number of veiled Christian stories in our children's films, and I for one find this troubling.

Mind you, I'm not knocking Christianity. Nor am I arguing that there shouldn't be films with Christian themes. Christianity is a powerful and pervasive cultural force, and movies need to deal with it. What I object to is the use of children's fantasy films as a "wedge" to introduce Christianity into secular culture, much as Intelligent Design has been used as a wedge to insert creationism into the science curriculum and the Institute for Historical Review has used historical revisionism to insert Holocaust denial into the scholarly community. I don't have a problem with The Passion of the Christ (though personally, I couldn't watch it till the end; its depiction of torture was just too gruesome). I do have a problem with The Passion of Harry Potter.

If Christians want to disseminate their message, they are free to do so. I even encourage them to do so--if their message is to love one's neighbor, to do good, to forgive others their trespasses, to judge people by the content of their character not the color of their skin. But Christianity doesn't, or shouldn't, need to proselytize on the sly, through seduction or misrepresentation; if it's really as good as it claims to be, it should present itself openly, with no disguises, and let its audience judge for themselves. That was Christ's method, after all: he told it as he saw it, with no concessions and no prettying-up of the sacrifices entailed, and he let people choose for themselves.

A sermon should be a sermon. It shouldn't be a toy, wrapped like a Christmas present to tempt the young and unwary.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Frogsong" (Officially!)

My sci-fi story "Frogsong" is now officially available in the anthology Farspace 2. It's an interstellar environmentalist love story of sorts, with a dash of Heart of Darkness thrown in for kicks. Ya gotta love it!

So check it out, buy lots of copies for Christmas, and let me know what you think!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Warming in a Winter Wonderland

It never fails. The first spell of bad winter comes along (we’ve currently got four inches of snow and temps in the teens here in Pittsburgh), and questions start to arise about the validity of global warming. Last year, when two feet got dumped on us in a single night, the naysayers, conservative talk-show hosts, and industry lobbyists had a field day. How, they asked--and expected only one answer--can the planet be warming when it’s so gosh-darned cold outside?

Never mind that there’s nothing in the science of global warming that says anything about cold days vanishing from the globe. Never mind that increased precipitation is one of the expected results of warmer air, which holds more moisture than its colder cousin. The real problem is that most people get all confused--and the skeptics thrive on seeding such confusion--about the difference between weather and climate. The former, since we live with it on a moment-by-moment, day-by-day basis, might seem like the thing to focus our attention on. But it’s not.

Weather--the atmospheric conditions in any given place at any given time--is, as we all know, wildly variable. The proverbial butterfly’s wings can change it, and meteorologists struggle to predict it as little as twenty-four hours in advance. It would be foolhardy to attempt a weather forecast of more than a few days--to predict, say, the weather in Pittsburgh a year from now. Chances are you’d be off by as much as 30 or 40 degrees in either direction--to say nothing of clouds, precipitation, wind, and all the rest.

Climate is different. As the composite of weather averaged over space and time, climate is remarkably stable, and can be forecast with considerable confidence years, even centuries, in advance. In the case of global climate, human beings have enjoyed roughly the same one for thousands of years. The last time the planet’s climate looked significantly different, Cro-Magnons were hunting mastodons and a mile of ice flattened Manhattan. The time before that, when the planet was appreciably warmer, tyrannosaurs roamed North America and crocodiles cruised the poles. The stability and predictability of our present climate is what enabled human civilization to become what it is today.

And that’s the ultimate irony: for the past two centuries, human civilization has tampered with the very climate that, for the past two millennia, made human civilization possible. The planet is warming--and more rapidly than ever before. (Indeed, even with its unseasonably cold December, 2009 is tied for second hottest year on record, and at the end of the day the past winter, on average, was warmer than the one that preceded it.) We’ve made great, and undeniable, advances as a species: advances in technology, in medicine, in science, in human rights, in art. Since the dawn of the Hydrocarbon Era, we’ve made those advances with ever accelerating ease. But in so doing, we’ve degraded the planetary climate (not to mention the planetary soils, waters, and affiliated organisms) perhaps beyond recall.

We have a couple choices here. We can acknowledge the reality of climate change, and respond appropriately. Or we can deny that dire reality and continue to dig ourselves deeper into a hole.

If we choose the first option, our choosing can’t be like the weather, which changes every day. It has to be like the climate, which steadies us and survives deep into the future.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

"The Burning of Sarah Post" Hits the Stands (for Real)

I received my copy of "The Burning of Sarah Post" in the mail today; apparently, the printer was running a bit behind schedule, but it's available for purchase now. If I do say so myself, it looks great! There's one part of the story (you'll know which part I mean when you see it) that I had some concerns about, typographically, but the printer did a great job with it. I'm looking forward to reading all the other great stuff in the collection too!

The publisher, Sam's Dot Publishing, also alerted me to their online newsletter, which contains information about their publications, plus some excerpts therefrom. If you're into fantasy, sci-fi, and horror, it's worth checking out!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Making a Killing

Let's imagine you could kill people and make a profit from it. Not only were there no negative consequences to killing people, there was an economic incentive. Would you do it?

Maybe, maybe not. You're a moral person; you read your Bible; you know that killing is wrong. For most of us, the moral disincentive to kill would outweigh the economic incentive to kill. Even in the absence of materially negative consequences--jail time, our own potential execution--the negative effect on our consiences would be sufficient to prevent most of us from killing.

But let's imagine that economically profitable, consequence-free killing had been the social norm for 200 years or more. Might the situation be different then? Might not many of us be socially conditioned to accept killing-for-profit as a positive good, or at least an inalienable right? Might not many of us ignore the Bible (or whatever religious or ethical text we currently subscribe to) in light of the powerful cultural message that killing for profit is a-okay? Indeed, might not the Bible itself have been rewritten--or never written at all--to sanction such killing?

To help answer these questions, let's consider a real-life analogy.

For the past 200 years or more, it's been socially sanctioned, wildlly profitable, relatively cheap, and (at least as most of us imagine it) absolutely risk-free to burn fossil fuels. And guess what? The vast majority of us burn fossil fuels like there's no tomorrow.

Maybe this is a bad analogy. Maybe gutting the earth, poisoning the soils and waters, devastating habitats and their inhabitants (both human and non-human), and pumping pollutants into the atmosphere isn't comparable to kiling other human beings.

But if you look at all the costs of fossil fuel extraction and consumption, they're pretty significant. The only problem is, these costs don't strike us as costs, because they're "externalized"--they're not built into the market price of the thing. Health care costs, loss of species and habitat costs, community degradation costs, planetery climate collapse costs aren't reflected in the price we pay at the pump, so we get to engage in incredibly risky, damaging behavior without (apparently) suffering any negative consequences for it. Quite the contrary, we benefit from it economically (some of us, such as BP executives, more than most, but all of us to a considerable degree). And as a result, most of us engage in this behavior--a lot--without a second thought.

All of which suggests not only that we're incredibly malleable beings, capable of being socially engineered for better or for worse, but that if we're really serious about getting a handle on our current bad behavior, we need to acknowledge it as such. Even if doing so might prevent us from making a killing.

Monday, December 6, 2010

On Being Rejected

Aside from the one essay I've had accepted recently--the aforementioned "Last Days of the Frog Prince"--I'm currently in the midst of a string of rejections. My sci-fi story "A Very Small Child Called Eugene" can't seem to find a home, my essay "The Toad Garden" (yes, I like amphibians) just received its first rejection slip, and my short story "Scarecrow," a retelling of the Oz story from the Scarecrow's point of view, has pretty much exhausted the possibilities. (I might publish it here, just to give it a shot at being read by someone other than my wife!) Using the tools on Duotrope's Digest, I can chart my progress; the figure 17% popped up, meaning, I guess, that out of every 100 submissions, I'm garnering 17 acceptances. This is, once again according to Duotrope, a healthy number.

Which just shows how tough it is to get published. If that were my batting average, I'd be sent to the minors; if it were my score on course evaluations, I'd be in the Dean's office. But for the majority of us trying to publish our writing, rejection is by far the norm.

So how does it feel, being rejected? Really, not that bad. It might be different if I had aspirations to immortality; it would certainly be different if I had no compensating acceptances. But the fact is, there's an awful lot of good writing out there (as well as a good lot of awful writing), and if you're going to play the game, you have to live with the odds.

We all wish the rejections could be more personal, something to help us the next time around, something more than a preprinted quarter-page sheet saying, "We regret that your submission does not meet our needs at this time." (You could drive yourself crazy interpreting that: "Hey, maybe I'll send it again at another time when their needs have changed!") But I've received only one truly obnoxious rejection in the two years I've been sending stuff out, and I'll chalk that one up to the publisher having a bad day. So long as everyone is striving for the same outcome--the discovery and publication of truly deserving work--I can deal with the form responses.

Being rejected isn't so bad. Not trying for fear of being rejected is a whole lot worse.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What Would Aldo Do?

Last summer, I participated in a month-long institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities on conservationist Aldo Leopold. Leopold's not as well known as other environmentalist icons such as Thoreau and Rachel Carson, but arguably he's more important than either in developing a philosophical underpinning to the modern environmental movement. If he were around today, I think he'd have a thing or two to say.

In his essay "The Land Ethic," published in his book A Sand County Almanac (1949) the year after his untimely death, Leopold wrote:

"The 'key-log which must be moved to release the evolutionary process for an ethic is simply this: quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Now, as I hasten to point out to students when we read Leopold, a land-ethic does not erase human claims or automatically subordinate them to the claims of non-human members of the biotic community; it does not mean that we should ignore the legitimate economic needs of human beings. Having lived through the Great Depression, Leopold knew better than to argue that human beings didn't need jobs, natural resources, and land on which to enjoy both. But having lived through the Great Depression, he also saw how reckless land-use had contributed to the breakdown of the human economy (think soil erosion and Dust Bowl), while as an ecologist, he saw how the same tendency to ignore all but short-term economic considerations had devastated the "economy" of Nature (think depleted wolf populations, deer overpopulation, downed forests, polluted waterways, and all the rest of it). He saw, in other words, that a reasonable accommodation had to be struck between human economic activity and the larger needs of the biotic community, including the needs of its human members.

Judged by that standard, the Marcellus Shale craze fails utterly. The integrity, stability, and beauty of the land are being ignored altogether in the rush to produce the profits and fossil fuels that drive the human economy; from what I've read, not a single thought is being given by industry or government to the ethical issues involved. Whether considered in solely human terms--as a grotesque infringement on human rights--or in ecological terms--as an equally brutal assault on the land and its non-human inhabitants--the Marcellus boom tragically illustrates how far we as a society are from the ideal Leopold articulated more than sixty years ago.

We need to organize, agitate, legislate, and do everything possible to combat this great wrong. But we need Leopold's voice as well to remind us that it is wrong, and that only we can set it right.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Last Days of the Frog Prince

Well, maybe I should complain more often about the lack of action in my writing career. No sooner did I post yesterday's piece than I received word that an essay of mine, "The Last Days of the Frog Prince," had been accepted for publication by the journal Snowy Egret, billed as the "Oldest Independent U.S. Journal of Nature Writing." The essay, a memoir concerning the frog-hunting days of my youth, hasn't yet been slated for a publication date, but I'll be sure to let you know when I hear more.

I've had some success publishing environmentally-themed essays online; if you want to read a few of them, check out these five links. One of these essays, "Positioning," was nominated for (but did not win) a Pushcart Prize. But "Frog Prince" is my first print publication in the field of environmental literature (as opposed to environmental literary criticism, of which I've published my share). So it's pretty special to me.

Ironically, I'd targeted an online journal for the piece, but their spam filter must have axed my submission, because I never heard from them. In retrospect, I'm very happy computer technology was working against me this particular time. I submitted to Snowy Egret the old-fashioned way: in an envelope, in the mail. And I printed it on the back of paper I'd already used once, so I feel fairly environmentally friendly about it too.

I'm currently working on another environmental memoir, this one titled "Watershed." We'll see how (and where) it goes!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

For Fiction Fans

I know I've been focusing a lot lately on the Marcellus Shale, and I don't aim to stop; it's a timely issue and one I'm passionate about. But I also know that some readers of this blog are more interested in my fiction than in my stance on fossil fuels--and though I could make some very convoluted comment about how our faith in fossil fuels is itself founded in fiction (oops, I think I just did make it), I'll simply say that at the moment there's no new fiction of mine to share with you. I've got about four pieces out for review (one of them a story that was accepted by an online journal that folded before it got around to publishing my piece), but no good news on any of them at the moment.

So, by way of keeping you updated, let me at least describe the stories I'm currently working on:

1. A sci-fi story, "A Very Small Child Called Eugene," about a future United States that has been taken over by racist hate groups. Perhaps not so very far from the truth, some might say.

2. Another sci-fi story, "What the Dog Saw," about a mysterious stranger who appears in a small Western town. As the title suggests, the story is told from the point of view of, yes, a dog.

3. A realistic piece, "More Passion," about a college student and her professor, written from the student's point of view and using her own clumsy voice and diction. Lest the title and scenario lead anyone to worry, I can assure you that the story is not what you think.

As these summaries suggest, my recent work has tended to be rather odd, perhaps unclassifiable, playing around with point of view and voice, which might be why I haven't gotten any bites on it yet. But I'm pretty pleased with the direction my writing has taken; in "What the Dog Saw," for example, I think I've been able to tell a story through a narrator that, being a non-human animal, can witness events but not comprehend their significance. That's harder to do than you might think, and I'm not sure I could have pulled it off when I resumed writing fiction a year or two ago.

So I guess the gist of this message is: hold the phone. I'll let you know if there are any developments on the fiction front, and in the meantime, I'll keep on plugging away at the fossil fuels.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Afterthoughts on the People's Summit

Great as the People's Summit was, there were a couple things that troubled me while I was there, and I feel as if it might be important to the movement to note my misgivings.
  1. The East-West divide. Numerous westerners, folks from Texas and Wyoming who have been living with the effects of the fossil fuel industry (and fracking in particular) for years, professed themselves thankful that this issue has finally hit the east. They weren't wishing their ill luck on us--they were just pointing out that until fracking became a reality for us, we easterners were all too happy to consume the natural gas produced in their states. Like the fossil fuel industry itself, in other words, we were willing to externalize the costs of fracking, to palm them off on someone else. As a homeowner whose water and air are heated by natural gas, I hope I'll never make that mistake again. But I fear that, in many cases, an issue needs to affect one personally before one wakes up to its dangers, or even its existence.
  2. The black-white divide. Though there were numerous representatives of tribal peoples at the summit, there was no one I would have identified as African-American. (This is not to say, of course, that visual identification is foolproof.) One of the oldest splits in the environmental movement, one dating back to its origins in the nineteenth century, is the predominance of (relatively affluent) whites and their tendency to ignore the issues of most importance to (relatively poor) non-whites. Given the anti-fracking movement's emphasis on environmental justice--on securing clean air and water, meaningful work, and civil liberties for all people--I hope the movement will be responsive and receptive to the needs of people of color. But given who is most directly affected by fracking at present--rural and suburban people, large landowners, etc.--I fear the movement may take a while before it begins to recognize the concerns and claims of urban, lower-class, and minority peoples.

If this movement is to succeed, it can't be exclusive or exclusionary. Here's hoping the next People's Summit works to address the issues that divide us.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The People's Summit, Day Two

The People's Summit ended today with another excellent round of presenters and a slew of frightening, but galvanizing, facts. Mayor Calvin Tillman of DISH, Texas (featured in Josh Fox's film Gasland) spoke, introducing us to a new nonprofit he's created to help low-income families and communities get their air and water tested. The lunchtime keynote speaker, EPA whistleblower Wes Wilson (also of Gasland fame), fired the crowd up with his homey aphorisms and grassroots passion. (His best line was a Winston Churchill quote: "You can always count on the American people to do the right thing--after they've exhausted all the other options.") And at the conference's close, Fox himself Skyped in from Australia, where he's doing location shooting for a Gasland sequel. I missed a morning session on new online tools to help people in the anti-fracking fight track the industry and connect with each other, but overall, I feel as if I'm bursting with new information and energy.

For me, the most enlightening presentation was given by Bob Howarth, a professor at Cornell who challenges the industry's claims that natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil. In particular, he demonstrated that when you take into account routine leaks of methane from the pipelines and storage tanks, as well as the carbon-intensive activities necessary to transport the fracking water and refine the gas, natural gas ends up being a greater contributor to global warming than either coal or oil. As a longtime follower and advocate of the fight against global warming, this was important news for me to hear--and it suggests that the two movements need to start communicating to a far greater extent than they've done thus far. The only sour note to all this was the speaker who followed Howarth, a former industry vice president now working for the UN who addressed a roomful of activists as if we were kindergartners while he explained to us why gas is much better for the planet than coal and oil. He even had the gall to ask Howarth--a Cornell professor, mind you--if his research had been peer-reviewed! If nothing else, his presence reminded us of what we're fighting against, and of the depths to which they'll sink to try to invalidate our movement.

I returned home to a nice surprise: an email from a fellow blogger, John, who'd noticed my blog and featured it in his own. For those who are following this issue, John's blog is essential reading, focused as it is specifically on fracking. You should definitely check it out!

The fight continues. And thanks to the summit, I think it's safe to say the movement is stronger, more unified, and more prepared to take on the challenge than ever before.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The People's Summit

Today, I attended the first half of the EarthWorks National People's Oil and Gas Summit, held in Pittsburgh (whose City Council, earlier this week, unanimously passed an ordinance banning gas drilling within the city limits). Attendees came from as far as Wyoming and New Brunswick to discuss hydrofracturing ("fracking") in the various shale formations that underlie the North American continent; some of those who spoke are featured in Josh Fox's film Gasland (which, we learned today, has been short-listed for an Academy Award nomination). One of those speakers, Wyoming rancher John Fenton, summed up the attitude of those assembled when he said: "Drilling might be the industry's pot of gold, but to me it's a pot of poison." Stories were rife of people sickened and forced from their homes (or unable to sell them), of communities divided and disenfranchised, of itinerant workers bringing crime and drugs to town, of callous industries threatening and equally callous governments ignoring the communities they claim to serve. One speaker discussed how the profits from drilling are privatized while the costs (economic, environmental, and social) are "externalized" and foisted on the public; another described industry-funded studies based on flawed data, outmoded models, and insupportable comparisons; yet another documented the links between fracking chemicals (those we know of; many remain shrouded in secrecy) and health risks ranging from neurological impairments to cancers. A number of shocking facts emerged, including the following:
  • In two communities in Wyoming and Texas where fracking is taking place, between 70 and 80% of residents are experiencing respiratory problems.
  • While drilling is often touted as a job-maker for local communities, fully 70% of the industry's workers in Pennsylvania come from out of state.
  • The natural gas methane--which is not only deadly to humans but a potent greenhouse gas--has been recorded at asphyxiation levels in some homes near fracking sites.
  • High rates of sexual predation--including predation on children--are reported among fracking workers.
  • Though Pennsylvania's State Senate insists that a severance tax will drive industry away, Wyoming, with the highest taxes among western states, also has the highest energy production in the U.S. (indeed, it ranks close to the top compared to other energy-producing nations).

On the positive side, some legal battles have been won against the drilling companies, ordinances such as Pittsburgh's are being contemplated by other municipalities, and as evidenced by today's summit, the movement against fracking is growing larger every day.

The chief message I took from today's meeting was the need to learn as much as possible about this issue, and to act on that knowledge in every way imaginable.

I'll be going back tomorrow to continue that process.

Monday, November 15, 2010

From the Vault

As mentioned in previous posts, I'm going to be using the blog to "publish" some old stories from online journals that have gone under. I think I've pretty much decided to focus on print publication exclusively; my latest negative experience concerns a story that was accepted by an online journal that vanished before it had a chance to publish my piece. I might change my mind in the future, of course, but that's where I am right now.

So for the moment, here's my story "Snooping," which appeared in the inaugural (and only) issue of the online journal The Squirrel Cage. It's my first sci-fi publication, and though I personally think it's a bit less polished than my later stuff, it's got obvious sentimental value, if nothing else.


Minnie is Snooping on the couple in 2A.

Ruth and Jericho are their names. They are at the kitchen table. Ruth curls on a chrome and red vinyl chair, her knees to her bent head, her brown hair spilling over her bare legs. Jericho stands in a grease-stained t-shirt, his torso tipped slightly forward and upward as if a new self is straining to burst free from the shell of his old body. The table hosts a solitary plate from which a bean-and-rice dish has been violently spilled, trailing a muddy cone across the white plastic tabletop. Its companion lies on the floor, its contents smearing the linoleum near the legs of Ruth’s chair. Ruth’s back jerks arhythmically, her sniffles clotted as if from some obstruction of her nasal passages. When Jericho cocks his arm she raises her head, showing puffy eyes and a red tangle where blood has matted her hair against her cheek.

“All right, Minnie,” Dr. Achison’s voice says. “That’s enough for a start.”

The kitchen fills with the whine of a desktop powering down and Minnie watches as Ruth, Jericho, the table, the room shudder and shrink like a balloon flying through space, only there is no space, the scene is the space, and its collapse yields a sickening sense of compression until Minnie opens her eyes to the familiar sight of the darkened office, her therapist’s shadowed face.

“So,” he says, reaching over to unclip the device from her ear. “What did you see?”


The first thing Snooping taught you was that you were far more populous than you could ever have guessed. The brochure even said so. Personae proliferated, depending on how deeply you went in, until you found yourself the axis of a veritable republic of surrogates, each bearing a name, a behavior, and a history. None of these factors, though, was fixed; as Dr. Achison explained, the personae could shift, change, surprise. The next time in, it might be Jericho whimpering at the kitchen table, Ruth taunting his crumpled back. Or it might be that Ruth had departed, leaving Jericho to pitch dishes in pent solitude. Or it might be that Minnie would find them cuddling by the ornamental fireplace, the chance vocabulary of Scrabble tiles lying forgotten on the flagstone hearth. This would not, however, mean the two had separated, reconciled, switched personalities or places; all was simply random fluctuation, neural firing. It was vital, Dr. Achison stressed, to keep in mind the three fundamental principles of Snooping:

1. The personae were not real. They were manifestations of the brain’s electrochemical activity, anthropomorphized, it appeared (the process was not well understood), in the mind’s effort to foster identification with its own biochemical basis. The Snooping technology did no more than provide heightened access to, and in principle control over, these personifications of one’s neurological apparatus. Hence its trade name, Sub-Neural Omniscience OPtimization.

2. You could not interact with your personae in the normal sense of the word; you were not, by definition, a participant in the scenes generated during Snooping sessions, for “you” were at once source and expression of the personae on whom you Snooped. You could watch, but not join, the action.

3. Your role was to guide the action, to cultivate a healthier, which was to say a more productive, relationship to your personae. In so doing, you would not (as in classical psychotherapy) simply be altering your attitudes or beliefs but actually changing the physiological operations of your brain. But such guidance, again, could not take the form of direct interference. Snooping subjects who failed to honor this built-in limitation found themselves frustrated, angry, finally worse off than when they began. What you were watching, you had to recall, was yourself, and you could not leap in to save yourself. You could only gain sufficient ownership of these simulacra of yourself to make such dramatic gestures unnecessary.

Since its introduction a half decade ago, the brochure explained, Snooping had supplanted talk therapy as the most cost effective form of therapeutic intervention. Skeptical at first, patients, doctors, hospital administrators, and insurance carriers had all come around. Clinical trials to assess the procedure’s effectiveness on major depressive disorders were currently underway.


Minnie had begun seeing Dr. Achison after her husband died, when her dreams turned so turbulent she couldn’t sleep. In the first nine months following Greg’s death she had experienced all the anticipated signs of heartache: finding a sock balled at the bottom of the hamper and sobbing uncontrollably, finding herself dialing his office from work, finding she’d misremembered a detail of his courtship, his body, and pleading at the altar of her grief for forgiveness and consolation. The pieces of him he’d left behind, the pieces that had fallen irrevocably away, made a jagged mosaic she knew it was her lot to carry for life.

But the dreams introduced a totally unexpected form of torture. Most of them were of his death, grisly fantasies so unlike his sad surrender to cancer she (who could never bear to watch that kind of movie) couldn’t imagine where they came from. Greg gunned down by hidden assassins, light beams piercing the perfect round holes in a blinding Braille. Greg torn to bloody shreds by packs of wolves. Greg drowned in the tub, his eyes encrusted with corals and crabs. And worst of all, in some of the dreams she was the victim, he the attacker. This didn’t make sense; her husband had never laid an unwelcome hand on her in eight years of dating and marriage. But in her dreams he stalked like a murderous golem, brandishing hatchets, beating down doors she put between them. At her first, tentative sessions with Dr. Achison they pursued the usual routes: guilt over her inability to predict or prevent Greg’s death turned to anger at him for abandoning her, then the anger twisted back onto herself for betraying her guilt. But the dreams didn’t cease, and when her therapist suggested they try something a bit more radical, she gratefully agreed.

The afternoon of their first Snooping session Minnie remembered pausing at the apartment door, feeling she’d forgotten something, frozen with unease. The wedding photograph she’d never had the heart to take down gleamed on the wall: Greg in his tuxedo looking shyly at the champagne flute in his hand, she half turned to face him as if waiting for his signal to drink, the lacy hat she’d worn in lieu of a veil piled on the table where the cake sat, tiered and ruffled. Long life, the toast had been offered. She had been so dazzled then by her husband’s beauty she could remember no more. Four years later, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just shy of his thirtieth birthday, the cruel fact of his undamaged good looks struck her like a fist. She felt it to be a spiteful joke that he could appear so sound when the oncologist gave him less than a year. Like the crystal flute of the photo, his fragile beauty would not last.

After one final, fruitless search of her purse, she closed the door and left that memory behind, waiting.

The Snooping setup was disarmingly simple: a slim box about the size of a laptop, with a wireless transmitter in the shape of a Bluetooth that hooked to your ear. The transmitter directed a signal to your hippocampus, initiating a process of cerebral stimulation and memory retrieval. The operator, Dr. Achison explained as he showed her the keyboard, could modify, intensify, redirect, or abort the signal on the subject’s cues, but could not (with current technology) access the Snooper’s personae. The Snooper, meanwhile, required practice not only to recognize, sort, and differentiate the scenes presented to her but to distinguish the interior landscape sufficiently from the exterior to provide the operator with feedback. Ideally, in time the subject would become so expert that she could remain in constant communication with the operator throughout the procedure.

“But let’s start slow,” he said at that first session, gently clipping the device to her ear. It pinched slightly, warm from his touch. “When I press this button you’ll feel a pulse, a tingling behind your ear. I’ve tried it, it feels something like a cell phone on ‘vibrate,’ it’s not unpleasant at all. The tingling will penetrate, that is you’ll feel it deeply inside your head, but there should still be no pain. Most people prefer to close their eyes, at least at first, it cuts out distractions.” He smiled encouragingly. “Are you ready?”

“And you’re sure this will help?”

“All I can tell you is that it has helped others. On the premise that the devil you know is preferable to the devil you don’t.” He cocked his head, whether in irony or not she couldn’t tell. “Are you ready?”

Minnie closed her eyes, nodded, and felt her jaw hum, then she vaulted inside with Jericho and Ruth.


At first she is like a swimmer reentering the water after losing a limb: the cool fluid embrace feels familiar, but its very familiarity mocks her unbalanced body. Her strokes lash out lopsided, mutinous; she thumps the water where once she shrugged it off. Her coach assures her she will recover her cadence, but she trusts the poolside more than his words. She launches herself for its slick surface and clings, heaving.

In these first few weeks of uncertainty many personae appear, their bodies and faces coalescing out of nothing, shimmering and wobbling like soap bubbles. Anthony, the homeless man with walrus mustache and filthy olive parka who snoozes at the bus stop. Ray, the young black woman who dances in a black leotard beneath the track lights of her apartment, her back a snapping ribbon. Delilah, the stringy redhead who negotiates the hopscotch grid under the autumn spill of leaves. But these are isolates; they never commune, never last. They flicker and fade. They tantalize--how to fit them together?--but they do not take.

The one person who never arrives, whose arrival she awaits, is her husband. But she knows (the brochure tells her so) he will not be there. No one real will.

Unlike the others, Ruth and Jericho arrive regularly, and always as one. Within a month the apartment they share becomes as familiar to Minnie as her own, its nooks and spaces mapped in her mind: cream-colored living room carpet, off-white walls bare of photos or artwork, improbable jutting fireplace, front window seat, peeling kitchen floor, bedroom and bath down the narrow, unlit hallway. By this time Minnie has mastered the jarring duality of inside/outside adequately to report as she views. There they are again, they’re arguing, Jericho raises his voice, Ruth hugs a shawl around her shoulders as if his words cast a chill. Or: Jericho seems subdued today, he sits at the alcove window staring into the sun while Ruth putters in the bedroom, folding sheets. Or they’ve gone out, the apartment is empty, Ruth’s vanilla scent lingers. Minnie asks Dr. Achison whether the couple’s persistence may be significant, and he concurs, guardedly, that it may be: though primacy and frequency offer no proof of relevance, the obvious analogy--a young couple experiencing marital difficulties--suggests they are worth pursuing. He only cautions Minnie not to become so fixated on them that she ignores or suppresses other potentially fruitful leads.

“If I were to suppress them,” she asks, “how would I know?”

He has no answer to that, beyond the suggestion that she consult her dreams.

This response is characteristic; though occasionally he prompts, queries, he offers no analysis of what she has witnessed, and Minnie needs to remind herself, conditioned to the give-and-take of psychotherapy, that here the analysis is not his to make. At the end of each week’s session they discuss but do not speculate. The lone time he provided what might count as diagnosis or exegesis followed her first session, and then only because the violence she had witnessed made her quail to continue. She should not be surprised, he had suggested then, that Jericho should appear as aggressor this first time, given the dreams with which she’d lately been wrestling. She could not so easily escape the violence that had settled on her life, he said.

“Will I ever?”

“That’s the hope,” he responded.

And indeed, after that first time Jericho displays no violence, merely anger and a bristling disquiet, and Minnie is somewhat mollified.

Her first real crisis occurs three months in, when unexpectedly she is thrust into Ruth and Jericho’s bedroom. Or not altogether unexpectedly: she had wondered, worried, if this might be coming, but when it had not, she had relaxed, reasoning that such scenes would surely be blocked by some internal censor. Now from her position of hovering omniscience, within the scene yet surveying it all at once, she spies on the couple in bed, Ruth reaching up to fondle Jericho’s face, he accepting her caress, eyes closed, cheek slanting to her fingers. Minnie is relieved to see the tenderness of their lovemaking, on this occasion at least, but still she feels defiled, and the knowledge that it is herself she is watching does not help. She had not imagined her brain had sex. She knows that, with some effort, she can terminate the session, instruct her mind to disengage with its own material basis, but at the same time she admits, with corrosive guilt, that she does not want the scene to end. She has been without a partner for over a year, Greg’s final months having been so fragile he bruised at her very touch. If nothing else, this scene recalls to her when his body--and through his hers--was whole.

“Minnie?” Dr. Achison’s voice enters the room, making her flinch. “Is everything all right?”

“I--” This is even worse, now she is in bed with her dead husband, two strangers, her brain, and her shrink. “I’d rather not say.”

She hears the rapid ticking of his keyboard. “Would you like me to stop?”

Despite her confusion and shame, Minnie almost laughs. But the truth is, she does not want him to stop, does not want Ruth and Jericho to stop, does not want Greg to stop, does not want herself to stop. And yet, even now, she can see the distraction taking its toll, the rhythm of Ruth and Jericho’s movements becoming fractured, the room darkening. Soon they will deflate, sag like wilted violets, and she will be powerless to prevent them. How horrible, she thinks, that she cannot close her eyes to avoid seeing.

“Yes, please,” she says, as Jericho jerks covers that stretch and bubble like gum over his own and his wife’s bodies. “I’d like to stop now.”


At the following session Dr. Achison tells her that crises differ from catastrophes. He offers this spontaneously, in no particular rejoinder to anything; if he guesses what she saw the previous week, he does not disclose his deduction. A crisis, he explains, typically marks a transition, the arrival at a crossroads. But choice is difficult; there is always the temptation to turn back. Hence the conflict, hence the crisis.

“You remember the line from The Wizard of Oz?” he says. “When they enter the lion’s den? ‘I think it’ll get darker before it gets lighter.’ Which is another way of saying it’ll only get lighter if it gets darker.”

Minnie has her doubts, but remembering Greg, her crystal wine glass, she decides to enter the forest.

And as it turns out, her reward awaits her there. Ruth and Jericho have returned to a less compromising spot--their old standby the kitchen--and have commenced the first civil conversation Minnie has seen shared between them. Most encouraging is how truly trivial their talk flows; no accusations or innuendoes, just common chitchat such as two young lovers might trade. Maybe, Minnie thinks, the crisis was theirs as well as hers; maybe the x-rated scene was a reconciliation, the result of some breakthrough in their relationship. Or--she still finds it difficult to remember that their relationship is hers, or a function of hers anyway--some breakthrough in her own recovery.

“I’ll resist the obvious forest-for-the-trees witticism,” Dr. Achison says as he removes the earpiece. “But how was it?”

“Lighter,” she answers.

She spends that weekend boxing up her life with Greg. The wedding picture comes down, the album following it into storage. His clothes are long since gone, except for a special hand knitted sweater and a tie or two she’d given him over the years. These she slips into storage bags and deposits with the rest. She empties the shelves of college textbooks, maps from journeys they’ve taken, novels they’ve exchanged. She buried him with his wedding ring; many times since she’s wished she kept it, but now she tells herself she’s glad it’s gone back to the ground from which it was mined. She hardly knows why she is so keen to purge the space just now; she wonders whether it is time to move altogether. She wonders, too, whether this is what it means to heal. She breathes deeply, looks around the emptied apartment, and tries not to remember where everything used to be.


As the weeks pass and the memories of forgetting dim, she finds herself looking forward to her sessions. Ruth and Jericho have supplanted all other personae (the last to go was dancing Ray, who tapped madly at her curtain call as if determined to impress before being applauded offstage). But Minnie welcomes the uncontested space the two now own, the space, she realizes, they’ve needed all along; freed of the others’ disruptive presence, their relationship is quite obviously improving, even thriving. Perhaps it was that initial, unimpeded conversation that sealed the change. Or perhaps it was the ring Jericho presented Ruth shortly after: an opal set in silver, he slid it onto her left hand, and Minnie was surprised, but not displeased, not to have considered their being unmarried. This explains the ugly start, she reasons: a young couple just starting out, of course there’ll be hiccups along the way. A bloody nose, she recognizes, is no hiccup, but it has not recurred, Jericho’s hands are gentle as blossoms as he cups Ruth’s shoulder or guides a strand of hair behind her ear, and perhaps its initial appearance was her--Minnie’s--fault.

The apartment becomes a second home. Minnie fails to witness a formal proposal or wedding preparations, but she presides over every sign of their courtship deepening. Jericho surprising Ruth with roses, she returning the favor with back rubs. Extended exchanges at the dinner table, now filled with sly laughter and private allusions. Evenings before the TV, Ruth’s hand trailing from the couch to be cradled by Jericho’s, he feeding her popcorn, she taking the kernels lightly on her tongue and teeth so each bite seems a promise. And yes, more nights in bed, Minnie no longer torn between fleeing and drinking in the scene but simply relishing their uncorrupted delight in each other’s body. She has not reported these encounters to Dr. Achison--in fact, she has not reported the disappearance of Anthony, Ray, and the others--but she has come to an understanding that satisfies her: watching Ruth and Jericho together is no more inappropriate than watching her former husband’s body sleek with droplets from the shower or tense with the rapture of their own lovemaking. Ruth and Jericho are hers, are her, and there can be nothing disreputable about sharing in their joy.

Minnie’s nightmares have ceased. When she does dream it is of Ruth and Jericho.


Six months into the process, Dr. Achison suggests a change.

"Thus far you’ve been a more or less passive observer,” he says. “That’s not a criticism, you’ve done wonderfully considering. But I think it’s time to step it up a notch.”

“But I thought we were making progress,” she says. At their last session Ruth and Jericho took a walk in the park, the first time she’d witnessed them outside their apartment, and she had thrilled to see them holding hands, kicking leaves, contemplating others’ children.

“We may be,” he says. “But I’m afraid. . . .”

Minnie’s heart sinks; she imagines what’s coming.

“. . . you’ve become content to watch, to let things develop as they may. And that’s problematic, even dangerous.”

“Dangerous?” This is the first time he’s raised the prospect of dangers.

“Risky,” he amends, smiling. “Therapeutically speaking. It suggests a withdrawal from the process, a desire to cede control.” He smiles again, apologetically; Minnie knows he does not want this to sound as reproving as it does. “There’s a term for this, Minnie. Not that a term makes a thing real, but. . . . Omniscience avoidance. Everything appears to be going well, yes? Ruth and Jericho’s relationship appears to be strengthening, healing?”

She nods.

“But ask yourself this: if they were taking a turn for the worse, would you feel the same way? Would you be so willing to allow things to develop ‘naturally’? Or would you want to step in and take control?”

The response is too obvious, which is perhaps why she feels the need to argue. “But if they’re healing, doesn’t that mean I’m healing? If they’re me, if my mind--brain--is finding a healthier place, maybe I am taking control without even knowing it.” She suspects this is a lie; she feels only pleasure at their strolls and sex, too purely gratifying for the hard work of therapy. But maybe it’s true.

“It’s possible,” he muses. “Only you would know. But let me pose it this way: can you know when you have no basis for comparison? Never having tried any alternative, can you be sure the path you’re following is the right one?”

Minnie’s resistance wavers, drops. Therapy, she had believed before Snooping, was an inexact science: relative, a tautology. Whatever worked was good; whatever was good worked. But apparently with neurochemistry came absolutes. Still she tries: “I don’t think I have enough control.”

Wrong objection; he pounces on it. “That’s precisely the problem. You can’t gain control until you think you can.”

Fearing another storybook analogy, she concedes. “What do I need to do?”

“Nothing drastic,” he assures. “Just when you’re in, try to think of yourself differently, less audience than director. Don’t simply watch; ask yourself what you’re watching, why you’re watching it, whether it’s what you want to see.” He waves away her riposte. “I know you’ve already done this to an extent, it’s impossible not to. I’m simply asking you to try harder, to do more.”

“What will happen to Ruth and Jericho?”

For a moment his eyes scrutinize her face. He begins to say something, stops. “Let’s just wait and see.”


In her mind’s eye Minnie sees trees, trains, traps. She knows the therapeutic relationship is built on trust. On the edges of the vacuum that forms her vision she senses personae crowding, swirling like vapor, clamoring for entrance. For the first time she imagines one of them as her doctor, shadowy and stern. Why, she wonders, is it so hard to know one’s others, one’s self? Why can we never escape this mind? Then the room fills with light as if in answer and Minnie watches intently the scene that takes shape on the brightening sphere.

Ruth sits at the kitchen table, the scent of cinnamon hovering in the air. What was once a merely functional, uninviting space has been leavened: an oversized brass ladle hangs from a peg on the wall, its beaten surface reflecting golden cuts and crescents, a ceramic vase stands on the table, overflowing with baby’s breath, the buds’ pink shade only one hue of the rotating pinwheel Jericho replenishes daily. Ruth seems agitated but not upset; she glances frequently at the hand-painted clock above the counter, rises to peer out the kitchen’s single window. Watching her, Minnie feels a throb inside her stomach, a deep wobble greater than tension or anticipation. When the apartment door opens and Jericho enters, bearing blue flowers wrapped in plastic, Ruth runs to him, and Minnie knows what she has longed for has come to pass.


“Ruth is pregnant,” she announces without prelude at their next session. She has kept the secret a week, savoring it, but she cannot contain it any longer. Her voice is triumphant, her chin raised, her eyes squarely on his. It is almost a challenge.

Dr. Achison blinks. Then he asks, “How far along?”

“It’s still early,” Minnie says. “She just took the test. But they’ve been trying for a while.” Her voice sounds actually defiant; now that the truth lies before them, she refuses to apologize for having watched and withheld so long.

He says nothing for a time; he is enough of a Freudian to be intrigued, even intimidated, by anything having to do with sex. Then he says, “And how do you feel about this?”

“It’s what I’ve wanted,” she says. “What I’ve willed. You told me I needed to take control. This is proof I have.”

“Proof,” he repeats. “Minnie, how long has it been since you’ve Snooped on anyone other than Ruth or Jericho?”

“Months,” she says without hesitation. “Just after I first saw them in bed together.” She adds, needlessly and recklessly, “And I’ve been dreaming of them too. Real dreams. Good dreams.”

“You’ve banished the others?”

She shrugs. “I didn’t realize it at the time, at first it made me uncomfortable to watch them, but now I know they’ve been trying all along. To have a baby.”

“They’ve been trying.”

“They, I, we. I’ve been trying to have Ruth’s baby.” She laughs. “And now I have.” She realizes this makes no sense, she cannot be mother and father, watcher and watched, the one who wills and the one who receives all at once. But at the same time she feels absolutely sure of herself, sure of the miracle of surrogacy that has enfolded her life. This, she thinks, is what it means to heal: to become one, whole, a cosmos integral and secure.

“Minnie,” Dr. Achison’s voice interrupts. “How long has it been since you’ve had your period?”

She ignores him. She watches a fly bat itself against his window, stupidly stubborn to gain the light outside.

“Minnie,” he tries again. “Whatever is going on, Ruth can’t be having a baby. Or you can’t be having theirs. There is no Ruth, there is no Jericho. These people aren’t real.”

“They’re real enough,” she says. “More real than this office, than”--she points--“that machine. Their love is real. How do I know you’re real?” How, for that matter, did she know she was real?

“You know,” he says. “Reality isn’t always such a nice place.”

She rises. She considers a final gesture--dashing off a check, slamming the Optimizer shut--but decides simply to march past him and grab the doorknob.

“What about Greg?” he says as she opens the door.

She pauses for a moment, hand gripping the doorknob. “What about him?” Then she exits the office.

Another patient sits in the waiting room, an older woman thumbing a magazine. She looks up, surprised, thinking she has lost track of time. Her watery eyes search Minnie’s face. Then, catching the young woman’s expression, she smiles conspiratorially. “I used to cry at night,” she confides. “Now all I hear is singing.”


The machine, Minnie knows, has opened a pathway. For that she offers thanks. But it is no longer needed. She can travel the pathway whenever she chooses, wherever it goes.

Ruth reclining in a hospital gown, cool gunk smeared on her belly, Jericho standing proudly at her side. The ball rolls across her flesh, the screen brightens with a gray, swirling form.

The couple at the mall, pricing prams, strolling arm-in-arm past the goldfish stream, spooning each other sundaes at the snack court.

Ruth decorating, blue and white, fingering the mobile and watching it dance.

Ruth lying in bed, aglow in a shaft of sunlight. Her skin pale, her arm flung above her head, her hair splayed as if sinking. The door parts and Jericho peeks in, his tie loosened, his daily floral offering fanned under an arm. At first he smiles tenderly, begins to retreat. Then his look changes and he leaps to the bed, lilies scattering on the floor. He touches Ruth’s shoulder, speaks her name, lowers his ear to her chest. His eyes travel her body to where the blood shadows the sheets.


The doctor admits it was a close call, but Jericho’s vigilance has saved her. Within a day she has recovered her color, within weeks, having clung to Jericho every night, her spirits. She is more determined than ever to have her baby. And within the year she is rewarded. Her faith has healed her.


At least, that’s what the Snooper hopes happened.

But there remain other possibilities, random firings, she can neither predict nor avert. Ruth barren for life, bitter in a childless marriage. Jericho resuming his assaults, caged, furious. Or arriving too late to save his beloved, blankly watching the earth take her rose white body.


Ruth is Snooping on the woman in 1A. Minerva is her name. Chubby, with a headful of black ringlets and dark eyes, she squats among cardboard boxes in an apartment empty of furnishings. She calls out, but her only reply is silence.

Ruth rests a hand on her stomach, feeling the baby beat inside her, and waits for Jericho’s return.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"The Burning of Sarah Post" Hits the Stands!

The anthology Cover of Darkness, in which my short story "The Burning of Sarah Post" appears, has just hit the stands! "Sarah Post" is a story of witchcraft and evil (not necessarily the same thing!), perfect for Halloween (or the month after). Pick up a copy or two--you won't regret it (though you might have trouble sleeping!).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Baboons and Monkeys

As a lover of all non-human primates (gorillas especially), I'm never pleased to see them used colloquially to stand for human misbehavior or stupidity--as in "stop monkeying around," or, "you've got the table manners of a chimpanzee," or "you big dumb ape!" It seems to me bad enough that we've managed to drive the majority of our closest genetic cousins to the brink of extinction without suggesting that they, who never did anything nearly as bad to us, must somehow be held responsible for our sins.

But I've been reading a lot of Thoreau and Emerson lately (all in the context of a class I'm teaching), and I have to admit, both of them get a lot of mileage out of simian analogies. Here's Thoreau, in Walden (1854):

Men think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride thirty miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.

And here's Emerson, in his 1851 address on the Fugitive Slave Law:

I thought it was this fair mystery, whose foundations are hidden in eternity, that made the basis of human society, and of law; and that to pretend any thing else, as, that the acquisition of property was the end of living, was to confound all distinctions, to make the world a greasy hotel, and, instead of noble motives and inspirations, and a heaven of companions and angels around and before us, to leave us in a grimacing menagerie of monkeys and idiots.

I resort to sentiments such as these when I hear people blather on about extending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and leasing national parks to oil companies, and drilling in the Marcellus Shale, and building more strip malls, and leaving uninsured children to the mercy of the streets, and dropping more bombs on Afghanistan, and buying more handheld technogadgets, and refusing to tax carbon because China refuses to do it, and lifting regulations on Wall Street, and buying bottled water, and polluting the water that's left, and lots of other things besides. I find comfort in the thought that some people, past and present, knew the true purpose of life, and refused to allow anyone to tell them otherwise.

And I find even greater comfort in the thought that baboons and monkeys have known this all along, and never needed to be convinced.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Or Well

Pennsylvania voters, God love ‘em, have just elected (by a sizable margin) a Republican governor and (in a squeaker) a Republican senator who share, among other loony opinions, the belief that taxes are evil and should not be imposed under any circumstances. Seems like folks in the Keystone State were sick an’ tired of them damn tax-and-spend liberals in Warshington and Harrisburg with their bailouts, stimyoolous plans, and what-not draggin’ our country and our economy down.

Never mind that without the bailouts of the automobile, banking, and lending industries, millions of jobs (not only in those industries but in all sectors affected by them) would have been lost. Never mind that without the stimulus, we’d be in a full-blown depression comparable to the Great one. Never mind that the deficit under Obama is actually lower than it was after eight years of Bushonomics.

Never mind any of that. The citizens hath spoken, and their word is law.

Now, from an environmental perspective, the most depressing part of this whole business is the governor-elect’s vow to resist imposing a severance tax on the gas companies that have descended on my state like a swarm of locusts. Every other state in the union that allows deep-well drilling (the “fracking” process you’ve heard me talk about before) makes the drillers pay such a tax, which the states use to support various programs including, most importantly, environmental clean-up from the drilling. Pennsylvania’s State House, controlled by Democrats, passed a severance tax last year, but its State Senate, controlled by Republicans, can’t seem to move this legislation out of committee. With the new governor at the helm, all hope for a severance tax is lost: even if, by some miracle, the Senate could be convinced to pass this legislation, the governor would surely veto it.

Those opposed to the severance tax say it will scare away the gas companies. If this were true, I’d say that's the best reason of all that we should impose a severance tax. But it’s not true: the gas companies will come wherever the gas is, and the gas is in Pennsylvania. They’ll pay the tax if that’s what it takes to mine our state’s natural resources, just as they pay it in every other gas-rich state across the land.

As you know, I'd prefer a permanent moratorium on gas drilling. That would be the ideal. But in the absence of that unlikely outcome, a severance tax is a minimal palliative against the environmental devastation drilling causes, as well as a minimal mechanism to level the playing field for alternative energy development. It’s a recognition that when drillers drill on public lands--as they’ve already begun to do in Pennsylvania’s state forests--they owe the people who own the lands, namely the citizens of the state of Pennsylvania, something in return. It’s a tax, sure, but it’s a tax that returns money to the citizens, not one that takes money away from them.

But in the Orwellian logic of our newly anointed governor and senator, any tax is a bad tax. The only exception they’ll make, the only tax they’re all too willing to impose, is the exorbitant tax on the health, the environment, and the communities of the very people who put them in office.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Frick, Frack

In the city of Frick, the people are taking a stand against Frack.

Today I attended a rally in downtown Pittsburgh to protest industry plans to drill tens of thousands of natural gas wells (through a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”) into the Marcellus Shale formation that lies beneath our fields, forests, and cities. A broad coalition of environmental and citizens’ groups has formed to push for a state moratorium on drilling until further research into its environmental impacts has been conducted, to call on lawmakers to impose a severance tax on the drilling companies to help mitigate environmental impacts, and--most radically--to declare the city of Pittsburgh off-limits to drillers, permanently. The latter ordinance is working its way through Pittsburgh City Council. If passed, it would be the first such ordinance nationwide.

The rally was attended by none other than Josh Fox, rogue visionary behind the film Gasland. Fox whipped the crowd into a frenzy by citing the copious evidence (all of it denied by industry) of negative environmental and health consequences of drilling. He also showed his characteristic flair for the theatrical, calling up the Republican governor-elect of Pennsylvania on his cell phone and, while the crowd hooted approval, leaving a message with the man’s secretary. But the grandstanding had a serious purpose: as Fox represented it, the fight against fracking is the environmental battle of the day. Win this one, he told us, and we secure a greener, brighter future. Lose it, and we concede a future of runaway environmental and human degradation.

Now, all environmentalist prophets say these sorts of things. For Aldo Leopold, the issue was land. For Rachel Carson, it was pesticides. For Al Gore, it was global warming. Environmentalism thrives on these sorts of dire prognostications of utter collapse if that one issue, whatever it may be, is not addressed.

But this time around, I tend to agree with Fox. The natural gas industry stands in the way of healthy environments and communities not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide (if not worldwide). This latest boondoggle by the fossil fuel industry represents an effort to keep our future locked into the same sorry path we’ve been walking since the time of the industrial revolution, a deal with the devil where we forfeit environmental and communal wellbeing for the luxury lifestyle offered by rapacious robber barons. The rush to drill is based on two deeply flawed propositions that, if exposed and rejected, may well set us on the road to recovery as a people and as a world:

1. Natural gas is a clean energy source. This is, quite simply, bullshit. While natural gas is marginally cleaner-burning than coal or oil, the process by which it’s extracted is brimming with environmental hazards: contaminated water, damaged soil, toxic air. Of the three, the threat to water is perhaps the most ominous: the amount of water required to drill one well is astronomical, and there’s precious little regulation concerning where that water comes from and where it goes after it’s been drenched in hazardous chemicals. As several speakers at today’s rally pointed out, if drilling is as safe as the industry claims, then why did they enlist Dick Cheney and his cronies in Congress to ensure that legislation would be passed exempting the fracking process from key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Superfund law? To tout natural gas as a “clean” alternative to oil is akin to praising crack as a safer-burning form of cocaine.

2. Natural gas represents a “transition fuel” to a clean energy economy. Again, total bullshit. If you look at the history of the fossil fuel industry, you’ll find plenty of transitions--but only from one fossil fuel to a yet more cheap, abundant, energy-intensive, and environmentally destructive fossil fuel. From charcoal to coal to petroleum, the industry has tried them all, and they’re seeking newer and unhealthier sources of energy (tar sands and the like) even as we speak. There’s simply no incentive for the industry to do anything else, and anyone who thinks it will diversify out of the goodness of its heart or concern for its customers has been drinking its toxic Kool-Aid for way too long. (We all saw how well BP fulfilled its vow to move “beyond petroleum,” right?) Unless the rest of us make it inconvenient, unprofitable, and in fact illegal for these vampires to conduct their filthy business, the industry will continue to suck fossil fuels from the planet until it’s literally sucked dry. If we are to embrace a clean energy future, it has to start now, with heavy investment in renewables and disincentives for business as usual. This will hurt in the short term, but it will not hurt nearly as much in the long term as a continued dependence on fossil fuels.

So if you’re following this issue, keep your eyes on Pittsburgh. If my hometown can secure victory in this battle--if we can claim our land, our communities, and our health as inalienable rights no one can steal--then the collapse of the fossil fuel industry is within grasp, and a sustainable world within reach.

Drill in Pittsburgh? As they chanted at today's rally: "No fracking way!"

Monday, November 1, 2010

Well, Well, Well....

And here's a shock: it now appears that Halliburton, the company that brought us the Iraq War as well as the gutting of environmental regulations to promote the Marcellus Shale feeding frenzy, knew weeks beforehand that the cement mixture it planned to use to seal the bottom of the Deepwater Horizon well was unstable. Halliburton has steadfastly denied that it did anything wrong or that it had any prior knowledge of faulty methods or materials.

Halliburton lied.

And when Halliburton lied, 11 human workers--and countless non-human workers--died.

If the Iraq War is any indication, Halliburton's punishment for its criminal malfeasance and suppression of the truth will be . . . well, nothing.

When you go to the polls tomorrow, all fed up with the damn Democrats and itching to make a change, to get the country back on track, to axe Obamacare, to do away with the new regulations on Wall Street, to lock in tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans, or whatever the hell else you plan to vote for, remember this: a vote for the Republicans is a vote for Halliburton, a vote for everything Halliburton stands for: rampant corporate greed and disregard for human (and non-human) life. It's not about limiting government, cutting taxes, restoring individual liberties, or any of that tea-party crap; it's about limiting government, cutting taxes, and restoring individual liberties for the people and corporations who are ruining this country and this world.

But hey, if you can live with that, vote for Halliburton. Maybe they'll be so thankful they'll clean up their act.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick or Treat

Halloween, in case I haven't told you already, is my favorite holiday. There are lots of reasons for this, most of them obvious: the imaginative aspects, the fun of dress-up, the candy, the ghost stories. Then there's my own special reason: Halloween is the only holiday that's almost entirely politician-proof. When's the last time you heard some blowhard spouting off about how Halloween expresses the values that made this country great? "Our long-suffering pagan ancestors, in the days of yore...." It just ain't gonna happen.

I had a great Halloween this year, though it was tinged by a sad note: my old animation teacher, Tippi, died several weeks before. Tippi (or Priscilla, as I discovered from the obituary she was named) was one of the great influences of my young life, when, at the age of nine, I joined her class at the local arts center to learn the craft of stop-motion, cell, and other forms of animation. With regular-8 camera in hand, I produced lots of wobbly, jerky claymation shorts in hopes that one day I'd become the next great stop-motion animator, following my heroes Willis H. O'Brien (who animated my favorite movie of all time, the 1933 King Kong) and Ray Harryhausen (whose swan song, Clash of the Titans, was remade earlier this year). Of course, it didn't work out that way; stop-motion went the way of the dinosaurs when computer-generated effects hit their stride, and in any event, I'd moved on to other venues by that time. But I still think of Tippi as one of the most important people in my life, one of the first people who took entirely seriously my love of fantasy and my desire to live a life not altogether according to convention. Several years before she died, I had the pleasure of presenting her with a copy of my book on fantasy film, in which she receives acknowledgment. I acknowledge her again here as an extraordinary woman and an undying part of who I am today.

And speaking of early childhood influences, who should I run into while taking my kids out trick-or-treating (my son in homemade General Grievous costume, my daughter in homemade Ms. Pac-Man monster suit) but one of my childhood friends, Herman, with whom (among many other things) I used to construct Halloween haunted houses in my parents' basement? We'd lost touch for many years, then reconnected several years ago, lost touch again, and now (having traded emails) I expect we'll keep the friendship going once more. It was at Herman's house that I first saw some of the fantasy films I remember best today; on his birthday, his family would set up a rented projector in the livingroom and a bunch of us boys would watch such movies as The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (another Harryhausen classic) and The Blob (which made just about all of us sick). I've carried on the haunted-house tradition with my own kids; at our annual Halloween party, my son, the younger of the two, squats inside a cardboard box and pulls all the fishing lines that make ghosts and werwolves and devils dance while my daughter reads a script full of spooky names and (age-appropriate) scary scenarios. So just like Tippi, Herman was one of the first people who helped nurture my love of the fantastic, and bumping into him on Halloween was both a perfect coincidence and quite a treat.

Another coincidence, this one more of a trick: I was unable to attend Tippi's memorial service because it conflicted with my Halloween party. But I guess you could say, in the truest sense, that she was there in spirit.

Monday, October 25, 2010


My latest sci-fi story, "Frogsong," is due out in the anthology Farspace 2 (available any day now through this link). Here's a teaser:


By J. David Bell

The delivery truck rumbled along the muddy road above the swamp. In the cab, eyes fighting fatigue and the gathering dark, Todd Stuckey guided the rig up a steep grade. He could feel his rear tires slaloming in the slop until with a rattle and cough of gears they caught hold. He kept the window cracked just an inch, taking in rich whiffs of diesel to clear his head of the swamp stench, rank and stifling as a latrine. The lush green of overhanging trees faded to a blur in the twilight as luminescent bugs started to dance over the marsh like sparklers. And behind it all, as ever, the song: a drone, a peal, a whine. An endless, senseless cacophony of throats crying carols across the swamp.

In low gear, Stuckey inched down a grade that levelled at the swamp’s edge. One more bend and the compound rose in his headlights: a paved loading dock, prefab trailers, the broad squat gable of the mess hall. On the flagpole, the Stars and Stripes drooped in the sultry air. Beside the dock a halo of sulphur light revealed a solitary figure slumped in his booth, head lowered on crossed arms. Stuckey wheeled around the drive, backed her in, and hopped from the cab. His boots met the pavement with a familiar liquid smack. He circled his truck, unlatched the gate, and sent it rattling to roost. Then he approached the clerk.

The man had shown no awareness of the truck’s arrival; he remained prone, head buried in his arms, cap hiding his face and hair. Close up, Stuckey could see his shoulders rising and falling, hear his snores. They seemed to keep time with the rhythmic pulse of the swamp.

“Delivery,” Stuckey said. His voice came out loud and ringing against the background buzz. “Where do you want it?”

The clerk muttered, raised his head, and squinted. Stuckey saw then he was only a kid, maybe twenty-two, red-haired and freckled, red-eyed and raw cheeked. New guy. He removed his cap, ran a hand through unruly hair, and yawned.

“What you hauling, Joe?” They called the delivery guys “Joes”--as in “Regular Joe.” Stuckey’d have preferred to be called a Regular, but it was the Joe part that had stuck.

He shrugged. “Laminate, drywall, the usual. It’s in the manifest,” he said, shoving his clipboard at the kid’s face. “We got an unloading crew?”

The kid scratched his head as if he’d never heard such a question. “Ease up, Joe,” he said. “Just take it easy.”

“Look,” Stuckey began, but the kid had roused himself from his stool and gotten his legs out the door. “I’ll make the call,” he said, and yawned again. Then he sat there stupidly, hands in his lap, staring at his open palms.

Stuckey left the clipboard and returned to his truck. Last run of the day, he reminded himself. A tepid shower, a frozen dinner, a lukewarm beer, a rerun or sportscast in the rec room. Anything to dream the place away, drown out the sound and smell for a moment. Then bed. Then the same thing the next day.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Stupor Bowl

I was listening to a local DJ rant and rave about a guy named James Harrison. Apparently, James Harrison is a professional football player, and apparently he was fined $75,000 for hitting another football player really hard and hurting him.

Now, of course, the object of football is to hit other players really hard and hurt them, so it’s not clear to me why anyone should be surprised when this happens (or why any player should be fined for doing it).

But anyway, this DJ was talking about a Facebook site wherein fans of James Harrison are encouraged to submit one dollar to help pay his fine. Evidently, 10,000 people have already contributed.

The DJ couldn’t fathom this. He kept calling these people stupid. In fact, he used the word "stupid" approximately ten times (which in my household would have cost him ten dollars). How, he foamed, could anyone think to pay a millionaire’s fine? How stupid could you get?

To an extent, I agreed with him. It is stupid for average football fans, folks who make roughly one one-thousandth of what this James Harrison character makes every time he steps on a football field, to pay his fine.

But what this DJ overlooked is, these people already have paid Mr. James Harrison’s fine. They paid it when they paid his outrageous salary, and they paid that when they paid the outrageous ticket prices charged to watch the football games in which he hits other people really hard, the outrageous product prices charged for official licensed team merchandise with his name and likeness on it, and the outrageous broadcast prices charged for pay-per-view and the other forms of media in which his antics are featured.

If it’s stupid to pay one dollar to cover some thug’s fine--and it is--how much more stupid is it to pay that same thug fifty million dollars?

Professional sports, in short, are paradigmatic of capitalist/consumer culture, which convinces relatively poor people to consume overpriced, disposable products (in this case, the games themselves and the merchandise associated with them) in order to enrich a tiny, select group of individuals lucky or unscrupulous enough to have acquired the necessary endowments for such highway robbery (in this case, big bodies, even bigger wallets, and shriveled, nearly nonexistent souls).

And it’s not as if non-fans like me are exempt from this stupidity. When the city in which I live built brand-new football and baseball stadiums to prevent these capitalist vultures from carrying out their threats to leave town, it paid the costs with taxpayer money. Supposedly, this was necessary in order to boost civic pride (something that never paid any hardworking taxpayer one single dime) and to keep jobs in the city (mostly, I might note, the low-paying, menial, benefit-less positions--janitorial, vending, food services--that sports franchises support).

And the amazing thing is, most people in my city--in all cities--are only too happy to pay.

So yes, we’re all part of the stupidity: the fans who send their hard-earned dollars to cover the fines of bloated criminals like James Harrison, the DJs (including the one who broke this story) who host daily shows to whip everyone up into a frenzy about the team’s latest escapades, the city officials who throw taxpayer money at gluttonous bazillionaires, the taxpayers who don’t storm city hall with torches and pitchforks and throw the bums out.

But you can’t say stuff like this to anyone. They’d think you were stupid.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Trash Stinks

While I'm on the subject of commercials, how about this one for unrivaled stupidity:

A husband and wife are sitting on their couch at home. Their noses wrinkle. Seems like something stinks. Next thing you know, the camera zooms back to reveal that they're sitting in the middle of a landfill. Apparently, this is meant to represent the fact that their house is malodorous.

So what do they do? Buy a Glade air freshener, of course! Couple sits back down on couch, camera zooms back once more, and presto! they're now sitting in the midst of a forest glen. The miracle of modern air freshening technology has converted a dump to a national park.

Now, of course, once the air freshener runs out--which it will in a month or two--where's it going to go? Into a landfill, naturally (where, I can assure you, it will no longer smell quite so wholesome and piney). But that's okay--the couple can always buy another, and another, and another, and keep on disposing of them in their friendly (someone else's) neighborhood landfill. Their house need never stink again! So what if some other guy's house--or the entire planet--stinks to high heaven? So what if, sooner or later, there will no longer be a forest glen with which to compare the smell of their home?

No one expects commercials to have a social conscience. Or a brain. It would be nice if the people watching them did, though.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Droids R Us

The most terrifying commercial I've seen in a long time is an advertisement for the newest "Droid" techno-gizmo. I freely confess that I don't know what "Droid" is, though from what I've seen, I gather it's the latest and raciest in a seemingly endless line of palm-held gadgets designed to lure us away from life into a pseudo-realm of puerile, onanistic fantasy.

Anyway, in the commercial, a young guy, early twenty-ish, sits at a conference table in his office building, surrounded by his co-workers, his boss standing at the head. Our hero whips out his "Droid" and begins fooling with it. As his fingers fly ever faster over the crotch-sized keyboard, a startling, CG-assisted transformation takes place: his hands and forearms turn to shining, chrome-plated cables, and before you know it, man has become part-machine. As he completes his task and rests back in his chair, the voice-over intones: "Turning you into an instrument of efficiency."

What are we to make of this? To begin with, the masturbatory appeal of the pitch is unmistakable, with a presumably pleasurable physical transformation obtained via the agency of one's own hand. At the same time, the voice-over converts erotic pleasure into yet another business protocol: hearkening back to the efficiency system of Frederick Winslow Taylor, this commercial defines the ideal worker as the man who buries his individuality (and sexuality) in the routinized performance of corporate labor. To put it simply: you jerk off, the Company makes a killing. Work, in this commercial, is literally transformed into a fetish; sexual arousal and fulfillment arise not from human contact but from contact with, indeed inseparability from, the machine.

All of this is horrifying enough. But when you add to it the fact that the "Droid" into which our satiated worker turns strongly resembles the soulless killing machines of the Terminator movies, we've left the realm of horror and entered that of absolute, totalitarian nightmare. This commercial implies--and from what I've seen on the street and in the classroom, it's not far off--that people want to be turned into Terminators, want to surrender their humanity in the interest of corporate profit, want to lose their identity, their heart, their spirit. The Terminators are precisely what I've described above: mass-produced slave labor employed by the ultimate faceless corporate entity, the military computer Skynet; their sole reason for existence, their sole source of pleasure (if they can be said to desire or experience pleasure at all) lies in carrying out Skynet's merciless, murderous dictates. The Terminators are out to kill the human race--and they do so with perfect efficiency.

It makes me want to ask: this is what we long to become? This is our evolution as a species? This is the end of human life?

On second thought, I guess it might be.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Another Lost Tale

As promised, I'm publishing on the blog those short stories of mine that have vanished into the cybersphere due to the collapse, disbanding, or simply disappearance of the zines in which they were published. Today, I offer my story "Princess." Special prize to the first person to identify the literary allusion!


By J. David Bell

It is impossible to avoid people you live with.

Chris would be waiting for me this morning, as always. Waiting, a hand on his doorknob, waiting for the telltale jiggle of my door beside his. When it came, he would fling his door against the wall, its noise so jarring I had to stop in my scramble for the steps even though I knew he who hesitates is screwed. The first few days I eyed his blank portal as I inched toward safety, thinking a watched door never yawns or maybe even I could will it to stay closed. But always the door would snap open like the maw of a toad while I, the fly, stood transfixed. The next thing I knew Chris would be in the hall, lazily fiddling with his lock or shrugging into his baggy blue letter jacket, carelessly cocksure. Then he would look up, snap sandy hair from his eyes, and begin his charge, one hand raised as if hailing a cab, the other out to stiffarm obstacles from his path. His grin would widen as he saw how I stood, the door bar half-pushed and the toe of my sneaker wedged in the inch-wide opening. Inevitably his momentum would loosen my hold and he would ride me into a tight corner. Trapped.

Another snap and the long lick of hair would fall into place. “Yo, Deberg,” he would pant, grinning. “How’s it goin’?”

“Fine,” I would reply, my voice strangled with defiance.

“Cool,” he’d say. “Hey, how’s the poems coming?”

My teeth would clench. “Fine,” I would breathe.

“Well, that’s good.” He would smile.

And I would explode: “Listen, Chris, it’s no deal! Why don’t you just leave me alone?”

“Awww, Cy, come on,” he’d say, laying an arm across my shoulders. “It’ll take you ten minutes, I’ll give you five bucks, you get me in the door. Everyone’s a winner. Aren’t we buddies?”


“Well, what’s that got to do with it? Listen, Cy--”

“Chris, leave me the hell alone!” I would shake free of his embrace and push past him.

“Well, if you won’t even do a guy a favor!” he would yell.

I would rush down the stairs, the hallway a long gullet convulsing around me, peristaltic panic as I struggled to escape. Then bursting out the front door, leaning against the brick, slimy mollusk feel of dew-wet ivy on my back, passersby staring as I gripped my books against my chest and drew long breaths. At last off to class, no sounds of pursuit, but behind me the baleen grin of the beast, waiting to strip my shell like a mass of krill.


Princess. . . . How oft have I staked thee out, watching thru orange filter of window shade thy ballerina silhouette, thy waist a needle-thin outline, thy upper and nether regions black tulip bulbs bobbing, thy arms and legs pirouetting thru windmill arcs to make da Vinci proud, thy tresses a soft pillow of cloud behind thee? How oft thy marble hand admired as with a motion as of a bird settling to roost it flicks the shade high, and there at thy window in thy nightgown have I beheld thee, thy head tipped as if listening, thy locks trailing o’er thy shoulder, thy dexter hand resting upon the curling tail while thy sinister combs and caresses? How oft espied thy upward gaze as if the moon holds the secret to thy loneliness? How oft composed the sonnets to banish the enchantment that holds thee, and longed for the guts to cry out, Princess, cast down thy golden hair? How oft. . . .

Actually, never. But that’s what imagination’s for.

Twice weekly for two months, though, had I seen her in the seat ahead of mine in Baby Bio, a class fully living up to its prefix in that the teacher had assigned us alphabetically to seats the first day of the semester and reprimanded us thereafter for absenteeism, tardiness, or any other mutiny against the seating chart’s rigid rule. My row, second from the left, doorway on the right, hence a long humiliating walk whenever I was late (which was oft) between black slab of chalkboard and brown pickets of seats garnished with red, yellow, pink and blue. Toothpick thin professor in tweed, with a gray goatee, sadly shaking his head and marking a broad X in my square on the chart; jeering rows of jesters parading their punctuality with freckle-faced grins. Halfway down the row to my seat I drop my notebook and the coils twang, ejecting my pencil like a BB pellet to clatter at the professor’s desk. More peer hilarity and pedagogical head shakes as I stoop to retrieve it. Then creaking into my seat at last and an involuntary, stress-induced fart, provoking yet greater mirth and wrinkled noses. Only Roxane Deli does not look, does not laugh, does not squirm in her seat; only Roxane remains impervious, her broad back repelling me like a wall. Though I don’t relish her scorn, it would at least prove my ability to trespass upon her consciousness. But I do not: to her, my epic trek before the class was the passage of a ghost, my projectile pencil the merest flare minus the acrid aftertaste of gunpowder, my gastric distress a dry whisper as insignificant as the shuffling of a dusty deck of cards. I open my textbook and though the breeze ruffles her hair, not the slightest shake of her head indicates that a single follicle was disturbed.

The room: wooden chairs with hinged desks, minor incline, high terraced ceiling, fluorescent lights. My row, back to front: Stuart Crowell, Marybeth Deacon, Cyrus Deberg, Roxane Deli, Ruth Dorf, Jason Eisenson, Elaine Eckridge. On my right, Beatrice Adams; my left, Fiona Gallagher. Capsule critiques: Stuart, loud and always wrong; Marybeth, wispy and black-haired and seemingly alcoholic; Ruth, cool and sharp, with a voice like an electric shaver; Jason, red-haired and pygmy small; Elaine, stringy blonde and lost in her hockey-star boyfriend’s letter jacket; Beatrice, black and sarcastic, with purple nails; Fiona, three hundred pounds if she’s an ounce. Shrewd observer of humanity, Cy Deberg, floundering amidst the sweltering mass of accumulating details. Today I will observe how Fiona scratches her cavernous armpits beneath her rainbow-striped tank top; the next I will note how Stuart’s hand-raising takes on a strained and desperate quality as his wrong answers mount; the following I will register how Marybeth totters to her chair and catches only the lip in sitting, but remains poised for some seconds as she tries to decide which way lies solid matter. Each day more and more pressure from details I can’t help attracting; they crowd me like an angry swarm. Each day more and more of the world’s people press upon me in rude entreaty, seeking to unload sorrows as if I could free them from their grotesquerie. I’m so sick of people. I want to spring to my feet, spread my arms and scream, “I can’t help you! Now go away!” Instead, I turn to page sixty-five and see a picture of a child with cystic fibrosis.

And Roxane, in the seat before me, nibbling absently on a pencil, sporting a sunny yellow sweater, a tight black leather belt, and a flowered skirt which her legs, in crossing, have thrown over her dumpling thigh, exposing razor-sharp shiny shins. By a great act of charity one might describe her figure as hourglass; actually it is more wasp, two unwieldy orbs tied by the tiniest thread. Her hair, golden and kinky and disclosing dark roots, hangs mere inches from my seat. Lamenting the lost art of inkwells, I can do nothing but watch as she shakes her head, fluffing the snaky curls. Her smell: cigarettes and perfume, stale and sweet, like mildewed roses. Her complexion: marathon-runner red, the outcome of a makeup orgy calculated to conceal pockmarks as numerous as those on an orange rind. Her eyes: presumably brown, though lost in such a fecund overgrowth of mascara as to make any attempt at taxonomy highly speculative; her nose, long and fleshy; her lips, glossy slick, pumped beyond capacity and threatening to explode. She wears glasses with thick dark frames and says very little. When she does speak her voice is--how does one put this?--ugly, not merely deep but flat, slow, thick, like day-old coffee. Her hand is not the graceful bird of my imagined nighttime vigil; when occasionally it rises, heavy and hesitant, fingers flexing and unflexing timorously, it puts me in mind of worms groping for the surface. And if it is not called upon, it shrivels instantly and nosedives for her lap, where the tremor in her forearm tells me it is still fidgeting nervously.

But it is her back that confronts me, disdains me, reviles me. Roxane’s back, spread out like a picnic blanket before me every Tuesday and Thursday, will always be a source of shame. I know she considers me disgusting, because I sneezed on her back once, by accident--it just came out too fast. It was, in all fairness, her fault, for she was hyper-perfumy that day, physically perfumy in a way that plucked painfully at my nostril hairs. I am allergic to anything artificial, which includes perfume, Popsicles, polyester and most people. By merest bad luck, however, the incident had occurred on a sweltering fall day, and Roxane had been wearing a halter top exposing her freckled, ice cream white back--thus my nasal geyser had been particularly offensive. Compounding my ill fortune, it had been the first day of the term when my nose got the better of me, so such had been our introduction. She had said to me that day--or not to me, and not really said, but more to her lap, and mumbled--the only words she ever had, or would, and they were this: “Fucking asshole.”


Chris is waiting for me, striking a casual pose by the water fountain, his eyes roving the hallway like a john scoping out the local meat. Broad-shouldered and swaybacked, with the beginnings of a beer belly, he reminds me of various trolls and ogres from bedtime stories. But oh, is he cute! Ask anyone. That almost-military haircut with the single unruly smear across his forehead, those ballpoint blue eyes, those prominent, big-veined hands, those gunslinger bowlegs, that powerful physique enhanced by his padded jacket and his own inflated opinion of himself. His entourage doesn’t hurt either: those swooning steamy girls so eager to lap up his frat-mentality rantings about his gridiron glory days, to whisper the answers to the Chem test in his ear, to open wide and let the slimy worm crawl in. I fear I am beginning to lose my composure. I leap for my door, but Chris sees, tosses me a gesture halfway between a wave and a salute, and strides over. His boots stomp the carpet.

“Hey Deberg,” he says. “Given any more thought to my little business preposition?” Snicker, snicker, wink.

“No,” I say.

He spreads his hands. “Deberg. You look like the kind of guy who knows a quick buck when he sees it. Look. I’ll make it ten. Final offer.”

“No deal,” I say.

“Deberrrrg,” he whines. “One letter. That’s all I’m asking. Look, I’d do it myself, but I can’t write that romantic shit like you.”

Compliments, now.

“Just one letter,” he says. “I’ll never ask for anything else. Hell,” he pulls himself up, hands on belt loops, “that’s all I’ll need. I just--man, I don’t know where to start. She’s like . . . ah, like a princess. . . .” He nudges me in the ribs to make sure I caught the simile. His face is red, whether from embarrassment or the effort of cerebration I don’t know. “Just one letter. . .” he concludes feebly.

“You don’t need me,” I say. My voice grates. “You need a pimp.”

“Awww, Deberg, don’t be like that.” The duck of the head, the carpet-kick are impressive. He scrambles for his wallet. “Fifteen,” he gasps, shoving it in my face. “You’re robbing me.”

“A hundred,” I say. Saying it, I feel a strange mixture of power and dread. I begin to tremble, wondering if I would take it.

“A hundred!” He gapes. “For a lousy letter? Hell, she’s not worth that much!”

“Then no deal.” I can barely get the words out.

He stands silent for a minute, biting his lip. “Twenty-five,” he says heavily. “And you don’t have to write the letter. Just gimme one of those mushy poems of yours. She’ll eat it up.”

For a moment I stare at him, praying for the strength to commit murder. Then I push past him and race for my room.

He catches my arm. His paw grinds into my skin. “Deberg,” he says. “What is it with you? You’d think I was asking. . . .” Then a new thought strikes him and his voice changes. “You like her, is that it? Hell, just say the word. I’ll lay off.”

I look at him. The greedy, feral grin is gone; his features have softened. Can he be serious? Would the knight relinquish the princess for the frog’s sake? And if so, what then? Frogs don’t get princesses anymore. “Let go of me,” I say.

He drops my arm. I fumble for my keys and enter my room. I leave him standing there limp, drained, alone. Something clutches my chest and won’t let go.


A frail princess slept atop a tower of mattresses, and underneath was a rusty coat hanger, a lead pipe, the transmission of a Toyota Tercel, a sack of gravel, a thermonuclear device and a pea. She awakened with multiple compound fractures of the tibia and fibula, a lacerated scalp, a deviated septum, third-degree burns over ninety-five percent of her body, arteriosclerosis, breast cancer and an aneurysm. When asked how she had slept she replied, “Not bad, except for that damn pea. I should have stayed at Holiday Inn.” She was immediately recognized as the true princess, but she died the next day. There was great lamentation and rending of garments until the court wise man said, “Princesses is a dime a dozen. Rig up them matteresses again.” And thus it came to pass that a lowly serving wench, resting her tired bones atop the pile after an exhausting day of catering to the whims of a fickle royalty, complained subsequently of lower back pain and was crowned Princess. The frail one’s bones were pitched in a pauper’s grave and her name forgotten. She was too sensitive for this world, alas.

I lay in bed. The toad crouched on my chest, its mucosa tongue idly darting in and out. Princess. . . . You sit alone in your room, watching yourself in a hand-held mirror, the glass scarred and spotted, the plastic frame chipped. Your breasts, freed from the constriction of underwire and yellow sweater, sag gratefully; your posture, no longer under public scrutiny, would shame a hunchback; your stomach, girdleless, sinks into folds you are helpless to control. You swab pigment from your face with a white cloth and discard it next to a dozen rags bloodied by the same pink powder. You reach for a medicated pad and siphon grease from the creases beside your nose, the hollows beneath your eyes, the folds to either side of your mouth. You pick a clot from your hair, shake your head and scoop dandruff off the dressing table into your palm. Slowly, you begin to brush out the tangles, your hand moving in practiced rhythm, zombielike. At last you lie down, feeling the weight of your body settle, still but never satisfied. You roll onto your stomach, you clutch your pillow, you shove your face into its suffocating folds, you shake your head fitfully: finally sleep comes. You dream you are trapped in a tower, short-haired, mute. You plot revenge against the time you will be free.

Inside Roxane sleeps, innocent of the dirty designs Chris would have me accomplice to. And outside, a frog in the moonlight, I attempt to scale the tower. I spit on my suction-cup fingers, press them against the stone, but the mortar drips oil, and down I fall in a puddle, my pants wet again. I stand, hurl myself against the wall, but it repels me with a comical sprrooiiing! I rant and leap, splashing in the marsh; I shake my fists. Lilypads dance, exposing their pale green bellies; cattails snap erect and flat with metronomic frenzy; smaller creatures scurry for safety, zigzagging blindly, tapping the water in brittle ripples then off again. Inside, Roxane rolls over in her sleep, beating her arms over her head and whimpering. Outside, the frog collapses, spent.

But she saves her sorrow for night; night, shut in her tower, immune to my advances. In two days she will be back in class, aloof, her beautiful barbaric back reminding me of the time I defiled it. Fluff from her sweater will loosen as she rubs against her seat; it will float upward, sucked into the vortex of her scent, swirling, finally settling in her hair. My hand will flinch to brush it away, and I will know I can’t. I can’t touch her. I can’t--I can’t! I began to tremble, rage and frustration gagging me. And then I thought of Chris and his filthy plans, and as in a vision I knew what I could do. Springing from bed, I crouched over my desk and began to write.

Dear Roxane,

You don’t know me, but I’ve been watching you. My name is Chris Newville. I see your every detail before me now: your hair like licorice, your tits like ripe nectarines, your buns like buns. I want to clutch you, sink my teeth into you, have you for lunch. So far I’ve controlled myself, but I can’t trust myself to do so much longer. Please help. Don’t make me do something I’ll regret. I’m too shy to say these things to your face, but believe me when I say that I find you irresistible and will be watching you, waiting for my moment to have you.

Affectionately yours,


I ripped the page from my notebook and, handling it like a rat that’s likely to bite, folded it in half. I wrote her name in loopy, frilly writing, then drew a flower that was really a coiled-up snake if you looked at it hard. I crept outside. The hall was dark and quiet; no doors popped open at the sound of my exit. I laughed. I imagined Chris alone in his room, condemned to a lifetime of meaningless encounters, futile gestures, danger he was too bland to recognize. And Roxane. . . . I could hear the scream when she looked under her door and read the note, see the fearful glances from those black-choked eyes and thick frames, feel the clutch in her throat when a man at night crossed the street to her side. I foresaw that there might come a time, if I could engineer the circumstances, when she would welcome my gentle company; yes, me. There might come a time when she would be happy for what she could get, when Her Majesty wouldn’t be too high and mighty for a frog anymore. She might need me. After all, there are a lot of scary creatures out there.