I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this (and the audio version—also free on the Nightmare Magazine website—is really good).
Nominally a horror story, Sam J. Miller’s “Angel, Monster, Man” is, in fact, a really interesting piece of speculative fiction. Gets me thinking about how frequently fiction that speculates on a disenfranchised group getting power gets slotted into “horror”—and once you start thinking that way, all horror starts to look like a liberation fantasy as seen through the establishment’s eyes: Is Night of the Living Dead more about zombies, or more about the terror experienced by rural whites and the patriarchy when confronted with a competent black man? Is The Exorcist about demon possession or the threat of women’s liberation (see also, Carrie)? Is Psycho about a “psycho” or about the terrifying prospect of homosexuals no longer shackled by shame/guilt?
Tuesday was my daughter’s first day of kindergarten. At 4:20, when her bus finally arrived, she didn’t get off.
The driver checked, first calling out from the front, then shushing all of the kids and calling out again, then finally going seat to seat down the length of the big yellow bus.
My daughter wasn’t there.
Don’t worry—this is an “all’s well that ends” situation: Due to a printing error her First Day of Kindergarten name tag didn’t have her bus number printed on it, and subsequently she’d gotten on the wrong bus. She ultimately wound up exactly where she should have been, all smiles and in fine fettle—albeit about an hour and a half late, following two bus transfers, and thanks to the intercession of three bus drivers, two transpo office workers, four school admins across two buildings, and one teacher. (The second day went smoother—in part because a neighbor kindly took it upon themselves to assign their first grader the job of making sure my daughter always sits next to her.)
You’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!“, but the thing is, my son (now 11) also never showed up at the end of his first day of kindergarten. I can’t even properly recall how that came to pass, now, just that he didn’t get on any bus at all. This may have been due to some confusion about aftercare (which required he take a different bus to get to a different locale)—
but I seem to recall that the geodesic dome he’s on in the pic had something to do with it, too, being strategically located right next to the bus loading area, but on the far side of a hedge tall enough to block the play structure from view, but not thick enough to prevent a kindergartner from slipping through. An attractive nuisance if there ever was one.
Incidentally, his fish—a beta named “Electric,” given to him by an older boy who’d won it at a Labor Day fair, decided he didn’t want some stupid fish, and had thus stood in a gazebo and called out “Who wants a fish?”—had died that day while my son was gone at his first day of school. That would be lamely symbolic if it wasn’t just a fact.
Point being, the boy was fine, as you can see in the picture. He was more upset about the fish, and even that didn’t last.
Anyway, you’re probably thinking “You must have been terrified!“
But I don’t know that I was terrified then either, because I remembered the end of my first day of kindergarten. I remember it clearly, because it occasioned what I now recognize to be the first truly adult thought of my life:
I was the only kindergartener that rode my bus. The “safety” (one of a small cadre of fifth graders given fluorescent orange Sam Browne belts and tasked with holding doors, keeping the halls orderly, and making sure the little kids found their buses) led me down a long cinderblock-and-linoleum hall, where kids were other kindergarteners were lined up under construction-paper cut-outs of school buses. He stopped me in front of a red paper bus, taped high above my head on the wall, and said:
“This is your bus.”
He walked away. I stood there, alone, staring up at the two-dimensional red paper school bus, and thought to myself:
“How the hell am I supposed to get home on a paper bus?”
I tried to puzzle this out, and had a brief, vivid moment where I imagined myself shrinking down and flattening out like a Shrinky Dink™, transforming into a big-nosed black-and-white cartoon character (basically the kid from that 1980s Tootsie Pop commercial). Cartoon me moseyed up to the bus, the door accordioned open—just like the door of the real, steal, three-dimensional bus I’d ridden to school just after eating lunch with my mom (back then it was half-day kindergarten, and I had PMs)—and I climbed aboard. Then the paper bus chugged to life and cruised down the wall in a little Pig Pen-esuque swirl of penciled diesel fumes.
In that moment, and for a moment, I entirely believed in that scenario. It was the only thing that made sense. And then I recall thinking:
“No, that can’t be right.“
Soon enough another safety came and lead us kindergarteners, lined up like ducks, down to the turnaround where the real steel yellow schoolhouses were similarly lined up, and I discovered that my bus was identified with a number (that I could not read) written on a sheet of red construction paper—hence the red paper bus on the wall. So, sort of a semiotics lesson built into that first day of school to, I guess—although it was a bit above my head (pun? joke!)
Point being, kindergarten was my first time out of the home place, in a meaningful way. Going to kindergarten, among other things, meant my first brushes with anti-Semitism, with both the quiet, constant terror of bullying, and the quiet heroism of the few bigger kids who tried to stand up for you. And it was my first taste of solitude, being left to think my own slow, long thoughts in the intervals between assigned activities—something that I still treasure very much. I wasn’t me before I was finally left alone to be me.
But none of that was on the First Day.
On the First Day I had to grapple with staying calm when faced wth a seemingly impossible scenario: Here, kid, you’re six now; figure out how to ride a paper bus home.
In a lot of ways, my life has been a series of brief intervals separating moments of distorted, disconcerting reasoning–and in which the only thing that separated me from a Very Bad Turn of Events was that simple first adult thought:
“No, that can’t be right. Calm down and think this through.”
It’s the only useful response to the apparently endless string of Kobayashi Maru that make up our lives.
Not that I knew any of that then—for chrissakes, what do you expect? I was six; it was My First goddamn Day.
… and, SPOILER ALERT: the *FAKE NEWS!1!!*, “ghost SWATs” and Boltzmann brains have arrived!
Chapter 7 is here, as is every every previous chapter—free online and downloadable as PDFs, courtesy of the fine folks at Arbor Teas (who’ve also furnished discussion questions for book groups and connected with the Ann Abror District Library for special Summer Games points and badges.
Also, I’ll be doing a little Q&A here once the final chapter of Expiration Date drops, so if you have questions, please feel free to drop me a line.
Looking for that perfect comic-dystopic-romantic sci-fi beach read? You’re in luck: The first three chapters of my novella Expiration Date are now available online (in both slick-as-hella web versions, and some pretty damn fine looking PDFs, perfect for offline, ebook, and tablet reading—just clicking on the “Print” button to open and save the PDF for that chapter. As an example, here’s the chapter 1 PDF.) And don’t worry, this isn’t a cheap tease: All nine chapters will be released, free to read, one each week for the rest of the summer.
If you want some inside-baseball about the novella, you can check out this interview with Gabie at Tea End blog.
(UPDATE: Same great post, now with the correct date for the event: June 28, 7pm)
Good news, everyone: My latest novella—Expiration Date—is available free online this summer! Here’s the official blurb:
This science fiction “till death do we part” story follows young Lizzie and Bram in a relationship on fast-forward. Armed with the knowledge of her scientific discovery, Granny Gin burdens the couple with the question “What would you do, if you knew your end was near?”
First chapter went live early this morning; check it out! New chapters every week.
But wait! There’s more: The official book-release kick-off party is next week:
- WHEN: June 28 @ 7pm
- WHERE: Ann Arbor District Library Pittsfield Branch, 2359 Oak Valley Dr, Ann Arbor, MI 48103
- WHAT: A reading, some chit-chat, free tea and snackies from the sponsors, Arbor Teas, and free high-fives from me!
- DETAILS: Expiration Date Book Launch Event
See you there!
I know that makes me sound like a dick, but for context: I was a teen in the 1990s, and so Norm MacDonald is sorta fixed in my head as a half-funny smirk standing off center in a scene framed around David Spade abusing Chris Farley. It isn’t that I wrote him off—upon reflection, I just realized I never even evaluated what the dude was doing; the director, camera man, SNL staff, and guys I sat with at lunch wrote Norm off, and I took their word for it.
All that aside, this is a really, really fascinating interview. Neat stuff about craft in here—which I’m always down for—but also a really nuanced view of art as a product of human interaction and actualization.
I was gonna write a book about how to be a stand-up without being funny, but I thought it would be too cynical. I really think I could write it though.
A manual for how to perform an impression of a stand-up comedian?
That’s exactly right. It was mostly about crowd control. If you’re not very good you have to deal with the audience a lot, so it was a lot about how to do that. Like, you can pick on one person in the audience, and then the rest of the audience gets on your side because they’re afraid of being picked on. It’s all the psychology of mobs. You can learn it. I’ll go to a club and suddenly the guy who was the bouncer last time I was there is a stand-up, because he’s been there, watching how it works. Even jokes, you can do them mathematically without having any inspiration.
How’s that work?
You just take a premise and instead of following it to its logical conclusion you follow it to its illogical conclusion by having a faulty premise to begin with.
It’s surprising that you ultimately decided against writing a book that would’ve suggested that your vocation, the field of your life’s work, can be an empty, soulless shell of an occupation.
Yeah, I also thought it would be too pompous. It’s nobody’s fault there aren’t more funny comedians. If I were an awful comedian, I’d probably still be drawn to doing it. I remember when I first came to Los Angeles, Jay Leno was there and at the time he was the king of all stand-ups. And one night, I had to follow him. I was thinking, My god, this is going to be the worst. But Jay told me it’s fine to follow a good comedian. You just don’t want to follow a bad comedian. Or a filthy comic. They pull the audience down. It’s hard to go on after a filthy comic with, “What about Raisin Bran? Doesn’t everyone know how big a scoop is?”
Are you following the Kathy Griffin stuff at all?
What she did was grotesque. Disgusting. It shows how isolated everyone is. I was golfing last week and I told the guy I was golfing with, “It’s getting pretty crazy. I heard someone say they’re trying to ‘humanize’ Trump. Well, he is human.” And this guy goes, “Well, barely.” Jesus Christ. But Kathy Griffin went about as far as you can go. It’s like she had no sense of the history of that kind of image.
It’s hard to understand how someone didn’t say to her or the photographer, “Maybe let’s dial this down from an eleven to about a seven.”
The photographer, her manager, her agent, the person who made the severed head—no one said, eeeh. And I hate the immediate apology. Why are you apologizing? You apologize and then everyone just accepts that the apology is genuine.
What’s wrong with apologizing?
If it had gone over good she wouldn’t be apologizing for it. She’s only apologizing for the result and what it might mean for her career. It’s like when a guy like Anthony Weiner says, “I’m sorry. I made a terrible decision.” A decision? You had a pros-and-cons list about texting with that 15-year-old? The action wasn’t the result of a real decision.
Do go and read the whole thing. It is worth your time today.
Sideshow Bob: [chuckling] Mr. Simpson, you are forgetting the first two noble truths of the Buddha.
Homer Simpson: I am not!
For those who slept through Buddhism 101—or failed to see The Simpsons Episode 8F20 (season three, episode 21, first aired April 9, 1992)—the First Noble Truth of the Buddha is this:
There is suffering.
Which isn’t such a revelation at first glance, but like a lot of things with the Buddha, the big reveal isn’t in what he’s said, but what he’s omitted:
The First Noble Truth is not: There is suffering because you’ve done bad things.
nor is it: There is suffering because you didn’t try hard enough.
nor is it: There is suffering because you are a screw-up.
nor is it: There is suffering because man is born of Original Sin.
nor is it: There is suffering because God is dead!
nor is it: There is suffering because God is a jerk!
nor is it: There is suffering because there was never any God!
There is no “because” at all. It’s a simple statement of fact that should be obvious, but which we all deny on a daily basis: There is suffering. There just is. Often with no one to blame. Often for no reason at all. And that’s fine; stop beating yourself up over it (which, handily, brings us to the Second Noble Truth—Suffering is born of craving and desire and clinging to How Things Should Be—which is important, but not really germane to skateboarding).
I bring this up because I need to share something with you:
If you are an adult person getting on a skateboard,
YOU ARE GOING TO GET HURT.
Full stop, no ifs, no becauses, no unless, no provisos.
If you are really careful… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.
If you always wear your pads… YOU WILL STILL GET HURT.
If you are lucky or unlucky, careless or stupid, cautious or clever…YOU WILL GET HURT.
It might be minor or major, might land you in the ER or sit you on your sofa for an afternoon with ice on your knee, but one way or the other YOU ARE GONNA GET HURT.
… and that’s fine. If is fine and just and right that you will be injured, because, as the Buddha and Sideshow Bob remind us, There is Suffering.
Every time I start talking to someone my age about the fact that I returned to skateboarding at 36, they voice admiration, and then something like envy, and always lurking around is the sentence “I’d break my neck if I tried that!”
And the thing is, while you will certainly get hurt, you probably won’t break your neck. There is, as it turns out, quite a distance between hurt and crippled, and even a further reach to dead. I’ve seen folks take tremendous falls and pop right back up, I’ve seen—and taken—minor falls that have turned out to be sprained ankles and broken wrists and concussions. I’ve seen—and worn—bruises every color of any Michigan sunset in any season. I’ve seen plenty of broken bones, but not a single death or black out.
So let me share with you something my doctor told me when I told her I’d taken up with skateboarding—on the visit I scheduled as a follow-up after a trip to the ER:
“Good. Keep it up.”
Her rationale: If you are an adult American, than it is almost certain that you aren’t getting nearly enough exercise. And—Noble Truth alert!—you aren’t likely to start getting more exercise as you continue aging. So, in the absence of everything else, the choice here isn’t between taking a risk by jumping on a skateboard and playing it safe by not doing so: Not getting enough exercise absolutely guarantees a shorter life with degraded quality. Absolutely, with no exceptions. Full stop.
Getting on the skateboard? You’ll get hurt, but you won’t die. And, hell, I regularly hang with a 70-year-old dude at my local skatepark. Does he tear it up? Nope; he cruises around, carving on the transitions, working on dropping on. But he’s having hella fun, and I’ve seen him take big falls and pop right back up.
… ‘course, he goes on to say the exact wrong thing, in terms of reducing or eliminating acts of terror (which, fundamentally, are acts of the alienated—which is why I think he zeros in on the terrorist psyche with such clarity), but he starts strong, and says something that few GOPers have managed in the last 16 years:
Terrorists are humans, crappy, fallible, shitty humans, but humans all the same. Not super villains to be grudgingly admired, certainly not desperate freedom fighters, jut numb-nuts shit-heels who are almost below contempt.