Perfectly Broken

I’ve been listening to Bowie CDs on my commute, and for some reason I remembered something today.

The first time I heard David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” album, I was in high school. My brother brought the CD back with him from college. Just the CD, no case or liner notes. That’s because he rescued it from some guys in his dorm who were using it as a frisbee. They, in turn, had come by it when one of them had bought a floor-model player and found that left in the tray.

I want to stop here for a moment to enjoy the thought of an appliance department playing “Diamond Dogs”, because that’s pretty cool right there.

Right, so we were at me listening to the album. I was floored. It was the glammiest, glitziest, post-apocalypse I’d discovered. So of course I had to tape it. I hooked my brother’s CD player into my system and put in a tape. Everything was fine until it got to the final track, “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”, which is really the outro for both the album and the song “Big Brother”. It’s basically a disco breakdown that ends with a short loop that trails away to nothing, and it’s terrific. Unfortunately the disc got scratched during all of the tossing it around like philistines. Sometimes the player could work it out, but usually it would start skipping during the chant. Because it was part of the track before it, this meant that I had to keep re-recording both of them until it finally played through.

My brother wondered why I’d bothered. In his view it didn’t matter because the song skips anyway. I was 17, so all I could say was that I needed it to be right. Now I can explain it better.




A Few Good Things

It’s already hot enough to make me irritable, and the general election is so far away in a truly awful election cycle, so let’s kick off June with a little positivity! Here then are some things for which I’m grateful.

My partner loves and understands me. Wendi knows I really enjoy some odd things, like sitting out in the cold rain to watch horror movies with like-minded friends. She may well judge me for that, but if so she keeps it to herself and is outwardly supportive of my trips. She also just nursed me through recovery from oral surgery, during which she watched some truly awful movies with me. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.

My friend Tim did not turn out to be a serial killer. Seriously, I can’t explain why I agreed to go on a road trip to Evanston in the middle of winter with a guy I barely knew. For some reason my paranoia filters weren’t on, and the myriad ways this could end badly didn’t register until after I’d committed to the trip. To my delight and total surprise, I survived the weekend and enjoyed it enough to go 8 more times. I even wound up meeting those like-minded friends I mentioned above. So thanks for not killing me, Tim! My world grew because you dragged me to B-Fest.

For some reason I’m employed. I dreamed of being an impoverished writer. That’s the deal, right? Unless you were born into money you scraped pennies together for years until suddenly you became wildly successful. Instead, after getting married it became evident that we both needed to pull in good money in order to afford luxuries like food and pants. At first I resented the time spent not suffering, but honestly my writing didn’t get very good until my 40s. That’s a long time to starve for art. Also, money buys movies, comics, and video games.

The Cats Don’t Always Poop on the Floor. Sometimes they’re even useful. Just this morning I found Bacall and Bogart sitting innocently in the bathtub with the shower curtain in a heap beside them. Something under the curtain moved, and Bogart couldn’t stand to feign ignorance anymore. He started swatting at the mouse they’d cornered. So while they make messes and scratch up the furniture, at least our cats keep the rodents under control.

And now it’s time to put in a bad movie, so I’ll just leave it there.

Disarming My Smile

I’ve mentioned previously that my teeth are expected to explode, but I believe that circumstances warrant a recap. My permanent canines got lost and never joined the rest of the band, leaving me with two baby teeth sitting uncomfortably as the adults talked about their medical conditions and how much they hated their jobs. Dentists have been prodding me to do something about this for years — one of them going so far as to dramatically proclaim that the two little guys would explode — but none could even suggest what to do once they were removed. Would fake teeth be put in on posts? How would that interact with the canines that were still lurking up there somewhere? What about a bridge? No one knew.

Finally, one dentist gave me a referral to an orthodontist. Doing things for me is always a much better approach, as I’m predisposed to inaction. Of course, it took a further visit, a fresh referral, and my wife making the appointment before I actually followed up on this step. Scans were taken, casts were made, and a plan was presented to us. After hearing it I asked if I could leave my teeth at the office until they were done. This question was sadly ignored.

See, after my baby teeth get pulled, there will be a gap. That would let my remaining teeth move around, which is apparently a BAD THING. This is because left to their own devices they’ve already screwed the pooch. Not only do I have a large over bite, but my top teeth actually slope inward. Certain predators use this type of dentition to trap prey within their mouths, but usually this just gets me caught up on apples. The orthodontist recommended 2.5 years of wrangling my ivory dogies into position, which sounds to me like a lot of effort to reform proven miscreants. And yet that seems pleasant compared to the one little extra detail. Those lost canines? They’re pushing against the roots of my upper incisors, so they’ve gotta go.

This week I go in to get braces on my upper teeth. Then I’ll meet with an oral surgeon to schedule the extraction of my wayward canines (and the incidental removal of the baby teeth). It’s happening in that order so that the movement of the other teeth is under control before they get their chance to run loose. After the top incisors are pointed in the right direction, I’ll get the matching set of metal for my lower teeth.

I want to wrap this up with something witty, but honestly just thinking about this exhausts me. So many appointments to come. So many teenagers in the waiting room. So much money. No popcorn for almost three years. I’ll be pushing 50 when all of this is done. And when it’s all over I need to see about controlling my probable sleep apnea.

Now I just need to find a way to get proper nutrition out of pudding and beer.

I Didn’t Realize How Appropriate the Screw Analogy Was When I Started Writing

The other day, while I was stopped in traffic, a screw landed on my right leg. It was so unexpected that for a few my brain skipped over the event, and I stared in incomprehension. Yet the screw remained, resting against a fold in my jeans.

I picked it up and gazed dumbly at the roof of the car. “Where had this come from?” I wondered, and “Was it important?”

As the cars before me started to move again, I realized that the screw had belonged to the clip which held my visor flat against the roof in its “home” position. It wasn’t strictly necessary, and my car probably wasn’t about to collapse into so many pieces.

The point of this story — aside from illustrating my typical level of panic — is that recently life has been a lot like that moment the screw dropped. Things have changed, more or less unexpectedly, and I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s going to be okay.

Last October Wendi got the news that her position was being terminated at the end of 2014. We’d already pretty much planned on her quitting sometime this year to focus on art, so this was more of a rude acceleration of her exit than a financial disaster. At the same time, though, came word that my own position, and those of my teammates, might conclude when our project wrapped up — an event scheduled (somewhat optimistically) for the end of June. We were to find out in
February if anyone would get to stay.

It’s February, and while I’ll save the answer for when I know more about specifics, I will say that I’ve been bringing things from my cube home since December.

So the end of 2014 consisted largely of playing Borderlands 2 and watching the Murder Channel, because I’d gone numb from stress. My posts here dwindled until they finally stopped. I didn’t want to discuss what was going on, and I couldn’t find the energy to think about anything else. The queue of “Furry Widdle Bunny” strips drained week by week, until I was forced into action in January, getting each week’s done just in time for Wednesday. A few times I remembered to post an entry for the Web of the Big Damn Spider, but mostly that blog went quiet.

I’m getting back on top of things now. Seeing Wendi adjust to her new circumstances helped a great deal, as did the effort of putting out the weekly just-in-time installments of FWB. The biggest aid, of course, was coming to terms with the fact that my job security was gone. Whatever management decided, the reality was that during my seven years with the company it had transformed from a job-safe environment to one that fully embraced the phrase “at will employment”. Whether my job ended or not, it was no longer the company I’d joined.

The screw in my lap is significant, I think, but it should be all right if I don’t care to put it back in place.

Bugs and The Loved One are in My Head

I don’t know how old I was when I started reading, but I’ve never stopped. As a little kid I had a small number of my own books, and I read them each many times over. As a teenager I reached the point where I had to be choosy about which ones to re-read, and in college I passed the point where I would ever lack for unread books.

Now, according to LibraryThing, I have 1,218 books that I haven’t read. (Three of them I bought just today.) Keep in mind that I also have a stack of books that LibraryThing won’t acknowledge. It has a feature for adding unknown books — which some wonderful person out there seems to have done for my mini-comic “Dope Fiends of the Zombie Cafe!” — but I am intensely lazy and haven’t entered them.

So with everything I have read and have yet to read, my reaction to the “List 15 Books That Will Always Stay With You” game on Facebook caused me to giggle like Robert Carlyle’s Rumpelstiltskin before staring uncomprehendingly at my life choices.

After a great deal of thought (I need something to do in all those work meetings) I’ve settled on two books that, while rarely in my thoughts, are always on my mind. They are works that didn’t influence me so much as they crystallized realizations I’d come to during that final transition to American adulthood — joining the workforce.

The Loved One
My first exposure to Evelyn Waugh’s critique of life and death in America came in a high school film class, where I saw the movie of it that starred Jonathon Winters and Jonathon Winters as the high and low-class mortician brothers. Then, what I got out of it was mostly just chuckles.

Reading the book as a young man, I noticed that it was about commerce — particularly it was about the subversion of art and culture through commerce. The main character, visiting from England, discovers that his uncle now dashes off paintings for use in movies. The woman he falls in love with works for a mortician for the elite, who has so aggrandized funerals that he has become the leader of a death cult. Meanwhile, the mortician’s brother makes a mockery of ritual with his bombastic pet cemetery.

For me, this book encapsulates my leeriness of motivations where money is involved. Not perhaps an earth-shattering revelation, but one that is expressed with wit and restrained chaos.

A short, satiric book by John Sladek, “Bugs” tells the story of a man who accidentally becomes hired to manage a project at a high-tech company. Knowing nothing about management, technology, or the project, he essentially keeps his head down and lets his team run wild. The result is that they produce a sentient robot, who promptly escapes.

I bought this from the clearance table (being a fan of his murderous robot novel “Tik Tok”), and while it amused me I promptly forgot about it. Years later I accidentally became a programmer and found myself expected to perform miracles for which I felt utterly unqualified. I spent ten years feeling like a fraud until I realized that in that time I had actually become a real programmer. I looked around and my skills held up fairly well against those of my colleagues.

Sladek’s absurdist tale of success through pretense came back to me, and it seemed to me to be a fairly accurate portrayal of my career, symbolically. For that reason alone I’m certain I’ll never forget it, but there’s more. As a lead developer, I’ve tried to stay out of everybody’s way as much as possible. I’ll never know if they can make an A.I. if I don’t let them direct their own work.

Correcting the Week

It’s tempting to think that last week was a bad one. Certainly bad things have happened. A stupid and avoidable error (partly mine) at work disrupted service on the website for 4.5 hours. I’ve backed out of an event that I had grown to love because I cannot support an organizer who berates and ridicules attendees. This means I won’t be seeing cherished friends from across the country any time soon. My seemingly perpetual sinus headache has been especially strong. Menahem Golan died. And the cat that poops on the bathroom floor switched to the kitchen.

Also, we’re almost out of ice cream cookies with another full week before our next food delivery.

That right there was a joke, and although it was lame it’s important to me to try making with the funny. I have to remind myself that unpleasant events are not the only measure of the quality of life. That should be obvious, but I have trouble being positive.

So here’s why last week was awesome.

My copy of “The Green Girl” came in. You may remember that this is the documentary about Susan Oliver, the accomplished actress who inadvertently launched an entire sci-fi fetish. Also, because I contributed to both funding campaigns, somebody else’s copy came in. I just have to figure out who it belongs to.

In other purchase-related happiness, I managed to find a copy of Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! at only a 50% markup. Considering that the out-of-print collection is usually cheap at $850, that’s a phenomenal bargain.

Lest you think that I rely solely on buying happiness, I also made a lot of headway in creating 3D reference poses for the first set of comic strips. Although I’m beginning to fret about the schedule, the long-term time savings from this process makes my hopeful of catching up quickly. Additionally, this will keep me from avoiding more dynamic layouts.

As if that weren’t enough, I received word that two anthologies I’m in are in the proof copy stage. I even got a PDF of one of them to review. It’s thrilling to have a short story and comic about to be published by others, and to get this news on both at once is amazing. This is what I’ve always pursued, and to let it be eclipsed by a few negative occurrences is lame.

So it was an eventful week. Some of it sucked, but that’s okay because a lot of it was pretty damn spa dominos. You read that right. Spa dominos. That’s auto-correctish for shpadoinkle, and that’s okay with me.

Stress Break

Over the past month I’ve tried repeatedly to write an essay about the stress I’m under at work. I’ve abandoned multiple attempts on the topic, as each one eventually devolved into whining. I don’t want to write that, and I’m betting that you wouldn’t care to read it.

Also I’m a bit paranoid, so I kept getting nervous that my boss would stumble across my complaints and decide to stop defending me to upper management. So it’s really not about what I think you might want so much as what my animal brain fears. Sorry.

Anyway, here’s what I’m going to do instead. I’m going to write a little bit about some good things that have helped keep me going through this.

First, of course, is the support and understanding of my wife. Whether I need an emergency lunch delivery, some quality down time with a terrible movie, or to spend a little money on shopping therapy, she’s done her best to keep me propped up. We both know that it’s not going to get better any time this year, and it’s vital to my well-being that I know she’s got my back.

On a less pleasant note, it’s also helping that Wyeth has stopped pooping on the bathroom floor every day. Most days still, but it’s an improvement.

I recently turned out a 2-page script on short notice, for a secret comic project being put out by a secret publisher. I’m still amazed at my fortune in being secretly included, and I can’t wait to be able to be less secretive about the whole thing.

Less hush-hush, I’ve been working on a submission for a Lovecraft anthology. I mentioned here quite a while ago that I’d been finding it difficult to ape Lovecraft’s narrative style. Well, that story continued to languish until I supported the Kickstarter for this anthology. When I discovered that there would be open submissions for it, I dusted off the idea and tried it with a different approach. It still wasn’t working. Something about writing a character driven past the edge of sanity was not sitting well with me. I reluctantly decided not to submit a story.

Two days later the open call for submissions was officially announced, and I noticed that there were only two restrictions: stories had to be set in Lovecraft’s New England, and they had to be written in the 1st person. I slept on it, and the next morning I had the germ of an idea. The first draft’s been flowing pretty well, and I’m pretty confidant about making the deadline.

Sleep helps too. Lovely sleep. I feel like I’ll never get enough of it this year.

Working Hard at Goofing Off

I stayed home last week, intending to do housework, organize some of my hoarded entertainments, and generally be happily not at work. Instead I mostly sat on the coach, hating myself for being a failure of a Makie.

Four days into this, I finally recognized that I was again exhibiting signs of a downward spiral.

As I further reflected, I also realized that at some point I’d allowed my entire self-image to revolve around work. No matter what I did on my own time, I felt no sense of pride or accomplishment anymore.

That’s just stupid.

So I decided to do something — something new — just to be able to point to it and say “I did that!” I’ve been wanting to do a comic strip for years now, but I knew I’d need some references in order to turn out the artwork with any speed and consistency. So I downloaded a 3D modeling program (without knowing the first thing about making models) and whipped up a model of a cartoony angel.

"I did that!"

“I did that!”

It still took until well into this week to start feeling at all better, but damned if I’m not pleased with myself for having put together a clumsy, unarticulated model!

Goodbye Ling

Last week we said goodbye to Ling, who survived far longer than expected on an emergency diet supplemented by baby food. When we first got her, in the late 1990s, we were living in a townhouse. She was our third cat, and she loved Toupee (1st) and feared Austen (2nd).

It took me a long time to accept her, probably because loving her would force me to confront Austen’s bullying behavior. In fact, when Austen died I actually resented Ling for suddenly thriving.

I’m a horrible person.

Ling was always weird, even by cat standards. She liked to drink from the bathtub while we were preparing to shower, and she would constantly prowl the kitchen counters and sink for scraps of food. She once stole a sandwich from one our friends. She’s our only cat who managed to eat from the fish tank. She would come down my shoulder from the back of my chair, stick her rear end in my face, then loop around to do it again.

Grace was not Ling’s strong suit. She would hurl herself bodily at ledges, always nailing herself in the chest, then scramble up.

She was never afraid of company. While the others would hide upstairs, Ling would happily move from lap to lap soaking up warmth and attention.

When she was young, she dashed through a slightly open door to chase a stray. Then she freaked out and wedged herself into a car engine.

Last look at a loving friend.

Last look at a loving friend.

On Monday night she took the final step in her long decline. She would be on her way somewhere and just stop to lie down. We tried to make her comfortable and hoped she’d rebound yet again, but by morning it was clear that she was not going to come out of it.

We decided that we couldn’t leave her alone. It was time to let her rest. Wendi stayed home with her and made the appointment. I failed her for the final time and went to work (only because of a meeting). Never one to do the expected, Ling died a few hours before she could go to the vet’s. I got the news right before that damned meeting. It was everything I could manage to get through that meeting without lashing out in grief.

My final memory of Ling is petting her before I left. She had crouched on a mat in the kitchen, unable to complete whatever cat mission she’d been on. Just inches away, Dmitri and Fischer wrestled. Barely two months old, they had just gained command of all their limbs and spent every waking moment in energetic play.

I could wrap this up with any number of pithy observations on that moment, but I really don’t want to spoil it. I’m just glad that for the next few decades we’ll have cats who knew Ling, however briefly.

Climbing Past Sisyphus

It’s been a long summer. Extra hours at work… Well, that’s it, really. I haven’t had much time for anything else.

That’s not exactly true. I just haven’t done much else, even when I had the time.

At first I wondered if I was falling into another down phase. After all, one of the symptoms is a lack of enthusiasm for doing anything much. Also, I’ve been more irritable — another typical indication of a downward trend.

The weird thing is that I’ve been largely functional. I wash dishes, run laundry through their machines, keep up with taking care of the cats: all sorts of activity. But then I just sit, not doing much else.

I’m not sure what to make of it. It could be just a minor low, enough to keep me from writing but leave me otherwise okay. Or it may just indicate that I’ve made more chores so routine that they’re unaffected by my normal lack of motivation. Also possible is that this is situational, brought on by overwork, and not subject to my usual patterns of behavior.

What’s indisputable is that it’s been months since I’ve produced anything but these blog entries, and that’s been touch-and-go.

I don’t mean to complain, and I hope it doesn’t seem that I am. My intent is simply to reflect on my recent lethargy as I begin the climb back to productivity. I have a lot to do: finish an advice column, write a short story, finish one comic script and write two more — and those are just the tasks I feel obligated to do! I won’t have a lot of time for retrospection once I get going, so I’m doing it now.

And what I’ve decided is that I need to make writing an automatic task, like feeding the cats. Or writing a post for this blog (nearly) every week!