From Oregon

Volume 2: Summer 1997

Here I am in Corvallis, Oregon.

It's come to my attention that in a year I eat approximately my own weight in potatoes.

So - what do you know?


This year's sole New Year's Resolution was to travel less.

Okay, I know what you're saying. "Less? He never comes to visit as it is!" [1] Okay, true. Let me see if I can explain this.

Over the past few years I've become more aware of just how incredibly rich our options are as members of this society. We can walk into one of a number of groceries in our town and see literally thousands of different items for sale. And it's not just one of each, it's dozens or more. Walk into a small bookstore and there are more titles than even existed a millennium ago. At the local discount warehouse you can get a pallet full of video tapes. Think about it. At $15 a pack, say 72 packs per layer, 10 layers - that's $10,800 just sitting there. And we don't even think about it.

We think nothing of making trips in a few hours that would take a week or more a hundred years ago. When was the last time you walked, bicycled or rode a horse to the next town? See? We don't think of distance any more. Our scale has changed. "Far" has become someplace you fly to, or it takes more than a day to drive.

Along with this change of scale has come a change in our lives. What percentage of the U.S. population lives close enough to work to walk or ride a horse or bicycle there? I'd wager it's well under 5%. This is an incredible change from the last century.

My resolution was a response to this. I wanted to see what it was like to live in a small town, walking to work and the store, for a year. No travel to other towns and cities for pleasure; necessities only, like doctor's appointments.

As of August I've kept and not kept this resolution. I do indeed travel for pleasure: some kiting trips to the coast, a few shopping and social trips to Portland and Eugene, one plane trip to Dallas, Texas. But these are few enough that I really have come to better appreciate how big this county is. I can't say that for the state, or the country, or the world; I have no idea what it would be like to travel from one end of one to the other by bicycle.

It is indeed a big world.

Goodbye Summer

Fall began this year on August 18. For months the weather had been dry, clear, and sunny. That Tuesday morning, the sky was gray, and it was raining. Now there are always clouds in the sky, and it's often completely overcast. It was great while it lasted, but I'm not sorry to see all the sunshine gone.

The Corvallis Community Band's summer concert series has ended. No more sitting on the lush grass of the park, listening to classics, until next year.

You know it's the end of summer when you see a sign like this one, from a lumberyard near Portland:


School Essay

What did I do with my year? In short, not a whole lot.

The biggest event was a trip to Dallas, Texas to attend the second annual Texas Bear Roundup. I'll get to that later on. I've spent some time kiting out on the coast. In June and July there was a spate of visitors. I've read some books and bought a bunch more music. Much time has been spent on this computer, the Internet and working on Web pages. Work still takes forty hours a week.

I haven't moved. This studio apartment has shown its drawbacks. There's no room for a comfortable reading chair, and it's not possible to entertain more than one person. It's gotten to be a bit crowded. On the plus side, it's easy to keep clean, and it's private and as quiet as I want it to be.

Okay, it was quiet except for the Month of Mexican Oktoberfest. Some folks moved in upstairs who liked to play Mexican music, and a lot of it was polka. So what I got to hear was the oom-pah oom-pah bomp bomp bomp of the bass. It drove Glacier crazy when he stopped by, but I usually didn't mind too much. It might have been loud, but it wasn't on at ridiculous hours. If it got bad I'd just crank some Zappa for a little while and then it would go down. When I started approaching my long-term intolerance level, they moved out. It's been quiet since.


I spend a lot of time with my computer. Why not? This is the computer system I've wanted ever since I was in high school. It can do almost anything I want it to. So what have I been applying this incredible system toward?

  • A Web site called the BeanWeb, devoted to the most peculiar comic book called Tales of the Beanworld. It's an extensive site of fifty pages or so, and it's mostly done. It was a labor of love that had an unexpected fringe benefit: the creator of the Beanworld saw it and likes it. He even sent quite a few really neat goodies, including a signed copy of the rare issue #1!

  • Working on my own Web site. It got so big I had to go out and find more storage. It keeps getting added to bit by bit. A friend made me realize what it is: it's my attic. Old stuff I can't bear to get rid of goes in there. Plus I get to tell stories and make art. It mostly satisfies my creative itch.

  • I've been putting some time in to learn a bunch of graphics software, and using a graphics tablet bought cheap on consignment, but haven't done any serious projects yet. Something new and funky will be done for my version 3.0 Web site. There's an old project that I've wanted to resurrect as well. And then there's the half typeface...

  • In its spare moments, my computer has of late been working on an idleware encryption cracking project. It's part of a cooperative effort, with thousands of computers around the world devoting their idle processing power toward cracking an encrypted message.

    There's a similar project starting to analyze SETI data using spare computing power. Neat.

Traces Of The Past

You can't go home again, but sometimes the best of the past follows you into the present.

Aside from my friends, there are several things I miss about New York: Jeff's pizza, snow, a hard cider from Vermont called "Woodchuck", and the NPR radio show What Do You Know?. Well, there's not much hope for snow here in the Willamette Valley, and while friends have offered to send Jeff's pizza it's not the same. But now I'm two for four; Woodchuck and What Do You Know? have shown up on the Northwest coast!

What Do You Know? is the funniest radio show I've ever heard. Host Michael Feldman presides over a two hour show that features the What Do You Know? quiz, audience interviews, a three-man jazz band, and a weekly salute to a town in America (picked out by throwing a dart at a map!). Mr. Feldman's got a wry, self-deprecating delivery, and it works for me. The first time I heard it, he spent the entire show riffing about the discovery of a fungus in the north central U.S. that was thought to be the most massive single organism on Earth. It was great. When I heard that the show was coming to NPR here, I was a happy camper.

Woodchuck isn't available locally, but I know where to find it in Portland. It's just a hard cider, but it's a little sneaky; it's 10 proof, which is stronger than beer. One of those is enough in an evening. I only drink it with beef stew though, which means about once a week.

Yes, I still haven't learned to cook. My diet is very dull, but it works for me.

The other thing that followed me out here was parents. They visited here in July, in the middle of Visitor Season.

Visitor Season

What is it about summer? Nobody visits for most of the year, and then WHAM! Everyone shows up.

It started with Ken. He's a biker from eastern Canada, and moderator of the Internet's Harley-Davidson Mailing List. He met Glacier in Colorado and they rode back up here together. We had a great time hanging out for three days.

I dropped Ken off at Glacier's to get his bike, and by the time I got back my parents were here. They had been traveling across the country from New York, visiting relatives and going to a cousin's wedding. This was the first time they'd visited here. I thought they were going to stay for three days or so, but they'd planned for a week!

We did a bunch of fun things together. We drove down the Pacific coast and saw sea lions. We walked on 2,500 year old sharp lava beds in the Cascades. On the 4th of July we watched Corvallis' fireworks show. They went up to Portland and down to Crater Lake. I borrowed a video camera from a neighbor, and some of this is on videotape. We had a good time. My refrigerator filled up with take-out leftovers.

1.[half standing on lava]   2.[oregon coast]   3.[oregon coast]   4.[tide pool]   5.[anemones]

1. Standing on the Belknap lava flows - 48K image
2. The Oregon coast above Newport - 44K image
3. The rocky Oregon coast - 32K image
4. A tide pool - 57K image
5. Anemones - 78K image
[Images courtesy Martin & Florence Irons]

After that, I had a breathing space for all of two days. On the following Tuesday we picked Goat up at the airport. We had a good time together during the week. That weekend was Glacier's second annual gathering for Northwest gay men, and we spent the weekend out at the farm. It was nice to meet a guy I'd corresponded with several years before.

By the time Goat went back to Tennessee, I was a little stressed from three weeks of visitors. It was a big change from my normal quiet existence.

As a postscript, let me note that Beth & Eric visited in Spring and we had a great time bicycling around town, seeing the lambs at the university's Sheep Research Center, and flying kites on the coast.

Be Afraid

There's a vegetarian product in a local supermarket that's supposed to be a substitute for ham. It comes in a uniformly pink slab, and it's called "Meatless Wham".

News Flash

It turns out that Goatboy is imaginary!

Back around January, I found this on a Web site that reviews other sites. They reviewed the site of a documentary maker who's been planning on making a documentary about Goat. Here's what NetGuide said about it:

    Goatboy and the Music Machines

    Meet Goatboy, "a modern-day mountain man, living in
    relative isolation in the hills of Tennessee" who hoards
    piano rolls and early recordings. Goatboy is actually an
    entertaining figment of multimedia artist Randy A.
    Riddle's fertile imagination. Randy's site is a pseudo
    documentary in the making, including audio clips of
    gay-themed songs from the turn of the century.

So I must have been deluded when I went down to Tennessee. I must have lived there alone, and done all the chores myself. The only real question I have is, who came and got me when my car broke down in Nashville?

Some folks suggested that I was part of the Goatboy Hoax. That led me to the thought "Who says men can't fake it?".


This studio apartment is full. When Goat was here in November he designed and built a funky table for the computer (and to put a dinner plate on, as well). It's a deep plywood top, with 3/4" galvanized steel pipe providing the legs and framing. All it took to make it was a drill. It's got a neat industrial look to it. I made some bookcases to match. They're easily disassembled, and can be used in case my plumbing springs a leak.


The coast has lured me a number of times. Earlier this year I picked up a high-end stunt kite, an Air Master Bad Boy. I've learned some radical tricks for it. It's a real pleasure to fly, although it requires a bit of maintenance. The tricks are somewhat hard on the kite, and it needs some minor repair.

[Air Master Bad Boy]

When I was last out at the coast with my folks, I stopped by the kite store and picked up a very odd four-line kite. It's called a Revolution, and looks a bit like a flying bow tie. You can fly it up, down, sideways, and even upside down. Its controllers are completely different from two-line stunters, which make it a challenge to learn. It's a lot of fun, but it's so weird.


It's been a good season, though Fall is now here, along with rain.

Meeting a Hero

This Spring I went to a comic book convention in Portland. I went to see two guests: Phil Foglio and Andy Mangels.

Mr. Foglio is mostly known for his illustrations of the Myth Adventures trade paperbacks. I really enjoy the vaudeville humor of his series "What's New?", which ran in Dragon magazine, and the ongoing adventure of his larger-than-life character Buck Godot, Zap Gun for Hire.

I wanted to meet Andy Mangels because he wrote an article on gays in comics that was one of the influences that prompted my coming out.

To make the story short, I met both. Phil Foglio was fun to meet, and I ended up walking away not only with two "What's New?" collections, but also three of the original Buck Godot pages, and a color print that was only given out to comic distributors. It was a great bit of swag. The pages and print are framed, and hang on the walls at home and work.

Meeting Andy Mangels was a bit surprising. He wasn't quite like I pictured him. I met his lover, which was neat. He was pleased to hear my story, and autographed a copy of Gay Comix, which he now edits.

That issue held something very interesting. Back when I read the original article on gays in comics, there was a three panel excerpt from one comic that really hit me hard; I knew actually what that character felt. The issue I bought has a short story that's a sequel to the original three panel excerpt, and the character ends up having a good time on his first date in a long time. It is very satisfying, and leaves me with a warm feeling.

Junk Mail

I've been trying to avoid junk mail. I've found that you have to be extremely vigilant and persistent. Whenever you subscribe to a magazine, be very clear that you do not want your name distributed. Utne Reader seems to distribute names to every liberal cause.

The good news is that after a few months, the amount of junk mail from them has dropped to almost nothing.

Dallas, Texas

After having a few bad experiences earlier this year, I realized that I had to break out of my rut. My Dallas, Texas-based friend Gordon had a standing invitation, so I decided to take him up on it. He suggested coming down the weekend of the Texas Bear Roundup. While I wasn't sure I wanted to be at another bear event, after a bad time at the last one I attended, I decided to give it a try.


The plane got in on Tuesday afternoon. The best part of the flight was coming in to Dallas. Twenty or thirty miles out, we were still above the stratus cloud cover. Off in the distance was a set of cumulus clouds that boiled up from below, breaking the stratus and sending a set of puffy towers into the sky. It looked like a castle in the air.

As I left the airplane I donned a velvet jester's cap with bells. After all, it was April Fools' Day.

Gordon picked me up at the airport and we went and met his friend Scott. We ate at an all-you-can-eat place that was empty at 8:30. Maybe it's a Texas thing. We talked about our dissatisfactions with the bear community. The conversation was good, but the burritos were not.

We returned to Scott's place, and met his wife. Yup, he's a married man. Yet another case of a bisexual man with an understanding and supportive wife.

Then it was back to Gordon's place for the evening. A surprise was in store. Gordon's a pack rat. His place has a small kitchen, 3 rooms downstairs, and two bedrooms above. The only place that had more than 2 feet of clear floor space was in the guest bedroom. The whole thing is a technohistorian's paradise, with old computers, reel-to-reel tapes, and even two coin-op videogames. His PC room has eight running at once, and he has five phone lines. The walls are covered in art from his nine years in Paris, and other works he's collected.


On Wednesday we went to the airport to pick up Dana, a somewhat quiet guy from L.A. We had dinner at a good pasta place in Dallas' gay neighborhood. Gordon invited his friend Tom (another married bisexual bear) out for dinner, and we had a good time. I was a little saddened that Tom wouldn't be at the Roundup.

Dallas-Fort Worth is a very inhospitable place. It seems to be made of four things:


     corporate offices

       strip malls

         gated communities

Just one after the other, for mile after mile.

There isn't any there there, if you get Ms. Parker's drift [3]. It's all roads to work, shopping and home. Not many trees, no parks in evidence, and flat. Nobody rode bicycles, and nobody walked anywhere. How could they? The roads are designed for cars and trucks: no bike lanes and no sidewalks. It was like the movie Crash: no people anywhere, just roads and cars. I had stepped into a Ballard novel.

The only place that felt like a community was the gay neighborhood, but it felt like an oasis in a big desert.

After dinner, we went off to a piano bar called The Hideaway. It had a small front bar with piano, a big patio, and a back bar. We hung out in front and listened to the singers. For a place the size of two living rooms, why did they need an amplifier and microphones?


On Thursday things started getting more interesting. There was a preregistration party at a bar, and we had a good time. Gordon is very self-assured and can introduce himself to people at the drop of a hat. So I met a lot of folks: Scot, a German teacher from Austin, and his friend David, who co-founded a company to help people with AIDS; Mack, a friendly guy up in Vancouver BC; Charles, another person from Austin with long red-brown hair, a beard, Celt blood, et cetera. Someone was walking around taking pictures later in the evening and got one of us with the bartender. All in all, quite a good time.

We were going to pick up a British friend of Gordon's earlier, but he got bumped to a later flight. They offered him $650, so he took it. We went to the hotel to find him, as he was supposed to arrive at midnight.

While about six of us waited on the chairs and couches, a young woman came up. She was short, thin and somewhat pale, in a black dress with pearls. Definitely dressy. The surprising touch was that she was holding a cigar. She asked, hesitantly,

I don't mean to offend or anything, but I've heard that there's a convention for gay men in this hotel this weekend. Are you all a part of that?

(How could she have guessed, aside from the couple lounging together on the couch? Maybe it was that we were all bearded, too.)

We said yes, we are. She asked if she could ask some questions, and we said sure.

She started by saying she'd come from a conservative town and didn't know any gay people. Ha, we said. You do, they're just not out.

From there on, the questions kept flowing from her. How did we know we were gay? Was there ever a time we liked women? Could we change? How did our families deal with us?

One set of questions in particular was fascinating. Were we attracted to her? (One bisexual man who had joined us said yes.) She revealed that she took our lack of interest as a personal defeat, like she hadn't succeeded in what she was trying to accomplish.

The funniest moment came when two guys in full leather walked by. She leaned over and asked me "Do they know they're stereotypes?". I replied that they were probably aware of it.

The conversation ended at 1:30 AM, when the person we were expecting arrived. We went off to Dennys. She declined my invitation to join us.

She'd said that she wanted to go to Hollywood to act, but I told her she should go into anthropology or sociology instead.

After that I was really jazzed. I really get a kick out of answering people's questions.

Dinner at Dennys was fun. We got asked if we were in a band.


Another lazy morning. These folks like to sleep in.

We did... something. I can't remember. The day seemed to begin with going to lunch, followed by an OfficeMax. I picked up some nice envelopes for correspondence, and the three of us (Gordon, Dana & I) bought two boxes of laser printer business card blanks. We thought we'd make personal cards to give to people we meet at the Roundup. We went back to Gordon's place, and I ran off 50 or so cards. It was fun.

At OfficeMax, the woman at checkout asked us if we were in a band.

Then it was on to the event itself.

Since I hadn't registered ahead of time, I had to go wait online. I ended up as #330. While I was waiting there, who walked in but Tom and Jeannie, his wife! She paid for his registration as his birthday present. What an act of understanding. It was really nice to meet her. Tom was #331.

By this point there were 300 bears around the hotel. The hospitality suites (smoking and non-smoking) were on the 21st floor, and the elevators were full of big bears. Too full, in fact. They broke down at an alarming rate. Quite soon, signs went up stating that no more than six people could be in an elevator at the same time.

After waiting a while, I made it to the suite. Mingling was okay, and I ran into someone from Portland who I hadn't seen in a long time. He had moved down to Texas, which explained why.

We all trooped off to the Dallas Eagle to see Shann Carr, a lesbian comic. We got there for the end of the show. The place was packed, so we didn't stay out too long. She was really good. Why do there seem to be so many more lesbian comedians than gay ones?

Eventually we all went out to Dennys again. The server asked if we were in a band.


Saturday morning was the big brunch buffet in the hotel convention room. The usual cast of suspects was there. When Shann Carr came in she got an ovation which embarrassed her so much she left and came back in a few moments later. It was fun.

During brunch, Tom and Charles were discussing massage techniques. Charles said corn starch was a very good substitute for oil. We decided to try it out. We went back to Tom's apartment. Jeannie was gone for the day to a local SCA event, so we had some peace and quiet.

It was wonderful. Three person massages are the way to go. There was quiet, peace, friendship and comfort. It was a golden afternoon.

Dinner was with Gordon, Tom and Jeannie. We talked about marriages with bisexual partners. Tom made the observation that in their marriage, Jeannie was the alpha female and he was the beta male. Cool folks who I'd love to have as friends here.

When we returned to their apartment, I pointed out comet Hale-Bopp. They hadn't seen it yet. Makes me appreciate living in the country.

Gordon and I returned to the hotel. We had already missed most of the bear contest, but that was okay. The idea of having a contest among men who don't fit traditional standards of beauty seems wrong somehow. I hung out with Bob, a guy I'd met the night before.

In the course of watching the end of the contest, I realized that I'd met Bob before! In fact, he was one of the people I'd wanted to meet again down in Dallas. It took me a day to recognize him - he'd cut his hair and let his beard grow. It was kind of funny. "Oh, you're that Bob!"


Sunday started on the grumpy side. Gordon and Dana were going out to Six Flags over Texas in the morning, but I wanted to sleep in. We'd been getting in around three, and I wasn't getting enough sleep.

My fuse had been lit, and was smoldering. I was getting grumpy.

It didn't occur to me that when Gordon left, I would have to also. So unhappily I left quite early, hitching a lift over to the hotel with a book. After a few hours reading in the lobby, a barbecue lunch was held at a local bar. Some friends (including Bob) disappeared unexpectedly, and I hitched another lift... somewhere. Eventually ended up at the Hidden Door, a bar that (thankfully) has a big back patio.

We were there for a loooooong time. I met a bunch of people, some of whom hadn't come to the Roundup. Here's a picture from later in the afternoon. Don't ask me why I don't look happy. It was a good time.

[Bears at the Hidden Door]
Charles, half, (that) Bob
Gordon, Dana
34K image
[Image courtesy Gordon E. Peterson II]

But the afternoon did go on and on. Eventually I got tired and wanted to go home, but Gordon had gone to drop someone off. I went outside and waited. To pass the time, I chatted with the security guard, a guy from New York. We reminisced about the Adirondacks and Catskills.

By this point my fuse was over half-way burnt. I just wanted to be home, in my own bed, getting some sleep.


I came home. Hoo-rah.


Scot informed me that a picture of a group of us taken Thursday at the preregistration party ended up in the TWIT (This Week in Texas). He's looking for a copy to send or scan.

Work went just fine when I got back. My posture improved for some strange reason. So it did me good after all.

The 1997 Dream Performance Series

This has been a surprising part of my dreams this year. So far, I've had four dreams starring performers I would like to see. They ranged from hanging out with Frank Zappa to a very bizarre Philip Glass performance. The most electrifying was the Residents performing God in 3 Persons. The other dream was the first performance by the comedian Shann Carr.

Laurie Anderson, Jane Siberry, and Joe Jackson haven't shown up yet, but the year's not over.


Well, I am an American consumer, after all: of music, words, and images.


  • High on the CD rotation has been David Byrne's new release, Feelings. It's got a great retro-seventies cover, but the music is timely. His lyric focus is our national feeling of malaise. After the hip picnic of "Fuzzy Freaky", he jumps into our troubled unconscious with the opening of "Miss America": I love America / Her secret's safe with me / I know her wicked ways /The parts you never see.

    He follows this to the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing, in "Dance on Vaseline":

    Started in Oklahoma
    You always think it happens somewhere else
    This madness is attractive
    Until the day it happens to yourself

    & Power might be sexy
    But check her in the cool grey light of dawn
    A legislative body
    And all at once your lust for her is gone

    The following song, "Gates of Paradise", warns:

    So beware of good intentions
    And the passion in their eyes
    For none of them can open
    The Gates of Paradise

    He widens his range of feelings with the gentle "A Soft Seduction" and "Amnesia", anger at "The Civil Wars", and the robo-bop of his collaboration with two members of DEVO, "Wicked Little Doll". The standout of the album is his acceptance of the world in "Finite=Alright". Good stuff.

  • Wire's The Drill is about all anyone could ever want in self-cover recordings. They give us nine separate and different interpretations of the title song: sharp, biting, flashcube vocals, synth and air raid alarms over a beat that doesn't stop. Put it on, dance, you can't do anything else. A successful exploration of monophonic monorhythmic repetition. dugga dugga dugga

  • R.E.M. continues their winning streak begun with Automatic for the People with their new release, New Adventures in Hi-Fi. If you can ignore Michael Stipe's protests of "this fame thing - I don't get it" and the rather embarrassing "New Test Leper", you'll find some evocative music. Recorded on the road, this album offers rewards to those who listen with open ears.

  • Frank Zappa is still dead, but I'm not sure you can prove it. His series of live double CDs You Can't Do That On Stage Any More vol. 1-6 offers more live music than most musicians produce in a studio. From goofing around on the tour bus in the '60s to the tight bands of the '80s tours, the pleasure doesn't stop. Particularly grabbing is volume 6. The first disc is devoted to songs about sex, and includes the hilarious "Make a Sex Noise" and the operatically tragic "Shove It Right In". The second disc contains great stuff like "We're Turning Again", "200 Motels Finale", and the offworld jazz of "Lobster Girl", "Black Napkins", and "Strictly Genteel". It's always a pleasure to hear Mr. Z invite the audience to clap along to the beat of "Thirteen", which is in 5/8+4/4 time.

  • Soundgarden's Superunknown was a surprise. The local music store had a $5 copy, so I bought it to get the song "Black Hole Sun". When I finally listened to the whole thing, I was hooked. They write catchy hard rock. Like the Spin Doctors' Pocketful of Kryptonite, though, I know that I never need to get another release by them. Favorite tracks on this one are "Let Me Drown", "Head Down", "Black Hole Sun", and "Like Suicide". It's odd that the downbeat lyrics don't depress me.

  • Negativland brings us sarcastic commentary on our media-saturated society. Guns is two tracks, "Then" and "Now". The former splices sound bites from '50s and '60s westerns, where the pistol and rifle were king. The second track features the voices of young women shilling for gun manufacturers - who'd have thought an Uzi could be so feminine?

    Free is a collection of tracks skewering all things American, from nationalism to evangelism to alcoholism. Liberal use of sampling gives us Mike Wallace lecturing on the inadvisability of playing in the street, and Charlton Heston hiding from the world in his Cadillac. It closes with "Our National Anthem", which mixes the story of the origin of "The Star Spangled Banner" (hint: it's not American) with samples from our America:

    ...and I don't think it's right. I think it's wrong. I think the government should step in and conscript it, make cards out, fingerprint everybody, picture them and then keep it that way because this country is the only country that lets in all the refuse that they possibly can get along with the good people [...] If the people of the United States had better wake up before they have their whole little kit and caboodle go down the drain. Bread is a dollar and nineteen cents a loaf and the people in this country are tired of paying for the other people that are coming in here and working. We feel sorry, we send money, we help thI but we don't want any more of those aliens. Period.

    - xenophobic American woman

All this, the music of Bali, and a new release from Joe Jackson next week as well. The listening is good.


  • Greg Egan's new novel Distress was a mix. It opened with one of the most gripping chapters I've ever read, and then abruptly shifted focus. Or did it? The plot might have concerned the search for the physicist's grail, the Theory of Everything, but in the meantime Egan was again raising the issue of what we want humanity to be when we have the choice of controlling our own biology. Is it worse to be super-masculine or unenhanced? How about completely asexual? Precisely which qualities must we retain to be considered human?

    On the top the novel still doesn't match Quarantine for out-and-out can't-put-it-downness, but it's bringing the issues Egan is really concerned about more to the front. Food for thought indeed.

  • A pair of decidedly different takes on The Wizard of Oz are Geoff Ryman's Was and Gregory Maguire's Wicked. The latter is a biography of Elphaba, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West. From her childhood to her education in the ways of the world and power, to her eventual end in a lonely castle, we see a version of Oz that makes sense of Elphaba's solitary ways.

    Was is a very different fantasy. Interweaving several stories at once, we see what the story of a movie means to several people in this world. The most affecting is the story of Dorothy Gael, an orphan living with her aunt and uncle in Kansas. Instead of a magical childhood, she is beaten down and turned into hard-hearted, independent person. As this story unfolds, we learn about Jonathan, a dying actor who's trying to find out the real story behind the film. It's well done.

    Here's the difference: Wicked is a tale of a person, while Was is the story of a tale's effect on people. We all define our own Was.

  • Truly scary is the nonfiction Toxic Sludge is Good for You, John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton's exposť of the public relations industry. The merely horrifying became downright surreal when, while the authors were trying to decide on a title, a [self-denied] lobbyist for the Water Environment Foundation called to gently suggest changing the title. Seems sludge isn't really toxic (although there are no quality controls), and anyway, the industry prefers to call it "biosolids". And this stuff, which contains pesticides, PCBs, and heavy metals like lead, is being promoted by the EPA and sewage industry as fertilizer. A real wake-up call.

  • For a slightly less grim look at the cutthroat world of public relations, try Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking. It's a hilarious breakneck romp through one tobacco lobbyist's very bad season. It was the most fun reading since Stephen Fry's The Liar. A delight.

  • Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies is the latest tome from Douglas Hofstadter. This time 'round he's joined by members of his research group. They're studying models of thought that don't separate recognition from cognition. He starts with some simple "do this" puzzles (if abc becomes abd, what does pqr become?) and creates an elaborate, organic process for fluidly assessing and solving problems in small worlds like the abd puzzle.

    One of the central premises of the book is that we can never capture human intelligence in a (large) set of simple rules. A question serves to illustrate: when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, who was the First Lady of Britain? Was it Queen Elizabeth? The Queen Mother? What about Dennis Thatcher? What does it mean to be First Lady? Who is the First Lady of Congress? These questions are more than just idle speculations. They point to the fact that our conceptions of roles are fluid, and can change, given enough pressure.

    Provoking. Worth investigating.


  • There's also a pair of movies seen in the past few months that were a really interesting contrast: Fargo and Nobody's Fool. They both were about regional America, but their approach was quite different. Fargo depicted everyone as boring or incompetent, losers in general. It pushed these qualities to absurdity. Nobody's Fool, on the other hand, made even the people who hadn't been traditionally "successful" into real people, who value friendship and have the capacity for decency. The only decent characters in Fargo either are treated as comic by the directors, or die. The choice isn't too hard to make: Nobody's Fool, hands down.

    Watching Fargo alerted me to something else: my tolerance for violence has decreased dramatically. I thought it was going to be about a botched kidnapping. I didn't expect the high body count and death played for a joke. It was sickening.

    A few weeks after that the local video chain store was selling a boxed edition of it, with a bonus snow globe that depicted the female police officer on her knees in a field of snow, next to a dead body whose blood has leaked into the snow. This is amusing? Are we so inured to violence that this is funny?

A Hobby

Here's a hobby I've never heard of before: personal railroad cars. They do in fact exist, and there's actually a gathering of them this weekend across the street. They're self-powered, and the biggest was maybe 10' long, seating four, though most were two person affairs. About two dozen of them left the siding and took a trip out toward the coast yesterday, and they went north today. Some of the cars have air horns, and one even was painted with the Amtrak logo. I think the cars used to belong to rail lines, but they've been replaced by 4×4s which also have rail wheels. It looks like fun, as long as the weather is good. A woman told me the cars cost from $600-$2,000. The only problem is getting clearance from the rail lines. Otherwise it would be an interesting way to take a vacation, or maybe even commuting.

It's odd how I've never heard of this, and then it showed up on my doorstep. How many other hobbies are there out there that we've never known?

Other Stuff

Goat's working on his house. It's a very large task to take on, and he has ambitious plans. It will be great.

And on that happy thought, good night, everyone.

End Notes

[1] It is in this spirit that I dedicate this bulletin to Hope & Mark Goldhaber - it's true, it's so true!

[2] Original photo ©1997 Eric Zuckerman. Scanning, color correction, masking, background art, compositing and all other processing 1997 Mark L. Irons.

[3] I have been informed that this is actually a paraphrase of Gertrude Stein, not Dorothy Parker. Thanks to Mr. P. for the correction.

Last updated 5 August 2004
All contents ©1997-2002 Mark L. Irons except as otherwise noted.

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