I Thought It Couldn’t Get Worse

I heard on the radio that an airplane had just hit the World Trade Center, a bi-plane according to one witness. Curious, I turned on the TV and discovered that it had not been a bi-plane, but a massive jetliner. I thought to myself, “This is a major disaster.” And I thought it couldn’t get much worse than that.

But then the second jet hit the other tower.

This is horrible, I thought. This is an intentional act of terrorism. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then the Pentagon was hit, and then another jet crashed in Pennsylvania. My God, I thought, it couldn’t get worse.

But then I learned those jets were full of people. Mothers and daughters and sons and fathers. And I thought it couldn’t ever get worse than that.

But then one tower of the World Trade Center collapsed. It just fell in on itself, and in a few seconds it was gone. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then the other tower collapsed as well. Only a cloud of smoke and dust remained where two of the most important buildings in the world had stood. And I thought it couldn’t get worse.

But then they began to estimate how many people had been in those towers. And I thought, surely, it couldn’t possibly get any worse.

But then an old man in Huntington, NY, tried to run over a Pakistani woman in the parking lot of a shopping mall and followed her into a store and threatened to kill her for “destroying my country.” And a man in a ski mask in Gary, IN fired an assault rifle at the gas station where Hassan Awdah, a U.S. citizen born in Yemen, was working. And 19-year-old Colin Zaremba said, “I’m proud to be American and I hate Arabs and I always have,” as he marched with a crowd of 300 to a mosque in the suburbs of Chicago. And in Australia, a school bus carrying Muslim children was stoned, and vandals tried to set fire to a Lebanese church.

And I thought it couldn’t get any worse.

But then people began to talk of retaliation, about punishment, about a possible ground war, about the “nuclear option.” They started talking about how the American people have to be prepared for many “difficult” things, such as heavy casualties among our American troops.

I thought it couldn’t get any worse. I was wrong. It can always get worse. And it most certainly will get worse, if this act of violence and terror makes us forget the values of love and reason.

Consider this my personal plea to you, to everyone:

Don’t make it worse than it already is.

The Uplift War

Title: The Uplift War
Author: David Brin
Published: 1987

I would never recommend The Uplift War to my friends who are skeptical about science fiction. It has too many conventions peculiar to the genre. There are aliens of many races, psychic powers, galactic empires, robots, ray guns and spaceships that travel faster than light. It’s all a bit much in a single book if you’ve never read science fiction before.

Furthermore, this is not an easy read. The pages are peppered with made-up alien words like lurrunanu and tu’fluk. There’s also a sprinkling of obscure English words, such as covinous and antelucan, which revealed the inadequacy of my dictionary. As much as I enjoyed expanding my vocabulary, these terms seem awkward and gratuitous here.

In fact, I found Brin’s prose style to be quite difficult, but not particularly beautiful or rewarding. Some passages are absolutely painful, such as when the author describes a wall as “the barrier that undulated complacently over the countryside like a net settled firmly over their lives.”

If that doesn’t bother you, and if you’re already a fan of the science fiction genre, then you might enjoy this book. The tone is light and at times humorous. The alien psychologies are compelling and are probably the best thing here. And of course there’s the concept of Uplift itself — the idea that one species can raise another to sentience. This is a huge idea, and I can readily understand how Brin has milked so many novels out of it.

Brin is a scientist, and there are a number of thought-provoking speculations here. Unfortunately they are spread a bit thin over 600+ pages. The emphasis is definitely on action and fun.

A note of warning to would-be readers: The Uplift War stands on its own, but early on you will encounter some intriguing references to a spaceship piloted by dolphins that has made a mysterious discovery of galactic significance. Don’t expect to find this mystery revealed in The Uplift War. You’ll have to read Startide Rising if you really want to know.

[Crossposted to Amazon]

Traffic

CONTAINS SPOILERS

I saw Traffic on cable last night, and I can’t remember when I’ve hated and loved the same movie so much.

What I liked: This was a serious movie dealing with an important topic, a topic that always fascinates me. It attempts to depict the complexity of the situation and the fruitlessness of America’s War on Drugs. The brutality of organized crime, the corrupting influence of the drug trade, and the impossibility of effective interdiction… It’s all there.

Toward the end, when Michael Douglass as the US drug czar has a crisis of confidence at a press conference, he sums it up very nicely by saying something like: “The War on Drugs is a war on our own family members, and I can’t do that.” Then he just walks away, quitting his job. Very unrealistic, but a point nicely made.

The film also indicates (correctly) that our drug policies are weak on treatment, focusing instead on interdiction. Why do we focus on the supply from outside of our borders instead of on demand from inside our borders.

What I disliked: The scene where Douglass’ (white) daughter gets fucked (literally) and hooked up on smack by her (black) drug-dealer boyfriend really made me wanna puke. I really felt the movie fell down in the depiction of drug use. In a way, it was cool that they primarily showed privileged upper class white kids using drugs, as that really dramatizes the quandry. But all the film’s depictions of illicit drug use are so extremely abusive in nature — I feel this misrepresents things. It’s my understanding that the majority of cocaine use (cocaine being the big focus in this movie) is fairly benign and casual, just like the majority of alcohol use. Addiction is a serious issue, but it’s also something that happens to a minority of users. Thus, again, the absurdity of the drug war. Traffic seems to reinforce the idea that drugs really are destroying this nation’s youth, which I think is an overblown myth.

Other gripes: Douglass asks who has his job in Mexico, and seems shocked when told there is no analagous position — yet. But that shouldn’t be a shock. The “drug czar” position is a very weird and uniquely American appointment, and Douglass would have to know this. The drug czar has little power, anyhow; I believe he’s more of a figurehead, who’s merely supposed to coordinate the efforts of the various gov’t anti-drug forces.

Also, many of the questions posed by the film (like why we focus on interdiction so much) are unanswered, even though the answers are not that hard to find.

Of course, if Traffic gets people to think, to ask questions, then so much the better.

Suomi

Here’s a brief recap of my trip to Finland:

I went to a conference in Tampere, Finland. It was ED-MEDIA 2001, and since it relates to my field (educational media) the university paid my way — good thing, cuz summer flights to Norden are expensive!

(Norden is a Swedish word for the Nordic region of the world. You might wonder why I don’t just say Scandinavia. Well, Scandinavia may or may not include Finland, depending on context, Finland being different from the Scandinavian countries in a few important ways. So Norden is a better word.)

The conference was good, over 1,000 people from all over the world. An inordinate number of Australians, I thought.

(I expected to see more Linux at the University of Tampere, since Linus Torvalds is Finnish. But it was all Windows. And many people brought Mac laptops for their presentations. But I digress.)

(As long as I’m digressing, I might add a word of warning about Swordfish, in theaters now. If you go and see this film, which I don’t recommend, you might as well leave after the first ten minutes. It’s all downhill from there. However, that first sequence is spectacular, and almost worth the price of a matinee admission, if you can persuade yourself to get up and leave after the big explosion. Otherwise, you will find your intelligence insulted most egregiously.)

(Oh, and the connection would be? In the film, there’s a hacker from Finland named Axel Torvalds.)

Tampere was fun too (I’d been there once before) especially because it didn’t really get dark at all. It’s not quite as far north as I used to live in Sweden, so I think it probably did get dark sometime around 2:00 AM. But I was asleep, so I missed it. I had to sleep with a blindfold to shut out the light.

I stayed at a hostel run by the YWCA and I met a Spanish guy who used to study in Tampere. He showed me around to a couple of cool bars. I’d have thought he’d know Finnish, but no; apparently many courses at the University are taught in English, so he never learned the language. I can’t imagine that.

Did you know there are only 21 letters in the Finnish alphabet? And they even have two letters we don’t have: ä and ö. Also there are no gender distinctions in Finnish. Not surprising, I suppose, that they have a female president. But the language is exceedingly difficult, nothing at all like the other Nordic languages. In fact, it’s not even Indo-European. It’s Uralic. So most Finnish words are completely unrecognizable to me.

Suomi is the Finnish word for Finland. Weird, huh?

The closest relative language is Estonian. Estonia is right across the Gulf of Finland to the south. It’s a popular vacation destination for Finns.

I also visited the world’s only continuously operating Lenin museum. Do you know where Lenin met Stalin? Do you know where Lenin hid out when he was on the lam from Tsarist forces? Tampere, Finland! In fact, Tampere was the capital of Red Finland during the Finnish Civil War. I hadn’t even known there was an (attempted) communist revolution in Finland.

After the conference I took the train back to Helsinki to meet Päivi. She lived with my family in Greenwood, Indiana back in the early 80s. I met her and her family when I was living in Sweden — they took me to visit Moscow. But that was in 1985. I don’t think I or anyone in my family had communicated with Päivi for 15 years.

She’s an architect now. Married, no kids yet, but working on it. She and her husband just bought a house before I arrived, but they haven’t moved in yet.

Pävi and I both remarked on how very natural and easy it was to get reaquainted. After so much time, it was strange that we could just sit down and talk, almost as if no time had passed at all, though we certainly had a lot to catch up on.

We also got together with Päivi’s family. To me it seemed that her parents, Erkki and Raili, hadn’t changed at all since I last saw them. In fact, they reminded me a lot of my own parents.

We all (including Päivi’s sister Marja, who had just returned from a year in Los Angeles) went out to their summer cottage, which is in the forest not far from Helsinki. It reminded me very much of Door County, Wisconsin.

After the weekend, I spent Monday bumming around Helsinki. Beautiful city. If you’ve never been to Norden, I highly recommend it. Everything is clean and modern; the people are beautiful; with the strong dollar things aren’t too expensive. In the summer, it’s pleasantly warm and sunny. Almost everyone understands English. But most impressive of all is the way they have their whole society set up. Little crime. Almost no poverty. Universal health care. Universal retirement pensions. They say because of the harsh climate people have been forced to help each other more.

I swear, if it wasn’t for the fucking winters, I’d seriously consider trying to immigrate. Probably to Sweden, since I know the language. Finnish is too damn hard. Did I mention they have no articles? Apparently they have prepositions, but they also have postpositions. And nouns have fifteen cases!

Maybe I’ll have a chance later to describe my trip to the Scottish highlands.

Update: I’ve scanned and posted photos from this trip.

July 7, 2001

London — The overnight sleeper train was expensive but definitely worth it. Trains and planes are the way to go — fuck a bus, except for getting around a city.

It’s around 8:00 AM, foggy and damp. I’m in Regent’s Park, making my way to Leinster Square the slow way — by walking. Leinster Square is where I’m staying tonight, so I’m in no rush.

Navigating through London, especially on foot as opposed to public transit, is a fun puzzle in itself. London streets make the warped grid of New Orleans look almost sane by comparison. I bought a detailed street map — it’s a 300-page book.

Gotta start looking for a place to take a crap…

Ah… free, quasi-sanitary public restrooms. Xy would appreciate this. Not to mention the elaborate flower gardens.

July 6, 2001

Edinburgh — I’m sitting on a bench on a hill in a park looking across a small valley at the most incredible array of stone buildings. When I got off the bus here three days ago, the site of Edinburgh made up for the eight-hour overnight ride, which sucked big-time.

But I haven’t spent the last three days in Edinburgh. I’ve been barreling around the Highlands on a bus tour. Saw Loch Ness, the William Wallace Memorial, Glencoe, the site of the battle where Robert the Bruce defeated the English, the site of the battle where the Jacobite Rebellion was crushed, the castle filmed in Highlander, some neolithic ruins, and lots of astonishingly beautiful scenery. Stayed at two hostels; the one on Skye was pretty shabby but the one at Ft. Augustine rocked. We took a walk up to Loch Ness and met a member of the local fire brigade. They were practicing for a rowing contest to be held the next day; their handmade craft was labeled FART which stands for Fort Augustine Rowing Team.

I didn’t take a camera on this part of the journey — mailed it home from Helsinki — but I don’t think I could have captured the expansive grandeur of the Highlands.

I really wish Xy could have been along to see it. I was the only singleton on the bus, and though everyone was nice enough, I was a little lonely sometimes. But moreover, I think Xy would love Scotland, so maybe I can manage to drag her here someday.

It’s been cold and misty most of my time here. I bought a sweater in Portree which is keeping me warm and toasty now.

But Glencoe was so amazing — I expected Gandalf or someone to come walking down the mountainside.

Back to these buildings in Edinburgh: They’re dark, heavy, Gothic, oppressive even — especially with the thick fog.


Later: Ate at a French restaurant I found by chance. Had duck in a raspberry sauce the way it should be prepared — made me realize just how bad the duck at Court of Two Sisters really was.

July 3, 2001

Helsinki — I’ve been riding one of the public bikes around the city this morning. You put in a ten-mark coin as a deposit, which unlocks the bike. Then you ride around wherever you want, with your coin wedged in its slot in your handlebars. When you return it to any of the public bike racks, which are located all over, you insert the lock back into the handlebars and retrieve your deposit.

The bikes themselves are kind of clumsy, with only one speed and spongy tubeless tires that can never go flat — all designed for very low maintenance. One size fits all, which means that my bike is too small for me, and the distinctive design and garish day-glo colors make you very conspicuous. But still it’s a pretty cool idea.


Later, on the bus to the airport: The couple behind me is having an incredible knock-down drag-out. She’s Thai; he’s a Finn. They’re speaking in heavily accented English. It’s the kind of fight where you say “How did I get stuck with such a stupid person like you?” and “Just leave me alone — I don’t need you anymore.”

June 30, 2001

In the Finnish countryside: I wasn’t sure what it would be like to see Päivi again after 15 years, but very quickly we were talking as if no time had passed at all. It seems odd that it could be so very natural, but so it was. We sat on the porch of her apartment outside Helsinki eating salmon and salad and drinking wine and talking about what had happened over all this time until late at night — although of course it never really got dark.

That was yesterday. Tonight, Saturday, I’m sitting in bed in a guest room of the very charming summer cottage which belongs to Päivi’s parents. It’s in the forest some hours outside Helsinki. Raili told me that this house was actually the first thing Päivi designed as an architect, though she’d asked her mother not to tell me. Neither Raili nor Erkki seem to have changed at all since I met them in 1985. Marja is also here — She seems to have changed very little, though she’s only just returned from UCLA and is suffering jet lag so it’s hard to know. But she looks very much the same.

June 27, 2001

Tampere: So much modern “International Style” architecture in America is so ugly. There is a lot of this sort of architecture in Tampere, and some of it is just as ugly, but somehow much of it is not. Why? What’s the difference?

As I write this I’m sitting at the foot of yet another church, Kalevan Kirkko. It’s very strange, very tall, very modern — hardly looks like a church at all.


Nobody locks their bikes here — and there are many, many bikes. The city is small and clean but very cosmopolitan. Almost everyone speaks English, but what’s amazing is how many people speak it so well. They must get lots of practice. And of course the Nordic system of social welfare, with universal healthcare, no poverty, and virtually no crime, all adds up to make this seem very close to paradise.

Except that the sun is too damn small in the sky. It’s really unnerving.


A Spaniard’s been rooming with me the last two nights at the hostel. I never quite caught his name. He used to be a student at the university here, but he doesn’t know Finnish. I thought that was strange. Apparently many courses are taught in English.

Last night we went out for beer to a nice pub where we sat outside just above the river and talked about public radio (and how NPR isn’t very “public” by European standards) and access TV, religion, race politics, anarchism, and many other things. After a couple of beers we relocated to a place called Café Europa, filled with antique sofas and armchairs around low tables with candles. I’ve never seen anything quite so cool. I had a Monty Python’s Holy Grail Ale, and we talked some more. When we got back to the hostel, it was past midnight, but the sky was still bright although the sun was below the horizon.

June 26, 2001

Tampere: Damn I’m tired — combination of jet lag, three nights of inadequate sleep, and the fatigue of travel, the stress of being in a foreign country. Also the memories evoked by being in Scandinavia again are mildly confusing, though mostly pleasant.

I’m sitting on a bench in a public square in Tampere, in front of the Greek Orthodox cathedral. Soaking in the 17:00 sun. It looks almost like high noon, but the sun is smaller than I’m used to seeing it. Won’t be dark for another six or seven hours.

It’s warm, almost hot. I’ve seen a couple women lying on blankets in bikinis, here at the square and at a nearby park. Last night it seemed as though the entire town was out by the river, enjoying the sunlight and the mild weather.

I hope I can sleep tonight. I’m going to try making a blindfold of my bandanna.

Things that went wrong on the way here: A storm kept us in a holding pattern some distance from Newark. Finally we landed — in Baltimore. After an hour or so they stuck 15 kids on our plane, a tour group bound for Rome. But then word came that Newark would not be holding the flight to Rome, so they unloaded the kids, and their baggage. When we got back in the air, we were put in a holding pattern again, and when we eventually did land at Newark, we couldn’t get to the gate. The people in front of me watched in frustration as their plane for Portugal was boarded, taxied down the runway, and took off without them. They chewed out the flight attendant, and I castigated them for whining too much. (They were in their mid-fifties at least; “I thought my generation was supposed to do all the whining.) When we got off the plane, Newark Airport was in chaos, as both arrivals and departures had been canceled or delayed for hours because of the weather. I’d missed my flight to London. I was directed to stand in one line, then another. There were lots of lines, all insanely long, and nobody seemed to know if they were in the right line. The Continental reps seems as confused as the travelers, and more harried. One passenger, a Frenchman, tipped me off about the toll-free number for Continental’s customer service. I walked to a payphone, no line at all, and in mere minutes had my flight re-booked for the next day. However, I still had to stand in a long line to arrange for overnight accommodations. It took a couple hours before the bus arrived to take us to the hotel, and then there wasn’t room for even half of us. So we waited for the next bus, which still couldn’t accommodate the multitude of displaced Continental passengers, but I got a seat this time. The Airport Hilton was already overflowing, but it was only a 45 minute ride to the East Brunswick Hilton — or so we thought. After half an hour, the bus driver pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway and made a phone call. “She’s lost,” said the man sitting next to me, a videographer turned high school teacher from Alameda, California. “I bet she went the wrong direction on the highway.” Sure enough, thirty minutes later we were driving past the Newark Airport again. 45 minutes after that, we were at the hotel, but the driver missed two separate turnoffs and ended up in an inclined cul-de-sac. She had to back the bus up, uphill, and then the damn thing would shift into reverse. We finally checked into the hotel at around 1:00 AM. Many of us got booked into occupied rooms and had to return to the front desk, more than once in some cases. I got to sleep around 2:00 or 2:30, then got up at 6:00 to catch the 7:00 shuttle back to the airport. Unfortunately that bus also seemed to be ominously late in arriving. But this is when things began to pick up. Three passengers decided to hire a taxicab; they were looking for a fourth to share the cost and chose me at random form the mass of people waiting in front of the hotel. The cab driver informed us that he would not accept Continental vouchers for payment because “they simply don’t pay.” But we didn’t have any such vouchers anyway. My fellow travelers were all going to London on my flight, as it turned out: Jane, a jet-setting new age hippie from Boulder; Josie, a Filipino living in Buckinghamshire; and Zoe, a British geologist living in Utah and running very late for a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she was presenting a paper on earthquakes.

After that, the rest of the trip went very smoothly.


After soaking in the sun and reflecting for an hour or so, I don’t feel tired at all.

Beep

AltaVista reveals the following word count on the Web:

beep:      625,434
beeep:      12,191 
beeeep:      2,962 
beeeeep:     1,264 
beeeeeep:      931 
beeeeeeep:     453 
beeeeeeeep:    866 
beeeeeeeeep:   273 
beeeeeeeeeep:  562 
beeeeeeeeeeep: 131

What I found most intriguing is the surprisingly low count for beeeeeeeeep (9 E’s). I can’t imagine why this is the case.

So I repeated the search with variants of the word “bleep” and got these results:

bleep:     51,388 
bleeep:       328 
bleeeep:      170 
bleeeeep:      95 
bleeeeeep:     48 
bleeeeeeep:    36 
bleeeeeeeep:   19 
bleeeeeeeeep:  33 
bleeeeeeeeeep: 14 
bleeeeeeeeeeep: 7 

Look at that — there’s a SPIKE at the 9 E variant!!!

What could possibly account for this?

More Fungus

I’ve been getting a lot of questions regarding my last post. I’ll try to answer them here.

It’s been incredibly frustrating trying to find specific information. I don’t even know its common name, much less the scientific one. People just call it “the fungus.” Most people don’t seem to know much about it, or even care — except for the people who actually grow the stuff, but they contradict one another wildly.

In fact, Dortmund (a German guy who’s pretty big into the whole scene here) assures me that it isn’t even really a fungus at all. But he won’t be more specific.

It is usually edible, even the glowing parts. I’ve heard that it might be mildly toxic, but that you’d have to eat a truckload to get sick. Dortmund, on the other hand, says that it’s not only non-toxic, it’s actually nutritious. He claims to eat nothing but. And he looks pretty healthy. He says that this stuff was the original and only food of humankind, before we were corrupted by the plow.

But I’m not sure I can trust Dortmund. He seems a little unstable — he’s homeless — but he can grow fungus like nobody’s business. He helped me with my first batch, showed me how to rig up the swabs and how to fix the poles on our decaying rooftop. You have to stay up with the poles all night and sway them back and forth through the night air. Dortmund spent the whole night with me on the roof, laughing at odd intervals and telling me jokes in German, and I swear you could actually see the spores accumulating on the swab. (Not really, but it seemed that way.) Those were the spores that gave me that first spectacular batch, and I’ve often wondered if Dortmund’s influence had something to do with it. He continues to drift on from rooftop to rooftop, and fantastic growth seems to follow him wherever he goes.

Meanwhile I bumble on. I’ve spent many a sleepless night up on the roof, swaying the poles; I’ve spent a fortune on growth medium; and no results. I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve been played the fool.

Fungus

There’s a variety of fungus that people cultivate down here in little rooftop gardens. I’ve really never seen anything quite like it. They only grow at night, and very quickly too, so that they complete their entire life cycle in just a few hours.

There’s a whole subculture surrounding these things, which is how I first found out about them. People have rooftop parties where they get together, watch the fungus “bloom” and then carve it up and eat it. They’re not hallucinogenic (I know, some people are probably wondering “then what’s the point?”) or if they are it’s very subtle. The main focus is more on the social aspect of just getting together and having a good time.

In fact, most people aren’t really interested in the fungi at all, which is a shame, because they are fascinating organisms. They grow to be almost three feet tall (in as many hours!) and they’re mostly dark orangish-red, dappled with darker-colored spots and lighter-colored knobs. But there’s an incredible variation from one specimen to the next. Occasionally I’ve seen ones that glow faintly in the dark. They’re not shaped like mushrooms at all; they’re more like giant-size asparagus.

It took me a while to wheedle out information from the people who actually grow them. They’re an odd lot. It’s not that they’re secretive, exactly, but they seem to have a hard time expressing themselves. Or maybe I’m just dense. But they get into a quasi-mystical fervor whenever they talk about growing these things.

Eventually I gathered that key to the whole process is collecting the spores. The most common method is to use big swabs of damp cloth. These are mounted on long poles on the roof and left up all night. In the morning they’re taken down and the spores are extracted, if there are any. The whole process is kind of hit and miss.

I thought this was very strange.

Once the spores have been acquired, they have to be planted almost immediately or they’re no good. Only they’re not really planted like a seed would be; they’re placed in a “growth medium.” I’ve never really understood what this medium is, and I think different people might use different semi-secret formulations of their own. When I ask about it all I get is technical mumbo-jumbo about “polysaccharides” and “red algae” and (I’m not making this up) “sulfated galactose monomers.”

Whatever it is, the shit’s expensive. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’ve spent over the last few weeks. The guy I’m buying it from is one of the more successful growers, and he says he’s giving me a discount.

What’s really frustrating is the lack of results. I did have an initial batch of spores that grew up nicely, just when I was getting started; I called up everyone I knew, and a bunch of people came out, and we had a nice little party. Xy & I were both pretty psyched. But since then, I’ve had almost no luck at all — just a few stunted things that look more like ordinary toadstools than anything else.

I’m getting tired of putting up the damn swabs every night, but I keep thinking of that first crop that was so beautiful. I just wonder if I could swing a better deal on the growth medium…

Mardi Gras

I wanted to let everybody know I survived my first Mardi Gras.

Carnival season begins here in New Orleans on the 6th day of January, also known as Twelfth Night because it’s the 12th night after Christmas. I believe it commemorates the visitation of the Magi.

I knew Carnival had begun when one of my co-workers brought a king cake to work. This is a large pastry decorated in Carnival colors — purple, gold and green. Hidden inside one slice of the cake is a small plastic baby. Whoever gets the slice with the baby has to buy the next cake.

What is Carnival anyway? It’s the season before Lent, that 40-day period of privation and fasting that begins on Ash Wednesday. Hundreds of years ago, people began celebrating the day before Ash Wednesday as a sort of last fling before Lent. This day became known as Mardi Gras, which literally means “Fat Tuesday.” I guess this single day of celebration eventually expanded to a whole season, known as Carnival.

Originally Carnival meant “farewell to the flesh.” It’s still celebrated in most Catholic countries, and New Orleans is definitely Catholic country.

The festivities really picked up about two weeks ago when the parades began. I’ve seen at least ten parades in that time — maybe more — I’ve lost count. These parades are kind of like the familiar Fourth of July parades we all know and love, except that they’re totally different. In fact I’m kind of at a loss for words.

Each parade is sponsored by a different social club (they’re called krewes) and travels a different route through the city. The Krewe of Bacchus brought their parade down our street, right in front of our apartment. The parades feature marching bands and elaborate floats. The riders in the floats (krewe members only) throw beads and other goodies to the crowd. XY caught a doubloon from the Bacchus Grand Marshall, Luke Perry! We also saw Britney Spears and Whoopi Goldberg.

Of course you don’t have to be Catholic to celebrate Carnival. Lots of people come from all over to celebrate. This year, there were estimated to be over 2 million visitors. The mayor announced yesterday that 1,230 TONS of trash had been collected!

I’ve never seen such madness. The city really does shut down and everybody joins the celebration. It’s so incredibly massive, and so much bigger than anything I’ve ever seen, that it was hard to remember that in most of the rest of the country, these were not special days at all.

Unfortunately I came down with a mild cold on Lundi Gras (that’s the day before Mardi Gras) so that put a bit of a damper on things. But since all the parades come within four blocks of our apartment, I was still able to get out easily and see the sights.

Mardi Gras has a somewhat tawdry reputation, which you may or may not be aware of. Lots of college students come here to drink heavily and take off their clothes. But that kind of behavior is largely confined to the French Quarter. For most of the people living here, it’s a family holiday. Kids love parades, after all.

I could go on and on, but duty calls. I’ve got flyers to design, CD-ROMs to burn, websites to update, and design documents to write! It’s back to business as usual.

A Particular Day in My Life

Here’s an account of a single day, August 2nd, 1999. This was originally published in my friend Rachel’s zine Daybook.

I get up around 7:00 or 7:30. I shower and shave. For breakfast I eat a bowl of granola with rice milk. I grab a carrot and an apple, and leave the apartment around 8:00.

As I’m driving to work a sheriff’s car pulls up alongside me and uses his loudspeaker: “The maximum speed is 35 miles per hour — you better slow down.”

When I get to the office I make coffee, talk with the cleaning lady, check my e-mail. I spend some time futzing around with Macromedia’s Shockwave installer, which seems a little buggy.

I finish up some work from the day before and upload it. It’s a new version of a website called MathNerds.

The university’s Webmaster calls me up, and while he’s got me on the phone we manage to resolve a problem with our CGI access that has been plaguing us ever since I arrived here on June 1st. Short of the long: It’s good news. I’m able to complete a couple of tasks that have been on the back burner for two months.

Our secretary has been working on our newsletter for the past week. I help her save it in an older format so the folks at the Document Centre will be able to read it.

A professor of Spanish stops by my office. She’s in desperate need of a programmer to help her finish a CD-ROM project, and quickly. The CD is called Hispanics in New Orleans. I explain that it’s too much for me to do. She offers to hire me after hours. The money is too good to refuse, so I agree.

For lunch I eat my carrot and apple.

After lunch I put the newsletter on a floppy and take it to the Document Centre. It’s about five blocks away. The August heat is incredible. A few drops of rain hit me, and I swear at myself for not bringing an umbrella. When I get to the Document Centre, I realize I’ve forgotten the damn floppy, so I go back to the office feeling like a dumbass.

I’m so exhausted by the heat that I can’t bring myself to go back out again. I revise an on-line form on our website, then I start work on an HTML tutorial.

I feel like leaving early, so I do.

On the way home I revisit the Document Centre. (Yes, they really do spell their name in the British style. I don’t know why. They’re the spawn of some unholy corporate-academic alliance with Xerox Corporation.) This time I remember the floppy.

When I get home, around 3:30 or 4:00, Xy is just finishing her job application. She’s a teacher; she’s looking for work in the public schools.

I change into my swimming trunks and go up to the pool on the roof of our building. I drink a beer and lie in the sun and write this account of my day. Meanwhile Xy is making guacamole down in our apartment. I swim a few laps in the pool and start thinking about the best way to tackle the Hispanics project.

Later that evening we get together with our friends, Marlon and Delme. (I’m not sure if I’m spelling her name right.) They’re the only real friends we’ve made since moving to New Orleans. They’re from Honduras. Delme doesn’t speak much English, and I speak even less Spanish, but Xy and especially Marlon are fairly bilingual. Our conversation tends to revolve around language itself, as we teach each other in little bits and pieces. Xy wants to go see a Latin salsa band at the Red Room, but when we arrive, the club is closed. We end up at Tipitina’s instead, where there’s a fifty-cent special on beer. The Original New Birth Brass Band is playing. It’s a kind of funky Dixieland jazz I never heard back in Indiana.

When it’s later than it should be, and we’re drunker than we should be, I drive us all home. While Xy and I try to sleep, our two cats chase each other around the apartment all night long.

Moving to New Orleans

I thought moving would be stressful, but it was smooth. So smooth I can hardly believe it. But right now I can look up and see the skyscrapers out my window, just a few blocks away. If I stand I can see the intersection of Notre Dame and Tchoupitoulas. So I know it’s true: I’m in New Orleans. But getting here was too damn easy.

Actually there were a couple problems. Five days before we were scheduled to depart, the engine of our ’92 Chevy Cavalier overheated, and the cylinder head cracked, and green stuff oozed out. (Xy called it “engine pus.”) Then my trick knee started to act up for the first time in 15 years. This made it difficult to get around.

Bloomington has been my home for 13 years, and Xy’s lived there all her life. It doesn’t seem possible that a person could just pack all their stuff into a goofy, yellow box (a Ryder rental truck, plastered with URLs and 800 numbers) and leave so easily.

But that’s exactly what we did. With a little help, of course. My in-laws and Lynn Winebarger spent a day packing up the truck with us. Thanks again, guys.

It’s over 800 miles from Bloomington to New Orleans, almost straight south. The drive is easy and even pleasant. But there are no bathrooms at the reststops in Mississippi.

Trivia: Look on a map of the world and you’ll see that Bloomington is at about the same latitude as Madrid. New Orleans is at the latitude of Cairo.

When we got down here, we were on our own. Just me with my trick knee and the little woman. (That’s not just an expression; Xy is tiny.) How could the two of us possibly move all of our stuff out of our truck and into our new apartment? But we did. We used a dolly. It was essential.

There’s a fancy furniture designer who has a gallery and woodworking shop right next to our apartment. A guy who works there, Jorge, took frequent smoke breaks on the back stoop and watched us move in all day. He seemed friendly, and a couple of times I thought he was about to offer his help with some of the heavier items. Finally toward the end of the day, he asked if he could have a word with us. He took us into the studio and showed us a beautiful tall mirror with a painting set in a panel above it. “I’m a painter,” he said. “This is the sort of stuff I do.” It almost looked like a renaissance painting, but the people in it were wearing modern clothes. Jorge asked if we would be interested in buying a painting or in modeling in a painting, or both. But he warned us that some of the modelling might need to be nude.

That night we walked two blocks and ate at The Red Eye Grill, right next door to the Howlin’ Wolf, where Jonathan Richman had played just a week before much to our chagrin. (Ween is playing there next week.) It was good smokey bar grub. But what freaked me out the most was, on our way back, on the street, I saw Grossman.

I grabbed Xy’s arm. “Look! Look at that guy!” But it was too late, he was already around the corner, and when we rounded it, he was already in his car, driving away.

Grossman!

Does he live here now, or what? I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t even Grossman. Maybe it was just a guy who looked like Grossman.

That night, as I lay in bed, exhausted, I thought about Grossman.


“Kirkegaard was the first to introduce the idea of dread as the characteristic mental state of humans,” Grossman said, pacing before us with a piece of chalk in his hand. “It is a beautiful day outside, and we are young and beautiful and intelligent, and we should not sit here with dour expressions.

“But nothing is grimmer than Scandinavian Protestantism. It may have something to do with the climate or the soil. The sun never shines, everyone is drunk. Sweden is one big block of granite with nothing but pine trees, everything is gray…”

I could barely suppress a giggle. This guy was hilarious! But all the students around me were silent and as somber as young Kierkegaard himself. So I stifled my laughter.

“Soren’s father was always making him feel guilty, just for existing. Which highlights a very important point. If you take nothing else from this class, remember this: Parents are the bane of a child’s existence. Your parents are the most cruel people in the world. A child’s rebellion is a matter of absolute necessity. At some point, you must stand up and tell your parents in no uncertain terms: UP YOURS.”

To tell the truth, I wasn’t even in this class. I was in the Philosophy of Christianity class that met in the same room an hour later. I’d discovered Grossman one day when I’d come to class early. Now I was hooked.

“Little Soren Kirkegaard became an utter neurotic. As neurotic as a bedbug. Full of anxiety. He became a great expert on anxiety. The idea of Original Sin goes down into little Soren’s mind like honey down a bear’s throat.

“And how was Kirkegaard’s sex life, you ask?

“It was non-existent. He broke off a five-year engagement and wrote a book about it: Diary of a Seducer. Can you imagine how many people must have checked this out of the library and taken it home with feverish hands, drinking a little Jamaican Cooler and lying back in bed, thinking that they are going to enjoy one of the greatest erotic novels of all time?”

I suppressed a chortle; how could my fellow students remain so straight-faced?

“According to Kirkegaard, anxiety was the essential characteristic of human beings. He developed a theory of anxiety. Anxiety is not the same as fear, he said. Animals experience fear, but anxiety is essentially human. And the object of anxiety is: nothingness.

“Frat boys take note: More women have been seduced by students of philosophy talking about anxiety and nothingness than by being fed Miller Lite.”


On our second or third Friday night in New Orleans, we went shopping at Riverwalk, the tourist-mall, which is only three blocks from our apartment. We stopped at the food court, and I decided to get a daquiri. Having grown up in a mall in the Midwest, the concept of purchasing and drinking alcohol at the mall seemed novel to me.

I ordered a 190 Octane. Hmm, I wonder why they call it that.

It was $4 or $5, which I thought was pretty expensive. But it was huge, almost a liter. And then I took a sip. Wow! I could taste the Everclear.

The mall seemed a lot less obnoxious, and spending money seemed a lot easier, with a buzz on. Maybe the chamber of commerce in my hometown should look into this idea.

Eventually we made our way out of the mall and into the French Quarter, which is right next door. I’d drained my cup by this time, and Xy was thirsty too, so we stopped for a drink on Bourbon Street. We didn’t go into a bar, we just stepped up to one of those little closets dedicated to alcohol. They offered daquiris in small, medium and large sizes. Xy ordered a medium, but when I ordered a large she got jealous and changed up to a large herself. What flavor? We chose One Mighty Punch.

$7 for a drink? What a rip-off, I thought. But when I saw the drink I was amazed. It was 10 gallons at least, maybe 20. And pretty much pure alcohol.

My memory of the evening deteriorates from that point on. I remember my head spinning at one point, as I thought to myself that I was very drunk indeed; then I looked at my cup and saw that I had consumed only about two fingers’ worth. Some insane part of my brain told me I had to drink it all.

Xy and I ended up hanging out on the riverfront with a street musician from South Africa. He was an older gentleman, black, with a long white beard, and I had the impression that he was homeless, but he never actually said so. He let Xy play his cornet. His name was Alexander, but he said that everybody called him Pops.

Xy, being much smaller than me, was also much more drunk, even though she’d had less. She invited Alexander home to spend the night with us. So he spent the night on our futon, and Xy washed his clothes for him. In the morning Xy was as sick as a dog.

Two days later Pops called us from jail. Xy took the call and was rather confused by the story he related. He said he was picked up on a charge called “illegal garments” and that the authorities were making homeless people disappear, perhaps because of the upcoming Mayor’s Convention. But he didn’t ask us to bail him out or do anything for him. He said he’d call back, but he never did.


We’ve been here for almost two months now. We’ve gotten our library cards. We’ve made some friends. We bought an old beater of a car for $700. And we’ve adopted: a little black one and a little blond one.

No, not kids, kittens.

I’m enjoying my job as multimedia specialist at the University. Xy’s going crazy because she hasn’t spent this much time at leisure since she started working at age 15. But she is in the process of getting her certification to teach in Louisiana. She’s just waiting for the paperwork to come back through the mail.

We’re living in the Warehouse District, in a renovated warehouse called Julia Place. Our part of the complex is 120 years old. It’s very spacious and probably more expensive than what we can afford. But we like it. I found it on the Web, just like I found my job.

Our closest friends here are Marlon and Delme. Marlon works at Julia Place as a carpenter. Delme, his girlfriend, is a maid, and she speaks very little English. They’re from Honduras. I can’t even begin to tell you how friendly and helpful they have been to us.

I guess I should draw this to a close. It’s taken much longer to write this than I thought it would, and I’ve still only scratched the surface. Oh well. Thanks for reading these ramblings.