Inhuman Swill : October 2010

According to Whisky Connosr: "Some ideas are so brilliantly simple you wonder why no-one has thought of them before."

Now, I love me some gimmicky new ways to quaff my favorite hoity-toity single-malt scotches, but seriously? No one's ever thought of "drinks by the dram" before? Maybe I'm revealing myself for the old fart I am, but in my day they called those "minibottles." And they were perfect for sneaking into a laser show at the Hayden Planetarium.

Okay, so that was only a few short years ago. My point stands.

I love the AMC series Rubicon so much that I tracked down a copy of one of the out-of-print collections of producer/writer Henry Bromell's New Yorker short stories from the '70s. I've started I Know Your Heart, Marco Polo, and so far I'm very taken with the hallucinatory prose style. Can't wait to finish it.

I think it's the first time that someone's television work has prompted me to seek out his or her fiction. Racing through The Wire is what finally prompted me to read David Simon's non-fiction Homicide, a book that had been mocking me from the shelf for twenty years. (Interestingly, Bromell also worked on the Homicide television series.) I started watching Justified precisely because I was a fan of the Elmore Leonard novels featuring Raylan Givens. (Of course, it also didn't hurt that Timothy Olyphant from Deadwood was playing the character.)

But I'm pretty sure the Bromell conversion is a first. If I keep enjoying the stories, his novel Little America, a semi-autobiographical (I gather) tale of a son trying to understand his father's C.I.A. career, sounds pretty interesting.


Any of you other Rubicon fans recognize the name Joseph Purcell?

Clearing out my inbox (a task that requires a pitchfork, a shovel, and high-volume hose), I ran across an email from a old, old family friend who had known my father since they were young together in Los Angeles, and whom my siblings and I have always known as Uncle Lee. Laura and I dropped in on him last February, and while we shared a meal of takeout sushi he regaled us with stories from Dad's younger and wilder days.

In the followup email, Uncle Lee had one more memory to share:

I think I forgot to tell you that your dad could dance and memorize at the same time. If he liked his dance partner he would ask her for her telephone number which he would memorize immediately so he could call her and thank her the next day.

I am not sure how many telephone numbers he could memorize in one evening.

Dad passed on a lot of interesting genes to me, but not that one!

I am shocked, saddened, and sickened by the recent spate of bullying and harassment of gay youths that has led to so many teen suicides nationwide. It's disturbing that such vicious intolerance still exists in our country, and depressing that with so many positive gay role models today that the message that it gets better still hasn't permeated society far enough.

But I'm also uneasy with this week's rush to label every bully a "total fucking asshole." Lest there be any misunderstanding, let me stress that bullying is wrong. Bullying of any stripe, against anyone of real or imagined difference, is ugly and cruel and harmful and utterly wrong. It seems to me, however, that labeling anyone who expresses an opinion we don't like a "total fucking asshole" is counterproductive in a couple of important ways.

First, though I think it's important for gay kids (for all kids, really) to learn to stand up for themselves, calling a tormentor a "total fucking asshole" is not exactly a way to open up a pathway to understanding and enlightenment. It strikes me only as a way to close off communication and escalate conflict. (Still, I know it would be an awfully satisfying thing to say, and there might be a certain element of empowerment to it. That and a good right hook.)

But second, and more importantly, I think the "total fucking asshole" label is a great way for adults to draw a dividing line between "us" and "them," and to avoid confronting the hard truth that we all have some degree of bully in us. The trick for us all is to recognize and curtail our own bullying tendencies, and to spread that same message in constructive ways.

I'm not making excuses for bullies like the ones who streamed Tyler Clementi's sexual encounter online. Acts like that, whether motivated by hate or not, whether resulting in tragedy or not, should be criminally and civilly prosecuted. But when I read about them, my first thought is always, "Jesus, there but for the grace of God." (And I don't believe in God.)

I'll make a confession here. I've experienced bullying from both sides. I didn't grow up gay, but I grew up skinny and nerdy, and there were times in my life—times I'm deeply ashamed of—when the desire for some power over someone led me to push even weaker kids around. I don't think any of those instances ended in tragedy, but I don't know that for sure. What I do know is, while I don't like to think of myself as a total fucking asshole, I have the capacity to become a fucking asshole. Sometime I am a fucking asshole. When I dismiss someone else as a total fucking asshole, I can't help but worry that I'm excusing the fucking asshole in me.

I don't think there are all that many total fucking assholes in the world. But I think we're all sometimes fucking assholes, and it's only our own awareness of that capacity that keeps us from giving rein to it. And it's only our sum awareness of it that can keep society civil.

Ella is seven

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This is a seven-year-old dog Yesterday was 10/07/10, and Ella turned 7 * . Using the common yardstick of seven dog years to one human year, she's now older than either Laura or I, which makes me sad. (Good thing Ella is immortal, and will outlive us both.)

Ella was six months old when we rescued her in April 2004. Well, really it was Laura who rescued her. We still lived in Queens at the time. I was on a week-long trip to the west coast—business in San Francisco, seeing my son in Portland, and hitting the Nebula banquet in Seattle. While I was gone, Laura spent a few days visiting her parents in the Chicago suburbs. Her parents' neighbors had a six-month-old, 18-pound soft-coated wheaten terrier puppy they couldn't care for anymore. They had heard from Laura's mother that Laura wanted a wheatie, and asked Laura if she would like to take the puppy home with her. She called me.

"Do you want a six-month-old wheaten terrier puppy?" she asked.

"Sure," I said. And thus our lives changed.

But first there were the practical considerations of getting Ella home to New York. Laura bought a pet carrier and booked Ella home as cargo on her flight. I'm glad I wasn't there to see her little caged and doped-up body disappearing down a conveyor belt at the airport. (It was bad enough one time at the bad vet in Queens, tending Ella as she came down from a hallucinogenic trip when no one told me at first that she'd been given a hallucinogen.) I'm sorry I wasn't there when Laura and our friends Andrew and Stephanie picked Ella up at the Laguardia end of the trip only to find that her former owners had fed her within the previous 24 hours, and Ella had shat all over the inside of her carrier. Our friends very patiently drove Laura and our stinky dog home in the back of their car, and helped bathe the poor little beast. Welcome to New York.

I didn't get home for a couple more days, but it was love at first sight, and from the very start I couldn't stop taking pictures of her. We've been amazed to watch her pick up on the meanings of words we haven't deliberately taught her (like "inside" and "squirrel"), and to invent her own games, like the one where she chases a basketball then pushes it around the yard with her face.

But Ella's favorite thing to do in the world is chase squirrels. Sure, it's what she was bred for, but the curious thing is that she has never once caught one, even when she ends up right on top of one. I doubt she ever will. Chasing squirrels seems to be what she likes best, not clamping squirrels in her jaws and shaking them to death. Maybe one day she'll prove that sunny assessment wrong, but I'm not betting on it.

I wanted to do something special for her yesterday for her birthday. (Not that she would understand, but I would understand.) As it happened, that special something fell practically in her lap. A short walk from our house there's a long, triangular block lined with townhouses on all three sides. There are also about a million trees on the block, many of them young, and most every townhouse has a tiny lawn and flower garden out front. This is one of Ella's favorite places to hunt squirrels, and if you let her she would just circle the block endlessly.

Ella looks up I took her for an early afternoon walk to the townhouses. On our second circuit of the block, Ella spotted a squirrel on someone's porch. She ran along the sidewalk (me racing to keep up) while the squirrel tore through a couple of adjacent flower beds and up a young sapling. Ella jumped up and put her front paws on the narrow trunk, watching the squirrel edge out along a branch eight feet up. As the squirrel progressed, Ella danced backward on her rear legs to keep an eye on it. Finally she couldn't keep her balance any longer and dropped to all fours with a frustrated little yowl.

I'm not sure what happened next. I don't know if the branch broke or the squirrel somehow lost its footing or it had a deathwish or what. But suddenly it crashed flat to the ground, barely missing Ella's nose as it fell. The chase that followed was brief but intense. The squirrel made it to a bigger tree twenty feet away in about two seconds flat, its tail swatting the air behind it like a cartoon dust plume. Ella stayed hot on its trail for most of the distance but thank goodness stopped the moment the squirrel hit the tree. If she hadn't, I would either have dropped the leash or hit the sapling, because Ella and I were on opposite sides of it when she took off.

Anyway, close calls like that one seem to make Ella's day, so I'm considering that the squirrel's birthday present to her. And it only meant we had to circle the block about four more times before going back home where she cleaned her dish of all its uneaten breakfast kibble and asked for more. Of course I gave her another scoop. It was her birthday.


* I joked to Laura that we should have celebrated Ella's birthday with a pair of banana splits. Why? Because she turned 7 on 10/7/10. That's 7-10 and 7-10, two wicked splits when you bowl. She punched me so you wouldn't have to.

Just a reminder that tonight I will be reading tonight with the Tuesday Funk gang at Hopleaf Bar in Chicago. Since I was also recently named a co-producer of the reading series, that's two big reasons I hope you'll join us tonight. Adding in great readings from Connor Coyne and Jackie Adamski only sweetens the pot.

Here's what the event invitation on Facebook has to say:

Tuesday, October 5 ยท 7:30pm - 9:00pm

Hopleaf Bar
5148 N. Clark St.
Chicago, IL

October is our fall fiction reading, and our lineup of writers—CONNOR COYNE, JACKIE ADAMSKI, and WILLIAM SHUNN—bring you brawny, beer-soaked stories to fit the season.

Tuesday Funk convenes in the upstairs lounge at Hopleaf. Arrive early, grab one of the 600 amazing international beers at the bar, and come on up. We start seating at 7:00 pm. Stay afterward for some great Belgian-style food from Hopleaf!

PLEASE bring your friends and show your support for Tuesday Funk. Help us deliver a RECORD TURNOUT so we can keep staging these readings at HOPLEAF, the finest food-and-drink establishment on the north side.

(And please also become a fan of Tuesday Funk on Facebook, so you never miss an invitation.)

I hope to see you there!

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William Shunn

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