Inhuman Swill : October 2011

The final trip

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Of 2011, I mean. This has been one crazy travel year. Seems like every other week we're rushing off somewhere or other, and we're kind of tired of it.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. It's been a great year, a ton of fun. Well, Laura travels all the time for work, and that's not always fun, but as far as personal trips go this year between the two of us we've been to Los Angeles, Portland, Denver, St. Louis, Lake Geneva, a hunting lodge in southern Illinois, Waukesha, and then New York City at least four times. Also, Venice, Paris, many small cities and towns in Normandy, and we even spent three days with friends from London at Disneyland Paris. I keep meaning to post here about all those trips, but I haven't even had time to sort out and label all the photos on Flickr. Every time I think about it, it's time to pack for another trip.

I'm posting this trip report preemptively from our flight to San Diego. Yes, we're on our way to World Fantasy, even though we don't have memberships. We hope to see a shit-ton of you there, because it might be our last chance to see you until you come to Chicago next summer for Worldcon. (You are coming to Chicago next summer for Worldcon, right?). This is absolutely our LAST TRIP of the year, and the only one we intend to take next year is to SXSW in March.

Yeah, right. Just wait and see how that works out for you, buddy.

Hi, gang! The new Ella calendar for 2012 is available now from Lulu.com. It features thirteen months of great collages of all your favorite Ella photos from 2011—well, okay, all mine and Laura's favorites—and it retails from Lulu.com for the low, low price of only $17.99.

But wait! For a limited time only, we're offering a 20% off discount. That's a whole year of Ella for only $14.39. But wait! Through tomorrow you can take another 20% off that already crazy price if you use the discount code BURIED at checkout. That's only $11.51 plus shipping and handling. What a steal!

Click below and buy now, and keep the Dog Lord of the Sith on your good side!

Ella Vader 2012 13-Month Calendar

Ella Vader 2012 13-Month Calendar

Saturday, August 27, 2011
Dear Marc Maron

For some reason this is a hard letter to write. I'm a relatively new fan of your podcast and your comedy, having come to it all through the broadcasts on WBEZ, but it seems like ages I've been trying to compose a thank you to you in my head. I mean, how hard should it be just to say I appreciate what you do and your show means a lot to me? Especially for a writer like me.

WTF with Marc Maron I'm 44 years old. My wife and I live in Chicago. I'm a writer, mostly of science fiction. Nothing glamorous like film or TV—I'm talking the basic stuff, prose on a page. None of which really explains why I've been chewing my way so voraciously through your podcast archive, or why I feel such a connection to what you do.

Part of it, I guess, is some of the weird correspondences with my life. I was born in Highland Park, for instance, where you now live, though I only lived there until I was six. (I was in L.A. in February, and I called my mom in Utah and told her I was planning to go visit the old house on Aldama Street. She said, "Oh, I don't think that's a very good idea." I went anyway with my buddy Ashir—the neighborhood was fine—and was surprised to see how small the house was, to remember how steep the hill was, and to hear parrots or some shit squawking in the big old trees.) I lived in Astoria for a long time, same as you, and it might be the best place I've ever lived. (Did you ever eat at Kabab Cafe on Steinway near 25th Ave? My favorite place in the world.) 5340 Aldama St. You have hassles getting into Canada—I can't even go to Canada, thanks to a ridiculous incident in Calgary when I was a stupid young 19-year-old Mormon missionary. (It's a long story.) I was on Air America ... um, one time, when Ron Kuby interviewed me a couple of years ago about a podcast I was doing. (See how I'm grasping at straws already? I should reassure you that I don't think there's some mystical, brothers-under-the-skin bond here. Cats are nice, but I'm a fucking dog person, okay?)

And I've pretty much toiled away at my chosen craft, the the thing I wanted to do from the time I was a kid, for the past twenty years without much tangible reward. I mean, other science fiction writers know me, and I have a handful of fans, but I've somehow managed to dodge widespread attention and financial security all these years. I've published about thirty short stories and novellas, and one slim collaborative novel, but the most popular thing I've written by far is a guide to professional manuscript formatting that gets thousands of times more hits online than my fiction ever has.

Whoa, let me veer back from the precipice of bitterness here for a minute. Didn't mean to go there so quickly.

A big, big part of what I love about WTF is the sheer joy of hearing two professionals talk about their craft with intelligence, passion, and familiarity. It doesn't matter that your craft is comedy and ours is making up stories about spaceships and virtual reality. There is a tremendous pleasure in listening in while people who have thought hard about their art, worked tirelessly at it, and internalized the history and craft of it reflect on what a life dedicated to that pursuit is like. I identify with it. I hear things that seem like they're lifted right out of my own life and out of my friends' lives, and it strikes a deep chord in me. (It also makes me miss my writer friends in New York, and explains why I take every opportunity to meet up with them and others at conferences around the country and talk about writing and get smashed together at the hotel bars.) Damn, there's just something about the way professional artists talk—especially ones to whom language is so crucial—that sucks me in and takes me to a better place.

But okay. If listening to WTF helps me feel a little bit more connected to a community of artists, helps me feel a bit smarter and more insightful about my own art, the absolutely biggest part of what inspires me is your personal journey.

I feel like I've walked a lot of those roads. Early promise, steady publication, but not much notice. Near misses with success. Projects I poured my heart into that went nowhere. Shitty agents who didn't get what I was about, content to sit back and wait for me to generate my own buzz. Good reviews, respect from my peers, even major award nominations—great things that nevertheless mean fuck-all to anyone outside the industry or to my ability to support myself. Professional jealousy—the soul-killing bitter envy at seeing my friends' names on best-seller lists, or getting optioned for movies or TV—that has led me to pull away from important friendships, to my own detriment. Undermining myself in a thousand other ways. Asking myself time and time again whether it's worth it to keep on doing what I do, worth the cost of my sanity, worth the cost of lying awake at night knowing the clock is ticking, I'm 44, and what the fuck have I done with my life so far? Wanting to give up, stop writing, but unable to because there are still things to say, and still a little, perverse, unkillable germ of hope down in there somewhere.

Listen, Marc, I know you're not rolling in dough, and I know you've still got plenty of demons. But goddammit, you hung in there and did stuff even when it seemed like there was nothing left to do. The fact that you kept yourself in the game and turned it around in what must have seemed like the bottom of the ninth—that is a giant fucking inspiration to me.

And I'm trying to hang in there. I have a good agent now, who is also a friend and who gets my stuff. Finally, after twelve years of work, I've finished the Big One and handed it in, the memoir about that missionary incident in Canada. (It really is a good story.) He'll start shopping the manuscript around after Labor Day, and I will try to stop thinking about it and start working on the next thing, a novel. Because I'm a professional, you know, and that's just what you do.

Look, we both know that talent and craft and hard work are not in and of themselves guarantees of anything. But what you and your show remind me, and what I need so badly to believe, is that sometimes the final necessary ingredient for success is just fucking hanging in there long enough. Just fucking gunning the engine until the tires stop spinning in place and some traction catches. Thank you for that from the bottom of my heart. Thank you.

Please believe me that I mean it as the highest of compliments when I say that listening to WTF is the next best thing to sitting around and talking about science fiction. With my friends. Which is what you seem like.

Best wishes,
Bill Shunn

P.S. I fucking love your new album, This Has to Be Funny. I keep playing bits from it for my wife. I think she's getting annoyed with me and amused by me in equal measure.

Boxed in

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One of Chicago's great selling points as a "livable" city is its alleys. Unlike New Yorkers, Chicagoans can stash their smelly garbage bins out back and keep them off the sidewalks. If they're lucky enough to have a garage, like we do, they don't even have to worry about parking on the streets, and if they do have to park on the streets they don't have a plethora of driveways to worry about avoiding. And best of all for me, walking Ella through our neighborhood's alleys inspired large chunks of the novel I'm working on.

But there's a darker side to alleys, too, which I was reminded of earlier this afternoon as I was driving over here to the Writers Workspace. As I turned into the alley that leads to the little parking lot behind the workspace, I found my way blocked by a huge garbage truck. That was no big deal in and of itself, just a little annoying, since I could circle the block and come into the alley from the other side. But there was a day a little over a year ago when I didn't have as pleasant an experience with trucks in an alley.

It was early on a sunny weekday afternoon, and I had gone to a favorite haunt called Tweet (no relation to Twitter) for a very late brunch. Tweet has a tiny lot out back off the alley where patrons can park for free, which is what I did. That block is pretty long, and as I drove in from the south end of the alley I could see a big moving truck way up at the north end plugging that exit. I wondered briefly if parking in the lot that day was a good idea, but I didn't want to try to turn the car around and hunt for street parking.

After a leisurely meal while I got some work done on my laptop, I headed out back to leave. I backed the car out and was heading north up the alley before I realized that the moving truck was still there. Oh well. South, then.

I put it in reverse, backed up quite a ways, maneuvered the car back into the lot, got it turned around, and was heading south before I realized that another truck was parked down near the south end of the alley. Great. It was parked dead center in the alley, but I drove toward it anyway to see if there might be room to get around it. There wasn't.

It was a small AT&T pickup truck, and the really aggravating thing was that it was parked just short of the big parking lot behind an apartment building—a parking lot with a wide-open gate. The driver was nowhere in evidence, but assuming that he was doing work in the building, he could have parked in the damn lot. That was when I started feeling claustrophobic. I was trapped in the alley with no way out.

I got out of the car and took a picture of the AT&T truck's license plate, so that at the very least I could call up with a complaint when I finally got out of there. Otherwise I just stalked around my car clenching my fists.

After a few minutes, though, I saw a guy with a hard hat and a utility belt emerge from a passageway over to one side of the apartment building. "Hey!" I started yelling. "Hey, your truck's blocking the alley! Hey!" Eventually I got his attention, and we had a shouted conversation over a distance of about fifty feet. Though he wasn't happy about it, he told me he'd be there in a minute to pull his truck into the parking lot so I could get by.

The truck that boxed me into the alley behind Tweet He took his sweet time, though, and by the time he wandered over to move his truck, I had watched with a sinking stomach as a big white delivery truck pulled into the very end of the alley, put its flashers on, and parked. Two men climbed out of the truck and vanished down the street. I yelled toward them too, but too late. They were at least a hundred and fifty feet away, and they either didn't hear me or didn't care.

"This is just great," I said to the AT&T guy when he finally came over. "We're both trapped now."

After he moved his pickup, I actually left my car where it was and squeezed past the delivery truck to see if the two men were anywhere in sight. I wandered a few storefronts in either direction to see if I could spot them eating lunch or something, but no dice. I took a picture of the truck's license plate, then went back to my car and sat behind the steering wheel listened to podcasts and stewing and trying not to panic.

I suppose there were other things I might have tried, like backing up the alley all the way to the moving truck to see if it would be willing move, but instead I just waited. And waited. I was just about jumping out of my skin by the time the two men reappeared. Twenty minutes had passed. I didn't have time to yell at them. They simply were there, squeezing through the doors into the cab of the truck, and then they were backing back out into the street. I pounded on the horn and flashed my lights and gave them both fingers, but they were gone pretty damn fast. Like they'd never been there. I drove back to the Workspace shaking with anger and residual claustrophobia.

So there you have it, the day I got boxed into an alley and couldn't get out. I suppose there are worse things that could have happened to me in a Chicago alley, but I'd prefer not to think about them. And maybe that's not so much a drawback of alleys as it is a drawback of our dependence on cars. Hmm.

Some of you know I co-produce and co-host a monthly reading series, Tuesday Funk, at a great little bar here in Chicago. At our October event about three weeks ago, I read my story "The Visitors at Wriggly Field," which was written two years ago in support of Chicago's Worldcon bid and concerns a very unusual World Series matchup in 2012.

You can read more here about how it came to be written, but since the text of the story is no longer available online, and since Game 6 of this year's World Series is tonight, I thought it would be a good time to share the video of the reading here. I hope you like it. Go, Cubs!

And catch more videos from Tuesday Funk here.

They finally caught up with me. It was bound to happen eventually.

It was Sunday evening. Laura and I had only been back home for a couple of hours after a long weekend in New York City. The doorbell rang. We had placed an order for Indian food only about twenty minutes earlier, so I grabbed a fistful of the cash I'd left on the sideboard and went down to answer the door.

It wasn't our food delivery. It was a pair of well-scrubbed young men wearing dark suits and black name tags. Yep, it was the Mormon missionaries.

"Hi, I'm Elder McAlister, and this is my companion Elder Nielsen," said the first. "We're looking for Donald Shunn?"

I had a choice to make. I wasn't going to be lame and deny who I was, but I did need to decide how nice I was going to be and to what extent I would engage with them. On the one hand, I was annoyed that someone (probably but not necessarily a member of my family) had given the Church my latest address, so my name now appeared on the rolls of the local LDS ward. On the other hand, these two kids were only doing what the Church had programmed them to do, and twenty-five years ago you would have found me doing exactly the same thing. On the other other hand, I had long pictured this moment and seen myself having an open, honest discussion with missionaries about my beliefs. Thanks to my excellent agent Joe Monti, my mission memoir is currently out on submission with some major book editors, so it was high time I started getting some practice talking frankly and without rancor with people of opposing beliefs.

"That's me," I said, shaking hands with both of them. "But I go by Bill."

"Well," said Elder McAlister, "we're just going around visiting with ward members who haven't been out to church for a while, wanting to see how you're doing. We wondered if there was a time when we could come visit with you."

"I'd be happy to talk with you some time," I said. "I have to be honest with you though, I haven't been active in the Church for well over fifteen years, and in fact I actively disbelieve in it. But I don't mind talking."

I gave them my phone number and told them I remembered what it was like to be where they were standing. They seemed surprised that I'd been a missionary. I asked them where they were from, and they asked me where else I'd lived and what had brought me to Chicago. I told them I was a writer, and that in fact I'd just finished work on a book about being a missionary. It was a quick leap from there to a brief telling of my bomb threat story, which seemed to blow their minds. Elder Nielsen was surprised to learn that, after being kicked out of Canada, I had served for a couple of months in the town he was from, Yakima, Washington. All in all, I managed to keep the kneejerk hostility the Church still brings out in me under control and (I hope) out of my voice. They were nice kids, though they clearly didn't know quite what to make of me.

I didn't ever invite them inside, because Laura was getting some work done and we had dinner on the way. But I probably stood out on the porch talking with them for ten minutes or so. I wonder if they'll call to make a return appointment. If they do, I hope I don't make them too uncomfortable when they come back. I think a frank discussion would be a good learning experience for all of us.

Ella is eight

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Flying bear! Today the fabulous Ella turns eight. This morning, to celebrate, I took her to the beach for her morning walk. She flung herself off a ledge of sand, and it was so cute that I asked her to climb back to the top and jump off again so I could take a picture. She is such a good dog, she did just what I asked.

I made my first ever post about Ella on April 12, 2004. That was just a couple of days before Laura brought her home from the Chicago suburbs to our Queens apartment. Ella a little over six months old. She's been part of our family now for nearly seven and a half years, and it's hard to remember a time when she wasn't with us.

Happy birthday, Ella! We look forward to celebrating eighty more with you.

A higher attraction

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If we were zombies
I promise you that I would
love you for your brain

Just boarded a Southwest flight from Laguardia to Midway. My carryon bag got pulled out of the X-ray machine at security for extra screening. After swabbing my bag thoroughly and testing the samples, the TSA officer took my paperback copy of A Feast for Crows out of my bag and flipped through it.

"I need to rerun your bag with the book outside of it," she told me.

Apparently George R.R. Martin is too dense a read for the TSA.

(By the way, my Tupperware container of cannoli made it through fine. Thanks, Barbara Lynn and Colin!)

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William Shunn

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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