Inhuman Swill : Page 222
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.

A toss-up (as in cookies)

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I'm looking at a map at CNN.com and feeling like tossing my cookies. I mean, the facts aren't as bad as all that. Going into the election this morning, Gore has 181 electoral votes locked up (12 states plus DC), to Bush's 224 (26 states). Up for grabs are 133 electoral votes from 12 "toss-up" states.

It doesn't sound so hopeless for those of us who would prefer to see Gore in the White House than that empty suit George Dubya. However, if you look at the map, it sure looks scary, because Bush has most of those big empty western and midwestern states. Gore has California and Minnesota and Illinois and New York and no other geographically imposing states. Areawise, it looks like Bush has about 90% of the country in his deep, deep pockets. I feel sick.

I can't tell you how glad I am to live in a state that's going to Gore. That frees me up to vote my conscience: Ralph Nader. I'd like to see the Green Party get matching federal funds in the next election and start bringing a viable third candidates back into the political discourse. My vote for Nader in New York is not likely to hurt Gore's chances of winning this state's electoral votes.

That's why I'm so puzzled by the woman who followed Laura and me into Old Navy on Saturday. We were checking out some cheap clothing on Sixth Avenue (that's Avenue of the Americas to you out-of-towners), and the street was crawling with Democrats "getting the word out" for the Gore-Lieberman-Clinton ticket. (I had to consciously remind myself that the "Clinton" meant that carpetbagger Hillary.) A myopic woman with a bad dye job was passing out these leaflets in front of Old Navy. "Vote for Gore!" she said to us as we entered the store.

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Sometimes we do things in the name of keeping ourselves sane and call it a little reward. (Really, we are keeping ourselves insane by indulging obsessive-compulsive behavior, but let's not split hairs.) Usually that little tickle at the back of my head can be soothed by going out and buying a stack of books or CDs. (I work just a couple of blocks from both a Barnes & Noble and a Tower Records, which is very dangerous in this regard—but then again, who in Manhattan can't say the same thing?) The latest tickle, though, required some more vigorous scratching. It happens once every year or so.

I've redesigned my Web site.

I've been working on this, little by little, stage by stage, for several weeks. Now it's pretty much done. I've even indulged that geekiest of yearnings and created styles for my LiveJournal so it blends in seamlessly with the rest of my site. I'm unaccountably happy with the result, and now I'm done.

Almost.

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Today's weather

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Okay, I'm a little slow on the uptake, but finally I get it:

MOSTLY SUNNY
MILD
JACLYN SMITH
It's Charlie's Angels week at Biography. Pretty boring week for weather poetry.

(Btw, after all this talk about childhood television, I have to point out that Charlie's Angels is probably not the show I would choose to live on if I could choose only one. Now, if I could choose two . . .)

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Tomorrow's weather

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As reported by the A&E Biography sign:

MOSTLY SUNNY
MILD
DREW BARRYMORE
Apparently the forecast this week is mostly babes.

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Halloween didn't seem quite like Halloween yesterday—not to me, anyway.

First of all, Laura and I got the costume thing out of our systems on Saturday. We went to a terrific party at our friends Andrew and Stephanie's house in Astoria. Laura dressed in an Indian sari—and so did Steph, which led to a strange cataloguing of all the hitherto unguessed things they had in common. I dressed as Bilmo, the only official Sesame Workshop Online Muppet, with a red fleece sweatshirt, a red knit cap, a read foam rubber nose, and the rod from my Venetian blinds depending from my wrist. (That was, you know, the stick my Muppeteer uses to control the movement of my arm.) We drank lots of spiked punch, and I ate a space brownie that didn't have any effect on me. (Same result in Amsterdam, dammit. Some day I'm just going to have to smoke the stuff.)

When the 31st finally arrived, it seemed like Halloween was already weeks past. When Laura and I saw a little boy in a baseball uniform walking to school that morning, our first reaction was to wonder why the baseball season hadn't already ended. Then I spent the morning with Ellie at Sesame Street, which exists so much in its own make-believe world that Halloween seems irrelevant. (In fact, neither Ellie nor I batted an eye when we saw a boy dressed as a girl and a dominatrix out smoking in front of the studio. It didn't occur to either of us that these were costumes. Hey, it's New York.) What's more, walking back to the N train, Ellie and I realized that Christmas decorations were already up on the streetlamps on Broadway in Astoria. This did not contribute to any sense of the cold-chill-in-the-air that is Halloween.

Things did not begin to seem sinister until nightfall, when I was walking from the train to Laura's apartment after work. I emerged from underground to find Astor Place crawling with goblins and ghoulies. There were visiting aliens with their faces painted green. There was an angel, a devil, and a zaftig Elvis with a low-cut jumpsuit and huge push-up breasts. There was someone in a black cloak and a "Scream" mask, carrying a plastic knife. Dark blood ran down the runnels of his mask—it actually pulsed from a concealed valve somewhere above his forehead. Masks all around. Masks everywhere. So many masks it creeped me out. So many masks, seeming so potentially normal for this town, so de rigueur, I got nervous. I started to wonder why I'd wanted it to be more Halloweeny. I like to be scared, but I like to be scared when it's safe to be scared. I suddenly didn't feel safe on those streets.

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Bill visits Oscar on the set of Sesame Street
Boy, if anyone's reading this on someone else's "friends" page, it's going to look like I'm hogging all the space!

I was just barely two years old when Sesame Street debuted in 1969. My mother and I watched the very first episode together, when Oscar the Grouch was orange. I was there at the beginning, but I was young enough that I can't now remember a time when there wasn't a Sesame Street.

In fact, I thought Sesame Street was a real place. I thought it must be in Los Angeles, which is where I lived until I was six. I imagined that if I ran away from home (something that often seemed highly desirable) I could somehow find Sesame Street out there in the city somewhere and live there forever. I could sing "I Love Trash" with Oscar, and I could pronounce that amazing word that goes "ab-kuh-deff-ghee-jeckyl-muh-nop-queer-stoov-wixes" along with Big Bird. I took the rhetorical question in the theme song very literally. I wanted someone to tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

In 1998, at the age of 31, someone told me how to get to Sesame Street. There is a way to get there, but you have to know whom to ask. No one will just come out and tell you, even when you work for the Children's Television Workshop. But I found out whom to ask, and I made it there.

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It's miraculous, though not at all surprising, how a little good press can change one's outlook on one's career.

I'd been in a little email exchange with a writer named Nick Gevers who lives in South Africa. Nick has a pretty esoteric Ph.D.—the use of history in science fiction. He also helps edit an online zine called Infinity Plus, and on the strength of a story of mine he had just read for review in a recent anthology, he had asked if Infinity Plus could reprint one of my older stories.

That was flattering enough, but then Nick sent me the text of his review of the anthology, which will appear soon in the fanzine Nova Express. My favorite line was this:

[H]is meditations on ecological conservation, intercultural dynamics, and the limits of human understanding are powerful and true, making 'Dance [of the Yellow-Breasted Luddites]' one of the best novellas of the year."
(Of course I posted a larger excerpt on my Web site almost immediately.) Reading this, my prospects seemed suddenly brighter than they had a few minutes before, when all I could think about was how many times my memoir had been rejected. The timing was perfect.

So what does it say about me that I cling to good notices like Leo DeCaprio to a chunk of floating ice? I don't really care, because one fellow in Capetown thinks I've written one of the best novellas of the year.

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I'm not sure why I'm thinking about this today. Maybe because she was the first friend I ever took with me to Sesame Street. (You've heard about the latest trip if you read Eleanor's journal, though I may eventually have more to say about it myself.)

I met her two years ago, more or less. "Oh, come on," said Rob, dragging me to another bar in the Village at one in the morning. "Just one more drink." Rob would soon be moving to Seattle, so I agreed.

If it weren't for Rob, I never would have started talking to the two German women sitting near our table. With the notable exception of Laura, who I would meet two months later, I don't pick up women in bars. But somehow she and I started talking, and before you know it she was invited to Rob's going-away party, and her suspicious, ill-tempered friend was dragging her out of the bar, and she was throwing a "Help me" look back at me over her shoulder.

Miracle of miracles, she showed up at the going-away party a couple of days later. Rob was handing a journal around the table, asking his friends to write something in it. My new German friend spent a long time over her entry. Rob showed me later what she had written. It was all very dark and poetic, and one line of it stuck in my head: "I'm a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl." This disturbed me quite a bit, but it also attracted me—the way some people are attracted to knives, I'm sure.

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I've been working at my present job for two and a half years now—if you overlook a brief absence during the summer to recklessly pursue alternate employment, that is. After returning here in August, I fell quickly back into the old familiar habits. (In many ways, it felt as if my three months at Vindigo were a strange dream, from which I awakened to discover myself in an old changed world.) One of the habits I must recultivate is that of noting the found poetry every day on the A&E Biography sign.

When I leave the office and head south on Broadway, I see the electric sign atop a tall building somewhere in midtown. The sign offers a weather forecast and then announces the subject of that evening's Biography episode on A&E. Sometimes this results in startling poetry. Other times the effect is simply weird. Other times it's more matter-of-fact, like last evening's forecast:

MOSTLY SUNNY
MILDER
FARRAH FAWCETT
I must keep notes more assiduously. Were I more cabalistic, I would study these notes religiously for clues to the underlying structure of the universe.

Speaking of Farrah Fawcett, I saw her up close nearly two years ago. I was hanging out at the annual Lincoln Center Xmas tree-lighting ceremony with my friend Geoff. We were there to see the Sesame Street Muppets perform, like the hundreds of other small children on the plaza, and to see two thirds of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Geoff and I were standing toward the back of the crowd, and I noticed a stunning older blonde woman walk past me. A few minutes later she walked past me again, going the other way. She looked fabulous, dressed simply but expensively in warm clothes.

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Goth girl

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I had John Wesley Harding on the stereo as I got ready before work (the artist, not the album), and the following lyrics made my morning:

Goth girl, who is the guy on the leash?
Does he wash dishes?
Goth girl, he looks like Pete Murphy to me,
Oh yeah, he wishes.

I know he's appropriately frail,
But I bet he can't afford
To take you to the Nine Inch Nails.
(I've got two tickets.)

Had to share.

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The Accidental Terrorist 30th Anniversary Sale

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that even a
missionary
could afford.

Order yours now!

William Shunn

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