Inhuman Swill : Page 219
Why is my blog called Inhuman Swill? Because you can unscramble the pieces to make William Shunn.

Time to Disch

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I just finished reading Thomas M. Disch's fine, fine novel 334, in the recent attractive Vintage trade paperback reissue edition. It wasn't until I was almost done, however, that I bothered to read the back cover copy in any detail. Here is how the blurb, written by some anonymous, bitter, and underpaid editoral assistant, ends:

Poisonously funny, piercingly authentic, 334 is a masterpiece of social realism disguised as science fiction.
Disguised? I'm sorry—excuse me while I heave. As if anything worthwhile in literature can't possible be science fiction—instead it's masking itself and is really something else altogether.

Disch is one of those writers who has written plenty besides science fiction, but is this the price one pays for literary respect? A Galilean disavowal of one's unsavory roots? I'm tempted to throw the book across the room, if only for the sake of the poisonous, piercing back cover copy. I'm sorry I gave Vintage my money. I should have just gone back and read my old tattered paperback copy, with it's unashamed proclamation of SCIENCE FICTION right there on the spine.

I bought a similar Vintage edition of Camp Concentration at the same time. Now I'm going to have to go back home and read the back cover of that one very carefully. I'm not sure how they can possibly spin it away from science fiction, but I'm sure they'll try.

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And the winner is...

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To offer my entirely unsolicited opinion, I think the very coolest personal graphic I've seen on LiveJournal belongs to Baldanders. (It was just one of those things that had to be said.)

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Pet Peeve #17

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The way pedestrians traveling in a group always spread out laterally to block the greatest possible width of sidewalk.

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The one argument I won

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I have a certain ex who was always very . . . willful. Once we came to a corner together in the city. A mother and child shared the corner with us. There was no traffic, but the mother was telling the child to wait for the light to change before crossing. The ex began to step off the curb. I stopped her. "There are no cars coming," she said in the tone of voice that was like the warning crackle of ice beneath my skates.

"This woman is trying to teach her child not to cross the street against the light," I said quietly. "You're going to compromise the lesson."

So she relented and didn't cross the street. I don't remember winning many other arguments, but the ones I did were always like that one—quiet. I never won the screaming matches. There must be a must lesson in there somewhere, if she didn't compromise it for me somehow.

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Eugenics Corner

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What gene is it that humans share with dogs that compels us to dash across a busy street just before the cars arrive?

I call the intersection where Broadway, Columbus and 64th all come together Eugenics Corner. To get across to Lincoln Center, you effectively must cross three streets, with two small islands between. Except in the middle of the night, it's almost impossible to get all the way across in a single cycle of the traffic lights, but that doesn't stop dozens of people from trying every day. Almost any time of day, you can go to that corner and watch people attempt to improve the health of the gene pool by running out into traffic.

I don't know whether people don't see the traffic coming, don't think it's coming in their direction (it is a confusing intersection), or think they can beat it. But inevitably someone steps off that second island and then has to bust a move to get to safety. My favorites in recent memory were the very well dressed, very portly couple on their way to the opera who apparently thought that their social status rendered them superior to the laws of physics. In the middle of the street, when they realized they had stumbled into the path of a predatory yellow taxi, a base flight instinct snatched the reins away from the conscious mind—sort of. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to picture these two fine corn-fed specimens hustling their asses to the safety of the opposite shore.

I wish people like that would be more considerate of those of us waiting patiently for the light to change, the ones having small heart attacks every time the jaws of Darwin miss by a fraction of an inch. It's too bad they usually make it to the other side alive. (I've only seen one person struck by a car in all my life, up at 125th Street. That's if you don't count the time I was hit myself, at the age of eight, which probably explains a lot about this pet peeve of mine.) There are often children watching this spectacle, and how can a parent teach his kids to cross the street properly when so many adults are setting such a piss-poor example?

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Getting my kicks. Not.

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My introductory karate lesson went fine last week. Laura and I had a private session with Sensei Lopez in a small room in the basement of the Tiger Schulmann studio in Manhattan. I think we both did pretty well, although after rehearsing our kicks I was tired enough that spots were swimming in front of my eyes and I thought I might black out.

I was proud of myself for getting through the lesson, but I didn't deal all that well with the locker room. I hate locker rooms. Takes me right back to junior high. I don't want anyone to see me naked, even people studiously minding their own business.

I've got to suck up my discomfort and deal with it, though. Tonight is our first lesson with a full class—about 75 minutes from now, in fact. Now I will see how badly gym class still haunts me.

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Celebrity sightings

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I mentioned a couple of celebrity sightings a few posts ago. We used to have a whiteboard here at the office that listed the nearby celebrity sightings for everyone in our group. We also had an elaborate set of rules about what counted as a celebrity sighting. Public appearances didn't count, of course, nor did celebrities encountered in the line of the job (Sesame Street actors, for instance). The sighting had to take place in the neighborhood of the office, or else during the commute directly to or from the office. Certain celebrities seemed to like being seen—their entries didn't count as much as less visible celebrities. Folks in this catagory included Danny Aiello, Paul Shaffer, and Richard Belzer (who, for a while, was a particular attention-whore, always hanging out at a sidewalk table at Fiorello's).

Sadly, someone from upstairs saw our whiteboard ventured back here into the cave once and decided that we were using company resources for something frivolous (I guess). Our VP told us that he was receiving vague pressure to eliminate our celebrity sightings board. There was much grieving, but we complied.

I had a great list going there. Personally I had Farrah Fawcett, Ryan O'Neal, Mandy Patinkin, Kevin Spacey, Pat Metheny, Kenny Garrett, John Goodman, Michael Moore, Dan Hedaya, and many more. Elsewhere in the city, I've garnered David Strathairn, Fisher Stevens (twice), Susan Sarandon (with her son in the Union Square green market, both riding Razor Scooters), and John Turturro (twice in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, which I've written about elsewhere). My coworker Geoff recently spotted Kurt Loder at Fiorello's, and before that Richard Grieco with a woman who might or might not have been Yasmine Bleeth. (Obscure sightings score very highly.) My friends Andrew and Stephanie spotted Isabella Rosselini in the Village, wandering around lost asking people for directions. Repeatedly.

People here want a new celebrity sightings board. I keep meaning to whip up a secret online version in my copious spare time. Instead I write journal entries. :)

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Sweeping the clouds away

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By the way, for all you closet Sesame Street fans out there, I thought I'd point out that we have at long last made your favorite old songs from the show available on our Web site. Just try Sesame Street Radio if you really want to annoy everyone near your cubicle.

Alternately, you can call my office and I will put you on hold. Then you'll hear the same thing.

(For the record, we launched a cosmetically altered version of the site last week. It's very cool—if you have Flash, a powerful machine, and a fast connection. Try it.)

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Ray Bradbury

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The visionary whose stories foretold the Sony Walkman, who imagined virtual reality at a time when there were 400 television sets in the entire state of California, does not own a computer.  He does not like the screens.  "Computers are for people who make mistakes," he says.  "I don't make mistakes."  He does his work on an electric typewriter.  But if not for writing, surely Ray Bradbury surfs the Internet?  "There is nothing on it that I can use," he declares.  "I'm not a researcher.  I am an emotional hand grenade. . . ."

No one less than Aldous Huxley--fellow Angeleno and author of Brave New World--made a dose of hallucinogenics available to Bradbury.  "I was offered," he recalls.  "Aldous Huxley offered me a chance.  He said it would be perfectly safe.  There would be doctors and attendants.  But I told him, 'What if the trapdoor on the top of my head stays open, and all the nightmares come out and they won't go away.  Then what will your doctor do for me?'  I wasn't being moral.  I was being hygienic. . . ."

As a writer, Bradbury says he was blessed with total recall.  He claims that he can remember his own birth, the taste of his mother's milk and being circumcised.  Total recall is "a damn wonderful thing for a writer."  And what about the memories of people he knew and loved?  "No, memory is a curse, especially at my age," he says.  "All my teachers are gone, and most of my friends are dead, and the ones who are alive, you see all these old people, including yourself."

—William Booth, Washington Post Service
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The book of three

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I'm taking my first karate lesson tomorrow. I'm a little anxious.

I think the last time I had formal private extracurricular instruction in sport of any kind, I was about ten. The sport was gymnastics. The second week of class, I came off the uneven parallel bars and landing flat on my back. I couldn't breathe correctly for several minutes. That was the end of gymnastics as far as I was concerned.

Laura and I went to observe a class at Tiger Schulmann's last Saturday morning. Then we had to fill out a questionnaire to sign up for our introductory class. We were asked to choose up to three reasons we had for taking karate:

And so forth.

Staring at the list, I couldn't wrap my mind around all the choices. I could have marked every last reason and it would have been reasonable honest. MEDITATION and FLEXIBILITY I threw out early because they seemed like tertiary goals—they would come with the territory. I threw out WEIGHT CONTROL because, despite the fact that I could stand to lose some, that seems like a secondary effect of the more important PHYSICAL CONDITIONING.

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William Shunn