Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mean Fish And Designer Dog-Breath

Not only did the crows find a spot in the tree where they can see me when I'm working, they pulled twigs off of a bunch of branches to make perches. They'll sit out there and holler at me until I come out and play Paper Moon and Sloop John B on the baritone ukulele. There's one big old bird with a wound or growth on one side, and a pair of younger ones (pictured above), who act as though they're totally in love. But sometimes other crows will show up, and the hummingbird who owns the lemon tree seems to be taking an interest as well.

On Friday night, I read two Henry stories at Diesel Books in Oakland. I'd been getting the fraudulent paranoias, so it was very nice to have a group of ambitious, informed readers respond positively to the work. I was even approached by an editor... As I wrote to my publisher afterward, usually genre people think I write literature and literary people think I write genre, but people on both sides of the divide are willing to accept the Henry stories for their home team; here are all the Henry stories currently available.

So I am briefly, tentatively, encouraged. Now, on to the psuedoscience!

This story is my salute to Henry Kuttner’s Gallagher stories, which concern a guy who’s a mad scientist when he’s drunk. Fun stuff, and it falls into that segment of science fiction that I mentally characterize as… Well, I imagine someone giving me a hard time about reading that crap, and I imagine myself saying, “You read stories by O. Henry and Damon Runyon, and this operates on exactly that level. Exactly.”

In order to explain the origin of this story, I have to make an ugly confession. I do not love both of our dogs to the same degree, or in the same way. And when I realized that I was letting one dog lick my face a lot more than the other dog, I knew it was because one had a tongue that smelled like red meat and the other had a tongue that smelled like seafood.

And once I made that connection, I remembered all those promises of bacteriophage mouthwash, where a quick swish with a culture of bacteria-eating viruses would end all need for brushing and flossing. 

(For the record, that shit is about massaging your gums as much as anything else, so if that stuff hits the market and people stop flossing, there will be a buttload of oral surgeons buying boats.)

Here in the Bay Area, we got good bread. I will not defend our pizza or our barbecue (although I do like Bo McSwine’s way with a brisket), but goddamnit, we have good bread. And a lot of it is credited to the local mix of microorganisms that grow in the sourdough starter. Different bacterial cultures give different cultured milk, yogurts, and cheeses their different flavors.

If you scrape your tongue with your nail and sniff the residue, it has a distinctly foul odor as a result of bacterial activity. Unless you’re excreting something from your lungs, that’s where bad breath comes from. Henry just chose to deal with the problem directly. And you should be glad that I didn’t have another two pages for this story, because I would have included a catalog of heritage dog-breath cultures.

For about twenty years now, my father and I have made a habit of hiking once a week. Quite some time ago, we were hiking out around Briones reservoir. We go there rarely because it’s a challenging trail (the first time we went out, we got sassed by a granny for not bringing water, and we were too weak from dehydration to beat her up and take hers), but when we do, we usually see something spectacular in the way of wildlife. The great horned owl, the six-foot catfish, and the three-foot turtle were all spotted on the same trip. And I didn’t throw this detail into the story, but the catfish looked to be an albino. This is an example of how life can get away with things that look cheesy as shit if you make them up. I mean, really. It’s a giant catfish, and it’s an albino. Who sucks blood and knows kung-fu!

We never found out what the story was with the turtle and the catfish. The idea that they might have been released by Buddhists is drawn from one of the most depressing sights you find along the Berkeley waterfront. From time to time someone seeking to enhance their spiritual merit will purchase a turtle from one of the seafood stores that carries a variety of live animals, and then release it into the bay.

The problem? The turtles are freshwater animals. You can see the released animals in certain inlets, and they are rotting alive, divots taken out of their shells and flippers fringed by decay, because the bay is saltwater,.

I can respect animal sacrifice if it is done with the same degree of care as butchering or hunting and the body is used as food. Being a guest at a Voodoo wedding convinced me that if the chicken is delicious, who cares what they were chanting when the throat was cut? And a lively, active bird fit for sacrifice is an animal that’s had a decent life. But this ignorant irresponsibility, while reflecting well on the good intentions of the individuals responsible, really gets to me. The idea that people think they’re being kind to those poor fucking turtles.

Get Nasty
(Get Nasty will be published in the collected edition of We Are Here.)

The real Nasty was owned by my dad’s (and my) friend Dan Moody, who’s a subject in his own right. The last time I saw the man, he was driving a gasoline-powered tricycle with a beer keg for a tank, and that’s probably the least interesting thing I could say about him…

Anyway, when I started this story, I had a whole little back-bit in mind about Nasty’s background. The cichlids of Africa’s Lake Victoria were one of those lovely evolutionary just-so stories, like Darwin’s finches, a diverse array of highly specialized species that, incidentally, were gorgeous. Then, after the usual encroachment had done its damage, some lunatics introduced Nile perch into Lake Victoria, and that pretty much ended that little paradise

But it turned out red devil cichlids aren’t from Lake Victoria in Africa, they’re from Lake Nicaragua in Central America. I’ve been fascinated with Lake Nicaragua since childhood. It’s probably the best lake in the world if you like shark attacks. Bull sharks, sawfish, and cichlids. I’m a swimmer, but I’d be a little nervous in that water.

So in Henry’s future, Nasty’s wild relatives weren't wiped out by Nile perch. It will be tilapia farming that does them in. 

A while ago, a colleague who will be nameless until he wishes to be names sent me a book called Debt, by David Graeber. I’ve been taking it a section here and there. It’s very well-written, very persuasive, and very, very rich material for thought. Among other things, it’s led me to recognize that while I think Marxism is silly, my politics are organized on communist principles.

While I’m only about a quarter of the way through the book – I can go for a couple of weeks without touching it – it had a sort of pervasive effect on the Henry stories. What makes a person valuable to society? What makes an artist worth supporting? What do we owe, what does it even mean to owe? How does one gracefully embrace an artist’s life, one whose social flexibility provides intimate contact with a world filled with social and economic inequities? Is it possible to live well without taking advantage of others?

Is it possible to even try?

I was very distressed to find that Margaret Atwood beat me to the punch on this one. I’ve read Lady Oracle, a well-written book ruined by a daffy ending where the heroine loses a lot of weight as the result of revulsion at the sight of her thighs. (For the record? If that kind of epiphany had that kind of effect, people wouldn’t be fat unless they enjoyed it.) So I’ve been looking at her futurist novels like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake with nervous interest. Well, when I started looking for some information for these notes, I found a passage from Oryx and Crake featuring her version of the chicken nugget animals

I like mine better because they make more biological sense (I could do you up an anatomical diagram), but I’d guess we were both inspired by the old rumor that KFC couldn’t call itself Kentucky Fried Chicken because the animals they used were no longer legally chickens… 

Initially, this piece was going to be a lot nastier. The Colonel was going to kill someone. One of the enormities I’ve read about in conjunction with poultry plants is a jolly game where a worker will pick up a chicken and squeeze it hard enough to shoot its droppings at a fellow worker.

Have you ever held a live bird?

That kind of behavior is going to happen when you treat animals like units in an industrial meat-production process. We must respect living creatures if we are to keep some real claim to humanity.

What goes on in animal husbandry is too nasty for this particular work of fiction, so I made up something science fictional to act as an emotional lightning rod – reality is worse.

And yet I eat meat. I’ve killed and cleaned fish and, once, rabbits, and would participate in a hunt. I’ve also been functionally vegetarian for extended periods of time, and the results were disastrous in terms of my mental and emotional stability. There was a point early in my relationship with my wife when I’d been trying to eat her macrobiotic diet, and she said, “You know, you’re a lot easier to get along with the day after you’ve eaten beef.”

And since then, Cain has sat down to dine with me at least once a day. I still haven’t fully come to terms with this one.

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