Infrequently updated blog of thoughts and feelings whenever I have time to sit down and write. It seems as though I have less and less time to sit down and write these days. That's why this page is static most of the time.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Apahelion CVII

APA-50 is an Amateur Press Association that I have been associating with since I was a 15 year old teenager back in the 1970s. It still exists as a bi-monthly publication written by its members, who come and go periodically. This is my latest contribution to the effort.

Apahelion CVII
Terry Floyd
855 Emerald Avenue
San Leandro, CA 94577

We were driving along in the car Saturday night a few weeks ago listening to the radio.  Alex was working at Jamba Juice, as he does almost every weekend and Nathan was partying with some friends, so we had the evening to ourselves, a rare occasion.  We decided to go out to dinner and catch a movie.  The local NPR station was broadcasting a program called “Selected Shorts” where an actor reads a short story before a live audience.  We didn't catch the beginning of the story and so became intrigued by the middle third of it.  Two men, Nachman and Ali, were having an elegant dinner and discussing a paper Nachman was writing.  Abruptly, the story was interrupted by the mandatory FCC identification, so the announcer had to tell us what we already knew, that we were listening to KQED-FM Radio in San Francisco and that we would return to “Selected Shorts” after a brief pause.  He then read a promotional announcement for an upcoming program and after about 15 seconds, we were returned to the short story.  The announcer welcomed us back to continue the story “Nachman from Los Angeles,” by Leonard Michaels.

Pam almost had to stop the car.  “Did he just say Leonard Michaels?” she asked.  

“Yes,” I replied. “I believe that was the author's name.”

“I wonder if it's the same fellow,” she wondered.  “We had a patient on our unit a couple of years ago named Leonard Michaels, and he was a writer.  Very nice man, with a wonderful, supportive family.  I wish it had all ended better.”

“I guess I know where this is going,” I said.  “You got him in the end stage?”

“Yeah, it was really fast.  He was living in Italy when he was diagnosed and was only six weeks into treatment when he died.”  She paused.  “Lymphoma.  I'll bet it's the same guy.”

Pam is the Director of Oncology Services for the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland and Berkeley and while she doesn’t do floor nursing anymore, she often deals with grieving families when terminal patients are admitted to her unit.  On the bright side, the ratio of cancer survivors to cancer victims is increasing all the time, and in the last 20 years the oncology field has made some dramatic progress.

We continued to listen to the story in silence.  The conversation between Nachman and Ali grew strange as Nachman realized that his host isn't really interested in discussing the paper, only his girlfriend, Sweeney.

By this time we'd decided on a restaurant and had parked outside Don Jose's in Castro Valley, but Pam wanted to hear the rest of the story.  So did I, but we had less than an hour until we needed to be at the theater for our movie, so we really couldn't stay to listen.  The program would probably go on another fifteen or twenty minutes.  We decided to just go have dinner and look up the story later on the internet.

The next night, Pam confirmed that the Leonard Michaels who died on her oncology unit was indeed the same Leonard Michaels who wrote “Nachman from Los Angeles.” She ended up going to Amazon.com and getting for my birthday an anthology of the Best American Short Stories of 2002 which included this story so I could finally read the entire thing.

It’s a good story, first published in The New Yorker, and it took me back to my own college years.  In the story, Nachman is writing a term paper for a wealthy Persian prince, Ali Massid, who needs to remain in school to maintain his visa, but he has no interest in the classes he’s taking and is wealthy enough to pay other people to do his schoolwork for him.

When I was in college back in Austin in the late 1970s and early 1980s, my roommate Scott Bobo and I would sometimes make extra money by typing up term papers for “Mary Ann Ziveley’s Typing Service.”   All term papers had to be typewritten, but not all students had typewriters or were capable of typing, so there were several competing typing services in college towns like Austin.  Scott was an amazing typist and was tested at 92 words per minute.  I wasn’t bad myself, but the best speed I ever got on a test was 88 words per minute.  Ziveley’s Typing Service paid $1.50 a page, so we could make some nice change doing this as long as we could read the notes or handwritten first drafts of students who contracted with Ziveley’s to have their papers typed for them.

There were other services available to students as well.  One of our friends, Terri McDonald, started out doing the same thing we did typing up other student’s papers, but she contracted with a Research Service, which not only provided typing of term papers, but even hired students to ghostwrite term papers.  Terri told me she made up to $10 per page for writing term papers, just as Nachman does in the story.  Most of the students who paid the Research Service were foreign students whose command of English wasn’t all that great, but like Prince Ali, they were quite wealthy and could pay whatever was necessary to pass their classes.  $10 a page seemed like a fortune to me back then, but in the story, Ali agrees to pay Nachman $1,000 for a single term paper on metaphysicist Henri Bergson.  I guess this is what happens when you cut out the middle man.

The Best American Short Stories of 2002 includes some other wonderful gems.  Leonard Michaels’ story is followed immediately by Arthur Miller’s ”Bulldog.” The other dog story in the anthology, Richard Ford’s “Puppy” is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans, which has been much in the news lately.

The first story in the book is Michael Chabon’s “Along the Frontage Road.”  It was weird reading this story, because it takes place just off the Interstate 80 highway in Berkeley that I drive along every day when I go to work.  It is a heartbreaking little tale about a father taking his four year old son to buy a pumpkin for Halloween.  

It’s just very strange to have a personal connection to two writers and two stories in the same anthology that I would have known nothing about if Pam and I had not been listening to the radio that night on our way to Don Jose’s on September 3.

It also reminded me of a personal connection I have with the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  Ever since the tragedy, I just can’t stop thinking about George Alec Effinger.  George lived for over 30 years in New Orleans, and wrote about it often.  While best known as a science fiction writer, George wrote several mainstream novels as well.  

One of these was entitled Felicia and this novel now seems oddly prophetic.  It is definitely a story of its own time, and could not take place in this day and age of instant internet communication, but was quite a clever thriller in its day.  It concerns a small town in Louisiana in the 1970s where a meteorologist at the town’s only television station falls in with some dishonest truckers who conceive a brilliant plot to evacuate the town and loot it.  The TV weatherman begins predicting the imminent arrival of a deadly hurricane and convinces the town sheriff to order the citizens to vacate to higher ground.  The truckers plan to simply drive in after the town has been evacuated and load up their rigs with whatever valuables they can steal.  Predictably, the fictitious hurricane Felicia turns into a genuine storm and the truckers find themselves trapped in the empty town with no escape route.
Hurricanes are common in the Gulf of Mexico, and the residents have seen enough of them to know the drill.  You do what you have to do.  Felicia, however, turns into one of those “Storms of the Century” like Camille, which destroyed Galveston, Texas in the 1960s, or Andrew, which tore through Florida in the 1990s.  Katrina, while initially mild by most standards, did what some of those unpredictable hurricanes do and became our first “Storm of the 21st Century.”

We will be hearing stories about this hurricane for years.  Stories from the survivors, stories from the rescuers, stories about the evacuation, the refugees in the Superdome, the incompetent police and federal emergency management personnel who quarantined the city and prevented rescuers from entering for days and days.  Don’t get me started.

I only met George Alec Effinger a few times, but he was always a joy.  We bought him a Greyhound bus ticket to bring him from New Orleans to Austin for our second ArmadilloCon way back in 1980.  I hadn’t worked on the first one, but was assigned hotel liaison duties for ArmadilloCon 2 (a position I continued to fill for 3 and 4).  Our Guest of Honor was Gardner Dozois, who had collaborated with George on a novel, Nightmare Blue five years earlier.  According to Willie Siros, they hadn’t seen each other since then, so it would be a surprise for Gardner to see his old friend in Texas at what I understand was Dozois’ first Guest of Honor appearance.

George was an amazing man.  At that con, he set a record high score on the Quality Inn’s Missile Command arcade machine that endured for months.  And he only spent one quarter to do it.  He was that good.  He described bohemian life in New Orleans in such vivid terms that you could almost feel the excitement of Mardi Gras from an Austin hotel suite.  This was at least six years before he used the French Quarter as a template for the futuristic middle eastern metropolis of his groundbreaking novel When Gravity Fails.  

He was never in good health, and I was always glad to see him at cons years later, as I had a gnawing fear that he wouldn’t be with us for very long.  In fact, I’m surprised he lived as long as he did, considering how sick he always seemed to be.  He spent so much time in and out of hospitals, it was a wonder he managed to write as much as he did.  And with the chronic pain he lived with day after day, it’s amazing he was able to keep such a sharp sense of humor through it all.  He wrote some of the funniest science fiction stories of all time.  If you don’t believe me, just read one of them, his Nebula winning knee-slapper, “The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything.”

So with New Orleans so much on my mind, I can’t stop thinking about the man who best represented New Orleans to me as a science fiction fan, and how prophetic his obscure mainstream novel Felicia turned out to be.  In a way, I’m glad he didn’t live to see what happened to the city he loved so much, but on the other hand, he deserves some recognition for imagining and even predicting what could happen when a hurricane of that magnitude hits a major metropolitan city.

Mailing Comments:

Vernon Gravely:  Your story of the accident was eerily reminiscent of my son’s tale of wrecking his car last May when he was driving from the Bay Area out to Ione to spend a weekend with his girlfriend.  Ione is about halfway to Yosemite from our place, and it was about twilight when he rounded a curve only to find a deer smack dab in the middle of the road.  He swerved one direction to avoid the animal, then swerved the other direction to stay on the road, overcompensated, and the car rolled on its side and slid down an embankment.  He was in a very similar situation in that while he could extract himself from his seatbelt, the car was still on its side and he was unable to climb out from the passenger door as it kept falling on him as he balanced his toes on the parking brake trying to push it open.  Eventually, some folks pulled over to help him out and they were able to turn the car over, but it was totaled.  Danny Trejo never entered his mind, since all he ever thinks about these days is his girlfriend (they plan to move in together next spring, after she finishes her fall semester at college).

Jimmy Dean:  Glad to know you’re feeling healthier.  I, too, have become more health conscious over the past couple of years after my father and brother both had heart attacks within a year of each other.  We now have a family health club membership and I go work out at least three times a week.  I haven’t lost any weight, but I have transformed my once flabby beer gut into a mild washboard and am sometimes astounded by what weightlifting can do to the biceps and chest.  As hard as it is sometimes to drag myself in for a workout, it is amazing how good I feel when I’m done with it.  

Kennedy Gammage:  Having attended a few bar mitzvah celebrations, I can only imagine how much work went into preparing for Ben’s on both his part and yours.  Congratulations!  By now, I hope your remodeling project is done and you are moved back in to enjoy your beautiful home.  Now, let’s see some pictures of the completed kitchen.

Alice Eaton:  Speaking of kitchens, I was delighted to read about the “Compendium.”  Pam likes to buy cookbooks (and occasionally even cooks), so I’m familiar with the three-ring binder Betty Crocker classic as well as the Bible itself, The Joy of Cooking (Pam even has her copy autographed by coauthor Irma Rombauer’s son).  But the “Compendium” sounds nothing like those books.  Having brewed a few batches of my own beer in my kitchen, the Compendium’s beer recipe sounds absurd, but then again, the first time I brewed beer, I was amazed at what went into it and the odd techniques used to arrive at the desired result.  I almost wish you had included the section on Mead, as I have seen dozens of different mead recipes, and wouldn’t mind trying it myself if I had the patience.  Mead requires no less than a minimum of 12 months to age, and the longer the better.  The best mead has been aged at least four years if not longer.

Allan Beatty:  Another website you might want to check out for geek tunes is http://www.deadtroll.com which has a wonderful video of the SysAdmin Song presented live in Las Vegas last spring.  The back and forth discussion on suicide from a libertarian/objectivist perspective was interesting, but a little too close to home for me.  I’m still working through issues with Kent Johnson’s suicide and while he wasn’t a libertarian, he certainly seemed to feel he was responsible for his own decisions and the feelings of his friends weren’t all that important in the end.  He had a wide support network that only became stronger when he told us all about his first attempt to end his life.  I spent an entire evening on the phone with him one night because I felt he needed me for more than just walking him through re-installing Windows98 and I thought he was doing pretty well when all of a sudden we learned he finally made the decision none of us wanted him to make.  I think Wm Breiding hit the nail on the head when he told me he thinks Kent was just paralyzed by fear.  Fear of asking his friends for help, fear of depending on others and finally, just fear of going outside his apartment.  I had other theories that ended up being completely wrong when I read his final suicide note.  He apologized for hurting us, but made it abundantly clear that what he wanted was an end to his pain and this was the way he had chosen to find that end.

Jennifer Dean:  Your tale of co-worker pranks reminded me a of a story I saw posted on boingboing the other day about two legal secretaries in Australia who were sacked after their email flamewar was posted to other law firms in the city for the amusement of the entire business community.  Personally, I think the email administrator should also be sacked for sending the messages out to his friends, but it was so funny and so ridiculous that he couldn’t resist sharing the joke with his buddies.  Always remember, email isn’t necessarily private unless you use reliable encryption.  And if you are going to say things in email you might regret later, you should learn how to encrypt them so they don’t get passed around to embarrass you.


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