Thomm Quackenbush, author

09.03.05 11:30 p.m.

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain on being a man.  

-Dr. Johnson

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen set himself to writing a novel. Dives Dives strived to be melodic. Xen got his Masters in Secondary Education because he is poor at making life choices.

Anansi Boys

This morning, while ordering books for Emily through the library website, I noticed that Neil Gaiman had a new book out. There was the precognitive lurch in my stomach which means that doing any further research is going to reveal unpleasant information. Nonetheless, I am a glutton for punishment through information and I did the research. The blurbs speak of the story of the African Spider gods' children. I shifted in my seat, just grateful that it doesn't talk about Shane falling out of reality. Still, it sounds bloody identical to my character Wick, as that is precisely his background and as I had ever intention of using him more in further books. Now I will forebear for fear of being seen as an imitative hack. Are there really so few ideas floating in the ether that I happened to create a character that is now starring in the newest Neil Gaiman book?
Spyderwick's dad  
"I am an arachnid, yet even I think this is odd."

Understand, please, that I am not ridiculously claiming that Neil Gaiman ripped me off. If he was even aware that I existed, I would be pleasantly shocked. He is more that creative and imaginative enough on his own to independently have created this character and, certainly, people are going to ascribe it entirely to him. Wyck will be seen as a pale replica of Fat Charlie, as I believe Gaiman has named him. Gaiman is the better and more famous writer. I am just some internet blip on two-hundred people's radar a day at best. Right now, ten times that many people are buying something Gaiman wrote. As long as he does not venture into vampire and aliens, the subject of the two planned sequels to Deaths Worse than Fate, I should be safe.

It is grating to be overshadowed so quickly, before I can even get around to finishing my book. I am trying not to let it dispirit me. In all likelihood, when Gaiman was writing, he happened upon other people who had already made use to very similar ideas to though of which he was making liberal use.

For those few of you who read both Xenology and Deaths Worse Than Fate, you should understand that I am making progress and finding my way uncertainly toward the inevitable conclusion (this really means nothing; there are at least two more books in this series with will likely multiply once I start writing them). I feel, as I always do, that the story is only somewhat in my hands. For the most part, inspiration honestly comes from something beyond me and leads me to the strings I must weave into the story.

When I was on vacation in Lake George, I spotted a peculiar pendant lying with various other bits of most discernable silver jewelry. I asked the woman at the counter how much it would be and she insisted I should buy it now for seven dollars before her boss returned. I didn't care for the sales pitch either way, though I felt she was probably being honest. Emily forked over the requisite cash and asked why I felt I needed it.

I considered this, twirling it in my hands and trying to find a chain on which it would fit. "I don't really know; it just needed to be rescued."

We walked along the shore until it suddenly hit me what the pendant was and how perfectly odd it was that I felt drawn to it without knowing its purpose. For the sake of not spoiling any surprises for those reading my novel, I will not outright tell you what the pendant represented. It is rather a crucial plot point that plays heavily with Shane's fate and is not the sort of thing one just tends to happen upon. It was not a spider, though, which would be a rather simple thing to discover in any store.

I have taken to wearing the pendant constantly as a reminder of the story before me, the metaphorical string around my finger.

Interesting Times Twelve

My life seems to be taking one of those dramatic turns that I like so very little.

As the Chinese curse condemns, I live in interesting times. This particular interest, in the broadest sense, is currently focused on the devastation from Hurricane Katrina. If the news reports are to be believed, this is the worst hurricane outcome in recorded history, unless you are in the business of marking the Bible a historical document. New Orleans is essentially a bowl below sea level. Without the levees - which rapidly broke - New Orleans would be a great deal less of a city and more of a lake. This is precisely what has happened. Within only a few hours, people who remained formed armed gangs and started robbing and raping people according to media accounts. Hours, not days. It leads me to believe that these particular people stayed simple because they wanted to explore their basest instincts. I am not even remotely talking about those people who were forced to stay and are looting food and necessary medical supplies. However, those sick people who are breaking into occupied houses, sexually violating children at gun point, and stealing whatever they can from hurt people never again need be a part of our society. They obviously cannot handle the pressures of being human beings.

In the midst of this, oil refineries have been abandoned and destroyed, meaning that all of the gas stations in the area of ruthlessly price gouging. A gas station on my way to work increased their prices nearly fifty cents a gallon since two days ago, putting it at $3.20 a gallon for regular. Other stations are already edging toward four dollars a gallon and they cannot possibly be feeling the effects of the storm so soon. They are just opportunistic price gougers and, despite what people seem to be insisting, there is nothing patriotic about that. Capitalism doesn't work in these conditions. If one wishes to push up the price of jewelry grade diamonds as far as one can so see what the market will bear, and this is precisely what DeBeers does, go ahead. Diamonds are nonessential, despite what your girlfriend may insist. Oil is the lubricant that makes America run smoothly. Even if one doesn't drive, one must realize that nearly everything one buys is shipped using vehicles that run on this fossil fuel. Price gouging of such an essential can and will edge us closer to a recession. There is no viable alternate fuel at the moment, so this is monopolistic at the very kindest.

On a more personal front, I received a call a few days ago while my phone happened to be several miles away from me informing me that I had to go into the middle school to interview for the job of permanent substitute teacher. This would be fine, except that I had previously spoken to the principal of the school who informed me that he was hiring me for the position. Had he actually done that, they would have voted on my employment two days ago. Now, according to my mother, who has become as angry as a mother hen protecting her chick, there are two permanent sub positions that are yet unfilled and three applicants. My mother, if she had not already set me as a liabilities, was quite ready to go on the offensive and talk to whomever she needed to in order to get me the job I was promised or just set about a punishment for my not having one.

When I arrived to the interview twenty minutes early, a thick boy in a stiffly new suit was sitting in one of the office chair and looking very uncomfortable. The first and last buttons on the suit were buttoned, but no other, giving him a wide crescent of white shirt. I was simply dressed in a nice shirt and nice pants. I considered momentarily that maybe I should be in a suit, but his posture exuded fear to me. I was fine as I was, business casual. I am not an accountant, I am a teacher.

I chatted with the office workers, as I had worked with them before. The boy in the suit shot me uncomfortable looks, as this suggested that I had an advantage over him. I did, of course. I knew the building, have taught about one hundred of the students in varying capacities, and endured the bulk of my schooling in this system.

I was told by the secretary that the principal was running late at a meeting at the high school. He continued to run late and a woman entered into the office forty minutes after I did. She was dressed in various pink garments, from a coral ribbon in her hair to pale rose shoes. She carried with her a bag on which was silk screened a red apple from which a worm was emerging. The worm was reading a book. On either side of this worm were alphabet or number blocks. She seemed like she should be teaching art to grade schoolers.

These two constituted my competition and I looked forward to working with one of them.

The principal arrived over an hour after I did. I saw him as I was contemplating running back to my car and searching for my thematic unit on The Outsiders. I didn't think it would do me much good and only one person in the ten interviews I have attended this summer has even ever looked at it, though without actually reading a word of it, but I wanted props; I wanted something on which I could keep my hands attached. Instead, I returned to the office and sang with a smile, "He's heeee-re." Both other applicants fidgeted a little and laughed nervously.

The principal apologized for his lateness, though I wondered if this wasn't part of the interview. If we were not really dedicated to the position, we might have left, thereby making the decision much easier.

The principal took the boy in the suit, telling his two assistant principals to interview one of us. I glanced up and nodded at the man closest to me, urging him to pick me. He had once written a letter of recommendation for me that involved my writing the entirety of the letter and him signing the bottom without reading it. I just had to respect that level of trust.

He took me to his office and said, "I have no idea why you are even here. You've worked here before. Geez, what sort of questions am I supposed to ask? How was your summer?"

This was an auspicious beginning to the interview. He asked be a few real questions, but for the most part wanted me to know that I would be overworked and underpaid. Then we talked about the feral cats in my backyard and his vacation to the Grand Tetons. He said I would hear about the position before school started and more than intimated that the position was mine. Still, through no fault of his, I had my doubts I would know if I was gainfully employed within a week. The wheels of bureaucracies never move so swiftly, unless it is in reverse.

Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike

Emily, still wet from her shower and half-dressed, answered the door for Zack and Cristin. They had been on a month long road trip across America. They did this because they could but also owing to August having been a good month for weddings.
Zack and Cristin  
Returned from abroad

Traveling for a month together is a powerful test of a relationship of any length and any quality. Even suggesting that such would be a good idea is likely grounds for an expedient break-up. Returning still fond of one other and alive is quite another issue entirely.

"We have something for your both," Zack stated, producing two pieces of wood from a bag. They each had our names carved on them. "We found the wood at the Redwood National Forest and we carved them on the way back. We actually spent most of the time when we should have been looking at the Grand Canyon making these. We have pieces for all of our friends."

I put mine on the altar next to a statue of Anubis, who was indifferent as to its addition.
Dives Dives in concert!  
Dives Dives's marquee

While their company is always a delight, particularly after having endured their absence for weeks, it was not the goal of the evening. Dives Dives had secured a series of shows in a Kingston venue. Kingston is a city I had assumed was burdened with the social drawbacks of an economically depressed community. In the back of my mind, I pictured dilapidated tenements occupied by gang members or people who aspire to the profession. Just like Beacon, the city in which I grew up and was once mugged. Instead, I found Kingston to be lousy with art galleries, coffeehouses, and antique shops; the breeding grounds of aging hippies and yippies. Just like Beacon, after the gentrification brought on by the addition of the DIA Museum and its associated New York City tourists.

Dives Dives was playing in one of these establishments, a combination used book store/coffeehouse/kitsch toy store. When we arrived, she was well on her way to being set up in a corner on the second floor, surrounded by Left Behind novels and bad science fiction (but I repeat myself).

Chrysater, her new boyfriend, was largely the one playing roadies by setting up her equipment. He may play groupie later, if he is wise, but I wouldn't know. He was taller than I expected, but that is about the only impression he made on me. Perhaps he is just shy, but he reacted little when I informed him that he was an exceedingly lucky guy for landing such a songbird.

Dives Dives was splendid. As she is my friend, I expect her to be good at her craft and would politely insist that she was exceedingly so even if she was slightly lacking. Disingenuous encouragement is just one of the many services I provide my close friends, followed closely by teasing. It is a package deal. My only real exposure to her singing was a chant to Ganesha which lasted into the hours and the slight lilt of her singing along to the radio to and from Free Spirit. Given a space in which to vocalize and a guitar with which to do it, she can take a song and make it hers, exuding a confidence and talent I associate with some of the better folk singers I have scene (Jewel Kiltcher came to mind in her incarnation just before becoming a corporate whore bereft of talent). Her original songs were mostly well-written and delivered with a passion that might have obscured even if they weren't.
Dives Dives in person!  
Chrysater is quite fortunate

Dives Dives sang for two hours straight, after which she was engulfed by wave after wave of friends and well-wishers (the venue could accommodate no more than twenty-five people, though most of them immediately demanded her attention). We hugged her goodbye and made haste to try to find Victor's home.

Emily's friend Victor lives and works in Kingston, however he is in competition with the coffeehouse where we were and could not patronize them. Victor, through some feat of fiscal magic, own a marvelous and huge home in which his Culinary Institute partner and he cater and throw soirees, along with renting out the various vacant rooms as apartments. One of these parties was going on as we arrived. All around us stood gorgeous people drinking exquisite alcohol and eating marvelous desserts while staring at adequate art. The alcohol bolstered the experience of looking at the paintings, I do not doubt, as the attendees seemed to be having discussions engrossing enough to not have noted our entrance.

We did not find Victor on our initial sweep, so Emily asked directions of a tall woman whose carriage suggested that she was only separated from being African royalty by a small and easily resolvable snafu. She was in very similar company, the United Colors of Benetton subsuming the United Nations. She looked Emily over and took another sip of champagne that seemed all the more expensive and desirable owing to its proximity to her lips, before suggesting that we check the back porch. The four of us shuffled out past her to a porch overlooking a stream some thirty feet below. The party had very plainly migrated here as well, as this was where Victor and his partner Will were entertaining more of their becoming guest list.

Victor, I pause to note, is one of Emily's oldest and dearest friends. He is a martial artist and dancer, having a body specifically built to excel in all things kinesthetic, to Emily's constant annoyance. He picks up forms and moves that Emily needs to practice for hours before fully embracing. Owing to this, he is unnaturally hard on Emily when they train together, which is often a tact that Emily claims to require. Hard words and a bamboo sword to the legs are the only way to speed her learning. She will train all the harder to spite someone else. After the hours of practice, the form is Emily's forever, but it may only be Victor's as it passes through his body as though channeled from the sky.

Victor hugged Emily fondly, as though surprised to have seen her after so long, though Emily had just called him for directions. He is perpetually affectionate and smiling in my experience, which makes his sporting abuse of Emily all the more baffling too me, a sharp-tongued Mr. Hyde to his gregarious Jekyll.

While they talked I walked to the edge of the porch to look into the dark water below. At the railing, I noted a girl tangentially in my acquaintance chatting it up with a circle of friends. She and I had been at a few of the same parties, she being a former roommate of some of Kate's friends. Everyone's social circles are filled with these sorts of people, pleasant faces without last names.

"Hi..." I began and couldn't remember he name immediately. I had written a story with her as a character. It was about vampires and her name seemed so right... "Scarlet."

She greeted me and we ended up amiably chatting about our mutual acquaintances. "I haven't really kept in touch with any of them, except for Kate. She went to visit Virginia and JB, who I think live together." I paused and amended, hand entwined in front of me, "I don't think it is together together. Though they would make a cute couple."

Scarlet shook this idea away, "They would make a weird couple."

"They were always close," I noted. Then, sensing the conversation was growing exhausted after talk of our jobs and mutual friends, I walked over to check up on Cristin and Zack, who were standing by the picture window, glowing red in the reflection of the light.

We ended up at a diner in Hyde Park, where we indulged in far more food than was prudent. Zack returned from his trip little the worse for wear, though perhaps slightly softened by largely sedentary weeks of road food and the rich-in-every-sense food to be found at expensive weddings. In a few weeks, he will be as though hewn from wood again.

Cristin and he mentioned wanting to take a yoga class, to which I enthusiastically insisted I would accompany them. I even eagerly offered them the opportunity to visit me and use my apartment's fitness club. It is simply less fun to sweat profusely unaccompanied, or at least, unaccompanied by people for whom one doesn't much care. I have had quite enough of men of all ages and builds insisting they were just about to put on ESPN once I arrive and then grunting as though passing a gallstone the size of a toddler. Zack and Cristin would be welcome companions.

Zack also stated that he is interested in training for a marathon, never being the sort to set his bar low. Emily immediately stated that she wanted to join him in his training, as running a marathon has always been a goal she wanted to accomplish. One of her masters has told her running is the only way she is going to improve her stamina in the ring, though I can't find a place in her weekly schedule that isn't already occupied with activity.

It's damned good to have Zack and his associated activity back in my life.
Xenology Extra!  
Dives Dives' Set (Highlights of Bootlegs):



Soon in Xenology: Unitarians. Apple picking.

last watched: Starved
reading: Pedagogy of the Oppressed
listening: Bookends

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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