<= 2001.06

2001.08 =>

[JULY 2001.]


For the interim, it seemed best to write about himself as though he were a fictional character. The pain of separation had not yet coalesced into a detectable emotion; instead it seemed spread around him so thinly as to be transparent. He could infer its presence only from the slight alterations it caused in his perceptions of objects. Living alone in his apartment, he had grown used to the late menacing hours when the appliances and furniture seemed to take on the characteristics of living things, alien and not wholly friendly. This was a different kind of solitude. Everything seemed very bright and quiet and made of glass. He could kneel beside the sofa where they had kissed, or the flowers planted along the driveway, and if he lightly tapped them with his fingernail they would answer with a faint chime. If he tapped harder, surely they would shatter.


if your heart is not on my side

We sat grown quiet at the name of love;
We saw the last embers of daylight die,
And in the trembling blue-green of the sky
A moon, worn as if it had been a shell
Washed by time's waters as they rose and fell
About the stars and broke in days and years.
I had a thought for no one's but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
        -Yeats, "Adam's Curse"

It's over.
  *    *    *

For a bit, I'm probably going to be sporadic about updating and answering mail and so on. I'm honestly not yet sure how this will work. It was unexpected.


chichen itza wrap

Itza wrap! Itza bowl! Itza suspiciously Californian restaurant in the Denver airport with lots of yuppie food and a choice of "30 beers from around the world." It's a step up from the usual airport stand with paleolithic sandwiches, certainly, but the only veggie wrap I could find was the "Colorado Sunshine," which was basically a salad with no dressing inside a tortilla. And lots of sprouts.

On the sunny side, I did finish Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase in the airport. I know I'm a year behind the cutting edge with this Murakami thing as with so much else, but let me add my thumbs-up to the shouting chorus.

My mother and stepfather celebrated their combined fiftieth birthdays yesterday, with a backyard bash 130 guests strong. It was a kegger, mostly populated by middle-aged people I didn't know, so I hit the Sam Adams fairly hard and gave a completely incoherent toast when the cake arrived. Something about how they were born at the precise midpoint of the century, they managed to outlive it, and we hope to see them survive into the Age of Small Robots. Everyone laughed, but I think it was because they'd been told beforehand that I was a writer, so everything I said was bound to be witty.

The party went late, or at least two of the invitees stayed late and traded foot massages and very possibly went home together. At least one of them is married to someone else. Now it's the morning after and my mother is hung over, sitting at the kitchen table and reading all of her fiftieth-birthday cards. "Signs you're fifty: your back goes out more often than you do," etc. One of the gifts was a pair of Lynyrd Skynyrd concert tickets, which are moot as of this morning since their guitarist just died.

Down and out with Beckett in Paris.


get the hell out of dodge

Grading is done, Felisa has another animal story (parrot shower, cat attack, in Canada), and I'm off to have a cocktail party, by myself, on the plane. In related news, the Cambodian lesbian orphans that Aimee is babysitting (good story, ask her about it sometime) were attacked by a squirrel yesterday. This is all true.


indirect positive effects

Had a move-out apartment inspection this morning with a maintenance guy who turned out to be very nice, given how much I've vilified the rental company lately. With all of these final classes and moving and so on, it feels like the beginning of summer, not the end. Tomorrow I'm going to Nevada, where I will sleep for a thousand years.

Phillip Morris apologizes for its Czech Republic study listing the early deaths of smokers as a "positive effect," in terms of the government spending less on pensions etc. This is proof that no amount of PR can save you if you're evil and dumb.



means "to pass the summer in a dormant state." Zoologically, it's the opposite of hibernate; metaphorically, it's my last three months.

Grading papers, tired. Drink lots of water.

18 January. In the factory until half past six; as usual, worked, read, dictated, listened, wrote without result. The same meaningless satisfaction after it. Headache, slept badly. Incapable of sustained, concentrated work. Also have been in the open air too little. In spite of that began a new story; I was afraid I should spoil the old ones. Four or five stories now stand on their hindlegs in front of me like the horses in front of Schumann, the circus ringmaster, at the beginning of the performance.
       -Kafka, Diaries


here comes the ocean

I know, rationally, that this is not an extraterrestrial invader. But the article is just so close to the start of War of the Worlds that it gave me pause.

I have thoughts about the G-8 aftermath too, but they're half-baked and I need to paint a door.


my friends from outer space

Eudora Welty (1909-2001).

Within the space of 12 hours this CNN headline has changed from "Ex-Beatle Harrison 'philosophical' about cancer" to "Ex-Beatle accepts he will die soon" to "Ex-Beatle strongly denies near-death report."


It's too hot to move, these days.



I don't mean to get anyone unduly excited here, but you should know this apartment is so damn hot that I've capitulated and no longer wear a shirt while working at the computer.

The Amish bluegrass festival didn't happen. Instead I went with S. & A. Marlowe to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, which had a lot of Grant Wood (famous for American Gothic) and Wood's pal Marvin Cone. The last few, abstract paintings in the list are particular favorites. S. Marlowe digs "Rakish Steps." They also had a couple of Abraham Walkowitz's paintings of the dancer Isadora Duncan: these particular pieces don't seem to be anywhere online, which is a shame. One is bright orange, one is bright blue, and they're kinetic.

In the evening we met Fred and Kelly and went to see Moulin Rouge, which I don't think succeeded, but was interesting enough to spend some time on. The film was essentially a 100-minute music video, with the same first-rate editing and production design, and the same shallowness of plot and character, that you get in a 4 min. 30 sec. MTV clip. The musical numbers take up most of the film's time and all of its energy, so that the story becomes filler, an excuse for the songs and a framework to attach them to, which should be got through as quickly as possible. All of the usual epic plot elements are there: a doomed romance, rich versus poor, high ideals versus harsh reality, but Moulin Rouge treats them so sketchily that we barely have time to identify them before another song begins. The film purposely employs a story as overused and familiar as possible, so that all of the audience's attention is free to enjoy the elaborate set pieces.

Camp films also use this strategy, often to great effect. Army of Darkness gleefully exhumed every horror-movie cliché of the previous thirty years and used them as a backdrop for Bruce Campbell's one-liners and inane, inspired action sequences. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut also got the absurd pretentions of the average musical pitch-perfect. The standard m.o. is to borrow older tropes with a wink and then slyly invert them, and when Moulin Rouge is content simply to be funny—as in the set piece where the duke chases the bridal-veil-wearing impresario around the boudoir to the strains of "Like A Virgin"—it's a blast. The problem is that the movie appears to think it's conveying a serious message about love, which is ludicrous given its format.

The film's director has said that he hopes to revive the movie musical, and in a well-written musical the songs can function as a sort of mainline to the emotions, performing the character development that the dialogue lacks. But the songs in Moulin Rouge, as everyone knows, are a mélange of pop hits from the last thirty years. Once again, technically nothing can be faulted; it's fascinating to hear "Diamonds are a Girl's Friend" seamlessly meshed with "Material Girl" over a big-band horn arrangement and sampled backbeat. And sometimes the choice of song makes a nice satiric point; to see men in top hats leering and shouting "Here we are now, entertain us" suggests that the pleasure-seeking class of the 1890s was just as disaffected and vapid as Cobain's audience of the 1990s. (This is assuming the point hasn't been driven home by the fact that everyone keeps yelling "End of a century!") But when the songs attempt to do serious character work—especially in the love story—the results are incongruous and flat. The thrill of the film's idiosyncratic presentation lasts about fifteen minutes, and after that it becomes apparent that while this style bespeaks flawless technical mastery, it's hopeless at conveying emotion.

The aesthetic of collage has a noble precedent, and given the film's time period it's even possible that the filmmakers had some of the experiments of modernism in mind. But modernist collage à la The Waste Land was meant to convey disorientation, fragmentation and terror; it communicated to the audience of 1922 that the totality of Western culture lay in shards around them. Collage doesn't have the same effect on pop songs, since by and large their sentiments are already interchangeable, and when Moulin Rouge does appropriate a song with some depth—e.g., U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)"—it immediately steamrollers all the depth out of it, so that the words retain no meaning beyond the literal. No one in the audience was thinking of Martin Luther King when that song came on, I don't think. The mixtures were sometimes clever but never moving, and in the end I just felt pandered to.

All done. Time to shower.



Today I'm going to an Amish bluegrass festival. Read about the Zanzibar sodomy ghost.


bites the nails of success

A couple of months ago we were sitting in a bar with Ethan as he prepared to give the Prairie Lights reading for Carry Me Across the Water, which had just come out. He was counseling us against ambition.

"It's like cocaine," he said. "It never stops. You always want more."

Right now all of us are trying so hard to get published that it makes us dizzy. But getting a story published, of course, is only the first step. After that it's getting a story in, say, The New Yorker, and then it's getting a book out, and then it's getting people to notice your book, and then it's getting a second book out that doesn't flop, and then it's the endless succession of awards and fellowships that everyone's jockeying for. There's this idea that being a Published Author will somehow be qualitatively different than our situation now, but of course it won't—if anything, it will be worse because we'll have to deal with our neuroses in semi-public view. Book tours—Christ. As David Foster Wallace told Salon some time ago:

It's probably like this in anything. I see my students do this with me. You're a young writer. You admire an older writer, and you want to get to where that older writer is. You imagine that all the energy that your envy is putting into it has somehow been transferred to him, that there's a flipside to it, a feeling of being envied that's a good feeling the way that envy is a hard feeling. You can see it as the idea of being in things for some kind of imaginary goal involving prestige rather than for the pursuit itself. It's a very American illness, the idea of giving yourself away entirely to the idea of working in order to achieve some sort of brass ring that usually involves people feeling some way about you — I mean, people wonder why we walk around feeling alienated and lonely and stressed out?

You wonder why 50-60 percent (I estimate) of the Workshop is on psychiatric medication. You work hard in high school so you can get into a good college, and then you work hard in college for a high GPA so you can look nice and pretty for the MFA programs, and then you get into a good MFA program and kill yourself trying to get noticed by anyone—the faculty, lit magazines, these piddling contests with $20 entry fees—so that you have (you imagine) a fighting chance at a career, and then... it just goes on. This mentality of prizes and awards has to stop. A writing career is not an M&M trail where you get a tasty treat every year or so to keep you going. It has to—look. I put a sign over my computer reading "THE WORK IS WHAT SAVES YOU." The only way to keep sane through all of this is to treat the writing process as a Sisyphean labor performed for its own sake, and not to any final reward. The rewards are evanescent, fucking Fata Morganas. You work because you must. You work because you have chosen to define yourself by the work. You work because you are incapable of doing anything else.

Some days, it's better than this.


hardy har har

Ha, see, I start to write and what happens? I get insomniac and it takes ninety minutes to fall asleep. That's normal, though. What is not normal is waking at eight in the morning after a terrible dream about going bald, and spending the next hour checking my hairline in the mirror. I was too tired to think clearly. Then when I finally fell asleep I had another dream about breaking out of prison, only it was a dream in weblog format, where somehow I was posting while escaping. I had to hide in the treetops and eat cats, and I was horrified to discover that I liked the taste of raw meat.

This story is fucking with me.

Rick Moody talks about Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, of all things, and briefly mentions his next book, The Black Veil: a memoir, apparently?


the vorpal blade

Item! We had a Cranium party last night. It's a fun game, even though Fred tried to sculpt the mound of purple clay (which bears more than a passing resemblance to the purple brain that serves as the game's logo) into the mascot Creative Cat instead of the clue, and I was unable to hum the Bachman-Turner Overdrive tune "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet," which I don't think I've ever heard. Half of us ate Brie and were mocked by the other half. Next week: Millenium Trivial Pursuit.

Item! Spin claims that Built to Spill's new one, Ancient Melodies of the Future, embodies a sort of "aesthetic morality." I don't know when Spin decided it was okay to start talking like a collegiate cultural studies journal, but the album is good.

Item! The heat here is uncanny. Because of the humidity it has weight as well as temperature, and you can feel those hundreds of pounds per square inch of boiling vapor pressing down. Marlowe ran a mile yesterday. He's insane.

I teach my last class in a week, then spend two fun-filled days grading before I go to Nevada/Idaho/California for a bit. I've barely written anything this summer and yeah, that may be why I've been relatively happy. Now that I'm getting back into the Work, we can probably expect all kinds of entertaining breakdowns in coming months, as the planet spins toward winter. Item.


who enter here

The Chinese Internet juggernaut is slowing. So all those ads in the Chicago airport announcing that Chinese will be the No. 1 Web language by 2009 or whenever had best hold their horses.

The summer nights have been warm and the undergrads have been busy. Every time I go to the hillside arboretum I find condom wrappers on the grass. A path winds toward the river and an arched bridge spans its width. At the center of the bridge there is a small sign, reading "Last death by diving or jumping from bridge: June 15, 1995." Memorial or warning?



An early draft of "Eumaeus," possibly the most boring chapter of Ulysses, is expected to fetch well above $1 million at auction. Actually, by this point it presumably has already done so, but I couldn't find a follow-up article. To be a capital-A Author: theoretically, all of us could one day sell our private papers, which in my case would mostly consist of dinosaurs I drew during workshop to annoy Marlowe, to state universities for outrageous sums.

For the second day in a row, British schools look to the future. This time it's a program to bring intellectual property law into the classroom, so the kids will understand why Napster is bad. Sure. As the article points out, look how well D.A.R.E. worked in America—and I know you're reading this, Exhibits A, B, and C.


delicate cutters

Time has decided that Philip Roth is America's best novelist. I guess he's kind of an obvious pick, being the only member of the old guard whose recent work has garnered much attention. The case for Pynchon is interesting too, but the whole thing principally highlights how silly the idea of a single Best Novelist is.

If you haven't been following the Postcards from Europe at the Laboratorium, you ought to check them out. My favorite photos thus far are Earl from "Red Meat" on a bridge in Bratislava, Slovak Republic and composers' tombstones in Vienna. All of the architecture is just so apt: Beethoven's obelisk is phallic and monumental; Brahms and Schubert have flower-strewn Greek-cum-Romantic affairs that would serve well as illustrations for, say, Shelley's "Adonais"; and Schoenberg's headstone looks like a big block of tofu.

Kids in Cornwall learn about bad words in school. Ride on, motherfucker!


vive le roi

Today the French republic is 212 years old, sort of. And the Maytag washing machine is 144 years old, and Ingmar Bergman would have been 83, and my mother turns... guess how old. That's right, 29. Happy birthday to all.

Art Spiegelman's Maus is finally being published in Poland, the holdup having stemmed from its portrayal of Poles as pigs.

The embassy guy nodded politely, but clearly he wasn't buying my explanations. 'Mr. Spiegelman,' he said gravely, at length, 'the thing you don't seem to understand is that in Poland calling someone a swine is a much, much greater insult than seems to be the case here in America. Swine, you see, is what the Nazis called the Poles.'

"'Exactly!' I replied. 'And they called us vermin. That's the whole point.' You see, I didn't make up these metaphors, the Nazis did. I was just trying to explore them, to take them seriously, to unravel and deconstruct them. I must say, I keep waiting for some Pole to take umbrage at the fact that I portray Jews as rodents—I mean, I'm not holding my breath or anything, though it would be nice.


go to the happy place

Er, so yesterday I was at my old, empty, almost-no-longer-mine apartment, Lysoling away the nastiness that had accumulated during my one year of residency and generally making it a fit place for my successor. All went well until I tried to remove four 12"x12" squares of mirror glass from the back of the door.

Rrrrip. Acrylic paint. Fuck.

So now there are all these big ugly tears in the paint now, revealing the red metal beneath, in a suspiciously rectangular pattern. I guess I have to repaint the door this weekend. Anyone who knows anything about painting, feel free to send in suggestions.


renaissance in a can

I'm writing a feature-length film script. It's a time-travel musical involving superintelligent stuffed animals. We're going to shoot it in October and it will rule. Also, I've been hard at work on the aforementioned new web project: more details soon.

Anyway, with all of this on my plate, plus teaching a class, I'm lucky to have alert readers to do my job for me. Felisa, who can always be relied upon for bizarre animal stories, sends in the cow that fell through a roof in Turkey.

Sahin's wife, Rahime, was equally incredulous. "They told me that a cow fell on top of my husband," she said. "I thought they were kidding me. May God protect us from a worse accident."

And Peyton would like to remind us that it is now illegal to wear aluminum underwear in Colorado.

"This is serious business," insists State Sen. StephanieTakis, who sponsored the bill. "We have laws against using crowbars astheft devices, but if you were lining your underwear with aluminumfoil, that was not a crime." It is now. Apparently, shoplifters foundsuch so-called "iron pants" allow them to sneak stolen items past anti-theft scanners at store doors. The law also allows store securityofficers to detain people who "crackle when they walk," but provides anexception for aluminum britches worn for "personal amusement".(Colorado Springs Gazette)

This may foul up some Workshop travel plans, since American Airlines tends to fly people out of here through Denver. Make sure to look amused, folks.



Here's a link from Nik: the 50 residents of Pitcairn Island, descendants of the mutineers from the HMS bounty, have a website. There's a Pitcairn virtual shopping mall, a photo album, and important information on ham radios and beekeeping. Yeah, big wads of online information are great, but have we lost all mystery? Here's a long New Zealand article on the weirdness of Pitcairn life and alleged sexual transgressions.

Also, Australia fertilizes eggs without sperm. So theoretically, infertile men and lesbian couples could now have their own biological children. Cool.



A strange new study reports that Republicans have three times as many nightmares as Democrats.

Sleeping Republicans also inhabit scarier dreamlands, according to Bulkeley who is former president of the Association for the Study of Dreams and author of "The Wilderness of Dreams, An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming." Aggression, misfortune, and physical threats characterize Republican nightmares, while familiar settings and friendly characters populate the kinder, gentler bad dreams of Democrats.

Transitions Online is a publication from the Czech Republic documenting changes in post-communist societies. Read about an aftershock of World War II: killings and internment of ethnic Germans in Poland.


penguin x

A tribute to the recently departed Claude Shannon, founder of information theory. He was also the first to realize that Boolean logical operations could be represented by electrical switches wired in series—a fundamental premise of modern computing. And that was his master's thesis.

At home, Shannon spent his spare time building all manner of bizarre machines. There was the Throbac (THrifty ROman-numerical BAckward-looking Computer), a calculator that did arithmetic with Roman numerals. There was Theseus, a life-sized mechanical mouse that could find its way through a maze. And perhaps most famously, there was the "Ultimate Machine"—a box with a large switch on the side. Turn the switch on, and the lid would slowly rise, revealing a mechanical hand that would reach down, turn the switch off, and withdraw—leaving the box just as it was.

A discussion of Henry Miller's unsexy sex scenes, though I still prefer Lauren's succinct point: "Sometimes he reads like William S. Burroughs, which is off-putting, and sometimes like D.H. Lawrence, but why not just read Lawrence instead?"


get behind the mule

Iowa City fireworks festival, yeah yeah. It was one of these "concerts in the sky" with synchronized music, which was technically impressive even if the song lineup was baffling. We had Disney's "Be Our Guest" and the theme from Pocahontas; we had whichever fourth-generation Pearl Jam clones do those "Arms Wide Open" and "Can You Take Me Higher?" songs; we had some soft-rock classics from the '80s; and "Live and Let Die" was the closer. The only song I could really get behind was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and it turns out that song's melody and "wimoweh" chorus come from a traditional Zulu lion-hunting song. I only know this because the original song "Mbube" aka "Wimoweh" shows up on a Miriam Makeba album.


ghosts of bygone days

Marilyn Manson and Thomas Pynchon both look kind of like Alfred E. Newman in their high school yearbook photos. And Pynchon's middle name is "Ruggles."

I'm at work on another web project right now, and it will be expansive and exciting. More soon.


obverse reverse inverse perverse

More on the reincarnated Thai monitor lizard.


american bucolic

The scope of the fireworks display in Coralville IA is entirely out of keeping with its population of 15,123. I give it two thumbs up, even though some of the loud popping rockets were downright hostile and Marlowe got hit by shrapnel.

Re: Monday's Mozart, Jen, who is working on a production of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus this summer, points out the irony of Hesse's Mozart condemning Brahms for musical excess when this was precisely the charge leveled against Mozart during his lifetime. The historical Mozart, one could argue, is undergoing a transformative process similar to what happened with Shakespeare or even Christ; we remember them mostly through the interpretations of others, so that more than anything else they have become a composite of fictional characters. Hesse's and Shaffer's respective Mozarts would probably be incapable of maintaining a conversation.


god & country

The British ex-ambassador to Colombia calls the war on drugs unwinnable. It should take about thirty more years for this to sink in.

Also, there's a new world out in the Kuiper Belt. It probably isn't quite a planet since it's smaller than Pluto, and people have been trying to demote Pluto from planet status for years, but all the same it needs a better name than 2001 KX76. If I had my druthers, they'd name it Rupert in memory of the recently departed Douglas Adams, but we'll see.

Happy fourth. I'm going to go eat tofu dawgs, todu dawgs, yeah yeah.


turning in the widening gyro

Steve P. sends in an important story about a beloved son reincarnated as a giant lizard in Thailand. The best part is the people who are checking its skin for lottery numbers.

It Ain't Necessarily So: The Dream of the Human Genome and Other Illusions scales back some of the claims of genetic science, pointing out "the pervasive error that confuses the genetic state of an organism with its total physical and psychic nature as a human being."

I should also say something about last weekend's Iowa City Jazz Festival. I saw a few of the acts: ¡Cubanismo! were fun and although I am duly impressed with Pat Martino's chops on the guitar, his style is a little subdued for my taste. For me, the surprise highlight of the festival was the Matt Wilson Quartet, named after the drummer and also featuring an upright bass and two saxes, alto and tenor. They played the sort of noisy jazz that I'm into right now, where a driving beat supports the screechy rip-shit-up saxophone lines. Sure it can give you a headache, but that's kind of the point.


macabre macrame

More on Schumann's madness and marriage, though they don't mention the part where the young Brahms was Schumann's apprentice, staying in their house and hopelessly in love with Clara Schumann. This unrequited passion is all over his Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, which is loud and dissonant and completely unapologetic about it. This was in the immediate post-Beethoven era, when all the young composers were still in Ludwig's shadow and assumed that you had to shake your fist at heaven when you wrote a symphony: that's what the form was for. It's overdramatic, sure, but at the same time I can't condone what Hermann Hesse does to Brahms near the end of Steppenwolf:

I looked over the edge of the box into the immeasurable depths of space. Mist and clouds floated there. Mountains and seashores glimmered, and beneath us extended world-wide a desert plain. On this plain we saw an old gentleman of worthy aspect, with a long beard, who drearily led a large following of some ten thousand men in black. He had a melancholy and hopeless air; and Mozart said:

"Look, there's Brahms. He is striving for redemption, but it will take him all his time."

I realized that the thousands of men in black were the players of all those notes and parts in his scores which according to divine judgment were superfluous.

"Too thickly orchestrated, too much material wasted," Mozart said with a nod.

Hesse saw Mozart's icy perfection as an intimation of the immortals, but it's always been a shade off-putting for me. His forms are so exactly constructed that sometimes it seems the music barely has room to breathe. There's something to be said for the aesthetic of excess, for burdening the form with more than it can soundly bear just for the thrill of going too far. If, as commonly asserted, it's true that Mozart never wrote a bad piece, that might end up to be his greatest failing.


u.s.s. riverside

We did it yesterday: we went to Trek Fest. The town of Riverside IA, 15 miles south of here, has the distinction of being the "future birthplace" of the character James T. Kirk, who will be born there in the year 2228, according to the Star Trek mythos. There is of course a heartwarming story:

In March of 1985, Riverside City Council Member and "trekkie" Steve Miller decided Riverside should become the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk. The council was looking for a theme for their annual town celebration. Miller seized the opportunity.

"I had read in Stephen Whitefield and Gene Roddenberry's Making of Star Trek that Kirk was born in a small town in Iowa. I thought it was an imaginative and original idea and something people might get behind," Miller explained. "So out of the clear blue sky, I just made a motion at the City Council meeting that we designate Riverside as Kirk's future birthplace. I proposed to keep it a small town celebration, but a Star Trek theme. Although they were taken by surprise, the motion passed unanimously.

"A news service called Gene Roddenberry," Miller continued, "and asked him what he felt about the idea and he said: 'Very enterprising idea. As far as I'm concerned, the first volunteer has it.' That was as much as any official word we needed on it. We went from there."

As did we. We missed the morning parade since nobody was up by nine, but we made it for the costume contest. About thirty entrants in two categories—Federation and Klingon/supporting cast—lined up on the outdoor stage as an audience of maybe two hundred watched from the bleachers. A portly middle-aged man, whom I can only describe as looking very Iowa, moved between them and asked them to say a few words about their costume and what they like about Star Trek. The odd thing was that the entrants had trouble keeping their earth and space personas separate, so that a fifteen-year-old girl with Trill spots and a science officer's uniform would say:

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was little, and I'm a Trill science officer who's currently working at a starbase but I'm hoping for a transfer to a starship soon—maybe even the Enterprise, but who knows—and I like the newer series because they let women be captains.

The Most Elaborate Backstory award goes to an older man in a captain's uniform wearing a Klingon blade, who explained:

Well, I'm a captain, and once I saved a Klingon's life. As you know, Klingons speak in a very guttural, low-pitched language and have trouble hearing higher frequencies. And there was a bomb I saw by the Klingon, which he couldn't hear because it was emitting a very high-pitched tone. But I could hear it, and so I threw it out. [Vague gesture to indicate throwing the bomb out.] As you know, when you save a Klingon's life they are honor-bound to give you a gift, and so he gave me this blade. [Draws blade and holds it aloft.] I will treasure it forever!

Other notable entrants were Captain Flood, a Klingon with a German shepherd and a Super Soaker who comes to Riverside every year because he "love[s] to squirt humans!"; the woman who covered her gray cat with two gray wigs, thus transforming it into a Tribble; the six-year-old with mechanical attachments who gave his name as TheCutest [like Locutus, get it?] of Borg; and the kid in a Star Trek T-shirt who explained that his costume hadn't come in on time, then waved his tricorder at the audience and announced that we were all holograms, then got embarrassed and left. A woman dressed as Yeoman Rand (who was basically the secretary-in-space for the '60s show) won first place, and the Klingon-saving captain tied with TheCutest of Borg for second.

Once the costume contest dispersed, Trek Fest became indistinguishable from any Midwest small-town fair, excepting the booths selling sci-fi merchandise and the occasional Klingon wandering through the background. A group of square dancers took over the stage and got Peyton and Elizabeth to join them. The tape of synth background music sounded like the "Country & Western" option in a Casio keyboard's rhythm memory bank. The announcer stood beside the soundboard rigidly, with a microphone in one hand, and called out dance directions. Occasionally he would interject a line suggesting that the song had some sort of plot, e.g.:

Turn to your left and do-si-do
You went and you spent all my money
Turn to your right and grab that corner girl

Turns out there are square dance lessons in Riverside on Monday nights, so you know.

In the afternoon there was a talent show. I missed most of it since I had to jaunt back to Iowa City for a short-story conference with a student, but I made it back for the final cheerleading show, which used for its background music a weird medley of marching band fight songs with the vocal tracks from early '90s techno hits. There were entirely too many nine-year-olds in gold lame making sexually suggestive moves that they couldn't possibly have understood.

We left soon afterward because of the heat, and thus missed the kids' tractor pull and the mud run, whatever those were. But we left happy. Something about this huge dose of Americana was vastly comforting, hokey though it was; the square dancing and pork burgers and funnel cakes were deeply innocent in a way you don't see much these days. An afternoon there made one almost ready to believe, again, that people are inherently good.Of course it's just a throwback to an earlier era which had its own darkness; an extended stay in Riverside might be tough for anyone who isn't white, Lutheran and heterosexual. (Salon asks: where are the gay people on Star Trek?) Before leaving, we took pictures beside the model starship proudly standing beneath the American flag in Riverside's city park. Then we noticed that someone had scrawled "Lick dick" in crayon on one of the warp engines.


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