personal anecdotes

Seen in the night

Lisa and I were walking home from dinner last night when we spotted a big van parked in front of a house on McGraw St. What could it be? Fed Ex? UPS? An out-of-season ice-cream truck?

No, it was “Suds in the City,” a “mobile dog-grooming vehicle,” which is exactly what it sounds like: a dog-grooming service that makes house calls, or rather curb calls. There’s a big window on the right side of the van so passing pedestrians can stop and watch Rover get his coat trimmed. Because it was dark out and the interior of the van was so brightly lit, the dog-grooming team couldn’t see us staring in at them (either that, or they’re just used to ignoring gawkers), and the effect, watching them go about their business, was of having stumbled over a life-size diorama that someone had left out in the road. Combined with the bracing cold air and the Christmas lights spangling every other house on the block, it made for a nice bit of winter surrealism, although when I try to imagine explaining this scene to someone living in, say, Kabul, my mind just goes blank.


Just hiked to the supermarket and back, and the sky, she is flurrying. This would be no big deal if I were still in Maine, NYC, or Philly—or for that matter, simply on the other side of Lake Washington—but here in Queen Anne snow is a rare enough occurrence to have regained some of its magic. The assorted children and puppies I passed in the street seemed to feel it too.

This is sort of how I felt on January 2, 2000

It seems worthy of a time stamp: I just now finished John Crowley’s Endless Things, a book I’d been waiting twenty years to read.

I could have finished it months ago. It was published back in April, and I snagged the first copy I laid eyes on, happy as a kid on Christmas morning. But having gotten the book home and read the first few chapters, I set it aside, not out of any disappointment at its quality—from the start, it’s very very good—but rather out of that ambivalence you feel when approaching a particular kind of milestone. The list of things you’ve been waiting most of your adult life for is never a very long one, and beyond a certain point—a point I hope I haven’t quite reached yet, but which can’t be far off—the list can only get shorter. And while you do definitely want to get to everything on the list eventually, except of course for that last item, you’re not really in a hurry.

But then my publicist emailed me before Thanksgiving to tell me I was one of several Harper authors who’d been invited to write a short essay or review of my favorite book of the year, and I knew that, barring an almost unimaginable lapse of authorial judgment on John’s part (e.g., Lazarus Long appears in the final chapter, reveals that the entire Ægypt Cycle is actually set in the Heinleinverse, and invites Pierce Moffett and Rosie Rasmussen back to his place for a threeway), Endless Things would be that book. So this weekend I finally sat down with it again, and I’ve been savoring it, making it last as long as I can.

And now it’s over, and I’m satisfied, and happy to have made it to the end, but also feeling weirdly bereft not to have it to look forward to anymore. And it strikes me that writing that essay’s going to be a challenge, because unless you have waited two decades for a book, and thus felt yourself, however peripherally, to be a part of its history, reading it won’t be nearly the same experience for you.

Market Optical

My main pair of glasses are these cool, expensive rimless jobbies in which the nose bridge and temples are attached via holes drilled through the lenses. This morning I went to take them off and they broke in half—which is to say, one of the lenses broke, popping out a chip of polycarbonate. There’s no way to patch this—it needs a new lens.

Now, this is lousy timing given that I’ve got a reading in Leavenworth this weekend, but fortunately my spare pair of glasses is still close enough to my current prescription that I can see (my depth perception’s a little wonky, but I can manage). My real worry was that it was going to cost an arm and a leg to get the broken lens replaced (did I mention that these were expensive glasses)? But when I got to Market Optical down at Pike Place Market, they told me there was no problem—the special UV coating on the lenses is warrantied against “scratching,” a term that apparently includes the fracturing of the lens, as long as you weren’t sitting on it when it happened. So, no charge, and I’ll have the replacement within a week or two.

Sometimes you really do get what you pay for.

My very Crowley weekend

John Crowley was in Seattle last weekend. On Friday night Leslie Howle arranged a dinner party for him, for which I volunteered to be the main cook; Ted Chiang and his partner showed up as well, bearing tiramisu. As you’d expect, the dinner conversation was highly sophisticated, e.g., Ted and I explaining the concept of LOLcats to John, whose studies of Western Civ had not yet led him to

Then on Sunday, I got to sit in on John’s all-day seminar at Richard Hugo House. The focus was on time management in fiction, a subject I have a lot of opinions about after writing Set This House in Order. It was fun to be able to compare notes, not just with John himself, but with some of the big names in the canon—the seminar included a mini-lecture on the evolution of literary standards over the last century, and hearing how the Modernists dissed the Victorians for their supposed lack of realism reminded me of the Hard and Soft SF factions’ bickering over the relative importance of accurate physics.

Finally on Monday night, Lisa and I attended John’s reading, again at Richard Hugo House. John read from his novel-in-progress, Four Freedoms, which concerns the life and loves of a disabled man named Prosper who works at a bomber plant during World War II. The section John read, describing the events leading up to the loss of Prosper’s virginity, was one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a while, so hopefully the wait for the finished novel won’t be too long. In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with rereading the Ægypt series and checking the mail for my signed 25th Anniversary Edition copy of Little, Big.


Lisa and I finished packing up the Bauman booth around 6 P.M. Sunday night, went home, ordered pizza, and fell asleep around 8:30. I woke up around 2:30 (A.M.) and spent most of yesterday in a zombified state. Last night’s sleep schedule was a bit more normal, which is good. Although it won’t actually be published until sometime next summer, HarperCollins has started preparing the trade paperback edition of Bad Monkeys; it’s going to be part of their “P.S.” line, which means I’ve got to come up with about 5,000 words of extra material (expanded About the Author section, FAQ, etc.) for the back of the book. Should be fun, but I’ll do a much better job if I’m awake.


The annual Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair is going on this weekend, and as usual Lisa and I are minding the Bauman Rare Books booth.

During setup on Friday, I was reminded once again that at the high end of the rare-book market, there is no genre snobbery. This year’s Bauman offerings include first editions of Kipling and Flaubert, a Le Morte d’Arthur illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, and signed letters by Hemingway and Golda Meir (the latter typed in Hebrew), but also signed firsts of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (both sold within a few hours of yesterday’s opening) and William Shatner’s handwritten treatment for a Star Trek episode that was never produced (still available as of this posting). And then there’s my favorite item, an Apollo training manual signed by Buzz Aldrin, Fred Haise, and Tom Stafford:

I’d buy this myself, but at $2500 it’s just a little out of my price range. I did, however, burn a rather large hole in my wallet to obtain a pristine first American edition of the Codex Seraphinianus. Woot!

Farmer Matt

Now that the weather’s getting chilly here in Seattle, I decided to harvest the corn I’ve been growing in the front yard. Now, as you know, Bob, corn is wind- rather than insect-pollinated, which means you need a certain density of corn stalks if you want the cobs to develop properly, and I wasn’t sure I’d planted enough stalks to hit critical mass. Looks like I did, though—the cobs were small (maybe six inches long, and cute) but perfectly formed, with no missing kernels.

The taste, alas, was kinda meh. Gummy and starchy, not “super-sweet” as the seed packet promised. But I didn’t really care—it was a trip to be eating actual corn that I’d grown myself. Maybe next year I’ll try an ornamental variety.

I bet Oprah doesn’t do this sort of thing for her guests

One of the lesser villains my protagonist Jane Charlotte encounters in Bad Monkeys is a “serial maimer” named Arlo Dexter. Arlo booby-traps toys and other child-attracting objects with explosives, and leaves them in public places. Jane first learns about this when her handler, Bob True, gives her a child’s notebook filled with crayon drawings depicting Arlo’s crimes in a gruesome comic style. Because the shadowy organization Jane and True work for has a habit of camouflaging its intelligence reports, she at first thinks this notebook is an official document… one in really poor taste. But no, True tells her, it’s a replica of a notebook found during a search of Arlo Dexter’s apartment—he drew the pictures himself.

Paul Gude of was so amused by this scene that, before coming to interview me last month, he created his own replica of Arlo Dexter’s notebook, complete with all of the drawings described in the novel. His initial plan was to spring this on me during the interview, but on the drive over to my house he thought better of it and decided not to risk freaking me out on camera. I actually loved the notebook—it very much appeals to my twisted sense of humor—and while it didn’t make it into the interview footage, it definitely deserves a viewing:

The reason the notebook is in a plastic bag is that Paul, going for that extra dose of psychotic verisimilitude, decided to burn off part of the back cover along with a number of the pages. The final effect is quite cool but means the notebook now sheds ash like crazy. Paul’s wife, who like mine seems to be the Designated Practical Spouse, reportedly asked while the smoke was still rising: “Shouldn’t you have scanned the drawings before you set it on fire?”

Paul’s next interview is with artist-turned-author Mark Ferrari, whose novel The Book of Joby has just been published by Tor. After that, Paul will be looking for other Seattle-area authors to talk to. If he asks you for an interview, say yes—he may be insane, but he uses his insanity for good, and he brings neat gifts. When’s the last time Nancy Pearl gave someone a burnt offering?


I spent a few hours at the Penny Arcade Expo yesterday afternoon. This is the first full-blown gaming convention I’ve been to since the 1980 Origins. They’re a lot louder than they used to be. Even 27 years ago, there probably were some computer games to compete with the board games, but TRS-80s didn’t have speakers, much less surround sound.

Despite the technological changes, I immediately felt at home. As I waited in line to buy my day pass, the guys behind me started up a classic geek discussion. One guy had a friend who was trying to get a World of Warcraft character to level 70 without using weapons or armor. The other guy was initially puzzled by this idea—”Why the hell would you do that?”—but then got caught up in the challenge: “That would be pretty cool to brag about if you could pull it off… What character class is he?” Meanwhile the two guys in front of me were using some sort of wireless sketch pads to email drawings of penises back and forth to each other—I know this because when a news crew came by to film us standing in line, they held up the penis drawings to the camera.

Speaking of World of Warcraft, I saw nearly a dozen MMORPG demos in the exhibition hall, and almost all of them looked like WoW clones (the two exceptions were Richard Garriott’s Tabula Rasa, which has an SF rather than a fantasy setting—whether the addition of blasters to the standard MMORPG model constitutes true innovation remains to be seen—and Pirates of the Burning Sea, in which you control a whole ship and its crew). I was reminded of the explosion of collectible card games that followed the success of Magic: the Gathering. Most of those Magic wannabees failed, for the simple reason that most CCGs are very expensive to get into, so that a typical player can only afford to play one or two seriously. I see a similar problem with the WoW clones, although the “expense” here is more time than money.

The most interesting demo I saw was for a game called The Eye of Judgment, which has you playing (real) cards representing combat units onto a playing mat. A special camera peripheral attached to a Sony PlayStation 3 then reads the bar codes on the cards and brings the units to life on your TV screen. This was clever and cool, although without trying the game myself (the lines were very long) I couldn’t say whether it’s actually worth the bother of buying the special camera add-on for your PS3.

Among the many virtual offerings there were a few booths offering actual physical board and card games. My friend Chris Bodan’s company, Privateer Press, had a booth. Their latest release is called Infernal Contraption, and I almost bought it, but it wasn’t discounted and I figured if I was going to pay full price, I might as well get it from Blue Highway Games, the new Queen Anne game store that I’d like to see avoid bankruptcy for a few months at least.

The most head-scratching moment of the con came when I went into ArenaNet’s Guild Wars booth. This was a fairly large space with at least thirty computer stations running the game. When I sat down at an empty station to give it a try, though, the machine asked for my username and password. I asked an ArenaNet rep what was up, and he said: “Oh, you’re looking for a demo? Sorry, these machines are for people who already have accounts.” Um, right, because that’s why you come to an exposition, so you can show off your game to folks who already own it… (To be fair, the guy claimed that there was a demo area, as well, but damned if I could find it.)

Finally, to cause a little head-scratching of my own, I brought along some stacks of Bad Monkeys drop cards and left them on the various giveaway tables. Later I saw a couple different people picking the cards up and turning them over, trying to work out what they were for (MMORPG? Web comic? Fast-food discount?). I’ll be curious to see if I get any web traffic from it.