Tag Archives: I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Buy the ticket, take the ride


To say that Anno Domini 2002 was a bunkerbuster and kidney stone of a year was a bit of an understatement. The year started with the realization that the tech boom of the previous four years was over and done: much as with the pundits seeing signs of recovery from the crash of 1929 in January 1930, business analysts watching the detritus from the dotcom boom kept seeing new sprouts in the manure pile, but they weren’t visible from the ground level. The number of poorly managed built-to-flip tech companies blaming their implosions on 9/11 just kept climbing, and those of us who made plans for the future based on relative employment stability pretty much dropped everything and hung on. In my own case, the company that had hired me for a three-year stem-to-stern documentation revamp suddenly made the news for creating the 38-day monthly reporting period, and while its co-CEOs wouldn’t see the inside of prison for fraud for a few years, the rest of us wouldn’t be there to wave goodbye. Goodbye, steady paycheck: hello, wildly variable schedule at a Dallas liquor store that paid enough for rent or the car payment but not both at the same time.

If evil is the loam of the decay of virtue, from which new good will sprout again, 2002 was a raised bed garden the size of a football field. In very short succession, I lost two cats, brother and sister that I’d bottle-fed as kittens after they’d been abandoned at a Goodwill truck 14 years before, and a grandmother. Driving out to bury one of the cats led to a head gasket on my car blowing out, with a very expensive tow back to town. Oh, and let’s not forget the root canal, or the move to a barely affordable apartment just before the divorce was final. The absolute nadir, though, was watching as a haphazard pro writing career crumpled under the deaths of innumerable seemingly stable paying publications. This was matched by any number of wannabe editors who assumed that publication was enough of an honor without grubby compensation marring it, and by the end of May, with just the latest zine dweeb asking for submissions and responding to queries of payment with “Since I’m not a well-heeled trust fund baby, I’ll pay when the magazine starts making money and not before,” I was done.

By the middle of September, when the despair of working retail in a liquor store during the holidays was a regular morning and evening dread, a glimmer of light came through with a call from a company in Florida seeking a technical writer. It was coming out of a dotcom bankruptcy, they warned, and Tallahassee wasn’t Miami or Orlando. The pay wasn’t what was standard for that sort of position a few years earlier, the benefits were pretty bad, and the lead developer would disappear for weeks in his quest for a Russian mail-order bride. However, one of my potential co-workers brought in her pet Vietnamese potbellied pig on Fridays, the initial interview went well, and I had an old friend in Tally who recommended the place as somewhere to relax: Jeff VanderMeer, whose novel Annihilation comes out as a film early next year. Jeff had delivered several well-placed slaps upside the head during my writing days, and if he was living out there, then it was worth the monumental move out there, wasn’t it?

To cut to the end, the job didn’t work out. Three months in, and about three days before I was to fly back to Dallas and marry Caroline, Delenn to my GIR, the president of the company decided that the gigantic software project planned for January 2003 didn’t need to happen, and a dead project didn’t need a technical writer. Since I’d already paid for plane tickets about an hour before getting notice, that meant sitting around in Tallahassee for three days before returning to Dallas, getting married shortly after Christmas, and flying back to Tally on New Year’s Day to pack up everything and drive back one last time. Noon on January 2, 2003 found me on a nearly-deserted beach in Gulfport, Mississippi, looking across Coke-bottle glass water on the Gulf of Mexico, coming across the occasional enormous fish bone or mangrove seed, and wondering “So what’s the rest of the year going to be like?” Considering how the previous four months had gone, most people would have been embittered for years on both career and locale and never returned.

But.

In many ways, Tallahassee was the right place at the right time. A lack of money precluded a lot of activities, so that meant sitting in a rented room and reading all night. (My roommate was thrilled with this, as I was decidedly less dramatic than his previous roommate, AND I paid my rent on time without reminding. He was also a hopeless fan of the Britcom Absolutely Fabulous, so discovering that my ex was a physical and temperamental ringer for Edie Monsoon just meant that half of Florida’s gay community had to come by and meet Edie’s third ex-husband.) That also meant getting a cram course on Florida natural history and paleontology, especially from the number of Florida State University postgrads at the long-defunct goth venue Club Jade looking for an ear actively interested in their research. The geology and history of Wakulla Springs, the world’s largest freshwater spring, took up a lot of that spare time, and the springs’ steady year-round water temperature meant that swimming outdoors in unchlorinated water in December was an option. The biggest lateral turn in my life, though, came upon a visit to the Tallahassee Museum my second day in town. The Museum is more of a wildlife park and nature preserve than museum as most people would know it, and among enclosures for Florida panthers and river otters were collections of plants that I’d vaguely read about but had never seen in person. Right at the Museum entrance was a collection of Sarracenia purple pitcher plants, and right there was where my old life ended.

Returning to Dallas in 2003 wasn’t a huge improvement on 2002: moving back didn’t remove the reasons for moving out. What changed, though, was a big chunk of Tallahassee that remained under the skin. About a week after getting back, a run to a local Home Depot for new bookshelves led to coming across a display of assorted carnivorous plants for sale, and that’s when it really went down. Although I suffered a few writing relapses (all but one being so aggravating or humiliating that the bug is burned out forever, culminating with threatening to dox the entire management ladder at SyFy in order to get paid), the rest of the time between then and now has focused on the carnivores. This has led to friendships with experts and fellow dilettantes in the field, for all of whom I’d take a bullet without hesitation, and a constant sense of “So what’s next?” Every time I ask that question, someone comes up behind and tells me “If you like that, check THIS out,” and down another rabbit hole I go.

In a very roundabout way, this is a way of thanking the Dallas Observer for voting the Texas Triffid Ranch as one of its Best of Dallas 2017 winners, and a way of thanking those friends and cohorts for getting me here. John, Devin, Summer, Tim, Patrick, Sue, Jeff, the whole crew at Club Jade, the grad students/lifeguards at Wakulla Springs…all of you. I literally wouldn’t be who I am today without you, and I don’t think I would have liked the person I would have been without you. I owe you all a drink, and I hope to have to chance to pay out in person.

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Oztopus mural

As mentioned a couple of weeks back, things have been a little crazy around the Triffid Ranch, and not just because we went from rainstorms that would have stunned Gilgamesh to classic North Texas Hot’n’Dry with nary a transition. Details will follow very soon, but the upshot is that the Triffid Ranch outgrew its origins, and it’s time to evolve. Best of all, that evolution involves air conditioning.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

Deep Ellum robot

I’m regularly asked by friends from outside Texas as to why I stay in the Dallas area. After all, Texas’s governor is a joke, Dallas doesn’t have a great historical reputation, and the city is entirely too close to Lewisville. Of course, McMurdo Station is too close to Lewisville. I stay because while so many other great cities of the world have so much to offer, Dallas is the only place I know where I can get up before dawn to go to the Day Job, wait at a train station for a transfer, and watch, in the day’s first light, giant robots with guitar necks for heads tromping through the city. With that sort of spectacle, how could you leave?

I’m Living In My Own Private Tanelorn, the Saladin Ahmed Edition

At the new Day Job, the relationship with my co-workers is still new enough that an idle conversation on any subject other than “so how was the weekend?” tends to veer off into “And how do you know this?” territory pretty quickly. At my age, it’s not as bad as it used to be: not only do co-workers expect at least a few interesting stories from anyone pushing 50, but the statute of limitations now usually applies to the better ones. Also, many of them are funny or at least curious now, but the old saw about how “comedy is tragedy that happens to other people” also applies when enough time has gone by that the stump no longer aches on cold rainy nights. Even so, some casual discourse still leads to my supervisor looking at me with that expression that says she’s looking for a convenient garbage can if in case she gets sick right then and there, and I have to remind myself that “C’mon, it isn’t THAT bad” isn’t always a suitable defense.

Even with the much more mundane stories, context and backstory is everything, as my writer friends often discover. Sometimes, the backstory becomes a bit of incipoient head explodey, as Saladin Ahmed discovered last week.

I’m going to go into further discussion on Saladin later this week, as his hugely enjoyable first novel Throne of the Crescent Moon made me consider how underutilized conventional and magical gardens are in contemporary fantasy novels and stories. His style and scope are regularly compared to that of the late Fritz Leiber, and I regularly joke with Saladin that, to quote another Texan, I knew Fritz Leiber and Saladin’s no Fritz Leiiber. HowEVER, I could see the two of them off in the corner at a conference or convention, gleefully comparing notes and asking “By the way, have you read this?” until they were kicked out for scaring the cleaning crew. (Me, partisan? You bet. Saladin was born not far away from where I was, and we Michigan kids stick together.)

Anyway, one of Saladin’s many interests is on how imagery from science fiction, comics, and role-playing games ends up in popular culture, and he recently shared via Twitter a collection of punk band flyers using classic Dungeons && Dragons illustrations. I could have told him about my adventures with introducing the Dallas skateboarding community to Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life in 1992, directly leading to seemingly half of the band flyers in the city featuring the denizens of the Burgess Shale. Instead, since it was related to the subject at hand, I let him know that one of the remaining artifacts of my sordid youth still in my possession had more of a direct connection than he realized.

As mentioned, backstory is everything. At the end of 1987, I was a feckless twentysomething first encountering music that wasn’t in saturation airplay on our local AOR radio stations, and had become hooked on the backlist of famed Austin proto-punk legends The Butthole Surfers. Right about the time I started a new job at Texas Instruments, word got out that the Surfers were going to play at the Arcadia Theater, the famed and long-cremated live music venue on Dallas’s Greenville Avenue, and precious few things mattered to me more at that point than getting to the concert. Tickets were cheap, getting down to the Arcadia wasn’t as big a deal as they would be to someone who hadn’t already bicycled the length and breadth of the city, and the new job meant that the other bills were covered. And that’s when everything cratered. My roommate (now the famed glass artist Robert Whitus of Drink With The Living Dead) had a family crisis that required his moving back home, a slight bout of bronchitis that required a trip to the ER stripped out the extra funds, and working nights at Texas Instruments meant that there was no blasted way I could get that day off to hit a Surfers concert. Paul was a very sad boy, but he soldiered through, swearing that he was going to catch another Butthole Surfers show at another time.

(As it turned out, it never happened, but not for a lack of trying. When a big show promoting the album Independent Worm Saloon in 1993 was rained out in a nearly catastrophic thunderstorm that threatened to electrocute everyone on the stage, I took it as a sign that it simply wasn’t going to be. And wouldn’t you know that the rescheduled show conflicted with yet another new job, and I couldn’t even find anybody at the last minute to buy the tickets? I still have them around the house somewhere…)

Fast forward over two decades, to me wandering through the flagship Half Price Books store, up the road from where the Arcadia used to reside before it burned down in 2005. I can’t tell you why I started poking through that New Arrivals cart, but peeking from inside a box was a flyer from that very Butthole Surfers show that I missed. My own flyer had gone the way of all concert promotional material, but here was one in nearly pristine condition.

Butthole Surfers flyer

Now, its method of preservation also explained why I couldn’t just take it or just pay for the flyer and leave everything else. That flyer had been stuck inside a box for the last twenty years, where it had acted as a character sheet for a role-playing game. Specifically, it was a character sheet for the long-out-of-print TSR science fiction game Star Frontiers. If I wanted the flyer, I had to buy the whole game, and the stern crew at Half Price wasn’t about to let me get out of there without the full monty.

Star Frontiers character sheet

Now, that would have been enough of a solved mystery for the crew handling my estate sale, asking “Why the hell did he have this?” I haven’t bothered with gaming since I was in high school (although I used to paint lead miniatures for gifts for friends all the way up until about 1994), so it’s not like I had a stockpile of old games or something. Saladin’s notes about band flyers and role-playing games, though, made me want to get this out to the general public. Somewhere, someplace, is some fortysomething punk whose day is going to be made by a friend telling him “You remember that Dralasite character you used to play back in the Eighties? Well, he’s ONLINE!”

Star Frontiers character sheet

And to add to the embarrassment, I’m sending Saladin the whole game pack, flyer and all. He’ll probably have a blast of belated nostalgia going through the game rules. If he decides to auction off the flyer, though, he’ll probably pay off his kids’ college fund. I think Sludge the Dralasite would want it that way.

Another Day, Another Mind-Shredding Horror From Beyond

Moon Over Garland

Yes, yes, today is a Friday the 13th, and yes, we have a full moon this morning. So will one cancel out the other?

“Let’s go dark, and see what we find…”

Winter moon

It’s my firm belief that almost any holiday can be improved by adding a touch of Halloween to it. Christmas? Already been done, to great effect. Easter? Well, the man did say “This is my body: take of it and eat.” Arbor Day? That’s any given day in the Triffid Ranch greenhouse. There are limits: Veteran’s Day in the US and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand. However, the ones generally labeled “overly commercial” can be amped up quite a bit by adding a touch of darkness at the right time, under the right circumstances.

One of the best in that category is St. Valentine’s Day, and not just because of roses and chocolate. Go out tonight and stare up into that absolutely magnificent full moon starting to rise this evening, and just tell me that you don’t have the urge to take after one of the most famed unorthodox yet incredibly devoted couples in movie and television history:

(Well, okay, so our relationship is a bit closer to this, but that can’t be helped.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to pick up the Czarina and take her out to dinner. That full moon isn’t the only sight of uncommon beauty around here.

I’m living in my own private Tanelorn

First, the congratulations. Old and dear friend Dave Hutchinson just saw his latest book, Europe in Autumn, published on both sides of the Atlantic. Considering that we’ve been commiserating over the state of journalistic careers on both shores for the better part of a decade, and he was sufficiently bereft of sense, taste, and sanity to buy my last book, the least I could do is pass on word. After all, he’s had to put up with me for a significant portion of the 21st Century so far, and that’s something that nobody should do without access to strong drink or electroshock therapy.

Anyway, it’s also time to remind him of why he worries about my coming to visit unbidden. As in his walking out of his house into the garden and tripping over my sleeping body on the front steps, with a big sign taped to my back reading “PLEASE TAKE ME IN”. Poor Dave already believes that Texas is a deathworld writ large, and he refuses to spell it out in correspondence. I tell him about armadillos, horned toads, mockingbirds, and coyotes, and he merely refers to my home as “Australia Lite”. More than fair: he’d last about five minutes outside of the United Kingdom anyway, and if he came here, he’d have to be wheeled around in a armored bubble like some deformed hamster, just to protect him from the mosquitoes and horseflies. Well, that and the mountain lions: I didn’t tell him about the mountain lions that sleep in the streets of Fort Worth.

Anyway, to celebrate his new book, I realized that I need to put together a package for him, and I told him so. I could hear the shudder of revulsion and horror from here. You’d think that we had chainsaw duels in the middle of downtown Dallas or something. (Well, we do, but only when fighting over prime parking spots on Friday nights. We’re not barbarians.) And this is why I figure it’s time to send him a collection of Texas ephemera, unique in its power to make him glibber and meep just a touch more in his sleep. The trick isn’t just to play on his fears that Texas is as bad as he suspects, but to go waaaaaay past those fears and burn Hank Hill cameos into his corpus callosum. This might take some effort.

Well, I’ve already found the first item, after the Czarina needed to make a trip out to the famed Turner Hardware. For those not familiar, this is the other Dallas icon named “Turner,” and not quite the force of nature as the other. (If we ever get Dave out here, this is someone I plan for him to meet, by the way. How often do you get the chance to meet the guy who justifiably beat the hell out of Kurt Cobain?) That said, we have the perfect garden decoration for Dave, absolutely guaranteed to keep his guests talking about him…and looking for easily-accessible sedatives. I could even tell those guests “Of course they’re real. How do you think we keep the horseflies from stealing the children out of the back yard?”

Shotgun shell lights

Well, this is a start, and a pile of swag that both Turners would be glad to assist in increasing. Now to find a rattlesnake ashtray