About the Author

Douglas Coupland

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Douglas Coupland was born on a Canadian NATO base in Germany and raised in Vancouver, where he still resides. Among his best-selling novels are Generation X, Shampoo Planet, Polaroids From The Dead, Microserfs, Miss Wyoming, Hey Nostradamus! and Eleanor Rigby, altogether in print in some 40 countries. Coupland also exhibits his sculpture in galleries around the world, indulging in design experiments that include everything from launching collections of furniture to futurological consulting for Stephen Spielberg.

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Books by this Author
All Families are Psychotic
Excerpt

Chapter One
Janet opened her eyes — Florida's prehistoric glare dazzled outside the motel window. A dog barked; a car honked; a man was singing a snatch of a Spanish song. She absentmindedly touched the scar from the bullet wound beneath her left rib cage, a scar that had healed over, bumpy and formless and hard, like a piece of gum stuck beneath a tabletop. She hadn't expected her flesh to have healed so blandly — What was I expecting, a scar shaped like an American flag?
Janet's forehead flushed: My children — where are they? She did a rapid-fire tally of the whereabouts of her three children, a ritual she'd enacted daily since the birth of Wade back in 1958. Once she'd mentally placed her offspring in their geographic slots, she remembered to breathe: They're all going to be here in Orlando today.
She looked at the motel's bedside clock: 7:03 A.M. Pill o'clock. She took two capsules from her prescription pill caddie and swallowed them with tap water gone flat overnight, which now tasted like nickels and pennies. It registered on her that motel rooms now came equipped with coffee makers. What a sensible idea, so bloody sensible — why didn't they do this years ago? Why is all the good stuff happening now?
A few days back, on the phone, her daughter, Sarah, had said, 'Mom, at least buy Evian, OK? The tap water in that heap is probably laced with crack. I can't believe you chose to stay there.'
'But dear, I don't mind it here.'
'Go stay at the Peabody with the rest of the family. I've told you a hundred times I'll pay.'
'That's not the point, dear. A hotel really ought not cost more than this.'
'Mom, NASA cuts deals with the hotels, and ...' Sarah made a puff of air, acknowledging defeat. 'Forget it. But I think you're too well off to be pulling your Third World routine.'
Sarah — so cavalier with money! — as were the two others. None had known poverty, and they'd never known war, but the advantage hadn't made them golden, and Janet had never gotten over this fact. A life of abundance had turned her two boys into an element other than gold — lead? — silicon? — bismuth? But then Sarah — Sarah was an element finer than gold — carbon crystallized as diamond — a bolt of lightning frozen in midflash, sliced into strips, and stored in a vault.
Janet's phone rang and she answered it: Wade, calling from an Orange County lock-up facility. Janet imagined Wade in a drab concrete hallway, unshaven and disheveled, yet still radiating 'the glint' — the spark in the eye he'd inherited from his father. Bryan didn't have it and Sarah didn't need it, but Wade had glinted his way through life, and maybe it hadn't been the best attribute to inherit after all.
Wade: Janet remembered being back home, and driving along Marine Drive in the morning, watching a certain type of man waiting for a bus to take him downtown. He'd be slightly seedy and one or two notches short of respectability; it was always patently clear he'd lost his driver's license after a DWI, but this only made him more interesting, and whenever Janet smiled at one of these men from her car, they fired a smile right back. And that was Wade and, in some unflossed cranny of her memory, her ex-husband, Ted.
'Dear, aren't you too old to be calling me from — jail? Even saying the word "jail" feels silly.'
'Mom, I don't do bad stuff any more. This was a fluke.'
'Okay then, what happened — did you accidentally drive a busload of Girl Guides into the Everglades?'
'It was a bar brawl, Mom.'
Janet repeated this: 'A bar brawl.'
'I know, I know — you think I don't know how idiotic that sounds? I'm phoning because I need a ride away from this dump. My rental car's back at the bar.'
'Where's Beth? Why doesn't she drive you?'
'She gets in early this afternoon.'
'OK. Well, let's go back a step, dear. How exactly does one get into a bar brawl?'
'You wouldn't believe me if I told you.'
'You'd be amazed what I'm believing these days. Try me.'
There was a pause on the other end. 'I got in a fight because this guy — this jerk — was making fun of God.'
'God.' He can't be serious.
'Yeah, well, he was.'
'In what way?'
'He was being so nasty about it, saying, "God's an asshole," and "God doesn't care about squat," and he kept on going on and on, and I had to put a stop to it. I think he got fired that day.'
'You were defending God's honor?'
'Yeah. I was.'
Tread carefully here, Janet. 'Wade, I know Beth is very religious. Are you becoming religious, too?'
'Me? Maybe. Nah. Yes. No. It depends on how you define religious. It keeps Beth calm, and maybe ...' Wade paused. 'Maybe it can calm me, too.'
'So you spent the night in jail, then?'
'Safely in the arms of a four-hundred-pound convenience store thief named Bubba.'
'Wade, I can't pick you up. I think it's going to be one of those no-energy days. And besides, the car I rented smells like a carpet in a frat house — and the roads down here, they're white, and the glare makes me sleepy.'
'Mom, come on ...'
'Don't be such a baby. You're forty-two. Act it. You couldn't even get to the hotel in time yesterday.'
'I was making a quick detour to visit a friend in Tampa. I stopped for a drink. Hey — don't treat me like I'm Bryan. It wasn't like I started the fight or ...'
'Stop! Stop right there. Call a cab.'
'I'm short on cash.'
'Simple cab fare? Then how are you paying for the hotel?'
Wade was silent.
'Wade?'
'Sarah's covering it for us until we can pay it back.' An awkward silence followed.
'Mom, you could pick me up if you really wanted to. I know you could.'
'Yes, I suppose I could. But I think you should phone your father down in ... what's that place called?'
'Kissimmee — and I already did call him.'
'And?'
'He's gone marlin fishing with Nickie.'
'Marlin fishing? People still do that?'
'I don't know. I guess. I thought they were extinct. They probably have a guy in a wet suit who attaches a big plastic marlin onto their line.'
'Marlins are so ugly. They remind me of basement rec rooms that people built in 1958 and never used again.'
'I know. It's hard to imagine they ever existed in the first place.'
'So he's out marlin fishing with Nickie then?'
'Yeah. With Nickie.'
'That cheesy slut.'
'Mom?'
'Wade, I'm not a saint. I've been holding stuff inside me for decades — girls my age were trained to do that, and it's why we all have colitis. Besides, a dash of spicy language is refreshing every so often. Just yesterday I was hunting for information on vitamin D derivatives on the Internet, and suddenly, doink! I land in the Anal Love website. I'm looking at a cheerleader in a leather harness on the —'
'Mom, how can you visit sites like that?'
'Wade, may I remind you that you are standing in a human Dumpster somewhere in Orlando, yet hearing a sixty-five-year-old woman discuss the Internet over a pay phone shocks you? You wouldn't believe the sites I've visited. And the chat rooms, too. I'm not always Janet Drummond, you know.'
'Mom, why are you telling me this?'
'Oh, forget it. And your stepmother, Nickie, is still a cheesy slut. Phone Howie — maybe he can come fetch you.'
'Howie's so boring he makes me almost pass out. I can't believe Sarah married such a blank.'
'I'm the one who gave birth to her, and I'm the one who has to drive with him to Cape Canaveral today.'
'Ooh — bummer. Another NASA do?'
'Yes. And you're welcome to come along.'
'Wait a second, Mom — why aren't you at the Peabody with everybody else? What are you staying in a motel for? By the way, it took thirty rings for the clerk — who, I might add, sounded like a kidney thief — to answer the phone.'
'Wade, you're changing the subject. Phone Howie. Oh wait — I think I hear somebody at the door.' Janet held the phone at arm's length from her head, and said, 'Knock knock knock knock.'
'Very funny, Mom.'
'I have to answer the door, Wade.'
'That's really funny. I —'
Click
The motel room made her feel slightly too transient, but it was a bargain, and that turned the minuses into pluses. Nonetheless, Janet missed her morning waking-up rituals in her own bedroom. She touched her body gently and methodically, as though she were at the bank counting a stack of twenties. She gently rubbed a set of ulcers on her lips' insides, still there, same as the day before, not just a dream. Her hands probed further downward — no lumps in her breasts, not today — but then what had Sarah told her? We've all had cancer thousands of times, Mom, but in all those thousands of times your body removed it. It's lazy bookkeeping to only count the cancers that stick. You and I could have cancer right now, but tomorrow it might be gone.
The motel room smelled like a lifetime of cigarettes. She looked at Sarah's photo in the Miami Herald beside the phone, a standard NASA PR crew photo: an upper body shot against a navy ice-cream swirl background and complexion-flattering lighting that made one suspect a noble, scientific disdain for cosmetics. Sarah clutched a helmet underneath her right arm. Her left arm, handless, rested by her side: Space knows no limitations.
Janet sighed. She twiddled her toes. Ten minutes later her phone rang again: Sarah calling from the Cape.
'Hi, Mom. I just spoke to Howie. He'll go pick up Wade.'
'Good morning, Sarah. How's your day?'
'This morning we had a zero-G evacuation test, but what I really wanted to do was sit in a nice quiet bathroom and test out a new brand of pore-cleansing strips. The humidity in these suits is giving me killer blackheads. They never talked about that in those old Life magazine photo essays. Have you eaten yet?'
'No.'
'Come eat at the Cape with me. We can have dehydrated astronaut's ice cream out of a shiny Mylar bag.'
Janet sat up on her bed and pulled her legs over the side. She felt her skin — her meat — hanging from her bones as though it were so much water-logged clothing. She needed to pee. She began to meter her words as she eyed the bathroom door. 'I don't think so, dear. The only time they ever allow me to have with you are three seconds for a photo op.'
Sarah asked, 'Is Beth arriving today?'
Beth was Wade's wife. 'Later this afternoon. I think I'm going to dinner with the two of them.'
'How far along is she?'
'I think this is her fourth month. It may even be a Christmas baby.'
'Huh. I see.'
'Something wrong, Sarah?'
'It's just that —'
'What?'
'Mom, how could Wade marry ... her. She's so priggish and born-again. I always thought Wade would marry Miss Roller Derby. Beth is so frigging sanctimonious.'
'She keeps him alive.'
'I guess she does. When does Bryan arrive?'
'He and his girlfriend are already here. He called from the Peabody.'
'Girlfriend? Bryan? What's her name?'
'If I tell you, you won't believe me.'
'It can't be that bad. Is it one of those made-up names like DawnElle or Kerrissa or CindaJo?'
'Worse.'
'What could be worse?'
'Shw.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Shw. That's her name: Shw.'
'Spell that for me.'
'S. H. W.'
'And?'
'There's no vowel, if that's what you're waiting for.'
'What — her name is Shw? Am I pronouncing that properly?'
'I'm afraid so.'
'That is the most ... impractical name I've ever heard. Is she from Sri Lanka or Finland or something?'
Janet's eye lingered on the bathroom door and the toilet beyond. 'As far as I know she's from Alberta. Bryan worships her, and she's also knocked up like a prom queen.'
'Bryan's pregnant? How come I don't know any of this?'
'I just met her last week myself, dear. She seems to rather like me, though she treats everybody else like dirt. So I don't mind her at all, really.'
'Bryan is such a freak. I'm not going to be able to keep a straight face, you know — when she tells me her name, that is.'
Janet said, 'Shw!'
Sarah giggled.
'Shw! Shw! Shw!'
Sarah laughed. 'Is she pretty?'
'Sort of. She's also about eighteen and an angry little hornet. In the fifties we would have called her a pixie. Nowadays we'd call her hyperthyroid. She's bug-eyed.'
'Where'd they meet?'
'Seattle. She helped Bryan set fire — I believe — to a stack of pastel-colored waffle-knit T-shirts in a Gap — back during the World Trade Organization riots. They were separated, then a few months ago they met again destroying a test facility growing genetically modified runner beans.'
Janet could sense Sarah changing gears; she was finished discussing the family. Next would come business-like matters: 'Well, good for Bryan. You're OK for today's NASA gig?'
'Still.'
'Howie will pick you up at 9:30, after he picks up my darling brother. By the way, Dad's broke.'
'That doesn't surprise me. I'd heard he'd lost his job.'
'I tried to loan him some money, but he, of course, said no. Not that there's much to loan. Howie lost the bulk of our savings in some website that sells products for pets. I could strangle him.'
'Oh dear.' It's so easy to fall into the mother mode.
'Tell me about it. Hey, when was the last time you even saw Dad?'
'Half a year ago. By accident at Super-Valu.'
'Tense?'
'I can handle him.'
'Good. See you there.'
'Yes, dear.'
Click
On the walkway outside her room, Janet heard children mewling as they set off to Walt Disney World with their families. She walked to the bathroom across a floor made lunar from eons of cigarette burns and various stains better left uninvestigated. She thought of serial murderers using acids to dissolve the teeth and jawbones of their victims.
She unsuspectingly caught sight of herself in a floor-length mirror by the sink and the sight stopped her cold. Yes, Janet, that's correct: you are shrinking — sinew by sinew, protein molecule by protein molecule you are turning into an ... an elf, yes, you, Janet Drummond, once voted 'Girl We'd Rob a Bank For.'
She was transfixed by the view of herself in a blue nightie, as if she were once again young and this image had been delivered to her from the future as a warning — If I squint I can still see the cool immaculate housewife I once dreamed of becoming. I'm Elizabeth Montgomery starring in Bewitched. I'm Dina Merrill lunching at the Museum of Modern Art with Christina Ford.
Oh forget it. She peed, showered, dried and then modified those traces of time's passage on her face that she could.
There. I'm not so bad after all. A man might still rob a bank for me, and men still do flirt — not too frequently — and older men perhaps — but the look in the eyes never changes.
She dressed, and five minutes later she was a block away sitting in a Denny's reading a paper. The North American weather map on the rear page was a rich, unhealthy crimson, with only a small strip of cool green running up the coast from Seattle to Alaska. Outside the restaurant window the sun on the parking lot made the area seem like a science experiment. She realized she no longer cared about the weather. Next.
Back in her motel room, she lay down on the bed haunted by a thousand sex acts. OK — this place is creepy but at least I'm not throwing away money. Her lips were sore to the point that speech was painful, and it hurt to exhale. Her pill buzzer buzzed; she sat up. She reached into her purse and removed a prescription bottle. She turned on the TV, and there was Sarah being interviewed on CNN. As always, her daughter looked glowingly pretty on TV, like a nun who'd never touched makeup.
— Do you think you and children like you, born with damage caused by thalidomide, have other messages to tell the world?
— Of course. We were the canaries in the coal mine. We were the first children born in which it was proved that chemicals from the outside world — in our case thalidomide — could severely damage the human embryo. These days, most mothers don't smoke or drink during pregnancy. They know that the outer world can enter their babies and cause damage. But in my mother's generation, they didn't know this. They smoked and drank and took any number of medications without thinking twice. Now we know better, and as a species we're smarter as a result — we're aware of teratogens.
— Teratogens?
— Yes. It means 'monster forming'. A horrible word, but then the world can be a horrible place. They're the chemicals that cross the placenta and affect a child's growth in utero.
The host turned to the camera: 'Time for a quick break. I've been speaking with Sarah Drummond-Fournier, a one-handed woman, and one heck of a fighter, who'll be on Friday's shuttle flight. We'll be right back.'
How on earth did I give birth to such a child? I understand nothing about her life. Nothing. And yet she's the spitting image of me, and she's gallivanting up into space. Janet remembered how much she'd wanted to help the young Sarah with her homework, and Sarah's polite-but-resigned invitations to come do so when Janet popped her head into Sarah's doorway. Invariably Janet would look down at the papers that might as well have been in Chinese. Janet would ask a few concerned questions about Sarah's teachers, and then plead kitchen duty, beating a hasty retreat.
She turned off the TV.
She once cared about everything, and if she couldn't muster genuine concern, she could easily fake it: too much rain stunting the petunias; her children's scrapes; stick figure Africans; the plight of marine mammals. She considered herself one of the surviving members of a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances or doing the right thing — to care about caring. She had been born in 1934 in Toronto, a city then much like Chicago or Rochester or Detroit — bland, methodical, thrifty and rules-playing. Her father, William Truro, managed the furniture and household appliance department of the downtown Eaton's department store. William's wife, Kaye, was, well ... William's wife.
The two raised Janet and her older brother, Gerald, on $29.50 a week until 1938, when a salary decrease lowered William's pay to $27 a week, and jam vanished from the Truro breakfast table, the absence of which became Janet's first memory. After the jam, the rest of Janet's life seemed to have been an ongoing reduction — things that had once been essential vanishing without discussion, or even worse, with too much discussion.
Seasons changed. Sweaters became ragged, were patched up and became ragged again, and were grudgingly thrown out. A few flowers were grown in the thin band of dirt in front of the brick row house, species scavenged by Kaye for their value as dried flowers, which scrimped an extra few months' worth of utility from them. Life seemed to be entirely about scrimping. In fall of 1938, Gerald died of polio. In 1939 the war began and Canada was in it from the start, and scrimping kicked into overdrive: bacon fat, tin cans, rubber — all material objects — were scrimp-worthy. Janet's most enjoyable childhood memories were of sorting neighborhood trash in the alleys, in search of crown jewels, metal fragments and love notes from dying princes. During the war, houses in her neighborhood grew dingy — paint became a luxury. When she was six, Janet walked into the kitchen and found her father kissing her mother passionately. They saw Janet standing there, a small, chubby, fuddled Campbell's Soup kid, and they broke apart, blushed, and the incident was never spoken of again. The glimpse was her only evidence of passion until womanhood.
An hour passed and Janet looked at the bedside clock: almost 9:30, and Howie would have already picked up Wade by now. Janet walked down to the hotel's covered breezeway to wait for her son-in-law. A day of boredom loomed.
Then, pow! she was angry all of a sudden. She was angry because she was unable to remember and reexperience her life as a continuous movie-like event. There were only bits of punctuation here and there — the kiss, the jam, the dried flowers — which, when assembled, made Janet who she was — yet there seemed to be no divine logic behind the assemblage. Or any flow. All those bits were merely ... bits. But there had to be logic. How could the small, chubby child of 1940 imagine that one day she'd be in Florida seeing her own daughter launched into outer space? Tiny little Sarah, who was set to circle the Earth hundreds of times. We didn't even think about outer space in 1939. Space didn't exist yet.
She removed a black felt Sharpie pen from her purse, and wrote the word 'laryngitis' on a folded piece of paper. For the remainder of the day she wouldn't have to speak to anybody she didn't want to.
I wonder if Howie is going to be late? No — Howie's not the late type.

Excerpted from All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland. Copyright © 2001 by Douglas Coupland. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Chapter One
Janet opened her eyes — Florida's prehistoric glare dazzled outside the motel window. A dog barked; a car honked; a man was singing a snatch of a Spanish song. She absentmindedly touched the scar from the bullet wound beneath her left rib cage, a scar that had healed over, bumpy and formless and hard, like a piece of gum stuck beneath a tabletop. She hadn't expected her flesh to have healed so blandly — What was I expecting, a scar shaped like an American flag?
Janet's forehead flushed: My children — where are they? She did a rapid-fire tally of the whereabouts of her three children, a ritual she'd enacted daily since the birth of Wade back in 1958. Once she'd mentally placed her offspring in their geographic slots, she remembered to breathe: They're all going to be here in Orlando today.
She looked at the motel's bedside clock: 7:03 A.M. Pill o'clock. She took two capsules from her prescription pill caddie and swallowed them with tap water gone flat overnight, which now tasted like nickels and pennies. It registered on her that motel rooms now came equipped with coffee makers. What a sensible idea, so bloody sensible — why didn't they do this years ago? Why is all the good stuff happening now?
A few days back, on the phone, her daughter, Sarah, had said, 'Mom, at least buy Evian, OK? The tap water in that heap is probably laced with crack. I can't believe you chose to stay there.'
'But dear, I don't mind it here.'
'Go stay at the Peabody with the rest of the family. I've told you a hundred times I'll pay.'
'That's not the point, dear. A hotel really ought not cost more than this.'
'Mom, NASA cuts deals with the hotels, and ...' Sarah made a puff of air, acknowledging defeat. 'Forget it. But I think you're too well off to be pulling your Third World routine.'
Sarah — so cavalier with money! — as were the two others. None had known poverty, and they'd never known war, but the advantage hadn't made them golden, and Janet had never gotten over this fact. A life of abundance had turned her two boys into an element other than gold — lead? — silicon? — bismuth? But then Sarah — Sarah was an element finer than gold — carbon crystallized as diamond — a bolt of lightning frozen in midflash, sliced into strips, and stored in a vault.
Janet's phone rang and she answered it: Wade, calling from an Orange County lock-up facility. Janet imagined Wade in a drab concrete hallway, unshaven and disheveled, yet still radiating 'the glint' — the spark in the eye he'd inherited from his father. Bryan didn't have it and Sarah didn't need it, but Wade had glinted his way through life, and maybe it hadn't been the best attribute to inherit after all.
Wade: Janet remembered being back home, and driving along Marine Drive in the morning, watching a certain type of man waiting for a bus to take him downtown. He'd be slightly seedy and one or two notches short of respectability; it was always patently clear he'd lost his driver's license after a DWI, but this only made him more interesting, and whenever Janet smiled at one of these men from her car, they fired a smile right back. And that was Wade and, in some unflossed cranny of her memory, her ex-husband, Ted.
'Dear, aren't you too old to be calling me from — jail? Even saying the word "jail" feels silly.'
'Mom, I don't do bad stuff any more. This was a fluke.'
'Okay then, what happened — did you accidentally drive a busload of Girl Guides into the Everglades?'
'It was a bar brawl, Mom.'
Janet repeated this: 'A bar brawl.'
'I know, I know — you think I don't know how idiotic that sounds? I'm phoning because I need a ride away from this dump. My rental car's back at the bar.'
'Where's Beth? Why doesn't she drive you?'
'She gets in early this afternoon.'
'OK. Well, let's go back a step, dear. How exactly does one get into a bar brawl?'
'You wouldn't believe me if I told you.'
'You'd be amazed what I'm believing these days. Try me.'
There was a pause on the other end. 'I got in a fight because this guy — this jerk — was making fun of God.'
'God.' He can't be serious.
'Yeah, well, he was.'
'In what way?'
'He was being so nasty about it, saying, "God's an asshole," and "God doesn't care about squat," and he kept on going on and on, and I had to put a stop to it. I think he got fired that day.'
'You were defending God's honor?'
'Yeah. I was.'
Tread carefully here, Janet. 'Wade, I know Beth is very religious. Are you becoming religious, too?'
'Me? Maybe. Nah. Yes. No. It depends on how you define religious. It keeps Beth calm, and maybe ...' Wade paused. 'Maybe it can calm me, too.'
'So you spent the night in jail, then?'
'Safely in the arms of a four-hundred-pound convenience store thief named Bubba.'
'Wade, I can't pick you up. I think it's going to be one of those no-energy days. And besides, the car I rented smells like a carpet in a frat house — and the roads down here, they're white, and the glare makes me sleepy.'
'Mom, come on ...'
'Don't be such a baby. You're forty-two. Act it. You couldn't even get to the hotel in time yesterday.'
'I was making a quick detour to visit a friend in Tampa. I stopped for a drink. Hey — don't treat me like I'm Bryan. It wasn't like I started the fight or ...'
'Stop! Stop right there. Call a cab.'
'I'm short on cash.'
'Simple cab fare? Then how are you paying for the hotel?'
Wade was silent.
'Wade?'
'Sarah's covering it for us until we can pay it back.' An awkward silence followed.
'Mom, you could pick me up if you really wanted to. I know you could.'
'Yes, I suppose I could. But I think you should phone your father down in ... what's that place called?'
'Kissimmee — and I already did call him.'
'And?'
'He's gone marlin fishing with Nickie.'
'Marlin fishing? People still do that?'
'I don't know. I guess. I thought they were extinct. They probably have a guy in a wet suit who attaches a big plastic marlin onto their line.'
'Marlins are so ugly. They remind me of basement rec rooms that people built in 1958 and never used again.'
'I know. It's hard to imagine they ever existed in the first place.'
'So he's out marlin fishing with Nickie then?'
'Yeah. With Nickie.'
'That cheesy slut.'
'Mom?'
'Wade, I'm not a saint. I've been holding stuff inside me for decades — girls my age were trained to do that, and it's why we all have colitis. Besides, a dash of spicy language is refreshing every so often. Just yesterday I was hunting for information on vitamin D derivatives on the Internet, and suddenly, doink! I land in the Anal Love website. I'm looking at a cheerleader in a leather harness on the —'
'Mom, how can you visit sites like that?'
'Wade, may I remind you that you are standing in a human Dumpster somewhere in Orlando, yet hearing a sixty-five-year-old woman discuss the Internet over a pay phone shocks you? You wouldn't believe the sites I've visited. And the chat rooms, too. I'm not always Janet Drummond, you know.'
'Mom, why are you telling me this?'
'Oh, forget it. And your stepmother, Nickie, is still a cheesy slut. Phone Howie — maybe he can come fetch you.'
'Howie's so boring he makes me almost pass out. I can't believe Sarah married such a blank.'
'I'm the one who gave birth to her, and I'm the one who has to drive with him to Cape Canaveral today.'
'Ooh — bummer. Another NASA do?'
'Yes. And you're welcome to come along.'
'Wait a second, Mom — why aren't you at the Peabody with everybody else? What are you staying in a motel for? By the way, it took thirty rings for the clerk — who, I might add, sounded like a kidney thief — to answer the phone.'
'Wade, you're changing the subject. Phone Howie. Oh wait — I think I hear somebody at the door.' Janet held the phone at arm's length from her head, and said, 'Knock knock knock knock.'
'Very funny, Mom.'
'I have to answer the door, Wade.'
'That's really funny. I —'
Click
The motel room made her feel slightly too transient, but it was a bargain, and that turned the minuses into pluses. Nonetheless, Janet missed her morning waking-up rituals in her own bedroom. She touched her body gently and methodically, as though she were at the bank counting a stack of twenties. She gently rubbed a set of ulcers on her lips' insides, still there, same as the day before, not just a dream. Her hands probed further downward — no lumps in her breasts, not today — but then what had Sarah told her? We've all had cancer thousands of times, Mom, but in all those thousands of times your body removed it. It's lazy bookkeeping to only count the cancers that stick. You and I could have cancer right now, but tomorrow it might be gone.
The motel room smelled like a lifetime of cigarettes. She looked at Sarah's photo in the Miami Herald beside the phone, a standard NASA PR crew photo: an upper body shot against a navy ice-cream swirl background and complexion-flattering lighting that made one suspect a noble, scientific disdain for cosmetics. Sarah clutched a helmet underneath her right arm. Her left arm, handless, rested by her side: Space knows no limitations.
Janet sighed. She twiddled her toes. Ten minutes later her phone rang again: Sarah calling from the Cape.
'Hi, Mom. I just spoke to Howie. He'll go pick up Wade.'
'Good morning, Sarah. How's your day?'
'This morning we had a zero-G evacuation test, but what I really wanted to do was sit in a nice quiet bathroom and test out a new brand of pore-cleansing strips. The humidity in these suits is giving me killer blackheads. They never talked about that in those old Life magazine photo essays. Have you eaten yet?'
'No.'
'Come eat at the Cape with me. We can have dehydrated astronaut's ice cream out of a shiny Mylar bag.'
Janet sat up on her bed and pulled her legs over the side. She felt her skin — her meat — hanging from her bones as though it were so much water-logged clothing. She needed to pee. She began to meter her words as she eyed the bathroom door. 'I don't think so, dear. The only time they ever allow me to have with you are three seconds for a photo op.'
Sarah asked, 'Is Beth arriving today?'
Beth was Wade's wife. 'Later this afternoon. I think I'm going to dinner with the two of them.'
'How far along is she?'
'I think this is her fourth month. It may even be a Christmas baby.'
'Huh. I see.'
'Something wrong, Sarah?'
'It's just that —'
'What?'
'Mom, how could Wade marry ... her. She's so priggish and born-again. I always thought Wade would marry Miss Roller Derby. Beth is so frigging sanctimonious.'
'She keeps him alive.'
'I guess she does. When does Bryan arrive?'
'He and his girlfriend are already here. He called from the Peabody.'
'Girlfriend? Bryan? What's her name?'
'If I tell you, you won't believe me.'
'It can't be that bad. Is it one of those made-up names like DawnElle or Kerrissa or CindaJo?'
'Worse.'
'What could be worse?'
'Shw.'
'I beg your pardon?'
'Shw. That's her name: Shw.'
'Spell that for me.'
'S. H. W.'
'And?'
'There's no vowel, if that's what you're waiting for.'
'What — her name is Shw? Am I pronouncing that properly?'
'I'm afraid so.'
'That is the most ... impractical name I've ever heard. Is she from Sri Lanka or Finland or something?'
Janet's eye lingered on the bathroom door and the toilet beyond. 'As far as I know she's from Alberta. Bryan worships her, and she's also knocked up like a prom queen.'
'Bryan's pregnant? How come I don't know any of this?'
'I just met her last week myself, dear. She seems to rather like me, though she treats everybody else like dirt. So I don't mind her at all, really.'
'Bryan is such a freak. I'm not going to be able to keep a straight face, you know — when she tells me her name, that is.'
Janet said, 'Shw!'
Sarah giggled.
'Shw! Shw! Shw!'
Sarah laughed. 'Is she pretty?'
'Sort of. She's also about eighteen and an angry little hornet. In the fifties we would have called her a pixie. Nowadays we'd call her hyperthyroid. She's bug-eyed.'
'Where'd they meet?'
'Seattle. She helped Bryan set fire — I believe — to a stack of pastel-colored waffle-knit T-shirts in a Gap — back during the World Trade Organization riots. They were separated, then a few months ago they met again destroying a test facility growing genetically modified runner beans.'
Janet could sense Sarah changing gears; she was finished discussing the family. Next would come business-like matters: 'Well, good for Bryan. You're OK for today's NASA gig?'
'Still.'
'Howie will pick you up at 9:30, after he picks up my darling brother. By the way, Dad's broke.'
'That doesn't surprise me. I'd heard he'd lost his job.'
'I tried to loan him some money, but he, of course, said no. Not that there's much to loan. Howie lost the bulk of our savings in some website that sells products for pets. I could strangle him.'
'Oh dear.' It's so easy to fall into the mother mode.
'Tell me about it. Hey, when was the last time you even saw Dad?'
'Half a year ago. By accident at Super-Valu.'
'Tense?'
'I can handle him.'
'Good. See you there.'
'Yes, dear.'
Click
On the walkway outside her room, Janet heard children mewling as they set off to Walt Disney World with their families. She walked to the bathroom across a floor made lunar from eons of cigarette burns and various stains better left uninvestigated. She thought of serial murderers using acids to dissolve the teeth and jawbones of their victims.
She unsuspectingly caught sight of herself in a floor-length mirror by the sink and the sight stopped her cold. Yes, Janet, that's correct: you are shrinking — sinew by sinew, protein molecule by protein molecule you are turning into an ... an elf, yes, you, Janet Drummond, once voted 'Girl We'd Rob a Bank For.'
She was transfixed by the view of herself in a blue nightie, as if she were once again young and this image had been delivered to her from the future as a warning — If I squint I can still see the cool immaculate housewife I once dreamed of becoming. I'm Elizabeth Montgomery starring in Bewitched. I'm Dina Merrill lunching at the Museum of Modern Art with Christina Ford.
Oh forget it. She peed, showered, dried and then modified those traces of time's passage on her face that she could.
There. I'm not so bad after all. A man might still rob a bank for me, and men still do flirt — not too frequently — and older men perhaps — but the look in the eyes never changes.
She dressed, and five minutes later she was a block away sitting in a Denny's reading a paper. The North American weather map on the rear page was a rich, unhealthy crimson, with only a small strip of cool green running up the coast from Seattle to Alaska. Outside the restaurant window the sun on the parking lot made the area seem like a science experiment. She realized she no longer cared about the weather. Next.
Back in her motel room, she lay down on the bed haunted by a thousand sex acts. OK — this place is creepy but at least I'm not throwing away money. Her lips were sore to the point that speech was painful, and it hurt to exhale. Her pill buzzer buzzed; she sat up. She reached into her purse and removed a prescription bottle. She turned on the TV, and there was Sarah being interviewed on CNN. As always, her daughter looked glowingly pretty on TV, like a nun who'd never touched makeup.
— Do you think you and children like you, born with damage caused by thalidomide, have other messages to tell the world?
— Of course. We were the canaries in the coal mine. We were the first children born in which it was proved that chemicals from the outside world — in our case thalidomide — could severely damage the human embryo. These days, most mothers don't smoke or drink during pregnancy. They know that the outer world can enter their babies and cause damage. But in my mother's generation, they didn't know this. They smoked and drank and took any number of medications without thinking twice. Now we know better, and as a species we're smarter as a result — we're aware of teratogens.
— Teratogens?
— Yes. It means 'monster forming'. A horrible word, but then the world can be a horrible place. They're the chemicals that cross the placenta and affect a child's growth in utero.
The host turned to the camera: 'Time for a quick break. I've been speaking with Sarah Drummond-Fournier, a one-handed woman, and one heck of a fighter, who'll be on Friday's shuttle flight. We'll be right back.'
How on earth did I give birth to such a child? I understand nothing about her life. Nothing. And yet she's the spitting image of me, and she's gallivanting up into space. Janet remembered how much she'd wanted to help the young Sarah with her homework, and Sarah's polite-but-resigned invitations to come do so when Janet popped her head into Sarah's doorway. Invariably Janet would look down at the papers that might as well have been in Chinese. Janet would ask a few concerned questions about Sarah's teachers, and then plead kitchen duty, beating a hasty retreat.
She turned off the TV.
She once cared about everything, and if she couldn't muster genuine concern, she could easily fake it: too much rain stunting the petunias; her children's scrapes; stick figure Africans; the plight of marine mammals. She considered herself one of the surviving members of a lost generation, the last generation raised to care about appearances or doing the right thing — to care about caring. She had been born in 1934 in Toronto, a city then much like Chicago or Rochester or Detroit — bland, methodical, thrifty and rules-playing. Her father, William Truro, managed the furniture and household appliance department of the downtown Eaton's department store. William's wife, Kaye, was, well ... William's wife.
The two raised Janet and her older brother, Gerald, on $29.50 a week until 1938, when a salary decrease lowered William's pay to $27 a week, and jam vanished from the Truro breakfast table, the absence of which became Janet's first memory. After the jam, the rest of Janet's life seemed to have been an ongoing reduction — things that had once been essential vanishing without discussion, or even worse, with too much discussion.
Seasons changed. Sweaters became ragged, were patched up and became ragged again, and were grudgingly thrown out. A few flowers were grown in the thin band of dirt in front of the brick row house, species scavenged by Kaye for their value as dried flowers, which scrimped an extra few months' worth of utility from them. Life seemed to be entirely about scrimping. In fall of 1938, Gerald died of polio. In 1939 the war began and Canada was in it from the start, and scrimping kicked into overdrive: bacon fat, tin cans, rubber — all material objects — were scrimp-worthy. Janet's most enjoyable childhood memories were of sorting neighborhood trash in the alleys, in search of crown jewels, metal fragments and love notes from dying princes. During the war, houses in her neighborhood grew dingy — paint became a luxury. When she was six, Janet walked into the kitchen and found her father kissing her mother passionately. They saw Janet standing there, a small, chubby, fuddled Campbell's Soup kid, and they broke apart, blushed, and the incident was never spoken of again. The glimpse was her only evidence of passion until womanhood.
An hour passed and Janet looked at the bedside clock: almost 9:30, and Howie would have already picked up Wade by now. Janet walked down to the hotel's covered breezeway to wait for her son-in-law. A day of boredom loomed.
Then, pow! she was angry all of a sudden. She was angry because she was unable to remember and reexperience her life as a continuous movie-like event. There were only bits of punctuation here and there — the kiss, the jam, the dried flowers — which, when assembled, made Janet who she was — yet there seemed to be no divine logic behind the assemblage. Or any flow. All those bits were merely ... bits. But there had to be logic. How could the small, chubby child of 1940 imagine that one day she'd be in Florida seeing her own daughter launched into outer space? Tiny little Sarah, who was set to circle the Earth hundreds of times. We didn't even think about outer space in 1939. Space didn't exist yet.
She removed a black felt Sharpie pen from her purse, and wrote the word 'laryngitis' on a folded piece of paper. For the remainder of the day she wouldn't have to speak to anybody she didn't want to.
I wonder if Howie is going to be late? No — Howie's not the late type.

Excerpted from All Families are Psychotic by Douglas Coupland. Copyright © 2001 by Douglas Coupland. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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City of Glass (Revised)

City of Glass (Revised)

Douglas Coupland's Vancouver
edition:Paperback
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Eleanor Rigby
Excerpt

I had always thought that a person born blind and given sight later on in life through the miracles of modern medicine would feel reborn. Just imagine looking at our world with brand new eyes, everything fresh, covered with dew and charged with beauty — pale skin and yellow daffodils, boiled lobsters and a full moon. And yet I’ve read books that tell me this isn’t the way newly created vision plays out in real life. Gifted with sight, previously blind patients become frightened and confused. They can’t make sense of shape or colour or depth. Everything shocks, and nothing brings solace. My brother, William, says, “Well think about it, Liz — kids lie in their cribs for nearly a year watching hand puppets and colourful toys come and go. They’re dumb as planks, and it takes them a long time to even twig to the notion of where they end and the world begins. Why should it be any different just because you’re older and technically wiser?”

In the end, those gifted with new eyesight tend to retreat into their own worlds. Some beg to be made blind again, yet when they consider it further, they hesitate, and realize they’re unable to surrender their sight. Bad visions are better than no visions.

Here’s something else I think about: in the movies, the way criminals are ready to squeal so long as they’re entered into a witness relocation program. They’re given a brand new name, passport and home, but they’ll never be able to contact anybody from their old life again; they have to choose between death and becoming someone entirely new. But you know what I think? I think the FBI simply shoots everybody who enters the program. The fact that nobody ever hears from these dead participants perversely convinces outsiders that the program really works. Let’s face it: they go to the same magic place in the country where people take their unwanted pets.

Listen to me go on like this. My sister, Leslie, says I’m morbid, but I don’t agree. I think I’m reasonable, just trying to be honest with myself about the ways of the world. Or come up with new ways of seeing them. I once read that for every person currently alive on earth, there are nineteen dead people who have lived before us. That’s not that much really. Our existence as a species on earth has been so short. We forget that.

I sometimes wonder how big a clump you could make if you were to take all creatures that have ever lived — not just people, but giraffes, plankton, amoebas, ferns and dinosaurs — and smush them all together in a big ball, a planet. The gravitational mass of this new clump would make it implode into a tiny ball as hot as the sun’s surface. Steam would sizzle out into space. But just maybe the iron in the blood of all of these creatures would be too heavy to leap out into space, and maybe a small and angry little planet with a molten iron core would form. And just maybe, on that new planet, life would start all over again.

I mention all of this because of the comet that passed earth seven years ago, back in 1997 — Hale-Bopp, a chunk of some other demolished planet hurtling about the universe. I first saw it just past sunset while standing in the parking lot of Rogers Video. Teenage cliques dressed like hooligans and sluts were pointing up, at this small dab of slightly melted butter in the blue-black heavens above Hollyburn Mountain. Sure, I think the zodiac is pure hooey, but when an entirely new object appears in the sky, it opens some kind of window to your soul and to your sense of destiny. No matter how rational you try to be, it’s hard to escape the feeling that such a celestial event portends some kind of radical change.

Funny that it took a comet to trigger a small but radical change in my life. In the years until then, I’d been sieving the contents of my days with ever finer mesh, trying to sort out those sharp and nasty bits that were causing me grief: bad ideas, pointless habits, robotic thinking. Like anybody, I wanted to find out if my life was ever going to make sense, or maybe even feel like a story. In the wake of Hale-Bopp, I realized that my life, while technically adequate, had become all it was ever going to be. If I could just keep things going on their current even keel for a few more decades, the coroner could dump me into a peat bog without my ever having once gone fully crazy.

I made the radical change standing in the video store’s parking lot, holding copies of On the Beach, Bambi, Terms of Endearment, How Green Was My Valley and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, staring up at the comet. I decided that instead of demanding certainty from life, I now wanted peace. No more trying to control everything — it was now time to go with the flow. With that one decision, the chain-mail shroud I’d been wearing my entire life fell from my body and I was light as a gull. I’d freed myself.

* * *

Of course, we’re born alone, and when we die, we join every living thing that’s ever existed—and ever will. When I’m dead I won’t be lonely any more — I’ll be joining a big party. Sometimes at the office, when the phones aren’t ringing, and when I’ve completed my daily paperwork, and when The Dwarf To Whom I Report is still out for lunch, I sit in my chest-high sage green cubicle and take comfort in knowing that since I don’t remember where I was before I was born, why should I be worried about where I go after I die?

In any event, were you to enter the cubicle farm that is Landover Communication Systems, you probably wouldn’t notice me, daydreaming or otherwise. I long ago learned to render myself invisible. I pull myself into myself, and my eyes become stale and dull. One of my favourite things on TV is when an actor is in a casket pretending to be dead, or, even more challenging, laid out on a morgue’s steel draining pan bathed in clinical white light. Did I see an eyelash flicker? Did that cheek muscle just twitch? Is the thorax pumping slightly? Is this particular fascination of mine goofy, or is it sick?

I’m alone now, and I was alone when I saw my first comet that night in the parking lot, the comet that lightened my burden in life. It made me so giddy, I chucked the rented tapes into my Honda’s back seat and went for a walk over to Ambleside Beach. For once I didn’t look wistfully at all the couples and parents and families headed back to their cars, or at the teenagers arriving to drink and drug and screw all night in between the logs on the sand.

A comet!

The sky!

Me!

The moon was full and glamorous — so bright it made me want to do a crossword puzzle under its light, just to see if I could. I took off my runners and, with them in hand, I walked into the seafoam and looked west, out at Vancouver Island and the Pacific. I remembered an old Road Runner versus Coyote cartoon — one in which the Coyote buys the world’s most powerful magnet. When he turns it on, hundreds of astonishing things come flying across the desert toward him: tin cans, keys, grand pianos, money and weapons. I felt like I’d just activated a similar sort of magnet, and I needed to wait and see what came flying across the oceans and deserts to meet me.

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Generation A

Generation A

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Excerpt

HARJ
Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world? Without stories, our universe is merely rocks and clouds and lava and blackness. It’s a village scraped raw by warm waters leaving not a trace of what existed before.

Imagine a tropical sky, ten miles high and a thousand years off on the horizon. Imagine air that feels like honey on your forehead; imagine air that comes out of your lungs cooler than when it entered.

Imagine hearing a dry hiss outside your office building’s window. Imagine walking to the window’s louvred shutters and looking out and seeing the entire contents of the world you know flow past you in a surprisingly soothing, quiet sluice of grey mud: palm fronds, donkeys, the local Fanta bottler’s Jeep, unlocked bicycles, dead dogs, beer crates, shrimper’s skiffs, barbed wire fences, garbage, ginger flowers, oil sheds, Mercedes tour buses, chicken delivery vans.
. . . corpses
. . . plywood sheets
. . . dolphins
. . . a moped
. . . a tennis net
. . . laundry baskets
. . . a baby
. . . baseball caps
. . . more dead dogs
. . . corrugated zinc

Imagine a space alien is standing with you there in the room as you read these words. What do you say to him? Her? It? What was once alive is now dead. Would aliens even know the difference between life and death? Perhaps aliens experience something else just as unexpected as life. And what would that be? What would they say to themselves to plaster over the unexplainable cracks of everyday existence, let alone a tsunami? What myths or lies do they hold true? How do they tell stories?

Now look back out your window–look at what the gods have barfed out of your subconscious and into the world–the warm, muddy river of dead cats, old women cauled in moist saris, aluminum propane canisters, a dead goat, flies that buzz unharmed just above the fray.
. . . picnic coolers
. . . clumps of grass
. . . a sunburnt Scandinavian pederast
. . . white plastic stacking chairs
. . . drowned soldiers tangled in gun straps

And then what do you do–do you pray? What is prayer but a wish for the events in your life to string together to form a story–something that makes some sense of events you know have meaning.

And so I pray.

ZACK
Mahaska County, Iowa

Cornfields are the scariest things on the entire fucking face of the planet. I don’t mean that in a Joe-Pesci-being-clubbed-to-death-with-an-aluminum-baseball-bat kind of way, and I don’t mean it in an alien-crop-circles kind of way, and I don’t mean it in a butchering-hitchhikers kind of way. I don’t even mean it in an alien-autopsy-remains-used-as-fertilizer kind of way. I mean it in a Big-Corn-Archer Daniels Midland/Cargill/Monsantogenetically-modified-high-fructose-ethanol kind of way. Corn is a fucking nightmare. A thousand years ago it was a stem of grass with one scuzzy little kernel; now it’s a bloated, footlong, buttery carb dildo. And get this: cornstarch molecules are a mile long. Back in the seventies, Big Corn patented some new enzyme that chops those miles into a trillion discrete blips of fructose. A few years later these newly liberated fructose molecules assault the national food chain. Blammo! An entire nation becomes morbidly obese. Fact is, the human body isn’t built to withstand high-dose assaults of fructose. It enters your body and your body says, Hmmm . . . do I turn this into shit or do I turn it into blubber? Blubber it is! Corn turns off the shit switch. The corn industry’s response to this? Who–us? Contributing to the obesity epidemic? No way, man. People simply started to snack more in the eighties. Now be quiet and keep drinking all that New Formula Coke.
Man, humans are a nightmare fucking species. We deserve everything we do to ourselves.

But who the fuck gets stung by a bee in a combine tractor in the middle of a cornfield in Mahaska County, Iowa? Me, fucking me.

By the way, welcome to Oskaloosa and all the many features that make Oskaloosa a terrific place to visit. There’s something for everyone here, from the historic city square with its bandstand to the George Daily Auditorium, the award-winning Oskaloosa Public Library, William Penn University and three golf courses.

I stole most of that last paragraph from the Internet. What the town’s home page forgot to mention was my father’s meth distillery (“lab” makes it sound so Cletus-&-Brandeen), which got busted by the DEA a few years back. Dad and the DEA never got along too well.

Six years ago Dad got wasted and in a moment of paranoia stole the Oskaloosa Library’s bookmobile, abandoning its carcass in the 14th hole sand trap of the legendary Edmundson Park and Golf Course. Then, in the delusion that he was destroying DEA monitoring equipment, he torched it, in the process losing his eyebrows, his driver’s licence, his freedom and his visitation rights to my two half-sisters, who live in Winnebago County.

Once out of the clink, he went right back to business and when his meth distillery was raided, the back of his head was toasted by a canister of boiling toluene. He spent six weeks in the correctional facility’s hospital unit until he got into reason able enough shape to walk around. My uncle Jay, a lawyer and Freon broker from Palo Alto, was able to post bail and had Dad flown out to California for OCD counselling. Dad picked up drug-resistant staph from a set of improperly cleaned in-flight headsets that infected his burn scar; by the time they touched down at SFO, maybe a quarter of his head was eaten up. So then we buried Dad, and Uncle Jay sold half the farm and bought me the world’s most kickass corn harvest ing combine, Maizie.

Since then, Uncle Jay has sent me a reasonable paycheque in return for me not making meth (and following Daddy’s path), as well as for me doing a slightly more than half-ass job tending the corn (our family legacy), and for me to piss into an Erlenmeyer flask in front of Iowa’s creepiest Romanian lab technician (just in case I forgot the former two conditions). The urine was tested on the spot to see if I’d shaken hands with someone who ate a poppyseed bagel since the previous Tuesday; it’s not fun being treated like a disgraced Olympian athlete, but Uncle Jay made cleanliness a condition of keeping Maizie. I mean, everyone I know–hell, the whole country–is baked on drugs, clueless as dirt and morbidly obese. Normally I’d have been the perfect candidate for all three, except, 1) I can’t do drugs if I want my cheque, 2) I’m not entirely stupid and am at least curious about the world and 3) I believe corn is the devil. Try finding rice and soy grocery products in Mahaska County. Good luck. They might as well add that fact to Oskaloosa’s online civic profile: Oskaloosa’s grocers sell a wide array of products into which manufacturers have invisibly inserted a vast family of corn-derived molecules. Should your child decide to go vegetarian or adapt any other questionable dietary lifestyle choice, our grocers and mini-marts will thwart their teen desires at every corner.
Okay, here’s the thing I didn’t mention about the raid: the DEA also found a fake-vintage saltine cracker tin containing two dead men’s index fingers. Dad had been using them to loan authenticity to a long-running cheque fraud scheme, but there was a third finger the DEA didn’t find, which I traded soon after to a DEA server maintenance girl named Carly who was running some scam of her own. In return for the finger, she gave me a killer blowjob and access to the DEA’s real-time geosynchronous surveillance satellite cameras. I could have made something long-term with Carly, except she demanded that I cut off my ponytail and donate it to Locks of Love. Farewell, Carly. Why did I want access to a real-time satellite camera? For my art, of course. Details to come shortly.

So the day I got stung by that goddam bee I was out in Maizie, a harvester so luxurious it could shame a gay cruise liner. I was naked, and why not! The ergonomically sensible operator’s cab was fully pressurized and air-conditioned; unibody cab frame, rubber mounts and sound-absorbing material reduced noise levels to near zero. All-round visibility allowed me ample time to throw on some shorts if I saw a visitor arriving on the farm.

I was also listening to some trendy band from Luxembourg or the Vatican or Lichtenstein or the Falkland Islands, one of those places so small that a distinct pie slice of its GDP derives from the sale of postage stamps to collectors and music sales by nanotrendy indie rock bands.

I had my four plasmas on 1) the NFL, 2) some whacked-out Korean game show where people dress in animal costumes to win prizes that look like inflatable vinyl alphabet letters, 3) the DEA real-time satellite view of my farm and 4) a two-way satellite link to an insomniac freak named Charles, who works in the satellite TV media-buying wing of BBDO in Singapore. Charles pays a hundred bucks an hour to watch me work nude in my cab. Did I forget to mention that? Welcome to the new economy. If I can make an extra buck by getting off some Twinkie in another hemisphere, you know what? I’m in. Charles, you unzip your trousers. Zegna trousers, and I know that about you because I read your secret online profile: lions-and-tigers-and-bears@labelwhore.org.

In any event, the sexy portion of Charles’s day seemed to have been completed, and the two of us were talking. Specifically, Charles was trashing the state of Iowa, branding it “The Rectangle State.” I quickly disabused him of this notion, pointing out that Colorado is technically the rectangle state.

Charles said, “Yes, its overall shape is rectangular, but if you look at a county map of Colorado, it looks like a bunch of ripped paper shreds stacked by preschoolers, whereas Iowa is divvied up into 113 neatly aligned rectangles.”

“Quit mocking my state’s spatial configuration.”

“Wake up, CornDog.”

Okay, maybe, just maybe I was high that day. (Have you ever found a Romanian lab technician who couldn’t be bribed?) My personal rule is that I only get high when the weather sets a new record, and, BTW, my name isn’t CornDog. It’s Zack. And I’m not ADD, I’m just Zack. ADD is a face-saving term my parents slapped on me when they figured out I wasn’t Stephen Hawking.

I hear people asking, Where is Zack’s mother? Is Zack a plucky orphan? No, Zack has an age-inappropriate future stepfather-in-the-making named Kyle who breeds genetically defective Jack Russell terriers with his mother in a shack in St. George, Utah.

Charles, meanwhile, was relentless: “CornDog, what the hell were they thinking when they were divvying up your state?”

On the DEA real-time satellite cam I was zooming in and out of a map of Iowa, shifting scale and superimposing geo-political borders. Charles was right. Iowa is the Rectangle State.

More importantly, I was using the satellite to keep real-time track of that day’s masterpiece, a ten-acre cock and balls I was chopping out of the cornstalks to send as a long overdue thank-you note to God for having me be born into the cultural equivalent of one of those machines they use to shake paint in hardware stores. I didn’t have to please Uncle Jay with harvesting efficiency that year–the whole crop was contaminated with some kind of gene trace that was killing off not bees (a thing of the past) but moths and wasps. In an uncharacteristic act of citizenhood, the corn industry had decided to scrap the crop. I wasn’t too pissed about that–look at the bright side: subsidies! So even though the corn was in tassel and at its prettiest, I could clear those stalk fuckers whatever way I wanted.

The fateful moment occurred shortly after Charles told me about a lap dance he’d won in a pre-op tranny nightclub the week before. One of Maizie’s windows was rattling a bit, so I went and jiggled it on its hinges. I opened and closed it a few times and, shazaam!, that’s when I got stung.

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Hey Nostradamus!
Excerpt

Part One
1998: Cheryl

I believe that what separates humanity from everything else in this world -- spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea creatures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley -- is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins. Even those of us who try to live a good and true life remain as far away from grace as the Hillside Strangler or any demon who ever tried to poison the village well. What happened that morning only confirms this.

It was a glorious fall morning. The sun burned a girly pink over the mountain ranges to the west, and the city had yet to generate its daily smog blanket. Before driving to school in my little white Chevette, I went into the living room and used my father's telescope to look down at the harbor, as smooth as mercury, and on its surface I could see the moon dimming over East Vancouver. And then I looked up into the real sky and saw the moon on the cusp of being over-powered by the sun.

My parents had already gone to work, and my brother, Chris, had left for swim team hours before. The house was quiet -- not even a clock ticking -- and as I opened the front door, I looked back and saw some gloves and unopened letters on the front hallway desk. Beyond them, on the living room's gold carpet, were some discount warehouse sofas and a lamp on a side table that we never used because the light bulb always popped when we switched it on. It was lovely, all that silence and all that calm order, and I thought how lucky I was to have had a good home. And then I turned and walked outside. I was already a bit late, but I was in no hurry.

Normally I used the garage door, but today I wanted a touch of formality. I had thought that this morning would be my last truly innocent glance at my childhood home -- not because of what really ended up happening, but because of another, smaller drama that was supposed to have unfolded.

I'm glad that the day was as quiet and as average as it was. The air was see-your-breath chilly, and the front lawn was crunchy with frost, as though each blade had been batter fried. The brilliant blue and black Steller's jays were raucous and clearly up to no good on the eaves trough, and because of the frost, the leaves on the Japanese maples had been converted into stained-glass shards. The world was unbearably pretty, and it continued being so all the way down the mountain to school. I felt slightly high because of the beauty, and the inside of my head tickled. I wondered if this is how artists go through life, with all of its sensations tickling their craniums like a peacock feather.

* * *
I was the last to park in the school's lot. That's always such an uneasy feeling no matter how together you think you are -- being the last person there, wherever there may be.

I was carrying four large binders and some textbooks, and when I tried shutting the Chevette's door, it wouldn't close properly. I tried slamming it with my hip, but that didn't work; it only made the books spray all over the pavement. But I didn't get upset.

Inside the school, classes were already in session and the hallways were as silent as the inside of my house, and I thought to myself, What a day for silence.

I needed to go to my locker before class, and as I was working my combination lock, Jason came up from behind.

"Boo."

"Jason -- don't do that. Why aren't you in class?"

"I saw you parking, so I left."

"You just walked out?"

"Forget about that, Miss Priss. Why were you being so weird on the phone last night?"

"I was being weird?"

"Jesus, Cheryl -- don't act like your airhead friends."

"Anything else?"

"Yes. You're my wife, so act like it."

"How should I be acting, then?"

"Cheryl, look: in God's eyes we're not two individuals, okay? We're one unit now. So if you dick around with me, then you're only dicking around with yourself."

And Jason was right. We were married -- had been for about six weeks at that point -- but we were the only ones who knew it.

* * *

I was late for school because I'd wanted everyone out of the house before I used a home pregnancy test. I was quite calm about it -- I was a married woman, and shame wasn't a factor. My period was three weeks late, and facts were facts.

Instead of the downstairs bathroom I shared with my brother, I used the guest bathroom upstairs. The guest bathroom felt one notch more medical, one notch less tinged by personal history -- less accusatory, to be honest. And the olive fixtures and foil wallpaper patterned with brown bamboo looked swampy and dank when compared to the test's scientific white-and-blue box. And there's not much more to say, except that fifteen minutes later I was officially pregnant and I was late for math class.

* * *

"Jesus, Cheryl . . ."

"Jason, don't curse. You can swear, but don't curse."

"Pregnant?"

I was quiet.

"You're sure?"

"I'm late for math class. Aren't you even happy?"

A student walked by, maybe en route to see the principal.

Jason squinted like he had dust in his eyes. "Yeah -- well, of course -- sure I am."

I said, "Let's talk about it at homeroom break."

"I can't. I'm helping Coach do setup for the Junior A team. I promised him ages ago. Lunchtime then. In the cafeteria."

I kissed him on his forehead. It was soft, like antlers I'd once touched on a petting zoo buck. "Okay. I'll see you there."

He kissed me in return and I went to math class.

* * *

I was on the yearbook staff, so I can be precise here. Delbrook Senior Secondary is a school of 1,106 students located about a five-minute walk north of the Trans-Canada Highway, up the algae-green slope of Vancouver's North Shore. It opened in the fall of 1962, and by 1988, my senior year, its graduates numbered about thirty-four thousand. During high school, most of them were nice enough kids who'd mow lawns and baby-sit and get drunk on Friday nights and maybe wreck a car or smash a fist through a basement wall, not even knowing why they'd done it, only that it had to happen. Most of them grew up in rectangular postwar homes that by 1988 were called tear-downs by the local real estate agents. Nice lots. Nice trees and vines. Nice views.

As far as I could tell, Jason and I were the only married students ever to have attended Delbrook. It wasn't a neighborhood that married young. It was neither religious nor irreligious, although back in eleventh-grade English class I did a tally of the twenty-six students therein: five abortions, three dope dealers, two total sluts, and one perpetual juvenile delinquent. I think that's what softened me up for conversion: I didn't want to inhabit that kind of moral world. Was I a snob? Was I a hypocrite? And who was I to even judge? Truth be told, I wanted everything those kids had, but I wanted it by playing the game correctly. This meant legally and religiously and -- this is the part that was maybe wrong -- I wanted to outsmart the world. I had, and continue to have, a nagging suspicion that I used the system simply to get what I wanted. Religion included. Does that cancel out whatever goodness I might have inside me?

Jason was right: Miss Priss.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Highly Inappropriate Tales for Young People
Excerpt

Donald was a juice box with a terrible attitude. Out of nowhere, he’d whale on the other juice boxes, slamming them with plastic lunchroom trays and puncturing their sacred tinfoil puncture holes with bobby pins he swiped from the girls who sat at the popular girls’ table.
 
After lunch hour, when the cafeteria staff held respectful farewell ceremonies for all the juice boxes that had donated their nectar to the student body that day, Donald would run around the kitchen looking for things to throw into the deep fryer. This was annoying, but also kind of amusing—like when he dropped an entire lost and found drawer full of cellphones and dental retainers into the melted lard left over from Catfish Friday.
 
That actually made him a bit of a hero to the lunch ladies and the teachers, but Janitor Schwinn had to cancel his line dancing class that evening to stay late to drain the deep fryer and scrape melted iPods from its bottom. As far as Janitor Schwinn was concerned, Donald should have been buried in the recycling bins months back. But in the end, it took a truly fiendish deed to get Donald expelled from the school.
 
You see, Donald was obsessed with getting other juice boxes squished beneath the wheels of cars coming out of the teachers’ parking lot. It’s obviously amusing to see things get squished, but Donald carried it too far.
 
There was something about watching hundreds of pounds of pressure from a moving vehicle blow out the bottoms of his fellow juice boxes that made Donald crazy—crazy for destruction.
 
He’d lure his juice box targets out to the teachers’ parking lot by telling them lies. For example, he told one box that he’d heard of a new type of drinking straw that allows a person to drink without puncturing the foil hole on the top. It was a silly lie, but juice boxes are pretty stupid, and luring them to the scene of their deaths was never difficult.
 
Once Donald had snagged a box, he’d position his victim on the south side of the big speed bump where the teachers’ lot exits onto the main road. He told each victim that if he waited there, he’d be right back with an example of the Magic Straw, or whatever it was he’d promised that time. So, while the juice box was waiting for a non-existent straw, Donald would hop up onto a traffic cone and do something to distract the teachers driving out of the lot.
 
Sometimes he’d throw pebbles at the cars; sometimes he’d throw little metal stars made by the guys in shop class who smoked out behind the asbestos storage bins. If there weren’t an innocent juice box about to meet a fiendish and horrible death by squishing, Donald’s behaviour would be funny. But their imminent murder gave the scenario a bad taste: a taste of evil.
 
One day after math class, Donald was walking around removing chewing gum from beneath chairs and putting it up on the seats when he overheard the math teacher, Miss Burnside, on her cellphone screaming at someone from an online dating website. Something had to be wrong with their service, she said, because she hadn’t had a nibble in months, and she wanted her money back. From there, she went on a rant about her life in general. Talked about the scary dates she’d had over the years, with one train wreck after another. Then she lashed into her students, saying how cow-like and stupid they were, and that there was no point teaching them math because they could barely speak, let alone do long division. She wanted out of her life, but didn’t know how to do it.
 
That was when Miss Burnside saw Donald, hiding behind a trash can. She went running after him, but it was too late: Donald had seen her true self, and she knew that soon he would begin to torment her.
 
Later that same afternoon, when Miss Burnside was driving her car out of the teachers’ parking lot, Donald placed a victim juice box by the speed bump of doom.
 
When Miss Burnside’s car approached, he hopped up onto a traffic pylon and did something more extreme than usual.
 
Miss Burnside shrieked. The menthol cigarette she was smoking dropped onto her lap and then rolled beneath the seat. Startled, she hit the gas, and the car lurched forward. She collected her wits, braked to a stop then got out of the car, only to see that the doomed juice box had shot out its guts in a massive, fruit-flavoured explosion. Donald danced with happiness atop his pylon.
 
The next day when Donald showed up at school, he was met at the door by Principal Reeve, Janitor Schwinn and Miss Burnside. They told him he was a horrible little juice box, that his attitude stank, and that he was no longer welcome at the school. Both Janitor Schwinn and Miss Burnside wore gloating smiles that made Donald angry. He turned and walked away, but when classes began, he went to the parking lot, jimmied open Miss Burnside’s and Janitor Schwinn’s gas caps and stuffed their gas lines with dirt and litter before putting the caps back on. He thought, That’ll teach them not to mess with my life!
 
And, sure enough, their cars never worked, ever again.
 
Donald then went off in search of a new school at which to inflict mayhem. Walking down the roads and highways of the city, he resembled litter, so nobody paid him any attention except for the fast-food trash he passed along the way, who taunted him: “You’re only a lowly juice box. You’ll never be a carton. You’ll never be a can. You’re just a dumb little juice box that nobody cares about.”
 
That did it. Donald used a piece of broken pop bottle as a magnifying lens and set fire to the fast-food trash that had been sassing him. With a demented cackle, he walked away as the trash burned. Then he burst into a military marching song:
 
I’m a juice box, I’ve been told.
Doom and mayhem good as gold.
Don’t you ever mess with me.
I will steep your bones for tea.
1. 2. 3. 4.
Juice box guts are on the floor.
5. 6. 7. 8.
Death and I are on a date.

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JPod
Excerpt

"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel.”

“That asshole.”

“Who does he think he is?”

“Come on, guys, focus. We’ve got a major problem on our hands.”

The six of us were silent, but for our footsteps. The main corridor’s muted plasma TVs blipped out the news and sports, while ­co-­workers in ­long-­sleeved blue and black ­T-­shirts ­oompah-­loompahed in and out of ­laminate-­access doors, elevated walkways, staircases and elevators, their missions inscrutable and squirrelly. It was a rare sunny day. Freakishly articulated sunbeams highlighted specks of mica in the hallway’s designer granite. They looked like randomized particle ­events.

Mark said, “I can’t even think about what just happened in there.”

John Doe said, “I’d like to do whatever it is people statistically do when confronted by a jolt of large and bad news.”

I suggested he ingest five milligrams of Valium and three shots of hard liquor or four glasses of domestic ­wine.

“Really?”

“Don’t ask me, John. Google it.”

“And so I shall.”

Cowboy had a jones for cough syrup, while Bree fished through one of her many pink vinyl Japanese handbags for lip gloss – phase one of her ­well-­established pattern of pursuing sexual conquest to silence her inner ­pain.

The only quiet member of our group of six was Kaitlin, new to our work area as of the day before. She was walking with us mostly because she didn’t yet know how to get from the meeting room to our cubicles. We’re not sure if Kaitlin is boring or if she’s resistant to bonding, but then again none of us have really cranked up our ­charm.

We passed Warren from the motion capture studio. “Yo! jPodsters! A turtle! All right!” He flashed a thumbs-­up.

“Thank you, Warren. We can all feel the love in the room.”

Clearly, via the gift of text messaging, Warren and pretty much everyone in the company now knew of our plight, which is this: during today’s marketing meeting we learned we now have to retroactively insert a charismatic cuddly turtle character into our skateboard game, which is already nearly ­one-­third of the way through its production cycle. Yes, you read that correctly, a turtle character–in a skateboard ­game.

The ­three-­hour meeting had taken place in a two-­hundred-­seat room nicknamed the ­air-­conditioned rectum. I tried to make the event go faster by pretending to have superpower vision: I could see the carbon dioxide pumping in and out of everyone’s nose and mouth – it was purple. It made me think of that urban legend about the chemical they put in swimming pools that reveals when somebody pees. Then I wondered if Leonardo da Vinci had ever inhaled any of the oxygen molecules I was breathing, or if he ever had to sit through a marketing meeting. What would that have been like? “Leo, thanks for your input, but our studies indicate that when they see Lisa smile, they want a sexy, flirty smile, not that grim little slit she has now. Also, I don’t know what that closet case Michelangelo is thinking with that naked David guy, but Jesus, clamp a diaper onto him pronto. Next item on the agenda: Perspective – Passing Fad or Opportunity to Win? But first, Katie here is going to tell us about this Friday’s Jeans Day, to be followed by a ­ten-­minute muffin break.”

But the word “turtle” pulled me out of my reverie, uttered by Fearless Leader–our new head of marketing, Steve. I put up my hand and quite reasonably asked, “Sorry, Steve, did you say a turtle?”

Christine, a senior development director, said, “No need to be sarcastic, Ethan. Steve here took Toblerone chocolate and turned it around inside of two years.”

“No,” Steve protested. “I appreciate an open dialogue. All I’m really saying is that, at home, my son, Carter, plays SimQuest4 and can’t get enough of its turtle character, and if my Carter likes turtle characters, then a turtle character is a winner, and thus, this skateboard game needs a turtle.”

John Doe BlackBerried me: I CAN’T FEEL MY LEGS

And so the order was issued to make our new turtle character “accessible” and “fun” and the buzzword is so horrible I have to spell it out in ASCII: “{101, 100, 103, 121}”

• • •

Back in our cubicle pod, the six of us fizzled away from each other like ginger ale bubbles. I had eighteen new emails and one phone message, my mother: “Dear, could you give me a call? I really need to speak with you–it’s an emergency.”

An emergency? I phoned her cell right away. “Mom, what’s up? What’s wrong?”

“Ethan, are you at work right now?”

“Where else would I be?”

“I’m at SuperValu. Let me call you back from a pay phone.”

The line went dead. I picked it up when it ­rang.

“Mom, you said this was an emergency.”

“It is, dear. Ethan, honey, I need you to help me.”

“I just got out of the Worst Meeting Ever. What’s going on?”

“I suppose I’d better just tell you flat out.”

“Tell me what?”

“Ethan, I killed a biker.”

“You killed a biker?”

“Well, I didn’t mean to.”

“Mom, how the hell did you manage to kill a biker?”

“Ethan, just come home right now. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Why doesn’t Dad help?”

“He’s on a shoot today. He might get a speaking part.”

She hung ­up.

• • •

On my way out of the office, I passed a ­world-­building team, standing in a semicircle, staring at a large ­German-­made knife on a ­desktop.

“What’s up?” I ­asked.

“It’s the knife we’re using to cut Aidan’s birthday cake,” a friend, Josh, ­replied.

I looked more closely at the knife: it was clownishly big. “Okay, it’s ­hard-­core Itchy & Scratchy – but so what?”

“We’re having a contest – we’re trying to see if there’s any way to hold a knife and walk across a room and not look psycho."

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Miss Wyoming
Excerpt

Susan Colgate sat with her agent, Adam Norwitz, on the rocky outdoor patio of the Ivy restaurant at the edge of Beverly Hills. Susan was slightly chilly and kept a fawn-colored cashmere sweater wrapped around her shoulders as she snuck bread crumbs to the birds darting about the ground. Her face was flawlessly made up and her hair was cut in the style of the era. She was a woman on a magazine cover, gazing out at the checkout-stand shopper, smiling, but locked in time and space, away from the real world of squalling babies, bank cards and casual shoplifting.

Susan and Adam were looking at two men across the busy restaurant. Adam was saying to Susan, "You see that guy on the left” That's 'Jerr-Bear' Rogers, snack dealer to the stars and the human equivalent of an unflushed toilet."

"Adam!"

"Well, it's true." Adam broke open a focaccia slice. "Oh God, Sooz, they're looking at us."

"Thoughts have wings, Adam."

"Whatever. They're both still staring at us."

A waiter came and filled their water glasses. Adam said, "And that other guy — John Johnson. Semisleazebag movie producer. He vanished for a while earlier this year. Did you hear about that?"

"It sounds faintly familiar. But I stopped reading the dailies a while ago. You know that, Adam."

"He totally vanished. Turns out he OD'd and had some kind of vision, and then afterward he gave away everything he had — his house and cars and copyrights and everything else, and turned himself into a bum. Walked across the Southwest eating hamburgers out of McDonald's dumpsters."

"Really?"

"Oh yeah. Hey . . ." Adam lowered his voice and spoke out the side of his mouth. "Oh Lordy, it looks like John Johnson's fixated on you, Sooz, gawping at you like you were Fergie or something. Smile back like a trouper, will you” He may be gaga, but he's still got the power."

"Adam, don't tell me what to do or not to do."

"Oh God. He's standing up. He's coming over here," said Adam. "Lana Turner, be a good girl and tuck in your sweater. Wow. John Johnson. Whatta sleazebag."

Susan turned to Adam. "Don't be such a hypocrite, Adam, like you're so pure yourself” Know what I think” I think there's a touch 'o the 'bag in all of us."

John was by then standing a close but respectful distance from Susan. He looked at her with the unsure smile of a high school junior bracing himself to ask a girl one social notch above him to dance at the prom, his hands behind his back like a penitent child.

"Hello," he said. "I'm John Johnson." He stuck out his right arm too quickly, surprising her, but she took his hand in hers and slid her chair back onto the flagstones so that she could survey him more fully — a sadly handsome man, dressed in clothes that looked like hand-me-downs: jeans and a frayed blue gingham shirt, shoes a pair of disintegrating desert boots with a different-colored lace on each foot.

"I'm Susan Colgate."

"Hi."

"Hi to you."

"I'm Adam Norwitz." Adam lobbed his hand into the mix. John shook it, but not for a moment did he break his gaze on Susan.

"Yes,"' said John. "Adam Norwitz. I've heard your name before."

Adam blushed at this ambiguous praise. "Congratulations on Mega Force," he said. Owing to John's radical decision of the previous winter, he was not making a single penny from his current blockbuster, Mega Force. In his pocket were ninety $20 bills, and this was all the money he had in the world.

"Thank you," said John.

"Adam told me that you're a sleazebag," said Susan. John, caught completely off guard, laughed. Adam froze in horror, and Susan smiled and said, "Well, you did say it, Adam."

"Susan! How could you — "

"He's right," said John. "Look at my track record and he'd be bang on. I saw you feeding birds under the table. That's nice."

"You were doing it, too."

"I like birds." John's teeth were big and white, like pearls of baby corn. His eyes were the pale blue color of sun-bleached parking tickets, his skin like brown leather.

"Why?" Susan asked.

"They mind their own business. No bird has never tried to sneak me a screenplay or slagged me behind my back. And they still hang out with you even if your movies tank."

"I certainly know that feeling."

"Susan!" Adam interjected. "Your projects do well."

"My movies are crap, Adam."

Across the terrazzo, Jerr-Bear made the ah-oooo-gah, ah-oooo-gah noise of a drowning submarine in order to attract John's attention, but John and Susan, alone among the annoyed lunchtime crowd, ignored him.

Adam was trying to figure a way out of what he perceived as a dreadful collision of faux pas, mixed signals and badly tossed banana cream pies, and said, "Would you and your, er, colleague, like to join us for lunch, Mr. Johnson?"

John suddenly seemed to realize that he was in public, in a restaurant, surrounded by people bent on eating food and gossiping, and that this was the opposite of the place he wanted to be. He stammered, "I — "

"Yes?" Susan looked at him kindly.

"I really need to get out of here. You wouldn't want to come with me on a — I dunno — a walk, would you?"

Susan stood up, catching Adam's bewildered eyes. "I'll call you later, Adam."

Staff scurried about, and in the space of what seemed like a badly edited film snippet, John and Susan were out on North Robertson Boulevard, amid sleeping Saabs and Audis, in dazzling sunlight that made the insides of their eyeballs bubble as though filled with ginger ale.

"Are you okay for walking in those shoes?" John asked.

"These” I could climb Alps in these puppies." She smiled. "No man's ever asked me that before."

"They look Italian."

"I bought them in Rome in 1988, and they've never let me down once."

"Rome, huh” What was going on in Rome?"

"I was doing a set of TV commercials for bottled spaghetti sauce. Maybe you saw them. They were on the air for years. They spent a fortune getting everybody over there and then they shot it inside a studio anyway, and then they propped it with cheesy Italian stuff, so it looked like it was filmed in New Jersey."

"Welcome to film economics."

"That wasn't my first lesson, but it was one of the strangest. You never did commercials, did you?"

"I went right into film."

"Commercials are weird. You can go be in a reasonably successful TV weekly series for years and nobody mentions it to you, but appear at three A.M. in some god-awful sauce plug, and people phone to wake you up and scream, 'I just saw you on TV!' "

A mailman walked by, and once he'd passed John and Susan, in cahoots they copied his exaggerated stride, then made devilish faces at each other.

"You gotta hand it to him," Susan said about the mailman, now out of earshot, "for a guy his age, he sure works it."

"How old do you think I am?" asked John.

Susan appraised him. "I'll guess forty. Why do you ask?"

"I look forty?"

"But that's good. If you're not forty, then it means you've accrued wisdom beyond your, say, thirty-five years. It looks good on a man."

"I'm thirty-seven."

"You still haven't told me why you asked."

"Because I think about how old I am," John replied, "and I wonder, Hey, John Johnson, you've pretty much felt all the emotions you're ever likely to feel, and from here on it's reruns. And that totally scares me. Do you ever think that?"

"Well, John, life's thrown me a curveball or two, so I don't worry about the rerun factor quite so much. But yeah, I do think about it. Every day, really." She looked over at him. "For what it's worth, today is my twenty-eighth birthday."

John beamed. "Happy birthday, Susan!" He then shook her hand in a parody of heartiness, but secretly savored how cool her palms were, like a salve on a burn he didn't even know he had.

The novelty of strolling in their city rather than barreling through it inside air-conditioned metal nodules added an unearthly sensation to their steps. They heard the changing gears of cars headed toward the Beverly Center. They listened to birdcalls and rustling branches. John felt young, like he was back in grade school.

"You know what this feels like — our leaving the restaurant like that?" Susan asked.

"What?" John replied.

"Like we're running away from home together."

They walked across a sunbaked intersection where a Hispanic boy with a gold incisor was selling maps to the stars' homes. John asked Susan, "You ever been on one of those things?"

"A star map” Once, for about two years. I was deleted in a reprinted version. Cars would drive past my place and then slow down to almost a stop and then speed up again — every day and every night. It was the creepiest thing ever. The house had good security, but even then, a few times I was spooked so badly I went and stayed at a friend's place. You?"

"I'm not a star." Just then the Oscar Mayer wiener truck drove by and cars all around them honked as if it were a wedding cort—ge. Screwing up his courage, John asked, "Susan — Sue — speaking of curveballs, here's one for you. A simple question: do you think you've ever met me before?"

Susan looked thoughtful, as though ready to spell out her reply in a spelling bee. "I've read about you in magazines. And I saw a bit of stuff about you on TV. I'm sorry things didn't work out for you — when you took off and tried to change yourself or whatever it was you were trying to do. I really am." The wiener hubbub had died down, and Susan stepped in front of John to survey him. His eyes looked like those of somebody who's lost big and is ready to leave the casino. "I mean, I've been pretty tired of being 'me' as well. I sympathize."

John moved as if to kiss her, but two cars behind them squealed their tires in a pulse of road rage. They turned around and the walk resumed.

"You were a beauty queen, weren't you?" John asked. "Miss Wyoming."

"Oh Lord, yeah. I was on the beauty circuit since about the age of JonBenet-and-a-half, which is, like, four. I've also been a child TV star, a has-been, a rock-and-roll bride, an air crash survivor and public enigma."

"You like having been so many different things?"

Susan took a second to answer. "I never thought of it that way. Yes. No. You mean there's some other way to live?"

"I don't know," said John.

They crossed San Vicente Boulevard, passing buildings and roads that once held stories for each of them, but which now seemed transient and disconnected from their lives, like window displays. Each recalled a bad meeting here, a check cashed there, a meal. . . .

John asked, "Where are you from?"

"My family” We're hillbillies. Literally. From the mountains of Oregon. We're nothing. If my mother hadn't escaped, I'd probably be pregnant with my brother's seventh brat by now — and somebody in the family'd probably steal the kid and trade it for a stack of unscratched lottery cards. You?"

In a deep, TV-announcer voice he declared, "The Lodge Family of Delaware. 'The Pesticide Lodges.' " His voice returned to normal. "My maternal great-grandfather discovered a chemical to interrupt the breeding cycle of mites that infect corn crops."

A light turned green and the boulevard was shot with traffic and the pair walked on. Susan was wrapped in a pale light fabric, cool and comfortable, like a pageant winner's sash. John was sweating like a lemonade pitcher, his jeans, gingham shirt and black hair soaking up heat like desert stones. But instead of seeking both air-conditioning and a mirror, John merely untucked his shirt and kept pace with Susan.

"You'd think our family had invented the atom bomb from the way they all lorded about the eastern seaboard. But then they did this really weird thing."

"What was that?" Susan asked.

"We went through our own family tree with a chain saw. Ruthless, totally ruthless. Anybody who was found to be socially lacking was erased. It was like they'd never even lived. I have dozens of great-uncles and aunts and cousins who I've never met, and their only crime was to have had humble lives. One great-uncle was a prison warden. Gone. Another married a woman who pronounced 'theater' thee-ay-ter. Gone. And heaven help anybody who slighted another family member. People weren't challenged or punished in our family. They were merely erased."

They were quiet. They'd walked maybe a mile by now. John felt as close to Susan as paint is to a wall. John said, "Tell me something else, Susan. Anything. I like your voice."

"My voice” Anybody can hear my voice almost any time of day anywhere on earth. All you need is a dish that picks up signals from satellite stations that play nonstop cheesy early eighties TV shows." They were outside a record store. Two mohawked punk fossils from 1977 walked past them.

John looked at her and said, "Susan, have you ever seen a face, say — in a magazine or on TV — and obsessed on it, and maybe secretly hoped every day, at least once, that you'd run into the person behind the face?"

Susan laughed.

"I take it that's a yes?"

"How come you're asking?"

John told Susan about a vision he'd had at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center the year before that led him to make a drastic life decision. He told Susan that it was her face and voice that had come to him during his vision. "But what happened was that months later, after I'd gone and completely chucked out all of my old life, I realized I didn't have this great big mystical Dolby THX vision. I realized that there'd merely been some old episode of that TV show you used to star in playing on the hospital's TV set beside my bed. And it must have melted into my dream life."

It made a form of sense to Susan that this man with sad, pale eyes like snowy TV sets should have seen her as a refuge and then found her. Years before she'd stopped believing in fate. Fate was corny. Yet with John that long-lost tingle of destiny was once again with her.

A leaf blower cut the moment in two, and just as John was about to raise his voice, Cedars-Sinai came into view far in the distance, between a colonnade of cypress trees and a billboard advertising gay ocean-liner cruises. John's shirt was now soaked through with sweat, so they stopped at a convenience store and bought an XXL I-LOVE-LA white cotton shirt and two bottles of water. He changed out in the parking lot to the amused ogling of teenage boys who yelled out, "Boy supermodel steals the catwalk!"

John said, "Fuck 'em," and they crossed Sunset. It was getting to be late in the afternoon, and the traffic was crabby and sclerotic. They entered a residential neighborhood. Susan was feeling dizzy and sleepy and said, "I need to sit down," so they did, on the curb before a Wedgwood-blue French country-style house under the suspicious gaze of an Asian woman on the second floor.

"It's the sun," said Susan. "It's not like it used to be. Or, I can't take as much as I used to." She lay back on the Bermuda grass.

Suddenly worried he'd been the only one spilling the beans, John said, "Tell me about the crash. The Seneca crash. I'll bet you never talk about it, do you?"

"Not the full story, no."

"So tell me." Susan sat up and John put his arm around her. Staring at the pavement, like Prince William behind his mother's coffin, she told the story. And she might have talked to him all night, but two things happened: the lawn sprinklers spritzed into frantic life, and a Beverly Hills police patrol car soundlessly materialized. Two grim-faced officers got out, hands on weapons on hips. Soaked, Susan started to stand up, but her tired knees buckled. John helped pull her up, saying, "Jesus, we try and take a quick rest and in comes the SWAT team. Who pays your salaries, you goons” I pay your salaries. . . ."

"There's no SWAT team, Mr. Johnson. Stay calm," said one of the officers. "Ma'am" — he looked more closely at her — "Mrs. Thraice” Can we help you” Give you a lift” You were great in Dynamite Bay." Dynamite Bay was a low-budget action picture now in wide video release and not doing too badly. Adam had been proclaiming it as the revival of Susan's acting career.

She took a professional tone. "Hello, boys. Yes, I'd love a ride." She turned toward John and smiled regretfully. "I'm great for long walks but otherwise I'm not really Outward Bound material. Another day, another pilgrimage." She entered the rear passenger seat, and the officer shut the door. She rolled down the window. "To Beechwood Canyon, boys." She looked out at John. "You know — I don't even know my own phone number. Call Adam Norwitz." Just as the cruiser pulled away, she rolled up a silk scarf, wet from the sprinkler, and handed it to John. "What actually happened after the crash is a much better story. I should have told you that instead. Phone me." And then she was gone and John stood, clutching the silk to his heart while the sprinkler drenched his feet, as though they were seeds.

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Player One

Player One

What Is to Become of Us
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tagged : literary, suspense
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Souvenir of Canada

Souvenir of Canada

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tagged : canadian, cultural
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Souvenir of Canada 2

Souvenir of Canada 2

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Terry

Terry

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The Gum Thief

The Gum Thief

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Excerpt

Roger

A few years ago it dawned on me that everybody past a certain ­age–­regardless of how they look on the ­outside–­pretty much constantly dreams of being able to escape from their lives. They don’t want to be who they are any more. They want out. This list includes Thurston Howell the Third, ­Ann-­Margret, the cast members of Rent, Václav Havel, space shuttle astronauts and Snuffleupagus. It’s ­universal.

Do you want out? Do you often wish you could be somebody, anybody, other than who you ­are–­the you who holds a job and feeds a ­family–­the you who keeps a relatively okay place to live and who still tries to keep your friendships alive? In other words, the you who’s going to remain pretty much the same until the ­casket?

There’s nothing wrong with me being me, or with you being you. And in the end, life’s pretty tolerable, isn’t it? Oh, I’ll get by. We all say that. Don’t worry about me. Maybe I’ll get drunk and go shopping on eBay at eleven at night, and maybe I’ll buy all kinds of crazy crap I won’t remember I bid on the next morning, like a ­ten-­pound bag of mixed coins from around the world or a bootleg tape of Joni Mitchell performing at the Calgary Saddle­dome in ­1981.

I used the phrase “a certain age.” What I mean by this is the age people are in their heads. It’s usually thirty to ­thirty-­four. Nobody is forty in their head. When it comes to your internal age, chin wattles and relentless liver spots mean ­nothing.

In my mind, I’m always ­thirty-­two. In my mind, I’m drinking sangria beachside in Waikiki; Kristal from Bakersfield is flirting with me, while Joan, who has yet to have our two kids, is up in our hotel room fetching a pair of sunglasses that don’t dig into her ears as much. By dinnertime, I’m going to have a mild sunburn, and when I return home from that holiday, I’ll have a $5K salary bonus and an upgraded computer system waiting for me at my office. And if I dropped fifteen pounds and changed gears from sunburn to suntan, I could look halfway okay. Not even okay: ­hot.

Do I sound ­regretful?

Okay, maybe a ­bit.

Okay, let’s face ­it–­I’m king of the exit interview. And Joan was a saint. My curse is that I’d rather be in pain than be ­wrong.

I’m sad at having flubbed the few chances I had to make bold strokes in life. I’m learning to cope with the fact that it was both my laziness and my useless personal moral code that cheated me out of seizing new opportunities. Listen to me: flubbed chances and missed opportunities: I gloss past them both in almost the same breath. But there was no gloss when it was all coming down. It’s taken me ­what–­five years?–to simply get used to the idea that I’ve blown things. I’m grieving, grieving ­hard-­core. The best part of my life is gone, and what remains is whizzing past so quickly I feel like I’m ­Krazy-­Glue’ed onto a mechanical bull of a time ­machine.

I can’t even escape in my dreams. My dreams used to be insulated by pink fibreglass, but maybe two jobs ago my sense of failure ripped a hole through the insulation and began wrecking them. I dreamed it was that Monday afternoon in the 1990s when my high school buddy turned vampire stockbroker, Lars, phoned me a week after my mother’s ­funeral–­a week!–and told me to put everything and anything I might have inherited into Microsoft stock. I told him our friendship was over. I told him he was a parasite. And if Microsoft had sunk into the earth’s crust and vanished, I might have actually forgiven Lars, but that didn’t happen. Their ­sack-­of-­shit operating system conquered the planet, and my $100,000 inheritance from my mother, put into Microsoft, would currently be worth a smidge over $13 ­million.

I get the Microsoft dream about once a week ­now.

But okay, there’s some good stuff in my life. I love my spaniel, Wayne, and he loves me. What a name for a dog, ­Wayne–­like he’s my accountant. The thing is, dogs only hear vowels. It’s a fact. When I call Wayne in for the night, he doesn’t hear the W or the N. I could simply yell out Ayyyyyyyyyy and he’d still show up. For that matter, I suppose I could also simply yell out Paaaaiiiiiiiiiiiin and he’d show up. At my last job, I told Mindy the comptroller how much I loved Wayne, and you know what she said to me? She said, “Dogs are like people, except you can legally kill dogs if they bug you.” Which makes you ­wonder–­one household in three has a dog in it, but all they are (from the Mindy perspective) is ­semi-­disposable family members. We need to have laws to make killing dogs illegal. But what about cats? Okay, cats, too. What about snakes? Or sea ­monkeys?

I draw the line at sea monkeys. I draw lines everywhere. It’s what makes people think I’m Mister Difficult. For example, people in the ATM machine lineup who stand too far away from the dispenser forfeit their right to be next in line. You know the people I ­mean–­the ones who stay fifty feet away so they don’t look like they’re trying to see your PIN number. Come on. I look at these people, and I think, Man, you must feel truly guilty about something to make you broadcast your sense of guilt to the world with your freakish lineup philosophy. And so I simply stand in front of them and go next. That teaches ­them.

What else? I also believe that if someone comes up behind you on the freeway and flashes their lights to get you to move into the slow lane, they deserve whatever punishment you dole out to them. I promptly slow down and drive at the same speed as the car beside me so that I can punish Speed Racer for his ­impertinence.

Actually, it’s not the impertinence I’m punishing him for, it’s that he let other people know what he ­wanted.

Speed Racer, my friend, never ever let people know what you want. Because if you do, you might as well send them engraved invitations saying, “Hi, this is what I want you to prevent me from ever having.”

Bitter.

I am not ­bitter.

And even if I was, at least if you’re bitter you know where you ­stand.

Okay, that last sentence came out wrong. Let me rephrase ­it:

At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re like everybody ­else.

Strike that last effort, too. How about: At least if you’re bitter, you know that you’re a part of the family of man. You know that you’re not so hot, but you also know that your experience is universal. “Universal” is such a great word. You know that we live in a world of bitter ­cranks–­a world of aging bitter cranks who failed and who are always ­thirty-­two in their own ­heads.

Failures.

But bitterness doesn’t always mean failure. Most rich people I’ve met are bitter too. So, as I say, it’s universal. Rejoice!

I was once young and fresh and dumb, and I was going to write a novel. It was going to be called Glove Pond. What a ­name–­Glove Pond. I don’t remember the inspiration, but the words have always sounded to me like the title of a novel or movie from ­England–­like Under Milk Wood, by Dylan ­Thomas–­or a play written by someone like Tennessee Williams. Glove Pond was to be populated with characters like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, movie stars from two generations ago, with killer drinking problems, ­teeter-­tottering sexuality and soft, unsculpted ­bodies–­from back before audiences figured out that muscle tone, not a press release, determines sexiness. Glove Pond’s main characters screamed and brawled and shrieked witty, catty, vicious things at each other. They drank like fish, screwed like minks and then caught each other in the act of screwing strangers like minks. At that point, they’d say even wittier things than before. They were wit machines. In the end, all the characters were crazy and humanity was doomed. The ­End.

I just googled “Glove Pond” and here’s what I ­got:

www.amateurmicroscopy.net . . . Index to ­Articles
. . . Part 1: Introduction and Webcam Modifications. If ever a subject and a method of recording that subject fit together like a hand in a glove, pond ­“micro-­critters” and videomicrography are an ideal ­fit.

Look at this: no one has ever put the two words together ­before–­a comma in between “glove” and “pond” doesn’t count as a true connection. So I still get dibs on Glove Pond!

Bethany

I’m the dead girl whose locker you spat on somewhere between recess and ­lunch.

I’m not really dead, but I dress like I want to be. There’s something generic about girls like me: we hate the sun, we wear black, and we feel trapped inside our bodies like a nylon fur mascot at a football game. I wish I were dead most of the time. I can’t believe the meat I got stuck with, and where I got stuck and with whom. I wish I were a ­ghost.

And FYI, I’m not in school any more, but the spitting thing was real: a little moment that sums up life. I work in a Staples. I’m in charge of restocking aisles 2-North and 2-South: Sheet Protectors, Indexes & Dividers, Notebooks, ­Post-­It Products, Paper Pads, Specialty Papers and “Social Stationery.” Do I hate this job? Are you nuts? Of course I hate it. How could you not hate it? Everyone who works with me is either already damaged or else they’re embryos waiting to be damaged, fresh out of school and slow as a 1999 modem. Just because you’ve been born and made it through high school doesn’t mean society can’t still abort you. Wake ­up.

Let me try to say something positive here. For ­balance.

Staples allows me to wear black lipstick to ­work.

I was waiting for the bus this morning, and there was a sparrow sitting in the azalea beside the bus shelter. I looked at it and it yawned . . . this tiny little wisp of heated sparrow yawn breath rose up from the branch. And the thing is, I began yawning ­too–­so yawning is contagious not only from person to person, but from species to species. How far back was it that our primordial ancestors forked into two directions, one that became mammals and one that became birds? Five hundred million years ago? So we’ve been yawning on earth for half a billion ­years.

Speaking of biology, I think cloning is great. I don’t understand why churchy people get so upset about it. God made the originals, and cloning is only making photocopies. Big woo. And how can people get upset about evolution? Someone had to start the ball rolling; it’s only natural to try to figure out the mechanics of how it got rolling. Relax! One theory doesn’t exclude the ­other.

Yesterday this guy from work, Roger, said it was weird that we human beings, who’ve evolved way more than anything else on earth, still have to share the place with all the creatures that remain unevolved, like bacteria and lizards and bugs. Roger said human beings should have a special ­roped-­off VIP section for people only. I got so mad at him for being such an ignorant shit. I told him that ­roped-­off VIP areas do, in fact, exist, and they’re called parking ­lots–­if Roger wanted to be such an environmental pig about things, he should go stand in the parking lot for a few days and see how much fun that ­is.

Calm down, Bethany. Look out the ­window.

I’m looking out the ­window.

I’m going to focus on nature. Looking at plants and birds cools my ­brain.

It’s late afternoon right now, and the crows, a hundred thousand of them from everywhere in the city, are all flying to roost for the night in their ­mega-­roost, an alder forest out on the highway in Burnaby. They go there every night, and I don’t know why. They’re party animals, I suppose. Crows are smart. Ravens are smarter. Have you ever seen a raven? They’re like people, they’re so smart. I was fourteen and collecting seashells up the coast one afternoon, and a pair of ravens landed on a log beside me and followed me around the beach, hopping from log to log. They were talking to each ­other–­I mean ­chatter-­chatter ­talking–­and they were obviously discussing me. Ever since then, I've firmly believed that intelligent life exists everywhere in the universe; in fact, the universe is designed specifically to foster life wherever and whenever ­possible.

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Paddle Against the Flow

Paddle Against the Flow

Lessons on Life from Doers, Creators, and Culture-Shakers
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tagged : quotations
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Vancouver in the Seventies

Photos from a Decade That Changed the City
by Kate Bird
foreword by Douglas Coupland
introduction by Shelley Fralic
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Musings on a Generation that Refuses to Go Quietly
by Rosa Harris
introduction by Douglas Coupland
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Vancouver Stories

West Coast Fiction from Canada's Best Writers
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Fred Herzog: Photographs

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