I Write Speculative Fiction While I Sleep

My dreams of late have been getting creative. I went through a phase of lucid dreaming, when I was conjuring up sparkling rivers and fields of dewy flowers, just to make things pretty. In one dream, I thought, “I should have a boyfriend,” and lo! One appeared, holding my hand as I traversed a weird cross-country familial drama. I could never quite get a fix on his features, though.

More recently, I have started having creative writing dreams. Over the course of one night I plotted out what seemed in my sleep to be a brilliant idea for a novel. I’ve forgotten it, since on waking I realized it was a terrible idea for a novel. A couple of weeks ago, I dream-wrote a short story that began with the line: “I accidentally had brain surgery.” And went on to tell the sad tale of a woman who went in for a routine procedure and got mixed up with a neurosurgery patient. The result of the accidental brain surgery was that she started describing things with wild inaccuracy, thus making her the ideal unreliable narrator.

Last night’s creative writing dream was a bit more cinematic, so maybe I was working on a screenplay. The plot centers around a large family with a house on the bank of a river. The family consists of a mother, Ada, who is a physicist familiar with the multiverse theory, a nameless father who is really only interested in sailboats, a twenty-year-old son whose name doesn’t quite stick, a teenaged daughter destined to have a sexual awakening at some point in the story, a nine-year-old girl called Scamp, and possibly a toddler.

In the dream, the family goes out sailing on the river, upstream first, then downstream to get home. As they approach their dock, dad decides to do a sailing trick and uses the current to help him spin the boat 360-degrees repeatedly, until everyone is dizzy and Scamp complains.

Cut to the neighbors, also a large family who have taken their speedboat out for a day of fun. As they get within range of home, one of the kids calls out, “Look! Our house!” Their house is gone. Vanished. They come ashore and wander around in confusion, slowly noticing other minor details that are not quite right.

Back to our protagonists. They have docked their boat, and there is something wrong with their house. Parts of the house now appear rotten and abandoned for many years, while other rooms are just as they left them. Ada boots up her circa-1985 computer and starts processing data. Something is wrong with their universe. Meanwhile, the family realizes that apart from them and their neighbors, the entire town appears to be abandoned.

Ada quickly realizes that there are going to be some sort of creatures/ robots/ evil troops coming after them, and gathers the two families to hide in a now-empty house across the street, where they can keep lookout from the top floor.

At this point, things start getting explained. It turns out, when dad did his sailboat trick on the river, he caused something called by Ada a “parallax schism,” sending anyone on the river into a space between two parallel universes – one where they normally live, and another where their house had been abandoned and their neighbors’ never built. The creatures coming after them (and now searching their house) are “reality cleaners,” who will disinfect the universes by killing any lifeforms stuck in this in-between space.

Then the dream follows the twenty-year old son to a tavern where the older (35-yr-old) bartender he’s been sleeping with works. Surprisingly, she’s there. It turns out she had been swimming at the time of the schism. Incidentally, she has purple hair and pierced nipples, and is not really the kind of woman you’d imagine for this clean cut young man.

At that point, the dream peters out, though I have already decided that the plot won’t involve trying to get back to the right universe, but rather how to survive in this weird un-reality.

Laurie Anderson: Storyteller

First, and admission of ignorance: I’ve never really tried to figure out Laurie Anderson. My first experience of her was the soft-avant-garde-electro-pop-poetry she put out in the 1980s. It fit somewhere in the sphere of intellectual art rock, which was perhaps a bit too mature for a fifteen year old with giant Sisters of Mercy posters on her walls, like myself. But I paid attention, because she was a woman who had earned some level of respect from both the avant-garde art scene and MTV.

After her brief pop-culture spotlight, she became one of those artists who was always getting some grant or award, or showing up at the cool event in New York or Berlin. I never took the time to find out what she was working on, or to seek out her work.

When my UW alumni flyer announced that she would be giving a talk, I thought, “huh.” It was free – funded by some generous endowment – so I put myself on the list.

What I never realized, or never bothered to suss out, is that Laurie Anderson is fundamentally a storyteller, and her primary medium is language. When she put her work in that context, her diverse explorations of media began to cohere to a purpose, for me. She’s also very funny. And, man, is she a talker!

Her talk felt less like “hearing a talk,” than like having a really interesting dinner guest. She talked mostly about her recent work, of which I was completely ignorant. She was, for a start, artist in residence at NASA during the first Mars Rover launch. You heard me, ARTIST IN RESIDENCE AT NASA. She was the first one, and the last. NASA called her out of the blue with the offer… and who would say no to that?

She got to see a lot of behind the scenes NASA stuff, and the most interesting was the nanotechnology department. They work on projects like building a living, growing space-elevator in the middle of the Pacific, Jack-and-the-beanstalk-style. And, of course, the “GREENING OF MARS” project – so it’s ready to support human life when we wear this planet out. Their whiteboard has a 10,000 year project timeline.

She vexed NASA when her final output from her residency was a long poem.

At the same time, she was creating an installation, WALK, for the 2005 World Expo in Aichi, Japan. She showed us some of the concepts, as well as some of the finished pieces. Honestly, none of these works struck me as either conceptually or aesthetically amazing: electronic stick streaming haiku in four languages, a bridge rigged with gongs, a drawing of a tiger made of white tape hung from tree branches. My favorite piece was a pair of “horror goggles,” which overlay the peace of the Japanese garden with a fiery sky and horrific creatures.

Regardless of the subjective quality of her work, she’s Laurie Anderson, so she gets to do what she wants. In Australia, she wanted to perform a concert for an audience of dogs at a festival… and thousands of dogs showed up. There wasn’t a single dog fight.

She made a comment near the end that stuck with me. She said that people come to her, hemming and hawing about “being an artist,” not feeling that they are good enough, or that others are so much better. Her response to them: “Nobody cares what you do. If you want to make art, knock yourself out.” How much do we really care what others do? Not much. I know artists and musicians and programmers and salespeople and administrative assistants and writers and waiters… and I don’t think much differently about any of them because of their jobs. If any friend of mine said, “I’m going to stop doing _____, and do _____ instead.” I would just think, “good for you.” Unless their new pursuit was torturing animals or molesting children, who cares?

Laurie Anderson says you should do what you want.

A Great Wheel

Seattle Great Wheel

Seattle Great WheelAs a little Friday afternoon workplace adventure, most of us aro.com employees took a spin on the Seattle Great Wheel, down on the waterfront. This time of year, there are few tourists below retirement age or children, so apart from us there was a preponderance of the cruise ship set. As we approached there were three elderly ladies progressing slowly up the old wooden pier with walkers, and the queue contained a fair number of brightly colored visors, unabashed fanny packs, and false teeth.

The problem with ferris wheels in general is that there’s a 3:1 ratio for waiting: riding. Probably more than that if the line hadn’t been relatively short. It was a beautiful, warm October day, so 45 minutes of standing on a pier was not at all unpleasant.

As a kid, my Grandpa Frank would ride the Ferris Wheel with me every year at the county fair. Besides the obligatory elephant ear, this was the event I most looked forward to. Once we got in line, the anticipation was almost unbearable, but I learned to be patient, and not to be too disappointed when we ended up at the front of the line when the wheel was full. We’d be the first to get on the next go round.

Those old ferris wheels had already been around the block a few times by the late 1970s. The metal seats were dented and dinged, and there were rusty spots where the paint had flaked off. On the frame of the thing, goopy blackened lubricant was visible on all of the moving parts, just like the stuff Grandpa Frank used on his excavation equipment.

The seats on the old wheels were uncomfortable and felt unsafe. They swung wildly as soon as we sat down, and there didn’t seem to be much holding them onto the wheel. The bar across our laps was wobbly, and didn’t seem sturdy enough to prevent us tumbling to our deaths. Underneath the frenetic carnival music, I could hear the groans and squeaks of the wheel as it moved.

At the top of the old wheels, in the open air, it was like sitting atop a mountain of neon, with the whole fair far below. We would wave to grandma, a solitary figure over near the carousel with a camera pointed upward. Grandpa rocked the seat just enough to scare me. It really felt like we could go upside down and fall out. When the ride finally started it was a wonderful thrill after all of the slow-moving anticipation. The world rushed past in a blur of neon lights, and with every descent, my stomach was in my throat.

The Great Wheel was nothing like that. The enclosed, air-conditioned gondolas would rock ever so slightly, but not in a way that felt dangerous. The wheel moved slowly and smoothly, and clockwise (forward from the point of entry). On the old wheels, you moved backward and up, then forward and down… because the biggest thrill you get on a ferris wheel is the sensation that you’re falling with nothing underneath you. Descending while facing the wheel completely negates that thrill.

Not that there would have been any hope of a thrill anyway… the Great Wheel moves slowly and gently, offering beautiful views. If I hadn’t lived in Seattle for 22 years, I may well have been gobsmacked by the views. And I certainly enjoyed them… we even got to see a seal playing in the Elliott Bay. But I’ve seen these gorgeous Seattle sights from most other angles already. Seeing them from inside a glass box was ok, but not quite Great.