Sunday, March 30, 2014

Welcome To Weirdsville Celebration

As part of my wonderful Welcome To Weirdsville sale, here's a fan-favorite piece from the book.  Enjoy!

The Not-Tall Tale Of The Very Tall Potsdam Grenadiers 

If you're going to dream, the old saying goes, then you might as well dream big. But Friedrich Wilhelm I did more than dream because, as another expression says all too well: It's good to be the King.
Friedrich, born in 1688, was just one in a series of notable Prussian leaders. Friedrich, though, unlike his father, Frederick I – who achieved much during his reign, including wearing the crown for the first time, or Friedrich's son – Frederick II, who was a reformer and fervent supporter of reason and the arts – Friedrich, to put it mildly, loved a man in uniform ... in a secularly big way.

Friedrich, you see, had this thing about the military. Oh, sure, he did, during his reign, improve his then-tiny country's defenses, and carefully – almost pathologically – controlled Prussia's economy to the point when he finally passed away he left behind an awesome surplus. But Friedrich's military obsession wasn't really about keeping his people safe, or even about acquiring new territories: Friedrich liked – really liked – a grand spit and polish display.

How big? How grand? Well, Friedrich's all-consuming passion was for his grenadiers, a Regiment hand-picked not for their skill in battle, their heroic abilities, but for being tall.

In a time when the average height was probably around five foot something, the grenadiers – which quickly became known by the Prussians as the Lange Kerls (Big Guys) – began at six feet and went up up from there.

The Big Guys – and some of them were very big, coming in around seven feet – were the king's all-consuming passion, to the point where it became common for foreign dignitaries to use 'gifts' of very tall men to curry favor with Friedrich. But even these presents, many of them with little say in the matter, weren't enough to satisfy Friedrich's obsession: his agents, promised huge rewards, were dispatched to the far corners of Europe to get, by any means necessary, the tallest people they could find.

To say these agents were zealous would be an understatement: there are tales of them kidnapping farmers from their fields, innkeepers from their taverns, an Irish priest in the middle of a sermon, and they even had the audacity to try to grab a Austrian diplomat. There's even the story of one poor soul who was snatched off the streets of some foreign city and shipped back to Prussia, but who arrived stiff and cold because the agents forgot to punch air-holes in the crate.
Friedrich was so determined to fill the ranks of his grenadiers he even began his own program of selective breeding, offering tall women and men rewards to produce even taller children – and heaven help you if you knew someone nice and tall and didn't tell the king about it.

Oh, how the king loved his grenadiers: he would lovingly paint their portraits from memory, or order them to march for hours and hours around his palace courtyard just so he relish in their military tallness, and, if the king was feeling under the weather, he would even have them thunderously circle his bed until he got better. As he told the French ambassador: "The most beautiful girl or woman in the world would be a matter of indifference to me, but tall soldiers – they are my weakness."
Yes, it was very good to be the king – but, alas, it was not so grand to be one of his grenadiers. Even though Friedrich doted over them, many of his giants were in agony from diseases related to their gigantism, were painfully depressed after finding themselves in a unfamiliar land and unable to speak a word of German, or who – again as a tragic effect of their great height – were mentally the age of a young child. Desertions were common, but since the giants were, well, 'gigantic' they were quickly caught and subsequently, and brutally, punished. Some, sadly, made the ultimate escape – but even suicides didn't dissuade the king from begging, borrowing, or out-and- out stealing tall men for his grenadiers. At its (excuse me) 'height' the flamboyant regiment numbered over 3,000 men.
Not surprising, considering how incredibly infatuated Friedrich was with them, the grenadiers were never sent into battle.

Eventually, though, the king died, and with his death the kingdom, and Friedrich's beloved Potsdam Grenadiers, were passed down to his son, Frederick II. But while his father adored brass fittings, a good uniform, and everything else stern and military, the son – having been raised by a stern and military father – absolutely did not. Ironically, though, Frederick II did attack neighboring Austria, putting into practice some of his father's teachings. He also, after a time, put into actual combat what few of Friedrich's grenadiers remained.
There was one problem, though. Because they were considerably taller – very considerably taller – than their fellow soldiers, these surviving grenadiers didn't survive very long: they simply too big to miss.

Absolutely, if you're going to dream you should dream big. But if you're lucky – and you're a king – you don't have to settle for only dreams: you too, like Friedrich, can have your own marching, thundering fantasy brought to remarkably, and legendarily, tall life.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Love Without Gun Control Celebration

As part of my wonderful Love Without Gun Control sale, here's a fan-favorite piece from the book.  Enjoy!

Some Assembly Required

She hadn't thought about Mark in years – then, suddenly, she did. It wasn't something obvious, like seeing his face on someone else's who also had pale blond hair, like burnished steel, or eyes like amber marbles, but something swift and intangible, like a floating piece of consciousness you remember as not being fact, reality, but part of a dream half-forgotten.

Lisa had been standing in the warm sunshine down on Solano Avenue, walking back with her sister from seeing a movie – something with explosions and lots of male sweat, details already mostly forgotten. They'd parked far away, and chatted emptily as they marched back to Lisa's battered little sports car.

He'd had a tension about him sometimes, an almost tangible armor that would slip over him. The first time it had happened they'd fought later in the day, Lisa convinced on some level that she'd been the cause. It had happened, so quickly and without apparent cause and had lingered for hours, and he hadn't spoken a word about it. When the same had happened to Lisa, in other relationships, it usually meant anger at her, a stewing resentment just needing an impetus to release. Better, she'd learned, to get it out when she wanted to – beat the fight to the punch.

Hot, hard sunlight in her eyes and she replied mechanically to Shirley's polite sisterly banter. Why now – why think of that and Mark... now? The laughter of children in front of a nearby toy store, an old woman glacially making her way down the sidewalk in a mechanical walker, a burnished Latino man clipping branches from a tree in front of a doctor's office.

“Some people just shouldn't have children,” Shirley said, slipping into the passenger seat as Lisa absently hunted for the ignition. Lisa looked up, hunting for the source, and saw the three with the kids: two glowing parents, and a friend. The parents were young and sleek with their own kind of baby fat – the softness that Lisa had seen around her other friends that had the innocence and responsibility of children thrust onto them. “Luckily,” Shirley said, her eyes obscured by sunglasses, “other people can.”

Their friend wasn't sleek, wasn't soft. His hair was slightly greasy, his jeans rough and faded to threads in some places – and even though he was smiling with his friends and the children he had to accompany, his tension was obvious.

Lisa knew, that fragment finding it's place in her mind: the why of thinking of Mark. Yeah, some people shouldn't have children, but other people – good, kind people – were terrified of them.


It was night by the time she got back to her apartment, parking as usual in the darkness of the alley behind her building. After an afternoon with Shirley, Mark had faded into a cool melancholy – a lazy sadness about many things, old and nearly forgotten boyfriends only some of it.

At first she thought it was an insect, and fear/disgust/revulsion tingled up and down her spine. Then she thought it might be a toy – children being up way to late. Then she picked it up. Looking at it under the washed-out distant lights from the street beyond, she again thought specifically of one old boyfriend and brought it inside.

His breath had been hot – she remembered when it seemed about to scald her neck, how she'd felt she'd had to move – just a little – from under him, feeling it almost ready to burn her skin. He always seemed to have a bruise or two, looking like a swatch of grease on his angular body, from where he'd hurt himself at work.

The apartment seemed empty, cold – so she turned on the coffee machine and absently flicked on the set to keep her company. Her answering machine was beeping one, one, one in dark red – so she didn't play it, knowing it to be Shirley saying she'd be late for the movie.

The little machine wasn't a toy – it had a kind of patched-together, crude look to it. Putting it down on her kitchen counter it immediately started a hesitant exploration of its new environment. Smiling despite herself, she lunged to catch it as it neared an edge – only to have it pull away at the last minute. It had a couple of small motors, maybe scavenged from a toy after all. It had wire feelers, and a mysterious cluster of dark glass panels along its back. Its body seemed to be a piece of an old circuit board, the green material almost black in some places from being outside for a long time. It seemed to have eyes, as well, two discs facing forward. Yes, eyes, as she watched it hunted along her counter-top for light. It had a battery, a black box along its back, but must have fed, recharged, on what it could see – eating light through the flat glass panels on its back.

Also on its back was a cigar tube. Picking it up, Lisa shook it, hearing something inside. Carefully, she unscrewed it – and a tightly rolled sheet of paper came out.


Mark was very much in her mind. The gruff rumble of his voice, the deep avalanche of his laughter. For someone who saw tools as an extension of his self, he liked surprisingly subtle and sophisticated things. When he was crouched over some new machine, or under some behemoth of gears and engines, Bach chimed from his speakers. When he stopped to eat it was usually Sushi or Thai, and while he enjoyed watching things explode and men sweat on the screen he also had a complete Win Wenders collection and worshipped Jacques Tati.

The instructions on the paper were simple, straightforward. Even for someone like Lisa for whom Mark's terminology had been like listening to an ancient Asiatic language, she could understand it. It was also obviously a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy – the pattern of the diagrams in some places blurred by replication.

She stayed up for a long time, staring at the instructions and thinking about Mark, while the little machine patiently explored its new world – charging its battery from her kitchen lights.


The parts were surprisingly easy to find. Two trips to two different electronic stores. Cheap too – or would have been had she had some of the tools it required at hand.

Practicing with the soldering iron, she thought a lot about Mark. She built him, assembled him from memory as he sent curls of acid smoke up towards the ceiling: tall, thin – rough but not course, with a kind of mechanic's masculinity. Machines had been a special language for him, the key to a secret world of cause and effect. She remembered how his amber eyes glowed when he talked about some new project, some new device or construction – explaining to her innocence the philosophy of its gears, the beauty of its mechanisms.

She didn't have any photographs. No letters. They hadn't been together long – two and a half, maybe three years. She couldn't even remember why they'd broken up... exactly. She knew a lot of it was because of his passion, and her revelation that, at best, she'd only be the second most important thing in his life.

She burned herself, gesturing clumsily with the iron like it was a pencil or pen and not a very hot tool. The pain was like a flash in her eyes and she dropped it – luckily on the table and not on the carpet. After sucking on the inside of her finger when the iron had touched and almost crying, she breathed deep a few times and went back to trying to get enough with the unfamiliar tool.

That fight was very present in her mind. They had gone to a picnic with her sister, who'd been baby-sitting her friend's six-year-old. Mark hadn't made any noises when she'd told him about it, but that tension descended on him hard and fast whenever he was near the kid. Sally was a sweet girl, shy but very smart and with laughter that sounded like chiming bells. Still, Mark had been terrified.

Lisa hadn't known that – and so the fight: beat him to it, get it out in the open. For a long time he just stood there and let her run all over the place trying to figure out why he was so angry. Finally, he said something – and then something else, and then she started to understand. That night they'd made love – and it had been different. Passionate, yes, but also caring – an act to seal up a wound that had been opened.

When Shirley came over the next day she saw the mess of electronic parts scattered on her kitchen counter. “Toaster explode?” she joked, picking up something only three days before Lisa wouldn't have recognized.

“Just a hobby,” Lisa said, defensively, feeling as if Shirley had been picking through her bedside table, commenting on her method of birth control.

“Looks like something Mark would have put together – spit and bailing wire, couple of batteries and... viola, art. Too bad everyone else just saw it as some bailing wire and lots of spit.”

Mark hadn't called it art. He might have treated it that way, but he never called it that. “Yeah,” Lisa said, grabbing her purse, “but that's what he liked to do.” Then she said, not at all hungry, just to get her sister away, “let's get a bite, I'm starved.”

“You think about him... Mark – a lot.”

“Sometimes,” she said, gently moving her sister towards the front door.

“You weren't together all that long, and it weren't even with him when he, you know, passed away.” At the door, she paused. “Cancer, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, cancer–”

“He didn't leave much behind did he? I think you were the only person who knew him well – and that's not saying a lot.”

“No,” she agreed, locking her front door, “not a lot at all.” ****

She decided to build two of them. That way she could have some practice and not put too much pressure on herself to get the one-and- only done perfectly. She burned herself, twice more – but then felt like she was really getting a handle on the iron. Her nose tickled for a long time from the resin-reek of the melting solder, but then she started to enjoy it – it was like an incense from some distant, mechanical land. Something burned in Mark's church.

It wasn't hate that had tensed him that day in the park around dear little – it was responsibility. “I was scared. Damn, I hate that – that feeling. Like walking on glass. They're so fragile, you know. I know what that was like, how one wrong thing... well, it might not mean anything to me, but to them it could be how they see the world after. That freaks me out. I'm not ready to do it right, I guess – I'm too selfish. When I want to do, I want to do it right, to be there all the time for them – to really be there for them, to help them. Now, though, the responsibility scares me.”

“You just have to let go,” she'd told him, holding him close and feeling his breathing, hot breathing on the side of her neck. “Other people have the same fears, but they manage okay. You just have to learn to let go. It's how we go on – it's how you leave a part of yourself behind. You're just scared because you only want to leave the best of you behind.”

He'd nodded, his heavy body moving slightly, too, as his head did. “I know. I just keep thinking that... maybe I'm not good enough.”

The first one Lisa built had faltered, as if stricken with a kind of electronic/mechanical palsy. She went back to the instruction sheet and spent a few minutes following it's strange course. There, finally she saw it, a stray wire, a hesitant short. After a quick, skillful jab with the soldering iron it seemed to work fine.

At dawn, which seemed appropriate, she took copies she'd made of the instructions, put them in the cigar tubes she'd bought, attached them to their backs, and let them go. The original moved across the alley, vanishing quickly off into the distance. Her first born started off to the right, slowly making its way among the trash cans and garage doors; the whine of its little electric motors went on for a long time, until fading into the general background of the city.

The second born went to the left, darting across the dark asphalt – but then stopped just about halfway. It stayed there for a minute, spinning slowly as it sought nutritious sunlight. Finally it stopped its dance and made its way slowly down the other side of the alley, until vanishing among some parked cars.

The tears were a surprise, there before she was even aware she was crying. She watched her descendants until she felt they were able to make it on their own, then she wished them well, gave them her love, and went back inside.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Welcome To Weirdsville Celebration

As part of my wonderful Welcome To Weirdsville sale, here's a fan-favorite piece from the book.  Enjoy!

So far you lucky readers -- if that’s really what you are -- have been treated to lost nuclear hardware, misplaced biological weapons, an18th century spiritualist and his clockwork ‘God,’ and recently, creatures great and small (mostly small) that can kill you faster than you can read this sentence -- even if you’re a slow reader.

But there’s an even more terrifying, creepy, freaky, disturbing subject we haven’t talked about yet: one that can make even the heartiest, stone-stomached of you clutch your tail-wagging doggies and purring kitties while rocking back and forth mumbling “nature is good, nature is good, nature is good …”

As you’ll soon read, however, even your loving pets can save you from the nightmare that is, more than likely, with you already.

Or, to be precise, living inside you already: parasites.

YouTube has far too many clips of botflies, tapeworms, or pinworms in all their disgusting glory: squirming and writhing from puss-glistening holes in their victims, squirming in the bellies of those unfortunate enough to have become part of their life cycle. But that’s not the worst.

We like to think we’re the masters of our destiny, that “I think I shall do (fill in the blank)” comes only from our minds and wills. But in some cases that’s just not true -- or, perhaps, that’s what the creature living inside me is telling me to say.

Welcome to the wonderful world of not just parasites, but parasites that directly influence or flat-out control their hosts.

Beginning big or at least not microscopic, the emerald cockroach wasp has a very unique, and rather frightening, method of supplying its pupal young with a meal. Like some other insects, the wasp feeds its young living prey: paralyzing the snack and then laying an egg on its still-living body. But the emerald isn’t a very big bug, unlike the monstrous tarantula wasp, so it can’t drag its prey back to its burrow. Instead, the emerald performs a type of on-the-go brain surgery, carefully stinging a roach in a few selected parts of its brain, disabling its escape reflex. The wasp then chews off the roach’s antenna, effectively blinding it. Hijacking the roach’s remaining stub of an antenna, it then leads the still-living and -- if roaches have a form of consciousness -- aware bug back to its burrow where it will be a still-living dinner for its offspring.

Yes, you may shudder. But it gets worse.

You’re just lucky you’re not a snail, especially one that happens to become part of a leucochloridium paradoxum ’s elaborate lifecycle. Beginning as eggs in bird droppings, leucochloridium enters the snail’s body and then proceeds into its digestive tract. After a bit of time there, it develops into a larva – and then things get interesting.

How, you might ask, does leucochloridium go from snails to birds? Well, we know how -- but you might not want to know the answer.

What leucochloridium does is make its way from the snail’s gut to one of its eyestalks. There it causes the stalk to become red and inflamed. But that’s not all. The parasite also distorts the snail’s light perception so that it doesn’t hide from light anymore. So, out in the broad daylight, one eyestalk brightly colored, it becomes a something very much like a grub or caterpillar -- which birds love to eat. So the whole cycle begins again.

Then there’s sacculina, a type of barnacle. It loves crabs, but not in a healthy kind of way. What sacculina does, while in the barnacle’s larval phase, is find a nice, juicy crab and land on it. Then it walks around the unlucky crustacean until it finds an unarmored joint, and injects itself into the crab’s tasty meat. But sacculina doesn’t eat the crab. Oh, no – it’s not as simple as that. After a time in the crab’s body, the barnacle reproduces and reproduces and reproduces some more until it emerges as something a lot like a female’s egg sac.

That’s important, because it’s not just the female crab this happens to. If you should happen to be a male crab then transvestitism is in your future. Sacculina messes with the hormones in the male crab, making it basically a female -- especially appealing to other male crabs. It even goes as far as adjust the male’s behavior so it actually begins to act like a female crab, all to attract a male crab that may or may not have other sacculina parasites to fertilize and keep the cycle going. Once sacculina has you, if you’re a crab that is, then you belong to it. Sterilized, you become nothing but a mother to its eggs. Until you die.

We’re not finished yet -- far from it. Just be lucky you’re not a grasshopper or a cricket. Spinochordodes tellinii (the hairworm) larva finds its way into an unlucky hoppity by being eaten. Once in the bug it grows -- but don’t think the worm just gets bigger. It gets so big that when the adult worm comes out of the cricket it can be four times longer than the bug. It’s how it comes out that’s going to give you the shivers. When it simply has had enough of the bug, having pretty much eaten all of it from the inside, the worm takes possession of the insect’s brain, causing it to single-mindedly hunt out water. When it does, the bug jumps in -- and that’s when the worm erupts out of the host and swims away.

Okay, so it’s not fun to be a snail, or a crab, or a cricket. But what about poor homo sapiens? Please don’t tell me you think we don’t have our own, completely unwelcome passengers. I’ve already mentioned botflies, pinworms and tapeworms. But they are just freeloaders. They aren’t driving the bus that is us like these other manipulative parasites do.

Hold that puppy close, cuddle that kitten -- but maybe not that close. Ever heard of toxoplasma gondii? No? Well you might have but it’s certainly heard of you. In fact I’ll bet dollars to donuts that it’s paying a lot of attention to these words right now. Feel like doing something else? Anything else but reading this?

Maybe that isn’t you. Maybe it’s toxoplasma gondii.

I love kitties. But after reading about toxoplasma gondii I think I’m going to become a dog person. Primarily a cat parasite, gondii’s a protozoa that enters the feline system when the animal eats an infected animal. Once in the system, the protozoa can then reproduce asexually, making life pretty damned easy for itself.

But not for its hosts. Although the protozoa is mostly a cat fancier, it also can infect rats and mice. When it does, it does something rather creepy: it directly screws with the infected animal’s brain, taking out Mickey’s fear of cats. Think about that for a second: not open spaces, not water, not something big and general. Gondii only takes out a mouse’s fear of cats -- making sure it’ll get eaten by one, its host of preference.

Like I said, I really like kitties. But is that really ‘me’ who likes cats? Rats and mice and other warm-blooded creatures can carry gondii. You and I and every other homo sapien are also warm-blooded. I think you see where this is going.

Here’s a number for you: 25%. That’s a rather benign amount until you think of 25% of humans. Especially when I add that it’s been theorized that 25% of human beings may be infected by gondii – a parasite that affects the behavior of its hosts.

Some researchers have suggested that men who have gondii in their systems have lower IQs, are more prone to ‘novelty seek,’ and more masculine. Weirdly, infected women come out with higher IQs.

Then there’s reproduction. Not only do some think gondii changes what we are personality-wise, but its also been suggested that women who are infected have a tendency to give birth to more sons -- and males are more likely to spread the infection.

We’ve lost nuclear weapons, contaminated whole islands with biological devices, created mechanical Gods, and have been killed by very small critters with very nasty venoms. But when you think about parasites, especially certain kinds of parasites, the question then becomes:

Who are ‘we’? And who are you?