The Hippo Letters

Dear Pansy,

Since my mother is in the market for a new dog, I’ve been thinking about pets. After the whole rhinoceros debacle, I realized that rhinos aren’t actually very fierce. They look badass with that horn and all, but they just don’t have what it takes in a clinch. So, I went looking for the ultimate in badass. Something that wasn’t just death on four legs, but could handle both land and water.

We got a hippopotamus.

Of course, Daddy, who has seen Fantasia one too many times, immediately wanted to put a cute little tutu on it. I’ll tell you one thing: hippos are supposed to be herbivores, but this one had no problem snapping two of Daddy’s fingers off and swallowing them right down. Good thing he’s already left-handed. The vet thinks that the ingestion of meat might upset the hippos’ delicate tummy, but for fuck sake, after a stunt like that, it deserves some indigestion.

So, the hippo’s out in the creek. It just sits there, mostly submerged, for hours at a time. I thought about putting a television out there so that it could at least watch Downton Abbey while it bathed, but it seems content just watching the trees and the birds. Funny thing, though – by this time of year that guy who comes wading upstream to measure the depth of the creek has usually been here, leaving behind his trail of red thread. We found a big-ass snarl of red thread, but it seems to just stop a little way downstream. Oh well, government cutbacks…

The hippo likes to climb the hillsides. Most of the periwinkle is gone (thank goodness – we thought we’d have to get goats to do the job), and the hippo has started going up the neighbor’s side of the bank because I think it smells the nice hay her horses are eating. I can just imagine it talking to her horses. “Hey, guys, can I have some? Are you horses? That’s awesome – I’m a horse too! I’m what they call a ‘river horse.’ Fat? Screw you, buddy! I’m not fat! Don’t be putting your body image issues off on me! You’re just lucky there’s a fence between us, asshole! One more crack like that and I’ll use my ‘substantial fundament’ to break down that flimsy goddamn fence and break your pitiful stick legs, got that?” Okay…maybe I’m imagining too much, here

Anyway, I should get back to it. I love and miss you and hope everything’s going great.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

Well, the hippo is getting along just fine. We didn’t name it yet, in no small part because we wanted to find out whether we were going to get a boy or a girl, but the truth is that we haven’t been able to find out. When it’s not in the water, it keeps its face to us, its tiny red eyes staring at us suspiciously. Daddy finds it alarming, but I prefer to think that it’s just trying to remember our faces so that it knows who its friends are. Which is why we’re still alive, unlike the poor, mangled coyote we found on the creek bank. Well, what do you expect if you’re something the size of a coyote, fucking with a full-grown hippo?

The dogs have taken to just standing at the top steps of the porch and barking nonstop at it. If the stuff I read on the internet is right, then the yawning the hippo is doing in the direction of the little doggies isn’t a good sign. Luckily, there’s no way the hippo is getting up the creek bank and across the deck before the doggies high-tail it inside.

I’d better go. Oh, one last thing: Daddy has bought a trebuchet. He’s using it to huck heads of lettuce into the creek. He’s trying to train the hippo to catch. He’s also calling the hippo “Leon,” which I guess is as good a name as any. Unless the hippo is a girl, in which case Daddy may lose a few more fingers.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

Spring is here and the weather is getting warmer. We still don’t know the gender of the hippopotamus, but I guess that’s neither here nor there, since it’s not like we have another hippopotamus for it to interact with. It’s been just sitting there, up to its ears in the creek while Daddy chucks lettuces, cabbages, heads of bok choy… Let me just say that you’ve never really lived until you’ve been on the receiving end of a hippopotamus burp. Sounds travel faster than smells, so first you get the alligator roar of the burp itself, throaty and fruity and full of vaguely porcine expression. Then the smell hits you like a punch in the face. Sure, it’s cabbage, but cabbage that has been to the gates of Hell and been transformed into some ageless and unspeakable evil before being sent back to earth to flay the flesh from the living. I was wearing one of my favorite t-shirts the first time the hippo burped on me. I had to burn it.

And you know how hippos mark their territory, right? They shit, while wagging their tiny little tails back and forth as quickly as possible, spraying the shit over a wide area all around the back of the hippo. Meanwhile, either you’re standing around behind the hippo, covered in shit and now part of its territory, or you’re standing around in front of the hippo while it looks at you with a look that plainly says “I don’t care what you think you own. This is mine.” Or you’re me, safely inside the house, drinking heavily and being grateful that hippos don’t have thumbs and therefore can’t work doorknobs.

We all love and miss you. Except the hippo. It doesn’t miss anyone.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

I’m tired and grouchy.

The whole hippopotamus thing may have been, in retrospect, a mistake. We’ve now got people coming down to the creek all the time to see the hippo, like it’s some free zoo. People think that because it lives at our house, it’s tame. We’ve posted signs all over saying “Danger: This hippo WILL eat your ass if you don’t leave now.” We’ve put up surveillance cameras and I’ve stopped watching anything on Netflix, because now I’m just watching jackasses try to sneak onto our property without anyone noticing, and then realizing that the hippo is:

1) awake
2) faster than they thought
3) always hungry
4) NOT a fast or merciful killer

It doesn’t seem to matter that we’ve got more human remains scattered around our property than Sauron – that doesn’t seem to deter anybody.

Yesterday, some jackass decided that he was going to re-enact Disney’s jungle cruise. He had a sad little boat, and he was standing in the front dressed in his silly khaki shorts and pith helmet. He’s doing his whole Disney patter thing “…and if you look to your left – what do we have here?! – it’s a hippo! They say that hippos are just about to charge when their ears wiggle. Let’s see if we can get just a bit clo-” and at that point, the hippo submerges and comes up under the stupid little boat. All the people are sitting on the side away from the hippo, which makes the boat totally easy to tip. Now there’s an upended boat, an idiot in a pith helmet screaming like a chimp, a bunch of New York ecotourists who’re trying to snap pictures even as the hippo is bearing down on them, and a pack of fat German tourists, treading water because they think this is part of the ride. And there’s the hippo, picking off whatever’s moving the slowest – tour guide first.

I’ll say this for the record: hippos do not wiggle their ears just before charging.

Love,  Mom


Dear Pansy,

I woke up this morning with Calvin banging at the bedroom window with his big nostrilly face, wanting breakfast because the goddamned hippo had eaten everything.

Pets suck.

This letter will be a little short. I found that gross red hippo-smear all over my car. I think that the hippo has been trying to mate with my car. Maybe it’s the long eyelashes. They’re roughly the same size and shape. Anyway, I have to go turn the pressure washer on that damned hippo, otherwise I’m going to have little Mini-hippo hybrids wandering around.

Gross.

Love,  Mom


Dear Pansy,

Daddy and I have been gone over the weekend to see your grandmother. The hippo hates it when we’re out of town. It doesn’t matter how much hay we put out, how many piles of glistening green lettuces and waxy cabbage. When we get back, there’s always shit everywhere, uneaten cabbages floating in the creek (the stink is pretty impressive), and a hippo in the creek, yawning threateningly in our direction. I’m thinking hard about taking him back to the hippo pound. The problem is that, while they were okay with bringing him on a flatbed truck to our place, getting him there is our responsibility. He can’t hop up into the truck bed, and we’d have to cut him up into at least six pieces to fit him into my car, one piece at a time. The other scenario is that I tie him to the top of my car, but I’m pretty sure his feet would touch the ground on either side, so he’d pretty much have to walk us to the hippo pound.

Calvin’s doing okay, though.

Okay, I have to jet. Horrifying, child-frightening fiction doesn’t write itself.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

I talked to the hippo removal guy. Yes, there’s a hippo removal guy. When I called him up, it sounded on the phone like the kind of fat guy who’s always got the butt of a slimy cigar screwed into the corner of his mouth, but when I met him in person, he was this really skinny guy about my height with waist-length dreadlocks. Weird, right? So he looks at the hippo, and at the rotting cabages floating in the creek, and the completely bare hillside, and at the horses at the neighbor’s place which are clearly visible now because the damn hippo knocked down FOUR trees (did I mention that the bastard will body check trees until they fall down?). And he basically said “Shame you can’t keep him. This is a pretty sweet setup.”

While I agree entirely, I realize that I’m not the kind of laid-back, it’s-all-groovy, granola-hugging, all-God’s-creatures-are-beautiful kind of person. I’m a “don’t charge at my car when I drive home at night you stupid hippo” kind of person. I’m a “I don’t really appreciate having my house stuccoed in shit” person. Call me crazy.

So Mr. Hippo Removal (he told me his name and it’s something like Ray or Dave, something with a long A sound in it) looked at how big the hippo is (apparently, he’s grown just since he got here so now he’s fat even for a hippo) and says that he’s got a crate and flatbed truck and can have him out of here in a week. You know what that means? Another week with this goddamned hippo.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

The hippo is officially gone, although it’s going to take some time to clean all the rotting cabbage out of the creek, scrape the shit off the house, the truck, the walkway, etc., and generally recover from having a discontented hippo living here. But I’m still kind of sad, so I decided to hold a sort of funeral. Not for the hippo itself, which is going to live at a luxury hippo sanctuary in Idaho, but for the idea of hippo ownership, which is dead, dead, dead.

So I invited some friends over, including the handyman, all my writing group, a bunch of neighbors, etc. My friends were all really understanding about my grief and everyone showed up with some kind of token of loss. One friend came all the way from Minnesota and read a poem about how the hippo was a symbol of feminine rage. Another wrote a horror story where the victims of the hippo reanimate and rise out of the creek seeking revenge (which was a gruesome thought until you realize that his “victims” were mostly vegetables which aren’t threatening even when alive). The handyman constructed a nice coffin, which we set adrift on the creek. Except that it’s really warm out, and the creek is really low, and it went about ten yards before hitting a big rock and just sticking there. Everyone stared at it for a bit, and the silence was a little awkward. Daddy played the bagpipes. Then we all went inside and had a buffet of coleslaw, salad and bok choy, because we had shitloads of leftovers to get rid of.

Maybe I’d have liked him better if I’d named him.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

Well, it’s just past 1:30am, but since Daddy is in Sacramento at a bagpipe competition and your sister is at a friend’s house, I’m still up. I’ve cleaned the kitchen, watered the outside plants, and mopped a metric ton of dog puke off my office floor. Seriously, I don’t know what the hell the dog ate, but it seems like she got into my office and took a couple of steps, puked, took a couple more steps, puked. I’ve had two children and done daycare for a dozen more and I’ve never seen such a volume of vomit as I’ve seen from that 12-pound dog.

I’m gonna go take a shower now. I’m kind of scuzzy. Although I’m just going to get up and wash my car, which is seriously gross. You know how my car gets. I scraped off most of the hippo shit, but you can only get so much of it off without actually pressure washing it. The creek is going to take a while to recover from the hippo as well. Although Calvin the giraffe isn’t helping. You would be surprised by just how much a giraffe shits.

I was.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

Ever since the hippopotamus left, it’s been really sad. I friended the hippopotamus-hauler guy on Facebook, and he’s been posting pictures of our hippopotamus at a sanctuary in Idaho. There are pictures with Tom Cruise, Bruce Willis and a bunch of other old guy celebrities who all need to pose with wild animals to prove that they’re still hot. The hippopotamus doesn’t look any more impressed with them than it did with us. I would like to think it was happy living in our creek, but I must say that I’m just as happy to have it stucco-ing someone else’s house with shit.

Love, Mom


Dear Pansy,

I want to get a monkey. One of those cute little capuchin monkeys. Calvin the giraffe is pining for company.

There’s a company called Helping Hands that trains monkeys to help people with spinal cord injuries. I wonder if I could fake an injury and get a monkey helper. And is it unethical to train a monkey to mix drinks? I think I could totally train a monkey to make lemon twists. I would make the monkey a little bed above my bed, and I would train the monkey to wake up when my alarm went off and go and make tea, and then come and bring me the tea and gently wake me up by picking out my clothes and laying them on the bed. Maybe I can also get it to do things like answer my emails and stuff.

Love, Mom

The Machinery of God

I went to a huge university with tens of thousands of students. Although it was crowded and impersonal, it was a generally happy place. But I had my eye on transferring to the Seminary of Engineering, a specialized college that studied the intersection of faith and physics. Being accepted to that college was like being admitted into a school of magic. Finals at the Seminary of Engineering weren’t the kind where you sat in a room with a pencil and paper and answered written questions and worked problems. They were practicals where you showed off something you had built.

One of the about-to-graduate seniors, a student from Senegal, had brought with him a kind of small plane made of light wood. It had no skin – just a chair bolted to a wood frame, and metal grommets going through the wood to guide the cables that made up the steering mechanism. There was no visible motor or engine of any kind. This plane ran on faith.

The pilot climbed aboard and took the controls, which consisted of two joysticks – one for the front, and one for the back. Because the plane was driven by faith, it operated very differently from a plane driven by motors. The front and back moved independently, so one could perform amazing aerial maneuvers, or simply hover above the ground. But in order to stay aloft, one’s faith had to be pure and strong.

The plane was a bit shaky at its vertical takeoff, but it was hard to tell whether it was the pilot’s spiritual uncertainty, or his unfamiliarity with the controls. Once the plane was in the air, it climbed, swooped, raced back and forth, described pirouettes in the air. Those of us on the ground were initially astonished, then enthralled at both the spectacle and the engineering.

Such was the pilot’s faith that we were able to see his flight from his own eyes, entering his soul and seeing what he saw, feeling what he felt. He was filled with a love and certainty that was so strong that everyone who entered him was filled as well, and by the time his plane touched down as lightly as an angel landing on the head of a pin, any one of us could have flown it.

Many years later, my family and I are living in a tiny apartment in a crowded, dirty city. I am one of a very few people in the world who designs and builds the machinery of God – machines powered only by faith. It’s a complicated process that relies on a person being able to hold vast amounts of information and many competing goals in mind as one works out the physics of the machine. It can’t be done by computers, because one must design with faith, instilling one’s faith into the formula itself. Impossible for a computer.

I was heading downstairs when I looked out the lobby doors of our apartment and saw one of my kid’s teachers approaching the building. I knew she was going to lecture me about a recent project my kid had turned in about my work and research that she had given an F, despite the fact that it was not only factual, but fairly well-written for a 12 year old. I didn’t want to talk to her, so I ducked out the side door that led to the alley, but she followed me.

I turned into the alley where, above the dumpsters, there was a thing that looked like a mosaic of a building scene.

“What do you see?” I asked the teacher.

“I don’t know.”

We stepped back a few paces, and she realized it was a picture of the building that housed the Seminary of Engineering. She expressed admiration, and I took her arm and led her up close to it, so that she could see that each pixel of the mosaic was actually a bit of mathematical calculation.

“This is my work. This is the plans for a faith-powered passenger aircraft.”

She stood there with her mouth hanging open, not knowing what to say.

“Do you know what it takes to create one of these?”

Her mouth was still hanging open as she shook her head, her eyes traveling over the entire mural.

“I don’t even know how you would make a regular airplane,” she said.

“Exactly! But it’s not enough to just know the math involved in figuring out how to get a 2,000-ton aircraft into the air. You have to express all the drag coefficient calculations and weight distribution formulas as an actual depiction of a physical object. That’s a picture of where I went to school.”

“How does doing that make the thing work?”

“Seriously? You want me to take five minutes and tell you the thing that I’ve spent my entire adult life learning and perfecting? Okay, let me just say that it’s all about the intersection of science and art, imbued with the faith of its creator.”

“This stuff is real?”

“Have you ever used a microwave? Newsflash. There’s no such thing as ‘microwaves.’ They don’t exist. The microwave works because you know it’s going to work. You have faith.”

Her mouth snapped shut and she stared at me in disbelief.

“That drawing looks like a close-up of a rose. I’ve seen it,” I said as she started shaking her head. “Now let’s talk about your giving my kid an F on a paper about a subject you don’t understand.”

But she didn’t say anything.

 

 

That Dream Where I’m Not Crazy

It’s been happening everywhere – people’s bodies found at home, at their offices, at restaurants, their brains and hair and blood spattered over every surface, as though they had just burst. The worst part is that the group claiming responsibility is, on the one hand, so disorganized that they have members who don’t even realize that they’re part of a terror cell. How do you feel if you’re a high school kid whose mom has asked her to carry a package to band practice, and that package contains cash, fake documents, or bomb components? Sure, that kid has heard all the rhetoric, but she’s too young to fully appreciate that blowing people up rarely helps anything.

I stumble on something that resembles a Tupperware party. The hostess has brought in a large aquarium with sand strewn with big, fake-looking plastic clams and treasure chests. The aquarium is full of actual sea water, and the guests are pulling things out of the water and opening them to see what prize they’ve won. It’s a decorative hair comb! It’s a jaunty hat! There are men and women there, and everyone’s in that giddy mood that accompanies the prospect of getting something for nothing.

My friends and I come in to see the host’s face temporarily fall, then a mask of smug derision fall into place. “You’re too late. They’re with us now.” We go around the table, confiscating people’s prizes. Some of the people fight us, because even though the prize cost them nothing and has only been in their possession for five minutes, they will feel cheated if it’s taken away. We show them the truth: the hair combs and hats and other baubles are all made of C4 with tiny detonators. It’s not much, but certainly enough to blow someone’s head off. The faces are suddenly pale and much less enthusiastic, swiveling in the hostess’s direction, looking for denial. Her smile hardened and glittered.

We threw the aquarium and its contents into the ocean (conveniently a few feet away), and we grabbed the hostess and threw her in too. She didn’t even try to swim, and I noticed as she sank that her body looked already drowned—bloated and wrinkled and pale.

But now her people are after me. I head into a coffee place to hide, but they’re there. They bought the place not long ago, and are using it as a source of information. People never think of servers as spies, and have unguarded conversations over latte. A woman approaches me, and I know that she’s trying to kill me. So I act like I’m high. I want her to think that I’m incapacitated and will be an easy mark. She’s young, she might buy it. I ask her to direct me to the bathroom, and she takes me in the back down a long hall. I start opening doors off the hall, telling her that they should put in 3-way doors – the kind that can have up to 3 different rooms on the other side of them, depending on how you turn the handle and open it. She looks smug and relaxed, so while she’s fumbling in her pocket for something, I disappear into one of the doorways that leads to an outdoor area. She thought it led into a broom cupboard, but the 3-way door thing is true, and I know how it works. I’m outside before she can follow me, and use my superior knowledge of forbidden physics to step over the patrons’ heads to the outside.

I’m out of her reach for now, but they’re still looking for me.

Gratitude is Bullshit

There is a disturbing trend among liberals to talk about gratitude. Everyone’s encouraged to have gratitude for the abundance in their lives. Everyone’s supposed to be grateful for all their blessings. On the surface, it’s a lovely sentiment. People should be mindful of the fact that they live privileged lives, and use that awareness to inform their interactions with people who are less privileged.

But it never goes that deep. It stops at “be grateful because you have it good.” The new Gratitude encourages insularity – think hard about what you have so that you aren’t thinking about people who don’t have anything. Gratitude is selfish. Being grateful for what you have invites the desire for more – more stuff (more friends, money, recognition) equals more gratitude, right?

This year has been full of horror: while the world was outraged at 12 people killed in attacks on Paris, thousands have died in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. Pakistan is a mess. Syria’s civilian population is fleeing, and many in the United States have insisted they’re not welcome. Here in the United States, Donald Trump has been steadily rising in the polls on a platform of racism, sexism, and xenophobia. Black Americans are being gunned down in the street under laughably thin pretexts, with no consequences to the shooters, despite the fact that those gunned down are unarmed.

Why aren’t you angry? Why aren’t you beside yourself with rage? Because you’re grateful. You’re looking at your pile of Christmas presents and thinking “I’m so grateful.” Maybe you volunteered at a shelter or a soup kitchen as part of your holiday celebrations. Were you angry then?

I’m not saying that you should spend all your time with your teeth gritted and the veins standing out in your neck. I’m not even saying that you shouldn’t be grateful for the good things in your life. I’m just saying that it should never stop there. Feel good about what’s good. But feel bad about what’s bad. Feel bad enough to want to spend 2016 working to change it.

Hailing

I had to drive from Bonny Doon to San Francisco. I’ve taken to driving up the coast road, Highway 1, because it’s prettier, and the loveliness of seeing the ocean on the one hand and the fields and woods on the other makes the drive seem shorter.

As I left the house, I paused to send my husband and my mother a Glympse, a way of tracking my progress so that they would know how long I would be.

I was just coming through Half Moon Bay, halfway between Bonny Doon and San Francisco, when I realized that my phone had stopped sending a GPS signal. I turned it back on, and was on the outskirts of town where one of those temporary highway signs sitting next to the road declared in foot-high letters “All Hail Mother Russia.”

A minute later, the Pirate called and without saying “hello,” launched directly into telling me that the Lantos Tunnel on Highway 1 was closed, and that I needed to turn back and go another way.

“How did you know?” I asked him.

“There was a sign on 280 saying that it was closed.”

“Huh. Why wasn’t there a sign on Highway 1? Oh. Wait. There was a sign. Except it didn’t say that Highway 1 was closed. It said ‘All Hail Mother Russia.'”

I turned around and went back through Half Moon Bay, thinking that unhelpful “Mother Russia” was more like a boozy stepmother who flatters herself that people think she’s 20 years younger than she is. Who wears too much makeup and too-tight dresses, who drinks too much and flirts with her daughter’s boyfriends and her son’s friends, and who wouldn’t remember to tell you useful things, like the fact that the tunnel is closed.

Beauty

My darling, when did your eyes take on that otherworldly cast? When did your face become so beautiful? Could you have looked this way all along, and I did not have the wit to notice? If that is true, how could I continue to live with myself? My darling, if you had looked this way when you were alive, why did I never see it? And if this is the way that you look in death, would you not agree that I was justified?

Hyper, Non-Linear, and Plain

I’ve been experimenting in hypertext, and I’m reveling in what it can do, as well as discovering its limits.

I’ve been using Twine to create a hypertext story. It’s part choose-your-own-adventure and part an exercise in figuring out what constitutes a pixel in text (a pixel is the smallest controllable part of a picture on a computer). What’s the smallest meaningful part of a story? It’s not the individual word, because words only take on meaning in relation to one another. I can say the word “bark,” but with no other context, you don’t know whether it’s a noun or a verb. Even as a noun, it could refer to a sound made by an animal, or the covering of a tree, or a type of boat.

One can make a case for the pixel of fiction being the independent clause (a group of words that contains a subject and a verb). The number of microfiction posts on Twitter make a compelling case for sentence as pixel. I believe that fiction on that level functions much like poetry. Writers who work under those circumstances need a strong command of language and have to have a clear vision of the work from the outset. I’ve heard longer-form authors say “I was writing and I the character took me by surprise.” Poets and microfiction authors have to exercise tight control over every word. A word out of place weakens the structure.

But hypertext is different from microfiction. Each piece has to further the story, carry meaning, lead the reader to the next piece. Which means that, although a single sentence can be a node or pixel or whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t have to be.

And, like writing with Lithomobilus, to write decent hypertext fiction, you have to work in multiple threads, possibly in multiple storylines simultaneously. As I’ve been working, I’ve been going back and re-writing parts of it so that they make sense with parts that come after. Making sure the verb tenses all work. There’s only one character, which is fine for now.

And all this is in aid of a much larger project that I might want collaboration on: stories based on tarot cards, but stories that work when the tarot cards are laid out in a pattern. This means writing multiple nodes of text for each card – tens of thousands of pieces of text. It’ll take a while.

Now comes the hard part: figuring out how to share.