What Have I Become?

It all started out innocently enough. After my last nervous breakdown, during recovery, my parents gave me an old scuffed-up aquarium, which I proceeded to fill with dirt and old leaves and rotting plywood. And pillbugs. For a while, it was fun to watch them breed and run around and poke each other and chew on my fingers when I picked them up, but soon, I wanted more. So, when I wasn’t busy with my Modern Algebra class, I spent many irrational hours sifting through leaflitter in my parents’ back yard (my own back yard being not quite large enough to house a single moth) looking for millipedes. Then I was peeling the bark off dead trees, on the hunt for the big scary centipedes that lived back there.

When I got what laughably counts for my sanity scraped back together, I returned to my home with my aquarium of extremely well-fed, pampered pillbugs and millipedes in tow. But I’d caught a bug–sorry, that was terrible–and there is no cure. I’d fallen victim to that little-known scourge: invertebrate addiction. I’ve always liked invertebrates. So few of them are nasty and hairy, and they never call me “psycho kid” or yell at me because there aren’t any dry towels or make funny faces when I ask them on dates. Unfortunately, the cephalopods–my very favorite class of invertebrates, on account of including the nautilus, the cuttlefish, and the octopus, any one of which is probably smarter than I am–are practically impossible to keep in captivity, and I’m the kind of half-autistic obsessive-compulsive who likes his nature in a very neat rectangular container where he can poke at it at whenever he likes. And, being so intelligent, I figured it would be pretty cruel to keep an octopus or a squid in my tiny-ass house (tiny ass-house), so I went looking for another kind of invertebrate that I could keep in my tiny-ass house.

It was then that I discovered snails. I’d added a few snails to my terrarium when I was first setting it up, but I soon learned of a much larger, much less everyday variety: the apple snails. Good old Pomacea diffusa. And then I sighed melodramatically and thought “Aw gee…I could never afford an aquarium to keep them in…” But then one day, I was at the petstore. And I saw snails running around their fishtanks. They had tentacles growing out of their faces and eyes without pupils and sharp teeth and iridescent orange marks on their sides, and they were cheap, and I bought five. And, because I am an idiot, tried keeping them in a gallon Mason jar. They reacted poorly, but my parents, probably worried that I was going to destroy the entire animal kingdom at this rate, gave me a little ten-gallon aquarium as a birthday present. And I, being, once again, an idiot, thought “Filtration? Filtration’s for weaklings!” The snails disagreed. So, several hundred gallons’ worth of water changes and about fifteen dead shrimp later, I had an aquarium, inhabited by nothing but snails and shrimp.

But I wanted more. I couldn’t settle for just one kind of snail, I wanted all species of snail. Soon, I discovered that the tanks at the petstore were infested with Malaysian trumpet snails, cute little invasive bastards who like to dig in sand and pop up as if to say “Fuck you, I’m a snail, I go where I want!” And the petstore, pretty much at their wits’ end on how to get rid of them, happily gave me twenty for free. And on a later visit, they, with a mischievous look in their eye that I didn’t recognize, happily gave me five common pond snails, the deadly scourge known as the European physa.

Then, my first snails laid eggs, providing me with my next novelty fix for a while, but after the eggs hatched, I had more snails than I knew what to do with, and so I emptied out a second terrarium I was starting and turned it into an aquarium just for overflow snails. And my parents, glad that I finally had a hobby that didn’t involve vivisecting woodland creatures, happily gave me a seventy-five gallon aquarium that used to house our dear boa constrictor. I turned it into a terrariaum. I bought hermit crabs and pestered them endlessly, trying to get them to snuggle with me like little hard-shelled kittens. Then, as always happens in the summer, I found my house overrun with field crickets, which I immediately caught and forced into slave labor, that slave labor being the endless manufacture of insectile cuteness.

And the other day, it finally occurred to me what I’ve become. When I was younger, I played Pokemon on the good old GameBoy. And there was always that one pain-in-the-ass bastard who hung out at the edge of the tall grass, waiting for some hapless beginner to wander through, all his Pokemon half-dead from the endless battles with pigeons and caterpillars in the dreaded Tall Grass, and then sprang out and challenged said trainer to an inescapable battle, at which point he would deploy fifteen fucking caterpillars and kill all your Pokemon.

Well, I realized the other day that I’ve become that guy. I’ve become some bizarre real-world analogue to the tall-grass Pokemon bastard. I am a collector of strange animals. All that remains now is for me to put them in little containers and walk around looking for someone else who happens to have their own container of water snails and challenge them to a duel. All I have to do is wait…

Re-Boot

A while ago, I promised some big(gish) news. Well, here it is: The Life of an English Major is getting rebooted. I’m switching to a new username and moving to a new patch of land in WordPress country. After four years (has it really been…?) I find myself a completely different person than the whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic who booted this blog in the first place. Don’t worry, I’m still a whiny, mucus-filled, befuddled lunatic, and I plan to do a lot of things the way I’ve been doing them since the blog began. Here are a few of the Life of and English Major set-pieces that won’t be going anywhere:

  • Visual Numbers: It’s true, I’m an English major now, but I do still love Math. A year ago, Math and I had a messy divorce after a long and increasingly loveless marriage. Now that I’m married to English and my ex and I have reconciled, I’ve decided to stay married to English and just have a steamy affair with Math behind English’s back. And what all that torturous mess means is: I’m going to keep up Visual Numbers, my (sort of) long-running series of posts visualizing the beautiful patterns that lurk in numbers, along with whatever interesting mathematical ramblings I manage to concoct.
  • Random bits and pieces: One reader found my blog by Googling “insect crawling up the rectum.” And I’m always seeing amusing targeted ads here and there. May it ever be so.
  • Stuff for writers: I love to write. I also love to write about writing (mainly because it’s a lot easier to write about it than to actually do it). I’m sure now that I’m actually almost kinda semi-serious about it, I’ll have more to say.
  • Reviews of stuff: I do love to give my cynical and often simpleminded opinion about things, and I shall continue to do so. Less simplemindedly now, I would hope.
  • Netlogo simulations: I do still love to program in NetLogo, and if I should happen to write a decently amusing simulation, I’ll let you know about it.
  • Random ideas like this one.
  • Random speculations and musings.
  • Unwise experiments with food and dangerous chemicals.

Hopefully, I’ll also come up with a few new things to do. In addition, there’s going to be a lot less random bitching and whining, half-baked ideas, and a hell of a lot more spelling and grammar checking (when I saw that I’d written “it’s” where I should have written “its,” I died a little). And there’s not going to be any politics. None. None at all. I have reached an advanced stage of serenity an disillusionment when it comes to politics. I’m going to take care of my little patch of the world, and that’s all I can hope to do. Let the politicians argue about the placesettings on the Titanic.

The re-vamped Life of an English Major should be up and running soon. See you there!

How I Beat Writer’s Block

Ah yes, the famous writer’s affliction strikes again. But this time, instead of grovelling at Writer’s Block’s knees, whimpering for it to please go away and let me write, I kicked it in the ass, hurled it off my porch, and threatened to pull off its gonads if it ever came ’round here again. This isn’t some sort of guide, and this solution will probably only work for me, but here it is, how I beat writer’s block.

First, the backstory. I’ve just recovered from a week of semi-insomnia and maybe a month or two of lousy writing. Now that I spend the bulk of my time shoveling different kinds of composted shit, writing has become just about the only useful thing I do (unless you count honing my Fallout skills and learning how to cook lentils), so it was pretty damn distressing when the old WB left me with nothing but Fallout and beans.

But like I said, this time I didn’t curl up on the floor and whimper. This time, I kept fighting it, trying to beat it. So, the first key thing when it comes to beating writer’s block is PERSISTENCE.

Of course, no amount of persistence could fix the fact that I was subconsciously pretending to be Stephen King. The solution to that little problem came when I made an effort to RE-DISCOVER MY VOICE. Which didn’t do me any good as long as I had no stories I felt passionate about writing, so I WROTE OUT MY FRUSTRATION. The result was this: A tiny story called Writer’s Block, and the solution to my problem. Enjoy!

*          *          *

WRITER’S BLOCK

I was scowling at the computer screen when she came in. She was the last person I wanted to see, and I couldn’t get rid of her. As I heard Andrea sitting down next to me, I let out a small sigh.

“You’re looking rough,” she said. I shot her a frown and turned back to the computer.

“Writer’s block.” She took a sharp breath.

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah…don’t worry, I’ve got it under control.” She leaned forward and read what little there was to read over my shoulder. When she slumped hard back into the chair, I knew what was coming. When I looked over at her, she was rolling her eyes.

“Wow….read enough Stephen King lately?” I glanced to the computer, and then back to her, turning in the chair and eliciting that mousey squeak from its poorly-oiled bearings.

“What?” She smiled up at the ceiling with mock innocence.

“Nothing. Just a familiar style, that’s all.” Now, I turned the scowl I’d reserved for the computer on Andrea. Her mocking sarcasm was hard enough to take on a good day, and it was not a good day.

“You’re saying it’s unoriginal.” She looked up at the ceiling again.

“’I stole one last glance at the old pocketwatch as it tumbled down into the sewer drain. The light of the setting sun flashed off its face for a moment, and then it was gone. Hopefully, forever.’” She looked at me with those scalpel-sharp eyes of hers, and gave a similarly sharp smile.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, if you’re writing for Hollywood.” I felt my face flush immediately, and put up a noble battle against the urge to stand up and shout at her.

“That’s not Hollywood!” I barked. She rolled her eyes again.

“Wow…nice to meet you, Mr. I-Can’t-Take-Criticism. New in town? No, I think you must’ve been here a while.” I realized my nails were digging into the arms of the chair, and I tried to slow my breathing and calm down. With her still smiling that goofy, incisive smile, it was difficult.

“I can take criticism.”

“Clearly not.”

“I can!”

“You can’t. If I told you what I wanted to tell you, you’d hit the roof and then yell at me to leave.” The fact that she was right was infuriating, as it often is.

“Tell me.”

“No.”

“Stop playing games!” Andrea’s smile broadened.

“You really don’t want to hear it.” I sighed, my anger finally exhausted.

“No, but I probably need to hear it.” Some of the sharpness went out of her eyes, and her smile grew softer.

“Now there’s the right way to ask. But you have to promise me you won’t yell.”

“What do you care if I yell.”

“Promise me.”

“What does it matter if I get angry?”

“Well, we can’t have you getting your blood pressure up, can we?” she mocked. I almost wanted to shove her out of the chair.

“Fine. I promise.”

“Good.” She folded her hands and leaned forward. “First of all, I have a suspicion that I know where this story is going. Let me guess: main character buys weird pocketwatch from old gypsy, discovers it has supernatural powers, uses them, pays dearly, finally decides to get rid of it.” Her rightness continued to irk me.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going with it,” I lied.

“Fine, I’ll pretend that’s true for the sake of argument. But what the hell’s the deal with the style?”

“What’s wrong with the style?” My face was getting hot again, and I was leaning forward, trying to bore into her skull with my eyes.

“It’s forced, and like I said, it’s pretty Stephen King-ish.”

“Stephen King’s a good writer.”

“Right. Stephen King is. But Brad Gorham pretending to be Stephen King is something of a hack.” I could feel my carotid artery pulsing against my shirt collar.

Nothing came out of my mouth but a long, drawn-out Hhhhhhh. I couldn’t bring myself to say the H-word. I stood up (the chair squeaking like a rat), and balled up my fists. Andrea, as always, did not look concerned.

“Sit down. You’re not going to hit a girl, and even if I was a guy, you wouldn’t hit me because you know that I’m right and you’d feel terrible afterwards.” After standing there for a moment drowning in bile and breathing my own hot exhaust, my fists loosened and I sat back down. “Besides, I didn’t actually call you a hack. I called Brad-as-Stephen-King a hack.”

“You know how easily other writers influence me.”

“Stop making excuses. Like it or not, you’re trying to be Stephen King.”

“I’m not!”

“Oh, shut up,” she said playfully, “You are, and you really ought to stop lying to yourself. You’re trying to be Stephen King, because you like his style. But I can tell from the expression you had on your face that you don’t enjoy his style. You don’t like trying to write in his style. It’s too hard, and it’s no fun.” She was right, and my anger had been replaced by rueful concession.

“Okay. So what do I do, then?”

“It’s obvious.”

“No it’s not.”

“Yes it is. Get back in the groove. Find your style again.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, you’re the writer.” That made me smile a little, and Andrea caught my smile and magnified it. “Try writing from your own perspective.”

“What about, though? I lose interest in everything I try to write.”

“Well, write what you know. Write about writer’s block.”

At the front of the house, a key rattled, and the knob made a clunk sound. The door squeaked (sounding nothing like a mouse), and heavy footsteps thumped down the hallway.

“Sounds like George,” said Andrea, getting up from the chair and turning to leave.

“Wait a second!” I protested, swiveling to face her as she paused in the doorway. She looked down at me.

“What?”

“We’re not finished yet!”

“Well, you’ve got something to write about now, so hop to it!” She smiled and walked out into the hallway. A second later, George walked in, sweaty from his run and breathing hard.

“Who were you talking to?” he rasped, wiping beads of sweat from his huge forehead. I almost said Andrea, but I stopped. George wouldn’t really understand. But I said something fairly close to the truth.

“Myself.”

Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen

Liquid nitrogen is hard to get, and being someone with no connections and a wild look in his eye, I don’t think I could actually get my hands on any, so I have to settle for watching videos of the stuff in action. I was doing that a few days ago, and ran across this video:

Being a good science nerd, I happen to know a place where I can buy dry ice. And, being a good science nerd, my first thought when I saw this video was “Don’t try this at home? Pffft! I know what I’m doing!” So, I made Poor Man’s Liquid Nitrogen (which I’ll call PMLN, because I’m lazy). Surprisingly, I didn’t manage to injure myself, but heed the following warning!:

DON’T MAKE THIS STUFF! IT’S EXTREMELY COLD, AND AS THE MAN SAYS IN THE VIDEO, VERY STICKY. WHEN SOMETHING IS DESCRIBED AS “CRYOGENIC NAPALM,” STEER CLEAR OF IT. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED, AND I TAKE NO RESPONSIBILITY FOR ANYTHING YOU DO AS A RESULT OF READING THIS POST!

Anyway…onward! (But one more note of warning: I didn’t manage to hurt myself, but I did discover that letting a bunch of dry ice fall in your sink drain is a good way to break a garbage disposal…)

What you need to make PMLN. A 20-liter soda bottle, a 3-liter soda bottle, a knife, isopropyl rubbing alcohol (the video recommends 99%, but the best I could find was 91%), and a pair of gloves to protect myself from frostbite.

In addition to being an excellent way to cool things relatively cheaply, dry ice is also a hell of a lot of fun to play with. Warning: dry ice will make plastic brittle, and is a good way to ruin a plastic colander.

Cut the tops off both containers. Poke holes in the smaller one.

Put the smaller container in the larger one (as if you could do it the other way around…) and surround it with chunks of dry ice. I broke my slab up with a hammer, which is a good way to make really, really cold powdered dry ice, which created a lovely crust of ice on the bottom of my sink.

The “cryo-cell” cooling down. If you decide to disregard my warning and try this experiment, note my safety precautions: gloves, a long-sleeved jacket (in case something splashes), and (not pictured) long pants, socks, and shoes. Just in case.

The alcohol has cooled down to the point that it’s no longer boiling furiously. Time to freeze stuff!

Here’s all the stuff I could find to freeze. At bottom: baby spinach leaves. At the top: a leaf from my jade plant.

Julia the jade plant, from whom I stole the leaf. Sacrificing herself for science once again. Houseplants are noble that way.

The spinach leaf going in…

A shattered spinach leaf. As the fellow in the video advises: do not try to eat stuff frozen this way! Not only will it have rubbing alcohol on it (which is not safe to consume, and could, in fact, kill you), but it will be very, very cold and might freeze to your tongue.

A jade plant leaf freezing in the chilled alcohol. Note: you can’t see it here, but that alcohol isn’t actually liquid. It’s more of a slushy gel-type stuff.

The effects of the cryo-cell. It really works!

I didn’t just want to pour the cola from my 20-liter bottle down the drain, so I put it in a glass. Then, being the amateur mad scientist that I am, I thought “I wonder if you can use dry ice like regular ice…” The answer: you certainly can, but don’t do it with cola. The bubbles from the dry ice will agitate it, and make all the carbonation fizz away. So, the cola was flat, but it sure was nice and cold.

Many, many thanks to YouTube user wbeaty for the demonstration that inspired this post. You should check out some of his other videos. I’m not just saying that so he won’t get pissed off that I copied his experiment; his other videos are actually really cool (no pun intended, honestly).

And one final reminder: don’t do this at home!

25,000 Hits!

By now, it’s kind of a tradition that, every time my hit counter passes some random numerical milestone, I present you, dear viewers, with a random gift in appreciation of your visit. And since my counter just passed 25,000 (wow…I know that’s a really tiny number, comparatively speaking , but it’s huge compared to what the site used to get), I thought I’d spread some holiday cheer. I present to you: 25,000 garishly-colored circles:

Oooh! Ahhh! Ugh!

Oooh! Ahhh! Ugh!

To all the people who have gone to the trouble to give my blog a look, thank you. Have a circle. There’s enough for everyone.

A Story for Halloween

My mother is one of those odd people for whom Halloween is a more fun and more interesting holiday than, say, Christmas, or any of the other major holidays. Lately, I find myself following in her footsteps. And so, in honor of Halloween, I present: Hosts, a short (and fairly gruesome, and probably mildly disturbing) horror story. Here’s how I summarize it:

How do you survive as the last normal human, and all others are host to alien Larvae, euphoric and stupid and violently defensive against non-hosts? Gregg thinks he has a solution, but he knows it won’t last forever.

Enjoy, and merry Halloween.

Two-Year Anniversary!

It’s hard to believe. If you’d asked me in 2006 where I thought this blog would be in two years, I probably would have said “Discarded on the metaphorical side of the road.” As it turns out, though, writing about things you’re interested in and actually know something about makes for a much better website than the formula I’d used in the past, which was “Try to make myself look smart and never do any updates.”

A lot has happened since the first post. I’ve started college, I’ve moved out, I’ve become less of a neurotic whiner. If you’ll let me get sentimental, it seems that the blog’s quality and popularity has grown in proportion to my own growth. That is to say, whereas the best thing I could think of to write about in 2006 was the mucus clogging my sinuses, now I can talk about interesting things like heart simulators, chocolate-covered bananas, and writing.

Now that I have a chance, I’d like to personally thank all the people who have left comments:

Royce, madmouser, David Schleicher, paul_k, David Mckenna, frecklesscassie, bzdoz, James Hunaban, Mathias Schindler, distorted, can’t-think-of-anything, collector, thought-of-something, “Guest”, Hercule Alfred, blackexodia, john richards, Robin, truthseeker1234, yassine, John Nash, Alex, Derek (whose comments on my writing I especially appreciate), Torbjorn, Blue Tyson, Michael Novak, schildan, awalkabout, Wes Johnson, chris, Nicanor Moldovan, Hettyfv, Greg Williams, Brandi, Terry Finley, Genghis Philip, harrison, midiguru, anonymous, Daniel, shashan, David Secaecg, legoless, Geoff Hinton, ForHim, Brock Tice, Chris, Dak Rockson, JerryB, amritha, MilKieWee, david, Lymnantaree, Alex, Chuck, Tucker, Anonymous, kingdom media, thomas, Simon, and pythonisms.

And many thanks also to the over 22,000 people who have taken a look at my site so far. Here’s hoping for another two years!

Also, be sure to check in this coming November for updates on my National Novel Writing Month progress! Watch my sporadically climbing word count here!