Odd-shaped people staring at their watches. I know it’s subjective, but the truth of it is inescapable: these people are odd-shaped. It doesn’t seem to phase them though. They’re all doing their thing, as if they haven’t noticed what I’ve noticed. I survey my surroundings and the evidence mounts–normal-looking people are now in the minority. I’m not sure when the transition happened, but to some degree everyone in my immediate vicinity is odd. Old guy with a baseball cap placed just atop his head muttering into his cell phone, and then looking into the handset after each sentence. Slumpy guy poured into his overalls, straps hanging from rounded shoulders, abdomen like a beach ball. Three globe-shaped women with matching frosted perms and fragile stick legs. Muppet-looking adolescent wearing short-shorts and a midriff shirt, fidgeting and wriggling in platform tennis shoes. A band of leather-faced hunchbacked matrons in sunglasses, gossiping. An old bald woman in a wheelchair. An albino.

What’s going on? Where am I? I struggle to maintain my own sense of normalcy, but I’m starting to feel odd-shaped myself. My whole body is thrumming and live, and I can feel every joint. Pin pricks in my feet. The vertebrae in my neck piled on top of each other like phone books. Dry skin on my face taut and itchy as they announce the four hour delay.

Moans from the odd-shaped folks. The carnies are disappointed with the news. They’ll be late for their respective sideshows. Visions of hapless performers sleeping in rank naugahyde chair-benches. I can’t summon an emotion though, because they’ve already thrown me from the narrative of subjectivity. Now I’m an outsider, and I’ve lost the privilege of contextual reaction. So: fog. The delay may blow away, they say, but it may not. The odd-shaped people look at each other. I’m invisible. A four hour delay from what? Aren’t we already here?

I am hungry though. I still have a stash of peanuts in my jacket pocket. A freezer bag of Mom’s monster chocolate chip cookies in my suitcase. I’m good.

Who are all these people anyway? Leopard prints and sideburns and military men shaved bald. Every time I try to get a handle on the culture it grows stranger, pulling away from me. Tantalus’ eyebrows furrow as his fingers play at the cookie bag.

Some people are all right. Some do provide calm rather than throbbing discomfort. Look over there: the affectionate Asian couple lost in the moment. I respect that. They’re going to make it through this.

But the majority are too wrapped up in the moment. “Delayed five minutes,” whispered conspiratorially, one odd-shaped individual to his odd-shaped familiar. Why waste the breath to say it? Marking the passage of time. Reciting the obvious, the inevitable. “Here I go breathing again. There’s more air to breathe. I breathe it.” Breathers all around me. Billow bags scuffling about looking at things with their jelly-filled eyes. Taking it all in. If one of them touches me I’ll scream.

But now I’m quite hungry. A cookie.

Overheard In the Domestic Terminal

He – “I’m nervous.”
She – “Don’t be.”
He – “I can’t help it. Are they going to think I’m weird?”
She – “Probably. They’re weird too.”


He – “Should I maybe talk with an accent?”
She – “No, I don’t think so.”

Time Traveler

It can be said that Temponaut’s Stay–actually the rather elusive studio artist Tena–was known for three things. First and foremost must be the impossible virtuosity of her music, which was something entirely new to the ears of any first-time listener. Second must be the unprecedented response to her work, whether it was confusion, mass hysteria, or the most impassioned offers of devotion. But the third, and most recent reason that people came to know her is because of her disappearance just over one year ago.

The words she spun seemed elusive from the start, with “Strange Phenomena” the whispered a cappella that began her first album, entitled Back. The sleeve notes say it all:

My sigh lends / once two wend


Eve enough lame / cane knots so stain
wend deep rive dove / sum vie tail ere

Sew wits sty I’m / foe rice took lows
eyes egg hood aye / air neck sheen oh zzzzzzz

And then something disarming happens: the second track begins. Electronic washes begin as a hint, like staccato noise but with the purpose of furious percussion. The crescendos, too, resonate in quite unexpected ways, the highs and lows splitting and seeming to form separate patterns that mingle and interlock and play. It’s been described elsewhere as the marriage of throat singing and didgeridoo, but sped up infinitely, past the warbles and clicks of the digital handshake, but with a palpable lucidity and richness. Alien cicadas, say fans and critics alike. But those descriptions don’t do the music justice either.

Then it’s her voice. Not angelic or even classically pretty, but simple, honest, and devastating in such a subtle way that you may not realize it until the disc has stopped spinning. It’s technical trickery, say some. Subliminal manipulation geared to elicit emotions… but who can tell? And who, finally, really minds it?

If any of this sounds like cliche now it’s only because by now it’s already been said of Tena’s work before. So what more can scamper.org contribute? Well we can say that we were the last publication of any kind to be granted an interview. The news reports started to come later that same day, when the accounts of a few of her team reported her missing, and unreachable thereafter.

The rest you’ll remember, but we submit for inclusion to the archives our interview with Temponaut’s Stay.

scamper.org – One of the things you’re most known for, apart from your music, is your playfulness during your performances. You divert from the script often, and insouciantly rework the music to fit your mood.

Tena – Ah hm.

s – Specifically, last night I noted several instances when you substituted words. “Tempest” for “sandman” in “Jejune Moon.” And I heard “lunch” for “god” when you sang, “that we become the daydream of the god.”

T – It did seem more appropriate at the time.

s – No, I liked it–I appreciate it. What I’d like to know though–what I think people want to know–is why? Is it a way of distancing yourself from your work?

T – Well… no. I don’t know what that means. I am my work, and so if I change something then I’m just reflecting myself. So… it’s never about myself versus my work; how we relate. On the other hand, if the audience hears something new and they say, “we don’t know what that is. What is this new thing?” then good. Who’s to say which version of the song is the true version–perhaps the album version was riddled with the substitutions, as you call it. Either way, are people getting to know me through my music? Or any music? I think they interpret a reflection of me, but the reflection isn’t static, and neither is their interpretation. It’s a dance.

s – So it’s more a statement about how you relate to your audience, the substitution, and the other changes you’ve made.

T – Well yeah, but it’s more too. It’s more about a conversation. What it is may be definite, but what it’s about is purely subjective.

s – Are you trying to duck the question?

T – No! [laughs] Not at all. Let me make it clear: So often freedom is given to someone – an artist, a partner in any relationship–only as a kind of reward. “First show me your limitations–show me how you’re vulnerable–and then I’ll give you your freedom.” It’s an illusion though. It’s just a long leash.

s – But isn’t that kind of the deal? Isn’t your popularity contingent upon approval at some level?

T – Well popularity, sure. Popularity is a byproduct though, or it can be. I didn’t know we were talking about popularity.

s – It’s sure to come up when talking with someone whose work has made such an impact.

T – Maybe, but no one is beholden to that approval, lest it strangle them.

s – You generally take a dim view of popularity.

T – Hey, I’m as guilty as anyone for riding that horse. But it’s really inconsequential to my work. It has to be, otherwise it becomes… glorified P.R.

s – There has to be real freedom for the work to be relevant.

T – Yes. I spend my time singing – in an ideal world. Or lately, touring. You spend your time listening to my music. There is no hierarchy though, and no contract. I’m a bird on your windowsill, singing my song as you wake up. Whether you listen is up to you, and how long I stay is up to me.

s – This independence figures heavily in your work, and people identify with that.

T – Sure.

s – So I have to ask you–this is something I’ve noticed, and heard again last night. There’s been talk on the Net about secret messages.

T – [laughs] Has there?

s – You don’t know anything about those.

T – I haven’t really had time to surf lately.

s – Okay. But I took the liberty of writing down your substitution words, and I noticed something interesting almost immediately.

T – Insouciance?

s – Possibly! It’s the first letter of each word: “T H E T R A V E L E R D E P A R T S.” The Traveler Departs.

T – Wicked!

s – Now, on your first album, last year’s release, you had the track, “No Tense You Know,” where you refer to the Traveler’s play. Her game, so to speak. And the point of view is the first person. You are the Traveler.

T – A traveler. You are too.

s – Okay, but in that instance it’s you. Subjectively it’s you, and so if “the traveler departs” then what does that say about you?

T – Um. Well, that the interview is over? [laughs]

Excerpt from the eponymously titled track “Whispers”:

The pulses of buzzes
from hints to white whispers
they spin even faster, they come to the fore

percussive sharp clicks pick
like bristles on black spines
or grains of sand falling on panes of cold glass

Fearless Leaders

· A master; a lord; especially, an absolute or irresponsible ruler or sovereign.
· One who rules regardless of a constitution or laws; a tyrant.

· Being on one side only; affecting but one side; one-sided.

· The jurisdiction of a patriarch; patriarchship.
· Government by a patriarch; patriarchism.

· characteristic of an absolute ruler or absolute rule; having absolute sovereignty; “an authoritarian regime”; “autocratic government”; “despotic rulers”; “a dictatorial rule that lasted for the duration of the war”; “a tyrannical government”
· expecting unquestioning obedience; “he was imperious and dictatorial”

· a policy of extending your rule over foreign countries
· a political orientation that advocates imperial interests
· any instance of aggressive extension of authority

· characteristic of someone who employs terrorism (especially as a political weapon); “terrorist activity”
· a radical who employs terror as a political weapon

Wait, which leader is this referring to?


Before there were Infocom games we had the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Better than reading a story from beginning to end, these books allowed the reader to make decisions at key plot points that affected the storyline. It wasn’t quite immersive, but came closer than Pong. These books–many of which I still have–did nothing to quell my latent obsessive tendencies. After an initial “organic” read, I would go back to the start and methodically mark each fork, following each possibility to its end before heading back to the most previous fork. What’s past is prelude. Rainman would have been proud (albeit in a detached way).

The Machine

“Can you step right over here, sir?”

Of course I’m used to this by now, and stroll into the roped off area as easily as if I were queuing up at the grocery store. It used to be the metal in my shoes that set off the security scanners, but this time I’ve made it through unscathed. Instead, the attention seems to be on my bag this time, and they’re rolling it through the scanner repeatedly, and pointing at the monitor, and squinting their eyes.

I know they’re squinting because it makes the lawn darts easier to see. Those and the live pit vipers, as well as the ninja-issue throwing stars, the twelve blue vials of nitro glycerin, and the shards of glass from the asylum I’ve just escaped from. You see those items when you’re bored out of your mind – I can hardly blame them for their diligence.

The head security guard–the pit boss–swaggers over to the table next to me with my bag swinging from his fist liked a hanged man. That’s all I can think about, I mean. In the meantime, he’s smug, and ready to rack up the charges. “Mind if I take a look? See what we have?”

“Have at it,” I say.

“Okay, before I do, is there anything in here that’s going to poke me?” He’s at line four in the guidebook, I can tell. “Do you have anything sharp that I should know about?”

My thumbs aren’t necessarily sharp, but I do know how to use them if it comes to that. I put my hands in my pockets and say, “No. I have some clippers in the toiletries bag. And there are some spoons in the front pocket.” He’s not interested, except to note that I’ve missed my last chance to confess.

As he digs through my laundry, curiosity gets the better of me. “Is there anything in particular you were looking for? Maybe I can help, I mean.

He doesn’t look up, doesn’t pause. “Okay, well the machine showed some scissors, the kind with the curled blades.” I’d never heard of such a thing. “The kind you’d use to trim your moustache. Long curled blades.”

“Oh,” I say, rubbing the clean-shaven skin over my lip. What he means is that they were the kind of scissors most people would use to trim their moustache. I, on the other hand, would be using them to pierce the necks of the flight attendants as I clawed my way to the pilots’ cabin.

The guard shrugs off my demonstrative gesture. “Really, it’s not a question of whether you have them. The machine is never wrong. It’s a matter of where you have them. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and the machine is never wrong.”

Are you quoting directly from Brave New World then? I don’t remember that line specifically, so help me out. I nod, “Well I don’t think I’ve ever owned scissors like that, so if you find them it’ll be pretty cool.” Actually it wouldn’t be all that cool once the initial gee-whiz how’d-you-do-that factor wore off, and the handcuffs closed tightly around my delicate wrists. I suppose that I’m entitled to some degree of outrage, but my initial reaction is one of sadness for this security guard who is now dropping my underwear and notebook on the floor as he chases phantoms. A machine that could foresee a middle aged man in polyester uniform staring critically at my toothbrush would be a machine that was never wrong.

“I’m going to scan it again,” he says, voice flat. I watch as he peers at the monitor while the other security people look decidedly less interested. Might they be stifling laughter? All I need is to see one of them whistling and rocking back on his heels and my day is made.

“Okay, we’re done,” he says, handing my bag back to me. It’s unzipped, and my socks are hanging out of it. It looks like a rape victim down at the police station. As I straighten my things he leans in and says something spooky: “Are you okay, sir?” Like I’ve forgotten my next line to him.

“Sure,” I say, and flash him a convincing smile. Back to the villa for me, and you’d better wash your hands, by the way. It’s truly a relief to be done with this though, because I do have bigger things on my mind. This bag I carry is, after all, made of just over three square feet of my homemade explosive fabric, and I’m about ready to rock steady.

A Reason To Be

I hastily agree to meet her, and when I put the phone down I realize that, in my rush, I’ve failed to nail down every last detail. Variables like these make me uneasy, like a box of dropped tacks. Fifteen minutes later–fifteen? Or did she say fifty? I’m leaning against the alcove wall next to the ticket kiosk and I can feel their eyes on me. I don’t know if I’m in the right place–there are several theatres along this main stretch–and it shows on my face. Was it today? Maybe she said on the fifteenth, a Saturday. It would make a lot more sense than a Wednesday. Who meets anyone on Wednesdays? Extroverts, that’s who. Freaks.

It’s disappointing to think that I could be lost and don’t even know it yet. If lost is a state of mind then I became lost just as I was hanging up the phone. Americans are cruel to lost folk – they eat them up hungrily, like we were little wandering morsels.

Will she show? Another variable: Maybe she is lost, and we’ll both be waiting outside our respective theatres. The more I think about it the harder it is for me to remember how to look casual. I feel conspicuous. My arms hang like ornaments on the tree after the presents have already been opened. I’m making the other people nervous now too – some ticket holders ask me if I’m waiting for the movie, and I break into a sweat and gulp for air. I hate myself vicariously through them.

What I need is a story. Something I can tell myself that will give me a reason to be standing there. If I believe it I will look confident, even if I don’t actually tell people what my reason is. I’m a plain-clothes surveyor, balding quickly now. I’m a social anthropologist, and my shirt is missing two buttons. I’m studying kiosks for my architecture class, and plus I think I may be going blind. Each of the lies I fabricate is paired with a time-worn anxiety, and the reason is that a part of me gets off on the angst. All these comfortable people around me, who would want to be like them anyway? I’m falling apart over here and I find it preferable.

When I finally do see her approaching from down the block I realize that I’ve had my story all along: I’m trying to figure out what the hell I’m doing here. Agreeing to meet someone, true though it may be, actually affords me little in the way of justification. No, for me it’s every tedious, sundry possibility between myself and reality that provides context. Otherwise I suppose I would just take everything at face value.


Dust Is People

All around me are my friends. Small bits of them like a fine coat of ash on the back of my monitor, up on the mantle, on my stationary left hand. It’s comforting in a way, knowing they’re here. Tiny bread crumbs, calling cards, and, when I stir the air, communion. The woman who lived here before me owned a lizard, and though the lizard has not been here in reptile for many years now, I do still find flecks of it, which warms the heart (albeit only to room temperature, naturally). So, until entropy has its way, we are all alone together.

Before Sleep

I know people who can trip into a bed of gravel and fall asleep as they land, and believe me, I admire them that. For me sleep is a self-conscious act that comes only after deliberate negotiations, akin to picking a lock. Only success means that I never quite remember how I achieved it.

Not to sound too mysterious–most of the challenge is simply one of positioning. A perfect example is the sudden and bothersome awareness of my ear, which is never as unmanageable as it is when it’s folded wrong between my head and the pillow. I’ve tried–truly tried–to let things fall where they may, but the diabolical knowledge that I may be sleeping on a folded ear is enough to pull me from the very edge of sleep. The fingers of my free arm probe between head and pillow like night spelunkers, sweeping the ear back into a flat position, careful not to tug too tightly, for the ear must be in a neutral resting position.

It’s not to say that I’m obsessive about it. Generally I’m fine once I’ve established a normalized ear flap position.

A far more difficult challenge in my life has centered around the position of my jaw. As a child I would often lose up to an hour of sleep while I sought the precise position that would keep my mouth from snapping open wider than that of a plankton-sifting basking shark. The most frustrating aspect of this phenomenon was that it only bothered me when I became aware of it, and that was usually when I was having trouble sleeping. I knew that at some point I would have to become completely relaxed, but whenever I relaxed my jaw my mouth would open. So I relaxed my entire body except for my jaw, which I consciously kept shut under the barest trickle of power. But of course then the trouble was that I was aware of the effort required to keep my mouth shut, and after some minutes I could feel my jaw muscles straining, humming like old fluorescent lights. I would never get to sleep like that.

Eventually I resorted to holding my mouth shut with my hands, positioned like a squirrel eating a nut. And it actually worked a couple of times. Unfortunately, holding my arms in that position also caused them both to fall asleep, and I would inevitably wake up in the middle of the night flopping about like a tranquilized sea lion to regain sensation in my upper body.

Of course by now I have the benefit of several decades of experience, and finding the right position takes only a few minutes of procedural sheet folding, pillow primping, and limb positioning. After that it’s just a small matter of distracting myself with rudimentary fictional scenarios long enough so that I forget to ask myself whether I’m asleep yet. And mind games like these are by far the easiest to get right.

I have no idea if anyone else has had to go through these kinds of gymnastics just to ford their way beyond the veil of sleep, because it’s not usually something that comes up. “Man am I dragging today. Has anyone else become suddenly aware of how your knee joints press into each other when you keep your legs parallel? Just the thought of the skin compressed between my knees kept me up till dawn.” No, this is something best kept a secret from the entire world, and I’d just as soon not have it floating around in my mind either.