Gaiman was the reason I always had purple baggy-eyes in elementary and middle school. The simplicity of his writings, the interweaving of mythology, monsters, and modernity, and the cruel world behind-the-magic offered my child-self something gripping, something utterly fantastic and appalling to explore late in the night. His writing still does—today—in my late twenties. Personally, my favorite work by Neil Gaiman is The Ocean at the End of the Lane (and not only because Fiction Beer Company has a citrus wheat beer inspired by the novel). I have a theory about literature (I’m allowed a few theories, being an English teacher) that great works must inspire the moral imagination, even if the wisdoms aren’t the sort we want to hear. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the title clues us in—Harper Lee wants us to understand that it’s a “sin to kill a mockingbird” for they “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” The book indicts an American culture which regularly commits this sacrilege against its disadvantaged and minorities. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, behind an incredible narrative about magic and outsiders, there is an abundance of dark truths about adulthood—its deceptive ontology of control, its routine mindlessness. Gaiman reminds us “Adults follow paths. Children explore;” “Nobody looks like what they really are on the inside;” and—in the most incredible line I’ve read in literature, something that explains the opus of Stephen King and H. P. Lovecraft better than they did themselves—that what marks adulthood is not some maturity or inner growth, but the awareness of how fragile the surface of our lives are, the recognition that reality is “a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger.”
Fresh-baked, toasted wheat with a cream cheese shmear.
But that wasn’t the first rune bear that Phil designed. Phil also experimented with configurations based on actual runes, specifically Elder Futhark (c. 150–800 AD).
A futhark is a type of alphabet that starts with some variation of F, U, Þ, A, R, and K, and Elder Futhark is the earliest known form. The alphabet was used by Germanic tribes during the ‘Barbarian Invasions’ (the Germans have a better word for it—Völkerwanderung while English academics have a more boring description—the ‘Migration Period’) which may or may not have led to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Today, Elder Futhark is often found on old weapons, amulets, tools, and, yes, this is real life, runestones scattered across the European landscape.
Phil sent me three designs based on the futhark.
While I loved the diamond nose and frumpy grin, the ears, while stylish, gave the bear an undesirable ant-like quality.
The test market (me) liked the sideburns but thought the bear looked too grumpy.
For a while I had settled on this design for the magazine.
But there was still this itchy inkling (writer’s rash?) in the back of my mind. I wanted something that would allow other artists to create their own variations. And something more blue, more realistic. My attempt looked like this:
No, wait, that’s something else.
My first design was this:
In his mouth I wanted the futhark word “alu” (ᚨᛚᚢ). The alu’s meaning is a contested issue, but some of its definitions hint at a strange, disturbed state created by sorcery or induced by ale (we’ve all been there). It is usually inscribed on artifacts of magical or mystical import. Other potential meanings include “taboo,” “strange,” “distraught,” and the “world between the living and the dead.” (I also considered ᛒᛖᚨᚱ, which is the word “bear” spelled out in futhark letters.)
In the end, Phil drew this:
… and the rest is rune history.
Chuck E. Nietzsche’s
Where a Nihilist can be a Nihilist
Dry sparkling wine, orange juice, and a dash of determinism.
Fact. Fiction. The following may be apocryphal, may be accurate. When it comes to the Romans, we have to trust the ancient writers, or ignore them. My source is Gaius Suetonius, a Roman knight and historian who lived in the first and second century.
1. Augustus. Aged 75. Last words to his friends from his sick-bed: “Since well I’ve played my part, all clap your hands, and from the stage dismiss me with applause.” And to his wife, Livia: “Live mindful of our wedlock, Livia, and farewell.” Finally, at the very moment preceding death, he shouted in terror that forty men were carrying him off, then breathed his last (Suetonius, “Life of Augustus,” 99).
2. Tiberius. 78, violently ill, called for attendants to no response, got up, fell over, and died near the couch. No last words, but the people’s eulogy was: “Tiberius to the Tiber!” in hopes of his body being tossed, as was custom to do to criminals, into the river Tiber (Suetonius, “Life of Tiberius,” 73-75).
3. Caligula. Assassinated at 29 in a manner similar to Julius Caesar: “I am still alive.” His enemies responded: “Strike again!” The historian takes note that their sword thrusts included his genitals (Suetonius, “Life of Caligula,” 58).
4. Claudius. 63. Poisoned by wife or eunuch, likely by mushrooms (a favorite dish). After swallowing the poison he became speechless, which was probably for the best, as he was known for his stutter (Suetonius, “Life of Claudius,” 44). According to Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis (good satire, go read it), after shitting himself, he whimpered: “Oh dear, oh dear, I think I have made a mess of myself” (3).
5. Nero. 32. In the face of rebellion, abandoned by allies and his guard, just delivered a false report that he’d been declared public enemy by the Senate, and hearing the sound of horse-steps, Nero wept and said again and again: “What an artist the world is losing!” Finally he drove a dagger into his throat, after shouting, “Hark, now strikes on my ear the trampling of swift-footed coursers!” As centurions rushed in, Nero gasped, “Too late!” and expired (Suetonius, “Life of Nero,” 49).
C. Suetonius Transquillus, The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Loeb Classical Library (1913). University of Chicago Site, 19 Feb. 2017.
Seneca, Apocolocyntosis. W. H. D. Rouse, trans. Perseus, 19 Feb. 2017.
That’s the challenge I posed to my Humanities course. I made it clear that I was using the gender-neutral variety of “man” (meaning I wouldn’t accept a “cheating pig”), that I wanted to avoid unrewarding labels like “Homo sapien” and “human being,” and that I preferred an adjective paired to a noun, or a genus and specific difference.
Think, I said over confused glances. What makes man different from every other living and non-living thing?
Their answers were wonderful.