Stately Plump Jonathan Franzen Surveys Things of His Own Making

“I don’t like to hire people to do work that I can do,” [Jonathan Franzen] says. So that means he does his own dusting in the New York apartment he shares with his girlfriend? Franzen looks slightly shifty. “We do have a cleaner…

“I repainted our guest room this summer in our rather small house in Santa Cruz.…If I had hired someone, it would’ve been done better, and I was very sick of doing it by the end, and yet it seemed important. The first two coats I enjoyed and the third coat I was getting tired of it and the fourth coat was just sheer torture."

Financial Times, 9 October 2015

Franzen looked down into the terraced pit. It was now all his.

"You never did say what you wanted to buy an iron mine for, Mr. Franzen," said the weather-beaten manager.

"Never mind, Philip," Franzen said kindly, although from lofty heights, "I have my reasons."

Franzen felt the heat of the blast furnace as he shoveled in pig iron to create the steel he needed for printing plants and trucks, for his lumber mill saws and typewriters.

Hefting an axe over his shoulder, Franzen strode boldly into the forest, as if on seven-league boots. "These trees are worthy to form the pages of my books," he said to the birds and squirrels.

A knife clenched between his teeth, Franzen leapt from the deck of the ship, a ship he had built himself from the wood of his forest, the iron of his pit.

Down he swam, down past the limits of human endurance and of sanity, to find the squid that would surrender ink for his pages.

"Mr. Franzen, I know that many authors have owned bookstores or set up shops. Larry McMurtry, for instance. But I'm intrigued about the choices you made for yours."

"To build the shop with my own hands? To make all the shelves? To create a new form of currency? To program the cash register?"

"Yes, yes, all that. But also, selling just the one book. That one you wrote."

"My plan has come together."

Franzen looked around his shop and the awkward customers who tried to avoid eye contact. It was dusty. Perhaps he should hire someone to take care of that.

Power Shaving to the People!

“This shave is so smooth, comrade. How did you get such a decadent blade!?”

“Natasha, is not decadent—it is revolutionary!”

Chorus: “Byyyyyyy Lenin"

We liked the factory that makes the blades so much, we seized the means of production.

We send a handle, three blades, and a Molotov cocktail to your door.

The Lenin: such a sharp razor, it doesn’t leave marks.

That Simpsons Bit Wasn't a Joke

I always thought the bit where Mr. Burns briefly turns off the power plant to spite a strike among his workers was a joke ("Last Exit to Springfield"; script). You know, he and Smithers go through an array of high-security doors, including a facial recognition system that literally recognizes the shape of his face. Then they wind up in the control room, which has a faulty screen door and a dog has wandered in.

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

"Oh, for God's sake! (slams door shut) Good bye, Springfield. From Hell's heart, I stab at thee!"

This has always been a favorite scene of mine, but in reading John McPhee's 1980 book The Curve of Binding Energy, about a former nuclear-bomb designing genius' concern about the ease of bomb making, I came across this amazing passage (in image) from a report by the Atomic Energy Commission—an agency since dissolved and its function moved elsewhere—about spot inspections of some private outfits handling nuclear fuel:

Now I'm wondering if the writers of this episode, Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky, read the book?!

The episode also has the great dialog:

Who is it?



Hired Goons.

(opening door) Hired Goons?

The goons grab Homer roughly and take him away.

A New Economy Discovered in My Own House: Derrick Dollars

Derrick dollars in production.

As a business reporter, I’m always looking for unique economic angles in the new economy. Recently, while walking through my house, I encountered a new economy worker producing a form of scrip for an economy I was unaware of, denominated in Derrick dollars. Here’s the interview, published with the subject’s consent.

Glenn: Who makes Derrick dollars?

Rex (age 8): Any valid Derrick dollar worker. You need a membership card to create valid Derrick dollars.

G: What is Derrick’s role in Derrick dollars?

R: First in command. There are commands. The reason people make Derrick dollars for him is to get higher in command. By the time I finish all of these I am absolutely certain he will rank me second in command

G: What do you get for being higher in command?

R: It means if Derrick is not at school, if you are second in command, you are in charge. If you’re lower rank, you’re trying to be higher, because a lot of people have to be out of school for you to be in charge.

G: Is there any limit to the number of Derrick dollars that can be created?

R: No, you’re trying to create as many as possible to go up higher in rank.

G: That would cause inflation. Each dollar would seem to be worth less if you create more of them.

R: Not really.

G: What can you use Derrick dollars for?

R: To buy anything that’s being sold for Derrick dollars.

G: What is being sold for Derrick dollars?

R: Dudeize cards, paper crafts, chompies (they’re those things that can chomp on things).

G: What are Dudeize cards?

R: They’re cards that have Dudeize members names on them, and pictures on them.

G: Who are Dudeize members?

R: Members of the Dudeize soccer team. It is a soccer team at school.

G: So you can create as many Derrick dollars as you want?

R: That’s true, but there is a limit to how many Derrick dollars members can spend from the Derrick dollars members they make. They have to turn all their Derrick dollars in. They get a paycheck from Derrick.

G: Derrick is the central bank?

R: He’s the first in command.

G: Does he ever destroy Derrick dollars?

R: Sometimes he says they are too big or too small. But that doesn’t matter to me, because I just put them in his desk and afterwards he doesn’t notice.

G: People are making Derrick dollars, giving Derrick the Derrick dollars, Derrick chooses how much to pay his workers in Derrick dollars, and the only thing Derrick dollars buy are paper crafts?

R: True, people are making Derrick dollars and giving them to Derrick. But anything that is going to be sold for Derrick dollars — most commonly they are paper crafts — but anything that is being sold for Derrick dollars can be paid for with Derrick dollars.

G: Who is making things for purchase with Derrick dollars?

R: Robert, the Dudeize team, and a lot of other people.

G: So you make Derrick dollars for rank?

R: Second in command gets the highest paycheck. You get the paycheck each day depending on how many you turn it. If you turn in 10 and you’re fourth in command, you get one for your paycheck; if you make 10 and you’re second in command, you get five in your check.

G: Is this a stable system?

R: As I said before, you do need a Derrick dollars membership to produce valid Derrick dollars.

G: How do you get Derrick dollars membership?

R: You just have to sign up on the Derrick dollars sign up sheet.

G: Does he turn anybody down?

R: No, unless they’ve been known to be opposed to Derrick dollars.

G: Why would someone opposed to Derrick dollars sign up?

R: To spy on Derrick.

Glenn Tries To Remember Sci-Fi Stories

I have now officially read so much that I've not only forgotten what I've read, but even any reference to figure out what I've read. Here are some fragments of science-fiction stories that are floating in my mind.

Spider Assassin Lady Princess

There's a young woman, maybe she's a princess, on a planet not Earth that is kind of medieval, and there is some sort of ruling class with a prince or a king. There is also high technology, beyond anything we have on Earth still.

The young woman attends a ball or a series of events, and people are dubious about her, and she doesn't know why. She comes from another land, maybe, or her parents died young. One day, for some reason, staring in the mirror, she pushes on her stomach, and realizes there is something hard and unyielding. She continues to push and pull, and winds up removing her entire body, which is just a costume.

She's actually a spider-like, artificial intelligence-driven robot assassin whose job is to kill the king (or prince). Once she recalls her mission, she flees into the mountains, where she finds a monk. She winds up coming to terms with her identity and purpose while sleeping in a stable, perhaps? And the monk — maybe he is blind, so he doesn't know she's an AI robot spider assassin?

Anyway, eventually she winds up adjacent to the prince and then she — I can't remember. Does she kill him? Or? But she's happy with herself.

Kris Markel suggested it was "The Dust Assassin," which is an amazing story I need to read in depth! But it's not that — probably 40–60 years old, the story I'm thinking of.

Winner! It's "The Mask" from Mortal Engines by Stanisław Lem! You can read a summary of the collection of stories in that book. One of my favorite authors, and I clearly forgot having read that. Thanks, Martina Oefelein, who posted this in the comments!

Naked Lady, Dead Species

This woman wakes up on Earth and she's naked and alone in the woods. She has some memories of herself, but no idea how she came to be there, and there's no other life on the planet that she can find.

When she sleeps, she dreams of little people who were given the ability to revive extinct intelligent species. But they're kind of right bastards. They give her one chance to ask for her species to be revived, and so she's savvy and waits, and asks them about various strategies.

Here's why they're bastards. They keep showing her in her dreams all sorts of civilizations that are better, worse, whatever, than hers, but they've turned down everyone. It's like "bright shiny ball! can't have it!" behavior.

One night, she asks what happened to the race that gave them this power? Oh, they went extinct! And they decided not to revive them because they did it for whatever reasons they had, and what-ev.

The woman ages normally, and when she's near death, she makes her request. She knows they won't revive her species…so she asks that these bastards' patrons get revived. The jerks are stunned. Nobody ever made a selfless request before, and they say, "Well, we can't evaluate the reasons for you doing this, so they must be good. Sure."

But before they can revive their old buddies, a booming voice from some energy void stops them, and says the idiots finally passed their test, which was to understand…uh, how not be judgmental doofuses, I think. They take these idiots up to a higher realm of existence, and have them revive humanity and give them this god-scale power.

Not sure these patrons really think through their gifts very well.

Frozen Dead Professor Robot

This professor guy dies, but has asked to be frozen and put into orbit. He is. Unfathomable time later, intelligent robots arrive, but everything on Earth has worn away into dust, and only dead frozen professor guy remains. They revive him, and stick his brain into a robot body, and then I believe they have a series of adventures.

This is almost certainly "The Jameson Satellite" found in Before the Golden Age: A Science Fiction Anthology of the 1930s, because I've read that book! It's really interesting to see what sci-fi was about before all the tropes became cemented into place. Thanks to Patrick Last Name Withheld!

Benefits and Drawbacks of Walking on Sunshine, Air, the Moon


Benefits of walking on sunshine:

  • Knowledge that you love me.
  • Anticipation of your arrival.
  • Pleasure at visiting mailbox expecting letters.
  • It feels good.

Drawbacks of walking on sunshine:

  • Lacerations and occasionally bleeding from walking barefoot to establish necessary skin to sunshine contact.
  • First-degree burns from contact with asphalt, desert sand, etc.
  • Callouses.
  • Eclipses.


Benefits of walking on air:

  • Sweet, sweet ecstasy.
  • Feeling exotic.
  • Visiting utopia.
  • Ability to go higher, deeper, and harder, sometimes all at once.

Drawbacks of walking on air:

  • Crying angels flood earth with their tears.
  • Incur wrath of heaven.
  • Requires jetpack.

The Moon

Benefits of walking on the moon:

  • Taking giant steps.
  • Apparent immortality at the price of eternal peregrination.
  • Living with you.
  • Soundless footfalls.

Drawbacks of walking on the moon:

  • Concerns about breaking legs.
  • Oxygen deprivation.
  • Low pressure causes blood to boil.
  • High potential of asphyxiation in crater full of moon dust.

Th-Th-Th-That's a Mystery Solved, Folks!

 In the style of the podcast 99% Invisible's narrative.

I was in Taos. It was 2001. We were in an adobe-style house. It had been restored to within an inch of its life. The floors were sand-set stones. The walls, stucco. The roof line had the ends of what seemed to be logs sticking out. I don't know if there were logs supporting the roof. That's the style. That's what it looks like, but the inside could have been fake. There's no way to tell.

The house had uncomfortable seating and not enough. We rented it from an acquaintance. With just five of us, we couldn't all sit down at the same time in any room or even in adjacent rooms. At night, in the room my wife and I shared, a fax machine's tones bled through the wall. The acquaintance hadn't told us she'd rented an owner's apartment to some kind of tchotchke dealers. They slammed their dresser drawers til 3 a.m. and kept us awake.

We skied during the days. We suffered from altitude sickness a little. And we watched cartoons. This was before we had kids. We watched Looney Tunes. At one point Yosemite Sam pursues Bugs Bunny through some kind of old Western town. 

And we're watching. And we realize. Wait a minute. Those backgrounds. The house they run in and out of. They're in Taos. This is the landscape around us. This is practically the house we're in.

Why is this happening in Looney Tunes?  

And we talk and we think — maybe the animators would drive out to get peyote in New Mexico from Hollywood, and they remembered the mesas and the adobe buildings and brought those back.  We have theories. We don't have answers.

But that's not the story. I thought about this for years. That's not the story at all. Now I know the story.

The story is about Maurice Noble. We know Charles M. "Chuck" Jones's name because they were large in the credits. We didn't know very much about Noble, who created the backgrounds. Until 99% Invisible, a podcast by Roman Mars, aired a story by Eric Molinsky about Noble. Noble was a transformative artist and one who obsessively researched the subjects he abstracted and caricatured for his work.

But that's not how I learned the answer. Two-thirds of the way into the story it comes out. Noble grew up in New Mexico. I had my answer. The background we saw was Noble painting his childhood. Thank you, Eric and Roman.

Listen to the episode embedded above. And subscribe to the extraordinary show 99% Invisible, which tells us the answers to questions we'd forgotten we asked. Perhaps Roman will turn your dreams into an episode, too.