Last week Ryerson student Amanda Raya interviewed me about turning A Time and a Place into an audiobook for one of her classes. I thought she was just going to talk to me about the technicalities of audiobook production. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that not only had she taken the time to listen to the entire audiobook of the novel, she’d enjoyed it.
We had a great conversation during which I discovered that Amanda is also a singer/songwriter.
Yesterday I was flabbergasted to learn that Amanda had written and recorded a song about A Time and a Place. Other than some illustrations which my daughters have kindly drawn over the years, Amanda’s song represents the first artistic work of any kind inspired by the novel, that I’m aware of. Needless to say, I’m touched, impressed, and pleased.
(This post contains spoilers for the third season of Ozark)
The other day, during a walk with my wife, I burst into tears.
During the pandemic we’ve gotten into the excellent habit of going for long walks. We find them therapeutic. On this walk, I was telling Lynda about some family history we’d never really got into before.
“He was my favorite cousin,” I told her, and then I burst into tears.
I actually stood hunched over on a corner racked with sobs for what felt like several minutes before I regained control. The last time I cried anything like that in public was twenty years ago, during the end credits of Life is Beautiful, the movie with Roberto Benigni.
This time also had to do with popular entertainment, but it’s much deeper than that.
Three nights earlier Lynda and I had finished watching the third season of Ozark. The season had begun by introducing a character who quickly became my favourite on the show, the brother of Laura Linney’s character. His name was Ben (played by Tom Pelphrey), and it soon came out that the character had bipolar disorder. This became a major plot point, and in the season finale things did not end well for Ben, so much so that I was devastated. I did not cry then, but I was wounded, and it lingered with me for three days, until Lynda and I took our walk, and it all came out.
Apart from the incident with Life is Beautiful, I’m not normally in the habit of crying during or after movies or TV shows. I’m usually immune to entertainment’s emotional manipulations. But this one hit close to the bone. It was more than Ben’s fate that did me in. It was reality. My reality since about the age of twelve.
No, I’m not bipolar. I’ll try to explain, the way I did to my wife during our walk.
When I was about twelve my parents gave me a gift. It was a book. They told me it used to belong to my Uncle Bill.
I wasn’t aware I had an Uncle Bill, and said so.
I don’t know how much my parents told me that day, but over time I learned that Uncle Bill had been institutionalized for schizophrenia back in the fifties. He spent most if not all of his life institutionalized. It’s my understanding that he experienced electroshock therapy during his time in the institution, back before they perfected that. I never met Uncle Bill.
When my parents gave me Uncle Bill’s book something was said. I don’t remember what, exactly. But it was something like Uncle Bill was creative and so are you so it seems appropriate that you should have this book. It was a perfectly innocent remark and it was meant as a compliment. But it had the inadvertent effect of creating, in my young, impressionable mind, a link between Uncle Bill and me.
Around this time, at the age of twelve, my best friend Kevin Brown moved away. A slew of friends I’d been friends with since Grade One drifted away. I found myself isolated. Some jerk at school began bullying me. I got moved out of my bedroom upstairs into the basement while my father built a new bedroom for me. One night, alone in the basement, just before I drifted off to sleep, I experienced the unmistakable, unfathomable presence of evil in the form of absolute despair.
That’s what it felt like, anyway—a fleeting glimpse of horror, of utter hopelessness. It lasted only a few seconds, but it shook me to my core. I had not known it was possible to feel such abject terror.
It was a long time ago so I don’t remember the exact chronology. But around then I decided I no longer wanted to go to school. Every morning, within minutes of waking up, a pit formed in my stomach. I lost the ability to eat breakfast. I just couldn’t eat. It would be eighteen years before I would be able to eat a full breakfast again in the morning. For a while there I couldn’t talk either, in the mornings. I remember reluctantly walking to school with my sister Susan while she tried in vain to understand why I wouldn’t talk. I wouldn’t have been able to explain even had I been able to open my mouth. I could only nod or shake my head at her questions. Once, or twice, or maybe thrice, I felt so weird during class that my mother had to come to school to take me home. She wasn’t happy about it. She didn’t understand. Neither did I.
I thought I was either crazy or about to go crazy, but I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I had to deal with it myself. I was absolutely certain that what had happened to my uncle Bill would happen to me. I didn’t know it but I was grappling with the inability to prove a negative. There was no way to prove to myself that I wouldn’t go crazy. Because I could have! Logically, if Uncle Bill had gone crazy, if people could go crazy, then it could happen to me. Only time would tell. This fear, together with the increasing isolation of my social circle, did me in, for a while.
It lasted until the summer. Sometime after school let out, my parents got us a puppy, Sarge, and took Sarge, my three sisters and me on a three week long trip around the Maritimes. We camped in Prince Edward Island, drove the Cabot Trail, visited my old friend Kevin Brown in Sydney, Nova Scotia, visited relatives in Norton, New Brunswick, and visited more relatives in northern New Brunswick. The trip was sufficiently eventful and fun that I forgot all my fears and returned to normal. I especially enjoyed visiting my cousins in Johnville, New Brunswick, including my cousin James, who was the same age as me.
James was a lot of fun. He and his brothers taught my sisters and me how to play many card games, and one night we camped outside their old farmhouse on the old Mahoney homestead. That night James told me the funniest joke I’d ever heard up til that point in my life. “What’s big and hairy and sticks out of your pyjamas?” he asked me.
I laughed and laughed, and I hadn’t even heard the punchline yet.
“What?” I asked.
“Your head,” he said.
I just about died at the age of twelve laughing.
James was my favourite cousin, I decided.
By the time I started Grade Eight, I had recovered from my anxiety, and no longer thought I was going crazy, and replaced all that with an almost but not quite crippling case of self-consciousness, especially around anybody I thought was better than me, and girls. I thought just about everybody was better than me, especially girls, so I was pretty much self-conscious around everybody. Still, I’d replaced the old set of friends with a new set and with thoughts of my poor uncle out of my mind I was more or less happy for the rest of my teens.
I don’t remember seeing much of cousin James until later on in my teens when we visited my Aunt and Uncle’s cottage on Skiff Lake in New Brunswick. James and I found time to do a bit of canoeing around the lake together, and I quickly discovered that he wasn’t quite the same James as I remembered. He told me tales of a trip to Toronto that did not sound quite right to me, adventures so fantastic and prurient that I did not think they could be true, and that whether true or not I found disturbing. I found I couldn’t relate to him, and alas he became no longer my favourite cousin.
On January 17th, 1985. I was attending Ryerson Polytechnical Insitute (it wasn’t a university yet) in Toronto. I was a long way from home, in a completely new environment, with a whole new set of friends, but I was having a good time. By this time I was keeping a journal. On that date I wrote:
“I am susceptible to two different kinds of depression. One I’ve felt all my life; I call it the ‘Black Irish Mood.’ …the other depression borders on clinical depression. I’ve felt it three times that I can remember. I get it when I’m extremely tired or physically run down. I felt it for a large part of grade 7, for the last few weeks of summer, and I feel it occasionally now. It scares me. It is characterized by feeling totally out of control of my life. I feel at the mercy of unknown forces.”
I would come to think of that first year in Toronto as one of the best years of my life. Still, that journal entry hints at some dark clouds assembling on the horizon.
All remained well until I returned home to the island for the summer.
On May 5th 1985, I wrote:
“Since getting home I haven’t been feeling like myself.”
This was a bit of an understatement. On June 17th I elaborated:
“This last week has been one of the strangest weeks of my life, at least psychologically speaking. All Wednesday night I felt real uncomfortable, and it wasn’t the first night I’ve felt like that. It was like a feeling of anxiety or nervousness. I had to go plant strawberries at Burn’s Poultry Farm on Thurs, so maybe I was a bit apprehensive. Why I don’t know; I couldn’t control the feeling. …for some reason I was gripped by anxiety, a pit in my stomach. I thought I was becoming depressed, but there was no reason for it. Weird ideas and thoughts came unbidden into my head (e.g., suicide, not something I would ever consider seriously). It crossed my mind that maybe I was on the road to a nervous breakdown or insanity. I tried to reason with myself, but the pit in my stomach wouldn’t leave. I think it is gone now…I never want to experience it again.”
I would experience it again many times. It was a bad summer. And a bad fall. It was everything I’d felt when I was twelve years old multiplied by one hundred. I became distant from my friends. I became concerned for my state of mind. I was afraid I was going crazy. I WAS crazy, kind of. I thought about how I was feeling constantly. I could hardly concentrate on my summer job. I told no one but my journal:
July 23 1985
“I still suffer the occasional feelings of anxiety or depression or whatever the hell it is.”
On September 4th, on my way back to Toronto for my second year at Ryerson, I experienced my first panic attack:
“Well, when I hit the plane I wish I knew what hit me. I had a really scary attack of the nerves, at times really bad, that lasted until about 2 hours after I landed. No reason, no warning, nothing. Scared the hell out of me. Feeling of total emptiness, of despair, and I knew that if it kept up, a total breakdown, & maybe suicide, was inevitable.”
From that point onward I lived in fear of more panic attacks. I was right to be afraid, because they kept coming. I would have them at night. I would get up and run around my apartment trying to make a panic attack go away, or keep it at bay. I would drink a glass of water, not because I thought the water helped, but because the act of getting the water and drinking it distracted me. I would have panic attacks in the morning after waking up, and run around the apartment like a madman, out to the balcony for fresh air. I would have them during the day, alone, with friends, in class, the entire time convinced that I was going crazy, that it was only a matter of time until I suffered a complete nervous breakdown, whatever that was.
I kept the way I was feeling entirely to myself. I pretended I was okay. There’s a picture of me with my friends and roommates on Thanksgiving after baking a turkey. We’re all standing around the turkey smiling at the camera. My smile is too big, unnatural, entirely fake. What was going on outside was entirely at odds with what was going on inside.
One day one of our professors at Ryerson paired each of us students up for an exercise. I was paired with a young woman whose name I wish I could remember now. She was nice, I liked her. We were told to interview one another. Ask one another a bunch of questions, get to know one another, and afterwards, share our impressions with the rest of the class. I was a mess, but I got through it okay.
“What were your impressions of Joe?” the professor asked.
“Calm,” she said. “Confident. In control.”
Anything but, I was shocked that I came across that way. But the turmoil I felt was completely inside. I did not let anything out, except rarely. I told two friends how I felt, but they were too young, had no experience in such matters, and could not help me. One of them teased me about it later, while I was still in anxiety’s horrible grip. I mention it, but I don’t hold it against him.
I went to see Ryerson’s doctor, explained my symptoms. I remember him as being older than I am now, writing this, though he might not have been. We might as well have been on two different planets. He attributed my symptoms to stress, which sounded too much like, “it’s all in your head” to be of any help to me. He couldn’t—or didn’t—help me.
I remember long, long walks at night, around enormous city blocks in the cold, to chill the fear out of me. It kept the panic attacks at bay but did not otherwise help much.
Still, a part of me resisted this invisible, relentless foe. Though I could see no end to my suffering, tiny nuggets of hope occasionally appeared to sustain me. A grandmother wrote to an advice column that she had suffered depression all her life, only to have it mysteriously lift in her old age, and now she could enjoy her grandchildren. If it could happen to her, it could happen to me. Maybe I would be fine in my old age. It was something to cling to.
One night when I decided I needed professional help. I visited Princess Margaret’s Emergency department. The emergency physician asked me several questions. The only one I remember is whether I was gay. I guess he figured maybe I was struggling with that. That wasn’t it. I asked if I could see a psychiatrist. He said the waiting lists were long, but he’d put me on one. I never did hear from anybody.
I went home for Christmas that year, barely holding it together. Fake smiles, fake Christmas cheer. I felt better when I drank, so on occasion I drank a lot. One night at the local hot spot in town—it may have been the Regent—it was Zombies. You know, to turn me into a zombie. I drank one after another. They had no absolutely effect on me until suddenly they did. My mother was waiting up for me. Even less impressed than when she’d had to retrieve me from school back when I was twelve. The next morning we had our family picture taken. Shortly before the shoot I was in the bathroom puking my guts out.
“We have to get our picture taken in fifteen minutes and listen to this!” Mom complained to my father outside the bathroom. I barfed, on cue, sick, depressed, but amused.
That family picture hung on the living room wall for years. Punishment, I guess.
Waiting in the Charlottetown airport to return to Toronto, I found a patch of sunlight by a window, sat in it, and reflected on my state of mind. I decided then and there that I had to beat this thing, whatever it was. There was nobody to help me, only me. I had decided this before but it never quite took. This time resulted in a subtle shift in attitude. A positive bias that hadn’t existed before. Back in Toronto things got better. Not all at once, the panic attacks didn’t quite go away—I continued to have them off and on for years—but I dealt with them better. My fear of going crazy gradually vanished. I wasn’t going to become like my uncle. I wasn’t going to become schizophrenic. I became myself again—happy.
Meanwhile, my cousin James, my erstwhile favourite cousin—the same age as me—was diagnosed as schizophrenic. He attended university in Ottawa. I don’t know the whole story, but one day after he stopped taking his medication they found his car abandoned in a field. The driver’s door was shut and his wallet, money and identification had been discarded on the passenger seat. The passenger door was ajar. None of us has ever seen James again. They never found James’ body, and they never found James.
Thirty-four years later I watched Season Three of Ozark and rooted for my favourite character Ben, who suffered from Bipolar Disorder—not the same disorder, I know, but it resonated, like all great art.
It had all ended okay for me because I’m lucky.
It did not end well for Ben, but that doesn’t really matter because he doesn’t even exist, other than in our imaginations.
But there are those who have existed, and my cousin James is one of them, and it didn’t end well for him.
Three days after I hurt for bewildered, betrayed Ben as he stepped out of that restaurant in that final episode, I stood on the street with my wife, and said, “He was my favourite cousin.”
And it brought forth such a well of long suppressed feeling that I cried for James, and for my Uncle Bill, and for my younger, hurting self, I think.
And then I had to explain it all to my wife, as I’ve just done for you.
One day in 2005, after grabbing a coffee at Ooh La La’s, I stepped into the CBC atrium where I was hailed by Tom Anniko, then Executive Producer of CBC Radio Comedy. He was sitting at a table with a lanky young man of about thirty. Tom introduced him as Matt Watts, the writer and star of the next radio play I’d be recording. Matt’s claim to fame at that time was as one of the creators of the (soon to be) Broadway hit The Drowsy Chaperone and one of the stars of the second and third season of Ken Finkleman’s The Newsroom.
The radio play turned out to be Steve the First. It was about a laconic young anti-hero named Steve who has an accident and wakes up many years in the future to find himself in the middle of an apocalypse where everybody’s suffering from a disease that makes them “melt” over time. People in the grip of the disease are called “melties.” It’s up to Steve to save the day, except that he has little interest in doing so. Matt is a brilliant comedy writer and Steve the First was a funny show. A science fiction comedy, it was right up my alley.
Matt and I hit it off. I told him about my attempt to make a science fiction radio series and gave him a copy of my show Faster Than Light to listen to. In an unusual move, rather than ask me to mix Steve the First after we recorded it, Tom Anniko brought it to his base of operations in Winnipeg and asked a talented music recording engineer to mix the show. This fellow was a well regarded recording engineer but he specialized in recording and mixing music, not radio plays. Matt Watts was not pleased with the results. He’d listened to my mix of Faster Than Light (which, you might recall, contained two radio plays, Captain’s Away and The Cold Equations) and approached me about remixing Steve the First. I listened to the Winnipeg recording engineer’s mix of Steve the First and had to agree: it wasn’t quite up to snuff. Several of the sound effects just didn’t work and the dialogue was too far back in the mix, among other issues. Matt was quite upset. Would I remix it?
I really wanted to remix it because I was certain I could make it much better, but I didn’t want to disrespect the work of the other recording engineer, who I’d met a year or so earlier and liked. Matt and I went to Tom and asked him what he thought. Tom agreed to allow me to create an alternate mix. But first I felt I had to talk to the other recording engineer. I went into the conversation thinking it would be a delicate discussion but I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t precious about his work, readily admitting that he was first and foremost a music recording engineer.
So I rolled up my sleeves and got to work, replacing sound effects, bringing the dialogue forward, and taking what I’ve always thought of as a “leave no stone unturned” approach to mixing radio plays. I’d learned a lot mixing Faster Than Light and every other radio play I’d mixed in the five years since I’d joined the radio drama department. I was mixing within a smaller dynamic range, making my waveforms look a lot more like the waveforms you’d see in top forty music on commercial radio, the better to allow my product to compete on that medium. I made my sound effects much louder and punchier than when I’d first started out. I worked alone, or sometimes with Matt, without a producer looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. Having Matt hang around the studio was a huge bonus, because he was the star of the show, so it featured his voice a lot, and if I thought a line needed to be different, either a completely new line or different delivery, I could ask him to record it then and there and simply incorporate it into the mix. There was never any discussion of paying him extra to do that because, for one thing, I didn’t have the authority to authorize that, and for another neither of us cared. We just wanted to make the absolute best product that we could.
We were both pretty happy with the way Steve the First turned out. And we became fast friends in the process. Never up to that point had I felt so sympatico in a creative collaboration.
The CBC contracted Matt to write three more episodes of Steve the First. I was just supposed to be the recording engineer on each of them. But when Matt started writing the second episode, he sent his early drafts not only to Tom Anniko but to me as well. I don’t know whether he expected me to comment on it, but because I fancied myself a writer I read it and had some pretty strong opinions. I waited a bit to see whether Tom responded, and maybe he did, but if so he didn’t copy me. So I sent Matt my thoughts.
Much later Matt told me that he got my notes and read them and they made him angry. He was so mad that he went outside for a smoke and stomped around a bit. And then he thought, dammit, he’s right! And went inside and rewrote some stuff based on my notes.
I’m not relating this story to illustrate what a great writer or story editor I am. It’s more evidence that Matt and I were operating on the same wavelength when it came to his material. From that point forward I story edited all of his radio plays, unofficially for the four episodes of Steve the First and the four episodes of its sequel, Steve the Second. I became the official story of the final series we worked on together, Canadia: 2056, but they only paid me $150 per episode rather than the usual $500 story editors usually got paid. But I didn’t mind, because it was fun work, doing what I loved, and of course I was still getting paid to be a recording engineer at the time.
Matt and I had a lot of fun making Steve the First and Steve the Second. I became the de facto producer, at least for the mixes, and I did all the post production sound effects (Anton Szabo did most of the live-to-tape sound effects). There were some memorable moments. Sometimes Matt and I would mix the episodes during the evening. For one scene we needed the sound of a big jug of water bouncing off the floor. I grabbed a great big spare bottle from a water dispenser and brought it into the studio. We hit play and record on ProTools and Matt and I stood in the booth and dropped the completely full, unopened water bottle. To our surprise it cracked, flooding the booth. The carpet was completely soaked. There was little we could do to mop it up or accelerate the drying process, though we did the best we could with scads of paper towels. The next day I had to tell my boss, John McCarthy, who took it extremely well. I don’t think there was any lasting damage other than to the water bottle itself, and maybe a slightly moldy carpet.
After mixing an episode I would burn it to CD and take it home and listen to it in several environments: in the car, in the kitchen, in the living room. I wanted to see what it sounded like in each environment. The car was always the noisiest. If a bit of dialogue or a sound effect didn’t cut through in any of those environments, I went back to the studio and remixed it until it did. I was trying to make the shows the most sonically successful work of my career. I was pretty happy with the results, but I didn’t entirely succeed. After the shows were broadcast, when it came time to print the shows to CD for sale, the woman in charge of doing so, Patsy Fraracci (I might have her last name wrong, if so I apologize!), came to visit me in the studio and we had a friendly conversation about the quality. Reviewing the audio on the CDs, she’d noticed a little glitch or two. I was incredulous. She played them back for me. Sure enough there were a couple of weird audio anomalies. Just fraction of a second things that I’d never noticed in all the times I’d listened, but that she’d caught. Of course, she was married to one of the top CBC music recording engineers at the time, Todd Fraracci, and evidently shared his ears. I was embarrassed. I went back to the original mixes and did what I could to fix them, but due to the nature of the glitches my options were limited. They’re still there in the final product, to some extent. But I daresay you would probably need the “golden ears” of Patsy (or her husband Todd) to discern them.
Steve the First and, later, Steve the Second aired Saturday mornings at 11:30. I think they went over fairly well, but neither Matt nor I became anywhere near as famous as our radio drama hero Douglas Adams, famous for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
This past month I was fortunate to have sold plenty of copies of A Time and a Place. About 1400 copies, all told. And copies of Other Times and Places, too. People have been reading my work, and forming opinions about it. This is great, and I’m pretty happy about it. It has resulted in reviews and ratings on several platforms, primarily Amazon, Kobo, and Goodreads. And not just Amazon Canada, but in the US, Australia, and Great Britain as well, and some of the ratings from those locations have shown up on Amazon India too.
Although I wish I was impervious to reviews and ratings, I’m not. Maybe one day I will be (I kind of doubt it). Whenever I notice a new review or rating has been added, I get butterflies. My curiosity gets the better of me, and I scroll down to see how one tiny portion of the universe has reacted to my work. Sometimes the response is positive; sometimes less so. You have to take it all with a grain of salt. You have to develop a thick skin. But that can be easier said than done.
The work I’ve publicly released into the world, that I consider worthy of an ISBN, that I dare to charge money for, is the best I was capable of producing at the time I created it. I gave it all a great deal of thought and in most cases injected massive amounts of time and effort into it. If someone indicates that they’ve liked it, I’m gratified and feel a tiny bit vindicated. If someone indicates that they really dislike or hate it, I get a bit deflated, at least temporarily. If someone reveals that they’re ambivalent to my work, or they kind of like it but consider it flawed in some way, I’m disappointed but okay with it.
I’ve received a couple of one star ratings on Goodreads. They haven’t been accompanied by reviews, so I consider them meaningless. I’ve heard Goodreads described as “crazy town” by other writers, so some of what shows up there you just have to ignore.
Now that I know how much work goes into writing and publishing a book, I’m a bit bemused by the whole concept of ratings and reviews. Sometimes I think you shouldn’t be allowed to simply rate someone else’s work without an accompanying review. You should have to defend your rating. Shouldn’t you?
A writer spends (in some cases) years of their life working on their opus only to have someone read it in a matter of days (perhaps not even closely) and then dash off a rating in few seconds (or a flippant review in minutes). It doesn’t seem quite fair. Fortunately, this doesn’t bother me too much. I have long since abandoned the idea that life is fair (it’s a recurring theme in my work, after all).
For ratings and reviews to be fair they would have to be produced with integrity. Ideally the reader would read the work reasonably closely and reflect upon it before producing an opinion that they then back up with a cogent, considered argument. Although I much prefer to receive four and five star reviews, I don’t mind receiving a three star review if it’s accompanied by a solid rationale explaining why my book only merited three stars. I might even agree with it.
Myself, I can’t rate any book less than four stars anymore (although I have done so in the past). I just can’t bring myself to do it because I relate too strongly to the authors of those books. I know they’ve worked hard on their book, and they’re trying to sell it, and anything less than four stars isn’t going to help sell the book. I hasten to add (for those of you who have given my work three stars) that this is just me. I’m not complaining about your rating or asking you to change it (something I would never do). Different ratings mean different things to different people. Megan Lindholm (writing as Robin Hobb) posted the following on her Goodreads account:
“I am shocked to find that some people think a 2 star ‘I liked it’ rating is a bad rating. What? I liked it. I LIKED it! That means I read the whole thing, to the last page, in spite of my life raining comets on me. It’s a good book that survives the reading process with me. If a book is so-so, it ends up under the bed somewhere, or maybe under a stinky judo bag in the back of the van. So a 2 star from me means yes, I liked the book, and I’d loan it to a friend and it went everywhere in my jacket pocket or purse until I finished it.”
So that’s what a two star rating means to her. It’s not what it means to me! Myself, I’m appalled that she would even consider rating the work of a fellow writer two stars. Three stars I could see: the existence of three star ratings accompanied by a well-reasoned review helps lend integrity to the rest of the reviews. But two stars? That’s just insulting. And I say that as a fan of Megan Lindholm’s work. The Wizard of the Pigeons is one of my favourite books. I rated it four stars (instead of five) because of the ham-fisted execution of the final three pages, which, in my opinion, almost completely undermines the quality of what comes before. Perhaps I should revise my rating to two stars.
I know that ratings and reviews are ultimately meaningless. All that really matters is that we do the best we can when we produce our work. We mustn’t derive our self-esteem from external sources. True value (and self-worth) comes from within.
What do a thief, wizards, a platypus, ghosts, soft drink salesmen, God, the devil, and a spaceman all have in common? Together they will make you laugh, think, sleep better, open your mind, spark your imagination, and quite possibly improve your complexion* as Joe Mahoney brings them all vividly to life in this humorous and thoughtful collection of seven tales of the fantastic.