The main guy in my novel, The Unknown Knowns
, is a disgraced bookmobile driver named Jim Rath. He believes in a lost race of aquatic humanoids called the Nautikons. At a hotel bar in Colorado Springs, Jim thinks he's spotted the lone survivor of this vanished tribe. The man is in fact a mentally broken agent of Homeland Security, who takes Jim for a domestic terrorist. In the end, their two delusional worlds collide (Rumsfeldian anti-Islamofascist zeal vs. Atlantean myth), with real-world consequences for both men.
To this extent, the book is about fantasies hitting the low, hard ceiling of reality. When I was writing it, I searched my own past for parallels. And though I never dressed as Wonder Woman for erotic purposes or practiced underwater meditation in a Hilton pool, I have suffered on occasion for my stupid fantasy life.
In 1979 my friends and I made a movie about Conan the Barbarian in the cafeteria of our Catholic grade school. We were taking a huge creative risk. This was three years before Arnold Schwarzenegger made the Cimmerian warrior king cool. The health risk was considerable as well. If you were a skinny kid dressed like a druid on an elementary school playground, you were asking for several bloody noses.
The cast and crew were plucked from the nerdiest quarters of our sixth-grade class:
Rob: director/makeup and costume design. He was a subscriber to Fangoria magazine and knew how to make a simulated ax wound out of latex and food coloring. Now he's a cancer researcher.
Nico: Conan the Barbarian. He was the captain of the soccer team. His little brother's name was actually Conan, but we gave Nico the lead because he was the only non-social pariah who would come near us. Plus, his mom was our home room teacher, which meant we got to skip class to work on the movie.
Chris: Some Kind of Magickal Villain. When it was chicken day in the lunchroom, Chris would save his biscuit until recess, chew it up in a ball, and hurl it against the wall of the multipurpose room. He was the most artistically accomplished guy I knew.
Jim: Evil Druid no. 1. He was the tallest kid in our class and also the nicest. Jim was our resident Conan expert, having read all the original short stories by Robert E. Howard, et al. ("The Frost Giant's Daughter," "Lair of the Ice Worm," etc.) Jim's dad, an Army colonel, had served in North Africa, and kindly supplied a scimitar.
Me: Evil Druid no. 2. My mom made the black cloaks of transdimensional druidic power. I believe there were runes involved, or iron-on patches that looked like runes. My dad drove us to the ice house in West Columbia to buy a box of dry ice.
(The glaring omission in our cast, as you have surely noticed, was the flame-haired warrior lady Red Sonja. This was mainly because Red Sonja was a girl and we didn't know any of those.)
I'll skip over the actual production. It was, needless to say, fully awesome. But the insane part happened afterward. As we were breaking the set, a problem arose: how to dispose of the dry ice? I know now that dry ice is nothing more than solidified carbon dioxide gas, but to 11-year-olds with bounteous imaginations, it was like some kind of alien neurotoxin. What kind of Earth ice emits fog?
Chris provided the solution to our disposal problem. He carried the cooler to the boys' room. By the time I caught up with him, the room was already filling with a portentous mist. The door swung shut behind me and I heard Chris's maniacal laughter. Through the fog I watched him distribute dry ice in the two urinals. He flushed, sending plumes of white into the air.
The vapor filled my gasping lungs and tiny globules of awe entered my bloodstream. They traveled the network of capillaries to supercharge my brain with visions of the Hyborian Age. I was transported to an Aesgaardian grotto, to a fogbound cove on the Vilayet Sea, scimitar in hand, ready to deal the unseen enemy a nasty blow.
But then I remembered the principal. Mrs. R— had phaser-blue eyes. She smelled of nicotine and child-blood. And her approach was heralded by the time-bomb tick of high heels. She was very scary.
Recently, I consulted a New York State Department of Health brochure on dry-ice disposal. Here's what I read:
Dry ice can be a very serious hazard in a small space that isn't well-ventilated. As dry ice melts, it turns into carbon dioxide gas. In a small space, this gas can build up. If enough carbon dioxide gas is present, a person can become unconscious, and in some cases, die.
Because dry ice can cause carbon dioxide gas to accumulate and build up pressure, do not dispose of dry ice in a sewer, garbage disposal, garbage chute, etc. Allow leftover dry ice to melt and turn into gas in a well-ventilated area.
There were two likely outcomes, both grim: die of asphyxiation in a druid costume, or get busted by the principal. The next sound I heard was a pair of high heels echoing down the breezeway. The door flew open. The fog parted to reveal the phaser eyes of Mrs. R—! I tried to hide in a stall, but it was too late! The Frost Giant's daughter had returned to her lair! Chris was caught holding the cooler, so he was suspended from school for a week. I had to write an essay about how dry ice can damage institutional plumbing. But the worst part is, I don't even know if the Conan movie ever got made. I was too freaked out to ask, and I think we all just let it go. Even a Cimmerian warrior doesn't stand a chance against the elementary school principal of reality.