order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish


Mr. Miatsu’s Deadly Game

Last week, the formidable Betsy Bird of the School Library Journal posted a monster interview with me. Check it out if you want to read about my opinions on Zork, my life in the convent, and why The Jeffersons is superior to Catcher in the Rye. Many in the comments section deem this the “Best. Interview. Ever.” Dare you disagree?

I was also interviewed by the lovely Senfaye on A Maze Of Books. Read it if you’re curious as to why I chose to end the interview by saying “I hate you”—and why when Senfaye asked “What’s your favorite food?” I replied “Your skull.” It’s scandalous!

Now, today I am going to post something possibly embarrassing. I am going to introduce you to my 1995 self, and make public an obscure artifact of that era: Krautmiser’s Mr. Miatsu’s Deadly Game.

I went to Notre Dame for college. There was a lively music scene. Probably the best-known musician to come out of it is Ted Leo of Chisel and the Pharmacists.

I wanted to be part of it. Even though I’m in a band now, I’m actually not very musical. I certainly wasn’t musical when I was 18. Even still, I became a DJ at WVFI, the campus radio station. I learned how to play the bass. I joined some bands. One of them was a sludgy grunge band. Another was a twee dream-pop band.

The last band was Krautmiser.

I wanted Krautmiser to be like Nation of Ulysses meets the Coctails by way of Bill Murray’s SNL lounge singer character. I wanted us to be like the kind of band that you’d find playing Wednesday nights in a Holiday Inn hotel bar in 1976.

I was tired of punk’s rote scowl and indie rock’s emasculated diffidence. I wanted a band with vaudevillian showmanship, snappy costumes, a ludicrous back story, comic stage antics. We might not have entirely succeeded, but we had fun. We went on tour that summer. I still listen to the music with pleasure, although I’m not so vain as to believe that anyone outside our circle of friends would like it now. We had a band, we had a four-track, it was the nineties, and indie rock glorified amateurism—how could we resist recording an album?

Recently a blog has popped up called South Bend Power 90s. It aims to chronicle that music scene I was part of. This week they’re featuring Krautmiser’s one and only album, Mr. Miatsu’s Deadly Game. Here’s what the cover looked like:

The Chinese man playing “Miatsu” in that picture? He was the proprietor of The Great Wall, a Chinese restaurant in South Bend. Those of you who have read The Order of Odd-Fish might be tickled to learn his name was Ken Kiang. Yep, that’s where the name came from!

I wrote a story that was included with each tape. I’ve reprinted it below, along with pictures and posters from the time. The story is a cliffhanger, so a couple weeks ago I went ahead and wrote a “conclusion” to that story for South Bend Power 90s.

So let me take you back to 1995 . . . to Krautmiser’s Mr. Miatsu’s Deadly Game:


So shouted the headlines of the Fleet Street weeklies when England’s scandal-sheet favourites, Krautmiser, announced their intention to play Mr. Miatsu’s deadly game.

“This time they’ve gone too far,” sniffed Lady Agatha Croydon, the ex-betrothed of Krautmiser’s notorious playboy drummer Jack Howard, when informed of the band’s sensational announcement.

But what is the story behind the scandal? Some wags claim Krautmiser was unwittingly shanghaied into playing Mr. Miatsu’s deadly game. But when has Krautmiser ever done anything “unwittingly”—Krautmiser, a band whose every smallest action, down to the flirtatious bat of an eyelash, is precalculated and phase-plotted by a Cray-2 supercomputer for maximum swank and joie de vivre?

Others bandy about allegations that Krautmiser was forced into participating in Mr. Miatsu’s deadly game. But how could Krautmiser ever be “forced” to do anything—Krautmiser, the wealthiest and most powerful band in the world?

No, Krautmiser’s decision to engage Mr. Miatsu in his deadly game can only be traced to one reason—the same reason for all their actions—that is, the boundless insouciance and devil-may-care sassiness that have made them beloved pop-culture icons the world over. “We thought it’d be a lark to play Miatsu’s deadly game,” said Julian Dingle, guitarist, at a recent press conference.

But who is Mr. Miatsu? That question is not easily answered. All that can be said for certain about the enigmatic Miatsu is that once every year, this inscrutable 850-year-old mandarin emerges from his inaccessible pagoda deep within the heart of China and issues his challenge: “Who shall play my exceedingly dangerous game?”

What kind of band would throw their lives to the fickle winds of Oriental fate? “We started out with nothing,” growled bassist James Kennedy in his raspy Irish brogue, “so we find it much easier to gamble everything.” To be sure, Krautmiser did have inauspicious beginnings: in the early years, Kennedy was nothing more than another streetfighting lad going nowhere fast in the pubs of Belfast.

How he fell in with Jack Howard, an Eton schoolboy still in shortpants at the time, and Julian Dingle, a well-heeled Oxford don and the unofficial “bad boy” of orthodox Scholasticism, is still a mystery.

It was not until 1964 the Krautmiser finally found a vocalist. It was August 4, “Rodeo Nite” at the Buckin’ Silver Star Saloon in Junction City, Kansas. “We don’t have a singer for this next song,” Julian called out halfway through the set. “Does anyone here know how to sing?”

“Oh, ah do!” piped up a drunken farm girl from the cornfields of Kansas. It was her first night on the town, and this blue-dressed, blonde-tressed ingenue was none the better for the five gin and tonics that she had downed that night.

“What’s your name, young lovely?” inquired a solicitous James Kennedy as he helped her stagger onto the stage.

“Dave McMahon,” slurred the young girl. “But I let the nice boys call me Peaches,” she added, giggling.

“How old are you, little miss?” asked Jack Howard skeptically.

“Eighteen,” said Peaches McMahon defiantly. But she was only sixteen, and even now Ma McMahon was peeping out the window of her farmhouse hundreds of miles away, wondering when her little Peaches would return.

She never did. Even when falling-down drunk, Peaches McMahon managed to bring the house down for encore after encore. That very night she climbed into the Krautmiser tour bus, and never saw Kansas again.

But the lean years were not over for Krautmiser. Who knows what might have become of Krautmiser had Sir Evelyn Hottentot, the eccentric and fabulously wealthy aristocrat, not walked into London’s “seedier-than-thou” Black Bombay Club the night of September 14, 1967? Sir Evelyn was immediately smitten by Krautmiser’s youthful savoir faire—and yet his heart was broken by the abject poverty Krautmiser endured, their bony ribs sticking out of their lanky, emaciated frames. Sir Evelyn immediately took Krautmiser under his wing, offering the boys a place to stay and hot meals.

But Sir Evelyn turned out to be as dotty as he was generous. He was given to bouts of melancholia and he frequently went skeet shooting in the middle of Piccadilly Square. His weakness for the caresses of supple Malaysian houseboys left him with a nasty case of syphilis that nearly drove him mad. Krautmiser soon took over their daft benefactor’s fortunes and, with cunning financial prowess, went on to establish themselves as the best-loved band in the world.

And so now Krautmiser stands at the entrance of Mr. Miatsu’s “death pagoda.” The door opens. Miatsu emerges.

“Who shall play my exceedingly dangerous game?” rasps the ancient monk.

“We shall,” proclaims James Kennedy as Krautmiser steps forward. “We shall play your dangerous game with relish, Miatsu.”

“But are your fists of quality much greatness?” questions Miatsu sagely.

Replies McMahon, “Our fists are motorized explosions.”

“Your explosions are your own impotence,” snaps Miatsu.

“Bold talk,” returns Howard, “for a man whose very kimono is a flapping tent of viscera.”

“I am that kimono,” growls Miatsu, eyes blazing.

“That we shall defrock you of your own substance,” muses Dingle. “Mr. Miatsu—or, should I say, my little Peking duck.”

“I shall consume you as I consumed General Ch’ung Kiang before you!” booms Mr. Miatsu as storm clouds rumble. “Enter, young Krautmisers, into my ‘Death Pagoda.’ I have spoken.”

Krautmiser enters. The door closes.

Oh, do be careful, reckless youth of Britain! Oh, do come home safe, beloved boys of Krautmiser!

And thus ends the story of Krautmiser as of 1995.
But what happened to Krautmiser in Mr. Miatsu’s “Death Pagoda”?
Now, finally, the truth is revealed . . .


“A springtime shower of illustrious blessings to you, Mr. Miatsu,” said Jack Howard politely; “and to the she-goat who bore you from its rancid womb.”

“Your feeble contumely holds no terror,” said Miatsu from his alabaster throne, “for a man who suckled at the teat of Dag Na Goga, the silver dragon who even now slumbers beneath the soil.”

“A cunning jade statuette, Miatsu,” said Dave McMahon, plucking up a centuries-old idol. “It will look quaint on me mum’s window-sill.”

“Even now I curse that window-sill; wild boars shall befoul it.”

James Kennedy shot back, “Be it so, but I shall violate every orifice you possess with those selfsame boars.”

Miatsu whirled. “This from a man whose dishonorable underclothes have been the scorn of his generation!”

The curtains parted, and Julian Dingle alighted, borne by a rickshaw.

“So enters the prancing monkey of the Western world,” observed Miatsu. “And now, who will play my exceedingly dangerous game?”

“The game has already been played . . . and won,” said Julian coolly. “For, unbeknownst to you or your sad regiment of ill-fed monks, I have paid a visit to Beijing . . . and the Imperial Library.”

“Thrice a bungler, thrice an oaf,” gloated Miatsu. “What piffling words did you scrabble up, backwards scholar?”

“Only this: that you once loved a woman, Miatsu,” said Julian boldly. “And, yea, unbeknownst even to her own sister, your betrothed, you dallied with her, and tasted delights in the shade of the cherry blossoms; iniquity in your heart, and shame on your lips, you fled to this miserable temple; and here you have moldered for 850 years, a man who is not a man, but a shell, who possesses not a heart, but a lump of dung; for you cannot love, Miatsu, and that is your deadly game.”

But even as Julian spoke, Miatsu grew smaller and smaller; the gold and red robes that once enfolded him now hung loosely about his diminishing frame; the alabaster idols, the proud banners, the shining kanji on the crimson cards, the granite obelisk, the dice of bronze and ivory, the pods and chits and spangles and coins—indeed, all of the apparatus of the deadly game, crumbled to dust; and then, all at once, the boys of Krautmiser found themselves, not in the arid wastes of Red China, but in a leafy glade, alongside a babbling brook, under a spreading chestnut-tree; the delicate “twoot-twoot” of the thrush could be heard—

“England,” cried David, clasping his tiny, pale, puffy hands together in infantile delight—capering spastically into the sunrise—”Oh, oh, oh my beloved England!”

Ah, self-indulgence, thy name is Internet.

My protégée Freya

Here I am with my niece Freya (back in 2004). Everyone thinks their own niece is brilliant, but there was something terrifying about Freya from an early age.

At eighteen months old, at a visit to the pediatrician, she looked up to the doctor and politely inquired, “May I see your stethoscope?”

At four years old, she was asked her say three words that began with “S.” Freya replied, “Sugar. Silly. Suffragette.” Four years old. I don’t think I really knew what “suffragette” meant until my twenties. When asked for three words that began with “J,” she said, “Judas. Jerusalem. Jackass.” Huh?

Her manner reminded me of Paul Atreides’ little sister Alia from Dune:

Freya is a writer as well. We used to meet every week at Humboldt Pie, a now-defunct coffeehouse around the corner from my house, to talk about our works-in-progress. It’s as close as I’ve ever come to a writing group.

Freya is working on a novel called The Cosmic Key. The last time I checked, it was over 100 pages long. Every week at Humboldt Pie I’d sit, listen to her, and diligently scribble down everything she said as she described The Cosmic Key’s plot and characters. Trust me: if Freya ever gets around to finishing the insane, heartbreaking, terrifying story, it will be epic.

The situation reminded me of Dr. Wilde taking dictation from “Precious,” the horror-film writing girl in Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron:

Freya read my novel The Order of Odd-Fish when she was in second grade, and was my first fan. I’ve gotten great Odd-Fish art from her over the years, including her gingerbread ruby palace, and more:

Now, as you probably know, two weeks ago my wife Heather gave birth to our first child, Lucy Momo Kennedy. As I mentioned in that post, Heather and I were in the middle of Scrabble when her water broke. I speculated: might the words of that interrupted Scrabble game, rearranged into story form, provide some clue to Lucy’s future?

Freya rose to the challenge, and wrote that very story!

She kindly gave me permission to post it here on the blog. The words from the Scrabble board are underlined. It sounds like a pretty good future for Lucy—thanks for another great story, Freya! (Though I confess I’m curious as to why she had to pawn all those boas . . . )

If you want to keep up with Freya’s other writing, she has her own blog here.

And now: Lucy’s life, predicted using the words from Heather’s and my abandoned Scrabble game, written by Freya, age 11:

AGE 13, 2022

“Aha!” Lucy pulled the can opener out from the drawer. “There you are, you little bugger.”

She crossed the kitchen to the opposite counter, where the can of pears that she needed the opener for sat, almost smugly, as though it was saying, Nyah nyah, Lucy, you’ll never get my delicious pears. Go ahead and break your nails on my lid! Sure, it’s supposed to be “hand-open–able,” but you and I both know that’s not true, don’t we?

“Stupid can,” mumbled the thirteen-year-old girl. “Why can’t Dad get jars instead?”

Lucy put opener to lid, and in her mind the can cried, No! No, anything but that! Not the can opener! Nooooo! My lid is hand-open-ablllllleeeeee . . . Lucy had a sudden funny vision of a can of pears being chased by a rabid can opener. She giggled.

“Mom’s right,” she thought as she spooned the pears into a bowl. “I do have a morbid side.”

Her dark-blond bangs falling in her eyes, Lucy walked to the dining room table, snagging a fork on the way. As she sat down to eat her pears, she thought about her life.

She had been born on May 4th, 2009. Now it was 2022, and 2009 seemed so long ago. Her full name was Lucy Momo Kennedy, “momo” meaning “peach” in Japanese. Her parents were Heather Norborg and James Kennedy. Also in her family were Aunt Jennifer, her mother’s older sister, and Jennifer’s husband, Max. Their children were Theo, age 21, and Freya, age 24. Freya was the only one besides her parents who called her “Momo” on a regular basis.

Lucy sighed and got up from the table. She opened her backpack and took out her homework, an assignment on tax. Sitting down again, she set herself to the task of completing it.

Once that was done, Lucy started her other homework, an activity on Farsi. She was attempting to learn many different languages from around the world. Lucy was aspiring to be a great traveler when she was old enough, and wanted to be able to speak to people everywhere she went. So far she was pretty good in Spanish and French, but she felt she needed more Middle Eastern languages.

Eventually, the worksheet on Farsi was finished, and Lucy only had one other assignment. This was to find as many words as she possibly could out of the word PHOSPHATIDYLETHANOLAMINE, which they were studying in science class.

Lucy started with the obvious, the word HAT. She then stared at her paper, feeling her brain go blank. Oh well, the homework wasn’t due till Monday. Lucy picked up her fork and went to work on her pears again.

Just then, her father came in. His wild hair stuck up on all sides of his head like a scrub brush, albeit one that had dyed its bristles blond and gone punk. Lucy looked up, said, “Hi, Daddy,” and went back to her pears.

“WHAT?!” bellowed James Kennedy in fake outrage, acting to the best of his ability. “I, the great DADDY, MASTER OF THIS DWELLING, am not IMMEDIATELY REGALED AT THE DOORSTEP?!”

“Da-ad!” cried Lucy, laughing. She ran to him. Her father accepted her with outstretched arms, and mussed her hair. “Man, your hair’s getting long. What do you think, is it time to bring out the scissors and snip an inch or two?”

“Dad, if anyone needs a haircut around here, it’s you.”

James fingered his own hair. “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Suddenly, he swung his daughter up onto his hip. “Jeez! You’re getting big!” he groaned, and set her down again. “Remind me not to do that anymore. You’ll break my back!”

Lucy giggled, and her father tickled her, and she tickled him back, and then they were romping around in a fabulous game of Can-You-Tickle-Me, which was something they had invented together.

After about an hour, Lucy’s mother, Heather Norborg, came home. She laughingly broke up the game of Can-You-Tickle-Me, sent Lucy and James off to set the table, and herself set about picking up all the things that had been knocked over while they had been playing.

Once dinner was on the table and everyone was seated, Lucy scanned the food. She had a habit of making strange, interesting observations about things at supper that pretty much carried the conversation until everything had been eaten. Tonight, her comment was, “There are five things to eat tonight. Potatoes, meat, green beans, bread, and soup. There also was, 25 years ago, a British band named Five. I wonder, are there any resemblances, physical or personality-wise, between the members of that band and the five dishes here?” the girl then proceeded to encrust the surface of her meat with a thin layer of mashed potatoes.

This amazing observation worked quite well, and the rest of the meal was spent discussing Lucy’s topic.

Perhaps here would be a good opportunity to describe Miss Lucy Momo Kennedy. I shall begin.

Lucy was thin and pretty, her darkish blond hair falling to her shoulders. Her eyes were hazelly-blue, a strangely beautiful combination. She was polite when it was needed, but could deliver cutting insults. Lucy was a good girl at home, always helping her parents. She had a wonderful sense of humor and creativity, inherited from her father, and a sensible, sweet side, inherited from her mother. She was unpredictable, sometimes leaping up in the middle of a quiet board game and yelling, “CROON! CROON! IT’S THE MOST INTERESTING WORD I’VE EVER HEARD!” Sometimes the shout-out was different, but it was always the same situation. Once, she was playing Scrabble with James, and had just leaned forward to make a move when she suddenly had the burning desire to jump to her feet and dash around the apartment, shouting “CHICKEN TENDERS! CHICKEN TENDERS! THEY ARE SO DELICIOUS, OH!” When this kind of thing happened, James and Heather always took it with a laugh and a tendency to join in.

In Lucy’s room, there was a closet full of old clothes, for the times when Lucy had the whim to put on a little one-person play, which she did often. In this closet there was a drawer full of ugly boas, and Lucy was frequently selling these and buying more. Once she had pawned seventeen of them at one time! Also in the closet was a model river, built by Lucy and her mother. On one bank of the river was a very realistic levee, which Lucy had crafted all by herself with no help from Heather. Lucy prized the model above all of her other possessions, and she kept high in the closet, where “it would never be touched, not in its whole life.”

Truly, Lucy is an astoundingly wonderful personality, and if you have never met her, I hope you will someday.

Note: The words “qi” and “eloi” were not used in this story, owing to the fact that the writer has no idea what they mean.

Thanks, Freya! I’m looking forward to many more great stories. (Now get cracking on The Cosmic Key!)

A tale of two contests: The New Yorker and The Order of Odd-Fish

“Just to confirm—I get seventy-two lemmings, right?”

Longtime readers of the blog know that I have a love-hate relationship with New Yorker cartoons. Last year in this space I outlined a parlor game: by getting a group of people together, drawing unrelated cartoons, writing unrelated captions, and randomly pairing them off by drawing them from a hat, I found that you can generate passable New Yorker cartoons about thirty percent of the time—not bad, considering! You can see the cartoon results of our experimental New Yorker game here.

My brother-in-law Chris has now taken the next step. Ever since he was a small boy, his appreciation of New Yorker cartoons has been keen; now, his instincts sharpened by the pitiless coliseum of playing our New Yorker game at family parties, he is now wrasslin’ with the big boys, in The New Yorker’s own “write-your-own-caption” contest.

The above is his contribution. Funny? Absolutely. New Yorker-y enough? Indeed: the urbane-yet-mildly-anxious tone (“just to confirm”), the political subtext, the genteel gloss on a grim topic, all make this New Yorker gold. Go vote for his entry here, at the New Yorker web site. The deadline for voting is Sunday, May 17.

But that’s not the only contest that’s going on. Paul Michael Murphy, of the immortal Murphblog, recently wound up his Order of Odd-Fish Week with a “Design Your Own Odd-Fish Specialty” Contest, in which contestants made up their own fields of pointless study for inclusion in the Odd-Fish Appendix.

(Just to bring those of you who haven’t read The Order of Odd-Fish up to speed: the purpose of the knights of the Odd-Fish is to research an “unreliable or useless” reference work of “dubious facts, rumors, and myths,” which serves as “a repository of questionable knowledge, and an opportunity to dither about.”)

All the entries are in the comments section. They’re ingenious! From “the study of outdated dance moves with a subspecialty in headbanging” to “the study of nose-blowing techniques” to “the study of improbable and illogical animals,” the astonishing fertility and creativity of the Murphblog commenters was humbling. It fell to Paul and me to make the difficult decision of who would win.

I wrote about the winner, the also-rans, and the reasoning behind my judgment, here at the Murphblog. In this piece I reveal which contestant was an alpaca, I discover that another contestant is fated for damnation, I make a joke about recursion even though only other computer programmers think that kind of thing is funny; and I reveal at last the sordid truth behind my scandalous affair with maneater (and perpetually misguided book reviewer) Lynne Farrell Stover. Go read it!

(And for those of you who missed Odd-Fish Week on the Murphblog — here’s Part One, about my writing process and the crazy road to Odd-Fish’s publication; Part Two, in which we talk about David Lynch’s “Eye of the Duck” theory, and you can see videos of Paul and me reading from Odd-Fish; Part Three, in which I reveal the thing I will always find funny; and Part Four, in which I answer the “lightning-round” questions and we see Paul and his adorable two-year-old daughter read aloud from The Order of Odd-Fish.)