Sunday, July 24, 2016

Straight Man- A Book Review

Like most people my summer reading list is usually composed of relatively light and fluffy novels without any real value or weight. For me, that means I lean mostly towards cheap science fiction filled with starships, aliens, and hot babes in skimpy metal bikinis along with tawdry boilerplate thrillers and suspense stories containing plenty of intrigue, mysterious characters with dubious pasts, and hot ladies in revealing attire. Yes, one of my many failings is the little hobgoblin of consistency in that it doesn't matter if the book I am reading takes place on some faraway planet or in a beach bar in Key West, there are particular elements in stories I gravitate towards.

A third type of book I enjoy are those tongue-in-cheek novels that look at life with a sarcastically humorous eye for its inherent ridiculousness. Call it a personal fault, but even in the best of times I tend to view Homo sapiens and our civilization as little more than a runaway bread mold. Yes, I understand there are noble, caring, wise, and compassionate people all over the globe but right now they all appear to be out for lunch while the crazies are running rampant. Yes once again, my main example of crazies would be that down home, countrified assembly of morons that just ended in Cleveland.

One of the systemic problems with our species is that we take ourselves way to seriously, with religion and politics being the two prime examples of our inability to get along because some of us think of nothing but dominating everyone else. In my ever humble opinion I find those people, both fictional and in real life, who are able to kick back and laugh at the absurdity of our species as the most evolved of us humans.

A fictional character I became acquainted with over my vacation that meets these exacting standards was William Henry Devereaux, Jr. - or simply known as “Hank” to most people. Hank is the main character in Richard Russo's book entitled Straight Man which takes place on an underfunded college in small town Pennsylvania. As the book begins you quickly learn that the fifty-something Hank is the interim chairperson of the college's English department, a savagely conflicted group of mediocre professors who when they are not bickering with each other live in abject fear that budgets cuts will force the college administration to thin out their numbers.

Despite the inherent responsibilities of running his department, which in normal times makes herding irate cats holding a long list of grudges looks easy. But in Hank's case, he can't help himself but offer up clever comments that add extra heat to the already boiling pot of oversized egos and smoldering resentments that each and everyone of his subordinates hold for him and each other. One of his off the cuff comments so incensed a particularly colleague that she swiped him with her notebook causing the spiral wire to hook his nose like a harpoon does a whale.

Hank doesn't pull any punches with those he calls his friends or students either. Hank finds it fascinating that one of his best friends, a guy named Teddy, appears to have a literal school boy crush on his wife, Lily. This crush came in part from Teddy's own wife having an affair with an assistant professor who is so upset at our male dominated society that he has to finish both his and everyone else's sentence with “or she” to make up for the overuse of the masculine pronoun. Nicknamed “Orshee” for that reason, this professor goes as far as to regret his own existence because he was born with a penis.

One of the weirdest characters in the book is one of Hank's students, named Leo, who has a way too overactive fascination with using dead people in his stories. This forces Hank to comment to him that he should “Always understate necrophilia” in his writing, as if that fact wasn't obvious.

Two of my favorite characters of the book were beautiful Meg Quigley and Hank's long suffering secretary, Rachel. Meg is another assistant professor at the college and the daughter of Hank's English department colleague and friend, Billy Quigley, a cantankerous man who took the Good Book's advice about going forth and multiplying way too seriously. Meg and Hank have this semi-covert flirtation going on with her constantly leaving peach pits in his office suggesting their friendship could become something more than just innocent seductive banter. While Hank has been totally faithful to his wife, Lily, that doesn't stop him from engaging in some pretty intensive fantasies about Meg.

As for his secretary, Rachel, she has won Hank's affection for her ability to overlook and manage his many flaws. A tough thing for Rachel to do while dealing with her estranged husband who berates her for seriously pursuing her writing, something Hank has encouraged her to do because he sees she has talent. Much to Hank's surprise, after sending samples of her writing to his agent Rachel is offered a contract after her stories are immediately sold to a buyer.

Hank's existence is further complicated because he is dealing with his own middle life crisis that is made worse by the memories of his father leaving him and his mother decades before. Hank's father, William Henry Devereaux. Sr., was quite the famous literary critic in his younger days allowing him to run in some high powered social circles as well as bed any number of attractive graduate students. Hank not only feels he never fully came out from his father's shadow, but laments he never fully explored his writing talent, beyond the single novel he wrote at the beginning of his career.

Adding to Hank's woes is the possibility of prostate cancer and that a local television news crew filmed him threatening to assassinate one of the ducks living in a campus pond each day until his department get an approved budget. Curiously enough, I about fell over laughing as an ill timed and embarrassing complication with his prostate issue forced Hank to seek refuge above the ceiling of a conference room to hide from his English department coworkers as they finally came together in agreement on a subject. That agreement being to debate and then vote on ending Hank's chairmanship of the department.

As for the threat to assassinate the campus water fowl, the reasons for this action are something you will have to discover on your own. But what little I will tell you is that it involves Hank wearing a fake nose and glasses during that time with the local news crew on site for a completely different reason. The end result of his actions made him a local celebrity for a day or two only then to be reviled as an enemy of all things decent with protesters gathering on campus to protect the ducks and geese.

This novel, while making me laugh out loud, was intensely thought provoking because quite frankly I identified a little too much with Hank for my own comfort. That mainly means the mid-life crisis thing along with wondering just where has all the time gone and why haven't I done more with my life. Straight Man is an excellent book that explores and explains the bizarre world that often exists between the ears of us guys who never really figured out how this thing called life is supposed to work. First published in 1998, Straight Man reads like a book that was recently released and I highly recommend it to everyone.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Southern Fried Fairy Tale - version 2.0

 (Author's note: Take this story for what it is worth, probably nothing but if you ask me real life has already gotten weirder and more dangerous than my puny imagination.)

The reason my family and I went into a self-imposed exile from our home state of South Carolina was the result of a complex chain of events that while improbable, exponentially feed on itself creating a situation so inherently unstable I began to fear for my family's safety. Looking back on it now, I have come to believe I have only myself to blame for essentially throwing that small pebble into the ocean that has created a political tsunami unmatched in American history. What was the minor event that started this chain reaction that threatens to make a mockery of all we hold dear? It was a phone call I received around two-thirty one Saturday morning three years ago.

It is almost an absolute of modern life that phone calls that early are never good news but for my wife and I, it is something we both have come to expect. As the ringing began reassembling my tired consciousness for a couple of seconds I toyed with the idea of not answering it. There was a high probability I already knew who was calling and as I lay in bed the thought occurred to me that for once I ought to let the caller figure his own way out of whatever mess he created for himself. Unluckily for me, it was my wife who forced me to once again do my duty.

“Well,” my wife Diane said groggily as she used her right hand to pop the side of my head before turning over. “You better answer it before Billy goes and does something else stupid that might really cause some problems.”

On the face of it her statement was true, Billy Wainwright, my only cousin and de facto responsibility given the nature of my mother and aunt's close relationship, could cause a whole spectrum of disasters just by walking into a room. Just to avoid, or more than likely, mitigate possible legal and liability issues that my cousin always seems to become entangled, I always answer the phone no matter how much I so desperately wanted to ignore it. That being said though, my wife's statement had more to do with the fact she wanted me to do something to end the ringing so she could go back to sleep.

For those two reasons, I sat up in bed and picked up the receiver. “Hello,” I mumbled actually finding the naivety to hope it might be a wrong number.

“Hey Charlie,” Billy answered back with a tone of voice that was his patented combination of shame, and sadness, mixed with a never-ending but irritating supply of child-like enthusiasm. “The deputies here at the strip club said I had to call someone to come take me home.”

Anyone who didn't know Billy might have asked him just what in the hell had he done that ended up involving several deputy sheriffs and Watertown County's only strip club but I figured that was a story I best save for the drive home. “Okay Billy, I'll be there in a few minutes,” I said wondering where I had laid my wallet and whether or not I should bring the credit card Aunt Sally, Billy's mom, had gave me for just these sort of occasions.

The saddest thing about my cousin was that his life peaked during high school. During those seven years he took the Watertown High School football team, the Raccoons, to three state championships. Something it had never done before or since when state law and simple practicality forced the principle to graduate Billy. As much as the football coach literally cried at the feet of the school district superintendent trying to persuade her to let Billy have one year of school, you simply couldn't have a twenty-something man playing with kids in their teens or be a student when some of his teachers were the same age.

For Billy, it boiled down to the fact that despite rugged good looks and an overabundance of charm so potentate he easily passed several of his high school classes by cajoling the panties off some of those teachers, he simply wasn't equipped to handle a world far more complicated than he could conceive. Having known Billy for all his life I can say honestly that there has never been a time when his intentions were based on hate or selfishness. He just could never grasp the overall concept of cause and effect, which given his humble origins usually kept his adventures small and only dangerous to his friends and family.

Having graduated high school, Billy felt the call of duty to his country and enlisted in the United States Army. As kids we watched plenty of war movies with Billy always saying he wanted to be a soldier. Of course, to Billy being soldier meant characters like Rambo, John Wayne, and Chuck Norris, all action heroes whose exploits never reflected the true nature of serving in a military where teamwork, constant training, and prolonged periods of boredom were the reality.

The dreams of military glory for Billy ended abruptly just a couple of days into basic training when the Drill Instructor got in his face screaming a mind numbing number of insults and instructions. Billy's good old country boy instincts came into play resulting in a broken jaw for the DI and a couple of months in the stockade for him. Billy somehow returned to Watertown with a general discharge and expressing an interest in attending the local community college with the goal of becoming a mechanic for a NASCAR racing team.

By that time I was starting my second year at Clemson University and gratefully disengaged from the constant family concern about just what Billy would do with his life. That changed a couple of months later when another student from Watertown showed me the local newspaper, complete with a picture of my cousin on the front page with his eyebrows burnt off along with an expression on his face suggesting intense befuddlement and utter surprise. With a truly morbid curiosity I read the article which stated that Billy was in class with several others one morning when he decided to modify the fuel injectors on a car used for training to take aviation-grade fuel.

The result was an explosion and fire which destroyed the auto repair shop along with the neighboring cosmetology and real estate classrooms. Watertown Community College, never a bastion of the liberal arts nor sciences, was so damaged that a huge majority of the student body was told to go home and not return until it could be rebuilt.

Luckily none of the student body or teaching staff were hurt in the incident, except the automotive instructor who took up drinking again after realizing leaving Billy in the classroom might just amount to the worst mistake of his life. The Watertown county council also took a big hit after the cut rate insurance company they used balked at the idea of paying for to rebuild the destroyed facilities. This forced the council to shell out over a million dollars in funds and use a backdoor method to raise the local sales tax to begin reconstruction. This being South Carolina, the members of the county council were defeated in the next election and forced into hiding by irate taxpayers who generally feel higher education is a waste of their hard earned dollars.

With higher education behind him, Billy began bouncing around different low paying jobs doing his best not to cause any new calamity. Even worse were Billy's relationships with various ladies in the county, all of such low quality, to Aunt Sally, that it left her breathless and near despair each time he brought one home.

It didn't take Aunt Sally long to figure out a procedure that would minimize the emotional and physiological trauma of meeting Billy's new love interest. Once Aunt Sally knew about Billy's new girlfriend she would ask him for the number of tattoos on the girl's body and if she had served any significant jail time and then rush down to the nearest liquor store and buy an amount of wine proportional to those numbers. If this girl had children, Aunt Sally would forget the wine and go straight to bourbon, usually a pint for each kid with an upper limit of a gallon if the she had over four.
My mama, in an attempt to give her as much support as possible, had an agreement with the owner of the liquor store to call her if Aunt Sally started making what seemed to him too many visits. With Billy's taste in women being consistent, the poor guy had long since been forced to add mama to his speed dial.

Aunt Sally and my mama being very close and with no other siblings for Billy or me, had since elementary school drafted me into taking care of my cousin. For both of them I did my best and since Billy was easy to get along with normally, it wasn't hard as long as he didn't do anything out the ordinary. Billy's dad, Uncle Henry, was especially thankful for me looking after his son. Uncle Henry was a true Christian in every sense of the word and over the years had spent many a night on bended knees praying for his son. I love my Uncle Henry but I always felt uncomfortable with the fact that he was so sure that his son was destined for greater things because Jesus came to him in a dream one night saying so. I figured the All Mighty had far better judgment than to involve my cousin in much of anything beyond making a phone call to order a pizza, so I let the whole subject slide when I was around the man.

Thankfully, my drive along U.S. Highway 17 to the strip club was uneventful and I pulled into the gravel parking lot stopping next the establishment's huge neon sign made up of a female figure which every fifteen seconds or so flashed different sections to simulate getting naked. The sign, while tacky in the extreme, had long since become part of the local scene with most everyone affectionately calling the electrically illuminated lady “Electric Betty.” While the strip club itself has closed and reopened many times with different names since it was first established in the early 1960's, Electric Betty has been the one constant as the years have slowly passed. It has been both a navigational beacon for people going to or from Myrtle Beach when Highway 17 was largely undeveloped and given a hint of what a naked woman might look like to an uncountable number of prepubescent boys feeling the first stirrings of onrushing hormones.

Electric Betty had survived numerous attempts by local Christian groups over the years to have her removed because of the immoral influence it was having on the youth of the area. The fight for Betty's continued existence all culminated when one pastor in the early 1980's had gone as far to chain himself to the electrical disconnect at the base of the sign. With a camera crew from the local television station recording the event, he promised to stay there without food or water until the heathen sign was torn down. The one thing the pastor didn't take into account was that his demonstration of peaceful civil disobedience was taking place during the summer months when sudden and violent thunderstorms were common. Sure enough about an hour into his protest a single stray dark cloud lazily drifted over the area with the pastor going through the religious motions to have God or his angels send it away.

As the little cloud flashed lightning inside it, a few in the pastor's support group tried to talk him into abandoning his efforts but he refused. Saying God would protect him and his just cause the pastor stayed chained to the sign despite their warnings. With wiser heads then deciding to withdraw to safety it was at that moment a brilliant flash of lightening struck Electric Betty, severing the chain the pastor put around the disconnect box and sending him flying thirty or forty yards into a medium-sized ornamental pond the strip club owner at that time had installed to “class up the joint.”

The little angry thunder cloud then drifted away as people rushed to the aid of the pastor who they found alive but being attacked by the three ducks and one goose that called the pond home. The pastor suffered no ill effect from the lightning strike but soon abandoned religion and became a used car salesman. Electric Betty was amazingly not injured by the random act of nature and returned to her usual work once the sun went down.

Electric Betty was the least of my concerns as I got out of my car and began walking over to the eight or nine county sheriff vehicles which had almost surrounded the strip club. My cousin, Billy Wainwright may be a walking disaster waiting to happen but I knew the amount of police attention at the strip club had less to do with whatever he was involved with and more with the fact that the deputies on night shift wanting to score some points with the dancers.

Sure enough, as I approached the entrance I saw several of the scantily clad ladies making small talk with the deputies who were acting like five year-old kids who found they had accidentally been locked up inside a candy store. Luckily for me I saw the one deputy, a guy named Sean Blake, who by all appearances seemed to be making sure none of his fellow law enforcement officers did anything other than just talk to the women. The other benefit of seeing Sean was that he had played football with Billy before graduating and had remained friends with my cousin.

“Deputy Blake!” I yelled to get his attention. Blake waved back and walked over to my location. “Just what did Billy do this time?” I asked hoping it was his usual weekend antics that might involve a couple of punched thrown with another guy before the club bouncers ended the scuffle.

“Well this weird looking dude is claiming Billy was trying to kill him.” Blake answered back pointing towards someone sitting on the hood of a patrol car wearing a 1970's leisure suit.

For a couple of seconds I felt this strange sense of temporal displacement looking at the man who wanted my cousin charged with attempted murder. What struck me oddest was the fact that he looked exactly like the late British actor, David Niven with his bald head and pencil thin mustache. Adding to the weirdness, as the guy sat on the hood of the sheriff's patrol car I saw him attempt to light a cigarette that was attached to one of those holders that extended a few inches from the end that a person held in their mouth. When you threw in the 1970's, pea-green leisure suit the man was wearing, I had the bizarre notion that actor Burt Reynolds and comedian Flip Wilson would suddenly walk out the strip club's front door laughing about the antics of John Travolta who would disco dance his way out a few seconds later.

“What's up with the guy's leisure suit, Blake?” I asked. “Was the strip club hosting a costume party tonight or something?”

Deputy Blake made a face as he scratched his head clearly thinking of a way to properly phrase his words. “Yeah, the man's name is Thad Lovelace and one of the deputies asked him about that, the guy then went into a long speech about how he was a fashion genius before his time and that he fully expected the leisure suit come back into style. The idea being that once that happened he would be finally be recognized for his cutting edge brilliance.” Blake said deadpan, much in the same way he would relate any piece of information that simply didn't make a damn bit of sense.

Since I came late to the party none of what Blake said made any sense until Trixie Anna Belle Duval came out of the strip club carrying a bottle of club soda and rushed over to the distraught and strange little man sitting on the hood of the patrol car. Trixie had been Billy's latest in along series of true loves, which by the looks of how she was caring for the leisure suit wearing Thad, my cousin and her relationship had clearly ended tonight.

I felt some sadness at the knowledge that my cousin Billy was once again alone. That realization was made worse by the fact that Trixie Duval was actually a step up from his usual redneck girlfriends. I had met Trixie several times, even having Billy and her over to the house to have dinner with my wife and me. In another, slightly better, reality Trixie might have actually made something of her life. She was clearly intelligent but a lifetime spent in a culture that considered reading suspicious and pursuing an education beyond high school in anything but technical fields tantamount to treasonous, unamerican activities had long taken its toll.

That night Diane and I had them over for dinner, I learned that Trixie had once attended the local gymnastic school and had won close to a dozen state awards. Several of the coaches had talked to Trixie's parents about taking her training to the next level by having her perform in front of a visiting U.S. Olympic dignitary in Charlotte, North Carolina, but tragically fate had other ideas.

A few days before they were supposed to make the trip up to Charlotte, her daddy's favorite deer hunting dog got into a fight with a porcupine, and lost badly. The money that would have paid for the trip went to emergency surgery on the dog who after several weeks of recovery, promptly had another tussle with the irate but quite well protected porcupine and that time lost so badly the poor dumb dog had to be put down. Feeling the need to avenge the insult to his beloved hunting dog, Trixie's daddy went looking for the porcupine and while the human survived the encounter, the end result was that there were never anymore children born to the Duval household.

After high school, Trixie worked her way up to dancing at the Watertown strip club after spending several years working at the local factory that made lamps for household use. When the factory was closed and the jobs sent to China, Trixie auditioned at the strip club where her former gymnastic training served her quite well in getting hired. While I had never seen one of Trixie's performances, Billy told me several times that her abilities on the dance pole earned her many standing ovations.

Deputy Blake eventually went to go find Billy, who they were keeping well away from Trixie and her new love interest. Despite Thad Lovelace's insistence that Billy be charged with murder, as far as the deputies and the owner of the strip club were concerned my cousin had done them a favor by taking the obnoxious twit down a couple of pegs. A few minutes later with Billy now inside my car we were soon on the way back to my house where he would spend the night. It during that time Billy explained to me that he had discovered Trixie and Thad making out in her dressing room. Shocked that the love of his life had betrayed him, Billy forced Trixie to confess with her saying she had simply outgrown my cousin and that Thad had connections with strip clubs up in Greenville, South Carolina and as far west as Atlanta.

Trixie had come to believe in a few years Thad could have here pole dancing at the center of the strip club universe, Las Vegas. My betrayed and now depressed cousin only got violent after Thad, a short skinny man who probably weighed one-hundred pounds when soaking wet started acting like he wanted to fight. Billy's single punch busted Thad's lip with the blood quickly soaking the leisure suit coat the strange little man was wearing.

It was the heavy silence in the car that ultimately forced me to try and think of a way to lift my cousin's spirits with the sight of an open convenience store offering that thin opportunity. Both Billy and I loved honey buns as kids and I thought if I bought us a couple of the sickly sweet pastries along with bottles of cold chocolate milk he might once again begin his journey of recovery. Instead, the end result of my stopping at the small store only began a chain of events that could ultimately bring disaster on us all.

When I caught Billy eyeing the clear plastic case containing all the colorful scratch-off lottery tickets something deep down in my soul told me to grab the man, have us both get back in my car, and drive away as fast as possible doing everything I could to make him forget he ever considered buying one of those things. The depth of this urge was so great that in hindsight I have often wondered that maybe it could have been a psychic warning broadcasted to me from some dark, apocalyptic future. Being a fairly rational person I discounted the foreboding nature of my dread, especially after seeing my cousin turn around and look at me with those sad puppy dog eyes. Billy was never the type of person who thought more than a day or two in the future, which when disaster struck him always brought on a profound depression.

“What the hell Charlie,” my cousin said to me apparently reading my mind. “My luck can't get any worse and I sure as hell ain't ever going to leave this town.”

“Go for Billy, you never know when the worm will turn.” I found myself saying despite the little voice in my head cursing both me and my descendants for allowing him to tempt fate.

Billy whipped out his wallet and purchased ten of the big payoff five-dollar scratch-off tickets and promptly stuffed them in his back pocket. Frankly, I was speechless for several minutes after because I was the one purchasing the honey buns and chocolate milk for the both of us with my credit card while my cousin had a nice wad of cash in his wallet. Billy, of course, never noticed my ruffled feathers as we walked to the car. He was too busy tearing into the honey bun with his teeth and smiling like the same ten year-old he never left behind.

The ride home was uneventful and once we arrived, I quickly rushed Billy off to the guest room in the hopes of climbing back into my bed and catching a couple of hours of sleep before my young sons were up demanding the usual Saturday pancakes I make for them. After laying down my wife, Diane, wanted a full report on Billy's latest escapades and for some reason looked upon me doing my family duty with such warmth I was actually surprised when she began taking off her nightshirt and panties. Never one to look a gifted horse in the mouth, I quickly followed her lead and spent a good deal of time playing doctor with my wife. When sleep finally returned to us both we were happily holding each other oblivious to the world outside our bedroom door.

That all changed some unknown time later when we were both awakened by a deep cry of victory and triumph coming from the direction of our kitchen. I immediately knew Billy was involved somehow because accompanying that happy bellow were two smaller shouts which I had to figure were my sons.

“What the hell happened now?” Diane asked sleepily still laying next me.

“Don't worry,” I answered, “Billy is probably just playing X-box with the boys.” That was a good thing since that meant all three were in the living room eating cereal, which would require me to do a major cleanup later but that meant more time laying naked with her in bed. That all changed when Billy and my two boys came barging into the room causing Diane to scramble underneath the covers and begin glaring at me as if the woman I just had sex with was someone other than her.

“Charlie,” my cousin exclaimed in a tone of voice that suggested he had just won the lottery, “You won't believe it but I'm now worth five-million dollars!”

With my wife, naked under the bed sheets glaring at me, my two sons already on sugary cereal overload jumping around like spider monkeys suffering from a caffeine overdose, and my hulking cousin staring at me like he had just found Jesus, I was in sensory overload. For all intents and purposes I was in a catatonic state somewhat thinking this was all a seriously screwed up dream. It was Diane that finally brought about some quiet and order to the chaos.

“Everyone get the hell out of my bedroom now or I assure you all there will be hell to pay!” She screamed to Billy and the boys who quickly ran out of the room. Much to my surprise, Diane wasn't finished and now turned her attentions on me. “And you,” she said, “get out as well and find out what the hell is going on before I get out of bed.”

After finding a pair of gym shorts and t-shirt I joined the other men in sad exile. A cup of coffee later to chase away the tiredness, Billy and I are sitting at the kitchen table with me trying to make sense of the lottery scratch-off he says had solved all of his problems. As I examined the lottery ticket, my initial assumption was that Billy had simply misread the card which would result in a waste of five dollars and my cousin suffering another bout of dashed hopes. Much to my surprise I soon learned that he was correct, barring a monumental bad decision, unfortunately a real possibility for him, Billy would never have to worry about money for the rest of his life.

Both Billy and the boys took my proclamation that he was correct about his initial assessment as a reason to once again to start howling victoriously. Diane came running out of the bedroom, fully clothed but with her hair wet from a shower, after the resumption of needless noise ready for war but when she saw the amazed look on my face she began shaking her head dumbfounded at the sudden turn of events.

Billy wanted to start calling people, especially Trixie, and tell them about the unexpectedly won riches but I stopped him saying we needed to come up with a plan on how protect his new wealth. Unfortunately, I did let him call his mom and dad, which I soon learned was the same as him calling everyone in the first place. Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry started calling their own friends who called even more people and before long the entire population of Watertown County knew that my cousin was now a millionaire. The only exceptions to that news were Trixie Duval and Thad Lovelace who had left town barely an hour after the deputies had released Billy into my custody.

The real complication to Billy's wealth didn't appear till the next day when Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry forced their son to go to church the next morning. My aunt and uncle were members of the Watertown New Faith Church of God, a mega-church that when it wasn't hosting Mid-Atlantic Wrestling or monster truck rallies events could seat over two-thousand people to hear the word of God. Curiously enough, even when it was a church a person could still buy a cup of coffee and sub sandwich from the in-house Starbucks and Subway shops.

The pastor, the charismatic and Brad Pitt-level good looking Mitchell Carter was close friends with the county Republican leader, Robert Edward Ryder, a man who I thought was the physical embodiment of the evil Emperor of the Star Wars movies. My opinion of Pastor Carter was that when you discounted his rather large ego he was almost a decent guy. The best description of Carter was that he was my cousin, Billy, with about twenty extra IQ points. Several times he had attempted to groom Billy, who at least equaled him in good looks and charisma, to save souls for Christ. But my cousin just couldn't consciously direct his talents and all attempts to make him a preacher failed miserably.

But it was Robert—I personally called him Dick Ryder-- who now took an interest in my cousin. That Sunday, using his own politically motivated abilities drawn wholly from the darkside, Dick had already mobilized his political support teams, and with the blessing of both Aunt Sally and Uncle Henry, took control of Billy. Like the fictional Emperor, Dick saw massive potential in Billy and began guiding him along a path that even on a county level filled me with dread.

Since I thought setting foot inside the multipurpose mega-church was the absolutely worst thing anyone wanted to do and remain a Christian, I didn't learn about this turn of events until Aunt Sally called my mom who in turn told me. At first I thought my mom was joking but when I tried to call Billy on his cell phone all I got was some hack in the employment of Dick Ryder who said my cousin was busy.

In the space of a few weeks Billy no longer talked with a deep Southern accent that sent most people snickering behind his back. Add a decent haircut and clothing that leaned heavily towards business casual and Billy began looking like a respectable person. This upgraded Billy was put to use six-month later when he became the newest member of the Watertown County council. Apparently careful and constant handling prevented Billy's usual destructive talents from taking hold and much to my surprise my cousin appeared to be enjoying his new life and how to move among folks and act like an intelligent person.

After the successful transition from luckless local bum to respected county council member, party officials decided to take Billy to the next level. Much to my surprise many aspects of my cousin's life were wiped off the records. Somewhere along the way, my cousin earned a college degree from a university in Idaho that I had never heard of but was said to run advertisements in the classified section of various men’s magazines. A short time after that, Billy became an officer in the National Guard without benefit of training and with a whole bunch of awards on his records. His drill weekends had him hanging out at the state headquarters making coffee, talking about football, and driving the staff around. Most surprisingly was that Billy became a subject of political gossip in newspapers across the state about a possible career in politics.

Sure enough when the next election came up, my cousin, the newly minted Richard Wainwright became South Carolina's newest state senator.

By this time my visits with Billy were reduced to a few hours a month but much to my surprise I woke up one morning to read the paper and see a picture of him standing with a stunning young lady who the article said was a Charleston debutante whose family could trace their lineage back to colonial times. Despite his now polished and dignified appearance, it was clear in the picture that given the way Billy looked at this example of high class breeding he was totally in love with the woman. Upon reading this news I started laughing so hard that I fell to the floor thinking of his previous love Trixie Duval whose greatest aspiration was to make it to the strip clubs of Las Vegas.

The beautiful spring morning Billy married the high class debutante it looked as if the entire political leadership of South Carolina was in attendance at the ancient Charleston church where the ceremony was held. Decorum had prevented Billy's political handlers from stopping me from being his best man but it was clear neither his fiancee nor the rest of her family wanted me anywhere near my cousin. I took this to mean they understood I could ruin their massive investment in Billy if I happened to talk with the wrong individual. After the ceremony, Billy made a point of including me with the important men folk who had gathered privately in a small room to smoke and drink and discuss issues. I was actually having a good time until I about choked on my glass of fine bourbon when the South Carolina governor dropped in to say hello and told my cousin he should prepare for a run for his office in a few years.

The night Richard “Billy” Wainwright was elected governor of South Carolina I immediately began looking for a job outside the state. Despite all the training and his scores of political handlers, I keep seeing the picture of my cousin in the newspaper taken after the explosion of the automotive shop which resulted in his eyebrows being burned off. Billy's one true talent is his ability to produce a fantastical amount of chaos with nothing but his two hands and a few good intentions. I don't know if Billy is simply jinxed or deep down in his genes are all four horsemen of the Apocalypse distilled into his DNA, but like a long dormant volcano silently gathering strength at some point his bad luck will erupt forth and cause new destruction.

With Billy the new governor of South Carolina there is talk that the Republican party is looking at him as a possible presidential contender, I'm starting to suffer from a series of nightmares where Billy thinks the red button that launches the nuclear missiles is a just something from a video game. Given the chance I'd move my family to Antarctica if it was possible, but instead all I can do is sit back and hope sanity returns to the political process or that Billy suffers from a massive heart attack.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Falling Down Short of the Singularity

Somewhere around 35,000 years ago an unknown artist or shaman recorded his, or her, existence by leaving a handprint inside Chauvet Cave located in France. That handprint along with a multitude spectacular paintings depicting animals of that age mark one of the earliest examples of humans creating something tangible that didn't directly aid their constant struggle for survival. In other words, it's not wrong to think that handprint and those paintings mark the beginning of when humans start to define themselves as something more than an overly intelligent animal.

That was in no way meant as a disparaging remark directed towards our ancestors living in those prehistoric times. Their brains were quite occupied learning such nontrivial things like how to create complex stone tools and learn hunting techniques that took years to master. Failure to pass on this knowledge would almost certainly mean the death of the family or tribe. Then there were things most people of our age don't even begin to consider, such as how to tell the difference between two similar looking plants because one could cure things like a sick stomach whereas the other would kill a person who mistakenly ate it. Throw in other items like knowing the stalking habits of animals, such as the local sabertooth cat that had developed a taste for naked primates since it ate Uncle Oog down by the stream last winter. Given the horrendous struggle to survive, it doesn't take much in the way of imagination to think there might have been members of that tribe that considered painting pretty animals on cave walls as a huge waste of time and effort.

As much as those cave painting signified the beginnings of human progress, there was little to else to talk about until about 12,000 years ago when bright boys and girls in different locations around the globe figured out the basics of agriculture. The pace of change picked up after that as more readily available food meant a larger population, which in turn helped create more complex societies requiring increasing levels of cooperation and organization among people. The end result was human civilization that manifested itself in the form of cities, politics, empires, wars, nations, religions, money, laws, science, literature, art, and a growing level of technological knowledge that would seem like magic to those early humans that used Chauvet Cave for their paintings.

The two common factors linking all the progress associated with civilization through the ages is the creativity of the human mind and the hard work of millions of individuals. Without either the human species would still be restricted to small bands of hunter-gatherers roaming the planet literally looking for their next meal.

For better or worse, those of us alive today live at the edge of a new age completely different from what any of our ancestors could have conceived. No, I'm not talking about some megalomaniacal A-hole destroying civilization or even the outright extinction of the human species through the use of nuclear or biological weapons. What we are possibly on the verge of seeing is the reduction or possible total removal of the human mind as the main creative element to further spur the advancement of civilization. As for the human workers, they are already feeling the impact of this new age with technology making many jobs obsolete.

As much as it might be damn difficult to fathom, progress in both computer hardware and artificial intelligence (AI) software opens up the possibility that in our lifetime we could see emergence of computers that equal or even surpass the intelligence of us puny humans. The general idea is that once a certain level of computer intelligence is reached, these silicon based go-getters could then take over the design process and over the course of an extremely short time, create such a massive intelligence chasm between them and us Homo sapiens, that we'd be lucky if they decided to keep us as pets.

No, this isn't another example of irrational twenty-first century American societal angst, tangible and testable advances in computer systems are regularly pushing the envelope on what computers can accomplish. Now whether of not this Technological Singularity could even happen is a subject of intense debate among computer and biological scientists. But respectable experts such as futurist, Ray Kurzweil and computer scientist and science fiction author, Vernon Verge have predicted this event to happen sometime between five to one-hundred years from now. That is enough of a difference to suggest to some this is just another example of over educated eggheads going the route of medieval theologians who liked to debate how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

However, when you add up, then average the predicted dates from multiple sources, you come up with a median value of around the year 2040. Soon enough that a fifty-one year old slacker such as myself, might live to see a group of super intelligent computer-based entities decide they have had enough of humanity's collective tantrums and get rid of us. Quite frankly, given the current Republican presidential nominee, and the vast majority of the members of that party, I would happily turn over the running of the United States to a sentient computer. Because an inhuman, silicon-based intelligence scares me less than a megalomaniac and the semi-moronic hordes showing disturbing proto-fascist tendencies.

So yeah, while I have all the respect in the world for Elon Musk, and Stephen Hawking and their warnings about the dangers of AI, without a doubt I would gleefully choose a possible Skynet over a man who actually talked about the size of his penis during a televised political debate. Given humanity's bizarre and self destructive neuroses, should the option present itself, I can't say I wouldn't actively campaign to elect a silicon-based intelligence because the situation here on Earth is so screwed up.

Political nightmares aside, given the pace of hardware and software advancement, the concept that the human race could wake one morning and find itself superseded in the intelligence department is something we need to take seriously. Furthermore, the possibility that a basic sentient AI system that could over the space of a few months design an ever increasingly intelligent series of more advanced models, it's a good question whether such god-like entities would even register the existence of several billion naked primates.

Could this be all wild, science fiction speculation that will soon join countless other failed predictions that both futurists and crazed college professors have been talking about for decades? Sure, in real terms the human brain is still a huge unknown and there are scientists that scoff at the idea it could ever be superseded by anything like current or near-term hardware or software. There is one huge problem with that shortsighted and casual dismissal, you don't need a sentient super computer to up end the global socioeconomic system. Advances in general robotics and software-bots threaten not just low skilled minimum wage jobs but skilled and white collar professions.

The best example about how robotic systems are fast encroaching on area of work once thought safe is Baxter the robot. We're not talking about the usual single-use industrial robots that have done monotonous work like welding for decades, Baxter learns new things by watching someone do them first, for the most part it can see and pretty much can do any task within reach of its arms. Baxter's industrial applications range from knitting, packaging, loading and unloading, machine tending, and material handling. I once worked in the manufacturing industry and that list of abilities would pretty much empty out a factory of most human costs. While Baxter is slow moving, the big saving associated with using him comes in the fact that he costs only pennies worth of electricity to run along with a small amount for maintenance and upkeep.

The biggest disturbance that has made the numerous appearance on the media are driver-less cars and trucks. Sorry folks, this is not something coming, its here now and only going to get better and, unfortunately take more jobs. Driver-less vehicles have already logged hundreds of thousands of miles in California and all without an accident until very recently. No, it is clear driver-less cars are not perfect but that is not the point, with over 40,000 people killed each year in car accidents with humans in command all they have to do is be better to make them more economical. Simple liability costs will eventually force humans to nothing better than a glorified co-pilot in their own cars. That says nothing about the trucking industry using them for short haul loads, which in some settings is already happening.

White collar professionals shouldn't feel safe, while the image of a C3PO-like robot being used as attorneys or doctors is still something for the rather distant future software-bots already exist in several disturbing forms. Truthfully, much of legal work is sifting through tons of paperwork looking for what can seem microscopic inconsistencies. Legal software now regularly scans and analyze millions of pages of documents and duly notifies waiting humans who can decided if the discovered item is relevant. No, humans haven't been taken totally out of the equation, just greatly reduced, which still results in piles of money being saved that would have otherwise gone to salaries. Yes, you are free to imagine a bunch of senior law partners relaxing in the Caribbean sun as yet another software-bot sends them a message saying that the one or two underlings at the office have made a break in the case.

Doctors will also feel the displacing power of software-bots since they can easily analyze the interaction of thousand of different drugs and how they would impact their patients. That function by itself certainly saves lives but software-bots are also breaking into the realm of diagnosing illnesses and diseases since they have the ability. You may remember IBM's “Watson”, who while crushing the puny humans on Jeopardy being his hobby, is actually designed to be a doctor. Something Watson is already doing at Sloan-Kettering Hospital with lung cancer patients.

Crazy but possible predictions or sentient computers aside, it is clear our society, and the world, will be seeing imaginable changes from both advances in robotics and software happening right now. These creations are slowly taking over the burden of maintaining both our society and economic way of life as well as advancing civilization in general. Because of this many jobs people depend on will either be greatly reduced or outright eliminated because, just like the free-market types love to say, the laws of economic always win. Of course, that was fine with them as long as it was lowly fast food worker types demanding a livable wage. You've got to love the irony in the fact that even skilled and professional types will see their sanctimonious positions be assaulted by the same technology that could make your local Burger King or McDonald's automated factories of unhealthy crap.

The thing our leaders should do right now is start coming up with ways to keep these displaced individuals if not employable at least integrated into our society. Americans have an all too ingrained habit of either ignoring our poor and homeless or pretending their situation is the result of some character flaw. Whatever the case, if our nation even wants to pay lip service to the basic principles upon which it was founded our society is going to have to evolve rapidly, and quite possibly in ways that seem that most Americans readily ridicule. Below you will find a You Tube video that explains the situation far better than I can, I HIGHLY recommend it be watched along with others that respond to it.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Nomad Feet: Hilton Head Vacation- June 2016, The Final Shots

As everyone can guess, I made it a habit all that week to get to the resort's beach house to watch the sunrise. This picture was taken Thursday with me walking farther out into the surf. Funny thing, about four pictures later when the water was up to my knees I stepped on some unlucky creature. Not exactly sure what kind of animal I stepped on since but given the smooth texture of its skin I can say with some certainty it wasn't a sand shark. By mutual agreement, we went our different ways after it wiggled to show its displeasure and I pulled my foot up.  

This is Disney's Hilton Head beach house which is about a mile away from the main resort. You can't walk to it but there is a bike path complete with an underpass that lets riders safely avoid the busy main highway. The beach house has its own pool along with a bar and small diner that serves lunches.   

My wife and I did the beach on Thursday going all out and renting an umbrella and two beach chairs. It was pretty expensive but since I didn't bring our own chairs or sun shelter tent we had no real choice. The people in the picture were our "neighbors", the guy is a retired judge from Pennsylvania and his wife is a doctor who works at a clinic in Philly. Nice people but the judge talked a little too much, my wife and I were trying to read but once he found out my lovely spouse is an attorney he wanted to talk shop with her.    

The fact that I didn't bring our own chairs or sun shelter tent didn't sit well with my wife. The biggest reason I didn't bring them was because the chairs are junk needing to be replaced and the sun shelter tent is far too small from two people to sit under. The orange and grey one in this picture would have been perfect for my wife and I. Okay, I also be honest and say I took this photo in a blatantly sexist attempt to try and get a picture of the knockout blonde wearing a thong bikini. Unfortunately, she walked out of the frame about a half second before I pushed the button. 

Friday we did the Coastal Discovery Museum located at the old Honey Horn plantation. Since the tour was arranged through the Disney resort it was free for us but there are more than enough activities to justify the price of admission.

It had a huge amount of information on the coastal environment and history of Hilton Head Island.

This is a diorama of an early 20th century oyster harvesting process. During this period South Carolina oystermen harvested about three million bushels of the delicious bivalves each year. Of, course as coastal development increased pollution has played hell with those numbers. In fact, there were several times runoff so polluted the oyster beds in Georgetown county all harvesting had to be stopped for a while.    

The museum had a small butterfly garden, always a favorite for my wife and daughter. Since I'm secure in my manhood I'll go ahead and admit I like the creatures myself. 

Took a good deal of effort to get this picture. Little buggers wouldn't stay in one place for more than a second or two.

If you look carefully you'll see a trio of fiddler crabs doing what I am sure is important crustacean stuff. If you somehow get the idea that their tiny muddy politics of domination and desire to attract mates isn't far removed from the ridiculous behavior of us humans don't worry, it's a sign of sanity.   

The museum even had its own bee hive. No, I didn't feel the need to get a closer shot of those industrious gals. 

Unfortunately, all vacations have to end eventually forcing us to return home Saturday and retrieve Sparky the Wonder Dog and his sidekick, Snickers the Overactive Canine from the kennel.  

Friday, June 24, 2016

Nomad Feet: Hilton Head Vacation- June 2016 Part Three

Tuesday night was finished off fireworks shows put on by the Shelter Cove organization consisting of all the businesses in the immediate area, which includes the Disney resort. When this shot was taken to the left of this picture is the marina and on the other side of that was a concert with the band playing Buffett, John Denver, and other old style rock and roll tunes. 

During the fireworks I learned that the Disney resort has an unauthorized feline living on the premises. I am told due to liability issues and health reasons concerning the cat, the staff has attempted to catch the illegal resident and take it to a shelter but he always slips away. I am also told the unofficial name for the cat is "Felix" and I found him quite friendly.     

Wednesday morning brought a whole new set of activities here at the resort. There seems to be a preconception in some circles that all the activities cost money. In fact a good number of them, including some that take place off the resort are free. The Pinckney Island Tour is one of the free nature tours and, as I mentioned in a previous post, my daughter and I did the free beach nature walk a couple of days ago. We missed the marsh nature walk that had everyone put on knee-high boots and walk through all the glorious mud to examine many of the tiny lifeforms that live at the base of the food chain. 

My daughter's day was made when she caught a very irate blue crab in her crabbing net. We try our hand at crabbing at least once during each of our visits here and usually catch at least one or two. We never keep our catch though because there are size limitations and you can only keep male blue crabs.  

Not sure what gender this one was, but it was so small, a sure sign it was below the limit, he or she soon slipped the net and dropped back into Mother Ocean.

Before we caught the crab somehow we nabbed this poor, tiny fellow with a net that is in no way designed to catch anything but crabs. We quickly returned him to the water and hope he learned a vital lesson.

Wednesday ended with this nice sunset and the promise of yet another day of vacation. Unfortunately, enough time as already slipped by for me to begin hearing the real world starting to call us back.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Nomad Feet: Hiton Head Vacation-June 2016 Part Two

Tuesday morning started with a cup of coffee on the balcony overlooking one of the common areas. I had already made my wife and daughter cranky by trying to get them out of bed. For my own safety I left the room, got a cup of free coffee from the lobby, the only thing the Disney Corporation will ever do without charging an arm and a leg, then walked the resort. When I returned the ladies were back asleep allowing me to sit on the balcony. 

This, of course, is the campfire area where the resort staff leads up guests in songs and games. It's actually a really cool thing just seeing how much the little kids enjoy the festivities. 

My daughter, Darth Wiggles, and I did a beach nature walk late Tuesday morning. The resort has a naturalist on the staff and she walked us through one of the more secluded beaches on Hilton Head. Unfortunately, it was right before high tide and we didn't see a lot of the starfish, sand dollars, and other small creatures usual when the water is lower. We did see this marked Loggerhead turtle's nest, which according to the naturalist, is due to see its baby turtles dig themselves out in about another thirty days. Kind of ticked off a couple of my fellow tourists during the walk. As we walked I made a point of picking up trash as I went, and sadly there was a lot including plastic wrappers that have killed and caused grievous harm to many animals.

Lunch was at Santa Fe Cafe just a few minutes from the resort. My wife loves this place and when we are here on the island it's always a safe bet she will literally grab the steering wheel of the car to force me to stop there. This was her meal, which consisted of the painted desert soup with a small salad and quesadilla. I had the same thing, except I had the boring but tasty black bean soup that doesn't have anywhere near the artistic appeal.  

I absolutely love these ancient oak trees. I take some spiritual solace in the idea such lifeforms exist and that, with a little bit of luck and care, should continue living long after I have again become what a famous Disney movie and play calls "the circle of life."

Got a great deal of hammock time Tuesday and continued with this book about a pig who showed such love of life and basic humanity that he could have taught lessons on the subject to a good number of Homo sapiens. I'll have a review of this wonderful book at a later date.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nomad Feet: Morning Walk at Hilton Head

Jumped up this morning and hit the beach before sunrise. It was a beautiful morning, although it was impossible to get my daughter or wife out of bed to enjoy it with me. I returned to the room about an hour later to still find them asleep. Frankly, I don't think they even registered me leaving the room. 

This is a butterfly garden here at Disney's Hilton Head Resort. No butterflies though, this morning they appeared to have totally split the scene. This was all part of my morning walk around the resort after coming back from the beach. It gets rather busy during the day but up until nine o'clock most everyone is still asleep.

Cool little sailboat docked at the Shelter Cove marina. Been seeing this one here for years and to be honest there a couple of times I thought it had been abandoned. Whatever the case, it's sporting a brand new photovoltaic solar cell array on the stern to generate some electricity. Would love the story on this little boat, of course you can't see the stern where the name and point of origin are painted it says it started out at Racine, Wisconsin. Doubt the owner sailed through the Great Lakes, then up the St. Lawrence seaway, then down the east coast on the intercoastal waterway to finally get to Hilton Head. If the owner did such a thing that was a hell of an adventure.  

Sign showing the distance and direction of all the Disney Resorts, most are in Orlando but there is one at Vero Beach, Florida, one all the way in Hawaii, and one in California.