Sunday, April 24, 2016
At the expense of once again showing an arrogant snobbery that has turned the stomach of many, I recently learned something I found rather interesting. It's a small fact, but given the state of the nation and the world in general it has a large bearing on the affairs of how things are run and the future of our children. Though as usual, before I get to my damn, possibly over inflated point I must do my usual grotesque digression into a seemingly unrelated subject.
True historical documentaries on television are a rare occurrence, curiously enough they are almost extinct on such cable venues like the History Channel and Discovery Channel where strange and inbred reality shows now dominate. Which on the surface is quite the bizarre situation since when both of those cable channels were chartered it was proudly proclaimed that their purpose was to raise the standards of American television. Over the years those networks have devolved into being dominated by puffball shows about “antique picking”, the logging business, driving on ice roads, and numerous programs about cars. While there is nothing wrong with any of those series, the fact that they air on channels meant to give something more than mindless entertainment proves that quantity programming cannot really exist when corporate management has to worry about ratings and corporate sponsors. On the rare times anything educational is broadcast by those cable networks, whatever subject they broach is only given the most superficial of treatment before breaking for a long string of commercials.
The best example I can give is Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent version of the Cosmos series first started by Carl Sagan back in the 1980's. While the Fox Network is a broadcast channel, not cable, the true length of each episode was barely over forty minutes. Sure, they were an excellent forty minutes compared the usual Fox-based crap, but overall Tyson, and producer Seth MacFarlane, could have done a far better series had it aired on PBC, as the original did years ago.
All that being said, the internet streaming providers, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu have a number of historical documentaries that allow a snobbish prick like me to sit back and watch television without feeling the IQ points slip away like wisps of vapor rising up in the hot morning sun. Don't get me wrong, the internet streaming providers have their own collection of mindless crap but they all have things organized so someone with a better than average curiosity that stretches into shows with an intellectual weight can easily find them.
Such a documentary is: Athens:Democracy Without Rules airing on Amazon Prime and starring Dr.Bettany Hughes, British historian and author. Let me go ahead and get the stereotypical sexist American disclaimer out of the way. Yes, Dr. Hughes is an attractive woman but her ability to relate history in a context someone like me can understand and connect to our modern world is unparalleled. Her documentaries allow the watcher to relate to the past in a manner that is sorely lacking in many historians who can't get past the basic facts. Just to show what I think of Dr, Hughes, I cannot help but call her the Carl Sagan of history, which for me is high praise bordering on worship. Then again, I love history while for far too many of the great unwashed and barely sentient, they hardly comprehend things that happened just a couple of decades ago.
In short, as anyone should be able to guess, Athens: Democracy Without Rules tells the story of the rise of democratic ancient Athens starting with how the wealthy aristocrats controlled both the land and the city government with the poor living nearly enslaved to them. It quickly moves on to the Age of Tyrants and then the rise of Cleisthenes, who brought on the reforms which came to be called democracy.
This documentary is not the typical whitewash of history where some less than thorough and honest host grossly waxes on about how Athens lead the way to the establishment of Western Civilization. Yes, Athens did lay the foundations of the West and, in my opinion was the most important defender of those early ideals during the Persian Wars. Sorry fans of Sparta, sure Leonidas and his troops held off the Persians at Thermopylae but it was the Athenian naval battle at Salamis that saved Greek civilization. The ancient Athenian people were total hypocrites but quite frankly the citizens of Sparta were monsters given their practices and government.
But Dr. Hughes goes on to show that the people of Athens were not saints, that they regularly voted for war--so much it came damn close to utterly destroying them, that they oppressed woman in way quite similar to many Muslim countries, and that while they championed the idea of freedom, their economy was based on a vast population of slaves.
But it was the origin of the word “idiot” that about made he fall over laughing. In today's modern American English the word idiot is defined as anyone who is stupid but in ancient Athens it held a meaning that, as far as I am concerned best describes the proles that unfortunately dominate our society.
Idiot is derived from the ancient Greek word, ἰδιώτης ( idiōtēs ), meaning “person lacking processional skill.” For those living during the years of ancient Athenian democracy an idiot was someone characterized as a self-centered person more concerned with private affairs than the greater public good. It also meant someone lacking education and to be so mentally deficient as to be incapable or ordinary reasoning. To the ancient Athenians everyone when they were born were idiots but were made citizens through education. Yes, don't send me hate mail or nasty comments, I know Athenian citizenship was overwhelmingly hereditary but for the most part they still imposed strict educational standards.
Call me a snob, bordering on the delusional but I can't throw a rock anywhere I live without hitting someone who while trained to do one thing well enough to have a job do not have the slightest ability to make a reasonable and informed decision. If I desired to start a blog listing examples on general idiocy it would be so easy but also exponentially depressing. But before anyone starts calling me a political partisan out to grind an ideological ax at the expense of conservatives, rest assured idiotic behavior crosses the entire political spectrum.
So, some might be wondering what is wrong with being an idiot? It's abundantly easy with most of society geared to service such people. Yeah, but the world we live in now has reached a crowded complexity that defies all the moaning down through the ages about how the unwashed masses don't know their asses from a hole in the ground. Humans are no longer a thinly scattered animal living in primitive cities and villages completely disconnected from what goes on the other side of the planet. Decisions made in Washington DC, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, New Delhi, and hundreds of others cities that would terrify the ancient Athenian because of their size daily affect everyone on the planet.
For the average factory worker to not have a basic understanding of how such things as regional trade agreements will affect them is to court disaster and possibly suicidal. I could write a whole other crappy essay on how abuse of the environment and the increased rate of extinction could endanger the entire human species. But for far too many people, such information is not just above their heads but something they do not want to accept because it might mean an end to their easy lifestyle. The same goes for police brutality here in the United States and how an Africa-American male wouldn't be wrong to walk around with a shirt displaying a circular target. Just to share the wealth of idiocy, the same could be said for many nations, including American, European, and Islamic, and how they are doing their best to turn a blind eye to the plight of millions of refuges fleeing oppression, war, and climate collapse.
A comfortable idiocy seems to be a prerequisite for modern life in the twenty-first century Western world. Mildly stupid entertainment, such as the stuff I mentioned earlier, allows people to unwind and relax after a hard day running the metaphorical but pointless hamster wheel. Human nature seems to me that once a group has craved out their comfortable little space that the rest of the world doesn't exist. This complacency is highly dangerous because a lazy population is easily distracted allowing the rise of a privileged elite that will eventually do everything within their power to protect their positions. Which was of course was the reason the Athenian people rose up in the first place to begin their unprecedented experiment in self government.
Given the house of cards our civilization has become maybe were due for a type of Dark Age. Maybe at some point people will realize that they need to pay attention to the world around them, that idly making due as their portion of the pie gets smaller and that some people get nothing is wrong and rise up again. Then again, maybe if they stopped being idiots they could have avoided all the heartbreak and spilling of blood required to build a better world in the first place.
Friday, April 22, 2016
Last Thursday the indignities of middle age and the wisdom of medical science required that I surrender my personal sovereignty for about an hour so a doctor could check for any nasty surprises lurking in my nether regions. Frankly, basic decorum and the unwritten internet rule about it being best that we all resist the urge to overshare far too much personal information forbids me from coming out and actually naming the procedure. But I will say that given what the good doctor did find, I'll have to go through the crap again in five years.
Just for shits and giggles, I will admit that the drugs they used to knock me out made me feel all warm and fuzzy as what for me passes as consciousness faded into short-term oblivion. That being said, what I am about to go through tomorrow morning is probably going to be far more a trying ordeal than the session of preventive maintenance I endured last week. See, very early tomorrow morning my wife will begin her seventh yard sale since we were married with me as her chief and only unpaid and totally under appreciated and overly abused flunky.
On the surface yard sales are simply affairs, you set up some picnic tables in your driveway, bring out all the assorted unused crap taking up space in your house, and then place that stuff on the tables and wait for all the local human scavengers to arrive and pick everything apart like hyenas do a dead zebra. However, that basic premise ignores certain elements to the yard sale equation. The first being that you have to decide what unused crap will be itemized and then sold. This is highly problematic for me since my wife tends to believe anything of mine is a top candidate to be priced and them offered up to the ravaging hordes looking for a bargain. Just this morning after returning home from work, I made sure my DVD collection had not been located and absconded. The worst part of seeing my wife rifle through my belongings is to to get the impression that if kidneys could be sold on the open market she would somehow clandestinely get a blood sample so my spare organ could be typed and matched.
Once that is done, someone has to place an ad in some local paper to first attract the foragers. Here it is best to remember that while brevity being the soul of wit, it is also useful in placing expensive advertisements. It's best to state just the basics like time and location and let those searching for that huge bargain find you. But placing such a brief advertisement can also backfire when you see cars slowly drive by your house with the occupants silently appraising the items you carefully laid out while all the sane people were still in bed only to drive away without stopping.
The preliminary steps are over after several signs are made and placed at strategic locations along the roads leading to the house. Experience has taught my wife and I to place the signs out about two to three hours before the scheduled start. During our first yard sale back in 1996, I placed the signs out early Friday evening and had people knocking on the front door barely an hour later with others showing up until eleven o'clock that night. In fact, it didn't take many more yard sales before I noticed it was normal for a certain type of obnoxious person to show up at your front door the night before. Because education and proper hygiene are always suspected as a liberal conspiracies here in South Carolina, the early birds can often look like trailer park renegades on the verge of going Apocalyptic survivalist. Yeah, that's a mean statement but there is nothing like opening your front door around nine or ten o'clock at night and seeing a snaggletooth lady with yellow-tinted skin puffing on an extra-long cigarette asking if she and her friend can come inside to look at the stuff going on sale.
The next few steps all take place the day of the yard sale with all the items for sale laid out on the tables. My wife tries to organize similar items together but there is never enough table space. So you might have things like fragile Christmas decorations placed on top of a blanket laying on the ground. This seems to invite small children, who are always attracted to shiny objects, to ignore all the toys and go straight for the objects that are highly breakable. For my wife, that is when she suddenly realizes the breakable item shouldn't have been included in the yard sale.
The worst part of an active yard sale is to realize something was left out that the homeowner or visitors might trip over. During one yard sale I left the water hose laying on the ground like a lazy python stretching from the facet next the backdoor to the center of the front yard. Of course, my wife almost tripped over the thing with her then yelling like a enraged banshee for me to roll the damn thing up. Since my mom-in-law already had me very busy carefully moving the heavy tables so they had a more appealing position, I had to break away from her to answer my loving spouse.
After rushing over to the decorative reel where the water hose should have already stored, I bent down on my knees to begin rolling it inside the container. Through some combination of being on my knees, reaching over to turn the handle, while using my other hand to guide the hose in, I threw out my back. Actually, the best description is that all the muscles in my back decided they had had enough of the bullshit and just seized up. For about ten seconds I was frozen in place unable to move, hell, even breathing during that time seemed optional.
I quite literally stayed that way until the slope of the front yard caused me to fall over. As you might expect both my wife and mom-in-law, long since worked up into a shark-like frenzy, yelled at me to get the hell off the ground and get back to work.
My yard sale experience have taught me a little trick that I plan on using tomorrow. About the middle part of the sale, my wife will get bored and then ask me to watch the tables alone for what she will say is only ten to fifteen minutes leaving me alone outside, this usually happens during a lull in the customers. As soon as the next group arrives I plan on offering everything on a buy one item, get another item of equal value for free. It tends to clear things out rather fast, its one drawback though is that there isn't an inverse increase in the cash box, something my wife quickly notices.
The best solution for items that don't sell was inadvertently discovered at the last yard sale back in 2006. It was past noon and my wife, mom-in-law, and I were exhausted after spending all morning outside, which happened to be one of the hottest and humid days of that summer. As usual, we had a bunch of stuff left over with my wife again disappointed that she didn't make anywhere near the money expected.
A charity organization was supposed to drop by and pick up the leftover items, which we had positioned in a neat pile next the mailbox. A couple of hours later the guy driving the charity's truck knocked on our door asking where the stuff was he was supposed to pick up. We all went outside to look and it was then one of the neighbors dropped by to explain she had seen a car pull up with its occupants quickly jumping out and throwing everything inside the trunk before turning around and driving off. My wife and mom-in-law were incensed, while I couldn't help but laugh.
Mom-in-law isn't with us this time and yes, part of me is weighing the option of figuring out a way to leave all the crap alone for a few minutes while my wife is in the house. With any luck, those same people might show up again and save me a lot of hassle.
Saturday, April 16, 2016
When this nightmarish comedy called the 2016 presidential campaign started I actually liked Senator Bernie Sanders. He seemed to offer a vision of the United States where working and middle class folks would regain some of the economic leverage they began losing in the 1980's. Somewhere along the way his vision morphed, or better yet mutated, into something just as unrecognizable as it is unachievable. At the same time I had some interest in Sanders, I was lukewarm to Hillary Clinton at best, an attitude that quite frankly started way back in the 1990's.
Even though I voted for Bill Clinton in 1992 my politics soon diverged with me spending several years afterwards supporting the Republicans. Bill was a damn decent president but his escapades while living in the White House left an extremely sour taste in my mouth. No, they were not impeachable offenses but as the 2000 campaign approached, I felt a house cleaning was in order.
That being said, it's funny how a war built on lies and a political party hellbent on descending into a bizarre corporate-sponsored, proto-fascist madness can change a person's politics but that is what happened to me. The political circuit breaker for me was the fact that absolutely no weapons of mass destruction being found in Iraq after the entire Bush/Cheney administration all but bet their collective firstborn children they not only existed but that Saddam Hussein was eager to give them to Al-Qaeda. Throw in a realization on my part that all the Republican talk about “family values” comes from closet theocrats little removed from the Islamic extremists they hate. When you also consider these conservative politicians are financed by a whole spectrum of billionaires who don't even pretend to give a rip about the Republican Party's precious God-based principles and you have a contradiction someone with an IQ over 50 would be hard pressed to ignore.
Given everything the Republicans had screwed up and with me still nursing a distaste for Hillary, when the 2008 presidential campaign started I immediately jumped on the Obama bandwagon and have stayed there ever since. Not only do I think Obama has been an excellent president, he has shown nothing but decency and an intellectual superiority that puts his opponents to shame. And yes, during his time as president Obama has made some mistakes while in office but I would without a doubt vote for the man again if that was an option.
But since that is not a possibility, that left me with the choice of Hillary or Bernie Sanders. As I wrote, at first I had little enthusiasm for Hillary, even though right from the start she was the one candidate of the two with enough national name recognition to be a serious challenger to the supposed initial Republican front runner, Jeb Bush. However, given my own political convictions I should have jumped on the Bernie bandwagon almost as quickly as I did with Obama, but that didn't happen.
Right from the start I had a problem with the messianic zeal his supporters regularly displayed. Whether they were on some video feed or writing something online their statements could be summarized as to say if Sanders is elected we would immediately have utopia. That on his inauguration day, daffodils and daisies would spontaneously rain down on Washington DC like manna from heaven as entire legions of unicorns pranced in front of the United States Capital and sprayed the adoring crowds with rainbow-colored farts. Immediately following Sanders being sworn in, he would then proclaim himself Presidential-Wizard-In-Chief and wave the magic wand he had secretly kept and turn all 535 members of congress into fairies with magical wings who would then zoom off to their districts and home states to see that his Will would be done.
Given that we were talking about Democrats here, not Republicans forever on the lookout for the Second Coming of Reagan, I was surprised to find out to voice any doubt about Bernie Sanders or the certainty that he could single handily fix all the problems the country faces was to commit heresy. This was an especially weird reaction for me since at the time I was going with the idea that either Hillary or Bernie would be far superior, as well as the only truly sane choice, to the array of batshit crazy being offered up by the GOP.
Numerous times I saw on social media people just write that “no matter what vote blue in November” only to be castigated as secret members of the Hillary/Bill cabal out to perpetuate the evil establishment. Adding a dash of salt to the wound, it was normal for one of Bernie's drones then to say that Hillary is really no better than Trump or Cruz, who by this time had sweep Jeb Bush away like a dead, dried up cockroach. (On a side note, that's pretty much my opinion of the entire Bush clan, so much that I have these barely coherent fantasies of a Terminator being sent back in time...)
To be fair, there was a similar messianic zeitgeist attached to candidate Obama for a while back during the 2008 campaign, which evaporated long before the 2010 mid-terms. This inconvenient timing ensured a successful conservative backlash thus making everything President Obama had to do far more difficult. Yeah, it was simply too hard for all those poor Millennials, who even now make up the shrill backbone of Bernie's support to break away from their video games to vote. Once again to be fair, it wasn't just the unwashed Millennials who utterly failed to maintain a true “progressive agenda”, there were other segments of the Democrat coalition that failed to show up at the mid-terms. So as to not offend every member of my political party, I'll just stop there for the time being.
As the campaign continued I soon noticed that Bernie himself started showing signs that he too believed in his own Christ-like awesomeness. Hey, I admit when you're the lone voice of opposition to some seriously stupid shit being enacted in the halls of congress I can see how a little national attention could go to your head. And you would think that during those lonely years in the wilderness the guy would have spent a little time figuring out how to enact his policies if he ever got the chance.
The problem that kept nagging me about Sanders is that he is an one issue candidate. Yes, economic inequality in this country is the number one internal issue we face but as numerous presidents have found out, often from the day they took office, that the larger world often derails their finely planned agendas. Frankly, Bernie's past is high problematic for me, so much that after listening to his speeches on television I have doubts he he has the capacity to make the correct decisions when it comes to defending the United States and the interests we have defined for decades as vital for our survival.
That one statement automatically makes me an enemy of his camp who see the world in glasses far more rose-colored than I could ever hope to achieve. Yes, George W. Bush radically destabilized the entire Middle East region on his ignorant, criminal, and ham-fisted crusade in Iraq but that does not negate the fact that there are bad people in the world who wish to do the United States and our allies harm. In fact, as perverse as it sounds even to me, with the political situation of the world in such as sorry-ass state of flux because of Bush, these times will often require a strong show of force.
Contrary to the views of many progressives, there is no nascent peaceful world order waiting to take the global stage after the fall of the “American Empire.” I cannot tell you how much I truly wish there was budding planetary awareness but we unfortunately live in a world where regional powers are once again actively jockeying for dominance at the expense of weaker nations and are willing to go to war to ensure their success. Bernie's admonishments of global economic inequality will do absolutely nothing to deter Russia tanks rolling westward to regain what they see as their Hitler-like right to eastern Europe nor stop China from building fortified military islands in the South China Sea to control the shipping lanes. In fact, Bernie's misplaced 1960's attitudes might invite more conflict just as Neville Chamberlain's ineptitude did as he waved around the piece of paper with Hitler's signature did back in1938.
As Bernie has continued to show he is in no way ready to be president my opinion of Hillary has changed for the better. Because I believe Hillary offers the right balance between a realistic view of the world and the desire to change it for the better I now enthusiastically support her. This opinion has come with a price since I have now alienated a number of people who I use to call friends.
The fact that, in my opinion, seems to allude both Bernie and his followers is that democracy is an ugly mess full of dirty compromises and clumsy cooperation with people who hardly agree on any issue. That's just the nature of the beast and for any candidate to stand up on a podium and say with religious-like certainty that he will change the basic nature of the country in the space of a few short years suggests some combination of massive ignorance and/or outright delusions.
Bernie says his movement is a revolution, the problem with that such events have a dismal record. Yes, the American Revolution did succeed in a way, but it was less a massive overthrow of the existing regime and more of a replacement of the English aristocratic system with an enlightened landed gentry. As the decades passed, the American republic slowly and awkwardly evolved more enlightened and democratic practices with the Civil War one of the glaring exceptions as entrenched interests and an uneducated population fought to maintain an unjust and inhuman system of bondage of fellow human beings. The true notable revolutions that took place in France, Russia, and China saw the imposition of long reigns of terror that in the case of Russia and China results in tens of millions of deaths.
I truly wanted to like Bernie, but as the campaign has proceeded the sympathetic old man acting as the conscious of the nation while espousing coherent reforms has been replaced with a disgruntled fool basking in his failed past while sowing only discord and unrealistic expectations. The core ideas Bernie started with still matters and very much need to be addressed, it's just that the messenger has been fatally flawed from the very beginning, and things have only gotten worse.
Monday, April 11, 2016
(Usual author's note: Once again, nothing here is to be taken seriously, this is just a half-assed story I'm finding fun to write. I'm in a bit of a rush again so the typos might be bad. Yeah, it's best you read Chapters One and Two to get an idea of where this might be going.)
Mitchell continues to choke on his martini long enough to draw the attention of the brunette bartender that handed him the drink. “Is he going to be okay?” she asks me visibly concerned.
“Yeah unfortunately,” I say back dismissively. The brunette looks back at me unsure of what to say, then realizes maybe it's best she be as far away as possible and goes to the exact opposite of her confined work space.
And suddenly, Mitchell stops coughing and straightens up almost as if he was playing the whole thing for effect. After taking a couple of quick breaths and doing the typical male self-pat down like making sure he hadn't dislodged his Italian tie or somehow lost his Rolex watch he looks over at me.
“Always good to talk with you Eric,” he says dryly before walking away.
“Back at you, Mitch,” I say turning away from him while taking a long, pleasurable sip of the beer Carter Jones indirectly bought for me. I watch the old and disgruntled man walk off and give him a hateful smile when I see him glance back my way as he takes a seat at a table alone.
The mutual hate my dad-in-law and me share for each other is well constructed edifice. Mitchell's comes from a combination of things but primarily rests on the fact that I am not Skip Everette, his daughter's first husband who even now shares sweet nothings with his prison cellmate, Sleazy Kyle. See, Mitchell's son, Simon, turned out to be such a Brobdingnagian asshole whose only apparent redeeming quality, according to his wife who seems to liken this one trait as being on par with the creation of the polio vaccine, was that he always left the toilet seat down for her. Then again Simon's wife, Anna Jones, true love is her five-thousand square feet lake house, bright red Corvette, and a box of jewelry so large it could be used as a buried treasure prop for a pirate movie.
The one hangup in this unrestrained capitalistic/crass consumerist couple was the fact that no matter how hard Anna and Simon say they were trying, they simply seemed incapable of conceiving a child. That of course assumed Simon could actually put down his cell phone for the require five to seven minutes to concentrate on something other than the fluctuating stock market and how it would affect his monthly bonus and that Anna could stop shopping long enough to spread her legs. Whatever the case, their lack of producing offspring so bothers my macho dad-in-law that it allows me to constantly rib him that Simon couldn't get a woman pregnant in a room full of childless ladies obsessing over their ticking biological clocks. Truth be told, if they should ever have a child the first chance I got I would examine this improbable offspring for the number “666” somewhere on his or her forehead.
After college, Simon became an investment account manager and like the vast majority of everyone else in his career field, this required him to believe that since he spent his waking hours playing, often dangerously, with other peoples money that it made him far superior to the rest of the human race. It should say something that in a family already having snobbery encoded their DNA that even they couldn't really stand to be around Simon for longer than ten minutes.
Where my wife's first husband comes into play is that when Chloe brought Skip home to meet her parents he instantly fell in with Mitchell who quickly came to view the younger man as his true son. Almost from the moment of Skip and Chloe returning from their honeymoon, Mitchell would be at their apartment so the two guys could ride off to play golf, fish, or just hang out like old college buddies.
Back when Skip was busted with a half kilo of cocaine in his car as well as the chick who he was having an affair with sitting in the passenger seat next him Mitchell at first refused to believe the allegations. Once the facts were unavoidable he pleaded with Chloe to not divorce Skip, saying that the man just made a small mistake. Chloe told me she was so shocked by this request that she didn't speak to her father for over a year. The true nature of Mitchell's near obsession with Skip was revealed to me not long after Chloe and I were married. It seems the two regularly exchange letters with Mitchell going as far as to sending him care packages.
My share of our mutual hate was something I fought against for the first three years of my marriage to Chloe. I did my best to show Mitchell how much I cared for his daughter, engage him in simple conversation, and when that failed, just show him some basic respect. That all ended on my daughter Izzy's first birthday. We were less than an hour away from the time most of the party guests would have shown up and both Mitchell and I were standing on my backyard deck pretty much ignoring each other as I cooked burgers on the grill.
As usual, the silence between us had long since moved beyond the awkward when Mitchell decided to go walk around the yard. As Mitchell was going down the steps, he somehow stumbles and falls hard to the ground. Being a decent human being, I rush over to offer my hand to help him up. While Mitchell didn't exactly slap my hand away, he did ignore it completely and try to get up by himself, only to go off balance again and fall back down. I just watched from a distances that time, and it was then a wave of overwhelming anger sweep over me. I like to think of myself as a compassionate human being but at that moment had Mitchell's falls and then his struggles to finally stand back up caused a heart attack I can't say that I would have done anything to help or even call for assistance.
After my dad-in-law finally got to his feet I walked over to the edge of the steps leading up to the deck blocking his path. “Tick-tock old man,” I say to him, “watch how you treat people, especially those married to your only daughter, you're getting old and the Grim Reaper could be around the next corner you turn. You never know who will be with you when he shows up.”
Since then Mitchell likes to keep a respectful distance from me. The only reason we even exchange cold and insincere greetings is because his daughter still loves him and Mary Jones, his wife, worships her granddaughter Izzy.
My dark thoughts are interrupted when the four-member band strikes up another tune, this time AC/DC's “Highway to Hell”, a strange selection until I see Brad's total redneck of a dad, Stanley Parker, stripping off his coat and shirts to dance around bare chested. Stanley's bald head already shiny from sweat and ample belly fat that jiggles like a massive mound of hairy Caucasian Jello causes everyone to clear out space so he could pursue his impromptu artistic impulse.
Much to my surprise, Carter Jones, who I hadn't seen since Chloe and I arrived, appears out of nowhere and starts dancing with Stanley. A huge uproar occurs as Carter walks onto the dance floor and strips off his shirts joining the father of the man about to marry his daughter. Carter is the total opposite of Stanley, tall with an athletic body of someone half his age and a head of silver hair that absolutely refuses to be dislodged from its expertly styled placement.
From my comfortable position at the Tiki bar, I watch the two men gyrate and jerk in front of the band in what seems more like mutually supporting seizures instead of graceful artistic expressions inspired by music. Without any prompting, more of Stanley's clan decided to join the talentless two and it is clear to me a mob mentality is forming, which is reinforced by more of the Jones' who refuse to be outdone.
Comfortable with initial tinglings of a beer inspired buzz, I couldn't help but be amazed at the sight unfolding in front of me. The Jones and Parker families couldn't be more different, the former coming from a long line energetic upper middle class achievers for whom success in life is damn near a mathematical given.
Where as the latter come from a poor working class background where success in life is usually measured in how close someone comes to retirement age before heart disease or cancer takes them away to the afterlife they have been told was the true reward for hard work since childhood. I wasn't judging the Parkers', far from it, my own background was quite similar to theirs its just that my life experiences have allowed me the chance to see outside what is usually a narrow and quite limited existence.
In most instances, these two desperately dissimilar groups would have absolutely nothing to do with each other outside a strictly employer/employee relationship. While many in twenty-first century America still clings to the idea that the socioeconomic ladder is wide enough to allow people from the bottom to climb up and join those far more privileged, all the data and trends say it's largely an illusion.
If you think too long about the situation it becomes darkly funny. Both the upper middle class Jones and the blue collar Parkers have no idea that in the long term they are quite screwed. Yeah, the Jones clan are overwhelmingly college types who make their livings in comfortable white collar surroundings but theses positions are all highly specialized, subject to the conditions of the overall economy. In others words, when the country goes into recession and the economic threads that tie everyone together start breaking they could quickly find themselves like the now extinct dodo bird. For the Parker, their lives depend on jobs that can either be shipped entirely overseas or subject to severe pay and benefit cuts in an effort to make them competitive to those businesses that listened to the siren call of countries that have near slave labor conditions for their workers.
The biggest problem is of course is that neither the Jones nor the Parkers see the handwriting on the wall. For the Jones, everything is all peachy keen in America with the only problem being those they view as “takers” who waste the hard earned dollars they are forced to pay in taxes. They believe that while they do not sit atop the peak of the economic mountain, they are high enough to believe that their lifestyle will continue on like it is now forever. On the other hand, those like the Parkers view education on anything outside their idiot savant-level profession with suspicion. They have a child-like view of the world shaped by simplistic slogans and take refuge from things they don't want to understand with their Bible and guns. As an informal student of history, I know enough to understand everyone from the ancient Egyptians to the arrogant lords of the nineteenth century British Empire believed the same thing, right before they were dethroned as the rulers of the world.
I gulp down the remainder of my beer and ask for another when I realize that in the end it is not the meek who will inherit the Earth, but the shits like my investment manager brother-in-law, Simon Parker. That thought by itself would be enough to send most rational people running off screaming into the night.
But all that is beside the point now, the band has ceased their mediocre rendition of AC/DC and moved onto “Volcano”, again by Buffett. A conga line starts forming, which prompts me shed my own sports coat and polo shirt and and go grab my lovely wife away from her cluster of cousins and friends and join the rapidly growing formation. Chloe is in front of me and my hands are drawn to her shapely butt, which is already moving to Jimmy's easy rhythms. She looks back at me and gives me that special smile that says I will get really lucky tonight. I say a small prayer of thanks to a silent god that my mom-in-law will be taking care of our daughter tonight, because my wife and I just might be making her a sibling.
Saturday, April 2, 2016
(Usual Author's note: Years back before Jimmy Buffet began spending his time building gambling resorts and ignoring his music he dabbled in writing. The way he described some of his stories was that they were based on fictional facts or factional fictions, this is the case here. I have quite liberally taken some elements of my life and a good number of simple observations and totally twisted them into hyper-dimensional pretzels. Nothing here should be taken literally and any who do is itching for a fight. As always excuse the plentiful and ignorant typos.)
The news of Amanda Jones, my wife's favorite cousin, engagement to her boyfriend Brad Parker had long since filtered down through the family grapevine but it was the arrival of their wedding invitation in the mail that filled me with a sense of impending dread. It was a Saturday afternoon when the invitation arrived and my wife, Chloe, came into the kitchen clutching the thing like it was the winning ticket for a multi-million dollar lottery.
“Eric,” my wife called out, “the invitation to Amanda and Brad's wedding has arrived!” She said in a giddy tone of voice that was more like a child on Christmas morning than an adult.
I came in from the living room carrying our four year-old daughter, Isabel or as I like to call her, Izzy, to both observe the ritual of opening the envelope as well as pay the required respect to her current mental state. After being married to Chloe for eight years I had long since learned it was best to play along and not interrupt such unbridled giddiness. So Izzy and me watched her carefully open the envelope and pull out the enclosed invitation then read aloud the printed words it as if she was proclaiming the birth of high royalty.
“Okay,” I said outwardly smiling while inwardly fighting the sudden urge to run away and go join a monastery or the French Foreign Legion, “I'll make arrangements with work to take a couple of days off.”
“Great honey, I'll go call my aunt right now,” my wife said before bounding out of the kitchen as if gravity had been turned down to about half of what is normal.
Since my wife was an accountant at a firm with generous paid leave, it would be a cinch for her to attend the wedding. I on the other hand was a lowly copier repair technician complete with a surly boss and coworkers who all watched each other like East German informants eagerly awaiting for someone to commit an infraction, no matter how small, so they can report them to management.
With Chloe even then dialing up her aunt, I picked up the invitation to see the date of the wedding so I could get an idea of how much time I would need to ask off from work. Right from the start I noticed that whomever had purchased the invitations had bought the high quality stuff with fancy, engraved lettering in a font style that was both formal and decorative enough for a state dinner involving heads of state, CEO's, and all the other assorted flotsam up in Washington DC. Even the envelope screamed big bucks with its smooth, silky texture that felt more akin to Victoria Secret lingerie than U.S. Mail. Given that I had my own daughter, my stomach turned slightly sour thinking of the time I would probably have to buy something similar.
At first, I was somewhat surprised to see what would probably be the supreme social event of the Wilmington, North Carolina area was scheduled for just over a month away. Given what I knew about the Jones and how they handle family events, the probable scale of Amanda's wedding would be impossible given the time frame, but we're talking about a daddy with some serious bucks and the connections to overcome any obstacles.
Amanda's daddy, Carter Jones, owned an industrial supply company that did business all through the southeast allowing him to regularly brag he had numerous contacts with people who worked from places as diverse as food processing plants to cement factories. As with a lot of people, Carter's opinion of himself was always amplified after a few drinks. So much, that on one family outing he whispered to the group hovering around him in what I'm sure he thought was a sinister tone that he could have someone ground into hamburger and then have the pieces dropped into cement foundations from Virginia to north Mississippi.
A truly warm and charming individual, and his brother, Mitch, my dad-in-law was cut from the same humanitarian cloth.
Like many other husbands have to suffer through, my in-laws don't particularly harbor a lot of warm fuzzy feelings about me. In the simplest of terms, in their eyes I just didn't measure up to what they considered Jones material. Looking at the Jones family as a whole, they are an impressive array of white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, high-energy overachievers seemingly bent on showing the rest of humanity they are a bunch of lazy slackers.
The day Chloe introduced me to her parents they looked me over as if their daughter had brought home a smelly alley cat. Of course, none of them have ever said anything rude or insulting to me but after being married to Chloe for eight years and watching how the extended family acted around each other it was clear that there was at least a subconscious decision to ignore me whenever possible.
The funny thing is that by every standard I was a far superior husband to Chloe than the first guy she married. His name was Skip Everett whose one solid claim to the upper echelons of society was the fact he was the son of a Myrtle Beach real estate broker and developer. They were married for a little under two years when a South Carolina Highway Patrolman pulled Skip over for a broken brake light. Instead of playing it cool, taking the ticket and saying thank you before calmly driving off, Skip got all hyper-aggressive with the cop claiming his father would see that he lost his badge. South Carolina's highway patrolmen never being the forgiving or understanding bunch quickly got tired of Skip's verbal assaults and disrespect and forcible pulled the spoiled brat out of the driver's side window and then commenced to beat the shit out of him.
After Skip was handcuffed, the cop then asked the strikingly beautiful but skimpily clad lady in the passenger seat for her identification. When the lady turned out not be Skip's wife, like he claimed, but Anita Sunshine Ficks, one of the real estate agents working for his dad. With the situation beginning to smell like a dead, week old fish laying in the middle of a street in Denmark in the middle of summer the cop then felt he had cause to search the car.
About two minutes later a half a kilo of cocaine neatly wrapped in plastic was discovered in the trunk. Skip, still laying face down in the wet grass on the side of the road with the handcuffs biting into his wrists, of course denied the drugs were his, that someone must be out to frame him, possibily even Anita who he really didn't know that well. But a now terrified Anita, fearful of not only going to jail but having everyone at work learn she was shagging the boss's son, volunteered the information that Skip had bragged about having special party favors in the trunk when he picked her up.
After that a combination of things all conspired against Skip, namely a local prosecuting attorney out to make a name for himself, a grumpy judge who hated real estate developers, and a jury with several ladies whose husbands had cheated on them all saw fit to send him to prison for thirty years without possibility of parole. Poor Skip hadn't settled into his cell and become acquainted with his new living companion and special friend, a guy named Sleazy Kyle, before the Jones had mobilized all their resources to hasten Chloe's divorce proceedings to near warp speed.
Just eighteen months later the now divorced Chloe Everett meets me at a Jimmy Buffett concert in Charlotte, North Carolina. A year after that she becomes Chloe Warren, the wife of fresh graduate from Conway Community College. Other than the fact her dad now forbids the playing of any music in his house remotely similar to Jimmy Buffett, the rest is history.
After writing a note to myself concerning the date of the wedding, Izzy and me went back into the living room to finish watching Finding Nemo. Not a minute later I heard Chloe in the bedroom become increasingly excited as she talked with her aunt until she literally began to squeal. Our dog, Sparky, was on the floor next the couch and given how he began to squirm at the same time I figure Chloe's voice must have reached ultrasonic frequencies. The next thing I know Chloe is running down the hallway, enters the living room and plops down on the couch beside Izzy and myself.
“Great news,” she says smiling while my sense of dread increases exponentially. “Amanda wants me to be one of her maids of honor in the wedding.” Chloe finishes before running back to the bedroom while saying something about calling Amanda.
“Damn,” I said to myself wondering how much crap this shindig would ultimately create for me.
“Daddy looks silly,” my daughter Izzy said with a smile on her face. After crawling over and giving me a kiss she returns to her spot and promptly dozes off for a nap. Her simple actions were such a brilliant idea given what was coming that not only did I copy her, but rewarded my daughter with her favorite pizza that night.
Funny how time flies when you have an unavoidable family event you positively have to attend. After both Chloe and I got off early from work the Thursday afternoon before the wedding, we loaded up the car and left Columbia, South Carolina for the short drive up to Wilmington. But no matter how much I hated the idea of having such close contact with my in-laws, I mentally girded my loins for the coming family storm.
Amanda and Brad's wedding was scheduled for a Friday evening at the Wilmington Free Methodist Church right in the heart of town. While the church itself had only existed since the early nineteenth century, it was as ornate and full of history as some full-fledged ancient cathedrals of Europe. One aspect of that history all the members of that church hoped would be forgotten was the fact that during Prohibition several of the church deacons back then allowed the basement to be used as a speakeasy.
Considering how morally uptight the country was back then allowing adults to relax while drinking alcohol beverages was simply not a totally horrible crime on par with things like murder or assault. Except that things got out of hand when some of the more corruptible but yet entrepreneurial deacons started allowing certain ladies to practice their ancient profession in some of the smaller rooms adjacent to where the pillars of the Wilmington community listened to evil jazz music while sipping Canadian whiskey.
Since everyone who used the basement for enterprises unrelated to the practice of Christianity had a vital interest in keeping the various activities secret, it was only the end of Prohibition that forced the deacons to end their highly profitable undertakings. The word finally leaked out in the 1970's with the deathbed confession of one of the main culprits to the illegal endeavors. In an attempt to receive forgiveness which would allow him to walk through the Pearly Gates this guilt ridden individual confessed everything to a reporter who promptly published the story in the local paper.
While enough time had passed that no one directly involved was in danger of being charged with a crime, the resulting scandal did open a big can of worms concerning the Wilmington's mayor. As the story unfolded, Mayor Margaret Howard, staunch conservative Republican and longtime advocate of strict moral values learned something about her parents no child should ever discover. Namely that her beloved father was one of the deacons who originated the idea for the church-based speakeasy and that her mother was one of the ladies practicing her profession in the tastefully decorated bedroom a few doors down from the illegal saloon.
Mayor Howard, so stunned to learn of her parents past history, which undermined everything they every taught her, went straight into a massive existential crisis that ultimately had her resign from office and move to New Mexico where she now makes and sells pottery on the side of Interstate 40. On Sundays, she attends a rogue hybrid Mormon/Jewish church-synagogue that believes that while Christ isn't the messiah, he will return to Earth in a spaceship and take all his followers to Jupiter where the the long lost Garden of Eden awaits.
For several years after the news broke, the senior pastors scrambled to deny the church's history but once historical tour groups started making a point of driving past and telling the story someone came up with a great idea. After much discussion the present deacons restored the basement and nearby bedrooms to their Prohibition Era condition and now sell tickets for guided tours inside.
While the church did at least loosen up enough to allow tours, they naturally forbade any real parties to be thrown these days. Carter Jones being the wealthy man he was just rented an entire floor of the Wilmington Grand Hotel across the street from the church. After arrival, Chloe checked us in with her mother, Mary Jones, immediately taking charge of her only grandchild, Izzy of course, allowing my wife and I to walk down to the nearby banquet room and enjoy the festivities.
I had to give Carter some credit, the man knew how to throw a party. The banquet room had to be over three-thousand square feet and had long buffet tables setup along thee of the walls with a fully functional bar taking up the fourth. Tucked in one of the corners of the room was a small band playing standard elevator music, with the four members about as lifeless as one of those undead zombies from the movies. In the center of the room though, was yet another bar, this one square-shaped and tropical themed with two female attendants dressed in Hawaiian shirts.
Naturally, I tried to drift off in that direction but my loving wife saw fit to smack be across the back of the head and then drag me towards the line where about twenty people were waiting to say hello to Amanda and Brad.
It was a testament to the scale of the party at how fast the line for folks to pay respects to the soon to be married couple moved. Nonetheless, I had enough time to mentally prepare myself to say the proper words to them both.
It was Amanda who convinced Chloe to attend the Buffett concert where we met. Truthfully during the concert at first I was attracted to Amanda, wearing a tiny pair of shorts with a bikini top she looked both wild and incredibly free, and yes, easy. Contributing to that fact was the huge plastic cup she carried that never really emptied of the margarita she was drinking. Chloe on the other hand, was wearing just cutoff shorts and a Buffett t-shirt and really didn't look like she was having a good time. Physically the two ladies could be sisters with the only real difference being that Amanda had expertly cut short blonde hair while Chloe's was brown and longer.
Both ladies had brought dates for the concert but as Jimmy continued to croon, Chloe and I were drawn together to the point the guy she was with left early. Much to my surprise Amanda actually seemed to like me even though our respective lifestyles and career couldn't have been more different. She ultimately earned a Masters Degree in Business with a minor in mathematics. She worked for some insurance company and crunched serious numbers concerning possible global events with Chloe telling me once she had given a couple of intelligence briefings up in Washington. When you add that to the fact the second time I saw Amanda she was dressed in tight black yoga pants and wearing a day-glow green top all it would have taken for her to pass as a superhero would have been the addition of a matching cape.
As for Brad Parker, I both liked and hated the guy. Brad was as every bit as good looking as the the famous actor he shared a first name with and had the type of personality that would do him well if he wanted to enter politics, there was only one thing stopping that possibility. Unbeknownst to his future in-laws, Brad made his initial fortune by inheriting his dad's porn shop in Fayetteville, North Carolina, just a few miles from the main gate of Fort Bragg. A couple of years later he managed it into a chain of porn shops, all curiously situated close to army bases. From there he opened a couple of fast food joints, oil and lube shops, and a couple of tanning salons, the end result being he was probably approaching Carter Jones wealth.
“How the hell you doing Eric?” Brad asked while pumping my hand up and down from the handshake. “You and Chloe have yet to take me up on my offer for a trip out on my sailboat.”
“Talk to my wife,” I replied, “she's the one putting a hold on the trip.” I finish saying looking over at Chloe who commenced to give me the spousal stink eye.
“My husband knows I'm deathly afraid of water,” Chloe says looking hurt because it was a longstanding issue. “And I don't want Izzy anywhere near the open ocean.” She finished with a tone of voice telling me I wouldn't be getting lucky that night since her mother was certain to demand our daughter stay with her.
“Well, you and I will head off together,” Brad said lightly nudging me with his elbow.
“Like hell,” Amanda said as Chloe and I switched with her giving Brad a quick hug and her cousin pulling me in close as well. “The last thing I need is Brad and you sailing off into the ocean and getting lost,” Amanda said half serious. “You two would end up in landing in Cuba and be thrown in prison as spies.”
A good part of having proper social skills is knowing when the semi-jovial small talk is exhausted and this was the case. Both Chloe and I left the two sickeningly beautiful love birds with my spouse heading off the talk with a cluster of several cousins I barely recognized and me heading straight for the tropical tiki bar before I was grabbed by someone who might stop me from taking full advantage of the money Carter Jones was spending on the party.
After taking possession of one of the bar stools, a gorgeous brunette wearing one of those Hawaiian shirts, that by the way upon closer inspection was a couple of sizes too small for the lady, took my order for a beer. The first sip danced on my tired tongue like ambrosia and it was then that I began to feel at ease. At the same time the musical zombies snapped to life and began playing “Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw,” by Buffett. I didn't have to look to figure that Brad probably had something to do with that choice.
Yeah, things were shaping up extremely well, you had to figure that was when it would all go to hell.
“Hello Eric,” Mitchell Andrew Jones, my dad-in-law said to me while taking a seat on the stool next to mine. “How is my daughter and grandchild?” he asked in his nasal tone of voice that always threatened to bring on a headache whenever he was close by. The cute brunette bartender apparently recognized him because without asking she hands him a double martini.
“Fine sir,” I say giving him a tiny bit of the respect he deserved. “And how is my brother-in-law Simon, is he still firing blanks in his and Debra's kid making efforts?” I ask back in return to which he begins to choke on his drink with me hoping for a stroke, heart attack, or a good old cerebral aneurysm.
(Author's note: Yeah, there might be more, I'd just have to get into a similar mood again.)
Saturday, March 26, 2016
(Author's Note: This is an experiment, so cut me some slack.)
Strictly speaking for myself, the most surprising thing I discovered about the Afterlife and Heaven, besides the fact that they actually existed and I ended up ascending instead of going down after I died, was that it has great cell phone service. Before I get off on the wrong track I'll just say Heaven is for the most part nothing like the old preachers and supposed holy men down on Earth ever imagined, but more about that later. But it was the pleasant chirping of my totally clear and reliable cell phone, the old flip open style, that awaken me from my blissfully restful sleep. One more little tidbit, everything in Heaven can be summed up as pleasant and blissful, naturally it should go without saying but because prevailing wisdom on Earth is so wrong about the place I just added that no one would get confused.
It was Saturday morning and the light of the sun was streaming through my apartment window providing a gentle and warm incentive to return to consciousness. Quick side note, yes Heaven for humans does look a lot like Earth with housing arrangements generally similar to what a person experienced while living, just exceedingly pleasant and cozy. I have weekends off from my job, yes you still have to work in Heaven, so I wasn't in any hurry to answer the thing. For several minutes I just stayed in my bed and stretched wishing these heavenly issued devices had a button allowing us still weary humans to turn them off.
No, the call wasn't the Chairman of the Board, one of the first things you learn on arrival is that the BIG GUY doesn't like the names mere Earthlings have given him over the centuries so he just goes by that title since it is something we can handle. But anyway, the Chairman is much too busy with his own affairs running the entire multiverse, nor was it any of his various angels, they are quite busy with their own duties.
Turns out the Chairman has discovered several of the most recent universes, those under twenty-something billion Earth years old, have an inherent design flaw requiring a huge software patch that has to work without rebooting the entire system, which would end the lives of untold trillions of intelligent lifeforms. The defect has something to do with the Higgs-Boson particle and that it decays far too soon. As for the angels, there are two groups of them, the first deals with those agents of the “Other Side” which amounts to a sort of Cold War that spans all realms of existence. A second smaller group of angels oversee how Heaven is run, which to to them is considered seriously crappy duty because they really don't like any mortal beings with humans near the top of the list. The analogy tossed around is that the angels liken it to humans having to babysit an over active slime mold.
But anyway, whomever was calling me was almost certainly human, I know only one extraterrestrial here in Heaven and while we're buddies I just don't see him calling me at home. As the chirping continued I couldn't decided if I really wanted to answer the thing, but curiosity was beginning to overwhelm me so I reluctantly rolled over and picked up the cell to read the name on the tiny screen. It was then that I uttered the closest thing to a melancholy sigh you can in Heaven, it was my ex-wife and since she didn't appear to want to give up on the call I was forced to answer the thing.
“Hello Diane,” I say trying to maintain the comfortable pleasant feeling that pervades all beings who reside in Heaven. “Just what do I owe the honor of this call my dear.” I finish hoping she didn't detect the all too mortal sarcasm trickling into my voice.
“Save the pleasantries Samuel,” she said back with her usual aplomb, “I need to met with you, it's about the kids down on Earth.”
“Damn, what's happened to the kids?” I ask suddenly worried.
“Nothing,” she said back harshly, “they're all still healthy and won't come our way for at least another fifty years.”
“Then what is the issue Diane? You know there is absolutely no way for us to influence them. Our children became adults before we died and even the grandkids are getting up there in years.”
“Never you mind,” she said, “just meet me at Le Cafe Paris.”
“The one in the French sector next the ocean?” I groan realizing my blissful morning was officially interrupted. Wanting to get this over with as soon as possible I agree to the location, ended the call, and rushed to get ready.
Another little fact about Heaven for humans is that it consists of several hundred planets, all many times larger than Jupiter, orbiting an array of stars in a complex pattern that every resident mortal, including many renown scientists, believe has some meaning. The best speculation is that the whole thing is a complex machine but neither the Chairman nor is winged minions have ever said one way or the other. Needless to say, there are other similar “machines” for all the other intelligent species, so many in fact it appears to be infinite.
Humans from the seventeenth century to the time I died in the early 2010's all share a single super-planet with the continents and islands divided up evenly. If that wasn't wild enough, humans run the whole thing with surly and bored angels keeping everyone above board and playing strictly by the rules. What it all amounts to is that varying sectors making up different eras, ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities living beside each other. Needless to say, it can be quite weird to live in an American sector with 1950's technology with your next door neighbor on one side being people from Ming Dynasty China and seventeenth century Persia on the other. When you think about it maybe the angels overseeing human interaction have a right to be pissed off about their assigned duties.
At least transportation across the heavenly super-planet is easy. I just used my cell phone to call for a taxi bubble, yeah it's exactly like it sounds. It's a bubble with four seats, comfortable bucket type made of rich Corinthian leather, controlled by a human driver – remember we all have jobs here.
My driver, or pilot turns out to be a guy named Blasius, an ancient Roman who fought in the second Punic War. He actually lives a couple of planets over but has been in Heaven long enough that he can transfer anywhere he wishes. That's also how I have my poker game with my extraterrestrial buddy, if you stay cool and cooperative after a couple of millennia the angels allow a being to get an unrestricted passport. My extraterrestrial buddy was originally from a planet in the Whirlpool galaxy 23 million lightyears from Earth. On his world, males are the submissive sex but can have up to fifteen wives depending on which of their planet's seven moon are full. An interesting evolutionary development complete with an overabundance of nagging females intent on literally biting his head off so it could be feed to the gestating offspring. He thinks my one ex-wife is adorable.
But anyway, just as soon as I get buckled in Blasius lifts off and we head east towards the French sector at about mach-10 where we both begin talking about our adventures while serving our respective nations. When I was alive I did a four years in the active United States Army and did a tour over in Afghanistan after 9/11, a fact that Blasius finds funny as hell since he knows a guy who served there following Alexander the Great on his egotistical empire building adventure. Long story short, no matter the technological advances as far as humans are concerned somethings never change. After an all too relaxing conversation where we both bitch about idiotic junior officers and shitty food while in the field, Blasius drops me off in the French sector near the cafe where I will have breakfast with my ex-wife.
As I stroll by small shops and other cafes, I realize I should have told Diane I wasn't interested in seeing her. Upon death and arrival here after orientation most people link up with their immediate family but that wasn't the case with Diane or myself. Since neither of us were close with our respective families the bureaucrats, human type not angel, first put me on this particular super-planet and after Diane died they dropped her here as well. Not that we have similar living arrangements, since, like I mentioned earlier you generally get assigned living arrangements like you had on Earth when you died. But to some bureaucrat looking at the files of thousands of new arrivals our past relationship counted as family.
In Diane's case she got a nice McMansion in a seriously upscale neighborhood in a different sector. This is because of who she was married to on Earth at the time of her death, our former family dentist. As fate or whatever would have it while I was turning wrenches and working rotating shifts at one of the factories in our small Indiana hometown, Diane began hooking up with Dr. Stephen Dennis DDM. A fact I didn't learn about until after the bastard had cleaned my teeth several times and taken care of a couple of my cavities. You can't imagine how infuriating it is when you learn that the guy who regularly had his hands in your mouth was also boffing your wife at the local Motel Six a couple of miles down the road from his office. Top it all off, because some desk jockey in his office was never told to remove my name from the computer program that sent out reminders so for a couple of years after the divorce I got emails from his office telling me it was time for my semi-annual check up. I admit, there were dark moments when I would have killed the bastard had I chanced upon him in some dark alleyway.
On a side note, in case you're wondering it's really quite hard to end up in the “Other Place” after you die. Not only is there this forgiveness thing but the offenses that get you sent to hell are pretty extreme. You have to be on the level of a cold blooded murderer, serial killer, bloody homicidal dictator, abusing spouse or parent, or investment banker before the angels overseeing arrivals even begin to give your record a close examination. This attitude goes for religions as well, none of the senior management gives a damn about which book you follow as long as you weren't cruel to other living things and tried to make the world in which you were born a better place. As long as a person follows those two rules they are pretty much guaranteed to walk through the Pearly Gates.
Seemingly far too soon, I spot Diane sitting at one of the outside tables of Le Cafe Paris. For a second I consider turning around and heading back to the ocean front and having breakfast at one of the restaurants there but Diane spots me and begins jumping up and down calling my name. I admit, seeing Diane looking again like she did when she was thirty years-old brought back some urges I thought were long gone. One of the things they tell you upon arrival in Heaven is that your appearance defaults back to the time you were most healthy. For Diane it was the time right after the birth of our first child while I look like I did during my time in the army.
“Alright Diane,” I say taking a seat at the table, “what's up with the kids, Peter hasn't bankrupted another business?” I ask thinking about our youngest son who honestly couldn't find his way out of a wet paper bag.
“No, Peter is fine and from the last report I bought, he's doing quite.” She says obviously upset while carefully picking up the fine china teacup and then taking a careful sip of the contents. Her movements are slow and I can see the hand holding the teacup shaking.
You might wonder why I have anything to do with my ex-wife considering how our marriage ended. It all boils down to her job here in Heaven that allows her to receive reports from Earth. Such information is expensive when available and contrary to what is believed by some dirt side, the departed do worry about those they left behind. Yeah, since the only reason I having anything to do with her is for news back home I'm screwing with Diane, probably not as bad as she did me while married but it's still wrong. The ends may in rare times justify the means but that doesn't make it moral.
“Then is the news about Ken or Beth or one of the grandkids? I ask not certain what the hell is up.
Diane was being infuriating and wasting my time, almost enough for me to say screw it and leave, no matter the cost. It was then that something clicked in me, a basic compassion for someone truly in pain that was so damn awkward it was painful. So, I slid my chair over and put my arm around the woman who I once thought I would live with until I died.
“Okay Diane, tell me what's going on down on Earth,” I tell her in what I hope is a soothing voice. She hesitates then leans into my hug and I find it strangely comforting, it feels like old, happier times.
“It's about Stephen,” she blurts out and begins crying.
A small amount of hate-filled joy creeps into my heart. I begin thinking Diane has discovered the bastard has cancer or was murdered, but no, it's nothing like that at all.
“I learned that Stephen is engaged to marry Carol, my best friend.” After that she breaks down into uncontrolled sobs. Carol was indeed Diane's best friend and I try to tell her that how the living carry on, that they make new lives after loved ones pass away. It was then that Diane let the other shoe drop.
“They were having an affair almost from the time he and I were married.” Diane said seemingly oblivious of the circumstances at how her own relationship began with the floundering dentist. So as I sat at a cafe table with my ex-wife it then that I wondered if it was possible to kill a person already in Heaven and what the punishment would be.
Friday, March 18, 2016
(Author's note: Might be best if you slide over to Part One of the story and read it first.)
Her name was some combination of clicks and sighs that only a truly genius-level human linguist could even hope to pronounce correctly. That was why she told me to call her Maria, my mother's name. She learned the name after scanning both the computer systems and my brain from orbit, a feat that prompted me to remember a quote from a twentieth-century writer by the name of Arthur C. Clarke. Back before humanity had not gone into space much beyond Earth orbit he said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic and “Maria's” ability to scan both computer hardware and the wet mushy stuff between my ears was proof that Clarke was a man way before his time.
Needless to say one of the things she learned during that scan was how to speak English. And I thought the subcutaneous universal translator mounted close to my right ear was an amazing achievement. I couldn't pronounce the name her species called Cannaria but I could give a basic answer as to what had happened.
Ever since the NX-class Enterprise had made the first human visit to Cannaria 3 during the time of Captain Archer the planet had suffered from the worst thing that can happen to any form of real estate. The entire Epsilon Cannaria system was simply too far off the beaten path to matter. So Archer had his geology team take samples and the life sciences examine the single cell life living in the ocean. At first everyone just assumed Cannaria was just one of those unlucky planets where life never developed multicellular life. A fate that occurs to ten planets out of the every two that goes on to develop complex lifeforms.
Further checks by the USS Bismark twenty years later surprised everyone with the discovery of a huge wealth of fossils going back over a billion years. The ship was on a training mission with a crew full of life science midshipmen and they ended up staying almost a year performing digs all across the planet. The conclusion was that Cannaria had once possessed a thriving and complex biosphere until two million years ago and was then wiped out by a sudden event. It was eventually determined that a neighboring star had gone supernova with the radiation sterilizing the planet. All during that time no evidence of intelligent life was discovered so when the final report was written the crew of the Bismark packed everything up and went back to Earth. Except for maybe a few Orion pirates that occasionally used the planet to hide, Cannaria was abandoned and forgotten about.
That was until the Dominion War and then the Borg invasion reduced scores of class-m planets to ash and severely damaged others forcing large populations to seek refuge on other worlds or artificial habitats. That was when the Starfleet Corps of Engineers was tasked by the Federation Council to begin terraforming worlds that these refugees could be resettled on within a reasonable time. Yeah, in this case reasonable time could be defined as twenty to thirty years but ancient Rome was not built in a day.
As for Maria's story, all she would tell me at first was that she had left the planet I call Cannaria three-million years ago. It didn't take a xeno-psychologist or a trained Starfleet counselor to know she was suffering from shock. The type of shock that humans could only speculate about since our civilization was only a little over six-thousand years old. While Maria hadn't elaborated, I had to figure her civilization had existed for several million years before she went on her voyage.
This brought up a whole host of mindbogglingly questions since not only was there no trace of her civilization on Cannaria there was no evidence of it anywhere in the star system. There was absolutely no ruins of off-planet colonies, bases, monitoring stations, or even probes anywhere to be found. While there were civilizations that never took to interstellar travel like the members of the Federation, they did go through an initial phase of exploring their star system which resulting in numerous artifacts being left behind.
During the initial construction of the facilities to terraform Cannaria grass had been seeded around the fusion reactor complex to stabilize the soil. In less than a year Starfleet personnel had groomed the area to the point it almost had a park-like character. Not long after our initial meeting, Maria and I were soon sitting on the manicured grass with her gently rubbing individual blades between her fingers looking up at the stars above us. Between long periods of silence, Maria would tell me small bits of her voyage to the far corners of the universe and beyond to other realms that defied human imagination.
“We were gods,” she said to me, “while no individual born to this universe can truly achieve immortality, my species had come as close as possible to breaking that barrier. My civilization had already existed for millions of your years and during that time we had created something that was unequaled in this galaxy. Before your species walked upright we had already explored this galaxy and even touched other realities. The very essence of life was something we easily created and molded into whatever form we wanted.”
“What of the star that went supernova?” I asked since research had determined that the star that sterilized Cannaria as B-Class supergiant that at most was only ten lightyears away when it exploded. “Surely a people with you abilities would not have let such monster like that hang over them?”
Maria got so strangely quiet after that question I began to believe I might have somehow insulted her.
“The star of which you speak was our power source for a great many of our endeavors. She said in a solemn tone I couldn't figure out. “The fact that it went supernova suggests something went terribly wrong or that it was purposely detonated.”
“What would possibly cause your people to detonate a blue, supergiant star?” I ask back astonished that the concept might be feasible.
“Even with my civilization's long stability and and ability to use power sparingly,” she said morosely, “there were elements of my society that ran counter to the prevailing wisdom. Such groups were promoted because in a long lived civilization intellectual decay was believed to be the first step towards extinction. In fact, my entire family belong to a faction that wanted us to become more involved in galactic affairs and restart our long abandoned exploration of the greater universe. But other groups were believed to do research into areas that were almost uncertainly unethical and maybe dangerous. They specialized into probing realities that were ruled by entities that the people of your community on Earth would consider evil.”
“What about your group wanting to explore the universe, what did your society think of them?” I ask her fascinated by the idea of her people were capable of doing.
“My civilization had become so accustom to looking inward that we were considered quite insane, not much removed from those groups probing the chaotic realms. But we pressed on by pooling our resources and technical expertise to build these ships.” She said motioning to the ever present behemoth floating over our heads.
One of the things they teach at the Academy is that you should never subscribe human emotions to any alien race, even one that bares a strong resemblance to Homo sapiens. But I was suddenly overwhelmed by waves of despair coming from Maria, so much it was all I could do to keep my own composure. It was then I realized Maria possessed a form of emotional telepathy, an ability so strong that I also realized that she had come home to die. It goes without saying that dealing with this being was so far beyond my meager abilities and training that I felt ashamed. On some level I knew that the current situation was just some awful and crazy quirk of fate and that what was needed was a full team with intensive training in dealing with first contact situations. Unfortunately for Maria, not only was her people erased from history but I would be her only company as she ended not only her journey but her very existence.
“We eventually constructed six of these ships,” Maria said after getting her emotions under control. “We all left at the same time heading out in different directions with the plan being we would return home together in one-hundred thousand years with the intent of showing the rest of the population how our endeavor expanded the scope of understanding.” Maria pauses while her emotions again assault me so hard I perceive images of her trip and what went wrong.
“There was a design flaw in your ship's systems.” I blurted out without really understanding the exact problem.
“The last starship my people designed had been over two million years before our departure. As you probably know there are nuances to interstellar travel that have to be carefully calculated. My problem was made worse by the unique nature of my propulsion system, my first jump into warp threw me tens of billions of lightyears off my intended course. I found myself far beyond the observable universe with no way to backtrack my course and return home. I was utterly devastated since it was a certainty that everyone I cared about would declare me dead when I did not return home at the proper date.”
“How did you find your way back here?” I asked trying to grasp the idea that she had been flung so far away that the light from those galaxies hadn't reached our section of the universe. That meant she had traveled over 13.7 billion lightyears from the Milky Way galaxy.
“I stumbled upon a civilization older than my own that had taken up residence in the darkness between galaxies. The black hole at the center of their home galaxy regularly irradiates huge sections wiping it clean of life. They discovered this fact before it occurred and fled to that starless abyss. More advanced that my own species, they were able to narrow down the area I had to search but that still took far longer than I was supposed to be away. I had hoped to at least find that my civilization still in existence.”
I knew of nothing I could say, she was a being totally lost in time and alone. It's horribly debilitating to want to help someone so much but know they are beyond saving. With nothing really left to say, she and I stayed on the ground looking off into the distance at the ocean as the first hints of sunrise started to brighten the dark sky. The silence between Maria and myself seemed as expansive as the distance she crossed to find her way back home. But in a weird ironic paradox it was also comforting since she wanted nothing more than to stay on Cannaria and die, while I found myself envying her experiences from literally crossing the universe. It was as the sun crested over the horizon that Fate played its final card in this encounter.
The morning light show began as usual with the colors exploding across the sky. For me, the beauty was undeniable but there was an associated familiarity with the phenomenon that had lessen my initial wonder. The general idea among Starfleet planetary scientists was that it was a natural event caused by an interaction between gases in the upper atmosphere and Cannaria's second magnetic field that was much closer to the surface than the usual one which was much higher. In the overall scheme of things all the factors causing it was a strange and rare occurrence but nothing out of the ordinary in a galaxy with close to a trillion planets.
However, when I saw Maria's reaction, and felt her emotions, to the morning light show I instantly knew our assumption were wrong.
“Maria, what's going on? You look as if you have never seen the morning display of lights.” I say to her with growing concern.
“Josh Tanner, do you not feel the message the waves of light are saying?” Maria said looking at me as if I was a bacteria.
Naturally I said no, to everyone who had visited Cannaria in recent history the light show was just a natural occurrence. It was then I probably began earning my Starfleet pay, if we still used such a primitive concept, because I realized Maria's people communicated in part by broadcasting emotions and the lights in the sky must be affecting the part of her brain that received feelings from others of her kind. Since the light show was tuned just for Maria's emotional sensitive people, to any other species it was just a freak of this particular planet's nature.
“What does it say Maria?” I say growing excited.
“It is from one of the members of my exploration group.” She said as I was emotional assaulted by a wave of happiness. “It says look to the ocean, that our story is told there.”
It was then that I felt like Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, Zefram Cocrane, and Qian Peizhi all rolled together. “Maria, have your ship analyze the planktonic lifeforms in the ocean possessing a pseudo-crystalline structure, we assumed it was a native but no one could ever figure out how it would have survived the radiation sleet from the supernova.”
Maria sprang into action causing an array of holographic symbols to appear around her. In the space of a few minutes her ship scanned the plankton and unwrapped an entire history of her people encoded into the DNA of the single-celled creatures. Not only had her civilization left a record of their existence but Maria soon discovered that her exploration group had awaken her people enough to cause them to establish a colony in another galaxy. As the holographic images swirled around her I recognized the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, as the place where her people now resided.
The despair that had literally hung over and surrounded Maria was gone. She had a purpose and desire to live again and I could tell our meeting would be over very soon. That is when she made an offer I could refuse in a trillion years.
“Josh Tanner, your patience and understanding has literally saved me. If I had not met you I would have ended my life just a few minutes after setting foot on my homeworld. I know well of your desire to see the universe so would you like to accompany me on the journey to my new home? I cannot promise when you will return to your Federation but it will be far sooner that the millions of years I have been away from mine.”
The bridge of Maria's starship consisted only of two chairs with mine seemingly forming out of nothingness within seconds of her bringing me aboard. The interior looked to be a hemisphere made of a transparent substance that allowed us to look out at the stars. Although, Maria told me the appearance of the bridge was just a mental construction of a form I was comfortable with. Without any ceremony she had the ship accelerate out into space slowing only momentarily after detecting a number of Starfleet vessels heading towards Cannaria. Maria had already linked my mind into her ship allowing me to know Commander Ansari was desperately trying to contact me. It surprised me to feel relieved that someone had actually heard my distress call when Maria's ship first entered orbit of Cannaria because at that time the lack of response had greatly unsettled me.
With just a few thoughts, I opened a channel to her and mentally gave a full first contact report including a copy of the information encoded in the DNA of Cannaria's plankton. I tried to resign my Starfleet commission but she refused and had the admiral in command of the USS Allegiance, the lead ship heading towards Cannaria, promote me to lieutenant. I barely registered that information because Maria had made the jump to warp and I looked in awe was my home galaxy receded behind me.
|"Change is the essential process of all existence."||Spock|