Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Belated Sympathy for the Devil We All Could Become


"Poverty is the parent of revolution and crime"
Aristotle


Even with my son and several acquaintances giving it rave reviews I didn't become engrossed in the now concluded American Movie Channel series “Breaking Bad” until the last five or six episodes. I knew the basic premise though, that it was about the corruption and fall of the main character Walter White. A struggling high school chemistry teacher who was forced by circumstances to start producing methamphetamine to provide for his family after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.

By the time I started regularly watching the show old Walter was already sliding down that slippery slope of good intentions pretty damn fast and had become just as inhuman as the other professional monsters involved with drug underworld. At the end of the series' last episode Walter's ultimate fate was just as many expected with most, if not all, the loose ends tragically tied up.

Being that I came late to the series, seeing Walter die on the floor of a neo-Nazi meth lab didn't have quite the emotional impact it did for my son who was left speechless. While I understood the abstract reasons why Walter became a drug producer and eventual kingpin I never “felt” the financial hardships and corrosive uncertainty that forced him down that path.


This changed a couple of days ago. As I cruised Netflix looking for something new and different to watch I saw Breaking Bad listed and watched the pilot episode. It was then that I got know the good Walter White.

In one of the first scenes in the pilot episode Walter is seen giving a clearly passionate lecture on chemistry to a new batch of students. Halfway through it not only does Walter realizes that they give less than a damn about science he gets into a pissing contest with a teenage douchebag named Chad eager to embarrass him in front of the others. For poor Walter the embarrassment goes off the chart later that day when at his second job, a car wash, he discovers Chad and his bimbo girlfriend standing over him as he cleans the tires on Chad's Corvette. Just to throw a little more salt into Walter's wounds Chad quickly snaps a picture of him with his cell phone while the bimbo uses hers to report who they have found working at the car wash.

After that we the viewers quickly learn that Walter and his wife, Skyler, are juggling bill collectors, dealing with their son's cerebral palsy, and getting ready for their second child who Skyler is pregnant with during the pilot. That would be more than enough problems for most people but Walter soon learns he has inoperable lung cancer. For those who don't know, Walter gets the idea to start cooking crack after watching a television news report with his DEA agent brother-in-law about the police raiding a meth lab.

Yeah, while at this moment I have not watched the second episode of the series my son has informed me Walter's fall from grace is pretty steep. When you willingly step across the line to the Dark Side for whatever reason you not only surrender the moral high ground but do a reverse, somersault into the proverbial cesspool of society.

The trouble I am having though is that from my sorry ass, bleeding heart liberal perspective society put Walter into the position where he had no other option than making drugs to leave something for his family. Not only does Walter have to deal with disrespect from his students to make financial ends meet he has to work at a freaking car wash! I have been called strange, and curiously anti-American, for expressing this out loud but I just can't wrap my head around the fact that our society finds it “normal” to pay someone tens of millions of dollars to chase some damn ball.

Hey, I like to watch football and baseball but in my humble opinion I don't give a rip how talented Drew Brees or A-Rod are at playing their respective sports they ain't worth all those millions. A hundred years from now no one will remember their names other than various sports trivia types. In a far better, and unfortunately totally unrealistic world, scientists, teachers, and social workers who work very long and unforgiving hours would be paid a proper salary. Since they for the most part are attempting to advance human knowledge, teach our kids, and are trying to make our society a better place. Part of me is sure that a thousand or so years from now when all the crap that seems vitally important to us has been forgotten our descendants will look with disdain on how we ran this society much the same way we look down upon the societal flaws of the ancient Greeks or Romans.

But I understand, some people look down upon teachers because they, wrongfully, believe they get these huge summer vacations while all the other slobs have to toil through the year for a single week off. The trouble is that salary mobility here in the United States has decreased to the point that we have the HIGHEST income equality in the industrial world. Yes, you read me right, no matter how teary eyed certain hyper-patriotic types get it is totally unrealistic to the point of fantasy to believe that the poor here in the United States can simply left themselves out of poverty.

The main reason for the increasing gap between the rich and the poor appears to be education. If some kid comes from a rich or well-off family that lives in a decent school district and has the money to go straight to college their respective ticket is punched for a better life. Curiously enough the proven government programs that provides some help to those not lucky enough to be born on second or third base are the ones conservatives are hell bent on destroying.

My ultimate point in all this is that while many in the middle class think they are doing okey dokey and the working class folks like to bitch about those lazy organized labor types getting all those free benefits the relative social position of both is not to far from the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. The middle class folks finance their lifestyles on high-interest, revolving credit while the working poor are kept distracted with propaganda telling them their increasingly dire situation is because of some nefarious socialistic boogieman.

This brings me back to good old Walter White. In Breaking Bad his character tried to play the game we have been taught all our lives. That you work hard and in America you will get ahead. The trouble is that is a lie for the most part. Sure, if you're careful, keep your nose clean, and get a little lucky you might be able to build yourself a relatively nice sand castle. But realistically speaking unless you are already in one of the upper tiers of income god help you and your family if some tidal wave like an economic downturn, outsourcing related to globalization, or health care disaster hits you.

It's in times like those when good people get desperate that despicable and criminal actions become their only way to stay afloat. 

For more info:




Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Awaiting the Christmas Apocalypse




This year my usual distaste for this hyper-commercial silly season and all the capitalistic overindulgence that become associated with it has been replaced with another emotion. Yes, I still find all the luxury automobile, decadent jewelry, and other commercials that equate love and family with the purchase of some new and expensive form of crap disgusting but I am talking about something on an entirely new and different plane of reality. This new Yule Tide feeling is outright fear that somehow I might suffer a similar Christmas day like the one I had to live through last year.

To recap, last year I awoke early on Christmas morning with my usual casual disregard for this time in of year firmly in place. I'm sorry, I am a Springtime kind of guy, except when it comes to the yard work associated with that period, and find winters only useful because the beaches here in South Carolina are largely deserted during those months. However, last Christmas morning was something of a minor miracle for me.

After falling limply on the living room couch where I had planned to turn on the television and watch either the original version of “Red Dawn” or “Dawn of the Living Dead” I was soon joined by my daughter who demanded we watch the Christmas movie “The Polar Express.” I tried to compromise by suggestion “Finding Nemo” or another Pixar movie but she refused. So, like any good dad I inserted the Polar Express DVD into the player and fell back on the couch with every intention of sleeping through it.

Something almost magical happened last year, I had never really liked Polar Express but for some reason the movie deeply affected me. My transition was almost like that of old Scrooge after being visited by those ghosts determined to mess with his head. I felt uplifted and outright joyful over the idea of Christmas and what it meant. For a brief time I loved all humanity, even the devolved and stunted folks who watch things like Duck Dynasty and Fox News.

Making things even better, Christmas last year was going to be blissfully simple since my wife was taking the kids up to Richmond, Virginia to see her mother the next day leaving me home alone. Christmas dinner was going to be a small ham and other easy dishes, then we were all going to see a movie. That evening we planned on making hot chocolate and playing board games. Instead, everything quickly went to literal shit.

About ten o'clock that morning I heard a curious sound coming from one of the bathrooms. It was a gurgling noise that immediately sent me into a panic. Long messy story short, our septic tank system picked that day to go completely and utterly wrong.

When my wife realized we had no working bathrooms and in fact had puddles of brown water in the bathtubs in the space or two hours she and the kids and pack up some bags and were waving bye to me as they sped off to Grandma's house. As they turned off the street it was then I realized I had to go to the bathroom. I hope no one ever has to go find a working bathroom on Christmas day. I drove around for a couple of hours looking for an open convenience store or fast food place. The one damn time I needed greedy capitalism to force its underpaid wage slaves to work and save me from doing number two in my pants and I could find nothing. Luckily, I saw that Redneckistan Medical Urgent Care was open allowing me walk inside and use their ultra clean facilities. Yeah, I had expected to be forced to use a dirty restroom and had brought along a bottle of disinfectant.

Christmas Day last year was the start of a long and expensive battle with our septic system that was not won by us until we dropped fifteen-hundred bucks into getting it repaired. Why does this bother me this year?

See, in a totally weird and illogical way reoccurring patterns seem to always show up in my life. The best explanation I can offer is that when two or three similar events happen there is a better than average chance a fourth or fifth one will not be far behind.

Case in point, this year we are again planning a simple Christmas dinner with us all going to a movie that afternoon. And like last year the wife will be taking our daughter to Richmond the next day to go see her mother. My fear is that once the pattern reasserts itself the septic tank monster will somehow awaken to plague me like some psychotic, axe wielding movie serial killer that refuses to stay dead.

Will tomorrow be a horrific sequel to last year's Christmas Day? I hope the hell not but just to try and break up the pattern I will be watching “Dawn of the Living Dead” tomorrow morning and fighting to keep my usual cynical and Scrooge-like demeanor.

For your Christmas enjoyment:




Saturday, December 21, 2013

Nomad Feet: The Charleston Farmer's Market

 My wife was alarmed by the smell of electrical wire burning early this morning and after an extensive search determined the source to originate from between my ears. Being a quick study she promptly figured out I had not only maxed out my societal BS limit but was also suffering from a severe case of cabin fever.

After that she promptly pushed me out the house with orders to head down to Charleston and go a short walkabout. Being exceptionally happy and eager to comply I headed straight to the Farmers Market being held in Charleston's Marion Square.

This picture is of John C. Calhoun's statue set atop an overly ornate pillar. Won't go into details but this fine nineteenth-century Southern gentleman was not a nice guy.    

 The day was abnormally perfect with over eighty-degree temperatures to go along with the beautiful sunshine. After parking at the nearby visitor's center just a block up the street I relaxed by strolling by the various food and artistic craft vendors. After so many months being cooped up in Redneckistan it felt unbelievably liberating to meet and talk with so many interesting people that were at best unconcerned with such ridiculous events like the recent Duck Dynasty blowup.    

I have really screwed up here but my favorite of the Farmer;s Market food vendors was the one selling BBQ but for the life of me I cannot remember its name.

 This is actually a photograph I bought from the Ken Bowman. Something about it captured my imagination and while the framed print was way too expensive for me, I grabbed a smaller version. My wife actually likes the picture and says we can get it framed then hang it in the foyer. The color of my snapshot is off but if anyone can do the Charleston Farmer's Market on Saturdays do try to find where his pictures are being sold. You can also look up his website here. 

Browsed around the Waterfront Park a short time later. I was surprised to learn that people can play in the fountains, as long as they behave themselves. My daughter, Darth Wiggles, has now gotten to the point that it's "uncool" to tag along with dad like she once eagerly did just a few years ago. When I told her about these fountains she freaked and now wants to go with me for my next trip down to the coast.

Unfortunately, as I have whined for so long the planets damn near have to do one of those ten-thousand year alignments before I can actually be left alone long enough to make that drive.

I know its just me but it's sort of strange to see a cruise ship docked in Charleston. It is a monumental understatement to say the city of Charleston has greatly changed from my first memories of the place. I still recall the sleepy little town from the late 1960's when my family ventured down from Georgetown whenever we had to buy some big ticket item like a car or even formal wear.  My hometown lacked the selection that was available in Charleston. Those trips were few and far between back then and so they have an epic feel about them that only a little kid could create.





Last shot of Waterfront Park, I had intended to walk the bridge but when you work night shift like I do you often get tired early and simply run out of steam. Grabbed a quick bite from the King Street Grille and headed home. Not a perfect day trip but since the last one was over eight months ago I'll take what I can get.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Into The Silent World---A book review




Early in 2012 while looking for books on Amazon I was lucky enough to stumbled upon Sam Winston's “What Came After.” In that novel the author paints a picture of a horrific future where the United States has not just fallen to third world status or outright collapsed like the numerous doomsayers these days constantly predict but has suffered a far worse but strangely plausible fate. In so many words the proud American Republic was not so carefully disassembled by a cabal of bean counting investment bankers, corporate CEO's, and the soulless sycophant politicians they own. It wasn't just the federal government that was discarded when the cost benefit analyst boys and girls decided it was of no further use but the state governments as well.

What replaced them was a kind of cooperative corporate feudalism with huge businesses craving out profitable niches of the now former United States. In this anarcho-capitalist wet dream those unlucky enough not to be part of the “ownership” of “management” classes end up as workers with few, if any, rights desperate not to fall into the world of the main character, Henry Weller.

Henry Weller is an extremely poor man born in one of the “Empowerment Zones” that makes up a large part of the New England region. In these zones a person works for one of the huge corporations doing non-skilled, back-breaking manual labor. But in a nicely crafted catch-22 what little pay the workers receive is in corporate scrip with people forced to buy what goods there are from a store owned by that same corporation. Adding insult to injury decades of industrial pollution and the widespread growing of genetically modified plants has created a contaminated and sterile environment where strange and deadly diseases have wiped out a huge portion of the population.

Life is short and brutal in these Empowerment Zones with no real options or possibilities of advancement for those born into them. Henry Weller though is a talented, self-taught mechanic who has literally built himself a workshop out of the refuse and other discarded items from our now dead civilization. In the first novel Henry has a brief and very chance encounter with the man who runs the mega-bank corporation. After Henry helps Mr. Banker, he leaves him with a vague and honestly purely meaningless promise that he would return the favor.

After some serious soul searching Henry grabs his young daughter, who is going blind, and sets out across a desolate and unforgiven nightmare of a landscape hoping Mr Banker might be able to save his daughter's sight. At the end of Henry's long and eventful journey a deal is reached between the two but the result upends Mr. Banker's comfortable existence and sends Henry and his family on another desperate trek looking for some form of sanctuary.

The second book in the series, “Into the Silent World”, takes off right where the first one ended with the corporate military arm of this neo-feudalistic America massacring the inhabitants of Henry's home town in an attempt to find him. In this novel Mr. Winston fills in some of the missing pieces of how things so thoroughly fell apart and explains how it was to the advantage to those who only concern is profit. Several new and important characters are introduced while some from the first book are developed further expanding the setting of this horrific world.

While in some ways “Into the Silent World” is more subtle than similar dystopic novels by McCarthy or even Orwell, to me it was even more chilling because you can see the seeds of just such a future taking shape if you listen to many of the politicians and business types these days. They speak of some sort of privileged business class and writhe in pain at the merest mention that this emerging capitalistic nobility might have to shoulder some of the burdens associated with belonging to a healthy and honorable nation that looks to uplift all Americans, not just those born to affluence.

Both “What Came After” and “Into The Silent World” are scary glimpses at the type of world we might inherit when profit takes the place of basic human compassion. I highly recommend both and dare anyone to honestly say they are nothing less than literary achievements.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

WriteTribe.Com Wednesday Prompt---Falling Between Worlds

 (Author's note: Been looking for some prompts and finally found Write Tribe.com. The prompt was: "Imagine you were digging to the ground in the backyard of your new home to create a vegetable patch and  found a treasure chest." Hope this works.)

The man paused to rest and looked out at the new section of his garden he was preparing. He had been working all day engulfed in the labor that allowed him to put his mind on hold and forget about his loss or his new problem. That way he did not think about her or his worthless and possibly dangerous brother that had somehow found a way to his cabin kilometers off the main road. While not hiding the man working the garden wanted solitude and his brother had as usual found a way to mess that up. Making matters worse Cynthia was no longer here to tell him to be nice and once again try to get Roger to straighten out his life.

Feeling the anger rise up the man purposely looked around seeking something to take his ming off a sore subject. It was then that he noticed how the earth from the new section of his garden was a collapsed portion of the small hill about a hundred meters further out. The remaining part of the hill had over the intervening ages kept its shape making it look like a massive, almost godly hand, had taken a huge knife and cut it in half.

“Hey David,” a familiar and highly irritating voice called out from his cabin's small porch. “Where's the coffee, brother?”

The man took a deep breath and exhaled. “Look in the cabinet next the sink Roger.” He yelled back fighting the urge to also tell him that he had one more day then he had to leave.

Feeling anger coming like an onrushing wave David raised his shovel and stabbed the earth. For several minutes he forgot about preparing his garden and just threw dirt around chaotically. Somewhere during this the shovel struck something hard. David's curiosity then took over to the point he eventually uncovered something that was roughly the same shape and size of an old fashioned treasure chest.

Instead of being made of wood bound together with iron braces it seemed a strange combination of stone and metal. After fully removing all the dirty around the chest he discovered what he thought was the top covered in glyphs he assumed was some sort of language, although he had never seen anything like it.

Happily puzzled David assumed it to be a Native American artifact and began thinking of whom to call to report it.

*******

The small room David Shaw found himself confined had all the hallmarks of a jail cell. It was just big enough to contain a cot for sleeping along with a small plastic table with three matching chairs. What separated David's quarters from the average jail cell was the small bathroom connected to his room and a small rectangular window set high on one of the four walls.

Just a couple of hours after his captors had locked him inside the spartan room he used one of the chairs to gain enough height to look out the window and see if he could force it open, or if that failed, break the glass and escape. David quickly found out that not only was the window securely locked but the glass itself was unbreakable. Even more frustrating was that the window looked out at a bleak desert landscape that essentially told him nothing about where his captors had taken him.

Also separating his current situation from what a common criminal might expect was that his captors, while not letting David go free or tell him why he was being held, were making every effort at being friendly and accommodating to his needs. The two guards that shared the duties of keeping an eye on him would stay for what David guessed was about an hour after bringing one of his three daily meals and attempt to carry on a casual conversation. Of course the discussion always drifted to the strange box David told them he had dug up on his property and how when his brother Roger opened the box everything within a thirty meter radius of it, including his cabin, equipment, and his sibling disappeared.

David quickly grew tired of his strange predicament and began ignoring all attempts by the guards to talk. The guards still brought his meals and remained cordial assuring him he was not a prisoner and that he was being held strictly for his own benefit, but they did not change any of their behaviors. For David being obstinate eventually wore thin as well and he began asking for a television or simply something to read just to pass the time. Curiously, this relatively minor request was something the guards had to go discuss with their supervisor.

“We are so sorry Mr. Shaw,” the senior guard said a few hours later, “our supervisor says that at this time she cannot allow you a television or any type of reading material. She apologizes and says that in a few more days you will understand the nature of your situation.”

“Screw that,” David said unable to control his anger, “I know my rights and when this is over I will sue the shit out of you all,” The two guards looked at each other, shrugged slightly, then walked out of the building making sure David did not attempt to escape. The final sound for that day was the click of the door being locked.

As night fell David would lay on the cot trying to figure out what the hell was going on. The possibility that made the most sense that he was being held in protective custody by federal agents because the underworld business associates of his brother Roger had finally grown weary of his failed schemes. Of course, David realized that if they were in fact federal agents they would have long since told him. The next possibility was that it was in fact the mafia keeping him prisoner and using him to draw his brother back out into the open. That theory fell apart because not only was it obvious the people holding him were extremely interested in that damn box he found but that neither the mafia nor anyone in the federal government could make everything close to his cabin disappear as if it was never there. Simple bewilderment eventually forced David to finally doze off with a small part of his mind believing that the real answer was that he had died and was now in a strange version of hell.

True to the word of the senior guard, two days later an attractive woman and an old but very dignified man he had never otherwise encountered since his ordeal began entered his quarters.

“Hello Mr. Shaw,” the woman said taking seat in one of the plastic chairs, “I am Karen Douglas and this is Dr. Wilson Baker. For the benefit of Dr. Baker I'd very much appreciate you telling him about finding the strange box in your garden. If you explain everything that happened we will both then tell you what is going on.”

David looked intently at the woman. She was dressed in a female version of the white button-up shirt, beige sports coat and slacks the two male guards wore as if it was in actuality a type of uniform. “Okay,” he said, “you want the story here it goes. As you already should know I was digging in my garden when I found this damn box. After digging it out I knew I had found something beyond the normal artifacts associated with Native American culture.”

David paused to take several deep breaths because what came now tested his sanity. “As I examined the box I noticed an unusual but simple circular latch was the only thing keeping the lid secure. I was sorely tempted brush away the rest of the dirt and then look inside but I know the regulations on destroying or even disturbing artifacts. So I walked down to my truck to get my cell phone and started making calls. I got the runaround from several different departments but finally got a hold of a Dr. August who runs the Native American Studies department at the University of Oregon. She wanted directions to my place to come and inspect the item. Just then I looked up to see my brother opening the box...”

David again paused, and looked at the two people sitting across from him clearly reluctant to tell what he knew would sound like the ramblings of someone madman.

“Go ahead Mr. Shaw,” the woman named Karen said, “this is important.”

“Okay, well here goes. Right after my brother opened the lid I could tell immediately that something was glowing inside. My brother then looked at me with this huge feral grin, you'd have to know him but that told me he thought whatever was inside would be valuable. All of a sudden the glowing light expanded first engulfing my brother then increasing speed until I was caught. I blacked out and woke up sometime later finding my cabin, garden, all my equipment, and even my truck gone. It was like none of it had ever existed. Your people showed up soon after and carted me off and well, here I am and now you tell me what the hell is going on!”

Dr. Baker looked briefly at Karen Douglas then began to explain what had happened. “Mr. Shaw, I'm sure you understand that what you found was not some run of the mill artifact. It was a device from a lost civilization that only now anyone associated with these items can appreciate the awesome power they control. Simply put Mr. Shaw you're not in Kansas anymore.”

David had no idea what the doctor meant about no longer being in Kansas. It was only after a lecture in quantum mechanics and its many worlds interpretation David even thought he had and idea, and that seemed crazier than what he had already been through.

Three months later...

David Shaw sat on the park bench in Portland, Oregon looking up at the flag made up of thirteen alternating red and white strips with a field of blue in the left had corner containing fifty white stars. Karen Douglas sat next him making sure Shaw didn't do anything completely stupid. “One American country running from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the dream of the Original Revolutionists come true.”

“We call them the Founding Fathers here in this world,” Karen said absentmindedly.

“Sorry,” David said, “in my world there are thirty-three independent countries occupying the same area of North America. The idea of not worrying about another Virginia-Ohio war over Kentucky, the antics of the latest Texas dictator, or that damn Georgia Mafia my brother became involved with is hard to wrap my head around. Plus, it will be hard to think of myself as a United States citizen and instead of one from the Pacific Northwest Federation.”

“Well,” Karen said, “ don't think for a second the United States is utopia. Keeping it going has always been damn hard and we've come close a couple of times of the whole show falling apart.”

“What I can't figure out,” David began again “is why my world's George Washington actively discouraged a continental union after winning the American Revolution. His behavior runs counter to everything I have learned about yours. And then there is the question of what happened to my brother.”

“Hate to tell you this,” Karen said, “but from what we have learned the closer to the device when it activates the greater the time line differentiation. We had a civilized Neanderthal pop into existence in the middle of New York city once. Now that poor guy really fell through the looking glass.”

David Shaw started to ask another question but Karen raised her right hand up to silence him while the left one gently touched the small communications device handing from her left ear. “Understood,” she said, “Shaw's target is approaching.”

David started to get up but Karen stopped him. “Listen David, I'm easily breaking a dozen regulations, common sense, and probably some sort of cosmically ordain rule about fate. If she blows you off you will come back to me or I swear I will drop you like a rabid dog.”

David nodded and got up and started walking along the park's main path. Even after being transported to a parallel world seeing her again seemed beyond a miracle. David had chills run down his spine the second he realized the woman approaching him looked just like his Cynthia. He forced himself to remember what Karen said about how that was no guarantee she would be anything like his late wife.

Just to help David adjust to his new life here Karen had checked to see if his late wife had a counterpart in this world. Not only did she exist but was single and lived in the exact counterpart of a house they shared in his world. It made no sense, but nothing about these situations ever did, so she decided to arrange a meeting between the two.

Karen sat on the park bench causally watching David and this world's Cynthia. She had two undercover guys a few meters away ready to tackle David if things went south. But amazingly it didn't, there was some sort of undeniable chemistry between the two. A few minutes later they are strolling towards a Luckybucks coffee house clearly enjoying each others company. “Well shit,” Karen said over the team's radio network, “screw this, guys let's go get something to drink.”

Thursday, December 5, 2013

When Fake Christmas Trees Attack

 (Author's note: The following events are all true.)



This statement may surprise some but there was a time I actually looked forward to Christmas. When my kids were younger and believed the whole Santa Claus scam I loved the look of expectation in their eyes right before they eagerly went to bed knowing the next morning they would find a neat array of loot next the tree. Some might call it a form of quasi-child abuse but the one tradition I kept from my own surreal childhood was the habit of giving my kids dire warnings of how Santa had this special piece of equipment that could detect whether or not children were actually asleep in a house he was about to visit.


I told them this device could detect a child even slightly awake which would force Santa to abort and proceed directly to the next house on his schedule. Nothing terrifies your average, well-off middle class American child than the idea that Santa might skip his or her house over some transgression. On the other hand nothing drives your average, well-off middle class parents insane like a whiny kid worried over what Santa might, or might not bring. So, if anyone has ever wondered why Santa rarely skips a kid's house no matter how much of a spoiled rotten monster that child might be there is your answer.


I cannot speak for any other family but Christmas Eve night was the time you could hear a pin drop once the younger Darth Spoilboy and Darth Wiggles were officially put to bed. There was none of the usual desperate requests for water, emergency bathroom visits, or the whines of, “but I can't sleep.” I would go as far as to say a metaphorical bomb could have gone off outside both my kid's bedroom doors on Christmas Eve and they would not dare to step outside.


It was during these blissfully quiet and absolutely peaceful moments that the colorful lights from the Christmas tree, the warmth emanating from the fireplace, and the lingering effects from a couple of bottle of wine that would arouse the friskier nature of my lovely spouse. Yes, screw the roundabout attempt at some half-assed literary description, it was during these times daddy got his Christmas present on the living room floor between the fireplace and the tree. Such were the times when I actually looked forward to dragging my family's fake Christmas tree down from the attic and assembling the overly complicated but beautiful simulated tree.


Now times are quite different, both my young Sith Lords know the real deal about Santa. They each still have a Christmas wish list but instead of having the fat old man dressed in red act as an intermediary they just come straight to my wife and me to plead and whine about why they deserve such goodies. Whereas my wife and I once wrestled naked next the roaring fireplace on Christmas Eve we now just go to bed early out of simple exhaustion while our children stay up to watch television or play video games. The one unchanging constant is that last Sunday it was once again time to assemble the old Christmas tree, but even that has become problematic.


The first problem with the family fake Christmas tree started a few years ago when the color coded bands on the end of the various branches began to fall off. These bands corresponded with a dot of the same color on the metal pole that acted as the trunk of the tree. Throw in wear and tear on the branches from years of assembly, disassembly, and rough storage up in the attic where the huge zippered bag it is stored in is often moved around whenever my wife feels the urge to rearrange the bands have come loose along with the dots on the trunk being rubbed off. As the years have progressed this has made assembly more complicated, especially when the branches themselves have become bent and deformed.



Still though, being a persistent trooper I would eventually get it assembled even though if you looked closely it was easy to see a few of the branches were in the wrong locations on the trunk. My usual response to any kind of questioning look from my wife was that the final result was close enough for government work. My wife would not so graciously allow the misshapen tree to pass because by that time I had already cussed up a storm over the deformed branches and the multitude of plastic evergreen needles that now covered a good portion of the living room carpet.



This year though I somehow assembled the damn tree in record time with all the branches in the right location. The wife and daughter then decorated the tree and with that was done I laid down on the couch early Sunday afternoon for a nap.


From my position on the couch the top of my head was only a few inches away from the tree. Not long after I began my nap I swear I started to hear the ornaments on the tree jiggling ever so slightly. My usual curiosity should have forced me to investigate but instead I was already sufficiently warm and fuzzy with approaching nap time that I ignored the subtle disturbance.


Not long after I slipped away into an afternoon dreamland one of the three metal legs of the tree stand gave way with the tree falling over and for all intents and purposes viciously attacking yours truly as I slept. Somehow both my wife and daughter saw the incident because as I pushed my metal and plastic assailant off me I found them laughing their asses off.



It took about two hours to get the metal stand bent back into something approaching the proper shape and the tree back up. It is far from perfect and unfortunately as much as I abhor the idea of joining the insane after Christmas shopping hordes my wife has declared we will need to go buy a new tree and I am forced to agree. Yes, I fear another fake Christmas tree attack more than rabid American consumers desperate to go deeper in debt buying even more crap they do not need. That, for me, is quite the profound and unsettling statement. 


Just showing where the Christmas tree is located in relation to the couch. If you click on the picture to enlarge it you should be able to see how it is still leaning to one side.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Questioning God






Contrary to my upbringing I have become highly skeptical of both organized religion and even the basic idea about the existence of God. In my opinion I came to these positions honestly and not through some form of bitterness at having a religion force fed to me since I was a child. Nor out of an idea of revenge where I would do everything I could to dissuade others from their faith because of some past abuse at the hands of a minister or important leader in some church.

To be honest, in hindsight when compared to the fanatical Christians that have become the most visible examples of that faith here in America my religious upbringing was unbelievably mild, bordering on politically progressive. In my view such was the case in the late 1960’s to the early 1980’s before religion became hopelessly entwined with right-wing politics. Few seem to remember that one of the most attractive points of Jimmy Carter’s personality as he ran for the presidency in 1976 was his Christian faith.

I seem to remember Sunday sermons before the rise of Reagan and his alliance with the “Moral Majority” that dealt with the actual teachings of Christ. Not the fearful and mystical lectures performed by an increasingly paranoid bunch of Caucasian men out to build comfortable little empires of wealth and power for themselves. Yes, there were the occasional sermons on both the “End Times” and the Rapture but the various preachers involved always ended them saying a good Christians just had to live the principles taught by Jesus and those Apocalyptic issues would take care of themselves.  It was a clever way for intelligent reverends to tell the more excitable members of their flocks to live in the real world and not be constantly wishing for it to come to a nightmarish end.

Of course, the religious right has systematically undermined this pragmatic attitude as it has drifted further away from the center of American politics. Politicians, always looking for an advantage, have responded by catering their message to win the votes of those that fervently hope to live long enough to ascend to the clouds with Christ where they will relax and watch this world be drenched in the blood of evil sinners. This is where my break with mainstream organized religion began as the lowbrow, apocalyptic types who believe everything in the Bible is the literal word of God came to the forefront.

I truly wish time travel were possible because every Bible literalist I have had the misfortune to encounter would be far better served living in the worst part of the European Dark Ages. To them science is a form of witchcraft created by the Devil to lead people astray. These folks make it clear that they truly believe the universe is somewhere around six-thousand years old, that the human race originated from Adam and Eve, and that there was a global flood where  one family was charged with the duty of building an ark and taking care two of every life form that lived on land.

Just to show how wild these magical beliefs could run I offer two examples.  I once served with a guy in the South Carolina National Guard who could drone on for hours about some sort of water canopy that God, or some now canceled law of physics, had once suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. According to this person this water canopy blocked radiation allowing for the long life spans of Old Testament figures and, when God decided to destroy the world, provided the water for Noah’s global flood. Another fellow who I attended community college with ran out of a classroom once convinced God was going to strike dead the person sitting in the desk beside him because that person was tearing pages out of the Bible to be used as rolling papers for his marijuana.

Such nonsensical beliefs make it impossible to carry on a conversation about the important issues the country faces. Combine that with their idea that the Christian Rapture is imminent and every discussion ends with the most religious person in the room proclaiming that nothing matters anyway because Jesus will arrive soon and take his people away. These people become so strident at times, it is easy to get the idea that only modern laws and traditions prevent them from burning those they see as heretics at the stake.

It was this drift from the relatively reasonable aspects of Christianity into a surreal retro-Dark Age mentality that has soured me on the benefits of attending church and in many cases having any real relationship with those professing to be Christian. Yes, exceptions exist but they are increasingly rare. Our mutual problem, with each other is that I question everything and that is something your average Bible thumpers cannot stand.

Given this developing mindset, it was not long before I began to wonder about the basic concept of the Christian god, or the other deities claimed by the monotheistic faiths. In ancient times, God had a nasty habit of being a vengeful psychopath to anyone not a member of the tribe of desert dwelling nomads he preferred above all the other people in the world. Even as a kid I never could wrap my head around the basic assumption held by some Jews and many fundamentalists Christians that God plays favorites.

More to the point there eventually came a time I could no longer ignore the question as to why God let Satan run rampant through the world causing so much evil. If God controls the universe, it seems sadistic to the extreme to let an evil entity run around destroying the lives of innocent people. Yes, I know humans are fully capable at creating their own brand of evil but I was taught that Christian theology believes that all wickedness can be traced back to the Devil.

More to the point, I have a problem with what many call “God’s plan.” In countless sermons, I heard preachers blather on about how God has a plan for each of us. Even the esteemed Rick Warren in his book “A Purpose Driven Life” blathers on about how when God made each of us he planned the exact time of our birth and death and the days of our lives in between. In my humble mind, this rather beats the Hell out of the concept of free will. If the entire world is just some pre-planned puppet show what does that say about women who get abortions—something fundamentalists abhor---or horrible events like rape, child abuse, or genocide? Are these events all part of some master plan scripted out the day Adam and Eve first set up shop in the Garden of Eden? If that is the case, I can no longer ignore the idea that God is a psychopath.

What brought this home to me was the recent news that a local girl, who I have never met, has lost her battle with brain cancer. Every few years some moron will garner a few minutes of television news coverage claiming that Jesus has manifested his divine presence on something like a MRI scan, or a grill cheese sandwich, or even a goldfish cracker. Such claims defy the most basic commonsense about reality but the mindless proles love such occurrences, to them it validates everything they have ever been taught about God’s supposed love. I know my late grandmother would absolutely flip out over what I am about write but personally, God would score some serious points with me if he would forego the fried food imagery and start performing some miracle cures on kids who deserve far better.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Have A Truly Grumpy Thanksgiving!

 Marry an orphan: you'll never have to spend boring holidays with the in-laws




Someone far smarter than me once said the key to happiness is taking great joy in small things. I'm sure this person meant things like watching a sunrise or sunset, walking on the beach, a warm embrace from a loved one, or breaking the seal on a bottle of Bourbon. Yeah, that last one is a bit of a stretch but I could easily list a couple of hundred different things to be appreciative about---with many of them not fit for a nice family oriented blog like mine.



But today at my household there is a completely new reason to be happy about during this Thanksgiving holiday. With the extended family scattered about all across this fine country today it will just be my wife, daughter, son, and myself sitting down at the table. Instead of our usual habit of trying to prepare a meal with all the stress and chaos involved this time we ordered a complete turkey meal from our local Publix grocery store. Making thing even more joyfully simple is that this meal deal comes with three sides and a gallon of sweet tea. If I ignore the fact my wife still insists on making her secret--and completely rancid-- family cranberry sauce recipe our stove will not be turned on once today.



The fact that the hardest thing I will have to do this afternoon is put away the leftovers almost brings tears to my highly cynical eyes. Just want to wish everyone a safe and happy Thanksgiving and remind you to watch out for all those insane a**holes on the road who will be rushing out this afternoon to buy crap for people they do not really like with credit cards that are nearly maxed out and saddled with loan shark-like interest rates.


Sunday, November 24, 2013

About Those Hunger Games






Any close examination of my personal sins and faults would be far too long to list individually. For the sake of coming right to the point for this post I will focus on one that if not in the top ten for everyone does tend to highly piss off anyone leaning to the right of the political spectrum. The little secret that I usually do not share with my accusers is that such criticism does not bother me, even on the occasions it happens to be true.

More times that I can count I have been accused of being a pretentious twit or deluded snob who has no real idea how the world works. The person or people making such a statement then usually go on to describe how I live in my own rosy fantasy world. To support their claims these individuals site my choices in television and movies that lean heavily towards science fiction, intelligent drama, documentaries, and comedies that use words with more then three syllables. In my own defense, I've watched a few episodes of Duck Dynasty, Storage Wars, along any number of reality shows that are for the moment popular. I'll be nice and just say that if a person enjoys such entertainment good for them, I will gladly suffer the consequences of being a snob and continue to live in my own little world.

Part of the requirements for being pretentious or deluded seems to be the ability or talent at noticing the contradictions of the world around them and how, if this was a “Christian nation” as so many claim it is things could not exist they way they do. Contrary to the saying that in the world of the blind the one-eyed man is king, it seems that in my family, circle of misbegotten acquaintances, or people in general such a capacity is often a strange handicap. Far worse a situation for someone like me is to begin to see similarities between the world of fiction and our so-called reality.

This weekend the second movie in the Hunger Games series opened and being the dutiful parents both my wife and I accompanied our eager daughter, Darth Wiggles, to go see it. For those possibly unfamiliar with the Hunger Games plot it takes place in the indeterminate future centered around a fictional dystopic North American country called Panem. Because the government of Panem is run by a bunch of certified douchebags several of the districts that make up that country at some point rebelled. The rebellion was eventually crushed with the central government, in a bizarre type or retribution, coercing each of the districts to offer up a male and female child every year and forcing them all to fight each other to the death in an arena until there is one survivor.

The Hunger Games books and movies start up seventy-four years into these “games.” For the capital city of Panem, an extremely prosperous and well-fed place compared to some of the districts where third world-level poverty and starvation is the norm, the start of each year's games is a cause for celebration and outright pageantry far exceeding what we do for the Olympics or Superbowl.

Of course the entire scenario playing out here is monstrous to the extreme but I was bothered by something far closer to home. Before the beginning of the actual games in the second movie all the contestants are invited to a big shindig at the residence of the president of Panem. Because everyone who is anyone in this fictional country is at this affair the buffet tables are loaded. Given the views we have of the capital city during the movie I highly doubt anyone living there goes hungry. In fact during the president's party one of the main characters, Peeta, is offered a dish filled with pastries. Peeta declines, saying he is full, but this caused the person offering the pastries to then offer up a drink specially designed to allow someone to vomit and purge their stomachs so they can continue to eat. I came away from that scene with the idea that such a drink was normal in that society.

Now after the movie what do my family and I go and do? We walk down to a nearby restaurant and have lunch. While this unnamed restaurant lacked the opulence of a Panem presidential party it did have a similar overabundance of food available given the leftovers remaining in the dishes of customers who had paid their checks and left. I have all idea, and no evidence to the contrary, that all the uneaten food I saw was promptly trashed when the tables were cleared. Now there is nothing legally or ethically wrong with a person not eating all the food on their plate. God knows, Americans are massively overweight and restaurants are notorious for over sizing their entrees. For the me the problem involves how casually most of us ignore hunger in America right now.

Right-wingers will go into a rabid-like rage over perceived abuses to the food stamp program. Politicians, always reflecting the lowest common denominator of the voting public, will easily vote to cut funding that alleviates hunger although sixteen million kids here in the land of the free and home of the brave daily struggle with getting enough to eat. Now as a nation we seem easily able to afford tax breaks for corporations and to buy weapons systems the shiny star-wearing boys and girls working in the Pentagon damn near jump up and down while screaming at Congress they have no use for but feeding poor children, that's a huge issue.

Right-wingers fume saying these people on food stamps should get jobs so they can feed themselves and their little rugrats. Okay, I agree, its just that many people on food stamps do have full-time jobs, but they do not make enough to feed their family. A little very inconvenient statistic is that hourly-wages have not kept up with the average cost of living but more on that later.

Hey, to any right-winger reading this a good number of people on food stamps list their full time occupation as active duty military. How about that folks that kind of shoots the "get a job you lazy bum" argument in the ass. Our government buys carefully crafted television commercials and other forms of expensive advertisements extolling the virtues of being a soldier, marine, sailor, or airmen then sends them out to the far corners the world to “spread democracy” but the spouse back home here in the States has to go apply for food stamps. Someone is getting screwed here and my answer would truthfully be that we all are except for the billionaires and other rich folks who profit from wars.

My absolute favorite example of surreal denial of real hunger in America came recently from that place where there is “always low prices.” News was made recently when a couple of Wal Marts began holding food drives for their employees. Take a moment to reread that last sentence then jump over to the link to read the actual news report. Now think, one of the most profitable corporations here in the CSA – Corporate States of America – is having food drives so their underpaid employees can have Thanksgiving Dinner. Remember, these same employees stand a high probability of having to work later that day and well into the Friday because we proles have important Christmas shopping to do. Don't know about anyone else but I have such a warm fuzzy going right now I want to drive down to the nearest Wal Mart and dry hump the ubiquitous flag pole they always put in front of the store.

Lastly, I offer up some friendly advice the McDonald's Corporation recently gave to their employees. The Burger Clown, ever concerned with the health of their workers told them to break up their food into smaller pieces to get full and to sell their belongings on the internet for cash. I really wish I could write a proper snarky response other than God bless America!

We're not quite at the monstrous level of sending kids out to fight to the death as shown in the Hunger Games but give it a few more years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

School Bus Stop Incident



Being the perpetual oddball I am one of my most consistent traits is that I am always early to arrive at whatever location or event I need to be. The overwhelmingly simple basis for this behavior is that I absolutely hate to rush. I would rather be twenty or even thirty minutes early for some appointment or rendezvous than wait to the last minute and have some unknown factor cause me to be late.
 

Strangely enough, few members of my family or friends seem to appreciate this trait. Frankly, it drives my lovely spouse crazy, she is the type that times everything precisely in an effort to be as efficient as humanly possible. I’m sure effective time management is a worthy endeavor but such it is just not compatible with my laid back style. Of course, it is understood that since I admit to being an eccentric when it comes to taking my good time going places most of the people I encounter are far more like my wife than me.
 

Case in point, since my daughter, Darth Wiggles, entered middle school it is far simpler, and dare I say efficient, to go pick her up instead of having her ride the bus home which would take about two hours before she walked through the front door. Wiggles’ has considerable homework every night except Fridays and, being selfish here, I’d like some decent time to enjoy my family during the evening before going to work.
 

So, being true to myself I leave the house around 2:50pm, drive to the school, and join the line of cars that has already formed. I nearly always bring a book or listen to some show on one of the NPR radio stations to kill time while I wait. The school bell for dismissal rings at 3:25pm and after that, there is a mild form of chaos as parents and children slowly begin the process of linking up. It’s all within reasonable levels with the school staff playing traffic cops, just another duty on top of all the others these underpaid professionals must perform.
 

The drive home for Wiggles and me is exceedingly short except for the times one of the school buses gets out a little early. If that happens, I have to stop a few times as the kids get off the bus and cross the street. To me it’s no big deal, but that is not the case with some people.
 

A couple of weeks ago I overslept and was, relatively speaking, a little late picking up my daughter from school. Because of this as she and I were going home I had to stop for a school bus that was in the other lane letting several children off. This bus had already deployed its “STOP” sign on the driver’s side of the vehicle and had its array for red lights flashing signifying that all approaching cars had to stop. This again was no problem for me since I never really feel the need to rush.
 

However, there was some sort of issue with the suburban soccer mom behind me. No sooner had the last kid in the procession stepped off the road she went ballistic honking the horn of her minivan. From my rearview mirror, I observed some sort of spastic fit. From point of view it looked like she absolutely had somewhere important to be and that I was holding her up. In some microscopically small way I had some sympathy for her, we've all been in that position, but my number one concern was that the school bus in front of me still had its stop sign deployed and its red lights flashing.
 

I shrugged in an attempt to communicate with the woman but all that got me was her mouthing some words I will have to assume were rather nasty. I hate to admit but this ruffled my calm, laid-back demeanor and going completely against my usual conduct, I stuck my left arm out of the car window and proudly gave her my best middle finger salute.
 

Even though the kids were out of harm’s way I was simply not going to move until the bus retracted its stop sign and cuts off the flashing lights. I have heard too many stories about some kid suddenly turning around and running back to the bus because he or she left something on it. Frantic suburban soccer mom be damned I ain’t hitting no kid because she’s worried about being late for her yoga class or not having dinner ready for her Mister White Bread America when he gets home from work.
 

I’d like to say this was some isolated incident but I have a had few other encounters with irate suburbanites with a much too high opinion of themselves. One rather small guy, who drove a huge monster truck worthy of a Walking Dead episode or some other apocalyptic movie looked like he wanted to pick a fight once after a small traffic disagreement, that is until my six-foot, six-inch frame got out of my tiny KIA Rio.
 

There are two conclusions I always come away from something like this. The first being, I'm not sure what the issue is with these people, part of me hopes none of them ever get tied up in a major traffic incident in some big city. Given the number of National Rifle Association decals I see around here I have all idea gunfire would play a part in settling the affair.
 

The second is that I am sure all sorts of bouts of anxiety and barely controlled rage would be solved it South Carolina legalized marijuana. Because if there ever was a community that desperately needed to get high its these anal retentive individuals. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

BeyondProse.com Flash Fiction---A Death in Hollywood

 (Author's note: The prompt for this story is "She was a child star." I didn't get the mood of my longer version quite right. It's just hard to sit down to write at my house, someone will always interrupt me the minute I get something good going. Even worse, I found a serious typo in the version I posted at Beyondprose.com.) 



Just seconds after busting down the door to her apartment I found the once famous Emma Carter dead, laying naked on her bed. Her place was one of those extra small studio apartments where the kitchen, bedroom, and living area occupied one over sized room. For several moments I hesitated before stepping across the threshold worried I might have somehow misjudged the situation.

I had received her text message while in the middle of an afternoon meeting. At first I thought it was some joke, except for a very brief and ill conceived reunion event of the cast from our old sitcom a few months before I hadn't spoken to her in almost twenty years. Emma had stormed into the rented and nearly empty banquet hall acting like the energetic and mischievous ten-year old child star I met at the beginning of our sickly sweet television show. I was eight-years old at the time and I fell in love with her from the beginning despite the fact we were playing brother and sister orphans being raised by our wise old grandfather. Even though the event was advertised as a happy reunion of cast members who thought of each other as family it was obviously designed just to resuscitate Emma's comatose career

Of course, she and I eventually posed for pictures together in front of the small collection of disinterested paparazzi that attended but the second they drifted away she literally ran after them leaving me behind. Unlike the rest of the cast, I stayed to the end with Emma crying on my shoulder for several minutes as a reward for my patience. When we finally parted something deep inside told me I never see her again. So, it was quite the shock when I received her message pleading for me to come save her.

After the end of my meeting I sat in my car for thirty minutes staring at the screen of my cell phone wondering if I should head over to the address she gave. Eventually figuring I had nothing to lose I drove across Los Angeles just to satisfy my curiosity. The address turned out to be an old warehouse whose interior had been converted into small apartments. I imagined the developers of the building had wanted it to be an upscale location for young professionals but shifting neighborhood lines had claimed the area making it more than slightly dangerous.

With the door now swinging loose, I looked in from the threshold, her place seemed clean and well kept with mementos of her television and music career adoring the shelves of a couple of bookcases and walls. Everything looked so orderly that I again became concerned for a moment that maybe this had been some huge mistake. When the overwhelming stench of liquor and death finally hit me that was when I stepped inside.

Looking to my right I immediately spotted Emma's body and her nightstand where a decorative box containing a multicolored collection of pills and a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels sat giving a clear indication of how she took her life. I also couldn't help but notice that Emma's body was contorted into something akin to a seductive, “come hither” pose. It was a sick thought but given Emma's behavior the last couple of years it did not take much for me to believe it was one final act of defiance to tell the world that while it might have used her up and tossed her to the side of the road it in turn could go straight to Hell.

The sitcom she and I starred in made us nationally famous for about six years. When the series ended my fame evaporated overnight thrusting me back into the real world. The effects of puberty and a severe case of teenage acne had robbed me of my charming boyish innocence and the network producers simply dropped me like the proverbial bad apple. In terms of simple numbers there was probably a couple of thousand better looking teenage boys coming to LA each year wanting their chance in show business. So I was less than nothing to those who made the big decisions about who to promote or send home.

However, a whole spectrum of producers and agents fell all over themselves to make sure Emma stayed in the national spotlight. She immediately became a leading cast member of television drama series and a mere two years later they again moved her into the music business. Her career soared with the entertainment journalists constantly floating rumors that with her ethereal beauty and devastating acting ability she could be the next Elizabeth Taylor.

It was always clear from the beginning that the big players in Hollywood had every intention of making her a major movie star. Sitting home nursing a bruised ego and a growing envy over her success I remember the massive promotional campaign on the eve of her first movie. I also remember how it was a massive box office disaster with special criticism aimed at Emma's awful performance.

Five major flops later her once golden career is destroyed with her eventually reduced to singing in the food courts of shopping malls and struggling to win a spot on some reality show. That was when her outrageous acts and stupid stunts exploded increasingly making her a laughing stock all across the country. All she got for her desperate efforts was an existence living off residual checks in a second-rate apartment all alone.

Looking at her dead body I had no real idea why she called me, even in the best of times we were never close. The only assumption that comes to my mind is that during our series my character was the nice and always responsible brother who dearly loved his sister despite her mischievous ways. The day she cried on my shoulder after the disaster that was our reunion event only seemed to back that idea up.

With nothing left to do I call the police and tell them what has happened. Naturally they tell me to wait and I move back towards the entrance of the apartment. Not before I pull out my cell phone and start taking pictures of Emma's body, her apartment, and the pills on the nightstand. The tabloids will pay a bundle for such pictures and I have child support I have to pay.