Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Humans have always been wanderers, even before our particular species appeared on the scene to follow our predecessors out of Africa. However, for better or worse we Homo sapiens, pulled along by some innate curiosity probably coded in our genes, eventually left Africa behind like the others. But whereas all our ancestors like Homo hablis and the Neanderthals faded away, we came to dominate the planet. Giving our overall stupidity its hard to find a reason why Homo sapiens won out over the others. We find it extremely difficult to work in large groups for any length of time and our myriad beliefs, while colorful and imaginative, are often myopic and destructive.
But after five-thousand years of what can euphemistically be called civilization we have reached a huge crossroads in our existence on this small and delicate planet. Our numbers and technology have grown so much that we now endanger all life on Earth, not an accomplishment to be proud of when you consider the fact we know of no other place in the universe like our home.
What is worse, deep down we know our destructive habits threatens the survival of our children but yet we still center our attention on those we know directly like family and friends that live close to us. Homo sapiens can't seem to realize that the plight of the starving child in Africa or Asia will eventually affect how your own children will live at some point. Especially now with the environment and resources stressed to the breaking point because there is over seven billion of us alive at this moment.
We have reached the limits of our home can stand and if we don't change our ways quickly every good thing we have built over the centuries will be lost. It is that simple, but most ignore the warnings and continue with their blind pursuits. Hate and fear are the dominate forces in all human life right now, people scared of everything from their neighbor next door to the people living on the other side of the planet.
Some of us do see something far grander for our species that could uplift us all and take us places beyond our imaginations. All we have to do is look up and dream about something greater than the conquest of some patch of soil, hording wealth while many go hungry, or fretting over tired rituals designed to appease some invisible deity.
We can become wanderers again:
Sunday, June 21, 2015
Most everyone has probably seen some version of the family stick figure decals adoring the back windows of SUVs and minivans. They are usually themed with the stick figures representing the parents and kids expressing their enjoyment of some family-centered activities or interests. I've seen many with the family wearing mouse ears or holding fishing poles. A couple of years ago though I saw one that quite frankly made my blood run a little cold.
These family stick figure decals, complete with dad, mom, and several offspring were represented by various models of military-grade weapons. The “dad” was represented by some heavy assault weapon I don't remember, while the “mom” was displayed as a M-16/AR-15 variant. The three children had sub-machine models all standing in for them. And yes, there are semiautomatic versions of those compact weapons that are readily sold to civilians with the makers claiming they are fantastic for home defense.
The fact that the vehicle they were adoring also sported several pro-gun rights bumper stickers all more or less saying cold and lifeless hands would be the prerequisite before anyone took their precious weapons was the typical passive-aggressive threat you could expect with such people. After seeing such absolute gun-nut sentiment my first thought was that I'd hate to be their neighbor. My second thought was that for a bunch of years, all long past now, I wallowed in a similar insanity going as far as to own an assault weapon myself.
Frankly, when I think back to those years I am embarrassed. While I never sold my soul to the idea that a weapon made me a better, more powerful person no one should mess with, I bought the insane notion that all decent people needed something to protect themselves from a world filled with bad people. What turned me away from the Dark Side was getting heavily into scuba diving, and me wanting my own equipment. Much to the chagrin of my family, I have always nursed liberal and science-centered tendencies and scuba diving brought both of them out.
For years afterward I held a laissez-faire attitude about weapons, I didn't really care if a person was massively into any type of weapons as long as they didn't bother me with their obsession. Then the shootings at Sandy Hill Elementary occurred, when I saw the pictures of those small children and thought about the fear they must have endured something inside me broke. I still own a semiautomatic pistol and small caliber rifle fit only for rabbit hunting but both are stored away and have literally not seen the light of day in years. I guess I should sell the things but after all the deaths of innocent people in this country over the last few years both those weapons remind me too much of how I flirted with a fatalistic obsession over largely imaginary boogeymen.
That is what now turns my stomach when I hear some talk-head on television touting the benefits of “gun rights” and how we would all be safe if more “good guys” had weapons. It just never seems to turn out that way, sure if you dig deep enough you'll find an instance where some civilian with a gun gets the drop on a bad guy, but they are overwhelmed with examples of evil and crazy people rushing into a public place and committing mass murder.
For the sake of staying on point I will not even begin to get into the unanswered question how barely trained civilians are supposed to readily identify the evil individual shooting up a public place, like the theater in Aurora, Colorado when several others draw their weapons in an attempt to save the day. Long story short, I see an almost exponential increase in deaths as wannabe Clint Eastwoods all pull out their favorite concealed weapons and shoot each other during the chaos.
One of the many issues with American gun culture is how it was largely owned and operated by racists who while couching their words carefully always come back to the belief that the boogeyman there are terrified might hurt them is either African-American or Hispanic. Right-wing pundits like the dinosaur Pat Buchanan and the truly bizarre Ann Coulter write entire books about how America is turning into a third-world country and how true Americans are going to be overwhelmed by a flood of illiterate savages out to rape their women. This forces the common rank and file right-winger—never a deep thinker to begin with—to believe that his, or her only recourse is to heavily arm themselves.
I's amazing really in a sick an twisted way. Here in the United States several industries make their money stroking the fears of people who often spend more time deeply discussing the implications of some washed up athlete gender transition than trying to understand why the country is literally falling apart. Action movies portray wise cracking guys—usually white--solving all sorts of problems with mean looking assault weapons. Gun makers employ teams of advertisement agencies looking for the best way to market their products to men, women, and even children emphasizing to all that their lives are always in danger. Of course you can't forget the right-wing propaganda media whose only purpose in existence is the Orwellian pursuit to create enemies and engineer justification for more conflicts for the unwashed masses. Where all this sleaze exists, politicians follow always eager to give their voters what the want, quick sound bites that will allow them to return to their tidy consumer driven lives. Sorry folks, I quit blaming politicians a long time ago, they are just reflections of the people that allow them to hold office.
All this insanity creates a bizarre paradox here in the land of the free and home of the brave. All these fears tie the United State to a past that is largely fictitious. The Second Amendment was never meant for a time where jet fighters armed with cluster bombs and attack helicopters with 20mm cannons patrol the skies. Assault weapons are designed to shred human bodies so a gravely wounded soldier would require one or two others to treat his injuries, pulling them away from combat. High capacity semiautomatics were designed for police work, a civilian home owner possessing such a weapon speaks more of a lingering paranoia of darker, more sinister forces than just the desire to deny a criminal entry.
All this leads up to the terrorist Dylann Roof who last Wednesday night entered the Emmanuel AME church and kill nine worshipers simply because they were African-American. No society can long withstand the malignant forces of hate and fear, especially when the worship of weapons makes up the backbone of the culture. Make no mistake, the only thing Americans worship more than money and their cars are guns but while the first two are bad in their own way only the last one is designed to kill.
Throw in racism, America's lingering psychosis, and you pretty much have our current society. Gun owners, who even now fret over losing their true loves, shouldn't worry, the usual suspects are all lining up to defend the God given right allowing people to possess small arsenals—as long as its the right type of people. Being slightly tongue-in-cheek I have this half-assed idea that the only way gun control legislation would stand a chance in this country is for media outlets to show African-Americans buying the same military-grade weapons as the family I first mentioned who seemed to base their existence on car window assault weapon decals.
Here is a fantastic article that nails the situation here in America:
This is obviously a catastrophe for Americans, and not only because of the damage guns and racism inflict both separately and when they collide, as they did so devastatingly in Charleston. It also feeds a corrosive cynicism. Americans are already skeptical of their democracy, which can seem more like a dynastic plutocracy, a perennial battle of the House of Bush against the House of Clinton, bankrolled by unseen corporate giants. But when they see a US president apparently impotent in the face of the gun menace, what are they meant to think of their own power to change things for the better?
Americans like to tell themselves anything is possible, that their destiny is in their own hands. Politicians describe the country as “this great experiment in self-government”, insisting they can make America anew if they want to. Yet the persistence of arms and racism and armed racism suggests that the people are, in important ways, powerless: a nation still ruled by its ancestors; a nation that has forgotten the wisdom of one of its greatest revolutionaries, Thomas Paine, who understood that “government is for the living, and not for the dead; it is the living only that has any right in it”.
All this matters beyond America too. US influence in the world does not rest solely on its wealth and military might. It also requires America to be admired. As Bill Clinton said five years after the Iraq invasion: “People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”
Sunday, June 14, 2015
As much as it would surely surprise numerous family members, friends, acquaintances, coworkers, and probably hundreds of other people who occasionally read my verbal detritus I actually learned something recently. This new tidbit of knowledge was pretty amazing since like most Americans I grew up believing the accepted Cold War mentality that of the protracted and shadowy struggle between the United States and Soviet Union, to paraphrase one of my favorite movies, there could ultimately, “be only one.” The source of this curious piece of information was an article written by John Feffer entitled “Did Market Leninism Win the Cold War?”
He writes that during the 1960s and 1970s there was a view among certain intellectuals, like economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who believed the competing systems of the United States and Soviet Union would eventually converge. The idea being that the forces of capitalism would be tempered by planning and that the communist system would be invigorated by the dynamic forces of the free market. If that is too abstract a concept a better way to describe this convergence theory would be to say the end result would have had the northern hemisphere become one giant warm and fuzzy Sweden-like entity.
Yeah, in hindsight the idea seems like the insane ramblings of some 1970s college professor suffering from delusions after taking one too many hits of acid. The idea that a communist country would ever allow any type of market forces to gain an advantage over central planning committees is just as crazy as thinking Western democracies would take a backseat to some force outside the governments elected by the people. Just a little hint for future reference, that's sarcasm and I'll be peppering this rant with several more just for fun.
Of course, all this was contemplated before Red China began its economic liberalization, before the United States was tied to a dizzying array of free trade agreements that help gut the middle class, and before the Supreme Court declared that corporations are people. At least Americans can still take solace in the idea that, like the great and all powerful Reagan predicted, the evil Soviet Union has for years been consigned to the dustbin of history with Russia now firmly part of the western family of nations.
Sorry, even that one small segment of Reagan's great achievement has evaporated with the authoritarian Putin playing international bully engaging in lebensraum in the former-Soviet republic of Georgia and now the Ukraine. Not only that, this new strongman has started a new arms buildup for the Russian military that should give aging Cold Warriors like myself a really bad case of deja vu.
It was one of the assumptions of the West's supposed victory in the Cold War that democracy was going to walk away from that struggle the new global standard for the nations of the world. Once the Iron Curtain fell the former nations of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union's nice name for its eastern European empire, couldn't run to the West fast enough to become both members of NATO and the European Union embracing democracy and capitalism in the process.
Now the eastern European nations of Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are all in many ways turning their backs on the hard won freedoms they had to snatch away from the Soviet Empire. Hungary's Vikor Orban has rewritten that country's electoral laws, curbed press freedoms and appointed numerous flunkies to important positions in the government. The former Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and Slovakia's current PM, Robert Fico look to Orban as a role model and his illiberal policies as the way to run their own countries. Poland has a new prime minister now and it's my sincerest hope that their new leader has turned her back on the anti-democratic tendencies of her predecessor.
No, instead of waltzing into a wonderful era of convergence like Galbraith expected with everyone living in a nice and pleasant Sweden, something far darker is taking shape in the twenty-first century. The entire world appears to have backed into convergence's dystopic twin merging the worst aspects of unrestrained capitalism and authoritarian collectivism. This brave post-Cold War world is one of massive inequality between the rich and the poor, rampant corruption on all levels of government, the not so slow institution of surveillance states that I'm sure would have George Orwell telling everyone, “I told you so dammit!”
No, I'm not leaving the United States out of this trend nor excusing it recent actions since 2001 and before. First and foremost corruption has become so bad that we no longer dare call it by that name. It turns out that the “land of the free and the home of the brave” has a good bit of rot eating away inside it.
Feffer's article points out that we have revolving door politics that allows former politicians to leave office and then immediately start lobbying for any and all special interest groups, like major corporations, that freely write out huge checks for reelection campaigns. In most other organizations such behavior would be a criminal conflict of interest, but remember, our Supreme Court has declared corporations people with the First Amendment right of free speech. Let me also remind everyone that these same corporations and their elected sycophants are working hard to both destroy organized labor and prevent them from spending money on campaigns to defend their interests.
Another aspect that should send shivers down the spine of any self-aware person are the organized voter suppression movements that have curiously popped up in several American states. While supporters of these authoritarian measures like to frame their arguments that they are just trying to stop voter fraud all independent studies say that is not an issue in American elections. Lets be open here and just state the facts, certain scared people in the United States don't like the fact that minorities are making a larger percentage of the voting population every election cycle. And these people are enacting these voter suppression laws in an attempt to blunt their growing political power.
I have to remind everyone that out of all the nations on this planet the United States has more people in prison than any other, even more than communist China, which naturally because of this mutated convergence is not really commie anymore. No, what we have here in the United States are dangerously overcrowded prisons “housing” a surreal number of African-American men whose worst crimes are often low-level drug dealing. While I hope exceptions exist, the entire American prison system looks to be a dangerous societal pressure cooker where inmates only learn to be meaner and better criminals once they are released.
Instead of dealing with the growing gap between the rich and the poor and failing schools Americans in large part are okay with throwing kids into prison creating a larger inmate population which in turn creates a demand for more prisons to be built. The greater mass of white suburbia and their worker class counterparts just don't give a damn about the ongoing human tragedies in American cities, so they follow the rule of out of sight, out of mind. Sooner or later we might just want to build prison walls around the borders of the entire country, in the long run that's where we are going anyway.
So with the dust now settled on the Cold War who exactly won that expensive and ultimately self-defeating conflict? It might be easier to say who didn't win, then move over to the actual victors.
First loser, of course, is the Soviet Union being that it doesn't exist anymore except in the minds of many Russians who even now hunger for a rematch, no matter the expense to their country or humanity as a whole. This desire to get even for their humiliating fall from superpower status has Putin playing a game of chicken with NATO countries, talking about building American-sized aircraft carriers, and generally being an incredible douchebag all in the name of nationalistic glory.
The second loser award goes to the United States, after hundreds of billions of dollars spent to defeat godless communism all it got us was a vastly powerful military/industrial complex that even now pulls more strings with our elected leaders than the voters. Throw in the banker and Wall Street types and to say the United States is a democracy of, by, and for the people strains the bounds of the most tenuous credibility. Another reason the United States is a Cold War loser was all the deals made with third-world tyrants over the decades to secure our addiction to cheap oil, other resources, and simple geopolitical concerns and many of those chickens have come home to roost.
Simply put, if you think a lot of the animosity the Middle Eastern peoples have towards us Americans is because they “hate our freedoms” you are an idiot. My best advice to such people would be to turn off Duck Dynasty and other shows like it, along with Fox News and read some actual journalistic publications along with history books not written by semi-fascist, right-wingers who think Jesus is coming back.
I would be remiss not to add that while being supposed winner of the Cold War has given Americans a possibly fatal case of hubris. Naturally, when someone comes to believe their shit doesn't just stink but smells like roses they think giving others some of it is a favor. In reality such people greatly overestimate the smell of their poop and are totally wrong to think anyone else wants even the smallest amount. I would be wrong not to paraphrase the character of Bane from one of the best Batman movies, and say that victory in many ways has defeated us.
The third loser award goes to humanity as a whole. Despite it being one of the worst cliches, wars and conflicts never solves anything. All they really do is create more hate and fear that leads to more death and destruction.
Now the winners of the Cold War, and because I'm tired I'll keep the comments at a minimum.
The first winners are the multinational corporations. With some earning more money than medium-sized countries they are able to play games with the environment and people that are criminal. With the triumph of capitalism there is no opposing force that people can rally around to blunt their excesses. In many cases here in the United States to say anything negative about any business, no matter their abuses or crimes, is to be instantly labeled a Obama-loving socialist.
The second winner would have to be China. This ancient country has emerged from the debris of the Cold War and its own self-inflicted horrors to become in many ways the richest nation on the planet. What threatens its status is a whole host of internal problems that could suddenly end its winning streak and quite frankly leave it a shattered husk.
In short what the world and the West is now facing is nothing less than a good old existential crisis of what it means to be free. The ideological struggle of the twentieth century went out with a whimper instead of a bang, which given how the latter would have sterilized planet is definitely a good thing. But the absence of an “enemy” to focus our attention and energies on has left us adrift and ready to abandon our principles and turn on each other.
Corporations, the chief winners of the Cold War, promise convenience, easy living, and plenty of material goods but this says nothing of the cost that has to be paid in environmental destruction and the degradation of human liberties and dignity. Maintaining the true principles of the West takes vigilance and a desire to truly work at building something respectable that we can hand down to our children. But that takes maturity and a willingness to accept our own faults and work to fix them. Some nations of the West have that ability, others like the United States rejects any and all criticisms to the point a person can risk their reputation and even safety if they voice the truth. The question as to whether we can change and take charge of our future again is something up to debate, but I have come to doubt it.
Sunday, June 7, 2015
( Important author's notes: In this segment I express my opinion about religion and the possible absence of God. These are my views and I mean absolutely no insult to anyone of faith. As always excuse the typos and I would really appreciate comments!)
While the possibility remained that I was just mentally disturbed after reading that old and tattered world history book, I became convinced that I was a lone witness to human history being altered. The crazy thing though, the temporal alterations seemed to be a piecemeal affair with the end result pretty much what I remembered. Almost as if some near omnipotent entity would cut some event or person from reality on a whim, then paste over it with another just to see what, if anything, changes. Being a computer programmer it reminded me of the lazy but universally accepted habit of changing small sections of code to adapt an existing program for another use or client.
That being said, I had to view my awareness of the changes as some sort of glitch or bug in the overall program. I found some dark, ironic humor in the fact that I had become the very thing people in my profession hate most of all, an irritating mistake in computer coding that in many ways was akin to poetry.
Of course, the question as to who or what was altering history couldn't be avoided. I had never been a religious person, mainly because from my observations the basic tenets of all faiths that compassion and forgiveness should oversee human affairs were next to impossible for the adherents to follow. While there were plenty of individual exceptions, the vast majority of those calling themselves “the faithful” seemed to follow the idea that they could be as cruel and destructive as they wanted and all it took to wash away their transgression was some quickly whispered prayer to an unseen God to make everything right again. Countless tyrants and other assorted human monsters went to their graves believing they had been cleared of all the blood they had spilled during their lives because of a prayer.
Another equally troublesome behavior I noticed about overly religious types was that God had a strange habit of agreeing with their ideas on how people should live their lives and ultimately, who was worthy to walk through the Pearly Gates into paradise. Throughout my life I had personally known individuals from all faiths that were good, honest people, who while not saints, went above and beyond in an attempt to make the world a better place. To think God would condemn a person to hell because they failed to adhere to one approved organized religion and its arcane rituals seemed ridiculous.
This always lead me to the conclusion that if God did care about the human race, as all the organized faiths assured their flocks, he, or she, seemed to be limiting their interaction with humans to appearances on grilled cheese sandwiches and toasted corn chips. All the while millions of truly innocent people around the world suffered from diseases, famine, war, and the often calamitous whims of nature. If it was some Supreme Being playing with human history I saw no pattern or purpose to the way he was altering events because the general result was always the same.
The first major difference I noticed from reading the history book was learning that in this current reality President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Ford's Theater by some radical Southern actor a short time after the end of the Civil War. I remember being taught in elementary school that while his place of death was the same, he instead died of a sudden heart attack. Other differences included a short-lived German landing on Britain during the Second World War. The last two good emperors of the ancient Roman Empire being erased from history. The murder of the Russian royal family instead of them being exiled to France. And the resignation of Richard Nixon instead of him being kicked out of office then sent to prison for his crimes.
Despite those changes in the history everything pretty much ended up the same way, Lincoln still died in office, Churchill still lead the Brits to victory, the western Roman Empire collapsed about the same time, the reign of the Russian czars was over, and President Ford still pardoned Nixon. Absolutely nothing to suggest that whatever entity was controlling the fate of the human race was doing anything to curb our overall barbaric behavior.
Then again, this assumed that there was some intelligent guiding force controlling everything. I couldn't shake the idea that maybe there was some inherent flaw in the makeup of the universe that periodically caused it to hiccup and change some random aspect of reality. Another possibility that gave me cold chills was something I remember reading about in one of my programming journals dealing with trendy video games, that maybe the universe I inhabit is literally a computer simulation. Did my knowledge of how events and people have changed make me a puppet on a string being controlled by an extra-dimensional being playing its version of X-Box, or was I the inadvertent bug in the system I first surmised. If I wasn't already suffering from some massive delusion like my family and doctors thought, pondering all the mind blowing implications of what I was experiencing could in fact drive me insane.
There was one aspect of all these alterations to history I did my best to ignore. It was my own past, since being committed, I had refrained from asking my family any questions as to the reasons Beth Hampton and I broke off our engagement. I didn't even ask anything about the nature of the attacks that took place on September 11th, 2001 since I had heard enough already to surmise they were significantly different than what I remember.
In the history I remembered of that day, Al-Qaeda terrorists hacked into the avionics of a dozen jetliners in mid-flight causing them all to crash above major American cities. My Beth and my young son, Luke, were on a flight leaving out of Boston that morning on the way to San Francisco. Their plane lost power above Manhattan and crashed close to the Twin Towers. All told, over six-thousand people were killed that day along the east coast. Adding another heaping insult to my mental injuries, in this new reality the bankers and investment brokers that brought about the crash of 2008 and ruined the software company I and others were working so hard to build in the process were never prosecuted. Originally, the public outrage was so bad several of the bankers began demanding protection after irate mobs surrounded some of their properties and burned them down.
All this was water under the temporally dislocated bridge. While the mental facility where I was being treated was a comfortable place, it was still a prison and I wanted nothing more than to be set free. That meant a combination of things but namely trying to convince my doctors that I now realized I was suffering from a delusion and that I wanted to get better. That precluded me asking the one question I now wanted answered above everything else, why and how did my relationship with Beth Hampton end.
So I buried all my feelings and questions and worked hard at being normal. Surprisingly it's much harder than it seems once you have been classified as “disturbed.”
It took eighteen long months but eventually both my doctors and family thought I was well enough to return home to Watertown. Unfortunately, the people in my hometown didn't really welcome me back. Word had gotten out about my troubles and while I was only slightly avoided upon my original return, this time there were several instances when I was downtown that people actually crossed the street to steer clear of me. It didn't take long for me to realize that the best thing for both my family and me was to leave Watertown and restart my life somewhere else. At least the question as to where I should go wasn't a hard one.
While my wife and child had been altered or erased from history my friendships hadn't, when word got out that I wanted to actively participate in my career again several colleagues almost began fighting over me. I settled on a firm in Silicon Valley region of California. I had always loved San Francisco and it was the perfect place to rebuild my life. It was only as I packed up my few belongs scattered about the cottage that I summoned the courage to ask my sister a certain question.
“Melinda, I've been a good boy, obeyed the restraining order Beth and her husband demanded before I was released, and pretty much proved my sanity to everyone except to all the closed-minded individuals in our hometown. So, please tell me why Beth and I broke up in college, because I have no memory of it.” I said careful to phrase my statement in a way as to not cast doubts on my newly certified sanity.
Melinda just sat in one of the cottage's kitchen chairs and said nothing for several moments. “Beth and I are still friends and when you had your breakdown I went and asked her what happened between you two. The thing about it Peter there's no real story, supposedly Beth and you were going to slip away from campus one weekend to elope. There was some chapel up in the Smokey Mountains you guys found on the internet and were going to use it to get hitched. One the way up there you guys had some sort of fight, words were said, and you mutually decided to call it off. After that you two drifted away from each other and after graduation you moved up to Boston and she came home to Watertown until she married Jacob.”
“So we went out with a whimper instead of a bang.” I said again pondering the vagaries of whatever was changing history.
San Francisco was just the medicine I needed for my soul. My friends at the new company all greeted me like a long lost hero and bent over backwards to help me settle in to my new job and apartment. Months slipped by with me actually enjoying my life and even sometimes not thinking about that strange morning when I woke up and knew reality had been altered.
Isabel came into my life about a year after my move, a tender and beautiful lady I sometimes felt she was the universe's attempt to make up for what it had taken. We met at an outdoor concert in Golden Gate Park and quickly became fixtures in each others lives. Our weekends became a routine of brunch at the Baker Street Bistro and them hours prowling around dusty old book and antique stores. That was when the universe decided to surprise me again.
Isabel and I were browsing the bookshelves of a rundown hole in the wall off Mission Street when I spotted the book. At first it didn't resister because I simply didn't except to find it. But there it was on the shelf with his name in faded gold lettering along the spine. I didn't over react or even say anything but my hands were shaking as I reached up and pulled it off the shelf.
“What is it honey?” Isabel said as she put her arm around my shoulder and moved close. “You look like you've seen a ghost.”
The book was entitled The Dark of the Night and it was the novel that won Milton Solomon the Nobel Prize for literature in 1957.
“Oh it's nothing,” I said trying to sound casual. “Just an old book I thought didn't exist anymore.”
The person running the store that morning was a college kid who obviously didn't know anything about books but did tell me that the owner would be back Monday morning. I bought the book and that night read it in bed as Isabel lay next me. It was exactly as I remembered but I didn't obsess over why it existed. It was during my stay in the treatment center that I came to the realization that my memories were a physical construct of living brain cells and a soup of exotic chemicals. I had to figure that if I was indeed a glitch in some sort of program there had to be other glitches of either people or physical items that evaded the resulting change.
I called in sick to work Monday morning and was across the street when I spotted what had to be the owner approaching the old bookstore. Almost a character from central casting he was a dignified old man wearing an impeccability tailored suit whose only fault was that it twenty to thirty years out of fashion. He even sported a faded and worn fedora that hinted at an adventurous past back when the world was more open and raw.
I allowed the man to open his store before I charged in with the unexpected discovery I bought the previous weekend. My first close-up sight of him after closing the door suggested he was a man possessing a keen intellect and would not harbor any insane talk of the past being randomly altered much less the notion that I had found a novel in his store written by a man who didn't exist.
“Hello sir,” he said with a smile. “You're the earliest customer I've had in a long time.”
“Well actually I playing hokey this morning.” I said trying to act normal. “I just dropped by to ask you about the book I found here Saturday. It was incredible but I've never heard of the author, I can't believe someone of this talent wasn't better known.” I then handed him the book actually worried it might somehow suddenly vanish.
“Milton Solomon?” The old man said reading the name off the spine. “I must admit I've never heard of this author and I've owned this store since the late 1960's. We probably got this book from some estate sale with one of my employees putting on the shelf to sell. But believe it or not I do remember someone asking about this Solomon fellow in the mid-1980's, was strangely adamant about in fact, to the point I almost called the police worried he might be dangerous. Only left after I promised to give his phone number to anyone else who might show up asking about this Milton Solomon.”
I laugh nervously,” You wouldn't happen to still have that phone number would you? Might be nice to assure this person someone else loves this guy's work.”
The owner shrugs and bends down to pull out an ancient looking ledger from underneath the counter. “I don't like computers,” he says while flipping through the pages.
“Believe it or not,” I say, “I'm a programmer and I'm not crazy about them either.” The owner looks up and smiles then returns to the ledger.
“Here it is,” he says then grabs a small notepad and pen to write it down.
I thank the man and quickly leave. I hold off calling until I'm sitting inside my car. Emotions swirl inside me with great deal of satisfaction to the idea that it has been confirmed that I was never crazy. I dial the number and listen to the rings wondering what I'm going to say.
Just when I think no one will answer there is a click and I hear the word, “Hello?”
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
“So what is it,” I ask my sister as she studies the x-rays of my head, “tumor, aneurysm, early dementia, or some other ailment I don't know.” After driving down from Watertown I had spent over ten hours in her office as she ran tests and called in numerous favors to have the results expedited.
Melinda briefly turns away from the ghost-like picture of my skull on her oversized computer screen and gives me one of her stern looks of disapproval. I can't help but think how much she has changed from the idealistic young girl who left home to start medical school. She suffered through every indignity and stressor her education and training could throw at her and came out like a champ. It wasn't until she volunteered to work in the emergency department of a poor urban hospital that her ideals about making the world better began to slip.
She spent two years battling both patients, who many times didn't care whether they lived or died, and amoral hospital bureaucrats whose soul had long since disappeared and only saw statistics when they looked out into a packed waiting room. What she thought of the insurance companies and politicians lacking any real idea how many people died because of their moronic adherence to ideological crap in the face of crushing societal inequalities was even worse. So when the opportunity arose to join the Peace Corp and work overseas she gladly jumped at the chance. She arrived in east Africa about the same time as the first major Ebola outbreak. It again forced her to deal with incompetent politicians and apathy. The end result was that far too many people died that she knew could have been saved if only the world had lived up to their religious beliefs and truly given a damn. When she returned from Africa she still wanted to help people, but her goals were far less grand.
“Peter,” she said pulling me away from my thoughts, “everything looks fine, I see nothing in the way of abnormalities on the x-rays. As for the blood tests, the ones that have returned show the usual for someone of your age but nothing out of the ordinary. Although, there are several others tests that I won't have results for a couple of days. But I'd say from everything I've seen so far, and my observations of how you acted around my staff, I'd hazard a guess and say you're fine physically.”
“So how did I come up with this apparently fictional Milton Solomon so suddenly and know pretty big details about his parents who aren't exactly household names these days?” I ask not so gracefully ignoring how she didn't say anything about my mental health.
“That I can't explain, but I'm not a psychologist. But from the look on your face I'm guessing you have a theory.” Melinda said while organizing the paperwork on her desk.
“Nothing I'd mention to you since you would surely have me committed the minute I uttered the words.”
“In that case, especially since I have spent so much time here after hours, lets go get something to eat. And big brother, you're buying, you won't play the injured bird with me since I know how much money you're pulling in doing freelance programming.”
We take her car and as Melinda drives us both to her favorite Mexican restaurant across the bridge to Mount Pleasant we talked about our youngest sibling, Jack, who lives down in the Patagonia region of southern Argentina. He was one of the managers of an Eco-resort down there and does nothing but send us pictures of the area he lives with his emails saying we should abandon everything and move down there with him. Something I seriously considered several times since coming home.
At the restaurant the hostess seated us in a booth close to the entrance and made a point of chatting with me even after our waiter took our drink orders and left to bring us the usual chips and salsa. She was a brunette about the same age as me and if a lot of things were different I would have welcomed her attention. Eventually she gets the message I'm not really interested and walks off to seat other people.
“What in the hell is wrong with you Pete?” My sister said while looking at me like I was crazy, something I really didn't appreciate at that moment. “That lady just about raped you with her eyes, not that it would matter in the least but I know you're not gay, why didn't you at least get her phone number? When is the last time you had a real relationship with a woman? Hell, when is the last time you just had sex?”
Despite the fact that I understood my sister had dropped everything to run tests on me everyone in my family understood the death of my wife and son during the attacks on 9/11 was an extremely sore point for me. That included any talk of getting involved with another woman.
“Melinda,” I said calmly, “I really don't want to talk about this, you know Beth and Luke's deaths still give me nightmares. There's no way I could get involved with anyone else.”
“Whose deaths?” Melinda said looking at me clearly not having a clue as to who I was talking about.
“Don't play this type of game with me, Melinda. I'm not in the mood.” I said getting angry.
“Okay Pete, I want you to remain calm but I absolutely have no idea whom you are talking about. The only Beth I know you had anything to do with was Beth Hampton, you guys dated in high school and for a short time while in college. You two became engaged during your senior years at Clemson but broke it off, she's now married to Jacob Fisher and lives not far from here.” My sister said in a casual, matter-of-fact manner.
In hindsight discovering Milton Solomon had somehow vanished from reality was nothing compared to the words coming out of my sister's mouth. My wife and child were everything to me and their deaths about destroyed my soul. It was only when I totally thew myself into the software company did I recover. Since I had already gone through the surreal experience of dealing with Solomon's disappearance I didn't get angry. Somehow knowing it had already happened bypassed the confusion and disbelief that comes with such a revelation but it didn't soften the overall blow that once again reality had shifted on me.
“Peter...talk to me,” my sister said as she grabbed my hand.
“Melinda, give me your car keys,” I said in a voice that deep down scared me.
“That's not a good idea Peter, how about you let me take you to the hospital.”
“Melinda give me the goddamn car keys or I'll take them from you and find Beth's house on my own. You have no idea how I am feeling right now.”
Melinda is just a younger version of our mother in that she looks like Jane Goodall must have appeared in her early thirties. But where as our mother is a saint with all the patience and compassion you expect, Melinda's experiences has hardened her to the point she doesn't scare easily or take a lot of shit off anyone.
“Peter let me tell you two things,” she again said calmly. “First, you are in a public place and the last damn thing you want to do is give me a reason to have you locked up and pumped full of tranquilizers. Second, I am not telling you where Beth lives, much less taking you there. The only option you have is to come with me to the hospital where I can see you get the care you need.”
We were at an impasse, so I did the only thing I could possibly do considering the circumstances. I grabbed Melinda's purse and ran straight out the door before she could react. On the way out I did hear Melinda scream something about the police needing to be called but I didn't care.
After running for several minutes I stopped long enough to pull out Melinda's cell phone. While my sister is one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, she is a creature of habit and has kept the same password for everything for years. It only takes me a second to gain access to her address book and find the listing for the woman who my memories told me was once my wife. Sure enough, it is close by and I begin running again knowing that the cops have already been called.
Ten minutes later I am running down a dark street using the address numbers on the fancy mailboxes to guide me. In the background I hear sirens growing closer and figure I have five minutes at best before I am tased and hauled off to the nearest psychiatric ward.
Because panic is about to overwhelm me I literally trip over Beth's mailbox. But I see the walkway and race up the to the front door. The lights are on in the house so I have a strong idea someone is home. I try my best to knock like a sane person and less than a minute later the woman I knew as my wife opens the door.
We stand there looking at each other for what seems like hours. In my memories the last time I saw her was the day she boarded a flight with our son to go see her sister in California. Somehow I expected her to be different, but she is the same blonde, green eyed woman my memories tell me I had known since we were in middle school. Then the realization hits me like a nuclear weapon, Beth is different because she is looking at me as if I am a stranger, which to her I am, and a terrifying one at that.
“Peter,” she says while leaning on the edge of the door, “you need to leave now. I don't know what has happened to you but the police are on the way.”
“I don't know what has happened to me either,” I answer honestly. “I just wanted to see your face, to make sure you're alive.”
“I'm sorry Peter but you need to leave. I have children, and you're scaring me.” Her words are like a knife to my heart. I watch her close the door without saying anything else. At that moment six police cars show up and I turn around with my arms raised. After that I just shut down and didn't say or do anything else.
In the movies they often keep mentally disturbed people in padded rooms while wearing straight jackets. Luckily for me techniques and practices have advanced since those primitive days. My room, while spartan and missing anything that might be used to harm myself, is comfortable and has a window facing a beautiful flower garden similar to my mother's. Another plus is that I get to wear pajamas all day and watch all the television I want in the dayroom as long as its something pleasant and comforting that doesn't rile up the inmates. The staff is rather formal with the others like me, but courteous and watchful so that no one hurts themselves or others. The food really sucks but all things considered I could have ended up in a much worse place.
As for the night I was taken into custody, the police being who they are roughed me up a little when they put the cuffs on and threw me into a squad car. At least I didn't have to worry about killing choke holds or being shot on sight since I was a white guy. Over the next couple of days I went from a holding cell at the county jail and from there to the psychiatric ward of the hospital where my sister works. After a formal hearing a week later I am finally taken to a private treatment center catering to the mental health needs of people with either decent health insurance or lots of money. My doctors are good people but totally without a clue as to how I have created such an elaborate delusion.
During my first night at the treatment center I realized how stupid my actions were after discovering Milton Solomon had vanished from reality. I made the assumption that he and those around him were the only ones altered by whatever force had erased him from history. Since I didn't have any direct connection with him and never in a million years would I have thought that my own history had somehow been changed. My urge to see Beth after hearing my sister say she was still alive was instinctive but ultimately self-defeating.
One morning after breakfast I take a seat in the dayroom and catch up on the latest adventures of SpongeBob when I notice a bookcase filled with old and ragged books. One of them is a fairly recent world history book and since the ever watchful staff is always alert for any issue that might disturb the peace I calmly pull the book out and take a seat to read despite the fact I am so excited I can barely contain myself.
Since this all began I have always felt that the most likely explanation of my confused state would lie with me. That I was suffering from some physical or mental condition that caused me to lose touch with the real world. People being erased from history or brought back to life is something reserved for science fiction movies and books. However, while I never had a strong interest in history I sat in the dayroom for hours reading that book and coming to the realization that all of human history was the plaything for some force I could not even begin to fathom.