Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A New Threat to Free Speech - SLAPP Lawsuits







Reiterating something I have mentioned uncountable times in the past, my childhood view of the future was guided by the science fiction I read and watched on television and at the movies. The only thing more nerdy about that admission is its overwhelming and sad naivety. My only saving grace was that almost an entire generation of kids from the sixties bought into that delirium far more than a stupid kid from South Carolina. As time progressed though, I eventually started reading science fiction that had a far darker and, sadly, more realistic view of the future.

One of these books, published in the early 1980's, takes place in a future where the United States government had devolved into an authoritarian regime where corporations stifle free speech through libel laws and suing anyone they thought had looked at them sideways. Taking place in the twenty-first century there were other quite disturbing problems besides corporate dictatorship.

For one thing, Charles Manson had become something of a nationwide Jesus Christ figure, worshiped by millions despite his horrific crimes. The Soviet Union, which had never fell, merged with Commie China to create a new empire that stretched from eastern Europe to southeast Asia. And for reasons I don't remember, in this book the South American countries all developed nukes and one day decided to use them on each other. All things considered, it was an extremely unpleasant world whose one saving grace was that a giant space colony had been built in Earth orbit providing a refuge for the relatively sane humans.

All the weird future stuff aside, it was the author's view of the lack of free speech in the United States that made my blood run cold. Simply put, and going by memory, the male protagonist in the book laments that a corporate CEO could have Joe Blow thrown in jail for years by just saying his expensive underwear smelled bad. That all practical opposition to the rich and powerful was now impossible. The situation wasn't exactly Orwellian, but the results were essentially the same. Once I finished the book, I put it away thinking there was a better chance of that space colony being built than having to deal with the end of free speech here in America. Once again I have been taught that the light you see at the end of the tunnel is not bright sunshine, but that of an oncoming train.

This is where SLAPP, (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) makes its dictatorial presence known. Keeping things simple, it is a lawsuit used by corporations to silence critics by burdening them with the cost of a legal defense until they are forced to abandon opposition to their plans. The typical SLAPP plaintiff does not expect to win their lawsuit, they get what they want through intimidation, fear, mounting legal costs, and simple exhaustion. We're not talking about brutal the thought police or newspeak from Orwell's 1984, but SLAPP is a real and direct threat to free speech in the United States.

Let Robert Reich explain the situation: 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

My Autopsy of the 2016 Election


Thirteen nightmarish months have passed since Americans of one form or another decided to screw the electoral pooch and put both the nation and world in jeopardy. Of course the cluster frak I'm writing about is the one where an amoral, narcissistic, racist conman was able to game the Constitution allowing him to occupy the White House. Conservatives do not openly read my admittedly partisan crap but just in case there is one out there lurking I'll explain what I mean.

Despite all the whining and moronic conspiracy theories, Hillary Clinton received well over three million more popular votes than Trump. What did put him in the White House were around seventy-thousand popular votes in several key Midwest states that push him over the required two-hundred seventy electoral votes needed for the Electoral College. Yes, I'm splitting hairs but given his total lack of character, dangerous authoritarian tendencies, and need for total adulation that borders on the sociopathic, I will never call him president. Trump may hate the little doofus ruling North Korea, but they are far more alike than he or his supporters here in the United States can conceive with their little brains.

With that out of the way, I'm not writing this to talk crap about the low-information, semi-suicidal idiots who put that orange bastard in the White House. Quite the contrary, my goal today is to do my own version of an electoral autopsy on the Democrats and how they truly bumbled nearly every aspect of the 2016 presidential campaign. The following are my own views in no particular order and are not meant to offend anyone.

Hillary Clinton: First off let me go ahead and say I believe Secretary Clinton would have made an excellent Chief Executive had she won the election. During her time in the United States Senate she was able to build productive relationships with the political adversaries that worked hard to impeach and then convict her husband while he was president. The problem is that by Mrs. Clinton's own admission she was a terrible campaigner, something highly problematic for people wishing to enter elected office. A large part of this problem came from what I believe was her attitude of inevitability. This was clearly visible during the 2008 presidential campaign, to the point she threw an old fashioned hissy fit as Barrack Obama won the nomination.

Frankly, one of her chief failures was that between the 2008 and 2016 campaigns she did not appear to do anything to change her style or how she approached people. Yes, Secretary Clinton has always had a large number of people who admire her but unfortunately, she has at least had an equal number of individuals who found her to be standoffish, to put it kindly. I will not touch on the allegations of corruption and worse crimes since the waters on those issues have been muddied beyond any reasonable discussion. Also yes, a lot of that was generated by outright political propaganda but Hillary was never able to effectively counter that perception. Because of that I was initially happy when Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 race. I had some hope that Bernie's clear passion might rub off on Secretary Clinton allowing her to overcome those deficiencies.

I wouldn't be offering a honest assessment of the situation if I didn't mention Hillary's infamous and totally false story about landing in Bosnia while under snipe fire. During the 2008 campaign Hillary related a story about how she and her daughter, Chelsea were flying into Bosnia during that country's blood civil war back in the 1990's. Supposedly, snipers were up in the hills firing down at the anyone foolish enough to walk out in the open. According to Hillary, both her and Chelsea had to be rushed off the military plane under heavy protection. Unfortunately, there was video of that arrival, shown on CNN, of her and Chelsea leisurely walking off the ramp of the military plane being greeted with locals wearing colorful costumes and bringing flowers. There was even, if I remember correctly, a brass band present on the tarmac.

Of lesser importance, but something I have to mention anyway, Hillary made a rather big strategic error in picking Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. In normal times he would have been an excellent choice. Being a moderate Democrat from a key swing state, he would have been seen as balancing the ticket. And to put it bluntly, being male Senator Kaine would have possibly massaged the bruised egos of guys upset that a woman was now running the country. However, with the primary campaign becoming bitterly divisive, I feel she should have picked Bernie Sanders in an attempt to heal those wounds. Given that she lost by seventy-thousand votes in those swing Midwest states Hillary's need to “feel comfortable” with the VP choice was a luxury she couldn't afford.

Bernie Sanders: Initially, I welcomed Bernie entering the race for reasons I have already stated. But his presence sent the campaign off the rails and to an extreme that should have been scary to anyone really watching. For me, the first sign his candidacy would be more trouble than it was worth was displayed with the attitude of his supporters. They viewed Bernie as a savior and anyone disagreeing with them was not only a corrupted Clinton stooge but worse than a Republican. Bernie supporters totally ignored the near unanimity of their senate voting record and the fact that while Sanders is good for dramatic displays his actual accomplishments in congress are wafer thin.

Another problem I have with Bernie is the simple fact he is a radical dinosaur from the 1960's. Understand, I actually agree with many of his ideas about how our country should be reformed. But given his personality, I believe he would have been totally ineffective in getting them through Congress had he somehow won the Democratic nomination then the presidential election. Putting this as simply as I can so there will be no misunderstanding, there is absolutely NO nascent radical progressive movement being quashed by Republicans nor evil corporations nor the overall political establishment. Yes, in some areas of the country such a movement exists, but to believe it is widespread is frankly delusional.

As much as such places like the American South needs a radical progressive movement those groups are incredibly small and isolated. I've meet a few of these individuals and while they whine about being held down by the establishment there is no support for them in Democratic Party nor as viable third-party candidates. Truth be told, here in the South even traditional Democratic strongholds are quite socially and economically conservative. For those progressives reading this getting mad, if you believe I'm wrong move down here and become politically active.

Being honest here but let's face it, Bernie is a petulant hippie suffering from an inability to separate what is fantasy and what is politically possible. Bernie's insistence on the Democrats playing by his rules when the vast majority of the time he is an Independent suggests his personality isn't that far from the way Trump behaves. Bernie is also famous for wanting political purity tests for Democratic candidates wanting them far more progressive than their areas would support.

One of the items Republicans were twitching in their pants to bring up was Sander's past love affair with communist countries. During the 2016 campaign. one of the U.S. Senators from South Carolina, got this gleeful look in his eye whenever he got the chance to bring up the fact that Bernie Sanders and his wife spent their honeymoon in the freaking Soviet Union! How Bernie's past ties with communist countries and Trump's love affair with Putin would have played out in a presidential election would have been interesting. That could also be an explanation why Hillary didn't pick Bernie as a running mate, but that is just wishful thinking on my part.

Democratic Voters: While the Republican Party is made up of quite different factions, they do at least readily coalesce when election time arrives. The comparison to mindless sheep is an accurate assessment. Democratic voters on the other hand are a vicious and near suicidal bunch that will angrily sabotage the overall effort if they feel their particular interest is not receiving proper attention. President Obama wasn't in office six months when Hispanic-American groups began complaining immigration reform wasn't on the agenda. Understand, the United States desperately needs immigration reform but at that time the American economy was teetering on the abyss of another Great Depression.

While relatively speaking, Democrats are the only adults sitting at the table of government, many have a disturbingly short attention span and think all that has to be done to bring about utopia is for a president to wave a magical wand. Democrats are by in large looking for a savior, hence Bernie's attractiveness, but government doesn't work that way so when things get drawn out and ugly with compromise they get mad and wander off looking for a latte or the nearest Apple Store. Childish Democratic attitudes were made worse when hardly any showed up to vote during the 2010 and 2014 midterms. Progressives whined endlessly about Obama's failure of leadership but no one seemed to remember he was dealing with heavy Republican majorities in both houses of Congress.

Yes, I know Democrats had majorities in Congress up until 2010, but most of them came from districts and states that were not Democratic strongholds. If progressives want radical change they will first have to somehow elect a heavy majority of such individuals to Congress then defend such people during the midterms.

Lastly, Democratic voters do have an unsettling need for celebrity in their political candidates. I voted for Barrack Obama twice and to this day feel he was head and shoulders above the Republican candidates he faced. But one factor that helped him in the primaries against Hillary was not only his talents but his skin color. There was a similar but weaker celebrity associated with Hillary in 2016 with her on the verge of being the first female president. Conversely, Hillary's lack of celebrity, given that she was a known factor, easily contributed to the lackluster turnout of some Democratic voters.

In short, while being the only available adults at this moment, Democrats have lacked any honest commitment to their cause for decades. Instead they have played second fiddle to the Republicans as the chasm between rich and poor in this country has grown to dangerous levels.

Third-Party Voters: You cannot have politics in any form without some level of corruption. Idealistic types desiring the perfect over the good might as well try to continue living without breathing. That doesn't make corruption acceptable, but hopelessly idealistic types often fail to make a distinction between actual corruption and political compromise. I'm sorry, democracy is messy and the comparison to making sausage is unbelievably accurate.
That doesn't stop some individuals from getting upset with the current situation and abandoning the established political institutions. Third-parties do have a long history of introducing vital reforms to the national consciousness which are eventually adopted by the two main political parties. The problem with third-parties became dangerously apparent in 2016 with Trump the Republican nominee.

The Green Party, lead by their nominee Jill Stein, attracted a great many progressive Democratic voters who were upset Bernie wasn't proclaimed messiah at the convention. Given the incredibly narrow election results in the critical Midwestern states, I believe people voting for the Green Party instead of Hillary gave Trump the presidency. The shrill refrain from many Green Party voters was that there was no real difference between Hillary and Trump. I would hope such sentiment would be long dead but unfortunately, it's alive and well.

American Voters in general: What can you say about a nation filled to the brim with petty, uncurious, self-indulgent individuals for whom patriotism is a mile wide but only a few inches deep. The United States became the leader of the free world pretty much by accident. Untouched by the Second World War, the men and women of the Greatest Generation then went on to reform the country and push all human limitations. Then came the Baby Boomer generation and we've been mostly coasting since then. Oh there are individual exceptions, but upon reaching the pinnacle of global power each generation after World War Two has become increasingly complacent at doing what is required to keep up with the rest of the world. Far too many of our schools are underfunded, especially in areas of rampant poverty, and literally falling apart. Our infrastructure of roads, electrical grids, water systems, and just about everything else is suffering through decades of neglect. Why? Because Americans get grouchy if they have to pay taxes, and God forbid anyone suggest differently.

Tagging along with crappy schools is a growing ignorance about how technology and the world in general is changing. Emerging nations naturally have cheaper labor allowing more primitive industries to flourish, and naturally American corporations have rushed to them to stay profitable.

Instead of facing these challenges and creating new strategies to adapt, Americans want nothing but to metaphorically stick their heads in the sand and return to their sports and reality television. Americans bitch and moan about our elected leaders failing us but they are just a reflection of the people that continue to send them to Washington. Trump is an abomination to everything this country supposedly believes but he is just a symptom of something far worse.

Americans today have tied themselves in self destructive knots because they do not want to be bothered by government. Things were super duper for their grandparents and Goddammit, they should still be that way for them. These days we as a people lack any imagination and understanding of the workings of both the nation and world. They know things have gone off the rails but lack the basic initiative to figure out how and why. Such a climate of ignorance spawns demagogues who exacerbates fears and plays with prejudices. Contrary to the notions of a former politician that hosts one of the  morning cable news show I once watched, the United States is not guarded by some supernatural being, we are not immune to the same factors that brought down nations and empires all through history.

The only silver lining I can find in this huge mess is that Trump may have awaken enough people to act that something might be saved. No, I not just talking about Democrats. There are inkling that some Republicans understand the dangers we are facing. Will this be enough to turn the tide? I sure as hell hope but we won't even begin to know until the midterms.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Chapter Seven: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope




With Robyn sitting beside me on the porch, drinking her coffee, and looking out at the ocean, I admitted to myself how insanely comfortable we had become with each other given that our relationship was just a couple of weeks old. I chalked that up to both of us being in our mid to late forties and needing adult companionship. Compared to her, I was a basket case as far as personal relationships went since I had played the lonely divorced bachelor for years.

My biggest fear was doing something really stupid by getting to serious far too soon. Robyn on the other hand seemed at ease with everything from sleeping over at my place to having me get heavily involved with her dog, Max, which was unnerving for me in its own right. Robyn was twice divorced and the best I could tell was that she took our relationship in a purely casual manner. All I could do was follow her lead and take things really slow. But God help me, at night when we are bed I know there were real feelings developing between us.

With the implications of my new and serious relationship bouncing inside my head, I suddenly felt the need to get some air. Luckily, Robyn's dog was still on the porch looking at us as if we were both crazy so I decided to use him as a way to get out of the house.

“Robyn,” I said putting down my coffee cup, “how about I take Max for a walk and once we get back I take you out for a fancy breakfast.”

She was taking a long sip of her coffee as I spoke and I must admit seeing her night shirt cling around her body made me think of a far different activity. “Sounds great,” she responded after setting her coffee cup down killing the urge for us to return to the bedroom. “I could use a good breakfast before I get back on the computer and work for a couple of hours.”

Minutes later I have Max out on the beach doing his very best to break free. “Sorry Max old buddy,” I said to him knowing he couldn't answer back. “I just needed some time to clear my head about how I feel about your mama.”

Max, much to my amazement, took a break from sniffing the sand and turned his head towards me. The look on his face could have meant a lot of things. But in a totally weird way I knew it was something to the effect that I should tread carefully when it came to Robyn. We walked on allowing me to replay how she entered my life.

***

Blame it on a stupid and irrational instant infatuation, but as I sat on the steps of my newly rented beach house for at least an hour waiting for the mysterious brunette and her dog to reappear. Being a forty-seven year old divorced man who had spent far too much time in a self-imposed monkish lifestyle probably explains why I was acting like a clumsy, lovelorn teenager. Making matters worse, as I sat on the weathered wood of the step memories of doing something painfully similar when I was thirteen during a family vacation down at Edisto Beach took center stage in my mind.

The Edisto Girl, whose name was the one thing that failed to resurface, was at least a couple of years older than me. Earlier that day we had bumped into each other at the local grocery store as I was buying stuff my mom needed for making dinner that night. Being that the store was literally a block away from the beach it allowed a far more casual dress code for its customers. Wearing a stylish at the time bikini and with her blonde hair tied back into a long ponytail, the churning male hormones in my brain instantly responded sending urgent messages down to my nether regions. The physical result was, needless to say, quite uncontrollable and totally embarrassing.

As we bumped into each other everything I was carrying fell to the floor. After that my memories became a blur of sensations from the softness of her skin where we touched to her smile that came damn close to giving me a religious experience. As we both bent down to pick up the dropped items, she made some offhand remark about me being cute and then walked away. Being thirteen, I took the remark as a declaration of true love and spent the next several days convinced I had a chance with her. Which at that age what exactly that chance meant was still largely hazy.

Sitting on the steps of that Pawleys Island beach house, I suddenly remembered the final result of that long ago teenage crush. After wracking my brain for several days to think of a way to talk with her all my hopes came crashing down when I saw Edisto Girl making out with a guy closer to her age behind the video game arcade. At least I had a couple of friends who made sure I didn't think too much about my stillborn imaginary romance.

After reliving the sad echos of that crush, I realized how stupid it was for me to repeat a similar behavior at my age. More to the point, the mystery woman chasing her dog was probably married or at least seeing someone, a thought that was tantamount to a kick in the balls. But I'll be damned if I didn't feel some sort of instant connection after making eye contact with her. Feeling chagrined, I went back up the stairs and into the beach house telling myself that the last thing I needed to do was make a fool of myself with yet another woman.

The next couple of days I made a point of keeping myself busy. The first item on the daily agenda was attempting to get into the habit of jogging every morning. I was more than a little overweight and with no money worries nor need to force myself to conform to a bogus society, like keeping a job, concentrating on my health and fitness was a perfect activity. To assist with that lofty goal, a run to the nearest grocery store, one of the fancy upscale types, later that day had me buying numerous health items like fruits, vegetables, and plenty of chicken and turkey for lean healthy meals.

While I intellectually understood what I needed to do, the next morning I slept late and skipped the whole affair. Matters were made worse when I did get up my breakfast consisted of a huge stack of pancakes overflowing with maple syrup at the restaurant right next the expensive grocery store I bought all the super healthy items.

The next morning I did at least get up and attempt to jog. Quickly feeling the effects of my years as a couch potato cooped up in a dingy apartment, I instead walked for an hour. When I got back to the beach house, I called that one a win and collapsed on the couch and took a nap.

The afternoons were another challenge, with nothing requiring my attention or time I found it difficult to not fall into the routine that dominated my divorced lifestyle back in Quincy. On my third morning in the beach house I spotting a person out on the ocean paddling a kayak that gave me the idea to buy one of my own. Whose purchase had striking similarities to the one of my new truck.

The saleslady showed me all the high end kayaks and cool gear and unlike the overly fashion conscious truck salesman, I bought everything the lady suggested. Her sale included the ultra comfy deluxe seat, carbon fiber paddle, bright orange life vest with the attached gizmo that flashes so the Coast Guard could find my dumbass at night, and survival backpack stuffed with neat items should I decided to get shipwrecked and play Robinson Crusoe.

Eager to tryout my toy, I rushed back to the beach house, put on my high tech life jacket and was paddling out into the ocean just minutes later. Oh, it was so easy to get into the feel of adventure and freedom and I continued paddling out far longer than a novice should dare. What brought me back to my senses was noticing several rather large jellyfish near the surface of the water. Having the basic knowledge of such creatures, I decided to slowly paddle out of their area fearing I might overturn and get really intimate with them on a far too personal basis.

That was when I noticed the thunderstorm coming from the west. Menacing dark clouds that seemed to stretch across the entire sky, I continued to gently turn my kayak around then proceeded to try and race the jellyfish back to shore. That's about the time I saw the dorsal fin breaking the surface of the water to my left on a direct intercept course for me. As my arms worked the double edged paddle for some strange reason I was hit with the bizarre desire to watch the movie Jaws and then dig out the old copy of Old Man and the Sea from my storage box.

“Hello Mr. Shark,” I said to my new toothy friend as it fell in alongside my kayak. “Out for an afternoon swim?” I asked as the urgency to get my ass back on dry land increased exponentially. It wasn't just the shark that was making me paddle faster, the evil looking thunderstorm was drawing closer to my area almost as if the jellyfish, my toothy friend, and it were in a rush to play an elaborate practical joke on any fool on a small boat way too far out on the ocean. As I paddled, visions of tragic television news flashes began forming in my head.

“How about this one Mr. Shark,” I said to my swimming companion. “Stupid winner of the Gigabucks Lottery washes ashore half eaten and sporting thousands of jellyfish stings.” Mr. Shark was silent, a sign that I took to mean he was carefully considering my creativeness.

“Oh this is a good one, Gigabuck Lottery winner struck dead by lightning just as soon as he steps ashore from an ill-planned afternoon kayak excursion.” I offered to my shark friend. This time Mr. Shark bumped my kayak, I couldn't tell whether it was from liking my new suggestion or not but in truth I didn't want to know.

At some point the jellyfish had wandered off, no loss they were snobbish pricks anyway. But I was quite surprised to notice Mr. Shark stayed with me up until I was in about a foot of water. Just as the bottom of my kayak bumped the sand, it turned around and headed back out to sea. “Thanks buddy,” I called out to it as I hastily jumped off my toy and dragged it back onto land.

I didn't know quite what to think when Mr. Shark energetically trashed its rear fin as it headed back out to deeper water. Was it a dignified “your welcome and thank you for the conversation” or just frustration that the hairless and largely clueless primate didn't do anything quite stupid enough to end up an early dinner for it and the rest of the local ocean food chain?

Optimism hadn't been one of my strong points since the divorce. But as I sat on the warm sand feeling the first drops of rain begin to hit my head the thought that I had finally had a decent workout did bring a smile to my face.

With the jellyfish giving up early, and Mr. Shark apparently not in the mood to try and make me a meal, the incoming thunderstorm deciding not to give me any shit and fizzled out before reaching my location. I used the opportunity to drag the kayak underneath the beach house and secure it to one of the embed pylons the structure was built on top. After getting cleaned up, I decided to reward my workout and corresponding brush with ocean life by grilling one of the really expensive steaks I bought from the fancy grocery store.

From the day of my arrival the propane-fueled grill included with the beach house was a source of wonder for me. Made of stainless steel, it had six main burners, with two additional ones on each side. Somehow it looked sleek and mean and as I raised the cover and ignited the burners a thrill went through my body I couldn't explain. Not to sound like an insensitive male pig, but the excitement going through my head seemed on par with how some women react at the sight of a perfect pair of shoes.

Whatever the case, when I dropped the ten ounce Kansas City Strip on the grill the sound of the meat sizzling was like a multitude of angels singing in heaven. For a couple of glorious minutes I watched the meat cook while whispering a profound thanks to the cow that lived a dreadful life and suffered through a horrific death for my pleasure and sustenance. After precisely adjusting the grill temperature settings, I walked through the screen-in section of the porch and into the house to make a salad and microwave the potato that would join me for dinner along with that beautiful piece of meat.

I'm not sure what caught my attention but as I was washing lettuce a profound disturbance in the Force rippled through my mind, body, and soul. I quickly walked back to the doorway where the screen-in porch joined the rest of the house and saw Mystery Lady's German Shepherd standing on its hind legs while it used its front paws to pull my precious steak closer to its drooling mouth.

“Get the flying frak away from my meal you mangy mutt!” I yelled at the dog who briefly looked over at me before going for broke and using its mouth to grab the steak. Before I could get back outside the dog was running down the stairs and onto the beach with my expensive steak.

A better man might have let it go, by that time my fascination with the Mystery Lady had faded with me resigning myself to the idea it was just another hopeless fantasy. But dammit, I had earn that steak and I was sure as hell wasn't letting it go easily. So I gave chase, fueled by the gross injustice of the situation my reality narrowed down to the gold and black, four-legged furry criminal in front of me. But in hindsight my chase was just like a dog who foolishly goes after a car, if in fact I was able to catch Max I had absolutely no idea what I do next. It wasn't like I could take back my half-cooked steak and eat it like I planned. But as I ran by amused and puzzled residents of the small island the endgame didn't really matter.

The section of Pawleys Island I was staying consisted of three rows of beach houses. The first was situated on the ocean itself, the second was naturally set in the middle between the two streets running the length of that section of the island. The back row looked out upon the marsh running between the island and the mainland. Max the steak stealing canine centered his attention on one of the houses next the marsh and bounded up the raised steps and through a busted section of the screen door disappearing from view.

By the time I made it to the house and up the steps my body was sending urgent messages about imminent failure to my brain. With my remaining energy, I knocked on the screen door unable to see anything inside the house. There was no immediate answer but in the background I thought I heard sounds of paws running up steps.

“Dammit Max,” I heard what I assumed was Mystery Lady's voice coming from a second story window, “just what trouble have you caused now! Oh my God, where in the hell did you get that steak?” She finished asking what I assumed was a rhetorical question. I wasn't judging, hell I had carried on a conversation with a shark earlier.

I knocked again and heard something whispered from the second story window and then footsteps coming down the stairs. By now the anger was gone replaced with a renewed interest in the Mystery Lady. The absence of a male voice from inside the house had given new confidence to that small portion of my brain that clings desperately to lost and hopeless causes. Of course, a more cynical portion of the squishy gray matter between my ears suddenly became active reminding me that just because no husband or boyfriend was currently present wasn't proof he didn't exist. Adding insult to injury, the cynical part of my brain then added that if Mystery Lady turned out to be single there was no rule that said she would be interested in me.

As I inwardly cursed my own thoughts sabotaging my self-esteem Mystery Lady appeared at the door.

“Hi,” she said before gasping. “Oh my God, you're the guy Max slammed into on the beach a couple of days ago. I guess the steak he's chewing in the living room is your? I'm so sorry, I was working upstairs and didn't realize he had busted out of the house.”

With Mystery Lady standing in front of me, I naturally found myself unable to speak. It took a force of will equal to anything I had ever done before to just nod my head yes. At least time seemed to stop to allowing me to gather my few wits. She looked to be in her forties and a touch above average height. Her shoulder length brunette hair went well with her brown eyes that seemed curious and maybe even welcoming. As far as weight went, I could tell she had a much better body fat index than me, almost to the point she could be called athletic. But most of all, I saw she wasn't wearing a wedding ring.

“Yeah, Max is guilty on both counts, but it's okay.” I said finally. “My name is Jason Lance by the way.” I added suddenly.

“Can I pay you for the damage and trouble he caused?” Mystery Lady asked making a motion to turn away but not breaking eye contact with me.

A ridiculous image of the cynical part of my brain looking like my ex-wife appeared in my head. It was laughing and saying I was about to totally screw things up with this woman. That's when I decided to go for broke.

“Actually no, I'll forget about the whole thing if you met me some place for dinner tonight. Of course, after I go back to my house, turn off the grill, and change into clothes that are only slightly more presentable than the dirty things I'm wearing now.”

Mystery Lady laughed, “Sure I'd like that a lot. In fact, I'll pick you up at your place in about an hour, okay. There's a nice Italian restaurant I've been wanting to try.”

“Awesome!” I said with the enthusiasm of a stupid teenager. “I live at...” I started to say.

“I know where you live, Jason Lance,” Mystery Lady said. “ I saw you unload your kayak earlier this afternoon and paddle out.”

“Oh okay, I'll run home now and get ready.” With that we said goodbye for now and I began walking home.

“Hey Jason Lance,” Mystery Lady called out from her busted screen door. “My name is Robyn Egan by the way.” She finished giving me the warmest smile I had seen in a long time. Again feeling that teenage curse, I waved and tried laughing at myself.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Encounters on the Road




Giving directions to lost or misguided travelers has to be more of an art than simple science. No, I'm not including the often comical language barrier in that statement. Although that's usually the first thing people imagine in that circumstance when the person needing to be set back on the right path can't understand those trying to help him or her. Even when those involved all speak the same language everything from conflicting personalities to the way different people view the world around them often make the task next to impossible.

There are usually two complicating factors that make it difficult for me to help someone trying to get to their destination. The first being that South Carolina, the state where I live, has a pretty crappy record in putting up proper signage for anything like roads or most buildings. Yes, there are always exceptions with the big glaring ones immediately coming to mind being anything to do with golf courses or outlet shopping malls.

I'm actually surprised the managers of golf courses haven't bought blimps adored with hundreds of pulsating LED lights arranged in an arrow pointing down and positioned them over their property. That way all the middle-aged males looking for a relatively cheap way that will allow them to smack their little white balls could be guided to the proper location like the star that brought the three wise men to Bethlehem. The same holds true for the outlet malls, which from what little I know always need their parking lots filled to overflowing with gullible tourists ready to max out their already abused credit cards.

When it comes to places like government buildings and even hospitals in some instances, proper signage that will allow the unfamiliar to quickly find them is often a hit and miss situation. That's where this story begins with me trying to play the Good Samaritan but with personalities soon making the situation far worse.

My family and were on our way home from the usual Disney vacation. I can't really remember the year, but my son and daughter were young enough that we needed to let them run around the big rest stop located just inside the South Carolina border. If there is one constant in the parenting universe it is that small children get really grumpy and then whiny when they have to stay still inside a moving car too long. It didn't take my wife and I long to learn that if our kids were allowed to burn off just a little amount of energy in the middle of a long drive it saved us from agonizing hours of complaints and even questioning our adult choices in life.

Anyway, that rest stop has plenty of green space filled with now largely unused heavy duty steel charcoal grills, cement benches, and tables that were designed to allow travelers to picnic while on the road. After navigating the crowds inside the main building and doing the ubiquitous bathroom runs, I was back outside with the kids watching them climb over the cement benches and tables. At the same time my wife was in one of her social gadfly moods striking up impromptu conversations with just about anyone who would respond. This is where Sam and Lulu enter the story.

Sam and Lulu could best be described as a late middle-aged to early senior citizen couple traveling from a small town in southwest Georgia with their destination an equally obscure one fairly close to my hometown of Georgetown, South Carolina. Where things get weird with Sam and Lulu is that from their style of clothing both were clearly into biker culture with age and infirmity being the only reason they had transitioned to driving a car.

Sam was dressed in jeans and t-shirt but his biker roots shown through from the leather vest and cap he was wearing along with heavy riding boots on his feet. He was overweight but I could tell it was more muscle than fat and despite his age, there was no way in hell I would have started a fight with him. Long story short Sam looked like a disgruntled, antisocial Santa Claus fed up with spoiled kids and modern parents. Lulu pretty much complimented her husband wearing close to the same attire, except that even though she had to be in her early sixties, she was still stunningly beautiful.

Somehow my wife had learned that not only did Sam and Lulu need directions but that their destination was a town where I once worked while we were dating. The town is called Hemingway and it is about as off the beaten path as you can get in South Carolina. Getting to Hemingway just from the relatively short distance of my hometown involves navigating a series of county roads that I knew only from repeated trips. What I mean is that there was no real way I could name the road designations to Sam or Lulu that would guide them to their destination nor how many miles they would have to drive. The absolute best I could do was suggest they continue on I-95 then turn east onto U.S. Highway 378. From there signs should guide them in the rest if the way, that is if the markers were not destroyed or had fallen over.

Point blank, the people of the great state of South Carolina think proper roads are a waste of taxpayers money. So while the major highways are kept somewhat in decent shape for the tourists, rural roadways can take on a third world look in some counties. That means crumbling asphalt with weeds popping up between the cracks, potholes so bad there are numerous patches on top of patches, and signs that are either falling down due to lack of upkeep or shot full of holes by joyriding rednecks. Do not even begin to ask about small bridges and how badly they have been maintained over the years. 

This allows me to segue way into why Sam and Lulu simply didn't get a map from the main building of the rest stop. Because unlike other states, namely Florida whose border rest stop appears to have far longer open hours and serves free orange juice, the one we were at just off I-95 was closed for the day. Another factor was Sam, after talking with him for a few minutes it was clear he was the type of guy that didn't want to ask for directions. If Lulu and my wife hadn't struck up a conversation she and Sam would have certainly driven off without any real idea where they were going.

After giving Sam my meager directions he immediately shook them off saying there had to be a better and quicker way of getting to Hemingway. I told Sam there was certainly a better way but I didn't know it. Sam then started rattling off the names of small towns I was only vaguely familiar and how someone back home assured him they all ultimately connected to Hemingway. After Sam's convoluted naming of small towns he stood in front of me with a strange, enigmatic smile. He was either waiting for me to affirm his route or was just thinking how I was an idiot for not already knowing it.

In case you haven't already figured out Sam didn't actually want correct directions. He wanted someone to just confirm his ideas. This gets to my main point about giving directions being more of an art, and truthfully an exercise in diplomacy. I didn't want to play his game, I was tired and bummed out that my vacation was over. Just to get rid of the guy, I stared off into the distance and bobbed my head around like I was thinking and after a few seconds said something to the effect that sounded about right.

Bingo! Sam's face brighten up with him grabbing my hand shaking it almost wildly and saying he appreciated my help. Minutes later he and Lulu were back on the road while I in turn gathered up my kids and belted them back into their car seats.

Because the kids had burned off some energy, they were asleep just a few minutes after I pulled back onto the highway. The silence between my wife and I was getting awkward causing me to ask if there was a problem.

“Sam has no idea where he and Lulu are going do they?” She asked giving me one of those looks that had equal chance of being good or bad.

“No, not really,” I began, “some of those towns he named aren't anywhere near Hemingway. More to the point, he named two that are way up north next Greenville and Spartanburg. So I figure he's about to get as lost as a person can be.”

“Oh well,” was all my wife said while grabbing one of her magazines. She didn't say another word about Sam and Lulu.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A Fun Filled Examination of Closed Time Loops




One of the easiest and most abused science fiction story concepts is the one where some fool filled with good intentions goes back in time in an attempt to stop a terrible crime or prevent a tragedy. During the course of these temporal adventures the main character more than likely does something stupid causing events to unfold much worse that in the original timeline. This usually leaves two possibilities for the conclusion of the story. The main character will again use whatever device that allowed him or her to time travel and attempt to correct the alteration in the timeline returning events to how they originality unfolded. Or, return to their original temporal point and somehow learn to live with the alterations in the flow of events.

Needless to say, so many of these types of stories have been written over the decades that they have become extremely derivative of each other that originality is next to impossible. Especially to a jaded science fiction type like myself whose read more time travel stories that I can remember.

As time travel stories go I'm more of the Terminator/Star Trek/Doctor Who type but I've got to admit that for a short time my wife got me interested in the Starz movie channel series based on the Outlander books by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, those books and the series fit firmly in the categories of female romance/adventure but hear me out, because after binge watching seasons one and two I'm going to get metaphysical on the prospects of some time traveler changing history.



Backtracking for those who don't know, the Outlander books and television series centers on the female character Claire Randal who while visiting Scotland in 1945 is “magically” transported back to 1743 when she steps through a large stone. Without getting bogged down into the details at first Claire gets bounced around for awhile learning the ways of 18th century Scotland. What aids Claire in being accepted-- sort of-- by the locals is the fact that she was a combat nurse during the Second World War and is viewed by them as having close to magical healing powers far outstripping the doctors of that time.

Where things get titillating for Claire, and for certain members of the view audience, is when she hooks up with a Scottish dude of that time named Jamie Fraser. Given the nature of these books/television series sparks soon fly between Claire and Jamie with the birds and bees stuff getting fairly graphic, soft porn to some extent. I also have to mention part of the drama of the story revolves around the fact that Claire is married to a fairly decent guy who is back in the twentieth century and has no freaking idea what happened to his wife. This is where the story goes full female bodice-ripping romance because of the tension between Claire's conflicting desires to return to her twentieth century husband or stay with the hunky kilt wearing action hero.

The character of Jamie Fraser is a Scottish patriot and is all for pulling a William Wallace/Braveheart on the obnoxious English. But Claire is from the future and knows the growing rebellion will ultimately end disastrously at the Battle of Culloden. So Claire, deeply in love with Jamie, tells him what will happen even though this being 18th century Europe such ravings would almost certainly have caused her to be thrown into whatever passed as an insane asylum or burned as a witch. Jamie, being in love with Claire and impossibly open-minded for someone of that period, believes his lover's warning of impending doom and they begin working to alter the circumstances of the coming battle.

The overall crux of the story, at least in season one and two of the series, involves how the Scots are getting tried of being dominated by the English. With rebellion in the air the Scots are supporting Prince Charles Stuart's claim to the English and Scottish throne. Prince Charles Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, is a descendant of the last Catholic king of England, James II.

It is during the second season we are introduced to the doofus Prince Charles who is in France with his advisers looking to find ways to finance and them execute their scheme to take the throne of England by force. Which is a big task since Prince Charles is an idiot and there are other factors working to undermine the building Scottish rebellion.



While born in exile, Bonnie Prince Charlie was raised to sit on the English thrown. Reports suggest he was a dashing figure who was athletic, charismatic, and supremely confident. All that fine breeding just made him an empty suit with delusions of grandeur. For those who can't tell, no I don't like the privileged chump. He reminds me way too much of someone in this day and age.

As far as the ability to lead and organize a military campaign was concerned, he was worse than just incompetent. Despite his unassailable confidence in himself, objective observers say his intellectual ability was mediocre at best. He had no discernible tactical nor strategic vision on how to achieve his goals. Top it all off this example that inbreeding is still wrong whether it's done by white trash or rich aristocratic snobs, the Bonnie Prince was indifferent to the pragmatic issues of military logistics and how terrain effects the execution of a battle plan. Its been said many times anyone can play at being Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or General Patton. But what really wins battles is the ability to quickly bring enough beans and bullets to the theater of operations to overwhelm the enemy. And as far as terrain is concerned, any commander has to understand that while war has been compared to chess it's more the three dimensional kind.

Just to throw salt on this 18th century Scottish wound, it was recorded that Bonnie Prince Charlie was actually quite indecisive when the shit hit the fan. His usual habit was to walk away when things got tough leaving his subordinates to either sink or swim on their own.

Right from the start Bonnie Prince Charlies' campaign seemed hapless. When a French warship dropped him on a desolate beach in western Scotland in August of 1745 he was accompanied by just seven supporters with little to nothing in the way of weapons or money. A second French ship, which was carrying a small amount of troops, weapons, and money was intercepted by an English vessel and forced to turn back. As the weeks and months passed instead of a solid strategic plan coming together, his generals and advisers couldn't get along.

It wasn't all stupidity and epic defeat, somehow the rebellious Scots were successful enough to launch and overland invasion of England coming within a hundred miles or so from London. Instead of pressing the advantage though, they got nervous and retreated back into Scotland with a well trained and excellently lead English army in hot pursuit.

On the eve of what became known as the Battle of Culloden, the rebellious Scots, called Jacobites by the way, located the encamped English forces and decided to launch a nighttime assault on their position. Such attacks require highly trained troops and precise coordination among leaders, something the Scots were severely lacking to say the least. While it's not my intention to offend anyone, all things being equal the Scots really didn't have a coherent army. They were into the idea that motivated individuals could take on a disciplined army and win just because God or some ill-conceived abstract principle was on their side. Hey, such attitudes can work until the stronger, more disciplined, and better equipped force gets its act together.

The planned night attack on the English encampment began to fall apart almost immediately when one of the leading Scottish generals realized the operation was going sideways causing him to turn his troops around. The big mistake here was that he didn't tell the other group of Scottish forces causing both segments to bump around all night. By morning Scottish forces were exhausted and hungry but there was no place to sleep but the ground and food was nonexistent except what could be begged or stolen from nearby farms and villages.

Spoiled doofus, I mean Bonnie Prince Charles wanted to proceed with the operation as a daytime attack. Something anyone with a couple of extra brains cells in his group said was a really bad idea. Well, Charlie got his way and except for a brief few minutes when the first line of the English forces were breached, strictly by chance not planning, the Scots got their asses handed to them. With this defeat the idea of an independent Scotland was killed until a couple of years ago. Even then the peaceful referendum was defeated and Scotland and England remain a more or less an unhappy couple resigned to a loveless marriage.

Sidestepping back into the Outlander series and the final disposition of Jamie and Claire for those who might be interested. With the coming Battle of Culloden a certified clusterfrak in the making, Jamie forces Claire to return to the twentieth century by again stepping through the magical rock that first brought her. This is where I get off my military history train and slightly ridiculous television show explanations and get back on point about time travel.

As far as I can tell by reading and watching educational documentaries all the big theoretical physicists agree time travel on anything but a submicroscopic scale is impossible. What I don't understand though, and what keeps hopes of time travel alive for those interested in maybe asking Cleopatra for a date is that the equations for time that Einstein developed for his theory of General Relativity say it could easily flow both backwards or forward. Seemingly suggesting a mechanism could be engineered that would allow, say a talking dog and a young kid, to build a Wayback machine. So for shits and giggles lets speculate that some future Einstein, super genius talking dog, advanced artificial intelligence software, or space alien figures out a way. This now brings up the contentious and nightmarish possibility of screwing with the timeline.

Serious nerd side note here, but that's really the only reason I decided to watch Outlander with my wife. Well there is the fact that the lady playing Claire is smoking hot and did I mention the near soft porn aspect of the show?

 

Like Marty McFly made everyone understand in the Back to the Future movies, change the course of events and people in the future could literally vanish from existence. On that same vein, change the course of events and you alter the outcome of wars and other types of historical occurrences. The one thing from both Star Trek and Stargate that makes sense in a metaphysical sort of way is that no one should be able to play God with existence. In Star Trek the guys and gals from Starfleet wisely understand you simply don't go that route...most of the time. As for Stargate, well there are more than enough episodes where the bumbling Air Force fools did play with the timeline and got screwed in the process.

Here is where I put on my layman's history hat and suggest there might be another factor that prevents any hypothetical time traveler from altering history. Pulling from both the actual history of the Jacobite Rebellion/Bonnie Prince Charlie escapades and the scenario offered by the Outlander television series, anyone wanting to change history would have to fight some pretty strong preconceived notions and societal norms. Both Jamie and Claire worked hard to alter the chain of events leading to the Culloden disaster but failed miserably.

While I am in no way a military history expert it does seem to me that the strongest armies, in this case being the English forces fighting the rebellious Scots, almost always win. Yes, Vietnam is the exception that immediately comes to mind but geopolitical factors prevented the United States from exerting its full strength in that conflict. Terrain was also a factor and it was overwhelmingly on the side of the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. Looking at the American Civil War while the South scored some early and impressive wins, once the Union forces got fully organized the Confederacy was thankfully defeated and ground down to dust.

Could the Jacobite Rebellion and the Confederacy pulled an upset by an early win? The Scots had their chance when they were only a hundred miles or so from London. And Robert E. Lee certainly had his chance for a quick victory at Antietam and later at Gettysburg but was repulsed both times. It would seem that they could have but I simply don't know enough to be sure. This goes back to the real winners of battles, logistics and knowledge of how to use the available terrain to your advantage. I have some nebulous idea that something would have happened or developed that would have prevented either of them from achieving their goals.

From what I have read, the one event that does seem to have been decided purely by chance was the Battle of Midway. Without digressing into another bout of military history the way I understand it U.S. Navy planes caught the Japanese fleet off guard as their aircraft were on the carriers being fueled and loaded with bombs. From that point on, Japan was never able to mount a major offensive operation. From what I've read the Battle of Midway has been war gamed many times over the decades with the real life outcome not the usual result. But this brings us back to my original idea, it might have taken several years but the industrial strength of the United States would have eventually defeated the resource poor Japan. Yes, I'm including the eventually development of the atomic bomb and its use in that assessment.

What this all boils down to is the eternal debate about determinism and free will. Do we as individuals have any real choice in our actions or are we just puppets playing out a story set in stone? That debate has gone on for thousands of years and runs the full scope from purely philosophical to involving physics. I frankly lean towards the side of determinism, with maybe room for real choice on the strictly personal level. That being whether or not I order pizza for lunch today or go get a nice tuna sub.

What would be totally cool though, is if some intrepid time traveler somehow reads this rambling rant and decides to drop by and tell me what they believe from his or her own era. I promise I won't screw with the timeline by telling anyone else. Come by early enough and I'll buy lunch for us both.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chapter Six: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope




The sun was just rising above the horizon when I stepped out onto the screen-in porch overlooking the ocean. With a fresh cup of hot coffee in my hand I carefully took a seat in one of the patio chairs to watch the day begin. There is something magical about waking up next the ocean, even with several dozen disgruntled seagulls ominously circling low in the sky seemingly practicing for the remake of the Alfred Hitchcock movie that turned them into horror movie characters. I tried not to look down upon the winged beasts bitching amongst themselves as they nipped each other while looking for a seafood breakfast. They were just answering the call to the instinctive behavior programmed in their genes. Humans exhibit quiet similar actions on a regular basis and we're supposed to be intelligent creatures.

Nothing shows how little humans have advanced beyond their feathered counterparts than watching people inside a modern grocery store. Step into one during the early evening when all the good folks are desperate to get their way before anyone else and you can't help but wonder why our species hasn't nuked itself into oblivion. Sitting in my comfortable chair, sipping some seriously high class coffee while enjoying the view, I forced myself to think of something else.

The first thing I could concentrate on was my temporarily sidelined journey of self discovery. A little over a month has passed since my trusty and faithful companion for years had suddenly died on the side of Highway 17 heading towards Myrtle Beach. Naturally I'm speaking of the truck I had owned since the late-1990's. After finishing my dinner and leaving Georgetown, I was ten miles south of Pawleys Island when the engine suddenly seized up. Momentum allowed me to pull over to the side of the road and get clear of traffic but the grinding noise I was hearing suggested she wouldn't easily move again after stopping. After lifting the hood, the light of my flashlight revealed a bloody mess with oil covering almost every possible surface. Given my truck's age and current condition, it didn't take a certified mechanic to realize my old friend was a total loss.

One of the things my attorney, the mysterious but highly capable Jim Lund, insisted upon when he learned of my desire to go on an open ended road trip after winning forty-two million in the lottery was that I join some sort of auto club. Luckily, I didn't disagree and after calling customer support about thirty minutes later I was rewarded with the flashing amber lights of a wrecker pulling in front of my now deceased truck.

This lead to me meeting a guy by the name of Woodson Reed Pickles who drove the wrecker that towed my truck to the dealership where I was planning to buy another vehicle first thing in the morning. Right from the start, Woodson seemed the stereotypical southern redneck with a heavy drawl which previous experience always suggested someone who might be unsure whether the Earth revolved around the sun. This being the American South where suspicion of science and intellectuals is so ingrained into the regional DNA, it is depressingly easy to find people who take a particular pride in their ignorance of the world. His appearance only reinforced my bias, dressed in cutoff jeans and a work shirt stained with enough grease and oil for it to be classified as hazardous waste, I expected the man's greatest accomplishment to be his collection of NASCAR champion autographs.

As Woodson pulled his wrecker into traffic heading towards the dealership, I learned two vital lessons. The first being I am still an assuming self-righteous prick and that the saying “you can't judge a book by its cover” is a tired cliche because it is often true.

Turns out Woodson was once a high rolling investment analysis for one of the banks that went extinct around 2008. Caught up in the irrational enthusiasm of the fatally flawed American housing market like most others in his profession, Woodson only saw the handwriting on the wall at the last minute. Financially, he didn't quite lose everything but his personal causalities did include his self respect and a wife who remarried one of the wealthy survivors of the Great Recession. After spending a couple of years on the road like I was planning to do, Woodson eventually returned home to South Carolina and took over his father's businesses, which included the wrecker service, after the man passed away. After telling Woodson the nature of my similar marital woes and how I was getting the hell out of town, we were instant best friends and spent the better part of that night drinking beers at a local bar. Although, I didn't feel the need to tell him about winning the lottery. I just said I had inherited a chunk of money and was using it to finance my travels.

After the bar closed I was dropped off at a motel to get some sleep. When what passes for me as consciousness returned, I phoned and had a rental car delivered so I could head down to the Ford dealership. It was early afternoon when I stumbled into the ultra clean and bright showroom lobby to deal with my dead truck and to begin the process of buying another.
The first stumbling block was that I found myself suffering from the same type of assumptions that I had cast upon Woodson. For a couple of minutes I was alone until the salesman on duty walked back into the showroom. Just by chance, I caught sight of him before he could sneak back to wherever he'd been hiding. A dapper looking individual dressed in a pastel colored suit and sporting abnormally large cuff links, he gave me one of those looks of disgust people express when their cat brings home a dead mouse.

I wasn't immune to the irony that Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman was probably basing his assumption on the fact that I was now wearing wrinkly cargo shorts, an old surfer t-shirt, and my comfy Jesus sandals. Minus the grease and oil stains Woodson had on his work shirt, our dress code was remarkably similar. With some coaxing though, I got the man to check my account balance so he could be assured helping me was not going to be a waste of his time. About ten minutes later the salesman returned to the waiting area, his change in attitude was so extreme my neck and back hurt from the metaphorical whiplash.

With all the assumptions taken care of the problem became all the tricked out four-wheel trucks he was trying to get me to buy. Models with near monster-sized tires and raised three and four feet off the ground loaded with survivalist accessories that suggest someone is expecting a zombie apocalypse. As Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman walked me down the line of new vehicles, I realized that over the last couple of decades there is truth in the idea the average American male has come to believe his masculinity was in question. Throw in the obsession with military grade weapons and it proves the old joke about certain males having to make up for some sort of deficiency. Whether it's physical with them unsure about the sizes of their penises, compared to other groups. Or a simple lack of imagination and competence on how they can compete in world that has changed beyond their ability to easily control.

Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman was greatly disappointed when I went for a less than exciting F-150 model with a simple extended cab and camper shell over the bed, but nothing in the way of accessories to prepare for the end of the world. At least my choice in the color of the truck, a subdued blue seemed to placate the guy.

The next problem was something I would have never foreseen. With Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman happy with an easy sale his mood changed abruptly when we started the paperwork. Turns out that vehicles aren't like other products that you can casually buy then leave with them. Naturally cars and trucks have to be registered, which I found out requires a permanent address, something I was currently without.

I immediately pulled out my cell phone and called my lawyer, Jim Lund to find a way out of this mess. After explaining the situation, with Jim apparently taking notes on his end, he told me to give him about two hours and everything would be fine.

Almost to the minute two hours later a lady dressed in what I would have to call coastal business casual and wearing a light blazer with the insignia of a local real estate agency walks into the lobby of the dealership. “Mr. Lance,” she said walking towards me. “I have the paperwork for your rental here to sign.”

“Rental?” I responded with puzzlement. Somehow when I called Jim I was expecting a solution that allowed me to continue one with my journey. But then again, considering the nature of the situation and my lack of destination spending some time at the beach wouldn't kill me.

“Yes,” she replied, “I'm Sally Yates from Fun Beach Property Rentals and your attorney has arranged a three month rental of one of our finest houses on Pawleys Island.” Sally then plopped down beside me on the sofa I was sitting and began laying out forms on the coffee table in front of us. “You'll need to sign a few of these papers and then I can show you the house.” She said in a business like manner.

Just as I was signing the last form, Mr. Fashion Conscious Salesman comes into view carrying a stack of papers, the keys to my new truck, and a much improved mood. “Mr. Lance everything has been taken care of and your new truck is being fueled up.” He then digressed into the usual banter about if I ever needed anything and how the warranty on the truck would take care of just about every issue.

After throwing my duffel bag and storage box into the new truck and calling the rental agency to come pick up the car, I began following Sally to the beach house I would be living in for the next few months.

The house was awesome, built purely as a rental it had an ungodly amount of bedrooms and large living areas. What I liked about it was the huge porch facing the ocean, which was mostly screened-in but had a smaller section outside the enclosed area but covered by the roof. That was where the builder had installed the most elaborate gas grill I had ever seen.

Sally showed me all through the house but quickly left afterwards allowing me to bring in my meager possessions and get comfortable. After the busy day, I just left the duffel and storage box in the living room and walked out onto he beach. With most schools still out for the summer, the beach still had a lot of people laying out on the sand or playing in the water. The smell of meat cooking on grills at other houses made my stomach rumble and me begin planning how I would use the one at my place.

Lost in thought and immersed in the sensations of the ocean, I walked into the water to the point it was covering my ankles. I was so detached from my surroundings, I didn't notice the huge German Shepard that slammed into me throwing my balance off just enough to fall face first into the retreating water and wet sand. It wasn't my worst fall, but it took me several seconds to gather my wits.

“Are you okay?” was the first thing I heard.

I turned my head to see this beautiful woman with brunette hair dressed in a one piece swimsuit offering her right hand to help me up. In her other hand was a coiled up dog leash with a collar dangling at the end.

Years living as a monk in a pissant town hadn't totally ruined me, I gave her my best smile and took her hand. “Oh I'm fine, I've fallen in worse places.” I said hoping to start a conversation.

“Great,” she replied, “I'm sorry about Max, he likes to slip his collar and run off. Nice meeting you, but I've got to chase him down.” With that she turned and began running down the beach to catch her dog.

For several seconds, I just stood there watching the unknown woman disappear into the distance. It wasn't the most stylish way to meet a woman, or impress her for that matter. But everything eventually fell into place.

Something I was reminded of as the sounds of Robyn in the kitchen making her own cup of coffee brought me back to the present. She came out on the porch still in her night shirt and took the seat next mine. “What are our plans today?” She asked in a disinterested manner that I took to mean there better me nothing on the schedule.

“Just enjoying the day,” I replied enjoying the peace and perfection of the moment.

As if on cue her dog, Max then ran out onto the porch and looked at us silently asking why he had not been consulted on any plans. Yeah, he and I are still working our relationship out but that is a story for another time.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

News from Enceladus


 My interest in ancient history first developed while I was taking Western Civilization in high school. The textbook was a remarkable work that both introduced the subject and spurred me on to further reading. Because nothing so utterly labels a clumsy, shy teenager a nerd like going to the library looking for a book on the real reasons for the Trojan War. Say “Trojan” to average high school-aged male and the only thing he thinks about is that item wrapped in a foil package hiding in his wallet.

More importantly it was a truly incredible teacher by the name of Mr. Ron Edgerton that created my sense of amazement of the ancient world and the people that lived during those times. Given that I was in his class about the same time as the first version of Cosmos aired on PBS, I feel fully justied to compare him to the amazing Carl Sagan. Like Dr. Sagan, Mr Edgerton's lectures were not only intensely engaging but almost lyrical in how he presented the subject. Like Carl Sagan appearing on his version of the television show Cosmos, I came away upset when Mr. Edgerton's class was over.

When a person is first introduced to a subject certain basic questions develop for which there is no simple answer. This happened to me as I slowly came to an understanding on why ancient civilizations never sent out fleets of ships dedicated to the exploration of the world. Yes, I now know that many did, well sort of, but bear with me for a minute or two as I explain my mistaken reasoning.

It was during one of Mr. Edgerton's lectures concerning the period when the Roman Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power and influence. The Romans owned the world centered around the Mediterranean Sea, their power touched the North Sea and the entire northern coast of Africa from Egypt to what is now Morocco. And likewise, from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula in the west to a large chunk of the Black Sea in the east. I simply couldn't fathom why the Romans didn't have fleets venturing out exploring the African coastline or Lewis and Clark-like expeditions pushing eastward.

Before I get into the meat of my semi-coherent point, in an effort for full disclosure I have to write that both the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians did in fact do a good bit of exploring. Both of those peoples established colonies all through the Mediterranean when the city of Rome was nothing but a small collection of mud huts inhabited by the ancient version of illiterate rednecks. And there are two stories, which as far as I know could be the same expedition, of Phoenicians trying to circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa strictly to see what was out there.

But as far as the Romans are concerned, I know that basically the reason they stayed largely at home revolved around the fact that they did know a little about these often desolate regions and simply saw no value in them. Of course, there was also the fact that many of the people living in those mysterious lands were quite hostile. But one component that can't be ignored is that, like many other mighty civilizations, they thought their little chunk of the world was the most special and they had everything they needed so there was no reason to go exploring.

Along those lines, China had a brief period of pure exploration during the early Ming Dynasty when they sent out the incredible Zheng He on voyages that would take him and his crew all the way to eastern Africa. What really blows the mind was that fact that his ships dwarfed anything the Europeans could build in both size and sophistication. If you could have placed one of Zheng He's ships next the best the Europeans could build at that time, it is often remarked that it would have been like placing a modern cruise ship beside a leaky rowboat.

You want to ponder “what ifs,” consider the impact if China hadn't turned inward during that time when it was truly the most powerful nation on the planet. What would the puny Europeans have done if Zheng He had sailed his fleet into the Mediterranean and visited Rome or Venice?

But the emperor that supported such expeditions died, and was replaced by a loser that probably uttered something to the effect of we shouldn't waste money such stupid projects and then went on to say he wanted to make China Great Again. This let the nations of Europe to continue their insanely slow development allowing them to build their own exploration fleets and eventually come to dominate the planet. Because of its inward looking and close-mindedness, China, once the most powerful and wealthy nation, stagnated and became the abused plaything of European countries and Japan. Just shows you how that “Making something Great Again” truly plays out in the end.

Yes, I know there are always other factors whenever some momentarily intrepid nation decides to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” For the Phoenicians, if the story I've read was correct an Egyptian pharaoh hired them to circumnavigate Africa because he wanted to claim the entire landmass. And as for the Zheng He, it was to show off the the glories of China to all the barbarians, which they considered everyone else in the world. The same is true for the Apollo Project back in the 1960's and early 1970s. We wanted to beat the Russians to the moon strictly to prove we were the baddest dudes on the planet. Pure science and discovery were just convenient passengers during the worst of the Cold War.

For us though, over time though using the space program for nationalistic purposes had taken a backseat to dedicated research. And because of that funding has dried up compared to the good old days of the Cold War, but that's not my point. What hasn't changed is the shortsighted nature of many who refuse to understand history and stupidly feel that we've discovered all that's important and are happy to spend the rest of their lives in front of a television bitching about their tax dollars being wasted.

It should be obvious to the most simple minded that just when a person, company, empire, or nation thinks they've figured everything out and can hold back change, something comes along and destroys that paradigm. This results in the creation of a new king of the proverbial mountain in the form of a new dominate empire or nation.

This all leads up to the era we find ourselves now. I could describe how certain narrow minded individuals just can't accept that the dominance of fossil fuels is now ending. Not just because our species has fraked the planetary climate, but because technology has progressed to the point that alternate sources of generating electricity now exceed oil and coal fired plants. I could mention how American car companies became complacent and in an effort to maximize profits began building crap to the point Japan came in with a better product and kicked their asses.


Ever since the Voyager space probes passed by the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, we've come to understand those miniature solar systems were anything but cold and dead places. It is now overwhelming accepted that the bigger moons of both of those gas giants have liquid water oceans underneath steel-hard sheets of ice. And as far as scientists here on Earth understand, what we understand as life loves liquid water. Where Enceladus comes into play is because it has massive geysers along its south polar removing all doubt on the subject.

Recent data now suggests that Enceladus has possessed this global ocean of liquid water for perhaps billions of years. This is because its core is probably made of a porous rocky substance that when combined with the gravitational tugging from Saturn creates more than enough heat to keep the water underneath the ice sheet liquid. If I understand the idea correctly, colder water enters the porous core where it is heated from tidal friction creating a circulation effect. Hot water coming out of the core could also provide nutrients to any life living under the ice, much like ocean vents do here on Earth. In fact, the Cassini probe that until recently was orbiting Saturn flew threw Enceladus' geysers and detected numerous chemicals that are vital for the processes of life as we know it.

Yes, the average Joe Sixpack question going through many minds is just what in the hell does liquid water on Enceladus have to do with me? This circles me back to my main point, right now I admit it's extremely hard to envision some use for really distant moons. But the same could have been said for all those regions the ancient Romans ignored and the Ming Dynasty Chinese thought was beneath their contempt. Both of those empire collapsed and were replaced by other peoples and governments who were creative and dared to imagine possibilities.

In no way am I suggesting that if we put our space program into hyperdrive all our problems would suddenly be solved. Science simply doesn't work that way, if fact it often creates newer problems. What science does all accomplish though is to make humans look at life and the physical universe in a new way. For better or worse, it has created the world we live in now. Polluted and with some living in extreme misery from pissant megalomaniacs of both a political and religious nature, but it has also let us create and explore. Which if humans had to pick a purpose for existence, I would go with them.

The fact that can't be avoided, even after the bean counters and the unimaginative whine, is that we won't know what is out there and what it might teach us unless we go exploring. Only the most stunted individual wouldn't be amazed if we somehow discovered life on another planet or moon. More to the point, given that Mars and even Venus were quite similar to Earth billions of years ago, there is a real possibility that life as we know it originated on those other planets. And was seeded here on Earth after a massive asteroids slammed into one of them sending tons of surface material into space that eventually crashed here allowing evolution to take over. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone exploring the surface of Mars might find fossils of our ancient ancestors. Or even weirder, that a group of astronauts enter a Martian cave or deep cavern and find a few of our bacterial cousins just hanging out and occasionally releasing the puffs of methane our orbiting probes detect.

On a side note, I've left Venus out of this equation because its a real life version of running away greenhouse effect hell. If anyone ever finds a way to use it, or just explore the surface the technology involved would be almost Clarke-magical.

Pure speculation on my part but if we find evidence of life on Mars, long dead or some remnant living underground, it's probably going to be related to us. We're just too close to each other with meteorite hunters finding rocks from Mars here on Earth quite often. They can tell those rocks are from Mars from the atmospheric gases trapped inside them.

When it comes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn possessing liquid oceans, I have a feeling any life we might find would be unique to that environment. That would mean an entirely different form nothing like we have here on Earth. Another way to compare and contrast would to liken life here on Earth to internal combustion cars while life on Enceladus (or Europa or Ganymede, or Callisto or Titan) would be an electric golf cart. Both move but are designed differently but sort of do the same thing. Discovering entirely new forms of life on those moons would mean life is common throughout the galaxy and universe.

Again this brings me back to the old question I had about why the Romans never really ventured far from home. We have a solar system filled with possibilities that could teach us things we've never imagined. Hell, if you need an economic reason there are thousands of asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter containing all the precious metals you could ever desire. Go ahead and google the monetary value, the conservative side is so high I will not mention it.

But yet, our space program is a tepid affair, and even that is done grudgingly. But the one thing that reassures me is that someone or some group will eventually dare the impossible and take us out to those places we ignore now. Personally, I rather avoid becoming the newest version of the lazy Romans and the snobbish Ming Dynasty Chinese.