Friday, December 29, 2017

The Sum Total of My 2018 Fears



Let me go ahead and put this out there by saying the years 2016 and 2017 were both shitstorms when it comes to American life in general and the status of politics in the United States specifically. The presidential campaign of 2016 was damn close to a suicide attempt by both major parties, with the Republican efforts taking on truly nightmarish qualities with the candidates they offered. Not far behind were the Democrats who decided that election cycle was a great time to have a philosophical civil war over just who was pure enough to lead the oppressed masses. The end result being unresolved bitterness combined with a self destructive petulance that, along with a large amount of criminal Russian meddling, resulted in the worst possible outcome.

2017 didn't offer any reprieve from the ongoing slow motion national self-flagellation. Now there was some dark comedy aspects of the total incompetence shown by the Republicans as they attempted to repeal the Affordable Healthcare Act. Those stalwarts of supposed American values in Congress and their conservative intellectual think tanks had at least seven full years to develop a workable alternative of “Obamacare.”  What they ended up proposing were bills so badly designed and, honestly, reprehensible that they couldn't get numerous conservative members of their own party to support them. The only conclusions that you can draw from how badly they fell on their faces is that the entire Republican leadership is either overwhelmingly stupid or that they just don't give a damn about seeing a workable program being established that offers affordable health care. Several years back a Democratic member of the United States House of Representatives once asked what was the Republican answer to affordable health care. The question was purely rhetorical but the answer was that people should just “die quickly.”

Making matters worse, during his first year in office Trump showed a steely determination to insult and undermine our allies. Then attempted to start wars with both Iran and North Korea, and even China on his really bad days. At home his attacks on the free press and anyone that dares not worship him had all the hallmarks of petty, murderous dictators all through history. The icing on the bizarre cake though has to be Trump's love affair of Vlad Putin. It's impossible for any reasonable person not to think that relationship has long since moved into the realm of an over-the-top spy novel. The idea that an actual president of the United States might have been compromised by an enemy nation is now a strong possibility.

As the end of 2017 thankfully draws near there is an instinctive tendency to believe 2018 has to be better. Democrats are especially giddy over 2018 since the Trump's poll numbers are lowest ever for a president during the first year of a term and recent off-year election victories, mainly in Virginia and New Jersey. I would love 2018 to usher in brighter days, but as of right now my best advice would be to expect a continued rain of shit and maybe something worse.

The first item that could derail any Democratic Renaissance is the economy. Now understand, Trump deserves no credit for the the growing economy. While weak, the economic rebound clearly started under President Obama and despite Trump's delusional claims, he has done nothing to really effect the hard numbers. Trump might be able to claim a positive secondary effect with business picking up because his administration isn't enforcing regulations. Something that will more than likely help corporate profit margins until we start hearing news stories of people being hurt or killed by unsafe products. My personal favorite in that category is where a Texas fertilizer plant exploded killing a good number of people because the management wasn't going to let the tyrannical federal government force them to do all those socialistic safety measures.

There is one obvious economic landmine that could blow up in Trump's face in 2018, it's the stock market. Its rapid growth rate is starting to worry some that it is taking on the resemblance of an overfilled balloon. Trump likes to point to the stock market as a gauge of the overall economy. Generally a mistake since it doesn't really reflect the well being of the average American. In other words, if the daily ups and downs of the stock market does effect a person, they are playing in a much bigger league than Joe Sixpack. If the stock market tanks because of over speculation, it will be interesting to see how Trump and his talking heads try to explain it away.

The biggest concern that actually causes me to lose sleep is North Korea. Trump has a proverbial hard on for the little twit running that country. I'd personally call it a form of penis envy since Kim Jong-un can easily have people murdered if they do not worship him with enough enthusiasm. Adding to my unease is the scuttlebutt that I've heard suggesting National Guard troops will soon be sent for year long deployments to South Korea. While I retired from the National Guard back in 2005, and a lot can change in far less time, but such deployments don't seem normal to me.

I've got to clearly admit, “scuttlebutt” is a hazy concept that can be either totally true or completely false. What worried me though is that a Gulf of Tonkin incident might be in the works. Trump isn't a total idiot, I'd bet money I don't have he understands the Russia Investigation is slowly zeroing in on him and a war would be a great way to postpone or completely blunt Mueller's endgame.

Yes, I'm saying Trump would launch a war that would certainly kill thousands, if not millions to save his fat ass and that of his family. If you really want to pick apart my darkest, hopefully purely irrational fears I wouldn't put it past Trump to try and postpone the 2018 midterms. I'm basing that on his delusional insistence that he lost the 2016 popular vote because of illegal aliens being allowed to vote. Adding to that idea, some bozo even commissioned a poll last year asking Republicans if they would go along with postponing the 2020 election until the government could make sure no illegal residents voted. Yeah, the overwhelming majority of the respondents thought delaying the election would be fine. Now throw in a national emergency in 2018 with the North Korean toad trying to nuke Honolulu, Seattle, or Los Angeles and delaying the midterms is something Trump would love to try.

Long story short, while getting stupid drunk this Sunday night sounds like a great idea just as a form of recovery from 2017, there is no guarantee 2018 will be any better. Whatever the case, whether it is by impeachment or losing the 2020 presidential election, Trump will never leave the national spotlight quietly. Every outrageous, nonsensical, or downright scary statement he makes tells me he would rather burn down the country than let go of power. My best advice is that while hoping Trump is lead out of the White House in handcuffs is okay, be prepared for the absolute worst to happen.    

Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Illusion of Control



The urge to interrupt him was overwhelming. Helen looked down the long dinner table at her husband and silently screamed for him to shut the hell up. Only a sheer fool would miss the looks of annoyance and outright disgust everyone was displaying as Bill Harden continued on with his story about building yet another subdivision of new homes.

Making matter worse, Bill had even begun backslapping the guy sitting next him in a good old boy manner as he explained the process of minor bribery to get county officials to look the other way at zoning violations. Despite this being the fifth day of a two-week Mediterranean cruise with everyone assigned to this particular table for dinner each night, Helen couldn't remember the tormented man's name.

“Honey,” Helen said through clenched teeth, “I'm suddenly not feeling well. Can we return to the cabin, like right now.” She knew their exit would be almost as awkward as staying but the sound of Bill's droning voice was well on its way to making her nauseous.

Bill at least had the dignity to stop talking and look at his wife. “Did you say something, Sweetie?” He responded with the mindless puzzled look he got when someone dared invade the comfy little world he existed.

“Yes, I'm not feeling well and believe it would be best if we both went back to the cabin.” Helen said tempering her tone in hopes that it might disguise her anger.

“But dinner isn't where near over and everyone should hear how I secretly bought all the land the Parson family owned for cents on the dollar. Can't you just go back alone, I'm having the time of my life.” Bill almost whined back, so much that a few people at the table couldn't hide their shock.

It was then that Helen was overwhelmed with the regret of ever giving Bill the time of day, much less dating then marrying the buffoon. A small part of Helen's consciousness sniped back that she knew full well what she doing back then. Well on his way to a sizable fortune from taking over his father's business when the first meet, the young Bill Harden didn't look bad and was half decent in bed.

Middle-age hadn't been kind to her husband, his weight had drifted above what was normal and despite thousands of dollars spent to replace his thinning hair, the results looked so unnatural that Helen had often remarked he should just go bald. What almost made things unbearable, while Bill still had all his mental abilities he somehow believed everyone would be totally enthralled with the smallest details of how he made his fortune.

“Bill, we need to leave now.” Helen said sternly staring at her husband. He in turn still looked back oblivious to everything but the story in his mind.

“Helen,” he said, “you are more than free to go and do what you want. I'm staying here with my friends and finishing my dinner.” He then immediately went back to telling his story as if he had never been interrupted, ignoring Helen completely.

Finally understanding Bill had essentially dismissed her, Helen became enraged to the point she would had shot her husband where he sat if her gun was had been available. Even through her anger, Helen realized she was the now the one making a fool of herself, so she got up from her seat and stormed out of the restaurant.

Helen aimlessly roamed the passageways of the ship utterly enraged that Bill would dare to treat her that way. The utter bastard, she thought to herself ignoring the looks of the other passengers as she walked by, how dare Bill treat me like the housemaids he so casually screwed then discarded back home. Contrary to what Bill might like to think, Helen knew full well that for the better part of six years he had seduced each of the maids they had hired to clean the house and manage the mundane affairs like buying food and scheduling exterminators and such.

Helen knew something was amiss when Bill insisted on being the one who interviewed each of the young women the employment agency sent. The commonality linking all the young women that ended up being hired was that they were at least slightly attractive, have no real family, and be absolutely broke. Bill would then slowly befriend and then lavish them with money and perks. The only thing more monstrous than Bill's manipulation of the young women with money and fatherly attention was how often it succeeded in getting them naked.

After six or seven months, Bill would grow tired of his plaything and eventually buy her silence with money from an account he thought Helen didn't know about. With the old maid now gone, he would begin the hiring process again figuring Helen wouldn't really notice the change in staff.

Helen didn't begrudge her husband his little affairs, over the years she been involved with numerous personal trainers from the gym, their veterinarian, and even once the ubiquitous pool maintenance technician. Their marriage had long since evolved into a true business arrangement, he purchased the land and supervised the construction of the new subdivisions. While she used her interpersonal talents to network and meet new people that would further grow the overall business. Helen believed that she was a true master at managing people and events to her advantage. Above it all, Helen wanted to be in control of her own life and anyone else she had dealings with.

The proof of this being the times Helen secretly cleaned up Bill's occasional accidents with the women he was screwing. On two separate occasions Bill had gotten his household mistresses pregnant forcing Helen into action. The first time all it took was a little more money, a trip to an out of state abortion clinic, and a warning never to set foot in Sunnyville, Georgia again. The second time, when the girl suddenly appeared at the front door in tears over how Bill was the love of her life, more persuasive means had to be employed. Helen thoroughly enjoyed the idea that they were considered moral pillars of the Sunnyville community, any accusations of impropriety would threaten their livelihood, which was something she couldn't allow.

Helen had no idea how long she walked the corridors while being wrapped up in her anger and thoughts. At some point though, it had sunk down to her consciousness just how lost she had become. The ship they were traveling on, named Ocean Master, was one of the biggest in the world. The cruise line made a particular point in boasting that nothing bigger would be built until people started traveling between the planets and stars.

Obvious hyperbole, but as Helen looked for a map along the corridor, a momentary sense of animal panic took hold of her mind. The section of the ship she found herself seemed an endless line of identical doors. It was only after descending a flight of stairs that she finally found a “You are here” diagram of the ship mounted on a wall next the entrance to a small piano bar.

While the lights of the passageways had been dimmed to give the impression of the nighttime hours on the outside of the ship, the bar itself was positively dark. The only real illumination coming from lights mounted on the ceiling which were aimed down at the piano sitting on a small, raised stage. Helen noticed the highly polished wood of the piano, almost seemed to glow from the meager light.

Figuring she wasn't ready to face Bill nor her table mates again, a couple of drinks in a quiet place would do her good. Taking advantage of a nearby large mirror, she made sure her appearance was acceptable before walking inside. The gown she wore should have made her the center of attention at the dinner table. Made of gold and red silk the price tag was so large it had made Bill choke when they bought it in Barcelona before boarding the ship. For a women entering her fifties Helen took great comfort in knowing some people thought she wasn't much over forty.

Stepping through the entrance, it took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but she could immediately tell the place seemed empty. Scattered around the piano were several tables with chairs and along three of the walls were booths she knew were designed to offer almost total privacy. To the right of the piano stage was the actual bar, complete with an attendant doing his best to seem busy. After taking a seat on one of the bar stools, she acknowledged the presence of the bartender just long enough to order a double martini. The bartender, attuned to the needs of his customers, or just to the fact that a queen bitch was near disappeared into a nearby storage room.

“Finally some company,” Helen heard a deep male voice say behind her. Figuring she was about to be accosted by a man probably more obnoxious than her husband, Helen made ready with the proper verbal barbs to send him somewhere else. It was only when Helen turn to her left to see the guy taking a seat next her did she abruptly change her mind.

The man was about her age, wearing a nicely tailored black sports coat over an expensive dress shirt that was probably the same brand her husband wore. A nicely toned body, chiseled good looks combined with a head full of natural black hair lightly dusted with gray made him look dignified. But it was his ice blue eyes that made Helen feel like a giggly teenager.

“Hello,” he said offering his right hand, “name's Steven Calhoun. Excuse the ridiculous question but what is a beautiful woman like you doing in this empty bar?”

Helen tried to control her emotions and hide the fact that she was instantly attracted to the man. “Hello yourself, my name is Helen Harden. The reason I'm here is to get away from my irritating husband.” She said while shaking his hand and putting on her best smile.

“Husband?” Steven said thoughtfully. “I guess I should leave then. I sure as hell don't want any issues with your spouse.” He said starting to turn and leave.

“No Steven, you stay right where you are,” Helen said placing her hand on his forearm. “Bill Harden would be the least of your concerns. And yes, I could use some decent company right now myself.”

Steven smiled and settled back on his stool. “Anything you want to talk about?” He asked with what seemed genuine sincerity.

“Oh it's the usual, he's an insensitive pig that doesn't appreciate my efforts and how I keep him from walking out of the house without his pants.” Helen said not quite yet ready to explain how badly she would like to see her husband dead. “How about you tell me why such a handsome man is alone on a huge cruise ship filled with horny women?” She said redirecting the growing conversation.

“In short, I'm divorced,” Steven said in a casual manner with only a hint of emotional hurt. “We grew apart wanting different things. As far as the cruise is concerned, I don't know, I wanted to do something different, break out from what my ex-wife would expect. Truth be told, I'm finding all the people on the ship sort of intimidating. That's why I'm just hanging out here, waiting for the piano player to show up. ”

Helen was in heaven, to her Steven seemed like an innocent lamb. She soon learned he was moderately successful small town lawyer from Oregon, with two grown kids and no current personal attachments. It wasn't long before Helen found herself wondering just what mental illness his ex-wife suffered from to let such a decent guy escape. While Helen had promised herself to play the attentive and faithful wife while confined on a ship with Bill, circumstances were rapidly changing to the point she might freely break that vow.

“You know Steven,” Helen said coyly, “this bar stools hurt my butt, how about we order some more drinks and move over to one of those comfortable booths.”

If Helen believed in such trite myths as fate or love, finding Steven would have fit in those categories. He listened intently as the drinks and his easy company caused her to open up about the uglier aspects of her life with Bill. There finally came a point when Helen told him her most secret desire.

“I can't tell you how many times I wanted Bill dead,” she said to Steven. “Oh God, there were so many days where my fantasies consisted of the police coming to the house and somberly telling me Bill had died in a horrible car accident. Does that make me a terrible person Steven, answer that honestly.”

“It's a natural feeling when you're so unhappy,” he answered. “Now, you answer a question honestly, would you truly like to see your husband dead?” Steven asked back, his eyes boring down deep into Helen's soul.

“Yes,” Helen whispered back for some unknown reason.

“I wasn't always a lawyer,” Steven said with a gravity that spoke volumes. “Years ago I was in another line of work and if you promise to do me a favor, I'll see what I can do.”

Helen believing she could read the true intentions of everyone she met said nothing but stepped out of the booth while grabbing Steven's hand. “Take me to your cabin, now.”

It was a short walk down the corridor. While the cabin was relatively small, the bed was king-sized and her expensive gown made a colorful puddle on the floor next it. Helen didn't really believe Steven would kill her husband, it was just talk to get her in bed. More to the point, she was still quite angry with how Bill treated her, it would be nice to make him worry about where she went for several hours. Spending it with such a man as Steven was just icing on the cake.

***

Helen woke up to total darkness, at first she groggily thought she was in the cabin she shared with Bill. But their cabin had windows and a small patio opening out to the side of the ship. Some light had always bled through around the edges of the curtains making total darkness impossible. Then there was the fact that Bill always left the bathroom light on so he wouldn't stumble and fall on the way to the toilet.

That's when the alcohol induced fog cleared and she remember Steven and their hours together. “Steven, she said while reaching out across the bed. It was immediately apparent he wasn't in the bed and Helen highly doubted the cabin as well since it was deathly silent.

It took several minutes to work her way to the bathroom to find a light switch. Once that was accomplished she collected her dress and opened up her purse to find her cell phone and discover the time.

“Oh my God,” she said to herself upon seeing it was already fifteen minutes before noon. The damn ship would already be docked at Piraeus, a little ways outside Athens. What she thought would be a few hours of irritation for Bill had turned into far more than she planned. Helen thought about leaving Steven a note, but on second thought decided that she would try and contact him later.

She tried not to think about how her appearance while on the way back to her cabin. Helen realized with hair a mess and the expensive gown heavily wrinkled, she was an walking advertisement for the fact that she had spent the night someplace else. All things considered, it really didn't matter since she didn't know any of the other passengers and would never see them again once the cruise was over.

Her relief was short lived, after opening the cabin door. Every bit of her and Bill's possessions they left in the cabin were gone as well as the luggage they used. Their steward, an older man from Turkey walked in and gave her an uncertain look.

“Madam, I thought you and your husband had decided to disembark early.” He said confused and worried that he had made a mistake. Both Helen and Bill had treated the gentleman badly, something she suddenly felt guilty about.

“You saw Mr. Harden this morning?” Helen asked somehow worried that the mysterious Steven Calhoun had killed her husband.

“No Mrs. Harden,” he said nervously, “the purser's office told me to pack everything up and have it outside the cabin door to be picked up. If there is an issue they're the people to talk with.”

Helen left the cabin and raced to the purser's office hoping Bill hadn't decided to leave her high and dry. Right when she was about to get there the cell phone in her purse chimed with a text message.

Saying only: Missed you last night, decided we should stay in Greece and see the sights. Meet me at the Hotel Europa in Athens. Love Bill. Helen knew something was very wrong, Bill was never this spontaneous, this creative. But she had no other choice but to make her way to the hotel. After purchasing a new set of clothes at the ship's store, Helen left the Ocean Master and hired a taxi to take her from Piraeus to Athens.

The Hotel Europa was the type of place people described as having “Old World Charm.” Which generally meant to Helen crappy room service and bed sheets that would better serve as sandpaper. Still though, the spacious lobby was so beautifully decorated that the only thing proving she had not been transported to the early twentieth century were the modern clothes everyone was wearing.

No further instructions had come from Bill while traveling in the taxi so Helen went to the front desk to check for messages. The desk clerk quickly handed her a note saying he was up in room 227 and that she needed to join him. Still feeling like her world had been turned upside down, Helen didn't know what to expect when she stepped in the room. To her relief, the room was empty but all their luggage was neatly placed on the beds and the dressers. Feeling an overwhelming urge to sleep, Helen curled up on one of the beds and quickly faded into oblivion. When she awoke all her worst fears had come to pass.

“Hello Helen,” Steven Calhoun said sitting in a chair that faced her direction. “We need to have a serious conversation...”

“What did you do to my husband?” She interrupted surprised at her level of concern for Bill.

“Let's just say the old Mr. Harden is now indisposed. That's what you wanted, right?” Steven asked calmly.

“What do you mean 'old Mr. Harden?'" Helen asked knowing the answer might push her over the edge.

Surprisingly, Steven produced an United States passport and a State of Georgia driver's license with Bill Harden's name but bearing his picture. “I said I would remove your husband from the picture for a favor. I'm calling in that favor right now by becoming Bill Harden. To any and all we meet from now on we are man and wife, wild world travelers without a true home port.”

“Why are you doing this to us?” Helen asked wanting to run out of the room.

“That's information you will get when I can trust you. Let's just say taking over your husband's identity is the perfect cover.”He's the definition of the Ugly American, someone people around the world quickly forget about and want to avoid in general.”

“What about people back home, we have obligations and responsibilities, neither of us can just not return home. There are people who will miss us.” Helen said feeling trapped like an animal. More importantly, the illusion of being in control of her life was destroyed. That scared her more than anything.

“Think about it my wife,” Old Steven/New Bill said. “I have produced genuine identification saying I'm Bill Harden. Clever lawyers back in the States are even now slicing your business into shreds. The parts will be sold off and you and the man you started the cruise with will be people only vaguely remembers in a few months. I'm in control of things from now on, I'd suggest you regain your composure and begin the adjustment process, because even you can be replaced.”

Old Steven/New Bill moved from the chair to the edge of the bed. “We were perfect together last night, just imagine what a life of adventure and intrigue with me would mean.” He then leaned in and kissed her lightly on the lips. At the same time, Helen felt a sharp sting in her right arm, she looked down in time to see New Bill pull back a fancy hypodermic syringe.

“Sleep on it for now my love, we'll talk again when you wake up.” New Bill said lovingly, after that everything went black.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Oumuamua- The Epic Interstellar Traveller



 Forever on the lookout for science news stories to turn me away from the usual human-created crap, I have been in proverbial and literal heaven for the last several weeks. Back in October of this year, the astronomer Robert Weryk discovered a peculiar object that had passed through our solar system and was already on its way back out into the depths of deep space.

This object, given the name Oumuamua, meaning “scout” in the Hawaiian language is a metal heavy, cigar-shaped asteroid measuring 230 by 35 meters (that's 800ft x 100ft for metric ignorant Americans) that originated from an entirely different solar system. This was determined because of its course which had it entering the inner solar system at six degrees from the solar apex (the direction of the Sun's movement relative to local stars) and that fact that it was traveling like a bat out of hell as far as relative speed to the Sun is concerned. Traveling at 26.3 km/s, or 58,900 mph, Oumuamua is already halfway to the orbit of Jupiter and will eventually catch up and pass NASA's Voyager One space probe, the most distant manned-made object which is traveling about 17 km/s or 38,610 mph.

 Two things are really cool about this chunk of tumbling space metal. The most important, and scientifically real, is that it is the first confirmed object that came from outside our solar system. For those not grasping the concept, Oumuamua has been traveling for at least millions, if not billions of years between the stars. The distances and time involved for this journey are almost impossible for humans to fully understand.

The next reason is that Oumuamua has a really weird, cigar-shape not unlike theoretical models for possible rotating space colonies or even how movies and television often imagine fictional starships. The fact that its tumbling end over end and not cleanly rotating along the length of its axis gives Oumuamua a mysterious air, like it might be a long dead, derelict space ship for those with overactive imaginations like myself. If fact, the great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote a book entitled Rendezvous with Rama where an object like Oumuamua is detected and does turn out to be a combination rotating space colony/ slower-than-light starship. The book set in the future where a type of solar system wide, semi-military space force exists, a human-crewed space ship is sent to intercept and investigate the alien-constructed craft. Whether of not the fictional Rama had a crew is, to me, a subject of debate since the beings the human explorers encounter are more than likely non-sentient robots programmed to maintain the apparently uninhabited ship.

Oumuamua weirdness has compelled real radio astronomers working for SETI to turn their equipment towards it in hopes of catching some type of artificial radio signals. Scientific American reports that they listened for two hours and came away with 90 terabytes of data. Nothing spectacular about that amount of data since most everything in space has a way to emit natural radio signals. Sorry folks, even with my overactive imagination Oumuamua is certainly nothing but a seriously epic rock on a voyage that will more than likely never end.

Despite the novelty of Oumuamua, astronomers are saying that interstellar objects like it passing through our solar system are a common occurrence. We just happen to be looking in the right place and at the right time to see it zip by. Still though, it is nice to imagine Oumuamua might be a stealth alien probe some mothership still way out in space launched in our direction to get a relatively close scan of Earth and the bizarre, semi-intelligent creatures that live on it.

I now return you to the regular self-destructive and banal crap that dominates our existence on this planet.

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.