Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chapter Four: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope


To paraphrase Winston Churchill, to me lawyers and what they do have always been a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery inside of an enigma. Luckily, until my divorce I never did anything stupid enough to require their services. I'm not knocking lawyers, its just that their profession is more abstract and nuanced than my glorified bruised-knuckle mechanic mind can comprehend. Then again, no one would ever confuse me with an insightful and forward thinking person. The prime example of my inability to metaphorically see beyond the tip of my own nose being my years working at Tightlock Corporation.

So, despite my admiration of the man who helped me navigate the numerous vagaries of getting dumped and uncoupled from my now ex-wife, I still felt a pretty large level of trepidation upon arriving at the offices of the Lund Law Firm. That was party because my lawyer's office were on the second floor of an obscure building in a bad part of town with the first level housing “Raunchy Red's Tattoo Parlor.” A fine Quincy, South Carolina business, even after the county sheriff made the drug bust twelve years earlier that resulted in them carrying off three large bails of high grade Colombian marijuana, a kilo of cocaine, and enough weapons and ammo to supply an infantry platoon.

Despite the incriminating evidence, the original Raunchy Red protested his innocence despite having been found passed out of top of the three marijuana bails and using the cocaine as a pillow. Red was adamant that the National Football League, the CIA, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had framed him because he had found the lost city of Atlantis and discovered that Elvis was not only still alive but that he had converted to Islam. The judge overseeing his case, a devout Christian and Elvis fan whose favorite vacation destination was Graceland, was highly offended at the suggestion that the King would convert to another faith. This resulted in Red's psychological examinations, which stated in no uncertain terms he was completely detached from reality, being ignored.

Raunchy Red was convicted on every count and sentenced to four life terms in one of the supermax federal prisons. After a few years rumors started floating through Quincy saying Red did eventually get psychological help. Where things get weird though the story goes on to say that once he returned to sanity Red enrolled in one of the online colleges where it was discovered he had a talent for theoretical physics. Pure bullshit if you ask me, but somehow the local newspaper received a photograph from an antonymous source showing Red's mother, the longtime Quincy queen of quilting, giving the frail but brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking one of her blankets.

Back in Quincy, the tattoo parlor didn't stay shuttered long, another guy quickly bought the business and in the spirit of cost saving measures started calling himself “Red” to avoid changing the signs. The new Red, went about business differently than the old, he cultivated a close relationship with the county sheriff and his department. The new Red had a standing fifty-percent discount for tattoos for all the deputies, which they took full advantage of because their patrol cars were often seen at the location. A now standard joke about the new Red and his tattoo parlor suggests he must have also started making donuts since no one had ever seen one of the deputies sporting a tattoo.

The second reason for my nervousness came from Jim Lund himself. The day my marriage officially ended Emily came home early from her job at the local hospital to tell me that I had a week to move out of the house. Emily was a nurse in the Air Force and after her discharge from the service she transitioned quite successfully to civilian life. As opposed to me who had served in the Army infantry and had to attend the local community college to gain a real skill beyond my talent for proper camouflage techniques, knowing how to dig a latrine, and field stripping a fifty caliber machine gun.

After calling in several favors, I found a really cheap but crappy trailer to move into and once that was done my next task was finding a lawyer to represent me. Lawyers get an undeserved bad rap, at the core of the profession they literally hold society together. Television audiences have been trained like salivating dogs to hate the sleazy and amoral defense attorney protecting a dastardly criminal and deny justice to some innocent victim. But if any of the wide eyed, largely overweight couch potatoes feel they have been wronged in any manner, the first thing they do is begin looking for an attorney.

That being said, the stereotype of some lawyers as cheesy ambulance chasers out to screw over their clients and insurance companies is unfortunately true. My problem back then, besides living in a twenty year-old trailer with dubious electrical wiring and a leaky roof, was that I couldn't afford any of those of the high profile shysters.

A couple of weeks went by with my soon-to-be ex-wife, Emily, wanting to be rid of my ass so she could move on with hers. Which in hindsight I took that to mean that she and her future second husband, and my dentist, were tired of their illicit rendezvouses at the Hide Away Motel. Luckily, I was at the coin operated laundromat late one Saturday night with the other dregs of local society when I came upon a business card pin to an ancient community bulletin board.

The card declared that the Lund Law Firm could provide reliable but cut rate legal services for those in need. The services it listed included wills, powers of attorney, and no fault divorces. With that level of advertisement I figured this Jim Lund, Esquire would be just the guy to help me. The business card did have a website address for the Jim Lund Law Firm which said he was a graduate of the New Carolina Law and Accounting School down in Charleston. While not an expert in law schools by any means, I had never heard of the place but at that moment I only cared that he was an attorney licensed to practice law in South Carolina.

When I arrived at his Jim's office there were already several preconceived notions running around my head. The first being that he was probably a bit of a loser, like myself, meaning poor social skills along with being overweight and balding. Since I also assumed his law school was at best a fly-by-night organization, I also expected him to be barely competent.

I opened the door and entered his office after knocking. “Hey Mr. Lund,” I said rather loudly since I didn't see anyone.

“Jason Lance, I presume,” was the immediate and cheerful response coming from the connecting room. “Take a seat please sir, I'm making some coffee and will bring you a cup.”

At first Lund's office reinforced every lackluster notion I had about the man. The office itself was run down and needed a cleaning, several coats of new paint on the walls, and new furniture since the desk and chairs looked like castoffs from the 1960's. The only thing that looked new and given special attention was the large framed diploma saying Jim Lund had graduated from the New Carolina Law and Accounting School.

When Jim Lund walked into the office about a minute later to say I was surprised was an understatement. Instead of the social awkward, overweight and balding guy, Jim walked in looking like a male model and Olympic athlete wearing a suit that sure as hell didn't come from a department store. After I told him my story, cool and utterly confident he proceeded to spell out the legal avenues I could take if I wanted to challenge Emily for custody of the boys. I course, I told him this was going to be an uncontested divorce since I didn't want to hurt anyone, least of all my sons.

After all the legal wizardry was complete we talked for about an hour and I came away wondering just who in the hell this guy was really. Jim Lund was the type of lawyer that arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court, not handling glorified white trash divorces in the middle of Nowhere, South Carolina. That his office was above a tattoo parlor that once sidelined as a drug warehouse and was probably still doing something illegal made the situation even more surreal.

What truly sent shivers down my spine was that a few months after the dust from the divorce had settled I looked up the New Carolina Law and Accounting School on the internet. Websites are ridiculously simple affairs these days and nothing about the one for New Carolina Law and Accounting School suggested anything other than the most basic of creations. I was about to close the laptop when I noticed the supposed physical address for the school. One summer during high school I worked for a company that did basic maintenance on the now closed Navy base, so I was well acquainted with the layout of the property. That's why I was dumbfounded upon realizing the address for Jim Lund's law school was now an abandoned warehouse.

Now with forty-two million dollars of lottery winnings in the bank, part of my brain screamed at me to find another lawyer that at best wasn't part of the U.S. Marshal witness protection program. Then again, remembering the conversation I had with my reflection in the bathroom mirror yesterday evening Jim Lund's strange situation wasn't that weird.

Hey, Mr. Lund,” I called out the same way I did on my first visit years after finding him not at his desk. “It's Jason Lance, I left a message on your answering machine about needing to see you again.”

“Sure thing Jason, have a seat, I'll be out in a minute.” He finally called out from the other room.

Quincy, South Carolina isn't a big place but since the divorce seven years before, I could count the times I had seen Jim Lund driving around town on one hand. When he walked back into his office I was frankly shocked at how much he exactly looked the same age. He had the same athletic body along with the movie star face that would have probably cause my ex-wife to go weak in the knees and begin scouting out locations to push her current husband off a cliff. The only difference this time being he was wearing casual clothes that still probably cost more than my 1997 Ford truck was worth.

“What can I do for you today Jason?” He asked in a genuinely friendly manner taking his ancient seat behind the worn and stained desk.

Even though I was considering the possibility that he was either an alien or time traveler, I figured it was much too late to go running out the door. “Here's the deal Jim, you know the lottery winner from last week who didn't go public, it's me. I'm leaving town and need help organizing my affairs and I figure you're the best person to help me.”

Given the curiosities about Jim Lund's existence, there was a double meaning in my words I hope he didn't detect.

Jim just leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Yes, Jason,” he said “believe it or not I'm probably the best person in South Carolina that can setup your affairs and keep them protected.”

I didn't even dare ask him if his own words had a double meaning. I just listened as he laid out a plan that both secured and invested my money.

***

The afternoon sun was unfortunately beaming through my windshield as I sat in the Quincy Credit Union parking lot making me reconsider the idea of buying an new car or truck before I left town. While the end of summer was a month away, hot weather was sure to stay around for a considerable period no matter where I went. My truck's air conditioning was weak at best and maybe it was the money talking but I as I sat waiting for Mikey, I pondered what the open road would feel like in a fine luxury sedan.

Mikey's older brother, Derrick was my best friend in high school. As graduation approached with no real prospects when we entered the adult world we talked each other into joining the army. The original idea was that we would hinge our joining on going through basic training together as well as serving at the same permanent post, something we heard the army would allow back then. Well, five weeks into basic and Derrick decides to break his leg. He had the option of being medically discharged but instead was just recycled back to the beginning of basic training once he was healed. However, his injury voided the original enlistment contract meaning the army reassigned him to a new MOS—Mission Occupational Specialty, or job once he finished basic. Whereas once we were both supposed to be infantry soldiers, Derrick wound up in a transportation unit driving what amounted to semi-trucks hauling supplies.

Then came Persian Gulf War with Saddam Hussein showing his ass by invading a smaller Arab country that in truth was lead by a collection of individuals that were certified douchebags in their own right. The difference being that Saddam was a brutal tyrant that would use chemical weapons on his own people while the Kuwaiti ruling class just acted like everyone under them were slaves. I really didn't see any combat beyond a few semi-crazed and starved Iraqi soldiers firing off their AK's in an effort get the attention of the mechanized convoy I war riding in so they could surrender. The high point of my wartime experience was being a part of a detail guarding around four-hundred Iraqi prisoners.

Derrick wasn't so lucky, he was killed when the wadi embankment he was driving near collapsed overturning his truck.

When I finally returned home to Quincy after my enlistment, Mikey and I started hanging out together. Something that wouldn't last long since he had become a local high school football star and was getting a full scholarship ride to the University of South Carolina. Something that was going great until Mikey received a massive concussion during a game, which several months later because of both medical and other complications caused him to be kicked out of college.

Mikey came home but spiraled downhill until he met the woman who became his wife, Diane. She literally saved his life and sanity but because the birds and the bees still hold sway over people in their early twenties they were parents before they could develop a plan for a real future.

One of the worst thing I ever done was get Mikey hired on as a production worker at the Tightlock factory. But with a baby on the way the man needed a job, even if that meant a place where the age of the average worker was around forty. As the years passed, I watched Mikey die a little each day but at least I could offer him a way out.

Just when I figured he wasn't going to show, Mikey's car finally pulled into the parking lot and I signaled him to hop into my truck.

“What's so important that I had to get up early, Jason? You know how floor supervisors act if they think someone isn't fully awake.” He said more than a little irritated.

I have never been a person who could deal with the warm fuzzy aspect of friendship, so I just laid out the fact. “Shut up for a minute and just listen. You heard about the winner for last week's lottery, well it was me.”

The look on Mikey's face after revealing that fact was actually kind of funny. Sort of like how some get when they accidentally bump into a famous person at the grocery store.

“You're a smart guy Mikey, you can probably guess why I skipped work Monday night and walked into the plant Tuesday morning looking like someone going on a cruise. But here's the thing, I've known you since the day your brother and I became friends in elementary school.. Hell, right now you're my best friend and I can't let you waste your life working in a plant that in truth probably has less than five years before it is closed.

“So here's the deal I've setup an account at the credit union for a million dollars in both your name and Diane's. My advice is that you two figure out a plan that gets you both back into school so you guyss can have a future. You're both young enough to still have one.”

Mikey was stunned to say the least. “Where will you be during this time, Jason?” He asked.

“I'm leaving town, probably forever. I'll keep in touch, of course but unless the boys take sick I can't imagine a reason why I would ever come back.”

After I gave him the paperwork concerning the account we shook hands and he left. At that moment everything I had to do was done. All that was left was to point my old truck in some direction and just drive. I felt bad about not seeing my boys, but they were out of town with Mark and sure as hell wasn't going to stay around long enough for word about my windfall to reach Emily.

So, with all my worldly possessions stuffed into one duffel bag and one medium-sized storage box in the back of my truck, I pulled out of the parking lot and just drove.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chapter Three: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope



Call me cruel, or maybe a little vindictive but I left the Pancake Palace emotionally buoyant after throwing a huge monkey wrench into my ex-wife's social standing. Yes, her new hunky hubby's past relationships with all manner of Quincy women, both single and married, had long been one of those small town open secrets. But my mentioning it loudly, and in a very public place was just a bit too much for folks to ignore. And like blood dropped into water filled with hungry sharks, everyone within hearing range of my words would forego social convention and immediately begin blabbing to others. I chuckled to myself as I drove towards my employer wondering just how in the hell I could top that performance.

Anyone driving by the Tightlock factory would be correct in thinking the business was long past its prime. The color of the huge main building housing the office folks up front and factory in the rear had long since faded to a sick, pale yellow from years of neglect. Every year the management and senior bosses have a little corporate pep rally where they break out the stale vending machine snacks, weak iced tea, and gifts like beer cozies and actually brag about how not painting the building was a bold cost saving measure. That having the building repainted the original dark beige just wasn't cost effective.

The same could be said for the grass in front of the building since the duties of mowing had been turned over to the maintenance people. Back when those pep rallies meant something everyone would go outside for the annual company picnic, a truly grand affair that the company catered with steaks, BBQ chicken, along with the normal burgers and hot dogs. Afterwards with everyone still in good moods and about to fall to the ground unconscious from overeating, both management and the lowly hourly types would have a group picture taken on the professionally manicured grounds. Now, management refuses to even mention those picnics and as for the grass, there are so many thin and outright bare spots from lack of proper care the group pictures are taken inside the plant.

Then there were the flags. If anything should upset the fiercely patriotic and proudly conservative men and women of Quincy, South Carolina you would think it would be the condition of the flags flying on the property. Old Glory had long since faded past the point it was presentable and was showing visible fraying on the ends. The state flag of South Carolina was in a similar condition but where as the palmetto tree and crescent moon were still white, the field of blue they were on had become more purple. Curiously enough though, no one ever noticed that the Tightlock corporate banner was always replaced whenever weathering began to take a toil on its appearance.

But for me personally it was the parking lot that suggested far more about the true condition of the place that I had worked since graduating from the local community college with my technical degree. When Tightlock first opened it employed well over a thousand people. Back then the parking lot was so full with the cars of employees that management eventually had to assign spaces to prevent confusion. Now with the work force around two hundred people and with everyone naturally parking close to the plant entrance huge cracks in the asphalt of the unused sections have appeared. These cracks would look like sinister, monster-like vanes if it wasn't for the grass and even small saplings now growing from them. I tend to think of it as Life saying “screw you” to mankind and its attempt to smother the planet.

I actually got in trouble with management once when I quipped to the wrong person that if the Tightlock corporate suits wanted to earn extra money they should rent out the factory campus to movie producers looking for some dystopic wasteland. A few days later my supervisor, an otherwise decent guy named Bill Phillips, pulled me aside and gave one of those standard lectures taught at corporate leadership development seminars telling me that such an attitude didn't show the proper teamwork skills. Bill was obviously just going through the required motions, to the point he slightly rolled his own eyes reciting official policy on how keeping the plant open required everyone to be all motivated and upbeat. And that everyone should refrain from saying or thinking anything that might undermine that philosophy.

Because I liked and respected Bill, I wholeheartedly agreed so I wouldn't cause him anymore issues. But I walked away from the episode convinced that a similar occurrence involving religion happening a few hundred years in the past would have meant a trip down into a dark section of a castle and me then becoming acquainted with a red hot piece of metal.

Even though I stopped for breakfast, I pulled into the Tightlock employee parking lot for the last time a few minutes before the 7:00am shift change. A few employees running late caught sight of me in my civvies walking towards the entrance both the production and maintenance folks used. I could tell from the confused but experienced look on their faces that they instinctively understood something different was going to happen. In a place that literally hadn't change in decades anything out of the ordinary was instantly noticed.

“Hey Jason,” one of the ladies from quality control whose name I could never remember yelled out. “You maintenance guys change uniforms?” She asked about my Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals.

I just waved and followed her inside. For the last time, I took a deep breath taking in all the scents associated with the factory like burned plastic, old hydraulic oil, sweat, and unfortunately despair.

Despite it all, Tightlock Corporation was once a fantastic place to work. Makers of all manner of plastic storage containers from large residential trash cans to something no bigger than a shot glass. To get hired on there in its Golden Age meant that a guy would make enough money to get married, eventually buy a house, and begin the long slow slog to a comfortable retirement. For a woman Tightlock was one of the few places that paid them equally and allowed them just as much opportunity as a man, even if they were single. Historically, healthcare benefits were so good that if a spouse or child took gravely ill they didn't have to worry about going bankrupt. All that changed when Tightlock got the exclusive contract to supply Megamart with all types of plastic storage containers.

Anyone who works in manufacturing is well acquainted with the boom and bust cycles associated with the industry. One month things can be balls to the wall, all vacations and off time canceled, and mandatory overtime. Have a contract fall though and the next month you can have some productions lines shut down and managers freaking out if someone accidentally stays five minutes over their twelve hour shift. If the business doesn't recover the following month that's when things can get really bad with reduced hours, if the workers are lucky, and if they're not, it means layoffs.

So everyone with Tightlock thought they had entered the promise land when word about the Megamart contract went public. Thousands of giant stores across the country should have meant a steady production level. Steady production levels meant no more boom and bust cycles with workers juggling the normal demands of their families and the requirements of their jobs. But just as quickly as the level of optimism reached orbit, it came crashing down as the details became known.

The first was that Megamart had let it be know that buying from an American company was just a ruse so that the down home suckers in flyover country would think they gave a damn about them. Megamart was upfront to the Tightlock corporate suits in saying that it would be more cost effective for them to buy from a country overseas where the workers were paid cents on the dollar. Public perception and the whining by certain politicians who controlled their ample federal tax breaks were the only things forcing them to “Buy American.” That being said, Megamart wouldn't think of letting their own profits take a hit by having any of their suppliers charge them anything more than the absolute minimum. What that meant for the workers at Tightlock were an immediate reductions in benefits, a smaller work force, longer hours, and no pay raises. Overnight Tightlock went from one of the best companies to work, to a semi-police state with disturbing cultist overtones.

In what is sure to amaze future historians and social scientists who examine human behavior the workers of Tightlock, along with thousands of other factory employees across the country during the same time period, did not live up to the living in the land of the free and home of the brave creed. Instead of getting really pissed off at what amounted to the reinstatement of draconian working conditions reminiscent of the worst aspects of the early industrial age, they meekly bowed their heads and accepted the situation. Even worse, in what amounted to a form of Stockholm Syndrome some openly embraced their serf-like state and desired nothing but to make their overlords happy, even at the expense of their own lives and family.

Of course, the question as to why anyone stays at such jobs is unfortunately easy to answer. Sidestepping the abstract fact humans love stability, on a personal level it's easier for modern working class Americans to adapt to harsh conditions than to possibly risk bankruptcy and homelessness by searching for a new job with a totally unknown future. When I was first hired onto Tightlock, the Golden Age had just ended but there was still the hope that things might someday return to their original glory. While hope is a beautiful thing, it is a sad fact of life that it can grow stale and become an addicting delusion.

The reason I stayed boiled down to the fact that when it became apparent the situation at Tightlock was only going to get worse Emily and I had been married for a couple of years with our first son, Wilson, a toddler. If I had lived in a different state with bigger cities and more opportunity, I might have risked it and taken a new job with an uncertain future. But like far too many other people, I played it safe and stayed with a company only a fool would believe wouldn't eventually padlock the doors and reopen in a country that had something a little closer to actual slave labor.

Luckily, all that worrying and uncertainty was now behind me. And while I had wrecked my personal life showing a combination of fear and unrequited dedication that had ultimately cost me my family, I could give another soul a chance to avoid my fate.

Sure enough, as I walked further inside the factory I saw the night shift people pooling around the time clock while their daytime counterparts were quickly swiping their ID cards through the device and rushing off to their work stations. The night shift folks naturally looked tired while their counterparts showed the standard grim determination to get through another day. It was then that I spotted Michael Carter.

“Hey Mikey,” I said walking up to the kid. “You got a minute, need to talk with about something important.”

“Sure,” he responded a little puzzled while stepping out of the line leading to the time clock.

“What are you doing around three o'clock this afternoon? If it doesn't involve saving a life or inventing something akin to the light bulb you need to meet with me.”

“Hell Jason, you know the drill at three I'll be trying to sleep.” Mikey said slightly irritated as anyone would be after working a twelve hour shift.

“Listen, I can't say anything inside the plant but you're going to have to trust me here. If you meet me in the Credit Union parking lot at three you won't worry about the sleep you're missing.” I told him just as the seven o'clock horn sounded inside the plant.

Mikey didn't say anything else but only nodded before walking back towards the time clock an exit.

***

Maybe I was just getting use to my new situation, but I walked into the office section of the plant feeling a confidence that seemed limitless. Stepping through the door I glanced over to my right and saw what looked like an endless number of cubicles that stretched down the open office area. It occurred to me at that moment that in many ways the scores of unused cubicles were more depressing than the slower dying production area. However, I was only concerned with the section that was actually used by the Human Resources lady, Jill Miller.

I found her settling into her uniquely decorate cubicle with a cup of coffee. “Hello Jill,” I said feeling far too chipper for my own good taking notice of the latest plant she had brought to work. Jill's cubicle looked less than an office work space dealing with personnel and more like a small indoor jungle.

“Jason,” she responded, “I see here you called in sick last night. What was that about and did you go see a doctor and get an excuse?”

Jill was another victim of the crappy economic trends affecting the working class. Her situation made worse by a shit for brains husband who ran out on her and their baby daughter about the same time Emily and I were divorced. Jill didn't have the time to mope and become a semi-hermit like me. Jill had a daughter to cloth and feed which she went about with the determination of a mother bear naturally out to protect her offspring. Already working at Tightlock, she quickly became a master at office politics and stabbing people in the back not just to protect her job but move up the available ladder of advancement. It wasn't just the factory workers that were cut as the plastic container business went to shit, the office boys and girls suffered worse in some ways, all those empty cubicles being a testament to that fact.

The only problem though was that those actions took a toll on Jill's soul. Cold and calculating to the extreme, absolutely no one working for Tightlock wanted to get on her bad side. In fact, even though I had forty-two million sitting in the bank, I found myself more than a little nervous just getting ready to tell the woman I was quitting.

“I'm sorry Jill, I don't need an excuse because as of this very minute I am quitting my job.” I said fishing the ring with all the keys I kept related to the factory out of left pant's pocket. Jill just stared at me as I laid the keys on her desk followed by the fancy ID/timecard card I wore around my neck.

“This is quite sudden,” was all she could say before turning to her computer and started typing. “You won the lottery didn't you, Jason?” She said in an offhand manner that could have either been her attempt at humor or a straight out insight worthy of a cop.

I just nervously laughed with the intention of giving here the same spiel I told my ex-wife at the Pancake Palace about the job on the island in the Pacific.

“I really don't care Jason,” she said while typing on her keyboard. “So save whatever story you made up for the suckers. I'm actually happy for you but one word of advice. Don't let the money go to your head, you could easily wind up broke and coming back here which would be a fate worse than death.”

Whatever Jill's faults she didn't really know me, except as one of the night shift maintenance bozos and in less than a minute she had correctly guessed the situation. What I found really curious though was that Jill didn't pull some stunt trying to weasel a monetary prize out of me for figuring out the truth. Call me slow, but at that moment I realized the assumption that Jill was just a remorseless bitch was totally wrong. Yes, she was still a victim of a dying industry and way of life but instead of retreating into a form of hopelessness, she had learned to play the game most men think reserved for themselves.

Realizing all this, an idea began forming in my head. I opened my mouth to say something but Jill turned away from her computer and looked at me with eyes that made it instantly clear to me she was far smarter than I could comprehend.

“What are you going to do, offer me some of your money because you feel sorry for me?” Jill said about to laugh. “You think I haven't already figured several courses of action when this place is finally closed. Don't insult me Jason, I've lived through more shit that you could possibly understand.

“Truthfully Jason,” she continued handing me a sheet of paper from her printer confirming I was free and clear of anything to do with Tightlock Corporation. “Up until this very moment if anyone working for this company needed to be felt sorry for, it was your dumb ass. Just go, save whatever stunt your little mind had conceived as a parting gift for the company for another time.”

Feeling both chastised and enlightened, I walked out of the building that up until last Monday had dominated my life, got in my truck and drove away without looking back. I had a couple of more errands to run, then have that talk with Mikey but after that I would be hitting the road.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Chapter Two: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope






 There was a time when my hometown of Quincy, South Carolina had a real identity. Situated thirty miles to the south of the state capital of Columbia, it was close enough to allow residents access to the advantages of a much bigger city but far enough away to keep its own businesses and personality. That was before suburban sprawl reached Quincy and it turned it into a colorless copy of every other residential community across the country. Truthfully, things have progressed to the point that Quincy is now just a rather distant section of Columbia since strip malls, national restaurant and store chains, along with mass produced subdivisions have physically connected the two.

The forced corporate amalgamation of the town has long since swept away locally owned hamburger joints, mom and pop restaurants, along with the independent department and grocery stores. The saddest loss for me was the old Mark Twain Book Store that was located on Front Street. It was a place I spent a large part of my Saturday mornings before the grumpy old bastard that owned it just gave a me a book so I would leave him alone.

From there I would make my way back to the legal office my mom worked doing boring research for upcoming court cases. Being the weekend, the bigwig lawyers were no where to be found so I would find a comfortable seat and read my new book until she was ready to go home. My father worked at the long defunct steel mill and his hours were about as crazy and cumbersome as mine. But he was usually home by the early evening of those long ago Saturdays where we would sit together and just talk and enjoy each other company.

The exception to the mass destruction or assimilation of Quincy's local businesses was Peter's Pancake Palace. Established way back in the ancient 1960's as a diner close to my long extinct book store, the founder and chief cook for years, Peter Wilson, outlasted three of the national chains that usually run such local establishments out of business. So it was with a certain sense of pride that Peter's daughter moved her father's creation into one of those vacated buildings back in the late 1980's.

Despite the corruption of Quincy, the Pancake Palace remained one of the few locations that the two differing but equally obnoxious groups that made up the population of the town enjoyed. It was sophisticated enough for the upper middle class suburbanites, but yet offered a down home charm that allowed them to brag to the others of their subspecies that they mingled with the lesser common folk. For the long time residents, who for various reasons made up the working poor and less educated, the Palace could be thought of as an ancient temple that allowed the downtrodden natives to feel superior to the invading foreigners who now dominated their ancestral lands. It didn't take me long to start seeing both groups as not really human but more akin to two different species of insects who could not see the world beyond their own narrow perceptions.

That pretty much summed up my feelings about how I became alienated in my own hometown. When I left Quincy to join the army after high school there was only the slightest hints of the coming suburban sprawl. Hell, back then the only thing that could be said to connect Quincy to Columbia, besides the highways, was the weirdly fast growing kudzu vine. When I returned home in 1996 Quincy had all but changed into its current form.

That being said, my first destination the morning after my brush with the Twilight Zone was the Pancake Palace. I arrived a little after six o'clock and took a seat at the counter still figuring out how I was going to square away all the details of me leaving town. Quitting my job would be easy, I did want to make a bit of a memorable splash walking out along with helping one of my few friends. Then there were the arrangements to be made with my lawyer. We weren't friends by any means, but given the retainer I was about to lay on him to keep my affairs in order the man should be more than willing to kiss my pale, hairy ass. Then there was the situation with my two sons, my failures and circumstances had pulled apart our relationships but I was determined to say goodbye properly.

Since my night shift work schedule was ass backwards to all the good folks who lived their lives during daylight hours, the Palace seemed strangely crowded. On the days and times I usually dropped in the only chatter I heard was that of the wait staff talking with each other. That morning a cacophony voices made recognizing any individual person impossible. Which was just as well, it allowed me to concentrate on my own thoughts while I savored my breakfast. That is until I heard the voice of my ex-wife.

“Jason Lance,” Emily Langley called out like an angry elementary school teacher did to a student she thought mentally deficient and destined for a life of crime. “What are you doing here this time of the morning? Shouldn't you be at work?”

“Hello Emily,” I responded without turning around and after taking several deep, calming breaths. I desperately wanted to shoot back with a snarky response but I had long learned such behaviors were ultimately self defeating. Although, given my opinion of Emily and why she divorced me seven years ago, I figure forty-two million in lottery winning now sitting in my bank account could buy a lot of peace of mind if I decided to tell her off. But there wasn't need to sink to her usual level of loathing.

“No,” I said taking the high ground, “I was going to give you a call later and ask if I could come over and see the boys before I leave town.”

“Leave town,” she almost screeched, “just where do you think you're going, especially the way you look, is it a Jimmy Buffett concert?” She asked with a detectable degree of ridicule in her voice.

Emily had always taken a dim view to the clothes I wore, but I was kind of insulted with her degrading the Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals I was wearing to celebrate what amounted to a lottery winnings inspired independence day for me.  Realizing Emily wasn't going away until I dealt with her, I spun my bar stool around to look her in the face. The one thing I had to admit about my ex-wife was that she was still quite beautiful. Having turned forty-five years old a few months back she could have easily passed as someone in her mid-thirties. Which just could be the result of her becoming an obsessive gym rat and after a few secretive sessions under the knife of a plastic surgeon. The two differences that were obvious since the divorce though was how she dyed her hair blonde and and her posse of sycophants.Three women who would not have giving Emily the time of day until she had divorced me and married the hunky Mark Langley, DDM.

Despite it all, I actually liked Mark, we had known each other since high school and I was one of his first patients when he established his practice. All jokes aside, he was a great step-father to my kids. Since management at my work had long since locked me into being permanent night shift he had taken up the slack in being there for Wilson and Barry as they grew up. Yeah, I did resent the hell out of him showering the boys with gifts and other expensive junk that I could never afford, but there was worse things a step-parent could do to children. Over the years though, Mark's gifts had taken a toll on the relationship I had with my sons.

The one thing that did piss me off about the man who for years was Quincy's most eligible bachelor and raging Lothario was the suspicious timing between Emily divorcing me and them becoming a couple. I would be lying if I didn't say there was probably a period of time that while he had his fingers in mouth fixing my teeth he and my wife were playing a different type doctor on his days off at the secluded Hide Away Motel off route six.

Standing in the middle of the path customers used to get to the restroom and wait staff traveled to get to the kitchen, Emily was the picture of everything I felt wrong about Quincy and people in general. Seven years after the divorce Emily had evolved two different personalities when it came to dealing with me. The first was almost human acting and only appeared when no one else was within hearing distance. As far as Emily was concerned, I was the dead bug splattered all over the windshield of her life. But on the good side I was the father of her boys so one rare occasions she sort of acted nice to me. The second personality was the one I was dealing with now, it was the one that appeared in public and treated me as if I was a mushy, wet pile of dog poop she couldn't remove from her expensive shoes.

I hadn't expected to roll out my cover store about leaving this early, but like the younger version of myself that appeared in my bathroom mirror the day before, life likes to throw four dimensional curve balls. “Yeah, this is something that's been in the works for several months. One of my old army buddies and I stumbled across each other on Facebook and he offered me a job after finding out what I do. He runs an engineering business and has several overseas contracts that needs more people. After a leisurely drive across the country spending my hiring bonus, I'll be living out on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific for at least five years fixing equipment on the military base located there.”

Getting back to my theory on how the current, mutant natives of Quincy just couldn't conceive anything out of their own narrow existence, I could tell from the look on Emily's face her now upper middle class mind was utterly blown. “Your joking,” was her response “surely you would never leave the job you've had since before we got married.”

“No, I'm not joking in the slightest and do not call be Shirley .” I said feeling a small opening for a harmless bit of post-marriage snark. After several seconds though I could tell the information had finally sank into her brain was processed.

“I'm sorry, you can't see the boys, they're with Mark in Chicago at a convention and won't be back until Friday. So you'll have to postpone this joy ride until then.” Emily said regaining a bit of her composure, being stumped by her lackluster ex-husband in front of her coven of suburban witches was simply something that she couldn't allow.

“Well, then I'll send them an email when I stop and rest along the way.” Feeling my blood begin to turn hot. “I'm glad Mark has taken the boys, that way you won't have to worry he's returned to his old ways. I hear the clerks at the Hide Away Motel still whisper his name in admiration. We all know how often he used the place, on an hourly basis.” Just because she had ticked me off, I really emphasized that last part while looking her straight in the eyes and loud enough that the other people at the counter and the the nearby tables all went silent. While Quincy wasn't the town of my youth, the Pancake Palace was still the best location to get the latest gossip.

It was probably good that I was leaving town that day because Emily stormed out of the Pancake Palace with her small coven trailing behind. Knowing how things ran among the natives, word of my heavily implied accusation was already burning up the cell towers. Emily would be in damage control mode among her social circle for weeks. I just turned around and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Adventures of an American Misanthrope


Chapter One

It should have been funny the way I reacted when the alarm clock went off at its normal time. I turned over in my bed and instinctively began slapping the top of the plastic box trying to hit the snooze button. After several ridiculous attempts smacking the nightstand and even my lamp, the return of silence signaled that I had finally hit the target. The nine extra minutes the snooze button bought were for me to slowly gather my meager wits and begin the process of getting ready for work. But in the back of my mind there was the little voice desperate to make itself know to the greater whole of my stunted being. There was a small piece of information my mind wasn't registering, some vital detail that the little voice was convinced would change my entire outlook.

Instead I began my standard fantasy about laying in a hammock on some remote tropical beach sipping one of those fancy drinks overloaded with pieces of fruit and alcohol. I instantly began relaxing to the imaginary sounds of gentle surf while feeling the calm breezes pass over me. The best part though was the blonde swimsuit model I visualized walking towards me slowly shedding her skimpy bikini exposing her firm, tanned body. For whatever reason, my fantasy fell apart disappointing both me and the swimsuit model who vanished like a ghost. Instead I found myself forced to concentrate on that nagging little voice. For more seconds that I want to ever admit I was at a total loss as to what the hell I was missing. Fearing for my sanity, I lay in my bed staring at the alarm clock sitting on the nightstand.

The big LED numerals continued flashing “5:00pm” like some angry demon who hated the idea of its existence only slightly less than the schmuck it was created to persecute. As the seconds ticked by I was briefly fascinated at the absurd fact that the fools who designed my cheap alarm clock felt the need to color the plastic that contained all the components like it was natural wood. Was the fake natural decoration supposed to look nice or make the owner proud of his purchase? That's about the time the nagging little voice raging in the back of my head started making sense.

Forty-two million dollars, the voice exclaimed several times. In my mind's eye I had this vision of a normally mild and unremarkable bureaucrat rushing into a conference room filled with egotistical pricks wearing expensive suits and smoking huge cigars. The collection of important men are utterly shocked that such an insignificant speck of humanity would interrupt their proceedings. Forty-two million dollars the normally timid soul screamed at the assembly of self-absorbed a-holes. That's when my greater consciousness finally registered what the little voice was trying to tell me.

Sitting in my bank account was the winnings to last Monday night's GigaBucks lottery. After Uncle Sam and the great state of South Carolina had taken their share my wealth was now sitting at an amount just north of forty-two million dollars.

I had purchased the ticket at a convenience store last Monday morning on the way home from work. It along with a pint of chocolate milk and a honey bun were sort of a ritual I used to unwind. The chocolate milk and honey bun satisfied my immediate needs while I considered the lottery ticket daydream fodder. No, I'm not one of those fools who buys lottery tickets with money better used on bills or a legitimate retirement plan. I waste no more than five bucks every couple of weeks on one set of numbers for several drawings. Just the minuscule potential that existed during those times allowed me to daydream about the freedom and wild adventures I could have if I won.       

Due to the twelve hours shifts I worked at my job, last Monday morning was the start of a scheduled week off, which almost always had me sitting in my apartment watching television or reading. I told myself I needed to relax and recover from working the 7:00pm to 7:00am shift, but the truth of the matter was that I didn't think much of people. I preferred my own company, something that had only gotten worse since my divorce five years earlier.

Feeling tired, I was about to call it a night when the local eleven o'clock news flashed the winning lottery numbers across the screen. Immediately I got a chill down my spine even though I was only half listening as the newscaster called them off at the same time. The numbers sounded like mine but I wasn't sure until I opened up my laptop and looked at the lottery commission website. Like any normal person who had literally cheated statistics, I sat at my small desk in stunned disbelief after confirming what seemed impossible. I didn't sleep at all that entire night, but that didn't stop me from driving up to Columbia the next day and walking into the small office the lottery commission had for people who won prizes bigger than could be paid out at some store.

The receptionist at the front desk was painting her nails while talking on the office phone, the receiver wedged between her neck and shoulder. She ignored me for several minutes continuing her conversation with the unknown person on the other end. During that time I learned that her chief complaint in life dealt with her growing disdain with men, her husband's faults being specifically mentioned several times.

When the receptionist finally hung up the phone she looked at me like I was a pesky insect that wouldn't fly away. “Can I help you sir?” The woman asked with a detached air.

I was irritated but somehow still couldn't find a way to express my feelings, so I just came out and said the obvious. “My name is Jason Lance and I won the GigaBucks lottery last night.”

Funny how those few words completely changed the receptionist's attitude and brought out a flood of people from the half-dozen or so cubicles crammed into the small office. By the end of business hours that day I was a millionaire and was the unwilling possessor of the receptionist's cell phone number.

***

The rest of the week was a daze after I returned to my apartment.  After years of idle daydreams all my elaborate mental adventures had disappeared leaving me at a complete loss. There was no one to share my new wealth since I'm a divorced man with no close family and few real friends. I do have two teenage sons but since my ex-wife had remarried a dentist they had quickly adapted to the fringe benefits of calling him dad.

I didn't begrudge the boys for enjoying their mother's ability to catch such a high class guy and move up the local social ladder. I was just a hourly maintenance chump at a local factory, one that was constantly skirting the edge of being closed if the corporate suits ever looked closely at the efficiency reports that said the plant equipment was out of date while the production workers were passed caring.

A sudden surge of nervous energy made it impossible for me to stay in bed so I stumbled the short distance to the bathroom to just stare in the mirror above the sink. The eyes of the man in front of me were beyond bloodshot while his face looked like an undead zombie who had been hit by a semi then attacked by a pack of angry pit bulls. That's when the memories of the days after getting the money came flooding back.

Instead of going out on the town and celebrating my dose of cosmically improbable luck with friends, I stayed in my apartment and drank myself into a stupor. I stumbled out of the bathroom to discover about a case of empty beer cans on my living room floor and two bottles of tequila looking like fallen soldiers. The forty-two million in my bank account was just a week old and I was already well on the path to self destruction.

“You really need to see a professional about your issues, dude.” A voice behind me said scaring about twenty years off my life.

Despite being thirty pounds overweight, more than a little hungover, and well in my late forties I spun around ready to fight whomever had been in my apartment since I woke up. One problem, the only person I could find was my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

“Holy shit, Jason Lance,” the unknown voice said, “you are exactly the dumbass your ex-wife tells everyone. I'm right here in the bathroom.”

Despite what the supermarket tabloids and cable paranormal activity shows say, real examples of someone slipping into metaphysical realms detached from reality don't really happen. But then again few sane people ever see their reflection talking to them from the other side of the mirror. Even though I wanted to run the hell away, I slowly walked back into the bathroom to get a better look at the apparition talking to me.

Gone was the drunken zombie I had just saw in the mirror barely two minutes before and in its place was a younger version of myself, probably in his early twenties right after my enlistment in the army had ended. Dressed in an ironed polo shirt and wearing jeans without any holes I found my myself slightly embarrassed to realize I was dressed in stained sweatpants and a t-shirt that seemed to be doing an artistic impression of Swiss cheese.

“Hooray,” the younger and better dressed version of myself said, “you have enough brain cells left to follow sounds. Just maybe there is a person left inside that flabby body.”

“You're not real,” I lamely said in hopes of sending the phantasm away.

“And once again you disappoint, Jason,” Younger Me said from the other side of the mirror. “Come on man, punch the mirror and break me into a thousand sharp shards.” It said bemused at my confusion and discomfort.

“Okay,” I said trying to collect a few active wits, “not that I accept this, but what do you want?”

“Oh please,” my doppelganger said, “how about that blonde you were dreaming about before your subconscious sent out an SOS. Dear God, what they say about us guys never getting over boobs are true. Hers were just the right size, bigger than grapefruits but smaller than cantaloupes. You sir are a Michelangelo of hooters!”

Yeah, this exchange was crazy and highly likely to end badly, but like they say, when in Rome. “Yeah, I never really got over Annette Howard back in high school.” I replied to myself. “That's who I usually model my fantasies around since the divorce.”

“Good choice,” my mirror self said back. “Who would have thought shy Annette would become a television news reporter all the way in Seattle.”

“Did she ever get married?” I asked totally in the groove now with my progressing psychotic break and talking to my bathroom mirror.

“You know she did,” was the reply back.
Annette married a corporate lawyer two years after moving to Seattle. They were a good looking power couple, the kind political movers and shakers recruit to run for office. It was a true happily ever after scenario with the potential to end up in the White House, that is up until the incident.

Annette was doing a stint as the aggressive investigative reporter out to bust corruption and crime when her news team, and several cops broke down the front door of a mansion used by an upscale prostitution ring. The live cameras feeding straight to the news room and police headquarters caught numerous moral pillars of the community scrambling like cockroaches to get away while getting dressed. Within seconds all were laying on the wet grass outside being handcuffed, except for one guy who was stuck hanging upside down in a closet wearing a rubber suit, with certain key sections missing, and a pink tutu that partial covered his face. Below him were several sex toys, a couple of whips, and various tubes of flavored gels. The most curious feature of the upside down man's predicament were the two naked prostitutes who instead of trying to hide their identity had fallen on the floor laughing uncontrollably as he wriggled like a caught fish.

Truthfully, even the heavily armed cops and cynical reporters found the sight funny, that is until Annette bent down and lifted the pink tutu up enough to see it was her husband. When the dust settled Annette had taken a leave of absence from the news station which turned out to be permanent. As for her husband, within a couple of years he had moved to Alabama, found religion and was soon back on television, this time asking good folks to send him money to do God's work. Proving God does have a sense of humor his political career wasn't totally dead, word was that after changing political parties he was thinking about running for governor of that state.

Coming back to the present I found myself laughing, even my younger reflection in the mirror was doing the same. Despite the fact talking to the bathroom mirror was not a sign of secure mental health I found myself having a good time. That was until my reflection decided to get serious.

“Listen Jason, I'm actually here for a reason. It's probably beyond your abilities to discern, hence my presence, but can you guess why I'm talking to you?”

“Ah, well I'm certain it has to do with the money, right?”

“Dear Lord,” my reflection said annoyed, “I'm talking to Homer Simpson. Yes, its the money you fool, just what are your plans for today?”

“Well I'm going to work...”

“NO! That would be a really bad idea. We're the same person, well sort of, but close enough. You'll go to work with the intention of doing something with the money but never will. There is a high probability you could spend the rest of your life doing the same thing until you keel over in here from a heart attack. The only thing that would announce the end of your existence would be the smell of your decaying body.”

“How about I call my kids? I could take them on the vacation of their wildest dreams.” I say immediately realizing that wouldn't fly either. They had their own lives, friends, and I wasn't part of that equation. Any attempt by me to become an active part of their lives would be a form of abuse.

“Alright big boy,” I say to the mirror “just what in the hell am I supposed to do?”

“Leave town,” It replied. “Get your affairs in order, load up your crap into the back of the truck and just drive. No destination, just go and don't stop until you can't go any further. You have no future in this town, trust me I understand why but you might be able to salvage something of a meaningful existence someplace else.”

That's when the alarm clock went off again. Its shrill screeching reaching deep into my soul. I looked over at the unholy device to see it flashing “5:09pm” my normal time to get up and prepare for work. Doubting the very fabric of reality I rushed over to the laptop and checked my account balance. It goes without saying dreams are serious weird affairs and I had a strong suspicion my winning the lottery was just a secondary artifact of my conversation with my younger self in the mirror.

No, the money was real, the bank website had my balance at forty-two million. I signed out and closed the laptop and walked into my living room. Sure enough, the beer cans and tequila bottles were in their proper places on the floor, that left the question of my conversation with the bathroom mirror. Hesitantly, I walked into the bathroom but the only thing I saw was my forty-seven year old reflection. I still looked like shit warmed over, but that was actually a comfort.

The lesson was learned though, it was time for a change and unlike most other unfortunate souls, I had the means to make it happen. Finding my cell phone proved to me a bit of problem, but after finding it underneath the couch, I dialed my work number.

Hey George,” I said to his voice mail, “its Jason, I won't be in tonight. No reason, but I will be dropping by in the morning.”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Life Goes On







The smell of the freshly brewed coffee in my cup was already weaving together the synapses in my brain as I plopped into the chair in front of the television. As I settled in with my caffeine and listened to the overly attractive and surely focus group-tested lady read off the leading news, I could feel my consciousness asserting itself even though my body wanted desperately to crawl back into bed. Sleep offered nothing but a pleasant postponement of having to listen to the long worn out machinations of men who are playing a game whose purpose they can't fathom beyond the pursuit of blatant self-gratification.

As the same stories that had dominated the news for days and even weeks were read off there was a bit of perverse comfort in knowing that the shit pile called current events hadn't drastically changed since the night before. A sad commentary on life for sure, but with the nation and world being held essentially hostage by people whose psychologies never rose above that of the average schoolyard bully you take comfort in whatever form available.

The leading story that morning was the super-hurricane that had just run over the island Puerto Rico with all the compassion the current occupant of the White House can muster about anyone outside his family. Funny thing about that hurricane, being the latest in a strange line of “Once in a lifetime weather events,” a person might begin to wonder if some outside force might be amplifying them. Its almost got to the point that our elected leaders should call upon the highly educated and professional men and women who have studied climate and weather for years to look into the matter. If this change in climate is because of something humans have done it would seem a good idea to stop it and work to repair the damage.

Just as soon as the last pictures of tropical destruction faded off the screen the news lady appeared saying she would be back soon after this commercial break. That's when the nausea struck causing me to put down my coffee cup.

“This is my hair!” The now middle aged, former child television star exclaimed as if he had just discovered the location of the fountain of youth. Call it a bizarre notion given our culture, but its always bothered me that many celebrities can't seem to walkaway from the limelight even though the basis of their fame had long since faded into oblivion. This particular individual, the middle boy child of a late 1960's and early 1970's merged television family has tenaciously fought to keep some aspect of his fame. He's no lone ranger with several others in his television family going to equally awkward levels to stay in the public mind.

“I can wash this hair, I can style this hair, this is my hair!” He continued with all the zeal of someone who just a personal one-on-one conversation with God. I could feel the bile in my stomach bubbling as this washed up actor turned reality star talked about how much better he looked and felt since undergoing the the procedure that restored him to a full head of hair. In normal times such enthusiasm would have been reserved for developing a vaccine for polio or finishing a project that brought fresh water to a third world village.

As a middle aged man myself who is severely follicely challenged, I know all the reasons that commercial justified for males having their hair restored to improve appearance or regain confidence is a thinly disguised lie. If the true reason for hair restoration was just for confidence, there wouldn't have been a need for the company to pay a twenty-something, bikini wearing lady to sit in a hot tub beside the grinning fifty-something man sporting an abnormal amount of hair on his head. As a book I just finished stated, our civilization is based on clever fictions we convince ourselves are true. But at some point men should just own up and admit that no matter our age, our chief goal never drifts far from wanting to get laid. I truly feel we would all be mentally healthier in the end if we faced that truth.

Speaking of delusions or grandeur, when the news lady returned her story was about the various speeches given at the opening of the United Nations Assembly earlier this week. Sure enough a video soon began showing America's latest joke on civilization and history at the podium wildly gesturing while exclaiming how he would totally destroy the country lead by the only other individual who rivals him at being a dangerous stooge. It is my sincerest hope that at some point in the future humans will have advanced enough to recognize the aberrant behavior in children that leads to narcissistic megalomania.

From there hopefully they could either correct it or prevent such individuals from ever holding any position of power greater than a city employed gardener. How far should societies go to prevent such maladjusted individuals who crave power like plants need sunlight from pursing their goals? While civilized people like to say the ends never justify the means, depending of how much our personalities are govern by genetics, I'd have to say pretty damn far to prevent anything similar to “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” from ever coming to power again.

Faced with a growing weather apocalypse, crass commercialism promoted by washed up actors, and the immediate threat of nuclear Holocaust perpetrated by mutant trolls, I turned off the television and went outside to sit on my backyard deck. While I was physically able to settle in my chair my mind was still reeling from the complexities of a civilization where the various leaders are acting instinctively instead of intelligently. Seriously, it should totally freak out any reasonably sentient person that the Catholic Church has a better scientific understanding of many of the global problems we face than the leaders of most twenty-first century nations.

That was when I saw the bird feeder my wife had just purchased and had hanging for one of the backyard trees. A bird I couldn't identify and a squirrel appeared to be in some sort of staring contest on either side of the large feeder. With the feeder slightly swinging from their small jerky motions I expected one of the two to leave while the other gorged out on the seed supply. Instead they both pigged out on the seeds for several seconds before both leaving. My sighting of the two animals sharing the bird feeder wasn't anything profound but it did allow me to brush off the residual anxiety from my mistake of watching the morning news. Essentially it showed me that worrying about things won't help the situation and that despite it all life will go on. After that revelation I made another cup of coffee and enjoyed the day.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Relearning Compromise and Moderation




Memories are malleable things subject to current biases and circumstances but I can say with absolute certainty I have always entertained various liberal ideas when it comes to politics and society. Yes, I have to admit that for a short time from the mid-1990's to the early 2000's I bought into the conservative mindset. After voting for Bill Clinton in 1992 I became extremely dissatisfied with his behavior and along with the Democratic Party after several highly visible congressional scandals. I felt the party had become hopelessly corrupt after several decades controlling both houses of Congress.

There were other reasons for my rightward drift but rehashing the ancient political history of those times and my shallow membership in the “conservative movement” would be meaningless. What is important though was that my exposure to the likes of Limbaugh, and numerous other false right-wing prophets made me realize its talk about freedom and self-reliance was largely a lie. As I listened to the usual right-wing talking heads it became apparent that conservatism had quite literally jettisoned rationality and was toying with authoritarianism along with displaying a dangerous fascination with religion having a direct involvement in politics. Lets face it, both Eisenhower and Reagan were great presidents but neither would stand a snowball's chance in hell at getting nominated in today's Republican party.

Even though I had fallen to the Dark Side back during the early days of the 1996 presidential campaign I was disgusted with the blatant racism directed towards General Colin Powell on the popular radios talk shows during the time he was considering making a bid for the Republican nomination. To have General Powell, who had served his country with honor for decades, be criticized by individuals who leaned heavily on military deferments to avoid being drafted was an outrage. It wasn't long after that I became conscious of the movement by Republicans to outright reject anyone not fitting their religious and societal definition of what it means to be a true American. Yes, I was guilty of many of these sins myself and have no excuse for my horrendous behavior other than mindlessly following the crowd.

What pulled me back to sanity was Bush and Cheney's Iraq adventure that totally failed to find any of the dreaded WMD's that they assured the American people were on the verge of being given to the 9/11 attackers by Saddam Hussein. Side note: Unlike numerous Republican politicians and radio talking heads, I served in the military and know just enough about remote intelligence gathering to understand that Saddam's missing stockpile of WMD's wasn't an honest mistake. Certain pieces of information questioning whether Saddam had any WMD's were ignored or willfully suppressed while other, less reliable sources were pushed on the public through sympathetic media outlets. Throw in the acceptance of torture by the administration and a large part of the Republican party, the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on a war built on lies, along with the factors I had already noticed and I ran back to the Democrats and my true nature.

Since then Republican actions have only pushed me further left. I found it appalling and even damn scary that President Obama, a man elected with clear majorities in both the popular and electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, was treated like a criminal by an overwhelming numbers of conservatives. At the same time, those same individuals openly admired and embraced the authoritarian thug in Russia, Vlad Putin. A person that murders journalists and dissenters with a casual disregard that Stalin and Hitler would respect.

All that being undeniable to anyone except for fools, racists, and the outright stupid, I find myself increasingly disappointed with both the Democratic leadership and the rank and file members. The Democrat Party leadership seems mired in some sort of passionless limbo unable to articulate any clear route the country might take to overcome the unique challenges we face in this era. They are still terrified of being painted the the party of welfare moms constantly popping out babies to boost their food stamps and wasteful spending.

The response to this lack of a Democratic vision has been the development of a left-wing version of the Republican “Tea Party movement” by those who generally label themselves as progressive. In no way is it an exact copy but it does share the same penchant for ideological purity tests along with a total disdain for compromise. Both of those items are like cancer to a working (small D) democratic system like our elected government.

Way back in 2009 after President Obama took office I remember a lot of Democrats were whining that nothing was getting done even though they had a thin control over both houses of Congress. One person I know on Facebook and the blogosphere even suggested Obama was a Republican/corporate-controlled Manchurian candidate out to just pursue the Bush/Cheney agenda.

Here's the problem that to some self-aware individuals might sound strikingly familiar. Obama wasn't a dictator, yes, during his second term he did start issuing executive orders in an attempt to get something done in the face of a Congress that by then was heavily controlled by Republicans and that refused to work with him. But before the 2010 midterms the Democrats didn't get much done because many of them were in districts that were not politically secure or that outright leaned Republican. Their one collective desire was to get reelected and that meant they couldn't go along with every policy Obama wanted to enact.

Despite showing restraint many of these hesitant Democrats were voted out of office in 2010 anyway. But honestly a lot of that can be blamed on lazy and self-absorbed liberals and progressives who couldn't be bothered to vote while conservatives, now terrified that the Antichrist was in the White House, flocked to the polling booths. As they say, the rest is a sad history with only Putin smiling over self destructive American intransigence.

Funny thing though, all during the Obama years Congressional Republicans had scores of non-binding votes to repeal “Obamacare”, shrilly promising that if they ever regained the White House it would be killed minutes after the new chief executive took the oath of office. Fast forward to the disastrous aftermath of the 2016 election and these same Republicans honestly looked like a flock of headless chickens with their inability to not only repeal Obamacare but their mind numbing incompetence at crafting a semi-workable replacement.

Speaking strictly as an outside observer, yeah their inability on crafting a replacement and getting it approved was sheer monumental incompetence on the party leadership. But the deja vu should have been overwhelming for the rank and file Republican members of Congress from politically insecure districts or ones that usually voted Democratic. It was easy to rage against Obamacare, the rabid base loved it but when it actually came to ending the only means millions had access to healthcare those same Republicans from problematic districts had second thoughts. Oh God I admit it, I thoroughly enjoyed the whining put out by conservative talking heads disturbed that after years of promising to take healthcare away from people their party failed as badly as the proverbial lead balloon.

The one element that everyone occupying the growing partisan divide ignores is that our system of government was built on compromise. YES, it is always clumsy and often as ugly as a mutant pig but trying to govern with just one party in control simply ain't working! When you have one party trying to govern alone the results are wild swings in Congressional majorities with the opposing party using every means to undo or sabotage previous efforts when they take control.

Moderation and compromise are dirty words in politics these days, both political parties feel called by God (one quite literally and the other figuratively) to “save America” from the evil minions on the opposing side. But moderation and compromise are the only way workable solutions can be enacted. I've said it before, while I am firmly settled on the lefty liberal side of politics I am not egotistical enough to believe my opinions are the only way for our country to go forward.

Watch any of the cable news channels shows and it isn't hard to hear both conservatives and progressives say that America is on their side. That any deviation from their proscribed political dogma violates the soul of our nation. A curious sentiment given that it is similar to any number of destructive religious cults that demands the individual surrender their free will and ability to change their minds when new evidence is uncovered.

Such a thing happened the other day when I caught a conservative talk show host on television get a wild, rapturous look on his face when he got the actor Henry Winkler to agree on some point. The talk show host's response was to exclaim, “That means you are a conservative!” in the same way a preacher gets when a person becomes born again. Don't worry, I've seen many progressives (Bernie Bros) get the same way and go into a rage if someone dare suggest their policies might be unworkable or impractical.

How did the situation get this way? That's as complicated as explaining why the Roman Empire fell. Sure, it's easy to point to certain individual factors but lately I come to think we are seeing a cascade effect with many elements involved. Conservatives, who are generally white and well off financially, fear change while progressives rage against a system that, truthfully, isn't fair to the economically disadvantaged and minorities. This fear and rage dynamic plays off each other and brings out the extremes. I have to add that you can't ignore the willfully destructive individuals in our society who associate with conservative and liberal/progressive causes. Their true mission is to sow hate and discord and to burn the world down the first chance they get.

The only simple thing I can find with our collective political constipation is the fact that the only way we are going to extradite ourselves is by getting the vast number of non-voting Americans to regularly show up on election day. The only thing fear and rage accomplishes is to bring in a new congressional majority that will be ejected within an election cycle or two. Allowing the bases of either political party to dominate the nomination process for any elected office is akin to letting an emotional unstable toddler play with matches and a five-gallon jug of gasoline.

If pushed, and if I have drank enough beer, you might get to admit there is a thin silver lining in the apocalyptically dark cloud that is Trump. That abomination is such a disaster that I see a record turnout of voters for both the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential run, even if he is impeached and removed from office. There is a slim chance he might be the catalyst that reengages the members of both political parties forcing them to relearn the art of compromise and moderation. 

Ideally, I'd like to see some sort of unity ticket run for president in 2020. I don't care if the its Republican/Democrat or the other way around, I want rational government that can adapt to the news situations that appear daily both here at home and around the world. Yes, I am still a liberal Democrat but the welfare of the nation and world should transcend our petty politics.  

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Short Buffett Interlude




Like an idiot, after a long and much needed hiatus I attempted to write some fiction this weekend. After pounding out over a page and a half of lackluster prose I realized it was so bad that I physically began to smell something akin to a long neglected cat's litter box coming from my laptop. So between trying to salvage that disaster and watching Hurricane Irma coverage on CNN I wasted the entire weekend. So instead I will offer up a small Jimmy Buffett video interlude.

While I'm still a fan of Buffett, I've got to admit I ain't feeling the same thrill anymore. Especially since he appears to have mostly transitioned from tropical vagabond singer/song writer/author over to some sort of high rolling resort/real estate developer going as far as offering up retirement homes to aging Baby Boomers. I guess my disappointment in Jimmy's embrace of gross capitalistic endeavors that probably threaten coastal environments that inspired his songs is a minor form of whining. But still, that makes Jimmy more part of the establishment now than the free soul whose songs once told everyone life should be taken at face value because none of us were going to get out of it alive.

Be that as it may, this seems fitting given what people in the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas have endured.



Now how about a little mid-life reflection:



Word of warning, when listening to this song with the volume up DO NOT have your car windows down while as you drive through pickup loop in front of your daughter's school. The attractive 40-something teacher directing traffic in her sundress that spring day didn't appreciate the apparent but totally unintentional  innuendo.



And finally, something to remind everyone life is short and often tragic, so we need to be nice as possible to each other and not get caught up in the bull shit.