Saturday, April 22, 2017

Strange Tales from the Dark Side of Suburbia



Growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina you had to expect loud and violent thunderstorms during the spring and summer months. For me it was easy to image that the normal combination of high temperatures and soul crushing humidity that stirred up the atmosphere to produced these storms was akin to some ill-humored witch or warlock. The angry dark clouds that made up these storms could drift in like an enemy armada anywhere from the afternoon hours to late at night producing high winds, torrential rain, some hail, but it was the displays of lightning that most people would remember.

In fact, back before such things as cable/satellite television, smart phones, and the internet claimed the majority of our attention span, the lightning from these storms could have been called a form of entertainment. One afternoon in the late 1980's while home on leave from the army, I attended a soccer game and saw the people sitting in the stands paying more attention to the several small clouds shooting off occasional bolts of lighting. Given that their collective reaction was the same as if they were watching a Fourth of July fireworks show, for a couple of minutes I worried about the kids still running around on the field kicking the ball. At least the referees understood what the lightning meant and pulled all of them off the field.

Despite the damage these storms could do they could provide a much needed respite from the very conditions that produced them. Adding to that effect, the sounds of the rain and thunder were quite relaxing and could cause the most tense and anxiety-ridden person to fall asleep.That being said, there was one incident from my childhood that still causes me wonder about the nature of dreams and the behavior or people who otherwise seem normal.

I was about twelve years old when I went to live with my grandparents. The reasons are complicated and beyond the scope of such an informal and the admittedly clumsy story I am writing here. All I will say it involves my parents' divorce that so bad it made Chernobyl look like someone had spilled a mildly dirty mop bucket on a clean floor.

It was in the middle of summer when the event happened. The days were brutally hot and humid leaving the streets of my neighborhood almost empty of the flocks of children who could be seen riding their bikes when the weather wasn't so abusive. Since my grandparents' house was built in the years just after World War Two instead of the air conditioning system which is ubiquitous in homes now, it had an attic fan. This huge fan, which was mounted in the hallway ceiling, sucked in outside air and pushed it up into the attic and back outside. While it didn't actually cool the air, it did provide a constant flow which made the inside of the house comfortable. As you can probably surmise, the attic fan only worked if you had almost all the windows open to allow the air to be drawn inside. Throw in the afternoon/evening thunderstorms and there were times during the summer my grandparents' house almost felt chilly.

The night of the incident we went to bed normally, with all the windows open and me in my PJ's but without any cover. I'm not sure when the thunderstorm begun but it was so late that sometime earlier I had pulled a thin blanket over me to ward off what now felt like chilly air. At first it was the usual booms of thunder and flashes of lightning with the sound of the heavy rain easing me back to sleep.

It could have been a couple of hours later or just a few minutes but what brought me back to consciousness was a noise that sounding like someone was banging on the front door. It was an urgent, almost panicked knocking of someone in danger. Now the first thought that might have occurred to you was that I still half asleep and the knocking I was hearing was just thunder. The trouble with that idea is that I distinctly remember the sound of thunder booming at the same time, so much that it overwhelmed the knocking at the door.

Being twelve, and having survived some uncomfortable events concerning the breakup of my parents I had no intention of rushing to the front door to find out who was there. I did get out of bed and slowly make my way down the hallway towards the living room. Standing on the border between the hallway and the living room I peered around the corner at the front door listening to the banging.

The door didn't shake from the impacts nor did I hear any voice on the other side pleading for help. But the knocking continued to the point I began wondering why my grandparents hadn't also been awaken. Had I been braver, I might have thought about raising the blind to the window positioned just to the left of the front door to see who was there. Instead I rushed back down the hallway to my grandparents' room to inform them of the situation.

“Granddad,” I said shaking his arm, “someone's knocking at the front door.”

My Grandfather, who hadn't yet retired had just spent a week working the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift at the local papermill and wasn't in the mood to be disturbed.

“It's just the storm,” he said with a tone of voice that was a combination of concern and weariness all parents have to suffer through. “You're dreaming, just go back to bed and it will be all over in the morning.”

Despite his assurances, I wasn't convinced that the panicked knocking I was hearing with just the sound of thunder invading my dreams. Still though, I wasn't about to head back down to the living room and throw open the door just to prove a point. Then there was the fact that even though I was just twelve it did occur to me that if someone was at the door needing help, there were houses on either side of the one my grandparents lived. Common sense suggested that if the got no answer at one door they would rush over to the next house. Another dash of logic suggested that someone truly in danger might try knocking on the windows to get attention. And if they did, these hypothetical people in need would see that they were open and then scream for help. Since nothing of the sort happened I went back to bed and before long was back asleep in spite of what I now presumed was just my runaway imagination.

Like all thunderstorms, that one faded away leaving just wet grass and a faint breeze. The next morning I remember waking up to the sun streaming into my eastward facing bedroom window. My dream of the panicked knocking at the door was still fresh on my mind but by that time my concerns had evaporated away. My grandparents were still asleep so I quietly got out of bed and made my way to the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal. It an hour or so late when my Granddad woke up with him asking me to walk outside to the mail box to get the newspaper.

Stepping out onto the front porch all my assumptions and logic was quickly swept away when I saw a single female shoe on one of the steps. Don't ask me what type of shoe it was, all I could say even now was that it was most definitely female. What I can tell you is that given my grandmother's age, the shoe I found that morning was made for a much younger adult woman. I briefly looked around for its partner but didn't see it nor any other item that might suggest someone had in fact knocked on the front door during that storm.

As the years have passed, the shock and confusion I felt upon that unexpected discovery has long since faded. What remains is more a wore out memory of a memory much like an office form that has been photocopied to the point the wording has blurred past the point of usability. Still though, I do remember standing and on the front porch looking down at the mysterious shoe filled with the dread and certainty only children can know that something weird in fact had occurred the previous night.

I decided against telling my grandfather about the shoe on the front porch. He would probably just dismiss it as something one of the neighbors' dogs just left behind during its wanderings. While the people who inhabit subdivisions these days come close to declaring martial law if the dogs of one of the residents gets loose, back then there were several canines that had the run of my grandparents' neighborhood. One of these dogs, a huge, friendly black lab, fittingly named Bear, made a point of greeting every person he came across during his daily journeys.

You might be wondering if there were any strange reports from the other neighbors? No, the people that lived on that street were quite close and communicated on a regular basis. If someone had been running through the neighborhood during a severe thunderstorm knocking on doors looking for help it's a certainty that it would have been mentioned in conversation. The one small detail I am left with is where did that damn shoe come from? While dogs did wander the neighborhood looking for both attention and the occasional snack, they never before that night or after leave items on anyone's front porch.

Besides dwelling on idiotic childhood memories what keep bring me back to this event was that years later a few other bizarre events did take place that sort of make mine seem possible. The first being the time two teenagers decided to play chicken with their cars down the street in front of my grandparents' house. I was away that night but when I returned home the wreckage was cleaned up and no one wanted to talk about the event, not even my grandfather after he told me the story. The second time was a several years later when word got out that one of the teenage girls living several houses down surprised everyone, including her parents, by “suddenly” giving birth to a baby inside her closet. After returning home from the army in 1990 I remember seeing this same girl obviously living with her parents but no small child. While I had once known that family, they weren't the friendliest bunch by that time so I ultimately had to assume the child was given up for adoption.

The final strange event though is the one that takes the proverbial cake. Technically these weren't neighbors since they lived a couple of streets down from my grandparents but word got around that two couples who were best friends had a falling out while having dinner at one of their homes. Turns out one of the couples was either into swinging or wanted to try it and felt the other couple were the perfect partners. Well, after revealing this information the husband of the more straitlaced couple he threw the other out of the living room window. That time people talked so much about the event that both couples found reason to quickly move out of the neighborhood.

Being older and wiser, I'm certain that the knocking at the front door was just a dream, but honestly given the things that happened later there are times I wonder.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Random Existential Weekend Thoughts




First, the more pleasant and intriguing question:

There are two great existential questions facing the human race. Given how humans, even in wealthy countries, are faced with challenges and demands that require our attention daily these questions are rather abstract in nature. Still though, it would be wise to not totally ignore them since the answers ultimately connect to the fate of our children and to our hopes and fears.

The first question is simply whether or not there is any other intelligent life in the universe. On the surface this question looks pretty uncomplicated, either we Homo sapiens shares existence with other species inhabiting other worlds or somehow we are utterly alone in a universe that spans billions of lightyears. Like I said, while there are only two possibilities, the implications for either answer are staggering. To learn that an alien species on some faraway world has evolved enough to become self aware and build a civilization that at least equals our own would truly be the final blow to Humanity's longtime deluded view that we are somehow special.

On the other hand, to learn that the human race is alone in the universe raises difficult questions that might actually be more troublesome than having some intrepid aliens explorers enter Earth orbit and say “hello” by radio. We're not just talking about the idea that God created the universe for us hairless primates but the possibility that our very existence is nothing but an elaborate computer simulation that our erstwhile creator/programmer developed for either fun or an experiment. Think I'm joking? There are serious scientists and esteemed philosophers that have crunched the numbers and feel the probability is quite high.

The basic laws of physics makes it unlikely we will learn whether or not we share universe with another intelligent species in our lifetime. The distances between stars so stretches out and weakens radio signals even if we were relatively close to another species that shares our desire for communication the resources needed and the engineering skills required might be more than they can readily spend. While there are several private groups and government agencies across the planet searching for alien radio signals, it wouldn't be wrong to suggest our efforts are at best piecemeal.

Then again, since any alien species near enough to communicate would almost certainly be far more advanced that us, there is a real question as to whether we would be any interest to them. Chimpanzees are remarkable creatures but you would not try to talk to them about genetics, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, or even something as mundane as literature. I'm in no way saying searching for radio signals from an extraterrestrial civilization is a mistake or a waste of time and money. Discounting the private groups who fund their own projects, the money spent by governments wouldn't pay for a day's worth of electricity to run the air conditioners for the Pentagon.

Any anger generated by the idea that the United States government has spent money searching for Little Green Men should instead be redirected at far larger targets that cost billions and caused the death of thousands. While my opinion of George W. Bush has turned around considerably since the election of Trump, my favorite boondoggle is still the trillion or so he spent to find Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Searching for others in the cosmos speaks to the best side of human nature. Something inside our genes wants to understand how the universe works and seeking out others is just one facet of that desire. While the chances of finding others during our lifetime are small, the rewards would be incalculable for our species.

Now on a darker note:

Getting back on point, the second existential question has more to do with the dark side of human nature. The second question we must face is what in our nature makes us come to crave war, even when a possible threat is manageable. While many of our species has created great works of art and literature and strove to remove the shackles of superstition and ignorance by pushing the boundaries of science and reason, the vast majority seemed locked into never ending cycles of violence and incessant warfare. This is in no way a question of the right of a people to defend themselves from aggressors. As I have stated before, while I am a tree hugging, bleeding heart liberal of the highest order who believes in social justice and that living in peace with others is the only way to ensure the safety and future of our children; I pretty much detest my political comrades who are pacifists.

While the idea that terrorists “hate us for our freedoms” is a vile piece of narrow, self-aggrandizing propaganda, there are individuals and groups who quite literally want to see the world burn. These people need to die in the same way a rabid animal needs to be put down before it causes harm to others. Of course, the devil in the details comes when you have to determine just who is a short, plumped up blowhard wanting to shore his prestige in the tiny totalitarian hermit kingdom he controls and who might be an imminent threat. Another important item to consider before launching a “preventive war” is whether or not the death of possibly millions is worth the cost to remove a manageable threat.

As you might be able to guess, I am not so delicately alluding to Trump's provocations towards North Korea. Yes, the bizarre little troglodyte running that country is a danger, his development of nuclear weapons and missiles is deeply troubling and should be monitored with exacting precision. Our response to any aggression he and his generals might attempt should be so overwhelming that the abused and tormented souls under his control would rise up. This begs the question as to whether it would just be best to go in and put the North Korean regime down like the rabid dog I mentioned earlier.

The problem with that idea is namely the fifty million South Koreans and the nearly one hundred-thirty million Japanese that live dangerous close to the little delusional twit, Kim Jong-Um. They would bear the brunt of any preventive war whose declared purpose would be just another in a long line of tired slogans. Ignoring North Korea's supply of nuclear weapons, that country has plenty of chemical and biological weapons that would cut through its densely packed neighbors like a hot knife in butter. Frankly, my conscious shutters at the idea of another war where millions of people could die horrible deaths because some American non-serving talking head or chickenhawk politician says we should fight them over there before they can reach us. That philosophy worked so well for the Iraqis.

My intention here is not to get bogged down with my admitted disgust with Trump. But his blatant ignorance on matters of national security and foreign affairs should have eliminated him from political contention before the primaries even started. His recent ham-fisted cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield only to have it return to full operation the next day is just as big a joke as him claiming going bankrupt multiple times shows his business brilliance. Having a fully armed aircraft carrier battle group steaming towards North Korea while spouting verbal offal about solving that problem on our own if need be just so Trump can feel powerful is asking for the deaths of a lot of innocent civilians.

The curious thing is that Trump's saber rattling and talk of taking manly action for glory is not an isolated occurrence. Human history is replete with warmongering idiots coming to power and then leading their nations to disaster. The question of whats worse between a people who fall for such speeches about the glory of war or the those leaders who give them is debatable. It's almost as if populations occasionally go insane and forget that war means brutal death for some and lifelong mental and physical injuries for many others.

I can't help but ponder the dichotomy between the United States after World War Two and the one that exists now. After both Germany and Japan was defeated rational leaders in the Allied nations realized that the Soviet Union had replaced the Axis Powers as a threat, this lead to the establishment of collective security arrangements whose best example is the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) charged with protecting the democracies of Europe. No, it wasn't a perfect solution but it is the big part of the reason we didn't have another world war. Every elected leader from both North America and Europe knew this and worked hard to prevent both idealistic leftist fools and right-wing nationalists from cutting their own throats in a bid to promote an workable warm and fuzzy Utopian peace or protecting a deluded view of sovereignty.

Without question many in the United States now have the idea that because we carry the biggest and baddest sticks that we should use them on a regular basis without regard to morals or existing international agreements. The funny thing is that exact mindset was the same one Germany held during World War One when it went into Belgium killing civilians which helped push the United States towards the Allied cause. In many quarters, especially Trump's branch of the Republican party, collective security is viewed suspiciously even though it has kept the peace. What bothers me the most is that the vast majority of these misguided people will be the ones sending their sons and daughters to die to reestablish a workable global security arrangement if the power vacuum we created causes another war among major powers. At least Trump recently changed his mind and said NATO wasn't obsolete, although I believe he made that statement for more cynical reasons instead of coming to some sort of realization about the true nature of the world.

Without question, war in most cases is a racket perpetrated by the rich and powerful on the poor fools who do most of the dying. Let me restate, that the right to self defense is fundamental but going to war should always be the absolute last choice since innocent people always pay the price for our failure to find a peaceful way to solve the issues we face. It doesn't say much for our species that despite several thousand years of organized warfare knowing it causes more issues than it solves that so many can at times still crave, if not demand, we line up and kill each other over the stupidest of causes.

As far as existential questions go, I'd much rather contemplate what kind of galactic neighbors might be near us. But unfortunately, the nightly news has far more stories on the whack jobs that hold the reins of power and influence on this troubled planet. So much that I often find myself wishing a starship of intrepid alien explorers would stumble upon our world and demand we get our act together or face the consequences of being stupid idiots. I can only hope that we would listen to them.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Wandering Toes: An all too Brief Escape



Broke away from the house yesterday and made an all too brief escape to my nearest happy place. The Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park and Pier truly meets all my criteria as a location to recharge my mental batteries. While family and homeowner obligations are the main reason I can't escape the suburban hellhole where I live on a more routine basis, quite frankly the drive down from Columbia on I-26 is often a pain in the ass. When I-26 was built I believe the traffic volume was smaller than what is normal today and because of the increased load both the east and west segments can become easily clogged by the slightest accident or a few bad drivers. Several times over the years trips down to the Charleston area, or going back home, were ruined by Interstate traffic jam delays than stretched the normal ninety minute to two hour trip to a three or four hour feat of endurance.    

As I sat on one of the park's benches sipping my coffee and pondering the fate of the universe this curious looking ship cruised by heading for the nearby docks. While the decks are clearly loaded down, I had to assume the containers on the front end were empty since the bow was riding so high in the water. What puzzled me was that the stern was riding so low giving me the impression that the white containers might be full. I know next to nothing about freighters but to me it made the ship look unstable.     

One of the more sad accomplishments of Facebook was that it has publicized the existence of people who believe in the "chem-trail conspiracy" involving the spraying of nefarious chemicals on an unsuspecting public for experimentation or even mind control. Ignoring the utter paranoid insanity of the basic premise for a moment, the logistics of producing these chemicals, then the transport, and deployment aboard thousands of aircraft made to look like passenger planes makes the UFO, MIB, Illuminati, and Bigfoot people seem within the realm of reason. Whatever the case, if there were any Chem-trail people in Charleston yesterday morning they would have been running for cover because the beautiful blue sky was being constantly cross-crossed by jets producing these neat trails caused by the heat of their engines making the atmospheric water vapor condense.       

Wanted to hit a pub on nearby Sullivan's Island but the tourist hordes had already overrun the place to the point it wasn't worth the effort. Instead I cruised down to Fort Moultrie where a bunch of A-hole Citadel cadets started the Civil War back in 1861. I've never bought the propaganda that the Civil War was about "states rights", tariffs, or opposing the tyranny of the Federal government. Boil away all the crap and it was about rich white people whose fortunes were built and maintained by the fact they kept other human being in bondage.     

Correct me if I'm wrong but the lighthouse in the distance is the Morris Island lighthouse situated on the south end of entrance to Charleston Harbor. Despite my distaste of many thing associated with South Carolina, namely its ignorance and stunted politics, there are a number of interesting places I would love to visit, that lighthouse being one.  Since the local pubs and bars were all too busy I made a quick stop by a fast food joint for lunch and hit the road for home.Thankfully, except for one minor accident that slowed me down three or four minutes my drive back to Columbia was just as quick as the one going down. It was made even better by the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts I downloaded onto my MP3 player. It's a science show that make its easy to keep up with all the advances we are seeing on a daily basis. It's early Sunday morning now and as I tried to type in my usual substandard drivel, I've had to make stops to clean up cat puke, give a diabetic dog his shot after handing feeding him, and prep the recently installed carpet for cleaning after discovering a huge pee spot that had literally soaked a five-inch in diameter section. There is no way in hell my wife would let me make another run down to Charleston next weekend so I'll have to settle for watching my Blu-Ray copy of Rogue One when it arrives.   

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Tearing it Down Piece by Piece




Before anyone starts freaking out and thinking I'm being a sanctimonious douchebag, I readily admit all politicians are often guilty of blatant hypocrisy. The only ready defense I have to offer is that the very nature of politics and events outside of government sometimes makes it unavoidable that people make choices that run counter to their declared principles. The problem though is when these choices are made to ram through narrow agendas that while preserving power for one group destroy the very foundation of American democracy.

Yes folks, contrary to all those idiots running around saying compromise is a betrayal to godly inspired principles, the world is far from a black and white situation. In a better world with a more rational electorate and honest politicians, each situation would be weighed and debated among elected leaders who could balance the needs of their constituents and political party with the greater good of the entire nation. My personal beliefs as of right now has me running fairly heavily in the liberal, slightly socialistic-inclined progressive of the American political spectrum but I realize absolutely no one ideology has all the answers. Any ideological group that claims to have all the answers are either fools or liars and the people that believe such crap are morons that shouldn't be allowed to vote.

It speaks volumes that the Founding Fathers of the United States Constitution established a framework for which debate and eventual compromise prevented the majority party from running roughshod over the minority party in Congress. Since the devil is always in the details, this wise precaution has also allowed a highly partisan minority party to stop legislation and judicial appointments dead in their tracks. Unfortunately, this is the train wreck we find ourselves now and I fear things are only going to get worse.

Depending on a person's politics the blame for this Congressional dysfunction will obviously go to the other party, But in truth, there is enough blame for this partisan bullshit for everyone to have a nice heaping share. Personally, I say it started back in the 1980's when Republicans began picking judges who were more ideological than practical. Of course, Republicans will counter that the Democrats started this ever escalating war with all the crazed liberals they started appointing to the benches in the 1960's and 1970's. For the Republicans the United States Constitution is something carved in metaphorical stone while for us Democrats it is a living document that must change with the times. Quite simply, from my point of view the United States of 2017 only bares the most superficial relation to the one that existed when the Constitution was first enacted. Such a huge difference in my viewpoint made the sixty senate vote majority for approving judges so important in crafting compromise.

Yes, the Democrats removed the sixty vote rule for judgeships below the Supreme Court when Republicans absolutely refused to fill the numerous vacant seats during the Obama Administration. But now it is as certain as bears taking huge dumps in the woods that the Mitch McConnell will lead the Republicans to end the sixty vote rule for Supreme Court justices so they can ram through Trump's pick for the empty seat. This after McConnell refused to consider the guy Obama nominated when the seat become open after the A-hole Scalia died.

It is true that the road to hell is paved with good intention and it is made even wider by those who rationalize choices made for strictly blatant political purposes. This slow but deliberate wrecking of the Constitution to secure a certain political viewpoint is a dangerous habit that eats away at the very premise of the United States. Like I said before, all politicians are hypocrites to a certain degree but there is an old saying about those who sow the wind will eventually reap the whirlwind. The Republican nominee up for the empty seat on the Supremes will be be approved this week. I just wonder how the Republicans will whine when they are in the minority and the Democrats ram through their own pick by a simple majority vote. It's no wonder that Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. To me this just proves that craven politicians and the idiots that vote for them are the true enemies to democratic self-government. 

 Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) indicated Tuesday that he believes he has the votes to invoke the so-called nuclear option and eliminate the filibuster on Supreme Court justices, while also committing not to seek to dismantle the legislative filibuster.The Senate is heading toward a showdown later this week over the confirmation of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, whom Democrats have vowed to filibuster. Up until McConnell’s direct confirmation Tuesday that he had the 50 votes required—with Vice President Pence as a tiebreaker—to change the rules around Supreme Court confirmations, GOP leaders avoided answering the question directly and preferred to say that they had the votes to confirm Gorsuch when asked about the GOP whip count for the nuclear option.