Sunday, August 29, 2010

A Little Needed Perspective

It is so damn easy for people to get tied up in their own little worlds, consumed by the daily grind that we all too easily forget that we are just a tiny part in a much larger and complicated world. The belief that our own little trials and tribulations are the summation of existence is pervasive these days making it important that something come around and knock us back into place. Call it God, Karma, or just the universe giving a much needed attitude adjustment this is how I received my most recent wake up call.

This summer has not been one for the books in a good way, from the moment the kids were out of school it has literally been one cluster frak after the other. Many times during the all too common hot and humid mornings I would arrive home with just enough time to load my kids up in the car and haul butt to whatever destination they needed to be at that morning. Even with the cool air from the air conditioner blowing at full power my work clothes often felt sticky and uncomfortable with my skin crawling underneath. The loud and conflicting voices of a teenage boy and young girl each demanding some action on my part did nothing to make my mood much better. Throw in a couple of friends, add some obnoxious music, and I would be lying if I said the thought didn't cross my mind a couple of times about dumping them out on the side of some deserted road.

Work has not helped, my nights are often placid and even lonely affairs at times but lately it's been one thing after the other and with a new parts ordering system I have been playing the diplomat to angry night time doctors and nurses upset that some surgical table or sterilizer is still not fixed. It all came to a head for me this week having to jump to day shift to cover for my two team mates who are both on vacation. Even with the kids back in school my dad taxi and errand boy duties have not decreased and with me now working strange day time hours I find myself falling further behind. Needless to say I have been pissing vinegar and manufacturing an excess of self pity this week, that is until I was leaving work Tuesday afternoon.

The crowd was doing its usual mad rush with each and every soul intent on being the first out the door. As I walked in the middle of everyone my thoughts were consumed with getting my daughter to her gymnastics practice, stopping by the grocery store, and wondering if my son would want a ride someplace the minute I finally got home. It might seem ridiculous but right as I was about to pass a set of huge sliding glass doors I noticed one of my shoes was untied and moved out of the way so I could tie it again.

The crowd I was part of passed on by leaving the hallway mostly clear for the moment, it was then that on the other side of the sliding doors I saw a seriously old van pull up. At best it was an early 80's Dodge model and had clearly saw its best days a long time ago. Even through the sliding glass doors had yet to open I could hear the troubled engine and see black smoke coming from the tailpipe. My first thought when I saw it was that I hoped the owner would not shut it off because I figured it would probably be very difficult to restart.

On the other side of the hallway and parallel to the sliding glass doors leading outside is a similar set that is one of the main entrances to the hospital I work at and just as the old van pulled up outside those doors slide apart with a nurse pushing a wheelchair with a very thin and bald teenage boy in it.

This teenage boy looked about the same age as my son but instead of the full and tan face that my son has his was pale and skeletal thin. This child's head was slumped over and while his body was a match for his face his eyes were alert and catching everything around him. A haggard and tired looking man, I will assume was his father, jumped out of the van and quickly walked through the first set of doors to his son. Something was said between the two I missed but the boy smiled and with a gentleness all too uncommon in "normal" life the father picked his son up and carried him outside to the van with the nurse following close behind to open the passenger door. After a couple of bags were loaded up the van, which was never shut off, belched some black smoke as it jerked back into motion and was drove away.

You see a lot of things working at a hospital, most I will never write about for various reasons, but I honestly appreciate those short but revealing glimpses into the lives of others that remind me how damn fortunate I have it at this moment. Needless to say my whining about having to driving my kids around will be muted for a good long while.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Man's Best Friend

The sound of items crashing to the floor woke Michael from a deep alcohol induced sleep. Looking around his apartment a small kernel of panic developed when he saw that the top of his nightstand was cleaned off with his alarm clock, several books, and the television remote scattered about the floor.

However his concern centered on the box containing the engagement ring he was suppose to give to his girlfriend, Lisa, later that morning. It was nowhere to be seen, amongst the items forcing him to quickly jump out of bed and crawl around the floor looking for it. While Michael was under his bed looking for the ring box he looked back and saw his Black Labrador Retriever, Murphy, lying on top of his briefcase with a very strange look on his face.

“Murphy,” Michael said looking at the dog, “you didn’t eat the ring box did you?”

“No,” the dog replied in English which astounded Michael. “But we have far greater concerns, my cover has been blown and you’re going to have to skip work today since I have to leave the planet.”

Still suffering the effects of yesterday’s small party with his buddies Michael reared up abruptly in surprise from his talking dog, smacking his head on the bottom of his headboard. Stars blinked about his field of vision as he felt a trickle of warm blood run down the side of his head. Not feeling quite in touch with reality Michael forgot about the ring and just laid on the floor.

“Dammit,” the dog said, “We don’t have time for this; my life is one the line here.” Murphy stood up and grabbed a chunk of Michael’s sweatpants with his mouth, pulling his owner from underneath the bed. “I swear to Dog in heaven if you don’t get a hold of yourself right now I will pee on your face.”

“Murphy old buddy,” Michael said smiling to himself while lying on the floor, “I must have had a great time last night because I swear to god I’m dreaming that you are talking to me.”

“Sit up!” Murphy barked with his owner astonished in his dog’s tone of authority and the fact that he sat up and froze in place. “Let’s get one thing clear dumbass; you think you have been writing all that cutting edge programming code? Well, you may be the one keying it in like a good monkey but it’s me that’s been feeding you the actual data. Now get dressed and I will fill you in on the life you thought you were living.

Able to move again but under some form of control Michael jumped up and began walking toward his closet fishing out a pair of jeans, polo shirt, and sneakers. Murphy followed and began giving details how it was Michael who was the pet while he was the intelligent owner.

Murphy explained that it all started 150 thousand years ago when his kind discovered Earth and the newly emergent Homo sapiens. Those ancient starfaring canines took pity on the barely sentient primates which looked like creatures they kept as pets on the home world. They conceived a plan to infiltrate human settlements and began to both raise human awareness and teach them neat tricks.

“Just how intelligent are we humans?” Michael asked while putting on his shirt.

“You remember ‘Forrest Gump’; well to us the best of you monkeys are under him.”

Murphy went on saying that it wasn’t only humans with stupid politicians. Certain conservative segments, called Pugicans on the home world thought raising human awareness was against the Great Dog in heaven’s plan and had been actively sabotaging efforts. Inside Michael’s briefcase was the final segment of a program that was to be released onto the internet and after it had invaded most computers would over the course of a few decades raise humanity to true sentience. Pugicans agents were looking to kill Murphy and use the obedience chip in Michael’s head to make him load a different program onto the internet that would have the opposite effect of Murphy’s.

“I have an obedience chip in me? And why does your species want to help us?” Michael asked feeling sick to his stomach.

“The chip has been standard procedure for centuries and we are helping you because we think you’re cute and for your opposable thumbs, telepathy can only do so much.” The dog said irritated with the passing time.

Murphy had to look normal in public and they walked away from the apartment building with the alien dog on a leash and Michael carrying his briefcase. They had to cross town quickly to rendezvous with Murphy’s starship and avoid Pugican agents looking for them. Their luck ran out next a tea shop where a party was spilling out into the streets. A blonde, long haired Russian Hound, backed up by a German shepherd and Doberman, appeared and soon surrounded them.

“Well Boulter you bitch, we meet again. I see you’re still working for your Pugican master Lush, has he ever gotten over his drug issues?” Murphy snarled.

The skinny blonde dog snickered. “Yes, and I see you still have some sick infatuation with the monkeys. Give me up the uplift program and I may let you smell my butt.”

“Not in a billion years you emaciated skank. Okay Bannity and Heck, let’s dance you pussies.” Murphy said as he and the two Pugican henchdogs began to circle each other.

“Quick Michael, open the briefcase and pull out the ring box and open it.” Murphy said as the overweight shepherd, Heck, lunged toward him.

Doing as he was told Michael pulled out the ring box and opened it, the diamond ring began to glow, emitting a shell of light that engulfed the four dogs and lone human. The effects from the ring were immediate, the blonde hound felt suddenly fat and ran off to puke; Heck felt a strong urge to cry and fell down weeping; the Doberman, Bannity, normally an outright coward became convinced someone was coming with a bucket of water and a board causing him to run away.

With their adversaries incapacitated Murphy and Michael ran for their lives.However they weren’t in the clear yet, a squadron of pigeons, allied with the Pugicans, appeared overhead and began diving bombing them with acid poop. Only the timely arrival of Murphy’s allies, the eagles Jon and Stephen, scared the feathered rats away saving them from a gooey death.

The starship, shaped like the Oscar Meyer wiener mobile, was waiting for Murphy next an abandoned baseball stadium. Both the alien dog and human had been together for years and were sad that their time was ending.

“Up about the uplift program?” Michael asked after finding out Murphy was taking it with him.

“The Pugicans will be on alert for any insertion onto the internet, I’m afraid it will have to wait a few years.”

Still not really believing all this Michael’s confusion turned to concern. “What about Lisa and me, will we be safe? Won’t the Pugicans try to capture me?”

“Not really,” Murphy said, “they only really wanted me but the safety device I inserted in the ring will protect both of you. Anyway another canine agent will be assigned to you quickly, if fact Michael I’m supposed to wipe your mind so you will forget everything but…”

Michael sat bolt upright in bed looking around his bedroom feeling like something was very wrong. But he was in his sweatpants, the engagement ring was on his nightstand, and Murphy was sleeping on his dog pillow in the corner, everything looked okay.

“Thank God it was a dream!” he said to himself with Murphy looking at him like he was crazy.

“Murphy, you wouldn’t believe the dream I just had, you were a talking alien dog with evil enemy dogs out to kill you and enslave humanity. I feel so tired, I’d better go back to sleep.” He finished laying his head back on the pillow

“Just don’t be late with the dog food dickhead, and the name is Rusty.” Michael heard from the corner, figuring it was for the best he ignored the talking dog.
Also, the concept of "uplift" is something thought up by Dr. David Brin, had to borrow the word for my silly collection of words.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Night In Medical Purgatory

A true story of medical misdiagnoses, hated purple dinosaurs, and waiting.

It started out a typical Saturday like any other during the summer of 1998 with Dragonwife and me working in the yard and a very young Darth Spoilboy in his playpen inside the house being entertained by Barney the dinosaur on television. Despite my intense dislike of suburban yard work and anything connected with it, I felt myself on the plus side of the situation that day since Spoilboy had recently become enamored with the loveable dinosaur. While Barney was a great babysitter it had me contemplating very antisocial behavior whenever the purple thing appeared, talked or sang.

The motivation for yard work evaporated about the same time Spoilboy’s interest in his electronic babysitter with my wife and I coming back inside. After we cleaned up and put a more adult friendly kid’s movie in the VCR for Spoilboy a nap was in order that ended in the early evening with the question of what we would do for dinner the first thing we talked about.

After some discussion, I was sent out to a greasy local restaurant we would frequent to pick up dinner since neither of us wanted to cook or get cleaned up enough to go out for a sit down meal. I was okay with the decision even after having to wait around an extra twenty minutes because our order was misplaced. It was while I was waiting I just happened to notice the new health inspection sticker on the door, which said that establishment had failed in some way to satisfy state standards. Before I could ask the manager, which I also realized was very new, my order appeared and I merrily went on my way back home.

Once I walked back into the house the three of us quickly settled down in front of the television with our evening meals. With my wife and child already tearing into the Styrofoam containers that held their food I slipped a tape into the VCR with the room soon filled with the sounds of pounding music and gunfire with the action hero sending scores of bad guys to their demise while making snarky comments. By all accounts it looked to be a normal and quiet Saturday night, hell I even pondered the possibility I could get laid that night.

All my expectations ended ten minutes into the movie with the action hero in the middle of some sort of witty dialog with his beautiful brunette costar whose big boobs took up most of the screen while several bad guys stealthily approached his location. It was then my wife let out a long groan and tossed her Swiss cheese patty melt back into its container; my first thought looking over at her was that she just didn’t like the movie.

“I don’t feel good,” she said looking at me while pressing down on her lower right abdomen.

Right from the start I believe our three year-old son nibbling on chicken strips, the action hero on the television again dodging bullets while making snarky comments, and even me going all carnivore on a hamburger could have guessed correctly that my wife’s appendix decided at that moment to go rogue. Although, the less than stellar health inspection of the restaurant and possible food poisoning did cross my mind for a couple of seconds.

There was no sudden panic or rush to quick action, we just kept our places with my wife guessing it was an upset stomach but the sandwich she had so desired earlier was now abandoned. At first all she did was to lie down on the couch in the hopes of letting the discomfort pass. It was a sudden spasm in my wife’s affected area about an hour later that finally pushed us to load up in the car and head to the nearest emergency room.

Arriving at the Emergency Room entrance it was then my turn to let out a long groan seeing the jammed packed waiting area. While I am not Catholic, I am familiar with the concept of Purgatory as a dreary place where souls who didn’t cut the heavenly muster have to suffer awaiting entrance to the other side of the pearly gates as the saints and others on the preferred list get express lane service and the emergency room that night met that description. Nearly every chair was occupied with some poor individual either waiting for medical attention of keeping someone company who was.

After signing Dragonwife in at the front desk then a few minutes later having her report to triage where she received a brief examination by a bored nurse all three of us settled in on the far side of the waiting area next the television playing a continuous loop of children’s programming. Spoilboy, who was young enough to see this as a grand adventure, settled on the floor next other children watching the ultimate odd couple, Bert and Ernie, fuss over some damn rubber duck. At least, I thought at that moment it wasn’t the purple dinosaur. Dragonwife, whose abdominal pain had almost gone away, brought a collection of magazines and quickly fell into her own world of decorating and gourmet meals. I on the other hand had nothing to read and started to observe our fellow denizens in medical limbo.

Immediately I noticed some guy dressed in a wrinkled but expensive suit painfully walking around showing distinct signs of suffering from kidney stones. The key to my untrained diagnoses was him walking into the restroom on our end of the waiting area and letting out a blood-curdling scream. Truthfully, I also considered the possibility that the guy could have gonorrhea, not that I have any experience with that illness and any evidence to the contrary is locked up at an army medical records depot. I had no idea that my small attempt humor running through my head right then would come back to haunt me later.

Sitting close to us was a Billy Ray Cyrus clone with an amateur looking bandage around his right forearm dripping blood. The guy looked to be a certified redneck complete with authentic mullet, sleeveless t-shirt and ripped blue jeans but turned out to be friendly and eager for someone to talk with. I wasn’t surprised to learn he did play in country band and received his injury when someone threw a broken beer bottle at him while he was playing. However I was surprised to learn that the Billy Ray-clone was a Duke graduate with a double major in computer science and mathematics. Amazed to hear this he told me that had forsaken computers since they bored him silly but after having sat in the emergency room for several hours he had used his mathematical skills to figure out how long it took someone to see a doctor. Both Dragonwife and I winced when the Billy Ray-clone told us we should leave the hospital just about the right time to have breakfast and after that like magic his own name was called and he was guided to the back by a very attentive and attractive nurse.

Since the hospital placed a bright orange wristband around actual patients I was able to figure out that of the people looking for medical attention about half were showing visible signs of discomfort or actual injury, even Dragonwife was getting worse again. The other half seemed fine going as far to be laughing and joking, almost to the point of having a party-like atmosphere enjoying the endless supply of apple juice provided by the hospital. Not wanting to delve any deeper I settled in for the long wait watching the kid’s television shows with my son and the other nearby children thanking God that at least Barney had not showed up, of course the very next show began with, “I love you, you love me, we are a happy…” The resulting seizure that hit me was thankfully mild.


While the emergency room waiting area looked like Purgatory as we entered the extended series of Barney shows that went on for hours turning the place for me into a lower level of Hell. It got so bad that I actually began reading one of Dragonwife’s decorating magazines’. But time did pass and we eventually gained access to the inner sanctum where it was hoped a doctor would actually show up. Escorted to an exam room it had several huge advantages, the first being a stretcher allowing Dragonwife to lay down since the pain was fairly constant now, a television for Spoilboy who was still awake but could now watch something other than Barney, which pretty covered me as well. Looking at my watch seeing that it was a little after 3:30am my biggest hope was that the doctor would bless us with his appearance soon.

It was another hour or so before the big bear of a doctor stormed into the exam room accompanied by a tired nurse. Close-cropped red hair juxtaposed with a long red beard the doctor mumbled his name then went about groping my wife around her stomach, he ordered an X-ray apparently talking to the nurse, and then stormed back out. The nurse wrote down his instructions then smiling briefly at us and walked out herself. To say I was underwhelmed would be an understatement but I figured the guy was busy and that he would be more personable once he could look at the X-ray. He did, but not in the way I would have guessed in a million years.

When the doctor returned he only breezed in this time reading some printout while holding the X-ray of Dragonwife affected area. The nurse returned as well giving me some hateful stare that would have chilled my blood had I not been physically tired as well as mentally numb from waiting.

Looking up from the printout without preamble the doctor gave my wife her diagnoses. “From the X-ray you appear to have a uterine infection caused by a sexual transmitted disease. I am going to refer you to the hospital your gynecologist works out of.” With that he and the nurse walked out with the nurse’s evil glare at me fading away like the Cheshire cat’s smile.

We out processed at near warp speed compared to the rest of our Purgatory-like experience and drove away heading toward the referred hospital. Both Dragonwife and I were very quiet while Spoilboy had finally faded off to sleep. Frankly I was floored, puzzled, and overwhelmed but figured there had to be some other explanation but I had to ask the question going through my head.

“IS THERE SOMETHING YOU NEED TO TELL ME?” Both Dragonwife and I blurted out at the same time, telling me the same question was floating around her head. Our discussion after that was quiet but stunted since neither one of us wanted to worry Spoilboy. After a few minutes we both fell silent.

Dragonwife’s pain was increasing as we walked into the hospital located in the middle of Columbia with two old and very experienced nurses quickly laying her on a stretcher then pushing her into an exam room without waiting. Inside the exam room the nurses looked over Dragonwife going as far as to feel around the lower abdominal area.

“Honey, you got the most inflamed appendix I have seen in twenty-two years.” One nurse said moving to setup and IV into Dragonwife’s arm.

“But the doctor said it was a uterine infection,” Dragonwife said fighting off another wave of pain.

“Child, who told you that foolishness?” the IV nurse asked with a deep southern drawl.
When Dragonwife told her the doctor’s name both the nurse setting up the IV and the other writing up a report burst out laughing.

“Oh, that fool, honey I wouldn’t let that man put a band-aid on my big toe.” After that everything got better, except for Dragonwife who was in surgery two hours later having her appendix removed. Moreover, as the Billy Ray-clone and math wizard said much earlier Spoilboy and I left the hospital in time to have breakfast at a pancake house before we went back home to collect Dragonwife’s basic toiletries. It should be common sense but if anyone is wondering we have never gone back to the red headed doctor’s hospital.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hustlers and the Idiot Swarm

A Carolina Parrothead Review
Like some portent of coming revelations, former senator Fred Thompson popped up on National Public Radio for an interview last Saturday morning a few hours before Reverend Manny’s book “Hustlers and the Idiot Swarm” arrived at my house. The “good” senator from the unquestionably great state of Tennessee was being asked about a political commercial he has been appearing in recently challenging the wisdom of letting the Bush tax cuts expire in the light of a sluggish economy.

I have seen the commercial and on it Fred’s husky voice tinged with a strong dose of down home country flavor easily brings back memories of elderly men gathering around an old roll-top soda cooler in a roadside general store talking politics, the weather, and crazy wives. It’s easy to imagine Fred as some grizzled county judge for whom the assembled gentleman look to for guidance on complicated matters such as when to plant the next corn crop or if it was going to be an early fall.

In the commercial Fred, using that voice and looking all official, appears to be in some office complete with desk and decorative American flag explaining to us how Bush’s tax cuts jump started the economy during the 2001-2002 recession. The gigantic and glaring omissions Mr. Law and Order left out was that Bush inherited a sizable federal surplus from that nasty Bill Clinton fella and that Bush’s following budgets doubled the national debt on their own long before Mr. Obama darken the hallways of Congress much to the chagrin of conservatives.

As I was running my early Saturday morning errands and listening to NPR the hackneyed actor and failed presidential candidate was asked to delve deeper into why the sky would fall if Bush’s tax cuts were not extended. My mind spun off into a fourth spatial dimension as Fred talked about how the federal deficit was an evil creature out to cook young children over an open fire then consume their tender flesh. But then, spinning neatly around began making the point that Bush’s tax cuts were needed so the richest one to two percent of the country would feel safe to invest their money and single handedly save us all from ruin. After all, he said, they do the big investing and take the biggest risks implying they should garner the biggest rewards.

Now this was not some puffball piece and the NPR guy got after Fred asking, well if you can’t cut the deficit by increasing taxes what would you do Mr. Bigshot?

Fred clearly drew on all his reserves of down home charm by saying in a nice way that cutting expected Social Security payments and raising the retirement age would be a big thing as well as cutting Medicare. In short, the working class would have to suck it up and take the hit for the country while the rich worked their financial magic. Being that my 401k, a major element of any possible retirement, was a tiny part of the two-trillion implosion of the stock and bond markets as financial wizards played their games Social Security increased its importance to me in my diminishing hope of living out my golden years fishing on some beach. To have the good senator essentially say I was shit out of luck and could not dependably plan on Social Security while his buddies toughed it out on their yachts and summer homes in the south of France about made my head explode.

That brings us to Reverend Manny and his book which explains how the working class keeps getting the shaft all through history while the rich swear up and down they are doing us a favor. In the first few pages of the book Manny asks,”All I’m asking is, does it seem like we are getting a fair shake for our sacrifices?” (page 7)

Given the pretentious rant I have already offered in this post I would easily and with enthusiasm say hell no! It’s not just retirement accounts, it’s the working and middle class being offered up as sacrificial lambs on the ornate alter of capitalism with business types worshipping profit above all else. We are talked down to like little children as smiling business people explain that sending the good paying jobs overseas allows consumers a greater variety of cheap products made in slave labor conditions. It’s those same cheap products that come back to haunt us when they poison our children because they are contaminated with toxic chemicals and covered in lead based paint.

Manny then asks another question, “Why do so few people in America organize for better systems?” (page 7)

He points out that the wealthy and powerful folks market their political ideas to us through religious figures, politicians, fake news broadcasts, corporate sponsored think tanks full of fake academics, and several other propagandistic avenues that ultimately turn a democratic system against itself. I’d have to throw in as well a healthy dose of basic and willful ignorance along with a large segment of simply not giving a damn, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Which brings me to: “In America, a great bulk of the political population has become little more than a reactive paranoid swarm, under the rhetorical, cultural, and political control of a few ideological strongmen.” (page 12)

Well, guess what group of little shits with delusions of godhood he is talking about and don’t limit yourself to just males. There are more than a couple of whacked out females who make a living spreading the corporate sponsored manure.

One of my favorite parts was how Manny took apart the classical American Dream, one being the Horatio Alger version where some kid, born to extreme poverty, becomes some sort of gazillionaire through hard work and persistence and the other being the suburbanite version.

Pigging backing on the Horatio myth, back in the 19th century a dude named Russell Conwell promoted the idea that if you don’t make it rich in America it is because in some fashion you are immoral. (page 26-27) It is curious how this idea has popped up again with several Teabagger candidates having cows saying something to effect that the unemployed in 2010 just want that free money from unemployment benefits. Never mind that when this crap started to be spoken out loud by them economists agreed that we have five people going after one job in this current economic downturn.

The second part jumping on my favorite people, the suburbanites, pretty much describes the warm fuzzies I get around them. These people who spend so much time cocooned in their McMansions doing their best to ignore the world freak out whenever the subject of tax increases are brought up. One fool I had the misfortune to talk with felt he should not be subject to school supporting property taxes since his kids had long since become adults.

In later chapters we get a history lesson the various shitheads that helped establish and work desperately to maintain a hold of the American consciousness. (page 46) Including a segment on the religious types who push their brand of Christianity robbing it of the compassion and forgiveness I was taught as a child by my grandparents. (page 103)

I could go one for several more pages giving hints on how Manny has detailed the criminal schemes that promote hate and ignorance both here in this country and around the world. Instead I will close saying that while I do not agree with his conclusions 100% there is very little daylight between our positions. A great many in this country have willingly sold their souls believing the lifestyle they have can be perpetuated indefinitely. Through ignorance and fear we are forfeiting those least able to deal with the hardships that keep most of us comfortable and safe.

Manny ends the book on a hopeful note saying that there are things that can be done. But honestly I am uncertain at best, for decades we have sown the wind with our actions and I believe there will come a time when we will reap the whirlwind. The funny thing is the idiot swarm, long since devoid of any ability of critical thought, will more than likely see no defect in themselves but in everyone else. I highly recommend you buy the book and decide for yourselves.

You can order the book at his website: Reverend Manny and The Twilight Empire.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Everyone Is Fiddling this Time As the World Burns

"Republic decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms."

The question is of course rhetorical but is anyone else beside me noticing everything going to crap? Hey, I have no delusions about leading some half-assed crusade to save the United States and the world, I do this blogging gig strictly to have fun and blow off steam.

But dammit when the elected officials argue and play games while the house is burning down and the high paid media types spend more time worrying over Snooki being inconvenienced by a tanning salon tax, something has gone very wrong. I shouldn't be surprised though, our elected officials and media give us what we want and its been decades since a truly sentient American public existed. The American attention span averages between that of a 30-minute sitcom and a hour long drama, after that we loose interest and start whining.

With the majority of the Americans wrapped up in their own little worlds with no kids of theirs fighting and dying in some shithole, the credit cards still functioning, and countless hours of distracting bread and circuses broadcast over cable television few see the shit falling apart. Anyone who does notice how bad the situation has become is at best casually ignored or ridiculed. Leaving everything to just a question of when the decay will finally reach them.

What collapsing empires looks like

by Glenn Greenwald

As we enter our ninth year of the War in Afghanistan with an escalated force, and continue to occupy Iraq indefinitely, and feed an endlessly growing Surveillance State, reports are emerging of the Deficit Commission hard at work planning how to cut Social Security, Medicare, and now even to freeze military pay. But a new New York Times article today illustrates as vividly as anything else what a collapsing empire looks like, as it profiles just a few of the budget cuts which cities around the country are being forced to make. This is a sampling of what one finds:

Plenty of businesses and governments furloughed workers this year, but Hawaii went further -- it furloughed its schoolchildren. Public schools across the state closed on 17 Fridays during the past school year to save money, giving students the shortest academic year in the nation.

Many transit systems have cut service to make ends meet, but Clayton County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, decided to cut all the way, and shut down its entire public bus system. Its last buses ran on March 31, stranding 8,400 daily riders.

Even public safety has not been immune to the budget ax. In Colorado Springs, the downturn will be remembered, quite literally, as a dark age: the city switched off a third of its 24,512 streetlights to save money on electricity, while trimming its police force and auctioning off its police helicopters.

There are some lovely photos accompanying the article, including one showing what a darkened street in Colorado looks like as a result of not being able to afford street lights. Read the article to revel in the details of this widespread misery. Meanwhile, the tiniest sliver of the wealthiest -- the ones who caused these problems in the first place -- continues to thrive. Let's recall what former IMF Chief Economist Simon Johnson said last year in The Atlantic about what happens in under-developed and developing countries when an elite-caused financial crises ensues:

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or -- here's a classic Kremlin bailout technique -- the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk -- at least until the riots grow too large.

The real question is whether the American public is too apathetic and trained into submission for that to ever happen.

UPDATE: It's probably also worth noting this Wall St. Journal article from last month -- with a subheadline warning: "Back to Stone Age" -- which describes how "paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue." Utah is seriously considering eliminating the 12th grade, or making it optional. And it was announced this week that "Camden [New Jersey] is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free."

Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights -- or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State -- that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability? Anyway, I just wanted to leave everyone with some light and cheerful thoughts as we head into the weekend.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Second Chance at Living

Walking out to the back lot of what had once been a luxury car dealership in the small South Carolina town of Banner before the world ended I watched the seemingly misplaced army deuce and a half roar to life. A belch of dense blue smoke pouring from the exhaust pipe mounted next the passenger side of the cab and some initial vibrations from the engine suggesting the old vehicle might fall apart marked its complete but disgruntled mechanical resurrection.

Watching the flurry of early morning activity all over the makeshift sanctuary it was sometimes easy to overlook the fact we were over two years into what the group of survivors I belonged was calling "The Death" and I had just begun to let myself feel the first hint that the worst might be over. The clear blue sky, free of any signs of smoke, and the birds singing in nearby trees, instead of the moans of the undead, added to the almost normalcy of the morning. It didn't take much to see a reminder of what we had all survived, three sides of our protective haven was lined with a 14-foot fence topped with razor wire with a deep drainage ditch just outside running almost its entire length. Lying in that ditch were the burnt bones of two separate and massive waves of zombies that had tried to break through our perimeter.

In those early and very desperate months, the only thing that had saved us was flooding the ditch with gasoline from the on-site tanks and setting it a fire. Even with the flames burning the gray skin of the ghouls black many attempted to either climb or push down the fence. Small teams of armed survivors would rush to that section and shoot any zombie trying such a thing, sending them back down into the burning ditch with a hole in their heads.

The main building, making up the fourth side of our perimeter, despite having huge plate glass windows to show off the latest in luxury imports was safe due to the paranoia of the dealership owner. Worried over possible future social unrest and damage to his inventory he had installed thick Plexiglas windows that were damn near bombproof. We only welded sheet metal over most of the windows so we did not have to see the soulless stares coming from those that had once been friends and family.

As the months rolled on the small group that had found itself in the dealership for whatever reason when things went bad was joined by other survivors, many of them bringing supplies, weapons, and other pieces of vital equipment. One piece being the old army truck, complete with a .50 caliber machine gun mounted on the cargo bed along thousands of rounds of ammo, which we put to immediate use to find the one thing we were always short on, food.

While the usual members of my foraging team loaded up for our excursion outside the protection of our compound I inspected the metal grating welded the length of the cargo bed on both sides of the truck. On past trips beyond the fence, roving bands of zombies had found very inconvenient, for us, hand holds on the truck almost overwhelming the riders. The metal grates were welded to foot long struts that extended out from the main truck body allowing the team riding in the cargo section time to deal with any ambitious ghoul.

Similar grating and outright armor plating protected the driver and assistant driver in the cab. My favorite addition was the cattle catcher on the front of the truck that the dealership body shop staff manufactured allowing us to plow into hundreds of ghouls without slowing down. Our additions were not perfect but since it was completed no one else on the foraging teams had been infect by a zombie scratch or bite while traveling.

"Hey Sergeant Ryan," Jacob Thompson called down from the cargo bed, "any chance we can stop by the old porno shop across town? Ben here is lonely since he poked a hole in his blowup girlfriend." Ben Fisher rolled his eyes at the outburst from my team's obnoxious and youngest member while the other eight people just ignored the kid.

As I threw my rucksack on board I glared the kid into silence, I didn't like leading a team but since we had only a few real soldiers in our group I had been forced back into a quasi-military service to head up one more squad. Our senior military survivor, an army captain named David Perry who with his soldiers, arrived with the deuce we were using after their own compound was overrun, upon hearing that I was a retired National Guard sergeant had quickly pressed me back into service.

Over the steady roar of the engine, I inspected my team's weapons making sure they were loaded and ready. "Listen up people," I yelled, "The last team out made it as far as Lake Mitchell Elementary School down highway six and it that didn't look in too bad a shape. In fact, the place showed strong signs of fortification leaving Sergeant Roberts and his team to believe it still might have some supplies inside. The only reason they didn't go in themselves was because the truck was already loaded and they were low on fuel. Our mission is to get to the school, scout out the buildings and retrieve any supplies."

"Any ghouls sighted Sarge?" Ben Fisher asked.

"No, in fact the entire area looked quite, except for ghoul remains littering the ground. But each and every one of you knows how that goes." I said looking at them all; it was then that I noticed the smile on the face of the blonde woman, named Trisha Kelly, clutching an assault weapon. I raised one eyebrow to her, forcing her to smother it and return to some sort of discipline.

"All right if you people can stop asking questions, let's get on the road." I said waving the driver to get back in the truck and head us toward the main gate. The truck rumbled close to our one access point out and I marveled at the greatly reinforced entrance with the watchtowers we had built on both sides. In the early months, this had been our weakest point where the strength of the fence was at best ineffectual and the ditch was interrupted.

We passed through without incident; each of us was lost in thought as we surveyed the devastated town we once called home. Looking at the empty and destroyed fast food restaurants, strip malls, and convenience stores I was amazed at the shallow and meaningless life we had all built for ourselves figuring that if civilization ever recovered our descendants would laugh at the trap we had set for ourselves. After leaving the ruins behind conversations started up amongst the team and as long as they watched their fields of fire looking for roaming ghouls I let them continue.

The good feeling amongst my troops was palpable with the growing realization that the zombies were not only declining in numbers but were finally showing signs of visible decomposition. The virus that had infected, then killed, and finally reanimated its victims also did something to zombie tissues that resisted normal decay. Adding to the renewed optimism were occasional radio broadcasts from North Carolina speaking of some sort national government on the western side of the Rocky Mountains and a reorganized army moving eastern clearing out whole states of zombie infestation.

I was generally immune from the optimism running through my rag tag group and among the other survivors back at the compound. Far too much had gone wrong with sheer luck being the main reason we were not prowling the landscape looking for living flesh to consume. Even before The Death, my life was out of control with my marriage in trouble and my relationship with my kids strained. I took my family for granted caught up in the insane pursuit of more money and material things. It was small consolation to know I was just a single lemming running off the cliff with the rest all over the world. After everything fell apart so quickly, Trisha Kelly stopped me from spinning out of control.

In the times before The Death, she and I were acquaintances; we knew each other through school functions and other social events that occurred in Banner but in no way were our families close. At best, I figure I talked with her husband once or twice when our kids played on the same basketball team. When the plague sweep through and civilization fell apart we both found ourselves at the dealership with the others. During the panic, we both made separate attempts to find our families but the growing danger and chaos pushed us back to our refuge. Everyone knew of other safe havens like our own so Trisha still had hope that her family might still be alive somewhere. I eventually accepted that mine were lost leaving me largely empty inside.

As time passed, Trisha and I became lovers each of us filling some need absent in the other. I knew being both her team leader and lover was a serious conflict of interest but with the dead walking the earth all sort of other rules were long since suspended as well.


Lake Mitchell Elementary was set apart from the area's mushroom-like collection of subdivisions it was built to accommodate by an empty pasture on the north side of the property with dense woods on the south end. The building itself was largely rectangle viewed from the road with the combination cafeteria and auditorium on one side and with the greater part of the classrooms on the other. During our forty-mile trip we had not seen one zombie, even after passing dozens of burnt and damaged subdivisions and apartment complexes. We all found the silence eerie after two years of living with the near continuous moans of the undead. One of the first things the living learned as the zombie plague sweep through was that they were drawn to sound and they never came alone, some sort of swarm mentality existed in them with groups ranging in the hundreds wandering the land in the worst of times.

"Sean," I yelled at the driver through a cheap civilian walky-talky, "take us through the student drop-off loop then around back. But be ready to punch it back to the main road, we have plenty of food right now and I will not sacrifice anyone just so we can get fat again."

As Sean turned off the road and into school property, I scanned the area with binoculars while my team had their weapons pointed out looking for movement as well. Driving in we all ignored the now inert zombies littering the ground, sure signs that whoever had taken refuge in the school had not gone down without a fight.

A short time later with the truck idling next the cafeteria loading dock and its collapsed doors my team, except for the driver and his assistant now operating the .50 caliber, we prowled the dark and empty corridors of the school. Before disembarking, we had wrapped several layers of plastic trash bags around our feet, legs and arms in an attempt to avoid any possible contamination we might encounter. Enough of it seemed too existed where small firefights had occurred, leaving trails of gore on the walls and floor.

I was just about going to call the mission a bust when we entered a large storage room at the center of the school. In it was hundreds of cartons of army MRE's and a small arsenal of National Guard weapons and ammunition. I was feeling slightly uneasy with the situation since the day was quickly passing but the ammunition alone was reason to bust ass and get it back to our compound. Looking at my group, I rummaged through my mind for a decent plan to keep us safe and get the supplies loaded. "Ben, grab three people and scout out the rest of the school, shoot first if something moves and ask questions later. The rest of us will load up the stuff, everyone stay in radio contact on fifteen minute intervals."


The rest of the school turned out empty but I left Ben and his two guys watching different parts of the far side of the property. Radio contact was important to me but in the rush to get the supplies loaded, I missed one person calling us back as he should. Once I realized who it was a deep chill went down my spine.

"Jacob, this is Ryan answer up dammit." I said looking at the walky-talky as if it could answer on its own. Sometimes you know something has gone very wrong and this was one of those occasions. "Team this is Ryan, drop everything and get back to the truck, Sean if I'm not on board in ten minutes haul ass back to the compound."

Trisha and a short fellow named Wilson had been with me moving the supplies and I ordered both back and ran off down the middle hallway to the rear area of the school property. I wasn't really surprised to see Trisha behind me but I knew her enough to know it was a waste of time to repeat myself.

Trisha and I ran out the doors at the end of the long hallway with our weapons up against our shoulders and scanning the surroundings. It didn't take long to see that not only did a zombie have Jacob up a pine tree hanging on for dear life but that at least thirty more were slowly stumbling out of the woods. Instinctively both she and I began firing off single shots at the oncoming swarm. Heads exploded causing the zombies to fall and I moved closer to the tree Jacob was stuck in.

"Jacob," I yelled, "drop down now and grab your weapon we have only a few minutes to get back before the truck leaves." I quickly glanced over to the now inert zombie lying a few feet away. It had several puncture marks to the face and after looking over at Jacob's AK-47 with it bayonet extended I knew the little shit had been playing with the ghoul trying to hit its brain.

The funny thing with zombies is that while they are slow they are relentless. My momentary glance at Jacob, the zombie, and his weapon was enough to time to see that the coming swarm now numbered over a hundred. Panic was something I could not afford if I wanted to survive and I steadily picked a target, aimed, and slowly squeezed the trigger. My marksmanship was always good and the last two years had only improved it, just about all my targets fell the first time.

Jacob finally dropped down, retrieved his weapon, and began firing just in time to allow me to insert another full magazine after I fired off my last round. I had thought that Trisha, Jacob, and myself were all somewhat close but at some point I realized I wasn't hearing Trisha's weapon. Jacob and I had backed up to the school doors and I looked up to find Trisha only to see that we were surrounded with Trisha calmly walking toward a male zombie that looked strangely familiar.

"Dammit Trisha," I screamed but given how surreally calm she looked I was amazed I got anything out at all. "What in the hell are you doing?" She turned her head to me and with a look of utter serenity on her face she smiled. "I found Michael, I'm going to join him now, finding him was my whole reason for living these last couple of years."

At the mention of Michael's name it was then I recognized the ghoul standing in front of her, it was her husband, or had been when he was alive. If anything, the ghoul seemed in some fashion, to recognize her in that it was less than a foot away with what I would call a curious expression on its face had it been alive.

As Jacob and I continued to fire, Trisha reached out and embraced the ghoul. With the swarm growing nearer I could only catch short glances at Trisha but at some point the ghoul took a bite out of her neck. Seeing blood run down Trisha's shirt as she continued to embrace the ghoul that had been her husband some circuit breaker in my head tripped and for the next couple of hours I pretty much lost consciousness and ran on pure instinct. I had to be told what happened after that.

Sean had disobeyed my orders and came speeding around the corner of the school in the truck with Ben on the .50 caliber blowing zombies into small chucks. He slammed on brakes close to Jacob and me with the rest of the team opening fire providing cover. Jacob pulled me to the rear of the truck with the others yanking us onboard. Sean floored it and with the cattle catcher in front plowing through the swarm clearing a way for us back to the main road.

Back at the compound, I was found with some sort of flesh on my clothes and was thrown straight into isolation for three days. During my time alone I did a lot of thinking and realized that Trisha had died long ago. She had been deeply committed to her family before The Death and to the hope of finding them after it. As strange as it might seem, I was actually surprised to realize I was as much a crutch to her as I knew she was to me. I realized as well, that the emptiness I felt was because somewhere deep now very early in The Death I had been living like a zombie for years. My only desire was for a second chance at a better life and to find out what happened to my family.

That is exactly what happened barely three months later. The army reached Banner and setup headquarters there for the push into Columbia to sweep zombies out of the state capital. After a recommendation by Captain Perry, I was officially re-inducted into the service as an army First Lieutenant helping to sweep clean the Lake Mitchell area. During one of the sweeps, I found my wife and children alive and well on the other side of the lake with a group that had taken refuge in a hospital.

The reunion was bittersweet since my wife had thought me dead and married another one of the survivors in her group. At least I have my kids and a second chance to do something real with my life, which damn few other survivors can claim and that alone is reason enough to live.