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Saturday, June 29, 2013

NOSTALGIA

   

   It's been eighty days since the last trace of rainfall in Phoenix, yet somehow we are expected to take comfort in the knowledge that we can purchase all the Bob Marley recordings we want at the local Wal-Mart. I come by this information via the Facebook sidebar, my constant companion in these days of loss and confusion. Ah, but 'tweren't so very long ago that life here on this madly spinning orb held together a might bit simpler. When I was intellectually not much bigger than a scab on my daddy's knee cap, I came upon the infinite delight of attending a madcap cocoon of a world known as Marshall University. Just to give you some idea of how many centuries ago those halcyon days of yore must have been, I recollect the in-state tuition for that thing the old folks called higher education ran about $168 for a twelve-plus credit hour semester. Nowadays the tuition expense tips the scales at just over a quarter million, I imagine. But lucky me, I had a tennis scholarship my first year there, back in late 1976, a funding source I recall never using, which is just as well since I almost immediately found myself on academic probation.
   1976 was an important year and for all the wrong reasons. As I've reminded readers elsewhere, this was the year of the bicentennial and all the attendant hoopla that accompanied the 200th birthday of the Declaration of Independence. It was also a year when the popular music I loved began taking an unapologetic defecation on the listening audience, unless Peter Frampton and Gary Wright are your idea of a fun evening, in which case perhaps it's your education we should be discussing instead of mine. 
   After a few semesters of holing up with the collected works of Dr. Demento, I finally got what was left of my head together and started applying my mind to the tasks at hand. Primarily, my tasks were to figure out what all this education stuff truly did portend. So I went to a lot of movies, attended multiple boring rock concerts, and hung out as much as possible in the Marshall Student Union cafeteria. Now that last item is where my genuine education took place. Because I had read a little bit and had a fondness for interdisciplinary studies, I conned a few professors into working the cafeteria into their busy rounds. 
   And why not? The coffee was cheap, the service virtually nonexistent, and people appeared to very much enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the cafeteria. With a few exceptions, I stopped attending classes altogether and instead brought to the table--as it were--degreed ladies and gentlemen from Sociology, Psychology, Criminal Justice, English, and elsewhere. The distractions were plentiful, I'll admit. But aside from the gems and occasional iron pyrite of knowledge I gained, the most important thing to emerge from these day-long sessions was a respect for the people I had the good fortune to meet. 
   Granted, some of these people were crazy as loons. Those were the ones I loved the most. I don't mean that they were seriously mentally ill. I mean that their understanding of the world struck me as every bit as unfit for civilized society as my own. These were some very intelligent people I'm talking about, people who would go on to become published writers, educators, vice-presidents of corporations, artists, designers, scientists, psychologists, musicians, in some cases doing quite well financially and in others barely eking out a living, but in each case becoming the ultimate manifestation of their own ability to transcend the shackles that had brought them to Marshall in the first place.

    One of the few things that I actually favor about social media (you might assume I love the stuff, but you'd be incorrect) is that Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, Pinterest, LinkedIn, StumbleUpon and the others have permitted me to reconnect with many of these wonderful people. And so occasionally I choose to believe that I never quite got around to leaving Marshall. (There's a familiar expression popular with English teachers. It's applied to the state of mind involved in reading a piece of fiction: the willing suspension of disbelief. This is the state of mind I use in my day-to-day existence.) 
   Please do not conclude that I have not changed at all. I suspect I have evolved, or at least mutated. But I still read many of the same authors, indulge many of the same philosophies, imbibe the same beverages, and treasure the same people now as I did then. Arguably, I value them even more now. Being closer today to my own personal end of time than I was in 1976-1982, the essence of these rare and wondrous people are perhaps closer to me now than they were even then. 
   Good fortune has permitted me to make several similarly glorious friends in the years that followed. However, I have on occasion found myself realizing that I often measure the importance of a given friendship based on how it compares to those I made at Marshall. 
   I have no particular point to draw from any of this, other than the one I've been working out for myself for decades. Friendship is the only goal that matters. After all this time, that's still the only thing I know for certain. Here's wishing you a similar degree of clarity.
   

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

HOW MUCH IS THAT FREE WILL IN THE WINDOW?

   

   Before we get far along into this, it needs to be understood that I make no claim that what I'm about to discuss is necessarily correct. You know that I always tell you when I'm right, right? So this is one of those rare occasions when I cannot say with a shadow of a certainty that I even know for sure what I'm talking about, much less whether what I'm writing is valid. Perhaps you'll find it easier if you interrupt me with some of those pertinent questions you're always trying to squeeze into my loquacious erudition. I'm liable to get carried away here, so I'd actually send candy and flowers in return for some thoughtful interjections of wit or candor, assuming you don't have time for both.
   The issue of which I have already begun obfuscations and digressions is Free Will. From what I have witnessed, many people these days take an approximately existentialist sense of pride in the belief that if any personal strings are being pulled, then it is the individual Pinocchio who is pulling them, with nary a Geppetto to be found. The view that we are personally responsible for ourselves has its appeal. The next time I earn big money for an article or story I've published, you can bet I'll take the credit for that piece's exalted pulchritude. I won't thank my third grade teacher or my parents. I'll tell any and all that the glory of the writing's creation belongs to brilliant and hardworking little old me. Oh, I'll probably feign modesty by giving a bit of credit here and there, but that'll just be an act. Inside, I'll know it was just me. 
    However, the next time I run a stop sign, plow into an eighteen wheeler, flip the car on its head, skid off an embankment, fall one hundred feet onto a freeway full of rush hour incompetents and wind up in intensive care with a bevvy of police officers breathing on my IV tube, I'm fairly convinced that someone else will have been to blame, not least of all the person who neglected to trim the bushy tree branch that undoubtedly obscured my ability to notice the octangular red warning sign. 
   Excuse me, Mr. Mershon, sir, but, uh, what is it exactly that you're getting at?
   Good question. Keep them coming. What I am getting at, as you so succinctly phrased it, is that Free Will cannot be a relative matter. Either one has it or one does not. Part of existentialist thought, according to Sartre, among others, is that the fact of Free Will occurs once the individual cognates that he or she in fact has Free Will. In other words, the realization of the validity of personal freedom immediately precedes the existence of freedom. Accompanying that freedom, the argument goes, is a glorious personal responsibility to act, to live, to bounce freely off the ignorant attempts of others to enslave us, when in reality, as Goethe put it, no one is more enslaved than he who falsely thinks himself free. 
   Then I guess you don't believe in the New Testament much, huh?
   I take your point. Once Jesus was murdered we all had Free Will. We could decide to be on His side or against Him. The consequences of our freely chosen beliefs would then determine our eternities. Is that what you meant?
   You sound kind of snotty about it. But, yeah, that's basically it, right.
   Good. That's not at all what I'm talking about. What I am asking is whether our behaviors (and the beliefs and attitudes that precede them) remain in a perpetual state of tabla rasa, imprinted onto our wax paper personalities by no other meaningful source of input but ourselves, or whether the human animal is instead an evermore complex and growing  amalgamation of psychological recording devices, neurological circuitry and emotional playback noises, all of which coalesce to leave no doubt whatsoever as to a given person's actions in any precisely defined situation. The art or skill of psychological profiling assumes this to be true. So does Central Intelligence, an agency which has for decades devised reports indicating the anticipated behavior of specific government officials given a variety of different high-pressure scenarios. 
   Wait a second. Just because the CIA operates like it's true, that doesn't mean it is true
   Excellent! That would be some type of fallacious reasoning, although I'm damned if I can name the type. All the same, that's almost what I believe to be the case. I say almost because, much as I hate the whole socio-biology and psycho-biology movement (which preordains us according to genetics rather than environment or, God forbid, Free Will), I have to concede that there is anecdotal evidence that our behavior may be "influenced" (note how careful the social scientist is to hedge against declaring that DNA dictates our every thought, mood, feeling and action) by our biology. If I may be permitted to use Hannah Arendt's clever observation against her that if fifty million people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing, the pharmaceutical corporations clearly want us to believe that their inventions can correct whatever deficiencies may exist in our genetically-predisposed personalities, which is why we have Prozac, Wellbutrin, Lamotrigione and Oxcarbazepine, among other mood enhancers of choice, you should pardon the expression. 
   You don't much like socio-biology?
  I hate the idea. I hate it because once you assume it, the next step is eugenics, which is fascism with a lab coat. Of course, the problem is that it's stupid to deny that genes steer our thoughts. The issue, I suppose, is whether the environment can take the steering wheel away, or if the lovely Free Will makes DNA and environmental factors irrelevant. Let me give you an example. 
    Please do.
   When I was a teenager I had a job that I didn't much like. I hated the company owner because he was a lying, thieving, lecherous, abusive fat old guy who routinely bullied my friends and co-workers. Watching the red-faced money-grubber intimidate my colleagues into rationalizing that they deserved the foul treatment the owner dished out led me to hate the man even more. Well, the human mind does not always work to the user's permanent advantage. The impression of this, my first paying job--which I endured for two years--led me to suspect the intent of several subsequent company owners for whom I worked. For good or ill, in an attempt to protect me, my mind generalized from this horrific set of experiences--generalized that (a) the only way to deal with a bully is to stand up to him, and (b) most companies are owned and operated by bullies. The remainder of my working life would suggest that my mind's generalization was thorough. 
   That's swell. But did you ever think that maybe the fact that you took that awful job in the first place was "preordained," as you call it, by something genetic?
   Say, at least one of you is listening! Great point. The answer is that I have no idea. I also have no sense as to where Free Will falls into any of this. Just because I believe I have Free Will does not make it so, any more than my belief in natural-born polka-dotted polar bears means they exist. And maybe that's really the point. Einstein said that he chose to believe in God because if he believed in Him and he was wrong, he had lost nothing. But if he failed to believe in Him and was wrong, his ass was up the creek. I guess that's the way I try to address the Free Will conundrum. If it turns out that everything we do is fixed in advance, yet we act as if we are in charge, at least we have the pleasure that comes from this delusion. But if we really do have Free Will and act as if we are not personally responsible for our lot in life, then we might very well wind up like that greedy red-faced bully for whom I used to work. And I for one could not bear to live that way. Thank you.
    We like chocolates and roses, if it matters.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

PAULA DEEN AND THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT

   

   I find it more than a little ironic that fat ass culinary kingpin Paula Deen is singeing from her posterior boiling in lard due to her bewildering admission that she felt quite comfortable using a popular pejorative term for black people in the workplace on the same day that the Far From Supreme Court of the United States struck down Section Four of the Voting Rights Act. Is this really a big deal, you ask? Oh my, yes. It is the biggest of deals and it is perhaps the best indication since 2001 that Democrats are merely Republicans with a human face. 
    Section Four "Provides for the assignment of federal examiners to conduct registration and of federal observers to observe voting in States or counties covered by the special provisions of the Act."
   In 1965 those states and counties requiring special coverage were Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Virginia, plus thirty-nine counties in North Carolina, Yuma County Arizona, and Honolulu County Hawaii. In 1970, this list was amended to include four election districts in Alaska, two counties in California, eight additional counties in Arizona (that's a total of nine of fifteen), one county in Idaho, three counties in New York, and one county in Wyoming. 
   What does that mean? What it meant was that those selected areas were subject to Federal Examiners compiling lists of all eligible voters in a given state or county. The examiners send that list to the local election officials more than forty-five days before the election in question. If anyone on the federal list was ultimately prevented from voting, that person therefore had the right to lodge an official complaint. The results of the area's election were then suspended until the illegally prohibited person or persons get to vote and have their votes counted. 
   Rather than rip to shreds this most important provision of the VRA, Section Four should have been expanded to encompass the entirety of the United States. Had that been the case, the results of Bush v Gore in 2000 would have been different, meaning there is no September 11, no Guantanamo, no despicable Patriot Act, etc. Or maybe all those things would have happened anyway. But at least the vote counts would have been legitimate, which is something which now can never happen again. Without the right of appeal, what invariably will happen--especially in the south, which we'll get to momentarily--is that the most repressive forms of government will always prevail. 
    Let's look at the impact of the VRA on that supreme southern state Mississippi. Four years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Mississippi led the nation in both African American turnout and the number of African Americans elected. Indeed, by 2008, the voting rolls in America were the most diverse in the country's history. The racists who run this country would not allow that to be repeated. 
   The types of identification required to vote were restricted. Early voting periods were cut. Voter registration drives were hindered. Mississippi was one of eleven states to enact voter suppression laws in 2012.   
    That pusillanimous polecat Newt Gingrich, in 1995, declared that the Great Society was dead. He was wrong, of course, at least at the time. Let's see, we had the Civil Rights Act, the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medical Act (Medicare and Medicaid), the Minimum Wage Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the National Endowment of the Arts and Humanities Act, the Higher Education Act, the Urban Mass Transportation Act, the Omnibus Housing Act, creation of the department of Housing and Urban Development, the Metropolitan area Redevelopment Act, the Demonstration Cities Act, the Air and Water Quality Act, the Tax Reduction Act, the Immigration Act (which abandoned quotas from 1924, thereby allowing more non-European immigration), and the Appalachian Regional and Development Act. All this from Lyndon Johnson, who also gave us the Vietnam War, which, if anyone had wanted to overturn the Great Society back then, would have been a fine place to start. 
   Those readers who do not favor my more emotionally hysterical writings may wish to skip over the next paragraph, as may those folks in the NSA and elsewhere who monitor such writings for inappropriate references.
   When glorified brownshirts such as Gingrich, or any other like-minded southern-acting political patriarch calls for the dismantling of HUD, the NEA, or the EPA (which happened under Nixon, of all people), or especially the VRA, they are in effect saying that the rights of the corporate minority supersede any and all rights of the merely human majority. This has very little to do with Republican versus Democrat affiliation--at least these days. Granted, Nixon's 1968 convergence of the Southern racists to the Republican party was the first major backlash against the Great Society. It did not take long, however, for the Democratic Party to exist only to make naive people believe they actually have a choice when they go to the voting booth, assuming their access is not denied. 
    The next paragraph is even more incendiary, although not as fiery as it was before my trusted roommate pointed out a few terse words that I chose to revise. 
   My own duplicity goes not quite that far. Even though I'm extremely pissed off with today's Supreme Court ruling, I harbor no illusions that this was anything but inevitable, given the political and spiritual DNA of this country. I am angry. Very angry. I should probably be on a list somewhere. I probably am. If so, I wear that listing as a badge of honor. You can put me right there with Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, none of whose shoes I am fit to shine, but only because I don't have access. 
   So I'm working out, I'm eating right, exercising my brain and muscles. Trying to save money. Getting it together to get the hell out of here. Norway is looking very nice.
   Wherever I land, I won't be eating Paula Deen's double-fried southern licking grease burger delight. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

GETTING TO KNOW YOU

   

   Let's get to know one another better, shall we? I'll start.
   I'm precisely six feet tall and weigh 165 pounds. Blond hair, brown (almost black) eyes. Funny nose. Great smile.
   As to my religion, I can only quote Samuel Johnson, who answered a similar question by saying that his religion was the religion of all reasonable men. As to what religion that statement referred, he responded, "Reasonable men never tell." I will say that I do not worship any farm animals.
   Regarding politics, I hold no firm position other than to say I'm to the left of the old Politburo. I should add that I have zero faith in any political solutions to anything worth solving. I believe that art is the answer, which is why I used to attend rallies carrying copies of Escher lithographs, much to the consternation of the less humorous members of the brigade.
   Musically, I enjoy the percussion instruments. In fact, I play drums. As to buying music, I favor live jazz, when I can get it, but very much enjoy the sounds of Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Ayler, and Carla Bley.
   It should be noted that while I know next to nothing about sports, I nevertheless love baseball and bicycling, along with tennis and hopscotch. Okay, not really hopscotch. Is jacks a sport?
   Even though I live in Phoenix, I love rainfall. I'm not keen on floods, mind you, but I love the sound of rain tapping the roof.
   I read a lot. I like many of the old American classics, like Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Richard Wright, John Steinbeck, as well as more contemporary folks, such as Harlan Ellison, Jane Smiley, and John Irving.
   What I really like is movies, old, new and in between. I like movies directed by Godard, Kubrick, Kramer, Coppola, Truffaut, and Resnais. I will not watch Adam Sandler in anything. I'm also not big on Dustin Hoffman. My favorite films are Casablanca, God Bless America, Masculin/Feminin, Five Easy Pieces, Tucker, Annie Hall, The Big Kahuna, Grand Hotel, Blow Out, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
   Okay. Your turn.
   

Saturday, June 22, 2013

FAIR IS FAIR

   

   Anton was blown away. Semi-literally blown away. He'd been thinking of committing a heinous crime of some degree and magnitude for as long as he could remember. The problem, as he saw it, was avoiding the nuisance of getting caught. That would take so much pleasure from the process that he couldn't quite make things balance out in his calculating mind, the things in question being the abject joy of shooting up the town versus the bloody horrible hell of getting in trouble for doing so. 
    The National Gun Association understood Anton's problem all too well. That's why they had so enthusiastically lobbied the government for gun-possession reform. Once the Demopublican Party had united in switching the Second Amendment for the Third Amendment (on the basis that no one ever remembered the Third caveat anyway), it had become increasingly difficult for criminals to legally obtain firearms. This fact was very bad for business and was also a concern for the government because the Demopublican Party endorsed the theories of a dead man named Malthus. Malthus had argued that wars and famine and other forces of killing off people were necessary for the stabilization any growing economy would need. Despite this philosophy, Congress had been pressured by the public into enacting a federal law that now mandated that a positive identification was required for any and all gun purchases, including those that took place at private gun shows. But the NGA was clever. They understood the Malthusian ideology of the government. With the proper greasing, the gun lobby had persuaded Congress to enact the Federal Firearm Rental Mandate. The FFRM said that a licensed firearm rental agency merely needed to secure the normal cost of the weapon as a deposit and then could assess whatever rental fee they deemed appropriate. In other words, if an M-16 retailed for $4000, that would also be the amount of the refundable deposit the criminal would need to pony up to avoid the embarrassment of otherwise being denied the right to own a weapon. The gun-renter could then rent the weapon, commit whatever crime he or she wished, return the weapon, recoup the deposit, and go about business. The law even allowed the gun-renting service establishments to destroy all records of their transactions, thereby making the job of the police more difficult in tracking down the perpetrators of violent crimes involving firearms. Anton was jubilant.
   "Anton Pigger?"
   He'd been waiting more than an hour. The rental establishment he'd selected doubled as a check cashing outlet. Most of the customers needed to cash someone's payroll checks prior to handing over the deposits and Lucky's Easy Out only had one guy working behind the bullet proof shield. 
   Anton hobbled over to the window. His legs were stiff from sitting so long.
   "Cashing a check or just renting out?"
   "Renting only."
   "Sorry about the wait. Owner's kind of stingy. Expects me to handle Thursdays by myself. You got ID?"
   Anton produced an expired driver's license.
   The employee accepted it and shook his head. "Damned red tape. Half the guys come in here got nothing but a library card. Major bitch getting those to go through. But, hell, business is business, right?"
   Anton nodded as he watched the older fellow scribble some numbers on a square of paper and drop the sheet into an electronic scanner. In a few seconds the machine beeped and the employee looked at Anton and smiled. 
   "What'll ya have, Mr. Pigger?"
   "I was thinking something Russian."
   "You ain't a Muslim, are you?"
   "Pardon me?"
   "It ain't me, you understand. Owner's kind of a bigot. Hates the friggin' commies. Hates the friggin' Arabs. Can't stand the Jews. I'm just trying not to get in trouble, you understand?"
   Anton chuckled. These rental joints were all pretty much the same. Flag behind the counter. Retard behind the shield. "Nope. I'm as Christian as Jesus himself."
   The employee sighed. "That's good. Lucky blew his top last time I forgot to ask." He motioned with his head to the row of security cameras on the wall behind him. 
    "We got an Izhmash AK-9. Uses subsonic ammo. Comes with a silencer. That's $1679 deposit. $400 rental for the day."
   "Nine millimeter?"
   The employee nodded. "Need cartridges?"
   "Nope. I'm set for that."
   "We also got some new carbine model Kasashnikov AK-12s. Best assault weapon for the money. Gas operated, rotary bolt. That one's $2200 with a $500 depo."
   "Wrap up the AK-12."
   Anton slid twenty-seven one hundred dollar bills through the slot. 
   
   He began with his landlord, who had been predictably increasing the cost of his apartment while steadfastly refusing to repair the defects necessary to make the joint inhabitable. 
   His third grade teacher fell next, mainly because she had humiliated him so long ago. What she had done Anton could not quite remember, but he was certain it had been horrific. The onlooking school children he left alone. After all, Anton Pigger was no psycho.
   A prostitute outside his place had been the next to bite the dirt, along with the john she'd been soliciting. The wanton hussy had stiffed Anton on services for which they had bargained. After several hundred dollars, Anton had been forced to pleasure himself while the buxom brunette had looked on and giggled. Fair was fair, he reckoned. 
   The bus driver who had ordered him off the public transportation felt Anton's wrath while enjoying the pleasing effects of a cigarette he was illegally puffing out of doors. After all, fair was fair, wasn't it?
   Next he took out his girlfriend's parents, Jim and Ethel Hackard. Granted, technically Agnes Hackard was not Anton's girlfriend. In fact, she had pretty much told him to flake off after the first time he asked her out. Still, Anton was fairly certain her parents were behind her refusal to so much as acknowledge his existence. 
   Tiny Waterford, an idiot would-be vigilante, had tried sneaking up on Anton from behind. Anton ate sneaky people for lunch. Tiny Waterford ate Anton's lead, right through his smiling teeth. Fair was fair.
   He saved the big payoff for last. 
   The Harold Chasen National Bank, where Anton had slaved for twenty-one years as branch manager before the bank had downsized and replaced him with a stooge half his age, turned out to be easier to access than Anton had imagined. Certainly he had rehearsed the massacre in his mind, calculating a myriad of contingencies. Yet in the end the simplicity of the operation had almost been frustrating. The two security guards sitting within the circumference of a circled desk had of course been alerted weeks earlier that one Pigger, Anton, was to be considered a discharged extreme risk employee. The ex-Harold Chasen branch manager hadn't taken three steps inside his old stomping grounds before both men ordered him to halt while instinctively reaching for their handguns. Anton lowered his gun's barrel and squeezed. The cartridges whispered out a muted popping sound and the two men fell. 
    Anton observed no one else in the lobby as he pressed the elevator button and took the old dependable device up to the seventh floor. When the door whooshed open, the first person Anton saw was the new guy. The dope was just standing there, chatting up a woman who undoubtedly was the new guy's new assistant. They were just casually waiting for the elevator to come to them, talking their stupid talk, thinking their idiotic thoughts, dreaming of undressing one another later in the new guy's villa.
    Anton cleared his throat with deliberation.
    The new guy lifted his head as his assistant looked on. The new guy said, "Anton! What brings you here?"
   Evidently the new guy didn't register that the former branch manager was sporting an extremely lethal firearm. Anton replied, "The only way to stop a good guy with a gun is with a bad guy with a gun. You got nothing." He squeezed. The gun hissed several pops. The new guy danced backwards, leaping like a czar at a Russian folk dance. Even after the new guy was clearly dead, Anton kept the action going, flipping his adversary here and yonder. The assistant looked like she would swoon. Anton pushed her out of his way and approached the teller windows. 
   The tellers, having heard the commotion, had dropped down behind their cages. Anton fired through the base of the cages and wiped them all out. The new guy's assistant screamed. Anton shot her dead. Then he looked at his gun with some sense of affection and placed it on the floor at his feet. He sat and waited.

    A man and woman hoping to open a joint account had found the two dead security guards. They called the police. Five minutes later a team of EMTs were scaling the outside of the building. The point man on the team, who was actually a woman named Helen, saw Anton sitting with his back to the glass wall. Hanging from a support cord, she motioned her second in command to scale up. He did. They positioned their feet against the wall, raised their weapons, focused the red lights on the back of Anton's head and fired through the glass. 
   Anton bought himself a few extra seconds of life because the impact of the reinforced glass had altered the trajectory of the bullets. Hearing the glass shatter, he dropped to the floor and picked up his weapon. Once the force of the shots had finished rappelling Helen and her second, they took fast aim again and fired. Anton fell and did not move until the medical examiner's assistants loaded his bagged body onto the stretcher. 

   Several members of Congress appeared together on computer to denounce the National Gun Association and to call for a repeal of the Federal Firearm Rental Mandate. Media polling showed that ninety percent of the country's population agreed. The NGA president met with the country's President behind closed doors. Joining the two men were the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader. All four men agreed that it was crucial to take a stance against the Firearms Mandate. They also agreed that Malthusian economics required the killing off of a certain number of people each year in order to maintain national stability. Without this consistency in the population, there was a good chance that food shortages and energy consumption would become a serious problem which would require the leaders to deal with their enemies overseas. 
   So nothing new happened. 
   

Friday, June 21, 2013

AND THE LIVING IS EASY

   


   After a while, a guy stops giving a damn. 
   When the name of the person for whom he voted makes no difference to the outcome, a guy stops giving a damn.
   After a while, after all the interesting candidates have been assassinated, marginalized, ridiculed, trivialized, diminished or ostracized, and there remains only two viable candidates, one an extreme right-wing shill for corporate interests and the other merely a right-wing shill for corporate interests, a guy simply and abruptly stops giving a damn.
   When the neighborhood a person lives in is so uncompromisingly weird that five people jumping the wall with their dogs under their respective arms then hop away into five completely different directions, after a while, a guy just stops giving a damn.
    After watching a couple thousand movies over the course of two years and finding that only something like five percent of them even warrant commentary simply because the other ninety-five percent were unremittingly boring, the temptation is to just give up. 
   When nothing new--really new--ever happens, when you can no longer say with certainty how old you are, when even the things you love lack meaning once and a while, you may just throw up your hands and die.
    After seven times in a row that it happens that you start pumping gas into your guzzler and the only person within five miles of you who smiles turns out to be smiling through the insincerity of the beggar, well, you might be forgiven for just ignoring everything you see as you crawl back inside and drool under your bed.
   On the other hand, it might be a fun thing to confront each and all of these scenarios with a big, toothy, guttural laugh so loud and wet that it completely unnerves even those who know you well, or think they do. We have not much control over our personal environments any more, if we ever did. Rather than wallow in some apathetic sense of rejection, why not spew a tsunami of laughing spittle across the faces of those imbeciles who have perverted what little good there was to begin with, if for no other reason than to let them know they have not won, can never win, and are dressed funny by their mothers? 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

CONSPIRE: to breathe together

   
Did this aviator mastermind 9.11? Naw!

   If one wishes to be taken for a fool, one need only embrace any or all of the popular conspiracy theories that have surfaced ever since the assassination of President Lincoln. That strikes me as a shame. I suspect that a healthy disregard or general sense of skepticism toward official explanations of events is a good thing and even an intelligent thing. Now, if you want to argue that The Beatles were behind the assassination of John F. Kennedy because they wanted Americans to be in dire need of a lift in their spirits, I will have to smirk a bit and ask you for some evidence. On the other hand, if it is your contention that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald had a motive for committing the murder and that some of those who did were in a position to accomplish the killing, I would be delighted to hear what you have to say. 
   A fine way to begin determining whether a theory holds any water at all lies in the methodology. For example, let us consider the events of September 11, 2001. Four planes were hijacked and three of those airplanes were used as missiles to strike the Twin Towers and the Pentagon. A fine way to investigate these horrible activities would be to work backwards from the events. The planes crashed, so who was piloting the planes? How did the suspects get on board? How did they learn the skills necessary to not only hijack but also pilot commercial aircraft? If the training involved the participation of others, to what extent were those others involved in the conspiracy? An operation of this magnitude requires a payroll of some sort, so who were the financiers? Who requested the financing? Who gave the directives to the financiers to allocate the money for the operation? And what might be the motive or motives? 
    In any solid investigation, these questions must be diligently pursued before other questions can be considered legitimate. Now, once all these questions are answered, we need to make sure the answers are correct. Upon what authority are the answers based? Are the sources reliable? Do the sources have names or are they anonymous for reasons of "national security"? Do the sources have motivation for being honest or for being dishonest? 
   Another thing to do once those questions have been answered is to consider conflicting evidence. If, for example, fifteen of the nineteen hijackers turned out to be of Saudi Arabian nationality and yet the official explanation is that the crimes were carried out by members of an Afghanistan terrorist organization, then those people investigating the matter need to explain the connection. This connection could be one of a shared ideology or religion. It could be political enthusiasm. There might be a familial relationship. But there does need to be something that explains this.
    When all of these issues are satisfied, a good skeptic will go back to the beginning and observe how the victims and suspected perpetrators were behaving. What connections existed between the victims and the assailants? For that matter, were those who perished necessarily the direct targets? In the case of 9/11, the immediate victims were those who died. However, unless someone inside the buildings or airplanes was specifically held in disrepute by the attackers, it is possible that the victims may have been those at the head of the political or economic system, which is to say those who would ultimately be held accountable for retribution.
    Skeptics must also consider the behavior of the victims in some detail. In this instance, the behavior of those in government and business, affected by the crime, should have their behavior scrutinized, just as the behavior of a murder victim falls under scrutiny in the pursuit of justice. If it turned out that the victims had information indicating that they would be victimized at a certain place and time, then one might reasonably wonder how the perpetrators were able to get away with the offense. When the President is confronted with a National Security briefing saying that Bin Laden is determined to strike in the U.S. using airplanes as missiles, then I think it is reasonable to be suspicious. But here the skeptic must be careful not to assume, as they say, facts not in evidence. If no evidence exists--before the fact--of a criminal conspiracy involving other than the usual suspects, than we have no prima facie case, and any information collected regarding events following the event--short of a confession--can only be circumstantial and therefore require substantial corroboration. 
   The problem is that too often serious critics of official explanations get lumped together with lunatics. 
   What makes the distinction different to parse--even among the critics themselves--is the problem of epistemology  In other words, the question that must continually be asked is not so much what did so-and-so know and when did he know it, but rather how do we know what we think we know? With a series of crimes of the magnitude of 9/11, we often feel we must rely on the official explanations of those who may have interests in misleading us. And when the adversarial component of the investigative body is compromised because of concerns of national security, then the members of the public who make up the nation that is to be kept secure are at a significant disadvantage, especially when that nation's sons and daughters are pulled into jeopardy as a consequence of the crimes in question. If you want to convince a jury that a defendant is guilty of a crime, then enlist the children of those jury members to do battle against the children of the defendant. 
    None of this means that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were preordained. It is quite possible that they were the result of opportunism. But when the bombardment of lies makes it extremely difficult to know a lie when we hear one, there is nothing "lunatic" in doubting almost everything we are told, whether by government, business, or the media, the latter being the conduit between the other two.
   So while I personally believe the expression "new world order" was merely an ill-advised choice of words issued by a deranged American political leader, I can at least sympathize with the misgivings of those who suspect something more sinister. 
   

Sunday, June 16, 2013

THE LURE OF COCAINE CASINOS

   

  Edward Snowden has a name like an old British Earl, but that does not mean we need to mock his low level of formal education. Various members of both the conservative and liberal media have delighted in writing about the abomination of this GED-carrying fellow leaking information from the National Security Administration. What gets lost in this appraisal of Snowden and his apparent learning deficiency is that the real danger lies not in whether this guy actually did do whatever it is said he did. The danger, it seems to me, lies in the merging of technologically-obsessive types with militarily-oriented types. Take, for instance, the head of the NSA. The Director of the National Security Agency is also known as the Chief of the Central Security Service. He is also known as the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command. His working name is General Keith Alexander. 
   According to the NSA's own website, General Alexander has a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy and an M.S degree in Business Administration from Boston University. This advanced education degree collector also holds a Master of Science degree in Systems Technology and a Master of Science degree in Physics from the naval Post Graduate School. He's a military man and a techie, too. He is responsible for planning, coordinating and conducting operations and defense of Department of Defense computer networks and is further responsible for a Department of Defense agency with national foreign intelligence, combat support, and U.S. national security information system protection responsibilities. 
   People in high positions in the military with a fascination with cyber technologies have the ability (and, I would argue, the inclination) to use the toys their underlings develop. Spying on the communications of millions of Americans becomes justified, in the General's view, because the surveillance program has prevented dozens of terrorist attacks. Likewise, the military spies like to remind us that because of their efforts at curtailing the privacy rights of the citizenry, there have been no successful terrorist attacks on U.S. soil since September 11, 2001. That last bit is true, with the following exceptions, none of which were prevented by any surveillance by the NSA or anyone else:

  • September and October 2001: anthrax letters were mailed to people in Florida and Washington DC.
  • July 2002: an Egyptian gunman killed two Israelis at the Los Angeles International ticket counter.
  • September and October 2002: At least fourteen people were murdered by the Beltway snipers.
  • March 2006: An Islamic extremist drove his vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians at the University of North Carolina.
  • July 2006: A gunman fired at women at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
  • May 2009: Doctor George Tiller was shot at church by a crazed anti-abortionist.
  • June 2009: Army Private William Long was murdered at the Army Navy Center in Little Rock.
  • November 2009: The Fort Hood massacre.
  • February 2010: Suicide crash of small plane into Austin federal building.
  • September 2010: A gunman at the Discovery Communications headquarters held three people hostage.
  • January 2011: The Tuscon shooting massacre.
  • August 2012: A gunman killed six people before the service at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
  • August 2012: Members of the sovereign citizen movement killed two police officers and wounded another in LaPlace, Louisiana.
  • April 2013: The Boston Marathon bombing.


Great job, NSA. Your invasions of our civil liberties are truly paying off.  

   Still, all is not lost. Whenever we get just a mite too upset with the way the cyber and military complexes have raped and warped us, we can go to the mall or the casino and feel ever so much better about things because of the synthetic pheromones being sprayed into the air to lull us into spending more money. Specifically, we may thank a company called Enhanced Air Technologies (EAT) for developing a product available to retailers and casino owners. The product is called Commercaire. 
   Here is a section from the company's press release:

[Commercaire is] a powerful compound that causes consumers to feel a subconscious sense of comfort and security, which in turn causes them to stay longer and ultimately spend more. Odorless and airborne, pheromones are produced naturally by most species of insects and animals, including humans. The Vomeronasal Organ (VNO) within the nose detects pheromones emitted by other people and sends response signals to the hypothalamus, the brain’s center of emotions. Different pheromones trigger different responses that are rooted deeply in instinct. EAT researchers have identified and synthesized a proprietary pheromone that instills a sense of comfort and security in humans.   "The compound doesn’t cause consumers to get into a spending frenzy so much as it causes them feel more at ease in an environment and more receptive to sales messages," says Nigel Malkin, Director of Development. Consumers also tend to return more frequently to establishments infused with Commercaire. "At a subconscious level, the sense of comfort and security instilled by the compound causes consumers to have positive memories of any environment in which they are exposed to it. They’re more likely to return as a result," says Malkin.    Already in use by several major casinos, the company’s client base has seen a rapid increase into several non-gaming related industries. "We’re now seeing huge demand from other sectors, especially in the retail and restaurant industries," says Malkin. "Our clients are reporting increases in their bottom lines across the board." Other high demand markets include night clubs and auto dealerships.   Commercaire is suspended in a gel that evaporates into the air over time with the aid of EAT’s air distribution systems. Although Commercaire is unscented, EAT has produced scented ‘private label’ versions of its product for four major retailers. "Our air distribution systems provided a solution for dispersing our clients’ branded scents more effectively," says Malkin.

   Keen, huh? Frustrated over the state of the political economy? Worried that you can't make your next mortgage payment? Retired and just looking for a place to die? Hit the mall and stop off at the casino to blow what's left of your measly SSI check. We like to celebrate better living through chemistry, just like the military-cyber complex does whenever it targets installations in foreign countries for decimation, destroying their infrastructures and then hiring U.S. contractors to rebuild civilization. 
   Say what you want about Snowden. Probably he's a pawn in a battle between one of the lesser domestic intelligence agencies and its baby-daddy. Just keep an eye on that guy you see bagging groceries at the Rainbow Room or the gal jamming your Toadburgers into a sack at Micky-Dee's. He or she might be a future go-to personnel in the world of the NSA. 

Friday, June 14, 2013

WATCHING

   

   So many difficulties lies in writing a successful movie review that I sometimes wonder why any sane person would take the trouble. As has often been the case, most films made these days are not intended to endure the ages. If the film itself is trivia, what importance can even the best review exude? Of the top ten grossing pictures for the week ending June 9, 2013, four are franchises (what once were called sequels, or as some genius began calling the movies released after the first film but set in a fictional time prior to the original, prequels) and one is a remake. Six months from now, will anyone care at all about Fast & Furious 6, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hangover Part III, Iron Man 3, or The Great Gatsby? If the films themselves represent little more than the lack of imagination in the corporate hierarchies of modern cinema, little hope need be held for a review of any of these published in the Village Voice or New Times lasting longer than it takes to read it and toss it onto the light rail floor. 
    An even weightier problem confronting the conscientious film critic presents itself through the time-honored tradition of bad writing. If the average enthusiastic moviegoer of a certain age were called upon to name for us a list of all-time important movie critics, certain names would likely appear, including Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, John Simon, James Agee, Roger Ebert, Stanley Kauffmann, Jeffrey Lyons, Leonard Maltin, Janet Maslin, and A.O. Scott. It may be something of a news flash that several of these people are deceased, most significantly Ebert and Kael. The latter, in her reviews from The New Yorker, brought not only an informed and historically-centered analysis of contemporary film, she was also a thrilling stylist with a singular voice that often mitigated what many people considered embarrassingly wrong-headed opinions. 
   Without a stylistic advantage over one's competitors, it matters not at all what a given reviewer thought of Polanski's Cul-de-Sac or Kubrick's The Shining. Unless one is a film student or cultural historian, little pleasure can be gained by going back through old writings about movies which may not have been all that terrific in the first place. Pauline Kael used her style effectively, which is why the thirteen book collections of her reviews and essays exist to this day.
    Another name which should be on the above list of important film critics is that of Harlan Ellison. While perhaps not quite as prolific in his writings about cinema as Ms. Kael--although all told, his collections of short stories, screenplays, essays, novels and criticism exceeds the output of any other living author I can name (and to give you an idea of how prolific the man is, to date he has published three novels, four short novels, six graphic novels, thirty-two collections of short stories, four collaborations, eight books of essays and non-fiction, four screenplays, three retrospectives, and he has edited six other large volumes)--Harlan Ellison shares with Pauline Kael not only an unmistakable voice but an intense passion for all things cinematic. 
   All of which brings us, wet and happy, damp and merry, to Harlan Ellison's Watching. First published in 1989 and again in 2008, this giant book focuses primarily--although not exclusively--on an even less likely type of film than whatever it was that happened to be playing at the local Cine-puke. Ellison writes here about (are you ready?) science fiction movies! Swear to God! Science fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, horror. In short, stuff that ain't quite real. This collection of his sf film writings from 1965 through 1989 quite simply had to be excellent or else it would have self-flagellated into nonexistence. Again, it is a collection of (by definition) old movie reviews about old movies, specifically old movies which, for the most part, are from the world of sf&f, which works out great since about half the book is culled from his column in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Is it possible this book sold any copies at all?
    Yes, indeed. It sold many copies. It continues to sell. It would sell at least one more copy if you, dear reader, do the proper thing and buy one for yourself.
   It matters not one whit whether you like science fiction. Nothing is lost if your idea of a fun evening is to set fire to ancient reels of precious celluloid. Even if you cringe at the thought of running your finger along the edge of any book whose author once upon a time considered and abandoned the idea of contemplating the creation of a brief film review--even if you cannot read a word in any language ever conceived, you still owe it to the rest of humanity to read Harlan Ellison's Watching.  
    Why? Because, as with the greatest movies, in this volume Ellison's writing transcends the form. I offer at random, one paragraph from December 1986:
Yes, I thought at that moment, Ridley Scott is The One. If anyone can bring to the sf/fantasy the same level of High Art and High Craft that [John] Ford brought to the Western, it is this man. I dreamed of the elegance and respect for original source that Scott had shown with The Duellists in 1978. I extrapolated from the sheer virtuosity and Cedric-Gibbons-like love of setting and background that had gone so far to making Alien a masterpiece of clutching terror. (and if I were not committed to eschewing digressions, I'd suggest a linked viewing of Scott's film and the James Cameron sequel which, as decent a piece of work as it is, cannot even hope to rival the original foray for transcendence of trivial subject matter.)
   You perhaps notice that this hasn't much in common with the local TV movie review guy who comes out and says things such as "Oh, I really liked this movie. It's way so much better than the director's last movie, whatever that one was called. I mean, the actors are handsome so the ladies'll love it and the girls show skin that the guy's'll enjoy, so if you like action-adventure-comedy-suspense-romantic-cooking show-satires, you'll sure want to catch Tabitha Stevens and the Graves of Navarone." 
   Unlike the local TV guy, Ellison has worked in the motion picture business. Unlike the local TV guy, Ellison is a writer. Unlike the local TV guy, Ellison's erudition can actually help us get a sense as to why a movie we quite liked was a ball of rhino snot, or why a movie we cursed to scorn deserves permanent enshrinement in every home in the nation, or why we were quite correct to despise a movie like Spaceballs and were equally justified in worshiping a gem mine movie like Brazil
   Unlike the people writing for The New York Times or The New Republic, Ellison's reviews are of a time and place. However, Ellison imbues each topic with more relevance than you will find in a year's worth of reading in the Cahiers du Cinema. He's also a lot funnier.
    So buy it, rent it, just please don't dent it. That's Harlan Ellison's Watching, coming to an Amazon.com near you. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A NEAR-ADVENTURE WITH PARAMOUNT

   

   Of the many people in this world who have not always been famous, Elton John is among the most so. Before 1969, he played piano in many unclean sorts of dingy places, backing the likes of a struggling blues singer named Long John Baldry and acting the fool. The first I'd ever heard of Elton John was upon the release of his single "Your Song" in 1970. How nice, I thought, and nothing more. Certainly I felt no compunction to acquire the eponymous album. 
   A year later another simple tune with that same sad vocal bent my ear lobes. "Friends" was what the disc jockeys called it. They said it came from a soundtrack of a pleasantly dirty movie. Ho-hum, came my reply.
   By 1972 I discovered with horror that the very same radio that had lifted my spirits on more than a few wintry evenings and baked my brains on even more summer mornings had now turned from blaring regional hits by Bob Seger and J D Blackfoot to oozing out all sorts of fluffy national stuff. I'm sure you've heard of the people I'm talking about. There was James Taylor with his boasting about being a mental patient. There was Jim Croce who kept re-writing the same song over and over until a lot of people bought a copy just to shut him up. There was Joni Mitchell, one of the best of the pack, singing songs of such intimacy that after listening to an album of her music twice over you'd swear the two of you had been married for thirty years. Music that had once been proud of its inherent alienation had, over the two preceding years, become the bleating sonnets of a patient lying on a therapist's sofa, somehow managing to get better. Now that really pissed me off. Rock 'n' roll, as I had come to know it, never intended to cure us of anything except boredom--boredom with school, boredom with the family, with the opposite sex, with the same sex, the neighborhood, and most especially with all the musical trappings that had existed prior to this music's emergence. That this music--or something calling itself this music--would arbitrarily decide to go from being the sound of young rejects to the sound of respectable cocktail party diagnoses conjured in my mind a sense of betrayal. So betrayed did I feel that I managed to ignore a pair of nice minor hits by this same performer: "Levon" and "Tiny Dancer."
    By the early summer of 1972--a summer tortured with the wafts of Seals & Croft and Edward Bear--something quite unusual burped up through the AM radio frequency. It was a song called "Rocket Man." That sad-voiced singer actually made his tonality semi-ironic with this number. And the band he used--Davey Jonestone, Dee Murray, Nigel Olsson--felt tight in a way that mere rehearsals could have never conveyed. The lyrics--not often the most interesting part of an Elton John disc--truly punched this tune right along. "And all this science I don't understand. It's just my job five days a week." That was something different. I thought to myself that maybe I'd look into that album.
   The album in question was called Honky Château. The sleeve had a sepia photo of our man Elton, unshaved, unkempt and unwise: the perfect condition for summer's end. As the Labor Day weekend fast approached, I bought a copy. The cost, with tax, was $3.12, some of the best money I have ever spent.
    That weekend began, as more than a few of them do, on a Saturday. My parents had decided to go camping out of town. I was left with my record player and this Honky Château thing. Sonic bliss is what it was. 
   I know for a fact that throughout the tedium of the Jerry Lewis Telethon I must have played that album twenty-five times. The first couple listenings forced me to just sit there staring at the phonograph, wondering if maybe I'd been living the whole of my life in the wrong way. Was it possible that lots and lots of other albums out there in that big beautiful world jam packed with record stores were maybe almost close to being this good? So I phoned some friends. Got a new album, I said. It's very good. Come listen
   They came. They listened. I asked, "Whaddya think?"
   Maybe it was the electric piano on the opening cut, sounding like Dr. John on speed, that hooked them all. Perhaps they favored the tap dancing accompanying the merriment of "Think I'm Gonna Kill Myself" or the rock edged silliness of "Susie (Dramas)"--and why'd they have those parentheses there? Electric violin, rhino whistle, occasionally hilarious backing vocals, plus good old new rock 'n' roll. Twenty-five times? Every bit of it. 
   My friends coveted my new possession as I'd hoped they would.
   I know for a fact I didn't sleep more than three hours in that three-day weekend. I kept getting up to make sure that this wasn't a fluke, that I hadn't gotten the wrong copy of the album, that the real album was just a piece of garbage and what I had bought had fallen to earth from a  passing space craft. Of course, that would've explained "Rocket Man," but on a very different level. 
    The details of that recording rolled far beyond the boundaries of my tidy suburban universe. For one thing, I had never heard of Spanish Harlem and I certainly had not known that some people thought of them as just pretty words to say. I'd also never heard a pop album with mythological references that rocked. "Venus" and "Diana" didn't count, not being any good. But "Hercules" was not only rock, it was old-new rock, with ridiculous images of the singer taking a bath in a tub of mud. And one of the songs had a nice habit of raising its own volume toward the end, literally going up about fifty percent. That was new. Even more, there was a genuine sexuality to the album, with references to drinking beer and turning the bed sheets while watching the cold fire. 
    The weekend came and went, as such things do. School started that Tuesday and I did not care at all. I spent my class time in the heated throes of inspiration. I decided, in my embarrassing naivete, to write a movie script around that album. I invented all sorts of characters--some based on my loving classmates--and threw them together in a deranged plot that ended with the hero riding his motorcycle off a cliff and into the ocean rather than go to prison for whatever it was he had been thought to have done. 
   When I say I wrote this script, that is exactly what I did. I took a three-hole notebook filled with paper and hand wrote (in number two pencil) my script: Mellow. Truly awful tripe I'm sure it was, but that did not prevent me from sending it off to Paramount  Pictures in the complete expectation that someone aboard that studio would read it, love it, and offer me all kinds of sudden wealth for the rights to turn it into a major motion picture coming soon to a theater near you. Perhaps you can imagine how my fourteen-year-old chin hit the ground when two weeks later I received the script back along with a typewritten note that said that Paramount did not accept unsolicited, handwritten screenplays, but thank you very much.
    I did not know what was meant by the word "unsolicited," and probably it was my angry pride that prevented me from finding out. So I typed up the damned thing and mailed the studio another copy. This time it took them three weeks to respond. Again the same receptionist reminded me that they were returning it "unread" because they did not accept unsolicited work, the insensitive bastards. 
    I never fully recovered from that rejection and today I would not walk across the street to burn an Elton John album. Something about that word "unread" infuriated me then, as it does even now. Oh, I know I'm an egomaniac, just as I know that the script I'd sent was the direst of dreck. But the fact that one of the country's leading studios couldn't even be bothered to give my ninety pages a quick read, just in case it turned out to be magnificent? I fell into a brief funk that not even karate classes and a health food diet could cure.
   As a matter of fact, I'm still not quite over that sense of rejection. What I mean to say is that even sitting here writing these very words, I labor under a sense of entitlement that my ideas, recollections, and method of conveying these have merit enough to at a minimum be read by someone important. What has changed is that the important person in this case is you. I suspect you are far more of a fair barometer of good and bad than Paramount ever was. It is into your gentle room that these and the other words I've written must make their appearance on an approximately routine basis. I thank you for not sending them back "unread."

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

THE FUN OF DRIVING FOR MR. BURKE

   

   Danny paralleled the gold Buick Le Sabre in between the cars in two easy motions. Mr. Burke liked the way Danny drove, or at least told everybody he did, or at least told Danny that he told everybody he did. Danny sure wasn't about to call Mr. Burke a liar on it. The last guy who called Amos Burke a liar woke up dead with a ball-peen hammer sticking out of his eye socket, buried up to his nose in a south Phoenix dumpster. 
    "Leave the car running, Danny," Mr. Burke said from the back seat. 
   "Yes, sir, Mr. Burke."
   Danny dropped the shift into park and let it idle. Mr. Burke lit a cigarette--Saratoga was his brand and God help the man who called that a sissy cigarette--and exhaled without so much as cracking the window beside him. Danny knew that Amos Burke valued security. He always kept the windows  rolled up tight. 
    Danny considered asking his employer what to do next and then dismissed the idea. Mr. Burke would tell him when he was ready to tell him and not before. That was the way the fifty-two-year-old boss of the East Side liked to work it. You only spoke when he spoke to you, or else when it was an absolute emergency, which this might turn into, Danny reckoned. But there was no real cause for alarm just yet. Danny the driver stared straight ahead through the windshield. He tried not to smile.
    Not much was happening on the street. A couple tattooed wannabes pitched quarters against the curb to the left. A lady with a ridiculously big pink hat pulled down over one eye leaned against the building on the right. Danny'd seen her around. Otherwise the street was clear. Still, if he strained he could make out the sound of fat laughter coming from The High Street Tavern. Amos Burke owned that bar. Well, technically a guy named Pete Swanson owned it, at least on paper. But Mr. Burke owned a majority in Pete. So technicalities didn't really count for much.
   "Danny," said the man in the back seat. 
   "Yes, sir, Mr. Burke?"
   "I need to trust you with something. Something important. You know what I mean?"
    Danny had no idea what Mr. Burke meant. "Yes, sir. I know."
   "There's a jamoke inside name of Luther. Been getting his pencil sharpened by that chippie against the wall there. Lot of guys would take it out on her. But we already told Luther cut it out. He didn't get the message. So I need you do me a favor, okay?"
    Danny nodded. "Sure thing, Mr. Burke. You want me to talk to him?"
   "Did I ask you to talk to him, Danny?"
   The driver's insides froze. That was stupid. Very stupid. He said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Burke."
   "What I want you to do is go in there, buy him a drink. Luther likes the juice, okay? So you buy him one, tell him you're queer, I don't care what you tell him. Then buy him another. And one more after that. I want the guy juiced. You got it?"
    "Yes, sir, Mr. Burke."
    "Okay. Go on, then."
    As Danny entered The High Street Tavern, he realized he should have asked Mr. Burke what this Luther looked like. On the other hand, maybe that would have been the wrong thing to say. If Mr. Burke had thought it was important, he would've told him.
    Danny stood just inside the door and waited for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. Once he could see halfway well, he got a sense there was someone standing near him. The room held a lot of men, so at first the idea of somebody standing close didn't really mean much. A lot of guys came in to eyeball the chicks who worked for Pete, which meant they mainly worked for Mr. Burke. 
    "Hey, ho, Danny Boy. What's the word?"
    Danny flinched and looked to his side. He recognized Pete Swanson immediately. "You know a guy name of Luther? He's supposed to be here."
   Pete grinned the grin of a man who has just won the lottery. "Sure do, Danny Boy. Sure do. He's in VIP with a couple of the ladies. You want to see him?"
   Danny shook his head. "What's he drinking? Wait. Never mind. Just bring him another of whatever it is."
   Pete's grin broadened even further. "He's drinking Remy Martin Louis XIII. You sure you wanna be so generous?"
   Danny frowned. He stared at Pete. Pete's smile faded. He lifted a hand, snapped his fingers and up popped a waitress. He told her to bring Luther another round. The waitress scurried away.
    "When that one's gone, Pete, bring him another. After that, make sure he gets one more."
   "What if he wants to know who's handling the bill?"
   Danny's frown deepened. "I'll be sitting up at the bar. You tell him ask me if he has any questions."
   Pete Swanson did as he was told. 
   Danny the driver occupied a stool at the far end of the bar so he could watch the faces coming in. It also gave him a nice view of Candice the bartender. That was all right, too. 
    He watched as a second drink went back to VIP. A few minutes later the third of the triplets followed the first two. A few minutes later, a very tall, very thin black man came out of VIP and stood beside Danny. 
   "What's you doing, boy? Trying to get ole Luther wasted before dark?"
   "Name's Danny, spook."
   Luther chuckled. "I asked you a question, boy. Hey, don't think I'm what you call unappreciative. I'm just the kind of guy likes to know who's buying their drinks. That's all."
   "They're on the house, buddy."
   Luther chuckled again. "Sure wish them bitches back there was on the house, too." Danny felt the man's eyes crawling over him. "Don't laugh much, do you, boy? That's fine. Me, I live for laughs. That's why I like it here."
    "Glad to meet you, Luther."
   Danny stared hard into the man's eyes. He could tell this Luther was drunk. But those were not the eyes of an angry drunk with something to prove. They were the almost considerate eyes of a man who probably really did live for jokes. 
   "I got a daughter," Luther continued. "Works across town. Dancer, you know. She's in the colored club. Can't get no work here out East. You know how it is?"
   Danny nodded. He had no idea how it was. 
   Luther clapped an open hand on Danny's shoulder. "Guess you boys are gonna take me out, huh? Messing with the boss man's woman? His property?"
   This time Danny did manage a smile, but it was all for show. "Mister, I'm just a guy sitting in a bar, being nice to people."
   Luther looked toward the door. "Sure you are, son. Sure you are. God, I was feeling so good there for a while, know what I mean?" He laughed again but this time the sound was weaker. His weight against Danny's shoulder felt heavier. He looked back down at the driver. "Gonna croak me right here or take me for a ride?"
   "Come on, Luther."
   Danny's concentration shattered. He knew that voice. Nobody Danny'd ever met had a voice like oiled sandpaper. This guy did. That voice belonged to Gunty, or Gunty the Ax, as his friends called him behind his back. From the mirror's reflection, Danny watched as the seven-foot Gunty grabbed one of Luther's arms like he might be grabbing a stick of black licorice. The clot of strippers, waitresses and patrons parted like Moses was walking through with the Jews. Danny laid a twenty on the bar, stuffed three century notes inside Pete's jacket pocket and followed Gunty and Luther outside. 
   Gunty opened the passenger-side door to his own car, a black Lincoln. Mr. Burke wrapped his knuckles on the inside window and motioned Danny to get behind the wheel.
    "Follow them, Danny," Mr. Burke said as Danny pulled the car out onto High Street. "They're going to the salvage yard. That nigger jumps out, you run him over. Go for the head."
    "Yes, sir, Mr. Burke."
    Luther did not jump out of the car. By the time the two vehicles reached the salvage yard, Luther had passed out in the seat of Gunty's car.
    Once Gunty the Ax had revived his prey, Mr. Burke and Danny got out of the Buick. Amos Burke stood close to Danny. He reached into his pocket and retrieved a handgun. "Hold this for me a minute, Danny."
    Danny did as he was told while Mr. Burke walked up to Luther. "I got him, Gunty. Go stand with Danny."
    Gunty did as directed. He and Danny watched as Mr. Burke slapped him across the face. "You only got one chance, boy. Run! Run like the nigger you are. Run or I swear to God we'll shoot you so bad your whore mother won't recognize your sorry ass."
    Luther could not quite walk, much less run. Still he did manage to move away from Mr. Burke, first awkwardly, soon enough with some determination.
   Danny looked on as Mr. Burke turned to Gunty and said, "Go!"
   Just that fast Gunty snatched the gun from Danny, leveled it in front of him and fired, shooting Luther through the back of the head. a clean shot from over twenty yards. Danny was impressed.
   Mr. Burke walked back to where Gunty and Danny stood. "Nice job, Gunty. As usual."
   "Thank you, Mr. Burke." Oily sandpaper. Creepy as hell.
   "Danny," the boss said. "You been a good boy, helping out. Some times a man in my position has to do things he'd rather not do. Gunty here is hot. Very hot. There's all kinds of witnesses saw him shove Luther out of the bar. But you came out too. That's important. I mean, hell's bells. Those are your prints on the gun. Gunty here registered the piece under your name and identification at the gun show."
    Danny felt himself turning white. "Mr. Burke, sir, I can't do time."
    Mr. Burke laughed. Gunty joined in. The boss said, "You ain't doing time, Danny."
   Danny felt a sudden relief replaced by horror as Gunky raised the gun again and placed it against the driver's forehead. "Ouch," Gunty said, sounding like oily sandpaper. Then he fired.
   Danny closed his eyes. He heard the gun click. Then he heard the two men laughing.
   He opened his eyes. Mr. Burke and Gunty exchanged hugs with him. "Just fooling around, Danny," Amos Burke said, wiping tears of laughter from his face. "You're a good kid. Let's go back to the bar, huh? We'll have Pete pour you up a drink."

Monday, June 10, 2013

MICHAEL AND THE SIX-EYED ASSASSINS

   Rumor has it that the Six-Eyed Assassin Spider tends toward shyness. That bit of trivia would not have impressed Michael the Mandrill Monkey. Indeed, the leader of the forest's largest cluster of Six-Eyed Assassin Spiders, Necrotonic, had pursued the troop of which Michael was leader for many weeks. Initially, Necrotonic had commanded his colony to weave orbital webs across the banks leading to the river where the monkeys bathed. Thinking of themselves as smart primates, the Mandrill Monkeys had simply hopped over the webs and splashed into the water, the frantic spraying being more than sufficient to destroy the careful and tedious webbing. This minor setback enticed Necrotonic and his maritally estranged wife, Tabitha, to engage guerrilla warfare tactics. Seven Mandrill Monkeys--one of them Michael's own sainted mother--had fallen fatal victim to savage bites in the shrieking darkness of the African night. 
   The following morning, Michael gathered the members of his troop together and shouted, "That butcher! That vile arachnid sociopath must pay with his life!" 
   The other monkeys loved Michael. They loved his normally humorous demeanor, the way the colors of his face resembled an inverted rainbow when he laughed, the way he splattered poop on his chest before eating dinner. None of them had ever seen Michael angry before this day. Then again, his own mother and six other members of the troop had been poisoned by the razor-sharp fangs of  Necrotonic and the Six-Eyed Assassin Spiders. So when Michael called for war, the other monkeys, fearing the same tragedy might rain down upon themselves, stood and cheered in mass agreement with their leader. 
   One of Michael's closest friends, Rafter,  completed a mid-air somersault, then landed, raised his hand and asked, "How can we defeat these fiends, brother Michael?"
   The leader of the troop scratched himself under the legs for a few seconds and then replied, "Do you all remember when that company from the Americas sent their explorers here a while back?"
   Rafter and the others nodded as Michael continued. "We chased those bugger-eaters all the way back to Columbia. They left a lot of things behind. Mostly they left food we couldn't eat. But they also left behind some strong pesticides. They were afraid the mosquitoes would kill them, I suppose. I propose we wipe those filthy spiders out with those pesticides."
    All the members of the troop of Mandrill Monkeys cheered. It was decided they would strike at noon, when the Six-Eyed Assassins were likely to be sleeping in the cave. 
   Among themselves, those remarked upon by the primates as Six-Eyed Assassin Spiders did not refer to one another with what they considered that most pejorative of names. Among themselves they were always known as Sicarius. The colony  of 40,000 Sicarius spiders of which Necrotonic was the boss--in the absence of his maritally estranged wife--slept just a few feet inside the entrance to a large cave that emptied out near the same river where the Mandrill Monkeys conducted their business. As Necrotonic and the others snoozed in eight-legged bliss, a battalion of monkeys boated their way up the river toward the cave, each craft decked out with a mounted pesticide spray gun. Each gun was labeled "Organochlorine Hydrocarbon," referring to the lethal insecticidal gas contained within. When the Mandrill Monkeys reached the mouth of the cave where the spiders were sleeping, Michael stood up in his boat and shouted, "Exterminate all the brutes!" This was a line from a book he had found that the explorers had left behind. Michael considered himself to be reasonably intelligent and felt a certain pride in the application of this directive.
    The poisonous gas which the human beings had called DDT flooded the mouth of the cave within seconds. First one spray gun and then another unleashed its load until none of the Mandrill Monkeys could even see what was happening. Fortunately for those warring monkeys, the explorers had also left behind gas masks. Otherwise, it would have been Goodnight Irene, another expression Michael liked to work into his conversations. 
    After an hour or so, the clouds of poison lifted skyward. The Mandrill Monkeys--which the Sicarius thought of as Ape Drippings--approached the mouth of the cave. Michael and Tabitha (it was an irony appreciated by neither side that Michael's wife was also known as Tabitha and that he and she were likewise maritally estranged) were at the front. Just as Tabitha made to step ahead of her maritally estranged husband, Michael locked his hands under her arms and threw her back. She rolled over several times in the mud and cursed her husband like a drunken baboon. 
    But Michael had not been trying to harm his loving bride. On the contrary, what had provoked him into such action was the sight of thousands of angry and anything-but-shy Assassin Spiders inching their way toward him, no worse the wear for the spraying they had endured. At the front of the cluster was the dreaded Necrotonic himself. 
   "Just leave it to a monkey," Necrotonic laughed, "to bring an insecticide to kill arachnids." 
    With that pithy observation, a humongous web dropped from the tree beneath which Michael was standing. In a breath he was trapped, unable to move. He looked on in horror as the Assassins chased his comrades. Many of the monkeys made it to the boats and paddled away with great haste. Still, when the siege was complete, more than twenty Mandrill Monkeys lay dead or dying. Michael had only been able to watch.
   "You hate us all so much!" Michael screamed as Necrotonic approached his silk captivity. "Why? Is it because of our laughter? Is it because we love bananas? Is it because we rub poop on our bodies?"
   Necrotonic blinked all six of his red eyes and said, "You really are an idiot. A narcissistic Tammy Faye Baker-faced imbecile. Is your memory completely shot to hell? Do you have no sense of your own history?"
   Michael was exhausted from struggling in vain to free himself from the ever-tightening web. Also he was upset about what he imagined to be his inevitable demise. He did not respond to the question.
   Necrotonic inched closer and, with some distinct increase in volume, said, "Ten weeks ago you morons took over a copse of trees over by the other cave. Remember?" He waited for a response that did not come. "You clods weighted down one of the tallest trees and it collapsed. You know where it fell? I'll tell you where it fell! It fell right through the roof of the cave. It landed on a colony of we Sicarius spiders. Fifty thousand of our brothers and sisters were wiped out in one single orgy of stupidity by you unclean barbarians. If we snuffed fifty thousand of you bastards, there wouldn't be any of you Ape Drippings to kill us any more. You'd be extinct. Then maybe we could get some sleep without you freaks trying to kill us with your pathetic bug spray. In any event. . ."
   Necrotonic trailed off. He motioned with five of his eight legs for the rest of his colony to move forward. Michael could not move enough even to scream as the spiders covered his body and bit.
    From atop the cave, unseen by the spiders, Rafter watched and waited until Michael's painful spasms had halted. Rafter was somewhat more clever than his dead friend. He knew that in order to inspire thousands of Mandrill Monkeys from Africa to come in and wipe out the cursed spiders, a martyr would be required. That mouthy friend of his, Michael the poop spreader, would serve just fine. 
   The spiders below looked up as Rafter whistled through his teeth and thousands of Mandrill Monkeys lifted themselves up from their camouflage on the top of the cave. Each monkey carried a stone in each fist. They ran to the edge of the roof of the cave and hurled the rocks at the spiders, killing Necrotonic and Tabitha, along with 40,000 more. The beautiful Mandrill Monkeys danced and cheered at the carnage.
    Not far away, thousands of Six-Eyed Assassin spider eggs were hatching.