SPORTS

I am not an athlete.

I’ve never been exceptionally fast or strong. I took up running for a bit as an adult. Miles. Rage filled miles. In retrospect, I was coping. I’d do six, seven, nine mile runs, in pain most of the time, talking to my deceased father. Praying to my ancestors. There was no such thing as moderation. I ran, screaming, past the point of all reason. I’ve actually had the fabled runner’s high multiple times. Bursitis of the knee forced my retirement, and I’m somewhat glad. It may be my anxiety talking, but I usually expected myself to drop dead. In reality, it’s much more likely that I would have been creamed by an inattentive driver.

In the fuzziest of memories, I am swimming. I loved the water. There were M&M cookies involved, somehow. Horseflies and wasps abound, alive and dead. Chlorine. Wet Funyuns. Pennies thirteen feet down. Teenagers screaming Revenge of the Nerds references. I was cute and I’d get carried like a baby by wet cheerleaders. People called me Short Round. Fortune and glory, kid. Fortune and glory.

After I exited those skinny, brown years of floating around the country club, things weren’t so hot. I was chunky to obese as a child, depending on the time period, and I was always clumsy. I played tee ball and whatever they called the thing before little league but I was afraid of the ball. One time I actually made it to first base and overheard my coach tell my mother I was “grinning like a possum.” I remember very little about my baseball adventures other than the wonders of the concession stand, but this stuck with me.

Mom enrolled Blake and I in Taekwondo classes when we were young. At this point I was so fat I had little boy titties and I would wear a t-shirt under my white uniform. The guys would always say, “Are you a girl? Only girls do that.” I peaked at a yellow belt with a number of green stripes, a number I don’t actually recall because the real number has been erased by all the lies I’ve told about the amount of green stripes I had, as if it mattered. This is similar to the tale (read: terrible lie) I have told about how I got an overall 30 on the ACT. It was a 29, actually, but I had a 32 in Science and Reading. That 26 in Math brought me down. See, I’m still so proud that I have to explain it.

I tried out for the basketball team in ripped sweatpants when I was ten or eleven. This was when I still danced at parties. This is when I was still a funny chunko who didn’t know shame. It embarrasses me even now. What must I have looked like stumbling around and failing at layups with my underwear showing? Not long after this I rocked a mullet and a do-rag. The early 1990s in rural Arkansas were not kind to anyone’s fashion sensibilities.

When the time came, I got this close to signing up for football. A couple of teachers were actually excited because I was so overweight that I would have made a good defensive lineman, in their minds at least. It would have been a fucking disaster. I changed my elective to band at the last minute and I do not regret this decision. I did excel at marching but there’s not going to be an Olympic medal for that any time soon.

I’ve had a personal workout regimen going for well over a decade. It has mostly involved some form of resistance training. I won’t write a book about it because it’s not impressive, but I’m proud of it anyway. I try to think of it as something as routine as taking a shower or a dump. Maybe I’ll live longer for it. Maybe not.

I’ve been shunned in countless conversations because I know jack shit about sports. I can’t make myself care about it most of the time, and if I had to guess I’d say it’s because I’ve always been terrible at everything that involves moving, but that’s a bullshit lie. Once, when I worked at Sam’s Club, I turned a corner running full tilt and met a toddler. I lept and spun, a move worthy of Nancy Kerrigan herself, cleared him completely, and landed it. Then again, one time I ran into a pallet of Gain and broke my ribs.

Let me back up a bit here.

When I started working at Sam’s, I was a big dude. I had just come off the tail end of being a shut-in for a couple of years and I was proud of the gainful employment. When someone asked me to do something, I hustled, and when it was at the back of the store and I was at the front, I ran.

I swear that I remember seeing Sam’s Club employees on roller skates when I was a kid. My brain may have invented this. Either way, I’m shit at skating, roller and ice. Add those to the list.

It might have been inadvisable, especially to their insurance department, but I ran, and ran, and ran. I started wearing a pedometer everywhere. This was before smartphones and Fitbits so it was the only way to keep up with it. On busy days I’d run 12-14 miles. I’d play movie scores in my head. It usually varied, but for a while I was stuck on Rudy.

It helped me to imagine doing something cinematic and important when all I was really doing was fetching a box of Tide or a case of Gatorade. It resonated with me even though I had nothing in common with the guy Sean Astin depicted in the film. Upon further research, Rudy actually didn’t either. It’s all fiction, but the fantasy served me well while I trudged warehouse club concrete for the Waltons.

Still, it’s nostalgic to think about footballs flying through the crisp autumn night and the itch of Bermuda grass. Basketballs beat and sneakers squeak where the pep band once played. I may not have been on the team, but I was there. I can still crank out a Manly Single Tear when I hear the Olympic theme that John Williams composed. That shit just echoes Raiders and Superman and E.T. It’s the eighties. Nerds and Queen. Wheaties and gymnasts and Mr. T. Aren’t we all so enamored with the decade in which we became a little human?

I never thought I’d write an ode to athletics but, you know, there’s something to that. There’s something to those bodies huddled together in celebration. That’s society. That’s the herd. That’s church.

I’m not an athlete, just a standard body maintenance man who played in the band. I’m a retail track star who medaled in the toddler jump. I’m the winner of the Jonesboro Grief ‘n’ Hollering 10k. I’m a Self-flagellation Hall of Fame inductee.

You can take that last one whichever way you like. They’re both accurate.

“Do you guys have that new poetry book?”

If poetry were breathing
not just remnants for defiling
if there were a hole for purchase
not a gaping chalky pelvis
tossed askew and broken
crumbling
into which you’d wave your rod
and crank one out into the void
if you could even make it stand
instead you drape it noodle-like
declare it Iwo Jima
wiggle floppy on its pubis
now you’ve landed on the moon

If poetry were living
I’d be waxing philosophical
instead of kicking violators off
the pile of ash before me
caked with drool and leavings
stale with farts
of ABCB something teen
adventure
crack cocaine and sex
suggested reading levels
twelve through Junior High Librarian
Have those degrees
paid you back yet?

If poetry were reigning still
your magnum opus vomit
copy/pasted from your Facebook
occupying fixture top shelves
would, instead
grace moldy stall dividers
yellow piss-stained toilet walls
right next to “JC Penney Blowjob”
Sharpie’d neatly there until
graffiti spray remover strikes
and melts your wisdom to the floor:
“I loved you once, I’ll love again
but you, my love, I’ll love no more.”

Float like a Butterfly, Bite like a Flea

I used to think every great epiphany I had was something swell to yell from the mountaintops. I’m getting over it now and it’s embarrassing when I see other folks doing it. It’s even more complicated considering messages like these sound awfully close to the thing I just claimed I’ve stopped doing.

It’s not bad to share ideas. It’s not even bad to give instruction but everyone’s an instructor these days. Once again, ye olde Internet rears its ugly head. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man learned the hard way that with great power comes great responsibility.

I’m still doing it, though. This is a long form shut up. I can’t Riders of Rohan myself into every argument, yet we might as well argue the constellations. I’m not better than you, I’m fucking tired.

This is what the Internet does to us. Everyone has to weigh in. Oh, recently I’ve seen a couple of people, just a couple, say “I honestly know absolutely nothing about this.” If I were a sculptor. How wondrous!

I don’t want to nihilism everyone into hushing, but maybe I do.

Hell, the path to enlightenment could turn out to be long Facebook rants about the description of a John Oliver video that you didn’t even watch. I doubt it, but what the fuck do I know?

I’d rather write shitty poetry or a short story no one will ever read. At least there’s the odd one-in-a-million chance that it’s an original thought. Anything else sounds like seagulls. Dank memes and whining machines.

Haha, just kidding. Shut the fuck up.

Happy Birthday

The Internet has informed me of the many birthdays today. Early October must be prime time to get busy. I’d like to wish a happy one to you all, but especially to my big little brother, Blake.

I do not get to see you as much as I would like, Blake, but I must tell you what an influence you’ve been on my life. There were times when it was hard for me to get along with my father, but I saw you doing it, and I realized that it could be done. I built a relationship with him while he was still sitting behind that old desk listening to talk shows on the radio, before the storm. Thank you.

I also remember, vividly, that you were not my “little” brother for long. People confused us for twins, and then you were my big brother. I’ve been told by strangers that I have angry little man syndrome and a Napoleon complex. While I’ve definitely had to work through the negative side of that affair, I’ve come out with a supreme sense of justice and what it means to fight for the little guy. It made me stronger.

Please don’t take this the wrong way. I know I usually started it.

You have become such a patient person. You’re strong, physically and emotionally. I have seen you in situations where you could have gone off like an atomic bomb, laying all to waste, but you didn’t. You are a master negotiator. You are empathetic. You are understanding, and kind. To my friends who do not know you, I compare you to Thor. You are, in a way, my hero.

Our father would be so proud of you. I know this with more certainty than I have ever known anything.

Happy Birthday to you, Blake. You are the Schwarzenegger to my DeVito. I would not have it any other way.

Love,
Bobby

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There’s an App for That

“Why ‘Jerry’?” Brett asked. “What does that mean?”

“Because it’s gold, Jerry,” said Dennis.

“No, it’s short for Jerry Maguire,” Bradley said. “You know-”

“Show me the money, yeah,” Brett said. “Like, this program is going to make us a lot of money somehow?”

“No, no,” Bradley said. “That’s not it at all. It’s that scene where he gets fired and he’s like-”

“I haven’t seen that movie in years,” said Cheryl to Brett.

“I have,” said Chad. He stared at the table.

“Well,” Bradley said “calling it Jerry Maguire all the time was sort of cumbersome so we started calling it-”

“Yeah, we get it,” Brett said. “Bradley, these gentlemen contacted us yesterday and expressed great interest in speaking to you and your team.” Brett lifted his hand from his smartphone and pointed his first two fingers at the finely-attired men sitting to his right.

“Mr. Lewiston,” the expensive suit nearest him said, “may I call you Bradley.”

“Yes sir,” Bradley said. His nod was a vibration.

“Bradley,” he said. “I’m John Tucker.” He pointed his thumb over his left shoulder. “This is my associate, Malcolm Frobisher. We’ve had an eye on your work for some time now.”

“Bradley,” Brett said. “I need you to be honest about what you’ve been doing for us here.” Brett looked over and met the eyes of his corporate attorney, Cheryl, who sat to his left, then shifted his gaze back to Bradley.

Malcolm watched this exchange and cracked a slight, crooked smile.

“Bradley,” John said. “I need you to tell me what this thing does.”

“Well, I,” Bradley said. He glanced at Cheryl. “I, uh.”

“Screw that I can tell you what it does,” said Chad. His hands were in his lap. He inspected his palms.

“Chad,” said Brett. “I don’t-”

“Guys,” said Dennis. “Guys it doesn’t do shit.”

“Gentlemen,” said John. “Gentlemen,” He opened the manila folder in front of him and produced a stack of paper, which he slid over to Cheryl,
“and lady.” He winked.

“What is that?” Brett asked.

Cheryl furrowed her brow and skimmed the front page. She lifted a finger and turned the page with her other hand. She turned another page. “It’s immunity for the corporation with the stipulation that we cooperate. Same deal for Bradley as an individual. It’s solid enough.”

“What does ‘enough’ mean?” Brett asked.

“You know what it means, Brett,” Cheryl said. She closed the packet. “It means what it means. Don’t fuck around.”

“That’s right,” John said. “No monkey business. Shall we proceed, Mr. Lewiston? Bradley?”

“Where do I start?” Bradley asked. “I’ve never done this before.”

“Start at the night of the beta,” Malcolm said. “Fill in whatever is relevant.”

“Okay,” Bradley said. “Okay. So, it was supposed to be limited. I mean, it was limited. We do this all the time, beta testing different features among users. I mean, we have over 500 million worldwide so there’s really no limit to what we can test. Practically nobody’s page looks the same. We don’t always run it by people, either. I mean, uh, Dennis, he did Willie Nelson remember?”

“What is Willie Nelson other than a musician I enjoy?” Malcolm asked.

Brett looked at Dennis, who turned to Cheryl. “Cher. Seriously?” Dennis asked.

“Seriously,” she said.

Dennis slumped over in his seat. “Okay. Well. I made, in my spare time, which we are allowed to do-”

“Jesus, Dennis,” Brett said.

“We are,” Dennis said, “we’re allowed to code on breaks, or stay late, whatever. Well, I did. I did Willie and it let you search for buy ops in states where pot is legal. Not just stores, I mean, people could post offers, it was supposed to be a music festival thing-”

“Through the network,” Chad said, “but he set the parameters wrong.”

“Fuck you man it was that fucking intern,” Dennis said. He arose from his slump and flopped down on the edge of his chair. It tipped precariously forward and slammed back down with a clack.

“Guys,” Brett said. He looked at John. “Long story short, it was supposed to be a beta in a few legal counties and it got posted to the entire eastern seaboard. By morning we were getting emails from people all over the country.”

“Why don’t we know about this?” John asked. He eyed Malcolm.

“We do,” Malcolm said. “User side it was called Sticky.”

John nodded. “Yes, yes I do. That must have been, what, four, five years ago? God, I was one year out of academy. I thought it was the Russians?”

“Heh,” Malcolm said. “Brett blamed it on hackers from one of his shell companies, shut that one down. They own a couple of big outlets so it didn’t get legs. It was need to know but now I guess you do.”

“Hah,” John said. He looked from Dennis to Brett. “What a deal.”

Brett pressed his lips together in a tight line.

“It’s still all over Reddit,” Chad said. “And 4chan.”

“Chad,” Cheryl said.

A vein pulsed on Brett’s left temple.

“Right,” Bradley said. “So, where was I?”

“You were describing Jerry, but if you don’t mind, go back a bit and tell me what gave you the inspiration, other than Dennis’s escapades,” John said.

“Okay,” Bradley said,”I, well, you know I like to think of myself as pretty passionate. You know, it hurts me. The things people do, I guess, and working here I get to see it 24/7. Everyone’s feed is full of just, well, garbage. I mean, there are good things too, but it’s a, well, sorry Brett, but it’s a sea of shit.”

Brett considered Bradley for a moment. He smiled with his mouth only. “It’s okay, Brad,” he said. “We want you to express yourself, constructively, in whatever way you feel is appropriate.”

“Oh,” Bradley said. “Okay. Well, it started as a joke. Not really a joke, but.” He paused. “Let me back up.” Bradley gazed at the blank yellow legal pad in front of him on the table. He breathed in deeply through his nose, held it for a second, and exhaled through his pursed lips. Six sets of eyes peered at him from across the table. They waited.

“When they had the shooting back in, oh, last year? No it was two years ago. There have been so many, but that was the one. I got sick of the onslaught of crap opinions and fighting, so much fighting. Everyone has some goddamned idea, right, and most of them won’t do anything about it anyway. The people who actually vote don’t even use our site-”

“That demographic has actually increased ten-” Chad started.

“Chad.” Brett said. “Please go on, Bradley.”

“Well, anyway, I started thinking. We send notifications when people post certain combinations of words. It depends on what it is, I mean, it’s complicated. I can show you the source code but I’m not sure you’d get it.”

“I get enough,” John said. “Your team programs a set of flags, which can be words, time logged on, time between posts, interactions, and so on, and your site can send messages accordingly.”

“Yeah,” Bradley said. “Yeah, that’s the long and short of it. So, these people, I mean these guys, it’s always guys. These guys, they’re on our site. Nine times out of ten, they’re here, and I know they got the warnings. Probably the ‘are you okay’ text but maybe even the Suicide Hotline. And I thought, what if we took it a step further?”

“What is ‘further’?” Malcolm asked.

“Uh, well,” Bradley said. He faced Cheryl. She nodded. “Well,” he said, “what if it checked for a few other things? What groups they are a member of, what they like, where they post, age, ethnic groups, gender, religious affiliation, political interests. It all gets weighed. Then, if they’re over a certain score, they get a different message.”

“Kill yourself!” Dennis said in a cheer. He raised his arms above his head, fists clenched.

Goddammit Dennis,”Brett said. He bared his teeth.

Dennis flopped his arms into his lap. “What? What?” He said as he glimpsed around the room for support. “I told you it doesn’t do anything. It’s a fuckin’ suicide program. ‘Kill yourself’, haw haw haw. Really?”

The room was silent.

“It did, though, didn’t it?” John asked.

“Do something?” Bradley asked. “I mean, it sent a message that suggested they would be better off dead. It was almost poetic, Chad wrote it-”

When time, it comes, to fade to black-” Chad said.

“Yeah, like that, but did it work then?” Bradley said “I don’t know-”

“You do though,” Chad said. “We checked. You checked.”

“What does he mean, Bradley?” Malcolm asked.

“Well,” Bradley said, “I stayed late one Friday, you know the one, obviously, and I ran a limited beta in Southern California. It was 250,000 people in metropolitan areas only, selected randomly, but within that group, it sent 17 messages.”

“Go on,” John said.

“Nine of them never logged back on.”

Brett furrowed his brow and bit his lip. Cheryl stared down at her legal pad. She had drawn a series of black stars and a question mark.

“But you don’t know,” John said.

“We do,” Chad said. “It’s not hard to check the news, Google names.”

“Weren’t you afraid someone would find out?” Malcolm asked.

“If they used as much of my app as I think they did-” Dennis started.

“Hey Dennis,” Bradley said, “don’t disrespect me like that man.”

“Dude I just calls ’em as I sees ’em,” Dennis said as he folded his hands behind his head.

“What are you talking about?” Malcolm asked.

“Look, it’s standard.” Chad said. “Dennis is acting like it isn’t but it’s open code, we don’t use it much, but you can freeze screen shots, printing, snip tools, whatever, for the duration of the message.”

Cheryl looked up and to the right. “Uh,” she said, “what stops someone from whipping out their phone and taking a photo.”

“Well, Cher,” Dennis said, “that’s the brilliance of me, baby. That other shit is standard but what I did is link the desktop version to the app so that if you got a desktop message, any other device on the same account is camera locked, and vice versa. It doesn’t stop a third party from getting their phone out, or a fucking Polaroid for that matter, but what are the chances of that?”

“Actually, the chances are pretty good for drug buyers but not so good for suicidal people,” said Chad.

Dennis lifted his right fist towards Chad and slowly extended his middle finger.

Malcolm looked at John and cocked an eyebrow. John nodded back.

“Okay guys,” Malcolm said. “We’ve gotten all we need from everyone but Chad and Bradley. The rest of you are excused but please remain available. We may need you for a followup.”

Dennis was already on his feet. “Great. I have shit to do.”

Brett faced Cheryl. “Is this good? I mean, are we good?”

Cheryl frowned. She regarded Malcolm and John then back to Brett. “You still smoke? I need a smoke.”

“Uh, shit. Sure,” Brett said. He hesitated for a moment before he started to stand. “Okay.”

After the door swung closed on its hydraulic, John studied Chad for a moment, then he addressed Bradley.

“All right,” John said, “we’ve established what message you sent, but you keep talking about a message. A warning message isn’t an app.”

Bradley glanced at Chad, then back at John. “I didn’t want to look after that night, but Chad checked for me. There were suicides, but there were also murder-suicides,” he said. “It didn’t work.”

“But it did,” Chad said. “They would have done it anyway, man.”

Bradley’s lips pressed together until his chin turned white.

“Chad’s right,” Malcolm said. “You realized that, didn’t you?”

“I knew then that it wouldn’t stop,” Bradley said. “I knew that people wouldn’t just leave without hurting someone, so I thought, what if I could direct it? What if I could give a suggestion?”

John’s nose crinkled. “What,” he said, “like a hit list?”

“It’s not a list,” Chad said. “I mean, there is a list, but people aren’t presented with it because we figured that would be too overwhelming. It takes your location and means into account, and then figures out who deserves it the most-”

“Deserves?” Malcolm said. He stood up. “How can you calculate such a thing?”

Chad ran his fingers through his hair. “Uh, well-”

“There’s a point system,” Bradley said. “If your net worth is a certain amount, you get points. If you publicly hold certain political views, there are points. More power is generally more points. Violent criminal records count too but also large white collar crimes. I wanted it to be as equal as possible. If you’re on a corner in Gardena you might get a drug runner but if you’re in downtown Sacremento-”

“So this is a revolution machine?” John said. “A hit suggestion box?”

“Wait John,” Malcolm said. He put his hand on John’s shoulder. “Chad. As I understand it, you built this on a previous platform. You linked it to all the information you’ve collected, you allow people to enter more information if they wish, and when they set off those triggers, when the system determines they’re that lone gunman, it pops off a suggestion. Not just that you kill yourself, because that’s a given that they’re going to get shot by police or bodyguards, but kill whoever.”

Chad nodded. “Yeah, in layman’s terms.”

“So it’s not an app, really, like Instagram. It’s a function of the site itself.”

“Correct,” Chad said.

“You may go,” said Malcolm.

Chad looked puzzled. John glanced over his shoulder at Malcolm with a similar expression on his face.

“It’s okay,” Malcolm said to them both. “Bradley can handle this from here on out.”

“Okay,” Chad said as he stood. “Uh, I’ll text you okay?” he said. Bradley nodded silently as Chad left the conference room.

Malcolm walked to the end of the table and sat beside Bradley.

“So, earlier, you were talking about Jerry Maguire,” Malcolm said. “My wife loves that movie. I remember that scene you were describing, before you were so rudely interrupted. Tom Cruise gets fired and he says ‘who’s coming with me? I’m not going to, you know, flip out, but who’s coming with me’, right?”

Bradley chuckled. “Right. ‘Who’s coming with me?'”

John stood up and walked to the end of the table and sat on Bradley’s other side.

“This program is active, isn’t it, Bradley?” Malcolm asked.

“Yes,” Bradley said.

John looked at Malcolm. “What do you mean active? He said it works-”

“Not in that sense,” Malcolm said. “Chad was with him until this step. It’s not a triggered message. Anyone can use it.” He looked at Bradley. “Right, Bradley?”

“A message wasn’t enough,” Bradley said. “Maybe the problems get solved, maybe not, but I thought, what about the guy who has inoperable stage IV cancer? Do we include him? I don’t know if I could justify egging on a person who might survive, who wasn’t a creep, but what if I made it optional? What if I made it more, you know, user friendly?”

“So a guy lives in DC and he has leukemia,” John said. “My God.”

“It’s not just that though,” Bradley said. “Social media wasn’t good enough. As much as we hate to admit here, not everyone is on it. People’s pages are run by their assistants. The media is full of lies. I needed real information. I gave it fields and made the parameters adjustable by the user, but it wasn’t enough. I connected it to every accessible database of public information, but it wasn’t enough. I needed all of it.”

“I know,” Malcolm said. “Which is why we’re here today.”

“I’d guessed that,” Bradley said.

John looked at Malcolm. “We can’t give that to him.”

Malcolm nodded. “We don’t have to. He got in two weeks ago.”

“What?” John said.

Bradley shifted in his seat.

“He’s plugged us into his equation,” Malcolm said. “I thought we’d cooked up some spooky shit for the drone program, but this guy,” he shook his finger at Bradley, “this guy is the spookiest.”

“Have you used it?” John said.

“I’ve done myself, yeah. You know what it says. Do you want to know what yours say?” Bradley asked.

“Oh, I’m not sure I want to,” Malcolm said. “I do need to ask you about last week, when you made some adjustments. Our logs say that you set the time and date on your calendar to noon on November 22, 1963, turned off your GPS, and entered your location as Dallas, Texas.”

“If you know all that, you know what it said,” said Bradley.

“I need John to hear it,” Malcolm said.

“Well, it wasn’t that simple. There were factors I didn’t see firsthand. If the date is set in the past, the fields are populated by the best available information, but everyone didn’t have a tracking device in their pocket-”

“Bradley,” John said.

“Lyndon Baines Johnson,” said Bradley.

John blinked. Malcolm rose from his chair and said, “How’s that for on the job training, John?”

“Uh,” John looked up at Malcolm then back at Bradley. “You didn’t publish this thirty minutes ago or anything, did you?”

“No,” Bradley said. “I’ve been up for days running simulations. It’s something to ask the combined knowledge of the human race who it would have killed at any particular place and time, but it’s here. It’s just here.”

“Good,” Malcolm said. “Good. You’re going to need to leave with us, Bradley. I hope you’re okay with that.”

“I have to be,” Bradley said, “don’t I?”

Malcolm nodded and patted him on the shoulder. He turned to John.

“John, I need you to stay behind. There’s a team arriving in twenty for cleanup. If Brett has questions we’ve got a government contract and he’ll be transferred a significant sum into his offshore holdings by tomorrow morning. The others are fine. All they saw was a suicide message. Chad will get the standard followup just in case.”

“Gotcha,” John said. “So, Bradley, I guess Malcolm knows, but I don’t. What did yours say?”

“Heh,” Bradley said. “It was Brett, but if I’m going with you guys, I have a feeling it’s going to change.”

“Mr. Lewiston,” Malcolm said, “I have the feeling a lot of things are about to change.”

Sun Day

Gina & Willie are hibernating. Cora is asleep on the couch. Bea is watching the Backyardigans on her tablet. She’s covered in paint and mud, and she’s holding a carpentry level. These things happen.

Tomorrow is Bea’s second birthday. I recall reading the ancient Romans didn’t consider babies people until they reached age two, then they had a huge celebration of their survival. I may have dreamed this. I have no citation but it doesn’t matter. Someone once told me life is too short not to believe in the Loch Ness Monster. I Want to Believe.

Bea has always been a person to me, long before she was born. This is not supposed to be a controversial statement. Willie is real to me as well and he’s still parasitic. Well, more parasitic than most.

I’ve always needed people so I guess I made my own. Isn’t this what we do? Regardless of the best laid plans of everything living, they all had parents. Or a parent. Or ancestors. You know what I mean. You may stop whenever you like but the history of the entire universe resulted in you. My my, butterfly.

And there it is. What better day to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday than Father’s Day? Lawnmowers and weed eaters buzz outside. I handed a $25 dollar check to my lawn man an hour ago. As my father once told me, the American Dream of home ownership comes with the burden of lawn maintenance. However, I’d not deprive some budding entrepreneur income when we could both benefit from an arrangement. Sweet symbiosis.

In a few days, we’ll have another cake for Cora’s fourth birthday, after which, she has informed me, she will be sixteen.

It will probably seem that way.

Here in this sweltering swath of America, it seems like peace could be a reality. “Hold me, hold me,” Bea says. I’d better do that, while I can.

What’s in a Name

Hello, Willie.

Yesterday, your mother and I found out that you are going to be William Patrick instead of Evelyn Rose. Gina has loved the name Evelyn since she saw The Mummy as a child. It’s the one with Rachel Weisz. Rose is for the character Rose Tyler from Doctor Who, which I am sure you will find out about at some point. I took your mother all the way to London to propose to her on the spot where the TARDIS landed outside Rose’s apartment. I must admit that I am pretty proud of that feat. It may be one of the top five greatest things I’ve pulled off.

You are William Patrick Talbot, which means a whole load of things. You are named after the first two actors to play the Doctor, William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. We had the great fortune to be able tell some of Pat Troughton’s co-stars about this in person. Wendy Padbury seemed particularly enamored with your mother. You were there with us but you didn’t know it. I do hope that you are able to meet her again when you come out to see the world.

You are also named after two actors who represent my first science fiction love, William Shatner and Patrick Stewart. You’ve been right beside Mr. Shatner although you were comfortably hanging out in your mother’s womb. I’ll show you the photograph when you’re older.

I don’t know how you’ll spell Willie but I’m going with the Willie Nelson spelling for now. Willy seems a bit off to me, but it’s definitely Willie and not Billy. Willie may become William or Will (or even Wil), but Billy turns into Bill, and I don’t feel like you’re a Bill. It’s really up to you, though. Maybe you’ll be Pat.

Talbot has many meanings, depending on who you ask. To the English it’s an extinct breed of dog, but, before that, the French said it was a robber. The Germans, who were the earliest, called it messenger of destruction.

They were warriors, probably, who came across the English Channel during the Norman Invasion. It doesn’t matter, though. That’s only a small fraction of who you are. Once you go back a few generations we’re all cousins. We’re all children of Charlemagne or Genghis Khan. We’re all related, and that’s the important part. Never forget it.

You have two sisters, Coraline and Beatrix, who are both very excited to see you. You can thank Neil Gaiman and Beatrix Potter for their names. Oh, and another English author, Mary Norton, for Bea’s middle name Arrietty, which is from The Borrowers. Cora and Bea love to snuggle Gina and pat her belly. They give you kisses and I know they love you already.

I hope to write you more often, Willie. I’ll do my best to filter out the ridiculousness and keep it to things I actually know (you’ll learn more about this later, I am certain). I really don’t know much, but compared to you, I know everything, so you’re stuck with me for a while, Kiddo.

I love you dearly, and your mother does too. I cannot wait to see your little face. I think of your sisters, and your mother, and you, when things are tough. You give me strength. I’ll repay that by being your Dad. It’s the least I can do.

Love,
Dad

Hungry Like the Wolf

If the timeline of American progress can be expressed as a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing, the guy with the defib just got his arms eaten.

Maybe you’re not familiar with 1980s horror films but that one terrifies me more than any of them, and I’ve finally put my finger on why.

I’m no film scholar, and I’m not even sure about Mr. Carpenter’s auteurial intent other than the obvious one of tapping into what we find so inherently terrifying, which is creeping, imminent death. We are naturally repulsed by tumorous crawling body horrors.

It’s tempting to peg Capitalism itself as the Thing, but I’d quickly alienate at least half of any potential audience. It’s really something more nebulous anyway, like society, “da Gubmint”, or universal concepts like selfishness or greed. Whatever it is, it has markedly progressed along with civilization and technology. There’s a balance that must be struck between oppression and bread and circuses unless you don’t care about cities burning, and American rulers (I’ll stick to America, dear reader, otherwise I’m talking out of my ass) have figured out how to skirt the red boiler-gauge line between people constantly complaining and being so miserable they get out in the streets and set shit on fire.

Any movement will be assimilated by the Thing when it gains enough steam. If it’s too weak, it dies. If it’s a worthy enough host, it is replicated. Mutated, tentacled and insect-like, it crawls across the face of the earth, rainbow-flagged, occupied, socialized, Obamacared, a faltering flaccid farce of what it was, now co-opted and safe for the ruling classes. Cha-ching, it’s a money making machine! The flower power LSD fueled haze of 1967 becomes buying the world a Coke in 1972. Merry Xmas, War is Over.

The Internet is such a wonderful steam valve for our angst, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What a brilliant telegraph of temerity. As a reporting mechanism, it is grand, but more often than not the feedback cycle of attention-seeking-behavior and dopamine rewards gives our bodies the illusion of action instead of being a bullhorn for what we actually did. Do not misunderstand my sermon as accusatory: I am completely, absolutely in the Internet’s grasp. My half-assed attempts to escape it have been for naught. I have been clean for weeks, months at times, but I always end up languishing in this den.

If I were writing some activist blog or a Industrial Workers of the World newsletter, this is the part where I’d tell you how to stay genuine to your roots, but I won’t, because it would be another bullshit lie. When the Thing gets in, there aren’t any roots left. There are things that look like them. Probosces. Antennae.

Even statements like “the arc of the moral universe… bends towards justice,” are co-opted by stagnation masquerading as incrementalism, and we get frog-boiled into situations where every political candidate offers something slightly different to each American subclass but offers the same to the rest of the world: Forever War. We’re okay with that. It’s just a bit warmer. Just a bit warmer, still.

Ultimately, the slithering cancer wins out. It copies what is useful and throws out the rest. It builds a world on the backs of slaves and distracts us with flashing lights. If you own anything at all that you did not make by hand (clothes, shoes, appliances, electronics, or a car), you employ more slaves than my great-great-grandfather, who fought for The Great State of Mississippi in what he would have called the War of Northern Aggression, did. It’s just the way the world works, though, right? He probably said that too.

So, this is a dark place to be in. You’re tied to a chair and Kurt Russell is lowering hot wire into our blood samples. It’s okay. I’m tied to the chair as well and I don’t have any answers I didn’t read in a fucking philosophy 101 textbook or get told by a long-haired Poli-Sci professor.

The dearly missed Fred Rogers would tell you he likes you just the way you are. I wish I could find comfort in that now. Could he stare into the maw of this flailing, inside-out alien conglomeration and tell it he loves it? Would he? Should I?

The Man Jesus touched the lepers, but he had the power to heal them. I am only the aforementioned Shakespearean idiot. How do I plunge my hands into the chest full of shark-like teeth when I know my arms will be sheared off?

How do we sit in the snow, unsheltered and freezing, and light flares as we stare at each other suspiciously, knowing the Thing is out there and it’s coming? What if it’s inside us already?

I don’t expect answers from the Internet, because there aren’t any. I won’t insult you with solutions in this moment of pain. Maybe this is all we can do: Sit with each other as we wait to die. Pass a drink. Light flares. Fade out. Roll credits.

We know how it all started. Maybe they won’t fuck up the sequel.

A Blast from the Past

Oh Great Meteor
we are impatient
your justice is sluggish
we beg for release
from bombs
from blogs
from fear of death
from longing for its peace

Oh Great Meteor
our annoyances grand and small
from the property taxes
to the tack in the hall
the one that barely reaches
up
through the carpet
but when we get the hammer
it is gone
(for now)
When will you bring your hammer?

Oh Great Meteor
it has been much too long
the great beasts you felled, rest
as dusty furniture
in underfunded tombs
while we argue their origin
in crowded classrooms
and we yearn for your burn
we ache for overpressure

Oh Great Meteor
we beg of you, hear
our hearts hammering in the night
our tight chests clutched in fear
at bank account totals
at yearly reviews
at TSA lines
what they said on The News
and the news and the news
and the news and the news
and the sleep, interrupted
and the nightmare
and you

Oh Great Meteor
Oh when will you hear?
Do we speak the wrong tongue,
crying to your great ear?
“exaudi orationem meam”
is one that they say
will you bring down the fire?
will you bring it today?
will you boil off the water
at the bottom
of the slide
where my favorite hat rests
on the Jurassic Park ride
and light it aflame
as you blast it unstuck
from years of it hiding
in the dank theme park muck
will you roast off the topsoil
from the graves in the earth
rip it down to the mantle
as our planet gives birth
to the cinders of things
that we wanted to keep
to the rubble of worry
to the ashes of sleep
to the fear of not knowing
and the fear that we do

Oh, Meteor, Great One
We beg this of you.

Amen.

Dirty Jobs, Done Dirt Cheap

I like Mike Rowe. He’s a likable dude. If you’re not familiar with his work, he’s the guy that got famous doing that Dirty Jobs show where he visits people who haul garbage or shovel shit, then he does essays and videos online about how you should be happy hauling garbage and shoveling shit.

There’s some truth there, but it’s buried in garbage and shit.

It’s easy to shoot the messenger, so here I go: I can’t forget the times when there have been stories of police brutality and civil unrest in the news and he’s gone out of his way to tell everyone how we should back the big boys in blue and be good little citizens. Those were hard words to swallow from such a usually-charismatic guy, but they echo the thoughts of millions of Americans who think that you can live your lives flying under the radar, hauling garbage and shoveling shit, and never be touched by the jackboot of oppression. That is, until you see a video of a 17-year-old at a routine traffic stop being tased until his heart stops and dragged, limp, across the pavement, then dropped face down on concrete.

Yeah, that cop got sent to prison. Yes, these are exceptions to the rule, which is that vast majority of us will survive a traffic stop. Some of us might have less traffic stops than others because of the color of our skin, and some of us might be more likely to survive, but Mike Rowe’s world is the one in which you just trust that everything is going to be all right, because that’s the system.

Most recently, he’s published a video where he tells everyone not to blindly follow their passions. This is, on the face of it, good advice. I’ve heard similar advice from Billy West at a Q&A session in Richardson, Texas, where he asked for everyone in college to raise their hands then told the hand-raisers to drop out. “You’re going to end up in debt wearing a paper hat with that fancy diploma,” he said. Then, he told us to be persistent, to never give up, and to never let someone “put you in a box and label it.”

What was key, though, is that he said “If you want to work in showbusiness, you can. You may not be the actor or the director but if your talent is doing hair or making clothes, you can do that. They need carpenters, people to machine things…” and so on. Sounds pretty Mike Rowe to me. They’re both suggesting that you find your talents and follow those. They’re not talking about blind passion, they’re talking about realistic expectations.

Most recently I was at the Dallas FanExpo and I witnessed Peter Capaldi’s Q&A session. A mother dragged her six-year-old up to the microphone and, after some prodding, she coerced him into asking about how he could work on Doctor Who when he grows up. It was cute, regardless of the circumstances.

There’s video of this so I won’t butcher it from memory, but the gist of his answer was that the boy needed to explore his talents, find what he was good at, be passionate and persistent, write a letter to the BBC, and maybe some day they’d want to talk to him. Our hearts swelled. We applauded. Perhaps that would be the case. Peter has been a Whovian since childhood, as evidenced by his heavy correspondence with the BBC, and he’s the friggin Doctor. It’s a nice thought. Hell, I’d love to work for the BBC, but I don’t have anything they need.

(You can stop right there, if you’re being so kind. I don’t fancy myself much of a writer. That is, not on par with what they’d require. There is that fear of being, as Mike Rowe said, the guy on American Idol who doesn’t understand how bad he is. I will wrap myself in a protective shield of self-deprecation if need be. This is my hobby.)

When I was a teenager and in need of more attention than anyone could provide, the latter of which is still the case, I began singing on the high school band bus. This led some guys to take notice of me and invite me to practice with their rock band. I can carry a tune but in comparison to the world of vocal talent I am mediocre at best. I probably could have gotten by on that and personality if I’d had any. I don’t know if there was exceptional musical talent in any of us except for the drummer, T.J. Burgess, who did follow his dreams and tour the country in various bands. I’ll never stop seeing the irony in that, because in our band he’d just picked up drumming and the guy who considered himself the band leader was always trying to fire him. T.J. was persistent, though. Tenacious. Always practicing. Never stopping. He got farther and further musically than any of us in that band, that’s for damned sure.

My father, whose philosophy matched that of Mike Rowe’s closely enough, wanted me to come up with a real career idea and do music on the side, as a hobby. He was supportive, though. He bought me a PA system (which I ended up selling), and a 1971 Martin D-18 (which I can barely play and has collected dust for 15 years). I don’t regret my dabbling in music but I wish I had at least gone balls to the wall if I had planned on doing it at all. I could have majored in music at Arkansas State instead of the mishmash of shit I ended up pursuing. I could have sold everything and gone on the road. Instead, I gave up at the first sign of difficulty. In retrospect, I was probably far too used to being petted on the head and given an award for everything. Public school fucked us kids up in the 1980s and 1990s with that “everyone is special” bullshit. Once again, I blame society.

There’s definitely a place in our current society for accountability. I keep coming back to that persistence thing and, while anecdotes are not data, it has been my experience that the people who just kept banging their head against that brick wall are the ones who found some purchase. There’s a corollary, though. They not only didn’t stop banging, but they figured out exactly where to bang.

It’s easy for me, as a late Generation X, early Millennial, Star Wars Generation whatever-the-fuck-I-am, to wallow in our Brave New Global Economy and point fingers at everything else except myself because, like it or not, that is a characteristic we share. Maybe I’m starting to sound a bit like ol’ Mike Rowe himself here but I do come from that MTV generation where we were all going to be rock stars. We were all going to be beautiful famous snowflakes and when I realized that not only were we not going to be on posters in teenagers’ bedrooms but we weren’t even going to be making $30/hr at a factory, that we were going to be sweeping floors and making coffee with our fancy degrees, there was a disturbance in the Force.

We’re rocking and rolling with that right now and, while I do blame society, I also think that maybe some of us should get right with hauling garbage and shoveling shit, although I, too, struggle with it daily. The rest of the world has for all its history. People right now toil their whole lives for little gain, and while politically I’d like for us to do everything we can to improve this situation, I’ve also realized that we aren’t so special that we won’t have to grit our teeth and haul and shovel, ourselves.

See, there’s enough self-hatred in me to take Mike Rowe and run with it. I can do it. It’s in my blood.

I can dream, though. I will dream. I will listen to Mike Rowe and take his broken clock messages and agree when I do and throw a fit when I don’t. I will spend my hard-earned money on shaking hands with actors and telling them how they gave me hope or occupied me during hard times. I will dream that someday I will find a vehicle to speak to more than a dozen people on Fucking Facebook. I will write in my spare time, as Mr. Rowe suggested, because I have to feed my family. There is great honor in not quitting your job and ruining everyone’s lives. There is dignity in working a service industry job where you are disrespected by management and customers alike. Stand tall, because you are doing the difficult task. You’re keeping yourself alive to fight another day.

So we’ll haul garbage and shovel shit. Some of us will be rock stars, but most of us will not. I can’t forget though, that every time I think we’re not meant for much, I see someone get published who can’t put a sentence together. I used to get angry about that, but now it gives me hope. If they can do it, why can’t I?

Well, maybe their uncle knows little Jimmy Patterson, but I digress.

I see you guys crying out for justice, on a number of issues, and I feel you. Maybe it can all be boiled down to this: Your experience ends when you do, and solipsistic as it may sound, you’ve gotta make your own fort strong before you go out and do battle with the world. If all you ever accomplish is taking care of you, you at least did that, and that’s worth more than Honorable Mention. I’d dishonor the majority of the human race who died from famine, disease, and violence, if I looked that gift horse in the mouth.

Maybe I have more in common with Mike Rowe than I’d like to think. Maybe I’m not as dirty of a commie as I thought I was.

Maybe we all balk when Dad Voice comes and tells us to like it or lump it.

So, here’s to us, The Loudest Generation. People have always whined, but we’ve got the tools to take that shit global. We will haul garbage and shovel shit. We will struggle, noble in our efforts. We will fight until there is no fight left in us, and we’ll never, ever, stop fucking complaining.