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.

The Kontest, Part II

The first part of The Kontest is here.


Bernard S. Bird, known as “Nards” to friend and foe alike, stood in the parking lot outside George’s Arcade surrounded by an antsy crowd of kids fresh out of school for the summer. He retrieved a crumpled piece of paper from his battered backpack and held it aloft as he slowly spread it apart with both hands.

“What is this?” he said to the girl who stood, arms crossed, in front of the entrance.

Diane barked a short laugh. “Can’t you read?”

“Yes,” he answered, undaunted. “It says ‘Mortal Kombat Champion Diane Blythe invites the students of Columbia Middle School to the Summer Exhibition Tournament at George’s Arcade.'”

“So, it can read,” said Diane.

“You aren’t the champion,” said Nards. He waved his hands around as he spoke. “The championship isn’t until the fall, and this isn’t an exhibition tournament. It’s the elimination tournament-”

“Hah!” Diane uncrossed her arms and put her hands on her hips. “Clearly a typo.”

“A typo.” Nards mocked. “A typo?” He turned his head both ways and looked at the crowd around him. They murmured in support. “You can’t just print a flyer announcing that you’re the champion-”

“You can’t play anyway, Nards,” Diane said. “We’ve already had this discussion. You aren’t even qualified-”

I am.” Nards said. “I have. The guys, we had a local tournament-”

“In your bedroom?” Diane’s smile looked like it might break her face. “I already told you, shitty Nintendo doesn’t count.”

“No, Diane.” Nards said. He pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. “Karl’s Grocery has a machine in the lobby, we had a tournament, and I won.”

“Yeah,” said Diane, “and I just got elected President of the United States.”

Uneasy laughter filtered up from the still-gathering ranks of children.

Nards rifled through his backpack again. “Karl witnessed it himself,” he said, and produced another wrinkled sheet of paper. “He signed this. My mom even had it notarized at the bank!”

Diane’s face fell. “You sonofabitch.”

The crowd gasped.

“That’s right Diane,” Nards began, encouraged, “it’s the Summer Elimination Tournament. You can hang all the flyers you want but we all know that you aren’t the champion of jack shit.”

While the children laughed and clapped, there was a commotion towards the back of the crowd. A jingling. Something approached.

Diane stared at Nards. “You seem to have forgotten something,” she said.

Nards stopped smiling. “Oh no, Diane.”

“Oh yes!” she shouted. Her voice cracked. “It’s my arcade! MINE! You won’t even get in the door!”

“It’s not yours, Diane,” Nards said, “it’s your family’s. You can’t control who goes in the arcade.”

A shadow moved behind the glass. Nards could see the old man take a puff from his cigar. Some of the smoke filtered out through the battered aluminum door frame.

“You,” Nards started. “You-”

A thud startled Nards as an overloaded backpack landed next to his feet with a metallic jangle.

“Donnie,” Diane said. Her voice dripped with disgust.

The small boy approached Diane. His orange hair flew in the wind.

“Time to pway,” he said. “I’w be gweat again.”

Diane pursed her lips. “Hrm,” she said. “Okay Donnie, you’re in. You don’t mind a little exhibition do you?”

“No,” Nards said, “You can’t-”

The crowd around him shuffled.

“I can do whatever I want, Nards.” Diane said. “It’s my arcade, my game, and my fucking tournament.

The old man cracked the door and beckoned. Diane took Donnie by the shoulder and started towards the arcade. Some of the children in the crowd began to follow.

“Guys. Guys?” Nards looked around him. “Guys you can’t go in there. Who’s going to play? It’s just her, and, and,” he flapped his arms around his head, his hands still gripping the flyer and the notarized letter, “that little troll!”

The kids fell into a line while Nards continued to yell.

“She’ll just pull the plug again!” he shouted. “He doesn’t even know the moves!”

The students of Columbia Middle School filed into George’s Arcade, as they always had, and watched pixelated characters jump across the screen and decapitate each other for hours. Quarters were spent. Second hand smoke, inhaled.

Bernard S. Bird sat on the curb outside George’s Arcade until the summer sun began to disappear over the horizon. The first mosquito arrived and he slapped it away. He stood and pushed his glasses up his nose with one finger. At home waited Star Trek, and Mom.

He put on his backpack, straightened his shoulders, and set off through the orange-blue twilight.

Junk

It was around 6 pm Saturday at the Dallas FanExpo, and things were winding down. Gina and I stood in line with only a dozen other people to get our photo signed by Arthur Darvill. Peter Capaldi had just gone, and I stared over at his empty table. Gina said something to me along the lines of “I hope our children are Doctor Who fans.”

I said, “Yeah, or all this shit is going to end up in a box.”

My garage is roughly one quarter full of my father’s belongings. I could consolidate it more effectively but it would still be a pile. My siblings and I sold what could be sold years ago. We’ve used the furniture that we can, hung the photos that matter most, and still there’s this heap of things too dear to throw out but not important enough to display. Consider it the Robbie Talbot Museum Archives.

Sometimes while the kids are in the bath and I’m standing in my office, I’ll pull one of his books off the shelf and flip through it. He has a copy of the Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac, which I am familiar with already because customers are constantly requesting it at work (we can’t get it, people. Amazon.), signed by Rollie Remmel. I have one of his “Rollie sticks” leaning by my back door. That guy was a huge deal to conservationists. He has a big museum exhibit at the Arkansas Game & Fish building in downtown Little Rock. I only met him twice, in the 1990s, and he reminded me a bit of Burgess Meredith’s character in Grumpy Old Men.

Was this Dad’s Doctor Who? He’d probably laugh at that and say he doesn’t know. In his younger years, he may have declared this an idiotic notion. My father, like Mr. Remmel, worked for the change he wanted. Each have monuments with plaques bearing their name. Post-hospitalization Dad, a much more insightful fellow, might have said maybe. He probably would have been too kind to point out that I’m hanging out with actors instead of creating protected areas for wildlife.

I try not to think much about what’s going to happen to my giant pile of detritus when I’m gone. What is valuable will be sold, what is sentimental will be kept (if anything is sentimental) and much will be tossed. Sometimes the sentimental is sold, or tossed. Sometimes people burn everything.

My name is Bobbymandias, geek of geeks:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

In tough situations I find myself staring at my wall of photos and thinking of better times, or asking Tom what the hell I’m supposed to do, much the same way that I look at Dad or Paw Paw in the upstairs hall where I’ve hung a collection of my ancestors’ images. As a child, I thought it was strange when Doc Brown picked up his photo of Edison and yelled at it. Not so much, anymore.

I could go on Palahniukian rants about belongings. I could punch myself in the face and burn all my shit. Sometimes that feels like it would be cleansing, but if we all became therapeutic arsonists the world would be a cinder six or seven billion years earlier than its scheduled incineration.

I don’t know if I’m building anything. I don’t reckon my name will ever be on a monument other that the one that ends up over my body. I don’t know that any artist ever saved my life, really, but they’ve kept me occupied while I saved my own.

Thank you for being the soundtrack to the fight.

Fan Expo Roundup, Day Two

We awoke and prepared our bodies as I treated Gina to my rendition of “The End” by the Doors. The hotel, for all its faults, has amazing acoustics.

Downstairs, an overworked French lad served us breakfast through a small hole. While we waited, a gentleman showed us photos of a leather Captain America helmet he’d made by hand. It was impressive.

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We crossed the street and entered the fray once more. The numbers were increased from the previous day, as was the heat. We shuffled through the aisles, and I snapped the occasional photo.

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We entered the arena to view a Q&A session with the Doctor, Mr. Peter Capaldi, who, by the way, properly refers to playing Doctor Who by saying “Doctor Who.” I’m looking at you, David Tennant.

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The audience was enthralled as the sexy beast lectured us about trying hard and being nice to our mothers. I hope I can work for the BBC when I grow up. They seem like such fine chaps.

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I was already beginning to experience existential angst when we had our first scheduled photo op of the day. These things are always clusterfucks at FanExpo. They fail, time and again, to learn anything from anyone in the industry and what remains is a cow chute stampede mess of a slaughterhouse shitshow that would make Temple Grandin retreat to the hugbox.

We got our photo but it wasn’t magical. Then again, I don’t expect that. I expect that the trick gets turned, but this wasn’t even a back alley hand job. We wandered the floor, wondering what we had done with our lives, and I found myself staring at Rob Schneider. A man in my periphery made a joke about him being “the guy from every Adam Sandler movie.” I suddenly felt the need to tell Mr. Schneider something. This would be my absolution.

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I shelled out the $40 and we approached the man. I shook his hand and said “Some of my greatest memories with my Dad are when he let us stay up late and watch Saturday Night Live with you. It was beautiful. Thank you.”

He thanked me and we stepped up for a photo. As we were leaving he leaned out the side of the booth and looked at me. “Hey, thank you for sharing that story,” he said, “that was important.”

Jesus.

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We took a short break so we could rest and I could compose myself. Gina had noticed that Jack Gleeson was mostly unoccupied. We had our only cash-free interaction of the entire con when Gina approached him to say hello. He was a nice fellow. No, he doesn’t watch the show anymore. In my experience with actors this isn’t surprising.

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Somewhat encouraged but still low, I dragged myself back in line to see Arthur Darvill. I set my expectations at zero. They were exceeded.

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Gina suggested we have the photos signed and that, really, was the kicker that saved the day. We had a chance to chat a bit with Michelle Gomez and Arthur Darvill, and we gawked at Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi while we waited. After Peter left I wondered aloud if it would be possible to retrieve his leftover RC Cola, perhaps bag, tag, and freeze it. I launched into a speech worthy of the Mr. Belvedere Fan Club. Gina gave me the look. I acquiesced that yes, it would be best not to travel down that dark path.

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Beaten physically and emotionally but still alive, we dragged ourselves out of the convention hall and into the sweltering Dallas streets. We found food, as we do, and Gina ate steak while we listened to some vendors from A-Kon swear and talk nonsense. We checked Google to see if they were important. Important. What the fuck does that even mean?

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We returned to our hotel with its one working elevator and declared the day a success. I’d stared into the face of despair and captured something meaningful. To old cynics like me, this might be about as common as heartfelt connections at the strip club, but I’m sure that happens too.

I keep saying I’m going to limit myself to drinking in hotels with old British actors who fired fake guns at Daleks in quarries and leave this large convention business to the younglings, but something always drags me back.

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FanExpo, that big ugly sonofabitch where I told Deuce Bigalow about my father. We’ll figure it out, someday.

Fan Expo Roundup, Day One

This morning I put on my best chimney-sweep attire, then Gina and I left our trendy hotel (complete with headboard scratches, no ice, and no hot water), crossed a Confederate graveyard, and had our photograph taken with William Fucking Shatner.

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It was a short enough affair and Bill wasn’t feeling his best. Apparently he was getting over a cold. He’s also dealing with being an octogenarian. Still, I’m glad I can say that I once stood next to the James Tiberius Kirk.

We walked over those poor misguided dead people again and went back into the city in search of lunch. We stopped at a wonderful little mom and pop diner called the Purple Onion and had the lunch special, fried catfish. The atmosphere was delightful.

At this point it was time for some well needed rest. Gina is, of course, growing a human inside her, so we retreated to the hotel for a couple of hours. Revived, we arose and suited up. It was time for Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw to meet the newest incarnation of the Doctor.

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When we entered the curtain he was animated, smiling, chatting and posing with everyone. In my experience this isn’t common with these photo ops. The people running the show seemed tense. He was holding up the line.

When we approached, he shook my gloved hand (I’m never getting rid of those now) and said “Brig!”

I pointed at Gina and said “she’s Liz Shaw.” He’s a lifelong Whovian so I knew he would appreciate this. He leaned in to read her nametag.

“I love your outfits!” he said. “Vintage stuff!”

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We wandered around for a couple more hours. We stared at celebrities and “celebrities” in the autograph area. I got saluted over a dozen times. A few really cool Whovians recognized Gina. Lots of folks took our photo. This is why I love cosplaying the Brigadier. Not everyone recognizes me but when they do, they’re pretty excited.

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We traversed the cemetery once more and headed into the city again, this time for burgers. I’m pretty sure someone was ODing on the sidewalk while a woman who was not in much better condition stroked his face.

We ate our sandwiches and heart attack fries in a small shop lit by police and ambulance lights from the street. Men dressed in traditional African garb protested something across the street. “When the darkness falls, Lord, we will wipe them out!” is all I could discern.

The city won’t let us forget that we’re mortal. We returned to the hotel for chilly showers and rest. Tomorrow will be long and sweaty, and full of adventures.

In the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, old Rob Schneider waits, dreaming.

January 2015

January 1st

does it get old
body checking your way out of the restroom
after I say excuse me
in your real tree camo
practically invisible
backwoods predator
the hills have eyes
I’m gonna Facebook it
while I take a shit
and you lope on back to Imboden
to catch the end of the Klan meeting

January 3rd

someone ran a scam
so now we scratch the silver tab
it probably wasn’t that much
still, we scratch the silver tab
paying with a gift card?
great. let’s scratch that silver tab
underneath my thumbnail
as I scratch the silver tab
we can’t keep loose change up here
just to scratch the silver tab
that’s another LP issue
fucking scratch that silver tab

the new instructions clearly state
to enter pin with every swipe
but nowhere is there mention of
the task that hangs before us
unspoken
the assumed gap between law and action

swipe gift card
???
enter pin

circumnavigate the globe
climb Everest
complete Apollo Program
scratch the silver tab

the horror of the mundane
while I scratch the silver tab
tension headache throbbing
and i scratch the silver tab
pencaps keys and fingers thrust
TO SCRATCH THE SILVER TAB
it’s not that hard I hate you
fucking scratch this silver tab

January 4th

GMC Sierra
fuck up every lane of traffic
20 in a 40
fuck up every lane of traffic
stretch across infinity
to fuck up lanes of traffic
from Everest to the Autobahn
fucking up the lanes of traffic
the Sherpas’ glares match German stares
at fucked up lanes of traffic
asteroid mining off Arcturus
stopped by fucked up lanes of traffic
Sierra aneurysm
jammed into my lanes of traffic
th hrngng fhrgt hllg
buried in this lane of traffic

January 15th

Hey hey
guys guys
rock and roll, it never dies
it’s better to Cobain
than to Stevie Nicks
hey hey
guys guys

January 17th

hey kids
I know it’s cool now to say vinyl
(it’s a fucking record)
but it’s never, ever “vinyls”
you’re welcome

January 18th

hey guys it’s Sunday
time for some Hozier
to take us to church
fucking over and over

like a giggle at a funeral
like a tickle on a tuber
like a nipple on a goober
like a ginger on a junior

TAKE ME TO LUNCH
TAG ME TO HURCH
TAMMANY BIRCH
TERRY VON LURCH

shaking it off
shaking it off
I’m so happy
to be shaking it off

January 24th

HEY NINETIES KIDS
WHO REMEMBERS “DRIVING”
AND SKATEBOARDS
OH MAN THE TELEVISION
THERE WAS A PHONE
JUST ONE
THE LINE WAS SO LONG!
TROLLEYS?
WE GOT ‘EM.
TWO WORDS:
SHOES AND SOCKS
THAT’S THREE BUT WE DON’T CARE

January 29th

someone thinks they’re Gone Girl
the truth is, they’re a Yawn Girl
the object in her meaty mitts
that she’s mistaken for a scalpel
or Chris Kyle’s sniper rifle
is a sledgehammer
an atom bomb fired point blank
laying waste to all
men, women, children held hostage
in the glow of stupid radiation
the dumbest fucking radiation
the hantavirusebolaAIDS
that she wishes was a laser
tear down the walls
I shot the Archduke
and she murdered Europe

January 30th

America
Shall I compare thee
to literary dystopias
or fascist clowns of yesterday
elicit laughs and shaking heads
dismissal of the slow crush
from people who know better
after all, it ain’t that bad
America
Empire seat of the world
poor Southern men weep
as that guy from The Hangover
puts children to sleep
and dirty hands
with fat farmer tans
echo “savage”
crocodile tears and the raising of beers
to our modern Achilles
the Man With Two First Names
who slew the dusky hordes in New Orleans
(or so he said)
dented Ventura’s dimpled chin
(or so he said)
And, Justified, did work for us
(or so he said)
’til chaos or your God, etc.
sent the Marines to Rough Creek
to put down a rabid dog
America
there are heroes, still

Doctor Who vs Hydra

This was written in response to the online “furor” over Marvel’s decision to write Captain America as a secret member of Hydra. As with every other comic book controversy ever, these things seem increasingly petty after a few minutes/days/weeks/months of consideration. 


“Doctor’s Log, Stardate… Oh what is a ‘star date’ anyway?” the Doctor asked no one in particular as he flipped levers on the TARDIS console.

“Doctor,” Clara began, her dark eyebrows furrowed.

“Clara!” he said in a startle, as if he had forgotten she had been standing there. He grabbed her by the shoulders. “Clara. The place: Mutter’s Spiral, Earth, America. The year: 2016. The subject: Doom.”

“Oh boy, here we go,” she replied, still incredulous.

“Boy or no boy,” he said “my instruments detect a great cataclysm in 2016 caused by-” he dropped his hands and paused to glance at the console again, “-comic books!”

Clara cocked an eyebrow and pursed her lips. “Are you certain, Doctor?”

“Well,” he began “we all know that the collapse of the first great human empire began in 2016-”

“We don’t know that,” Clara interjected, matter-of-factly.

“And,” the Doctor continued, unimpeded, “all the periodicals at the time mention this ‘Captain America’ betraying his allegiance to the American people!”

“You know, Doctor,” Clara said as she started to pace. “I probably don’t keep up with American politics as much as I should but I’m pretty certain there is an important election going on in 2016-”

“Nonsense,” the Doctor said. “Look, this blog here, and blogs never lie, claims that, somehow, this comic book event caused a rift in the space-time continuum which traveled back to the time of the Captain’s inception, during the Second World War, and retroactively offended not only the people he initially defended, but modern day comic book fans, who will, in turn, destroy civilization as you know it!”

“I am completely lost,” said Clara.

“As am I,” said the Doctor, “but the answers to our questions lie in Poland. The year: 1944.”

“Oh no, Doctor,” Clara said, her wide eyes even wider. “You can’t.”

“Oh I can, Clara,” he said. “We’re already there.”

The Doctor strode over to the TARDIS console and adjusted the scanner’s viewscreen to face them. Clara could already see that they were in a prison yard.

“We can’t go out there, Doctor,” she said. “We’ll be killed.”

“Oh, Clara,” the Doctor said. He smiled. “I’ve enclosed the TARDIS in a static warp bubble. Everything outside it will be time locked. Hopefully, we’ve caught someone and we’ll pop out and ask them a question.”

“I should be used to this,” Clara said, “but this might be just about the worst thing you’ve ever done.”

The Doctor paid her no heed. He pointed at the screen. “There,” he said. “Right there. That confused looking fellow. He’s the one.”

Clara frowned. She stared at the screen. Her hair flew as she whipped her head up to face him. “Let’s go then. Let’s do this horrible thing so I can get to work on never forgiving you.”

“After you,” the Doctor said, deadpan, as he extended his right arm towards the opening TARDIS doors.

They marched outside.

There stood, not ten yards from the TARDIS door, more of a skeleton than a man. His head was shaved. He spoke.

“Am I dead?”

Clara and the Doctor stopped in front of him. Their voices were muffled by the warp shell, as if they were speaking under a thick blanket. They stood facing him. A single tear escaped Clara’s left eye. The Doctor spoke first.

“It depends,” he said. “Is your name Vladek?”

“Yes,” the man replied. “Now answer me.”

“Oh, you’re dead, but not in this time,” the Doctor said. “Not for decades.”

“Hrm.” Vladek stared. “This is not comforting. What is that thing?” He pointed at the TARDIS. “You don’t sound German.”

The Doctor ignored the first question. “Gallifreyan,” he said.

“He’s Scottish,” Clara said. She sniffed and wiped her face.

“I am dreaming then,” Vladek said. “So, what is your purpose?”

The Doctor reached inside his coat and pulled out a battered comic book. On the front, Vladek could see what looked like a man in a blue uniform punching Adolf Hitler in the face.

“Do you know what this is?” the Doctor asked.

“A pulp.” Vladek said. “A funny book. What of it?”

“Well, since you’re dreaming, dream this: in the future, this character,” the Doctor tapped the cover with the long, thin fingers of his right hand “isn’t punching Hitler anymore. He’s a bad guy.”

“I see,” Vladek said. “Even asleep, I am too hungry to care about this. Let us dream about food.”

“He’s right, Doctor,” Clara said. “Even you can’t be cruel enough to deny him a meal.”

The Doctor frowned. “A meal will kill him.” He stuck the comic under his arm, reached into his coat again, and pulled out a Hershey bar. He extended this offering towards Vladek. “You’d do well to save half of that for later.”

Vladek shuffled forward and took the chocolate. “I think I know what is well to do,” he said. Still, he snapped the bar in half before he began to unwrap it.

The Doctor stood, silently, and watched him consume it. Clara turned away and stared at the white sign on the TARDIS door. She repeatedly ran her eyes over the message.

Advice & Assistance
Obtainable Immediately

Assistance

“Damn it all,” she whispered.

Vladek put the last piece in his mouth and chewed. He sucked a bit of chocolate from his thumb.

“Now,” he said, “I am not so sure I am dreaming. Perhaps I’ve gone mad.”

Clara turned to face him. “No,” she said. She jerked her fist toward the Doctor, thumb extended. “He’s the mad one.”

“Nevertheless,” the Doctor said, “we still don’t have an answer to our question. So, what is it, Vladdy? If this cartoon decides, someday, that he doesn’t want to punch old Mr. Mustache, what then?”

“How is this a concern?” Vladek said, already more animated from the rush of sugar. “These are things for children. Where is my family? Where is my wife?”

“She will be safe, eventually. In most respects,” he replied.

“You are a devil,” Vladek said, “to bring me treats and taunt me with this,” he flapped both hands towards the Doctor, “this!”

“You’re not wrong,” Clara said.

The Doctor cut his eyes at Clara and back to Vladek. “If this character is a hero to some people like you, someday, aren’t you offended-”

“Everything is offensive!” Vladek shouted. He started to pace. “The Germans are offensive. This place is offensive. Life is offensive. You are offensive.”

“Doctor,” Clara began. She put her hand on his shoulder and stepped towards Vladek. “Vladek. Do you think that people should be able to write what they want?”

He sighed, long and hard. “This life,” he said out loud, but to himself. He ran his hands over the stubble on his scalp. “Yes,” he said. “The people who censor, we know what they do.”

“Yes, but,” she said, “if someone wishes to be offended, even over something as silly as a comic book, they may write that too?”

Vladek laughed, short and hoarse. “Yes, if that’s how they want to waste their time.” He smiled with his mouth only. His eyes glared and remained hard. “Maybe I will write a comic book about how stupid they are.”

“No, that’s your son,” the Doctor said.

“What?” Vladek said. “I have no son.”

“Not yet,” the Doctor said. “Not yet.”

Clara inhaled slowly and deeply. “Doctor, we read that at Coal Hill. Art-”

“I think we’re done here, Clara,” the Doctor said. He wheeled around, his coat flaring, and started towards the TARDIS doors.

“But, what about-” she started, her hands extended towards Vladek.

He stopped inside the threshold and turned around. “He’ll remember, but he won’t say anything. He’s a smart guy.”

Vladek stared at the Doctor. “You play with us, devil. You play with our misfortune. I will tell people that.”

“And you may,” the Doctor said, “for that is the sad truth.”

He disappeared inside the TARDIS, which began wheezing and moaning seemingly faster than the Doctor could have reached the console from the door.

Clara stepped quickly towards the door and paused just inside. She gripped the door facing and turned her head towards Vladek. “It gets better,” she said, her voice raised over the din.

“The devil’s escort,” he said, smiling for real now. He raised his hand, still gripping half of the Hershey bar. “No, you are an angel. Goodbye, angel. Tell God he has some explaining to do.”

She looked at him, silently, for as long as she dare during the liftoff sequence, and slowly shut the door.

“Oh, I would,” she said quietly, to herself and the back of the door. “I would.”

“Talking to yourself again, Clara?” the Doctor said without looking up from the console.

She approached him quickly, her feet hitting the deck fast and hard. She stopped, her face inches from his. “I’m a teacher, you know. Next time you need a historical opinion so you can win a Facebook argument, you could ask me instead of traumatizing everyone involved.”

“Oh Clara,” the Doctor said. “What do I need a time and space machine for if I’m just going to stand around and talk to you all day?”

“What, indeed,” she said. “Take me back to Coal Hill. I have a good idea for a lesson on free speech.”

“Do you have any conclusions, Miss Oswald?” the Doctor asked. He smiled in that mischievous way she simultaneously loved and hated.

“Other than the fact that you probably are a devil, no,” she said. “I’ll present all facts and allow the students to decide.”

“Well!” the Doctor said. He had already pulled out his smartphone and situated it close enough to his face for his breath to fog the screen. “That isn’t going to help me compose this blasted tweet!”

For I Have No Voice and I Must Complain

There was a time when I was beating my head against the brick wall of Capitalism full force. I had to imagine, as someone once told me, that it was slowly crumbling on the other side, but the reality of the situation is that there is an army of people over there with bricks and mortar as far as the eye can see, shoring it up. One person is not a movement.

I learned quite a bit in my years of being a labor vigilante. I can’t say “organizer” because I didn’t succeed in organizing anything. Maybe I was an activist. I wrote emails and made phone calls. I dropped off literature. I was mostly ignored because I live in a “right-to-work” state. This was confirmed by the fact that, when I could find people who would talk to me (the IWW was the best about communicating), they were absolutely terrified about what I was trying to do. I remember one guy specifically who told me to “delete everything” and protect myself. While I was protected by Federal law, I didn’t have a lot of recourse if I was fired, other than an expensive court battle.

He said that “you are at war now. It will never be over,” and although I feel that I have surrendered in a way, he was correct. It’s never over when you’ve given up and you’re living under occupation. If you don’t win, and you don’t die, you’re enslaved.

I know that I didn’t just worry strangers in more labor-friendly states. My friends and family began to stage a sort of intervention. I love them for that, because while I do care about my fellow workers, I was also throwing myself into a meat grinder without much support or chance of success. I was surrounded by people who were sympathetic but afraid. They had bills to pay. They had families.

It was also a self-serving action on many fronts. Here I was, a guy who had worked retail for years. I’d finally graduated college and I felt like I had nothing to show for it. The “recovery” after the Great Recession wasn’t an actual recovery for many, and this was where the whole “angry millennial” meme began. Welcome to the Dystopian Present. The precursor to climate change disaster Mad Max. When were we, as Americans, ever faced with so little hope? I guess apocalypse always loomed, whether it was the great wars of the 20th century or the specter of nukes falling, but the new assessment seems different. More final. When there’s a famine coming at the end of the century that no one seems to be trying to avert, I don’t have much hope for anything.

Over the course of my life I recall this idea of “progress”, that the human race was marching towards something better. As the years have dragged on those Star Trek dreams have been wrecked. The seemingly endless prosperity of the 1990s led to the Forever War of the 2000s onward. The current political climate doesn’t help, but that’s something I refuse to comment on other than making shitty jokes.

Maybe this is just my American mind getting a taste of Globalization. It’s always been pretty shitty everywhere, for most folks. Now that we’re getting a taste of toiling away our entire lives for not much gain, which has been the human experience forever, we’re recoiling in horror. All the more reason to try to improve life for everyone.

Here is the worst thing, though, for us who work to keep ourselves housed and fed and clothed: the same system that eats the world, and tells us we have to as well, calls us shitty losers for supporting it. It’s the abusive cycle of a brute who comes home every night punches his wife in the face and calls her cooking shit and tells her that no one else will ever love her. The company would pay you as little as it could, but it pays you this much because it has to. Love us or we’ll move overseas where we can really have fun!

Some of you are proud of a job well done because it is ingrained in you. Call it Protestant Work Ethic or whatever you want. I love working with you because you carry me when I am down. There is still plenty of that in me, but it’s crushed every time I’m treated unfairly. It gets choked out every time someone tells me they were forced to attend a meeting without pay, or that their company is dodging overtime with loopholes.

They abuse it. They schedule you for breaks you don’t have. They understaff you and then some, until the Skeleton Crew isn’t even a skeleton anymore, just a heap of discarded mismatched bones. Then, something happens. Your frustration turns you on the customers. The customers get frustrated by slowness or inaccuracy and turn on you.

There’s something I tried to impress on restaurant workers for a long time, when I was agitating. I talked to some workers who were being forced to attend meetings without pay. They were also woefully understaffed and they told me that they were sabotaging orders. This flies in the face of unity because those customers are workers too. They’re retail employees, cooks, teachers, nurses, gas station attendants, spending their hard earned dollar on a night out and you’re ruining it because some rich fuck won’t spend more on payroll? I turned it around. I said “if you’re going to harm someone, take it the other direction. Maybe they ordered the 6 oz. steak. Oops. Now it’s 12.” I can tell you right now that it didn’t work. Shit always rolls downhill.

And this! This is the frustration. That we are impotent. We literally cannot do anything in these states where, by law, we are hampered in our actions to organize. What are our options? Sure, go back to college. Again? Fuck. Please check and make sure you are in a field that almost guarantees employment. Nursing is hot right now, and probably always will be. Be prepared to get thousands of dollars more in debt, and work to support yourself while doing it. I will shit on universities all day for being life-mangling debt mills that leave people working at Starbucks with their fancy diploma, but there’s still value to an education, especially where professional skills are required. Tech is still doing well. Don’t forget the trades! We will always need electricians and plumbers.

Until then though? Until you slog through life with whatever action plan, until you make it as that actress or writer, until you land a job with a big airline, until you get your alternate teaching certification, until your adjunct faculty job turns into full-time, until you die ten minutes after putting together your last crunch-wrap-supreme, until then, what? Rage until your heart explodes? We can’t all get fired having a strike in a state where those are illegal.

This has been brewing inside me for a while now. We need a sign. Not a flag or a banner or a button or a pin. We need something we can put anywhere, any time. A symbol that no one else uses. A symbol of distress and protest. A symbol that lets other people know the situation without flying a red banner or telling our boss to go fuck themselves.

For example, there’s a debate, constantly, about how late you should enter a business that is about to close for the night. I mean, heck, if their hours say “open until 9pm” then you should expect service until 9, right? Some people even expect that if they make it in the door, olly-olly-oxenfree, they should be able to hang out as long as they want. In a perfect world I would agree with this.

Thing is, you have a shift that should be staffed with three that’s only staffed with two. Or one. Maybe it’s as simple as a flu outbreak or as complicated as one guy just got done working from 5 am to 2 pm at his OTHER job, because no one pays enough for people to get by on just one job, and came in to close the shop here, at his second job, and he’s physically exhausted. Maybe the other employee is a single mother working her way through college who didn’t sleep last night because the toddler kept her up. Maybe they’re not even allowed to put out a tip jar. Maybe they’d be out of there by 9:30 pm but your church youth group is going to have them there until 11. Hell, they’re getting paid, right? Maybe. Depends on where they work. Maybe they’re in overtime and they “had to” clock out because someone impressed that upon them.

Maybe you’re at a restaurant and the staff has had to endure multiple unpaid staff meetings. Maybe you’re at a clothing store and the person assisting you is off the clock because they’ve worked over forty hours and the company wants to dodge overtime by giving them comp time next week. Maybe the person finding your book for you has had so many missed breaks over the years that their company owes them thousands of dollars. Maybe you’re just an Intern! Maybe you’re salaried but you don’t even fit the legal description of a supervisor and are owed overtime. Maybe you’re given “special projects” to do, unpaid, at home. Maybe you can’t get your work done in the office because of bad staffing so you take it home with you. Maybe people on your floor are FUCKING DYING because there aren’t enough nurses.

What if there were a way to communicate to our customers, our coworkers, our students and our faculty, our patients, that we are in distress and we have no voice? That we cannot organize or better the situation? How can we communicate, at least communicate, to our fellow humans, that we are not being compensated. That we are understaffed, sometimes dangerously understaffed depending on occupation. That we are a door-to-door salesman that hates their job but has to pay child support? That we are shoving this credit card application down your throat because we’ve been threatened with unemployment and we weep at home because we thought we stood for something but you need to know that we don’t mean it when we say you’re going to get all these “benefits”.

How can we communicate that we want to teach your kids to be creative and curious and not practice for tests all day every day but we have to?

A symbol is something anyone can do. They don’t need special tools. Any object that will make a mark, and a surface. Chalk or marker to board, pen or pencil to paper. You don’t have to wear it. You wouldn’t want to because this situation is caused by lack of power. I have had the worst time organizing people because they are afraid of losing something.

There’s something that people do as a sign of distress all over the world. If it is discernible, they fly their flag upside-down. If it’s the same either way, they tie it in a knot.

What if there were a way to tell people “I’m doing the best I can but the system has me under duress. I want to improve things but I cannot because of my station,” but without the flag?

Some sort of Peace Sign for oppressed labor.

I’m not a graphic designer, but to me what is most striking is a backwards dollar sign.

It’s not in ASCII code so it can’t be typed. It would give corporate types fits trying to include it in emails. I’ve seen those warning emails. “Starbucks union may be in town! WATCH OUT!”

It’s not hard to draw. It can be put anywhere. A post-it. Receipt paper. Easy to create, conceal, destroy.

The thing about a symbol is that it has to be free and people have to use it. Well, as far as I can tell, this one doesn’t currently carry meaning. I’m not up to boiling this down into meme format.

We all still have to work. We have to interact with other humans who tell us not to be proud. We are forced to do things we don’t want to do in situations we’d rather not be in because we have to feed ourselves and our families.

If you can’t wear a union pin, maybe, at least, you could scrawl that somewhere by your register, or on that paper tablecloth.

Maybe it’s silly. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s like entering “sad face” on the latest clickbait.

As a “help me” and a “fuck them” and an “I’m sorry” all rolled into one, though, I think it could work.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Hot Pocket.

The sea was angry that day, my friends…

I’ve written some of this down before, but it’s been lost to the Internet and time.

40312_10150241434595424_4920415_n

Six months before my father died, we were in Alaska. For some reason he’d gotten a wild hair and decided that he and his boys were going to journey to the Last Frontier and do some fishing. Dad was in the best health he’d experienced since his first hospitalization in 2008, so it was now or never. He, Blake, and I flew from Memphis, Tennessee, to Minneapolis/St. Paul, then we boarded a smaller plane to Anchorage. We arrived, exhausted, and he rented a Chevy Suburban that barely fit through the spiraled airport parking deck ramp. Then we drove for hours, because Alaska is fucking huge.

40429_10150241434875424_399266_nAt the time, I was freshly single and in a mental place I don’t want to fully dissect here. I am not sure if pre-grief is a thing, but since my father’s initial illness, I had been in a sort of malaise about his future, and mine, and what it meant to potentially lose a parent. I made all sorts of wacky decisions in this fugue state that I’m just starting to come to terms with. I flailed around, hurt a lot of people, and spread wreckage over the years before and after his death.

In 2010, I was still wearing my battered cowboy hat and gripping Hemingway, attempting to tame the bronco of life. Obviously, especially to those who know me well, my hubris knows no bounds, but that’s a story for another time.

39940_10150241434785424_1418735_n

It was an overcast day in early August when my father, my brother, and I boarded the Tia Rose to do some deep sea fishing. The old men around seemed to be, if not shocked, then at least a bit curious that the captain was a woman. I will never forget my father asking her permission to come aboard. Always the gentleman, I think he must have had the etiquette book memorized. We were about to set sail with a bunch of wealthy greyhairs and some rowdy teenage deckhands. This was an adventure.

40061_10150241436455424_4317034_nWe set out into the bay, and pretty much immediately my brother and I started having what I’ve always referred to as “the regrets.” I’d heard people speak colloquially about turning green but until that moment I wasn’t aware that it literally happened. I had popped a couple of Dramamine before the trip, but it was no use. Blake was on the back deck puking into one five gallon bucket while sitting on another. I kept looking at the horizon but I felt the illness coming on as well.

By the time we got to the first fishing spot a couple of hours later, we were absolute wrecks. The retirees were all either immune to motion sickness or had scopolamine patches behind their ears. I’d never heard of this magic before, and I’ve never left on a journey without it since. At the time, however, I was experiencing something that rivaled one of my worst hangovers.

38950_10150241436625424_1271772_nWe were barfing everywhere. We upchucked over the side and onto the deck. Dad was visibly shaken by all this and he began to apologize repeatedly. Did we fish? I remember at least two attempts. The first time we were bobbing heavy weights off the bottom of the ocean floor. The old men seemed to be having a great time and I, the guy who could do fifty push-ups, could hardly move it. I got my line all tangled pretty much immediately and a deck hand gave me another. I surrendered about two minutes after that.

The second time, the captain herself had gone to the back of the boat, hooked a fish, and yelled for me to come back and haul it in. I did it, and as soon as I got it in I handed the pole away and vomited over the side. I’m pretty sure Blake puked on someone’s fish as they pulled it in. This may have been after the captain had cut up a pineapple, which she claimed was an old sailor’s remedy for seasickness. It worked, miraculously, for about thirty seconds, then here came the pineapple express. Dad exclaimed what an amazing cure it was while I simultaneously messed up the cabin floor.

A bit later, the guys were all at the back fishing. I looked out the back cabin door as the bow of the ship pitched up, and there was a commotion at the stern. “Whale!” someone shouted. The old men fumbled for their cameras.

A black hump surfaced, close enough that someone could have touched it with a pole. I don’t know how we didn’t hit it. There was no way I could have gotten my shitty Blackberry knock-off Samsung out of my pocket in time, and I’m glad I didn’t try. A wave lifted the boat into a steep incline and I stood at the top, my view unimpeded above the fishermen’s heads. The whale slid up and then down, as if to say hello, and my father’s voice rang out.

“Bobby, did you see it?”

Yeah, Dad. I did.

40109_10150241436935424_4799088_nThe captain said it was a right whale. She wheeled the boat back around to see if it would pop out again, but it didn’t. I spent the rest of the ride staring at the horizon from the back deck, a seasickness-prevention trick I’d learned from a Hemingway story. I stood out there and shivered for hours, but it worked.

39036_10150241436825424_5380304_nThe deck hands cleaned the fish behind me as we sailed on through what might have been a pleasantly cool day on land. It seemed like eternity, however, as I rocked over the unforgiving damp. I finally stopped keeping track of time and locked my eyes on the dark line above the sea. It eventually grew into looming cliffs. We sailed along side them as thousands of white gulls peeled off to greet us. I am solidly agnostic, but I remember saying to myself, “God lives in Alaska.”

I turned to my left and Blake and Dad were seated in a booth on the other side of the cabin glass. Blake’s head was down on the table, and Dad put his arm around him and stroked his hair. He ran his hand through it over and over, which was something I’d never seen him do. It was the same thing I did to Dad as he slept in his hospital bed. It is the same thing I do, now, when I hold my children.

I looked up at the cliffs. Here lies eternity.

39036_10150241436820424_3414561_nThere is something to be found out there in the wild, whether it is God or Earth or Nature or Life. The Universe. The carelessness of Nothing, but it’s something. You can read about that shit in your History of Ecology textbook, you know. Bust out some Thoreau. I am nothing if not an unoriginal bastard, so I admit that I am not breaking new ground here. Maybe you’ve had a tingle on a camping trip. Maybe you saw the face of God while summiting Denali.

38950_10150241436630424_6967417_nI don’t have any answers for you. The cliffs had none for me. All I can do is tell you what happened. The sea was angry that day, my friends. The bay was quiet. We were there. Now some of us aren’t.

If I were a moral of the story guy I’d tell you to set your jaw and stare at the horizon. That’s as good a line as any. It’s tempting to do that, to the cliffs and the birds. To set a screen on it. To capture the whale. To make it mean something.

Though, as Freud is accused of saying, sometimes a whale is just a whale, and the deep is just the deep.

Thanks, Sigmund. Thanks, Henry. Thanks, Ernie.

Thanks, Dad.