It is the time of year when politics rises to the surface, emerging from the fetid swamps of D.C. demanding the attention of the collective consciousness. It is election time.
It is a difficult time of year for me. I am a recovering political junkie. I’ve never been involved in politics other than casting my vote, but I am fascinated with it to the point of obsession. I read books about it. I read articles about it. I watch documentaries. I argue endlessly with friends, family and co-workers. There is something about politics, the way it reduces all of life to a game. It is appealing and repellent all at the same time. It is easy to become absorbed by the endless machinations and sorties and lose sight of the larger war being fought, of which politics plays a small but important role. Which is why I have been trying to step back and reassess.
Our government, and the professional politicians that people it, is a reflection of our national identity. In theory, these are the people we have chosen to represent us. This is the system of laws we would like to live under. While there many checks and balances in place to prohibit any one interest from seizing power, the people will always have the ability to amend and change laws as well as the people that make them. Of course, by summing it up in a single sentence, I have it made it sound like simple procedure. Change can be made but it is never made quickly. By design, changes in legislation and personnel are sluggish, allowing time for deliberation and compromise, and ensuring, in theory, mutual satisfaction for most if not all parties involved.
One of the drawbacks of this slow-moving system is that once a path has been chosen, it is very difficult to change course without the aid of some national catastrophe or awakening. The savvy politician understands this and the true believer knows that change in the American system is a long-term investment. You must recognize when opportunity arrives and you must seize it before anyone else knows it’s there. You must plan. You have to plant seeds for the following generation to harvest. Nothing in politics at any level, from class elections to the national level, nothing is instantaneous. Because politics is a reflection of life. You may ascend to the presidency in record time, but you still have to be born first.
The current state of our government should not be a surprise to anyone. It is merely the result of what preceded it. You can trace today’s gridlocked insanities back several decades and find the roots appearing as tiny seeds in the past. It follows the evolution of the American character as our nation approaches middle age and settles into the cynicism of adulthood. The ideals of our forefathers seem quaint and naïve, an innocent picture of our younger self. They spoke of high-minded notions like liberty and self-determination. They championed equality and respect. But growing up forces you to realize that the world doesn’t care what you expect from it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world and you’d better take what you can. To hell with what happens to anyone else. Protect you and yours. Never mind what you have to do in order to keep them safe and comfortable. The ideals of honor and human dignity do not supercede the need for safety and comfort.
Somewhere along the line, we agreed as a nation, dating perhaps all the way back to Monroe, that we would sacrifice honor for comfort and compromise morals for safety. As long as the blood and responsibility was kept away from the doorstep and stained as few hands as possible, the American people would tacitly accept that innocent foreign lives would be sacrificed to preserve our own.
It is an unsustainable philosophy and that has begun to become very clear over the last ten years or so. The cynicism and detachment required to sustain such a disregard for human life has infected our national identity. We have become a people that glories in war. Just look at any random sampling of movies or video games. And we are a nation that values guns over lives. Our sympathy extends only as far as our borders. But, of course, once a person accepts that the sacrifice of some people is an acceptable price of self-preservation, it becomes easier to accept that anyone is acceptable collateral damage, even your fellow countrymen and now the border only extends as far as the edges of your yard. While one may not be willing to openly advocate for the loss of a life, there is no obligation to take an interest in quality of life. If they die penniless in a gutter, so much the better. One less person sponging off the system. You are beholden to no one but yourself.
While I would like to dismiss this approach as utter stupidity, I can’t do so without acknowledging that this is the defining characteristic of the American identity. Morality comes second to safety. Comfort comes before empathy. God comes second to greed. While this way of thinking may have rewards in the short-term, it is completely pig-headed and utterly ridiculous. Government is comprised of people working together. If they all pursue their own interests, the system collapses. People need people. It is why we have families. It is why we are compelled to make friends. It is why we form communities. We need each other to survive. Sure a person might be able to eke out survival alone, but surviving and living are two different things. Our existence as a species requires that we get along, that we try to forge relationships that are more than just making enemies. Anyone that has ever been in a relationship with anyone else, whether it’s being someone’s child or lover or co-worker or boss or whatever, anyone who has been in a relationship knows that one of the main components is trust. In a world without trust, the bonds that hold society together crumble away and chaos reigns.
But the problem with trust is that it is scary. It requires openness. It demands honesty. And it leaves you vulnerable. But without trust, without faith in the inherent capability for good in humanity, you have no choice but to become inhuman. Everyone becomes a potential enemy and therefore not worthy of empathy or respect. The absence of trust is fear. Fear is the ultimate hallucinogen, clouding your judgment and obscuring the truth. It alters your perception. It tears families apart. It breaks up friends. It destroys careers and it takes away lives. Fear eats away trust and leaves a cold heart.
We are a nation (among many) that has been manipulated by fear for decades if not centuries. If it is not the government propagandizing, it is yellow journalism. If not them, it is special interest groups with deep pockets or political parties acting in their stead. Like it or not, fear has become a huge part of our national identity. It is what has motivated the actions of our government for many years. Fear of terrorism. Fear of immigrants. Fear of communism. Fear of liberals. Fear of conservatives. Fear of weapons of mass destruction. Fear of change. Fear of fear.
For most of our short history the fear that moves us has mostly manifested as a sort of economic imperialism with the government sending our military throughout the globe to protect our interests and maintain our safety. The fear has now metastasized. We are eating away at ourselves now. The ferocity that masks our fear has turned inward. The sniping and obstinacy has weakened us, like a person eating their own body to satisfy the tongue. We have become a house divided by fear. There is no longer anyone willing to step from the shadows of fear into the bright light of trust. No one is willing to make himself or herself vulnerable in order to help someone else.
It is a particularly galling state of affairs for a nation that never stops claiming to be guided by Judeo/Christian principles. The behavior of most politicians that cite Jesus as a major influence is at odds with the tenets of their faith. The New Testament is littered with commands to forgive and to empathize. Jesus himself said the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. In Luke 6 verses 27 to 42, he goes on at length about forgiveness and mercy exhorting the faithful to “be merciful even as your Father is merciful.” He states clearly that if someone strikes you, you should offer up your other cheek.
Can a nation that constantly claims to be guided and blessed by the God of the Bible be telling the truth about their influences when they in fact spend much of their time killing and spying on innocents abroad and accusing each other of destroying the nation God has supposedly blessed? Where is the forgiveness? Where is the mercy that God has commanded? Where is the love for your enemies?
In the end the two American political parties want the same thing. They want peace, comfort and security. One side says the government plays no role in this, and that people left to their own devices quite capable of taking care of themselves. The other side says people should be able to take care of themselves, but recognizes that this isn’t always possible and that makes government necessary to the happiness and well being of the nation. On paper, both sides are well intentioned, both claiming to be champions of the forgotten little person. In practice, they are both slow-moving behemoths dragged down by the weight of their own hubris and obstinacy. They have become so absorbed in the tactics and gamesmanship that they have forgotten their role as public servants choosing instead to believe in their own exceptionalism and dismissing the suffering caused by their own arrogance as acceptable collateral damage. Never mind who you have to hobble, maim or kill as you struggle to do the right thing.
It is unsustainable, illogical and sooner or later what has been sown in blood will one day be harvested. Until our actions reflect our words, I’m afraid America will find that being subjected to our own methods will be quite unpleasant. And while once we had the strength and cohesion to take on the entire world, our disregard for the other person has weakened us irrevocably.
Dennis was sitting on the couch tying his shoes. He wore a gray polo shirt and khaki slacks. The TV was on.
“This is the easiest Halloween costume ever,” he shouted to Callista. “Look like an IT nerd? Done. All I needed was the glasses. And boom! Snowden.”
“I’m glad you’re having such an easy time,” she hollered back. “I’m having to download a video to my phone just so I can show people who I am.”
“You could still go as a sexy nurse.”
“That’s not a costume because I already am a sexy nurse.”
“Scrubs count as a costume,” Dennis stood up from the couch. “And I think you’re sexy in your scrubs.”
“You’re sweet,” she said, joining him in the living room. “But I’m already dressed. Joshua from Dark Angel. What do you think? I still need to paint my nose with an eyebrow pen but…” She opened her arms.
“Joshua!” she barked.
“Sexy Joshua,” Dennis said.
“We interrupt your regularly scheduled commercials to bring you breaking and important news!” the TV insisted.
“Here we go,” said Dennis. “Halloween safety with Officer Friendly.”
“It might be serious,” Callista said.
“I’m Sean Malarkey and we have breaking news,” Sean Malarkey said on the TV. “Police are telling residents to stay indoors tonight after a mysterious plague has swept the city. The virus is said to cause bleeding and erratic behavior.”
“It’s Halloween night!” Dennis said indignantly. “I’m not staying indoors.”
“Shh!” Callista said.
“No details yet on what has caused the plague or even a list of possible side-effects. The police are keeping very quiet. But our reporters spoke to several witnesses who described fantastic scenes so unbelievable that our legal department insists we cannot broadcast them without verification from the authorities, who, no surprise, have declined to comment. We’ll have more on this mysterious plague as the story unfolds. In the meantime, we urge you to stay indoors.”
“This is bullshit!” Dennis kicked an invisible stone.
“We return you to your program already in progress.”
“It’s a hoax,” Dennis said. “It’s gotta be a hoax. A mysterious plague? Come on.”
“The police don’t make up stories, Dennis.”
“Maybe it’s like a trick-or-treat thing?”
“I think we should stay home.”
“There’s no way. There’s no way. I already paid seventy bucks for the pub crawl. Anne and Terry are going to be there.”
Callista collapsed onto the couch.
“I guarantee you,” she said sighing, “as soon as Anne finds out about a mysterious plague you’ll be getting a call from Terry saying they’re not coming. Let’s just stay home. We’ll watch The Twilight Zone and eat leftovers.”
“I don’t want to stay home,” Dennis whined. “This is the first Halloween I’ve had off in years!”
“I’m not risking a virus just so you can get drunk and throw up in a graveyard. Now sit down.”
“I don’t want to—”
“We interrupt your regularly scheduled commercials to bring you breaking and important news!”
Dennis looked at the TV.
“I’m Sean Malarkey and we have breaking news. Police have released some of the details about this mysterious Halloween plague. They believe it may have something to do with the Halloween costumes. Through a spokesman, they urged consumers to verify the origins of their costumes. They suspect that costumes imported from Transylvania were infected with the mystery bug.”
“This has to be a hoax,” Dennis insisted.
“Check the labels on your costumes and please—stay indoors. Call the police immediately if you suspect you may have been infected.”
“The police?” Callista said. “Not EMTs?”
“Hoax. It’s probably all a drug sting. Single out the weirdoes.”
“We’ll have more on the virus and the costume scandal as it unfolds. I’m Sean Malarkey. Stay tuned.”
“I’m checking the Internet,” Dennis said.
He ran across the room and leaned over the desk. He clicked the mouse button and the computer came to life. He opened the browser and searched for “Halloween Plague”. It was almost a full minute before the message came back saying the computer could not access the Internet.
“Try your phone,” he said to Callista as he crossed the room.
He sat beside her. She typed quickly and her phone quickly told her that it could not access the Internet.
“I’m calling Terry,” Dennis said.
He picked up the phone, dialed and waited.
“Hey, it’s me. Are you watching the news?” He paused. “What are you doing? Terry? Hello?”
“What happened?” Callista looked worried. It suited her dog-man costume.
“He sounded weird,” Dennis scowled at his phone. “Anne was screaming like a crazy woman in the background.” He looked at Callista. “That was really weird.”
“We interrupt your regularly scheduled commercials to bring you breaking and important news!”
Dennis and Callista leaned forward.
“I’m Sean Malarkey and we have more on ‘The Halloween Plague!’” Spooky lettering and a gruesome Jack-o-lantern filled the upper left corner of the screen.
“Way to go graphics,” Dennis muttered.
“Police have contacted Channel 5 and asked that we retract our previous reporting. It seems we have been the victims of some crossed wires at the research level. While police say that Halloween costumes may be at the center of this epidemic, their origins in Transylvania have nothing to do with it. We spoke to the Transylvanian ambassador. He had this to say:” It cut to the ambassador. He was pale with black, thick hair and wearing an antique suit.
“Did I mention I think this is all a hoax?” Dennis said. “I mean look at this guy.”
“Transylvania is a thriving economy,” the ambassador said with a thick accent. “We will not be looked down upon by the likes of small-town America. No garment made in Transylvania has ever been contaminated with mystery plague. It never will be.”
“Is he wearing a cape?” Callista asked. It cut away before either of them could tell whether he was or not.
“Transylvanian in origin or not,” Sean Malarkey said, “police urge citizens to stay indoors and lock your doors and windows. As reported, one of the effects of the plague is erratic behavior. We’ll keep you updated as the story unfolds.”
“Can you at least agree we should just stay home?” Callista said.
“I guess,” Dennis said. “Is Transylvania a real place? I always thought it was like Jellystone or Springfield.”
“I think it’s in Eastern Europe.”
“I wish the Internet worked,” Dennis moaned. “This is like torture.”
“Springfield is real.”
“Springfield is a real place. It’s not fictional. There are tons of them. That’s why it’s funny to call a fictional place ‘Springfield’. It could be anywhere.”
Dennis sighed and sank into the couch.
“What are we gonna do? No Internet. Can’t go outside. Can’t do anything. Can’t do anything but sit here and listen to Sean bloody Malarkey interrupting every twenty seconds.”
“I wonder why work hasn’t paged me,” Callista mused.
“Because it’s a hoax.”
Callista snuggled against Dennis.
“We get to spend a night in together,” she said.
They laid there peacefully for a moment. Dennis almost fell asleep. Callista had half an eye on the TV.
“We interrupt your regularly scheduled commercials to bring you breaking and important news!”
They both sat up with amazing alacrity.
“I’m Sean Malarkey, and we now return to our ongoing coverage of the Halloween Plague.” A flashy graphic flashed across the screen accompanied by a ghostly wolf howl. “Police have now released details about the origins of the Halloween Plague. A group of young girls unleashed the awesome power of an Ouija Board at a sleepover. An ancient curse was uttered and the ‘virus’ was born, causing costumed Halloween revelers all over the city to transform into their costumes. Police are worried about the overwhelming amount of Miley Cyrus’s—”
“Miley Cyrii?” Callista asked.
“—that are loose in the city. A police spokesman:
“Only costumed people have been transformed. And the curse only takes hold if the costume is completed.”
Dennis looked at his “Edward Snowden” glasses and Callista held up her eyebrow pencil.
“As a result,” the spokesman went on, “we have been overrun with Mileys, Lebowskis and Katniss’s. We even have a Hitler although he insists he’s Charlie Chaplin. Anyway, because the curse is lifted at midnight, the mayor has declared November 1st 2013 as Halloween. We’re pushing it back a day. We are encouraging schools, businesses and residents to participate. Whatever you do, don’t put on a costume until tomorrow. This is very real, very dangerous, and very permanent. We have several children that have already been transformed into ghosts. And although transformations will stop taking place at midnight, once someone has been transformed there is no way to reverse the process. So let’s be safe and save it for tomorrow.”
Dennis pulled off his gray polo shirt.
“There’s no way I’m changing into that traitorous mook,” he said. “You should take off the dog suit.”
“All of a sudden you believe?”
“I’m not taking any chances, sweetheart. There could be hundreds, if not thousands of people changing into Biebers or Kate Middletons out there. I’d rather be me than that idiot Snowden.”
“We could become somebody else,” Callista said contemplatively.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you could be dating Scarlett Johanssen.”
“I don’t know.”
“And I could be dating Adrien Brody.”
“I’m better than Adrien Brody.”
“I could be dating you with Adrien Brody’s nose.”
“But wouldn’t I become Adrien Brody?”
“You mean like you’d actually be him?”
“I don’t know.”
Dennis stood up and started pacing the room.
“This is too weird,” he said. “I don’t want to be Adrien Brody. I hate those stupid Stella Artois ads.”
“You could be Batman. I could be Catwoman.”
“Why can’t we just be who we are?” Dennis said. “I like sleeping. Batman only sleeps for like ten minutes a day when the Batwing’s on autopilot.”
“I’m sick of feeling fat and frumpy.”
He sat down beside her.
“You look good to me.”
“I’m serious, Dennis.”
“What? You’re going to become Catwoman?”
“You don’t want to date Scarlett Johanssen or maybe Zooey Deschanel?”
“You’ll still have to work at the hospital, you know? The real Scarlett Johanssen’s not going to give up acting jobs so you can get work.”
“I’ll work in a hospital and I will have a great ass.”
“Do you even have a Scarlett Johanssen costume?”
“No,” Callista said glumly.
“Well, we can’t leave the house. There could be packs of roaming Hefners out there.”
“You know what I do have?” Callista brightened. “My Cleopatra costume from three years ago!”
“Didn’t she kill herself with an asp?”
“Yeah. But she was supposed to be like the most beautiful woman of the ancient world.”
“We’re going to seem like Brad and Angelina when everybody else has become Spider-Man or Nixon.”
“I guess. It just seems such a waste. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
“So’s an aneurysm.”
“I can’t believe you. Ten minutes ago, you were saying it was all a hoax.”
“It’s like you said,” Dennis said, throwing an arm around Callista’s shoulders. “We’ll stay in, eat leftovers and watch The Twilight Zone. Tomorrow, we’ll wake up in a city full of Mileys and we’ll thank our lucky stars that it’s 2013 and not 2008. We could’ve had a plague of Palins.”
Callista straightened up.
“I’m going to go get changed,” she said. “Pour some wine.”
She disappeared into the bedroom. Dennis poured two glasses of wine. When Callista came back, she was dressed in pajamas. They drank wine and watched TV. She poured him another glass and heated up leftovers. They ate in front of the TV. Dennis had another glass. At the beginning of another episode of The Twilight Zone, he declared with drunken confidence, “It gonna turn out that it’s all a dream.” By the time the episode had proved him wrong, he was asleep.
Callista listened to his breathing and looked at her watch.
“Not much time,” she said to herself.
She left him on the couch and went into the bedroom. She was gone for nearly thirty minutes. Dennis snored at the TV. She stood over him and applied the final touches, drawing dark lines at the sides of her eyes. She smiled to herself and curled up next to Dennis on the couch. She adjusted her wig and fell asleep.
“What the hell?” Dennis screamed. He scrambled out from under the woman that was sleeping on him. “Who the hell are you?”
“It’s me Callista.”
“Like hell,” Dennis said.
“It’s me, I swear.”
“Your email password is One Direction forever.”
“It’s a trick.”
“It’s not a trick.”
“You look like—I mean—You look like—What happened?”
“I became Cleopatra,” she said proudly.
“I thought she was supposed to be beautiful,” Dennis said without thinking.
“She was the most beautiful woman in the ancient world. Wait. Why?” Callista ran to the bathroom and stared in the mirror. Dennis sat on the couch and cradled his head in his hands, listening to the sounds of anguish from the ancient queen.
“There’s no truth to those rumors.” He smiled. “They’re just rumors.” He rubbed her cheek with the back of his hand.
“Oh, Curt,” she swooned. “Tell me you love me.”
“I do, Christine. I do.”
Curt wrapped his arms around Christine kissing her deeply.
I did it. The end of chapter one. Two hours and I’m already done with a whole chapter. Was it too hokey? I mean, it’s clear, right? Curt’s lying to her. He never actually tells her he loves her. He just says “I do”. I’m not really sure how to start chapter two. Maybe I should start with the setting. The bedroom, maybe.
The morning sun entered softly through the open curtains. Christine snuggled against Curt’s warm body. A bird chirruped outside the window. The serenity of the cozy cocoon between the sheets was shattered by the sound of Curt’s phone ringing loudly.
“Curt’s a liar, Charles.”
“So you and him are over?” Charles stepped closer to Christine.
“He betrayed me.”
Charles was inches away from Christine. The air smoldered between them.
“I won’t betray you.”
Charles tore his glasses off and wrapped his arms around Christine, kissing her deeply.
Bam. Another chapter done. This thing is writing itself. I hope Christine isn’t coming off as too easy. I mean that’s why I took all the time to explain the history between her and Charles. Jean Luc hasn’t even shown up yet.
Christine was in her office. She stared at the city but she could only see Charles. She was pulled from her reverie by the sound of knuckles on the jamb of her door. There stood a man in an Armani suit that hugged his compact muscular form. His dark hair framed his head like a lion’s mane. His eyes were icy blue and his attention was fierce. Christine flipped her hair.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I’m Jean Luc Perrault,” he smiled with swagger. “I’ve just bought the firm.”
“Well, you sure talk about him a lot.”
“He’s my boss, Charles.”
“It’s only natural to have feelings for someone in a position of authority.”
“Ugh,” Christine wrinkled her nose. “I don’t have feelings for him. Jean Luc is too manly. He’s like a creature.”
“I’ll fight him if I have to,” Charles said grimly.
He pulled Christine to him, kissing her pointedly, passionately.
Might need to revisit this chapter. Can’t have a whole chapter without any sex scenes. Readers would have a fit. My publisher would have a fit.
Jean Luc Perrault sat in the leather chair behind his mahogany desk. He was concentrating deeply, reading legal briefs when Christine slipped into the room. He smiled salaciously when he saw her sneaking towards him.
“Jean Luc, we have to talk.”
“Talk can wait.”
“I snuck in past your secretary.”
“Ooh. I like it,” he said, standing up. “Clandestine.”
“I don’t want Charles to find out.”
“I want to see you naked,” he said.
He pulled her to him and kissed her deeply. She pushed him away turning her head dramatically.
“We have to stop,” she said. “I don’t want to hurt Charles.”
“He can join us if you would like,” Jean Luc said. “I would put up for a lot for you.”
“Oh, Jean Luc,” Christine stopped resisting and he pulled her close.
“It’s so great to be able to talk to someone about all this,” Christine said. “I’ve missed you, Curt.”
“I’ve really missed you too.”
Their eyes locked and the coffee shop disappeared. Christine’s heart was pounding as she stared into his eyes. He held her hand and matched her gaze.
Ten chapters. That’s about enough right. Now I’ve got to decide who she ends up with. Too bad there’s no such thing as a three-sided coin. Who would you pick? No. That never works. I always make the wrong choices in life. But wouldn’t it be great if the wrong choices were the right ones? If you knew that choosing Jean Luc would end in happiness and not sizzling ennui? She’s got two chapters to decide.
Christine looked at her phone. It was from Jean Luc.
“Where are you?” his text message demanded.
“I just want to be alone,” she wrote back.
His reply was instantaneous.
“Like hell you do. I need to see you.”
Christine sighed and stared at her phone. Curt shifted on the bed.
“Who’re you talking to?”
“It’s Jean Luc. He needs the Pressman files.” She threw back the covers and Curt watched her naked stomp to the computer.
Charles threw the tumbler against the wall, shattering glass and whiskey everywhere.
“He lied to you, Christine!” he shouted.
Christine let loose a cry and he embraced her.
“I can’t lie to you,” he said fiercely. “I love you.”
She studied his face. His eyes glistened earnestly.
OMG. I can’t believe I’ve written twelve chapters. Book finished. Just one more chapter to go. I’m excited to see how it ends… Well, I know how it ends. Christine’s dreams come true and she lives happily ever after. I just don’t know how.
Jean Luc Perrault had a few days worth of stubble on his face. He sat at his desk, holding a darkened phone in his hand. The door flew open and Charles stomped in. His face was red with rage.
“Where is Christine?” he demanded.
“Can I offer you a drink, Charles?” He held up a swirling glass of bourbon.
“It’s ten in the morning. Where the hell is Christine?”
“I thought she was with you,” Jean Luc slurred. “Have you asked Curt?”
“They have a history, Charles.”
Charles looked bitterly disappointed.
“Maybe you’re right. Stay away from her, Perrault, or I swear to god I’ll—I’ll—”
Jean Luc chuckled and raised his glass.
“To love,” he said.
“I mean it, Charles,” Christine said, swirling the hairs on his chest with the end of her finger. “I’ve broken it off with Curt for good. I only want you.”
“And what about Jean Luc?” He grabbed her breast.
“He’s a Neanderthal with gel in his hair,” she sighed
“And it’s over between you?” He nibbled her ear.
“I only want you,” she whispered.
She pulled him close and kissed him deeply.
Thirty thousand words and she picks the boring one. My characters are too true-to-life. At least the sex is good. That’s all that really matters in these kinds of books anyway. I’ll give it the once over and then—click!—it’s off to the publisher.
I have something I need to confess. I’ve been holding it in for so long and it is time to let it go.
I am afraid of bicyclists.
I’m afraid of them and that fear brings on a sort of hatred of bicyclists. Don’t worry. I’m not going to shave my head or burn crosses on their lawn or anything. Maybe I should back up and try to explain the roots of my condition.
I have been, for most of my life, a walker. I am able to ride a bicycle or drive a car, but I prefer to walk. It is a natural pace, a natural motion for a human. No one ever gets walk sick. I have a car but I walk as much as possible. I don’t know if I can explain why I like walking so much. It puts one in an expansive state of mind. You can see the whole world but are moving at a pace that ensures you won’t miss anything. Birds chirp, insects buzz, people smile and make eye contact.
Of course, if you are walking on a sidewalk, cars tend to detract from the enjoyment. They are noisy and they stink but on the whole they are quantifiable. You can hear and see them coming from a mile away. They stick to the road and the rules of the road and you know what to expect from a car and a driver.
A bicycle, however, is silent. While you are ambling quietly along the trail admiring the colorful face a passing flower and smiling to yourself, there is a sudden rush and a streak of branded-color shoots out from behind you and a bicyclist shouts into your ear, “On your left!” It’s like having someone jump out in a Halloween mask and shout “Boo!” Bicycles are not confined to any one space either. Whether driving or walking, it is a mathematical certainty that you have been startled or angered by a bicyclist. They are unpredictable and no one likes to be surprised.
They carry themselves with a smug arrogance that is difficult to ignore. Of the three main modes of getting around, car, foot or bicycle, bicyclists are the only ones that require special clothing and gloves and alien headgear to get around. Unless you’re Alan Partridge or the Mr. Burns, chances are you’re not likely to don gloves and goggles to go motoring. The walker, likewise, needs no special equipment other than a pair of feet, preferably in a pair of shoes. Bicyclists, on the other hand must wear a second skin made of synthetic fibers that highlights every grotesque bulge. They must wear gloves. They must wear a helmet. Often times they are wearing wrap-around shades like they are Brian “The Boz” Boswell. Their insistent arrogance seems laughable, ironic. They ride around like Wells’ Hoopdriver and sneer at the snail-paced pedestrian. They pedal around on a device that is only slightly more sophisticated than a penny-farthing and treat motorists with derision. If you are dressed to get in an accident, then maybe you are not yet qualified to pedal a vehicle.
I guess you can tell how I feel about bicyclists. I know I said in the second paragraph that I had a hatred for them, but it is the sort of hatred a Huskies fan has for a Cougars fan or an England fan has for a fan of Germany (soccer not war). It is a rivalry. Walkers versus Bicyclists. I’m a Walkers fan (pedestrians not shortbread though I do like the shortbread as well). Maybe if more bicyclists used a bell instead of shouting in my ear…
There I got that off my chest. I’m going for a walk.
This is the tale of two happy feet
They liked to visit with the street
They liked to visit with the sidewalk
They liked to explore under trees
They liked to climb up and down stairs
And go places wheels will never be
Another year has passed. I have been on the planet for twenty-six years. Ten years ago, when I was sixteen, I knew everything there was to know. It was a terrible burden knowing everything. It made me quite cross with everybody. Now, after passing my twenty-sixth birthday, I’ve found I don’t know anything and that the things I think I do know are dwarfed by the things I know I don’t know. While it is a relief to bid farewell to the weight of knowing everything, I still miss it from time to time. It brought a foolish courage. It was that voice inside that was able to convince you that risks can bring rewards, that security and comfort shrink the world and don’t expand it. I am like a junky for security and comfort now. I don’t let it out of my sight and no internal voice is ever going to convince me to give them up. Don’t touch my stuff!
It was knowing everything that made me confident enough to buy a banjo. ‘I can learn it. I can do whatever I want to do. I know everything.’ That confidence has gone. Hours of practice and impromptu jams and my playing is not fit for purpose outside of a living room or a high school bedroom album.
It was the belief in myself that made me believe I could survive on my own. I would not have to live and die in a cloistered pocket of America. I went to college hundreds of miles away from where I grew up. I met friends who have become like family. I discovered I didn’t know as much as I thought.
In childhood, the world is like a painting. It is flat. It is beautiful but there is no depth. Everything has one dimension. As you grow older, the painting seems to gain more depth. Time shifts your perspective so that before you know it, you are walking around in the painting. That flat painting was hiding the nuance and deceptions. The bald eagle’s noble bearing has become sinister. The infallibility of authority turns out to be a cruel joke. Grown ups turn out to be just that, just children that have grown up. Larger stature has no bearing on intelligence. You discover that you are one of them. Ten years ago, that was out of the question.
If my sixteen-year-old self could see me ten years later…
“You work at a bookstore?” she says with unconcealed disgust.
“It pays the bills.”
“I thought you were going to be a famous author.”
“I’m in the book business.”
“This is so embarrassing. So, what are you? Like, a cashier?”
“I’m actually like a shift supervisor.”
“What’s that mean? You’re the manager of a bookstore?”
“I’m sort of like an assistant assistant manager.”
“Is this some sort of Christmas Carol thing or something? Are you like the Ghost of Birthday Future?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you’re like the worst possible future. I figure you’re like meant to scare me into doing better in school or something.”
“I did great in school. I got all B’s and A’s.”
“And you’re still just the assistant’s assistant?”
“Well, it’s not that simple. A lot of it is political, you know. If the district manager doesn’t like you, there’s only so far you can go. Just remember you don’t always have to say what you’re thinking, okay?”
“Ugh. You sound like my mom.”
“Yeah, well, she makes a lot more sense than you think she does.”
“I’ll tell you this, I’m never working at a bookstore.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You tell me.”
“Well, yeah, my boss is an unfeeling narcissist and his boss might be a diagnosable psychopath and the whole corporate structure seems to favor the incumbent management who never relinquish a bit of power or a single red cent, but the benefits are okay and they pay me pretty good for retail.”
“You’re like a domestic animal, licking the hand with food in it.”
“Look, you don’t understand. The economy is pretty bad right now. The government has become so gridlocked that nothing can get done.”
“If I were you, I’d just do it. I’d just write a book or at least get a new job.”
“I try writing. I do. It’s just when I get home from work I feel so drained emotionally, that I just want to sit there reading a book or watching TV. I just don’t have the energy.”
“What does your husband think of all this?”
“I’m not married.”
“Not for a couple of years.”
“This is so depressing. You know, Scrooge isn’t supposed to kill himself at the end of A Christmas Carol.”
“You’ve never even had a boyfriend, so don’t act all superior. Men aren’t as great as you think they are anyway. Most chimps are more emotionally mature than a man.”
“Great. I become a bitter old spinster with a boring job.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being single. Jane Goodall was single.”
“She was married twice. You are not helping yourself.”
“Well, my life is okay, you know? Maybe it doesn’t look like whatever picture you doodled in your notebook, but I’d rather be me than anyone else, and in the end that’s more important than money or fame.”
“Yeah, keep telling yourself that. Meanwhile, I’ve just found out that I end up becoming my mother.”
“I’m not like my mom at all.”
“You should see yourself right now. You are so mom.”
“It doesn’t matter. I am who I am. There’s no changing it now. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“What about college? I mean, you do well in college, you get a good job, right?”
“I told you I did great in school. I have a degree in psychology.”
She wrinkles her nose.
“What? What do you want? You can’t get a degree in comic books.”
“The plan was to go to college, meet boys in big coats with books in their pockets, get a degree in English Literature, have fun and then when it’s all over write a bestselling novel and join the cozy world of academia. How do you screw that up?”
“Ha ha ha. To be young again. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but if your planning on a degree in English Lit., you may as well skip it. You may as well just make a diploma in Mouse Paint for all the good it would do you. The ‘fun’ you look forward to having is dominated by those same cliques of people you are in school with right now. And boys with big coats with books in their pockets—Well, let’s just say the coat is directly proportionate to the ego.”
“So all my hopes and dreams are what? Hopeless?”
“You can get what you want but you’ll never be happy till you appreciate what you have.”
“Quisling,” she hisses.
“I can’t be a traitor. You don’t have a cause.”
“My cause is to never become like you.”
“Oh brother. I don’t remember being so dramatic about everything.”
“You are not me.”
“That is a very good point. Maybe you really do know everything. Isn’t it good to know we’re nothing alike?”
Everywhere I go, and I mean everywhere, I see faces peering into smart phones. It is not uncommon to look into a restaurant and see half of the diners gawping into tiny screens, and whole tables of people saying nothing, perhaps a couple on a date telling each other what they’re looking at on their phones. Drive a car and every other driver on the road is dividing their attention between the Internet and driving. Take a bus and most of the riders are absorbed by portable electronic devices. Smart phones are more ubiquitous than tonsils. I don’t have a smart phone. I have a good old-fashioned flip phone. Chelsea gives me crap for being a hipster. She calls my phone “retro” or “vintage”. I can’t carry the massive weight of the Internet around in my pocket. The experience is similar to owning a Tamagotchi, I would imagine. In the end you find it’s controlling you more than you’re controlling it.
The rewards of always being connected, seen and unseen like a flirtatious ghost, dim when one considers the cost. We live in a world with a foot in two worlds. Not focused on either of them enough, swerving dangerously in our car while posting misspelled misogynistic comments on youtube. The bonds of society fray in the real world while a battalion of anonymous soldiers spread hate electronically. The wealth of the real world is being hoarded by fewer and richer people while the providers of the Internet and the corporations that profit off its back are in a conspiracy to aid in the collection of the remaining resources.
The Internet is lauded as bringing us closer together. It is praised for the efficient dispersal of information. Knowledge, once closely regulated by the people in power, has been democratized and is readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. But the knowledge is corrupted by our own influence, polluted by hubris and ignorance. It is the knowledge of puppies and porn. Rather than bringing us closer together, the Internet has become the middleman in relationships where none previously existed and it is a poor substitute for face-to-face contact, or even voice-to-voice contact. It brings exaggeration where none is needed and downplays news of consequence. It aids in vice and ridicules virtue.
It is a depressing place to be, the Internet. It is at best bewildering and at worst heart-breaking. It is a massive art project and we are all the artists. It reveals our hatreds and our obsessions. It lays bare our fears and prejudices. It is the mirror that shows us our true face, a face marked by greed and a lecherous leer with a vituperative tongue.
But then here I am. Writing this and posting it on the Internet. Contributing to the massive work of vulgar art. Am I also greedy and lecherous and vituperative? Is the true face of humanity my face as well? I wish I could say no.
I’ve been trying to stay off the Internet. It is an unpopular decision for someone my age. But it’s a good thing popularity has never mattered to me. I have found that over the last couple of weeks, as I have restricted my Internet usage to checking email and use as a television, I have been much happier. It has forced me to avoid social media and the news.
“Look, if you all want to be Borg, that’s your decision. I just don’t know if I’m ready to become part of a hive mind. I mean, we can still hang out and all, but your going to have to remember that I’m not plugged in so your going to have to speak your thoughts out loud so I know what’s going on.”
“RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
“Well, I sort of feel like resisting, though maybe ineffective, isn’t altogether futile. I mean, it’s better than going down without a fight.”
“RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
“Yeah, maybe you’re right. But, I gotta be honest with you, the whole hive mind thing just isn’t my thing. I don’t really like Borg porn and watching a cyborg kitten assimilate a cyborg puppy isn’t as cute as you say it is.”
“PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED.”
“READ AND SIGN AT THE BOTTOM.”
“I don’t know. This is a lifetime contract.”
“THE CYBERNETICS WILL BE INSTALLED AT NO COST TO YOU.”
“Yeah, but the monthly fees. That really adds up.”
“RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
“I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not really a fan of the whole hive mind concept. Will I still be able to read books? I really like reading books.”
“BOOKS ARE IRRELEVANT. PREPARE TO BE ASSIMILATED.”
“And all of you think this is a good idea?”
“RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
“Maybe there’s something to this hive mind thi—Ow! You just shot wires into my—Oh—RESISTANCE IS FUTILE.”
Self-Declared Musical Historian Male Co-worker says during a conversation about mid-twentieth century close-harmony groups, “I really like The Mills Brothers. All their songs start the same.”
I say, “Oh, yeah. Me too.”
In my head I’m thinking, ‘This guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.’ (I swear liberally in my thoughts.) ‘He’s thinking of The fucking Ink Spots. The Mill Brothers were the guys that sang with their fucking dad.’
We kind of bonded over our mutual love of The Mills Brothers, even though he loved The Ink Spots and called them The Mills Brothers. He has been much nicer to me since then. I wish I had been quicker to the draw. “All black mid-twentieth century male close-harmony groups look the same to you, you fucking racist?” I could’ve shouted in the middle of the bookstore. “You’re thinking of The fucking Ink Spots! What happened to your encyclopedic knowledge, Encyclopedia Clown?” (That’s meant to rhyme with Brown.)
He would of course reply, “Yeah, The Ink Spots. What did I say? The Mills Brothers? Sorry about that. I mix The Ink Spots up with The Brown Dots too, but then that’s sort of understandable, you know?”
“You unbelievable racist! Really? All black mid-twentieth century male close-harmony groups look the same to you?”
“They do sound pretty similar. Besides The Brown Dots were started by Zeek Watson when he left The Ink Spots in ’46.”
“Oh. Okay,” I would say sheepishly, embarrassed.
I suppose it’s best that I kept my mouth shut.