Wordmongers' Masque
The Sky Is Falling.

Waking up, I was happy to find myself holding you in my arms. I could tell you were still asleep by the faintly patterned breathing. We were curled up in each other's bodies and the blanket had been pushed down, exposing us to the mild chill of the room. Feeling you shiver, I pulled it back up to your neck.

Gently, you stirred.

"Wake up! Michael! Wake!"

"Please, Michael... There's a problem."

I snap out of the dream and feel someone shaking me.

"What is it? What's wrong?" I rub my eyes to get help wake up, but am already running through what could be wrong. Too many possibilities. Nothing goes right anymore. And if they're coming to me with it, means nobody else had any answers. Damnit, Liz, why couldn't you have left me to my perfect little dreams.

"The sky... it's," she pauses and closes her eyes, "it's on fire?" Her voice cuts out towards the end and it takes a moment to register. The sky is on fire. That'd be a new version of chicken little.

I hop out of bed and toss on some clothes. Liz stares for a second and then looks away. It's hard not to smile at something that cute. Reminds me of-

I shake my head. Thoughts like that will hardly be helpful. I grab the pistol off my table and strap the ammo pouch to my belt.

"Alright. Show me."

The path outside isn't terribly far. I sleep closest to the surface. In the event someone gets in, I'm the first one they come across. Not because I'm invincible or anything, but I'll buy the time needed for everyone else to get to the backdoor.

Morbid thoughts. When did I change from hopeful to grim?

Liz grabs the door handle, but doesn't open it yet. So there's more to say.

"Listen, Michael. This... I don't know how to describe it. But it's scary." Her voice matches her words. Scared.

"Just show it to me, Liz. We'll check it out together. Okay?" I smile and look into her eyes. She matches my smile and pulls the door open.

Brightness envelopes me. Infinite brightness. Light that comes into from every direction.

And suddenly, it fades. My eyes adjust and I take a deep breath. Liz reaches for my hand and together we take a few steps outward.

In the distance the sky flickers. As if the air itself was made solid and began to melt. And the flames. A Krag ship floats with the clouds. Giant... guns or cannons. Guns, I suppose, are shooting fire towards the ground. It doesn't make it and is instead wrecking havoc on the air around it.

"This... fire. It isn't an attack." I sigh as I say it. I suppose I'm thankful.

"You mean this isn't at us?" she's puzzled. Then again, so am I.

"No. Well... At least I don't think so. Not directly, anyway." It's just an idea. Who knows if I'm right. "The Krags... they can't really survive here."

She nods her head. It was a fact we learned early on. Some scientists claimed that their bodies couldn't process the nitrogen in the air. Or something. I didn't pay attention at the time and it doesn't help me now.

Liz is looking at me. She seems confused and rightfully so.

"Well, we guessed that they came here because they needed our planet. Maybe the oxygen level was just right. Maybe something in the soil. Honestly, I don't have a clue. But... we think they needed Earth." As I'm speaking I recall long conversations with Calvin. We bantered back and forth while trying to find a solution to the Krags. But we were two men with nothing but battlefield knowledge of these enemies. The only thing to come of it was a cure for the constant silence. A silence that has been all too noticeable since he died.

"So... Why is the sky burning?" She's almost whispering. Something many people have taken to doing around me. They elevate my status no matter how hard I try to avoid it. They think I'm their last hope. Not a man. Not even a messiah. But a holy cherub, acting for God.

"Maybe they are terraforming. Maybe it's to cleanse the air." I watch as the sky actually flickers. It truly does appear to burn. How long until it reaches us? How long until our skies are alight with their terraforming?

"So, Michael. How will you stop it?" Her voice is so trusting. So much that I forget to sigh. How in the world does she expect me to stop a Krag spaceship?

"Liz... I want you to go back inside. Find James. Tell him to start an evac." I can't help but stare at the flickers of light off in the distance. "And to send someone to the Beta site and make sure it's still intact."

"And who do I tell to get ready for the fight?"

I sigh. "There is no fight anymore. This is the only option we have left."

"At what? At beating the Krags?" She is angry. They always are when I say that. I shake my head.

"No, Liz. At surviving..."

Pride is the mask of one's own faults.
Jewish Proverb

Today, quite unfortunately, marks the fifth anniversary of 9-11-01, or the day that the world stood still as aeroplanes crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York, and into the Pentagon. Being Australian, I have no direct connection to these tragic events. However, my thoughts go out to everyone who suffered and died during this period. The rest of 2001 was a never-ending tribute to those poor souls, a great deal of them extremely brave.

Rest in peace, everyone.

All the flowers that you planted in the backyard
Died.






I got to work this morning and we were out of coffee. It's always raining in Juneau, so I went across the street to the nearby organic grocery store instead of walking into town to my favorite coffee shop.

The espresso machine station was unmanned, so I had to tap on the counter and say, "hello," loudly to get someone's attention. When she came over the organic coffee lady noticed my consternation.

"How can I help you?"

"I need a latte of any form," I said to her, not wanting to have a litany of organic coffee choices to come between me and the morning cup.

"You're in the right place," she said. She commenced creating a latte. While she was working she said, "Where do you usually get your coffee?"

"Usually I just go to Safeway and bring a pound to work. But I was away for a while and when I got back there was none..." Why was I talking so much? Why was I going through such detail?

"Do you buy organic coffee?"

Usually, I buy the coffee with the cool native Alaskan art on the package. I figure if the natives sell it, it must be appropriate. I'm helping the native tribes. This is what we're supposed to do up here, is it not?

Organic? It's not inorganic. It's a plant product. It comes from trees. It must be carbon-based and besides, it's great tasting. If they use pesticides to make it taste that way, then give me more. Double dose of anti-coffee weevil powder for me. I'm just not all that concerned. I have the mighty Manitou on my side with every cup.

"Yes, organic. I buy Heritage. The house blend."

She sucked in a breath as if she'd just stuck her feet into ice water.

"That's not organic."

Then what is it, an alien contrivance? A micromachined beverage consisting of tiny particles of self-organizing platinum, uranium, and thorium?

"Oh," I said, obviously caught in the commission of a mortal sin against baby seals. God hates me now. Nothing under the Christmas tree for me on December 25th.

"The nearest Starbucks is about 800 miles away," I said, trying to change the subject.

She didn't bite. "Our coffee is fair trade. It's shade grown. It's organically raised."

"In Alaska?" I said, thinking to ask what it got on the SATs. Had it been admitted to UC Berkeley? Did it know the important opening steps to the Argentinian tango?

"Colombia, I think," she said and I muttered that they probably use it to pack around the shipments of cocaine.

She put the top on the cup and pushed it my way. Raised an eyebrow. "$3.50."

Imagine my grandfather paying $3.50 for a cup of coffee. In his day, a cup of coffee cost a nickel, with refills.

I gave her a fiver. She made change saying, "No chemicals," and I wondered if I'd be able to taste the ground weevils. I pocketed the change.

"Be sure to come back," she said, and I sipped the coffee. "I do appreciate your business." The shade-grown caffeine hit my blood stream flooding me with shame and self-loathing.

Why was I disparaging this person's coffee? A latte cost $3.00 at Starbucks. Had I said the things I thought? Was I practicing my free-speech, say-what's-on-your-mind openness everyone said they appreciated in people they admired but everyone knows is self-centered insensitivity to the feelings of others?

She was a smiley thin lady with long gray hair tied in a pony tail down her back. Her eyes were deep blue and I imagined her as a little girl walking home from school through the woods, barefoot, her books tied together with a purple plastic belt, a stray beagle following her home. I took another sip and smiled at her, my first smile of the day.

It occurred to me I should apologize, but I couldn't.

"Thank you," I said. As I pushed the door open with my shoulder I held up the cup in a salute and said, "Therapy."

"It's here when you need it," she said, beaming in that organic tie-dye way that made all men love the girl next door more than they could love Sophia Loren in a blouse soaked with Mediterranean salt water.

Sophia was an idea, while you could marry the girl next door.

Some days, she'd make you coffee and tend to your wounds, the bruises and splinters and cuts you suffered making your way through the world.







I went to a therapist and she said, "You should write everything down."

I said, "Everything?"

"Just jot it down. When you think about something, write it."

"Like a list?"

"Any way you want. Write it down and then crumple it up and throw it away, and all your troubles will go away with the trash."

"Really? Just like that?"

"It's a technique."

"It can't be that easy. I'd have heard about it before."

"It's not magic. It's just a technique."

"Sounds kind of silly to me."

"Try it."

"But honestly, I don't see how it can work."

"Trust me."

"And I'm supposed to wind up happy?"

"Give it a try."










    Big Huge Mistakes


  • Not trying harder at athletics as a child
  • Not tossing a baseball around with my father
  • Not trying harder to get into MIT
  • Not trying harder to get into Princeton
  • Not trying to get into Cal Tech
  • Not staying in AP Calculus at U of M
  • Believing my father when he said I shouldn't work on my own car
  • Not believing which college I went to would be important for the rest of my life
  • Dropping my scholarship at U of M and going back north in 1978
  • Not joining SDA in 1983, staying New Jersey instead
  • Selling Intel Short in 1987
  • Missing my middle daughter's 2nd birthday for a business trip to Japan
  • Leaving our neighborhood in North Carolina to move back to Cal
  • Not playing football at Mater Dei HS
  • Spending 10 years at Cadence, working 50-80 hours per week, missing my kids growing up
  • Not buying the most expensive house I could afford, and buying one that would only require a conservative mortgage
  • Not selling every share of stock I had in 1998 when my father had a dream I should
  • Two failed startup companies, laying off all my friends, twice.
  • Not fighting harder to get into AP Biology at Marian Catholic
  • Not going for a PhD
  • Not having the guts to ask Cathy Murphy to Homecoming, 1975
  • Avoiding conflict when I could have helped
  • Not using my skills to resolve the fraternal conflict
  • Not believing in myself : hesitancy
  • Believing too much in myself : ego
  • Selling EMC too soon
  • Not sticking with classical piano lessons
  • Not being there when my father died
  • Not buying Yahoo in 1999
  • Holding on to Extreme Networks
  • Letting my marriage decay to nothingness, and not believing it could be fixed
  • Not insisting on more family vacations
  • Not learning to dance as a kid
  • Not accepting when Cathy Murphy asked me to the Homecoming dance
  • Not realizing that the smallest atom of self-confidence is self-perpetuating and extraordinarily useful
  • Only believing the bad news
  • Not listening to enough jazz




When I got home from work there was a guy standing in my driveway. He was wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. His blonde-gray hair flayed out in all directions, as if some kind of human head fire had got frozen in place by the extinguishing foam and he'd never washed it out.

Serial killer material.

But it's Alaska, so I wasn't worried, and if it was my time to die, so be it.

Just to be sure, I grabbed the garden shovel with my free hand as I walked from the garage into the standard Juneau pouring rain.

Have you seen the water?

I put down my briefcase. Water. Gripped the shovel with both hands, which caught his attention. This man was not getting wet while my briefcase began to melt.

"Come 'ere," he said, turning away, heading toward the beach. And then over his shoulder. "I'm Cody. I live next door."

"I'm Joe," I said. "I'm new here."

"I know," he said, stopping at land's end. He pointed to an obvious oil slick that made the beach smell like the inside of a poorly kept garage.

"Wow," I said. "Boating accident?"

"Nah.

I pushed a couple rocks with the shovel blade, observing the tell-tale rainbow. Oil on water. Exxon Juneau.

"It's heating oil. Smell it?" I couldn't miss it but I can't distinguish the delicate aromatic differences between gasoline and refined home heating oil.

"Some house tank has sprung a leak," Cody said.

"Whose?"

He pointed to some rocks further along the shore that were directly opposite from my house. "It's coming from there." We walked to a spot where a dribble of clear pungent liquid spurted into the ocean.

"Noticing any smells in your basement?" he asked, and I hadn't. "But it's still probably you."

"So what do I do? The owners live in Seattle and the woman I sublet from is in New York for the rest of the month."

"Call the oil company. Call the Coast Guard," he said. And he walked away.

When the Coast Guard showed I thought they'd pull up in a cutter. Instead, they came by pickup truck. Petty Officer Clark handed me a piece of paper that looked like a traffic ticket. He said, "Alaska Airlines pilots have been reporting this slick for weeks. We got calls from Ward Air and a couple ferry captains. We couldn't find the source, till now."

I figured he was happy with me. I'd helped them find the source, and now that it was located, we could fix it.

The paper said I would be charged $32,500 per day for every day an effort was not made to remediate the situation.

It was signed by Officer Clark on behalf of the Federal Government of the United States of America.

Some moments later, Scot from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation showed up and handed me a similar paper, saying I would be fined a minimum of $15,000 for not maintaining my home properly and thus polluting Alaska's pristine waterways.

"But it's not my house," I said. "I just rent."

"Nobody's here but you," Scot said. "Call this number. Environmental consultants. They're not cheap, but it's your only hope." And he gave me a phone number verbally.

I thought to myself: this screwed up state. This twisted, irrelevant place. Keep your goddamned eagles and bears and stupid melting glaciers. You don't deliver my mail and I have to go through three levels of telephone security to order a pizza.

But you bastards don't know where I live in California. You don't have my address, and I haven't even signed a rental agreement.

I went inside. I picked up the phone. Alaska Airlines' phone number was speed dial 7. I pulled out my Visa. I could probably get to Seattle on the redeye, and then anywhere else the next morning.



    What I thought about today


  • My life would be different if I could sing like Chris Cornell
  • Anything labeled "Vince Guaraldi" is good
  • When wives and husbands stop communicating, they may as well divorce
  • A father never abandons his children
  • If I tried harder, I would be a great piano player
  • It is easier to make money at things you love than things you dislike doing. But you have to love some form of work, or you're stuck.
  • If I tried harder, I would be a great writer
  • Not sleeping with all the women who propositioned me over the years was always a really good decision
  • It's nearly always a waste of time trying to correct someone who stereotypes you.
  • Habitually doing something you love will almost always freak out your dependents if it detracts from generating an income.
  • Everyone thinks he or she is a moderate, and the rest of the world is more extreme.
  • It is almost always the case that nothing is being said about you behind your back.
  • Never deny anyone the right to make his own mistakes
  • Pain is a guaranteed fact of life. It's best to learn to deal with it than to spend too much energy avoiding it.
  • It is not true that you eventually have to confront and fight the playground bully. But if you don't, thirty years later, you will find yourself in a coffee shop reading the newspaper, suddenly wishing you had.
  • Bravery is a form of insanity. The only difference between the brave and the stupid is the context and the outcome of the action
  • Nobody believes he is brave, but everyone believes he's been stupid
  • While the results of some actions are obvious, it is impossible to say what you will regret having done ten years from now.
  • When you tally the moments of your life you will find you have been happier for longer by living under the illusion everything is going to work out fine
  • Goals are the means by which life's efforts can be directed. Directed lives are more interesting to lead than undirected lives. Otherwise, goals have no purpose.
  • From birth, everyone yearns for attention, which is why most people would like to be heroes or movie stars or authors. The human race is not generally improved by the acquisition of attention.
  • The amount of trouble in your life is not decreased by wealth. It simply changes form.
  • Though everyone would argue this point, not one thinking person wants to live happily ever after.
  • Irrespective of how little classical music (or jazz) resonates with you, if you learn to play it, you can play anything else you want. There is no way to learn to be a really good pianist studying only popular music.
  • It is impossible to mitigate your risk to zero, nor would you want to.
  • There have been negative repercussions every time I've lost control of my emotions
  • I have wasted too much time worrying.
  • More often than not, I have been lucky
  • Getting married and having children was a very good thing
  • I will always have less than my friends, and they will always feel I have more than they do.
  • The music you like has a lot to do with what was happening in your life the first time you heard it.
  • There is no way for an individual to internalize the consequences of an action which will persist for longer than he has been a rational adult. This is why sentencing children as adults is the work of selfish, frightened, uneducated minds.
  • Everyone needs a brilliant, unattainable goal. Life without one is tedium.
  • You can get anything you want in this life. It's a question of how far you're willing to go.




I think mistakes only exist in context -- that there is a bigger picture in which anything can be viewed as positive or non-important.

People who believe in heaven generally don't believe that.



Warren Zevon has been dead for three years. The last song on his last CD is called "Keep Me in Your Heart"

If I was dying of cancer, I'd probably ask the same thing.





I don't miss the south pole. Nor the cold. The ice. I don't miss the ice people who cast themselves adrift in that isolated bubble of heat. That lonely black dot on the sea of endless white, all that is living in a single pixel on the polar plateau, the image artifact, the stain on Gabriel's robe.

I am trying very hard to remember what it's like being there thinking: "What ever made me want to come here?"






www.brienbarnett.com



I last saw Brien Barnett in the galley at the south pole station. He gave me a hug and promised to write.

I knew he wouldn't. It's not like a vacation, wintering at pole. It's a divorce from the reality of civilized men and entrance to tabula raza. At pole the mind wanders. It's hard to concentrate. You reach for your dinner and find yourself inside a dream. At pole you can't escape that your thoughts are all that separate you from never having been born.

When God said, "Let there be light," the south pole appeared. Behind it is the void. After it is everything we've become.

I was on the same flight to the ice with Brien. But I left after three weeks. He hasn't come up since. Planes can't land for another two months.

Brien has my picture on his website, taken in the Pole station galley right before I left for the north. The caption says I am a good writer.

I am very happy to be known that way at the edge of the earth. They can see the dragons from there. UFO pilots wave as they descend into the entrance to the earth's core. When the air is cold enough to freeze the breath to dry ice, they scamper to that geographic pinpoint stark naked in the loveless night.

If I was a good writer I could make you feel what it's like to stand there naked, dying, your near death experience spent planning how to get back from the light to the warmth in which lies the remainder of your years.






Everything is different.





    Some Good Things About Me







I went to the doctor and guess what he told me?
He said, "Boy you better try to have fun no matter what you do."
But he's a fool





Why am I such an idiot? Why am I such a soft touch? Why do I let myself be the brunt of jokes and pretend I like it - that I'm okay being made fun of as long as no one else is?

Why did I call the environmental consultants instead of booking my way out of this blithering Arctic insane asylum?

"Three hundred dollars an hour - and I don't know if I can get there for a couple days."

"Bruce, I got five Coast Guard guys and three guys from the DEC here right now. They're probably going to arrest me unless you show."

I thought he'd say he wanted a thousand bucks an hour, and I would have told him it was fine.

"You take Visa?"

"You gotta be kidding. Cash."

"Fine."

I'd just been to the cash machine. I had $120 in my pocket. Good for, I dunno, twenty-five minutes of his time or so.

"How you gonna pay?"

"Cash machine."

"They only let you take $200 at a time."

"Then what can I tell you? Don't come. Stay home. Sorry I called."

I was going to hang up, but he sighed. It was resignation. As if I had just won an argument I didn't know I was having. And then, I didn't want to be the one who hung up first after the guy from the state government had all but demanded I call this guy.

"How big is your tank?" he asked.

"How the hell do I know? I didn't even know there was one. I thought we were on natural gas."

"How many fifty-five gallon drums you have?"

"You gotta be kidding."

"And you probably don't have a fuel pump."

"Just sold the last one to the Russian mafia."

"Ok. Ok. Just hang on there, Joe. We'll be out."

"You'll be out?"

"Gimme an hour. First I gotta go to Delta, get the pump. Then I got to go over to Phil's and pick up the drums. John's probably the guy who delivers to you out there. He'll know the size of the tank. We'll pump it dry, and that should stop the flow to the beach. Are the coasties there? All they care about is the bay. We stop the flow to the bay, they're off your back."

"But I don't have a thousand bucks in cash on me."

"It's okay. I know where you live. Keith still own that house?"

"Yeah," I said, "But he's in Seattle."

"It's a good family," he said. "I went to school with Dave and Judy. Is Scot there? Lemme talk to him."

I went outside and handed Scot the phone. He said, "Bruce, yah. If you can get this thing pumped, we can start a remediation tomorrow..."

And they went on to talk for about half an hour.

When he was done with Bruce, Scot led me to the beach, to where the oil was coming out. We set up an oil boom. Deployed some hydrophilic pads that absorb hydrocarbons but repel water. Wiped down rocks. Pulled up grass. Made an oil sump of stones.

This is how a cleanup is done.

Bruce brought Phil over. They drained the tank into eight 55-gallon drums. Then they cut the underground tank into pieces.

While we worked, Scot told me about his work earlier this year on the tanker that almost went down in the Bering Sea. The spill in Barrow, and recently, on the Japanese car carrier that capsized. He was in his late 50's, and was enjoying his military retirement by keeping the Alaska coastline clean.

"At least you're outside," I said.

"You know it," he said, and I knew this was a guy who hadn't spent more than two days behind a desk his entire career. He didn't even like sitting inside to eat dinner.

By 11:30PM we finished. He seemed happy with his work.

"You work this late every night?" I asked him.

"When I have to."

We kept 400 additional gallons of heating oil out of Auke Bay. Irrespective of whether or not I stayed in Alaska, at least I knew I had done one good thing here.

"I'll be back tomorrow around 8," he said, and the fact I had to be at work by then was irrelevant. The coasties were going to be back then, too. I had to prove the cleanup was underway.

There was still time to make the redeye to Seattle.

"You know, I don't even have one day's fines for this mess," I said. "I used to have money, but things happened. Most of my money is gone. I don't even really have a house or a family anymore. I guess you can always attach my salary."

"Don't worry about it, Joe," he said, getting into his car. "This is a normal spill for Juneau. You did the right thing calling everyone right away."

"But the Coast Guard..."

"I'll talk to them in the morning. Just be here. I have a few more things we need to do. Then everyone will be happy."

For everyone to be happy. What more could I want?






This is the way it's going to be.

We're losing daylight. Four less daytime minutes every day. In two weeks the day and night will be the same length. And then darkness takes over.

While I was taking something out of my garage, something fast and gray moved through the forest near the house. Silently. As if it waited until I turned to see it before running.

The stalks of tall ferns moved as it pushed its way into the damp darkness.

Wolf? Fox? Bear? Porcupine?

Too big to be anything other than a bear, too gray to be a bear.

This is the way it's going to be. Someone else owns this forest, this bay. The Haida put totems in the forest. Carved faces on the trees. Spirals and hieroglyphs on the boulders.

Gray thing communicates, but I don't speak its language. You gotta know how to listen with something other than ears.

The dog barks all night long, peering into void between the long stalks of devil's club and skunk cabbage. There have been plenty of books, movies, traditions passed down, stories told over camp fires. The forest is bigger than we can ever be. Things live there that let us live here.

When my youngest daughter was here we walked down the road through the trees and the clouds hung in the high branches. She said it was like the clouds were attacking. Like a horror movie.

I had always thought it looked pretty. And then I saw the gray form in the woods. At least as tall as me. Didn't make enough noise for something that size. Moved too fast. Made a sound like distant voices.

I don't know the name of the one who owns this part of the earth. The Tlingit say you have to have lived here and met it, and lived under its protection and felt its wrath. No one speaks the name. You learn it when it tells you, and then you keep it to yourself. It is a right of passage. It is a way to earn eternal something from transient life.










    Things I'm Afraid Of


  • Being alone
  • Being unloved
  • Being forgotten
  • Being unneeded
  • Being misunderstood
  • That none of this made any difference







My landlord came home. Together, we mopped up all the remaining oil from the ground water. This was not a joyful task, which consisted mainly of putting hydrophillic pads into the septic tank and yanking them out, filled with heating oil and dripping half-digested human waste, at least half of which came from my own body.

We wrung the pads out with a clothes wringer - one of those things with two cylinders that turn against each other with a crank. We got about 40 gallons of offal-infused heating oil. Put it in a 55 gallon drum and sent it for processing.

This is the good thing everyone wanted. Everyone seemed happy.

Scot came back several times. So did Bruce and Phil and the coasties. We served donuts and coffee. We cleaned up Alaska.

I didn't tell anyone about the big gray thing I saw in the woods, or the sound it made when it went by. Maybe it was prepping to write me a ticket of its own. Maybe it was happy with the remediation efforts so it went back to its home in the mildew dimension.

The salmon have stopped running. They're all dead. Only the eggs remain.

Bears are just about ready to begin hibernation.

This is the way it's going to be, for I don't know how long.

Glass and Shadow
Part three -- Hard Places

I hear someone far off command, "Rise and shine!"

My eyes pop open. The lighting in this place is lousy, but it looks like an abandoned warehouse. The floor's cement with a giant crack running through it. Moonlight shines though dirty skylights with cracks that look like spiderwebs. The walls are lost in the shadow and gloom. The air is smoky and there's a sickly sweet smell like something died. I look down. I'm naked to the waist and it looks like some kinky bastard tried a game of japanese rope bondage with some bad chit'lins while I was out. I hope to God those entrails came from a sickly cow or an oversized pig. I hear a hiss and then a buzzing sound and an overhead light flares up. I squint against the brightness. There's a fat man standing under the light. But calling him fat don't exactly do him justice. He's the fattest man I've ever seen outside of one of those trashy afternoon talkshows where they bust down trailer walls to free man mountains from their prisons. His calves look as thick as my waist. His palms look like canned hams without the cloves. He's got fingers as thick as kielbasa. His neck is hidden by a waterfall of chins that flow freely from wobbly jowls. But he's dressed sharp. He's got a white panama hat cocked just so's I can't see his eyes. He's wearing white linen trousers that are so starched I wonder if I could cut myself on their crease. He's wearing yards and yards of green silk in a shirt that must have been made special for him; the buttons on the shirt are mother-of-pearl. His liver-colored, rubbery lips slowly crawl up his face in what's supposed to be a smile, but there ain't no humor in that grin. He nods his head at me and begins to talk, and even though he's this lard-ass colossus, his voice is high, breathy and girly, "Mr. Hutchence! I can't tell you how absolutely delighted I am to finally, at last, make your acquaintance. I trust your rest was pleasant?"

My mouth's dry and it takes a bit to work up enough spit so I don't croak, "I love sleep spells. Wish I could get a witch doctor to prescribe 'em for me. Cut down on my booze expenses."

The fat man's chins quiver. I can't tell if I pissed him off or made him chuckle. He licks his lips and says, "Ah, the famous Hutchence wit. I imagine that it must have been great consolation to you in the long months of your unemployment. If memory serves, you have had difficulty finding clients since that unfortunate fiasco with the Shadow Boys."

He's trying to get my goat, and truth is he's almost got it. What the Shadow Boys did to Candace is enough to give the bravest man the shakes, and I ain't anywhere close to the bravest. But I'll be double-damned if I'm gonna let this oversized priss get to me that easy, so I hold his gaze and say, "Everything can end up going to shit except your sense of humor. Man ain't able to laugh, he ain't got nothing."

"Still, nothing funny about what happened to poor, sweet Candance McCree. She was so trusting. Pity for you both that she trusted the wrong person to protect her. I imagine you never did receive your full fee."

Wasn't ever the money that made me take on Candace as a client. She had that scared bird look that made you want to save her. I wasn't up to scratch and nearly ended up six feet under with her, but I tried my damnedest. Knowing this helps me to keep my mouth shut. The fat man sees that I'm still not worked up in a fine lather and continues, "Her mother found the body, you know. I hear the psychiatrists have all but given hope in the face of her persistant catatonia. Such hideous things happened to that poor child's lovely face. And yet, you seem to have emerged unscathed. And the Shadow Boys don't seem to have any interest in pursuing you. There are some that would find that suspicious..."

"You shut your filthy trap, tubbo," I bark when I should keep my damn fool mouth shut, "I didn't sell out Candace and only I know how much that cost. And I don't need to prove myself to a fuck like you."

"All your protestations notwithstanding, there is the fact that the Shadow Boys haven't appeared to make so much as a move towards you in the months following." I laugh, because there's nothing else to do but cry, "They got what they wanted. Why would they care about a washed-up loser like me?"

The fat man laughs as if this was the punchline to the world's best joke, he laughs so hard that his rolls ripple seismically and he says, "Finally you understand. For too long you've been poking your nose into things that are far beyond you. And until Candace, you've been a very, very lucky man. But there's only so many times you can pull the trigger in Russian Roulette before getting the sweet, sharp bang. However, it looks like your luck has held for one last stare into the barrel, because you have something I want, and as a reasonable man, I'm willing to bargain for it."

"I don't have shit you want. And if I did, I still wouldn't give it to you."

His piggy little eyes narrowed, "Mr. Hutchence, as much as it would pain me to be an ungracious host, you are coming perilously close to forcing me to be unpleasant."

"Unpleasant? I got beaten up, hexed and stuffed in a bag by the leather dyke triplets and now I'm wrapped in lukewarm guts in a cold warehouse listening to Humpty Dumpty's Saville Row evil twin go on about fuck-all. If you've been blowing sunshine and lollipops up my ass till now, I can't imagine what it'd be like when you started to get nasty."

He made some sort of gesture with one of his meaty hands and whispered something under his breath. Quicker than you can say "slimy" the entrails that had me tied up begin to writhe and move, crawling up as high as my neck and tightening as they go. It's one way to keep my mouth shut; when breathing starts becoming a luxury it's hard to wise off. I don't know how long I spent in a deadly hug from mutant sausage casings, but my lungs were burning and I'm wheezing like a six-pack-a-day smoker before fatty makes another gesture that freed me up some.

"A demonstration. I can do much worse, but I felt that a tone needed to be set. So, shall we discuss things like rational human beings?"

"Yeah... we'll talk," I gasp out before lapsing into a coughing fit. The fat man pulls out a manila folder from a briefcase. It's the dossier on the Laveau kid I'm supposed to kidnap. He says, "What I want is information. Information that you have."

"Can't read it?" I ask.

"You know very well that I can't."

"Seems like a big, powerful wiz like you shouldn't have no trouble breaking through somethin' cast by a washed-up loser like me."

His face turns red like cheap wine. He says, "If you insist on playing games --"

"Not so fast, lardo. You start playing boa constrictor again and I die and you lose out on finding my little secrets."

"Oh, I wasn't planning on killing you, just yet. But I imagine I have methods that will impell you to give me the information I want. Any information I want."

"You start in with torture and I make that folder burst into flames. All you got is cinders, and I'm pretty sure I didn't memorize nothing useful. Now, you want to talk? First things first, I don't much like being tied up, especially not by human haggis."

"You dare to make demands?"

"That's part of bargaining, ain't it? You want information, I'm willing to provide it. But there's a price, and I ain't doing business as a hostage."

The fat man waves his hands and the entrails fall to the floor limp. I step away from them and say, "Okay. That's better. So let's talk price. I got no vested interest in making sure my employer gets what he wants, 'cept he's paying me."

"Release your spell and I'll double his price," the fat man growls.

"I wasn't born yesterday. I release that spell, you get what you want and you kill me to keep any loose ends from flapping. That's not my kind of happy ending."

"I give you my word --"

"Your word ain't worth the air it pollutes," I interrupt,"I got no reason to trust you."

"If I wanted you dead, I could have killed you already," he says.

"Then you would've missed out on that information you want. You don't even know what it is. Just know you don't want your rival to have it. And I'm not worth much to you, but you figure you can squeeze me. Well, if you want the juice you gotta play by my terms. Keep the folder. I'll decrypt it for you, but I need assurances."

"I've already give you my word."

"I mean genuine assurances. Meet me tomorrow night with twenty-five Gs in crisp, unmarked bills and I'll remove the veil for you. But no tracking me until that time. I go scott-free until that time so's I can make sure you're not gonna cross me, and as soon as that money's in my hot little hand, I'll let you have exactly what you want."

Fatty paces a little and turns towards me. He throws a business card at my feet, "Meet me at this address tomorrow night at 1:00 am sharp. If you are late, you will die. If you attempt to double cross me, you will die. I will pay you no more than fifteen thousand dollars. If these terms are not acceptible to you, then I sincerely hope your life has been full up until this point."

I pick up the card. It's black with a pin-up girl in miniature. The address is a skating rink, "World of Wheels". It says they have Roller Derby thursdays. Tomorrow night is thursday. I nod my head, "Yeah, those terms'll do. Uh, I didn't catch your name."

"Nor will you. You should know better than that. However, if you ask for Clover, they will bring you to me."

"Clover, huh. Like the honey. Say, be a pal and show me where you put my shirt?"

Clover points a chubby finger towards a far wall and says, "You'll find your belongings by the door."

I walk over in that direction and find my stuff folded in a pile by one of those big, sliding delivery doors. I get dressed, open the door and head outside. A light rain is falling and the air feels fresh and crisp. There's gotta be a phonebooth nearby here. Wherever here is. I figure I'll call a cab, go home and take a nice, long shower. Then I'll take Dixie's advice and call Shalene. The shit just got too weird for me to handle alone.

part of the wordmongers' masque

On September 11, 2001 as I was driving into work, the top story of the day - in St. Louis at least - at the top of my commute was that there had been a series of unsolved cat mutilations in the area.

Slow news day, I thought.


I was listening, as I did just about every morning then, to the Bob and Sheri morning show on the FM talk station here, 97.1. This was when the station was fairly new and was trying to figure itself out. (Now it is 99.9% a conservative talk station and Bob and Sheri are long gone.) I think the topic of discussion was in laws, in laws living with you, or strange people living with you, or something like that. I think some woman was talking about a humorous situation where her brother in law was living in her basement or something when Bob interrupted her to say that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Surely, he says, it must've bee a Cessna or something similar. Crack reporting, Bob. He thought it was quite odd. He and Sheri remarked at how beautiful of a day it was in New York City, how could a plane have gotten so off with no inclement weather?

So they go back to the woman and her story.

Back before 97.1 had decided it was largely a mouthpiece for conservative talking heads, their news breaks were from CNN and not Fox News. They interrupted their show again to broadcast a CNN snippet. The man being interviewed, or giving a speech (I have no idea as to who it was, maybe somebody from the FAA.) He also said that he didn't see how it could have been an accident, as the skies were clear in New York. My memory is fuzzy on this, but I think that still, at that point, they were thinking it was a small plane. Or maybe not.

I do know this: By that time, nobody was talking about the cats anymore.

When I got to work I told my boss and our network guy, a former Marine (well, according to him, there are no former Marines, just non-active ones) that a plane had hit the WTC. At that point I hadn't given much thought as to the cause of it; maybe it was an accident. Humans have certainly done things just have bone-headed in our history. They had no idea. Immediately my boss jumped on CNN.com on this old computer in the front room hooked to a gigantic monitor that used to be a big screen television. There was the photo of the burning building, front page.

When my coworker Doug arrived I asked him "Hey didja hear about the plane?" He responded "Plane? Try planes, plural!" The other three of us immediately tried to get back on CNN.com on our own computers. No dice. CNN.com was too busy. This is where things started to get freaky.

"Another one's hit the Pentagon!" somebody yelled.

After some clicking on his computer, Doug said "They're saying as many as three more planes could be hijacked, too!"

Oh and by the way it was salesman Rob's birthday that day. "Your birthday is today?? Well, uh... happy birthday?"

It was a weird day to be working on websites. My boss had a little television on and a radio on. The "non-active" Marine at one point announced: "One of 'em's collapsed and the other one's leanin!" "How many people were still in there?!" I said as we watched the second one fall. I called my wife, mother, grandmother... Suffice to say, it was hard to focus on HTML and Photoshop work. But somehow we did get stuff done.

When the FAA grounded all air traffic my wife was on her way to work. She works at UMSL in the biology labs. She was driving by Lambert Airport (UMSL is right by there) and said it was one of the freakiest thing she'd ever seen. Planes, planes, and more planes, all circling, all landing and trying to land.

In the days afterward it was eerily silent in the area. No jet planes roaring overhead. We drove by, or were right by the airport almost every day (I used to go to UMSL and, with my wife working there, still drop by there frequently.) Somebody who is by an airport a lot, you notice it a lot more when there are no more planes. You don't notice how much noise they make, how much you hear them on a regular basis, until they're gone. It felt end-of-the-worldish.

"Give blood, give blood, give blood!" everybody's saying. Well, that Saturday I had given blood at the local Y. The first time since 1995. I got woozy after that one. The first one, when I was still 18, I had jumped right off that bed barely phased. I had thought it was a sign that I was getting old.


It must have been an even weirder day for E2 denizens. (I didn't join until September of 2003).

A few years ago I went and read the entries on September 11, 2001 daylogs. I was surprised to see that the first writings there were about a tragic loss - but they had nothing to do with the attacks. They must have been written before they had happened. A member named Hermetic had committed suicide. Suddenly those "/me misses Hermetic"s I had seen in the catbox made sense. How bizarre, I thought. It had already been quite a melancholy day for E2 on 9/11 when the attacks happened. I find it difficult to imagine what it must have been like to already be dealing with news like that when suddenly the sky starts falling on top of it. As morbid as this may sound, I almost wish I had joined E2 earlier, to be a part of it when it was younger, more raw, and mourned all that with you guys. Yes I am a freak, who here isn't?

It is quite a melancholy day today for me. It's my first day back to work from a 10-day vacation. It's rainy, cloudy, and cool for an early September day. It's back to work, summer is dying, a former favorite radio station of mine in St. Louis morphed sometime late last night into this shitty hip hop station, and we are still in baby limbo. The wife's hormone levels are still going up, another test revealed, but not near where they should be, and not doubling from day to day like they should. We have to wait until September 21st to know anything for sure. Ten days seems like an eternity when you're waiting to find out something like that.

Waiting sucks.

Whenever I see footage from that tragic day, especially photos or whatnot depicting the people jumping to their deaths, preferring that over cooking in an inferno, I tear up. And I don't cry often. As beaten as this horse is, as cliche as it sounds, as much as it sounds like I'm going to break into a country music song (don't worry I can't stand that genre), I have to say it: We must never forget. That means different things to different people. To some, it means that Muslims are out to kill us, don't underestimate them, especially the radicals. To others, it simply means that freedom is expensive, that maybe out foreign policies need tweaking. To all, it means that we are not as safe as we once thought. The great United States of America is vulnerable. There is plenty of kryptonite out there for our Superman and lots of Lex Luthors out there ready to use it.

I will not let my son (and hopefully another son or daughter) just let it be a history lesson for him/them, a chapter in a textbook. I kept papers from that day and days after, the magazines like Newsweek... I will show him the cover from that, the pictures inside, especially the one showing the tiny people falling through the air next to the smoke and fire, the ones they probably won't see in class. And I will take them to "Ground Zero," as it were. Hopefully they might feel something about it, for the people that went through it, maybe they'll tear up like I do.

Probably not, but we'll see.

One Year of You

-----=====JANUARY =====-----
(Happy New Year, darling)

We have some great adventures in store for the next twelve months. We compare our "to do" lists. We're both looking forward to the New York trip to see Jenny this summer. I'm not looking forward to your company sending you to Europe for a month this fall. What am I going to do without you? I look at your list–do you really think we'll be able to afford a new car this year?

-----=====FEBRUARY=====-----
(Your birthday)

We go out to our favorite Brazilian steakhouse. Halfway through the meal, that idiot ex-boss of yours shows up with his creepy girlfriend–the one who looks about 17 years old. I am afraid that you seem a little sad. On the car ride home, we gossip about those two and we start calling her "Britney"–I have to pull into the Bennigan's parking lot until the laughing fits subside.

-----=====MARCH=====-----
(A dream finally comes true)

That piece I wrote about New Orleans is getting published!! A real, live publisher called and they are going to add pictures and everything–after all these years, I am getting paid for writing! I beam with pride (I know it is only one piece, and maybe a fluke, but the guy was really enthusiastic). You break out that bottle of merlot that Jerry gave you for Christmas and we savor it and share our dreams for about the millionth time. I guess a few of them are actually coming true.

-----=====APRIL=====-----
(A lament for poor old Buster)

Buster–I've never known a sweeter, more loyal dog. We bundle him off to the vet's at 7 AM and they spend two days trying to save our old friend. But his kidneys are shutting down, and we have to make the hardest decision. They let us hold him while they euthanize him and I don't think he's scared at all. Later, I hold you in my arms as you cry. You write an email to our friends that is a beautiful tribute to old Buster. I think you should publish it, but you think that might be exploiting our old pal, so it remains with our circle of friends, a loving tribute to a wonderful companion for twelve years.

-----=====MAY=====-----
(Sunrise, Sunset or New York City–holy shit!)

Jennie looks so grown-up in her new apartment–our own professional woman! We feel like such a couple of small-town yokels here in the Big Apple. She wants to show us the sights and feels a little disappointed that we can't do and see EVERYthing. But the only sight we really care about is our little girl. I make sure we are alone before I let emotion overwhelm me–the last thing she wants to see is her old pop crying on Mom's shoulder. Our little girl is so grown up! How does it happen so quickly?

-----=====JUNE=====-----
(Who says getting old is all bad?)

Walking in the park on a glorious Sunday morning–the sunlight plays across your red tresses, revealing a glittering field of gorgeous little threads of pure silver. I know you aren't sensitive about it and I tell you how sexy I think it is. You scratch me under the chin, where my beard is going white. We kiss under the evergreen trees over by that little pond we love so much.

-----=====JULY=====-----
(The miles can't stand between us)

Twenty-eight years together and we've never spent a month apart? They are flying you to Vienna for some damned thing, and I'm going to miss you terribly. I stock up on DVDs of MythBusters and Monty Python and I resolve to clean out the garage.

The night before you leave, we get that Rock On book with all the rock star pictures from the old days. We start making up imaginary captions for the pictures, just trying to make each other laugh. There is this picture of Jagger and you do this voice and say "Ey! What's wrong with me pants?" We laugh until we are sore.

I am a good cook, but it is so boring cooking for one. I subsist on takeout, pasta and frozen dinners for the most part. You come home to a husband who is bored out of his skull and a garage that is spotlessly clean. Not to mention the work I did on your study. And the kitchen. And your bathroom. Thanks for coming home safe and sound.

-----=====AUGUST=====-----
(Fun with our best friends / Petty theft)

Pete and Linda come over for dinner. Pete shares his idea for an online music database and we stay up 'til five in the morning helping him flesh it out. Then we sleep until the afternoon. I hope this idea gets off the ground–once we got through with it, I must say, it was pretty damned cool! I hope we never get to old to have nights like that.

Later that month, some jackass steals your purse out of the front seat of your car as you are in the gas station. Stupid thief, you were carrying your billfold with the cards and the cash, all they got was some cosmetics and tools. Still, that old purse–the one that you got at the marketplace in Santa Fe ... I feel bad about that and we go on a purse hunt to the craft malls. We find you a good one, although nothing can replace that tough old New Mexican thing.

-----=====SEPTEMBER=====-----
(In sickness and in health)

I am sure it's just a cold, but I'm down for three days; fever, cough, the whole nine yards. I am such a huge baby–getting old really stinks.

And yet, you treat me like a king and tell me that you are happy to take care of me. You sit with me and read to me from that funny Christopher Moore novel whenever I feel rotten. You do the voices and I laugh and feel a bit better. Next time you are sick, I'm not going to forget how kind you've been to me–as if I ever could.

-----=====OCTOBER=====-----
(She buys me cars)

I can't believe we have a new car! Well, a used car. God, it's beautiful, deep red with black trim. I beg you to drive it, I mean, you are the one who paid for it. You're too in love with your Civic, you say, and besides, you'll drive it sometimes, but I'm the one who does all the highway driving.

At work on Monday, Dick (the prick) tries to make some kind of 'thing' about a man whose wife buys the cars, but I use that tactic your brother told me about. I just look him in the eye and repeat "What is it you are saying?" until he finally slinks away. If it means getting to drive this car, they can make 'kept man' jokes all they want.

-----=====NOVEMBER=====-----
(The fight / My birthday)

The month starts with one of those once-a-year arguments. I don't even remember what started it. Of course it is ugly and sad and we sit in the den and smoke a pack of cigarettes apiece and try to sort out why this is happening. And of course we could be doing better things. And of course the whole experience leave me feeling like a heel. At least I can count on one thing–despite your nearly photographic memory, you'll never hold any of it over my head.

All is forgotten by my birthday. I don't even care that all our favorite candidates lost. We drink daiquiris in the back yard, then go inside. We make love for a long time, the way we seldom find the time for these days. I whisper in your ear every true feeling that I can lay bare and you shiver and moan and climax repeatedly. Later, we lay in each others arms, weak as kittens, snuggling in the afterglow of the passion.

-----=====DECEMBER=====-----
(Our 27th anniversary)

If we counted from our wedding date, it would be our 25 year and 3 months, but we've never done it that way. We count from the day when you snuck off to go to a movie with the quiet guy who spent all his time writing fantasy stories based on his D & D games. You got so badly grounded for that.

We drive out to our favorite German restaurant and eat schnitzel. Then we drive to the shore and look at the stars, knowing that another wonderful year together is just about to begin.


"Well we all have a face that we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel, some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger but we love to try them on—Billy Joel, The Stranger

First and foremost, I want to say that today is the anniversary of 9-11. I was in first period Journalism class in High School the day it happened. They called the journalism team into the library to watch the news unfold on television. All day long, people were crying, holding each other, asking endless questions. We didn't understand why so many people had to die. These were people, some were innocent, small children or the experienced but frail elderly. Others were convicts or such. Even if a dude was going to get off that plane with the intent of raping a woman, I still don't know if he deserved to get blown straight to God. So yes, some were innocent, some were not, but that is not my point. People died unnecessarily.

I have no idea what provoked these attacks on my country. I do not know the pain of losing someone to these terrible attacks, but late that night, when I was trying to sleep, it finally hit me.

I cried all night long.

All those people... gone. Grandparents, and mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, neices... you get the idea. Are we not all of one race? Are we not all family? I never knew any of them, but... I miss them.

I'm so sorry, and if anyone that reads this was hurt in any way, shape or form by the events of September 11, I am sorry. I know it was in no way my fault, but I am sorry. There was nothing any of us could have done. How could we have known?

I'm so sorry.

----------------------------------

Well, with the serious business out of the way... why is masturbating so damn complicated?

(TMI WARNING!!!)

I don't have any reason to believe that I have erectile problems, it's not that I can't get it up, and it's not that I can't keep it up, it just doesn't feel right somehow, and I lose my train of thought and it subsides and I have to concentrate very hard on... well... being hard. See, I don't know where I am messing up. I never really get erections off of pictures or anything, I don't watch porn, it doesn't do much for me. I read stories (with no pictures, made up works of fiction), and I always try to focus on thoughts and feelings and that sort of thing, and it works so-so, but I still have trouble. Being a virgin, I don't know if this is apt to change after my first piece, or what, but something's gotta give!

I guess what I really need to know is how to achieve and maintain a decent erection. This can be done the easy way or... the hard way. I wouldn't even worry about this but for the fact that I heard a rumor that if you don't use your penis in a sexual nature (I guess including masturbation) at least once in a while, you will lose the ability to do so.

95% of the time, my penis is only used for pissing, with the other 5% going to the semi-rare occasions when I get so worked up it is super-easy for me to masturbate. Maybe that's enough, who knows? It just seems like I've come into heat or something, like lifting the burden of bandgirl off my shoulders has given me something to prove, and getting laid can accomplish this. Is this a bad or selfish or foolish reason to want sex?

Well, thanks guys, and remember, I warned you!

Entropy's a bitch, ain't it? Given enough time, everything in the universe will lose its will to be motile and will come to rest, just begging for another jolt to set everything going again. Patience, grasshopper.

And then, after it's all cold and silent and lifeless, the death day of the universe will be an excuse for someone, somewhere, to throw a party and have the grandkids over, to barbecue on the deck and pick the aluminum-foil wrapped ears of corn from the grill with quick fingers and muttered curses. It'll be a day for someone to try to sell somebody else a new car, or aluminum siding, or fireworks and sparklers. It'll mean something then, something personal and relaxing and sweet, with only grandpa sitting in the corner and complaining about how nobody remembers...whatever it was. It'll be personal again.

But until then, I have to sit here, inundated with bullshit that, five years after the fact, is wearing thin. Its momentum is frightening. We have to wait to be allowed to forget so we can make it mean something again. And until that happens, until September 11th can come and go without somebody reminding me of my sacrifice and my courage (I was in New York. I lost nothing, saved no one and used all my courage on myself) I'll wait, patiently, to be invited over to a backyard somewhere to play kick the can with the kids.

Until then: Fuck off. Leave me and my memory alone.

Today, as I was walking back to my dorm from class, I came upon the remnants of what appeared to be a flag burning outside the entrance to my hall. I arrived far too late to see the fun, apparently, for I found only a wash tub filled with ashes, a chair with a megaphone, and several couner-protesters being filmed by a local news crew. As I got closer, I could see that one was holding a Texas flag, upon which was written "Try burning this one, Assholes." Other counter protesters nearby carried signs saying "This is not UTA," and other things to the same effect. I later found out that this event had been orchestrated by three freshmen, and the flags had in fact been paper facsimiles, pasted onto cardboard, of the flags of Iran and North Korea, in addition to pictures of the leaders of those countries.

This is a rally against the enemies of the United States. In no way are we demonstrating against the people of these two nations. In 1939, would you have opposed me burning the flags of Nazi Germany and Japan? (Abridged from the mouth of one Lance Kennedy).

Enemies, enemies, enemies! The drive to chase them to the ends of the earth is little diminished among the people who make the decisions these days, and it doesn't seem to make a difference whether they're marching on Kuwait or are ten years away from being able to make a nuke. Chants of "Islamofascism" and "appeasement" are only getting stronger in the run-up to the elections, as the Bush administration realizes the country is rejecting an increasingly chaotic war and that its argument that children can legally be tortured in front of their parents isn't going to fare well against a Democratic congress with Halliburton charging the U.S. Army 45 dollars for six-packs of Coca-Cola on the national backburner.

Politicians failed to bring about the Utopian visions they gave to the people in the last century. They lost power for a time, relegated to the position of simple managers of the social contract. Now they have a new power source, a new trump card. Security. Watching a recent documentary about the 7/7 attacks in London, I saw a London woman say I think we should give up Liberty for Freedom. The documentarians asked her if she had meant to say that. Yes, she said, she thinks we should give up Liberty for Freedom. They also discussed the 'shoot to kill' policy incident which occurred not long after 7/7, in which a young Brazilian man was killed execution-style (11 bullets to the head) by a special police unit. Soon after the incident, it was revealed that he was not behaving as the police claimed he was afterwards, and that he was not wearing what they claimed he was (a light denim jacket to the official line of a bulky jacket with wires sticking out of it.) The woman said she felt sorry for the families of the police. No mention of the innocent man killed.

I'm not generalizing about Londoners. Nor do all Texans want to burn the flags of America's enemies in the streets. But the question remains: which will win the defining struggle of the 21st centruy—Liberty, or "Freedom"? Just remember, we will always be at war with Terror.

Update: Those guys got a lot of shit about that flag burning. I'm almost sorry a futuristic dystopia isn't necessarily around the corner.

I just decided that tomorrow I'm going to Ocean beach.

I'm going to take the N Judah in complete silence and try to think about whats going on. I'll try to grasp the fact that on Thursday I'm leaving where I grew up. The place I slept, ate, played football, kissed girls, thought about them even more, obsessed, smoked weed, bullshitted papers, argued, and daydreamed.

It has all amounted to something in the long run, everything I did here brought me where I am going on Thursday.

I feel stuck in the middle. I'm at college but I'm at home, too.

I hope its raining when I get to the beach. I hope its overcast, with fierce grey clouds hovering and swirling above. I hope the waves crash down on the earth every step I take, every crunch of sand beneath my feet. I want to be alone for a minute, an hour.

I don't want to be so overwhelmed by everything.

But more than that I want to stop pretending I'm not overwhelmed.

Maybe thats why I'm here.

Run -- 30 minutes.

Not as long as I wanted to do since I overslept. I accidentally fell asleep on the couch last night in front of the insipid glow of a football game before herding the boys to bed and tucking them in. Even at 11 and 13, they still request that. They no longer believe in Santa Claus, but they demand to be tucked in.

They had been asleep for a few hours when I woke up a little after midnight, the house quiet and tidy, only the late news disrupting the silence. I got up and puttered around -- fixing coffee for this morning, making sure everyone was logged off the computer, feeding the cat.

I checked on the boys, they were asleep in SweetFaceBoy's room. Vix slept in RunningHammer's bed with him. She had to work this morning so I brought her alarm clock in and placed it by the bed.

I climbed in to bed, then kicked myself for not sitting. I knew I would nod off. A few minutes later, Vix and Hammer stumbled in to the room, and we all snuggled in together.

Perhaps it was due to falling asleep, waking up, puttering and then falling asleep again, but I didn't get up in time for my full hour-plus run. The half-hour will have to do. I did it at a pretty good pace despite complaining Achilles' tendons.

It seems that I can never have a stretch of pain-free running any more. Either my plantar fascia bites me or the Achilles knifes me or my knees ache or my quads are grouchy. I keep running anyway because I like it so much -- it is primal and pure and gently violent. Anyway, after about 10 minutes the pain subsides pretty much, and I can run forever.

I spotted new survey markers on the return leg of my run. Despite the fact that there's a lull in the housing market, building continues here at a steady and gruesome pace. Well, well, I thought, time for a break. This part of my route goes over a bridge spanning a creek, lined on each side with thick, marshy forests -- a stew of palmetto, oak and pine. Often I'll hear owls hooting before dawn, gators grunting in the early morning, bats spinning drunk on mosquitoes.

The first marker came out easily enough. It rained last night and the ground was soft. The second and third ones proved a bit more difficult, but soon they were free to go flying in to the creek, floating their way to a small waterfall about a half-mile away. Then I saw the For Sale sign rising meekly from the kudzu.

How anyone planned to build a house on a swampy strip of mud and vegetation backing up to a natural drainfield and probably bordering a potential sinkhole is beyond me. I thought I should try and spare them the headache.

A few miinutes later, I was on my way down the road again, Achilles grumbling, a For Sale sign at the bottom of the creek.

And suddenly I was Alice. Reality melted down and became a grid of intangible, touchable meltdowns haunted by the distant memory of profound songs that kept changing and I was unable to capture them.

Reality melted down and I could pick it up and eat it. I really wanted to eat the world. Then I realized that the world is my playground and nothing ever made quite so much sense.

Mechanical, blurple, flurple sounds of colors and waves fusing and melting into my brain. Everyone became a leering scary yet dangerously exciting work of art. Paintings of Van Gogh and Salvador Dali melted into one and became the world I live in. Nothing was as peaceful and beautiful and whimsically entertaining.

After long unexplained journies we came to an enchanted playhouse room where the walls were fused with every color and light. Harry Potter was reading in a corner while I rolled around with puppies and explored our very purpose and existance.

I went into another green room, which suddenly began oozing blood out of the walls. I was standing, or sitting halfway on a blue ocean. And then I could think of nothing more than when Dali's elephants were charging at me from across the ocean, followed by the sounds of angry mechanical monkeys.

And then Harry Potter and best of all my Fuzzy was back and we were off on a road to Summer, sadly leaving Spirit behind. The world is my plaything, mine to bend, touch, smell, taste and devour if need be. Harry Potter talked about snorting human ashes. I could not begin to tell you the horror that I felt. And then I was bending the very grains of reality as I wanted them to be. We were bunny rabbits and cute and cuddly loveables, constantly changing colors of the rainbow. We found Summer.

Back to the green room with Fuzzy. I was in a living, breathing hell trapped in the mental asylum of my mind. Demons lured down at me through bleeding walls. I missed elephants and Spirit. Beautiful joys of wonder and pain mixed with the sad cacophony of my voice mixed with Nick Blinko's primal screams of Zenophobia was too much to handle untile I cuddled Fuzzy and knew I'm in love. I stated the simple truth of the bloody walls and he asked why I wanted them to bleed, I told them to be rainbows and then they were mixed with the lingering thoughts and etchings of celtic designs unknown to me. I couldn't decipher the hidden alphabet in the waves or sidewalk all night.

Dispatches From a Dying Empire

Today was a strange day in America.

The whole country was somber today. The corporate media, the blogs and everyone in between spent the day deep in anniversary journalism -- where we were, where we've been. NBC, ABC and others replayed their broadcasts from five years ago. CNN included the hour of coverage leading up to the first attack; they covered a fashion show in New York, some white girl gone missing, etc. One of my coworkers commented how shocking the contrast was, how silly and trivial the things we cared about back then were. He was clear to use the past tense: "silly and trivial...back then". The more things change...

I remember someone saying, when it happened, that this was our generation's Kennedy assassination. My parents -- and maybe your parents, too -- remember exactly where they were when they heard JFK had been shot by some lunatic in Dallas. The comparison is exact. I can tell you, without looking it up, that 11 September 2001 was a Tuesday. I was in my last year of high school, coming back from a class retreat out in the woods. We were crossing the river, back to the buses from our island, and it rippled through the crowd that someone had flown a plane into one of the World Trade Towers. No one had the facts -- they had heard it from someone who heard it from someone who had heard the bus driver mutter something under his breath. We went around, trying to find someone with one more scrap of information than we had, trying to piece together what was going on back in the world. The whole ride back, the radio was at full blast. We sat in silence the whole way, listening to someone somewhere trying to keep it together when the Pentagon, then the Towers, then a cornfield in Pennsylvania disappeared.

38 years on from the end of Camelot, not much has changed. Like my parents, I have a picture-quality mental image from 9:30 AM on a Tuesday; the radio man bringing the bad news; and our madmen still come from Texas.

My country is dying, and we're doing it to ourselves. It took Rome 500 years to take over the world and another 500 to lose it. America went much faster: what took us 60 years to conquer, we gave back in five.

I say we gave it back because that's what happened. It's not like we were desperate to have it, and the Visigoths came in and took it from us by force. No-one made us lose. The Huns came out of the east, kicked us in the shins, and we lay down, crying for mommy, terrified that they might do it again.

Our democracy is dying, and we're letting it bleed all over the floor. Americans got comfortable. We forgot that democracy doesn't take care of itself, that it only works if We The People care enough. You know how I know? Look at Iraq; we went in and thought we could give them democracy. What shit. You can't "give" democracy -- it has to be taken. Unless people are willing to die for it, to wrest it away and keep it healthy, democracy simply won't work. Democracy is too hard, and autocracy is too easy.

I'd like to hope things are coming around, that the American public is gradually waking up and realising that we've been lulled asleep with shiny lies and pretty what-if stories. I'd like to hope that outrage will soon sweep this country, that we will refuse to tolerate any longer the reckless policies that are being concocted and carried out in our name, both at home and abroad. I'd like to hope that we will once again insist and demand that our nation comport itself in the spirit and ideals of our heritage and traditions, and that America would assert herself anew as vanguard and defender of Liberty and Freedom for the world.

I'd like to hope this, but I don't.

When Americans support racial profiling to the point where simply wearing a shirt with Arabic script is enough to make you a suspect, I know that Freedom is dead. When Americans see no problem with the government spying on every phone call you place and every purchase you make, I know that Liberty is dying. When Americans want jail time for reporters who publish details of illegal government programs, I know that the Bill of Rights is burning. When Americans want to build a wall to keep the brown people out of our cities (but not out of our gardens), I know that somewhere, someone is remodelling the Statue of Liberty and in this new design, there's just no room for the Tired, the Hungry and the Huddled Masses.

One benefit that will come out of this is that, given that New Orleans is still abandoned and desolate one year later, Americans soon won't have to go all the way to Italy to see the ruined cities of a fallen empire.

Today is a day when most Americans will spend a little, or a lot of time, remembering the spectacularly successful terrorist attacks that took place five years ago. The President is out wreath laying, people are listening to memories., NPR is playing lots of memories recorded at the time and talking to victims.

Lots of people say the world changed on September 11, 2001. I disagree. The world didn't change so much as we changed. America has spent most of its existence in blissful isolation. We have the world's two largest oceans on our borders and no truly powerful neighbors. for most of our existence Europeans played power games that distracted each other. Big Oceans, a powerful Navy and rivals preoccupied by dangerous neighbors have granted Americans a level of security that most nations can only dream of. We fight our wars on other people's property.

Being unused to explosions at home, we sort of lost it as a nation when the fanatics struck. To me the panic was especially strong among the American right. The talk continues that "If we weren't fighting them there (Iraq), we'll be fighting them here." President Bush recently compared bin Osama bin Laden to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.

That assertion is patently absurd. al-Qaeda doesn't have the power to fight in our streets. To paraphrase Stalin :"How many divisions does he have?" Hitler was an evil man, but what made him a real threat was the German Army combined with the ground attack capabilities of the Luftwaffe. What made the Soviet Union a menace was tens of thousands of tanks and an only somewhat smaller number of nuclear missiles. Hitler marched into people's cities and took them over. Stalin invaded a few people himself and if the balloon had gone up between the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics|Soviet Union] and the United States hundreds of millions would have died within hours.

To compare bin Laden to Hitler or Stalin is laughable, or it should be if we were a sane people. But we're not. Bin Laden can't invade anyone. He controls no territory, his tank stock is zero. He has no navy.

What bin Laden is capable of is bluster, and the occassional suicide bombing. The very occasitonal suicide bombing. But today I listened to reports claming America was full of sleeper cells. Of course the President and the Republican Party have made a lot of milage scaring people. So has the news media, who realizes that fear gets ratings. And we've fallen for it. Our President has fallen for it, and if anyone needs to stay calm it's our POTUS.

Nothing in the entire world will make the U.S. completely safe from terrorism. As Frederick the Great put it: "He who tries to be strong everywhere, is strong nowhere." We will never be totally safe. But al-Qaeda is a lot better at making threats than it is in blowing things up. Bad as the attacks were, they don't add up to a single month's worth of traffic accidents.

Terrorism isn't the weapon of the strong. Real threats have other means. Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, the moral equivalent of a two-year old's tantrum. It is nothing more that that. Terrorists cannot defeat America or unmake our way of life. Only we can do that by giving away our rights in the useless pursuit of absolute security. By constantly using fear to pump up their own electoral chances, Republicans are dancing to al Queda's tune. Living in fear is what they want us to do.

So to the conservatives I return the words you have so often thrown at the poor and dispossesed: Get over it! The threat to our freedoms and way of life never came from abroad. As Pogo once put it, "We have met the Enemy and he is Us."

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