An Interlude

Continuing my line of experimentation, I decided to go off on a tangent this week. I thought it would be fun to whip up a fictional scene apropos of nothing. If there’s enough interest in it, I might do this more often. Please enjoy!

Jacob sighed and stretched in the sunlight filtering down between the massive trees that surrounded him. The sounds of a gentle breeze and distant chirping birds were a welcome change from the constant roar of cars and rude people he was accustomed to. He smiled, pulling some of that cool breeze deep into his lungs.

The smile faded into a subtle frown as he realized his situation. He’d been walking for what felt like hours and still hadn’t found the portal the frog (a frog!) had told him to seek in these woods. It still beat dealing with rush hour traffic.

Yet here he was, trying to find his way back to it. He laughed to himself and started walking. What else was there to do?

A small white blur in the corner of his vision caught his attention. He stopped and scanned the ground. There it was! A rabbit, no larger than a mouse, stared back at him attentively.

Jacob raised his eyebrows. “Well hi there, little fella.” The rabbit twitched an ear before turning tail and running a short distance away.

He followed the rabbit, intrigued. It was sitting staring at him once more. Come follow me, it seemed to be saying. Jacob obliged.

The rabbit would hop along a short distance, always looking back for its new companion. Jacob dutifully plodded along behind it. It soon picked up enough speed that Jacob was fairly jogging along to keep up.

It was a short time later when he rounded a tree and came to a hard stop. The rabbit cut to the left and bounded to a sprint. A grizzled-looking old man growled at it before spitting on the ground.

Jacob took a few steps forward and then stopped. The old man appeared much like a farmhand. He wore a battered old Stetson. His faded green button shirt and blue jeans were coated in dust.

His leather boots were coated in something else entirely. Jacob could smell the stranger from where he stood. The old man grabbed the oversize silver buckle holding his belt together and hoisted it jauntily.

He was standing on a series of stone slabs that lazily sloped up to a raised dais. In the middle of the dais raised two large marble pillars. The air between them appeared to be shimmering. The portal!

The old farmhand spit to one side and gave Jacob the stink-eye. “The hell you starin’ at, shithead?” His voice had a texture not unlike burlap and cigarettes, weighed down by a heavy Southern accent.

Jacob looked indignant. “Not much, by the look of it!”

The farmhand’s face screwed up in anger, flashing crooked, tobacco-stained teeth. “I’m worth three of you put together, and you’d still owe me fifty cents!” The anger on his face melted away a moment later, leaving the man guffawing.

“Get the hell over here, ya varmint!” Jacob hesitated. “Oh, come on now! I don’t got no weapon. What am I gonna do, piss on ya?”

Jacob snorted despite himself. He ventured a little closer to the man and the portal, stepping on to the weathered stones that led up to both. He half-waved a self-conscious hand.

“So whatcha doin’ way out here, Mister Cowboy?”

Jacob smirked. “Cowboy?” He shook his head. “I’m about as far away from being a cowboy as you can get.”

“Bull. Shit. Just look at ya! Tee shirt, jeans… Okay, girly ass tennis shoes but slap a clean hat on you and shit on it. You’re a god-damned cowboy!”

“Right.” Jacob tried to peek around him. “Look, I’m sure you’re a great guy and a fantastic conversationalist, but all I’m really interested in right now is getting to that portal behind you.”

“Porthole you say! Ha! A porthole. Ain’t no damn ship around here, cowboy! Gotta walk about oh, ten miles thataway I’d reckon.” The farmhand pointed off into the woods to his right.

“No, portal. The thing behind you!”

“There something behind me? The devil, you say! I didn’t see anything behind me when I came here…”

Jacob rolled his eyes. “You had to see it! What, did you walk here backwards?”

The farmhand shot him a dark look. “Do I look like a fool? I walked right the hell forward, head held high, right through that portal. Ended up here, haven’t turned around since.” He sniffed indignantly.

Jacob thrust his hands brusquely, gesturing toward the portal behind the old man. “You mean the portal right fucking there?”

The farmhand whipped his hand up. A gigantic silver six-gun sat gleaming inside of it. “You show me some respect, you New-York-loving son of a bitch!”

“HEY! WHOA!” Jacob through up his hands. “Easy! I thought you said you were unarmed!”

“I am!” The farmhand squeezed the trigger. A thin stream of water shot across the distance and hit Jacob square in the chest.

Jacob grimaced “Ugh!” He wiped at his shirt, stumbling back.

The farmhand threw the water pistol aside and doubled over laughing. “I told ya… I told ya! I’d piss on ya! Ha ha haaa!

“Yeah, real fuckin’ cute.” Jacob stared at the sky, sighing impatiently. “Okay…” He eyed the old man. “So yeah, there’s a portal behind you.”

“I know there’s a damned portal behind me. It’s the other end of the one I went through!”

Jacob closed his eyes and rubbed his brow. “Oh, Jesus… You didn’t see it because you came through it.”

“And I ain’t turned around yet!” The farmhand flashed his yellow grin.

“Yeah. Okay. Fine, look…” Jacob spread out his hands. “Can you just let me by so I can get to it?”

“What, the portal?”

“Yes, the portal.”

“No.”

“Why the hell not!” Jacob took a step forward.

“Chill yer rockets, Mister boatswain McDickerson!” Jacob paused. “You can get up there to your porthole in just a beat. But first… You gotta do something for me.”

Jacob sighed. “What?”

The old man leaned over and cupped a hand to his ear, a plaintive look on his face. “Ya gotta say the magic word.”

Jacob looked stone-faced, but acquiesced. “Please.”

The farmhand snapped back up. “Well, sure!” He sauntered to the side, spreading his hand out toward the portal. “Step on up here, you glorious son of a bitch!”

Jacob warily climbed the stone steps. The old man watched him with wild eyes as he passed. Jacob nodded nervously.

The farmhand gave Jacob a wild slap on the ass on his way by. “There’s a good boy! Give ’em hell and damnation!”

Jacob whirled around, looking quite offended. “What the hell, old man!”

The old man almost looked hurt. “Just passing some good luck on to ya.” Jacob turned away from him and continued on. The old man mumbled. “Jackass.”

Jacob stopped before the portal and looked over his shoulder at the old man. The farmhand flashed him a shit-eating grin and flipped him the bird. Jacob sighed and turned back to the portal.

The air between the marble columns was sparkling, waving and bobbing like the surface of a lake. In the deepest waves he could catch the briefest glimpse of what lay beyond. He closed his eyes and stepped forward into the portal.

I hope you enjoyed this brief interlude. If you did, and would like to see more posts like this, or even see this story continued, let me know on Twitter: @FatMopZoo. Thanks for reading!

 

On Writing

Sweet Home
Home. (Photo on VisualHunt)

The past fifteen months have been interesting for me.

I’ve undergone a bit of a transformation, though beautiful butterfly I am not. I have become more aware of who I am. Perhaps I’m a little more assertive than I once was. I’ve certainly become more prone to reminiscing about my younger years, though I’ve weathered a number of repressed memories as well.

Amongst all this, something curious began to happen.

A constant throughout my life has been daydreaming. It’s partly how I dealt with upsetting situations. I’ve suffered from social anxiety (never officially diagnosed) ever since I was a child.

For whatever reason, the way schools dealt with this issue was to, well, ignore it, really. With nobody listening to my concerns and no help given in regards to how to cope, I was prone to acting out. I have precious few happy moments from my childhood. Unsurprisingly, I am alone in those few happy memories.

The one coping mechanism I came upon by myself was daydreaming. Ahead of any social interactions, I would try to imagine every possible scenario I’d be faced with, and how best to handle it. Sometimes it backfired, but more often than not I found it beneficial.

A natural offshoot of this behavior was a healthy imagination. I soon grew fond of dreaming up random characters and the adventures they would go on. I’d occasionally try to put these imaginings to paper, but finding nobody to read them, typically relegated them to the big garbage dump in the sky.

I never left behind my precious coping mechanism. I still use it to this day, though I’ve made some progress combating my social anxiety. As a result of flexing that muscle for so many years, I’ve also become really good at daydreaming.

Jump back to fifteen months ago. I was going through one of the darkest periods in my life. I was facing the real possibility of having to start my life over once again, both financially and emotionally.

Needless to say, I was doing some seriously deep thinking during this time. I frequently daydreamed not just to make it through the day, but to distract myself from my misery. It was in this daydreaming that I had a thought.

That thought was of an encounter between a young man and an old man, who was sitting on a porch. One had a plasma pistol, and the other didn’t seem to care that it was being pointed at him. That thought grew into a great story idea.

That story idea grew into After, my first novel.

Working on After became another form of therapy, a way to escape. I worked on it late into the night after everyone had gone to bed for the night. For an hour or two, everything went away and there was just Alex, me, and a journey.

It would turn out Alex and I both were on a journey of self-discovery. I found my way to, if not the light, a brighter place in my own life. Meanwhile, I continued to forge a meaningful life for Alex.

I released After at the end of March 2017 through self-publication. I had no great hopes for it. The novel was my first published work and I had zero social media presence.

I swallowed (some of) my social anxiety and forged a Twitter account to go along with my new website(another love of mine.) I did my best to start garnering interest for both the website and my new novel. I also paid for some pell-mell advertising and crossed my fingers.

Imagine my surprise when I almost immediately had people reading my book on Kindle Unlimited, and even buying copies of the eBook edition. I even had some sales of the physical edition. Could I be on to something?

Spurred on by my accidental success, I worked up another idea I had about a detective murder mystery set in the future. Spurred on by the (relatively) astounding success I had with my first novel, I began my work by mid April of 2017. That idea would of course grow into my second novel, Preservation Protocol.

Skip to November. This was a big deal for me. Here I was, a brand-new author, poised to release my second novel in less than a year. Preservation Protocol was longer, more detailed, and showed real growth for me as an author(at least to me.) I even had a pre-order on it for the eBook edition a few weeks ahead of its official release.

Then something curious happened. I only had two pre-orders, and I was one of them. The day of release, I sold three copies. Fast-forward to the present: January 2018.

I haven’t sold any more copies.

I’ve thrown far more money at advertising the book than is reasonable. I’ve moaned and groaned about it on Twitter to the point of annoyance, I’m sure. Still, no takers.

It’s as if Preservation Protocol is in some weird black spot in everyone’s consciousness. I’ve actually seen a recent surge in interest for After again, but no follow-up purchases of my latest novel. Anyone who has said anything about After has been largely positive.

What people have said about Preservation Protocol has also been positive, for that matter.

Needless to say, I’ve not taken the wholesale rejection of my latest offering very well. I started writing my third novel, Something Deeper, shortly after releasing Preservation Protocol. I’ve struggled to find the same fire I had in my soul for the first two novels.

I’ve fought to convince myself that I’m a good writer, or even a passable writer. I’ve walked down the dark road all writers follow at least once in their lives. Maybe I should just put down my pen, maybe for good.

Maybe I should stop working on this new book. Maybe I should delete this new book. Will anyone even ever read this new book? Is it even worth punishing myself late at night by continuing to work on it?

Yes. It is.

I’m not sure what changed between my first release and my second, but what I know hasn’t changed is my passion for writing. Despite all the negative thoughts I’ve had, I’ve never stopped enjoying the process of creating and exploring new worlds. I’ve struggled, but I still want… need… to see what happens to Simon Travers in Something Deeper.

So I will continue to write. I will continue to release novels, even if only a handful of people ever enjoy reading them. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter, because I enjoy writing them.

Just over six hundred people read After last year. That’s nothing over a nine-month period, but it’s everything to me. I will hold that in my heart going forward.

I may never grow rich or have thousands of fans, but I will have fun. I’ve discovered a trick so few manage to pull off in this world. I can create whole worlds.

I can see untold tales from lands far away and people long gone. I feel the emotions of people not yet born, in realms yet to be discovered. I hold the darkest secrets of the most holy.

I am their seer, their scribe, their friend. I accept my duty to commit to paper their stories. I will sing their songs and preserve their names.

And I will always find joy in it all.

Star Wars: Flawed Perfection

This is not the alt text you're looking for. Move along.
It’s been a long, drunken journey

Yeah, I’m going there.

I will start off by saying that I enjoy the Star Wars movies. I was introduced to them as far back as three years old. My earliest memory involves me picking out a Darth Vader light saber and insisting that the red one was the good guy’s sword.

That said, the Star Wars saga is a twisted, convoluted mess of a series. There was no clear plan for the very first movie, let alone for a nine-movie-long saga. Quite frankly, George Lucas didn’t know what the hell he was doing.

Lest anyone forget, Lucas’ first movie, THX 1138 was not a success by any measure.  It could be argued that the only reason American Graffiti turned out as well as it did was due to it largely being based on Lucas’ own life. Star Wars was similarly based on a love of Lucas’.

No, I’m not saying that George Lucas is an alien. Everyone knows that, anyway. As many people know now, Star Wars was a love letter to the old Flash Gordon serials of Lucas’ youth. When he couldn’t obtain the rights to Flash Gordon, he basically set out to make a rip-off of it.

Writing the original Star Wars was a giant mess in and of itself. Looking back over the Wikipedia article about the writing process, Lucas didn’t seem to know what to do beyond write something science-fictiony. Looking over it as a whole, Lucas was relatively clueless as to what he was doing.

It would take him three years and uncountable rewrites and reimaginings before he finally put down the script… just as they started filming the movie. Lucas has admitted he was heavily influenced by numerous different sci-fi adventures he had seen and read. Star Wars was a lasagna whose different layers were built upon other writers’ works.

It kinda worked out okay though, in the end. Star Wars was a huge hit, and it is a good movie, but I think a large part of that is owed to luck. The movie is a veritable hodgepodge of other movies and books mixed together with a heaping helping of classical adventure archetypes added in for spice. That said, it would seem that Lucas had found his footing in Star Wars.

Except he had not. Lucas didn’t even write the base script for The Empire Strikes Back, though he would ultimately polish it into the story we saw on the big screen. It also wasn’t until this point that the trilogy… well… became a trilogy. It’s also the point that Darth Vader became Luke Skywalker’s daddy.

Darth Vader had not been destined to be Luke’s father when the first film was made. This introduced the first of many contradictions in the continuity of the series. It’s also the main crux of my argument, here.

From the beginning, Star Wars has always been a crapshoot. The first movie was supposed to be another movie entirely. The second movie morphed the series into a trilogy. The third movie, as far as I know, was supposed to end the trilogy.

Also, as far as I know, there was no grand plan of doing three prequels to the original trilogy. Insert your “Spaceballs: The Search for More Money” joke here. It should be said that Lucas claims he always wanted to do the prequel trilogy, however.

Whatever the truth is, the prequel movies were made, and the nerds rejoiced. Again, I enjoyed all three movies, though many swear they were terrible. Both sides are right.

The prequel trilogy showed a level of writing not seen in the first three movies. The plots and storylines were much more polished and coherent. It was evident that careful thought and planning had gone into the over-arching story that bound not only the three movies, but the prequel trilogy to the original triology.

My main beef with the prequels is twofold. Firstly, while the writing is cohesive, it is also emotionally flat. George Lucas has come a long way in his writing, but handles emotion with all the grace and nuance of a mentally deficient refrigerator.

The other major problem with the prequels was that the story they had to tell was set in stone, and had to be spread out across three movies. This problem can be seen the most in the first movie, which feels like it could be simplified to “pod racing and baffling good luck.” While The Phantom Menace does a good job of setting up the rest of the trilogy, it meanders relentlessly on its way there.

That brings us to the sequel trilogy. I can honestly understand at this point why George Lucas didn’t have much interest in doing the “final” trilogy. These movies, thus far, epitomize everything that’s wrong with Hollywood today.

There is no clear outline for this trilogy. It is literally being hammered out as they go along. The first movie was a total and complete send-up of the original Star Wars film. Kylo Ren is Darth Vader, rebels are trying to bring down the establishment, Starkiller Base is the Death Star, a lot of time is spent on a desert planet, etc.

The Last Jedi, if anything, seems to be an even more confused mess. It feels more like a generic sci-fi action/adventure movie than ever before. Without getting too deep into the plot of the film, it epitomizes the idea of delivering over-the-top moments versus building plot and character.

Speaking of character, Luke Skywalker comes off as more of a convenient plot device then the continuing arc of a beloved character. Leia Organa similarly seems to be there simply for the character recognition and as a place-holder. Her big “force” moment in the film feels like tacked-on lip service for the nerds in the audience.

At this point, I don’t know if there will be a truly satisfying end to this third trilogy. Disney seems more interested in delivering over-the-top cinematic moments than developing a mythos. Bottom line: Disney gonna Disney. And if their past is any indication, the third movie in the trilogy will not be the last.

Sure enough, there’s already been an indication that the original main movie line will continue, though not necessarily continuing with the Skywalker clan. These movies will undoubtedly continue to make way more money than they have any right to. These movies will continue to spawn more movies and spin-offs, and I’ll probably watch them all.

I truly am a fan of the Star Wars universe. I truly enjoy watching the movies. I’m simply disappointed that, after all these years and all these movies, the powers that be still can’t get their shit together and create a cohesive universe.  Flying by the seat of one’s pants might have worked out for Han Solo, but that doesn’t mean it will continue to work for Disney.

The Star Wars films are great popcorn movies, but they can be so. Much. MORE. Disney has the power and the talent to weave a storyline to rival that of the Marvel movies. The only real question now is, why aren’t they doing it?

 

 

 

Christmas

And Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy etc...
Merry Christmas, y’all.

It’s Christmastime. You know, Santa spoils your kids, you drink some eggnog, you put up with your relatives(again,) stuff like that. Everyone enjoys their extra day off, goes to work hungover, and waits a week to do it all over again, minus the presents.

It’s not that simple though, is it? I mean, it’s not for me. Humans like to paint with a broad brush. The truth of the matter is that everyone celebrates the holidays in their own way. Furthermore, not everyone feels the same way about the holidays.

I’m not just talking about people that celebrate Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, either. Some people have elaborate traditions that must be honored and adhered to. Others go through the motions, smiling around the growing ball of stress in their stomachs. Then of course you have the people that just want to blink and have it be over with.

It’s a fascinating look into the psyches of people. Christmas is unique in that respect. Few other measures cover so many aspects of the human mind with a single stimulus: Christmastime.

Now obviously most people first experience Christmas as children. This is one of the earliest opportunities parents get to pass down generational traditions and beliefs. For children, it’s their earliest exposure to the idea of such concepts.

My earliest memories only involve the jolly fat man bringing me presents on Christmas morning. We had to watch the Peanuts Christmas special, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. That was it, in the beginning.

There was no baby Jesus. There was no midnight mass or We Three Kings. My parents weren’t religious at all. I still recall with a smile a moment from later in my life that sums it all up quite well.

We went through a period of going to church and some of us, well, grasped it better than others. I said to my father in passing that we were Christians, and he replied “No! Don’t tell people that! We’re not Christians, we’re Catholic!”

Religion was not really our thing, is what I’m saying.

That moment came after my father remarried following my mother’s passing. My step mother was absolutely religious. She even had one of those cool/creepy Jesus figurines ripping its chest open to point at its little Jesus heart.

Now understand I totally fucking hated going to church. It was Catholic church on top of it, so even worse than normal church. Christmas was different, though.

I still couldn’t wait to leave church as soon as I got there, but there was something… different… about midnight mass. It had an altogether different feel to it than normal mass. It felt peaceful, almost magical, dare I say sacred.

At the time, I didn’t really understand it. I think I was between nine and twelve when we went to midnight mass. Looking back, I think it was the specialness of it.

It was night versus day. I was up instead of in bed. We sang old Christmas songs instead of those weird Catholic hymns. There was a charged feeling to the atmosphere, an air of quiet anticipation, all with that underlying feeling of sacredness.

While I didn’t miss my father’s second wife, I did miss that feeling when Christmas rolled around. It took a number of years to realize that it wasn’t the church I missed, or all the strict, arcane rules that surrounded it. I missed that quiet, peaceful, sacred feeling that came with Christmas eve.

Years later, I think I have a better grasp on it. We humans hit the ground running at top speed (some of us terribly hungover) at the beginning of the year. We don’t really get a chance to slow down and catch our breath until the end of the year grabs us by the face and makes us pay attention.

It’s like a good, hard slap. The year is almost over. It’s time to celebrate, though for many of us it’s just one more stress-point in a year full of stress-points. For people like me, it signals it’s time to realize that we’re nearly out of money and that life-saving tax return is so, so far away.

I actually see people getting angrier, not more cheerful, as the year draws to a close. Modern life has dictated that this be a stressful time of year. The bills pile up, we bleed money to buy gifts for everyone. Budgets get stretched to the limit. We drag our corpses out of bed before the sun rises to go to work until after the sun sets.

All during that time we are supposed to laugh, put on a happy face, and enjoy the season. Is it really such a wonder that everyone just wants it over? So few people remember the reason for the season, and no, I don’t mean baby Jesus.

For me, this time of year has become a time for reflection. It is a time to look back at who I was this year, and to make peace with it. It is a time to remember who I am, and try to find my inner peace before the race begins anew.

I think of the struggles I’ve faced this year. Somehow I’ve managed to survive the year without resorting to bankruptcy again. I’ve held together my marriage. My children haven’t devolved into bratty little hooligans.

I think of poor old Tom, my father in law that passed on two days before my birthday. I think of everything he did for me, how he transformed me. I think of how I will miss seeing his smiling face and listening to his boisterous stories.

I think of the reality that I am now a published author. I savor the reality that people actually want to read what I write. I must accept the reality that, at least for now, I will not make a living with my writing. I also must accept that, for whatever reason, nobody is interested in reading my second novel.

I revel in the fact that I ultimately don’t care, and am happily writing my third novel. I will continue to write and publish novels. I have nothing to prove, except that I will not give up.

These thoughts burn. They tighten my chest and bring tears to my eyes. These thoughts are who I am though, and I will learn to process and accept and fucking embrace them.

And as I sit here tonight in the dark, when the last of the presents are finally under the tree and a glass of scotch is in my hand, I will smile as I watch the lights twinkle.

Despite all that life has thrown at me, throughout all of the trials and tribulations, I have survived.

I sit here typing this, realizing that for the first time in a very long time, I know who I am again. I can accept my shortcomings again. And I can love myself again.

Yes, tonight I will sit here alone in the dark, soaking in the sacredness not of Christmas, but of the transition from one year to the next. The pain of the year will fade as the I prepare for the brightness of tomorrow morning. This sacred moment of silence when everything is possible, and hope can grow eternal, will envelop me once more.

May you all some day find this sacred peace. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and many happy returns.

Changes

So different...
The same, but different…

I’ve been thinking about my childhood lately, for whatever reason. One place that I kept going back to time and again (both in my head and in my childhood) was the Berlin Mall, appropriately enough in Berlin, Vermont. It occurred to me that this mall saw me grow up and change, and it changed right along with me.

The mall, as best as I can remember, opened up some time in the mid to late eighties. Before then, the only option was the University mall in Burlington, Vermont. That was a forty-five minute drive from where I lived back then. The idea of having a place you can go to, with a whole bunch of stores, ALL under one weather-proof roof was amazing to me.

Going there was a treat for me. I still remember many of the original stores. The toy store was Kay-Bee Toys(later K-B Toys because… reasons?) Almost across from it was an independent pizza place. Further up was a magic shop (I believe called The Magic Shop?) Just past that was a candy shop where you could still get candy by the piece.

Further up ahead was the other restaurant in the mall: The prerequisite Orange Julius. They had the best pizza dogs in the universe. The other end of the mall had a flower shop, with a Walden books across from it.

Then there was a Footlocker, and an optometrist. There was a largish music store called The Music Shoppe that sold musical instruments and video equipment in addition to tapes and CDs. Up and to the left was a tee-shirt shop of all things. They even did custom air-brushed shirts. They didn’t last long.

Beside them was the mandatory video arcade, imaginatively called the FUN Arcade. It was a bit on the small side, but there was always something new to play for a number of years. Surprisingly, it played a smaller role in my life than the other stores, though it remained a constant as I grew up.

The Berlin Mall only had two stores to begin with: J.C. Penney and a Rich’s department store. A few years on it gained a Jo Ann Fabrics in the middle. I remember how much it blew my mind, seeing a huge store appear where once there was only a blank wall.

The mall became a much larger part of my life as both of my parents found jobs there. My mother worked at the pizza joint. My father worked at the Kay-Bee Toys. He would finish his stay there as assistant manager.

It was great fun for a time. I got to go hang out in the toy store with my father. I’d go over to the pizza joint to see my mom and have lunch with her. It was a classic kids’ dream, but it wasn’t to last.

The first change came in 1989. That was the year my mother died of Leukemia. It’s one of the prime reasons my memory of my childhood is so spotty. Needless to say, losing the person your world revolved around is profoundly damaging.

One of the most profound healing moments I had happened at the Berlin Mall, however. My father and I were hanging out with one of my father’s friends at the mall. He was a big guy that we all lovingly called Bear. He’d end up changing too.

But at the time, he was an anchor for my father, and almost a surrogate uncle to me. We were in and around the flower shop for whatever reason. I got it in my mind that I wanted to write a letter to my mother and float it to her with a balloon.

I wrote the letter, and my father got me a balloon from the flower shop, knowing that it wouldn’t provide enough lift to take it away. Surely enough, the letter didn’t even lift off the ground. In stepped Bear to buy a second balloon for me.

That didn’t do much to budge the letter, either. By this point, the story of what I was trying to do started getting around. My father, somewhat embarrassed, was telling Bear not to waste the money. Bear was pretty-well ignoring him at this point.

After about twenty dollars (in eighties money!) and a few contributions from others, my letter was finally buoyant. Bear, my dad, and I went out the middle entrance of the mall. Tears in all of our eyes, I let the letter go.

It floated up and up. Others stopped to watch the large wad of balloons as they soared higher and higher. I watched until they had turned into nothing more than a dot in the sky, smiling.

I think in my heart I knew the letter wouldn’t actually reach my mother. All the same, it was a large step towards beginning to heal for me. It was made possible by my father, Bear, and to a lesser extent, the Berlin Mall.

The years crawled by, and I grew older. Eventually I began riding my bicycle to the mall. It was a grand journey for me: About two and a half miles on busy roads.

I was a solitary child. We moved every couple of years, it seemed. I never managed to stay in one place long enough to make permanent friends. Over time I preferred to just be off on my own.

My trips to the Berlin Mall became my happiness. I’d take whatever meager amount of cash I’d managed to scrape together and find something cheap to treat myself with. More often than not, that was Bazooka Joe bubblegum at the candy shop.

There was more than shopping to be had at the mall, though. At one point during the summer there would be the boat show. I’ve never been much of a boat person, but it was impressive to see all those big, shiny boats inside the mall!

The prerequisite parking lot carnival would pop up once or twice a year. Then the circus started coming there. It was the only circus I ever got to see in my life. My most notable memory was riding an elephant that would eventually go on a rampage a few years later. It was ultimately gunned down by police.

Perhaps my fondest memories were from Christmastime at the mall. I remember walking there once in the middle of a snow storm. I went to the Orange Julius and used some of my pocket change to get a small coffee, the world’s youngest adult.

I had to go. I was going Christmas shopping, and there was plenty to sift through there. Every season, Christmas-themed shops would pop up in empty store fronts, or set up booths throughout the mall. You could get everything from hand-made ornaments, to statuary, to original paintings and everything in between.

I remember spending hours wandering around, just taking it all in. I was alone, but not alone. The mall had become my friend. It was someone I would come to visit, we’d have an adventure together, and then I’d go home to whatever.

Things changed as I grew older. Rich’s eventually folded, robbing the mall of one its most important anchors. A dollar store (incorrectly called All For a Dollar) also folded. It had been a treasure trove for a poor kid like me. The magic shop had died and gone long before either of those stores.

Over time, the magic began to fade. The mall had become barren, robbed of its life as people had fewer and fewer reasons to come visit. I was finding other interests as I grew, but part of me wept for this old friend.

Eventually, the world’s (seemingly) smallest Walmart moved in where Rich’s once was. The mall experienced a rebirth as shoppers once again filled its hallowed halls. Things would never be the same as before, though.

It continued to struggle, and so did I. Now out on my own, I took a job at that Walmart. My old friend had now become home to me. I was a cart pusher. I spent a beautiful summer getting thin and bronzed, prowling the parking lot for stray carts.

But Walmart is Walmart, and when I hurt my knee, they kind of shrugged and did nothing about it. I limped around trying to do my job for a few days, but to little effect. Eventually I just didn’t come in one day.

I went on to make a series of not-so-good decisions in my life that took me away from my precious mall. Perhaps, in a way, that was a good thing. It continued to change. Stores continued to move out and change hands.

I used to pine for my mall; to return one day and try to find that childhood magic I remembered so fondly. I don’t want to go back now, though. You see, my friend has grown up, too. He’s no longer recognizable to me.

It’s been a while since I checked, but I do believe every store I mentioned at the beginning of this article is now gone. I’m not even sure the arcade is still there. My best estimate would put maybe two stores remaining that date back to the earliest days of the mall’s existence.

Like me, the Berlin Mall has grown and changed. In some ways it’s been for the better, in other ways for the worse, not unlike myself. It stands as a strong symbol to me of the path life leads us all on.

We are born, and we grow. We find happiness where we can, before life and work take us away from what we’ve grown to know and love. We make do and find new ways to thrive and be fruitful.

But those childhood memories will be with us… with me… forever. I know now that I can never go back, but I can close my eyes and remember. For me, those memories are an escape from a world that has grown so, so cold.

I don’t miss the Berlin Mall, I miss what the Berlin Mall once was. I miss who I once was, but both of us have changed.

But I will always remember what we both once were.

Goodbye, old friend.

 

Go Team

Yeah... No.
Looks like a fair fight, don’t it? -image via clipart-library.com

So lately in the news, they’ve been talking a lot about the GOP and stuff. You might have heard something. It’s nothing much, really… Just a flaming train wreck heading for a TNT factory…

Before I go any farther, I just want to point out that I identify as an Independent. In fact, no. I identify as an American. I’m tired of all this pick-a-side bullshit. Allow me to elaborate.

For years now, there has been a growing divide between the Republicans and the Democrats. Then Obama happened. Oh, BOY did Obama happen.

As usual, the Republicans were all like “Eww! A Democrat!” Once in control of like, everything but the presidency, they set forth to stop that Democrat from successfully doing anything, well besides the Affordable Care Act. We must stop this brown man, they cried! He is too Democratic! And brown!

This was the tipping point for the GOP. The idea of opposing teams became amplified throughout Obama’s eight years in office. It became less about getting their own ideas heard and utilized, and more about making sure the other team, the Democrats, lost.

Stopping Obama became a win for the GOP. Stopping the Democrats in any form was a win. Mission One for GOP: WIN. How? By making those dastardly Democrats LOSE.

Hell, if you want to boil down the 2016 election message from the Republican party, it was thus: If you elect US, we’ll make them LOSE! Then we’ll WIN!

Entering that same election, you had a large number of people in this country that were fed up with nothing getting done in the government. The Democrats (somewhat rightfully) pointed fingers at the Republicans as the reason legislation constantly ground to a halt. The Republicans pointed right back saying the Dems want to pass bills that will destroy the economy!

Enter Donald Trump.

Let me start by saying I don’t think Trump is exceptionally smart. I think he is exceptionally lucky, and conniving to a disgusting degree. This man got into the presidential election for one reason and one reason only: Free Advertising.

He’d throw his hat into the ring, get some free publicity. He’d go to NBC and say “See? I ran for damn president! GIVE ME MORE MONEY.” He’d get dropped in favor of a more traditional candidate, and then that would be that.

But something curious happened.

Those same people that had been worked into a froth by the lack of governmental action saw in Donald Trump an outsider. This dude’s gonna go in there and turn shit upside down! He’ll be his own man! He’ll fight for US and not THEM!

So the unthinkable happens: Donald Trump becomes the Republican nominee for president of the United States. Why would they do this? This man does not know what he’s doing!

They were well aware of that. They were also well aware that he was their best chance of… Wait for it… WINNING. They’d just have to hold their nose and hope for the best.

Well, something even more curious happened.

Donald Trump won.

Thanks to a push by people desperate to get out from under the horrible, icky Obamacare, the Orange One grabbed the gold. He’d get rid of your Obamacare costs! He’d build a wall to keep out the icky brown people! He’d boost the middle class!

But let’s leave Donald behind for a minute(always a good idea. Heh.)

The GOP had done it: They OWNED the government! ALL of it! They WON! So… Now what?

The Republicans had become so focused on the Democrats losing that it had become a measure of them winning. They were in charge now, so they didn’t have to keep making the Democrats lose. They already lost!

This led to instant consternation in the Republican party. Some simply didn’t know how to deal with this new situation, so they started trying to make their OWN team lose, apparently. Starting with: Obamacare.

It’s no news that the GOP failed not once, but TWICE to repeal Obamacare, one of their campaign promises. Well, the senate failed. The house GOP members made damn sure to point out how hard they WON at repealing Obamacare. What the heck, senate GOP?!

That itching need to win started nibbling at the souls of the GOP again. They needed their Rocky moment if they wanted to survive the 2018 election cycle. Enter: Tax Reform.

Like the Obamacare repeal, things went sideways early. The idea was to lower taxes not only for the middle class, but for EVERYBODY! YEAH! Wait… That could cost a bit of change…

Interesting that the GOP is notorious for NOT wanting to inflate the deficit. They closed their eyes, held their breath, and said “It’s okay! The economy will improve so much that it will pay for itself!”

Fun Fact #1: No, it won’t. Not even close.

The current consensus is that the Tax Reform bill will cost $1 trillion in the long-run, while increasing the GDP by… 0.8%.

Well… At least our beloved middle class will get a tax cut! We’ll be delivering on campaign promises!

Fun Fact #2: No, not really.

Again, consensus shows that while some middle-class Americans will see short-term savings, ALL middle-class citizens will eventually see MORE tax debt as a result of this bill. Now the one-percenters? Heh, guess what? They’ll eventually pay LESS.

So they had a bill that would cost the middle class more in the long run, greatly benefit wealthy people and big business, and explode the deficit while not necessarily creating any new jobs or boosting wages.

Oh yeah, I forgot about that.

You see, this bill was also built up as a surefire way to bring tax money back to the US. Not only that, but these companies would be making SO MUCH MONEY that there’s NO WAY that they won’t hire more people and pay them more!

That’s called trickle-down economics, and it’s been proven time and again to not work AT ALL. The likely result: Big businesses will add the record profits to their already record profits and just absorb it all. Screw the little guy… Including the middle class.

Sounds like a no-brainer to just let this one go, right? I mean, they still wouldn’t have a win, but at least the voters would see the GOP was working in their best interests, right?

The bill passed the senate early Saturday morning with a single (retiring) member of the GOP dissenting.

THEY WON!

They successfully passed a bill that will hurt the middle class, explode the deficit, and greatly reward big business. They passed a bill that seemingly NOBODY (including some Republicans) likes or necessarily wants. WHY?!

So they could win.

Good luck to them doing that in 2018, by the way. The rest of us are tired of losing. Just saying.

Speaking of losing…

Back to Donald Trump, the man who had to win no matter what because the GOP had to win. Looks like he’s not winning so much anymore these days, does it? No border wall yet, no Obamacare repeal, unpopular tax bill… That’s not to mention the incalculable damage he’s done to the reputation of the US with other countries, including several allies.

Oh, yeah: He’s also possibly going to be impeached for breaking the law.

But remember, they won.

That’s all that matters, right?

 

Acceptance

Trying to reach the top… (Photo on Visualhunt)

(I’m mixing things up a little bit. The end is not as bitter as the beginning. Bear with me, yes?)

I’ve come to an odd place in my life.

Nothing much has changed in the past ten years, to be honest. I used to work for a company that produces copper and fiber optic cables. I can’t name them, or they could sue me for my severance pay.

I got paid sub-standard wages to make those cables for years, while being made to feel that I should be grateful for it. I made more over a number of years, earning meager raises but never reaching the average starting wage for the industry. One year I received a ten cent raise. One dime an hour.

After eight years of loyal work, that company was bought out by an even bigger company. That even bigger company closed our production facility. We were told that we should be appreciative for our (bog-standard) severance packages.

I got lucky. Well, I got as lucky as can be expected, and landed in a crappy retail job for two dollars an hour less than I was paid at the cable making company. It was somehow more stressful and less fulfilling than the cable job.

I truly got lucky a short time later when I was hired by my current employer as an auto detailer. I absolutely love my job, and have been happily working it for nearly three years now. I’m still making a dollar less than I did at the cable-making company, though.

Long story short, I’ve been struggling financially for over a decade now. I’ve done everything right: Be loyal, work hard, stay the course… All that good stuff.

That’s not good enough in this country anymore.

Like countless others, I continue to languish in poverty despite working six days a week. I’ve continued to improve myself, pushing myself to be better. I’ve even taken to writing, releasing two novels this year alone. And yet…

And yet I’m in the deepest debt that I’ve ever been in. I’m in a swamp, and I’m sinking. I’ve been sinking for years. I struggle, and I sink further. I struggle harder, I sink deeper. There is no escape.

I could grab the rope right beside me called bankruptcy. Maybe I will eventually. I don’t know. I don’t want to, though. It’s not just pride, either.

I live in subsidized housing, in an actual house. I’d love to move into a house after they inevitably kick us out in the future. My daughter is on the final stretch to adulthood. Time is running out.

I can’t save for a down-payment on a house since I’m hemorrhaging six hundred dollars a month(I survive by using tax-return money to supplement my income throughout the year.) Claiming bankruptcy would leave me wide-open to save, but nobody will lend to me with a recent bankruptcy on my record.

So I started things over a dozen years ago being desperately poor and struggling to find my way. But now? Now I’m desperately poor and am struggling to find my way.

Wait. That’s not an improvement. Shit…

Okay, well… Here’s my point. I’ve spent most of those years stressed out of my mind, sometimes to the point of being sick, every day of my life. I’ve made increasingly desperate attempts to “make it work” and “figure it out”.

I’ve been like a cat in a bath tub, lately. Jumping and hissing and clawing and crying, trying to find any way out of my predicament. The sides of this bathtub are way too high.

I’m at that breaking point. One way or another, I’m accepting my fate. I’m choosing to accept it with as much grace and calm as I possibly can.

I know now that (seemingly) nothing I do will change my situation. Therefore I will do nothing. Oh, I’ll continue paying the bills… Somehow. I’ll keep being impoverished. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep this website going.

I’m not going to live in a world of sickening stress anymore, though. I’m accepting that no matter what I do, my situation will not change. It’s stupid to stress over something that will not change, so I’m not going to.

I know it’s not a switch. I can’t just say “I will be happy, now.” I still snap sometimes over stupid shit only tangentially related to our decade-long cash crunch. It’s a process.

But it’s a process that’s been long overdue, and it’s one that I’ve started. David Cassidy died recently. His last words were reported to be “So much wasted time.”

I don’t want that to be me. I don’t want to look back years from now and say “Why did I do this to myself?” I want to know what it’s like to live without stress. I’m not going to get to do it by eliminating my debt.

I’m going to learn to accept it.

I will do what I can to enjoy the life I have. I enjoy my job. I love my family. I find joy in writing. These things I must cling to, savor, revel in. Only through these things can I continue to cling to my sanity.

I can either look at the impossibly-steep path before me and weep, or look out behind me and witness the glorious view my journey has awarded me. I know that I must continue to climb this mountain, but I will find joy in it whenever I can.

In this, may I find my peace.

John Prescott

 

 

Our Super Solar System

Now where did I park my car?
Now where did I park my car?

Everyone is fascinated with outer space, the area beyond our solar system. I can understand and appreciate that. The possibility of finding alien worlds, possibly alien life is exciting to think about. However, there’s an awful lot we can learn from the planets in our own system that can help us explore other systems. Here’s some revelations from our own corner of the neighborhood.

Some planets like it hot. How hot? Try 863 degrees Fahrenheit, hot enough to melt lead. Can you guess which planet gets that hot? I bet you said Mercury, and you would be wrong. Mercury may be the closest planet to the sun, but it’s Venus that’s the hottest. Venus has an atmosphere mostly made up of CO2 that traps the heat from the sun, making it hotter than Mercury even on its dark side.

You may be thinking I can’t trick you on the coldest planet. I’m not counting Pluto because it’s no longer a planet(yes it is!) That leaves Neptune as the farthest and therefore the coldest. Nope, you’re still wrong! Uranus is indeed the colder of the two outermost planets, with a minimum measured temperature of -371 degrees Fahrenheit. Current theories are that it’s a result of either Uranus’ screwy weather systems leaking heat into space, or the planet’s having tilted on it’s side millions of years ago.

The largest planet of our solar system is trick-free and kinda obvious. Jupiter reigns supreme as the king of the planets. The monstrous planet is nearly 90,000 miles in diameter. For reference, you could fit about 1,300 Earths inside Jupiter. In fact, when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plowed into the behemoth, one of the scars left behind was the size of earth. That’s one reason why Jupiter is seen as Earth’s protector: It takes the hits so we don’t have to!

Yep, time for the smallest planet. You already know where this is going: Neptune is the smallest planet in the solar system. It naturally used to be Pluto, but what changed? A group of astronomers discovered a planet beyond Pluto that they named Eris. This sparked a discussion about whether to make Eris a planet, or make Eris and Pluto dwarf planets. You can guess which side won the argument. That’s why Neptune is now the smallest planet in the solar system.

Opposite Day: Massively Tiny Sculptures

"Yer a dust mite, Harry!"
“Yer a dust mite, Harry!”

One thing I’ve learned searching out topics for Opposite Day is that it can be very hard to find anything very interesting to choose for a topic. It’s almost criminally easy to have the smallest or shortest something. Hell, I probably could get a world record for shortest attention span some days.

That was before I stumbled upon two amazing men with even more amazing talents: Willard Wigan and Dalton Ghetti. Despite being from two different parts of the world they’ve stumbled upon the same amazing gift of making tiny sculptures. Forget sneezing, don’t breathe!

"Tiny Hulk SMASH!"
“Tiny Hulk SMASH!”

The images above and to the left are courtesy of English sculptor Willard Wigan. The artist typically uses the eye of a needle or the head of a pin. He occasionally uses other media when appropriate, such as a fishing hook for a Peter Pan diorama.

Some sculptures can be as small as 0.0002″ (two ten-thousandths of an inch) in size. For reference, a human hair is 0.0006″ in diameter. Naturally one wonders just how he can make something that small.

Wigan uses meditative techniques to calm his breathing and heartbeat. Yes, even an errant heartbeat can mean the instant destruction of hours of work. Most of his tools are hand-made, such as a shard of diamond on the end of a pin for manipulating material. To paint the finished product, Wigan uses a single hair from a house fly. 

That key wasn't added, it's part of the same lead.
That key wasn’t added, it’s part of the same lead.

Dalton Ghetti uses a different media altogether, albeit one we are all too familiar with thanks to school: pencil lead.

Ghetti’s is a classic tale of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Born and raised in Sao Paulo, Ghetti became fascinated with sculpting things with knives, chisels and hammers. This lead to an interest in carpentry.

It also lead to the United States, where he earned a degree in architecture while working as a cabinet maker. This lead to a job as a home remodeler. Still, he never lost his love for hand carving.

He started shrinking the size of his art pieces, looking to challenge himself. That eventually lead to him experimenting with pencils. He uses nothing else except a bright light-source, a needle, and an exact-o knife. Some of the most intricate sculptures can take months to complete. The key pencil in the picture above, as mentioned, is all one piece. Ghetti has made a length of chain out of a single piece of lead since then.

Now you have something new to try when you’re bored at work. You’re welcome!

Empire of the Dead: The Paris Catacombs

Quick! Who wants a family photo?
Quick! Who wants a family photo?

I thought “Okay, October is over. Enough of that.” Then I thought “Nah, one more creepy article!”

Obviously everyone knows Paris as the City of Love, but did you know that Paris rests atop the Empire of the Dead? I know what you’re thinking, that’s even more romantic, right? I agree! But before you run off to plan your trip to Death Land, pop a squat and learn how this wonderful attraction took form! 😀

Typically, cities would bury their dead a short distance away from the more populated areas. Paris, however, is anything but typical. Through a series of unfortunate events (mainly being invaded to death and having to resettle,) Paris developed with the city’s cemeteries front and center. Frontiest and centeriest was Les Innocents cemetery.

That must be a baby-changing station!
That must be a baby-changing station!

Les Innocents cemetery soon became ground zero for like, all the dead people… centuries of dead people. Eventually the cemetery was full to overflowing. More room was made by exhuming many bodies and stuffing the bones into the walls of the cemetery. That space was quickly filled up, as were the new plots. By the late 1700’s, Les Innocents was full to bursting.

I mean that literally, too. A metric shit-ton of dead people led to the formation of a mound over two yards tall. Paris officials did the sensible thing and issued decrees limiting the use of the burial ground. Parisians did the sensible thing and flipped them the bird while stuffing more dead people into their ghastly pinata. Shit got real when said pinata finally burst into someone’s basement.

I mean, can you even imagine? Here you are, sitting in your mancave doing whatever French dudes do in French mancaves. Out of nowhere, a bunch of dead people/skeletons come bursting through your wall as if reaching for your very soul.

I think I’d either crap myself to death or die trying to run up the stairs in terror. Could end up being both, to be honest… 

Anyway, at the same time the Les Innocents death-bomb was growing, so too were limestone mines beneath the city. Eventually these mines were abandoned and, much like the mighty death wad of a cemetery, began to collapse. Paris officials looked at their cemeteries, then looked at the mines, then got an idea…

The work was started in 1785. A nightly procession of grisly proportions carted load after load of bony debris to the tunnels below the city. There were so many remains that it took a good two years to get them all tossed in. That’s not hyperbole either, the newly-crafted catacombs were more of a junky attic than a respectful mausoleum.

That’s where  Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury comes into play in 1810. The then-head of the Paris Mine Inspection Service (and badass long-name owner) was responsible for organizing the bones into the walls, patterns and semi-sculptures that can be seen in the catacombs to this day. Death never looked so good!

"Warning! Extreme creepiness ahead."
“Warning! Fun for the whole family.”

Today there are an estimated 6 million dead French people resting peacef… well, at least resting… in the now-infamous catacombs. A sign at the entrance to the catacombs cheerfully tells you “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.”(Stop! This is the empire of death.) If you believe the tales told, some of the dead should be feared.

Stories abound of some dead that aren’t resting so peacefully in their underground play-around. Imagine that: the spirits of the jumbled dead being all worked up over their situation! Jeez, what’s their problem?

Even if you aren’t the supernatural kind, you should still be cautious. There’s a LOT of tunnels, like 200 miles worth. Not all of them are full of dead people, but they are always looking to expand.

You could end up contributing to the project if you lose your way. You wouldn’t be the first to do so, either. It is not unheard of to find fresh corpses of wayward adventurers who took a wrong turn down a dark tunnel. No word on whether they just stuff them into the wall right then and there.

Whether you are on your honeymoon and looking for a romantic place to hang out, or you want to give your kids wonderful lasting memories on their family vacation, the Paris Catacombs are the place for you! Just make sure to stay with your tour group (and buy something from the gift shop) lest you find yourself a permanent addition to the collection.

Sweet dreams, kiddies!