Saturday, May 20, 2017

Thoughts on The Handmaid's Tale




For quite a while now I have found the numerous dystopic novels and movies that are polluting entertainment media nauseating. Sure, I'll put it kindly and say I understand the fascination in doomsday entertainment because the rank and file masses of America are nervous about their relative positions in both the economic and geopolitical realms. Strange looking folks and the world in general is a scary place for a bunch of people who are so enamored with their own existence that they don't have the time nor curiosity to try and delve deeper than the Twitter-based explanations offered up by narcissistic con men.

Fear comes from the less evolved reptile-remnant part of the human brain and if the leaders of our species over the centuries have perfected one thing it is appealing to that basic instinct. Doomsday entertainment feeds that fear and probably reinforces the attitude that we're all screwed and any attempt to resist the tides of circumstance and change for the worse is futile. All that being said, I have discovered an exception to the vast majority of stale and derivative doomsday entertainment that floods our consciousness.

Way back in what is now seriously considered the “good old days,” around 1988, I discovered the book The Handmaid's Tale by the acclaimed author Margret Atwood. It tells the story of a woman only known as Offred who is a reproductive slave to a powerful, but infertile couple in a country called the Republic of Gilead. Short synopsis, set sometime in the near future the United States government is overthrown by a secret society called the Sons of Jacob who then replace it with a theocratic military dictatorship. Being only slightly flippant, Gilead isn't some authoritarian knockoff of the current Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, or Russia, no the Sons of Jacob have gone full totalitarian. In the Atwood book, 1990 movie adaption, and the current series on Hulu, the Republic of Gilead makes Iran look like a free love and thinking party and North Korea almost tolerable.

Because of pollution and a whole host of other man-made environmental disasters, fertility rates have crashed so the powerful elite in Gilead force women who can have children to be their broodmares. In this fictional terror, while civil liberties are dead for all but for women it's worse. The Gilead leadership has rolled back civilization to the point women are once again the property of their fathers or husbands. They cannot control their own bodies, have bank accounts, work outside the home, or even read. Any deviation once discovered by the authorities is usually met with a death sentence.

What makes The Handmaid's Tale an exception for me is NOT because it paints a picture of Christians as potential Nazi-like thugs. No, in all three incarnations it is more than readily pointed out in each of them that the Gilead leadership heavily persecutes any Christian not willing to mindless follow the approved orthodoxy. This being a prime example why separation of church and state is enshrined in the United States Constitution. What intrigues me about Handmaid's Tale is the overarching attitudes and beliefs of the dominate males in that fictional society because I can hear similar echos in our society.

Offred's chief antagonist in someone known as the “Commander,” he is the husband of the couple using her to produce a child for them. He is also a powerful member of the ruling elite and in the Hulu series is one of the men who orchestrated the overthrow of the United States government and the founding of Gilead. Something only implied in the novel and vaguely referenced in the movie. But it is something the Commander said at the end of chapter 32 that perplexed me:

The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them anymore . . . I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy... . You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage. Do they feel now? I say. Yes, he says, looking at me. They do.”

While turning off to sex might be a little bit of stretch, but what American men do like to whine about is how women are too pushy or that they have to compete with them in them in the workplace. As for being too pushy where it does intersect with Handmaid's Tale is how some men do not feel right or manly if they are not in control. A seriously sick documentary I found on Netflix recently had to do with men trying to develop a sexual robot to takes the place of real women. I was only able to watch fifteen minutes of the documentary before I was literally sicken but the central idea all men appearing in it shared was that they wanted to be in control.

Yeah, I admit some women can be real and total pains but no more than some of my fellow males can be complete asses. See, the problem here is that while women have made great strides in society they are still woefully underpaid, compared to men with the same jobs and experience, and still face inherent sexism because guys still overwhelming rule the country.

The statement I would make to my erstwhile brothers is that if pushy women bother you or if you feel that even trying to make a mark in society is pointless instead of complaining and being a slacker you up your damn game. Get an education, or go back to school, turn off ESPN or put down the game controller and get involved with some cause and make the world a better place. Hell, if that isn't manly enough for you find the nearest military recruiter and join the one of the Armed Forces. Because I was in the military-National Guard-right after the attacks on 9/11 and there was absolutely NO sudden rush by all the jocks, rednecks, and other assorted males to join the fight against terrorism. So lacking in red-blooded American males, several of the recruiters I knew started pursuing Mexican-American migrant workers who frequented two of the huge flea markets in my area. Getting people to join back then was so bad one full-time recruiter, a hapless sort who frankly didn't have the IQ of a toaster, had to quit his job because he couldn't make monthly quotas.

Long story short, instead of bitching about mean women, do like I was taught in the army, act like men, and improvise, adapt, and overcome. Don't let a lack of imagination or persistence blind you to the fact that instead of men being oppressed by women the vast majority of male whiners are lazy, spoiled douchebags.

The second thing that troubled me about Handmaid's Tale was the concept that the United States government could be overthrown. After a great deal of thought, and exposure to a good deal more of history, I came to the conclusion that while such an event is highly improbable the United States is not immune to the forces that destroyed every now dead civilization. The dustbin of history is filled with empires and nations whose subjects and citizens thought were invulnerable and would exist forever.

American society is rife with faults and serious issues that most refuse to address, but the one that could be our undoing is is simple lack of participation in civil affairs. It is suggested in the Hulu series that even after the events that lead to the United States Constitution being suspended most were happy to pursue their usual affairs. In fact, in the series it wasn't until Offred and her friend couldn't purchase coffee that they became aware that things were out of control. Oh, a demonstration was quickly organized to protest against the changes but by that time the police, or militia were ready to open fire on the people with machine guns.

That last paragraph was aimed largely at my fellow liberals who either voted third-party or stayed home back in November of 2016. NO, I am not saying Trump will ultimately declare himself dictator, but it seems awful funny how it was only once he won the electoral college that so many realized how much a disaster him occupying the White House would become.

Finally I would be remiss if I didn't mention the religious nature of the fictional Gilead. Excuse me if this statement offends but Americans wear their religion way too much on their sleeves. Abraham Lincoln is said to have called American's “God's almost chosen people” and unfortunately, there are many these days who view the world as if we were. Some religious types hold such extreme views on the proper way to live and the world in general that they would in fact be quite happy living in Atwood's fictional Republic of Gilead. One individual I know tried quite hard to draw me into a religious-based conversation on what it would take to “save America.” Before I could leave the room one of things I learned America had to be saved from was Canada's far more liberal emigration policy which let in dangerous dark-skinned types. Right before I was able to leave something about a wall along the northern border was mentioned.

I have no problem who those who have a strong faith, former President Jimmy Carter is a true Christian and we would all do well to try and follow his example. The same goes for Pope Francis, all things considered I believe him to be a truly positive force in a world overrun with hate and institutionalized injustice. The same goes for countless others who practice different faiths. The eternal problem though is that there are many around the world who believe they have an inside line on how God wants people to believe and act. These types crave and ruthlessly pursue power just to impose their view of God's will on everyone else.

As doomsday entertainment goes The Handmaid's Tale in all its forms is several levels above the usual tripe. In many circles the novel is considered a literary masterpiece. The 1990 movie version did its best to adapt the story to the big screen but there was no way you could have directly pulled the screenplay from the book. It is the Hulu series that excels in painting an expanded and terrifying picture of a nation that went truly and utterly insane. The actor Elizabeth Moss, who plays the character of Offred is totally credible as a person whose freedom, dignity, and family has been stripped away all because a small group believes they know God's will.

In actuality, I view Atwood's story less as entertainment and more a warning. No, I do not think we are on the verge of a right-wing religious theocracy taking over the country. But one thing is certain, Americans, of all walks of life especially those with the most privileges are going to be forced to make some difficult and uncomfortable choices in the coming years. These choices will either continue the expansion of possibilities for all people or send the United States down a dark corridor that leaves us among the other dead societies that came before us.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Living the Dream




As someone who likes to hold the banner of science and rationality, I've got to admit to a certain level of hypocrisy. See, while I regularly ridicule superstition after years of living in my current house I've come to the conclusion that the damn money hole is jinxed. This is where a short history might be helpful in painting the required picture.

This sad story began back in 2000 as my wife and I entered the last stages of the adoption procedure that would result in my sister-in-law and her flying over to China to pick up the baby. Because one of the requirements for adoption was that the child had to have a bedroom all to herself my wife and I upgraded our old home and quickly sold it to literally the first couple that looked at the place. We were ecstatic, my wife and I had already picked out a new house and with the buyers of our old home quickly getting approval for a mortgage we called the real estate agent to make an offer on the larger house.

Turned out the couple who owned the house we wanted had accepted a bid on theirs pretty much the same time the people who looked at our home made an offer. While there was no reason to immediately panic, my wife and I had to start looking at more houses. The trouble was that my wife had certain stringent requirements for any house we might offer to buy.

The first thing was that she was adamant about the builder, the floor plan, and the general area it was located. Numerous perspective homes that were close to mansions to me given the dwellings I lived in as a child were rejected because they were built by company “B” instead of “A.” It was the same for the interior layout, my wife refused to consider anything with an open floor plan. As for the location, at the time I didn't care but she wanted the kids to attend the best school district.

My requirements weren't as strict but because we had two dogs I rejected several houses that simply didn't have a backyard fence. One of our dogs was a large, very energetic, mixed breed black lab that absolutely could not be allowed to roam free given the rules of modern subdivisions. That fact ran counter to the subdivision I grew up where the dogs were allowed to roam and sort of became neighborhood pets. Keeping the lab inside during the day while we were at work wasn't an option because while she was a loving dog her inadvertently destructive ways would have guaranteed war zone-level devastation by the time we returned home.

Since the home we were selling was located on a large corner lot, I had some delusion about the next one being the same way. That one issue and my blatant ignorance still causes me to cringe when I think too much about it. While we did have a large front yard at our first home, it was extremely low maintenance and I simply did not consider how demanding a similar sized but more decorated location would be on my time and energy.

With these requirements, and a little ill-timed bad luck, my wife and I were finally forced to make a choice a few weeks later. We had narrowed our prospects down to three locations that neither my wife nor I really liked. The trouble was that the buyers of our old home were about a week or two away from being forced to move and they, naturally, needed us out. Now I admit, despite what I began to feel were my wife's ridiculous requirements, I made the horrendous mistake of actually giving an opinion on one of the three choices. I made matters even worse by saying the house on the corner lot with the highly manicured yards, “spoke to me.” The situation was getting quite tense given the deadline we faced and my words were a sad attempt to lighten the mood.

My wife compounded my error by making an offer on that house which was accepted by the owners. Before I go any further let me state that we did look at the interior of the house we bought on two separate occasions before making an offer. Both were haste affairs and no, we did not look anywhere near as closely as we should have, which would have dire consequences almost immediately. As for the professional inspector, who we paid for and was supposed to catch issues before all the paperwork was finalized, I have often considered the possibility that he was bribed in some fashion to ignore the obvious problems.

Making matter for more complicated, the day we had to move into the new house was my National Guard drill weekend and the leadership at my unit refused to cut me some slack so I could assist. Luckily my in-laws were there to help my wife and keep an eye on the movers we hired to deliver the big stuff. Late that Saturday afternoon I got to the new house to see the sorry state the previous owners had left things.

First off were the numerous holes in the walls that had been hidden by an array of family pictures. Given the number of holes in the walls it literally looked like that family had rearranged the display of pictures at least a couple of times a month. Secondly, and the first bit of evidence I believe the home inspector was compromised, we learned that night one of the four elements on the kitchen stove didn't work. Then there were the electrical sockets that when you tried to push a plug into them moved backwards an inch or two. Quite frankly, it wouldn't be a challenge to write several pages listing the deficiencies the inspector had somehow missed.

My wife and I were furious, but the reason we didn't pursue legal action was that we had a critical assessment coming up with the adoption agency handling our case. Pursuing a lawsuit while trying to adopt a little girl from China would have been too much. So, just a few days after moving in the new house, my wife assigned me the task of correcting any and all deficiencies I had the ability to fix. We've lived in our current money hole since then and in many ways we are still fixing things.

Given these circumstances, and several others outside the purview of this narrow memoir, it shouldn't surprise anyone why I have developed such an extreme dislike for suburban living in general and the house I live in specifically. So much that instead of the usual fantasies middle-aged men like myself entertain, I dream of winning the lotto so I can move the family and myself into another house which would allow me to burn down the one I live. Despite the numerous deficiencies, there is another, truly bizarre aspect to the house I live that often leads me to believe the place might be cursed.

As I mentioned, the house we bought had several decorative landscape islands in both the front and backyards. Somewhere around six months after we moved in two of the three pine trees that were in the backyard landscape island suddenly died. No, I have little knowledge of trees and I know both of the ones that died were probably already sick but all I can say is their appearance changed from thriving to zombie-like was so abruptly it shocked both my wife and myself. That wasn't the only issue we had with trees.

Over the course of six or seven years lightning struck three other trees, all resulting in collapses of major limbs and even trunks. Since my wife and I were dealing with demanding jobs and two young children, we never could immediately deal with the carriage of singed and broken limbs littering the ground. A fact that the neighbors, all unhealthily obsessed with the appearance of their yards in my opinion, I am sure commented upon among themselves.

A lightning strike also hit the pump used to draw well water for the lawn sprinklers. This particular incident naturally occurred during a severely hot July with August being even worse. By the time cooler weather arrived in late September my front yard had taken on the appearance of a desert. We did replace the pump the following May, at the cost of two-thousand dollars when you include installation but my front yard never really recovered.

Water heaters have also been an issue with us on our third one right now. The first water heater is another example of the home inspector possibly being paid off because while on the outward facing side it looked okay, when the tank cracked and started leaking I discovered the side facing the wall was heavily rusted. I have no idea why the second water heater cracked, it was probably the result of someone bumping the thing but even then I thought such items were supposed to be a little more resilient.

Like the deficiencies the home inspector somehow missed, I could spend a considerable amount of time listing the premature and often disastrously expensive breakdowns with things like washing machines, air conditioning systems, televisions, and lawn mowers. But the example that sums up the bad luck we've had with the house we live occurred after a heavy thunderstorm a few years back. No, lightning didn't fry anything that particular instant but what it did was trip the ground fault breaker in the garage. The place we had the freezer, which a few days before had filled up with a couple of hundred dollars worth of meat bought at Sam's Club.



Being somewhat oblivious five or six days after the thunderstorm I finally noticed that the sprinkler system, whose pump had been replaced several months earlier wasn't coming on like it should. Yes, the controller for the sprinkler system was on the same circuit as the freezer and when I traced the issue to the tripped ground fault breaker I am happy to report it only took and extra thirty minutes for me to realize what that meant for all the meat we had purchased. In fact, the exact moment I realized all that meat was ruined I was sitting at the table drinking a beer. My reaction was a classic movie spit-take that lead immediately into a coughing fit so bad my wife thought I was having a heart attack. Once I recovered enough to explain my sudden epiphany, my lovely spouse promptly had her own bad reaction to the news.

Sure enough, even though I had reset the breaker thirty minutes before the freezer was still room temperature with the faint hint of spoiled meat becoming apparent after I lifted the lid. After that everything became a bit of a blur, so much I don't really remember taking all that ruined meat to the trash place.

This all leads to the statement I made to my wife a couple of days ago as I backed my car out of the garage, I made an offhand comment about how after all the crappy breakdown both the garage openers, which were installed by the first owners were still working perfectly. Taking history into consideration I now expect one or both of them to suddenly and totally meltdown at the worst conceivable moment. On the other hand, if that meltdown and resulting fire could somehow occur with the house empty of my family, the dogs, and cats I would be lying if I didn't say that I would consider such an unlucky event a type of blessing.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

All About the Science




The mindset that has always puzzled me is how certain political types crow about making America number one in the world—yes I paraphrased to avoid throwing up in my mouth-- but refuse to properly fund the only real way to accomplish that goal. Basic or pure scientific research, without any obvious applied applications is the only way to keep America a player on the world stage. The best way to describe pure research is that it lays the foundation for later practical applications. The quickest example I can offer is how it took the combined efforts of diligent scientists over a couple of centuries to discover the underlining principles of electricity before Edison could figure out a way to build a practical light bulb.

The trouble with pure research is that to many it seems to fly off on a tangent chasing some bizarre but useless scientific oddity. In this day and age once information along those lines seeps out to the general public it usually leads to some manly man announcer or hot blond bimbo clone on Fox News whining about taxpayer's money going to waste. Which causes numerous people to call their Milquetoast congressman whose scientific education never goes much beyond figuring out the remote on his home entertainment center to demand cuts in funding to the research agencies responsible for keeping America on the cutting edge of science.

Contrary to the insipid little twit running the Office of Budget and Management, private industry does not spend a lot of money on basic research, so that leaves it to the federal government to pave the way for future accomplishments. You need a couple of examples? The first being the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. Besides Einstein's Special Relativity—another work of pure research, it took a lot of coordinated effort by government agencies to produce the bomb that ended World War Two. The second is that internet which for years before Al Gore was ever accused, wrongly, of saying he invented it was a way for government laboratories to communicate.

Long story short, the scientific advances that lead to better healthcare, improved lifestyles, faster communications, and even bigger weapons do not appear out of thin air. Someone didn't wake up one morning and say, “I'm going to invent a Blu-Ray player.” If you ignore the electricity angle I already mentioned, in truth the origins of that device can be traced back to Einstein's earlier research that lead to the invention of the laser.

Getting to the heart of the matter the individual now occupying the White House has proposed deep cuts into the amount of money we spend on basic research. Making matters worse, the United States does not spend as much on basic research as compared to China and many other countries which could be compared to us trying to commit a form of suicide. Since discoveries in science always lead to new questions which spur new insights regaining a lead once it is lost is next to impossible. In the simplest words, money spent of pure research is a long term investment the future. While there is no promise of a big return in the form of an earth shattering discovery, without pure research we just stagnant and live off the efforts of others.

The good news though is that while the Congress of the United States has never been enthusiastic supporters of pure research it has taken a surprisingly bipartisan approach to sticking it to Trump and the cuts purposed in his 2018 budget. Yeah, given the current situation, I'm taking what good news I can while realizing the next four years will ultimately hurt the United States in ways our kids will have to work incredibly hard to overcome, if it is even possible.

From iflscience.com:


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Truth in this Day and Age




Several years ago an otherwise reasonable person I know came running up to me clutching papers that he said, “proved President Obama was Muslim.” I have long since learned that there are people who cannot speak rationally on certain subjects, with this individual being a prime example. So, I did my usual shtick by making some disinterested and noncommittal remark while trying my best to walk away. This person wouldn't have it, not only was he going to prove Obama was a Muslim but that his health care plan was going to enslave us all under some type of Islamic tyranny.

Had conditions been perfect, quite frankly I would have told this person where he could shove the papers he held in his hand that I assumed contained this earth shattering information. But unfortunately, given the circumstances I couldn't, while idiocy has almost a free reign this days rational thought doesn't, much to the detriment to us all. So this guy handed me this printout from a website, which will go unnamed, and I read the article that claimed that some diligent guardian of Christian American liberty had read the entire Obamacare bill and found that an Arabic word for “slave” or “infidel” or a combination of both had been inserted into the complex legislation.

On the face of it, the claim that an Arabic word for some type of slave being in a bill whose sole purpose was to provide healthcare to millions who otherwise couldn't afford it was lunacy. That its insertion meant a vast conspiracy was being perpetrated on an unsuspecting public which would result in some sort of horrendous overthrow of the American Republic was so bizarre that it was beyond sad and starting delving into the realm of the darkly humorous. Sort of like the idea of having a delusional and narcissistic real estate developer/reality television star successfully run for the presidency of the United States.

Long story short, the article about the Arabic word was fake news. I'll give the obviously radical partisan who created this fiction credit, if I remember correctly he listed a page number, paragraph, and section where this word was suppose to reside with such other insidious things like Sarah Palin's government death panels and the eventual socialistic takeover of the entire American medical infrastructure.

What really troubled me most of all was the near rapturous look on the individual's face who was presenting me with this blatant propaganda. Given that I had already known this person for a couple of years, I easily understood his worldview was so askew that God himself could come down to Earth and personally tell him the article was bullshit and I know he would have rejected that holy information. Since that time things have only degraded further, a terrifying thought given that the foundations of democracy rest on certain items that are beyond debate. Words like “Truthiness” and “alternate facts” are now a mainstay of discourse in the United States, abstract terms that either describe the muddied state of affairs in both the media and politics or outright lies told to hide the truth.

For reasons I can't quite understand the American Press has taken the brunt of the blame for the Truth becoming so difficult to discern from the massive amounts of crap daily uploaded on the internet and broadcast on television. Absolutely, they bare a share of the blame for this situation, mainly because understanding and debate has taken a backseat to ratings and commercial profitability. The Corporate suits sitting up in their plush offices have long since figured out that they make more money by broadcasting and publishing stories involving celebrities than producing hard hitting documentaries that expose uncomfortable aspects of our society.

All that being said though, from my observations the biggest problem with political propaganda and conspiracies flooding the country comes from a public that simply doesn't want to hear anything that violates the way they look on the world. Adding to this problem is that the average American attention span is woefully short, and since most of the problems we face are exponentially nuanced to the point many experts find the situation difficult and you have a recipe for disaster on many fronts. The general idea being that as long as the blue collar, Joe Sixpack and the middle class, Sally Suburbanite are fat and happy, they really don't care much about what happens to other less fortunate folks. They have their own struggles and as long as they have ESPN and Real Housewives to watch the rest of the planet can go to hell. Sorry starving kids in Africa or war torn places like Syria, you might get a token donation to a charity but as for really solving the problem most Americans don't give a rip about our own people in Flint, Michigan who had massive amounts of lead contaminate their drinking water.

The final assault on Truth and rational discourse comes from those who purposely use disinformation to advance their own agenda. This ranges from governments to politicians, to individuals who just want a few sick kicks despite the fact it harms the institutions they supposedly love. This also goes for people who lean towards news outlets that broadcast stories that fit their already preconceived notions. No, I'm not talking about right-wing nuts on this one, I stopped listening to a very progressive podcast because one of the hosts, a male blowhard that would shame the average Fox News announcer because he loves the sound of his own voice that much draws his information from RT, a Russian government-owned propaganda site. Yes dear folks, there is nearly as much liberal-based fake news as there is radical right-wing nut stuff. The right-wingers just have a more active base since most liberals will not even find time to vote much less take time away from their personal pursuits like finding the best latte and standing in line to buy the newest iPhone.

A free and open society is a tough thing to maintain. It takes active participation by everyone from across the entire political spectrum. More importantly, all these people need to be open and honest with themselves about the drawbacks of their personal political beliefs. Yes, I am a liberal but that means my own views are not the alpha and omega on how the world should run. Government is not the answer to all problems, that being said while capitalism is better economic system it readily eats the poor and inconvenient. This covers everything from how a capitalistic-dominated view of government is unable to maintain basic infrastructure like roads since that requires taxes, which might have to be raised occasionally. To the blatant and shortsighted ignoring of science which clearly spells out humans are causing climate change because of our burning of fossil fuels.

This requires that we get our information from an unfettered Free Press that will do their best to provide the uncolored facts. No reporters are not perfect, they make terrible mistakes at times but reality is like that. Little note to those who scoff, everyone makes mistakes, and the press has a much higher rate of catching these mistakes as compared to business type and certainly government officials. Last night the White House Corespondents dinner was held, absent Trump who has the ability to dish out unfounded and bizarre criticism to others but reacts like a petulant little bitch when it is given to him. The following video is of Hasan Minhaj, a correspondent for the Daily Show. His speech is both funny and strikingly pertinent given the current situation we find ourselves. 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Strange Tales from the Dark Side of Suburbia



Growing up in the Lowcountry of South Carolina you had to expect loud and violent thunderstorms during the spring and summer months. For me it was easy to image that the normal combination of high temperatures and soul crushing humidity that stirred up the atmosphere to produced these storms was akin to some ill-humored witch or warlock. The angry dark clouds that made up these storms could drift in like an enemy armada anywhere from the afternoon hours to late at night producing high winds, torrential rain, some hail, but it was the displays of lightning that most people would remember.

In fact, back before such things as cable/satellite television, smart phones, and the internet claimed the majority of our attention span, the lightning from these storms could have been called a form of entertainment. One afternoon in the late 1980's while home on leave from the army, I attended a soccer game and saw the people sitting in the stands paying more attention to the several small clouds shooting off occasional bolts of lighting. Given that their collective reaction was the same as if they were watching a Fourth of July fireworks show, for a couple of minutes I worried about the kids still running around on the field kicking the ball. At least the referees understood what the lightning meant and pulled all of them off the field.

Despite the damage these storms could do they could provide a much needed respite from the very conditions that produced them. Adding to that effect, the sounds of the rain and thunder were quite relaxing and could cause the most tense and anxiety-ridden person to fall asleep.That being said, there was one incident from my childhood that still causes me wonder about the nature of dreams and the behavior or people who otherwise seem normal.

I was about twelve years old when I went to live with my grandparents. The reasons are complicated and beyond the scope of such an informal and the admittedly clumsy story I am writing here. All I will say it involves my parents' divorce that so bad it made Chernobyl look like someone had spilled a mildly dirty mop bucket on a clean floor.

It was in the middle of summer when the event happened. The days were brutally hot and humid leaving the streets of my neighborhood almost empty of the flocks of children who could be seen riding their bikes when the weather wasn't so abusive. Since my grandparents' house was built in the years just after World War Two instead of the air conditioning system which is ubiquitous in homes now, it had an attic fan. This huge fan, which was mounted in the hallway ceiling, sucked in outside air and pushed it up into the attic and back outside. While it didn't actually cool the air, it did provide a constant flow which made the inside of the house comfortable. As you can probably surmise, the attic fan only worked if you had almost all the windows open to allow the air to be drawn inside. Throw in the afternoon/evening thunderstorms and there were times during the summer my grandparents' house almost felt chilly.

The night of the incident we went to bed normally, with all the windows open and me in my PJ's but without any cover. I'm not sure when the thunderstorm begun but it was so late that sometime earlier I had pulled a thin blanket over me to ward off what now felt like chilly air. At first it was the usual booms of thunder and flashes of lightning with the sound of the heavy rain easing me back to sleep.

It could have been a couple of hours later or just a few minutes but what brought me back to consciousness was a noise that sounding like someone was banging on the front door. It was an urgent, almost panicked knocking of someone in danger. Now the first thought that might have occurred to you was that I still half asleep and the knocking I was hearing was just thunder. The trouble with that idea is that I distinctly remember the sound of thunder booming at the same time, so much that it overwhelmed the knocking at the door.

Being twelve, and having survived some uncomfortable events concerning the breakup of my parents I had no intention of rushing to the front door to find out who was there. I did get out of bed and slowly make my way down the hallway towards the living room. Standing on the border between the hallway and the living room I peered around the corner at the front door listening to the banging.

The door didn't shake from the impacts nor did I hear any voice on the other side pleading for help. But the knocking continued to the point I began wondering why my grandparents hadn't also been awaken. Had I been braver, I might have thought about raising the blind to the window positioned just to the left of the front door to see who was there. Instead I rushed back down the hallway to my grandparents' room to inform them of the situation.

“Granddad,” I said shaking his arm, “someone's knocking at the front door.”

My Grandfather, who hadn't yet retired had just spent a week working the 3:00pm to 11:00pm shift at the local papermill and wasn't in the mood to be disturbed.

“It's just the storm,” he said with a tone of voice that was a combination of concern and weariness all parents have to suffer through. “You're dreaming, just go back to bed and it will be all over in the morning.”

Despite his assurances, I wasn't convinced that the panicked knocking I was hearing with just the sound of thunder invading my dreams. Still though, I wasn't about to head back down to the living room and throw open the door just to prove a point. Then there was the fact that even though I was just twelve it did occur to me that if someone was at the door needing help, there were houses on either side of the one my grandparents lived. Common sense suggested that if the got no answer at one door they would rush over to the next house. Another dash of logic suggested that someone truly in danger might try knocking on the windows to get attention. And if they did, these hypothetical people in need would see that they were open and then scream for help. Since nothing of the sort happened I went back to bed and before long was back asleep in spite of what I now presumed was just my runaway imagination.

Like all thunderstorms, that one faded away leaving just wet grass and a faint breeze. The next morning I remember waking up to the sun streaming into my eastward facing bedroom window. My dream of the panicked knocking at the door was still fresh on my mind but by that time my concerns had evaporated away. My grandparents were still asleep so I quietly got out of bed and made my way to the kitchen to make a bowl of cereal. It an hour or so late when my Granddad woke up with him asking me to walk outside to the mail box to get the newspaper.

Stepping out onto the front porch all my assumptions and logic was quickly swept away when I saw a single female shoe on one of the steps. Don't ask me what type of shoe it was, all I could say even now was that it was most definitely female. What I can tell you is that given my grandmother's age, the shoe I found that morning was made for a much younger adult woman. I briefly looked around for its partner but didn't see it nor any other item that might suggest someone had in fact knocked on the front door during that storm.

As the years have passed, the shock and confusion I felt upon that unexpected discovery has long since faded. What remains is more a wore out memory of a memory much like an office form that has been photocopied to the point the wording has blurred past the point of usability. Still though, I do remember standing and on the front porch looking down at the mysterious shoe filled with the dread and certainty only children can know that something weird in fact had occurred the previous night.

I decided against telling my grandfather about the shoe on the front porch. He would probably just dismiss it as something one of the neighbors' dogs just left behind during its wanderings. While the people who inhabit subdivisions these days come close to declaring martial law if the dogs of one of the residents gets loose, back then there were several canines that had the run of my grandparents' neighborhood. One of these dogs, a huge, friendly black lab, fittingly named Bear, made a point of greeting every person he came across during his daily journeys.

You might be wondering if there were any strange reports from the other neighbors? No, the people that lived on that street were quite close and communicated on a regular basis. If someone had been running through the neighborhood during a severe thunderstorm knocking on doors looking for help it's a certainty that it would have been mentioned in conversation. The one small detail I am left with is where did that damn shoe come from? While dogs did wander the neighborhood looking for both attention and the occasional snack, they never before that night or after leave items on anyone's front porch.

Besides dwelling on idiotic childhood memories what keep bring me back to this event was that years later a few other bizarre events did take place that sort of make mine seem possible. The first being the time two teenagers decided to play chicken with their cars down the street in front of my grandparents' house. I was away that night but when I returned home the wreckage was cleaned up and no one wanted to talk about the event, not even my grandfather after he told me the story. The second time was a several years later when word got out that one of the teenage girls living several houses down surprised everyone, including her parents, by “suddenly” giving birth to a baby inside her closet. After returning home from the army in 1990 I remember seeing this same girl obviously living with her parents but no small child. While I had once known that family, they weren't the friendliest bunch by that time so I ultimately had to assume the child was given up for adoption.

The final strange event though is the one that takes the proverbial cake. Technically these weren't neighbors since they lived a couple of streets down from my grandparents but word got around that two couples who were best friends had a falling out while having dinner at one of their homes. Turns out one of the couples was either into swinging or wanted to try it and felt the other couple were the perfect partners. Well, after revealing this information the husband of the more straitlaced couple he threw the other out of the living room window. That time people talked so much about the event that both couples found reason to quickly move out of the neighborhood.

Being older and wiser, I'm certain that the knocking at the front door was just a dream, but honestly given the things that happened later there are times I wonder.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Random Existential Weekend Thoughts




First, the more pleasant and intriguing question:

There are two great existential questions facing the human race. Given how humans, even in wealthy countries, are faced with challenges and demands that require our attention daily these questions are rather abstract in nature. Still though, it would be wise to not totally ignore them since the answers ultimately connect to the fate of our children and to our hopes and fears.

The first question is simply whether or not there is any other intelligent life in the universe. On the surface this question looks pretty uncomplicated, either we Homo sapiens shares existence with other species inhabiting other worlds or somehow we are utterly alone in a universe that spans billions of lightyears. Like I said, while there are only two possibilities, the implications for either answer are staggering. To learn that an alien species on some faraway world has evolved enough to become self aware and build a civilization that at least equals our own would truly be the final blow to Humanity's longtime deluded view that we are somehow special.

On the other hand, to learn that the human race is alone in the universe raises difficult questions that might actually be more troublesome than having some intrepid aliens explorers enter Earth orbit and say “hello” by radio. We're not just talking about the idea that God created the universe for us hairless primates but the possibility that our very existence is nothing but an elaborate computer simulation that our erstwhile creator/programmer developed for either fun or an experiment. Think I'm joking? There are serious scientists and esteemed philosophers that have crunched the numbers and feel the probability is quite high.

The basic laws of physics makes it unlikely we will learn whether or not we share universe with another intelligent species in our lifetime. The distances between stars so stretches out and weakens radio signals even if we were relatively close to another species that shares our desire for communication the resources needed and the engineering skills required might be more than they can readily spend. While there are several private groups and government agencies across the planet searching for alien radio signals, it wouldn't be wrong to suggest our efforts are at best piecemeal.

Then again, since any alien species near enough to communicate would almost certainly be far more advanced that us, there is a real question as to whether we would be any interest to them. Chimpanzees are remarkable creatures but you would not try to talk to them about genetics, quantum mechanics, nanotechnology, or even something as mundane as literature. I'm in no way saying searching for radio signals from an extraterrestrial civilization is a mistake or a waste of time and money. Discounting the private groups who fund their own projects, the money spent by governments wouldn't pay for a day's worth of electricity to run the air conditioners for the Pentagon.

Any anger generated by the idea that the United States government has spent money searching for Little Green Men should instead be redirected at far larger targets that cost billions and caused the death of thousands. While my opinion of George W. Bush has turned around considerably since the election of Trump, my favorite boondoggle is still the trillion or so he spent to find Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

Searching for others in the cosmos speaks to the best side of human nature. Something inside our genes wants to understand how the universe works and seeking out others is just one facet of that desire. While the chances of finding others during our lifetime are small, the rewards would be incalculable for our species.

Now on a darker note:

Getting back on point, the second existential question has more to do with the dark side of human nature. The second question we must face is what in our nature makes us come to crave war, even when a possible threat is manageable. While many of our species has created great works of art and literature and strove to remove the shackles of superstition and ignorance by pushing the boundaries of science and reason, the vast majority seemed locked into never ending cycles of violence and incessant warfare. This is in no way a question of the right of a people to defend themselves from aggressors. As I have stated before, while I am a tree hugging, bleeding heart liberal of the highest order who believes in social justice and that living in peace with others is the only way to ensure the safety and future of our children; I pretty much detest my political comrades who are pacifists.

While the idea that terrorists “hate us for our freedoms” is a vile piece of narrow, self-aggrandizing propaganda, there are individuals and groups who quite literally want to see the world burn. These people need to die in the same way a rabid animal needs to be put down before it causes harm to others. Of course, the devil in the details comes when you have to determine just who is a short, plumped up blowhard wanting to shore his prestige in the tiny totalitarian hermit kingdom he controls and who might be an imminent threat. Another important item to consider before launching a “preventive war” is whether or not the death of possibly millions is worth the cost to remove a manageable threat.

As you might be able to guess, I am not so delicately alluding to Trump's provocations towards North Korea. Yes, the bizarre little troglodyte running that country is a danger, his development of nuclear weapons and missiles is deeply troubling and should be monitored with exacting precision. Our response to any aggression he and his generals might attempt should be so overwhelming that the abused and tormented souls under his control would rise up. This begs the question as to whether it would just be best to go in and put the North Korean regime down like the rabid dog I mentioned earlier.

The problem with that idea is namely the fifty million South Koreans and the nearly one hundred-thirty million Japanese that live dangerous close to the little delusional twit, Kim Jong-Um. They would bear the brunt of any preventive war whose declared purpose would be just another in a long line of tired slogans. Ignoring North Korea's supply of nuclear weapons, that country has plenty of chemical and biological weapons that would cut through its densely packed neighbors like a hot knife in butter. Frankly, my conscious shutters at the idea of another war where millions of people could die horrible deaths because some American non-serving talking head or chickenhawk politician says we should fight them over there before they can reach us. That philosophy worked so well for the Iraqis.

My intention here is not to get bogged down with my admitted disgust with Trump. But his blatant ignorance on matters of national security and foreign affairs should have eliminated him from political contention before the primaries even started. His recent ham-fisted cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield only to have it return to full operation the next day is just as big a joke as him claiming going bankrupt multiple times shows his business brilliance. Having a fully armed aircraft carrier battle group steaming towards North Korea while spouting verbal offal about solving that problem on our own if need be just so Trump can feel powerful is asking for the deaths of a lot of innocent civilians.

The curious thing is that Trump's saber rattling and talk of taking manly action for glory is not an isolated occurrence. Human history is replete with warmongering idiots coming to power and then leading their nations to disaster. The question of whats worse between a people who fall for such speeches about the glory of war or the those leaders who give them is debatable. It's almost as if populations occasionally go insane and forget that war means brutal death for some and lifelong mental and physical injuries for many others.

I can't help but ponder the dichotomy between the United States after World War Two and the one that exists now. After both Germany and Japan was defeated rational leaders in the Allied nations realized that the Soviet Union had replaced the Axis Powers as a threat, this lead to the establishment of collective security arrangements whose best example is the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance (NATO) charged with protecting the democracies of Europe. No, it wasn't a perfect solution but it is the big part of the reason we didn't have another world war. Every elected leader from both North America and Europe knew this and worked hard to prevent both idealistic leftist fools and right-wing nationalists from cutting their own throats in a bid to promote an workable warm and fuzzy Utopian peace or protecting a deluded view of sovereignty.

Without question many in the United States now have the idea that because we carry the biggest and baddest sticks that we should use them on a regular basis without regard to morals or existing international agreements. The funny thing is that exact mindset was the same one Germany held during World War One when it went into Belgium killing civilians which helped push the United States towards the Allied cause. In many quarters, especially Trump's branch of the Republican party, collective security is viewed suspiciously even though it has kept the peace. What bothers me the most is that the vast majority of these misguided people will be the ones sending their sons and daughters to die to reestablish a workable global security arrangement if the power vacuum we created causes another war among major powers. At least Trump recently changed his mind and said NATO wasn't obsolete, although I believe he made that statement for more cynical reasons instead of coming to some sort of realization about the true nature of the world.

Without question, war in most cases is a racket perpetrated by the rich and powerful on the poor fools who do most of the dying. Let me restate, that the right to self defense is fundamental but going to war should always be the absolute last choice since innocent people always pay the price for our failure to find a peaceful way to solve the issues we face. It doesn't say much for our species that despite several thousand years of organized warfare knowing it causes more issues than it solves that so many can at times still crave, if not demand, we line up and kill each other over the stupidest of causes.

As far as existential questions go, I'd much rather contemplate what kind of galactic neighbors might be near us. But unfortunately, the nightly news has far more stories on the whack jobs that hold the reins of power and influence on this troubled planet. So much that I often find myself wishing a starship of intrepid alien explorers would stumble upon our world and demand we get our act together or face the consequences of being stupid idiots. I can only hope that we would listen to them.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Wandering Toes: An all too Brief Escape



Broke away from the house yesterday and made an all too brief escape to my nearest happy place. The Mount Pleasant Waterfront Park and Pier truly meets all my criteria as a location to recharge my mental batteries. While family and homeowner obligations are the main reason I can't escape the suburban hellhole where I live on a more routine basis, quite frankly the drive down from Columbia on I-26 is often a pain in the ass. When I-26 was built I believe the traffic volume was smaller than what is normal today and because of the increased load both the east and west segments can become easily clogged by the slightest accident or a few bad drivers. Several times over the years trips down to the Charleston area, or going back home, were ruined by Interstate traffic jam delays than stretched the normal ninety minute to two hour trip to a three or four hour feat of endurance.    

As I sat on one of the park's benches sipping my coffee and pondering the fate of the universe this curious looking ship cruised by heading for the nearby docks. While the decks are clearly loaded down, I had to assume the containers on the front end were empty since the bow was riding so high in the water. What puzzled me was that the stern was riding so low giving me the impression that the white containers might be full. I know next to nothing about freighters but to me it made the ship look unstable.     

One of the more sad accomplishments of Facebook was that it has publicized the existence of people who believe in the "chem-trail conspiracy" involving the spraying of nefarious chemicals on an unsuspecting public for experimentation or even mind control. Ignoring the utter paranoid insanity of the basic premise for a moment, the logistics of producing these chemicals, then the transport, and deployment aboard thousands of aircraft made to look like passenger planes makes the UFO, MIB, Illuminati, and Bigfoot people seem within the realm of reason. Whatever the case, if there were any Chem-trail people in Charleston yesterday morning they would have been running for cover because the beautiful blue sky was being constantly cross-crossed by jets producing these neat trails caused by the heat of their engines making the atmospheric water vapor condense.       

Wanted to hit a pub on nearby Sullivan's Island but the tourist hordes had already overrun the place to the point it wasn't worth the effort. Instead I cruised down to Fort Moultrie where a bunch of A-hole Citadel cadets started the Civil War back in 1861. I've never bought the propaganda that the Civil War was about "states rights", tariffs, or opposing the tyranny of the Federal government. Boil away all the crap and it was about rich white people whose fortunes were built and maintained by the fact they kept other human being in bondage.     

Correct me if I'm wrong but the lighthouse in the distance is the Morris Island lighthouse situated on the south end of entrance to Charleston Harbor. Despite my distaste of many thing associated with South Carolina, namely its ignorance and stunted politics, there are a number of interesting places I would love to visit, that lighthouse being one.  Since the local pubs and bars were all too busy I made a quick stop by a fast food joint for lunch and hit the road for home.Thankfully, except for one minor accident that slowed me down three or four minutes my drive back to Columbia was just as quick as the one going down. It was made even better by the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcasts I downloaded onto my MP3 player. It's a science show that make its easy to keep up with all the advances we are seeing on a daily basis. It's early Sunday morning now and as I tried to type in my usual substandard drivel, I've had to make stops to clean up cat puke, give a diabetic dog his shot after handing feeding him, and prep the recently installed carpet for cleaning after discovering a huge pee spot that had literally soaked a five-inch in diameter section. There is no way in hell my wife would let me make another run down to Charleston next weekend so I'll have to settle for watching my Blu-Ray copy of Rogue One when it arrives.