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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Two poems from 1990, Newark, Delaware

I attended the Writers' Showcase at the Old Brick Theatre in Scranton last night. While I enjoyed all of the featured poets - especially Maggie Glbertson, whose poetry was as always incredibly brave and powerful - I was inspired by the autobiographical narrative poetry of Ali Pica to tell some stories from my own past using the medium of poetry. I thought of two stories I wanted to tell - one, an incident in my apartment in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990, and another, a description of working in a TV faceplate factory in the summers of my college years.

I sat down today to write these out, but a third poem came out, based on something I thought about one day while working at AstroPower, a solar cell manufacturer (which today would be termed a "startup" company) that I signed on with after my single, disastrous semester of grad work at the University of Delaware.

I finally did write out one of the other poems. So here they are! First, or at least early, drafts of them.

(By the way: I will be one of the featured readers at the February 27, 2016 edition of the Writers' Showcase! Be there if you can!)


Coffee for roses

the dead go into the pile
leaves and blades of grass
eggshells and vegetable scraps
rotten fruit from the crisper

lobster tails from a New Year's feast
coffee grounds from breakfasts shared
the dried-out husks of a bouquet of flowers
from back when the world was a little bit brighter
back when the smiles came a little bit easier

all go in the pile

bacteria have their way
heat builds, killing seeds
air and water feed the decay
memories consumed by slow fire

and when it is done
when the past has been reduced to small black crumbs
I will take it from the pile
work it into the soil
and plant next year's garden

The ants of Newark, Delaware

When I was renting a room in a townhouse
in Newark, Delaware in the summer of 1990
our kitchen was invaded by ants
a small army of then, little brown things
marching in a line from the back yard
across the concrete patio
through the track of our sliding glass door
across the 70's-era linoleum
up the wooden counter
across the formica counter top
and up the wall into our cabinets

I found them fascinating, and wanted to study them
one housemate wanted to eradicate them
another wanted to deter them gently,
break their trail with peppermint oil
(she was a bit of a hippie, but had a cute girlfriend)

We tried her idea. It didn't work.
Neither did vinegar, or bleach, or baking soda.
The ants kept marching, undeterred by our efforts to protect our food
I stopped being fascinated when I found that they
had worked their way into the threads of a jar of peanut butter
and into the peanut butter itself

I rode off to the supermarket and bought three different types of ant traps
three different brands, in case the ants found one or another unappealing
I placed them every few feet along their track
not just in the house, but outside as well, along the concrete patio,
along the trail that led to the lawn

They didn't work, at first. The ants walked around them, or over them,
unwilling to take the bait
and carry it off to the nest
to poison their queen
and all the other ants

And then, after three days, no more ants.
The ants were gone. Stopped. Dead? I wasn't sure.
But they weren't in our kitchen anymore,
weren't raiding our pantry anymore
weren't getting into my peanut butter anymore

I left the traps out for a few more days
then brought in the ones from outside, before they got rained on
I picked up one and wondered if it had worked
or if the ants had suddenly lost interest and moved on

when I saw that the holes were plugged
with little slivers of plants, no bigger than sawdust
bits of grass or bark or stems
cut and carried from somewhere
carried to the ant trap, the little puck with holes in the sides
filled with poison bait for the ants to carry back to the colony
did they know that this was why they were dying?
did they realize that this was the source of their doom?
did they seal it off in an attempt to save themselves?

Did it work?
Did the poison kill the queen and the entire colony?
Did they seal up the trap and move on?

I never found out. I threw out the trap, washed my hands,
and checked the peanut butter for ants.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Facebook and the November 13, 2015 Paris attack aftermath

I didn't change my Facebook profile picture to the rainbow image back when the Supreme Court made its historic decision to end anti-homosexual discrimination in marriage. I thought it was too trendy, too bandwagon-y. What would I be saying? "Look at me, I am on the side of right, if you disagree you are wrong"? Yeah, pretty much. Even so, I chose not to change it.

After the November 13, 2015 terrorist attack in France, things were different. An indisputably evil act had been done, an assault on random civilians enjoying the benefits of a free society. One of many, to be sure, and not the only one that week. But Facebook again gave the ability to do a profile image overlay, and this time I chose to participate.

ISIS / ISIL / DAESH / fuck those guys, whatever is a barbarous and evil organization that practices a twisted fundamentalist version of Islam. But at the same time they are sophisticated and media-savvy, with slickly-produced recruitment videos, a nicely-put-together magazine featuring a column written by a captive British journalist, and a strong social media presence.

There's not a hell of a lot you or I can do to stop them, short of not joining them and convincing others to not join them. (Carpet-bombing them into the Stone Age might be as effective as it was in North Vietnam, and sending in troops is exactly what they want.) But Facebook's profile image overlay of the French flag gave users a chance to send a message. Not just a message of support for the people of France, but a message to the terrorists. A wall of people from all around the world standing shoulder to shoulder, middle fingers raised, saying "FUCK YOU" with one voice.

It didn't last.

Almost immediately there came the point-and-laugh brigade. "Haha, what do you stupid assholes think you're doing? Y'all ain't doin' shit!" At the same time, Facebook had made this into a temporary option: at the time you modified your profile picture, you could also specify a date when the image would revert. (There were rumors that the rainbow flag image was a social media experiment to see how long users would keep it up, and - probably - under what circumstances they would take it down.)

And then some of the images began being replaced with a new image, mocking the original idea, suggesting that anyone who thought they were helping or changing anything by changing their profile picture was an idiot.

And now, a week after the attacks, most of the images are gone. Taken down, or timed out. Politicians are taking strong and resolute stands about cowering in fear from not just the terrorists, but from anyone who is trying to flee the terrorists, on the assumption that these people might also possibly maybe perhaps have amongst their number a terrorist posing as a refugee. The leading candidate to be the Republican 2016 Presidential nominee is agreeing that registration and monitoring of Muslims is a good idea, while Rhode Island state Senator suggests that the U.S. needs to segregate - or, should we say, concentrate - Syrian refugees into camps.

I don't know where this is going. Maybe in a little while it will be as forgotten as the events of last year. I just wanted to put this out there as a reminder of the events of November 13, 2015, and the way some people chose to respond.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Chaz Bennet: Encounter with a Cow

This is not my story. This is a Chaz story. I first heard this from Chaz Bennett at our writing group, the Northeastern Pennsylvania Writers' Collective, the group he founded, in early 2014. By then he had almost completely lost his voice, and was using a voice synthesizer on his tablet to read the story to us. The voice he had chosen was male with a very proper British accent, which made an already funny story that much funnier.

I saw this absurdist tale as a meditation on the Undiscovered Country: not necessarily death, but the unknown that lies beyond this moment. I wanted to read it as the final story at the final open mic at the Vintage Theater back in August of 2014, but I didn't get it from Chaz in time. But he did send it to me, and I think he knew that I would hold onto it until a specific future event happened.

That event has happened. Chaz Patrick Bennett (nee Charles) died on Tuesday, October 27. His obituary was published October 29, and I found out about the funeral this morning, three hours before it took place. I made it there. His wife recognized me and remembered my name. For some reason, that more than anything else made me burst into tears.

Chaz wrote many, many stories over the years. I hope someday they are all seen by the world. Here is one of them.

Note: This story is edited from the version Chaz sent me, to clean up some typos and format the punctuation. It also cuts off a few lines at the end that were not included in the version he read to us. This is not necessarily the definitive version of this story. 

I am walking on a country road.   It' s a sunny day in May and I  feel like obliged to reconnect with nature. I've my Brownie Instamatic hoping to get a picture of robin red breast, the only bird I can recognize. I think I should do this more often. I pause and practice deep breathing.  My friend on nature walks, he stands his head and mediates.  I consider this and rule it out.  For one thing, I don’t know how. For another thing, he’s crazy as a loon.

I hear Louie Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful...’

Satchmo stops singing, I stop dead and stare.

“You looking at me?  Never saw a talking, purple fucking cow before?'

 I shook my head.

“I cannot hear you.”

“I didn't say anything.”

“Get over here.  You’d think we’re a couple of farmers shouting at each other.”

I'm thinking not every day you get an invite from a purple cow.

I take the bait. I walk to the purple cow making sure the fence is between us. 

“Took you long enough.”

“Can I take your picture?'

“Nooooo. Did that sound like a moo?'

“Yes it did.'

“It did?  I’ve got to work on it.”

“You’re a cow, for christsake.”

“Hey, watch it buddy. I’m born again. As a matter of fact, you can not take my picture, you can not say 'that got past your eyes,’ and if ever call me Betsy, I will bury you under of avalanche of cowshit.”

I sensed that I pissed off the purple cow. Since I have an aversion to manure, I’d continue my nature walk.

“Hey. Where you going”

“No where, man - I mean, cow."

“Don’t lie to me.” 

“I won’t.”

“I like you, pal.  Want to see something?  Come over the fence.”

I do. Why, I don’t know.

“Twist my tail."

I do.

A set of steps pop out of the purple cow.

“Climb  in."

I do.

My feeble attempt at illustrating this story, painted on the wall of The Vintage in Scranton at the very last 24 Hours of Art celebration. The Vintage closed shortly afterwards.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Moon over downtown Nanticoke, October 27, 2015

I stopped at the grocery store after work tonight to pick up some things for my mom. As I turned from Market Street onto Main on my way home, I saw a sight that made me think "I wish I had my camera with me." The just-past-Full Moon was rising through clouds, lighting up the sky gray and silhouetting the century-old architecture  and modern sodium vapor lights that line Main Street. Then I remembered that I did have my Nikon p520 camera with me. I pulled over into a parking spot in front of one of Nanticoke's  ancient banks to see what I could do.

I first tried a shot from inside the car, with the camera propped on the steering wheel. This was less than ideal: The Moon was off-center, the bent street sign for South Prospect Street was in the way, and the windshield wiper scratches created lens flares that would make J.J. Abrams swoon. I decided to step out of the car and try my luck with taking pictures from the middle of Main Street.

You'd be surprised at how much traffic there is on Main Street in Nanticoke at 7:30 on a Tuesday night. I know I was. My location in the middle of the road gave me a better angle on the Moon, but also meant I was in danger of getting run over. Also, the low light levels meant the camera needed more stability than just being held freehand, so everything came out blurred.

Finally I gave up and packed it in. The oncoming traffic was one thing, but the sound of cars approaching from behind was unnerving. Plus, the Moon was moving out of position and into obscuring clouds. Most of my photos came out blurred and useless. I laughed when I reviewed the images and realized that the best one was one that I took from the safety and stability of my parked car.

And the lens flares don't look so bad, either!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Susquehanna (poem)

The theme for this year's Poetry in Transit was "River." For those who don't know, Poetry in Transit is a project led by Mischelle Anthony from Wilkes University to have short poems by local poets displayed in the advertising spaces of Luzerne County Transit Authority buses. The project has been going on for a few years, though I only became aware of it two years ago. I submitted an excerpt of an already-written poem last year, and it was chosen as one of the poems for display.

I didn't have a suitable poem to submit this year, so I realized I would have to create one. I mused on it while mowing the lawn - this is actually an excellent time to compose poetry or plot out stories - and tried to think of the images that came to mind when I thought of the Susquehanna river. ("Susquehanna" wasn't a requirement: the theme could just as easily have been used to compose a poem about River Tam, or River Song, or the River Styx.) The most pressing memory was one that was idiosyncratic and personal, and, I realized, would be understood by no one but me. The others were also personal, but wouldn't need the same level of explanation.

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you

I hate poetry that needs explanation to be understood. I have heard some excellent poems that made no sense without prefatory comments - and would future readers have access to these comments? So how could I explain the "Books pressed against the ceiling" line without doing this very thing?

And then it hit me: I could explain it in a poem - which I presented at the Poetry in Transit rollout event.


Agnes came through when I was four and a half
young, but not too young to remember a time before then
it wandered up from the Gulf on a drunkard's walk
came ashore through New York City
and hit Pennsylvania

the rain came down and the winds blew for days
our basement flooded, but that was about it,
and then the storm moved further north and stalled out
dumping its load of rain into the headwaters of the Susquehanna

My uncle was getting married the day the flood came
the river carried away his wedding cake
A few days later he drove us to the edge of town, where Main Street in Nanticoke becomes the San Souci parkway, drops down to head for Wilkes-Barre
It dropped down into water. There was no more road after that
And the lights of Wilkes-Barre were dark

My father took us into the flood zone a few weeks later, after the river had receded and the cleanup had begun
the streets were brown, like the grass and the trees, yellow-brown and dusty
we found a glass decanter, probably from Avon, in the shape of an old Volkswagen
it had belonged to somebody, and now it was garbage
we kept it, heedless of the toxins that coated it

We went to his aunt's house
she had stayed there, had planned to ride out the storm,
and had to be rescued by boat from her second floor window
Her front room had held a library, hundreds of books, maybe more
the Susquehanna's waters had floated them out of their shelves, floated them to the plaster ceiling
held them there and kept on rising
when the water receded the books were ruined things, dead, destroyed,
but they had left imprints on the ceiling,
colored stains on the white plaster,
faint images of the covers of hundreds of books, jumbled and arrayed where no books should ever be
ghosts of the books they had once been

Books  pressed against the ceiling
a lifetime of memories at the curb
Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" at sunset
unseen fish breaking the surface of morning
girder shadows blue on the ice
thus will I remember you, Susquehanna

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Moonrise over the Susquehanna, September 27, 2015

I spent some time on the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge at and after sunset on Sunday, September 27, 2015. That was the night of the conveniently-timed (for the East Coast of the U.S., at least) total lunar eclipse described here. I wanted to catch the moonrise. I only had a vague sense of where the Moon would rise, within about sixty degrees, but I was hoping I would get some cool moonlight-on-water effects. As you can see in the image above, I did.

I wanted to get the moonrise because the Moon that night was going to be a "Supermoon," significantly larger than the average angular size of the Moon thanks to it being at its closest point in its orbit at the same time as being Full. This is something you can't really notice without some sort of measuring device, like an aspirin or pencil eraser held at arm's length - normally this will cover the face of the Moon entirely, but for a Supermoon it will not.

I had the timings of the Moon's rise memorized, but the appointed time came and went with no sign of it. I didn't realize until the next day that the time displayed on my camera was four minutes faster than the actual time, but even with such an allowance the Moon was distinctly absent. I began to suspect some supervillain had stolen it. Then it appeared, like headlights piercing the fog.

It had been above the horizon but hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. But that didn't matter: it was here now, and all was forgiven!

Until a minute later, when it vanished again behind another layer of clouds.

And so we began a waiting game, waiting for the Moon to clear the clouds and put on a show for me. After a few more minutes of being gawked at by passers-by who wondered why I was on the pedestrian walkway of a bridge taking photos of nothing, the Moon again broke through the cloud layer.

The Moon was safely clear of the thick light-blocking layers, so now it was just a matter of waiting for the sky to darken a bit to allow better images.

I posted my favorite photo of this sequence at the top of this post.

Finally, it was time to call it a night, head home, and get ready for the eclipse in a few hours. I grabbed one last image as I was getting ready to pack away the camera and tuck the tripod under my arm.

And so ended the first part of the evening's lunar photography.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Terror in the Infants Department

I came across this while taking a shortcut through the Infants department in Walmart a few weeks ago. It's called the "Womb Sounds Bear." While it's a whole bear, at least according to the terrifying illustration of the bear hovering over a sleeping infant, the packaging makes it look like half a bear lunging out of its box at you, like Johnny Eck in the climax of Tod Browning's "Freaks."

But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that I heard it first - a muffled, echoing heartbeat, like the sound of a beating heart heard through amniotic fluid, or buried under floorboards. The Womb Sounds Bear lives up to its name, I suppose - my memory isn't that good.  And while it may bring comfort to newborns, it will bring everlasting terror to unsuspecting adults who come across it it while taking a shortcut through the Infants department.


Monday, September 28, 2015

Total lunar eclipse, September 27, 2015

September 27, 2015 was the night of the last of a series of four consecutive total lunar eclipses - and the last total lunar eclipse for several years.  While I was able to get some images of the last total lunar eclipse visible from Nanticoke, at that time I was still figuring out some of the most useful features of my camera. I was also operating under a time constraint (had to wake up very early, would have to pack things up early to get to work) and in a limited space (the Nanticoke-West Nanticoke bridge) in chilly conditions as the sun was rising.

None of that applied here. Sunday was the last day of my work week, so I technically was free the next day. (Except for Jury Duty, for which I would have to be out of the house earlier than usual.) The eclipse would take place in the evening over Nanticoke, late enough to be dark but not too late. And it would be visible from my back yard - in theory, anyway. The WNEP meteorologists were giving us a 40% chance of clear skies. I decided I would be happy with broken cloud cover.

I got to see everything.

All pictures taken with a Nikon Coolpix p520 mounted on a tripod. Camera set to automatic mode with focus at infinity. Magnification is maximum 42x for all but the last image. All photos were done using a 2 or 10 second self-timer delay to minimize shutter bounce. All pictures are raw and unprocessed except for size.

9:03 PM. While the umbral phase of the eclipse was supposed to start at 9:07 PM , there seems to be a good deal of umbral shadow already on the left side of the Moon. 
So, funny story: I base all my timings on what the clock on my camera says. I mean, if a $7.88 watch from Walmart set to atomic clock time can be trusted to keep one-second accuracy for weeks or months, then surely the built-in clock on a relatively expensive Turns out my camera clock was running four minutes fast. Which would explain why some of the images I got weren't exactly what I expected: I was four minutes too early.

9:06 PM. Umbral darkening obvious. Remember, this shadow is being cast obliquely along the edge of the Moon. 
The picture above should have been just before the umbra (the dark center portion of the shadow of the Earth) began to cover the left side of the Moon. Instead, it seems like the umbra reached out a bit further than expected. Extra-cloudy conditions in the upper atmosphere, perhaps?

9:20 PM. The curvature of the Earth's umbra is obvious now.
9:39 PM. Umbral shadow nearly halfway across the Moon.
9:54 PM. Umbral shadow most of the way across the Moon.
10:17. A few minutes before totality. Note the stars around the Moon. 
So I was wondering why, at totality (10:20 PM), a very bright edge of the Moon still seemed obvious. Turns out it was because totality was still three minutes in the future!

10:36 PM. Nine minutes into totality.
OK, now that's a totally eclipsed Moon!

10:50 PM. Three minutes past "maximum eclipse," the midpoint of totality, but exactly the published time of the Full Moon!
The midpoint of totality was scheduled for 10:47 PM, while the moment of "Full Moon" was calculated as 10:50 PM.

10:51 PM. Zoomed out to show the stars around the Moon. At totality the Moon hangs in the sky like a fading ember against a starry background.


As 11:00 PM rolled around I decided to call it a night. My alarm would be going off in a few hours and I would be off to my first day of Jury Duty. I posted some raw images to Facebook directly from my memory chip, looked at what other folks were posting, cleaned up the mess I had made with food and drinks while I kept yo-yo-ing between taking photos and posting photos. I shut everything down, put away my tripod and camera, and closed up my Chromebook.

I stepped outside to get one last look. Eyes-only, no camera.

A bright line was showing along the lower left of the Moon. The umbra was sliding away. No, that's not right. The Moon was continuing its journey in orbit around the Earth, and was sliding past the umbra.

Whatever frame of reference you use, the last total lunar eclipse of this series was over. Time for bed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Lessons learned from the NEPA BlogCon 2015

It's been a week and a half since the 2015 NEPA BlogCon, and I'm still soaking it all in. The fourth edition of this conference was the biggest and, in my opinion, the best yet.

Ashley Ambirge delivers the keynote address at the 2015 NEPA BlogCon

The last two presentations, from Catherine Shefsky ( and Ashley Ambirge (, were the most memorable for me, and the ones from which I took a lot of takeaways. I'd love to compare notes with other attendees and see what they found most memorable and useful.

(Mark your calendars - the 2016 NEPA BlogCon is penciled in for October 15, 2016!)

My takeaways:

  • People won't take your blog seriously if you do not take it seriously.
This was one of Ashley's points. I had a dark night of the soul a few years ago with NEPA Blogs, thinking it was pointless and useless and no one was reading it or benefiting from it. Then I discovered that someone had actually been "scraping" the blog, copying the text of each post and reposting it to their own blog. Attribution was still given to me - but links were set up to make it look like I was writing for their blog. I got that situation taken care of - but then realized that if what I was doing was worth stealing, then it was worth doing.

I've had a few more crises since then, when my blog has felt like the lowest priority in my life. But it has value. It's therapeutic. And if I want people to take it seriously, I should, too, and make a point to post more frequently.
  • Your blog is a place where you give yourself permission to be you.
This, for me, is a given. This is my place. No editor, no proofreader, no staff, no management. Whatever needs to be done, I have to do it, and I'm going to do it my way, without fear of how anyone might take it.
  • Your blog isn't a little thing you do on the side, it's your very own publishing company - and you should treat it like one.
Same thing. I've always found it interesting that people might actually be waiting to see what I would post next. For a while I was posting to Another Monkey daily, but that wore me out, and some days I was posting just to post. Newspapers get posted daily and end up lining birdcages or training puppies. Magazines publish weekly or monthly and get piled up in bathrooms and waiting rooms. Some things publish quarterly and get put on a bookshelf. I think I need to get myself on a schedule: post to Another Monkey at least once a week, to NEPA Blogs twice a week beyond the Blog of the Week post, and to Shoot the Moon as available - but at least once a month.
  • Give your readers something to relate to, to see themselves in your posts.
This has always been something I've tried to do. In blogging, writing, poetry, photography, painting, I've always tried to give the reader or viewer something to hang their hat on.
  • It's easy to lose your blog readership by giving up and walking away. It's harder to get them back.
I've done that. And I'm trying to bring them back.
  • Don't sell yourself short. Your blog is valuable - and so is the network of contacts you've built through it.
Damn straight. Catherine told a story of literally selling her site short - half the money up front, half at a later time. The buyer got her site, got her mailing list, and never made the second payment.
  • Don't give away your work for free. Otherwise, you may find someone else making a profit from it.
This was a lesson I learned from an episode of the sitcom "Perfect Strangers." Cousin Larry was trying to impress a photographer he admired, and Balki managed to make a mess of things. (I don't recall all the details, this was from twenty-eight years ago.) In the end the photographer idol gives Larry positive feedback about one of his photographs. Larry is so overwhelmed that he offers it  to his hero. The photographer sternly rebukes Larry, admonishing him "Never give away your art." For some reason, that stuck with me. Catherine told a story of how she had assembled some of her piano instructionals into an eBook that she gave away for free - only to find later that it was being used as a textbook at Juliard schools.
  • If your readership stays with you, they will grow and change along with you - and your new interests may become their new interests.
When Catherine lost her mailing list for her site - this was before "blog" was a word - about elementary education, she was miffed. Years later, when she was working on a blog aimed at empty-nesters, parents whose children had grown up and moved away, she realized that the people on that lost mailing list were the target audience for her new site.
  • You have a book in you. You've probably already written it. It's easy to put it together as an eBook and sell it online.
I've had thoughts about turning some of my favorite posts into a book for a ling time. Catherine made me realize I could do that with less effort than I thought.
  • ...maybe even a coloring book. Coloring books are the new cupcakes. Do you have original images that you can turn into black-and-white coloring book pages?
This actually came from a conversation I had at lunch with the couple that runs One of their plans includes releasing art in coloring book form. Renenbering the popularity of adult coloring books with my friends, I quipped "Coloring books are the new cupcakes!" Then I remembered how I once planned to turn some of my stained glass window photos into coloring book pages. I never did - but I could. I know a sketch artist who could easily bundle together some of his sketches and release them as a NEPA-themed coloring book.

Those are just some of my takeaways. I'm sure over time I will think of some more. Were you at the NEPA BlogCon? What did you take away from it?

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

The Devil in the Pines (fiction)

Here's a story I wrote a few years ago, featuring my hard-boiled police detective who specializes in supernatural cases - think Harry Callahan meets Alexander Kolchak. I have plans for the character, including a Krampus story (an old man who shows up on the streets of New York speaking only German and having no knowledge of events of the past 75 years) and a story that opens with a gigantic white-haired figure impaled on (and by) the Matterhorn. There's a Krampus movie coming out this year, so I should finish that story before then.

This is just barely a first draft. Actually, it's pretty much missing a whole midsection. I may expand it and polish it up later.

(Original draft dated March 17, 2012)

The Devil in the Pines
(From the Memoirs of Harry McGavin)

April, 1978

"My girl, my girl, don't you lie to me.."

"Cripes, McGavin, will you quit it with that song? You sing it every time we come down this way."

Carl was my partner, and a damn good one. He didn't like my singing, especially when he was driving. That was just one of his faults. Still, he was a good man to have next to you in a tight spot.

"Beats listening to you wheeze. Allergies acting up? The boogeyman's gonna hear you a mile away."

I'll admit it, the place gives me the creeps. There's stuff down there that has no right to be. I should know, I've nailed some of it. But Lindbergh told us to go to the Pine Barrens, so to the Pine Barrens we went.

Our turn was coming up. It was easy to find, just past the rusting wreck of a Tripod. Nearly forty years on, nobody had bothered to clear it out. Hell, there were dozens of 'em all over New Jersey for the picking. There wouldn't be any more, thanks to those Viking landers. Billions and billions of cold germs, courtesy of the U.S. of A. Rust in peace, Martians.

We were here to investigate something. Not sure what. But it was weird enough that state and local police couldn't handle it. So they turned it over to us. The Monster Squad.

Department M is on the books. We're not some shadowy operation. We just deal with the things people don't want to think about, the stuff they want to pretend isn't real. Until it's in their face and there's no denying it. Then they call us.

We drove past the Midget Village. Most people don't believe in it, and folks who know about it think it's pretty much cut off from society. They have their own midget police force, led by a midget sheriff. But they coordinate with us when things need taking care of. Couple of years before, somebody thought it would be a good idea to dump Jimmy Hoffa in the Midget Village, figuring nobody would ever hear about it. He barely got a mile out of town before a midget posse took him down. Turned him over to us the next day. I don't think he ever wants to see a midget again.

It took another twenty minutes to get to our first stop. Godforsaken shack in the middle of nowhere. Still, this woman got attacked by something. The Jersey Devil, she said. Hell, that's what people think our job is, keeping the world safe from the Jersey Devil.  That's crap. I put a cold iron slug between the devil's eyes seven years ago. I keep his skull on my desk as a paperweight. This was something else.

She was the typical sort you get out here. She and her husband were loners. This was her parents' place. They moved in thirty-six years ago.  No kids. She lived alone since her husband died last year.

Two nights ago something showed up at her door. Rang the doorbell. Do they think the Jersey Devil would ring a doorbell? Could have been a man, but had a "scary face." Maybe a mask. Whatever it was screamed at her and shot her with something. Ball lightning, she said. She had some burns, nothing too bad. Knocked her down but not out. Then it ransacked her house and took some cash.

The Jersey Devil wouldn't be looking for cash.

It would be a standard police matter if it weren't for the fact that there had been a pattern of these attacks all over this part of the Barrens. And whatever was doing it got away by jumping off like some sort of oversized flea.

We had four more witnesses to track down and talk to. All gave the same basic description. Man-sized, on the tall side, maybe too tall. Crazy face. Bulging eyes, red, glowing. Metal claws, maybe. A jumper that put Fosbury to shame. And some sort of gun that shot electric bubbles. Well, we'd be ready there. I'd plugged our Tesla wands into the car charger before we left, and they were both in the green. We'd be good to take down a herd of yeti.

The sun had already set when we finished with our fifth interview and checked into the motel. I tossed my bag onto the bed, took a whiz, and headed back out to the car. We drove to a diner down the road to go over our notes and get a bite to eat.

After we'd plowed through our burgers and pie Carl sat back and lit one up. "Common criminal," he said. "We shouldn't even be on this. Just a guy in a costume robbing people."

"And the jumping?" I said, taking a swig from my coffee. Black, hot, bitter and strong. Like my women. "And the gun? Not something a common criminal has access to."

"Special shoes, maybe. Or maybe he's some sort of Olympic star down on his luck."

"Great, we're gonna take down the guy on the Wheaties box. And how does this guy get tech like that?"

"Dunno," Carl said, taking a drag on his cigarette. "Nobody should have that."

We went over the map. We were in the right place. There was no pattern to the attacks, but we were smack dab in the middle of them. Whoever it was was looking for money, jewelry, typical stuff. We'd made a list of unique pieces and we'd be hitting all the pawn shops within fifty miles tomorrow. Way I saw it, we'd have to be stupid lucky to get a lead.

We were stupid lucky.

We should've known something was wrong when we pulled up to the motel. The parking lot was dark. So was the sign in front. So were all the rooms. Nine-thirty and nobody was watching pay-per-view porn? That didn't make sense.

Carl parked by our rooms. Fifteen hours of togetherness was a bit much, and I was ready for some alone time.

I reached down to pull my wand from the charger and realized Carl hadn't taken his.

I looked up at the open door on Carl's side of the car. I could just see Carl in the moonlight. He was standing up, stretching a bit, when a glowing blue bubble hit him in the small of the back.

I rolled out of the car. Dammit, this was my favorite suit, and I was gonna have Pine Barrens dirt all over it. Through the open doors of the car I saw a thing with glowing red eyes just moving into position next to where Carl was sprawled on the other side. The moonlight glinted off the gun it had aimed right at Carl's chest.

I thumbed my wand to maximum and fired it through the open doors of the car at the glowing red eyes.

It screamed. It wasn't a human scream. It must've scared the crap out of those women. I guess it was trying to. This time it had reason to scream. Half a million volts washed over it from my wand. One of its glowing red eyes popped.

It fell over backwards. I was afraid it might react to my shot by leaping away, but it never had a chance. By now my eyes had adjusted to the dark, and by the moonlight and the glow of the dome light I saw wisps of smoke coming from the oversized hooves it had for feet. I figured its jumper wasn't working anymore.

I kept it covered with my wand while I scrambled across the bench seat and out the other door. I did a quick check of Carl. He was breathing. Probably just stunned. None of the women this thing had attacked had even been knocked out, but I had a feeling it hadn't been planning to be so gentle with us.

I turned my attention to the thing on the ground. It also looked like it was breathing. Too bad. The Tesla wand isn't a lethal weapon, but it can be a bitch on electrical circuits. If you happen to be wearing electrical gear, you're gonna feel it in the morning.

The eye that had popped was hanging from the face, attached by some wires. There was a human-looking eye behind the hole that had been left behind. The face was some kind of mask.

Besides the mask and the oversized hooves and the metal-tipped gloves, the guy seemed to be wearing normal clothes. Black turtleneck. Charcoal sport coat. Black slacks. A little shabby. A lot worse for wear. I started patting him down for weapons - other than the bubble gun, which I'd kicked away - and maybe some I.D.

"So who the hell is he?" said Carl, groggily.

"Glad you're still with us," I said, not even turning to him. "As usual, I get to do all the work. You expect a guy like this to carry I.D.?"

I pulled his wallet out of the inside pocket of his sport coat, looked for his driver's license. Guy still had a BankAmericard. They stopped using those two years ago.

"Edison," I said. "Jack Edison. Heard of him?"

"Yeah, as a matter of fact, I have." Carl had gotten up on his elbows now to look at his attacker. "Failed businessman. Great-grandson of the inventor, the guy who fought with Westinghouse. I guess inventing ran in his family."

"Those jumping shoes would be worth something," I said. "The ball lightning gun, too. The mask is probably night vision goggles and some sort of voice scrambler. What the hell's he doing robbing little old ladies in the Pine Barrens?"

"Maybe trying to scrounge up enough money to hire a patent attorney.  What happened to the lights?" Carl said, looking around. "Dammit, I should have noticed they were out."

"He probably saw us check in here. Took out the electricity when we left the diner."

"Huh." Carl rubbed his jaw. "And the manager's probably in the basement with a flashlight trying to figure out what's wrong."

The local cops and an ambulance crew showed up after I called them from the diner. Carl checked out fine, but I had a feeling he wouldn't be if Edison had gotten in another shot. We turned Edison over to them, but confiscated his tech. He wouldn't be filing any patent applications where he was going. The ConWest crew showed up an hour later and got the power back on.

Looked like our trip to the Pine Barrens was going to be cut short. That's fine. Newark's not anything special, but it's home, sort of.

I helped Carl to his room. I was ready for a shower and bed.  I left him there as he began to undo his tie.

"Hey, McGavin," he said as I swung the door closed. "That's one that I owe you."

"Yeah," I said. I lost track of our tally years ago, but I was pretty sure I was ahead. Maybe. "You can pay me back next time."

Monday, September 07, 2015

The Mixtape

I lost my clip-on sunglasses in my car yesterday. While fishing around on the sides of the passenger seat, I found an old mixtape tucked between the seat and the door.

Side A is labeled 10/24/93, while Side B was apparently recorded a week later on 10/31/93 - Halloween. Nearly twenty-two years ago.

I plucked off some clumps of dust, blew out stuff from inside, and tightened up the tape on the wheels. Will it still play?, I wondered. Will it just ruin my tape deck? My 1996 Toyota Tercel has a tape deck. Not the original tape deck, which gave up the ghost after a few years. This is a replacement unit, which I bought in early 2002 prior to my trip to Salem, Massachusetts. I haven't played tapes in in in many years, though I have more recently used a cassette adapter to patch in music from a portable CD player.

I popped it in. The familiar hiss began to pour out of the speakers. Then, the old familiar opening guitar riffs of U2's The Fly.

I was heading into Wilkes-Barre to take advantage of a coupon from Pet Supplies Plus. The coupon expired the next day, Labor Day, and I had plans for that day that would probably keep me from getting there before closing time. As I crawled along Hazle Street The Fly ended and the tape went silent. Broken? No, I remembered what song was next, and remembered it had a long, slow, quiet buildup.  I cranked the volume and was soon blasting P.J. Harvey's Rid of Me as I drove along Northampton Street. This was followed by a live version of High by The Cure and Metallica's version of Stone Cold Crazy from a Freddy Mercury tribute album. I wound up in a turn-only lane as the next song started up, something I didn't recognize, a soft, country-ish version on The Cure's In Between Days. (I had to look this up: it was John Eddie from an unreleased Cure tribute album, instead put out on Rubaiyat, an album celebrating Elektra Records' 40th anniversary.)

This took me to the pet store, where I picked up cat litter and cat treats (two different types of each, all on sale.)

Pulling out of the parking lot I heard a Led Zeppelin song whose name I can't recall and whose lyrics I could not decipher. (Fun fact: about as much time had passed between the time this song was recorded and the time I put it on the mixtape as has passed between the making of the mixtape and now.) This was followed by Whiskey Train by Procul Harum, Come Around by Sugar, and made it back home listening to Finest Worksong by REM.

Coming up next is a song by My Bloody Valentine and another by U2. Then on to Side B, and more songs I liked enough to put on a mixtape.

It's weird listening again to the music I was listening to when I was twenty-five years old. Some of the songs have held up, some have not. I am someone who recognizes and keeps things of lasting value, but I do not believe in wallowing in nostalgia. If I were to make a mixtape today, what songs would I put on it? What would it sound like in 2037, when (if I live so long) I would be sixty-nine years old?

Wednesday, July 01, 2015


Hershey, June 16, 2015

Hershey died Saturday morning.

Or, to put it another way: On Saturday morning before I went to work, I took Hershey on one last trip to the vet's. I pressed my forehead against his and assured him that the doctor was going to make everything all better as he injected the drugs that would anesthetize him and then make his heart stop.

He wasn't my dog, not really.  He belonged to the next-door neighbor. She got Hershey (a chocolate Cocker Spaniel) and Columbus (a Pug) shortly after she moved back into her house after her estranged husband died of a massive heart attack while doing some yard work in the summer of 2001. She also had several cats: Tinker, Romeo (an orange longhair who is currently trying to roll onto my ChromeBook as I type this), Juliet, and Baby Boy. Tinker ran off early and was never seen again. The other cats escaped with such regularity that she eventually locked them out of the house.

Columbus was hideously inbred, as are many Pugs, and was subject to numerous health issues. He was diabetic, his teeth were in horrible shape, his eyes were grotesquely popped out of his head (more than is normal for a Pug) and eventually stopped working entirely He was also insanely friendly and lovable. He died in the summer of 2011, and the neighbor lady's life went into a downward spiral. After numerous health scares, she checked into the hospital one last time in September 2011 as the first bands of Hurricane Lee began to brush Northeastern Pennsylvania. She never checked out. I don't know what she died of, but I think it was a lot of things at once.

My mom and I had taken care of Hershey during the neighbor's earlier hospitalizations. We also located Romeo and Baby Boy lurking around her yard, both surprisingly well-fed. We brought them back indoors and began feeding them cat food from cans again. Juliet was located sometime later, after the neighbor's sister had hired some people to clear the accumulated junk out of the house. It was on September 11, 2011. My mom called me over to see what had been uncovered on the enclosed back porch: the body of a brown longhair, strangely well-preserved. I felt like she was staring at me accusingly from her eyeless sockets: You saved them, why couldn't you save me?

Romeo, Baby Boy, and Hershey, November 29, 2011

After a while it was clear that the neighbor wasn't going to be coming home again, and we added a dog and two more cats to our household. Romeo and Baby Boy had both grown accustomed to life in the great outdoors, and for the first few months they ran away every chance they could. Romeo was a tick magnet, though the engorged ticks were easy to remove. (They may have been the source of the tapeworms he eventually let us know he had, in the most disgusting way possible. The trip with him to the vet to get him de-wormed was when we found out that he wasn't really a nasty, anti-social cat, as his hissing and fighting with the other cats suggested; he just wanted to be the center of attention. He was in absolute ecstasy as the vet and his assistants examined him.) Baby Boy (who has now taken over Romeo's position as roller-onto-ChromeBook as I try to type this) also performed routine excursions of several hours to overnight or longer. These ended when he got into a tussle with the neighborhood ferals and came home with a gash splitting his scalp open. (With home care the injury healed quickly and completely, and he never tried to run away again.)

Hershey was...special. He was not a smart dog. Actually, he was dumb. Really dumb. I frequently said that he didn't have the brains that the Good Lord saw fit to give to a gnat. He wasn't potty trained: if you let him outside he would stand around, baffled as to what you expected of him, and he would poop and pee wherever he happened to be when he got the urge. We realized that negative reinforcement wouldn't work to get him trained, so we adopted a positive reinforcement approach. We figured out what his favorite treat was - Pupperoni sticks -  and from that point on, he only received Pupperoni treats (and copious, effusive praise) if he pooped outside. If he pooped inside we treated it as an accident, and he received neither condemnation nor treats. He soon made the connection between pooping outside and treats. Maybe too well: I am convinced that he would turn a single pooping session into multiple pooping sessions to earn more treats. (Maybe he wasn't so dumb, after all!)

Hershey, October 23, 2014

Hershey wasn't a fit dog. He came to us fat, and did not care much for exercise, which was fine by me: not too many years ago I attended to the euthanization of a friend's Cocker Spaniel who had developed a lethally twisted stomach, probably caused by vigorous running soon after eating. Hershey was content to lounge around all day, and got along fine with his cat brothers and sisters. He was a picky eater, and would fixate on a single food for weeks at a time until suddenly he would decide he didn't want it anymore. We would then have to cycle through a variety of food types until he decided he liked one, and he ate that one variety exclusively until he decided he wouldn't anymore.

Of course there was always room for cat food, which he would steal every chance he got, even though it played hell with his digestion.

He preferred to eat his food directly out of cans, except when he didn't. He would eat with such gusto that he would bite holes in the aluminum cans, making them hazardous to rinse out for recycling. (I saw several cans with tooth marks in the recycling container on the porch where Juliette's body was found. I assumed that she, starving and afraid, trapped on a porch with no direct access to her old house - it was separated by a garage - has desperately bitten into the cans seeking the last scraps of food. Now I wonder if it was just Hershey doing his thing.)

Like many Cocker Spaniels, he was prone to ear infections. He made frequent trips to the vet, and everyone there got to know him. He also developed an eye condition where tear production in one eye dropped to almost nothing, and the other eye was lower than usual. The vet put him on a regimen of antibiotic drops and artificial tears, which he warned us he would be on for the rest of his life.

Hershey loved going to the groomer's. I called it his "spa." He would be a bit concerned as we drove there, but when he arrived he would become very excited, even when we went to their new location for the first time back in March or April. The groomer loved him, and he never gave her any trouble. He would usually be sound asleep when I came to pick him up again.

I took my mom for a routine mammogram in early May, and it revealed an item of concern. A second scan confirmed a small mass the size of a grapefruit seed. We had to set up an appointment with a breast cancer specialist to schedule a biopsy. The appointment was set for May 13, the same day Hershey had a follow-up exam scheduled with the vet. We had just enough time to run home after her appointment, run to the bathroom, pick up the dog, and run back to the vet. Ironically, the two offices were across the street from each other.

We had a bit of a wait at the vet's, and Hershey started to get antsy. I checked his eyes: they were much better than they had been. I patted his head. I scratched his ears. I scratched under his collar. I scratched his throat.

I found a lump the size of half an egg.

Uh-oh, I thought.

I told my mom before we went into the exam. I told the vet tech before the exam. I told the vet when he came in the room.

He checked Hershey's eyes. They were fine. We should keep doing what we were doing, but we would have to keep doing it for the rest of his life.

The vet checked Hershey's throat and grew visibly concerned. He began an exam of other parts of his body: the sides of his neck, his lower ribs, even a brief internal exam.

And then he told us: Cancer. Lymphoma. Without treatment, he would be dead in one to four months. With treatment - hours of treatment each week, thousands of dollars each week, hours of driving to a faraway facility each week -  there was a very slight chance that he might live a little longer before the cancer killed him.

We knew. We knew before he told us, and we understood what he was telling us. "Let a dog be a dog," we always say. Not some thing, broken and isolated and in fear in a desperate attempt to add a few weeks or months to his suffering.

The lymphoma would progress, the vet told us. The tumors would grow. Hershey would become more and more lethargic. (This made me laugh. How would we notice?) His breathing would become more and more difficult. He would lose interest in food, in water, in everything. Eventually he would lose the ability to walk, and to stand. He would begin drooling. His breathing would become rapid and shallow. He would become virtually comatose. And then he would die.

We took him home. We had been through this before, or variations of it. Haley had died of lung cancer in 2005.

Everything seemed normal for the first few weeks. Maybe the doctor was wrong. Maybe the cancer had gone away on its own. Maybe he never had cancer. Maybe it was just mumps, or something else that caused his glands to swell. Maybe he was going to be fine.

Then he lost interest in dog food.

Fine. He doesn't want his food? We've been through this before. Cycle through every variety we have. When he showed interest in none of them, try the cat food. When that didn't work, I pulled out the roast chicken I had made for my lunch.

He liked roast chicken.

Fine, roast chicken it is. I bought chicken twice a week. Wash, add a thin film of olive oil to a nonstick roaster, toss chicken on both sides to coat with the oil. Lightly season with salt, pepper, onion salt, garlic powder. Add a little water. Roast uncovered at 400 degrees for an hour. Add more water and a dash of white cooking wine, cover with foil, roast another hour and a half at 325.

For several weeks he ate little more than roast chicken. We tried to mix other things into his diet, but he was uninterested. Maybe he would eat a little cheese one day, some pieces of a cookie another. Not much. But he loved his chicken.

Until he didn't.

OK, what next? We had some stew in the refrigerator, and my mom had made burgers, Turned out he liked the stew meat and, with some coaxing, the burgers.

I tried a London Broil. He liked that, too. I wondered if he was pulling a con akin to his trick for increasing his supply of poop treats, to be fed roast chicken and London Broil.

Over the past month I had doubled up his poop treats. I didn't want him to die with a bag full of treats he had never gotten. But the poop treats went too fast, and I had to buy a new bag. He lost interest in Pupperoni shortly after that.

Hershey, June 16, 2015

My mom's biopsy indicated a malignant tumor. It would have to come out, along with some surrounding tissue and some lymph nodes. Her lumpectomy was scheduled for Monday, June 22. There was a long delay in getting her into surgery, but the surgery itself went smoothly.

By then Hershey was showing less interest in London Broil. I tried Burger King. I got him some on Sunday, June 21. I also bought some Chinese that day, chicken and broccoli. He ate a burger patty, as well as the chicken from the chicken and broccoli.

By Tuesday, June 23 he was no longer interested in Burger King.

I bought some Nutri-Cal on Friday, June 19. It's a high-calorie paste for supplemental feeding. I began using it on Tuesday. I thought maybe it would stimulate his appetite, and would at least get something into him. My mom had also found that he would eat one specific cat treat, so we let him have as much of that as he would take.

Hershey was having a harder and harder time breathing. His breathing was shallower and faster. He also began to have a discharge from his nose. Clear liquid, like he had a cold.

He was still getting his eye drops and artificial tears twice a day.

For weeks Hershey had been panting, and I had worked out a solution: an air conditioner and a fan. He would lay between them, and after a while the panting would stop and normal breathing would resume. Even when he slept, it would either be in an air-conditioned room or with a fan on his face. In his final week, neither of these things gave him any relief.

He was having a harder and harder time sleeping, He would wake up several times in the night and bark to go out to go potty. Midnight, 2:00 AM, 4:00 AM. I would wake at the sound of his barking and let him out. His bark had become higher in pitch and more strangled as the tumors on either side of his throat, each now about half the size of a baseball, gradually crushed his windpipe.

By Thursday, June 25 Hershey was having tremendous difficulty navigating steps. His breathing had become rapid, shallow, and desperate. He had lost interest in pretty much all food, and would only drink water if coaxed. (I poked a hole in the cap of a water bottle and turned it into a squirt bottle to spray water into his mouth.) On Friday he seemed to lose his sight entirely. His eyes, once bright but clouded by cataracts, had become dull and gray. He wandered the house aimlessly. Or maybe he, like Haley, was looking for a place to die.

On Friday, June 26, my mom got the pathology report from her surgery: lymph nodes clear, no sign that the cancer had spread. The cancer was a preliminary Stage I and had been caught early.

Friday night Hershey didn't bark at all to go out. I woke at two and again at five to let him out. I walked down the steps ahead of him to catch him if he fell. I carried him back up the steps when he was done.

I sat with him Saturday morning. The vet would be open at 8:00 - I had checked the night before - but would close at noon. They wouldn't open again until Monday at 8:00.

Hershey panted relentlessly, the air conditioner at full blast, the fan practically pressed against him. He swallowed the Nutri-Cal, but drooled out the squirt of water. He lapped a little water from a bowl placed under his chin.

He began to moan. Then, quietly, softly, to howl.

I petted him and reassured him. I cried with him, I took him back to my mother's air-conditioned room and told her that I would go in for a shower now, and would be ready to get out of the house before 7:30.

I took my shower, dressed in a black shirt, and went up to check on him. On her. To get a final verdict.

It was torture to keep him going. We could do this thing now, or we could do it in forty-eight hours. Maybe in between he would die on his own. Maybe he wouldn't be in too much agony when he did.

I called in to work to let them know that I might be late, because I would be having my dog put to sleep.

I put on Hershey's leash to take him for one last ride to the vet. But then I remembered: he hadn't had his eye drops that morning. His antibiotic drops, I figured, we could skip. But I put a generous squirt of artificial tear paste in each eye.

My mom saw Hershey off, told him she loved him, told him he was a good boy. I apologized to him for all the times I had yelled at him for being so damned dumb.

I left with him, my lunch, my drink, my coffee, a blanket, and a box of tissues.

Hershey peed in his usual spot, once I got him down the steps, but he didn't want to poop again. He began to wander the yard aimlessly. I had to coax him down to the car. He seemed to catch on to what I was doing, and wanted to get into my car. But that wasn't the plan. My car had no air conditioning, and he would need that to be comfortable. We would take my mom's car. I opened the passenger side door, put the blanket on the seat, and lifted him into the car. He lay sideways across the seat with his head facing me.

I pulled out of the driveway and an alarm began to sound. The car had detected an unbelted passenger in the car. I obligingly clicked the belt behind Hershey and we continued on our way.

I petted him and talked to him the whole way. He seemed comfortable. He seemed like he was enjoying the ride.

For once, I didn't mind the red lights. They gave us a few extra seconds together.

We got to the vet's a few minutes after 8:00. Hershey wandered the parking lot aimlessly for a while, but eventually I coaxed him to the doors. Through the doors, one last time. They were ready for us.

We were escorted to a back room. Cool, warmly lit, comfortable seats, a soft blanket on the table. Hershey staggered slowly, seeming older and older with each step.  He lay down on the floor of the room as I went over the details with the vet tech. Yes to cremation. Yes, we wanted the ashes returned. I signed the form and she took him off to another room to install an IV shunt, to make the next steps easier.

Alone, I wept bitterly. This was it.

The vet and his team arrived with a suddenly revived Hershey. He was squirming, more awake and aware than I had seen him in weeks. Adrenaline, they told me, a reaction to having the IV shunt put in. I looked it up. Adrenaline is released in response to a stimulus. Usually as a reaction to fear.

Hershey wanted to jump off the table. He would have broken a leg. I held him in place, calmed him down, offered him words of encouragement. Told him that the doctor was going to make everything all better.

Hershey was panting like a steam engine again, as he had been since we got out of the car. The vet introduced himself. I had met him once before, years ago, shortly after he had joined the practice. He asked me if I had ever attended a euthanization before. I told him I had. He talked me through what to expect, what each injection would do. I spoke gentle words of reassurance and farewell to Hershey. Told him he would soon be with his mommy, and with Columbus, and with his old friend Haley. Told him to tell Haley that we would be seeing her soon. Told him that we loved him, and that he was a good boy.

The doctor gave the first injection. Hershey's desperate breathing became slower, less urgent, and then stopped. The vet tech gently lowered his body to the table. The doctor gave him the second injection. He waited half a minute, then put his stethoscope to Hershey's chest and assured me that his heart and breathing had already stopped.

Hershey was dead.

They left me with him for a few minutes. I talked to him some more, then folded the blanket over him. The vet tech came in and removed his collar. We talked for a bit, then I made my goodbyes. His ashes would be ready on Thursday.

I made it to work fifteen minutes early.

The next day we had a huge rainstorm just before sunset. A rainbow formed opposite the setting sun. From our back porch it looked like the rainbow was extending out of his old house.

Rainbow. June 28, 2015. Hershey's old house is in the foreground.

Hershey lived with us for less than four years. We tried to give him a good life and a good death. I hope we succeeded.

He was a good boy.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Predictions for 2016

I haven't been blogging at all lately. Mostly that's been from working as much overtime as possible to try to bring in something close to a living wage. In part it's been because I've been spending my precious BEU's in other ways. But it's also been because things have been pretty grim and it seems that nothing I can say will make any difference.

Many, many years ago I bought a journal from the Lee Valley Workshop. I imagined that I might use it to preserve my thoughts about the events of the day, and see how those thoughts held up over time, how history would judge those events. I put in one entry, about the single most important event of the day: the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which was consuming the nation and threatening the very stability of the Union. Remember that? Remember how important that was?

I never used it again. I still look at it from time to time. It's a really nice journal.

I've been thinking about something that I expect to happen in the near future, and then thought of something else that could almost be considered a fashion trend. I realized the two things are related, and one naturally flows to the other.

I see the time frame for both to be eighteen months, possibly far less. As this is April 2015, that would easily place both of these things well before the end of 2016. So I feel comfortable predicting both of these as things that will happen by the end of 2016:

1. Wearable cameras for the masses.  After several incidents involving police confrontations that were caught on dashcam or body cam, and countless others where an audio/video record of the event would have been very useful, many police departments are requiring their officers to wear body cameras. Which is nice, except that if there is ever a controversy over an encounter, only one side has access to and control over the records. There was a recent non-police interaction involving a reporter for ESPN and a staffer at a towing company, after which the towing company released a heavily-edited version of the altercation that presented the reported (who was keenly aware of the presence of the recording equipment, and addressed it directly) in a very negative light, but did not include any record of provocation by the staffer. If everybody is making their own record of every confrontation, this wouldn't be an issue.

There are several technical hurdles to overcome: Such recordings are illegal in many states, where both sides need to agree to a recording before it can begin. Recording of the police is still maintained to be illegal in some states (including Pennsylvania), though recent court findings have taken issue with this. Recording in some locations -  tunnels, for example - is considered a danger to national security. And most recorders store the record in the device, rather than in "the cloud" or some remote location - so destroying the recording device often destroys the record.

I expect these obstacles to fall away fairly quickly, and the prices of wearable cameras to drop to less than an iPhone.

2. Police killed in self-defense. Sometime before the end of 2016, a police officer will be killed while on duty. The person doing the killing will maintain that it was in self-defense. And a judge - or jury - will agree.

One of the recent events that have shaken this nation involved Walter Scott fleeing from police after an altercation following a traffic stop. Officer Michael Slager draws his gun, fires numerous times at close range, mortally wounds the fleeing victim, and then drops his TASER next to the man to create a justification for the shooting. All of this was captured on video by a passer-by on his way to work. Without this video, this would have been just another "good shoot."

The more  recent event happened to Freddie Gray. In a crime-ridden part of Baltimore, he spotted a police patrol and, for reasons unknown, fled from them. They gave chase and took him down, retroactively justifying their arrest based on his possession of a knife whose blade length exceeded legal limits. He was trundled into a prisoner transport van, unbelted, unsecured, and was taken for what a police union spokesman has suggested was a "rough ride" - after which he was found to have a nearly severed spine. He died of his injuries a week later. If Freddie Gray fled because he was afraid the police would kill him, he was right.

At some point someone in one of these confrontations will respond with deadly force, and maintain that they feared that if they did not, they would have been killed. A judge or jury somewhere will review the evidence and declare that, yes, the person acted in self-defense, and they will be free to go. (Until, of course, they are accidentally killed a week or two later. Oopsie.)

I'm not saying that I want to see this happen, or that it will be right. It won't be. I want to see bad cops off the streets, stripped of their badges and guns. I want to see criminals off the streets forever. But I see this thing as an inevitability. And I expect it to happen very soon. Probably before the end of 2016.

We'll see.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Characters and plots, in writing and life

I'm a writer. Sort of. I've written quite a bit. Once upon a time my writing was mostly confined to personal communications, intended for one person at a time. Then I became a blogger, and my writing became a sort of journaling intended to be shared with the general public.  After a few years of that, I began to start flexing my fiction-writing muscles. Then I got involved with a now-defunct writing group and decided to try my hand at poetry, something I hadn't done since college.

I haven't been writing much lately. I've been doing other things, some of which I can't really talk about - though if I could, they'd make great (yet preposterously unbelievable) stories. (I may turn one of them into an opera, if I can ever connect with anyone who knows anything about opera. It's full of heroes, villains, sacrifice, love, violence, and death. Needs music, I suppose.)

Through it all I've met a lot of people. Some have been nice, some have been awful. Some have come into my life, left their mark, and vanished.

We like to think of people as complex creatures, full of layers and surprises and hidden motivations. Characters in stories tend to be much simpler: they perform functions, serve as plot devices, do what the writer needs them to do to move the story along. Characters in stories can be summed up in neat character sketches, but real people are too complex for that.

I have learned that in many cases this is simply not true.

Over and over again I have met individuals who can be described in just a few sentences. From that basic sketch you can predict most of their future behavior with a disappointingly high level of accuracy. You can hope that they will prove you wrong, surprise you, pull out a spectacular twist that reveals depth and complexity: the inner hero in the villain, the good guy waiting to be brought out of the "bad boy", the strength and courage of the timid coward.

For the most part it's wishful thinking, naive at best, dangerous at worst. It sounds like pessimism, and maybe it is. It's certainly not a new idea. "The leopard cannot change its spots," the old saying goes. The scorpion saved from drowning by the toad stings the toad to death, and when the dying toad asks it "Why?", the scorpion responds "Because it is my nature."

Accepting this suddenly opens up new pathways for predicting the future.

From every moment an infinite number of futures are possible. But only one of those futures happens, as far as we can observe. Which future that is is based on an enormous number of factors, from the quantum scale on up. Some large-scale variables are based on the decisions made by people. If those decisions are dictated by a very simple set of rules, the number of possible futures becomes very small. For certain items under consideration, a single possibility becomes far more likely than all the others.

I was involved in a situation where this came into play some time ago. It's one of those things that I can't really talk about. It was a matter of life and death. Several other individuals were involved, with one of them largely in control of the situation. I had never met her. She had attained a status in my mind of a legendary boss monster, someone others had encountered and survived, but not me. And now she had done something - we weren't sure what - which could profoundly affect the health and well-being of another person. Shortly after becoming aware of the situation, I found myself in a police station, explaining what was going on in agonizing detail to a police officer. His face betrayed an increasing level of consternation bordering on disbelief as the story went on. (A quote from Shakespeare was running through my head the whole while: "If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction." – Twelfth Night, Act III, scene 4.) Finally we got to the end, and I did a thing you're probably not supposed to do: I conjectured. I told him what most likely happened next in the story, where he would be most likely to find the person in danger, based on my understanding of the actions and motivations of a person I had never met.

Forty minutes and many phone calls later he confirmed that every conjecture I had presented to him was correct. Unfortunately, the person who we believed to be in danger was now well beyond our reach. A few weeks later, my worst projections turned out to be true. (The police officer never knew this, as far as I know. I have long hoped to be able to run into him again to let him know.)

It wasn't the only time in the last few years I've had a chance to watch a character play out true to their brief sketch. In fact, it has become disappointingly routine. Sometimes there are surprises, but these are rare, and not always for the better.

It seems to me that what we perceive as a good or interesting or well-written character is often unrealistically written, in that they are complex and full of hidden motivations, capable of changes of personality or great or noble deeds quite unlike their real-world counterparts. Iago, the villain from Othello, is frequently criticized as being one-dimensional. He is rotten from start to finish, and unrepentantly so. He feigns an appearance of trustworthiness and honesty, but this is a falsehood from the beginning.

In the same way, plots in stories are sometimes far more complex than in real life. Greed, lust, hate, jealousy: sometimes that's all there is to a plot in real life. But stories written with such simplistic motivations will not hold readers' interest long, on bring them back for more. So we weave intricate storylines and backstories to explain motives and consequences. Because, ultimately, fiction is more than a journalistic chronicle of the acts of individuals. It has its own goals, and serves a need in the lives of readers. Writers need to recognize those needs and create characters and stories that fulfill them.