Thursday, July 11, 2013

a short story 

©2013 William H. Payne

You guys remember cousin Julie, right? She's awesome cute, and she has all her teeth.

So she called the other night, really late, and said she needed help, and to come over quick. Well I ain't about to ignore a distress call from either family or cute girls, and Julie is both, so I got in my pick up and went over.

"What's the matter?" I asked, and she pointed to her nose. I walked over closer to get a better look, and sure enough, her nose was swollen and red. "What does that look like?" she asked, and pointed to the reddest nostril of the two.

"Well," I said, "it's either the biggest booger I've ever seen in my life, or it's a space alien took up residence in your nose." She looked scared.

"What should I do?" she asked.

"I think we ought to call cousin Cletus," I said. "He'll know what to do if anybody will." I got my cell out of my pocket and sent Cletus a text.

Cletus was over in a couple of minutes, probably for the same reasons I was.

Now, some of you may not know about Cletus. See, those of us in the Tater family (the Arkansas Taters, not the snotty Texas Taters) don't always do too well in school, for whatever reason. Most of us drop out in the third or fourth grade to, you know, support our wives and kids and such, but Cletus - Cletus, he dropped out of medical school, so you know we're proud of that boy. He rushed into the room, and took a look at Julie's nose. He turned his head this way and that, and turned her head this way and that, and considered, and thought, and then he said, "I'd say it's either the biggest booger I've ever seen in my life, or it's a space alien took up residence in your nose." I felt good to have my diagnosis confirmed by an expert.

"Bubba," he said to me, "I want you to go out to your tool box and get me some needle nose pliers." I went right out and opened the passenger side where I keep my tool box, and then I saw the bottle of Old Nuclear™ I had stashed behind it. It occurred to me that Julie might need a sedative, so I got it, too, and hurried back inside.

Cletus agreed that it was a good idea for Julie to pull a couple of good draws out of that bottle before we commenced, and so she did. They were good draws, too. Drained about a third of the bottle. Julie Tater can put that stuff away, see.

We gave her a minute or two for her eyes to glaze over, and Cletus went to work on her. We both figured it was probably a giant booger, but just in case, he poised the needle nose for a quick grab, since either way, it would need to come out in a smooth operation.

He took a deep breath to steady himself, and Wham! He grabbed that thing firmly, and started pulling, and out it came! And here is the part you're going to argue with me about. It started screaming and snapping its little teeth! I swear to you, it was struggling, and it was all Cletus could do to hold on tight to the pliers. "Get me something to put this thing in, Bubba!" he shouted, and all I could find was the partially consumed bottle of Old Nuclear™ with the screw cap off. I held it out to him, and he crammed it into the bottle, and I screwed that cap on as tight as I could. That little rascal thrashed and hurled itself into the walls of the bottle, and then settled down to doing a nice little backstroke, and then its little eyes crossed, and it smiled - it smiled, I tell you!

Cletus and I looked at each other, and we looked at the bottle, and we looked at Julie, and we looked at each other again.

"Bubba?" he said.


"I guess you know, we have to report this to the proper authorities."

"Yessir, we surely do."

So we went into the kitchen to try to look up the phone number of the National Enquirer editorial offices, and we didn't have much luck. So I figured maybe we should call 911 instead, and we went back into the living room where we left Julie.

And our hearts nearly stopped, because Julie was awake, and she was holding the bottle, and it was empty, completely empty.

And that's why I wrote you this letter, Ray. That bottle of Old Nuclear™ was gonna be your birthday present, and I'm sorry, I really am.

Monday, April 29, 2013

How to make your world a better place

How to make your world a better place

1) When you unload your groceries from the cart, walk a few extra steps and put the cart in its place. This could prevent a ding for somebody's car, and make at least one parking spot more accessible. To really improve the world, put somebody else's cart away, too.

2) If you find yourself sitting next to a mom with a crying baby on an airplane, offer to hold the baby while mom takes a nap. She is almost certainly tired. Be careful not to come on like a creep.

3) When in a public place, and you encounter a gang of hoodlums making noise and attracting attention, identify the loudest and most aggressive person in the gang, and also the quietest, most introspective of the gang. Quietly and discreetly kill the loudest one, and then offer the quiet one $20 to dispose of the body. Statistics show that many young people get into gangs because of economic stress, and this will help encourage some young person to escape his fate.

4) Wash your hands after you pee. Use the paper towel to open the door, so you avoid getting germs on your hands when you pull it open.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Movie Moment

A wonderful thing happened last night.

First, you need to know that we leave the living room lamp on a timer - it comes on at 5:00, and goes off at 10:00, whether we're home or away. (note to burglars: the weapons room is down in the basement).

We were watching Jurassic Park for the 2,447th time last night. We've come to the scene where John Hammond passionately orders Mr. Arnold to "shut down the system," because none of these people can figure out how to find the on/off switch on the CPU, or even how to trace the power strip to the wall to unplug it, or even how to find an external subroutine called "white rabbit" with a simple line command that would search for a text string, or possibly even just display the list of filenames. (I'm assuming Nedry coded out the escape key). Anyway...

So Mr. Arnold flips the switches, one by one as we see terminals stop displaying, and we hear CPU's whirring down (which means the problem is already solved, but that's another story). We pause, and the camera pans in for a close up as he prepares to flip the very last switch, the one that tragically sets the raptors free.

And at the EXACT SAME MOMENT THAT HE FLIPS THAT SWITCH and the lights in the control room go out, our living room lamp goes out. 

It. Was. Awesome. #CoincidencesFor500Alex

Monday, November 12, 2012

surreal experience

Today I had a surreal experience.

Each day (almost), I go to visit my in-laws at an assisted living facility. Part of the visit consists of sitting at one of the tables in the common room working a puzzle with my dear, sweet MIL. Its usually fairly quiet in the room, and sometimes other residents will sit with us and help with the puzzle. Sometimes staff will work the puzzle with us while on break. I enjoy it.

Understand that MIL is in a wheelchair, and has to speak very slowly - I'd say the rate is about five words a minute.She is as sharp as she ever was, but the words just don't come when she wants them to.  I'm pretty good at filling in the blanks for her, because I do that anyway due to a moderate hearing loss. Of course, it's hopeless when there is too much noise in the room, but usually the noise level is not so bad.

Today, we were working on a new puzzle, still building the edge pieces, and I had asked her to choose whether she'd like to work on the sky edge, or the grass edge at the bottom. She chose the sky. We got to work.

A woman came into the room and stood next to the table, and I was expecting her to sit down and start putting some pieces together, but she didn't sit down. She stood there and began talking. But she didn't just talk, she gave us a streaming narrative at 350 words per minute. I think she could have given Hilary E., a dear friend who works in radio, a run for her money. The words were clear, they were just fast - and I couldn't quite follow. I prepared to pay attention to her, for patience is one of my spiritual gifts, and has been since I actually requested it during prayer once, a long time ago. That is a request that God never refuses to grant, and he does it quickly. You know what I mean if you've ever prayed for such a thing.

And then something happened. Now, you have to understand that I don't multi-task very well. I can't listen to two things at once, or do two things at once. I am subject to stack overflow errors, to use a computer programming term. As she spoke, I became aware of everything around me, as if in a dream. Behind and to the right the television was playing a comedy of some sort, evidently an adult comedy, because a man announced "I'm gay," and the canned laughter seemed to really appreciate the line. The woman he said it to asked him when  he first knew, and he said, "when you kissed me just now." The canned laughter lost its composure completely.

Behind and to the left, there was a Skip Bo game under way, and one of the ladies was explaining to a  new player that you aren't supposed to set up the next player for an easy play, the idea is to keep other players from being able to play, don't you know that?

A resident in a wheel chair, I think her name is Wilma, asked about her niece. I feel sorry for this woman, because this is pretty much all she does all day: she wheels around and repeatedly asks people about her niece. "Have you seen Vickie?" goes the refrain, and everybody there - residents, staff and visitors - have learned to tell her that Vickie is at work, or we haven't seen her today, not yet. Staff usually promises she'll be by at five, because Wilma won't remember by then anyway. In fact, she'll forget within a couple of minutes, and she'll be asking all over again.

The woman with the radio personality speech habits was explaining that her therapy sessions were being cut off because of Obamacare, but that she was going to take advantage of the RIDES program, which would take her and three friends to a restaurant, if she could get three friends to go with her. The character on TV announced again, "I'm gay," and went on to explain that this wasn't about her, it was about him, but I wasn't sure if he was still explaining to the same person, since the original person would of course know by now, having been told before. Back at the Skip Bo table, somebody asked "Is this like 42?" but I didn't hear the answer. Wilma was asking again about Vickie, and somebody in a uniform was telling her that she was still at work and would be by later. Wilma explained that she needed to talk to her, and did she have the key to the cigarette cabinet? Unfortunately, she did not. But Vickie would know.

Now the lady at our table was telling us that she didn't know if the RIDES program was a taxi or a bus, but it was probably a bus, because it might be hard to fit five people in a taxi, and besides, her painting therapy was coming to an end, unless - unless the RIDES program could take her to the place where they were doing the painting! But if they did, how would they bring back the wet canvas in a taxi, so it had to be a bus. The words "I'm gay" came once again from the television, and I wondered how many people he was telling about his coming out of the closet, since this time he was irritated that apparently somebody had failed to be discreet about it, and had told his family - and again, it wasn't about her, and it wasn't her place to tell his family. Shrieks of laughter came from the Skip Bo table, where somebody had just won or made a mistake, and there was talk of whether it was skill or just luck. I wondered just how many people the gay guy was going to come out to before the show ends.

MIL and I kept nodding and smiling at the right places (I think), and the woman kept talking. A television in a nearby room down the hall was telling us that some politician or another was concerned about the "fiscal cliff" that we were heading for, and then the interviewer let him explain that "we do have to do something about it, and I certainly don't want to leave the burden to the middle class, but we have to ---" and I shut that part out, because it was a politician and they always lie anyway.

Once again we heard the words "I'm gay," completely ignored by the enthusiastic Skip Bo players, and the laugh track continued to have a roaring good time. Then somebody on staff, after assuring Wilma again that Vickie would be there later, came to get the woman and encourage her to go play Skip Bo with the others, since the current game was almost over. Oh, my yes, she certainly would, and she left the table. I wondered if she knew how Skip Bo might compare to 42.

The mists parted, and I became focused again on one thing at a time. Left in relative silence, when I could tune out the next "I'm gay" announcement, I looked down at the puzzle pieces. And my MIL leaned over to me and whispered "You can't work a puzzle like that," and shook her head, and smiled. She is right, you cannot work a puzzle while all that is going on.

I wonder if that's what ADD is like.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Halloween 2012: the Lights

 ©2012, William Payne
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or undead, is coincidental.

It was one of the more desolate places in Texas: within sight of a highway, but far enough from it that you couldn't hear the highway noise unless the air was perfectly still. Just close enough to Marfa that you could see the glow from the city's lights to the east.

It was a famous place. Not absolutely,  household word famous, but if you read a book about weird places, haunted places, or mysterious places, you had a good chance of reading a little about the Marfa lights. Nobody really had a perfect explanation for the phenomenon. Most people had an opinion about them, but nobody had any good ones. Swamp gas? That sounded good, but for the fact that west Texas is a desert, and there are no swamps. UFO's? A good idea, but why would UFO's keep returning to such a place,  night after night? Ghosts? Well... only if you believe in ghosts. And if you do, then there's no real reason to expect science to back up the idea. Ghosts just aren't subject to the rigors of science. But whatever the explanation, there were the lights, seen by many: mysterious, floating colored lights in the distance.

Michelle thought they might be ghosts. And what better time to test the theory than on Halloween night, in the hours just before and just after midnight? She got three other people together to slip out away from the highway after sundown, to sneak through the cactus and yellow grass to get to what Michelle liked to call "Ground Zero," the place where the lights seemed to be. Each of them carried a small flashlight, with an improvised plastic sheet taped on the front to keep the lights from being seen from the highway. "Just keep the lights aimed away from the road, and nobody will see us," she explained. This way, they could avoid walking into a prickly pear or cholla, which nobody wanted to do, no matter how exciting a ghost hunting trip might be.

They found a large flat rock to sit on, and estimated their position as being pretty close to where they had all seen the lights at one time or another. They looked to the highway, and could clearly see three cars in the pull-off where people liked to park when looking for the lights. The moon wasn't full, exactly, but there was enough light to let them count the cars. They hoped that it wasn't enough light to let the people in the cars see them. They weren't really supposed to be there. And so they sat quietly.

Michelle took off her pack, and pulled out her canteen. The others did the same. The night was cooling rapidly, as it always does in the desert, and the dry air made her thirsty. They had agreed  not to talk unless necessary, because it just seemed that a ghost was more likely to appear to you if you weren't chattering on and on about nothing. They had all seen episodes of Ghost Hunter and Ghost Hunter Academy, where people kept asking a ghost to "let us know you're here," and then not shutting up long enough for the ghost to get a chance to talk or make the air colder or anything. They were determined not to make that mistake out here.

Michelle looked out at the road, and saw that there were only two cars now. Somebody had already given up - she smiled at the impatience of most people. If you're going to see ghosts, or anything like ghosts, you have to be patient.

The minutes passed slowly by, at first, like the family viewing a casket after a funeral, but then they began to pass more quickly, like the friends, and the co-workers who didn't even like the deceased and wanted to get the obligation over with. The air was still. When it was this quiet, you could hear distant highway noise, even when you couldn't see the lights of the cars.

At 11:30, Michelle realized that she had nodded off, and rubbed her eyes to wake herself up. She looked toward the highway, and all the cars were gone. The air was still, but cool - almost cool enough to feel uncomfortable, but not quite. Two of her three companions had already put on sweaters. The white limestone rocks around them looked like ghosts on the ground, ready to rise up against them when the time was right.

"Seen anything yet?" she whispered. All three gave her a quiet, negative response. Michelle looked at her little Hello Kitty watch, and sighed. Sometimes people didn't see any lights at all. This might be one of those nights. Still, they had all agreed to stay out in the desert night's cool air until at least 1:00 a.m., lights or no lights, ghosts or no ghosts. She listened, and there wasn't even the distant noise of tires on the asphalt. They were alone.

Soon, midnight was approaching, with no fanfare. "Michelle?" It was Ashley, tugging at Michelle's sleeve.

"What is it? What?" she whispered. But Ashley said nothing more, only breathed more loudly. Michelle turned to see what was the matter, there was Ashley, with a look of terror on her face, and - then Michelle saw why Ashley was shaking. Her flashlight, with its blue plastic cover, was floating in the air about a foot from her face.

The flashlight turned itself on, and shined its blue light into Ashley's face. She looked as if she might cry at any minute.

"Ash, baby, don't be afraid. This is what we came here for. We have a real ghost. Maybe."

"Don't be afraid? Michelle... look around!"

"OK. What? What am I supposed to see?"

"How many - how many people did we come out here with? Do you remember?"

"Four. There are four of us. What - " then she realized that nobody was there but Ashley and herself.

"Where did they go? When did they leave?"

"I don't know where they went. They didn't leave, I didn't see them leave, they just - they just -"

"Stay calm, Ash. I'm going to get my cell phone and get some video of this. Our memories are playing tricks on us."

"Think so?"

"Yeah. Do you remember who was out here with us?"


"See? It was just the two of us. So stay calm and - and - my phone was fully charged when we left. I know it was."

"Not working?"

"Not working."

"Michelle, I don't mean to keep harping on this, but my flashlight is hovering in the air in front of me. Tell me what to do!"

"I know. I know. Just sit still and don't be afraid."

"But I am afraid!"

At that moment, the flashlight flipped to the other direction, and shined into the face of a young boy. He was looking into the light and tilting his head back and forth. Only his head and shoulders were visible.

"I want to go home! I want out of here!"

"Be still, Ash! it's OK. He won't  hurt you." She reached out her hand to touch him, and she passed through him. "Look. You can only see him where the flashlight shines on him. Outside the light, he's completely invisible. This is amazing."

"Does he know we're here? Can he see us? Can he hear us?"

"He looks kind of like a little cowboy, doesn't he? This explains - Ash, stay calm! I'm going to turn my light on, and see if I can light up the rest of him." She turned on her light, covered with green plastic, and the ghostly boy turned to her light, staring at it in amazement. "I don't think he can see us. I think he can only see our lights."

She thought for a moment. "I have an idea. Be still." She turned her light to Ashley, so she was illumined - and the ghost dropped the flashlight and gaped in fear at Ashley. "He can see you! Smile for him!"

She did. Or she tried to, at least. But he looked at Michelle's light, then at Ashley, than back at the light. He bent down and picked up the light from the ground, and shone it at both of them. He seemed surprised to see the two of them.

"This is amazing, Ash! We're looking at a real ghost, right now - we can see him, and he can see us! I wish I could get video of this." And the ghost grabbed Michelle's flashlight before she could react. She gasped, and her heart was now racing.

The ghost turned both lights on himself, looking into them as if they were a bright kind of magic.  And then both girls could see two other flashlights behind the ghost. They were the colors of the lights brought by the other two girls. Were they... the other two girls? I know they were girls, I know they were our friends. What were their names, she thought. But it was getting harder and harder to think. Maybe it was just Ash and me. Her head felt heavy, her mind felt clouded. Now the lights were floating toward each other, and there were no faces to be seen. When they came together, all four lights, they just disappeared. Only the moon kept them from feeling completely lost. They could still see strange light trails in their eyes. The rocks, after a time of adjusting their eyes, still looked like ghosts in the moonlight. The minutes passed in silence.

"I want to go," said Ashley.

"OK," said Michelle.

They walked carefully to avoid tripping on the rocks or stepping into prickly pear. The moonlight helped, but it was still a little hard to see.

"There were four of us. Weren't there four of us?"

"I think so. But I can't remember... I'm not sure... who the other two were. Do you remember?"

"No. My head feels funny."

They both looked at the same to time to see if there were any cars at the pull-off. There weren't. They walked at an angle to go straight to Michelle's car, parked farther back.

"Do you have your flashlight, Ash?" asked Michelle. "I don't know what I did with  mine."

"No. I.. I must have left it back there somewhere. Should we go back and get it?"

"No... I... I must be tired. I can't remember what I did with my flashlight."

"Me either."

Both were glad when the car started. For some reason, they weren't sure that it would.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Alaska cruise 2012

 Last week, GA and I enjoyed a week-long
 cruise to Alaska.

 We decided a couple of months ago it had been too long since we had done a cruise, so she sat down and did the research, and we booked that puppy for the last Alaskan cruise of the summer for the Rhapsody of the Seas on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line.
 Did you ever have one of those times when God is with you for the entire event? This one was like that. As we pulled out of the driveway, and the garage door glided slowly down, we did our usual prayer for the house to be watched over, and for the trip to be free of mechanical problems and difficulties that might spoil the fun. Then, on impulse, I added a ps: I asked God if he could, as a bonus, get us through airport security without getting groped. I mean, it can't hurt to ask.
 Believe it or not, we hit the security line, and as we were removing our shoes and belts, GA noticed that the Nude-O-Scope™ was turned off and everybody in our line was going through the metal detector! I was pretty sure that this was going to be a great vacation, because that was like God's initials in the corner.
 We flew to Seattle to spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express using GA's points, and the next morning we got up bright and early to catch the Seattle Express, which GA had arranged. We handed over our keys to the clerk, and GA noticed that there was a Seattle Express just outside the door, ten minutes early. She leaves me with the baggage to go check. They were pulling away, but she banged on their door, they stopped, and it turned out that they had called out our name and somebody else with a similar name (but no reservation) had answered, and had their luggage aboard in our place. We were just in time. I bet they start checking those papers a little more closely now.
 So we get to the port, and go through the line, and eventually board the ship.
 The previous week there had been an outbreak of noro-virus on the ship, and so they were going overboard (so to speak) with the cleanliness. Every room had been sanitized. Everywhere we went, if anybody touched anything, they sprayed it with disinfectant and wiped it down immediately. There were constant reminders to wash our hands after using the restroom (duh) and before eating anything (also duh). We also knew to cough in our elbows, not in our hands as we used to be taught in school. Keep your hands clean, and your chances of getting sick go way down. We also know one other important thing: when leaving the rest rooms, never ever touch that door handle. If it swings out, use your elbow. If it swings in, save the paper towel you used when washing your hands, and use it to open the door. It's a virtual certainty that that handle has been repeatedly touched by people who didn't bother to wash their hands, and therefore will be crawling with e coli bacteria. It's never a good idea to ingest e coli.
 So the first port of call is in Juneau. Now, our good friend Lois happens to be in Juneau, visiting her daughter who lives there. So we got a private tour of the sights, including Mendenhall Glacier, our first ever. It was incredibly beautiful.

 Then they took us to a stream where we saw salmon running up stream,

and when we were a little ways away, we got to see two adult bald eagles and a juvenile, feeding on fresh caught salmon. There were two others perched out on some kind of boating thingy.

At that point, it was already a magic level vacation. Thank you again, Kelli and Lois, and thank you again, God, for providing a beautiful sunny day!
 Then we did a little caching in an area where the Treadwell gold mine used to be, but which is now being reclaimed by the forest. If you look closely at the photo, you can see a ghost:

We didn't find the cache... can't win 'em all. Kelli got us back to the ship right on time, and so we claimed the cache hidden mere feet away from the security area.
 Next stop was Skagway. We weren't entirely sure what we might see there, but we had two excursions booked (independently of the cruise line). The bus to the high elevation tundra area was interesting and beautiful, but the one we really wanted to do, the one that was the highlight of the trip, was the rafting adventure up the fjord to see more bald eagles, harbor seals, and close up views of waterfalls. We made our way to the excursion meeting/waiting area.
 We were early, but the minutes ticked by, and the time to meet came and went, and nobody came to find us from the tour company. The time to leave on the tour came and went, and we called to see what was up, and all we got was a recording.
 We waited a little longer, just in case, but nothing. So we whipped out our handy Garmin Oregon 450 GPS unit and started the hike to Skagway to look for caches. I was disappointed, GA was very disappointed, but I figured there had to be a reason - I was pretty sure that God was on the trip with us.
So we found this virtual at a building whose front was made with drift wood. We wrote down the answers for the later email, and then got behind the building to get out of the wind, and GA's phone rang. It was the tour company. They had made a mistake, and entered our names on one list, but not on the list for the tour itself. Could we meet them for the 3:00 tour, because if we could they'd let us take the tour at half price. We grabbed a bus and got to the meeting place again. Profuse apologies, and then we were on our way to get suited up. Thank God for cell phones.
 Now, you might be thinking that this was a big FAIL because we didn't get on the tour we wanted. But we got on a better tour. This one had only four passengers, including us, so we got all that extra attention. And by that time, the seas were a bit rougher, so we got a more exciting ride - bumps and jumps and all kinds of fun. And we saw not only more bald eagles, we saw a dozen harbor seals sunning on the rocks as we drifted quietly by, so close we could have conversations with the seals. It was the best time EVER!

 I highly highly recommend contacting Ocean Raft Alaska  if you ever plan to cruise to Alaska and visit Skagway. It's something you won't forget!

 Next day was "at-sea," but it was a special kind of at-sea. Captain Speaking ("This is your Captain Speaking") drove the ship up another fjord to let us take a look at Sawyer Glacier - it reminded us both of the Titanic, because we were slowly making our way between the ice bergs, as the water was mirror smooth, and even looked cold, as opposed to just being cold.You know, Titanic cold. If  you've never seen a glacier in person, you need to add it to your bucket list. There is a cold shade of blue that you can't really see anywhere else or in a photo (it just isn't the same), and between us and the glacier were hundreds of little icebergs, many with harbor seals lounging on them. It's incredibly beautiful. Captain Speaking rotated the ship so everybody could get a good view no matter where they were standing (or sitting, if they happened to be on their balconies). (Note that the link above is to a video I had nothing to do with, but which I think is awesomely cool - but the following photo was taken by GA, and is also cool.)

The food on the ship was as good as ever, except that they no longer have escargot - but then, I think there is a snail shortage going on, so they substituted scallops in garlic and butter, prepared the same way as escargot, and - honestly - it tastes the same, which is to say you taste the garlic and butter and something scallop-like in there somewhere. There was also lobster night. And the desserts are to die for.
 The shows on this cruise were - how can I put this? - relatively lame. On past cruises, they were just short of Off-Broadway quality, at least as good as a Broadway touring cast. This stuff was actually within the lower range of Community theater productions. MCT for example, would have been ashamed to be seen doing what these shows turned out to be. There was a tribute to country music that I suspect was directed by somebody who hates country music. But that's OK... because on deck 6, every evening, we could be a part of the Adult Day Care at Night program, also called the Five Minute Party, with Derek Lewis. Imagine a perfect blend of kamikaze karaoke (meaning you don't pick your song, it's random), stand up comedy, attentive waiters to bring you adult beverages, and a parade of song parodies courtesy of Derek and his electric guitar. I tell you, that was the most fun I have ever had on board a ship. Nothing else in the way of cruise entertainment comes close.

 The last port of call was Victoria, in Canada. We grabbed a cache or two, and were trying to find one called "Little Brown Lamp Post," when a policeman in a spiffy uniform calls out "keep looking!" He wouldn't tell us where it was, but he did tell us we had almost touched it before, which was all we needed to know, and made the grab. He then offered to escort us to another, nearby cache, in the rose garden by the Parliament building. We got that one as soon as the local TV babe finished her interview with some profoundly important figure in Canadian politics, then went into the building to see what there was to see. In that building is a stained glass window commemorating the Queen's Jubilee year. Not the one for QE II, though there was one for her as well - no I mean the one for Queen Victoria! You know, the lady the city was named after.

 We both hated to see the cruise end, but they always do, because there's always somebody else who wants to come aboard and use your cabin when you're done with it.
 So a big thank you to Lois and Kelli, and to whoever broke the Nude-O-Scope™ at the airport, and especially to YHWH, the best God ever.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How we lost America

There was a time when elections in America were free and open. There may have been only two strong parties, but any competition was welcome to run for office on a level playing field. That was the law. Our representatives had to answer to us, the voters. Does anybody want to argue that such an America still exists? If so, stop reading, you're beyond hope.

How did this happen?

One of the benefits of being such an old fart is that I remember this stuff. I was here. So listen, my children, and consider what I have to say, and if I'm wrong, then go back to listening to CNN or Fox, as you choose. Soon enough I'll be in a rest home and I won't remember either. So bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this.

I remember when the IRS laws were changed to allow us to establish Individual Retirement Accounts. It seemed like such a good idea - we could defer taxation of some of our income and put it into an IRA until we reached retirement age. The net effect to the IRS was nil, since they simply raised the tax rates, and since they eventually get to tax your income when you get old enough. The effect on you, the taxpayer, wasn't as great as you imagined, because (yes) they simply raised the tax rate, but also remember that if you didn't put some money into that Mutual Fund then you just got socked a little harder than otherwise - so you kind of had to do it. But the effect on corporate America was amazing. Once things got going, they could count on investments from millions of workers - workers who can't take back the money for a long, long time. More important, those were workers who were very unlikely to show up at board meetings and question the actions of the CEO or the board members.

I also remember when any voter, or citizen, could donate to any political campaign as desired, and print political posters and distribute them with no government oversight. This was the essence of Freedom of Speech and of the Press, as per the First Amendment, which we used to cherish. But as the corporations began donating to political candidates, parceling out the money depending on who is friendly to them when it comes to legislation, we began to hear complaints about how money was corrupting the political process. Somehow we didn't notice that the money was coming from corporations - it was just "Big Money" buying the elections. So we began to see a series of Campaign Finance Reform laws. Soon, you could no longer just print up some posters - you had to have an organization with a treasurer, and you had to state on each poster who had paid for that poster. Such limits, of course, didn't inhibit the Big Money interests - just the average Joe Voter.

But there was still "too much money" in politics, and it had to be reformed, and so eventually we had laws that limit how much an individual can contribute to a political campaign. I think right now your limit is $2300, but I'll need to research that. It isn't really relevant exactly how much; the point is that you are limited.

Yet you can look at the campaign donations and you'll see that the candidates are receiving millions and millions of dollars. And if you look even closer, you'll see that the bulk of it comes from corporations. And if you look still closer, you'll see that those corporations are donating to both parties. Why would they do that?

Let's step back and consider the whole picture. We now have a system where the individual voter can only offer the candidate one vote and a maximum of $2300. But a corporation can offer him millions - without which he cannot possibly get elected, especially if his opponent is getting similar financing, which he is. Even better, a third party has no chance at all, or rather so little chance that we don't have to worry about him.

And that means that any man or group of men who owns 51% of a corporation can control the way the laws are written. And they don't even have to use their own money. They simply use yours. They take money that should have been paid into your retirement fund, and offer it to a politician, and that politician cannot afford to refuse it. This means that your representative owes you his rhetoric, but not his vote.

But it might be a bit much to expect a corporation owner to fund any third parties who may appear. And that could happen as more and more voters realize that the lesser of two evils is still an evil, though that strategy has worked well so far. Voters keep switching back and forth between parties, and they see their liberties disappearing, and they keep responding to the wild claims that get spread with each election. It's the other party's fault, you have to keep electing our party, not them over there, or it will get even worse!!! But the Republicans never end a single government program as promised, and the Democrats never get us out of a single war. They just promise to. Nothing changes, except for the worse.

But remember that they can't afford to allow a third party to get any traction, because if you actually have a choice, you might reject the parties they own. How do they prevent that? Well, besides rhetoric like calling them  "spoilers," it's really simple: they do it with ballot access laws in most states. Take Oklahoma, for instance. In that state,  your party cannot get on the ballot unless it has received a given percentage of the vote in the previous election. And that's hard to do, since they also made write-in voting illegal. The only way to do it is to collect a given number of signatures and submit them to the state during a narrow window of time. You can only hire signature gatherers who are Oklahoma residents, just to make it harder. And even then, the state can invalidate your signatures on a whim, which means you have to go back and prove they were valid. That's why they always gather about 20% more than the law requires. This is not a free and open election in any universe.

Now you're thinking "why don't they file a lawsuit? The state constitution guarantees free and open elections!" Well... they did just that. A joint lawsuit by the Libertarian and Green parties, possibly others, was filed, and the Oklahoma Supreme Court simply ruled against them. No explanation, really. Just... nope, these laws are perfectly Constitutional because we say so. And we are the law.

This is how dedicated to open elections you can expect your two parties to be. I guess it's no real surprise, since they depend on the money coming in from the corporations, who stole it from you.

So expect your Congressman to tell you what you want to hear. Don't expect him to represent you.

Now... what can you do about it?

In terms of legislation, we should throw out most if not all of the campaign finance laws enacted during the last four decades. Replace them with one law: no candidate for public office shall be permitted to accept a contribution from any person or entity who cannot legally vote for him. (Matter of fact, I'd like to see that as a Constitutional amendment, but for now a mere law will do).

Of course, our representatives will never enact such a law without some serious pressure. Anyone who introduces such a law is dead politically. Anyone who votes for it is, too. Rush Limbaugh will declare that money is speech, and Mitt Romney will declare that "corporations are people, my friend." But if money is speech, why has our own speech been limited to $2300? And the idea that corporations are truly "people" is laughable. They are not. They are merely owned by people.

The Democrats are no better. They are possibly worse, depending on how you look at it. Not that it matters. They're owned by the same people.

But what you can do now is to stop rejecting a candidate based on the idea that he cannot win. When you are told that a candidate cannot win, you are being told that he has no money. You are being told that he does not enjoy the support of Big Money. You are being told that he just might represent you rather than Monsanto, or the other corporations that run this sad, tired world.

Vote for people who lack the support of the TV networks. Vote for people even if you hear them called loons, idiots, wack-jobs, and so forth. Those accusations are ultimately coming from the Powered people. Listen to their positions for yourself. Examine the reasoning. Think! Stop letting Corporate Power tell you who to vote for. Their aim is to screw you and screw you big.

Anyway, that is how we lost America. And you have a hint how to get it back.  Your play. This crazy old man will now go back to sleep.

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