ORIGINAL POEM: “She Said”

It was better in my day.
 
She said,
“You’re the kind of guy
Who could get in a fight
In heaven’s parking lot”
 
She said,
“That straight jacket
Looks
Looks kinda good on you”
 
She said,
“Coal isn’t
Coal isn’t that bad a present
You can throw it at the people you don’t like.”
 
She said,
“There is nothing,
Nothing more unnerving
Than Eden.”
 
She said,
“I sat and I stared
At the sun all day
Trying to search for wisdom
And the one thing I learned
Was that you shouldn’t sit
And stare at the sun all day”
 
She said,
“I’ve been to the end of my rope
So many times
I might as well
Set up a tire swing.”
 
She said,
“I wanna be the first person
To tell a joke
That’s so offensive that
I end up in a labor camp.”
 
She said something
Something about the Jackhammer choir
Something about the Jackhammer choir
But I didn’t understand it.
 
And her spirit may be free,
Her spirit may be free,
Her spirit may be free,
But her ass
Is gonna cost ya.

How do we define religion?

How do we define religion?

It’s a tricky question. The most common definition is a belief in God or gods. Of course hipster doofuses are quick to point out that Buddhism has no gods, and could constitute an atheist religion. Typically, hipster doofuses are full of ignorant bullshit, because Buddhism is overflowing with gods (And hells), they’re just not integral to the process of human attainment of Nirvana. Just ask literally any non-white Buddhist and they’ll set you straight on that. Or even just look at the little shrines in any Thai restaurant.

Just the same, assuming they were right, can you have a religion without God/gods, but just some metaphysical hoobajoobery like reincarnation?

Taking that further, can you have a religion without any metaphysical beliefs whatsoever?

If we define religion as “A series of unverifiable metaphysical beliefs that affect the way one lives their life,” which seems a reasonable definition to me, then Atheism could be considered a religion, or at the very least a quasi-religion. The obvious argument there is, “They don’t believe anything metaphysical,” but it doesn’t take any sophistry to realize that believing something doesn’t exist without proof is really no different than believing something does exist without proof. They’re both faith-based assertions, and in these cases they really do affect the way people live their lives.

This is not a new argument, nor an especially clever one, I’m just putting it out there to show how vague the definition really is. Myself, I think I lean towards the Michael Chrichton camp on the subject: That we’re all wired to believe in something bigger than ourselves as a basic survival trait. The default is God/The Supernatural, however if you get rid of that, then something else will instantly take the place, be it Communism, Environmentalism, Social Justice Warriordom, Conspiracy Theories, Bernie Sanders, Alien Abductions, Ayn Rand, Unbridled Capitalism, or whatever. These things become defacto religions, the only thing separating them is that they don’t have a metaphysical aspect.

Or do they? Ayn Rand and Communism are quite adamant about how there’s no God or anything beyond life. Both of them have meetings and are organized, and have a core set of scripture-in-all-but-name writings. One has engaged in an actual crusade (Anticrusade?) against people with differing religious views, and the other probably would if it could get away with it.

Thoughts?

I think it’s possible that I might suck.

A girl I know recently asked me which of my books was the best, so I recommended my most recent one. She bought a copy and started reading it.  As I had time to kill at the Flea Market, I opened one of my own copies and started rereading it. Knowing her as I do, I tried to read it from her perspective, and quickly realized that she’d utterly hate the first three stories, and probably be bored by a couple others.  This prompted a crisis in faith of my creative abilities.

This was ameliorated somewhat by three stories in the book that are genuinely really good, and one of which that isn’t great, but is a fun read. So I can get lucky at least some of the time, but that just puts me on the cusp of suck/not suck, it doesn’t resolve the issue. As to my friend? I’m more interested to know if she actually finishes the book than whether she likes it or not at this point, since I’m pretty sure she won’t. Basically, if she’s irritated or bored by the first couple stories, she won’t.

Or I have another friend that I gave several of my books to once. He’s not bothered to read ’em yet. This was years and years ago, back when I still only had three. He’ll never finish ’em. I don’t really blame him because he’s got a lot of crap going down in his life, but the bottom line is that if you’re interested in something, you dive right in as soon as you’ve made a little time, and if you don’t have interest, you backburner it.  This is more a question of whether I’m interesting or not rather than it is of whether I suck or not, but it still feeds into the same issue. Not being interesting is part and parcel of sucking.

All of you have read fanfic at some point. You know what I mean. “How did the Trill get their spots?” and the endless Mary Sues…ugh. I don’t write that stuff. I only do originals. Still, you get what I mean, right?

I’ve always written about what interests me, and as I’m an effortlessly interesting person (An arrogant thing to say, but I’ve been repeatedly told that by strangers over the years), I just naturally assumed my stories would be as well. In the past, when this issue has come up, I’ve blown it off and just said, “I’m writing because of the joy of writing, and if anyone reads it, that’s just gravy. It’d be nice to make some money, but I don’t care much.”  That’s always been 50% a lie, but it’s a lie I tell myself, and as long as I can concentrate on it, I can keep going.

This latest ill-advised bit of introspection is a little different, though. It’s been about two years since I’ve written anything, my longest break since I started self-publishing. I’ve got a friend’s book to finish for him (He died) and I can’t motivate myself to do it. I have a lot of unfinished stories I can’t quite get ’round to. I have friends who’ve tried to cowrite with me, and I can’t get my shit together to do it. I’m 90,000 words into a novel and too intimidated by the task to finish it. I’m not blocked, mind you, I have lots of ideas, and my writing flows when I do it. I’m just really anxious about doing it. Overthinking it. And now, on top of that, there’s the crisis of faith of whether or not it’s genuinely any good, or if I just think it’s good, and the people who’ve agreed are either just being polite, or just don’t know the difference between good stuff and drek.

And then there’s my music, which I take less seriously than my writing, but I’m still invested in. As no one ever listens to it (My latest original song has 17 views. It’s less than three minutes long. My most popular song has 360 views, and only ‘cuz it’s a Blondie cover that people discover by mistake) that’s disappointing, too. Again, a couple years ago I’d blow it off as “I don’t care,” but I do. Not as much as with the writing, but I do.

Basically I think it’s the timing. I’m 50 now. 2/3rds of my life are past. My health ain’t great. I work at a flea market, my first job in 11 years, and honestly I’m lucky to get it. The one thing that’s really distinguished me in the last 6 or 8 years is that, despite my lack of a significant audience, I’m good at what I do.  But now I’ve managed to shake myself to the point where I’m questioning that notion, and I’m just wondering if it’s worth it.

What’s the point?

I’m fishing for encouragement more than compliments here, though compliments are not unwelcome. And if you think I do suck, critiques would be welcome as well.

Science Fiction and the Question of Identity

I think for me, the most sure-fire appealing SF is that which deals with questions of identity.

Blade Runner is the most obvious example of this: Androids (Basically) are programmed with false memories of their lives prior to their activation for psychological reasons, but they know they’re androids. A detecive is hired to track them down. Along the way he meets another android who doesn’t know she’s an android because of the fake memories, and handles it not at all well. In the end, after killing off the last of the bad androids, he discovers that he’s an android, too, and runs.

Dark City is another one: a guy wakes up with Amnesia, framed for a murder he may or may not have committed. He’s got an estranged wife that he loves, and is on the run, but he notices that the map of the city redraws itself every night, and he ke keeps seeing the same people in different jobs every night, and begins to suspect that he’s never even met his wife prior to visiting the movie, that those are false memories. As it turns out, a hive-minded alien species is trying to find “The Human Soul,” for lack of a better word, by redefining people’s lives and memories dozens of times, assuming that which doesn’t change is the thing they’re looking for.

The Prisoner TV series spends 17 episodes with a character named “#6” attempting to figure out who the shadowy ruler of The Village, “# 1,” is. Ultimately it turns that #1 is, and has always been, #6 himself. (And in fact, they told us that in the opening titles of every episode: #6 says “Who is number one?” and the #2 of the week says “You are number six.”  Which actually is written, “You are, number six.” Hidden in plain sight.)

Much, if not most of Philip K. Dick’s novels and stories touch on this to some extent. The most notable case is in “A Scanner Darkly,” when undercover narc Bob Arctor is accidentally assigned the task of spying on himself by mistake. Rather than blow his cover (Even his bosses don’t know who he is), he goes along with it, and gradually suffers brain damage to the point where he’s Bob half the time, and a druggie the rest of the time. the ultimate attempt to re-fuse his identities devastates him, and turns him in to yet another person, who’s just another burned out wasteoid.

There’s a book – forget the title – where the main character is a spy who’s memory is wiped after every mission. He then has it put back in at the start of his next mission, and he’s always quite shocked to find out all the stuff he’s done.

I like hard SF, but I don’t see this as incompatible with that. I also like questions of the human soul, and this is all about that.

In the end, I suppose, a line from one of Laurie Anderson’s songs has always stuck with me:

We don’t know where we come from

and we don’t know what we are.

SF is uniquely suited to try to define the parameters of that question, even if it is fundamentally unanswerable. I admire anyone who takes a stab at it.

ORIGINAL POEM: “Wand” 4/29/17

If I could fix you
If I had a magic wand
If I could wave it
Magically wave it all away
All of the pain
All of the anger
All the confusion
All of the fear

If I could fix you
You could understand
No one’s out to get you
It’s all in your mind
You could forget it
Let it all slip away
Nothing would scare you
Well, not much anyway

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I could wish it away

And you could have friends!
You wouldn’t be lonely!
And some old ones might come back, too
The ones you drove away
And you could be happy!
And not fear the future
You could be the old you
Not this thing that’s eaten you

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I’d do that for you

But it took you so long to get to this day
That you don’t believe in your own decay
And can’t remember it was any other way
And you claim that you wish it would all go away

But do you?

What’s it gonna be?
Come on, now,
What’s it gonna be?

If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
Would you let me fix you?

If I could fix you
If I had a magic wand
You wouldn’t let me, would you?
“Because you’re not crazy,”
“Because the world is crazy,”
Because you can’t leave this life
You’ve lived it so long

So if I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
If I had a magic wand
I’d wish myself away

MOVIE REVIEW: “Panic in Year Zero!” (1962)

The only thing better than discovering a B movie you’ve never seen in a genre you like is discovering a good B movie in that genre. “Panic in Year Zero!” is a damn good movie. Damn good, I say.

Directed by, and starring onetime-superstar Ray Milland, and co-starring a pre-beach-movie Frankie Avalon, along with a cast of nobodies, it tells the tribulations off a normal American family in World War III. Well, a normal American family with a dad who slips into a watered-down Welsh accent, but, hey, whatever.

Despite having a budget of a couple hundred bucks, plus whatever was left over at the Craft Services table when the previous production wrapped, the movie uses it exceptionally well. “Low Budget” doesn’t mean “Bad,” and if you use your low budget effectively, it can give you qualities that a bigger, slicker film can’t. This movie uses its limitations excellently. I expected it to be yet another ‘Family escapes, then gets attacked my mutant monsters’ turd. Instead, I got an intelligent, well directed, pretty well acted movie that both shows the best qualities of the mid-century American can-do attitude, and also how thin the veil of civilization really is. It pulls off the juggling act of optimism,  pessimism, and and mild action all at the same time.

Much like Red Dawn (The 1984, not the crappy remake), we start out with normal slice-of-life as the family gets ready to go on a fishing trip for the weekend. Shortly after they get into the foothills, they start seeing flashes and hearing booms they mistake for lightning. The dad quickly realizes the truth, and we get the ONE special effect in the film (A matte of a mushroom cloud with the cast staring at it from the road).

From there the tension ratchets up. All the radio stations are dead. They find one from Bakersfield which seems perfectly normal, but it abruptly goes dead. They pull over at a payphone to try to call grandma, but can’t get through. They start getting nearly run off the road by cars hauling ass out of the city. They stop at a restaurant, which is packed with scared people and running out of everything. This being almost the ’50s, the dad hits on the idea of pulling off the highway and driving through some of the smaller towns that may not have heard yet. This works for a while.

What makes this work is that the dad is a decent all-American (though occasionally Welsh-accented) guy, determined to be fair and decent with everyone. He is burdened with being the only one in his family who really grasps what’s going on, however, and the lines between what he will and won’t do blur pretty quickly. Initially he pays for gas when they need a refill, and pays for groceries – this being before the idea that money is useless has really sunk in yet – but pretty soon he’s beating people up to take what he needs, then leaving behind as much cash as he thinks is fair to salve his consciousness.

At one point he starts a fire to create a traffic jam so he can get his car across the highway and down a dirt road on the other side. This causes one oncoming car to burst into flames, and the driver to be clearly injured, but dad don’t stop.

What keeps this from going all Breaking Bad is that he sees what’s happening. He’ll do anything to keep his family safe (And fails, because he is just a guy, not some superman or army vet who’s trained for this stuff). Example:

Wife: “You can’t be so hard on yourself.”
Dad [depressed]: “I killed two men.”
Wife: “I tried to kill them, too, I just wasn’t a good enough shot.”

Later on, when his son, Frankie Avalon, shoots a guy in the arm, he gets a little too worked up over it. “I could have blown his head clean off!” He likes his newfound power. Dad tears into it, talking about how the best part of civilization is gone, and how they’re going to have to do some uncivilized things to survive, “But I want you to hate it. Every time you have to do something bad to another man, it’s your duty to hate it, because that’s all there is left of civilization: What’s inside of us. If we lose that, we’re no better than them.”

Eventually, they manage to find a place to hid out in the mountains, and do pretty well there for a couple months, with only infrequent news by radio (They get five minutes of emergency broadcasts every two hours, on the hour).

Then the film gets unexpectedly vicious. Some wandering thugs attack the daughter. Mom scares them off with a gun. Dad and Frankie come back to the camp, later on and see Daughter crying and the mom looking forlorn and holding her close. Dad asks, “Did they…hurt her?”

Mom nods, yes.

I was dropjawed! This is an early ’60s adventure film. Teenage girls don’t get raped in these movies! They make it very clear that she did, though. She behaves in a tragic fashion in the aftermath, apologizing to her dad as if it’s her fault, talking about how she doesn’t want to go back to civilization because she’s ‘not the same,’ and so on.

In a run in with the same thugs later on, we discover that they’ve murdered four people, and are holding another teenage girl prisoner, using her as a sex slave.

Again: holy crap!

This girl is a better actress then the daughter, and telegraphs the trauma better. There’s an oh-this-is-just-wrong romantic subplot about Frankie developing a crush on her and putting the moves on her, but before I could even say, “Oh, God, no, don’t go all stupid on me now,” the girl completely shuts him down, and he realizes what he’s done.

Later on someone gets shot and they need a doctor. On the way, they hear on the radio that the enemy has surrendered. They manage to find a doctor, who insists they roll up their sleeves before they come in (“Can’t be too careful. Junkies are everywhere”). Even as its drawing to a close, the film maintains its dual viewpoints

Dad: “The war’s over! We won!”
Doctor [sarcastically] “Well ding, ding for us.”
Dad [put off]: “You have a very odd sense of humor.”
Doctor: “The war is over, over there, but that doesn’t change anything over here. Now, you stay on the back roads. And you keep your gun handy. Our country is still full of thieving, murdering patriots.”

So Dad manages to keep his family alive, if not safe. Or does he? the movie is a little ambiguous about that as well. We don’t actually find out if the person who got shot survives or dies. It’s implied that probably survived, it’s made clear that they have a good chance of surviving, but the film steadfastly refuses to give us a clear-cut happy ending. All we’re told is that we can not allow endings, only new beginnings.

Wow! This is strongly recommended.

There’s negatives, of course. Frankie looks like a teenager, and him viewing the disaster as a fast track to becoming a man is a neat twist, but he’s not good enough to quite pull it off. The daughter is just a plain bad actress. The mom is a bit of a schlub. Frankie spends two days in a car with open windows, and never gets as much as a follicle out of place. Damn, that’s some hair helmet he’s got going on there. The soundtrack – a big, bold, jazzy, swingin’ score – is completely inappropriate for the movie. “The Wilderness” is clearly a soundstage, and some of the day-for-night shots are painfully obvious.

From a modern perspective, the movie is pretty sexist. Women are victims. They can’t defend themselves. They’re baggage. A lot of viewers may find this offensive or insulting.

From the perspective of the time, though, I think this is pretty on the mark. Women were not trained to be self-reliant. Given that their lives were intended to be cooking, cleaning, and shopping, I think the movie actually acquits itself pretty well. Mom is eventually packing a gun, as is one of the girls. Two girls get raped, but they don’t go suicidal or completely catatonic. It’s made clear that they’ll survive and they still have worth. They’ve been violated, they’ve not been sullied.

Bottom line: This is actually a better movie than a lot of big budget World War III films. It’s a forgotten minor classic. Watch it.

SUNDAY SERMON: And The Beast Is…

Today, we’re gonna talk about the identity of The Beast from Revelation. There’s all kinds of baroque theories about this: Some big computer, some guy – probably Jewish – that we haven’t met yet, the Roman Catholic church, as well as flash-in-the-pan paranoia: Mohammed, Napoleon, Hitler, Nixon, Reagan, Both Bushes, Clinton, and Obama have all been accused of being the Beast.
 
My opinion of the Bible is that it was written for the generation in which it was published. If Revelation was to make any sense, it had to makes sense for the people who read it in the late 1st century. It doesn’t make sense for me to take the opinion that it had to be translated into Latin, then English, then brought to America and left to simmer for a couple centuries before people could understand what it meant. A lot of people are of that opinion.
 
OK, so looking at it from a first century perspective, something becomes obvious: The book is in two parts. The first third is an elliptical and/or poetic retelling of the recent past, and the second half is about the future. IOW, the second half is what we think of when we say “Prophecy,” and the first half is there to evoke the book of Daniel, and set up the second half. This is not at all inconsistent with Old Testament Jewish prophecy which was often about the present and recent past as it was the future.
 
The division happens around 8:1 when it reads, “When The Lamb opened the seal there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.”
 
Nearly all the events prior to that can be tied to specific events in the Jewish war of 66-70 AD. I’m not going to go into a full breakdown, we can discuss that some other time. Another important thing that seems clear to me: That war lasted 3 1/2 years. 3 1/2 x 2 = 7. How long was the tribulation again? 7 years. The author (At least to my reading) pretty clearly feels the tribulation has already started (That’d be the 66-70 war) and that the Church was living in a kind of extended time out before the second half started. We’re still waiting for that second half.
 
Which brings us to The Beast. Jews / Christians reading/hearing Revelation would clearly have identified the Jewish War events John recounts in a spiritualized form. It wasn’t a code to them (As we so often assume) or not much of one. It was really more like an open metaphor. So, also, is the Beast.
 
First we’re told that The Beast had a dagger thrust, but survived. We’re also told that an image of him is created, and anyone who doesn’t worship it will be slain. He further causes all, both high and low, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand, the mark being a number that is also a name. We are expressly told that people can figure this out, which means people in the 1st century could have figured it out, which means they DID.
 
The number in our Bibles is 666, but the number 616 is almost as common in many early manuscripts. If it’s a typo, it’s a very common one.
 
Greek and Hebrew letters have numerical value, just like Latin letters do. Now, in order to do ANY business transactions, you had to get a tax stamp. This was like a notary stamp, kinda, showing that the emperor had gotten his cut of the transaction. IOW, that you’d paid your sales tax. The stamp During the period immediately before Revelation was written, the emperor was Domitian. The tax stamp during his reign in the eastern empire was in Greek,and it read:
 
Iota Delta [space] Kappa Alpha Iota Sigma Alpha Rho Omicron Sigma. In English, this means “14th Year of Caesars’s Reign” (Sorry for spelling those out. I can’t do greek characters on FB, alas) Now, using the Greek values for those numbers we get 14+20+1+10+200+1+100+70+200 which equals….616! Clearly at least the ‘typo’ copies are referring to the emperor Domitian.
 
Ok, so where’d the “666” come from, then? If you add the letter Nu – “N” – then you’ve added 50 to the equation, which gives you 666. Why would you add “N?”
 
Because Domitian was obsessed with his uncle Nero. He persecuted Christians just like Nero did, he re-assembled as much of Nero’s staff as possible, styled himself as much like his uncle as he could. This was so obvious, so well known, that a common nickname for him was “The Bald Nero.” Just like his uncle, he even died abruptly. In Domitian’s case, by stabbing. Assassination in 96 AD.
 
One day he’s at the peak of his power, oppressing and killing folks, and then: toast. This happened so fast that many people didn’t believe he was really dead, but that he was just hiding somewhere, waiting to reveal himself again for some larger purpose.
 
“What about the mark on the head and hand?” Metaphor. If you love money, it’s on your mind. If you merely need to use money, it’s on your hand (Most people being right handed). If you don’t use money, you’re likely gonna starve (Which is to say, if you don’t get the stamp)
 
That image people had to worship? The imperial statue. It was a sacred object, Domitian was regarded as a god, and was commonly addressed as “Our lord and god domitian.”
 
Clearly this is what Revelation is referring to: The Beast was the Emperor Domitian.
 
This presents an obvious problem for us Christians, as the dude has been moldering away in a tomb for more than nineteen hundred years. I suppose we have to assume he’ll be resurrected whenever the second half of the Tribulation starts, or that he’s been otherwise occulted until then. That’s really not any weirder than a lot of other theories about the Beast, if we’re honest.
 
But there is no doubt in my mind: It was/is Domitian.