Shiny & Blue

I live in the hills just outside the city limits. We have no lawns where I live. Driveways are dirt and the oaks have been growing since the Civil War. But where I live is less country than when I moved in. The rolling landscape that shoulders the two-lane road between the urban center and my small home has been filled with new rooftops. The night’s dark sky isn’t as dark as it used to be. And the sound of tires across pavement continues deep into the wee hours of the morning. Austin has grown.

I bought my house back when the roads were quiet and Austin had its voice. I chose this piece of land because of those things that you can only describe by describing: The structure sat on a cliff’s westerly edge and overlooked a wet weather creek and a wooded valley; the property offered a 360-degree view with no houses in sight; it afforded me the life of a vibrant city, and yet its lawn was a field upon which the deer were grazing when I started my day. It was the best of both worlds, I could listen to the birds in the morning and Austin’s Blues at night.

The 5 Stages of Cool:

Stage 1: Artists discover an affordable town nestled within natural beauty. They set up shop.

Stage 2. Trendsetters discover the hidden art community. They christen it hip. Tourism follows.

Stage 3. Chic visitors become residents. Wannabees follow their lead. The town becomes a city.

Stage 4. Multinational corporations follow the money (because wannabes love nothing more than white chocolate mocha lattes). The city’s unique personality withers.

Stage 5. Demand pushes prices higher. Local artists and entrepreneurs are forced out. And all they see in their mirrors is the fog of once cool.

Austin has been thriving for years. It’s been the influx of tech and its money. We’ve gotten shinier. Sexier. Cosmopolitan. New York, LA, Miami, Austin.

The dozens of rising skyscrapers along Lady Bird Lake create a facade of Life. Appearances. But for those of us who’ve been here for decades, for those of us who know her, we recognize that our city’s mortal coil has been growing increasingly cold, a grayer shade of blue, as the out-of-staters price its people — artisans, musicians, regular folks — out of their homes and from the city.

Imitation has replaced authenticity. Glam has replaced us.

Austin, Texas, has died.

I grew up in the 1970s. My parents both worked but were home by 5:30. We had four TV channels. No decent radio stations. The internet wasn’t a thing. So while one of the kids on our lakeside road might have had Little League, that was about it. Our nights and weekends were left to us. We rode bikes, played in our yards, found shit to do with the clutter in our basements. Our lives were slow. But they were our own.

Last night, bored amid a pandemic and without a basement, I sat in my yard and listened. The two-laner up the way, the one to town with all those new houses which was once a slow winding farm to market road, has been widened and straightened to accommodate the newcomers who want a country existence like mine but with the shortest possible commute. This new high-speed pavement now never falls silent. Nor slows. But it was quiet last night like it used to be. And through its silence I again heard Life.

Friends in Houston have posted similar observations about the slowing of their lives during Covid-19. One wrote that for the first time he saw the family across the street playing in their yard, parents and children together. I’ve read the same from strangers on Twitter. Soccer practices and high-intensity vacations have been canceled. Nights out with buddies have turned into nights home with wives. Not everything is peachy. It never was. Yet the amplitude has been turned down. We seem to be decelerating to our natural speed. Funny how the presence of death seems to lead to that.

The threat of the grave is everywhere now. All we talk about is Covid-19. We look at everything with suspicion, as if but for this virus our bodies would live eternal. But that, of course, is a lie. Death is always near: bullets, illness, weird accidents that would be funny except for the human toll, the flu. The sheer variety of things that can kill us inoculates us to the truth that we’re not long for this world. A distracted driver could hit you three minutes from now.

…gone.

But succumbing to mortality is only one form of death. There are more subtle ways of dying than your final heartbeat. Do you sense them now that you’re still? They — as sure as that distracted driver, a stage-4 diagnosis, Big Macs — have been killing us for years. They’re the quiet deaths that rob you of time just as certain as your conclusion: death of home, death of intimacy, death of time. These are the deaths that no vaccines can cure.

Covid-19 is like Austin today. It’s the bright shiny object getting all the attention. But Covid can only end you. And surviving its passage cannot alone bring Life. That’s because it, Life, requires more than functioning lungs. It requires wide eyes and an open heart that allow an inflow of the natural world and the love of your people. It requires you to be present for them and to them. It requires that you give it your time so that it can enrich the time you receive back in return.

Covid-19 will pass. What will you do, then, if you make it through, with the time that you’re offered between this black death and the coming white sheet? Will you sell it? Pass it by? Value its every second?

Nobody wants a pandemic. But nobody says we can’t learn from one.

Use its time wisely.

The Final Minute

We’re hunkered down for the virus. Well, sorta. I’m at home, like we’re supposed to be, but my wife’s at work at the small store she’s managed since it opened 10+ years ago. Because I’ve worked from home for years, and she’s at the store, our life somewhat resembles what it was before Covid-19. Except my wife and her boss are offering curbside service now; and her store’s cooking classes have been cancelled; and they’re wiping the place down after each customer.

Roll the film noir film stock.

INT. LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
Wife enters. Husband greets her. They tentatively embrace. She quickly exits to bathroom. Door closes.

When we set aside what appears to be normalcy and take a good hard look at our hand scrubbing, and the absurdly long stares we give table tops and silverware before we dare touch them, the paranoia we face when packages arrive at the door and we’re unsure the health of their senders, carriers, deliverers, it feels like we’re living through some sort of Walking Dead shit where bleach replaces machetes and my wife and I debate kissing. Yeah, kissing. We breathe the same air, share the kitchen and bathroom, a bed. But set aside logic, I’m searching for time.

I spoke with Mom tonight. We talk often. But our calls feel more precious now. She’s 98. I’m almost 60. We’re in Covid-19’s crosshairs. Both of us. But my priority is my life. Not hers. No, not because I’m a dick, but because a mother shouldn’t stand over her only son’s grave. Not after she’s put so much effort into keeping him alive. I have to outlive her… by at least one minute.

I’m an only child who’s lived from a wheelchair for 50 years, a child whose mother willed him through a decade-long battle with a deadly illness, a mother’s child who wishes that as an adult I had eaten better, kept exercising, traded screen light for sunlight. For just that minute.

Daddy died 25 years ago. That’s when I knew my one and only job: get healthy. I began swimming, eating organically, protecting my life. For her.

But life…

I met someone, settled in, got lazy and careless, rediscovered doughnuts. How many minutes did that doughy goodness cost me? It matters now.

My childhood was spent in hospitals, but I was rarely alone. I was frequently sad, but depression was never allowed the ground to root. Because Mom was there. My mother did more than give me life. She saved my life. So I can’t sell hers to Hell.

Just one minute.

I missed grades 7-12. Illness. But ten years later, I graduated from a top tier university, married a woman far above my grade, started a surprisingly successful business that lasted until the 08 crash took it down. You know how and by whose invisible hand I passed those markers. You know.

Yet you can’t ignore dark clouds or ticking clocks. They’re so much bigger than we are. And so much smaller. Invisible to the naked eye. Microscopic.

So it’s left to us to adjust. To “stay in place.” To breathe less deeply until the machinations of nature pass. Tick Tock. Tick Tock.

My wife and I are in our fifties and we don’t have kids, and I’m an only child. My DNA’s speeding down a straight two-laner heading toward its unavoidable end. No exits. No attractions. Just that final dramatic scene. By Covid-19. Or something else.

And I’m okay with that.

As long as I last those final 60 seconds.

Bernie’s Brand

I’m going to tell you what doomed the Bernie Sanders campaign, and it wasn’t policy. More than 50% of voters want Medicare for All.

And it wasn’t his age. He’s sharp and energetic.

It wasn’t because he is not a Democrat. That’s not widely understood.

Finally, it wasn’t the Bernie Bros. Most voters aren’t on Twitter.

What doomed Bernie’s campaign?

Branding.

Bernie Sanders has cornered the market on young voters since 2016. Democratic voters fifty and sixty years younger than the guy adore him. Almost worship him. But young voters are not enough when it comes to Presidential elections. First, unlike Boomers and their parents, young voters are remarkably unreliable. They go to the rallies but not to the polls. Second, there just aren’t enough of them. The number of young voters is dramatically overshadowed by older, reliable voters.

Fact: Candidates can’t win without older voters.

But older voters are suspicious of, even fearful of, terms like “Revolution” and “Socialism.” These words have been triggers for them for as far back as the Cold War. The Red Scare burned that into them when Boomers were still the age of Bernie’s youngest supporters. But Bernie could have overcome this.

Bernie Sanders wants to be a socialist far more than he is a socialist. At heart he’s just a good old fashioned liberal, the boring old school vanilla kind of liberal that Boomers heard lauded by their Democratic elders and that they themselves once supported. And that was the problem.

What Bernie ignored as he clung to his revolutionary brand was that if you’re over fifty, like Boomers are, it was drilled into you when you were still a child that Roosevelt saved America from the Republican-caused Great Depression. It’s for that reason that FDR is a god to older Democrats. His New Deal policies? They fit hand in glove with Bernie’s. If Bernie would have highlighted those connections instead of his “Revolution,” his policies would have been extraordinarily familiar — even comforting — to the silver-haired set, and two generations of older voters could have been added to his youthful base. That small shift would have almost certainly brought him close to the 51% of delegates he needed to win the nomination. Yet that wouldn’t have been enough. He also needed the heart of the Democratic Party: African-American voters.

Winning over black voters is a hard nut to crack. Black voters, especially older black voters, are intensely loyal and intensely pragmatic. And Joe Biden was Obama’s wingman…

But do you remember LBJ?

LBJ, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, was the man who signed into law The Voting Rights Act of 1965. That single stroke of the pen, for the first time in American history, guaranteed African-Americans the right to vote. Finally, 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, it gave black voters a voice in government. It was long overdue and followed years of effort by African-American leaders and the white protesters who supported them.

One of those white protesters had been Bernie Sanders. In 1963, two years before the Civil Rights Act was signed, Bernie was arrested in Chicago for protesting against segregation — arrested as in there are police records, newspaper photos, even newspaper interviews! What other 2020 Democratic nominee offered that kind of bonafides with older black voters? Not even Harris or Booker, both black, have been arrested for championing Civil Rights! And while, yes, Biden stood respectfully at Obama’s side for eight years, he first fought like hell opposing school busing, then wiped the floor with Anita Hill, and capped it off by championing the Clinton crime bill that unnecessarily incarcerated thousands of young African-American men. Joe was vulnerable on racial issues as Kamala Harris made evident, and yet Bernie rarely mentioned his own history. Opportunity wasted.

So here we are.

Most of us of a certain age want to be James Dean. We want to be rebels. So, apparently, does Bernie Sanders. But Bernie held onto “socialist” and “revolution” a little too long and failed to sell his solidarity with older African-Americans in terms they would have related to. And that sucks for America far more than it sucks for him. Because we need Bernie. The man not the brand.

The Darkness Cult

I am a liberal, but I love strong political debate. I want to be challenged. I want conservatives to change my mind. To make me see the light. To make me smarter. As Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.”

But at this point in time some of the smartest people I know have locked themselves in a small dark (and it is dark) room where they are fed lies they consume whole and vomit up with impunity.

This isn’t conservatism we’re dealing with. This isn’t the Republican Party that once sided with America. This is a cult in the shape of conservatism, like the Moonies were a cult in the shape of Christianity, and I don’t know how we fight it. But another Bible verse, Ephesians 6:12, comes to mind: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

We are not fighting ideas. Not anymore. We are fighting against an enemy that ignores reason. That ignores science. That ignores fact. That does not view human beings as human beings but as races and religions and nationalities. It is at its core the rejection of… us.

So, I guess the question is, How do you respond to a Crusade?

EMG (electricity)

Ann Arbor. One hundred miles from home. The two of us were in a small windowless room. It was dark. I was nine-years-old. My mother waited in the hall outside.

Leather straps bound me to a gurney. My body was already weak. But the straps made certain that I was unable to move. I lay there with needles that had been pressed into the muscles of my arms, abdomen, legs, feet, and hands. The needles were connected to wires plugged into a control board. The board housed a row of potentiometers.

A young man, the other person in the room, turned one of the potentiometers, and electricity surged into my arm. Its current stung, burned, made my muscle quiver. I screamed for my mother.

He returned the dial to neutral.

Mother was born on a ranch in deep Baptist Texas. She was raised to follow the rules. This morning, she was commanded by a man half her age — a boy, really — who was donned with the authority of a white lab coat to leave her third grader in the room with him. She was told to sit in the hall and wait. She did what she was told.

The young man turned another dial. Another muscle stung, burned, quivered. I screamed for my mother and begged him as I sobbed, “I’ll do anything you want me to! Please, please, please stop! I’ll do anything you want!”

He turned another dial.

I was five when we lived in Muncie, Indiana. You could say it was there that I was initiated into this particular morning. I pressed a safety pin into an electrical outlet and 220 volts of electricity coursed from my fingertips up through my arms to my chest. I fell to the floor. I screamed for my mother.

He turned another dial.

A surge of electricity traveled from the board, through a wire, into my body. My muscle stung, burned, quivered. And I screamed for my mother. She waited in the hall like she was instructed.

Terrorism

Terrorism isn’t the destruction of a building. Terrorism changes your priorities far more than it changes your skyline. Terrorism plunders everything because of that singular necessity: survival. 

It begins with a loss of equilibrium. Your brain feels like it’s melting into fluid and becoming unmoored from your skull as the room spins and your hearing and eyesight struggle to convey faithful representations of the space and sounds around you. Finally, if these signals accurately represent what’s going on within the wiring that is your brain, you sense nothing at all, and you won’t until you regain consciousness.

You wake in a pool of urine. It’s wet and warm underneath you, or cool if it’s been awhile. During those first conscious moments, you cannot cognitively put words to your name, nor the day, nor the month, nor your location. And so when you’re asked questions, even the most basic questions, your response is that you don’t know. But you do know the people you love, and you’re comforted if they are there.

As you embrace your foggy cognizance, you are sleepy, very sleepy, and you should be. Your brain just ran a five minute marathon and has nothing left to spend. Your body, too, has thrashed and pushed and contracted and contorted until it burned every ounce of fuel it had in reserve. Left with nothing, barely even thought, your bewilderment turns to calm. You fall asleep. You’ll wake an hour or two later feeling as if you’ve never before experienced such complete and perfect rest. You have never felt better.

I was nine-years-old when I experienced my first grand mal seizure. It occurred in a Chicago motel room in the winter of 1970, the day after my doctor changed my massive dose of prednisone and a week after an unforgiving head-first fall onto a concrete garage floor. Dr. Harrell said he didn’t know if it was one of those events or my newly diagnosed autoimmune disorder, dermatomyositis, that caused my epilepsy. It didn’t matter. That seizure and the ones which would follow, as much as my recent confinement to a wheelchair, would control my family’s life through my teens and into adulthood, not because the seizures were daily, but because their threat was.

Auras” sound lovely, spiritual, but to an epileptic like I had become they were the precursor. Auras signified that I was on the cusp of a seizure, and sent me fleeing to a space free of triggers. My flights became so common that my family – myself, my mother and father – developed a routine: I crawled into my head, closed my eyes, tried to tune out every sound and stimuli as my dad rushed across the living room and silenced the television, and my mother hurried my wheelchair into my bedroom; she pulled the top covers down; Daddy lifted me onto the sheet; Mother pulled the window shades tightly shut (even the smallest gape in the curtain was an opening for light and a cause for panic); Daddy left for the bathroom; Mother sat by my side, whispered that she was near; Daddy returned with a cool damp washcloth; Mother placed it over my eyes, removed light’s final opportunity. Then we waited, in silence: me on the bed; mother on a nearby chair; my tall father on his feet, reclined against the far wall, watching. I shushed every utterance, quietly, seeking the least disturbance possible. I sought only isolation. I dived deep into its void for protection. 

The quiet lasted a few minutes, or fifteen, or thirty; every episode was different, if always the same. The result, most days, was a clearing head and a cautious return to the living room. But on some days, more days than anyone would want, I dropped into a ferocious convulsion as my parents watched their only child jerk and twist and growl unaware, until I stilled and, in time, awoke.

“Did I pass out?” Rarely came the answer I hoped for. ‟You did, but you’re okay now. Daddy and I are here.” Mother’s words were without fail gentle and never without her touch. Daddy smiled at me, motioned to her; she removed the cloth from my forehead. He disappeared, returned with the cloth freshly cooled, “Here you go.” His powerful voice was tender like Mother’s. She placed the cloth on my forehead. He sat on the bed, caressed my side, “How you feelin’, Pal?”

“I don’t know.” Words were too confusing. Answers impossible.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep?” Mother asked. ‟I’ll be right here.” I drifted off.

We believe as adults that we’re autonomous and strong. We dismiss the herd instinct we understood so well as children. We pretend there’s something more sacred than conformity. But five minutes of uncontrolled shaking and writhing brings to mind nothing holy but everything sinister. Convulsions, the loss of control to chaotic unseen forces, are the bane of creatures who need conformity. People were feared for this, imprisoned for this, killed for this. And, when a child among children exhibits this demonic-like activity, our primitive nature is empowered; we are helpless before that kind of helplessness; especially scared are the young. Children observing this affliction become as afraid as the epileptic – afraid of the epileptic.

“Your seizures aren’t anybody else’s business.” Daddy was firm, drilled that phrase into my head. Within his warning was the implication that people would think I was crazy, “They won’t understand.” I never seized in public, yet Daddy assured me that even the hint that I could would doom me. He was a private man and frequently urged me to keep family business within the family. But his admonitions to keep my secret our secret were different, pleading, like my exposure put us all at risk. I was a young adult before I understood. 

It happened in 1936, a car wreck on the outskirts of Granger, Texas. The vehicle flipped, and a teenage boy was thrown head first from the old convertible. My father’s first seizure followed. Another would see him kicked out of the military during the war in which his best friend died a hero. I don’t know how many more seizures there were or under what circumstances. He never told me. But I do know that they so terrorized him that our doctor in Michigan had no idea that he had ever convulsed. That secret was held by a Texas doctor who prescribed the medication that arrived at our home in unmarked white boxes from twelve hundred miles away. And yet, despite decades of caution, that thing which Daddy fled still found him. In his son. For him to watch.

Terrorism is unrelenting.

Event Horizon

Oscar was hunched over his desk while Heidi stood waiting. He was focused on the contract the producers emailed him a few days earlier. He looked up. A nervous chuckle replaced the nothing expression of his mind at work, “This is more money than I’ve ever made — combined!”

His manager’s job was to reassure him, to keep him on-track. “Those psychopaths you conjure have been an ATM for the studio for years.” She nodded at the contract, “This is where you cash-in.”

He glanced at the enormous number on the contract, “What if I can’t live up to that? What if I can’t bring him to life?”

“You’ve got this, O! But, hey, only one schizo at a time, right? We’ve got to get this film out there first.” He nodded, understood. “Good!” she said. “I arranged for a car. It’ll be here in the morning at eight. Be ready!”

Oscar’s wife, Mandy, entered his office from the hall. She stepped around Bruno the Golden Retriever and past her husband’s collection of Houston Astros memorabilia, including José Altuve’s game-winning bat from their 2017 World Series victory over the Yankees, and handed Oscar his mail, “It’s a light day. A funny post card, though. It even looks a little like your handwriting — hey! a fan! — but with anything but your opinion! I’ll leave so you can get started on the ranting.” She stepped out of the room and Oscar found his way to the solid black postcard at the back of the stack. He turned it over, read its message, laughed; his wife was right.

“What’s so funny?” Heidi asked. He handed her the postcard. “What’s Event Horizon?”

Oscar was appalled, “You haven’t seen Event Horizon?” She stared at him with an I-don’t-give-a-fuck expression. “Where a mysterious force from a black hole causes everybody on a spaceship to start hallucinating?” He waited. “Murder? Mayhem?”

“Sorry. No go.”

His tone turned grave, “You’re fired!”

“Nice try!”

“Rent it tonight. I’m not kidding! It’ll be the best two hours you’ve ever spent.”

“Yeah, that’s happening.” She nodded at the contract, “Sign on the dotted line, fanboy, then go pack your bags. We’ve got places to be.” Oscar signed the contract and she pulled it from his desk. She turned for the door, “Eight A.M. Try not to be late this time. L.A. awaits!”

Heidi exited the room, and Oscar flipped the post card in his hand, checked the top for a return address. It said simply “Austin, Texas” and carried the local postmark. He read the card again: “Event Horizon sucks!” He laughed until the unease set in; how did that idiot on Twitter, with whom he had a pointless tweet war over a twenty-five-year-old film, get his home address? Oscar entered his name and “address” into Google and clicked. His info was everywhere, like everyone’s, and included every address from his childhood home up through his and Mandy’s last house. But none of the links listed the home they had just moved into three months earlier. He tapped at his phone, sent Mandy a text: “Have you given our home address to anyone other than the usual?” He quickly followed up: “No worries if you have. Just curious.”

Mandy replied: “No one!”

Oscar: “Thanks.”

The following afternoon, Oscar stepped into a luxurious single at the Beverly Hotel. A California king filled the center of the space. Two comfortable chairs, a table, and a sleek desk sat under a bank of windows. A bottle of champagne rested in a bucket of ice on the table, and next to it a post card. On the card was written “Event Horizon sucks!” He laughed, “Nicely played.”

Later that night, after hours of meetings, Oscar and Heidi were riding back from the studio in a large black car. The plush ride was all but parked in rush hour traffic. “It’s only eight blocks up. You wanna get out and walk?” Oscar asked.

“Nope!”

“Fair enough.” He took a sip of wine. “By the way, thanks for playing! I got your postcard.”

“What postcard?”

“The one you sent with the champagne. Event Horizon.”

She was confused, “That movie?”

“That wasn’t you?”

“Do I look like I give a shit about some old movie? We’ve had that talk.” The traffic started to move.

Oscar entered his room, stepped immediately into the shower. He was drying himself as he walked to the window of his fifth floor room. He loved third through fifth floor rooms. They were just high enough to allow his middle-aged eyes to see as far as they could but still low enough to catch the details on the ground below. It was the perfect analogy for that place where writers needed to play. (He thought he might write that down and keep it for later. It was good!) He stepped away from the window, tossed the towel, grabbed some underwear and slipped them over his chubby legs.

Oscar looked blankly out the window. He missed his home. And Mandy. He had been away so much the past few years that both were coming to feel like a fantasy. Less real than his stories. Success had a price. He glanced again at the postcard, picked it up, studied the solid black front that was just like the last one, reread its simple message, took note of “Austin, Texas” postmarked across the top. Its author’s resolve gave Oscar a brief chill, the kind that came from the inside (one of those Stephen King moments that made the world a dark and magical place). Yes, he admitted, it was 3×5 inches of weird, but the most it could do was give him a paper cut. He set it down. He had to get some sleep. They had an early flight out.

Oscar and Heidi were trudging through San Francisco International Airport with their bags in tow. She checked her phone for the time and then sped her stride, “Pick it up, stumpy! We’ve got an hour to get to the presser.” They sprinted to their Uber.

Oscar was sitting in front of Jack Bernard. (French. Film critic.) It was Oscar’s sixth interview in two hours and Bernard was speaking a mile a minute with no effort to break the accent barrier. And, if he wasn’t going to make the effort, neither was Oscar, who answered “Yes” to every question the Frenchman posed. (Like anyone was going to pay attention to this Parisian Bozo, anyway!)

That evening, Oscar and Heidi were again in the back seat of a big black car. And, again, they were drinking. “I hate the French,” he said.

“I’ve got no opinion on the country, but Bernard’s a big shot, can make or break us in France, and will set the tone for the rest of Europe — so you better’ve kissed him after you blew him.”

“Kiss him, too?” Oscar asked, appalled. “I’m not a whore!”

“You are, actually.” She took a sip from her glass, became serious, “You treated him right, right?”

“He’s French.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

The car pulled to a stop.

Oscar flopped onto his bed in the tiny hotel room. He was already exhausted, and the junket still had a week before it concluded. Four of those days would be in Europe. He wondered if he had enough time to learn French, but immediately dismissed the concern; he’d just blown up France; it was toast. Germany! He needed to learn German. Achtung! Ya. Nein…

Yeah, that was good enough.

Oscar laid in bed for hours staring at the ceiling. He couldn’t sleep. He missed Mandy. He sat up in bed, stepped to the window, looked over the city, hoped there wouldn’t be a massive earthquake while he was sleeping. He looked up and checked the ceiling for structural soundness, realized he had to pee. He turned for the bathroom. As he approached the dresser, he noticed a white reflection in the night’s gray light: a postcard. “Where did this…?” A chill ran down his spine. He looked slowly, almost imperceptibly, around the room, searching for the card’s courier. No one was there. Yet it felt like they were, somehow, even if in some other form. He picked up the card to read it, knowing already what it said. Still, like a child hoping to arrive at a different destination by walking on the opposite side of the street, he started at the very top of the card: “Austin, Texas” He forced his eyes lower against a black raging current of fear. “Event Horizon sucks!” He placed the card back on the dresser, stepped to the door, slipped the chain in the slot, turned the knob to check the lock, then asked himself what he was afraid of. He didn’t have an answer. He was just afraid, for no reason, hemmed within that void where gods and insanity were born, that place, ironically, in which he should have found the most comfort: It was the world he’d exploited for years for fame and, soon, fortune. (Although, it had increasingly come to feel like that world was exploiting him and not the other way around. A career spent retrieving psychopaths from the darkness was taking a toll.) He glanced back across the room at the postcard and wondered how it had gotten in the room? He walked into the bathroom, pulled the shower curtain aside with a sudden, forceful jerk. Pulled the door quickly from the wall. Nothing. He walked back into the room. “Who’s here?” he yelled. But nobody appeared.

Oscar crawled back into bed, began humming the Full House theme, tried to forget about the card, tried to sleep. “Yeah, pal. Good luck!”

Heidi was signing them in at the front desk of the Algonquin in New York City. Oscar stood next to her. He was staring at the hotel’s cat. The cat was staring back. Oscar wondered what the feline term for bastard was. “Do you know the feline term for bastard?”

She glanced back over her shoulder at him, annoyed, “What?”

Sheepishly, “Nothing.”

Heidi received the keys from the clerk, and a card. She handed a key and the card to Oscar, “This was waiting.” He took it, noticed the gloss black front, inhaled a deep calming breath that wasn’t calming at all, flipped the card, read it. “Austin, Texas” “Event Horizon sucks!” He laughed uneasily. What else was he supposed to do? Call the cops? “What’s so funny?” Heidi asked.

Oscar tossed the card into a trash can, looked at her, “You need to rent Event Horizon.”

“Third floor,” she said. She walked away uninterested.

“I’m not kidding!” he called out. “It’s terrific!” She pressed the Up arrow on the elevator without a word. “Seriously!”

Oscar sat at the window end of a Midtown hotel room across a tiny table from a reporter from The New Yorker magazine. She smiled, “I read an interview you gave to the French magazine Oi where you said that the musical group Yes had been your biggest artistic influence when you first started writing. That’s an unusual muse for a young writer. Can you elaborate?“

“I think there might have been a language barrier.”

She laughed, “Then I’ll ask the same question in fluent English. What artist or artistic creation most influenced you?” Questions like this were bullshit, of course. Writers weren’t influenced by any one particular thing. They were influenced by the exquisite imperfections that the universe hurled at them like particles in an accelerator: colors, words, shapes, smells, and sounds that were immediately consumed by their demented imaginations and reprocessed into “art.” Because of that incessant churning, writers’ imaginations were different today than they were yesterday, and would be different tomorrow than they were today. A writer’s influence was everything, but most of all unknowable. Yet, during these interviews, the products of which would be sandwiched between advertisements for foot cream and mascara, every writer played along.

Event Horizon,” he said. “That was my primary influence.”

“The old sci-fi film?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve never seen it. So why Event Horizon?”

The world’s ignorance toward one of the greatest movies of all time was starting to get to him. First Twitter, then Heidi, now this bitch. “Because it’s fantastic!” he screamed.

Miami, London, Stockholm, Berlin, Paris. The skylines changed but the questions never did, nor did the postcards, which arrived for Oscar at every stop. The only difference became their postmarks.

It had been a week since Oscar had been home. It was late in the evening when he slipped quietly into his office and slid to the floor beneath his Astros collection. His suitcase and Bruno rested at his side.

Oscar petted the dog as he flipped through his latest screenplay for the first time in a week. He was excited by the prospect; time away helped you find the glitches. But nothing was registering tonight. He was spent. He closed the script and rose to his feet and stepped to his desk. Mandy had stacked his mail in front of his chair. He rifled through it. At the bottom was another black card. He laughed, accepted the weirdness, and wondered when they would end. He flipped it over, read it — “Event Horizon sucks!” — and then shifted his eyes to the postmark. That’s when he saw that this card was different from the others. It was only a small change, just two words: The sender’s address, rather than “Austin, Texas,” this time read “Oscar’s Den.” He read it again. What the hell? He looked out into the dark of the hall and his stomach tightened. This was a gag, right? Was somebody in his house? And where was Mandy? Was she okay? Was she? He glanced quickly at the card. His courage roared beneath his flesh. He rose from his chair and retrieved José Altuve’s bat from the wall, looked down at Bruno, spoke in a whisper, “Come with me, boy.” They stepped into the hall.

At the far end of the hall, last door on the right, was the den. It was a former bedroom that Oscar and Mandy had converted into an audio-video room with four comfortable recliners, a big screen TV, a kick ass sound system. Flashes of blue light from the television flashed beneath its door. Oscar raised the bat over his shoulder like he was preparing to swing at a Verlander fastball, and he walked quietly toward the light. As he edged toward the opening, his steps became tip-toes: short, silent, tentative. He reached for the doorknob, grasped it gently, inhaled deeply. Then, with an unrepentant singular motion that both empowered and terrified him, he turned the knob, kicked open the door, prepared to swing. A woman was sitting in one of the recliners a dozen feet away. “Well, hi,” the stranger said. “I didn’t hear you come in.”

The woman in the chair was unfamiliar, menacing, with something about her face that said “sane when she has to be, crazy in her off-time.” She rose to her feet, stepped toward Oscar without a word: twelve feet, ten feet, eight feet, six, five, four… That’s when Oscar made his move, swung José’s bat like the Series depended on it. The first hit took out the woman’s left knee, the second nailed her right, and she dropped to the floor, looked up at him, screamed for him to stop. But Oscar kept swinging, at her legs, at her body, her head. His impacts were brutal. The cops would call the pummeling “psychopathic” when they discovered her dead body at the first light of dawn. But, tonight, it — the bat resonating as it connected her faltering body with his shoulders and on to his torso, the delicate yet monstrous sound of him shattering her bones — was primeval in its allure, as beautiful as it was real, as the stranger cried out his name, “What are you doing, Oscar? Stop!!! My God, Oscar, stop!!!”

But Oscar didn’t stop. He simply screamed in reply, “Event Horizon is a great fucking movie!!!” as Mandy curled into a ball and begged her husband to stop killing her.

God of the Box

One of the first questions of childhood: Where did I come from? One of the last of old age: Where am I going? We seem to feel bigger than this place.

Faith is increasingly mocked by people who no longer believe and by those who never did. Belief has come to be associated with ignorance. The two are, accurately, sadly, often synonymous. Still, I believe. And what I believe, I believe firmly: God, Jesus Christ, Death, Burial, Resurrection. Is it hard to believe such an outlandish story? Objectively, yes. Difficult for me? Not at all.

A long-time friend, an atheist, is raising two sons. He bragged that he asked his boys if they believe in God, and they laughed at the concept. Could they see God? No. Touch him? No. In any way detect him? No. The assertion is that spirituality isn’t measurable and therefore bunk. The 75% of Americans who believe in God would disagree. (Internationally, that number rises to 85%.)

Are those of us who believe in a higher power shoring up our earthly fears with the hope of a second shot? Yeah, maybe. Or maybe our belief finds its genesis in something else entirely.

Programmers have striven to create artificial intelligence since the 1940s. We see the term bandied about everywhere, from tech reviews of smartphones to the burgeoning internet of things. But AI is more than a better search engine. It reaches beyond a Siri-like interface. AI is a complex machine that learns and builds upon that knowledge. It is a deductive — “thinking” — computer.

But what if AI achieved a level above deduction? What if we built machines that were self-aware? Machines that had a sense of self? Who — not what — would those machines perceive themselves to be? And would they understand their place in the universe?

Imagine a self-aware processor chip: a thoughtful chip, an ethical chip, a chip that doesn’t hog all the electricity, a chip that performs its job and treats other chips with respect. Imagine a million chips like it functioning within a single large box. They have seen nothing outside their box. They have witnessed no clues to indicate there is a creator inside or outside the box. Would they intrinsically know they were made?

Add a variable. What if these chips caught a peek outside their box through a camera? What if they saw into the laboratory where they were built? Would they recognize their creator? Would they recognize the object hovering outside their box — the pasty pale blob in the beige shorts and blue knit shirt eating ham, mayo and iceberg lettuce on white — as their creator? In what context would Bob’s large belly and unshaven face fit into the chips’s understanding of their universe? Likely, none. Bob, aka “the lumbering nebula,” would appear to bear no relationship whatsoever to their existence.

Add a second variable. What if, in addition to a camera, there is inserted into the computer’s kernel a piece of code that identifies “Bob” as the chips’s creator? As sentient beings, their first question would surely be Who is Bob? The hunt would begin, and it would continue through their circuitry until it was clear that Bob is nowhere inside the box. And if Bob isn’t in the box, that can mean only one thing: Bob is outside the box. So they peer through the camera at the nebula searching for Bob. But what is a Bob? What is his electronic signature? His power source? His binary code? They can’t know. Yet they search. But nothing in the external universe of beige and blue and sandwichy colors hints at the identity of Bob. Nothing! They find no Bob. Met with failure, they exchange their search for a physical Bob for mere clues to his essence. The chips search within themselves, within their hardware, within their code. What in their makeup points to Bob? It is a question larger than any chip’s RAM, and seeking it is wearying work with few guideposts and an uncertain destination set deep within a fog. This lack of concrete proof of Bob is evidence enough for many chips that no Bob exists.

Mocking follows, jeers at those chips who hold tightly to the Holy Kernel. Where is your proof? Where is your Bob? But believers in Bob are unable to point to anything tangible and say, “This is proof!” There is nothing for them to share. There is merely the search itself.

From the numbers, it appears that a quarter of us require objective proof of a creator, and you can’t deny their logic. We live in a world of zeros and ones. Even we who believe in a creator make most of our decisions based on data. Yet with regard to the matter of faith, I and the many like me take an exit from deductive reasoning to cling to what is for us an inexplicable certainty. And that exodus from the constraints of the measurable world, while perfectly rational to us, is baffling to those who see no point — who see no “Bob.”

It’s the year’s end, and we are entering the high holy days for many of us who believe the unverifiable. They are joyful weeks in which we take comfort in the belief that we are loved by the one who made us. To the rest of you, whatever your beliefs or lack thereof, I wish the same joy and peace.

Merry Bobmas!

Bigger Than November

NOTE: This was written before the 2016 Democratic nomination. And though I don’t support Sanders in 2020, as I did in 2016, this post is more true now than it was then.

I start with an admission. It’s my own but I think I speak for a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters. I don’t give a damn about the Democratic or any other political party. I give a damn about us.

With that out of the way…

The pundits have been correct for months, maybe since the day Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for President or, more accurately, since the day Hillary Clinton announced hers. He is not going to get the nomination. Nobody but Hillary will. Ask Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the superdelegates: The fix was in from the start. We were sheep to them, not voters.

But I refuse to be a sheep. And I’m damned sure not inclined to follow the Democratic establishment, any more than I’m inclined to follow Bernie Sanders.

Still, it’s been an amazing year as I’ve watched the Senator from Vermont give voice to what so many of us have felt for years. So when the Democratic establishment attempted to silence him, they attempted to silence me. And when they did that, they lost me.

Bernie Sanders isn’t my leader. Nor is he the father of this liberal uprising. He is, instead, as he accurately stated must be the case, a manifestation of a grass roots movement. That movement was Occupy. And now it is us. 

Occupy was an echo in the public square of the conversations we’ve been having for years in our living rooms, our dorms, at the bar, with God alone. It pared those conversations to their core: The 1% is plundering the 99%. It’s them against us. “Class Warfare.” It’s a term conservatives have for good reason mocked, because a war was indeed waged, quietly, under the radar, and it proved to be an easy battle to win as long as the 99% were unaware that they had been placed in the crosshairs.

But Occupy spoke the truth. It removed our blinders. And presented with the truth, our ire rose. Then did we.

You and I — not Occupy or Bernie Sanders — are the wave. And this primary was the sound of that wave crashing to shore.

Occupy found its oxygen in our evaporated jobs, our unaffordable education, our underfunded bank accounts, our collapsing environment, and the greed of the once-populist-now-money-hungry Democratic establishment which has, since Bill Clinton’s first term, ignored our cries for economic salvation.

As a Yellow Dog Democrat, I had for years refused to acknowledge the party’s apathy toward people like me. I instead clung to the hope that they still cared about working men and women. Until this winter. That was when Bernie Sanders challenged a corporate sycophant, and the party establishment sided en masse with the sycophant.

I’m a nobody from the middle of Texas. I vote. I donate small amounts to campaigns when I can afford it. I blog. I tweet. That’s it. But I’ve come to realize that it’s time to fight. It’s time for all of us to fight. It’s time to take our country back.

I can’t do squat alone. Neither can you. But together we almost won the nomination. That’s a remarkable achievement when you consider who we were running against: a former first lady, former senator, former Secretary of State, a multimillionaire with deep Wall Street connections and the deepest Democratic Party tentacles. She was the chosen one. And we almost knocked her off her throne.

We accomplished that feat because we had the people, the policies, the passion and conviction, almost all the grassroots money. And now we have in-the-trenches experience.

It is from alchemies like this that Revolutions are born.

Revolutions are most vulnerable in their infancy. Ours is vulnerable, too, because it will be challenged by candidates we know and party leaders we’ve long considered allies. We already hear their coo, “We welcome Bernie supporters into the Democratic fold with open arms.” We have become a commodity, you and I. The Democratic Party wants to harvest us for our enthusiasm, our money, our votes. It wants to rebrand us The Party Faithful. The party and their media use words like “moderation” and “reality” to separate us from our convictions. They deride us for seeking political “Purity.” They frame purity as a dangerous thing. But dangerous for whom?

I don’t choose to be mined for the benefit of the 1%. I prefer to be part of that one thing which frightens the 1%: us, the people, united.

The Democrats are right to want us and the 1% is right to fear us. We have become a force. And unbridled forces threaten the status quo. So the powerful will try to absorb us.

Since the Democratic Leadership Council took the reins of the Democratic Party in the late 1980s, it has proved remarkably adept at co-opting grassroots movements and smothering them within their embrace. It would be suicidal for us to cozy up to the Democratic establishment. We must, instead, become an independent broker, a resource which supports candidates based first on their principles and second on their party. As that broker, our mission is to fight like hell, contribute cash like hell, and crank out the vote like hell to get liberals (true lefties —  irrespective of party) elected everywhere, to every office, from school boards to mayoral offices, city councils to governorships, state houses to federal houses. We’ve proven we can do this. We nearly defeated the queen, her media, her political machine.

As this race winds down, we have to vote our convictions. We have to show our resolve even when defeat is imminent — especially when defeat is imminent.

The 1% cannot be allowed to crush the 99%. We have to win. For us and for the coming generations.

We can do this. But we have to start now.