Monthly Archives: April 2015

Collector’s Item


Chuck’s challenge this week: Literary Mash-Up.

I’m not sure if I’ve properly grasped the concept… I end up literally smashing the stories in question together rather than combining elements of each story’s genre, but this is a fun exercise, regardless.

Anyway, my mash-up victims were The Great Gatsby, which I love, and Pulp Fiction, which I double love. Let that serve as a warning that here there be gratuitous violence (thanks Pulp Fiction) language (thanks Pulp Fiction) booze and debauchery (thanks Great Gatsby) and possibly a deeper meaning hinted at but not in the least delivered (thanks BOTH).

Here, then, is Collector’s Item.

Collector’s Item

“We should have Tommyguns.”

Bruce propped one hand on the wheel and leaned his other elbow against the door, letting his fingers massage his bald scalp. Against his better judgment, he answered. “How many are there?”

“Six or seven, what I heard.”

“Hmm.” Bruce didn’t know how he felt about busting into a room with six or seven guys hopped up on moonshine and god knows what else, but he trusted Mr. G., even if Fitz was edgy. He changed the subject. “Where’d you get those shoes?”

Fitz had on a pair of wingtips polished to a blinding sheen. He angled his leg to get a better look at them. “Gypsies.”

“Get the hell out of here. Gypsies.”

“If I’m lyin’, I’m cryin’, sport. Band of gypsies.”

“Where did you find gypsies around here?”

Fitz sniffed and leaned back in the bucket seat, cupping a match to a cigarette and taking a deep drag. “Couple miles outside of town. They have a camp set up out there. Well, had a camp. Moved on since then. Wherever the fuck gypsies go.”

“And how, if I may ask, did you get a gypsy to part with a pair of shoes like that?”

“Gave him my .38.”

Bruce fought back the urge to slap Fitz across the face. “You traded a gun for a pair of sissyfied leather shoes?”

“I traded my old gun for a pair of designer alligator-skin shoes. One of a kind.”

“One of a kind, made out of hundred dollar bills, I don’t care; you don’t trade a fine piece of equipment like that for some shoes.”

“You do, if you have any taste. Look at your feet, man. What are you wearing, dime store loafers?”

“I promise you this: when I’m dropping bullets into somebody’s head, the last thing they’re thinking about is what’s on my feet.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong. A man looks good, he feels good.”

Bruce shook his head and wiped a trickle of summer sweat off his brow. Fitz would argue the point until the moon got tired and went home. “This is it.”

The lights of the Hilton rose up like a luminescent palm tree in the night. Bruce maneuvered the car around to the service entrance, and in minutes, they had taken the stairs up to the 12th floor. There was some big event in the ballroom keeping everybody occupied; nobody even looked sideways at the two men in black, or at Fitz’s alligator-skin shoes.

“What I don’t understand is,” Fitz continued, having hardly stopped chattering all eleven flights up, “how big G makes all that money in such a short amount of time.”

This again. Fitz was always asking questions about the big boss. Whenever he did, Bruce could feel snakes sliding along the back of his neck. Boss had eyes and ears everywhere, and you didn’t go talking bad about a guy like Mr. G. Not if you wanted to keep your head on your shoulders.

“Do you get paid?”

“What?” Fitz wasn’t a child, but he could damn sure act like one.

“Do … you … get … paid?”

“The hell kinda question is that?”

“We’re on this job. Pays a couple hundred. Now, whether that comes from Mr. G. or from Sweeney or from whoever else, those couple hundred spend the same. Who cares where they get the money from? Long as I get my cut, I’m happy.”

“All right, all right.” Fitz spread his arms out wide, the classic gesture of a man showing you he’s unarmed and means no harm. The twin holsters revealed at his belt as his jacket flapped open belied the gesture somewhat.

Bruce flicked his watch up to his face.  “It’s time.”

Fitz knocked on the door. That damn “shave and a haircut” rhythm: tap, ta-ta-tap, tap… Thick door. Heavy. Maybe oak or something, Bruce didn’t know. Smooth green paint, numbers in gold, fancy carpets all lush underfoot. Nice place to spend a weekend, if you could afford it.

A blaring trumped assaulted their ears as the door swung open on a scene straight out of a … what was that word…

“Can I help you?” The smarmy-looking guy who opened the door leaned in toward them in a haze of booze and cigarette smoke. His eyes drifted in and out of focus as he swept his gaze back and forth across them. Guy was as hammered as a carpenter’s bench.

“Hey, we heard you all were having some kind of party or something,” Fitz said, turning on a positively magnetic smile.

“You heard right, partner! Come on in, the more the merr–” he hiccuped violently then, almost losing his balance. With a grand gesture he flung the door open and stepped aside to allow Bruce and Fitz in.

“Bacchanalia,” Bruce whispered, the word finally coming to him.

There were no less than a dozen people around the room, in various states of drunken disorder. In the middle of the room, one couple danced violently and out of time with the music. Near them, collapsed on the floor, was another couple ignoring the music entirely in their attempt, apparently, to devour each other’s face. The breathy sounds of their kissing and moaning could be heard above the penetrating music. One armchair held a woman drowsily staring at a spot about five inches in front of her face. The couch held two fellows in shirtsleeves passed out on each other’s shoulder. In a poorly-lit corner, one nervous, parrot-eyed man hung on the arm of a woman who looked as bored with him as she probably was with the world, given the clattering assortment of priceless jewelry adorning the arms folded across her chest. All of them, besides the unconscious ones, had that stumbledrunk heaviness to their movement.

The man who had greeted them beelined to the bar, a grand affair of mirrors and gold trim, hosting a litany of bottles with expensive-sounding monikers, all very English sounding. He uncorked a bottle of clear spirits and poured three glasses at once with a swirling of the bottle, splashing booze everywhere. He proffered one to Bruce, who waved it away with a curt flash of the hand.

“I don’t imbibe.”

Undeterred, the man shifted toward Fitz with the drink.

“Not tonight, buddy.”

“More for me, then!” With a mad grin, their host slammed back one of the glasses at one gulp, dribbling about half the drink down his rumpled shirtfront. Then he turned and sashayed back into the madness.

Bruce, meanwhile, had found the record player and dragged the needle, silencing the music with that unmistakable scratch. It was as if he had pulled the plug on a carousel; all the motion in the room ground to a jerking halt. Fitz, meanwhile, hit the lights, and the partygoers blinked in the sudden blinding whiteness.

“Don’t get up,” Bruce said, in a not-exactly-friendly tone, to one of the sleepers, who had woken and rose toward him. Wisely, the man sat down. Every eye in the room followed Bruce as he stalked like a panther among the drunks. He came to rest in front of the only man in the room who wasn’t drunk, a broad-shouldered affair with a weaselly look despite his lustrous blond hair.

“You must be Tom.”

“Who wants to know?” This the man said confidently, smugly, stroking the back of the woman sitting on his knee. Her hand rested daintily on his chest. If Tom wasn’t recognizable by his size and his stare, the woman was recognizable in that she looked as if the angels themselves had set her in the midst of this den of debauchery. Her golden curls tumbled past her shoulders, diamonds festooned her fingers, and her expression was flighty, bemused, and a little otherworldly. Daisy.

Bruce smiled, sliding his hands into his pockets; just chit-chat, here. “I thought so. Great party. Was that Duke I heard before?”

“I don’t know much about music. More important things on my mind.”

Bruce’s eyes glinted, and he pointed a knowing finger at Tom. “Like the way you think, Tom. Like your taste in booze, too, though I don’t drink myself. But I can tell you’re an individual who discerns. Only the finest.” He flicked his eyes momentarily at Daisy.

Tom nodded, cool, in control, but his mouth curled in a sneer. He didn’t care for Bruce’s eyes on his wife.

Fitz had glided soundlessly to stand with his back against the front door, hands resting lazily on his belt. Bruce glanced his way and Fitz nodded the most imperceptible of nods.

“Well, Tom,” said Bruce, “there’s no easy way to say this, but you’ve got something that belongs to my friend, Mr. G.”

“Who the hell is –“

Like a cobra uncoiling, Bruce drew his pistol and fired into the face of the man he’d asked to sit down. His brains and blood fountained all over the other man on the sofa, waking him up. There was an instant of cacophony in which everybody in the room began to scream, but Bruce shot the other man and things got deathly quiet.

“I don’t think we need to pretend, Tom.” Bruce grinned around his gun arm. “You’re smarter than that. We’re here to collect Daisy.”

“Over my dead –“

“Careful, Tom.” Bruce drew back the hammer on his pistol for effect. “She’s going with us. Whether you’re alive or dead when she does is up to you.”

Through all this, Daisy wore a horrified look pasted across her wispy features, but her eyes registered something else entirely, like she knew how she was supposed to act but couldn’t keep her excitement from bubbling through. She yelped when Tom swatted her on the bottom and nudged her up from her perch.

“I guess you’d better go on with… I didn’t catch your name.”

“Didn’t give it,” Fitz chimed in, smiling that winning smile from the door.

Dammit.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Tom spat, and his bulk unfolded itself, springing out of the chair and throwing Daisy aside. He reached for the pistol at his belt but three bright blooms erupted from his chest – BLAM BLAM BLAM – and he staggered back into the chair, blood and spittle flying from his lips.

The men in the room, who’d seemed a bunch of harmless drunks before, lurched into action, reaching for concealed weapons or diving at the assassins. Intoxicated, though, they were woefully slow. Gunfire thundered off the walls of the little room, and ropes and sprays of blood mingled with the abstract artwork, soaked into the plush white carpet.

Daisy, her blond hair now red with blood, her newly crimson gown clinging to her body, stood trembling in the midst of a mass of death. The few other women in the room were screaming, the shrill sound echoing and magnifying itself in the small space. A dull thwack thwack thwack pounded on the edge of his consciousness; his heart pounding in his ears. It didn’t have to be this way.

With a heavy sigh, Bruce holstered his weapon and looked around for Fitz. Fitz knelt, his weapons spent, pounding the butt of his pistol into the ruined shape of one man’s head.

“Fitz.”

Thwack.

“Fitz!”

Fitz whirled, his gun above his head, mid-swing. A manic glee boiled behind his eyes. “Yeah?”

“We happy?”

Fitz smashed his gun into the man’s head one last time and shoved himself to his feet, sniffing derisively. “Yeah, we’re happy.”

“Miss Daisy,” Bruce said, holding his hand out for her with a little bow. Dreamlike, she took it, and allowed herself to be led from the room.

Fitz shoved his gun back into its holster and cast one last appraising look around the room. “We should have fucking Tommyguns.”

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Why There May Be Hope for Humanity (an anti-vaxxer redemption reflection)


Who doesn’t love a good case of poetic justice?

The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe pointed me to this story at the Times Union, which tells how a mother of seven has suddenly flip-flopped like a foundering fish.

The tl;dr version is this: this mother, while in the midst of a vaccine schedule for her existing three children, got taken in by the anti-vaxxer movement. She stopped vaccinations on her existing children and did not vaccinate any of her subsequent progeny. Fast forward a few years. At the moment, she and her family are under quarantine — quarantine! — because one of the kids caught Whooping Cough and it ravaged the household like a grizzly bear in a sandwich factory. (I know sandwiches aren’t made in factories, okay? Just… geez.) As a result, she has rethought her position on vaccinations and is planning to vaccinate her kids as much as possibly immediately.

Now, look. I don’t endorse the dark, seedy place in our hearts whence comes Schadenfreude, but I’d be lying if I said Schadenfreude didn’t tickle my nethers when I heard this story. I don’t know if there is a more selfish and misinformed segment of the population than the anti-vax crowd; my blood boils when I hear one of them proclaiming with snobbish smuggery that they haven’t vaccinated their kids and they are perfectly healthy! Claims like this fail, of course, to understand that those who self-righteously choose not to vaccinate overlook the benefits they’re reaping from everybody else who does (see Herd Immunity), or quote ridiculous statistics from bogus studies about the incidence of illness or complication arising from vaccinations themselves.

Erg, it would be so easy to derail into a tirade about the lunacy of the anti-vaxxer movement, but that’s not my point. It’s easy to kick a dead horse, but it doesn’t help anybody, least of all the horse.

My point is that there is hope for humanity.

Look, this woman got taken in by some bad information and scare-mongering. She stopped vaccinating her kids. Maybe that’s not you, but any of us could be taken in by information just as bad, scare-mongering just as … scare… mongery. Maybe I start to believe that gay marriage will destroy our society. Maybe I start to believe that the earth is flat. Maybe I go off and do something really crazy, like vote Republican.

The point isn’t that she got taken in, the point is that she came back from the edge. True, it took her entire household coughing like a misfiring Edsel to see the error of her ways, but she saw it.

I think it’s a commonly-held belief that people just aren’t going to change their minds. Try to have a conversation with somebody on the other side of the abortion issue, for instance. We get so caught up in all the extra, non-issuey stuff (“he’s an idiot! How could he possibly think that??”) that a lot of times, the issue itself gets lost in the shuffle. And a lot of the time, that may be true. But not every time.

Not this time.

When I first heard this story, I couldn’t help chuckling just a bit in a self-satisfied, “well, that’s what you get” kind of way. I couldn’t help it — out it burst, like an alien from the chest cavity, ugly and raw. She got what she deserved. But the more productive way to look at it is this: for better or worse, regardless of the circumstances, she is now correcting an error. And while she can’t do anything now to avert the house of plague that’s swirling around her, at least she can do the right thing to protect her family in the future.

Which is what it’s all about, innit? Making the best decisions we can with the information that’s available to us.

If we can do that, we’d all be living better lives.

Also, vaccinate your kids.


Ticketmaster can Shove It


It’s not as if I learned something I didn’t already know today. The world is driven by money; it shouldn’t shock me to have the fact thrust in my face, but it did.

Back in December, my wife got me tickets to see one of my favorite performers of all time. A guy whose stand-up routines I would memorize entire twenty-minute passages from. A guy whose mannerisms and quirky onscreen personality was the stuff of legend. It was a brilliant gift, the kind of gift I only wish I could think to put together for her, and man oh man, was I excited.

And then, a month or so later, the first allegations came out.

By last count, the number of women accusing Bill Cosby of rape has grown to something like 43. And it immediately put me in mind of the Sorites Paradox. Because when the first woman came out, I thought, surely not, this is just some gold-digger. When the second woman came out, I thought, she’s just trying to piggyback on the first. When the third came out, I thought, they smell blood in the water. Nothing, at first, convinced me that there was anything to the allegations.

Somewhere along the way, though, a few voices in the dark turns into a chorus of accusers, and it’s hard to ignore 43 women claiming the same thing in one form or another. But I’m not here to weigh in on Coz’s guilt or innocence.

My gripe is with Ticketmaster.

Thanks to all the poison in the air around Bill Cosby right now, my wife and I decided that we’re not keen to support the man right at the moment, and asked for a refund or even just a credit to attend another show, but Ticketmaster’s not having it. They’re hiding behind the fact that they don’t sell the tickets, they merely streamline the transaction, and since the venue hasn’t canceled the show, they can’t do anything about my tickets.

Look, language matters, so I’m going to make a big deal about it. Ticketmaster. A billion-dollar enterprise. Claims they can’t do anything about our tickets to this show.

Now, I understand they have to be very careful and very specific about refunding money, because it’s all slippery slopes when you start dealing with people’s moral objections to performers. But the reason this case is different — and why I don’t think any slippery slopes really apply — is because the allegations against Bill Cosby, at least for the vast majority of the public, were a bolt from the blue that nobody would have expected. Certainly my wife and I didn’t when we made plans to go to the show. I don’t think that, if Ticketmaster were to grant refunds for this show, they’d suddenly have a mad dash of customers canceling tickets for all kinds of venues with similar or even related circumstances. This feels like a one-off to me.

But never mind that. They said they “can’t” do anything for me.

Bear in mind that security has been tripled for the event, and a group of protesters has claimed that they will disrupt the show in any way possible, both outside and inside the venue. Don’t worry about the fact that a week prior, local news stations have run stories about protesters ramping up for the event. My only recourse, according to Ticketmaster, is to sell my tickets.

Which would be great and fine if it turned out I had a dentist appointment during the show, but nobody wants tickets to this show now (except maybe the protesters). They’ve washed their hands of the matter; it’s my problem now.

Which I suppose isn’t all that surprising. They got our money, what else should they care about?

It’s just very disappointing. Ticketmaster “can’t help me.”

Never mind the enormous PR service they could do for themselves (who, in the world, actually likes Ticketmaster?) by doing the right thing and making refunds available to the people that ask for them in this case? Sure, they’d lose money on that venture, but think what positive press it would buy them with customers.

Ticketmaster “can’t help me.”

Problem with that is, it’s the wrong currency. They’ve got a chokehold on the ticket business, so why should they relinquish a single cent on any grounds, moral or otherwise?

Truly and honestly, it’s not about the money. Not that my wife and I can afford to chuck $150 away on this event we’re now not going to attend, but we’ll swallow it if we have to. I’m mad — flabbergasted, really — that the company is willing to stonewall me (and thousands of other customers in Atlanta, it turns out) on this no refunds policy despite the morally charged nature of this particular situation.

So if the event does not get canceled, and if you happen to be a protester who wants to get inside the venue — for whatever reason, that’d be between you and whoever you pray to — let me know. Because since Ticketmaster has demonstrated that they don’t give one flying sharknado about me, I think it’s only fair to return the favor.

This post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday.


Climb the Trope Ladder


I fell into a TVtropes rabbit hole today.

If you’re a writer, and you don’t know about TVtropes.org yet, you should.

I don’t know if there’s a better resource for teaching you that there really and truly is nothing original left in the world for artists to create. A wholly humbling browsing experience. Yet, by the same token, it’s encouraging to click through its wealth of pages to see all the stories that use the same old tired tricks and do just fine.

If you haven’t seen TVtropes yet, it works like this:

You land there for whatever reason. Maybe a fellow writer or critically-minded movie buff refers you to it. Maybe you’re looking for the name of that one guy who was in that one movie and you stumble upon the site. Maybe somebody who secretly hates you and wants to destroy your productivity sends you a link.

You click around a little bit, maybe trying the “random trope” or “random text” functions to have the site spoon up a tasty helping of trope-centric technobabble to your face. Want to write your story with a hero who unwittingly unleashes even greater evil upon the world? There’s a trope for that. How about the twist where a loved one is left dead for the hero to find? Yeah, it’s been done. Maybe you want to see a bunch of examples of the ways heroes have sacrificed themselves in stories. TVTropes has you covered. Whatever your device, whatever the circumstance, whatever unique idea you think you have, it’s been done before and TVtropes has it on record.

Hours later, you’ve got twenty-four browser tabs open compiling all the different sins of all the movies and books you love and all of the tropes with cool names like Toxic Phlebotinum and you forgot to eat lunch and they turned the lights off in the building and you’re wondering, finally, how you can weave all these things into your next story.

The cycle will repeat as long as you leave even one tab open. One thing leads you to the next, and then the next, until you’re miles deep in the forest and everything looks the same. The only way out is for the power to fail on your computer, and even then, you have to have the resolve not to click on that bright, shiny “restore tabs” button when you get booted back up, lest you find yourself falling once more into the black hole…

In all seriousness, while the site sounds like it’s a great way to depress yourself at the prospect of seeing exactly how much and how often a certain device has been done (to death), it’s fascinating nonetheless to see all the different permutations of plot and character which can be perfectly successful. In addition, I’m not sure if there’s a better tool for thinking of ways to carry on a stuck project; simply look up a beloved story, identify some of its defining tropes, explore those tropes, and then bend them to your will.

What felt like endless, zombie-like wandering through the dark alleyways of the site has filled my head with all kinds of ways to expand my current story.

I think that means I can qualify all that mindless clicking as research.

So, I’m off to do more studying…


Wasted Time… Like a Leaky Faucet


Time.

I’m a little bit obsessed with it. So much so that I’m one of those dinks that actually still wears a wristwatch that’s functional, rather than a fashion accessory.

It’s eternal and unchanging, unless of course you happen to be traveling at the speed of light, or taking up residence within the jurisdiction of a black hole. Then again, if that applies to you, you’re probably not here reading my drivel.

But for all that time is eternal, we, sadly, are not. We get only so much time to operate with, and as miraculous as modern medicine is, it can do nothing to stretch that time out. (I just heard a story on This American Life about a cryonics experiment that went… horrifyingly wrong, all because people are determined to extend their time on this mortal coil. It ain’t happening yet.) Which means that it’s up to each of us to make the most of this non-renewable resource that’s been allotted to us.

So why — why, why, why? — are so many people determined to waste their precious time?

I’m not talking about relaxing after a tough day at work, or watching a few reruns of Seinfeld with your wife. Time spent relaxing, to a point, is not wasted time.

No, I’m talking about the in-between moments, the moments not specifically spoken for but bridging the gap between moments that matter. Driving your car. Walking from one place to another. Shuffling zombielike through the aisles of the grocery store. Moments you don’t even consider, but that end up swallowing up so many minutes — or even hours! — of your day.

I’m a teacher, so I see this one every day: students have five minutes to get from one class to another, and they lurch at the slowest pace possible from Biology to Math II. That I can understand, to a point — you’re not looking forward to sitting through another drone about the Pythagorean Theorem — but still. You eat up every possible moment getting from A to B, then you have to take extra time to get your business together, get your head right for sitting through another class… in short, you end up slowing everybody down since you wasted time on what? dragging your feet?

But that’s a student. That’s a kid. Who doesn’t properly understand the significance of the time he’s wasting.

How about this? You’re in the grocery store, waiting to check out, all your precious foodstuffs on the belt, and the person in front of you is watching the groceries go into the bag, or watching the numbers on the display tick slowly up… and then the cashier tells them, that’ll be entirely too much money, please. This isn’t even an old person, most of the time. It’s a thirty-something guy who looks perfectly ordinary, you know, not like an idiot. Or a twenty-something woman texting on her cell phone. Anyway, the cashier tells them, you know, it’s time to pay, and THAT’S when they reach for their purse or their wallet. As if it was a total shock to them that there was input required from them in this transaction. As if you’ve never been to a grocery store in your life, and you never thought that you’d have to lift a finger to get the food to your house so you can cram it down your beak.

How can you not be prepared for this? Sure, it’s a few seconds, but those seconds add up, and they’re not just your seconds, either — those seconds of your own hesitation get pawned off on everybody in line behind you.

I’m at the soccer match the other night. Match scheduled to start at 5:30. It’s 5:25. Teams are both on-hand, warmed up, ready. Officials are on-site and ready. Scoreboard is set for the start of the match. And everybody is standing around looking at one another. 5:30; nothing happens. 5:35; more milling about on the sidelines. 5:40; finally the teams line up to have their starters announced. 5:45, the match finally starts. Fifteen minutes late. For no reason! The fault could lie anywhere — maybe one of the coaches had to run to his car, maybe the on-site administrator had to deal with an issue and wanted the start of the game held, whatever. But that’s 15 minutes that a stadium full of parents and friends, two teams of players, an additional two teams who play after, can’t get back. For nothing!

We live in a society where, for better or worse, everybody overlaps with everybody else. I cut you off in traffic, you take it out on your husband later that day. You don’t notice the light changing and cost me the traffic light, I assign extra homework for the 90 students I teach. The repercussions of our every action echo outward like ripples in a pond. Yet again and again, I come across these people letting their time — AND MINE — dribble out the corner of their mouths like so much drool. Distracted with something else. Not paying attention. Just not at all motivated to put any pep in their step.

I want to grab them by their collars, shake them until their bleary eyes snap into focus. Impress upon them, somehow, the fact that while they shuffle through the hallways, while they blunder through the aisles, while they dodder at the stoplights, their time, like sands through the hourglass, is slipping irretrievably into the past.

It only takes a half second to look up from whatever’s right in front of you and remember that your actions impact the world all around you. Is it so much to ask that we do so? In fact, if you are alert and aware and moving through your life with purpose and vigor, you actually gain time… what would have been wasted can then be applied to other, more important things. Is it ridiculous, then, to expect the people around us to act with a little urgency, to behave as if time matters to them?

And at what point would one become a total jerkstore for demanding that they do so?


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