Hell’s massive gate is a thing of legend — a mile high’s iron-bound iron with iron rivets nailing iron sheets to iron planks, and above all the famous legend, Abandon Hope All Ye Yadda Yadda Yadda. The iron gate is deep set in a stone wall as thick as a mountain, and it is a gate whose job is, famously, to make a big show of remaining closed.
Next to the unspeakably massive gate, maybe ten yards away, is an eight-foot-high glass double-door with matching chromed tube-steel vertical handles and a black-paint-on-chrome sticker next to each handle that says, “PULL”. Next to the PULL sticker on the left, farther left, is a cellophane-taped piece of typing paper on which is hand-written the ubiquitous notice, in fat black marker, “USE OTHER DOOR”.
Above these doors is a fancy debossed plaque that reads, in large Roman serifs, “Visitor’s Entrance & Gift Shop”. Smaller, beneath it, but still debossed in fancy Roman serifs, “Restroom for Customer Use Only”.
It is well lit, by fluorescent lights flush with the ceiling, inside. The door on the right opens easily, whether pushed or pulled, making one wonder why the PULL on the door seems so emphatic. Maybe it is just there to keep the candidate for entry from standing there, hand on the handle, unsure and waffling with indecision.
Inside, the shop is arranged sensibly in sections. It is tidy. There is no dust or grime anywhere, and everything is in its place.
Prominent in the center of the shop is a refrigerated section with an enormous array of flowers and a selection of vases and ornate containers for display. The flowers are sorted by color, indigo to crimson, with larger and more ornate and expensive flowers toward the top of each refrigerated case, to the back, and smaller, simpler flowers toward the front. Within each color there is a range from dark through bright to pastel, and the selection is extensive.
To one side of the refrigerated section is a large array of sympathy cards in an astounding array of languages. To one end of the display, the languages get older and more pictographic. One’s eye is drawn, in particular, to a large black card, approximately A4-sized, printed in white cuneiform characters. If one’s Minoan Linear A is sufficient for accurate translation, the card says, roughly, “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID.”
Beyond the card display are the more usual gifts: soft toys representing the usual gamut of cuddlable vicious animals and humanoid dollies (including many cutesified demonic entities with twee pitchforks), boxed confections of numerous types from candied fruits to nougats and toffees to chocolates to boiled sweets and hard candies to salted nuts to gummies to chewing gum and mints, small items of jewelry. There are items of comfortable clothing: pajamas and robes and slippers, from the utilitarian and serviceable to soft toys you stuff your feet in. In a locking glass cabinet, there are cigars, cigarillos, and cigarettes.
There are no lighters, but one assumes that a handy source of flame would be fairly easy to find inside.
There is a selection of popular reading materials, including magazines and newsprint pads of puzzles and solitary games. All of the newspapers are current and neatly stacked. Cheaply printed and bound religious texts from every tradition are present.
In the rear of the shop is a cafe for the shop-weary, laid out automat-style. Vending machines provide the usual array of hot or cold non-alcoholic liquid refreshments, wrapped sandwiches, crisps and crackers, and sweets. White formica tables and stackable plastic chairs are arranged in an orderly fashion for use in a first-come, first serve basis. Each table has, dead center, a napkin dispenser and a basket of common condiments and salt and ground pepper and sweeteners for hot beverages.
The section closest to the checkout register is for souvenirs: hats and scarves and t-shirts and sweatshirts and nylon jackets emblazoned with the many names of Hell in a complete array of languages and religious traditions, many accompanied with commonly associated symbology. There are pens and keyrings and watch fobs and thimbles and collectible spoons. Here are the cheap plastic lighters missing from the tobacco case, covered in cartoon winking devils and coquettishly posed incubi and succubi, and a couple of the more expensive refillable kind, engraved with depictions of the massive iron gate.
There is a closed door in the wall beyond the checkout counter with a sign above it that reads “CHAPEL”.
A stand-up sign at the checkout counter reads “Now accepting applications for employment. Ask cashier for application.” The minotaur behind the counter notes with interest that one is reading this sign.
One lays down for purchase one’s choices:
The Minoan Linear A “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID” card.
A keyring bearing the name and text logo of Hell’s Gift Shop itself.
A knit cap bearing the logo of the Gehenna Gorgons roller derby team.
A Zippo-style lighter bearing a textured model of the Gate on the body and the legend “ABANDON HOPE ALL YE YADDA YADDA YADDA” on the lid.
The minotaur, in his Hell’s Gift Shop smock and apron, rings up the purchases professionally and accurately. He accepts payment and places all of the purchases in a commemorative plastic gift bag, with the register’s printed receipt, and one accepts the bag from his hands.
One pauses for a moment, facing the register, removes the “YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID” card, and presents it to the cashier with a sly smile and a nod.
The minotaur sighs. He accepts the card gracefully and sets it, slightly open and standing upright, on his little work area behind the register. Next to, one notes, a carefully wound ball of twine and a pair of no-nonsense shears.
One nods again in companionable benediction, still smiling, and heads for the exit.
Back when I was born, some complete stranger picked me up by a hind leg, kinda thought he could detect an “outie” in my doughy undeveloped bits between my legs, and checked the MALE box on my birth certificate. And that was that. I was officially a boy – one of two choices on the official 1960s form. They took my foreskin and my tail without even asking, wrapped me up, and sent me home with a copy of that little form to start my “blue” training.
There was an unofficial third option, which basically meant leaving the form blank in the event of signs of both sets of genitals being present, or neither, until the parents chose which they’d prefer after a brief discussion with the obstetrician about what the kid would be more likely to find useful at puberty or after, moderated heavily by what sorts of surgery caused what lasting types of damage at the time. This was the 60s, remember.
A couple hundred years before that, before you were required to check in with the government in the event of being born, there were no official forms to inconveniently lock things down – and if there were, the local courthouse tended to burn down every fifty years or so anyway, making it moot. If things rearranged themselves “down there” the closer you got to puberty, you just kind of dealt with it the way you felt you ought to and tried not to make a big fuss. Everybody just kind of shrugged and there were a few unkind whispers maybe and the older folks just nodded because they knew that sometimes these things just happened, but it was personal stuff and nobody talked about it in polite company.
Everybody knows sex is more complicated, and I’m talking strictly medically for the moment, than whether you were born with an “innie” or an “outie”. At the extremely noticeable end, a kid is born with reasonably functional versions of both sets of genitals about four times in a million. If you had maybe 10,000 people in your biggest city, back in the day, this was seriously “once in a blue moon” territory. If you were in the Abrahamic traditions, maybe you dashed its little brains out with a rock and called it “stillborn”. Elsewhere, maybe you handed it over to the priests for “special training”. But these days, pick a metropolis and know that there are half a dozen, maybe two or three dozen full hermaphrodites walking around. Maybe their parents picked their favorite gender and had doctors “correct the situation” with no more thought than they give circumcision these days. Maybe they didn’t.
I call that noticeable, but it really isn’t, unless you have one of those obnoxious scanners they use at airport security.
It’s not just related to X and Y chromosomes either. Even more frequent than hermaphroditism is a condition called CAIS – Complete Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. You’re born with a Y chromosome, but nothing in your body responds to the presence of the male hormones you produce. You develop as a female – the default condition – and frequently don’t find out you have undescended testes instead of ovaries until you try to find out why your period is weak/sporadic/not present or why you and your chosen man can’t seem to have babies. This condition happens to maybe one person in 50,000 with a Y chromosome, maybe one in 20,000 – and that range is so iffy because a lot of times it’s never diagnosed. Before the 90s, doctors used to just not tell the people who had it (or even their families) that their girl-child was kind of a boy, maybe.
And yes, that word “Complete” up there implies that there are “Partial” forms that are at least as common. And “Mild” forms as well.
When it comes down to it, there are literally thousands of genes that control or influence sex and gender and sexual preference, and not all of those are on the X and Y chromosomes. You do, in fact, have more than 20 other chromosomes, doubled, one from each parent. Probably. And some of the gene groups that are typically on an X or a Y chromosome can occasionally be duplicated elsewhere and passed down by one parent or another. What kinds of pheromones you’ll find yourself attracted to seems to be heavily influenced by your major histocompatibility complex, which is on chromosome 6. There are probably other clusters elsewhere that make sure you aren’t attracted to the scent of family members, and somewhere else that influences the degree to which you might be attracted to the pheromones produced by individuals with traditionally male and/or traditionally female hormones, and yet another set for whether you yourself produce a “male” set of pheromones or a “female” set or some mix of both.
And then there are more genes that influence things that are only socially associated with gender, like whether you like to wear bright colors (that trait seems to switch genders every few generations, along with several others) and what your endurance is like for extended shopping trips and how easily you cry when you’re upset. Since there’s a boat-load of things like that that we have been trained since coming home from the hospital to associate with sex and gender, how we find ourselves responding to a ton of different cues can affect our feelings of how we should identify ourselves with respect to sex and gender and sexual preference. Especially if we were raised to think there were two tiny immutable boxes on a government form that we need to make ourselves fit in.
The Bible doesn’t help much with this situation. Genesis 5:2, in the KJV (the oldest translation the fundamentalists care to train themselves to understand), it says, “Male and female created He them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created.” Unless that “and” in “male and female” is interpreted to be the inclusive “and”, as in “both at the same time, maybe”, then the rest of this verse needs to have the words “with about a ten percent margin of error” added into it somewhere – or else be relegated to the pile of “about as scientifically accurate as the Creation story”.
People are born outside those MALE and FEMALE checkboxes on the official birth certificates (that we’ve only been taking seriously for a hundred years or so), in terms of sex and gender and sexual preference, about one time in ten – about as frequently as people are born left-handed, and for analogically similar reasons. It’s barbaric to pretend otherwise, barbaric and ignorant, and it’s barbaric and ignorant to treat the very common phenomenon of the misgendered, the sexually misidentified, and those who are attracted to genders we traditionally don’t expect them to be attracted to as disgusting, as damaged, as pariahs, or as disposable people or human garbage. These people are brothers and sisters, friends, neighbors, coworkers, members of our communities and churches and clubs and groups and voters and fully-fledged &@#^#% human beings.
If you secretly think they’re going to Hell, then fine. That’s just ignorant bigotry and nobody can stop you. But leave bunk assignments in Hell to the god of your choosing. If you try to make life for these people Hell on Earth, you are so far out of line that the line is over the freaking horizon.
You know what it’s like when you look at the face of someone you love, and she’s justifiably angry because of something you did, and the rage is coming, and it is wrong for you to do anything but take it? You know that it might be a miserable few days, but you will still be able to see that beautiful face wearing its beautiful anger every time you feel up to enduring a little extra dose of misery….The sky was like that.
I guess it’s up to your particular religious views whether the sky was like that because of anything I did. It’s not outside the bounds of my imagination, but my ego is not so large that I think the sky loves me enough that thoughtless action or neglect on my part could make her angry. As much as I love her, the sky is just not that into me.
The dog looked up at me as if it was my fault, like I’d done something to make the sky angry, and clearly conveyed that making him endure the sky’s anger to piss was beyond the pale. But until and unless he learns to use the commode, this is the solution I prefer.
Well, I call him a dog. It’s close enough for my purposes.
I feed him, groom him and keep him clean, give him a comfy place to sleep and some exercise and whatever training he can master. He curls up nearby whenever I do whatever else I do that doesn’t concern him. I love him the way people love dogs that they consider to be part of the family, regardless of messes or damage to my property or whatever way he’s chosen today to shock the neighbors. I require nothing of him. Training is almost entirely carrot, almost no stick.
So let’s just call him a dog and move on.
The sky was all loud grumbling and clouded expression and wrinkles of impending fury and the dog was (finally) pissing on his favorite pine and I was standing out in it as well, as a gesture of solidarity and of also being certain there were clean towels and dry clothes stowed in various closets and everything was beautiful and everything seemed right with the world.
Also when the sky is angry I don’t worry as much that neighbors might be outside trying to look at us through the slats in the fence. So that was good too.
It’s time for me to let you in on a secret. It’s not a big kind of secret secret, but it’s something that a few people out there would prefer you didn’t know. Kind of like a stage magician guild doesn’t want one of their members explaining how all the tricks work.
Look, it’s of interest to a lot of people — agencies and groups of people, too — to map who talks to whom. And to map what groups of people believe. And to see who in those groups are more influential, and who is more connected. The more totalitarian a government gets, the more interested in this sort of thing it becomes. For all the reasons you’d think, if you ever thought about it.
The trick is the Statistically Improbable Phrase. The made-up or misspelled word or grammatically ignorant clause or clever turn of phrase. These things are radioactive dye injected into the bloodstream. Barium enemas. Colored smoke in the air. Blood in the water. And they’re used to map human networks through social media. Through email and telephone calls too, if you’ve got the access.
An example: Google “dhimmitude“, a word invented in 1982. It’s use marks a network dominated by anti-Islamic sentiment, and the transmission vectors of this network are, by semantic analysis of their public communications, under-educated and fearful of outside domination or loss of privilege. The latest payload inserted into the network, detailed here in Snopes, uses a classic “dogs barking” opening (messages expressing fear or anger are far more likely to be forwarded than anything delivered in a neutral tone, much the way one dog barking at a raccoon in the night will start all the dogs in the neighborhood barking) and then blatantly lies about something that would take a lot of trouble to verify in a transparent attempt associate (high-energy) anti-Muslim fear with (lower-energy) distrust of the Affordable Care Act, thereby using the higher-energy carrier to spread the anti-ACA propaganda further. This also has the side-effect of enlarging the “dhimmitude” network for future propaganda purposes.
Then, of course, social networks can be polled on the “dhimmitude” keyword campaign to track any growth in the human spambot “dhimmitude” network. And provide feedback on the effectiveness of the last “dhimmitude” transmission to make sure it was worth the money spent developing the draft of the message. (Yes, these things are done for money — and the pay-by-the-word rate is the best a writer can hope for.) And then set a price for future access to the network to be paid by people who want to send them more propaganda.
These days it doesn’t take a lot of effort to see what networks someone active in social networking is a part of (or has been infected by, if the detected networks are insidious). A quick scan for the usual suite of keywords and statistically improbable phrases in perpetually scrolling timeline feeds is quite an excellent mapping tool, made tons more useful by a list of links to friends and followers who can also be mapped. A few lines of programming script makes it all a trivial task. And if you “like” a page of mine on Facebook, even something harmless that just shares jokes and funny pictures, this gives me an “in” for looking at your content and scanning your connections to friends and other known networks.
Blood in the water.
So next time you “like” something cute or funny you see on Facebook (from someone you don’t know personally) or “Share This if…” or forward an angry-sounding email that has already passed through numerous hands, please understand you are being studied for use as a propaganda vector and human spambot. By people who will be paid very good money to use you, who have no reason at all to have your best interests at heart. In fact, it is in their best interests to keep you ill-informed, angry, and ignorantly barking.
To save myself some effort of concentration, I slave my puppet’s walking to Tom’s motions, offset by a second or two so it doesn’t look like they are marching in lockstep, intervening only to avoid obstacles on the sparsely populated sidewalks. He has been rambling, conversation-wise, for an hour or so, calming his nerves. We compare notes on academic experiences and he tells me some about what things were like growing up.
There is another reason, too, I suspect. Human predators are weak monsters at best, and work themselves up to kill more easily if they can think of their human prey as objects, things, cowering animals. Tom thinks that if I know him and see him undeniably as a person, his chances for survival, of convincing me to change my mind about taking his life, are greater.
But all I am killing right now is time. I have to stay embedded where I am, traveling linearly timewise, for a short while. There is an event Tom wished to witness this evening of the day of our meeting. A speaker at a small gathering at a chapel, socked away in a storefront in a seaside strip mall — the kind of place that always smells of burned coffee and smokers from the time it spends as a venue for Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He also thinks I won’t kill him in front of a number of witnesses, and that if I actually allow him to attend, it will extend his life by at least the length of the meeting — or possibly allow for some distraction which will permit him to escape.
I have marked Tom, however. I will be able to follow him forward in time from the moment of our meeting to wherever I shall decide that his linear thread will end.
We are among the first to arrive and take two seats at the end of the rear row of metal folding chairs. The few other people present are a couple of college-aged kids, possibly involved in the menial aspects of setting up, a middle-aged woman, comfortably dressed, who is possibly their supervisor, and a drifter or two, at least one of whom probably thinks this is an AA meeting and will likely stay out of curiosity.
More people arrive, hard to pin down from a visual gloss. A cluster of three young professional men, ties discarded and suit jackets slung casually over arms or shoulders. A bored housewife type in yoga pants with brown hair caught carelessly in a pony tail. A group of four young people who look as much like a garage band on the verge of breakup, here for group counseling, as anything else. I lose track of the next few by pulling in my awareness tightly and sinking the bulk of what no longer fits into the space of my puppet through the concrete slab of the floor beneath the cheap carpet and into the chilling earth. It’s like sitting in a brightly lit room peeping between the fingers of my hands over my face. The evening has turned a bit chill and my puppet is sparsely dressed, so I pose it in a more closed position, hunched over, face cast downward. Tom rubbernecks, performing his own evaluation of the session’s attendants.
The drifter a couple of seats over from Tom pipes up. “I sense a dark presence,” he intones. His voice is a solid baritone, with an invisible smile built in. Long graying hair obscures the side of his face nearest Tom.
“Woooo…,” laughs one of the professionals, a man on the outside edge of his row, tan jacket over the back of his chair.
The drifter stands and edges across empty seats to the aisle at the side, the same side as the professional, and walks to the front of the room at an easy pace, patting the professional companionably on the shoulder on the way. The seated man doesn’t flinch or shy away from the contact, reacting with a grin that cannot be seen from Tom’s angle.
At the front of the room, the drifter turns to face his audience. He’s a little shorter than average, perhaps, a bit hunched, dressed in jeans, disintegrating loafers, a faded red t-shirt, and a sweatshirt of some kind with a hood pushed back onto his shoulders. His features put him into his forties or fifties. He looks and sounds like he could be a newscaster if he got a salon haircut and a conservative suit.
“Over on the table by the empty coffee urn,” he begins, “I’d like to direct your attention to the donations basket.” He laughs. “Seems like it comes with the room.” A handful of groans come from the sparse audience. He continues, laughing, “Now I’d like you to ignore it. I have all the money I need, and I’m not selling anything. Just figured I needed to get that out of the way.”
At this point he grabs an empty chair out of the completely empty front row and spins it around to face the attendees. He takes a seat. “I don’t feel the need to stand up and be seen. Just speak out if you can’t hear me. Provided you actually give a damn about what I’m saying and aren’t here just to escape the oppressive jolly weather and refreshing sea breezes of the Southern California coast.”
He makes himself comfortable in his chair. “And now a few words about myself. I don’t have a name. Or a phone. Or a website. Much less any impressive credentials to try to lend phantom weight to what I have to say. And that’s enough about me.
“I do, however, sense a dark presence. Not any kind of ancient foreboding evil. A brand spanking new one. A darkness of a sort not typically detected this far outside the L.A. city limits.” He smiles and is answered by a light chuckle from the audience. “A darkness that drinks souls, which don’t actually exist in the way everybody thinks about them, so saying it that way is more than half a lie, but it’s the best way I can think to say it while in the grips of this crippling whiskey deficiency.” One of the men in suits, at this point, cheerfully waves a metal pocket-flask of something in the speaker’s direction, but the speaker just grins and motions for the man to put it away.
He continues. “A brand spanking new foreboding evil, and one of you present has brought it with you. Kind of a dick move, if you ask me, but I’m sure you have your reasons.”
My awareness subtly focuses on Tom, who is of course saturated with fear, but Tom’s fear is still centered on his impending mortality. At no point does the speaker give any attention at all to my puppet — at least no more than the casual glances he has given most of the rest of the people present. Is the speaker referring to me? It would make all the sense in the world if he was, but talking about it like this makes me think he’s not certain and is trying to flush something out into the open.
The flask-wielder heckles from his chair. “So the whiskey I brought is only aged seven years. That doesn’t make it evil!” Everybody laughs, including Tom and the speaker.
The drifter engages him directly with a smirking glare. “Actually it kinda does.” And everybody laughs again.
“Anyway,” he says, “I’m sure you’re not all here for my sparkling sit-down stand-up routine. “And fuck all this dark presence nonsense. If you people realized for thirty seconds in a row how saturated the world is with darkness, you’d use the last five seconds of that to slit your own throats. Thank To Whom It May Concern you’re all blind as bats with earplugs. Pretty birds in pretty cages sing pretty songs for the rest of us. An honest man is listening. Who has a question?”
A browned young man in jeans, sandals, and some kind of zip-up jacket with stripes down the sleeves speaks up. “When will I ever be truly happy?”
The speaker doesn’t allow even a brief pause. “You’ll be happy the moment you realize you’ve gone three whole weeks without asking yourself that question. Then it will go away again. Then half an hour later you’ll realize you’ve been being an idiot, and then you’ll be happy enough not to worry about it much ever again. That’s all assuming you live through the night, of course. Or the next night. Or the next night. And so on.”
The young man follows up more hesitantly. “Is not living through the night something I should be worrying about?” There is nervous laughter from around the room.
The speaker smiles. “You have as good a chance at a long and healthy life as most anybody else here. I was pointing out, or trying to, that you have a choice about what’s going to worry you. I guarantee you, giving yourself ten minutes to think about all the horrible things going on in the world that you don’t have to worry about will make any worry you have now seem like the waste of time that it is. Who’s next?”
The woman with the ponytail asks, “Does God exist?”
The speaker sighs. “You are an ant. The bug, not the relative. You look up and there’s this big face in the sky. His coming and going knocks the boulders out of the ceilings of your little tunnels, sometimes even smothering and crushing the newly hatched larvae in the nursery. Sometimes he even deliberately kicks the top of the nest away and stomps around killing hundreds. And sometimes he leaves an apple core right in the path of your scouts and you all eat like kings for a week. Is that the God you’re talking about? If so, based on His actions toward you and the hive, does He love you or hate you? What are His motives? How does He spend his spare time? What does He do when He’s not stomping around killing folk or dropping food? Does He love some of you ants more than others? Maybe, if He loves you enough, He’ll whisk you away to His own private ant farm and keep you on a desk in His office? Or if He decides He’s done with you all, He’ll pour gasoline down the nest and light it? Is that the God you’re asking about?
“That’s the best understanding any living human being will ever have of any god. You don’t even want a god like that. You want a super-ant, someone who understands ant interests and ant needs and can help you build to defend yourselves from God’s Boot, someone who can steal fresh apples for you right out of God’s orchard without Him noticing and coming after you for revenge. And no human being will have that understanding, of what a god is and how to deal with one, with only a human’s point of view.
“If you want to know for yourself for sure if God exists, you just look for His bootprint. Next?”
“Wait,” the woman replies. “Do really think it’s that grim?”
“Think about it,” the speaker says. “If God cares anything at all about you, it’s because He finds you beautiful or fascinating or useful or because He eats you. How much of His attention are you willing to risk? Do you really think you’ll make a good pet? Next?”
There is silence in the room now. People shift uncomfortably in their chairs. There is a question I would like to ask, but I do not wish to draw attention directly. Any intervention I might make other than moving my puppet would attract the notice of any entity with perceptions like my own, and this man and the things he has been saying have convinced me that he has had, or has currently, contact with something outside the normal human scope.
I have my puppet nudge Tomoyoshi with an elbow and when he looks over I make my puppet make a writing gesture, one hand over the other’s open palm. Tom pulls a notebook out of his bag, a ballpoint pen stuffed into the spiral binding. My puppet opens it to a blank page and writes, “Ask: ‘Whose hand is up your ass?’ ”
Tom looks at this and blinks. He looks at my puppet’s face, his mouth open, features full of wonder and realization and apprehension. My puppet nods gently.
“ASK,” my puppet writes again, and hands the notebook back. Tom puts it away.
Tom clears his throat to shove his nervousness and fear aside. “How does an honest man answer this question: Whose hand is up your ass?”
There are one or two gasps, and someone somewhere titters.
The speaker is no longer smiling. “Well done,” he responds. “You have served your purpose, ant. But I must answer the question. God’s own hand is up my ass. To prove it, here comes His boot.”
The woman with the ponytail lurches to her feet in obvious distress, and turns sideways to face the bulk of the attendees. Her chest and belly explodes, distributing miscellaneous gore and intestines over four or fives rows of seats. A gout of flame envelopes the man who had brought the flask, and he falls into the laps of his companions, igniting them as well. I yank my awareness fully into the area in time to feel an additional presence billowing into the space, waiting to feed on the dying. I feel an otherworldly tug in the direction of Tom’s body, so I encapsulate him as well as I can, including my puppet in the multidimensional clathrate. Near to panic, I isolate several timelines anchored to our future selves in an attempt to guarantee an escape.
The other is hugely powerful and extends in many directions far beyond this locale. My paths forward include ferociously aggressive maneuvers, though it is clear that I would fail a direct confrontation. And then I understand.
Billowing out from my clathrate, I reach for the escaping essences of two of the dying professionals. I am strongly slapped away, but I do not retreat in the expected direction. Instead, I pounce and devour wholly the essence of the pony-tailed woman, who retreats into my extended self almost willingly to avoid the destruction promised by the other presence.
The other responds with fury. The air in the meeting-place is incandescent with brilliance, and the facade facing the parking lot explodes away. In this instant, I gather all of my essence into the shell around my puppet and Tomoyoshi’s body and torque a portion of the blast to propel us out of the building, but also around forty minutes into the future, where the bubble we are in bounces a couple of times and deforms, flattening viscously, while our physical packages slide to a halt shy of the sidewalk.
Tom is unconscious, but returning. His hair is singed, as is his jacket and his bag. My puppet is covered in dew and condensation. I leave it inert on the pavement for a moment.
There are two fire trucks blocking Tom’s view of the continuing conflagration as much of the strip mall burns, now involving at least four shops in addition to the exploded meeting-space in the center of the devastation. The other presence has fed on the dead and left, forced to choose between leaving a meal and pursuing me to a point in time where its food would have spoiled and dissolved into the background fields of dark matter. Nor has it returned or lain in wait for my reappearance, which leaves me a little confused.
And now it occurs to me that perhaps it just doesn’t care. Maybe I am only a pest to be bothered with when I appear at a picnic. I am not game. I am not a threat. I am not even a serious annoyance.
I realize I am offended.
I keep seeing suggestions that we pay our senators and representatives minimum wage, and it’s kind of funny, picturing them living four to a two-bedroom rat-hole in a student/immigrant ghetto somewhere, pooling recycling deposits for a bottle of cheap liquor to split and/or reimburse the chump who picked up the dry-cleaning. The funniest part, though, is that they wouldn’t notice if we stopped paying them altogether.
Here’s a tiny, tiny piece of the reality of how our lawmakers actually get paid.
The House Agriculture Committee is in charge of regulations on complex financial derivatives. Once upon a time this made sense, because these derivatives originally existed as hedges against commodity failures. Blight, drought, livestock culls, etc. And you used to only be able to speculate in commodities (food futures and such) if you actually traded — i.e, bought or sold — commodities, because otherwise you could be in a position to deliberately tank a commodity the nation depended on so you could sell short or collect insurance and make a crap-ton of money while causing a good deal of actual misery to the populace in general.
Sounds complex, does it? Well thank God Wall Street doesn’t have to worry their simple little heads about how to get around tough regulations like that anymore. Protections like that are a thing of the past, baby.
Speaking of regulations, we nailed some back together, kind of haphazardly, after Wall Street tanked the Real Estate market and sold it short/collected insurance/got bailed out when the insurance firms collapsed (looking at you, AIG). Dodd-Frank, we called it. Anyway, some of those regulations are kind of, well, restricting to the Big 4 “Too Big to Fail/Too Big to Jail” banking monstrosities, so they flip a few grand (only counting the 2010/2012 election years) to their buddies on the Agriculture committee.
|AgCommittee Contributions||Bank of America||Citigroup||Goldman Sachs||JP Morgan Chase||Grand Total|
|Rep. Randy Neugebauer [R, TX-19]||$20,000||$9,000||$14,000||$9,000||$52,000|
|Rep. David Scott [D, GA-13]||$16,000||$7,000||$11,000||$7,500||$41,500|
|Rep. Frank D. Lucas [R, OK-3]||$12,000||$2,500||$15,000||$10,000||$39,500|
|Rep. Stephen Lee Fincher [R, TN-8]||$10,000||$2,000||$10,500||$7,000||$29,500|
|Rep. K. Michael Conaway [R, TX-11]||$5,000||$16,000||$1,000||$22,000|
|Rep. Christopher P. Gibson [R, NY-19]||$5,000||$15,000||$20,000|
|Rep. Mike Rogers [R, MI-8]||$2,500||$11,000||$3,500||$17,000|
|Rep. Juan Vargas [D, CA-51]||$3,500||$5,000||$6,000||$14,500|
|Rep. Marcia L. Fudge [D, OH-11]||$6,500||$4,500||$11,000|
|Rep. Mike McIntyre [D, NC-7]||$1,000||$1,000||$8,500||$10,500|
|Rep. Jeff Denham [R, CA-10]||$4,500||$3,000||$500||$1,000||$9,000|
|Rep. Kristi L. Noem [R, SD-0]||$2,000||$5,500||$7,500|
|Rep. Collin C. Peterson [D, MN-7]||$5,500||$5,500|
|Rep. Vicky Hartzler [R, MO-4]||$2,000||$2,000||$1,000||$5,000|
|Rep. Dan Benishek [R, MI-1]||$5,000||$5,000|
|Rep. Kurt Schrader [D, OR-5]||$2,500||$2,000||$4,500|
|Rep. Jim Costa [D, CA-16]||$1,000||$3,500||$4,500|
|Rep. Bob Goodlatte [R, VA-6]||$1,000||$2,000||$1,000||$4,000|
|Rep. Austin Scott [R, GA-8]||$3,000||$3,000|
|Rep. Doug LaMalfa [R, CA-1]||$2,000||$2,000|
|Rep. Timothy J. Walz [D, MN-1]||$2,000||$2,000|
|Rep. Pete P. Gallego [D, TX-23]||$1,000||$1,000|
|Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney [D, NY-18]||$1,000||$1,000|
|Rep. Chris Collins [R, NY-27]||$1,000||$1,000|
|Rep. Scott DesJarlais [R, TN-4]||$500||$500|
That’s not a lot. Not a living wage, anyway. But the Big 4 Banks have to pay the rest of the legislative branch another $4.5 million for other good and valuable considerations and can’t be bothered to be the sole patrons keeping these poor chumps alive. Fortunately these guys in the Agriculture Committee alone racked up another whopping $50 MILLION DOLLARS since the start of 2010 from other generous donors in other industries. That’s all 47 of them, not just the 25 listed above, so that’s only a million a head, and split over four years. On average, of course. Only one person gets to be the chairman after all. So some members of congress have to be on BUNCHES of committees so they can grab enough from a number of different troughs to get by.
Please, don’t take my word for it. I’m hosting a copy of this free-to-download set of spreadsheets over here on Google Docs just in case you don’t want to pay Microsoft money to view the misery. (For some reason LibreOffice choked trying to open this, but I fear that was simply disgust. Or the pivot tables.)
My personal view is that this crap shouldn’t be remotely legal. There’s a reason we have words for “bribes” and “graft” and “corruption”. But the truth is that our legislators would have to be the ones to make the laws to make buying the favors of our officials illegal. Or to restore any that they’ve previously repealed. Could be an issue. Because obviously publishing a list of their names and the size of the bribes and who they came from doesn’t #^@&ing work.
- On Death Panels
- MORE THAN THE ENTIRE GDP OF THE USA WAS GIVEN AWAY, LITERALLY, IN SECRET
- Rich-People Money vs Poor-People Money: A Primer
- Next on YouTube: 4.5 hours of C-Span
- Everything is okay — In the long term. On the whole. On average.
- How To Fix Everything
- Apologies to the Ghost of Jim Henson
- What Do They Want, part 2 (in the doomed-to-repeat-it category)
Every day I see claims that we are risking a nationwide uprising by proposing to restrict the rights of irresponsible gun owners. I think that’s hysterical. Because what’s REALLY going to trigger the next revolution is when half of the nation can’t make ends meet because the lazy, layabout, entitlement-seeking, non-working INVESTOR CLASS has hijacked the bulk of the GDP of this growing economy and stashed it in offshore accounts.
The starving poor might not be able to afford guns to stage an armed uprising, but they for damn sure can afford a cheap cigarette lighter from the corner convenience store. And someday soon every house in this nation worth more than a million dollars will be on fire.
The American Revolution had nothing to do with the British trying to take away the colonists’ guns. It wasn’t even really about taxation without representation, as the taxes being levied were only a means to an end. And that end was to keep they people who earned the money for the British landowners and merchants from having enough money to buy themselves out of what was effectively slavery — working their asses off every day for not quite enough money to live on and being unable to put back enough to retire or quit or found ventures that could compete with the few who already owned everything.
Tell me, do you smell smoke?
I don’t know why I bother to reveal these secrets to you. You won’t have earned them until you discover them for yourself, nor will you actually understand them. Maybe having read the words will give you a little extra foundation for understanding my own point of view, which you will no doubt merely see as some kind of delusion at worst or psychotic irrelevance at best. But if curiosity pulls you at least this far, you may as well have it.
The world around you is filled with light. Even when your eyes are closed, even when the sun is down, you see reddish light filtered through the blood-filled tissues of your own eyelids. Hell, even when you lose consciousness due to exhaustion at the end of the day you dream of light, of substance, of objects. This is true even if you were born blind, though then the light is sourceless, simulated by touch and sound and the feel of how the air moves. This light is an echo of how the seeming enormity of the world fills your brain.
The secret begins to seep in when you look up at night and see the distant stars. Each tiny pinprick is a star, a giver of light like the sun, who is a middle-aged member of that host and a junior example — a middle-management clerk among celebrities and statesmen and giants. And just as there are billions of people more important that that clerk in the world, there are hundreds of billions of those tiny, yet more prominent, pinpricks in our own massive galaxy of stars. But ours is not the only galaxy there is.
The Milky Way has several smaller companions, but hurtling toward us is a monster of a galaxy, much larger than our own, dragging along its entire entourage, due to arrive in less than half the lifespan left of our own meager sun. Our local group of galaxies numbers at least 50. But groups of galaxies also travel in clusters. And clusters form superclusters. And so on. Call it something on the order of a hundred billion galaxies, and, as good a guess as any, a septillion brilliant stars.
The skies should be filled with blinding light day and night, edge to edge, if light is what the world we know is made of. The beginning of wisdom is to see the inescapable reality that this is not the case. The world that glows is not even one part in twenty of the world that exists. And the truth of that is revealed in that when we look at the sky at night, what we mostly see is blackness.
The whole of creation is more than 95 parts in 100 darkness — measured by mass even, not volume — and the darkness is growing. The brightest of us, so to speak, squeeze our eyes shut when the light of this knowledge starts to dawn and begins to make us feel tiny and ephemeral and insubstantial, and believe we have found wisdom. But true wisdom does not come until we accept that the overwhelming and ever-increasing blackness between the stars, inside the stars, even, squeezing them and pushing them away from one another at an ever-increasing rate, is the ultimate reality. That blackness has form, and beauty, and substance. That blackness has intelligence. That hateful sun-eating blackness is the destiny of all that lives and all that glows.
There is a further secret behind that, however, intangible until you push past your soul-crushing despair. And it is terrifying. The ultimate secret is this: The unimaginably massive universe-eating blackness has tendrils inside you and knows everything about you and loves you with the entirety of its incalculable being and wants to be your friend. But you are no good to it until you are dead dead dead.
* * * * *
What I love about California is that when you walk around a small coastal town upholstered in tattooed skin of brown leather — shock of white hair smushed under a backward baseball cap, eyelids and lips sewn shut, torso wrapped in a bright aloha shirt, sculpted ass companionably wrapped in khaki cargo shorts, feet stuffed into paper-thin yellow foam flip-flops — no one bats an eye when you buy a latte and take a seat by the big picture window at the front of the shop. Especially when you hold the door for the guy coming in the shop behind you, affably find your wad of cash in the third pocket you investigate, and stuff a five-dollar bill into the Lucite tip-box. My puppet does all of these things, even to the point of making faces at the Labrador puppy leashed to the bicycle rack panting through the window trying to make out the shadow of his mistress inside.
I make a mental note to try this horror of a dumbshow in some backwater Mississippi town someday when I have less business on my mind and am more in the mood to kick over anthills. I will try to work it into my timeweb at a later point, where the echoes would not surge out to muddy the causality of the current puddle I am splashing in. I am here to recruit a Buddhist. A true believer and adherent — someone who actually understands what he believes, not someone who merely adopts the philosophical clothing in the typical fashion of one who becomes disillusioned of the trappings of Western dogma and doesn’t wish to walk around religiously naked after those are discarded. It would be more effort than I would like, to have to teach a purer dharma to an incautious choice pre-mortem and next to impossible post-mortem.
I expand my awareness, retreating analogically to a higher vantage point above the local timeweb to scout for my target. This beach-facing village has maybe three candidates, but the outflowing ripples are definitely the most favorable for the one who will be approaching in five minutes with respect to the bobbing marker of my puppet — the brightly-colored float for my fishing line, to stretch the analogy to the breaking point. I have no idea why, in terms of causal logic, this choice is better than others. But it will reach the coffee shop soon.
I retreat puppetwards and devise the machinery of the interactions that should pull him/her/it into my wake. A him, I determine as he enters. Short dark hair and dressed in unassuming jeans and t-shirt combination, with dirty white canvas loafers and no socks. I have my puppet watch, in terms of body language, as he places his order and waits for it to be constructed. He swings a messenger bag around to his back when he takes his cup, and when he looks up to see which tables are clear, I have my puppet wave at him. He looks confused, but he comes to my puppet’s table at the window, slowing dramatically as he takes in the appearance of my puppet. He is invited to sit with a gesture.
For this meeting I will speak by vibrating the air around my puppet’s face and chest, like when I placed the order for my puppet’s latte. I choose a quiet voice, much like the one I used pre-mortem. Cheerful, unthreatening.
“I know you don’t know me. I’m Jim.” My puppet’s stitched-together lips broaden slightly. It gestures again to the chair opposite. My guest hangs his bag on the chair’s wooden back and sits.
“I’m Tom,” he replies, setting his cup down carefully. I read the full name off the surface of his boiling mind: Tomoyoshi Suzuki. He speaks slowly, weighing curiosity against animal fear. “Is there something I can do for you, Jim?”
He repeats my name at the end of his sentence to fix it in his head while staring at my puppet’s unforgettable face. A reflex. He has worked in sales, or, more likely, possibly he is a teacher, and uses the trick to learn the names of students.
He looks at my puppet’s latte. His face is carefully neutral. “Do you need scissors? Or a straw?”
Tom earns a genuine laugh, which I localize quietly as a chuckle into the air between himself and my puppet. “Oh, thank you, Tom, but no. This puppet is dead. This coffee, like the puppet, is for show. I bought it as table rent.” The puppet leans back a little in the chair and stretches out a leg. “People need the puppet to talk to, when I talk, to avoid the unfortunate misunderstandings that come up when a voice is sourceless or comes from something nonhuman. People freak out or think they’ve gone crazy. The puppet also provides an additional element of language I find useful. See? I’m saying to the rest of this shop, while I talk to you, that this walking horror is not a threat to anyone.”
Tom frowns appreciatively and nods. “Should I ask whose body it was before it became … your puppet? Or is it artificial? Some kind of Hollywood special-effects replica…” he trails off.
“Relax, Tom. This is my own corpus. I drove it from the inside for thirty-some-odd years, pre-mortem. I just failed to relinquish possession when I died. Can I use the word ‘possession’ there?” I pause for a moment to make the puppet pretend a sip of coffee. “It’d be accurate to say that I died in the process of preserving this corpse for future use. Or, in at least one important interpretation, spectacularly failed to die. The jury of opinion isn’t unanimous.”
Tom nods again. “Sokushinbutsu.”
If that is a name for what I am, it is a new one to me. The subtleties of his tone are of mixed horror and reverence rather than the purer notes of distaste for terms like zombie, mummy, revenant, or any of the other hosts of undead from the anthropologies I had studied or more recent popular media and culture. I am not used to being confused or surprised. And I like it. This is possibly part of what I am seeking.
“I’m unfamiliar with the term,” I say. “Japanese, right? … Tomoyoshi?”
Tom doesn’t react when I use the longer version of his name, but makes a wry face with respect to the topic at hand. ” ‘Believe it or not, some saints don’t rot. Their bodies don’t decay…,’ ” he sings. If my puppet’s jaw could hang open, I would have required it to happen. Tom continues. “An old Dead Milkmen song. My mother was Catholic, and much more fervent about it in the years before she died. They believe the power of God is demonstrated by the fact that some of the bodies of old saints are preserved against decay after death. The Buddhists have something similar, after a fashion, but it’s more deliberate. A shortcut to buddhahood. The ones who attempted it took a special diet for a thousand days, coincidentally one that poisoned their flesh against microbes and worms and such, then climbed into a stone box to die. Or to finish dying. Then a thousand days later the box was opened, if it had been successful, and a mummified enlightened one was removed and installed in a shrine to receive intercessory prayers.”
I make my puppet nod, elbows on the table, attentive.
“Folklore takes it a step further, saying not all of the sokushinbutsu attempts were successful. Most did achieve sainthood. But some went mad, stranding their minds beyond mortal comprehension. And some, who had the drive to achieve the transition to immortality but not the purity of heart, became tremendously powerful monsters, creating misery to achieve their own selfish ends. They required — or require, since there may be one or two left — exceptional effort from the devoted to contain or destroy.”
That is something to think about. I say, “What do you think?”
Tom takes a moment to consider, remembering he has coffee that he brought to the table and taking a sip. “As a Buddhist, I am a student. I’m no priest. Until today, I thought of it in terms of a parable, a story of how the highest intentions can be poisoned by the taint of an unacknowledged desire for personal glorification, and on a different level a literal example of the extremes to which the sacrifice of self can take somebody. It’s self-torture and suicide. As such, it removes a pair of hands that could be used to alleviate the suffering of others here feeding hungry people or taking care of the sick. Maybe the sect that created such processes thought there was a shortage of saints to assist Buddha in receiving and processing prayers, or that examples needed to be set from time to time to show people the range of things that could be done in the name of self-sacrifice. If my opinion on the subject is worth anything, I tend to think there are probably enough gods and saints to pray to without adding any more.”
I want to step outside of time to process this, but that would upset the flow of events. I will have to wing it. “Until today?” I ask.
By way of answer Tom cocks an eyebrow and makes a small gesture toward my puppet.
“My process was violent,” I admit. “I prepared myself with drugs and stimulants and anesthetics. I eviscerated myself with surgical tools and clamps to slow the bleeding and stripped off my skin — with preparatory cuts and hooks and ropes and falling weights — before I finished dying. It was much faster, the work of a single evening, and uninformed by any desire other than selfish ends. I wanted power and I got it.”
Tom is frozen in his chair. I take a break for my puppet to pretend another sip of latte. “I was naive and stupid, but very, very lucky. There are many things about the afterlife that it’s impossible to know without stripping off the flesh and jumping in with both feet, as it were. It’s quite an education.” I admit more than I had intended, but Tomoyoshi seems to deserve it. He is tense and flushed, but my confession includes humility uncharacteristic of the sort of monster he fears.
Even so, it is clear that Tom is terrified. His voice is calm and even, however. He is a trooper. “It sounds like quite a feat. Congratulations.” There is no hint of contempt or sarcasm or judgment. “My ambitions are …” he trails off again. “I’m content to bother myself with worldly things while I’m still alive. I’ll worry about what comes after I die when I get there.”
My puppet sets down its cup but continues to hold the handle. I stretch the stitched-together lips of my puppet into a broad smile and gesture toward him impertinently with my puppet’s spare hand. “About that.” I reply.
A couple of words for you gun owners out there. First of all congratulations on your recent major accomplishment. Here’s what you did.
1) Raise unfounded panic that the President is out to take away your precious guns — because a legal gun owner let her precious guns slip out of her protection and get used by her disturbed son to massacre a bunch of elementary school children and their teachers.
2) Take this panic to all of the social media outlets and spark the hugest boom in gun and ammo sales in modern history so that anyone who can afford several hundred dollars of hardware can now protect themselves from the criminals and assassins — who I can only assume are their own disturbed children, considering the recent event that triggered the cascade.
3) Ammunition sells out everywhere, meaning that cops — you remember cops? Those friends, relatives, and neighbors of yours who protect your OTHER friends, relatives, and neighbors who are too young or too old or too poor to buy their own guns and stockpile their own ammo? Those guys? — COPS can’t buy any ammo for their own guns, either to carry on the street or to practice with down at the range.
Congratulations. Your selfish fake-fear-driven panic — triggered by a failure of legal gun ownership to require the discipline that responsible ownership of weapons requires, I might add — has screwed the only people ever given any training to deal with the use of deadly weapons in a civilian arena and ensured that the predators we have to live with constantly will further narrow their targets to the poor, the sick, and the elderly. Because #^@& them, right? Maybe some cowboy-wannabe in the neighborhood will put in a good bullet in their defense, if they just happen to be in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time and feel like putting their own ass on the line for the kind of people who have to live in the crappier areas of town.
You #^@&head cowards. You gullible chumps. You stupid, simpering, parrot-mouthed tools of the fascist, bigoted, hate-fueled corporate greed-machine. You are the loving broomhandle used to caress the underprivileged into submission in the dark corners of the world you keep yourselves blind to.
I’m sick of how easy you make it to stampede you off any convenient cliff. You sign up for it. You volunteer.
You want to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, gun owners? Obviously, seeing as manufacturers and retailers only sell them to the law-abiding, the answer is that you guys have to STOP #^@&ING TURNING INTO CRIMINALS. Right? That’s the only logical answer, right? YOU have to stop being criminals, or giving guns to criminals, or selling guns under the table to criminals, or letting criminals break into your exceptionally well-defended houses and apartments and cars and handbags and stealing your precious guns. YOU are the #^@&ing weak link, here. YOU buy guns. YOU give your guns up to criminals. And then you whine because you’re afraid things will change so that you can’t buy more guns to hand over to criminals. You’re afraid someone will take away your remaining guns BECAUSE YOU KNOW IT’S BEEN YOUR #^@&ING FAULT ALL ALONG.
Alternately — and understand this is a bit of a wishful-thinking stretch — you can STOP MANUFACTURING CRIMINALS with your bigotry and hate and fears and slapping all the opportunities to make a legal success of oneself out of the hands of strangers so your ungrateful and undeserving children can have the first overprivileged chance to screw it up to spite you. Let’s see you build new and better schools out of your stockpiled boxes of ammo, rural OR urban. Let’s see you build the after-school enrichment programs that encourage entrepreneurial thinking and invention with your marksmanship. You’re so afraid someone who isn’t white will get a leg up, someone who isn’t straight, someone who isn’t your religion, maybe even some uppity woman, that you’ll deny the best opportunities to your own children, making it just that tiny bit more likely that even they will have to cheat and steal in order to compete or even survive.
Anyway, there’s your answer. And, as you’ve been saying forever, it has nothing to do with guns themselves, but everything to do with gun owners. To recap:
1) Stop being criminals.
2) Stop putting your guns in the hands of criminals.
3) Stop manufacturing criminals by spreading hate and poverty and oppression.
Tell me I’m wrong. I #^@&ing dare you.
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This One Time, 84
This one time the world was beautiful and filled with a constant buzz of wonder at all the inexplicable delight — or so I was told. I could waste an entire afternoon playing with two magnets and a magnifying glass. Or trying to fill a shoebox with grasshoppers — or, once dusk fell, a Mason […]
- This One Time, 84
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- Family portrait March 16, 2015
- Bunnysitting February 28, 2015
- Zoognosis February 20, 2015
- Camellia says hi February 6, 2015
- Possibly a crime against math to eat February 5, 2015
- Yup. Early spring. February 5, 2015
- Consulting rates apply. January 22, 2015
- Like Risk? Get the upgrade. January 16, 2015