Real Men Don’t Need Guns

July 21, 2012

It’s ninety five in the inner city,
The sirens cut through the hot summer night.
A crowd is gathered outside a club
As a wailing woman is led from the site.

The police chalk an outline on the sidewalk,
The pavement is dyed with a familiar stain.
Another trivial score has been settled,
Another young life gone down the drain.

Brothers, brothers, lay down your arms
The path you are taking leads to nothing but harm
Real men know that violence solves nothing
Real men don’t prey on weaker ones
Real men know the value of life,
And real men don’t need guns!

High and deep in the Tennessee mountains
He sits on his porch and fingers his beard,
He’s heavily stocked with ammunition
And provisions to last him for nearly a year.

If you gain his confidence, perhaps he will tell you
Of the coming invasion of blacks, Jews, and queers.
He thinks he’s strong, he thinks he’s bold,
But he’s pathetic, a prisoner of fears.

Brothers, brothers, lay down your arms
The path you are taking leads to nothing but harm
Real men know that violence solves nothing
Real men don’t prey on weaker ones
Real men know the value of life,
And real men don’t need guns!

A world away, a band of gunmen
Steals into a town with an unpronounceable name,
And they slaughter the townspeople in their sleep
For the sake of some ancient tribal claim.

The young and the old, men, women and children,
They purchase the land with a mortgage of blood.
You fools, don’t you know that nothing can grow
With the irrigation of that crimson flood?

Brothers, brothers, lay down your arms
The path you are taking leads to nothing but harm
Real men know that violence solves nothing
Real men don’t prey on weaker ones
Real men know the value of life,
And real men don’t need guns!

You can catalogue the sins of history
Recite all the wrong that’s been done to you,
But only you can answer
For what your own hands do.

Jesus, Gandhi, and Doctor King,
They didn’t need firepower to carry the day.
They changed the world with love and respect,
And their legacy outlives those who blew them away.

It takes more of a man to stand by a child
And see him through the hard times ahead,
Than it does to scoop up a handful of metal
And solve all his problems in a shower of lead.

Any boy can pull a trigger
But a man can see a better end,
Not to destroy an enemy,
But by reason and love, make him a friend.

Real men know that the valiant struggle
Is to break through the barriers of rage and of hate
Real men know the one true victory
Isn’t to conquer, but to create.

So
Brothers, brothers, lay down your arms
The path you are taking leads to nothing but harm
Real men know that violence solves nothing
Real men don’t prey on weaker ones
Real men know the value of life,
And real men don’t need guns!

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Sic Transit

February 4, 2010

“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” Traditional bluegrass lyric

Todd stopped opposite the office doorway. Letters seemingly suspended in the milky film that filled the space scrolled by: “Gregory Morton, Senior Transitions Counselor, Office of Population Stability.” The milky film evaporated as he stepped through the tiny anteroom and leaned into Gregory Morton’s office.

It was as if he had wandered into a Montana woods on an autumn afternoon. A tranquil stream burbled across mossy rocks softly a few yards away. A gentle breeze, rich with woodsy aroma, brushed across his face. Wild birds cooed and called nearby, and the floor beneath his feet yielded gently and crunched as though on slightly dry leaves on the forest floor.

Mr. Morton, fit and handsome with just a sprinkling of silver around his temples, sat behind the glossy black surface of the desk, about as long as a man is tall. There was no other furniture in the room, except for the Smartchair on the other side of the desk, to which Morton beckoned. “Mr. Todd! I’m sorry that my assistant is out to lunch. Please come in!”

The Smartchair swiveled to face Todd. As he stepped in front of the desk, the chair scurried behind him and rose to affix itself to his back side. He leaned into it, and it lowered him to a sitting position, automatically adjusting for his height. He noted that it placed his eye level approximately even with Morton’s nose, subtly reminding him who held the authority in that office.

Morton brushed his hand slightly over the surface of the desk. It looked like a casual gesture, but Todd knew he was operating the touch sensors for the powerful computer housed in the desk. The Montana forest faded into a stunning panorama of the capital city, as if the walls of the building had fallen away and the men were sitting on the roof, overlooking a breathtaking vista of the city – but with much cleaner and cooler air. Although the remarkable high-resolution technology of the Envirorama built into the walls gave the impression of a much larger space, Todd realized the room was only a meter or so wider than the desk, and only a few centimeters deeper beyond the Smartchair where Morton sat.

“Well, Mr. Todd. How is the adjustment coming along?”

Todd knew by now that Morton was reading his history from the computer images of his file projected into the translucent matte of the desk, visible from Morton’s angle, but not from his. From Todd’s perspective, the surface of the desk appeared as opulent, polished walnut. It even felt that way under his fingers.

“It’s been amazing. A lot to get used to, but it’s very exciting.”

“Quite an adventure you are having, Mr. Todd. You went into the lazarization process in 2016, and now you come out in 2142. Of course there’s a lot to get used to.”

“Well, yeah. They called it therapeutic suspension then. I didn’t hear the word ‘lazarization’ until I came out.”

“The name was applied a decade or so later. It refers to Lazarus, a figure from Biblical mythology who would have been familiar in your time. He received a second chance at life after death, just as you have. I guess you didn’t count on it taking us 126 years to figure out how to cure your disease, though.”

“Well, when I went in I didn’t know if I’d ever come out. I was a wreck then, more dead than alive. But you certainly did cure it. I feel great, even young. It’s like I was 30 again.”

Morton chuckled. “That expression would strike most people now as very strange, but I understand what you mean.”

He gestured over the desk again, and the room transformed into a library, with heavy walnut shelves bearing rows of ancient-looking volumes. A subtle scent of aged paper wafted across his nose. Todd realized it was just a façade for his benefit; he had learned that in the crowded world of the new century, when information could be preserved electronically in infinitesimal space, the allocation of precious cubic feet to bookshelves and file cabinets was a luxury of the very wealthy. But the evocation of that scholarly space from a bygone time was a signal that the business of the meeting was underway, carefully tailored to his century-old sensibilities.

“Our medical techniques now are as far from what you had in 2016 as, oh, as your medicine was from the days of leeches and exorcisms. You’re fortunate that you were such a wealthy man in your world. Very few people of your time could afford the process. They didn’t become commonplace until the 2040’s, so most of the revives I see had been through at least some of the changes. Very few have as much ground to make up as you do. You’ve had the basic reorientation, I trust? Economics, technology, everyday amenities, social arrangements, communication patterns, all that?”

“Yes. It’s taken two weeks already. It’s just incredible. I’m like a baby learning to be an adult. I’ve even been taking language coaching, because the language has changed so much. How is my accent coming?”

“Coming along,” said Morton diplomatically. “Don’t worry about your accent with me; I’m thoroughly trained in the dialects of all the eras of the last 150 years, although yours is a challenge.”

“So you’re a transitions counselor, then? You’re going to counsel me in my transition into society as it is now?”

“Not exactly,” said Morton.

“Well, what is it you do then?”

“My role,” said Morton, “is to explain to you some of the changes that have become necessary as a result of the remarkable advances of our technology. Some of these might be difficult for you to accept without an understanding of the implications of the extraordinary progress we’ve made in improving the length and quality of our lives.   You see, Mr. Todd, we have conquered almost all known diseases, and with the invention in the 2060’s and 2070’s of STR – synthetic tissue reconstruction – we can simply replace any body organ as it wears or is damaged, or even if the owner desires to improve it.”

“Wow! You mean we can – like, live forever? Eternal life?”

Morton smiled. “Well, we’ve only had the technique for less than a hundred years, so I don’t know if we can claim ‘eternal.’ But we do have the capability to achieve what mankind has dreamed of throughout its history – not just limitless life, but limitless youth. We can have any body we want, for centuries at a time. In fact most of us have some sort of synthetic body modification. Almost everyone chooses optically perfect manufactured eyes and variably sensitive hearing devices, for instance. I happen to enjoy racquet sports, so I have a technically advanced elbow which is nearly indestructible. Also gives me a killer serve, as a side benefit.” Morton grinned with self-satisfaction. “In fact I am 120 years old. I was born in 2022, just six years after you went into lazarization.”

Todd gawked. From Morton’s youthful appearance, he would have taken him to be a very healthy man in his late 30’s or early 40’s. But then he realized that Morton’s features were identifiably Caucasian, which should have tipped him off to his advanced age. He had learned that most people born in the United States in the last sixty years or so had no discernable racial identity, due to the nearly universal admixture of the races after Caucasians fell into minority status in the mid-21st century.

“Man, I must be the luckiest man on earth. I go in nearly dead, and come out into a place where I can be young forever. It’s like paradise!”

Morton folded his hands and took on a serious expression. “That’s what I need to explain to you. We do indeed have a blessed existence, but as you’ll often find, even the greatest privileges come with some cost.”

Morton leaned back and swept his hand over the surface of the desk. The imagery on the walls zoomed out to reveal a vast metropolis, spreading unbroken across the landscape that Todd recognized as the entire East Coast of the United States.

“With the passage of time and our conquest of almost all diseases and risks to human life, our population has grown dramatically. The earth now harbors a population of nearly 14 billion human beings, and the United States is home to over 600 million. We have made tremendous technical advances, but we have not conquered the laws of physics. There are significant limitations on how many people we can support a lifestyle we now consider acceptable. The energy demands of our technology are staggering, and although we have tapped new energy sources barely contemplated in your time, the creation and use of energy is still a constant challenge to us. With so many people to house, space is also a significant limitation. Large sections of what used to be our country have disappeared with the rising of the oceans, or have become uninhabitable due to environmental stresses. Over the last century, our best scientific minds have been struggling with the issue of how many human beings the planet can support, and they determined the maximum population we could manage. That is the population we are currently at, and that is the level at which must stay.”

Morton waved his hand again, and a hologram, showing thousands of people living and working in close quarters in a complex of buildings swept across the wall.   “The fact is that the hotel is full, and there are no vacancies. We have technology that allows us to never die. But if we never die, there is no room for anyone to take our place. This is the paradox we face: if we conquer death, we must give up birth.”

“Give up birth?” said Todd. “How can you do that? Birth is just . . . natural. People want children. That’s one of the most basic human needs.”

“Indeed,” said Morton. “Technologically, it’s no big problem. A few changes in the law, accompanied by minor alterations to the air water supply, assured that no children would be conceived except with the aid of certain antidotes which we carefully control. Political acceptability, of course, is the big issue. When it became clear in the latter half of the 21st century that we had to choose between our own lives and those yet unborn, this became the dominant issue of the time. Your seventy year struggle over the right to end individual pregnancies was a minor quarrel compared to the debate that raged in our society over the prospect of ending all pregnancies. But democracy is a hardy beast, and in the end we were able to come up with a solution that all could live with.”

Morton waved his hand again, and the walls once again took on the character of their outdoor surroundings. “We resolved this controversy with the passage of the Population Stability Act of 2091. This landmark legislation resulted in the creation of the Office of Population Stability, and the development of the transitions program which my office oversees.  The Population Stability Act established the right of every American to enjoy a healthy and vibrant lifetime, free of disease, degeneration, aging, and discomfort. By consensus, we agreed that every American has an unlimited right to whatever care is necessary to enjoy this lifestyle. Each citizen is also allocated the inalienable right to be one of the two parents of a new citizen, or scionizen, as we call them.”

“Whoa, whoa. Let me get this straight,” said Todd. “I have the right to parent one half of a child?”

Morton glanced at his desk and smiled at Todd. “Actually, Mr. Todd, I note that you were already the parent of three citizens born between 1977 and 1988, although none of them are still extant. So I am afraid that your personal quota has already been used.”

“But if you only have the right to have half a child, how does this work?”

Morton answered, “Obviously, as was the case in your time, one must find a partner to become a parent. Since each citizen has only one opportunity to make that choice, most people make it with more care and forethought than was the case in prior times. When one has many decades or even centuries of youth and vitality to look forward to, we have found that marriages and relationships tend to be more transitory. But the choice to create life is one that people make very carefully.”

Todd leaned back, his Smartchair gently gliding with him. “You said, though, that we could not afford any growth in the population. If people are still producing children, how does the population stay stable? If we’re the maximum population, we couldn’t add any more children unless . . . unless . . .”

“Correct,” said Morton. “The choice to create a new life carries with it a certain responsibility. As the cost of our right to create a scionizen, we also accept that our lifetimes, magnificent as they are, will still be finite.”

“You mean . . . because we still can have children, err, a scionizen, we are also agreeing to die?”

Morton leaned back in his Smartchair and folded his hands. “There is certainly an irony to this.”

Todd leaned forward on the smooth edge of the desk. “But wait. Children need parents. If parents die when they choose to have a child, who raises the child?”

“This brings us to the Population Stability Transitions program, which was the key to acceptance of the Population Stability Act. Obviously, it is not in the interest of scionizens that their parents leave life just as they come into it. Therefore, we determined that there would not be a direct connection between each citizen’s exercise of the right to become a parent and the consequences of achievement of that goal. All citizens have the right to scionage, and all citizens are enrolled in the PST program.   Each citizen is guaranteed a lifetime of one hundred years, or twenty-five years after the birth of his or her scionizen, whichever occurs later. After that, each citizen makes a transition election. A citizen may elect to set a date, within the next twenty-five years, for his or her voluntary transition. There is a most attractive incentive program for those who elect voluntary scheduled transition. In your terms, it is a three-month vacation of a lifetime: travel, the most sumptuous food and drink, the best entertainment and art, every experience one could wish for fulfilled. As to the actual voluntary transition process, the details are not public, but rumor has it that the procedure is wired into the same center of the brain that controls orgasm. One can only imagine.”

“But – but – you’re choosing to die? To give up this amazing, centuries-long existence? Why would anyone do that?”

“Indeed. Despite the incentives, relatively few people have elected to give up the prospect of so many years of youth and vitality. For those who decline the option of voluntary scheduled transition, there is an alternative – the random transitions program.”

“Random transition?”

“Yes. After reaching the age of one hundred years, those who do not elect a VST are entered into the random transitions program. Each year, a replacement reserve percentage is calculated based on the number of scionages occurring in the previous year. Thus if births equivalent to one percent of the population occur, one percent of the random transitions pool is selected for implementation. One’s odds of selection in any particular year are thus quite low; the calculated probability is that an individual entering the pool will have another one hundred years of healthy, vibrant life, maybe significantly more. Considering that this is still far more than any previous generation of human ever enjoyed, we consider this an excellent outcome even for those who reject the option of voluntary scheduled transition.”

“Now, now wait a minute. You mean those who are ‘selected’ are . . . are . . . are they . . .?”

“I think I understand what you are saying. Yes, when one is selected, the transition is implemented on a random, unannounced basis. It is all done very professionally and in a manner completely consistent with our compassionate principles regarding suffering or pain.”

“Let me get this perfectly clear. You’re saying that if I don’t choose to die, to give all this up, the government is going to send a hit man to kill me?”

Morton flashed an empathetic smile. “Well, ‘hit man’ is not a term we would ever choose, knowing the implications it had in your time. In the first place, they aren’t all men.” Morton chuckled at his own joke. “More important, our Transition Agents are highly skilled and professional public servants. They take great pains to assure that selectees do not suffer and are not alerted to the process. In the vernacular of your time, they never know what hit them.”

Todd recoiled sharply, and the Smartchair, sensing a possible accident, gently nudged him back into a conversational position. “Now wait a minute! I didn’t come all this way and spend a hundred years in suspension to be knocked off by a government goon!”

“In your case, Mr. Todd, because of your situation, I am sure we can arrange it so that your time in suspension doesn’t count against your hundred years. Since you were sixty-two when you went in, this guarantees you thirty-eight years of youthful health. Far better than you had any reason to expect when you went in.”

“But this is horrible! You can’t offer people eternal life, then kill them!”

“I understand your apprehension, Mr. Todd. But this is the compromise we had to make in order to enjoy the marvelous quality of life we do. Everyone goes into the pool, even the President, the rich and powerful, great artists, our most accomplished scientists. Only by the completely random and efficient operation of the system can we avoid the suspicion of favoritism and assure public acceptance of the procedure.”

“How do you look in the mirror, knowing what your agency does? Are you saying this is all right, that it’s acceptable, that it’s necessary?”

Morton folded his hands and looked very solemn. “It is utterly necessary.” He leaned back in the Smartchair. “Welcome to our world, Mr. Todd.”

Suddenly Morton lifted his left hand to a silvery temple. “Excuse me, Mr. Todd. All of a sudden I feel . . . I don’t understand . . . ohhhh.”   Morton slumped forward, and his head landed on the matte surface of the desk with a sharp thud.

Todd rose quickly to his feet, the Smartchair sensing and assisting his rise. He rounded the corner of the desk, pulled a small wand from his coat pocket, and inserted the curved tip in Morton’s left ear. After a moment, the wand beeped softly and a red diode flashed.  Behind Morton’s head in the translucent surface of the desk, Todd could see his own hologram, and the pages of the dossier on the identity he was using. Quickly the images blinked out.

Todd turned and left the office through the anteroom. Turning left down the long hall, he walked quickly toward the waiting room, carefully avoiding eye contact with the anxious-looking woman hurrying up the hall. Behind him, he heard her voice as she turned into the anteroom: “I’m sorry to be late from lunch, Mr. M., but I was held up by . . .”

Todd had just reached the waiting room when he heard her scream.

A young woman was sitting in the waiting room, wearing what seemed to be an ordinary webvisor. Although it appeared that she was watching a webvid while waiting for her appointment, in fact she had been observing Todd’s interview on one screen and the transporter cam on the other.

As she followed Todd into the transporter, she said, “That was remarkable, sir. I was watching closely, but I didn’t see you fire the dart. I hope to have your skills when I . . ”

Todd cut her off. “I would have appreciated more notice on the assistant, Ms. Shinu.  In the future, I trust you will pay less attention to my assignment and more to your own.”

The young woman caught her breath momentarily. “Yes sir. It won’t happen again.”

But Todd knew that already.

The Sub-Basement Blues

July 9, 2009

(With props to Claudell County)

[da-dum-da-dum] Just yesterday evening
[da-dum-da-dum] Well the blues got me down
[da-dum-da-dum] I was feeling so lonesome
[da-dum-da-dum] Thought I’d just blow this town
[da-dum-da-dum] Got in the elevator
[da-dum-da-dum] And I hit letter “B”
[da-dum-da-dum] Seemed like only the basement
[da-dum-da-dum] Was low enough for me.
[der-der-der-der-der-der-der-da-da-derng]
[da-da-da-dum] The elevator door opened
[da-dum-da-dum] To that dark dingy room
[da-dum-da-dum] I felt right at home there
[da-dum-da-dum] In the damp and the gloom
[da-dum-da-dum] But a voice on the speaker
[da-dum-da-dum] Said, “Basement, going down”
[da-dum-da-dum] Well my mouth it fell open
[da-dum-da-dum] And I looked all around
[der-der-der-der-der-der-der-da-da-derng]
[da-da-da-dum] Well, I said, “Elevator,
[da-dum-da-dum] What you mean, going down?
[da-dum-da-dum] There ain’t nothin’ below here
[da-dum-da-dum] We’re already underground.”
[da-dum-da-dum] The voice said, “Not done yet,
[da-dum-da-dum] There’s a sub-basement, son,
[da-dum-da-dum] So the question I ask you,
[da-dum-da-dum] Are you off or you on?”
[der-der-der-der-der-der-der-da-da-derng]
Ya got the sub-basement blues, ya got the sub-basement blues,
[der-der-der-dang] When you think that you’ve fallen
[der-der-der-dang] And landed on the floor
[der-der-der-dang] Well, that’s when you find out
[der-der-der-dang] You can still sink some more
[der-der-der-der-der-der-der-da-da-derng]
Ya got the sub-basement blues, ya got the sub-basement blues,
When you find out you’re still goin’ dowwwwwnnnn …
[der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-der-da-da-duuuu—uummmmm!]

Mitzvah

March 12, 2009

I had fifteen minutes before my meeting, so I had time to stop. I turned into the Stop-N-Shop, and slid into one of the spaces along the west side of the building.

It was mid-afternoon, past the lunchtime rush, so there were only a few people in the store. The clerk was a middle-aged man, Middle Eastern in appearance. Was he the owner, or a relative? Why else would he be working such a dead-end job? I didn’t know, certainly wouldn’t ask.

The soda machines were on the wall to the right. I pulled out a cup, filled it a third of the way with ice, and ran the black bubbly liquid into the rest.

I pondered grabbing a snack, but decided against it and stepped up to the counter. I was third in line, behind a middle-aged woman and a young man in a leather jacket, with nothing in his hands. Gas customers. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

The woman handed the clerk her card and he slid it through the terminal. We all stood suspended in time for a moment. Then the clerk looked up and said, “It isn’t taking it.”

The woman’s body recoiled as if struck. “What do you mean?” she stammered.

“It isn’t taking it. It says ‘rejected,’” the clerk replied gruffly. “You got another?”

“Try it again,” she pleaded.

He zipped the card through again, and after a moment said, “No good. You got another? Or cash?”

The woman pulled another card out of her purse and handed it to the clerk. He slid it through the machine, and grimaced. “No good either. You got cash? It’s $14.40.”

The woman searched through her purse, for an interval we all knew was much longer than necessary. “Can you take a check?”

The man in the leather jacket sighed audibly and turned his face upward, disgust all over it. The clerk barked, “No personal checks,” and tapped a sign on the counter saying just that. “Card or cash, $14.40. You got it?”

“No,” she replied faintly. The man in the leather jacket folded his arms and grunted.

The woman was in her fifties. Her face was plain, and her brownish hair, tinged with gray, hung down. She had on a nondescript sweatshirt, tattered jeans, and well-worn sneakers. She looked plaintively at the clerk and asked, “Can I give you an I.O.U.? I get a check on Friday. I’ll be back, I swear.”

The man in the leather jacket took a few steps and stared toward the ceiling in disgust. “No I.O.U.,” the clerk snapped. “I have to call the police. Store policy.” He picked up the telephone.

“Please,” she begged. “Don’t call. I’ll be back, I’ll pay, I swear. Please.”

“Store policy,” the clerk said. He reached for the dial. The woman’s hands covered her face.

I pulled out my wallet. There were two twenties, a ten, and a couple of ones in it. I pulled out one of the twenties, stepped forward, and laid it on the counter.

The clerk glanced sharply at me. He picked up the twenty, rang up the register, and laid a five on the counter. “Soda refill, sixty cents.” It wasn’t a refill. I picked up the five.

The woman looked at me and said. “Thank you, thank you. Can I . . . can I . . .”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said.

She mouthed the words ‘thank you’ again, and hurried out of the store. I saw her climb into an old Ford and pull away.

The man in the leather jacket stepped up to the counter and slapped a couple of bills down. He turned to me and said, “You’re not helping her, you know. She’ll just do it again.”

“I know,” I said, and turned to go. I had a meeting to make.

A Message Posted on Classmates.com

March 5, 2009

Based on a true story.

Hello.
I am not a member of your class,
Though my daughter is. Please excuse me,
But I would most appreciate your help.
If any of you know Christine Burnette,
Please pass this message on to her from me.
It’s from her father, though we’re out of touch,
And she hasn’t called me that in many years.
I don’t begrudge the anger she must feel,
And I know it’s been so very many years.

But the snow is melting now, it’s nearly spring,
And soon the buds will poke up through the mud.
It’s a time for new beginnings, starting fresh,
And it got me thinking, maybe there’s a chance.

If you’re in touch with her, and she will listen,
Tell her I would love if she would call
The number posted below, an email, anything,
To bring me up to date on how she’s been.
No obligation, I don’t ask for much,
But tell her things have changed, and so have I.
I haven’t had a drink in three long years,
And all I want is to know that she’s okay.

I have these things I think she might enjoy,
Some pictures, jewelry from her grandmom,
A box I carried through the worst of times
For her. I’d love for her to have them now.

But there’s no obligation. I make no demands.
And I have memories, that come welling up,
The strangest things remind me of her now,
And the warmest feelings flood through me;
These are the happiest moments that I have,
Remembering her, a child, and what we shared.
I’d love to share them all with her again.

But I don’t have to, if it’s all too much.
If she still feels the pain from all those years,
And all that went wrong, drove us apart,
I understand. I don’t insist. I only
Offer whatever she still wants from me,
And nothing more. There’s no obligation.

Perhaps you think it’s strange, that some old man
Would dump his secrets, his pathetic pleas
Here in a group of strangers, this public place.
But it’s a sign of how far I’ve come
And of how much this means to me, I think.
I do it gladly, and I beg your help.

So if you know her, if you’d do this for me,
Pass on to her a number, an address,
And let her know the lines are open, still.
The rest is up to her, what she may choose.
You’ll have my gratitude, eternally.

Her name’s Christine, and I’m her Dad. And I’ll
Be deeply grateful for any help you give.

Alpha Centauri

February 28, 2009

============
Astronomical Preface: For any star relatively near the Sun, an observer may calculate the Sun’s position in that star’s sky by reversing the sign of the star’s declination (celestial latitude) and adding 12 to its right ascension (celestial longitude), unless the R.A. is over 12, in which case 12 should be subtracted from the R.A. Using this method, the Sun, seen from the sky of the nearest star visible to the naked eye, Alpha Centauri, would appear as a first magnitude yellow star in the constellation Perseus, near a prominent asterism known as the Double Cluster and near another bright yellow star called Capella. This meditation follows from that observation.
=============

Out on a winter night,
Look up at the head of Perseus,
Near the Double Cluster,
And there imagine a star
As bright and yellow as Capella.
Then, fixing your eyes
Upon that golden pair,
Turn in your thoughts to Alpha Centauri.
Travel in your mind
To that yellow star,
Imagine a planet, and a race upon it,
Not humanoid, but sentient,
Capable of perceiving yellow light.
Attribute to this race
The wisdom to interpret
And the imagination to dream.
Turning their eyes upward,
Let them see the star
Of your imagination.
Appreciate their wonder
At that spectacular sight,
Two yellow stars of brilliant magnitude.
Try to anticipate their legends
Of separated brothers or of lovers,
One captured in the circle of Auriga,
The other swept in the stream of Perseus.
Then with the maturation of their race,
Let some touched by the wonder
Grow into their astronomers.
Grant them the learning of their search,
Parallax and spectrum,
Turned to their familiar twins.
Share with them their astonishment
At the difference between the two,
One a distant, forbidding flame,
The other closest of their neighbors,
And a sun much like their own.
Think of them, on that alien shore,
Extending their imaginations
Across the ether sea,
Dreaming of unimagined beings,
Capella at their feet,
Standing, staring,
At a bright yellow star,
A twin to Hadar,
Learning of themselves,
And the miracle of being alive.

1982

==============
Astronomical Postscript: Some years after writing this poem, I acquired Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, and reading the entry on Alpha Centauri, learned that Alpha Centauri is in fact not a “sun much like our own,” but a multiple system consisting of three stars arrayed in such a way that it is unlikely that any of them has a habitable temperate zone. So the entire scientific premise of the poem is invalid. Oh, well, . . .

Fare Delivered

February 28, 2009

“Airport Marriott.”

“Yessir.”

. . .

“Hey, driver, Akeem, is that your name?”

“Yes, sir. Akeem.”

“You lived here long, Akeem?”

“Two years, sir.”

“Say, Akeem, want to make a little extra?”

“Sir?”

“You know anywhere around here where I could get some stuff?”

“Stuff, sir?”

“You know, some blow.”

“Blow, sir? You mean cocaine?”

“Well, yeah.”

“No sir, I would not know that.”

“Okay, fine.”

“I am Muslim, sir. I do not do that stuff. I would not know where you could find it.”

“Okay, okay. I just thought . . .”

“Thought what? Why did you think I would know that?”

“Well, because you’re, you know . . .”

“Because I’m black?”

“No, no, no, not that. Because you’re local. Because you’re from the community. I just … well, I just assumed. My fault, I’m sorry. Just take me to the Marriott, okay?”

“Yes, sir. We’re on our way.”

. . .

“Akeem … Nowari, is it?”

“Yes sir. That’s my name.”

“Mine’s Keith. Keith Courtney. I can’t quite place your accent, Akeem. Where are you from?”

“I am from Sudan, sir.”

“Sudan – that’s in Africa, right?”

“Yes sir. Upriver from Egypt.”

“What brings you to the U.S.?”

“I’m a student, sir. At the University. Physical therapy.”

“That your little girl there on the visor?”

“Yes, sir.”

“She’s a little doll. How old is she?”

“She is seven. She is five in the picture.”

“Is she here with you?”

“No, sir. She is home, with her mother.”

“She in school there?”

“Yes. We live in a city so there is a good school for her to go to. We are lucky. If we lived in the countryside as my parents did, she may not have had the chance.”

“How long since you’ve seen her?”

“Two years, sir. I hope to bring her and my wife here soon. But for now the airfare is too much. And there is Immigration.”

“Wow, that must be tough.”

“Great hopes require great sacrifices.”

“It must be tough, making it as a student, separated from your family, dealing with assholes who make assumptions about you. Being a Muslim after September 11.”

“We just want the same as everyone else, sir. I just want to live here, to be a physical therapist, to be with my family.”

“Well, I hope you can some day.”

“Thank you, sir. Do you have children?”

“Me? Nah. Never settled down. Although I’m with somebody now. She’s great. It’s been eight months and she hasn’t kicked me out. So maybe this is the one. I’m getting to the age now where I’m starting to think about it. Marriage, a home, maybe kids some day.”

“It is the greatest blessing there is. But let me speak freely, sir.”

“Sure.”

“If you do this, take a wife, have a child, you must give up the stuff, the blow.”

“Yeah, you’re right, I know.”

“It is the greatest blessing, but it is very hard. It will take all you have. You cannot have both.”

“I know. I do know that.”

“Forgive me if I speak out of line.”

“No problem. You’re absolutely right. I should be giving it up anyway, on general principles.”

“We’re here, sir. The Marriot.”

“Oh, great. Thanks.”

“That’s $21.75, sir.”

“Here you go.”

“Sir, that’s a hundred. I can’t change that.”

“I don’t expect you to change it. I expect you to take it.”

“Sir, if you don’t have anything smaller, I can take your name and address and the company will mail you a refund.”

“I don’t want a refund. You can handle it if you want to, so just take it.”

”I don’t need your charity. I don’t want it.”

“It’s not charity. Look, if I had been picked up by someone who would take me where I wanted to go, I would have given him this same hundred, and blown a couple more up my nose. You gave me stuff to think about instead. So it’s not charity. It’s dues. It’s tuition. Look, man, I don’t have any kids in my life. No nephews or nieces, nobody even still in school. So when I get the chance to do a little something for a kid who deserves every break in the world, don’t tell me I can’t do it, don’t take that away from me. Just take the bill. Buy her some school clothes, or a bike, or just put it in the fund to bring her here. But it’s not charity. It’s not for you, it’s for me. So just take it, okay?”

“Very well, sir. Thank you sir.”

“No problem.”

“Good night, sir. And may God go with you.”

“You too. May God . . . may God go with you, and with your family. Good night.”

“Thank you, sir.”

[chunk]

“Dispatch, this is 4921. I’m at the Airport Marriott. Fare delivered. I’m available.”

First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill That Cliché

February 9, 2009

The more I think about it, Old Billy was right
Let’s kill all the lawyers, kill ’em tonight
The Eagles (Don Henley), “Get Over It.”

Most of us who are lawyers, however sympathetic we may be to tales of litigation abuse, have doubtless heard some wag invoking Shakespeare with the witticism, “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The advice is usually offered tongue in cheek, but the malevolence of the sentiment is clear.

The quote is, in fact, genuine Shakespeare. It is found in Act IV, Scene 2 of Henry VI: Part 2. Indeed, the quotation is perhaps the obscure history’s greatest claim to immortality.

Lawyers had image problems in Shakespeare’s time as they do today, and doubtless the utterance of the line produced hearty laughter from the audiences at the Globe Theater. But those who quote the line as contemporary wisdom may be well advised to take a look at the context of the quotation.

Act IV, Scene 2 depicts a gathering of Jack Cade, a hooligan turned rebel commander seeking to overthrow the troubled reign of King Henry, and his band of followers. Cade is boasting of what he will do when he seizes power:

CADE: . . . there shall be no money;
all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will
apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree
like brothers and worship me their lord.

At that point Dick the Butcher, a coarse comic character who has been mocking Cade’s claims in irreverent asides, pipes in with his suggestion:

DICK: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

This suggestion does not shock the company; indeed, Cade accepts it willingly, with a dose of personal experience:

CADE: Nay, that I mean to do. Is not this a lamentable
thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should
be made parchment? that parchment, being scribbled
o’er, should undo a man? Some say the bee stings:
but I say, ’tis the bee’s wax; for I did but seal
once to a thing, and I was never mine own man since.

Cade and his band do not actually kill any lawyers in this scene. They do, however, capture, try, and execute a hapless clerk. His crime? He had a book in his pocket. He was literate:

CADE: . . . Dost thou use to write thy name? or
hast thou a mark to thyself, like an honest
plain-dealing man?

CLERK: Sir, I thank God, I have been so well brought up
that I can write my name.

ALL: He hath confessed: away with him! he’s a villain
and a traitor.

CADE: Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck.

Exit one with the Clerk.

Cade and his band later capture London and engage in a round of murders, looting, and burning, but eventually his mob turns against him and he is killed.

It is clear from the context that the animosity of Cade and his men toward lawyers arises from the personal experience of their own turbulent lives, and their intention to impose a lawless and brutal regime upon the society. Lawyers represent to them the rule of law, the mastery of intelligence over “plain-dealing” men with little tolerance for legality and other accoutrements of order. In the end, though, their lawlessness and brutality is their undoing.

So perhaps those who throw out the quotation “first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” might wish to reflect that it is not the sentiments of the Bard they embrace, but of an ignorant and violent band of brigands.

The Unthinkable

February 9, 2009

He was waiting for Her, as he spent much of his life doing. He had dozed off, and as his eyes fluttered open he saw that the house was dark, except for the lamp She had left on near the bay window. Stretching his legs, he ambled over to the bay window and contemplated whether he should jump up onto the padded windowsill. During the day, watching the goings-on in the neighborhood from there provided him with much-needed stimulation, but at night all he could see were a few meaningless lights. He decided against it.

She had been home at the usual time, but She seemed hurried and distracted. She spent the entire time taking clothes off and putting them on, or performing Her odd rituals in front of the mirror before rushing out. She had barely acknowledged him, and, unfortunately, had neglected to feed him or take him out.

Hunger was stirring in his belly, so he ambled into the kitchen and stared morosely into his bowl. Only a few kibbles remained, which he finished off with a couple of bites. Probably She would remember to fill it when She got home; if not, he would have to kick the bowl over to remind Her.

He wandered back into the living room and decided to settle down on the carpet in the hallway, which gave him a good vantage point on the door. Just as he was getting comfortable, his ears pricked up at the thunk of car doors, sounding close. At the clop of shoes on the walkway, he leaped to his feet. His spirits soared as he heard the lilt of Her voice outside the door, and he could barely contain his excitement at the zip of Her key in the lock.

He danced in delight as the door opened and She stepped in, but his joy was tempered when he realized She was not alone. The Other followed Her through the door.

The Other had been here before, and had earned his distrust. Most people would look at him and smile, and try to communicate in some way. The Other glanced at him coldly, as if he were some sort of vermin, never spoke to him, never reached out to him, never acknowledged in any way his place in Her life.

Both of their voices were loud, their movements quick and unpredictable, their steps clumsy, and they both had about them the chemical smell.

That smell was familiar. He recognized it coming from the dark liquid in the bottle She kept in the big bright box in the kitchen. Sometimes when he could detect an air of sadness about Her, She would take the bottle out, pour some of the liquid into a glass, and clutching it to Her, curl up in the corner of the couch. He would hop onto the couch, snuggle against Her, and lay his chin in Her lap. Her fingers would curl around his head, She would coo to him in a low loving voice, and Her sadness would fade away. He treasured those times, when he could care for Her as She cared for him, and their union seemed perfect and happy and complete.

But this was not one of those times. She opened the big bright box and took out the bottle, but poured two glasses of liquid, one for Her and one for the Other, although it was apparent that both had already had much of the stuff. She slid into Her corner of the couch, but before he could leap up and take his place next to Her, the Other dropped heavily into the seat and threw a massive arm around Her. He hovered nearby to be there if She needed help, or if She remembered to pay any attention to him. The Other then began pawing at Her in ways that he found very disturbing.

Suddenly, to his intense alarm, the Other stood up, grasped both Her hands, and pulled Her to Her feet. She resisted feebly, but the Other encircled a beefy arm around Her and forcibly guided Her toward the bedroom. Her cries were interspersed with giggles, as though She did not comprehend the gravity of the threat. The Other dragged Her into the bedroom and pushed Her roughly onto the bed. To his abject horror, he saw the Other dive onto the bed next to Her and begin tearing at Her clothing, as Her arms flailed in protest and She wailed in a strange way he had never heard before. He could no longer see over the edge of the bed, but the sounds he heard convinced him this ferocious attack on Her was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

The bed was considerably taller than he was, and he usually waited for Her to lift him up in order to enjoy its resplendent softness. He was helpless to investigate the events on the bed any further, but at the same time he felt his usual inhibitions melting away in the face of a danger like no other. She was his Beloved, She was under attack, and a primal courage he had never felt before welled up within him. She had no protector but him, and his most sacred duty was to defend Her, by whatever means he could.

He backed into the living room for a good running start, sprinted toward the bed, and leaped into the air with every iota of strength in his body. His landing barely cleared the edge of the bed, but he dug in his claws and scrambled onto the surface.

What he saw confirmed his worst fears. The Other was mounted on top of Her, mouth at Her throat, going in for the kill. She was writhing under the attack and emitting piteous moans.

The Other was many times his size, and he knew he could never prevail in a battle. But he had the element of surprise. Snarling with all the rage he could muster, he leaped forward and sank his teeth into the Other’s exposed flank.

His attack had the desired effect. The Other yelped in astonishment, rolled off Her, and sat up, attention redirected to him. He braced for the counterattack. He knew his assault had not impaired the Other seriously, and he could be badly injured or even killed, but if so it was a sacrifice he gladly made for love of Her. His diversion had bought Her a precious window of opportunity to flee.

Then the unthinkable happened. She did not take advantage of Her dearly won avenue of escape. Instead, with a cry of “NO!,” She reached out and swept him, nay, flung him off the bed.

He landed in a crumpled heap several feet away, and clamoring to his feet, fled as fast as his legs would carry him, his heroic resolve transformed in an instant into utter bewilderment by Her ungrateful and perhaps suicidal betrayal of their common cause. He dove into the narrow gap behind Her couch, his refuge on the rare occasions long ago when he had incurred Her anger with his youthful misbehavior. He listened to hear if either would pursue him, the Other to finish off the conquest, or Her to ascertain if Her unprecedented act of violence had injured him. He was not physically hurt, but emotionally he was devastated.

No one came after him, though, and in the distance he could hear their voices, hers anxious and pleading against the Other’s stentorian bellow. At least She was still alive. In time the voices died away, and eventually sleep came to relieve him of his misery.

Some time later, he awoke to silence. Gingerly turning around in the cramped cavity, he peeked out of his hiding place. The room was filled now with sunlight.

Carefully he slipped out into the living room and looked around. No humans were in sight. By now he was ravenous. He padded gently to his bowl; still empty. Worse yet, in the events of the previous evening She had again forgotten to take him out, and now the burning further back in his body was intense. It was an inalterable rule that there was only one solution to this problem; he must wait for Her to let him out. He was hesitant to attract Her attention until he had reason to believe he was back in Her good graces, but his situation was urgent. He needed Her help, and had to take the chance.

He crept slowly into the bedroom. He could not see anything over the edge of the bed, but the scents of Her and the Other were mingled with unusual pungency, so he surmised they were both still there. He whimpered softly, with no response. He raised his voice to a woeful yip, which usually brought Her springing out of bed and to his relief. This time, nothing. He was at a loss for what to do, and his discomfort was almost unbearable.

He examined the clothing strewn at the side of the bed. An array of light, fragile garments revealed Her sweet essence. Next to it, a pile of rougher items bore the foul stink of the Other. As he sniffed at the unfamiliar remnants, a maelstrom of emotions boiled up inside him – rage, jealousy, despair, and most of all, a powerful urge to reclaim what was his, his Beloved, his home, his territory. As he squatted trembling on the alien markers, the path lay clear before him. If only for a moment, revenge was sweet.

Silencing the Chimes

February 9, 2009

January, cold, and fierce wind.
There is something about the violence of a storm
that thrills. I hear the chimes out on my porch,
in tintinnabulation, loud and hard,
an angry gamelan. Are these the chimes
that ping so softly on the summer breeze?
What jangling polyrhythms lay within!
But tomorrow is a work day. Neighbors must sleep.
Will they hear music, as I do, or noise?
I take the chimes down and bring them in,
to rest until the spring. I was thrilled to hear
such wild music from my docile chimes,
but I have made this choice, this is my life,
this dogged courtesy, silencing the chimes.