A WORD TO THE WISE

Polls indicate that there is a very real chance Donald Trump will be our next president.

There are millions of (mostly white) working class people voting for him, and I am reasonably sure that somewhere between half and 3/4 of those voters have either gained access to healthcare themselves since the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) was passed, or have friends or family members who have gained access to healthcare since the ACA was passed.

The ACA makes it illegal for insurance companies to deny funding to customers based on pre-existing conditions or to cut off funding whenever they think it stops being cost-effective.

GOP propaganda about the ACA included a lot of nonsense about “death panels” and how Obama was going to pull the plug on your grandma and all sorts of crazy stuff. In reality – a place many Americans do not spend very much of their mental lives, unfortunately – insurance companies already had “death panels” cutting people off from funding, prematurely ending vital treatment and often prematurely ending the lives of insurance customers who had been paying monthly premiums for decades.

The ACA did not create “death panels,” the ACA banned them.

Donald Trump plans to repeal the ACA as soon as he is in office. Many Trump voters will lose access to health care and die if this happens. This is simply a fact.

Here’s the thing: if that happens – and I really hope it doesn’t, but if Trump is elected it will – people like Hillary Clinton, people like Bernie Sanders, these people will continue to fight – as they have for decades – to help Americans get access to the healthcare they need.

And while I will support them in this endeavor in any way I can, I would like to offer a word to the wise:

If Trump gets elected, and you voted for him (or for that matter if you voted for Johnson or Stein; neither of them have any actual chance of winning, and news flash, geniuses, the Libertarian party is just as ideologically opposed to the ACA as the GOP), and you or someone you know loses their health coverage…

Well first off, you’d have my sympathies.

And second, if this unfortunate eventuality occurs, and you choose to lay blame for the fact that you or someone you know can’t get healthcare at the feet of President Obama, or Hillary Clinton, or the Democrats in general…

You’d better fucking not do so within earshot (or eyeshot) of me.

Have a great day! If Trump gets elected, we Americans may not have very many great days left.

Sincerely,

Michael Nathan Walker

TO GARY JOHNSON SUPPORTERS EVERYWHERE: “GEAUX SAINTS”

If it seems like I am picking on Gary Johnson and his supporters a lot lately, well, yeah, I am. I am picking on Gary Johnson and his supporters lately. This and other such blog posts aren’t directed at any one individual, for the record, and if I didn’t feel it to be of, well, pressing importance to write things like this, I wouldn’t be writing them.

Last night, the world tuned in to the presidential debate between the two major party candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Anyone with a third grade grasp of the English language could easily see that one of those two candidates, to be blunt, knew her shit, and the other wasn’t even sure about what position he held on several issues.

Giving Trump the benefit of a (totally undeserved) doubt, let’s just say that he forgot about when he supported the Iraq war. Let’s just say he forgot about that time he claimed global warming was a sham designed by China to stifle American productivity. Let’s just give Trump the benefit of a doubt and say every bald-faced lie he told during last night’s debate was actually a series of honest mistakes.

Let’s assume he wasn’t lying. If that’s the case, Donald Trump must be suffering from a significant case of dementia or some other memory-erasing brain condition. At any rate, whether he’s a bald-faced liar or just really confused, he has no business trying to run anything, much less the greatest, most powerful nation on the planet.

If it seems like I am picking on Johnson and his supporters, well, like I said, yeah, I am. The ideological gap between the average Trump supporter and the average Clinton supporter such as myself is far too wide to even attempt to bridge. At this point, Trump could start biting the ears off of puppies on the debate stage and it wouldn’t sway a Trump voter towards Clinton.

So I am picking on you guys for a reason. I am picking on you because I think every one of you — no matter how much you personally “hate” Hillary Clinton for whatever (imaginary) reason — would agree that she is by far the better major party candidate.

That brings me to something I really want to impress upon Gary Johnson supporters, as well as Jill Stein supporters:

There is no eventuality in which anyone but Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becomes our next president. Not one.

One of those two people is going to be the next president.

I am not a sports fan, and I honestly had to look this up, but (pauses to use Google) the last Super Bowl was a contest between the Carolina Panthers and the Denver Broncos.

Never at any point after it was determined that these two teams were competing in the Super Bowl was it possible for any other team to win the Super Bowl.

“Go Panthers!” says a random person at a Super Bowl party.

“Go Broncos!” says another.

“Geaux Saints!” said nobody.

🙂

The difference here is that, neverminding the fact that the Super Bowl has no actual influence on the well-being of the country or on international politics, the people who are metaphorically shouting “Geaux Saints!” in this election are going to actually have an effect on its outcome. If this were happening at a Super Bowl party, I’d just ignore you, or possibly even join in with your cheering for a team that isn’t even actually playing — I would only be at a Super Bowl party for the beer and food, seeing as how I have zero interest in professional sports — but since this sort of cheering is going to have an actual tangible effect on the country and the world I live in, well, here I am.

Gary Johnson is not going to win this election. Gary Johnson is not going to be the next president.

Sorry to break it to you, in case you didn’t already know that.

Gary Johnson’s goal is to secure enough electoral votes to prevent Trump or Clinton from getting the minimum amount. And he very well may succeed, with your help.

What would happen then? Congress would decide whether Trump or Clinton would be president.

I am sure there is some sort of convoluted Libertarian argument as to why letting Congress pick the next president is a good thing, so feel free to expound upon that in the comments.

It’s beyond ironic that this is Johnson’s stated goal, however, considering his stance on limiting the power of the federal government: if Johnson “succeeds” in reaching his goal, the federal government will be who chooses the next President, not the people.

Libertarian philosophy is pretty wonky, honestly. In all honesty, I used to consider myself a “libertarian.” I mean, I am pro-personal freedom. Like Gary Johnson, I support the right of people to live their lives the way they want to. I support the right of people to marry anybody they damn well want to. I support decriminalization of illegal drugs. I support the right of people to do whatever the hell they want to, as long as they aren’t harming anyone else.

Here’s where libertarian thought — and the policies of Gary Johnson — start to get wonky:

Let’s start with legalized pot. Gary Johnson wants to legalize pot. Far too many people are sitting in prison for cheefing on the reefer and stuffing their faces with Cheetos. That’s not right, Gary Johnson says, and I agree with him.

Here’s what’s wonky: Gary Johnson also supports the private prisons that have government quotas to fill where these Cheeto-munching nonviolent potheads are locked up. He supports them because libertarian philosophy is pro-“free market” and because he believes that public entities like prisons are better off run by private entities that are trying to make a profit.

Gary Johnson is also pro-choice. Like me, he supports the right of any woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Like me, Gary Johnson believes that this right to choose is a matter of personal freedom, and it shouldn’t depend on the approval of anyone else.

Here’s what’s wonky: Gary Johnson does not support the federal government’s ability to tell individual states whether abortion should be legal or not. He wants to leave that sort of thing up to states, because in wonky libertarian political philosophy, individual state governments are sacrosanct and the federal government is an evil oppressor.

The same thing goes for marriage equality. The same thing goes for civil rights. Gary Johnson pays lip service to these things, but he is against the federal government enforcing these things.

He’s playing both sides of the fence, folks.

And I am gonna toss one more barb at his supporters — all of you, not just the ones I know personally — you guys are also playing both sides of the fence by supporting him.

No matter which one of the two people from last night’s debate gets elected — and it’s gonna be one of them, like it or not — you’ll get to puff your chest out and say “well I voted for Gary Johnson!” any time either one of them does something anyone doesn’t like.

One of the two viable candidates is qualified. One isn’t.

Come back to reality, people. Help us elect the qualified candidate.

Thanks for reading.

I AM A DEMOCRAT, JUST IN CASE YOU HAVEN’T FIGURED THAT OUT YET

GOP: “We should deregulate business. All these environmental restrictions are stifling profits!”

Libertarian Party: “We should deregulate business. All these environmental restrictions are stifling profits! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “Welfare is draining public funds! Those poor people are just lazy, that’s all!”

Libertarian Party: “Welfare is draining public funds! Those poor people are just lazy, that’s all! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “We need to end big government. All this bureaucracy is keeping us from getting anything done!”

Libertarian Party: “We need to end big government. All this bureaucracy is keeping us from getting anything done! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “I’m sick of political correctness. Everybody is too sensitive! Freedom of speech is important…unless you’re calling me a bigot, in which case you’re being totally unfair to me, even though I have not given any consideration whatsoever to your point of view!”

Libertarian Party: “I’m sick of political correctness. Everybody is too sensitive! Freedom of speech is important…unless you’re calling me a bigot, in which case you’re being totally unfair to me, even though I have not given any consideration whatsoever to your point of view! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “Ayn Rand is the greatest author of all time! Poor people should bow down and worship the rich!”

Libertarian Party: “Ayn Rand is the greatest author of all time! Poor people should bow down and worship the rich! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “Government is good when it gives me money! Government is bad when when it gives other people money!”

Libertarian Party: “Government is good when it gives me money! Government is bad when it gives other people money! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “Weed is bad!”

Libertarian Party: “Weed is b–, I mean, I like weed, and I am an individual wholly disconnected from society, and I am special and unique, and one man’s freedom ends where another’s begins, and even though my actions often hinder the freedoms of others, thus rendering the previous platitude completely and utterly moot, I will do whatever the hell I want to, to hell with the environment and society! Your freedom ends where it starts to be an annoyance to me, and if you don’t like it go fuck yourself, because freedom — MY uninhibited freedom — is all that’s important! And also, let’s legalize weed! We can make scads of money off of it! We can legalize it here in our state, with a few restrictions, of course (government is good when it helps us, remember!) and support private prisons that incarcerate out of state people who buy our quasi-legal weed in our state and take it home to smoke! We can make money selling weed to them, and make money when they get arrested for possession of it!”

GOP: “That’s genius! You Libertarians are a lot like us!”

Libertarian Party: “How dare you! We are nothing like you stuffy old codgers!”

GOP: “Whatever you say, kid. Can we at least agree that the Democrats, with all their stupid social programs that benefit the environment, the economy, international relations, veterans, LGBT people, minorities, women, public school kids, college students, teachers, and people who aren’t already wealthy, are evil monsters that hate freedom?”

Libertarian Party: “I agree! The Democrats are evil monsters that hate freedom! And also, let’s legalize weed!”

GOP: “Look, kid, if you get caught with it, your wealthy parents are just going to bail you out anyway. Why do you want to legalize weed so much? Drug laws don’t really apply to people like you to begin with.”

Libertarian Party: “…I wanna make money off of it.”

GOP: “That’s my boy!”

AN INTERVIEW…

WITH THE LATE – AND (ARGUABLY) GREAT – DAVID FOSTER WALLACE, WHICH GETS INTERRUPTED TOWARD THE END BY THE LATE – AND (INDISPUTABLY) GREAT – CRAD KILODNEY

MICHAEL NATHAN WALKER: So, David, it’s really awesome of you to be here, to allow me to interview you and tell the world your answers to my questions.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: …

MNW: I suppose the first subject we ought to tackle is your novel, the novel I just finished reading for the third time.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, it’s quite an investment, personal-time wise, I mean there’s something like 1079 pages to read, and they’re not all in like numerical order; I mean the reader has to check back to this part of the book and then look ahead to another part of the book, and–

DFW: …

MNW: You’re right, you’re absolutely right. But at the same time –

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: I agree, I mean I think–

DFW: …

MNW: I mean I think I know what you mean. But I–

DFW: …

MNW: Right, I mean I don’t really know, I mean I guess I just think I know, I guess.

DFW: …

MNW: Ha.

DFW: …

MNW: Exactly.

DFW: …

MNW: Right, I mean I am gonna make myself look stupid by asking, but what happens at the end? It’s pretty much open to interpretation.

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I thought.

DFW: …

MNW: I mean, I read “Infinite Jest” three times, I mean I read lots of other stuff in between those readings, but I read a 1079-page novel three times – three times, Dav d – and I am still not completely sure how everything ends up.

DFW: …

MNW: I know! I mean, that’s the way to make a reader flip back to the beginning of the novel and –

DFW: . .

MNW: I agree, it all makes sense, the whole thing, I mean Hal, Hal Incandenza, his whole thing was that he liked to get high by himself, secretly, and that –

DFW: …

MNW: .. Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: And at the end, like at the end of the novel, like page wise, like not timeline wise, Hal–

DFW: ..

MNW: Ha.

DFW: …

MNW: Hal broke into Pemuli ‘s stash, and Hal–

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I was trying to say, that w en–

DFW: …

MNW: H l was using his own personal Subs ance to get himself by.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I realized it while I was typing it, “Himself,” that’s what Hal calls his deceased father in the novel–

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: ..

MNW: Right. Yeah, I mean, I mean I get it. I get the whole thing, the whole metaphorical thing with ETA protecting its students from the outside world, the world that wants to exploit them because of their talents and –

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Totally, I mean it’s ironic as hell–

DFW: . .

MNW: Yeah!

DFW: …

MNW: That’s what I have been trying to tell people.

DFW: …

MNW: ETA keeps the outside world away from its students, nominally for the students’ best interest–

DFW: ..

MNW: Let me finish, then we’ll talk about that.

DFW: …

MNW: No, I apologize.

DFW: …

MNW: Anyways, the whole ETA philosophy is to shelter ETA students from outside interference, and the idea is that doing so will allow them to develop their own personal identities to a degree beyond doubt, but…

DFW: …

MNW: I mean like not totally “beyond doubt,” but like to the point where they are confident – like ETA students, I mean – are confident in their abilities to the point that nothing can touch them, metaphorically; like if some sportswriter picks their tennis apart and tells the world that they’re, like I mean the ETA-trained tennis player, male or female, that they’re not any good, or on the other hand that their tennis is the absolute–

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I mean–

DFW: . .

MNW: Yeah. The same thing applies if they’re terrible. Terrible at tennis, I mean. ETA is there to like shield them from criticism, until they’ve developed their own personal abilities–

DFW: ..

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: It took me three readings to get that, but yeah.

DFW: …

MNW: …

DFW: …

MNW: I want to thank you for this interview, D vid, I mean it’s not like this is an everyday sort of thing, your being so–

DFW: ..

MNW: God, tennis is a lot harder than it looks, I mean–

DFW: …

MNW: I know! God…

DFW: …

MNW: But when two people are both good at it…

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah!

DFW: ..

MNW: It’s like tennis is a metaphor for everything, and I have to say that while reading your novel I realized that–

DFW: …

MNW: I mean I realized that the whole individual versus another individual aspect of tennis, the whole self vs. another part, is, like–

DFW: .

MNW: Yes, as a m tter of fact I am drunk, I don’t really know what this has to do with–

DFW: …

MNW: Anyways thanks for being here. I kn w i too a l t of patience to sit still s I c uld see you an he r you.

DFW: …

MNW: Yeah, I know, but I am trying to write this interview within the parameters of your own, well, whatever.

DFW: .

MNW: Right.

DFW: …

MNW: Right, like with the wraiths and whatnot. I get it.

DFW: …

MNW: Right.

SHE HAS A PET BUNNY RABBIT, FOR CRYING OUT LOUD

This post is going to be a little scatterbrained. The inspiration for it, more or less, came from a TV show – specifically from a female actor on a TV show that I have developed a mild crush on – but as I began mentally composing it, thoughts regarding various authors (including one that my latest celebrity crush is apparently a fan of) started to creep their way into the mix, so anyways I decided to just start typing and see what ends up on the screen.

I would first like to state that I agree, there is indeed something rather loser-ly about a 36-year-old single male writing blog posts about female celebrities he has crushes on. If you feel the need to point that out in further detail, feel free. Nonetheless, well, loser though it may make me seem to be, I am going to write a little about the latest female celebrity I have developed a mild crush on (eat your hearts out, Sarah Silverman, Norah Jones, et al.), and then hopefully smoothly transition into writing about an author she likes – this author is one of my personal favorite authors, incidentally – and compare this author to a couple other authors I also like.

Without further blathering, the celebrity I have recently developed a mild crush on is Constance Wu, one of the stars of the hit ABC sitcom “Fresh Off The Boat.” In case you aren’t familiar with the show, it’s centered around the Huang family – dad Louis, mom Jessica (Wu’s character), sons Eddie, Emery, and Evan, and also Louis’ wheelchair-bound, Chinese-speaking but English-understanding mother – a Taiwanese-American family who live in Orlando, Florida. The sitcom is loosely based on the memoir “Fresh Off The Boat” written by celebrity chef Eddie Huang (the “Eddie” character is based on him) and I haven’t read that book yet but I intend to, simply because I am a huge fan of the sitcom it inspired.

Louis and Jessica moved to the USA – where they met each other – from Taiwan when they were either in their late teens or early 20s, I think. I am not certain…I am just going by information given on a couple episodes, like the one where Evan isn’t sure if he should use his American name or his Chinese name to open a checking account, and the one where Louis’ brother (played by Ken Jeong) comes to visit. In that episode, it’s revealed that Louis’ father told him and his brother that he could afford to send one of them to America but not the other, and Louis jumped at the opportunity, something his brother never really forgave him for. In the first episode I mentioned, Jessica tells Evan that she used to go only by her Chinese name, but that no Americans could pronounce it properly. Incidentally, I don’t have any idea how to spell her Chinese name, so…yeah.

The show is significant to many Asian-American people for the simple reason that it’s only the second (I think) prime-time network TV sitcom in the USA to center around an Asian-American family. The other one – I can’t remember the name of it off the top of my head – was about Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho and her family, and it was on the air way back in the 1990s. “Fresh Off The Boat” is set in the 1990s, incidentally, and the Margaret Cho sitcom (“All-American Girl”?) is referenced – and there’s a short clip from it – in one episode, after (I think) Jessica mentions something about how there aren’t any Asian people on American TV.

And above and beyond the fact that I find Constance Wu to be pretty – this may not make any sense to anyone but me, but she is pretty in the same way that Shelley Long (Diane on “Cheers”) is pretty, in my opinion – I also think she’s really funny in her portrayal of tiger mom Jessica Huang.

And above and beyond both of those things, Constance Wu has been quite outspoken on social media and in interviews regarding the phenomenon of “whitewashing” in Hollywood. “Whitewashing” is the phenomenon of white people being cast in roles written for nonwhite people. More recently, she spoke out quite passionately (and compellingly) about “white saviors” in Hollywood movies, such as a new movie (I don’t remember the title) that’s set in China I think…and Matt Damon is the film’s hero.

Being that I am white, things like “whitewashing” and “white saviors” and things like that aren’t things that I might notice, even though they’re right out in the open for everyone to see. I mean, for example, in the movie “The Last Samurai,” there’s only one samurai left in all of Japan…and it’s Tom Cruise?

Really?

That’s just one of the most apparent examples, there have been many others. And though I try to be as socially conscious as I can be, I don’t always see everything like that.

And going back to the FOTB episode where Jessica talks about why she chose to start going by “Jessica” instead of her Chinese name (she went by “Bob” for a while because she liked the “bob” haircut and didn’t realize “Bob” was a man’s name), that’s something that I as a white person with a pretty generic Anglo-American sort of name have never experienced. Nobody I have ever met in my entire life has ever had a problem pronouncing “Michael.” As a matter of fact, when I lived in South Korea for two years, no Korean person ever had a problem pronouncing it, because it can be phonetically written in Korean (마이클, ma ee keul, say it three times fast) in such a way that sounds pretty much exactly like it does in English.

And yeah, most every ESL student I taught over there had an English name, because many Westerners (and non-Koreans in general) have a hard time pronouncing Korean names. I mention that because I already knew that many Asian people prefer to go by English names when they are around English speakers, it’s just that I had never seen this phenomenon be the central plot point of an episode of a sitcom.

So anyways, getting back to my loser-ly, schoolboy-ish crush on a female celebrity, not only do I find Constance Wu to be pretty in a wholesome, all-American girl next door who is way the hell out of your league but nice to you anyway sort of way – she’s got a pet bunny rabbit, which oh my God how adorable is that – not only is she a talented comedic actor on quite possibly the funniest TV show currently in production (is there gonna be a third season of “Black Jesus”?), she is also raising my level of social consciousness.

And quite possibly most importantly, with regard to what prompted me to risk public embarrassment and write all this down, just recently, Ms. Wu wrote a tweet that made my sad, loser-ly little heart just absolutely flutter:

She told her followers on Twitter – she called them struggling little fishes, if memory serves – to think about the David Foster Wallace essay “This Is Water” to help them get through their daily lives.

I think I saw that Tweet on Facebook after a Facebook friend shared it. I pretty much immediately followed Ms. Wu on Twitter…which is when I saw her selfie with her pet rabbit, and the rabbit sticker on the back of her phone, and that is the cutest damn selfie on the internet, I don’t care what anybody says.

“This Is Water” was a commencement speech DFW gave, I think, I guess maybe at Amherst, his alma mater. I didn’t know for sure what that particular essay/speech was about when I saw the Tweet, but the fact that somebody I already thought highly of for various reasons is also a fan of one of my favorite authors, well, it is a fact I like, loser though it may make me seem to be.

And anyways, it turns out that I had read “This Is Water” before, and I actually have a PDF of it here on my phone. A while back, somebody on Facebook – somebody from a secular humanist Facebook page I no longer follow, if memory serves – was up in arms over the fact that in “This Is Water,” DFW makes the claim that there is really no atheism, because everybody worships something, be it money, or power, or themselves, or any number of things.

I have gotten in countless arguments online over the issue of whether “atheism” can be a sort of religion. I maintain that it most certainly can be a whole lot like a religion: for example there’s a lot of in-group/out-group behavior in atheist circles. Tons of it. And don’t even get me started on how the political views of many atheists in America line up almost perfectly with those of the religious right in America.

But I don’t want to waste any more of my time arguing that point. At any rate, I understand exactly what DFW meant, and I agree with him.

The main idea behind “This Is Water” is that people, by default, are selfish creatures. This is due to the fact that every one of us experiences life from our own point of view. We are, in fact, at the exact center of every experience we have ever had. Therefore it’s natural for us to perceive our own lives and our own experiences as being more relevant and more “real” than the experiences of others. But, as DFW wrote in the essay/commencement speech, we can choose to “adjust our default settings” to be more aware of our surroundings and of others.

DFW says, quite correctly, that this sort of awareness is very difficult to achieve and maintain. But also that it’s quite worth the effort it requires.

The thing about “everybody worships” is also true. If you’re an atheist who derives a smug sort of satisfaction from the (absurd) notion that your being an atheist makes you by default “smarter” than every religious person on the planet, well, DFW might say (and I would agree) that you worship your own intellect, and you therefore feel the need to constantly prove to everyone how smart you are.

Such as, for example, by throwing a fit when somebody writes a damn good essay with a damn good point about waking up and learning to see the world outside of your own skull because of a minor semantic point about “atheism,” which even though such a reaction requires selective reading and irrationality and anger and all sorts of things that really religious people do when somebody questions their religion, atheism is still not a “religion” to you, and DFW was crazy for questioning you, and so on.

At any rate, DFW’s making the conscious choice (and effort) to be (or at least try his best to be) aware of other people and their concerns – he wrote about this in the nonfiction essay “E Unibus Pluram,” sort of – led to his being one of the greatest fiction writers of all time, in my opinion as well as the opinion of many others.

Reading his fiction is like being put inside the brain and body of the characters he creates. There is an incredible amount of detail put into descriptions of their thoughts and motivations and obsessions and idiosyncrasies (and addictions), and one thing that I think set DFW apart from most other fiction writers was that he was able to write about all these things clearly and non-judgmentally – there isn’t a lot of “moralizing” in his writing, I mean – and even if the reader and the character have nothing whatsoever in common other than the fact that they are both members of the same species, the reader empathizes with that character. With those characters.

DFW’s fictional characters were sometimes seemingly superhuman in their abilities – Hal Incandenza in “Infinite Jest” has an eidetic memory and can quote dictionary definitions (including not only the etymology of any given word but also how different dictionaries and different editions of dictionaries defined words differently) off the top of his head at age 11, for example, and on top of that Hal is one heck of a junior tennis player – but they were also flawed and vulnerable and, well, human.

There isn’t a lot of “moralizing,” as such, but there are philosophical questions that are raised from time to time. It may even be said that certain of these questions – I regret I can’t list which philosopher/s are being referenced with these questions off the top of my head – are in fact the central theme in DFW’s writing, whether we’re talking about his fiction or his nonfiction.

As a matter of fact, the very same philosophical issue brought up in “This Is Water” – the idea that “everyone worships,” that people have to consciously force themselves out of their own heads and be aware of other people – is brought up within the first hundred pages (including quite a few pages in the “NOTES AND ERRATA” section in the back) of “Infinite Jest,” both when Remy Marathe and Hugh Steeply are discussing this issue in more or less explicitly philosophical terms and also in the corresponding locker room/“little buddy” sections from Enfield Tennis Academy.

Marathe (a wheelchair-bound assassin/triple agent [he’s pretending to pretend to be an informant]; Marathe is a Quebecois Separatist, i.e. he wants Quebec to secede from the fictional Organization of North American Nations, the acronym of which [O.N.A.N.] being a reference to a story in the Bible about a fellow named Onan who chose to “spill his seed upon the ground” rather than impregnate his dead brother’s wife: large dumpsters filled with toxic waste that the USA fires through the air across the [slightly altered] Canadian border that spill upon the ground [as it were] being a rather ham-fisted [and intentionally so, I would venture] sort of visual aid to this reference) criticizes the American way of thinking – or at least his interpretation of it – as being incredibly self-centered and ultimately nihilistic. Americans, Marathe says, care only about their immediate gratification, while Canadians (or at least Quebecois separatist agents/terrorists such as himself) devote themselves to higher causes, in his case the “liberation” of Quebec from O.N.A.N.

Steeply mocks Marathe, and also points out that Marathe’s motivation for being a triple agent is pretty much exactly what he describes the American philosophy to be: Marathe, you see, is risking both his own life and the success of the agency he works for (“Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents,” or in English “The Wheelchair Assassins;” I had to look the French term up in the book; I took a total of six semesters’ worth of French in high school and college but I am terrible at it) in order to help his wife get medical treatment from the USA. Marathe had just gone on something of a tear (in English, but using French syntax) on how romantic love – the end-all, be-all for most Americans, as he saw it – was ultimately only love of the sensation that the “loved” person gives the person who loves them, and therefore it was a hollow and solipsistic sort of “love;” i.e. really only self-love. Steeply disagrees, and points out Marathe’s hypocrisy.

The corresponding scenes at Enfield Tennis Academy mirror this exchange: the ETA kids (the guys, anyway) discuss philosophical aspects of the ways they are being subtly manipulated by their coaches and “prorectors” at ETA. Tennis is an individual sport, and all the kids at ETA are – at all times – vying for a higher rank; that is to say they are always competing with each other, always trying to defeat each other on the court. But the ETA staff – by pushing each ETA kid to his/her absolute individual physical and mental limits – provides the ETA kids a sense of community by being their common enemy. It’s basically the same “interests of the individual vs. interests of the group” question that Marathe and Steeply are discussing on a mountainside near Tuscon, AZ. (The fictional Enfield Tennis Academy is in the metro Boston, MA area, FYI.)

It’s worth noting that I began re-re-reading “Infinite Jest” after I typed the paragraph beginning with “DFW’s characters” and also the first sentence of the next paragraph. I wanted to refresh my memory, I guess, and since I have “Infinite Jest” on my phone’s Kindle app, I figured what the heck.

The first two times I read “Infinite Jest” – yes, it’s 1079 pages long, and yes, I intend to read the whole thing again this third time – I actually found these sections rather tedious. The thing about “Infinite Jest” is that the plot – in addition to not being anywhere close to being linear (the conversation between Marathe and Steeply occurs in late April, and the interspersed ETA scenes occur the following November, for example) – has several pretty big holes in it.

And those “holes in the plot” are not like “plot holes” as in the sense of “Indiana Jones does not actually make any difference whatsoever in the outcome of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’” or “there’s no way in hell that one blonde kid in the original ‘Karate Kid’ movie would just walk into Daniel-san’s crane kick at the end” plot holes, they are “holes in the plot” that were (at the risk of being florid) “dug” intentionally. The reader has to piece everything together, and even then it can’t be determined one way or the other if the reader is correct.

Although I am reasonably sure about what happens to Hal. It’s hinted at pretty heavily in the first hundred pages, and sorry if anyone considers this a spoiler, but it has to do (in my opinion) with the fact that Hal enjoys being secretive about his marijuana use as much (if not more) than the actual marijuana use itself. He likes sneaking around and getting high, and it’s mentioned several times that he likes the sneaking around as much as he likes the getting high.

I have read interpretations that involve ghosts, and, well, even though the ghost of Hal’s dad does appear to a (hospitalized and on the edge of death and probably hallucinating) character near the end of the book, well, I don’t think ghosts had anything to do with it. Unless by “ghosts” you mean “memories” and “psychological traumas” and that sort of thing.

This transition is a bit abrupt, I admit (I happened upon the word “discursive” in “Infinite Jest” the other day and had to look it up, coincidentally), but when I first envisioned this blog post, I wanted to mention Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction as well. I recently read “The Remains of the Day” by him, and I read “A Pale View Of Hills” a few years back.

My link to DFW was orignally intended to be something about how Ishiguro’s writing goes so deep into the psyches of his protagonists that he doesn’t seem to leave much (if any) trace of himself in his fiction. Many authors employ distinct styles and idiosyncrasies in their writing – Kurt Vonnegut, for example (a major plot point in “Infinite Jest” may or may not have been inspired by the KV short story “The Euphio Question,” actually) – to the point that anyone who has read anything by them can recognize their writing within a few sentences or paragraphs.

Ishiguro – and admittedly I have only read two of his novels – does not seem to have idiosyncrasies like this, unless you can count “clarity” and “lucidity” as “idiosyncrasies.” The two aforementioned novels are deeply engaging on an emotional and psychological level, they tell their stories with a level of depth and nuance that is pretty much unparalleled by pretty much any other author I have ever read…except for maybe DFW, or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, or George Eliot, maybe.

I was going to try to draw a connection between Ishiguro and DFW by way of a “the author is invisible” sort of approach, I mean that their respective fiction is so clearly written and lucid that they – the authors – are nowhere to be found, so to speak, but after re-re-reading the first hundred pages of “Infinite Jest,” well, anybody who reads that novel and claims it isn’t chock full of idiosyncrasies is, well, full of crap. The same guy that wrote that – with all the “and but so”s and the foot/endnotes and the extremely long and detailed scene and character descriptions – is easily identifiable as the same guy that wrote “This Is Water” and “The Pale King” and pretty much all (or at least most) of DFW’s other stuff. Not that this is a bad thing, you understand.

And now that I think about it, a recurring theme in both “The Remains of the Day” – a novel about an English butler thinking back over his life – and “A Pale View Of Hills” – a novel about a Japanese woman whose adult daughter committed suicide who is reminiscing about when she was pregnant with that daughter – is how memory is not always as perfect as we would like it to be, and how when we look back on our lives so far, we (at least many of us) question if we made the right decisions in our lives, things like that.

I suppose Ishiguro actually did “write himself into” both “A Pale View Of Hills” and “The Remains of the Day,” at least to a degree: he was born in Japan, and he moved to England. The protagonist of “A Pale View Of Hills” is Japanese, and she moves to England, after marrying an Englishman. And perhaps – just perhaps – the pretty much self-imposed alienation from most of British society of the butler in “The Remains of the Day” is also Ishiguro peeking through the pages at us. Maybe. The butler is completely detached from everyone else in the novel, at any rate, and sees this as his own form of “dignity.”

At any rate, I think the thing that actually made Ishiguro remind me of DFW (and vice-versa), on top of their prose being among the highest-quality prose I have ever personally read, “A Pale View Of Hills” also has quite a few quirky interpretations of it floating around online, interpretations that require the reader to, well, make stuff up.

For example, in the parts of “A Pale View Of Hills” that are set in post-WWII Japan, the protagonist befriends a single Japanese mother and her young daughter. The protagonist is pregnant with the daughter that kills herself many years later in England, remember.

The woman she befriends (sorry for not remembering any names; I don’t remember the butler’s name off the top of my head, either) is a horrible mother. She neglects her daughter throughout the novel, and at the end she drowns the little girl’s kittens because they are moving to either America or England, I can’t remember, with the mother’s boyfriend.

I have read theories online that claim the pregnant mother and the neglectful mother are actually the same person, and the person telling the story is crazy, and so on and so forth. And sure, a person could read the novel that way – just like a person could read “Infinite Jest” as ending with a ghost of a dead father breaking into a stash of drugs and force-feeding his son drugs which would fry the son’s brain and render him incapable of communicating with anyone but his ghostly father – but doing so ignores what’s actually in the actual text itself, and to my view diminishes the text itself. But what do I know, and so on.

At any rate, if anyone reads all this, I hope they don’t insert things from their own imaginations into it. But at the same time, I recognize that to some degree, they are going to have to do just that, otherwise this whole post is just a bunch of words strung together, just a bunch of phonetic symbols arranged on a screen.

(Does that make any sense?)

I don’t know how to wrap this up – I said from the beginning it would be “scatterbrained” – but as I mentioned at the beginning, I am a fan of Constance Wu. And it gives me some sort of a weird, kindred feeling to know that a person from TV I like reads at least one of the same authors I do and (at least presumably) shares the same sort of philosophy that author expressed in his writing, because for the most part, I share it, too.

And please understand that I am fully aware that Constance Wu does not need or necessarily even want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever, and that on the one-in-a-million chance she actually happened to see and read this blog post and read it, she might even explicitly feel compelled to say that she doesn’t need or want my “approval” or “admiration” or whatever.

Please understand that that would be fine with me.

I just hope she wouldn’t be weirded out by it. By this blog post, I mean. Though I understand completely if she were.

It’s sort of like – writing is sort of like, I mean – the “philosophy of tennis” idea expressed several times in “Infinite Jest”: the goal is to send something away from you which does not come back. In tennis it’s the tennis ball that you don’t want to come back, in writing it’s, well, the things you write. You want people to understand your thoughts, and you want them to interpret your thoughts the way you think you think them. You don’t want them to take something like the fact that you have a mild crush on a famous person and twist it into something nasty or bad.

So you try your best to explain what you mean, and what you mean by what you mean, and how you’d still think that famous person was really awesome and cool even if she wasn’t Diane-from-“Cheers” pretty, and even if she didn’t have a pet bunny rabbit, and so on.

And you hope – like a tennis player who has just successfully whacked the ball over the net to his/her opponent’s side of the court – that what you have written will not come back to you, or at least that it won’t come back to you in such a way that you can’t deflect.

Or, at least, I do.

Thank you for reading.

(Whoever you are.)

A REVEEW OF “PATHS UPWERD”, THE BOOK MY HEATHIN COUSIN WRIT

Well everbody, it’s been a good whall since I last wrote anythang here on this web blog, I speck. Like most of yall, I ain’t got no pertensions bout myself as t bein no “writer” or nothin like that, so unlike some people who shall not be namd, I spin most of my time workin at my job and spendin time with my famly, not sittin on my ass tiping on no dang computer.

But my cousin, the feller who this web blog is named after, and the main contribyeter here, he wrote a book a while back. I red it, and I don’t thank to much of it, and I sure as far don’t care nothin bout writin no glowin reveew of it, but my wife, fer some reason I caint quite git at, she likes this book my cousin writ, and she likes him and his heathen web blog to, and annyways it aint out of no sort of obligatun to annybody but my lovly wife that I’m here typin today. I love that woman, and if she ast me t cover mysef in honey an go stand in a far aint bed, well, I’d probly do a good bit of arguin, but, well, Walmarks would have t restock the Callomine loshin pretty soon after, if you git me.

I red that book, “Paths UPWERD” or whatever he calld it. Me, I was dangd offended by it. There wernt no big mass of cussin or nothin, and it wuddnt nothin to explissit in there, but all the same I didnt like it.

Somehow, dispite his bein brout up rite in a propper Christian maner, my cousin done got the idea that all relijuns is equaly true. My wife says it ain’t really him sayin that, its the caracter he wrote sayin it. My wife also said my heathen cousin mite a bin bein sarkastick to a digree, or the caracter he wrote was bein sarkastic, or whatever the case mite be. My wife is a schoolteecher, and she studyd littrature and that sort of thang in collige, and I figger she nose more about the subjict then I do, so I gess I will admit that mebey I mist somethin.

But I will also say, here on my heathen cousin’s web blog, that my wife, angle that she is, aint willin t write no reveew of “Paths UPWERD” or whatever it is, bein that she dont wont her name on this web blog neither, an also because “Paths UPWERD” aint no book for noboddy under the age of 18, an my wife, she teeches elementry.

Buncha dopers and emoral heathins in that book. Since I aint usen my reel name here, an since I beleeve in bein honnest, I will admit that ockasenaly, me an my wife will watch one of them adult paper view movies on the dijitel cabble. But I dont aprove of what them people is doin, and I always make it a point t say so.

What my wife thanks about my heathen cousin’s little book is that hes tryin t be “sibversuve,” or somethin to that affect. Hes tryin t paint them people in them paper views as human beeins, she says. Like I said she nose more about littrature and thangs than I do, but I dont thank I agree. I thank hes just tryin t be sinnsashunal, and writin bout thangs that disterb good Christian people just t git a rise outen em.

Althogh I do admit parts of “Paths UPWERD” was kinda funny. That feller Pops was my kind of feller, althogh he did drink a mite to much. Me, I woulda kickd that idjit Floyd the hell off my property the minnit my doughter broght him home the first time, thogh. Woold have saved her a lot of time.

In concluson, I didnt like this book, but my wife did, an she made me write this. I dont no when I will write nothing else here. I dont reckon to many decent people read this web blog lest I’m writin on it. Me, I look at it now and agin, but not often cause it usully just pisses me off, what with all the libral nonsense my heathin cousin writes.

He done ruint MASH for me, I tell you that much.

So reed his book “Paths UPWERD” if you want t git good an pisst off, I gess. I wooden recomind it, thogh.

 

(The novel Cousin Ronald so graciously reviewed for me is available at the Kindle store: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01HHKY5V0#nav-subnav. — MNW)

WOOP WOOP

There’s been a lot of talk lately about police in the USA. One recent conversation came about following the mass shooter in Dallas who targeted police officers.

And yes, the man was black, but no, he was not involved with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The Dallas chief of police made the suggestion that #BlackLivesMatter protesters who were concerned about predominantly white officers policing predominantly black neighborhoods should sign up for their local police force.

This suggestion was met with mixed responses. Some people seemed to think it was a good idea. If people from specific neighborhoods became police officers in those neighborhoods, there would be more openness and dialogue between the police and the people they are obligated to serve and to protect.

I think that argument has some merit. If every neighborhood, town, and city in the country had friendly police who not only get along with the local people but also play an active role in their communities above and beyond their duties as police officers (think Mayberry, think Andy Taylor, think Barney Fife), violent conflict between the police and the public might — *might* — occur less frequently.

Not everyone agrees with that line of reasoning. Some people maintain that it is not necessarily the police per se that are the problem, the problem is the policing. Many studies have shown that wealthy neighborhoods — specifically wealthy white neighborhoods — are simply not policed the same way that poor neighborhoods — specifically poor black neighborhoods — are policed.

If people from poor black neighborhoods become police, according to people who opposed the Dallas police chief’s suggestion, that’s not solving the very real problem of disproportionate policing, it’s maintaining it.

I see the merit in this latter argument also. And this argument doesn’t rely on unrealistic ideas from classic sitcoms, to be blunt.

Before I type anything else, I would like to state unequivocally that I have nothing but respect for the many upright, honorable police men and women in our country. Taking it upon oneself — *sincerely* taking it upon oneself — to protect and serve the public and maintain law and order is one of the most noble things any American can do.

I would also like to state, however, that there are very few things in the world that I consider more vile and unforgivable than corrupt police officers. These wastes of flesh — not to mention public funds — do not protect and serve, they murder, they rape, they supply drugs to drug dealers in exchange for a cut of profits, they ruin lives as well as entire communities through their abuse of authority.

I am not making these things up, for the record. Anyone who keeps up with national news — even casually — knows all too well that this sort of thing happens quite frequently in our country.
For anyone reading this — especially upright police officers — please don’t think that I am writing about these things in an attempt to demonize all police officers or to encourage hostility towards police officers. I most certainly am not.

I am writing about these things because these things are a legitimate problem in our society. And yes, I have a few suggestions that I feel might help the situation. These suggestions would not magically fix everything, but I think they would help.

I do not mean this disrespectfully toward anyone currently employed in law enforcement, but I think a very good place to start in solving these problems would be to make it much more difficult to become a police officer.

Put simply, not everyone is cut out to be a police officer. The vast majority of people do not possess the strength of character, level-headedness, and personal skills necessary to be an effective police officer. And again, I don’t mean this disrespectfully toward anyone currently employed in law enforcement, but hardly a week goes by where there isn’t a story about a police officer shooting someone under questionable circumstances.

People who shoot first and ask questions later should not be police officers. To be sure, there are many situations that arise where it is necessary for a police officer to shoot a criminal, especially if that criminal is shooting at the police. But far too many unarmed people — unarmed *citizens* who are legally and constitutionally entitled to be not only treated fairly but also *protected and served* by the police — are shot and killed by people who should never have been given a badge and a gun in the first place.

That’s my first suggestion: make it harder to become a police officer. I am sure that there are psychological tests in place already; I say make them more intensive and thorough.

If an applicant displays tendencies toward panicking in tense situations, that applicant shouldn’t be given a gun.

If an applicant displays tendencies toward sociopathic behavior, that person should not only be denied a gun but also escorted out of city hall post-haste. Anyone who would knowingly bring harm to others for personal gain should not be given one iota of the public’s trust.

And perhaps most importantly, if an applicant displays the slightest bit of racial prejudice, that applicant should not be given a job on any police force. Police are supposed to protect and serve everyone, not just people of a certain skin color.

“Hold on,” many people may be thinking. “Not many people want to be police officers to begin with. If we make it harder to be a police officer, won’t we likely be reducing the number of police officers on duty?”

If anyone thought that, I would advise them to reevaluate my first suggestion after they read my second:

Increase pay and benefits for the police officers who make it through the more difficult screening process. Not only that, make sure that all police departments across the country are fully funded.

A big part of disproportionate policing is (arguably) a direct result of economics. Underfunded police departments all too often rely on revenue from minor offenses, and not only that (i.e. fines stemming from minor offenses), but also on fines for being unable to pay the previous fines on time. These fines — for things like minor traffic offenses — affect people from different economic strata disproportionately: for someone making minimum wage, a hundred-dollar traffic ticket is is a significant blow to their finances, and if they have to make the decision whether to pay a hundred dollars for parking in the wrong place or paying their rent, well, they are likely to use that money to pay their rent. Which leads to an increased fine, or maybe an additional criminal charge, or maybe even jail time.

For a person on a middle class salary — and I mean “middle class,” not “just above the poverty line but driving a nice car to keep up appearances” — a hundred bucks is nothing. Having to give a hundred bucks to the police department represents the difference between eating at Applebee’s next Saturday night instead of at that new upscale joint downtown that everybody at work has been talking about. It’s a minor inconvenience, I mean.

Police departments depend entirely too much on fines to generate revenue. Is my point. If they weren’t underfunded, police in poor neighborhoods would have far less incentive to hand out expensive tickets left and right to people who (often) might not even realize they are breaking the law.

Now don’t get carried away here: when I say “make sure that all police departments across the country are fully funded” I mean “fully funded” with regard to covering administrative costs, paying salaries, keeping police vehicles in working order, that sort of thing.

I do not — do *not* — mean “fully funded” with regard to police having military equipment and fancy cars and flipping tanks and things like that. Sure, fully equip and fund SWAT teams and things like that. But neighborhoods in the United States of America should not be treated as war zones. People in the USA who aren’t committing any violent crimes should have no reason to fear the police, but if a person grows up in a neighborhood that is fundamentally no different than an occupied city during wartime, they’re not likely to think of the police in a positive light.

And again, I am not — *not* — trying to demonize the police or rile up negative ideas about police in general. I am trying to help find a solution that benefits both the police and the citizens they are employed to serve and protect.

Police officers are — first and foremost — public servants. If any police officer doesn’t understand this and accept this and make this the center of their philosophy toward policing, that person has no business being a police officer.

I don’t think that’s a controversial statement.

Do you?

At the same time, if we, the citizens of our country, want to have an effective police force to serve and protect us, we should be willing to fund the police departments these officers work for, and not force them to depend of revenues from fundraising events and ridiculously expensive ticketing. They should have what they need to do their jobs and live comfortably.

I don’t think that’s a controversial statement, either.

Do you?

#NOTALLTREKKIES

Please note: this post is based only on people I have personally interacted with online, and even among that limited sampling of people, there are exceptions to the phenomenon jokingly talked about in this post. So don’t nobody get upset or nothing, I am just kidding around.

There is — believe it or not — a long-standing dispute among sci-fi fans regarding whether Star Wars or Star Trek is the better franchise.

Up until recently, I considered myself to be wholly in the “Star Wars is better” camp, even though I fully acknowledge that Star Wars (original trilogy, prequels, new movies, and all the assorted “Star Wars Universe” stuff, which I don’t know a lot about) is just as much “fantasy” as it is “sci-fi.”

I have to claim ignorance in making such an uninformed choice: up until just recently — as in like up until a month or so ago — I had never really watched much Star Trek. And I saw most of one of the movies (the Kirk and Spock movies, I don’t remember which one) a while back, and I liked it, and BBC America plays “Star Trek: The Next Generation” reruns quite often…

And even though there are certain aspects of the show that, like Star Wars, lean out of “sci-fi” territory and into “fantasy” territory, the vast majority of what I have seen of Star Trek is based much more in actual science than Star Wars.

So, in conclusion, I guess if someone were to put a blaster or a phaser or whatever to my head and demand that I declare which franchise I prefer, simply for sentimental reasons, I would still pick Star Wars.

But seeing as how that situation is not likely to ever occur, I would like to state that I now like both franchises quite a lot, and that my preference for Star Wars, to repeat, is mostly sentimental.

But one thing bugs me: there are die-hard Trekkies out there who are also pretty hardcore “anti-PC” people. I find this interesting because these people attempt to denigrate “pro-PC” people using “science.”

The greater prevalence of science (please note the lack of quotation marks) in Star Trek is also, often, why these anti-PC people prefer Star Trek.

What’s interesting to me is that in my viewing of perhaps ten or so episodes of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — I look forward to viewing many more episodes, for the record — I have noticed something very interesting:

The crew of the Enterprise all use PC language. Nobody gives Worf shit about his being a Klingon, at least not in the episodes I have seen. There are humans of all different skin colors on the Enterprise, and nobody goes around using racial slurs.

As a matter of fact, one episode I saw recently was about how an extinct humanoid race from many thousands of years ago left a computer program or something encoded in the DNA of various worlds, and when all of the pieces were put together, a hologram of someone from that extinct race appeared and told everyone present — humans, Romulans, Klingons, maybe another race — that they all were descendants of this one race, that this one race had essentially planted them all on various planets around the galaxy, their shared DNA or pre-DNA or whatever was why they all had similar body types (head, torso, two arms, two legs, etc.), and that she (the hologram) hoped that knowing this would bring harmony to all these various races.

The Romulans and Klingons (or whoever, I don’t pretend to be hip to all the lingo) denied that this was true and said, essentially, that there was no way in heck they were going to acknowledge it. Picard expressed how unfortunate this attitude was.

Also, religious beliefs of various races on Star Trek are treated with the utmost respect. I also watched an episode (“Icarus” was in the title, I think) about this one guy — one of the people who have big ears that wrap around and connect on their foreheads — who invented a new type of shield (“metaphasic,” I think) that would allow a ship to fly into a star unharmed.

This fellow gets killed under mysterious circumstances, and Dr. Crusher wants to perform an autopsy, but Picard insists that she shouldn’t do it because the dead fellow’s family wants to perform some mystic ritual with his body before anything else happens. I think she did the autopsy anyway, but nonetheless respect for religious customs are also present in Star Trek.

There’s no catcalling on Star Trek, there’s nobody degrading women, no women get talked down to or sexually harassed…

What’s funny is that strictly going on dialogue and storylines and whatnot, Star Wars is a whole hell of a lot less “PC” than Star Trek. And seeing as how Star Wars doesn’t contain any language that would be too harsh for a five-year-old’s ear, that’s really saying something.

And in my very limited experience, it seems like most “pro-PC” people (including me) are more into Star Wars — which has jokes based on appearance, mild sexism, mockery of the Jedi religion, etc. — and most “anti-PC” people are more into Star Trek, which, at least in “The Next Generation,” is just about as “PC” as a sci-fi series could possibly be.

Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t TNG change the original Star Trek intro thing from “…boldly go where no MAN has gone before” to “…boldly go where no ONE has gone before”?

I am not a “Trekkie,” so maybe I imagined that.

What gives, anti-PC Trekkies? How come you like PC sci-fi but not PC real life? Do you think that humanity will get to the stars faster calling each other by racial slurs, encouraging sexism and homophobia, and just generally behaving shittily toward each other?

What gives, you scruffy-looking bunch of nerf-herders?

Another big thing on Star Trek is accepting responsibility for your actions. This was mentioned to young Wesley Crusher by Number One (I can’t remember his name, he has a beard most of the time) when Crusher was put in command of a research mission.

Number One told Crusher to do what he thought was best, but to be prepared to acknowledge and accept responsibility for failure, should his judgment prove to be incorrect.

How in the name of Spock do you go from that to “nobody gets to be offended by anything I say unless I was trying to be offensive”?

Where do you get off, anti-PC Trekkies, calling people “too sensitive” if they accuse you of saying something offensive? Where do you get off, o graduates of Starfleet Academy, not only refusing to apologize to people you have offended, but also launching into personal attacks against the people you have offended?

Is that how Captain Picard would behave? Granted, I have only seen a small number of episodes, but I hardly think so.

Picard would lecture you on respect and manners, anti-PC Trekkies. Picard would embarrass you in front of everyone on the bridge, and if you continued to be insubordinate and disrespectful toward your fellow crew members, Picard would tell Data to beam your sorry ass off the Enterprise.

Although he wouldn’t say “ass” or “butt” or for that matter “sorry.” Nonetheless, you wouldn’t last very long on the Enterprise or any other such ship, were you to go around using racial slurs and sexual innuendo and harassing anyone who dared to complain about it.

So again, anti-PC Trekkies, what gives?

FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS

I suppose one of the many drawbacks of trying to be a nice person is that people end up telling you things you don’t really want to know. They get something on their mind, and nobody else will listen, and so they tell you about it.

Just to clarify, please review my first sentence, particularly the part that says “trying to be a nice person.” Please note that I did not (as in did *not*) write “one of the many drawbacks of being a nice person” and so on. I am trying to be a nice person. I never claimed to be one. That is to say, I am not attempting to talk myself up with this rather personal/self-indulgent bit of prose, I am merely relating my experiences.

People tell me things. I don’t know if it’s because of some aspect of my face that sets them at ease, or if it’s the fact that I try to be a nice person; I really have no idea. I do not resent this sort of thing, on the contrary, I feel honored when someone confides in me, and I do my very best to offer advice, or if I have no experience in the sort of situation they are describing, all I can offer is an open ear and empathy.

And sometimes an open ear and empathy is all that people – including me – need. Sometimes advice does no good. Sometimes there are situations in life for which nothing can be done, other than simply to accept these situations for what they are.

My main course of study in college was “journalism.” And other than a few freelance articles here and there, and other than a handful of articles I wrote for the Traveler (the University of Arkansas’ student newspaper) as a student, I have not made any money from the specific course of study I chose.

There are a couple reasons for this. Actually let’s just go ahead and say there are three reasons for this:

1. While I do possess something of a knack for the written word, and while this “knack” was in fact augmented and honed during my time as a student, upon graduation, I found that it would be next to impossible to find a steady job writing for a newspaper that paid significantly more than the job I already had, which was working in a soil science laboratory and doing related field work. My rent and utilities were covered by the wages I earned from this job, and it was a full-time, 40 hours a week, eight am to five pm sort of job. A newspaper job – assuming I could get one – would have entailed more than 40 hours a week, it would not have been an eight to five job, and in all likelihood the pay would not have been any more (and possibly even less) than the job I had in the soil science lab.

You could say I should have chosen a more practical thing to major in; I would reply that you would be correct, were you to say that, but that at the time I chose my major, “creative writing” was what I really wanted to major in, but that I chose “journalism” as a matter of practicality.

So yeah, “oh, the irony” and so on and so forth.

2. You will note that I made it a point to add “assuming I could get one” in the above reason/excuse for why I haven’t made very much money from journalism in the 13 years since I graduated from the U of A. There is a reason I added that disclaimer: many – if not most – newspaper and magazine jobs require an internship process. That is to say, they require new employees to work without pay – sometimes for upwards of six months or more – before they will actually give these employees any sort of salary. This was at least the case around the time I graduated from the U of A. I wasn’t fully aware of that aspect of the field when I decided to major in it. I was merely following what seemed to be my natural talent, hoping that if I did what people were continually telling me I was good at, somehow everything would work out.

Perhaps if I had been a little more patient, I could have managed to work full-time at an hourly job and intern for free at a newspaper or magazine in the hopes that said newspaper or magazine would later put me on full-time. I suppose I have no one to blame but myself for doing what seemed at the time to be the practical thing and taking a full-time job in a mostly unrelated field.

3. While I do apparently have the sort of face or “demeanor” or “personality” or whatever you want to call it that generally puts other people at ease – the type of (whatever) that makes people “open up” and tell me things they wouldn’t dream of telling most people – and while this sort of (whatever) is something akin to the “wet dream” of many exploitative journalists who expose people’s vulnerabilities and secrets and what have you for profit, I am burdened in this regard by an all-but-forgotten remnant of what used to be called “being a decent person”: my conscience.

If someone tells me their deepest and darkest secret, I do not run off and tell everyone. I do not have the pretentiousness to congratulate myself for being able to trick someone into confiding in me so that I may profit from their having done so. As a matter of fact I do not “trick” anyone into confiding in me, they generally do so entirely of their own volition.

Perhaps I should have studied psychology instead.

I will now relate an example of someone confiding in me. I don’t feel that relating this example will do anyone any harm, since for one I will not relate the specific identity of this person, and for two this person has been dead for a little over five years at this point.

As a matter of fact, my relating this to you – whoever you are – is me confiding in you, whoever you might be.

Consider that a warning. You are free to stop reading right now, if you don’t want to be bothered or burdened with it.

But on with the show:

The person in question – the deceased – was notoriously quiet. This fact was expounded upon in his eulogy, as a matter of fact. He quite simply did not talk very much, at least not to most people. I worked with the fellow for a little under three years, off and on.

When I first met him, I had recently taken a job working for my stepfather. He and a small crew were building a decent-sized house, and I had just recently returned to the USA from a two-year stint as an ESL teacher in Gimpo, South Korea. This was the “full-time job in an unrelated field” I mentioned before. This was in summer of 2008. I didn’t have a job lined up when I got back – as a matter of fact I had planned on returning to South Korea, but for various reasons, well, I didn’t.

This notoriously quiet fellow had just gotten out of prison. I am not 100% sure exactly what the nature of his crime was, but he told me later that the charge was “simple battery” and possession of a small amount of “ice,” which I have read (or maybe heard on “Breaking Bad”) is slang for low-grade methamphetamine.

Despite his somewhat “rough” looking exterior, he and I always got along at work. He was an excellent carpenter, and as working people around my part of the country say, “he didn’t mind working.” He was a very hard worker, and he did in fact come in late a few times because he had stayed up too late the previous evening drinking or doing whatever he did late at night, but once he was at work he worked, and if he was ever hung over he didn’t let on that he was.

He had a tattoo on one shoulder with a skull that had the letters “F T W” under it, and another tattoo across the fingers of I think his right hand that said “O Z Z Y,” I suppose in sort of an homage to the “L O V E” and “H A T E” tattoos Ozzy Osbourne has (or maybe had) across his fingers.

This fellow was a pretty big Ozzy fan, and a fan of metal-type music in general. Once, while still on probation from his short stint in a Louisiana prison, he took a pretty serious risk – one I am pretty sure he knew he was taking – by crossing state lines into Texas to go see OzzFest with a group of his friends. He didn’t get caught, at any rate, and were he still alive, even though I have not and will not mention his name anywhere in this blog post, I wouldn’t even think about putting a potentially incriminating bit of information like that down for whoever to read.

It was quite stupid of him to do that, nonetheless he did it anyway.

After the house was built, he helped my stepfather and I on a great many carpentry jobs. And though he and I were quite a bit different, well, at least at work, we became friends. We got along and joked around with each other and that sort of thing, and he and I worked alone together for more hours than I can really count. I might have been able to give you a rough estimate some time around 2011, when he committed suicide, but the intervening five years have blurred the various jobs he and I worked together on, and all I can say for sure is that he and I worked together quite a lot, and despite our differences, and despite his continually getting in minor trouble with the law, all in all he was quite possibly the best – or at least my favorite – coworker I have ever had.

Excluding family members, of course. 🙂

He was quiet, is what his step-uncle said as he gave his eulogy. The Garth Brooks song “The Dance” played at his funeral, and I don’t know if I should be writing this or not but I remember Garth Brooks once said that some teenager who committed suicide (I think) said in his suicide note that he wanted “The Dance” to be played at his funeral, but according to Garth Brooks, if that teenager had understood the meaning of “The Dance” at all, he wouldn’t have committed suicide, or something like that, because the chorus of “The Dance” goes as follows:

“And now

I’m glad I didn’t know

the way it all would end

the way it all would go”

and if that weren’t enough, I assume Mr. Brooks reasoned, the chorus of the song continues thusly:

“our lives

are better left to chance

I could have missed the pain

but I’d have had to miss

the-e-uh-uh dance”

which I realize that many people who might read this blog have zero appreciation for country music, and the people who do appreciate country music may or may not like Garth Brooks (“The Dance” is one of my all-time favorite songs of any genre, FYI, but a lot of Garth’s stuff I don’t care for), nonetheless the basic “message” or whatever of the song is that things don’t always go the way you want them to, and as a matter of fact sometimes they turn out rotten, but to avoid situations where great things could happen simply because you are afraid something terrible will happen, well, you shouldn’t do that. Or something.

Hanging oneself with a belt sometime after midnight on a Sunday/Monday is not a good example of living out the message espoused by “The Dance,” at any rate.

The first job he and I worked on – the decent-sized house – has a pretty tall roof with a pretty steep slope, I think it was “nine and twelve” in carpentry-speak, which puts the angle of the roof in relation to the floor of the house somewhere around 45 degrees.

The house is built into the side of a hill, and even though most of the house itself – four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a large kitchen and dining room, and a living room with a vaulted ceiling probably around 20 feet high in the center – is on a single, top-of-the-hill level floor, there’s also a spacious garage and basement underneath the main floor of the house. The attic area of this house, square foot-wise – is almost as large as the main living area, and it could have easily been made into a second story, or a third story if you count the garage and basement, which you might as well.

But the owners of the house didn’t want a an “upstairs” area in their house, they just wanted a tall roof, which many people nowadays seem to want, or at least seemed to want eight years ago, when the house was being built. So that’s what we built for them.

Our basic plan of attack for this house was to dig a trench – about eight or ten feet deep – at the top of the slope, just in front of where the front of the finished house would be. We tied rebar and wire into big squares, then lowered them into the trench. When we were done tying wire and rebar together, we filled the trench with concrete.

In case the purpose of this is not immediately apparent, we did this to create a retaining wall, one that would prevent the soil and eventually the foundation of the house from eroding away during rainstorms.

After the retaining wall had been given time to set up and harden, we hired someone to dig out the hill on the lower side of the retaining wall and to flatten out the area where the house would sit. After that, we laid out the foundation of the house with a transit, batter boards, and string.

Then a bricklayer came and essentially built the bottom half of the house with cinderblocks. Normally, on a house with conventional flooring – flooring made of wood, as opposed to a concrete slab, which is more common nowadays – built on more or less level ground, the cinderblock foundation would only be a few courses of blocks high, enough to lift the wooden floor off of the ground and provide a few feet of crawlspace under the floor. But in the case of this house, which you will remember is built into the side of a hill, the cinderblock foundation is somewhere around twelve or thirteen courses high. This serves to bring the back side of the house up to the same level as the front side of the house.

To help you envision this house, as in the finished product, when you approach the house on foot from the front side, when you walk onto the front porch – a foot or two above ground level – then enter through the front door, the main floor of the house is more or less at the same level as the front porch. If you walk straight through the house – through the foyer and the living room with vaulted ceilings, then step into the kitchen on your right and then go out one of the back doors onto the back porch – the other back door opens from the master bedroom – you will find that you are now approximately eight feet or so above ground level. When you are on the back porch, I mean.

The reader will have to pardon my digression there, if she or he found it unnecessary. The reason I added it was to help illustrate that there is quite a bit of distance – something like 30 feet, I think – from the tip of the roof to the ground on each gable end of the house.

To back up just a bit, after the bricklayer – who incidentally did quite well for himself on this job: he returned after we were mostly done and laid bricks (like reddish clay exterior bricks) around a lot of the house also; as a sidenote this fellow is quite likable and friendly, and he is a big NASCAR fan and often talked about going to various races here and there…I won’t mention his name here, but if you live in the El Dorado area and need any brick work done, I can give you contact information; he’s not the cheapest bricklayer in this area but he does damn good work – built the foundation/lower half of the house, we built the floor. After we built the floor, we put up most of the stud walls – they were taller than normal 8-foot stud walls, I want to say they were 10 foot but I don’t remember for sure – and after that we began setting the special-ordered pre-fab roof trusses on top of the stud walls.

The house is about fifty feet wide, so in order to give them the pitch and height that the homeowners desired, the trusses had to be quite tall, somewhere around 16-18 feet tall, if memory serves. As these special-ordered, pre-fab trusses were to be delivered on a flatbed truck trailer – like a quote-unquote “18-wheeler” type trailer – they had to be laid on their side in a stack. And since it would be impossible to fit a 16 or so foot item on a truck bed that was roughly half that amount of feet in width (without having several feet hanging off on each side, which would make driving down the highway impossible) the trusses were split roughly in half: there were trapezoidal pieces that were designed to sit atop the stud walls, and triangular pieces that were designed to sit atop the trapezoidal pieces.

So, what we had to do was to put the bottom, trapezoidal truss pieces on first, then come back later and attach the triangular pieces to the top of the trapezoidal pieces.

Being that these truss pieces were over fifty feet in length, roughly 8 feet tall, and constructed out of lumber and metal nail plates – and therefore quite cumbersome – this part of the building process was done with a crane. My role in the process was to attach each truss piece to the end of the line attached to the crane. The crane operator then (very carefully) maneuvered the truss piece over the house, as closely as possible to where it was supposed to sit on top of the stud walls.

Two carpenters waited on the truss piece to be set down on top of the walls, and using their hammers bumped the truss piece into the pre-measured pencil marks where it was supposed to go. When the truss was in place, they drove a couple nails through the truss pieces into the top of the stud walls.

This was only part of the process, however. The trusses also had to be secured at their tops, otherwise they’d simply fall over, pulling the nails out at the bottom.

This part of the process was performed by a third carpenter, in this instance the fellow I am more or less writing this blog post about, the one who has now been dead for a little over five years.

This fellow climbed up a ladder and nailed pre-measured and pre-cut pieces of 2 x 4 lumber across the tops of these trapezoidal truss pieces. I think he used two pieces of 2 x 4 to connect each consecutive truss piece to the next.

From his position atop the ladder – which was leaned up against the outside gable truss piece, which was secured by a temporary brace to the outside wall of the house – he could only reach the first and maybe second truss piece. So, instead of taking the time to climb down the ladder (which was an extension ladder), retract the ladder, carry it to the next spot, extend the ladder, position it against the most recently placed truss piece, then climb back up the ladder and secure the next one or maybe two truss pieces, and then repeating this process over and over, do you want to know what he did?

He climbed up on the truss pieces he had already secured, on his hands and knees, and waited for the crane to place the next truss. When it was placed, he nailed a couple of pieces of 2 x 4 to it, securing it to the previous secured truss, then he crawled onto it and waited for the next truss to be placed.

He did this without the slightest bit of hesitation or fear. The trusses – big, floppy things that they were – wobbled a little under his weight, even though they were secured by nails at the top and bottom.

There’s probably some sort of moral or something to be derived here: the trusses on this house – and the trusses on your house, if you live in a house – did not have much strength in and of themselves. When the 8′ by 4′ sheets of plywood were laid across them and stapled down, however, they became quite strong. This sort of thing is apparent in many aspects of carpentry, from stud walls to floor joists to garage shelves: each individual piece is not particularly strong by itself, but when put together in the right way, the pieces form something that is quite sturdy. But I digress.

From where I stood – remember that the house in question is built into the side of a hill – the fellow crawling on top of the truss pieces appeared as if he were quite a ways up in the air. The spot where I attached – or helped attach, I honestly can’t remember – each truss to the crane line was at least a few feet above the floor level of the house, and the hill tapered on off another 15 feet or so (from where I stood) down to the far side of the house.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces was, in fact, somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 or so feet above the floor of the house itself. But remember that the floor of the house was itself off of the actual ground about 8 or 10 feet, because of the house having been built into the side of a hill, and there being a garage and basement under the floor.

So, to me, the fellow appeared to be quite a bit higher off of “the ground” than he actually was. To be sure, falling 16 or so feet and hitting a solid plywood floor – one littered with lumber, power tools, and various hazards, not to mention interior walls one might ricochet off of on the way down – would be no picnic. At any rate, I think I was more worried about the fellow falling off the truss pieces than he was. My own blood pressure was soaring during this part of the construction process, even though I wasn’t in any danger myself.

The fellow crawling along the top of the truss pieces didn’t seem to mind doing it at all. Or if he did, he certainly didn’t say much of anything about it.

I do know one thing: even after several subsequent years of carpentry work, and finally more or less getting over my fear of working on rooftops (I found that my blood pressure could actually reach much higher levels than I had imagined while helping “deck” the roof of this house with plywood, after all the trusses were placed), there is no dollar amount anyone could pay me that would embolden me enough to go crawling on hands and knees (with a hammer in one hand and a couple pieces of 2 x 4 in the other) across wobbly truss pieces like that fellow did. If someone threatened to shoot me if I refused to do so, I likely would ask them to please not aim at my head or at any vital organs.

This fellow impressed me many other times, not only with his climbing abilities and fearlessness on rooftops and whatnot, but also with his skill as a carpenter. Many other times, many more than I care to list here.

It sounds incredibly stuck up for me to say, but if we hadn’t worked together, he and I would not likely have been friends. And I don’t know if he ever considered me to be his “friend,” but I considered him to be my friend, at least my “friend at work,” which if you’ve ever had a job you know what I mean.

After doing quite a few smaller jobs with him – building porches, remodeling rooms, putting metal roofs on (I was always the fellow who handed the pieces up to the people on the roof, ha ha) and various things – we began work on another, smaller house. This house has a concrete slab for a foundation, and we had to do quite a bit of “dirt work” before we got to where we could build concrete forms (this fellow knew a lot about building concrete forms, and I was more or less his “helper” for a week or so; actually I was more or less his “helper” a lot of the time we worked together and I learned a lot by working with him), and anyways at some point during this process we had a few days off where someone else had to come in – maybe it was the plumber laying pipes under what would become the concrete floor of the house, maybe it was the crew that poured the slab, I don’t remember – and work on the job site, and we (the carpenters) were not needed there.

During that time, we did a really small job on a trailer house, repairing a couple sections of floor that had rotted out.

And remember, when I say “we” at this point, I am talking about me, the fellow I have been talking about, and my stepfather. My stepfather had left me and the one fellow at the trailer house either to go get building materials or to discuss something with either the owner of the trailer or the owner of the house we were just getting started on or somebody. At any rate, I and the one fellow were there at the trailer house where the floor was rotting out in places, and nobody else was there.

I found a few pot seeds in the ratty shag carpet of this trailer house, if memory serves. But I digress.

The fellow – who was known to most people as “quiet,” including his family – told me something that day. I don’t know if “confided” would actually be the proper word, because he didn’t really get specific about what he meant by what he said, and I actually totally misinterpreted what he said when he said it to me.

He mentioned that everybody always seemed to “bitch” at him, no matter what he did. His mom and stepdad bitched at him – he lived in a camper trailer behind his mom’s house for most of the time I knew him – his girlfriend (and mother of two of his four kids) bitched at him, everybody bitched at him, no matter what he did. If he drank too much and got in trouble with the law – something that happened a few times while we worked together – he got bitched at. If he tried to act right and be a good guy, he got bitched at. No matter what he did, it seemed, it always ended up with somebody bitching at him.

“I can’t take this shit no more,” is what he said to me, as we were deciding how to fix the rotten spot in the floor of the trailer house with pot seeds in the ratty shag carpeting.

Since his girlfriend had been the last complaint he mentioned, I took “I can’t take this shit no more” to mean that he was going to break up with her. They had a lot of trouble during their time together, and I assumed he was planning on splitting up with her.

They had begun seeing each other during the construction of the other house I wrote about, the one where he fearlessly crawled across the tops of truss pieces. I think he met her at the gas station she worked at. While we were building the bigger house, she would bring him lunch, and I think they would mess around a little in the back of her car – or maybe it was his car, maybe she was driving his car, I don’t remember for sure – during the lunch hour.

At any rate, he had been telling me and my stepdad that he and his girlfriend hadn’t been getting along very well – he talked to both of us quite a bit, despite his reputation of being “quiet” – and anyways like I said when he told me “I can’t take this shit no more” I thought he meant that he was done with his girlfriend, who he had been seeing for almost three years at that point.

In retrospect, I don’t think that’s what he meant at all.

At the time of his death, he had no driver’s license, and he was unable to get registration stickers for the license plate on his car. Again, I am not a “snitch” of any sort, and if the perpetrator of this minor crime weren’t dead I wouldn’t think of mentioning it, but he forged registration stickers – which were yellow at the time; in Arkansas (and probably elsewhere) these stickers change color every year to allow the police to easily tell if any given driver’s registration is up to date – using the label he peeled off of a can of vegetables – the label was yellow, like that year’s registration stickers – and a pen.

My stepfather and I would pick him up every morning from his sister’s house. Her house was quite a bit closer to the main highway than his mom’s house, and he would drive on backroads to his sister’s house every work morning and we would pick him up and go on to the job site. This was done to save time, mainly; as I said his sister lived closer to the highway than his mom (and he) did.

Going down this highway toward the job site every morning, my stepfather and I would pass a road on the right that leads to where this fellow lived. On down the highway a bit – a mile or two – there is another road on the right that leads to where this fellow’s sister lives. These two roads are connected a few miles away from the highway, and the fellow would drive from his mom’s house – which is about 10-15 minutes down the first road on the right, from the highway – to his sister’s house, which is about 2-3 minutes down the second road on the right, from the highway.

One Monday morning, as my stepfather and I were approaching the first road on the right, we saw an ambulance coming from the opposite direction, lights flashing, turn down the first road. I don’t remember if we said anything to each other, but something told me…well, something.

We went on down the highway to the second road. We went to the fellow’s sister’s house, turned around, and parked beside the road – like we had been doing every work day for at least a few weeks – and the fellow was not there. We assumed he was running late – he ran late sometimes, as I think I mentioned early on – and we sat there and waited for him for a few minutes.

We finally decided that he had overslept, and that we would have to go pick him up from his mom’s house, something that had happened once or twice before.

When we got there, the ambulance that we had seen a few minutes earlier was parked in the driveway. And the fellow’s stepfather – incidentally one of the other carpenters who helped build the larger house mentioned before, someone I also learned a few carpentry things from – was outside. He told us that the fellow had hanged himself.

Construction of the new house was delayed for a couple weeks, not only to accommodate initial shock and going to his funeral and whatnot, but also to accommodate getting a new crew together: the other fellow who was helping on this new house (he also helped on the bigger house) was friends away from work with the fellow who killed himself, and he found that he simply couldn’t work with us at the time, because of grief and that sort of thing. We reminded him of his friend, I mean.

***

You may be wondering what in the hell the title of this post is in reference to. I will tell you:

“FISH CANNOT CARRY GUNS!” is the motto of the “Rhipodon Society,” a group of three people (four if you count Horselover Fat, which no sane person would) in the Philip K. Dick novel “VALIS.” A rhipodon is some sort of fish – maybe some sort of prehistoric fish, I forget – and the narrator of “VALIS,” “Phil,” has a dream where he is one of these fish, and he tries to hold a machine gun in the dream with his fish fins but cannot do so.

Fish are significant in the novel because the fish icon used by early Christians (the same one used today by many Evangelical Christians, you probably know the icon as a “Jesus fish”) resembles a section of the “double helix” of a strand of DNA.

The “nose” of the fish is where the double helix twists, and the “tail” is visible if you cut the double helix in half roughly halfway to the next twist in the double helix.

It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you’ve seen it, even if you’ve only seen it in your head, such as I did yesterday and today, when I read “VALIS” for the third time. I have “VALIS” on my phone; I bought it and the other two novels in the “VALIS Trilogy” – “The Divine Invasion,” which you practically need a Religious Studies degree to make heads or tails of (I don’t have one, and it made no sense to me whatsoever), and “The Transmigration of Timothy Archer,” which was actually the first PKD novel I ever read years ago, despite it being the last one he published (it wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the “VALIS Trilogy,” FYI, and doesn’t fit especially well there) – as a set for $9.99 at the Kindle Store a few years back. I have read “VALIS” twice on my phone and once (the first reading) in paperback.

Many PKD enthusiasts – a subsection of society I consider myself to be a member of – consider VALIS to be PKD’s “masterpiece.” And while I do think the novel has, well, “merit,” I don’t consider it to even be one of his better novels. Other than “The Divine Invasion,” it’s probably my least favorite of any of them…even though it’s the only one other than “A Scanner Darkly” (his best effort, in my opinion) I have read all the way through more than twice.

So why do I feel compelled to reread “VALIS,” even though I don’t think very highly of it? Well, above and beyond searching for whatever intangible thing that makes many of my fellow PKD fanatics like it so much, a central plot element in “VALIS” resonates with me personally.

“VALIS” is narrated by “Phil,” a slightly fictionalized version of its author. Other PKD novels (including “A Scanner Darkly”) are mentioned in “VALIS,” as a matter of fact. The trouble is, it is impossible to tell how much of the narrator is based in reality and how much of him is fictionalized.

Phil has an alter-ego in “VALIS” named Horselover Fat. “Philip” is apparently Greek for “Horselover,” and “Dick” is apparently German for “Fat.” Ergo, “Philip Dick” = “Horselover Fat.”

Horselover Fat, for the biggest part of the novel, is presented as a separate character from Phil, even though Phil mentions early on that he and Horselover Fat are in fact the same person. He talks to Fat and Fat talks to him, and Phil’s friends also seem to interact with Fat as if he were a completely separate person from Phil.

And no, I do not have an imaginary friend whose name is derived from translations of “Michael Walker,” just in case you were wondering…although I do conduct mock interviews with myself on my Facebook author page, no disrespect to any mentally ill person who actually talks to himself or herself intended.

Nonetheless, the event that apparently split Phil Dick’s mind roughly in half does resonate with me somewhat.

As I mentioned, one of the things that I seriously dislike about “VALIS” is that it is impossible to tell how much of “Phil” is based on the real-life Philip Kindred Dick and how much is made up. In an abstract sort of sense, like as in a “how much of any person is really real, people only present a fraction of themselves to other people, and that fraction may not even actually represent the person’s actual self at all” sort of sense, I suppose the novel is quite compelling. But being as how I, a reader who strongly identifies with what might be a completely and totally fabricated major plot element, well, to say the least, in this sense the novel is quite annoying.

“Phil” has a female friend in the novel named Gloria. Actually, I suppose she is Horselover Fat’s friend.

At the risk of copyright infringement, I will type out the first paragraph of the first chapter of “VALIS,” capitalized words appear as they do in the edition I have on my Kindle app:

“HORSELOVER FAT’S NERVOUS breakdown began the day he got the phone call from Gloria asking if he had any Nembutals. He asked her why she wanted them and she said that she intended to kill herself. She was calling everyone she knew. By now she had fifty of them, but she needed thirty or forty more to be on the safe side.”

I have no idea whether “Gloria” was based on an actual person, or if the character is totally made up. What I do know is that in the novel “VALIS,” Horselover Fat becomes something of a scholar regarding ancient religious texts, that Horselover Fat writes page after page of something he calls the “exegesis,” and that Horselover Fat is addicted to “uppers,” i.e. amphetamines.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick was, for much of his career, addicted to “uppers,” and that he spent many hours writing something called the “exegesis” which was published about 20 years after his death in the early 1980s.

The “exegesis” contains Dick’s interpretation of Gnostic Christian texts, intertwined with all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of literal sense. This “exegesis” is something Dick actually wrote, and it is quoted partially in “VALIS” from time to time.

The entirety of what is quoted in the novel itself (plus quite a bit more) makes up an Appendix at the end of “VALIS.” This appendix is labeled “Tractates: Cryptica Scriptura.” This title is also mentioned in the novel, I think it means “Hidden Scriptures,” and I think it’s part of the “exegesis,” or maybe a short version of the “exegesis,” or something. I finished the novel itself this morning and read about half of the 52 entries in the “Cryptica Scriptura,” and they make less and less sense (and get longer and longer, and some entries aren’t in English and have no translations), and anyways I quit reading the damned thing.

It correlates ancient religious scriptures and figures and such things with events that happened in Phil/Fat’s life. The main idea of the “exegesis” is that God – or “the universe,” or something grand and all-encompassing, at least – was split in two a long time ago, that there’s a good half and a bad half, that the bad half thinks it’s the good half (or something) and the bad half is ruled by a blind “creator deity” who thinks he’s the only god, but there’s actually a bigger god above him that’s good, and this bigger, better god is trying to help the creation (the world) of the smaller blind god, but the smaller blind god fights it off, and the bigger, better god is made entirely out of information, and the early Christians got in touch with this bigger, better god through Jesus, and they knew that everything was essentially information, which is why they designed the “Jesus fish” to look like a section from a DNA strand.

It seems like, at the beginning of “VALIS,” that “Fat” is the one who came up with all this, well, nonsensical stuff, and that “Phil” doesn’t really buy any of it. “Fat” apparently seems to be the speed-taking, staying-up-for-days-at-a-time-typing-maniacally half of the narrator, and “Phil” is the more rational side of the narrator, who doesn’t quite believe any of that stuff.

As the novel goes on, the lines between these two blur quite a bit. As does the line between “Phil” the narrator of “VALIS” and “Philip K. Dick,” the author of “VALIS.”

For example, one major plot element in “VALIS” is that Phil/Fat gets “zapped” by a pink laser beam that comes pretty much out of nowhere and enables him to speak koine (common) Greek for a short time. This pink laser also tells Phil/Fat that his son Christopher is suffering from some sort of hernia that his doctor overlooked, and that if the hernia isn’t treated soon, Christopher will die. So Phil/Fat (I am not sure which one, or if it makes any difference) takes young Christopher (who has been complaining about pain) to the doctor, tells the doctor about the possible hernia, and the doctor examines Christopher and finds that he does indeed have such a hernia, and that it is indeed life threatening.

For a sci-fi novel with heavy religious overtones, that makes for an interesting plot device. The thing is, PKD spoke of this “pink laser” incident as if it were something that actually happened to him. As in him, the author, in real life.

I also know that the real-life Philip K. Dick died after having several strokes in a row, that long-term amphetamine abuse can put one at risk for stroke, and that major strokes are often accompanied by hallucinations.

I don’t know how seriously Dick – the real-life author – took any of this stuff. I am sure that (assuming he didn’t just make it all up) the “pink laser” incident was very real to him; nonetheless I have a very hard time even beginning to give any credence whatsoever to the idea that this “pink laser” existed anywhere outside his own addled brain.

So, getting back to the point, I don’t know if Gloria was real or not. And in addition to my being somewhat “annoyed” that one of my all-time favorite authors more or less documented his own descent into insanity in novel form, and that he may or may not have been insane enough at the end of his life to take these insane things he wrote about three-eyed people and “living information” and whatnot seriously, I am also very annoyed that I have no way of knowing whether “Gloria” – who you will remember is credited with Phil/Fat’s nervous breakdown – is merely a fictional character in “VALIS” or based off of someone Philip K. Dick knew in real life.

Gloria ends up committing suicide in “VALIS,” you see. Phil/Fat tries to talk her out of it, but she does it anyway, not by taking a hundred sleeping pills (Nembutals) but by jumping out of a tenth-floor window at – of all places – a drug rehab facility.

It annoys me to no end, not knowing if “Gloria” was based on a real person. Especially since the “Cryptica Scriptura” or whatever you call it repeatedly makes reference to some mythical woman who died long ago, and the quest to bring her back to life.

Gloria’s death is essentially the central theme of “VALIS.” Fat searches ancient religious texts and spends hours madly typing or scribbling notes in his “exegesis” in search of the new “savior,” not in order that he may be saved, but so Gloria can be brought back to life.

The whole book is insane. It presents itself as (at least partially) nonfiction, but which parts are nonfiction (other than references to real-life PKD novels) and which parts are fiction?

Is “Gloria” merely a plot device?

I first read “VALIS” (in paperback; I gave my copy to a friend) in 2008. The whole thing about a female friend committing suicide and giving Phil/Fat a nervous breakdown resonated quite strongly with me at the time.

I mentioned this event obliquely in another blog post, and I am not going to go into any detail here, other than to say that grief related to her quite untimely death is the principal reason I have yet to return to South Korea.

Suffice it to say that my co-worker was not the first person I had been rather close to who committed suicide.

As a matter of fact, I wrote something that could be called a “book” following this first suicide and shared it with a handful of friends. I have it saved on an old external hard drive, and out of curiosity I did a word count on it after I began writing this post.

The word count of this “book” is 82,792. I didn’t realize how long it was. It’s actually longer than my novel, which ended up being about 79,000 words.

The first “book” was written mainly as a sort of therapy; it was never edited, or for that matter even collated into a single document. It did me a lot of good to write it, and I am grateful to the people who read it.

It has not been – and will not be – published. Sorry.

Like I said, though, it was quite therapeutic. I finished it in early 2011, five or six months before my coworker hanged himself. So I guess it’s good I wrote it when I did, otherwise I might have gone full-blown Horselover Fat and started writing exegeses and Cryptica Scripturas and whatnot.

I don’t do any “uppers” stronger than coffee and energy drinks, though. Something else to consider, re PKD, is that long-term amphetamine abuse – regardless as to whether it gives one strokes or heart trouble – often leads to psychosis.

So, yeah, remember that, kids: don’t do drugs.

What led to this rather unpleasant little stroll down memory lane? I will tell you:

I got to searching for a collection of home-recorded “songs” I made in 2010 on my computer, and I couldn’t find them. I thought that I had copies of them on my current computer (which I bought in 2015), but apparently I was mistaken.

After spending an hour or two digging through CDs, looking for a copy of this collection, I looked on an old external hard drive, where I (luckily) found all the “songs” I was looking for.

While I was exploring the external hard drive, I also happened to look at a few pictures I took in 2008 of the bigger house I mentioned.

And so on.

Thank you for reading, if anyone read all of this. I will try to avoid this sort of unpleasant subject matter in the future.

PIZZA SURVIVOR — A FARCE

Imagine, if you will, four friends traveling across the countryside on an adventure. These four friends – all adults of legal age – have known each other since childhood. Like any group of friends, they have disagreements from time to time, but these disagreements usually resolve themselves of their own accord and never cause any real friction within the group.

This group consists of two men and two women. There has never been any romantic involvement between any two members of this group at any point during the group’s existence. The friendship among this mixed group of four is and always been strictly platonic, and despite what the reader or anyone else may imagine to the contrary, there has never been the slightest inkling toward anything romantic or sexual directed at any member of the group from any other member of the group.

They are, all four of them, just friends.

There is only one issue which causes this group of four genuine and lifelong friends any friction whatsoever, and while this issue may seem silly to anyone outside the group, rest assured that there are legitimate reasons this issue is so important to the members of this group. However, these reasons are so convoluted and arcane that it would require many thousands of words to accurately describe them, and even if these reasons were to be fleshed out on the page (or on the screen, or what have you) they would likely not make any sense whatsoever to anyone outside of this group of four friends.

These reasons are important to the four friends, and silly though it may seem to anyone else, the beliefs these friends have regarding this one seemingly trivial issue are so strong that any time this issue is brought up, heated arguments ensue.

As a matter of fact, this one adventure these four friends are on now is the first such adventure the four of them have undertaken together in several years. This long estrangement was due, mainly, to an unresolved argument regarding the aforementioned issue, and to repeat yet again, this issue may very well seem silly and frivolous and trivial to anyone outside the group, nonetheless within the group itself, this issue is anything but.

The issue is pizza.

Yes, it seems insane – and it very well may be – that four lifelong friends could come to blows and not talk to each other for literally years at a time over something as seemingly insignificant as pizza (what toppings to put on it, what type of crust is best, etc.), nonetheless the dispute over pizza among these four genuine, lifelong friends is an ongoing one, and one that they – all four of them – purposefully estranged themselves from each other over for several years preceding the adventure we find them on now:

Jill, Hillary, Gary, and Donald, after a long day of traveling and sightseeing and joking around and generally having a great time together, have found themselves in a small town in the middle of nowhere. The four of them, having been physically active all day and only eating a light breakfast and lunch, are all very hungry. It’s after 10 pm, and the only lights on anywhere in this small town in the middle of nowhere are in a small pizzeria on the edge of the town square.

Before the four of them go in, they have a short discussion regarding the issue that is weighing heavily on their hearts, that the good times they have been sharing on this adventure shouldn’t be ruined by their having to face the one issue they can’t agree upon – pizza – that they will simply order four personal-sized pizzas, eat them quietly without criticizing each other, then leave the pizzeria and find somewhere to sleep for the night.

The four of them – after circling the town square a few times to make sure there isn’t anywhere else open (even a convenience store) where they could grab a bite before bed – reluctantly start toward the pizzeria.

On the sidewalk outside the pizzeria, there’s a man lying on his side, moaning in what sounds like agony.

“What a bum,” Donald says.

“Really,” Gary replies. “There is nothing worse than a grown man who has no respect for himself.”

“I…I’m not a bum,” the man replies. “I…own…successful business…couple towns ov–” then the man begins violently retching upon the concrete.

Donald and Gary, disgusted, enter the pizzeria, discussing things like “personal responsibility” and “self-respect” and how “bums” like this fellow are “leeches on society” and that sort of thing.

Hillary and Jill take slightly more pity on the moaning, retching fellow. They ask him if there is anything they can do to help him, and after retching and moaning for another ten seconds or so, the man says “ambulance” and then retches some more. There is a phone on the sidewalk beside him, and the sound of an ambulance siren is just barely audible off in the distance, and Hillary and Jill assume that he has already called for help.

The man seems to be trying to tell them something, trying to warn them about something, even – he is grasping at pant legs and has a pleading tone in his voice, etc. – but before he can say anything other than “don’t” and “pep” (because of all the retching), Donald opens the door.

“Hurry up and come in here, ladies,” Donald says. “The pizza chef is about to close up for the night, and if you don’t get in here now, you don’t get to eat!”

Hillary and Jill note that the ambulance siren off in the distance seems to have gotten a little closer, and though they feel pity and concern for the moaning, retching man on the sidewalk, and though he now appears to have trouble breathing, they reason that as they are not medical professionals, there’s nothing they can do for him, and there’s apparently an ambulance on the way, and so on, and long story short Hillary and Jill go into the pizzeria and sit down at the table Donald and Gary have chosen.

The four of them are the only customers in the pizzeria, other than a young couple in the back corner who seem to have fallen asleep at their table.

The inside of the pizzeria is dimly lit, and there is an odd smell, and the atmosphere seems like less of a dimly-lit romantic Italian ristorante sort of atmosphere and like more of a dimly-lit B-movie “this is where everybody in the picture gets brutally murdered” sort of atmosphere. Everyone in the group notices this, but they all attribute it to their being tired and hungry, and none of them mentions it to anyone, and they revive the jocularity they enjoyed during the day and order something to drink.

When the waitress brings their drinks – four ice cold root beers in frosty mugs, a perfect beverage to top off a perfect day, everyone agrees – she informs them that there is only enough pizza dough left in the kitchen for the chef to make one large pizza. The waitress adds, somewhat cryptically, that “personal sized pizzas” are not allowed in this pizzeria, and to please not mention them again.

The four friends’ jocularity is suspended, and they all silently gaze down at the menus in front of them, realizing that the one issue that has bitterly divided their tightly-knit group many times over the years – the pizza issue – will have to be settled to some degree this evening.

They also – all four of them – notice something exceedingly odd printed at the bottom of each page of the menu:

“Do not order more than you can eat. Wasting food is a crime against Nature and the Supreme Being. Customers who do not finish their meals will be shot.”

The waitress says she will be back in a couple minutes to take their order, and she walks away.

“Ha. Did you guys see this disclaimer at the bottom of the menu? About customers who don’t finish their meals?” Donald asks the table. “I like a man who is confident about his product. It shows spunk, it shows panache, it shows that the owner of this place is a winner and not some loser like that bum out on the sidewalk. I’m going to remember that, that is creative marketing right there, ladies and gentleman.”

Before anyone can respond, the sound of a pump-action shotgun being shucked comes from over near the door. The four friends turn and see that a burly fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs is now standing in front of the door, facing the table, holding what appears to be a sawed-off 12-gauge across his chest.

Donald, Jill, and Hillary are all somewhat taken aback at this new development, and at first so is Gary, but after noticing that no one else noticed him flinching, and after noticing that the burly fellow is only standing there by the door and not actually pointing his sawed-off 12-gauge at anyone, Gary laughs and tells his three friends that they are all “pussies,” and that this one time when he was riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest with a pack of wild cheetahs chasing him, a Sherpa guide brandished a shotgun more or less exactly like that one at him, and he stopped his ten-speed, confronted the shotgun-wielding Sherpa, and even though the Sherpa – who was envious of the ten-speed which Gary had earned through hard work and a dedication to self-improvement and individuality and that sort of thing and wanted to steal it (the ten-speed) from him – actually managed to “wing” Gary, Gary tells the table, Gary was able to wrestle the shotgun away from the Sherpa and suplex this Sherpa over the side of a cliff, which by this time the pack of wild cheetahs had caught up to him, and he had to fight them all off bare-handed – he was only able to kill one with the shotgun (it was a double-barreled shotgun, and one shot had already been expended upon him) – and after a long, arduous battle there on the side of Mt. Everest with approximately seventeen wild cheetahs in which Gary eventually came out the victor, and “other than a scratch or two” (Gary proudly flopped his right leg up onto the table to show everyone a rather nasty-looking scar that he claimed still had most of a cheetah tooth broken off somewhere inside of it) he came out of the fracas unscathed. After he related the end of his tale, in which he tamed a ferocious grizzly bear merely by speaking kindly to it and then rode on the bear’s back up to the summit of Mt. Everest and then back down to the base, beating his bare chest with his fists the entire time, Gary reiterated that just because an intimidating-looking fellow of about 6’8” and 300 lbs was standing in front of the door with a shotgun here at this dimly-lit pizzeria that smelled sort of like the back room of a mortuary with menus that threatened death for anyone who didn’t finish their pizza, that was no reason for anyone to be upset, and that he wasn’t really surprised that the female half of the group was concerned about the situation (men being, to his view, the stronger, more resilient half of the species) but that the other male in the group should have the “balls” to not be afraid of a mere sawed-off 12-gauge, when he (Gary) had bravely endured not only shotguns but packs of cheetahs and grizzly bears, all while riding his ten-speed up the side of Mt. Everest.

“I’m not a pussy,” Donald began, the register of his voice a good bit lower than it had been just a few minutes ago. Before he could continue in his artificially-deepened voice, the waitress returned to the table.

“Are you guys ready to order?” the waitress asked. She seemed sort of nervous, but as everybody at the table was again preoccupied with the pizza issue, nobody paid any attention to it.

“Would it be possible to split the pizza four ways?” Jill asked. “I mean, like a quarter ham, a quarter Canadian bacon, a quarter ground beef, and a quarter pepperoni?”

It would be prudent at this point to discuss the individual pizza topping preferences of the four friends:

Donald’s favorite pizza topping is pepperoni. Hillary’s favorite pizza topping is ground beef. Gary’s favorite pizza topping is Canadian bacon, and Jill’s favorite pizza topping is ham.

The issue as to whether Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing is but one of many issues that has bitterly divided this group over the years, and the arguments presented for and against this issue would require several thousand words to transcribe. Jill and Gary – obviously – strongly disagree that Canadian bacon and ham are actually the exact same thing, and after verbally fighting tooth and nail against each other for hours over the matter, they are known to combine their vitriol and direct it against Hillary when she inevitably tries to get them both to concede that at the very least Canadian bacon and ham are quite similar. Donald finds the whole argument amusing, and tends to drop well-timed comments which alternately support both sides in order to egg on the conflict and amuse himself.

At any rate, the waitress informs them that no, this four-way splitting of the pizza will not be possible.

“The pizza chef is,” the waitress begins, “a deeply religious man.” She seems to be reciting something from memory: “His religion, is, um…his religion is single–”

The waitress’s recitation is cut short by a loud clanging sound from back in the kitchen, one which prompts the waitress to visibly flinch.

“His religion is singular, I meant to say,” she continues, “In that he is the only adherent of it. I am unworthy of such a faith, but…” she pauses, “but I espy– ”

More clanging, as if someone were hitting a stack of pizza pans with a sledgehammer, emerges from the kitchen, again causing the waitress to visibly flinch.

“…but I aspire to one day be worthy of aspiring to such a noble faith,” the waitress said.

The four friends at the table – all of whom respect the right of every individual to worship or not worship whoever or whatever they wish in whichever fashion they wish (Donald having, nonetheless, something of an aversion to anything and everything Islamic) – are nonetheless taken somewhat aback at the things the waitress is telling them about the pizza chef and his “singular” religion. The pizza chef, it seems, worships a Supreme Being who expresses Himself – the repeated use of “Him,” “His,” and “He” (the capitalization of these pronouns being easily inferred) indicating to everyone at the table that this Supreme Being envisioned by the pizza chef is, in fact, male – through the medium of pizza. And that he – the pizza chef (note that the most recent “he” is not capitalized) – is the vessel through which this Supreme Being expresses Himself.

One odd aspect of this “singular” religion, one which strikes everyone at the table as somewhat ironic, is that the “Supreme Being” worshiped by the pizza chef has given the pizza chef one unalterable commandment regarding the medium – pizza – through which the will of this “Supreme Being” is expressed: at no time, and under no circumstances, would the “Supreme Being” tolerate more than one topping on any one pizza the pizza chef makes. Therefore, according to will of the “Supreme Being,” the concept of a “supreme pizza” is an abomination.

It occurs to everyone at the table – being that all four of them have something of a talent for marketing – that the pizza chef could potentially be making quite a lot of money by using his religion as a gimmick and selling “Supreme Being Pizzas” and that sort of thing. Donald mentions this to the waitress, who responds with silence and a horrified look on her face.

There are, however, certain aspects of the pizza chef’s religion that appeal to the group: part of the reason that the pizza chef (or the Supreme Being, or whatever) allows only one topping on a pizza – and also one pizza to a table – is to promote unity among friends and family. One topping must be agreed upon, one and only one topping – it doesn’t matter which topping, but there has to be one, and “cheese” doesn’t count – before the Supreme Being would deign to commune with the group of family or friends at the table through the divine medium of freshly-baked hand-tossed Italian-style pizza created by the sole arbiter and vessel of the Supreme Being’s will, the pizza chef.

There was one other stipulation: if the group of friends or family dining at any given table at this pizzeria could not decide which of the many flavorful and delicious toppings to have on their pizza, the will of the Supreme Being dictates that the topping will default to pepperoni.

The four friends look at the long list of toppings – Jill and Gary feeling somewhat vindicated because of the fact that both “ham” and “Canadian bacon” appear on the list – and ask the waitress to please give them a minute. The waitress says that will be fine, and while she is saying “I will be back in a few minutes” she turns her back to the kitchen, scribbles something rather frantically on her notepad, tears off the top page, and nonchalantly places it on the table in front of Hillary before she walks back to the kitchen.

As Donald, Jill, and Gary discuss the pizza chef’s singular faith, Hillary picks up the slip of paper, the top left corner of which is apparently still on the notepad the slip came off of. In shaky, all-caps, Hillary is able to read this message:

“ERONI POYSIN
DONT EAT ANY
THNG ELSE OK”

Hillary attempts to show the note to her companions – they were talking among themselves about how interesting the pizza chef’s marketing strategy was – remembering the retching man on the sidewalk who had managed to choke out “don’t” and “pep” before she and Jill left him on the sidewalk for the ambulance to pick up…

And she realizes for the first time since she came in that the ambulance she and Jill had heard in the distance had never come, that the man on the sidewalk hadn’t called it after all, like she and Jill had assumed.

Hillary looks around the dining room of the pizzeria. The young couple in the back corner who appear to have fallen asleep at their table don’t seem to have moved at all since she and her three friends came in.

Neither of the two young people – neither of them could have been over 20 years old – appear to be breathing.

As Hillary turns back around to her friends, a muffled sort of scream emanates from the kitchen area. The screaming stops after a slight clanging sound – like pizza pans falling off of a counter – and a series of dull thumps – thumps that sound like someone hitting a side of beef with a sledgehammer – travel through the strange-smelling air between the kitchen and the dining room.

The four friends sit in silence for a few seconds. “You guys,” Gary says, his voice trembling, “what was that sound? It sounded like–”

“I vas tenderizing ze beef for tomorrow’s pizzas,” says a small man in a black apron who appears more or less out of nowhere. “Ze vaitress, she has gone home for ze evening. I am ze chef here. Vy name ist Heinrich. I vas named for mein great grandfazza.”

The man is fairly short – just over five feet tall – and he has neatly combed white hair, bright blue eyes, and a pleasant smile. “Have ze fine ladies und gentlemen decided vhich topping zey vill have?”

The man’s appearance sets Jill, Gary, and Donald somewhat at ease.

“No, I’m afraid not, Heinrich,” Jill begins. “Hillary wants ground beef, I want ham, Gary wants Canadian bacon, and Donald wants pepperoni.”

“I regret to inform ze lady zat zere ist no ham available tonight,” Heinrich says. “Ve are, as zey say, fresh out.”

“What about Canadian bacon?” Gary asked, his voice again evoking what he imagines to be rugged masculinity.

Heinrich smiles, with what Hillary and Donald both interpret as knowing condescension: “Yes,” Heinrich says, “I am afraid zat ve are out of zat topping as vell. Everyzing else ist, as zey say, still in fresh supply.”

“Well, if I understand the policy here, Heinie,” Donald begins, “If we can’t decide what topping we want, you just give us pepperoni, right?”

“Zat ist correct,” Heinrich replies. “Und let me assure ze fine ladies und gentlemen zat it ist pepperoni of ze highest quality.”

“I’m sure it is, Heinie,” Donald says. “I’m sure it’s some really luxurious pepperoni, my friend. And I just want to compliment you on your business here, I really like the whole marketing approach, the whole ‘Supreme Being’ shtick, I just think it’s fantastic.”

Heinrich’s smile does not wane in the slightest, but his eyes seem to betray a slight inner hardening of his demeanor as he says, “Let me assure ze gentleman zat mein Gott ist no, as you say, shtick.”

“That’s great, Heinie, just great,” Donald replies, then turns back to his friends: “Well, guys, it sounds like pepperoni, huh?” Donald positively radiates triumph over the fact that the inability of his friends to agree on a pizza topping essentially guarantees that his choice of topping will be the one they are all forced – quite literally at gunpoint – to eat.

“Could you just give us a minute to discuss this, Heinrich?” Hillary asks.

“Of course, madame,” Heinrich replies. “I vill be back in, as zey say, two shakes of ze lamb’s tail.”

“I just think he’s fantastic,” Jill says.

“His accent is scary,” Gary offers, wiping his nose with the back of his hand.

“I bet that’s some real luxurious pepperoni,” Donald says.

“Guys, I think that pepperoni is poisoned,” Hillary says. “I think this whole restaurant is a death trap, and I think that guy Heinrich is a psychopath.”

The three of them laugh.

“Look at this note!” Hillary says, and shows them the note the waitress had given her.

“I can’t even read that,” Donald says.

“Look at that sloppy handwriting,” Jill says.

“That waitress writes like a pussy,” Gary says.

“Jill,” Hillary says, “don’t you remember the sick man on the sidewalk?”

“You mean that bum?” Donald interrupts.

“Proper penmanship is one key aspect of personal responsibility,” Gary says.

“When he wasn’t vomiting, he said ‘don’t’ and ‘pep’!” Hillary says. “Didn’t you hear that, Jill?”

“Well, I…” Jill replies.

“Probably hopped up on pep pills,” Donald says.

“People like that are pathetic,” Gary begins. “It’s like Ayn Rand always said…”

“LOOK AT THE COUPLE IN THE BACK CORNER, YOU IDIOTS! THEY’RE FLIPPING DEAD! THEY ATE THE POISON PEPPERONI AND NOW THEY’RE DEAD!” Hillary shouts.

“No need to act like a fanatic,” Gary says, his voice slightly quivering again.

“Must be that time of the month,” Donald says.

“You’re letting your emotions control you, Hillary,” Jill says.

“Are ve veady to order?” Heinrich says, again seeming to appear out of nowhere.

Out of frustration, Hillary presses the heels of her hands against her temples and puts her elbows on the table. “Anything but pepperoni,” she says.

“Ham,” Jill says.

“Canadian bacon,” Gary says.

“They’re the same FLIPPING THING!” Hillary says.

“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.

“Let me remind ze lady and ze gentleman zat ve are out of ze ham.”

Jill and Gary glare at Heinrich.

“…und ve are also out of ze Canadian bacon.”

“Yes,” Jill says, straightening up in her seat. “I know that you are out of ham, and I know that it is completely and utterly pointless and absurd for me to order ham, and that there is no eventuality whatsoever in which my ordering ham here in this pizzeria tonight will result in ham being put on the pizza that is brought to my table, because as I have been told there is no ham and therefore no possibility of ham being on my pizza, nonetheless, my conscience tells me that I should order ham anyway. I know full well that when I order ham – even if there were ham here in the pizzeria tonight, which it is a well-established fact that there isn’t any – that what I am essentially doing is ordering pepperoni – because of the rules you have here in your pizzeria, Heinrich – but these irrefutable and indisputable facts do not deter me in the slightest from doing what I feel I must do: order ham. I feel it is my duty to order ham, because I like ham, and I think ham is the best pizza topping, and even though there is no chance in hell – or for that matter heaven or Earth – that ordering ham tonight will lead to my being served ham on my pizza, and that ordering ham when I know this to be a fact is essentially an egotistical and foolish exercise in futility, I must follow my conscience and order ham anyway. I will have ham on my pizza, Heinrich, ham, I say!”

Gary stands up, clapping with vigorous aplomb. Tears are streaming down his face. “That was beautiful, Jill. I couldn’t have said it better myself. I mean, I probably could have said it better because I’m a rugged, manly man – these are rugged, manly tears streaming down my rugged, manly cheeks, by the way – and you’re just a dumb, frightened girl, but still, I agree with you a hundred percent on this. Except for me it’s Canadian bacon.”

“They’re the exact same thing,” Hillary says under her breath.

“NO THEY’RE NOT!” Jill and Gary shout in unison.

“Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. You’re being very immature, Hillary,” Donald says, then hands his menu to Heinrich. “You know what I’m having, Heinie.”

“Ze pepperoni it vill be, zen,” Heinrich says. “I hope ze ladies and gentlemen vill enjoy.”

“We’re all going to die here,” Hillary says.

“Stop being so emotional,” Jill says.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Gary says.

Hillary glares at Gary, who seems to shrink in his seat a little.

After a few minutes – fewer than one would think it would take to bake a pizza; Heinrich had apparently anticipated the outcome of the squabble over toppings ahead of time, and had done so correctly – the pizza is brought out, and Donald, Jill, and Gary eat heartily.

Hillary does not.

“Real good pepperoni, Hill, real luxurious,” Donald says several times.

After about ten minutes, Donald, Jill, and Gary begin to feel ill. They look at each other, noticing a greenish bluish sort of tinge in their faces. They look at Hillary, and notice that she does not have this sickly color in her face, although she does appear rather pale.

After about twenty minutes, the three of them fall over, moaning, clutching their stomachs in pain, retching violently all over the floor.

Hillary remains still, her elbows on the table, the heels of her hands pressed against her temples.

She hears footsteps behind her.

“Ze lady ist not eating her pizza,” Heinrich says, a playful sort of malevolence in his voice.

“You killed my friends,” Hillary says.

“Ja,” Heinrich replies. “Und now I vill kill you as vell. Come, Werner. Ze lady needs, as zey say, motivation.”

Werner shucks his shotgun.