Pictures Worth a Thousand Kavanaughs

Today, September 28, 2018, at 1:30PM, the Senate will vote whether or not to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.

This has obviously been a very large and newsy type issue with many think-pieces flying on all sides; some having gone so far as to declare the Kavanaugh hearings and impending nomination a watershed moment in American politics. At the very least current news events of this magnitude tend to take on a form that is larger than life. They are, dare I say, symbolic.

I spent a good deal of time watching the hearings yesterday. More time than I probably should have.

First, Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s accuser, came forward with allegations that when they were teenagers Kavanaugh drunkenly pinned her to a bed and attempted to rape her but was thwarted in his attempt by another boy, Mark Judge, a friend of Kavanaugh’s, who jokingly jumped on the two of them and toppled the group of them onto the floor, giving Ford time to escape the room, which had been locked.

Ford’s testimony was emotional and heartfelt—obviously symbolic for many women in America who have undergone similar experiences.

Then it was Kavanaugh’s turn. Kavanaugh had previously and unequivocally denied Ford’s allegations, plus those of two other women, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnik, each with their own stories of Kavanaugh’s behavior, but with less consensus in the media as to their credibility.

Since the hearing there seems to be more discussion of Kavanaugh’s testimony in the media, more disagreement as to its merits, as to what it symbolized, etc. Kavanaugh, a usually very mild-mannered person in his many years of public life, was, as you might expect, visibly shaken and angry—either because he was an innocent man wrongly accused of heinous acts or a guilty man rightly accused of heinous acts, on the grandest and most public stage imaginable.

Today the internet is a broiling cauldron of spicy hot-takes in re the Kavanaugh hearings. If you want to find an opinion out there on the internet that matches your own, surely you know where to find it. Or if you want to do some rage reading that calls out all the bleating zombie sheep on the other side, you know where to find that too.

I am not as interested in what the Kavanaugh hearings represent as I am in how the media talks about big events, and how the average viewer or reader’s access to these events is conditioned by the selective use of information or lack of information, and how the internet reinforces over and over the perpetuations of memes or story-lines which are marketed to us based on our taste for certain brands or flavors of media.

In 2014 Pew Research put out one of my favorite charts of all time. It’s a snapshot of the ideological makeup of some of the world’s largest and most influential media outlets:

pewpic
Pew Research

I decided to do a little experiment after the Kavanaugh hearings. Rather than pour through every article across the ideological spectrum and painstakingly piece together the logic of each position, usually with futile results, as is my usual wont, I decided to simply take the leading headlines and corresponding pictures of Kavanaugh, following the chart above, to see how each spot on the ideological spectrum was telling the story at a visual, gut level.

The results were… interesting.

  1. Breitbart
breitbart
Breitbart

2. The Blaze

theblaze
The Blaze

3. Drudge

drudge
The Drudge Report

4. Fox News

fox news
Fox News

5. The Wall Street Journal

wsj
The Wall Street Journal

6. NBC News

nbc news
NBC News

7. MSNBC

msnbc
MSNBC

8. New York Times

nyt
New York Times

9. Buzzfeed

buzzfeed
Buzzfeed

10. Slate

slate
Slate

11. The New Yorker

newyorker
The New Yorker

Is it just me or does Kavanaugh become more meek the further right you go and more menacing the further left you go?

I don’t know what the overall takeaway from this experiment is. Surely it adds little to the specifics in re the allegations against Kavanaugh, or his impending nomination.

But probably that’s up to you to decide.

Maybe it surprised you. Maybe it didn’t. In either case, it’s interesting to see how editorial decisions are made, how a public personae can be molded to fit a narrative through images so that, wherever we lie on the continuum, we can rest assured, thank goodness, that we have the one true gospel.

 

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Get off my lawn

I live basically in a suburban town, somewhat out in the country, with a lot of farmland and neighborhoods that are sprawling between long country roads, etc.

In other words where I live most people aren’t plugged into high culture that is produced in cities. Other than popular entertainment, which also is produced in cities, the people where I live center their lives around more simple expressions of humanity, if I can put it that way. Sometimes it feels like being in a time capsule, because although I do live out here, I am plugged into the bastions of high culture and intellectualism. I read The New Yorker, for example and The Atlantic. And it is, to a certain extent, a schizoid existence. Many political and/or cultural upheavals that have recently been brought to the surface have really hit home for me because I think I am a somewhat, although not totally, extinct form of human being that lives in two worlds and can see or at least conceptualize the inconsistencies and the paradoxes that live between these worlds, that distort and otherwise make communication between the worlds next to impossible.

One of my least favorite conventions to come out of Hollywood and other places of high culture is the supposedly insightful critique of American suburbia. Most of these retread the same ground that was first walked by Sinclair Lewis in his greatest novel, Main Street, in which the main character Carol Kennicot is endlessly tormented by the bleak reality of living in a rural community, when she herself is inwardly craving culture and the heights of human progress.

It’s an old story.

But unlike Sinclair Lewis, most of these more recent depictions tend in the direction of either deliberate farce or they’re just unfair. Although it’s true that rural and suburban communities do have unique problems and are not always perfectly amenable, most of these depictions are overblown. Wherever human beings congregate there will also be neuroses and pathology. And there are not nearly as many critiques of city life coming from a person who lives out in the country or suburbs, probably because who would finance such a thing? Is there a suburban equivalent to the NYT? And where would this perspective come from and how would it arise? Most country people do not go to the city, etc.

Here is one example of one such annoying hot take in which Michael Pollan, a Harvard Professor of journalism, critiques, of all things—wait for it…

Front lawns.

Now his critique has some truth in it. Although, gosh, Pollan, like so many of his cohorts in this manner, is such an unwitting asshole that, in my opinion, it neutralizes whatever point he might have.

Pollan says Americans spend no time on their front lawns. Has he personally been to every neighborhood in America? I have a front lawn. I’ve spent all kinds of time on front lawns. All the kids in the neighborhood. We played on our front lawns constantly. They are usually better shaped than backyards for games of wiffle ball or stick ball. And you can use the street, too, for an outfield if you happened to live on a street that isn’t very busy.

To me, Pollan’s take on lawns is deeply ironic. As if humans congregating together in giant asphalt super-structures is any more natural than having a patch of grass to play wiffle ball on in the front of your house? Cities are just as deeply weird. If an alien came down to a city and saw how many people in little concrete boxes are living on top of each other, you don’t think there would be anything to note? Of course it all depends on how the aliens live…

Maybe I just hate intellectuals. They think that because they’ve read a book on something that they actually know it. If something occurs to them as a little funny, a little weird, from their one-bedroom studio apartment in the West Village, they dispatch it with the utmost confidence that it’s not complete horseshit, that it isn’t simply the bloviating, fart-smelling, incontinence of a deranged human brain that needs a little sunlight, a little fresh air.

The Atlantic web-page that houses the original video prefaces Pollan’s take by using a neat little example of what I highlighted above:

In the opening scene of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a man mows his front lawn. It’s a quintessentially American sight: freshly-hewn grass, blue skies, vibrant flowers, a white picket fence. Then, the man collapses. The camera follows him to the ground, where, just beneath the earth, a grotesque scene emerges—the grass is teeming with insects. Underlying this manicured suburban idyll is a sinister, chaotic underworld.

     Just as Lynch exposed the underbelly of suburbia in middle America, Michael Pollan reveals the irony of its most prominent institution: the front lawn.

Oh boy, the underbelly of suburban America. Everybody watch out.

I don’t know how they crank this stuff out.

What’s funny is, like I said before, nobody out here in middle American gives two shits about what Michael Pollan or David Lynch says about anything. Well okay. Some do. But most don’t and will find their information and/or entertainment from people who do not despise them as much as these luminaries of our time. These towering bastions of insight and carefully cultivated fart smelling.

The deeper question which underlies all this contemplation about lawns, suburbs vs cities, etc, is what is the right environment for a human being to flourish in? It’s not an easy question to answer. As Pollan points out, we mostly evolved on grasslands and so many people favor that environment. And if I may invoke a little prognostication of my own, ahem, I’m sure Pollan and many intellectuals who live in cities, view their city dwelling as a triumph over their evolutionary desire for a more natural environment. So many natural desires need to be suppressed in order for society to flourish. What could be a more clear picture of that than the modern day city? A towering middle finger to nature, entirely constructed by man, in which each resident sees and lives in only what has been manufactured. Besides perhaps a small block of sky over their heads. This is quite the image for me. I’m not sure you could make a case that it is more natural than anything, really. Strictly speaking, a city is very unnatural.

And I can conjure up an artistic image just like David Lynch’s. Imagine a city and all that goes on there. Now imagine one man, let’s say he’s a lowly worker type who doesn’t subscribe to The Atlantic or read Michael Pollan books, who lives in a 300 sq ft apartment. He might work right on the street, and say a small sink hole opens up and he falls through into the sewer, and say he falls to his death and dies in the sewer. What do you think his dead body finds there? The sum total of 8 million people shitting into underground streams. The concentrated filth of humanity. He falls to his death in what is perhaps a far worse reflection of human conceit and hypocrisy, or at least pride.

Let me tell you from first hand experience that the cultivation of a lawn is actually a very minute and fine art. It is not as simple as mowing. There are many different kinds of grass and weeds, and the ability to make your lawn your own sometimes takes many months of experimentation and visits to your local hardware store.

Ultimately the art of lawn care is about balance. The beauty of lawn care is that it represents man living in relative harmony with nature. We do not pave over our lawns, and yet we do not let our grass grow out of control, making it uninhabitable, but instead we take care to strike the right harmony. Far from some symbol of American hypocrisy, I believe the lawn is a symbol of interaction and of symbiosis.

My own yard for instance is on a slope and is near a small stream, which means that the extra moisture which runs into my yard must be managed in a way that is healthy for the grass and also somewhat habitable for my kids and dog to play in. With this moisture also comes a weed which is called nutsedge, a long grass-like weed that grows at about three times the pace of normal grass, and has to be dealt with, otherwise there will be high-lighted green splotches all along the areas where moisture builds up, attracting mosquitoes and other insects as well.

This means that I, as the owner of a piece of land, am ultimately answerable to nature as the backdrop for these challenges. The angle from which I tackle these problems is the age old picture of man having to contend with something much larger than himself, from which he came, and from which he will eventually return. My care for the ground I walk on does not represent some deeply ingrained hypocrisy, it is a love of the land I own and the mental practice of cultivating a relationship to it rather than disregarding or fleeing from it. You could think of it as the balance between chaos and order.

City people have a hard time relating to this experience. Whenever there is a problem, even in their own apartment, since they most often rent that place and do not own it, they call the super. Some guy in coveralls to fix it for them. Now, that is a modern symbol of something. But owning a house and a piece of land means that responsibility ultimately falls on you. Unless you want to pay for it, you can’t simply call a super or have someone else come take care of your problems. You take care of it yourself.

So with all due respect to Pollan, Lynch, and Lewis, et al—

Get off my lawn.

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 4

Men of History

Ms Bingham had a reputation for being fun but also firm. The two main ingredients in her classroom philosophy were love and a well-constructed system of rules. That’s how to create the ideal learning environment. You had to take control, but lovingly. Not like her own 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Bardsky. No. There was an example of a women who was all firmness and zero fun.

On Ms Bingham’s desk was a new piece of curriculum, one that she’d helped design as part of her graduate thesis. The piece of curriculum was wrapped in shiny black plastic wrap. She opened the packet. Inside there were no papers or directions or outlines but a tightly folded inflatable doll which began to auto-inflate—a life-size replica of Adolf Hitler.

Carefully Ms. Bingham placed the doll on her desk so that it would be one of the first things the students saw when they came into the classroom. She was nervous about the potential effectiveness of the curriculum, probably it was going a little overboard, but, on the other hand, is there really such a thing as too much of a good thing? This was a fun opportunity! No boring lectures for her students! She was going to be a part of something new and exciting.

Her heart began to flutter as her first students walked in. Finally she was a real teacher. Innocently they eyed the doll standing on the desk with some trepidation. She smiled and greeted each one.

“My name is Ms Bingham. What’s yours, sweetie?”

“Rachel.”

“I love your dress.”

“What’s that on your desk?”

“We’re going to learn about World War II today.”

“Oh.”

The rest of the class came in and sat down. The bell rang and the principal’s voice came on the intercom, instructing the school to stand for the pledge of allegiance. The students stood and Ms. Bingham tried to model what an impassioned pledge looked like: straight posture, hand over heart, and an extra enunciated voice emphasizing the right beats. But most of the students in the class couldn’t concentrate on the flag or Ms. Bingham because there was an inflatable Hitler standing on their teacher’s desk.

“Okay, class. My name is Ms Bingham, your teacher for the 4th grade. I’m very excited to have you all in class. We’re going to take attendance but first many of you may be wondering what’s on my desk. I’m very excited to annouce that we are a part of a very special group. Central Public has been selected to try a new way of learning. Does anybody know who this man is?” Ms Bingham said.

“Hitler,” one boy in the back row said.

“Rule number one in my class: we raise our hands to be called on. What’s your name?” Ms Bingham said.

“Chuck,” the boy said.

“I don’t see any Chuck on my attendance sheet,” Ms Bingham said. “Would you be Charles Ackerman?”

“Yes,” Chuck said.

“Then let’s try again. Please raise your hand for me to call on you,” Ms Bingham said. Chuck rolled his eyes. “Is there a problem?”

“No,” Chuck said.

“Then raise your hand.”

Chuck raised his hand.

“Yes, Charles,” Ms Bingham said. “Do you know who this man is?”

“Adolf Hitler,” Chuck said.

“Very good,” Ms. Bingham said. “Today we’re going to be learning about World War II, but first please make a single file line in front of my desk.” Ms Bingham placed the inflatable Hitler on the ground, and the students made a line in front of it.“Now I will call on each of you one at a time and I want you to come up towards the front of the room and name something that makes you angry. It could be anything. Has a friend ever been mean to you? That’s something you could name. Or have you ever been in trouble for something you didn’t do? That’s another good example.”

The kids looked at each other in disbelief.

“Jenny Aarons,” Ms Bingham said. Jenny walked up front. “Tell us something that makes you mad.”

Jenny stood for a moment and thought. “My dog has bad breath,” she said and the class laughed.

“Ha, ha, that’s a cute one! Go ahead and give Hitler a whack,” Ms. Bingham said. “And think about how nasty your dog’s breath is while you do it.”

Jenny closed her eyes and punched inflatable Hitler. It bounced all the way to the ground and then back up.

“Can I do it again?” Jenny said.

“Everyone gets a turn, dear,” Ms Bingham said.

The students punched Hitler while calling out what made them mad. Down the alphabet the popular themes that began to emerge were: bullies, parents, spelling tests, the war in Afghanistan, and drinking orange juice right after brushing your teeth.

Then it was Ms Bingham’s turn. She punched Hitler and called out, “Mrs Bardsky!”

The kids clapped.

When she was finished Ms Bingham smoothed out the front of her blouse and skirt with her hands, letting out a sigh.

“Now who’s ready to learn about the Vietnam War?” Ms Bingham said.

“Oh—me, me!” The students all raised their hands at the same time.

Ms Bingham took out another package wrapped in black plastic, and, once opened, it also began to auto-inflate. The figure was an old pudgy man in a suit with a long pointed nose.

“Does anyone know who this is?” Ms Bingham said.

“Lyndon Baines Johnson,” Chuck said without raising his hand.

Ms Bingham stopped. The class was silent.

“No,” Ms Bingham said. “This is little boys,” and on the note boys Ms Bingham wailed inflatable LBJ in the face, “who do not raise their hands to be called on!” Ms Bingham said.

LBJ smacked the ground and shot back up again.

“No, I’m pretty sure that’s Lyndon Baines Johnson,” Chuck said.

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Mickey Mouse: Building Character

Once upon a time Mickey Mouse’s name wasn’t Mickey, and he wasn’t a mouse.

In 1927 Walt Disney, then employed by Universal Pictures, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who looked like this:

1929oswald.jpg

Oswald was an immediate hit.

Then in 1928 Disney walked into a contract negotiation with Charles Lint, then president of Universal, thinking that he had all the leverage he needed to negotiate another installment in his favor, but instead Lint informed Disney that he had already hired most of his [Disney’s] employees, retained the rights to Oswald, and was offering to re-hire Disney only if he took a salary cut.

But Lint hadn’t been able to entice one key employee of Disney’s, a man named Ub Iwerks, the sole animator of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And it was Iwerks’s loyalty to Disney that made possible another version of the cartoon, this time conceived during late night meetings between Disney and Iwerks. The cartoon was called Mortimer Mouse, but then changed after much deliberation to Mickey Mouse.

The first two animated shorts featuring Mickey weren’t very impressive to distributors, but the third entitled Steamboat Willie was optioned and premiered in New York on November 18, 1928, and was a success with audiences, in part because of its use of sound which was synchronized with the visual action of the cartoon, using a click track (not an entirely new technique at the time but still a rarity for animation).

Disney was an early adopter of Dr. Herbert Kalmus’s Process 4 technicolor or “three strip” process, producing technicolor shorts such as Silly Symphonies and Flowers and Trees, both of which became hits in the early 1930s. Disney had an exclusive contract with Kalmus extending until September 1935, barring all other animators from using the color technique. On February 23, 1935, seven months before other animators were given access to the technology, Disney produced The Band Concert, the first technicolor short featuring Mickey (and also Donald Duck), debuting to massive success, and is still considered a breakthrough in the history of animation.

Mickey’s look had changed and evolved slightly, going from black & white to color, among other small adjustments, but it was the work of animator Fred Moore throughout the late 1930s that transformed Mickey into his more current and recognizable form—giving the mouse pupils, a tail, white gloves, and his signature red pants.

And it was in this recognizable form that Mickey made his first feature length appearance in 1940 with Fantasia.

It’s with particular interest now that we turn to Fantasia which has puzzled viewers for years, but the meaning of this experimental film becomes clear in light of Mickey’s evolution as a character and his contribution to Disney’s growing empire.

Fantasia was only Disney’s third feature film after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (a huge success) and Pinocchio (not a success), and because of the onset of World Ward II, it [Fantasia] was unable to generate a profit even though the critical response was positive. The story, as explained by Deems Taylor at the beginning of the film, is of the sorcerer’s apprentice, played by Mickey himself:

“It’s a very old story, one that goes back almost 2,000 years—a legend about a sorcerer who had an apprentice. He was a bright young lad, very anxious to learn the business. As a matter of fact, he was a little bit too bright because he started practicing some of the boss’s best magic tricks before learning how to control them. One day, for instance, when he’d been told by his master to carry water to fill a cauldron, he had the brilliant idea of bringing a broomstick to like to carry the water for him. Well, this worked very well at first. Unfortunately, however, having forgotten the magic formula that would make the broomstick stop carrying the water, he found he’d started something he couldn’t finish.”

Here is just about the entirety of Mickey’s brief appearance in Fantasia:

There is no dialogue in Fantasia, only pieces of orchestral music set to the accompanying action of a fairy-tale-like fever dream akin to an acid trip–complete with fawns, fairies, and unicorns–with a barely coherent narrative roughly spanning the mythological and scientific creation of the universe. And the creation of the universe begins once Mickey lets loose this magic of the broomstick that he cannot turn off.

Why am I spending so much time on Fantasia of all Mickey movies?

In Fantasia, for the first time, Mickey Mouse was a clear stand-in for Walt Disney himself. Mickey’s eager seizing of the wizard’s magic tricks is a perfect metaphor for Disney’s use of technology in his films (Steamboat Willie and The Band Concert); the magic broom carries the water to the cauldron as a piece of technology would assist its creator; but when Mickey realizes he cannot turn the broom off his attempts to thwart the broom creates only more brooms, and the cauldron begins overflowing with water, and it’s out of this overflow that the rest of the movie begins to make sense as a creation myth. The overflow creates the universe. Mickey’s foibles reveal the spirit of Disney’s Universe because the spirit of every Universe is equal to its downfall, and in Fantasia Mickey’s flaw is seizing upon magic he doesn’t yet understand so he can dream. And Disney said many times, “There’s a lot of the Mouse in me.”

Mickey Mouse was the first piece of lightning Disney ever caught, financing the early years of animated shorts by treading new ground in sound and color technology, always with Mickey as the tip of the spear, until the 1940s & 50s when Disney began pioneering still a new era of animated feature films and caught many new bolts of lightning (Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, etc.). Mickey then was only a very small part of Disney’s animation, and by the late 1950s & early 60s was all but retired as a character, appearing mostly in cameos or straight-to-video animated shorts. Other than the company’s logo and forever spokesmouse, the once centerpiece of the dynasty fell into the background.

Five years after the release of Fantasia, a 1945 article in the Irish Times wrote of Disney,

“Disney has been called everything from a genius to a philosopher—and denied that he is any of them. As a matter of fact when the English novelist, Aldous Huxley, praised the philosophy of Mickey Mouse cartoons and asked Disney how he arrived at their underlying subtleties, the answer he is reputed to have received was: “Oh, we make pictures for entertainment, and after they are made the professors come along and tell us what they mean!”

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

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The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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