Category Archives: Satire

A Dozen Paths To the End of the World

The-End-of-the-world-as-we-know-itThe number of apocalyptic movies, books, and news items out there led me to consider possibilities not yet fully explored. Too lazy to actually write them, however, I made it only as far as these twelve stand-alone sentences.

1. One of the more comfortable citizens first made an object stone by claiming it, but, by noon the next day, the entire town was solid.

2. Naturally, the last duel had no spectators.

3. Everyone started piling bicycles at the city limits and soon they’d walled themselves in with their only remaining means of escape.

4. For the longest time, the kind-hearted lived in enclaves, but jealousy outside assured they wouldn’t be left alone.

5. Someone else might have known the footprints he followed were his own, yet he noticed only when, too tired to continue, he sat down and examined them closely.

6. Their hairstyles grew so elaborate their necks lacked the strength to lift them.

7. Each bridge began on one shore and ended at its apex, just when building further threatened falling in the river.

8. They could have company, the letter said, if they learned to bake bread that filled the air with enticing smells, but their sort of baking was a gift they wouldn’t give up.

9. No one considered you could do nothing so long that nothing could be done.

10. In the courtyard’s strange echoes, birds seemed to speak in human voices, and soon neighbors, then strangers, stopped working to gather and listen.

11. Had not everyone been whimpering, someone would have quipped the world ended with a bang after all.

12. He sat south of the jetty near shops long looted and empty to watch the sun rise, expecting, any day now, it wouldn’t.

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Filed under Allegory, Ambition, America, Brave New World, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, History, Jeremiads, Kafka, Kurt Vonnegut, Laments, Meditations, Metaphor, Misanthropy, Modern Life, Parables, Parody, Play, Satire, Science Fiction, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Time, Worry

Over: A Fiction

sleeping-handsomeIf the play ended, no one knew it.

Two characters dozed—or the actors pretended to doze—and dialogue slowed to the sort of dripping that holds no rhythm or pattern. Figures standing or sitting in the tableau mumbled and moved fitfully. Maybe they were prompting each other to speak according to the script, but maybe they were just talking, mostly inaudibly. No one left the stage, and the lights remained on it.

By now, many in the audience had walked out, but a surprising number stayed, sitting in the dark and happy enough to waste time doing so. They watched half-heartedly. Some whispered to neighbors, some dozed in parallel with the characters, and others stared at their programs or amused themselves with the devices they’d carried in.

If they’d paid, they might expect more, but no one did pay. They wandered into the theater believing they could be amused or, at the very least, less bored. Though they understood no great actor would appear in a play with no prayer of profit, they hoped for something better than amateur, anything noteworthy. Their standards for “noteworthy” were low. Their hopes hadn’t been disappointed or fulfilled. Something might yet happen.

In the third row, house right, a professor mused instead of watching. He stifled an urge to chuckle as his mind circled grand philosophical questions, like “What makes something a play?” and “What constitutes a theater?” and “What does it mean to pretend?” He’d worked his way into two or three important discoveries, he felt, and decided to write them down when the play was over.

If he’d aired his insights, the yawning sweeping back and forth through the remaining audience might be even more contagious. His sort of interest is rare for a reason, and the people didn’t stay in their seats to answer any question they could articulate. The inertia holding them came from their lives, which—little different from this play—drifted there awaiting the impulse to drift elsewhere.

No one noticed, but an actor who appeared to be dozing died, so—in a way—something had happened. However, he passed unaccompanied by any dramatic sign, and the actors and audience had stopped expecting anything of him anyway. They’d have to watch in a different way to notice. They no longer thought about consequence because it was a play—the professor might say it’s all a play—and therefore nothing material.

Outside the day was dying. Purple curtained rain clouds hung over snippets of horizon visible between buildings. The sun, still wielding hidden influence, threw light as from under a closed door, and pedestrians quickened at intimations of danger. The air weighed more, full of anticipation. The rumble of thunder sounded like rolling boulders and, even in the theater, some heard it.

They shifted in their seats, determined now to stay, to wait it out.

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Filed under Allegory, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Kafka, Laments, Meditations, Metaphor, Modern Life, Parables, Play, Satire, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Worry

Interview With a Nearly Nobody

200px-Bob_Unglaub_baseball_card“I don’t understand sports all that well (because I’m not an avid watcher) but get what it means to be a ‘utility player,’ a teammate who fills an empty spot, who serves to advance base runners, leaps from the bench when summoned, fills one of the last lines of the stat sheet. The utility player isn’t a home run or triple hitter but reliable and versatile and decent. I’m not ashamed to be that guy.

“As nice as appearing in a headline might be, I’m happy with the fourth or fifth paragraph, a mention when the team needs a timely contribution and not a highlight. Stars swing for the fences, shoot from half-court, swat a tennis ball from between their legs, or snatch a pass from the air as if by magnetism. I’m at work the same time every morning, sitting quietly, slogging through regular and tedious tasks. Finding fault with my performance would be challenging. I make sure there’s little to criticize. No one calls me indispensable, but I’m extraordinarily consistent and predictable. I pride myself on that. I’m just where you expect.

“Predictability has a bad name. Not nearly as pleasing as bold ambition and surprise, a steady hand nonetheless lends complementary comfort and safety. A utility player knows others deserve the spotlight and anticipates being needed. Patience, diligence, and calm add to success too, particularly when everyone wants immediate action or credit for acting immediately. I try never to seek or take credit, even when solutions seem familiar.

“Part of utility is curbing your ego. If you see yourself as background, stepping aside isn’t so tough. Someone levels every tilt, lessens every unchecked swell. If the team needs cool water to make a risky boil subside, call me. The others may have forgotten I’m here, but I haven’t. No one is invisible to himself, after all, and nothing pleases me more than others glancing in my direction and asking me to enter the game. My gratitude explodes in those moments. It means so much to be of service.

“And, if I start to feel low, I try to remember that, in sports, more scholarly types sometimes excavate obscure players, memorize their record, delight in their spark of fame. They take a fetishist’s pride in loving what no one else noticed. History may discover you. There’s consolation.

“Stars don’t worry about utility players’ feelings, and that’s only right. Why should they? You don’t become a star by being accommodating. You become a star by standing in your rightful spot and knowing its rightfulness. The last second shot and the last at-bat belong to those prepared to take advantage, those the fans desire. A moment’s hesitation, a feeling someone else may be better suited to this circumstance, those doubts won’t yield triumph. At least, they seldom do. Oh, you might get lucky, but why trust that?

“Occasionally, the utility player can be of use. Afterward, a reporter catches him on the periphery and collars him for a question about his unlikely and fleeting stature. I’ve been in that position and know what’s required. Say you pride yourself on being ready. Say you are blessed and fortunate. Never boast the team could count on you more often. As teammates remind you—warn you—know your place. You’re unlikely to find a spotlight again.”

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Filed under Aging, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Ego, Envy, Experiments, Fame, Fiction, Identity, Parody, Satire, Thoughts, Work

15 Specious Novel Openings

Psyche-and-Cupid-300x200A colleague sent me a list of famous opening lines from stories and novels—some usual suspects like “Call me Ishmael” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” and some I didn’t know, like “It was the day my grandmother exploded” (Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road, 1992) and “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” (Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond, 1956). That last one, my colleague pointed out, was the only dialogue in “The 100 Best First Lines from Novels.”

I’ve been ill this week and haven’t the concentration or will to write much, so I’m posting 15 opening lines for imaginary fiction. I’ve also supplied pretend titles and years to reflect styles of the time, and, yes, one uses dialogue. If you read a lot, you may recognize I’m parroting writers I’ve encountered.

Here goes:

1. He found nowhere to sit, which annoyed him, and the hammering conversation, laughter, synthpop, and his third gin and tonic compounded the headache that met him at the door. (Silverhair, 1985)

2. Sydney put his hat on the shelf in the coat closet and called his wife’s name. (Sydney Burroughs, 1938)

3. She wiped the blood from her finger onto her cheek and giggled. (Polly, 1971)

4. When Henry Stanbury cleared the mist within the carriage window with his ungloved hand, he discovered another layer of grey without, a city half-hidden in fog, and a few drifting souls making and breathing the steam of reluctant dawn. (Castle Palace, 1862)

5. The last thing to worry about, I’ve discovered, is finding something to eat. (The Farrier’s Promise, 2004)

6. There was a mole to begin with, but that was enough. (The Medical Expert, 1925)

7. I could have told you my brother lied about our parents and all the good they did for strangers because I grew up in the same house and watched them every morning put on masks and become strangers themselves. (Glad Is Your Reward, 1956)

8. “You must understand, lapshichka,” Grandpa would say, “no woman thinks first of the circus.” (The Beaten Road, 1978)

9. The noontime sun slanting through the jail window reached just his foot, and he dipped his toes into and out of the light considering (with no success) when in his drunk wandering he’d taken his shoe off. (The Coopers, 1948)

10. Our house blazed all night to neighbors’ oohs and aahs. (Miranda, 1996)

11. The screen door snapped shut behind him, and he turned to face a kitchen scene including Theodora Roos retching in the sink, her children spooning Alpha Bits into their maws, and Theodora’s husband Kenny reading or, more properly, shouting from a letter announcing the failure of their appeal and the imminent evaporation of all their hopes for a substantial settlement. (The Passage of Night Planes, 1966)

12. The bay stilled as the sun fell, and the city’s lights shone on its surface like jewels in gunmetal. (Pyroglyph, 1986)

13. Those well familiar with the affair counted it as indeed fortunate more damage to young Crosswick’s reputation did not accrue from his misstep, but Frederick Crosswick was not finished yet. (A Spring in Mercia, 1896)

14. I wasn’t there, but when I was twelve a boy named Otto who lived just down the block died when he fell from a tree and onto his bicycle. (Ithaca, 2009)

15. Every book begins by announcing itself—think of the blast of the ship horn and it’s done. (When the Moon Droops, trans. from Italian, 1989)

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Encounter

rat-aloneThe rats live in holes under bushes required by the city. In Chicago, when you smash a house to make a parking lot, some percentage of the freed land must be earth, and in the earth must be plants—trees cabled straight plus some tidy and soon neglected undergrowth. Rats are incidental, neither necessary nor desired. They find their way there instead, ambling in some hidden moment toward fresh and valuable territory.

The alley next to the parking lot runs beside a restaurant and rows of dumpsters. Waste from the kitchen crowds the dumpsters’ interiors. A streetlight illuminates the gap between the rats and the outdoor space on the sidewalk where, in nice weather, diners sit.

The rat my wife and I encounter on our way to the gym is gray, his tail bent by injury to the point of appearing almost jointed. I tell her this gives him character. She knows I’m joking. We pretend affection but never get used to his appearance. He’s an interloper, however natural his scooting across our path may be. Though he might represent one of nature’s models of efficiency, he needs too much getting used to, and we don’t. He’s timid and unobtrusive but never invisible enough. In his rippling gait we recognize a sense of purpose we don’t appreciate. He pauses sometimes—nose sniffing our coming near—and doesn’t sense he’s unwelcome. His expectations unsettle us.

The other day I saw him deeper in the alley nuzzling a second rat. He leapt left and right over her nose, stopping her advance. She seemed to oppose his attention, but I felt paralyzed. Some situations demand action and elicit none—I considered rescue but instead wondered what exactly I was feeling. Do more than rats sit outside my concern? Why is some kindness so willful?

“They’re rats,” I thought, “whatever happens with them or to them belongs in their world.”

After my wife and I pass the rat holes in the morning, they quickly fade. If some shadow image remains it’s of a dark hole, some hidden intelligence lurking, another world to haunt the day. Later I may see something empty to bring those holes back, but I try to forget having seen them.

More often I think of rats’ history, dim genealogies stretching back into antiquity. A host of begets and begats brought them to my neighborhood, the unrecorded lines thin and pulled to vanishing. Our rat may be descendent of a plague carrier, a son’s son to a clan of way-back immigrants.

However hard I try to ignore him, he’s present still. For all I know, the gray may await me, his familiar if unconscious start to the day. Perhaps he looks at me as I do him, a presence out of his control, like the sun, like the weather, like the season.

And perhaps he’s mostly imagination. Who can say? Who can know and who avoids feeling he does?

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Comin’: The Calvinist Strains of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”

200px-MerryOldSantaI have an odd holiday tradition of writing a parody of a critical essay about a Christmas carol each December. Maybe it’s revenge for the five-paragraph literary essays I read all year, maybe it’s a perverse desire to fight back against a song I’ve heard 238, 243 times. Whatever it is, here it is:

Though giddy carolers yearly celebrate the jolly figure Michel Fousault once called, “that nitrous oxide huffing gelatinous mass,” some say Santa took a decidedly Puritan turn in 1934 when Eddie Cantor first sang “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” on radio. Children who never expected the avuncular cookie-cruncher to make good on his punitive threats suddenly faced a leaner, meaner John Brown-style Santa, a Santa as intimate with the fragility of salvation as Jonathan Edwards, a fiery judge, a vigilant killjoy, an Old Testament avenger. Modern listeners may accept this horrifying tale of predestination and the inevitable naughtiness of humanity as just so much accompaniment for egg nog chugging contests, but Christmas carol scholars know—Santa Claus is coming to town, and he’s bringing a bag full of damnation.

The first three words of the song set the tone—“You better not”—and so begins its long series of not-so-veiled threats. Among the forbidden actions are “crying” and “pouting,” but what this Santa really decries is any complaint. Fate is inexorable, and the song prepares children for disappointment when, fallen human nature assured by their postlapsarian existence, they fall into La Brea Tar Pit of iniquity. There is simply no point in “crying” and “pouting” for both will do no good, and, noted scholar Karl Sharfenberger’s nude dancing rendition of the tune aside, no one dares tempt a Santa whose exhaustive “List” pens the elect and the condemned in permanent ink. Famous philatelist Dennis Tooletone may believe that “Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice” implies ongoing assessment, free will, and the opportunity to elude sin, but he hasn’t done his Puritan homework and still lives with his sister in Queens. During The Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards also touted the beneficence of a God that held human souls by a spider’s web over the eternal flames of hell. That was “gonna” too, the implication that at some point or another “finding out” meant discovering which souls plunged and which kept barbequing. In 1958, during a polka contest at the annual conference of the Modern Caroling Association, Fousault uttered what are perhaps his most famous words on the song. Between panting and just before his coronary, Fousault said, “Ack, I see him comin’, I see him comin’.” Everyone there heard Fousault’s final apostrophes loud and clear. The Santa comin’ for Fousault knew who had been “bad or good” and didn’t need a lousy list. The list, like Edward’s spider web, is just for show.

Perhaps the most troubling element of this troubling paean to humanity’s fate is Santa’s vigilance. The song reports that “He sees you when you’re sleeping / He knows when you’re awake.” Santa watches even when it appears he does not need to. The kids are asleep for God’s sake! But Santa’s business is the unconscious inclinations of sinners, reading their dreams the way Coach Van Haverbeek read your thoughts during those Boys’ Health films. That Santa “knows when you’re awake,” suggests that any attempt at fakery—anyone who’s been to Camp Karankawa knows shut eyes don’t mean sleep—will be futile. Santa will know, and your effort to save yourself from dreaming of that cute girl three cabins down toward the lake will surely fail. “You better watch out!” the singer screams, but a listener is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Santa has him in a triple-bind. A person cannot watch himself while he is sleeping or while he has his eyes closed pretending to snooze or when he’s subject to the capricious visit of his all-too-vivid imagination during roll call. And, if the listeners hoped to escape Santa’s prying eyes while the fat man directs his attention elsewhere, forget it. The great eye of Sauron in the J. R. R. Tolkein classic Lord of the Rings has nothing on Santa. As the song crows, Santa checks his list twice. The list is unalterable and set since the time elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs roamed the earth, and still he checks his list twice. Jonathan Edwards at least promised God’s mercy though God had no reason to spare anyone. The Santa who comes to town is not so kind.

And hope has no place in the song. The lyrics state “You’d better be good for goodness sake,” and scholars like Bertram Chert demanded listeners regard those words colloquially, like “For goodness sake, this bathing cap is tight!” Chert’s sanity was already compromised at that point, of course, but he also was flat wrong. Suppose someone isn’t one of the elect destined to receive Santa’s beneficence, suppose someone had some minor slip up like cursing under his breath or working for a few months after college slaughtering lab animals, his only choice—having been marked by Santa’s anagramatical twin, Satan—is to be good for its own sake, because what other reason might you have for being good when a listener knows, deep down and in his very bones, that being good will really do no good at all. Drunk carolers have long noted that Santa is curiously absent from “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” He is the unmoved mover of Christmas fates slouching toward Bethlehem to be born like the beast of W. B. Yeats’ apocalyptic poem, “Second Coming,” and his actual whereabouts are as mysterious as his feelings about a listener’s miserable soul. Santa will not speak for himself and lets some unnamed herald deliver his fire and brimstone for him. A mortal cannot know Santa’s mind. Don’t even try.

Eddie Cantor reportedly cried as soon as he sang the last note of this keening wail of a famously misunderstood Christmas tune, or so someone’s cousin said. That’s probably false, but, in case it is not, an attentive listener might regard Santa’s coming to town as a vow akin to the Lord’s promise to burn the sinful denizens of Sodom and Gomorrah. A town is no place for virtue. Look back or don’t look back. It will not matter. Santa has decided, and, chances are, nearly everyone is on the wrong list.

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Life in the Information Age

Newspapers taught us that something changes everyday. Radio taught us things change during the day. TV taught us things are always changing. And the internet teaches me I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on right now.

I’ve developed a habit of checking my email and other online accounts hundreds of times an hour. Five minutes seems eternity because, who knows, maybe someone has answered my urgent inquiry about reimbursal for a taxi ride two weeks ago or located my lost pen cap. Perhaps another person in a group of people has viewed my profile on LinkedIn or written something witty about my distressed status on Facebook. Those cat pictures are really funny.

Someone may have answered my comment on that blog or have visited me here and liked what I wrote.

If people don’t like me, I start to feel lost, and, when my accounts remain empty or inactive, I begin to worry—what if everyone is away reading news of a cataclysmic event… or a campaign gaffe… or some celebrity misstep? Think of everything I’m missing writing this post right now and what you’re missing by reading it. I hope you have another window open and the sound unmuted.

I read recently somewhere that finding notifications online stimulates the brain just as game stimulated early human brains. I don’t remember where I encountered that piece of information—because so very much has happened since then—but it makes sense. I look for flags and numbers in precisely the same way I’d look for rabbits were I preternaturally hungry. Shifting my gaze from warren to warren, my heart palpitates in hope of catching one pair of eyes or ears, one subtle shift in the beige-brown background signaling something there to consume.

We’re all looking, and if no game appears, we have each others’ reports of game. You can rest assured someone has seen something somewhere and will let you know. Many of the reports I receive in email tell me about information elsewhere. I click on them, and they whisk me to new vistas. Click there, and I’m transported again. It’s doubly satisfying when something changes and your email changes to alert you to that change. You can open layers of layers of curtains before you spy the stage. And, even if what you encounter is a spot-lit bean on a broken stool, at least getting there was dramatic.

Please pardon my scattered thoughts. My attention span is shot. I can’t tell distraction from devotion and vital from new. Every task deserves interruption—if you even call them interruptions. Really they are messages from another source, one of the many sources we are so very lucky to access every second of every day in this modern technological marvel of a world. We can learn anything, we can know everything (or access anything known), and, if someone will only send me a text or tweet or email me where to look, I can get on that right away.

But, actually, maybe not now. An icon is leaping like a terrier at the edge of my sight. Some program needs updating, and if I don’t do it immediately, I may lose you forever.

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