Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Short Story: From a Distance

From a distance, all you hear is the persistent drone, barely audible, like somebody else’s mosquito. I guess that’s why they call them drones. They can linger up there for days, watching and waiting, probably relieving each other like on-duty patrol cops — like slow-motion tag-team wrestling — like owls, waiting for a mouse to make a careless move.
From a distance, the sound recedes into the background cacophony of fans running, children playing, dogs barking, and thin shrill horns of motor scooters in traffic. It blends into the sound of life that comforts grandmothers that all is well when they wake momentarily from their afternoon nap. It is the sound of sudden and inescapable death — the thunderbolt of foreign gods thrown from heaven in retribution for unknown sins.
From a distance, remote operators watch, and guide, and drink Coca Cola, and decide who will live and who will die and when. You cannot know the faces of these nameless watchers. You cannot invite them to your daughter’s wedding or your uncle’s funeral. You cannot explain that you are loaning your shovel to a neighbor down the street and helping him plant a shade tree by the curb. You cannot explain or negotiate or fall on your knees to beg for understanding or plead for mercy.
From a distance, a house is being watched. Adult males have begun arriving, alone, at three-minute intervals. Bill and Joe (for lack of true names) record the coordinates and lock them into the user interface of a targeting algorithm. They also log the exception-in-progress into their operations log and review their rules of engagement. This is all very routine, actually. Usually, nothing comes of it; this is all part of the process; its how things are done.
From a distance, the remote operators cannot read the minutes from the meeting of town elders, gathered in fearful caution, concealing their meeting as if they held some collective guilt. Elders — gathered to coordinate aid to the bread baker while he recovers from a broken ankle. Elders — gathered to plan repairs to the aqueducts that bring vital water from the nearby mountains. Elders — gathered to decide on discipline for the disorderly young men with too little to do and too much anger to be content with doing nothing.
From a distance, a new star is born — flaring briefly before streaking directly to its designated coordinates — like the lightning of Zeus - with the fury of Jove — consuming itself and everything within its blast radius in a momentary orgasm of annihilation beyond any concept of any hell ever.
From a distance, heads turn; spoons pause and tremble halfway to their destinations; women begin screaming; men begin cursing; small children begin crying; tears well up in the blind and empty eyes of a veteran of past wars; spoons finish their journey to mouths thankful that they are still there to receive another meager morsel… this time.
From a distance, Bill turns to Joe and demands,”Dude, did you do that?” and Joe replies, “I’m sorry bro, I got cola bubbles up my nose and sneezed.” They look at each other earnestly for a few moments before Bill suggests, “I say you saw your shot and took it. And, hey, first kill of the new year.” Joe agrees, “Thanks man, I owe you one.”

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Science Fiction: Eating Seed Corn

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.
At the end of this shift, we’re going to space two of the crew. This will be our first “culling.” Everybody understands why this is necessary. It’s a matter of optimizing the chances of survival for the others. I just found out who we’re going to lose and I need to take a few minutes for myself before I make the announcement to the crew that is gathering in the Commons Hall.
I never imagined I might have to make decisions like this. I am Chairman of the “Deallocation Methodology Committee” that designed the selection algorithm. The calculation includes a dynamic model of functional and social interactions and involves factors such as individual resource loads and contributory potential.
The first thing I insisted on was that all members of the Committee sign “opt-in” papers that increase their selection weighting by four percent. I also insisted that there be no secondary review process where power plays could corrupt the impersonal fairness of the calculation. I insisted that the deallocated personnel not be present at the meeting where their selection was announced but that the announcement and a memory service be held after the fact. The rest of the algorithm is kept in confidence, but is approved by Council.
The view out my portal is stunning. You never stop being amazed by how really big space is. And, in contrast, even from near-earth orbit, our former home seems so small and fragile. I can see entire countries and enormous swaths of the planet in an endless panorama. Large cities blossom in the moderate climates — rooted in fresh water and spreading themselves greedily from dense centers across favorable geography and ever-more-tenaciously across unfavorable.
All the good spots were taken long ago. Governments eventually concluded that the empty spaces of Canada, Iceland, and Siberia would provide a habitation-capacity buffer. But, they discovered that developing these frontiers, as they became warmer, produced additional climate problems, rather than solving them. Something more has to give but, so far, no-one has the will to make (or authority to enforce) the really hard decisions.
That’s how our experimental colony ended up in orbit. It finally occurred to governments everywhere that our planet was a closed environment and did not actually have indefinite resources and capacities. Our orbiting station was intended to discover and improve methods for living successfully and sustainably with the necessarily-constrained resources of a closed environment. We were to be a model for political decisions to be replicated back on earthside. We were going to figure out how to enforce austerity and compromise for the good of the entire community. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.
We just passed over the Ganges-Brahmaputra delta in Bangladesh. It is obviously in flood stage. It used to support massive rice and wheat production. Now, rising sea levels and ground water salinity, with seasonal super-floods, continue to reduce harvests and push refugees inland. We’ll pass over the deforested mountains of Borneo soon, and then, during our meeting, the truly empty outback of Australia.
Humans never quite caught on to limits. They behaved as if they could always harvest from limitless abundance and then move on. When abundance no longer sufficed, they learned how to manage crops for improved production. Mankind invented technology to protect themselves from hostile environments and then they began to change their environment itself — always with unexpected consequences.
This orbiting habitat was a product of that technology and now I am charged to deal with the consequences. My mouth feels dry and my stomach feels knotted. Magellan One (“M1”), our habitat, was never actually “completed,” which means that it is as built-out as it will ever be. As the project went on, there were fewer and fewer resources available to give it a good start with a reasonable margin for the unexpected. And so, it was eventually deemed “sufficient for its purpose.”
Up here, we don’t have the options of early explores. There are no open vistas of trees to cut, expanses of land to plow, rivers of water to exploit, pits of minerals to collect, or herds of wildlife to subdue. Nobody here sings of spacious skies, waves of grain, or Pilgrim feet beating thoroughfares across the wilderness. By necessity, we find our souls in self-control and liberty in law. We crown our good with brotherhood from bulkhead to shining bulkhead.
We have what has already been sent up and sunlight shining on our collectors — that’s about it. We constantly and intensely invest, nurture, cultivate, husband, and shepherd our resources. Every breath is precious and every soul is responsible to every other… either that or die. Of course, that has always been true on Earth too… in theory. The big difference between us and our cousins on the planet is that we experience the consequences of our choices so much sooner.
Now, M1 is as big as it will get for any imaginable future. Our hydroponic gardens and waste processing systems are working well but they are approaching capacity. Much sooner than anybody expected, we turned into an honest-to-god community-of-the-finite. We have no way back and only a narrow and tenuous path forward — but only if we are very, very careful.
Already, there are some “headache” days when the carbon dioxide levels temporarily elevate above tolerance levels. The embargoes on aerobic exercise (to reduce oxygen consumption) have been renewed so often that everybody understands to expect ongoing muscle atrophy. There has even been talk of allowing M1’s spin to slow to the point that it only produces 0.8 gravity. This would reduce the skeletal burden of Unity-G.
The colonist shuttles stopped coming two years ago after we absorbed the crew of both Luna stations. Now, supply ships have stopped coming. The people back home have been forced to “reevaluate their commitments.” They are past investing in our socio-political experiment. They have collapsed into their own desperate battles for immediate survival. They are eating their seed corn. We continue to exchange information with our sponsor organizations on earthside and they still take our experience as instructive but, so far as physical resources go, we are now entirely on our own.
Although the idea to deallocate crew sprang from a careless and casual remark during a salon about “voting someone off the island,” Council did not create and appoint our committee casually. They consulted the best philosophical resources available. Because the issue hit so close to home, there were a series of deadly earthside riots, most involving some combination of Deist protesters and Survivalist militias. One popular meme was “Let them fight. Their gods can sort it out. Fewer mouths to feed. Problem solved.”
Onboard M1, there was a near-even split between two positions. One group maintained that there were moral absolutes of good and evil that bound us. Their position led to the conclusion that, because deallocation was unthinkable and unacceptable, we were not responsible for whatever subsequent consequences arose. That is, “Life is sacred and we can’t decide to deallocate individuals even if it results in more deaths sooner.” The second group eventually prevailed. They held that, as individuals and a society, we were responsible for both our decisions and the resulting consequences. The deciding argument had been that earthside would not now be in such crisis if humankind had acted from a posture of responsibility and accountability during the past few centuries.
The fact of the matter is that we are not going to actually put two people in an airlock and “space” them. Once it was clear that the spacing decision vote would pass, Councilor Salinger pointed out that spacing would actually be a waste of resources and offered an “optimization” amendment directing that no exception be made to the usual practice of returning all waste organic material to the bio-cycler.
However, Council had trouble coming to terms with the idea of terminating two productive-but-expendable crew and rendering them directly into the food supply. The matter went to a full-crew referendum that produced a surprising 68-22% vote in favor of recycling. This was a defining shift in favor of our collective pragmatic solidarity. I wonder if our decision-making model will ever actually be replicated back on earthside.
We’re going to miss Elsie. Laura Cantrell was a civilian structural engineer who was shuttled-up and allocated to the station years ago as we began receiving the framework for the outer ring. Within days of joining the crew, her cheerful optimism put everyone she met at ease. At first, we just shortened her name to “L.C.,” but in no time she was showing up as “Elsie” on the schedules. Now, we have no additional structure that needs engineering. Elsie retrained and transferred to work on our hydroponic projects. But, for several years, Elsie has struggled with an autoimmune disease that is attacking the myelin sheath material of her nerves. Her prognosis is not good. No one, least of all Elsie, was surprised when her name came up for “deallocation.”
We’re going to miss Michael. I was surprised when our algorithm selected him for deallocation. At four years old, he is healthy, active, and a genuine social treasure. However, the fact that Michael will require another full decade of dependency before he begins to contribute significantly to operations was factored-in more-heavily than I expected. So, it seems we’re already eating our own seed corn, just like earthside. I’ll guarantee that our experience here will provoke some serious debates down there.
This is really hard. I’m determined to keep my composure. But, I need just a few more minutes to look at the stars. Then, I need to tell Michael in person before taking him to join Elsie at the Medplex. Michael is my only begotten son.

He who knows nothing, loves nothing.
He who can do nothing understands nothing.
He who understands nothing is worthless.
But he who who understands also loves, notices, sees …
The more knowledge is inherent in a thing, the greater the love.
~Paracelsus, (1493-1541)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Chunky Monkey

I am so pissed. You’re not going to believe this. I’m on my way back home already. It was bad. I can’t believe how bad it was. I just need to talk to someone. I am so freaking pissed.
You remember I told you about Charles? Yeah, he’s the guy I told you about while I was doing laundry last week. He gave my profile a nudge on that on-line dating site. No, not that one. The other one. Yeah. I just had a date with him. I drove 214 miles to the other side of the state to have dinner with him and his girls. Yeah, at his house. No, that part was OK. His kids were there and everything, but everything else was a disaster.
Yeah, I’m fine. I’m driving back now. Damn! I just passed a cop car and I’m going too fast and I’m talking on the phone and… I’m putting you down while I put my seat belt on. That’s better. Hello? No, he had somebody stopped already.
So, Charles sounded so great on the phone. He’s a mechanic. Calls himself a grease-monkey. Really. He’s been a certified lead mechanic at a dealership for twelve years. He’s got health benefits and a retirement plan and everything. He’s buying his house. I didn’t even think which one of us would have to move.
I’ve been office manager for Dr. Chaudrey for ten years myself. It’s a great job. And, I couldn’t take my kids out of school here. I couldn’t even move them out of the county. I agreed to let Jack keep them every other week in the divorce settlement. And, Charles has his kids still at home and in high school. They’re all settled in and set up and it’s too far to drive for just dating. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s probably just as well that I bailed out tonight.
It was incredible. No, I mean like unbelievable. I got here and his place is down in the bottoms by the river. It didn’t hardly have any paint. There was junk in the yard and two cars up on jacks. I almost drove right by but I called when I reached town and his oldest girl, Millie, was sitting out by the road watching for my green Camry and she waved me down and had me back into the drive.
I really like Millie. She’s got a smile that would light up Wisconsin. She’s kind of quiet, but just has to be a great student. She uses words like Copeland uses syncopation. She’s a thinker and just a sweet, sweet person. We really got along from the start. And little Paula is a sprite. She’s playful and full of mischief. I’m going to miss those girls. I could have really loved those girls. We just really hit it off.
Chuck? Well, he’s pretty good looking. He came out when he heard Millie and me talking. He’s even better-looking than in his picture. A little on the chunky side. Yeah, “Chunky Chuck.” No, really, I guess I expected a grease-monkey to be a little rough and maybe have some dirt under his fingernails. But, like they say, “He cleans up real good.”
We sat on a yard swing while the girls went back in to finish supper. It was actually real nice to sit with him and watch the sun set over the river. We just talked about things. He put his arm over my shoulders. He smelled real nice too, but I was surprised by how hairy his arms were. I think he must shave all the way to below the collar of his tee shirts.
Well, there was a lingering smell of oil in the yard and there was a hint of lanolin hand cleaner, but I must have mentioned that I liked Old Spice ‘cause he was wearing it. And, the smells coming from the kitchen were great too. There was some Cole Porter coming from the back. Millie probably put it on.
Paula called us in for supper. I couldn’t believe it. There was a motorcycle half-assembled in the middle of the living room like it had exploded. I started to walk around it and Chuck said “mind the carburetor” and had me walk around the other way. I can’t imagine if he started doing engine work inside after his ex left him or if, maybe, that was part of why she left.
And, that wasn’t all. They’ve got this huge green parrot and it screeches all the time like in the jungle. He just flaps around loose and goes where he wants. Literally. There was no way to not step in crap from that awful bird. Chuck told me to not worry about the bird, that he doesn’t bite unless you try to touch him. I should have left right then, but you know how I am. I decided to try to be polite.
Anyway, they had all been working on supper for hours. They made pork chops. The meat was tender; the juices had been sealed in with a crisp coating. There was baked beans and they had made homemade mustard potato salad. It has just the right amount of mayonnaise to keep it moist without being sloppy and the recipe had just a hint of horseradish and celery seed.
I’m betting that Chuck’s ex was a great cook and she taught the girls. They had made a cherry-apple pie too and were just taking it out of the oven. It had a top crust woven from slightly-crenelated strips. Then they had applied a sweet glaze over crumbles and let it just barely begin to caramelize. I have never seen anything like it.
The food was good, but when we sat down to eat, that damn bird hopped right up on the edge of the table next to my left arm. I have no idea of whatever made it think I liked it. It squawked and started eying my plate, so I put my arm on the table by the forks and it took a piece out of the sleeve of my good Merino sweater.
I put my arm back under the table to keep it from taking a hunk out of me. It started doing a little wiggly victory dance on the side of the table and then dropped a big wet poop on the floor. I could hear it go plop. Then the thing side-stepped over to my plate and started picking at my food. I told Chuck, “Your bird is eating my pork chop.” You know what he said? “Don’t worry, he doesn’t eat much.”
I was about to lose it so I just stood up and went to get my purse. The girls came over and I gave both of them hugs and a kiss on their cheek. You could see they understood completely but were going to be sad. Chuck had the grace to see me out, but I gunned the engine and sprayed him with gravel anyway and I’m glad I did.
Just a minute. I’m going to hang up. I’ll call you back in ten. I just went into a Quick-Mart and they’ve got pints of ice cream and there’s a Chunky Monkey with my name on it.

Writing in Iowa

Writing — really engrossing writing — springs from a rich and cluttered life, fully lived. It is the bounty of experience that loads the canon of inspiration with sufficient shot to do memorable damage. But, can one glean adequate life experience from abiding among the ordered fields of Iowa? 

Many an old Iowa farmer may be found breathing contentedly from the rocker on his back porch as he ponders the meaning of life, the vicissitudes of our mortal coil, the might of Jove and the recalcitrant whims of His weather. On the other hand, many an old Iowa farmer has been found moldering in the rocker on his back porch as the crows make sport with his remains.
But, back to the point. A connoisseur will cleanse his pallet before undertaking to sample a new wine. He will savor it, let it rest in the bounty of his experience, form an interpretation, and commit his judgment to the enlightenment of others. One could not expect an impoverished lush to undertake such an intimate exposition. Likewise, critically acclaimed writers draw from the deep waters of their autobiographical wells. A dry well does not refresh. In Iowa, a shallow well, supplied by a groundwater aquifer, is likely to poison the family as they consume phosphates, organohalides, and fecal coliforms from the neighbor’s hog operation.
But, back to the point. Good writing does also require clarity and an orderly mind. For instance, I find myself unable to undertake a writing project if my desk is cluttered. It is necessary to hide everything in drawers and boxes — putting it entirely out of sight — to begin writing productively. In this respect the environment of Iowa is ideal for my writing. Iowa is an orderly place. I just open my window and gaze out at the regular rows of corn combing regular mile-square fields, that supply parallel rows of grain towers spaced regularly along carefully aligned railroad spurs. Iowa spreads like a vast bounteous wasteland across a cosmic checker board. I can stare out my window and not be distracted by anything but my aged widower neighbor and his crows.
But, back to the point. Not every writer cherishes an orderly desk or even an orderly mind. Some writers, such as the renowned Ray Bradbury, pride themselves on the stimulating clutter of their writing space. However, I do not trust this impulse. Bradbury has described his writing process as composed of two parts: throwing up and then cleaning up the mess. I suppose that Iowa supports this writing style as well. When I want to throw up, all I have to do is open my window and inhale the bouquet wafting from any of several animal confinements upwind.
But, back to the point. Iowa, commonly known as “the land between the vowels,” has a long literary tradition. The Iowa Writer’s Workshop has the reputation of producing the cream of the “crop.” The workshop selects a “hybrid” mix of writers and poets who meet once a week for critical peer reading Graduate Workshop courses and conceivably more often for critical sampling of Iowa Pale Ale from the Millstream Brewing Co. at Dave’s Foxhead Tavern. Even writers can become connoisseurs.
But, back to the point. I love Iowa. I live in Iowa. I write in Iowa. Cluttered or clear, poetry or prose, fact or fiction, we’ve got a flock of fine folks here and I welcome you to join us. Just take care to cautiously keep clear of carnivorous crows.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Is Social Psychology Best Left Unstudied?

Is love fair game for science? Or, is it a sacred mystery that we should not try too hard to understand?

As read by the author:

Is Social Psychology Best Left Unstudied?

The late U.S. Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin criticized the work of two prominent social psychologists when he stated that, "Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right at the top of things we don’t want to know is why a man and a woman fall in love." Are there some things in life best left unstudied?

Proxmire, pork, and passionate prudishness
With all due respect, Senator Proxmire was a windy old curmudgeon who bragged that he was fired from his first job for impertinence and was fondly eulogized as being a maverick. His personal integrity, however, was reflected by a record 10,252 consecutive roll call votes across twenty-two years of public service. Proxmire took pride in lampooning wasteful “pork barrel” government spending and was notorious for giving “Golden Fleece” awards to many pork appropriations (with the notable exception of dairy supports in his home state of Wisconsin). The quotation, above, refers to his very first Golden Fleece, which went for $84,000 given to the National Science Foundation in 1975 for the study of “Why a man and a woman fall in love.” He should be forgiven a little hyperbole.

Under the circumstances, I whole-heartedly support Sen. Proxmire’s position, at least to the extent that public federal funds, at that time, may well have been best committed to more-pragmatic needs. In any event, by 1975, a generation of beatnicks and hippies had succeeded in establishing, to their own satisfaction, that spontaneous free love was better than traditional falling in love and marriage. And, on that point, I’m happy to report that I fell in love with and married an ex guitar playing, protest singing, hippy chick. We are delighted with our commitment, as are a large percentage of aging ex-hippies and windy old curmudgeons like me.

I do not agree that falling in love is best left unstudied. I would be hard put to imagine anything (permitted by modern ethical review boards) that should not be fair game for scientific consideration. Curiosity leads to investigation, which leads to knowledge, which leads to wisdom, which leads to better personal decisions, which lead to better interpersonal relationships, which lead to better communities, which lead to better cultures, which lead to better societies, which just might, with any luck, save the world. And, that is what Social Psychology is all about, so let’s rock on. Do I hear an “amen?”

On Further Reflection
The idea of scientists studying love has a wrong “feel” to it. The problem is not right out there on top and obvious, but there is a visceral alienness to the concept that makes one recoil from the proposition. It’s like your adolescent child assuring you that if you let him take the cat apart he promises to put it back together again, or hearing someone explain the joys of peering at the starry heavens through the vacuum cleaner.

The core of the issue is that, although we rarely stop to analyze things so carefully, we know that there are different ways of looking at things. For instance, pronouns can be singular, plural, indefinite, relative, and more, but who but Miss Thompkins in Senior English really cares to formally sort it out?

Sometimes, it helps to sort things out systematically. Follow me; this is going somewhere. Consider dividing thought into internal and external points of view and also dividing points of reference into singular and plural:

  • Internal/Singular (I/S) refers to “I”–everything about your internal subjective experience of yourself including your feelings, thoughts, sensations, emotions, values, and opinions.
  • External/Singular (E/S) refers to “It”–everything about one’s objective observations of his or her environment. These observed objects can be measured for quantity or quality. This is the singular domain and focus of science.
  • Internal/Plural (I/P) refers to “We”–everything that the group you identify with holds as true, just, and beautiful. This is the place of families, villages, tribes, and nations—as far as you have expanded to identify as “like me.” This is the area of culture.
  • External/Plural (E/P) refers to “Them” or “Its”—everything that is outside of what you identify as “like us.” This is the area of societies. We somehow have to get along with groups that are not like us.

Now, sex, love and romantic relationships forms a very messy hybrid concept that that spreads out through all four of the above quadrants. It is a strange and wonderful, dynamic; it develops and operates in additional dimensions beyond these four starter quadrants.

  • I/S includes your breathless wonder, and compelling desire to give.
  • E/S includes the sight of the sun sparkling in their hair and the fit of your lips when you kiss.
  • I/P includes your group’s attitudes about appropriate matches and standards of beauty.
  • E/P includes how you’re going to get along with your partner’s crazy uncle Larry, just back from fifteen years living with penguins.

On the other hand, science wants to look at and measure very clean and well-defined things. The ideal experiment reduces its observations down to a single independent variable. By the time science has isolated the species of fungus growing on a tree’s rootlets, it has totally lost its ability to observe the dynamics of multi-year rain cycles. Now, you want to use science to study social behavior?

I do, in fact, believe that there is a place for scientific study of social behavior. Our Internal/Singular processes filter everything through an unruly mass of previous experiences and interpretations. Our mental filters leave us frequently incompetent to make consistently accurate judgments.

The place of Social Psychology is to inform our filters so that our everyday lives, including romantic relationships, can be conducted from knowledge rather than ignorance and prejudice. We simply need to be aware of the limits of scientific inquiry so we can choose to apply its revelations appropriately.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Crow and the Cowboy’s Shiny Buckle

The Crow and the Cowboy’s Shiny Buckle
A Short Story by David Satterlee
One day, a rodeo cowboy, a real dirt eater, came to Dayton, Iowa. Now, you expect to see cowboys in Texas, but most people wouldn’t think that you would see one in Iowa, especially in Dayton, which is first-rate, but kind of small. But, Dayton loves its horses and wranglers. Always has, still does, because that’s just the way Dayton is. These days, lots of cowboys come to Dayton, but our story is about one particular cowboy and, lacking any better information, we’ll call him Bill.
Local history has it that, back in the hot old days before air conditioning and slushies, families would gather down by the banks of Skillet Creek and have a picnic and a nap on the cool grass under the shade of the old oak trees. Back around 1937, three young friends, all local boys, learned to twirl cowboy ropes and would go down to the park and entertain anyone who was there. I’m guessing they picked up a few pennies and the occasional ham sandwich for their trouble.
The show started to get serious when it was moved to Porter’s pasture in 1942. The boys passed a hat and collected nineteen dollars and seventeen cents, which became the prize money for a “real rodeo.” Well, it just kept growing from there. The Dayton Labor Day Rodeo is a first-rate Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association event and draws top wranglers, riders, and ropers from all over. They have “Kids” night, “Bring a Date” night, and even raise thousands of dollars for breast cancer research on “Tough Enough to Wear Pink” night. Don’t worry, I’m getting to Bill.
Now, Bill was rough and tough and man-enough and had already broken more records and more bones within ten seconds than most of us have marbles in a bag. Bill always told his fans that he’d never been hurt riding a bull… it was the landing and getting stomped that hurt. His prize buckle was shiny and his spurs were sharp. The bulls knew they wanted him off in a hurry. They really wanted to dump Bill and his sharp spurs and his shinny belt buckle into the dirt. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the crow.
Now, this crow was a first-rate Iowa crow and for years had been outsmarting scarecrows and every other contraption farmers would put out in their gardens and fields. He knew when to gobble up sprouts after a spring rain and he knew just when to get off road kill for a truck coming down the highway. But, this crow especially loved the fresh, juicy bugs from the backs of cattle. But, that wasn’t enough. He wanted some recognition for being so smart. Don’t worry, I’m getting to the shiny belt buckle.
The crow, being a first-rate Iowa crow, and Bill, being a first-rate cowboy with a shiny buckle, got to talking one day. The crow said, “I’ll bet you your shiny belt buckle that I can ride any bull longer than you.” To which Bill responded, “Can’t neither.” To which the crow replied, “Can too.” This went on longer than any of us care to imagine or than I care to tell, so let’s just say that the contest was set for the next day. Don’t worry, I’m getting on toward the end here.
The next day, Bill strapped himself to his assigned bull and rode it for a full 10 seconds and stayed on 3.4 seconds more just for spite, because that’s the way Bill is. Immediately after, the crow swooped down, made a quick pass at the bull, came back, landed, and rode it around the ring for a full 42.1 seconds while the bull got put back in a pen. True to his word, Bill took off his buckle and, in open admission that he had been wrong, laid it on a fencepost. The crow swept down, snatched it up, and carried it off to the closest pasture where he stood admiring himself in its shiny surface, because that’s just how the crow was.
What Bill didn’t know was that the crow had spent the morning down at the corral. First, the crow just sat on a nearby fencepost, cawing every once in a while. Then he spent a few minutes just flying around in lazy circles. He would just touch his feet to the backs of the bulls as he flew past. When nothing bad happened to them, the bulls stopped paying any attention and just didn’t care anymore, because that’s just the way bulls are. In not too long at all, most of the bulls were ignoring the crow when it landed on their backs. The first-rate bulls even figured out that it felt good when the crow ate all the fresh, juicy bugs off their itchy spots.
Seeing where the crow went, Bill fetched his .410 shotgun off the rack in the cab of his shiny Dodge pickup truck. He walked over to the distracted crow, got him with the first shot, retrieved his buckle, and roasted the crow for supper just for spite, because that’s just how Bill is.
And, the moral of the story is that cowboys that want to wear a shiny rodeo buckle have got to be willing to eat dirt… and eat crow.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

In Praise of the Public Sector

I'm in a particularly grumpy mood this morning as I think about the almost-completed water tower maintenance in our small town and the inconvenience that came with it. Today's newspaper had several critical letters to the editor.

I have a more-appreciative attitude. We should be grateful for the wisdom and courage of our Mayor and City Council to undertake a very necessary project that they knew up-front would bring out a lot of complaining. The fact of the matter is that the temporary inconveniences were an entirely unavoidable part of the job. It’s where we needed to go and what we needed to do. We ought to be thanking our public servants instead of giving them grief.
Sometimes we forget that government, the widely-despised “public sector,” is really us – you and me and those of our neighbors who, for some deficit of sanity, feel compelled to render an extra measure of service to their communities. And the thanks they get? A general unwillingness to grant them the resources and cooperation they need to fully achieve the many responsibilities we demand of them.
It is the private sector that rakes their leaves into the street, lets their dogs bark, and their cats breed. It is the private sector that drives on roads, disturbs the peace, consumes clean water, flushes their toilets, and makes babies. Yet, it is the public sector that gets called on for animal control, cleaning leaves out of storm drains, providing utilities, and teaching our children read and do fractions along with social skills and the love of learning.
And then, the private sector turns around and protests that tax revenues are a plot by “them” to rob “us” of our hard-earned wages. And then, we compound the insult: For many of us, these “hard earned wages” are actually government-provided benefits such as social security, Medicare, and food assistance.
Harumph. If we keep undermining our public sector, we could very well earn the privilege of always hauling and boiling our own water, teaching our children calculus on our own, paving our own streets, and guarding our own doors. Oh, and are you actually ready to grow your own garden or starve? Are you ready to face the cold alternatives of staying healthy or dying quickly?
On the national level, how is it that our economy has been shifting for thirty years now and yet a single man, in office for only a few years, is “failed” for not waving a magic wand and making everything somehow completely better already? How is it that #43, who fought two wars and funded massive and repeated tax cuts on our credit card, who cut banking regulations and presided over the resulting financial collapse gets the benefit of a helpless shoulder shrug and a Teflon coating?
The thing that gives me a measure of courage is the hope that progressive policies may yet have a snowball’s chance in hell of moving us forward. I’m in the mood for comfort for the afflicted. Keep your chin up. There is always hope… especially if we are willing to each support the inconvenience and effort that is necessary to get us, all together, where we need to go.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Short story: Smiting Sinners

Good vs. evil vs. minding your own business in the Blue Ridge mountains. Can a respected preacher-man succeed in calling a wayward brother to repentance? And, is anybody ever going to do something about "Uncle"  Ralph?

Scheduled for publication in Life Will Surprise You in the End: More Short Stories by David Satterlee (2004)

Smiting Sinners
By David Satterlee
 One afternoon, Wiley Roy Quinn was walking down Ragged Mountain, heading towards his cabin up Johns Creek. There was plenty of time to get there before dusk and he wasn’t hurrying. Fact of the matter, Wiley Roy never did like to hurry — all the more so now that he was toting a bushel sack of corn.
Just below Brown Cemetery, Wiley Roy was joined by the Reverend Pastor Bobby Thrasher from the Johns Creek Churches. You know the place: right where Johns Creek joins up with Caney Fork. Most of Wiley Roy’s friends didn’t go to the Baptist church there. Wiley Roy mostly didn’t go to the Methodist church across the road.
It didn’t much matter. The early risers, and anybody who still were in want of waking up, usually went to the Baptist Church. The late risers, and those in the mood for a kinder and gentler sermon, went across the road to the Methodist. Some years back, the Baptist Reverend Bobby had agreed to also preach the Methodist sermon while their Pastor healed up from a broke leg. The leg turned to gangrene and the Pastor died, so Bobby became the Reverend Pastor Thrasher some years ago and it just stuck.
Besides, serving both congregations paid enough to let Bobby make it his full-time calling. The arrangement worked out well for everybody involved except for faithful Carl Henson, who put up a fuss about it being sacrilegious or something. But, within three months, Carl and seven of his sheep drowned in high water. Everybody decided that God had smite him for being such a poor shepherd and blessed Bobby for being such a good one.
“How you doin’ Reverend Bobby?” Wiley Roy didn’t miss a step as he rotated his load to wave with his free hand. Reverend Bobby was his cousin. This was no random coincidence; this far up in the mountains, it wasn’t unusual to discover that most people were related in one way or another. I’m not trying to be snippy here. Facts are facts. You’ve just got to understand that possums are greasy, if you catch my meaning.
“Whatcha doin’ here?” Wiley Roy asked. Cousin Bobby dropped in beside him, matched stride and answered, “I’ve been up the trail towards Polly Middleton Gap. I heard the McCarter twins were both sickly and decided I oughta see about them. Then, commin’ back, I was called to pray a spell at the falls.” They walked on in silence for a bit before Bobby asked, “What’s you got there?”
They both had known the question was coming. Wiley Roy didn’t raise corn and he had no business on this mountain with a whole bag of it. The only possible conclusion was that he had stolen it from Ezekiel Brown’s barn. Wiley Roy finally, recognizing the inevitable, answered, “I found it in Brown’s barn.” Bobby challenged,“He didn’t give it to you, did he?” Wiley Roy answered, “Well, he wasn’t using it.” He said it with a finality that seemed to settle the matter.
“You givin it to Uncle Ralph?” Curiously enough, Uncle Ralph wasn’t related to any of the adults around here. Ralph had never given anybody up Johns Creek his full name. It eventually came out that he had been run up into the Smoky Mountains by a mob of angry husbands from the Gatlinite Free Will Baptist Church. He hadn’t quit moving until he got well-past the Cherokee and found himself blocked in by the Blue Ridge.
Ralph had joined the Free Wills because they sounded right up his alley. He had always been a charming rogue and, shall we say, free and willful with the women. And then, he had found Free Will, Free Grace and Free Salvation all together. How could he turn that down? Ralph found a small log cabin off a ridge up what is now called, well, Log Cabin Road. And so, Ralph had just stayed. He lived alone, shot and trapped his own meat, raised a few vegetables in the high meadow and made the best damn mountain white whiskey anybody had ever tasted.
As far as anybody seemed to know, he also quit messing around. He never showed up at community events or came down to socialize in any way. Now, men would go up there to buy a quart or two. Sometimes, they would take up a sack of corn to trade for the nectar of his still. In fact, the path to his little place was well-traveled and the interior was bright and cheery with gingham curtains and lace doilies. As I said, Ralph didn’t go out and bother anybody, and nobody seemed inclined to bother Ralph.
The Reverend Thrasher decided to have another try. “You know, it’s like I say, God sees everything we do and will hold sinners to account.” Wiley Roy was not moved: “Yeah, but even if he can see everything, nothing ever showed me that he cared a lick.” Wiley Roy could see in the momentary hesitation of Bobby’s step that he may have scored a point.
The Reverend Pastor would not be deterred and spent several minutes giving an exposition on local, regional and historical examples of God smiting deserving sinners. His voice rose and fell in modulated tones. He called on the heights of heaven and the depths of Hades. He talked of Saving and Damnation, of Plagues and Lightning cast by His Might Right Arm. The Reverend Pastor shuddered at the passion and power of his own conviction. And in the end, exhausted from the the expression of his manifest humility to be possessed in the power of the Lord, he fell into a silence that seemed to echo between the hills.
Wiley Roy had to admit that he had been the sole witness of an impressive, and possibly historic, performance. It was worthy of the finest Come-to-Jesus revival. It should be transcribed and added to the annals of great oratory. He was still not moved. He redirected, “How do you know that God is a ‘He?’”
“Well… Well…” Stammered Bobby. He was not prepared to say, “Because He just is.” It was an article of faith. It was a fundamental assumption. It was so obvious that it had never been questioned. But, considered further, there was no doubt that God, the “One Creator,” “Our Saviour” and, has been mentioned earlier, “Smiter of Sinners” was entirely represented as a character of agency. He was definitely and unequivocally male.
 At that moment, Paredros, taking a walk with Demeter, Goddess of the harvest, pointed out to her that Wiley Roy was stealing a bag of corn. Enraged, she grabbed the nearest thunderbolt and hurled it at Wiley Roy. She missed, accidentally smiting the Reverend Pastor Bobby Thrasher dead. In the ensuing peal of thunder, Wiley Roy will always believe that he heard a rumbling laughter as a female voice cursed: “Damn, missed again.”