That One Time I Tried to Be Inspiring

Ten years ago(!), I graduated from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and I was honored to give a speech on behalf of my fellow graduates in Popular Fiction. I tried to be inspiring about writing our kind of fiction, but nobody stormed the Maine statehouse, so I guess it was a failure.

I think a lot of it still applies. Here’s what I said:

You know, there are days when I seriously doubt my writing will ever be as good as it was when I was seven, chasing the dog around my yard with the Millenium Falcon yelling “pyew! pyew! pyew!” I lived so much in stories then — talking to stuffed animals, looking for hobbits in the woods — that I was barely distinguishable from schizophrenic.

Don’t worry – I’m better now. Thanks for asking.

I suspect — I hope — that’s how it was for many of us graduating this evening, and I’m sure there are people out there in the audience who shudder to remember the symptoms of our madness: all those plays, skits, puppet shows, poetry readings, magic performances, comedy routines, concerts, and oh-so-many long-winded stories.

Don’t forget to thank them tonight. Or, you know, apologize.

Whatever forms it took then and takes now, we’re all crazy. We hear voices just like any hobo yelling at a mailbox – the only difference is that we know you don’t start a scene with dialogue. Most of us have lost any hope of pleasant neighborhood barbecues because we talk too much about the seas of Titan or the Manson family or the birthing habits of dragons…or all at the same time. People worry about us, and I think that’s a sure sign we’re doing something right.

I came to Stonecoast, perhaps like you, to learn how to be intelligently and usefully crazy. For two years, our wonderful mentors have shown us how to hold madness in asbestos gloves just long enough to get it on the page. We’ve studied the masters. We’ve critiqued the work of our peers. We’ve filled our mental toolboxes with structure and meter and point of view. We’ve discovered that the best writing is risky and dangerous.

We’ve learned, in other words, how to do it “right.” And, God, how I needed that.

But the worst thing that could happen after Stonecoast, I think, is for us to let all the intelligence and usefulness we’ve learned to overcome the crazy. It would be terrible to lose all we’ve learned by trying to hold it too consciously, failing to trust that the voices of our teachers and our friends will come again when we need them.

Because that madness we share, that reckless abandon, is really our only hope of making something wondrous. It’s the fuel by which we get out of our minds —  risking our comfort, giving ourselves away, revealing the feelings that most people don’t. All that’s left is to decide whether we’ll get enough out of our minds to escape the gravity of ordinary life, and whether we’ll achieve enough lift to take others with us.

It’s easy to call what we do escapism, and I certainly don’t deny it. Stories of ghosts and spaceships helped me escape a harrowing youth to be sure, and I see all too many things worth escaping as an adult, too. I don’t think escapism is a bad thing, especially when we’re escaping the tedious patterns of existence, the prejudices that confine us, the fears that estrange us from ourselves.

Either people can be as noble and adventuresome and intelligent as they are in our fantasy stories, or they can’t. If they can, then our “escapist” fictions are the experimental conscience of our culture. If they can’t, then our “escapist” fictions are the last refuge of the human spirit from the coming darkness.

Either way, people are counting on our ability to escape. They’re counting on the demented and relentless verve we had when we told ourselves the stories as if nobody was looking. Art is never stopping short, and if it is worth doing at all — worth the dedication of our lives — it’s worth overdoing, right?

School’s out, my friends. Go play.

Star Trek: Rediscovery

I’m not embarrassed to tell the world that Star Trek (most of all the original series, their movies, and the Next Generation) saved me.

I could have been a far worse person and I was well on my way as a very angry teenager, but I learned that there are things we can do about disastrous events and disastrous people…and they all begin with retaining the idealism to know what is possible and remembering that there are good people, too.

Sometimes I forget how lucky I am that I crossed paths with Norman Amemiya, who reminded me how good Star Trek was and took me to conventions like Necronomicon where I saw that there were other people like us, geeks with hopes.

I’ve watched a lot of Star Trek in my 47 years, and some of it has been godawful. Some of it has been cheap, and some of it has been corporate, and some of it has been dumbed down for a “general audience.” We shouldn’t forget “Spock’s Brain” or “Skin of Evil” or that weird-ass Irish ghost episode.

But tonight I saw the last episode of this third season of Discovery, and I’m reminded of why the show matters so much to me and why this particular incarnation of it is what I need now, even with its imperfections. Perhaps it is what a lot of us need now, especially after yesterday.

It’s sometimes hard to watch Star Trek and then check the news.

The show hasn’t always done a good job of reconciling its idealism with the reality we see all around us that there are a lot of people who prefer us all being low because that’s “who we really are”: competitive animals for whom cooperation is weakness and hope is delusion. Usually, the show sweeps us under the rug as living in the dark times.

But this third season of Discovery gets it right, just when we need it most. In the fractured Federation, many have decided that it is better to embrace the “reality” of self-interest and brutality …and then the U.S.S. Discovery arrives with old-fashioned ideals of what we can be.

All my life, I’ve struggled with what I call the intractable problem of assholes, fighting the ones who intend to be mean but saving the ones who are only accidentally so.  

What this season of Discovery reminds me is that we solve that problem just like the crew of the Discovery, by finding our people one by one and then (re)building from the small corner within our reach.

We win by living what we want to be, not what we’re trying to leave behind.

That’s a lot to say about something discussed in a boardroom at CBS and likely engineered to make me feel this way. But I detect in the show and especially its actors that they believe in it like we did in the 60s and 70s and again in the 90s.

And they’re making me believe in it again, too.

Norman, the Catalyst

My assertion since pretty much the moment I met Norman Amemiya was that he was a genius too wrapped up in cosmic thoughts to notice that he’d, say, left an open bottle of Coke in the front pocket of his pants before sitting down, or locked his keys in his running car parked in a fire lane during a thunderstorm, or left a mysterious streak of something like coal soot in a ring in my bathtub.

(All of which he did actually do, plus causing at least two vehicle fires.)

Not many people believed me when I said he was a genius, but they’d never seen him calculate figures in his head like I had or heard the bizarre connections he made between pop culture artifacts that he assumed were deliberate Easter eggs. He helped me program my Apple II+ to draw a Mandelbrot Set that took eighteen hours to render. He could always be relied upon to say something utterly deranged but also utterly wise.

Plus, the astounding flamboyance of his many bizarre fuck ups couldn’t possibly be the result of simple error or incompetence. They had an…ambition to them. They didn’t happen from trying too little but from trying too much.

It took me four years to even discover that he’d died.

That’s exactly something he’d do.

I met Norman during a perfect storm of awkwardness when I was in the eighth grade right after my parents divorced. My friend Mike took me to Norman’s house to meet him, but he stopped me on the front porch of this wooden cottage concealed in a lush carapace of foliage and said, “Hey, he can be a little weird, so don’t act surprised.”

“Okay,” I thought. I knew weird. After all, Mike and I played Dungeons and Dragons and fought with PVC pipe swords behind his mother’s pet store.

We knocked on the door and a hunched Asian man came staggering out onto the porch. He was wearing something like a pilot’s jumpsuit unzipped to the waist with the arms tightened around like a belt. Underneath was a yellowing undershirt. He had thick smoky glasses, slick black hair, unkempt eyebrows, and a walnut shade of skin.

“Hello!” he shouted in a voice that I can (and do) mimic to this day, one that can only be mastered by raising your voice to a high nasal tone and crunching one side of your head into your shoulders like someone with a wry secret to share.

I don’t know if I fell back, but he definitely took me by surprise. He was way older than we were, though my guess at the time was maybe in his 20s.

He welcomed us in.

Things Norman Introduced Me To, in No Particular Order

  • My friend William Simmons
  • Role-playing and wargames like Toon, Traveller, Paranoia, Car Wars, and Illuminati
  • Conventions, especially Necronomicon in Tampa
  • Space Gamer magazine
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The movie Dark Star
  • Dr. Demento
  • Weird Al Yankovic
  • Monty Python
  • Fractals, the Mandelbrot Set, and Conway’s Game of Life
  • Robotech
  • The Prisoner
  • Twin Peaks

That last one staggers me to type. He recorded the episodes for me off of broadcast television and the first time I saw the show, it was shrouded in otherworldly static like it came from a far off place.

At his heart, Norman was a combination of David Lynch and Yoda, a person who found the wisdom in weirdness. 

#

We started an ad hoc science fiction and gaming club, meeting at his house once a week. That stopped, though, when I came to the door one time and overheard his father yelling at him for having guests over so often. I could hear Norman flinching from blows, and I skulked back home to invite him over to my house instead.

My mother was worried about an older man who wanted to play games with middle schoolers, but when she met him she could tell that whatever strange thing he was, it wasn’t a child molester. She let me go to conventions with him, and it was a rare week that his powder blue Volkswagen pick-up truck wasn’t parked in our driveway with its Don’t Panic and Libra bumper stickers on the back.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that the force who drove my abusive and violent father from our lives for good was a limping, hunch-backed science fiction fan.

My father used to stop by often after the divorce, mostly to steal tools and poke around the house for things. Sometimes he’d bring a gift for me, trying to convince me to come live with him instead (thus becoming a source of child support payments instead of the recipient of them).

One time, I was terrified to see him slow down in his car to visit when Norman’s truck was in the driveway, but when my father saw it, he peeled away and never came over again.

So yeah, it was Norman who delivered the coup de grace to my lingering father with his +2 Sword of Being Mistaken for My Mother’s New Boyfriend.

#

Norman had a wide variety of strange physical tics, from his high-pitched nasal voice to a curious tendency to fall asleep at random times, including behind the wheel of a moving car. The most significant was a limp, greatly pronounced by his fast loping walk. 

The way he got it may be the quintessential Norman story.

Norman had wanted to be a physicist, but years of bullying at various schools (including community college) had driven him away. He made money by selling games at conventions and by mowing lawns in his neighborhood, usually towing the mower behind his bicycle from yard to yard. 

Near his house was a wide blind curve for a two-lane highway, and Norman began pedaling across one day without seeing or hearing the speeding college kid in a BMW coming his way.

(Insert your own observations about class and privilege here.)

Norman remembered nothing about the actual collision, but his memory restarted when he awakened in a knotted heap jammed into the sunroof of the car. His leg was broken in several places, and he spent months in the hospital rehabilitating. He walked with a cane for years and then simply with the limp.

That story used to make me laugh a lot more than it does these days.

#

Though I relied often on Norman for rides, I have to admit I sometimes worried as a teenager about being seen with him.

One time, we crossed into the busiest intersection in our town and halfway through, I heard the thump of his accelerator pedal falling off the lever onto the floor. I instantly tensed, worried about being caught by all those watching eyes.

Without saying anything and in one fluid motion, he reached behind him, pulled out a length of wire, threaded it through the screw hole in the accelerator pedal lever, and pulled on the wire to drive us the rest of the way home.

I always used to marvel at Norman’s ingenuity, but then I realized he’d learned it from an extraordinarily shitty life, some of it the result of his own choices (being terrible with money and unambitious for work) and some of it the result of being weird and smart and Japanese in a place that didn’t much like those things. 

#

Norman came to my mother’s wedding, and afterward we went to Waldenbooks at the mall. On the way back, a drunk sunburned man in a sports car swerved in front of us and I squinted at him through the windshield, trying to figure out what his problem was.

He saw that, did a U-turn, and ran us off the road. Then he came up to my open passenger window and hit me flat-palmed in the face.

After he drove away, Norman wailed, “Why did you provoke him? Keep a low profile. A looowwww profile!”

That’s how he survived.

Norman wasn’t a saint. He was strangely unabashed about his interest in porn, especially of the animated variety. When he stayed at my house later in our lives, he’d wake up before dawn and watch cartoons loudly on TV. He liked to poke around in cabinets and had an uncanny knack for eating foods my significant others were hiding for themselves.

And I wasn’t always a great friend to him. I got him a job with the inventory service I worked for in high school, and the men who worked for it would call him “Hopsing” and make merciless fun of him. I wasn’t above it either, though much more rarely because at heart I admired the things about him that they thought were funny.

He met me at the apex of my teenage assholery, and he tolerated me listening to the same song over and over again on a road trip or running role-playing games by my own warped sense of story. He accepted me for that and I accepted him for all his weirdness, too. I was impressed by his lifelong fight against the way you’re supposed to live in favor of the way he wanted to.

In the midst of a melodramatic high school breakup, I asked Norman for a ride home. When I got in the car, I asked him, “Norman, does good triumph over evil?”

He considered that (probably in the context of a lifetime of bullying and pressure to be whatever passes for normal), and he said, slowly, “Yes. And at the very least, good triumphs over bad.”

When I learned that he died from complications from undiagnosed diabetes, his ant-like passion for sugar and his sudden sleeping spells and his curious mental fogs began to make sense. Still, I hope his weirdness wasn’t simply a set of symptoms but a chosen rebellion against a world that wasn’t good enough for him.

I’ve tried my best to keep up the fight ever since I met him, and though I can pass as normal a little more easily than he could, I’m still a saboteur in enemy country and always will be, thanks to him.

My Father, the Zodiac, and Donald Trump Walk Into a Bar

It was important to me as a kid that evil people be smart. My father’s education and erudition made his awfulness seem more…purposeful, perhaps, more like a brilliant idea gone horribly wrong than an accident of testosterone. It’s somehow worse to be beaten by a thug than by a genius.

You take the comforts where you can.

Which is why Robert Graysmith’s book Zodiac was so important to me when I read it in the late 1980s: I needed to know that some of the people who hurt us are just too brilliant to stop, and there was nothing we could do.

I thought about that yesterday when I read the Zodiac killer’s 340-character message from more than fifty years ago, cracked by some brilliant sleuths. As expected, it’s a window into the mind of a troubled genius:

I HOPE YOU ARE HAVING LOTS OF FUN IN TRYING TO CATCH ME

THAT WASNT ME ON THE TV SHOW

WHICH BRINGS UP A POINT ABOUT ME

I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE GAS CHAMBER

BECAUSE IT WILL SEND ME TO PARADICE ALL THE SOONER

BECAUSE I NOW HAVE ENOUGH SLAVES TO WORK FOR ME

WHERE EVERYONE ELSE HAS NOTHING WHEN THEY REACH PARADICE

SO THEY ARE AFRAID OF DEATH

I AM NOT AFRAID BECAUSE I KNOW THAT MY NEW LIFE IS

LIFE WILL BE AN EASY ONE IN PARADICE DEATH

Or…maybe not so much.

What’s interesting about this message (other than it being almost certainly written by an acne-scarred edgelord beating off in his mother’s basement), is that it took half a century to decipher not so much because of its intricate execution or sophisticated message, but because the code was sloppy and the message a banal repetition of his letters to the press.

All this time, we’ve been applying diabolical logic to a man with the mind of a 13-year-old boy who assaulted the easiest targets he could manage and claimed credit for the ones he couldn’t.

(Which does not diminish the hard work of the codebreakers at all; the crack is an amazing achievement of patience and insight.)

Hannah Arendt wrote long ago about how disappointing the “master race” of Nazis proved to be once they finally stood in the dock for their crimes, and I found the same thing when I spoke to my father again after twenty years of silence. As I listened to his misapplied vocabulary and cliched insight, I realized that he was never smarter than any of the people he harmed…only more comfortable faking it.

For decades of my life, I’ve studied (and written about) terrible people, trying to find some malevolent intelligence: Lee Harvey Oswald. Gary Ridgeway. John Wayne Gacy. Joseph De Angelo. Dennis Rader. Ted Bundy. Charles Manson. Idi Amin. Jim Jones. The 9/11 hijackers. Osama bin Laden.

My father was nowhere near as bad as the Nazis or any of these other men, of course, but he was the earliest reason in my life to question what good people could do about bad ones. What do they have in common, aside from being males who feel entitled to harm others for their pleasure?

For a time, we applied the best intelligence we had to stopping them, and when that didn’t work, we thought it was because they were smarter than us.

But when we finally found them, they all turned out to be lucky idiots who flowed between the gaps of our assumptions. They were all mediocre people who found evil easier than even the smallest effort for good and who patched their inadequacies with shortcuts and con games and violence.

The reason we didn’t catch them right away wasn’t that it was hard to think up to their level…it’s that it was hard to think down to it, to take on the banal reasoning of desperate losers.

I’m not sure what that means for thwarting these horrible people while they’re at the height of their power, except perhaps that we should remember that every single one of them turned out to be lesser than us, not greater. Every single one.

I have no idea who the Zodiac is, though I suspect that someone like Arthur Leigh Allen is perhaps pathetic enough to be a likely culprit. What I do know is that when we discover his identity, he will be a staggering disappointment of a human being.

Such men cause great harm and havoc, but their times are always brief.

Sometimes only one term.

Postcard Story: Getting Away

Living now on the gulf coast of Florida, Dan sometimes misses the gray, chilled Thanksgivings of what used to be home, but not too much. He got in all the gray chill he’d ever need nearly half a century ago on a single evening that ended his old life and started a new one.

Sometimes as he walks the beach in a pair of paint-spattered cargo shorts, he can see the end of this second life coming without much hope for a third, but he’s not greedy. He’s never been greedy, not for life or for fame or even for money. Once he needed $200,000 and that’s just what he asked for, not a penny more, which is probably why he got it.

The universe punishes greed, that’s one thing Dan has always believed, though not in a particularly religious way. It’s just inefficient, and a man with an excess of money is as much at a disadvantage for survival as a rabbit with an excess of food – slow and complacent and surprised when the owl swoops.

Dan usually stops around the same spot on the jetty each day to talk to the Fishing Blowhard among his PVC fishing pole holders and bucket of rancid-smelling shrimp. The Fishing Blowhard probably has a real name, but Dan hasn’t bothered to learn it because it couldn’t possibly be as descriptive.

The Fishing Blowhard is about Dan’s age, and the main problem with being old, Dan has found, is that other old people assume you’ve followed the same ruts your whole lives from the idealistic 50s to the hippie 60s to the hedonistic 70s to the greedy (yes) 80s to the head-scratching 90s when the computers and young people took over.

For instance, the Fishing Blowhard assumes that Dan was at Woodstock, even though neither of them were, and that they both narrowly escaped going to Vietnam, which Dan didn’t. The Fishing Blowhard also assumes that Dan’s back is crooked from the weight of decades of beer instead of a sudden impact on the aluminum underbelly of a 727 at 10,000 feet.

Lesson learned: it turns out that the CIA reinforced their aft airstairs from the wind during the drops over Laos while commercial carriers didn’t. That gives them a wicked bounce when you jump from the last step and into the night.

“Dan the Man!” cries the Fishing Blowhard in the same way every day as there’s a string to pull in the center of his spine. “Danbo! My beer buddy! Grab a brew and let’s scare the fish together!”

Dan peers into the cooler of mostly melted ice in which three cans of Old Milwaukee float like pale turds. He prefers bourbon but reaches in and takes one of the cans.

“You out here hiding from the hens and the chicks?” The Fishing Blowhard opens Dan’s beer for him. “Me, too. Fucking Thanksgiving turns the condo into a madhouse, all those women and kids bumping around the kitchen. I say leave them to it, right?”

Dan nods. Back in his little cottage on stilts, his wife is sitting out on the balcony with a David Baldacci novel while the oven does all the work.

“We did our part by bringing in the money, right?” says the Fishing Blowhard. “It’s their job to spend and eat it.”

Dan doesn’t remember Gretchen ever eating money, but maybe the Fishing Blowhard’s family has different ways.

“It used to be simple, didn’t it? A man, his wife, a couple of kids, you eat the bird and watch the game and take a nap. But then the kids have to have kids, and then there’s some idiot Democrat brother-in-law just out of rehab, and maybe an old bag from the church whose husband croaked on the riding lawnmower, and suddenly your home is an insane asylum.”

Dan’s family is small; he and Gretchen never had kids, never wanted any, and he has been content to watch his sister’s children grow up way better than they might have without $200,000 to move from Tacoma to Ontario where a psychopath couldn’t follow.

That’s what we used to call an extraction, Dan thinks.  

He doesn’t often imagine the Thanksgivings that might have happened with fucking Lonnie still sitting at the head of the table, screaming at Sandy and Gavin, maybe grabbing one of them by the arm and twisting like he’d seen more than once even with guests in the house. If he tries hard enough, he can imagine Janie, too, slowly caving in from the inside with her sinking eyes and rangy limbs while she watched her children fade from their hearts on outward.

“You know what I like about you, Danbo? You don’t say much. I’ve always thought that the real badasses in this world are the guys who don’t have to talk. You can just, you know, feel their badassery.”

“I’m not a badass,” Dan says.

A badass, especially one with certain kinds of friends, might have showed up one day while Janie and the kids were at the movies watching Black Beauty or Willy Wonka. He might have knocked and waited and when Lonnie answered, he’d have plugged him with one of those handy one-shot pistols they’d given to the ARVN guys in Vietnam.

But that would have been greedy, presuming to be the employee of justice. That’s what had lost them the war, and that’s what would have lost him his family because they track down murderers a lot more carefully than they do hijackers.  

“Get the fuck out,” the Fishing Blowhard says. “We’re all badasses if we’ve lived this long, am I right? You provide for a family, that makes you a badass.”

“Maybe so,” Dan says.

“I don’t know much about you, Dan, but I do know this: you’ve got the look of a dude who’s seen some shit. And you know what you deserve?”

Life in prison for air piracy? Dan wonders.

“You deserve to walk this beach on all the pretty days until they’re gone. That’s what I’d give you if it was up to me.”

Deserve. That’s a word that Dan doesn’t think much about. It’s hard to guess whether Northwest Orient Airlines stockholders deserved that $200,000 or Janie did, whether he deserved to notice the one dummy parachute instead of plunging at terminal velocity into the Earth, whether he deserved the strange thrill and privilege to be a man in a business suit flying with thousands of dollars strapped to his body above the Douglas firs and the winding streams, descending through the freezing mist to break only an ankle on the rocks.

Deserving means someone or something is doing the judging, the choosing, and if there’s one thing Dan knows, it’s that nobody deserves anything but sometimes they get it anyway.

And sometimes, we’re lucky enough to be the ones doing the giving.

Dan claps his hand on the Fishing Blowhard’s Hawaiian shirt spotted with Woodie wagons and says, “So far so good.”

The Fishing Blowhard raises his beer. “Here’s to getting away.”

Dan wonders, worries, but for only a moment because the Fishing Blowhard is only ever accidentally right, like most of us.

“Here’s to exactly that,” he says.

Uncle Dan Sure is Quiet around Thanksgiving

On November 24, 1971, a man calling himself Dan Cooper boarded a Northwest Orient flight from Portland International Airport to Seattle. Not long after take-off, he passed a note to a flight attendant claiming he had a bomb in his briefcase. He demanded $200,000, four parachutes, and a fuel truck standing by in Seattle.

He got them.

After releasing the passengers and refueling the plane, Cooper ordered the flight crew to take off again on a southeast course toward Mexico City. He had them fly low with the landing gear extended and the cabin unpressurized. The low speed and high drag burned through fuel more quickly than expected and so they altered course to refuel in Reno.

Long before they got there, though, an indicator light in the cockpit showed the aft stairs had been extended. A few minutes later, the tail of the plane jumped as though someone had taken his leave.

By most accounts, Cooper was a badass: he knew the terrain, he knew the equipment and tolerances for the 727 aircraft, he knew to have the interior lights darkened on landing to thwart police snipers. The trick with the air stairs had been used by military and CIA operatives during Vietnam. He was calm. He was friendly, paying for the bourbon and waters he ordered including a tip.

All they ever found were a torn placard from the 727’s rear exit in 1978 and three packets of the ransom cash buried under silt in the Columbia River in 1980. There was DNA on the tie but it hasn’t been matched to anyone. No one is sure if the money was deliberately buried or washed there.

Law enforcement likes to say that none of the ransom money has ever been spent, but when was the last time a clerk checked your twenty-dollar bill against the D.B. Cooper ransom cash serial number list? All Cooper would have to do was wait a year or two, go to some small town elsewhere in the country, deposit a few grand here and there in local banks and then write checks between them to accumulate it again.

Assuming that he made it, of course.

Of the parachutes Cooper did take, one was a training dummy — undeployable. It was accidentally included among the four. So it is possible that poor ol’ Cooper chose the wrong parachute, yanked on the cord, and came away with a plastic handle and ten inches of rope in his hands as he plummeted to the ground.

I like to imagine that Dan Cooper’s final word was, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccckkkkkkkkkkkkk!”

Unless, that is, the torn safety placard was the last thing Cooper managed to grab before being sucked out of the plane instead of executing a jump at all. In that case, his final word was, “Shhhhiiiiiiiiitttttttt!” followed quickly by the thump of his body against the tail of the plane.

Is he dead or alive? What’s my theory?

There are really just two possibilities.

  • Cooper died during the jump or soon after. The weather was bad, the temperatures were brutal, and the terrain was unforgiving — towering trees and sharp rocks.
  • Cooper somehow survived insane winds and cold, landed in the scary wilderness with only manageable injury, and avoided law enforcement for the next fifty years by spending his money wisely. If this is true, it makes him THE GREATEST AMERICAN WHO EVER LIVED. The SEALS who bagged Bin Laden look like Boy Scouts compared to this mother fucker.

I know which one I prefer. I prefer to think of an elderly man, a grandfather or great-grandfather now, who quietly reads the paper as grandchildren frolic around him on Thanksgiving and occasionally slips one a twenty-dollar bill.

“Get yourself something nice, kiddo,” he says.

And when some blowhard at a party brags about his golf score or shows off his Porsche or declares himself a captain of industry, this old man nods politely and absolutely does NOT say, “I jumped out of a fucking 727 with two hundred grand strapped to my waist. Now I build birdhouses.”

Then he watches his episode of In Search Of again with a bourbon and water.

Really, 2020? Edgar?

Yesterday, I took Edgar to the vet because he hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours and seemed lethargic. An X-ray found fluid around his lungs again (as in June) and we decided to drain it again. Edgar perked up after the procedure but went into cardiac arrest very quickly afterward. He died around noon while I was on a conference call two miles away.

I write more obituaries than anything else these days, it seems: my mother, my father, Norman, Nori, human society. I’m getting pretty good at it despite (or maybe because of) the basic selfishness of the task: “Look at me! I understand this person completely and can taxidermy them forever in words!”

I’m tired of being a literary taxidermist, but words are the only interesting way I express feelings.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t filming the bike ride I took yesterday after Edgar’s passing when, distracted and out of sorts, I squeezed the gear shifters instead of the brakes and smashed into a trash can at 15 miles per hour. It’s hard to beat the eloquence of being thrown into the middle of the street and landing on my back as a metaphor for how I feel about losing Edgar.

Maybe my reluctance to get up is even more eloquent.

I don’t much like living in a universe that finds it necessary to take Edgar away after only nine years. It seems petty. It seems small. You’d think one cat who happened to like rubbing against my face as though I was his favorite could get to live a little longer, but here we are.

Edgar was a wonderful cat with a lot of personality who loved people (but maybe me a little more). He yelled in the mornings and the evenings to be fed, and also sometimes randomly during the day like a mental patient arguing with the couch.

He groomed the other cats and Sylvia if they’d sit still. He glowered at us defiantly when he used the litter box. He shook his dry cat food in his jaws like he was trying to break its neck. He slept on my legs at night, or sometimes on top of the TV receiver or the laundry.

On the Thanksgiving after my mother died, he made sure to console each person around the table one by one.

He was, as we like to say about animals, a good boy. He was also (to me) a companion unlike any I’ve had, a constant source of love and encouragement: as long as I kept the kibble coming, I was still okay in his book.

I’ll miss him terribly. And I’ll miss who I was to him.

So You Managed to Rig the Election

First let me say my hat is off to you. That’s an ambitious achievement requiring the cooperation of hundreds of conspirators, and you’re clearly putting your Six Sigma project management certifications to good use. If you weren’t a black belt before, you should be one now.

Or a BLUE one, am I right?

Our demon prince is up by four million votes nationally, but it’s of course absurd that you’d have forged that many votes.

No, you were far more devious.

  • You convinced an innocent but adventurous foodie at the Wuhan wet market to eat a particularly sick-looking bat. Maybe you used a gun or just a nice orange pepper glaze, I don’t know.
  • With a worldwide network of agents, you guided the spread of the illness to your ultimate target, the United States.
  • There, the virus ran rampant and set up the chess board for your ultimate objective: a population worried enough by sickness to cast a large number of plausible mail-in votes for your manipulation.
  • But first, you needed the ultimate unstoppable candidate: an elderly milquetoast Washington insider with an unambitious legislative agenda and some slightly creepy behaviors toward women’s hair. Just, you know, to keep it plausible.
  • A candidate like that required the support of deeply angry and radical people, so you stoked the fires of racial hatred by encouraging the only ten racist police officers in America to act out their fantasies as visibly and violently as possible.
  • The ensuing protests unfolded in your perfectly orchestrated ballet of support for the only candidate who could truly advance our socialist agenda of white extermination: Joseph Biden.
  • You could have stopped there, but the cherry on top was finding a Black female prosecutor who will one day take the reins of government and drive our national chariot into total communism.
  • All you had to do next was generate thousands of ballots in a half dozen key states, each printed specially for a particular voting district.  
  • Then, offering day-old sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, you hired a hundred mentally-ill homeless people (also across six states) to carefully color in the correct circles for Joseph R. Biden.
  • Luckily, you had a sharp-eyed QA team checking each one and beating homeless men when they kept trying to fill out Jo Jorgensen by “accident.”
  • When it was all over, you herded most of them into a tunnel of rotating blades and rendered them into a delicious beige slurry for IAMS. (Net profit: $1.4 million.)
  • To cover your bets, you blackmailed several programmers hired by Siebold to embed pro-Biden glitches in the code of electronic voting machines. Luckily, the project owners were NOT Six Sigma-certified like you are and could not find the inserted code.
  • Election day almost went exactly as planned, but those plucky Trump voters managed to pry themselves from their sweat-soaked recliners to vote. We always underestimate the courage and conviction of the simple, God-fearing folk and we need to stop doing that.
  • So you had to bring in our crack teams of vote fraud specialists, already poised in the likeliest states for razor-thin margins: Georgia, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania.
  • You quickly printed more mail-in ballots for the inner city voting precincts from a company we later firebombed for total deniability.
  • Then your teams completed more ballots, sealed them, postmarked them with machines stolen from the post office, and slipped them unseen into the voting count centers while descending from wire harnesses.
  • To show their total commitment to endless silence for the cause, those teams then severed their own tongues and cut off their own fingers so they could never reveal their role.
  • Finally, after several days of completely smooth counting hidden away from the gaze of the entire world, our ballots tipped the balance to the dark prince was declared victorious.

It staggers the imagination, comrade. There will one day be statues in your honor, big concrete ones two hundred feet tall with stern jawlines.

But today, you must die and take your glory with you.

Time Capsule 2020

I’m going to Lowe’s today to buy a giant slab of marble on which I can carve an explanation of these times to the survivors wandering the smoldering hellscape. It’ll take awhile, I know, but what else am I doing?

Greetings, traveler! Tarry a moment from your scrounging for canned food and read these words of explanation for the horrors you behold!

Three generations of Americans, trained by bad movies and television to believe that heroism is the pursuit of an ideal without compromise or compassion, discovered a place where we could feel the endorphin rush of fighting evil but with none of the risk: the Internet.

Online, we chose our sides between the Enjoyers of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s good because it makes us hard) and the Resisters of Brutal Truths (life is hard and that’s bad because it makes us hard). We filtered our friends and our news by the dramatic passion they enflamed, and we competed to assert our commitment to the tribe with ever more exaggerated perspectives and actions. We made hasty judgments on sketchy information and then rationalized the results.

Constant and instant exposure to both the worst people we agreed with and the worst ones we didn’t distorted our perceptions of the importance, frequency, and scope of the problems we fought to solve. With no mitigating perspectives, we developed over-simplified theories of how the world works and pursued them off a cliff.

Inevitably, we dared each other to prove our commitment to our theories in the real world. Every occurrence became a symbol of why we were right, and every action became a desperate do-or-die fight for the nature of reality.

Two million years of outdated and unquestioned human evolutionary software turned us into self-righteous “heroes” fighting for the things we were most blindly wrong about.

If you’ve found this, we didn’t figure it out in time.