Pascal and Aquinas
PSOne Subject 2945:
A dialogue of Blaise Pascal and Thomas Aquinas regarding the existence of God
As a minor member of the research team involved in the original design of the device (very minor. I was the one in charge of Coffee Unit 26–the only unit to make it through the entire project without any maintenance difficulties!), I was not given access to the Personality Simulator One (PSOne) until late summer, 2068. Most of my colleagues had already simulated the most important historical personalities in the three years since the PSOne had come online, and in all honesty they performed a far better job than I could ever have hoped to accomplish. So it was with resignation that I perused the remaining list of historical figures in an attempt to find personalities who were important enough to bother with while simultaneously being documented in enough detail to produce a decent simulation. My selections? Blaise Pascal and Thomas Aquinas. As a philosophical-theistic-media-analysis minor, I had always been fascinated by their separate attempts to philosophically analyze the existence/nonexistence of God, and my involvement with the PSOne represented an ideal opportunity.
Blaise Pascal, the son of a lawyer/mathematician, was born in Clermont, France in 1623 and is more famous as a mathematician, inventor and scientist in his own right than as a philosopher. Throughout his life he had always been a very clever and pragmatic man, with rational and scientific inquiry being his modus operandi of choice. But following a carriage accident at the age of 31 he began publishing anonymous letters regarding religious philosophy. (O’Connor) His mathematically logical mind helped his arguments on religion to be particularly penetrating. It seemed, from reading his collected thoughts, that his mind looked from his secular and rational roots towards religion. This is the direct opposite of my second subject, Thomas Aquinas.
The second selection for the simulator, Thomas Aquinas, was a very different kind of man entirely. Born centuries earlier, in 1225, near Naples, Italy, Aquinas spent his entire life immersed in the religious establishment. He was tutored by a formidable and encyclopedic teacher named Albert and under his instruction proceeded to become at first acquainted with and then attracted to Aristotle’s thoughts. Since he was a very religious man, he sought to reconcile the teachings of his favored classical philosopher with his own theological beliefs. (Stumpf, 176-178) From this he developed an interesting set of rational arguments seeking to justify his pre-set faith. Therefore, Aquinas presented an interesting contrast to my first subject, Pascal, in that he seemed to be looking from religious roots towards rationalism.
In any case, it took me months to compile a personality profile for the two. Starting with their collected first person works and proceeding with second hand accounts and empirical biographical information, I fed the PSOne data on the two subjects until it indicated that it was ready to go.
The Pascal simulation was brought online with a subjective age of 40, the year after his real death. (O’Connor) This allowed for his simulated self to be able to recall all of his collective writings and accomplishments without presenting him with confusion or deja-vu artifacting. (my colleague, Fred Peterson, attempted to simulate Mark Twain at an age before his descent into bitterness and produced an unqualified failure; one which I had no desire to repeat.) I placed Pascal’s simulation on a bench in a European church, one of the few environments I believed both subjects would feel comfortable within.
Second into the simulation was Thomas Aquinas at a chronologically subjective 50 years of age, also shortly after his real death. He was placed on a bench nearby the simulated Pascal. To make the subjects comfortable, they were both made to wear simple monks’ habits. As a point of vanity and convenience, I gave each man my own face–there were no mirrors in the cathedral, so neither man would notice. Bandages were also placed on their heads and each was given a slight headache.
The PSOne indicated that both personalities had been brought online and were “looking” around in wonder and confusion. Aquinas gazed at his surroundings, a church he had visited and stayed at many times while in Rome, and then examined his strange companion. “How did I get here? I was...sick?” (Stumpf 178)
“In truth, I do not know you, man. And I do now know how I came to be here myself, or even where we are,” Blaise looked down at his clothes and then back toward Aquinas with interest. “All I know is that we wear monk’s robes, and sit in a church. My name is Blaise. Who might you be?”
“My name is Thomas. And I can help on where we are. This is the church of Santa Sabina, in Rome!” (Badenhorst) Aquinas spread his arms wide and half turned, admiring the familiar architecture, “I have no idea why we are here, but my brothers have always been accomodating of visitors. No matter why we are here, you can be assured that we are in good hands with the Dominicans.”
“Ah, the Dominicans. I have heard of this place. It comforts me to hear that. But...why are we here?”
It was with trepidition that I then sent a non-descript avatar into the simulation under my direct control. In the form of a simple peasant boy dressed in rags, my avatar walked up to the two men and asked them one question: “Please, sirs. I know you are still recovering from your accident, but the brothers tell me you are good teachers. I know and fear God, but...how do I know God exists?”
Aquinas looked from the strange teen to his new companion and back again. “Accident, hmm? Well, I’m sure we’ll soon learn the truth of our situation. But the brothers must have been lax in their duties to have left a young one such as you in such a state of doubt! Or perhaps they sent you as a joke? No matter. This is as pleasant a way as any to pass the time, and I love to teach, it is true! Well, young one, what do you know of cause and effect?”
Directing the avatar to avert his eyes, I made him say tentatively, “Only that all effects follow causes.” Blaise, interest now piqued, looked to the avatar with interest.
Aquinas, in the voice of the experienced lecturer, continued, “Well then, it follows that all effects were preceded by causes, which were in themselves effects of earlier causes, right?” I had the avatar nod in acquiescence. “But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently, no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. It is, therefore, necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other. This first mover is God.” (Stumpf 669)
Blaise looked up in surprise and recognition at hearing these words of his new friend Thomas. “I have heard such an argument before, Thomas, in writings stored in a library by the brothers Jansen...but I have questions on it.”
The shabby youthful avatar forgotten for a moment, Aquinas’ eyebrows rose in curiosity and he turned to Blaise. “Well, and the writings of the Aquinas are wider spread than I had thought! Ask your questions, man. Perhaps I will teach two this afternoon!”
A deep breath by Pascal followed, and then Blaise began, “A first mover God, you speak of Thomas. Infinite movement, the point which fills everything, the moment of rest; infinite without quantity, indivisible and infinite. Necessary to provide existence with itself. Your analysis may seem sound, but it can only hint at the existence of a God.” his earnest face looked from Thomas’ eyes to the downcast visage of the avatar, “It is not sufficient to prove to our young man that the god is our God. I once wrote: ‘we know that there is an infinite, and are ignorant of its nature. As we know it to be false that numbers are finite, it is therefore true that there is an infinity in number. But we do not know what it is. It is false that it is even, it is false that it is odd; for the addition of a unit can make no change in its nature. Yet it is a number, and every number is odd or even (this is certainly true of every finite number). So we may well know that there is a God without knowing what He is.’ (Pensees,233) Reason is not, I think, allowed to reveal the true nature of God. He has hidden Himself from our knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; [Is. 45. 15. "Thou art a God that hidest thyself."] (Pensees, 194)”
A shrug and a gesture toward the pulpit came from Aquinas, followed by, “You speak of
revelation. I posit that God exists, and that the knowledge of his existence is reachable through reason. His doctrines, however, are a matter of revelation. I agree, my new friend Blaise, that reason cannot know all of God. Indeed, it would be blasphemous to regard such knowledge as attainable through anything other than faith.” (Stumpf 181)
Pascal responded, “I would say that there is no way for a man capable of reason to so blithely embrace even such revelation.” He then stood, looking skyward, “Oh, how I wish this were not so for me. But my reason makes certainty of His existence, or indeed His non-existence, unattainable!”
Aquinas, feeling sorry for his companion and troubled by his seeming doubt, walked to his side and laid his hand upon his shoulder. “Blaise, God’s nature is revealed in a man’s heart, and if your reason is closing your heart then it is faulty. Faith alone....”
Shaking his head, Blaise covered Thomas’ hand with his own and looked into his elder’s eyes. He spoke urgently, “Ah, but Thomas, I do believe. I believe in Him, and His scripture. I have no reason not to, and every reason to do so! If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing. For this reason I believe I cannot afford to not believe in Christ and His church.”
Thomas withdrew his hand, and recoiled in shock. “This....this...idea of yours is crass self-interest! It is no more based on faith than the honor of a moneylender! If this..wager...is the basis of your belief, then you are a fool to think God would accept it as anything more than hypocrisy.”
“But, Thomas, we must choose either God or no God. We cannot fail to choose. I am merely showing you the mechanism of my choice. Is the choice any less valid for it? My faith is true. I know who my Redeemer is, Dominican! But if reason is used, and I cannot deny we have reason and neither, I believe, would you, then it will force us to decide thus!”
Aquinas, arms at his side, cocked his head and spoke, “I am not comfortable with this, friend Blaise. I feel your heart may be clouded somehow. Reason is inapplicable to matters of doctrine. My use of reason is only in the service of existence, and I believe my proofs to be sufficient for that.”
“Ah, but the proof you sited, that of first-mover, ignores the paradox of infinity! You would state that God chose to move and the world was created. But if God is infinite, and without a beginning, then He existed for eternity before his act of creation. But you cannot define a point on an infinite line! How could you say when He created if he is infinite?”
“Blaise, I would say that God created eternally. That He is eternally engaged in the act of creation. And that His creation is real is a matter of revealed faith.”
Blaise seemed to be considering. “A matter of revelation, then Thomas.” He turned his head from Aquinas to the youth. “God exists. You cannot afford to deny Him, but if you should be so careless with your soul to attempt to deny Him in any case...then think on what Thomas has said. Perhaps his arguments shall be sufficient for you, even though they are not for me.”
My time on the PSOne was nearing a close. I could hear the one-minute alarm behind me, and began drawing the shutdown sequence on the pad in front of me. But first, I sent a message to my avatar.
“Thank you, sirs. I must go, the brothers should be here soon...” and with that the avatar turned its too-skinny body and scampered out of the church.
Thomas Aquinas sat, folding his hands in his lap. “Friend Blaise, I wish to continue this conversation further. But first I would like very much to greet my brothers and learn why we are here.”
Blaise looked towards the exit the youth had just ran out of, wondering why he saw absolutely nothing through the briefly opened door and nodded absently. “There will be time for us to talk, I am sure.”
But he was wrong. PSOne froze the scene and began its record dump into my personal file. I sat back and wrote a few notes to myself. Pascal and Aquinas; both were men with faith that could move mountains. Where they differed was in their use of reason. Aquinas felt that reason could prove the existence of God with absolute assurance. Pascal felt that reason could not prove or disprove His existence definitively. Reason, he thought, would merely force a man to believe in God in order to avoid the possible consequences of being wrong. But, in the end, the two men both agree that God exists, and that Jesus is their savior. I can safely disregard much of Aquinas’ logic due to the scientific debunking of his evidence, and Pascal’s wager is faulty in that it ignores any possibilities in-between the absolute denial and the complete acceptance of the Christian revelation. So, in the end, I didn’t agree with either man. But the conversation was one I felt made the whole procedure worthwhile. I had a paper to write!
As I left the lab, I passed a graduate student heading into the PSOne lab. I know him, and have heard he plans on resurrecting Gregory Heins and Fred Astaire for some crazy virtual dance competition. I cannot help wondering what sorts of revelations he might be after....
Badenhorst, Martin OP. “A Tour of Santa Sabina in Rome” Order of Preachers(Dominicans) [Online] 1999 URL
O'Connor, J J and Robertson, E F. "Blaise Pascal" The MacTutor History of Mathematics archive [Online] December 1996. URL
Pascal, Blaise. “Pensees” Great Voyages:History of Western Philosophy from 1492 to 1776 [Online] Winter 1997. URL
Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. “The Apex of Medieval Philosophy: The Scholastic System of St. Thomas Aquinas” Philosophy:History and Problems Fifth Ed, 175-199
Stumpf, Samuel Enoch. “Proving God’s Existence from Experience” Philosophy:History and Problems Fifth Ed, 668-670
SafeT for Grade School President
I should be class president because I will work harder than anyone else for you! In fact, I will strive to convince the local board of education to issue permanent hall passes to every man woman and child in this school and, god willing, in this entire school district.
Yes, friends, if I am elected, you will be able to roam the halls like packs of rabid ravenous rivening dogs and/or doglike quadrupedal creatures. Stand aside, status quo, because the hall pass culture is upon us!
Not enough of a reason, you say? Well, try this one on for size, kiddies. Each and every student will get their very own hamster pal complete with fun-ball, water bottle, locker-shelf sized hamster habitat complete with excersize wheel, and one semester's supply of hamster chow. This will serve two purposes at the same time for you, my stunningly attractive electorate:
You will have a small, cute, furry pal with you while you are wandering the halls under the protection of your permanent hall passes.
In the event of nuclear holocaust you will either have a small snack that can tide you over until the mutants arrive to rape you of your bodily organs and sew your body parts onto themselves or you have an adorably furry little bit genetic material with which to bond and form a new super human-hamster symbiont.
Surely this will be enough to bring you to the polls this friday, but if not, I am definitely willing to resort to fear-mongering. You asked for it, and if you didn't I will just assume you want it by default. All the rights afforded to you as a citizen of this student body. If you do NOT vote for me for class president, then the consequences will be quite dire indeed. Dire and ominous. Ominous and foul. Foul and furious. Furious and dangerous. Dangerous and rhinoserous. Rhinoserous and elephantine. Elephantine and epiphinacal. Epiphinacal and unical. Unical and United Way. And when the United Way has taken over and given the sovereignty of this, your hallowed halls of education, over to the godless socialists of the United Nations then....OH THEN!!!!! THEN you shall find yourself quickly without your rights!Of this hot, beautiful, attractive and athletic student body. If that happens you will all certainly become geeks, nerds and beggars and will develop an atrocious acne problem of biblical proportions.
This nightmare could easily come true, my friends. And if you want that, then go ahead and vote for my opponant. The UN will be on our flag, and blue helmets will wander the halls on corn-and-mayonaise day.*
DID I just say corn-and-mayonaise day? YES I DID. You heard me. If my opponant is elected school president, you will have nothing to eat at lunch the first tuesday of each month besides CORN AND MAYONAISE. I have heard from anonymous sources from within my opponant's organization that he will not only institute this despicable dietary program, but will make it mandatory. That's right, no one will be allowed to leave school premises during luch nor will they be allowed to bag their own lunch on corn and mayonaise day. I haven't even gotten to the liverworst and meunster day.
So, what is it going to be, my fellow students? Life with hall passes and hamsters, or life under a UN mandate with loose bowels as your only comfort?
Thank you and god speed, my orgasmically gorgious electorate.* Corn and Mayonaise day stolen from Invader Zim.
Autopilot of the Damned
This short story was written in 2005
I'm not much for flying, but the Altris Specialized System Design Integration Conference (ASS-DIC for short) was being held in L.A., and that was just too damn far from Chicago for me to drive. There, at ASS-DIC, my colleagues anxiously awaited me and my new bio-feedback skull-harness to amaze and inspire them. So I sat on the tarmac, my prototype harness on my head, staring at my laptop which was perched on the rediculously tiny seat-back tray; I waited for the tired looking pilot-man to direct us to shut down our electronic devices and get ready for take-off. Some people call me a geek, and I guess from their point of view it might be so. But I prefer hacker, albeit a paranoid and obsessive hacker. So in the brief run-up to take-off I donned my skull harness and used bio-feedback mind commands to load our flight path up on my Microsoft Flight Simulator. Hey, why not? I just want to know where I am, and how things are going, and if our pilot is competent and...well....I soon had the flight setup on the screen and the scenario ready to execute the moment I thought, “go.” Nothing left for me to do until take-off, so I sat up and craned my neck to look around the over-crowded jetliner I would be sharing with several hundred anonymous fellow citizens for the next 6 hours. I was only one or two rows behind the first class section and had a pretty good view of the front of the cabin.
The plane was still boarding, and among the normal and dreary mid-lifers, college pukes, kids and elderly making their way to their itty bitty seats I noticed a cute little girl being wheeled onto the plane, nurse in tow with IV drip and monitors tethered to her tiny frame.
"Poor kid,” I thought, “I wonder what's wrong with her and why she's flying to LA.”
I didn't have much time to consider this, however, as I was being spoken to by a thin, balding, bronze-skinned, professional-looking man who was carrying a slim metal attache case.
“Excuse me, sir,” he began in a heavy Indian accent, “but I believe I sit next to you. 12C is my seat, I must tell you.”
I hurriedly closed my laptop, leaving the scenario up and ready. I stood, scooting as far back as I could to allow my apparent seat-mate to squeeze past me on the way to his flotation device—I mean, seat. After he sat, and I had repositioned my laptop, I turned to the curry-scented man and made some idle chit-chat.
I offered my hand, “My name is Peter Bucephalus. And yours?”
“Nehleash Chaudry, and I am pleased to be meeting you.” we shook hands. We continued our talk and I learned that Nehleash is a neurosurgeon on his way to Los Angeles to assume a post with UCLA as a research fellow. He specialized in neuro-electronic prosthetics. Essentially, he worked on mind controlled false limbs. I then told him about my job and, in response to his quizzical stare, allowed him to examine my laptop and prototype headgear. He seemed suitably impressed with the new skull input harness, which he stated was very similar in design to some of the control systems he'd been working with; and he politely agreed that using Microsoft Flight Simulator to follow our actual flight path on my laptop was...kinda cool.
Hours passed; take off went without a hitch, and we'd already eaten our peanuts, had lunch, and drank our colas—Diet Coke for me, and Squirt for Nehleash. Squirt? Who'd of thunk? Anyway, I idly noted our current position as calculated by my laptop's flight simulator and then settled down just a tiny bit deeper into the decidedly uninviting chair. I reclined the seat its maximum one or two degrees and tried to lean my head back, futilely attempting to get more comfortable in that flying sardine can. Suddenly I heard excited voices coming from the front of the cabin.
“You will all sit still in ze seats!” he yelled with a thick French accent, “If you try anything I kill YOU and whoever is sitting next to you as well! Your choice, bourgeois pigs! We are flying to freedom! We are flying to Quebec! Viv la Quebec!”
Marxist Quebecers? On an American flight from Chicago to LA? In any case, a man with a gun stood at the front of the plane, one arm wrapped around the neck of a flight attendant while the other pointed the barrel of his pistol at her head. Cries of panic rose from the cabin around us. Confusion was threatening to take control, when another man emerged from the cock-pit with the entire flight crew at gun-point. Nehleash and I watched in fearful silence as the copilot and navigator were marched into the forward bathroom by this second hijacker, muttering French curses at the unfortunate crew. The first hijacker let go of the flight attendant and stepped back, training his gun first at the Pilot, who remained outside the bathroom, and then at the flight attendant, who had slumped to the floor sobbing something about overtime pay. The second one, after making sure that the flight crew was secured inside the john, performed the unlikely feat of producing a welding torch from his fanny pack and proceeded to weld the bathroom door shut.
Then, the sick little girl, who had been watching events unfold with a wide, unbelieving stare, suddenly cried out in pain and clutched her chest.
“Tasha!” cried her nurse, bending over the wheelchair and its frail occupant, “not another heart attack! Not now!”
The hijacker with the gun, turning momentarily to look at the stricken child and her attendant, was immediately jumped upon by the pilot, who was effectively taking advantage of the distraction. Quickly wresting the pistol from the terrorist, the pilot raised the gun and two quick shots rang out; renewed screams filled the cabin as both the hijackers slumped, lifeless, to the cabin floor. A pool of blood began to spread from the two dead Canadians.
The pilot, raising his hand above his head, attempted to calm the situation, announcing in a firm but urgent voice, “Everyone, please calm down. The situation is under control.” there was a smattering of applause from those capable of applause considering the terrible events they had just witnessed, and from the hapless flight attendant there was continued sobbing about work conditions and long hours. The nurse had her young ward on the floor and was frantically administering CPR while sniffling back tears of anxiety. Nehleash leaned close to me so that I might hear him above the din and asked,
"So, friend, please be telling me where your computer says we might be?"
Tearing my eyes away from the pilot, who was now pulling at the sealed bathroom door while his frightened crew mates pounded loudly from the inside, I scanned my laptop screen. According to Microsoft we were likely passing over LA, and further, according to its estimation, we were probably getting a bit low on fuel. I hurriedly explained the readings to Nehleash, who responded with a muted, “Oh, my gosh!”
Seconds later an anguished cry rose over the clamor of the chaotic cabin, “She's dead! Oh, Tasha, why?!?” It was the nurse, laying her head upon the unfortunate little girl and weeping uncontrollably. The pilot, startled by the scream, slipped and let go of the bathroom door he had been unsuccessfully wrenching at. He fell back and, with a sickening crack, struck the back of his skull upon the bulkhead opposite the restroom. He flopped unceremoniously face first on the floor making nary a whimper.
“That man is dead, I would bet my professional reputation upon it this day, I tell you,” whispered Nehleash urgently. The stewardess quit her self-pitying blubbering and crawled to the motionless form of our apparently dead captain; she futilely rolled him over and began shouting in his face, “Paul! Paul! Wake up! Paul, we need someone to fly the plane!” From inside the bathroom one of the two remaining crewmen called out,
“Christie, what happened to Paul?” and “Let us out of here!”
Christie the attendant had just reached the same conclusion that Nehleash had come upon just moments before and leaned against the bathroom door heavily.
“Oh my god.....he's dead. Rich, Paul is dead.”
“Dead?!?” came the reply from the bathroom, “but with us in here, who's going to land the plane?” The men in the bathroom began pounding on the door with renewed vigor, but the dead Canadian had done far too good a job with his impromptu spot welding and the door, accurately proclaiming itself “occupied,” remained firmly shut.
At this point, I looked at Nehleash, and he at I. Perhaps we were soul mates in some previous life, because we both spoke at once.
“I have an idea!” a momentary pause and then,
“You go first.” I said,
“No, my friend, YOU go first. I insist.” came the reply.
“Well,” I began, “maybe I can hook my laptop up to the controls and have it fly us in and land the plane! But....no, that won't work. Someone or something needs to use the yoke and pedals to fly us in. This is an older jet, and it doesn't fly by computer control,” I spoke with certainty, having researched the plane prior to boarding so as to make my Microsoft simulation accurate, “If only I had a robot. I have programs for that.”
Nehleash nodded hurriedly, “Now for my idea, Peter. Bring your laptop and that skull harness of yours and come with me.” With some urgency, he nudged me out of my seat, and, grabbing his attache case, pushed me down the aisle. I barely had time to grab my laptop and skull harness as he had asked.
We quickly approached the four dead people and two crying women at the front of the plane. Nehleash kneeled down next to the very dead Tasha and pulled me down to join him.
“This will be the best candidate, I think. She is small, so your laptop will be more likely to produce enough current to provide adequate stimulation.” with that, Nehleash grabbed my skull harness and began pushing it onto the dead little girl's head. The nurse, sitting up and seeing this began protesting,
“What are you doing? She...she's dead....are you a doctor?” she almost begged Nehleash with her eyes to give her some kind of hope.
“Peter, make sure she does not interfere.” With that, Nehleash opened his attache case and removed a tightly rolled piece of black cloth. He lay it upon the cabin floor and unrolled it, exposing a wide array of hair-thin needles and some small tools that looked for all the world like fancy needle-nose pliers. To the nurse he said, “I am a doctor, ma'am. Please stand back and let me work.”
“Uh....ok..,” she began, but consternation soon registered on her face and she yelled, “HEY!”
Nehleash had begun inserting the needles through my prototype skull harness deep into the skull of the dead little girl. I put my hand on the nurse's shoulder reassuringly, although I was none to certain myself. Nehleash spoke over his shoulder distractedly,
“You should load up the program you were going to use to fly the plane, Peter. Quickly now!”
I rushed to comply, slowed by the fact that I had to use the keyboard instead of the harness, but soon had Microsoft Flight Simulator and my robotics control software loaded. Moments later, I had linked the two together with a small middleware program. As soon as the middleware began passing data from the flight simulator to the robotics control software, Tasha's arms stuck straight up from her little body where it lay, and her legs mimed operating pedals.
The stewardess screamed again, and backed up against the far wall of the cabin. Demands to know what was going on issued from the still sealed toilette and the nurse fainted, leaving me with one less thing to worry about as I gently let her down onto the floor next to the dead pilot.
“Quickly, Peter,” yelled Nehleash as he scooped the now wriggling undead girl up into his arms, “Carry that laptop, and make sure the cables don't get stretched. The harness is not very secure, I think.” I obediently followed close behind into the cabin and watched as Tasha was placed into the pilot seat, her lifeless little fingers wrapped around the flight yoke and her dead feet upon the control pedals.
“Now, tell your Flight Simulator to land us in LA!”
Finally understanding what it was we were about, I squatted next to the little girl and tapped at my keyboard madly. I loaded the scenario, consulted the dials and readouts of the real plane to make sure they matched the simulation, and gave the command to bring us in...to LA. Nehleash was saying something into the radio, but I was concentrating on the jerky movements of the very dead Tasha, and I have no idea what he said. As only the walking dead can, our zombie pilot turned our plane around, her lifeless legs pumping the pedals, her rapidly cooling arms expertly operating the yoke.
Within an hour, a 13 year old girl named Tasha, landed the jetliner safely on the tarmac at LAX, to the cheers of the passengers, and to the confusion of the men in the bathroom. Nehleash and I hugged, the nurse cried, and the flight attendant woke up and began screaming again. Tasha said nothing.
I am J-Lo at 49
This essay was written in 2004.
I think I need a new plastic surgeon. I don't need much work, after all, I've kept myself up well over the years and don't think I look a day less than thirty, but I could use a couple little tiny touch-ups and no matter which doctor I go to the result is less than what I deserve.
Tomorrow I'm calling up that nice young man that does Brittney Spears' work to see if he can fit me in sometime in the next few weeks. That asshole who just about butchered my chin last month is lucky I haven't sued him into submission.
Speaking of incompetent people who are dependant on me, what the hell is wrong with my agent, Bernie? He hasn't called me in three months and I'm starting to get a feeling that he might not be trying hard enough to find me the right part. I mean, its all well and good to be the new spokesperson for Stay-Free Hit-Or-Miss Menopause pads (for those months when you just aren't sure you still need one) and I really think that a classy job like durashears infomercial co-hostess is a nice thing for me to do in my spare time, but come on! I still haven't gotten the academy award they fucked me out of all those long years ago, and I'm getting tired of waiting.
I think I'll go cut another album. There's a whole generation of young people that need to hear my timeless message of cheap sex, self centered materializm and public drunkenness that only I can bring to the table.
So, Bernie, wherever your jewish ass is, hop to it!Not that I need any work, after all, my past accomplishments are indeed timeless.Who could ever forget “The Cell”, or “Gigli”, or my ground-breaking come-back movie, “She Still's Got Booty” (my 2011 return to the direct-to-DVD silver screen).And my accompanying album, “Vaguely Ethnic, Sexy, and Drunk”, which was poorly understood by the general public and undervalued by the critical establishment, is such a magnum opus that should I never sing again I would still go down in history.
Ah, well. My personal trainer, Chuck, should be over soon. I really need a deep tissue massage, and he's pretty good at it. At first I thought he was straight, but since he doesn't want to have sex with me he must be a flaming gay-wad.
Didn't think I would use the word “Gay-wad”? Well I just did, honey.
I'm just THAT amazing.
Anyway, off to the tanning salon after that. This skin doesn't look like leather for nothing, you know.
Thats about all I have to say on this subject, except for botox, female condoms and mercury poisoning are causes I think I can turn to my benefit in a charitable manner.
Big Fish Story
This story was written in 2003It is intended for children, so is quite a bit different in tone than my other work.
Once upon a time there was a small boy named Peter Bucephalus, and this little boy lived in a small house with his parents next to a great, big, dark lake called Lake Formicabed. Peter's bedroom window overlooked the lake, and every night before bed he looked out the window at the lake and would wish that he was a fish.
Not just any fish, Peter wanted to be a great big fish, the king of all the fishes in Lake Formicabed. You see, Peter and his father had gone fishing many times since they'd moved into the little house, and the fish he caught always looked so happy, so friendly that they'd always thrown them back. Surely it would be fun to live with those happy fish and have reign over their underwater world.
One night, long after Peter should have been sleeping, long after his parents had gone to sleep, he looked out his window and wished his wish again.
“I wish I were the great fish king, Peter the Scaley! I would be the best king ever.”
No sooner had he said this than the water in the middle of the lake began to bubble and spin like water in a drain. A light shone from the depths of lake Formicabed, and a whistling sound began to rise out of the foam. Then, with a loud 'sploosh', the biggest fish Peter had ever seen sprang out of the water and landed smack on the grass outside Peter's window.
“I heard your wish,” said the big fish, “and I've got to say, I am very relieved!”
Peter couldn't speak, and just stared. The fish continued,
“I'm king Glubby the Great and Gargantuan! And I have been working so hard for so long, and I just need a vacation. I have some special magic, and I can make your wish come true for one night while I go and have fun. What do you say?”
Peter thought about it. Why shouldn't he become king of the fishies?
“Yes! I would love to become king for a night!”
As soon as the words came out of his mouth, King Glubby began spinning, chanting, “For one night, and one night only, this event is not to be missed. Make this boy king of Formicabed lake, as soon as he is kissed.” and with that, Glubby jumped up and kissed Peter.
Peter flew from the window, and hung above the lake. His arms became fins, his legs stuck together and gills sprouted from his neck. Into the lake he went!
Once in the lake, he was surrounded by fish. They were happy to see him, but not for any reason Peter liked. They were all complaining at once about things. This one was unhappy that his house was next to a slimey spot. That one said his wife had stolen a pretty shell from him. Another one said it was too loud by the clambed since the young clams took up tubaplaying. No wonder Glubby wanted a vacation! Being the king was hard work.
Peter spent the whole night trying hard to solve everyone's problems. When morning came, Glubby finally appeared next to him.
“Did you have fun, kid?” asked the Great and Gargantuan.
“No! I just want to go home!” wailed Peter.
“Well, thanks for the vacation anyway. So long!”
Peter began spinning, shooting towards the surface of the lake. His arms grew back, his legs grew back and as he flew out of the water towards his house, the gills dissapeared.
Peter woke up in his bed and looked around his room. He never ever ever wished he was a king of ANYTHING ever again.The End.
The Extra Musician of Bremen: MoB part II!
This story was written in 2004.
When last we visited the Musicians of Bremen (the MoB), we left our heroes living a life of relative luxury in a palatial estate. A palatial estate they appropriated from a band of brigands our friends encountered while on their way to the city of Bremen—where they had originally planned to live as popular musicians.
But they never stopped dreaming, and they never stopped practising. Then, one day...
VRRRRUUUM! VRRRRUUUM! A low slung Harley chopper pulled up to the gates of the MoB estate. Davey the dog looked up from the patio where he had been practicing his drumming and was amazed to see the most collosally huge pig climb off of the motorcycle and slowly look back and forth, scanning the area. The pig was wearing leather chaps, red bandana, dark black sunglasses, a hitler mustache and a guitar strapped to his back with the words, “Born Squealing” stenciled on the side.
“Hey, lads!” called Davey over his shoulder into the mansion, “take a look at this blighter!”
Soon, one at a time, the other members of the MoB emerged from the house and lined up to ogle the great porker. Katey the cat, the lead singer of the MoB, was the first to walk up to the gate, followed by Rocky rooster towing his bass guiter.
“So, like, who ARE you anyway, gross pig thing?” Katey asked around a mouthful of chewing gum.
The pig took his sunglasses off and cocked his head cockily towards the cock and cat and spat on the ground at their feet.
“I'm Big Pig. They sometimes call me B.P, right before I tear their fucking heads off. I heard you guys quit the business, and I came to make you an offer.”
“What kind of an offer, bawk?” asked Rocky
“Either you can let me join the MoB and we can go on tour, or I can stand here at the gate and mock you mercilessly with impovised songs of derision from now until the end of time.”
Duck Donkey, the keyboardist and the leader of the band, walked up behind his bandmates and protectively placed his hooves on their shoulders.
“We don't do gigs anymore, man. We don't gotta, and we're all settled here. We don't live the life no more.”
Davey the dog had finally gotten up to the gate, and, looking back and forth between Duck and BP, said, “Speak for yourself, you bloody great ass. I think its high time we get on the road again. This place has gotten deadly dull these past days.”
Duck sighed, looking at each MoB in turn, “Well, crew, what'll it be?”
“Well, like, lets hear what Big Pig can do, right? It's, like, SO prematu-re to make plans without knowing.”
With that, BP unslung his guitar, and began laying down the most deadly, demonic, rocking licks the MoB had ever heard. There were scintillating highs, terrifying lows, and bridges that seemed to arch from hell to heaven. Katey let loose with a grinding yowl of sexual need in response to the urgent, turgid wailing. Duck bobbed his great head along with the implied rhythms, and Davey tapped out a pattern on his thigh, enveloped as he was by the music of BP. When BO was finally done, Duck was the first to say, “Fuck, yeah! Lets do this!”
So the band left their estate behind, and with Donkey pulling the cart, the musicians headed towards Bremen, where they had many adventures, had lots of sex, did lots of drugs, went into lots of rehab, and then became a lot of has-beens. They eventually went back to their estate and lived out their lives in wistfull, nostalgic solitude. But if you should happen to pass through that area you can still hear MoB and the BP screaming their defiance in a musically unique and driven way.The End
News that May Save Your Life
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This essay was written in 1999
The engine in my Ford Focus is growing cold and my neighbor, making yet another pass by my car while following his circuitous lawn-mowing route, glances in my direction. He is wondering why, minutes after pulling up my driveway, I am still sitting in my car, vaguely staring off into the distance. He doesn’t understand because he is still one of the unfortunates who has yet to discover the joys of NPR--National Public Radio--news. I smile reassurances in his direction. Satisfied by that momentary acknowledgment that I am not drugged-out or ill, he turns his full attention back to his precious lawn-care. The story I was listening to, an engaging and detailed look into the political ramifications of former Indonesian President Soharto’s dismissal from court as being too ill to stand trial, finishes and I hurriedly wrench the ignition key from the “accessory” position to “off”; I must not allow myself to hear the beginning of the next story, as my wife would very much like to see me in person this evening.
I slowly climb out of my car, my back a bit stiff from the long drive, and walk steadily into the house and hug my wife. After dinner is eaten, we both settle down onto the couch to watch a little TV before bed. A quick flick through the on-screen guide, and we settle on a sit-com we both find palatable. I’d only just set the remote control down onto the coffee table when a deep, grave voice announces: “Find out what local area business may be taking YOU for a ride you may not survive--tune in at 11 for details!”. I look up involuntarily and catch a few speedy shots of what looks like the inside of a garage somewhere. At this point I am struck, as I often am these days, by the huge difference between what passes for news on TV and the exemplary fare offered by our local NPR news station. Indeed, while the majority of Detroiters happily absorb what is fancifully called "news" by the ratings-hungry and reckless commercial TV networks, a few weeks of listening to NPR radio news programming would quickly reveal to them, by comparison, just how self-serving and sensationalist NBC, ABC, CBS and FOX newscasts really are.
The producers of Network TV news believe that their tireless efforts put a face on the news, bringing the sights and imagery of the people and places featured in the stories they tell into the viewer’s home. They rightfully believe that the audience is attracted to the beautiful men and women who sit behind the desks and present the information, and they are likewise drawn in by the expressive and opinionated voices used to impart the news.
However, these networks need to retain viewers on behalf of their corporate sponsors in order to make money; hence, they seek to engage the audience with sensational news and with information they think will shock or scandalize them. Meanwhile, they claim to simply be delivering the news and to be providing a valuable public service. NPR’s news service, in contrast, has no one to answer to but the audience itself. They rely on listener contributions for the majority of their operating expenses and are obligated to serve the public good--not the corporate greed. As a result, it should be no surprise that TV news is manipulative and sensationalist in comparison to NPR news. Examine the all-too-frequent demand that the viewer "Tune in at 11 for news that may save your life." Simply put, if network news departments were in possession of news needed to save a persons life, and they refused to surrender the details until 11pm, they would, technically, be guilty of criminal negligence. From this simple bit of legal logic, therefore, it is obvious that the TV news department has engaged in sensationalism. They have taken news which may be interesting, but couldn’t realistically be termed life-threatening, and they have exaggerated its importance to the viewer in order to entice them to “tune in at 11" and watch some commercials with a smattering of news in-between them. Other than as satire, an NPR commentator would never be heard saying such tripe. Furthermore, TV news services are frequently guilty of blowing situations out of proportion. Last year, for instance, there was a list of doctors, grossly delinquent in repaying their student loans, whose names were posted on a government web site. TV News quickly labeled it the "dead-beat-doctors" list, and scoured the yellow pages looking for local doctors appearing on that list. Consequently, there were no less than four news-trucks assigned to staking out one middle-aged dentist's office in Warren because he owed $200,000. This might be a lot of money, but did it require that the neighboring businesses be subjected to what amounts to journalistic terrorism as the TV crews attempted to bully their way into their premises and “interview” people who might possibly know the indebted dentist? Did the subject matter justify a half-hour exposé on the evening news? WDET, Detroit’s local NPR station, contributed a thirty second story about the list of doctors to that evening’s national news show. This was a more realistic representation of the subject’s newsworthiness. When all was said and done, WDET never mentioned any doctors by name, nor were their reporters part of the rabid pack of wolves that physically chased the dentist to his car and subsequently pursued him in their vans as he drove home.
Even had the hapless doctor granted those jackals an interview, it would surely have been heavily edited so as to present the doctor as a veritable Satan’s lapdog of a man. It would not be characteristic of them to even entertain the notion of showing that dentist’s side of the story in a fair light. Indeed, TV news is usually one sided and, more often than not, reduces a complicated story, like the high-gas prices of earlier this year, to a collection of one-sided or self-serving sound bytes. FOX2 news, supposedly an impartial journalistic organization, actually attempted to garner viewer support by endorsing--and pursuing, for Gods sake!--a "repeal the state gas tax" campaign. This wasn't only self-serving ratings based journalism; it was a partisan and possibly misguided political action. No opposing viewpoints were ever presented, or even acknowledged. As a result, anyone exclusively loyal to FOX2 News would have had no choice but to conclude that not only were gas prices high only because of the state gas tax, but that the only reasonable answer to the problem would be to repeal that tax immediately! In contrast, NPR's evening news show, All Things Considered, presented a full-length story covering many of the possible causes of the high-prices. While they did interview some people who thought, as FOX2 did, that tax relief was a possible answer, there were other experts consulted. Some of these advised that national petroleum reserves should be tapped, but others maintained that Americans are basically spoiled brats who brought the problem on themselves, should pay the high prices and should just quit whining about it. Accordingly, all the various viewpoints were presented without any bias. As usual, people on every side of the issue commented that they thought NPR was biased against their particular point of view—a sure sign of true impartiality!
In their defense, it may be said that the characteristic one-sidedness of television news may be brought about by their colossal time constraints. Perhaps they just don’t have time to show both sides; after all, TV news never goes into enough detail to adequately inform a truly interested observer about one side, let alone both. They operate under commercial obligations to perforate their broadcasts with advertisements, leaving them with only a portion of their already inadequate, one-hour time allotment within which to deliver substantial news coverage. These strictures force TV news to rush through most stories at a breakneck pace. Presidential campaign speeches are usually reduced to a 10-20 second sound byte, which is inevitably taken out of context and stripped of its original meaning. NPR, however, will often play at least a minute or two of any important speech, and will have commentary on what that excerpt means from two opposing points of view.
This balanced approach allows a thoughtful individual to come to his or her own conclusions. This is diametrically opposed to TV news, which often tries to help their viewers form meaningful opinions by giving them cues in the form of newscasters’ facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. Consequently, a TV audience member knows exactly how to feel on any given subject and can avoid undue confusion or thought; indeed, the appropriate feelings are all modeled to them like so much French lingerie by that beautiful person sitting behind the desk.
To understand why these differences exist, it is necessary to ask why commercial TV stations even offer news to begin with. Network TV stations were originally given their licenses to broadcast over the public airwaves for free. At the time, they were told that in exchange for this veritable bonanza they were required to provide news and public service announcements for the public good. At first, much of TV journalism was balanced and important, and represented an honest attempt to fulfill that obligation to the public, but as TV shows became more and more expensive to produce, advertising fees failed to increase proportionally to cover the added operating expense. As a result, TV news became much more profitable in comparison to prepared programming, as it is cheap to produce the news and easy to sell it to advertisers. Nowadays a commercial network may make the lion’s share of their commercial revenue through the advertising dollars gained during the news broadcasts which were, originally, intended to fulfill their public service obligation. In order to keep bringing in that money they must guarantee viewers to their sponsors; however, delivering impartial news is incompatible with that new, purely monetary, goal. NPR, on the other hand, is beholden to no one but its listeners. They have, and they exercise, the freedom to deliver timely, complete and balanced news and information without fear of retribution from a marketing department. Indeed, listen to NPR for a week and watching network television may become a frustrating and painful ordeal. The superiority of its comparatively thorough, balanced, and broad-based news coverage may prove addictive and could turn a body off of TV news forever, as it has this author. One word of caution, however: once hooked, NPR will ask a listener to donate a small amount towards their support, but would anyone begrudge them this pittance, if in exchange they receive such a superlative wealth of information?
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Die With a T!
This essay was written in 1998.
The dollar goes in, a button is pressed, and moments later an aluminum cylinder is deposited in a plastic chute with a "thump-thump!" noise. Transaction complete, I wander off with the cold, sweating can in my greedy clutches. While plain, old water is probably more beneficial to the human body, many people choose, as I just did, to drink carbonated soft drinks. Once that choice is made, what remains is the decision between diet and regular cola.
A trio of diet colas!
Once upon a time that can would have been filled with regular, sugar-filled cola for me, but not anymore. Far too many people choose regular soft drinks which soak their teeth in syrupy sugar, jack their bodies with a large dose of sucrose when it least expects it, and produce sticky, bug-infested, piles of empty cans. While diet cola, which has no sugar and no calories, is not actually good, it is very much the lesser of two evils and as such is my choice in beverages.
There are those who claim that the chemicals used to "sweeten" a diet soft drink are hazardous to your health. To them, the statement that a natural substance, such as sugar, is superior to any kind of synthetic chemicals is a no-brainer. Perhaps in the case of Saccharine, a sweetener now found only in TAB, they might be right. But aspartame, aside from those few who are allergic to certain chemicals it contains, is a wholly benign compound which has withstood two and a half decades of extensive studies--many of which were commissioned by those who oppose its use! And unlike sugar, which is hardly natural in the crystallized white form we use every day, aspartame doesn’t affect your blood sugars or rot your teeth. Another source of popular dislike for diet cola is a supposed "after-taste" experienced after partaking. On the contrary, I find the effect to be the opposite! The sugary, syrupy, gummy aftertaste I get from regular pop creates a compulsion to go rinse my mouth out in a hurry, or to brush my teeth poste haste!
Bullet calmly watches over the toothpaste.
Diet cola, on the other hand, leaves no aftertaste in my mouth and can be drunken while driving without fear of "yuck-mouth" developing by the time you arrive at your destination. Another reason that some dislike diet cola is that it isn't sweet enough. But any diet cola drinker quickly learns to look at the bottom of a can before opening it; if the expiration date is more than a month in the past you may be drinking a bitter can of seltzer water! Most diet colas consumed before their expiration date will be refreshing and slightly sweet, with virtually no calories at all.
But my reasons for drinking diet cola aren't really dietary. While I could stand to lose a few pounds, I am not obsessed by my weight and spend little time thinking about calories. I have other, more pressing reasons. One such reason is that I like my nice, white teeth. As a teenager, I drank regular pop almost exclusively and soon developed bad teeth, even though I brushed them in the morning and in the evening. Perhaps this twice-daily regimen didn’t constitute adequate brushing, but surely it should have prevented at least some of the myriad cavities that I was plagued with throughout my adolescence. I switched to diet cola when I was 19, and I am proud to say I haven't had even one additional cavity since. Perhaps there are other reasons for this cessation in tooth rotting activity, but I can't think of any other change in my eating or oral hygiene habits that might have had this welcome result.
The experimental shirt with cola. Another good reason to drink diet cola, to my mind, is what I call “the stain issue.” Take this test yourself: pour some regular, sugary Pepsi or Coca Cola on a white shirt. Blot it dry with a towel, and then wear it for a few hours. This is a good simulation of what happens if cola is accidentally spilled on one’s shirt during lunch. Dr. Science!Now try to wash that stuff out—and good luck! Perform that same ritual with diet Pepsi or diet Coke. I am no chemist and haven’t an adequate explanation of why; but somehow that diet cola always comes right out in the wash, while the regular stuff saddles you with a stain forever. Dr. Science might say that the sweet sugar molecules are the molecular equivalent of homesteaders, driving the natives from the fibers and putting up little strip-malls. But he’s not a real doctor, and neither am I. An explanation is not forthcoming from this quarter, but that stain certainly is.
You may infer from that last point that I may not be the most careful or graceful of human specimens. And, indeed, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that I could’ve been voted “most likely to require toe amputation” in my high school yearbook. A few spills here and there are just part of my package. Therefore, another important reason for me to drink the diet stuff is floor stickies; that’s right, floor stickies.Stickies in the making! Spill a half-can of regular soda on the floor and then mop it up. Wait about, oh, half an hour. Now, walk across the spot where the pop was spilled. There’s a reason for that sickening, ripping, tearing noise and the accompanying tendency for your feet to stubbornly resist further movement. All the sugar that couldn’t be wiped up has now congealed into a layer of gum and has turned the floor into an oversized, linoleum sheet of flypaper. Diet cola, on the other hand, is about as sticky as water—that is, not at all. A quick wipe with a dry paper towel is all that is required, and even a rinse is optional; that floor will be blissfully free of the infernal glue that is sugar, unless someone else pours some regular soda there afterwards.
And if that regular pop hadn’t been meticulously cleaned up after the last experiment, some unwelcome visitors might have soon come along to help out with the clean-up. Yep, I’m talking about bugs. Yet another compelling reason not to drink regular soda. There is nothing on this earth that an ant likes better than sugar, and regular cola slicks have it in spades. As proof, here’s another experiment! Grab two cans of soda, one regular and the other diet, and step outside. Take a gander around, and try to find an anthill. Diabolical. Evil. Socialists. Ants.Watch the ants for a while, that’s what I always do. Aren’t they fascinating? Happy, little, socialist masses, working hard for the proletariat, they toil and toil endlessly. They deserve this little treat; first, pour some regular cola on the ground about one foot away from the anthill. Second, pour some of the diet cola on the ground; only this time, pour it only six inches from the anthill. Wait a few moments, and it will soon be clear what the ants’ preference is. While some ants investigate the diet slick, and occasionally make trips there to retrieve what they think is water, they will literally swarm on and around the regular cola with abandon; they see that regular cola as a very convenient and abundant source of food. Congratulations on furthering the exploits of the colony! But if that regular drink should get spilled in the kitchen, it may soon come to pass that these ants, or some ants very much like them, will be traveling out of their way to take that wasted sugar off the hands of the bourgeoisie homeowner.
Ants aren’t the only bug that like the regular stuff, either. Ever wonder why the bottle flies like to hang out by the company can-catcher? Ever been bothered by persistent buzzing noises when trying to return used cans at the store?Flies! O my! Fruit flies, gnats, bottle flies, and any number of other flying insects love it when people forget to wash out their regular soda cans. Baby flies. Aren't thay cute?Tinier creatures, like bacteria and mold, also find cans and bottles an agreeable lattice upon which to festoon their progeny. If a person wants to avoid having little creatures breed in their empties, they must wash each can out thoroughly in the sink before storing it. This is a waste of time, and also a waste of water. With a diet drink, one need only shake it out a bit, so as to avoid dribblies, and place it in the can catcher. As the remaining diet cola dries, it leaves nothing but food coloring and a bit of residue. No bug, microbe or fungus would ever be attracted to it, and that suits me just fine.
I won’t deny it; all of regular cola’s detriments, with the exceptions of the hundred calories per can and the affects drinking it has on a body’s blood sugar, can be avoided through effort and forethought. Dirty cans can be cleaned, spills can be carefully avoided and, if a person is packing a travel kit, teeth can be brushed after each can is consumed. But cleaning cans is a dirty job, and besides which, it’s a waste of time and water. Aaaahhh.....so refreshing.And sometimes spills can’t be helped, especially when people like Joe Whited are taken into account. Finally, brushing multiple times thoughout the day is a pursuit fit only for the obsessive compulsives among us. So, while there are those who think that diet cola has an unwelcome aftertaste, isn’t sweet enough, and may not be natural enough, I say drink the diet! The benefits, convenience and, in my opinion, the lack of any discernable sticky aftertaste make diet the choice for the clumsy, lazy and dentally conscious among us!
A Matter of Weeks
This essay was written in 2000.
At 20 years of age, I had experienced relatively little in my adult life, and not only because I had been an adult for such a short time. Socially introverted, I had gone through adolescence without dating, with only a small cadre of friends and with my primary entertainments being video games and science fiction. My closest companion was a cat named Mittens, and he was 16 years old.
I vaguely remember when we got him from the Macomb County Humane Society. I don’t remember picking him out, and I don’t remember the inside of the building. My only memory is the ride home, with that little tiger striped kitten sitting in my lap, cradled within the brown fuzziness of my mother’s winter hat. I looked into his quite possibly frightened, huge, green eyes and proclaimed his new name to my mom.
“His name is Mittens!” I said, stroking his head in that brutal and clumsy way only a four year old would think was gentle.
“But this kitten doesn’t have any mittens, Joey!” And Mom was right. From the tip of his tail to the tip of his nose, the kitten was a uniform pattern of yellow and orange stripes. But some weeks before, Mom had taken me to the public library and had gotten out a children’s book, which featured a black cat with white paws that was named, aptly enough, Mittens. I loved that story and refused to consider any other name for my new kitten.
“But his name is Mittens. He doesn’t need to have mittens.” According to what Mom says now, this conversation went on for a while, but in my memories that was the end of it. He was Mittens from then on.
Mittens proved to be an unusual cat. He formed his strongest bond with me, the little blond child, instead of Sue, the much calmer and gentler mother. Mittens would follow me around the house, put up with my rough affections and would sleep at my side each night. I talked to him and read him Dr. Suess books. Recited them, actually. I couldn’t read yet, but I had memorized the words to “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” It’s doubtful that Mittens cared about the story or the rhymes, but he seemed happy enough to hear my piping, little voice.
So loyal was he that If I went away for more than a day Mittens would run away and wouldn’t come back until I returned.
After returning from a week of visiting my father on one such occasion, Mittens sauntered in the door and Mother told me, “He was out looking for you,” I frantically squeezed the big, orange cat, “now he thinks he found you, and he’s happy!” In retrospect, I am less certain that Mittens was looking for me, and now consider it more likely that he simply wasn’t interested in anything in that house while I was gone.
As I grew, Mittens meant more and more to me as we shared our lives. When I was 12, he sat on my lap and gazed adoringly up at my face while I typed away on the family’s first computer. As I reached 15, he would sit in my room patiently as my stereo blasted his sensitive, little kitty ears, happy to endure the noise so long as he was close to his Joey. At 17, I would talk about him to my friends. Not long after my 18th birthday, I was posting made-up stories about Mittens’ adventures on a Prodigy bulletin board every day. I talked to the cat. I sang to that cat. I even made up silly songs about that cat.
When I was 19, and Mittens a healthy and active 15, my grandfather Vick passed away. After the family had returned from the funeral home, I stood in the kitchen and confided to my stepfather, Tom, “I don’t think I felt anything. I know I was supposed to be sad, but I’m sorry.... I wasn’t. Happy or sad, that is.”
Mittens had come up from the basement and had leapt onto the kitchen chair next to me. I absently stroked his round head. As the low drone of his broken motorboat purr wafted up from below, Tom replied, “You’ll understand a little about death when that cat dies. You’ll see.”
Mittens? Die? I’d always had Mittens, and he was still healthy. He would live for YEARS yet.
A year passed by. As I said in the beginning, I was 20 years old and inexperienced. I stood in my basement and watched Mittens stagger drunkenly towards me from the pillow he had been restlessly lying on. His back legs couldn’t move right, and he wove from side to side. Secondary eyelids half closed in pain, he still struggled to get to his Joey, purring half-heartedly. I’d taken Mittens to the hospital several days before because he wasn’t eating, had sat in one spot for a whole day, and wouldn’t come to the sound of his name. The doctor told me that his kidneys had failed him, but he would see what he could do. After much effort, the doctor de-toxified his system and gave me supply of prescription cat food. He told me that I might be able to keep the cat alive for another year if I fed him only this special food, and he sent Mittens home with me. But as I swept the frail, little cat into my arms, I knew that doctor Nelson had lied to me. This cat was in so much pain that he couldn’t open his eyes, could barely walk, and wouldn’t eat. I looked at our reflection in the wall sized mirror mounted behind the bar there in the basement. It was a reflection of a dying cat and his man. How very tiny Mittens looked in my large embrace! All those years I thought he was a big cat. But he had never been big.... I had just been smaller. Ironically, I never felt smaller than at that very moment. Mittens would be better off dead; that was single hardest decision I had ever made, and one that, in my cowardice and sorrow, I couldn’t follow through on by myself.
I begged my stepbrother, Gerald, to take him to the hospital for me. I couldn’t see through the tears, couldn’t stop sobbing, and told him I couldn’t drive in that state. I helped put Mittens in the cat-carrier and said goodbye. Watching Gerald drive down the street, I collapsed against the house and tried unsuccessfully to say goodbye in my heart. I found out later that Gerald was almost as unhappy as I, but had been much better at holding it in, much better at hiding it from the family. I’ve never forgiven myself for making Gerald take Mittens to die that Saturday.
Understandably, I wasn’t the most amusing guy to be around in the following week or two. I went to the house of my friend, Scott, to play cards the following Wednesday, just as I had every Wednesday since high school. Tim, Matt, Erich, and my best friend at the time, John, were all there, my only friends in the world, and I was hoping they might be able to cheer me up. Heather, Scott’s pretty younger sister, would also be there. She, with her short, straight hair, bright hazel eyes and penchant for wearing a conservative jean-and-T-shirt ensemble, was one girl I always liked to talk to, and thought about fairly often. She was four years younger than us, and would often bring me food and drink if I asked nicely.
“What the fuck is wrong with you anyway, Joe?” came from across the card table. This was from the wise-ass, Tim. He was the sort of person who only seemed happy when someone else was being laughed at. Normally, we would trade mock-insults the entire evening, trying to out-do one another. But my mind had a cat shaped hole in it, and I wasn’t up to the normal verbal sparring.
“I told you, my cat just died! Give me a break.” but they didn’t give me a break. I got no sympathy from them, and proceeded to endure their insults for the rest of the evening.
“What’s wrong, Joe?” Heather asked as I left the house an hour earlier than normal. I didn’t trust myself to answer her, so I silently walked past her, drove home, flopped into bed, and stared at the ceiling for hours.
Saturday came. One whole week had passed without Mittens, and I wanted to go out with my best friend, John, to Metro Park, which was our Summer-time weekend ritual. We would walk the trails, look at girls, and shoot the bull for hours about nothing. Just the thing to get my mind off Mittens! I called John’s house and got no answer. Maybe he was at one of the other guys’ house? I called Scott’s house, and spoke with Heather.
“I don’t know where he went,” came her pleasant voice from the phone, “His car is gone, though. Do you want me to have him call you when he gets back?”
“Sure. Thanks. See you Wednesday, probably.”
Next, I called Tim, but his mother said he’d gone out, and she didn’t know where. There was no one home at Erich’s house, and Matt’s father had no idea where Matt was. Where was everybody?
Uncertain of what to do, and too depressed to stay at home, I drove to John’s house on the off chance that he was working outside and hadn’t heard the phone ringing. I pulled up into his driveway and walked slowly up to his door. Dark silence almost radiated from the empty house. I knocked a few times anyway, and then turned hesitantly back towards my car, face screwed up in puzzlement. That’s when I noticed the cars parked in the street. Erich’s truck, Matt’s little Chevette, Scott’s Malibu and Tim’s old Cutlass were all neatly lined up across the street. Only John’s car was missing from the line-up. The inescapable conclusion was that they all drove somewhere in John’s car. I wondered where they had all gone off to, but told myself I wasn’t that concerned. I can’t remember what I did for the rest of that day, but it likely involved lots of driving and video games.
The next day I visited John at home. We sat on his front stoop and watched the neighbor kids play in the street.
“So, where were you guys, anyway?” I asked, feigning indifference.
“Ah, we just went to Port Huron.” he looked away from me, not meeting my eyes, and threw the grass he’d been chewing down towards the lawn.
“What did you do up there?” I asked in confusion as I thought, “What in the world is in Port Huron?”
“We just sat around. You know, just wasted time. You didn’t miss much.”
Still, he wasn’t meeting my gaze, and I was perplexed. We hung out for a while and then I left, my butt damp from the cold, concrete stoop.
On the following Wednesday, card night again, I arrived a little late to Scott’s house. I lingered downstairs for a bit, talking to Heather, before going up to join the guys. Something seemed to be bothering her, but I wasn’t sure. Ah, well. I climbed the stairs, listening to the laughter of my friends who were already there, and I walked into the room smiling and ready to play. They were already at the card table, but instead of cards, they were passing around photographs. Curious, I walked behind Tim and craned my neck over his shoulder. There, on the table, was a celluloid sheet with an image of Tim, Erich, John and Matt in front of the gates at Cedar Point.
“When did you guys go to Cedar Point?” I asked, suspicion and a burgeoning hurt bubbling up as I anticipated the answer. Tim looked around the table at the rest of the gang, as if seeking tacit approval to be the one who explained the situation. No one else spoke up, so he finally set the pictures down and looked up at me.
“We went Saturday. We decided at the last minute to go, and couldn’t track you down fast enough, so went without you. You shoulda been there! It was great!” I wasn’t so sure about this story; especially given the bald-faced lie John had told me on Sunday. Listening to their stories about the rides, hearing about the things that happened to them on the trip, and enduring their retelling of the conversations they had and the jokes they told to one another, I felt confused and a little hurt. My AT&T answering machine was sometimes a bit flaky, so it is possible they might’ve had a hard time leaving a message. But I had been home the entire evening that Friday, and no one had called.
Later, as we all trickled out on our way home, I bumped into Heather downstairs.
“Call me later,” she whispered as her brother walked past us and into the bathroom, “I don’t want to talk in front of Scott.” My heart skipped a beat. Heather was, as I said, four years younger than I, but very pretty. I had been attracted to her since she was fourteen, but I was too shy and felt too old to talk to her. Age difference not withstanding, I was immediately filled with hope that perhaps she was interested in me, and I raced home. The Cedar Point incident, nearly forgotten in my testosterone-crazed ambition, was the last thing on my mind as I ran into my house and tore off to my basement to use the phone in private.
My fingers shook slightly, and my heart dashed against the inside of my chest as I dialed Scott’s-I mean Heather’s-phone number. She answered on the first ring, and as soon as I said hello in my wavering, nervous voice, she began speaking.
“I thought you should know: they planned that Cedar Point trip Wednesday after you left. They didn’t want you to go because they thought you would be too depressing to have around, and they all agreed not to let you know about it,” she paused, and as if to answer my next possible question, she rushed on, “I found out about it tonight, or I would’ve told you Saturday when you called.”
My heart, which had been racing with hope, stopped beating altogether and sank towards the floor with alarming rapidity. A year earlier, the guys had gotten Heather to call me and pose on the phone as another girl whom I had then liked. That had been a cruel and hurtful prank, and Heather had apologized, promising never to lie to me again. So I believed her when she told me about that trip to Cedar Point. The revelation struck me silent momentarily. My friends had, because I was “depressed”, planned a fun trip to Cedar Point, and had conspired to keep all knowledge of it from me. My “best” friend, John, had lied to me about it, though not very well. And then Tim lied about the circumstances surrounding their trip. I felt very, very lonely at that moment. Mittens was gone, and so were all my friends. With nothing left to lose, I found I needed no courage to ask the next question.
“So, do you wanna go out to a movie tomorrow night?”
We “dated” for two weeks, and during that time I was, for all intents and purposes, happy. But Heather never seemed very comfortable around me, and she let me go on a Saturday.
I arrived at her house to pick her up for a date, and she met me on the front porch with a concerned expression on her face.
“I don’t think we should see each other anymore,” she blurted out. I somehow knew this was coming as soon as I saw her standing there with that strangely intent expression. My chin began to dimple involuntarily as my face began tugging my mouth into a grimace. I fought off the sob and asked in a shaky voice,
“But, why?” But I knew why. I was 20, and she was 16. On several occasions she’d alluded to the fact that this was an arrangement that made her most uncomfortable, and it had now come to a head.
“I just can’t handle the age difference Joe. I’m sorry.” There. She’d said it outright. My mind flailed, searching for something I could say to change her mind. Unable to think of anything on my own, I sought assistance from the only person nearby. Her.
“Is there anything I can do to change this? Can I do anything?” Her answer was to sadly shake her head.
In a matter of weeks, my life had changed three times over. It had been Saturday, death, Saturday, betrayal and Saturday, heartbreak. I learned a little about life that summer, and while I do not regret those lessons, I would never voluntarily repeat them again. Certainly, I’ll someday experience the death of loved one, but because of Mittens I may be a bit more prepared for how that will feel. Betrayal has visited me since but my calluses, thickened by my former friends, protected me well. Finally, heartbreak is a fact of life that can never crush hope, a lesson learned from the incomparable Heather. These are things I needed to learn someday, but was forced to learn all at once that summer. Lessons learned all in a matter of weeks.
Whats on TV
This essay was written in 1999.
Viewing television--also known as TV--has become all the rage in North America lately. This new technology allows people to travel far beyond the bounds of their little worlds, effectively bringing the places and events of the world at large into sharp focus. But, as more and more American families bring these new-fangled TV sets into their lives, it becomes apparent that their very manner of partaking in this new pastime has countless variations; moreover, the execution of this habit has even been found to variate to some degree within the confines of a nuclear family. This essay will produce for the reader a few examples of the inexplicably dissimilar viewing habits of a typical American couple.
First, picture a small living room in a small house. A well-used, 23 year old couch sits, throw blanket draped across its rear cushions, with it’s back against one wall. If a person sitting on that couch would but turn their head to the right they would find themselves gazing out a large picture window at the surrounding neighborhood through five foot long vertical blinds. the 23 year old couch!A glance to the left would show them a small fish tank, the hall leading to the kitchen, and a sturdy old Baldwin piano with clean simple lines which harken back to the era of the Bauhaus. These vistas are, for good or bad, most often ignored. Why? Because directly across from that elderly elmwood sofa is a monolithic entertainment center, complete with its primary occupant, a 25" GE television. Its warm glow fills the room at night, and the two people who dwell here gaze at it for a couple hours in the darkness, seeking mindless relief from their daily toils. These two--let’s call them J and H for now–together seek some of their entertainment from their TV. Observation would soon reveal that they exhibit very different interests in what they watch; however, a perceptive observer might also note that these two have many similarities as well.
Now, an observation of viewing methodology. Consider subject J. J works for a professional services company and, as sometimes occurs, has returned home from work several hours earlier than H, who labors in a hospital setting and works late hours on occasion. After feeding the family pets and changing his clothes he plops down, cross-legged, onto the floor in front of the couch. Soon the television is activated and he’s enjoying reruns of the Simpsons while playing with his cat,Odo on J's knee. Odo. On other days he has been known to disassemble something that might have been carelessly left within his reach by H. Many such incidents have ended with J covered in splotches of ink, or surrounded by bits of paper. But today he simply tussles with Odo and rocks to and fro, listening to–and frequently glancing up at--the television as Homer and Bart embark upon some silly adventure. Soon, H walks through the front door and scolds J for sitting too close to the TV. This otherwise sound advice is soon rendered unnecessary as J--television momentarily forgotten--leaps to his feet and jumps up-and-down with happiness at H’s arrival. Minutes later, H is moving about the house and J has returned to watching TV. H will likely gather the day’s mail to read, or the dog to play with, and will sit on the couch and patiently wait for J’s show to end before claiming her right to the remote. At that point a concerted effort will be made by each to find a program that they both find acceptable; this is a difficult, but not impossible, enterprise.
Next, consider H. H works in a hospital setting and, as sometimes occurs, has returned home from work earlier than J, who labors for a professional services company and works late hours on occasion. After feeding the family pets, she sits on the couch in her work clothes, wrapped in a blanket, hugging her knees in front of her. She flips through the channels looking for something interesting, and settles on some medical documentary, preferably with many close-ups of bloody body cavities. Soon, J walks through the front door, greets H and, as soon as he notices the TV show, loudly proclaims the “gross”ness of the subject matter. TGross Operation Show!he scolding is soon ignored as H, television momentarily forgotten, leaps to her feet and hugs J in celebration of his arrival. Minutes later, J is moving about the house and H has returned to watching TV. J will likely gather a magazine or book to read, or a handheld video game or cat to play with, and will sit on the couch to patiently wait for H’s show to end before claiming his right to the remote. At that point a concerted effort is made by each to find a program that they both find acceptable; this is an undeniably difficult, but not impossible, enterprise.
These scenarios are both commonplace, though not universal, and demonstrate how the methodology of TV viewing for H and J are quite different. J, for instance, tends to be a bit more active while watching TV, but not more productive. At times, he is even involuntarily destructive if left unsupervised. In contrast, H seems to be a more controlled and calm viewer. She also tends to have a bit more flexibility in which shows are viewed. J, however, is a creature of habit who will watch the same shows, at the same time, every day if at all possible. But both J and H will watch a show of their own choosing while awaiting the arrival of their mate; likewise, both J and H will attempt to complete their chosen show even after the other has joined them within the dwelling. And finally, both H and J will attempt to find a viewing selection considered permissible by both parties.
As hinted at by the shows which were chosen by H and J in the above methodology scenarios, each member of this couple has very different viewing tastes. J’s tastes tend to favor absurdist, satirical, or satirically absurdist humor. The Simpsons, a popular “animated” show referenced previously, is an example of the latter combination of absurdity and satire. The Upright Citizens Brigade, promoted as “seriously f*?&ed up sketch comedy,” is another.Upright Citizens Brigade He also appears to enjoy science and nature shows--provided they are not hosted by people with British accents and do not endorse superstitions like psychic powers or ghosts. Also enjoyable to J are programs dealing with history, so long as they do not center on either World War II or Adolf Hitler. This stipulation is not put in place because WWII and/or Hitler make him feel guilty, angry, or outraged, but merely because he is “sick of seeing black and white pictures of Nazis goose-stepping.” He naively thinks that historical, scientific or naturalistic programming can actually teach him something, or help him develop in some way other than pelvic width. COPS is filmed on location with the men and women....H, on the other hand, thinks absurdist comedy is often stupid, and quickly grows bored with edutainment programming which, in her opinion, never goes into enough detail to teach anybody anything worthwhile; instead, H’s favorite programs tend to be based on reality. Her long time favorites include “COPS”, “Trauma Life in the ER” and “Animal ER”. She also appears to enjoy biographical documentaries of popular personalities such as VH1's “Behind the Music” and “Where are They Now?” J thinks that real gore and blood are repulsive, and becomes disturbed and depressed when actual death is shown on TV. He also has little interest in the lives of popular musicians or actors who, in his opinion, neither deserve nor need his personal attention.
There are times when J’s or H’s choice of programming, and the methodology selected for the presentation, are employed as a means of performing a joke or prank upon their counterpart. An example of this phenomenon is the following morning ritual performed by J. Every weekday morning at 7:00am, CHiPs reruns are aired on TNT. Provided H is still sleeping peacefully, J will blare the funky disco-era CHiPs theme music as loud as he can stand it–much to H’s annoyance! Another example of TV based practical joking is exemplified by H innocently asking J to, “check it out,” while gesturing at the television the precise moment a nauseating surgical operation, such as a vasectomy, penile catheterization, or cataracts removal is being displayed in all its organic beauty. While both these pranks differ in execution, they do not differ in their intention: to use the TV to force the other to experience TV programming which they otherwise would avoid. It may be difficult for most individuals to accept this sort of visual ambush as humor, but J and H continue this behavior to this day.
Besides all this, there do occur moments of TV agreement, unlikely as that may seem. As an example, consider that J and H have fundamentally the same taste in situation comedies. Both enjoy "Drew Carey", "King of Queens" and "Everybody Loves Raymond"; furthermore, they both generally reserve their greatest reservoirs of dislike and hatred for the same programs, such as the popular sitcoms "Friends" and "Seinfeld." That is, while they may dislike many of the viewing choices their opposite member makes, they do not usually hate those choices. True hatred is often shared by both H and J, and is reserved for the likes of MTV’s “Spring Break,” ABC’s “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” and any fashion show or supermodel expose’ on the E network. Inane and obvious sporting event commentators are also given a special place in the halls of the damned as far as H and J are concerned. Ice skating commentators advising that “you’ve got to remember, ice is very slippery,” or hockey commentators explaining with a straight face that, “if he’d have just gotten that goal, he could’ve scored another point,” fill them both with unreasoning anger, and give them, at least for a moment, a common enemy. Even while they are angry, they feel happy. “We agree!” they think.
Finally, consider H and J in a final scenario. It doesn’t matter who arrived home first, as it is now later in the evening. H and J are on both on that old couch. One sits up, one lies down. One rests their head on the other’s thigh and the first is stroking the hair of the second. They are sharing friendship, comradery, love. They are smiling--for this moment at least.
While this essay has not been all-inclusive, and has centered on only one couple, they may be considered a good basis for future incursions into this subject matter. That is, while H and J–and their fancy TV–cannot be said to be a statistical representation of any appreciable segment of the American populace, it may be borne out through future observation that they do represent a realistic portrayal of what might be found within the walls of many homes in this day and age. Furthermore, while their viewing habits are, on the surface, very different, they can also be said to be ultimately compatible. As far as H’s and J’s relationship is concerned, it doesn’t even matter what’s on TV.