Monday, July 10, 2017

How Babylon Fell


Over the last several months, I've been doing research into what will likely be my next novel-writing project.  It's a mystic-theological spy-thriller, set in the year 539 BCE, because my muse, she tends to wander off in odd directions.

That's meant, among other things, steeping myself in the history of the ancient near East, Persian culture, Zoroastrianism, and the stories of the fall of Babylon.  The Babylonian Empire is fascinating, as it was one of the greatest powers in that region of the world, one whose control and dominance burned it forever in the narratives of the Bible.

"Fallen, fallen, is Babylon the great," shouted wacky ol' John in Revelation, evoking images of catastrophe, of war and fire and death, of burning cities and angelic powers.   He was talking about Rome, of course, and about the fall of empires generally.  Babylon's just a convenient code word.

Ultimately, though, when that empire actually fell, it did so in a way that bears no resemblance to John's fever dreams.  It's more interesting than that, utterly fascinating.  

Cyrus of Persia defeated Nabonidas, last emperor of Babylon, but not as one might expect.  He didn't take it down with armies, although Persia was perfectly competent on the battlefield.   There were no defining final battles, no great rivers of blood and cries of the dying.

There's some blurriness around this, as there is in many of the histories of the ancient world.  There may have been some skirmishes, and a handful of battles, but Persia's primary weapon against Babylon does not appear to have been the sword.

Cyrus seems to have primarily defeated the Babylonians using propaganda.  

He tore apart that society from within, by taking advantage of and magnifying the divisions within that culture.  Using words and cunning and a scholarly understanding of Babylonian society, the Persians undercut the authority of Babylonian leadership, sabotaging the trust of priests and people in the integrity of Nabonidas and his reign.

The Persians found the places of weakness, and took advantage.  

By the time the Persians arrived at the gates of Babylon itself, that society was so shattered that the Persians were welcomed in as saviors.   Cyrus defeated his greatest enemy with barely any bloodshed at all.

Because, as Jesus so correctly noted, a house divided against itself cannot stand.

Here in America, where a cunning despot and master manipulator of information is  doing his best to make us that divided house, how Babylon actually fell seems something worth remembering.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Where It Might Break

Incompetence takes a while to do damage.

In the frothing, bubbling reactiveness to our current administration, that reality gets missed.   Everything is a reason to be upset.  Whatever minor outrage has been instigated that day consumes the twitching twitter-madness of our twenty four minute news cycle.

Most of it is irrelevant.

What's worth looking at are the real crisis points, the places of genuine threat, where the issue is not just that we're on the wrong road heading the wrong direction at a hundred and twenty with a cheap beer in our hand, but are also at real risk of crashing through a guardrail and into a ravine.

The first of these, it seems, comes in September or October, when the federal government runs out of money.  That wouldn't just mean a few federales not getting paid for a bit.  It'd mean default, and a cascade that would seize up the Rube Goldberg contraption that passes for our global economy.

That means bad things.

This has happened before, too often, as our debt-addled culture continues to believe it can function by just borrowing, borrowing, borrowing.  The way to approach that is through sensible budgeting, streamlining functions of government, really dealing with health care costs, making the wealthy pay their fair share, and standing down our imperial military.

But that would require sanity.  And sanity?  Hah.  The inmates are running Arkham now, and things are different.

The party that controls both houses of Congress?  Too many of its members are neo-Confederates, who would be perfectly happy to bring the Union down.  They are "led" by a President whose sense of his own skills is as far removed from his actual competence as we are from taking our summer vacations on Kepler 186f.

There is a substantially higher chance that this recurring inflection point will be bungled, through some toxic admixture of blind ideology and brazen stupidity.

And sure, there are grownups in the room, advisors who know how the system works, and know what would happen if a fool convinced that he is the best negotiator who has ever lived decided to use catastrophic default as leverage for renegotiating the debt.  Those grownups do not want to pointlessly crater the global economic system, because that would be bad.

The odds are in favor of things just proceeding as normal.  Most likely, things will be fine.

But those odds feel markedly lower than they once were, in a way that's faintly distressing.  Not panic inducing.  Just a little worrying, as you notice some...but not all...of the warning signs.  A little worrying, as the numbers look less like "what are the chances I'll be struck by lightning today" and more like "what's the likelihood I'll spill some of my coffee tomorrow morning."

That's the problem trying to be prophetic in a probabilistic universe.    "There's a thirty four point two percent chance that the end might possibly be near" just doesn't have the right ring to it.




Tuesday, June 27, 2017

JEB Stuart and the Confederate Cause

Both of my sons have, over the last five years, attended J.E.B. Stuart High School.

The name of the school, honestly, always struck me as a little peculiar.  Here, a human being who led raids into the area in and around Washington DC, as his cavalry unit sacked and burned and terrorized Union supporters.

And by Union, I mean American.  Because the entity he was attacking was the United States of America.  Not "the North."  Not "Yankees."  But the United States of America.

There's a sustained debate now about the name of their school, and whether J.E.B. Stuart's cause really reflects the values we Americans honor.

Stuart was a Confederate, meaning the cause he fought for was the Confederate States of America.  The argument is made, often and with earnestness, that the Confederacy was all about state's rights.  From that perspective, the War Between the States was not about slavery, but about the right of states to have their own identity over and against those Federal tyrants in Washington.  It's was a fight for local autonomy over semi-imperial control, or so some would still argue, particularly those who have that ideological bent in the first place.

There were, no doubt, Confederate soldiers and officers who believed that was so.  That seems self-evident from both history and their writings.

I also do not feel it is necessary to demonize every person who fought for the Confederacy.

Decent human beings sometimes fight for monstrous causes.  This may fly in the face of the clumsy, shallow dualism of our benighted era, but it has the merit of being real.

However, I am not fool enough to imagine, for a moment, that those human beings were correct in their thinking.  Rather, that "gloss" was what permitted good people to serve a demonic purpose.

I once believed that local control was at least a part of the dynamic that defined the Confederate cause, but I no longer do.  States rights were just a rationalization, a saccharine falsehood that many otherwise decent people told themselves to justify their support of a cause that was a fundamental affront to human liberty.

The Confederate States of America, as an entity, as a concept, and as a failed state, was entirely and completely about perpetuating the institution of racially based human chattel slavery.  Period.

What is the basis for that statement?

Go to the foundations, or so my Presbyterian forebears said, if you want to know the truth of a thing.  

As a pastor and follower of Jesus of Nazareth, my self-understanding and the purpose of my faith can be found in the Gospels.  Those texts are where you can go to discover what it means to be a Christian.  Similarly, as a proud citizen of the United States of America, I find the essence of our republic enshrined in our Constitution.  

And so to understand the Confederacy, we must study their founding document: the Confederate Constitution.

I had always assumed, as a high school student, that the Confederacy had gone back to some version of the Articles of Confederation for their ruling principles.  That first American effort at a defining document was a loose gathering of states, in which the rights of individual states superceded that of the central government.  It was too loose a union, ultimately, to be sustained, but the Articles were all about local control.  That would have made sense.  Heck, it even has Confederation in the name.

The CSA Constitution was not based on that early American document.  For their defining text, the leaders of the Confederacy chose to simply copy the Constitution of the United States of America, and then edited it to reflect what they saw to be the primary reasons for their departure.

It is in those editorial choices that the Confederate cause reveals itself.

Those distinctions are best observed by engaging in a line-by-line comparison of the two documents, which can be done by following this link to an excellent and straightforward website that lets you do precisely that.  

Do not continue reading until you have followed that link.  Seriously.  Look at it. 

As the author highlights, there are some trivial variances, most of which involve taxes and duties on sea and river traffic, line item vetoes, and term limits.

There is the inclusion of an explicit reference to God in the preamble, which seems, in retrospect, to have been something of a mistake.  Never, ever invoke God unless you're ready for God to show up.  

Remarkably, the Confederate constitution contained no meaningful effort to decentralize authority.  None.  States in the CSA had no more rights than states in the USA, and in some ways had less.  Richmond had as much power as Washington.  

But what is written in, repeatedly, and forever enshrined as an inalienable right of citizens of the CSA?  

The right of "white" men to own "negro slaves."  

In point of fact, states that were part of the CSA could not choose not to be slave-holding.
  
Again: the cause of the Confederacy, and the primary distinction between it and the Union as repeatedly written into its founding document:  the "right" of one human being to own another, grounded in contemptible assumptions of racial superiority.  It was, by design, both racist and antithetical to the principles of human liberty that are the best angels of the American spirit.

Soldiers like Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart may well have been good men.  They may have believed that they were fighting for a just cause.

But they were not.

As our nation takes a hard look at the way we've memorialized those men who fought against the principles of liberty on which our nation was founded, that must be kept front and center.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Designed for Failure

It had been a while since I'd messed up that badly.

It was because I was rushing, of course, because catastrophic failure often happens when you're in too much of a hurry to do things right.

There I was, on the Beltway, and it was 100 degrees, heat pouring from the eight lanes of tarmac.  I was on my motorcycle, and traffic was grinding slowly towards the American Legion Bridge.  I was not wearing my riding boots, but instead, a pair of shoes.

With shoelaces.

The protocol, correctly observed, when riding with long shoelaces on a motorcycle, is to tuck them in.  I knew this.  I have known this for thirty years of riding.  But I was in a rush, and hot, and distracted.

So there I was, stopping and going, sweating in the heat, surrounded by an endless column of cars. I put my foot down.   Then moved forward ten yards, my foot coming up.  I put my foot down.   The cycle repeated, over and over.

Then I moved forward ten yards, and went to put my left foot down.  But my laces had wrapped around the shifter pedal.  The foot would not go down, not without bringing me and five hundred pounds of motorcycle down with it.

So despite a wild, desperate flailing effort to counterbalance, down I went.

I got disentangled and up quickly, as one does when in encounter with burning hot asphalt, and before I could set my back into the bike and lift with my quads...that, I'd not forgotten...a good soul in a pickup next to me helped me right my scraped steed.

I restarted the bike.

It was then I realized my clutch lever (left side, on the handlebar) had been snapped by the impact. Without it, I could not shift.  But it had...fortune of fortunes!...broken high on the lever.  There was still enough lever remaining to engage the clutch and shift gears.  Had there not been, I would have been left standing in eight lanes of Beltway traffic with an unrideable motorcycle at the height of DC rush hour.

What good luck, I thought.

Only it wasn't, or so I realized when the replacement lever arrived.

The folks at Suzuki had designed both their clutch and brake levers with a cutout in the metal, right at the point where the lever had snapped.   Because people drop bikes all the time.  Perhaps you're a new rider, and your balance is uncertain.  Or you hit a patch of oil or wet leaves or gravel.  Or you're just being a distracted, rushing idiot.

So they'd factored that in, making it much more likely that a low speed drop would still leave you with a ridable motorcycle.   It was meant to break manageably, meant to fail in a way that was recoverable.

Which is how you design a system, when you actually care about the people who use it.  When you don't want one mistake or moment of misfortune to be catastrophic.

I just wish American society was set up the same way.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Our Conflict Algorithm

Simulated Pseudo-Organic Conflict Algorithm from ClearwavePro AJW on Vimeo.


It's a peculiar thing, how the strange new media of the virtual world encourages our darkness.

With my novel coming out in just about a month, I find myself aware that, well, some people just won't like it.  They will write reviews that say, eh, this book didn't work for me.  Boring, boring, boring, they'll say.  And I will cry and be sad.  Snif.

And eventually, some troll will get a bee in their bonnet about it, and write things that are nasty, shallow, bitter and deeply unfair.

What is my choice, in such an instance?  How am I to respond?

The monkey-mind temptation is to fling myself at them, to summon my rage powers, and to take them down.

Then they respond.  Then I respond.  Then our friends get into it.  The next thing you know, it's a full-on hairball of a dogfight, a churning trackless interweaving of rage-threads and invective.

That means a whole bunch of people spending a whole bunch of time on a website or destination.

Which is exactly what we're supposed to be doing.  Fighting is good for business.

And there's something more, something I noticed when a dead-hearted Pharisee wrote an utterly unfair review of a friend's excellent book on Goodreads.  This peculiar soul panned a book she hadn't even read, solely because she'd learned it had a couple of bad words in it.

A Christian writes a book about the spiritual process of recovery from a brutal rape that has a smattering of profanity?  And the bad words offend another "Christian" more than the rape itself, so much so they feel obligated to write a smug missive about it?  Lord have mercy, but some folk have their priorities wrong.

My friend's friends leapt to her defense, calling out the Pharisee.  There was the usual back and forth. And when the smoke cleared, what review do you suppose the Goodreads algorithms put right there at the top?

The troll's review, because that was where the energy was.  That was, as far as the cold eyes of data were concerned, the most interesting discussion.

Seeing this maddening vortex, I made myself a pledge, in defiance of this dynamic.  If I read a terrible, horrible, no good review, I may feel defensive.  Scratch that.  I will feel defensive.

But I will not let myself manifest that defensiveness.  I will not go on the offensive.  I will simply allow that some folks have different taste.  Or that some trolls are like that, and move on.

Because in this peculiar internet era, the Machine wants us to be fighting, goading us on like a gambler wagering at a drunken barroom brawl, all the while profiting from our anger-addled attention.  That's something to keep in mind.

And in defiance of that, put your energies into grace, whenever and wherever you can.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Of Jobs and Environmental Accords



I meandered through the car dealership, waiting for the finance folks to process me.

It was new car time, but things were a little slow in the dealership as they tend to be, so I wandered from car to car, sampling them as I waited.

We were getting a Honda, an Accord, because they're just great cars.  Reliable.  Practical.  Efficient.  Surprisingly nice to drive.

You can't go wrong with a Honda, or so I've been saying since I convinced my dad to buy his first Honda over thirty years ago.  They are fine, fine automobiles.  Heck, if I wasn't in the ministry, I could sell 'em.

But what I was reminded of as I wandered through the dealership was a little peculiarity of Honda in America:  most Hondas are American cars.  Checking the manufacturer labels on the sides of those minivans and sedans and small utes, you can find the place of manufacture and the parts content.

Most of the vehicles on that dealership floor were made in America, produced by American workers in Honda factories in Ohio.  Or in Kentucky.  Or in Tennessee.  Seventy percent or more of the parts content?  American.

In an age where Jeeps are made in Europe, and Dodges in Canada, and Fords in Mexico?  I'd say Honda counts as American.

But not our Accord, unfortunately.  I was disappointed to discover it, because while I don't care a whit about which CEO of which global corporation pockets a percentage of my purchase, I like supporting American factory workers.

We'd gotten the hybrid version, because DC traffic is just so heinous.  And I like the often silent running of a hybrid, and the lower impact on the environment.  That, and we got a great deal, because with gas so cheap, hybrids are languishing.  It cost us less than the price of the average vehicle in America.

Alone among the Accords you can buy in America, the hybrid was built in Saitama, Japan.  It used to be made in America, back as recently as 2015.  But American suppliers haven't invested in battery production and electric motor production in the same way as the Japanese, and Honda couldn't get the parts it needed to manufacture the last version here.  Shortages gummed up their production lines.

So for the new iteration of the Accord, those jobs left these shores.  America fell a little further behind, and our lack of attention to the future meant fewer Americans working.

And sure, we're talking Honda Accords and not a Paris Accords.

But the pungent symbolism did not escape me.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Divine Sovereignty and the Multiverse



The concept of predestination exists for a reason.  As a doctrine, as a theological construct, and as a way of understanding creation, it exists for the sole purpose of affirming divine sovereignty.

God, the Alpha and the Omega, the Creator of the Universe, the Almighty and Eternal?  God is in charge.  Nothing happens, but that the I Am That I Am wills it.  From the start of time and space to its conclusion, every last little thing that happens is under the authority of the One that makes Heaven and Earth.

If this is not true, then God is not God, and God is not worthy of worship.

That's pretty much the classically orthodox Christian position, as laid out by Brother Augustine and John Calvin, Esquire.

I am completely down with that, with a rather notable exception.

I don't think it means precisely what Calvin and Augustine thought it meant, because I don't understand creation in the same way.   I live in neither the year 420 nor the year 1550, and have the advantage of centuries of human knowledge.

Along with many cosmologists and a surprisingly large number of physicists, I view creation as multiversal.  There is not one time and space, but rather all times and spaces.  Everything that can exists does exist, and what we experience in the vastness of our time and space is just an infinitesimal slice of being.

I believe this for a range of reasons, some of which lie in mystic experiences that make me sound a bit crazy.  But those encounters resonate with what science seems to be discovering, which is why I don't just write them off as me being a little wackadoodle.

More importantly, my understanding of creation as multiversal is the only way...as I see it...to integrate the statement that God is Sovereign with the statement that God is Love.

Classical predestination...meaning, God is the Author of the single linear timeline that we together are experiencing...has two primary theological flaws.

First, it asserts that this is the best of all possible universes.  Calvinists will argue this with a straight face, trying to assert that the bloody mess of human history is just God being a little coy about God's goodness.  "Really, it'll be the best!  The very best," says the classical Calvinist YHWH.  "I'll tell you the reason for all of this chaos and horror soon. Very soon, and it'll be good. So good!  And you'll be amazed.  Believe me."

We get enough of that kind of [bovine excrement] from the fools we have chosen to lead us.

I don't believe that for a moment, because believing that impinges on God's sovereign power.  Asserting that God is only capable of creating a single nonvariant thing imprisons God's will within our time and space.  But my God, to sound a bit like a praise song, is a mighty God.  My God can do more than that.  My God can do everything that can possibly be done.

Sure, you can argue that God is limited, that God must do only one thing because that one thing is God's will.  But then your god with a small "g" is smaller than mine.  Weaker.  Not actually omnipotent at all, unless you define down omnipotence to less than we can imagine.

The second flaw with classical predestination is that it eliminates moral agency.  If there is just one way everything can happen, and the Creator of the Universe has absolute control down to the subatomic level, then we are not empowered to make any meaningful choices.  Everything that is done is done because God is doing it.  Period.

And if that is so, then we choose nothing.  And if we do not have the power to choose, then we are not culpable for our actions.  If you have only one option, then you have no options.  We become objects, meat machines whose Free Will is simply an illusion, a mirage cast by the shimmering heat of Divine Authority.

As a cosmology, I suppose I could see where that might have some purchase.  The problem with that?

Jesus.

I mean, not "Jesus" as an appropriately blasphemous epithet cast at a monstrous, soulless clockwork, but "Jesus" as the one who manifests and embodies God's Love.

At the heart of the Gospel lies the assumption that change is possible.  "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand," says the Nazarene.  To authentically repent, one must have the power to choose, to select one path rather than another.

Without that capacity for choice...real and fraught with mortal peril...we are not moral creatures.  Neither would we be made in the image of God, or at least, not any god worth turning to in hope.  We, like the "god" of a single mechanistic way of being, would be functionally helpless, trapped, unable to create, unable to shape reality.

For God to be God, the divine power to create must infinitely transcend the creation we perceive.

And for God to be love, we must be free to choose...really, truly choose...to love God back.

Which is why, quite frankly, a multiverse is necessary, if the sovereignty of the God we Jesus-folk know in Christ is to be preserved.  

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Hygge Christianity

I encountered the word in an article, and had no idea what it meant.  "Hygge." Hygge?  I had no idea what that word was.  A noun?  A verb?  An adjective?  All of the above?   I didn't even know how to say it.  Higgie?  High-guh-geh?

This was an offense to my vocabulary, which is a source of some hopefully-less-than-mortal-pride, so I looked it up.

"Hoo guh," it's pronounced, and it's Danish, a term that is an integral part of that culture's self understanding.  Apparently, the word hygge has been floating around for half a year as the latest next big thing, buzzing about in the fad-hungry networks of cosmopolitan souls who are considerably more hip than I.

It means, or so I learned from the New Yorker article on the subject (but of course, the New Yorker), a "quality of cosiness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being."

Hygge speaks to a particularly Scandinavian view of existence, of having enough but not too much, of enjoying simple comforts and the pleasurable company of others.  It's a warm flannel sheets kind of word, a sitting tending the fire kind of word.  It's very hobbitish, very Norman Rockwell, very Narnian.

And I wondered, as I thought, to what degree that concept translates to the life of Christian faith.

Not well, generally.

Jesus folk seem to have trouble with it.  We're good at stern Pharisaism, that bright bitter granular pursuit of our neighbor's sins.  Hygge makes the Jesus Pharisee think of John the Revelator's contemptuous letter to Laodicea, a place of warm tepid water that has no place in a world that deserves to burn in the hell-fires of our...oops, we mean, God's...ever-righteous wrath.

We're good at devouring anxieties, fretting about every last thing that might be wrong with the world.  How can you indulge in hygge, when everything is terrible and we must be continually outraged about the latest thing some fool said on twitter?  Hygge, one might sniff, is just bourgeois and privileged, and an impediment to our mission to afflict the world whenever it wants to just not stress out for half a moment.

And we're particularly good, we American Christians, at the big bright sparkle of AmeriChrist, Inc., in giant arenas with Jumbotrons and multi-level parking garages.  We prefer our faith commodified to an industrial era shine, not small and quiet and uninterested in a 55 million dollar campaign to build a new state of the art worship complex.

Which is the farthest thing from cozy, and the farthest thing from "just enough."

This is a pity, because if you can't do hygge, you can't really offer comfort to those who suffer and hunger for a place of sanctuary.  If you can't do hygge, you can't show hospitality to neighbor and stranger alike.

And an absence of hygge means an absence of grace, without which this whole Jesus endeavor seems rather pointless.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

When the Bible Is Profane

It's not been the easiest class.

Our goal: a full, engaged reading of the Book of Judges.

I'd committed to leading it a couple of months back, being the Teaching Elder at my little congregation and all, and I don't regret it.

It's a fascinating book, truly and genuinely ancient, chock full of tales that rise out of the late Bronze Age.  Here, songs and stories that are over three millennia old, narratives that rise up from deep in the primal memory of the people of Israel.

That alone makes them worthy of study, and worthy of deeper exploration.

But it doesn't make them any less brutal.  Judges starts with a captive king having his toes and thumbs cut off, and it pretty much goes downhill from there.  It's chock full of the ultraviolence, as the imprisoned Alex DeLarge discovered to his delight, as much so as any of the savage tales of our violence-loving culture.  The heroes of the tale nail sleeping men's heads to the ground with spikes, and flay village elders to death with thorned branches.  They butcher their own children.  Even Samson, Samson of countless Sunday school coloring books?  He's driven by lust, betrays his sacred oaths, and murders entire villages to pay off his debts.

It ends with mass abductions and rapes, as a tribe of Israel storms into a local festival to kidnap young women with the sole intent of using them as chattel breeding slaves.  It's something straight out of the Boko Haram playbook.

Next to the book of Judges, Deadpool and Judge Dredd seem like callow newbies.

And yet.  Were I fool enough to read any of this in worship, I'd have end my reading with "This is the Word of God," to which the good souls of my little church would have to stammer out, "Thanks...be to...cough...God?"

There is, quite frankly, nothing sacred about it.

Fundamentalism, in its reflexive idolatry, assumes that there axiomatically must be.  But there is not.  Judges is unrelentingly profane, a story of blood and betrayal and human horror.  It is so by design.

That does not mean that it is unworthy of inclusion in our sacred story.

All Scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, as that 2 Timothy touchstone goes, and the book of Judges is no exception.

It is worth teaching because it reminds us of how easily human power corrupts, and how far back our love of blood goes.  It is worth remembering because it holds us to account, and reminds us that our understanding of God's intent for us sometimes wanders far from grace, compassion, and justice.

And is it God's Word?  Sure, because nothing in creation is not God's self-expression.

Even those wildly profane things that have nothing to do with God's grace, if we have the wisdom to learn from them.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Listening Across the Divide



She always wants to talk, because all day, she is alone.

It's one of the reasons I started driving for Meals on Wheels, back when I started at my current church. Meals on Wheels, which provides nutritious meals to the homebound and the elderly, had always been part of the life of the congregation where I grew up, and it seemed a natural fit.   With a part-time pastoring gig far away, I had the bandwidth to both help out with the kids as they grew up and to do volunteering in my own community.  Now that they are mostly grown, I continue to volunteer.

And so I find myself in the homes of those who are unable to get out much for themselves.  Disabled veterans.  Cancer patients, hooked up to their oxygen.  And the old, who more often than not are far from a family scattered by the endless churn of our culture.

She's one of them, a recent widow, deep into her eighties.  She is always in the same chair, right by the door.

Her little dog, in the kitchen.

And all around her, cues that she and I inhabit very different parts of the American political spectrum.

Fox News, always on.  "Even at night," she says.  "Because it makes it almost feel like I'm not alone." A stack of newspapers, all ultra-conservative.  Neat stacks of letters, fundraisers for right wing candidates and causes.

Were we to talk about politics, it would not go well.  But she doesn't want to talk about politics.

She just wants someone to talk to.  Period.  And someone to listen.

She wants to talk about her husband, who had been taking care of her until he suddenly became ill and died.  She wants someone to listen as she describes waking screaming from a nightmare, alone and terrified in the darkness of an empty home with no-one to comfort her or calm her.   She wants to talk about the frustrations of dealing with an impossibly complex medical system.  She wants to talk about dogs.

She wants to hear about life and gardens and beautiful spring days.

So I take the time, and we talk, and I listen.  It is the duty of my faith, and the purpose of the Way of my teacher.

Beyond that, I just enjoy talking to her, in the way that sharing life and stories with another person gives pleasure to human life.

Measured against faith and our common humanity, that she and I are on other sides of our nation's deepening, shadowed divide means nothing.


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Six Marks of a Fool



Life is not predictable.  It isn't.  You can't ever say, well, if I do X, Y will certainly happen.  On a Newtonian level, that might work most of the time.  But when it comes to human action and human deciding, creating a particular outcome is never a 100% certainty.

There are, however, certain patterns of behavior and life-disciplines that are likely to produce success.  They do not guarantee it.  Nothing guarantees success, because that's not how our space-time functions.  Instead, there are ways of ordering your life that increase the probability of encountering a positive future outcome.  Because creation is nonlinear, and YHWH is not our lackey, no outcome is guaranteed.   The best we can do is act in such a way that our desired outcome is more likely.

As a disciple of Jesus and a lifelong student of scripture, I know what that looks like.  That pattern of disciplined action is what the bible calls wisdom.

Set against it are other patterns of behavior, ones that have the inverse effect.  These are ways of living that almost invariably create entropy, because they stand against God's shaping and guiding power.  Not "creative entropy," that openness to the new that stirs growth and hope and wonder.  But just plain ol' breaking things, the "energy" that comes from decay and decline and the rot of life-sustaining structures.

These patterns of behavior are called "foolishness," and those who practice those patterns are called fools.

Note, because this is significant: fools are not stupid.  They do not lack intelligence.  As every book-and-dice role-playing-gamer knows, intelligence and wisdom are entirely different things.  That you're smart as a whip does not mean that you use your intelligence to make the right decisions about your life.

In point of fact, cunning fools end up doing the most damage to themselves and others.  It's like convincing a friend to lend you their Ford F-150 Raptor in a snowstorm, which you then somehow use to get yourself truly deeply and inextricably stuck in an eight foot drift.

So what then, are the marks of the fool, Biblically speaking?  How do we know if someone is manifesting the signs of folly, of being the sort of person who will manage to break everything they encounter?

Of equal...or perhaps deeper...significance: how do we know if we are on that path ourselves?

So below, a listicle for your convenience, the six marks of fools, linked through and through with the ancient wisdom teachings of my faith:

1) Impulsiveness.  Fools invariably and without exception act and speak without considering the consequences.  I feel this, now, so I'm going to do it.  I want to say this,  so I'm going to say it.  I want this object or that person, so I'm going to go for it.  Fools are quickly and easily distracted by bright shiny objects.  This can result, occasionally, in success.  But so does Russian Roulette.   More often than not, that absence of self restraint and foresight leads to failure.   It makes them gullible and easily manipulated.  The fools' lack of discipline sabotages growth and progress.

2) Greed.  Fools hunger for wealth and the social power that comes from it.   They can never have enough of it, and will chase it with single-minded abandon.  More, more, more, says the fool, from the misguided assumption that their insatiable appetites are to be indulged.  They are greedy for power, greedy for attention, greedy for pleasure.  And as a slave to those appetites, they will sacrifice anything.  Prior relationships.  Promises they've made.  Anything.  Fools, through chance of fate or chance of birth, can become very, very rich.  But they are nonetheless fools.  And their wealth means nothing, in the face of the entropy of their lives.

3) Stubbornness.  Fools never change their minds.  Nothing they have ever done is wrong.  Not ever.  They will never ever change their approach to something, because why should they?  They never adapt, never modify their perspective, never consider that perhaps a different tactic would yield better results.  Fools do not grow, or learn.  Fools do not take correction.  They always know best, and won't ever listen to the advice of others.  They are shallow cynics, sure that every way but their own way is flawed, mocking and belittling that which would improve them.  Which is why they fail.

4) Rage:  Fools are not in control of their emotional states, and when confronted, they often blow up.  Let it be said: Anger is a valuable emotion.  It tells us that something is wrong.  It alerts us to brokenness, and to our own woundedness.  Sometimes, it gives us the energy needed to right a wrong or an injustice.  But the wise know that anger doesn't consider consequences.  Anger just wants to smash, and no-one is angrier than a fool confronted.  Fools don't hold back.  Fools give vent to their rage without considering the impact it will have, without concern for relationships or the integrity of others or healing.  Fools bully and bluster and bludgeon their way through the world.  They make a mess of things.

5) Mendacity.  Or, to use a non-SAT word: Fools lie.  They lie about others.  They lie about themselves.  Truth means nothing to a fool.  It does not matter if the thing they are saying is not real, or that what they promise will never happen.  Does a statement serve their impulse right now?  Does it feed their hunger, or reinforce their position?  Then they'll spin out a complete fabrication with the ease and practice of a master seamstress.  They do not think about how that will ultimately catch up with them.  They don't consider how that separates them from the deep reality of God's work in creation.  I mean, seriously.  Why would they?  They're fools.

6) Delusion.  So fools lie.  They are mendacious.  Mendalicious, even.  But there's a striking feature to their lies:  fools very often believe the very lies they speak.    As easily as they are manipulated by others, they most easily manipulate themselves.  They'd rather live in the world of their falsehood than the complex world around them, the world where living well means being in humble relationship with their Creator.

But fools can be smart, and fools can be charming, and fools love it when others affirm them and their deluded sense of self.  In fact, they are most dangerous when others do believe them, because they radiate a confidence that those who are not wary mistake for authority and being "honest."  They lead others down a path to destruction, as their penchant for chaos tears apart lives.  This is where fools do the most damage, to friends and families, communities and organizations.

And nations.

Especially nations.

God help us.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Multiverse and Consequences



The thought hummed insistently in my head, demanding a place in my already over-dense, convoluted sermon.

It was a thought about the multiverse, which continues to fascinate me over all these years, but which I endeavor not to shoehorn into every other Sunday because, well, c'mon.   Specifically, it was a thought about the impact of multiversal cosmology on consequentialist ethical frameworks, which is exactly why people show up to a little country church on Sunday.

Golly, I sure do hope pastor's talking about multiversality and consequentialist ethical frameworks again this Sunday!  I just feel so blessed by the love of Jesus every time he mentions Everettian quantum branching.

Gack.

But the the idea came to me nonetheless, as I considered how we make moral decisions.  There are two primary schools of ethical thinking, two ways of approaching our moral choices.

The first is what they call "deontological ethics."  That means you always act in a particular way, because it is your duty.  That duty is the same, no matter what.   Tell the truth, always.  Care for others, always.  Love your neighbor, always and no matter what.  "This I do, though the heavens may fall," or so my fierce, brilliant ethics professor used to put it.

The second, and the more common these days, are "consequentialist ethics."  Consequentialism takes context into consideration, and impact.  Our duty is to the truth, we might say.  But consequentialism responds.  Would you speak truth, it asks, if Nazis were at the door asking about the Jews you were hiding in the basement?

Or to use a non-Nazi analogy, would you speak truth, consequentialism queries, if your wife asks you if she looks fat in those pants?

One must think about the consequences.  Lie if you must, rather than cause harm.

Consequentialist ethics seem wiser, more grounded in reality, more in keeping with the flexibility of our ethically malleable age.

But the idea that reality might be fundamentally unpredictable messes with that.  It isn't just that you might be wrong about the outcome.  It's that you cannot meaningfully say there is a single outcome.

Because a multiverse is non-linear.  Our choices have not one possible outcome, but a functional infinity of all possible outcomes.  Some are more probable than others, but in a multiverse, all are made manifest.

And if my choices have a near-infinity of possible consequences, how and why would a consequentialist ethic be meaningful?  Sure, my actions might have a particular outcome.  Those Nazis could go away because I lie.  But they are equally likely to stay anyway, rendering my lie moot.  Or my confronting them might stir a moral argument that resonates outward, bringing in trusted neighbors, the genesis of a local counter-movement.  Or the moment after I lie, a large asteroid comes barreling in, causing the extinction of the human race.  My lie means nothing to the race of sentient cockroaches that ultimately inherit the earth.

That is not to say we should not consider likely outcomes of our actions.

But if creation is a multiverse, and there is no one linear sequence of outcomes, consequentialism seems to find less purchase as a moral framework.

That's not quite how Jesus put it.  But it's close enough.  




Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Jesusy Parts


One of the challenges I faced as I wrote my novel was this: How to write what one reviewer described as "the Jesusy parts?"

I am a Christian, in nontrivial ways.  The protagonist of my story, whose particular point of view is the palette from which the tale is painted?  He is also a Christian, an Amish man, one who has set himself to living within an Order that is as rigorous as any monastic community discipline.  Faith is, by necessity, an integral part of the narrative.

But I did not write my novel for other Christians only.  There is a place for such literature, sure.  I've written books like that myself.

But what I want to do is tell a story, and present a human being who is a Christian in such a way that it is both organic and non-didactic.  There's a tendency, in all our forms of modern storytelling, for Christian characters to inhabit the realm of caricature.   This is true particularly when there is an agenda.  

Too often in popular narratives, Christians are hypocrites, nasty balls of barely suppressed perversion, warped and manipulative and brutal.   Christians are cold and judgmental and unforgiving, the dark-eyed Church Lady Pharisees who glare down on all who do not meet their standard.  Christians are charlatans, flagrant con-men whose "faith" exists only to line their own pockets.  Christians are dumb as stumps, gullible fools who'll follow any silver-tongued devil who tells them what they want to believe.

If you've never actually met any Christians, and have instead spent your whole life sitting in a darkened basement while reworking your manifesto on an r/atheism subreddit, this might seem valid.  Otherwise, not so much.

On the other end of the spectrum, there's the Christian media marketplace.  There, Christians are the saved, the pure-hearted righteous who glow with the certainty that Jesus loves them.  They are the ones making it all right, showing the love of Jesus in ways that are comfortably predictable and familiar.  They speak exclusively in the in-group language of the faith, uttering earnest pastel truisms in evangelicalese while suffused in the warm glow of their own rightness with God. 

There is an assumption among Christians who live entirely within the AmeriChrist, Inc. media ecology that these stories effectively convey the message to "non-believers."  These poor lost sinners will watch Left Behind, and the tears will flow, and they will call on the name of Jesus and be saved.

Tears are flowing, yes.  And the name of Jesus is likely being invoked.  But not necessarily for the best of reasons.

What I hunger for, and strive for in my own writing...when I write characters who happen to share my faith...is to create Christian characters who reflect the rich and complex humanity of the actual Christians I actually know.   Characters for whom striving to follow Jesus matters, who nonetheless and at the same time inhabit places of challenge, struggle, and grey-scale.

As I seem to recall, that was how he constructed his own storytelling, those pungent little tales of farmhands and siblings and Samaritans.




Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Hair of the Dog

Ten forty two.  It was ten forty two.


Terri watched the redness of the digits flicker, dimming and sputtering in time to the throbbing behind her eyes.  Her hand sought her face, soft flesh pressing against her eyes, pressing against the ache that was rising behind her temples.


The ache sang in her, its voice mingling with the deep basso ache in her lower back, and the shrill flat alto ache in her right knee, a dissonant requiem in the ruined cathedral of her flesh.


The bedroom, dim and cool, the light of late morning faint against the back of the shades.  On the sill, a patch of brightness, white and bright and golden.  It stabbed at her, cruel and relentless, a glorious agony leaping like fire into her half-opened eyes, daggering back into her cortex.  


A faint surge of nausea blossomed, her gorge rising to defy the light.


“Uuuuuh.”


She heaved herself upright on the pale, slack fish-meat of her left arm, and stared for a moment at the floor.  A deep breath, then another, lungs filling with a staleness, heavy with the smell of sweat and the old faint sharpness of cat litter.


It stirred, for a moment, a sense memory of Brie, ice pale fur, bright blue eyes, practiced and innate disinterest.  Terri’s mind fished for a sense of time, how long?  A year?  No. Two.  Maybe more. Since the leukemia had taken it.  Since that long, expensive afternoon at the vets.  Terri had cried no tears.  She had felt nothing.  Brie did not care for her.  


Had not cared for Brad, either, before that day when he simply did not come home.  


Brie the cat had simply existed, of no more consequence than an unused, uncomfortable chair stacked with faded magazines in an over-cluttered room.  But Brie had expectations of feeding and cleaning, expectations that exceeded her worth.  Brie gave no joy, did not seek touch, did not purr, was ready with claw or hiss if her space was violated.  Her absence meant as little to Terri as the emptying of that last overflowing litterbox.


Two years, since that cat had finally found the common decency to die.


The apartment still smelled of it.


Terri’s feet touched the cool hardwood floor, fishing around awkwardly for the threadbare Hello Kitty slippers that they knew must be there.  They slid finally, triumphantly, into the smooth warm stick of them, and Terri rose to her feet, swaying slightly.


“Oh.  Dear.”


She shuffled forward, small steps and groans.  The heavy, slack flesh amassed over her fifty six years pressed down, her knees straining as she moved towards the bathroom.


The bathroom, dark and grey and cluttered with half-used product, baby blue wallpaper faded and stained and peeling.  Terri didn’t bother with the light.  Didn’t work anyway, the last of the bare bulbs hissing and fading into nothing a week ago.  She hiked up her nightgown and squatted down, knees popping.


The toilet seat strained and creaked and shifted slightly under the pressing mass of her as she settled.  She shifted in the darkness, and then release, the faint misting spatter of urine against the shadowed inner backs of her thighs.  When she was done, she sat for a moment in the darkness.  Her hand fumbled for the towel bar, and her arm and her legs strained her halfway upright.


She dabbed halfheartedly at her puckered pale flesh with a thick mass of single ply.  What she did not get would dry on its own.


Up, now, through the half-light of the bedroom, her shuffling faster as she approached the small galley kitchen.  Her hand sought the lightswitch, and the fluorescent struggled on.  The countertops, faintly crusted.


The cans still sat from last night and the night before, Boyardee, Dinty Moore, a small gathering of tiny flies busy on their surface, drosophila melanogasters bustling hungrily across the arc of the sharp-edged tin.


There’d been a unit she taught, once far back in the haze, on genetics.  A unit with flies.  A memory of glassy eyed freshmen, utterly disinterested as she talked, furtively texting and chatting on half-hidden phones.  And still she would talk, her voice an echo, the flies crawling and circling in their jar.  


She would stop talking, sometimes, for a moment, for a minute, and not an eye would shift.


Like not an eye shifted when she entered the staff room, not a voice raised in welcome.  The days, filled with empty people and disinterest, full of decay and flies.


Back before her back went out, before the operation on her knee, before the flask and the pills were found in her desk, before that meeting with the administrative team and the “honorable” application for disability.  Really, just retiring, they said not unkindly, and she was indeed ready to retire, ready for a life of quiet celebration at her own pace.


She fumbled at the cabinet door, her hand reaching in for the last liter bottle of Sir Edward’s Finest Blended. Half empty.  She opened it, poured a tall one into last night’s unwashed tumbler.


Terri raised it to her mouth, the familiar astringence touching her sinuses, promising, comforting, then to her lips, the warm cleansing honey fire cascading down into her.


“Mmmh,” she exhaled, as she took another taste.  Then another.  She took the bottle and the glass, and moved towards the half-light of the living room, where the television and her day of leisure awaited.


-----


The crowd howled and hooted as the young man entered, his body coiled in anger at the sight of his estranged mother.  His mother, now his second father, the faint chinstrap of a hormone-induced beard beneath her/his face, her/his chest flat beneath her/his t-shirt where her/his breasts had been cut away.


The young man slowed as he approached the chair where the man who had been his mother sat, his lips tight and his eyes flaring, as the host, his own eyes bright and hungry beneath his colored hair, saw how easy this was going to be.  The audience, just as hungry, eager for the large suited men to hold the man back, eager for shouted profanity and the sweet synthetic circus tension of familial dysfunction.


Terri raised the empty bottle to her lips as she watched the spectacle with flat and jaded eyes, the last taste of the scotch a tantalus touch against her tongue.


From upstairs, noise intruded.  


Not the usual boomchick boomboomchick of Spanish language radio, not the shouted futbol enthusiasms of Univision.  Not the fighting, or the laughter.


But like last night, and the night before, a barking, small and shallow and repetitive.  


Bark bark bark.  Bark bark bark.  It was more insistent now than it had been, loud enough to intrude on the cries of the audience.   A small dog, pug or french bulldog, a snubly littlefaced babychild dog, bark bark bark.


When did they get a dog?


Then a woman’s voice, raised and anxious, in the muffled cadences of a language Terri had never bothered to understand.


The woman’s voice, then the barking, again.  Waughwaughwaugh.  Waughwaughwaugh.  Three kids already in that one bedroom, and they got a dog?  


Terri felt a faint shudder of primal revulsion push its way through Sir Edward’s embrace, and turned the volume up.  The sound faded away into the haze, smothered by the rising voice of the crowd and the omnipresent hiss of her tinnitus.


Terri peered intently at the spent bottle, the mid-day light dull against its surface.  


Sir Edward required her presence.  Today she would have to go out.  Have to get dressed.  Have to be in the light.


But she was celebrating, and sometimes one just had to go out for supplies.


----


One push, yielding movement, barely, the scrape of metal on metal.  Then another, the sliding glass door balking in its track as she pushed it closed with the mass of her arm.  She didn’t bother to lock it.  No point.


From the squat blandness of her garden apartment, it was one block to the Piggly Wiggly, two blocks to the package store, one block back, four long blocks in the relentlessness of the late summer heat.  She could feel the sweat starting, on her back, a budding prickle on her scalp under the cover of her sprawling, floppy, broad-brimmed hat.  


She turned to face the glower of the sun, her eyes squinting even behind the thick dark wraparounds.  Her hand went to the handle of her little wire cart.  She pushed open the gate, leaving the ten by ten rectangle of cracked concrete that was her very own garden.  Her body felt loose, at ease, and she moved slowly but purposefully out towards the sidewalk.


There, her car, the old grey Cobalt, the windshield thick with summer dust.  The state inspection sticker, barely visible beneath the dust, twenty months out of date.  She could not remember the last time she started it, or the last time she sat in it and stared uselessly at the ignition interlock.  The tires, half deflated.


She wasn’t even sure she knew where the key was any more.  


But the Spent Hill Woods lot was private property, and the police didn’t have the right to go checking without permission, and management didn’t care.  It was her spot, and her car.  One day she would drive again, one day feel the wind in her face.  


Behind Terri, from inside the apartment above her, the little dog barked and barked and barked, the staccato sound mingling with the sound of a woman’s anxious voice, both fading as she trudged purposefully away into the heat.


----


Two dozen cans rattled at the bottom of the little wire cart, the dull chatter of weeks of processed calories.  Terri felt that random yank on her arm at each pavement crack, felt the cheap wheeled basket as it skated, heavy and aimless behind her, tugging left, tugging right.


In the cool of the Piggly Wiggly, she’d drifted from aisle to aisle, a slow habitual shuffle that served no purpose.  Every time, just cans, just cans in the summer, of wan overcooked stews and thick lifeless oversweet pastas.  They lasted.  You opened them.  You ate.  You threw the can away.


And they were cheap, so well priced for the practically minded, cheap enough that the monthly disability check dropped into her account left her plenty for what mattered.  Plenty for every day, if she bought inexpensively enough.


The heat of the day had intensified, hitting her hard as she shuffled from the store, deepening the dark sweat stains that blossomed across her back and seeped into the pits of her loose floral dress.  Across the lot of the strip mall, through air that shimmered and danced with heat, the bright simple sign of the state-run store.


The air was thick and radiant with heat, the blacktop an open oven door, searing the soles of her feet through rubber sandals, driving into her lungs, a rapacious, violating, feral heat.


Terri breathed it in, the smell of oil and asphalt, and felt light as a balloon, felt so light, blissed with it, giddy with it.  Her eyes danced with sparkles, a cascade of faeries summoning the coming night.  Her vision darkened, and she weaved and lurched forward, almost losing her grip on the cart as the handle twisted in her hand.


She blinked, and caught herself, and stood rocking back and forth heel to toe, regaining her composure as the faeries turned to dark whorls.


A sound, loud, a horn from far away, no, from right there, dual tones blaring from the grille of a big pickup.  Words shouted, not nice words, rude words about parking lots and walking and moving your fat ass, just disrespectful noise.  


Terri was above it, would not acknowledge such rudeness, and took her own time, just as much as she needed, as the horn and the rasping voice poured out their insipid, shallow cruelty.  She would have none of it.


Because she was nearly there, at her own pace, yes, because that was what mattered, her own pace.  She would not be hurried.


The man’s voice raised again, terrible terrible words, do you kiss your mother with that mouth words, then suddenly it was hitching, his rudeness choking into a strangled cough, an angry doberman’s bark.  She caught a glimpse of his beet-red meat-slab face, red with effort and anger and frustration.


Probably a smoker, such a filthy, filthy habit.


An engine roared, and tires screamed their impatience at the hot pavement as they passed.


Everyone always in such a hurry.  Terri would never be hurried.  Never again.  She was not at that time of life.


And then, the coolness of processed air again, the eyes of the salesclerk again, dark and knowing eyes set into a round face, a faint nod of recognition as she entered, one of their best customers she was, and she knew it, perhaps their best, she could see it in his face, that he knew her as a woman who had earned this time of rest, this time to enjoy life as she saw fit.


He did not challenge her about her cart, as that young clerk once did, a young clerk who no doubt had been reprimanded for his rudeness, yes, his cruel ignorance of proper manners in dealing with such an important customer.


She made her way with patient purpose to where Sir Edward awaited, dear Sir Edward gleaming in neat rows of warm dark honey.


The sales clerk coughed, and then coughed again.  Ragweed must be coming on early this season.


----


Terri sat in the darkness and listened to the hissing tone as it rose and fell in her ears.  Another empty can of Dinty Moore on the counter, and a full glass of Sir Edward on the rocks in her hand, just a quarter of the way through the first of those five liters, and there was and would be no pain for a while. Not in her back, so far away. Not in her knee.


Upstairs, there were two, no three little dogs now.  Waughwaughwaugh, little French dogs, Tintin snowy dogs with smart shiny pebble eyes.  They would bark, and the children would cry a weak cry, and they would bark again, and a woman’s voice would rise and fall.  Three little dogs, three little crying children, and the neighbor a young woman all alone.  What was she thinking?  Of course it was too much.


But it was all so far away.


Outside, an ambulance, another ambulance, so many tonight.  And a police helicopter, more than one.  Good to be safe inside, and off the roads.  It was so dangerous out there.


The television beckoned her, and she found the remote, and on it went, a comforting chatter of color in the darkness.


“...the director of the CDC now reports that the infection likely started in…”


This was not what she wanted to see. The faintest pressure on the rubberized button, such a refined softness in the detente.


“...cancelled indefinitely.  Travelers stranded by the quarantine are…”


Again she pressed so gently, and the stern woman whisked away with but the most womanly touch.


“..appears to be fungal, and airborne, spores likely carried by…”


“..ly long latency period coupled with rapid onset, and what appears to be a nearly 100 percent…”


“...sources indicate it may have been weaponized.  The administration denies…”


So much negativity.  She didn’t want that tonight. She was celebrating!  She felt the remote in her hand, so well weighted, so right. Whoever designed this remote knew the gentleness of a woman’s hand, respected it.


“..no natural resistance, and no way to know if you’ve been…”


“...cough cough cough...oh god...cough cough cough…”


“..advised to remain in your homes.  The National Guard has been ordered to…”


Perhaps it was Sir Edward who designed it.  There must be a Sir Edward, surely, and he must be a man of many gifts.  Terri took another sip, and another.


“...from London, Tokyo, Moscow, and Buenos Aires, the reports are all the…”


“...tibiotics appear to be ineffective.  Local hospitals report at least seven hundred…”


“...dear blessed Lord Father God, we in this hour of need turn to you in…”


What a gentleman he must be, that Sir Edward, to make such a lovely affordable drink for women of modest means and to design such a pleasing remote.


“...pearls.  They’re set perfectly with these beautiful tarzanite stones, and if you call now…”


Such a pretty necklace.  She admired it, but she was a practical woman, and would not waste her money on unnecessary things.  Still.  She could appreciate it.  Her glass empty, Terri decided to pour herself another.


----


Her eyes opened, slowly.  The old television, still on, told her it had “NO SIGNAL” in big blocky pixelated letters.  


Terri blinked, her eyes sandstone marbles set crudely into their sockets.  She must have fallen asleep on the sofa, of course, it had been a hard day, and so hot, and she had walked almost a whole mile.  


On the coffee table, two empty one liter bottles of Sir Edward, and one that had hmmm, perhaps, maybe, two or three full glasses left.  There were four empty cans of Spaghetti-Os.  The room smelled faintly of vomit.  She could not remember throwing up, but sometimes she did when she was celebrating.  Or perhaps it was the food.   One of those cans must have gone bad, she must complain, such things were unacceptable, simply unacceptable.


What time was it?  It seemed to be late afternoon, because her little concrete slab was in shadow.


What day was it?  A thought came to her, check the newspaper, but that was silly.  She hadn’t gotten the paper for years, who got the paper any more?


She tried one channel after another, but cable was out.  So was the streambox, so there was no internet.  Surely, surely the bill had been paid.  It was all automated, everything automated, she had seen to it.  Could people do nothing right?


Craning her neck, she tried to see into the bedroom, to catch a glimpse of the date on her clock.  But all she saw was a blur.  Oh dear.  


She went to stand, felt the sharpness in her knee, so intense it brought tears to her eyes, and sat back heavily.  That knee, it had just never healed right.


Sir Edward glistened like an amber jewel in the dullness.  Just a little snip, to take the edge off.


It poured so prettily.


After she had a second, she felt a little better, and her knee was nice and far away, so she rose and moved slowly towards the bedroom.  The clock glowed red, and it told her that the date was the fifteenth.  So she knew what day it was.  What day it had been?  The tenth?  Maybe the eleventh.  She was getting so forgetful.

That was to be expected.  Retiring so early in life does that to a person.  It could be Monday, or it could be Saturday, and what was the difference?


The bathroom was not as much of a mess as she had feared.  One, two, three flushes, and most of the reddish congealed mess of half-digested pasta was washed away.  She sprayed a little air freshener, and the acrid stink of vomit was replaced with the smell of lavender and vomit.


A little better.  She didn’t mind.  She’d open a window, and it would be better, only it was so terribly hot.  But she wasn’t expecting company, so it really didn’t matter now, did it?


What did matter was that only two bottles remained, and that simply wouldn’t do.  She would have to go out.  Not to the Piggly Wiggly, she had plenty of food still left, weeks and weeks, surely.  But just straight there and back, one or two more bottles, to be sure she had enough.  


A little powder, really, that was all she needed to freshen up, and she felt well enough to take that walk.


---


As she slid open the door, Terri realized it was not nearly as hot as it had been the other day.  It was really rather nice, a nice day for a woman of a certain age to take a short walk.  Especially with the power out.  It had sputtered, off, then on, then off again, and it had stayed off.  Someone would call, surely, to get it back on.  Good, in such a time, that she did not bother with her fridge for food.  But ice?  That might be a problem.  


From above her, such a strange noise.  Those little dogs were quiet now, no more barking, finally.  But from the balcony above, a rattling, thick sound, bubbles in a heating stew.   Almost a voice, almost, whatever it was, a gurgling, straining, barely audible whimper.


Terri stepped out into the late afternoon shadows, glancing curiously up at the balcony as she reached the sidewalk, basket in tow.  There was a pile of clothes, a large pile just about the shape of a person.  It was not moving, so obviously, it must be a pile of clothes.


From the sidewalk, she could not hear the sound, and anyway, that wasn’t why she’d gone out.


----


The man was not breathing.  Clearly, he was dead.


There he lay, sprawled out indecorously on the ground in his bright yellow rubber suit.  He had gotten out of the truck after it had crashed, a great big military truck, crashed right there in the parking lot of the Piggly Wiggly.    And then he had fallen down, and he had not risen.  His yellow suit had a big soft yellow space helmet, and Terri could see his face pressed roughly against the plastic, his nose and mouth all smushed against it.  He looked rather silly, a big dead yellow Gumby.  Only his eyes were wide open, dark red with congealing blood, unseeing.  That was not quite so silly.


On the inside of the visor, a little blue fuzz was growing, like lichen or moss.  When she first bent down to look, Terri had seen the blue fuzz in his nose and mouth.  


There was another man in the driver’s seat of the truck, in the same suit.  He was just as dead.


They were the twenty first and twenty second bodies she had seen that morning, in just the half a mile to the store.  There was the police officer, flat on his face in the middle of the road.  Two soldiers, crumpled by a barricade.


Crashed cars, one in a ditch and upside down.


And other bodies.  Children.  Women.  Men.  Maybe it was more than twenty.  Terri couldn’t really remember.


She couldn’t remember, in fact, seeing anyone out and moving and alive.  Just her.


She remembered, faintly, the stern faces on the television.  And the panicked faces of the presenters.


This could be a problem.  It was very possible that the package store might not be open, what with so many dead. That would be most inconvenient.  And terribly unfair.


Terri felt a faint stirring of alarm.  If the manager of the package store took a sick day, that would mean that Sir Edward would be there, but imprisoned behind locked doors, away from her.  That was an unacceptable turn of events, a really rather terrible prospect.


She looked up, away from the fallen Gumby, her eyes fixing on the package store.  Surely, surely it must be open.


But when she got there, it was not.  The doors, closed and locked.  The lights, out.  A note, scribbled in Sharpie on a piece of eight and a half by eleven copier paper, announced that the store would be Closd until furthr notice becase of emergensy.


She pulled at the door.  It did not budge.  Surely, surely there must be a way in.  


“Locked.  Ain’t no way in.  Sons of bitches locked up before they went home to die.”  The voice, that of one of the others, gathered there by the front of the store.  


There were three of them.  A woman, bent and muttering and leathery, her possessions piled into a rusted grocery cart.  A short older man, Asian, wearing a jacket far too heavy for the weather, pacing back and forth, eyes to the ground.  And the speaker.  The three had been standing there, staring at the door, when she arrived.  The speaker was a tall man, or he had been tall when he was younger and healthy, though such a thing was hard to imagine.  His skin was an ashen grey, the grey of death, the grey of poisoned organs.  His face, slack and expressionless.  He looked more or less at Terri, rheumy eyes half focused.


“Figure they could at least have left the damn thing open.  Who the hell cares.  If ever there’s been a time I needed a damn drink.  Jesus.  Never going to bust that open.”


Terri looked at the door again.  Heavy steel frames, a heavy lockset, and thick security glass.  He was probably right. The door, so important to keep thieves and miscreants from making off with the precious Sir Edward, now stood as a terrible impediment.  


“It’s very inconsiderate,” Terri said, her voice a slurred croak.  So unused to talking, she supposed.  She tried to think of something that might be of assistance, and the four of them stared hungrily, helplessly, at the solid and unforgiving front.


From behind them, a siren bleated, once, and then again, as a police cruiser passed.  It slowed, lighting up, getting ready to turn.  


The tall grey man startled at the sound, stumbled backwards, and seeing the approaching cop, uttered a curse and began clumsily running across the parking lot, a loping stumble.  He did not look back.


The cruiser turned towards the store in a wide arc, lights a brilliant syncopation.  It stopped halfway through the turn, jerked forward, then came awkwardly to rest on the curb.  The driver’s door flung open, banging against the stops, and a tall lean man with wild grey hair unfolded himself from within.  His face was the color of black strap molasses, he regal cheekbones of his earthen flesh pocked with acne scars half a century old.  


“Not...OPEN?”  His voice, a deep dramatic overloud basso, bright as tarnished brass.  “All...closed UP?”


Terri saw that neither of her new companions had the wherewithal to answer.  “Yes.  They have very inconsiderately closed the store, and we have no way to get in.  It is most rude.”


He reached into the cruiser, fumbled past the limp deployed airbag to the radio mic, dropping it, then pulled it again to his lips, the coiled cord stretched taut.


“I need me some BACKUP!  They’ve done closed the liquor store!  Send some BACKUP!”  He roared with laughter, releasing the microphone, which snapped back violently into the cruiser.


“Ma’am, you are so right!  So!  Right!” he said, flashing her a smile filled with incongruously perfect teeth from the long lean ruin of his face.  “It is so rude!  So inconsiderable!  IN con...in con…”  His eyes went wide and blank for a moment, and then their brightness returned.  “ But don’t you be worrying!  I’m the man with the plan!  Just get on out of the way!  Just get on out of the way!”


He sat back down heavily in the driver’s seat of the cruiser, slamming the door, and Terri began to shuffle away.


The cruiser’s motor roared, and the car skittered backwards on spinning tires.  The little Asian man scampered after Terri, eyes down, muttering quietly to himself.  Then, a wild forward fishtailing, a shower of sparks from the undercarriage as it crashed up over the curb.


The woman with the cart had not moved, standing staring blankly at her reflection in the store window, her mouth churning silently.  She did not move at the sound of the motor, or the metallic gong of impact with the curb.  She did not move until the left front bumper moved her, tossing her and her cart and her belongings up and away in a cascade.  She and the cart hit the front wall of the store, an audible crack as her head hit the brick, minor league softball, a solid base hit.


Her body fell, and stayed where it lay among the scattered mass of rags and plastic.


The cruiser’s front bars hit the glass door square, driving the door inward, torn from its hinges in a spray of glass.  There was a moment’s pause, and then the cop car pulled backwards violently and juddered to a stop.


He was out in an instant, bleeding from a cut to the forehead, his eyes flaring with triumph.  “I have ALWAYS wanted to do THAT!  We are OPEN for Business!  Open!  For!  Business!”


The little Asian man was already inside, pushing through the glass and debris, eyes down, beelining for the vodka.  


Terri moved towards the ruin of the door, her eyes averted from the woman’s body.  She thought she saw it twitching, but she might have imagined it, and she was not about to look more closely.  So unpleasant.  So very unfortunate.  But what could be done?  It was an emergency, and the kind gentleman had clearly said to move.  She had every chance.


She picked her way carefully into the store, trying to keep her balance as she negotiated the glass and steel in her worn plastic crocs.  


A large hand suddenly proffered, and a broad wide smile.  “Some help?”  She took the hand with hers, felt it great and knobby and calloused, and attempted a smile in return.


----


The cruiser’s passenger seat was vinyl, but the car was blissfully cool, the air pouring in in a wild swirling through the windows.  Next to Terri, the gentleman was talking, talking, talking, never for a moment stopping.


He had been so helpful.  Not just a hand in and out of the store, which any kind soul might have offered.  But without even her asking politely, he had offered a ride in the police car he had commandeered.  And he had gone into the back for her, and gotten two cases, two whole cases of Sir Edward, because he saw that she liked it, and two more cases of very expensive blended, and two cases of gin, and bottles of tonic.  He had tossed them in the back seat of the cruiser.  She saw he had already been to another store, bottles and bottles and bottles worth.


Where you live, he’d said, and she’d pointed to the entrance to Spent Hill Woods, just a hundred yards away.


He’d laughed, again, and said, nah, that wouldn’t be a problem.


Mind if we go for a ride first, he had asked, and Terri had said, well, no, in point of fact she didn’t.  It had been a long while since she’d been for a ride.  And she’d asked if he was fine to drive, and he’d said you damn right I’m fine, I’m better than fine.  He asked if she would like one for the road, and she said she didn’t mind if she did.


And so they drove, and he talked as he drove, talked and talked in an endless fountain of words, for the joy of hearing his own deep rich voice in his own ears over the roar of the summer air through the windows.  He talked about fortunes gained and lost, of his travels with the famous and his flirtations with the rich, of wild adventures, about how no-one understood, just no-one.


The engine of the police car roared, and Terri felt the thrill of speed, as the gentleman raised a nearly full bottle of Pappy Van Winkle to his lips, really the finest and most expensive, only the very best for him, what he had always deserved.


“And my sister, she always says, why DO you drink that poison?  Why do you POISON yourself that way?  And I say, well, now I know!  Now! I! Know!  ‘Cause tell you what I see?  What do I see!  Ain’t nobody left.  She dead.  My damn fool brother in law dead.  Their kids dead.  All of them dead.  Cops all gone. Politicians all gone. Preachers all gone. You know who still alive?  You...whoah…”


The car veered wildly, barely missing an abandoned pickup thoughtlessly left right there in the center of the road where it didn’t belong.


Terri took a drink from the lovely silver flask he had given her, and smiled as he roared out the window.  “ FOOL!  I’m goin’ GIVE you a TICKET!”  


“So anyway, you know who still alive?  You an me.  I drove half a day, and all I seen still stumbling about this busted up fallen down world is us folks who can HANDLE our LIQUOR.  I figure whatever the hell that was, it ain’t got no chance ‘gainst a couple good tall shots of fiine Kentucky bourbon.  Poison!  Hah! Medicinal purposes!  Thas what I always say!  Medicinal purposes!  Lord have mercy.  So now it’s just us damn drunks.”


Terri tasted the warmth on her palate, felt the rising warmth in her, and shook her head.  “I am certainly not an alcoholic, sir.  I’m just celebrating.  Just celebrating my retirement.”


He glanced at her for a moment, suddenly serious.  “Of course you ain’t.  And neither am I.  I am SO sorry.  You a lady.  Lady?  Hell, I been so busy gabbing and carrying on all this time I ain’t even asked your name.”


Terri told him.  “And you?”


He had looked at her, eyes alighting on her flask, on the bottle at her side.  Then he turned his gaze out to the road, and a sly ease came over his face as he flashed his sun-bright smile.  The car accelerated wild and hard up the on ramp, towards the open, silent highway, headed west.  


“Edward. I’m Edward.”


The warmth in her deepened, and the faeries woke and danced, blissful before Terri’s eyes, their bright sparks rising on dark spreading wings.  


Dear Sir Edward, she thought.  Such a gentleman.