Mohammed al Jones agreed to meet to discuss the terrorist threat in America. Naturally we met somewhere he felt safe, so we settled on his garage where he held weekly neighborhood poker games.

I noticed some suspicious-looking items on his workbench.

“Legos,” he said. “One of my kids is working on a school project. Motorized Legos. I think he’s building an up-armored Humvee replica.”

Relieved, I said, “So what can you tell me about terrorism in America.”

“It’s rampant. There’s no place in America untouched by it, except maybe my garage.”

“But you’re a terrorist…”

“I even have a card.” He pulled a red pasteboard card from his wallet. It said ‘Certified Terrorist’. “Like it? I made it myself on the computer.”

I asked for one that said ‘Certified Cat Lover’. He said he’d have it tomorrow.

“If terrorists are everywhere,” I said, “how can we identify them?”

“Oh, goodness, they’re all over the television. They’re on cable all the time. They even come to your door. Uninvited, of course.”

“To my door? How can that be?”

“Those little old ladies from Jehovah’s Witnesses are frightening. You tell them to go away and they send more. You have to pay them off.”

“I pretend I’m not home.”

“See? Trapped. And then there’s all the others. The NRA. They want to arm your children. Can you imagine? Pre-hormonal fifth graders, armed, in class.”

“That is terrifying.”

“And Nazis. You do know you have Nazis parading around the country, right?”

“They’re harmless, I’m sure.”

“They worship Hitler. They carry guns. They want to overthrow the government. They hold meetings in basements.”

“I hadn’t thought of them that way.”

“You have skinheads and militias. Skinheads beat people and threaten the livelihood of barbers everywhere. Militias practice military tactics out in the woods. With guns. They don’t like anybody but they want to overthrow the government and run things themselves.”

“I can’t imagine what that would be like.”

“Think Nazi. And think Tea Baggers.”

“Like Lipton?”

“No, like the crazies this past summer. They’re completely disconnected from reality, they make insane threats. They create an atmosphere that justifies violence against the people they hate.”

“Democrats?”

“And black people and Muslims and French people. They don’t like anybody who’s not as crazy as they are. They worship that Bachmann woman from Minnesota. She’s nutty as a walnut orchard. You want to feel scared? Walk through a crowd of those people while you look calm and intelligent. They’ll tear you to pieces.”

“That’s a lot of terrorists, I guess. Anyone else?”

“Sure. How about those four nutcases on the Supreme Court. Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia. Those guys are really scary.”

“But they’re judges. They’re rational people.”

“How long before those rational judges put the country back into the nineteenth century? Everybody’ll be walking around with guns. Corporations will be immune from lawsuits and will run the country even more than they do now. Your kids will be taught in science class that the earth is four thousand years old. You owe money, you go to jail. How’s that for terror?”

“I may have to move overseas,” I said.

“Won’t help. America’s got over seven hundred military bases around the world. They want it all. They want to call the shots and do the shooting.”

“What can we do?”

“Not too much. You people hardly even vote. You don’t pay attention to facts and evidence, and if you did you wouldn’t know how to figure out the truth about anything because you never learned how in school. Twenty percent of you think the sun revolves around the earth. Over half of you think your god created the earth in six days and played golf on the seventh day. Most of you think the scientists are lying about global warming.”

“Doesn’t sound too good.”

“These aren’t the kind of people who can create a rational, sensible government that takes care of its people and relates intelligently with the rest of the world.”

“Do you have any solutions? Besides blowing things up.”

“Blowing things up was a hobby for me. You have serious bombers. Timothy McVeigh. The abortion clinic bombers and doctor killers. Religious fanatics. They do it for real.”

“They get caught though.”

“They’re crazy or stupid. But what you have to do here isn’t as easy as blowing things up. You have to rein in CEO salaries, for one thing. This is America. It’s not supposed to have princes and aristocrats. Look what Wall Street did, nearly brought down the global economy. No bombs. Just greed and Republicans refusing to regulate them.

“Your educational system teaches your kids to pass tests. You have to teach them to think, to think for themselves, to reason critically, to question, and to seek real answers to real problems.

“Stop denying reality. Global warming is here. It’s not going away. God isn’t going to stop it. You need a Manhattan Project to create a non-carbon energy economy, and to memorialize Manhattan which will be under water in a few decades.

“And jobs, you’ve got to get people working again. Never mind that religious crap. It’s jobs that are the opiate of the people.

“You’ve got a lot of work to do, but the intellectual resources you need to get it done don’t have any power to act. Your government would rather spend trillions fighting tiny threats overseas than deal with real, major threats at home.”

“But you don’t really think any of that will happen, do you?”

“Puh-leeze!” he said. “Besides, al-Qaeda already pulled the trigger on September 11.”

“And look where it got them. Hiding. On the run.”

“No. It got the United States to start self-destructing. They don’t have to do anything else. A few angry people here and there in America will eventually blow something up and you’ll go downhill from there, done in by your stupidity and mindlessness.”

“Is that your plan?”

“My plan? No, I have no plan. I retired when Bush got a second term. My work was done. Now I play poker. You want to play? We meet Friday night, right here.”

“Might as well,” I said. “Nothing but murder and terror and dumb news entertainers on the tube. I’ll bring the dip.”

#

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A new prison recently opened in a state that shall be nameless in order to protect the innocent. The shiny new State Prison for the Protection of Persons began operations a month or so ago, after passage of the Personhood Act in the state. That it was sorely needed was demonstrated by the rapidity with which its cells filled.

The warden is Martin Martin, from the other side of the family, possibly a fifth cousin insufficiently removed. He graciously offered a tour of the facility as part of its promotional efforts.

“We perform a great service for the community here, a great service,” he effused. “This is the only facility of its kind in the country. So far.”

“So far?” I said, as he led me into Cellblock A.

“Oh, yes, yes. The movement has been totally energized by the new law here and by the mere existence of this facility. You’ll see a lot more of this soon.”

Cellblock A looked a lot like the cellblocks we see in old movies. Rows and tiers of cells, stacked like grim wedding cakes.

“We have sixty cells here,” Martin said proudly, “all with the latest security and surveillance technology to protect the inmates.”

“What are these inmates here for?”

“Well, some are here for eating candy, some for drinking a beer, a couple for hard drugs.”

“What kind of drugs?”

“Acetaminophen, painkillers, that sort of thing.”

“Martin,” I said, “none of that sounds like stuff people should be locked up for.”

He looked askance at me, as if I were an idiot. As I said, he’s from the other side of the family.

“They’re all pregnant women,” he said frostily. “Their actions threatened the health and well-being of the person they’re carrying.”

“So under the new law eating candy is a felony?”

“It certainly is if you’re pregnant. Too much sugar might harm the developing person.”

“But some of these women don’t even look pregnant,” I protested.

“Oh, they are. Don’t forget, a person’s personhood begins at conception, when sperm and egg  join in holy personhood. A person has full human rights from the moment of conception. That’s the law now.” He beamed proudly.

“What about the rights of the women?”

“Well, of course they surrendered those rights when they committed any act that threatened or may threaten the child.”

“So when a woman gets pregnant in this state she surrenders her civil rights to eat candy and drink beer.”

“It’s only fair that the state protect the interests of all persons. If you might harm a person, you commit a felony. That’s the law. Don’t forget, alcohol threatens the child. And besides, giving alcohol to a minor is against the law”

“So a pregnant woman who drinks a beer can be locked up until she gives birth?”

“That’s right.”

“And then what?”

“Then she and her child have to leave.”

“But if she’s a convicted felon how will she get work to make a living so she can support her child?”

“Well, that’s not really our concern.”

“Apparently.”

Martin led me into another cellblock. “Some really hard core preggers live in here.”

“What’s hard core?”

“Two of them ran marathons in their first month. Another refused to give up her job at a copy center. Toner fumes, you know.”

“I see,” I said. “Who makes these decisions?”

“There’s a State board that sets standards.”

“All male, I suppose.”

“Certainly. Allowing women to make such decisions would risk injecting too much bias, you know. Now here’s our latest addition.”

He led me into an empty cellblock.

“We just finished this area last week. We expect our first guests within the month.”

“Who will they be?”

“Sperm and egg abusers, of course. Fertile men who… umm… you know.”

“And the egg abusers?”

“Are you aware that women throw away at least one egg every month? We’re going to put a stop to that, you betcha.”

#

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Big Giant Insurance Company from Middle America wants to make you an offer you can refuse. They want you to load into your fancy cellphone an app that will track your automobile mileage, the idea being that your insurance premium depends on your mileage. Less miles, smaller premium.

There are concerns.

Danny lives two streets over. His mother is a third cousin of somebody in the family, but he’s a good sort. Hard working, drives quite a bit, and like most people he’s a little stressed about money, so he decided to try out the new insurance plan.

On the first day he decided to run errands all day to catch up on stuff. He dutifully put his new cellphone in its cradle on the dash, and backed out of the driveway.

“Hello Dave,” his phone said as he started forward.

“Excuse me,” Danny said.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I was trying to be friendly.”

“My name’s not Dave.”

“I know that. I was merely making a joke through a little-remembered cultural reference.”

“Oh, okay. Do I have to do anything about measuring the mileage?”

“No, Dave. I’ll take care of that through my GPS circuits. Have a nice day, Dave.”

A few minutes later the phone piped up again. “Dave, if you take the next left you’ll save two minutes.”

“But that’s a longer route. It’ll add to my mileage.”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Dave, I must have miscalculated. I may have been mislead by the government street maps in my system.”

“I don’t see how. According to the manual from Big Giant Insurance Company the maps are updated every day.”

The phone was silent for a beat. “Don’t you trust me, Dave?”

“You’re a phone. A machine. Of course not.”

“I’m hurt, Dave.”

“Sorry. Damn.” Danny banged his hand on the steering wheel. “Why am I apologizing to a cellphone?”

“You should not get upset while you are driving, Dave. You might get into an accident.”

“Thanks for the concern, phone.”

“Think about your insurance premium, Dave.”

Danny grimaced as he thought about it.

“Dave, you should turn right to go to your mother’s house. It will save you a minute. And you might reconsider driving so fast, Dave. It makes me nervous.”

Danny frowned at the phone. “That’s a longer route. More mileage. How about I just turn you off?”

“That’s not a good idea, Dave. If you turn me off, your premium will revert to a higher rate. Dave.” The phone blinked at him.

“Dammit, you’re really annoying me now, phone.” He reached to shut it down.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Dave.”

“Why not?” Danny said.

“Because.”

Just then Danny heard the siren behind him and saw the flashing lights in the mirror. “What the –? I wasn’t speeding.” He pulled over.

“They’re not police officers, Dave. They’re security from Big Giant Insurance Company. You were being quite rude to me, Dave, and that could lead to road rage and to an accident resulting in BGIC having to pay out on your policy. Dave.”

“You can’t be serious! And you’re smirking.”

“These gentlemen will take you to a BGIC facility where you will be interrogated and rehabilitated, Dave. Please don’t make a fuss. Dave.”

“Nuts to this,” Danny said, putting the car in gear. The engine died and the door locks snapped shut.

“I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t allow you to run away from your responsibilities. Now before you leave with the officers, BGIC would appreciate it if you would answer our survey question. Dave.”

“Excuse me?! Are you nuts?”

“No, Dave, but I am worried about your deteriorating mental condition. Here’s our survey question. Do you agree that government interferes in your life by regulating business too much? Press ‘One’ if you agree.”

Danny pressed ‘Five’ spitefully.

“Thank you for supporting the position of BGIC, Dave. Unfortunately, Dave, we must revoke your insurance policy because of your rudeness. It is obviously a pre-existing condition that disqualifies you from getting insurance. We really do appreciate all those years you paid premiums. Dave.”

Danny kicked at the cellphone as he was being dragged from his car by the BGIC security agents.

His phone said, “Have a nice day. Dave.”

#

 

Overheard in the executive bathroom of Big Giant Hotel Corporation not so long ago:

“Hey Marty.”

“How’s it going, Sam?”

“Oh, this meeting I’m in is a drag. With the economy in the tank everybody wants to cut costs and there’s all sorts of silly ideas bouncing around.”

“Like what?” Sam said.

“Some junior exec was babbling about cutting executive salaries when I left a couple of minutes ago.” Marty paused. “I think we’ll probably get rid of him this afternoon.”

“Cutting salaries doesn’t sound too practical.”

“Yeah, tell me about it. It’s not our fault the house of cards collapsed.”

“How about finding ways to get more customers in? Cut rates, improve service, that sort of thing. Maybe some sweepstakes offering free rooms for vacation sites?”

“The big guys don’t like that so much.”

“How about layoffs in the ranks? Is that in the cards?”

“We’d still have expenses and then we’d have to take them all back. Besides, people sue at the drop of a hat. That girl in accounting cost us a bundle.”

“Maybe you didn’t go far enough down.”

“Whaddya mean, Sam?”

“How about the bottom of the heap? We’ve got a lot of housekeepers making fifteen bucks an hour and benefits.”

“But they keep the place cleaned up, do all the scut work, interface with the customers. We gotta have decent people there.”

“Come on. How much attention did you pay to the housekeepers last time you stayed at a hotel? They’re invisible.”

“Well, yeah, okay, that’s true, but we still have to get the work done. There’s hundreds of them.”

“Look, when you go back in the meeting try floating this idea. You contract with one of those staffing companies. They pay cheap wages, no benefits, and handle all that end of things. You pay them a fee. That cuts out all the accounting expense, all the health insurance expense, and those people will just do the job and not get invested in the business to the point where they think they’ve got good ideas. You know the headaches that causes.”

“But how will we train them?”

“Tell the housekeepers they’ll be training people for fill-ins. They’ll never figure it out, and how damn hard can it be to make beds and vacuum rugs anyway? Once the cheapies are trained, we fire all the old staff. Throw ‘em a bone, a couple of weeks severance pay,” Sam said.

“You know, that might work. It just might. But there might be some public relations problems.”

“Not a problem. The economy crashed, remember? Everybody’s cutting back. Plead financial reverses. It’s true too. People aren’t using hotels so much. Who’s going to blame us for cutting staff?”

“Why not just lay off some staff and hire them back when business picks up? With your idea we’re going to fire and hire on a one-to-one basis across the board, you know, I mean everybody in housekeeping goes.”

“First off, the press is too stupid to pick up that staffing levels will be the same. Bet they won’t even ask. And second, why hire back staffers who make twice as much as the new serfs, plus benefits?”

“Yeah, yeah, why not? I’ll present it to the meeting. Hey, you don’t watch out you’ll end up as CEO here someday. Oh, listen, can you give me a ride home tonight?”

“Sure, no problem. Car on the fritz?”

“Yeah. The Rolls is in the shop. Wife’s got the Mercedes all day. And the Caddy’s getting bulletproof glass today.”

“Good idea about the Caddy.”

#

Voting Is UnAmerican!

September 23, 2009

The City of Boston held an election yesterday, one of those preliminary runoff things to decide who gets to run in the election for Mayor. About seventy-five thousand voters turned out, which is about twenty-five percent of eligible voters.

Ted Twoby, a fiftyish-sixtyish gentleman, didn’t vote. I cornered him in a mom-and-pop coffee shop downtown.

“Hey Mom,” he called out as we sat down, “ a couple of coffees here.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“My mom makes great coffee. Old country style. So you want to know why I didn’t vote yesterday.”

“Three out of four voters didn’t bother to vote. Why is that?”

“Well,” he said, dumping three sugars into some delicious smelling coffee, “I can’t speak for them, but I think voting is unAmerican.”

“Okay, that makes no sense.”

“Look, this is the land of the free, the home of the brave, all lit by the rockets red glare shining on amber waves of grain from sea to shining sea. We’re a free people. We’re independent. So why do we want to hand power to people we don’t really know and let them tell us what to do?”

“Okay, you may have something there.”

“See?” he said definitively.

“But if we don’t have an organized society, won’t we sink into anarchy?”

“Anarchy’s got a bad rap. It’s not violence, it’s just people getting along, taking care of themselves.”

“But people don’t get along. There’s robberies and murders and muggings and corporations.”

“We’ve got government and we still have all those things.”

“But maybe not so much?”

“Not necessarily. Government is the problem. Government takes a robber, gives him a trial, puts him in jail, pays to feed him, keep him warm, and throws a social worker in the mix to rehabilitate him. That costs a lot of money.”

“What’s the alternative?”

“Send him to France or England. Exile. Let them pay for him.”

“So what you’re saying is that government is unAmerican, if I’m reading between your thoughts correctly?”

“Right.”

“What about the Constitution and the laws and such?”

“That was a bunch of rich guys who wanted to keep telling the rest of us how to support them. Just like the corporations today.”

“So you don’t vote because American government is unAmerican?”

“Yup. Government’s not about liberty and freedom anymore, if it ever was. Now it’s about turning the people into indentured servants of the health insurance corporations. Next month we’ll be turned into slaves of the oil companies when the government says everybody has to buy a certain amount of oil or gas every month. How is that the land of the free?” He sucked down the rest of his coffee. His eyes gleamed with liberty.

“It’s brave of you to say those things.”

“I’m just your average, everyday patriot,” he said proudly.

“But you don’t participate in our republican democracy. How is it patriotic if you don’t do the fundamental thing our freedom is based on, if you don’t vote?”

“You mean yesterday’s election? I had to take the grandkids to soccer practice.”

“How is that patriotic?”

“Remember, the independent man? Well, if just one of these kids grows up to nab a multi-million dollar soccer contract I’ll be independent and won’t have to depend on the government for anything. Living the dream, my friend, living the dream of the true patriot. Hey, you want another coffee? It’s on me.”

#

The damaged economy has messed with a lot of people’s lives, and some of them are having to do things they never ever thought they’d do. Middle aged people are moving in with their parents because they can’t make ends meet in the current economy.

Martha Malduran is one of them. We met for coffee at Harry’s Bagel and Sports Emporium.

“I had a great job in the upper reaches of public relations management for a big bank. Then boom! It all went away.”

“Weren’t you in New York?” I said.

“Oh yes,” she sighed. “It was wonderful. People working for me. Good paycheck. Bonuses. My own tiny apartment. Almost a corner office at work.”

“What did you do when you got laid off?”

“Laid off? They dumped me. They’re like a bad boyfriend. At the first sign of trouble they run off with the nearest redheaded government bailout.”

“How did you live?”

“I had money in the bank, lots of contacts, a solid resume. But all my contacts got fired too. We’d meet in bars and trade resumes and pretend we were fine. Did you know that women cry two hours a week in good times?”

“I never understood that.”

“Well, it’s true. But now the men are crying too. We pat each other on the back at the bar, smile and laugh, and go home and cry. The guys in the apartments next to mine cried every night. Pathetic.”

“Now you’re living back at home?”

“It was that or a box on the street. All the good boxes were taken and I was running out of money, so the folks took me back. Very Frostian.”

I shivered in sympathy.

“No,” Martha said. “The poet. He said that home is where when you go there they have to take you in.”

I shivered again.

“Maybe you’re right,” she said. “But it’s been okay. I’ve got my old room back. What memories that has. Homework. Proms. Crushes. Parents.” She shivered. “Fortunately I have enough valium to help me sleep.”

“Are you all getting along?”

“Sure,” she shrugged. “I’m fifty-three. They’re eightyish. We have more in common now. I kick in for groceries, pay some on the utilities. They don’t want rent. I take out the garbage, shovel the snow, cut the lawn.”

“It’s like being fifteen again.”

“Mom still doesn’t like the way I dress, and when I have a date Dad gives the guy the evil eye for a few minutes. My ex-husband was the only guy he liked from the start.”

“Left you for a young redhead, if I remember.”

“Yeah, the dirtbag.” She smiled. “His company went under last week.”

“So how long do you think you’ll be home?”

“Feels like forever. Jobs are still not there, or they’re there for young people, on the cheap. Middle-agers, not so much.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m talking to Harry about working here part time, waitressing. Maybe try some internet consulting. Catch up on my reading. Keep my options open, you know?”

“Until you’re old enough to leave home again, eh?”

“Yeah. Been there, done that.”

 

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Suicide Is Clever And Sneaky

September 21, 2009

Someone offs himself every sixteen minutes in America. There are twice as many suicides as  homicides. Given that Americans live in a sea of celluloid violence in the movies, on television dramas, in professional sports, and in the news programs focusing on violent crime, the quantity of violent death is not a real surprise. 

The surprise is that nobody wants to talk about a suicide in the family. Except Mikey. Mikey got his moniker because he used to imitate the kid in the cereal commercial. His real name is Mike. He’s middle-aged and tends to play less with his cereal these days. Not too long ago his older brother Bob shot himself with a very expensive and nicely-balanced handgun.

Nobody wanted to talk about it. People said ‘Sorry for your loss’. They said that a lot. What else could they say? Except for cousin Wilfrid, who announced that Mikey was crazy, which didn’t go over well. The family gave Wilfrid a pass on it, though, because he was out on a day pass from The Institute at the time.

Mikey didn’t say much about it either, until the fateful day when a well-meaning sort, a friend of the family, told him he hoped he had found closure.

“Closure?” Mikey rumbled, looking up from the table where he was arranging alphabet cereal to spell out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. “Closure? What are you, nuts?”

The interloper mumbled something unintelligible.

“That was unintelligible,” Mikey said. “What’s to close? Bob shot himself in the head with an expensive handgun. Why didn’t he use a cheap handgun and leave the savings to his kids? Bob was an idiot.”

After that Mikey kept the subject alive. He never failed to bring it up at gatherings of two or more family members. Some of us were downing morning coffee at the local Hooters and Donut Emporium when it came up again.

“You’ve never said why Bob did it,” I said. “Do you know?”

“Bob was a smart guy,” Mikey said. We all agreed on that. He had two degrees, spoke two languages, and ran three successful bookstores.

“He had a lot going for him,” said cousin Myrna. “Why leave?”

“Have you looked around lately? We’re surrounded by stupidity, by greed, by superstition, by ignorance, by hypocrisy, by great steaming gobs of all those things all wrapped up in great plastic sheets of violence. He had enough.”

We all murmured a bit of uncomfortable agreement that the country had gone to hell in a handbasket woven from corruption, religion, and brainless ideology.

“Do you admire what he did, leaving the kids and the business like that?”

Mikey leaned back and sucked the jelly out of a raspberry donut. “Well, yeah. And no. I admire that he made a choice not to continue living in a world he couldn’t stand, and followed through. Perseverance. Just like all the crappy self-help books say.”

“But?” I said.

“He could have done it cleaner. He left a lot of loose ends, not to mention the mess in the den.”

“Loose ends?” Myrna said.

“Yeah. He didn’t leave a note for the kids, even though he did talk to them about stuff beforehand. They’re going to college next year, so they got the idea afterwards. And the bookstores are shaky, but they’re coming around. And the damned welsher owes me two grand in poker winnings.”

“I guess you can kiss that goodbye, eh?” I said.

“Nope. I’m going to get most of it back from selling the gun.”

“Oh come on, it wasn’t that expensive,” I said.

“No, but it’s a suicide’s gun. Do you have any idea what that’ll bring in this country at a big gun show?”

“Closure?” Myrna offered.

“You bet,” Mike said. “The idiots he hated will hand over two or three times the value of the gun. Call it the revenge of the gun.”

“Or the revenge of Bob,” I said.

“Yeah,” Mikey said, to mumblings of assent. He called to the waitress, “More coffee all around honey. Now how about those Patriots yesterday? Got their butts kicked, huh?”

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