May I recommend my profession…

The mind is a city that grows more diverse and populous as we age, a more interesting place to kick back and put up your feet. Elder statesmen and retired prima ballerinas write memoirs, though few of us would shell out for the memories of someone under the age of fifty, no matter how famous. I am not famous, but having recently celebrated a milestone birthday, I thought it high time to examine the contents of a file marked “misc” that has sat on my computer desktop this past quarter century, a dead-letter box, a catchment, a dossier, made up of bits of genealogy, old family stories, narratives written fresh after the event they describe, letters to and from my sister.

These notes amounted to an impressive 100,000 words when pasted into a single document, about the size of one of my “big” novels. I was pleased that my mind city had matured into a destination spot whose paths and byways might lure a traveler or two. However, after performing my usual editorial magic, excising the dull bits, imposing chronology, filtering out the embarrassing parts, my chronicle, the summation of my seventy years on earth, numbered a paltry hundred pages or so, double-spaced. I do not expect Linda: A Memoir to become a bestseller, in fact, I would just as soon treat it like decaying plutonium, deemed safe only after everybody I know is dead.

Not that I haven’t lived a life worth setting down for others to read. I’ve had my share of adventure, and more than my share of husbands, some would say. But sticking to the facts bores me. One’s own memories are over-familiar to a brain ever seeking novelty. There’s no thrill like making stuff up. And, it’s cheaper than therapy. “Recurring themes” and “motifs” allow the novelist to refight all those battles she couldn’t win in real life.

Another reason I recommend novel-writing is for the status that comes with the world’s most desired profession, if we’re to believe Parade magazine, even beating out being president. In fact, Barack Obama said in his memoir (written when he was way younger than seventy!) that he might write a novel one day when he wasn’t so busy saving Western civilization. Want to bet he’s already got a manuscript in the bottom drawer? John Gresham assures us that all lawyers do, and Bill Clinton would prove his point. Bill is collaborating with James Patterson to write a political thriller, The President Is Missing.

In case you’re not familiar with literary genres, “thriller” falls within the capacious borders of the mystery genre, invented in the 1800’s by Edgar Allan Poe, or, if you’re British, by Wilkie Collins. Both sci-fi, Barack’s potential genre, and the thriller Bill will attempt, are forgiving genres. True aficionados will slog through the pulpiest pulp to find out whodunnit, a fact that is not lost on TV producers. Some truly terrible writers have made a good living writing mysteries, and some great writers have elevated the genre to literature, such as A Dark-Adapted Eye by the late Ruth Rendell.

Plotting a mystery exercises the cerebellum as well as the funny bone. The genre thinks nothing of sending in cartoon characters to solve a deadly crime. While we can’t all be Dave Barry, any one of us might invent the next Poirot.

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Of dog whistles and saber-tooth tigers

Is the human species devolving? Put another way, are we un-evolving, regressing to a more primitive form of life? I’ve been giving the question a lot of thought lately. Perhaps you know from an earlier post that I find Evolution to be a useful sorting box.

If you need a refresher, Evolution is the “theory” that every creature that ever flourished on this planet did so by specializing in some trait that gave them a leg up on the competition, made them faster, more agile, fiercer, or in our case, gave us greater intellectual capacity. Some animal specialties are so advanced that we humans can barely comprehend them. The ability of a soft-bodied creature to withstand the weight of the ocean. The night vision of bats and owls. The ability of geese and whales to find their way across vast tracts of sky or sea. The migration of a monarch butterfly that takes three generations to complete. Yet, as complex and mystifying as those skills, even greater is the human ability to think and reason. Humans specialized in brainpower. Homo sapiens literally means “wise man.”

One day an ancient relative stood upright on the savanna to look for saber-tooth tigers, and a few centuries later the human family walked upright, got the brain out of harm’s way, and focused eyes forward. Grunts came to stand for physical things and that led to language. Language did more to increase the complexity of our minds than almost anything else. We can see in the brain cases those early folks left behind that brains got bigger and bigger. So big, in fact, that modern humans often require the aid of a surgeon to make it into the world.

Humans did not become fast like the cheetah, agile like the house cat, or strong like the chimpanzee. We cannot fly—without the aid of a machine—and although we are fierce and war-like, our crowning achievement, that which defines our species, is intelligence, our ability to reason and think. Our nearest competition in the animal kingdom can’t hold a candle to the species that invented mathematics, gene splicing, and the can opener. We took dogs and cats along for company, but the smartest dog only scores about 33 on the Stanford-Binet, and cats won’t take the test at all. Dogs can’t write a sonata, or even appreciate one. A great ape, no matter how talented, can’t paint something you’d hang over the sofa.

Along with our intelligence, we humans evolved a constellation of other traits that work well with intelligence, the ability to take selfies, for example. We also developed a ravenous curiosity about ourselves, an obsessive fondness for testing to see how we’re doing. Because of the standardized testing of seventh-graders, not to mention the Nielson ratings, we’ve amassed tons of data that allow us to definitively answer the question of whether we continue to improve—evolve—as a species. The answer seems to be No!

Perhaps you’ve begun to suspect that this essay was inspired by Current Events, the fact that our fellow Americans just elected the stupidest man ever to the hold the highest office in the land. This has caused us to look askance at our neighbors and even some family members. Previously we didn’t have a word for such people, but language rose to the challenge and we now call them “deplorables,” which roughly translates to “caveman.” You’re probably as surprised as I am by their number, that there were enough of them to subvert the will of the majority of voters and install a president that sent many of us straight to our checkbooks to make a contribution to the ACLU. Suddenly we realized that a vast chasm had opened up at our feet and that half the country stood on one side, we on the other.

“The media” refers to this as “polarization,” as if both sides were equal, when, in fact, they’re not equal at all. Most obviously, deplorables can see no difference between reality and reality TV. Deplorables do not believe in science, evolution, or climate change. I needn’t point out that the contribution of a deplorable to the gene pool can only be a detriment to our species. Pretty soon dogs are going to be making us pick up their poop!

So why didn’t evolution save us from this ugly little twist in human affairs? If intelligence is the hallmark of our species, why is anti-intellectualism thriving? Why haven’t those people died out already? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the modern invention of the “safety net,” defined as a rope apparatus that spares deplorables the worst outcomes of their stupidity. People no longer starve to death just because they’re not crafty enough to capture dinner. Having not starved, they reproduce, and in numbers sufficient over time to elect a stupid person president.

We call this Freedom. Our country was founded on Freedom, and we’re captive to our own cleverness. We can buy guns and randomly shoot people. Watch porn and play electronic games till our eyeballs bleed. Shoot nasty stuff into our veins and create a vast underbelly of addiction and misery. Freedom is like a Bitcoin. You can spend it any way you want and the central banking authority can’t stop you.

It is a fact that the more education a female receives, the fewer children she will bear. Sensible, really, that she would think twice about giving birth to a creature that will suck up the best years of her life and make her miss out on that promotion at work. If she has a choice. In Japan, where women do have a choice, the government is having trouble convincing women to have children at all. Deplorables, of course, don’t want women to have a choice about their bodies or anything else.

During a presidential campaign that seemed to run on for the better part of my life, wily GOP operatives employed a secret weapon called a “dog whistle” that only deplorable ears could detect, promising to roll back all progress on women’s rights, as well as every other progressive legislation passed by the last administration, even the ones that specifically benefitted Deplorables.

I know. It’s called devolution.

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Emergent

A short story
(c) 2016 Linda S. Bingham

I wake up hot, throwing off covers. It was hot in the dream, too. Awake finally, my conscious mind fills in the blanks. I was in hell, being roasted by Beelzebub, the nightmare apparently conjured by the actual heat in our bedroom. Horror fades as full consciousness returns and I realize there’s a more prosaic explanation. The air conditioning has gone off. It’s hot as hades in our bedroom. I squint through the gloom to see if my husband is awake, or even there, as it appears the covers are thrown back.

“Ian, are you there? What’s wrong with the air?”

He’s probably seeing to it already. I get up and stumble over my pillow on the floor. It’s dark in the room, too dark. Where are the little pilots that usually light my way through the house? The green digits of the alarm clock, the red dot that signals a power cord down next to the baseboard, the pale green disk in the hallway that serves as a nightlight, the glowing diodes of our devices? Dark. All dark. I am suffocating from this heat! We’ve depleted all the oxygen in the room. I feel my way through the living room to the front door and fling it wide. It’s barely cooler outdoors and a good deal more humid. August in Austin is no time for the air-conditioner to die.

Up and down the street, lights are off, nowhere, not even in the distance is there a glimmer or a twinkle. The power failure must be wide-spread, then, not just our house. It will do no good to open the metal box in the garage and flip breakers, yet that must be what Ian is doing. As an engineer, you’d think it would occur to him to look outside first.

“Were there stars?”

“Yes, of course there were stars.”

“You said there was no light.”

I meant man-made, of course. There were stars, lots of them, pure white dazzling pinpoints, so bright they almost hurt my sleep-widened eyes. We don’t see stars much in the city. To view celestial events, we drive out to less-developed areas of the Hill Country. Ian and I went to Enchanted Rock only last month to view a comet through his scope. The International Space Station crossed over and three planets aligned themselves in the west.

But I barely notice the stars as I look for Ian.

“Ian! Where the hell are you?”

By now I know there is nothing he can do about the air conditioning. I want to brag on myself, tell him I’ve diagnosed the problem while he was around back fiddling with the compressor or some such man thing. I hear a voice I recognize as belonging to the crazy old lady who lives next-door.

“Mrs. Dunstan, is that you? The power’s off up and down the street.” She probably thinks the power failure is a ploy to make her open her door.

Both cars are in the garage, which means that Ian has not driven off somewhere. He showed me once how to raise the garage door when the power is off, but it involved pulling a cord overhead, which I certainly can’t do in the dark. The garage is even hotter than the house.

I’m thirsty but know better than to open the refrigerator and let the cold air escape. Who knows how long the power will be off. I find a tumbler in the cabinet and hold it under the tap. There is no water. The power outage must have affected well pumps, too. Ian could explain all that, but where is he?

I’m beginning to feel angry now. No, not afraid. Of what should I fear? I’m one of the most privileged humans to ever inhabit the planet, hardly knowing the pinch of real insecurity. Instead, I am angry at my husband for not being there to manage the situation. Where could he be? How could he disappear just when I need his specific skill set?

I should call the power company, I think, although they’ve probably received hundreds of calls from customers in the Cedarcrest subdivision. “Sitting in the dark, here, cursing the heat!” But I don’t make that call. We don’t have a landline any more, and the cell phones, neither Ian’s nor mine, is working. You would think lithium ion batteries would hold their charge longer, but maybe the cell towers are affected, too. You might find it ironic that a science writer loathes mobile phones. I only carry one in case of car trouble.

I creep to the back porch and uneasily occupy a lounge chair for the rest of the night. Sometimes I drift off, but each time I open my eyes, I see that nothing has changed. Ian has not come home. It is hot. It is dark. The sky gradually brightens and I hear voices out front. I walk around my house to find neighbors pooling mid-block. It’s too dark to make out faces, but I recognize a voice here and there. Some of them have children or an elderly person to care for. One man, whose wife is bedridden, says that a medical device failed to switch over to the generator. Another man, Phil, is indignant. He’s really going to let them have it, he says. He pays his bill on time. Why has no one come around to get our power back on?

Has anyone seen Ian? I keep asking. My issue pales in significance to the genuine emergency we face. We can’t use our telephones. There is no crawler across the bottom of a screen to tell us how long we will be inconvenienced. No one owns an old-fashioned radio any more, although Phil says he has a police scanner. It doesn’t work without electricity.

Misery loves company, but I grow weary with the lack of information, with Phil’s righteous ire. The pavement we are standing on radiates heat from the baking it gets during the day. I return to my own yard, hoping against hope that everything will have magically corrected itself in my absence, but it’s still dark in my house. Still hot. And Ian is still missing. I walk into every room and raise the windows to let in as much air as possible.

Ian is not a quiet person. You always know when he’s home. His vitality, his booming voice, the way he slams doors, turns the volume up on the TV. He’s slightly deaf from working around jet engines. But that night, or rather morning, I suppose it was, the house was quiet as the grave. No hum of appliances, no movement of air, no Ian.

Thirst sends me back to the refrigerator. By now it seems to make little difference if I let the cold air escape. I’m surprised the interior doesn’t light up, such is the weight of unconscious expectation. Over the following hours and days, I am continually surprised. Nothing is what I think it is. No one is who they seem. I drink cold water, the last I will swallow until I reach the lake days later. I also eat a few bites of last night’s chicken casserole, knowing I will have to throw it out if the power doesn’t come on soon. I can’t think what else to do, so I pull a random book from my stack and return to the porch. It’s too dark to read, so I sit quietly and try to plan logical steps for morning.

As the sky brightens, I find that I’ve selected Middlemarch. I open the novel and try to distract myself with Eliot’s unhappy sisters, but my mind keeps wandering back to my missing husband and the crisis I’m in the midst of and whose duration I cannot know. I have a nagging suspicion that I am still dreaming. Sometimes I take a sleeping pill that gives me weird dreams. Is this a dream and I a sleeper who cannot awake?

As I wait for the sun to rise, I am aware of the silence that envelops our neighborhood. The expressway is less than two miles from here. I should hear the roar of morning traffic that even closed windows can’t shut out. But there is no roar. No cars back out of garages along our street, no commuters head off to work on the boulevard that runs close by. Nor do planes take off from Bergstrom Airport gain altitude over our backyard. We learned in the days following 9-11 how silent the skies fall when emptied of aircraft. On this August morn, the thrum of crickets is the noisiest thing in the world.

Where can Ian be? Was he called away during the night? What sort of emergency requires the expertise of a man who designs rocket engines? Why would he leave without his phone, his car? I should go see if his shoes, his glasses, his security badge are missing, but I’m afraid to go back inside the hot dark house.

*****

It’s books I miss most here. My mind hungers for the lovely shape of type-face that conjures images—miniature but elaborate worlds populated by facsimiles of ourselves, different enough to be novel, similar enough to give us insight into characters who would otherwise baffle us. We all wear an obscuring mask we call a face. We give ourselves expressions, though not necessarily for clarity. Fiction writers give us a peek behind that mask. Although I write non-fiction, I enjoy novels. I realize the significance of the missing books. This is my special hell, isn’t it? Are paper and pencil so subversive? Might I invent a world into which I can escape?

This morning in the shower I breath on the glass and write my name in comic san serif.

******

“They put something in our food,” Hector whispers.

“How do you know?”

“I can’t get my dick hard.”

“Would you please keep that kind of information to yourself? I don’t care about your personal problems.”

“It wouldn’t affect you. You’re a chick.”

“Go talk to somebody else, Hector. I have my own thoughts.”

His words make me think, though. We don’t see our food being prepared or know whose hands do the preparing. Trays, identically filled, come along the little conveyance that brings us other necessities. We eat and return the trays to the belt and after a while it starts moving and takes the trays and dirty dishes out of sight.

A few words about our room. Though spacious enough, there’s little privacy other than our sleeping bays, as I shall call them. There are two bathrooms, each containing a toilet, wash basin, and shower. Utilitarian and austerely functional. We four women sleep in adjoining bays, with the empty bay dividing us from the men. There are no budding friendships among us. We’re all so different. It almost seems as if we seven were thrown together as least likely to form emotional bonds. A high-rise elevator could not carry as much disparate human freight. Other than being American, there’s little else we share, not in the past anyway. We certainly share the present and foreseeable future.

The eighth bed is empty. We keep expecting one more person to join us. It seems wasteful to leave one bed empty. Maybe that person, whoever it is, will be the missing ingredient that turns a mismatched lot into a community, a family of sorts.

The bays have hospital type curtains to draw for a minimum of privacy. We are furnished clothing suitable for day or night wear. There are no labels or identifying marks. The beds are institutional, but if you’re thinking this is some kind of medical facility, let me stop you there. We are not patients. No one comes in to check on us or to administer medications. There is no sense that we are recovering from something or rehabilitating, although I sometimes think we’re all wounded in one way or another.

We argue about the nature of this facility and can reach no consensus. Each inmate has his own theory about what this place is. We call it “the room” for lack of a better term. The main feature is not its furniture, conveyor belt, or even its inhabitants, diverse as we are. What you notice first is the great circular dome over our heads. It provides light and a bit of color, though not as blue as the natural sky. Dragging our beds to the center of the room and stacking the frames till they threaten to collapse, we cannot reach the ceiling to find out what it’s made of.

The source of light is another thing on which we do not agree, whether it’s natural or man-made. Some of us detect an east to west movement of the brightness, although, since we have no access to the real sky, we can’t know actual compass points. Movement or direction aside, the duration of dark and light appears to be evenly divided. If we’re not allowed paper and pen, you might guess that we also do not have clocks, cell phones, calendars, and certainly no TV or Internet.

We argue about time as much as anything. I used always to know the date and time. I had deadlines to meet, chores and errands to run. But here, it’s impossible to say it’s Thursday, or this is June, or even, this is 1984 or 2001. For a certain length of time the dome gradually brightens, reaches its zenith, and then slowly fades. A day’s length? Who can say. As the light fails, we wind down our activities and one by one slip off to our sleeping bays. Hector, the one who thinks there are chemicals in our food, says we’re drugged and that’s why we sleep so soundly. It’s true that I used seldom to sleep through the whole night. I don’t feel drugged.

We awake to our false dawn, more or less refreshed. The conveyor starts moving and after a while trays roll out and we have our breakfast. Steve, the black man, says the coffee is atrocious. He’s from Seattle and knows good coffee. I never drank coffee at home, but I do now if only for the novelty of bitterness on my tongue. Any sensation is better than none.

There is a door, but it doesn’t open. Like the false dawn, the door is a sham, a joke, a half-hearted attempt to suggest we have free will, that we can walk out of this place. There aren’t even hinges. There are 7 billion of our species troubling the planet, yet our world contains only seven.

*****

Laura, at 46, is the oldest among us. This is an asylum, she says, and we are lunatics. Laura doesn’t remember a power failure. Instead, she awoke to a searing pain in her right side. She remembers an ambulance ride and a host of white-clad strangers hovering over her. She believes she underwent surgery and accounts for her present circumstances as the lingering effects of anesthesia. She is happily married and greatly misses her husband Frank. She wonders why he hasn’t come for her. I’ve heard her quietly crying on her side of our shared curtain. She also misses having something to do with her hands. She was a terrific crocheter, she tells us. And she likes to cook. The institutional food here will keep body and soul together, but does nothing for the spirit.

Laura has two cats. She worries that Frank will forget to feed them. They were quite elderly, as cats go. She got them as kittens, two brothers who look just alike except for the white patterns on their faces. She has grandchildren, too, but they live in another state. She is from a suburb of Atlanta.

Steve, the guy from Seattle, is handsome and vain. He worries about keeping fit and spends hours down on the floor doing calisthenics. He says he wants to stay fit so he can break out of this place. The mirror above the sink is small, forcing him to ask Charles if his ass is getting bigger. All our asses are probably getting bigger. There’s nothing to do here but wait for the next meal. The food is so mediocre I’m never tempted to overeat. In any case, second helpings are not offered. Our keepers have apparently calculated how much food is necessary to keep us alive.

When you first come to this place, you go through a predictable arc of emotions—surprise, disbelief, anger, and so on—well-documented by psychologists as inevitable steps leading to acceptance. We might not know our own place on the scale, but it’s easy to see where others are. Good-looking Steve is stuck in anger. He’s the one who got Hector to help him drag our beds to the center of the room to create a scaffold he could climb, looking for an escape route. A day or so later he made us all furious at him by breaking the conveyor belt and preventing food delivery for the rest of the day.

That night I go to bed hungry and unsettled, wondering how our keepers will deal with the situation. Does our fate now include cannibalism and starvation? My senses alert to cues I would normally miss, I hear Laura gently snoring beyond the curtain to my right. Across the room one of the men rearranges himself in bed, making the frame squeak. My eyes, awake and dark-adapted, can see that our “sky” is not entirely devoid of light. There is a faint but discernible glow to this night sky, though lacking stars. Why couldn’t they give us stars?

Toward morning, I suppose it is, I hear a low rumble and raise up on one elbow to hiss at Laura but can’t raise her. I crawl to the foot of my bed and part the curtains. Now I can hear something else, a faint ping of metal on metal. They’re working on the conveyor. I discern a narrow shaft of horizontal light along the floor and realize there must be a partition of some kind between us and the alcove that houses the conveyor system. Our caretakers are repairing the damage Steve caused. I return to my pillow feeling oddly relieved. So, it’s a benign authority that imprisons us? They do not intend to see us starve, but will they save us from other calamities? Boredom, for example? Violence. Illness. What if one of us dies? Will our body be discreetly removed while the others sleep?

I decide the information about the hidden panel is too valuable to share. Our breakfast trays roll out as usual and, to my amazement, no one remarks on the miraculous recovery of the conveyor belt.

*****

Because Laura insists we are inmates in an asylum, she suggests that we form a little self-help group. Five of us oblige her and pull our chair into a circle to talk about ourselves. I tell them about the power failure and my suspicion that the grid throughout Austin, indeed Texas and the entire country, has gone down. I detect only polite interest from my fellow inmates. I describe the days of chaos and panic, how we looted the stores for water and food that wasn’t spoiled, how even that ran out. And how, after days of despair and desperate for water, I abandoned the house that had ceased to be a refuge and set off on the long trek that somehow brought me to this place.

My goal was the lake, which is actually the dammed-up Colorado River. I envisioned plunging my face into the water and drinking my fill. I found the streets clogged with other half-crazed sojourners desperate with thirst. I overtook people pushing wheel chairs and bent over walkers who cried out to the able-bodied to bring water back to them. Humanity compelled me to acknowledge their cries, but as thirst consumed me, my ears grew deaf to the supplicants, even the youngest. What could I do for them when I myself was dying?

“And so you finally reached the lake?” Laura asks when I fall silent.

“The water was delicious. I met a woman named Celeste.”

I wouldn’t tell them how it ended, how I was attacked by a man crouched behind ornamentals at the lake’s edge. The woman Celeste happened on the scene as my attacker had me pinned to the ground ripping at my jeans. She struck a blow to his temple and I scrambled to my feet and took the large piece of karst limestone from her hand and hit him again while he was stunned. And then I continued to hit him until he was dead.

As if sensing what I leave unsaid, Hector pushes his chair out of the circle. “I don’t wanna do this no more.”

“That’s fine,” Laura says in a soothing therapist voice. “You can rejoin us later if you change your mind, Hector.” She turns to me. “Libby, why would this man attack you? Surely he was as thirsty and hungry as yourself.”

“No, he wasn’t. Predators take other people’s food and water. In the normal scheme of things, people like that are kept in check by the law, but this was anarchy, chaos, law of the jungle.”

“Hmmm,” she says, noncommittally. “Good thing this woman Celeste happened on the scene, then.”

“She wasn’t a woman,” Chelsea whispers, her first utterance. “She was an angel, a celestial being.”

“Nope. Flesh and blood,” I reply, annoyed.

“You don’t believe in God,” Chelsea says. “You don’t believe in anything.”

“That’s right. But it should be clear to even you that god is not in charge of this place.” Too young to be an existentialist, Chelsea probably believes she’s fetched up in Hell’s own waiting room.

“Please, ladies,” Laura admonishes, “let’s support one another. This is Libby’s truth she’s sharing. We must respect other people’s reality.”

“Well, I’m no Texan,” Patti drawls, “but your power failure thingie didn’t make it to Nevada. Didn’t hear about it on the news, either. What kind of writing did you say you do? Sci-fi?”

“Science. There is a difference.”

I notice that Chelsea is fighting back tears. Maybe I was a little harsh. I have so little patience with religious nuts.

“Do you wish to speak, dear?” Laura asks her. She shakes her head no. “What about you, Patti?”

“I’m not saying anything.” Patti gestures with a shoulder at the ceiling overhead. “They listen to every word we say.”

“Who listens?” Charles demands. He’s also young, late teens, early twenties. He was a college student before coming here.

“That’s not for me to say.” Patti turns her face away from him.

Charles is the only male to sit through the whole session, though he has little to contribute. Like so many of his generation, he prefers to engage with others through the medium of a digital screen. He misses his phone and his mother, in that order.

There was no power failure in Arizona either, he reports. Like Laura, his entry into our unbrave new world has a medical component. He was running for a touchdown for Arizona State when he took a hard tackle and suffered a traumatic brain injury. He’s heard of a secret laboratory on campus run by a brilliant but eccentric scientist. He’s convinced he’s fallen into this man’s clutches and become the subject of an elaborate experiment. His eyes travel around the circle and come to rest on me.

“Look, can we just have a time-out so I can call my parents and let them know I’m okay?”

The whole futile exercise suddenly bores me. “What difference does it make if you live out your life under a microscope, Charlie? Your world is virtual anyway. And why do you assume that it’s all about you? Maybe I’m in your experiment.”

“Let’s not be unkind,” Laura says.

“You’re not helping, Laura. And you’re not a therapist. As far as I can tell, you’ve never held a real job in your life.”

“I managed a household. I raised three children. I consider that a valuable contribution.”

“Valuable? You are part of the problem, lady. Over-population of the planet led to the predicament we’re in. Obviously a superior life form swooped in and took charge. Or maybe the fucking North Koreans nuked us.”

Chelsea can no longer contain her tears. She raises her hands to the pitiless dome overhead and cries out, “Oh, Lord, oh, Lord, why hast thou forsaken me? Have pity on my soul! Save me! Save me!” To our astonishment, she begins speaking in a foreign language, although I soon realize it’s gibberish, glossolalia, a phenomenon I’ve only read about. Laura gets up and goes behind Chelsea’s chair to awkwardly pat her on the shoulder. You’d think a professional mom would be better handing out the warm fuzzies.

“Um, thank you, everyone. Next time maybe Steve will join us?”

“Oh, give it a rest, Laura.” I go to my bed to wait for lunch.

*****

A few days later I walk by Patti’s closed curtain and hear an insistent pssst!

“Are you calling me?”

Shhh!” She pulls me into her bay. She’s on her bed with the sheet tented over her head. “They can’t see us in here.”

“Aren’t you being just a bit paranoid?”

“Not the humans. Them,” she points upward. “I’ve ascertained their microphones aren’t sensitive enough to pick up whispers.”

I decide to play along and join her under the sheet. It’s rather agreeable, like sleep-overs when I was a child. In fact, it’s downright restful to be shielded—if not from the unblinking washed-out eye overhead—from the constant, though bored, scrutiny of our fellow seven. “So, what are we hiding from, Patti? Little green men?”

“You’re a skeptic?”

“In the absence of proof, skepticism is all I have. What do the wee green ones hope to gain keeping us penned up this way?”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“Or, if Charles is right and we’re living in the middle of a giant petri dish, what is the mad scientist trying to prove? How quickly he can make human beings go bonkers when totally deprived of art? I’d kill for paper and pencil. Aren’t you bored out of your skull?”

She shook her head. “I lead a rich inner life.”

“Does everybody in Nevada believe in alien abduction?”

“I dare you to explain it any other way.”

“I have to admit the alien explanation fits better than Chelsea’s devils and angels.”

“I admire your courage to believe in nothing. Does your science-based view of life offer any comfort?”

“Science isn’t about comfort. It’s about asking the right questions. And hey, here’s one for you. What route did you take to the loony bin?”

Elfin in size and appearance, Patti has a headful of curly salt-and-pepper hair, an old/young hippie. “Don’t tell the others, okay?”

Why does she think she can trust me? I nod uneasily.

“I was driving home from seeing my mother in Salt Lake. I was exhausted but determined to get home before having to pay for a motel room for the night—I’m on a limited income. I was on the desert, miles from anything, making good time. In fact, I was doing about 80. I hadn’t passed another car for miles when lights came up behind me, right on my bumper. I was blinded by the reflection in the rearview mirror. I figured it was the highway patrol, but I was too scared to stop. You know the kind of thoughts that go through a woman’s head when she’s traveling alone at night.”

“I fought off a creep myself before washing up on these shores.”

“Finally the light was so bright I couldn’t see the road ahead and had to stop.”

“And it was a flying saucer?”

“No. I told you. It was light, pure light. I woke up in this place.”

“Maybe you crashed your car on the desert. Chelsea thinks we’re all dead waiting to get into heaven. Charles saw a bright light when he got his concussion, and Laura mentioned it, too, the bright lights over her operating table. I think Hector’s been in prison. Do you sense that?”

“You’re only saying that because he’s a young Hispanic male.”

“I’m as liberal as the next person! No, it’s just that he reminds me of someone I met down by the river.”

“I rather thought you were leaving something out of your story.”

“Funny, isn’t it? That was only days ago, but it seems like years. Einstein predicted we would experience time differently when we moved away from the earth’s surface.”

“Then you agree we’re hurtling through space?”

“We were always hurtling through space, my dear. Only now our spaceship is this big stupid room. The oddest thing about it is that we share the illusion. I never put any stock in that New Age crap about individual consciousness being a fragment of a greater whole.”

“I think it makes perfect sense.”

I sweep the sheet off my head and study the pale blue fake sky. I’m beginning to be able to tell time from that thing. “Supper will be along shortly. I’m going to wash up.”

“Don’t eat the dessert.”

“Why not? It’s the only decent part of the meal.”

“That’s where they hide the soma.”

That makes me giggle. “Soma! I haven’t heard that word in years. To make us sleep?”

“When did you ever sleep so deeply, so dreamlessly?”

“Sleeping and eating are the only things to do in this place.”

“So, you don’t intend to resist?” Patti whispers.

“Look where Steve’s fit of pique got us. We all went to bed hungry.”

“I thought you had more spirit, Libby.”

“Yeah, well I pick my battles. Look, if we’re headed to a distant galaxy—or even to the backside of the moon—escape means certain death. Has it occurred to you that whatever’s on the other side of the door might be worse than what’s on this side?”

“Maybe it’s better.”

“Do you have the right to take that risk for all of us?”

“The right and the duty.”

“Don’t tell me what you’re planning. I might have to stop you.”

*****

No books. No paper and pen, no stars in the sky, no dreams when we sleep. We’re just bodies now, being kept alive like bugs in a jar. We don’t know why. We’re beginning to forget our past. I asked Hector if he had been in prison and he said he couldn’t remember. He may not be lying. I can’t remember my own husband’s face. I can conjure up Ian’s glasses and the shape of his mouth, how his ears were set on his head, but I can’t put the bits together and visualize his face.

Ian is dead. The thought should fill me with sorrow, but instead I can only think that he was one of the lucky ones. They’re all dead, my own parents, my in-laws and cousins, my old neighbors in Cedarcrest, and all those people I pushed past on my way to the river. Yet somehow I survived, as did six others with whom I now share this dream we call life. We are seven, the only humans left on the planet. We’ve been given false memories, unreliable pasts. I do not believe that Laura lay on an operating table, not unless she died there. Nor do I believe that Patti survived her encounter with pure light on a Nevada highway. Or that Chelsea and the others survived. We seven were simultaneously rescued and damned.

But who did the rescuing, who the damning? The light above my bed is brightest at mid-morning. I spread my hands and see the pinkish glow as light passes through the thinnest tissue. The red is blood coursing through my veins. I am alive. I am human. My brain houses real memories. Still.

*****

We are stunned when our breakfast trays roll out and Laura’s contains not only the usual nasty-looking oatmeal and watery coffee, but a ball of blue yarn and a pink plastic crochet hook. I say that it is Laura’s tray, for we’ve sorted ourselves into a kind of pecking order, based not entirely on age, although Steve makes mocking reference to “age before beauty” when he defers to Laura. She does carry herself with a certain dignity, but is by no means our leader, she of the unwanted advice and questionable wisdom. If the order in which we claim our trays were determined by brute strength, Steve would go first, as he daily buffs his already studly physique with a brutal exercise regimen. Patti takes the third tray. I follow her, then Hector, Charles, and finally Chelsea Jump-if-anyone-says-boo. (The meek shall inherit the earth!)

I know Laura is surprised by the yarn, but she pretends otherwise. “Ah, there’s my yarn,” she murmurs. Patti gives me a knowing look—see, they are listening. Since our tete-a-tete under the bedsheet, we’ve had no further congress.

As we seat ourselves around the long table in the center of the room to eat our breakfast, I wonder if the others are thinking what I am. Will the heavens smile on me next? Will tomorrow’s breakfast tray bring paper and pen? Steve has publicly longed for better coffee. Patti refuses to say anything about her desires, but she would probably ask for tarot cards or a crystal. Hector would like to get his dick back in working order. Charles pines for his missing iPhone. And little Chelsea has said more than once that she wishes, above all else, to read her Bible again.

Some days the conveyor delivers clean sheets and towels and, without further prodding, we dutifully strip our beds and place the soiled linens on the belt for removal. Even the least physical activity leads to ennui, and I retire to my bay to wait for lunch. I tell myself that, like Steve, I’m keeping fit, mentally at least, working on the article that presumably still resides on the laptop back in my home office.

The speed of light traveling from chip to chip in a microprocessor is the same as light traveling from a distant star to arrive on the human retina, 299,792,458 meters per second. My mind teems with observations about this inalterable law of physics, and my reading has armed me with brilliant literary references, but, lacking the means to preserve sentences, I’m stuck on the first: The speed of light in a vacuum is denoted by a lowercase c, for “constant” or the Latin celeritas meaning “swiftness, celerity.” I revise the sentence over and over in my mind and can’t move on. When did I cease to be able to think in paragraphs?

*****

I’ve begun scratching a tiny mark on the wall with my thumbnail every night—or what passes for night in our diminished world—the marks hidden by my pillow in the “day time.” By this crude calculation, it’s been a week since Laura’s wish was granted. That first day, after replacing her tray on the conveyor, she returned to her chair and, over the course of the morning, created a peculiar blue webbed thing out of the yarn. I thought that would be an end to it, but the next morning she ripped out her stitches, reconstituted the ball of yarn, and started all over again. She’s made and destroyed the patch of blue every day since.

There have been no further favors dispensed. Hope gave way to disappointment and now to exhausted resignation. The skein of blue has become as frayed as our good will. You will surely fault us for not organizing ourselves to combat a mutual enemy, but we don’t agree, firstly, that there is an enemy, and secondly, on the nature of that enemy. Only Patti plots rebellion. She follows me into the bathroom and whispers that the soma isn’t in the dessert after all.

“I haven’t noticed you pushing away dessert,” I reply.

“Upchucked.”

“And?”

“Slept like a baby.”

“Maybe it’s in the ‘meat substitute,’ then.”

“I’ve eliminated each food they serve at night. It’s not in the food. It’s in the water.”

I give her a closer look and notice that she’s losing weight, starving herself. That’s one way to escape this place.

“Well, there you go. We have to drink the water, don’t we?”

I notice that Chelsea is crying less these days and I wonder if it’s because of Charles. I catch glances darted across the room between those two and feel their heightened awareness of one another at table. Other than being at least a decade younger than the rest of us, they don’t seem to have much in common, Jesus freak and jock. But perhaps youth is enough. Is that what our caretakers hope to accomplish housing male and female together? That we multiply? God help us.

*****

Steve is the one I can’t figure out. A fit black male who shows no inclination to buddy up with the other guys, Hector and Charles, or to build bridges with the women. One morning, at the end of his long grueling workout, I sidle over to his side of the room. He is stripped to the waist, shiny with sweat, breathing heavily. He eyes me warily.

“What sort of exercise would you recommend for a couch potato?” I ask.

“I don’t make recommendations.”

“I probably couldn’t follow your advice anyway. My legs feel like jello. I should do something, I guess.” He shrugs. It’s really nothing to him if I fall apart. “I notice you do the same work-out every morning and a different one in the afternoon.”

“Different muscle set.”

His gaze is flat, faintly hostile, gives nothing away. I feel I am trespassing, but I am emboldened by how little I have to lose. “What did you hope to gain breaking the conveyor belt?”

His eyes narrow. “I don’t talk to snitches.”

“Who’s a snitch? Who would I snitch to?”

“I know your tricks,” he warns. “Look, I mind my own business and don’t cause trouble for nobody. So, leave me alone.” He heads to the men’s shower.

I turn around to find five pairs of eyes on me. The others hastily return to their occupations, which is to say, nothing at all, except for Laura, who digs the pink hook into a blue loop with renewed ferocity. “You’re going to wear that shit out,” I tell her.

“Libby, please! I wish you wouldn’t use such language.”

“And I wish I could strangle you, but it would be so pointless.”

My attempt to engage Steve hasn’t panned out, but for some reason makes Hector more simpatico. “Don’t mess with him. He’s a bad dude.”

“You make it sound like this is a prison exercise yard.”

“Sure as hell can’t walk out, can you? I know why you’re in. You killed your husband.”

“You don’t know anything about Ian! My husband died with the rest of them.”

He looks away. “Tell it to the judge.”

“You were at the river that day.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, lady.”

“It was your head I bashed in with a rock.”

“You’re crazy. You deserve to be locked away.”

*****

In my dream I am fighting my way through a crowd. I’m losing ground and in danger of being trampled. I elbow and punch. I scream. My eyes are wide but my pupils detect not a glimmer of light. For a moment I’m back in my own bed seeking in vain the tiny beacons that signal the presence of a smoke detector, power cord, alarm clock. Extinguished, all. The power has been cut. Blood surging through my heart roars in my ears. Fear disables my limbs. Desperate for light, my eyes roam the inky blackness around me. I am panting, whimpering. I feel the mattress distort under me and a warm hand touch my calf.

“Hush. It’s only a dream. You don’t want to bring him in here.”

The black void shrinks to human scale and panic recedes. I recognize Chelsea’s voice. “Who would come in here?”

“Don’t say his name,” she whispers, urgent.

“Whose name?”

“Go back to sleep.”

And I do. In the morning I pick up my breakfast tray and realize that at least one of my wishes has come true. I had a dream. I won’t wish that again. Part of the dream was that Chelsea came over to my bed and told me who she thinks is in charge here. The Devil.

*****

Patti is gone. Generally, Laura waits till we’re all assembled before taking her tray. Standing at the head of the conveyor, she peers around expectantly. Both bathroom doors stand open. Patti’s curtain is closed.

“She overslept,” Laura says.

For some reason she singles me out to go check on her. I yank the curtain aside, exposing a lump-filled bed. It’s apparent the spread hides only a pillow and rucked-up sheet. I walk over to the “door” and run my hands along the surface where door meets jamb, looking for some sign that it recently opened. The others watch, mute, then Steve says brusquely, “C’mon. You’re third now.” I take my tray and look more closely at the small opening through which our trays and all other essentials must pass. Is it large enough to allow a small bulimic female to squeeze through? I count the trays and see there are only six. The kitchen staff knew that Patti would not be eating with us.

Though her departure leaves a gaping hole in the fabric of an already attenuated existence, we do not talk about Patti. I sense the same unease and dread in others that I feel in myself. We’re like children who have done something naughty, waiting for punishment we know will come. We may agree on little else about our overlords, but we do know to fear them.

Laura rips out yesterday’s pattern of crochet stitches and begins rewinding her blue yarn. Charles and Chelsea return to the table, seated across from each other, and draw patterns on the surface with their fingers, invisibly texting. They’ve learned to communicate in this fashion. Hector sits on the floor with his back against his bunk staring idly at “the sky.” Steve starts his morning workout. I go back to bed.

Though I pretend to sleep, my brain is teeming with questions. Did Patti make a clean break? Or will she emerge from behind her curtain in the morning with no memory of having escaped? Maybe she didn’t escape, but was removed before she could carry out her plans. Or, she died, a victim of self-starvation, and they removed her body during the night, as I anticipated they would should any of us die. Despite the fear and dread, I also feel a flutter of hope, the first I’ve felt since coming to this place. On her own terms or not, Patti is gone and she left me clues how to follow, although they’ve surely plugged that particular security flaw.

Greater than physical cowardice is my fear of what lies on the other side. Maybe it’s better, Patti said. If only she could send word.

*****

The tiny hash marks behind my pillow are almost too numerous to count. It’s been weeks since Patti left us. There are two empty beds now. When fresh linens and other supplies come through the chute, provision is made for only six. I’ve given up expecting the extra beds to be filled. Attrition will gradually thin out our number till only one remains. I hope it’s not me.

*****

“Sir, I think #3 might emerge in the next day or so.”

“What have you picked up?”

“Nothing overt—she’s not the action-oriented type—but her sleep pattern is beginning to normalize. This morning’s chart shows a brief but definite REM cycle.”

“Excellent! Well, keep an eye on her and let me know if anything changes. It might be time to send in a little encouragement.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Paper and pencil, wasn’t it?”

“That’s right. She was a writer.”

“What about #1? Did the yarn have any impact?”

“Nothing so far. Sorry, but I thought for sure….”

“We’ll think of something. All right. I’m off.”

“Laters.”

*****

Although I’ve grown accustomed to the alien sky over planet Eden, starless and moonless as she is, I yearn for the big starry Texas sky. Maybe it was that night on Enchanted Rock with Ian, feeling the tug of those stars, some man-made, that led me to put my name on the list. Or maybe it was losing Ian so early, so unexpectedly, knowing there was nothing left for me there. What fitting tribute to escape Earth’s surly bonds in a rocket that Ian had a small part in designing!

When I emerged, as they call it at the Center for Integrative Research, I met third and fourth- generation Edenics for the first time. The Center has taken the lead in establishing best practices for dealing with the slow trickle of pioneers who arrive from the home planet. I volunteer one day a month, paying forward the generosity shown me as I emerged from the long hibernation required of space travel and the subsequent psychosis of the traveler’s extended dreamless state. We lost only one member of our capsule, which accounts for that empty eighth bed. Six of our seven were successful emergents, the youngest two, Charles and Chelsea, adapting more easily than did Steve, Hector, and me. You might be wondering how their budding romance played out. Young love proved fickle, and, in any case, breeding age adults are encouraged to widen the gene pool by mating with native-born Edenics.

We can thank Steve for fashioning a battering ram from a bedframe and ending our self-imposed imprisonment. Ready or not, we followed him out of the room and into the welcoming arms of CIR volunteers. Laura was unable to recover a functioning memory and remains at the Center. I visit occasionally and take her yarn. It would console her to have a cat, but, of course, there are no cats on this newly colonized planet.

For me, memory is a work in progress. Sometimes I’m engaged in a homely domestic chore when the synapses fire and memory plays like a dusty reel on an antique machine. This morning as I rinsed out a glass I suddenly remembered standing at the window in my old kitchen watching a hummingbird at the nectar bottle and calling Ian to come see.

Some recovered memories are joyful things. Others make me blue for days, reminding me that the journey was a one-way trip. Oh, darling Earth, how I loved you.

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Typing 101

I start my day with a wellspring of words that somehow fill my brain overnight. Stimulated by morning coffee and newspapers, I approach my desk primed to put words in the mouths of characters, or if I’m lucky, produce a small jewel of an essay. I say lucky, because an essay can be finished in a day, while novel writing… takes longer. It was an essay by Garrison Keillor in today’s news that made me remember an episode from his personal story. Enamored with all things Scandinavian, he left his native land and moved to Norway. Back in the US he was considered a rustic intellectual, an original wit, a man who could fill a weekly radio spot with his own mellifluous voice and wry observations from Lake Woebegone. Transported and stripped of language, Garrison Keillor found himself being talked at as if he were a moron. Of course, even Norwegian morons can complete a sentence.

I always said that my own love affair with words erupted spontaneously, like wisdom teeth. My work as a property manager bored me. At my desk on the 8th floor of the 500,000 sf building I was supposed to be managing, I began scribbling out word combinations that gave me a peculiar satisfaction. The pad and paper went with me everywhere. There was a particular bottleneck on my drive to work that produced many a fine sentence.

When my secretary wasn’t on the “word processor”–our term for the first personal computer, a thing so bulky it had its own room–I would slip in and compose even longer chunks of verbiage. I loved seeing my sentences lit up on the computer screen, the letters made up of glowing green dots in those days. Eventually I quit my good-paying job to make no money at all and I was much happier. I never could get those monthly balance thingies. My staff gave me a Thesaurus and a box of pencils for a going-away present.

When I ventured beyond the academic world, white male managers who could not type were the norm. I got my first job in business because of my fast accurate typing, not to mention that I could correct my boss’s spelling errors, and improve his clumsy sentence structure. Ironically, my ability to type made me too valuable to send into the management program. There were only a few women managers at Gerald Hines at the time. To get ahead, I had to quit that job and go to a company run by a younger and more progressive man than Mr. Hines.

Back in high school, I took typing from Mrs. Minnie Jesson. I still remember the speed drills, the exact placement of fingers on the QWERTY keyboard, the typing book that formed its own stand, the towering manual typewriters built to withstand the abuse of adolescent hands, and how I asked for and got a Smith-Corona portable typewriter for Christmas that year. Typing class drew few boys. No one foresaw a time when the human population would carry tiny keyboards with them everywhere. A few years later I stood in front of my own classroom teaching reading and writing skills. Our inner-city junior high was outfitted with one typing classroom and I was asked to fill a 40-minute time slot. It was the only class I ever taught that no one asked why they had to take it.

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Skip forward to my business years. Sometimes an obstreperous tenant required an exquisitely crafted letter. My bosses had always dictated theirs, or written them out in long-hand for me to type. As a boss myself, as a former typing and English teacher, I composed my letters on the computer and left them for my secretary to format and print. Back for a visit, I watched my old boss laboriously peck out an email with two fingers on the laptop that was now standard equipment on every executive desk. He probably felt like Garrison Keillor in the land of smart Norwegians.

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Elinor & Dot celebrate the 4th

SPOILER ALERT
The following is an excerpt from Death In The Stacks. Johns Valley, Oklahoma’s 4th of July parade. Download is included in your Amazon Prime membership and Kindle Unlimited.

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The high school marching band, pride of Johns Valley, Oklahoma, stepped smartly out and headed down the long hill comprising High Street, twirlers out front, tubas bringing up the rear. The parade was off to a late start, according to the digital clock over the door of Farmer’s Bank, which also noted the temperature, 92 degrees. A lone cloud drifting across the face of the sun offered a momentary respite to the young marchers sweltering in their new royal blue band uniforms, trimmed with gold braid and shiny buttons. Tall sparkling shakos, cinched to the head with white chin straps, fluttered with real feather plumes. Every organization in town had held fundraisers to purchase these magnificent outfits, and band director Randy Faulkner understood the public relations value of showing them off on this most patriotic occasion. Nothing said the Fourth like a high school marching band playing John Philip Sousa.

Cross streets north of Main were blocked with sawhorses to protect the parade route, but Depot Street was kept open for emergency vehicles. Elinor arrived late to find Dot’s red Datsun already parked behind the Fordyce Chandler Civic Center. The library occupied the west end of the building, the police department filled the middle suite, and the fire truck was usually backed into a bay on the east end, but today the bay was empty. The pumper had already taken its place in the parade. The dreary little back lot, a narrow alley that was home to a dumpster and a pride of feral cats, was jammed with cars.

Dot had staked out a patch of sidewalk under the awning that shaded the windows of Betty Blanton’s law office. She waved Elinor over and handed her a flag.

“I thought you weren’t coming. You smell like peaches.”

“I was in the middle of it and didn’t want to stop. I brought you a couple of jars. I’m parked right next to you.”

Whatever Dot replied was lost in the staccato of snare drums. The band, reaching the intersection of High and Main, executed a precision pivot, a turn that required every member to reach a certain spot, march in place until those further out had reached their own spot, then everybody execute a snappy right-angle turn and reassemble in block formation. It was a maneuver perfected over countless pre-dawn drills on the football field, and rightly sent the crowd into swooning wonder. They noticed that Betty Blanton had come out of her office to watch the parade go by.

“Don’t tell me you’re working today!” Dot exclaimed.

“I work every day,” Betty said.

Betty Blanton was something of an anomaly in their town, an unmarried middle-aged professional woman. She didn’t mind being an iconoclast, in fact, rather played it up, Elinor thought, dressed as she usually was in jeans and boots. She was known to smoke a little white lady pipe. Of course she was rumored to be a lesbian. Well, if it earned her fees commensurate with the male lawyers in town, why not?

Despite such efforts, Ms. Blanton had drawn the more difficult and probably less lucrative side of the Weathers divorce, a dispute that had played out for months, neither side willing to compromise a decimal point, or so they heard. The gossip mill churned out a steady stream of speculation and opinion. Wives tended to side with Judith Weathers. Everybody knew Buck Weathers fooled around on her. Husbands, out of earshot of wives, thought it a shame that Weathers family land was being broken up to satisfy the demands of a woman, who, judging from appearances, ran through money like it was water.

Elinor wondered if the newspaper article Buck Weathers had requested supported his side of the case somehow. With a start, she realized she had come within an inch of mentioning it to Judith Weathers’ attorney. But it is none of my business, she told herself firmly. Lawyers weren’t the only ones sworn to protect the confidentiality of clients.

“Here comes Kate’s little house!” Dot cried.

Shelby Jacks, behind the wheel of a heavy-duty truck hauling the flatbed trailer on which the float had been assembled, looked hot and grumpy, an unwilling but necessary component of his wife’s efforts to rebrand herself as a professional realtor after raising three kids to school age. Women had no idea the time and labor involved in a project like this, his expression said. His livestock didn’t observe holidays. There was no indication that he himself was running for re-election to his seat on council. Shelby, like privileged males the world over, took it for granted that citizens looked to him to run things.

Kate and Enid, standing on the “porch” of the float, flung candy randomly at the crowd. Gary treated his pieces as projectiles, aiming at the heads of other seventh-graders he spotted among the cheering multitudes. Stevie, who wanted to be called Steve now, appeared embarrassed by his participation and probably had to be coerced to appear in public with his family.

Elinor heard someone say that the little house looked like an outhouse. There was a titter as others recognized the truth of the remark. Sharp elbows reminded the crowd that Kate was Elinor’s niece, and that she might take personally any criticism of the float representing JV Properties. It seemed impossible to Elinor that Shelby had followed Kate’s design for the parade house. JV Properties, to say nothing of Kate’s career ambitions, would have been better served with just the sod and a For Sale sign. Finally the outhouse/dollhouse rolled out of sight along Main and all eyes turned to the next parade entry, a dozen or so middle-aged belly-dancers led by their instructor Rexie Roberts.

“Oh, good grief,” Dot said. “We could’ve been spared that.”

“There’s an exercise class for everybody, Dot. You could wear your turban.”

Rexie Roberts looked fabulous with her navel showing, but the best that could be said for the ladies of her class was that no one was sure who they were behind their veils. Nevertheless, the sight of bare female midriffs, no matter what the shape, elicited wolf whistles.

“Now here comes something worth cheering,” Dot said.

Dot was not alone in her admiration of Guy Pettibone, a muscular and darkly handsome Cajun who ran a local garage. She bragged that since Guy Pettibone came to town, she and other lady customers had been more diligent keeping up with their recommended maintenance schedules. Her Datsun, she claimed, would run another 50,000 miles. Cars weren’t just Guy’s business; they were his passion. He was driving one of his restoration projects today, a finny vintage Mercury rescued from a farmer’s pasture. A hand-lettered poster attached to the driver’s side with duct tape advertised his business, Guy’s Garage.

In the middle of the intersection, at the point of maximum eyeballs, the Mercury suddenly choked and died. Guy Pettibone jumped out and raised the hood, acknowledging good-natured catcalls with a doff of his gimme cap.

Betty Blanton was cynical. “A bit providential, don’t you think?”

“Who cares?” Dot said, applauding as Guy got his old car going again and hurried to catch up with the belly-dancers.

Johns Valley Volunteer Fire Department truck, forced to idle in place, now made its grand entrance, starting the siren as it made the turn. Mayor Patrick Allen Childers was seated in front with the driver, tossing from his open window handfuls of candy suckers wrapped in an appeal for votes.

Betty Blanton caught a sucker in mid-air. “He’s trying to look unbeatable so nobody will run against him.”

“Why don’t you throw your hat in the ring, Betty?” Dot urged. “We could use a woman on council.”

“I like to get paid for my work. Besides, running the city makes the boys feel important.”

“Like they need help with that,” Dot retorted.

As if to prove her point, the next parade entry was Buck Weathers. He, too, was driving a vintage automobile, this one a turquoise blue 1959 Thunderbird convertible with horns mounted to the hood. Magnetic placards on the doors were stamped with the imprimatur of Thunderbird Ranch, a partial circle around the letters “TR,” and the catchphrase “Eat More Beef.” As recently as last Fourth of July, Buck’s wife Judith had ridden on the seat beside him. This year she had been replaced with, not one, but three babes in bathing suits. The girls smiled and waved from the backseat like contestants in a beauty contest. No one recognized them. Imported for the occasion, Dot supposed.

“Rented more likely,” Betty Blanton said.

“Hope they’re wearing sunscreen,” Elinor remarked.

Buck, duded out in a snappy white Western shirt and summer Stetson, looked pleased with himself. The triplet of gorgeous young women could be seen as a message: Buck Weathers is riding the range again. Or soon would be when his divorce was final.

“Son of a bitch,” Betty Blanton muttered.

There was more, of course. Organizations, churches, the Boy Scouts. Johns Valley Historical Society had reassembled their Sooner Centennial float from ten years ago. The pioneer women, in shovel-brimmed bonnets and long sleeves, were more suitably outfitted for the blazing sun than either wool-blend-encased band members or bikini-clad beauty contestants.

But finally it was over, their Fourth of July parade. High Street spilled over with citizens taking the rare opportunity to congregate freely in the middle of the business district. Already, earlier parade marchers had circled back to reach cars, family members, and revel in compliments, both paraders and parade-watchers congratulating themselves on once again honoring the nation’s birthday in style.

Tonight they would gather at the fairgrounds for hotdogs, the mayor’s speech, and a fireworks show, courtesy of the Jaycees. Dot was boycotting because the Knights of Columbus were involved. Although the food had been donated and none of her money would be going to KC projects, Dot was still in a pet over their cenotaph to the unborn. The inscribed stone had divided public sentiment along familiar abortion issue fault lines. Dot came down firmly on the side of a woman’s right to choose. The Catholic Church occupied a prominent block on Main and they would all have to drive past that tombstone every day, she fumed. She had threatened to put up a sign in her own yard featuring a wire coat hanger.

“Not everything is about politics,” Elinor said, unwilling to have that conversation again. “You don’t really intend to miss the fireworks, do you, Dot?”

“I am a woman of principle. I shall not be budged. Besides, the nitrates in wienies gives me a headache. Thanks for the peaches, Elinor. I’ll try to make them last.”

“Well, if they don’t, I’ve got plenty more. Those three little trees produced a bumper crop this year.”

They lingered, standing next to their open car doors behind the Civic Center. All the other traffic had cleared out. Later, they would remember they had not cut through the library as they could’ve done, perhaps to check the thermostat, see if anybody had left a light on, maybe grab a book one of them had left behind. But nothing warned them. No feeling of foreboding or dread moved them to enter the locked and darkened building. They lingered next to their cars, beads of sweat collecting on their upper lip, reliving the parade, wondering if Kate really would install the outhouse in her backyard for Enid to play in. They talked of wienies, polyester blends, and homemade peach preserves. Then they parted.

Had they unlocked the back door and gone inside, they would have found her a day earlier. Surely they would have noticed the smell. Not that it would have mattered. She would be just as dead.

 

www.LindaBingham.com

linda@lindabingham.com

 

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Small-town characters

The library in our two-room schoolhouse in Ethel, Oklahoma was a single shelf. Our teacher, beautiful Mrs. Jimmie Taylor, taught six grades and was sometimes spread a little thin. While waiting my turn for her attention, I read straight across that shelf, and Mrs. Taylor brought me more books from her own home. Our country school closed and I rode the bus into town to a bigger school, to a library composed of more shelves. I still remember those titles and authors, the genres that passed in and out of my favor.

My novels, whether set in Galveston, Houston, or Johns Valley, Oklahoma (a fictional place) are peopled with characters both real and imagined. A classmate wrote me once, “I know all these people.” Indeed, I know them, too. I hope the characters who inhabit Death In The Stacks strike a familiar chord with you.  Below is an excerpt featuring one of my dearest creations, Buck Weathers. If you’ve read earlier blogposts, you’ll recognize that Buck shares two traits I first observed in my own father, his love of good shoe leather and a soft heart for the underdog.

Buck Weathers and the junior high prank that went wrong (from Death In The Stacks)

Although Buck had won this round, life had taught him to distrust fun that came at another’s expense, even if that someone had cost him the family farm. He had always loved a good joke, early in life practicing startlement on barnyard cats, graduating to tormenting his older sister till she threatened to brain him with her twirling baton.

Young Buck reached the eighth grade as ready for a good prank as the next boy. The Weathers weren’t wealthy back then. In fact, like all families who make their living off the land, they worked hard, and even the kids had chores. Still, they were better off than many of their neighbors, considerably better off than some. His bus route ran through a remote valley where shivering kids waited in the cold and dark to be transported not only into town, but into a new century. There were kids in Buck’s class who smelled bad in winter because indoor plumbing was non-existent in their home, or so shoddy it froze up in winter. Once, a teacher made a kid move away from the floor register because he was stinking up the whole classroom. But the Weathers had instilled in their kids the notion that it was unchristian to draw attention to how much better off you were than other people, bad manners to point out when you got something new.

Besides a bent for mischief, Buck had another weakness. He loved fine boots and was particularly proud of a pair of Luccheses he got in Fort Worth when his dad took him to the stock show. He had a right to be proud of those boots. He had earned the money himself. In shop class he made a boot rack that would hold a dozen pairs, and he bragged to his sister that he would own a hundred pairs someday. She said that a person could only wear one pair at a time.

One day Buck and his best buddy John Beaver succumbed to an adolescent compulsion to pull an elaborate prank. Leaving shop class with a can of fast-drying adhesive, they skipped their next class and snuck into the boy’s locker room where they proceeded to glue every shoe to the floor. They were just sorry they couldn’t be there to see boys trying to walk away in those shoes. It would be hilarious!

Only, it wasn’t. One of their victims got on the bus that evening with his sole flapping. He had ripped his shoe apart trying to free it. Everybody on the bus laughed, but Buck could see that the kid, one of the poor kids who lived back in the valley, didn’t think it was funny at all. Probably the only pair of street shoes the boy owned, and Buck had ruined them. When he and his sister got off at their stop, he let her get way ahead of him while he replayed the scene in the locker room as he and John Beaver, suppressing giggles and working fast, smeared industrial strength glue on the soles of their classmates’ shoes. The locker room reeked with the fumes. How had they not seen the consequences of their act?

When Buck got home, his mother looked up from the ironing board and didn’t say anything. It crossed his mind that she might’ve heard something. He went to his room and sat down on the bed. His face felt hot and red. He couldn’t stand how squirmy he felt inside. Even if he and John Beaver got away with it, he would have to see that kid tomorrow in patched shoes. Or maybe the kid wouldn’t get on the bus at all. Maybe Buck had ended that boy’s education. He heaved a sigh. There was only one thing to do. He opened his closet and took down the Luccheses from their place of honor and went outside to find his father.

“Daddy, I did something bad today and now I gotta pay for it.”

His father was watching a colt cavort around its mother in the paddock. He reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette and got it going, blew out a thin spiral of smoke. That was his way of giving himself time to think, to weigh the consequences of words before he spoke them. There was so much Buck had to learn.

“Well, son, I was hoping you would own up to it. Are you sure you want to make things right with that pair?”

“Yes, sir. It’s gotta be these.”

“Get in the truck. I’ll run you up there.”

And so he handed over the beautiful pair of boots to the kid who might’ve owned just one pair of shoes to his name and told to make them last. There were other penalties–school-related–but none hurt as bad as seeing that kid in his ripped shoes. With his finest pair gone, the boot collection lost its importance in Buck’s life. His feet grew anyway. And his sister was right. You could only wear one pair of boots at a time.

Today, Buck Weathers owned two pairs of handmade Texas boots. Beautiful things, both. He loved the smell of leather when he pulled them off his feet. Every few years one of them needed a new half-sole. He got ‘em polished every time he had to fly, which wasn’t often. But when he did, when he was sitting up high there in the airport watching an old black man polish his boots, he thought about those Luccheses and the lesson they imparted.

 

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Universality and the new food movement

‘Tis the season to think about, write about, stand in the kitchen and make… food. So timely that my niece Kima Cargill’s new book about food landed on my Kindle this week. In addition, I just read Megan Kimble’s piece describing her year eating unprocessed foods. These two young women are riding (or writing) the crest of a tsunami on the subject of how we consume and how it’s killing the planet, not to mention ourselves. And so I thought about my own thinking about consumerism, fresh from a holiday season in which I’ve been bombarded with ads urging me to spend more, eat more, drink more.

These writers are preaching to the choir as far as I’m concerned. I’ve always thought our economic model is crazy. Every week when I sort the recycles and throw out perfectly good glass jars that will be hauled off, melted down, remanufactured into more glass jars, I’m outraged by the senselessness of it all. Back when George Bush was running the economy, the country was in dire trouble (although I didn’t personally know anybody who was starving). The brilliant economists who worked for George suggested sending every American a check, not to save, but to spend. This was known as a “boost to the economy.” The leader of the free world said, in effect, go out and buy something you don’t need. It’s our only salvation.

But back to food. As true as it is that I don’t know any starving people, I also don’t know anybody (or not many) who cook. Yeah, I move in an older crowd these days. Most of my friends raised kids and fed a family, and they’ve had it with the meal planning already. It shocks me to see what people have in their grocery carts, to know that a friend of mine ate at a fried chicken place, or to hear another say that the front burners of her stove don’t work, but it doesn’t matter because she doesn’t cook.

Taking a right angle turn here, let’s talk about universality. (My mind is sharp as a tack today… ) I used to attend a new age church. I liked it because you didn’t have to believe in anything. I actually traveled to the source of this religion when my then-husband was accepted into their ministerial program. They say never visit the sausage factory, right? I discovered that in controlled doses, this particular sect was palatable, but taken full-strength, the same old something that has kept my head wonderfully free of dogma all these years gagged me. (It’s a food metaphor, okay?) Here’s why.

These well-meaning folks, originally concentrated in the Kansas City area, and now spread all over the place, actually do promote a certain theology, embodied in magical numbers, the Five Somethings, The Twelve Somethings. They have classes so you can learn all this stuff. There are bookstores in every church (they call them “centers”). I took a few classes and learned that a central tenet is that people bring about their own reality, “thoughts held in mind reproduce in kind.” I can buy that. Pollyannas are cheery. Sad Sacks are miserable. But as is our wont (an English major word meaning “habit”), we humans are always improving things. (See my eloquent piece on extremism). A simple slogan meant to get people to take a look at their negative thinking, over time, has crystallized into its own kind of dogma.

This came home to me when a young woman from Austin we had befriended, because we were, like, also from Texas, told us she had just gotten a very bad diagnosis, a cancer that would kill her in a matter of months. We drove her to a few radiation treatments and she mentioned that some of the seminarians had asked her what thoughts she held in mind to bring about this terrible illness.

From this and other bits and pieces, I’ve cobbled together my own religion, bullshit detector, yardstick, whatever you want to call it. If you see a list of Truths tacked up on a wall and it seems to fit the circumstances of your life very nicely, ask yourself how well they apply to a poor child in India. What about when that child is older, an adult? Are fourth and fifth generation impoverished Americans to blame for their habits of mind? How they eat? Or are they just muddling along doing the best they can with what they have to work with?

I was a 21-year-old teacher assigned my first classroom in a Houston inner-city school. Like all females, I thought I was over-weight (ha!). We were all reading this new book about how you could eat fat, fat, and more fat, and actually lose weight. It was revolutionary. I started packing in the cheese, steaks, butter, and maybe I did lose a few pounds, I don’t remember, because I gained it back faster than you can say Nutella. It turned out to be the first of many empty diet promises. One day a little fat girl in my eighth grade English class heard me talking about my new diet and wistfully asked for details. Very simple, I told her, jotting down a list. Just eat these foods, and avoid those. Sometime later I asked how she was doing and she said, my dad says we can’t afford to buy those foods. I was jolted into an awareness that mine, compared to hers, was a privileged life. Even on a first-year teacher’s salary I could afford to eat better than she could.

You didn’t think I could do it, did you? Link food, religion, consumerism, and universality into a single essay.

Ms. Kimble set out to eat for a whole year as wholesomely as possible, organic, farm-to-table, farmer’s market produce, vegetable co-op. She indicts the food industry and agribusiness for the wretchedness of the American diet, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s the theme of Kima’s book too. Megan mentions the cost of eating high quality food, $4.50/meal on average (cooked at home using the standards mentioned above). Compare that to the cost of a meal using, say, food purchased at WalMart, $1.50/meal, which is approximately what SNAP (food stamps) allows low-income people. And there, as my fellow writer Mr. Shakespeare said, is the rub.

Whether it was a fad diet of the 70’s or a trendy new whole food movement today, if poor people can’t afford it, it’s an unworkable plan for curing hell-bent consumerism, obesity, or the horror known as the American diet. The last time I checked (this morning), there were 7.3 billion consumers on the planet, quite a few of them poor. And they all have to eat. Every single day.

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A Texas Christmas

Thinking about my father this holiday season. He and I have our birthdays in December. He would have been ninety this year. After his funeral in 1999, I wrote a piece to tuck away in my memoirs, excerpted here:

My parents were grossly incompatible and had the good sense to divorce after only a few years. Daddy’s second marriage ended with the death of his wife and after that he lived alone, more comfortable without a woman around setting standards. He could spend his retirement lying on the couch in a super-chilled living room watching and re-watching his collection of old Western movies.

Ill health brought a woman into his life, a nurse named Wanda, who got him to write her several large checks before his myocardial infarction.  I never met her–she didn’t stick around for the funeral—but when we went for the viewing, there was a red rose in his hand and a card that read, “I love you, Wanda.” As far as I know he’s still clutching that rose, lying there in his chilled mausoleum drawer next to his long-dead wife.

My father owned two pairs of footwear, cowboy boots, his old ones and his new ones. He was buried in his jeans and a Western shirt that snapped shut. He revered John Wayne, tales of the Old West, and believed in a mythic Texas. He played the guitar and mandolin. He was sentimental about women and children, and he could remember hundreds of bad jokes he picked up from his days driving an 18-wheeler across the nation’s highways, though mostly between the Port of Houston and Lubbock.

Every Christmas season when I listen to John Henry Faulk’s “Christmas Story,” I hear my father’s voice and I bawl my eyes out.

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Power of the pen

When I was fifteen, an English teacher assigned me a persuasive essay for our class newspaper The Goldbug. Identify a problem and suggest a solution, he said. We were both new, me and that young teacher, he a recent graduate, me sent to live with relatives by a dysfunctional mother. I’m sure that my second cousin never imagined, when she came home for Christmas that year, that her domestic life was about to be upended. My stay would last for only a semester; Mr. Kinion may have spent his career there. Neither of us anticipated the amplified effect of controversy in a small insular society.

But to understand this story, you must picture the setting. Writers with a deeper connection and greater affinity for the American heartland, breadbasket to the world, have set the scene. The small agricultural community of Fowler, Kansas is thirty-five miles from Dodge City, set among rolling fields in various stages of wheat production. The winter I was there, the arrow-straight highway ran through miles of stubble. The only thing that slowed a brisk Canadian wind was long rows of Osage orange whose compound trunks obligingly tangled with their neighbors to form a windbreak.

Fowler

Because of their isolation, the community made its own fun. One morning a carload of kids showed up and kidnaped me for a come-as-you-are pancake breakfast. On Saturday nights there was dancing at Teen Town. There were sock hops, basketball games, speech tournaments, a Sadie Hawkins dance, and since I was the new girl, apparently the only one they had ever had, I was wildly popular with the boys. At least until we got out the next issue of The Goldbug.

And so I looked around for a problem in need of a solution. The previous term my mother had sent me to Lubbock to live with Daddy and I attended a large urban school that dealt with juvenile turf wars by imposing something called The Demerit System. For every variety of infraction there was a predetermined penalty. Chewing gum in class might get you a single demerit. Skipping class would get you five. Ten demerits got you expelled.

In my Kansas classroom, I noticed a culture that placed student and teacher on a more equal footing than I was used to, maybe because boys went off to wheat harvest every summer and made more money than their teachers.  One day the algebra teacher got so exasperated with a kid on the back row that she flung her textbook at him. He ducked, laughed, and class went on. Well, at Tom S. Lubbock, he would’ve gotten ten demerits then and there!

So I decided to propose The Demerit System for Fowler High School. Had Peter Kinion not been so green, he might have counseled me to take a softer tone, or to prescribe the Dewey Decimal System instead.  But he didn’t, and my persuasive essay was duly published. That’s when I learned the power of the pen.

In biology class, a live frog replaced my pickled one on the dissecting tray. My scream was counted as disruption and the principal, a mean-spirited little man named Mr. Sapp, wondered how many demerits I deserved. I sat there in tears, dethroned from my new girl status. The tough girl in school offered to beat my brains out. That Saturday night not a single boy asked me to Teen Town. But worst of all was the silence. Maybe they had held a secret meeting in the gym and voted to never speak to me again. For days I walked the hallways invisible to my classmates. Even my best friend Janie wouldn’t meet my eye. The family who didn’t want me living with them in the first place turned noticeably colder. I had bitten the hand that fed me.

The semester wound down. I was almost glad to go back to my own horrible family. After my second cousin packed me up and moved me out of her house, I never heard from her again. I found her on Facebook recently but she didn’t accept my friend request. I feel certain that if I were to return to the scene of my crime, word would get out via their mysterious and secret small-town network and I would find out they’re still mad at me. I’m sorry, Fowler, Kansas. Didn’t you realize that I loved you?

studentreporter

The author, sophomore year, wielding the power of the pen.

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Going to extremes

Humans once argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Once we wore ourselves out on that one, we moved on to the larger question of just where we fit into the scheme of things. Were we God’s crowning achievement, a lower form of angels, perhaps, or just another animal that evolved on planet Earth?

As we know, that latter question was settled by Charles Darwin, who worked out that we’re not divine at all, merely the smarter cousin of apes. People are still muttering about this. Having assumed our place in the natural order, we made a case for our specialness. Every creature has an attribute that helps it capture prey and stay one step ahead of its predators. What was our special or unique gift? Could we define “human” in a way that put us in our own special class of animal?

When I was in school a hundred years ago, the yardstick that defined humanness was whether or not one used tools. Personally, I have never used tools, but a lot of people (men mostly) thought that tool use defined us as a species. Then somebody, I forget just who, filmed wild chimps purposely shaping sticks to pull ants out of mounds, and we were forced to concede that tool-use was possibly not the exclusive bailiwick of humans.

As we formulated new definitions for what it means to be human, one wily creature after another squeaked past the goal posts. And since those early days of nature photography, PBS has served up a steady and humbling diet of proof that animals do all sorts of things we thought only humans could do. They devise and use tools, communicate with one another, solve puzzles involving a series of logical steps, recognize themselves in mirrors, create art, speak to us with sign language, even operate computers if you make it worth their while. Yes, and animals ride bicycles, star in their own TV series, and make you laugh on YouTube. Newsflash:  Pigeons read mammograms! [ http://www.newsweek.com/researchers-train-pigeon-pathologists-read-mammograms-396534 ] There goes another darn definition!

pigeon

So, is there anything that delineates us from the apes, exempts us from the ignominy of taxonomy? I say yes! Two things, actually. We humans amass stuff and we go to extremes.

While not freeing us from the animal kingdom, the fact that we amass stuff explains how we’ve been able to leap-frog forward in evolutionary terms while other creatures have hardly changed at all from years and years ago.

Before you point out that sea polyps amass coral reefs big enough to be seen from space, and beavers amass, pack rats amass, even ants amass stuff, they don’t do it on a scale to place them among the firmament of angels. We dig up humongous amounts of dirt, from which we extract, refine, concentrate, distill, frack, purify, plenty enough to distinguish us from any species, especially apes, who won’t even bother to keep up with their sharpened sticks. But I’m not talking about the material we dig up from the earth. I’m talking about information. We humans amass information, and we go to extremes doing it. In fact, new words had to be invented to describe these extremes, words like “terabyte.”

Allow me to sketch a brief and painless history of how our preoccupation with amassing information came about.  Early humans figured out a way to pass along to the next generation the hard-won knowledge of their tribe. They did this by inventing writing. Using their sharpened sticks to scratch out a shape in dried mud, they declared that this symbol stood for “saber-toothed tiger.” It was only a matter of time before we had word processors and texting. After that came sexting, of course, but we’ll talk about that another time.

Prior to writing, humans had to carry around everything they knew in their heads. Their kids had to spend their childhoods memorizing this stuff so they could carry it around in their heads and pass it on to their children. Youngsters today will hardly know what I mean by “memorizing,” because today we don’t even have to remember phone numbers. But it turned out that having to remember stuff was good for “early man” because it focused human evolutionary development on the brain. Rather than becoming faster or stronger, or able to digest woody fibers, we got smarter and smarter. Your 21st century model human being can think circles around dumb beasts such as cats and dogs, who didn’t even develop a sense of humor.

And for a long time the oral tradition served us well. But memorizing has its limitations. You dare not stray far from the known. Get it wrong, and you risk becoming somebody’s next meal. We know from digging up places that many ancient civilizations died out because they kept doing the same thing over and over, one generation repeating exactly what the previous one did, until eventually something came along that demanded a response their father had not made them memorize. Say, the planet got a few degrees warmer.

Writing allowed us to set down on paper things that future humans didn’t have to learn through trial and error. Children, no longer bound by only as much as their father could remember (my father could remember hundreds of bad jokes), were ahead of the game. Starting out on the level above the one achieved by the last generation turbocharged evolution for our species and led to the creation of a shared brain, the Internet.

Nowadays we don’t have to remember the past. You can Google it. Nor do we have to know much, especially if we’re a GOP presidential candidate. Yet even as 7.2 billion of us cover the earth, the individual has never had more power. Consider how a single alienated young man can find others like himself online and plan mass murder.

Reading history makes it clear that civilizations that carried their peculiar fixations to extremes, whether piling rocks on top of one another, or cutting down every tree on the island to grease the skids of a stone god, led to a bad end. Extremism is the place you end up when you push the envelope too far. (I feel a cross-stitched sampler coming on.)

But I’m not sure we have any choice in the matter. It may be what makes us human. Going to extremes is a by-product of specialization. Here is “scientific proof” of my thesis:

  • Young athletes striving to eke out a nanosecond (another new word!) over the previous record has led to spectacular achievement in sports, but also to extreme sports. Does it improve our chances of survival as a species that some of us jump off mountains wearing little more than a baggy windbreaker?
  • Today’s “reality” shows had their genesis in Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour. I think you’ll agree programming is edging toward the extreme if you check out the latest episode of America’s Got Talent.
  • Snack chips used to come as either potato or corn. Now Frito-Lay’s website guides you through 115 varieties. I think it’s very telling that one section is labeled “extreme flavors.” We can only hope this trend leads to extinction! And soon, while I can still get into my pants.
  • In the world of fashion, beautiful women once glided along the runway modeling the latest haute couture designs. Coco and Yves are dead. This year’s Paris Fashion Week presented a dystopian version of itself, skeletal creatures stalking the catwalk, outfitted in styles that made headlines, not because of their beauty, but their weirdness. When human beings can no longer figure out which is front and which is back, extinction can’t be far behind.
  • In fine arts, Leonardo was concerned with depicting, as faithfully and beautifully as possible, the human body as light played over its planes and surfaces. Cameras came along and took over his job. Artists, being creative sorts, took Art in a new direction, making things that even today cause gallery visitors to exclaim: “I could do that!”
  • Early novels were equally wedded to reality, but readers today needn’t confine themselves to the merely possible. Fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance, and dozens of other genres offer a specialized reading experience. Some critics think that novels committed suicide by pushing the envelope to extremism.
  • With the death of the Really Good Novel, novelists themselves took off for Hollywood and began writing fiction for the movies. That art form, too, is beginning to give off the tell-tale light of pre-extinction brilliance.

You can probably think of your own examples of things that started life as revolutionary, beautiful, useful, or transformative. And you can recall the trajectory of its history as it changed beyond all recognition in subsequent “improved” versions.

We speak of the evolution of information technology as if the wires and tubes that constitute the Internet took over the function of evolving in our stead. Adam passes the baton to atom. We dimly understand that increased computing power has shortened the computer’s evolutionary cycle and that things they are a’changing very fast indeed. We wonder if humans are even in charge any more. We’re carried along by our devices, helpless without them. Wisps of nostalgia waft in the air, as if we didn’t quite get enough of something before it went away, vinyl records, a movie shot in black and white, bell-bottomed pants.

Writing brought us to the digital age. And as we are wont to do, we amass information with the same obsession that Egyptians once mummified cats and the Chinese fired clay warriors. Progress was slow at first, but now next generations come along so fast your neck snaps.

Perfection is not a plateau; it’s a slope. You have no way of knowing when you’re there, or if one more step will take you over a cliff into oblivion. If digging up stuff has taught us anything, it’s that animals that got too specialized for their britches ended up in trouble. Put too much vital energy into big horns, beaks, or eating one kind of food, you might not be around to teach the next generation about saber-toothed tigers.

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