We’re All (Generally) ButtNekkid To the Robots

bite me

“Now, no one laments the death of a misogynist cellpool like /r/TheFappening.” -Jack Smith IV in BetaBeat.com

Well, actually I do, and I’ll tell you why…

Last week, an enormous cache of blue celebrity selfies was released into the maw of the internet. Dubbed “The Fappening” in honor of the onomatopoeic subreddit devoted to all things masturbatory, it was quickly catalogued, copied and disseminated throughout the darkweb via the slimy backwaters of /b/4chan, and from there hosed into the relative mainstream of reddit.com—where even I am active. It wasn’t very hard to find.

How the cache was obtained is a matter of conjecture, but rumor has it that some enterprising neckbeard, for reasons either venal or altruistic or both, was able to exploit a bug in the Apple “Find My iPhone” app to access photo files stored in the “Cloud.” Allegedly this was facilitated by hacking into the wifi at the recent Emmys (which teaches us not to twit and tweet at the same time).

As a result, we got an unedited eyeful of a bunch of ladies I’ve never heard of, in bad lighting with no makeup (or much of anything else) lolling about in various – and ultimately very human—poses. All-in-all, nothing we’ve not seen before, but singular in its sheer abundance and audacity. (Personally, I was more intrigued by the assorted clutter on their bathroom counters and the complete absence of any sort of reading material from their living spaces.) Nonetheless, much handwringing ensued. “They were violated!” “It was rape!” “That was private property and password protected!” “Only creeps would download.” “Don’t click.”

Of course I clicked–as did everyone else with internet access and a shard of prurience.

I clicked out of curiosity

I clicked because I support an unfettered internet that doesn’t deign to make my aesthetic, political or moral choices for me—even when it diminishes me and offends my sensibilities.

I clicked because my inner first world anarchist thinks it’s my civic responsibility to gawk at celebrities (who get paid handsomely to display themselves to the public) without having to shell out $14 and sit through their crappy movies in order to do so.

I clicked to support the fappers — who keep our internets vivid.

I clicked because it was there.

     But more to the point, I clicked to assert my dominion over the fucking robots.

An entire generation of Americans has grown up not knowing how to function in the natural world. Without the aid of our electronica and algorithmically-directed devices, half of us could not spell “misspell” or navigate our way out of a paper bag. We have robots to do that for us, so why bother to learn grammar or spatial orientation?

We have robots to direct our calls, direct our vehicles, direct our attention. Robots speak for us, manage our time, respond to our queries and requests, expedite our transactions, even prepare our food and care for our elderly. They fight our wars, analyze and manage our economy, bestow our credentials and confiscate our money. We even have robots for sex.

All of which is horrifying, but here’s where it starts to concern me:

Who programs the robots?

No one really knows. Individual coders only work on a section of the whole, which is then integrated (by robots,) into a larger whole—and that into a larger one still. At some point, the only accountability is to the robots working the operating systems—and no one has a clue where those might be or where they’re plugged in—or what they’re really thinking processing. When they go wonky, the results can be catastrophic; witness the exalted Wall Street “quants” whose robot trading algorithms damned near crashed the world economy a few years back.

Now, I don’t believe this started as anything sinister or ill-intentioned. Indeed, technology is supposed to streamline our lives and make our interactions more efficient. But somewhere along the line, we humans relinquished our personal responsibility and turned it over to a computer program–and this concerns me.

Living up here as I do, it’s easy for me to forget that there’s a whole other world going by down there in the flatlands– one that takes these encroachments for granted– even embraces them. Seeing as how I don’t have a cell phone, let alone a need for apps, I’m always offended when forced to talk to a machine instead of a human being. So when yesterday I called my health insurance company to inquire about a prescription, and my call was answered by a robot demanding my language preference and my private identification, I gave it grudgingly– and only after a few choice comments, which, I was informed, were “being recorded to assure quality.” Good.  I hope the thing heard them and took them personally.

Apparently satisfied by my answers, it sent me to another talking robot to find out what I wanted. From there I was placed in a queue to speak with an actual human being—who read to me from a robot-generated script and performed the robot-dictated actions for it before sending me on to another department’s robot to repeat the process– presumably until I either tired of taking to machines and gave up—or in my case, waited them out, outwitted their denial-of-service algorithms, and finally got my crummy prescription filled.

As I sat on hold listening to their looping and wholly unnecessary admonition that I continue to hold, it occurred to me that we’ve ceeded to robots decisions about whether or not we will be “authorized”, what our treatment options and protocols might be, and ultimately whether we’ll be sent to hospital to recover, or hospice to die. Maybe we’ll see a doctor in there somewhere, but increasingly, robots do the diagnostics, perform the surgery, and generate the billing. (Also program that god-awful wait music.) And that’s just our health care system. Robots are no longer simply a conveneince, they’ve become arbitors of our social institutions, incapable of dealing with the outliers, the exceptions, those that don’t or won’t fit into their closely-defined categories– there’s no arguing with them, because ultimately they’re just machines.

And this is just the beginning. Within a few more lifetimes, we will have melded seamlessly with our technology. Already we go about our daily exigencies attached to a “smart” device that tracks our actions and answers our questions, doing much of our thinking for us. We wear lenses that not only see for us, they color our perceptions and in some cases, create them, too. Shortly, we’ll have embeddable memory chips that calibrate our decisions, direct and record our thoughts and activities, then communicate them to…the “Cloud” (which is underground, by the way,) for storage and retrieval– but by whom, and for what purpose? Long before Stephen Hawking’s 1000 years left for humanity are up, our synthetic consciousness will have carried us beyond our bodies into electronic immortality—which will be maintained and administered by …robots.

The Fappening reminds us – in the most elemental way possible — that we are humans, naked and vulnerable to our robot masters– and that we put entirely too much faith in their benevolence. Do not trust them. Do not trust in them. When you let go of the “real”, you’re at the mercy of the virtual. And the virtual, real though it may seem, is literally made up of illusion.

     RESIST YOUR ROBOT MASTERS!

That is all. 🙂

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Belabored Day; Team Penning in the Walker Basin Wilds

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     Every Labor Day weekend, we, the young Brangus steers of Walker Basin get together to torment the local ranch hands. Our premise is simple: 

     1. Evade 

     2. Deceive

     3. Escape 

They call it “Team Penning.”

     The preparations, such as they are, are pretty much the same every year: The hoomin cowpersons and their kin are all driven to a big fenced arena in the center of town and placed in a holding area with shaded rest and feed stations to calm them. Then, starting early in the morning, they are fed copious amounts of alcohol and assorted “treat” foods like chips and hot dogs and sugary snacks to make them all excitable. 

     In mid-morning, after they’ve been sufficiently primed, the hoomins are separated into little groups of three and mounted up on our horse confederates, then they’re sent prancing and galloping into the ring. We cows have congregated ourselves at the far other end– daring them to come in and get us. 

     Theoretically, when the flag drops, three of us cows with the same number on our bibs are supposed to let the hoomins steer us (get it?) back to a holding pen at the opposite end of the arena, but here’s were the fun begins: 

     Any cow who manages to cross the line wearing the wrong number, or outlasts the cowboy’s 90-second time allotment, scores a point. Any cow who refuses to be sorted out of the herd and remains plastered against the far end of the fencing, scores a point. Any cow who sneaks out of the holding pen and saunters back across the invisible line in the dirt toward the herd scores a point.  And any cow who by device or circumstance unseats a cowboy and sends his horse running back to the starting line without him, wins the round. This is what we all live for, cause there ain’t nothin’ that’s puts a smile in our heart faster’n a fat, red-faced hoomin yellin’ and skiddin’ across the dirt on its belly eatin’ twenty feet of dust and manure until inertia bashes it into a fence. 

     Of course, bonus points are awarded to any cow what makes a cowboy lose its hat in the fracas. And any cow that jumps over the back fence and takes off into the north forty towards the high country gets enshrined as a local hero. Yeah, it’s infernally hot, dirty, dusty, stink-ridden work for the cowboys, but we cows like to call it fun.

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                                             *****

Now, for those of you with a hankering for a bit darker take on the whole proceedings, here’s a story a friend of mine told me about the hoomins.  It’s called: 

 

THE STEER’S STORY

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     You don’t know what it’s like to be truly pwned until some two-legged fuck outsmarts you, overpowers you, and slits into your nutsack with a penknife. That’s when all the poetry goes out of your world. So there I am, the summer after we were babies up at Robin Bird Springs. Mom’s brought us down from the mountain into the sand canyon and I spend my days exploring oak meadows and rock caves; running around with my young buds, hanging with Mom…always Mom there with the milk wagon.

     Every few days some old guy in this ratty pickup truck comes rumbling down the creek bed and throws out a half a dozen bales of hay for the mom-cows—I guess in case they get tired of all the new sweet grass and forage, right? Seriously, those old girls can eat.

     So one day, my buds and I find this secret hideout in an old wash beyond the springs. Not much, really, just a kind of trampled-down lay-about in the middle of a stand of ceanotis bushes, but from the looks of it, it’s been around for a long, long time. We’re for sure not the first group of weanlings to break away from the herd and make a little trouble—just cut loose from the mom cows, you know? 

     Whlle we’re exploring the wash, we come across this mummified bull carcass up there in the thorn trees–and it’s got these huge long horns. I mean they’re LONG, as long as me, and it’s like he got stuck there in the thicket, maybe caught up or something. 

     Anyway, the carcass is wrapped around the thorn trees. Sure scared the crap out of me when I first saw it. This big old empty head with patches of dried-out hair still on it—and these freakin’ horns sticking out the sides—just lying there staring up at the sky through these eaten out eye-holes. 

     You have to wonder why a bull with a set like that would be out in a stand of scrub and thorn bushes anyway. Maybe he was got by a big she-cat who dragged him in there or maybe he was trying to escape from something that was chasing him? Or maybe he just out moseying around and got caught up by his horns and got stuck and starved to death? Who knows? But damn, those were some big horns! 

     So anyway, I’m living the good life in the canyon, when one morning the cowboys all show up with their 4WD quads and their big-assed quarter horses, and sure enough, they’re looking for us! A whole pack a-them. They come up whistling and hollerin’ to each other that they found us and let’s move ‘em out and git up there, and all that. What a bunch of assclowns. They could have moved us all twice as far in half the time if they’d just shut up and walked us out, but when you’ve got an audience up from the city for a “round-up” I guess you gotta put on a show for the folks. 

     Well. You never seen such a scramble. The old cows are freaking and the calves are bawling and scattering, and the humans are yellin’ and whoopin. Okay, I get it. I GET it. You want us to move….“Run! Hide!” My mom is telling me. She’s serious. I’ve never seen her like this. “They’ll never miss you if you go RIGHT NOW! I love you darling baby, but you have to leave me now! It’s all over for us. GO! Get out of here! Hide!” 

     She’s like so urgent, I almost do it, but there’s no way I’m leaving my mom and my buds—no matter what. I like to stay with my herd. Besides, I’m not afraid of these dumb cowboys. 

     So I bunch up with my mom and everyone, and we all start moving south down the dry creek bed. We’re all excited, but pretty quick we settle down to business and kinda walk-trot down our old paths, past the water holes and washes, over the mountainside and down the dirt tracks, past all our haunts and hangouts. With all the horses, and quads, and dogs, and even the old ratty pick up truck up ahead, it’s kinda like a parade or somethin’. 

     And after a couple of hours of this we get to the roadway. That’s when I get the sense something is gonna go weird on us. I’m not a big fan of the roadway, although a lot of cows say it’s a great place to sleep because the blacktop’s all warm on winter afternoons. But I’ve seen the stock trucks go rumblin’ by on it, and they’re full of the two-year-olds–the guys about my age now—and well, they just don’t look all that happy, if you know what I mean. Given my choice, I would just as soon stay away from the roadway. Nothing good comes of the roadway. 

     Well, we’re all sort of milling around and they shoo us onto the pavement, get us moving towards town, and everyone’s hooves are clacking on the asphalt, and there’s great spreading puddles of plop everywhere, and the dogs are yapping and nipping, and there’s a fly swarm like you can’t believe. 

     The young cowboys are having themselves a grand old time thinking how cool they look riding down the road behind a herd of cattle, and the old cowboys are just putting up with all the dust and flies and stink again this year so they can get canned on beer at the BBQ after the roundup. 

     One old cow tries just sort of cas-u-al-ly sauntering off the roadway toward this little gully that leads back into the canyon, and a few of the young heifers join her, trying to make a run for it. Well, the dogs aren’t having any of that shit, and BAM! Just like that they’re all over those girls—biting them in the hocks, hanging onto their tails with their teeth while the heifers spin in circles snorting and stomping trying to shake them loose. You got cows bellowing, growling dogs flyin’ through the air…it’s just crazy. 

     The stringers on horseback go racing after them and get behind and push them right back into the herd like they never left. Everybody’s getting kind of tense at this point, and the old cow is throwin’ the stink-eye at everyone. She’s not keen on anybody, cowboys especially, telling her where to move her hairy old ass, but what’s she gonna do? They’re the ones with the dogs and the guns and the big-ass quarter horses. 

     I’m just watching this thinking about the thorn thicket and that longhorn bull. Maybe that’s what he was doing in there; hiding. Sure isn’t a horse or even a dog with any sense at all going to chase a cow into a thorn thicket…especially if they don’t see you sneakin’ into it. Now maybe I see why the old mom-cows kept after us to go play hide and seek in the wash all the time. Maybe it was training. Maybe they knew something we didn’t.

                                                         *****

     The cowboys hold us up at these big old wooden corrals that look like they been there a hundred years. They’re all battered and gouged and strung with rusty pieces of dented pipe corral and patched with boards and wire. Looks like they’ve seen some hard use in their time. 

     The old ones say there used to be big cattle operations down here in the high valley. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of us at one round-up. Went on for days and people would come in from Bakersfield and Onyx to trade and party and do whatever cowboys do when they get to drinking. Not so much anymore, though, I guess. Just a few die-hard ranchers left in and amongst all the land salesmen. 

     While we’re all milling around, one of the young cowboys slides down off his horse and unties a paddock gate and we all get herded into this big holding pen. After living all my life on the range it seems like there’s hardly even enough room in here for us to move, then suddenly these humans are in here too! They’re banging into us on their horses, and hanging over the fence rails grabbing at us and yelling and whistling, trying to get in between me and my mom, and before you know it, all my young buds and me are on the other side of a fence from the rest of the herd. And they’re closing the metal gate!

     We’re trapped in here! We bunch up fast and huddle together as close as we can. Nobody knows what’s going on, but we figure out pretty quick that this can’t be good. 

     The moms are all freaking out and calling to us but we can’t get to them, and if we try clambering over the fence or hurling ourselves against it—and we do—the cowboys just shove us back into the corners and hold us there with their horses. A few of us sneak off to the far side of the pen to see if there’s a way out the back to our moms. The horse guys are looking the other way. 

     Then I notice the fire they’ve got going over here…and it’s not a cookfire neither. They got these metal rods sticking into it. And a group of the cowboys are gathered around wearing leather aprons and these thick leather gloves. I look back into the pen.

     The cowboys on the horses are twirling ropes in the air, then throwing them at us. We’re trying to dodge them, but they just keep throwing, then pulling the ropes back and throwing them at us again. There’s not much room to run, but I do—back to the far corner closest to my mom. 

     As I watch there horrified, my best bud’s head gets caught in a rope. The guy on the horse pulls on it and it tightens around his neck so he can’t even breathe, let alone run anywhere. My guy is jerking and bucking around in circles trying to shake it. Big mistake. While he’s worrying about his head, another guy on a horse with another rope snags one of his hind feet with the thing and yanks up. Hard. 

     He’s stuck. 

     The horses start backing up, which strings my poor bud up like laundry on a line. While he’s standing there going wtf?, this huge beefy dude comes running up to him and just kind of twists my friend over onto his side and plops him down onto the ground. Then all hell breaks loose. 

     My friend is bellowing and screaming, his mom is bellowing and screaming, and her friends are all bellowing and screaming and the humans are all bellowing and screaming. I’m just standing there in the corner petrified. I’m hoping no one will notice me. 

     This all happens in a flash, but it seems like forever to me. Some woman comes at him, and she’s got this shiny needle gun thing and she sticks him full of “noculation.” Then one of the leather guys has a branding iron in his hand, and all of a sudden my friend is screaming even louder than I ever thought it possible for any living thing to scream, and there is this terrible, terrible smell of burning hair and flesh that makes even the cowboy curl up his nose and back away quiet for a moment. 

     HOLY FUCKING SHIT! 

     Then, when it can’t get any worse, this old cowboy comes over and kneels down beside my friend and pulls out this pocket knife while the burly dude hoists up my bud’s hind legs and the girl cowboy stomps her boot on his tail. The poor little guy’s eyes are rolled back so far they’re almost completely white and he’s so beyond freaked now that all he can do is foam at the mouth and scream and scream and scream. MOAAAAMMMM! MAAAAAAAAMMMMMM! 

     It only takes a minute to cut him, reach into his sack and pull out his little nuts. Then, swipe. The old cowboy holds my friend’s parts up for the other cowboys to see, then drops them into a metal bucket while the girl cowboy swabs some gooey black tar into the hole that’s left there on him. We’re all just stunned. Even my friend has shut up—he’s so in shock. I mean, what can you say at something like that?

     Then, before they untie his legs and let him up, before he can run back through the open chute to his mom and just try frantically to nurse her for what little comfort is left in his world, this old woman cowboy staples a plastic tag to his ear to identify him as Hers.

     You Been Pwned little dude. Thoroughly and completely.

     He gets up all shaky and stumbles around crazy, trying to find a friendly face somewhere. A cowboy opens a chute to the holding pen, and my bud takes off running, running back to the black safety of the herd. Lose me in here! MmmmAAAAA MMMMMMAAAAAA! 

     My mind is gone. All I’m thinking is stampede. Moving against them as one is our only chance, but how can I tell the rest—and where could we go? Everything I am is telling me to mass and run, but all I can do is stand here. I am without hope and without help and I’ve never been so alone in my life. And now? Those cowboys on the horses? They’re all looking at…ME!!!

                                       *****

     There is no sound in my world. There is no color or sensation. No time, no fear. I can see the cowboys on their horses, singling me out from the herd with their eyes. I see their women along the fence rails waving their arms and moving their mouths—yet I hear nothing. I am aware of a breeze rustling the cottonwoods behind the arena, but I neither see nor feel it. I know this is happening, but somehow it is happening to someone else and I am only watching it unfold. I am rooted, unmoving as I watch the cowboy ride toward me swinging his lariat, half expecting myself to break for the fence.

     When the rope hits me, it’s hard, like a slap—mean and unexpected. I feel the noose as it slips over my head and settles on my shoulders, tightening. Then another trips me and coils around my feet. There is a thud as my body hits the sand arena, and I feel the choke of dust in my mouth. I bury my face as best I can. I don’t want to watch this. 

     I smell the brand before I feel its heat above me, like the radiant hot of an abandoned car rusting in a dry creek on an August afternoon. The cowboy is saying something…it’s the wrong iron? It’s not hot enough? He walks off and leaves me there consumed with dread and wonder. Am I to be spared? I hear boots crunching the gravel and now the girl is bending over me. Her hand on my neck is steady, gentle even, and I barely feel the stick of the needle. The ache of the serum entering my veins is a comfort.

     When the iron touches my flesh, my body reacts before I do. The burn of it has not even registered before my muscles contract with such a violence that my body jumps from the ground where I am tied. When it comes, I am consumed. I am nothing. Each cell of me is an explosion of anguish. No breath survives my being. I smell my own flesh become smoke, sense the disgust of the cowboy. He stands, stretches, spits his chew. He walks back to tend his fire. I am His. 

     There is something almost reverent about the old cowboy with the knife. He’s done this a thousand times, I know he’ll be quick. I give silent thanks that he’s not some young dude and I’m not his first practice cut. I smell the wood smoke, and tobacco juice, the rust and blood on his hands. His shirt is old but freshly laundered and still clean from the wash. His jeans are not. His leather boot rests against my cheek…the hide of my fathers. My fathers who burned and burst, and bled to shoe this cowboy’s feet—protecting him from their own gore, even as they gave it forth. 

     My heart breaks in this moment. 

     A crushing weight lies atop me as the burly cowboy shoves my legs up over my chest –exposing me. I am beyond shame. I am beyond being. He smells sour and musky, and full of hate. It’s still morning, and he’s already half-past drunk—rough and resentful. Through every other insult assaulting me, I sense my ropey little tail trying to curl onto me, yet even that scant cover is denied by the girl with the needle’s heavy foot. I cease to struggle. All I can do now is let it happen, let it be over. 

     I wait for the cut—tense my belly, my legs, my neck, my back—and the moment of the awful stick does not disappoint. The pain is precise, elegant, not at all the ripping of tender skin by jagged branch or the sharp, cruel puncture of a cactus spine. It burns like the sting of wasps, clear and high over the thrum of the brand still burning itself into my flank. It is awful and terrible, and it is there –even as I tell you this today—there, in the very core of me. It is me. I am pain. 

     It is nearly over now. 

     A child approaches wielding the ear punch that will mark me as his property. He looks stricken. Suddenly, I want to cry for him.“DO ‘im!” yells his mother from her perch on the railing. The boy, hesitant, looks at her for reassurance. I am his first. By the end of the day, he will be an old hand at this, but for now he is scared, tiny. “It’s okay,” I want to tell him. “There is nothing left of me that you can hurt.” 

     “G’wan, ya pussy!” yells the burly guy. His father? 

     The boy has no choice. We both wince as the blade cuts its hole through my flesh. There is a wet little glinch of resistance. Fumbling, he attaches the tag. And we are bonded.

 

 

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 Nothin’ left but the dust….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Name Is Ozyminimus; Look on my works ye Mighty… and LOL

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     A good many Americans are perfectly happy living out their lives without ever having scaled a 12,000′ peak in order to spend a week sheltering in a 3’x7′ tent. They find nothing spiritually lacking in a world where take-out hamburgers and reconstituted potato fries are considered acceptable foodstuffs. And the idea of setting off into the wilderness without a GPS or internet link is, for some, a prospect too foolhardy to even contemplate. 

     And yet there are those of us who are only-too-happy to leave our financial towers and air-conditioned mortgages for a periodic respite from our prison-of-convenience. We are the oddballs who take up our packs with alacrity and hump them up the mountainsides, all so we can enjoy sitting in the dirt and pine sap, brushing off black flies, eating charred lake trout, and pooping out–of-doors with impunity—with nary a shopping mall or coffee emporium in sight. 

    But even that gets old to some of us urban-bred who heed the call of the wilderness, and eventually the human urge to “settle” gets the better of us. Maybe we accumulate a coffee pot while we’re “out there”, and an extra set of dry socks or three. Perhaps we wake up one morning and realize that that picturesque family of bears bumbling around on the other side of the canyon is actually sizing us up for dinner. Or maybe we’ve just fallen in love with our campsite and can’t bear the idea of returning to the Big City to live out the rest of our lives amidst the traffic and the paper clips. 

     And so we build. 

     Before the advent of “manufactured housing” – in which a fully-constructed Barbi-doll house could be tractored onto site, snapped together, and readied for habitation in the course of a week — people made adobe bricks out of mud and straw manure, and dried them in the summer sun. They gathered river rocks, scavenged lumber and corrugated tin sheeting. They set log foundations and dug latrines out back –and then they moved in and started mining, and raising cattle, and growing figs.  But zoning laws? Building inspectors? Pah. We don’t need no stinkin’ earthquake codes…. 

     A hundred years ago, the creek road on which I live was the old Wells Fargo Stage route linking the Sacramento gold country to the Los Angeles Harbor via the rail lines through the Mojave. Bandits and real estate land pirates forced the end of the coach lines, but these hand-built houses and inns were once stage stops along the way:

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     This wonderful stone house sits right on the creek. Back in the olden days—when we used to have rains—the water would rise, and over the years formed the island upon which this sits. The old galvanized tub of firewood in front still awaits the owner who abandoned it a half-century ago….

 

Such lumenaries of the Old West as Louis L’Amour and Paul de Fonville called the creek road their home.

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I love that some of the whitewash and copper-based paint on the door and window trimmings is still vivid in the August sun.

 

Although the area is home to numerous prehistoric village sites, this is one of my favorite “modern” ruins – overlooking the similar ruins of the neighbor’s place just across the creek to the left. I never understood why someone would go to all the trouble to buy acreage and move 100 miles and 150 years from civilization only to build within earshot of someone else’s dream of solitude.ruin

 

And here we have the most recently reworked interior of an old mining operation, now the perfect site for a late-summer rave—or a canvas for the intrepid urbanite. rave

Nature being circular in…well, nature, first we claim it, then it reclaims us, and then, in wonderful symbiosis, we repurpose each other. Our life’s work takes many forms, but it is the visionaries– both grand and feckless– who can point to their efforts a lifetime later and say to their great-grandchildren, “I built that.” 

Happy Labor Day, all! 

 

 

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Lesson From a Master

                    December 1954 with Laurie

     Thanksgiving dinners were always a Big Deal in my family, with massed generations of far-flung aunties and cousins all gathered for a formal sit-down feast on linen-covered tables at one or another of our homes. Yes, the food was uniformly delicious and the tables were bountiful, but they produced a buttload* of dirty china, silver, and crystal to hand wash and dry afterwards. Inasmuch as I was the oldest girl-child and supposedly the most “responsible,” the task always came to me to wash the trays full of expensive tableware while the adults enjoyed their after-dinner libations and conversations in the living room. 

     My younger sister, Laurie, detested the annual chore almost as much as I did, but she was far more devious in finagling her way out of it. Whining worked for the first couple of years, and then she tried employing outright defiance— with limited success. Somehow she always ended up “persuaded” to get out into the kitchen and pick up a dishtowel. Now! 

     Finally, the year she hit puberty, she’d had enough. At meal’s end, when Madre gave the signal to start clearing the table, Laurie jumped up from her seat and began gathering Aunt Sally’s Limoges with suspicious alacrity. 

     Delighted to have her help, I set to sudsing and soaking the silver while the womenfolk cleared the table and carefully stacked the dirty dishes and stemware on the counters for us to wash. Then we two were left to the kitchen chores while the little kids went outside to play and our elders retired to their various topics and turbulences. 

     When Laurie was sure all the adults had left the kitchen, she picked up a Baccarat wine goblet, twirled the stem between her thumb and forefinger, and then with a little flourish and flick of her finger dropped it to the tile flooring where it shattered at her feet. The tinkling of expensive crystal sent several aunties running into the kitchen. “Oops,” said Laurie. “Here, let me have the towel,” said Madre. And with a sly wink that only I could see, Laurie took off for the library and whatever book she was currently engrossed in. “That’s how you do it,” she smirked to me on the way back home. Damned impressive was all I could think. 

Happy Birthday to my most remarkable and dearly beloved sister, Laurie Downs Publicover, M.D.; Humanitarian, and wit extraordinaire. 

*Buttload (n) Measure of wine or spirits equal to two hogsheads or approximately 126 gallons—giving the word an amusing flair when used in this context.

©Allena Hansen. Chomp, Chomp, Chomp

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FIVE TYPES OF TEARS

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   It’s been suggested that in addition to their basal function in preventing our eyeballs from turning to potato chips, tears are a signaling mechanism for social support, a way to get rid of accumulated stress hormones after an intense bout of emotional arousal—good or bad—and even a means of triggering the endorphins that make us feel better. But so many were shed in the aftermath of Robin William’s unfortunate meet-up with destiny, that we’re reminded of the commonality in our tears—one that diffuses a greater anxiety and ties us all to the ineffable. 

   On the surface it seems paradoxical that someone who made us laugh so hard and so often would also bring so many to spontaneous tears at his loss, but as the old saw reminds us, “Comedy = tragedy + time”. The emotional basis for both laughter and tears is spawned from the same need for community, and whether we’re rolling in the spasms of our guffaws or huddled in those of our sobs, the mechanics are essentially the same. Indeed, we can literally laugh until we cry—or cry until we laugh—which brings us back around to our widely-lamented friend. 

   There’s something very special about those honest souls who can lift us to hilarity, and even more special still about those with whom we associate that joy. For with laughter comes a sense of safety–even if we’re under intense pressure, and even if only for that brief moment it takes us to snatch back our bearings and carry on. Battlefield humor, ER humor, gallows humor; when we’re laughing, we join something timeless, something stronger than ourselves and our terrors. “I get it” brings us to inclusion—and a return the safety of the group.   

   Through his very outrageousness, Williams assuaged those fears of ostracism and “aloneness”; he touched our inner nerd, and gave us outliers blessing. So when someone we’ve trusted with that enormous vulnerability leaves us—especially intentionally—there’s a sense of mutual betrayal, as though we, personally, could have helped him stick around—if only

   Yes, we cry when we remember the bullies, the rotten lovers, the trusted friends who’ve let us down; but Robin Williams never hurt us, he just brought us back to our humanity when we were feeling alienated and excluded. From the very beginning, when he careened off the stage and up and down the aisles of the Ash Grove, bouncing off those fabled walls while railing against Nixon, Vietnam, aliens and Hollywood in general, he was our avatar of release. Another generation came to love him as Mork, and another still as “Genie” in Walt Disney’s “Alladin”. Then there were all those hankie-wringing turns in Garp, Dead Poets, Fisher King, Good Will, PatchDoubtfireJackandonandonandon…. 

And now he’s gone—like the djiini in the lamp—leaving us to grieve, however briefly, for ourselves.  

RIP Little Monkeyman. Sure wish I could have helped (sniff).

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 Here’s a link to Robin’s seminal album, “Reality. What a Concept!”  Well worth a(nother) listen and quite possibly a tear or two–tears of the very best sort.

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Why Is This Man Laffing?

     Exactly forty years ago Richard Milhous Nixon announced that he would be resigning the Presidency of the United States of America “effective noon tomorrow”. No flowery preamble or obfuscation, just that curt and typically self-righteous, I’m outta here, suckers.

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    Nixon’s many misdeeds (and Watergate was just the latest in a career-long pattern of arrogance, pettiness, and dishonesty) may seem quaint by 21st century political standards, but for those of us whose lives had been wrenched by the criminal and ultimately pointless war he prosecuted in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and the near-civil war his administration fomented at home, the announcement was cause for great rejoicing and the lighting up of many celebratory doobs.

   But whatever one may think about Tricky Dick in retrospect, (and let’s face it, most of us remember him mainly for his legendary punch line: “I’m not a crook”) let us not forget that this is a man who managed epic political comebacks—from utter and humiliating defeat—not one, but three times in the long career he inflicted upon us all. 

  – First with his “Checkers” speech after the 1952 Presidential campaign was nearly derailed because of his financial improprieties. 

   -Then after his humiliating defeat by Pat Brown for Governor of California when he famously sniffed, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because gentlemen, this is my last press conference”. 

  – And yet again after losing the Presidency to JFK—utterly alienating the Republican Party hierarchy in the process—when he reemerged to stoke enough bigwig egos and kiss enough political ass win the office eight years later. 

   Arguably, even after resigning in disgrace, he fashioned himself as something of an elder statesman, managing a best selling memoir and several well-regarded books in addition to advising (quietly, of course,) both Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush on matters of foreign policy. When he finally left us for good (and I do mean “good”), it seemed something of an afterthought—as though he absolutely knew his zombie legacy would return again and again to haunt us all and eat our brains in the night. 

   So despite the lasting enmity I hold for what he did to my country at large and my generation in specific—and for just being an obnoxious prick in general, I was inclined to listen when he said, “A man is not finished when he is defeated. A man is finished when he quits.” 

Given all that’s been thrown at America in the intervening years, those who’ve survived Nixon and his legacy know there is a certain redemptive grace in these words. Typical of his sneaky, occult intent, that grace isn’t readily apparent (and when grasped seems ironic in the extreme), but I think we can all afford to set aside a small space in our hearts to appreciate the sentiment.

I know I certainly have.

 

 

 

 

 

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Klass Reunion

    August is the month for class reunions—that decennial ritual wherein otherwise rational people contemplate (voluntarily!) returning to the same social spawning pool they’ve spent so many years trying to forget.

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     If you’re like me, you approach the prospect with a horrified fascination –perverse curiosity toying with the wholly natural desire to run like hell from one’s cringe-worthy past. Education may be the “great equalizer,” but class reunions are its snarky handmaiden—for “X” can be a major movie star or run a billion-dollar conglomerate, but he’ll always be “Stinky” to those who of us knew him when.

     Then there are the timeless questions—whose import is only exacerbated when run through the filter of our long-repressed teen angst:

     What if I don’t recognize anyone? What if they don’t recognize me? What if they do recognize me but pretend they don’t and I have to sit off in a corner by myself all night long? How did my butt get so BIG?

     Still, the call of reunion is compelling, and we answer if only to note the veneers and the dye jobs giving way to pot-bellies and crows-feet. To gawk discretely at the full-on throat ropes and mottled scalps until those of us left without a shard of our self-consciousness stumble into the Catalina Room with our walkers and our mumbled reminisces to congratulate ourselves on our longevity—united at long last by our common decrepitude.

     It’s for those of us who never quite know where we fit in that I wrote this…

…Reunion Story:

     Every class has its Princess. Ours was (let’s call her) Shelly Anderson—the cheerleader all the girls wanted to be, and all the boys just wanted. Smart, sweet, gorgeous of face, bodacious of figure, Shelly was a fixture in every honors class and homecoming court, every awards banquet and civic presentation; her presence on campus more the stuff of myth than of actual substance. For although she walked among us, there was something otherworldly about her—as though her celebrity somehow defined us all.

     We lessers gawked, our small hearts filled with a combination of awe and unbridled resentment as she strode down the hall and bounced up the stairways attended by her entourage of hot guys and unattainable girlfriends. I cringe to recall that some of the less evolved among us— those bedeviled with social demons and imperfect complexions –even had a pimple pool to bet on which days she might show up with so much as one teeny blemish on her lovely face. As I recall, no one ever collected.

     The teachers were enchanted by her too, and Shelly always got A’s—even from the notoriously hard graders. For many of us, she was a first sobering encounter with the essential injustice of the cosmos. No matter how hard you work, or how excellent you become, no matter how many hurdles you jump or what sacrifices you’ve made, there will always, ALWAYS be someone’s brother-in-law or beautiful girlfriend waiting in the wings who gets the job, the award, the part, the promotion, the heartthrob…. It was hard not to hate her, but nobody did.

     Fortunately, we nerdesses had our own Prince Charming as an offset. “Mark Chen” was tall and exotic, a graceful athlete possessed of a truly sterling mind—which he didn’t mind sharing on calculus exams. Best of all, he was never less than fully competent at anything he attempted–and he attempted a great deal. A real life karate kid who sparred with Chuck Norris, Mark was also a pilot, a musician, ballet dancer, lab whiz, sly wit, and ironic poet who crafted his pieces en Francais. He was, in short, one perfectly-faceted gem of a nerd. OUR nerd.

     I nursed a secret crush from the moment I first saw him, but figured I could always get a boyfriend. A friend, however, was something altogether more rarified and precious– and friends we remained. I felt a kinship with Mark—as did a lot of us. Yes, he donned his letterman’s jacket on Friday along with the rest of the jocks, and yes, he belonged to all the right clubs and societies, but he seemed to prefer the company of us outliers—the ones with pocket protectors, and mismatched wardrobes, and an enthusiasm for intellectual mischief. Mark was one of us.

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     Twenty years later, our class was in its ascendancy. Law and medical schools behind us, brokerages and businesses established, albums and articles published, marriages in full swing with children popping forth, we’d risen with the 80’s and endured our first few hard smacks at the hand of our aspirations. The air was heavy with the certitude of our legacy — a fine time to reconnect and congratulate ourselves. With the 1990’s lurking on the horizon, reunion organizers sprang into action.

     And boy oh boy did we turn out for that party! Such a glossy, ambitious group of privileged kids, now become privileged adults. Like most of the rest of the country, we were pretty full of ourselves back then.

     I ate dinner with Mark and some of the old gang that night, and got a huge kick out of how our high school personas had morphed into our grownup pretenses. Mark was a doctor now, with the self-assurance of office, but he still had that same amused sense of ironic befuddlement that had carried him through the High School Experience.   As I looked around the room at all the groomed and polished, the confident and accomplished, I felt a familiar apprehension. Although I’d danced with the stars and dined with presidents by then, I was still terrified by the kids I’d gone to high school with. In retrospect, I think maybe we all were.

     But Mark’s easy laughter and snide banter brought me back to center.   With him watching my six, I could face anything my social peerage had to throw at me. I took a deep breath, and set off to mingle.

     It turned out to be a terrific party. I danced, I drank, I laffed myself silly, and at one point I think I even sang. As the evening drew to a close and I prepared to leave, I chanced upon Mark on my way out to the bathroom. Giddy, his eyes alight, he grabbed my arm, whirled me about, and steered me into a corner.

     “Allena,” he said, his mouth agape in mock wonder. “The most amazing thing just happened! I think my life has finally been validated.” A bit tipsy, I scanned his face to see if he was kidding. He was– but not entirely. Then, his voice tinged with awe and quiet solemnity he said, “Shelly Anderson… just spoke to me!”

     All I could do was snort in delight.

     On some level, it was a benediction we had both been awaiting for nearly a quarter of a century. I was thrilled for him, and me, and for all nerds everywhere. Yes, there was hope! With the passing of time, the Shelly Andersons of the world may deign to bless us all!

     For years after, my lasting memory of Mark was that shining face, that elegant bearing, that goofy schoolboy grin as he turned and walked back to the table to gather his things to leave.

     Flush with the magic of this epiphany, I again started for the bathroom—and nearly stumbled into a breathless Shelly Anderson. Heartbreakingly beautiful, those gentle eyes still dancing in their sweetness, she flashed her fabled smile at me, and I was hypnotized once again. How could anyone be this perfect? “Oh Allena,” she gushed. “The most wonderful thing just happened to me”– and here her voice lowered as if she could scarcely believe her good fortune.

     “I just spoke with… MARK CHEN!”

     While I picked my jaw up off the carpet, she paused for a moment as if to let the enormity of this revelation sink in. “You guys were always so smart, “ she continued, “and I would sit there in class thinking I’d never fit in and you were only just humoring me. I was always so intimidated by everyone, but now– now that Mark has talked to me– I finally feel like I’ve been accepted.”

     Every now and then, life graces us with a moment of symmetry so clean and so perfect it defies our poor attempts at dissection. Of such stuff is poetry born.   Suppressing a whoop of karmic irony, I could only smile and watch as this lovely woman took the arm of her adoring husband and glided off through the hotel lobby and out into the starry August night.

     It was one of those evenings.

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