Another story for your Halloween mood, this one a bit more intense. Its part Twilight Zone, and part pure unadulterated ugly. The closest I’ve come to writing a character that is unambiguously evil. Yes, it was terribly fun to write.

Happy Halloween.


On a dark morning many years ago, I had a visitor, a supplicant. He was ushered into my audience room by one of my servants. I watched him fidget nervously in the chair through a peep-hole I had installed for just such an occasion. He kept looking around the room, staring at the rich furnishings, the mystic symbols of gods and goddesses, the statues, the elegant drapes – everything carefully illuminated by candlelight. Everything perfectly designed, using the heavy club of mystery and the unknown, to crush all intelligent thought, all reason. As I watched, my servants prepared my person with makeup, elegant robes and the finest of perfumes. Every part of my skin was cleaned and well oiled, my hair was lacquered into a strange and terrible coif, every ring and trinket was shined to an opulent glow.

All the while I observed the supplicant carefully, noting the subtle signs of his mood. Waiting for the moment when he stopped thinking about the room and started to think about himself. His mood subtly changing from fear and confusion to concern and indignation. At that exact moment, I swept out of my personal chambers and into the room from the door opposite his chair. Before he could stand or react, I bowed deeply before him as if to apologize.

He sputtered and gasped, not knowing what to do. The surprise perplexed him, as it does even the quickest of men.

I gently settled him into his seat before he became overwrought and poured him some tea, the set being brought in by my servant Beautiful. The tea was a prop to help him collect his thoughts, and for my many servants to gather more intelligence about the man. As his eyes followed my servant over the rim of his cup, the right eye of Shiva, the small statue of the goddess in the alcove behind the man, turned bright. The was good. It meant he had not been followed.

Once the appropriate pleasantries were over, I set down my cup and pushed it aside formally. Now we could talk.

Seeing my action, he set his cup down as well, and looked around the room, gathering his thoughts. I steepled my fingers and made my face a blank, waiting patiently for him to speak. I passed the time reminding myself he was paying me a ridiculous amount of gold for an hour’s worth of my time. Something like a week’s wages for every passing second. I could be patient all day at that rate. Thinking this, I found it hard not to smile.

The supplicant was young, lean. His eyes were beady, darkly recessed under a prominent brow – his nose pointed, protruding. A hint of blue could be seen on his chin, evidence of the dark thick beard that would grow there when he stopped shaving. He had a man’s years about him but they fit him awkwardly like a poorly made cloak. He had a single small ring on his right hand – brass from the look of it – and a small hoop in his left ear. Both were ornaments of little value, or my servants would have charged him more. There were no marks upon him, no indication of the twin comforts of marriage or children. That was good.

“I have come,” he said in the broken syntax of a speech too well rehearsed, “to ask… to beg you for your help.” He spoke the word ‘beg’ as if it were distasteful but then he gamely continued. “You see, I am an artist of some worth. Indeed I can paint quite well – better than most, or so I am told – but for some reason I cannot find favor with my work. Daily I see men and women sell their works, most of whom – like Sluggart and Montroval – having far less skill than myself and none of which are nearly as deserving. This perplexes me to no end. By all rights, the market should be clamoring outside my studio, begging to purchase my portraits, yet I cannot sell a single piece.”

He paused, to gather his thoughts. “I have been reduced,” he continued, “to the basest kinds of depravity – selling myself in horrible cruelty, the likes of which would chill your heart – all to afford the simplest of paints and canvas.”

This he confessed with the tone of a ravaged man, a broken man. A man who had seen great deprivation. A man to which the world had beaten most cruelly and viciously. It was heartening to see such pain at such a young age. Then his tone changed. I could see a fire slowly growing in his eyes. I knew he was getting to the point.

“This,” he declared, “this is not enough. This is not the life I wanted. I must have more. Tell me – please, please tell me, if you can – how I can become a painter. A painter of great renown? How can I become a master; the greatest painter of my age?”

He stopped, poised on the edge of his chair, almost panting from the effort of his speech. I flexed my steepled fingers the barest minimum necessary to indicate I had been listening. With great show, I closed my eyes as if in deep thought, forcing myself to an unnatural stillness.

Even with my eyes closed I could feel his discomfort growing. He needed me to react, needed me to tell him something, to let him know if his request was even possible. If he had any idea how many times I had heard this speech before, he would have run from the room, shocked to his very core. But that is the nice thing about the young: they are the first to assume exclusive ownership of an emotion and the last to read any history. It is, as my long life has shown, a profitable loophole to exploit.

Oh I knew the solution to his problem. People will buy almost any art, even if it is the poorest of craft, but they will never part with large stacks of their well-earned coin for a man whom they do not admire. For all of his complaints, this man had sold some of his art, at least enough of it to earn his way through my door. But his pride would always keep him from attaining his desires, just as surely as a rat can never eat his way out of a silo full of grain. Telling him the easiest way to solve his problem would only fall upon deaf ears and garner me no profit. And I never do anything that doesn’t show a profit.

Instead I opened my eyes in a flash, as if I just had a valuable idea, and then I conspired with him, demanding an oath of secrecy before I would continue. When his oath was freely given, I told him a shadowy legend from the depths of antiquity. Within the the weaving of this story, I laid out a simple formula, one my servants had discovered for me many years ago. Social popularity cannot only be learned but it can be tracked and even predicted, if given enough data and enough desire. It would take this man years to understand what I patiently described to him – the simplest of concepts being the most difficult to grasp – and even more years to put that knowledge into practice, but it would most certainly bring him great wealth. By the time my formula brought him his well-earned desires, he will have forgotten about me; believing that the ideas for it had come solely from his own head. I didn’t mind. I had a deeper game.

Even while I was giving him the secret to great wealth, the young man’s eyes kept darting over my head, his attention drawn again and again to a painting done of myself which hung over the doorway to my private chambers. It was a piece I had commissioned some years back for exactly this purpose. Indeed, with the exception of the Shiva statue and the tea set, it was the only thing I valued in the room. The likeness was more than good, it was uncanny. In it I was the embodiment of Wisdom; Wisdom personified. My face was serene and calm, looking down upon the seat of the supplicant, making them feel a spark, a secret thrill of the supernatural. One could almost see the portrait breathe, watch its eyes slightly track the movement in the room. It had a very definite sense of being alive.

When the hour was up, I had Duty and Faithfulness usher the young painter from the audience room. As soon as he was gone, I cursed the fool painting, as I walked back to my chambers and had my servants strip me of all my bold costumery.




Some years later, the painter returned. This time, rather than making him wait, I strolled right in and greeted him warmly like a brother; clasping his arms and sitting across from him on a less formal settee. My dress and mien were far less imposing, forgoing the fancy robes and perfumes for a simple yet elegant shift.

The man opposite me was far different from the boy who had come previously. His hair was now full and dark with just the hint of grey. His thick beard flattered his face but did not hide the girth of his soft cheeks. His eye was firm, yet kind, a man used to getting his way but not always by force. He wore many fine rings on his thick fingers, and both his shift and his jacket I noted were stitched with gold thread which was shone off to good effect by his ample middle. All this display of wealth came after paying me ten times the cost of the previous visit. He had greatly profited from my strange tale indeed.

This time, instead of Beauty, I had Duty serve us tea. The painter noticed her presence but not unduly so. Unlike before, he sipped his tea with a calm air and took what appeared to be much joy in sharing the pleasantries. As we chatted, the small Shiva behind him held first one, then two glowing eyes. This was even better. I now knew that the money he had paid for this visit was unencumbered by any bank or person. He had paid in cash without a loan.

This time when I placed my teacup down, pushing it away from me, he was ready to commence business. Without much of a preamble, he launched into the reason for his visit.

He was not happy, you see. Not happy at all. He was now a famous painter and was in high demand for his portraiture work. People came from all over the world to have him paint their likenesses, for it was said that he was able to catch the likeness of any subject and hold it most expertly. Indeed his craft had improved, or so he told me, but it was not as good as the credit which was afforded him. He found himself feeling more and more a sham, an adequate painter, somehow saddled with an excellent reputation. Worst still, the more people praised him, the more unworthy he felt inside, until he was at the point of stopping painting altogether.

This last part was said with his arm crossing his face in the most dramatic of poses. Of course he didn’t want to stop painting, he only needed to play the part. What he did want was something more. Something deeper.

“Your portrait,” he stated. “The one hanging above the doorway to your chambers. It has haunted me from the first I saw it. It is too right, too real. I swear to you, from over here it even looks to be alive. Yet it does not contain a normal life, for it is more than that. It looks to be moral, virtuous, pure. Almost as if someone had taken the very essence of wisdom and painted it upon the canvas – painted it perfectly.

“That portrait,” he continued, “that likeness has robbed me my sleep since the day I first came here. It has mocked every piece I have painted, its memory laughs every time I hold the brush. I have searched far and wide, spending more than one fortune seeking its author, seeking any other painting near its quality, and I must confess to you, I have found none, no one. I can find neither a painting of that intensity, nor one containing that much truth. I have to know. I need to know. I must meet the master of that work, the man whose work so surpasses mine. I must find out how it was painted. You see, I need to know how to paint like that. I will accept no other alternative.”

The intensity of the painter’s desire was palpable. He sat again on the edge of his seat, his fat cheeks flushed with emotion, his dark eyes penetrating, expecting. I must confess I sank into his terrible need for far longer then was strictly necessary. To be around raw greed of such intensity was simply thrilling.

When I was finally through enjoying his passion, I softly spoke. “The human eye,” I said calmly to him, “has a single spot in which can focus to any great degree. It is called the fovea and though it is but a small dot comprising less than a percent of the surface of the retina, all of our great focusing power comes though it. One cannot read the text of a letter or the flush of a young lover, without it. The rest of the eye is taken over with distinguishing the difference between light and dark or noting any type of motion but that is all. None of the rest can focus, can read, can bring clarity of vision.”

What I did not mention was that the fovea, while significant in its own right, was often eclipsed by another feature of the eye – the blind spot.

I paused, waiting until he showed he was following, if not completely understanding. “The trick,” I then told him, “is not to paint like the greater part of the eye, for that is what you have been doing, but to paint with the focus and intensity of the fovea.”

“But how,” he asked? “How can I paint with such intensity? How is that even possible?”

“It is a simple matter, more simple than you would believe possible,” I said. “To begin with, you must learn to paint with greater focus. Start by locking yourself in a dark room. Paint only with just the faintest of lights. Allow no other distractions. No models, no food, no conversation, no wine, family, friends, nothing. It will take many years, and a very great attention to discipline, but you will eventually sense a new intensity to your brushwork, a new focus.”

“Yes,” he said practically salivating, “go on.”

“It is at this point that things start to get interesting.”

I gathered up paper and pen encouraging him to take careful notes. I then went on to explain the techniques of focusing his energy into one thought, one emotion. “One must pick a single human trait,” I told him, “and hold it in one’s mind for days on end until it has shown for you all of its secrets. Only then will the properly focused brushwork come into play. It is at this point, at the apex of emotional focus, and intense brushwork, that the canvas will seem to take on a life of its own and so will the portrait.”

Entranced by the simple idea, the rich painter took his scrap of paper with all its careful notes and made his way from my audience room, this time escorted only by Thrift. The irony, of course, being lost on him. I could see he was thrilled at the idea of painting with such an intensity. Never once, in explaining this technique to him, did I mention the cost. He would find that out soon enough.

Leaving careful instructions to my servants, I slipped back into my chambers and busied myself about my day.




It was but a few years, perhaps six or maybe ten, before the painter came to visit me for a third and final time. The transformation from his previous visit could not have been more complete. He entered my audience room bent over, his feet walking in the slow shuffle of the infirm. His eyes were sunken into his head, his beard sparse and uncombed, his hair filthy and matted, all of its dark color overcome by a dingy white. His skin carried a grey pallor of one who does not see enough light or frequent washings. His fingernails were grey with dirt, thick black bands of neglect evident under each nail. He wore no rings or adornments of any kind. His cloak was ten years out of style and so encrusted with dirt that my first thought was he had picked it up from the bottom of an alley and put it on just before stumbling into my house.

I greeted him behind a desk, telling him curtly to sit down on the only available piece of furniture; an uncomfortably bare wooden chair. I did not speak to him for a full 25 minutes, instead I busied myself with paperwork. So great was his pitiful condition that the man did not think to complain about such obviously poor treatment to his person. And this after paying ten times the amount of his last visit, one hundred times the cost of the original!

But for all that his dress and wardrobe were rundown, neither of these transformations were nearly as terrible as the look his eye gave when I finally called him to attention. Gone was the youthful vanity of his first visit, and gone was the overweening pride of his second. In its stead was a husk of a man; a person so devoid of feeling, or any type of emotion, that he gave the very appearance of one of the many imbeciles that line the streets, begging for alms as they leave filthy trails of drool upon their dirty robes. Only by the slimmest of measures did his eye contain the spark of keen intellect like it once had. All else about the man, all the things that made him powerful, made him great, were stripped from him.

As I completed my paperwork, I kept glancing up at the small statue of Shiva positioned in the alcove behind the man. Right after he arrived, first one eye and then the other were lit. Finally, after a healthy portion of his hour was up, the third and final eye on the Shiva did glow. That meant there was no one left in this man’s life to know or care that he was here.

All was in order.

I set down my papers. “Why are you here,” I suddenly demanded of the man? My tone was brutal, uncluttered by the least bit of civility.

“I… I…” was all he could manage in response to my abuse.

“Did not my suggestions work? Did you not learn to paint truly amazing art? Did not your art live as it had never done before?”

I was mocking him. I knew the answer to this. In fact I owned several of his pieces already. His painting of Beauty was of a young girl, just on the cusp of womanhood, her brow untouched by the concerns of adulthood. She was perfect, unblemished, uncynical, not a mark of debauchery upon her. No matter how hard I had tried, no matter how grotesque and depraved my nightly ministrations were to her, I could not get her to change. She was a task well suited to my need.

“Come sir,” I shouted. “Do you have some complaint? Did you not employ my most special of suggestions? Did you not receive your money’s worth from each of your visits?”

Throughout this harangue he merely sat, head bent over, passively staring at me through his foul and besmirched hair like some poorly treated bovine or a dog beaten to the point as to not even whimper.

Then by chance his eye happen to fall upon the portrait over the door. That glance brought about in him the most surprising of transformations. In an instant he was up and moving, all trace of the prior passivity poured from him like a glass of wine over a white cloth. In a matter but two heart-beats he had crossed the small room, pulled out a nasty looking dagger from within his cloak and had thrust the dagger fiercely into the heart of the image. The portrait turned its body, the face never changing its expression, and glanced its eyes downward at the foiled dagger which had been obstructed by the fine mesh of metal wire that completely covered the front of the painting. Many times the man rammed the dagger unsuccessfully at the portrait – loosening with each thrust a cry of outrage so extreme, so acute, so filled with animal rage, as to shame even the wildest of the mountain cats. No lion claiming its territory, no shout from the mouth of a grizzled bear, could produce the level of rage as expressed by the poor man’s throat. It was if the man had been compressed, all of his thoughts, all of his feelings, all of his desires, had to be forced though the narrowest of lenses of a single solitary human emotion; that of rage. Like a piano with only one key working, all of his emotions, all the things that made him human, had been stripped away, save for the single key of rage. He was rage. All rage. Nothing but rage. It was all that was left to him, and he held onto it with a savage ferocity, a feral barbarity.

For some minutes he ferociously attacked the portrait with his blade. Each time the fine almost invisible metal wires thwarting his attempt, until finally frustrated and exhausted, he dropped the dagger to the floor and slumped against the wall in defeat. Wisdom continued to gaze down upon him, its face unperturbed. This was not the first time the wires had protected its painted form from physical attack, although that was not the primary reason for their existence.

When the painter was spent of emotion, Forbearance and Clemency gently gathered him up and softly lead him back to his chair. A second chair was produced and a small table was brought before him. My servants conveyed to us some tea and few snacks which they placed upon the table, along with a few lit candles even though the room was bright at this time of day. Before they left, one of them picked up the man’s dagger and set it near him on the table. After they quietly left, the painter and myself enjoyed the sweet aroma of our small repast in peace.

Barely able to hold himself upright, the painter sipped his tea slowly, holding the cup with both hands and savoring the flavor. As it was intended, the tea slowly removed the last part of tension from the man’s shoulders and neck. He grew more alert, more relaxed then when he had entered. It was as if the terrible attack had loosened some internal blockage, some terrible obstruction, allowing him to finally think and reason again like a man.

The painter placed his empty cup gently down into its saucer. I offered him more tea. He gave his head the subtlest of shakes, so I set the pot down again.  Then he slid his cup and saucer to one side and looked into my eyes.

“I figured out what you were up to,” he said flatly, with no emotion. “Oh it took me a while. The technique you showed me worked as you said it would.” He gave a slight chuckle, as dry as Autumn grass. “When I showed my first attempts to a gallery some three years after we met, the effect was astounding. So great was the outcry from the public that the gallery had to hire extra security and after a few days the paintings themselves had to be removed for their own protection. At any other time in my life I would have gloried in all the attention, but as you know, I was busy working on still another portrait. Thus fame and the fortune passed me without any concern on my part.”

He stared off into the distance for so long I feared he had fallen asleep with his eyes opened. Then rousting himself he continued. “I knew the portraits were special, different, I just did not fully understand how much so at the time. They don’t age do they?”

I nodded my head in agreement.

“I didn’t think so. I had modeled my wife for a portrait of Love and the likeness was like nothing I had ever seen. At first I thought my growing coldness to her was brought on by her jealousy of the portrait. It was only later I realized I could not love anyone else – my wife, my son, my friends, no one. It took me some time but I finally puzzled together what was happening; that each portrait became true because it took away from me whatever emotion or sentiment that it was expressing. With each painting I was cutting out a part of my soul and painting it onto the canvas as if it was my own blood. Worst still, I could not stop plumbing my emotions, could not stop irreversibly transferring them into paint. As the process continued, the time between paintings increased. What would take me a few days, now became weeks and weeks, as the few emotions I had remaining grew more and more difficult to focus upon. I grew intolerant of anything interrupting my work, ignoring my family and friends, my duties, anything but the canvas and each single emotion. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else matters still.

“Finally,” he continued, “I found myself in an empty home; all family and friends having long ago deserted me, at my behest. I have no Regret, I painted him years ago. I have no Pity, that left the canvas almost the same night it was finished. Fame, Love, Success, all of them gone. Sold for paints and for more canvas. If my wife had not concealed from me a large pile of money, left-over from those crazy days when the crowds closed down the gallery, I could not afford to be here now.”

He stopped to gather his thoughts. Everything he spoke had been true and was said without the least bit of emotion. He spoke casually of his own destruction, as if it belonged to someone else; a man to whom he did not know, nor had ever met.

“All I have left is Rage,” he added, “and I find him too elusive to paint right now. Everything is too much, too distracting. But that is not why I came here. What I came here for is to ask if there is a way to undo any of my paintings. To have part of my old life back – to somehow end their constant pull on my soul.”

He looked at me. His eyes flat, holding neither longing or emotion. Were it not possible, I would say he was not a human but some freakish automaton; a machine taking on the appearance of flesh, but having no more emotion than a chair or a table.

As he stared at me, his eyes suddenly grew large, the spark once missing now surprisingly bright. There was yet another emotion which he had not eviscerated from his soul: Surprise.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Its been two score years or more since I met you but your appearance hasn’t changed in the slightest. That can’t be. You’re one of them, aren’t you?”

I nodded my head, enjoying his discovery even more than he did. His sense of Wonder having been painted out of him several years ago. He worked for me in one of my labs, along with many of my other servants, if I recalled correctly.

“I knew it,” he said! “I knew there was something special about you. Someone long ago painted you, didn’t they? You’re a portrait! You’re Wisdom!”

I shook my head slightly to let him know he was wrong, then I showed him my own special smile; the smile I am most careful not to show – not even in my own home – not unless all three eyes of the Shiva are glowing. It is the smile I was painted with many years ago.

They say the artist’s eye is quicker than the mind, that an eye can understand concepts faster than a mind can grasp. In his case, this was certainly true. I could see by his eyes that he had figured me out just by the smile.

“No, not Wisdom… “I told him still smiling that terrible smile, “Cunning.” As I spoke, I picked up his dagger from the table and quickly thrust it into his heart. His eyes grew huge as understanding suddenly plunged to his mind. I slipped my free hand around his neck and held him close to me, like a lover. His body pinned against his dagger, my face inches from his own. Still wearing that same cold contemptible smile, I clung to him with a grip of iron until the life slowly drained from his eyes. Then I carefully set his corpse down upon his seat and fell heavily into my own, the smile so hard on my face that it hurt.



Author’s Notes:

This is a short dark fantasy piece based loosely upon an idea Trevor gave me from one of his video games. In the game a character had the gift that everything they painted came to life. I wrote a note about this idea in my little “book of ideas” on May 3rd (2011), but didn’t think I would have time to work on it for a while. Then next day was amazingly productive as I finished up a longer (17.5k word) short calledIn The Root (which has yet to be edited). I had been working on that story for several months, and it was a relief to finally get it off my desk.

That night, this story (wisdom) kept spinning around in my brain, and the next day I had an epiphany about it while in the shower (shut up. Its where I do my best thinking). I whipped out an outline, and most of the ending in probably 30 minutes, and then finished the rest in two furious days of typing, cackling all the way. It would have been done sooner, but the voice is older than I usually attempt, and I found myself constantly glancing at my thesaurus for inspiration. Can you say subjunctive clause?

And yes, the protagonist is one smooth, oily, evil son of a bitch.

This story was such a joy to write. Partially because the character was really fun to attempt (for those of you who don’t know me, he really is nothing like me), and because the previous story, In The Root, took a lot of slogging to get though. I started that darn story three different times until I finally got it going right. After all that work, it was nice to do something light and easy.

Last Dance

A nice little ghost story to get your Halloween mood going. This one more sweet than scary. In Middle school I got to play in a Jazz Band, and I’ll smile over that experience to my grave. It also allowed me to look back with my adult eyes and imagine a different life…



We were just putting away our instruments when the old man shuffled up. He was bent with spotted hands that looked like claws, and a thin wisp of hair covering his head. But he was also smart enough to be polite and kind. The $100 bill that he held up didn’t hurt either. There’s a saying among musicians, “I may listen to Jackson, but I’ll sit down with Franklin.”

It was early evening. Early for us at least. The hotel’s reception room closed up like the small town it sat in. The wedding guests all leaving well before 10:00. All except the old man and his ancient wife. We don’t mind, as a rule. We charge for the whole night, but will gladly only work part of it. Besides weddings are not a big draw for us. One can only play so many top 40 songs without having their heads explode. We were in town for the north east regional jazz band competition, and just happened to pick up this gig at the last minute when the guitar player from the band that booked the gig broke his hand in a bar fight.


What settled the deal was probably the old man’s last word. He been rambling on about something to Billy, the alto player, and nominal leader. Something about the music of his youth or the like. I don’t know what, I was busy cleaning and oiling my slide. But my ears perked up when he finished with, “something that swings.”

Some of you may not know this, but swing is not just something you do while hanging in a tire under a tree. Swing is a groove; a sweat spot of rhythm specifically designed to make your toes tap and your butt move. Swing marks the heyday of the Jazz era. It was the hip-hop of its day. Immensely popular, the music all the cool kids danced to. Take a simple set of chords, add a melody made of sugar, a counter melody made of vinegar, and a bottom end thump made of sin. That is Swing.

And boy do we know swing. Our band could play dance tunes or show tunes because we were all competent musicians, but what we really liked to do, how we really let our hair down, was to swing. It was the one thing that drew us together, the thing that let us put up Sniggly’s (the drummer) drunken sprawls, or Rubio’s (baritone sax) preaching. We even put up with Billy’s amazing ego, because all of the band, every one of us, could swing. Let me tell you, that song is right. It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got the swing.

So when the old man asked us for something with a little swing to it, it caught our ear. Like asking an author about his latest novel, ask a swing band to pull out the stops, and you’re in for a treat.

I could see the old man’s words hit the rest of the band like they hit me. Derek (tenor sax) let out a big old grin, and Hairy Z. (trumpet) did his little laugh. “Uh-huh.” The one that he saves for his brand of understated humor. I knew what he was thinking. “We can play it, old man. The only real question is can you take it?”

Really a Franklin would have been fine for us. After a couple of sets of crap music, we were ready to cut loose, like bloodhounds on a scent. The Jackson just made it that much better.

Billy looked around with that stupid grin of his, and saw the rest of us putting our instruments back together. “Yah,” he said, pocking the money quickly. “We can do that. Just one more dance you said.”

The old man smiled, and I swear his eyes lit up a bit. “We came here for our grandson’s wedding,” he said, “but it’s also our anniversary.” He looked over towards his wife, white haired, and crumpled on a couch near the corner. He must have seen something we didn’t because looking at her put a silly smile on his face. “Close enough anyways.” He said looking back at us.

“Tell you what,” Billy said. “We’ll play you a song. If you like it maybe we’ll play you another. How’s that sound?”

The old man smiled. “Good,” he said. “We’d like that.”

He shambled over to the corner with is wife, and we got ready to roll. Billy looked around and asked quietly “Autumn Leaves?” We glanced at each other, but no one nodded. “It don’t mean a thing,” Derek asked? Eyes all around, no nods. Finally Hairy Z. said “Rosebud” with finality. He was right, you could tell by the response.

We quietly tuned our instruments. Brass players warming their mouthpieces, and woodwind players wetting their reeds. The old man and his wife limped out to the small dance floor, one of those parquet affairs with four foot by four foot sections, that interlocked. It had brass edges to mark the slight slope transition to the regular floor. Portable and cheap, but good enough for a low budget wedding in a small town. Billy raised his hand when the couple got to the middle, and we all settled in. When he let his hand drop Sniggly rolled in with a nice fill, popped a rimshot, and started in with the brushes. Rosebud is a nice tune, moody and complex, like a deep red wine. It starts off simple, at least our arraignment of it, with an oboe (Billy) pulling the smooth and tasty melody out, warm and legato, like Liberace warming the crowd. The second time around the verse, Derek drops in a counter melody that starts out smooth and even, working the fifths and thirds like a dark chocolate under the oboe’s light caramel, but ends up more desolate, finding the bitter minor third out of the last chord, building up tension for the next verse. We do one more verse down tempo, with alto sax, and trombone (me) fleshing out the melodies. By the end, the entire band has slipped in, building the last chord thick and quiet. We stop for a second, and then bam, drop into the song at twice the tempo, fresh and sharp, all brass and hard edges.

I had been watching the old couple move while waiting to come in. They had started the song close, and hesitantly, like they were afraid to make a mistake. They were facing each other, standing like teens do when they are embarrassed; trying to recognize the song, and get a feel for how to move to it. When the song took off they got wide-eyed for a second. I could actually see the old woman’s eyebrows pull back. Then a devil-may-care smile hit her face, and a glow hit her eyes. Two beats in, their feet were moving, and move they did.

They started dancing in the simplest of steps. Exactly like you do when you haven’t danced for a while. But before long I could see them start to work in more moves as they warmed up. You could see the song working in them, slowly unwinding the kinks as their bodies remembered how to move.

When the song ended, they were panting slightly, with small pink dots on their cheeks, and eyes that glowed with all the happiness in the world. Billy called out, “Another?” They both nodded with enthusiasm. A good thing because I don’t think you could have stopped us. We had been penned up all day, and now that we had a chance to show our stuff, we pulled out all the stops. Without saying a word, Billy did a finger snap four-count, and jumped into the melody of “It don’t mean a thing.” We followed with a will, and the couple jumped into the song like they were made for it.

All of us in the band had been playing swing for years. We knew it, and loved it, like a mother loves her child. We’d started competing as a band some twelve years back, and most years we took the nationals. We were that good. But there is something different between playing for the judges, with their cold expert criticism of timing, tone, and style, and playing for a crowd. A dancing crowd. In all our years, all our practice, and perfection, we’d forgotten a simple thing: Swing is not only a style of music, it is a conversation between band and dancers; a mystical connection, a journey down the river of music, but one that is propelled by the power of dance. We had played well in a technical sense on many different occasions, but we had never played great. That is until that night.

The second song ended, and we dashed into the next, not even bothering to ask. We knew they wanted to hear more. We could see it. And the old couple, they danced like nothing I have ever seen before. They smiled, they moved, they gamboled across the floor. Their eyes remained locked on each other, while their feet tapped out a song of love with every step. You could see it in their bent backs that they had been married long and with a hard life at times. But they danced with all their joy, their happiness. They danced all the good things they had shown each other, and all to the rhythm of the song were we playing.

It was intoxicating to watch them. Absorbing. We would have played all night, and well into the next day, had they but asked. It was such a pleasure to see them move, to see them reach into our music, and make it come alive. It was the greatest gig we ever played. All the justification we would ever need for the sacrifices we had made. All the years of practice, all the stupid gigs, all the stares while carrying a large instrument case on the subway, all the rejection, the ready knowledge that we could be making real money, or be real players. All of it paid in full, in one night. It was our zenith, each of us realizing we were just barely good enough for this gig, and yet happy for the chance.

Finally, after what seemed like a few moments, but was actually hours, we stopped. The old couple had started to slow down, and let us know they could take it no more. As they walked off the small dance floor, we collectively let our shoulders slump. Each of us was bathed in sweat, and panting, as if we had just run a marathon. No one spoke. No one wanted to break the spell. Slowly, ever so quietly, we gingerly put away our instruments like people at a funeral. I could see that everyone was still thinking, still floating inward. Billy was polishing his alto, and staring off into space. Derek was sitting on his case, and smiling with an idiot grin. I put my bone away quickly, and helped Sniggly with his drums.

It was late, and the lights were turned low in the reception hall. For the first time I noticed the hotel workers standing around. Bored kids glancing at their watches, and wanting to go home. I wondered briefly how long they’d been waiting, and then laughed.

Harry Z was all perplexed. Sweat had pushed his thin hair back from his round face giving him a look like he’d been driving all day in a convertible. “What?” he asked, as we loaded up the van.

“Nothing,” I said pointing at the hotel staff.

“Think the squares didn’t like our impromptu concert?” he asked.

“Nope. Don’t care one way or the other,” I replied.

He looked at me for a moment, and then laughed. “We’ll make a musician of you yet, mother,” he said, using my nickname.

Sniggly had all of his kit in the van by then, so I decided to go back in for one more idiot check. Instruments are expensive to ship if you leave them behind.

I was just finishing up when I saw Billy enter the room. Everyone else was outside, smoking a cigarette, or talking off their energy. I saw him wander over to the old couple who had by then slumped into a sofa in the back, leaning on each other. I didn’t blame them. I don’t know how they kept up, at their age. Dancing that long had to have been exhausting.

When Billy reached them he stopped a few feet away, and said a low thank you. He didn’t want to disturb them but needed to say something. I paid attention because Billy wasn’t always the best with his words. The man could play a sax like a dream, but often put both feet in his mouth when it came to talking. That was why the other guys called me mother. He ruffled the feathers, and I smoothed them. Whatever it was he said, the couple didn’t respond. They sat their leaning against each other, eyes closed, and smiles on their faces. The sofa was far enough back in the corner that it was dark, and difficult to see from where we played.

Billy said something again, and got no response. By then I was hurrying over, knowing he might say something stupid if he thought they were ignoring him. Before I could reach him, Billy took a hand, and touched the old man on the shoulder. In his other hand I could see he was holding the Franklin. I was touched that Billy, usually a selfish prick, would care enough to give the couple back their money. It was a gracious call on his part, one I was sure the rest of the band would agree to. He was just about to touch the man again, when he stopped and did a double take, pulling his hand back suddenly as if he had been bit. By then I was right beside him.

“What?” I asked.

“Dude,” he said startled by my sudden arrival. “There’s something… that ain’t right.”

“Huh,” I said.

“Cold. He’s cold.”

I reached past Billy, and gently touched the old man on the shoulder. He didn’t react to my hand. I touched him again, this time saying, “Excuse me sir,” but he didn’t move at all. Neither of them did. Then I noticed something on my palm. Under his suit, the man, his flesh. It was cold. Ice cold.

I jerked my hand back, and looked at Billy. “Shit,” he said. “We better call an ambulance.”

By the time the coroner came the night was shot. The local sheriff showed up and took our story. He had with a mustache so big that Billy swore the man a was pedophile. It was all I could do to keep Billy and the other guys from laughing at him. Idiots. It was bad enough being a stranger from another town, let alone a musician.

Right before the coroner left he took me aside, as Billy was pretty out if it by then. “You know,” he said without introduction, “rigor had set in.”

“Huh,” I asked?

“Rigor,” he said. “When you touched them, rigor mortis had set in.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Don’t you watch TV,” he asked, “C.S.I.?” giving me the look small town people reserve for outsiders.”

“Ah no,” I confided. “Don’t have time for it much.”

“Hum,” he said. “What it means is they were dead for a while. Long enough to get stiff.”

“How long does that take,” I asked?

“It depends,” he said, “on a lot of conditions. Temperature, humidity, type of death. Usually it takes hours.”

“Hours! But… how can that be. They were just over there,” I said pointing to the dance floor. Someone from the night shift had started picking up the parquet pieces, and stacking them for storage. Now they were a jumbled pile with yellow police tape surrounding them.

“I don’t know, hot shot.” he snapped. “You tell me.”

We stayed in town the next day, at the request of the sheriff, but by evening he let us go.  Fortunately he knew the night staff at the hotel, or we might still be there today sitting in his jail. Their story matched ours, or was close enough that they let us go. We traveled the 10 hour trip back home in silence, none of us knowing what to say.

Not long after that, Billy took a job waiting tables, and Derek got a regular broadway gig. Harry Z moved out to California, and Rubio became a missionary somewhere in South America. Most surprising of all, Sniggly finally sobered up, and moved back in with his wife in Connecticut, taking a job in construction. Of all things, I got a teaching gig at the local middle school, and started enjoying the benefits of a regular paycheck, which tickled Harry Z to no end. We still talk to each other, and write a bit on the internet from time to time, but none of us, not a single one, has ever attempted to swing again.

Halloween is almost here

Do you like ghost stories? I do. I don’t collect them like I used to, but I still read them. For some reason I’ve never become a fan of horror fiction, but I like ghost stories. I guess there are limits on how much blood I can take. I noticed Trevor likes them as well. Both in written form and in graphic novels.

Each year I usually finish a good ghost story near Halloween. In 2010 I wrote a ghost story about an old couple swinging to a big band called Last Dance. Since I don’t have a Fiction page up yet on the new site, I think I’ll just post it here tomorrow. If you’ve ever played in a jazz band, you’ll probably enjoy it.

This year my Halloween story, complete with zombies and lots of blood, is still under construction. So I think I’m going to release another story, one I finished in 2011, called Wisdom. I’ve yet to find a home for it, so here is where it will sit. Look for it on Thursday.

Do you have a favorite scary story?

A question about Latin

First of all, I’m not anything like a Latin scholar. I took several years of Ancient Greek in college, but never Latin. However, I’ve been reading the most wonderful book about language in general called The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language by John McWhorter, and from that I’ve been learning some things about how languages work. So when a buddy of mine emailed me a question about the Latin text of a song, wanting to know why it’s spelling kept changing so much, I was able to answer him with just a little bit of on-line research.


Here is his question:
This text (in Latin) is from the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass:

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis

“May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.”

In this text there are these words: aeternum and aeternam.

What’s the difference(s)?

If you could explain it to me in a more plain English…I and particularly my wife would appreciate it very much.

Here is my answer:

I’m not all that good at Latin, but I think I know enough to answer this particular question.

The word Aeternus is the Latin adjective that means eternal, or without end. In fact, the word eternal in English is a direct descendant from aeternus. If you say them both fast, they sound similar.

As to why the word aeternus is spelled three different ways (aeterna, aeternum, and aeternam) in the same paragraph, that takes a bit to explain.

See, in many languages, like English, the way you tell what the words are doing in a sentence is by their order. Usually the order is subject, verb, object, although some languages do their order differently.

Take the sentence:  The girl ate a sandwich.

The subject (the person doing the action) is the girl. The verb (the action) is ate, and the object (the thing being acted upon, in this case, being ate) is the sandwich. When you read this sentence you know it is about a girl, eating a sandwich.

But what happens if you rearrange the word order? What if you write: A sandwich ate the girl.

Uh, oh. Those are the same words, but it means something completely different from the first sentence, at least in English.

As it happens there are some other languages, like Latin and Greek, that solve this word order problem differently. What Latin and Greek do is add a suffix to the end of the words so the listener (or reader) knows what is being done to who, regardless of the word order. So in Latin you could write:

The girl ate a sandwich.
A sandwich ate the girl
Ate the girl a sandwich.
A sandwich the girl ate.

And they would all mean the same thing (a girl eating a sandwich) as long as you used the proper suffixes for each of the words. In each case girl would get the subject suffix, ate would get the subject suffix as well (so you know its the girl doing the action), and sandwich would get the object suffix.
This is a neat trick for a language. Among other things it makes it easy to write long epic poems because the author is free of the limitations of word order when writing. They can rearrange the words to work best (in terms of rhyme and meter) without worrying about word order. But its also a bit of a pain for non-native speakers because you have to memorize all the proper suffixes so you can follow what is going on.

Another thing Latin and Greek do, they add a suffix the end of their adjectives so the listener can tell what nouns they are modifying. Other languages, like English, uses word order to accomplish the same thing. So in English if I write:


The pretty girl owns a car

You would know that the word pretty applies to the girl.  Change the sentence to:


The girl owns a pretty car

And now its the car that is pretty, not the girl. But again, like we saw before, in Latin and Greek you can rearrange the word order all you want, as long as the proper suffix is placed on the adjective so that the word pretty matches the ending of its subject.

One more thing, before we dig into the sentence. Many times in a language, an adjective will be so handy that eventually it starts to get used as a noun. Most languages have a way of taking adjectives and converting them into nouns for just this reason. Usually by changing their spelling. As it happens English does this the same way Latin and Greek do, by adding a suffix to the end of the adjective. Thus the adjective happy, because the noun happiness, by putting –ness on the end. In the same way forgetful becomes forgetfulness.

As you can probably guess, Latin and Greek not only adds a suffix, but they also change the spelling of it to indicate what they are modifying. Roughly the same thing as English, just slightly more complicated.

So now, lets go back to that Latin sentence.

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis.

The first use of Aeternus comes at the beginning with aeterna. Here its an adjective modifying the noun Lux (or light) which also happens to be the subject of the sentence, hence the –a ending.  The second time the word shows up as aeternum with the –um suffix. This suffix tells us the word is now a noun. So, instead of the adjective, eternal, it is the noun meaning eternalness. The third time the word shows up, aeternam, its back to the adjective form, only this time its modifying the object of the sentence instead of the subject like above. In this case its modifying the word requiem, meaning rest. Thus the –am ending.

So the same adjective, used three different ways. Once modifying the subject, once as a noun, and once modifying the object.

There’s more to it than this, but I think this gives you a good idea of why the word is spelled so differently.

The inadvertent racist

I am not the hero of this story. Not even close. But its a true story all the same. This really happened.

I was coming home from work.
I was standing on the Expo line platform at La Cienega and Jefferson. The station there is elevated a good 30-40 feet above the traffic below. It offers a nice view of the lights of Culver City, especially at night. Its also a short block away from a Sees Candy factory/shop. When the wind is right you can smell them making chocolates.

A young african-American man approached me and stood nearby.
He looked to be in his late 20s. My height. Well groomed. He had on slacks, a long-sleeve button down shirt, and a tie. A coat as well, but I can’t recall exactly what kind. Not a suit jacket, more like a trench coat or a rain coat. It was dark, and cold (what people on the East Coast would call cool). The elevated station not only offers a excellent view, but it also exposes you to the on-shore breeze, the Pacific Ocean being only a few miles away. It was cold enough people were wearing gloves, stamping their feet, moving around, and standing instead of sitting on the concrete benches. So we stood.

I was dressed like a person of privilege.
I don’t recall exactly what I was wearing, but this is how I dress for work. Jeans and a fitted t-shirt. On warmed days, tan dockers, but more than likely it was jeans. The t-shirt was colored, and might have been long-sleeved. I buy them at Target because they’re cheap, and because they look good on me. I was probably wearing my skating jacket which is bicycling jacket: comfortable, lightweight, stuffs into a small pouch, is 100% synthetic, and is amazingly warm. The jacket looks like something a cyclist would wear on a windy day because that is precisely why it was made. It was a gift from my in-laws, is the perfect coat for anything but a serious downpour, and is easily hauled around in my back-pack.

All this to say I was dressed like a person who doesn’t give a damn about how they dress. That’s because I don’t. My day job is being an artist, a pixel-pusher, a photoshop expert. A great job for people who like to dress like they don’t give a damn. My outfit has evolved to this point as being the perfect blend of comfort, ease of use while skating, and just professional enough to give the appearance of confidence. As such my outfit is strictly utilitarian; clothes I put on to accomplish the task at hand, and nothing more. The uniform of a slightly socially awkward artist.

But its also important to point out I dress this way because I don’t have to dress better. No one expects me to prove my worth based on my dress. Quite the opposite in fact. No one has ever questioned my value to society based solely upon my clothing. Or at least not since I was in college. And it would be considered rude for someone to do so. Its not something I ever have to worry about.

We started talking.
Possibly because he was friendly, but more than likely because I like to talk to strangers. I try not to be too pushy, but almost anyone will engage in casual conversation. “Sure is cold tonight,” that sort of thing.

I asked what he did for a living.
I do this with everyone. Its a great way to get a stranger to talk about something they’re comfortable with. Since I collect stories, like some people collect butterflies, I use this question, among others, as a method of exploration; a way to dig deeper. Everybody has good stories tucked inside somewhere, and I am shameless in my hunt for them. Up until a friend posted something on Facebook, I didn’t realize that asking someone this particular question has another meaning in the black community.

He told me to “guess.”
I thought this a funny response, a bit like a girl who is flirting with you might want you to guess her age. Only we were definitely not flirting. So I looked at his outfit, at the way he carried himself, noted the other passengers (remember I ride the train and busses all the time, so I’m familiar with the clientele), and took a wild guess.

“Are you a security guard?” I asked.

“I work in a bank,” he said. “As a loan officer.”

He may have said something more about his job. He may have not actually been a loan officer. I don’t recall. All I remember is that he worked in a bank, and not just as a teller.

He was angry after that.
Not sneering angry, not growling angry, not “ball up a fist and punch someone” angry. Nothing so overt. It was more subtle than that. More of a “slight tightening of the jaw” angry.  That, and he all but stopped talking with me.

I won’t pretend to be the most observant guy in the room, but I can tell when someone is done talking with you. They turn a shoulder. Ignore the next question. Don’t say or waive goodbye. They are done. Period. And this guy was done.

He walked far away to another entrance to get on the train.
That is to say, he made it very clear he wasn’t going to sit near me. Now I talk to people all the time on the bus and train, like I mentioned before, so I’ve learned a thing or two. I knew our conversation was over, and I had a pretty good sense the man was angry at me, but at the time what I didn’t get was why. I didn’t know if I had done or said something wrong, or if he was over-reacting. He didn’t have any of the signs of mental illness (I know, I talk to those kind of people all the time), and there was nothing about the conversation that I could see that would make someone upset. Sure I had guessed wrong at his occupation, but so what? I mean he asked me to guess. He could have just told me what he did, and we could have gone on from there. Hell, I would have loved to talk to him about his job. I’ve never worked in a bank, and I could easy have asked a hundred questions. Everything from, “do you still keep banker’s hours,” to “do you get any play with the ladies?”

He probably went home thinking, “what a racist asshole.”
He probably was right.

So that’s the story. Now, I’m going to turn the conversation over, and try to present it from his point of view. He was coming home from work. He was dressed well, dressed better than 95% of the people at the station. He works in Culver CIty which could mean anything, but probably meant he worked at a bank in the nice part of town–and the nice part of Culver CIty could give Beverly Hills a run for its money. He stood for his train, and was approached by an old white guy who dressed like a bum. They talked for a bit, and then the old gut started pestering him about his job.

I’m going to stop here for a moment because I want to talk about this specific topic. Its worth mentioning because its possible the white people in the room might not get all that is going on here. I know I didn’t at the time, so feel free to go to school on my mistake.

There are rules about how society functions. These rules are not written down, nor are they in a real sense enforced, yet they do exist, and they do come into play in public. For instance, if you are out in public late in the morning on a school day, and you see a couple of pre-teens out on the street, you will probably note them, especially if you are a parent. A child out of school sticks out. If you’re a teacher, you will probably say something to them. Anything from, “How’s if going,” to “Aren’t you suppose to be in school?” If you know the kids personally, you definitely will say something to them. “Billy Jones. Does your mother know you aren’t in school?”

There are two things to this example that are important. The first is that perfect strangers in public, who normally do not talk to each other, will speak out at kids who they think should be in school (whether they need to be in school or not, as my friends who have have home-schooled their kids will tell you). Its a social function. A protection. The social equivalent of white blood cells attaching themselves to a virus. Its not done to attack the kid as much as to preserve a perceived order; in this case having kids in school where they belong.

The second important thing about this example is that the person speaking will do so from a perceived place of authority. A kid on the street on a school day will not be enough for most people to overcome their natural inclination to not speak to strangers. But if that person is a parent, they will have more of an emotional stake in the issue, especially if they have kids near that age. They understand deeply what a kid out of school means. For a teacher, this is doubly true. They have first hand experience with kids and their motivations. They also have, what my sister (a long standing middle school science teacher) calls “the voice”. In others words, they know how to be effective. And if the stranger actually knows one of the children and their family, they will almost certainly say something.

In each of these cases, the person doing the talking is doing so from a place of authority. They know something, or feel something and are compelled to act. They do this from a place of privilege. This is what privilege means, having a raised point in a social experience.

So this social system, this method by which people of privilege speak out in public to correct a perceived flaw, also happens to be the very same method by which racism is carried out, and perceived racial divides are maintained. The equivalent of weeding in the racist garden.

I think most of my readers can imagine themselves in the dim dark past, out in a small town somewhere deep in the south, and see how white strangers might have have asked a black person what they were doing out on the street in the middle of the day. Especially during the time of slavery, where free blacks were as rare as kids not needing to be in school. This is what I like to think of as “safe” racism. Its somewhere deep in the past, doesn’t involve us, and doesn’t match or present social context. I mean, after all, no one today would ask a black person what they are doing out on the streets, right?

Well yes and no. You see, I don’t see white people doing anything of the sort, and as a general rule they don’t. But what they actually do is not all that different from it. If you’re like me, you probably won’t notice until its pointed out to you, but these kinds of things often still go on. All you have to do is ask enough people of color. They’ll tell you.

Go to a university and see how often the black students are asked, “are you here on scholarship?” compared to how often the white students are asked. Go around your neighborhood, especially a nice neighborhood, and see how many times a black person is asked, “do you live around here?” compared to a white person. Or go on a public train platform and see how many black men are asked, “what do you do for a living?” compared to the white men. If you are white, and confronted with these questions it doesn’t bother you because the questions will be few and far between, and the answers do not reflect poorly on you. But what if you got asked these things all of the time? What does it mean when every white person you see, even the well meaning ones, ask you the same questions over and over? And why these particular questions?

Are these questions just a part of the friendly banter between strangers in public, or are they analogous to the, “aren’t you supposed to be in school?”? If you’ve only experienced these questions once or twice, I’d guess the former, but if you hear them more often, they start to look an awful lot like the latter.

Which is how I accidentally ended up a racist. See I wasn’t trying to subtly tell this young man he didn’t belong in my world of white privilege, I was genuinely curious what he did for a living. Only its hard to tell sometimes the polite question from the pointed, and intent–as any competent trial lawyer will tell you–is damn hard to prove, and easy to mistake. Asking a young black man if he has a job (which is probably how he took my question) is no joke. The unemployment rate for men of color, especially young men, is incredibly high. Only a few short times since the 1960s has it dropped below twice as high as white unemployment. I’ll say it again. The average is more than twice as high.

So if I had had to work twice as hard to find a good job, and then was bugged about it by someone who looked as if he had been handed their job on a silver platter, I can imagine I would be a little bit testy. Because men, especially young men, often measure their self-worth by their jobs and the money they make, this is a topic that is rife for misunderstanding and hurt feelings. Few things can make a man feel insecure faster than questioning his financial virility. This is true for men of any color.

Since that day I’ve learned to by more circumspect. I’ve learned that if someone talks about their work as being “a little of this and a little of that,” what they are really saying is either they’re unemployed, or they don’t want to talk about their work. Older men tend to be more sanguine about this, then the younger ones. They’ve found other ways to measure their own value to society instead of, or in addition to, making money. But it wasn’t until my friend posted something on facebook the other day that I realized I needed to find a different topic to bring up, or find a more socially acceptable way of asking. That, or I needed to acknowledge that my current style of questioning could end up with me being labeled a racist asshole. Again.

What Our Government Does Well… Corruption

This one gets missed a lot here in America, and I think its important. Its corruption. To give you some perspective, read this. I’ll quote it here, in case the link doesn’t work, but you really should look at the photo.

I know there is corruption in America. But I have lived here for a year, and have not seen it. In Kyrgyzstan, corruption is everywhere. You can not do anything without corruption. To send your child to school, to apply for a job, you must pay a bribe. If there is a car accident in America, the police and insurance companies determine who is at fault. If there is a car accident in Kyrgyzstan, the person with less money or less power is at fault. In Kyrgyzstan, if you build a business, you can do everything right, and pay all your taxes, and still have it taken away. In America, if you do everything right, it belongs to you.


Talk to anyone who’s been to Mexico, Central, or South America, and one things starts to stand out: Corruption. Obviously, as the quote implies there are other parts in the world where it also happens. So I find it intriguing whenever an American talks about corruption. Not that we don’t have corruption, its just not an everyday occurrence, Moreover, most people understand that its wrong, and if they are doing it, they try and hide. That’s because we punish people who destroy the public trust. We find it immoral.

Believe it or not, this is a freedom. The freedom from having to worry about the actions of every petty official, especially government ones. The freedom to report on those who are corrupt with an actual expectation you won’t be harmed in the process. That’s a freedom.

I think it gets missed here in America. We live in such a corrupt free world that it is hard to imagine how difficult and dangerous it can be. Its as transparent to us as water is to a fish. But this wasn’t an accident. Our founding fathers demanded a government worthy of their respect, and ours. They established a government with rules and laws that applied to those governing as well as the governed, and they set up a government with separate branches that oversee each other’s work, and have the power to stop each other. And  they established a government with some iron clad rules specifically designed to protect its citizens from itself.

Think of if as the legal equivalent of bubble wrap. Mind you, it doesn’t completely stop all harm–stopping all harm is a goal which is completely impossible, or at least it is not possible with free will–but it does offer a genuine level of protection, and it does minimize  risk. You still have the freedom to expose yourself to corruption if you want (usually by going to an other country) and you still have the freedom to be corrupt if you want (as long as you are willing to face the legal consequences), but for the most part you are free to not have to deal with corruption, at least on a major lose-your-house-and-all-you-hold-dear scale.

And that, my friends, is a very good thing.



If you liked this essay. If you feel, like I do, that in the (often genuine) rush to worry about the size of our government we’ve overlooked its value, I’d like to challenge you. Please do something similar. Think of something you like about our government. Think of some value it brings, something it does well, instead of something it does poorly. And when you’ve thought of your thing, then post it. Put up your words. Put them up here in the comments, on Facebook, tweet them, whatever. It matters not how long it is, it matters not what you say, only that you say it. So say it.

Aztecs react to…

Trevor and I went for a walk tonight, and because its its favorite topic right now, we talked about military tactics in history. He’s been playing the Total War game series, which allows you to general various armies and go head-to-head with them or to fight against the A.I. At some point we started talking about the Native Americans in general and specifically about the Aztecs. Most people understand that when the Aztecs ran across Cortes they simply did not have the military technology to compete. But what most people do understand is they didn’t have the right ideas either. Cortez and the Spanish not only had a huge weapon advantage over the Aztecs, but the also had an idea advantage.

For instance the Aztec fought a kind warfare that was significantly different form the Spanish. They didn’t even have the same goals. Aztecs fought wars to gain people for sacrifices. To them killing was completely secondary, and killing too much actually counter productive. So a typical Aztec victorious battle would mean ganging up on a neighboring tribe, killing enough of them so they quit, picking 10-20 people of that tribe for sacrifice, and making sure you got 20 more people each year.

Now counter this against the Spanish. Their idea of a victorious battle would start with killing so many of the other guys that you either were to exhausted to kill any more, or they ran away. For them, killing was the goal. It was why you went to war. And a vanquished enemy didn’t just pay you tribute every year, you went and took EVERYTHING from him.

Mind you, the Aztecs were not stupid. Not even primitive. They just had never come across certain ideas about war and warfare before, and it was their inexperience with these ideas that proved to be so fatal. Well that and small pox.

Anyway, it was while we were talking about this, about the native American Indians having the largest WTF experience in history, that Trevor suggested he’d like to see the look on the Aztecs faces when they got charged for the first time by Egyptian chariots.

And that’s when he came up with the idea for a tv show: Aztecs React To…. Every week the Aztecs face a new enemy. Every week its pretty much the same results, Well not quite. The Aztecs really did kick ass, for armies in their area. Pound for pound they were certainly tough.

So we went from Aztecs React To Egyptian Chariots, to
Aztecs React To A Roman fighting square, to
Aztecs React To Napoleon’s Army, to
Aztecs React To modern day U.S. Marines, to
Aztecs React To the 50 cal machine gun, to
Aztecs React To the M1 Abrams tank, to
Aztecs React To Apache Helicopters, to

I think you can see where this was going. Soon it was time for bed.

2,700 words of progress

Spent a long part of the day working out ice age water levels for San Francisco bay, where someone would put an elusive and somewhat troubling religious order of scientists in San Francisco, and how a Pope might sweet-talk a Dominican who takes his vow of poverty seriously, into wearing a rich and gaudy outfit.

And that was chapter 1.

Gotta jump down spin around…

…pick a bale of cotton.

This last week has been a rather intense swirl for my writing. I moved my blog to here (erictolladay.com), found my stride with a middle school novel I’ve been working on, and–I’m very happy to say–started the sequel to The Peaches of Saint Ambrose. Those of you who are fans of Brother Barnabas, all I can say is he’s back, and better than before.

There is still a lot of maintenance and cleanup needed for the new site. I need to make an about page, a page specific to my fiction, and find a way to make it easier for you to read my stories on your e-reader, especially the kindle. All of which should be happening soon. So please excuse the mess while I organize.

About that middle school novel… I’ve been working on a novel called Order, The God of Small Things. Its a story about your typical middle school boy who accidentally creates a god, and then has to deal with the very adult consequences of his actions. It has very short (1200 word) chapters with lots of action, which is typical of the genre right now. My goal has been to write a chapter a day, which is a nice length for me. Enough to make it interesting, but not so much that I beat myself up at the end of the day if I didn’t write enough. Twice this week I’ve managed to finish two chapters in a day, which because I set a goal at a level I can manage, feels like icing on the cake.

I’m thinking of serializing the novel here, posting a chapter at a time, but to do this I need to set up the pages and the underlying webpage structure for it. That and write far enough ahead that I can manage it all the way to the end. Look for it in the future. You won’t want to miss this. The story is fast paced and features a lot of smart-aleck humor. And, if all goes well, it will have 2 or maybe even 3 sequels. Yes its intended to be a series. I’ve joked often enough to friends and family about Freon being the goddess of air conditioning, that I think its time I brought her to life. That and the Parking goddess, which will no doubt make my buddy Clark smile from ear to ear.

Something else I’ve done different with Order, I have purposefully tried to not think about finding a market for it, or tried to work in any angles which will make it more sellable. My goal with this was just to have fun, and let ‘er rip. And to do so at a pace I can easily manage. So far I’ve been able to meet both goals.

Now, about the sequel to The Peaches of Saint Ambrose (PoSA) All I can say at the moment is it will feature murder, intrigue, and mystery in that future post-apocilyptic Catholic California. Oh, and a super-human, insane, blood-thirsty, avenging, angle of death, that just so happens to look an awful lot like a werewolf. “Werewolves?”you say. Oh yes. Some very ugly church officials are going to learn first hand why its not a good idea to fuck around with Santa Muerte. See, unlike her sister, Saint Mary, Saint Death doesn’t play nice. She plays fair.

I’m already rubbing my hands in anticipation of this one. I love the PoSA universe and have been looking forward to getting back into it, and I know I’m not the only one. PoSA seems to be the most liked story I have written, based upon the feedback I’ve received. It happens to be one of my favorites as well. In addition to writing this second story, I plan on making available a better version of PoSA. One with a cleaner intro (the language was too stilted, especially in that first sentence) a bit of actually editing if I can swing it (no more typos) and a version that is easy to place on your kindle of other e-reader. You can expect to see both (knock on wood) before the end of the year.

Those of you who are curious, the title is in reference to a song I first heard performed by Harry Belafonte. You can listen to the song here. Ignore the video, which appears to have been cut from a Bollywood movie. I’ll admit the juxtaposition of Bollywood dancing and plantation slave song is fascinating. Its just not exactly the point I was trying to make. But there is lots of spinning.