bill prime and the zero ring men – chapter one

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-1-

Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

Bill Prime sat in his office.  His eyes were closed, his chin rested on his chest.  He had his feet up.  The double-pedestaled desk was flesh-toned, with chrome molding around top.  It was a teacher’s desk from a high school.  A cup of bitter coffee rested on his lap, held in both of his hands.  The phone in front of him was made for multiple lines, black, with a front panel and a card to write in the different extensions.  Bill only had one extension.

The phone rang.

“Bill?”

“Mhhph.  Yeah?  Yes.”

“It’s Francine.”

“I know.”  Bill took his feet down.  The chair squeaked as he sat forward.  “How is he?”

“He’s fine, Bill.  He’s a five year-old.  They bounce back.”

“I know.  I miss him.  I can’t wait to see him.”

“Well, Bill…”

“What?”

“Did you get a lawyer yet?  I don’t think so.  Not on what you make.  Not with that job.  You need to get a real job, Bill, stop hiding from the world.  Ghost hunting?  It’s embarassing.  People think you’re crazy.”

“What people?  I’m a cold case private detective.  I’ve got a job today.  This house has been sitting on the market for years.  Property manager says there’s been-”

“Whatever.  Do you want your son to think you’re crazy?”

“No.”  Bill closed his eyes.  Francine was silent for a moment.

“What do you want, Bill?”

“I can see him.  I can pick him up in two days, like we said.  Right?”

She sighed.  “You can’t drag him around to work with you.  And if anything ever happens like before…”

“I won’t.  It won’t.  Thank you, Frannie.”

“Don’t call me that.”

She hung up.

A half an hour later Bill was at the country farm house in Ridgeview.  The snow was melting and the temperatures were up in the high thirties.  It was a February thaw when it had supposed to be a January thaw.  The tails of February, really – tomorrow would be March 1st.

Lucy was standing on the warped front porch, singing softly to herself.  The boards in the floor bowed and had sprung several nails.  She held onto one of the two pillars at the head of the three stairs.  One stair tread had long ago lost a chunk and there was a ragged, splintered hole there, just enough to swallow a foot, to snap an ankle.

“Be careful of those steps,” he said to her, walking up.  She made no move as if she were going to descend from the porch to greet him, but stopped singing.  Maybe he was talking to himself.  After all, consider who she was.

She had thin curls of hair underneath a red embroidered handkerchief.  If she had leukemia or cancer or female pattern baldness, she’d never admitted to it.  As he neared the porch he heard the chirping of his cell phone from his inner breast pocket.  He reached into his blazer and took it out.  It wasn’t an incoming call.  The battered phone was acting as though it were dying of battery, when it had held a full charge only that morning.  He gently hit at it with the heel of his palm, yawning while he did.

“You’ll have that,” said Lucy.  Bill stopped at the bottom of the three steps and looked up at her.  She was heavyset, but not entirely fat.  When she spoke he would see the missing teeth in her mouth, the gap between the front two.  “Phones,” she said, “gadgets; whatever you have, it won’t work.  Might be screwy for a couple of days.  Even your home computer will likely wonk out on you for a little while.”

He saw in his mind the giant dinosaur Dell in the corner of his office, vastly underused except for his spreadsheet database and a few CAD drawings of houses like these.

He smiled at her, as was appropriate for the small talk.  She hadn’t been looking at him, but over his shoulder, behind him, at his car, at the sky.  Now her eyes found him when he smiled.  She tilted her head and frowned.  Bill thought that maybe, a woman as homely as this, with the squarish face, the three corkscrew hairs from the chin, the missing teeth, maybe a woman like this would have eyes like emeralds, but she didn’t.  Her eyes were the color of dried mud.  The scowl lingered on her face.

“What is it?”  He swallowed and winced like a boy caught masturbating.

“It’s your smile,” she said.  He waited for more, but that was it.  She often told him what he already knew – that electronic devices often wigged out when they cleansed a house – and she would offer little cryptic phrases, like about his smile, and not explain them.  This was the great Lucy.  He had known her for two years.

She took her eyes off of him and turned towards the front door.  The door there was white with peeling paint and two single panes of glass, side by side.  The glass rattled as she opened it, the doorknob squeaked in its turn.  He followed her into the house.

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Inside, he smelled the mildew of old wet carpet.  He looked up and saw the water stains in the hallway ceiling, like smears of feces.  In front of him the hallway, just a dogtrot, really, fed into a back kitchen.  A set of stairs with missing spindles in the railing led to the bedrooms.  She turned left inside the door into the living room.  He followed.  A fireplace in this room, massive stones, a slab granite mantle with an s-curve wane.  There was no furniture in the room, but brighter spots in the mottled green carpet where furniture used to rest.  Cobwebs festooned the corners where cracked crown molding met the ceiling.  A window looking out to the porch, multipaned with pieces of glass missing or fissured.  She continued on to the wide doorway on the far backside of the room.  They walked into the dining room, where an elegant table remained with six antique chairs, all coated with thick layers of dust.  The legs of the table formed the furled paws of an animal with casters on the bottom of each.

To the right was the next doorway into the kitchen.  As Lucy walked in front of him Bill saw her hands were open at her sides, palms down, the arms a few inches out from her barrel torso.  She wore a brown shawl around her shoulders.  Some kind of ragged sweater.  Grey pants, slacks or corduroys he couldn’t tell; they were worn and baggy.  On her feet a pair of dingy white sneakers, like a nurse might wear.  This was how Lucy usually looked.

In the kitchen that was once probably yellow and orange, now a uniform sepia tone.  A stainless steel ladle rested on a molding woodblock.  The sink was full of ceramic dishes, many of them broken.  Food congealed over years encrusted around the edges of plate pieces and petrified inside bowls.  The place smelled like hard, rusted water and rotted meat.  Bill put a hand over his mouth and nose.  He looked at the back of Lucy’s head and took his hand away.  If she didn’t mind, he shouldn’t mind.  He felt like gagging.  “I’m going to open a window,” he said.

She didn’t respond.  Lucy had walked to the far end of the kitchen where there was a hood above the gas stove.  Bill thought he could detect the smell of gas beneath the sour milk, rotten meat and sulfurized water.  He wondered if the pilot was still lit.  It shouldn’t be, but maybe it was.  Lucy stood by the hood and remained still.  No, Bill thought, she seemed to hover.  He checked her feet to see if she was levitating.  The grubby white shoes were still on the ground.  Yellow stick-’em tiles covered the floor. The corners of several were missing, revealing the sodden plywood below.  It wouldn’t take much to bust through that floor, Bill thought, suddenly concerned that he or Lucy might find a soft spot and break through.  He bent for a closer examination.  There was a gap between one exposed sheet of plywood and the next.  Along the edge of the plywood, chipped particles looked like hangnails on a finger.  Bill wondered what was down there, beneath the wood, in the crawl space.

The camera crew would be arriving at noon.  It was now 10:15.  This was how Lucy worked.  This was how she and Bill had arranged things for some time now.  First, the two of them gave a false start time to the video team.  Then they came two hours beforehand, just the two of them, and she went to work.  When the camera and sound and gawking producers arrived, she would repeat what she had originally done in private.  It was a bit fraudulent, maybe, but Lucy was a purist when it came to the real work.  She’d explained to Bill on their first gig that while outside influences didn’t render her ineffective, exactly, they worked on her something like the Observation Principle in science.  It was impossible to tell how much the presence of the cameras and the other people skewed her findings.  Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.  It was safer, better, more accurate, she’d told him, to go it alone on a first pass.  Then Lucy, to her credit, was a good show woman.  She could reenact her own course of action without hammy antics, with total believability.  Often, she’d told Bill, she encountered things she hadn’t on the first pass, more pieces to the puzzle, a greater fleshing out of hazy ideas.

She didn’t close her eyes.  Vision was important, she’d told him on one of their first gigs.  It wasn’t just about feeling, like a lot of the phonies claimed.  Feelings, anyway, were linked with smell and sight and touch.  What good would it do to wear nose plugs?  Put mittens over your hands?  For Lucy, the senses were the tools for feeling – for the information – as she, to Bill’s thinking, quite clinically put it once.  Did she see things?  Did things take shape in the air in front of her, protean auguries, ghostly flashbacks?  He’d always wanted to ask her, but never had.  What did she smell?  Did she scent what he did?  The decay of hidden food and old copper plumbing?  Or did she get other odors, alien smells, whiffs of the netherworld?  He’d never asked her this, either.  He’d never questioned Lucy as to any of her process.  For one thing, that was just what everyone else did.  Whether he was a skeptic himself or not, Bill didn’t feel the need to be part of the naysayers.  Professional respect?  Maybe that, too.  Just because you didn’t know what a mechanic did under the hood, or what a bacteriologist did in a lab, didn’t mean you disbelieved in their work.  A person had to take some things on faith.  Even when a person claimed to believe in facts, facts were ephemeral over the eras of time.  What was once a heliocentric model of the earth became geocentric.  What were powers belonging to only gods became the fire tamed by humans.  What was the business of protecting and serving people became a fruitless endeavor.  Didn’t it?  Entropy was the underlying law of everything.  The tendency towards chaos and sameness.  What Bill knew was that everything before its understanding evoked skepticism and doubt, and revolutions began in secret.

Take the brain, for instance, long considered to be hardwired after five or six years of development.  Now it was believed to retain a plasticity capable of reforming even in late years.  Once, Plenum was the basic stuff of all life.  Centuries later it was Strings.  M-theory.  Relativity parlayed into theoretical physics.  Theory became accepted as scientific truth.  Two-time physics and parallel dimensions. There was no reason to question Lucy Dean’s methods of communicating with the past, the future.  There was sense of the curious, yes.  But, the fact of it was, Bill just didn’t care.  Whether it was something, whether it was nothing.  It was work.  Even in such a lackluster economy, they got their contracts.  Nothing much else mattered.  Not even Bill’s last day as a cop.  Not that.  Not anymore.

Bill Prime had become a private investigator.  A person could call him a “cold case” investigator.  Rather than snap digital pictures of wives in bed with other lovers, or unearth corporate fraudulences, Bill worked those cases that’d become moldered and discarded by everyone but those most intimately involved or affected.  This put Bill at the back of the line, or the furthermost ring in the co-centric circles of the criminal investigation solar system.  This put Bill in a small office with a clanging radiator and busted overhead florescent light in one of the shittiest little towns in Upstate New York.  In between the long tracts of blunted corn, aching barns with split rafters, behind the church where tiny children spilled from afternoon school with guppy eyes and mustard-stained mouths was Bill’s office.  And this was fine with Bill, this was good.  Cold cases couldn’t hurt anybody.  Emotionally, sometimes, maybe.  But who cared about that?  If they paid, they asked for it.  No one died before their time in a cold case investigation.  Even with Lucy Dean at the helm.

Lucy’s mouth opened.  Bill stood a few feet from her, his arms hanging at his sides, the black bag in his right hand, one side of his shirt collar sticking up out from his blazer.  He watched her dried, paintless lips, a wiry hair that sprouted from her pitted chin and quivered.  “Hhhaaaa,” she said.

“In here?”

She closed her mouth, licked her lips and nodded two short nods.  “Uh-huh.  In here.”

Bill set the bag down on the round kitchen table.  As the bag hit the table it displaced dust and grime in a cloud.  Bill coughed.  “Tuner?”

“Tuner,” Lucy said.  Bill could see she was breathing shallowly.  He thought he might even detect her heart beating in her chest, the shawl vibrating with it, the filigree woolen hairs of the shawl trembling beneath her chin.  Bill pulled out the “Tuner” from the bag.  The Tuner was a guitar tuner.  The kind that, when you plucked the E string, if it was out of tune, high or low, the needle would register to one side or the other.  In tune and it stuck straight up.  He walked over to Lucy and held it out to her.

Lucy had perfect pitch.  She hummed a G.

Bill strained on his tiptoes to see the tuner over her shoulder, where she held it at her bosom.  He could see the flash of the red needle, but at the last minute Lucy shifted so that he couldn’t see where it landed.

He whispered, “On, or over?”

“Shhh.”

Lucy shifted her position again, getting closer to the stove, so that her spare tire belly bumped into the edge of it.  She bent slightly at the waist and hummed the G again.  Her voice was a beauty to behold.  It bloomed like a flower in ash.

Bill strained again to see, but it was no use.  She let fly with the G one more time, and Bill thought it sounded as though, for the first time, he could hear a tremor in her voice.  She fell silent, and stood looking at the tuner, even though the needle would now have returned to rest.

“Lucy.”

She didn’t look at him.

Lucy.”  He said.  He took a step towards her.  She turned on him quickly and held up her hand, palm out.  “Don’t,” she said.

Bill stayed where he was told.  He asked again, “On, Lucy, or over?”  By now he was sure that they had an over, that they had something here.

She looked at him with her dirt colored eyes.  For a moment he thought she wouldn’t answer.  Then she said, “Under.”

Under, Bill thought.  They hadn’t had an under yet in two years.  They hadn’t had an under in over twenty sites, twenty gigs.

“Are you sure?”

Her left eyebrow went up, her forehead furrowed.

“Okay, okay.” He patted the air, looking at the ground, looking at the walls.  “Uncontested.”  Then he looked at her.  He felt cold and damp.  “What do we do?”

“The same thing we always do.”

“But.  If it’s under-”

“If it’s under, it’s under.  That don’t change what’s next.”  The lines smoothed in her doughy forehead and she turned back to the stove.  She set the tuner down on the stove and pointed up into the hood.

“So,” she said.  “It’s up in there.”  She stretched and leaned forward on her tippy toes so that the top of her head started to disappear under the hood.  When she spoke, she sounded like someone inside a rusted garbage can.  “Yup,” she said, making Bill think of a plumber.  There’s your problem right there, ma’am.  Hair clog.  Bill watched her pressing on the stove with her fingertips until they turned white.  She said, “There it is.  It’s one of the flying ones.”

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Stay tuned! –Next week– Chapter Two: The Audio Tape  (9.7.11)

CHAPTER ONE: Lucy’s Perfect Pitch

CHAPTER TWO:  The Audio Tape

CHAPTER THREE:  Up The Stairs

CHAPTER FOUR:  The Tall Man and the Four Elements

CHAPTER FIVE:  The Zero Ring Men

CHAPTER SIX:  Unbound

CHAPTER SEVEN:  You Don’t Breathe Because The Air is On Fire

CHAPTER EIGHT:  Buried Alive and The Demon Comes

CHAPTER NINE:  The Dream

biblical times, or business as usual?

On Sunday, wind and rain crippled the region.  This past Spring, thunder literally shook the house.  Both then and now, intense rains pummeled the ground, basements flooded and rivers surged, regional lakes went feet over their spillways.  Over the weekend, roads bucked and were washed away, homes destroyed, bridges out, trees down and piled like kindling.  Everywhere in the region roads are closed, states of emergencies have been called, and the roaring bodies of water continue to bulge against the flood lines.  One man in Jay watched as the river rose, crossed the street, and started up his driveway toward his home in a matter of an hour, as some silvery, churning beast.  Like the rain-drenched Spring that set flood records in the Adirondacks, so Irene has upped the ante and wrought some of the worst devastation in the region’s history, with gale winds raking the land and water ravaging all.

Lately, these natural disasters, along with their counterpart, the man-made calamities, have really got me thinking.  Are we really in some disastrous time in history, or is it just mother nature being her usual capricious, powerful self?

When I think of the “end-times” type sentiments, I picture some image that must have gained access to my mind:  It’s some black and white 1950s footage I see of a scraggly guy (who likely has a mental illness) walking around the sidewalks with a sandwich board strapped to his shoulders declaring “the sky is falling” or “the end is near.”  And, of course, there’s the story of Chicken Little, the Mayan calendar and its prophecies, or the Bible itself.  Of the literature which foretells the end times, each bears multiple interpretations.  There is no such thing as predicting a date that the world ends.  And yet here we are, in an era, at least, that it seems our collective conscious has pointed to for centuries, saying, “Yo.  Bad shit is going to happen at this time.  You know, give or take a few decades.”

It’s inconsistencies and the inability to back theories up with hard data that lead people to declare “snake oil science” is involved in the efforts to understand climate change.  Yet we also have to factor in agendas, be they political or personal.  On a personal level, nobody really wants the world to end, or for people to suffer catastrophes.  Maybe some people do, and maybe even the majority of us feel a distant twinge of excitement at the prospect, but anyone who’s been in a real disaster will certainly tell you it’s nothing to wish for.  Yet we gape at countless films that foretell a bleak future either post-major-catastrophe or in the midst of it, we celebrate literature that depicts a future of myriad calamities, from superflus to meteors to alien invasions to technological overthrows.  These works, to my thinking, are both born from and play to the fear we each have of such things actually taking place.  No one wants disaster to befall them, especially not those persons who have families, are doing well, and have a lot to lose.  And sometimes these fears factor into what we believe about climate change and the times we live in.  They just have to; personal psychology factors into everything from economics to politics to religion.  Everyone has an agenda, even if it’s not to have an agenda.

Thing is, though, the Pentagon has actually recognized climate change.  In the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Report, the Pentagon states that climate change – and particularly, flooding due to strong storms, rainfall rate, and rising sea levels – will lead to food and water scarcity, the spread of disease and mass migration.  It seems like our artists and writers (according to Doctor Freud, “everywhere I’ve gone, a poet has been there before me”) are hitting around the bull’s-eye.  Even I have recently completed a three-year book called Highwater wherein the Adirondacks and Lake Champlain region flood.  (A forthcoming book, incidentally, is about massive immigration into the Adirondack Park when cities in the northeast become uninhabitable.)  So, it’s been there in our subconscious, and it’s now in the reports of our governing bodies.

Then there’s the economic crises to consider.  The narrowly avoided government shut down in April.  The massive bank bailouts of 2008 which nearly crippled the economy irreversibly.  The nuclear disaster in Japan.  Last year’s BP oil spill.  Of course, the Exxon Valdez spill more than a decade before that.  And, no, do I even have to mention New York City ten years ago?

The natural disasters are equally jaw-dropping.  Katrina.  Haiti.  Tunisia.  Japan’s 9.0 earthquake and 40 foot tsunami.

And then there are the potential catastrophes emergency specialists are looking at just so the next “black swan” event doesn’t take us by total surprise.  How about massive solar flares knocking our the entire national electric grid?  Or the dormant Yellowstone caldera at last erupting to bury several states beneath molten lava?

One has to wonder – has it always been this way?  We have to admit that our communication capabilities certainly enhance the expedience and abundance of information we get.  There was no way of knowing, say, in Julius Caesar’s time, or Christopher Columbus’s time, what was happening in some other country in terms of a natural disaster.  But no doubt, things were occurring.  And wars like the Crusades could certainly be considered the “man-made calamities” of those days of yore.  So is it just spurt theory?  Are we just hypervigilant, extra-attuned to such things, thereby making it all seem worse?  We are a herd, after all, and herds tend to get spooked.

Let’s put aside our personal agendas, if we can, for a moment.  Put aside political ideologies.  Let’s look at the data.  In a nutshell, it says this:  Thanks to the study of glacial layers, containing air samples from tens of thousands of years ago, we’ve learned that the carbon component in the atmosphere has indeed fluctuated over time.  The Earth’s imperfect ellipse brings it closer to the sun at times over the eons, creating big weather changes on the planet, warming and cooling trends, hot periods and ice ages.  Yet we also know from these studies that there are different kinds of carbon.  The type of carbon present in the recent spike, carbon 12 – the one that crests high above any previous spike over the millennia – is a carbon specific to our greenhouse gasses.  In other words, yes, it is irrefutable: the type of carbon we produce has added to the Earth’s natural cycles and enhanced the global warming for our time.

Our busy-bodied lifestyles, our ideas of progress and industry have influenced the climate.  How could they not?  There are people, though (typically the same people who  shake their head at all the “doomsayers” and their “snake oil science”) who say that humans are insignificant role-players in the Earth’s saga, that we haven’t been here long enough to make a dent.  Again, we have to look at the agendas of these people to pooh-pooh the inference that we’ve changed the Earth: are they afraid?  Are they self-preserving of their companies, or their lifestyles?  What is gained from denying climate change?  Perhaps a sense of security.  Security, though, is not something I felt this morning when I awoke to a closed county, or this Spring to thundering rains, and looked out at the high, fast-moving and muddied river behind my house.  This is not to say that I lack the faith in human kind to prevail.  I simply don’t put all my eggs into the basket of man-made systems.  (In the Hunter Safety course they tell you that the safety on a gun is mechanical, and can fail, so it is not to be exclusively relied on.)

Nearly every disaster in recent history has shown our great fault: our lack of back-up systems.  In Nature, everything has a back-up.  There’s a reason we have two lungs, two kidneys, two eyes.  These redundancies provide for a fail-safe.  Nor, though, do I simply rest on my conviction that an otherworldly being will come down to save us, thereby absolving me of any civic or earthen responsibility.  I don’t take it upon myself to change the world, I merely get an idea of where things are going, and I prepare and adapt.  That’s the best of humankind, to my thinking, our ability to adapt.  To be innovative.  So do I think the end of the world is coming?  No.  Do I think massive changes and hard times are afoot?  Yes.

We are not insignificant role-players in the story of the Earth.  We have had a profound impact.  Just like a virus can come on suddenly and strongly, shutting your body down, disrupting your routine for a few days, so too we have impacted the stasis of the Earth.  The virus is a handy metaphor, though the connotation is something nefarious.  I don’t think humans or bad, or a scourge.  We are the blessed stewards of the Earth.  I believe we were meant to flourish, to progress.  Could we blast back in a time machine to primordial times and convince a cave man not to invent the wheel, or pick up and use a sharp rock?  No – there is an inexorability to the trajectory of the human race.

By the same token, we are given great responsibility.  As much as our individual psychologies become, collectively, the shape of our species on the planet and inherent within us is the motivation to advance and progress, we have come to see that the paradigm of infinite growth is not sustained by the finite resources on planet Earth.  So, we adjust.  We adapt.  This is our calling now.  Not to fear the end, or to wait for a saviour, or to just keep plugging away so that we don’t have to face our insecurities, but to dissolve our sense of entitlement.  It is said, “those who exalt themselves will be humbled.”  Have we not exalted ourselves, celebrated our culture and our nations and our way of life?  Have we not stood on high and said that we are monarchs of all we survey?  That we have dominion over the Earth and its creatures?  We have come far from certain brutalities.  We were meant to progress beyond the atrocities of human torture, pillaging and plundering.  But, have we?  Some of the sadism seems to have been decocted from the human world, or has it just been glossed over?

George Carlin had a bit where he talks about how syndromes created in soldiers who experienced the horrors of war used to be called “Shellshock,” which was an apt, emotional description, bringing to mind a wide-eyed, disheveled soldier on the brink of madness.  Carlin said that this has been mamby-pambied down to “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” which sounds like a sprained ankle in comparison.  We may no longer place prisoners to torture them upon “the rack,” but employ “enhanced interrogation” tactics (like waterboarding, which sounds like a coastal sport).  There may no longer be Vikings pillaging and plundering, but aren’t our modern Vikings hiding in suits and ties, like Enron, like Goldman Sachs, like lobbyists who buy politicians?

If you walk up to most any sane, intelligent person on the street and say that natural disasters and man-made disasters are retribution for our criminal actions on the planet, that person is likely to think you a silly God-freak and turn away.  Because we cannot connect the dots so simply.  A person who is going to balk at such drawn conclusions needs to be led through the steps one at a time, to illustrate the connection.  It is not enough, like Paolo Coelho writes through his vivid characters in The Alchemist that “all things are one.”  While that may resonate personally and philosophically for some, it is too vague to be swallowed by more literal types.  The connections, though, are an intense webwork of equations, linking a sense of individual entitlement to a corporate response which places demands on the Earth, thereby stressing the environment and spurring natural disasters and either separately, or in tandem, the man-made calamities.

There is no single person or group at fault in such equations.  It is very difficult to ferret out a true culprit.  When the early industrial revolution had people living in cities in order to work in the factories, let’s say, and someone had the idea that people ought to live in the areas outlying the cities, and these became suburbs, was that wrong to do?  No.  It’s no more “wrong” than a cave man discovering the cooking use of fire.  Did great responsibility arise with the dawn of the suburb and the inception of sprawl?  Yes, absolutely.  Every privilege is counterweighted by its responsibility.  Every blessing, when not attended to properly, will become a curse.  The demand for transportation arose, and human innovation and engineering responded.  Nothing happens without business, of course, and so profits are made.  When profits become the chief objective, however, this is where trouble comes into paradise.  Greed is an extension of entitlement.

So, Biblical times, or business as usual?  In truth, neither, and yet, a little bit of both.  Somehow, in ways beyond my ability to comprehend, other than to say “all things are one,” or to cite the mysteries of the collective unconscious and maybe to say that we all come from the same stuff stars are made of, we’ve been more or less predicting this period of time for ages.  Through the literature of various religions, from the hearts of artists and writers, we’ve anticipated this.  We put out and consume disaster movies and novels in droves.  For some reason, it satisfies a huge part of who we are.  The triumph of the human being in these stories, the fears they represent – whether its a terrestrial or extraterrestrial disaster, whether its our own technology growing beyond our control and turning back on us.  We seek redemption in our stories, because we ourselves hope to be redeemed for our gross entitlement.  This is nothing new, this sense of entitlement.  It has simply been mushroomed thanks to the population boom of the past century.  Since we first began harvesting oil and configuring it into every part of our lives from our vehicles to our plastic toothbrushes and emergency infant incubators, we’ve grown in record numbers.  Our vaccines, our medical discoveries like penicillin the use of blood plasma, antiseptics, and the invention of certain pharmaceuticals have all contributed to lower a morality rate and longer lives.  We’re astoundingly more copious and we live twice as long as we did a hundred years ago.  As we near seven billion people, a number doubled only in the last forty years, it’s no wonder the Earth is “shell-shocked.”

So where does that leave us?  How do we enforce the need for a sense of responsibility superior to what exists today?  I shudder to think about any more over-regulation, and the idea of a global government gets me thinking about a kind of fascism that would make the previous fascist scourges seem like well-tempered suggestions.  “Hi, would you please not be Jewish?”  “Would you mind – sorry to bother you – would you mind if you believed only what I told you and that your career was what I said it was going to be?  Thanks.”  So then, what?

If the extreme end of Capitalism is “kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out; the best of the best will survive,” and the extreme end of Socialism is “the People don’t know what’s good for them; we’ll tell them and enforce that they do everything we say,”  then what are the good points of these economic models?  Capitalism seems to very much be at the heart of Democracy, that we should be able to pursue our goals to their ends untrammeled by the government.  But, of course, that is an ideal, and hard to achieve.  The reason is because not everyone is capable of standing on their own two feet.  Not everyone has the same ethical, moral standards some of our best maintain.  Many of us are sick, infirm, poorly educated, unable to do the same for themselves that we might.  Are we such savages that we would just see those persons be naturally selected out?  No, of course not.  Our humanity lies in our treatment of our neighbor.  At the same time, do we, a healthy person of sound mind and capability, want to be limited by the least among us?

Hunting, for some people, is not about sport, but an exercise in survival.  Sure, most of us can trot off down to the local grocery and get what we need for that night’s dinner, but what happens when we no longer can?  Or, what about those people who just don’t want to be a part of that system?  If a hunter has a spiritual understanding of his actions, is safe and respectful, shouldn’t he be allowed to harvest his game however he sees fit?  Whether you feel he should be or not, he isn’t.  Environmental regulations prohibit a hunter from doing all sorts of things that, to some thinking, maybe just as good a way as any other to harvest a deer, even if it’s not “sportsmanlike.”  But spotlighting a deer from your car and shooting it is not allowed because of those people who will end up abusing the privilege and drinking and acting irresponsibly.  We regulate because of those individuals who make poor decisions.

Is there a happy medium?  A simple cap on capitalism seems like a no-brainer.  There should be limitations to how much money a company can make.  Who needs more than a billion dollars?  For what?  Or perhaps monies made over a certain mark could be siphoned off and funneled into area where needed.  The more money you make, the more civic responsibility you have financially.  The problem is that the legislation is compromised when the very people whose lives certain laws would alter are the same people influencing the politicians who would pass such laws.  And now it’s legal for corporations to donate to political campaigns, so it seems like we’re going in the opposite direction.

The reality is, we’re going to have to ride this out.  It’s time for every individual, from poor to rich, to reevaluate their priorities and their lifestyles.  The rich will not be protected; those million dollar mansions that line the coasts will be the first to go.  The meek shall indeed inherit the Earth; the people busy landscaping and maintaining those properties, working in the fast-food restaurants and cleaning up the roadways.

The wars overseas will not end, the ideological struggles are too entrenched; thousands of years of disputes over religion and territory will not go away or be glossed over by an imposed democracy.  The storms will continue – all storms, be they natural or man-made, are attempts to rectify an imbalance.  The fever gets the highest just before it breaks.

There’s no heading this one off at the pass – that time has come and gone, and, frankly, was never really possible to change in the first place.  This is all inevitable.  There is the inexorable force of entropy at work, the universal, cosmic struggle of chaos versus order.  Right now, chaos is on the upswing.  There is no panacea, there will be no one person who can rise to stop the flood or part the waters for the people to pass through, no matter how many exciting new Presidents we elect.  People place all of their eggs in the presidential basket for the same reason people deny that global warming exists in the first place: fear of changing their own lives, fear of establishing their own new mental paradigms that say, “I am not so entitled I can do whatever I want without the commensurate responsibility.”  No one person can do it, no one political or religious ideology.  It comes down to each and every single individual, what happens from here on in.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world” – ?  Yeah, okay, but that’s a little to cutesy for my taste.  “Be the survival you wish to see in the world,” is better, which, to my thinking, begs the question of whether or not you really wish to see the world survive.

Do you?  I mean, do you really – beyond your own desire to self-preserve, beyond your own fears of mortality, do you wish to see the human race prevail?  If it was part of our make-up to really and earnestly see humankind prevail through the ages, wouldn’t we have spent more time considering the fate of future generations?  Or have we just been going through a sort of species adolescence, feeling invulnerable, the way a sixteen year-old does?  Are we now going through a painful sort of puberty, a maturation as a species on this planet?  Are we starting to wake up, to take stock of the reckless ways we’ve behaved in our youth?  It’s time to think about a real career.  About what we want to do with our lives.  We’ve tested the boundaries, we’ve been rebellious, we’ve shrugged the authority of our parents, and now we must learn to live on our own.

We have to decide what we’re here for.  It’s not for the “fun and games” we’ve felt was our due while we were in our teen years as a species.  Our adulthood is calling us, asking us to be responsible, to stop going out to the bars and cavorting all over the place, seeking fun and adventure at whatever cost.  It is time for our species, in the same way each of our individual lives go, to put aside these childish attitudes and to build towards a fruitful future.  There is indeed a paradise waiting for us, there is hope at the end of all of this.  But, we have to earn it.  We don’t get it because its our birthright.  We get it because we earn it.

So, get those jugs of water in to the basement, along with some food stores.  Prepare redundant systems in your life, back-ups for when things fail.  Learn how to hunt, or, if you don’t want to hunt, learn how to garden.  (You should learn how to garden if you hunt, too.)  Put aside some good books somewhere, so that when a week goes by with no power, you’ve got some good reads, some reminders of why the human race is so great.  And above all, talk to your kids about why they need to learn to be responsible for every gift they’re bestowed, from the air they breathe to the roof over their heads to the fun they enjoy.  Tell them that new worlds are always possible.

As I write this, the sun is coming out.

Oh woops, I spoke to soon; it just went behind the clouds again.  Looks like more rain.

high water

A timely book, when you consider the Spring floods and the devastation wrought recently by Irene in the Adirondacks, where the story takes place…

A Review from a reader:

Tim,

Last night I finished ‘Highwater’;  Wow! The last few chapters were so gripping that I couldn’t put it down, and at the end I wished it wasn’t over: a novel has not done that to me in quite awhile.  The final conversation between Tom and the grown Caleb was poignant, unexpected and fascinating.

The creature Mobius was a unique and memorable villain/monster.  The scenes you wrote from its perspective were my favorite parts; the idea of Mobius and the Highwater power released from the deep was also clever and topical.  Like many great Sci-Fi monsters Mobius was unleashed by man’s meddling; your creation taps into a universal unease and need for caution when mankind uses technology to change and take from the natural world.  I only heard of hydrofracking shortly before beginning ‘Highwater’ – great job getting ahead of the headlines!

I was engaged personally by the fact that many events in the story took place in regions and towns like Burlington that I know well.  I have been on that ferry in such rough water and it is a harrowing experience and a great setting for the beginning of the climax of a story.

-Adam Gardam

dead painters

Why do painters paint?  The answer would seem obvious: because they are compelled to.  But why painting?  Why slapping colors on canvas and moving them around with this tool, this brush?

Painting probably predates many other forms of expression.  The earliest cave wall pictures are estimated to have first emerged between thirty and forty thousand years ago.  There is no evidence of literature at this time, much less significant language, written or spoken.  No evidence of performance art, at least nothing conscious.  Painting on the cave walls or on rocks with clay and blood and whatever other medium was accessible spoke to the primitive mind.  More, it spoke to what was evolving out of the primitive mind.  It accessed the higher functions of the brain, this use of visual symbols and their interpretation.

Still, when you think about the modern world, the last century, with all we’ve had going on it’s amazing to think we’ve paid any attention to painters at all.  It makes sense, you might suppose, that in the pre-photographic days of Van Gogh and Gauguin and Rembrandt that painters were part of the popular culture.  But what about Pablo Picasso in the 1930s and 40s?  Jackson Pollock in the 50s?  Sure, there was no cable television then.  No internet, of course.  Not as many gadgets to distract us.  So what about Andy Warhol in the 1980s?  Or Jean-Michel Basquiat?  Was it still relatively quiet enough to notice what they were doing – smearing their ideas, their own symbolic systems, on modern cave walls?

Basquiat began by doing graffiti, which, when you really look at it, seems to be as closely linked to cave-wall painting as any of the forms of visual art.  Crude symbols, often esoteric to a clan or a tribe, are quickly thrown up on a hard surface like a brick wall, frequently telling a story of character or battle.  Basquiat grew up in this world.  Born in Brooklyn in the 1980s into a upper middle class family, he was poised, in more ways than one, to infiltrate the art scene of his day.

For one thing, from videotaped interviews and documentaries (particularly Tamra Davis’s “The Radiant Child”) we find that Basquiat really wanted to get famous.  Fame, in the 80s, was very different even from what it is today.  Today we are saturated by it.  Warhol’s own prediction has become one of the great prophecies of the twentieth century – the eccentric artist and entrepreneur had a keen insight that virtually predicted the internet and YouTube.  And while we’ve always had unsavory characters who are infamous, in today’s world there seems to be a glut of them.  Why does Brittney Spears exist?  Or Paris Hilton?  Or shows like the Shytards or Jersey Shore?  Where did American Idol come from?  The means to accessing fame have created the wide road and low barrier for entry which, in turn, has increased the ephemera of fame.  In other words, today we have just what Andy predicted – the fifteen minutes of fame that just about every last woman and child can attain with the right gimmick, or fitting in to just the right fleeting niche.

In Basquiat’s day, though, things were different.  Likely with the advent of the moving picture this idea of fame grew in our minds.  In the 1950s, it had permeated the culture to the streets.  Allen Ginsberg said, “There is no beat generation.  It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”  While they are different – publishing and media fame – it’s of little question that the impulse to become recognized has evolved both exponentially with the immense population growth of the planet and via the media which fame is made possible.  More people, more ways to be seen, stronger impetuses to “make it.”  Basquiat truly wanted to “make it.”  So he positioned himself just where he would have the best chance to do so.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, the author takes various examples of success and shows us the hidden factors we may not have otherwise considered.  Of the Canadian All Star Hockey team, for example, Gladwell points out some inarguable data – two thirds of the All Star team share birthdays between January and April.  Is this coincidence?  No.  Gladwell explains that these sports figures had early advantages based on when they were born in the year.  When the cut-off to get into certain junior league teams was ten years old, those kids who turned ten on January 1st had a greater advantage for success than those kids born on December 31st.  Even though either child was, technically, ten years old, the kids born on January 1st really were a whole year older.  Thus they were often taller, faster, stronger, and more mature.  Because of this physical and mental edge, they tended to do better, which afforded them more attention by the coaches and so more ice time to hone their skills.  While they did better and better, the kids born towards the end of the year fared worse, got less attention and less ice time.  Early advantages, Gladwell uncovers, lead to more opportunities down the road.

Some of the richest families in the world began with the men who were born at a particular time – Rockefeller and Carnegie, for instance, who came into the world at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.  Conversely, the smartest man in the world, who has a 180 IQ, lives on and operates a farm in the Midwest, instead of designing colonies on Mars for NASA, or solving the global energy crisis.  This is because the smartest man in the world grew up with an abusive father in a low-income home.  He was never taught how to effectively deal with people without anger and got himself thrown out of school for mouthing off to the Dean.  When we look closely at success, and fame, Gladwell points out, we can often see the hidden factors which contributed to it, and we can also find the factors that may have conspired against it. 

Basquiat exiled himself from his home.  He decided to live in the streets of Manhattan.  But this wasn’t because he had a personality disorder or was using drugs.  Basquiat’s becoming a denizen of Manhattan alleyways and bars wasn’t caused by his shortcomings – it was a move made by his greater instincts.  There he worked on his street art and paintings, all the while strategically positioning himself for maximum visibility.  At the time, if you listen to the interviews and watch the films, you see that there was “about 500 people” who became this sort of social club and would hang out in the same downtown district of Manhattan.  Part of this group formed a cable access variety show and Basquiat signed up.  While his reputation grew some, it wasn’t until two things happened that Basquiat entered into our cultural history.  For one, the young painter was a great admirer of Warhol’s and learned his schedule.  He knew where the pop artist liked to have lunch, and so would hang out whenever possible in that area.  When he finally saw Andy one day sitting in his favorite restaurant, Basquiat went in and showed him his work.  The other thing that happened was a popular journalist and art critic had been following the career of Julian Schnabel for some time, and wanted to start fresh.  He was looking for someone – he even admits to wanting a minority artist to follow – so that he could track the artist’s progress from obscurity and into fame.  He found Basquiat and wrote the article – “The Radiant Child” – which officially introduced the young painter to the New York Art scene.

Why do painters paint?  There is no one reason.  Basquiat’s work is filled with references to African American events and culture as well as countless nods to the works of other artists he admired.  For him, the medium was something like a window which he could pass to the public the history of a people, a culture, and an art world which he felt important.  It came in and filtered through his incredible, multi-tasking mind.  He presented these elements in a way that a child might – Basquiat had been hit by a car when he was six years old, and it is speculated that the somewhat juvenile style of his painting and drawing was tied to that event.  As if he were saying, “look, look through the eyes of a child at this incredibly diverse culture of ours.”

Jackson Pollock worked for years on surrealist paintings that bear little resemblance to his most popular works – the drip-method spaghetti style that he has become so associated with.  He struggled with an alcoholic mind, one beset by intense jealousy (for Picasso), family problems and deep anxieties.  His painting was his method for coping with his myriad dysfunctions and an analysis of the medium of painting itself.

Warhol used painting to provide us a kind of funhouse mirror to reflect our commercial world and our obsession with celebrity, manufacturing, consumption, and pop star status.  His work was less a colorful illustration of the past, but a glimpse into the future, a peek at the process machinery underlying the illusion of choice and diversity.  Look, said Warhol, showing us the same tomato soup can over and over, the same Elvis or Monroe, repeating them with little variation, but only perhaps with a different hue added or taken away.  Over and over again, Warhol said to us.  This is what’s becoming of our culture.  This redundant machine.  Warhol spoke to us, almost warning us of a great homogenization and extreme dilution of society, the blend of the artistic and the commercial on mass-production scales.

And what about Van Gogh?  Was he motivated to get famous?  Maybe the poor guy just wanted to sell a painting.  Maybe his idea wasn’t about getting famous, but at least being recognized.  Validation is something important to human beings regardless of the age we live in or the accessibility of fame.  Even to those cave men, likely validation was important.  See what I did, Grog?  Do you see it and understand it?  Do you know how I suffered over this labor?  Van Gogh most certainly suffered for his art.  When you read Huston Smith’s Lust for Life, you get the image of this man in the blazing hot summer of the French countryside, his scalp red and burning beneath the scorching sun as he painted furiously the fields, the wheat, the villages, the streets.

Van Gogh never sold a painting while he lived.  This could be arguably attributed to something else the writer Malcolm Gladwell takes a close look at in his book Tipping Point.  Basquiat was highly sociable, and positioned himself in this “group of about 500 people” who frequented the New York City night scene in SoHo during the 80s.  There, a collection of mavens, collectors, and salesman congregated – essential types, Gladwell points out, for launching an epidemic.  Even Pollock had ties with the art scene, if not only through his partner, the more gregarious Lee Krasner.  While Pollock may have consorted with other lush reprobates and discussed art and painting, Krasner circulated among more “appropriate” types – critics and respectable artists that helped buoy Pollock’s early floundering career.  Van Gogh had no one.  His brother ran an art gallery and bought Vincent’s paintings, but where was the artist himself for the community to see and touch?  He was off in the French country side, the sun baking his brain as he painted madly, day in and day out, the colors which had accessed his heart and stayed there to haunt it until the day it beat no more.

Which brings me to the final fascination – what happens when the painter dies?  A whole new set of rules seems to exist here.  Basquiat, after receiving a substantial measure of the recognition he’d sought for so long, was celebrated at a much higher level after his passing, and embraced finally as a true artist.  While alive, the artist was recognized in the New York and LA art scenes, but never achieved the status only granted exclusively by the governing Art Community, only as a gimmick or pet child.  Posthumously, of course, he was granted entre to the ultimate art world.

Van Gogh is known centuries later for his work after dying penniless and underrecognized.  And while Picasso may have entertained fame while he was alive, there is no denying the growth of his recognition after his demise.  What is it then, that restricts us from acknowledging an artist fully in their living days?  Why do we wait until they are gone?  There’s more than a lack of Gladwell’s Tipping Point factors at work here.  It’s as if, instead, there is something taboo or even egalitarian which stifles championing the true merit of the artist – or any human being, for that matter –  while still living.  It would be presumptive or embarrassing to celebrate them prematurely.  It would be implicitly acknowledging something greater than secular human life, it would be acknowledgment of a much greater mystery.  For what ever reason, it seems tacit that we must bide our time until the artist croaks before we’re allowed to throw up our arms and at last declare, “Wow!! He was awesome!”  Or, if we do celebrate them, it must be with some measure of skepticism.  For every praising review there must be a critic who attacks the artist; they are not allowed to be truly exalted while living.  Yet in death, no one dares come forward with a bad review.  Suddenly its unanimous that the late artist was nothing short of incredible.

Granted, there are still people who quibble over the merits of, say, Jackson Pollock’s work.  If you’re an art collector, you likely don’t quibble, and if you’re an artist, you probably don’t argue either.  But even those people who stand by the old “a child could have done that” and lack the insight into what Pollock gave of himself to arrive at that breakthrough, they don’t speak up too loud – it’s tough to argue when someone is as generally well-known and well-regarded as Pollock.

Why do painters paint?  For money.  For fame and recognition.  To shine the light on something.  To illustrate their take on history.  To share their vision of the future.  To convey religious experience.  To cope with dysfunction.  To purge demons.  To scrub clean the unconscious mind by reaching in, yanking it out and splattering it on the canvas.  To die and be reborn in immortality.  To color the cave walls, to remind the world of the depth of the human experience.  To leave signs of passing, so that when all is left is the giant process machinery churning out movie after regurgitated movie, paranormal-romance-franchise after paranormal-romance-franchise, there beneath the steel minarets and endless tubes and tracks of the machine is color, and variety, and question.  Whether the impressions are made by those who, due to circumstance and drive have become the examples of painters in our culture, or the countless others just as gifted and important who remain hidden within the largesse, the cave walls are covered in grafted blood and clay, used to form the images of our human experience.