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Vampire Speed Dating

Starting in 2017, I intend to write more. In an effort to kick start my writing, I asked my Facebook friends to throw out some writing prompts. This is in response to the first, a prompt for “A Vampire Tries Speed Dating,” suggested by David Goodner. It might need a little work, and the heavy reliance in dialogue lends itself to a short play, but for now, here it is.

*****

                Well, this is awkward, Drake thought moments before the woman in the seat across from him voiced her own misgivings aloud, stating, “Well, this is awkward.”  Drake laughed, one of those forced laughs one makes when one would rather be anywhere other than where they were. Meanwhile, she—Debbie, according to her “Hello, my name is…” sticker—was equally aware that the situation was going downhill, and fast.

“Sorry,” she said. “I mean, this whole speed dating thing kinda sucks, doesn’t it?”

Drake cringed, too visibly, and Debbie picked up on it almost immediately. “Did… did I say something wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Drake said, “it’s just that… well, and you wouldn’t know this, so don’t feel bad, but the ‘s-word’ is kind of offensive.”

“’Speed dating?’” Debbie asked.

“’Sucks.’ It’s kind of a slur to my people.”

“Your people,” she asked, not getting it and, Drake knew, not meaning to not get it. It was a common correction to have to make, and he hated to make it when it wasn’t said out of malice.

“Vampires.”

“Vampires?”

“Vampires.”

“Oh… huh.”

“Yeah. Using ‘sucks’ to mean that something is bad or stupid is insulting.”

“Wait… Let me get this straight: you’re a vampire?”

“Yup,” he said, trying not to make it sound like a proud toddler responding to someone accurately guessing his grade level in school.

“Huh. Well,” she continued, “I didn’t know.”

“You couldn’t be expected to, so…”

“What about derivatives of su… er, the ‘s-word?’ Like calling someone a ‘sucker?’”

“Yeah… that’s… that’s like the ‘n-word’ in my culture.”

Debbie’s reaction this time was less confused, and more genuinely concerned. “Oh no… I… I’m really sorry.” Drake usually found that once the comparison to “nigger” was made, most non-vampires seemed to get it. It was about finding a common ground.

“No, no… again, it’s okay. You wouldn’t know.”

“I’ve just… I’ve never known a vampire personally.”

“Most people don’t. There aren’t a lot of people who even know we exist.”

“Still, I should be better about this stuff. I’m a linguist, so-“

“Oh yeah?” Drake was eager to direct the conversation away from his background, his culture’s various touchy points, and from him in general.

“Uh-huh. So you’d think I might know a little bit about linguistic no-no’s like that one. Like, not everyone knows that ‘gypped’ comes from slurs about Gypsies. Same idea.”

“Yeah, I knew some Gypsies, once. They really can get touchy about stuff like that. And about the s-word thing and not knowing about vampires, it really is okay. We aren’t very open about our existence. We don’t like to be out in the light.” He paused, smilingly wryly. “… figuratively and literally.” He paused, waiting for a reaction, having just laid down perhaps the best dad joke in history. Debbie didn’t respond immediately, so like the stumbling dad, Drake continued. “Did… I mean, you probably appreciate how I used ‘literally’ there.” Still seeing no response to the joke, and sensing that the conversation was taking a sudden and unexpected turn back toward awkward, Drake continued nevertheless. “Because, you know, people misuse…”

“Yeah, I get it,” she said.

“Because ‘literally’ is….”

“Uh-huh,” she mumbled, committing to the ultimate show of lost interest by turning to her phone.

“Sorry, sorry.”

She shrugged. “People always try to trigger me with weird linguistic uses and misuses. Turns out when most people meet someone who studies language, everyone is suddenly a grammar Nazi.” She sighed, “but that’s not fair to you.”

“Yeah, no…. that joke sucked, anyway.” He paused, expecting the usual complaints about double standards. “See, I can say ‘sucks’ because it’s the kind of word that has power, you know? It was first used by people who hated and feared us, and then by people who made it a point to hunt us down and kill us. ‘Suckers’ was first used by vampire hunters in Germany during the eleventh century purges. They called us ‘Saugnapfhe.’”

“Again,” Debbie said, “linguist. I get the whole power disparity thing with words. And, I really am sorry,” Debbie said, clearly concerned and remorseful at the unintentional harm she caused. “I should have known, but I didn’t, because vampires aren’t common knowledge.”

Drake took a second to collect himself, drew in a breath, closed his eyes. “No, I’m sorry. It’s just that this is a sore subject, you know?”

“I completely understand.”

“You go for centuries hearing all these words and stereotypes and misunderstandings about vampires—thanks Stoker—and I imagine you wouldn’t get it. But it’s not like vampires are really brought up much in school.”

“Yeah, not at all.”

“Figures. Live-washing of a whole society.”

“Do… I’m sorry if this is sensitive or rude… but do you guys drink, um, human blood?”

“Well… yes.” It was Drake’s turn to feel awkward. Five or six hundred years ago, when he was in his angry young vampire phase, that would have been an insult. Completely true, but still insulting, and one of the worst kinds. Years of reflection, however, had convinced him that because of the embarrassing “vampires killing humans” past, humans weren’t wrong to be mistrustful. “But,” he said, “things have changed. We can get blood from blood banks, now. Oh, and check this out.” Excitedly, he pulled out his phone and started tapping on the screen, oblivious at the moment that Debbie was rapidly losing interest again. “There’s an article in Science Monthly about the ability to synthesize human blood, and how it’s going to be a game changer for health care. Of course, they didn’t mention vampires, but…” as he looked to show her the article on his phone, he realized that she had tuned he own attention to her phone. “Uh, I mean… well, it’s cool to me.”

“I’m sure it is.”

The silence that settled did nothing to lighten the mood, and those types of silence are not wont to do. They sat there for a moment, but hanging in time. Finally Debbie looked up at the clock in the café, despite there being a clock on her phone because it gave her something to do rather than look at her own screen and be reminded of the situation that was at times interesting, and at times uncomfortable. “So, I guess we’ve got another minute of this, huh?”

“Yep.”

“Seems like an awfully long minute at this point.”

“When you’ve been alive for at least a thousand years, a minute isn’t so bad.”

“Well, this one is pretty bad for us lowly thirty-four year olds.”

He laughed. “I guess so. Hey, I’m sorry…”

“We should both stop that, you know.”

“Stop what?”

“Apologizing for everything. We’ve both said ‘sorry’ a lot during this five-minute conversation.”

“Four minutes and thirty-seven seconds, actually.”

“Even worse, then.” She smiled again. “Look, it hasn’t been all bad.” She put away her phone as the final moments of their “speed date” ticked away.

“No? So are we going to exchange numbers or something?”

She laughed, perhaps too loudly, as other speed daters at other tables turned to look at her. “No, definitely not.”

“Oh.” Despite himself, and despite knowing that the short meeting had been a bust, he had experienced a moment of hope.

“It wasn’t all bad,” she continued, “because I learned a lot about your culture. So the next time I meet a vampire, I won’t put my foot in my mouth. So, thanks.”

“Dubious praise.”

Genuine praise. Take it as a compliment. You’re a decent guy, just a little clueless.”

“Fair point.”

From the front of the café, where the overly perky facilitator of the session had been overseeing this experiment in rapid human romantic connection, a cheery voice said “Okay, daters! Wrap it up, and let’s get the next shift going!” People started to stand, some smiling and exchanging numbers with the person across from them, some moving on without hesitations (and in a few cases, quite quickly). Debbie smiled one last time.

“You’ll do fine,” she said. “Next time, though, maybe leave out the ‘vampire’ thing right off the bat. Ease into it. It could be a problem.”

“Good advice. Thanks.” He held out his hand, and she responded with a solid clasp and shake.

“Maybe I’ll see you around?”

Drake shrugged. “Maybe so.”

She moved on to the next table as another woman, eager to meet her potential soul mate, bounced up with too much energy to Drake’s table. Her “Hello, my name is” sticker proclaimed that her name was Louise.

Drake had a good feeling about this one.

*****

                Later that night, as Drake was wiping Louise’s blood off his chin while he considered his options in disposing of her body, it was his-post feeding euphoria that likely kept him from seeing the slight, blond woman—still wearing her “Hello, my name is Debbie” sticker—slip up behind him. He only realized what had happened when the sharp point of the wooden stake protruded from his chest via his back and he stared down at it in shock. He didn’t even have a chance to turn before his body began to age rapidly, the thousand or so years he’d stolen from others being stolen, in turn, from him. As he fell face first into the alley, Debbie let the stake fall down with his body. She reached into her jacket and produced a container of lighter fluid and a well-used Bic lighter.

“I said you were clueless. Shoulda listened.”

Her phone chirped at her, and she pulled it out, glancing down. “Ugh,” she groaned, “I didn’t think that werewolf would text so soon. Girl can’t catch a break.” Deborah Van Helsing shot back a quick reply about meeting somewhere tomorrow evening, when she knew that the moon would be full. Harder to kill, but permanent, she thought. “What the Hell is up with all these damn monsters using speed dating, anyway?” An affirmative reply from the werewolf—eager, too—was the only noise, barely audible over the creschendoing fire of the vampire’s body.

Another Smattering of Theater

So here I am, in a bar (Flying Saucer in Houston, if you’re keeping score), writing another 10ish minute play for one of Cone Man Running’s Spontaneous Smatterings. Normally, I’m stressed as all get out at this point. 9:30, and I would normally not even have the slightest spark of an idea. Fortunately, this is not a normal Smattering. I actually have a genre I can handle (Creature/Monster, and if you think I can’t write something about monsters or creatures, you don’t know me very well). So I’m at least half way into the fist version of my script, which may or may not get scrapped (probably not… I’m digging where I’m going). I’ve got until 8:00 tomorrow to get this handed in. I’m writing with some of my extended Cone Man Running Friends – Conor and Cassandra (who was in my full-length play, The Importance of Eating Earnest), drinking beer, and having a great time.

This is probably the least stressed I’ve been about this. Look for my 2:00 am post where I’ve scrapped my first idea and am feverishly re-writing what I now hate….

Post-Election Actions

In the wake of the results of the 2016 election, I’ve opted to write my Congresscritters (both Federal and State) with the following message.

**********

November 22, 2016

Dear Senator Cornyn, Senator Cruz, Congresswomen Granger, State Senator Hancock, and Representative Krause;

My name is Ben Plopper, and I’m writing this letter to all of you in the face of Donald Trump’s election as the 45th President of the United States. As with many of my fellow Americans (the majority of the popular vote, in fact), I have grave concerns regarding the positions Mr. Trump agitated for during his campaign. As I am a life-long Democrat, I realize that I do not agree with many positions that you have championed. I additionally understand that, by the will of the Electoral College, you – as Republicans – will have the ability to achieve your policy positions with greater ease. In a normal election year, while I would have been disappointed, I would accepted that as the normal workings of Democracy; the votes are in, my side didn’t fare so well, and now it’s time to work together to find compromise where possible.

2016 is not a normal election year.

I am also incredibly proud to call myself a Texan. The diversity of this state, its friendliness, wide-open spaces, and room for all manner of races, religions, creeds, etc., has worked its way into my heart since my family moved here in 1988. Even though I’m in the political minority in this state, I still love it.

Mr. Trump’s proposed policies will absolutely hurt that wonderful array of diversity. His divisive stance on immigration flies in the face of an increasingly politically active Hispanic population (estimated to be 39%). More than 50% of the state’s population are our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and female friends, and Mr. Trump has demeaned and belittled them at every opportunity. Our friends and family who are part of the LGBTQ community are scared for their futures and lives. They are justifiably worried that their right to share in the same legal protection that I share with my wife may be taken away, and the gains that they fought and died for will be walked back. Additionally, millions of Texans have benefitted from the ACA, and by being able to worry less about the cost of healthcare, can now turn their attentions to better making Texas economically and socially competitive.

Mr. Trump’s words and actions have indicated to less desirable members of the country that bullying, discrimination, and misogyny, are acceptable. This should never be the case, and we Texans are better than that.

As such, I implore you not to rubber stamp every piece of the president-elect’s policy initiatives or political/judicial appointments merely for party unity and political expediency. Please, instead, scrutinize everything that comes from his office and determine where there may be intentional or inadvertent harm to Americans and Texans alike. If you find harmful legislation, stand up against it, for me and all of your constituents, regardless of whether we voted for you. Yes, many decisions will be made that those of us on the political left don’t agree with but, again, under normal circumstances, that’s the way the pendulum swings as power shifts. Mr. Trump, however, seems to be determined to push policies that will harm all Americans, the economy, and American business. If Texas leaders take a stand against the most odious of his policies, true American values will shine brightly from the Lone Star of this state. We will continue to attract high-tech, forward-thinking businesses, which can only bolster our state’s economy. More importantly, though, is that standing up against discrimination, bullying, misogyny, bigotry, and fear is the right thing to do.

We do not agree on many issues, but still, you represent me and others like me, as Texans. Let’s make Texas an example of positive American values.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Benjamin A. Plopper

Cc
Senator John Cornyn
Senator Ted Cruz
Congresswomen Kay Granger
State Senator Kelly Hancock
State Representative Matt Krause

Ben’s Political / Philosophical Foundation – Part 1

Wow, what an election year, am I right? I don’t know that, in my 40 years of life (22 as a voting American citizen), that I have seen quite the spectacle that 2016 is providing us. Truth be told, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen, and I suspect even my own parents have seen. And one of the more striking things I’ve seen about this election is just how many people are quick to suggest that both presidential nominees are equal, in some ways, in their awfulness.

That, I have to say, is complete and utter bullshit.

I have to lay a foundation, however, before I make this case. See, I am not only voting against Trump (which I most certainly am), but I am voting for Clinton. As a supporter of Bernie Sanders (to the point where I donated a decent amount of money to his campaign), I still am also a supporter of Clinton. I believe that she will, at worst, be a status quo Democratic politician. And this is okay. Is it the liberal utopia where health care, welfare, living wage, etc., is provided for all? No. But it’s damn near closer to that than Trump (or really, any of the potential Republican candidates) would provide. In fact, a Republican-led executive branch, regardless of who leads it, is terrible for the good of the nation as a whole.

I’m getting ahead of myself: I have to establish that foundation first, like I said.

So let’s start at the beginning.

I was initially raised on food stamps.

As a child, while my father was getting his PhD, our family had very little money. It seems that even in the late 1970s, an advanced education made it very difficult to raise a family. Yet while my dad was working toward getting his PhD and my mother was working on a Masters Degree in – I believe – early childhood development, bills were still due. Rent had to be paid. Food had to be provided for three. My sister would eventually have the luxury of growing up in a house with stable income, but I got to be raised in part on the teat of government welfare. I believe that I am fortunate that this beginning both made me realize the value of working hard for one’s American dream, while also making me aware that one can’t always do that without a little help. My parents got help: from the government in terms of food stamps and from friends and family in terms of inexpensive places to live. (And bear in mind, I am also quite aware of how my father and mother – both straight, white Americans – were beneficiaries of privilege in that they could work toward this better future that I was able to thrive in, while many of my fellow Americans of color, LGBT leanings, etc., could not.)

This dual-pronged approach of rugged individualism and relying on a strong social safety net colored my view on society. On one hand, lifting one’s self out of poverty was a great endeavor, worthy of praise. On the other, it was often not something one did on one’s own. Therein, at an early age, did I learn that there is no real divide between going it alone and getting a leg  up from others. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say.

My parents taught me to walk that line in life. That while one should be willing to work hard for what one desires, it’s also okay to ask for help. In return, when possible, you would then help others as they needed it. This is not some Christian parable: my father is an atheist – as I am – and my mother is something between an agnostic and a spiritualist. While specific religions were never pushed in our house, the golden rule very much was the de facto mode of behavior. In essence, show others compassion, based on the very human trait of empathy, in a way that you would want others to show compassion towards you when you are struggling.

So bear in mind that, as I go forward, this basis for treating my fellow human beings very much informs my political and philosophical beliefs today. Behave in such a way as you would want others to behave toward you. Easy as pie, right?

Yeah, well, not so much, as life has shown me…

So, here stands the writer…

Yeah, so I am am so trying to get back to writing (and, interestingly, as soon as I try to post this, I am sneezing as if allergic to writing), and thought I’d post the prologue story to a collection of short stories that I once thought about trying to publish, And am still considering publishing. So, here’s an intro to a future Weird West collection (opinions welcome):

“This isn’t going to work quite like you think it will,” the man in the bowler hat said.  This really came as no surprise to Sam Griffon, who was experiencing a very disconcerting sensation while time was apparently frozen at the second the gallows’ trap started to swing free under his feet.  It was blurry as if in a photo where something had moved during the exposure of the photographic plate, and Samuel Walker Griffon, Sam to most everyone else, and Griff to his innermost circle (who had, to a man, been the ones that tipped the local law off to the small ranch house he’d been holing up in for the past year), scrambled to keep his feet to either side of the opening.  Faces in the crowd stared, locked in place, some leering, some horrified, and many impassive.  In the front row, a juicy gob of Rona Miller’s spit hung in mid air, a near foot from his body.

All in all, this was turning out to be a bad day for the Lieutenant.  First and foremost, he was supposed to be dead, swinging in the hot desert air with his neck broken and shit filling his boots.  Not that he was yearning for that particular fate, mind, but there was little doubt that he deserved it; ask Rona Miller.  Now even that certainty had been robbed from him, and things had taken a strange turn, to say the least.

“Bit unsettling, isn’t it,” the voice of the man in the Bowler was right in his ear now, “how it stopped right at the last moment.  I always had a flair for the dramatic.”

“What the hell’s goin’ on here?” Griffon managed to choke out the question, even as the hemp rope tied around his throat chafed against his skin.

The man smiled, and Griffon knew in his gut that it was the smile of a man who’d been fooling humanity with false sincerity for a long time.  His eyes widened, and he almost slipped and fell through the half open trap, despite the intervention that had, at least temporarily, spared his life.

“Careful,” the man said “I’m giving you a break here.  Won’t do you any good if you get yourself killed on your own.”

“You… you’re…”

The man shook his head.  “Actually, no, I’m not.  Not quite, although you are mostly responsible for this skin.”  He looked down at himself, checking out his own appearance, a dapper man in an expensive suit.  “For a murderer, thief, and a rapist, you have surprisingly impeccable taste.”

“You’re here ‘cause I asked, ain’t you?  Said I’d do ‘bout anything to get out of this, and you’ve come to offer me that anything, ain’t that right?”  The man in the hat took a turn around Griffon, soaking in the view from the gallows that had been expertly constructed in the center of the dusty frontier town.  Griffon, disturbed by the man’s sudden silence, took it in himself, hoping, perhaps, to find some sort of answers in the crumbling facade of the general store, or the all to familiar batwing doors of the saloon.

“Did you ever notice,” the man finally said, “that the gallows are usually built better than the rest of the buildings in a place like this?”

Griffon, not at all interested in the construction trends of gallows, shook his head anyway, rubbing the rope against his neck again.

“It’s true,” he continued.  “The inn, general store, barber shop… all these places are less important to the smooth operation of your standard frontier town than the place where good, honest folks can watch a criminal like yourself die.  Says a lot about human nature, Griff.  Can I call you ‘Griff?’”

“I didn’t do nothing,” Griffon heard himself automatically.  He’d been saying it for so long, now, that he didn’t even think about it until it was out of his mouth and floating away on the still air.

“Yes you did, Griff.  I wouldn’t be here if you were an innocent man.  It isn’t my providence to make deals with the innocent.”  The man took a deep breath.  “Anyway, as I was saying before being interrupted, the gallows are like the old Roman coliseums.  They’re fantastic buildings, to be sure, constructed lovingly by the heads of the empire, with one singular purpose.  Some of those are still around, to this very day, while the rest of Rome lies in ruins.”  The man turned to Griffon and smiled that smile again.  “In the future, magnificent places like those coliseums will be replaced with football stadiums and Starbucks on every street corner.”  The man turned back to Griffon.  “It’s about distraction, Griff.  If the people are more concerned with whether or not they can see criminals hang, or get their grubby hands on trendy but overpriced goods, they stop worrying about what their leaders are doing.  They don’t care who the mayor is fucking, or what business men are raping the land the same way you took that poor girl’s maidenhead.  Entertainment is always the first to go when folks start to question the ways of things.  A man’ll give up many of his rights, Griff, to stay distracted.”

“Look, mister,” Griffon said “I don’t know what a star buck is, or a coliseum, but it would be real kind of you to get this here rope off my neck and let me be on my way, safe and not at all dead-like.”

“Not yet, Griff.  You haven’t made the deal.”

“What deal?”

“Your soul for freedom.  It’s customary, in cases like this, to-”

“Shit, sure… fine.  You can have it.”

The man with the bowler hat was a bit taken aback.  “It never happens that fast.  Are you so anxious to not die that you won’t even hear the terms?”

“Mister, I don’t want to fucking die here with Rona Miller’s spit dripping down my face, an’ my own shit filling my boots.”

“Fair enough,” the man in the hat said, “but I still have to tell you all of the details.  It’s in the rules, as it were.”

Griffon laughed.  “Look, Lucifer or whatever you are, this has got to be the most fucked up thing I’ve ever seen, and I seen a lot.  Hell, I done half of what I seen, and I don’t give two shits what’s in your damned infernal contract, I just don’t want to be stuck here while everyone’s bein’ stock still like they’re in some kind of weird photographic portrait is surely taking a toll on my sensibilities.”  The man in the Bowler’s face betrayed, ever so slightly, his growing impatience with the hanged man.

“Do you want to know what I am, Griff?” he asked, the slightest edge working its way into his voice.  “Do you really?”

“Mister, if you were President Grant himself, come to piss on this poor, innocent, ex-Confederate soldier, I’d not care one whip so long as it meant I got to get down off this thing.”

“If I showed you what I was, what I truly was, you’d strain against that rope until you strangled yourself to death, and you’d go with a smile on your face knowing that you got away from me, only I’d have you in the end anyway.  That’s what I am, Griff; inevitability.  Madness given form.”  The man in the neatly pressed suit stepped back, an idea having come to him.  “I’ll tell you what, Griff.  I’m going to give you a peek at what I am, because I think maybe once you see that, you’ll fully grasp the severity of this situation.”  The man walked around to the front of the gallows, standing just off to Griffon’s side.

“I am not,” he said, “Lucifer.  I appear this way because in your mind, based on what your silly beliefs have told you, this is how this game plays out.  You offer your soul to the devil, and he appears.  In your case, I’m a dapper, well spoken man apparently hailing from Boston.  I offer you a contract, and in exchange for your soul, I grant you your life.  Maybe you only have that life for seven years, the length will vary, but eventually, Old Scratch comes a’callin’.  Am I right?”  Griffon nodded slightly.

“The thing is, Griff, the human race has long been making up explanations to suit their needs.  It can be awful scary to hear the skies rumble, and see electricity shoot out from the heavens and fry your fellow caveman.  Try to imagine when the first man felt an earthquake, or witnessed a volcanic eruption.  They didn’t know what was going on, but it was terrifying to behold.  Without an explanation, even a completely manufactured one, early man would have gone insane with terror.  So they opted to assign the best meaning they could to things they couldn’t explain.  The sky rumbled because gods were angry.  The earth opened up because Hell lay beneath the surface and Lucifer occasionally would come to collect his dues.  Hell, Griffon, even the first single-celled organisms that your miserable little race came from had their own set of beliefs, gods, and demons.  That’s how primal the need for rationality is in your kind.

“For all the good it did those fragile early minds, the explanations were still just made up.  Plucked from the air to calm the rest of the herd.  Man got, and still gets, most of it wrong.

“Look at me sideways, Griff.”  Griffon didn’t understand the request, and, after a moment, cocked his head to the side.  The man in the hat, exasperated, shook his head.  “No, Griff, that’s not what I mean.  Don’t cock your head like a damn fool dog.”

“I don’t-” Griffon started, but the man in the hat cut him off.

“Look ahead, at Rona Miller’s tits, and not at me.  You liked them enough to have your way with them, and more than once.”  Griffon did, and as he stared, the man in the hat seemed to vanish from his peripheral vision.  Griff gasped and looked back, and saw the man standing there.

“Where’d you go?”

“It’s just a blind spot in your vision.  It’s the only rational, biological thing to this trick.  I’m still here.  I could explain it, but I don’t think you’d get it.  Look at her again, and forget about me.”  Griffon complied, looking down at the woman’s face.  She was angry, that was certain, but Griffon had done some pretty terrible things to her.  She wasn’t the only one in this town he’d wronged, only maybe he’d wronged her more that most, but Griffon had never been a man to not take what he wanted, and she-

As Giff’s thoughts had wandered, something had crept into his peripheral vision.  He hadn’t noticed it at first, but as he did, he slowly started to grasp the gravity of his situation.  Because it was not fully in his view, he could not see it in great detail, but as it became clearer, he started to imagine-

Horrible things, terrible fish in the depths of the ocean

-that the man in the suit was attached to something large and hideous.  A great, fleshy trunk sprouted from his back and arced almost lazily to the street, where two luminous eyes-

Giant, prehistoric fish, dangling lures before great gaping maws filled with rows of razor sharp teeth-

                                                            -watching him, hungrily eyeing him-

little fishy, tasty fishy

-going to eat him, a pathetic little man-

fish

-that swam too close.

For a moment, Griff almost did what the thing (for he could no longer think of him as a man at all) told him he would.  His muscles tensed, ready to throw himself forward against the rigid rope, ending his terror before his mind shattered and he could no longer escape from the madness.  He would have done so, had he not been absolutely certain that the thing would be waiting for him in death, perhaps an entire abyssal sea of them, and that the only way to avoid that fate would be to make the thing’s deal.

“I told you,” the man said, “that you wouldn’t like what you saw.”  The man’s voice pulled him out of his fear, and he instinctively turned his head towards him.   The vision vanished abruptly, and it was just him, the man, and the frozen crowd of angry faces.

“What… what the hell…”

“It’s of no concern to you.  Like I said, you wouldn’t want to see any more that what I let you see.  Got it?”  Griffon nodded his head quickly.  “Good.  Are you ready to hear the specifics?”  Another nod.  “Fantastic.  After we’re done talking, you can make a more informed decision.”

 

*          *          *          *

 

The crowd cheered as the trap opened and the Confederate soldier’s neck cracked like dry kindling in the morning heat.  Rona Miller’s spit landed on the body and clung there, slowly crawling down the man’s contorted face, her vengeance complete.  The town’s sheriff, a man of small stature but great power, bellowed out that the deed was done, and everyone needed to go back to their businesses or homes.

The two men in the back watched impassively.  One, a man in a neatly pressed suit and bowler hat, put his arm on the shoulder of the other, a man that, had anyone taken notice, would be quickly picked out of the crowd as a stranger.  The two men would be quickly forgotten by anyone that thought about them later, and their thoughts would be followed by an ominous sense of doom, and they would pull their children and spouses closer to them.  They didn’t notice, however, and were equally ignorant to how the stranger reacted with revulsion when the man in the bowler touched him.

“You made the right choice, Griff.  I would have had you anyway, but a soul given freely is more important to me and mine than a soul that’s taken.”

“Couldn’t I have gone to the other place?  Maybe if I’d repented?”

The man in the bowler shook his head.  “You’ve got a lot to learn about a lot of things, Griff.  We’ll start with your ideas of heaven and hell, and work from there.  You’ve got important work to carry out in the meantime.”

“Why me?” he asked.  “What was so special about me?”

“Not a damn thing.  Could’ve been anyone, but it was you.  My kind needs an arm in this world.  My… original Lieutenant, if you will, has become a problem and isn’t reliable anymore.  You’re a reliable man, though, Griff, and you can help us out.  This world’s not ours, yet, though it used to be, and we can’t work in it like we used to.  You were as good as anyone else.  Consider yourself lucky.”  The two turned from town as the body of the soldier was left to swing in the hot desert wind.  They left that town, and the man that used to be Sam Griffon would only come back to it once more, at the end.

Fragment of a Thing I Wrote

Lest anyone think I don’t write from time to time, here’s a piece I am working on about anxiety (something I suffer from) given form. I think I might get back to it, eventually:

—————-

It wasn’t a malicious voice that whispered in his ear each day, but it was a compelling one. He did its bidding as sure as if it were the voice of God, though God seldom seemed interested in the mundanity of his life, such as it were.

He put on a strong façade for the world, to be sure. They couldn’t know the voice was there, commanding him, directing him. For them, he was the person they needed. A loving husband. A doting father. A hard worker. All of these faces, and more, he was adept at putting on and wearing as if they were his own, but they were not. They were the faces of others that he had observed over time and managed to mimic. If anyone had taken the time to scrutinize his faces, they would have seen the lines where the latex masks delineated between fiction and reality. No one ever looked that hard, however, and if they happened to see that something was amiss, they quickly forgot it. It was, after all, easier to ignore the possibility that their friend/father/husband/employee was smiling falsely, listening to the whispers in his ear than to the voices of the rest of the world.

It’s too much work to try, it said often—its most common refrain—slithering deep into the foundation of his subconscious, so much so that he was no longer certain if the voice was his, or something external. Perhaps, he often though, I’m losing my mind. He was right, of course, but not for the reasons that he believed he was. There was a blight upon his soul—though he didn’t believe in such things—eating away at the edges of his perception until the world was ragged at the periphery. It was a slow change, and while he’d always known it was there, always heard the voice, it acted upon him so slowly that the change was imperceptible even as it was causing catastrophic damage to his psyche.

The voice, and the Thing at the end of it, was slowly killing him.

Worse still, under all the masks that suggested otherwise, he wasn’t sure how much he cared.

 

*             *             *             *

 

He didn’t remember when he started hearing the voice. And lest you think this is some sort of metaphor, know that in time he didn’t for a moment believe that it was anything but an outside entity. His was not a delusion but a statement of fact. It is more difficult to dismiss ones senses of sight and touch than it is to accept the potential that madness might be pressing in and directing actions, no matter how banal and pointless those actions might be.

He saw it sometimes, when the natural blind spot in his vision was oriented at just the right way and at just the right times. As best as he could tell (because as soon as he looked directly where he saw it, the Thing would vanish from his sight, but he still felt its weight), it was a misshapen, pale, mostly hairless creature. He best descried it (to himself… to describe it to others would suggest that he wasn’t in his right mind, which—as stated—he most certainly was) as the pulsing, squamous, aborted fetus of an albino. Not the most elegant descriptions, but the part where it was the premature ejecta of unwanted human life was spot on. He knew, instinctively, that it was a part of him. It was something deep within his psyche given form, which was as close to the Thing being symbolic of his own failings as he would allow it to go. While it might have started as something more symbol than object, it had formed into something that he knew was its own, separate entity. It was tied to him, for certain, but it was no longer his. It was his child, birthed from his ID or his ego or some other psychological bullshit, let loose into the world. Only, it chose to stay with him. To torment him with the incessant whispers. The easy choices (watch Netflix. Play video games. Ignore the child and the wife). To remind him that he wasn’t good enough to be a father or a husband. That at any time, his boss would find out that he wasn’t, in fact, productive or qualified to do his job.

That someone would yank the masks off and reveal the truth below. Because if he was the father of a scaly pale fetus Thing, what did that say about his own true face?

His first memories of the voice happened at a young age. He didn’t remember when it started, likely because to remember the Thing being birthed from his own body (mind?) would be too traumatic. He remembered its birth no more than he remembered his own, and for much the same reasons. But he knew that it wasn’t always there. Or if it was, it took some time to begin speaking. His smiles as a child were too genuine. The masks were occasional; the normal faces he learned to put on at early ages to adjust and that he could take off when we were finished with them and the danger had passed. Before he left the masks on all the time, he was happy. This he remembered.

(Unless the Thing whispered to his memories, too, changing them. It would be insidious if it were true. Perhaps if he’d always been miserable beneath the veneer of normalcy, he would feel that there was a common baseline to life. Instead, memories of happier times served only to remind him that the Thing was there on his shoulder now.)

It may have been the first year he didn’t make a B or higher on his report card and he’d felt certain that he had unforgivably failed his parents.

 

Arbitrary Semantic Choices in Writing

You like that title? It almost sounds academic, when in reality, this post comes about because I’m in the middle of a major project at work and this idea of arbitrary semantic choices has been a minor frustration for me.

Arbitrary decisions in language are nothing new. In the book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Power of Words (oh my, no Oxford comma in that title…), Robert Green pointed out that much of the “rules” in Elements of Style, that near-Bible from which most future writers establish their hard-and-fast grammatical rules at an early stage, are arbitrary decisions that William Strunk codified due to personal taste, and E. B. White enshrined as rules forever flung in the faces of High School students, everywhere. Now to be sure, I follow quite a few of those rules as obsessively as any other writer. Much of what is found in the pages of Elements is common enough and accepted enough that we may as well call them “rules,” but they are, in fact largely not rules, as opposed to personal preferences given the gravity of rules due to time and repetition. Some of these rules — and not just the rules in Elements, which is a fairly simple and non-expansive tome — are not necessary to follow in order to accurately convey meaning. Very rarely does a split infinitive confuse a reader. Ending sentences with a preposition is a throwback to Latin, where sentences could not end with prepositions. I still have trouble letting this one go, but (deep breath) it is okay to end a sentence with a preposition (Hell, half the time when I try to rewrite a sentence to not end in a preposition, the linguistic gymnastics required makes its construction highly awkward).

Am I here to have an academic discussion about grammar rules versus guidelines? Well, no. Not really.

I’m here because of the word “if.”

“If,” as you may or may not know, indicates a conditional statement. “When” does, too, and both are very similar in their usages, but there is a key difference. The difference is that when the outcome of the conditional statement is not guaranteed — for example, whether proper paperwork has been submitted with a formal request — “if” is the proper choice. “When” only applies when the outcome is pretty much guaranteed. There is a difference between “if the appropriate paperwork is included with the request” and “when the appropriate paperwork is included with the request.” That difference is, namely, people regularly do not include the appropriate paperwork in the goddamn request!

So, “if,” am I right?

Apparently not.

The coordinators of this particular project that is giving me some amount of grief have declared war on the word “if.” Their policy is to always replace “if” with “when,” regardless of the proper usage. Now it’s their project, and ultimately, I’ll do whatever they want. If they want “when,” then they’ll just replace it after I submit the documents. I can’t stop that, and other than raising a bit of a grammatically ideological stink, I will let it it go. But it’s wrong. It’s an odd arbitrary choice they are making because, I believe, they feel that corporate-slash-executive types don’t want to see “if.” Because reasons.

Similarly, “should” and “must” are forbidden. Now, these are process documents, and “should” is pretty wishy-washy when outlining a series of steps that one is expected to follow, but “must” has pretty important usages, here. There are more than a few steps that, if not followed, shit will break in very ugly ways. “Must,” usually italicized for emphasis, makes a bit of a point in a stale list of steps. “You must do this because if you don’t, you will destroy sensitive data, wipe out the backups, and kick start the zombie apocalypse.” Yes, if you are following these procedures, you do the steps. But sometimes, it’s well worth throwing in a little extra imperative language. No one is going to be confused by using “must.” Or “if” versus “when.” And in fact, “if/then” is a staple of IT, so I’m more inclined to use that construction.

And that’s what this is about: these arbitrary requirements do little or nothing to improve understanding, and sometimes make it harder to understand. “When the proper paperwork is provided” is great and all, but what if it isn’t?

Which leads back to my original point about the arbitrary nature of some grammar rules (not all of them are arbitrary… if your subject/verb agreement is wrong, you are wrong, and I will cut you). Yes, we writers and editors and language junkies like to be right. We really like to cling to old rules that, in practice, do not hinder understanding. In some instances, the old rules cause misunderstanding because no one uses them anymore. If you’re confused by the sentence “that information is what I based my decision on” because it ends with a preposition, and don’t find “that is the information upon which I based my decision” to be a bit stumbling and awkward… well, you’re probably a grammar nerd (for the record, I like the latter construction… there’s a gravitas about it). But I’m betting that there isn’t a lot of confusion around the first statement.

I eagerly await angry replies from my grammar nerd friends. Bring ’em on!

On My Writing: The Male Gaze

One of my current up-in-the-air plays (of three that I’m working on but – apparently – not managing to finish) is posing an interesting problem. One, I’m having my usual “can’t seem to focus on this and get motivated” problem, but I’ve since come to accept this as a normal part of my creative process. It’ll pass, eventually, but not without me vaguebooking a bit about it from time to time. It also poses a problem that it’s an only slightly fictionalized story about the life of one of my friends. Since I wouldn’t write about someone’s boring life, you can bet that it is super colorful.

The bigger problem, though, is that ever pesky “male gaze” issue.

According to that great testament to all lazy research, Wikipedia, the male gaze is:

“…a concept coined by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey. It refers to the way visual arts are structured around a masculine viewer. It describes the tendency in visual culture to depict the world and women from a masculine point of view and in terms of men’s attitudes.”

Basically (though that is pretty basic, there), it means that as a man, writing about a woman, I’m likely to – no, going to – inaccurately portray this character because I’m not a woman, myself. Look, guys, it’s almost as if my previous post about privilege and not being able to fully understand an issue that doesn’t impact me directly applies in this instance!

It’s a worry, particularly for this story, because my goal is to portray this character as a strong, driven, dedicated woman who is also vulnerable, kind, and open-minded. If you can’t see where the male gaze is going to go haywire in that short list of descriptors, then you clearly aren’t as big a fan of Joss Whedon as I am. I like this character. She calls out to me. And I’m totally going to blow it in portraying, realistically, the character of the person who inspires her.

I’m already trying to address this, though, in the way I’m writing the play. To acknowledge the male-gaziness of it all, I’ve decided to frame the story as a male writer writing the story of his friend’s colorful life. I directly address the fact that they both know that he’s going to screw up the POV to some degree. To avoid any misunderstanding as to the spirit of the story, the very first line of the play, before the lights are even up, is, “Let’s get one thing straight… I am not your manic pixie dream girl, got it?” Of course, I plan to add in some sexual tension between the two later, because drama!

So my solution may not be pretty, but I think writing a play about a male writing a story about a female and explicitly referencing the problematic aspects of the male gaze (there are a few opportunities for light humor there, too), I can better manage audience expectations. Of course, the whole mess will rely heavily on my friend, and on my own ability to really listening to what she has to say to me. Listen, ask questions, document, add drama (I’m still going to take some dramatic license, of course… it’s what I do).

It’s a recipe for… well, something, anyway. A thing. That… that has words.

(Coming soon, Ben laments on his inability to end a post without just petering away… like a… kind of weak thing.)

Politics, Privilege, and Shitty Metaphors

It may well be time for me to get political. For one thing, I need to write more, and I think about political topics often. Perhaps more importantly, this upcoming election is shaping up to be important, and if I can do nothing else, I can try to make solid, reasoned arguments in favor of what I see as the direction this country needs to travel.

In doing so, it’s important that I make some disclaimers, first. I am liberal. Very liberal. I consider Obama one of the best moderate Republican presidents we’ve had in a long time. I have climbed aboard the Sanders train and am pulling the whistle. Toot-toot, motherfucker. I am also a godless heathen (atheist and proud of it). I consider myself an ally of the LGBTQ community.

I am also a straight, white male in the upper middle class bracket (if such notions as “middle class” can still be said to exist), which means we have to have a little talk about privilege, first.

Wait, wait! Come back! I know some of you may have turned off at the mention of privilege, or are already queueing up your angry comments. Let me try to talk you off those ledges, though, with my thoughts on privilege.

Yes, I have privilege, and everything I’m going to write has to be seen through the lens of the straight, white male with comfortable income in America. When I try to present a political argument or point, or make a social observation, I always try to remember that I am often not making this point or argument from the perspective of those most affected by the ramifications of it.

Here’s how I look at privilege: privilege is not what I am given for being a straight, white American male. Privilege is what I don’t have to struggle against because of it.

Crappy metaphor time!

Consider life as a 400-meter dash. Everyone running it has to run that same 400 meters from start to finish to consider the race completed. Because I grew up in a culture of privilege, I get to start right at that starting line (or, well, close enough… it’s not like I’m heir to major financial empire or anything. In fact, we were on food stamps when I was young, and while that means I struggled a little more, it was considerably easier for my family to rise above those beginnings due, again, to no one actively making our social advancement more difficult). I still have to run 400 meters, to be sure. I’m not getting a head start. I don’t only have to run 300 meters.

Some folks, though, while still having to run the 400 meters from start to finish, have to start behind me. Minorities. Women. Those born in poverty. “But Ben,” I hear some of you saying, “that’s just the same as if everyone started at the starting line, and you got to start 100m ahead of it!” It is similar, I’ll grant you that, but there are subtle differences. Privilege is about how close to the starting line you get to begin your race, not how far ahead of it you get to line up. Depending on where you define the baseline, you may find some differences. If I define the baseline as my own situation, then I suppose you could say that someone who is born into wealth gets a head start, but I don’t define the start line based on my societal position. I have privilege, but I could have even more privilege. However, I’m still super-privileged in the grand scheme of things.

The point I’m trying to make with poorly thought out metaphors is this: when I support the LGBTQ community, I try my best to remember that—by not being LGBTQ myself—I cannot pretend to speak for them; I can only speak with them. I’ve never experienced hatred flung their way by bigots. I don’t fear for my life when I go out for the evening. I don’t know what it’s like, therefore, I cannot comment from a position of 100% awareness. I can, and will, still comment, and still offer my support and opinion, but I know full well that I do so from a position of safety and comfort. The same goes for racial issues, gender issues, class issues, and so on. Religion is the one area I’m in the minority (at least in the great state of Texas), but it is trivially easy to keep my views to myself. I hate to appropriate language from other groups who are targets of bigotry and hatred (I almost used different language, but decided to leave this in as a great example of privilege in action), but I “pass” as religious until I indicate otherwise.

So please, as you read anything I write going forward, know this: I benefit immensely from privilege and try to remain aware of that as much as humanly possible. However, if I overstep my bounds, please call me out on it. I still make mistakes. I still understand things incorrectly based on my lack of first-hand experience. If I am wrong or misstep, I want to know so that I can correct myself.

Okay, with that out of the way, on with the show…

I’d Prefer Not To Be A Curmudgeon, Thanks

There is a thing that has been going on that, while I’ve seen a lot of on Facebook or Twitter, has been one of those things that happens all the time. Older people decrying the predilections of younger people. I am as guilty of it as anyone else, especially when I’ve had a few drinks and someone is playing music that isn’t from the 90s (an era in which I shunned music from the 90s for music from the 60s because “hipster” wasn’t a defined thing yet). “Kids these days,” one might remark, “and their taste in [music/art/movies/books/technology/social interactions/etc.].” Many of us forget that, at some point, we were the kids with the different tastes from our parents’ generations. We wail and moan that the shit today is considerably worse than the shit from our days. We compare lyrics of cherry-picked songs we enjoyed to cherry-picked songs that are specifically chosen based on perhaps simplistic lyrics from current artists that we don’t like. As if Nirvana, or Social Distortion, or the Clash, or the Beatles, or anyone else didn’t have the occasional turd or two. We opine that kids spend more time communicating on phones and computers than in person. We often cry, “but when I was your age, we managed to plan stuff out and get together without smart phones!” Some of us post pictures of rotary phones or dial-up modems on social media and challenge anyone who will listen to dare to be old enough to know what this particular artifact of some long-ancient time might be. As if being alive during a certain period in history is worthy of praise.

Again, I’ve done this. I am not accusing without reflecting. The ruts from the rocking chair on my porch are well-worn, and my cane well-shaken at many a child who dared venture upon my lawn. I turn 40 in just over 2 months. I still refuse to let go of what I see as the “proper” use of certain words, like “literally” and “decimated,” simply because popular usage has left historically proper usage in the dust. I still don’t care for Taylor Swift. Hell, I still use “Taylor Swift” as my stand-in for “I don’t get music these days.” I know maybe two Taylor Swift songs. My daughter, eight, just got a Taylor Swift album. She may end up loving Taylor Swift. Taylor Swift may be the artist who “gets her.” I may want desperately to introduce her to Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the Butthole Surfers as the definitive musical library that she should love goddammit.

But you know what? I also loved Ah-Ha. And Europe. And Starship. Not Jefferson Starship or Jefferson Airplane, but “We Built this City” Starship.

Truth is, I find myself hard pressed to complain about this generation. Sure, I may not like all the music they like, but there is some great stuff out there. I won’t get into what I like that is current (*coughMusecoughandholycrapdisturbed’scoverofsoundofsilenceisgreat*) because someone will have an opinion on it and it won’t match my opinion and I will, of course, be wrong on the Internet.

Language? Grammar? Okay, some things I won’t let go of. “Literally” has a very specific meaning (screw recent definition changes), “decimate” means destroy only a measly 10% of something (not completely wipe out), and “penultimate” will always and forever mean the second to last, but I have to let go of other things.

One of those big areas, especially since I have a child, is how the younger generation communicates. Look, you may not think that kids being on social media all the time is healthy, but I’m going to suggest this: when I was growing up, I associated with only those people I shared geographic proximity to, with the exception of family and few friends that I’d moved away from and wrote letters to (ending sentences with prepositions… can I let go of that one, too?). My daughter will be able to communicate with people all over the freakin’ world, with ease. Yeah, yeah, there’s a risk she’ll end up communicating with someone who has ill-intentions, but it’s small (especially since we’ve been working on having her be smart about how she uses the computer, and also, overblown risk) compared to her potential exposure to a world I never had exposure to. I had one pen-pal in Alaska, I think, through a school program once. She’ll be able to engage people everywhere with ease. The kind of understanding she can gain from that — the awareness of the larger world — is, in my opinion, unmatched by any opportunities I had as a child.

And shit, I wish I’d had a cell phone when I was younger. I might not have accidentally stood up my future wife once in college if I had (she was — and inexplicably still is — very understanding).

Therefore, in 2016 and beyond, I vow not to be a curmudgeon about stuff. I promise to remember that the stuff I liked and did was both important and meaningless in equal measure, as was the stuff my parents liked and did, as did their parents, ad nauseam.

I encourage you to do the same. I mean, don’t like what you don’t like, but for Christ’s sake, stop holding up your own likes as some sort of badge of superiority. Put down your cane, get off your rocking chair on your porch, and have a beer or something.