Sometimes Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr., concentrates on pleasant thoughts, and just for a moment he can find himself transported to a better place, a finer clime. The beach at Sosua, for instance, with its pale blue water and splashing young girls, some of them topless.

Or buried alive, maybe, his eyes informing him that it is dark, and feeling the tug of gravity pulling him gently into the quilted satin lining. His imagined hands glide over the glassy smooth cherry-wood boundaries. When the panic blossoms those same hands provide him with the means to claw at the coffin lid, tearing off his fingernails and bleeding, the drops tasting salty sweet as they drop onto his lips in their raining profusion.

Coughing, then spasms as his brain is starved of oxygen and begins its terrible death wail.

And then … nothing.

Wouldn’t it be loverly?

To be or not to be. The only freedom.

For everyone but me, Jerry thinks every few hours. “I am who am,” he says to himself. That’s from the Bible.

Lately, too, Jerry has begun rethinking his notions about Hell.

But mostly…. Well, mostly Jerry thinks about how he got to this point. He wonders how everything went so terribly, terribly wrong.

#

As it happens, Jerry was enjoying his retirement. No one was more surprised by that fact than Jerry.

He had held on as long as he could at Soundsquare Publishing, and with some success. But by the time he turned 75, the pressure – the looks, the condescension – had grown untenable. When he was finally called in for a talk with Carl Allen, Jerry knew what was coming. He immediately offered to work part-time, without benefits.

“What benefits?” Carl asked.

Jerry noticed again how well suited Carl was for his job as a newspaper editor. His bland face never revealed anything.

“Well,” said Jerry, “there’s my medical insurance.”

Carl shook his head. “Are you serious? We pay what? Three hundred bucks a month for your Medicare supplement? That’s peanuts, Jerry. You’d stick around for that?”

Jerry’s temper flared – just like he’d promised himself it wouldn’t. “That’s a helluva lot less than you’ll have to pony up for my replacement.”

“What replacement?” Carl asked, his monotone never wavering.

Jerry knew Carl was right. He was a friggin’ dinosaur.

Once he’d been a pretty good reporter, but that takes too much emotional stamina. It’s hard to piss people off day after day, but there’s no use being a reporter if you’re not up for that. And he wasn’t. Hadn’t been in more than a decade.

At some point the tables had turned. Jerry had once loved making people angry. Angry people say stupid things, including the truth.

Eventually Jerry found that he was the one who couldn’t control his temper. He’d seen too much stupidity and too much greed. Put it this way: he’d sat through far too many city council meetings, and he’d witnessed more crummy deals going down than any man should.

Of course he was angry. Who wouldn’t be?

#
Fast forward six months. Who would have ever guessed I’d end up here, Jerry thought, in this weird place?

If someone had two years before asked Jerry where he’d like to retire, Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, would have never come up. Not in a million years.

But here Jerry was, and boy was he enjoying himself.

Compared to Jarabacoa, Jerry’s life back in the States would have been damned cramped. That’s one way of putting it.

He was living on his Social Security payments of $2,300 a month, plus about $1,600 he drew out of his 401k. That was money he’d put away years back, before Soundsquare bought the company and stopped offering retirement accounts.

Who could live in the U. S. on less than four Gs a month?

But in Jarabacoa, he was doing just fine. Jerry couldn’t afford one of the wood-and-stone mansions in Rancho Las Guazaras, but he didn’t need one. He had a nice two-bedroom house down near the park where the two rivers meet. It was pleasant to walk down to the confluencia when the weather was nice, which it mostly was.

Jerry had a car, but he rarely drove it. When he wanted to go downtown, he’d just walk out to the street and raise his hand. Someone on a motoconcho — a motorcycle taxi — would immediately stop. For $5 he’d be at the store in five minutes.

Jerry often enjoyed an ice-cold El Presidente on the shady plaza for $4, U. S. And buddy, it was always ice cold.

Yeah, there was poverty. He was surprised to see when he first arrived that there were people, often entire families, living in the ditches along the roads. Most of the time their home consisted of tarps or something else waterproof stuck up on sticks.

That’s where they live, Jerry thought, and for a moment he tried to imagine what that was like.

For the first time in his life, Jerry was one of the wealthy people. He would occasionally drop by the church on the plaza to put something in the poor box.

He didn’t go to the services, but he wasn’t one of those idiots back home who thought religious people were awful. He knew they did good work.

He’d grown up in a strictly Christian household and had learned his Bible. He didn’t believe it, but it was useful for a writer to have a better than passing knowledge of it.

He’d left the church early when he realized it was all superstition and nonsense. What did Einstein say? If people have to be afraid of finding themselves in eternal torment in order to do the right thing, that speaks pretty poorly for people.

Or words to that effect.

Anyway, he felt pretty good about slipping a few dollars into the box. He liked doing it anonymously.

For the first time in his long life, Jerry was a nice guy.

He was learning a little Spanish, but he wasn’t working at it very hard. It wasn’t like it was necessary.

Que pasa?” he would call out in greeting. The response was always the same: “Good day, Señor. How may I help you?”

Just like their teacher taught them in school, he thought. After a week or so, they changed it up slightly, referring to him instead as Señor Jerry (“Señor Herry”). He liked that, too.

There were other gringos around, and from time to time Jerry would join them in the park or in their apartments for games and drinks and dinner.

Jerry had even begun asking himself a question that a year before would have made him laugh. A cynical laugh, yeah, but out loud.

Can people change?

It sure felt like it.

Admittedly, the town wasn’t much to look at. Jerry described it to his girlfriend, Mavis, as a kind of Legoland, with everything built out of concrete blocks. The construction was poor and uninspired, but the locals gaudied up their houses and buildings with bright paint, cheering what would have otherwise been too dreary to bear.

The surrounding mountains were green and thick with conifers. They reminded him of his home back on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

All in all, it was a damned good life, because, too, he could sometimes drive down from his cool mountaintop perch in Jarabacoa to the hot coast, where the blue water waited. He would spend a few days on the beach with his ice cold Presidentes. He’d watch the girls, some of them topless.

“Keeps me young,” he would tell himself.

He knew Mavis wouldn’t mind. “Look, but don’t touch,” she once told him.

Jerry snorted. “Like that’s gonna happen.” He was old now, with a potbelly he considered acceptable for his age. He was letting his hair grow long, like when he was a kid in the sixties, though it no longer flew out from his scalp like an explosion.

Now it was white and flimsy and whipped about with every breeze.

His flesh had once been as rosy as the girls’ breasts, but now the only color was provided by sunburn.

Jerry was no young girl’s idea of a catch, that was for sure. And he wasn’t paying for it, though the opportunity was ever-present.

Of course, Jerry was only temporarily a lone bachelor. Mavis had some work to finish up, but she’d be down directly.

Mavis suited him just fine, with her sleek red hair and her loud laughter. She was a brilliant companion.

He knew her hair color wasn’t natural, of course, but rather a choice.

He liked that, too. Bright red hair. If that isn’t Mavis, what is?

Who can say? he often thought. Maybe I love her.
 He was looking forward to introducing Mavis to Jarabacoa, and to the new Jerry Bunnell. She’d soon get to see both in person. They would sit on his back porch, look out over the forest and listen to Mavis’s collection of old Broadway records. The real thing, you know. Vinyl 33 and a thirds.

Wouldn’t it be loverly?

Jerry would often muse on his wisdom in choosing New Worlds to help him set up his retirement. Dumb name for a company, but they were great. They took care of everything, just like they had promised.

They had worked with him to find Jarabacoa, where there were other New Worlds clients living in retirement.

They also handled his meager retirement funds, and had managed to actually make some money in the market.

Stupid name, he thought, but I am grateful to those guys.

It was unusual for Jerry to feel grateful, so he savored that, too.

#

When Jerry later recalled the events of those last Jarabacoa days, he often wondered if it was the sweetness of his new life that had caused him to so quickly panic when the bad news started crashing down. After all, he’d been through tough times before. 
 Or it may have simply been the timing. He couldn’t believe it was possible that his life could rise and fall so quickly.

Jerry received the first shock on a Wednesday morning as he was enjoying a Skype chat with Mavis. Someone suddenly broke into their conversation, a third window popping up on Jerry’s Virtua-Reality Pad. A stranger’s face appeared, a fortyish woman with a highly disciplined haircut. A banner at the bottom of the new window read Ms. Heather Redd, New Worlds Unlimited.

Jerry was surprised. He didn’t know someone could just break in like that. But New Worlds had supplied the pad, and had set up his cloud service, so it was likely they had added bits and pieces to help them in their work. Jerry started to protest, but the look on the woman’s face stopped him.
She was clearly troubled.

“Jerry,” she said. “My name is Ms. Redd. I apologize for intruding into your conversation with Ms. Frohm. Should I call you back when we can speak privately?”

“No,” Jerry said. “We don’t have any secrets.” That surprised him. It was maybe the most intimate thing he’d ever said to Mavis.

“Thank you,” Ms. Redd said. “I’ve recorded your decision.”

She looked up. “I’m afraid I have some very bad news for you.”

Jerry stiffened. He saw Mavis turn her eyes to her screen. This is strange, Jerry thought. She is looking into my eyes. I am looking into hers. But the angles of our cameras prevent us from seeing each other eye-to-eye.

He’d noticed it before, of course, this optical disconnection, but now there was something in Mavis’s eyes that left him feeling odd – he was at a remove from her, as people used to say, and it bothered him.

“First, let me tell you that we’re going to do everything we can to make this better,” Ms. Redd said. It was clear she had rehearsed her speech. Or maybe she had repeated the words so many times already, in previous conversations. Maybe that was her job – delivering bad news to customers.

“The simple fact is that your 401K account was among about two dozen that were emptied on Thursday last week.”

“What?” Jerry shouted.

“Jerry,” Mavis said. “Hold on. I’m sure it’s insured.”

That was just like Mavis, Jerry thought. Always trusting. He ignored her. “I want to talk to Ed,” he told the New Worlds rep. “Get me Ed.”

“Mr. Bunnell,” Ms. Redd said quietly. “I’m afraid Ed has also gone missing. We are assuming he is the one who drained the accounts.”

Jerry was stunned into silence. Ed Blanton had been his man at New Worlds for more than a year, ever since the first time he’d walked into the firm’s Seattle office. The receptionist had punched a button, spoken quietly into her headset, and 30 seconds later Blanton had stepped into the lobby to greet him.

Blanton was tall and self-possessed, with elegant silvery-gray hair and an expensive suit to match. Most of all, he had the right pitch. “Mr Bunnell,” he said, “Jerry. Welcome to New Worlds. Your new and better life begins today.”

Jerry couldn’t recall if he had spoken to anyone else at New Worlds from that day to this.
“Tell me it was insured,” Jerry said.

“Mr. Bunnell, we’re going to do our best to make this right,” Ms. Redd said. “But we have some details to work out.”

“That isn’t what I asked,” Jerry said. He knew when someone was trying to avoid a question. He’d heard it all before, a thousand times. He grew more agitated. “Was it insured?”

“We self-insure, Mr. Bunnell, so in that sense it was.”

Jerry sat back. That was ominous. He heard Mavis’s voice. “In what sense wasn’t it?”

The New Worlds rep was quiet for a long time. “When you signed your contract,” she said, “it included a hold harmless against us if due to circumstances beyond our control your investment declined in value. Standard stuff, really.”

“Well surely having your employee steal my money was within your control!” Jerry bellowed.

Ms. Redd looked down at something below the frame of her video window. Undoubtedly a piece of paper on her desk. She spoke without looking up. “I’m afraid I can’t speak to that.”

Jerry heard Mavis gasp.

“Can’t or won’t?” Jerry shouted.

Ms. Redd paused a long moment. She was clearly giving Jerry time to calm down. Her next words had the opposite effect. “I’ve been instructed not to speak on that matter,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

All three paused. Jerry could hear his own rapid, heavy breathing in his earpiece. Could the others hear it?

Of course they could. He forced himself to calm down before speaking again.

“What happens next?”

“We’ve called in the police,” said Ms. Redd. “And they have indicated the FBI may be interested in the case because it involves not only interstate commerce but the international flow of dollars.”
“For now,” she added, “we would like you to stay calm and sit tight. Our first job is to figure out how he did it.”

“I don’t suppose you’re going to make up for my lost income in the meantime,” Jerry said.

“I’m afraid not,” Ms. Redd said. “But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.”

Jerry wasn’t having any of that. “No, let’s do get ahead of ourselves. What does this mean?”

Ms. Redd knew exactly what Jerry was asking. “Even if it comes to that, the changes we will have to make to your lifestyle will be minor, on the whole.” She paused. “I wouldn’t mention this at all except I don’t want to surprise you if we do have to make those changes.”

She paused again. “We would ask, however, that you curtail your visits to the shore for the time being.”

Jerry was surprised. “Why would I need to do that?”

“It all has to do with the way we budget,” Ms. Redd answered. “If you eventually determine you’d like to continue taking trips to the beach, that can be arranged. But if cuts are necessary, that would be the best means of continuing to live life in Jarabacoa in the style to which you’ve become accustomed.”

She glanced at something to her right and gave an almost imperceptible nod. She then turned back to Jerry. “Do you understand? No more trips to the shore for the time being?”

Jerry was fuming, but he agreed. “Yes.”

“Thank you,” Ms. Redd said. “I’ll be back to you soon.”

Her window deflated like a pierced balloon. It flew off the side of the screen and she was gone.
Jerry and Mavis looked at each other, their eyes never meeting.

#

Jerry stood on the back porch of his home, the second story porch, and looked out over the mountains. Here and there rusted tin roofs peeked through the thick foliage, metal shards infiltrating Eden and serving as a reminder to Jerry that he was surrounded by a foreign land.

That fact was much on his mind because he knew what had gone unspoken by Ms. Redd was more important than what had been said. If he couldn’t leave the mountain, he couldn’t return home, to America. 
 Maybe that was why she cut off his trips to the shore.
 By now she would have limited his New Worlds debit card’s useful range to Jarabacoa and maybe a few miles beyond.

It was possible Jerry could raise a little cash by selling his car, and could buy a plane ticket. But what then?

He had no means of accessing his money. He had essentially signed over his life to New Worlds. He could fight them, of course, but with what? That took money.

He didn’t have money. He had a New Worlds debit card.

Goddammit.

He had made that bargain six months before. It was just part of the deal, and at the time he hadn’t minded.

Other than Mavis, he didn’t really have anyone left back home. He knew a great many people, but called few friends.

And soon, Mavis would join him.

For the first time he wondered if he hadn’t been more than a little too quick to sign on the dotted line.

He didn’t visit Jarabacoa before making up his mind. New Worlds had put him into some kind of tank with tubes and wires and special goggles, and he’d taken a tour of Jarabacoa without leaving Seattle.

“Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he told Mavis afterward. “It was hot, sometimes. Other times cool. You could smell the place and taste the beer.”

“I had no idea that kind of virtual reality equipment exists. They ought to market it just for vacations,” he said. “Save people a helluva lot of money.”

After that, he’d quickly made up his mind. He would leave the USA forever. He was tired of dealing with his money woes. And as for America – he was sick to death of the endless nastiness between the left and the right. You couldn’t turn on the TV without somebody shouting about how evil the other guy was.

When the moment arrived to make that irrevocable decision, Jerry was calm and relaxed. He even made a joke about it, asking Ed if they had ESPN on the internet “down there.”

“If I can watch the Seahawks,” he told Ed, “my life is pretty much complete.”

He had found Jarabacoa exactly as promised.

He was home, here, for good. He’d be planted out there in those hills.

But that call … .

For the first time, a creeping anxiety rose in his mind. No, it was deeper than that. It made his guts tremble a little. He was actually fearful.

Time for an El Presidente, he thought. He strode purposefully down the stairs of his home, ensured the front door was locked behind him, and made his way to the sidewalk.

He raised his hand. As always, someone stopped. A man on a tiny motorcycle. Jerry looked at the bike with sympathy.

A donde?” the man asked.

La plaza. Cuanto dinero?”

Doscientos,” the man said. Two hundred. Jerry did the calculation. $4.50 or so. He grinned ruefully. That 50 cents saved might come in handy.

He pulled out his New Worlds debit card and the man passed it over his phone. The phone chimed its agreement. Done.

Jerry realized he’d been holding his breath while the man ran the debit card. Maybe the world wasn’t falling apart.

Maybe they would get his money back.

For now, he just wanted to get into town and drink a cold El Presidente. He also hoped to run into some of his compadres, some of his fellow New Worlds retirees. Had any of them lost their retirement funds?

Of course he would be cool about it. He’d slip a few hints into the conversation, just to see if anyone gritted his teeth. He’d watch for someone who was into the rum today with a particular urgency.

There was no use acting all panicky. That wouldn’t do him any good at all. He had to keep his cool.

#

When he later recalled the events that followed that first call, Jerry was surprised to realize it had only taken him three weeks to “run off” Mavis, as he always phrased it.

Jerry had been married once, “and more importantly, divorced once,” he would tell people. He didn’t want to make that mistake again. His various girlfriends through the decades had each gone on her way, sometimes sadly, but more often with the two of them just happy to be done with each other.

But Mavis had been special.

Jerry knew exactly why it had happened. Within a few days Ms. Redd had forwarded an email from the honchos at New Worlds that said it was unlikely Jerry and the others would ever see again a penny of their stolen funds. New Worlds reps, including Ms. Redd, were to start making the necessary changes immediately.

In her email, she did just that, laying down the new terms for Jerry’s life: no car, no trips to the shore, and life in an apartment.

Small things for some men, maybe, but Jerry felt like he’d been neutered. Hell, she hadn’t even bothered to pick up the phone and tell him — you know, face to face. He went a little crazy.

After that, every Skype conversation with Mavis turned to the subject of money, with Jerry moving from frustration to anger to, worst of all, feeling sorry for himself.

Jerry was enraged with New Worlds, and with their incompetence, but he was powerless to do anything. Instead he lashed out at Mavis for trying to make him feel better. He didn’t need her support, he told himself, either moral or financial.

“Now, Jerry,” Mavis said to him, “don’t be like that.”

“Don’t be like what?” he hissed. “This is who I am. Pissed. What were you thinking? Why would you talk to them about me?”

Mavis was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t, Jerry. I talked to them about us.”

“Yeah, including my finances, my future and where I’m going to live for the rest of my life. I never said you could do that. I never wanted you to do that.”

“Jerry,” Mavis sighed. “They called. I answered. It isn’t like we haven’t discussed this. We’re going to live together. We’re going to share our incomes. We’re in this deal together. Or at least that’s what you always said.”

Jerry huffed. “You act like we’re goddamn married. We’re not, and we’re not going to be.”

And that was that.

The problem, though Jerry never said it out loud, was that Mavis had more money. It was that simple. She would be the breadwinner.

He sometimes told himself that wasn’t the issue, pointing out in his internal arguments that even before he lost his retirement account Mavis brought a larger pot of money to the table.
But the difference would have been considerably smaller, and besides, there was the shock of it all.

New Worlds, in its astonishingly efficient way, had arranged for Jerry’s quick move to his new apartment. It was all right, he acknowledged, but he had looked forward to welcoming Mavis into his pretty two-story with its broad lawn and mountain view.

They could still have that, but only because Mavis made it possible. He would be moving into her house, and not vice versa.

It ate at him, not least because there was nothing he could do. He was trapped. Maybe that was the worst of it.

Maybe that was what turned him into such an asshole.

After hanging up on their last Skype conversation, Jerry had immediately regretted speaking to Mavis that way, and had felt awful about treating such a good woman so badly. Once again his goddamn temper had gotten the best of him.

But soon, very soon, he was glad he had run off Mavis. No matter how much it hurt, it was better that she got away when she did.

#

The second phone call from New Worlds followed the first by exactly 30 days. Though it was 10 a.m., Jerry was still half drowsing in bed. He’d started doing that lately – staying up late watching mindless TV, and then sleeping late, sometimes til noon. One of the affordable pleasures of his new retirement, he would tell himself, with, as usual, a touch of self-pity.

Jerry reached for the phone on his bedside table. He punched the Skype app.

Ms. Redd. She had the same dead-serious look on her face. “Jerry. I hope I didn’t wake you.”

Jerry’s response was brief, his tone weary. “Nope,” he said. He stood so the camera wouldn’t reveal sheets and the headboard. He sat down at his desk in only his briefs and a t-shirt, but she couldn’t know that. “What is it this time?”

“Jerry, we’re going to be joined in a moment by Mr. Anderson, one of the attorneys working on the cases of those who were defrauded by Mr. Blanton.”

“Good,” Jerry said. “I’m glad to hear you’re going after that son-of-a-bitch.”

Ms. Redd momentarily turned her eyes away from the screen. Jerry watched as she put on a resolute face, then turned her attention back to him. “Jerry, we’re doing everything we can. But I’m afraid we have more bad news for you. Well, not more bad news, really. But we have a situation. It’s one I don’t have the authority to handle.”

“If he’s gonna tell me I’ll never get my money back, well, I worked that out for myself already,” Jerry said. He wanted her to know he was angry.

“Hold on for a moment. Mr. Anderson is joining us. Do I have your permission to stay on the call with you?”

“Sure,” Jerry growled. “Why the hell not?”

Another window popped open, this one filled by pinstripe-encased broad shoulders holding aloft a surprisingly soft pale face. Too young for all that butter, Jerry thought. But you know — lawyers. Sittin’ on their fat asses all day.

“Mr. Bunnell,” he said. “I’ll say good morning, though nothing I have to say is going to make it one for you, I’m afraid.”

Jerry sat silently. Here it comes, he said to himself. Here’s where the lawyer screws Jerry Bunnell.

“Mr. Bunnell, I can tell you we’ve now learned how Mr. Blanton was able to make off with your savings. It was really quite simple,” he said. “At some point you signed a power of attorney with him. With that he was able to create the documents he required to transfer the funds from your account.”

Jerry spluttered. “But I thought I had to sign a power of attorney to have you folks handle my finances!”

Mr. Anderson sat silently. One second. Two. “No sir, that’s not the case. Like many companies that manage the money of others, we can work quite well with simple contracts. There’s no need for a power of attorney. Mr. Blanton had the paperwork made up on his own. It’s quite impressive, by the way. It looks like formal documentation created by New Worlds.”

Ms. Redd spoke up. “He knew very well what he was doing from the beginning,” she said. “We know that now.”

Jerry sat back. He was deflated. He had been taken. Jerry Bunnell, cynical reporter, the fellow who had for decades eye-witnessed the crooks and the fools who trusted them. He was caught, hook, line and sinker.

“Well, surely he was bonded,” Jerry said, this time more quietly.

“True,” said Mr. Anderson, “and we have contacted the bonding agent. The problem is two-fold. One, we can provide no evidence that Mr. Blanton did anything illegal.”

“He stole my money!” Jerry shouted. “How is that not illegal?”

“Well, Mr. Bunnell,” the lawyer said. “That’s where this gets very complicated. You see, we don’t have any standing in this case. We weren’t the ones harmed by this action. You were.”

“Then I’ll file the charges and ask for the bond,” Jerry said.

This time the attorney paused for a long time. Jerry watched as he settled his pudgy self, sinking deep into his black leather chair. A thin sheen of sweat momentarily caught the light and glistened on his forehead. Jerry found it disgusting.

“Mr. Bunnell, as I told you, this is where it gets complicated. So let me start at the beginning. Please.”

“Okay,” Jerry said. “Let’s just get to it.”

Mr. Anderson took a deep breath, then began. “It seems Mr. Blanton didn’t just cash out your retirement funds. He actually wrote himself into your will, with a codicil indicating that any funds remaining in your account were to be deposited into his bank upon your death.”

He paused again. “Six weeks ago he filed your death notice from the coroner, providing proof you had died. Then he collected the funds.”

Jerry was dumbfounded. “Well obviously the papers were forged,” he said. “He can’t get away with that!”

“Mr. Bunnell,” the lawyer said, then stopped. He had lost some of his confidence and professional composure. He sat forward. “Mr. Bunnell,” he repeated. “The death certificate wasn’t fraudulent.”

Jerry was suddenly dizzy. “What do you mean it wasn’t a fraud? I’m not dead!”

“Well,” said Mr. Anderson. “I’m afraid that depends on the definition of dead. And that’s why we find ourselves in a bit of a situation.”

#

Jerry looked at the back of his right hand. It sure looked like his, though it was shaking more than usual.

And his cell phone – it was still warm in his grip after the long conversation with Mr. Anderson. He could feel it, couldn’t he?

He walked to his bathroom and flipped on the light. In the mirror he saw a pale, frightened old man looking back at him. Their eyes met.

Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr. Age 76.

Jerry stared into his reflected image, looking for details. Same age spots. And there was the thin scar on his lip he’d won the hard way in a flailing eighth grade fistfight with Andy Cuthbert.

He drew closer to the mirror and examined his eyes.

The irises were impossibly complex, a starburst of olive tissue with hundreds, maybe thousands of fissures and climbs.

How is this possible? he wondered. How can any digital representation include this kind of detail?
Then he recalled that the moment he turned away, his eyes would disappear. They would no longer exist. The whispering silicon engines that created them would quietly move on to another task. Creating that door, for instance. That wall. Surely that was easier.

This is how life works within the machine. That’s what Mr. Anderson had said.

Jerry was struck with a sudden thought: Schrodinger’s Cat and the whole notion of quantum physics. Dead and not dead, depending on how you look at it.

Now it was manifestly true, at least for Jerry.

During their phone conversation Mr. Anderson had provided more details, but he had immediately traveled far beyond Jerry’s technical understanding. And really, it didn’t matter.

Jerry understood the important point: he was now nothing more than polygons — a mathematical construct.

Or to put it in the simplest possible terms, he was a character in a computer game. A simulation.
Jerry was nearly mad with terror after hearing this. He had sat for a long minute staring at Mr. Anderson’s face. He trembled. He wanted to weep, but weeping seemed too small and feeble a response. How do you deal with knowledge like this?

Mr. Anderson tried to calm him. “Jerry, scientists tell us that you are what you were before.”
The lawyer then watched Jerry carefully for a moment.

“Listen to me,” he finally said in a firm voice. “You. Me. We are all just data within a context.”
“The important point, Jerry, is that you are who you were before. The same memories. The same intelligence. The same sense of humor.”

He paused again. “And you still have free will.”

Jerry said nothing.

“Pinch yourself,” Mr. Anderson told him.

That surprised Jerry. “What?”

“Pinch yourself,” Mr. Anderson repeated. “It can help.”

Jerry reached up with his right hand and pinched his cheek. It hurt.

“You see?” asked Mr. Anderson. “You’re you. You can taste food, feel pain, enjoy sex. Just like before. You didn’t leave those things behind. After all, you never tasted with your tongue, or felt a breeze with your skin. Those are data receptors. It’s the brain that tastes, the mind that sees.”

Mr. Anderson again sat quietly as Jerry gathered himself, digesting this latest information. After a time, he spoke. “Do you know the name ‘Randal Koene?’”

“Of course,” Jerry replied. His voice was hoarse. “Who doesn’t?”

Koene was as famous as Neil Armstrong. An historic figure whose name would be memorized by history students until the end of time.

After all, Koene was the first to download a mind – true consciousness – into a computer. Prior experiments had been unsuccessful, sometimes horribly so, creating dazed or enraged avatars that had to be put down.

It had been a singular moment in human history, all right — a singularity in ethical malfeasance and moral incapacity.

But then in December 2024 — that’s when it all began.

Patient BB’s wife said, “That’s him,” and human civilization took a path from which it would never return.

After Mr. Anderson signed off, Jerry had sat in silence, his mind smoldering with an incapacitating fear. He couldn’t think clearly, and for a time he wondered if something had gone wrong in Texas. Were they doing this to him?

He stared at the back of his hand and felt the warmth of the phone. Then he finally rose from his chair. He needed to see for himself how this worked.

Jerry O. Bunnell, Jr., 76 and ageless, peered back at him.

#

When he reached the sidewalk, Jerry raised the mathematical construction that served as his right arm. A connected series of polygons drove up on a motorcycle.

A donde?” the fellow asked.

La confluencia,” Jerry answered. He started to climb onto the back of the motorcycle, but paused. “Como se llama?”

“Pedro,” said the man.

Cuál es mi nombre?”

Señor Jerry,” the man answered.

“How do you know?” Jerry asked.

The man shrugged. “Es un pequeño pueblo,” he said. It’s a small town.

Jerry climbed on and grabbed the man by the shoulders. He knew the man wasn’t real, but rather was a program. A service-worker virtual robot, able to flawlessly handle a multitude of questions and requests.

He had been automatically dispatched by New Worlds – that is, created from very thin air – as Jerry exited his apartment. It was one of the services they provided to ensure his retirement was pleasant.

The other retirees, Mr. Anderson had told him, “are real. Like you.” But the locals were all computer-generated avatars. Placeholders for real human beings. Service workers. Now that he had a moment to think about it, Jerry realized New Worlds had created poor Dominicans whose only purpose was to serve the rich gringos. The metaphor stung.

In five minutes they arrived at Jerry’s former home. Jerry tapped the man on the shoulder and pointed. The man eased the bike to the shoulder of the road.

Jerry stepped from the bike, then turned to the man. He looked him in the eye, trying to examine his irises.

The man looked back at him curiously, and Jerry broke off his gaze. “Sorry,” he mumbled.

Jerry turned to the house. He wanted to know more — he wanted to ask questions — but he had been told firmly by Mr. Anderson that he must not change his behavior. “We can’t start a panic, Jerry,” he said.

During their phone conversation Mr. Anderson had provided Jerry with the whole story. Jerry approached New Worlds after learning that he was dying of pancreatic cancer. Jerry wanted out.
New Worlds presented him with two choices, and Jerry made a conscious decision to have no memory of his death, which would be hastened with a pill, or of the process of being downloaded. “Yours is a common wish,” Mr. Anderson told Jerry. “Virtual Jarabacoa is filled with them.”

There were other towns and cities like it on the New Worlds computers, and there were other towns and cities filled with those who knew they were living in a virtual reality. Jerry would soon be moved to one of those. “You have some very nice choices,” Mr. Anderson assured him.

Jerry had stared at the man, their eyes never meeting.

I just want to go home.

Jerry couldn’t recall why he had decided he didn’t want to know. He thought perhaps Mavis knew.
Mavis, he thought. He felt a momentary guilt. He hadn’t even asked about her. He had asked Mr. Anderson if he was able to converse digitally with the living – with “real people” back in the physical world.

Mr. Anderson had confirmed it. “I’m sitting in Dallas, Texas, right now,” he said. “Just 200 feet from you.”

Mr. Anderson saw the look of panic that swept across Jerry’s face. “We also have real counselors on staff, Jerry. If you want to talk to one.”

Jerry paused. That wasn’t the way he worked. Never had been. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Maybe later. I need to think about this.”

“I would recommend sooner rather than later,” Mr. Anderson said. “And let me assure you, you’ll feel better once you’re among people who know they’re enjoying their second life.”

Mavis, he thought again. She was alive. She must have known Jerry was dead, but she was willing to make that leap – that “transition,” as Mr. Anderson put it – to be with Jerry.

“Oh my God,” Jerry said out loud. In a long life of mistakes made in anger, none had been as awful. Had he just known.

He thought momentarily about calling Mavis, but decided against it. This was all for the best, he told himself. She is alive in the real world. That’s where she belongs.

Jerry approached the door of his old home. Mr. Anderson had promised to leave it unlocked.
Jerry opened it and found a gray-lilac glassy panel filling the door frame.

No, it wasn’t a panel. It wasn’t glass. It was nothing, and it filled Jerry with a weird sense of dread.

For the second time that day Jerry felt himself panicking. He calmed himself. Breathe, he thought. Draw in nothing. Exhale nothing. But at least slow down.

He remembered that he had heard himself panting during the first phone call. My God. They have thought of everything.

Jerry peered again at the open door. There was no light within, but no dark either. No floor, no walls. No boundaries. The room might have been a millimeter deep, or it might have extended to the moon.

He had been warned not to reach his hand into the room. He felt no urge to do so. He had simply wanted to see what an unrendered digital space looked like.

After all, this was the world he now lived in. He was paying good money for the banks of servers and processors that generated this house and this town, and that had previously generated the interior of this house, back when he could pay for it.

He had a sudden urge to drive to the edge of town. Mr. Anderson had warned him in no uncertain terms not to do so. “The interior of your old home will be deeply unsettling,” he told Jerry. “But you’ll get over it. We’ve found that seeing the end of reality is more than one wants to bear.”

Mr. Anderson then cleared his throat and adopted his most soothing tone. “Of course, it’s not like you’ll lose your mind or anything like that. You can’t lose your mind. We have that in safekeeping. But we have rules – agreements, really – that require that we ensure your experience is as life-like as possible. With the exceptions of death or insanity, of course. Those aren’t allowed.”

Jerry was already shaking from what he had learned, but this – this casual comment – this was something else altogether. Jerry’s eyes watered and his colon trembled. He hadn’t known such terror, such existential shrieking horror, was possible.

Later when he recalled the moment he was surprised he had realized so quickly the implications. At first he thought his response had been something more than mental – something other than a matter of brainwork. It was a kick in the gut, pure and simple.

But of course that wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be physical. Mind was all he had left.

That was all he was.

But after hearing Mr. Anderson’s comment, something deep inside Jerry had howled in primal terror. Even now, two hours later, he could still feel the reverberations. He knew he would feel them forever.

Jerry closed the door behind him. He’d seen enough.

#

“I am in Dallas, Texas,” Jerry told himself. “I am in an office building. This is me. These are my thoughts.”

“I am alive.”

He had taken to repeating those words often in the past few weeks. He found some comfort in them, some solace and some transport, like repeating a mantra. And it was all true. He was alive. His mind worked. New Worlds saw to that.

But that was all they provided. When the Social Security Administration received notice of Jerry’s death, they moved immediately to remove him from the rolls. And then … and then Jerry had no income. None.

He had nothing to pay for New Worlds services. Rather than moving Jerry to one of the nice new villages, New Worlds had “parked” Jerry in one of the computers in Dallas.

Now there was no exquisitely rendered village, no mountains, no beer. And no one else.

He had begged, but New Worlds had not allowed him to die.

In the course of Jerry’s third and last phone call with New Worlds — just two days after the second one — Mr. Anderson had made that clear. “Jerry, no one knows better than you that at this point there is very little settled law in this industry. The law might consider that a homicide.”

Jerry didn’t need to be told. While riding the motoconcho from his former home he had closed his eyes, leaned back, and tumbled off.

Christ, that had hurt. But at the clinic the doctors – the service worker avatars – had been instructed that no services were to be provided because none would be needed. Jerry had healed, instantly, and walked home. Once he arrived there he went to the kitchen, drew out a large knife and pulled the blade across his wrist. As his virtual heart hammered away, he watched the blade descend into his flesh. When he removed it, there was no wound.

New Worlds had changed his programming. After falling from the motorcycle he had bled, and he had hurt.

But this was different. It wasn’t like the common effects in the sci-fi movies, with the wound quickly closing and the carved flesh fusing. No, it was like it had never happened.

I must be insane, he thought. This can’t be real.

But no. Going insane was against the rules.

It was all real in the parallel reality in which Jerry now lived.

Jerry pulled a bottle of Brugal from the kitchen cabinet. He wasn’t ordinarily a rum drinker, but these were extraordinary times. If he was going to drink himself into oblivion — wherever that might be — he needed the hard stuff.

He soon learned another hard truth. The bastards in Dallas wouldn’t allow him to drink himself to death, but they were perfectly willing to let him wake up with a hangover that was the next best thing.

Two days. Forty-eight hours. That’s all the time Jerry was given to absorb the astounding news that he was both dead and alive. And then he had found himself once again looking into the soft, broad face of Mr. Anderson.

The lawyer had a simple message, so he kept the call brief: “The Social Security payments have stopped,” he said, “Further changes are required.”

When he took the call, Jerry was sitting on the cheap sofa in his modest apartment. A cool mountain breeze was blowing through the open windows, sometimes stirring his white hair. He could hear the urgent calls of the tropical birds and smell the strange sweet odors of unfamiliar foods cooking over small wood fires.

And then, a minute later, he was precisely nowhere at all.

It was unspeakably cruel, but business is business. “And New Worlds is a business,” Mr. Anderson said.

#

Now Jerry lives in a gray-lilac color that has no depth, no width, no smell, no sound . . . and no end.

Not blind, but eyeless. Not mute, but lacking a mouth. Not deaf, but in a place of utter silence.

Jerry is alone in a way that no one has ever been before.

No sweet release of death, he reminds himself. No comfort of a broken mind.

No, his mind – that is, Jerry – will continue like this, maybe forever.

Stripped of his five senses, and without needs or satisfaction. Without love, people, the smell of grass, the taste of beer.

Limbless. And utterly, perpetually solitary.

That was why Jerry had flown into a frenzied panic when Mr. Anderson had first sought to comfort him. You can’t die, he had said. You can’t go insane.

The realization had crashed down on Jerry instantly.

There is no escape. I have no way out.

This isn’t fair, he rages.

And lately … lately Jerry has begun rethinking his notions about hell.

 

_____________________

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The secret to retiring at 63

(Legal Disclaimer: I am not a financial planner. The following is provided purely for the reader’s entertainment, though I admit the fun quotient has been greatly reduced by my legal counsel, whose many edits reveal he has no sense of humor about fraudulent claims.)

Like many people, I spent many years working for a living. Because I dislike alarm clocks, deadlines, bosses, employees, customers, labor and pants, none of it was fun, or even physically comfortable, particularly from an apparel perspective.

I suppose I should add that my motivations in life aren’t necessarily conducive to a life spent at the grindstone. While I’m no Mahatma Gandhi (that’s for sure) I was never very motivated by the possibility of making money, but instead have always focused on the things money can buy.

So when I came up with a good idea for exiting the rat race, I took a shot, theoretically. And it worked, conjecturally speaking. I have in these latter years finally found a way to avoid all of the hassles that make up the common work day, from the morning commute to the evening traffic jam, and from slacks to trousers.

Now I want to share my secret with you.

Yes, I know. What’s the deal, right? How does this scam work?

It’s not a scam. It’s a plan that will work. I know because I have successfully practiced this method myself, hypothetically, many times. If your results match mine – and I believe they certainly will, give or take — an unbelievable outcome is awaiting you. You will be able to work approximately 40 minutes (not days! Not hours!) per year to earn enough to support a to-some-extent luxurious lifestyle. Money enough to last you until the next opportunity arises, which it suppositionally shall, the following September.

Seems too good to be true? Hear me out.

There is a catch. In fact there are two. First, you have to get over the notion that gambling isn’t a promising way to pay for 12 months (minus 40 minutes) of leisure a year. I recommend you consider this plan as part of a larger opportunity for personal and spiritual growth.

Can you do that?

If you can, here’s the second step: gather $100,000.

Now you’re ready. Pay heed.

If you’re familiar with college football, you know that during the course of every season one or two teams will make a sudden, surprising rise in the rankings. Prior to the season the experts pick them to finish 15th, or 24th, or even unranked. But as the season goes along, they keep winning. Improbably so. By the time bowl season rolls around, they have startled everyone with their newfound and wholly unexpected talent, drive and success.

Last year, for example. Prior to the season, the Washington Huskies were ranked 18th in the AP poll. In the end, they made it to the four-team playoffs for the national championship. Had you known what was about to occur, and placed a bet on it, you would have made a very large bundle.

But here’s the thing. You couldn’t know that. Nobody could. But that doesn’t stop the “experts” from declaring they can in fact guess which team will be this year’s Cinderella. They do. Every year.

Which is not to say that they posit that Team A, despite a lack of talent, will win. Instead they say they have analyzed numerous data points and can safely aver that Team A is going to have a very good year. They have a great new coach, you will be told. Or their schedule is perfect, their team members are more experienced than those of their opponents, or their new uniform pants are splendidly comfortable. Blah, blah, blah.

Thus, every preseason there are teams ranked high in the polls that have no business being there.

The trick is to spot these teams and bet against them. This year the pickings are especially sweet, with three teams that are highly, even ludicrously overrated.

For the first example, look at USC, which is ranked number four in the AP poll. This is ludicrous. Since professional rat bastard Pete Carroll left USC in tatters after the 2009 season, USC has been a study in inconsistency, finishing unranked in 2010, sixth in 2011, unranked in 2012, 19th in 2013, 20th in 2014, unranked in 2015 and fourth in 2016. And yet the AP poll says they are likely to end up fourth this year.

Now all you really need to know is this: The chances of USC ending the season in fourth place or higher are very small. That’s based on their record. They are no longer an elite team. But that doesn’t stop the sportswriters. For example, Sporting News predicts they will end up second in the nation, citing quarterback Sam Darnold’s position as the top candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Now listen carefully: That’s the kind of “analysis” the people who are required to write about football provide all the time. It fills up column inches much better than “we are virtually never right when predicting who will win the Heisman Trophy, but we’re happy to take another swing at it if you’re willing to plunk down good money for our worthless opinion.”

You and I, dear reader, don’t need to fill column inches week after week. So we are safe in calling bullshit. USC doesn’t belong in the top ten. One pretty good season doesn’t make a great team.

(To be fair, I should also point out that as a supremely engaged college football fan, I know something many of you don’t. The USC Trojans are to the nation’s sportswriters as the Democratic Party is to news reporters – sentimental favorites. The folks in the newsroom pretend to be objective, but everyone is all in on their team or party. So they are naturally going to expect great things.)

Next, we have the University of Washington, which the AP ranks at number seven. This is based on the very good, very unbelievable season they had last year. The idea is that they’re real, as in talented and motivated. But I’ve seen Washington up close. They are hippies, which is fine if you’re putting together a squad for competitive giggling. Football not so much. They are no better than the 15th best team in the country. If I were a betting man (and I am, conceivably), I would bet good money they won’t win the northern division of the PAC-12.

And then there is Kansas State, which is ranked 20th in the AP preseason poll. Because this article is already longer than I intended, let me keep my explanation brief. This is Kansas State we’re talking about here, people. Kansas. State.

Now that we have our teams to “bet on,” what do we do? First, you maybe or maybe not call a bookie, or perhaps visit a gambling website like Bovada. You theoretically put $25,000 on each of these three teams to fail to cover the spread in their first game. Repeat for two weeks.

For those of you unfamiliar with how this works, a little background. At this writing USC is anticipated by the smart guys in Las Vegas to win their first game by 19 points. You have two choices: you can bet on USC to win by more than 19 points, or you can bet they will win by fewer than 19 (or lose the game, of course).

What you and I know is that USC is grossly overrated. So under my system, you want to perhaps, it’s up to you, wager that USC will either lose the game, or win by fewer than 19 points. In essence, you’re betting their opponent, Western Michigan, will do better than expected.

If you so choose, and God willing and all, you then do the same for University of Washington and Kansas State.

Now you may have noted that by this point you might have invested $75k on three bets. That’s because you may well lose all three bets. But not to worry. You still have $25,000 to invest to recapture your original funds, and to pull ahead. In gambling parlance, this is known as a “longshot,” or a “desperation move,” or “willfully stupid.”

On the other hand, you may win. If you do, you should hypothetically place $25,000 on each of these three teams, again wagering that they will fail to meet the high expectations that have been placed on them.

If after the second week you still have money, repeat this pattern once more, never placing more than an imagined $25,000 on any one wager.

To prove my absolute belief in my system, I have already placed a fictive $25,000 bet “on” each of my teams. Recall now that I don’t care if they win or lose. They simply must not do better than the “line” — the predicted number of points that will separate the two teams by game’s end.

If you want to join me (which I neither encourage nor discourage), do so. You may be on the way to your own pantless future.

Either way, follow me here for my results. Just enter your email over there–> to subscribe.


Two Junes ago one night Claude and I were sitting on the raggedy-ass sofa in his uncle’s apartment. We were watching the raggedy-ass tv, but it wasn’t easy because it was turned down so low you could actually hear the frogs and the crickets outside over the gunshots and the car crashes inside. It was turned down low because that was the way his uncle, who was asleep, told us to watch his tv. He’da been seriously pissed off if he was woke up by gunshots and car crashes. Like most of us from Louisiana, Claude’s uncle prefers frogs to lullabies. I agree. There is nothing like it.

I assumed Claude was listening as hard as I was, but I musta been wrong because after a while he all of a sudden stood up. He turned​ ​to me, then pulled down his pants and his drawers.

He whispered. “Do you know what this is?”

I was too surprised to answer.

“I believe,” Claude said, “them er crabs.”

I looked. “Yeah,” I replied. “I believe them er crabs.”

“Damn.” Claude pulled up his pants, sat back down. He was worried.

“Damn,” he said again. “I reckon I need to be more careful about where I place my pecker.”

Then he was quiet for a long time. Long enough that he surprised me when he spoke again. “Done everything I can,” he said. “I sat in the bathtub for hours, hoping to drown them suckers. Didn’t work at all. I think they like a nice warm bath. ​Makes ’em horny.”​

“I also tried putting nail polish on ’em, but they’s just too many. Some of ’em are pretty hard to reach, too.”

“Well,” I said quietly, “you might try a little crab medicine.”

“I tried,” he said, “I been to the drug store in New Roads twice trying to buy some.”

Claude didn’t need to tell me why he’d taken the ferry to New Roads. Everybody in St. Francisville woulda known him. So would Doc McDonald at the drug store in Jackson.

“I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I mean, syphilis and the clap, those are real diseases. But I don’t have a disease, I got bugs. I got a bug infestation, goddammit.​”​

“The second time I was there the druggist asked me to leave. He didn’t know why I was flipping through his magazines for a half an hour. I reckon he figured I was there to steal something. But I wasn’t. I was trying to work up the nerve to ask for crab medicine.”

Claude stood up again, pretending like he was talking to somebody who wasn’t there. “May I help you?”

He looked at me. “What could I say? ‘Sure, podner, would you mind slipping back there and grabbing me something to get rid of these bugs I got all over my balls?'”

“Yeah,” I said simply. “I see your point.”

“Say,” Claude said, “do you know another name for crabs? Is there something else I could call ’em?”

“Never heard of anything else.”

Claude sat, his cheek on his fist. “Damn. I got to do something.”

I sat there silently for a bit, puzzling over this. I had never seen Claude embarrassed. It was worrying.

Claude was saying something under his breath. “Got to be something I can do.”

We sat and watched tv.

After a time, a thought occurred to me. It was one of those ideas you get when your brain forgets a problem. ​Claude didn’t know it, but he had​ told me the answer​. ​I’d ​just ​been too dumb to hear it. I sat up straight.

“You’re right,” I said. “You don’t have a disease, you got what we call an insect infestation. You don’t need medicine, Bud. What you​ ​need is​ pesticide​.”

Claude’s eyes opened wide. By God, we were on to something.

Hope!

The next day we caught a ride into town with my dad and my sister. Claude and I went together to the Rinaudo’s hardware store, where after perusing the available products we eventually settled on a small bottle of 10 percent Malathion, which we somehow adjudged to​ ​be the appropriate strength. I also convinced Claude to buy a small package of cotton balls for applying the potion to hisself. It would be more antiseptic, I said, though really I was just thinking that putting his “medicine” on with cotton balls might be less embarrassing.

Somewhere around 1:00 a.m. Claude’s balls caught on fire. The blaze spread pretty quickly to every part of his privates, and he responded by howling the way a dog bays at the moon. He must have done a pretty good job of it, because in a few minutes all the dogs in his house were howling too. Then all the dogs in Pecan Grove joined in, and before long everybody in that little cul-de-sac of little houses was awake, wondering what the hell had got into them dogs. Doors started opening and slamming. Screech…wham. Screech…wham. You could hear the neighbors threatening their dogs with a clubbing if they didn’t shut up. A few children escaped their houses and were soon enjoying the cool night and the full moon. They were running the streets where you could hear their bare feet slapping on the blacktop.

Claude noticed none of this. At approximately 1:01 a.m. he ran into the bathroom and opened wide the cold water tap into the tub. He didn’t bother pulling off his step-ins. He just sat hisself down in it.

Claude’s mother banged on the bathroom door, but Claude had taken a moment to lock it, knowing that she might want to know why her usually content 17 year old was letting loose with such a mournful cry. He ignored her.

Unknown to Claude and me, when you mix water with concentrated Malathion (which is what they apparently sell in hardware stores) it turns from clear to white, and soon enough he found he was waist deep in a stinking mess that looked like dirty milk. He couldn’t imagine the source of this color and so he naturally assumed it must be him — peeled, flaked and just plain ol’ dissolved.

“A-roorooroo!” Claude howled, scared beyond anything about what was beneath that nasty water. The dogs took their cue, and soon the neighborhood was filled again with the sounds of grown-ups shrieking and children laughing. It was like a crab festival had just sprung up in the neighborhood.

Except for Claude, who had little to celebrate.

Claude’s tallywacker, and everything in that neighborhood, had shriveled up like the skin on a hand that’s been underwater for too long. He was pink and white and peeling, but at least he was in one piece.

The next day Claude’s mother brought him to the doctor. Fortunately, the crab treatment had worked, so Claude didn’t have to tell the doctor the whole truth. “Tumpted some boiling water on myself,” Claude said. The doctor looked doubtful, but he let it ride. Most importantly there was no mention of crabs.

In time Claude recovered, at least physically. But Claude had changed. He had learned a lesson I guess. The moral of the story is, Claude told me, “I reckon you better be careful where you place your pecker.”

From that day forth, with just a very few exceptions, he was.


Rule number one when writing a travel story: never speak in the present tense. And for God’s sake don’t open with it (“The dying sun is spilling its boiling blood on the icy peaks of the Andes. I recline beneath a rough wooden portal, a notable Argentinian shiraz in hand.​”)

But I’m going to break that rule. It is now 10:22 a.m. on the morning of January 19, and I have just determined that I truly fucking hate backpackers.

My wife and I climbed into this tourist shuttle with the promise that we will soon set out from our ​current digs — Coban, Guatemala — for​ the old capital city of Antigua.

Strewn about before me ​now​​ ​are a dozen and a half of these​ pack rats​, all wearing the same dazed look that I see so often in my travels. Their weary, empty eyes are the result, I know, of the lifestyle they choose when on the road: They awaken for the free breakfast, then lie about, as dreamy as last-days residents of a Chinese opium den, as the previous evening’s hangover slowly leaks out of their ​ears.

In order to make these invertebrates as comfortable as possible, lounging pads are now ubiquitous in youth hostels the world over, allowing their posture and manners to be as lazy and louche as what we can call, in a ​mixture of horror and laughter, their clothing.

The drearies that necessarily follow such nights of merrymaking lay low any idea of stepping outside to investigate the strange cityscape and clime they now inhabit. Rather, this is a waiting game, one in which eyes are kept half-lidded to avoid accidental eye-capture by the stranger you fucked the previous evening. The rest is silence: wasting away the day until the sun declines. It is the dying light​ that announces the agreed-upon beginning of the evening’s planned enterprise, which is certain to bear a strong​ resemblance to that of the previous night, and the one before that: to get drunk and fuck strangers, with pharmacological assistance if possible to ensure you are deluded into believing you are having an awesome good time.

Backpacking, then, can be roughly defined as doing what one does at home, only in a cheaper place.

And then there are the bragging rights. “I am a traveler,” they tell themselves and others, though in their travels they cling like-to-like, moving about in packs that provide safety in numbers against the intrusion of the ambient culture.

Churches, for example. Backpackers quickly​ poke their head into each notable structure, glance​ around, then leave.

Here is the difficulty: It ​can be said without likelihood of contradiction ​that the most important cultural events in Guatemala occur each Sunday when most of the locals attend either a Catholic service or an evangelistic one. As we speak, there is a fascinating battle for religious supremacy taking place between the two sects. This conflict, which defines ​the current climate of​ this nation, and will play a major role in its future, interests backpackers not at all.

If, on the other hand, they can locate someone who continues to practice pre-Columbian rituals, they will gather en masse. This is true, of course, because they believe they know Christianity, and they know the old ways were better and more authentic. Things that aren’t mentioned: the former religion was an astonishingly cruel belief system, with a blood lust that makes Hannibal Lecter seem like an agnostic about the whole murder thing.

But I digress: as I gaze over the dead-eyed shuttle-bound assemblage, I note there are two seats that remain unoccupied — at least by human passengers. Both are taken up, however, by backpacks. These backpacks aren’t moving because, I can only assume, the owners are somehow hopeful that if their eyes don’t meet my wife’s and mine, we will be content to stand for the next five hours of our journey.

My rage increases. What kind of person, age 22 or so, can see a 60-year-old woman standing there, waiting for a seat for a long journey and do nothing?

These people. Backpackers.

In the end, I am required to take matters into my hands. “My wife is going to sit there,” I tell one young lady who, like her many companions on the shuttle, is sporting greasy hair. “And I’m going to sit there,” I tell a young man whose greasy hair is augmented by a greasy two-week beard. It is the universal style among backpackers.

They sullenly lift their backpacks, chuffing at the effort and intrusion, which provides me with a momentary flush of pleasure.

As it happens, my wife and I often stay in hostels, which we formerly enjoyed for both their economy and their social life. But something has happened, something terrible, in the past 20 years.

For example, the Hostel Los Amigos in Flores, Guatemala, where we stayed four nights ago. The place is brilliantly designed and spectacularly well run. The common area consists of a partially-roofed great room with ​profuse flowering vines providing a dazzling display ​of color. Moreover, the artwork is local and accomplished, the bathrooms are clean, and the price is right, including buck-fifty Gallos at the cozy bar. Indeed, one can only level one serious criticism against the place: It is infested head to toe with backpackers.

They lie about like sunning lizards, too enervated to rouse themselves for a smile or a nod, which would be weird​, I should admit,​ because they aren’t actually here ​in Los Amigos​, or for that matter anywhere within shouting distance of Guatemala. Instead they are immersed in the electronic world, their fingers flipping through pages on their phone or pad, their eyes never glancing up. Each has white ear buds inserted or a set of Beats clasped.

It is true that on occasion one of these backpackers may​ be roused into conversation to share his adventures. While this may sound pleasant to the uninitiated, it is sadly the case that most of these children failed to learn conversational skills, passed over as they were by that nice family of wolves that considered, then abandoned the idea of adopting them, leaving them instead to the tender cruelties of their birth parents.

“I was just in Nicaragua, man. Went to Granada. It was awesome!”
“You didn’t go to Leon? Dude, you missed it!”
Or:
“Yeah, we stayed​ in a great hostel in Cartagena. Right outside the old city wall for U.S. 12 a night.”
“Dude, you got screwed.”

There is redundant piped-in music in the air in Los Amigos. It features — because international law makes it compulsory in all hostels — Bob Marley.

(I should pause here to deliver some kind words for Bob. He was a joyous fellow, and, I should add, it is in my nature as a libertarian to feel a certain affection for anyone whose religion consists of worshipping a failed head of a failed state, plus ganja.

But then there is this unfortunate fact: Bob is almost certainly the only multi-platinum recording artist about whom it can be literally said that if you’ve heard one of his songs you’ve heard them all.)

After checking in, my wife and I, breaking with house tradition, step away from the host​el to explore the little island, which is modestly (its modesty being one of its pleasures) quaint and picturesque. Because it sits on its own little island in the middle of Lake Peten, it provides a lovely 360 degrees of vistas.

Moreover, it has a singular history. This tiny island, which can be traversed on foot end to end in ten minutes, is the site of the only native settlement in Central America never conquered by the Spanish.

These facts go undiscovered by our hostel-mates, who have, we discover upon our return, begun to juice themselves up in preparation for the nightly rituals.

The air resounds with the sound of bad electronic music, predominately a bass beat that is so monotonous, so ponderous, that no human mind could imagine creating such a painful din, which is why it is left to machines.

Through the noise can be heard the chiming of wine glasses and the steady fint​​ing ​of released carbonation as the Gallos come out​ to play. Occasionally a blender is called into service: sex on the beach on the way.

The sound of dissolute youth “partying” comes banging along too: ping pong balls cracking, the occasional suspicious laugh (suspicious in its lack of mirth), and of course, neighs and whinnies, and hooves pounding impatiently on ancient timbers.

I can see a slight mist, a fog in the air, and the Christmas lights strung throughout glow dazzlingly. I think at first it is cigarette smoke, but no: smoking is disallowed because, as the West’s N​ew Puritans know, it is hazardous to your health. Instead, I realize, it is a cloud of pheromones, the funky exudate of more than one hundred strangers who hope to soon find another stranger to fuck.

After watching this scene for a few moments, my wife and I retire to our plywood room, which reverberates with each downbeat. We lie awake, reading and listening to the expanding bedlam. Eventually I speak up. “I don’t get it,” I say. “What happened?
​”She shrugs. “We’ll go somewhere else tomorrow.”

Before I drift off, an odd thought​ occurs to me.

Do these strangers, I wonder,​ ever realize the inherent comedy of sex? Lacking the lubricant of affection and the expertise​ that arises with ​familiarity, they must each time ​grapple aw​kwardly toward making the beast with two backs. Do they ever laugh?​ Or is that too great an exposure? Is shared laughter too profound ​an intimacy?

But for the moment, let’s return to the present tense. I’m still aboard the shuttle​ and I’m feeling something new now, two hours into this trip. It’s another unpleasant and unwelcome emotion​, largely so because​ ​it’s nudging away the anger I have cheerfully been cultivating.

I’m beginning to feel sorry for these kids. After all, they are​ millennials.

Yes​, I know. Millennials are wide​ly regarded as the worst generation in American history (and by extension, western world history). But they aren’t, of course. That honor goes to my generation, the Boomers, who have made a huge mess of things and are now departing the scene, leaving the millennials to clean ​up behind us.

(Please d​on’t talk to me about the “participation trophy” generation. They didn’t demand trophies. Their parents did.)

But enough of that. I don’t want to get political. In fact I now just ​want to provide the world’s backpackers with a little advice. I hope you understand I’m not moralizing; I’m providing some points on style.

First: I don’t really care if you get drunk. I’ve got no business lecturing anyone about overindulging in drink. Drink has provided me with many, many hours of enjoyment. Indeed, I agree with Baudelaire: You should always be drunk. But note that he listed wine as just one option for intoxication, adding poetry and virtue as possibilities. I would also add the self-indulgence of curiosity satisfied.

And yeah, that whole stranger-fucking thing​. About that. Perhaps you should consider the possibilities surrounding the art of seduction — and the art of being seduced. (Are they the same thing? I’ll have to think on that.)

My point is simply this: “You’re hot and you’re drunk. I have a condom” isn’t quite up to Rostand:

​“And what is a kiss, specifically? A pledge properly sealed, a promise seasoned to taste, a vow stamped with the immediacy of a lip, a rosy circle drawn around the verb ‘to love.’ A kiss is a message too intimate for the ear, infinity captured in the bee’s brief visit to a flower, secular communication with an aftertaste of heaven, the pulse rising from the heart to utter its name on a lover’s lip: ‘Forever.”

See the difference?

Now, as to your lack of manners … .

Well. That is a problem. Get your shit together. You’re embarrassing yourselves. And sit up straight!

Most importantly, here’s what you need to do. You need to develop your curiosity, which will provide immediate positive returns. You will naturally and effortlessly become a much better conversationalist. The greater your curiosity, the better you will be. This is important because conversations aren’t just a nice appurtenance of travel. They’re largely its purpose.

Toward that end, d​on’t just seek out one hostel after another. Yes, it’s fun to have drinks with fellow travelers​ from Russia, Sweden, the U.S. and Spain, all in one setting. And it’s altogether worthwhile. But they are backpackers like you. For the most part, you share the same culture. Comparatively speaking, the people outside the doors are aliens from another planet.

So here’s what I’d like for you to do: Get off the backpackers trail. Stop kidding yourself into thinking you’re having adventures because you went ziplining. Ziplines are the Princess Cruises of the skies.​ They’re fun, yes, but not much else.
Learn about the culture into which you have placed yourself. That should include a good book or two. (Here are two excellent suggestions for Guatemala: “I, Rigoberto Menchu” and “The Long Night of the White Chickens.” The former is the oral history of Menchu, a Queche who learned Spanish in order to share her culture, while the latter is a brilliant novel about a Guatemalan girl, an Indian, who is sent to serve as a maid for a family in New York.)

The point isn’t to have less fun, but more. It’s as I recently told a young friend of mine (who rolled his eyes, much as you are likely doing now): Intoxicants are very good things. And girls? Well, girls are, hands down,​ the best the world ​has to offer. ​(Some men are ​treasures, too. ​Their declining reputation reflects trends, not individuals.)

But even these two marvels — intoxicants and girls – are insufficient unto themselves to create a full life. For that, you need to wonder about things. And then you need to discover the answers.


Life is harder than it has to be. Particularly the high-tech stuff.

Let’s take Microsoft Word as an example. Has the “Help” function ever helped you?

I didn’t think so.

The inability to write clear instructions isn’t just an issue for Microsoft. It’s the industry standard. Just try getting a little help from Open Office, the free alternative to Word.

Entire new industries have sprung up to provide answers to tech questions, including a best-selling “Word for Dummies” book, one volume in a vast library of books for dummies. But here’s the thing: you’re not stupid, your computer is.

Of course, software isn’t the only area of life where instructions aren’t just badly written, but actually operate as a hindrance to understanding.

For example: Walk into a hardware store and tell the salesman you would like to purchase some nails. “Well,” he will say. “What kind do you want? Casing, box, finishing, masonry, hang?”

You may answer, as I recently did, “The kind used to hold two pieces of wood together.”

My salesman rolled his eyes so hard he could actually see the tiny damp patch of grey tissue that constitutes his brain.

There are other names for these folks (we’ll get to some in a minute), but for the moment let’s call them geeks. Geeks suffer from too much specialized knowledge, which results in two symptoms: 1) they can no longer speak in plain English and 2) they think they’re smarter than you. The second is exacerbated by a paradox: The less they know about everything else in the world, the smarter they’re convinced they are. What results isn’t so much a tyranny of experts, but rather a pain-in-the-buttness of them.

Life doesn’t have to be this hard. But it will continue to be until everyone reads my upcoming book, The Couhig Conundrum.

Recall now The Peter Principle, which popularized a simple notion that provides valuable insight into many of the issues that bedevil management. Peter wrote that everyone rises to the level of their own incompetence.

Like the Peter Principle, the Couhig Conundrum can be explained in one simple sentence: Know-nothings, not experts, should always provide instructions.

Specifically, software companies should hire people who don’t know anything about their software to write the user manual. As he learns the software, the novice will never simply drop a step or assume you know something you don’t.
Simple, right? Common sense, right?

Like the Peter Principle, the Couhig Conundrum has relevance across industries, and frankly, across life.
Who teaches math? People who are really good at math. People who have an instinctive ability for math. People who don’t understand your struggles.

Recent research indicates we’ve long relied far too much on the wrong approach for teaching a new language, with a single-minded emphasis on native speakers. It turns out that having someone like you — someone who learned French as a second language, for example – is very often better, at least until you have your legs under you. That’s because they dealt with the same issues you’re now experiencing. Nevertheless, the world continues to hold non-native speakers in lower regard.

Or physical education. Who teaches P.E.?

Jocks. The kind of people who always enjoyed physical activity because they are really good at it. The primary purpose of P.E. is to instill a lifelong love of physical activity. This is to be accomplished in a number of ways, including the generation of pleasant sensations, especially the mild euphoria associated with the generation of endorphins.

Kids naturally love active play. It takes physical education classes to learn to hate it. Too often our kids come to associate physical activity with feelings of inadequacy, if not despair.

Now that I’ve mentioned this, you’ll begin seeing multitudinous examples of what we must soon, according to the trademark laws of the United States, call the “Couhig Conundrum.” I’m hoping to make a lot of money off of this, like the “Peter Principle.”

If you have more examples, please drop me a line at mcouhig@gmail.com.

0d56e1b103bc4030c8c9e7a726410610
A congress of baboons

First, let me apologize for taking so long between blog posts.

As some of my regular readers know, a few months ago I was accidentally exposed to a John Grisham novel. Not surprisingly, I soon came down with a very bad case of the stupids.

With the love and support of my family and the assistance of the medical community I’m now feeling much better, with my doctor saying I can expect my I.Q. to eventually make a full recovery.

As my doctor also pointed out, I’m one of the lucky ones. Because my exposure took place in an airport bookstore, I could just as easily have been infected by a Danielle Steele novel, an event that is almost always fatal to the life of the mind.

But that’s in the past. Today, let’s put all of that behind us for a fun romp with collective nouns, those special words that are singular in form while denoting a collection of people, places or things.

It is accurate to say these are venereal terms because, as we learned from James Lipton, author of “An Exaltation of Larks,” the practice of creating new collective nouns largely began with “Books of Venery.” These books — written for hunters — were enormously popular among the gentle class in the 15th century.

Now isn’t that more fun than a barrel of monkeys?

By way of an example, let me point out that the U.S. Geological Survey, whose expertise clearly ranges beyond rocks, says a “barrel” is a perfectly good collective noun for describing several or more monkeys.

Some collective nouns are so common we rarely note just how nifty they are: A pride of lions, a gaggle of geese, a colony of ants.

And then there are the rest, which range from delightfully odd to truly bizarre: a tower of giraffes, an exaltation of larks, a murder of crows.

And now, a few more of my favorites. To make this even more interesting (I know, is that really possible?), I’ve included some I fabricated just for this blog.

In each case you’ll find three pieces of information: First, the things or people that are collected. Second, the collective noun. And third, a sentence using the collective noun.

Here’s your challenge, should you choose to accept it:

Which collective nouns are standard English, as defined by an authoritative source such as the Oxford English Dictionary, or in a pinch, the U.S. Geological Society?

Which ones aren’t entirely legitimate, but will soon be because they are in constant use in at least one part of America?

Which ones are entirely fake?

The answers to these, and many more mysteries, await below.

1) Alligators “Congregation”
During the annual church picnic, a congregation of alligators lined the banks of the lake.

2) Parrots “Ostentation”
“I told my wife her hat was as a pretty as an ostentation of parrots. And then she slapped me.”

3) Canadians “A boot-a-boot-load”
The tour guide said she had brought a boot-a-boot-load of Canadian tourists to Port Angeles.

4) Schnapps “Schidtloten”
The nice German family next door gave us three bottles of schnapps for Christmas, explaining that they already had a schidtloten.

5) Panties “Bunch”
A bunch of panties was bunched during the library auxiliary’s board meeting.

6) Nuns “Superfluity”
A superfluity of nuns was seated in the front row of the Megadeth concert, much to the surprise of Megadeth.

7) Cobblers “Drunkship”
Imelda Marcos required a drunkship of cobblers to keep her shoes in perfect condition. She paid them in schnapps, of which it was rumored she had a schidtloten.

8) Rhinoceroses “Crash”
Our safari guide promised we would see a crash of rhinos. Fortunately, we did; unfortunately, they didn’t.

9) Methodists “Slew”
After the morning service a whole slew of Methodists showed up at the Piccadilly Cafeteria. And that, Officer, is when the big fight with the Baptists broke out.

10) Cormorants “Gulp”
A gulp of cormorants fishing the waters near Seattle provides easy targets for a boy with a BB gun.

11) Episcopalians “Wealth of”
A wealth of Episcopalians attended the soiree, which was a fundraiser for the new wing of the new wing of the hospital.

12) Sailors “Gobs”
Gobs of sailors left Singapore penniless. The sailors, not Singapore. Singapore had never been happier.

13) Heap “Troubles”
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen,” sang the blues guitarist. “A heap?” I asked helpfully.

14) Collard Greens “Mess”
“With all these guestesses, we gonna need a whole mess o’ greens. Maybe a mess and a half.”

15) Neighbors “Unpleasantness”
“Two neighbors is an unpleasantness, three or more is inexcusable,” I said last Saturday.

And now, the answers:
1) Legit
2) Legit
3) I made that up.
4) Pure nonsense.
5) Theoretically, several panties are a bunch. But that term isn’t an officially recognized collective noun for panties. As another note on the American way of speaking, it’s interesting to note that in the South panties aren’t bunched, but are wadded. The resulting unpleasantness is said to be much the same.
6) Legit
7) Legit
8) Legit
9) “Slew” is a wonderfully goofy collective noun for pretty much anything, but it isn’t specifically tied to Methodists.
10) Legit
11) Made up.
12) Gobs is a slang term for sailors, not a collective noun. It comes from their old habit of chewing and spitting, tobacco.
13) Commonly used in the South, but not officially recognized.
14) A mess is a volumetric measure, not a collective noun. It is defined as “enough.”
15) Unfortunately, this is not widely accepted.

usofthesouthI don’t know exactly what was said – I never heard the full story from either – but I do know something about the argument that arose. It was apparently the last bout in an ongoing argument about women. The debate surrounded this issue: these two girls were obviously here to be picked up, brought home, and screwed. Should we have done so?

I know this argument seems hopelessly naïve and perhaps even ridiculous to the current generation of 21 year olds, but in 1973 this was a subject on which thoughtful young men could disagree. This was a strange time, after all. Eight years before the ranks of bar tramps had been filled exclusively by bar tramps. By 1973 the bar tramps could have been Phi Beta Kappas from Vanderbilt. You never knew.

Donald, who was very popular with the ladies, made this point (I’m simplifying, but that’s okay. I’m repeating the arguments of two drunk, horny 21 year olds): Women have a right to decide what they want to do with their bodies. They are as interested in sex as men are, and are as justified in seeking it. To deny them this right is worse than sexist, it’s paternalistic.

Pat’s response was something like this: True, women are just as sexual as men, and have the same right to seek out sex. But it is neither sexist nor paternalistic to admit that a double standard exists. For example, Pat said, try creating for the movies a female James Bond who sleeps with every man she meets. A woman who sleeps around, he said, suffers disproportionate public censure.

Is this fair? He asked.

No.

Is it just?

No.

Is it true?

Yes.

Then what to do?

The end result was a disagreement that couldn’t be solved. That’s hardly surprising – I wouldn’t begin to hazard a solution to this conundrum today, 30 years later.

What interests me, though, is the nature of this argument. It explains much about the South’s multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, there is the advocate of change, and of necessary liberation. On the other, the advocate of tradition, and of mannerliness. You might even say chivalry.

If anyone wants to understand the South, you might begin here. Every movement toward liberation has brought with it progress, and a measure of misery. Every attempt to preserve tradition has served to keep in place ideas that are unjust on their face. Even in their most grotesque acts the traditionalists are seeking to save something they can vaguely remember that was good. Much of what they remember never was.

Here’s a story to illustrate the point. Every school kid in Louisiana knows it, or should, though many misattribute the story to Huey’s nephew, Gov. Earl Long:

In 1930 or so a contingent of black leaders (read: ministers) from New Orleans paid Governor Huey Long a visit in Baton Rouge. “Governor,” they said, “we have a request for you.”

They wanted jobs for blacks at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, then as now the flagship hospital for the only socialized medical system in the United States. The vast expansion of that system was a gift to the people of Louisiana from Huey himself.

Huey responded immediately. I will get you jobs, he said. Lots of them. High paying jobs. But I won’t accept any criticism whatsoever of the way I accomplish it. If you say a word, I swear to God I’ll never do anything again for you gentlemen.

The black leaders agreed.

The next day’s New Orleans Times-Picayune led with a story detailing the shock the governor had experienced when he discovered there were white women, white nurses, caring for black men at Charity Hospital! A.J. Liebling, Louisiana’s de Tocqueville, said Huey “blew high as a buzzard can fly, saying it wasn’t fit for white women to be so humiliated.” You can guess the result.

Let me give another example:

They arrived in 1965, 16 black kids who would be attending Pass Christian High School. They were the pioneers, the extraordinary babies of an entirely new era. They changed everything.

Among these changes is one that is almost never acknowledged: Both blacks and whites in the South are now more poorly educated than they were in 1964. Because it is the way the world works, blacks have borne the brunt of the diminished schools.

And yet, it had to be done.

You can see how difficulties might arise. I suppose that’s what Pat meant one night when he was having an argument with my mother about “the South.” He had by this point been living in lower Manhattan for two years, and had adopted “the North” as his home. “The South doesn’t have a common culture,” he told my mother, “it has joined pathologies.”

“And this somehow makes us different from the rest of America?” my mother asked.

skymall2

If you’re like me, there’s nothing you like better than being stuffed with 200 other indiscriminately chosen and indiscriminately processed meat bits into a sausage casing made of aluminum before being sent rocketing for hours five miles above the earth, your only respite the occasional sneering glance of an aging, plasticine porter who should have retired back when they handed out real meals and not peanuts by-the-piece.

And by the way, do you know how every time you get on a plane there’s a seat open next to you and it stays open right up till the moment the cabin door is going to shut for good, and then you see some fat guy waddling down the aisle and you wince, knowing exactly what happens next and then it does?
That guy is me. So shut up and stop complaining.

Think about my feelings for once, why don’t you?

Anyway, at that point the only thing you can do if you don’t have electronic gewgaws to keep you mindlessly entertained is to 1) drink grossly overpriced alcoholic beverages or 2) flip through the magazines or 3) read a book. But let’s be honest about that third one: who among us, really, is likely to do that?

I always regard this as a multiple choice test, and therefore choose multiply: 1) and 2). My particular favorite is Heineken, which has the highest alcohol content of any of the available beers. (Q: who pays $5 for a lite? A: That wussy who sat in my umbra and penumbra on that flight from Miami to Seattle a few weeks back. That’s who.)

For the discriminating shopper
I also like the Sky Mall magazine because it is mostly pictures, and furthermore mostly pictures of stuff that no one on earth could possibly need, which is why they call them luxury items for the sophisticated shopper, or persons with refined taste, like the fellow who needs a Cherrywood Luxury Watch Storage Case (I’m not only not making this up, I’m not making up the capitalization) to store in comfort eleven watches at a time. Fortunately, the box is an Exclusive EURO Design, which helps to explain why it fetches $89.95.

Me, I think they may just be angling for those sad sacks who immediately upon entering a hotel room suddenly become princesses seeking peas just so they’ll have something to complain about.

Anyway, as it happens, Sky Mall, in addition to serving as an outlet for “Protein Ketchup” and DVDs to help you train your cat to use the commode, also provides hours of reading pleasure, mostly to pick up on the oddly entertaining incompetencies of the people who write it. For example, the marketing staff at Casio who in selling their new “Signature Series” of projectors invite you in 60-point type to “Lamp Free and Save.”

I place most of the blame on Christine Aguilera (I told you, I’m not making this up), who in addition to having the largest personal collection of inflatible pillows in the world (OK, I made that up, except for the misspelling of inflatable), is the president of Sky Mall.

What customers say
In the latest edition Christine tells us that she loves hearing what customers think of their products. She thought we might too.

Certainly, I do.

For example, “Pilot from Ohio” says he loves Sky Mall’s Fruitasia Fruits and & Veggie Shots, noting “Each vile is just under 3 ounces so it meets that requirement of the TSA.” That certainly answered my question, which was: Exactly, to the nearest ounce, how vile is it?
“Fathead” wrote to Ms. Aguilera to say that the “iBeats by Dr. Dre” are the best headphones he’s ever owned, and I think we can take that recommendation seriously based on the fitting difficulties alone.

But that is nothing when compared to the Gluten-free solutions for healthy families! produced by NoGil, which are endorsed by “TV personality and NY Times Best Selling Author; Elisabeth Hasselbeck,” who is so important she has reserved the right to demand the use of a semicolon before every mention of her name.

The Queen Essential EZ Bed, once viewed in a catalog by Elizabeth Regina herself, is said to be “Easy to open, close and adjust to just the right firmness.” This is said by someone who signs himself, “Supply, NC,” which certainly calls into question his objectivity.

The city of “Atlanta, GA” provides a stirring encomium for the “Comfy Couch Dog Bed,” in which the magisterial “Tuddles” is pictured reclining, as dreamy as a last-days resident of an opium den.

The city of Atlanta is unrestrained in its praise, saying “…truly a quality product. I wish I could find a sofa as comfortable for myself.”

We wish so too, Atlanta, but where would Valdosta sleep?

For $499 one can also purchase a “Luxury Pet Resident,” replete (and who wants anything that is less than replete?) with “solid hardwood with integrated roller shades, PVC tray, and plush foam mattress,” making it the most comfy and expensive cage in the world. “I wish I could find a sofa as comfortable for myself,” the City of Atlanta should have said.

Dr. Arnold Ross, who is Board Certified in Podiatric Biomechanics, says his new “Gravity Defyer” shoes, which feature a “Versoshock Reverse Trampoline Sole” are “such high quality shoes, I even wear them myself.”

High praise indeed. Moreover, Dr. Ross prizes your confidentiality as much as he does his feet, promising “you can try Gravity Defyer’s pain relieving footwear in the privacy of your own home,” thus ensuring none of those embarrassing moments that result when you find yourself drifting helplessly through the private airspace of someone else’s home.
Sears, the appliance giant, is also represented with a fine line of “Lab Created Ruby & White Sapphire Pave Heart Pendants,” which in less classy catalogs are less classily called plastic shiny bits.

To sleep, perchance

Anyway, that brings us through page 16 or so, and I’m now growing weary. Perhaps a nap is due, or as I like to call them, a light descent into a hellish half-world into which regularly intrudes the shrill voice of our captain reminding us how pleased he and the rest of the crew are that we have placed ourselves in this predicament for their benefit.

And, of course, further punctuated by the occasional colon-trembling 500-mile-an-hour-plus adventure in bumpy air.
Would that I had purchased one of “Dr. Robert’s Deluxe Self-Medicating Kits,” which “Now Features a Fat and Sassy Dose of Demerol,” which is “Capable of Solving All Your Problems, At Least Temporarily ™.”
I would look in the Sky Mall mag for one of Dr. Robert’s magic bullets, but I know I needn’t bother. As I mentioned previously, they only sell stuff that no one on earth could possibly need.

(For more articles like this one, only better, sign up for my mailing list.  Over there –>)

 

brendan
BOUDREAUX. O, lawdy. Dat raht now we had us here
   Fo’ or tree o’ dem lazy bayou rats
   Home fishin dis mo’nin’ like erry day.
AWNREE. Who dat say dat?
    Iz ‘at you cuz? Mais, it do’n matta none;
    If we gon’ kick dat bucket, we enuf
    To make Acadiane most sore hurt;
    And if we get on, well, da less us,
    Da bettah we gon look when we done did.
    Gawd’s sake! Don’t go axin’ for even one more.
    Choooh! I don’t care nuttin for dat gold stuff,
    An’ I don’t ahnvee what udders eatin’;
    No boo-day, me, if my blous’ it gets stole;
    Dese tings is jes nuttin, lees’ to my min’.
    But if iss bad to want dat honor, mais,
    Den I’m the baddess man dat evuh wuz.
    Mais non, coo zanh, ax for nun dem in town.
    Lawd knows I ain’t gon to miss out on dis,
    And jes hanover what’s comin’ to me.

Spread da word, Thibodeaux, to errybody,

    If you ain’t got stomach for dis fit,
    You can vamoose; wid a ass kick to boot.
    I’ll make da bill for da bus, dat’s for true;
    None a us wants to ride wit dat cooyan
    Who ain’t got da bon couer to die wid us.
    At da church, dey cerebratin San Crispi’.
    All dem who make it tru and gets back home,
    Gon erry year drink beaucoup beer dat day,
    And in Crispi’s name rouller les bon temps!
    Even when his prospect is all swoll up,
    He spread dat big pig and light da fayhr,
    Den call out, ‘Duhmara is San Crispi’s!’
    He’ll jerk up dat chemise, show all dem scars,
    And tell da folks, ‘Got dem from Crispi’s day.’
    Old man’s mem’ry ain’t too good; but all gawn,
    He’ll make vay-yay, wit peoples lissen up,
    To all his bad tale. An den usses names,
    Which he recall like da back o’ his hand —
    Awnree da kang, LaFourche and Lafayette,
    Broussard and Bourgeois, Prejean and Babineaux —
    Will wit da wine be spoke of plenty.
    Da parrain will learn his godson da tale;
    And Crispi’ Crispianne won’t never go by,
    From dis very day till kingdom it come,
    When we ain’t tawked of high and mightily.
    Jes us, ma frans, us Cajun confreres.
    Cause all dem who gets bloody wit me t’day
    He is my brudder; I don’t care how nasty;
    Dis fight will make him all da bettah fo’ it.
    And all dem from da Ville now on da bayh,
    Will get a ser’ous case of de chew rouge,
    An’ dey keep dem moufs shut, when any tawks,
    Dat fighted wid us at San Crispi’s day.

William-Shakespeare-portr-007

As this recently uncovered portrait shows, the dude was likely better looking than most people previously thought. Because being a genius wasn’t enough.

 

Some people, particularly those annoying liberal arts majors, regularly claim that Shakespeare is immediately accessible by all. They insist that everyone, young and old, educated and un-, should upon first hearing immediately and passionately embrace the fellow.

Sex and violence, they say, it’s loaded with sex and violence!

Well, yeah. Hamlet, for example, includes a likely suicide, an accidental death, six murders, and just to spice things up a bit, a touch of incest.

Whooey! That’s entertainment, y’all!

If you’re like me the constant refrain that you should love Shakespeare led you to wonder early in life what was wrong with you. Why didn’t you get it, like the teacher said you should?

Let’s not do that to our kids. Instead let’s face the facts: on first hearing, Shakespeare is difficult to understand. You actually have to make an effort to pick up the rhythms, themes, the wit – even the accent, for that matter.

There are four reasons why it’s difficult to understand Shakespeare.

First, he is speaking 400-year-old English. For a simple demonstration of what that means, give some thought to how utterly preposterous the popular language of the 1960s now sounds to our ears. The English language changes daily; what was groovy then is sick today (or it’s something else. I lost touch a few years back).

The second reason lies in the versification that is part of Shakespeare’s charm. He writes in iambic pentameter – five beats at a time: dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum.

The pattern can be obvious: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Or more complex: “To sleep – perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.”

Shakespeare abbreviates words to make them fit the pattern, or expands them. Nouns become verbs. Or he simply makes up new words to do his bidding. An astonishing 1,700 words show up for the first time in Shakespeare’s works, including blushing, tranquil, rant, bandit and others that seem to have always existed.
(One of the really cool facts about Shakespeare is that he, along with Milton and Dryden, can be said to be authoritative. If one of these authors coined a word, or a phrasing, the new use is considered ipso facto proper English.)

All told, Shakespeare used more than 32,000 different words. One recent estimate suggests the average person only knows 25,000 words, so there is a disjunction there, as well. (It’s worth mentioning that Shakespeare wrote before the publication of the first useful dictionary, and long before the first thesaurus had been produced.)

The third reason is this: Shakespeare wrote poetically. He employed poetic license to say what he wanted to say as beautifully as possible. It’s a tendency we avoid in average life and daily conversation, and with good reason. It’s best left to the experts.

But it also means that hearing Shakespeare – discerning the meaning – requires greater attention than normally is expected of a listener. It takes practice. Ted Hughes, who wrote perhaps a dozen books about Shakespeare, said the meaning of the bard’s words “ is not so much narrowly delineated as overwhelmingly suggested by an inspired signalling and hinting of verbal heads and tails both above and below precision, and by this weirdly expressive underswell of musical near-gibberish, like a jostling of spirits, a bustling pressure of shapes inside every syllable.”

(Which is not only a nice description, but also a pretty fine example of that which he was describing.)

And finally, if you’re willing to endure the wrath of the purists, it can be said that Shakespeare is entirely too wordy. In fact it has been said. Ben Jonson, a contemporary, wrote the most famous eulogy for Shakespeare. Its title is unambiguous in its friendship. “To the memory of my beloved, the author Mr. William Shakespeare and what he has left us.”

While addressing the popular myth that Shakespeare never re-worked his words, Jonson also wrote,“The players have often mentioned it as an honour to Shakespeare that in his writing (whatsoever he penned) he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, would he had blotted a thousand.”

So now, my point

Shakespeare is worth the effort, particularly in this day and age, when technology has made his work so much more accessible, both physically and intellectually.

Your local library, for example, likely has any number of Shakespeare’s plays on DVD. If you like, you can turn on the subtitles.

Ahh, that’s better. And no one has to know.

Or you can rewind that bit that just flashed by in a blur.

(“What’d he say?

“Sounded like something about fourteen bras.”)

If your library doesn’t have any DVDs of Shakespeare, look online for any of Kenneth Branagh’s movies based on Shakespeare’s plays. They’re all very good, with the notable exception of his musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is only interesting insofar as it provides a graphic, even gruesome, example of just how badly Shakespeare can be manhandled.

What is the purpose of this effort? Why should we work a bit to get a grasp of Shakespeare?

Here’s one good reason: Shakespeare’s works and the Bible are the most important artifacts within our literary culture. They profoundly affect not just what we say, but what we think. If you don’t know Shakespeare, you likely don’t know why you think and believe as you do.

To put it in more down-to-earth terms, consider the joke about the two old ladies who are leaving the theater after watching their first Shakespeare play.

“Well,” harrumphs the one to the other. “I don’t know what’s so great about him. All he did was take a bunch of cliches and string them together.”

British poet Robert Graves provided perhaps the final word. “The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he really is very good, in spite of all the people who say he is very good.”

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questionmarks(This is from the files: I wrote it in 2012.)

 

Lately, a lot of people have been coming up to me to ask me the same question:

 

“Mark, do a lot of people come up to you to ask you questions?”

 

The answer is yes. And that’s fine. Asking questions is the only way you’ll ever learn anything, other than perhaps reading a book, and let’s be frank:  who among us is likely to do that?

 

To save my readers the effort of seeking me out, coming up to me and asking me a question, I’ve provided a helpful sampling of recent questions I was able to ably answer. This should serve as a sort of reference guide for your own inquiries.

 

• For example, after parking behind the office this morning I was approached by someone who asked, “Hey, is this the Sequim Gazette?”

 

I told him, “No, and I’m rather surprised by your confusion. The Sequim Gazette is a flat rectangular thing, about 20 inches by 12, and constructed entirely of paper. You’ll recognize it immediately because it has ‘Sequim Gazette’ in very large letters across the top.”

 

• The other day a lovely woman, a coquettish blonde, stopped me as I was taking in the morning air on Washington Street. “Say, Mistuh” she asked, “do you know where a girl can get a drink in this burg? And by the way, my eyes are up here.”

 

“Why!” I cried. “This is a civilized community. We have no truck with gender discrimination. You are free to purchase an alcoholic beverage anywhere a man is welcome. And damned be he who says different!”

 

• An older man, too, recently came up to me, apparently a stranger in town. “How do I get to the Safeway?” he asked.

 

I pondered the question for a moment before answering. “Most people take a car,” I helpfully responded. “And because this is a small town, many also walk.”

 

“And,” I added, “a shockingly large number arrive and depart via personal mobility devices.”

 

“Any of these means of conveyance are acceptable.”

 

• And just last week a young woman pulled up to me in her car. She was in obvious distress. “My husband is bleeding profusely from a fly fishing wound he received to the neck,” she cried. “Where is the nearest hospital?”

 

“Well,” I responded. “it’s exactly where it has always been. That your husband is bleeding, no matter how profusely, is entirely unlikely to effect a change in the location of a structure as large and weighty as Olympic Memorial Hospital. If your husband survives, I certainly hope the two of you will further acquaint yourselves with certain basic facts of physical science.”

 

• And finally, my wife just this moment came up to me with a question. “Mark, don’t you think you’ve beaten this joke to a point well beyond a dignified death?”

 

To which I responded, “You’ll know when that has occurred when you see the appropriate sign, to wit”:

 

THE END

(Hey, for more stuff like this, only a lot better, be sure to subscribe to this blog. The form is over there somewhere –>

photo3

Like most jerks, or at least like those of us who are serious about the craft, I enjoy pointing out other people’s mistakes. I suppose that’s largely true because I know how painful it is when others point out mine.

Now that I’m retired I have the opportunity to pursue my hobby full-time, so I’m expanding my efforts.

For example, I’ve put together this simple quiz. It’s a compilation of mistakes other people have made, all drawn from my collection.

Of course, writers always make mistakes. That’s why God invented editors. The troubling theological question is: Why did He decide to start doing away with them in about .. oh, 1990?

Here is your opportunity to step up and be the editor. What is wrong in each of these photos?

You’ll find the answers below the photos.

photo14                photo7

 

 
photo8                 photo10

 

 

photo12                 photo11

 

 

 

photo2  photo1 photo13

Starting from the top left:

1) While it’s possible Mr. Charlot is suggesting verbally through his trash talk that he may soon cut left, the chances are he is actually attempting to elude the Brother Martin defender.

2)  Trick question.  There are more than 3 questions facing Karr this year.

3) Georgetown is adding to its Communications Masters program a new course in how not to use apostrophes.

4) If there is no understating the advantage, there is zero advantage. If it can’t be overstated, there is no limit to the advantage. Sane people prefer the latter.

5) N.C. State doesn’t have emotional ringers. That’s Mississippi State. It would be better to say that N.C. State was put through an emotional wringer, then hung out to dry.

6) Hardaway was actually a shoo-in for the Olympic team, though given the subject matter at hand we can perhaps forgive the writer for a timely pun.

7) I don’t know who is son this is, or who was son this was. I don’t even know whose son this is.

8) By which this Arkansas gas station meant unleaded gasoline with ethanol.

9) Shit and manure are the same. This sign should read “shit and Shinola.”

10) This is just wrong in so many ways.