Black Friday

World-war-z

Midnight on Thanksgiving as Dollar General Store opens its doors for Black Friday

Sometime after the Act of Union permanently merged the thrones of England and Scotland, merchants figured out that they could make a butt load of pounds sterling by touting the giveage of gifts at Christmas. It was the dawn of modern capitalism, and already, retailers had figured out how to exploit its worst aspects. (Compare this with communism, in which everything is mandated to be dull, gray, and depressing.)

Fast forward to the end of the eighteenth century, and George Washington inadvertantly decrees a line of demarcation for this consumer frenzy to begin by creating Thanksgiving. The holiday did not have a somewhat permanent slot (Thursday of the last full week of November) until Lincoln set it by proclamation, but it always fell in November. Then after you eat all that turkey, the shopkeepers start with the sales, the advertising, the pressure to get that perfect gift. Even then, Thanksgiving was not all that big a deal until the Great Depression, when FDR made it a federal holiday, creating a permanent four-day weekend.

Following World War II, when America realized that 1.) the Depression was over, 2.) we were the only major world power that had not been cratered by air raids, and 3.) we’re really, really rich, merchandisers learned that they could make a huge buttload of money by luring consumers into the stores the day after Thanksgiving with low-ball prices. A new invention, television, reinforced this behavior. Then came the Internet. Since advent of this world-altering invention, designed to deliver questionable political rants, free pornography, and cat pictures, Black Friday has become a national sport. Year after year, we hear stories of trampling incidents at Walmart at 4 AM over $30 Blu-Ray players. Now stores are even opening on Thanksgiving, a trend I find rather disgusting.

WWZ2

Walmart customers really want that $25 big-screen plasma TV

I’ve come to have contempt for Black Friday. Retailers may make most of their money this weekend, but that doesn’t change the fact that workers are being denied time with their families. I’ve noticed there is only one holiday where stores are not open. Christmas. On Christmas, only gas stations and convenience stores are open, and only a handful of them, mostly along the Interstates. Now retailers are opening on Thanksgiving? That is absolutely disgusting. I think the people who start their Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving are just as bad. Thanksgiving and Christmas and all the year-end high holy days tend to bring out the best in people. Black Friday brings out the worst.

So what am I doing on Black Friday?

Sleeping in. So while I’m snoring away while all the idiots are fighting over the $10 laptop, enjoy this Steely Dan classic. Because, to me, “Black Friday” will always be a song off Katy Lied.

All photos Paramount Pictures

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Giving Thanks, 2013 Edition

flamingturkeyIt’s that time of year again, when we in America pause to give thanks for what we have. In Canada, they do this in October (better weather) on a Monday (kills Monday for a week.) I sort of like the Canadian idea, but in America, it’s a rare four-day weekend. It’s a day for watching football (The Cowboys, the Lions, and, for some odd reason, now the Ravens). We consume huge amounts of the meat of a rather stupid bird, which puts us to sleep following dinner. It is a day for many families to embrace and indulge their dysfunction. Friday is a day that makes even Gordon Gecko despise capitalism, even if only for a day or so. It is the cultural end of autumn, the fiscal start of Christmas, and time when those of us who hate cold weather resign ourselves to that inevitable season we must endure for a few months: Winter.

But mostly, Thanksgiving is just that: Giving thanks. What am I thankful for?

Will code for food

zazzle.com, labeled for reuse

I work. Unemployment is still high, mainly because we have a Congress that, collectively, is the most useless in American history. Nonetheless, I have a job. Since 2008, when the economy tanked spectacularly, I was only out of work for about six weeks at the longest. When I lost my job at BigHugeCo, the VP who broke the news to me – whom I’d worked with for years – told me he regretted doing this, but at the same time told me to enjoy my summer vacation. They handed me twelve weeks severance. Within a couple of weeks, I was contracting, with only a two-week break that summer. There was a scary six weeks the following January and February where work jobs just weren’t to be had. And then I found work at Medishack, a job that was a hybrid of my old job as a desktop support technician and what I wanted to do, development. A lot of my good fortune was luck. A lot of it was persistence. And one thing I’ve seen during our most recent recession is that some people had a sense of entitlement that kept them out of decent jobs because the work was “beneath them.” These are usually the same people who complain the loudest about other people not working. So why did I not join in their reindeer games? All I know was that my creditors were asking where their money was, and it was hard for my wife to put food on the table with only my unemployment check to add to her income. I took less-paying work because I believe if you don’t work when it’s possible, you have no right to complain about not finding a job. It’s not like some people who literally can’t find work. Those people I feel for. The ones I had no respect for were the ones who asked me if I was insane taking temp jobs only two weeks after a layoff. I found that question insulting. At one point in my younger days, I worked three jobs at 60-70 hours a week. I don’t like idle time. Not without a fat bank account to back it up.

computer code

Photo: Carrot Lord, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful I have a marketable skill. I write code. And I still fix computers. (No, I’m not going to fix yours. Forty hours a week of that is enough.) And I’m learning more about that all the time. Technology was a boon to me in the 1990’s. Through the Internet and cheap PC’s, I discovered several skillsets that will probably carry me through retirement, assuming I can retire. I don’t see why not. The more I learn, the more opportunities come my way. Add to that a business degree, and the opportunities open even wider. Nita is also getting a degree, a technology degree. This is going to help us open our own business. That, if successful, will secure our future. It won’t guarantee one or both of us won’t have to take a job welcoming people to Walmart at some point, but it makes it less likely.

Gabriel Iglesias

Photo: Tom Villegas, used under GNU FDL

I’m thankful for my health. Yes, I gained back all the weight I lost earlier this year. But after a recent hospital stay, my doctors were actually encouraged by what they saw. It’s only renewed my commitment to run the Flying Pig Marathon the week of my fiftieth birthday. I need to renew my discipline – no snacking, more fruit, stick with and keep revamping an exercise plan.

My wife expressed some doubt about me doing the Pig, but I have 2 1/2 years to get ready. In the meantime, my health can only improve. It’d better. After 50 is when a lot of things start falling apart at inconvenient moments. I intend to be healthier at 50 than I was at 40.

Nita_picMost of all, I’m thankful for the lovely lady to the right. Nita has been the best thing to ever happen to me. After five years, she still accepts me for who I am, is not afraid to be herself, and lights up my days and nights. Because of her, I’m a stepfather. And AJ looks at me as more than just the dude mom married. He is a great son, and I’m privileged to be part of his life. Our home is cozy and warm, and we all laugh a lot. I’ve married a hair metal chick and live with a boy who loves Monty Python. I look at Nita and know that I have a future. I watch AJ as he works his first job and goes to UC Blue Ash and marvel at how his adult life is a blank slate. Thanksgiving at our house is just us three with a small turkey and one rule: Stay out of Nita’s way until she puts up the tree. Once the tree is up, then we can get involved. Until then, shut up and eat your turkey. Oh, and could one of you do the dishes after lunch?

Wednesday Reviews: The Little Sister

The Little Sister
Raymond Chandler

A girl with the unlikely name of Orfamay Quest comes to Philip Marlowe’s office wanting him to find her brother Orrin. Marlowe’s rate is forty dollars a day plus expenses. He does it for twenty because the girl is nice, just off the bus from Manhattan. Kansas, not New York.

Marlowe doesn’t find Orrin. He finds Orrin’s old apartment, a guy with a bad toupee, and a dead building manager who apparently sold – and used quite a bit of – marijuana. The guy with the bad toupee invites him to meet at a hotel to explain what he’s up to. Only Marlowe arrives to find Hollywood starlet Mavis Weld leaving and the bald guy with an ice pick in his neck. Soon, Marlowe is tied up in the politics of the Hollywood movie business and subjected to the constant come ons of Dolores Gonzales, West’s friend. He almost takes her up on it.

This book is full of loathing for the movie industry. It was written after Raymond Chandler worked with Billy Wilder on the screenplay for Double Indemnity. He rather vocally complained about the experience. This book, however, is not Chandler’s best Marlowe. It’s better than the shaky The High Window, but not as solid as The Lady in the Lake. Of course, they can’t all be The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely, or The Long Goodbye. Still, it’s not bad. This one is probably the book Robert B. Parker referred back to when he wrote The Godwulf Manuscript. Marlowe’s snappy patter is almost dead-on Spenser before the cliches set in.

George H. W. Bush

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George H.W. Bush Library

George Bush had an unusual path to the White House, though not as unusual as that of Chester Arthur or Gerald Ford. No, Bush had only held one elected office, as a congressman from Houston, Texas. From there, he became Ambassador to the UN, Republican National Chairman, head of the US Liaison Office in China, and director of the CIA. The presidents who have taken office since World War II have been senators (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Obama, with Ford coming from the House), governors (Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and GW Bush), and four vice presidents (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, GHW Bush), two of whom were senators before stepping one heartbeat away from the presidency.

It may surprise many to know that Bush was actually considered for the vice presidency, a job he held under Ronald Reagan, as early as 1972, when Nixon considered getting rid of Spiro Agnew, and again when Agnew resigned. Ford twice considered him (complaining later in Write It When I’m Gone that Congressional leaders twisted his arm to make Bush head of the CIA essentially to keep him off the 1976 ticket.)

Bush ran in the second election in which I was eligible to vote. I immediately liked him because, unlike so many who run for president, he struck me as a manager. He was definitely a politician. He had to be to hold the jobs he held before joining the Reagan Administration. But spending most of his career in business and in appointed jobs showed in his demeanor and his approach to domestic and foreign affairs. He would manage the country, whereas Reagan, though active and involved, also served as a larger-than-life figurehead.

What I also remember is that Bush was better suited for foreign policy – which he excelled at – than domestic. It may have been that he simply approached domestic matters with a more low-key approach than Reagan did. Bush is a Republican in the mold of Bob Dole (who probably should have been Nixon’s second vice president, though Ford did well enough.) He leaned conservative, but was more center right than he cares to admit even now.

Reading his book of letters, All the Best, George Bush, I got a sense of a man who did business in a way that Washington sorely needs to return to these days. Bush valued friendship and even sought advice from political rivals during his political career. One letter playfully needles his former opposite number on the Democratic National Committee after Bush’s posting to China.

I often say Bush came in the finish Reagan’s paperwork. Considering that he was president at the end of the Cold War, that’s a somewhat accurate assessment, but hardly a dismissal. After Reagan was shot in 1981, he became an essential part of the administration, a sort of unofficial diplomat. (“You die, I fly,” he once joked after some ribbing in the press about his frequent trips to attend funerals, where, he points out in his book, a lot of diplomacy would get done.)

But, as with Reagan, Bush saw the rough-and-tumble of politics as a sort of Sam Sheepdog/Ralph Wolf routine. Legislators, candidates, and officials would snipe in the press, then roll up their sleeves and figure out how to get work done.

There’s something missing in the way DC governs now. Clinton, who learned a lot from his predecessor, may have been the last to govern the way Bush did, but it’s something more. Bush was the last World War II vet to sit in the Oval Office. While the living presidents tend to be friendly, if not close (George W. Bush is surprisingly the most sympathetic man to Barack Obama’s woes, which should really make some of Obama’s – and Bush’s – detractors ashamed of themselves), it seems as though real civility in the White House and on Capitol Hill began dying off as the Vietnam Era generation began to retire from politics. Today’s method seems to be hold one’s breath, stamp one’s feet, and make sure nothing positive is ever said about one’s opponent.

I admire Clinton, but I suspect something very deep and very important began disappearing the day George H. W. Bush went home to Houston. Johnson, for all his crassness, showed it. Ford was the embodiment of it. Carter and Reagan did it without thinking. Bush was the last of a generation that survived a Depression and fought a war to save civilization. Today it’s all demagogues, posers, and people who are incapable of compromise, nuance, or even substance.

It died when our best one-term president in modern history left office.

Space Stuff!: Deer Park, We Have A Problem

apollo13

nasa.gov

So I stopped what I was doing when I realized I was in Act II Hell. So I backed up and reread what I’d written so far, throwing out close to 20,000 words. Well, I wouldn’t say I threw them out. I simply saved the draft as a new file, deleted everything after Chapter 21, and started making notes. It means less time spent on the novel and more time on other things.

Someone suggested I ship off a short story. Trouble is that I don’t have anything in the can at the moment. I have a couple of ideas, but while focused on long work, it’s hard for me to shift gears back to short work.

“Wait a minute. You’re writing this blog post.”

Yes, I am, but a blog is quite a bit like a newspaper column. It requires a different set of muscles. I’ve had other writers warn of the dangers of blogging, but I’ve also noticed that song doesn’t get sung as much in the era of Facebook and Twitter and whatever. Suffice it to say a blog post is not a short story is not a novel is not a screenplay. Some may argue that it makes no difference. To them, I say, “If that’s true for you, don’t do it.”

I digress. Last week, I made a long list of things I needed to do: Continuity errors to fix, references to put in or take out, mismatched names to fix, and a couple of tasks to do before I begin writing narrative again. One of those tasks was drawing a map. I actually have little clue what the setting looks like. There was a vague sense that the continent where this took place looked suspiciously like Middle Earth. Part of this stems from naming a mountain range the Misty Mountains and a putting a town called Edoras (the capital of Rohan in Lord of the Rings.) The map is crude and lacking details I’ll need later, but that’s fine. It lets me exploit the absence of established story facts until they come into being. Then I can add them back. That’s half the fun of world building. It was part of the motivation of writing Holland Bay, which takes place in the fictional Monticello, Ohio, a city of roughly 400,000 people that does not exist in the real world.

Now I’m outlining. I’ve had a few people, including some experienced writers, say, “Oh! Well, you can do that in an evening.” I could, but it would not be very good, and I’d be right back where I am in a month. Worse, I’d probably have to throw out twice as much as I did this time. So I outline two or three chapters in a sitting, then spend the next day thinking about what comes next and what possibilities I’ve can open up. It also helps me to keep from “opening the kimono” too fast. It’s Act II. I need to spend my time knocking my protags against the ropes. I also need to make the enemy more than a bunch of anonymous armored guys who can’t shoot straight. And I need to plot out the final battle, give our people a victory to end the book, and set up the sequel. (This is at least a trilogy.)

So this is how I’m spending my Thanksgiving week. I will be thankful when I can start work on the actual book again.

JFK: Fifty Years Later, My Theory

jfknjackie

National Archives

Today is the fiftieth anniversary anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination. There would be three more credible attempts on a president’s life afterward, none of them successful: Two on Gerald Ford and John Hinkley’s shooting of Ronald Reagan 100 years after the Garfield assassination. The Kennedy assassination, however, looms large in our national consciousness. Conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory abounds, including a questionable assertion from Watergate figure E. Howard Hunt that LBJ was in on it. (Most credible biographies and accounts of Lyndon Johnson suggest that our 36th president spent his entire term in office terrified that he was next. Wouldn’t you?)

LBJ2

LBJ Presidential Library

Part of this stems from Kennedy’s death existing in living memory. For instance, I read one of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels from the mid-1960’s where one of the bulls (Kling, I think) went into an American Legion post to ask questions. The veterans were all from the Spanish-American War (which ended before 1900). When it was written, most Americans had either served in World War II or had relatives who did. When I grew up (the 1970’s), World War II was still a big scary thing, and many adults younger than I am now looked still looked suspiciously at Germany and Japan. Now World War II is fading into history as old age claims more and more veterans every day. Korea is forgotten, but Vietnam is now grandpa’s war, and most of us wonder why we couldn’t duplicate the rapid victory of the Gulf War in 1991.

Likewise, Kennedy is in the memory of a large number of Americans, up there with the Challenger disaster, the Reagan shooting, and 9/11. So naturally, people have strong feelings on the matter. It’s inevitable that books and movies, particularly Oliver Stone’s JFK, would muddy the waters a bit.

When I was younger, before I looked at why many of the theories got debunked, I believed there was someone on the infamous grassy knoll that shot Kennedy. What I also believed was this:

  1. Oswald acted alone, but missed.
  2. Oswald just happened to pick the same day someone else did to take a shot at the president.
  3. The shooting was a mob hit – an idea bolstered by Joseph Kennedy’s cozy relationship with the Mafia.
  4. When Oswald’s rifle was found an Oswald arrested, some mobsters probably did a happy dance having found a patsy to feed an angry FBI and Secret Service.
  5. Jack Ruby sealed the deal.

It’s possible, but I don’t believe it as strongly as I once did. At this point, it doesn’t matter to me now. Those responsible for both the killing and its aftermath are mostly dead. The repercussions have been supplanted by subsequent events and issues.

Still, it ended an era in America. I still feel robbed after all these years. Whoever was responsible (and anymore, I believe it was Oswald) stole from a large number of unborn Americans. For that, I have no forgiveness.

Thursday Reviews: Desperation by Stephen King

Desperation

Stephen King

A couple is pulled over in the Nevada desert by a cop who finds a baggy of pot in the car. It’s one of those instances where a trip to the police station would clear up everything. Instead, the cop is crazed, swearing at the couple and punctuating his speech with the word “tak.” When they arrive in Desperation, Nevada, population 0, formerly about 250, they find a house of horrors. The cop has taken prisoner a family of five, killing their six-year-old daughter, and a burned-out literary wonder who passed through on a Harley on trip to revive his career. Desperation is not just another forgotten Western mining town. The mining company uncovered something bad. Something very bad.

The cop is possessed by Tak, a primitive entity too old to be a demon. However, Tak, via David Carver, runs afoul of God. Yeah, that God. The one in the Bible. But King’s God proves to be a rather edgy, if still distant, character. One theme that runs through the novel is that God is cruel. However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but usually is extremely difficult to endure.

This one is a bit messy. King goes through each abduction in something other than chronological order, which makes this hard to follow for the first 200 pages. Once the battle between Tak and his captives begins in earnest, it finds its groove. While not mentioned in the novel, The Dark Tower‘s presence looms. You know Tak is something Roland Deschane will eventually have to confront, and the protags, though never stated, forms a ka-tet, a group whom fate has tasked with a mission. It’s slow going and not as clear as Insomnia or The Green Mile (which seems to exist outside the King universe, as does Carrie.)