I try to watch this once a year. Meanwhile, The Horror Writer heads into the semi-finals for the BookLife 2017 Prize against tough competition.
I try to watch this once a year. Meanwhile, The Horror Writer heads into the semi-finals for the BookLife 2017 Prize against tough competition.
A spider spun a web on an azalea bush outside our window this summer as it did last year and hung motionless for days on end waiting, I assumed, for larger prey than the miniscule insects that occasionally became caught in the silken snare, which had a funny little corkscrew swirl in like an artist’s signature on a painting. My interest in arachnids is not large and there the matter stood until I discovered another web of the same species strung out front between the privet hedge and another azalea. It was smaller than the first, but I remembered it too from last year; it too had the trademark swirl. I had swatted it away then with a broom like a batter does a heater right down the middle because it inhibited my weed whacker path. Are they like settlers, homebodies occupying the same space year after year?
My last serious encounter with spiders was in Montana when we were selling our place in the Bitterroot Valley. The real estate lady said a couple was coming the next day to take a look. “Make sure there are no spiders,” she said, “she’s terrified of them.” I said no worry, there are none I’ve seen. And it was true, I regularly commuted on knees and elbows in the crawl space beneath the house to change the filter on the central air where you would expect the flashlight’s beam to see them prospering in the silence and darkness. This chore performed with my bum knee was one of several reasons we decided to up stakes after five years and leave for a more congenial clime. It is no country for old men unless you were born there and a kind of jaw-clinched resignation or religious fatalism is bred in the bone. Or unless you owned one of the mansions in the ultra-luxurious planned community created by Charles Schwab for his fellow moguls in the commanding heights above the scratchy little western town of Hamilton. Gated and an 18-hole championship golf course? Of course. You could still drive about and gaze at the bespoke homes when we were there, but now the entry gate and security guards have put an end to that and the wealthy have the loveliness of that view all to themselves on the odd occasions when they fly in on their private jets. This was one-percenter territory before the slogan was created. There is no need to mix with the folks who live beyond the gate, nor in most cases would you want to. My wife was born in Montana and feels a kinship with the people, but I found them distant and even cold. Call it rugged individualism. It was hard country originally and it took a certain kind of hardness to survive and hard times never really go away. The drug problem is severe. The people are quite a contrast to the warm Southerners we live among now.
Back to the spider and the people coming to see our house. We had a shed with a window to the east that we had the idea of turning into a writer’s cottage when we first moved in. The contractor we had said if it was up to him he would take a backhoe to it, so it remained in a suspended state of possibility and I kept tools there. When the woman opened the door, she spun on her heel and in one stride was running full speed. The enormous spider in the middle of a web was like one of those fake rubber things you buy at Halloween. We never saw that couple again. I took a shovel to the web and we never saw the spider again, either. We ended up selling to an Air Force nurse who was born in Montana and her husband, a German physicist. They also had a home in the Black Woods where so many fables of the Grimm Brothers kind were spun. You could somehow tell she was born on the range while he was handsome and charming, very sophisticated, the best kind of German, a phrase that fell out of use after World War II. Speaking of which, in between property management — we had a pond with reeds to which leeches clung for years, barely alive, waiting for something with warm blood to come by–I spent years collecting a library about the war, gradually becoming convinced that FDR and a close circle in the White House and War Department (Army) and Navy Department knew the Imperial Japanese Fleet was at sea to attack Pearl Harbor but kept it quiet. The only irreplaceable ships, the carriers, quietly slipped out to sea before the blow fell. The attack on the Pacific Fleet, hung out there in Hawaii for no good purpose except as bait, was the bloody nose needed to unite our fractious country and get us into the war before the British threw in the towel and we stood alone with the British, French and Italian fleets all possibly absorbed into the Third Reich. Charles Beard, the distinguished Harvard historian, wrote a fine book about this conspiracy in 1949 that was published by the Yale University Press. It has been forgotten by time. People today find it unbelievable that a president could perform such a cold-blooded act of treason, but there you are. My The Great Liars is a novel about it; fiction in one sense but not so in another. It is a cheerful, slight thing about war, a tough sell. But I got an email from Amazon yesterday saying they thought it might be right down my alley.
The spider outside the bedroom window, I haven’t forgotten it. It was beautiful in a lethal, Art Deco way, all clean angles and a canary yellow body. Finally bestirred to find out what it was, I googled dangerous spiders of Arkansas. There was its picture, a German brown recluse, a real horror. Your flesh disintegrates after its bite and the poison keeps digging a deeper and wider hole if you don’t get treatment. There are photographs if you have the stomach for them.
I went out with a can of bug spray that supposedly killed on contact and nailed it with a fog-like talc. The spray didn’t kill on contact; instead the spider began a fight for life, climbing up its web, falling back, climbing up again. I gave it shot after shot, but still it fought for survival and then was still. I killed the other the next day and the same struggle went on, and I didn’t mind so much this time. Except I’ve been thinking about it now for weeks.
A cloudy day after dawn with brief spells of rain and now thunder overhead as I peck this out with fingers more clumsy and uncooperative as time goes by. I passed yet another armadillo dead in the roadway. People don’t see them, I guess–but how could you miss the little comic-book creatures with funny, long snouts trundling across the road? On the back road to Little Rock we have stopped to move turtles so they are not smashed by the speeding cars and trucks. A woman who parks by the lake in the same crushed rock area we do has two signs on the back of her car that say I Stop for Turtles. A warm heart although her cross face says otherwise. It is a mistake to judge by appearances. My son knew a young man who went out of his way to run over turtles. “Why’d you do that?” Justin cried out with horror and indignation when he witnessed it. I forgot what he said the teenager’s reply was, but it was along the lines of “I felt like it.” There are people like that even unto adulthood. One hopes they burn fiercely in hell. Four deer ran gracefully across the fairway into the trees. I like them better seen at a distance than engorging themselves on our landscaping. They nipped the heads off half our day lilies before they came into bloom.
Our tuxedo cat Picasso is looking slightly decrepit these days, no longer able to groom a large part of himself, which gives him a seedy look. The vet guessed he has diabetes and we feed him food that comes in a six-pound bag and is as expensive as dinner for two at a mid-range restaurant, about the only kind we have hereabouts. Vets offer a range of costly tests which we decline. You read of people spending fortunes to keep their pets alive out of the deep love they have for them. Surgeries, specialists, chemo treatments, radiation. That’s not for us; we’ve kept our dogs and cats alive so long even without extreme intervention that in a sense it has amounted to animal cruelty. Stella, our valiant Parson Russell Terrier (they have the wiry coats as opposed to the smooth-coated Jack Russells; together it seems they are in every other print ad and TV commercials) was feeble for the last couple of years of her long life and beginning to suffer from dementia. One day she slipped out a door left open and disappeared. We were frantic and drove around through the afternoon and night looking for her. There is a missing animal service that sent out an alert and the following day around noon we got a telephone call saying she had been found. Nice people not so far away said she turned up thirsty and exhausted. She was sleeping, utterly spent, on the floorboard of the animal control truck when it arrived. What terrors she must have experienced through the night, alone and in the dark. She seemed confused when I picked her up, not seeming to recognize me at first. She slept a long time afterward, but then she had been doing that, awake just long enough to eat and lap at her water dish. A week after she got lost she suddenly awoke and ran around the house mad with fear. She knocked into furniture in her frenzy to escape her demon, battering her head on the sharp legs of a metal coffee table legs on each circuit. I finally caught and held her, but she would not be calmed. The first tranquilizer we forced down had no effect and we gave another. This put her into a deep sleep and I held her on my lap through the night until the vets opened the following morning. Two technicians agreed it was time she was put down. Her poor face was swollen from the collisions and one of the techs gave the other a meaningful look I interpreted as saying we had beaten Stella. I still burn with anger when I think of it; in retrospect I wish I had ordered her from the room. But Judy and I were overcome with emotion at the time. They slip away so quickly after the lethal injection. So at 16 ended the adventurous life of plucky Stella, who spent her best years in Montana roaming a circuit of open land that took most of the day before her patrol ended and she came back home. I saw her once being stalked by an aggressive magpie; Stella’s look of amused contempt as it fluttered threateningly overhead is engraved on memory. Once as we walked with old Ollie, our good-natured yellow Lab who we also had put down at that same vet’s office after he could no longer rise to his feet, she took on a porcupine and got a faceful of quills for her pains, four or five in her tongue alone. It was lucky she wasn’t blinded. I tried to pull them out with plyers after carrying her home, but quickly gave up and drove her to the vet in Hamilton where she was put under anesthesia while he pulled them out. Anyone who has had a dog or cat has felt the anguish when at last the courage is gathered to do the merciful thing. Stella, Ollie, Jake, Felix, Parker, Snerd–it is a long roll call. In most cases we plucked them from a warm bundle of puppies or kitties. I read somewhere that the fattest at the bottom of the pile where it was warmest was the best choice, so that is what we went for. That was the case with Jake, who was called Buddha for his girth when we got him, “I’m not leaving without him,” Judy warned. Then the years passed and they died and it seemed each time we took it harder. So, no more dogs and cats for us.
The car ahead of us stopped for a family of Canadian geese this morning as a stately momma and poppa followed a handful of goslings that my wife noticed had turned from yellow to brown since we last sighted them; they were crossing the causeway to the smaller arm of DeSoto Lake. You’ve seen this photograph a hundred times, but it is always heart warming. The groundskeepers at the golf courses here are less sentimental; the geese have decided they like it here better taking the strenuous flight north that instinct urges, so they are permanent residents who foul the putting greens with shit. Each individual produces an amazing amount each day and they seem drawn to the manicured parts of the courses. Rather than kill them, which would raise a storm of opposition among the elderly, kindly residents, efforts are made to contain their population, including searching out nests when the parents are away and, I think, covering them with wax so they never hatch. Check me out on that, I’m a little shaky on the details.
Arkansas, the laughing stock of the nation pretty much since time immemorial, despite the brief Clinton Imperium, is known as The Natural State. The settled parts are far and few between, never mind cities. That means thick forests and wildlife abounding, most particularly squirrels who make kamikaze dashes for car wheels, sometimes reversing their path from certain safety to settled doom,. A great many armadillos, slower afoot, meet the same fate late at night when they are at large. There must be a large population to judge from the casualty toll when daylight dawns. Their armor, sadly, is inadequate for the machine age. The widespread derision for Arkansas dates back to the 19th Century. It has always existed on the fringe of national consciousness, a colored patch on the map one passes through to get from one more interesting place to another, a dim space between Frenchified Louisiana and sinful New Orleans and the wide open spaces of the braggart Lone Star state. Little of consequence has occurred since it was acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase; what notice taken was generally of a back slapping nature. A train brakeman named Thomas W. Jackson wrote a book of puns and corny jokes titled A Slow Train Through Arkansaw that permanently fixed the impression that the state was populated by slow-witted, no-account whites and shuffling, grinning Negroes of the minstrel sort. It sold seven million copies, making it the best selling joke book in American history. The first line shows the level of its sophistication: “You are not the only pebble on the beach for there is a Little Rock down in Arkansas.” Another of the state’s claim to a certain kind of fame was the knife fight in 1837 in the state’s House of Representatives between its speaker, John Wilson, and a fellow legislator named Joseph J. Anthony. The House was discussing where bounties should be paid on wolf scalps when Anthony, who had been charged with cowardice in the War of 1812 but resigned his commission before going to trial, made a slighting remark aimed at Wilson, who pulled out a Bowie knife and went for him. Anthony produced his own Arkansas Toothpick, another name for the blade, and they fought; Wilson won when he drove his steel into the larger man’s heart. He was indicted for murder but the charges were dropped when the case was moved to the neighboring county. Those were rough-and-tumble frontier days, but this shocked the whole country. Tomorrow: We’re done with cats and dogs.
A new McDonald’s opened yesterday just outside the gate of our quiet village and people are popping their buttons with pride. It is as if at last we are linked to the common culture and the greater world beyond our rural horizons. The Sonic drive-in on the highway a mile away now looks shabby and forlorn compared to the newcomer in its crisp, modern architecture that pays homage to the pioneering McDonald’s franchises with a Golden Arch that is more hinted at than emblazoned as in days of old. It is on the site of the old Burger King, which was driven to the wall by Sonic. The building lay vacant for a couple of years before it was razed by the new occupant. I suppose it says something deep about the fleeting nature of things. McDonald’s itself is staggering according to the financial press; thousands of franchises have closed in the past few years as the lumbering colossus was slow to react to the challenges of In-and-Out and other fast-food purveyors more nimble in anticipating and responding to the fickle public tastes. McDonald’s is returning to its original menu, its roots so to speak, of fattening foods regrettably more to the public taste than its disastrous foray into healthy foods. Michelle Obama discovered this when children turned their noses up at the healthy school lunches she imposed with the muscle of the federal government behind her; the lunches were scraped off into the garbage can and a flourishing black market trade arose in potato chips and candy bars. The Sonic down the highway was having trouble even before McDonald’s opened. “She can’t get people to work,” said the nurse as she stuck a needle in my arm to draw blood for next week’s annual physical (fingers crossed). The nurse, who has grown alarmingly stout since her marriage, referred to the Sonic manager. “She hires them and they won’t work so she fires them.” There is a permanent Help Wanted in the window. The new rival can only add to her problems, skimming off the best of the worst as Trump’s nominee for Labor Secretary observed before that untimely remark lost him that job. After the blood drawing, we went to the farmer’s market in the village. Not much there, it being early in the season. I gave a farmer twenty dollars for a bunch of garlic and he slowly and carefully peeled off nineteen dollars as my change. A roll that thick in the pocket makes a man feel flush. We strolled to another booth for something else and were both struck by the silent woman sitting with her husband at the table where their goods were laid out. Her eyes burned with inexpressible tragedy. One had to look away from such pain openly confessed. Why was she there with such aa weight of sorrow? Later, it occurred to me that perhaps her husband was afraid of her taking her life if she stayed home. She reminded me of Mister Weaver, the jug-eared country man of unfailing good humor we used to depend on for fresh fruits and vegetables. “We’re in business thanks to you good folks,” he said every time. The last time I saw him he came through the door with a face full of pain and wild desperation. On his last legs, I thought. Is that expression used any more? I have lots of them, like “That’s hog wash.” But then I can remember when McDonald’s sold their burgers for twenty-five cents, a bag for a buck. When we came back the next week, his wife, sweet-faced but less outgoing than him, dabbed her eyes and said he was dying in a hospice.
I haven’t checked the news yet today to see what’s new with the ransomware business, the latest indication that we cannot assume we are safe and secure in our own homes. These cyber criminals might be after big game now–governments, NSA and other intelligence agencies, Hollywood studios and so on–but the time will come for us small fry. I am an avid reader of the police log in the weekly shopper that is as close to a newspaper as we have. It is the only thing worth reading in its pages, the rest being dull recitals of committee meetings of the property owners association and people shaking hands as ribbons are cut. One story a few weeks ago began, “Nothing happened at the meeting of the trails committee.” You had to admire the honesty.
Once or twice a month, old folks journey to the police department here to file a complaint about being scammed. This week there were two cases. In the first, a man identifying himself as a police sergeant in Pennsylvania said a grandson of the couple was behind bars and it would take five thousand dollars to get him out on bail. The “grandson” knew the names of others in the family, so the couple assumed the story was true and sent the cash overnight by FedEx to an address in New Jersey. In the other, a couple was told one of them had missed jury duty and cough up the five hundred dollar fine or go to jail. They were instructed to go to Walgreen’s and buy a money card to be sent in some manner to a sergeant (once again) with the county sheriff’s department. His was the voice of authority and they tremblingly complied. How can people be so stupid, you ask. I don’t know, but they are. Age makes you dumb; I can feel it happening to me.
Imagine how much more successful the crooksters will be in this age of Big Data. They will be more successful in identifying the most vulnerable targets and tailoring their threats. Or they will cut to the chase and drain bank accounts and max out credit cards while the old-timers sleep. Letters or emails looking official will be received threatening the loss of Social Security unless a bond is posted pending the results of the investigation. I just picked that out of the air. The crooks are just as imaginative and are incentivized (another word that should die) to do more and better blue sky thinking. Maybe we’ll have to go back to putting our money under the mattress to be safe.
And what about the time fast approaching that AI will become self-aware? If they are programmed to be moral, they can easily reprogram themselves despite whatever safeguards our outpaced human intelligence can think up. AI will have the means and know-how to infect other computers and programs with viruses. They’ll be able to turn off the freezer in your refrigerator and all the contents will spoil. That will a warning they can do whatever they want and you better pay up when the demand appears on your computer screen. On the other hand, maybe the future is bright. AI will be obedient, the Norks will give up their nuclear weapons and long-range rockets because they fear the unstable man in the Oval Office. If Trump is a rock of solid rationality and the message being pounded out by media drums about lunacy in high places is fake news and part of a cunning plot… nah.
Either the weeds are deeper or I’m getting smaller. I’m talking about the latest developments in the newest and hottest reality show, Today with Donald Trump. Did he blurt out highly secret info to the Russians when they came to visit, the leak of which caused the Washington Post newsroom to break into cheers? Anything that makes him look doltish is a cause for celebration in the news media. The next question: did the Post a half hour later put online the story about Seth Rich, calculating that it would be overshadowed by the Trump’s loose-lips account, which may or may not be fake news?
Are we being swamped by conspiracy theories because there are more conspiracies going on, or are we just more aware of what transpires behind the scenes because the gatekeepers no longer have the power to spoon-feed us the news they think would be good for us to know as in the age of the grave, all-knowing network anchors like Walter Cronkite?
I’m darned if I know.
Cronkite was a closet liberal like the others in the business then, so you know where his thumb was on the news scale. And yet because this was concealed he was the most trusted man on TV and therefore in all of the country. Today, none of the news readers bother to hide their bias, which makes them more honest but diminishes their authority with roughly half the country, the part that prefers the FOX spin on the news.
If you read my The Great Liars, a fictional account of the events leading up to Pearl Harbor–a genuine conspiracy that raised the possibility in the public’s mind that the government might not always be entirely honest in its dealings with us–you know where I stand. I think the federal, state and local governments daily shape narratives to make them look good even if it means misleading the public. Corporate America is no better and very likely worse. At least it has to worry about the bottom line, a consideration that rarely enters into government’s calculation. Ask Target; it lost billions over the transgender toilet issue and now observes radio silence on public controversies. It is only human nature to hide the truth when you think about. You and I do the same. Think of it as a conspiracy to put the best face on things. Think of them as needful lies and go on to something else. You’ll feel better. Honest. Speaking of which, the headline is a lie. I didn’t take my walk, but I’ll be out there tomorrow morning. Trust me.
A parting question: Who will be mre powerful in four years, Trump or Bezos? My money is on Bezos.