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.
Walking along the lovely, little creek we favor for our morning stroll, I decided I would make a stab at a daily entry for this blog. Not obsess over it, rewrite sentences and change verbs and curb the adjectives the way I do in my regular writing. And set a time limit of, say fifteen minutes. Think I can do it? I don’t either, but I’ll give it a shot. Said creek, not more than five inches deep normally, was a monster during a recent storm, rising 20 feet. Piles of leaves from last autumn were swept upon the fairway along with some fair size rocks.
Microsoft, in its ceaseless effort to make itself annoying, has added a new feature to Windows 10 even as it is promoting Windows 11, its forthcoming iteration (a word that came into fashion a year or so ago and I wish would go away again.) A black box slides from right to left on the screen to tell me I have mail. Of course I do; I get about 100 a day because I don’t feel like going to the bother of going through the process of cancelling them, which has never worked with Blaze, which I don’t remember signing up for in the first place. I like to see what has arrived when I get around to it, not in response to a nudge from Microsoft. It has, it seems, fallen behind Google and Apple in the race to invade lives. A scary robot voice spoke up suddenly last Friday with a warning I found unintelligible. Reading the WSJ the following day I learned about the global hacking. It was interesting to see my elderly computer was sort of involved in victimhood. I turned it off for a few seconds and turned it back on. No problem. Scanning the contents of my hard drive, maybe the crooks decided there was nothing worth a ransom demand so I got a pass. This is probably not how the whole process worked, but anyhow.
I have disliked or hated every president in my adult life and the present iteration is no exception. I think there is a strain of contrarianism in my nature that resists the imposition of authority, so at first I welcomed the havoc Trump was wreaking on the establishments of the co-governing parties. But it seems now if you are not a doormat for him you are threatened with “You’re fired.” You can’t get or keep first-rate talent with this attitude and I wonder who the first big name will be to leave the cabinet. If whoever it is tears Trump a new one on the way out the door, that will be the true beginning of the end. Okay, that’s it. Fifteen minutes. Only three misspellings according to Spell Check. *pumps fist*
I’m bowled over by the reviews of my new novel even though I think some don’t quite get that it is a kind of cosmological musing dressed up as a comic thriller with a few dashes of satire. But who cares!
Judging from the review, The Horror Writer is showing good early foot out of the gate and just might be in good position for the stretch run for the 2017 BookLife Prize which has a purse of five grand.
Plot: “The Horror Writer offers a highly original plot that keeps the reader intrigued and invested. The author reveals details little by little, building up to a tense and riveting conclusion.
Prose: Carroll is a superb writer, with a clear gift for not only prose but for plotting, pacing, and characterization.
Originality: The author offers up an inventive, unique story that, like the best plots in the horror genre, makes the impossible seem plausible and allows the reader to suspend disbelief.
Character Development: Carroll’s characters are masterfully created, warts and all. As a result, his protagonist, Thom Hearn, is a living, breathing being with qualities and personality traits that readers will immediately associate with someone they know.
Blurb: With a gripping narrative that will hook the reader from the very first page, this haunting story is the stuff nightmares are made of.”
The Kirkus Reviews notice was very nice, but I think the critic didn’t grasp what I was driving at. That’s okay, I think it works on more levels than one. “An engaging, imaginative story despite minor distractions.”
Jerry Carroll has invigorated the dramatic cliches of the traditional horror story in his latest work without abandoning the wit and whimsy that illuminates the best selling author’s five previous novels. The tribute to the slash-and-gore genre is there in the lurid cover of “The Horror Writer” and the plot unfolds not unexpectedly on a remote tropical island. But the narrative is Mr. Carroll at his most intriguing.
The island draws some of the world’s rich and influential people to a conference on international understanding sponsored by a prestigious foundation. Thom Hearn, weary founder of a money-making gang of hack writers, learns his invitation was a mistake, a telling point as gruesome violence besets the idle pursuits and exquisite dining of the guests. The staff members of the foundation are apologetic but not helpful as characters from Hearn;s own hack fiction join the bloody carnival.Hearn’s travails are shared by the cool Wall Street professional Carrie Alexander, who flees with him into the jungle’s green hell to escape the worst monster of all, a lopsided, flesh-rending creature who may be drawn from Hearn;s own nightmarish boyhood. The romantic thread is a traditional element and warmly welcome in this new experience of the old scary story.
The primary tornadoes are over and now we go on to the November hurricane. The right has the man they wanted but the left didn’t quite make it. They are stuck with Hillary, the new wine in old bottles candidate dragged from what is the sweet spot in the middle her husband cultivated with such skill. Look for “pivot” to be used to the point of nausea by the commentariat as she repositions herself to best advantage. Her P.T. Barnum adversary won’t bother. He has his inimitable brand, which can be reduced to “It’s gonna be great again, believe me, and I’ll get back to you with the details.”
It’s not too soon to be wistful about the people we would rather be voting for in November. In my case, it would be the freshman senator from Nebraska Ben Sasse, a 44-year-old former college wrestler, policy adviser in the Bush administration, and university president. After his election two years ago, Sasse waited a year before making his maiden speech. He spent the time studying the failures of the Senate, interviewing other members of Congress, and following the debates with their sound bytes and straw man arguments. He told both parties “the people despise us all.”
Anybody doubt that?
That is why most Republican voters want the wrecking ball taken to the whole smug, isolated, self-enriching GOP party establishment. Whether Trump will comply with that hope is one of those details he’ll get back to us on later, but his vengeful nature is an encouraging sign. Democrats had a similar opportunity but fate delivered an elderly Jewish socialist with a Brooklyn accent to take on the smug, isolated, etc., party establishment personified by the all-powerful Clinton machine and blabbermouth Debby Wasserman Schultz, one of the most accomplished liars on the political stage today. She has advanced from minor evasions to who do you believe, me or your lying eyes? That takes a lot of self confidence, overweening you might say. The fix was in and Birney never had a chance. Elizabeth Warren might have been another story, but like Joe Biden she didn’t want to get chewed up by the machinery.
Mao had a solution when the establishment became ossified and corrupt in China. He sent young fanatics into the classrooms, businesses, cultural and bureaucratic institutions and had them cleaned out. Thousands were killed, imprisoned or sent to the countryside to work as peasants. In the end, that didn’t work either, human nature being what it is. After a few decades passed, the problems returned. The Chinese president Xi Jinping is trying to shape things up by returning to the Mao-style strongman model of governing. Like the Russians, the Chinese are used to authoritarianism. The Russians even welcome it.
The other candidate I would prefer is another from the university president ranks, retired Admiral William McRaven, the former commander of the SEALS who organized the raid that sent Osama bin Laden off to the arms of the 72 virgins. He literally wrote the book on special operations. Now at the University of Texas at Austin, McRaven gave what was regarded as the best commencement address of 2014. It consisted of ten tips for how to become successful, starting with making your bed perfectly every morning. “It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.” If you have a bad day, your bed is waiting and maybe tomorrow will be better. That is wisdom distilled. A six-year-old boy wrote him once to ask who was more silent, a SEAL or a Ninja. McRaven took time out of his busy day to write a personal letter. A ninja was probably quieter, he said, but a SEAL shoots better.
The D.C. establishment will tell you Trump doesn’t have a chance, but they assured us he would never win the nomination. The best description I’ve heard of Hillary’s campaign style is “medicinal,” although wooden comes close. My money is on the showman over the second banana.
Judy and I walk along a golf course mornings and we see people I nickname if they become familiar. There was Slow Walker for years, the Merry Couple, Nurse Black Car (it has a bumper strip that says I Stop for Turtles), Crooked Lady (she had a spine problem that bent her sideways and made every step look painful) and Jolly Man. He lost his wife in December and now is a tragic figure. He told my wife about her death and began weeping so she gave him a hug. He still walks, but for hours now and in a driven way so my new name for him is Hard Walker (it’s actually Bill, but I get stuck in my ways). He is haggard and emaciated from the endless miles and his clothes hang on him. He is a retired military officer like so many in our sleepy village. I think he walks to impose some kind of order on his life, blown to smithereens when his wife died.
The weekly newspaper, owned with scores of others by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson—though I seriously doubt he has ever seen a copy or would want to—runs obituaries I mow take an uncommon interest in. You come across people who were married 60 and even 70 years before one of them passes away. The suffering of the survivors, almost always women, is unimaginable to me. Why go on?