The morning walk

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.

 

The morning walk

 

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.

 

The morning walk

 

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*

 

Jerry Jay Carroll

May 13, 2017

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.

BookLife Prize – 2017
Visibility : public
Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
Originality: 10 out of 10
Prose: 10 out of 10
Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
Overall: 10.00 out of 10

Assessment:

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.”

 

 

 

The Horror Writer

rize.

Review Reviews

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.

 

What might have been wasn’t

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?

 

 

The Fixer-Uppers

We’re having our deck rebuilt because the years have rotted it away. We solicited bids and decided on a contractor who looked like he understood Judy’s design thinking. The last time we engaged a contractor, he and his crew went to work on a roof line that would have obliterated the view of the mountain we moved there to see. He understood when this was pointed out and his crew went to work pulling out the nails they had just pounded in, getting with the new program without resentment. Driving nails and pulling them out the same day, no big deal; they got paid both ways and it was all good. This was in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana where everybody wakes up to beautiful views and goes to bed with them. It’s nothing special when you’re born and live all your life in such a place, so outsiders have to be careful if they remodel. Californians, generally disliked, average about two years in Montana. We held out for five before the long winters got to us. I used to walk the fence line in all weathers including blizzards with our Yellow Lab and Jack Russell  until Ollie the lab got too old. Then it was just me and Stella.

As with all contractors and guys in the trade that we have dealt with, a generous allowance must be made for eccentricity. One we hired in Northern California (the distinction is important to those who live in that state) put in beautiful redwood paneling in a room for us, arriving more or less promptly each morning. Martin took the Chronicle into the adjoining bathroom and took a leisurely dump on our time; we thought it strange at first but didn’t mind after a  while because he was doing fine work. He had majored in English at Berkeley and found his bliss in physical work. This was Marin and there was an infestation of mind-control cults at the time. That old counter-culture crowd is being squeezed out of the county now by the young and wealthy overflow from San Francisco into materialism. Needy and unsure of himself, according to Judy, who saw much more of him than I did, Martin signed up for a cult called the Everyman Theatre, later The Theatre of All Possibilities, led by Alex Horn and his wife Sharon Gans, who starred in the film version of “Slaughterhouse Five.” They ran a tight ship with beatings for “students” who didn’t sell their quota of tickets for the weird plays written by Horn himself. Or for “whimpering” or making noise backstage. A drama critic sent to review a production wrote that he staggered out at the three-hour mark unable to take any more; he said it was the most unpleasant experience of his professional life. Tickets to these grueling events were sold by wheedling or badgering strangers on the street.

Martin was assigned a woman to marry and he brought her over to meet us after the job was over. She seemed as nice as he was and sometimes I wonder how it turned out. Other couples in the cult were forced to divorce as part of the therapy, which had some connection to the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff, a Russian mystic who was a striking figure with a head as bald as a cue ball and an impressive handlebar moustache. Hypnotic eyes, of course; all cult leaders seem to have that feature. Dipping into Eastern thought, Gurdjieff maintained that most people live lives of “waking sleep,” but can kick it up to a higher state of consciousness and achieve “full human potential” if they put their minds to. Down the years from that came the human potential movement, a term you once couldn’t go a day without hearing in the Bay Area. The theatre cult broke up when Horn and his wife left hurriedly in the wake of the massacre at Jonestown, which gave cults generally a bad name. People’s Temple had sent down robust roots in San Francisco, even grafting itself onto the political culture, before Jim Jones in a spasm of paranoia ordered everyone to pack up and leave for British Guyana. The Chronicle wanted to send me with the party that was to be ambushed at the dirt airfield, but my good friend Keith Power, bless him, an assistant city editor, said the man’s celebrating his anniversary in Big Sur, let him be. So they dispatched a bright, ambitious young man who wore pinstripe suits to our ‘Thirties “Front Page”-style city room that was as noisy as a boiler room at deadline . It had wooden floors bearing the marks of a thousand cigarettes crushed underfoot.   He caught a slug in the buttocks as he took to his heels when the shooting began and spent the night chest-deep in swamp water, counting himself lucky he wasn’t slain with the rest of them; he went on to become editor of Town and Country magazine. Everyone at the Chronicle despised the New Yorker. “You’re the only one who talked to me,” he said to me.  The tradition at the newspaper still lingered that you didn’t talk to newcomers for six months, but perhaps he took it personal. And he was aggressively ambitious in an off-putting way. Maybe in a partial balancing of the scales, the famed Nepenthe restaurant where we were to have dinner celebrating ten years of marriage caught fire and burned down. I noticed the chimney over the open cooking area turning red and then a brighter red. I said to Judy, “Let’s go.” I think we were the first ones out, threading our way past the people with happy faces looking forward to a great time at a place where it was hard to get a reservation.

Before that happened, some Everyman Theatre members rented the house and its cottage next door and our five-year-old son struck up a friendship with a cheerful, wholesome woman (there must have been some good that came from belonging to the cult). She was run down by a car and killed not long after, leaving my wife to explain what death was to our boy. The accident was in front of a house where a girl lived that he came to like years later when they were in middle school. Her father, an assistant district attorney, was enraged by the homeless who wandered past and used his yard as a toilet. He rushed out one night and stabbed a man he caught in the act with a knife. It cost him his job and he was lucky he didn’t do prison time. When we last saw the girl, she was hard-faced and wearing a dog collar. Teenage rebellion. It was an eventful neighborhood now that I look back.

I used to walk home past the storefront of another cult, The Laughing Man Institute, never failing to admire the name. The place was always empty when I passed. nighttime being when things happened, I suppose. The group also had property in the country. Laughing Man was helmed by Bubba Free John, christened Franklin Jones in Queens, who adopted various names during his life, including Da Love-Ananda, Dau Loloma, Da Kalki, Hridaya-Samartha Sat-Guru Da, Santosha Da, Da Avadhoota, Da Avabhasa, and from 1994, Adi Da Love-Ananda Samraj, or Adi Da for short. He was a heavy user of LSD while studying for a master’s degree in English at Stanford; no doubt he was part of the Timothy Leary set. Adi Da himself had nine or more polygamous partners he called “wives”, including a Playboy centerfold model.

Bubba, as I still think of him, directed his followers in “sexual theater”, a form of therapy featuring public and group sex and pornographic movie-making. Drug and alcohol use were encouraged after an earlier ban was lifted on eating junk food in one of his theological U-turns. He thought he was God, by the way, like the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who founded the global mind-control cult called the Unification Church. There were quite a few of his followers, called Moonies, who were busy in Marin as well. Bubba’s cult was seized by schism, as they all are sooner or later, and he moved with a bobtail remnant including the Playmate to a Fiji island once owned by Raymond Burr. There he died of a heart attack.

Another guy we hired for a job was equally as intelligent and likeable as Martin. He pushed his tools around the neighborhood in a wheelbarrow looking for work, having come down in life somewhat from teaching English at the nearby community college. I was careful not to inquire to closely into the details, it seeming too much like what I did for a living, but gave him space in our garage to store his tools and to use as a workplace. One day he showed up with a woman I thought was like a succubus who bled him of  what drive and ambition he had left. She lazily watched while he worked;  I suppose drugs were involved. I managed to persuade him to vacate the garage many months later. In our last chat he said a job making shelves for a Chinese businessman was going so slowly that he had been seized by the throat as a kind of termination notice. I understood the merchant’s impatience, but also the other side of the story.

What I started to write about was this deck guy said he has been working since December on a house in the middle of our sleepy village, which covers the same geographical area as San Francisco but has maybe 13,000 people in its wooded and rolling hills. “She turned on the water in the laundry room sink and went to Texas,” he explained in the understated way we admire in the South. The Texas border is maybe three hours away from us in Arkansas. If you are of a certain absent-minded age—mine—you can appreciate how this could happen. All too easily you can understand. The damage was $50,000. My wife and I have been speculating about when she remembered she left the water on. Maybe a neighbor saw water running down the hill.

This is proving to be an expensive year so far. We had to have all of our copper plumbing in the attic replaced after the pipes began having what plumbers call “pinhole leaks.” These are not normally detected until a part of your ceiling falls to the floor. Those are unhappy times, people. You have to locate the shutoff valve that leads from the street – do you know where yours is? –go out in the dead of night and turn a wheel sunk in a concrete hole and covered by an iron plate. I found a toad wintering on the wheel. Our new next- door neighbor tells me the new pipes are much more durable, good for up to a half a century. I’m glad we won’t be around to oversee that. You read about these Silicon Valley super-achievers who hope to transfer their minds to a cloud and thereby live forever. Does that appeal to you? If so, pass on by.