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How to write lousy

“I’m a HUGE fan of the ________.”

Fill in the blank with Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Dodgers or similar.

The problems are:

(A) You’re probably much closer to average than you realize.

(B) It reads like it’s been written by an obnoxious, boasting child.

(C) Your enthusiasm aside, it contains little information.

Here are some alternatives that convey much more information.

— I’ve been following the _________ since I was 10 years old.

— I’m a season ticktet holder of the _________.

— I take my annual vacation in _________ to attend ________.

Enough already with the HUGE fans.

Wall of women

In chapter 4 of “Shipwreck Bay,” Taylor Burns suspects a spa worker is being used as a sex slave. Her cousin/best friend is known to frequent the Wonder Bar. As Taylor tries to find her, he’s confronted by a “wall of women.” Hey, didn’t he know it was Ladies Night at the Wonder?

(The illustrated novel is free to download, below.)

Because they could

I’m supposedly an expert on the “Gangster Era” and yes, it does have something to do with the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor.

Let’s go back to January 1935, Lake Weir, Florida.

Federal Agents surrounded a house that was occupied by Ma Barker and her son Fred. Those two were wanted for bank robbery and murder, although only Fred was actually guilty of that.

The Feds demanded surrender. What they got was an hours-long shootout. Ma and Fred ended up dead. The shootout risked the lives of agents and locals, but fortunately, all of them survived.

The Barker Gang was run by a dynamic duo, and its second principal, Alvin Karpis, was still on the loose as Public Enemy No. 1. Federal Agents tracked him to New Orleans.

As it happened, bossman J. Edgar Hoover was being ridiculed by some members of Congress. Hoover was a weak bureaucrat, they said, who’d never done any real police work and had, in fact, never even made an arrest.

So J. Edgar decided to show them Congress boys.

When his agents located Public Enemy Kapris, they just tailed him for a while. In early May, 1936, when they figured out his patterns, they alerted the boss.

J. Edgar flew to New Orleans. As Karpis left his apartment to go fishing, agents trapped him in his car. He was handcuffed without a struggle. At this point J. Edgar showed up to take credit for the arrest. When it made front page news, Hoover was a hero and the Congress boys had to shut the hell up.

So the point is, police can make sensible, non-violent arrests when they want to. In the Karpis case, it was in Hoover’s interest to make himself a newspaper hero.

But that wasn’t an issue in the Fred Barker case. In fact, Federal agents had been tracking Fred for weeks. One of them even chatted with Fred at a local fishing pier. Agents watched him on shopping trips. They could have arrested him at any point. But they chose a wild west shootout.

Fred Barker was a stone-eyed killer, but his mother, despite her infamy, was guilty only of raising awful sons. She did not deserve to die in a shootout with government agents.

This case has many parallels, and the one that comes first to mind is the siege of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, resulting in 76 deaths, including four Federal agents and 25 children.

I say again. 25 children.

Attorney General Janet Reno had approved the raid, arguing to President Bill Clinton that Federal agents were “tired of waiting.”

In another context, President Clinton did the world a favor when confessing about his many sexual indiscretions. “I did it because I could,” he said. When you examine that statement, it become apparent that it’s a confession about the abuse of power.

So back to Lake Weir Florida, house mom Kate Barker and her vicious son Fred. The FBI might have arrested Fred on the fishing pier, or in town at the hardware store. But they chose a shootout because they wanted one. Because they could. Because they had the power to do it.

But in New Orleans, they chose to peacefully arrest Karpis. They had the power to do it either way, put a peaceful arrest suited their purpose.

In Waco, the Federals passed multiple chances to arrest cult leader David Koresh. Instead, they chose a siege that killed … did I mention the 25 children?

What it comes down to is … shamefully enough, administrative convenience.

The details are out there for anyone who cares to read them, so I won’t delve into the Breonna Taylor tragedy, except to say that an innocent 26-year-old woman was shot dead by police. They were serving a “no-knock” warrant, bursting in during the dark hours in search of drugs. No drugs were found.

The cops were after, get this, a bag of cocaine.

Breonna Taylor, an EMT worker, a solid citizen, was killed because police wanted to seize ….

A bag.

Of

Cocaine.

They burst in while she was sleeping because a judge signed a warrant empowering them to.

They did it because they had the power.

They did it because they could.

They care for each other!

In “Reverse Lightning” the destitute character Piano washes up on Mexican shores.

He is surprised to find himself recovering in a hospital. On the streets of his hometown, he’d have been left for dead.

When he recovers and goes back to Jeffersonia, he has a startling message, delivered to his fellow down-and-outers.

It is possible, he informs them, to have a society in which people take care of one another.

Like many Americans, I watched in dismay as other nations, many less wealthy than we are, developed systems that delivered health care for all. And eliminated the cruel absurdity of medical bankruptcies.

Over the years, American public opinion has gradually shifted in favor of some form of universal health care. Here’s a link to a good set of graphics from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

But the back pressure comes from a variety of lobbying groups, and they spend a lot of money propping up our current system.

This kind of thing I saw as the fatal flaw in America’s success. The status quo is so wealthy, so powerful, that it will stunt the changes every society needs to make as it evolves.

“Reverse Lightning” imagines that America’s biggest mistake was clinging to fossil fuels as other nations developed green energy resources.

The angry, crazy rich man

In “Reverse Lightning,” one state in a fractured America is ruled by Permanent President Mal Malenkovich. He is a mad billionaire with dictatorial impulses.

I drafted this novel in 2010, when Trump was just a TV host — an American asterisk. So Malenkovich is in no way modeled on that unworthy politician. In a way, Malenkovich was a prediction of the kind of man who would arise in a sick and dispirited society. A supreme egotist. A man who’d come by his money dishonestly. A man who made secret deals with foreign countries in order to stay in power. A pretender with a secret longing to be admired. And ultimately, a man with a strong self-destructive urge.

The illustration above shows Malenkovich begging his biographer to assassinate him. He even provides the gun. He senses his ruin coming, and feels that an assassination will make him a martyr. They’ll build statues to him in town squares — he hopes.

Malenkovich is an American type — the successful failure. Sometimes it seems that Americans have collapsed all value systems into one –wealth. The examples are all around us daily. Malenkovich has succumbed to this American disease, although in the end, he realizes he really craves another form of success, which is now out of his reach.

America seems particularly skilled at producing this odd phenomenon — the angry, crazy rich man. What do the Koch brothers have to be angry about? Or Peter Thiel? Or John McAfee? Obviously, their extreme success did not make these people happy. And yet Americans see their lifestyles as aspirational. The private jet. The seaside estate. The squads of aides and sycophants. The TV appearances.

And so, “Reverse Lightning,” a failed America of the near future. Like other writers of dystopian fiction, I’m imagining a future I hope we can avoid.

The world’s only pop star

In “Reverse Lightning” I imagine a new world order, led by Mexico, with the US broken up into 13 squabbling mini-nations.

Kissy Jag, above, is the great-granddaughter of Mick Jagger. She’s also the world’s only official pop star. Her songs are directly commercial, for example: “If You Love Me, Chew Hunger Ease Gum.” They’re also guaranteed to sell a billion downloads.

In the illustration, Kissy overlooks, with skepticism, a proposed concert venue.

Mexico has risen in wealth and power because of its invention of Reverse Lightning, a method of generating non-polluting energy. The nation has been transformed by its embrace of science and technology. But its mania for efficiency has led it to endorse monopolies, going so far as to designate, among other things, an official religion, and an official pop star.

That queasy, uneasy feeling

Three troopers from D-4-2, 7th Cavalry, taking a break while on day sweep, near Vinh Long in the Mekong Delta, probably late 1970.

Over the years I’ve been asked: What did it feel like, being in Vietnam?

In some ways, it felt like it does now.

During my year in the Mekong Delta, I’d wake up to bright sunshine and a warm, moldy breeze. I’d be feeling chipper. Who knows, maybe I’d been dreaming of home.

And then I’d realize where I was. First came the creeping feeling of dread. Then the flop-sweat. There was no sense in lying there rat-caging. I’d roll out of the bunk, slip into my uniform, lace my combat boots, walk over to the mess hall for coffee.

I was reminded of all that the other day, while reading a tweet, the writer saying she’d felt cheerful upon awakening, only to be overcome by pandemic dread.

Yes, this is what it was like in Vietnam. For 365 days. 

I was an infantry soldier, but surely this feeling of dread must have infected most of the support guys (and a few gals) even if they never left the base.

This feeling of dread was accompanied by a sense that we’d descended into the surreal. Were we really surrounded by barbed wire, hung with beer cans as an early warning device, because people were trying to sneak in and blow us up? Did we really send men up into towers at night, armed with machine guns? Did we really load onto helicopters, to be hoisted into the sky and dropped into a jungle where people we didn’t know were doing their best to kill us?

Was any of that real?

Which is a question many of us ask today. Are we, residents of the mightiest nation on earth, really confined to our homes, social bonds broken, while an invisible enemy cuts us down, seemingly at random?

During the Vietnam war, both Americans and Vietnamese lived with an unnerving reality. We all knew people who’d been vibrantly alive one day, and a corpse the next. The Angel of Death seemingly chose his victims at random, which made it more psychologically devastating.

I was no war hero. I served reluctantly, a foot-dragging, resentful draftee,  forced to play the role of rifleman, for which I was ill-suited.

But serve I did. I remember patrolling on day sweeps, and wondering: Is this the day we stumble into an NVA battalion, and get wiped out, or worse, captured? 

I remember night ambushes, taking my turn walking point, down an utterly dark dirt path, imagining that my next step would break a trip wire, the last sensation I’d ever feel. Then, as now, there was nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other.

Nobody could escape this risk entirely. Even the guys who lived in bunkers and never patrolled had to live with the reality that their base might be overrun. Or that a mortar round might drop out of the sky while they were waiting in line outside the messhall. 

Yes, every human being is at risk of dying every day of their lives, but in Vietnam, as now, that reality was a lot harder to deny.

Although the Vietnam War was a surreal nightmare, for us and even more so for the Vietnamese, it eventually did end. Vietnam went through a horrible period of retribution, but is now a prosperous nation, offering the good life to many. The United States, I’m afraid, learned the wrong lessons from Vietnam, but that’s just my opinion.

I was a better person having come through the Vietnam War. It introduced me to a foreign culture, which I came to admire. It woke me from a feckless childhood, motivated me to get an education, and I hope, caused me to develop a bit more empathy.

It also gave me years of nightmares.

But most of us made it home somehow, got on with our lives, changed, saddened, maybe even wiser.

I don’t know what will happen when covid gets to me. But I do know, from my experience in Vietnam, that Americans are fundamentally a courageous people, even when faced with an absurd adversity.

No matter our individual fate, America will make it through this. But yes, to answer the question: this is what it felt like in Vietnam.

Will you serve?

Every generation is tested. This disease that has come upon us presents harsh and terrible options.

It’s been reported that some (only some!) younger people are attempting to party on. The notion is that Covid-19 threatens old people, while somehow magically leaving the young unaffacted.

Even if that turns out to be true, young people who party on may be doing a great deal of damage.

For one thing, if this epidemic goes into full rage, many thousands of young people die.

But on a deeper level, the party-on crowd will contribute to the rapid spread of the virus, and that will take a toll on everyone — especially doctors, nurses, EMTs and other health care providers.

The party crowd is endangering the lives of the very people we need most right now. They’re endangering the lives of the very people they will need, and soon. An overwhelmed health care systems means mothers and children may die at childbirth, emergency surgeries won’t be done in time, accident victims will die who might have been saved, and so on … and on … and on.

Treatment of all kinds, which might have saved lives and preserved health, will be administered too late or not at all. People of all ages will suffer, and some will die, because the health care system has broken down.

Doctors and nurses are at high risk but so are police and firefighters, and anyone else who deals with the public, as well as people who are already sick. The deeper the disease penetrates the population, the greater their risk.

Previous generations have been asked to pick up weapons and, at great personal risk, defend the nation. Some dodged that obligation, but most Americans served, and sacrificed.

This generation is being asked to stay home for a while.

That’s not easy, since it involves a profound disruption of daily life, and threatens the livelihood of millions of people.

But the question is the same for this generation as it was for all the previous ones.

The nation is in trouble.

Will you dodge?

Or will you serve?

Abolish weekends

by Tim Mahoney

When we come out the other side of this pandemic, we should take the opportunity to abolish weekends.

Nope, this is not a call to drag workers back to 19th Century standards, when they were lucky to get a Sunday off.

This is simply the recognition that the weekend has kept us in bondage long enough. Our months in isolation has proven there’s just no need for so much of what we thought was vital.

Consider:

In normal times, every Friday, American workers start sneaking out at the morning coffee break. More follow at lunch, more still at the afternoon coffee break. By quitting time, only the temps and new hires remain, surfing the shopping, gambling and porn sites, as their betters drive for the beaches and lakes.

Every Saturday the amusement parks, beaches, camping sites, etc are crowded with desperados trying to cram a week’s worth of pleasure into a few frantic hours.

On Sunday afternoon, the highways are jammed with broken heroes debating whether to call in sick tomorrow. At sundown begins an unholy ritual, the Sunday Blues. Oh my God … Monday’s only a few hours away, and I’ve barely had any fun

That evening, every supermarket in America is jammed with harried, depressed Americans hoping to scoop up the supplies they need to survive the coming week.  When the dread Monday morning arrives, they’ll endure the ritual traffic jam and arrive at work with false cheer, boasting about having a great weekend.

All these sorry scenarios could disappear like magic.

Progress is possible, America. Hot air balloons have given way to jetliners.And we can move on from weekends.

Phase one is for the government to abolish the weekend, and spread its workweek over all 7 days. 

The worker who reviews planning documents at City Hall can’t do it on Sunday? Come on. Cops, dog-catchers, nurses, baristas and firefighters all work seven days a week. The military is on duty every day. So, the government statistician can’t do her thing on, let’s say, a Thursday-Monday schedule? The restaurant inspector? The building inspector? Every government office could be open every day, it’s just the force of bad habit that dictates otherwise.

When colleges return from this forced vacation, they can easily operate on a seven day week, which would expand their capacity by 40%, without laying a single brick or putting in a parking garage. Students and profs already juggle complex schedules. See the Math department if you need remedial help.

If Saturdays and Sundays are no longer sacrosanct, there’s no reason road construction, street sweeping, garbage collection and all that can’t be done on what used to be the weekend. And when there are no weekends, there’s no need to pay overtime for working them. 

Kaching$. Taxpayers save.

Overall, about 15 % of the workforce is government employed. With a few modest adjustments, and a lot of bitching and grumbling, Saturdays and Sundays could become substantially less crowded, simply by having the government spread out its schedule. Imagine if on your next Friday drive to the beach, one in 7 cars weren’t there.

Museums and attractions likewise need no holidays. Indeed, their usefulness and appeal will be massively increased when the bottleneck opens up, and people are just as likely to visit on Tuesday as on Saturday. Restaurants would be more viable, too, with their business no longer telescoped into Friday and Saturday nights.

Bus and train service would also improve. During normal times, the whole lame system goes on hiatus, the rusting equipment sitting in muddy yards until Monday rolls around. Without weekends, the demand curve would smooth, and less rolling stock would be needed. 

Elementary and high schools could eliminate weekends if they wanted to. Don’t tell me an algorithm can’t figure out how to schedule classes all 7 days, therefore giving the schools a whopping increase in capacity at very little cost. 

Yes, there could be an app for that.

There are almost 60 million kids in American schools. Abolishing weekends would mean fewer school buses, and more spread out schedules, more flexibility. Instead of 60 million headed to class every day, it would be more like 45 million. Again the price to pay is schedule complexity, but we can handle that now. 

Can’t we?

Corporate management will resist, of coursel. But I can personally attest that newsrooms, for one example, function well, perhaps better, on those days when the top management is checked out.

There would be a bonus for those people who are now “weekend workers” at the mall, at resorts, at restaurants. Demand for their labor will be spread out. No longer will they feel isolated, stuck at work while all their friends are out partying. These workers will be easier to recruit, as Saturday and Sunday become just another day.  

Once government-controlled agencies, especially the schools, move away from the weekends, private employers will gradually follow. We’re already in a long-term trend of working remotely, and the 9-to-5 routine is becoming a grandpa story.

America has been in a long-term trend away from rigidity and toward flexibility. Not many years ago, courts were clogged with auto crash lawsuits. Then, no fault insurance. 

Many states once restricted shopping and the sale of alcohol on Sundays. 

City transit systems once had complex zone fares, until we realized they were a pointless time suck. 

We’ve changed our minds on gambling, gay marriage, marijuana use, gender identity, recycling, birth control, tattoos, cigarette smoking, women’s role in society, use of credit cards, work-from-home – when this pandemic passes, we can change our minds about weekends, too.