Friday, May 29, 2015

Mission to Mars

The world is suffering dire consequences as a result of global warming. The United States is in a terrible depression. A ‘new dust bowl’ has swept across the Midwest. The West is in the midst of a Hundred Year drought. The Southeast is being pummeled by monsoon-like rains. Agriculture across the nation has been devastated. Whole regions of the nation have had to relocate as a result of coastal flooding, regional drought, and desertification.

The rest of the world is in even worse shape. Sub-Saharan African migrants trying desperately to get into Europe are now being shot out of the water by Italian gun boats. South East Asian migrants trying to get into Australia, Thailand, and other countries that might provide a means of survival are also meeting armed resistance. Migrants are trying to come into the U.S. from the traditional countries south of the border, but also from island nations on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. The government has hired mercenaries to keep them out, with ‘whatever means’ are necessary.

Scientists are predicting ‘end of the world’ scenarios in a ‘we told you so’ rant. People are starting to believe the scientists, despite a concerted disinformation campaign by the administration.

A revolution appears to be brewing. Upwards of a hundred and fifty well-armed militias across the nation (plus a multitude of piss-ant also-rans) have gathered their brethren. The only thing stopping them from outright revolt is their inability to agree on who’s in charge.
Desperate for some ray of hope and distraction, the administration decides to promote the fiction that the U.S. has launched a team of astronauts to land on Mars and prepare for the possible relocation there of the U.S. population. The people that are to produce this elaborate hoax feel that it can be pulled off, because in this future dystopia, people, including the administration, have come to believe that the moon landing was a hoax. “If they could do it then, with the technology they had, imagine how much better we can make it look,” the Director of Total Information Transparency, David Hamilton Koch VI, tells the president, John Galt Paul.

Now, there’s a man who up to now has been a pain in the ass for the administrations that have come along since big money succeeded in getting a permanent Republican president and majority in both houses of congress elected, because he’s continued to insist that the climate science is right -- fossil fuel CO2 emissions are the culprit in global warming -- and the moon landing was real, among other ‘leftist conspiracy theory’s’ he’s promulgated.

The administration realizes the old curmudgeon, Ernest ‘Ernie’ Hemingway Codfelter,  can be useful to their plan by being proven right about the moon landing. A scheme is hatched to have Codfelter ‘discover’ new evidence of the landing’s authenticity. The administration will admit he’s right -- the moon landing was real (they’ll blame past administrations going way back for not listening to the old fart) -- and they’ll announce the plan to land astronauts on Mars.

It turns out, however, that Codfelter isn’t the gullible dupe they take him for, and he’ll switch his attention from the moon landing to the Mars mission in the time it takes Koch VI to say, “What the fuck!”

Codfelter graduated with high honors from Caltech, but what started as a promising career in astrophysics was derailed by post graduate work in getting stoned, complicated by borderline bipolar disorder. He ended up working as a blackjack croupier in Las Vegas. In his spare time, of which he had plenty, he wrote a blog detailing the conspiracy theory du jour, much of which dealt with the disinformation campaign that led up to the government outlawing research into climate change, and prohibiting NASA, NOAA, the EPA, and other government agencies from using the terms climate change, global warming, greenhouse gases, drought (‘dry’ was substituted), and hurricane or tornado (‘windy’ was substituted for both).
A major dis-disinformation campaign is undertaken, led by TIT, to convince the public that the moon landing in 1969 was real. The Heartland Institute, The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, and The American Exceptionalism Policy Program, among other conservative ‘think tanks’ are recruited to create a ‘grassroots’ movement to validate the 1969 moon landing, and to generate support for a mission to Mars.

Koch VI starts making the rounds of TV ‘news’ programs to promote the Mars mission. “If they could do it way back then with their technology, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do it,” Koch VI tells Sean Patrick Hannity IV, host of the TV program, ‘Fox the Nation.’

A contest is initiated to name the mission and the spaceship that will carry the intrepid astronauts aloft. The winner will be ensured a seat on the first follow-on flight to Mars. Codfelter’s submittal is ________ and __________.
Carefully selected members of the President’s Cabinet, the NASA Administrator, and key congressional leaders are brought to Camp David to discuss the planned Mars mission. Only the NASA Administrator, Varley Broadwidth, is hesitant to sign on to the ruse. “NASA doesn’t have the funding for such a complex mission Mr. President,” he says.

“It’s a fake mission, Varley,” the President says.

“Still,” Broadwidth says. “The NASA budget should look as though it has the appropriate funds for such a mission.”

Before the President can respond, Broadwidth goes on, “And if the budget is raised to accommodate the mission, our budget would make us one of the largest organizations in the government and therefore my pension should be raised accordingly.”

The President just stares at Broadwidth for a minute or so before saying, “Okay, I’ll have  Appropriations raise your pension concurrent with the public announcement. However, you have to agree to stay on as NASA Administrator until the first landing of settlers on Mars.”

“Of course, Mr. President,” Broadwidth says, beaming.
The administration doesn’t trust Hollywood to produce the ‘mission record,’ because, as President JG Paul says, “Those cocaine-addled pansies will blab about the fact it’s fiction.” So Koch VI initiates a no-bid contract with Reynolds-Lorillard Studios (RLS), the media arm of the multinational tobacco company of the same name, to produce the record of the Mars mission. Reynolds-Lorillard’s advertising campaign, under relaxed regulations, has largely been responsible for the renaissance in smoking that’s occurred since Republicans have come to dominate the political landscape. The subsidies provided to the industry by congress also helped.

In preparation for production, Koch VI clears RLS for access to Area 51, where they’ll set up the sets and film the mission to Mars. Koch VI’s biggest problem is finding a director for the production. He needs someone skilled in making convincing films with implausible plot lines, whom he can trust to keep his mouth shut about the ruse. Damn, I wish Stanley Kubrick were still alive, Koch VI thinks. He finally decides on Baxter Wallace, known for his films, Finding Jesus at Your Door, Heaven is for Real VI, Potato Head Mary, and A Meeting at the Gates. Wallace readily agrees after being assured he’ll have a guaranteed seat of the first spaceship that actually travels to Mars, should that ever occur. “I have faith it will,” Wallace proclaims. “I’ll have my agent meet with your people to discuss my remuneration requirements.”
Everything seems to be going swimmingly until TIT staff report that old Codfelter is sitting on the new evidence of the moon landing. Surveillance video and phone taps show that Codfelter has discussed the evidence in very general terms with several associates, i.e., poker playing buddies. He indicates that he has more important things to ponder than the moon landing. “Old news,” he says. “Mars is the new moon.”

Everything turns to shit when China, convinced the U.S. is about to launch the Mars settlement mission, invades America and attempts to take possession of the spaceship. They end up confronting the RLS Mars mission production team at Area 51. Told that the whole thing was a fraud, they line up the RLS bastards and shoot them. Then they stand around smoking and discussing what the hell to do with the United States.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins said in an interview, "Nobody expects this, do they?" about the phenomenal success of her thriller, The Girl on the Train. I wouldn't have. Don't get me wrong. It's a good read. Something to take with you on your vacation to that B&B on the Oregon Coast. But the prose is prosaic, and the first-person point of view of the three women narrators has one wondering how one of the women, who ends up dead, manages to tell her tale. I mean, this isn't The Lovely Bones.

The main character -- our protagonist -- is Rachel, and she is a drunk, and as such, her narration of the story is unreliable. She has memory lapses (to say the least), she mis-remembers things, and she believes things that her husband (now ex-husband) told her that may or not be true. In addition, she lies like a rug. All this serves to keep the reader guessing -- it did me -- but it also becomes a bit tedious. In fact, at one point I was hoping that Rachel would become another victim and once in the afterlife, be more or less compelled to tell the truth -- I mean, who lies in the afterlife?

The other women who relate the story are Anna and Megan. They are both flawed women, as is Rachel. In fact, halfway through the book one has to ask, 'why do we care about these women?' The answer is, we don't. We just want to get to the end and find out 'who done it.' Because The Girl on the Train is, after all is said and done, a thriller.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Remembering My Mother on Mother's Day, 2015

My mother, Nella, Mother's Day 2005
My mother, Nella, never explained, to me at least, her ambition to become a ballet dancer and later, an actress. I’ve often asked myself how it was that a girl crippled at youth and condemned by her doctors to wearing steel leg braces, would dream of dancing. But maybe it is natural. We wingless humans dream of flying.

In any case, Nella had been crippled with rickets as a young girl in Italy. Doctors at the time declared that Nella would have to wear steel leg braces for the rest of life. Her mother, Cesira, wouldn’t have it, and placed Nella with the nuns at a sanatorium, probably in Montecatini. I’ve written about this elsewhere.

Nella, age 12, walked unaided off the boat at Ellis Island in 1915 and started a new life in America, in Chicago, “hog butcher for the world,” where her father, Ugo, worked for a time at a cattle and hog butchering factory.

After he’d washed the blood and offal off his boots, Ugo would take Nella to the Chicago Civic Opera house, which was ten blocks north and west of where they lived on South State Street. My mother said they stood in the back of the balcony and Ugo would whisper to his star-struck daughter about what was happening in the story. Nella remembered getting goose bumps as she’d listen to the tenors perform their arias. Maybe Nella saw Ana Pavlova, the famous Russian ballerina, dance at the Civic Opera House, or somewhere there in Chicago, during those heady years. Maybe that was her inspiration.

Pavlova was a marvel of her time. But Pavlova was more than a great dancer. She was a determined person who willed herself to succeed at ballet, as classical ballet did not come easily to her. Her arched feet, thin ankles, and long limbs seemed unsuited to ballet dance, where a small, strong, and compact body was favored for the ballerina at the time. Her fellow students made fun of her with nicknames like The Broom and La petite sauvage. Undeterred, Pavlova simply worked harder than her rivals.

This determination and strong will was a hallmark of Nella’s personality. I’m convinced she ultimately walked not because the nuns had her move through the mineral waters of the spa, or because they buried her legs in warm sand, but because Nella simply decided she would walk and kept trying until she did.

When she started school in Chicago knowing only these words of English, “I doan stan English,” her fellow students made fun of her. Nella never backed down, and even became the defender of another girl who was constantly picking fights and then running to Nella for protection.

Nella learned to read and write English in record time and throughout her life never stopped trying to improve herself through night school and self-study. After completing secondary school, she went on to business school and her native intelligence and education were immensely useful ultimately when she became, in essence, my father’s office manager. I’m convinced my father’s flower shop, despite having an extraordinary clientele of wealthy Beverly Hills bankers, doctors, and actors (who weren’t always eager to pay their bills) would have floundered if not for Nella’s sensible, tough direction.
I believe Nella decided to go to California to pursue a Hollywood career. Here again, I don't know for sure. But why else? People came from all over the world went to Hollywood to seek fame and fortune, including Rudolph Valentino, who immigrated to America from Italy. Whatever the case, Nella gave her Hollywood aspirations a fair chance before deciding on another direction for her life.

Once Nella decided to marry Steve and bear his children, she did all she could to be the best wife and mother she could be. She did this despite her own mother being a poor example, essentially having abandoned her to a neglectful aunt when she was growing up in Italy. I remember finding the books my mother used to read to learn about taking care of infants and raising children. These things didn’t come naturally to her, yet she was determined, as always.

She handled all the feedings, the changings and cleanings, the special diets, the doctors’ appointments, and the dolling out of medicine. She kept baby books on my brother, Ronald and I, “Our Baby’s First Seven Years.” It contained time and date of birth, length and weight at birth, the baby’s condition (blue? – “no”), and lots of other data, including the “number, consistency, and color of stools.” Mom kept up the baby books up for several years and made notes in her neat, flowing handwriting; “Will not eat soft boiled eggs.”

She also sat my brother and I down one day in perhaps my tenth or eleventh year and told us about the birds and the bees. Nella used a book for that, which, if memory serves me, was titled, “The Birds and the Bees.” I don’t know if my brother grasped the significance of that lesson (he was three years older than I) there on the couch in our living room at 347 Parkman Avenue. I didn’t. But it did seem significant to me that this was a subject that women knew a lot more about that men. I haven’t changed my mind about that all these many years later.

My mother would tell me, "You can do anything you set your mind to." I knew she was right, because I knew how important her determination and strength of character had been in her life. Whatever I've achieved in life is almost certainly because my mother convinced me of that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Wendell Berry

A shower like a little song
Overtook him going home,
Wet his shoulders, and went on.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Telling Stone

Scottish Coronation Stone
Maureen Doyle McQuerry’s second novel in the Time Out of Time series, The Telling Stone, leaps right into a cataclysmic battle for the Travelers Market. Timothy James Maxwell, the young hero of the first book in the series, Beyond the Door, is joined by the forces of Light against the forces of Dark, led by Balor, of the Evil Eye, the mythic leader of the dark and demonic race of Formorians of Scottish lore. McQuerry’s description of the battle is filled with the cacophony and catastrophe of a combat waged by humans, monsters, shape-shifters, demons, and spirits, with Timothy, his sister, Sarah, and their friend Jessica, in the midst of the melee. It’s hard to imagine the author being able to maintain the excitement after such an explosive beginning. It’s a testament to her skill with the pulse and pacing of the story that she does just this, and then some.

McQuerry’s story is replete with Scottish and Celtic myth, as well as Scottish history and tradition, all woven together seamlessly in an exciting tale of exploration, adventure, and courage. Readers with the curiosity to do so, are provided sufficient clues to solve the riddle of the map that is to lead Timothy to a very old and revered stone that has disappeared -- the famous Scottish Coronation Stone, or Stone of Destiny. According to legend, the stone, Lia Fail, roars with joy when a rightful king places his feet on it. And thus the story gets it title, “The Telling Stone.”

Timothy, a nerdy 12-year-old obsessed with codes and cyphers, and an annoying prodigy at Scrabble, may be the hereditary Filidh, a special class of Celtic druid much revered by the people as a poet-seer, composer, councilor, diviner, and healer -- a Keeper of the Word, of wisdom, and of the truth. If Timothy is to be the Filidh, he must first find and step on the Telling Stone. The evil Balor, with his minions of the underworld, will do anything to stop Timothy. Failing that, Balor will use his wiles to corrupt Timothy, as he has done with a Filidh of the distant past.

Although Timothy is an extraordinary boy, he is still a human boy, subject to the frailties of any 12-year-old. He is vulnerable to self-doubt, to sudden changes of mood, to blandishments. At the same time he is bright, adventurous, and when the chips are down, remarkably courageous. He is a boy we can all relate to, and we do. And all through the story we hope against hope that Timothy and his companions will lead the forces of Light over the forces of the Dark. Balor is an ancient, odious, and powerful force. Is Timothy up to the challenge? Read this wonderfully engrossing and beautifully written book and you too, can become a Keeper of the Word.