Thursday, April 9, 2015

Story on Potluck

Go read my short story on Potluck Magazine, "My Sexual Problem." It started from a single line of dialogue in Annie Hall.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

One Nation Under God: Get Your Ass to Israel

This is what Joe Biden actually believes...

"And the results are in," the old TV buzzed.

"Gramma, why do you watch this channel?" Eli asked, handing the old woman her tea.

"Because it's the news," she said in that old, wheezing voice.

"Yeah but they're so political. They're practically propaganda." Eli had this argument with her nearly once a month. And always with the same answer.

"I know that, boychik. I'm not completely gone up here yet," she said, tapping her forehead. "But they've got more actual news then the other channels. You just have to know when they're reporting and when they're just saying."

"All they do is 'saying,'" muttered Eli.

"Ah, you think they're all just saying," she said with a dismissive wave. "You only listen if it's on that interwhatever."

"Internet, Gramma," he explained, like he always did. "There's free and independent news. The kind that doesn't have to go through some corporate editor." "So you're saying they're misspelled?"

The same little argument every time. This time a spelling joke. Eli once considered writing out a transcript with her final line in multiple-choice format. She probably wouldn't appreciate it though, her sense of humor didn't run towards that sort of dry, meta-concept type. More of a Mel Brooks fan.

"I can't believe She ever got elected in the first place," Gramma said, shaking her head at the triumphant graphics on the screen. "The President, the highest office, and it goes to this nudnik who can't even answer a simple question."

Eli smiled. Some things they could agree on.

"Some argue the President won by such an unexpected margin because of Her support from 'values voters,'" the TV buzzed. "The President has been very vocal about Her support for religious liberty, as well as promoting legislation to protect the rights of religious believers."

Eli gave a disgusted snort.

"Now now," his Gramma said. "As much as we don't like Her, that is a good cause."

"Gramma, She's not trying to 'protect' anyone," Eli protested. "All those laws She pushed through were to enforce Christian ideas."

"Well, some of their ideas aren't so bad," she countered. "Charity and such, everyone agrees on that."

"She's trying to start a state religion!"

Gramma just waved him off. "She couldn't do that even if She were smart enough to. It's just not allowed in this country - that's what all that talk of 'religious liberty' actually means. You believe one thing, the guy next door believes another, and you don't bother each other with it." She sipped her tea. "We should especially appreciate that because we haven't always been given that courtesy." The corner of her mouth ticked up to an almost-smile at her own understatement.

"Oh, of course," Eli grumbled, adding sarcastically, "Now we just get deported."

"For the last time, they were not deported!" she said sternly, her voice uncharacteristically rising. "They just -" she stopped to breathe, recompose herself. "They emigrated, which they have every right to do."

"But why would they want to?" Eli pressed. "And why Israel? It's a war zone!"

"Maybe they have family there," she said. "Or maybe they always wanted to live in Israel and now they can, so they do. Maybe they take a little pride in being Jews, did that ever occur to you?"

It always came back around to that. Gramma could never get over Eli needing to work Saturdays, as much as they needed the money. He also suspected that somewhere, under her usual warmth, she was forever blaming him for her own daughter getting divorced and running off with that snooty poet to Montreal. Eli still got occasional postcards from his mother and couldn't bear her any ill will, even if he couldn't stand her boyfriend. After all, she'd stuck around and supported him until he finished grad school a few years ago. Like how he stuck around to support Gramma.

"There's not much to take pride in," he said, adding hurriedly, "In Israel, I mean. You know they've got more than half the population drafted into the army? Old men and women too? I tell ya, Gramma, that whole region is going nuclear and pretty soon."

She set down the now empty tea cup. She always seemed to finish it faster when they had these heated discussions. "Oy, the kids these days... You say there's nothing to be proud of?" She waggled her finger for emphasis. "Always in someone else's land, always someone else's laws, but that all changed in Israel. Jews made the laws - finally! And all those others finally had to obey us!"

Eli wanted to point out "those others" were getting bulldozed into mass graves every week now but knew not to interrupt Gramma when she got on a roll. "I thought about moving there myself but I'm too much American. This is my home," she tapped her foot on the old rug, "Just like over there is home for them - and even a few over here. Maybe that's just something you don't understand, being young and all."

Young. If ever she didn't want to argue a point further, Gramma just dismissed it as something Eli was too young to understand. One of those petty little annoyances of living with her he'd gotten used to. "As long as you're not going over there yourself."

She laughed, the tension melting from the room. "Don't you worry about that. It's enough work just getting down the block!"

They both laughed, the argument quickly forgotten. Just like every other argument they'd had since Eli moved in. Pressure would build from minor disagreements or differences of opinion, from the close proximity to one another in the small apartment, or mostly from the mix of gratitude and loathing Eli felt from Gramma. Then they'd have a quick row and all was forgotten for a time. It wouldn't last, Eli constantly told himself. The economy would pick up, he would find a better job, social security would get its act together and start sending Gramma her proper checks again. He told himself this more and more... "I was going to have some pie. Would you like some too, boychik?"

Eli popped up, "I'll get it, Gramma." He went back to the kitchen, squeezing past the table to the refrigerator, the table with the pile of mail he brought in earlier that Gramma had since opened. He never paid much attention, the only mail he ever seemed to get were notices from the student loan people, but out of the corner of his eye he saw something. A folded, official looking letter hurriedly tucked under some junk mail.

Curious, Eli plucked it out. Unfolding it, he saw the predominant Emigration Office seal and big fat "Notice of Emigration Letter," across the header. "Jesus!" he whispered.

Oy vey! Buy my book!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Punisher: Working Class Superhero

Recently, I re-read the savage takedown Eileen Jones wrote of The Dark Knight Rises. It's still worth a read, just for the way Jones points out the ridiculous anti-99% themes shot through the film, but also how it highlights the starkly fascist undercurrents of all superhero fiction:

We all know who’s “good” in The Dark Knight Rises, no matter what their tiresome human frailties are. Batman/Bruce Wayne, Commissioner Gordon, the “angry orphan” who sees himself in Batman (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), John Blake aka soon-to-be-Robin, Batman’s faithful flunkies Alfred (Michael Caine) and Lucien (Morgan Freeman), and all the cops who fight on Batman’s side, upholding law ‘n’ order no matter what.

Batman, despite his huge popularity on the internet, has been and always will be a fundamentally fascist fantasy. A man who inherits wealth and privilege and uses all of that to overcome his deep psychological scars following the murder of his parents by dressing up in a gimp suit and assaulting poor people.

The Dark Knight surpassed the usual reactionary storytelling of the superhero medium thanks to the performance of Heath Ledger and Christopher Nolan heavily cribbing from the Michael Mann masterpiece Heat. The Dark Knight Rises suffers not only for a lack of Ledger but also being saddled with the duties of a trilogy - tying everything back to the B grade first half of Batman Begins. And if that weren't enough, they had to go and try to crib from the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities where the long suffering French peasantry are portrayed as bloodthirsty monsters by "a master of lurid melodrama [Dickens] who was all for incremental social change but got very, very squeamish about revolution, no matter how necessary and justified…"

So let's take a look at Marvel's black-clad vigilante, The Punisher. Like Batman, he targets strictly human criminals and their organizations, but unlike Batman he just plain shoots 'em. This usually makes him a "darker" character among comic book fans, since they have all the literary tastes of a third grader, but what really makes the character more mature, and less of a power fantasy, is his own tragic biography. Frank Castle returns from three tours in the Vietnam War to witness his wife and children shot to pieces in front of him. Deep institutional corruption and the meager means of a retired soldier leave Castle no other way of seeking justice but his own ingenuity and lax American gun laws.

In this way, The Punisher is not only a much more realistic costumed hero - Who really thinks they can take on armed gang members with bat-themed boomerangs? - but also something of an insurgent hero. From his first appearance in the 1970s to the celebrated MAX imprint, The Punisher has targeted one organized crime syndicate after another. The mafia, the yakuza, the Irish Mob, Jamaican Yardies, even Albanian human traffickers - all "bad guys" who thrive by exploiting the disadvantaged on one hand and striking backroom deals with established power structures on the other. In the 1970s, the mob was considered untouchable thanks to their ties to the New York City government, a subtext of the very first Punisher storyline.

Wealth and privilege in service of acquiring more wealth and privilege at the expense of the powerless. And The Punisher kills them.

This makes him a murderer and a criminal. Other costumed vigilantes, like Batman and fellow Marvel third-stringer Daredevil, technically break the law in their crime fighting but they always deliver their enemies to the authorities - authorities who routinely extract confessions from innocent people, when not just murdering them in cold blood. The Punisher reflects these realities with his simple decision to bypass a broken system. Revolution is not pretty but when change cannot be achieved through traditional means it becomes necessary.

And ultimately, Frank Castle does what he does because the world has left him no choice. Bruce Wayne can throw aside his cape and cowl, go running off to the Riviera with a dozen lingerie models, and nothing will stop him. Frank Castle, who served his country faithfully only to see his whole life shattered in an instant of random violence, has absolutely nothing to live for except his personal war. He can't buy his way out of being prosecuted himself for his vigilantism, nor can he find a livelihood with only a soldier's skills - supplied by the same state that declares him a villain for killing wealthy white people as opposed to poor Vietnamese. The contradictions of a capitalist system leave him with no options but to fight or die.

Though teenage boys will disagree, you would never want to be Frank Castle. Ray Stevenson, who played the character in Punisher: War Zone, explicitly described him as a tragic, even broken individual. For all his guns and skulls he is not a power fantasy but a grimly logical necessity in a world that cannot adequately police the predations of either black markets or the more legitimate kind. This makes him unique among costumed heroes, the norm being colorful bullies for the status quo: He may not be the hero American comics want but he is certainly the hero they need. And deserve.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015


On Sunday, to the delight of satirists and snarky assholes everywhere, Ted Cruz announced his candidacy for president. And thus was born the mocking hashtag of the year -

Ted Cruz has as much chance of being president of the United States as a Black African has of striking it rich in Silicon Valley. That's more than popular wisdom, that's mathematical fact. Only a meager minority of his own party can even tolerate the guy, let alone would actually like to see him in the Oval Office. The big money bosses in his own party think he's a yutz and the reaction from Democrats at his announcement has been "Oh yes oh yes oh yes! We could run Joe Biden against this dork and still win!"

So expect Candidate Cruz to be a thing well into next summer.

As I've said before, all the PAC money driving campaigns these days doesn't so much allow rich idiots to circumvent democracy as just make elections even stupider. The presidential election was already a goddamn mess - both Bush and Kerry had to sit town to a chat with Dr. Phil in 2004 - but now the party bosses can't even filter out the no-chance loons.

That's why Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum hung on so long in the 2012 primaries. A cantankerous old git who thinks he's smarter than he is and a Howdy Doodey fascist, and they were continually running neck and neck with White Obama. Not because they could rally enough support but because enough billionaires are sufficiently insane to keep paying for their names on ballots.

Everything Cruz will do in his already failed bid for the presidency will be what he's already been doing - vacuous statements, pandering stunts, and generally being an ass. Anyone in their right mind should be ignoring him but, thanks to an increasingly tribal political culture and the Democrats' failure to run anyone appealing, you're going to see some real piss and fire on social media as your friends and family debate how stupid Cruz is or how he plans to beat Hillary.

That's the ugly thing about Ted Cruz the candidate, the normalization of absolute bullshit. He'll never get the nomination anyway, but he's here now and there's bound to be some heir to wealth and privilege who either liked the massive Federal deficit caused by the 2013 shutdown, or they think funding Tim Calhoun's presidential aspirations will be good for a laugh. And instead of just laughing at this prick, all the nominal liberals are gonna man the trenches to explain why Clinton II is the better choice.

Fuck America.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Medicare Scam

Congressional Republicans, bored with their high school antics, have decided to take another stab at Medicare. Meaning Obamacare because there has been no greater bete noire of the American Right since Bill Clinton's cigar.

But in the process, they're talking about "privatizing" Medicare. I'm sure that has Daily Kos and Mother Jones in a tizzy because, for whatever reason, they're dedicated to defending these holdovers from the last Democratic presidents with any balls. However, I'm here to tell you that not only is this not worth the fight but the fight happened twenty years ago and Medicare is already tied deep into the for-profit health insurance racket.

For a little over four years, I was a Medicare contractor. Not for the insurance parasites - I was with the company that made the software said parasites used to upload their annual Screw Grandma plans to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid web service. So most of my time was spent recalibrating the "rules" of the software to auto-reject anything that went against Medicare policy. As that policy is always in flux - Part D, the drug benefit introduced in 2004, changes every year - I was always busy and usually drinking heavily.

But that was just eleven months out of the year. Every May, I got to live out every American's fantasy of telling insurance companies "You can't do that." And they had to listen! Because, owing to the same glorious outsourcing craze that makes being a US diplomat so exciting, we were also the government's official help line for when people couldn't make heads or tails of this brutally unintuitive and usually bug-ridden software. And even if they could make sense of it all, they usually wanted to illegally overcharge beneficiaries.

Let's say that again - Medicare is already privatized and insurance companies intentionally violate the terms of their own government contracts to turn a profit on sick old people.

That's the ugly truth of this program and also how you saw all those shrieking ninnies in 2010 crying "Keep yer gubmint hands of mah Medicare!" The government does indeed take a hands off approach to one of its few universally popular programs, all to fill the Humana and Kaiser coffers. Whether this submerged state dickery is really better for citizens or at least more efficient isn't really a consideration by anyone in power in America. It's just the same old rent-seeking behavior of a privileged few, same as they've been doing for generations. That it results in less of the aged dying in the streets is incidental.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

C'est Arrivé Près de Chez Vous

The one thing literature can do better than any other artistic form is show just how wretched and contemptible humanity can be. And no literature does that better than Russian literature!

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub is one of those picaresque adventures, centering on a feckless anti-hero and his shenanigans. Only there is no adventure, all the action taking place in a stagnant provincial town, and the schoolteacher Peredonov quickly advances from anti-hero to outright villain as his mind deteriorates. Often compared to Gogol's Dead Souls, Sologub's novel is much closer to "Diary of a Mad Man" but with grim reality instead of wackiness - Peredonov's psychosis involves both delusions of grandeur and exponentially growing paranoia, until he believes the only means of freeing himself from some hairy little pest is to burn down the town hall.

What makes Peredonov stand out most though is that he does not stand out. A muddling mediocrity, his stated plans to marry the shrewish "cousin" Varvara is roundly mocked by his own social circle form the very start of the novel and he routinely is outsmarted by his own students. He takes revenge in petty and sneaky ways, tormenting Varvara with the notion that he might not marry her aging and bony ass, paying nightly visits to the parents of his students and convincing them their boys have been very bad in school, regardless of how they actually behaved, and getting other hands to deliver the savage blows he longs to deliver himself. At every turn, Peredonov seeks first and formost to feel superior by causing others pain.

Sologub's harsh satire comes in with how this pettiness is perhaps the only quality he shares with his own dim neighbors. Varvara herself perpetuates a hoax against Peredonov, convincing him she's in good with some princess and will get him a respectable government appointment if he hurries up and ties the knot. Varvara's "friend" Prepolovenskaya convinces the neurotic woman to scourge herself with nettles as a means to "fill out" and be more physically appealing. And then there is everyone else in town, constantly sniping at one another and jockeying for position.

Perhaps the only truly good person in the whole mess is the schoolboy Sascha, at all that means is he's the biggest victim. A quiet and shy boy, he first is persecuted by Peredonov's mania that he is secretly a girl, only to wind up the plaything of the debauched Liudmilla and her sisters who dress him in petticoats and kimonos while not so secretly lusting after his virginal flesh. The abuse he suffers from Peredonov and his own peers in fact drives him towards the sexual abuses of Liudmilla, who first presents herself as a friend and confidante, ever drawing the boy in deeper through emotional blackmail and occasionally outright physical violence. Sascha wants to be a good boy, wants to please the worldly and beautiful Liudmilla - and likely desires her as his own sexual desires are just beginning to manifest - and so compromises himself in a society that places great emphasis on the appearance of propriety while indulging every base vice they can imagine.

This comes to a head in a costume pageant, held in the very hall Peredonov soon burns down. The mad schoolteacher has been working hard to endear himself to the luminaries of the town - a succession of idiot caricatures, in the fine tradition of Dead Souls - but can muster little more than the grumblings of an angsting adolescent when present in the largest social gathering of the year. Meanwhile, the actual adolescent Sascha is smuggled in by Liudmilla and her sisters who have dressed the boy up in a geisha costume. This makes him the bell of the ball, inflaming the men and enraging the women, and stirring up a riot as people tear at his skirts and seek to unmask him - a death sentence for a sensitive boy in such a brutal town.

But even Sologub allows for some virtue in his world. Sascha, despite his forced corruption by the sisters, retains a goodness and sincerity that not even the benevolent school headmaster can match. Similarly, the actor who saves him recognizes that he is a boy disguised as a woman but gently laughs it all off, swearing to keep the secret because "I was a boy once too." Human frailty and wickedness may be a product of base desire, but just a little sense of common humanity is all it takes to elevate people to virtuous behavior.

In that way, Peredonov is the most evil of men because he is the most selfish. Tormenting his students and spinning tales of persecution to the authorities is all well and good, but arson and murder finally expose him as the monster he truly is to a lax society already crawling with petty little demons. He is not some aberration but the logical extension of the poshlost - the self-satisfied wickedness - of all the other, respectable characters. As Sologub explicitly said of his novel, "it is about you."

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Golden Age of Video Games

There was a thread in one of the dumber corners of the internet last week full of sad sacks who can't talk to girls lamenting the current state of their toys. Turns out video games are too girly these days or whatever, though the long lost belle epoque of video gaming was, according to these professional victims, about a decade or so ago. Now I ain't no fancy-pants mathemetician, but wouldn't that make 2005 the year they're pining away for? How can they miss God of War and Guitar Hero when there's a new version pumped out every year with monotonous regularity?

So today, rather than a real post, we're gonna take a look at the actual Golden Age of Video Games:

Chrono Trigger
The JRPG everyone forgets. Rather than split the world into an isometric map and a battle screen, it integrated both into a single view so you could actually side step the damn random encounters if you wanted. Throw in an endearingly ludicrous plot full of time travel and frog knights, and you'll forget that you renamed one of the characters Nypps.

"Your turn, Anuss!"

Like Chrono Trigger, after one too many magic mushrooms. One of the few JRPGs to do things differently, weaving the typical "children destroy God with the power of love" plot into a surreal suburbia worthy of David Lynch. And the final boss battle is technically an abortion.

Jason Vorhees runs a meth lab while you talk Carlos Santana down from the roof.

Earthworm Jim
Before Commander Shepherd, before Master Chief, the fate of the universe rested in the robot hands of a sour-faced worm. Jim took on slimy aliens, cybernetic crows, and cows in his quest to make the universe safe for annelids. And he never needed no dang quick time events or crafting - he just blasted the crap out of everything! Or wip it with his own head!

Wip it good!

Another game to get the modern remake treatment, though with much more going on. Conrad must piece together his shattered memory while exposing a vast conspiracy of slimy reptoids who seek to conquer humanity. It's Total Recall meets David Icke!

Bonus Pitfall nostalgia.

Ghouls 'n Ghosts
Technically Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts because everything was just so goddamn super back then. Double-jump your way to victory against the undead hordes and save the Princess... then do it all again if you even want to face the proper Final Boss. And kids these days think Dark Souls is rough...

In my day, we took on The Catacombs in our underpants!

Out of this World (Another World)
A gorgeous and nuanced platform adventure that punishes any misstep with instant death. Not because it's going for realism - your physicist Lester drives a Ferrari into the opening cutscene fer Chrissakes - but simply because they want you to fully appreciate how it would feel if you were suddenly whisked from your humdrum life off to Another World. It would feel terrifying.

It took most kids about a year to figure out this part.

Super Mario World
The apex of the Mario franchise. It's all been downhill since. Ditching the raccoon tail for a proper cape and stacking that with a sidekick much more endearing than that tagalong Luigi. Also marks the last good time you're trying to rescue Princess Toadstool instead of that blonde pretender to the throne.

And who could forget these huge honkin' assholes?

Zombies Ate My Neighbors
The most fun zombie game ever made and still the only good one. The bizarre monsters and equally bizarre means of blowing them up almost take a backseat to the gleeful mocking of American suburbia, from the shopping mall to the beach to the spaceship where your hayseed uncle got probed.

...This seems a little unfair.

Remember, these are all the Best Games Evar by strictly objective analysis. If you disagree, you are wrong and a bad person.