Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Get Your Witch On

You may have noticed the internet is all in a tizzy over that Witcher 3 thing. Even Conan O'Brien got in on the action, being the most informative game critic out there today. He says it's good because he had sex on a unicorn.

But for those of us who already regularly have sex on unicorns, the Witcher games have been pretty lackluster. Convoluted controls, overlong cutscenes - masquerading as "gameplay" with some dialogue options for the same taciturn frowney-face protagonist - and run times that rival Dragon Age for "Get on with it." Put simply, these games are shit for everyone except the cretinous gamerbros who need gobs of jiggling fanservice as it's their only sexual experience.

Which is a shame because the source material is goddamned brilliant. Created by Polish fantasy author Andrzej Sapkowski nearly thirty years ago, the Witcher stories and novels are the most interesting thing to happen to the genre since Tolkein named his angelic entities "wizards." While a vast and complex cosmology of converging spheres and dwindling elves fills out the setting, the stories remain largely focused on Geralt of Rivia and his interactions with very common people.

Not just commoners, but "common" in the sense that their motivations and failings are entirely human. A king who loves his possessed sister too much to have her put to death properly, a village that wants to keep the troll under their bridge because it does all the upkeep and collects tolls - despite a standard high fantasy setting, Sapkowski populates his world with very small and familiar dramas. Geralt himself is largely just a glorified exterminator, clearing away bothersome critters and not getting himself involved in any epic goings on. For the most part.

This allows for much of that gray morality that's so popular in sword and sorcery these days. But rather than just an excuse to get lost in high seriousness and graphic rape, this moral ambiguity forces the reader to question the usual genre assumptions. In one instance, Geralt happens upon a gloomy old castle where he is greeted by a charging, snarling monster. The monster, seeing that it cannot scare off Geralt like other interlopers, resignedly invites him in for a drink and regails him with the story of how a witch's curse gave him all the tusks and hair.

He keeps regailing Geralt, telling of how he tried to get into the spirit of being a monster. When an unweary merchant stumbled into the courtyard, the monster demanded "Your daughter or your life!" The merchant protested that his daughter was only eight, creating a very awkward situation where the monster sheepishly withdraws and hands the poor man a sack of gold out of apology.

Which of course leads to merchants showing up from all over with daughters to ransom to the monster. About here is where most "dark" fantasy would stop, asking you to recoil at the callous greed of these merchants. Sapkowski is better than dark, and goes on to show the relationships between the monster and these ransomed daughters - one of whom even rides on his back like a warrior queen, naked, as they joyfully raid caravans together. These memories go on for page after page, the titular Witcher not even figuring into the tale until the very end.

Sapkwoski is a good enough writer to create a basic, taciturn hero as a vehicle into his world for the reader. With that accomplished, he goes on to turn traditional fantasies and folk tales upside down, challenging the reader's assumptions about society and morality in ways few "serious" literature can manage these days.

"The Lesser Evil" highlights all of these qualities in what the reader will gradually recognize as a remixing of the classic Snow White fairy tale. A girl prophesied to bring terror to the land escapes the woodsman hired to cut out her heart and hides out with seven gnome bandits for a couple years. She emerges as a mercenary queen, bringing just as much terror to the land as prophesied, though whether due to demonic possession or the cruel circumstances of her own life is a distinction Sapkowski does not make, leaving the interpretation to the reader.

Finally, there are the elves. You can't pitch a brick without hitting the pointy-eared buggers in this genre but Sapkowski again does something unique and thought-provoking. His elves are just as doomed and diminished as Tolkein's and just as persecuted by the more successful human kingdoms as in The Riyria Revelations, but unlike in previous works - and much like Snow White - it's given them a real chip on their shoulder. These aren't the high alien creatures of Middle Earth, somberly accepting their fate, but active people with a violent will to survive. They frequently attack humans, and Geralt, but rather than making them villainous this only highlights their desperation. When captured and interrogated by an elf chieftain, Geralt sees that even though they are superior to humans, they are still dying out and are already lost. This isn't a triumphant revelation for him, but something sad and melancholy. And he, the sword and sorcery hero, can't do anything to change their fate.

However, they are not victims. Far from it, they're terrifying forces of the wild, kept in check by the weak walls of villages and the humans' higher birth rate. Though Geralt - and Sapkowski - feels their pain, no one is about to bear their neck to an elven blade. It's a situation reminiscent of the Indian Wars in 19th century America, where the encroaching white men are certainly now seen as the villains of history but that doesn't make the Sioux or Apache necessarily nice. Wars of extermination have no good guys, just victims. It's a harsh, unsentimental view of history but one Sapkowski embraces and manages to convey in rousing pulp adventures.

Because that's finally what makes the Witcher stories so good - they're just plain fun. From getting drunk with the monsters to talking down a psychokinetic princess, Geralt's life is never dull. That Sapkowski manages to weave such complex and literary themes into rollicking good fantasy yarns places him in the upper echelons of the craft, alongside Jack Vance and Philip K. Dick.

The Witcher stories are some of the most thoughtful and creative work by any writer alive today. Shame everyone only knows it for those video games full of scowling and tits.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Defensive Denialism

The reactions to Seymour Hersh's excellent article on the Obama administrations spinning of Osama bin Laden's assassination have been hilariously, pathetically predictable. A great wailing and gnashing of teeth denying the well-researched article, followed by tacit admission that it's true. Not all of it, at least not yet, but the most important point - that the Tier One Target was outed not by some courier tortured by the CIA but by a Pakistani snitch, as predicted the week of in 2011 by the always on point War Nerd:
The hard part was finding him. And no chopper, no buffed SEAL, no cool NSA traffic analysis found Osama. A snitch did. Some sleaze of an informer fingered him, that’s how he was got.

That's what really angers people about the Hersh story today. Not that Obama lied or all the office politics of how to anounce the killing, but that this was not some Hollywood ending to what most had at the time assumed to be an interminable manhunt. That it was craven politics and greed - not the much vaunted "tradecraft" of the spooks and spec ops shovelheads - that ultimately sealed Osama's fate.

In fact, it's even worse than us cynics have been saying for the past four years. The old Saudi golem wasn't just turned in by a snitch, but presented gift-wrapped by the ISI. Hersh details how not only did the Pakistanis provide the floor plans to Osama's compound, but guaranteed no interference from Pakistan's military and even cut the power to all of Abottabad. An ISI bagman even led DEVGRU on a tour of the house, the only shots fired being into Osama's decrepit old arse.

And decrepit he was. An invalid, living under house arrest until he could be traded for more kickbacks to ISI officers and more freedom to tinker in Afghanistan, where they and Benazir Bhutto first started the Taliban in the 1990s. That should depress people the most about the Hersh story - that it was the crooked as sin ISI that not only fingered Osama's hiding place, but built the hiding place specifically so they could finger him at the opportune time.

It's a complete refutation of the Zero Dark Thirty narrative... And that's why Americans are trying so hard to ignore Hersh. When not engaging in desperate denials, most reactions tend to be "So what? He's still dead." Which is very true, but it denies the importance - or lack thereof - of how it all went down. To reiterate: there was no firefight, Osama never resisted, the SEALs were never in any danger. The whole thing was as stage-managed as the Jessica Lynch rescue in the early days of the Iraq debacle, a spectacle of heroism for all the heartland rubes.

America is a culture that sanctifies military service while relegating the actual fighting and dying to poor and desperate nobodies. Where police can engage in the most blatant abuses, murdering citizens in broad daylight and on camera, only for millions of Americans to offer them the benefit of the doubt. Where peaceful protests are ignored until a pharmacy gets singed, because property - and propriety - are valued above human life.

Because if Americans actually stopped to take a clear, honest look at their lives, it would be horrifying. A flat expanse of mediocrity and conformity, worse than the darkest imaginings of life under Soviet communism. A spiritually bankrupt existence where fast food and petty malice are the only legal pleasures. The only logical responses are to flee, blackout with chemicals, or embrace a fantastical narrative where the CIA actually gets positive results and designated heroes like the SEALs slay the monster with selfless daring.

Such a culture wants the escape of mythic heroism, needs it, and so will never stop to process the ugly truth presented by Seymour Hersh. Who's got time to consider the amorality of great power geopolitics when there's a very important election in eighteen months?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Rot the MCU

I have not seen Avengers: Age of Ultron. And I don't intend to. Not just because I hated the first one, or because Joss Whedon is an overrated hack, but because I despise everything this latest bucket of blockbuster cliches represents.

With rare exceptions, Marvel Studios produces execrable fluff that would fail on its own merits. Robert Downey Jr. played the one good Avenger in 2008's Iron Man, and has continued to play him in ever more inferior movies. Thor and Captain America, multi-million dollar productions that met lukewarm receptions, have gotten their own sequels simply out of the Avengers momentum. And the Hulk, despite netting a very fine performance from several actors, is still mostly just a supporting act in the larger MCU drama as the films around said actors are frequently cited as major missteps for the era of the superhero film, if cited at all. This all adds up to a worse record than a random sampling of indie horror movies.

The MCU attempts to graft the serialized model of comic books onto billion dollar blockbusters, which both makes a mockery of every deficit fetishist and ran out of creative steam four years ago. Even the stupid fun of Guardians of the Galaxy - which benefits from not having to go out of its way to acknowledge so many B-grade movies - drags at the end because of overwrought CGI and a ridiculous resolution where the characters kill the villain with the power of love. Daredevil avoids the usual pitfall by being a much smaller and focused serialized production. A character-driven urban crime drama that just happens to include a masked vigilante. The summer blockbuster model on which the rest of the MCU operates doesn't allow for that much development or even plot, so you get an ensemble cast quickly thrown together and the audience is just expected to know their motivations. And care.

Have no fear, some purple guy is here!

That's the biggest criticism often brushed off by defenders of this drek - that it's vapid popcorn fare. Something that usually gets movie snobs up in arms but far too many are willing to overlook it as long as it appeals to the shit they read before they graduated to real books. A review by an actual child called out Avengers: Another One for being jammed full of new characters with no development, and the first comment is by some self-important manbaby saying  "the movie was actually made for me: a middle-aged guy that grew up on comics books, and has enough disposable income to totally geek out and buy the movie, the toys, etc..." He goes on at nauseating length, displaying all the entitlement that's become expected in nerd circles these days, as they're infested with resentful, reactionary white dudes.

So naturally there's also been some hand-wringing over all the sexism in the MCU's latest cinematic excretion. Seriously, these rubes are surprised a product of Stan Lee's fetid imagination ain't all that progressive on the lady issue. That's the thing - no matter how much outcry for lady superheroes, the genre is too inherently misogynistic to ever produce anything but damsels and femme fatales. To do otherwise would mean evolving past a mindset where might makes right and then these movies would lose their core selling point.

Fantasy. Not in the spectacle or the "creative" interpretation of Norse mythology, but the fantasy of having enough power to simply reshape the world into what you want, often through explosions. The Transformers films, which are far more similar to Avengers than fussy Whedonites care to admit, was always hampered by the unrelatable CGI monstrosities representing your childhood toys. The MCU benefits from recognizably human ubermenchen - and a token female - who further present a variety of options for the stunted nerds will to power from magic hammers to 1940s steroids to a cross between Hank Rearden and Mega Man.

"Thank goodness for Rodimus Prime!"

But all of that is quickly becoming the grotesque norm across all of American culture. What really makes the MCU project objectionable is that it is the apotheosis of dumb consumption over artistic expression. The official Marvel Studios release schedule all but brags that they're just cranking out meaningless, interchangeable units to be gobbled up with as much thought and care as Twinkies. Market forces, the personal lord and savior of lackwit Americans, can't even slow down this juggernaut of vapidity as all it takes is a few cash cows to keep a legion of mediocrities shipping to the multiplex every summer - still no superheroines though, 'cause Catwoman was shit.

"What's the big deal?" some idiot may ask. "Blockbusters have always been dumb." But at least they used to mean it. For all it's ridiculousness, there was actual creative vision behind cheese-fests like Commando and Tango and Cash. The MCU, in contrast, is a soulless corporate exercise planned, developed, and even filmed by committee considering the copious use of post-production computer animation. And worst of all, it's gobbling up some of the best acting talent of today in years long contracts, from Robert Downey to Tom "Play Dracula Already" Hiddleston, as arc-less characters who exist in stasis for the benefit of maintaining a status quo necessary to draw in new viewers.

He is so much better than this...

And despite all the money these comic geek circle-jerks rake in, American cinema is still a sinking industry. Creative sectors are always the more unstable part of the economy but Hollywood has been on a continuous downward slope for years, owing both to the general recession as the general poverty of good film ideas. The MCU is a corporate accountant's approach to the problem, keep cranking out Product X on the assumption that people will pay for the new model every year, a plan that worked so well for the automotive industry that Detroit looks worse than Pripyat. And it's catching on - the forgettable Dracula Untold is already the launchpad for a "shared universe" of the old Universal Monsters. So is I, Frankenstein but even fewer people saw that awful dud. Money and time that could be going to something else is instead being spent on films that follow the business model of comic books, just because all the First World dweebs keep going to see Tony Stark grab his monkey.

It works for comic books because they're much cheaper to produce than a summer blockbuster. It's worked so far for the MCU because they've hit on a period where plenty of dumb Gen Xers and Millenials have enough disposable income to consume the same damn movie for over half a decade. But how long can that last? The video game industry, which is comparable in production costs, has staked its survival to franchises with yearly releases and they're perpetually losing money. Even successful development studios have to close up shop because their enormously successful Triple A product - retailing for sixty USD a pop - couldn't recoup their production costs.

How long until the same thing starts happening with the MCU? How much of the film industry will it kneecap in its inevitable death throes? No one with real problems weeps for Jeremy Renner losing a paycheck, but how are you going to escape the bad craziness of this empire in decline without some good movies?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Baltimore, Media, and Oligarchy

A special post today. Alexandra K kicks off our coverage of Election 2016!

As Morgan Freeman recently said in an interview with the Baltimore Sun, “Fuck the media.” Their usual negligence in coverage has been particularly egregious in the senseless death of Freddie Gray. At this point his tragic end is but a footnote to them; the early peaceful protests failed to elicit much attention outside of the state, but add some riots and fires and the national media bigwigs are falling all over themselves to get the most outrageous images and stories. If conflict sells papers, then conflict and the kind of one-sided reporting that perpetuates widespread prejudices is what the papers will say!

The fact that Baltimore is the site of the latest police murder of an unarmed black man is also a particular plum to an institution that is obsessed with king-making. That’s because Martin O’Malley, the aspiring candidate for the Democratic nomination for President, was mayor of the city from 1999 to 2007, right before serving two terms as Maryland’s governor. O’Malley’s been mulling a presidential run since before his second term as governor ended, but few people outside of the Mid-Atlantic states knew who he was. Now suddenly everyone (who pays attention to what’s going on in the world) knows he who is, and the media is determined to tar and feather him with the Baltimore riots to kill his chances for the presidency. “Baltimore riots hurt O'Malley's already slim chances” crows Politico, the hottest broadsheet in Washington DC politics today. From “Who is Martin O’Malley?” he is suddenly considered the Giuliani of Baltimore for his police policies as mayor.

As someone who grew up in Brooklyn in the 1990s, and who lived and worked in the Washington DC area in the late 2000s, the comparison seems more than a little ridiculous to me. Full disclosure: I’ve been an O’Malley fan even since before I knew he was considering a bid for the presidency, because of his support for renewable energy. When I started working for a solar energy company a few years after that and Maryland had great policies and incentives for the solar projects, that didn’t hurt either.

But that’s also why I never thought he’d never really have a chance to be president: he seemed too liberal. Not only a supporter of clean energy and climate policy, he also defends abortion rights, oversaw the passage of the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act in Maryland, and he’s in favor of same-sex marriage; basically he’s on the center-to-left of most any political issue that you can think of. Even the news outlets that have floated him as a liberal alternative to Hillary Clinton in the primary didn’t really take him seriously.

So the hysteria over his policing policies in Baltimore seems ironic and more than a little suspicious to me now. O’Malley has acknowledged that as Mayor he played a role in shaping the city in which Freddie Gray’s life was taken (even as he’s heavily played defense). Understanding the numerous intertwining factors of policy, history, racism, economics and demographics isn’t something that lends itself well to our sound-bite driven political news culture, but O’Malley doesn’t have a choice but to talk about it; the media has decided he has to. He knows this, and that’s why he’s planning to make Baltimore a central focus of his campaign. That will only be a successful strategy for a relatively unknown candidate if the media decides they want it to be, and my current guess is that they don’t.

During the national coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, I don’t remember the media mentioning that Florida’s Stand Your Grand law was passed during the administration of Jeb Bush, but reporters would love a Bush candidacy. I think the media would do anything for a Bush vs. Clinton contest, but I’m not going to speculate on the reasons for that here. The larger point here is about the consequences of media influence; information and how it’s framed is a major determinant of public opinion. Public opinion sways politics, policy-making and current events. Which then goes back to the media. See how it all cycles? Keep your eyes open America. Seek the truth and always question. When O’Malley said “We are all responsible for Freddie Gray,” he was being politically tactful, but think about what that really means too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Politics of Genocide

There's a huge billboard on the corner of 49th Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan calling for peace and reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey. Paid for by the Turks because they realize they've got a hell of a public relations problem. Things were going fine for about a century but now everyone's very upset about all those poor Armenians killed off by the moribund Ottoman Empire in its final years.

Too bad for the Turks they're brown and Muslim, because otherwise no one would care.

If there is one unassailable myth in modern Western countries, it's that genocide is universally frowned upon. Clearly this is a trait only granted to the civilized white people, as ISIS and the Indonesian Army are still pretty fond of exterminating Yazidi and Timorese respectively, but everyone from the frothing Texas conservative to the mochaccino sucking Williamsburg liberal is supposed to agree that trying to murder a whole tribe is a bad thing.

And to their credit, they do - but only on a case by case basis. Your typical sullen majority cracker couldn't care less about dead brown people - probably thinks they're all Muzzies anyway and good riddance - and even the most bleeding heart in Berkeley would be hard pressed if asked about the Herero. The Germans may have practiced for Auschwitz and Dachau in Namibia but you won't see Witbooi's List sweeping the Oscars anytime soon.

The popularity of the Armenian Genocide demonstrates the only two ways you can get people to care about the extirpation of a minority tribe: the victims are white Christians and they have many surviving relatives in a safe place far from the bloodshed. It's why Holocaust movies are their own genre and it's why anyone in America even knows about this one instance of Ottoman mass murder.

It's certainly not the bloodiest crime of the Ottomans. That distinction belongs probably to Yemen, who were a basket case before the Brits even showed up thanks to the Sultans. But you won't get the middle-class middle-brows of the US and UK to care about some long dead Arabs. They're just not relateable as victims.

That's why the same Brits who love to get on their high horse about the evils of genocide (Turkey) and fascism (Russia) have few if any words for their own colonial victims. Their murder of hundreds of thousands of Kikuyu - well after they and all the other world powers had agreed to knock off the genocide - gets barely any mention. Same with the Malays and Tibetans and just read this old post already. You can fill a lot of mass graves as long as it's not with white folks, just ask the Antebellum South or their legions of modern apologists.

But even if you don't have the misfortune to be black or brown in this world, you really need that vocal lobby in the safe countries to get anyone to care about your genocided tribe. Cyrpiot Greeks, despite being at this very moment under Turkish occupation, don't get anywhere near the attention of the Armenians because 1) they can't muster the same PR and 2) the ECB has spent the past six years telling all the US and UK yokels that Greeks are to blame for everything wrong with the world economy. So despite having an even more pressing grievance than modern Armenians, all those non-Turks in Cyprus are just shit out of luck.

Turkey has the bad luck of their ancestors killing loads of the ancestors of identifiably white and Christian folks with expat communities in the First World. If not for those specific circumstances, #ArmenianGenocide would not be trending on Twitter, nor would you even know Armenia exists. It may be a kind of justice, getting recognition for one of the many horrors perpetuated by an empire on a minority tribe in history, but it's a very perfunctory justice. A tacit admission of "This is the best we can get." Because if there were real justice for all these past genocides then flying the Stars and Bars in the US would be a capital offense and England would be on fire. Forever.

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!