Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sympathy for the Devil

It's a special sort of film that can not only make you feel sorry for Adolph Hitler but root for him as well.

Not Chancellor Hitler of course. Only sketch comedy or idiot adolescents would go there. But Corporal Hitler, that nebbishy Austrian with pretensions of being a great artist, that's someone you can work with. Which Max does brilliantly.

Set in Munich not long after the Great War, Max is really about this guy named Max - oddly enough. A wealthy Jewish art promoter who left his arm in Ypres and his marbles somewhere else. Max is one of those types who craves "realness" in art, which gives him all sorts of artsy angst from having to deal with the hollowness of modern art in his gallery and the wealthy patrons with all the aesthetic sensibilities of a bowel of porridge.

"It fills me with ennui... And tobacco."

Enter young Adolph. He approaches Max at one of the latter's many swanky soirees to pester him about displaying his artwork. Max rebuffs the twitchy little man at first but, after catching a glimpse of the proto-fascist doodlings, comes to believe this Hitler boy has some real talent - despite his blatant anti-semitism.

So Max tries to bring Hitler into the art world. A Herculean effort, as the Austrian's every personal quality is antithetical to the vapid, Dadaist nonsense of the High Art scene in the interwar period - demonstrated best when Max puts on a full performance piece about soldiers being fed into a sausage grinder. Most of the audience is confused and put out, but Max's buddy Adolph is furious! He takes the dig at the nation and the military quite personally because, well, he's a frikin' fascist.

"I don't know how you keep forgetting that..."
And that's what Max finds so "authentic" about the angry twerp. He encourages Hitler's visions because he believes it to be the unvarnished inner world of the Common Man which, if we're honest, it kinda is. Parallel to all this, we follow Hitler's falling in with a reactionary movement of soldiers - very authentic and very common but more interested in murdering rich Jews like Max than getting into his artsy circle of friends. By the end, it all comes to quite a brutal head...

But what really makes Max work is Noah Taylor's performance. He does Adolph Hitler as a full human being - vulnerable, indecisive, craving a real human connection - but he never loses sight of how Hitler's entire sense of self was defined by his reactionary politics. When Max confronts him about the speeches he's been making at political rallies, Hitler defends it as another form of performance art. That may be arguable, but he really does come alive when whipping up a crowd - nothing like his awkward stutterings among the well-to-do artists.

Max is a fantastic film. Not just for humanizing history's greatest monster but for it's clear look at Inter-War Germany - how poor and dispossessed Common Men set the world on fire while the rich liberals were all busy contemplating their navels.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Moral Vacuum

People are nodding very meaningfully to each other over the latest vet suicide. Not that Americans actually give a damn about vet suicides now, it's just that this vet left a note hinting at the raw and awful shit JSOC did in Iraq.

"You must not blame yourself. The simple truth is this: During my first deployment, I was made to participate in things, the enormity of which is hard to describe. War crimes, crimes against humanity. Though I did not participate willingly, and made what I thought was my best effort to stop these events, there are some things that a person simply can not come back from. I take some pride in that, actually, as to move on in life after being part of such a thing would be the mark of a sociopath in my mind. These things go far beyond what most are even aware of."

Not to denigrate Daniel Somers' memory, but there are thousands of vets who could tell the same story. Again, I knew a guy back in Charlottesville who saw some shit in plain ol' infantry, not the super-special wet ops. Somers is just in the news because he chose to kill himself after telling his story. Because it was the only way you craven freaks would listen.

Bradley Manning leaked documents saying - in detail - what Somers hinted at.  Friendly fire, walloping civilians, all the dirty shit you would expect from a military occupation. And Manning will likely go the way of Somers soon enough - by firing squad.

If people actually cared about any of this, they'd be out in the streets screaming for Manning's release right now. But that sort of effective protest only happens in this country over video games and besides, you'd all rather keep crushing on Edward Snowden. Rape and torture is a little too icky for you but you can still work up a good outrage over the possibility of the Big Bad Government reading your tepid sex fantasies on Gchat.

Assuming anyone at the NSA ever bothered, once they'd collected everything. Or that they ever got to your boring life, amidst the millions of other boring lives they had to sift through. That's the thing about total information awareness - just being aware doesn't mean you really know what's going on. Or can do anything about it, like Boston. But it's so much more comforting for you losers to imagine yourselves as somehow threatening enough to the most powerful empire in the world that spooks and other security state drones would concentrate on your mundane life.

Which they have every legal right to do now. Remember that Patriot Act thing you all cheered for ten years ago? You thought the feds wouldn't use the sweeping surveillance powers you granted them? At least they asked permission first - unlike your boss, who's been reading your email for years and is a very immediate threat to your personal liberty.

And getting back to Snowden - I really can't tell if he's naive or just doing it for the lulz at this point. His recent revelation of cyberwar between China and the US had as much to do with principle and civil liberties as telling John Dillinger that Al Capone cheated him at cards. They're both assholes, so what exactly is the point of helping either of 'em?

I guess that's why I don't feel all that outraged over the NSA stuff. All of you assholes support war crimes and the muddling technocrats carrying them out, then bitch when other technocrats start poking around. Like you have anymore vileness to hide...

Friday, June 21, 2013

Slow Burn

The heavy smog cover turning a burnt orange signaled that the sun, somewhere, had actually risen. The light barely penetrated the corporate regulation blinds down the hall as Bob counted paperclips at his desk. Just because he came in early – and left late – to make up for that lazy week of tonsillitis didn't mean he had to actually work – not until other people arrived. Which they always did, naturally. Just wouldn't be right to catch a break.

First Fred came staggering down the hall. "'Morning, Fred," Bob called with the standard cheerless politeness.

"Mmh," grunted Fred. Fred's wife had been visiting relatives in Sacramento last Saturday when another North Korean missile hit. Fred wasn't taking it very well.

Bob went back to his paperclips, his mind wandering off, as always, to Erin. As early as he made it in, Erin was always there first – smiling, clean, and with a cheerful, "Good morning!" at the front desk just for him. Well, not just for him but as long as he was alone in his thoughts he figured why not?

It could be just for him, if he'd only ask – and he fully intended to, he just had to find the right moment. Wouldn't do to walk right in and –

"Good morning!"

"Will you go out with me!"

No, Bob was more subtle then that. The kind of subtle that wanted to be friends first, that wanted to be there for her so she'd realize how much he cared. Just because that approach never really worked in the pa –

"Hey Bob!" Becca leaned over the wall of his cubicle, blocking out the overhead fluorescent light with her huge form. "Got a new batch for ya," and she let a mass of expense reports drop with a big flap onto his desk.

"Thanks," Bob mumbled. He made a show of shuffling them around in his hands until Becca was safely out of sight. When he again had a little privacy, Bob brought up the solitaire program on his computer.

But something had to be done. Or said. Definitely said because holding the door for her when their lunch breaks coincided didn't seem to be doing much. Bob would have to step up his "game," engage her in conversation – what conversation?

He started flipping through the expense reports without really looking at them. Always the same anyway, lots of charges on the company Amex to Hooters' and "other entertainment" at hotels. Hey, defending America could be stressful – or building the weapons definitely was at any rate.

Erin didn't exactly have a Hooters' body – not that Bob particularly minded. He wasn't about to go to work for Chippendale's anytime soon himself. Still, he didn't look bad for almost-thirty. Well, thirty in November but it's not like he was all that fat and bald, just a little bald and he did calisthenics whenever he remembered or caught a too clear look at himself in the mirror...

Really best not to think about it anyway. Focus on the job – and Bob stamped the Hooters' receipts so the next person up the chain would go ahead and process the expenses. Stuffed under a mound of other papers and an empty ramen cup sat the employee handbook detailing what could and could not be sent up the chain – four hundred pages all just to say, "If they're executives then they get to spend money however and wherever they damn well please!" Bob needed the health insurance too much to argue with that logic.

Conversation starters, that's what he needed. Couldn't look up any now, every keystroke got reported to Becca. He'd read some before, something about "What shows do you like?" or "What movies do you like?" Erin liked those anime movies, he knew that. She was real torn up when Japan was accidentally bombed from orbit – not like that was really the company's fault. They just built the killsats, it was the crummy government that couldn't aim.

Okay, so no anime stuff. Might be awkward... Books? Bob didn't really read many books, so that could end up worse than anime... Music? Yes, music! He liked enough that they were bound to have something in common. If not Butt Trumpet then at least Cherry Pop. Yeah, that –

"Hey, Bob," said Glenn in that always tired voice of his. "Talk to ya for a minute?"

Lousy, soul-sucking loser... "Sure."

"Well, Sheila's been having it again, y'know? Says she's sick but I really think it's an easy excuse to lay around all day ringing that damn bell whenever she wants toast..."

Bob really couldn't stand to hear Glenn babble on and on about his stupid wife or his stupid house or especially his stupid kids. God strike me down if I ever get this boring, he thought. It didn't take much effort to bring his mind back around to more important issues...

"Oh, hi Erin. Did you hear this new single by Big Important Artist on iTunes?"

"I sure did! It was okay, but not as good as Fashionably Underground Artist."

"I know, I have all of Fashionably Underground Artist's albums. Want to come over and listen to them sometime?"

"Sure. And then I can suck you off!"

Now that was just getting a little too optimistic...

"Well, thanks for listening," Glenn wheezed out after a while in that perpetually defeated voice of his.

"Not a problem," Bob said automatically.

As Glenn waddled off to pester someone else, Bob looked back at the expense reports in his hands. How much longer did he have to stamp these and dump them in the mail chute? Not too long obviously, Becca hadn't come storming by to happily demand where the hell they were.

Music, definitely music... Maybe he could strike up a conversation during lunch? He only had – Dammit! Noon already? Glenn sure must've talked a long time. Bob popped his head above the cubicle walls – no Becca. He'd be safe to sneak down to the break room for a burrito. Maybe put his plan into action...

Except no Erin. Just Yolanda, the big lady from the other end of the department going through her third divorce. Or was it the third son she'd lost in the 'Stans? Bob could never keep track of all her tragedies. Tears slithered down her poofy cheeks, splashing in and around her ranch-soaked salad.

Bob, after snatching a burrito from the vending machine, opted for the furthest microwave he could find and casually stared at the wall, hoping she'd get the hint and not try to get social. As the microwave counted down the minute, he worried that out of the corner of his eye he could see Yolanda ambling towards him, those puffy red eyes of hers and that quivering lip just starved for a fresh ear to cry into. No, dammit, no! he thought, hoping to spontaneously develop telepathy and drive her off. She trundled by without a word, dropping a ranchy napkin in the garbage on her way out. He'd never seen her wash out that bowl...

Bob sat alone in the break room, chewing on the burrito. He didn't particularly like chewing so slowly, but if he finished before his break was up and Becca came in, she'd start asking in the sugary-sweet, slave-driver voice what he was still doing here.

He watched the front door closely, in case Erin had the chance to slip in for some ramen – an occurrence that kept getting rarer. Once, when he'd had the tremendous luck of riding up in the elevator with her while she delivered a package, she'd mentioned how they were promising to move her up to his department after some people "retired." She hadn't shown up after the downsizing but he recognized the same type of reports he processed now stacked on her desk.

Finishing the burrito – and with only two minutes to go! – he resolved to postpone any potential conversations until quitting time. He'd need those two minutes to ride the elevator back up and get back to his desk. Not that he wouldn't be willing should he run into her again on the elevator...

He didn't.

With half the day gone and still a full stack of reports to get through, Bob figured he should get to work – after another hand of solitaire on his computer. He could never concentrate right after lunch anyway, the cheap burritos always doing a number on his stomach – not that he had much choice with what they paid in this place, even after five years...

Afternoons always felt much longer, probably from digestion, so it felt much later then a mere twenty minutes when Becca swung by his desk with a piece of personal mail.

"Say Bob, you mind running this down to the mailroom?" she asked, as though she were giving him a choice.

The mail room? That he could only reach by walking right in front of Erin's desk? "Sure!" he said with enthusiasm – which he instantly regretted as she eyed him suspiciously.

Still, he found himself riding back down in the elevator, little rattley-sounding package gripped tightly in his sweaty hands. His mind turning over with just how to approach her – Music? No, too involving, she'd get suspicious... How's the weather? No, just plain stupid... "I got this for you!" Hell no, Becca would eat him.

He was running low on options as the elevator dinged open and he could distantly hear that melodious voice, "Good afternoon, AmArc?" with just that lilt at the end turning everything into a question.

Now or never. He wouldn’t have such a clear chance again. Something innocuous... "Hey, plans this weekend?" Sure, it was just Thursday but it might work...

"Hi Erin," he said as he passed by, cursing the quiver in his voice.

"Oh, hey Bob!"

"Hi..."

And he hurried on to the mailroom. Just not the right time. He still felt all gassy from that burrito and she'd probably get another call any second – not to mention what he'd have to deal with from Becca if she felt he took too long. No, not opportune at all.

As if to confirm it, on his way back Erin was again on the phone.

"No, Mr. Wesbecker, I'm afraid he’s in a meeting... Yes I know that's what I said yesterday... Well, he has alot of meetings?"

Bob scurried passed, not meeting her eyes. Inside the elevator, he tried to get his heart rate back under control. Damn burritos. Not like he could see a doctor about it, they'd cut health benefits back when he'd started and the salary – what little there was – made him ineligible for any more Medicaid. Technically, those federal cuts had gone into the defense budget but he had yet to see any of it...

Back upstairs, Glenn was droning on to Yolanda who sobbed in quiet support. Fred stared at his monitor like some great lump, probably still upset over his wife – maybe he could discuss it with Glenn? That would be a sight. No one else in the department of course, not after the recent monthly layoffs. Becca didn't bother to check in on him...

Okay, that didn't work, but he still had quitting time. He ran over it again while he waited – weekend plans worked much better then music, it wouldn't take as long. What if she bounced it back, asked what he had planned? "Oh, nothing much, maybe catch a movie..." Ask if she'd like to join – yes! perfect! Bob was so pleased with himself he almost forgot to rush through the reports at a quarter 'till five.

He dumped the reports in the "Out" box on his way, hoping he'd timed it just right. It was tricky, nailing the exit the exact same time as Erin. He'd only ever done it once before – entirely by accident – back when the tonsillitis was just starting up. Alone in the elevator on the way down, he couldn't help bouncing a little on the balls of his feet –

And she was gone. Only recently - he could see her through the heavy plastiglass doors as she trotted gracefully across the parking lot. Maybe if he caught up... No, that would never do. Just too damn weird.

Bob sighed. At least there's tomorrow, he thought to comfort himself. Fixing his gas mask over his face, he walked out the door. With luck, he could make it home before the acid rain began.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

From the Vault: All About The Benjamins

Originally posted July 24, 2008. Made relevant again last week.

Well would ya look at that? The illegal wiretapping we caught the Bush Junta doing isn't illegal anymore! Oh woe to Freedom and the Constitution and Yadda Yadda Yadda.

I'm starting to enjoy these abominations because it drags all the morons out into the light. "Duh, the Democrats are wieners who won't protect our Civil Liberties!" or "Duh, the Republicans are evil fascists who want to listen to our dirty talk to grandma!" on the Left aisle and mostly just "Duuuhhh!" on the Right. Neither are willing to point out the most disturbing fact of the new FISA: immunity for telecoms. Seems nobody in Congress was interested in that liberty or terrorism bullshit, just making sure Verizon doesn't get smacked with "frivolous" lawsuits.

Our legislature has been privatized for years now but everyone just pretends "politics" still exist, when it's all just corporate favor trading. FISA won't save us from terrorists or turn us into Oceania. Hell, I doubt it will really affect Americans in any way. If there's one thing the government does better than blowing up foreigners it's ignoring Americans. The last real disaster to hit us was Katrina and we saw what good all that Total Information Awareness did. Goddamn Wal-Mart was more on top of things.

And it proves - again - how obsolete the activism born of the 60s has become. No elected official listens to constituents that aren't passing them bags of cash and nobody in this goddamn country wants to talk about the only real, bloody option available to us as free citizens in an armed culture...

No, not even the teabaggers.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Big Nothing

Dave Eggers is a terrible writer.

I've long suspected it - that's why I never read Heartbreaking Circle-Jerk or whatever it was. But the other day in a big-box bookstore, I came across his latest, A Hologram for the King. A bland novel about a bland man in Saudi Arabia and the best thing I can say about it is it validated all my preconceptions.

Let's take style first, as that's clearly what Eggers pins his whole rep on. It's really an indictment of the entirety of modern literature because he ain't got none. The majority of the prose is flatter than the Arabian desert in which it's supposedly set and the closest to stylistic flourish he can get to is that old Joyce gem of replacing quotation marks with just a dash. There's a reason so few writers who actually get read do that - it's fucking annoying. And it doesn't help that Eggers can't be bothered to add real inflection or distinct mannerisms to his characters, so you just get a bunch of automatons gabbing at each other in a vacuum.

Which brings us to the substance of Hollow King. Or the lack thereof. A three hundred page road trip through one of the most important deserts in the world but you'd never know it as Eggers focuses all his energy on protagonist Alan Clay, the saddest sack ever sacked. He's nominally in Saudi to pitch some new hypertech doodad to King Abdullah but wouldn't ya know it, he just can't pin down the old ibn sharmutah! So the novel becomes just a long whine over all his problems.

A failed, middle-aged businessman isn't necessarily a dull character. There's plenty of narrative room to explore layers of bitterness and desperate hope but, like every bad writer, Eggers lacks both the awareness and imagination to think outside his own person. So he writes his protagonist as just another navel-gazing yuppie.

The one character with any character is Yuossof, Clay's driver. Aside from the blatant ignorance of sticking an educated Saudi in a service position, he doesn't even behave like an Arab. Not even an Arab stereotype! Instead he's much more the fast and chatty Mexican, apparently because Eggers assumes all brown people are the same.

Throw 'em together - Saggy Man and Gyro Grande - and you get... nothing. Absolutely nothing happens in this book. It's the literary equivalent of static. White noise in print that you don't absorb and can't remember, which really makes it ideal for its intended audience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The End of Privacy

I have to talk about the NSA thing, don't I? Everyone else sure is - as hysterically as possible, whether demanding greater congressional oversight or screaming treason.

Which is just two sides of the same bullshit coin. The NSA is a component of the DOD, meaning no actual oversight for it exists. All those Defense Subcommittees you hear about are just for kissing brass. And as for the leaker himself, Edward Snowden may technically be a traitor going by the various espionage laws but the more pressing matter is that he's a Ron Paul fan. And therefore a twat.

"I did it for liberty! And the gold standard!"

Though to his credit, he says he wants the story to be about what he leaked and not about him personally. Or maybe he just doesn't want to end up like Bradley Manning - who revealed how often the US military lights up civilians, allies, and its own personnel - and is now getting thrashed up and down in the press while his show trial commences. WikiLeaks has been a point of reference throughout this, but what did the National Security Agency do exactly?

It's job. Signals intelligence - meaning data mining communications and other broadcasts. Similar shenanigans went on in the Bush years. The only significant difference this time around is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court handed out a secret warrant. All of its warrants are secret - that's kinda the point of espionage. FISA exists as a legalistic cover for the sort of snooping the NSA exists for.

It's all entirely legal. And invasive. And people have a right to be upset... I guess. It's really hard for me to take the outrage seriously because all you ridiculous cretins let Google and Facebook do the exact same thing to you every day.

Big Brother is watching you! And so are his sponsors!

Every like, every keystroke is recorded and fed through an algorithm for targeted advertising. That's why you see ads for whatever non-porn thing you just searched for. Or whatever you mentioned in a private email. Because all these social networking services aren't really free, but funded through ad revenue.

And that should be a real, regular outrage. At the gut level, it's a thousand Prisms rifling through what you think is private. In the long-view, it's strangling the promise of a true digital economy as Google and Facebook provide shittier and shittier service to users for greater and greater profits - and they have no competition because no one will pay for something they can get for free.

Except it's not free. It costs you your privacy every day. And you're cool with it, as long as it ain't the Big Bad Gub'mint.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Let Syria Bleed

“Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the graveyard.” ~ graffiti all over Eastern Syria

All the Very Serious People are at it again. Something must be done about Syria - meaning Assad. Because he's a dictator and we don't like dictators anymore. If that comes as a surprise to you, you're not alone.

Last week, Assad and his official Syrian army took Qusair. Not that Qusair is really all that important for our discussion today - but what is important is if and how many Hezbollah troops helped out. The Very Serious People, from Fox to HuffPo, are calling for The West - meaning America - to arm the brave rebels as they can't stand up to the combined might of Assad and Hezbollah.

This is stupid.

What none of the Very Serious People care to take seriously is how the Syrian Civil War is a bloody gang fight. There are no good guys here - not that there ever are - and any intervention will just be strengthening one faction of throat-slitters against all the others.

Like the precious rebels, for example. The Sunni majority with loud and proud ties to Al Qaeda, among others. When the Very Serious People hear that little fact, their binary processors short out and they either ignore it or double down - saying we can somehow pick and choose who gets the stinger missiles this time. Like how John McCaine could pick and choose who he was photographed with.

Which one is the scrappy freedom fighter and which one is the Jihad-happy mass-murderer?*
Though none of that matters because, like all "humanitarian" interventions, this is about the principle of the thing. We gotta do the Right Thing in helping the Little Guy - even if the Little Guy in this case is a terrorist-backed cannibal. Context doesn't factor into all this principle shit because it muddies the waters, demonstrates that the people we may be trying to help aren't really worth the trouble. The Albanians NATO came to help in the Kosovo War weren't exactly damsels in distress and the Iraqis were so happy to be free of Saddam Hussein that they murdered over four thousand American troops.

"Well then what should we do?" I hear you ask, because you stupid types are so very loud.

Simple - let them bleed.

Syria is the current hot spot in the cold war between Sunnis and Shi'ites that went red hot once the Bush Administration rolled into Baghdad. This conflict is religious like the Thirty Years War, two factions hashing it out over some point of doctrinal difference from hundreds of years ago. In Syria, you've got Assad the Shi'ite on one side - so he gets help from Hezbollah and Iran - and Sunni rebels on the other. And Sunni rebels get all their help from Al Qaeda, from post-invasion Iraq to Chechnya.

Now Jordan and Saudi Arabia and other despotic regimes in the region are rightly scared that the war in Syria will spill over into their little kingdoms. Fair enough - and to be expected the Syrian war arguably being a side effect of the Iraq War. Only instead of promoting democracy throughout the region like the neocon fantasy said, it's been inspiring separatist jihadis.

That's a problem itself, but it's not gonna be fixed by running around the Middle East pretending to be Superman with crates of Kalashnikovs.

*All of them.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Owl

The shrill voices buzzed in the headphones –

"I'm telling you, we gotta tag cop cars!"

"And I'm telling you we'll get tased. We're not going for someone shot here."

"Yeah, this isn't the Martyr's Brigade —"

"Hey watch it!" and a chorus of pious reprimands muttered back and forth. "Don't judge!" and other self-righteous prattle.

Pendrick mechanically transcribed the hollow argument. This happened everytime one of them laughed at South Park, the others immediately shushing and scolding such "ignorant" behavior. "I'm sorry! Jesus!" the offender always apologized.

"But we still can't tag cop cars. We'll just get caught."

"Alright, what about banners again?"

"Can't. No money for supplies."

"Why not giant puppets of —"

"For the last time, no fucking puppets!"

Pendrick couldn't help but chuckle. He wrote down in the margin - Puppet Dude shot down again.

"Okay, we've pretty much exhausted the performance art angle... what about film?"

"Yeah, we can have the president dancing around in a tutu!"

Snickering and "That'll piss off the old people!" ensued. Pendrick just rolled his eyes.

He packed up the listening equipment, plenty gathered for the prosecutors. Some clever mixing back at the station and the kids would be laughing about "Doing cop cars!" — whatever that could mean. He'd leave the specifics up to the prosecutors as usual, they always had so much imagination. That would be enough to keep the CTU's pants on for another week, maybe even slip Ol' Pendrick a raise.

His old car thankfully — and uncharacteristically — didn't stall out on him on the long drive home. The local county didn't have the manpower for these sorts of operations, so they'd outsourced to Pendrick's hometown some twenty miles north. Why anyone would be plotting anything anywhere in Kansas — other then how to get far, far away — he didn't know but his mortgage and credit card bills convinced him not to argue.

Lights were still on in the split-level as Pendrick pulled in a little after three-thirty. Damned Kathryn must have fallen asleep reading again. Going on six years now and Pendrick found he really didn't understand this woman he'd married. He burned himself out on these long recons so he could bring home the fat paycheck that paid for their house, their stereo system, their plasma screen TV, their many laptops — and all she ever wanted to do was read. Well, that's what he got for marrying a teacher.

Sure enough, she was on the living room couch, some paperback having fallen out of her hands and onto the floor. Pendrick didn't wake her, just went around turning out the lights before going to bed alone. He didn't pick up the book.

Pendrick found himself called into Lieutenant Warner's office the following morning — too damn early, he felt. Already had a new assignment.

"A Ms. Carol Scherer," he said, handing the case file over to Pendrick. "Her son's in the National Guard — well, was. He bought it in Wherever-stan about a month ago."

Pendrick leafed absently through the file. Initial report of seditious activity looked like an anonymous tip from her office — something about "unpleasant words," but none of the words themselves. "So what kind of case are we looking to build?" Pendrick asked.

Warner waved it off, "No, nothing like that. Just monitor for a week. If you hear anything, we'll move on it, if not..." Warner just shrugged. "Figured you could use some down time."

Pendrick wanted to scowl at that remark but had the sense to wait until he was out of Warner's office — and out of sight of anyone else. Shit flows both ways these days.

Ducking down into his cubicle, he looked more closely at Ms. Scherer's file. Married young — knocked up first — no college, divorced ten years ago, downsized five years ago — so that's why her boy signed up. He'd been sending most of his pay back home to her up until he got zapped. The Pentagon had charged her for the funeral services.

Her "office" as the file described it sounded like anything but. A windowless maze of cubicles in the upper floor of a factory — there's a word Pendrick hadn't seen in quite some time! They built the machines that built eyeglasses — she held a temp position with their accounting department. That's where someone overheard and reported her little seditious outburst — "Just what the fuck are they fighting over there anyway!?"

Seems she'd taken the rest of that day off and kept quiet ever since. Probably just a little emotional outburst — Pendrick didn't expect any less from a woman. And a pretty one at that, he thought after flipping to the ID photo her company had readily supplied. This assignment was looking up...

That afternoon, Pendrick took a quick drive by Scherer's apartment. Seems all the divorcing and downsizing had cost her a once comfortable tract home, sending her to one of the many and spreading low-income, low-rent apartment complexes. Garden style with dead grass and shrubs garnishing the sides. The parking lot didn't have many cars, though there was a bus stop a convenient three blocks over. Pendrick almost got out for a closer look but he didn't like the look of those hispanic kids hanging around the front door. Bad part of town.

He got back on the parkway — just in time for rush hour. The old clunker stalled out on him twice before he could get home, the engine idling roughly, then slowly, then not at all. Still, Pendrick was in a passable mood when he walked through the front door.

"You're early," Kathryn said, without looking up from her book — a new book this time. "Is that good or bad?"

"Oh! Uh, good," Pendrick said, ducking into the kitchen to grab a beer. "I closed that case I was working on last night — the one out of town?"

"Congratulations honey," Kathryn said, still not looking up.

Pendrick slumped into the neighboring chair — Kathryn had stretched out across the couch and he knew better then to try and move her feet. "I got a new assignment," he said while kicking off his shoes. "Local this time. Low key. I might be home around this time from here on out."

"Mm-hmm," Kathryn said.

"I mean, if I'm lucky."

She turned a page, clearly much more interested in the book.

Flashing back briefly to the file on Scherer, Pendrick wanted to add more but...

"Well... Um... What d'you want to do for dinner tonight?"

Kathryn finally peeked out from behind the book. "Chinese?"

Pendrick was up bright and early the next day, sucking down a McDonald's coffee so Kathryn wouldn't complain about him not cleaning the pot when he got home later. In the trunk, he had all the standard gear — directional mic, headphones, laptop with a couple thousand dollars worth of voice recognition software he'd never used. All packed tightly into an innocuous duffel bag. "If you see us then we're not doing our job," as the popular motto goes.

The department had arranged ahead of time for Pendrick to have the neighboring unit — all it took was a quick call to the local immigration office. They weren't picking up the cable bill though, never did. The official line said it was an unjustifiable expense but Pendrick knew they were just being cheap bastards.

Scherer was already gone by the time he pulled into that parking lot — and so were those hispanic kids, much to Pendrick's relief. Still, he checked and re-checked the locks on his car before finally going in. The clunker still had some value, if only in getting him home at night.

Inside the building, the air was stale with that faint hint of asbestos Pendrick had quickly gotten used to in this job. He never got assignments in penthouses, only the ratty parts of town. He sometimes wondered if all these "subversives" would calm the fuck down if they just had a bigger TV. Not that he would ever say such a thing to anyone.

Apartment 2D — right nextdoor to Scherer's 2B. Full range and microwave but no furniture. Pendrick made a mental note to run back out to the car for his folding chair. The air inside was just as stale as the rest of the building, if not more. Dust particles danced in the scrap of sunlight coming through the solitary window and the carpet still showed stains here and there from some long-gone tenant’s dog.

While setting up his equipment with practiced detachment, Pendrick idly wondered if Scherer's apartment was any different. They'd never had the budget for those minicams — so the story went — always leaving Pendrick to guess at the layouts from whatever bits of background noise leaked through. He liked to flatter himself, imagining he'd developed the echolocation of a bat from so much time just listening to people in their most private moments...

Pendrick had everything in its right place when Scherer got home that evening — around 6:30, much later then projected based on what information her employer had provided. Pendrick knew she probably just got stuck working overtime like everyone else but marked it down anyway, procedure being procedure and all.

What followed were the little sounds he'd heard before — Scherer quietly shuffling back and forth, flipping through TV channels, the happy little ping of the microwave, all those background noises so common to people living alone.

Damn, thought Pendrick, a quiet one. Without any chatter coming from his target, things got very dull very fast. He couldn't turn on his own TV — even if he had the cable — or radio to relive the monotony — and even if the cheap apartment was wired for it, he didn't dare use the laptop's wireless feature. Everyone knew the browser history went straight back to the department. He strained to hear Scherer's TV, a fuzzy sounding thing tuned first to "Law and Order" then one of those home repair or gardening shows.

Very dull. Very fast.

Pendrick found his mind wondering. Might those kids be outside trying to break into his car right now? He knew the way requisitions worked — if he'd ever wanted a department car, he'd be taking the bus until retirement. Maybe they'd been plotting some home invasion and the next thing he'd hear would be Scherer's door crashing in followed by screams and the wet thumping of a baseball bat splitting open a skull. Then he could go home.

He scribbled crude, geometric patterns on his notepad — mostly dongs, stick figures with dongs, dongs with stick figures — tried bouncing his leg in time to the laptop's screensaver... He blinked his suddenly heavy eyelids and saw three and a half hours had just passed.

"Fuck... Kathryn, late," he mumbled his mouth feeling like a wet towel. Not a sound came from Scherer's apartment, not even the TV. "Must've gone to bed." He could review the audio tomorrow while waiting for her — Scherer — to get back from work.

Kathryn was asleep again when he got home. She didn't bother asking about his day the next morning...

During the long wait for his mark to show up, he loaded up the audio files starting about an hour before — he guessed — he fell asleep. Long stretches of TV chatter with a brief interlude of dishes being washed. Pendrick irritably tried skipping back and forth in the file, trying to find something but not a word — except from the TV. Good thing he didn't have to build any case this time — last time he had a situation like this, everyone found out real fast that the public doesn't get to interested in copyright infringement cases. Can't justify the money going from public works into security if all they had to show for it were a handful of illegal MP3s...

Scherer got home even later that night — nearly 8. Pendrick dutifully marked it down, grateful to finally have something to do with himself. She went through the same routine as before with the TV, microwave — Pendrick managed to stay awake for the night's dish washing this time. When the faint click of light switches signaled she was going to bed again, Pendrick prepared to pack things up for the night. But before he took off the headphones, he briefly caught what he could only describe as muffled sobbing.

He didn't put that in the log...

It gnawed at him the next morning though. Damn if he didn't hate bringing the work home with him like that. Pendrick said to Kathryn while she rushed through the kitchen, "So... about what we've been, uh, discussing..."

She didn't say anything but seemed to stiffen a little.

"I mean, um, what we've —"

"I know you're worried about having kids," she said, sitting down across the kitchen table from him. "I am too, but it's something we did agree on —"

"I know!" Pendrick quickly composed himself. "Uh, I know. It's just, um, I don't know how I feel about a kid in this... environment —"

"Oh Jesus, George!" Kathryn leaned back, exasperated. "First money and now 'environment?' This can't be about your job. You yourself told me those kids are so harmless they just get probation."

Pendrick swallowed. He never much liked telling Kathryn that little comforting lie.

"I'm thirty-five, you know," she continued. "I know you don't want to adopt so we're getting down to the wire."

"Well..." And that made him thirty-seven — something he didn't like contemplating even on a good day. "That's just my experience, y'know? I mean, other departments... Maybe —"

"Look, can this wait? I've still got papers to grade before I go in today."

Pendrick nodded, putting on his best fake smile. "Sure thing." Later, they could talk about the pros and cons of having a child that would be shipped back in a coffin within eighteen years — assuming he or she didn't go to the wrong puppet show and get arrested.

Pendrick didn't pack up right away when Scherer went to bed that night. He pulled the picture of her out of the file while she quietly sobbed again. The thought of that pretty face and reserved smile contorted and in tears...

He tried something a little different the following day. He staked out the parking lot — well, "staked out" as in "sat in his car, waiting for her to get home and eating M&Ms." Those hispanic kids were milling around the doorway again, making him dig out the hypertension pills. He didn't like using them — sixty dollars per refill was hard to manage on a civil servant's salary.

They were still milling around, chattering to each other in Spanish or whatever when Scherer pulled up. Pendrick didn't look forward to playing hero in this situation but found himself climbing out of his car and trotting across the parking lot anyway.

Scherer had grocery bags this time. Awfully full-looking for a woman who lived out of her microwave.

Pendrick decided to ignore that detail for now. "Hello — Excuse me? Hi!"

Scherer's wary look made him feel suddenly like a real jackass.

"I, uh, I'm new here, just moved — can I help you?"

She hesitated for a moment... Then that hard gaze of hers softened — just a little. "Sure," she said without much interest.

She shoved the bag she'd been handling into Pendrick's arms — damn it was heavy! Must've bought a lot of fruit. Peeking over the bag, Pendrick saw the Hispanics still there in the doorway, still talking to themselves about — well, even if he spoke their language he was too far away to hear. This might turn a bit difficult...

As the approached the group, the boys suddenly smiled and said happily, "'Evening, Ms. Scherer!" One of them hurried to open the front door for her.

"Thank you, Paolo," she said sweetly as they passed.

"You need a hand with that, sir?" another asked Pendrick.

Pendrick tried not to look too shocked. "Uh... no. I — oof — got it."

He followed Scherer up the stairs, enjoying the view with only a twinge of guilt. She had a nice ass for a woman who'd already popped out a kid. Up close, she even looked a little younger — granted, she was only a few years older than him...

"Thanks," Scherer said at the door to her apartment. "I can get it from here."

"Oh! Of course." Pendrick let her take back the heavy bag. "I'm George," and he thrust out his hand — then winced because her hands were now full.

She smiled tightly, "Carol." And shut the door.

That could have been better.

Their brief encounter didn't seem to have any effect on her. Pendrick still heard the TV, the microwave, the crying — he pulled off the headphones with disgust. This just didn't seem right...

"I don't care if you think it's right," Warner said to him tomorrow when over the phone.

"But — I mean, she's just not the, uh, seditious type," Pendrick protested. He'd wondered if calling Warner would do any good, maybe get her taken off the surveillance list. Should've known better. "She's no true believer, yeah, but she's not building pipe bombs and ululating."

"Doesn't matter. Her file came to us, we watch her. Remember, 'We are the owl —'"

"'We take out the fowl,'" Pendrick completed the department's unofficial motto Warner made them all memorize at the last Christmas Party. "Yeah, I know."

"Good man," and he hung up.

Pendrick didn't like to think of spending another night listening to some poor woman cry herself to sleep. Maybe talking to her again — maybe just telling her the truth, "I'm a police officer sent to spy on you. And I think you're pretty." That would never work.

It was halfway through some home remodeling show that he decided to do... well, something. "I'm out of paper towels," sounded like a good enough excuse. Just enough to open up a dialogue.

Still, Pendrick hesitated. Did he just want to warn her? Honestly, no. Not that he wanted to think too much about that. No better to just see how things go...

But definitely warn her at least. She didn't deserve this. Pendrick knocked twice on Scherer's door —

And it burst out of the frame, knocking him against the opposite wall and sending splinters into his palm and face. Pendrick coughed, then winced at what must have been a cracked rib from just the concussive force. That asbestos in the walls billowed about with all sorts of other debris.

Pendrick stood slowly, every moment revealing a new little injury. He staggered into the ruined apartment, ears ringing from the explosion. Scherer's apartment was a wreck, walls busted out and spilling their wires. What furniture she had lay scattered in pieces — Pendrick noticed the apartment did follow the same layout as his own.

He found what was left of Scherer in the bathroom. He heaved across his own shoes.

"You don't look so bad," Warner said later.

Pendrick sat on the curb, holding an oxygen mask to his face while a paramedic bandaged his arm. The first responders had been plainclothesmen in unmarked cars — waiting just outside in the parking lot. Either this operation was much bigger then he'd been told or Warner had him followed.

Judging by the sadistic twinkle in the bastard's eye, it wasn't the former...

"Some of her neighbors weren't so lucky," Warner went on, unperturbed by the now wrecked building and its displaced, traumatized residents. "A hunk of her tub fell on some kid one floor down."

She'd been building explosives in her bathroom. The sound of it never reached Pendrick — even if he'd known what it sounded like. Probably got spooked when he knocked on her door, her hand slipped...

"Anyway," Warner continued, "I think you should... take some time off."

Of course. Warner would know he broke protocol too, made contact with the mark. Pendrick counted himself lucky Warner didn't decide to just toss him into the system.

What Scherer — no, Pendrick corrected himself, Carol — had been making bombs for specifically no one could say but he knew her "target" would be clearly identified in tomorrow's paper. Everyone would be reminded of the brave men and women working day and night to protect them from the horrors of the world — and that they should shut their fucking mouths and behave.

"So are we done here?" Pendrick asked in a scorched voice.

"Oh sure..." Warner smiled without a shred of empathy. "Go home to your wife," he said with a wink. "She's been missing you."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kneeling Before Zod

In honor of the upcoming Man of Steel (and because I didn't write anything for today), here's a retro-review from 2006!

I saw Superman Returns on a whim about a week ago. I remember liking the earlier Superman movies and the power of flight is just damn cool, so I assumed I'd have a mostly enjoyable movie watching experience. An afternoon spent on moderate acting and flashy special effects.

I was wrong. Hoo boy...

Dark Age or Dork Age?

Let's start with the obvious: Superman himself is the most boring character ever imagined after Jesus (coincidentally, the teaser that was playing in theaters a few months ago implied he was some sort of modern Jesus-figure). Superman can, and often does, do anything. Anything at all. Fly? Check. Burrow to the center of the planet? Check. Travel lightyears between commercials? Check, check, and check. If some basement-dwelling fantard can dream it up, the Man of Steel can do it. Hell, he probably did it back in the eighties. This might be acceptable if he didn't turn around and be all "Golly gee gosh, let me help that kitten out of the tree. There, now I'll go fight non-lethally for truth and justice and free candy!"

Superman as a character is perfect, so why should we care what he does? He can do whatever he wants and all he wants is to be the world's best boy scout. Once you know the character, any story is just filler. It's why you read the chapter's about Satan and skipped the one's about God when reading Paradise Lost in school. God was perfect, Satan wasn't. Why care what Milton's God had to say when it was bound to be absolutely wise and just anyway. No drama, no interest, get back to the Satan stuff.

That's the character, so what story is he in this time? Rather then do the sensible thing and just make a stand alone Superman flick, the filmmakers decided to make it a continuation of the older films starring Christopher Reeve. There's strike two already, see "Star Wars Prequal Syndrome." You better have a damn compelling plot to keep people awake between the awesome flying-man-in-a-cape sequences. So they give us Lex Luther rehashing his failed evil schemes, Lois Lane banging some pilot, and whats-his-bowtie still a smarmy little douchebag. And strike three.

Seriously, Lex Luther is repeating his "world domination through real-estate" plot that didn't work when he was Gene Hackman thirty years ago. What makes him think it'll work now that he's Kevin Spacey? Sure, Spacey is the film's redeeming quality with his reveling in cartoonish villainy, but that's hardly going to stop the young Chritopher Reeve look-alike and his special effects. Besides, his token floozy always betrays him in the end because she just cares too much. Or something. If you saw the original, you've seen every frame and heard, word for word, every cheesy flying joke of this one.

Oh, but this is Superman Returns - because he's been off visiting dead relatives and just happens to return to Earth in the same manner and same place as the first time he got here. Naturally, not a bloody thing has changed from the Seventies, right down to the bright earth tone fashions. But something's different about Lois! She's now a skeletal waif and a mommy with no acting ability, but that's not important seeing as her whole reason for existing is to get in trouble and be saved by Superman. Oh yeah, her son may in fact be Superman's since he shows an aversion to kryptonite and kills a thug by throwing a grand piano. That last sentence might have contained spoilers.

All in all, the producers and the public would have been better served had they just given the original to George Lucas and told him to go nuts. Then we could have gotten the Imax visuals of today's special effects with the lame story and acting of yesterday, rather then a pale imitation of lame story and acting.

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Trillion Dollar Default

Obama's latest attempt to look like a real liberal is student loan reform. And he's really running with it, having a big mock fight with Congress and everything.

Problem is, it only really affects future students. Hypothetical go-getters who will only have to pay 1% interest on their degrees that don't guarantee a happy middle-class life anymore. Those of us still propping up the trillion dollar debt bubble will just have to grin and bear it.

Except we won't. We can't - not with unemployment still up and demand still down. The United States can run on deficits indefinitely but private citizens have to answer on their debt. Or default.

Like the housing market. Remember that? Billions of dollars, the wealth of millions of citizens, and it all went up in smoke overnight. Because it all ran on debt that couldn't be paid back.

Whether that was because banks made predatory loans or because the Big Bad Gub'mint forced banks to loan to lazy black people is a point still debated by idiots. What matters is that the defaults happened and sent Wall Street's debt-financed party van straight off a cliff. And as regulation doesn't exist in this country, they've loaded up a brand new bandwagon of unsustainable debt products.

Including student debt. That trillion dollars millennial college grads owe is being chopped up and passed around same as mortgages were in the Bush years and - same as mortgages - they're an utterly hollow investment. A trillion Dead Souls that only look impressive on paper - as anyone who tries to collect will soon learn.

Default isn't easy with student debt - as I pointed out just two weeks ago. You can even have your wages garnished, assuming you're getting any. But courts already favor banks in foreclosure cases and that hasn't made housing prices return any more than the vast shadow inventory of bank-owned ghost towns. So while default may be bad for you personally, it'll do as much for the debt-party as a collapsed vein will for a vampire.

At it's peak, the housing bubble was sporting 350,000 home sales for about that much each. That's a lot but it ain't a trillion. And with the way this country has absolutely lost its shit since the housing crash, you'd better be plenty scared of what will happen when the student debt bubble bursts in the very near future. People might even start to take those libertarian whackadoos seriously, start wearing gold foil hats or something...