Escape Velocity 2018: Bear With US

Harked I to the Gaylord Convention Center this past Saturday for the Museum of Science Fiction’s Escape Velocity, their annual convention of all things science fiction, emphasis on the science.

Nice place.

They were happy to see me.

Security was tight.

Some guy tried to read my mind but it didn’t work.

Escape Velocity is a three day convention, but I only go on one of the days. No real reason, just do, I guess because one day there is like six days at any other convention because, Holy Hannah, they’ve got a lot of stuff going on. So many seminars, so little time, so you gotta be choosy.

I walked into a seminar billed as the Seven Dwarfs or Trappists,

which I thought was some Disney version of severe monastic life but no, silly me, it was real NASA scientists talking about seven exoplanets discovered in the Trappist-1 system, which is a red dwarf star a few miles from here. Sounded like rocket science, so I pulled up a chair.

The Seven Dwarfs are planets very close to their red dwarf star (so is that eight dwarves?), all within the same size orbit of Mercury to our sun, which, you know, is purty durn close. You’d think they’d get burned but the red dwarf is a lot smaller and dimmer than Sol so you can fly ‘purt near to it without getting scorched. Two of the planets are in the “habitable zone;” not too hot, not too cold, which doesn’t mean they’re actually habitable because that red dwarf is a real pistol. It’s throwing out flares of ultraviolet and X-rays willy and nilly and at great intensities and amoebas don’t do well in that. There might be a magnetic field strong enough to protect the atmospheres of the two candidate planets, but who knows if either of them have magnetic fields, let alone atmospheres. That’s why the NASAers are very excited about the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, which will make the Hubble look like a pair of opera glasses. Even more exciting are the upcoming ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) and the OWL (Overwhelmingly Large Telescope) and the 30 Meter Telescope…yep, that’s their names. Gotta hand it to NASA, no ambiguity. The NASAers showed us a very cool little film

taken from an earth-based telescope of four Jupiter-sized planets orbiting another distant star and whoa, imagine when we get the OWL up there? We’ll be able to watch Russian soldiers on guard duty exchange pictures.

The TRAPPIST planets are weird. Their year is a day and one side is always facing the red dwarf. Permanent day, permanent night, depending on where you are. Sounds like an intriguing story idea. If there are plants, then their leaves will be black to absorb as much light as they can. Alien, man.

I then stumbled into the last bit of a seminar with Greg Nicotero, the guy who makes the zombies for the Walking Dead, which I have stopped watching because, geez, get to the point already, will ya? They cleared out for the seminar I was most looking forward to: Greg Bear. Yeah, Greg Bear who, along with Alastair Reynolds and Robert Sawyer, is one of the three best hard core SF writers out there, in no particular order.

Amazing how much Greg Bear and I had in common. He was a Navy brat; I was an Army one. He lived in the Philippines as a child; I lived in the Philippines as an adult acting like a child. He read comic books and Creepy and Analog and got stacks of scifi out of the base library, just like I did. He even remembers the spinner racks filled with paperback copies of Moby Dick and Olaf Stapledon that graced the floor of every single drug store and five-and-dime in America. He, also, sucked at math, killing his astronomy career, as I killed my own. I’m thinking at this point that he may be a long lost brother but no, that’s not it: we geeks of a certain age share a common lifestyle.

He sold his first story while a junior in high school and wanted to write fantasy more than he did scifi but did write both, which can diminish your audience because they generally choose one or the other…which I do not think is true. I love both, as well as horror and magical realism and anything that involves the weird and the future and the scary and the wondrous, no matter what you call it. I think this plethora of genres and their attendant subs diffuses the bigger category of imaginative fiction (I guess they call it speculative fiction now). Interestingly, Bear fingers the New York Times’ reaction to JK Rowling as the reason for this plethora. The Harry Potter series was so blowing away all the other books on the NYT Best Selling List that they created the YA category to give someone else a chance. And from there, what have we gotten? YA Tween Animal Fuzzy LBGQT Urban Myth Superhero. With zombies.

Bear has written a lot. A. Lot. Pro. Lific, he is. I brought along a mere nine of his books, including three anthologies (Drat! Forgot my copy of The Mongoliad), for him to sign, which he was very gracious in doing so. When you’ve been writing quality stuff since the 70s, you’re going to have quite the corpus. And you’re going to be influential. He wrote a book called Psychlone, about a giant ghost attacking the West Coast (poet, don’t know it), an idea he stole from James Blish and which he thinks Ghostbusters stole from him. He was also a columnist, once writing an article about the Nebula Awards that killed his career with Del Rey (apparently, they took exception to his taking exceptions). He also wrote movie reviews, the first one being for the 1977 release of Star Wars, which I guess is akin to starting your quarterback career at the Super Bowl. De Laurentis Productions called him afterwards for suggestion about other scifi books to turn into scripts and he said, “Dune.” David Lynch has hated him ever since. I don’t know why. I thought Lynch’s version was decent. Sting as a Harkonnen, what’s not to like?

His most famous book is Eon, which was inspired by Stapledon, but it got rejected by just about everyone. It finally saw publication in the UK through Blue Jay Books and then Tor picked it up. His second big one was Blood Music, which began as a reaction to an Isaac Asimov article in TV Guide pooh-poohing the idea of shrinking people down to a certain size and still retaining their intelligence (this from the guy who wrote Fantastic Voyage).Small brain cells, doncha know. Bear got around that with the concept of intelligent cells. Take that, Asimov.

He’s acquired a host of new fans through his Halo novels. Halo novels. Okay. He admitted that the SF community takes a dim view of media series and yep, I’m one of those community peoples. It’s why I don’t read Star Trek or Star Wars novels. Seems like cheating. But, the kids love him, so who am I?

He has just finished his War Dogs trilogy, which is a salute to all the gyrenes and swabbies he knew while a Navy brat, to which I say, good on ya, mate. He is going back to fantasy with a novel called The Unfinished Land, a mixture of Lovecraft and Robert Louis Stevenson set in Elizabethan times. Sounds very cool.

Bear said that scifi is generally regarded as predictive, but that’s not true. It’s actually based on a willingness to suspend disbelief. Scifi gets a lot of things wrong (where’s my damn jetpack?). It’s really about principles that have not yet been proved or discovered, such as FTL travel (which I don’t believe will ever be possible, nor will we ever discover intelligent life  in the universe. I mean, look at us).

We then got into Q&A and, I gotta ask, why do people use the Q&A as a means of proving how smart they are? Come on, just ask a simple question instead of prologueing it with a rambling, incomprehensible ten minute meander across the spectrum of scifi topics, all the time expecting the guest – or anyone in the audience, for that matter – to pick a question out of that mess. There was a lot of that from the audience and I gotta credit Mr. Bear with making sense of what was tossed at him. The only true straight up question he got was his source of inspiration and he said it was what Philip Jose Farmer called the Black Gang, the subconscious. Don’t ever criticize it. And then he said something of which I wholeheartedly approve: being a writer means being alone. It means developing your talent alone. And always, always, believe in yourself. If people say your stuff is crap, be polite, tip your hat, and no longer have anything to do with them.

Hear that, MFA Programs?

More on Escape Velocity later.

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Memorial Day, 2018. Mt. Hebron Cemetery, Winchester VA




























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Old Boy’s Life

We of a certain age tend to wax nostalgic about those fabulous 60s. What, you don’t remember those fabulous 60s? Well, that’s because you’re not of a certain age or, as the old joke goes, you did the 60s right. Authors of a certain age write wistfully pleasant stories about growing up back then, such as Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King’s “The Body,” and presented for your consideration, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.

Set in a small Alabama town in the late 50’s through early 60s, Boy’s Life is a murder mystery and a horror novel and a YA wizard story and To Kill a Mockingbird and you would think wrapping all that into one novel wouldn’t work but, surprise, it does. That’s because all of those are mere elements of the bigger story, which is coming of age in a time when America went from its best to its worst. Oh yeah, I’m telling you, that time period was the best. I’m sorry most of you didn’t get to experience it; instead, you get this sneering, leering mediocrity we call modern times and think because you’ve got the internet that you’ve got it all. You don’t. You missed it. People of a certain age are writing these golden-hazed  novels in an attempt to explain and describe what you missed. My upcoming Frank Vaughn trilogy (WARNING!!! SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION AHEAD!!!) … Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom, Southern Gothic, and Looking for Don…is my own poor effort, although you’ll see that my 60s weren’t all that golden-hazed.

Anyways, McCammon’s protagonist is 11-year-old Cory living in the small town of Zephyr, Alabama (a geographically challenged location because it is outside Robbins AFB, which was actually in Georgia).  At about oh-dark-thirty one morning, he’s accompanying his father on a milkman route (yep, it’s early enough in the 60s for there to be milkmen) when a car zooms across the front of them and plunges into a bottomless lake. Cory’s Dad jumps in to save the driver because that’s what the stalwart men of the 60s (and all the men of the 60s were stalwart. Except Maynard)

did and finds a guy handcuffed to the steering wheel with piano wire wrapped around his neck so already dead and it’s a murder and a whodunit…and herein arises the first of several annoying plot points because Cory sees what could be the murderer standing by the side of the road watching the attempted rescue, and later finds an important clue at the same spot and doesn’t bother telling anybody about it. Really? What self-respecting 11-year old wouldn’t be pulling on Dad’s lake-soaked shirt and going, “Uh, Dad…”

Cory enters a short story contest put on by the town library and writes about the murder, including details of what he saw, and reads it aloud to, oh, everybody in town, thereby revealing to the Sheriff and Dad and, heck, the world that he’d withheld important information. That should righteously PO both Sheriff and Dad, but no. I guess Dad is too stalwart a guy to get mad at his son for committing a minor felony like obstruction, and the Sheriff turns out to be crooked anyway so discount him. Everyone else in town? They’re like, “Fancy that, the kid withheld important information. Guess I’ll get some coffee.” Even the murderer, who becomes apparent about halfway through the story despite gigantic red herrings tossed by the bucket load in your face, makes nothing of it. Like I said, annoying plot points.

There is a river monster that everybody believes in until Cory and a witness see it and then no one believes it exists anymore, which is just odd;  a triceratops that no one knew was a triceratops rampaging the countryside; a dog a la Pet Sematary; a rather obvious racist bombing plot; a voodoo priestess, a voodoo priest, and Cory and his pals sprouting wings and flying around. That about covers all the remaining plot points thrown willy and nilly to move things along and, you know, so what? ‘Cause that ain’t what this is about. Plot, I mean.

It’s about what you missed.

Go into this book with that in mind and it becomes something different: a portrait, and a pretty good one. I, too, lived for a time during the 60’s in a small Alabama town and I gotta say, McCammon nails the zeitgeist. Like Zephyr, my town had a local slattern running a house of ill repute, a local group of moonshiners, casual racism, a local rich eccentric, a local monster known as the Cryman soon to be (WARNING!!! SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTION AHEAD!!!) novelized by yours truly, and ghost hot rods disappearing in the mists. I rode my bike like Cory did, hither and yon across fields and dusty roads from dawn to well past dusk with nary a parental concern, cruised woods and swamps and rivers in the company of pals, ran from bullies, sang and danced to the ever burgeoning catalogue of new bands like the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, and collected Famous Monsters and it was all safe, all wonderful, all magic. And don’t give me that rich white privilege BS. We weren’t rich, and lots of unwhite boys shared the same experiences. It was the time. You missed it.

I wish you hadn’t.

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Star Struck


I don’t usually review non-fiction books because I’m there to learn, not criticize, unless the book is obviously wrong (I’m looking at you, Hillary). But I must sing the praises of Govert Schilling’s Ripples in Spacetime, which concerns gravitational waves; specifically, the astonishing and world-changing first detection of such a wave on 14 Sep 2015

by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO). What, you’re not astonished?

You should be.

So what’s a gravitational wave and what’s the big deal? Let me take a Great Unwashed stab at it: a gravitational wave is a ripple in reality, a stretching…for lack of a better word…of time and space. Einstein (who else?)

predicted that the extremely powerful forces of star collapse and/or black hole collisions

could actually warp time and space, which was nice theory until 14 September and then it was no longer theory. This certainty to which you cling? It ain’t there. Everything regarded as fixed and permanent is not.

Now, yes, I know, I have glossed and short-shrifted much here and even the dullest of physicist is rolling eyes at my Great Unwashedness and tutting over things I have obviously left out or misunderstood and fine, great, condescend much? Point is, I would not have even this lower-than-basic grasp if it wasn’t for this book. At the risk of hyperbole, Schilling is Prometheus bringing fire. At least to me.

Because now, I grasp stars. Didn’t used to.

I wanted to be an astronomer growing up. And a cowboy, and a firefighter, yeah, yeah, pretty much every average kid wants to be all three at one point (imagine how cool a cowboy firefighter astronomer would be). But while I never had a horse or red truck, I did have a dinky little 60x telescope through which I swore I saw the Apollo 11 command module circling the moon that night in July 1969. I was going to work on Mt. Palomar and wear a white lab coat and squint through eyepieces and, one day, see the Eye of God squinting back. So what stopped me?


By the time I got to Algebra II, I was a goner. Just. Didn’t. Get. It. And I was a good student, got A’s in everything…except math. C’s, mostly. And because one of the basic requirements for squinting through eyepieces was math beyond Algebra II, I was doomed. And frustrated. Why don’t I get math? My brother, who dropped out of high school, grasped physics and calculus and trig like it was simple addition and subtraction. ‘Course, he has a genius IQ, proof that school bores the uber-smart so much they dispense with it. I do not have a genius IQ. I have one high enough to know what I want, but low enough to prevent its accession. Not for lack of trying. I took a basic astronomy course in college as a backdoor way in but, as soon as we reached star composition, got lost. So I put away that childish thing of being an astronomer because I will never, ever, get this. And then I read this book.

And now grasp stars.

Not enough to rekindle that long dormant astronomer career but enough to understand what I squint at through eyepieces. The endlessness of space, the time traveling, the mind-blowing amounts of energy involved, the speeds…man. Schilling explains it all in very basic language that, at times, sounds a bit patronizing except he seems to know that guys like me are willing to be taught so he stays on this side of snobbery. Which is fine; at this point in my life, I am willing to be taught. His detailed and patient description of how neutron stars form is a grand example. Man. The sheer power involved in the squeezing of atoms to such densities is downright terrifying.

If I have a nit, it’s that Schilling takes a journalist approach to the entire gravitational wave industry and reports on every. Single. Program. Out there. Even ones still on the drawing board and fine, great, I get that, but really, spend more time on what all this means. Is my Monday now going to be longer? Is my drive to the beach shorter? Should I time either or both to coincide with the next supernova? We Unwashed want to know.

Good job, Mr. Schilling. How ‘bout you do the next book on atoms, another concept I never understood and still don’t. You mean, this rock I’m holding in my hand is nothing but billions of little solar systems?


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A Continuous Episode of Episodes

Netflix has started running one of the top five comedies of all times, Episodes…yeah, yeah, I know, I already picked the top five comedies ever and made nary a mention of it but, hey, it’s one of the best comedies ever written. And, really, what are top five or top anything lists anyway but an arbitrary selection based on spurious criteria? So elitist. There’s probably some branch of arcane mathematics allowing more than five entries into a top five list, sort of like Zeno’s arrow that never goes anywhere so let’s just stay with that. Anyways, the show is brilliant, in that Brit use of the word brilliant and, well, in the American use, too. Who knew Matt LaBlanc

was such a scream? But I’m not raising the show to talk about the show. I do so because, more and more, I feel like Sean and Beverly.

Those of you familiar with the show are nodding sagely, so for those of you who aren’t, Sean and Beverly are the only two sane people in Hollywood. They made a deal with the devil in the form of Hollywood producer Merc Lapidus

and brought their successful BBC show to America for a Hollywood makeover. They are now in the Twilight Zone, in Bizarroworld, where up is down and good is wrong and any one-eyed person in this land of the blind is simply dismissed as aberration. Every day they witness an almost nuclear level of stupidity. Sean and Beverly spend a good portion of the show exchanging helpless glances of sheer astonishment, because they are living with aliens.

As am I. To wit:

  1. The Russians. The Russians have been effin’ with every election ever held by every single country since about 1922. And they have pretty much bollixed it up every single time, maybe with one or two obscure fourth world countries as an exception. The Sovs pretty much bollix up everything, from feeding their people to law enforcement, although they do make pretty good airplanes. And rifles. And they’re really, really good at espionage, but, what good has that done them? They ran rings around the CIA pretty much for decades, and the Wall STILL came down. See, if your basic premise is flawed ― I’m looking at you, Communism ― then it doesn’t matter how efficient or how ruthless your KGB is; eventually, the house of cards falls. So all this recent terror and drang about the Russians is downright silly. Sean and Beverly exchange astonished glances because the Russians did not get Trump elected. Hillary did. Knock it off.
  2. Guns. Guns are tools. Like pliers. Yes, guns are used to shoot things, including people. Just ask the British at Lexington. And yes, they are designed to shoot people with bad intentions, and yes yes yes people with bad intentions use them with bad intent. But there’s a reason why the Colt 45 was nicknamed The Equalizer: Shane used it to defend himself from Liberty Valance, or something like that. In other words, the weak defend themselves from strong people with bad intents, you know, like a single mom living alone in a neighborhood crawling with thugs? Oh, she can rely on the police, can she? Here, Sean and Beverly express sheer astonishment

because get real. But, but, there’ll be fewer people getting killed and/or hurt if we just take everyone’s guns away! Yeah? Then please explain why, during the 60s when I was a kid, every house had about 150 unregistered and loaded guns lying around the front yard unlocked and available and we did NOT have mass shootings. Don’t bother, I’ll tell you why: it would have been considered bad form. Yeah, it’s that simple. Anybody who would take a gun to school to settle a score would forever and ever be regarded, along with every member of their family down to the third cousins, as a sniveling coward too much of a pansy-ass to stand up for themselves. It would have been the equivalent of dropping an H-Bomb on Paris because De Gaulle said something rude about Johnson’s Mom (come to think of it…). Anyways, knock off that whole blame the gun stupidity. Next thing you know, some idiot will want to ban knives.

3. Facebook. Okay, you are putting your face, your birthday, your pets, your food and every single thought that comes to your mind on the internet. The internet. And you are shocked and appalled when the Russians (see above) know what your favorite color is? Or Amazon knows the last one hundred things you looked at on their site? Wow. Just wow.

Sean, Beverly, I feel your pain

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Welcome to the Jungle

A series of unfortunate events had kept me from seeing Black Panther until last Tuesday. I was attempting to coordinate four tickets and discovered the nigh impossibility of getting two people on the same sheet of music, much less four, but eventually the planets aligned…for three of us, at least.  And since I had gone through all the trouble of getting three of us there and was feeling all jungle-y, I and son decided to go see Jumanji, too.

Yes, Jumanji, still in the theaters despite the Black Panther onslaught. I think that had more to do with February/March being sucky release months than anything. Verdict?

Go see Jumanji. It’s the much better movie.

Like everyone else with a pulse, I walked into Black Panther sporting great expectations. I mean, this was the greatest movie ever made, the greatest Marvel ever, 1000% ratings on all the sites, the movie that’s going to change all movies forever and ever, world without end. Golly. This should be good.

It wasn’t. It downright sucked.

The Amazing Lucas here does a much better job than I ever could expressing our mutual dismay, but I will add my two cents. First, the Black Panther from Civil War was the Black Panther I expected: a complete and total bad ass. Took on Cap and Winter Soldier and damn near did both of them in. Guy who can do that is no slouch. But the T’Challa of this movie wasn’t at the same level of badassery. Far from it. He was a vacillating, simpering, hesitant naif with a fraction of the combat prowess previously displayed. I guess he got a bad batch of purple flowers or something. He should have dispatched Man Ape

and Killmonger

on his way to breakfast. Yeah, yeah, they made him take the blue pill before the fights and maybe it’s a bit unfair to have a guy with the DTs defend his kingship. But that’s the way they do things in Wakanda.

Again, Lucas has done a much better job that I ever could criticizing the Wakandan Rules of Succession but, really? Really? One-on-one armed combat to the death? Not exactly a stellar means of government transition, is it? I mean, you can’t expect to wield supreme authority just because some watery tart threw a sword at you. How long has this been going on, three-or-four hundred years? No way. After oh, say, a week, the biggest and meanest Wakandan would have gathered up a few of his friends and taken the place over and spent centuries killing any other Wakandan who even blinked at him sideways. How do you think the English aristocracy got started?

Second, Wakandans are dicks.

Here they are, sitting on some of the most amazing tech and science in the universe, and they’re hiding it underneath a jungle holograph. What dicks. They have anti-gravity, cures for paralysis, can basically bring back the dead, and don’t forget, got those purple flowers, all of which they’re hoarding for themselves. What a dick move. This made me very sympathetic towards Killmonger’s political platform, although his methods seemed a bit excessive.

And they killed Klaw.

One of the most entertaining villains in a while, and they bagged and tagged him.

Dick move, Marvel.

So I was not in the best of moods when I walked out, but there was Jumanji next screen over, escapist light mindless fare, deliberately so, instead of the purposely mindless fare I had just watched. Okay, let’s go.

I am not a big fan of the original movie, nor of The Rock.

The first movie was fun but it’s a one-trick pony and exactly how many times can we watch the monkeys do something vicious to a townie and yeah, yeah, let’s get to the end of the game, shall we? The Rock is like Schwarzenegger; both are there to draw the crowds but don’t expect a lot. I can safely say I had not watched a single Rock movie up to this point. Unlike Ahnold, Rock’s movies sounded boring. That’s why they threw him in those, to get some ticket sales. But, I gotta say, both movie and Rock were pleasant surprises.

This Jumanji is not a remake or a reboot; it is a salute to a kids’ movie the director obviously loved. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and has as much fun with the original movie and the whole 90s video game scene as possible. You’ve seen enough of the trailers to get the gist of the plot, but it’s a lot more fun than even those indicated. Wait until you see Jack Black trying to teach a 14-year-old girl how to flirt, with disastrous results. Better, the worst first kiss in history, as interpreted by the Rock.

And the most refreshing aspect? It’s not about Jumanji, not at all. That’s merely the vehicle for teenage awkwardness and nerdiness and cliques and the hell that is high school. As for the Rock, the guy can actually act. And he doesn’t take himself seriously. It’s obvious he was having a ball, and you know how much fun it is when the actors are in on the joke, like George Clooney in O Brother Where Art Thou?

So, choose your jungle wisely.

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Drawn and Quartered

Another Lost Weekend Film Festival, another failure to hang. And this time Andy Gyurisin had actually made it easier to hang: one needed to attend only twenty-four of the twenty-eight movies to win accolades, admiration, and a nifty gold medal good for a ticket exchange next year. I could only do twenty-two. All right, let’s hear it: wuss, lightweight, girlyman, yeah, yeah, yeah. Everyone feel better?

It was, as usual, a well planned operation of chaos and mayhem. F’rinstance, when the launch team showed up in the morning to assemble swag bags, the voting ballots and other items had yet to be delivered. Yikes!


But, at the last minute, things arrived and the team swung into action:

Just in time because the lobby was quickly overrun by those wanting the best seats:














This relentlessly crazy person was first in line, by God:


And then the madness began: twenty-eight movies from Thursday through Sunday night, with about oh, say, ten or fifteen minute breaks thrown in here and there. It wasn’t a movie festival, it was a movie marathon.

The ones I saw:

  1. Borg vs McEnroe: proof that tennis is a snotty sport played by near-sociopaths who have managed to money their way out of prison and/or mental institutions. Good movie, though. I’d watch it again if nothing else was on.
  2. Good Time: proof that stupidity is all the way to the bone. This is one hugely entertaining calamity after another as Connie Nikas (played by the wondrous Robert Pattison) tries to get his mentally challenged brother Nick out of Riker’s Island after the two of them rob a bank. Connie’s idea, ya know; he wanted to buy a farm where his brother could roam free. He also interferes with his brother’s very beneficial treatment sessions. Connie’s one of those guys who conflates family loyalty with an excuse for all kinds of mayhem and mishap and, man, is there mayhem and mishap galore in this movie. Every thirty minutes or so, there is a complete new cast of characters engaged in Connie’s deranged plans. Definitely will watch it again.
  3. Rock Steady Row. This was the first of three secret screenings held over the weekend, the titles of which were more closely guarded than a FISA Court warrant. This is college. That’s all you need to know. It’s a running allegorical joke that only the guys who went to whatever college this is based on are in on. The saving grace is the delightfully maniacal performance by Logan Huffman as the head of the red fraternity, whose name escapes me. We all know a guy like that. Not a movie I’d watch again.
  4. Wonderstruck. One of those coming-of-age movies where you’re supposed to be short of breath and gasping at the Big Reveals. I was gasping from the urge not to vomit. Ben, a precocious youngster (they’re all precocious youngsters, ain’t they?) embarks on a journey by himself to find his father because his mother won’t tell him who his father is. Why? Who knows? There’s absolutely no reason presented as to why the identity of the father must remain this big dark secret. Indeed, the father turns out to be quite a good guy. What the hell, Mom? Can’t ask her because, you see, she died, carrying her incomprehensible and downright cruel reasons to the grave. So Ben has to move in with his aunt, who lives in a house right next door to his house, both on the same plot of land, apparently, and his house is bigger than the aunt’s so why didn’t they all just switch over? Got me. I guess it wouldn’t advance the proposition that Ben is Cruelly Treated by his Aunt and cousin, necessitating the whole running-away-to-find-my-father shtick. As if that wasn’t bad enough, superimposed over all this is a black-and-white sub-story involving Rose, a deaf girl who runs away to…well, we’re not really sure. Visit the museum where her brother works, I guess. See, Rose is also cruelly treated because her Dad doesn’t think 12-year-old deaf girls should run around New York City alone. And, get this, he wants her to learn sign language (why doesn’t she already know sign language?)! Yeah, cruel bastard, he. Oh, yes, Ben loses his hearing during a lightening strike, so I guess that connects the two stories even though there’s no reason why these two stories even relate…well, there is, but you don’t know that until waaaay later, long after you’ve lost interest. Oh yeah, the 1977 New York City blackout’s involved, too. What a godawful YA mess this movie is. I’d kick out my TV screen before watching it again.
  5. LA 92. This was a surprisingly good documentary about the 92 Los Angeles Rodney King riots, in the sense that it was not as political or polemical as expected, coming from National Geographic and all. Nope, just the stark facts, man. Except for one rather important fact, that Rodney King was drunk out of his mind and a felon driving under the influence which meant a parole violation for his armed robbery conviction and he simply did not want to go back to jail and refused, downright refused, to obey police commands. Was, indeed, actively fighting the police. Personally, I would have shot him. Would have saved 53 lives and billions of dollars in property damage. A movie that’s worth another look.
  6. I Kill Giants. It must be a symptom of my growing curmudgeon-ness because YA movies more and more irritate the crap out of me. This one was no exception. Overblown, over-dramatic and over-the-top treatment of an excessively self-absorbed ‘tween who magnifies her own sorrows beyond the very real sorrows of her family. I think a course of Thorazine would have helped. I will gouge my eyes out rather than watch this again.
  7. In the Fade. Wow. Just wow. Diane Kruger is an international gem. She portrays a woman whose life is devastated by a couple of a-hole wannabe Nazis who kill her husband and son. Bad enough, but she is re-victimized by a  court system more interested in impressing other lawyers and judges by their nuanced interpretation of an obscure statute or two than anything like justice. Seems the justices have sniffily dismissed the concept of vengeance as gauche and bourgeois. Got a state to craft in their own image, doncha know. What the justice system seems to have forgotten is that it was established so we could forgo vengeance in favor of a fair weighing of the facts and a subsequent fair recompense of the wrongs done us. When the courts decide they are vehicles for social engineering instead, what do you think will happen? Watch. This is a movie worth seeing several times. Diane Kruger deserves an Oscar.
  8. The Endless. The second secret screening of the weekend, this is a film by Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, two Film Club favorites for their previous titles Resolution and Spring. In this one, Moorhead and Benson cast themselves as two brothers who escaped from a cult decades ago, only to go back for a visit when they receive a video tape from a current cult member. Mind blowing story about time loops and other science fictiony themes handled in a low key manner. The only nit I pick is an important segment that is reliant on the film Resolution, so make sure you watch that before you watch this. I’d watch this one again as part of a Moorhead/Benson marathon.
  9. Along With the Gods. I love South Korean crime movies because they are over-the-top nuts. So, apparently, are South Korean fantasy/scifi movies because, Holy Hannah, this one is nuts. A South Korean firefighter dies on duty and must undergo a series of trials before he is allowed to reincarnate. Man, Buddhism is tough. And complicated. I thought my (WARNING! Shameless self-promotion ahead!) trilogy set in Heaven was complicated but this one wins. It’s a bit tough figuring out who’s who and what’s doing what to what but worth it. The CGI and swordplay alone make it worth it. Definitely would watch this again.
  10. The Vanishing of Sidney Hall.  This is a great movie ruined by its focus, its editing and its hubristic self-regard. Its focus is on the title character Sidney Hall, a 17-year-old writer of such power and greatness that merely glancing at one of his sentences induces orgasms. Or so we are led to believe. Sidney, who is a David Foster Wallace/JD Salinger amalgam gets a novel published through the machinations of his English teacher (yeah, that’s how it happens) and world peace and love breaks out until A Tragedy causes the wounded Sidney to become a hobo rail-hopping across the country and burning copies of his books in libraries and book stores…a hobo who owns a billion dollar exclusively-designed desert house, by the way. The Tragedy is what this movie should have been about, not the self-absorbed Sidney’s angst-ridden reaction to it. What dreck. What crap. This movie is full of contrived and artificially induced plot points, such as the stunningly beautiful girl across the street (Elle Fanning) who Sidney doesn’t even notice until months later. Right. Turns out she’s as insightful and brilliant and wonderful as he is, and she’s also a creative type, a photographer. Because everyone in La La Land is a brilliant writer or photographer, doncha know. There are no trash truck drivers or plumbers. And, of course, she is the subject of More Tragedy. Really, Sidney is a walking curse that society should jail for its own safety. Oh, yes, there’s ANOTHER brilliant writer involved in this, one whose words makes even Sidney Hall orgasm. La La Land has no dearth of brilliant writers, doncha know, all angst ridden and self-regarding except when they are regarding other brilliant writers. Really, we should all turn our lives over to them to manage. The eeeevil people are the parents, of course, and some vaguely right-wing politicians with a contrived censorship activity through which Sidney heroically suffers, because, you know, writers are Class Heroes Bringing The Truth (Christmas, does anybody involved with this movie actually live outside of a bubble?). One of those eeevil parents is the only intriguing character in this whole godawful mess: Sidney’s Dad who, in his silence, speaks volumes. I wish the movie had been about him. Nathan Lane is in this movie being Nathan Lane and has the best line in the entire movie: “It’s like throwing a party for Sylvia Plath.” Indeed, it was. I would not watch this movie again at gunpoint.
  11. Bombshell. It’s Hedy Lamarr (“That’s Hedley”). What more do you need to know? Definitely watch this again.
  12. Carpinteros.  Wow. Just wow. What a great movie about prisoners in the Dominican Republic and how they use a self-developed sign language to communicate across fence lines. The stunning Judith Perez plays Yannely, who you really don’t want for a girlfriend. Trust me on this. I can’t decide if her performance or that of Jean Jean as Julian Sosa is the better because they are both brilliant. Definitely will watch this again.
  13. Vuelven. Wow. Just wow. Another great movie, this one about the destruction wrought by the Mexican drug trade on the innocent, in this case a group of kids left homeless and orphaned by a local drug gang. Not only do they murder the kids’ parents with impunity, but they sell the kids into child sex rings. If it wasn’t for the orphans’ ten-year-old leader, Shine (wondrously portrayed by Juan Ramon Lopez) they’d all be dead or worse. Enter Estrella, a recently orphaned girl who brings with her three wishes, all of which devastate the orphans but bring a measure of justice, too. This is magical realism at its most tragic. Definitely going to watch this again.
  14. The Death of Stalin. The third and final secret screening, this was a light-hearted look at genocide, repression, police states and all the other amusing aspects of tyranny and enslavement. Gee, what’s next, Springtime for Hitler? How ’bout a rollicking comedy and musical about the Middle Passage? Or Pol Pot’s killing fields? Good God Almighty. I spent the entire movie appalled as Beria (Simon Beale) and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) jockey to take over from the just-deceased Stalin, from the slapstick attempt to move Stalin’s body to working their limousines into the funeral procession. I guess this is funny to a generation which knows nothing about the horror show that was the USSR. Won’t watch this again, comrade.
  15. Annihilation. This was the movie to which I looked the most forward and it was disappointing. Just was. It turned into a CGI-fest, the psychedelia of which was supposed to substitute for a plot. Look at the pretty pictures and don’t ask any questions. The ending sequence was simply ridiculous, and I was left with a vague sense that I needed to take a bath. Don’t bother looking for an explanation beyond “there’s a fungus among us.” I’m not even inspired to read the book. I’ll watch this again only if there’s nothing else on, because it was pretty.
  16. November. This is a movie best watched while you’re stoned. Cow-skull helicopters kidnapping cattle, does that give you an idea? Estonia needs dentists. Estonia needs more attractive people. Does that give you more of an idea? I don’t get stoned, so I won’t be watching it again.
  17. Bad Genius.  Outstanding effin’ movie. Edge-of-your-seat tension along the lines of The Talented Mr. Ripley or Rounders, but much lighter. A genius high school girl, along with a genius high school boy, plan to cheat on an international exam. But, as you know, no plan survives first contact. Watch this one over and over.
  18. Small Town Crime. Outstanding effin’ movie, this time about a drunken ex-cop (Oscar-worthy performance by John Hawkes) seeking redemption. Sound like a cliche? Not in this case. The cop, Mike Kendall, manages to get his partner and a kidnap victim killed while drunk on duty, and it is a measure of the fabled Cop Protection Society that he is not spending twenty years in jail for manslaughter. He is, though, thrown out on his ear, earning opprobrium and contempt from his fellow cops and he becomes a world class drunk, parking his wonderful Nova SS in his front yard (through the picket fence, of course) and in the middle of fields, waking up a couple of days later. But see, once you’ve gone Brotherhood, you always go back and Kendall yearns to slap on a badge once again. He gets his chance when he discovers a woman’s body by the side of the road. This is a straight up story of blackmail and sleaze, no twists and maguffins, more Fargo than Chinatown. One of those movies to watch again and again.
  19. Oh Lucy. Third outstanding movie in a row, this is a tragedy that you do not know is a tragedy until it’s about 3/4 of the way through. Up until then,  you think it’s a comedy of errors. It’s not. Man, heartbreaking and very well done. Definitely a movie to watch again.
  20. Jane. Someone found a box of unused film clips that Jane Goodall’s husband, cinematographer Hugo van Lawick, had left in a box and decided to piece them together into another Jane Goodall documentary. You’ll see why van Lawick left them in a box because they are posed shots of Jane looking through binoculars, climbing trees, washing her hair, looking through binoculars, walking through the jungle, looking through binoculars, playing with a chimp, looking through binoculars, and looking through binoculars. Only reason to watch this again is an attempt to induce an aneurysm.
  21. You Were Never Really Here. This was never really a movie, at least, one that had a point. I think it was a way for Joaquin Phoenix to show how much of a badass he is, and he is. But badassery usually needs a reason to believe and this is aimless. Best I can figure out, Phoenix plays badass Joe, who might be a badass because of Aaarmy training, sir, not really sure, who is trying to overcome a traumatic childhood by rescuing kids from their own traumatic childhoods in a way guaranteed to traumatize the children he’s rescuing. There’s some baffling political shenanigans going on, too. S’kay, because you get to watch badassery. I’d watch it again just for that.
  22. A Fantastic Woman. A much better movie than I expected about a gay transvestite – yep, that is the proper term until they get a chopadickoffame then they become transsexuals – who loses her older lover and is cast out on his (her, whatever) own. It made no attempt to convert me or declare his lifestyle as normal. Indeed, Marina (or Marisa as everybody else kept calling her) knows he’s not normal and he’s fine with that. So I’m fine with it, too. He is quite a compelling figure who demonstrates far more maturity and empathy than does all the straights in this movie, except for his dead lover’s brother. Not sure if I’d watch this again because I’m not big into love stories, regardless of orientation, but I wouldn’t turn it off.

Rumor is the next Lost Weekend will have thirty movies. Ah, more chances to fail.

Posted in lesser mediums, Life in the Shenandoah Valley | Comments Off on Drawn and Quartered

R is for Rocket

Agog. That’s my reaction to the launch of the Heavy Falcon rocket by Space X. Did you see those two boosters RETURNING TO THE LAUNCH PAD???? In case you didn’t…

Hence, agog.

I don’t know if other segments of the population reacted with the same level of agog-ness, but I’m pretty sure a lot of us old NASA geeks did. The few of us left, I mean. A warming cockle of a distant heart, it was, a re-beating of a moribund spirit, a harkening back to naïve youth and the naïve belief in unlimited horizons and The Futuuuure! that we NASA geeks lived and breathed during the Space Race days.

It’s amusing to think of it now but, back then, we were all convinced we were getting jetpacks and would live on the moon. Indeed, one of my favorite picture books was:

which I devoured over and over and over when I was five or six years old, the odd drawings of young spacemen grinning at the little boy in a rather predatory manner notwithstanding.

We were going to live on the moon! And have jetpacks! Neat!

We said “neat” back then. “Cool” came later.

I was a little too young to remember Sputnik and the ensuing panic, but I clearly remember John Glenn’s Friendship 7 take-off from Cape Canaveral (as it was known then before it became Cape Kennedy then back to Canaveral so most of you probably are not aware of the name change) because every classroom in BC Swinney Elementary School in Lawton, OK had a television wheeled in and tuned to so we could watch. Which just wasn’t done, wheeling televisions into classrooms, that is, signaling to all of us pointy-headed kids that this was a Big Deal. It certainly was to me. I was thrilled, astounded, amazed…agog. And, yes, I know, Alan Shephard had actually launched into space a year before and I probably saw that, too, but there is something about the Glenn launch that remains better seared into memory. I guess because that launch was the first US orbit of the Earth and all we pointy-headed kids knew that the Russkies had gotten there first and we were going to fall under Soviet domination if we couldn’t match, nay surpass, their effort. So it was with great geopolitical relief that we kids watched the launch and splashdown and all breathed a collective sigh of relief that Western Values and the American Way were once again dominating…

Of COURSE we didn’t think that. We thought we were going to live on the moon. And get jetpacks.

At least my best friends and I did. This conviction was enthusiastically shared among the very small (about three, if that) group of dweebs and nerds I hung out with; we bought models of Mercury and Apollo spaceships and mounted them on displays for science fairs and had crappy little telescopes and joined the NASA Kids’ Club and got autographed pictures through the mail of astronauts in training like Mike Collins and Neil Armstrong (man, I wish I still had those) and knew when every launch was scheduled and begged and pleaded Dad to take us to Cape (then) Kennedy so we could see a launch and no, I’m not going to waste a bunch of money so you stupid kids can watch something you can watch on TV, even though we were living in LA (lower Alabama) at the time and the Cape and Cocoa Beach (where Tony and Jeannie lived) was about a four hour drive. Would have interrupted the servicing of his many girlfriends, I guess.

The astronauts were our heroes, the space program was our inspiration. War would end. Nations would unite. We would explore the galaxy. We would live on the moon.

What the hell happened?

A few things. The first was the slow disintegration and suddenly spectacular destruction of my family during the period of the Apollo program, which serves as inspiration for my (WARNING: shameless self-promotion ahead!) upcoming Frank Vaughn trilogy (Frank Vaughn Killed by his Mom, Southern Gothic, Looking for Don). I went from breathless excitement during Apollo 8’s magnificent 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon

to frantically squinting through my laughable 60 power telescope the night of July 20, 1969 to catch a glimpse of Aldrin and Armstrong cavorting on the moon to…not even watching the news broadcast of Apollo 17’s last moonwalk in Dec 1972. Didn’t care anymore. That whole “family destruction” thing.

And I wasn’t the only one. No one cared. There had been a national-level destruction to go right along with my personal one and we turned away from space programs and The Future to social programs and the Right Now and did not ask what you could do for your country but asked what are you doing for ME, man? We saw no farther than the bridge of our noses. We looked down at our shoes, not at the sky. We wanted to Get Ours, not Go Out There. And all that space stuff was silly and expensive and we’ve got more important things to worry about here like oil shocks and inflation and worldwide liberation movements and finding jobs and just getting by.

No living on the moon. No jetpacks.

And, now, look at this. Someone has revived it. The spirit stirs. And maybe you kids will get to live on the moon someday. Me, I’m too old.

But I’d still like to have a jetpack.

Posted in Life in the Shenandoah Valley | Comments Off on R is for Rocket

B is for Bradbury

In the midst of this brutal cold we’ve been experiencing the last few weeks, a sunny spring-like day popped up. All the kids were out in all the playgrounds and it was delightful weather and I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury story, All Summer in a Day: the clouds on Venus part once every ten years and all the kids go outside for a few hours. I then wondered if anyone still reads Bradbury.

Do they? Or is he another one of those authors everybody knows but doesn’t read, like Heinlein and Asimov; you know, a nod of respect to the founding fathers of science fiction, but there’s newer and, admittedly, better writers out there like Daniel Suarez, Alastair Reynolds and such? We know the importance of George Washington, but only academics read his Inaugural Address.

And I guess that is the way of things and something I must also admit to: I do not read the classics anymore, or, more accurately, re-read them, because been there and done that and there is so much else unread. I’m in the middle of Dan Simmons’ The Terror right now, and then I’ve got to finish Suarez’ books and then Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Trilogy

and I subscribe to Clarkesworld and then there’s my own writing and there you go. I think the last classic I re-read was The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,

and only because I found a copy and bought it for my son…uh huh, yeah, read it before giving it to him. It’s not like I took a bite out of his hamburger, ya know. Don’t look at me like that.

But I make an exception for Bradbury. Whenever I find his books in some used bookstore or a Goodwill, whatnot, I buy it and read it, the last one being The Illustrated Man.

I’ve got an eye out for The October Country and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Not reprints, mind you, or at least not recent ones. It has to have the same cover from back when I first read it in the 60s or 70s and yes, yes, I know, I could order from Abe Books but that’s cheating; it’s far more satisfying to stumble across it the same way I first stumbled across Bradbury in the Ft. Rucker, Alabama library, when I was about 12 or 13. He quickly became my favorite author growing up, and running through one of his collections is the quickest way I now have to evoke the feel and the sense of possibility of those years. He quickly became my biggest influence, too. I try to copy his lyrical style…with little success, I must admit, although I write the same long and winding sentences that careen from one subject to another. I don’t have his poetry, though.

The first Bradbury I read was The Martian Chronicles.

I used to spend quite a bit of time in the library picking up Alan Nourse and Sheila Moon and Have Space Suit, Will Travel

and what’s this? A novel set on Mars? Cool! So I checked it out, not realizing it was actually an anthology of short stories with a Martian theme. Didn’t care, because the writing was magical and echoed that wistful sense of wonder which was (or should be) the background music of growing up.

After that, I picked up anything of his I could find. Fahrenheit 451, The Golden Apples of the Sun, S is for Space…all science fiction, but not hard scifi. Literary scifi, I guess would be the best description because Bradbury played loose and fast with the rules of science, like the clouds on Venus, which can actually strip you down to a skeleton in about five seconds flat. But getting all the hard science exactly right wasn’t the point. It was more important to capture a mood, such as the one in R is for Rocket,

which imbued the sense of excitement that we NASA geeks had back then. We watched the space program go from Mercury to Gemini and then, and then…that fabulous July night of the moon landing. And while the world Bradbury described in R was actually dystopian, it was a world that looked forward, like I did, to mankind’s ventures into space.

It was his horror writings, though, that affected me the most. Before I read The October Country, horror was all about ghosts and ghouls and bad guys getting their comeuppance like in some EC comic.

But Bradbury showed the horror that could exist in the everyday, such as a pedestrian out for a nightly stroll, and that horror is best conveyed simply, without slashings and over-the-top scares. One of the most frightening last lines I’ve ever read is from a story of his called The Whole Town’s Sleeping in Dandelion Wine

(which is not even a horror or scifi collection): “Behind her, in the living room, someone cleared his throat.”

Scared the bejesus out of me.

As did the Eliot family in The Homecoming,

as did the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes, although I did find the ending rather corny. Bradbury wrote poetry of fear; the things that scare us could be a lyric.

One day I’ll write like that.

Posted in Reading itself, Writing itself | Comments Off on B is for Bradbury


I was never a big Punisher guy. He came along in the middle 70’s, which is about the time I lost interest in comics. All I was reading by then were Iron Fist, Shang-chi, Ghost Rider,  and Tomb of Dracula








Martial arts and horror, those were my things. I knew about the Punisher because he popped up here and there but didn’t really pay attention until he showed up in some Spiderman cartoons in the 80s and 90s. I always regarded him as a Spiderman enemy along the lines of early Kraven: somewhat misguided but, overall, not evil. Yeah, saw the Dolph Lundgren movie, which was silly, and the dreadful Thomas Jane one but those didn’t move the needle.

What did was the Punisher in Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil series. He was cool, and crazy. Punisher killed everybody, quite justified, IMHO. Jon Bernthal was an excellent cast choice, all broody and unpredictable and dangerous, just the way you think the Punisher should be, although Bernthal comes off as a bit denser and more uncouth than the comic book version. So when Netflix announced a stand-alone series, I was in. I finished it last week. Verdict?

It’s good. Damn good. Better than I thought it would be, given the way Netflix has screwed up the other Marvel shows.

The Punisher is Frank Castle, a man on a mission to kill the rotten bastards who staged the murder of his family in a botched attempt to kill him (BTW, you never see the actual murders of his family, just enough to know what happened. Which is an odd bit of restraint). The rotten bastards want to kill him because Frank is a former Marine Recon member of an assassination unit illegally set up by the CIA to take out terrorists in Afghanistan. Cleaning up the loose ends, doncha know. The CIA effs it up, leaving Frank Castle alive and berserk. Hoo boy, is he berserk.

Helped by an equally-savaged innocent bystander named Micro, Frank goes out to balance ledgers. And balance them he does. And it’s not pretty. Really, if you like your killings frequent and forensically correct, you’ll love this because every episode is murder porn and over-the-top violence with Frank taking and taking severe damage (which he recovers from in astonishing time, like he’s Wolverine or something). Add torture, great sex scenes, and various other forms of mayhem, and you’re in for an evening.

A lot of fun, but I don’t think murder and mayhem is what this series is about. No, it’s there’s no more justice. Not anymore. Not since the various government agencies discarded public accountability and became rogue departments with agendas and intents unto themselves, at the same time the courts became a way for lawyers to amuse and impress each other rather than the means of ensuring a just recompense for we Little People. Don’t you peasants know there are bigger Deep State and Elitist concerns than mere nuisances like your family’s murder? Yes, yes, regrettable, those murders, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. You peasants.

If your family is murdered in a regrettable but necessary covert action to cover up a government screw-up, you’re gonna have to get your own justice. You must become Frank Castle because it’s not that the police and the courts and the government don’t care as much as has other interests, like getting and retaining power and control, and your petty little bourgeois problems distract from that. Only DHS Agent Madani, played by the gorgeous Amber Rose Revah, wants to right the numerous wrongs, and she’s treated like she’s some kind of naïve idiot by bosses and other supervisors for so wanting. She eventually has to ally with Frank to get anything like justice done.

[An aside: Shoreh Agdashloo of Expanse fame, plays Madani’s mother. I declare my undying love.] 

Is this what we’ve come to?

Pish posh, no, it’s not, you say, this is mere over-the-top TV show exploitation of current events and besides, what Frank is doing is revenge, not justice.

What, exactly, is the difference?

Because the courts and the police and trials and jails were all developed to ensure passionate revenge was taken out of our individual hands to become dispassionate justice meted out appropriate to the crime and, more importantly, on the right person. Whenever someone does us wrong, from scraping the side of our car to murdering our entire family, our frustrated sense of outrage and lust for vengeance is mollified because these agencies resolve the situation, maybe not to our complete satisfaction, but as long as the result is reasonable, we’re usually okay with it. Until it is no longer reasonable. Until our concerns are given increasingly short shrift.

Consider, we now have agencies that spy on us without warrants or justification, that ruin us with innuendo, that apply the law to one class of people but not to another, and courts that let murderers go because of political ideology. We do not believe what the government or the press says about anything anymore. And the law abiding are increasingly blamed for the non-law abiding. I can see why people would go all Frank Castle on your ass.

And that ain’t good.

Posted in lesser mediums, Merry Marvel Marching Society | Comments Off on Punishment