Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Last Stand of Sparklemane

The war for control of Smile Land between the Tinker Elves and the Unicorns had gotten way out of control.  It had been a land populated by high-pitched, perpetually happy life forms prancing around glittery landscapes.  The idea of bloodshed was an entirely foreign concept for them, but they were learning.

Sparkle Forest stood between the Unicorn Glens in the Sunshine Mountains and the Lollipop road that led to the Villages of Tinkerland.  The forests were the kind of idyllic greenery where an anthropomorphic rabbit could suddenly jump onto a rock and lead forest creatures in a song about sharing.  If that rabbit is there now, however, he’s going to want to get his happy ass out of there.  Things are about to get ugly.

In the middle of the forest, a few clicks north of Rainbow Falls,  Sparklemane lead a small battalion of Unicorns.  He walked in front with his lieutenant, Glitterhoof, beside him. The rest followed in a crescent formation.  From above it looked like a big, glittery smile emoticon moving through the forests.  Cuteness was a State of Nature in Smile Land, even in matters of war.

Suddenly, Sparklemane stopped and sniffed the air. 
“Elves!  I smell elves!” he said.  Sparklemane was a male, but not for reproductive reasons.  In Smile Land different sexes existed because little boys and little girls are.. well, cute.   It  made sense, but it meant that Sparklemane, elder of the Sugarhills Clan and General of the Smile Force Six sounded like a 6-year-old boy.

Glitterhoof giggled and turned to the rest of the battalion, “All right men!  We need to break through this line.   Do your best and remember that we all believe in you!”

The battalion whinnied the cutest battle cry ever.

Sparklemane stamped his feet, reared back and yelled, “Charge!”

The Unicorns took off through the trees jumping over rocks and over forest streams.  They leapt over a tall hedge and found themselves a few feet away from a line Elven war machines.  They looked like something a modern art welder would build if he was turned loose in a junkyard for a week with a pound of crack cocaine, a gallon of LSD and a welding torch.
It didn’t matter much to the Unicorns, because they didn’t see them for long.  As soon as they were over the hedge, a small voice on top of one of the machines yelled, “Unicorns!  Fire the Sunshine Rays!”

Weaponry was still a new concept in Smile Land.  The elves had, however, managed to convert sunshine rays and sneezing powder into the Smile Land equivalent of flash bombs and tear-gas.  Non-lethal, sure, but it did send a fair amount of Unicorns careening into rocks and embedding their horns into tree trunks.  It also sent Sparklemane, Glitterhoof and several others from their battalion retreating back behind the hedge.

Glitterhoof was pacing behind the green wall shaking her head and stomping her hooves, “Fuck!  Fuck, those pointy-eared cock-goblins,” she said.  Swearing was also new to Smile Land, but the Unicorns were taking to it with a certain amusing gusto.

Sparklemane recovered his sight enough to peer over the hedge.  The Elven war machines were getting closer.  Those in his battalion that weren’t struggling to free themselves from the trees had retreated with them.  “Form up!  Form a line.” yelled Sparklemane backing up slightly, “Ready your horns and think happy thoughts!”

Unicorn giggle magic was nothing new, it had entertained forest creatures since the beginning of Smile Land.   It had only recently been weaponized, though.  Sparklemane, for instance, had become adept enough that he could make elves liquefy their internal organs and blow the bloody mess through the back of their sparkly green pantaloons. 

The Unicorns lined up.  Sparklemane watched the Elves close in.  He looked down the line of Unicorn soldiers and when their horns started to glow bright enough he yelled, “It’s Smile Time Motherfuckers!”

A rainbow of Unicorn magic hit the encroaching masses of metal.   Soon the sound of howling laughter could be heard echoing from within the machines.  They started swerving erratically as the drivers fought bouts of laughter-induced terminal diarrhea.

The elf on top of the lead machine yelled through fits of laughter, “Forward! Hehehe!  Crush them! ”

Sparklemane directed all his magic to the Elf commander.  The Elf started laughing harder and soon doubled over and fell down the front of the vehicle.

Tinker Elves were widely regarded as the finest craftsmen in all of Smile Land.  Still, the Natural Law here dictated that all machines were almost designed to fail and suddenly belch out sparks and a sooty,  smoldering Tinker Elf.  War had multiplied that quality several times over and made the war machines more or less useless as armored assault vehicles, but made them impressively effective car bombs.  It didn’t take much. An Elf falling under the wheels in laughter could set them off.

The blast along with the smoke and shrapnel was disorienting.  Sparklemane heard the whinnies of other Unicorns caught in the explosion.  He couldn’t see anything except for Gitterhoof lying on the ground next to him.

“Glitterhoof?” he said, “Can you hear me, friend?”

He nuzzled her head.   It spun on the ground leaving a trail of glittery blood between it and the rest of her body.  She had been decapitated by shrapnel.

Sparklemane reared back and screamed.

Dave looked at the time and closed the book.  “It’s getting late, Jenny.” he said getting up and putting the newest Adventures in Smile Land book back on the shelf. “Well finish the rest of it tomorrow.”

Jenny gradually poked her head out from under the covers and squeaked, “Daddy?”

“Yes, sweetheart?”

“Um... You don’t have to read any more Smile Land.  I don’t think I like those books anymore.”

Dave smiled and turned out the light, “Okay honey.  Sleep tight.”  He closed the door and walked a few feet before pumping his arm and saying, “Yes!  Free at last!”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Modern Art Is Weird

Found at Harper College, Chicago IL
Name: Scrap Metal Soup Ladle
Artist Statement: We dip our ladles into the soup tureen of Life. Do we get nourishing broth? No we get nothing but pain. The ladle spews water, hope that soup will be near. But is not. No soup for you.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Kook, The Thief, The Tyrant, The Skeptic and The Believer.

“Three truths I will tell you, and one lie,” said Plouton Clark taking another drink of ale.  “You may ask any four questions you like, but only four.”

It was three years ago and we were sitting on the porch outside the Free State Brewery in Lawrence, Kansas.  Clark had just started his Church of New Life, and I was working on the first national story about the new religion for World News Magazine.

“Only four questions?” I asked.

“If I give you carte-blanche,” said Clark, “you will find something to discredit me. Ask enough questions, and you can find the flaw in any argument.  Even well-established science looks flimsy under enough scrutiny and I’ve got to give myself a fighting chance.”

“Why the lie?” I asked.

Clark twisted pieces of his long beard around his finger.  He had one of those beards I had only seen in cartoons usually worn characters who had suddenly grown comically old.  “You’re a skeptic and that’s what you’ll be looking for.  A believer clings to a singular truth among lies.  Skepticism is just the opposite.”

It was the end of the first day I spent with Plouton Clark.  We spent the first half of the day touring the refurbished strip mall in downtown Lawrence that was now the Church headquarters.  The second half was spent at the bar.  Clark swilled beer and talked so fast about his strange  philosophies that I could barely get a word into the conversation, much less a whole question.  I had to admit that he looked the part of a modern prophet.  The cargo shorts and the old, stained T-shirt and flip-flops were probably the modern equivalent of a robe and sandals.

“He’s a crackpot!” my editor told me as I was leaving the office to catch my flight.  “Or a con-artist or some guy who gets his rocks off with power.  Just find out which one it is, and write the story.”

 He was one of those editors that insisted on writing your story for you, and honestly I kind of let him.  It was easier then arguing.  So the entire time I spent with Clark, my editor’s words were floating in my brain. Was Clark a kook, a thief or a tyrant? 

“Well, how about it then?” said Clark after a fresh sip of beer, “Care to give it a go?”

“Okay,” I said flipping through my notebook and forming a strategy.  I would ask him questions, force a lie out of him on the last one and do some fact checking later.  Then, I would have my story or my editor’s story at least.

“First question, why did God contact you to start this church?  Are you somehow special?”

I figured a tyrant would claim that there was nothing special about him.

“I am special,” said Clark.  “Clearly I am, or God wouldn’t have contacted me.  He did, you know.  I was sitting in my house watching TV, and He appeared on the screen and gave me instructions.  How many prophets do you know got a message from God through a 32-inch flat screen?”

He laughed and I wrote down his answer and marked it with a letter ‘T’.  “Second question, I said,  “To join the church, you say people have to give up their excess wealth.  Where does it all go?”   Surely a thief would hide the money.

“I keep it,” said Clark drinking the last of his beer, “I suspect I may be the richest man in the country in five years, give or take a couple.”

I winced as I wrote his answer and put another ‘T’ next to it.  “Third question, I have it in my notes that you were admitted to a mental hospital and were released against the wishes of the staff.  Can you talk about that?”

“Oh, I was completely bonkers,” said Clark smiling at the waitress bringing him another beer, “Still am, I should think.  You may have also noticed that this is my fifth pint.  The great thing about drinking  is it helps keep me from bottling up the crazy.  A thought hits my brain and, bam!, it’s out in the world.  Probably makes be a better preacher.”

I felt  like an idiot asking my final question, “What is your name?”

Clark smiled, “Pluton Clark.”

I met with Clark again three years later at the same brewery. I had long since resigned from the magazine and I was working on a book about the Church of New Life. In recent years, it had a growth rate faster than any religion on the planet.

“I read your article,” said Clark taking a long drink of a stout.

“What did  you think?” I asked.

“A bit disjointed.  It’s like you couldn’t decide what to write about.  It’s something I would write if anyone was stupid enough to let me.”

I nodded, but said nothing.  He was right.

“Just as well,” said Clark taking a drink from his beer, “Who knows what damage a well-written article would have done.  Could have brought down my whole operation.”

I put down my pen and looked at Clark, “Did you do something to sabotage the story?”

Clark shook his head, “Nothing that you weren’t already doing.  You are a believer, not a skeptic.  You like the truth among lies, not the other way around.”

“You didn’t tell any lies, that was the problem with my article.” I said. 

“I said my name was Plouton Clark.  I was born Andy Stevenson which you knew since you had my mental health history.”

“You were born Andy Stevenson, but that doesn’t mean your name isn’t Plouton Clark now.” I said.

Clark smiled, “The truth among lies. That’s just how your brain works.”

“Okay,” I said flipping to a clean sheet, “Let’s start over.”

“Okay then.  Three lies I will tell you, and one truth.”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

A day in Detroit.

If there is a city that stands as a symbol of our troubled times, it is Detroit, MI. In the same way that the city of San Francisco defined the baby boomers, I fear Detroit might define my own. Defined not by a place where we gathered, but a place we fled.
My traveling companion, Brandon is an impatient driver. The sight of a line of glowing tail lights will have him careening for the nearest exit in search of some mythical road that never has traffic. Normally this is just a rather cute eccentricity of his, but in this place...
"It's better than sitting in traffic," he says with a grin.
"We can't know that." I reply looking at and old grocery store. The outside looks as if the previous owners last act was to use the store as defense against a zombie apocalypse. Every window is boarded up, it is completely surrounded by a razor wire fence, even the roof of this place is lined with razor wire.
We drive along a major surface road heading for downtown. After a few feet, you begin to realize that everything you ever heard about this town is true. Nearly every building is empty and covered with a layer of graffiti. More than one building appears to be burned out. It's a situation that implies that when a building catches fire in this city, they just put out the flames and leave the rest to rot. There are enough of these buildings to imply that this is standard operating procedure.
"The photographer was telling me that the city is making an effort to tear down all of the empty buildings in town." says Brandon.
I wonder out loud if there will be any city left after that. In quick tally over the course of a couple blocks I find two buildings that appear to have a business inside. Ones a liquor store, the other is some sort of art gallery. It is a man who apparently paints murals in spray paint elevating the local color, as it were, to an art form. This is not just a bad part of town either. A previous adventure a few days ago yielded similar results. Just block after block of overgrown, dilapidated, empty structures that can be more accurately be described as ruins. This is the way the city looks.
I can't help but wonder, as more and more people flee, if Detroit won't become the worlds largest ghost town one day. Nothing but empty buildings with a few remaining residents scrambling among the wreckage like something out of an post-apocalypse movie.
My thoughts are interrupted by yelling. We are stopped at a light and two people are crossing in front. One of them looks homeless and is the one screaming something. At first I think he might be yelling at the other man, but a few seconds later I realize he is just yelling. I couldn't tell what he was yelling, it sounded like the incoherent mumbles of any lunatic one would find in an urban area with the volume cranked to 11 and mad gestures to round out the image. The poor man who happened to be walking next to him at the time didn't seem afraid. He simply wore the pained expression of a man who was saying to himself, "Damnit! Not this again. I just want to go to work."
I walk inside the convention center where I am working this week. I stop by the gift shop killing time before I actually have to go to work. As expected the products have a distinct automotive theme. Model cars, books on the history of the Big Three, belts shaped like seat belts. I find myself thinking about Native American shops on route 66 selling handmade jewelry to tourists. All relics from a lost and romanticized past.
During a lunch break I head outside. It's a little after noon downtown on a Wednesday. Most city streets are packed at this hour with office workers stepping outside for a breath of fresh air and sunshine. Here, the sidewalks are deserted. I look for a while trying to find something, anything to eat. There are almost no resturaunts within walking distance. I settle on a little burger joint about a block away from the convention center. It's run by an older couple. The woman is running the register while the man works in the kitchen. There is one other person in the resturaunt besides me. As I place my order and pay the woman looks at my badge. "You working at convention center?" she asks in a heavy Eastern European accent. I nod and she says, "Please send us more customers."
After the job I suggest we head to a nearby brewery for good eats and some beer to celebrate a job well done.
It should be noted that Brandon doesn't drink, but he is a fan of good food which is a staple of the American microbrew.  Detroit is built on a hub design so that the roads come out like the spokes of a wheel from this central point near the river.  This microbrewery is located near the hub right across the street from the opera house.  Here there is a little different feel.  There are people walking the streets, outside there are a few restruants with tables and chairs on the sidewalk.  It's like the city has retreated into itself.  No life anywhere except for this small section right in the center.
Dave King with the punk rock group Flogging Molly wrote a couple anthems to his adopted home city.  I feel like he would point to this area and state that there is still a fire burning in the heart of this city.  Or he might just point and say that it's a good place to get a beer.