Sunday Snippet, The Tower by Bill Chance

“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”

― Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan

Leaning Tower of Dallas, Dallas, Texas

The Tower

Dean4217 was at the base of the tower, picking up a load of concrete and it was time for a Gathering. He was excited to see it in person. At the present height it took him a week to reach the top and another to come back down. Usually, he watched the Gathering speech on the tablet in his cab; so seeing it live would be a rare treat.

He was shocked and frightened by the size of the crowd. He had worked on the tower itself his entire life and he didn’t realize how much support was needed on the ground – several times the people working at the top or along the sides. The speech itself was familiar – they never seemed to change – a dry recitation of feet gained, tons hauled, how many accidents, people injured (Only fifteen killed this quarter!) and so forth. Then, at the end, the usual exhortations – how his Broadway tower compared to the other two hundred-odd towers going up all over the world (as always – somewhere in the middle) and how important it was to keep climbing.

The Leader looked so small surrounded by the vast crowd, even flanked by the giant video screens. Dean4217 though how much better he could see and hear on his tablet and vowed not to waste the time if he found himself on ground level during another Gathering.

His truck was loaded when he reached it after the Gathering had ended and he saw the mechanics had checked out and green-tagged (it no good to break down on the way up) everything so he followed the leader’s advice not to waste and time – starting the engine and heading right for the entrance ramp.

There was always something about entering that ramp – to a driver like Dean4217 it represented the entire enormous project. Yet it was so nondescript, only a wide concrete ramp arching out of the end of the huge staging lot up against the south wall of the tower. Looking up, you could see how it rose and rose until it became a barely visible ribbon and then turned around the southwest corner to continue on up the west side. Another, similar ribbon, the downward ramp was visible above it, a diagonal slash that Dean4217 knew ended on the opposite side. That ramp too was nondescript – and to Dean4217 it represented relief, a job well done, just as this ramp meant the excitement of a new trip.

He took out a sharp saw blade and cut another notch along the metal edge of his dash as he entered the ramp. He had to reach far over to find fresh steel and had stopped counting many years before.

The first few days of the climb were always the easiest. At the lower altitudes the wind wasn’t that much of a problem and the thick atmosphere meant he could drive without his oxygen mask. Still well below the usual cloud level he could look out and enjoy the view. It changed constantly as he drove around the tower, rising with each circuit. Twice a day he would stop at a corner station for fuel, food, and a bit of a rest. These high stops would serve both the ascending and descending ramps and would give him a chance to catch up on the news and gossip from the higher sections of the tower.

On the third day he had risen to the point where he could see the Samsara tower to the east. This was the nearest tower to the Broadway, the only other one that was visible. He wasn’t sure how far away it was – one day some of them had tried to calculate the distance, using the height that it became visible at. Dean4217 didn’t believe it however, the distance seemed too far away. It looked so solid, so close, even though the curvature of the earth caused the Samsara to appear to tip away from the Broadway as it climbed.

He couldn’t help but look at it out his side window, trying to imagine a concrete driver crawling up that vast expanse, like a microscopic ant, looking over at him in similar wonder. It always bothered him that he had never seen the Broadway tower from a distance and had no idea what it looked like, although he assumed it was a twin to the Samsara over there. A dirt hauler in front of him had to stop to tighten a break line and Dean4217 reached across out his left side window to touch the vast concrete wall, trying to make some sort of connection with the overwhelming size of the thing he had spent his whole life helping to build.

At the first refuel stop on the fourth day, Dean4217 stealthily slipped the attendant a credit coupon to get him out of the station quicker than was his turn. One of the water drivers stared at him in frustration, but Dean4217 didn’t care. He needed to get to that night’s stop on time.

His girlfriend Jenny5309 was a rebar driver and she was on the way back down. They had worked out by tablet message that they could get to the same overnight stop on the same evening, if Dean4217 wasn’t delayed. It was always tough trying to arrange a meeting – the rebar trucks took a lot longer to load and it would throw everything out of kilter.

But this time it worked and Dean4217 had barely had time to secure his truck in its spot and get the safety straps down (he was at a height where wind storms could come up without warning) and he heard a knock on his door.

Dean4217 and Jenny5309 slipped their oxygen masks off for a quick kiss, and then then crawled back into the sleeper compartment. He had spent the previous night’s rest period cleaning it out and straightening everything up and had spent extra credits on oxygen bottles so he could charge the whole cube.

“So we don’t have to wear our masks,” he said.

“That’s so thoughtful,” she replied while hanging her mask and bottle on a hook he had provided. “Are you sure you can afford it?”

“Of course, what else am I going to spend my credits on?”

They both had a little laugh at this, then settled back to talk about what had happened since they had last met. Dean4217 thought about how nice it was to hear a familiar human voice. Each had read most of the stories they told each other – Dean4217 and Jenny5309 sent tablet messages to each other constantly. But they didn’t mind the repetition – hearing each other speak live was such a treat. Dean4217 always laughed at her little jokes, even though he had heard them all before and always sighed when she spoke of delays or problems getting her loads up the tower and he empty truck back down.

“You are so lucky, hauling concrete,” she said. “A few minutes of pumping in and you’re off. At the top, all you have to do is dump into the mixer. It takes so long to get all the rebar loaded and tied down.”

“You get a little more rest time.”

“Rest? I have to watch those loaders like a hawk. They don’t care it won’t be their ass if something blows off near the top of the tower.”

They both giggled at that, even though neither was really sure what was funny about it.

The next morning, as she was getting ready to leave, Jenny5309 suddenly became serious. Dean4217 thought it looked like a cloud had passed over her face.

“Dean4217,” she asked, “Why do you think we do this?”

“Why? I’m a concrete hauler and you bring rebar. Without us… and the dirt haulers and the water haulers, and the supplies, and… well, you know, everybody, the tower couldn’t go up.”

“I know that, dummy. But what I mean is that I don’t know why we build the tower. What it is for?”

Dean4217 paused. His father had worked on the tower all his life. He was a dirt hauler. Dean4217 was born in a rest area. At the time it had seemed like it was very high, though now it was barely a tenth of the way up the tower. His father was so proud when Dean4217 had saved enough money working as a steel bender to buy his own truck and start hauling concrete. It was all he had ever known.

“What do you mean why? What else would we do? Where else would all this concrete, steel, water, and dirt go?”

“I know, but I wonder some times. I wonder too, when will it be done?”

“Done? What do you mean done?”

“I mean finished.”

“It will never be finished. The point of a tower is to grow. It can always go taller. There is no end to up.”

“I know what the Leader says at the Gatherings. I’ve heard it all my life, just like you. But I was thinking, surely, someday we will reach an end. Someday… maybe not in our lives, or in our children’s, but someday the tower won’t be able to go any higher.”

Dean4217 had never thought of that. He sat there silent, staring at Jenny5309.

“What will we do then.”

Dean4217 thought of looking across the vast space at the Samsara tower and remembered thinking of the tiny ant, just like him, working his way up.

“I guess we could build another one.”

“I guess you’re right.”

It was always difficult to continue driving on the day after he had met up with Jenny5309. He thought of her on the down ramp, getting farther and farther away from him every second as he climbed. This time was worse; he was bothered by her questions. He was bothered by the fact he had never thought about them before.

At a rest, instead of using his tablet to contact Jenny5309 he called up all the stored speeches of the Leader and searched them for what he was looking for. He found nothing. The Leader had never talked about the purpose of the tower, if there was one, or what they would do if the tower couldn’t go any higher. It was only the usual platitudes: “There is no end to up” or “We must improve our standing in the universe of towers” or “The tower must grow and the faster the better.”

Dean4217 assumed these bothersome thoughts would leave his head as he climbed, day after day. As he neared the top of the tower, the work began to grow more difficult. The air was thinner and he sometimes he had trouble keeping his head clear even with the oxygen. The wind was now a constant howl and keeping the truck on the ramp was a chore, especially rounding a corner and getting used to the gale which would now be swirling from a different direction.

He couldn’t look while he was driving, but he found himself staring outward at every rest station instead of talking to the other drivers. He was now well above the tops of the cloud layer and looking out all he saw was a vast blanket of white, interrupted by the gray mass of the distant Samsara tower. He found he could not take his eyes off it – it was tough to tear them away when it was time for him to head out.

He had to wait behind two other concrete haulers at the top. Everything had to be strapped down across the flat top of the tower because of the incredible force of the winds. He watched the water trucks loading into the mixer and the bundled workers struggling to unload, bend, and place the rebar off of a steel truck.

When it was finally his turn to dump, he hooked up his safety line and carefully inched out of his cab and down to the surface. First he bent down and felt the top of the tower in the same way he had the wall at the bottom, over a week ago. It felt the same. It was, after all, part of the same structure.

Dean4217 fought his was over to where the mixer operator was tied to a steel chair, manipulating levers to add concrete and water to the rolling tank, and then pump it over to where the rebar benders had finished a section. The operator paused, surprised to see a driver out of his truck under these conditions.

“Hey,” Dean4217 said, “I’m Dean4217.”

“I’m… uhh, I’m Willard3309.” There was a pause, as if the operator had to think for a minute to remember his name. The air was very thin.

“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” said Dean4217, “How much farther do you think we can go? The air’s getting pretty thin.”

“Well, there’s no end to up.” Willard3309 repeated the mantra. “And there’s been some engineers up here already. They’re working on pressurized cabs, helmets, and armored worksuits. I don’t think there’s any stopping us once they get all that figured out.”

“I see.” Dean4217 stared at the mixer operator for a long time, trying to decide if he should say what he was about to say. He realized he had no choice.

“Why do you think we are building it?” he said.

“What do you mean why?”

Dean4217 started moving his mouth, as if he was chewing, trying to figure out what to say next, when both men noticed an excitement among all the iron workers. It was strange they were silent in the constant roar of the wind, but they were all unhooking their straps, adding safety lines, and moving off toward the edge of the tower. Dean4217 realized he didn’t know for sure which edge it was, but the crowd began to grow, everyone looking out and gesturing wildly.

Dean4217 and Willard3309 hooked their safety lines together and Willard3309 began to move them toward the gathering crowd. They moved quickly, Willard3309 was very used to the top of the tower and knew all the handy clip rings and tie-off points.

At the edge, they put their heads up against another and found out what the excitement was about.

“Another Tower! We’re high enough, we can see it!”

Looking out over the edge, Dean4217 could make out a tiny sliver of light gray against the dark purplish blue sky.

“We think it’s the Wildsmith. The engineers have said it would grow into our view sometime soon. We need to wait until nightfall, we should be able to see their lights.”

Dean4217 was filled with excitement. Another tower! Imagine!

His heart was beating so hard he could barely stand. He stood and stared, though he wanted to get back to his cab and tablet so he could tell Jenny5309 about what he saw.

He remembered that he had a question that was bothering him, but in the excitement, he completely forgot what it was.

Monkey Shot Into Space

“Without pain, without sacrifice we would have nothing. Like the first monkey shot into space.”

― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Monkeys, Rona Pondick, Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

Rona Pondick

Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden

What I learned this week, October 29, 2021

Cedars Open Studios 1805 Clarence Street Dallas, Texas

The 5 Basic Laws of Human Stupidity

This is fascinating – to the point I picked up the book. Will write more about this later.

One of the cool things is that you could go down into a pit area and look at what was left of the vehicles after they ran their race. If their was enough left in one piece you could even sit in the driver’s seat and get your picture taken. Or you could talk to the drivers. For some reason this driver, from a cheese-wedge shaped car that made it down quickly in one piece, seemed very popular in the pits.

The last great mystery of the mind: meet the people who have unusual – or non-existent – inner voices

My inner voice is a talking albino wombat named Earl. Is that unusual?

Somewhere in the Caribbean

These Navy SEAL tricks will help you perform better under pressure

Use this the next time you need to think clearly in a high-pressure situation.

Shakespeare Sculpture, Dallas Arboretum

21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare devised new words and countless plot tropes that still appear in everyday life. Famous quotes from his plays are easily recognizable; phrases like “To be or not to be,” “wherefore art thou, Romeo,” and “et tu, Brute?” instantly evoke images of wooden stages and Elizabethan costumes. But an incredible number of lines from his plays have become so ingrained into modern vernacular that we no longer recognize them as lines from plays at all. Here are 21 phrases you use but may not have known came from the Bard of Avon.

The most brilliant bookshops in the world

These are great. If I were wealthy, I’d travel the world and visit all of them. Also, locally, I would add two (both used bookstores) – the Big Main Half-Price Bookstore in Dallas, and Recycled Books in downtown Denton.

Music cases and used books… and a bass.

Recycled Books, Denton, Texas
Recycled Books, Denton, Texas

At the Heart of Our Divisions

Socialism is immoral—and it makes us hate one another.

Jars of Kimchi, half and full gallons.

How To Make Easy Kimchi at Home

My mouth waters at the slightest whiff of pungent, fermented cabbage and I’ll eat it with everything from fried rice to dumplings, summer rolls, or, ahem, straight out of the jar. I still have a lot to learn from Mom when it comes to kimchi-making (there are over a hundred different kinds!) but the recipe for mak kimchi, or simple kimchi, has been a great place to start

Ten Days Left

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But I don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life—and for me, for writing as well. I believe many runners would agree.”
― Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

My son, Lee running along the West Bank Levee Trail, Algiers Point, New Orleans

Lee’s Fundraiser

I wrote about this two months ago – but now there are only ten days left.

My son Lee is raising money for charity to run in the New York City Marathon. A good friend has made some short films to illustrate what he’s doing – the best way to watch them are on Lee’s Instagram:

Here’s the longest one, that explains what he is doing (watch it, it’s fun)

(during the interview part – see if you can spot his Zulu Coconuts on the wall)

Here’s a shorter one, talking about the Walt Disney World Marathon

and here’s a music video

I know money is so short right now, but it you have anything to spare, consider going to Lee’s fundraiser and contributing a little. It’s for at least two good causes.

Lee’s Fundraiser

Short Story of the Day, Flash Fiction, Angels and Blueberries by Tara Campbell

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

― G.K. Chesterton

View Skyward, near the Pearl/Arts District DART station, Dallas, Texas

From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Wednesday, August 12, 1998.

Dreams of the South Rim

The last week has been so difficult I keep escaping by thinking about what I want to do for vacation this fall.

I am drawn inexorably toward thoughts of Big Bend. The river, the desert, the mountains. The backpacking, a long uphill hike from The Basin trailhead, up and up until the very world itself ends in a spectacular and remote sheer wall down to the blasted desert almost a mile below.

The South Rim. It may be the best campsite in the world, the most special of special places. I can sit back in my desk chair and close my eyes and….

I see the lava, flowing up from fissures. Liquid heat born in the oven of the earth. It flows, it cools, it forms a layer – a huge cap. The years accelerate and the land all around wears away leaving this dried massive layer behind. Red-Black-Purple rock, shelf, cliff, mountain. Tilted slightly, the edges cracked away forming a huge precipice.

Now I sit on the top edge of this sheer mountain wall, a shotglass of Tequila in my hand. The setting sun glints off the gold liquid. It cost a lot, a price of sweat and weight, of other things left behind, to get this liquor up here. Yet it is a fermented child of the desert agave, it is at home here, the land of spikes and rocks.

The very earth is being eaten by black-purple shadows – crowding the yellow sun from the steepest canyons first, then the shallow arroyos, then the eastern sides of the hills. I toast my shot glass to the last red rays striking the highest spires of rough rock and drain it down.

Night comes quickly, the cloudless sky loses its glow faster here than in the city with its opaque air. The desert night sky is a vacuum, pulling heat upward; I can feel the cold – see the warmth rising – given to the rocks by the sun all day and pulled back by the moon at night.

It is amazingly quiet. The only sound is made by the slight breeze as it moans softly, pouring over the giddy edge.

In the distance, to the south, I see a small cluster of yellow lights. This is the only mark of man visible in the darkness. I feel some kinship and imagine for a moment the people living in that rocky, hardscrabble ranch. Their children play in the Mexican dust. The feeble sounds of a radio would be heard there – too far for TV, no cable reaching there. The lights look weak, yellow, pulsing; they must use a diesel generator.

I pull my pack open and replace the shot glass and the aluminum flask. The night clanks as I assemble my tiny gas stove, my Sierra cup. I pour out some murky water I collected in a plastic bottle from a puddle down in a deep canyon this morning. I strike a match and yellow flames flick from a puddle of fuel until, a Whoosh! of blue flame as it primes and kicks in.

I boil my precious water and drop in a tea bag, squirt in a dollop of honey from a tiny squeeze bottle. The cup’s wire rim is hot on my lip but the bitter tea gives a welcome taste of civilization as I sip the boiled liquid.

Buenos Noches” – “Good Night” I silently say as I tip my cup towards my unknown friends thirty miles to the south, on the other side of the Rio Grande.

And a piece of flash fiction for today:

Angels and Blueberries by Tara Campbell


Tara Campbell page

Tara Campbell Twitter

More things I learned this week, October 25, 2021

Downtown Square, McKinney, Texas

Is Social Media Hijacking Our Minds?

What the invention of the hypodermic needle was to morphine addiction, the invention of the smart phone was to behavioral addictions (addictions involving a behavior rather than a drug): pornography, gambling, gaming, shopping, tweeting, Facebooking, doomscrolling … the list goes on.

Lignite Mining Mural Fair Park Dallas, Texas

Goodbye Middle Class: 50 Percent Of All U.S. Workers Made $34,612.04 Or Less Last Year

If we keep going down this path, soon we won’t have much of a “middle class” at all. When I first started writing about the economy many years ago, I often wrote about the tens of millions of “working poor” Americans that were enduring so many hardships. But at this point most of the nation now falls into the “working poor” category.

The full mural (previous photo center bottom) – Ace Parking, Dallas, “The Storm” Art Mural on Ace Parking Garage at 717 Leonard Street

Inside the extraordinary experiment to save the Stradivarius sound

An entire town went quiet so the world’s most iconic violin could be immortalized.

The Trinity River was still boiling, but it had obviously been higher a couple days earlier. The dropping river left its burden of mud. Soon enough all will be dust.

What is dust? And where does it all come from?

Everything in our homes gathers dust. But what exactly is it? Where does it come from, and why does it keep coming back? Is it from outside? Is it fibres from our clothes and cells from our skin?

Yes, but it’s a lot more than that.

The Cooper Time Cube

With only 1,000 ever made, the CTC was noted for its uncanny ability to always sit perfectly in the mix and was used on many hit records, such as “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and “Low Rider” by War, for its spectacular short delay and doubling effects.

It’s basically a speaker and microphone separated by a twenty foot coil of garden hose.

How to (Finally) Put an End to Pointless Arguments

Bicycle Drag Races Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge Dallas, Texas

Want to Live Longer? New Study Shows You Should Focus More on Exercise Than Weight Loss

The major takeaway from this study is that “you do not need to lose weight to be healthy,” said Dr. Gaesser. “You will be better off, in terms of mortality risk, by increasing your physical activity and fitness than by intentionally losing weight.”

I think this old, stupid joke is… I laughed harder at this than anything else I ever did.

Sunday Snippet, The Ants by Bill Chance

“One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.”

― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Big Lake Park, Plano, Texas

The Ants

Even with her new cane, the walk to the park was difficult. Joann needed her artificial hip replaced again and didn’t want to go through that pain another time. The excitement of the day sped her up, though, and thoughts of the past decades made the time go by quickly. She found her bench – dark green paint peeling a little more than it did a year ago – and sat down.

She pulled her birthday card from her grand-niece out of her purse. It said “I always think of you as my grandmother,” and that made her smile. She had been coming to this bench on her birthday for fifty years now, she had been looking forward to the silver anniversary.

Joann jumped with excitement as a few birds landed on the little-used playground equipment next to her bench. She chuckled as she thought that the scene was so similar to the one out of that old horror movie, “The Birds,” – though this wasn’t scary. Slowly more and more began to show up, lining up along the bars.

She couldn’t help but think back to the first time she had come here – thinking about James… when she still was in college down the road from there, a half-century ago.

Joann hadn’t actually been out on a date for over a year and she wasn’t sure she was out on one now, but it was close.

That afternoon – she had been working on her graphics assignment in the sixth floor lobby – her room wasn’t large enough to stretch the huge canvas out. She was working on two large horizontal triangular sections. While the rest of the piece was made up of geometric shapes of solid colors, fitted together in what she hoped was a clever, attractive, and subtly symmetrical design, these two triangles required, in her mind, a graduated hue of orange. It went from a bright saturated color a the pointed end to a pastel, almost white at the other. She worked slowly and carefully with an airbrush, slowly layering the colors, learning as she went.

She had been so intent and concentrated she didn’t even notice the boy walk up and sit down in an extra chair.

“Hey! Whatcha doin?” he said, a little bit too loud.

The unexpected sound startled Joann enough that the airbrush spray drifted out of the border a bit.

“James! Look what you’ve made me do!”

She angrily picked up a razor blade and began carefully scratching off the errant pigment. She shook her head at the mistake.

“Sorry Joann, I was just tryin’ to be friendly.”

The still-wet paint came up easily enough and after only a few seconds she looked down at the fixed error. Then she realized that the boy knew her name. For the first time she tilted her head away from the canvas and looked at him. He was a few inches shorter than her, stocky in a pasty sort of way, and had an unkempt shock of long, thin, red hair. He peered back at her through a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses.

She remembered him. His name was James… something… James Ellsworth. She had met him through some mutual friends at some informal group gathering or party or something. He didn’t live there – he couldn’t afford it… she seemed to remember. He was always hanging around, though. Didn’t seem to have anything better to do.

“That’s OK, I guess,” she said. “I didn’t see you come up and you startled me.”

“Sorry. What are you working on?”

She explained her ideas on the piece, how they fit in with the assignment from her graphics class. He listened intently. He even asked what seemed to be half-intelligent questions. After a while Joann began to forget her aggravation at being startled and started to enjoy the conversation.

“Well,” he said, “How much longer are you going to be working on this?”

Looking back at her work, she realized that the paint had dried and she would have to wait until it cured, at least twelve hours, before she could start blending again.

“That’s it for tonight, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to leave it sit to cure before I can work on it some more.”

“You gonna leave it here?”

“Yeah, it’ll be good – I leave big stuff out all the time. Everybody knows to leave it alone.”

“Cool. You hungry? You wanna go get a bite?”

Without thinking, Joanna nodded yes.

James had no car and no money. The only thing he had to offer was some food and some wine at his apartment.

“It’s not far. We can walk it no prob,” he assured her.

It wasn’t far, across the highway on the pedestrian overpass and then down into an older neighborhood of once-wealthy big wooden mansions now run-down and subdivided into tiny apartments for college students.

The only tough part was getting up into James’ place. He rented an attic space in a high turret of of of the largest, but now most decrepit homes. It was little more than a garret and after climbing up three stories past countless wooden doors, each leaking some genre of overblown music; they had to twist up a final spiral stair into his place. He pushed open the thin, unlatched door.

“No reason to lock it. Nobody comes up this high, and nothing inside worth stealing.”

The place was a large single, round room. The entire floor was cheap patterned linoleum. Blankets hung from cords divided up a kitchen, living area and a bedroom peeking around one side. Joann used the bathroom and was relieved to find it clean, although small with only a sink, toilet and narrow standup shower.

When she came back out to the kitchen, he had set out plates with microwaved chicken breasts, mixed vegetables, and rice. He had a cold bottle of some generic white wine and was pouring it into a pair of mismatched jelly glasses.

The meal was surprisingly good. Joann had been eating in the cafeteria or various fast-food places around campus for so long, a sort-of home cooked meal, no matter how humble. After they finished eating, James rinsed and piled the dishes in the sink and they finished the wine and another large bottle of something red.

The wine was gone and Joann was feeling more than a little tipsy and she began to wonder whether she was on a date or not. She was beginning to like James more than she thought she would – and he had fed her and given her wine. He hadn’t driven or taken her to a restaurant, but it wasn’t his fault he was a poor student – there were plenty of those around. She fell silent, thinking for a minute, when James spoke up. His voice was a little slurred and Joann realized that she didn’t know if he had drank more wine than her or not.

“Hey, Joanne… I wanna show you something.”
He stood up from the table and walked over to the couch. He reached behind and pulled out two cardboard boxes – one a small shipping box and the other the kind you use to sell shoes in. It was a bit bigger than usual – maybe a boot box. Joann noticed that it had holes cut in the lid and pieces of fine screen glued over the openings.

“Watch this!” James said, his face flushed with wine or excitement. “I’ve been working on this for two years.”

He gestured for Joann to back her chair up and then folded the table and set it away. He cleared the other chairs and pushed a shelf back to make as big a space in the center of the kitchen area as he could. He turned on some lamps to illuminate the linoleum as much as possible.

Then, with a little bow and a flourish, he opened the small box up and poured its contents out onto the floor. At first, Joann thought it was only little pieces of paper, like confetti or something, but she saw that each one was glued to a tiny stick. They were a pile of miniature flags, a fraction of an inch high, some were bright red, the rest were green.

James how had the large shoe box and was getting ready to take the lid off. He was getting excited now – he sort of hopped from one foot to the other as he pawed at the box.

“Watch closely! This is really something.”

He slid the lid off and poured out a mound of what looked like some sort of reddish coarse powder. At first Joann thought is was a copper colored rough sawdust, but as soon as it hit the floor it began to flow and move. She realized with a start that it was alive.

“Ants!” she shouted. “Dammit, you dumped out a bunch of ants.”

“Don’t worry. Relax and watch.”

James had some sort of an odd flashlight in his hand. He pointed it at the ants and pushed a button.

“Ultraviolet. The ants can see it but we can’t. It’s what I sue to train them with.”

Suddenly the roiling movement of the large pile of ants began to setting into a shape, a square. James flashed again and the ants swarmed over the pile of tiny flags and Joann realized that they were picking them up – each and was emerging with a flag in its tiny jaw.

Another click and James began to yell.

“Watch this – it’s what took so much time to teach.”

Joann felt her eyes widen and her breath catch in her throat. She simply could not believe what she was seeing. There, on the cracked linoleum, the ants were marching in formation – moving geometric patterns of green and red, colored by the tiny flag that each insect was holding aloft.

They started with a checkerboard of red and green and then the ants marched past each other, forming two separate grids apart. Then they wheeled and separated into two linear ranks that moved past each other. Then they moved in a confused heap until they lined up in one square – red on one side, green on the other, with a graduated mix in between. Finally the square dissolved into a triangle, then a hexagon, then, finally, a red circle. A smaller green disk began to roll around inside the larger circle.

“That was the hardest to do. It took a long time to train them to do that,” James said.

He flashed another code onto the insects and they dutifully dropped their flags in a neat pile. He laid the larger box on the floor sideways with the lid off and the ants swarmed back inside.

“See, they like it,” he said.

Joann was speechless. Five minutes ago she was worried about how to deal with this dumpy, nerdy guy, now she was faced with something fantastic and unbelievable. She felt as if the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet. She jumped up, breathless.

“Umm, I gotta go!” was all she could blurt out.

“Wait! Don’t you think that was cool! Aren’t you amazed?”

“I… I don’t know what I saw. That was impossible. That scared me.”

“It’s only a bunch of trained ants.”

“But… I feel… I feel the world isn’t the same as it was when I got here.”

“The world is the same, maybe you saw something you didn’t know before.”

That was all she could take. She stammered out an “I’m sorry,” and staggered to the door. The stairs down were steeper than she remembered, the brick sidewalks outside more uneven, the blocks home longer and lonelier than she could imagine.

As she feared, James kept calling her every day for a week. She was so confused. He explained that it was all a simple, though ingenious process, to train the ants. A combination of rewards for proper behavior and an electrified grid that provided punishment for errors – the ants were able to learn amazingly complex tricks. He said it was his ambition to expand his techniques to other species and types of animals.

She would talk to him on the phone but asked that he not follow or try to meet her. The thought of going back to that attic apartment gave her chills.

Time went by and she began to thaw a little.

Then one day, one her twentieth birthday, he asked her to go to an isolated spot just a bit off campus. There was a bench in a little used park. She sat down and waited, more than a little nervous. Then the first one came, followed by the rest.

And now Joann was in the same place, fifty years later. The bench had been replaced twice, but she supposed James had made sure that the city put the new one in the exact right place. It was funny, she had never seen any children playing on the equipment – though she supposed some must have. Somehow, they all disappeared on her birthday. She was sure James had something to do with that too.

She had not actually seen him in twenty years. After they had left school his life became more and more disjointed. He said that his innovative animal research had made him some serious enemies in the government and that he would eventually have to disappear.

Joann always wondered how much of this was real and how much was paranoia from the strange recesses of James’ brilliant mind. Almost certainly a little of both. Even though she never saw or heard from him anymore, and missed him terribly, she knew he was still out there, somewhere. Otherwise, where would the birds come from?

She sat back and watched the last of the dense flock of birds land on the playground equipment. Most years there were only one type of bird but this year half were some small brown wren and the rest were large gray doves. She purposely had avoided learning types or species of birds – the mystery made her birthday present all so more special. She knew that James had planned something special for the silver anniversary – and having two kinds of birds reminded her of the dual-colored ant flags from so long ago.

She smiled as they lifted into the air, as if on a signal, all at once, in a mass. Rotating in a whirlwind above her, they began to separate into smaller groups and these groups began to form patterns.

Her fiftieth trained bird presentation, her seventieth birthday present, was beginning and Joann was very happy to get to see it.


“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune

Great Sand Dunes, Colorado, Nick in 1996
Nick in 2001 (we need to go back and get a shot now)

I read Frank Herbert’s classic novel, Dune, in college, in Kansas, in the Dorm – maybe 1975 – about ten years after it was published. I liked it… though I can’t really say I understood it completely. I was reading a lot… I was young… I had a sense that there was a lot going on under the surface that I couldn’t really comprehend.

Then, in Dallas, in 1984, I went to the theater and saw the David Lynch film. I was a fan of Lynch (Eraserhead, The Elephant Man) at the time and actually liked the film a lot. There was so much hate for it at the time. It wasn’t flawless but it was a unique vision – and that is rare. The film actually helped me understand the world of Arrakis better and it inspired me to re-read the source. Dune is definitely a book that benefits from a second reading.

Then right after the turn of the millennium there were the two television mini-series which covered the first three books, somehow. Again, not the best, but a game attempt. I barely remember them, except that my kids – nine and ten years old – watched them and actually liked them better than I did.

And now, 2021, forty-six years after I read the novel, we have Denis Villeneuve and his film.

Again, I was (am) a huge fan of the director (Arrival, Blade Runner 2049) and have been hyped up for the film for years – the Covid delay was tough to take. But patience is rewarded, sometimes.

I had big plans of going to the theater and seeing it on the big silver screen – but I have picked up a bad habit of hanging around the house during the pandemic – something I need to work on breaking – something I should have used the film as an aid to breaking – but I didn’t have anyone to go with… so I ended up closing off the living room, scooting the recliner close to the screen, turning up the sound system, and streaming the thing at home.

(don’t worry – no spoilers)

It was very good – as good as I expected, better than I feared (and fear is the mind-killer), worse than I hoped. The only criticism is a bit of slow pace the last quarter. The best part – visuals, sound, acting – all top notch.

The first Dune film was interesting because it was, at the heart, a David Lynch film – with all his personal demons leaking out of the screen. I didn’t realize how much an impression the Lynch Dune made on me, but I could feel echoes of the earlier work all over this one. It is, of course, only half the story, and there is plenty of story for two films (I almost wonder if it should have been a modern cable R-rated mini-series) and it definitely benefits from not having the rushed pace of the earlier one-film version.

The new Dune also shows the mark of its director. There is a unique visual vocabulary – it reminds me of Arrival (especially the shape and motion of the space ships) more than Dune 2049. Denis Villeneuve does have the chops to handle the visuals, the complex political science-fiction landscape, and even the larger-than-life personalities – a lot of balls to keep in the air, but he pulls it off.

Now, how long do I have to wait for the next one? I will definitely go see that one in a theater (if such a thing still exists).

“The mystery of life isn’t a problem to solve, but a reality to experience.”
― Frank Herbert, Dune

What I learned this week, October 22, 2021

Cedars Open Studios 1805 Clarence Street Dallas, Texas

We Got Here Because of Cowardice. We Get Out With Courage

A  lot of people want to convince you that you need a Ph.D. or a law degree or dozens of hours of free time to read dense texts about critical theory to understand the woke movement and its worldview. You do not. You simply need to believe your own eyes and ears. 

The Great Resignation Is Accelerating

Who is John Galt?

How to Develop Mental Toughness

An expert’s guide to sticking it out through pain and suffering

The Wave that Washes us all
The Wave that Washes us all

After The Wave

When I was eight — I think — I drowned. Oh, no, not really. Not even to the point of stopping breathing and needing resuscitation. But … Let me explain.

They promised to destroy Big Brother. They became him

I actually am old enough (I was 13 in 1984) to remember this commercial live. In the decades since I have always been confused/suspicious/annoyed by the independent freedom-loving spirit of the ad and the locked-down hegemony of Apple itself. Every Apple product I’ve tried has frustrated me because there was something I wanted it to do… that I knew it could do… that it wouldn’t let me do.

That’s why I run Linux.

The PC Guy and the Mac Guy
The PC Guy and the Mac Guy
PC and Mac guy meet Linux Godzilla
PC and Mac guy meet Linux Godzilla

The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had

Have you ever felt a little mbuki-mvuki – the irresistible urge to “shuck off your clothes as you dance”? Perhaps a little kilig – the jittery fluttering feeling as you talk to someone you fancy? How about uitwaaien – which encapsulates the revitalising effects of taking a walk in the wind?

Giant Eye Sculpture, Main Street, Dallas, Texas (click to enlarge)

The Great American Eye-Exam Scam

Why is it so difficult to get a new pair of glasses or contacts in this country? It’s easier pretty much everywhere else.

After attending the start of construction – I rode my bike by here to check up on the progress. It’s going surprisingly fast. Which is good – I want to live long enough to cross on the bridge.