Credo: The Birth and Graduation of Mr. Peanut

WechatIMG2887My son Joshua graduated from high school yesterday.

Even as I write those words, I feel equal parts pride and devastation. It seems like only yesterday that we were going camping with his Boy Scout troupe in the mountains outside of Chengdu. It seems only yesterday that I was watching him play on the playground with his little sister. It seems like only yesterday that he was laying beside me at bedtime reading Dr. Seuss.

But time works that way, doesn’t it? The more you want it to slow down, the faster it goes. And now time has delivered me a high school graduate, who is about to embark on his own life, largely independent of the rest of us. I know he’s ready for it. I know that I’m not. And I know it doesn’t make a hill’s bit of difference that I’m not, because that’s the way time works.

In honor of this change in our lives, I want to post something I wrote shortly after he became our first born. Eighteen years ago everything changed for us much like everything is about to change for us again. Eighteen years ago we welcomed Josh into our world, and soon we’ll be hugging him goodbye as he makes his way into the wider world.

As I said, proud and devastated.

Credo: The Birth of Mr. Peanut

He looks at me.  He’s only minutes old, so I know that he doesn’t really know what he’s looking at – probably all he sees is a big nose with eyes.  Maybe that’s why he cries.  But, he’s here – in my arms.  I’ve waited for this moment for the eternity of the last nine months, and it’s hard to believe, but he’s here.

Months earlier, we’re home from Kazakhstan, walking down East Main street in Louisville, Kentucky. She wants tomato juice.  Needs tomato juice.  Will go crazy if she doesn’t have tomato juice.  And then, after I’ve run down to the corner market and returned with a bottle of tomato juice, she gulps it down and then vomits.  That’s when I start to suspect that he might be on his way.

The doctor rubs some clear goopy looking substance on her belly.  It takes me a few moments, but I finally see him for the first time, realize that he is actually there, and that he looks like a peanut.  “He looks like a peanut,” I say to the doctor.  “Is that normal?”

Not long after, we’re back in Kazakhstan.  It’s ultrasound time again.  We sit in a dark Kazakh hospital corridor that overflows with women who all have to pee.  Desperately.  By doctor’s orders. I don’t recall having ever felt so empathetically uncomfortable in all of my life. I have to pee, too, but I don’t dare.

Our number is called and we’re ushered into a dark room serviced by two unsmiling ultrasound operators who are so unpleasant that it seems like they also have to pee but cannot. They spread the goop and there he is again. A bit larger, but still a peanut. He’s amazing.

“You have to calm down or you’ll miscarry,” the ultrasound operator says coldly, interrupting our wonder. Miscarry? We’re stunned! everything has been going so well.  She’s eating the right things, exercising, taking care of herself. How is this possible?

“Don’t worry,” our Aussie doctor friend tells us later. “They tell all the women that they’re too uptight, and that they might miscarry.”

“If they let the women pee, they might not be so uptight,” I say, frustrated. That settles it. We have to give birth far away from this place. I start to strategize how.

Meanwhile, we talk, Peanut and I. Actually, I call him Mr. Peanut, even thought I don’t know for certain that he is a he. I tell him how much I look forward to meeting him. He answers back with a series of kicks that demonstrate his brilliance. How many other unborn children have mastered Morse code? I play music for him. He taps out that he is partial to Celtic music, and I gladly oblige.

The email arrives. Our church leaders in America have denied our request to leave Kazakhstan for the birth.

“Did you see that footage of the woman in Africa who had her baby in a tree during a flood?  Women have been giving birth in all kinds of situations since the beginning of time,” they tell me. “Have faith.”

But in Kazakhstan the statistics are horrendous.  Abysmal infancy mortality rates, tragic mother mortality rates. I have faith, but I am not willing to gamble with the lives of my wife and child. I’m resolute. I don’t want us to have a baby here.

“What does she want?” my friend asks.

His wife is also Kazakh. They had their baby there. Everyone is fine.  Others are pressuring her to stay out of some sort of national pride.  She is from Kazakhstan. If she wants to give birth here, I realize, then I need to support that decision.

We’re in the taxi, on the way home from the maternity hospital.  We’ve toured the facilities, met the doctors.  We’ve seen the dark communal recovery room that holds, what? Ten women and ten screaming newborn babies?  We’ve seen the crimson grime on the floor of the delivery room. We’ve witnessed the impatient and unpleasant demeanor of the hospital staff. We’ve been told that under no circumstances are visitors allowed, including the father, for several days after the birth.

But if she wants to stay, I will support that decision.

She’s quiet. Finally, she turns to me.  “I don’t want to have the baby here.” It feels like she’s lost something in the admission. Like a defeat. We get home, and thirty minutes later she realizes that she left her purse in the taxi. We try to track down the taxi, but we never do. She’s sorry, but after all, it’s just a purse that has been left behind and she has other purses. There are more important things in life, she says.

Time passes. She seems to glow.  I know that they say that about pregnant women, and it’s cliché, but it’s true.  As peanut grows, so does her radiance.  I find her swollen belly to be incredibly attractive.

Kazakhstan is behind us now, at least temporarily, and we’ve settled into my grandmother’s house in Virginia.  We attend Lamaze classes together.  What an unusual mixture of people; new parents, equally anxious couples like us, a couple of couples who have had so many children that you wonder why they bother with the hospital at all.  “Knowledge is power”, the old saying goes.   I’m not sure I feel so powerful.  In fact, the knowledge of what’s coming has left me feeling pretty powerless.  Will she be okay during the delivery?  Will I be ready to do my part?  Will peanut evacuate the premises easily, or come out fighting?

Come out fighting, it turns out.  We’ve been in the hospital now for over a day, trying to coax Peanut out.  In that time, we’ve seen other couples come and go, including one woman who screamed from the room next door, “Lord, just get it out of me!”  My wife and I look at each other. “I don’t think she took a Lamaze class,” she says. I laugh.

We’re exhausted.

She hasn’t slept well, awakened every hour by the nurses and the midwife who want to make sure that she and Peanut are doing okay.  I’ve had a bit more sleep, but every time they come to wake her up, I wake up, too, wondering if it’s time.

I’ve never seen a person as strong as she is during this whole process.  She works so hard to help peanut make his great appearance, but he stubbornly refuses to cooperate.  At one point, she bounces up and down on a big rubber ball, trying to bounce Peanut out.  She is so exhausted, she asks our midwife for help.  “Breathe with me,” she asks.  Our midwife, who knows of our faith, but doesn’t share it, misunderstands, and thinks she has been asked, “Pray with me.”  And so, also exhausted, she prays.  You can feel God’s presence in the room, as if He is saying, “Don’t worry. Just keep bouncing.”

We’re now at twenty-seven hours since the water broke, and just when I’m beginning to think that he will never come, Peanut starts to make his entrance, or exit, depending on your perspective.  The centimeter count starts to go up quickly, and people appear from nowhere, working hard to welcome him into the world.  But everything stops when our midwife says that there is a problem.  Peanut’s head is turned the wrong way. He’s stuck, and they need to get him out quickly, because it’s been so long since the water broke. I barely remember them talking about this in the Lamaze class, and my heart skips a beat as I try to reason out the implications.

When I hear our midwife say that they need to call in the M.D., that they might need to do an emergency c-section, my heart stop beating. I comfort and encourage my wife, feeling helpless to do anything else. I see the concern in my widwife’s eyes, and an unspoken message passes between us. Peanut has started to slip from my hands. But in that moment it occurs to me that he was never really in my hands. I might be his flesh and blood father, but it was time for me to let go and allow him to fall into the hands of his heavenly father.

In that act of letting go, the helplessness fades away. Just keep bouncing.

I stand frozen in the middle of a blur of activity.  The MD has arrived and pulls out something that looks more like an instrument of medieval torture than a device of twenty-first century medicine, and he uses it to turn peanut’s head. Almost immediately, Peanut starts slipping through. I hug my wife as she delivers her final eviction notice push to take Peanut from the familiar into the frightening; from the safe warmth of the womb into the scary brilliance of the world.  I can understand that one of the first things that he does is cry from the shock of it.

They clean him up, and hand him to me.  I take him to her, and pause for the briefest of moments. He’s looking at me. He’s only minutes old, so I know that he doesn’t really know what he’s looking at – probably all he sees is a big nose with eyes.  Maybe that’s why he cries.  But, he’s here – in my arms.  I’ve waited for this moment for the eternity of the last nine months, and it’s hard to believe, but he’s here.

Love you, Josh. Just keep bouncing.

Dad.

 

Advertisements

Tunneling, a short story

Down there, below the street, as the sun sets today. Something buried deep is going to sleep, and something different is waking. It is an ageless balance which the engineers for the new subway tunnel have disturbed. Such things should stay asleep, as Philip Rattlekin, subway line 4, will soon discover in the Twilight Zone.

[Heads up, some adult language in this one…]

Philip Rattlekin sat in a dirty puddle of mud, struggling to catch his breath while making as little noise as possible. His body felt numb, not because of the frigid temperature of the water, but because he was the only one still alive.

It had come from nowhere and everywhere and killed everyone.

And now it was coming for him.

2nd_ave_subway_feb2013_16“You have to stop the drilling!”

How many times had Philip heard this in the past two weeks? Usually, his assistant ran interference when the nuts fell off the tree, but he’d just been sent on an errand to deliver some new tunnel schematics to the city planner’s office, and the nuts had managed to corner Philip as he was heading out to get to Evan’s soccer match.

There was at least a dozen this time. More than twice as many kooks as last week. Enough that things could get messy if they got too pushy. Philip was a big guy, a head taller than the tallest kook and firmly packed with muscle that showed he was far from a pencil pushing engineer, but he’d learned in Iraq how quick things could go south and he wasn’t going to scuffle with a mob.

He turned to the main kook – a middle aged man with frizzy Einstein hair and a look nuttier than Doc Brown. “Look, we told you guys last week. We’re on a tight schedule, millions of dollars have been poured into this project, and there’s no way it’s stopping. Why don’t you get back to your university and let us do our job.”

“You don’t understand!” Doc Brown shrieked, pulling out a tablet from a leather bag he wore around his neck. “Our studies have shown that you are causing irreparable harm to the water table, and this will impact our entire city’s water supply!” He stuck the tablet in Philip’s face to show him a bunch of meaningless graphs and numbers.

Philip snorted. Last time they claimed the subway project was disturbing the habitat of some mole or groundhog or something. Now it was the water table. The city had done their own studies, and the water table was in no danger from the extension of line four. Why would he help wreck his own city’s water supply? It made no sense, and he said so.

“Yes, well, be that as it may, you must stop the drilling,” the old kook stammered, with a surprising amount of conviction.

Philip was done.

“If you got a problem with what we’re doing, take it up with the city planner. This is her ballgame.” He stepped up and stared down at the kook, just inches away. The guy smelled like garlic. “Now get out of my way.”

Doc Brown stammered incoherently but wisely stepped aside, letting Philip through so that he could get to his truck. As he pulled himself into the cab, he could hear Doc Brown mumbling something about the water table and disaster and the end of the world.

Stupid hippy environmentalist nutjobs, Philip thought as he pressed the ignition and started up his F-150. Evan was starting today and he didn’t want to be late.

Philip inhaled for four seconds and exhaled for another four while reciting the mantra he’d been taught in Basic. This too shall pass… this too shall pass… this too shall pass… It had saved his life in that back alley in Mosul, maybe it would save his life now.

Feeling his heart rate lower and his breathing come under his control, Philip opened his eyes to take stock of his situation. He still sat in a puddle of dirty tunnel water where he’d stumbled just a few moments before. Work lights flickered in the tunnel several meters away, but all was quiet. No sounds of pursuit.

No sounds of that… whatever it had been. All teeth and tentacles and blood…

Maybe this is just a bad dream, he considered, shaking his head. I’m going to wake up any minute now and have to go and pee.

Just like Evan and his bad dreams. The kid would wake him up in the middle of the night, shrieking in the darkness and claiming to have seen monsters. He’d take him to pee and the then he’d be off to sleep again in no time. Night terrors, the doctor said. Leftovers from daddy’s deployment.

So much blood…

Sitting still gets soldiers killed, Philip thought, another life-saving mantra coming back to him. He raised himself out of the puddle and leaned against the tunnel wall. Everything was darkness where he’d come from.

He took a step towards the flickering lights and nearly fell down again as a sharp pain hit his right foot. Damn it, he grunted as he went down on his left knee, his hand going to his right ankle. He froze as his grunt echoed down the tunnel.

Nothing.

Whatever it was, it apparently didn’t have a keen sense of hearing.

Or it wasn’t hungry any more.

Then he heard the growl.

Damn, he thought. The kooks were right.

“Shutting us down? How the hell are they shutting us down?”

Philip stood at the opening to the tunnel where he could get cell reception, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They’d just broken through a major wall of bedrock, and there was more than enough work to do without this kind of nonsense.

“The mayor got wind of the kook’s concerns and ordered the halt,” his assistant said on the other end. “They tweeted out some infographics about the dangers of the project – I’ll send you the screenshots. Somehow, they managed to get retweeted by Neil DeGrass Tyson or The Science Guy or someone, and now it’s gone political.”

“Politics,” Philip muttered. Every curse word he’d ever learned – before the service and during – came to mind, and it was all he could do to not kill the messenger. “Alright Lou, get back over here and we’ll figure out what we’re gonna do. Meanwhile, I’ve got to go pull out the crew and get the machinery tied down. Situation normal.”

“All fucked up.” Lou finished. “You want I should bring you a coffee?”

“Make it Irish and we’ll be moving in the right direction,” Philip chuckled, glad for some levity. “Just get back here so we can clean up this mess.”

His phone buzzed as the screenshots showed up, and so he said goodbye to Lou and stared at the images. The kooks claimed that the tunneling disturbed subterranean life and might endanger species that humanity was yet to encounter. The images were flashy and sensational and absolute bullshit.

Philip found a few extra curse words that he had been saving for a special occasion and muttered them as he headed back down into the tunnel.

It happened in flashes, like a firefight.

He’s giving orders to withdraw when they first hear the growl coming from the tunnel that they’d just finish boring.

They swing over the spotlights.

A ripple of green skin flashes and vanishes in the shadows.

The first scream as Juan, who operates the excavator, is snatched by… something… and yanked into the darkness.

Building hysteria as one by one his workers vanish. The green skin… crashing lights… wrapping tentacles… a mouth as big as a horse… sharp teeth… more screams… and he runs.

And he runs.

Like he did in Mosul, when the firefight had grown too intense, and everything had gone to hell, and he had no choice because he had a kid and a wife, and he wasn’t losing everything for this shithole…

And then… darkness.

Our writing prompt this week was a story based on a Twilight-Zone-ish setup, written by one of the members of the writing group.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope

My writing group’s prompt this time was “Hope”. I wrote a dialogue.

download.jpg[Ex-husband and wife sit at a Starbucks, each with a cup of joe in front of them]

Him: You say that too much.

Her: Say what?

Him: Hope. “I hope you get the job.” “I hope everything turns out alright.” Hope, hope, hope. It’s irritating.

Her: [disbelieving] Having a hopeful attitude is irritating?

Him: No, you’re right. It’s not irritating.

Her: Thank you.

Him: It’s infuriating.

Her: What?

Him: Seriously, the more I think about it, the angrier I get! It’s just so banal! Like when people say they’re sending their prayers and thoughts after a tragedy. What does that even mean?

Her: It means that people care!

Him: Then say you care or don’t say anything! Just don’t waste my time with useless hopes.

Her: Now wait a minute!

Him: Seriously, how does your hoping I’ll get the job help me get the job? It doesn’t! And guess what, if things do turn out alright, it won’t be because you hoped they would, it will be because I prepared and planned and worked my ass off, and things just happened to go my way. It has nothing to do with hope.

Her: It has everything to do with hope.

Him: Give me a break. Hope didn’t help you keep from getting depressed after Donnie was born! It didn’t help your mom with her Alzheimer’s or Lacey with her cancer!

Her: [Standing] No, you give me a break. I didn’t survive depression because of preparation! Planning didn’t give me the strength to take care of mom! Working my ass off certainly didn’t get me through Lacey’s cancer! It was hope. It was all hope. I hoped that there would be light at the end of the tunnel, and that hope got me through the tunnel.

Him: [shrugs and looks away]

Her: I thought it got you through, too. I hope that it does.

[She exits, leaving him looking at his coffee, which has now grown cold.]

A Twist of Lime

A Twist of Lime
by Nate Fleming

I sat, resigned, and stared ahead
My teacher stood beside.
“How can you be so dense?” he said.
I had no place to hide.
“My instructions couldn’t be more clear
if you’d simply take the time.
It plainly says, if you’ll look here,
to add a what of lime?”

“A twist,” I said. “A twist, a twist,
you add a twist of lime.”

For weeks, he’d done this, pushing me
to see if I would break.
But I had chosen here to be!
This class, that I would take!
My dream had been to make mixed drinks
while I was in my prime.
But all I heard when I would think
was “Add a twist of lime!”

“A twist!” He’d shriek. “A twist, a twist,
you add a twist of lime!”

Something twisted, something broke,
something in my brain.
His neck I then began to choke
and nobody complained.
But as they pulled me off of him
they asked me ‘bout my crime.
Why’d I do it? Was it a whim?
“I added a twist of lime.”

“A twist!” I laughed. “A twist, a twist,
I added a twist of lime!”


My writing group is the only thing keeping me writing right now. Our prompt for last night was “twist” and it had to be a poem. I am no poet, so this was a challenge for me. If you want to write, and you aren’t in a community of writers, get in one as soon as you can!  

The Pint of Stout

stout-lead

I sat in the dark corner of the drab, empty little pub staring at the pint of stout sitting on the grungy table. How long had I been sitting, staring?

“You gonna drink it or not? We’re running out of time.”

Considering that the irritable scowl on the bearded face of the dwarf sitting across from me had grown even more irritable, it must have been a while. He leaned over the table and half spat, half whispered, “I told you I’d get you here, and I did. Now you keep up your end of the bargain.”

He’d been irritable since we’d first met – when he approached me at that other dingy pub in Belfast offering his assistance. “I know where the stout is, and I’ll take you there, but once we get there you’ll use it to help me.”

I’d heard this before – in pubs in Ediburgh, Glasgow, Dublin… the same empty promises and the same wasted time, and lots of lost money. But this time had turned out to be different: the dwarf had actually done it: led me here, to the isle of Inisturk of all places, and now the stout sat before me.

I’d been searching for more than ten years, ever since first reading about it in some obscure Gaelic literature in that nearly abandoned section of the Taylor Library at Oxford. A stout made from the springs of the mythical isle of Brasil, an island that only appears from the mists once every seven years. The stuff of fairy tales, not academia or reality.

But for some reason, the idea latched onto me like a leech, and I persisted. I continued to research, dig through ancient texts, trying to find the truth. My professors laughed at me, as had my classmates. And when I ignored them all and published my research, Professor McDonald said that I had “committed academic suicide.”

“Wasting my time,” I muttered, watching a single drop of condensation make its way down the side of the dirty glass.

“What’s that?” the dwarf asked.

“They all told me I was wasting my time, that I was mad to keep pretending it was more than legend.”

“We don’t have time for this,” the dwarf said, grabbing the shot of whisky that sat before him and downing it in a swift gulp. “See? It’s not hard. Just drink the damned thing! That’s what you came here to do!”

What I came here to do. Right.

I turned my attention back to the stout. I lifted the pint glass, which was surprisingly cold, and held it up to the shaft of light coming from the dingy window over my shoulder. The onyx liquid seemed to absorb the light. But was that just my imagination?

“The Ballad of Ailbe Ailbhe said that the one who drank the stout of the isle of Brasil would receive untold gifts from God, “Beidh súile Dé ag titim air”… The legend of Cu Chulainn says that the stout is what gave him his mighty powers, that he kept a cask nearby as he fought Queen Mebh of Connacht. But all the stories end the same way… there was always a cost…”

A sudden pounding on the rough wooden pub door just to my right brought me out my revelry. With a curse in a language I didn’t recognize, my diminutive associate shot out of the seat and stood before the door, his hands raised and head bowed.

Ciara.

She’d been trailing us every step of the way, but the dwarf had kept us out of her reach. But now, she’d found us.

She wanted the stout for herself.

The irony is, she’d been the only one who’d believed me. I’d opened up everything to her, given her my heart, confessed all my hopes and dreams. She’d listened and absorbed and learned and then betrayed me. First, Ciara went to the dean accusing me of plagiarism, and then after I’d confronted her about it, she went to the dean again accusing me of assault.

All lies, of course.

“Drink the damned drink!” the dwarf cried, his hands now pressed hard against the door. Were they glowing? “I can’t hold them!”

I turned my attention back to the stout. God only knew what Ciara would do if she got her hands on something so powerful. It’s my fate, not hers. It’s my dream, and she – with all of her lies and masks and broken promises – she can go to hell.

My hands shook as I lifted the pint to my lips, and as the glass grew closer, the sounds of the struggle at the door receded until they were nothing more than a buzzing fly or a neighbor playing his music a bit too loud. The glass was cold. So cold. Why would they serve it cold?

Before I could drink, the door exploded in, flinging the dwarf across the room and slamming him against the wall beside my table. He slumped lifelessly to the floor, and then she was there, her da’s pistol pointed at my head, two ugly goons flanking her on either side.

“Put it down, Liam,” she said breathlessly.

“I can’t,” I whispered, the stout just an inch from my lips. “You know I can’t. This is the stout of Brasil! It’s real!”

“It’s not real, Liam,” she whispered, desperation in her voice. “Please put it down and come with me.”

“Or you’ll shoot me?” I asked, laughing at the irony. Just two weeks earlier, we were lying naked in bed playing Fortnite on our phones, and now she’s pointing an actual gun at my head? “You just can’t stand the idea of me getting the power.”

“I want you to get some help,” she said, shaking her head. “Please.”

But I’d come too far. Maybe she would shoot me, maybe she wouldn’t. But if I could take a drink – even just a quick one – then none of it would matter. Her bullets, her rejection, all of the rejection – none of it would matter.

I took a drink.

She fired.

Blackness.

This is a short story written for the Shenzhen Writing Group, Shenzhen, China, September 2018.

Some Thoughts from One Expat to Another

227815_383666231706144_1451465329_n.jpg

When I first moved to Kazakhstan back in 1999, I’d been there for about half a year when I noticed a couple of interesting things. First, if I was talking to someone back home about Kazakhstan, I had plenty to say, as if I knew what I was talking about. Second, when I would talk to other expats about our experiences living in Central Asia, we would often spend a great deal of time complaining about the different way people did everything.

Now it’s many years later and I live in China, but I was reminded of my early Kazakhstan experiences when I recently overheard a conversation in a coffee shop between a couple of expats discussing their separate experiences in yet another country.

I couldn’t help but listen.

Both of these expats talked about their experiences as if they were experts on their former country, as if they’d really understood the people and the place where they’d lived, and they also spent a great deal of time complaining about that experience. It was almost as if they were trying to one-up each other on who could tell the most horrifying expat story.

“The taxi drivers there are horrible! As soon as they realize you’re a foreigner, they’ll charge you double!”

“You think the taxi drivers are bad, you should try and do business with them! It’s all about nepotism and how much you can pay to get something done!”

“Don’t get me started on corruption! There was one time when I was just trying to get my visa renewed…”

As I was reflecting on both my attitude and the attitudes shown by a couple of random expats in a coffee shop, I was struck by a few things, and I offer these thoughts to any expatriates who might be interested.

Simply living in a country for a limited amount of time does not make us experts on the culture, people and problems of a country. Especially when we haven’t even taken the time to learn the language and primarily hang out with other expats. We may have some insights into that country, but not very much.

We are really only long-term tourists, and should keep that in mind before being tempted to share our deep and insightful thoughts about our host country. When asked, we should just talk about the food we like, the interesting historical sights we’ve seen, reflect on the truth that we still have much to learn about the place, and stress how kindly the people there treat us in spite of our ignorance.

This last part is key – when you’re talking to your friends back home, don’t focus on the horror stories, even though conflict makes for good storytelling. Instead, let them know how well you were treated as a stranger in a strange land. Let them know how much it meant for you when someone went out their way to help you or guide you. Let them know that many of the things that they’ve heard about the place are misconceptions or flat out false.

Especially these days, it’s vital that we learn the value of being good hosts as well as guests, and it’s even more vital that we share that knowledge with others who may have never gone far from home.

This might be the most valuable souvenir we can bring home from our short time living in another country.

Farewell, Star Wars

A1wnJQFI82L._SY679_

Dear Sirs,

I’m shaking. I’m sitting here, shaking.

I just returned home from seeing the latest Star Wars movie, and I am physically shaking due to a mixture of anger, resentment, disappointment, and a desperate feeling of opportunities lost. I’ve never had such a visceral negative reaction to a movie or any sort of entertainment. Undoubtedly the reaction I’m experiencing is proof positive of my level of commitment and love for the amazing story that took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Now, that commitment and love has been called into question, and it’s rocked me to my core.

Before I continue, allow me a moment to prove my credibility. I saw Star Wars in the theater 26 times back in 1977, three times in one day at one point. I had every toy Kenner released, including the Boba Fett mail-in action figure. I read every comic and novel, multiple times. I’ve even written a series of my own Star Wars stories, imagining what happens to our heroes as they branch out in their fight against the evil Empire.

I sent a couple of my best stories to Lucasfilm, and how I wish they would have incorporated my ideas into this movie rather than sending me a condescending “thanks but no thanks” letter. If they would have listened to me, then this could have been a much different review. As it is, I have to say goodbye to what was a wonderful entertainment experience for the past three years.

And it’s all because of the travesty that was The Empire Strikes Back.

I slept outside of the Hollywood Paramount with about five hundred other suckers for three nights to see this abomination. And it started out as such a positive experience! The atmosphere was festive, joyous, and full of life. People dressed as their favorite characters, showed off their homemade light sabers, and hypothesized about what we would see when the movie rolled. You could almost feel everyone bound together by the light side of the Force. But when it was over, it was as if the dark side had won, taking everything good in the world with it. At first I felt numb, but that numbness quickly gave way to anger.

That’s where I am now, thus the shaking.

[If you haven’t seen this movie yet, understand that I’m going to be talking about specific details. But even still, I encourage you to go ahead and read it and find out why you shouldn’t see The Empire Strikes Back. Save yourself three dollars. Trust me, you don’t want to contribute any more to the degradation of Star Wars.]

1. Darth Vader is Luke’s WHAT?

Has there been a movie villain that has provoked more fear and awe then Darth Vader? And what an incredible set up when Ben Kenobi tells Luke that Vader was responsible for the death of his father. It gave Luke such motivation to go after the Dark Lord and show him the power of the light side with the business end of a light saber.

But no, that’s not good enough for the hacks that made this movie. They completely screw it up by having Darth Vader claim to be Luke’s father.

Yes, you read that right. Darth Vader, the Dark Lord of the Sith, is apparently the father of the hero of the Rebellion, Luke Skywalker.

Image-0-Header-1536x864-863587051769Did the filmmakers even read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye? Vader is pure evil. Evil personified. He murders people without thought, including Luke’s father, and that’s not just conjecture… it’s what Luke was told by the only known Jedi Knight. Are you seriously telling me that Ben Kenobi would lie to an innocent kid like Luke? It calls into question everything that happened in the first movie, and that is an inexcusable betrayal. “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic”, and now they are a bunch of liars?

“Maybe Darth Vader is the one who is lying!” Of course that is an option, but if that is what Lucas is getting at, it MAKES NO SENSE. What would be the point of Vader telling Luke such a lie? How does it help him to defeat the Rebellion? Unfortunately, we don’t know, and that’s because of my second criticism.

2. The Movie Doesn’t End

When the screen went black and the credits started showing, everyone in the Paramount sat stunned. What? They didn’t save Han? We don’t know if Darth Vader is lying? What kind of a movie doesn’t end?

What should have happened (if this were a good movie) is that Luke arrives at Cloud City in time to save Han, and then they all get away from the Empire, maybe injuring Darth Vader or killing Boba Fett in the process. It’s such an easy concept! But these morons decided to end without giving the audience a resolution. We DON’T learn what Darth Vader was really up to, and the good guys are just continuing to run from the bad guys like they did all movie. No victory, no climax, no ending.

I’m no screenwriter or movie director, but that is just bad filmmaking. The cynical side of me thinks that it’s just their way of making sure people come back to see what happens in their next movie, to make sure that we throw away even more of our hard-earned cash. Nice try, Mr. Lucas, but you can bet that I won’t be anywhere near your theaters when you come back to betray us once again in 1983.

Speaking of being betrayed, my third criticism is about an unfulfilled promise.

3. Luke and Leia

One of the greatest things about Star Wars was the idea that an average boy could rescue a princess, fall in love, and maybe get married one day. [Once again, read Splinter of the Mind’s Eye to see the correct direction this story should have taken.] It’s what the audience wants! The boy and the princess! Not what The Empire Strikes Back gives us – the princess and the pirate.

20132f102f212f092fscreenshot2-e767d.png

Ignoring what the audience obviously wants, Lucas tears the boy and the princess apart in the first twenty minutes, and then has the princess fall into the arms of the pirate while the boy flies across the galaxy to talk to a frog in a swamp. I’m sorry – I know Han Solo is cool, but he IS NOT SUPPOSED TO GET THE PRINCESS. It doesn’t make any sense!

At least we left the theater with a hope that Luke might get Leia back. I have to admit that one of the good things about the terrible cliffhanger idea was that Han is out of the picture, giving Luke the opportunity to properly woo his princess. However, even as I write that, I know that this is not what Lucas and company will do, because it’s WHAT HIS AUDIENCE WANTS HIM TO DO. It’s like he made this movie with the intention of angering the very people that made Star Wars the biggest box office hit ever (almost $300,000,000! Can you imagine?).

This brings me to my third criticism.

3. The Swamp Frog

To understand this next bit of criticism, you have to remember what happened in Star Wars. The only person who could teach Luke about The Force was Ben Kenobi (our “only hope”), but he dies at the end of that movie. Yes, Luke hears Ben’s voice in the Death Star trench, but he doesn’t offer to teach Luke as a disembodied voice. In The Empire Strikes Back, we find that he has NOT been teaching Luke, which seems odd since Ben can appear as a ghost. Why hasn’t he been ghost-teaching him for the past three years? We don’t know, but that sort of plot hole apparently doesn’t matter to Lucas.

00muppstarsWhat Ben does do is tell Luke to go find Yoda, supposedly a great jedi, on a faraway planet, and so as soon as Luke is able, he goes. So far, so good. Luke (and the audience) expects to find a powerful warrior on this faraway planet, but instead he finds a frog in a swamp. And not just a frog, but a Muppet frog with a speech impediment. Seriously – a Muppet frog! And to underline this ridiculous turn of events, Lucas even brought in the voice of Miss Piggy and Fozzie the Bear to provide the Muppet frog’s voice! I kept expecting him to put on a tie and fedora and do a stand-up routine, or sing “Easy It’s Not Being Green” while playing a space banjo.

Speaking of color, this brings me to final critique.

4. Politics in Space

Apparently, some people complained that Star Wars wasn’t diverse enough (did these people not see all of the aliens in the cantina? How is that not diverse?), and so of course, Lucas bowed to pressure and included a token black character in this movie. Was this really necessary?  What’s next? Women fighting stormtroopers? Asian or Hispanic generals running the Rebellion?

George Lucas, Star Wars shouldn’t be about politics, it shouldn’t have to worry about representing every different kind of person onscreen. No, Star Wars should be about light saber fights, space battles, and the boy getting the princess. Again, it’s what your audience WANTS.

mpvGpMgBut he won’t listen. He’ll just continue doing these kinds of things in his next movie. I’m certain Star Wars 3 will show us that the notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt is actually a cute little space puppy voiced by Mel Blanc. Boba Fett will take off his mask to reveal that he’s actually Farrah Fawcett, and then she and Han will fall in love. Princess Leia and Chewbacca will turn out to be brother and sister from different mothers, and Lando Calrissian will be their father.

One thing Lucas has proven with this trash heap of a movie is that anything is possible, that we should not try to guess what will happen, because whatever we think, it’ll be something we didn’t anticipate, want or need.

But I won’t be around to find out, and I beg you to join me! Let’s show Lucas that we are done with his manipulations and disappointments by refusing to support any of his work until he apologizes for The Empire Strikes Back and pledges to put Star Wars back on track! For example, word is that Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, and Harrison Ford are working on an action movie set in World War Two, but I say we sit this one out! Show Lucas and his friends that we aren’t going to have any more of it! DO NOT SEE THEIR NEW MOVIE, and that will show him that we mean business.

Speaking of business, you’ve probably seen in your TV Guide that the stars of Star Wars are making the rounds of the talk shows right now, talking up the movie. I want to organize a mass effort to let the sponsors of those shows know that we will boycott their products if they let the movie be promoted on their programs. No Hamill on Carson! No Ford on Mike Douglas! No Fisher on Donahue! But if they persist, I’m currently compiling a list of the scheduled appearances, so I’m going to have like-minded die-hard Star Wars fans gather en masse to protest, holding up signs that say “Not Our Star Wars!”, “Keep Space White!”, and “Vader Would Be A Terrible Dad!”

Join me, and together we can make it so that Lucas can’t show his face in public without our reminding him of his failure! Join me, and we can be the spark that’ll light the fire that’ll burn Star Wars down!

Sincerely,
Jedi Master Marvin S. Lymphburg,
Keller Der Mutter, Minnesota

This fictional letter from a really disappointed fictional über-fan is fictionally from the real August 1980 issue of the very real Starlog magazine. But not really.

starlog37cover

 

Truth

I’d been waiting for that moment for years, dreamed about it, saw how it would happen from beginning to end. I’d waited, patiently, watching him from a distance when he didn’t know that I was there.

It was my only purpose in life, my penance, to watch him and wait. Wait for the right time to tell him his place in things. At least three times I was tempted to be the one to initiate contact, but something would always stop me. At the time, I found it incredibly frustrating, and I would lock myself in my hovel and try to find peace about my waylaid plans. Each time, I would come out understanding that what had happened had been right, because things would have undoubtedly gone wrong if I had overstepped my bounds yet again. That’s the way the universe operates.

Or at least so I was taught.

Then, the opportunity was given to me. I almost told him everything, but I didn’t. He came to me, understand. I didn’t go looking for him, he came looking for me. After years of watching and waiting, he came to me. And I would tell anyone that asked that if there were signs to be sought, they were all there: I had him alone – well, mostly alone. Undistracted. None of his loud friends or busybody relatives bustling about to stop me.

It was perfect. It was time.

He even asked me what had happened. He actually asked me. The conversation had been going exactly as I imagined it would up to that point, and yet when he asked me, the words I had been practicing since I first came to this godforsaken place froze on my lips. It came on me suddenly – a feeling that I still mustn’t tell him. It still wasn’t time, even though everything seemed to be pushing me towards following my original plan.

I saw what would happen if he knew the truth right now. He sat before me, a boy filled with a beautiful optimism and purity, and those qualities would serve him well in life, but they would be his undoing if he knew the truth now. His goodness would make him obsess over the truth, he would go mad thinking that he could somehow make things right. He would run to him – and he wouldn’t be ready. And then all of his admirable qualities would be twisted and manipulated and turned into a dark abomination.

I saw him turn, right in front of me, in my home.  And he whispered that if this happened to him, it would once again be because of my impatience. As I was responsible for his father, I would be responsible for him.

And then I heard words that I had never rehearsed spill from my mouth, and I felt a guiltless guilt as I saw my lie spill over him. I knew that it was the right thing to do, even as I knew how deep his goodness ran, and how deeply he would feel betrayed when he found out the truth.

But he will understand, and he will forgive. That’s the man this boy will grow to be.

And when he’s old enough, he will be ready.

But not today.

“A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father…”

Wandering Stars

Bats on an asteroid? Whose idea was that?

I have to think a bunch of idiot dwarves were sitting around in their mines back on the dwarf world, discussing the things they’d miss most when they set out into space on their mission to strip asteroids of firegems. For some reason, they all agreed on little leather-winged flying rats.

Probably to help with homesickness out here in the belt.

That’s great for them, but for the rest of us, the bats aren’t so nice to have around. They swoop out of nowhere, they bite, and will even try to carry away small animals. They especially like to dive bomb me when I sit at the top of the arch of D’nash, like I’m doing now. So I stay low.

Other than the risk of bat-bite, the top of the arch is perfect for me. The dwarves refuse to look at it, which has something to do with their religion, so it lowers the odds that I’ll be spotted. My sister Meg told me that we should try to understand the dwarves to help us get along better with them, but I just don’t get it. Why bother having a religion if that religion doesn’t allow you to look at the monuments you build because of that religion?

Yeah, they brought their bats to the asteroid, they brought their religion, and they brought me and Meg and a whole bunch of other human slaves. They’re wonderful creatures, dwarves.

But as little as they pay attention to their religion, I figure that following their beliefs is still more important than a scrawny twelve year old human girl, so they don’t know or don’t care that I sit up here. Which is fine by me. If they did care, then I couldn’t get away with what I’m doing now.

I sit up as I see a flash of pink in the crowd below. What I’ve been waiting for – an orc administrator, wearing his standard pink jacket, pushing his self-important way through the crowded square below, totally unaware that he’d just been pegged to donate to the Human World Orphan’s Fund.

I just love orcs. Their skin has a delightful greenish color that reminds me of my vomit after I’ve eaten too much of Meg’s langua bean soup. Their eyes are as mesmerizingly black as the deepest, darkest, coldest mine, a color which – incidentally – matches the color of their black souls, if they have souls, which I don’t think that they do.

I mean, what’s not to love? They invaded my homeworld, destroying everything in the process, killed my parents, and then dumped Meg and me off as slaves for their stubby longbearded allies to take to the stars. I love them so much that it’s my pleasure to do what I can to inconvenience them whenever I get the chance. It’s just the kind of girl that I am.

Meg says I have a real problem with sarcasm.

If she only knew.

Looking back at the orc, this one is moving fast. Probably late for an important orc meeting, or maybe just late for dinner. Either way, it means I’ll have to move faster.

First, though, I scan the crowd until I see Turi, sitting obediently by a garbage receptacle, looking up at me, waiting for my signal.

He’s such a good dog. Slaves aren’t supposed to have pets, but I dare anyone to try and separate us. Three years ago I was walking past this goblin café on an errand for my owner when I heard this panicked yelping from around back. Meg says I’ve always been more curious than is healthy, but in this case, it saved Turi’s life, because I ran around back and found a horde of bats trying to carry this little brown fur ball off for dinner. He was only a puppy, but that day he became my puppy, and we’ve been inseparable ever since. We have a special connection, which makes what I’m trying to do here today that much easier.

I flick my hand and whisper, “go, boy!” and he immediately bursts into the crowd as if powered by dragonfire.

And that means I have to get down quick.

Fortunately, I’ve done this dozens of times. It’s just a matter of sliding down the arch while avoiding the razor sharp blades that stick out at random spots. They apparently symbolize the way dwarves are supposed to cut themselves in obedience to their gods or something.

What a weird religion.

But, as I’ve said, I’ve done this before, and so sliding down while avoiding the blades is not as hard as it sounds.

But avoiding the gaggle of dwarf nuns at the bottom, that’s another issue.

Of course it would be the only members of the bizarre religion who are permitted to look at the arch as they pray. Only now, they’re not looking at the arch. They’re looking at this scrawny human girl sliding down the arch towards them.

Crap.

When I hit the ground, I expect the nuns to start doing the same to me, and I’m prepared to take the beating long enough to satisfy their anger and then scurry away. But hit with a flash of inspiration, I grab my left ear, bow, and say, “V’rak D’nash!” (which means “Praise D’nash” in dwarvish). I hold my breath and tense, prepared to feel their little rock-hard fists pounding me from all sides. But when that doesn’t happen, I risk a glance. To my shock, the nuns are smiling at me! In unison, they grab their own right ears, bow, and say “P’nash D’nash!” (“May D’nash be praised”), then turn and walk away, giggling.

Maybe Meg was right after all?

Not wasting any more time on my near beat-down, I dive into the crowd, pushing my way through the crowds of dwarf miners, orc pilots, and some multi-limbed creatures that I don’t recognize until I see the puke green head and bright pink administrator jacket just ahead.

But before I can make my move, my way is blocked. I’m about to use some of the dwarf words that Meg never lets me use when I realize that it’s not a dwarf blocking me. It’s a man. A slave, heading for the mines. He’s wearing the simple brown work bibs that mine slaves are provided, a rough fabricated material that is just enough to provide protection, but nothing you would ever choose to wear. He’s linked to six or seven other men with energy beams that prevents them from running away (although there’s nowhere to run on a mining colony). And he looks at me with blank eyes, the result of spending most of his time in the darkness of the mines. For a moment, his eyes seem to clear.

“Anna?”

Then he and the others are pushed on by their dwarf minders, who don’t bother with me. After all, I’m wearing the crest of my owner Jazrah on my tunic. I’m obviously on important business. I breathe a prayer of thanks to D’nash that my owner works in shipping and not mining, or else Meg and I might be a part of that chain gang. But I can’t afford to be distracted, and so I hop past the last dwarf and run up ahead.

I’m about to give Turi the signal when I remember the cams. Dammit, I forgot the cams, and the cams capture everything in public places like this. Stupid bats distracted me. I now have a choice to make: either call the whole thing off and try again later, or try one of Meg’s spells. I’m not supposed to use them in public, but I do it all the time and nobody’s ever been any wiser for it. What Meg doesn’t know won’t hurt her.

I do it quickly, reciting the magic words my sister taught me and making a circular gesture with my left hand. If the spell works (and it usually does), the cams should be on a loop for the next few minutes. It’s not the best way to deal with them, but it’s the only choice I have now.

Knowing that Turi is ready (he’s such a good dog), I take a deep breath and whisper “Go boy”, and the dog is off like a flash, jumping in front of the administrator so quickly that the only thing he can do is go down in a flurry of arms and legs, the stack of sims he’s carrying for his work exploding from him like a wall cracker during the Remembrance Day celebrations.

It’s a perfect move.

I leap out to play my part, grabbing Turi by the back of his neck. “Bad dog!” I scold, sticking my finger in his face. Turi’s ears go back and he lowers his head, whining. Good boy, I think as I turn to the orc. “I’m so sorry,” I say, lowering my head like a good slave.

It’s all I can do not to laugh at the sight of the orc trying to stand and pick up the slips he’d dropped at the same time.

“Let me help you,” I start, scooping up handfuls of slips and shoving them at the orc in what appears to be a random and chaotic movement, but is in fact a move that I’ve practiced hundreds of times.

The administrator, as I expected, is not very interested in my help. The blue veins stand out in his green head, a sign of intense anger in an orc. It occurs to me that if this was one of the larger and angrier orcs – a pilot or a warrior – he would have twisted my head off by now. That’s why I picked an administrator. They get angry, but the nature of their work requires more restraint.

“Just leave it alone!” he shrieks. “Leave me alone!”

This one is surprisingly loud. Loud enough to attract unwanted attention, meaning that the Red Caps – the dwarf constables with their distinctive red caps – would likely be along soon to investigate the fracas. This means that it’s time to make my exit, especially now that the orc’s money bag is now tucked safely in the back of my tunic. So, I raise my hands, dropping the slips I’m still holding, I bow my head, and I back off.

And then, when I’m the required three paces away, I give a short whistle and Turi and I do our best vanishing act into the crowd.

Leaving behind a small victory for enslaved humans everywhere: a much angrier and much poorer orc administrator.

Yay for us.