Wednesday, March 6, 2024

AI: The Biggest Existential Threat to Medium and Other Content-Driven Platforms

Alenoach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever someone claps for one of my stories, comments, or follows me, I check out their profile and consider following them. It used to be that almost all of them passed my lenient screening.

I was pleased to be noticed in the sea of stories and didn’t set a high bar. You basically had to have a pulse and be attempting to write something. It didn’t have to be very good for me to support you as you’d just done for me. You never know what might lead to an interesting connection, I reasoned.

Nowadays, less than half make the cut. So what’s changed?

It’s simply that after reading their profiles, I’m not buying that many of them are real. Or maybe they’re real, but their beyond-bad writing surely couldn’t be.

I’m no expert at spotting AI-generated content, but a lot of what I read sounds strangely detached to me. I also find it odd that some of these profiles are only a few days old, yet they’re publishing prolifically.

Am I to believe someone saved up thirty of these painful-to-wade-through articles and dumped them on the platform all at once? I almost admire someone who’s that awful at something yet persists with it.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

I’m talking multiple stories a day on all kinds of topics. Whether they can write a lick or not, no one is an expert on Bitcoin, relationships, vegetable gardening, stuffed animal restoration, cigar box guitars, Texas Hold ’em, and content marketing.

It’s not just on Medium that I’ve been noticing this, either. Something’s off about a lot of the content in my Google newsfeed, too.

Several online stories published by Sports Illustrated that showed up in my 2024 feed have been a mess. They ended abruptly in the middle of half-baked thoughts, included obvious run-on and incomplete sentences, and flowed like blood through clogged arteries.

Was an editor even glancing at this stuff? It was as un-SI-like as Amazon’s horrid The Rings of Power was un-Tolkein-like.

This was a few weeks before news broke that SI had been deceiving us all by running AI-generated content and attributing it to real authors. With that little transgression, a reputation built on decades of impeccable writing and reporting was ruined overnight.

To think this is the same publication that legendary writers of my youth like Paul Zimmerman called home. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

“Motivated by the preachings of a noble mama and propelled by his mighty legs, Earl Campbell has left plank-shack poverty far behind.”

Dr. Z didn’t write that. A fellow named Bruce Newman did.

Either way, AI had no hand in that magical lead sentence from the cover story on my favorite football player from the September 3, 1979, issue of SI. How about the alliteration of the “p” sound to punctuate (see what I did there?) the sentence’s impact?

As a ten-year-old boy from a middle-class white family, I had only a vague idea of what “plank-shack poverty” was, but the one-of-a-kind phrasing made me admire Earl even more than I already did. I’ve remembered it all these years and strive to pen something so succinctly descriptive every time I sit down to write. You might provide a quick dopamine hit, AI, but your tired rehashings will never create that kind of lasting impression.

Whether SI’s AI misconduct was willful or a careless oversight matters little. The damage is done, and given the widespread layoffs that followed, it’s no exaggeration to say it may never recover its esteemed position in the sports writing world.

Take heed of this cautionary tale, Medium, or any other platform that depends on high-quality written content. Identifying and eliminating AI-generated garbage is the biggest existential challenge you face over the next few years.

Otherwise, the Discouraged and Displaced humans may Disappear, relegated to Dark Ages tools like pen and paper that can’t be stolen for AI butchering. Not bad, right?

Maybe that’s the destiny of the entire AI-era Internet — a wasteland of parasitic chatbots drowning in their own drivel.

Is it wrong of me to hope so?

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Progress: An illustrated poem about human nature

A heavily wooded forest with a stream running through the middle and a partially obscured buck behind a tree. All illustrations are in black and white.
Illustrations by Willem van der Merwe

A long time ago, the forest extended everywhere, in all directions, a dense canopy of trees.
A majestic sight, it was truly the land of the free.
Then along came a group of settlers who cut a path inland from the sea.


More boats arrived bringing throngs of people.
We should worship inside a church with a steeple.
Let’s harvest some wood from this wild place and build something regal.


A man dressed as a pilgrim wearing a prominent wide-brimmed hat and chopping a tree with an axe. Other trees can be seen in the background, along with a pile of stacked logs.

The colonists multiplied and hungry villagers needed a bigger farm.
But man was so smart it was no cause for alarm.
We’ll clear another plot for planting right over here. What could be the harm?


Approximately 20 tree stumps in the foreground with a buck sniffing/pawing at one of them. In the background are a church with a steeple and approximately 12 rectangularly shaped homes crowded together. The homes have steeply pitched roofs and chimneys with smoke billowing prominently from them.

Soon the village became a town, and then the town grew rapidly into a concrete-filled city.
Our wilderness is disappearing, they lamented. The beautiful landscape has turned gritty.
On one thing they all could agree. This state of affairs was indeed a pity.


Several tightly packed high-rise buildings that are approximately eight stories tall with a street running between them. Three people can be seen walking on the street, heads down in an almost zombie-like posture. Two cars are parked on the right side of the street as you look at the drawing and a lone cat is walking down the left side of the street, away from the viewer.

Let’s set aside a wooded sanctuary where all God’s creatures can roam as they please.
We’ve bulldozed enough in search of opportunity.
Now we must live in harmony.


For a time, birds chirped, deer frolicked, and wolves howled.
Until one day a thick, black liquid bubbled up from the park's ground.
It was a discovery so profound.


A buck, a fox, a bear, a rabbit, and a small cat (possibly a bobcat) crouch around a small, round pool of black, bubbling liquid (oil). All five are peering at it curiously. The background is comprised of three trees and overgrowth, indicating they're at a clearing in the woods.

Such a stroke of good fortune to power our machines.
Our consumption borders on obscene.
But man is the rightful king of beasts and should reign supreme.


We’ll chop a few more to capitalize on our good luck.
Letting our unbridled greed run amuck.
So what if we break our promise as long as we make a buck?


With this feeble logic, our actions were justified.
Willingly, we carried out a campaign of genocide.
Ignorant to the fact it was actually suicide.


And so the pattern repeated.
Soon, every last tree had been defeated.
In this barren wasteland, our home overheated.


An apocalyptic scene shows a small oil drilling rig in disrepair on the left and a junked car on the right. They're sitting in the dirt on a flat landscape with sparse patches of grass interspersed. The car's front bumper and the visible tire have both fallen off. The roof, hood, and driver's side door are badly dented. In the background are approximately eight high-rise buildings that also look badly dilapidated. In most, the tops are missing as if destroyed by a bomb.

The end should come as no great surprise.
Upending nature’s delicate balance, how did we think we would survive?
In this universe of infinite connections, we caused our own demise.

Progress, finally

A human skull lying sideways on the ground with a small plant growing through one of the eye sockets. A mouse rests its front paws on the skull's forehead and sniffs one of the plant's leaves and a beetle crawls on a rock next to the skull. With humans extinct, the scene conveys a sense of hope that nature is beginning to regenerate.

Monday, October 2, 2023

Community Combats Climate Change with Concrete Trees: Just doing our part

The epitome of sustainability

Our little community was in a pickle, to say the least. Our population was growing, and our roads were becoming parking lots, especially at rush hour.

We needed to expand our highways, but more roads mean fewer trees and we all know that’s bad for the environment. Deforestation, duh!

What could we possibly do?

We fielded a bunch of proposals for mass transit options, staggered commutes, and all kinds of stuff that people suggest to save the planet, as long as they don’t have to do it themselves.

I mean, really, who wants to ride a smelly bus to work when you can just jump in your comfy Tesla? Isn’t that good enough for the environment?

I guess I could consider staggering my commute. Does that mean I get to go in late and leave early? Because if it doesn’t, I’m not interested in that, either.

After listening to one crappy solution after another, we invited one last firm to the city council meeting. Sure guy, we’ll sit here and snooze through your dumb ass presentation.

We figured we’d dismiss it like all the rest, but at least we could show we’d done our “due diligence.” That just means acting like we’d thought it over really carefully before saying no like we planned to all along.

Only this guy waltzed in wearing his designer suit and blew us away with the best idea we’d ever heard. He said we could build roads and trees, like literally, build trees instead of planting them!

Impossible, you say? Oh no, nitwit. You’re not thinking outside the box. You’re trapped inside the box and the lid is closed tight on your tiny little baby brain.

So, here’s how it works. His firm sells those soundproofing panels you’ve all seen along the highway. Only his aren’t the typical eye sores littering the landscape.

Nosirree! These things have trees painted on them. Read that again so it sinks in and you absorb the genius—trees on sound barriers!

For every tree we cut down, he explained, we could paint one. Heck, we could paint two if we want. The number of trees is really only limited by the number of sound barriers.

You want a win-win, huh? You’ll never find a bigger win-fall (I’m so clever I just made that up!) than this—more roads = more sound barriers = more painted trees. It’s like math, the sort of math I, a person who can’t even make change at my kid’s bake sale, can understand!

Since we heard that illuminating presentation, we’ve been building roads and erecting (hahaha, I just wrote “erect”) sound barriers like gangbusters. We even took this revolutionary idea a step further by painting trees on both sides of the barriers. That way, we can chop trees down right in homeowners' front yards and give them paintings of fresh new ones to enjoy.

Sure, we get a few complaints. And they always walk away looking slightly confused when we explain how it works. But just like pigs in a blanket, every revolutionary idea takes a little getting used to.

We submitted a bunch of photos of our lovely trees just like the one up top to the National Community Planning Association. We’re probably going to win one of those nice dual-purpose crystal trophies that can double as a giant glass dildo.

Sustainability, that's what it's all about. And what, besides maybe a titanium phone that I'll replace next year, could be more sustainable than concrete trees?

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Time Marches On: Remembering my daughter

Together on a fall day

Fall colors begin to fade,
Giving way to dark and gray
Who exactly decided you couldn’t stay?

You can be the CEO
or just a street wino
Death as arbitrary as the wind blows.

Years go by and I still wonder why
I barely said hello to your sweet face before goodbye
Perhaps our time together was just a lie.

These new things I build
Hoping the void I might fill
Better to move, they say, than remain standing still.

But am I drifting further away
or drawing closer by the day
It’s all the same anyway.

“Do you have children?” comes the question I dread
Panicked responses swirling in my head
“No,” I answer as the rooster crows — truth unsaid.

The thought of never seeing you again too painful to bear
Reuniting in heaven my only hope of lifting this despair
Please God if you’re there, I beg you, answer just this one prayer.

I'll be waiting for you.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Outfoxed and Overthought: A story about time slipping away

Zapruder-like photo quality of my soulmate lurking at the edge of the woods.

There’s this fox that lives in my neighborhood. I bet I’ve seen it more times than anyone else has because I look for it. 

Most mornings I sit on my back porch having coffee. If I’m up and out there just before dawn, there’s a decent chance I’ll see it trot right past, presumably on its way back to its den after a night out carousing. 

Then later, when Kris and I take our walk, there’s another chance we might see it out sunning itself in the field, not too far from the safety of the woodline. It’s gotten so it will sit and look right at us without moving as long as we don’t get too close, not that I would. I think it knows who we are—a little bridge of understanding between our two worlds.

And then there are just occasional random sightings, like the time walking in a different area we saw it come trotting around a small grove of pine trees with a deer it must have roused chasing it maybe ten yards behind. I swear that damn fox turned its head toward me as it rounded the corner, a grin affixed to its face as if to say, “I’m just toying with that slow poke. It’ll never catch me.”

By the way, I’m 53 and I’m lost. I think I’ve been so from the moment people told me I had to be something other than a cowboy or an Indian when I grew up. 

I may as well be 15 all over again, never having kissed a girl or maybe one awkwardly, not yet able to drive, no longer a boy but a long way from being a man. Only 3 years from heading off to college, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do with myself. I still feel the same way today, only a lot older and tired of thinking about it.

I managed to write my way into a pretty decent job this past year—a 10-month tryout of sorts as a contractor that I parlayed into a full-time gig. Now that I have it, I don’t want much about it besides the steady paycheck. 

I liked the cafeteria during my freshman year at Grove City College. You could go to the salad bar as many times as you wanted, so I did. They had stuff on there besides salad, like pudding. Sitting at dinner for two hours beat the hell out of trudging back to my room to study.

A high school buddy helped me pick that school. He was a diligent fellow and tried to do right by me. We both thought the small atmosphere and academic focus would be perfect for me. 

It didn’t work out as we planned. Channeling Holden Caufield, I nearly failed out and transferred to WVU after a year. To be fair, I’d kissed a girl by then, and a little rift between us played a role in my demise.

Being back on familiar turf was better, but I changed majors three or four times, including crying uncle once after picking up a hot Bunsen burner with my bare hand during a chemistry lab. I only finally graduated in journalism because it seemed to be the one for which I had the most natural ability, and word processors weren’t nearly as dangerous as open flames. 

Despite incessantly pondering how I’d earn a living writing for the hometown paper at five bucks an hour, I could still push through with a passable news column. My skillset was about as wide as a piece of thread though, and so it seemed were my employment prospects.

While I had no answers, lots of other kids, content to float from one party to the next, didn’t even have any questions. Many of them also didn’t make it to graduation.

Once I got a little foothold, however, the place couldn’t get rid of me. I amassed two graduate degrees and an alphabet soup of letters after my name, far more out of not knowing what I wanted to do and avoiding a depressed Gulf War-era job market than out of ambition.

Fast forward to the present and with several years after age forty where my tax return shows an income under $25,000, I’ve not only avoided a career but also narrowly avoided living in a homeless shelter at times. Luckily, the closest I came was as the fundraising director for one during one of my better recent years income-wise.

My working life has been a joke, moving from one dead end or wrong turn to the next. I wouldn’t begin to know who to blame, but I suppose pointing that fucking finger up my ass like Tool advises the kid wearing Vans and 501s in Hooker with a Penis is a good start.

The cafeteria is pretty good at my new job, too. Sometimes they make stuff I’ve never heard of, and I almost always order that. I invariably like it and end up looking up what it is and where it came from, but I doubt I’ll ever make any of it.

Ah, but the work. What can I say about the work? 

The work is fast-paced and tedious, a combination about as pleasant as pickles on chocolate ice cream. I’m a ball of nerves most days waiting on edge for that stupid Microsoft Teams messaging platform’s annoying ding to alert me that I’ve been “tagged” in another “deliverable.” That just means someone is telling me I have an assignment to write the same thing I always write—only differently, thanks.

Three months in, and I’m already out of stuff to say and ways to say it. What creativity I may have had for this line of work has been squelched by frenetic monotony.

My work computer is right here beside me on my desk, but I’m writing this instead of logging on to that. Like Kate Moss checking her weight in her heroin chic heyday, I also obsessively review my 401(k) balance daily, dreaming of retiring to a beach town before they figure me out or I reach the end of my rope and quit for no good reason, or maybe for a really good one. 

Apart from hearing occasional stories about otherwise healthy people dying, I enjoyed the slow pace of the pandemic. I wasn’t tethered to a strict schedule and didn’t have to worry about running hither and thither. I wasn’t making much money working part-time from home and putting my personal training side hustle on hold, but I wasn’t spending much either.

My time was more my own, and I was free to write a little most days and lift weights whenever I wanted. But even as much as I enjoy those pursuits and willingly engage in them, I don’t want to bang weights or the keyboard forty hours a week, never mind doing someone else's bidding.

As long as my basic needs are met and I’m comfortable, if I have a choice between working the long hours it seems to require to have one of those fancy cars I see in the parking lot of the office building where I work or having the time to myself, you can keep the car. I’m choosing the time every time. People make such a big deal about work ethic and hustling just to acquire more stuff, but sometimes, more than most people I guess, I’d rather bang on my metaphorical drum all day.

Kris and I made every meal at home and lazed around most evenings watching TV together during lockdown. We still mostly squeeze in both of those activities, but our days were more relaxed then.

We watched a miniseries called Maniac starring real-life besties Jonah Hill and Emma Stone—a neat little backstory that drew me in before I knew anything about the plot. Quirky nerd sparks friendship with pretty girl on set of coming-of-age comedy, then they both go on to achieve stardom before reuniting years later as adults so they can work together on this new project… sign me up! 

Far from my usual straightforward revenge or survival fare, it was disjointed and trippy. I had a little trouble following until I figured out that underneath all the plot twists, the show somewhat parallels their actual journey. Turns out it’s a pretty familiar story about finding that special connection that brings life into focus and helps give it some meaning. Unless I’m wrong and that’s not what it is at all.

Speaking of connections, it seems like I was a little more connected to the people who matter in my life and a little less connected to those who don’t. Kris and I had a weekly FaceTime call with my mom during which we would all play Yahtzee together. It wasn’t as good as being together in person, but it was better than we’d managed during many other busier times in our lives. 

I could tell Mom looked forward to our call as much as I did, even as she was starting to slip and have trouble articulating what she’d rolled. When the pandemic ended, so too did those FaceTime calls. Just a couple of short years later, she’s no longer well enough to take my calls.

These days, that 401(k) balance is rising like it’s supposed to as I diligently follow the standard advice to “stay the course” with my monthly contributions. What they neglect to mention about that much-ballyhooed time value of money equation is the inverse relationship with the more valuable of the two resources. 

Bean counting like a modern-day Mr. Potter, I think about the desperate race I’m running. Will I exhaust my good health and decent days before my balance is sufficient to walk away, or will I make it to that beach before the sun sets? Considering my father's death from a heart attack at 55 and my own type 1 diabetes, the odds may be as close as a coin flip. Faintly, I hear Mom’s soap intro whispering, “Like sands through the hourglass of time….”

Winning that race—not power or recognition—is my only work goal now. It’s not that I’m too earnest for the petty concerns of less righteous men and want to pursue a nobler calling like helping people; it’s that I’m simply too tired to care. Sometimes, I’m even a little relieved I don’t have to worry about figuring out how to pay for Ruby’s education or wedding, and my shame in admitting that doesn’t make it any less true. 

A classmate of mine recently died. We didn’t keep in touch after graduation, but this wasn’t just any classmate. He was a good-looking, athletic kid who also had a rare genuineness about him. Nice to everybody, he was universally well-liked by jocks, nerds, gearheads, stoners, and any other group you can name. He was arguably the face of Bridgeport High School’s class of '87.

I doubt I'll ever attend another class reunion, but I considered attending his funeral. Being the type who stealthily dodges coworkers when I spot them at lunch so I can enjoy a quiet meal rather than endure forced conversation, I guess it makes sense that a somber setting suits me better than a social one. I saw it as a way to see a few people without the usual phoniness.

People suffering from extended illnesses often cling to life, never quite wholly ready to go despite their pain. Others never see it coming, assuming they still have more time one minute and dropping dead the next. Regardless of how it happens, if this fellow I remember so fondly can die before his time, then I’m damn well sure someone like me can too.

I’ve seen two foxes together on a few occasions. For all I know, the one that runs past the porch in the morning isn’t the same one that suns itself in the field in the afternoon.

I certainly don’t know if it’s male or female. That’s why I usually just refer to it as “it.” I don’t know if it’s hungry or full; if it has a mate and a litter of pups or is flying solo; if it’s sick or well; or anything at all.

I just catch these small glimpses and pretend they mean something, like that the fox and I have some sort of unspoken relationship similar to Jonah's and Emma's souls finding each other out of all the souls in the universe. Well okay, not exactly, but I do imagine a connection.

There's a line in the Robert Redford fly fishing movie A River Runs Through It where the narrator ponders how well he knew his deceased brother concluding, "...maybe all I know about Paul is that he was a fine fisherman." My pretending about the fox that I actually don't know any better than any other is not too dissimilar from my understanding of most people, even some with whom I claim to be close.

I do know one thing about the fox. I know it isn’t wasting time thinking about me. When it’s time to hunt, it hunts. When it’s time to rest, it rests.

The Byrds wrote an old folk song about that sort of thing. Maybe I should go and listen to their lyrics about the seasons and all. Maybe I don’t need to unless I just feel like it.

Either way, my time is coming.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Lord of the Plains: Discovering the Real Taylor Sheridan

Ben Foster in Hell or High Water (2016), OddLot Entertainment and Lionsgate Films

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs in one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest counties. I work for a venerable finance firm that doesn’t just have an office building but supports an entire “campus.”

Fitting, as many of my co-workers graduated from prestigious Ivy League universities situated on sprawling grounds. I did not.

Cowboying? Folks from these parts don’t even mow their own lawns. They have nannies and personal assistants and people to do their shopping for them. And yet, the water cooler chit-chat at that campus often revolves around them counting the days between Yellowstone episodes, giddy with anticipation I've not seen since that long ago summer when we all wondered who shot J.R.

Widespread appeal far beyond what you’d normally expect for a show about rural people doing rural things, buoyed by their unusual good looks and a whole heapin’ helpin’ of ass kickin' thrown in too, is exactly how we got to where we are today. And just where is that, you ask?

Kansas, my dear Dorothy, or Montana—same difference as long as it's somewhere with a view of the big, blue sky. Maybe it’s not so perplexing that these city slickers who have everything they could possibly desire except space to spread out want to be out there in the great wide open, so long as they’re actually all bundled up warm and cozy on the other side of their 80-inch TVs watching those pretty ranchers ranch and not getting any mud on their own designer boots.

They’ve glommed on so hard that Yellowstone’s cavernous borders couldn’t hold back this relentless westward expansion. Faster than you can say “gold rush,” we loaded up the wagons and moved not to Beverly Hills but right on into writer and director Taylor Sheridan’s whole “universe” of spin-offs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan too, but the Yellowstone universe sounds as nauseating to me as the Marvel multiverse. "Why is that?" you may be wondering.

Sticking with the wagon train theme, the answer is simple: y’all have hitched your wagons to the wrong horse. I’m sorry to tell you, but most of you Dutton groupies are just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies to my personal Western hoedown.

Yellowstone has its moments—Rip throwing a chair through a glass wall, eating a bullet to the belly, and beating Beth’s assailant to death comes to mind—but it’s still largely Sheridan-light. Its darkness and violence are muted by just enough hope and soapy intrigue to keep mainstream audiences coming back for their next fix.

The real Sheridan forces you to mainline that smack straight into a vein, whether you’re up for partying that hard or not. In the same way that A Perfect Circle or Puscifer could be gateway bands to Tool—solid in their own right but lacking the depth of Maynard's masterwork—Yellowstone, the pinnacle for many of you, should really only be an introduction to the best of Sheridan.

So come along now and let me show you a few of his real classics, but be forewarned, I like my entertainment the same way as my coffee, the only way a proper cup should be brewed—intense, relentless, suffocating, and black like my soul. What can I say? I guess the familiar taste of blood in my mouth has become oddly comforting in the course of a life lived.

Regardless, you'll find little in the way of catharsis here; just a brutal acknowledgment of the way things are. Okay, maybe there’s a little healing in these stories, but much like in real life, you have to endure an awful lot of pain for what’s usually a bittersweet payoff.

We first find ourselves sitting on a drab front porch on a poverty-stricken Indian reservation in some desolate corner of Wyoming. By featuring Native American characters, often but not always portraying them hopelessly, Sheridan has done more to generate awareness of the challenges they face than any other modern filmmaker I can recall, yet I’ve never seen that fact acknowledged in coverage of his work.

The tragedy depicted in this monologue, however, isn’t the exclusive domain of Native peoples. Coldly indiscriminate, it touches all races and socio-economic backgrounds and is one I’m all too familiar with—child loss.

"''re never gonna be the same. You're never gonna be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing's ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer—you allow yourself to visit her in your mind—you'll remember all the love she gave you, all the joy she knew.' Point is, Martin, you can't steer from the pain. If you do, you'll rob yourself. You'll rob yourself of every memory of her, every last one, from her first step to her last smile—kill 'em all. Just take the pain, Martin. You hear me? You take it. It's the only way you'll keep her with you."

In that monologue from Wind River, the Corey character, played by Jeremy Renner, shares more truth about the bleak reality of losing a child than anything I've ever heard from any other source, including all the professionals with whom I spoke. He's the only one who didn't gloss it over with some weak platitude about time healing all wounds or things happening for a reason.

After that feel-good moment, I wouldn't want you to get the idea that life is all sunshine and rainbows. I'd better bring you back to Earth with a visit to grayed-out Kingstown, home to not one, but seven, prisons and a host of sordid characters who either make their living off them or are incarcerated in them. Mercifully, we're on a boat with a hint of sunshine for this little gem delivered again by Sheridan favorite, Renner, this time as "Mayor" Mike McLusky.

"My father used to say, 'I can't wait to get old, for my mind to soften and my memories to rot away. The hardest thing to do is forget—forget the scars that life gives you, forget the scars you gave others. The challenge, then, is hiding a few memories worth keeping from your dying mind.' He told me to keep a journal and only write down the good things. Then, when the bad things fade away, you can read about the happy life you had. But minds don't forget so easily, and the horror that we witness and endure takes root. Only madness and dementia can remove it."

At least I have that to look forward to in my decrepitude. When I inevitably forget Ruby's name and everything she meant to me, I'll also finally be purged of the haunting memory of the day she died in my arms.

And now to where it all started for me, where I first felt Sheridan speaking to me more clearly than any other filmmaker today—on a dusty hill outside some nondescript West Texas dustbowl town. A modern-day cowboy of sorts—just not the kind you’d want anywhere near your daughter, or even your enemy for that matter unless you really hated him to the core—sits high on a rock, his rifle resting on his knee, and surveys the scene below.

What Tanner Howard, acted superbly by Ben Foster, sees is a dirt road lined with police cars and civilian trucks, all of them heavily armed and trying to pin him down on that hill. He’s led them here where he knows he’ll make his final stand and die, but incomprehensibly to most of us, that’s fine by him. While his methods and morals may be ruthless and twisted, he has a code of honor centered around family and he aims for that death to matter as much as it can in this grim version of Sheridan's universe that was born not on a picturesque Montana ranch but in a fiery hell (or high water).

Satisfied that it will, he inhales deeply and, in tribute to the Comanche who we've all but exterminated in our real westward expansion of the American empire, declares himself “Lord of the plains.”

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Alone: A story about breakfast gone bad

Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

He sat at the counter sipping his coffee and waiting on his breakfast. This place was far from an authentic diner but was the best he could do in this upscale neighborhood dominated by trendy pretenders serving outlandish fare at outrageous prices.

If he stuck to the special, he was alright. Venturing out to the “chef’s selections” might mean avocado toast or oats soaked in kefir, whatever that is. Most of the menu appealed to a crowd more interested in sharing pictures of their trip to the diner on their social media than in actually eating anything resembling real staples like thick-cut bacon and over-easy eggs fried in the grease or biscuits and sausage gravy.

He was snapped out of lamenting the softening of the world and the disappearance of the classic American diner by a sudden realization that the place had gone eerily quiet. Knowing the designer-clad masses would never choose silence over their own blithering, he turned his stool to see what could have precipitated this minor miracle.

He didn’t have to look far, as the barrel of the AR-15 strapped to the man’s back was inches from his face. Glancing down the row, two other similarly armed companions took their seats.

He saw red in an instant. He felt his face flush with anger, and any hope of a self-preservation-inspired flight response kicking in was lost. There could have been ten of them and he wouldn’t have cared.

Loud enough to startle the big one next to him he bellowed, “Is that surrogate for the dick you don’t have that’s dangling from your shoulder supposed to intimidate me?”

Baffled, the burly biker-type turned and said, “What?” as his friends also spun their stools toward the commotion. Every petrified eye in the place was on the lone antagonizer as the three men jumped up to confront him.

“Oh, right, you and the two grits with you are too stupid to know what ‘surrogate’ means. I’m not asking to stand in for you with your skank wife; I’m asking if you think your toy gun scares me?”

The trio had fantasized about any number of different scenarios playing out when they decided to stroll down the town’s main street while displaying their assault rifles in plain view. Being hostilely confronted by an unarmed man wasn’t one of those scenarios.

Dumbfounded, their ring leader managed to muster, “We’re just out enjoying the day and exercising our right to bear arms. Do you have a problem with that?”

“You’re not going to do anything whether I do or not”, he scoffed. “My father was a hunter; you’re just an attention-seeking freak. So here’s the deal. You’ve got five seconds to put the barrel in my mouth and pull the trigger or leave. If I’m still alive in five seconds and the three of you aren’t gone, I’m going to stab you in the throat with my fork and listen to the gurgling sound of you drowning in your own blood while beating those two to death with their own guns. Just give me the reason I’ve been begging for.”

And then he punctuated the insanity, leaning forward, opening wide to invite the gun’s barrel, and blaring, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh” directly into the man’s face.

They had no choice, and he knew it. They weren't killers, so they weren't going to shoot him. And never mind the numbers advantage; the second he called their bluff they had no interest in fighting.

“C’mon, let’s go. He ain’t worth it.”

Getting a final dig in as they tried their best to move quickly and discreetly toward the door, he taunted, “You’re right, fat boy. It’s not worth me doing exactly what I said I would.”

The momentary excitement over, he turned back to the counter and took another sip of coffee as if nothing had happened, but the rage simmered just below the surface. He breathed deeply and steadied his hand to keep from spilling.

“Wow mister, that was something else!”

Surely the hipster would go away and he could finally eat in peace if he didn’t acknowledge his presence.

Lingering annoyingly, his new admirer added, “It’s about time we stood up to those right-wing nut jobs and put them in their place.”

“We?” What did you do, tofu, besides sit there and piss your skinny jeans?

The kid may have been a naive idealist, but he didn’t have to have much life experience to realize he’d badly misread the room. He started backing away, but it was too late—the stranger had a fistful of his spotless “work” jacket and had yanked him forward and nearly off his feet. They were only inches apart, and the kid was helpless.

“There’s no ‘we’ here. If this place burned to the ground, I'd find a way out and leave you to die. How's that for getting canceled? I hate you and your rich little friends as much as I hate them. You just weren’t in my face disrupting my peace like they were. But now you are.”

“I’m sorry, man. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Please, let go of me.”

He released his grip on the jacket and gave a little shove, causing the kid to stumble backward. Their booth emptied in seconds as the group scrambled for the door, leaving several twenties on the table.

Shaking his head in disgust, he returned once more to the now-cold coffee. Too bad he didn't have a little whiskey to splash in it after the morning he'd had.

He started to motion to the waitress to freshen his cup when he realized there was no waitress. She must be hiding, petrified, in the back, he thought.

In fact, she wasn’t the only missing person. The restaurant had almost entirely emptied, and he knew he'd better leave in a hurry before the cops arrived. He felt a little bad about the commotion he’d caused, but mostly he was just irritated that there’d be no breakfast this morning. 

He pulled a five-dollar bill from his wallet and left it next to the cup. Bracing himself against winter’s chill, he trudged to the door and out into the cold, alone.