Monday, June 25, 2018

Drive Me Crazy

In these dank times, it's easy to forget some of the good stuff happening in the world.  Like how, in Saudi Arabia, women were finally allowed behind the wheel of a car.  This makes it legal, worldwide, for women to drive, and will lead to the creation of about 5,000 jobs in Saudi Arabia, according to the Arab News.

You go, girl!
No, literally go.
The light's green.
What are you doing?

I happen to like driving immensely so I'm pretty pleased to see this little token of equality.  As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."  

You might think this post is going to be about ladies in Saudi Arabia, but it's not.  It's actually about driving.

 Although, if any Saudi Arabian women are reading this, 
please acquaint yourself with this critically important hand gesture before getting on the road. 

 Also learn this face.

See, I have a lot of free time since I began freelance writing and one of my newest hobbies is actually driving Lyft.  Lyft is to Uber what Pepsi is to Coca-Cola.  They're fundamentally the same, although I would argue Lyft is a "friendlier" rideshare company, although, to be fair, I'm biased, as that's the one I drive for.

I have always enjoyed driving immensely and having a hobby that rakes in a little extra cash is nice.  This is also a hobby that forces me to have social contact and forces me to leave the house, both things that, as a writer, have become things I can go for days without doing if I choose.  According to my therapist, though, that's not healthy.

So today I'd like to tell a few of my Lyft stories and also dispense some wisdom as someone who uses Lyft as both a driver and a passenger.

Lyft is a rideshare service, available as an app on your phone, and it's cheaper than a taxi because, unlike a taxi company, it is made up of independent contractors using their own cars.

If you live in a big city (as I do) then Lyft is a fast, cheap option to get to where you're going.  Rideshares like Lyft and Uber have been instrumental in lowering drunk driving rates in some cities, which is definitely a good thing.

I got the idea to drive Lyft from two sources.  The first was from my maternal grandfather, who recently passed away... 

Old School Cool.

...and the second was from one of my favorite television shows, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Kimmy actually drives Uber but tomato, tomahto.

Since I started, I have given about 300 rides and have calculated my average pay as about $20/hour.  That's in Los Angeles, of course, and includes tips and bonuses.  I am a five-star driver, probably because I take Lyft with a degree of seriousness usually reserved for Liam Neeson or giraffes.

Driving Lyft has put me in contact with some pretty crazy people.  This shouldn't surprise you; lots of people who use Lyft are drunks trying to get home, and in a big city, you're bound to find a couple of nuts in the trail mix.  (Side note: I have been asked on many occasions if I ever felt like I was in danger.  Maybe this is just my natural, reckless, optimistic nature, but no, I never have.  Even with the awareness that cab driving has the highest murder rate of any profession, or at least, it's always in the top ten, along with logging, fishing, and being a black Jurassic Park employee.)

As is typical, the stories that stand out to me are the worst ones, although the vast majority of my rides are fun.  Even if my passengers don't want to talk (they usually do, though), I've got my tunes on the radio and, since I drive stick, I can lose myself in a fantasy where I'm Rocket Raccoon piloting the Rack n' Ruin through an asteroid field.  This is a technique for handling traffic I have discussed before.

One of my most recent insane stories involves meeting an honest-to-God Flat Earther.  He was clearly tweaking and he asked me if I believe the world was round, to which I laughed and said yes, utterly failing to recognize the barrage of nonsense that was incoming.  For the rest of the 30-minute ride, I was told:
  • The only "evidence" we have of the earth being round is "CGI" images from NASA.  (I asked why the government would spend the resources to lie to us about whether the earth is round or flat; I was told to do my own research.)
  • My passenger is/was a sound engineer for major music labels and has collaborated with Snoop Dogg, and also is/was an armed guard for a marijuana dispensary.  (He "puts his life on the line" every day, he said, and felt they should buy him lunch.)
  • Gravity has never been proven.  There is only density and buoyancy.  (???)
  • If gravity exists, why aren't flies smushed?  How do clouds stay up?  Wake up, sheeple!

At one point he asked me if it felt like I was spinning.
Apparently Flat Earthers also don't believe the world spins, I don't know.

This was the closest I've ever come to really feeling "unsafe."  Most of my bad fares were not crazy or drunk; they were just jerks.

Jerk Story #1:  

I picked up a guy in downtown Los Angeles right after a Dodgers game. The time was 3:30 pm. He informed me that his plane left LAX at 5 pm.

For those who don't know, this ride would take about 90 minutes, typically.

He had ordered a Lyft Line (aka the shared route). I had to pick up another person. He spent the whole ride swearing in the back seat while I Mad Maxed him to the airport. It was incredibly stressful.

I got him there at 4:22. 

I bent space and time to get this guy to his terminal and give him a chance to actually catch his plane.  I took multiple short-cuts not available on the GPS, cutting through downtown to avoid the 110 freeway, and turning onto 27th St. to take a secret FasTrack-only merge lane onto the highway.  The guy, on his phone, kept yelling "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" while I yelled back "TRUST ME!"  He had the app open and was watching the Estimated Time of Arrival slowly ticking backwards, as I reversed time for him by using every trick up my sleeve. It was one of my proudest Lyft moments; the whole trip, including the pick up of a second person, was less than an hour.

No tip.  Not even a thank-you.

By the way, don't bitch at me that you're "in a hurry" if I've sat idling in the car for more than 5 minutes waiting for your late ass.  I'm gonna do my best but I'm only a minor miracle worker.

Jerk Story #2:  

I pick up this guy.  He's wearing a suit. He's holding a cup of Starbucks coffee. He immediately starts asking me how long I've been driving, how often I drive, if I make good money, et cetera. I'm friendly. I answer.

Then he starts saying how most Lyft drivers are stupid because don't I know that E V E R Y T H I N G is tax deductible? My phone! My car! Everything, because I use it for Lyft! And I'm a "business owner!"

(I tried to interject and say, no, I'm an independent contractor; I do not "own" Lyft. But he was on a roll.)

"That's the problem with millennials," he said. "They're all so entitled and ignorant. They could save so much money if they just did some research. And you grew up with the internet; it's all right there, at your fingertips, but you're too lazy to use it."

Again, at this point, I tried to interject again. I did not grow up with the internet. Not all millennials have had universal experiences. I was born in the 80's. Yes, I'm a millennial, but this guy kept talking about how "the reason millennial have such shitty attention spans is that they grew up with video games and it rotted their brains!" I never had a gaming console or the internet growing up, not until college; I got my first smart phone in 2013.

"That's such a millennial thing to say!" he said. "Why are all millennials so ashamed? They have no self-confidence. Just own it. A lot of great things came out of your generation and it's not your fault you're so lazy and entitled."

It was an hour-long ride into downtown Los Angeles. At some point, he complained that I didn't have a FasTrack so we could use the express lanes. ("It's a deductible! You'd know that if you did your research! Millennial don't take anything seriously, like, it's your business, why wouldn't you want to take that seriously, invest some time into learning how to be a business owner?") (Again. Lyft drivers are not business owners. Being an independent contractor does NOT automatically make you a business owner.)  (Also I had my FasTrack in the glove box that I simply hadn't installed in the car yet, but I was sure as hell not going to pull it out while I was being told what a stupid, lazy, entitled idiot I was.)

He literally called me entitled and stupid in the same breath as demanding to know why I didn't have a FasTrack, like I owed it to him; he also complained about how slow traffic was, which of course, I have no control over. (He did not see the irony.)

After a one-hour-long rant about how entitled I am, and me politely "mm-hm"ing and letting him insult and try to bait me... you guessed it.

No thank- you, and no tip.

Side note: I would like to pre-emptively reassure my readers that I do indeed deduct the mileage I accrue while driving Lyft.  The guy in my story just assumed I did not deduct anything. Nor did I feel the need to correct him, because it's not anyone's business how I do my taxes. Anyway, 90% of his ranting was about how stupid, lazy, and entitled millennials are, not about tax codes.

Bonus jerk story:  

Someone actually stuck a piece of chewed gum onto one of my cloth seats.  Like, you couldn't swallow it, or spit it out the window, or ask me for a napkin?  This is literally, from the viewpoint of the passenger, my livelihood, and you just left trash in it.  You know I have other fares to pick up, right?  Clearly, whoever did this was a psychopath.  I'm not even exaggerating.  That is literally psychopathic behavior from a person who utterly fails to give a shit about others.  The fact that they hid it from me means they knew what they were doing was wrong, but did it anyway, because of a literal incapacity for empathy.  


If you don't want to be a jerk, here's some tips for you, as a passenger:
  •  Don't eat, drink, paint your nails, do your make-up, or spray perfume in the car.  It's a public space and your driver doesn't want to have to clean up after you.  It's not only rude to the driver but to future passengers.  (Yes, I have had people painting their nails in my car before.)
  • Don't listen to music or watch YouTube videos on your phone without headphones.  Again, this is just plain obnoxious.
  • Don't rush your driver.  They're going to do their best, but telling them you're late and expect them to fix it only tends to stress them out.
  • Tip.  It's a goddamn service and you're expected to tip.  Drivers keep 100% of the tips; they do not go to the app.
  • Unless you have a legit complaint, give them a good rating.  The platform requires drivers to maintain above a 4.6 rating to remain drivers, so "four stars" is actually failing.
  • If you want your driver to shut up, tell them.  If you hate the radio station, tell them.  If you want more air conditioning, tell them.  I have only ever gotten 2 bad ratings and both were people complaining about my "talking too much."  If they'd only asked me, I would have happily acquised.  Again, most Lyft drivers are pretty desperate to maintain a good rating, so if you need anything, it's better to ask than to stay silent and bitch afterwards.
And if you're a driver who wants to know how to get that sweet, sweet 5-star rating, here's some brain hacks for you:

Lesson #1: have impeccable situational awareness.
  •  People will almost always sit in the back, so between rides, move the front seat back.  When they go to get in the car, move the seat forward for them.
  • Ask them if they're "getting enough air" back there.
  • Don't bother with having mints or water in the car.  Some drivers do this.  I think it's a cheap tactic to get a good rating.  Focus on the service, not the hand-outs.
  • Exception to the above rule: carry aspirin/ibuprofen and phone chargers.  People who have headaches appreciate this IMMENSELY.  As for phone chargers, I recommend using external battery packs, which will charge phones faster than the car will.  2/3rds of people who ask about phone chargers will be iPhone users, so when you hand them the battery pack with the cord, make sure it's an Android cord.  When they express dismay, say, "I got you, fam," and whip out the iPhone charger.  Like adjusting the seat, this is a subtle way to call attention to the service you are providing them, and makes tips more likely.
  • Drive manual.  People LOVE this.  If they comment on your driving manual, say something like, "Well, you're paying me to know how to drive a car, so...!"  This pretty much universally gets an appreciative laugh.
  • Wear a bangle or bracelet on your right hand to draw attention to the fact that you drive manual.
  • Wear a hat.  People like the idea of a "chauffeur."  Make sure it's a brimmed hat, not just a cap.  Seriously.  Nice clothes can up your tips because people feel like it's more "professional."
  • DON'T use an air freshener.  They are generally overpowering.  Just spray some air fresher in the car like, once.  Having some shit on the vents is going to make the car cloying.
  • When people exit, thank them for riding with you and wish them a great day.  If it's hot out, tell them to "stay cool!"  These tiny gestures of appreciation go a long way.

If they ask to go through a Drive-Thru, do it.  It's fun as hell.

In conclusion, if you like driving and socializing, Lyft is a fantastic way to supplement your income and sight-see your way through your city.  You get a few good stories out of it and, hey, it gets you out of the house.  (Side note: the best/weirdest tip I ever received was 2 brand-new, in-the-package sex toys.  The lady who was riding apparently owned a sex shop and that was her standard tip for drivers who seem "cool.")  But you have to be prepared to handle the occasional asshole; that being said, it's also spectacular training for becoming a master negotiator and people-person.  I definitely think I've become a better listener and more capable of handling whatever bullshit is thrown my way thanks to driving for Lyft.  If you've never tried a rideshare service, try it out next time you go drinking.  You might just love it.

Especially if you grew up playing driver simulators where the goal was to get 5 stars.

Monday, June 18, 2018

On Refugees

About two and a half years ago I got into an argument with someone on Facebook.

Shocking, I know.

What prompted it was that I had posted an article about France re-committing itself to taking in refugees following a terrorist attack that had left 129 dead, and I had lauded them (the French) as true heroes.  Someone who I didn't know (presumably the racist aunt of a friend - we all have one of those racist Facebook aunts) got into an argument with me.

 They post a lot of "memes" with Looney Tunes or Minions spouting Cathy-style phrases. 
The Shut Up I'm Still Talking Facebook page is a goldmine for this kind of thing.
If it's satire it's some of the best artwork of our generation and its creator is a savant.

Now seems like a good time to take about immigrants and, more specifically, refugees.

Racist Aunt is very often a Christian who likes to talk about what The Bible says.

In case you were wondering, it says this:

Exodus 22:21 – “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien; for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Leviticus 19:33-34 and 24:22 – "When the alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

And don't get me STARTED on Deuteronomy.  (Chapter ten: "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing.  And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt."  Chapter twenty-four:  " Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns... Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge...."  Chapter twenty-seven: "Cursed is anyone who withholds justice from the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow.”)

ANYWAYS.  I commented on the story by pointing out that history is repeating itself.  Before World War 2, most Americans did not want to accept Jewish refugees.  And we all know what happened.

Why, I pondered, did some people show such solidarity with France, but not Syria? People are people regardless of skin color. For civilians caught in the crossfire of war and terrorism, we as humans have a commitment to help our brothers and sisters.  Most immigrants are refugees, escaping from incredibly bad situations.  Why don't we want to help them?

Enter Racist Aunt.

"Really?  You don't know why?" she asked.

"I assumed racism," I answered glibly.  (This is the correct answer.)

Then she cited 9/11.

"So," I said, "you think that, due to the actions of 20-30 people, we should let hundreds of thousands of people die?  And you think that we should give in to fear of terrorism and let innocent people, including children and babies, face it alone without trying to help them?

"1/4th of the world is Muslim. Do you think 1/4th of the world is terrorists? Do you think it's okay to sentence people to death, sickness, and starvation because of fear of a statistically unlikely occurrence?

"It's not only morally reprehensible but also unpatriotic to give in to the terrorists and say, Okay, you scared us, we give up, we won't help. France is still accepting refugees even after their attacks, because they claim it is their humanitarian duty. We should let compassion lead us, not fear."

(This is all copy-pasted from the conversation.  This is the precise argument I made.  In retrospect, I also wish I had pointed out that terrorist organizations prey on vulnerable populations; they often recruit young men by promising to look after their families.  Refusing to allow in refugees leaves them in vulnerable positions where they can be radicalized.)

Anyway, Racist Aunt, overwhelmed, no doubt, by such SAT words as "humanitarian," replied by pointing out that the House overwhelmingly approved a bill to suspend the program that allows Syrian and Iraqi refugees into U.S.   (Not entirely accurate; the bill limits but does not suspend the program.)
I replied that I think that makes the House a bunch of cowards, then, and proves nothing, other than we value fear more than we value justice.

Now Racist Aunt got serious.  

I'm going to copy-paste her Very Serious™ explanation to me, typos and all.

 "Okay, look, it is not about racism or fear and that we should have empathy. It's about terrorism and it's real. So common sense tells us to hold our horses. Let's not go at this blindly. How many times do the terrorist have to prove to us there goals. i don't know about you, but they don't have to tell me twice. Am I scared, no, I just enjoy my freedom as is, thank you. I can go on and on and on....i am sure we will find a solution. on a final note, I didn't notice any of the muslim countries standing united with France or being upset by the killings in France. I'm just saying...."

...well, first of all, Racist Aunt™, saying it's "not about fear" but it's "about terrorism" is contradictory.  Because terrorism (which takes its root from "terror") is all about using fear and intimidation to further political or religious viewpoints.

But that's pedantic.  I'd rather talk facts.  And here are the facts.  

The chances of you being attacked by a terrorist are roughly 1 in 20 million. The chances of you drowning in a bathtub are 1 in 800,000. The chances of you dying in a car accident are 1 in 19,000. Should we also ban the import of bathtubs and cars because there's a small chance of danger?

Also, Muslim countries that stand by France include Iran, Iraq, Qutar, Jordan, and several states in the Arab league. France traditionally has excellent alliances with the Middle East. 

Educate yourself, Racist Aunt™.

...after I dropped several links to statistics, including the one above, and ended with "educate yourself," she did not respond.  I assume she went to go educate herself.

Go educate yourself is the new go fuck yourself.

Although this whole interaction happened two and a half years ago, it's still relevant today since we're becoming increasingly aware of immigrants being detained and families separated.
By the way, separating children from their parents is a human rights violation, as defined by the Geneva Convention.  And the UN has asked our country, America, to stop committing war crimes.


You should be.

Never fear.  You can help.  RAICES (Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) is the largest immigration legal services provider in Texas. This non-profit provides  advocacy and fair legal representation for immigrants, and directly funds bonds to allow parents to reclaim their detained children.  They also work to get these children and parents the psychological care they will need after this experience.

They started a Facebook donation page with the initial goal set to $1500, which is the minimum amount of a bond to get a parent out of a detention center so that they can be reunited with their child.  Currently, over a half-million people have donated and raised close to $20 million dollars.

Learn more here.

This is the power of people doing something.  Like France, we have identified an injustice and we can buckle in and work together to solve it.

As Mr. Rogers said, look for the helpers.  We are the helpers.  We can help.

Fear is useless.  Fear is temporary.  Glory is forever.  Let's be on the right side of history this time.  Let's scatter kindness and compassion like glitter, and let's hope it sticks.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Spring Cleaning

Confession time: I love the show Hoarders.

The truth is, I love nearly all of A&E's semi-exploitative dramas, from Intervention to My 600-Lb. Life.  If you don't know what network A&E is because you, like most, have switched from a cable bundle service to a subscription network like Hulu, Netflix, or HBO, then you might remember that A&E is the network that brought us such treasures as "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and "Criss Angel: Mind Freak."

 Listen, I know they're dumb shows, but the heart wants what it wants, okay?

Anyway, they've moved away from the hilarity of Dog and Criss to bring us shows like Hoarders, Intervention, and My 600-Lb. Life.  All three shows follow the same formula: it shows us people who are in crisis, documents the crisis, then shows attempts to intervene and turn their lives around.

One of the reasons I love these shows is that there's a motivating aspect to them.  Yes, we're rubber-necking at another person's tragedy and, yes, that's kinda bad maybe.  But at the same time, they're being paid and they're being provided with a degree of help in return, so this is why I say the shows are "semi" exploitative.

And while there's surely plenty of people who watch only to feel smugly superior, there are also probably some, like me, who find those stories motivating.

If you don't believe me, look up the Zsalynn Whitworthe episode of My 600-Lb. Life.
She is just the sweetest, most positive lady ever. 

No one (hopefully) wants to be so fat they can't move, or have a house so crowded with stuff that they can't navigate it.  The home and the body and the mind are all tied together in my opinion, and since dropping 25 pounds, I've been giving some consideration to my home life.

(Part of that consideration has come from the fact that I can no longer fit into any of my clothes; when you go on a diet, your pants all inexplicably become looser.)

Stepping into your house is like stepping into your own mind.  It is a representation of the things and materials you use, like, and interact with.  So it's important to maintain it as you would your own self.

I mean, I assume that's why they call it emotional baggage, right?

 This concept is heavily explored in one of my favorite video games of all time, Psychonauts. 

With this in mind (ha ha, mind), I have recently begun a spring cleaning of epic proportions. 

Here's the major things we got rid of:
  • Clothes: items that no longer fit, are worn out, or have not been worn in 6+ months.
  • Books: books that have not been read in the last year, books that we would not loan out to friends, books that wouldn't make a Top 20 reading list, books that have little re-read value, books that are worn, textbooks from college that, let's face it, are 12 editions outdated and now worth nothing.
  • Craft stuff: any project that was put off for more than 6 months was either trashed or has been revived.  If not completed by the end of the month, it will be trashed.
  • Gifts and repairables: any item that we have been holding onto with the intent to gift it to someone, or to "fix" it, and haven't in the last 6 months got trashed.
  • Obligatory items: anything that was being held on to due to a sense of obligation instead of true sentimental value was considered to be holding us emotional hostages, and was therefore trash.
  • "But I might need it" items.  Trash.  Shit can be replaced when it's time to be replaced, but anything not in use was deemed unworthy and didn't make the cut.
  • Crap-that's-in-the-closet: we all have it.  Empty your closets today and behold the mystical wonders of shit you should have thrown out years ago!  (Remember, "decluttering" doesn't mean "finding a place for."  It means clearing up space.  Having a full closet does not a clean house make.)
Purge, purge, purge!

Remember, you'll die eventually, and you can't take your shit with you.

Letting go of stuff is really hard, I'll admit.  Here are some tips and tricks I use to get rid of stuff.

20 Questions To De-Clutter Your House 
  1.  Does this bring me joy?
  2.  Does this have functional use?
  3.  Does this have value?
  4.  Have I used this item in the last 6 months?
  5.  Has this item been prominently displayed in the house, or has it been in storage?
  6.  Did I even remember I had this item?
  7.  Am I holding onto this item because it needs fixed?
  8.  Am I holding onto this item because it is part of a project or craft?
  9.  Have I been planning on selling/gifting this item for more than 6 months?
  10.  Is this item cheap, readily available, and/or easy to replace if I trash it?
  11.  Do I have other items similar to this?
  12.  If I didn't own this item, and went shopping, would I buy it now?
  13.  How much space is this item occupying, and could that space be used better?
  14.  Am I spending any time or money on the maintenance or storage of the item?  Is it worth it?
  15.  If I had a single moving truck to put all my things into, would this make the cut?
  16.  If this was broken, would I fix it?
  17.  Do I have this due to a sense of sentimental obligation and not true love for the item?
  18.  Do I know someone who would benefit from having this more than me?
  19.  Do I feel that this item represents me and significantly improves my life?
  20.  Is this something I want to share with my friends or have ever shared with, or shown off to, my friends?  Does it aid with social interactions or hobbies?
Protip: Don't watch Toy Story before you begin cleaning.

Things To Do With The Shit You Aren't Using 
  1. Choose between item A and item B if they are similar.  Get rid of one. 
  2. Donate it.  Goodwills are plentiful.
  3. Throw it out.
  4. Give it away.
  5. Sell it.
How I have gotten rid of things by selling them or giving them away:
  • LetGo is a decent app.  You get a LOT of people asking questions and a lot fewer buyers, but I have managed to sell one or two items.  It's nice because it's local and you get cold, hard cash. 
  • eBay is surprisingly still a thing.  I have made several sales there already.  The downside is the shipping.  But some people, I suppose, prefer shipping to the meet-ups necessary for LetGo.
  • If you have a large list of friends on FaceBook, there's a marketplace you can list items.  I have not had any luck actually getting rid of anything here.  Honestly, if you already interact with the people on your friend list, then the marketplace won't help you much.  I have had two strangers contact me with questions but there was no follow-up.
I use a lot of the tricks from the show Hoarders to declutter.  Handle things quickly, made decisions quickly, don't reminisce.  Just go.  No more than 5-10 seconds per item you're pulling out of the closet.  I often play "Hoarders" in the background and pretend that Cory Chalmers or Matt Paxton is breathing down my throat.  Works like a charm.

I wish I had taken before and after pictures of my house, Hoarders-style, but failed to have the forethought.  In any case, everything is clean.  We have a ton of shelf space now, which is nice, and I was able to hold on to one utterly nonsensical item: Jaffy, a four-foot-tall stuffed giraffe, who, let me tell you, takes up a TON of space.

 This is my desk before the cleaning.  Note the giraffe, the guitar, and the bow.
...I seem far interesting than I likely am.

 How could I get rid of Jaffy when Seamus loves him?  
And he's wearing such a dapper little hat!

Andrew has also been on board the cleaning spree, because he's motivated to clear space in the closet for a 3-D printer.

I'm typing this from my newly cleaned desk.  Having a lot of functional, working space in the house makes me feel really good about myself.  It also eases a lot of my anxiety about having people over.  I highly recommend decluttering.

 Behold!  Functional desk space!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Writing Goals and the End of the World

Hey, Blog.

I turned 30 years old recently. I had 6 people attend my birthday, which means I got two friends a decade over the course of my life.

I was very disappointed and a lot of people said the problem was that my party was on Memorial Day weekend. They're right. I should have just rescheduled the date of my birth thirty years ago. My bad.

Anyway, I'll talk more about my birthday and the hilarious depressive episode that followed in my next post...

Memes!  Memes!  Memes!  Memes!

...but for this week I wanted to post a series I'm working on.  Or maybe a book.  I don't fucking know yet.

Andy and I recently went over to my neighbor Elizabeth's house and we were talking about my writing and somehow the topic of The Fifth Horseman came up.  The Fifth Horseman was an idea I had two years ago that I began with gusto and then got sad because of my job and stopped.

Classic Tony!

Anyways, the whole thing was inspired by a prompt on /r/WritingPrompts.  The prompt:

An ancient evil awakens. 
A modern evil doesn't like competition.

I wrote a short story and was later contacted by a script writer who wanted to turn it into a series.  That never materialized (because of my aforementioned depression) but it laid out the groundwork for the series. I'd like to post what I have here so far so that it's publicly available, and I'm going to keep working on it. Maybe it'll someday be self-published on Amazon and I'll be able to sell six copies, one to each of my friends.

Dream big.

Here's the chapter index, notes, and first two chapters as I wrote them. Really looking forward to starting this project again.

The idea

You might recall that in the Book of Revelation, chapter 6, four "horsemen of the apocalypse" are described.

My idea is as follows: The three "original" horsemen, Pestilence, War, and Famine, work under Death.  Recently, they receive three new counterparts who are essentially opposite sides of the coin: Disconnection, Waste, and Indulgence.  They correlate to seven sins and seven virtues, with each two Horsemen sharing two.  (Note that Indulgence and Famine share two of the sins and virtues equally; Pestilence was never given one because it is later revealed he shares Envy/Kindness with Disconnection.)

The main conflict of the story is that Pestilence hates his replacement, Disconnection.

The Riders and their sins and virtues are linked as follows (with each chapter exploring the connections):

War - Pride - Humility
Waste - Sloth - Diligence

Pestilence - The Main Character
Disconnection - Envy - Kindness

Famine - Gluttony / Greed - Charity /Temperance
Indulgence - Greed / Lust - Charity /Temperance

Death - Wrath - Patience / Persistence

The outline

  1. Meet Disconnection
  2. Seven Horsemen
  3. War and Indulgence
  4. War and Waste
  5. Famine and Indulgence
  6. Famine and Waste
  7. For Conquest and Glory
  8. Pestilence Goes to School
  9. Pestilence Goes to a Ball Game
  10. Pestilence Goes to the Circus
  11. Pestilence and the Horses
  12. Pestilence Files a Formal Complaint
  13. Pestilence and Death
  14. Pestilence and Humanity
  15. Pestilence and Disconnection 

Chapter One/ Pilot / Pitch
(the one that started it all)

The door to room 608 opened slowly, casting a soft beam of fluorescent light on its occupants. Mark Horowitz, age 89, lay sleeping on the hospital bed, his heart monitor beeping out a steady tattoo.

The man who entered room 608 was not a doctor, but might have been a patient. He was gaunt and bony. His skin had a grey, waxy appearance. His teeth were too widely spaced and appeared too loose to be healthy; his eyes were rheumy and slightly yellow. His nails were too long. His hair, black, was greasy, thinning. His breath rattled in his chest, and from every pore came a sickly sweet smell that was reminiscent of rotting things. He was not wearing a patient's gown, however. He was wearing a neatly tailored pinstripe suit.

"Hey gramps."

The man in the suit stopped by Mark Horowitz's bed and noticed, for the first time, a young man sitting beside him. The young man was in jeans; his t-shirt was well-worn but clean. He had blond hair held into a stubby mohawk with gel. His chin had a few lightly colored hairs, and it was clear he was attempting, and failing at, a beard. His face was an open, honest one; he looked like a guy who might be on the football team but wasn't the star quarterback. A handsome (if forgettable) fellow.

"Hello," said the man in the pinstripe suit in a gravely voice. This prompted a wet, hacking cough. He grabbed one of the hospital bed's guard rails to steady himself. His hands shook.

The young man didn't even watch. His attention had been diverted to the phone in his hands, where he was playing Candy Crush.

"So you're Pestilence, huh?"

"H-how... did you know?" asked the man in the suit between coughs. Shakily, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He offered it to the younger man, but he waved it away.

"I've heard about you, from Famine. I'm Disconnection. But they all call me Dis."

"A pleasure," gasped Pestilence, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.

"Yeah, yeah. Sorry you wasted your time but he's going to be okay."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Mark." Disconnection twisted in the chair so that his legs dangled over the armrest. He tilted back his head, holding his phone over his face. The screen illuminated his blond goatee, or what was supposed to be a goatee. His fingers texted rapidly as he spoke. "The doctors are going to get him a liver transplant so the cirrhosis is probably not going to get him. Sorry to disappoint you."

"They're curing him?" asked Pestilence, dumbfounded. "But... the pneumonia..."

"Antibiotics. Hey, do you have FaceBook?"

Pestilence looked down at Mark. He didn't look 89. He looked much younger, and his face was peaceful.

Pestilence looked up at Dis. "But where are his grandkids? They weren't vaccinated. They're supposed to be here, catching the measles."

"Sorry bro. They're not coming. Aiden's got a raid and Mackenzie is a mod for Advice Animals, so they're sort of busy."

"But he's dying."

"No he's not. Do you see Death here? Nope. Because the doctors took care of it. Modern medicine, man. It's something else. Hey, what's your Twitter handle?"

Pestilence shook his head. "I don't have a cell phone."

Dis looked up briefly in surprise. "For real? Oh man. Well... uh, good for you, I guess."

Pestilence reached out and touched Mark's face. His brow furrowed in his sleep, and the heart monitor began beeping more rapidly. In an instant, the door flew open and a nurse rushed in. She pushed Pestilence out of the way without a second thought and bent over Mark to check on him.

Mark's eyes fluttered open. "Sheila?" he gasped.

"You're okay," said the nurse, patting his chest. "It's just me. You're just fine. We're taking good care of you."

"Where's Sheila?"

"She went home, Mr. Horowitz. She'll be back first thing tomorrow, though, I'm sure."

Mark reached up weakly. "Could you stay with me?"

Disconnection grinned at Pestilence and wiggled his eyebrows. The nurse's pager began beeping. She pulled her cell phone from her pocket, checked it, and shook her head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Horowitz. I'm a bit busy right now, but I'll come back shortly." She began texting on her phone, and walked out of the room with her eyes focused on the screen.

Pestilence and Disconnection looked at each other.

"It's incredible, isn't it? People." Disconnection paused to take a selfie. "You bring them war, famine, floods, plagues, whatever, and somehow, they always find the silver lining. They unite and they grow stronger. They feed off each other. But then, you give them access to information, and it all falls apart. Knowledge is power, and power is corrupting. Humans love information, and they love stimulation. They crave amusement. Their natural curiosity is all-consuming, and they poison themselves with it. Give them access to the media, to each other, and everything good about them evaporates in a cloud of liking and sharing and inflating their sorry little egos for some virtual validation. You shrink their world, and you shrink their very souls. Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it easy?"

Pestilence took a few shaky steps back. "You... you're a monster. That's not how we do this. That's not how we do any of this! We're supposed to cause them hardship, not... not turn them against each other!"

Disconnection stood, his face illuminated by the screen of his phone, his grin manic in the electronic glow. "Wanna know a secret?" he whispered.

Pestilence shook his head, rooted to the ground, unable to run. Disconnection took a few steps toward him, his phone beeping softly over Mark's heart monitor, and spoke anyway.

"...I'm really good at Flappy Bird."

Bits and Pieces

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to War.

Pestilence needed to talk to the others alone. That much was obvious.

For millennia, for longer than time itself, he and the other horsemen had ridden throughout the world, testing people, wreaking havoc, and watching with pride as they failed and the humans overcame. But now, it seemed, things were different. The end of times? Finally, after all this time… the great, long good-bye?

“WAR!” he shouted, to be heard over the revving of the Harley. War sat on her cherry-red motorcycle in the parking lot of the Diner on Olive Tree Lane and watched the other departing, appearing to enjoy the noise she was creating.

“WHAT?” she yelled back.


“OKAY. BAR ON 8TH TONIGHT,” she yelled.

“NO, NOW!” yelled Pestilence. But War ignored him. She backed out the bike gently, then gunned it out of the parking lot without a turn signal. Pestilence cringed as she zipped neatly across three lanes of traffic, causing two cars to nearly collide. The drivers got out and

[Section lost.]

Pestilence covered his mouth with his once-white handkerchief and coughed. War ignored him. She held her cigarette between her index and middle finger, casually. Just below the surface, one could sense an incredible power, a tension that needed only the smallest spark to ignite. Her muscles were coiled like a large cat waiting to spring; everything about her bearing screamed that her seemingly casual stance was purposeful and intended, and that it would take little to break her from it and unleash her fury.

“You’re honestly okay with them?” asked Pestilence.

“Of course. As far as I’m concerned, they’re excellent allies.”

“But… but do you think their approaches are… ah, I don’t know… honorable?”

War let out a sharp bark of a laugh. “Ha! Honorable? Honorable is a dirty little word. Honor is what I promise young boys and vengeful families. Honor is the fool’s gold I use to gild their weapons and to shade their eyes. You think honor is anything more more than one of my tools? Since the dawn of human consciousness, since my conception, honor has meant only one thing to me. It’s the pride of humans, the pride that lets me exploit them. Do you think I could coax anyone into an early grave without it? If you think honor is anything but a comforting lie and a call to arms, you’re mistaken, Pest. Honor is…”

She blew out a puff of smoke and, with a hand, waved it away into the cold, still night.

Pestilence looked down. “You’ve done good, too.”

“Well, of course. Progress marches on like an army. People band together against common enemies, it’s true. But pride is the most powerful of human emotions. People betray each other, and seek vengeance, and they do it all in the name of honor. And that sense of pride is far more powerful than any sense of compassion they have. I draw men to me and they come, gladly, bearing spears and arrows and guns and bombs, and they gleefully mow each other down while I laugh and laugh.” She smiled. It was a wide, wet, red smile. “Heroes.” She laughed, low and throaty. “The prideful little heroes. They fight, and I win. I always win.”

From Chapter 7: Pestilence talks to Waste.

Pestilence was struggling to light his lighter when a flame ignited beneath his cupped hands. He looked up to see Waste holding out a plastic lighter. She made sure his was lit before she lit her own. It was the last in the pack; she tossed aside the empty pack without a second glance. The breeze blew it away down the block.

“You don’t like me,” she said pensively. It was a statement, not a question, so Pestilence didn’t respond. “It’s alright. No one likes any of us, really. But we perform an important role, you know.” She nodded, agreeing with herself. “I, for example. I’m the result of progress, and of convenience, and of automated, streamlined, industrial processes. All of those things are considered good, so why fret over the byproduct? I give back to people their leisure time. I remove the need for skilled labor, or for personal responsibility. Mine’s a sterile, prepackaged, disposable, one-time-use world. Isn’t that a nice, convenient thing?”

Pestilence said nothing.

“You might think I’m stepping on your toes. I know that disposables and one-time-use products have really damaged the infection game for you. But we could be great together. Instead of picking them off individually, we can slowly poison the lot of them, all together. It could be your magnum opus, Pest. This doesn’t have to be personalized. It can be streamlined, just like everything else. An assembly-line of human deterioration. The greatest human folly is their own laziness. They crave boredom, and they crave leisure, and they’re willing to destroy their own habitat to get more of it. The air and the water, the food, everything. And radiation. Oh, Pest… don’t you see how much potential there is?”

“It’s not meant to be a process. It’s supposed to be personal” said Pestilence gruffly. “I infect humans. Not the water or the air.”

“If you truly believed in making it personal, how much more personal can it be than this? They choose the easiest and most convenient option and it leads to their own downfall. They drive their cars and eat their hamburgers and never think twice about it, but they’re the one swirling around the drain they’ve created. I think that’s beautiful.” Her face broke into a wide grin. “Falling autumn leaves, dry and ashy black, signal one great, final winter.”

Chapter Two: 
Seven Horsemen

The door to bus line 608 opened slowly with a pneumatic hiss to let on the waiting passenger. The passenger boarded gratefully and, with shaking hands, pulled out a well-worn leather wallet. Slowly, painfully, his knuckles gnarled with arthritis and shaking faintly, he counted out a handful of dirty coins to put into the till. Having paid his fare, he made his way toward the back of the bus, using the stainless-steel poles to steady himself, pausing occasionally to pull up his slacks, which were far too large for him.

Pestilence was not an attractive man.

He never had been, but tens of thousands of years had taken its toll. His skin was pulled too tightly over his skin and was pale to a point of sickness. His black hair was thinning badly and was perpetually greasy. His white dress shirt had a slightly yellow stain on its front of indeterminate origin.

Pestilence was a man people looked on with equal parts revulsion and pity, which was precisely the look he was going for. Back in the day, he'd walked through plague cities on a pure white horse that only served to emphasize his sickness with its vigor. People had fled him in droves. It was worth the cost of the horse. (He went through about two a year. He was dreadful at keeping things alive, be they houseplants or stallions.)

Nowadays, though, with horses out of style, he had developed a certain degree of fondness for the public transit system. He watched with grandfatherly enjoyment as people coughed on the seats, the poles, and each other. Occasionally a child would lick something while a distracted mother stared out the window. It was an elegant system and one of the last bastions of humanity untouched by the development of germ theory.

Of course, it was a bit slow. Pestilence arrived at the Diner on Olive Tree Lane twenty minutes late, but there was no avoiding that.

He disembarked slowly, hacking wetly into a once-white handkerchief. As the bus pulled away in a cloud of smoke and dust, a small girl in braids waved from the window, nose pressed against the glass. He waved back, then turned toward the diner.

His companions were already there. He could pick out War a million miles away; her cherry-red Harley was parked aggressively close to the handicap spot, daring anyone to touch or ticket it. She had always had a flare for the dramatic. If she could, then no doubt, she would have taken an elephant or a tank. She would have fit perfectly riding a bomb to their meetings and waving a cowboy hat in the air; there was no doubt in Pestilence's mind that her Harley was the loudest model, the Hog to end all Hogs.

Parked more conservatively two spots down was a shiny new blue SUV. A sticker on the back bumper showed a little cartoon hand giving a thumbs-up. Pestilence wasn't sure why, but that sticker evoked a sense of dread in him.

Beside the SUV was black van. The black van had a peeling "End World Hunger NOW!" bumper sticker next to a "no GMOs" and "Living Gluten-free!" sticker. Cute, thought Pestilence. Famine had a tendency to hop onto any fad diet he could get his hands on, taking them to dangerous extremes whenever possible. Lately, when he wasn't on safari, he spent his time working from home, where he managed a series of "pro-ana" web forums.

There was a purple BMW and a bright yellow Hummer parked between the van and the green Kia Rio at the far end of the lot. The Kia was dirty, paling its green to more of a grey color. The last time he'd seen her, she'd had a Corvair, in the same color, and in the same desperate need of a wash.

Pestilence let himself into the diner. It was uncreatively called "The Diner," although those that went there called it "The Diner on Olive Tree Lane" to distinguish it from the other Diner across town on 3rd Street.

It was mid-afternoon, a brisk autumn day, and the place was empty except for one very large party in the corner. A brightly smiling hostess began to get a menu, but Pestilence waved her off and pointed to his group, unable to talk due to a fit of surprised coughing.

Concealing her disgust, the hostess took him to the table and sat him down and went off as quickly as she could to get him some water.

"Well, look who's here!" exclaimed Famine jovially, consulting his wrist watch with an exaggerated manner. Famine was tall, lean man with a shaved head who was often mistaken for an athlete. He was well-dressed in a slim-fit European suit. Online, he went as "Raven93," and doctored pictures of pretty girls who were impossibly, skeletally thin, except when he was writing propaganda for Communist countries, in which case he went as "Comrade" and doctored pictures of pretty girls who weren't impossibly, skeletally thin.

"Hi, Fam. Hi, War," said Pestilence, fiddling uncomfortably with his silverware. There were more people than he'd bargained for here, and he wasn't sure how to feel about that. There had always been four of them. Now there were seven.

"Have you met Dis?" asked War perkily. War was pretty. War had always been pretty. She had high cheekbones and a gaze of unwavering, determined nobility. Her hair was a leonine mess of red curls and her nails were perfectly manicured. She could make anything beautiful. She could convince any young man that he only need to protect his country to have her, and regularly roped Pestilence and Famine into her schemes. Pestilence had her to thank for a very successful Civil War in the 1800s.

"We've met," said Pestilence gloomily.

"And yet, you still haven't friended me!" exclaimed Disconnection with mock upset. Pestilence realized who the blue SUV belonged to, and felt sick. Disconnection didn't notice; he was texting on his phone. "I brought friends," he added, his eyes fixed on the screen.

"Hi. Indulgence." A rather chubby young man reached across the table to shake Pestilence's hand. Pestilence didn't even have time to cough in it. Indulgence had a round face with a sort of desperate smile, and exuded a nervousness normally reserved for little dogs. He seemed both embarrassed and desperate to be liked. His clothes were designer and more garish even than War's; Pestilence thought of the purple BMW and knew immediately the kind of person he was dealing with.

"A pleasure," he lied. "And you are..."

"Waste," she said. She was a wisp of a thing, with heavy-lidded eyes and a fairly haughty demeanor. Her hair was black and perfectly straight. Her hands looked like she played piano; one of them was wrapped around a Starbucks cup. She had the sort of posture that Victorian ladies would have died for.

"Bit of a crowd?" suggested Pestilence awkwardly, not sure how to ask the others what the hell they thought they were doing.

"This is nothing," said Indulgence quickly. He looked immediately embarrassed at his outburst, and took to the plate of cheese fries in front of him like there was an antidote hidden at the bottom.

Beside him, the last member of their party patted Pestilence's hand. She was old, as old as time, and looked the part. She didn't speak much. Pestilence wasn't sure whether her pat was a gesture of support, comfort, or warning.

"Times, they are a-changin'," said Famine with characteristic chipperness. "Honestly, Pest, you might find some of their methods helpful. Tell them about WoW, Indy."

Indulgence had a mouth full of food. With a look of pure embarrassment, he choked it down so he could answer. Pestilence could already tell he had a crush on War. "It's just a game online. Actually Dis showed me. It's called World of Warcraft."

War beamed. Indulgence grinned shyly. Disconnection cast a look of smug superiority around the table.

Pestilence frowned.

"I thought we were supposed to challenge the humans, to test them in ways that allows them to rise above, and showcase their inner divinity? Don't think a game will help much with that."

"Well, that's one idea," said Disconnection dismissively. "Rising above, huh? Well, I guess. Seems like a lot of work. I mean, not to be a jerk, but when have they ever really impressed any of us?"

"Hungry people tend to reduce themselves to animals," agreed Famine. "I don't see a lot of nobility on my end."

"But relief efforts show how they care about each other," countered Pestilence. "War, don't you occasionally see... see moments of compassion and love and... and... humanity?"

War tapped a finger on her lips. "Gosh, sure, sometimes, but you know, one in ten thousand, a handful per army. It's a lot of work to pick those ones out. This is a lot more streamlined."

"This? What this?" demanded Pestilence suspiciously.

"Us," clarified Waste. She had a surprisingly husky voice for such a waif of a woman. "We feel that this is faster and more... ah... modern. Not that you aren't all still very welcome to help us. War, we're all long-time fans of your work." War beamed. "But with technology outstripping all other human development, we really think there needs to be a new paradigm."

"Indulgence and I have some Department of Defense contracts that will blow your socks off!" added War. Her eyes lit up. "Literally blow 'em right off!"

"Waste's been very helpful," added Famine. He smiled at her, and her face looked a little less stern at him. Pestilence felt sicker than usual. Were they an item, too? Were they all pairing off and leaving him to combat biomedical research and vaccines by himself?

"No offense, Gramps," added Disconnection. When he spoke, all other faces turned toward him. He was an attention magnet. He was perfectly average, and perfectly forgettable, and yet as magnetic as any other force on earth. He leeched their attention like a dry earth sucks at water. On the tiny old woman on Pestilence's right seemed unaffected. She sipped her soup in a single-minded way and ignored them all.

"The thing is, people are living longer and longer, and it used to be, they'd find Grace in your work, but now it's just a puzzle they're solving. You've lost your edge. Whereas Indulgence here is really on to something. He's got people buying like never before, wrecking themselves... and I mean, it's great, everything's so mass produced, even the poorest can afford it. Or at least, they think they can. They corrupt themselves with it. Me and him, we go way back. You have no idea how great computers are."

"It's true!" piped up Famine, no doubt thinking of his cushy work-from-home situation. "I mean, people have always been greedy. This is just expanding on it. Used to be only kings could really go wild, while all their peasants tried not to starve in the winter." For a moment he looked out the window, looking a bit nostalgic for simpler times. Then he snapped out of his reverie and continued. "Now, well, look at any first-world country. Not a lot of sickness or starvation. But they take it in the opposite direction. Treat everything with antibiotics, over-eat to an early grave, work themselves in a frenzy for items they lived without for years earlier. Have a look at Black Friday. It's a pretty fine situation."

"Keurigs are fantastic," added Waste. "Have you tried a Keurig yet?"

"But it's not fair," protested Pestilence. "There's no chance for them to redeem themselves. That's the point. They're... they're supposed to be able to rise above."

"And they can," said Disconnection with a wicked smile. "It's easy. Log off. Don't get a smart phone. Play less video games. No more McDonald's. Heck, anyone can do it. They just don't."

"But it's not a conscious decision."

Pestilence looked at each of their faces, frantic to find anyone who agreed with him. But War was grinning with delight, and Indulgence was ducking his head to hide his smile, and Famine was cozied up to Waste, who was unwrapping individually wrapped candies and tossing the plastic wrappers all over the floor. Disconnection was on his phone.

Pestilence deflated a little; his bony shoulders sank, and he sighed, letting out a faint wheeze. "They're doomed."

"Perhaps they always were," said Disconnection absent-mindedly, without breaking eye contact with his phone.

Disgusted, Pestilence rose from the table. "I need a smoke break," he grumbled. Waste quickly pulled out a pack and offered him one, which he took gratefully. He noticed they had a long, styrofoam-like filter.

He went out to the parking lot to smoke in peace in the cool autumn day. Around him, leaves rattled in the trees, and a cloudy sky promised rain sometime in the night, after everyone was tucked snugly into bed. Pestilence mourned them. He always felt he'd given them a fair chance: a comfort, to care, to face his tests with chins held high. They banded together against him, in love for each other; they banded together in war, and sometimes even in famine. Yet with Disconnection and Waste and Indulgence, they seemed doomed to die on their rotting planet truly alone, without even the consolation that they were aware that it was happening. It made him very sad.

Behind him, he felt a presence. He turned. A tiny old woman with a white perm and a hand-knit sweater stood behind him with a soft smile and gentle eyes.

"What about you? Don't you have anything to say about this? Don't you think they're a bit... biased? It's not really... equitable, is it? It's supposed to be equitable. Psalm 17:2, and Ezekiel 18:25, and... You know, Job, and calling unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation..."

He was rambling, but she let him, watching placidly at the ribbon of smoke that trailing from his cigarette into the sky and dissipated without a trace.

When he trailed off, she looked directly at him. Their eyes met.

"Don't you worry about them?"

"Yes," she said softly. She patted his arm, and he knew it was meant to be comforting. "But worry isn't meant for us."

"What will happen to them, Death?"

"They'll all end up in the same place eventually, dear. At the end of the day, really, they're all the same. People are people. Love them for what they are, for all their faults and their childish ways."

"But they're making it worse!"

"No one makes it worse for humans than humans." Death reached a hand out to Pestilence. "But there will always be beauty in the squalor, if you look for it. Now come on. Let's go inside. Indulgence just ordered a key lime pie."

Hand in hand, they went back into the diner on Olive Tree Lane.