The Process Of Becoming A Successful Author

The Process of turning myself into a successful author: right now, it’s guess work. It’s like getting b—ch slapped daily by the world. I’m a dummy for checking my stats every day. How many downloads did I get last night? I shouldn’t do that; it often leads to a feeling of leaden discouragement, a visceral inner plummeting of my hopes. I get different messages from different “experts”. Most common: Be Yourself. Well….duh.

Phodopus_sungorus_-_Hamsterkraftwerk
Almost There, almost there!
I don’t know who else to be. Other frequent advice: Lie. pretend you’re already a big success. Or….be totally honest, totally transparent,share your story with your potential audience. Oh my god! This IS a story, it’s like Don Quixote on the internet. The only happy news is that this page keeps growing. Not by huge leaps, but by small increments. Okay. I tweet maybe twenty times daily. I work all my social media, refreshing with new content as often as possible. I’m broke. This would be a very different operation if I had some shekels. But I don’t. Even if I had some cash, I wouldn’t be ready to spend it on Facebook advertising. The latter requires expertise, though F’book wants you to believe that anyone can do it. Their top-o-the-line ad platform is called AdEspresso. It costs $150/month for the middle level functionality. This monthly is BEFORE I pay for the ads themselves. The AdESpresso is a targeting instrument. Like, who’s my audience? I would say that my audience is comprised of well educated baby boomers who have been through some kind of therapy experience and have an interest in the nuts and bolts of spiritual practice. Or, to express it another way, my audience is comprised of smart people who feel broken by their upbringing and their culture and want to do something to be more alive and vibrant. AdEspresso allows me to target recipients of my ads by occupation, education, interests, taste in books, music, movies. Wait, wait….MY AUDIENCE IS ANYONE WHO HAS EVER BEEN TO OR PLANS GOING TO BURNING MAN!
Yeahhh…….

Eleven Things An Unpublished Novelist Feels

Eleven Things An Unpublished Novelist Feels

Art Rosch
Copyright 2010
1.I am a genius unique in the annals of mankind.  Most of the reading audience is not advanced enough to perceive the layered depth of my work
2.If my books are published they will change lives.
3. I’m a committed artist.  My work transcends genre. This upsets agents, who are too conventional to see through the boundary-shattering nature of my work.
4.My life experience has been so unusual and difficult that I have a special credibility in writing about the human condition.
5.I’m getting older and all these rejection slips are coming from agents who are my kids’ age.
6.Who do they think they ARE!?
7.While I may not be published in my lifetime, my works will reach the world posthumously.  This is a good thing for the world but doesn’t do shit for me.
8.I frequently succumb to self-pity and apathy but I bounce back with increased defiance.
9.I know the odds against writing a best seller are astronomical.  A series of apparent coincidences will bring my writing before the world.
10.The seven hundred agents who rejected me without reading a single page will write to apologize and ask to represent future projects.
11. Ninety nine percent of the people in the world believe that they belong to the one percent that’s superior to the other ninety nine percent.  I am in the REAL one percent.
           

Writer’s Stampede

The Writer’s Stampede
            Where did all these writers come from?  It seems that everyone has a book to promote and is searching for an agent, thinking about self-publishing, attending workshops and jumping through endless hoops to garner attention with a book project.
            Literary agents report receiving from four hundred to a thousand query letters each week.  Agents have become something like gods, they have the power to bestow bliss, rapture and burning hope in the hearts of writers.
            All this is happening in an age when it is thought that no one reads books any more, that video games and other distractions have turned our children into withdrawn illiterates.
            Then along came J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter and the world changed.
            Ask any agent or publisher what the odds are of selling a book.  Conventional wisdom holds that selling a book to a publisher is impossible.  The odds are astronomical.  Self publishing is one way of getting a book to the public but the writer must SELL the book.  It’s one thing to place a work in the digital marketplace, get an ISBN number and register the book with Amazon.  It’s another thing to SELL the book.  The effort required to promote a book is staggering.
It requires spending twenty eight hours a day on Twitter, Facebook, Bonghook, Bookface,
Yourspace, Myspace, Crawlspace plus traveling to at least ten writing seminars a month.
            Certain genres have congealed as dominant in this scurry towards publication.  YA, or Young Adult, is by far the big market.  Add Vampires, horror,
the supernatural and you have the Infinite Candy Mountain of book projects.
            Park your dragon in the rear and get your ticket validated.
            I’m a writer.  Just another writer.  I’ve made a few sales.  I generate a little income but I haven’t sold any of my book-length projects.
            I’ve queried agents hundreds of times since I began writing fiction in the late seventies.  I signed to a major agent for two years after selling my first story to Playboy Magazine.  Then I proceeded to screw up, to write poorly, and my window of opportunity passed. 
            I continued to write and got better.  I devoted thousands of hours to my novels and they got better, and better, and still better.
            I’m still querying agents by the hundreds and receiving form letter rejections. “Not what we’re looking for.”  “Good luck with your writing career.” “Burn your manuscripts and take up knitting.”  Stuff like that.
            I believe in my writing with passionate intensity. 
            I feel as if I’ve just walked into Disneyland on a day when a major publisher has announced that it will chose one writer in the park, at random, and offer a three book contract with a half million dollar advance.
The crowd is suffocating, stifling.
            I feel lost, overwhelmed.
            I don’t have a vampire in any of my books.  I have really REALLY good writing.  It is muscular, powerful, original, funny and compelling.
            `All I can do is continue writing and querying agents, entering contests, hanging around internet writer’s blogs and endlessly revising the books t hat I love as I love my own children.

The Fugitives: An Extreme Dog Rescue Story

From The Road Has Eyes: A Relationship, An RV and A Wild Ride

The Fugitives
We are full time RV dwellers, and we love it. We live in a safe, well maintained Kountry Kampground north of San Francisco. Rent is cheap. A small community of “monthlies”, as we’re called, live year round in our big coaches, trailers and fifth wheels. There’s an unwritten social contract here. We leave one another alone. We want space, peace, we want to keep a low profile.
When we arrived in March of 2005 we didn’t know how to conduct our lives in a campground. We hadn’t learned how to choose a strategic site for our RV. We took what was available, a site that was at the center of the northern campground. We had people coming and going on both sides, as well as fore and aft. We had a continual round of new neighbors.
At first this was somewhat unnerving. Soon enough we discovered that if we wanted to schmooze, we could say hello, and if we didn’t, we could keep to ourselves and be left alone.
The only problem that wouldn’t go away was the strange couple living in a tiny trailer in the row immediately behind us.
When I say tiny, I’m talking about an RV model called “The Casita”. It is nothing more than a sleeping bag with walls. It’s interior is about the size of a Japanese capsule hotel room. A person can just about sit upright without banging the head. It has a little sink, a hot plate and a tiny porta-potty.

There were two people and a full grown Dalmatian dog living in this wheeled packing crate. It was hard to imagine how they could survive under these conditions, yet they were there, coming and going. Unfortunately, the dog didn’t get to come and go. He stayed locked in this dreadfully tiny space. He howled his loneliness and claustrophobic misery in a way that turned our lives into hell. This was our first month at the campground.

These were our neighbors .

Fox and I we went helplessly berserk over this dog. We tried to hatch schemes to liberate him from his plight.
There was something dreadfully “off” about the couple who owned the dog. If I make the statement, “I couldn’t look at them”, I want you to take me literally.
I…could…not….look…at…..them.
Every time I tried, my eyes seemed to meet a force field that deflected vision. My sight could get to within a foot or so of Ms.X or Mr. Y and then my eyeballs would physically bounce a few feet farther along, repelled by a barrier occupying the space at which I was attempting to look. This was one of the strangest things I have ever experienced.
I asked one of my neighbors to look at the couple next time the opportunity arose. I asked for a brief description of the people who were living within eight yards of our coach. The dog was no problem. I could see the dog when he was let out on a chain. I couldn’t see the people. I could hear them, I could make out their voices if not their words, I knew when their pickup truck pulled into and out of the parking space. Fox and I said hello a few times and were completely ignored. That’s weird, to greet a person who responds by behaving as if you don’t exist.
The next day my other neighbor came over and said, “I’ll be damned if I can figure out what they look like. I can’t really see them. Maybe they just move so fast I can’t draw a bead.”
The human eye moves extremely quickly. It wanders, far more than we consciously know. Eye movement is the fastest muscular action in the human body. These lightning quick movements are called saccades. I read a science fiction novel recently in which alien creatures knew how to scan human eye saccades and move only during those micro-seconds when human beings were looking away. This created a ‘just-at-the- edge-of- -vision’ effect, and gave the aliens a tactical advantage in outmaneuvering their enemies.
Whatever the cause, I could not look at, I could not see these people. They must have wanted so badly to be invisible that they had created a psychological force field. This mysterious couple evaded eye contact, they moved in such a manner as to attract minimum attention. They did not engage in conversation. They had taken the adjective “furtive” to a new level. Somehow, they had established an invisibility matrix, they had tuned in to the collective saccade. Fox couldn’t see them. My neighbors saw them more than we did, but not much. My neighbors could detect a few details of clothing or hair color. He couldn’t describe their height, weight, features, ethnicity. Nothing.
Only the dog provided a common ground of agreement that they were there at all. Otherwise, they would have been “the people who weren’t there.”
When they were home, the dog came out on a chain. He looked at us sadly, wagged his tail and sat quietly, licking his paws. If one of us said, “Hi buddy,” he would come to the limit of his chain, hoping for friendly contact.
When the Xys left for the day, which was most days, the dog got stuck inside the little house on wheels. He keened piteously. We were going insane.
Other neighbors began to feel the hurt that lived so pitifully in our midst. There was no question that this was animal abuse. Solving the problem was not simple. We could call the Humane Society, but that was tantamount to a death sentence for the dog. We didn’t know what the dog’s owners would do. If they were criminals, we could find ourselves targets for retaliation. It wasn’t our style to call the authorities. Other and more imaginative solutions had to be found.
The first thing, the simplest thing, was to leave a note.
“Hi neighbors,” the note said, “if you would like help with your dog, we would be glad to take him for a walk. Just leave a note on our car (the white Jeep) if this sounds like a good idea. signed, your neighbors in site 45.”
I crossed the lane and taped this note to the door.
The next day there was a response, in the form of another note, on bright yellow paper, attached to THEIR door. It seemed reasonable to assume that this paper was their response to our request.
I went across the lane. The note was terse. “Buster’s fine,” it said. “He gets exercise.”
Buster wasn’t fine. His howls changed to a continuous scratching sound. He was tearing up the inside of the tiny RV. We began hearing a low haunting wail, followed by frantic scraping sounds.
One day the Xys came home, and I heard the woman shouting at Buster. Thwop Thwop Thwop!, she was beating him with a magazine.
We couldn’t stand much more of Buster’s agony.
Help came in the form of Roscoe and Lulu Martin. They came to the campground with their dog Barkley. They were regulars. They came almost every weekend. Roscoe was an Aussie merchant seaman with arms full of crude tattoos. He looked the part of the classic rough n’ tumble Australian. He was tall and fair, windburned. Lulu was a petite Jewish woman from Long Island, with a great cascade of red-brown hair. She had endured twenty years of an ugly marriage, then more years of frustrating single-ness. Then she met and fell in love with Roscoe.
They spent their weekends around the campfire, drinking beer and laughing at Barkley. Roscoe played wonderfully delicate songs on his guitar. Lulu sighed with adoration. They were an eccentric couple, a love story of people from opposite ends of the earth who might not meet in a million years. Yet they met, clicked and had been married more than a decade.
Barkley was a Retriever-sized mutt who was obsessed with the hammock. He would jump into the hammock as Roscoe snoozed with a half empty can of Foster’s perched on his belly. Together they would tumble to the ground in a tangle of arms, legs and tail. Lulu would emerge from the Winnie to untangle them, and the process would start again. No one begrudged Barkley his love of the hammock. He just didn’t understand the concept of sharing.
“He needs a playmate”, Lulu said. “We’re looking for another dog.”
We knew about a dog that needed another family. All that was required was for the Xys to relinquish Buster.
We described Buster’s plight to the Martins. “Alrighty,” Roscoe said, “on the morrow we shall pay a visit to these blokes and straighten things out. Eh Barkley? You want a friend?” Barkley jumped up into the now-empty hammock, his tongue hanging out, his eyes saying “I love everything about you and everything you do.”
The Xys seemed to spend most of the afternoon and evening away from the campground. They left at about eleven, returning at nine or ten o’clock.
Roscoe was going to be the point man. He would knock on the door of the tiny trailer. He would make his offer: we’ll take your dog off your hands and give him a good home.
Roscoe had balls of brass and could talk anyone into anything.
At about ten in the morning, Lulu, Fox and I took positions at our picnic table. Roscoe, leading Barkley on a leash, went across the way and knocked firmly at the door of the tiny RV.
We knew the Xys were home. Their pickup was parked in front. When Roscoe knocked, Buster began shrill barking from inside the RV. The door did not open. Roscoe knocked again. Barkley sat back on his haunches and uttered a low “Ooooo” in response to the frenzied hacks of Buster.
The Xys did’t open the door. I saw the curtain move at the tiny window. A frightened eye briefly peered out, then vanished. Buster’s shrill alarms must have been deafening from inside the tiny trailer. The Xys couldn’t hold out very long.
Roscoe circled the little vehicle, stepping over the hitch, going to the other side and around, back to the door. He knocked hard. “Come on, mates, you’re in there,” he shouted over the sound of barking dogs. “I don’t mean ya harm. I just want to make you an offer.”
Four or five minutes passed. It really seemed as if the Xys intended to just wait us out. We were prepared to wait longer.
At last the door opened, the little screen flew against the trailer’s flank and Ms. X, came outside.
Roscoe stepped backward in sudden revulsion. Even where we sat, the stench was palpable. “Bloody hell,” he muttered. Ms. X carefully closed the screen door behind her. I tried to look at her. I could see lanky brown hair, long and dirty. That’s all my eyes were permitted to register.
“What do you want?” she asked, flatly.
“This heah’s Bahhkley”, Roscoe said in his rounded Aussie vowels. “He’s lonesome and we heah you have a dog that might want a friend that…..”
“Fuck off,” Ms X interrupted Roscoe. “I love Buster. He’s my dog.”
She did a one eighty and went back inside the tiny rig, closing the door. The stink filled the air. How could people live inside that cloud of dog shit smell?
“Fuck off to you too,” finished Roscoe. He stood there for a moment. Barkley rubbed his face against Roscoe’s leg. Together they walked across the roadway.
“Unbelievable,” exclaimed Roscoe. “You would not believe what that place looks like inside. There’s stuff everywhere, and most of it’s stuck together with dog shit. Ucccchh!”
Thwop thwop thwop, we heard Buster yelp as he was hit with Ms. X’s instrument of discipline. The poor animal stopped barking.
“I think, “ I said, loudly enough to be heard all up and down the row,
”that we need to talk to the management about these people.”
Quietly, Roscoe said, “they’re up to here with the dog. I sort of saw the guy, or at least I saw something like a man, well, I saw a baseball cap, that’s all I saw. Bloody ‘ell, they’re hard to see, those people. Anyway, he was saying, Let em have the fuckin dog.’ He imitated a redneck American accent perfectly. It was funny but our hearts were breaking. “I think something will break loose in the next little bit. No worries, we’ll get poor Buster.”
I wish I’d had his confidence. We could report the Xys, we could get them thrown out of the campground, but that wouldn’t help Buster.
We went down to Roscoe and Lulu’s campsite. We wanted to put some distance between us and the Xys. It was Saturday and the campground was full. The weekly mediocre blues band was warming up on the slab surrounding the pool. Soon they would be belting out “Mustang Sally”, and we would go inside, close the windows and read until evening fell.
Barkley jumped into the hammock. Lulu spoke firmly. “Get down, Barkley, down!” Reluctantly, the dog vacated the swinging net. Roscoe popped a Foster’s and lay down in the hammock with a sigh. Barkley pushed off with his rear legs and landed atop Roscoe, and the two of them fell to the ground, foam lager slopping from the can and wetting man and dog.
“You bugger, Bahkley,” Roscoe laughed. “Got to put him on his lead or he’ll never quit.” He took the dog and fastened him to twenty five feet of nylon. It put the dog just out of range of the hammock. Barkley lay with his head on his paws. Roscoe picked up the Foster’s, brushed some leaves away and returned to the hammock.
“We’ll see mates, something will come up. Old Buster’s a nice looking dog. He doesn’t deserve that treatment.” Roscoe took a sip, closed his eyes and drifted with the breeze. Lulu was inside the camper preparing bangers and English muffins. The day went by the way so many spring Saturdays do in the campground. Fires were lit as night fell. Beer and wine were consumed, kids raced around on skateboards, people laughed. The Crazed Laugher cackled her resonant campground-filling laugh, which made everyone within hearing laugh all the harder.
We returned to our coach. Across the way, silence emanated from the tiny trailer. It was hard to keep despair from our hearts.
I experience more pain when I see animals abused than when I see pain inflicted on human beings. Maybe that makes me weird, I don’t know. It’s just the way it is. Animals can’t effectively defend themselves when humans are bent on causing them pain. They’re caged, restrained, and otherwise helpless. They have no words to express their grief. They have only cries, yelps, whines, screams. They probably don’t understand why they’re being hurt, why a man or woman is beating or tormenting them. I get very upset when I see an animal treated badly. Buster’s plight was like an ice pick in my heart.
Fox was beyond words. Her inchoate stifling made me burn with helpless anger. She could see Buster’s thoughts, read his images. It was terrible.
We went to bed that night without hope. It seemed as though we must report the doings of the Xys to Woodson, the campground owner. Woodson set a standard, and when his customers violated his rules, they were out of the campground with no warning and no second chance.
We had trouble getting to sleep that night. Buster’s pain and the ugliness of the Xys were making our first month of campground life a misery. What if it was always this way? What if there was always some horrible person to make life an ugly ordeal in campgrounds?
About one thirty, we drifted off to sleep. Both of us had bad dreams. My nocturnal visions were a chaos, a commotion of dogs howling, hands beating, pickup trucks spewing pebbles.
I always wake before Fox. I start a pot of coffee, check my email. When the coffee’s ready I take a book and go outside, to sit in one of our folding chairs.
I did the usual things. There was something odd about the world, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Something out of place, something missing. For thirty seconds I looked around. I was half asleep, not really connecting the dots. Then I realized that the tiny Casita trailer was gone. The Xys had hooked the thing to their ratty old F-150 and vanished in the night.
They had left Buster, chained to a tree.
I crossed the lane, squatted in front of Buster and said hello, giving him a sniff of my hand. He was sweet and friendly, delighted to see me. I unhooked his chain and walked with my hand through his collar over to our coach. I dragged the chain behind, and hooked Buster up to a D-ring on our awning. Then I went inside and woke Fox.

My Blood Is In Every Word

Ten years ago I bought a digital keyboard. I was embarking on a studio venture, making a CD of my songs. I grew up as a drummer but took to the piano as a means of composing material. The day I brought the keyboard home I had injured my hand. As I explored my new instrument I began to bleed on the keys. This is appropriate, I t hought, I’m anointing my instrument with my own blood. It makes a nice metaphor regarding my writing passion. I’ve been writing since I was fifteen, when I penned my firsst e.e. cummings-style poem to please a girlfriend. I was born to be a writer. Here I am, not a youngster any more, engaged in the ridiculously grim and absurd business of finding an agent for two novels and a travel/adventure non fiction book. “Not right for us”, “not quite what we’re looking for”, “good luck in your writing career”, etc. You’ve heard them all. Will I stop querying? No! Will I stop writing? Of course not. I’ve gotten more pleasure from the process of writing than almost anything I can think of besides my family relationships.
I love my books as if they are my children. I’m proud of them. I think they’re great! I want them to do well. Does it break my heart that they are continually rejected? Of course it does. Music broke my heart, too. My last gig was a killer. After spending weeks in promotion, pinning up posters, getting promises from friends who would ABSOLUTELY be there, I dragged my heavy equipment into the place, set it up, went through the usual stage fright and waited for the audience to appear. I had learned to calculate my audience in negative numbers. I count the people who are there when I arrive. I add the people who show up during the performance. I tally all those who showed up and I subtract the people who walked out, those who were already there eating, drinking, whatever…I also subtract the number of friends who promised to be there but weren’t. At this particular gig there were five people already at the bar when I arrived. Not one of my fourteen promised friends showed up. All five people at the bar left as soon as I began playing. BTW, in all modesty I’m a good performer, very entertaining. No one else came. My total audience was
minus nineteen. That was my last musical gig. I came near to tears but managed to
keep them back until I was in my car driving home. Okay, so what? Creating art is
a thankless task. It doesn’t matter whether one is great or a mediocrity. The effort and dedication are the same. All of us writers work our tails off. I won’t stop, I can’t stop and I will never give up. The music ended because I was physically unable to continue without some kind of payoff. It cost money to produce, I was aging and developing a chronic pain in my feet. Carrying a seventy pound keyboard or two hundred pounds of drums had become unsustainable. Writing is a good solitary occupation that requires a different form of stamina. I will be writing until what’s left of my mind disintegrates or they put me in my grave clutching the keyboard that they could not take out of my determined fingers.

Best to all writers!

Art

How I Met My Soulmate: From “The Road Has Eyes”

The names of the characters in this book have been changed to protect their privacy.

Chapter 1

Meeting My Soulmate

At the time of my first encounter with Fox, I had spent my life failing at relationships. It’s a common disorder, chronic relationship failure.

I’m surprised there isn’t a support group, a twelve step program, a Failed Relationships Anonymous. If I became a member I would find a few musicians from the group and form a band. We would develop a special repertoire: We would play carefully chosen love songs, such as“Killing Me Softly” and “I Put A Spell On You”. Then we could begin rehearsing “Love Is A Battlefield” “Since I Fell For You,” and, of course, “Crazy.”

We could call ourselves The Damned If You Do.

My relationship history is pretty boring. I spent a year with a woman, two years with another. My longest relationship lasted three years. I thought we were doing fine but I was out of touch with my partner’s feelings. She ran off with a Tibetan lama and became the mistress of his ashram. It happened very suddenly, or so it seemed to me. My friends told me they had seen it coming for months.

Thanks for the help, guys.

I was a relationship saboteur. When a woman started showing signs of attachment, I grew more distant. The more love she offered, the more distant I became. This dynamic is also a common affliction, especially in men. Where devoted love is concerned, men talk a good game, but are actually big scaredy cats.

I wanted to be in a lasting relationship, but the more love came my way, the more I curled up in my shell and hid. What was so scary about loving and being loved?

This knot of confusion about love earns a lot of income for therapists. Their relationships are at least as messed up as the rest of ours, if not more so. Their Phd’s and MFTs are licenses to practice alchemy. They turn OUR angst and numbness into THEIR gold.

Aside from the three “long” relationships in my life, I’ve had about twenty flings of less than a month. Each of my girlfriends said virtually the same thing as we broke up.

“You’re remote, I don’t know what’s going on inside of you. I need more from you than what I’m getting. You’re a nice guy; I really like you but if this is all you can give, I have to move on.”

I wasn’t such a nice guy. After I met Fox I began to accept this fact.
I had a wicked tongue. I “leaked”, as the shrinks like to say. That meant I said nasty things without knowing I was being nasty. I was a nice guy, right? I didn’t hit anyone; I didn’t shout or lurch unshaven from room to room holding a can of beer.
I needed the right woman. She would have to attach herself to me like a barnacle and never let go. I needed someone who had already decided she would hold onto me.
I was commitment-phobic and averse to responsibility. On the brief clock of life, I was already past fifty. It was time to put this childishness behind me! I decided to make a serious effort at meeting my partner.

I had to be thorough, make myself available. I would post and answer personals ads, do things to meet single women.

I started visiting websites. I had been told that the internet dating world is a freak show of fantasy and bad judgment. Fine! I’m a writer. I thrive on fantasy and bad judgment. Bring them on!

I subscribed to matchmaking sites and perused the ads, looking at the pictures and reading absurdly perfect descriptions of prospective partners. Where were the neurotics, the nut cases? They’re right here, I thought, hiding in plain sight.
This was the early nineties. The internet wasn’t so slick back then. The ads were brief and the photos took agonizing minutes to download.
Here’s a typical ad: Fit female professional, petite, 38. Loves reading, wine, fine dining, romantic walks on the beach. Looking for financially secure man with sense of humor.

My problem with these ads was the way people presented themselves as generic versions of human beings. The honest text of this ad would read “Female professional running out of eggs. Obsessed about weight. Keeping thin via fiendish treadmill workouts. Loves trashy novels. Gets sloshed during dinner. Looking for generous man or will soon commit suicide.”

My email box filled quickly. Having twenty or thirty letters a day was exciting. It was a rush! I was hoping to find my destined soul mate. I kept looking and reading, ad after ad, email upon email, and it was difficult to stop. I fantasized about finding that honest ad accompanied by a photo that would make my testosterone sit up and notice. Just one more, I kept thinking, just one more. Maybe that will be The One!

It became an addiction. Every day, I spent all my spare time at the computer. I looked at photos, exchanged emails, spoke on the phone. Once or twice a month I went on a coffee date, hoping there would be that magical ingredient, Chemistry. I met teachers, single moms, lawyers, nurses, psychologists, tarot readers and massage therapists.

Without exception, they were crazy. “Fit female professional” was a nail biter. She compulsively gnawed the ends of her fingers and spat the leavings onto the table.
She was an attorney. She kept talking through the nail biting, P-tuh. P-tuh. She spoke quickly and emphatically. While she gnawed her left hand, she waved her right hand in my face. This right hand was her way of telling me not to interrupt because her story was much more important than any of my stories. I was to shut up and listen attentively. It was okay. I didn’t have anything to say. Attorney stories are incredibly boring to non-attorneys.

I’m sure the ladies found me just as strange. The LEAST strange thing about me is that my favorite T-shirts are ninety five percent holes. They are just bits of thread barely connecting a few patches of fabric. I have only three left. I can’t sleep in anything but one of these three T-shirts. Sometimes I forget what I’m wearing and go outside to fetch the mail or talk to a neighbor. I get a strange look and I realize that I’m wearing a garment that resembles the lining of a hamster’s cage. That is the LEAST strange thing about me.

I think we would be better off if we stopped pretending to be well adjusted and wore our neuroses like outer garments, as plainly as blouses and jackets. Perhaps someone should invent a kind of portable holographic billboard, a way to display personality profiles. They could be called REALITYGRAMS ä. They would convey honest self-assessments. For example, when a man comes into proximity to an attractive female, he can switch on his REALITYGRAM™, which will say something like “ I am a needy narcissist with food addictions and a tendency towards cruel verbal ‘leakage’. I’m working on these issues in therapy. I dwell excessively on my childhood abuse. I blame my mother for everything that’s wrong with my life.”

The dark side of one’s-personality is up front, out on the table. The man I’ve just described, whoever he might be, could look for a woman with a hologram saying, “I am a compulsive nurturer. I can’t say ‘No’ to anyone. I’m submissive but full of repressed rage. I cycle between anorexia and bulimia. I’m attracted to men like my father. He could verbally cut a woman to shreds and seem as if he was doing her a favor.”

Instead of looking for Mister or Ms Perfect, we can look for a person with a tolerable set of neuroses and compulsions. A person we can live with. Think of all the time and trouble to be saved!

The internet dating world is a freak show of fantasy and bad judgment. That isn’t just a rumor. I had dates that were excruciating and bizarre. One night I went out with a psychiatrist who offered herself in marriage after about twenty minutes of light conversation. We had been driving around Golden Gate Park. I had parked my car in front of the Hall of Flowers and we were sitting there, chatting and inhaling the fragrant air.

“Do you want to marry me?” she asked, in all seriousness. “I need to know right now. Otherwise I’ll make different plans. You’ll never regret hooking up with me. I’ll support you in your work, connect you with publishers. Your life will be glorious. I’m a fantastic woman, sexually, intellectually. I cook gourmet food. I know volumes of poetry by heart. I can fence, I play chess….”

“Why,” I asked, “are you so eager to marry me?”

“You’re a brilliant man,” she said. “I’ve read your writing, heard your music. Your work will be loved centuries from now. I want to be part of that. An artist like you doesn’t come around every day.”

There was a little red light going off in that part of my brain that discriminates between decisions that are in my best interests and decisions that are not. Beep beep beep beep. The familiar Star Trek Computer Voice was saying, “Warning warning, attractive objects may be less attractive than they appear!” There was part of me that was flattered and tempted. She was a fine looking woman, with blue eyes, milky skin and a glossy black helmet of shoulder-length hair. She was a socialite psychiatrist who lived in a five thousand square foot house on Twin Peaks. I had gone to her house for coffee. It was incredible. The furnishings, the view! Then we drove in our separate cars to the bottom of the hill. She was going somewhere else after our little date. I picked her up on Haight Street and we took my car into Golden Gate Park.

I thought about being supported in luxury while I played music and wrote novels. I thought about that amazing house and its view of the glittering lights of the entire bay. I was exhausted by my artist’s poverty. I had struggled for decades just to stay alive and continue my work. I was worn down by the incessant tension of squeaking by on a pittance.

I was actually thinking about it! I was insane to even consider it! Let me remind you that, a few paragraphs back, I make the blanket assertion that we’re all crazy. Yes, I thought about marrying this woman. I just couldn’t fight my way through the temptation. For fifteen minutes I waffled around, equivocating. I could not bring myself to say a clear “No.”

My hesitation made her furious.

She grew strident. Her transformation from charming to vicious was instantaneous.

“Asshole!” she rasped. Her hair swung like a whip as she turned on me. “Do you have any idea what you’re passing up?” She grabbed her sweater at the waist and pulled it to her neck. Her eyes burned into mine. The nearby street lights revealed a perfect pair of medium sized breasts with taut little nipples. The muscles of her abdomen and torso were beautifully toned from regular workouts. I got the message. I didn’t know what to do with it.

I babbled. “What the fu…? I…um..shit….how would I…umm?” My mouth was full of the stones of reality. I didn’t know what to say. This woman was nuts! What wonderful irony!

“Take me back to my car, you fucking pussy,” she finally ordered. “I need a man who knows what he wants. You had your chance, you fat kyke.”

This is internet dating, I reminded myself. Don’t be surprised by anything, no matter how bizarre. Our world is like a locked psych-ward after the doors have been thrown open.

I drove out of the park and delivered my rejected wrathful shrink to her Mercedes on Haight Street.

This was a chaotic period in my life, a time when I frequently lost my bearings. On one occasion I accepted a dinner invitation to a woman’s home. She had posted an exquisite photograph online, that of a gorgeous blonde with a sweet and tender expression.

I would be meeting her son and a few close friends. It seemed innocent enough. It seemed safe.

I rang the doorbell of a ranch house in the North Bay. The door opened with an ominous squeak of the hinges. If I had been living in a cartoon, there would have been a sudden scream of tuneless brass from the orchestra. My hair would have stood on end. As the door opened my eyes would pop out on stalks and a second ghostly figure of myself would be seen separating from my body and running away in terror. The orchestra would follow my ghost-body with a tinny xylophone playing silly running sounds.
She wore a hair net. She cradled a bottle of bourbon in her armpit. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her lips and sent swirls of smoke drifting into watery eyes. The makeup that was daubed on her face looked as if applied by a chimpanzee. She leered at me, smiling the ways horses laugh, with the lips flapping like big wet paddles, showing her oversized square yellow teeth. The photo in her web ad showed a fresh-faced blue-eyed beauty with the looks of a magazine model. If I squinted and imagined her in a much younger life, I could recognize the svelte beauty. There are no rules on the internet outlawing the use of images from twenty or thirty years ago. I had been hoist on the petard of my own shallowness!

Rather than bailing out at the first opportunity, I politely persevered. I didn’t have the heart to reject the woman outright. I had been on dates that lasted five seconds. Both followed the same script. I strode into the coffee shop, recognized my date by her description. I sat down. My date stood up as if she was on the other end of a seesaw.

“Nope, not my type,” she said. She pivoted and walked away. That’s all. Twice! Had the date lasted five seconds? Ten? It depends when the clock started. When I walked ithrough the door? Or when I sat down?

These ladies were black belts in internet dating. They threw me to the mat, bam! I’m not like that. I could never be so ruthless.

There were a dozen or so people about the house. Something illicit was going on in a rear bedroom, where the door opened periodically to swallow people. When they emerged there was a glitter about their eyes, a skewed smile, a naughty wink. When I was invited, I declined. I hadn’t come to this place to get loaded on the buzz of the day.
I protected myself by spending time with the son of my hostess. He was eleven and had a set of drums. I had once been a professional drummer. I felt I had something to impart. I showed the boy how to play a few rudiments and easy swing rides on the cymbal. He wanted to play blasting heavy metal music and wasn’t very impressed. He demonstrated his playing by thrashing at the drums with uncoordinated rage. I took my turn again and started doing Gene Krupa licks. This was more to his liking. He could relate to the primitive tom-toms, to the boomboombity boom.

The boy had a sad resigned look on his face. His dad was absent; his mom was a decaying alcoholic, his home a location for drug parties. He was not having an easy childhood. He had a Marine Corps haircut, the kind that looks like an oval piece of carpet glued to the top of his head. He had pimples, a few missing teeth. I could see the thug he would be in four or five years.

I digress. The story of how I met Fox goes like this: Fox kept her laptop at her best friend’s house. In the course of my online meet ‘n’ greets, I had corresponded briefly with this best friend, and my name had gone into her Buddies List. There was a small problem, because it wasn’t her computer and it wasn’t her Buddies List.

Fox was a deeply reserved woman in the midst of an unspeakably abusive marriage.

The computer was with her best friend because Fox’s husband relentlessly spied on her. He scanned her computer, listened to her phone calls, brazenly read her mail. Her best friend’s place was the only refuge she knew. She had to embezzle her own money to buy a laptop. It stayed at the best friend’s house; it was her only private expression.

The next time she signed on to AOL, she saw my name on her Buddies List. “Who is this?” she asked her friend. “Have you been using my computer?”

“I’m sorry,” was the reply. “I couldn’t resist. I hate sharing a computer with Tom.” That was her son. “He’s always playing video games, I never get online.” She looked at my name on the Buddies List. “That’s just some guy I chatted with a few times.”

Fox was angry. She sent me an email and requested that her screen name be removed from my Buddies List, and she would remove mine from hers. I don’t really remember, truth be told, how the first email morphed into several more emails. Soon we were regular correspondents. Then we started talking on the phone. The conversations were strangely confessional. Sometimes Fox fled from her home in despair and called me from her car. She barely mentioned her marriage. She listened. She was a great listener and I could talk raindrops back into the clouds.

Then we arranged to meet.

It was impossible to anticipate how profoundly we would alter one another’s lives.

Bankruptcy Blues: excerpt from AVOIDING THE POTHOLES

Bankruptcy Blues
            One morning I woke up, did some simple addition and concluded that I was thirty seven thousand dollars in credit card debt.  I still had six thousand to go on my car loan, so that made a debt load of forty three thousand dollars. How could this happen?  I’m legally single and without dependents.  I own no stocks, bonds, properties or other convertible assets.  I am a man utterly without collateral.  So, my question “how did this happen?” is a rhetorical utterance, because I know how it happened.  I spent more than I earned, it’s that simple.  If we see this happening on a larger scale, as an entire society goes bankrupt, the same basic laws apply.  The only difference between me as an individual and our society at large is that society, represented by The Government, can print money.  The newly printed money is really fake money, toy money, but it buys a smidgen of time because it’s backed up by history, prestige, momentum and the memory of immense wealth.  It may be a few years before anyone notices that United States dollars look like little orange, blue and yellow pieces of paper about three inches long and two inches wide.
            I got my first credit card when I was forty five years old.  I had managed to live outside the consumer cycle for all that time, by being either a hippie or a bum.  My time as a bum was still really ongoing when that envelope arrived in the mail, the one that said, “You have already been approved.” I thought it was a joke, I laughed.  Who would give me a credit card?
            I like being approved.  People thrive on approval, it’s a normal human need.  This Visa Card provided me with a credit limit of two hundred dollars, at an interest rate of twenty three point nine nine percent.  Of course, a credit card is not really about its interest rate.  Credit cards are a barge full of tricky charges, most of which are confined to the small print.  The two most lethal words in the English language, “Adjustable Rate,” are stated or implied somewhere in that print.  There are annual fees, late fees, cash advance fees, all around Desperate Ignorance fees.  You’re dumb, and you’re desperate, so we’ll charge you a fee.
            I didn’t know any of this at the time.  I was still pretty much a bum, I was living in an in-law unit behind a house in San Geronimo Valley.  The area is an enclave of hippies, new age healers, artists, crafts-people and bums hiding out.
            I was excited about having two hundred dollars credit.  My therapist approved.  Having a credit card was a mark of responsibility; it meant I was turning into a mature adult, integrating myself into mainstream society.  Provided, of course, that I kept up my payments. How much trouble could I get into, with a two hundred dollar limit? How much would the minimum payments be, eight dollars a month?
            I didn’t know, at the time, that paying minimum on a credit card means that any amount, no matter how trivial, will take your next ten incarnations to pay off, or about six hundred years.  Fortunately, credit companies don’t track future incarnations.  Instead, they sue debtor’s spouses or any relative available for the unpaid sum.  Eventually, our corporate-controlled government will pass laws allowing credit banks to force you to work off your debt.  You will pass your days working in a cubicle in South Dakota, making collection calls for the bank and living in dorms with twenty four beds to a room.  Lunch will be a choice between bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  Spam or Macaroni and cheese is the menu for dinner.  There WILL be movies every night, hell, we got plenty of movies.  Disney will have the exclusive contract to provide Credit Default Camps with DVDs.
            I racked up my two hundred dollar debt in one day.  I bought a car.  That was the kind of car I got in those days.  I used a courtesy check from the card company (special interest rate of 29.9 percent) and bought an’82 Honda Civic.  It turned out to be a good car.  The starter was broken, so the car had to be hot-wired every time I wanted to drive. The gas tank had a crack halfway down its side.  Anything over six gallons sent a flammable trickle of gasoline through this crack.  I could never put more than five gallons in the tank.  I had to be very careful about that.  I got full disclosure from the seller about the vehicle’s problems.  “Watch out how much gas you put in,” he told me.  “Five gallons tops and keep track of what you got left in the tank when you fill.  Best thing is to just get three and half..  I had a friend with the same problem, and he blew himself up.”
I got great mileage from that little beige go-cart.  Five gallons was a hundred twenty miles, easy.  It was a bargain, it was a reliable vehicle.
            I paid my monthly minimum on time, every month.  In about six months, the card company notified me that my limit had been raised to five hundred dollars. Fantastic!  I bought a set of tires for the car. 
            I was living as a free-lance anything: janitor, painter, carpet cleaner.  I worked for a dry cleaners, I worked as a flower delivery driver.  I survived by the seat of my pants.
            My monthly payments were fifteen dollars.  Not a problem, I always put a check in the mail at the last possible minute.  I was always on time.
            The card company raised my limit to a thousand dollars. It felt good, it meant that Visa Card trusted me.
             I wanted to become a professional photographer.  I bought my first digital camera.  The payments went up to about twenty eight dollars a month.
            Then I got another envelope in the mail.  This one was from MasterCharge. “You have already been approved!”
            Nice!  They were offering me twenty five hundred dollars credit at a rate of sixteen point four percent.  It was a Gold Card.  I wondered about these metallic cards.  Gold, Silver, Platinum.  I wondered if there were cards for people on different economic rungs.  Cards with metals both common and uncommon.  A Uranium Card for nuclear physicists, with radioactive interest rates and loan half-lives that take millions of years to pay off.  An Iron Card for weight lifters.  The rates just go up and down, up and down.  Heavy Metal Cards, shaped like guitar picks, for rock and rollers.  Lithium cards for manic-depressives, with rates that plunge and soar, and plunge again.
            I believe that credit banks operate with a fundamental yet covert philosophy.  It’s called the We Don’t Give A Shit If You Pay Us Back Principle.  By the time you have gone through the agonies of ballooning credit balances, of paying monthly minimums on seven different cards, of borrowing from one card to pay another, of paying late fees, overcharge fees, balance transfer fees and been suckered into “credit insurance” programs that protect you from being unable to pay your credit card bills, you have put so much money into the pockets of Citibank and Chase that even if you default, they’ve made a profit of twelve thousand percent, which more than offsets your default, when it comes.
            In U.S. Dependencies like Guam, Saipan and Puerto Rico, Congress will enact loopholes in anti-usury laws, allowing Citibank to be what it really is: a loan shark.  Rates of a hundred percent, payable next week or they send a goon to break your finger.  What’s the “vig”, Louie?
            Since I was unable to get credit, that is, low interest bank credit for a legitimate business loan, I used my cards to start my digital photography business. The problem was that my business took ten years to get going, and after five years I was paying almost six hundred dollars a month just to maintain the minimum payments on all those cards. 
            This was like taking six crisp one hundred dollar bills out of my wallet and setting a match to them.  That money was gone, it would not reduce my debt, it would not purchase anything.  It was gone.  Wasted.  At this point my repayment would take twenty six thousand years, or nine hundred future incarnations.
            I was having a good spell in my business.  I was enjoying some cash flow.  I was always rescued by a last minute thing, a portrait session, a wedding, a house to paint, sale of a print or two.  Somehow, I was able to keep up with these incredible payments.  I made some large payments, bringing my balance down.  That’s when the next round of offers came in:  “You Have Already Been Approved!”
            Wow.  Capital One allowed me five thousand dollars in credit at a rate of eleven point nine percent.  I took it!  I needed a more sophisticated camera, and some portrait lights.
            Pretty soon I was running five credit cards and I lost track of my total debt.  I guess I lost track on purpose, so that I could live in denial.
            I was the ideal customer for credit card banks.  I racked up a lot of credit yet made minimum payments, on time.  There is no better earner for a bank than a consumer like me.  They don’t want me to pay off my loan, heavens no!  They want to gradually load me up on debt, drag me down into the depths of high interest compound rates, and keep me there for the rest of my life. 
            The thrill began to wear off.  For a while, I actually defined wealth as the amount of one’s credit.  If I had a few hundred grand in credit, I was in pretty good shape, wasn’t I?  Aren’t we defined by our debt?  I saw my world as a kind of spending party.  Need a new printer?  Cool, I‘ve got credit.  And I’ll keep making the minimum payments.  I always do.
            I’ll admit it was fun.  I had a great time.  I am a compulsive person.  I will always be a compulsive person.  In this, I am not much different from the average American.  We are ALL compulsive.  
            I never considered bankruptcy.  I held the almighty Credit Rating in such awe that I would do nothing to besmirch it.  Meanwhile, I became more and more miserable, as my anxieties focused on making the monthly minimum payments and seeing my income going into the fire.  Get out the matches, dude, time to burn some more hundred dollar bills.  I began to feel as though I were carrying a mountain on my back.  I knew that I would never get rid of this mountain, that the rest of my life would be spent holding up this Sisyphian mass as it grew larger and larger.
            This wasn’t fun any more. My outlook changed in a single week. One day, I simply looked at my situation.  Within another few days I was there; I was prepared to file for bankruptcy.
            What changed? 
            It occurred to me that the almighty Credit Rating is a hoax.  People go in fear of losing points on their credit rating.  People obsess on the difference between six fifty and seven hundred.  The terror of losing points on one’s credit rating is a ubiquitous American terror.  It rides invisibly on people’s shoulders like a pair of wooden stocks, like a medieval torture device.  Companies thrive on milking people’s obsession with their credit score. Go to freecreditreport dot com and find out your score. You’ll learn that your free credit report isn’t free.  It’s a lure to sell credit monitoring services.  For a monthly fee a consumer can track his or her credit rating and get even more obsessive.
            Every American can get a free credit report once a year.  That’s the law.  You won’t get it at freecreditreport dot com.  You’ll just get more crazy.
            Radio stations are flooded with commercials for get rich quick instructional CDs, books and videos. Every time I hear the word “free” on the radio I laugh and I visualize gullible wannabe entrepreneurs panting to exploit this amazing opportunity.  I’ve always had a maxim regarding American marketing techniques. It’s simple: contempt sells.  Hundreds of commercials promise the consumer an income of five to ten thousand dollars a month by investing in the stock market.  Best of all, the CD is free!  Or how about this?  Make money using the internet! You don’t have to buy inventory, you don’t have to store inventory, all you have to do is sell stuff on Ebay that you don’t even have! Let your computer do your work for you.  Earn money while you sleep!  And best of all, the CD explaining how to pull off this miracle is FREE!  Wow, (the radio voice says) now I can quit my day job, and pretty soon I’ll own two houses! 
Hey, wait, what about Real Estate?!  There’s a book telling me how to earn a fortune buying up foreclosed properties. The introductory CD is Free! The word free should be spelled eff arr dollar sign dollar sign.  FR$$.
            The people making money on these programs are the people selling the book or CD.  If the program worked so well, why would these entrepeneurs spawn  thousands of competitors?  Imagine a radio commercial sounding like this (provide your own cheesy radio-announcer voice):
            “Want to get rich on the internet?  Make five thousand dollars a week from the privacy of your own home!  All you have to do is buy our book, “How to Get Rich on the Internet by Writing How To Get Rich on the Internet Books!”  Your own book, “How to Write How To Get Rich on the Internet Books” will soon be a hit and generating fantastic income.  Your satisfied customers will be writing their own “How to Write How to Write How to Get Rich on the Internet” books and will in their turn be raking in the money.  In Step Three, you will branch out into other “How To” book fields, such as “How To Publish Your Own How To Books On the Internet”, “How to Soak the How To Book Instruction Market on the Internet”, and “How to Invest Your Money Earned from Writing How to How to Books on the Internet”.  Then, in the final phase of our instructional program, you will learn how to write How To books on any subject at all, such as “How to Learn Russian in Ten Minutes”, “How to Write How to Learn Russian In Ten Minutes,” or “How to Write How to How to Learn Russian in Ten Minutes in Ten Minutes”.  The possibilities are infinite!  Start raking in the cash now! All you have to do is pay us to learn how to do anything on the internet without knowing how!  Visa, Mastercharge, Versatron, Intellidebt, AutoCarLien, Prodeduct Utilities Bill, all forms of payment accepted!
            Call 1-800-Howtohow or go to http://www.howtohowdy.com”
           
            Let me admit that, initially, my new philosophy, my ‘credit score is a hoax’ pose was a bit of bravado.  I was still scared.  What if one of us got sick?  What if I wanted a new car?   What if Fox and I decide to upgrade to a better motorome?  What if what if what if?
            I’ll relieve you of the suspense right now.  My bankruptcy was a complete success.  The first thing that happened was that car dealers showered me with offers.  It’s the standard procedure for a bankruptcy.  There are business entities whose most lucrative product is helping bankrupts re-establish their credit.  Car dealers are foremost among these entities.  All kinds of people wanted to help me re-establish my credit.  Offers poured in.  The first few months, the offers were terrible.  The credit cards were loaded with sign-up fees and yearly fees, and the interest rates would shame any loan shark. I got those “You have already been approved” deals all the time.  After a few months the offers settled down, became more like the offers I got before I went bankrupt.  I accepted one card: no sign up fee, no yearly fee, interest at eleven percent.  I keep that one credit card, and I stay below two thousand dollars in total debt. I make large monthly payments when my balance gets too high.  Every offer that comes along goes into the waste basket.  I have one credit card.  Two thousand dollar limit.  Period.
            Wait a minute, wait a minute!  I have to confess something. I wrote that last paragraph before gas prices hit the roof.  It’s getting tougher to function and make ends meet.  I sort of broke my rule.  I haven’t exceeded my limit. I did, however, take on another credit card.  That card is sitting in my wallet like a radioactive pellet, just waiting to leak through and contaminate my world.  It scares the hell out of me, while at the same time it comforts me.  Its purpose is to backdrop serious emergencies.  I haven’t used it.  I don’t want to use it.  I pray that nothing happens to force me to use it.  I just pray and pray. 
            My attitudes have changed.  I don’t spend money just to have something I want, like a new printer.  My camera gear is getting old.  That’s the way it will have to be.  I can’t afford the latest, neatest gear. 
            What I’m saying is that it’s almost impossible to escape the world of credit cards.  They keep coming back like the Terminator’s metal arm. 
            Have I mentioned that I feel like I’m really getting screwed?  Have I just come out and said it in so many words? 
            I feel choked with anger.  I am so frustrated that I need a pitcher of margaritas or a bottle of Vicodin.  (I am, of course, exaggerating dramatically for effect here.  I’m not an alkie or a dope fiend, no no no.)  There are a hundred rip offs dipping into my pocket every day.  There are dozens of virtually undetectable drains on my income.  This isn’t a free country!  It’s a very expensive country. 
            In the last decade I have found myself trapped by invincible shackles.  I have hit the wall of middle age.  I have just enough medical and chronic pain conditions to place me at the very center of the health insurance vortex.  I have no choice but to be a consumer.  I am now the victim of medical blackmail.  Insurance and drugs are so expensive, they dominate every aspect of my life.  Why?  How can one blood pressure pill cost four dollars?  It costs pennies to make.  We all know that.  The Big Pharm companies scream “Research and Development!  Marketing!  How can we invent those orphan drugs that will help a few thousand people and conspicuously demonstrate our compassion?   Our expenses are staggering!”
            There there, Big Pharm, don’t cry.  Poor Pfizer, you’ve worked so hard to ensure that our aging males can have erections.  Don’t sulk in a corner, Glaxo.  We know how much you love us.  Your efforts have controlled our cholesterol, have saved our lives time and again!  Your executives deserve those boats and planes, they’ve earned those vacations at hotels in Dubai that look like flying saucers and cost four thousand dollars a night.  They deserve the call girls and the Bugati sports cars, the Rolex watches and the gated estates overlooking the beach at St. Moritz.  They’ve worked hard for our benefit.
            I often fantasize about what I could do if I didn’t spend half my income every year on health insurance and prescription co-payments.  I wouldn’t be living in constant anxiety.  I might be able to save enough money to travel and have some fun.  I might be able to get my car fixed.  I could repair that weird flub flub sound it makes in the right front wheel.  I could afford my dog’s dental work, the removal of those extra teeth that are going to become a nightmare in three or four years.
            I’m old enough to remember a time when health care wasn’t everyone’s ball and chain.  I remember when a factory worker could support a family and mom could stay home and pay some attention to the kids.  I remember when people didn’t endure sour stomachs and panic attacks thinking about their credit card debt.  I remember when my dad made enough money from his small business to provide a decent middle class standard of living for his family.  I’m old enough to remember the way things shifted so suddenly in the late seventies and early eighties.  No one had ever heard of HMOs.  Then, suddenly, they were everywhere.  Our big industries, like steel and auto manufacture were under assault by the Japanese.
            De-regulate everything!  We have to compete with a free hand!
I’m not an economist or a political scientist, I don’t understand how our society was co-opted and undermined by an inferno of greed.  I only know that a corrupt and devious corporate cruelty has turned middle class people into paupers and terrified debtors.
            Dammit, I’m angry!
            To further amplify my vulnerability, I have taken yet another credit card.  I spent up to the limit on the last one after my car broke down.  I needed brakes, a catalytic converter and a new clutch. 
            My debt has climbed to about three thousand dollars, and I’m paying about a hundred dollars a month.  I can live with that.  The debt stopped climbing a year ago.  I’ve kept pace with my payments, I occasionally pay the bill down by a few dollars.  This is familiar territory me.  I understand the game, and the futile squirming that I must suffer to keep afloat because I’m not much of a money person.  I’m an artist-person, woe is me.  I am aware that more millions of people are now living the same way.  The economy has gotten bad and there are many new recruits to the kind of life I’ve always lived.  I have a certain amount of psychological armor against this insecurity.  It doesn’t freak me out.  I know that a lot of people, new to poverty and crushing debt, are freaked out.  I’m sad about those people.
            A few days ago I was getting into my car in a large parking lot.  I was approached by a well dressed woman.  “Excuse, me, sir,” she asked with apparent reluctance.  “I’ve had a bit of trouble and I…”
            I didn’t force her to end her pitch.  She was begging.  I held up my hand and said, “Sure, no problem, I have a couple bucks worth of change.  I’ve been through hard times myself.”
            She relaxed, her shoulders came down from around her ears.  She wasn’t a funky street person holding a sign at a busy intersection.  She looked like a soccer mom with two kids.  This was my first encounter with a more upscale type of beggar.  Looks can deceive. She might be the fore-runner of a new type of beggar, the housewife-Oxycontin scammer.  I don’t care.  If she needs money for drugs, let her buy drugs.  I’d prefer that she find treatment but if she’s willing to beg drug money in a Safeway parking lot that means she’s NOT willing to be a hooker, not yet. 
            Some stop-light panhandlers have a dog.  Some sit in wheelchairs.  There are busy intersections claimed as territory by beggars.  Their signs are variations of the same message.  “Anything will help.”  If the person is able-bodied the sign might say “Will work for food.”  I hold no animus towards them.  They stand for hours in a noisy place clogged with car fumes and endure a thousand humiliations.  I could tell that the well-dressed woman in her early thirties was not used to this kind of activity.  The look on her face was shattering.  She was humiliated but she tried to appear as if this was just a momentary blip, like she had left her wallet at home and had run out of gas.  She was going to beg just this once, it wasn’t a thing she would do tomorrow and the day after that.  I saw her move on to the next person and the next.  They recoiled, they refused.  She kept on, walking gently up to people with an “Excuse me, sir, I’m in a bit of trouble…Excuse me ma’am   ”.  I don’t care if she spent the money for booze or drugs.  I never care about that.  Begging is a profession that has always been with the human community.  I’ve begged and panhandled.  I sank to the bottom tier of society.  The work of begging is very difficult.
            Yesterday I was in another parking lot, just coming from Raley’s with two plastic bags of food.  It was five-ish, getting dark.  A woman approached me wearing a white down jacket and slacks.  Her hair was well kept, her makeup was in place.
            “Excuse me, sir” she began and again I held up my hand.  “No problem,”
I said, “I have a couple bucks worth of change.”
            As I dug through my bag, I asked her a question.
            “How many hours a day do you do this?”
            “All day.  I’ve been here since eight this morning.  My feet are killing me.  I’m done in an hour.  Eight to six,” she laughed bitterly, “it’s a full time job.”
            “So..what are people like?” I wondered. “Do they help you?”
            She leaned back against a car, taking the weight off her feet.  The bright blue light of the mercury vapor lamps made it easy to see her face.  She didn’t look like an addict.  She looked like a thirty five year old woman trapped in the grip of circumstances beyond her control.  She’s divorced.  Her ex-husband’s vanished, not paying child support.  She’s three months behind on the rent.  Laid off from her job after twelve years of loyal service to the firm.  Unemployment benefits are running out.  Can’t find a job anywhere.  She’s desperate and she wants her kids to have the things they’ve always had.  Karate lessons.  A music teacher.  Little by little she’s lost the ability to provide, and must make some hard choices.
            So…panhandling in supermarket parking lots becomes an option, a desperate option that she takes with greatest reluctance.
            “About one person in ten is nice.” she replied.  “You can’t believe the abuse I get out here.  ‘What’s the matter with you?’” she imitated a shrill pitiless voice, “‘Go get a job like a decent person.  Shame on you!’  Women are the worst, especially the ones of a certain age, over forty five, fifty.  I don’t bother with the twenty-somethings.  They’re just overgrown high school kids, they tell me to go fuck myself.  Excuse my language.  And you know what?  I stand up for myself.  I tell them they don’t know what’s going on in my life, they’re not qualified to judge me.”
            She paused as some unpleasant image washed across her mind.
            “Some of the men,” she said, “some of the men, are…you know…they think I’m a hooker.  They say the most disgusting things.  I’ve got a radar for that type now, it works pretty well…what would you call that, ‘Jerk-dar?’”
            “Maybe ‘ass-illoscope’” I quipped, not sure she would get the pun.
            “Perfect!”  She got the pun.  “That’s what I’ll call it from now on.  Thanks!
My ‘ass-illoscope!”
            Her eyes shifted.  A woman carrying groceries was loading her car just down the row.  She needed to get back to work.
            “Thank you,” she said with sincerity.  “I have to make every minute count.”
            “Go on,”, I said, “Go back to work.”
            She had to push herself away from the car.  She was bone tired.  She didn’t know whether her next approach would end in kindness or invective.  Her eyes thanked me for treating her like a human being.
            With each passing week I expect to see more and of these parking lot beggars. 
            Begging is one of the hardest jobs in the world.
            This has everything to do with the move of Fox and me from house to motor home. We were not forced to move out of the house.  True, It got too expensive.  We saw our resources diminishing and a future where our age was going up as our income was going down.  We saw an economy edging towards bankruptcy and we wanted OUT as quickly as possible, we wanted a way to reduce our earthly footprint. 
            We WANTED to live in a motor home!  After the trip in Yertle, the epic voyage to Arches National Park, the idea became more and more appealing. We didn’t know whether or not it would work out.  It was a tremendous risk.
            Declaring bankruptcy was also a tremendous risk. What if “they” came and took away our motor home?  It was half in my name and half in Fox’s.   What if “they” took my camera, my computer, my car?  I didn’t know they wouldn’t.  I asked several lawyer friends of mine, and they assured me that such things would not happen.  I had no real assets.  My possessions were exempt.  I would be fine.
            In spite of these reassurances, Fox and I spent a nervous couple of months.
            In 2005 there was a major change in the laws regarding bankruptcy.  These changes tended to favor the card companies.  A bill was passed called The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005.  I love that: Consumer Protection Act. The so –called intent of this act was to prevent people from racking up a lot of debt with the intention of going bankrupt after spending oodles of the bank’s money.  How is this protecting consumers?  Give me a break.  How many people do you know that are exploiting credit card companies with the intention of defaulting?  One, two, a hundred?  How many have you heard about? Is it so common that an act of congress is required to protect us from these unscrupulous spenders?  The real motive behind this Act is that the banks foresee a flood of bankruptcies looming in the near future.  They want to be ready for this tsunami of debt, they want to get their rich butts to higher ground so that when the bankruptcies mount into the millions, they will be safe and capable of forcing debtors into losing the pants they wear, the shoes they walk in.  I can see it now, America.  People walking around in blankets. 
            I hired a good lawyer.  She was a little hobbit of a woman who wore thick glasses and neat business suits.  I had the feeling that in court she was a cyclone, that her antagonists quaked in terror when she opened her briefcase.  She charged one fee, two thousand dollars, in advance.  She always let me know what was happening, she communicated with me regularly, instructed me in what to do and what not to do.
            One of the stipulations of the new law is that debtors must pass two courses in money management and credit awareness.  To this effect, a host of companies have arisen to cater to the expanding market of bankruptcy cases.  The whole shebang is done online, and it costs about three hundred dollars.  The debtor must first pass a credit counseling course.  The material in this course is not difficult.  The test is a multiple-choice quiz with some pretty silly questions.
            The questions go like this:  “What is the correct way to use credit cards?”
Answer One:  To buy cool things like cell phones, shoes and car accessories.
Answer Two:  To finance trips to Hawaii and Disneyland.
Answer Three:  To be used as an occasional aid to pay emergency expenses when cash is short.
Question:  What is the best way to manage one’s credit account?
Answer One:  Put off paying to the last minute.
Answer Two:  Build up a lot of debt and make minimum payments.
Answer Three:  Pay off debt as it arises, maintaining the lowest possible balance.
            These courses are designed for the average American genius. It’s a case of having questions reveal more than the answers.  What kind of people find these questions challenging?  My god, are we in trouble, here in America? Is this what we’ve become?  Consumer morons?
            I am the American economy in microcosm.  I was encouraged, no, I was seduced, into borrowing beyond my means.  Who am I?  I am poor!  I don’t feel poor, I live a great life, but on paper, I am poor.  Why would banks lend me money? Yes, I am responsible for my debt.  My greed is at fault.  No question.
            I was a frustrated man with no money being treated to the most sophisticated sales technique on the planet.  Borrow this money!  We’re offering it to you, it’s easy, just apply online and we’ll have your credit approved in five minutes.
            Got it almost paid off?  Here, we’ll lend you some more.  We approve of you! You’re a good person!  We like you!  Here’s five grand.  You can pay it off any time you want, just make sure you meet your minimum and we’ll get along great.  No one will call you, no letters will arrive.  Gee, you know what?  Our records show that you have five credit cards, and owe a total of twenty thousand dollars.  That makes you a good credit risk!  You wouldn’t have all these cards and owe all this money unless banks trusted you.  Here, another ten grand in credit.  Fine!  Pay us back when you can!
            The credit counseling companies who advertise so heavily on radio and television are flourishing. They will help you pay down your debt!  In fact, there are reputable companies and disreputable companies.  The business is predicated on the simple fact that credit banks are willing to let you pay off forty percent of your loan at a reduced monthly rate.  This is a fact.  Almost all of your card debt can be drastically reduced.  The counseling agency is there to do the paperwork, run interference for you, comfort you in your distress.  That’s what the honest companies do.  The dishonest ones will have you send your payments directly to them.  They will take your money and do nothing.  They will not pay your creditors.  They will reassure you that all these harassing phone calls that have begun are normal.  Wait a couple of months and they’ll die down.  Don’t worry, sir, the man with the generic foreign accent on the phone says, don’t worry this is the normal procedure.  We have negotiated your credit to ten percent of what it was.  We are paying your creditors, and in eighteen months you will be free of debt!  Isn’t that wonderful?
            I called one of these crooks.  He wanted to start the program right away. “I can sign you up right now, you can stop worrying about the letters and the phone calls.”
            “How does it work?” I ask. 
            “It’s simple, “ he replies, “you just make one monthly payment to our office and we’ll take care of the rest.”
            “That sounds easy enough,” I say.
            “Great, then you’re ready to start,” responds the man.
            “Don’t you need my application, some paperwork?” I question.
            “Oh no, that’s not necessary, just give me your phone number, social security number and address and we’ll get started on the paperwork right away.”
            “Uhhh…I think I’ll wait on that.”  I hung up very quickly.  I felt as if I had avoided a rattlesnake bite.
            I never got any letters or phone calls.  I made every monthly minimum payment until my lawyer filed the papers.  Within three months, all my creditors had been notified, and there was no point in calling me or harassing me. 
            I took, and passed, the two courses, via the internet.  I filled out a lot of paperwork.  I waited some months while my lawyer did whatever it was that she did.
            Then my hearing date was scheduled.  I was going to walk into a room where it was possible that representatives of all my creditors would confront me with my irresponsible behavior, accuse me of being a crook, question me about purchases I had made three months before I filed for bankruptcy.  Why did you buy this lens in August?  When did you decide you were going to file for Chapter Eleven? Did you know you were going to file when you bought this lens?  How many assets did you transfer in the year before you filed?  What are you concealing from us?
            Waiting outside the courtroom I was nervous.  My lawyer toddled up, looking harmlessly fierce, like a rabbit with giant fangs.  “Just answer the questions,” she advised.  “Don’t add anything, don’t talk too much.  It’ll be fine.”
            The doors opened and I entered the hearing room.  Five or six other cases were on the docket, so I sat in a folding chair with my fellow bankrupts, while three trustees sat behind a semi-circular dais.  A tape recorder was turned on.
            The trustees didn’t look like monsters.  They looked kind of nice.
My case was first on the docket.  The blonde trustee swore me in.  Then she asked me two questions.
            “Do you understand the implications of your filing Chapter Eleven?”
            “Yes, I do, ma’am.”
            “Have you been truthful with the trustee in your documentation?”
            “Yes I have, ma’am.”
            “Thank you very much, you will be notified of your bankruptcy within sixty days.”
            That was it.  I walked out of the court room a free man.  It was a very happy day in my life.  I could return to my cozy motor home and tell Fox that it was over. Nobody was going to take anything away from us.  Except my forty three thousand dollars in debt.
            America is, after all, a wonderful country.  The system needs a little tweaking, but it is a wonderful country.

Prologue to The Gods Of The Gift, a novel of science and fantasy

Prologue
                       
                                               
            When he was nine years old, Garuvel Nep Zing discovered that he could disappear.  He was sitting in a white gazebo on the family estate. It was hidden by tall thin evergreens to the rear of the Great House, at the end of a long sloping lawn. Garuvel treasured this spot for its remoteness from the prying eyes of his family and the family’s servants.  Little finches nested in the stately spires, and Garuvel watched them land and disappear twittering inside the moist aromatic branches.  Occasionally he acted as the finchs’ protector against marauding black-feathered zilfs. It was the zilfs’ habit to steal eggs and even chicks from the finch nests. Garuvel felt like the finch: too small to cope with more aggressive predators. Unlike the finches, however, he had no help from his flock, or, in this case, his family.  With the exception of his mother, all his kin seemed bent on pushing him out so that younger brother Verleth could accede to the position of first-born.
            The gazebo was one of several places Garuvel sought refuge when he was having trouble with his family. In this instance he was vexed by a prank pulled by his brother.  Verleth had trapped two cats in one of the estate’s outbuildings and put them into a large sack filled with white flower.  He had thrown the sack into the stall where Garuvel’s horse was calmly chewing its vello sprouts.  The horse kicked the stall’s gate in terror, escaped and went trampling across the Baron’s favorite Holes pad at just the moment when the Baron was making his tee stroke. 
            Not being a tattler, Garuvel refused to shift the blame when the raging Baron brought his two sons into the library to discover the guilty party. Verleth’s eyes gleamed with malice and his mocking smile made Garuvel’s fists curl with rage. Garuvel’s punishment was to be deprived of all books other than his school work for two weeks.  His father knew how to hurt him.  Garuvel fled from the high-gabled library. He was almost crying; his face worked with the effort of holding back his tears.  Not wanting his father or brother to see this, he lowered his head, almost touching his breastbone with his chin. Then he retreated to the gazebo, to nurse his anger and frustration.  His father always said the same things:  “Why aren’t you more like Verleth?  Why was I cursed with such a pathetic first-born”?
             As he recalled his father’s acid words, Garuvel spoke aloud, wistfully.  His imagination was conjuring a fantasy, a daydream. 
            He said, “Sometimes I wish I could just disappear.”  And it did indeed happen:  he disappeared.
            He  didn’t know what he had done; a fluke, an accident. Perhaps he had unwittingly summoned an Air Elemental and it was making mischief.  Or possibly he was hallucinating, his mind had snapped under the strain of being Garuvel Nep Zing, hopelessly inept first-born of his Great House. His hands went to his face, and he felt his ears, his nose and mouth.  He looked down at himself and there was nothing to see: no clothes, torso, legs, feet, nothing.  He became dizzy because he felt as if he were floating in space, with no other point of reference. Then, as he became frightened, he felt his heart beating in his rib cage, and the terror was oddly comforting because it let him know that he was  still in his body, still connected to his consciousness.
            He thought, “I can’t be invisible, it’s not possible.” He spoke the words aloud, to ascertain that he still had a voice, and no sooner had this happened than he did, in fact, re-appear.
            He decided to experiment.  Was he crazy or had he stumbled upon some arcane skill?  He repeated the phrase, “I wish I could disappear,” and he was thinking in a visual way about what had just transpired. Again, his body vanished, and he felt an odd sense of being in multiple places simultaneously; there was a barely perceptible sense of one place contracting, and another place expanding.  His attention, however, was riveted to more immediate concerns.  Does he have control of this thing, can he repeat it at will?  He disappeared and reappeared three times.  He knew that it involved a mental trick: He had to imagine that he was invisible, form the image in his mind of his body vanishing, and then say the words aloud, “I am invisible.” Conversely, if he wanted to become visible, he had to speak his wish aloud, while visualizing the desired result.
“I am visible.”  If he did not say his desire aloud, if he did not pre-visualize the result, nothing happened.  It took all three things: the thought, the visualization, the spoken words.
            Garuvel felt a quiet flush of victory racing through his blood.  This was power, this was mastery!  When he returned to his suite he stood before the mirror doing it over and over again: think it, visualize it, say it. “I am invisible”.  Whoosh! there was nothing in the mirror.  He could see nothing when he looked down at himself; not his pleated white shirt, nor his baggy blue pantaloons, not even the speed-shoes on whose bottoms he had painted symbols to taunt his brother.
            “I am visible”, he said, but nothing happened, until he remembered that he must hold in his mind the image, however fleeting, of being once morevisible. There, try it again.  Imagine himself as he was before.  “I am visible>”  Whoosh! He reappeared instantly.  True, there was this vague sense of unease, each time he utilized this marvelous capacity.  Some part of himself contracted, another part expanded, his entire being briefly fragmented and flew across the universe. It was very subliminal, but he was honest with himself:  I do feel this, he thought, and perhaps this gift is not entirely a good thing.
            Nonetheless, Garuvel, being a precocious nine year old, felt suddenly very powerful and needed to take advantage of matters.  He began wandering around the family estate, unseen,  prying into everyone’s secret lives. 
            He watched his father, the Baron Hatlath Nep Zing, playing cards
with the other magnates of the Great Houses of Vygor. He learned that his father cheated quite deftly.  All the Magnates cheated, but his father seemed to be the best cheater of the bunch.
            He saw his mother as she watched the Faketron, indulging her passion for soap operas, her lap full of knitting.  Sitting in her big overstuffed chair, with her legs supported on a matching ottoman,  she would ring at intervals for her maidservant, who brought little cups of green liquid.  Garuvel sat invisibly at her side one day, for the entire afternoon.  He noticed that as the Baroness drank more cups of green liquid, her comments to the actors on the Faketron grew more raucous. Some of the things she said embarassed Garuvel, who had always seen his mother as genteel and reserved.  It was a shock to realize that his mother was not as he had thought.  Towards late afternoon, after many hours of soap opera plot twists, she shouted  hoarsely at a female character, “By the tits of the goddesses, will you fuck the man already!?”
            Garuvel left the suite, shaken and confused.
             He was tempted a few times to re-appear in his mother’s lap, or to surprise his brother Verleth playing nasty games with the sword-master’s daughter.  The more he learned about how people’s private actions failed to correspond to their public personae, the less he entertained these childish fantasies.
            Some instinct cautioned him.  His relationship with his family was difficult, even dangerous. The desire to show off, to assert his specialness was almost overwhelming, but an inner voice said, “Watch out Garuvel.  This secret must remain a secret.”  Revealing it, he knew, would make everyone nervous, and would greatly diminish the advantages it gave him.  His father was not above trying some sort of restraint, should he feel threated by Garuvel’s new gift.
            He wondered about the nature of this power.  Was it because he was a first-born from one of the Twelve Great Houses?  Was this some power the first-borns held as a secret their whole lives, something that enabled them to maintain their centuries-old hegemony over the planet?
            When other eldest sons came with their magnate fathers, he observed them carefully.  He invisibly followed Klarvey Nep Waxold  for a day, but saw nothing unusual.  He scanned the faces of Termo Nep Feevey, Gabilon Nep Vorce, and Frexis Nep Komochon, but saw no hint of secret power.  Termo was a freckle-faced lout and Gabilon’s tongue twitched across his lips as he watched the swaying of servant girls’ skirts. Frexis drooled from the right side of his mouth and picked boogers from his nose which he flicked indiscriminately off his fingertips.
            None of these eldest sons, however, seemed to have any difficulty with the fact that they were destined to run their family’s business and military empires.
            Garuvel, on the other hand, was always the victim of Baron Hatlath’s rages.  The subject was always the same.
            “Look!” the Baron said, day in and day out, taking Garuvel’s younger brother Verleth by the elbow and standing both of them in front of a mirror.  “Look at the size of Verleth!  Look at his healthy coloring!”  The Baron squeezed Verleth’s biceps proudly.  “What an arm!  Why were YOU born first? What’s the matter with you, Garuvel?  You don’t get enough sun, enough exercise.  You should emulate Verleth.”
            Looking in the mirror, Garuvel accepted his pitiful inadequacy. Though a year younger, Verleth towered over him, radiating aggressive competence.  Garuvel regarded his own pale figure;  the short pants and
monogrammed blazer hung from his skinny frame in wrinkles and pouches. He wanted to get away as quickly as possible, to change out of his dinner
uniform and go to Dryad’s Grotto to read a volume of poetry by his hero, Harl Plesniak.
            “What’s the matter with you?” The Baron, as usual, grew heated.
“Can’t you do anything right?  Why did you bother to be born?  If it weren’t for the tests, I would not believe you to have sprung from my loins!  You take too much after your mother; she spoils and coddles you.  What am I supposed to do?”            Garuvel’s father wound up the tirade by slapping him on the back of the head with an open fan of playing cards.  The blow was hard enough to cause Garuvel to stumble to his knees.
            Taking this as his dismissal, Garuvel fled his fuming father and simpering younger brother.  He went first to his room, where he got a flash- light and his copy of Harl Plesniak’s “Feral Tenderness”.   He donned his beret, then put on his comfortable loose clothes.  Filling a pack with vitta cakes and glorp juice, he ran his finger quickly over the rest of his shelf of favorite books.  The book shelf had been fitted with a lock by his father, but it wasn’t a very good lock, and cracking it was simple.  Today he would read”Starwinds”, by Latif el Rashid.  Mystical cosmology.  Food for Garuvel’s hungry soul.
            He opened his door a crack and checked for signs of Verleth, the Baron, the sword-master, the sword-master’s son, or any others in his legion of persecutors.
            “Wait a minute,” he wondered.  “Why am I doing this?  If I can disappear, I don’t need to hide from anyone.”  Then another thought occurred to him.  “Maybe I can do more than just disappear.”
            He was angry with himself for not having this thought sooner, for overlooking something so obvious.  He realized that it was the power’s frightfulness that had deterred him.  The sense of contraction, expansion, of swooping across light years….the ramifications, if it were true, that he could do more than merely appear and disappear.
            Sooner or later, he admitted, he would have to know.  Otherwise he would spend his days cowering, as if some huge toothy animal lived in one of his armoires.
            He applied the same mental trick to a different problem. He visualized himself sitting in Dryad’s Grotto with his snacks and his books.  “I’m in the grotto, feeling safe, a favorite book before my face,” he said.  
            He found  himself sitting on his favorite cushion, with a book in his hand and a cup of juice atop a flat rock.  He was soothed by the sound of droplets falling musically from the cave ceiling into Celestine’s Pool.  There had been a faint whooshing sound followed by a loud bang as the transition became reality, as his sudden appearance displaced air molecules and particles of dust. 
            Yet, again, he had that odd sensation of being several places at once;  contraction,expansion, vast reaches of empty space.  Since these sensations had no tangible consequences he put them aside.  For the first time in his life, he had real power!  Now it was a question of whether he ruled the power, or the power ruled him.  He was too young to anticipate that this question would become the dominant theme of his life.
            He experimented.  He traveled short distances instantaneously, then longer distances.  He probed the limits of this power.  Suppose he could make a tree or a rock appear somewhere it had never before existed?  Late one night, he climbed out his bedroom window and used the vines and the roof gables to let himself to the ground.  He walked to a remote corner of the estate, to a place where there was a little circular glade, enclosed by drooping Wairaba trees.  He concentrated, then spoke, “A great Wairaba tree, with branches too many to see!”
            There were some fairly loud pops and smaller explosions as molecules gave way to matter more dense.  In the pallor of the moonlight, Garuvel saw his tree, there it was, utterly real, at the center of the glade where nothing before had existed besides grass and elderlion weeds. He touched it, he tested the tensile strength of its branches, heard the spatulate leaves rustle as he let the limbs snap back.  Again, the experience was followed by unease, by expanding, contracting vast reaches of space.  This time the unease was more intense, the sense of disturbance more tangible.  It seemed that the bigger the “change”, the bigger was the accompanying effect.  Garuvel began to consider putting this power away;  it might be something far too potent for a child, it was not a toy!  But then, he barely considered himself a child. He had suffered so much, it had etched his soul with unsought gravitas, matured him beyond his years.  All the same, he resolved to stop playing games.  He would wait and see if some means of discovery presented itself. Where had this thing come from?  Why had it come to him?  What was it for?
            Garuvel needed to consider himself something more than a child. It was an illusion, a conceit, but it had great survival value.  It bolstered his fragile self esteem.
            One night at dinner, Garuvel wolfed down his favorite dessert, a bowl of Mobo fruit, from the garden planet, Eltubi.  He ordered a servant to fetch him another bowl, but his mother intervened.
            “Don’t be so greedy, child, where are your manners?  You have gobbled those fruits like a sow grubbing up fallen plums!”
            Garuvel had been visualizing the Mobo fruit, hanging fat and plump on the vine, in a sunny endless orchard. His appetite for the fruit was so great that he found it unbearable to have it thwarted.  In a flash of rage, and without
thinking, he said, “I will have all the Mobo fruit I want, if I have to go to Eltubi to get it!”
            He was whisked to the heart of that world’s famous orchards. He had a moment of terror; he was light years away!  He had never before left Vygor!  He had to get home!  He was in a panic, not thinking
clearly, not working things through. His mind whirled, things contracted, expanded, whooshed here and there.  In his panic he returned to the dinner
table clutching an armful of fruit, his blazer stained purple from
the juice.
            When he saw the faces of his family, and those of the fourteen servants present in the dining room, he knew that he had made a terrible mistake.  He had revealed his carefully guarded secret.  Nor did he comprehend the immediate danger as his father’s bodyguards, Gorlo and Wirt, converged upon his place at the table.  Too late, he opened his mouth but he couldn’t summon a coherent vision,
a fully formed desire.  He was too busy being angry with himself for making
such a silly error!
            A cloth was clamped over his face.  Its smell made his eyes water and his nostrils burn.  He tried not to breathe it in, but Gorlo trussed him up roughly, and his breath only came more quickly as he panted with fear.  He felt himself being dragged away, and as his consciousness faded, he heard a single dreaded word, a word that on Vygor stood for demonic sorcery:  T’vorsh.
            “No, no!” he wanted to cry, “I am not  T’vorsh.  You have it all wrong!  I’m only nine years old.  I don’t shape-shift and conjure and consort with disgusting things in bottles. I made a mistake, I didn’t realize what I was doing!”
            It was too late.  His tongue was stilled.  The last thing he saw before he was taken away was a shared glimpse of muted triumph on the faces of his father and his brother Verleth.
            He was given to the Mentechs.  They took him to the sinister Hejastra Hospital, a place redolent of screams in the night and sharp, whizzing machines.
            He was placed on a ward with other real or suspected T’vorshi, sorcerors who specialized in verbal spells and recitations, summoning and combining the four classes of Elementals into material substance.  There were many T’vorshi among wealthy families, so the pursuit of sorcery was deemed a mental illness rather than a crime.  Still, they were locked away and treated harshly.
            Garuvel’s tongue was numbed, his thumbs and forefingers banded together to prevent him from signing or conjuring.  He was drugged to keep him from performing mental mischief.
            Eight years passed and Garuvel lacked the attention span to know his own suffering.  His mind was featureless, his muscles waxy and thin. He might have died in that lonely place, were it not for a medical oversight.
            In his seventeenth year, his hormones began to do their inevitable work. In a period of five months he grew four inches and gained fifty pounds.
            No one seemed to notice.  Garuvel had lain dormant for so long that his treatment was automatic.  The drugs that had kept his mind vague and his tongue stilled began to lose their effectiveness.  One day in his cell, Garuvel stubbed his toe and cried out in pain.  It was the first sound to emerge from his mouth since the fateful dinner with his family.  As the weeks passed, his mindcleared.  He began to practice speaking into his pillow, late at night.  He made pencils and pins appear and disappear, to see if he still had the “power”. It was still there. 
            He remembered what had happened.  As his mind returned, he realized that his life had been stolen, that he had lain in a cell for eight years, being fed through a tube, being changed and turned by surly attendants who had no care for the bruises they inflicted upon him.  Why was he being kept here at all?  Why didn’t they just do away with him?  He must be a pawn, he speculated. If Verleth got out of hand in some way, the Baron could revive his first born and use him as a lever.
            Rage burned in his heart like a physical pain.  He examined himself late at night, and saw how wasted he had become.  He resolved to take his revenge upon his family, the Mentechs, upon the entire planet Vygor.  The ground would tremble, the seas rise up.  Mountains would belch flame and poisonous gases.  He would watch from high in the air, laughing, then transport himself to the orchards of Eltubi.
            Garuvel stood looking out the mesh window of his cell, at the angled rooftops of the hospital.  The sickly blue lights of the security lamps showed him a ghostly landscape. Fences of electric razor wire enclosed the hospital and seemed to keep at bay the gloom of the endless forests beyond. Those forests were home to jank-wolves, bears, hyanx, giant boar.  The world Vygor was not worth saving.  He visualized his vengeance.  Carefully, he constructed a sequence of words and visualizations that would put him out of harm’s way
as the planet exploded.  As he opened his mouth to speak, a dizziness overcame him.  He struggled to stand, but as the breath left his lungs, his knees gave out, and he fell to the floor, faint and nauseous.
                       
            The walls of his cell began to shimmer and fade; he saw a great pulsing light and heard a sound as of distant horns rolling in across a vast ocean.
            ‘I’m dying,’ he thought.  ‘It’s just as well, for I must be an evil creature after all.”
            Through the light he saw an entity.  It was tall, winged , glowing with a nacreous shimmer.  Half bird, half man, the being was ten feet tall.  There were fingers at the ends of bone-like pin feathers next to its body.  The wings vibrated with energy, they seemed to be holding and confining the power
of flight, so that it could stand and look directly into Garuvel’s eyes. It spoke to him, but the words emerged all at once, not singly as in normal speech.  It spread its wings wide, and Garuvel saw six other figures standing
within the embrace of the great feathers.  Each was of a different species, from a different world.  And one of them was himself, Garuvel Nep Zing, as he might be when he came to full manhood.
            Then the words spoken by the entity began to fall into place in Garuvel’s mind.  It had said, “We know who you are; it is time for you to know who you are.”
            Then Garuvel seemed to die, but his death lasted only a second.  Then he was alive again, as someone else, in another life.  He lived that life, then died, and was again reborn.  His journey through a multitude of lives accelerated: birth, life, death, birth, life, death, until it seemed as if he were inside a revolving drum with pictures on its curved surfaces. He lived  every kind of life, on every type of planet, in galaxies that had long since been pulled apart by greater galaxies or swallowed in black holes.
            The wheel began to slow.  Time relaxed and distended and tightened again.  He saw the winged being with its six companions including himself.  It uttered another of those multi-word sounds.
            Garuvel found himself lying on the hard floor of his cell.  The sound he had just heard rang like a bell in his mind.  As before, its syntax soon asserted itself, and it became comprehensible.
            “You are one of the Seven.  You are a bearer of the Realgift.  Any time you use the Gift, we will hear you.  Any time one of us uses the Gift, you will hear us.  You must know, however, that when you alter reality, there are unforeseeable consequences.  You cannot travel through space, or grow a tree, or change your body, without there being a corresponding change elsewhere in the universe.  The Great Balance must be maintained.  The universe is vast.  The spaces between worlds are all but unimaginable.  A trillion times you could utilize your gift, and all that will happen is that some cloud of hydrogen many light years away will grow, or shrink, or perhaps you will simply ignite a mote of space dust.  We have no control of the Great Balance.  Among our kind, some have needed to travel to many  worlds to undo the damage done by the simplest alteration.  You must always use the Realgift with caution and wisdom.  You might explode a star, destroy a thousand worlds. You do not know what might occur, or where it might occur, but as you make your change, you will immediately have a sense of that which has balanced, close at hand, far away, it is impossible to know.”
            The beings began to fade away, growing smaller as if being reeled backwards into a vast distance. 
            “Farewell for now,” the Winged One said. “We will always be with you.”
            It seemed as though tens of billions of years had passed.  At last Garuvel understood something about his strange faculty:  that he could Realize anything he could imagine.  As he contemplated it, he was gripped with pure terror.  Instead of being elated and bouyed up with feelings of power,  he could only think about how very complex things were, and how he sat there within the garden of his desires, knowing that with the slightest mistake, the garden could turn into a swamp of carnivorous weeds that would grow and grow,
eating up the entire universe.
            He lay there until he regained some composure.
            He must get out of the hospital.  He thought about what the Great Being had said.  Now he understood the sensations that had followed upon each use of the Gift.  He must not use it!  Not at all!  If there was but a chance in a trillion of endangering lives, then he could not take it.  He thought about the immensity of the universe.  How much sheer nothingness surrounded each tiny world, each burning star.  His choice was suddenly stark.  Stay here and die. Chance the Gift, and live.  The hospital, being a prison for magicians, was
replete with all kinds of detectors.  He tried to imagine an escape WITHOUT resorting to the RealGift.  He was stumped. 
             How could he work his way out using the absolute mininum of power? He went back to his very first discovery:  disappearance.  He could become invisible.  He could follow one of his warders out of the hospital, find a means of transport, and get off his home world of Vygor.
            He thought very carefully before beginning.  He did not sleep that night.
            In the morning he began his escape.  As he made himself vanish, he could feel the Council, inside his mind, sharing each action of the Gift.  They were mentors but not judges. They were with him.
            He paid one last visit to the Great House of Nep Zing.  His mother’s face had wrinkled. His father’s hair had gone grey.  The servants winced with fear every time Verleth strode through a room. 
            Garuvel went to Dryad’s Grotto, where he had secreted money and a few books.  As a child he was always planning to leave his home.  He had accumulated six hundred golden zirks, a nice little sum on any world.
He took two books:  “Starwinds”, by Latif el Rashid, and “Feral Tenderness” by Harl Plesniak.
            At the end of one Vygorian year, he was on the planet Eltubi, walking down a road that passed through miles of Mobo fields. He was dressed in a leather jerkin and trousers. There was a pouch strapped across his chest, and a fine light sword sheathed at his side.  His seventeen year old body was strong and healthy. He had experienced the Great  Wheel of Life.  He now had a strange gravitas for one so young, and a charisma which he wore lightly and without self consciousness. 
            He knew he had a lot of work to do.

            

The first pages of CONFESSIONS OF AN HONEST MAN

July, 1967.  Detroit, Michigan

          Three musicians were standing beside the club’s back door, under a canvas awning with scalloped trim. They wore black tuxedoes, replete with cummerbunds, bow ties and shoes polished to mirror perfection.  The tallest of the three, a man in his early sixties, wore a red poppy in his lapel.  The others had white carnations.  A few people stopped to shake their hands and offer words of praise.  Someone laughed a boozy laugh.  When the people had drifted away, the older musician butted his cheroot in the sand of an ashtray.  He stepped off the concrete pad and walked towards his car.
          The other two followed casually, about fifteen seconds apart.  They got into the vehicle and quietly closed the door 
          Soon they were engrossed in the ritual of the pipe: lighting, inhaling, holding their breath, exhaling. It was cozy in the Continental’s plush interior.  Air came through the upholstery’s leather seams, as if the vehicle sighed.  The men were settling down, recharging their nerves for the next set, the last set.  It was one o’clock in the morning.
          BANG!  A sound like a bomb shocked the trio with sudden terror.  Their bodies reacted before their brains registered the sound.  They ducked, and their hands flew to cover their heads.
          The car lurched as a man dove across the hood, holding a pistol in his right hand.  His legs swam wildly as he fought to stop his momentum.  Whatever tactic he had in mind, it wasn’t working.  The car’s sheen and finish turned the hood into a sliding board.
          In the back seat, Aaron Kantro cursed loudly without thinking.  “Jesus fucking Christ!”  He had never before heard a gun shot.  In spite of this fact, he recognized the sound.  It was rounder, weightier, and more final than the sound of a firecracker. 
          The man on the car’s hood waved the pistol frantically.  Slithering to get his balance, he clutched at the windshield wipers and missed.  Gravity and car wax slid him across the polished metal until he landed on the ground.  The pistol fired as he hit the gravel.  The bullet penetrated a tire with a loud hiss.
          The man sprang up and disappeared among the ordered rows of vehicles in the parking lot.
          Zoot Prestige held a finger to his mouth and moved quietly to the floor of the passenger seat.  The musicians were already breaking the law.  Zoot didn’t want to be a witness.  Zoot didn’t want questions.  Zoot didn’t want any dealings with the Poe-Leece! 
          Aaron scrunched onto the floor of the back seat until his arm rested on the hump of the drive shaft.  Tyrone, on the other side, was hoping to disappear via the flawed logic of an ostrich.  He was pulling his little pork-pie hat over his eyes.
          A voice shouted, “I’LL KILL YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” 
          Two more shots were fired from the opposite corner of the lot.  Two ovoid muzzle flashes lit up the windshields of Cadillacs and Thunderbirds.  A man’s face appeared, pressed to the window of Zoot’s car.  His cheek was distorted against the glass, with an eye like a panicked horse.  His breath steamed the window only inches from Zoot’s face.  With a slight turn to the right, Zoot became a virtual nose-to-nose mirror image of the man with the gun. 
          The enraged shooter didn’t see the human being an inch from his face.  He raised a snubby revolver over the top of the vehicle, fired twice without aiming, and ran to cover behind a black Eldorado.  The wind had changed.  The shots were barely audible.
          “Sheee-it!” Zoot grumbled, “I hope nobody messes up my short.  I paid three hundred bucks for this custom paint job.”  The immaculately polished car was long and sleek as a submarine.
          A voice shouted, “HEY LOOK HE’S OVER THERE!” 
          Bang bang bang! Flashes lit up the musician’s faces.  Guns were all over the place.  Aaron looked at Tyrone.  The pianist had twitched and spilled a pipe full of burning marijuana into his lap.  He brushed and patted frantically to prevent embers from smoldering through his pants.  Thrusting his hands into his pockets he made a basket to prevent sparks from spreading onto the seat.  Aaron produced a handkerchief and helped contain the disaster.  Tyrone was feeling little stings of fire burning their way into his palms.  He was tossing the embers back and forth as he jumped and wriggled all over the tiny space behind the driver’s seat.  When the young musicians’ eyes met they realized that Tyrone had forgotten to exhale. 
          They began to giggle.  Tyrone managed to empty his lungs without breaking into a hacking cough.  The bodies of both men were convulsed with terrified hilarity.