Saturday, December 31, 2011

End of the Year

Now the time has come to sum up this year.  Don’t worry.  I’ll give you only the highlights.  Though I’m a homebody, I’ve made a few outings in 2011.  In April I ran a half marathon in St. Louis on my birthday and was able to visit a couple of friends.  In May I went to Atlanta for a week of Army leadership training and was able to catch a Braves game.  In the early summer, I walked through groves of redwoods and sequoias in Northern California with a couple of friends.  On the heels of the California trip I went to Kentucky for two weeks of annual Army training with my unit.  Personal achievements include qualifying as sharpshooter once again on the 9mm pistol in October, running three half marathons, becoming a company commander, and getting a new teaching job at a state university.  I don’t know what 2012 will bring.  I have no grand plans and have made no resolutions.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Out and About on a Winter's Day

I spent the late afternoon and early evening with a good friend of mine whom I shall name “John” for the sake of confidentiality.  We walked about eight or nine miles at a large dog park with his yellow lab, looping around multiple times on different paths, all the while discussing a variety of ethereal and mundane topics.  I enjoyed the opportunity to get outdoors and articulate matters of the heart.  The snowy landscape in the misty twilight worked its magic and kept us oblivious to the miles we had traversed.  Yes, every now and then I exit my cave and engage in a bit of social intercourse with other humans.  His wife “Nancy,” a delightful creature with a kind heart, made a fabulous “salad soup” upon our return to their home.  We exchanged pleasantries around the dinner table and watched some Brian Regan comedy clips on YouTube.  I’ve been quite the socialite today.  Earlier I spent time with two of my daughters at a breakfast restaurant.  Over omelets and hash browns, Monika and Jessika discussed countries they’d like to visit and the challenge of maintaining good grades in school.  Such interactions with fellow human beings are normal—normal for most people.  I have become ever more reclusive as time marches on.  I’m not much of a conversationalist.  I usually make people feel uncomfortable.  So when I have the chance to engage in dialogue and spend quality time with individuals, I probably should take it.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Didactic Driving

Today I shifted from the right lane into the fast lane in front of a vehicle that was far exceeding the speed limit.  The driver blasted his horn, no doubt in gratitude for my didactic driving technique, as Speedy Gonzales presumably recognized the errors of his ways and again, albeit forcefully, observed safety on the road.  The word “didactic” derives from the Greek verb, didaskein, which means to teach.  A didaktikos in ancient Greece was a teacher or tutor.  Didactic driving, then, involves the effort through one’s own driving to instruct or remind other drivers of the rules of the road when they are in violation.  It can also simply signal to the driver that he or she has forgotten basic courtesies.  Often this instructive gesture entails a metaphoric “nudge” or “slap on the wrist.”  Only the untrained eye would mistake didactic driving for, say, aggressive driving, or some other manifestation of road rage.

Didactic driving can take many forms, in addition to the one I used today.  Let’s say, for example, that your behind a vehicle in the middle of an intersection.  You both want to turn left but you must of course wait until there’s no oncoming traffic; there is no green arrow at this particular intersection.  However, dickless in front of you has been hesitant to turn left for seemingly the last half hour, even though the next oncoming car is about five football stadiums away.  So you offer a friendly, didactic honk of your horn for a good 15 seconds.  Didactic driving also comes into play when you’re again making a left turn and you suspect that the oncoming car has increased his or her speed either to make the light or simply to deter you from making a turn before (s)he clears the intersection.  What you do in this instance is indeed make the left turn but you decelerate just a bit as you make the turn, thereby forcing the oncoming driver likewise to slow down and, ideally, rethink his or her strategy, if not acknowledge the rudeness and selfishness of such driving behavior.

As an educator, I suppose didactic driving comes natural to me.  I enjoy the challenge of informing drivers who seem to be taking their sweet-ass time to get from Point A to Point B when Der Viator is late for his massage appointment that they should be mindful of the situation or get off the road altogether.   Feel free to employ didactic driving when the need arises.  You’ll be serving your fellow man.  And don’t forget, folks, if you see a silver Ford Escort with a bespectacled bald man at the wheel in your rearview mirror, stay out of the friggin’ way.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Thanks but No Thanks

I personally want to thank you, dear reader, for your loyal perusal of this blog’s contents.  We’ve enjoyed a special relationship these past two years.  We’ve laughed together, cried together—albeit somewhat asynchronously.  You have graciously considered my “musings,” even when they ventured into dark waters; moreover, you have commented on the blog with your witty and thoughtful feedback.  I must concede, though, that I’ve found your critical spirit a bit vexing.  Even as I write these words, I can feel your haughty glare penetrating my soul—and I don’t appreciate it.

Why do look upon me with such derision and disgust?  I know what you’re thinking.  What’s that?  You say I have a disturbed mind?  That I repulse you?  That in spite of my perspicacity, I’m a perturbed and paranoid person?  Well, how dare you, sir (or ma’am)!  Clearly today is “Hate Der Viator Day.”  Admittedly, I am unaware of such a holiday, but evidently, you are, and you seem to celebrate it with gusto (and no doubt frequently).  Tell me, reader.  Do you get some kind of psychotic thrill, a tingle up your leg, from unrelenting attacks on my character and everything I stand for?  Am I such a vile, loathsome creature to you?  Yeah?  Why do you delight, little man (or woman), in bringing me down to your level like a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square?  Do my metaphors no longer entice you as perhaps they once did?  I’ll give you credit for phenomenal multitasking skills: You’ve managed to excoriate, castigate, crucify, immolate, and blackball me in one fell swoop.  Congrats!  You’ve carved out a secure place in the I Hate Der Viator Book of World Records.  What?  No, you calm down, damn it!

Look, I don’t know how we got off on the wrong foot.  I mean, we’ve been a great team, you and I.  I write the words.  You read the words, over coffee in the morning, a great boost to your day.  Everyone has a great time.  If only this screen didn’t separate us so cruelly!  I’d love to enjoy social intercourse with you over Gentleman Jack on the rocks in a lowball glass.  We’d while away the hours in pleasant conversation—the blogger and his reader united at least.  Unfortunately, the disdainful look in your eyes, coupled with a tendentious desire to trip me up on some point of detail about world culture or history, would taint what could otherwise have been a wonderful tête-à-tête.  Thanks but no thanks.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Santa Didn't Deliver This Year

Santa did not bring me what I want most dearly—peace on Earth.  As a child, I used to be satisfied with Hot Wheels cars and Star Wars action figures.  As a father, I graduated to socks and cologne.  Now, above all, I want a world without pain and sorrow.  You say I am asking too much?  Maybe so.  Maybe I'm a fool.  Believe you me, I searched high and low this Christmas day for the peace that I so earnestly desired, as I’ve in fact done Christmases past.  Yes, I first looked under the tree and then I took a gander up the chimney.  I consulted newspapers and turned on the television.  Nothing but the same old misery and wretchedness.  What does Santa do up there at the North Pole all year long?  Sit on his arse and stuff Christmas cookies down his pie hole?

Where did I go wrong?  I mean, I hung my stockings and said my prayers.  I followed protocol and made propitiation.  So why can’t I get my wish?  Am I too naughty?  I admit that I’ve been pouting.  I realize that he checks that list not just once, but twice; so I’m sure he’s aware of the situation.  Still, with such attention to detail, you’d think Jolly Old Saint Nick would consider the wisdom and benefit to humankind of a world devoid of wrath and enmity.  It’s my understanding that Santa Claus doesn’t care whether we’re rich or poor, for he loves everyone the same.  So why not bring this gift of peace?  Sometimes I wonder if Santa is absentminded or even cruel.  Other times I start to doubt he’s even around.  Or am I just being naughty to have such thoughts?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Pick Your Battles

You’ve heard this expression, right?  We should all remember that, while we perhaps have certain causes that fuel our passion or certain instances of social justice that we deem in need of our attention, other people might not share the same concern.  I mentioned to someone today that I had some last-minute Christmas shopping to do at Wal-Mart, only to get a look of disapproval and a few words delivered in a cold tone.  “Wal-Mart?  I don’t support them.”  I didn’t respond, but my thought was something like:  Well, thank you very much for the unsolicited comment, accompanied no less with a gratuitous frown that presumably is supposed to have me rethink my mindless, philistine viewpoint vis-à-vis your superior, enlightened perspective.

I have no objection to this person’s beef with Wal-Mart, but I obviously don’t share it, at least not to the extent of avoiding the store like the plague.  That’s my point, right?  I mean, we all have our particular moral crusades, or at least many of us do.  Pick your battles.  We can’t save the world and time is limited; moreover, we have to balance our moral concerns and any activist impulse we might possess with the necessities of living (working for the Man, putting food on the table, having a roof over our heads).

Whether we decide to refrain from shopping at Wal-Mart, protest the Coca-Cola company, refuse to eat anything that isn’t produced by organic farmers, recall politicians with whom we disagree, drink only fair trade coffee, or what have you, we need to recognize that we’ve made this decision for a variety of reasons and not everyone is on the same page.  These reasons might be ideological, political, or as result of our family history.  As far as Wal-Mart goes, heck, why should I penalize hardworking employees of the company just because the company doesn’t support a union?  Who’s to say that my decision to shop for whiskey and hemorrhoidal cream at Wal-Mart is any less ethical than the person who doesn’t?  Yes, it can be frustrating or annoying when someone doesn’t share the “wisdom” of our viewpoint, which we hold to be “self-evident.”  But that’s life, and the quicker we realize it, the easier it will be to deal with the Other.

I submit to you that poverty and oppression abroad—some of which the American Imperium is indirectly or directly response for—is a more important crusade to devote one's moral fervor to than whether Wal-Mart offers benefits to its employees.  Does this aforementioned person express concern over such a tragedy?  Nope, because you gotta pick your battles.

Alas!  We’re entering a political season, and some of us will feel compelled to share our political views.  Again, that’s fine.  Let us not forget, however, that whether we’re castigating President Obama and the Democrats as Big Government socialists who have worsened our economic woes or whether contrariwise we’re expressing our disgust with Republican candidates as right-wing whack jobs, millions of people share the opposite view.  Before you write them off as misguided fools who've been duped, try to appreciate the views of others (and not just pay lip service to the value of diversity and plurality.)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Responding to Readers

As this eventful year is now coming to a close, it’s fitting that I respond to your letters, a courtesy long overdue.  As you know, this blog has just completed its second year, and I appreciate your loyal readership.  You’ve bombarded my Outlook with your emails these past months; additionally, in the corner of my office next to the file cabinet I espy two large crates of hard-copy letters that I’ve accumulated from my Neo-Luddite friends.  Why have I been so tardy, you ask?  I’ve had to let most of my staff go due to downsizing and, sadly, fire a few others due to theft and sexual scandal (the two Darrens in accounting, it seems, were treating the office as if it were an extension of their bedroom!).

Let me start with Janice from Joplin, Missouri.  She wants to know why blog entries were not as plentiful as in 2010, especially why there was a severe drop-off in the latter half of this year.  She adds, “I appreciate your insights and am thinking of basing my life, and that of my two children, Kayla and Todd, on your sagacious teachings.”  Thanks, Janice, for your query and kind words.  The aforementioned issues within the Der Viator administration kept me preoccupied with workplace politics; unfortunately, I spent most of my precious downtime writing letters of termination and speaking with lawyers instead of reflecting on life’s riddles.

Bill from Boise writes succinctly, “Brilliant analysis, Der!  Love the blog.  Would that I possessed your intellect!  Such is my lot in life, the delightful lot of all Der Viator blog readers, to sit as mere mortals before such an oracle of our time”  Well, thank you, Bill, but I admit I get a bit embarrassed with such unmerited adulation.  I just express my view and if others happen to think it’s brilliant, genius, the product of a razor-sharp mind, or whatever, so be it.  I don't really pay heed to what people think of me.

From Austin, Texas come a few weird comments from Jenna.  “Mr. Viator, you are so manly and virile.  I wish you would post more photos of yourself on the blog, and all of my girlfriends agree.  Hubba hubba!”  Jenna, I would much rather have substantive comments on the intellectual content of this blog, but I do appreciate your good intentions to pay me a compliment.

Perhaps a few of you erroneously think that this whole “response to readers” thing is just a ploy to complement myself.  Always suspicious of people’s motives, you might wonder if I’m writing these letters myself in order to have fictional fans express their high regard for my intellect, appearance, and overall charm.  I’d have to be a real sicko, let alone stupid, to engage in such antics.  And this next letter will prove it, for it is highly critical of me.  Why would I include it here if I were a narcissistic freak?

Jerrold of Chicago expresses his disapproval.  “This blog is a laughing stock!  Granted, you intoxicate me with your incisive mind, keen sense of irony, and ingenious use of metaphor.  Moreover, you have a sardonic wit unparalleled among today’s literati.  But I’ve found not a few typos and that’s absolutely unforgivable.  Clean up your act, Mr. Viator, or whatever your real name is!”

That’s about all the time I have for your letters today.  I apologize that I could only address a few, but I assure you that Der Viator blog will continue to offer the same melancholic reflections you've evidently enjoyed these past two years.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lone Wolf

Some of you know my real identity.  You might know that I teach at two universities, on the one hand, and serve as a commander in the U.S. Army Reserve, on the other.  (Until relatively recently, I also worked as a security guard, not to mention years ago as a part-time musician.)  I’m hesitant to tell you that, while I find academia and the military rewarding, I don’t feel entirely at home in either career path.  I say hesitant because most of you would probably roll your eyes at a sob story involving a poor misfit named Der Viator, an outsider looking in, someone living a solitary life on the fringes.  I would roll my eyes, but not before getting out the air violin.

I suppose I should clarify what I mean, however.  For the most part, I’m talking about the people and subculture inherent in these careers.  As far as duties and responsibilities go, I’m fine.  Admittedly, I’m more of an academic than a soldier in my heart of heart, if for no other reason than that education and research have shaped my life long before the opportunity arose to join the Army.  Heck, reading and writing is a lifelong passion.  In my graduate school days, I felt like the quintessential academic, publishing articles, finishing the dissertation, speaking at conferences, conducting archival research in Europe, and attending Christmas shindigs with pretentious grad students and professors.  But somehow I lost my way; things didn’t pan out for me in terms of a full-blown academic career: a tenure-track position and all the rest of it.  I haven’t felt a part of the “establishment” ever since.

And as far as the military is concerned, I have my good days and my bad days.  Who doesn’t, right?  Admittedly, I’ve been reconsidering my commission in light of the overload of duties that I’m expected to fulfill as a weekend warrior.  This issue aside, I've noticed that most, but not all, of the soldiers I've interacted with in these past seven years or so seem to have a different Weltanschauung than I do, and I suppose using sesquipedalian words like Weltanschauung and sesquipedalian doesn’t help me in those settings.  (In actuality I’m careful not to use big words in certain contexts, the military being one of them, lest I seemingly vindicate someone’s view about people with high degrees being pedantic and snobbish.)  Perhaps the “problem” is that I bring my military sensibility into academia, and my “professorial” demeanor to the military.  Is it so wrong to make a student perform 40 push-ups when he doesn’t participate sufficiently in class discussion?  Seriously, though, this thesis of mismatching my identities doesn’t account for my feeling of anomie in these career pathsand frankly other experiences too.

I don’t know if I’ve always felt like an outsider.  True, I’ve been a lone wolf since my early days.  As I look back on my childhood, I see a rather odd boy.  I’m not even sure the “lone wolf” metaphor properly characterizes me.  After all, don’t wolves live in packs?  Where’s my pack?  My peeps?  My posse?   Lupus incomitatus.  I’m cursed to mark my territory alone.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Large Naked Man in My Bed

Don’t be alarmed  by the title, readers.  What I have to tell you is more annoying than sexual.  I awoke yesterday morning to find a large naked man in my bed.  No, I’m not a homophobe, far from it.  My two dads adopted me as a baby, only weeks after their heroic stand at the Stonewall riot of 1969.  You must admit, though, that I had darn good cause for being surprised and distraught.  Even a gay guy would be taken aback by a stranger appearing in his bed, whether he was naked and good-looking (as this fellow definitely was) or not.  After the initial shock of finding this unshaven dude in my bed, I was struck by the fact that he was (1) a male and (2) had a large frame and muscular physique.  (For this reason, dear reader, I entitled this piece the way I did.)

“What?”  He has the nerve to ask me?

“What do you mean what?  Who the hell are you and what are you…”

“…doing in your bed?”

“Yes!  Yes!  What the fuck, dude?”

“I’m not dangerous.”


“You have nothing to worry about.  Just calm down.”

“I am calm!  Now listen…”

“I don’t think you are.  You’re overreacting…”

“What the hell is going on here?  Is this a dream?”

The naked man smiled and, strangely, a new universe seemed to open up.

I never got the answer I was looking for, other than the guy’s name, Ted.  Anyway, I hope to learn more about Ted during our dinner engagement next week at Olive Garden.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Explanation vs. Exculpation

Explanation is not exculpation.  To empathize is not to sympathize.  I teach some rather unpleasant humanities courses at a state university: genocide, terrorism, epidemics.  The unrelenting search for truth into what makes people tick necessarily requires one to relinquish presuppositions and suspend moral judgment; otherwise, the observer unknowingly alters or even distorts that which is being observed.  So understanding genocidal dictators and terrorist masterminds requires a willingness and a creative empathy to get inside their minds as much as possible.  Terrorist expert Jessica Stern, in her book Terror in the Name of God, describes her efforts to understand violent extremists as "a kind of vicarious introspection."  Seeing evil through the eyes of the evil-doer is easier said than done.  Our repulsion at their heinous acts hinders such an act of academic discipline.  Understandably, students feel uncomfortable at times when explaining the various factors–family, culture, social mores, etcthat influenced the way these reprobates turned out the way they did.

We have a tendency to label our enemies as demons or lunatics, when a more objective viewpoint would see these individuals as rational actors who operate as much from pragmatic considerations as from utopian (or dystopian) ideologies.  In our criminal court system we make allowance for insanity, temporary or permanent, as a causative factor for crime, especially those crimes far outside the bounds of social norms.  So be it.  But we’ll never understand evil acts if we simply view them through our familiar interpretive grid, that is, our unchallenged presuppositions.  We’ll have only confirmed what we believe and be none the wiser.  True, there’s sometimes a fine line between explaining something and exculpating something.  For example, movies or documentaries that attempt to humanize historic villains like Hitler and Osama Bin Ladento present them as multifaceted individualsmight appear to sympathize with them, but this isn’t necessarily the case.  Sometimes it depends on the intent of the author or filmmaker.  Efforts to present evil acts and their perpetrators in a broad context might be fraught with misunderstanding and pitfalls, but the students in my classes usually seem up for the challenge.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Conrad's Manifesto

“I hate this fuckin’ life!” exclaimed Conrad, alone in his office on a late afternoon, as he stabbed the pencil sharpener with his pencil.  He uttered these words aloud, though no one could have heard them.  The thirty-eight-year-old civil engineer, divorced father of two sons, wanted to vocalize his grievance, as if somehow the acoustic reverberations of his voice would reify the thoughts in his mind, as if he was an actor in a grand drama: “Conrad Against the Fuckin’ World.”  The disturbed man was writing either a memoir or manifesto; he wasn’t yet sure.  Maybe it was both.  And considering his inability to make decisions—an unfortunate trait he was all too conscious of—the verdict would be out until he finished it.  The words weren’t forthcoming and his frustration was reaching a crescendo.

Conrad’s inner life was a study in turmoil, though no microscope, scalpel, or “lame-ass” therapy (his words) could reveal its lessons.  Something stalked him, a dark figure, relentless, omniscient.  It was an image, a curious anomaly against the backdrop, and given that the landscape was rather bleak and desolate, you’d think he would have gotten a good look at it, this solitary wraith gliding along his psyche.  But it was just out of focus.  Like a conspiracy theory or monster under the bed, it has persisted in poor Conrad’s fertile, overwrought brain, in that tantalizing place where belief and disbelief jockey for position.

Admittedly, another theory for his turbulent mind, at least in its recent bout of turbulence, was having lost his job due to funding cutbacks.  To his mind, his demons and newfound unemployment status were not unrelated.  Unrelenting insomnia had taken its toll on his work productivity.

Whatever the cause, Conrad was once again struggling with metaphoric demons.  Otherwise, how does one explain his mind becoming a clenched fist ready for battle?  With whom was he fighting?  Who was stalking him?  Presumably, the defiantly blank piece of paper on Conrad’s drafting table would eventually give some clues.

Finally, after what seemed like five minutes but was barely shy of an hour, Conrad turned his gaze from the shrubs and tree outside his office window, and pressed the pencil onto the blank sheet of paper.  “These are my demands,” he wrote, as if he were writing a ransom letter and the hostage and hostage-taker were one and the same.  “(1) That life not be so miserable.”

Conrad looked at the laconic statement on the page and, determining that the reader would need a bit of clarification, added an explanation: “I desire to live in a world that rewards those who work hard, not one that punishes diligence and conscientiousness.  People aren’t perfect and I don’t expect miracles.  Moreover, I am willing to accept the existence of evil and malice in the world, to a degree, for evil has managed to endure in our species throughout the centuries, the explanation of which is far beyond my pay grade.  Still, I don’t think it’s asking too much to, say, have job security, a salary commensurate with one’s education, reasonable alimony payments, and children untainted by an Ex’s bitterness.  Is it also so wrong to advocate the destruction of unscrupulous credit card companies?  The corporal punishment of duplicitious politicians who seek only to line their pockets with your gold?  Religious leaders who do likewise?”

With such words, Conrad established a precedent of interjecting commentary after each “demand” in his manifesto-cum-memoir.  Whether explanatory notes would help the reader and not detract from the lucid simplicity of his initial statement is an open question.  But Conrad was too self-conscious, perhaps narcissistic, for his own good; he couldn’t bear the thought of someone misunderstanding or misinterpreting his meaning.

Relatively satisfied with his words thus far, he continued onto the next point, and hurriedly so, lest the blood flowing from his passionate heart toward his writing hand find another outlet.  “(2) That evil people die a violent death and go to the bad place.”  Again, the writer felt compelled to clarify, especially such a belligerent statement with a nasty edge.  He didn’t want to come across as just another angry white whack-job on a rant.  “Don’t get me wrong, dear Reader.  I am a peaceful man, and I generally don’t desire the suffering of another human being.  I wish we could settle our differences without recourse to violence, but sometimes enough is enough.”

Conrad wasn’t lying about being a peaceful guy, not entirely.  He got into a fight only once in his life, when he was in the Navy, and that’s only because a drunken chief petty officer called him a queer in front of his buddies.  He felt duty-bound to deck the rude fellow, though he outranked Conrad; the fight ended up a draw.  Of course, Conrad didn’t mention the dream he had the other night that would contradict his statement about being a peacenik.  Why would he?  In the dream, he came across his therapist, Manfred, sitting in his living room.  Conrad approached him from behind and started to strangle the bald, bespectacled fellow with all his might, saying, “How does this make you feel, Dr. Know-it-All?  Huh?  Why don’t you just share your thoughts on this pain, huh?  What?  You’re slowly dying?  Well, maybe we can just slap some medication on your problem!”

Conrad lost the momentum after his second point.  He looked out the window again, but he wasn’t looking at anything, just staring into nothingness.  After another minute of mindless reverie, he wrote his third demand: (3) That people learn to think as individuals without an agenda.  This odd statement touched upon one of Conrad’s many pet peeves.  He had particularly in mind his neighbor Bill Stanford, who mindlessly spouted right-wing shit he had heard from his drinking buddies.  Drawing upon this example, Conrad explained more generally: “I’m tired of people posing as principled ideologues or essentially acting as spokesmen for some cause that they don’t understand.”

Two more hours went by as Conrad lost himself in bitter thoughts.  Eventually he arrived at ten demands, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of them, and for good reason.  He was repetitive and contradictory.  He read over and over what he had written with furrowed brow and gasps of dissatisfaction.  Despite a perfectionist tendency that left so many projects unfinished throughout his life (including but not limited to a graduate degree, a marriage, and a murder novel), he uncharacteristically decided to come to a conclusion.  He added an epilogue:

I’ve lost my way.  I suppose if I look harder, somehow search more deeply, engage in a bit of introspection as I’m wont to do from time to time (though with little fruit for my labors thus far), Id’ realize that I had never in fact found my way to begin with.  Still, it seems as though I’ve come from some other place and there’s no turning back.  I don’t want to bore you with my meandering thoughts, and I can already picture you rolling your eyes at an egocentric, self-styled Romantic wistfully gazing at his said image at the water’s edge….

What was he to do now?  Should he send this document to the local newspaper in the unlikely prospect of getting it published?  Should he mail it to the White House?  Should he follow up the manifesto with some act of defiance?  He considered launching a protest downtown but he wasn’t a confrontational person.  He even thought about shooting people from a university tower, but he already decided to eschew violence, in keeping with his manifesto.  Besides, such an act was too messy and offered no good endgame.  Conrad contemplated going on a hunger strike, but who would care?  If he were an anarchist, he’d assassinate someone.  If he were a revolutionary, he’d raise a rabble in the streets.  Should he destroy computers and other inventions of modern technology?  No, he wasn't a Neo-Luddite, even if he purposively wrote his manifesto on paper with a #2 pencil. He wasn’t an Ite, Ist, and certainly not an Ism.  He was just….well, Conrad Ellestad.

The building’s cameras show Conrad walking out a side door and across the parking lot toward his car at approximately 7:30 pm.  Investigators found his manifesto in a safe in his garage.  They never found Conrad.  Some say he got a job in Reno.  Others say he’s living in a cabin in Wyoming.  His manifesto left behind more questions than answers.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


The Viator family had a wonderful Thanksgiving, so thanks for asking.  Like most nuclear American families, we’ve developed our own holiday tradition over the years that somehow works for us.  It usually consists of me getting drunk off Jack Daniel's in the early afternoon and making odd, inappropriate comments like, “Peter’s [our cat’s] anus tastes weird today,” while the girls bicker over which show they want to watch on the computer downstairs.  The pièce de résistance, of course, involves us assembling at the dinner table to stuff our pieholes with feedbags like there’s no tomorrow.  Erika, the eldest daughter, made a tongue-in-cheek remark about “Hatesgiving,” after an initial ruckus at the table involving my wife and Monika, the youngest daughter, over the use of the cellphone at the dinner table.   I shot Erika a disapproving look for such a remark, totally perplexed as to how one of my brood could depict things so negatively.  She didn’t take me too seriously, however, what with gravy dripping down my bibless shirt and alcohol breath so pungent that you could have blown up our house by just lighting a match.  After the meal we had fun as a family picking some of our favorite Eighties pop tunes on YouTube.

About an hour later we went to see a movie at an upscale theater, largely because my wife wanted to be able to sip coffee during the feature.  Whateva.  My wife and three daughters saw the latest release in the Twilight franchise, “Breaking Wind,” or something to this effect.  Figuring that the movie would be a disappointment after reading the books (though I haven’t read the books), I opted to see a Clint Eastwood movie called “J. Edgar,” about the founding FBI director and starring Leonardo DiCaprio,  in an adjacent theater all by my lonesome.  I enjoyed the film.  DiCaprio is clearly making his mark, along with, say, Matt Damon, as one of the best American actors of his generation.  It’s always interesting to see how a filmmaker translates the biography of a real person in such a way as to tell a good story without sacrificing the historical credibility.  Clearly, Eastwood based his film on biographies and poetic license.  To be sure, he took liberties for dramatic purposes, but, though a historian by training, I’m understanding of such artistic decisions.  I'd like to think that most educated people can use critical thinking skills and tap into some cultural literacy in order to distinguish truth from fiction.  I mean, I’d put more stock in an Eastwood film, say, than something from Oliver Stone, who has produced a few great films but is not exactly an honest broker when it comes to social commentary.

Just as the ending credits went up, a lady in her fifties started yelling, “This is bullshit,” over and over, as she stormed out of the theater.  I was surprised that everyone was so reserved about this rude behavior.  As she was leaving the theater, I yelled out, “Keep it to yourself, lady.”  I regret now that I did not say what had occurred to me shortly thereafter: “Shut the fuck up, asshole, or I’ll smack the living shit out of your rude ass!”  Had I said these words, I would have quickly assured everyone sitting in the theater that I’m not a whacko, but that enough was enough.  I don’t know if she was a lefty who was unhappy that the film humanized J. Edgar Hoover, perhaps Darth Vader to civil liberty types, or whether she was a right-winger, unhappy that the film portrayed Hoover as a homosexual.  Here’s the thing: I don’t give a rat’s ass what her political viewpoint is, whether it matches or diverges from my own.  If you’re gonna spew your crap in a public theater like that, you’ll have Der Viator on your ass.  Why must there be such hate on an otherwise pleasant Thanksgiving late afternoon?  I dunno...........Where's my bottle of Jack?

Sunday, November 20, 2011


Most people who meet me for the first time end up concluding that I’m either gay or a drug addict.  I don’t know for sure why this is the case, but I suspect their misperception stems from my unconventional behavior.  One thing I do know for sure is that people are quick to judge from outward appearances.  Not me, though, for I’m different.  I make judgments about a person’s character and overall worth to the human species based upon limited contact and off-the-cuff assessment, but I’m usually correct in my perception.  Anyway, I was browsing for books in the gay and lesbian section of Barnes & Noble the other day.  I’m teaching a course on epidemics at the University of Mantua and am looking for some interesting stories about AIDS.  Suddenly it occurred to me, like one of those magical epiphanies everyone wishes for, that I’d been standing in front of the gay and lesbian section for the last ten minutes and I didn’t care.  Finally, I crossed, for me, the final frontier of not caring, and it feels liberating, almost as if I’ve come out of the closet, which I did, by the way, last year when I opened up about my homosexuality.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Flatulent Flagellant

I once met a man who would beat himself silly every time he passed gas.  As the stench would rise, so would his resolve to make his own contribution, however small, toward righting the wrongs of this world; with grim face and leather whip, he would chastise his body, if not his soul, for having unleashed miasmatic vapors into the world.  In his tortured, guild-ridden mind, it was as if each blow, the ripping away of his surface flesh with the cat o' nine tails, would somehow cleanse the air, somehow restore paradise lost.  Alas!  He was but a fool, for that which has been unleashed to the world cannot be taken back.  Being a simpleton and a peasant at heart, this would-be Destroyer of Farts foolishly thought he could find redemption by chastising his flesh after each release of his foul pestilence.  Before you judge this man so readily, you should know that I am that man, the Flatulent Flagellant, and I don't take kindly to your haughty scowl.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Whole Package

My friends and I visited the Big Tree Grove of Calveras County (California) this past July.  It was a quite a treat to see the immense sequoias, especially the Abraham Lincoln, which is pictured here.  Whenever I’m feeling inadequate in my life, I think of Lincoln, someone who had the balls to lead the country through its worst trials and tribulations.  Sure enough, he had personal issues, such as bouts with depression and he suspended civil liberties during the War, but you have to look at the whole package.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Haunted Hustle

I ran a half marathon today, my third within this past year.  My pace was nothing to write home about, but I finished at a respectable time and that’s good enough for me.  I hadn’t been preparing as I would have liked in the last few months.  The Haunted Hustle in Middleton, Wisconsin was a nice course and, as it turns out, the weather was perfect.  I wouldn’t want to live in Wisconsin by any means, but it was certainly nice to visit.  Fortunately I didn't suffer from a right calf issue that plagued me during the St. Louis half marathon in April and resulted in an awful run time, but my performance today certainly doesn't match my time in South Carolina last November when I was in fairly good shape due to an 11-week military training program.  Those previous 13-mile runs in November and April, I must confess, were cherished moments in my life.  Today's event was okay, but nothing special.  I'm still assessing my ability to run a full marathon, but until I lose about twenty pounds or so, it's off the table.  Frankly, after today, I'm wondering whether I should run another thirteen-miler!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Here We Go Again!

Here we go again.  I teach a course on terrorism and every once in a while the so-called “911 Hoax” comes up.  (I suppose it doesn't help that a former governor of the state where I teach espouses this hateful re-writing of history!)  I’ve addressed this issue elsewhere on this blog, as well as conspiracy theories more generally.  Talking to people who believe that 911 was not the work of foreign terrorists but rather the Bush administration, Jews, the World Bank and just about anyone else is like talking to fanatical members of a religious sect.  They have no proof that the Neocons, Mossad, or the CIA (at the behest of Israel of course) blew up the towers.  They spit out things they’ve heard, third-hand evidence at best, without testing the “evidence.”  Again, talking to these people is like talking to a religious fanatic, whose views are just as much based on hatred than anything else.  And if you counter their view with reason and science, then they see you as either part of the cover-up or a dupe used as a pawn by the conspirators.  Still, at the end of the day, the burden of proof lies with them.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Coastal Drive (5/8)

Part II
The first of September.  For Maryanne, this day always marked the beginning of autumn, hands down her favorite season, and it came on Thursday to boot, her day off.  She understood that fall was, technically speaking, three weeks away, but once September got its start, even if only one day in, it’s as if the atmosphere changed.  Autumn was quietly announcing its arrival, and the pleasantly wistful mood that inevitably took possession of a blondish freckled girl growing up in Ohio still had its effect on a middle-aged woman living on the Pacific coast.

Just seeing the word September on her calendar or laptop screen conjured up images of cinnamon sticks and apples on a cutting board in a crowded kitchen; a mug of pumpkin spice latte on a brisk morning; cornhusk dolls lying pell-mell on the windowsill; chrysanthemums and asters in gardens past; and her grandma’s delicious bramboraks sizzling in the pan.  These wonderful things filled her mind like a cornucopia, and some of them—sadly, not her grandma’s potato pancakes—would once again come to fruition in the course of the season.

September was the month of Kirsten’s birthday too, and what with their moderately renewed relationship since the “accident” nearly two months ago, Maryanne wanted to do something special with her daughter.  (Moderately, for what it’s worth, was Maryanne’s own phrasing of the situation in a conversation with her friend Cal.)  If she could get the time off work before Kirsten’s classes got intense, perhaps they could spend a weekend of retail therapy together in Vancouver, a beloved vacation spot in happier family times when Kirsten and Scott were children.

If you were to sneak a peak at the whiteboard calendar on Maryanne’s fridge, you would see the words Margaret’s @ noon playfully written on this day in three colored pens and punctuated with a smiley face.  Margaret Brenton and her husband Neil operated Madame Roland’s Bed and Breakfast Inn in a remodeled Victorian house Margaret had inherited from her mother.

The septuagenarian couple had opened it up in what is now downtown Flaherty, conveniently located at the fork of two main business streets.  They had it refurbished in the late Nineties when select downtown businesses, awarded grants from an ambitious urban renewal committee (Margaret’s deceased parents being the chief benefactors thereof), went through a “makeover” to attract tourists and their money.

Attached to the Inn was a quaint little restaurant and antique shop, where Maryanne and her old lady friends, as well as Maryanne and Maryanne’s friend Carla, a forty-something divorcée who also moved to Oregon from the Midwest, would talk the latest gossip.

“You’re looking so well, Maryanne,” Margaret said in her trademark hostess voice as she brought a pint of half and half from the kitchen.

A friend of Margaret’s, Paula, a widower pushing 73 and living with her daughter, agreed.  “Yes, sweet thing.  It’s pleasant to see you with us, and looking so healthy today.  We’ve missed your company.”  Maryanne hadn’t attended Margaret’s “salon” since her accident.  In fact, she hadn't visited the ladies at the Inn for nearly six months due to work and John not wanting her to hang out with gossipy ladies.

“Thank you, everyone.  I think I'm doing fine these days.”

Sipping coffee and listening to pleasant chitchat was a source of great comfort for Maryanne after her trials and tribulations.  They sat at the table next to a large bay window with a view of Main Street.  Paula went a bit long on her grandchildren in Georgia, a subject of pride that usually ended on a sour note: her son's busy schedule and no visit to grandma in years.  Maryanne and Carla would usually sneak a funny face to each other when Paula went on and on.

The fifth regular member of the kaffeeklatsch, Cheryl, was a high school librarian in her fifties whose husband encouraged her to spend time with “the gals” and thereby leave him alone at home, guilt-free of  an impossible honeydew list and with plenty of cold ones stacked by the couch.  Not especially gifted in social tact, she seemed intent on violating an unspoken rule in such social settings: when one of your friends returns to the group after having overcome a few setbacks in life—a car accident, surgery, and the demise of a serious relationship—you don’t bring these matters up, unless the friend brings them up herself.  Cheryl could have easily stuck to the two topics that she and Maryanne have in common, namely flower gardening, marigolds above all, and raising a difficult son, though Cheryl’s Cody is six years older than Scott.

“Have you spoken to John since his visit to the hospital?” she asked.  Her question was awkward enough, as it didn’t blend organically into the tabletop conversation, but additionally so since Cheryl was usually rather tacit, apart from weighing in with Maryanne now and then on the aforementioned topics.

“No,” responded Maryanne.  “I just don’t think…”

“I’m sorry for prying.”

“No, it’s okay, I…”

“Very well, then,” interjected Margaret the hostess, seemingly chipper as ever.  “Let’s try my new boysenberry scones, and I won’t take No for answer, that includes you, Carla. “ Carla, thin as a rail, was always watching her weight.  “You will be my guinea pigs, as I’ll be adding these scones to the breakfast menu.”

Everyone knew what Margaret was doing, and she had made this Very well then comment once before, with the requisite tone of enthusiasm somehow mixed with maternal authority, during an ill-fated discussion on religion a few months ago. At the time Paula’s daughter Connie was in attendance; unbeknownst to everyone except her mom she was an atheist, and not exactly timid about it.  Carla, a Sunday school teacher, perceived an attack on her faith, rightly or wrongly.  Margaret, seeing her pleasant tea time about to take a sour turn, applied the brakes with an invitation to sample her strawberry crepes.

Margaret had her husband Neil bring in the scones on a silver tray while she shifted the conversation to one of its default topics: Margaret’s mother and her exploits during the 1930s and 1940s.

Maryanne admired the relationship between the Brentons, Margaret and Neil.  While she saw them bicker about almost anything under the sun, she envied the equality and mutual respect they enjoyed, something that had eluded Maryanne all these years.  But she enjoyed above all listening to Margaret talk about her amazing mother, Mary Jeanette, who became known as “Madame Roland,” after the famed heroine of the French Revolution.  Like her spiritual forebear, Mary Jeanette hosted a salon where literati and powerbrokers of Oregon came to drink cordials and discuss issues of the day, in the very same room overlooking Main Street Flaherty where Margaret, Maryanne, and friends got together for discussion and the latest gossip.

Maryanne knew the story well, and the enigmatic photo of Margaret’s parents in a framed photo on the wall behind Margaret’s seat served as further fuel for her imagination.  The photo dates from the late 1920s, about the time that Maryanne’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia.  Margaret’s father, Jesper Lemark Jr., a lumber magnate and the richest man in southern Oregon at the time, is looking into the camera with a slight smile and his arms akimbo, sporting a dark suit and a straw hat, while Mary Jeanette is wearing a long, flowing dress more typical of Victorian days than the Roaring Twenties.  Yet, she was no traditional wife, for one of the many unconventional views she defended, and defended rather ardently, was the rounding up of Japanese Americans in Oregon and sending them off to detention camps during the War.

As Margaret went on about life in Flaherty in the days of yore, and while everyone was oohing and awing over the scones, Maryanne looked out the bay window at the light rain and mist that had appeared.  It was a fine “autumn” day in the Northwest, she thought to herself, and it would only get better in the evening.  She was looking forward to Kristine and her friend from the university visiting for the weekend.

“I’m sure I’ve told you about the time when my mother and the local police locked horns over the Japanese-American fishers.  That was just after Pearl Harbor…”

From her vantage point, Maryanne watched through the window as a car pulled up to the curb.   She always sat in the cushioned chair that faces the street to take in the nice view.  The Brentons had always kept their place well landscaped.  They had a bonsai garden near the front door, and in another week or so Margaret’s chrysanthemums would be in full bloom.

Margaret continued to regal everyone with stories of her family, while Maryanne saw a man in a baseball cap get out of the car.  She recognized him instantly: It was Mark Denison.  For some reason she kept watching him silently, not letting on to her friends at the table that the man who saved her life was outside in the street.

Evidently Mark was searching for something, Maryanne thought to herself, even as she nodded to something either Margaret or Paula had just said, half conscious of the conversation that she was ostensibly engaged in.  Was he looking for her?

Mark pulled out his cell phone and glanced at it.  He walked across the street in the opposite direction of the Inn toward the sandwich and soup shop but stopped midway and turned back to his car looking puzzled.

“Excuse me a moment,” said Maryanne, nudging her friend Carla and nodding toward the window.  Carla was the only one there who knew something about Mark, though she had never seen him before.  Maryanne described him to Carla “a nice man with a certain dark intensity about him.”  (About the same time she described him to Cal as “a strange guy with a good heart.”)

“Okay, dear,” responded Margaret.

The women followed Maryanne with their eyes as she exited the Inn, then turned toward the window to see what was going on.  Who’s that man?  Does Maryanne know him? Is she okay? Suffice to say, Margaret’s mother and her boysenberry scones were no longer the topics du jour.

“That’s the man who Maryanne hit at the vista,” explained Carla, putting two and two together.


Maryanne walked gingerly down the wet stone path toward the street.  The rain was light, and the sun was returning.  Mark spotted her instantly.


“Mark?  What are you doing here?”

A large yard of grass and judiciously planted shrubs and flowers separate Margaret’s Bed and Breakfast from the street, so the women couldn’t hear what they were saying.  What they observed, however, was rather curious.

The two of them seemed cordial and friendly at first.  What are they saying?  Suddenly Maryanne become upset, only to return to an amiable demeanor.

“Maryanne told me he’s a nice person.”

“I should think so,” Paula opined, “if you’re going to risk your life for someone else.”

“He looks nice,” said Cheryl, “but I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.”

“Why would you say that?” asked Carla.

“I’m sure he’s a wonderful person.  I’m referring only to his physical appearance.  He seems…imposing.”

“Yeah?  I don’t get that,” said Carla.  Had they been able to hear the conversation outside, they would have discovered the secret buried in Maryanne’s heart.

“Mark?” Maryanne approached Mark.  For some inexplicable reason, he looked to her like an abandoned animal seeking shelter.  She shook off that notion when she heard his voice, a voice she could imagine leading men into battle.

“Maryanne,” he responded.

“Are you looking for me?”

“Yes.  Your daughter said you’d be here.”

“Is there something wrong?”

He hesitated.  “I need to ask you…”

“Ask me what?”

“I know this sounds crazy…”

“What do you mean?”

“Are you okay?  I mean, you’re not still thinking about killing yourself, right?”

“What?  Is that why you’re here?  To ask me that, again?”

“Sorry to be so blunt, Maryanne, but I can’t let this go.”

“You can’t let what go?”
“I…”  Mark searched for words.

“Listen, I don’t know what you think you heard me say, but you’re mistaken…”


“I wasn’t trying to kill myself that day….And even if I was, why is that your business?”

“I can’t explain…”

“I think you’ll need to, Mark.  I mean, you can’t just ask me a question like that, right?”

“It’s a spiritual thing, sort of…”

“What do you mean by that?”  Maryanne looked back at her friends staring at them through the window and up at a beclouded sky.  “We can’t talk her, like this.”

“You’re right.  I should have phoned you, but I didn’t want to ask you on the phone.”

“Listen, you saved my life.  I think that means I owe you a coffee.”  Maryanne chuckled.  “Are you available on Monday after I get off work, around 5:30pm?”


“Will you be in the area?”

“I can be.”

“The coffeehouse here in Flaherty at 5:3o then.  I’ll have some questions of my own, Mr. Denison!”

“Okay,” came Mark’s laconic reply, as water dripped from the visor of his Seattle Seahawks cap.

As Mark returned to his car, Maryanne thought about the changes in her life since the last time she saw him.  Her relationship with Kirsten and even Scott had been good.  Whatever lingering affection she had for John, the erstwhile man of her dreams, had subsided, a development within that she could not have fathomed before the accident.  And with encouragement from Carla and Cal, she decided to take the position as trauma coordinator after working in the Emergency Department at Siebeck for nearly a decade.  Her boss had been advocating Maryanne for the position for years.  Such a career move would entail a conference in Portland every month, much more responsibility, and more involvement with the politics of hospital administrators.  Jenny cautioned her sister about taking on such so soon, but Maryanne was determined to put the past behind her.

She no longer knew why she almost drove off the cliff on that fateful summer day only two months ago.  Clearly the meds had put her off-balance.  She used the term “accident” without any question in her mind.  Then Mark came into her life again.

When she returned to the kaffeeklatsch, Cheryl asked: “So, is everything alright?  Mr. Denison seems like a nice man, no?”

“Cheryl!” scolded Carla.

“I’m just asking.”

Maryanne smiled at both Cheryl’s nosy nature and Carla’s smack-down response on her best friend’s behalf.

Margaret didn’t miss a beat in restoring the casual atmosphere.  “Neil, bring us some more tea, would you dear?  Well, I was just telling them about the time when mother told the mayor he was a racist...”