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Atlanta Stories: Fables of the New South

Rebecca, Too: Snapshot McCall

Nurse Lana Turner moves down the hall of the emergency ward at Grady Hospital in Atlanta where she’s worked for more than twelve years. In that time, she’s seen the job move from patient charts on clipboards hung on the foots of beds to sophisticated, hand-held devices that automatically update the central database, showing up in the patient care system where doctors can chart the course of treatment on a given patient and make recommendations on restorative procedures. Despite the technological advances, the one aspect that remains the same is the human element. Patients and their loved ones still want a friendly face and a reassuring voice to help them through a medical emergency, and Lana always strives to be just that.

She pauses outside the room of Alyssa Ruth Caine, a young woman in her late-twenties, brought in late-Wednesday with head trauma following a car accident in Peachtree Corners. The reports say she lost control of her car trying to avoid another accident and crashed into a wall. Her seat belt and airbag saved her life, but the impact shook up her brain, causing swelling. Lana feels for Alyssa, who has recently lost her father per Alyssa’s husband, Tim. Whenever she’s there alone with Alyssa, said to be a schoolteacher with a sweet and loving disposition, Lana always gives her extra words of encouragement.

Earlier, Alyssa’s sister, Leah, was here, a difficult woman, who initially struck Lana as the typical, pushy, well-to-do white woman, thinking everyone’s supposed to stop and take notice when she speaks. Average in height, with a medium build, and reddish-brown hair, she has piercing, steel-blue eyes which she often focuses on someone for a long moment before uttering, “Perfect!” — her favorite phrase, Lana has concluded — often with more than a hint of sarcasm. From the start, she’s insisted everyone on staff call her Doctor Walker, even though she’s not a medical doctor. Lana is certain that’s liable to cause some confusion in the hospital, but honors the request. Most of the staff prefers dealing with Tim, who’s been a sweetheart the entire time. Doctor Walker asks too many questions, though they are relevant to her sister’s treatment.

The night before, while Lana was looking in on Alyssa, Leah, who was sitting with her sister, explained that she’s a facts and figures type of person and needs information to allow her to wrap her head around what’s happening. While not apologetic, Leah did sound a bit friendlier and less insistent than normal. Nurse Turner has concluded Leah does care for Alyssa, albeit in her own way, and Lana admires that. Among the nurses, opinions about Leah are mixed — Angelique, the nurse from the Ivory Coast, who studied in Haiti, enjoys Leah’s company, as Leah always converses with her in French when she’s on duty.

Nurse Turner makes a quick notation on her pad to close out the previous patient, switches to Alyssa’s record, then enters the room. Tim is seated at Alyssa’s side, holding her hand. He’s medium-toned, with a trim, athletic build, and a few days’ growth of beard, in his early-thirties. His facial features put Lana in mind of Nigerians she met on her trip to Africa a few years ago, particularly those of the Yoruba tribe, but, perhaps with some European and Native American mixed in. He’s originally from the West Coast and decided to stay in Atlanta after finishing school at Mercer. From talking to him, Lana has learned that he and Alyssa met through an outdoors group that sponsors hiking and camping trips for busy singles with a love of nature. One thing is for sure, he is totally devoted to his wife and rarely leaves her side. Lana asked him about Leah, but he assured her, “Don’t read too much into her act. That’s how she is with everyone.”

Lana examines Alyssa. While she’s never seen Alyssa on her feet, Lana can see she’s well above average in height and slender in build. Tim has mentioned she’s a distance runner, who also enjoys cycling and swimming. Fortunately, the accident did not necessitate cutting her hair, which is long and very blonde.

Tim stirs. “Morning, Lana. How’s she looking?”

“Morning, Tim,” she replies. “Not much has changed. Dr. Leonard says she could come out of it any time. I take it Alyssa’s sister went home.”

“Yeah, Leah headed home to get some rest,” he says. Tim rises and stretches. “Is the cafeteria open?”

“Yes, open and serving breakfast until 10:30,” Lana says.

“Great. I’m going to get some coffee. Maybe a bite to eat.” He rubs his chin. “I could probably use a shave, too.”

Tim exits.

Nurse Turner concludes her examination of Alyssa, then steps away from the bed and makes notations on her electronic device. Suddenly, Alyssa groans. Lana turns to see Alyssa’s eyelids fluttering, and her head moves back and forth on the pillow. She groans again, then raises her right hand to her head. She opens her eyes.

“Oh — my — god. What happened? Where am I?” Alyssa says.

Lana puts away the electronic device and hurries to the bedside and begins examining Alyssa again.

“Ms. Caine,” she says, “can you hear me? Alyssa?”

“Of course, I can hear you,” Alyssa says in a very agitated voice. She puts her hands up to shoo Lana away. “I’m right here. Who’s Alyssa?”

“You are,” Lana says. “How are you feeling?”

“Like JFK in the Zapruder film,” Alyssa says.

“That’s to be expected — I suppose — after what you’ve been through.”

The first notion to come to Lana is that this does not sound like the Alyssa Tim has described. She almost sounds like her sister who Tim says she’s nothing like.

Nurse Turner raises the bed and as she does, Alyssa glances at Lana’s name badge. She chuckles.

“Lana Turner?” she says. “Is that the name you were born with?”

 “It sure is.”

“Your parents had a sense of humor,” Alyssa says.

Lana finds this amusing. “Actually, I was named after my aunt. Her parents had the sense of humor.

Alyssa looks again at the name tag. She looks confused. “Wait, does that say Grady? Why’d they bring me back to Atlanta?”

“It was the closest available trauma center to where the accident occurred,” Lana says. “You were just a few miles away and in pretty bad shape.”

“I’d hardly call Braselton a few miles away.” Alyssa places her hand to her head again. “Oh, my head! Listen, is my brother Steven here?”

Lana gives Alyssa a curious look. “I don’t know your brother. Your husband Tim is here. He just went to the cafeteria.”

“Husband?” Alyssa says. “Hello! Not married, Lana!”

Nurse Turner steps away from the bed. “I’m going to get the doctor.”

“Oh yeah? Who’s he? Clark Gable?”

Nurse Turner shakes her head, then exits.

Once in the hallway, she sees Tim exit the men’s room and head for the elevator. She hurries toward him and calls out, “Tim? Tim!”

He turns.

“Alyssa’s awake,” she says. “I’m going to get Dr. Leonard.”

“Thank god,” Tim says as he jogs toward the room.

Age of Aquarius 

With the rise of nationalism and religious fundamentalism throughout the world, many are left to wonder if the human race has lost its mind, but events across the globe seem to be signaling the end of one way of thinking and the beginning of another. Like any birth, it’s destined to be difficult and painful, as the old tribal way of life, with its patriarchal focus and “us versus them” mentality fades into the nether region of our collective consciousness. The Internet, global telecommunications networks, and the ease of international travel have combined to make the world much smaller and far more accessible. Unfortunately, the “old ways” won’t pass away easily and will be accompanied by great misfortune and turmoil for a significant number of individuals. 

One concept that’s definitely changing is the notion of work. In a tribal society, each person has a job to do, and those who don’t “pull their weight” according to established norms, are ostracized and banished. There may be room for recreation and pleasurable activities, but only after the hard work is done. We see vestiges of this thinking today, in the belief that people on public assistance are “dead beats” or “mooching” off those who are employed, when in fact, many are unemployed due to automation or the outsourcing of jobs to other countries, something over which individuals have little control. Automation is putting an end to traditional labor, as jobs once done by people are increasingly taken over by machines that can work ceaselessly, and safer. Where does this leave traditional workers?

Humanity has always been wary of catastrophic change and has looked to the stars for clues to what’s coming and how to handle what looms on the horizon. Long ago, astrologers noted a phenomenon called the progression of the equinoxes, where the constellations change over time as a different astrological symbol becomes prominent in the night sky. This process has been rounded off to occurring every 2000 years, but probably takes closer to 2170 years to complete. Sometimes these changes coincide with monumental shifts in history. Christianity, for instance, began in the early years of the Age of Pisces, which is why so much early Christian iconography depicts fish. Earlier, the Egyptians, who flourished during the Age of Taurus, used bulls for their religious icons, and the Israelites followed this, molding a golden calf to worship while Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. Mithras, another notable deity associated with a particular epoch, is said to have slain the heavenly bull, ushering in the Age of Aries. Even the Gospels make mention of astrology, when Jesus instructs his followers to seek out a man bearing water (Aquarius is the water bearer), and to follow him back to the house where they will hold their Passover seder (the Last Supper). Aquarius follows Pisces in the progression. 

The rise of nationalism and religious fundamentalism are vestiges of our tribal past which are slowly being discarded as we move toward a secular, global society. ISIL in Iraq and Syria, and the election of Donald Trump in the United States are two sides of the same coin, as adherents to the old ways struggle to stave off the changes that are coming. All progress is feared on some level, particularly by those who are happy with the old order or who benefit from it, so, when rapid progress threatens it, there’s a backlash. I believe that’s what we’re seeing now throughout the world. These movements coincide with the advent of a new age, that of Aquarius. 

The astrological event is associated with lots of negative “new age” stereotypes, but the phenomenon itself is real and has a cause rooted in natural science that our ancestors wouldn’t have known, the wobbling of Earth on its axis as it rotates. Unlike ancient astrologers, I don’t attach mystical significance to it, since a lot of world-changing events have happened outside the context of such phenomena, but just like the dawn of the Piscean age, it’s happening just as we’re undergoing changes in how we relate to the world around us. Apprehension over the dawn of the new millennium in 2000/2001 was a reflection of the fears people naturally have about change around the world, but the turn of the millennium also brought much hope and optimism. Unfortunately, it also brought strife, in particular from those, like the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, who saw their path to power being limited and who took radical measures to hold on to it. 

The world, as we know it, is changing, and there are a lot of new perspectives on how we live our lives and make use of the resources available to us. It’s within our potential to create a world in which every person has a say in where we head and what we accomplish, and a share in our combined resources, but we must have the courage to accept change and realize we may not have all the answers ourselves. We also have a challenge to not just protect our interests, but to look out for the safety and well-being of other creatures and cultures which may not have reached our strata of development. We should remain tolerant of those with different approaches and opinions than us, but we should not allow reactionary forces to stifle the advance of those willing to expand the limits of human potential. 

Eternal Present 

Most people would agree that 2016 has been a horrible year. The number of famous people who’ve died seems far out of proportion to any other year, and the political climate, culminating in the election of Donald Trump as president in the US, has been extremely bitter and hostile, leading many to fear what comes next. The world situation seems just one misunderstanding away from igniting into a major conflict on many fronts. On a personal level, 2016 has been very trying for me as well. I’ve lost family members, had very little success with my writing, my health has been questionable, and my “day job”, which pays all my bills, has been on shaky ground since July. Many people, myself included, will be happy to bid farewell to this lousy year.

As U2 reminds us in their song, New Year’s Day, however, not much actually changes when we make the arbitrary switch from one year to the next. Companies which operate on a calendar year may have more resources at the start of a new year, and therefore are in a better position to hire or expand, which can definitely affect individuals, but if it’s cold and rainy on December 31, it will most likely be so on January 1, and if one has a lingering illness or pending financial commitment, it’s unlikely to go away just because the calendar changes. However psychologically comforting ending a year might seem, the reality is that time itself, and, by extension the calendars it yields, is an artificial measurement created by people. Time is a tool, developed to help distinguish one collection of days from another. It’s ironic that so many people stress over deadlines and schedules, when the very time underlying it all has little to no meaning outside of its given context.

At one point in history, calendars were often measured in accordance with important events. Roman time was usually marked in accordance with the reign of a given emperor, such as fourth year of the reign of Augustus. This tradition continued among the monarchs of Europe after the Roman empire fell. The Western calendar once marked time from the estimated birth of Jesus, though most scholars now place his birth before the start of the current calendar. At some point, as the Western calendar became more prominent throughout the world, the religious trappings were removed to give us “before common era” and “after common era”. Jews maintain their own calendar, in addition to using the Western one, as do Muslims, and other nations, such as China, measure the years differently than those in the West.

It is said that, in writing, the best way to increase tension is to start a countdown, and consistently worrying about the passage of time certainly increases a person’s tension and stress level. For most, time serves as just this sort of stress inducing catalyst, with as many people hating the pressure imposed as there are folks who feel motivated by deadlines or the sense that “time is slipping away”. As with most human-made constructs, there is a great deal of absurdity inherent in creating a method of marking time, only to realize we don’t have enough time to accomplish what we need to do.

Many Eastern philosophies speak of existing “in the moment” and this is, perhaps good advice for us all. In reality, we all exist in the Eternal Present. While we can remember times past, and have the ability to envision a future, what we experience is the here and now. True, there are times when we may feel the passage of minutes and hours, usually while trying to meet some deadline, but it’s also very easy to lose track of time if one is engaged in some endeavor, like reading, writing, or having a stimulating conversation. Just as we often feel enslaved by the clock, we have the ability to turn off our sense of time, as many do by “unplugging” when camping or otherwise on vacation. Oftentimes, when people plan vacations around events, or scheduled activities, they come back feeling just as stressed out as when they went away.

Despite the precise measurement of days, hours, minutes, and seconds provided by the clock and calendar, most people mark time by the events they experience. Most people alive at the time of the Kennedy assassination can relate exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news. I can still remember where I was when I heard of the Challenger explosion. Personally, we recall births, deaths, marriages, divorces. In such instances, it’s not the calendar which governs the moment; instead, it serves its purpose of being a marker documenting an event. My mother used to remark on how unbelievable it was that so much time had passed from some event she recalled from when she was younger. I’m sometimes amazed when I look back on events like the Olympics, and realize how far I’ve come.

For better or worse, time is a constant in our lives. It serves the purpose it’s intended to serve, but, for many, it can also become an impediment, forcing us to rush toward some imaginary goal, sapping our energy for other, more desirable activities. We should never become so caught up in the so-called “rush of time” that we allow it to dictate our lives. Always be sure to steal a few moments away for oneself.

I wish everyone a healthy and happy 2017.

Shadow Selves

Can you see the real me?
–The Who, Quadrophenia

We all have secret sides to our personalities that we keep hidden from those around us — thoughts we never share, opinions we never state, fantasies we never reveal. Each individual carries around multiple perspectives inside his or her mind, a unique vision that no one else can imagine or share. Artists tap into this reservoir to bring their views of reality to light, and often, in creating fiction, shine a spotlight on the truth. 

Jack Henry Abbot gained fame in the early 80s when his writing was published with the assistance of Norman Mailer as the bestselling work, In the Belly of the Beast. Critics praised his writing for its raw and powerful depiction of prison life. The recognition led to his being released from prison, and not long afterward, he murdered a man in an altercation outside a restaurant, returning him to prison. One might wonder how such a violent individual could craft words with such intensity. The reality is that Abbot was both a brilliant writer and a hardened criminal. The aspects of his character which made him a violent felon also fueled his more poetic side. The tragedy was that he was never able to find a way to reconcile both sides within himself. He eventually took his own life behind bars.

We’ve all heard stories about people who hid aspects of their characters, the church deacon who was secretly molesting children; the homeless person who was a covert multimillionaire; the shy store clerk who no one knew could sing like an angel. Writers who publish under assumed names are often nothing like the characters they create. For every story of someone whose hidden side was revealed, there are hundreds of others who never reveal who else may be lurking inside their heads. 

The question is, which one is real? Are we the faces we present to the world or the compendium of voices which issue forth from our subconscious minds? We’ve all had moments when our actions astound even us. Confronted with a situation, we can imagine the absolute worst way we could respond, then proceed to do just that without being able to explain why. The question of nature versus nurture also looms large in our experience. Are we the people we imagine we are or those we’ve been conditioned by circumstance to be?

The Internet has given rise to a similar phenomenon, quiet, unassuming people becoming trolls and cyber bullies online. I once knew an individual who inhabited a news group I frequented. In the group, he posted under his actual name with a superior and insulting tone toward those who disagreed with his opinions. Whenever I’d bring up his online endeavors in person, however, he’d become defensive and wouldn’t talk about it. He probably viewed his online persona as detached from his “real life” without recognizing how much a part of his character it was. 

The truth is, we are whoever we define ourselves to be. It’s common to see artists behaving in a manner that seems outside society’s norms, but really, we all have people we’d like to be if certain constraints were removed. How much time and effort do we invest in being who we think others want us to be instead of concentrating on who we’d rather be?

Ecological Meltdown

We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds in the name of yesterday and in the name of God – The Eagles

The earth’s ecosystem didn’t pop up overnight. It has developed over billions of years, and humans have only been a part of it for a few hundred thousand at most. This has not stopped the human race from crowning itself masters of the world, and we’ve sanctified that mastery through the religions we create. Nature has a far better handle on how the world functions than we do, but rather than learn from nature, we have set ourselves in opposition to the natural world with disastrous results. We wipe out ecosystems and exterminate species with little or no regard to the role each plays in the environment.

If we destroy a species that serves a vital function in the ecosystem we’d better be prepared to take over that function or deal with the consequences. If we don’t understand what that function is, we need to do all we can to make sure that species is protected until we learn. Animals, who have just as much right to inhabit the planet as we do are disappearing at an alarming rate due to our oftentimes willful negligence. People  think nothing of killing an elephant just to make a few trinkets out of ivory and the rhino has nearly gone extinct because people believe its horn can be used as an aphrodisiac. For every person actively involved in trying to protect these creatures, there are many more trying to thwart these efforts, or turning a blind eye to the problem. Rather than try to preserve these creatures, we document their passage and invent reasons why they didn’t survive to justify our slaughter of them. 

The history of humanity is awash with our attempts to deal with problems we’ve created for ourselves. We lay claim to parcels of land, or wider territory and to defend those rights we’ve claimed for ourselves, we go to war and slaughter countless others. We indiscriminately dump our waste into the available waterways, then must pump the water full of chemicals to make it drinkable. We create materials that don’t biodegrade or are hazardous to health, then pollute the environment trying to dispose of it, further compromising the environment for other creatures living there. 

We need to stop feigning ignorance and start acting on what we’ve learned. Whether it’s religion or politics, we’ve become very adept at figuring out how to justify our destructive ways, in some cases making them desirable traits rather than negative behaviors that need to be corrected. We need to abandon our tribal mentally and start thinking globally, because otherwise, it will soon be our turn to face extinction. 

Existential Void

 Altered reality passageway 
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl tells the story that on his first day in a Nazi concentration camp, an older and more experienced prisoner pointed to him and, based on the older prisoner’s experience, said Frankl was the type who wouldn’t survive. Frankl did survive and one way he managed to keep going was to edit, in his head, a manuscript of his the Nazis had destroyed. Earlier, in Vienna, Frankl had noticed that there were lots of young, unemployed men hanging around getting into trouble. He organized volunteer groups to give the men something to accomplish, and most of the trouble stopped. The men still weren’t making money, but having a meaningful activity with which to occupy their time took their minds off the mischief they could be causing and gave them a sense of purpose.

From his work with the young men and into his experiences in the concentration camp, Frankl realized the human need for meaning and purpose, something he termed the “will to meaning”. Other psychologists such as Abraham Maslow, have also documented a human need for purpose in life which is placed among the higher order needs, once such lower concerns as food and shelter have been met. Frankl recognized that people often experienced what he called an existential void which caused them to seek something to give their lives greater meaning. He concluded that if people have a definite reason to live, they can endure any hardship, and noted, during his time in the camp that the prisoners who were able to focus outside themselves, who could convince themselves they had a reason to go on beyond mere survival often fared better than those who couldn’t. 

Ironically, the same tendency which allowed the prisoners in concentration camps to survive also fueled those who had created the camps. George Orwell, in his review of Mein Kampf, states that Hitler came to power, not by promising an easy life for his people, but by promising them struggle and sacrifice. Through their struggle, they would build a better Germany, thereby giving them meaning for the hardships they would endure. Through pageantry, spectacle, and overblown rhetoric, Hitler fueled the myth of a Germany which would one day rule the world, and everyday Germans were seduced into believing they were part of something greater than themselves. No matter how mundane their lives were, by accepting this grand vision, they, too, could be heroes. On a much smaller scale, Charles Manson motivated a group of misguided flower children into committing horrible crimes with the belief that they were somehow serving a higher purpose. 

Most citizens of the US don’t vote and the reason most often cited is that they believe their votes don’t count. This is a belief that both parties in the US actively work to cultivate because if the constituency realizes they have the power to effect an election, no career politician will be safe. Each side wants their voters to turn out, while discouraging voters who don’t hold their beliefs. Eventually every election turns into a predictable event, since the only people who show up at the polls are the true believers, the base, so to speak. Since the system works for those in charge, there’s no motivation to change. Average citizens watch from the sidelines, convinced they have no control over the process. 

When a politician comes along able to tap into that discontent, for better or worse, people often find themselves swept up in the fervor, motivated by a sense they’re part of something more grandiose than their every day experiences. Emotions cancel out logic as people long to fill the void within, and no sacrifice seems too great in order to bring about that sense of destiny. A truly great leader, one motivated by a need to raise up his or her people, knows how to channel that energy into positive change, but all too often, the wrong type of person taps into that need and manipulates it for sinister purposes. History attests to the consequences of following such leaders, in Armenia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and even here in the United States. Those who say it can’t happen here fail to see it already has and will again if we’re not vigilant.

There’s an urban legend about a woman who spent years caring for her invalid mother. When her mother died, the woman’s friends convinced her to travel and have some fun, which they felt she had earned. On the first leg of her trip, she stopped in to visit an elderly aunt and, upon finding the aunt in poor health, curtailed her travel plans and started caring for the older woman. In his essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus concludes that despite the grueling and frustrating task Sisyphus must endure, Sisyphus is content because he always knows what the day will bring. He has no reason for hope, therefore he’s never disappointed. 

Struggle and sacrifice are part of life and for many, they provide the motivation necessary to envision a brighter future where such hardships will be lessened. Just as hedonistic pursuits often lead to a life devoid of meaning and purpose, though, excessive or unnecessary sacrifice can leave people without a proper gauge by which to judge the demands placed upon them. Seeking a higher purpose is a tendency unique to humans, which has led to many great accomplishments throughout history, but just as often, the need for meaning has led people to follow those whose goals are short-sighted and self-serving. We all have a need to feel part of something greater than ourselves. We should not let this need override our better judgement or allow our good intentions to be diverted by empty promises from those whose intentions are dishonorable.