“Midsummer Report”–(Originally posted in 2007.)

Part I

Several weeks ago, before I got my latest job (my 33rd or 34th since 1980), James and I went out for a late meal at an all-night diner. We left about 1am and headed north on the upper deck of I-35.

We were chatting away when James made a sudden and violent swerve to the left, just in time to avoid hitting a large white dog that had run into the road. As best as I could tell the dog then ran off to our left, deeper into traffic.

James was badly shaken up and told me he was so full of adrenaline that he’d probably not be able to get to sleep for hours. I on the other hand was completely unfazed from a physical standpoint, though I was plunged into an immediate state of anger and depression to see a dog up there on the road.

James eventually calmed down enough to pull over to the shoulder, take out his phone, and call the police. He said there was a dog on the upper deck of 35, but neglected mentioning exactly where the dog was in relation to landmarks or mile markers. The dispatcher told him, “Oh yeah, we’ve been getting a lot of calls about that.” While James was talking a huge 18-wheeler tore past us on the left.

“Then why don’t those lazy pig cocksuckers put down their fucking doughnuts and go outside and do something about it?,” I asked.

I told James to go to the nearest exit and turn the car around so we could make another pass through. Then I’d get out and try to save the dog. Law-abiding kiss-ass James refused to do so, saying it was illegal for any non-law enforcement personnel to get out on the freeway, and that it was too dangerous. I said I didn’t give a shit about the law or the danger, that I didn’t want the dog to get hurt. But James’s ass-kissing conformity won the day. He was convinced the dog would probably be picked up by somebody else or would run off on his own. I was sure the dog would get hit—if he hadn’t been already.

The only thing I will say in James’s favor is he said he intentionally swerved to avoid hitting the dog, that while that move could’ve been fatal to us both, he knew (quite correctly, I might add) both of us would rather be killed than to run over a dog.

About an hour after the sighting I called the APD dispatcher’s desk and was told they had sent some cops out to check the situation out, but they’d seen no dog anywhere.

James believed the dog had wandered onto the freeway. I said I would believe that better had we been on that part of the road that’s on ground level; I couldn’t see why the dog would be up on an elevated stretch of road on his own.

My theory was some asshole –one of James’s beloved “human beings”–had dumped the dog off on the road in a sick effort to insure the dog’s quick and violent death. I reminded James of how, a few years ago, there had been an epidemic of people dumping out dogs and cats, kittens and puppies, on I-35—generally at rush hour. James said that was basically an urban legend that had never been proved. I said that on the contrary, one of the long-time clerks at the old Half-Price Books had rescued a dog on the southbound side of 35 over by the police station, and had taken him home, gotten him vet treatment, and named him “Lucky.” I had even put some money into the “Help Lucky” jar at the HPB cash register and seen the dog’s picture.

But this whole incident with the dog on the freeway got me to pondering about God and the problem of evil.

What sort of God would create an innocent creature like that dog, then allow him to meet such a violent, painful, and undeserved death? Why do so many cruel, shit-headed humans get to run amuck for so long on earth.”Oh, they’ll get their punishment in the after-life,” you’ll say, but what about right now?

My research into the matter provided absolutely no satisfying results. Many theologians and others were quick to answer the tail end of the question, while ignoring the beginning of it. They said, “Well, God sent his son Jesus to take care of the trouble caused by sin and evil.” Okay, fine. But what was the evil doing there in the first place? Did God allow it and if so, why?

Some thinkers postulate that sin and evil is an offshoot of free will. That God wanted us to freely choose to love Him, that love without free will isn’t really love. (Is that really so important?) And that since God allowed man the freedom to make bad choices, evil and sin were offshoots of those bad, yet free, choices–which makes me wonder if there’s not a design flaw in there. Couldn’t God have just made it where evil doesn’t result from bad choices, that it just doesn’t exist at all?

And anyway, what’s the big appeal of free will in the first place? Do we even have free will? An argument could be made that we really don’t have free will: God tells us to “believe in me and do what I say and I’ll give you paradise in the next life, but if you fail to do this you will suffer in fiery torment for eternity.” Is that really giving us a free choice or is that coercion?

And furthermore, I’m not really sure I’d recognize free will if I saw it. I’ve never felt truly free. I’ve spent my entire life taking orders and being bossed around by one authority figure after another, each offering basically the same thing: obey me and survive—just barely—or disobey and face punishment, starvation, poverty, imprisonment, and death. If that’s what free will is, then it’s wildly over-rated.

Apparently the problem of evil is a philosophical brick wall. Great theologians and thinkers have tried and failed to resolve it. Even Pope Benedict, upon visiting Auschwitz, offered a prayer to God asking, “Why?”

So needless to say I didn’t resolve the problem either. And existing, as I am, in a state of extreme, clinical, and near-suicidal depression for months on end, I didn’t think I was the best candidate for working out a clear answer. I increased my prayers and religious devotions to over two hours duration a day, and continued to sleep walk through the unrelenting hell that is my daily life.

……………………..

Not too long after getting home from work a few Saturdays ago I took a shower and went to bed about sundown, intending to recover from the rough day and wake up later on, but as it was, I slept through the night, finally waking Sunday morning. I was awakened a few times during the night, though.

The first time I heard a cat in distress outside. It sounded as if the cat was being attacked—not having sex or fighting another cat. One of my neighbors had told me that a lot of the cats in the complex have gone missing lately, and she thinks coyotes are responsible. We are right next to a thick and extensive forest, so I suppose it’s possible, but I haven’t seen any coyotes around, nor have I spotted any track, nor heard them howling. Nevertheless, I did go out to my front porch to look around, though I saw nothing.

I dreamt I was vacationing in San Antonio with my parents. (This was probably inspired by the fact we got a new temp at work who goes to school in SA and was commenting how much he hates the city.) In the dream it was Saturday night, just as it was in real life. We’d been in SA for a week and were staying at the Menger Hotel. We were leaving sometime Monday. So I was trying to figure out where I was going to go during my last day-and-a-half in town. I’d really not seen my parent the previous two days except briefly at the hotel—our sight-seeing agendas were different.

I figured I’d go to a service at the elaborate old St. Joseph’s Church a block away Sunday morning, but what about after that? Should I explore the western part of downtown or go to Brackenridge Park and the Zoo? I decided on the latter course, since much of downtown was likely to be closed on Sunday.

And then at some point the trip was suddenly over and I got into the bed of a truck—and found [my late dog] Fred there, curled in an inviting C-shape! I was so glad to see him, and buried my head into his white fur. And as I woke up I realized I’d been crying in my sleep. Later that night I had another Fred dream and woke up crying again.

Then I dreamt I was going on a long road trip with four guys I knew at various periods in my life. We wound up in the run-down, white-trashy area of a Texas town, but the place was so exotic it seemed like we were in a tropical country.

(One of the guys on the trip, Lance, was a classmate from high school and my parents’s student there. He seemed nice enough. But I last ran into him about 15 years or so ago in an Austin video store. We spoke as if we shared some past trauma that we blamed each other for—and that’s a condition I’ve noticed a lot in my relations with my former high school classmates. Then he smirked at me and asked, “So…how are your parents? Are they dead yet?” I was just flabbergasted that he would say that—and too shocked to throw a punch. They’d always been nice to that punk. At the time both of my parents were alive, but my dad was fatally ill.)

Much has been going on lately, though I don’t know how interesting it would be to the regular reader.

A few months back I learned the Writer’s League of Texas was sponsoring an editor’s and agent’s conference here in town in mid-June. It sounded interesting until I saw the registration fee was in excess of $300, which seemed way steep to me, especially when only guaranteed you ten minutes with one agent. The earlier you registered—the more likely you were to get assigned to the agent of your choice.

I mentioned the event to a friend, and he generously offered to pay for my registration provided I get off my ass, get the book polished, and prepare some kind of presentation. He suggested a press kit, including a head shot, maybe some specially printed selections from the book, a summary of what the book was about, maybe even a recording of me reading from the book, etc. I went to James, because I figured he’d know best how to make a press kit, but he didn’t think an editor or agent would have the time or interest to look at all that. I was of no opinion one way or other, but my generous friend suggested I do it, so I was going to do it his way, especially since none of my techniques at promoting the book have been successful.

I asked James at least twice about doing a head shot of me. He said he could do one, and nothing further came of it.

I had sent my friend the links to the conference site, pointing out that registration was cheaper for members and possibly for people who registered early. But I wasn’t sure that a WRT membership was cost-effective.

I contacted a composer friend about recording me some music to put as a bed under my readings. But I decided a recording might be a little much.

I wrote up a summary/presentation of the book, asking my friend what sort of angle he thought I needed to take with it. I wasn’t sure quite what he wanted, but I think I finally got pretty close.

He told me to prepare and rehearse some patter to use on the agent, and that, I admit, I totally fumbled. I really had no idea what to tell anybody in person that was any different from what I’d already written in query letters.

I contacted a friend who used to be in publishing, to get his two cents on all this, but he was on a business trip and wasn’t available to talk.

I figured it would take me less than a day to get the press kit finished once I had the money for it. So I concentrated on polishing the book.

I added several new bits to it, greatly improving it. It’s now at 298 pages and counting.

About two weeks before the conference I contacted my generous friend to get his feedback on what all I needed to be doing. I asked if I should print out complete copies of the manuscript and prepare press kits for every single agent and editor there, even though there was an excellent chance I might not even get close to them. He asked how many agents and editors would be there. I went to the website…and learned that the conference had sold out. My friend said he was afraid this would happen.

I reported that unfortunate development to James, and naturally he said it was all my fault, that I had fucked it up, that I should’ve registered earlier. I said I didn’t know the event could sell out, and that anyway, I had been waiting on the money for weeks. My friend had just started a lucrative job and had moved to a new town and had incurred a lot of expenses. Since my friend knew the dates and had the material on the conference, I figured he’d send the money when he was ready and able to do so. Frankly, I don’t think anybody was at fault.

So now what?…

………………………………….

Part II

A friend and former co-worker wrote to me about how he’d fallen ass-over-teacup in love with a girl he’d met while vacationing in Orlando. She was a German national who had a temp job at one of the resorts. She had come to visit him for a few days in Austin. So now he was writing me to say she was coming back for a 4-5 day long weekend, right before heading home to Germany for good. And so, remembering my stories of all the unusual things I arranged for readers back in my Citysearch Food Editor days, he asked if I could design a romantic and unique long weekend for them, so he could make a big impression. Despite the fact I am about as unromantic as a turd in a punchbowl, I whipped up something in about two hours, adjusted to whatever kind of budget he was willing to go for. And the last I heard, the weekend went very, very well.

Love must be in the air, because everybody I know seems to be either having babies, getting pregnant, or pairing up. My buddy Matt and I met up downtown a few Sundays back, just hours after he’d returned from a romantic Hill Country B&B weekend with his new squeeze. (As proof that Austin is indeed a small town, they stayed in a B&B that had been owned by a former boss of mine.)

I’d not seen Matt since last August, when he was starting out in a weight loss contest with other local celebs. (He was the Mayor’s Aide at the time.) I’d seen an article in the paper with pictures of how much he’d lost, but it didn’t compare with assessing it in person.

Matt is on top of the world right now. He had just come back from a trip to DC with a former staffer of Ted Kennedy’s—they went to a dinner party with Kennedy and his wife while they were up there. (Matt’s family is Irish-Catholic—so his partying with Big Ted is to them like communing with God.)

Matt took me to dinner at the deli buffet at Whole Foods—I ate a lot more than I normally do and got sick later that night. He said I’d developed a noticeable tough of grey in my hair since he saw me last—I think I got it when Fred died. If nothing else there was a little white streak that popped up in front the day he died.

Matt showed me all the new construction downtown, and the hip new Second Street district. He told me there’s talk that all the State parking garages are going to be demolished—apparently they’re not up to current standards for “smart design.” The rebuilt versions will have retail space on the ground floor, parking upstairs, and apartments and condos above that. The Powers That Be keep saying they want 20,000 people living downtown in a decade, but who the hell can afford to live in these pricey new high-rises? Surely no one I know. And where are those great-paying jobs coming from?

I told Matt how amazed I was by all the construction I’d seen in North and West Campus when I came into town earlier that day. Two of my former apartments have been torn down, as well as three that other people tried to talk me into moving into in 2004.

He drove me around Clarksville, showing me apartments that were available, saying I would have a better shot at decent job opportunities if I live closer in. That’s funny–I lived in Central Austin from 1989 to 1994 and 1998 to 2004 and I only found a good job opportunity once. Most of the places he took me by were very nice, but they ran $100 a month more than I’m currently paying. Many of them I looked at when I was apartment-hunting in 2004, and they didn’t allow Basset Hounds. If I move and settle again, I am definitely going into a place that allows Bassets.

One of the places I looked at and really liked in 2004 was rather old. It had a great view, was built on the side of a hill, had old-fashioned ceramic tile in the bathroom and kitchen, a porcelain bathtub, toilet, and sink, and a gas heater in the bathroom with ceramic briquettes. It was charming as hell, full of character. It looked like the sort of place Philip Marlowe would have lived in. Matt and I drive past it and I saw to my great sadness they were tearing the facade off and turning the building into chic lofts. I told Matt how when I’d taken him by there to look at it he’d talked me out of moving in. He had said it looked great but it was too small: “I know you and you like to have all your books around you. If you lived here you’d have to put most of them into storage.” Matt insisted he had absolutely no memory of either going into the apartment or making that comment.

A few weeks back I was assigned, by an alternative weekly newspaper, to interview the bosses at an NPR radio show that’s produced at UT. There really wasn’t much of a story there—the show had just been given a large grant to cover immigration issues. Frankly, I don’t think I did a very good job of it. My contact person at the paper seems to be more into political news and investigative reporting. Those things really don’t interest me—I don’t read ’em or write about ’em; I’m more an arts and culture guy. The radio folk just wanted a nice, shiny, PR-friendly puff piece about their work. I, on the other hand, wanted to go all Dale Gribble on their asses and try to bring them around to my way of thinking about the immigration issue.

To me, this whole business is a manufactured, made-up issue. Sure, people have carped a bit about illegal immigrants for years, but why did it suddenly become such a gigantic issue and a focus of the present news cycle, and why were so many dumb, racist rednecks screaming about how threatened the US is by all this? I believe it’s a fake issue, orchestrated and conducted by the government, to stir up anti-Hispanic prejudice in specific and xenophobia in general, to keep the sheep scared that the Big Brown Bogeyman is gonna slip across the border and get them, and so to justify a further curtailment of personal liberties and a ramping up of spending (and profiteering) on the War on Terror.

And not only that–it’s a diversion. A way to get the American people angry about meaningless bullshit and not paying attention to all the many things the Federal government is failing to do correctly.

I started with this theme, in the paltry questions I threw at the radio people. But they were unified, and refused to take my bait. They were uniformly objective and positive, and kept steering the conversation away from my concerns and back into the sunny climes of Candyland.

We’ll see if the piece gets published or not, and if that paper ever runs any of my work again.

But the day I was going down to UT to do the interview, James offered to drive me—in his father-in-law’s SUV. I said that sounded great. Better that than the bus.

But James didn’t believe I knew where we were going. I told him I knew exactly where we were going—a little motel-like building just north of UT’s Health Building.

–But UT has dozens of health buildings!

–The Student Health Building—where your father-in-law works. This place is directly to the north of that.

–But there’s lots of buildings north of that!

–For God’s sake, it’s just a few feet to the northwest of that. I know exactly where it is. I had to move furniture there in 2001.

And indeed, after my 2001 lay-off, I signed up with seven temp agencies. Of them, only one, UTemps, the temp agency connected with UT, found me any work at all—three days of moving furniture, something I was physically ill-suited for.

I remember I had to move several professors out of their offices in the Radio-TV-Film complex and into offices in subsidiary buildings on the campus. One of my fellow laborers was a fawning idiot who was in awe that I had once been a restaurant critic. As a result, he said he wanted to treat me to lunch, so he could see what eating with a food writer was like.

He took me to Chipotle Grill.

The meal gave me a wicked case of gas. We sat at the bar, next to a plate glass window overlooking the Drag. I forget what sort of greasy crap my co-worker fed me, but I do remember that our chief enjoyment that lunch hour was discovering a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk—a pile of truly heroic proportions. And all during the meal we giggled as we watched dozens of students—mostly sandal-shod—walking straight ahead, eyes focused on their bright horizons, and stomping squarely into all that shit.

When we got back we had to move a female professor whose office was filled with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” material. I asked her about it. Turns out she taught a media studies course “using ‘Buffy’ as an ur-text” to discuss feminine empowerment, pop culture, inter-textuality, and so forth. I got excited—this was just the sort of pseudo-intellectual stuff I thrive on and which I almost never get to talk about, but she cut me short. It was clear she couldn’t see beyond my facade as furniture mover. She couldn’t conceive of me as a person that was her intellectual equal—at very least.

So yes, I knew the building where James and I were going.

Then James asked where we were going to park.

–The fuck if I know. I don’t drive, therefore I never have to worry my mind about parking. But anyway, it’s between sessions. We’re not students or faculty—can’t we park anywhere we want?

–No!!!

–There’s the building. Pull up in front there.

–I don’t think we can.

–What about that parking garage?

–I don’t think we’re the right permit.

–We have a permit?

–Yes, Howard’s permit. [Howard is his father-in-law.]

–Well, since he works right by here doesn’t he park in this area?

–We can’t use his permit.

–Whaddya mean?

–Howard bought the permit. It applies only to Howard. Therefore we can’t use it.

–Are you out of your fucking mind? This is Howard’s car. We have a valid permit, purchased by a UT employee. Just park the fucking car in an area that matches his permit!

–But you don’t understand. This parking permit is good only for the person who buys it and no one else.

–Fine. And this is his fucking car.

–But only the person who bought the permit can park in the permitted area.

–Don’t be such a big woman and a colossal pussy. The permit is valid. The permit goes with this car. Everything is in order. And school isn’t even in session so there’s less of a demand for parking spaces.

–I don’t take chances when I’m responsible for other people’s property.

–That’s admirable and all, but what chance is there? What is the chance that a meter maid is gonna find this car, see the valid sticker on the right car parked in the correct zone, and wait around to see if the exact person who bought the permit comes back and gets into this car?

–Knowing my bad luck, if anything bad could happen, it will happen to me.

–Face it, you’re a pussy. You live in fear. If you’re not fretting about fucking glucose-based corn syrup and cottonseed oil, you’re cowering in your hotel room in Paris because you think the French food will give you Mad Cow Disease and Avian Flu. Why don’t you stop being such a coward and fucking live a little?

–[Thinking hard and pondering his next words] You know what you are? [I turned a baleful, amused glance his way. I knew this was gonna be good.] You’re a …scofflaw!

–[Laughing] A “scofflaw”? That’s the best you got?

–You have no respect for the law.

–This reminds me of that “Magnum, P.I.” episode where Higgins called Magnum a “roue.” Magnum didn’t know whether to be insulted or to laugh that Higgins had used such an archaic word to describe him.

–Well, it’s true. You have no respect for the law.

–Well, I’ll give you that one. I don’t respect the law. Most of our laws are passed by sleazy redneck scumbags I didn’t vote for, and enforced by a government that’s dedicated to the enrichment of rich corporate executives. And most laws are concerned with bullshit, not with any questions of right or wrong. Many at best only cover public order in a variety of complicated ways. I mean, I wouldn’t lose any sleep because I’d driven 58 in a 55 mile per hour zone.

–And I would.

–Because you’re a pussy.

–Because I believe in obeying the law.

–Look, I obey some laws too. I’m not gonna go out and murder anybody or something like that. That would be morally wrong. But most of the laws I obey I obey only because I don’t want to get arrested—not because I think they’re right or defending anything important.

And so we parked way the hell out of the way and walked a few blocks to the radio show’s production offices.

Around the time all this happened, James and I went out late one night and ran around, stopping at the drive-through of a Jack-in-the-Box to get some chocolate shakes. Back when I had that crappy third shift job last winter, James would drive me to work on Sunday nights because the buses didn’t run that late. We’d also go by that Jack-in-the-box first. So it goes without saying that after we went to the restaurant the other night, James drove me to the offices of that crappy job, just to fuck with my head.

I’d never had a formal break with that company. I’d never gotten the closure I so badly need at the end of a traumatic and miserable job. I went from in-house employee to at-home contractor. Within a couple weeks the work slowed down to a trickle. My first at-home check was only for $60. I had been told they wouldn’t send contractors checks for less than $50. I did some work for another week or so, then began to look for something else. Eventually they stopped sending me e-mails.

James and I noticed the parking lot was fairly empty. There were a few cars by the door, and the lights were on in the front office. Apparently the yuppie assholes who stayed all night working on coding or whatever were still there. But when we drove around back we saw in the window of the Computer Room where I’d worked, and the lights were off. The tables were still there, but we couldn’t tell if the computers were gone or not. But clearly they no longer had a graveyard shift. James was convinced the company was totally out of business. We went back a few nights later and the lights were still off in the Computer Room. And about a week after that they sent me a check for $40. But unfortunately I think that wretched company is still in business, whether they still employ “proofreading” grunts or not.

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