Tag Archives: Politics

30 Years and 30 Books of Influence

I turned 30 recently, which prompted much life reflection, introspection and despair. Really, it’s not so bad. My childhood years were filled with wonder and play. My teenage years were riddled with angst, questioning and sarcasm. My twenties were a time for debauchery, wandering adventures and self discovery. I expect my thirties to build on the wisdom I’ve gained as a young adult and give me the opportunity to contribute to a community in a positive way. Whatever happens in the future, I’d like to take the time now to reflect on a life of books. 30 years and 30 books of influence. The following list occurs in the order they affected me, from youngest to present time.

1. Happy Birthday, Moon By Frank Asch

As a child I found this book enchanting. The illustrations seemed to illuminate from the page. I read this book repeatedly transfixed by the powers of imagination.

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2. Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

This comic strip’s mischievous playfulness delighted my sense of adventure when I was a kid. As an adult I appreciate its philosophical and ethical commentary on the human condition.

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3. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This is such a deranged novel. Set in the near future where society is shaped by an extremely violent youth culture, it is narrated by a teenage anti-hero. It is completely inappropriate reading material for a middle school student. My teachers were probably worried.

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4. The Republic by Plato

The foundation for any serious discussion on justice.

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5. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Camus never accepted the label “existentialist.” But because he preferred being called an “absurdist,” it is only fitting that his most famous work is almost always associated with existentialism. Such is the struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world.

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6. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A deeply profound and disturbing Russian masterpiece. A text to be reckoned with.

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7. On The Road by Jack Kerouac

A book that never yawns or says a commonplace thing, but burns, burns, burns.

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8. Howl by Allen Ginsberg

Poetry that rattled my bones and opened my mind. The beauty and anguish captured in this rambling verse is remarkable.

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9. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

The bizarre descriptions of demented hallucinatory confusion and the honest perverseness of this book made me laugh out loud. “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”

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10. Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

A simple book with a simple question: do you want to save the world? Telepathic gorilla aside, there are some heavy topics about the evolution of civilization brought to light in this meditative novel.

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11. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

American history 101. I graduated high school a semester early and spent my time working and reading. This book made up for the shortcomings of my high school history education. 

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12. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since WWII by William Blum

I was and still am a big fan of the band Rage Against the Machine. In the liner notes to their album Evil Empire this book appears among a sprawl of other counter-cultural books. I considered the liner notes my curriculum for radical thinking. This book blew my mind and still serves to frame the way I look at the world today.

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13. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge by Carlos Castaneda

I was fortunate to have an avid reader for a father who grew up during the ‘60s. He introduced me to this book and many others. This book is as much of a spiritual journey as it is an intellectual exercise. Serendipitously, I met the love of my life in Boulder, CO who happened to be reading this same book at the time (at 18 years of age, my only peers who had heard of it were ones I told). 

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14. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

Sex, drugs and rock and roll embodied the Merry Prankster attitude. This book is about a bunch of free thinking hippies, led by Ken Kesey – fresh from the success of One Flew Over the Cu Coo’s Nest. They painted a bus in psychedelic day-glo colors and crisscrossed America pontificating the gospel of LSD. At times tragic and hilarious, the book is a portrait of a culture with infinite optimism.

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15. Hamlet William Shakespeare

Classic philosophical tragedy. Shakespeare set the bar high.

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16. Bound For Glory by Woody Guthrie

This is Guthrie’s hyperbolic autobiography that reads at the speed the man lived. Great stories and endearing characters open the reader up to the charisma Guthrie was known for.

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17. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

When I read that this book was the result of a bet between Mary Shelley, her husband and other literary figures to see who could write the scariest story, I thought, yea, that is kind of cool. She won the bet of course. You can’t grow up in an environment of pop culture without being familiar with this story. However, it took a college course to force me to actually read the book. I am happy I did. It is an affecting book about the dangerous possibilities of science and the ethical implications inventors must wrestle with.

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18. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

This is a fictional account of Vietnam by a Vietnam veteran. Quizzically, the book is dedicated to its fictional characters. Throughout the narrative O’Brien discusses the blurred line between truth and fiction. Disjointed stories echo into one another. Nightmarish episodes explore the human heart and weigh the torment of those things people carry throughout their lives.

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19. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Chabon writes with such creative flare. His use of figurative language, character development and pacing is expert. Reading this book is like stepping into another world, which of course is what all good fiction strives to do.

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20. White Noise by Don DeLillo

This is an amazing commentary on the social and emotional state of America in the 20th century. I wonder what changes DeLillo would have to make if he rewrote it for the 21st century? In the book families are disconnected, dysfunctional and afraid of non/imaginary threats. Right, he wouldn’t have to change a thing.

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21. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

If I had to pick a favorite book I would say that I don’t have a favorite book. But if I were pressed to name a book that could be my favorite I would say that it would depend on my mood and what book I was reading at the time. Then, eventually, by default I’d name “Grapes of Wrath.” I had a friend that wanted to name his band Rosasharn’s Milk. His band mates declined. They must have been illiterate.

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22. Siddhartha by Herman Hesse

Simple, profound and worth reading annually.

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23. 1984 by George Orwell

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Orwell was a brilliant writer. He envisioned the dystopian world that to some extent, we now live in. Beyond the big ideas, the love story at the center of this book is devastating.

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24. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Kundera opened my mind to the poetic power of the vignette. He weaves brief philosophical musings, erotic encounters and intimate secrets together, which form a brutally honest portrait of the human condition.

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25. A Joseph Campbell Companion by Joseph Campbell

Joseph Campbell is known for his academic writings about myth and the power of metaphor. This book highlights his collective insights, dispensing nuggets of wisdom.

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26. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s sparse prose in this epic vision of a post-apocalyptic world is absolutely haunting. Its realism is tragic. Its thematic symbolism is spectacular. This is the story of a nameless father and son who makes their way to the coast after an unspecified catastrophic event has set the world back to year zero. A parable of the 21st century.

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27. The Watchmen by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore

Who watches the watchmen? This graphic novel is the stuff of mythic proportions.

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28. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Words to live by – “I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.”

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29. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Hemingway said it best – “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that.”

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30. Beloved by Toni Morrison

This novel pushes the boundaries of the art form. It opened me to the possibilities of brutality and beauty. Reading it is like staring into the abyss of slavery and having the abyss stare back.

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White Murder, Brown Terrorism

The recent shooting in Arizona has sparked a media maelstrom and a cacophonic debate. Accusations of hyperbolic political rhetoric are being tossed around. Gun laws are being reconsidered. The role of violent video games is receiving attention yet again. Gunman Jared Loughner’s use of marijuana has raised eyebrows. Even the hateful members of the Westboro Baptist Church are threatening to protest the victims’ funerals.

But amidst the yammering of the political pundits, what seems to be less of a topic of debate is the use of the word “terrorism.” When a mentally ill, white male targets a politician and commits mass murder, terrorism is not a word the media chooses to use.

When Joe Stack, a white male, wrote a manifesto denouncing the US government and crashed his private plane into a federal building in Feb. 2010, he was not a terrorist. He was just an unstable guy, angry with the IRS.

When Clay Duke, a white male, brought a gun to a Florida school board meeting in Dec. 2010 and shot at board members before turning the gun on himself, he was a relatively normal man that just cracked one day.

When Michael Enright, a white male, slashed the throat of a Muslim New York City cab driver in Aug. 2010, he was by no means a terrorist. According to his friends, Enright had a terrible drinking problem.

When Byron Williams, a white male, opened fire on police officers in California during a July day in 2010, he was depicted as a disgruntled, unemployed, right wing felon, not a terrorist. Never mind that after he was arrested he admitted he was on his way to the offices of a liberal foundation and a civil liberties organization with the intent to kill people.

When James von Brunn, a white male, entered the Holocaust museum, shooting and killing a guard in June of 2009, he was not recognized as a terrorist either. He was just some anti-Semitic nutcase.

Yet if any one of these white males had been Arabic or Muslim, there is no question as to how the media would have labeled them. The news channels would practically be chanting the word “terrorist.”

Are the actions of the white men mentioned any different than those of some bitter, darker-skinned males who hatched unexecuted plans to knock down the former Sears Tower, or blow up an airport, or buy missiles?

Perhaps the dominant group within American society, white males, is too big to define using only one term. We can’t just lump neo-Nazis with unstable alcoholics and crazy loners with anti-abortion extremists. To do so would be useless, right? There are just too many types of white male terrorists. I mean mentally unstable white males.

It is easier for Americans to reduce Muslim extremists to a single, imaginary group. Sunnis, Shiites, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Taliban, Saudi Arabian, Pakistani, Saddam, Bin Laden — it’s all the same. No?

No; there are different sects of Islam, many Arab nationalities have various lists of grievances — not to mention the fact that many of these people falsely lumped together actually despise each other.

Of course, the use of the term “terrorism” boils down to semantics. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines terrorism as “the use of violence or intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.” It is an “ism” that hints at something almost pandemic.

The word conjures up the image of an elusive, dangerous threat lurking somewhere unknown. Terrorism could happen anywhere, at anytime. The use of this term magnifies the most pathetic threat, making minuscule plots become bigger and scarier. The word is a self-rationalization.

The white males’ acts of terror, in contrast, are depicted as “hate crimes” or “tragedies.” These terms more so depict isolated events. Those who commit such acts are thereby seen as individuals rather than lumped together as some collaborative, menacing threat.

Some may think squabbling over such a word is unnecessary. However, language informs peoples’ thoughts and actions; and therefore popular terms repeated in the media must be accurate. Everyone would benefit if we started choosing our words more carefully and articulating ideas more precisely.

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Doubts About FBI Intentions

Chances are, if your new friend shares your political views and you realize that you both hate America — you probably don’t, but for argument’s sake let’s say you do — you would never expect the guy to be an FBI agent.

So, the two of you start talking about the U.S. destroying the Middle East, all the civilian casualties, the obscenities of U.S. military arrogance and how now is the time for Jihad. The conversation turns even more serious. Plots begin to develop. Strategies are hypothesized. Weaponry logistics are considered.

Before you realize how this guy has been baiting you all along and how easily he made contact with weapons dealers, you’re in a Wal-Mart parking lot buying fake grenades out of a van. Of course he wasn’t an FBI agent, he was just on their payroll.

Although extremely abbreviated, the preceding story is entirely true. It took place in Rockford, IL in Dec. of 2006. Derrick Shareef, 22 at the time, worked a dead-end job at a video game store. He had less than $100 in the bank, no car and no place to live. Jameel, a fellow Muslim, came into the store one day and offered him shelter.

Together they fantasized for hours about possible targets in Rockford until they settled on CherryVale Mall, a ramshackle collection of clothing and jewelry stores. Through long, tentative discussions they planned to throw grenades throughout CherryVale Mall and kill themselves afterward.

The facts clearly indicate that Shareef wouldn’t have gotten as far as he did in this terror plot if it wasn’t for the encouragement of Jameel, who was assisting the FBI and the JTTF — Joint Terrorism Task Force. In fact, it seems unlikely that he would have ever taken his political beliefs to a violent level without a personal instigator like Jameel.

Jameel, with instructions from the JTTF, convinced a hapless video store clerk to become a monstrous suicide bomber. Jameel’s real name is William Chrisman, a former crack dealer with a conviction for attempted robbery. The JTTF paid him $8,500 to set up Shareef specifically. Federal agents pressured Chrisman to encourage Shareef’s fantasies, with the intent to ensure Shareef incriminated himself.

As soon as the JTTF arrested Shareef, the mainstream media barked this story across all the airways. Fox News eloquently reported, “It had all the makings of a holiday bloodbath.”

Of course, the story the mainstream news networks covered was slightly different than what I’ve told here. They reported that terror had been averted and that Americans should rest assured; the ever-watchful JTTF had done their job and will continue to do so.

But what kind of job was it? Was it a self-fulfilling and self-serving fictional plot created to champion the JTTF while keeping the public fearful of an illusive yet imminent threat? And why hasn’t the mainstream media investigated this possibility?

The latest thwarted domestic terror plot occurred Friday, Nov. 26 in Portland, OR. Mohamed Osman Mohamud allegedly attempted to detonate a bomb near a crowded Christmas tree lighting ceremony. The only information about this incident comes from an FBI affidavit.

According to the affidavit, the FBI undercover agent in contact with Mohamud encouraged and supported the plot financially, yet allegedly advised Mohamud that there were other options to serve Islam. The assertion that other options were offered, if proven, will prevent Mohamud from arguing a case for entrapment. However, out of all the recorded conversations between the undercover agent and Mohamud, that conversation alone was not recorded due to technical problems. Weird.

It appears that the FBI and JTTF are manipulating potential terrorists into becoming full blown, convicted terrorists in order to keep the public fearful and boast their own exaggerated success.

How does it make you feel, to think about the possibility of a government agency funded by your tax dollars performing coercive activities designed to illicit fear in the public mind?

There are several more cases of exaggerated domestic terrorist threats attached to suspicions of entrapment. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is too embedded with corporate interests to ask questions about these incidents.

Of course, there is an expectation of secrecy for certain government agencies like the FBI and the CIA, But this privilege is all too often abused.

I think of COINTELPRO, Fred Hampton’s assassination, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Iran-Contra scandal and a long list of foreign interventions.

Wherever there are secrets, there are lies. For an organization whose nature is explicitly secretive, how will we ever know if it is trustworthy?

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WikiLeaks is What Democracy Looks Like

The release of nearly 400,000 confidential Iraq war documents on Oct. 22 by the WikiLeaks website reveal a startling image of the secret history of the war in Iraq.

The documents contain details of events reported by the United States military and provide evidence of systematic torture and rape used as weapons of warfare. Sixty percent of the deaths registered in the documents are civilian. The documents reveal the use of indiscriminate and disproportionate force used and condoned by the US military. The documents raise substantial questions concerning war crimes.

It is the largest release of classified military documents in history.

Critics argue the release of this sensitive information will jeopardize US military operations and be used by opposition forces to seek out and kill Iraqi civilian informants working with the US military.

Supporters of the whistleblower website contend the documents contain information the public deserves to know. According to the documents, as many as 15,000 Iraqi civilian deaths were previously unaccounted for.

When President Obama was elected he promised to conduct his administration with transparency. The amount of secrets revealed within the documents WikiLeaks released flies in the face of such promises. Obama’s promise for transparency has gone the way of his promise to close Guantanamo Bay. To be fair, the files document the Iraq war during a time Obama was not president. But that doesn’t excuse him from failing to hold the Bush administration accountable.

Secrets and lies are what paraded the US into the war in Iraq. The WikiLeaks files reveal that secrets and lies have prolonged the war in Iraq.

It is difficult to justify a war waged under false pretenses. It is also difficult to support a war that tolerates torture, civilian murder and gives private contractors free reign.

Julian Assange, an Australian, is the spokesperson and editor-in-chief for the WikiLeaks website. As would be expected, he is receiving a lot of flack for releasing the Iraq documents. News organizations are wondering why he isn’t dead yet and claiming that the US government should list him as an enemy combatant which would deprive him of the right to due process.

This doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t he be considered a champion of truth and democracy? Don’t the people have a right to know about the sort of devastation and destruction that is happening in their name, with their tax dollars? The WikiLeaks files are important for the historical record as primary documentation of a complicated war mishandled. It appears the media is more concerned with attacking Julian Assange than with discussing the issue of human rights the Iraq documents raise.

In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a former Rand Corporation employee, released Department of Defense documents that detailed the United States political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. The documents became known as the Pentagon Papers and indicated, among other things, that the Johnson administration had systematically lied to the public and to Congress. The publication of the papers caused a national outcry for government transparency and accountability.

Today, the social-political landscape is much different. Many major media outlets have expressed their disgust over the release of the WikiLeaks documents.

On the other hand, media sources that commend the website for its courage and goodwill do not appear to be surprised by the lack of government honesty.

There is no palpable call to action or demand for accountability. Instead the politically discontent shrug their shoulders and brush off the failure of military responsibility.

Wikileaks is trying to pull the wool out of the eyes of a world that prefers to live in the dark.

An army whistleblower, Spc. Bradley Manning, is currently in custody. He is suspected for leaking thousands of Iraq war documents to WikiLeaks. The Obama administration has brought as many prosecutions for leaks to the American public as all previous administrations combined. Granted, it is a small number, three, it is still important to note. The Obama administration is threatening to use the Espionage Act to prevent further leaks. If that happens, the American public will know even less about the destruction that is happening in their name.

This past summer WikiLeaks released over 70,000 documents related to the Afghanistan war. The same national security concerns were raised at the time. But the Associated Press recently obtained a pentagon letter that stated no US intelligence services or practices were damaged after the release of the documents.

For a democracy to function as a true democracy the governing body must live up to the public expectation of transparency and accountability. WikiLeaks is providing information the United States government was expected, but failed to provide. The Iraq documents establish firmer grounds for dissidents to stand upon in denouncement of this despairingly unjust war.

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Elvis of Philosophy

“Charity degrades and demoralizes,” argues Slavoj Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher and critical theorist; a striking statement that made me pause. How can charity degrade and demoralize?

Zizek possesses a unique mind and professes a challenging, counterintuitive point of view. He has published over 50 books and starred in two documentaries. Some call him the “Elvis of philosophy,” which means that most people have still never heard of him. But he is worth knowing, because his ideas will shake your foundation and force you to question.

Zizek spends a lot of his time discussing the flaws of capitalism. Charity is an illusion of altruism, he argues. When acting charitably, you are acting with a noble, moral conscience, yet you are acting within the capitalist system that is in place and is inherently flawed. The capitalist system is based on exploiting land, natural resources and people, which creates an unbalanced distribution of wealth and a natural environment teetering on catastrophe.

In the capitalist system as it exists today, charity is embedded within the economy. When you patronize Starbucks, you’re not just buying a coffee, you’re buying into Starbucks’ coffee ethics. You are buying their fair trade coffee, which keeps Guatemalan farmers from starving and strengthens the community there. In a sense, you are buying forgiveness for being a consumer.

TOMS Shoes is another example. When you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes, they give a pair of shoes to a needy person in another country and you can go home feeling good about yourself, yet there is still an unseen burden, as Zizek argues. Remedies don’t cure the disease, they only relieve some of the suffering. He argues that the worst slave-owners were the nicest to their slaves. Although those slaves didn’t suffer as harshly, they were prevented from realizing that the system was rotten at its core.

Of course, charity is better than nothing. Charity relieves some suffering, and you can’t argue against that. But an idealistic society would be based on a system where poverty is impossible. Zizek’s argument is that charity possesses an element of hypocrisy. Charity only relieves some of the suffering, while keeping the same system that is based on suffering in place. To eliminate suffering, the system must be changed completely.

Zizek has been accused of being a Socialist defending terror and an anti-Semite as well as a Zionist. He has been called an atheist, yet he has given a lively defense for Christianity. In reality, he is a heavy weight, hard-hitting thinker who dabbles in the margins of paradox to prove a point. He is both a serious revolutionary and a political prankster. He is worth reading and listening to. Zizek will cause you to reevaluate your personal truths and challenge you to question even the most sturdy worldview.

(Originally published in The Independent Collegian)

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Are Cats Governed Entirely By Chemistry?

“I can’t sleep,” she says.

“Oh.”

“Do you love me,” she asks.

“Yea.”

“I like to hear you say it,” she says.

She huffs. “Fine. I love you.”

“Don’t be such a bitch about it, you’re always a bitch when you’re tired.”

“Then don’t talk to me when I’m tired.”

The room is quiet again, but Maryanne is restless. She kicks the suffocating sheets away with her feet. She twists and tosses. She stretches. She pulls the sheets back again over her body, feeling secure for the moment.

“Do you think I’m crazy,” she asks.

“No. Is this about what you said earlier at dinner?”

“I don’t know, I’ve just been thinking a lot and I just can’t fall asleep lately. I can’t turn my brain off. My thoughts. My thoughts are a mess. Maybe I should try meditation, you know? I tried it once in a group and I couldn’t stop looking around at all the spandex. The teacher would be sitting there telling the group to concentrate on breathing and I would be peeking through half closed eyes at all the strange looking people and I would start wondering about what their lives were like. What did they do in the morning? What did their kitchens look like? Why did they choose to wear spandex? And I would think, why couldn’t I have been someone else? Someone who could be comfortable in spandex. And I wouldn’t be breathing the way the instructor wanted us to. But maybe if I tried meditation again it would be different, you know? Maybe I could block all that out and calm my mind. Meditation might help me sleep, you know? It might help center myself.”

“Yea. It might.”

“Yea. I think it would.”

The bed sheets are twisted again. Maryanne is turning over and around. The sheets are bunched and warped and lumpy. She rolls on her back finally and fans the sheets out like a parachute.

“Hey, you ever think about chemistry? About how everything works, like cats for example. Are cats governed entirely by chemistry? Is everything pre-programmed, like, pre-wired in our brains? Was I always meant to end up here, lying in this cold hollow room with you?

“I don’t know honey. Honestly, I’m really tired. Maybe you should talk to the doctor at the clinic here tomorrow. Maybe he could put you on some new medication.”

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