Saturday, November 8, 2008

The last proud geraniums of November

Regal blossoms stand
before the cutting frost of
autumn's guillotine

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Invasion of the Sprites

In August, I conceived the idea of writing a short science-fiction story, inspired by the spaceship-like lava lamp (above), which my younger son had stored in my townhouse along with great piles of other castoff possessions. (My interest in the kitschy blue object evidently renewed his attachment to it. He rushed back to retrieve it. Perhaps if I feigned interest in the rest of his possessions, I could reclaim my closet space.)

I made some preparatory notes for the story, but I had to suspend work while I was away for six weeks in Los Angeles on business. This lapse of time was fatal to my enthusiasm for the project. (I realize that this is a whiny excuse.)

All that remains is the following husk of a synopsis.

Chapter 1

A graduate student in astronomy, while examining the star cluster that is the basis of his thesis, notices a new smudge of light on his monitor.

He has hopes of making a lucky discovery worthy of a submission to a scientific journal. Repeated observations throughout the night show a detectable movement of the smudge against the background sky, indicating that the smudge, whatever it is, must be relatively near, clearly within our solar system. A small comet in the initial stage of tail formation, he concludes.

When he makes his final observation of the comet at the end of the night's shift, he is surprised to find that the comet's path has altered by nearly five degrees. A comet being slung around by the pull of some massive, unseen asteroid? The graduate student now sees himself presenting a paper at a major astronomy conference.

The following night he hurries to check on the comet and is astonished that it is much brighter and that its location is offset at nearly a right angle to its earlier track. He points the telescope directly at the comet and waits to record the comet's new direction. But over the course of many hours, the comet does not budge from the center of the field of view. The comet has either stopped or is heading directly along a line straight toward Earth. The brightness continues to grow, like an oncoming headlight.

Chapter 2

A Pentagon meeting in a large conference room. An astrophysicist (the hero of the story – a dashing young scientist, not unlike a younger version of myself) is excitedly briefing a group of impatient, grim-faced officers about orbital dynamics, trajectory curves, and evidence of control. They stare up at a flat-panel display showing the planetary orbits and the red line of a simulated 3D flight track, which curves down into the plane of the ecliptic at a point near Neptune's orbit and then makes a bee line toward Earth. The estimated time of arrival is two weeks.

The two-star general in charge gives orders. He wants a better characterization of the approaching object. He wants to know what preparations can be made during the next two weeks. He wants to review plans for maintaining order by imposition of martial law.

Chapter 3

The object increases its speed. Instead of taking two weeks, the object – a silvery egg-shaped spaceship the size of an aircraft carrier – arrives near Earth in two days and instantly whips around to park on the moon. The United States government suppresses all television and radio reporting of the spacecraft. However, the internet traffic goes crazy. Telescope pictures of the spaceship, rumors, and speculations circle the globe.

The astrophysicist is at home watching the national news that evening when the screen goes black and then an image appears of a slender elfin creature with large eyes and pointed ears. It appears to be ill at ease, perhaps suffering from stagefright. It bumps into what looks like a tool rack behind it and knocks loose a cylindrical metal tool, which floats in the air.

The creature begins speaking serviceable Chinese. After a few minutes, the news show finds a translator to provide a running translation. The creature makes a long declaration that his people come in peace and do not wish to trouble the inhabitants of this planet. However, some changes will be instituted. The creature states that flights of aircraft or rockets will no longer be permitted. Starting tomorrow, any plane attempting to take off will be destroyed. No nuclear weapons nor nuclear power plants will be tolerated. The creature, fancifully called a sprite by the translator, fades out and is replaced by the image of the Earth, centered on the Himalayas. The image magnifies to show a small red circle.

The creature reappears and orders the immediate evacuation of all living things from the area covered by the red circle. After a pause, the translator passes along the information from the news show staff that the red circle covers approximately twenty square miles of sparsely populated, high-altitude terrain in Bhutan.

Chapter 4

Fear is heightened the next day by reports that planes are annihilated upon takeoff at airports all around the world. The National Guard is called out to put down riots and enforce a strict curfew in the major cities of the United States.

Telescope surveillance of the spaceship on the moon reveals the release of scores of small, blue vessels. They are tracked toward their destination in Bhutan.

The astrophysicist shows his credentials to the National Guard troops patrolling the streets and makes his way to the Pentagon. He watches replays of the sprite's video and is puzzled each time to see the metal tool hanging in the air. The tool should be under the influence of the moon's gravity. After careful observation, he detects that the tool falls very slowly during the course of the sprite's announcement. He replays the video again. This time he takes a marker and puts a dot on the screen next to the tool every ten seconds. The dots show a slight downward acceleration with time. He checks a reference book for the moon's gravitational force and calculates that the tool appears to be falling about fifty times slower than it should. Either the moon's gravity has been nearly nullified within the spaceship or else the video of the sprite has been slowed by about fifty times. The astrophysicist sends his findings to his Air Force manager.

Chapter 5

The United States sends a squadron of special forces operatives overland to Bhutan. The operatives move into the forbidden circle and observe the sprites moving at super-human speed constructing a complex of honeycomb buildings. The operatives are wiped out by the sprites, who move too fast for the operatives to defend themselves.

The Pentagon orders the launch of missiles from widely scattered submarines to destroy the sprite beachhead in Bhutan. The missiles' nuclear warheads detonate immediately upon launch. The submarines are vaporized.


This is as far as I got in my notes. It seems that I have stumped myself with this story. The sprites have better technology and move and think fifty times faster than humans. Apart from using H.G. Wells's old War of Worlds germ gimmick, I don't see a way to stop the sprites from setting up their galactic truckstop in Bhutan. How can my astrophysicist hero possibly save the day? Can the sprites' own speed be used to defeat them?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Engineering courtyard

There is something inherently civilized and civilizing about an interior courtyard. Consider this gracious UCSD courtyard with its bordering promenade, its palms, and its trellises heavy with red blossoms. All that is lacking is a mariachi band.

Sunday, June 22, 2008


If I should ever write a treatise on bad behaviour in corporations, I could use a recent work situation as an illustration entitled "The Pre-ordained Alternative."

The situation was this: a faction within my current project called for a discussion (a Technical Interchange Meeting, in engineering jargon) about the best method to deliver our product to the customer. I was among the engineers who showed up ready to evaluate alternatives. However, as all of us were taking our seats, the leader of the faction immediately hijacked the meeting to present a series of slides in favor of the faction's preferred alternative, which had the suggestive benefit of boosting the fortunes of the faction. Afterwards, with a smile and a genial tone the faction's leader asked the assembled group to suggest ways of improving his solution. It was if you were shopping for a vehicle, and the car salesman was adamant about selling you a school bus and nothing else. But he was quite happy to consider your opinion about whether it should be a yellow school bus, a red school bus, or a blue school bus.

Annoyed at being treated like a rube, I began to question the assumptions that were the basis for the faction's chosen solution. The leader brushed my questions aside and repeated, as if to an idiot child, why his solution was the best way of satisfying his assumptions. My annoyance increased. Fortunately, I was not alone in being dissatisfied with the proceedings. The meeting dissolved in confusion and another meeting was scheduled to revisit the topic.

What is my point in relating this example of marketing masquerading as engineering decision making? If one can cleverly specify the list of assumptions, the solution becomes pre-ordained or, to use a current economics cliche, is "baked in the cake." (Economists frequently use folksy expressions to spice up their prose. However, I have never heard a baker compare a cake to a debenture or a amortization schedule. This tells you something.)

The only way to guard against this kind of deceptive "baked-cake" behaviour is to laboriously think through each of the assumptions one by one until a sound basis for evaluating alternatives is established. But, as thinking is hard work, the necessary examination of assumptions is seldom performed and this bad behaviour often goes unchallenged.

"The Pre-ordained Alternative" is a cousin to a popular parenting style of years past called "Restricted Alternatives," wherein the parent pretends to negotiate with the offspring after carefully restricting the range of choices. The parent might say to little Oswald, "Would you like to pick up your toys or would you like to take a bath?" The trick is to get little Oswald to make a choice – say, picking up his toys. Then, if little Oswald grumbles while picking up his toys, the parent can say, "How can you complain? You made the choice yourself!" Of course, the child knows that he had no meaningful choice in the matter and feels no ownership of the decision. It all becomes vexation of spirit.

I myself resisted the prevailing parenting culture and was not guilty of this common style of manipulation. After much thought, I developed my own parenting style, leading to parenting errors that were completely original. No run-of-the-mill vexation for my offspring! Their vexation was hand-crafted.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Observation on creative expression

In reviewing my blog entries for this year, I have noticed a pattern. Entries were most numerous following family visits. After a visit with both sons in January, my spirits rose and I felt the freedom to write several sketches and short stories -- even a sonnet. The benefits of the visit slowly dissipated; and by April and May, even the formerly helpful device of posting an introductory picture on the blog to prime the literary pump was ineffective. The well was dry. But now, having enjoyed the company of both sons and also of Midwest family members during the past two weeks, I once again have the feeling of lightness, calmness, and clarity needed for composing a blog entry (the most humble form, after the graffito, of literary expression).

One wonders how crucial frequent contact with family and like-minded friends must be to expressing creativity, whether in the arts, in scientific inquiry, or in the management of human organizations.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Unexpected flowering

While cleaning the patio, I noticed a clover-like weed beside the border. The weed seemed innocuous, so I left it undisturbed. Two weeks later I was surprised to find that the weed had produced a beautiful columbine flower. This shows that ignorance plus luck can sometimes yield delight.

Friday, May 30, 2008


Voltaire was right. As advised by his character Martin in the story Candide, tending one's garden can be a reliable source of contentment.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

A brief mid-life crisis

A mid-life crisis is an anxious striving to hang on to something that is slipping away. For some this means desperately clinging to a youthful self-image and manifests itself in a hankering after firm young flesh. In my case, the fit came on me to collect stove-top Corningware, which is no longer marketed in the United States. By the time the mania passed, I was the owner of enough Corningware to outfit my entire townhouse building. My trove includes one museum piece labeled "Pyro-ceram," the original brand name circa 1958.

Friday, February 29, 2008

My Luncheon with Uncle Nick

Leaving Denver International Airport, I drove west on I-70, took the Morrison exit and sped south into the foothills. Nervous, I reached into my brand new sports jacket and felt the reassuring presence of the map and security card my father had given me. These two items would open the door to the business career I craved.

The map, a few simple lines scribbled on the back of an envelope, guided me to an unmarked private road that led through a wasteland of brush and boulders to where Uncle Nick's estate lay smack against a vertical bluff at the back of a canyon. I drove in, parked, and walked up to the ornate wrought-iron gate emblazoned with the initials N and K in golden filigree. After swiping my card over the security panel bolted beneath the K, I stepped back and struck a pose of confidence and poise. A well-modulated British voice sounded from a small speaker at the bottom of the panel, saying: "Good morning, sir. Kindly say the letters and numbers on the back of your card."

"N X K 6 6 5," I recited.

"Very good, sir." The gate opened. I walked through and enjoyed an unobstructed view of the stupendous villa that Uncle Nick had designed for himself. The villa demonstrated the wonders that could be created by combining a mountain of Italian marble, antique statuary shipped in by the truck load, and an indifference to accepted taste. The place bristled with colonnades and niches haphazardly adorned with statues of early Christian saints and Roman Caesars – off to the right, St. John was cheek by jowl with Nero. The villa abutted the sheer bluff behind it in a precise seam, the soft uniform white of the marble contrasting with the mottled tans and yellows of the bluff. Fountains right and left spurted lilac water, which added a languorous Mediterranean fragrance to the dry Colorado air.

Ahead, the villa's great silver-white door opened. A giant of a man in formal butler's attire filled the doorway. He beckoned. I approached and, without thinking, reached out to shake hands. He ignored my hand, looked down at me with a hint of a smile, and said with quiet reserve, "Please come into the waiting room, sir." I followed him. The waiting room was roughly the size of a YMCA gymnasium. Our footsteps, my quick staccato steps and his long thudding strides, echoed off the marble walls in syncopated rhythm. "Wait here, please, and I shall announce your arrival."

Apart from its immense dimensions, the waiting room was devoid of interest. It reminded me of an empty art museum. Instead of furniture, there were twelve great marble slabs scattered throughout the room to serve as benches. I counted seventeen thick marble columns. The uniform whiteness was broken only by the colors of a movie poster mounted on the far wall. The poster was a past advertisement for a dreary period film that had dashed through the art theaters on its way to DVD two years ago. In the foreground, a pretty young blonde wearing all of the ruffles and flounces of upper-class Victorian England was sopping up her tears with a lace handkerchief. Behind her, offering consolation, was another woman, older and dressed in Hollywood's idea of servant garb – subdued in color but artfully defining bosom and hip.

I sat on a marble bench and took a deep breath to help steady my nerves. I needed to focus on my strategy for impressing Uncle Nick enough to get a job offer. My graduation as a Bachelor of Arts in Business was a scant six weeks away; it was time to trade on family connections.

The groundwork for the strategy had begun with a Google search, which yielded a general overview of Uncle Nick's public life. Initially dubbed the Pickle King by the Wall Street Journal, Uncle Nick gained notoriety for cornering the South American cucumber market early in his career. However, when riots erupted in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro, led by the so-called Gherkinistas, the authorities stepped in and forced Uncle Nick to unwind his positions. Countless Google hits documented the string of the high-profile commodity deals that followed : talc, cranberry juice, boar bristles for hair brushes, and so forth. All of this on-line information was helpful as background, but I expected the real pay dirt to come from my father.

At first, my father was a reluctant oracle. "Look, Nick and I exchange phone calls on our birthdays and that's quite enough for me. He's no longer the brother I grew up with," my father had said. "But if you're sure that you want to do this, I'll try to arrange a meeting. Get yourself fully prepared and don't waste his time. Nothing makes him madder than having to repeat himself – so get things right on the first try. As far as making your pitch goes, you should understand that Nick considers himself a colossus among men. Think of him as combining the ruthlessness of a Bill Gates with the megalomania of an Orson Welles. Nick feels absolutely no connection with humanity in general, and very little connection with family. Being his nephew may swing you one visit; but if you can't convince him that you will increase his wealth, you'll be out on your ear."

Now, as I sat on the bench mentally rehearsing my talking points about arbitrage, commodity backwardization, and dynamic hedging, a voice behind me boomed, "Hey, kid! Welcome to Colorado!"

I shot to my feet and turned to see Uncle Nick coming toward me like a charging rhino. Or, rather, like a charging Spanish olive, given his maroon tie and well-tailored green suit that fell somewhere in size between XXXL and a petite circus tent. "Hi, Uncle Nick! It's good to see you!" I said heartily and shook his hand. So far, so good. I had carefully practiced my Hi-Uncle-Nick-It's-Good-to-See-You line and a dozen other lines of small talk. I was ready to make a real knockout of a first impression.

"How's your dad?"

"Fine, sir. He sends his best wishes."

"We've very different people, your dad and I. But still I love him like, um ..."

"A brother, sir?" I offered.

"Yeah, that's it. Like a brother. Well, look at you. All grown up and a business major. I always assumed that you'd turn out to be artsy like your dad. You know, to this day it boggles my mind why he chose to be a music composer. What is music? Vibrations in the air." Uncle Nick whipped a plump hand through the air by way of emphasis. "How do you create wealth with vibrations in the air? And does he still drive that crummy old Volvo?"

"Yes, he does." I saw an opening to inject my prepared lines. "But I'm much more practical than my father. I've worked my way through school to prepare for a business career. My passion is commodity trading. I have some ideas that I would like to discuss with you, sir. In my view –"

"Great, kid," he interrupted. "We'll talk business over lunch. Right now, I'd like to show you around the place. But first, what's your guess about the price of marble over the next five years?"

I had no idea. But surely Uncle Nick must think that it was going up if he had bought so much of it. I responded, "Well, I would expect the price of marble to generally rise with inflation."

"Generally rise? Why, it's going through the roof! I expect to make a mint selling this dump. Then I'll rebuild using the next up-and-coming commodity. Chromium, I'm guessing. What a flashy house that will be! This is how a business man thinks, kid. The average Joe buys a house made of cheap pine 2x4s, plywood, and drywall. Worthless junk," said Uncle Nick.

The conversation was straying off track. I didn't want Uncle Nick to lecture me like a schoolboy; I needed to connect with him man to man. I said, "Uncle Nick, tell me about the poster there. Is that one of your favorite movies?'

"Who has time for movies? The poster is in honor of an actress I'm seeing. If you're guessing the blonde babe, you're wrong. She's a rising star and still too pricey. The older one is the bargain. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar two years ago. Fortunately, she lost, so she comes at a discount. She's flying in tonight. A limo will pick her up at the airport, take her to my doctor for some precautionary blood tests – you can't be too careful nowadays – and drop her off here for a night on the town. Kid, the same advice applies to everything in life: Rent a depreciating asset, never buy. All right, come along. We'll look at the main part of the house. You can see the two wings and the outdoor stuff after lunch."

Okay, Uncle Nick might be an obese monster with ferocious appetites, but he had a vitality that I found fascinating. And for a man of his weight, he was remarkably spry. I nearly had to trot to keep up. With Uncle Nick gesturing with both arms and shouting out commentary and descriptions like a maniacal tour guide, we rushed through the villa. We rushed through offices stacked to the ceiling with file cabinets, rushed through a room outfitted as a plush corporate boardroom, rushed through an inner courtyard arrayed with a dazzling host of flowers and palms like a Moorish garden, and rushed through some sort of pleasure room with a mahogany bar, heaps of jet-black throw pillows, and a red velvet carpet with a two-inch pile that felt like walking on meringue. Finally, we arrived at a broad metal wall at the back of the villa. The metal was the same silver-white color as the villa's front door. Palladium, Uncle Nick said. In the center of the wall was a great disk, resembling a door to a bank vault. Uncle Nick pulled the handle; there was a sudden rush of air escaping; and the door swung open. We entered, stepping out onto a catwalk.

Before us, in a vast cavern hewn out of the rock, were two gigantic tanks supported by elaborate scaffolding. The tanks' tops, instrumented with lights and gauges, were at eye level but the bottoms were lost from sight hundreds of feet below in the nether shadows. The tanks had the size and proportions of two submarines stood on their noses.

"Wheatberries are in the right tank; olive oil is in the left," said Uncle Nick with an expansive sweep of his arm. "This is true wealth. The average working man has no idea about true wealth. He's an ignoramus. He slaves his life away for his little dollars, which shrink in value year by year. Anyone that stupid deserves to be exploited. They're our natural prey, kid," Uncle Nick threw back his head and laughed. "I feast on the blood of the working man."

"Why did you build your own tanks, Uncle Nick? Surely you could rent silos."

"When the economy goes belly up in a year or so, the government will likely confiscate all commercially traded commodities and ration them out. I will have these hidden stores, for sale to the highest bidder. I had these tanks specially fabricated by the same Dusseldorf concern that built old Saddam Hussein's underground bunker in Baghdad."

"Germans, huh?"

Uncle Nick wheeled around, got in my face, and shouted, "Of course, Germans! Who do you think would be in Dusseldorf? Mexicans?" His eyes were narrow slits of rage.

Rattled, I retreated a step and grabbed the catwalk railing for support. "Sorry, Uncle Nick."

No words were spoken as we left the cavern. Uncle Nick slammed the door and shoved the handle back in place. "All right, we may as well go to lunch. Jeeves should have it ready," he muttered.

Desperate for a way to relieve the tension, I ventured, "How did you find a butler named Jeeves, Uncle Nick?"

Uncle Nick grunted. "You don't find a butler named Jeeves; you build one. I already had a bodyguard. The promise of a raise persuaded him to change his name and take elocution lessons. And now I have a classy butler named Jeeves who holds the North American record for the bench press. And since he also does some light duty as a cook, my personnel costs have been cut to the bone. It's really sweet." To my relief, all this talk of saving money was brightening Uncle Nick's mood. "I don't need a chef right now," he continued, "because I did my serious eating three years ago when food prices were temporarily depressed. Now I subsist on one light lunch a day and am slowly working off the cheap calories I stored up in the past. Here we are, kid."

The dining room looked like a royal ballroom. Place settings had been arranged for us at the very end of a grand table as long as a bowling lane. As we sat down, Jeeves appeared with a silver pot. In his huge hands, it seemed little larger than a cereal bowl. Using a silver fork, he lifted green pasta from the pot and filled our plates.

"Spinach pasta?" I asked.

Uncle Nick replied, "No, in fact it's Jeeves's own creation."

Jeeves gave a polite bow of acknowledgment and said, "To be fair, sir, I was merely acting on a comment you made after the last currency devaluation. You noted that dollar bills were now worth less than spaghetti, pound for pound."

"Your creation, Jeeves. But you can credit me with an assist," said Uncle Nick, clearly pleased by the butler's reply. Uncle Nick turned back to me and said, "Jeeves stirs up a thick paste using shredded one-dollar bills as the chief ingredient, rolls the paste flat, bakes it, and then cuts it into ribbons. What was your name for this dish, Jeeves?"

"Federal Reserve Fettuccine, sir."

"Ah, yes," said Uncle Nick. "Now we need to choose the sauce. Are you a vegetarian, kid?"

"No, sir. I like meat. Meat is fine with me," I said firmly, looking Uncle Nick square in the eye. It was time to sell him on the idea of hiring me, and I needed to exude decisiveness. And I wasn't going to let any crazy pasta throw me off my game.

"Glad to hear it. Jeeves, bring us the sauce with the basil."

"Very good, sir."

Jeeves returned with a silver pitcher and poured out bright pools of sauce on our pasta. The contrast of the deep red sauce and the green pasta was striking. I took a taste. Beneath the flavor of the basil, the sauce was salty and oddly familiar, although I didn't detect any flavor of tomatoes. "Interesting sauce, Uncle Nick. What's in it?"

Instantly Uncle Nick was back in a state of squinty-eyed rage. He slapped the table with both palms and roared, "Jeeves!" Powerful hands grabbed my shoulders and yanked me out of my chair. My fork went flying. The next thing I knew, I was frog-marched out of the villa and thrown onto the sidewalk. Uncle Nick yelled from the doorway: "I already answered that question!" The door slammed shut.

I struggled to my feet. My ear ached; my chin was deeply scraped and throbbing; and my new sports jacket was soiled with red stains. I could not tell if the stains were sauce or blood.


Proverbs 23:1-3 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

New portal in service

Greetings to all my fellow Antique Iowans! As I begin my term as your new Chairman, I want to once again thank you for the honor of representing our group. And I offer heartfelt gratitude to the outgoing Chairman, Mr. Hiram Shedd, for helping the transition go forward with no bumps. I promise to continue his fine work in representing us before Wal-Mart, our common employer.

I will be getting to know all of you in the coming weeks. So, for now, I will just provide a few descriptive facts about myself and my time with Wal-Mart. Even though I am the youngest Chairman ever chosen by our group (a mere stripling, some still think), my birth date is the earliest on record. I was recruited by Wal-Mart at the Muscatine docks in early May of 1871. I was five months shy of eighteen at the time. Too young for employment, you observe? Yes, but not after inflating my age to nineteen on the application form. I don't advocate flimflam; but embellishing one's years was considered salesmanship – even viewed as a sign of gumption – by my generation, a generation chasing the gaudy future that beckoned after the Civil War. Now in my twenties and a proven full-time cashier on the express line, I trust that I may be excused for this harmless bluff that launched my career.

As far as I can ascertain, I have the distinction of being the last Antique Iowan ever recruited. If one can believe corporate gossip, Wal-Mart attempted an even earlier Iowa recruitment; but this was halted when recruiters inadvertently bumped into Abraham Lincoln, who was passing through Council Bluffs in 1859 to examine land that a Chicago attorney had pledged as collateral for a loan. This brush with temporal-historical disaster must have touched off an eruption of hysteria in the Wal-Mart boardroom. This much we know for sure: the Vice President for Retrospective Recruitment was summoned back to Bentonville and given the boot.

To avoid further dangers of tangling up time in bewildering paradoxes, Wal-Mart cancelled U.S. historical recruitment altogether. We all remember the outcome. Predictably, as the pool of entry-level workers declined year by year, hourly wages rose to compensate. This was cheered by us but abominated in the boardroom. Last summer things boiled over. Ignoring Wal-Mart's protests, the government commenced securing the border with Mexico in earnest, and immigration was choked off. Wal-Mart reacted decisively: historical recruitment would be resumed, but it had to be safe. History professors at the University of Colorado were showered with research grants to identify the least consequential people in the previous two millenia. The answer came back: the early Visigoths – that is, savage Teutonic hordes at the periphery of the Roman Empire, centuries before the sack of Rome. Wal-Mart hired some Visigothic language instructors, retooled its time portal, and last September turned the spigot on full blast.

The new time portal is shown in the photograph adorning the top of this newsletter. It is a fine and stately thing, much to be preferred over the cramped and somewhat intestinal time tube that conveyed all of us Antique Iowans to modern times. There is even, to my eyes, a suggestion of a steamboat's pilot-house in the architecture of the new portal's four towers. You may be puzzled about the strings of bright red globes in front of the portal. You ask, what can these balls signify? Are they part of the time travel mechanism? Do they warn of danger? Enough suspense – I will tell you. These red balls were added to mark off the boundaries of the arrival area after it was discovered that the Visigoths could not make sense of conventional signs. Placards with arrows were just so much geometric gibberish to them.

This communication problem was discovered during the first Roman Empire recruiting cycle, when several Visigoth youths wandered off into the neighboring condominiums. A yappy terrier was bisected by a broadsword, straining community relations. Wal-Mart's fix was to hand out cards with red polka dots before every time trip and instruct the Visigoths to congregate amidst similar red balls upon arrival. Problem solved. No more havoc in the condominiums and no more terrier reparations demanded of Wal-Mart.

On a personal note, I must confess to having more than a cool, professional interest in our new Visigoth workers. I have recently become engaged to a Visigoth maiden named Fredegund, a statuesque beauty with golden braids, who is employed as a greeting card stacker at my southeast Denver Wal-Mart Supercenter. She is a splendid old-fashioned girl – who can skin a squirrel in the blink of an eye – refreshingly unlike the 21st century gals, who are suited more for exhibition than household use.

Of course, one must be totally certain of one's resolve before attempting Visigoth matrimony. Visigoths adhere to strict principles. Jilting a Visigoth woman is a capital offense. Infidelity is a capital offense. Divorce, likewise. Actually, among the more conservative Visigoths, almost any transgression is a capital offense: displaying bad table manners, sneezing without asking Woden's blessing, failing to smartly hoist your tankard of mead when the chieftain makes a toast, and so forth. Fortunately, being raised in Iowa society of the 1850s and 1860s gave me a leg up in adapting to Visigoth culture. Visigoths, in many respects, are just Baptists with battle axes. Still, I had some nervous moments during my initial courtship with Miss Fredegund as we were being chaperoned by her cousin Sigeric son of Amalaric, who sat next to us on the couch and passed the time by dandling a war hammer on his knee. Sigeric (or "Siggy" as he is known by his buddies) is in line to be the assistant manager of the Home and Garden center of my Wal-Mart. He enjoys the work, and the proximity to hatchets and other useful implements is a comfort to him. Shoplifting has ceased to be a concern.

I will close this newletter with best wishes and our new slogan: "It's the 21st century. Let's make the best of it."


Sunday, January 13, 2008

A Universal Benison

When galaxies condensed in wisps of light,
Each star awoke to black infinity.
As each sought others in the cosmic night,
Vortices whirled, kept true by gravity.

In life beneath this middling yellow sun,
No force like gravity makes hearts align.
Goodwill too quickly fades. My benison
Might favor home or tribe, but only mine.

It seems the problem comes from lack of weight,
Not range. Small hearts, like cold dark stones in space,
Unmoved, minute, deserve no grander fate
Than falling stars and shame the human race.

Increase our dwarf-sized hearts, Oh Lord, I pray.
And list us all as Heaven's Messier.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Inaugural Posting

Come join the fun at the San Diego Harbor! Local favorite Fritz the Fishman (r) is known for his impersonations of ocean flora and fauna. Watch him transform himself into a swordfish, a whale, a pile of washed-up kelp! His puffer fish has won the SoCal Fish Mime Invitational five years running.

Joining Fritz this season is Rudolfo (l), newly graduated from the Institute of Piscine Dance in Bratislava. Rudolfo's art fuses old-world classicism with the energy of the pounding surf. Everyone is raving about his Dance of the Seven Eels! (Parental discretion advised.)

Performances are held next to the big pole of colored plastic fish: Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (Visa, MC, AmEx) See you there!