The Kingmakers

 

The young man sat in front of the hearthfire, the ancient behind him like a tall, thin shadow in the air. Sweat beaded the young man’s face and collected on his lightly stubbled chin, and glistened in the ruddy light of the coals, which provided the only light in the dark room. His wide-set eyes were open wide and white with fear, and his lips trembled uncontrollably.

“It is simple enough, Master Tulane,” the Ancient whispered. “Thrust your finger into the coals.”

“I… I…” The young man swallowed convulsively. The skin of his hand had reddened from the heat, and the tip of his finger was beginning to blister.

“I can’t do it!” he shrieked, and yanked his hand away from the fire. He cradled the burned finger in his lap and rocked back and forth, as sobs racked his shoulders.

“I’ve failed. I’ve failed. I’ve failed,” he chanted in time to his rocking.

A monk approached from near the door and led the young man away, still chanting his failure like a mantra.

The old man turned away from the fire and sat heavily in his own chair. His shadow stretched across the table that lay between him and the deeper shadows where the firelight did not reach. He filled a small glass with wine from a decanter on the table, and swallowed it in one convulsive gulp.

“Pace yourself, Brother Anselm,” said a voice from the darkest corner. “It won’t do to have them smell wine on your breath. Or for you to fall into the fire yourself.”

Anselm spat a curse. “I know, I know, Brother Michael. But I dread this next one. This Tulane fellow was perfectly predictable. Eldest son of a landowner down on his luck. Pressure to succeed, no aptitude or desire. There was no question he would break. The next applicant….” He shuddered, and poured himself another half-glass.

“Equally predictable,” said Brother Michael, invisible in the shadows.

“Then we both agree. Why not turn him away now, and spare him?”

“You know the answer to that, Brother Anselm.”

“Of course I do. My mind has not yet gone to rot.”

“Then let him venture the test. We can’t deny him that opportunity.”

Anselm sighed. “No, we can’t.”

“Do you want me to take this one?”

Anselm hesitated, then shook his head. “Thank you, Brother Michael, but no. You had to deal with the D’Onofrio boy.”

A grunt of assent issued from the shadows. “Aye, that was unpleasant.”

They both sat in silence.

A patterned knock came at the door. Anselm stood and faced the hearth, and composed himself. The door opened, and the monk led in a second young man. This one resembled the first as all healthy young men resemble each other in the eyes of old men. Beyond that, however, they were entirely different. The first had had a soft face; this one’s was hard, even cruel. The first had worn his hair somewhat long, as was the fashion among the wealthy, and his beard stubble was soft and patchy; this one had shaved his head as well as his chin, and the stubble was coarse and black. The first had moved like an aristocrat; this one strode into the room like a warrior.

Anselm gestured to the seat in front of him.

“Sit,” he commanded, all trace of querulousness gone from his voice. His age-hooded eyes looked blind in the dim light.

The young man moved swiftly to the seat, and planted himself in it, claiming it as his own.

“Brother Rupert,” Anselm said, softly. “Attend the fire.”

Rupert stepped to the bellows attached to the hearthfire, and began to pump. Anselm let it reach cold-forge heat, the coals nearly white and hot enough to work copper, before he signaled for Rupert to stop.

“State your name,” Anselm said, his tone formal.

“Marcello Boniface DuBuque, the Third,” the boy said. His tone was proud and unafraid, even a touch arrogant despite the formality of the occasion.

“You wish to be King?”

“Of course,” the young man said, casting aside all pretense of humility.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“I do.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

“I do.”

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The young man hesitated.

“Is this a test of courage? Have I not already demonstrated that on the field of battle?”

Anselm stood silent.

“Bah!” the young man said. “It is but a finger. I have ten, and more courage in each of them than most men have in their entire bodies. I can do this.”

He thrust the tip of his finger into the fire. Yellow flame leaped up. The stink of burning flesh, then of burning bone filled the room. The young man held his finger in place for a moment longer, then screamed once before his eyes rolled back in their sockets and he fell from his chair, pulling his hand free from the fire. His fingertip burned with a greasy yellow flame like a candle. Anselm bent forward swiftly and plunged the boy’s burning hand into a bucket of water that stood near the fire.

Rupert ran to them, and bore up the young man on his shoulders. Anselm opened the door for Rupert and his burden, and then closed the door and leaned his head against it. He stood silently for a long minute. Then he walked unsteadily back to his seat and collapsed into it. He poured himself another glass of wine with shaking hands.

“Perfectly predictable,” Brother Michael said from the shadows.

“Yes.” Brother Anselm’s voice was a whisper.

“Why did you make the fire so hot?” Michael asked. “Did you hope it would discourage him?”

“No,” said Anselm. “There was no discouraging that one. I wanted a clean cautery. You were right. He is entitled to the Questions, now, assuming he survives the shock and the amputation. Who knows, he might surprise us. Perhaps this will have knocked some sense into him. If it does, it would be a shame for him to succumb to infection.”

“Ah,” said Michael.

After a moment of silence, Michael continued, “So what of this third candidate?”

Anselm took a deep breath. “I don’t know. He puzzles me, and I don’t quite trust him. I can’t put my finger on it.”

“He puzzles you? You mean you can’t predict his responses?”

“His answers so far have been unpredictable, yes, but also too … smooth. As if he already knows the questions, and their answers. Is it possible that our protocols have been breached? Are we being manipulated by one of the factions?”

“Which faction backs him?”

“None of them. He is unaffiliated.”

“Which merely means that we don’t know which faction is backing him.”

“Yes.”

Michael mulled this in silence.

“Perhaps,” he said at last. “But if anyone knew, one would think the DuBuque clan would know, in which case the DuBuque boy would not have been so phenomenally stupid.”

“That’s true,” Anselm said. “One of the renegade clans, perhaps?”

“That’s hard to imagine. They have no libraries. They do not value learning. They have sacked only villages and small towns. They would have had to wring the knowledge from one of our members, and all of us who are conversant with the Trial Lore are here right now, and accounted for.”

“Your reasoning is sound, but I am still … unsettled.”

“Perhaps he already knows the questions and answers because he is an avatar of a past King.”

Anselm snorted. “You know I don’t believe in that superstitious rot.”

“Your disbelief does not make it impossible.”

Anselm squirmed in irritation. Then he relaxed. “Now is not the time for our debate, Brother Michael. Much as I enjoy your wit and your twisted logic.”

Michael chuckled drily.

A quick knock sounded on the door, and Brother Rupert stuck his head in.

“Brother Anselm. The physicians say that the boy will likely live. He has survived the shock. He will lose the finger, and most of the dexterity in his right hand, but he will keep the hand and will be able to use it.”

Anselm slumped as the tension in his shoulders released.

“Thank you, Brother Rupert. I’d like to get the third candidate out of the way, and then go to my bed. It has been a trying day. Please show him in.”

Rupert bowed and left, and Anselm resumed his position facing the fire. Rupert returned a moment later with another young man, so like all the other candidates in his youth and health, but as different from the last two as to be a different species. His hair was long and wild, standing up in spots like stiff grass. It was clear he’d tried to tame it with a brush, but the result was to make it look wilder than ever. Even in the dim glow of the coals, his pale eyes seemed unfocused. His limbs were willow-thin, and he walked with a slight limp.

Anselm gestured to the chair in front of the fire. “Sit,” he commanded.

The boy did not obey immediately, but instead turned about several times, surveying the nearly-dark room. He hesitated, then bowed slightly to the shadowed corner where Brother Michael resided. Then he bowed more deeply to Brother Anselm and dropped into the seat before the fire, and unkempt tangle of unruly hair and limbs.

“State your name,” Anselm said.

“John Travers.”

“You wish to be King?”

The boy stared into the red coals, silent. Protocol forbade Anselm from asking that particular question again, and he was about to dismiss the boy, when he began to speak.

“My father… was a master leathersmith. He made shoes, mostly, and purses. Sometimes fancy, beautiful things for people with money. I loved to watch him work. He was so careful. Every mark on the leather, just so. Momma loved him, too. I had two big brothers, and a little sister, and we were … happy.

“Then the Black Clan came, and burned our city. Papa and Mama died, and my brothers, and my sister. I was captured and sold to bandits. I was too small for heavy work, so they made me do little jobs around the camp, like bring food and water to the people they robbed and held for ransom, and those people always said the same thing: they said if there was a King, this sort of thing would not be allowed.

“When I got old enough, I escaped. I traveled a lot, on foot, and I found out that things were bad everywhere. And everyone said the same thing, no matter where I went. If there was a King, things would be better.

“But there was no King. The last King was over a hundred years ago. They said no one could pass the Trials. I asked what it took to pass the Trials, but no one could tell me. They said it was a secret, a mystery. They said either you had the stuff of Kings in you, or you didn’t. They said to go ask the Prophets, and they’d give you the Trials, and then you’d know.”

The boy turned around to look at Anselm.

“I don’t know if I’ve got the stuff of Kings in me, sir, and I really don’t know if I want to be King. But I want there to be a King, and there won’t be one if no one tries. So I’m here to try.”

Anselm cleared his throat. If this answer was genuine, it was the best answer he’d ever heard. It reeked of artifice. Whoever had schooled this boy had done it well.

“You undertake these trials of your own will?”

“Yes.”

“You understand that these trials themselves may end in your death?”

The boy hesitated, and turned back to the coals. He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders.

“I do,” he said.

“And that passing these trials does not guarantee our endorsement?”

“Yes.”

“Then let us begin. Thrust the index finger of your right hand into the coals.”

The boy flinched, like he’d been struck. He twisted around and looked at Anselm with wide eyes. He held up his index finger.

“This?” he said. “Are you joking?”

Anselm stood impassively.

The boy turned and stared for a long moment at his upraised finger. He slowly reached toward the coals. The ruddy glow painted his hand in crimson and orange. He stopped. His hand inched closer. He stopped again.

Then he withdrew his hand and put it in his lap.

“No,” he said.

Anselm gestured, and Brother Rupert approached and led the boy from the room.

Anselm sat, slowly, with a sigh like steam escaping from a hot sausage. He reached for the wine decanter, but then let his arm rest on the table.

“Well, it is the only sane and sensible response, after all,” said Brother Michael. “I’m always surprised by how many fail the test, one way or the other. But I see what you mean. He didn’t even put up a fight. He just said, ‘No.’ Certainly odd.”

“Perhaps.” Anselm’s tone was pensive.

“What are you thinking now?” Brother Michael asked.

“He almost put his hand in the fire. Every motion said he was thinking about doing it. His arm, his neck, his back. And then he changed his mind, and drew back. If he was schooled in this, Brother Michael, his acting skills are astonishing.”

“Yet his answers are too perfect, I agree. How do you explain that?”

Brother Anselm poured himself a small amount of wine, and swirled it under his nose.

“I’m thinking that perhaps he is an avatar of a former King.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “If you’re considering that, then it seems miracles are truly afoot.”

Anselm laughed, then drank the wine.

“Good night, brother Michael. Sleep well, if you can. I know I won’t.”


 

Tulane, the first boy, left the monastery at dawn, still apologizing for his failure. The monks did not encourage him to stay. Brother Anselm wondered sadly how many years it would take for the boy to get past his belief in his inadequacy — if, indeed, he ever did. Between his father’s ambitions and the Trials, the boy had probably been broken beyond repair.

They chose to wait until the DuBuque boy had recovered enough to face the Questions. After two days, the physicians said he was ready, so long as no physical stress was required. They assured him that there would be no physical stress.

They met at midday, in one of the libraries, well-lit through large louvers in the ceiling, designed to admit daylight but no moisture. Brother Rupert led Marcello DuBuque into the room. Brother Anselm and Brother Michael both sat comfortably in deeply-upholstered chairs, and Anselm gestured to a third chair that faced the other two, forming an intimate triangle.

“Please sit, Marcello Boniface DuBuque the Third,” Anselm said.

Marcello’s face was pale, and his eyes shadowed. His right hand was heavily bandaged, and held high against his chest in a cloth sling. The physicians had given him some medication for the pain during the first day, but had weaned him off it the second day, so that he could continue the Trials with a clear head.

“Do you wish to delay the Trials, in light of your injury?” Anselm asked.

Marcello shook his head sharply, with a scowl, though he did not meet the eyes of either monk.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Michael asked.

“Yes,” Marcello snarled.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Anselm. “We will begin by asking you to explain why you put your hand in the fire.”

Hot anger swept across Marcello’s face. “You know damn well why I put my hand in the fire! Because you—“ Marcello suddenly pinched his lips together, and his face went pale.

“Because you made me do it,” Anselm thought. Or perhaps, “Because you told me to.” At least he had the sense to not finish that sentence.

Anselm and Michael waited quietly for Marcello to continue.

“Because it was a test of courage,” he said, striking a pose, though still seated. “A test of raw, physical courage. Which I passed, as befits a future King.”

“Mmmm,” said Brother Michael. “And what would you say you learned from this test of courage, Marcello Boniface the Third?”

“Learned?” said Marcello, his eyebrows rising, along with his voice. “Learned? I learned that it hurts to put your finger in the damned fire! What was I supposed to learn from your stupid test?” He started to rise from his seat.

Brother Anselm clapped his hands twice, and two large monks quickly flanked Marcello on either side. Marcello looked like he wanted to fight them right then and there, but thought better of it, given the condition of his hand.

“We will speak again tomorrow,” said Brother Anselm. And the day after that, and the day after that, until you grow tired of hearing the same two questions over and over, and go home.

This one would never be King.

Rupert approached and gestured for Marcello to precede him back to the infirmary. The two large monks followed close behind.

Brother Michael leaned toward Anselm. He was almost as old as Anselm, but portly and soft, and a wicked humor gleamed in his eyes.

“A week,” he said.

“Three days,” Anselm responded, with no change in his dour expression, though his eyes also twinkled behind his heavy lids.

“He has too much ambition. He’ll hold out for a week out of pure stubbornness.”

“Too impatient and reckless. Three days.”

Brother Michael chuckled. “We’ll see.”

After a few minutes, Rupert returned with John Travers. They invited him to sit with them.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked.

“Yes, I’m still willing to be King,” John answered.

“Then let us continue the Trials,” said Brother Michael. “We will begin by asking you why you did not place your hand in the fire.”

John nodded slowly.

“At first it was fear. The bandits branded me when I was sold. I’ve felt the pain of burning, and I was afraid of it. But then, I thought this must be some kind of test of bravery, and if I didn’t do it, I’d fail the test. So I decided to do it, come what may.

“But then my hand got closer to the fire and it started to hurt, and I lost my nerve. That’s when I realized something. You never gave me any reason to put my hand in the fire. You just told me to do it. And I thought, ‘What kind of King just drops his trousers and starts dancing on his hands any time one of his advisors tells him to do it?’ That’s when I knew that the right answer to the test was to refuse. That’s what a real King would do.”

Michael and Anselm glanced at each other.

“And what,” said Brother Michael, “would you say that you learned from this test?”

John scowled. “Obviously, that a King needs to know the reason for his actions.”

“What else?” Anselm said.

John’s scowl deepened.

At last he said, “I don’t know. I need to think about it more.”

“We will speak again tomorrow,” Michael said. He clapped his hands once, and Brother Rupert approached and led John away.

“What do you think?” said Michael.

Anselm steepled his fingers, brow knitted. “ He didn’t dismiss the question, which is good. He avoided the trap of ‘The King Must Know Everything’, like it had never occurred to him. That was also good.”

“How deeply do you think he’ll answer?”

“I don’t know, Brother Michael. But I’m beginning to hope.”


 

When John returned to the library the next day, he wore a faint scowl and an expression of irritation.

“Does every King face the same Trials?” he asked without preamble.

“No,” Anselm answered. “The Trials are intended to allow us to see into the heart of anyone who wishes to become King. If the Trials became rote, people could train for them as they train for battle, or for an examination. They would tell us who had purchased the best trainers, and trained the hardest, but little else.”

John nodded thoughtfully. “That’s why the Trials are a mystery. So that no one can ever prepare for them.”

“Exactly.”

“So you won’t answer my next question. I want to know what Trial the last King faced at this point.”

Anselm smiled, with an apologetic shrug. “You are correct. We won’t answer that.”

“Then can you tell me about the last King himself? Can you tell me what kind of a man he was?”

“We have detailed histories and biographies of all the Kings, back to King Trevor, the first King after the collapse of the Old World.”

John’s face fell. “I can’t read. Only a few words.”

Anselm smiled again. “You should learn, but there is ample time for that. For now, we will assign a novice to read to you, if you wish.”

John’s expression cleared. “Yes, that would be wonderful.”

“So you do not wish to answer the question today?”

“No. I have no answer. Yet.”

“Then have your reader notify us when you are ready to answer,” Anselm said. He clapped his hands, and Brother Rupert took John from the room.

“Better and better,” Brother Michael said. “Do you still believe we are being manipulated?”

“That’s harder to believe with every meeting,” Anselm answered. “He doesn’t seem to know any of the answers he could give. But he’s asking all the right questions.”

“So is he an avatar?” Michael asked.

A chill went up Anselm’s spine. “Superstition. Nonsense.”

Michael studied his face, and then smiled. “But you are no longer entirely sure of that, I see.”

Anselm made a face. “You know me too well, Brother.”

Michael chuckled. “By the way, we both underestimated the intelligence of the DuBuque boy. He left this morning, like a bad storm blowing away to the East.”

Anselm smiled. “Intelligence, or pride?”

“Intelligence. Had he stayed the three days you predicted, or the seven I predicted, it would have been pride. To leave this morning meant he had already worked out that he’d failed the Trials, and there was no point in continuing.”

“He will be trouble for the new King.”

“Or his most loyal and valued subject,” Michael said.


 

A week passed. Word reached Brothers Anselm and Michael that John spent long hours with his reader, learning about past Kings, and his remaining time walking through the gardens and the forest that adjoined the monastery lands, accompanied always at a short distance by a minder who would observe and report any meetings with others. John, however, met with no one — he seemed to walk for the solitude.

He spent a few hours each day tending the gardens with the other monks, and one afternoon high in the coppiced trees of the firewood grove, harvesting wood — he said that heights did not bother him, and he did seem fearless, twenty feet above the ground with only branches and empty air beneath him.

There had been twenty-seven Kings, most of them with very short reigns in the tumultuous years after King Trevor. As the aftershocks of the slow crumbling of the Old World subsided, people began to govern themselves locally and trade, and eventually King Emmett abdicated in favor of the First Constitutional Trade Confederation. There were only four Kings after Emmett, and the last, King Olander, had died a little over a century ago. John had started his studies with Olander, then expanded to the others.

A second week passed, and the reader reported that John had begun to focus almost exclusively on King Olander and the previous King, particularly on the laws they laid down and enforced. Then, one morning, John sent the reader away, and spent the entire day sitting on a rock in the gardens. He sat through an afternoon rainstorm, and though he thanked the monk who brought him a towel and dry clothing afterward, he remained seated on his rock well into the night.

The next morning, he requested a meeting with Brothers Anselm and Michael.

“Do you still wish to be King?” Brother Anselm asked, formally, once they were all seated.

“No,” John answered. “If I had a home to return to, I’d want to go home.”

“Then you do not wish to continue the Trials?” Brother Michael said. Disappointment colored his voice.

“I didn’t say that,” John snapped. “I answered the question you asked.”

Anselm smiled. “So then, are you willing to be King, should we choose to endorse you?”

“Yes. I am willing.”

“Then let us continue the Trials. What lesson have you learned from the test of fire?”

“I learned the purpose of pain.”

“And what is the purpose of pain?”

“The purpose of pain is to warn us against damaging ourselves. It wasn’t until I felt the pain in my fingertips that I realized how hot that fire was, and how much damage I was about to do to myself. It wasn’t until then that I thought about what I was doing, and realized I had no good reason to do it. Without pain, I would have no finger, now, maybe no hand. I might already be dead or dying from poisoning of the blood. That’s the purpose of pain. To warn us against being stupid.”

“Why do you think this test is one of the Trials?”

“Because a King must feel pain. He must feel the pain of his people. Of his kingdom. Of its most remote parts, like the fingers and toes. Pain is what will warn him against damaging his kingdom. A King who doesn’t feel pain will always make bad decisions. He’ll sacrifice an outlying district to bandits, because it’s too far away. He’ll sacrifice his subjects, because their local customs are inconvenient, or because they’re poor and need help. He’ll sell off land and water for a quick profit in gold. He’ll betray allies, and turn them into enemies. He’ll start unnecessary wars. He’ll do all of this because he feels no pain to warn him against being stupid.”

John stared into the space between Anselm and Michael.

“The King will always feel pain. Because your Order doesn’t raise up Kings unless there is pain in the land, does it? You raise up Kings only when there is pain. And the King must feel that pain. What sane person would want that job?”

“Do you feel that pain, John Travers?” Brother Anselm asked, softly.

An expression of deep sadness crossed John’s face, and a single tear escaped from his eye and ran down his cheek.

“Yes,” he whispered.

“Then that is the answer to your question, John. The only sane person who would want the job is someone who already feels that pain. As a commoner, all you can do is suffer. As King, you might — might — be able to do something about it.”

Brother Michael leaned forward in his chair. “So, John, are you still willing to be King?”

John’s unfocused gaze went from Michael, to Anselm, and back.

“I will have advisors?” he asked.

“Who will always give you reasons,” Brother Michael said with a smile.

“Which you may disagree with,” Brother Anselm added.

John nodded, slowly.

“Then yes, I am still willing.”

“Then we will speak again tomorrow,” Brother Anselm said. He clapped once, and Brother Rupert came and took John away.

The two old men sat in silence for a time. Then Brother Michael turned his head to look at Anselm.

“Avatar?” he asked.

Anselm sat quietly without answering.

“I don’t know,” he said at last. “But I think he will be a good King.”

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Playing It Backwards

Back in the 1970′s, one of the popular memes in the US Conservative Christian circles claimed that, if you played various Rock ‘n’ Roll albums backward, you would hear Satanic chants and lyrics and messages. I’m guessing that only a few people actually bothered to try this, but a lot of people believed it earnestly, based on fifth-hand hearsay and the public testimony of various attention-seekers attempting to claw their way into the fifteen-minute spotlight of fame.

I’m one of the people who didn’t waste my time trying this, so I can’t really say how much imagination you have to put into the endeavor. My own fifth-hand hearsay indicates you have to add a lot of imagination, because what you actually hear is “mroo loobd theeblaan”, and you have to somehow imagine that this is pronouncing “My Lord Satan.”

It was a popular enough meme that it led to the well-known joke:

Q: What happens when you play a country-western song backward?
A: Your truck starts running, and you get your house, your wife, and your dog back.

There’s a new joke going around:

Q: What happens when you play a Disney movie backward?
A: A happy couple breaks up, and they go their separate ways and forget each other.

Who would have thought Disney was promoting such an anti-marriage message?

UnknownWhat sparked this new joke is a revival of the tired “play it backwards” meme, as explored at some length in a blog posting by someone who calls herself the “Well-Behaved Mormon Woman,” after she viewed the Disney film Frozen and decided that it was entirely about promoting the  “Gay Agenda.”

My wife and I watched Frozen last night — a very traditional Disney treatment of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of the Snow Queen, and a delightful film if you like Disney treatments of Hans Christian Andersen tales (and I do) — and all I have to say about the Gay Agenda in this film is: mroo loobd theeblaan.

In other words, if you twist your imagination hard enough to make it beg for mercy, you can find a Gay Agenda in Frozen, or, for that matter, a Communist Plot in Mary Poppins, or a portrait of Elvis in that mold stain on your bathroom wall.

Otherwise, it just isn’t there. It isn’t there at all.

Indeed, Frozen is remarkable among the roster of Disney animations for its almost complete absence of romance and sexual themes. The closest we come is when the younger daughter, Anna, gets herself precipitously engaged on her sister’s coronation day to handsome prince Hans, against her sister’s wishes (and to the astonishment of everyone else, since she’d just met Hans that day). Hans eventually turns out to be a murderous gold-digger who is only after the throne. So the message here is both heterosexual and very traditional: marriage is a serious matter and not something entered into lightly.

I have in fact read through the tortured reasoning in the WBMW’s post, and she makes a very clear exposition of exactly how she has abused her imagination into this conclusion.

The gist of her argument is this: Frozen is all about “coming out of the closet.”

Well, this isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s a textbook case of what happens when you view a larger theme through the troll-splinters of, in this case, the Anti-Gay Agenda.

[Incidently, "troll-splinters" are from another fairy-tale. Troll splinters are the opposite of rose-colored glasses: trolls are made of stone, as everyone knows, and if you defeat them in battle, you can get splinters of troll-stone in your eyes, which makes you see everything in life as ugly, and brutish, and corrupt, just as rose-colored glasses make you see everything as beautiful, gentle, and virtuous.]

The central theme of Frozen is that selfless, sacrificial love has power above that of even the most powerful sorcery, and can transform fear and prejudice into peace and justice, though at a cost (if I have an objection to Disney-fication, it is that this cost is always written off in the happy ending). A secondary theme is that true power can never be contained by force, but must instead be leashed in the service of a higher love, in this case, the love of a ruler for her lands and people.

To get to the point of leashing power appropriately, of course, you have to stop trying to contain it by brute force, and “Let It Go.”

So yes, for a gay person to come out of the closet requires that they stop trying to contain the power of their sexual energy by brute force. This larger theme does apply to the gay experience of coming out.

It applies equally to the Mormon experience of quitting doomed missionary work among the faithless in Nauvoo, Illinois, and moving West to find a place of their own, in Utah.

It applies to quitting a soul-rotting job to pursue your talents and dreams.

It applies to a well-behaved Mormon woman finding her voice and speaking her mind.

It applies to a lot of things.

The only way to read a Gay Agenda into Frozen is to start with the assumption that it must be there — since it comes out of Hollywood, and we know all about those people — and then run the film backwards and forwards until you find it.

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Pie Porn

Today I had an epiphany.

It started off with a Saint Patrick’s Day joke on Facebook, that goes like this:

An Irishman walks out of a bar.

Thigh-slapper, isn’t it? Yeah, I didn’t get it at first, either.

Then someone told me it was Pi Day, except you can’t hear the absence of the silent ‘e’ in Pie Day, which is what I thought they were talking about. We’ve had sillier national holidays, so how was I to know? For those of you who aren’t clued-in, today is 3.14 (March fourteenth). Of course, this was really funny in 1593. Someone had to explain this one to me, too.

After it was explained, I quipped about it on Facebook, and got the fracking year wrong. Then someone saw it and corrected me. Themon’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good Day.

On top of that, I had the remainder of my wisdom extracted forcibly from my head a week ago, and while the sedation was nice enough, I didn’t even wake up with an interesting story about the desire to adopt a new uncle. On top of which, the painkillers gave me a nasty case of the solids, so to speak, abetted by the all-liquid diet with the occasional side of mashed potatoes.

It had all left me quite grumpy.

So when two of our dearest friends called us tonight and said they were missing us, and had a Pie (pizza) in the oven, and Pie for dessert in honor of today, and started describing the Pie they had eaten at work today, The Epiphany struck.

Pie Porn.

It works like this. You start with a bank of phone lines, and a 1-900 pay-per-minute service. You then contact extremely sexy women, from high-pressure-killer CEOs in thousand-dollar suits, to blood-pressure-killer booth babes in Spandex who set out those tastings in the liquor stores, and tell them all that you have an opportunity for them to act out their deepest fantasies, and get paid for it. They come to your phone banks, put their hair up in an untidy bun, put on a fresh-pressed, dryer-warm apron, dab a bit of flour on their cheeks and noses, and start talking to men about … Pie. It goes like this:

Welcome to Pie Porn, this is Gladys, what are you in the mood for tonight?

What you got cookin’, sweetheart?

How about a fresh peach cobbler?

Oooh. Yeah. Tell me more.

Well, I did a lattice crust, and it’s just perfect: golden brown, flaky, just a little crisp, with little glistening crystals of sugar sprinkled on top, and in between the slats you can see mounds of golden peach in a thick, sweet sauce….

Oh, baby, yeah, keep going!

I cut a slice while it was still warm, and it came right out of the pan, no sticking, you know? Firm and perfectly shaped. The peaches — oh, my Lord, sweet like they ripened yesterday afternoon. And the bottom crust, it wasn’t the least bit soggy. It’s almost as flaky as the top.

(sound of lips being licked)

And you know, everybody eats peach cobbler with ice cream, but I think that’s just too sticky-sweet. Don’t you? Especially with peaches like these. So I dribbled heavy cream over it. And then ate it with a fork. Slowly….

(moans of pleasure)

But I don’t know. My friends all came over and  ate every last crumb, and now I’m thinking of making a strawberry-rhubarb pie….

Enough! Enough! Marry me now!

This is obviously a great psychological release for all of those attractive women who have put every microgram of their souls into trying to make themselves even more attractive by the standards of that peculiar confusion of sex and death that informs the ghastly anorexia of the modern fashion industry, and then leveraging that hard-won attractiveness into a daily wage. Here, they get to unwind, think about being a dowdy grandmother with a dozen doting grandkids, a cat, and good friends who drop by at ten in the morning for a cup of coffee and some chat. Tell me, ladies, that this has no appeal.

But who would the customers be? I’m glad you asked, since the customer is key to any successful business.

Older men, of course, but not just any older men. You want the rich older men. The ones who will call a 900 number and stay on for hours, and never look at their phone bill unless they want to call the phone company and say, “… and you charged me $(insert value from latest bill) for this kind of crappy service? What nerve!” You know, an older guy who has memberships in three different health clubs, and runs marathons, and throws a few hoops with the guys a couple of times a week, and tries to keep up with that hot trophy wife who is a third his age, but dammit, tonight she wanted to go dancing again, and he wanted to stay home and maybe finish that biography of Robert Kennedy he’d been reading by that know-nothing child of an author who hadn’t even been born when Reagan was President — Ronald Reagan, for God’s sake! — and who obviously didn’t have a clue about what Vietnam was really about, or what the 60′s felt like, tasted like, smelled like, and if she’d stayed home she’d have just pouted and texted her girlfriends and watched reality TV all night, so he’d sent her out dancing anyway, and he was sure she’d hook up with that dance instructor of hers and have a good time. The kind of guy who’d get a hankering at about ten o’ clock in the evening for a slice of peach cobbler, or maybe fresh blueberry, or even the kinky sort who goes in for chocolate creme with a dash of bourbon, but alas, the wife is out dancing with Juan, and can’t heat a can of beans, anyway, and besides, his heart can’t afford the calories or the sugar.

That’s your customer. It’s the next phase for the Baby Boomers. Pie Porn.

Remember, you heard it here, first.

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A Take on The Ukraine

I usually try to stay away from international politics, which are mostly sword-rattling and propaganda and bullshit, backed by bullets and bombs. A lot of innocents get maimed and killed, a lot of soldiers get maimed and killed, and a handful of “leaders” walk away and declare victory. It’s almost fourteenth-century, when the nobles used to fight “ransom wars” — the objective being “capture the king” so you could hold him ransom — which just didn’t have the right ambiance if you didn’t have a bunch of poorly-armed peasants milling about to add “color” (mostly red).

My son works with Ukrainians, however, both here in the US and also via Skype, and as some of the “peasants” likely to add color to this situation, they’re all devastated and in a state of high anxiety over friends and relatives. So I’m less than six degrees separated from this mess.

At any rate, I picked up a link to a Ukrainian blog (it’s in English) that has some interesting insight into the whole issue.

A brief rundown, from his perspective.

The Ukraine has split in two, and has two governments at the moment.

One, which violently overthrew the elected President in Kiev and which the author refers to as the RRK, is apparently led by a revolutionary group. It enjoys popular support in the west, north, and central Ukraine, and consists of multiple parties, including openly neo-Nazi and racist parties, as well as more moderate “nationalist” parties. Its goal is a unified Ukraine under their party ideology.

The other, based in Crimea (the southern peninsula of the Ukraine surrounded by the Black Sea), which seceded from Kiev after the overthrow, has established a provisional government the author refers to as the SRC. It enjoys high (95%) support in Crimea and Russian-speaking Ukraine, and substantial (if not majority) support throughout the rest of the Ukraine. Its goal is to establish a multi-ethnic Crimea as an independent Ukrainian state.

Interestingly, the RRK — the revolutionaries — have been heavily funded by the US and the EU, including a $5B package from the US. They are now out of money, have no governing infrastructure, have no police or other local law enforcement in place, and have been cut off from the Russian teat, so shortages are starting in Kiev. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, current (post-overthrow) Prime Minister of Kiev, has called his own government a “kamikaze government.”

The SSC — the Crimean secessionist government — has been backed by the Russian government, and  has apparently simply made use of the existing infrastructure, particularly local mayors, to maintain order.

I don’t, of course, know the real issues underlying this, but the US and the EU clearly want something in the Ukraine, and want it pretty badly. It may have been just regime change, but if I had to guess, I’d guess it has something (again) to do with oil.

Another Iraqi quagmire brewing?

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The Homosexual Agenda Flapadoodle

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Someone posted the following image on Facebook the other day.

I think this is funny, because it’s a clever play on words: not just a pun, but an anagram as well. I’m sure, however, the image will offend at least as much as it amuses.

I’ve been watching the “gay issue” actively, now, for something like twenty years. It’s currently rising to the level of a screaming flapadoodle in legislatures around the country.

In the midst of all the yelling and hollering about whether homosexuals are born or made, or whether homosexuality is in congruence with God’s Law, or whether it should be normalized, forbidden, or left alone, I think people have once again missed the real point.

I can afford to take the stand I do toward homosexuality because homosexuality itself doesn’t bother me. Pick any issue I actually care about, and I can be a lot less reasonable. Homosexuality isn’t one of those issues.

People on the other side of the issue throw out all kinds of rationalizations as to why they are right to be so bothered. But the only real truth is, they are bothered.

The real culture war is not between homosexuals and heterosexuals. It isn’t about gay marriage versus straight marriage. The war is between people like me, who are not bothered by homosexuality, and the people who are bothered by homosexuality. The gays themselves are simply caught in the crossfire.

Call it the war between the phobics and the non-phobics.

I don’t know why homosexuality doesn’t bother me, any more than the phobics know why it bothers them. I can’t remember any point in my life when I stopped caring about the matter: I’ve never cared.

I remember when I was a teen-ager, and phobics tried to draw me into supporting them in their phobic behavior and discussion. I was entirely oblivious: I nodded sagely and kept quiet, because I wasn’t really able to follow the conversation. It’s only in the years since that I’ve realized, “Oh, that’s what they were talking about!”

I’m sure most phobics have no memory of becoming phobic. They were always phobic. There was never a time when they didn’t understand what that conversation was about.

Personally, I think people are born phobic or non-phobic. Argument isn’t going to change  us, any more than it will change our shoe size, or … well, our sexual orientation.

Thinking of it this way gives me a measure of compassion for the phobics. There are some people — cruel, nasty people — who think it’s funny to flick spiders at people with arachnophobia. There are probably some people who think flicking spiders is good for the people they’re flicking them at, like they’ll somehow get over their phobia if they just spend some quality time with spiders; as though having spiders flicked at them is “quality time.”

I realize that the sight of two men kissing in public frightens the phobics. I don’t understand why it frightens them, and neither do they. They are simply phobic. I think people of good will can go a little out of their way to avoid flicking spiders at them. It’s the compassionate thing to do.

I find that I need that measure of compassion for phobics, lest I indulge in a dry hate of my own.

You see, I want to see homosexuality normalized in society. Completely normalized.

This has nothing to do with a homosexual agenda. It has to do with a heterosexual agenda, and I think I can explain it pretty easily.

I fell in love toward the end of high school, and I fell hard. We married. We had kids. Then the marriage started to fall apart, and we both eventually had to face the fact that my wife was not heterosexual, and never had been. We divorced on the grounds of an irreconcilable similarity; though once we could talk about it freely, we found our taste in women was nothing alike.

Interestingly enough, one of my best friends in high school went through exactly the same thing, only gender-reversed: he was gay, and his wife was straight. They also divorced over their irreconcilable similarity.

Roughly five percent of the people I knew well in high school — I’ve counted them — have come out as gay over the past decades, and the number keeps creeping upward. I was close friends with some of them. I dated some of them. I married one of them. And I never had a clue.

It wasn’t just my youthful cluelessness at work, though there was plenty of that. It turns out that every one of those homosexual men and women actively concealed their homosexuality, because in that time and place, it was not okay to be gay. They hid it from the outside world, which caused their relationships great harm. Most of them performed mental gymnastics to hide it from themselves, which caused them great psychological harm. A significant number got themselves into heterosexual marriages to try to prove to themselves and the world that they were “normal,” and those marriages broke.

That’s exactly what it means to “stay in the closet.”

It should be needless to say that this did not work out well for anyone, nor did it serve in any way to uphold the “sanctity of marriage,” or the sanctity of anything at all.

I’m neither angry with nor bitter toward all these people — including my ex-wife — who lied to themselves and to others about their sexual orientation. When I was growing up, the consequences for exposing oneself as gay were severe, entirely congruent with the sentiments of phobics who see a spider and want to squash it under their shoe and grind their foot back and forth until the spider has been reduced to unidentifiable dust. You all saw Brokeback Mountain, and if you didn’t, you ought to. I grew up in that world, a world shaped to the irrational and delicate sensibilities of the phobics. I understand why homosexuals lied. I’d have done exactly the same thing in their shoes.

Rather, I have compassion for the gay people who did what they felt they had to do to survive in a hostile world. I think it’s wonderful that they can now live freer, fuller, more open, more honest lives. I think it’s an obvious and necessary matter of basic justice, that homosexuals are recognized to have exactly the same civil rights as heterosexuals. I am happy for them.

But I lost skin in this game, too. I was burned, as a heterosexual, by the society-wide deception — the lie — that gay is not normal. So were my children. It’s personal, and I’m not prepared to be very reasonable about it.

Gay is normal.

It’s just one more minority, like being left handed, or red-headed, or blue-eyed. It’s much more common than being left-handed and red-headed and blue-eyed.

My ex-wife should have felt free to take a girlfriend to prom in high school. My best friend should have been dating guys. They should both have been able to look forward to their first kiss with the same anticipation I experienced. Had this been the case, a lot of ill-fated marriages in my generation would have been gracefully avoided.

My own children grew up in a slightly saner world. They had openly gay men and women in their high school classes, who brought same-sex dates to the prom. It wasn’t stigma-free, being gay, but it wasn’t anywhere close to what I grew up with.

I’d like to see my grandchildren grow up in a world where being gay is no more remarkable than having blue eyes. Failing that, I’d like to see their children grow up in that world.

I want this for them because I don’t want them to grow up in a world surrounded by people who live in metaphorical closets and lie about themselves. I don’t really care about the argument over whether gays are made or born: I personally think you have to be pretty dim to think it’s a choice, though I realize I have an unusually intimate perspective on the matter for a straight guy. But it doesn’t matter. What I do know is what happens when you enshrine phobias about people within law and custom.

My struggle is to hold compassion for the phobics, the people who shaped the phobic ugliness of the world I grew up in, where people, human beings, could be stomped under a shoe and ground to unidentifiable dust; to hold any compassion at all for people who want to legislate a return to that world. I understand that they are bothered by homosexuality — that it gives them the screaming heebie-jeebies — and that they really have no control over this. That’s a hard thing to live with, and they have my sympathy.

But you know, they can always just look the other way.

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