Sunday, January 21, 2018

Wrex Alone In the Woods, At Home in the Woods.

Nearly all the dogs that have wound up here at Hickory Head have discovered the woods. A tree lined path with underbrush and a canopy of Oak limbs shading the fenced in back acre is something all of them have migrated to at one time or another, and this morning, Wrex Wyatt set out alone to discover what might await in the woods.  This time, there were no other resident dogs that rushed to the door to go with him. This time, Wrex was making the trip out alone, and I watched from the window as he headed out into the woods.

I have some issues thinking Wrex is younger than he is, but the last time he was here, in August of 2014, he was only six or seven months old, and he was called the Puppy Wrex. He lasted as a foster for only two weeks, and then was gone forever, I thought, but then the people who adopted him demanded we take him back, after nearly four years. I don’t know why. That is not what this is about.

Now Wrex is over five years old, at least as old as Lilith Anne, likely older than Tyger Linn, but this is his first trip into the woods alone. I watch as Wrex heads to the water bucket in the old kennel, and he hesitates, looks at the path that goes directly into where there is no grass and nothing but trees, and in Wrex goes. There has always been a dog with him, as far as I know, or at least dogs outside with him, but the four other resident dogs are resting on the floor and sofas, and they’re content to allow Wrex this time to himself and the trees.

I wonder how parents watch their kids go into the woods, or off with other kids, and not feel some sense of fear. It’s too late in the day for Coyotes, he’s too fast and it’s too cold for snakes, and so Wrex Wyatt should be alright. I watch him disappear and wait. The woods has trees for marking, the scents of birds and small mammals, and maybe a deer popped in last night, and maybe there was some armadillos that passed through. Wrex’s nose has to sort all of this out, and in the meanwhile, like others before him, Wrex, for reasons known only to dogs, has to spend some time alone in the woods.

I stand by the window and wonder. Is he trying to dig out or jump over the fence? If he gets out can he find his way back home? It’s still deer season, or is it turkey season? And hunters dislike dogs. I cannot image someone shooting Wrex but hunters are merciless when it comes to stray dogs, and even though Wrex is wearing a new collar, deep blue, it’s not unheard of for hunters to shoot dogs. Odd, isn’t it? Even out in the wild, the main threat to life is still human beings.

I catch a glimpse of white and brown, and it’s a brown that leans towards copper, and I see Wrex heading to where the Cousins and Tyger Linn have dug a bunker. That’s got to blow his mind, to see a cave like this, and know that he lives in a place where there is a cave. There’s a Giant Oak out near this, and I wonder if he is in as much awe of it as I still am. I lose him in the underbrush and I know his nose is to the ground, trying to sort out what is what out there in the semi-wild.

Marco comes to me at the window and sits. Marco Ladakh and Wrex will wander the woods together, and now Marco joins the vigil, either wondering where his younger cousin is, or trying to get me to pet him. But Marco cannot see very well and his nose is blocked by the window. What if Wrex is already out and running loose in the woods? That thought haunts me, but there is nothing I can do. Any dog that wants out badly enough will find a way, and even though the fence has a serious charge in it, nothing is escape proof. I get more coffee and I wait. There is nothing to do and a lot of gain by allowing him this freedom. Wrex is taking root, he is taking part ownership, he’s marking territory that is his, and that of his family. This could be the beginning of a dog’s discovery of patrolling, of protecting the borders of his family’s land, and this very well could be Wrex’s version of setting out to prove that he can do this, that he can defend the land, repelling evil and trespassers, and he has to be allowed to do it on his terms.

Does he remember this place after four years? Is he now rediscovering Hickory Head? Is he looking for Lucas? Does he think that this was his home, and he’s spent four years trying to return to the place he wanted to be? That’s very serious projection and I damn well know it. But after four years, Wrex is back. I heard online that he had gotten out and wound up in the shelter but his family came and got him before I knew it. My thoughts were every cast out into the abyss of my mind, wondering if I would ever see him again, if he remembered me, us, this place, and if he did, would he want to come back to me, us, this place?

A friend of mine had a dog named Duke who broke out of her yard several times, finally leaving for good one day. Do some dogs just want to wander? Is Wrex one of these? I’m having this thought when Wrex walks out of the woods, and heads towards the house. I wait until he comes to the door to let him in. Wrex is back. Maybe he will not stay. Maybe he will. But he is here now, and he is part of the pack.

Take Care,


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Someone Like You

Goodbyes are finite.

like the edge of a galaxy,

on the outer rim, of the last planet, on its smallest moon.

the frozen ice, not enough for the tears,

might still hold life.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Stubs: New Chapter One

It took every bit of the four days that Berg said it would take, and we lost three men, just like he said we would. Ed Wicker was caught when he jumped off the flatbed to see if he could help move an abandoned car off the road in Morven. Berg had told everybody to have a spotter whenever they came off some place that was above ground level, but Ed let the excitement get to him and he went down screaming. There was a pact most of us made with one another, to end it quick, and I did. Ed’s death cast a pall on the journey, but it focused everybody, too. We cut back on State Route 133 and even though the road was clear of vehicles we still couldn’t go faster than the men ahead of us could sweep the road for Stubs. It was an agonizing pace for the drivers, but Berg and I had made sure they understood that while speed was of the utmost concern, we couldn’t lose a truck.  If a truck got disabled then we would play hell getting it off the road. There was just so much diesel left and what was left was going bad on us, and quick.
“Everett, I want you in the lead truck, and I want you to make damn sure nobody comes off the back of one without a spotter” was what he told me before we left. I told everybody that before we left. Yet Wicker was dead and even though he wasn’t going to say anything to me, or anybody else, before we got the panels and got out, Berg wasn’t going to let me, or anyone else, forget he was right and a man was dead. But we got to the prison, or across the street from it, on schedule. Getting the solar panels took longer than we expected, and we had to spend the night out, which we had prepared for anyway. Berg had told us that we couldn’t make any noise or show any sort of fire, and I was surprised at how well the men took to this. But everybody was tired as well, and they were still keyed up after losing Ed. He wasn’t really one of us, you know, but he was a good man. Ed had been a truck driver that was delivering supplies to Quitman when he rammed a Stub while he was doing about sixty-five. He knew better than to stick around where one of those things had been hit, so he high tailed it towards Quitman, and never quite made it out. Ed had shacked up with Therese Howard, whose husband was killed five years ago by a Stub. The man had a talent to tell a joke, and he worked hard. I hated losing him.

 Campbell White was caught the next morning. He was guarding the first work crew dismantling one of the solar panels and a Stub just walked up and caught him. Thomas was close by, with a hammer and I never thought I would see Thomas kill like that, but what else could be done? Thomas was a fat, stocky man, but had huge forearms. Three blows to the head was all it took. Campbell wasn’t local either, which explained why he was on guard detail more often than not, but he was the kind of man most people liked to have around. He didn’t talk much and kept to myself. He and his wife were trying to make it to Atlanta and had stopped in Thomasville to see some relatives. They went through Quitman and ran out of gas. His wife was caught the second she stepped out of the car. Campbell stuck around in Quitman and more or less gave up on doing much else than drinking, but there wasn’t a lot left to drink anymore. Still, he had been around for a while and he was good to have on a work crew. Berg cornered me up along with Thomas, who was the one man who could make the panels work and more or less chewed me out for letting two men get killed. He never spoke like that to Thomas, and to me rarely, but he was mad as hell about losing two men.
“We can’t lose another man and expect to be able to sweep efficiently enough to make this work. Thomas, how much longer before you’re done with your end of things?” Berg asked and his face was as red as his hair was black. His bread jutted out like a stone outcropping from his face, and even though he claimed to be only thirty-two, Berg looked older. Hell, I think we all did at that point. Berg demanded the men work both harder and faster. Thomas said we would need at least eight panels and Berg wanted ten. We spent another night there, and this time the men were too tired to do anything but sleep. We waited until the sun was full up and we made it all the way back to the old school before we lost anyone else. Caleb Tory was gate guard at the school and opened the gate up so the truck could come through and he got caught. Somebody came with an axe, and we got his leg cut off but he died anyway. We did a sweep of the camp and then those that were on the work detail got a meal and a free shower. But Berg was getting up men to set the panels up before the sun went down, and I knew I had to help him.

“Goddammit Berg get the hell out of my way, will you?” Thomas never cussed, and wasn’t the type to argue, but after twelve hours of trying to get the panels set up he found his limit with Berg, and Berg walked off. Whatever else you might say about Berg no one could out work him. He went down to the football field where there were still some greens being grown and started pulling weeds. There was damn little I could help Thomas do, and I had known Thomas long enough to know when to leave him be. Thomas Coker was one of those people who would make straight F’s in any classroom but he also the one person everyone called if anything needed repair. My daddy had known his daddy, in the time before the Stubs, and I remember Thomas being covered with
transmission oil helping tear one down and rebuilding it, and he was ten years old. We both lost our fathers to the Stubs, and within a week of one another, too.

The day after the panels were brought in almost no noticeable progress was being made. Thomas needed some sort of owner’s manual for them and no one knew where to look. Berg sent a crew out on foot, with instructions to stay alive at all costs, and to search every inch of every filing cabinet in the prison’s administration office for anything on the panels.  
“You know, Berg, Sonny is talking a lot about you getting people killed for nothing.” I said as I joined him pulling weeds.
“Everyone voted to do it,” Berg replied, “and Sonny was the only man that spoke up against it. You notice he didn’t volunteer to help and his sons sat it out, too. He spent the entire time we were gone predicting disaster and death, which he got right on one count.”
I worked on a patch of grass that had crept in too close and Berg didn’t say anything else so I left it at that. I looked up at the sun and realized that September was nearly gone. Winter was going to be really cold if we couldn’t get the heaters working. I looked back at the old school where we had been for three months now. The row of solar panels were in the ground, and pointing skyward, but still not working.
“What are we going to do if we can’t get the panels working?” I asked Berg.
“I’m pretty sure we can.” Berg replied. “We’re dead without power to heat us and to pump water. We should get a windmill up for water as soon as we can, but I doubt we can survive without the kitchen, the showers, the light, and the comfort of electrical power. People won’t stay and once they start drifting away they’ll be easier to get caught and eaten.” Berg stopped weeding and stood upright, and stretched. “Without refrigeration, we’re screwed. Sonny Johnson is right about one thing: if this doesn’t work it’s pretty much over.”
I had learned not to be shocked by Berg’s candor but this admission shook me a little. “Did you plan to get solar panels when you first decided this was the place to try to ride out the end of the world?” I asked.
“Of course I did.” Berg scoffed. “This is a great place for all the reasons I said it would be, but without power there’s no way to move forward. Johnson thinks he can pull it off at his farm and I think he might last a couple of years, but history has shown that any group of humans is greater than the sum of their parts. Those people with children and those people who want children are going to be driven to make this place work no matter how much they hate me.”
“They do hate you.” I admitted. “You might want to work on your people skills a bit.”
“They need someone to hate, someone to blame for things that go wrong.” Berg said. “I’m here to make sure they never go wrong.”
“What if Thomas can’t get the panels running?”
“We are screwed.” Berg said. “We need to remember to get some more garden hoes. This is killing my back.”
“You worried at all about a coup, Berg?” I asked.
“Only if you can’t get these people to do what I tell them to do.” Berg snapped at me. “You’re my people person. We have to get them to do the sweeps right. We have to get them to pull weeds. We have to get them to work on the fence until their hands bleed, because if we can’t get that fence up all the power on earth won’t help us. You have to do your job and let me do mine.”
“You might want to work on your people skills.” I said, biting my lip.
“There won’t be any more people if you don’t get them to listen to me.” And Berg walked off and left me standing there.

Every morning started out the same way; there was rice and beans for breakfast followed by work details. We were trying to fence in what amounted to one hundred acres, as well as the school grounds and the football field. We had a perimeter set up, and Berg’s Stub proof fence was doing the job. We had a garden set up on what was the football field, but it was late September and vegetables were beginning to be scare. We had a lot of rice. We had a lot of beans. But no one had seen any meat in well over a year now, and chickens, as far as we knew, were extinct. I drew guard duty on the front gate and felt relieved. Front gate duty was spent on a raised platform facing the gate, watching for Stubs or strangers. I had a paintball gun to mark them with and a covered dish that held lunch; rice and beans.

My best friend, Ray Spells, came to talk to me, having drawn the lot for perimeter guard, he eventually made his way around to where I was. “Your boy Berg might’a bit off more than he could chew, you reckon?”
“They’ve been working on it for two days now.” I replied. “I have no idea how long it’s supposed to take, but I wouldn’t think two days is slow.”
“You defend him pretty good, Everett.” Ray said, but he was smiling. “You still think he knows what he’s doing?”
“Ray, has Berg ever been wrong?” I asked.
“Can’t say that I got anything I can call him on, other than he’s a real asshole.” Ray scratched his head. “I have to say he planned the move out here as good as it could have gone. But this thing with Sonny has to come to a head plenty quick.”
“Sonny still talking?” I asked. I knew the answer already.
“Yeah, he got Martha to go around and talk to all the women helping in the kitchen about how terrible it was that three men got killed. Martha and Sonny were made for each other. No damn wonder they’ve been married for twenty-five years.”
“Ray, what’s your thoughts on this?” I asked as plainly as I could.
“Everett, the man has vision, and we need it,” Ray started off slowly, “and there’s folk killed every day by those things. I’ll be honest with you here; I hate the man’s guts and I’m ready to hit him in the mouth, but at the same time, I can’t argue with results. That damn fence really works. And to listen to him talk, well, nobody else is saying much. Except for Sonny, who wants us all to be serfs.”
“I didn’t expect you to know what a serf was.” I laughed.
“We’ve all been reading more since there ain’t no tv anymore.”
I sat there for the rest of the day and spotted a Stub for a few moments before it vanished into the woods. I made a note of it, and when I was relieved told Sammy Scott where I had seen it. Sammy was a nervous young man who had a tendency to look terrified all the time, but he was solid as a rock when it came to orders. He reported see a fire in the woods at four the next morning and Berg forbid anyone to go look. We didn’t have to. As soon as the sun was up full the crew sent to Valdosta came back with three boxes of paperwork on the panels.

Three days later, after a half dozen false starts and with a lot of complaining by certain members of the camp that we had gotten three men caught for nothing, the switch was flipped, for about the tenth time, but this time the lights came on, flickered, then stayed on. The ovens in the kitchen glowed. The hot water heaters in the locker rooms hissed to life, and timers were set to ensure the water was hot when the showers finally came on again. The well pump sprang to life and people stood and cheered. But at the same time, most people held their hands up to protect their eyes from the bright light. For the first time in three months we could see after dark. It was too much at one time, and some of the little kids wanted the lights off because it frightened them.

We had begun the quest for electricity with one hundred and five people. Three were dead and now we stood at one hundred and three survivors. Berg lay on the floor of the electrical room, dead to the world, and I took some food to him after letting him sleep for a few hours.

“Goddammit, Everett,” he said, “we did it.”  And after Berg was done eating, he slipped over to one side and went back to sleep on the concrete floor.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Prepared remarks for Sen. Jeff Flake, who delivered a speech to the Senate on Jan. 17, 2018.

Mr. President, near the beginning of the document that made us free, our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” So, from our very beginnings, our freedom has been predicated on truth. The founders were visionary in this regard, understanding well that good faith and shared facts between the governed and the government would be the very basis of this ongoing idea of America.

As the distinguished former member of this body, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York, famously said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” During the past year, I am alarmed to say that Senator Moynihan’s proposition has likely been tested more severely than at any time in our history.

It is for that reason that I rise today, to talk about the truth, and its relationship to democracy. For without truth, and a principled fidelity to truth and to shared facts, Mr. President, our democracy will not last.

2017 was a year which saw the truth – objective, empirical, evidence-based truth -- more battered and abused than any other in the history of our country, at the hands of the most powerful figure in our government. It was a year which saw the White House enshrine “alternative facts” into the American lexicon, as justification for what used to be known simply as good old-fashioned falsehoods. It was the year in which an unrelenting daily assault on the constitutionally-protected free press was launched by that same White House, an assault that is as unprecedented as it is unwarranted. “The enemy of the people,” was what the president of the United States called the free press in 2017.

Mr. President, it is a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies. It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase “enemy of the people,” that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use, telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of “annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

This alone should be a source of great shame for us in this body, especially for those of us in the president’s party. For they are shameful, repulsive statements. And, of course, the president has it precisely backward – despotism is the enemy of the people. The free press is the despot’s enemy, which makes the free press the guardian of democracy. When a figure in power reflexively calls any press that doesn’t suit him “fake news,” it is that person who should be the figure of suspicion, not the press.

I dare say that anyone who has the privilege and awesome responsibility to serve in this chamber knows that these reflexive slurs of “fake news” are dubious, at best. Those of us who travel overseas, especially to war zones and other troubled areas around the globe, encounter members of U.S. based media who risk their lives, and sometimes lose their lives, reporting on the truth. To dismiss their work as fake news is an affront to their commitment and their sacrifice.

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 80 journalists were killed in 2017, and a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists documents that the number of journalists imprisoned around the world has reached 262, which is a new record. This total includes 21 reporters who are being held on “false news” charges.

Mr. President, so powerful is the presidency that the damage done by the sustained attack on the truth will not be confined to the president’s time in office. Here in America, we do not pay obeisance to the powerful – in fact, we question the powerful most ardently – to do so is our birthright and a requirement of our citizenship -- and so, we know well that no matter how powerful, no president will ever have dominion over objective reality.

No politician will ever get to tell us what the truth is and is not. And anyone who presumes to try to attack or manipulate the truth to his own purposes should be made to realize the mistake and be held to account. That is our job here. And that is just as Madison, Hamilton, and Jay would have it.

Of course, a major difference between politicians and the free press is that the press usually corrects itself when it gets something wrong. Politicians don’t.

No longer can we compound attacks on truth with our silent acquiescence. No longer can we turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to these assaults on our institutions. And Mr. President, an American president who cannot take criticism – who must constantly deflect and distort and distract – who must find someone else to blame -- is charting a very dangerous path. And a Congress that fails to act as a check on the president adds to the danger.

Now, we are told via twitter that today the president intends to announce his choice for the “most corrupt and dishonest” media awards. It beggars belief that an American president would engage in such a spectacle. But here we are.

And so, 2018 must be the year in which the truth takes a stand against power that would weaken it. In this effort, the choice is quite simple. And in this effort, the truth needs as many allies as possible. Together, my colleagues, we are powerful. Together, we have it within us to turn back these attacks, right these wrongs, repair this damage, restore reverence for our institutions, and prevent further moral vandalism.

Together, united in the purpose to do our jobs under the Constitution, without regard to party or party loyalty, let us resolve to be allies of the truth -- and not partners in its destruction.

It is not my purpose here to inventory all of the official untruths of the past year. But a brief survey is in order. Some untruths are trivial – such as the bizarre contention regarding the crowd size at last year’s inaugural.

But many untruths are not at all trivial – such as the seminal untruth of the president’s political career - the oft-repeated conspiracy about the birthplace of President Obama. Also not trivial are the equally pernicious fantasies about rigged elections and massive voter fraud, which are as destructive as they are inaccurate – to the effort to undermine confidence in the federal courts, federal law enforcement, the intelligence community and the free press, to perhaps the most vexing untruth of all – the supposed “hoax” at the heart of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

To be very clear, to call the Russia matter a “hoax” – as the president has many times – is a falsehood. We know that the attacks orchestrated by the Russian government during the election were real and constitute a grave threat to both American sovereignty and to our national security. It is in the interest of every American to get to the bottom of this matter, wherever the investigation leads.

Ignoring or denying the truth about hostile Russian intentions toward the United States leaves us vulnerable to further attacks. We are told by our intelligence agencies that those attacks are ongoing, yet it has recently been reported that there has not been a single cabinet-level meeting regarding Russian interference and how to defend America against these attacks. Not one. What might seem like a casual and routine untruth – so casual and routine that it has by now become the white noise of Washington - is in fact a serious lapse in the defense of our country.

Mr. President, let us be clear. The impulses underlying the dissemination of such untruths are not benign. They have the effect of eroding trust in our vital institutions and conditioning the public to no longer trust them. The destructive effect of this kind of behavior on our democracy cannot be overstated.

Mr. President, every word that a president utters projects American values around the world. The values of free expression and a reverence for the free press have been our global hallmark, for it is our ability to freely air the truth that keeps our government honest and keeps a people free. Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler. And so, respect for freedom of the press has always been one of our most important exports.

But a recent report published in our free press should raise an alarm. Reading from the story:

“In February…Syrian President Bashar Assad brushed off an Amnesty International report that some 13,000 people had been killed at one of his military prisons by saying, “You can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.”

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has complained of being “demonized” by “fake news.” Last month, the report continues, with our President, quote “laughing by his side” Duterte called reporters “spies.”

In July, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro complained to the Russian propaganda outlet, that the world media had “spread lots of false versions, lots of lies” about his country, adding, “This is what we call 'fake news' today, isn't it?”

There are more:

“A state official in Myanmar recently said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” referring to the persecuted ethnic group.

Leaders in Singapore, a country known for restricting free speech, have promised “fake news” legislation in the new year.”

And on and on. This feedback loop is disgraceful, Mr. President. Not only has the past year seen an American president borrow despotic language to refer to the free press, but it seems he has in turn inspired dictators and authoritarians with his own language. This is reprehensible.

We are not in a “fake news” era, as Bashar Assad says. We are, rather, in an era in which the authoritarian impulse is reasserting itself, to challenge free people and free societies, everywhere.

In our own country, from the trivial to the truly dangerous, it is the range and regularity of the untruths we see that should be cause for profound alarm, and spur to action. Add to that the by-now predictable habit of calling true things false, and false things true, and we have a recipe for disaster. As George Orwell warned, “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”

Any of us who have spent time in public life have endured news coverage we felt was jaded or unfair. But in our positions, to employ even idle threats to use laws or regulations to stifle criticism is corrosive to our democratic institutions. Simply put: it is the press’s obligation to uncover the truth about power. It is the people’s right to criticize their government. And it is our job to take it.

What is the goal of laying siege to the truth? President John F. Kennedy, in a stirring speech on the 20th anniversary of the Voice of America, was eloquent in answer to that question:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Mr. President, the question of why the truth is now under such assault may well be for historians to determine. But for those who cherish American constitutional democracy, what matters is the effect on America and her people and her standing in an increasingly unstable world -- made all the more unstable by these very fabrications. What matters is the daily disassembling of our democratic institutions.

We are a mature democracy – it is well past time that we stop excusing or ignoring – or worse, endorsing -- these attacks on the truth. For if we compromise the truth for the sake of our politics, we are lost.

I sincerely thank my colleagues for their indulgence today. I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: "What is truth?" His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled “Oh Say, What is Truth.” It ends as follows:

“Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first,

For the limits of time it steps o'er.

Tho the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst.

Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,

Eternal… unchanged… evermore.”

Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor.