by Michael Seese
"Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
-- American journalist Gene Fowler
Boy, it's been a while since I took to this stage. As I alluded to in a post ages back, I've been completely absorbed with a massive rewrite of a book I finished a couple of years ago.
Udopia is set in near-future America. A generation removed from “1984,” we now are Big Brother, dutifully detailing our lives digitally, and consigning our curricula vitae to The Cloud.
Our financial records? Got it.
Our travel plans? Got it.
Our changing shopping habits? You used to wear a 32” waist, but you just ordered a size 38; perhaps you should consider going on a diet.
Medical history? You bet.
Our allegedly private communications? Hmmm. That could be out there.
Our surfing habits, also known as what we’re even thinking of doing? That’s insightful. It sure connects a lot of dots.
And what would happen if the government decided to step in and claim that digital treasure trove?
I “first” completed Udopia in 2014, and tried to sell it to some small publishers. Suffice to say, I did not succeed. But one offered some really good feedback. Interestingly, despite the fact that I keep all correspondence, I can't find his letter. But I remember his words which (paraphrasing) were “Your first chapter reads like an old guy complaining about the modern world.”
Which it did.
Fast forward to late last year, and the very real prospect that a certain New York billionaire could win the Presidency. It seemed the time had come to revisit Udopia.
So I toned down the “Now get off my lawn” opening, though I had to keep a certain of reflection on how America got from point A to point Z. But I tried to really focus on the message. I killed a few darlings. Actually, one I relocated to the first chapter, which *I* think adds tension and drive. And I labored over every word. The latter is why what I assumed would be a two-month exercise took eight.
By way of example, below is a large chunk of chapter 1. The process of tightening the language (meaning, I had already de-fogeyed it, and just wanted to make the words “good”) took two solid weeks. Chapter 2 didn't go any faster. But I think the effort was worth it. Hopefully the agents I'm about to start pestering agree.
They stole from me the light, as always, without warning. The sun king had abdicated some indeterminate number of hours prior, leaving me to wonder when would come the demise of my fluorescent day. But somehow sensing the imminent onslaught of darkness, I scratched out a short confession, and at last breached the dam.
"My burden comes not from any chain others have laid upon my shoulders. Rather, it is borne of the countless precious links I'd spent a lifetime forging, using mine own two naïve hands, fashioning a serpent in steel that, while I slept, coiled itself around my neck."
I like that. It might be a bit on the long side. But it's darned philosophical if you ask me.
I'd ached to capture these thoughts ages ago. A lifetime ago. But I could never muster the will nor the flexibility to kick my own behind with sufficient force to overcome inertia. Now, with the full moon painting her silver on the cinderblock, my pencil found the will to write. I just pray my newfound inspiration does not prove to be an exercise in “too little, too late.” Perhaps I'll get lucky, and the fat lady will run into a few red lights on her drive to the opera house.
A little joke there. What one might call “gallows humor.” Coming from someone who has an appointment tomorrow with said-same.
OK, now that I've gotten "the big reveal” out of the way, let me get down to business.
Despite the little timebombshell I just dropped, the truth is I am hardly the most interesting person in this story. I probably rank eighth or ninth. Out of eight or nine. Still, you do need to understand a bit about me to in order grasp the narrative’s gestalt, a term that prior to my being stationed in Germany I didn't know from gesundheit. So I'll share a few of the more important ones up front, then drop in any other necessary details as I go.
My name is Wilson. I came of age as the 1940s gave way to the 1950s. If you ignored The Bomb, it was a great time to be young. My prologue reads much like that of many men of my g-g-g-generation. Veteran. Family man. Cub Scout leader. Heavy on the stolid, light on the sordid. I suppose where my story sheds the ho-hummery of so many others is the part where I lay claim to having birthed a President of the United States. Though in the interest of accuracy, with respect to both biology and sweat equity, I must acknowledge my wife Jeannie did 99% of the heavy lifting that day.
It all started – and ended – in a country we used to call America. Now I know, I know, we’ve still got one with that name. But That America was a different place. People were politer. They talked to their neighbors over the side and back fences. They borrowed and lended cups of sugar. They didn’t routinely and gratuitously use words that had to be printed like @#$!*&# in the comic pages. Though I may be filtering my memories through rose-colored bifocals, life in That America resembled any one of the snapshots in oil by that Norman Rock-feller, whatever his name was. More so in the little town called Echo Falls, a place that before the advent of the Internet you'd have been hard pressed to locate on a map. And to be honest, I think many GPS systems to this day sometimes forget where it is.
Echo Falls did--and still does--look like many small midwestern burgs, though in a down-home-upper-middle-class mashup sort of way. If you closed your eyes, you probably could picture it in your mind. A town square. In the center, a gazebo guarded by a Civil War-era cannon. A mayor everyone called Henry or “The Honorable And Esteemed Mr. Mayor Henry, His Heinie-ness” just to yank his chain. The kind of place politicians flocked to looking for babies to kiss and hands to shake. Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Cabernet.
I was born, raised, and woke up one day an old man here. I feel very fortunate. I’ve had a good life. I was lucky.
We all were.
After men like my father came back from The Big One, America rightfully saw itself as the undisputed #1. And truth be told, we didn't even think there was a #2. Everybody else was third. At best.
Then one day we looked at our hand and saw aces over eights. Those distant number threes we'd spent decades dismissing, especially the Chinese, began working hard, hard, harder, taking aim at our Top Dog spot; and, said the economists, inevitably they would own it. Our infant death rate took more than a few baby steps back, landing us at #46, behind the Czech Republic and Cuba. Cuba! In the Olympics, the rest of the world decided to stop playing Washington Generals to our Harlem Globetrotters and kicked our red, white, and glutes.
Like a hangover dawn, we slowly awoke to the bleary-eyed realization we were not so great anymore. We saw the brass rings we'd worked so hard to grasp had corroded away, leaving little more than chunks of rust.
How did we go from a country founded by men who said, “Give me liberty or give me death” to one populated by people who said, “Give me security and free 4G?” How did we go from the land of the free and the home of the brave to the land of the freebie and the home of the brat?
Everyone has his own theory on the subject. And probably a syndicated talk show to soapbox that theory.
Me? I have my opinions. But I'll keep them to myself, mostly, lest I sound like some Hollywood has-been auditioning for the part of “Old Fogey 2” on “The Golden Girls.” Now get off my lawn.
The point is, we'd become so enrapt in our American dream that we apparently sleepwalked up to the edge of a cliff, imagining we could fly. Would we have spread our arms and tempted gravity? We’ll never know. Because before we had an opportunity to go full-out Icarus, someone stepped forward and dumped a bucket of ice water over our heads.
His name was Gabriel. My son.
Gabriel was a good boy. Always said “Yes ma’am” and “No ma’am.” Kept his shoes spit-polished and his ties straight. Did his homework and the chores around the house without having to be told once, let alone twice. The kind of boy any mother would be happy to fix up with her little precious daughter, because she could trust he'd have her angel home well before midnight, her clothes just as neat as when they left, if you catch my meaning.
But above and beyond an unwavering moral divining rod, Gabriel possessed what the people who don't call “it.”
He was always ambitious, and smart as a whip. But what made him stand out was a knack for making people like him. As early as grammar school, he had all the teachers buying extra gold stars just for him, and all the little girls fighting over who would marry him when they grew up. Even though all the other boys were icky. As he aged through the Echo Falls school system, he racked up the elementary and secondary accolades one would expect of “Mr. Popular.” Prom King. Most Likely To Succeed.
In short, he was born to be a leader. Interestingly, he never ran for class president. Though he did follow in his old man's footsteps by editing the school newspaper three years in a row.
I never was much into politicos and their political bunko. If brevity be the soul of wit, then it seemed to me most politicians were hellbent on proving just how witless they were. So at one end of the spectrum you had William Henry Harrison’s inaugural address, which clocked in at just under two hours by the sundial. Of course as we all learned in 11th grade history, President Harrison’s decision to deliver such a bag of wind in a cold, driving March rain ensured he would be remembered primarily as the shortest-serving U.S. President. At the other end of the spectrum you had Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 270 words, delivered in just over two minutes.
A century-and-a-half-and-change later, my son took the oath. Gabriel’s First Inaugural speech made the Great Emancipator’s classic seem positively long-winded.
Nearly 250 years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
You might recognize those words, as I have borrowed them from a well-known speech, recited on a battlefield in the midst of what was perhaps this nation’s most significant war. We are now engaged in another great civil war, one which is testing whether this nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
We face a number of enemies, both from within and without. So I am throwing down the gauntlet.
Those who steal from us—whether from the streets, from abroad, from a corporate boardroom, or from inside of the hallowed halls behind me—will pay.
Those who terrorize us—whether from the streets, from abroad, from a corporate boardroom, or from inside of the hallowed halls behind me—will pay.
And those who resist us, who stand in our way as we try to reclaim and rebuild this country we love so dearly, will pay.
I am but one man. I cannot do this job alone. It is therefore our great task to work to ensure that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Hell of a howdy-do.
At the time, I’m sure to many people it sounded like so much political rhetoric, so many empty promises. Been there, heard that, blah blah blah.
The thing is, Gabriel actually did it.
The problem is, he might have done it too well...
As always, dear friends, I cherish your opinion about what you've just read.