AT Aspirational

•27 November 2016 • Leave a Comment

It turns out that most of my camping gear (some of it recently acquired) is more suitable to other types of hiking: heading into the backcountry, or the weight and volume of winter gear. Not so much a summer’s run up the spine of the Atlantic.

This, then, is a near-ideal outfitting for a thru hike on the AT.

https://lighterpack.com/r/bg2a59

Items marked in <<>> would need to be acquired, at a cost of about four hundred buckaroos.

To be considered.

Thoughts on an Election

•22 November 2016 • Leave a Comment

-I confess I am disappointed that Hillary Clinton was not given a third term as president.

-There is something deeply annoying about a person who supported a populist candidate on the Left, and yet cannot wrap their head around a populist candidate on the Right.

-A recipe: propose legislation popular with your base that will either be voted down in Congress or else overturned by the Courts. Broil for four years. Serves a second term.

-It was Toby Ziegler who said, “A funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could [be president].”

But it goes deeper than that. This isn’t just the result of tell-all books and fireside chats. It is the result of decades of deliberate political action, taken almost exclusively by the Democratic Party.

First it was about birth and breeding. That was chipped away when a haberdasher dropped an atomic bomb, when the rich Harvard war hero happened to be Catholic. At last background was minimized, but it was replaced in large part by morality. Was he a veteran. Did he have religion. Was he faithful to his wife.

The Right emphasized these traits because they were strong in them. So the Democrats responded by saying, “Ignore birth and breeding. Ignore religion, or even character. Focus on the issues. Think about the issues! Smart people understand the issues. We have a monopoly on smart.”

Then came a candidate of no character at all, and he got an electoral majority to agree with him on the issues.

This is our fault.

-Universal prosperity requires either preposterous wealth in general, or socialist wealth distribution. If we’re going to push for the latter then we should push for it, and if not we should stop trying to sneak it in.

-Some people think that the former is satisfied by a booming economy. I submit that, over the last several decades, every ‘booming economy’ has turned out to be a bubble – the bursting of which has often injured everyone, but has always injured the working class.

-A person living in the Rust Belt (etc etc) has not seen their lives improve, or the direction of the country change, under eight years of a Clinton presidency, eight years of an Obama presidency, or eight years of a Bush presidency. They have no reason whatsoever to think that an additional Clinton presidency – bestriding the political middle like a colossus – will be any different. Needing change, they voted for a complete unknown – because though he did not offer the likelihood of change, he offered the possibility where she did not. A remote possibility is better than an impossibility. As a result a vote for Donald Trump was not irrational, nor unreasonable.

That does not make it right. What it makes it is the greatest tragedy since the Depression. No good and decent American should have stood in a voting booth and known that they had to choose between a game of Russian Roulette with six bullets in the chamber, or an idiot offering a pair of loaded dice.

-Regarding the Supreme Court: The fear currently being experienced by the Left is precisely identical to the fear experienced these last eight years by the Right. True progress is not achieved by action supported by anything other than a political mandate. The result of Obergefell (etc etc) should not have been celebration; it should have been the beginning of a massive mechanism of persuasion. For if you give a person no voice or impact, but they still have the vote, do not be surprised when they brandish that vote like a flaming sword.

-The phrase “ban Muslims from entering the United States” should not be dismissed as racist. The people who agree with it should not be so dismissed either. Their logic is not facially unreasonable and not facially horrible: Islam is not a race; it is a religion. A portion of those who practice that religion are terrorists. Why should we take a chance on admitting a thousand peaceful people if that bring in one terrorist? Why is that worth the risk?

This is not a declaration of racism. It is a question. It needed to be answered and it was not.

The argument has to be:

1) There is a benefit to this country, and its citizens, to letting the citizens of other countries come to visit or to stay.  That is why it is worth the risk.

2) It is impossible to enforce such a proposition without acting in an un-American way towards Americans who are Muslim, or the Muslim spouses or children or co-workers or friends of Americans. That is why the alternative involves an even greater risk. (Risking a terrorist : Banning Muslims :: Risking a terrorist : Banning firearms.)

3) The screening process is absolutely fool-proof. As a result, there isn’t really any risk at all.

To establish these two points in the minds of voters would have been a success. To dismiss those voters as racist was a failure.

-You cannot meet a person in debate with the goal of proving that they are unfit to be at that debate. It begs the question. It destroys itself. The proper response is to say “fuck that guy” and stay home- or hold your own colloquy, make it even more fun to watch, and by doing so 1) beat him at his own game 2) start acting like you’re the President already.

-You can argue that a person is unqualified to be president before they have earned their party’s nomination. You cannot argue it thereafter; it is too late.

-There are a number of ways to respond to a scandal. You can address it directly. You can laugh it off. You can ignore it, hope it goes away. You can apologize. You can double down. This election introduced a new response; The Blitz.

It’s very simple. You are accused of something. There is clear evidence that the accusation is true. But you don’t apologize, or double down. You deny it – entirely – and never break stride.

It’s ludicrous. It’s insane. But it means that you never lose the initiative, never let someone else steer the conversation. Moreover, it appears strong. It appears in-charge and determined and cannot-be-turned-aside. It’s the final form of the pivot. It will not go away.

The proper response to this is not to ‘fact-check’ them. You have to walk up to them and say “You’re a lying sack of shit and SHUT UP.” Otherwise, by staying in the conversation – such as a presidential debate – you implicitly consent to their behavior. You cannot beat someone who isn’t playing the game.

-Regarding The Wall: the candidate 1) identified a phenomenon 2) declared it a problem 3) proposed a solution. Every candidate should present all their ideas in this way.

The arguments to The Wall must address one of these areas. They could say 1) this doesn’t actually exist, 2) it exists but it isn’t a problem, or 3) it’s a problem but I have a better solution.

Ms. Rodham’s arguments seemed to be 3) your solution is not very feasible, 1+2) White Liberal Guilt.

Both 1) and 2) were arguments, not of fact, but of scale. That’s pretty pithy stuff. When you’re arguing about scale, you’ve conceded the central argument – and it’s forgiveable for good people to stop listening.

3) is also a bad argument. It has to be a very close election for it to come down to, not whether something exists, or whether it is a problem, but on the precise feasibility of one proposed solution to that problem.

-Regarding Chyna: it is a fact that American jobs have gone to other countries (or at least, there are jobs being done There which could be done Here). Any candidate for high office needs to address this. They need to either say that this is actually a good thing, or else they know how to turn it into a good thing, or they need to oppose it. Ms. Rodham did a very bad job of the former.

-“He’s too dumb to be president” is not a winning strategy. It did not work in 2000 and it did not work in 2016. There is no middle ground to win; the people who will be swayed by this, have already noticed, and the people who haven’t noticed don’t care.

-A campaign is a mechanism of persuasion. Nobody is persuaded by being deplored.

-The proper end to the sentence “half of you are in a basket of deplorables” is “but the other half of you have legitimate grievances and concerns which cannot and should not be set aside.They have to be addressed. Any person running for this office has to address them or they are unworthy.” And then they should have been addressed, one by one.

-Us-and-them politics will always favor the populist. Say it with me now: elites are never the majority.

-A county-by-county electoral map is indistinguishable from a population density map. This phenomenon needed to be addressed directly and substantively. Perhaps Ms. Rodham could have said something like this:

“There is a reason that cities tend to be more liberal than small towns and America’s heartland. It’s not because city folk are smarter, or better educated, or more open-minded. And it’s not because townsfolk and country folk are more moral or more Godly or more patriotic. We are all good people. We are all decent Americans trying to make this country work and grow. The reason people cities tend to be more liberal is need.

“People in cities have different needs than people who aren’t in cities. A person who lives in a house with their family has different needs than a person who lives in an apartment with six people they met on Craigslist. A person whose home is surrounded by trees or fields or their family farm has very different needs than a person who lives a high-rise apartment building.

“When a person in the Heartland encounters a Muslim, chances are pretty good that it’s because the news is talking about a shooting or a bombing, an act of Islamic terrorism. But when a person in a city encounters a Muslim, chances are that it’s because their friend Abdullah just texted to say he’s gonna be late for the poker game.

“When a person in the Heartland thinks about gay marriage, they think about something that their town probably doesn’t have yet. When a person in a city thinks about gay marriage, they think about their friends Lisa and Mary who’ve been living together for twenty years. In the Heartland, gay marriage is a change. In the cities, it’s not change: it’s acknowledging something that’s been around for generations.

“A person in the city might say that they’re just working at Starbucks until they can find a real job. Where a person in the Heartland might think that a job means you’re working and it doesn’t matter what you do, and for the fifteen dollars an hour you get paid at Starbucks, they could raise a family.

“My campaign has one great promise, and that is to bring the two Americas together. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to get a farmer in Nebraska to agree with a programmer in Oakland. They live different lives. They have different needs. When I say that I’m going to bring the two Americas together, I mean that I am going to get them to understand each other. I am going to get them to respect each other. I am going to get people in the city to understand what life is like in America’s Heartland, and I am going to get people in the Heartland to understand that the crazy liberals in the cities are also good, decent Americans who just want to be safe and just want to be free.

“During this campaign, I am never going to tell someone what they need. I am never going to tell someone that what they need is wrong, or it’s racist, or it’s immoral, or that they’re immoral, or that they’re deplorable, or that what they need is less important than the needs of any other Americans. I will never do that.

“Some days, being President is about knowing what is right and what is wrong and doing what is needed to be done. But most days it’s about compromise. It’s about slow and careful progress towards the making of a more perfect union. It’s about looking at the needs of all Americans, not just the rich, not just famous, but all Americans, seeing what they need, and seeing how this country can work together, to be unified, to compromise so that nobody has a radical agenda forced upon them, so that nobody’s voice is ever taken away.

“That process starts today. A presidential campaign shouldn’t be about walking around talking about how great you are. It should be a chance to meet people, to listen to them, to make sure that you know what they need, and to figure out how to get it done. But more than that it should be a way to bring people together. During this campaign I will be going from one state to another, from one town to another, from sea to shining sea and to every single place in between. I will be an ambassador for all the different people in this country. I will come to your town and I will tell you what people need, people in Caribou Maine, people in Miami Florida, people in Missoula Montana, people in Brownsville Texas, people in Doniphan Missouri, people in Benson Arizona, people in Electric City Washington, people in Sunrise Alaska and on the beaches of Waikiki. We’re going to bring understanding. We’re going to build consensus. We’re going to reach compromises between all the peoples of this country so that we will not be a divided nation, we will be a united nation, and we will face the challenges of the future as one United States.

-A widget is made in America. It costs ten dollars and provides a job. It is moved to China. It now costs a dollar, which is great. Except that guy no longer has a job, and can’t afford a single widget, let alone ten.

One response to this is to bring back the making of the widget. But this is a bad response, because America prospers when we can get more stuff for less. No, the proper response is to achieve this in a way which doesn’t cause the worker to lose his job.

If this can’t be done, the other solution is to require that the laid-off worker should benefit from the outsourcing of his job. They all fall down to one form or another of making the company divest itself of some of the profits it generates from the outsourcing. This is a tax on profits and so offer no disincentive to the company to maximize profits, nor will it punish companies who go overseas only when their local operations have become unprofitable. Likewise, as a profit-sharing scheme, it is functionally equivalent to worker part-ownership of the corporation – not control of the means of production, but benefit therefrom, which is as good a definition as any I’ve heard of the difference between the Red and the Pink.

-This election was a tragedy of the red states. Now we face a tragedy of the blue. This is THE TIME for America to talk about socialism of this kind. And because the democrats are now terrified of losing power, they won’t do that. They won’t even mention it at all.

Worse, I expect they’ll move to the right, trying to pick up values voters by appealing to Our Town notions of ‘presidential character’. Thus driving the conversation deeper into the future.

-What role has the scandal in the modern world? For if the populace had been complacent, Nixon would have finished his second term. But if a guy on his la-z-boy can hear tidbits from the talking heads and think he can determine the innocence or guilt of a person, over the recommendations of professionals, than we have brought to law what Doctor Oz has brought to medicine. There must be a middle ground.

-Presenting someone as a frontrunner – or, worse, the preordained winner – garners no support, builds no momentum, provides not that grand democratic illusion that an individual vote can change the world. Remember what Will said about a frontrunner: “Everything to lose, nothing to gain, and don’t forget to tip the dealer.”

 

Avoidance

•20 November 2016 • Leave a Comment

I’m sitting in a cell. Nothing new there. I’m chained to a table. Can’t say that’s a first. This time they’ve stripped me naked. We’re in the tropics. I can’t help but feel overdressed.

They interrogated me for hours. I put up with it. They tried to shake me and to break me. I sat there with my dick out and waited for them to stop.

They stopped.

“We’ll find it,” they said, and left.

And I’d been having such a good vacation.

***

Some people wake up to find they have religion. Some people roll over and hit the alarm and in the silence they realize they’re gay or they’re straight. Some people know they’re going to quit their jobs before they’ve brushed their teeth. I woke up one morning and I knew I was taking a vacation.

Iade a few calls and my calendar was clear. The rest was up to me. I lay in bed and dreamed of where to go, how to get there, what to bring with me, what to do. Fell back asleep.

Woke up with sun on my face. Got to work.

Found the boat I wanted at a mooring in Macao. Rented it out for a month. Told them to have it meet me in Hong Kong. Booked a flight.

Flew first class. Bought slippers in an airport boutique, wore them down the gangway and onto the plane. Lay back and drank a bottle of Moromoreto. Listened to music. Ordered shit online. Looked out the window at the arctic ice breaking up beneath me. It got cloudy. I fell asleep. Know I snored. Woke up when my ears popped. Stepped out into HK.

Took a taxi to the docks. Boat was there waiting. They were loading it full of packages. Overnight shipping, meet overnight flight. A forty-foot catamaran. Carbon hulls, a half a million dollars worth of boat. I tipped the guys who’d sailed her over and they headed for the airport. I headed for the sea.

Dipped the motors. Chugged out between the yachts of Asia, a thousands masts with sails of every color like the silk banners of an army on parade. Got to blue water. Raised the sail. White and bright straight up to the sun. Two thousand square feet of canvas just for me.

Eighty degrees. Fourteen knots of wind. Clouds boiling up from the horizon. Golden sun making a silver sea.

It was ten in the morning and I wanted to sleep for a day. Couldn’t let myself. Stood there with my hand on the tiller. An hour, two. Eyelids kept shutting on me. Went downstairs and got a bottle of cold water to drink. Drank it in three pulls. Took me ten minutes to find the recycling bin. Went back up to the deck and she was still sailing, making twelve knots without needing anything from me. I wanted a boat I could sail myself. It was sailing itself. Worked for me.

Late afternoon. Covered a hundred miles. All I saw was sea. Suddenly ravenous. Went back to the galley and found it stocked with everything I’d ordered, months worth of food. Steamed myself some shao mai. Went up top and sat on a soft chair, ate them with my fingers, watched the sun set over the sea.

Turned her into the wind. Dropped the sail. Felt her glide to a stop. Heard the slapping of the little waves against the hulls.Went below. Brought a can of beer into bed with me. Drank about half of it. Fell asleep.

Woke up at two in the morning. Poured out the half a beer. Opened a fresh one, drank it down. Realized I wasn’t going back to sleep. Got back to the tiller and cruised until dawn. Then cruised all day.

Explored the ship. Two hulls. Like two penthouses on adjoining skyscrapers with a deck stretched between. One hull had a kitchen and an office. The other had a bedroom with a king-sized bed. Not spacious. More like a studio than a penthouse. Enough. Perfectly enough.

The office was full of airmail boxes. I found a knife in the kitchen and cut them open. Toys. All sorts of toys. Everything I thought I might want, could possibly want, for a month at sea.

Pulled out a hammock. Strung it across the deck, between two posts that weren’t meant for it. Climbed in with a bottle of Kavalan. Watched another sunset. Slept until dawn.

***

They’re questioning me. Nothing to find – I’m traveling under my own name, my real name, spending my own money. Clean money. With a 1040 at some consulting firm. Upper class, middle aged, a boat full of toys: a mid-life crisis sailing for the sunset.

They don’t ask me about the girl. I don’t bring her up. To the me I’m playing, she’s just another toy.

***

I sailed into Subic Bay at midday. Last time I was there I was hiding in a cargo container heading for Long Beach.

I dropped the sails with a few pokes at a touch-screen. Started up the diesels just the same.  Entered the marina and there were five men to catch my hawsers, pull me to the dock. Fill up my fuel, my water, my batteries. Get rid of all the boxes and the bubblewrap.

One of them asked me if I wanted anything brought on board. I knew what he meant. “Just some fruit,” I said. “Washed. In bottled water.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Tonight,” I said. Got my land legs. Met the rental car I’d ordered. Drove to Angeles.

Fields Avenue. One street, eight blocks long. A few souvenir stores. A few restaurants selling the worst pizza in the world. Every other building is a brothel. Every one.

But that’s a word with a hundred meanings. It means good china in a cabinet in a Jordaan privatehouse, marble bed-posts and black silk sheets in a Rio terma, pastels and plastics in a Tokyo soapland, bikinis and cowboy hats at a Nevada bunny ranch. Here in Angeles it’s a bar with a stage, where a hundred girls are dancing or grinding or hitting each other with balloon swords or whatever they’ve dreamed up to call a show.

A hundred girls. Of every type. The children of American men and Japanese men and Australian men and Korean men, African men, European men, every shape and size and creed and color. Because this is the sex tourism capital of the world, and contraception is illegal.

Don’t like what you see? Go next door. See a hundred other girls. Tall, short, flat, round. Beautiful girls. Every one is young and beautiful. Any one will be yours all night for the price of a six-pack.

I wandered around. Streetwalkers who looked like kids and were. Headed for the brothels. Walked by a guy trying to sell Viagra from a tray. Went into a brothel like a 70s go-go bar. Loud. Flashy. Neon. Spinning lights. A hundred girls. Ten guys, twenty. I wondered if I looked like them. Of course I did. I should.

Couldn’t stand it there. Next place. Named after a brothel from American TV. I sat in a soft chair and ordered a bottle of beer.

Within three minutes three different girls had come on up to me, not wearing much, not hiding anything. I gave them each ten dollars and they thought they’d hit the jackpot. For fifteen I could have taken them to bed – together.

One sat across my lap and one sat between my legs and one sat behind me and rubbed my shoulders. And I watched the show.

I flagged over a waitress, slipped her five bucks and asked for the mamasan. She came over, a big lady, still a young lady, only lady in the place wearing enough. Smiled at me. I told her I wanted a girl for two weeks.

“Which girl?” she asked.

“Someone who can leave for two weeks.”

“They all can,” she said. “You pay them.”

She’s selling time and I’m buying in bulk.

“Might not get internet,” I said. “Not even phone service.”

She shrugged. “Two weeks not that long.”

“Then a good girl,” I said. “Quiet girl. Someone I can leave alone all day.” Not all night.

“Tall short?” she asked. “Big tits?’

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

“Virgin?”

“No.”

“I bring some,” she said. “You pick.”

Disappeared. Saw her again on the edge of the stage, getting the attention of one girl then another. They left the stage. Came and stood in front of me. And the three girls who were draped across me who didn’t bat an eye.

Sometimes there’s nothing to think about.

“Her.”

The girl smiled at me, and bowed her head. The mamasan nodded and the girl turned and went away

“Don’t want two?” the mamasan asked.

“No. Thank you.”

The other girls smiled at me and went back to the stage.

“Pay up front,” said the mamasan.

“Half. Half up front.”

“Us up front,” she said. “You her work it out.”

Two weeks. “One thousand a day,” I said.

“Two thousand for day,” said the mamasan.

“For one day,” I said. “For two weeks, one thousand a day.”

“Fifteen hundred,” she said. “Fair.”

Twenty one thousand pesos. About four hundred bucks. I’ve spent more for fifteen minutes. I’m getting fifteen days.

“Fair.”

We shook hands. I pulled out my wallet. The girl in my lap giggled. Ten minutes later my girl came out, wearing street-clothes, smiling at me. The girls around me stood up and waited for a tip. I gave them another thousand pesos and they kissed me, one of them quite thoroughly. I watched them go back out onto the stage.

I offered her my arm. She took it. She smiled up at me. We walked out onto the street and I asked her if she needed to go home and get anything. She shook her head.

Other people saw us. Didn’t really look at us. Nothing to see. It made me feel dirty. But for all the wrong reasons. Because I paid for it instead of getting it for free. Or because I didn’t pay much. Because I got it easily. Because it’s not the best. The best? All the wrong reasons. Stupid reasons.

We got in the car and headed out onto the empty highway. She didn’t speak. I put on the A/C. I asked her name and she told me. Don’t think she would have told me otherwise.

I told her my name. She smiled at me. Put her hand on my arm, and kept it there as I drove.

There was a little box on the dashboard. I opened it, took out what looked like a digital thermometer. Told her to open her mouth, I was just going to make sure she was healthy enough for the trip. She understood. She put it in her mouth obediently, held it there for a minute. When I told her to take it out she gave it to me, didn’t look at it. Didn’t want to know. I looked at it and told her she was healthy.

It was still daylight when we got back to the port. Felt like I’d done a day’s work. Felt exhausted. Shrugged it off. Drove us to a mall. Pulled up next to two guys with shotguns. One of them took my keys and went off to park.

We went clothing-shopping. “Bathing suits. A few dresses.” Her eyes just lit up. She kissed me on the mouth, and squeezed my hand.

She picked out two bathing suits and three pairs of sandals. And some t-shirts and cutoff jeans she could take home. Then I brought her to a nicer store. And I picked out six dresses, and she found them in her size. Then a lingerie store. A bunch of other gwailos there. My brain detached from my body and I bought her something different for every night.

We went down to the docks. I tossed the car keys to a guy and he jumped in, drove it away. She followed me out onto the dock, holding her big shopping bags. She stopped at the boat. Didn’t say anything. But didn’t move.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “It’s just you and me. Very safe, plenty of food, everything you need. We’ll be back in two weeks.”

I took her bags from her and brought them on board. She followed.

I showed her to the bedroom. Knew that would make her feel safe. Took out a box of seasickness patches. Could tell she didn’t know the word. I put one behind my own ear so she’d trust it. Opened a closet. Told her to hang her things. Told her to put on a dress and meet me on the deck.

She came upstairs. She’d brushed her hair and the dress was white. She looked uncomfortable. She looked small. She looked beautiful and I told her so.

The deck had a wet bar and a cabinet with appliances. Burnished steel things, all the comforts of a modernist home. I put three mangos through a juicer, added a few gulps of the local coconut moonshine. She sat with her legs uncrossed and looked at me.

The guys on the dock cast us off and I motored out into the channel. Got past the buoys and opened up the throttle, just to see what it would do. The diesels pounded like we were riding forty-foot Harleys. I looked at her and she was looking straight ahead, holding her drink tight in both hands. Then we were clear of land and heading into the sea.

I cut the diesels. The silence was terrifying. Then I tapped the screen and the sail jumped up the mast. The wind caught it. Luffing. Snapping to. Flying above us. Enveloping us. Pulling us forward. We hit fourteen knots and there was just enough noise to fill  the silence of the sea.

I freshened her drink and told her I’d be back, went downstairs to chop fruit, a pineapple, a papaya, two types of mango and three types of banana. I set out a bowl of honey and another of clotted cream. Sent it to the deck in a dumb-waiter. Put it in front of her. Just a man and his girl, on a boat, on the sea.

We ate quietly. She smiled at me. It’s all she did. I asked for a quiet girl.

The sun touched the horizon.

“Let’s go downstairs,” I said, and went. She followed me.

I stood by the bed, kissing her. I turned her around and unzipped her dress. She reached up and unclasped her bra. Bent down and raised one leg to take off her panties. Put them on the couch and turned to me.

I put her on the bed.

Afterwards I fought to stay awake. I got up and splashed water on my face. Went up to the deck, naked, let the wind run over me in the dying light. Then I went downstairs and she was just lying there. What else did she have to do?

Fourteen days.

I climbed onto her again.

***

This time they’re using a tweezers and a microscope. Taking everything apart. Spreading out its pieces. Photographing each and every one. Scanning every microchip, copying every line of code. Opening every jar and can of food. X-raying the fish I caught.

Glad I didn’t catch more.

***

I woke up and she had put her underwear back on. I let her sleep.

I went to the tiller and set the sails. A light breeze. So long as there’s any breeze we’d keep going. It could come from any direction and it wouldn’t change a thing. Our course was due south across the Sulu Sea. In fourteen days we’d dock in Sandakan and I’d put her on a plane. It would be her first time on a boat and a plane. I wondered if it was her first time in a car.

She came on deck, sleep in her eyes. She wore a dress because that’s what she had to wear. I fixed us breakfast, eggs and fruit and juice. I told her to follow me downstairs and she looked apprehensive, just for a moment. And she came.

I gave her a package. It’s a new laptop. And headphones and a carrying-case. “It’s yours” I said. “It’s for you to keep.” She looked at me differently. Stunned. Then melted into my arms and kissed me.

She kept kissing me.
I took her back to bed.

I put on swim-trunks. Dropped the sail. Jumped overboard right from the deck. Swam in the ocean. Pulled myself up, put on goggles and a snorkel. Stuck my head under. Nothing to see. I came up and she was looking down at me. I asked her if she can swim and she said she couldn’t. I told her to put on a bathing-suit anyway.

I looked up and later and she was in a red bikini. She sat on the edge of the deck and kicked her feet in the air. I swam around, swam under the boat. Nothing to see.

I pulled myself up to the deck. She handed me a towel. I kissed her and she laughed and wiped the salt from her chin. I went and got some toys. One flew, one went under water. They both cost more than the girl.

I flew the drone straight up. Caught its signal on my phone, saw through its camera. Looked down at my little world. Watched the boat get smaller and smaller. Watched myself disappear. I scanned the horizon. There was nothing to see.

I sent the submarine down to two hundred feet. Too dark to see anything. Another horizon, even wider than the other. Nothing to see.

I showed her what I was doing. Let her fly the drone. I had to make her. She did it for a few seconds then gave the controls back to me. I stowed the drones away. I asked her if she liked the boat. We talked a little. About nothing.

I asked her to come shower with me. She washed my back, my chest. I washed hers. I showed her around the kitchen, we made a little dinner together, listened to music as we watched the sunset.

When the darkness pulled close around us I threw a blanket down on the deck. I held her from behind. Nobody in the world but us. She pressed herself into me. And we looked at the stars and listened to the sea.

***

They gave me laxatives. Skipped my breakfast and gave me a bunch of bananas for lunch. Little bananas, light and yellow. Made me strain over a steel bowl.

They wanted me to feel punished. But they were the one going through my shit.

***

I saw an island on the horizon. Sailed us towards it. A tiny gem set in the Sulu Sea. Sailed around it. Didn’t take that long. Uninhabited. No more than a little rock with a few trees.

The ship had a Zodiac strapped to the rear. I loaded it down. Camera and tripod. Bicycle for riding on the sand. A bucket of ice, bottled water, bottled beer. Set it in the water. Climbed in.

Motored over to a whitestand beach. Maybe a mile long – whole length of the island. Ran the boat up onto the sand. Lay on the sand and felt it bake me. Maybe not the first person to lay on those sands. Maybe. But right now they belong to me.

Sat the bike in the sand, got it set up. Five inch tires, carbon frame. Rode to the end of the beach. Cut up and over some rocks, down to another beach on the other side. Then back again. Ang again and again. Felt like desecration. Felt great.

I went back for the girl. Lay her down a towel, put her up an umbrella.  I took pictures of the island. I took pictures of her. Used my 800mm lens to hunt for birds. Didn’t find any.

I went for a walk and looked back at her, saw her taking a selfie with her phone. I walked back and open the Champagne. She raised her cell phone and took a picture of me.

I took off my shirt and my shorts. She looked at her feet. I told her, look around, there’s no one to see us, in any direction, nothing. She saw I wanted it. She turned around and took off her bikini. Lay herself back down, arms at her sides.

I went and splashed around in the water. She watched me. I went back to shore. She moved her knees apart and looked up at me.

We went back to the boat. She put on a dress, I made dinner, we watched the sunset, we had a routine. I packed an aeropress, then another, then told her I might not be back for a while. She had her feet up on the couch, cradling her laptop. She was good.

I went back to the island. No clouds. Only stars. I’d never seen so many stars. It was like day.

I set up a telescope, and didn’t come back until dawn. Found her asleep on the deck, in a blanket. Carried her downstairs and laid her in bed. Lay next to her. Went to sleep.

***

A soldier holds up a phone. It’s showing video. Live, I assume. It’s my ship. It’s in pieces. They’ve taken it apart with a fucking buzz saw. They’re feeding it into an x-ray machine, piece by piece.

Bye bye security deposit.

***

I sailed us for two days. The sky stayed clear and calm. We ate. We drank. We fooled around. I played with my toys. I played music to the open sea.

Storm clouds came up. It rained for three days. Blood-warm rain. We put on bathing suits and stayed on deck. Sailed through it. Fucked in the rain.

I broke out some fishing gear. Didn’t catch anything. Tried again the next day. Boated a 22-pound skipjack. Filleted it on the deck while the girl hid downstairs. Cleaned the deck with sea-water. Cooked her fillet through, seared mine just a little bit past raw. Had enough left over to feed us every meal until we made it back to port.

Fished a little more. Caught another. Pulled the hook. Dropped it back.

I started to get restless. Did some push-ups. Sailed closer and closer to the wind. Ate too much. Drank too much. There beneath canvas and sky and I thought about watching some TV.

My mind wandered. I started to daydream. What would happen if pirates sailed up beside us. What if a tsunami came up or a hurricane blew. How about if a helicopter came down, camera crew leaning out, catching me with a hooker. I’d either get through them alive or I wouldn’t. And if I did, I’d be back where I was, sailing.

Pulled up a chart. Found another island. Went exploring. Back aboard.

Thought about getting another girl. Thought about getting ten. Might need a bigger boat. Not impossible. Not even all that hard. Wasn’t really tempted. What I had here was perfect.

I was done with perfect.

I swung around and headed for Sandakan. Got within five miles, and they got me.

***

Beautiful ship. Sigma-class, modern, three hundred feet long. They fired a warning shot from their deck gun. The splash was bigger than my ship.

I heaved to. I told the girl that we were going to get inspected. I told her to just answer their questions honestly. I kissed her and she hugged me. I didn’t tell her it was going to be alright.

I left her below.

They boarded us. Four soldiers, submachine guns. Cuffed me straight off and put me on the lander. A coast guard file motored me back to the corvette. I didn’t mention the girl. They wouldn’t let us stay together anyway.

***

I didn’t know how long I’d been in captivity. Turned out to be six days. Well, some people pay good money to do a week-long retreat. And even they don’t poop as much.

They gave me my clothing back. And a letter summarizing everything they’d destroyed. Or so I assumed. I don’t speak Malay. My homeowner’s insurance could sort it out.

An officer came and sat by me, smiling. A vindictive sort of smile for a guy who’d just fought dirty and still lost. “We tested the girl,” he said. “She’s HIV positive.”

“Yeah, I know.”

He didn’t know what to do with that. Gave me back my passport, and had a lad with a gun show me outside.

They gave me a ride to a streetcorner in town. A taxi was idling just up the block. I walked over and got in. The girl was in the back.

I will not try to describe her look. I will say that she had just spent six days undergoing God knows what, and she had no idea why, and now she was dependent on me to get her home, and if I wanted she’d still have to fuck me.

I didn’t say anything to her. Nothing to say. Got us to the airport and took a flight to Angeles. Had to wait two hours. Then three more because it was late. Not the only gwalio on the flight. Touched down. Disembarked.

I told her we were going to the bank. She followed me. I took out five thousand dollars in pesos and gave them to her.

She took them and she paused and then she went to hug me. I stopped her. Took her hand and kissed it and thanked her for a beautiful week. Then turned around and returned her to her world.

Five thousand dollars. Ten times what I’d promised her. A little less than she’d make in a year. I didn’t know what she was going home to, a boyfriend who’d take it, a family who’d split it, a little girl who now could go to school. Didn’t know. Didn’t want to know. None of my business.

I hoped nobody was waiting to take it from her. Either way, in a week I’d have someone find her and give her fifty more. And a visa to the States, and four years at a community college on the edge of the Bay.

Of course she was HIV positive. She was a sex worker in southeast Asia. I didn’t need a cheek swab to test for that. The first swab carried a virus. A little virus. Helped you digest, or something like that. Smuggled out of a Manila biotech. Given to me to smuggle out of the country. They were watching too closely, it never would have gotten out. So I gave it to the girl. Preserved it in her. Incubated it in her. And I’d take it back from her when she came to America to begin a life.

I caught a plane back home, and back to work.

Mortality

•1 November 2016 • Leave a Comment

The phrase they kept using was “mortality over ninety per cent.” Then they said it was more. It didn’t matter. It was airborne and it killed you. Peter was just waiting to die.

Peter was in Providence working as a tax attorney. He’d been there two years and still didn’t really know anybody. He started off working sixty hours a week so he didn’t have a lot of time for friends. Now he was working ninety, straight through the weekend. He didn’t have to, but he didn’t really have anything else to do. Six more years and he would sure as shit make partner.

Things got messy fast. They closed the highways. Too many sick people got behind the wheel. They closed the roads. There was nobody to open the stores. Peter called his parents a lot for a few days, then they started getting sick and he could’t do it anymore. Then the power went off.

He had some great Scotch in his apartment, birthday Scotch and Christmas Scotch that he hadn’t had time to drink. He drank it. Pretty good few days, drunk on the couch, wishing the TV worked, drinking until he didn’t care anymore. Didn’t die. When he ran out of booze he was starving, he went outside and there there was nobody. No noise, no movement. He walked three blocks to the 7-11 and saw two bodies on the street.

A car had smashed into one of the gas pumps. Couldn’t have been going very fast. Peter looked in and there was a dead guy in the front. He looked pretty bad. Peter threw up. Then he opened the door and pulled the guy out and it smelled terrible, he threw up liquor on the hood of the car and it burned his throat. He got into the car, backed it out a bit and turned around, then gunned it in reverse right into the 7-11.

The car went right through the glass. He was waiting to feel some impact and it didn’t happen. He slammed on the breaks. He kept going into the store and got bumped around a bit. He put it in drive and drove out again and left the car idling next to the pumps. Got out and took a minute to get his breath. Went inside.

No alarms went off. No lights on inside, no hum of the fridges. The car had knocked over a shelf of magazines, a rack of phone cards. He got away from the broken glass and walked around the counter and grabbed a bunch of thin plastic bags. Took all the granola bars and protein bars they had, and a few bars of chocolate, and the organic beef jerky they kept next to the register. Put it in the car and drove it home. Both rear tires had picked up glass and gone flat but it didn’t really matter. He left the parked in the middle of the street. Brought the stuff upstairs, one of the bags broke and he had to go back for what had spilled. Then he hung out for a few days and waited to see if he died.

He didn’t die.

He went through his building and knocked on every door. No answer. Had to check. He went outside and walked for an hour and didn’t see anyone, no cars moving, no lights. Some dogs on the street, he stayed away from them. He went back to the 7-11 but nothing had moved, the corpse was still on the ground and had flies on it, he kept his lunch down and stayed away from it. Got some water. Got some iced tea.

He went for a long walk, three miles to downtown. Didn’t see anyone alive. Saw a bunch of dead people. Crashed cars. Broken things.

Saw a bunch of big white tents set up next to the Statehouse. Ambulances all around, some had their back doors open, and police cars, and two things that looked like tanks. He couldn’t quite believe that they were tanks. He went closer but it smelled bad when he was still far away. There wasn’t any wind to go up and so he just stayed away.

He went over to the highway. The roads were barricaded. There was another tank. He walked up to the I-95 cloverleaf, took the long walk up the onramp, weird feeling not being in a car. It was early afternoon in April, sky was a little cloudy, not a single car on the highway, nothing in the sky. He was alone.

He walked over to the Superman building, the tallest in PVD. It was locked. No cars on the street, nothing. There was a bike locked to a parking meter, he pulled the quick release on the seat tube and took it out. Tried to smash in the window but it hardly dented. Bank of America must have made it riot-proof.

There was a window-cleaning scaffolding about fifteen feet up. He walked all the way around the building. No ladder. So he went back to the tent city and held his nose and found an ambulance with the back open. Nobody in the back. No keys in it either. He walked through a makeshift hospital that was full of corpses, dead people on stretchers, a dead doctor in a chair, people on the ground, children. He found guys in EMT uniforms who’d blown their brains out with police-issue Glocks. He took a pistol, and their keys. They worked on the fourth ambulance he tried.

He drove to the Superman building. Backed up right to the scaffolding, rear wheels on the curb. Got out and climbed onto the hood, then the cab, then the roof. Pulled himself up to the scaffolding and was about to smash a pane of a lattice window, cleared the glass out of the frame as best he could, and wriggled through. Ripped his coat a bunch but didn’t draw blood.

No lights inside made for a very dark place. He used the tiny light on his keychain to get downstairs and opened the front door, propped it open with his wallet. Got a big Mag-Lite from the ambulance and went into the building. Went to the stairwell and climbed 26 floors. Peter wasn’t in very good shape and he had to stop for breath a few times. Not a bad workout. Better than lying on a couch and drinking Scotch.

He got to the observation deck. The sun was heading for the horizon. Peter stayed up there for two hours and watched a pretty good sunset. Didn’t see anything moving but some waves on the harbor. The city was dead.

He thought about spending the night to watch the sunrise, but he didn’t have any food and wasn’t sure if he could just sleep on the floor. So he went back down the stairs and out to the ambulance. Drove back to his apartment. Took him a while because a lot of the streets were blocked off, by roadblocks or by cars.

He was almost out of gas. He went to his apartment and grabbed some food and then drove to three different gas stations, but none of the pumps worked. So he ditched the ambulance next to the other car he’d taken, had a Scotch, and went to bed.

He spent the next morning in bed just thinking. So the world was fucked. He probably wasn’t the only person alive but he didn’t have anything to base that on, he sure didn’t see anyone. He didn’t have anything he needed to do in the universe. And he was getting sick of granola bars.

So he could just hang out in his apartment forever. That was already getting boring. And he didn’t want to live in a hot city apartment all summer, and he probably couldn’t live it in through a winter. And he couldn’t really cook anything. Couldn’t grow anything, guess he’d have to do that soon.

So maybe he was the only person in the world but it sure looked like he was. So he could do what he wanted. So long as he could do it alone. He could steal a boat and sail to the Bahamas. Guess it wasn’t really stealing now. He could break into the evidence room at the Brown campus police station and do a really very large amount of drugs. He could move into the White House. He could hike the Appalachian Trail. He could take up painting and be the best painter in the world. He could find a fiddle and burn down the world.

He could. But there wasn’t anyone to share it with. No one to talk to. And if he got hurt he was fucking dead. Probably not worth a bear attack on some mountain somewhere, or a broken ankle and a shallow grave. And it would be winter before he knew it. And he’d still run out of food.

What he should do is get somewhere safe, somewhere where he could plant a garden or try to find some animals, make a real go of it, try to stay alive. Not just scavenge. Stay alive.

Where should he go? A farm somewhere. Somewhere far enough away from things that he wouldn’t worry about a lightning strike burning down the entire neighborhood. Somewhere close enough to things that he could go scavenge for parts and whatever. Near a hospital. Near a Wal-Mart and a Home Depot all his own. Someplace warm. Someplace with mild winters so he wouldn’t have to worry about chopping wood. Someplace with mild summers so he wouldn’t want to die for half the year. Somewhere without hurricanes. Or volcanoes or anything like that. Somewhere with enough water for him to grow things.

New England had winters. Most of the country had winters. The whole East and Gulf had hurricanes. Hawai’i did too, even if he could get there. No, the answer was that California sun. Except not the south part which was a desert. Or the middle part which was basically the same thing but colder. The north part of California, up through Oregon, that was a very good place not to die.

Peter didn’t have a map anywhere in his apartment. There was an elementary school about a mile away. It was rainy so he drove over in the ambulance. Stopped at a hardware store on the way, smashed his way in with a tire iron and grabbed a sledgehammer. Got into the school pretty quick. The alarm went off for about three seconds and then died. Still nearly gave him a heart attack.

He smacked the doorknobs off five doors before he found a social studies classroom with a map. So from San Francisco to Astoria Oregon, somewhere in there. That was about six hundred miles of coast. He probably needed about a quarter acre.

He found the school library. Something smelled bad, he hoped it wasn’t a kid. Never found out. Found an old little book about The Weather, looked like it was All 60s All The Time for the whole northern coast. Looked like it rained the most around Eureka. With the drought on, he should probably go there.

How would he get there? He could drive. Well, no, not really. No gas. And he doubted that he could get the car through all the roadblocks and smashed cars and dead cities. A motorcycle might be enough. Still needed gas. Maybe he should just stay on the East Coast and learn how to chop firewood all summer long.

Or he could bike. People bike across the country every year. It takes a month or two. He had all the time in the world. It was a cool thing to do. If he was the last person on earth than he didn’t really have to worry about much, he could do cool things for the sake of it. And along the way, who knows, maybe he’d find some people.

Peter found a phone book in the school office. He hadn’t used one in a decade. He looked up bike shops. Found a bunch. Ripped out the page and went driving.

He had trouble getting to one of them so he went to another. A big bike store with beautiful displays in the windows. He smashed his way in. There was a tiny little kiosk of brightly-colored books. One was about bike touring. He sat outside in the springtime sun and read it cover to cover.

It had a packlist. He acquired it.

He found a long, lean titanium touring bike with racks mounted fore and aft. Cost as much as his first car. Or rather, three times as much. It would do.

He put on big waterproof panniers, front and back, either side. Added a handlebar bag and a trunk bag too. Grabbed a bike multitool, and a frame pump, two spare tires and a bunch of spare tubes. A little pocket-sized book about bike repair. A spare chain, some chain-grease. A smartwool jersey. And some lights. On second thought only front-facing lights. There’d be nobody coming up on him from behind.

There were some touring maps printed by a bike nonprofit. Nice fold-out laminated things. The big cross-country routes seemed to start in Maine or Virginia. Maine was closer. Looked like Peter’d have to ride north over a hundred miles in order to pick up the trail. He was about to bike three thousand miles. Time to stop being fazed by distance.

He’d need camping gear. He went outside and got on his bike. Took him a while to figure out the shifting. Got the hang of it. Fought the urge to stop at stop signs. He knew where the camping supply store was, he drove by it on his way to work. He pulled the sledge out of his trailer and made himself an entrance.

He could afford to take the best. He got the best multitool, the best ultralight cook set, the best little one-person tent, a nine hundred dollar sleeping bag that weighed about as much as a sweatshirt. He got a compass from Finland and binoculars from Switzerland and a water filter from a tech startup in Seattle. He added a raincoat and rain pants and a pair of lightweight hiking-boots to go with his cycling shoes. And it all weighed less than the flannel sleeping bag he’d had as a fucking Cub Scout.

He threw in some fuel for a stove, a bunch of instant camping meals, and four three-liter water bladders. Had to take it all out and pack it proper to get it to fit. Forgot that his handlebar bag was still empty. And his trunk bag. Ah well. Sometimes extra space is a great thing to pack.

He got on the bike and almost fell over. Downshifted to shit and had still broken sweat by the time he’d gone a mile. This was going to be a workout. Well, he needed a workout.

He went home and was going to take it all upstairs and then realized, why bother. He spread it all out on the street and repacked it tight. Plenty of room left. Didn’t want to add any weight. Not when he’d already be carrying water and worrying about when he’d find more.

He left the panniers on the street and rode back to the 7-11. Got some bug spray and sunscreen. Got a hi-tech lighter with a pot leaf on it. Then he went up to his apartment and looked for what he wanted to bring with him. What he couldn’t get on the other coast. What was worth pushing across the entire country.

He settled on a few photographs. That was really it. He had some stuff with sentimental value but the world had just died. So he climbed into a bottle of Scotch and in the morning he had a nice breakfast of dry cereal and bottled tea. Stretched, got dressed, and rode out.

He had trouble getting out of Providence. 146 was blocked off and he had to turn around. Backtracking sucks when you have to pedal every foot. He took 7 through the country and across into Massachusetts. Stopped for lunch and was exhausted. So he hung out for two hours and just watched the clouds go by.

Rode into a little town called Douglas. Found a gas station that had been sacked to shit. Nobody’d taken the little laminated maps. He plotted his route. Rode slow about two more hours and then stopped, ravenous, and ate another huge meal. Forced himself to ride a bit and got his second wind. Kept riding until almost dark. Pitched a tent and slept like the dead.

Woke up and wished he was dead. Sore as hell and as thirsty as he’d ever been in his life. Drank two liters of water. Biked through a terrible headache until he came to a small town. Pulled out his sledge and smashed a vending machine open. Filled up on water. Headed north.

Crossed into New Hampshire and then Vermont. The world felt small. Then he hit the hills. He made it to Brattleboro and was totally exhausted. Realized he had aimed for a city because his instincts were tuned to a dead world. Biked two miles out of town and pitched his tent near a pen full of pigs. In the morning he opened the gate for them and then rode off.

It took him a day just to go over the Green Mountains. He got off and walked five times. Got off and just stopped even more. When he got to the top he lay on his ass on the road until he realized that it was all downhill from there. Coasted into Bennington. Lay down on the sidewalk and woke up under the stars.

There were deer on the streets. Not the far away from him, wandering around. He rode around town a bit, just stretching his legs, and found a hardware store. He sledged his way in and traded his sledgehammer for a hammer-headed demo bar. Shaved eight pounds off his kit weight, and he could tell.

He pitched his tent and tried to sleep. Couldn’t sleep. Too hungry. He tried to fight through it. Couldn’t. Eventually he made some food. That left him too jazzed to eat. He broke camp and packed his bags and leaned his bike against a building and he sat on the sidewalk and leaned against his bike. Sat like that for two hours until dawn broke. Then he got on his bike and rode off.

He crossed New York State without trouble. Stayed to the country roads. World didn’t look much different, apocalypse or no. He veered off south to avoid Buffalo, then Cleveland. Didn’t see a soul. Saw a lot of dogs out on the street.

It was May. He was on the plains. The towns got farther and farther between. He’d break into farmhouses looking for food and almost always found it in supply. He carried less and less. He streamlined his equipment. He realized he hated his sleeping bag and he went into Madison to get a better one. Tried out two dozen on the floor of a sporting-goods store. Took the one he liked the best. It made his life better.

It was June in Deadwood. The weather had been rough but he didn’t feel like stopping. There wasn’t anything to do when he wasn’t riding. He took a big detour through Yellowstone and it was everything he imagined it would be. Better, too, because he was the only one there.

He got on 84 and rode on the highway. Stopped in Boise to get clothing that fit him better. He’d lost some weight and he felt really good.

Portland was ablaze from miles away. No one to put out the fire. He broke into cars until he found a gazeteer in a trunk, the car alarms were the first man-made noise he’d heard in weeks. Went around the city. Made it to Astoria bay.

It was colder in Astoria in July than it had been in Providence in April. So he got on 101 and burned straight south, riding his heart out, following the sea.

He was looking for a place to call home. Anywhere around here would do. Mild summers. No winters at all. Sunlight and good soil. Cities nearby.

He rode up and down for half a month before he found it. A little island called Cock Robin, in the middle of the river, two miles from the sea. Connected to the mainland with a sturdy one-lane bridge. A square mile of land ringed by trees. One big farmhouse in the middle. Fresh water flowing to either side.

He called out “Hello” all around the house. No one answered. He had to be sure. Then he opened the door – it wasn’t even locked – and looked around.

Smelled bad. Nothing new there. Found a dead dog on the floor and two dead people on mattresses. Wanted to open the window but didn’t want critters coming in. Found a shovel and got rid of the dog, at least.

Didn’t dare open the fridge. Found some kitchen twine and tied the door shut just to be sure. Got rid of some moldy loaves of bread. Took out the trash. Took out the recycling. Realized he couldn’t just leave it at the curb. Put it in his panniers and biked to the next house, left it there.

Lovely house. Two stories, looked like it was in good shape. Little garden out back that needed a weeding. Birds in the trees.

He checked out the barn. A dozen dead cows, absolutely awful. So he got the bodies out and the mattresses and put them in the barn. And then half furniture and all the crap from the previous owners. Poured on some rubbing alcohol, then thought better of it and waited until night-time. Drank a bottle of their crappy wine and lit a match and watched the barn burn.

The next day he went out into town. The streets were pretty bad. He went from house to house until he saw one with a big truck in the driveway. Went in and got the keys from a bowl next to the door. Had to put in a fresh battery, not much fun riding with that on your bike. Then spent the day driving around Eureka and nudging or towing cars out of the street. Got to be pretty good at it. Got low on gas. Got a hose and siphoned a few cars dry. Filled the truck right up. Easy enough.

He found a mattress store. Got himself a goddam ten thousand dollar mattress. Took a rich leather love seat from a chocolate shop’s foyer and a brushed aluminum executive’s chair from behind a lawyer’s desk. Got some bottled water from a dead fridge in a car dealership’s waiting-room. Got a pair of fifty-pound flower sacks from a bakery. The next day he went to an appliance store and got himself a bread-maker.

He had an interesting decision here. He could rough it or he could roll. If he roughed it he would try to be self-sufficient and eschew the things that he could scavenge. This was probably a much better long-term solution. If he was still alive in fifty years most everything around him would have rotted or rusted. Put it another way: there would no longer be any bread-makers. On the other hand, it seems silly to revert to barbarism when there was so much free for the taking. He could always be forced to adapt to a more natural life as it became necessary – while doing everything he could to retain the fruits of civilization.

So he brought home the breadmaker. And a little generator from the Wal-Mart in town. The thing could easily power the lightbulbs in his house, and a big fridge and freezer, and a stove too. Then he found a phone book and found a solar supply company about ten miles outside of town. Set up a bunch of solar panels on the lawn next to his house, and had about ten times the power he’d ever need.

He had an interesting idea. Drove around town in his truck until he found a Tesla. Didn’t take that long. This was northern California. Drove it home and charged it off his solar panels. The thing had a three hundred mile range and wouldn’t use a drop of gas.

Then he biked around town and found four more electric cars. Drove them back to his house and juiced them up. Would they all still work in fifty years? He thought so, if he maintained them. If he learned how to maintain them. He would try.

He found a tanker truck near the marina. Brimmed full of diesel. Three thousand gallons of burnable fuel. Didn’t bring it onto his island, left it on the mainland, nice and cautious. Still good to know that it was there.

He brought over a bunch more solar panels. Didn’t set them up. Just left them there in case the others went dead. He even set up a home theater system. Dragged over a ninety-inch OLED, tower speakers, woofer and tweeter. Filled two bookshelves with Blue-Rays. Couldn’t quite bring himself to turn the TV on. Other people, other voices… they’d just make him feel alone. Whereas so far he felt like the king of the world.

He raided a kitchen supply store. Set up his kitchen like a master chef or at least a very rich one. Went to a bookstore and set himself up with all the books that were ever going to be written. Got some books on farming and started to read. Got some book on greenhouses and set up four, right in a row.

He found a gun store. Got a lot of guns. And a whole lot of ammo. No real reason to, but it couldn’t hurt. Then he realized they could in fact hurt and he got a lot of protective gear and a good long book on firearm safety and use. Then he spent the rest of the day having fun with guns.

He found a telescope and set it up in his backyard. Wasn’t a lot of light pollution anymore. Got a big fancy camera and all sorts of lenses and a professional printer from a store downtown. Set it up in his basement. Ink wouldn’t last forever but it would last for a while. Then, hell, he could move to film and make a darkroom, if he wanted.

He set up a computer. Strangest thing to turn it on. No internet, of course. But he did assemble a pile of computer games in case he got the urge. Then he put them in a trunk because he didn’t want to live the last life on earth playing video games.

He got a few more bicycles. Started to ride just for fun. On a sleek carbon Pinarello. On a full suspension MTB. He took to carrying around a camera. Documenting the dead city. Documenting his little life. Filled up whole SD cards with photos. Went to the camera store and took a few hundred more.

At a store in town he found a robot garden, something he’d never heard of. Apparently they were a Thing. He mulched a ten-by-ten plot behind his house and lay steel rails above and below it. There was an arch between the rails that could move back and forth. Up there was a camera and a watering can and a little trowel. It would water them when they needed, destroy weeds that weren’t supposed to be there, and let you know when things were ready to harvest. Peter set up four of these little gardens. At which point he realized  he might not quite be roughing it anymore.

He needed water. He was five hundred yards away from the river. He got a bunch of pipe and a pump. Worked well enough. Then he built a little water tower. Took him weeks and weeks of reading and planning and working. Then several more weeks figuring out a better way to get water from the river. Until he had good shielded intake valves, inline purification, automatic backflushing, and a house with running water.

He installed a dishwasher.

There were farms around the outskirts of town. It took him a long time before he found one that had any animals left alive. He brought home twenty sheep bleating loudly in the back of a horse-trailer. Drove all around and found three dozen more, and a pair of horses, and a couple of skinny little cows. Couldn’t find a bull to breed the cows, and didn’t think of what he could do with the horses. But he figured there were enough sheep that they might last a while. At least until they got inbred.

He read a book about slaughtering sheep. He slaughtered a sheep. Very tasty. He froze the other thirty pounds of meat and ate it for two months. Not bad.

His garden started to yield. This was California, it would never stop. He’d soon have more food than he could eat. He was okay with that.

He set up a dozen little pre-fab sheds and used them for storage. One was full of spices. Things he couldn’t grow himself, like cinnamon and clove, vanilla and orange oil. One was for household goods, cleaners and glues and paints. One was for stuff from the pharmacy. Couldn’t hurt to have that nearby.

One he filled entirely with the best Scotch from all the liquor stores. Threw in some Napoleon brandy just because he could. He could take drink a day for the rest of his life without having to go to mid-shelf. The next two sheds were full of wine, the kind of wine that they kept in glass cases in the stores. Some of the bottles would age for fifty years. Some wouldn’t. He’d drink those first.

He broke his way into a jewelry store and got himself a goddam Rolex. He didn’t bother setting it. There was no time anymore.

He found a tree nursery. The trees were all dead. He found a hippie store that sold all kinds of seeds and he planted trees that would take twenty years to bear fruit. He planted a lot of them. In two decades he’d have orchards. How about that.

He lined the kitchen with recipe books. Did a lot of cooking. Cooking for one wasn’t all that much fun. He’d go for a long bike ride and work up an appetite and then it was worth it. Had to fight the urge to take pictures of his meals.

He started biking more. Got a weight machine, surprised himself by using it. Not a girl for 12,000 miles and he still worked out. Couldn’t decide if this was the bland outgassing of societal conditioning or the proper adherence to the civilized code. Whatever. He liked to exercise. It made him feel good. It made the lettuce crisper, and Chateau Petrus more a sin.

Got a big rainstorm. The roof leaked a little. He got some books and some tools and did a little work on it. Did a little more. Got some lumber from the Home Depot. Got a lot. Got some more books. Got some graphing paper. Designed a house. Dug a foundation. Built a house. Took him the better part of half a year. Big windows, hardwood walls, a big turret in the middle for looking all around . Used the old house for storage. Then built a proper storage, and burned the old house to the ground.

Went fishing. Caught fish. Big fish. Nobody else was catching them. Six months later the fish were bigger. He wondered how long the trend would go on. Figured he would probably find out.

Went on a wider ranging. Found a dozen small, thin cows in a pasture. Brought them back. Had to build some pens. Got a bunch of fence. Built pens. Killed a cow. Filled a freezer. Had meat.

Had a life. A lovely life. Had everything he wanted. Needed something more to want. Decided to travel more. Sure it was dangerous. No point in life without living it. Nothing so sweet as a nice warm bed and a monarch’s wine-cellar to come home to.

He went into the forests. Went hiking. Hiked Mt. Shasta. Did it again with more food and stayed three days at the summit until he finally got a view. He rigged up a big trailer and filled it with solar panels and went for a long drive, spreading them out and recharging every other day. Saw the Grand Canyon. Saw the Hoover Dam. Went back to Yellowstone and spent three weeks just hiking around. Saw a lot of deer. A lot of fucking deer. Did a little bit of hunting. Bagged a ten-point buck. Figured that in ten years no buck would have less than ten points. Kayaked across Clearlake. Kayaked back. Because he could.

Started listening to music. Had great speakers, records and CDs. Stuck with instrumental. Classical. Jazz. Then played something with a voice part and heard a human voice for the first time in years. How many years? No idea. The face in the mirror looked about the same.

Tried a movie. Saw a face. Watched a miniseries. Started watching a little every day. Started to miss people. Really missed them. Decided to go looking for them. No matter what.

Set up a battle rig. Stocked a Model S with survival equipment, water and food, two rifles and a 12-gauge and a pistol. Brought a bicycle and a Rokon with extra gas. Dragged a trailer  with a solar array. And his camera and some lenses. If he saw nobody he would see what there was to be seen.

Tried to get to San Francisco. All the bridges were blocked off. Went around to Salinas and north on 1. Still had to bike into the city. Didn’t see a soul. Shot a dog. Didn’t like that. Broke into a wine store and took few bottles of Yquem for the ride.

Went down to LA. Fire had swept through. Must have been a roaring majesty. Not much left. Tried Phoenix and Tuscon. Nothing, nothing. New Orleans was under water. Gainesville had gators in the streets.

On the way out of Florida he saw a billboard with white paint splashed all over it. Spraypainted on the white: PADUCAH HAS SURVIVORS. Worth a shot. So he went.

Saw more signs. Made it to Paducah. Nobody there. Big sign had an arrow on it. Followed the arrow.

Crossed a bridge and drove a little ways and he passed a car on the road. Person behind the wheel. He basically blacked out. Pulled over and stopped and got out and just stood there. Had to suppress the urge to run. Other person knew it. Had seen it before. Rolled down their window and waved at him. Gave him some time and then said, “Hey.”

There were two hundred people in the town of Ledbetter. A spit of land between two big rivers, bigger than Peter’s but the same idea. They’d gotten the Kentucky Dam producing power, they had crops in the ground, they were clearing up the cities nearby and sacking them nice and proper. They had people of all ages but mostly young people or middle aged. They weren’t more likely to have survived the plague. They were more likely to have survived since.

They had a doctor. They had two nurses and a shrink. They had five teachers and two professors. They had a bunch of teens who hadn’t been anything yet. They had an acrobat. They had a set of triplets who liked to fence. They’d found other settlements, one in Boulder, one in Kennebunkport. There were over a thousand people on PEI.

There’d been a lot of pairing up and a lot of having babies. The town was already struggling to get everyone together once a week. Peter hung out for a few days and then joined the town meeting. Another new fish was there, he’d been in the Bahamas but sailed out after a very bad hurricane. He had a kid with him who was seven years old and was totally freaked out by people. Peter said he thought he was the only one, he’d been in California, living in a paradise he built for himself.

“Did you find the people on Lake Tahoe?” someone asked.

“Or Vashon Island?”

“There’s a good thing going there.”

Peter turned pink, and couldn’t even shake his head.

Most people had gone to the biggest cities. Banded together there. Gone to find places to live. Some did it right off, some scavenged for months or years first. There’d be other stories later. Right now, there were people.

Peter met a girl. Beautiful. Young like him. She’d been a grad student at the University of Saskatoon. Tried to stick it out but it had gotten too cold. Traveled with two other survivors. One kept drinking and got a gun and then they shot him. The other was out on a motorcycle looking for survivors. Putting up billboards. Honking her horn and seeing what she could find.

He said, I live in California. I like to bike. I like to hunt. I like to cook from my garden. She said, I think the socially responsible thing would be for you to get me pregnant and keep me pregnant for two decades. I’ll try to let you have some time to bike. Not so sure about the hunting.

He had a choice, then. Go back to solitude. Go back and start a family. Start one here with people all around. It was no choice. He couldn’t leave teachers and doctors and people. They lay claim to a nice big farmhouse. Had power and water. Had it fixed up nice by the time their first came alone.

He kept her good and pregnant. It was the thing to do. In a decade there were two hundred adults with eight hundred kids. Set up a school for them. Sports for them. Chores for them. Lives for them. Weddings for them. Houses for them. They weren’t that old but how could you tell them not to go take an empty house for their own?

Peter was almost sixty. He had grandchildren, more coming all the time. People were spreading out. Founding new towns. Repopulating the country. When the last kids left home the two of them went out to his house in California. But they couldn’t stay there. They’d live the rest of their lives surrounded by their families and they would die.

Peter thought about a funny story. A tax lawyer in Providence – except the world hadn’t ended. Just kept spinning on. He’d just kept living his life. He’d work himself silly for a few years, a decade. Live well. Buy things. Buy Scotch and wine. Buy guns and cameras and cars. Buy a goddam Rolex. Work a little harder than just taking what he wanted. But in exchange he’d get health care and services. Not a bad trade.

One day the tax lawyer would get bored. He’d travel. Buy a weekend house. Plant a garden. Realize he needed more.  Find a girl. Raise a family. Do it in the suburbs because it was easier that way. Work less. Buy less. Be happy. Have a good life. Then retire. Put up his feet. Realize he’d lived a good life. Had good times. Lay himself down to die.

Peter thought it wasn’t all that different. And he died.

ToC to “Stories”

•23 October 2016 • Leave a Comment

In 2010 I finished college. As a capstone I collected my shorter stories and self-published them. Then I became a business consultant, then I went to law school. In between clients and classes I wrote three novels: Northern Tier, BBV, and Public Key. In between those, I wrote these stories.

Here is the table of contents to my second collection.

————————————————————————–

stories

-cycle
-soar
-gentrification
-mary’s murders
-common
-the voices in the heads
-toro
-dreadnought
-porlock
-sartori
-boom
-keys

memoirs of an invisible hand

-arbitrage
-advantage
-arrest i
-acquisition
-arrest ii
-appraisal
-authentic
-arrest iii
-attain

True Detective’s Infamous S2

•5 September 2016 • Leave a Comment

Season 2 of True Detective just didn’t quite work. But it came very close in many ways and so I think it’s worth exploring why it missed the mark. The short answer is that it tried to do too much. It tried to leapfrog Season 1 both in form and in function – and the form part didn’t really work, either. And so it Icarus’d. And we were disappoint.

First, function:

Last year I wrote a short article about True Detective and why it worked. Basically I said that there are dark little corners of this country, where the local custom and culture has not yet been homogenized into the national norm, and in these places weird shit can go down. The exploration thereof is the basis of a lot of Twin Peaks and The X-Files and now True Detective. It defines a genre: New Weird America.

True Detective Season 2 took this to its next level. It showed that you can have this same kind of atavism, nasty and weird, right smack in the middle of the modern world. It hides in plain sight. It actually exists! It doesn’t reach up from the darkness to steal our children; it reaches down from above to manipulate our everyday lives. In this way, Season 2 was an advance upon Season 1. Season 1 was fantasy with elements of realism; Season 2 approached the level of journalism – The Wire moved from B-More to The OC.

Functionally, then, Season 2 was a level above Season 1. But they didn’t stop with function. They tried to do the same with form.

Season 1 was told in a fairly linear fashion. In the present day, two dudes are being interviewed. They talk about the past. Eventually their narrative catches up to the present. Then, they go forth and conquer.

It’s a great storytelling device. But if you took it away, the series would not suffer. This particularly because the two narrators are telling the same story. It’s one frame around one narrative. Classic storytelling – Citizen Kane with a cherry on top.

Season 2 was not simple or linear. There were four protagonists instead of two. They didn’t even meet until the end of the first episode. They didn’t really start working together until the end of the sixth episode – the point in the first season when the detectives resume their partnership. And they had a great deal of their own shit going on – some of which ended up affecting the other characters, but much of which did not.

There was a definite madness to this method. The other point of Season 2 was that, as Jordan says,”Everyone gets touched” – the consequences of little choices, the interconnectivity of things and lives and the world. Heady stuff. Hence the season’s near-constant motif of California highway interchanges – the huge land-spanning Gordian knots that the detectives realize they cannot cut, but must untangle, from the beginning.

So there was a point to this. But saying “I meant to do that” only gets you so far. Making your TV show really disjointed and complex in order to prove a point does not excuse you from having made your TV show really disjointed and complex. It’s just not good storytelling. Certainly not for an eight-episode season of TV. Do you know why House of Leaves should not serve as the basis for the next season of House of Cards? Yes! Yes you do! I don’t need to explain it to you! Don’t do it!

Your goal is to make a detective story, not stage a dramatic reading of your essay about detective stories. Homage? Sure. Take it to the next level? Absolutely! But the function of this season was supposed to be a near-journalistic investigation into the entrenched power structures of urban insularities. You can Tom Wolfe that shit and this season nearly did. Wrap it around a good detective story and you’re David Simon holding the Maltese Falcon. Wrap it around an essay deconstructing detective stories and you’re the reason why fanboys shouldn’t be given production budgets.

True Detective Season 2 had two functions. One was to show that the weird and evil of the bayou can be found just as easily in Bel-Air. Phenomenal stuff. This too would have been enough. The other was to show that The Detective Story needs improvement. This is a tough nut to crack even when your audience is not defined by having liked your first season – a classic detective story! It’s doubly tough when it means you have to make a story which is noticeably hard to follow… and also get them to follow it. (The Night Of barely pulled this off, barely). And it’s triply tough when you are trying to leapfrog your first season in both form and function simultaneously.

There is one final point I’d like to make, and that is tone. True Detective Season 2’s tone was off. Even if it had been nothing but another Season 1 it still would have had problems. Too many furrowed brows, too many intense internal monologues made agonizingly external. Too little wit and too many purposeless homages. The first season found drama in small things; the second took nothings and belabored them like pinatas. It felt like it set out to put “an epic spin on topics that don’t [usually] get the epic treatment” – which is what PT Anderson said about Magnolia, for chrissakes. Season Two set out in function to avoid the sins of the genre; in form, to critique them; in tone, to commit them, each and every one. The first is a triumph; the second, a failure; the third, Brumaire-like, a farce. The three together was season two of True Detective.

There was also that five-minute-long dream sequence where a Conway Twitty impersonator in a powderpuff-blue tuxedo sang background to a prophecy that turned out to be right with no explanation and for no reasonBut if I’d started with that, you wouldn’t have bothered with my analysis. And, uh, maybe there’s something to learn from that, too.

A Brief Descent Into Lenses

•6 June 2016 • Leave a Comment

About nine months ago I purchased a Nikon D810. It’s a phenomenal camera – far better than I deserve. So I’ve been working to try to deserve it – a life’s project.

But the D810 is just a camera body. It doesn’t come with a lens. You have to supply one. Otherwise you can’t take a single photograph.

And by “one,” I’ve learned, I mean “more than one.”

I’ve been shopping for lenses essentially since I bought the camera. Right now I have two. I need more – though I’m not entirely sure how many more. That’s what this post is to help me find.

So I’m going to work through the problem from the beginning, and see if I can come to some conclusions.

CAMERA LENSES IN GENERAL
Camera lenses have two primary measures: focal length and speed. These are measured in “mm” and “f-stop” respectively.

FOCAL LENGTH

This is how wide or narrow the image is, from ultrawide lenses that can take in a whole horizon, to telephoto lenses that can see a bird in flight a mile away. You want wide lenses for certain things, teles for other things, and “average” lenses for certain things. So the smaller the number of mm, the wider angle it is; the larger the number of mm, the narrower angle it is.

For example:  A “normal” focal length is usually had from a 35mm or 50mm lens – if the human eye were a camera lens, it would be around 43mm. Nikon’s widest lens is 14mm, while its narrowest is 800mm.

SPEED

This is the maximum amount of light that can get into the lens. It’s kind of a misnomer: the more light can get in, the faster shutter speeds you can use – which means the easier it is to shoot moving things (and the easier it is to shoot from a camera held in unsteady human hands). So the smaller the f-stop, the faster the lens.

For example: The world’s fastest lens was f/0.7 – made by NASA and used by Stanley Kubrick. In terms of lenses for digital cameras, f/1.4 is considered extremely fast for a lens in the ‘normal’ range (24-85mm). Lenses get slower as they get wider (Nikon makes a 20mm f/1.8, and a 14mm f/2.8). Lenses also get slower as they get narrower (Nikon makes a 200mm f/2, a 400mm f/2.8, and its telescope-like 800mm is f/5.6).

PRIMES and ZOOMS:

All the lenses discussed above are PRIME LENSES. This means they have a fixed focal length; they can’t zoom in or out. ZOOM LENSES are lenses which have a range of focal lengths. You twist the lens and the focal length increases or decreases, zooming your field or vision in or out.

The benefit of this is you can own one lens instead of two (or ten), and also that you don’t have to physically swap lenses in order to zoom in or out. The downside is that zoom lenses are slower than prime lenses. Often much slower. And the wider their zoom range, the slower they get.

The biggest zoom range is on the Nikon 28-300 and 80-400, and the biggest tele range is the Tamron or Sigma 150-600.

The 28-300 is f/3.5 when shot at 28mm, and f/5.6 when shot at 300mm. The 80-400 is f/4.5-5.6. In comparison, Nikon makes a 28mm prime lens that stops up to f/1.4, and a 300mm prime lens that stops to f/2.8. The primes are a lot faster.

The Tamron 150-600 is f/5 at 150 – where Nikon makes a 135mm f/2 – and f/6.3 at 600 – where Nikon makes a 600mm f/5.6.

WEIGHT
Lenses can be heavy. This doesn’t mean much when you’re shooting from a tripod, in your studio – but even then it can be a consideration. It means a lot when you’re walking around, or hiking, or biking. It means a heck of a lot when, like me, you’re a bike tourist. And when you’ve got more than one lens, the weight adds up fast.

But even then: some lenses are too heavy to hold in your hands. Some are too heavy to hold for very long. And some are heavy enough that it’s going to make your hands less stable – causing vibrations – ruining shots. So weight is always a consideration.

For me, a lens that weighs 1lb is deal. Under 2lb can be successfully handheld or taken on a hike or bike. Anything more than that is impractical.

Nikon’s lightest lens is an old 50mm that weighs 135g – under five ounces. The heaviest is the 800mm weighing 4590g – over ten damned pounds. The 28-300 weighs 800g – just under 2lbs. The 150-600 weighs 1900g – over 4lbs – which makes it impractical.

SIZE

Lenses can be huge. Generally, a 50mm lens is the smallest. Wider lenses get wider, and telephoto lenses get longer (and also wider, but mostly longer). This is less of a consideration than weight, but still it has to be noted.

Nikon’s 50mm f/1.8G is 2.1″ long and 2.8″ wide. That’s about as small as a lens can get.

The 14mm is 3.5″ long and 3.5″ wide. It’s too big to pocket, but not too big to carry around on a wanderjahr.

The 70-200 f/2.8 is 3.5″ wide and over 8″ long. It is commonly referred to as “The Magic Drainpipe.”

The 800mm is 6.3″ wide (at the far end) and 18.2″ long. It is too big for use as anything but tripod decoration – or a very expensive shillelagh.

BOKEH

Bokeh is the quality of blurred backgrounds. If you focus on something close up, what’s behind it can get blurry. It’s a very cool look. It’s basically de rigeur for portraits.

The two things that effect bokeh are focal length and speed. The longer the focal length, the more bokeh; the faster the lens, the more bokeh. So a 50mm f/1.2 might do as well as an 85mm f/1.8, but not as well as a 200mm f/2. It’s a balancing act.

The fact that primes are faster, then, makes them much more useful for portrait photography.

CLOSE FOCUS DISTANCE

Some lenses can focus on an object that’s a foot away. Some are a little more. As usual, the 800mm lens wins with a minimum focus distance of about 20 feet.

AUTO-FOCUS

Basically, a lens needs this; I ain’t manual focusing on things. It’s hard enough when they’re stationary. When they’re moving, and quickly, you need computer assistance.

Some lenses have built-in autofocus motors. Nikon calls these AF-S or “silent wave motor” lenses. This is a very nice feature, but not a necessity.

VR

Vibration reduction. This wraps the lens’ inside-bits in a series of gyros that stabilizes the lens, in effect freezing the image so you can photograph it. You depress the shutter trigger halfway, the gyros kick in, and the image freezes – photographing it becomes kind of an afterhought. This negates the little hand tremors that can make a photograph blurry – which is especially important in low light, when you are shooting with slower shutter speeds. The effect is to make a lens faster without reducing its f-stop. In a nutshell: VR turns you into a human tripod.

AUTOFOCUS OVERRIDE

Older lenses will auto-focus unless you flip a switch on your camera, which is hard to do one-handed. Newer lenses will auto-focus and then stop the moment you touch the focus ring, allowing for you to perform quick corrections on the fly. I’m just starting to appreciate how incredibly useful this feature is.

DEFOCUS CONTROL

Only available on two Nikon prime lenses from the early 90s. This is a micro-focus control that lets you give even more blur to the backgrounds in portraits. If Nikon ever releases these lenses with updated optics and components, they will be the emperors of portraiture – as it is, they’re still the Barons of Bokeh.

OTHER SHIT

There is some other shit that can go on inside of a lens, but it’s even less important than the above. A lot of it falls under the category of sausage-making. Some of it falls under the category of marketing-related bullshit.

AND FINALLY: SHARPNESS

It is a great tenet of the photographer that sharpness has much more to do with one’s skill than one’s equipment. This is generally true.

Shooting with the right settings will let you take crisp shots in almost any condition. Or at least, it will let you know how many shots you will have to take to assure that one will be sharp.

The problem, here, is kind of with my camera. I shoot a 36-megapixel full-frame camera, which is kind of the equivalent of putting a dentist’s swing-arm magnifier in front of your bathroom mirror. Shoot my D810 right and you can see more of an eyelash than some old cell phone can see of a whole face.

But that’s only with a sharp lens. With a lens that isn’t so sharp, my camera will still take a great photo. But when you zoom it, it will look soft – even if shot perfectly.

As a result, if I want great photographs, I need great glass.

The good news is, there is a lot of great glass out there. The bad news is, a lot of it is expensive. Some of it is expensive af (and that doesn’t stand for ‘autofocus’).

WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE?

Price is correlated to all of the variables above. Want a really wide or a really tele lens? More money. Want VR or AF-S? More money. (Capitalism: one man’s progress, another’s diminishing returns.)

This is great in theory, because I could pay for what I wanted and not pay for what I don’t. The problem is, a lot of the variables are correlated to each other. For example, a lens that’s very sharp is also likely to be very fast, whereas a less fast lens is also likely to be less sharp. The result is that, if you want a sharp lens, you also have to pay for a fast lens. And so, in conclusion, LENSES COST A LOT.

THE UBERLENS

In the far distant future, when robots rule the galaxy and &c, the ideal lens will be a 14-1000mm f/1.0. It will fit in the palm of your hand and weigh a song – and cost less than one arm and one leg. Also, fourteen stops of VR.

Until then, what this all adds up to is: comparison shopping like it’s goin’ out of fashion.

Which is a wonderful segue into:

2) WHAT I NEED RIGHT NOW

In short: I need a telephoto lens.

When I bought my camera, I wanted to do primarily landscape work (both urban and natural), with a minor in portrait photography. I bought myself a 20mm ultrawide and a 50mm ‘regular’. They’re both phenomenal lenses – sharp, fast, light and small. I thought they would be all I would need.

I was wrong!

As it turns out, ultrawides are often the precise wrong thing for landscape photography. Shoot the horizon with an ultrawide and the picture will be 5% horizon and 95% extraneous shit. You have to zoom (or crop) forever to see a detail. And then that detail is only a fraction of the detail it could be in, if instead of zooming in after you took the picture, you zoomed in before – with a telephoto lens.

By and large, what you actually want for landscape photography is an extremely narrow focal length, so that you can isolate single landscape elements.

Likewise for portraits, a 50mm lens is not generally what you want. Shooting from a reasonable distance (fifteen feet), a 50mm lens could fit an entire basketball team. A 135mm lens is more appropriate for 3/4-lenth portraits, and a 300mm is more appropriate for faces.

It’s also much easier to blur a background (bokeh) with a telephoto lens. This isolates a person from their backgrounds, which is almost always good portraiture practice. So in both landscapes and portraits, isolation is often the key to composition. And as telephoto lenses are the key to isolating elements… carry the one…

I NEED A TELEPHOTO LENS.

My primary goal is sharpness. Second is maximum focal length. Third is weight. Everything else is deep in the distance.

…except for PRICE. It’s a meta-consideration. It’s not that I’ll pay more for a sharper or lighter lens: it’s that if I can’t get such a lens for a reasonable price, I won’t get one at all.

It used to be that an ultratele – 300mm or more – weighed at least five pounds and cost at least five grand. That would be unattainable, and also, of limited utility. But things have changed. There are new options. Progress has been made.

But how much progress? In short: should I buy a new lens, or eBay up an old one?

A LITTLE BIT OF WANKING ON ABOUT LENSES

It’s interesting to note that – basically – camera lenses got Perfectly Good in the 1970s. Everything we’ve seen since then has been:

a) reduction in weight or size of the lens

b) reduction in price of manufacture

c) bells and whistles

d) tiny incremental progress – AKA, diminishing returns

By and large, you never see (b). Because the camera companies are totally down with charging what people will pay. You see a shitton of (c) and (d) because the companies keep releasing ‘upgraded’ lenses in an attempt to keep their gougy-ass prices constant down through the years.

What you are starting to see, however, is (a).

It’s kind of like bicycles. In fact, it’s basically EXACTLY like bicycles and isn’t that convenient. N.B. there’s a very strong case to be made that bicycles peaked in the 1960s with good steel 10-speeds, and everything after that has been (a)(b)(c)or(d) – and not so much with the (b), neither.

The benefit of this to the cyclist is that you can push less bike around, letting you go faster. The comparable benefit to a photographer is to be able to haul more or better gear around, and shoot sharper images without having to do bicep curls in between.

I’m seeing this trend in a lot of products. In sleeping bags. In head phones. In laptops (absolutely). Planes and trains and automobiles. How do you improve a mature technology? Make it cheaper, or make it marginally better. How do you improve a truly mature technology? Make it do the same thing – but be lighter.

AND THIS BRINGS US TO:

Comparison shopping.

Right now, as I say, I have a 20mm and a 50mm. What I’m missing, then, is the telephoto range. This starts north of 50mm – around 70 or 85 – and continues to oblivion.

This isn’t just a matter of comparing lenses one-to-one. It’s a matter of thinking about how I shoot, how I want to shoot, and what kind of lens kit I want to build for that purpose.

In a nutshell:

-I could get a 70-300 f/4.5-5.6 and be done with it.

-I could get the 70-200 f/4, with an option to add the 300 f/4 PF -OR- an ultratele zoom (the Nikon 200-500, or the Tamron 150-600).

-I could get the 300 f/4 PF, with an option to add the 70-200 f/4 -OR- stay prime with the 85mm f/1.8.

Let’s look at the lenses individually.

THE NIKON 70-300 f/4-5.6

The problem here, alas, is that this is not pro-grade glass. It’s just not. I’ve shot with it, and it’s just not sharp. In addition to being slow, and slow to focus, and inaccurate of focus… it’s just. plain. bad.

Which is what one expects from a $100 price tag. Alas alack.

THE NIKON 85mm f/1.8

Excellent lens. Commonly used for portraits. Very sharp. Very fast. Tiny. And pretty cheap!

But the difference between a 50mm and an 85mm just isn’t that large. With a real telephoto – certainly the 70-200, but possible even the 300 – I doubt I’d use it all that much. However, though that might be a strike against buying it, that’s not a strike against building a kit that incorporates it – that leaves a hole for it, I should say, which I might then fill or not as needs transpire.

$400

THE NIKON 70-200 f/4

Excellent lens. Weighs 30 ounces, which is on the side of the angels (and not the side whereby a photography sessions requires that one carb up). Slower than the 70-200 f/2.8 “magic stovepipe,” but half the weight, half the price, and even a little bit sharper. Also, five repeat five goddam stops of VR.

Really the only thing that stands against it is the fact that it’s not that deep a tele. Would I rather be able to shoot at a range up to 200, or shoot at 50 (or 85) and 300 with nothing in between?

$1100

THE NIKON 200-500 f/5.6

Very sharp. Incredible range. A little slow. Huge – impractically so.

This is another consideration. The 300 is portable. The 200-500 is not – but its lack of portability allows two hundred millimeters more. Is the 300 then just a compromise – and is that a bad thing, or the best of all?

$1200

THE TAMRON 150-600 f/5-6.3

Even more range. Even slower. A little less sharp. Just as huge. But still, by all accounts, a very nice lens – and comparatively cheap – and SIX HUNDRED MILLIMETERS.
$850

THE NIKON 300mm f/4 E PF VR.

If it wasn’t for this lens, very little of this conversation would be occurring. The question would be, Which do I get first – the 70-200, or one of the ultratele zooms? But I would know that, inevitably, I’d be getting them both. And that would be my lens kit.

Enter the 300.

A few months ago, Nikon released a new telephoto lens. It’s a 300mm, which Nikon has been making since 1971. It has some bells and whistles – AF, VR – but nothing that Nikon hasn’t had on its 300 since 1987. No, the biggest difference here is weight and size.

The older Nikon 300mm autofocus lenses weighed 47 and 51 ounces. This lens weighs 26. They were 9″. This is less than 6″. This lens has all dem bells and whistles, as is now to be expected. It is also preposterously sharp, almost perfectly so – as sharp as the “pro quality” 300mm f/2.8, which is 11″ long, weighs 52oz, and costs $5,500.

It accomplishes this, in part, by using a fresnel lens. Which I mention only because I’ve long had a peculiar interest (read that phrase lasciviously) for fresnel lenses. Also because – yes, I know – but there is something special about using a piece of Very New Technology. About using it in one’s own hands -hanging it around one’s neck.

This is a 300m ultratelephoto lens that can easily be handheld, for hours on end – and then bundled into the pannier and biked away.

$1600

IN A PERFECT WORLD

Well, I’d have all of them.

But that isn’t entirely impractical. They do different things. I’d have the 200-500 (say) as basically a budget 500mm zoom. I would take it with me wherever a car could carry. I’d have the 300mm for carrying, hike or bike. And I’d have the 70-200 and/or the 85 depending on what I found I needed. Dratted that experience can only come after purchase!

The problem is that the 70-200 and the 200-500 together cost, via the good graces of eBay, over $2000. Add in the 300 and the 85, and we’re at $4,000. When my ideal expenditure on glass would be, of course, $0 – but I can hardly justify $1600, let alone the more.

IN THIS HUMBLE WORLD OF OURS

I need to choose.

Among the ultrateles, which would I rather have: the range of the 200-500, or the portability of the 300?

And in general, which would I rather have now: the versatility of the 70-200, or the longer range of the ultratele?

Well, that is the question. There it is. And for the moment: “Let it suffice that the malady has been diagnosed—heaven alone knows how to cure it!”

 
%d bloggers like this: