The Control Group

Another piece of a WIP–likely to be included among other short pieces about a colony.

In the zone, they kept to themselves, unaware but safe from the turmoil elsewhere in the colony. They were the control group, maintaining the history and the culture of the settlers as of their arrival. The monitors remained in orbit, comparing the communities scattered among the five sites thought suitable for settlements. Those in orbit paid close attention to those communities developing their own response to the stresses of colonizing the primitive planet—the effects of dealing with the indigenous flora and fauna. Decisions had to be mad. Some would become leaders. Some would become followers. Some would conform while others would rebel.

The control group had several years of provisions to enable their isolation from both the planet and their fellow settlers. At the end of the trial period, the monitors were tasked with evaluating the success of the various communities and comparing them to the control group. The results would determine whether to relocate millions of people to the planet. So the orbiting observers focused their attention on the five communities. They ignored the control group for the most part, thinking them safe and secure in their seclusion. They were mistaken.


Death Deferred

Death crept on soft slippers  through the empty house. Soundlessly, he went from room to room, upstairs and down. He found no living beings. He checked the roster one more time to be sure. The list said she’d be here. Eleven PM, Sunday, December 14. The scheduler screwed up again, no one home–especially the departee. Or did a rogue reaper spirit the woman away, giving her some extra days? He’d not seen one in the small town but they were more stealthy than he was. They kept the tools of death from their former trade but used them in reverse, delaying the deaths of those whose time had come.

Heaven or hell, it mattered not to him where the souls he harvested were headed. When it’s your time to go, you’re supposed to die and he made it happen. Except when the rogue reapers got there first and interfered with his assignment—or when the scheduler got the date wrong. If it were one of the desk jockeys who screwed this one up he’d be on their case again when he got back to HQ. Not that complaining ever made much difference.

The Third Age–What You Can Learn from Fortune Cookies

an open fortune cookie

Fortune cookies occasionally offer genuine wisdom. So it was one night in 2016, eating at the one remaining Chinese restaurant in our small town. The one I got said this:

“It’s not the years in your life but the life in your years that count.”

That seems true enough. In the Third Age, as some call it, it’s most important to keep your life happening in this time of opportunity.

To retire from life is to die sooner than later. Retire from a job, not life.

Oddly, whether the fortune brought it to mind or not, the thoughts about age came to mind on my wife’s birthday last fall. My son’s birthday comes two days after hers. I noticed that he is now one-half his mother’s age. In 2017, he will be half my age. While never a math whiz in school, I hated it in fact, I became a budget analyst at work. So now I’m equally comfortable with spreadsheets and simple math concepts. Odd, I noted, how ratios work in considering the family member ages.

My brother has now been retired more years than he put in at the one major corporation he worked for from the time he earned his engineering degree. I have another ten years plus a few months to achieve that milestone. Oddly enough, I should be about the same age he was when that occurred in his life. Numbers, interesting to some and boring or even challenging to others. But the important thing is that both he and I keep “life in our years.” So do our spouses. No bucket list—just planned vacations, regular activities and social interactions. My wife has her art quilting. I have my writing. We are enjoying our Third Age.

The Dinner

She called unexpectedly one day.

“Hi, it’s Sherry. We Met at Drew’s party. I’m a friend of Alice.”
“Uh, sure. I’ve seen you a few other times as well, haven’t I,” Bill said. “Maybe at some group meetings?”
“Yes, but I’m not a member. I belong to another one.”
Bill fiddled with the phone cord as he said, “OK. So what’s up?
“Well, I thought you were kind of interesting. I wanted to get to know you better.”
“Well, what did you have in mind?”
In retrospect, he realized he didn’t make it any easier for her, but then he really didn’t know what was up. A call from a woman he barely knew. It was the late 70s–not the 60s after all. But the more things change, the more they stay the same, he concluded.
“How about you come over for dinner at my place?”
Bill pulled the phone cord a little harder and looked out window at the sun peeking through clouds before answering. “Yeah, sure, why not. When?”
After dinner, things moved along quickly. He might have, but didn’t, expect how quickly. She and her boyfriend had an “open relationship,” she explained. He should have known better. He’d been there and done that before. Triangles and quadrangles are useful concepts for geometry but in human relationships they just don’t end well. Worse, the complications that develop along the way cause pain.


Think of the fortune that some techno nerd could make finding the secret technique of turning message spam into the real thing. Selected Pieces of Assorted Meat [one theory of the name’s origin]–SPAM. The US has its CAN-SPAM Act. The EU is even more stringent, with its double opt-in requirement for subscriptions. Few people like the spam they receive in their inbox. Surprisingly perhaps, some (especially those in Hawaii) savor the compressed cube of meat and meat by-products packed in  a can.

Who first develops the software that doesn’t just block or delete spam but can make it into an edible processed meat product will surely be blessed with wealth. Well, at least make a few bucks. Consider–the edible ad product could be sent to WI-FI coffee shops where people could gobble it down in between web surfing, messaging or composing the next best seller. Or maybe provided at a discount to homeless shelters. Finally, imagine it’s use as dietary torture for interrogating terrorism suspects. Assuming they’re devout Muslims, pork (an ingredient in the original) is on the list of food prohibited by their faith. Never mind that the ads that go into the converted product might contain no pork.

Soon we might all be hearing Weird Al crooning his tune with a licensing agreement for an ad, “Eat it, eat it . . . “

Dog is My Copilot

Dog is My Copilot

Sure enough, a hairy beast matching the bumper sticker sat in the passenger seat. It might have been a wolf but for the goofy grin it gave Wilson as he passed on the right, turning onto the road heading out-of-town. Soon he’d be in the company of real wolves, albeit unnatural ones. The pack hunted together only on those special nights of the year. Nights when the full moon shone brightly over the meadow deep in the woods, far from the small California college. Wilson and his friends studied medieval literature. In fact, they majored in more arcane subjects for which the college granted no degree. They drew straws those nights, with the loser being the designated human left to guard the clothes they shed before turning.Wilson held a longer straw this night. He’d have his fun with Sheila, resplendent in furry flesh. They ran away from the pack on their own, enjoying the night privately–until they encountered the lost hikers, sharing the woods on winter break. That’s when the conflict began, when the pack tracked the mingled scents.



Flotsam and Jetsam

I’m not sure from whence the information came–possibly one of those sites that publish stories on Martian babies born to celebrities. Unlikely that it came from Wikipedia. But I believe it anyway. Flotsam and Jetsam are twin brothers, most likely of Scandinavian descent. Some say they might have come from somewhere along the coast of the Baltic Sea. At least it’s said they dealt in recovering and refinishing debris washed ashore near their seaside village. The items sparked the imagination even as their gleam captured the visual senses. Much work went into fashioning the stuff into appealing souvenirs or for the better ones, objet d’art. Off the beaten path, their work seldom afforded them the wealth they deserved. So they retired to Copenhagen. That’s where they made their mark and their fortune. From scavengers they became successful merchants, dealing in chewing tobacco. A baseball player visiting from America enjoyed their new product so much that it became a big hit across teams in America. Eventually, of course, some of the younger players abandoned their product for gum. By that time, they were ready to move on to Copenhagen’s next big hit, marijuana.

Winter’s Grip Comes Early to Much of America

Been there, done that. A phrase perhaps out of favor by now, through overuse. Still, it applies. Growing up there and spending many years off and on, Minneapolis is feeling an early cold snap right now. One January, some decades ago, the average temperature for the month was well below zero. But here’s a fond memory of Minneapolis winters–well, not the below zero days. Maybe the heat wave days of high teens or low 20s.

Bridgeman's ice cream shop

There’s nothing like an ice cream cone on a cold winter’s day. I used to get one at Bridgeman’s, on the south side of  Hennepin Avenue between 6th and 7th streets. It’s long gone now. My dubious theory? The cold cone nearly equalized the inner and outer temperatures, making me warmer. More likely, of course, the warming came from the sugar–offering a carbohydrate boost to the metabolism. My theory seemed nearly plausible back in the 70s. If you’re in Minnesota right now or some other very cold place, why not give it a try? It might work for you.

If you’re not there now but do want to visit Minnesota, spring or fall are more tolerable from a heat and cold perspective. On the other hand, summer does have the Aquatennial in Minneapolis and the Winter Carnival comes to St. Paul in January. Just bundle up for the latter. Don’t be like the high school girls of the sixties (and today?) walking around with open toe shoes, skirts and short socks.

If you want to escape your deep freeze, wherever you are, you could come visit us near Silver City, New Mexico. December is normally the coldest month in southwestern New Mexico. Not this year. It will be in the mid 60s most days this week. Warmer than average the rest of the month as well. I think it’s the work of La Nina.

Shakespeare’s Sleep–Elusive for Some

He died at 52–probably a long life in the 16th century. Still, I must suppose that had Shakespeare lived another 15 years he might have worded these lines from Hamlet a little differently,

To sleep, perchance to dream.

Seriously, for most guys over 60 or certainly 65, it’s more like,

To sleep, perchance to pee.

More than once, most nights. Dreams are fine–entertaining in their way at times. But sleep, now that certainly could:

“Knit up the raveled sleave of care” or be “the balm of hurt minds.”

But only if it persisted, steadily on course to morning, rather than being somnum interruptus. Just the other night I skipped the ice cream during TV watching. (Dairy products do their magic on the bladder). Only got up twice, nonetheless. Unfortunately, the 2nd came at 5:45. Not so early, but then I retired at 11:30 and didn’t immediately enter into dreamland. I used to get by on 6 1/2 hours of sleep back in the working years–fewer in college. Now the shortfall in

Great nature’s second course

leaves cobwebs in the brain. Perhaps a spider or two, crawling the interior of the cranium right where attention stops short of being fully paid.

Why isn’t the coffee done yet? Oh, didn’t turn on the #*x$#$% machine. Thankfully, exercise and a shower cleared the head that spent less than its essential time in bed. I determined to be more productive the next day. Clean up for company coming on Thanksgiving, work on the websites, etc. The next night, I hoped, would be the

Chief nourisher in life’s feast,

that along with the turkey.


It Might Have Happened Like This

The wind came early that year, bringing with it the spring that never ended. Flowers bloomed as never before. Fruit soon followed. Sweet, succulent and intoxicating delights drenched beards or bodices of all who partook of it. Everyone enjoyed the sunny days and refreshing nights. When the wind went its way, they all waited for spring to give way to summer. It did not. Some thought spring might pass directly to fall. It did not. Winter never came either. People enjoyed the fruit while it lasted. They enjoyed the weather as well—for a time. Then some became unsettled. Cranky even. “It’s not normal,” they said.

At first just a few talked of leaving. Then they did. Soon others followed. Eventually, only a goat remained. He ate what fruit remnants the town’s people left behind. Then he too moved on, to a town whose seasons still came and went. He stopped at St. Cecilia’s Rectory when he saw a man smoking. A man he could follow–which he did.


 Read the short piece by James Tate that inspired this post. You will enjoy it.