“All the Wishes” – Another Very Short Story

As he did last year, author Eric Douglas issued a challenge to write a 100-word story for Halloween. Not less than 100 words, not about 100 words – 100 words exactly. It’s much harder than you’d think, but I like what I came up with for this try.

Here it is – “All the Wishes”

There was a flash, like a Polaroid photograph had been taken just near Frankie’s face. When his sight returned, the sky was a solid, pale green, just as Frankie wished.

Floating above the battered brass lamp in the passenger’s seat was a misty apparition with vaguely Persian features. “You see?”

“All the wishes?” Frankie asked, grinning.

“Yes.”

“Anything I want?”

“Anything.” The apparition nodded what you might call its head. “I may someday ask a favor.”

Frankie put the car in drive and pulled away from the curb, potential wishes swimming through their mind.

What could go wrong?, Frankie thought.

Be sure and check out Eric’s website for links to all the other 100-word stories he got!

Happy Halloween!

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Weekly Read: Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

– Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200, 207 (1927)

In the rogues gallery of bad Supreme Court decisions – things like Dred Scott, Plessy, and Korematsu  – few had summed their own awfulness up so succinctly as Buck v. Bell, in which the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Virginia’s law allowing the forced sterilization of the “feeble minded.” The decision was nearly unanimous (the lone dissenter didn’t write an opinion explaining his vote) and, horrifically, it is still “good law” in the 21st Century (a claim is shares with Korematsu).

Imbeciles, by lawyer turned journalist Adam Cohen, isn’t a deep legal analysis of Buck itself. Instead, it tells the story of the case by focusing on four people involved in it. First (and last) is Carrie Buck, the Virginia woman eventually sterilized for being “feeble minded.” Second is Albert Priddy, who ran the Virginia institution where Buck was committed prior to her sterilization (he dropped out before the case hit the Court, being replaced by Bell). Third is Aubrey Strode, the Virginia legislator and lawyer who helped pass the law and then defend it in court. Finally, there’s Olive Wendell Holmes, the Supreme Court Justice who authored the opinion. The result is an interesting, depressing, and angering story that provides a lot of needed background to the Court’s brief (5 paragraphs) opinion.

Cohen structures the book so that we begin with Buck’s life up to the case began and end with her life after her sterilization. In between, we get a chapter each on the background of the other guys and then a chapter covering their intersection with the case. It’s a fairly effective way to structure things, although not carried off very creatively (each chapter title is just someone’s name, like a George R.R. Martin tome). It also leads to some redundancy, particularly as Cohen uses Priddy’s and Strode’s background chapters as means to sketch out the broader picture of the eugenics movement.

That movement, though eventually discredited and forgotten (the Nazis being enthusiastic adopters of eugenics helped it slip down the memory hole), echoes in the 21st Century political diatribes about immigration and wall building. Indeed, the sterilization arguments were basically the same as the arguments for restricting the immigration of “undesirables,” with the added twist of them already being in the United States. Beyond that, sterilization was largely a way for society to deal with a perceived problem on the cheap – it was too expensive to warehouse the “feeble minded” in a more beneficent way. Sterilization followed by release into society was cheap, easy, and, thanks to the Supreme Court, perfectly legal.

I’ve read some complaints from readers that Cohen spends too much time diving into the biographies of his subjects, to the detriment of a broader understanding of the eugenics movement. I think that misses the point, somewhat. Cohen presents a good argument that Buck v. Bell was as much the result of those biographies as it was legal theory or factual findings. It’s not a complete success (Holmes may have been predisposed to support eugenics, but this wasn’t a close case), but I find it fairly persuasive. For example, see here for a law review article putting Holmes’s vote down his experiences during the Civil War (something Cohen touches on).

The personal relationships explain how the law’s most dubious component came into being. Strode drafted the law, perhaps in a way that meant to slow down its implementation. For example, he refused calls to have the sterilization scheme applied to all Virginians, rather than only those in state custody. Similar provisions in other states had been struck down on equal protection grounds. Cohen argues that while Strode was a skilled lawyer and advocate, he wasn’t the eugenic evangelist that Priddy and others were.

One of those provisions of the law was a requirement that it not go into effect until the Supreme Court approved it. On the face of it, this seems like a good thing – why not wait for the high court to weigh in? But that’s not the way the American legal system is designed to function. Courts (up to and including the Supreme Court) only adjudicate live “cases and controversies” – meaning actual disputes that require a resolution. That’s why issues of standing are so important, as there can be no actual dispute if someone doesn’t have the ability to seek redress against the other party. Our system is designed to allow two interested parties to argue against each other, present evidence to support their claims, and ultimately allow a neutral third party to pick a winner. It’s trial by combat, only less bloody and more mentally taxing.

By requiring the Virginia law to be blessed by the Supreme Court before it went into effect, Strode effectively set the stage for the farce that was Buck v. Bell. Cohen lays out how Priddy, Strode and others essentially conspired to produce a “test case” for the Court. Now, test cases and strategic litigation on social issues isn’t a bad thing – the one that always stands out to me is how the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education was chosen partly because the black school she attended was actually better than the closer white school she would have otherwise attended (that took the idea that it was separate, but not equal, off the table and forced the discrimination issue to the fore). But that’s different than a setup. Buck v. Bell was a setup.

That was largely true for two reasons. First, Buck herself was largely kept in the dark about the whole thing, both the operation to sterilize her and the litigation about it. It’s hard to have a real case or controversy if the plaintiff isn’t really driving the bus. Second, and more importantly, Buck’s lawyer, Whitehead, was in on it from the get go. He was friends with Strode and Priddy and did nothing that a competent lawyer would think of as competent. With only token resistance, Strode rolled through the courts and up to the Supreme Court, getting the ruling everybody wanted (and needed). This is, perhaps, the biggest flaw in Cohen’s argument that Strode wasn’t quite as on board with eugenic sterilization as the rest of those involved – he knew how the system was supposed to work and proceeded with the farce, anyway.

Ultimately, the focus is on Carrie Buck, who opens and closes the book. It’s a natural through line for the story of her particular case (obviously), but a little bit dangerous as a thread holding together a book about eugenics as a broader movement. That’s because, as Cohen makes clear again and again, there simply wasn’t evidence to support the conclusion that Buck was “feeble minded.” In fact, she appears to have been a perfectly normal person of average intelligence. As a result, the book comes dangerously close to suggesting that the real injustice is that Buck wasn’t actually a moron, rather than the state mandated sterilization of anybody. It’s a bit like telling the story of prison overcrowding through the eyes of someone who was wrongfully convicted. It’s powerful, but perhaps not for the right reason.

Imbeciles is a compelling story of a Supreme Court case, the people who guided it, and the woman who got caught up in its wake. Highly recommended.

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Weekly Listen: Hero and Heroine

I hadn’t had any exposure to The Strawbs until I saw them at ROSFest last year. Originally announced as the Friday headliner, they wound up squished into a crammed Saturday schedule after some travel difficulties. They took the stage and roared through a single album, 1974’s Hero and Heroine. For a bunch of guys pushing retirement age, they were pretty damned good.

As I said, I went into that set cold. I knew, vaguely, that the band had a folksy background and had (at some point) included Rick Wakeman, but I was ignorant otherwise. I was, therefore, in the perfect frame of mind to absorb Hero and Heroine. There’s definitely folksy roots, but they rock on occasion (in a way that similar folksy based proggers like, say, Renaissance never do) and there was some interesting keyboard work going on. Sure, Dave Cousins’s voice had seen better days (did I mention retirement age?), but he still grabbed the tunes by the balls and delivered a great performance.

Needless to say, I had to pick up a copy of this album.

I headed downstairs to where the band’s merch table was. Sure enough, they had a whole stack of the album for sale. Or, at least, a version of the album:

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Dubbed Hero and Heroine In Ascencia, it was a newly recorded version, rather than the original release. I didn’t really think twice about picking it up, since I figured there was a good reason for the new recording (other bands have, for legal reasons, rerecorded their own work to obtain the rights). Besides, this one was recorded by the band I’d just seen (aside from the keyboard player) – bonus!

 Repeated listens really drove home just how rough Cousins’s voice is, though. With the energy of a live setting it’s one thing, but in the studio you get more picky. So I started wondering what the original sounded like, how the two would compare against each other. Sure enough, the original is legitimately available, so I grabbed if from Amazon and took a listen.

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Aside from some slight rearranging of a few bits, both albums play the same. The performances, however, are very different. The 1974 version sounds much younger. It emphasizes the band’s folksy qualities. Cousins’s voice is pure, youthful, and full of life. It comes off well, just this side of being too “twee.”

The new version, by contrast (and perhaps surprisingly, given the older lineup) is more powerful, rocks harder, and just has more guts to it. Cousins’s voice has lost its youthful vigor, but that even works in its favor. Where the original sounds like a tale of love told through the eyes of a young man, one either living it or perhaps aspiring to it, the new version sounds like the pained reminiscences of an old man looking back on his own history. A lyric like “after all, it’s just the revolution I despised,” comes off as cocky and simple minded in the older version, but bitter and knowing in the new version. The shift of perspective gives the whole thing more depth.

Now, I may be full of shit about this. In fact, I wonder if my opinion would be flipped if I had first heard this album back in college or law school when I rediscovered prog. After all, it would have been the original and I would have been younger, so maybe I would have looked at the newer version in the way I look at the modern version of Yes – a pale facsimile of the genuine article. Certainly, by the time I was sitting in the Majestic Theater on a Saturday afternoon this year I was in a different head space than I was back then.

That’s one of the things about music (or any piece of art) that’s both wonderful and frustrating – you bring so much of yourself to it that it’s hard to ever get a “true” read on it. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all, and when and how that impression gets made might make it hard to ever overcome it.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the new version of Hero and Heroine speaks to my cynical side in a way that the original version doesn’t to my romantic side. That probably says more about me than it does about the album, which is pretty damned good in any event.

Water Road Wednesday: First Excerpt from The Bay of Sins

The Water Road Trilogy wraps up later this year with The Bay of Sins. The bay is where the Water Road empties into the sea and is home to the island city of Tolenor, home of the Triumvirate. In ancient times it was where pilgrims would come to wash away their sins. It’s always been a place of reckoning.

 In this scene, something happens in the new Neldathi city of Albandala that will require some reckoning.

It was overcast the next day, snow spitting from the slate grey sky. Weft made his rounds in the morning, speaking with members of various clans, chatting about nothing important. He was feeling things out, trying to get information without anyone knowing they were giving it to him. He usually had better luck, but today people seemed tight lipped. Something was in the air, something Weft couldn’t quite put his finger on.

The day began to achieve some focus when he saw an old Neldathi man emerge from the meeting hall in the center of the city. The long, low log building was where the clans met to discuss vital issues. It wasn’t clear what this meeting had been about or how many people had been involved, but the old man’s bearing and entourage suggested that he was important. Weft suspected he was one of the chiefs, a thek, but he couldn’t tell from which clan. He had no painted lines in the long black and grey braid that hung down his back.

Even if he couldn’t tell which clan the thek belonged to, Weft could make a guess as to which faction could claim him. It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, but generally an unpainted braid identified one as a unificationist. If a Neldathi still wore clan colors, most likely he was an independent. This was most likely one of Antrey Ranbren’s men, come to Albandala on a mission.

Weft watched as the man shuffled through the snow. There were four younger men with him, all of them also wearing black braids. Warriors, no doubt, although none of them had weapons to hand. One had a rifle slung across his back, another a short spear of some kind. The others no doubt had knives or swords on them, but Weft couldn’t see. Regardless, they were woefully unprepared for what came next.

The thek was greeting people as he shuffled. He must have been popular, at least among some portions of Neldathi society. People gave him what looked like warm hellos, meeting him with smiles and nods. The jumble of voices overtaxed Weft’s limited grip on the language. The numbers overwhelmed his guards, who looked reluctant to try and push back the well wishers anyway. Were they obeying the thek’s orders?

One Neldathi, smaller than the others and with black, blue, and red stripes in his braid, stepped forward with another group to greet the old man. Weft had a hard time keeping sight of him, with the press of tall bodies around him blocking the view. He worked his way through the crowd just in time to see the small Neldathi raise his right arm and charge at the thek. He yelled something, low and guttural and angry. Weft couldn’t begin to understand it, but he caught the gist. There was a pistol in his right hand.

It wasn’t as loud as he expected, but the shot rattled Weft’s bones all the same. The speed and violence of the maneuver took him by surprise. He knew something like this might happen, but had no idea when. In the blink of an eye there was a cloud of smoke surrounding the old chief as he fell, clutching his throat. The snow turned red underneath him.

The shooter held the useless pistol aloft and began to laugh, loudly, in a way that proved he was out of his mind. Before he could even try to run away another Neldathi, this one taller, wider, and altogether more in keeping with the stereotype of his people, tackled the shooter, driving him to the ground.

There was no need for Weft to see what happened next. His work was done. He needed to leave the city as quickly as he could.

Get caught up with the trilogy by picking up The Water Road and The Endless Hills now.

Weekly Read: We Stand On Guard

There’s an episode of Futurama where Fry and Bender are sent off to a far away planet to battle a species of alien ball things (they joined the Army for the discounts, but “war were declared”). The dramatic pivot – if such a thing could exist in an episode that included Zapp Brannigan, the disembodied heads of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, and a running gag about M*A*S*H – is when Fry learns that the planet wasn’t just a rock, but the home planet of the aliens. In other words, we were the invaders, the bad guys.

That, largely, is the big idea behind We Stand On Guard, in which a small band of guerillas in the Canadian wilderness fight back against marauding invaders from . . . the United States. It’s an interesting idea and in the hands of Bryan K. Vaughn – of Saga, The Private Eye, and many others fame – you’d think it would be more interesting. As it is, the six-issue run is too short to do anything all that original and, in the end, it turns into a better executed version of Red Dawn. With, you know, Canadians.

You see, in 2112 (a Rush reference, surely?), somebody bombs the White House. In response, we blow the ever loving shit out of Canada. You may think what happened in the South Park Movie was bad, but that’s just peanuts to what we do in We Stand On Guard. Fairly quickly thereafter we’re thrown into the story of Amber who, along with her brother, survived the initial onslaught and lived to fight another day. The story flips back and forth between the present (2124) and the past as Amber and her brother escape advancing American forces.

Why does any of this happen? It’s not really clear, even by the end of things. Sure, some Canadian general confesses to the White House thing, but it’s clear he’s been beaten (at least) and so I suspect this isn’t supposed to be the final word on things. Why we freaked the fuck out and razed our long-time peaceful neighbor doesn’t even get a cursory explanation. We’re out for Canadian water, but whether that’s a happy accident of the invasion or the goal of it is never clear.

Which is a shame, because beyond the initial setup the story plays out like any where the main character joins a plucky band of resistance fighters. It’s bloodier than most, but in the end the good guys win (at least for now) because, you know, they have to. As my brother is fond of saying, “because it’s in the script.” The brief run time doesn’t allow for any of the characters to get defined beyond archetypes or for any kind of interesting world building that doesn’t directly relate to the story We Stand On Guard is rushing to tell.

We Stand On Guard has a lot going for it, anyway. The art’s quite good, clean and vivid. And Vaughn has come up with some really awful ways to get people to talk. Let’s just say that in a hundred years we’ve become even more fluid with our “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And, say what you will about the short nature of the book, that means it doesn’t drag at all. It’s fast paced pretty much from the get go.

Which is precisely the problem. It’s an odd thing to say, but this would have been better had there been more of it. The Private Eye got ten “issues” (since it was originally released in digital format only I’m not sure how they compare to regular comic issues) and that seems about the minimum needed to tell a story set in a new world populated by new people. Maybe there’s a comics equivalent to a director’s cut out there, somewhere, that would fill in some of the blanks.

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