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Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary

Category

memoir

My Struggle Is Real

SPARKLING MIKE

Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have each expressed their belief that Artificial Intelligence may be the most dangerous existential threat to the survival of the human race. For decades, Artificial Intelligence has been depicted in science fiction, television and film. Sometimes it’s a benevolent presence, like R2D2 and 3CPO in Star Wars, Data in Star Trek or Rags the dog in Woody Allen’s “Sleeper.” However, more often than not Artificial Intelligence lurks as a menacing and darkly malevolent force in films like 2001- A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, as well as in television series like Battlestar Glactica.

Who can forget this classic showdown between man and machine in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001- A Space Odyssey.

Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

Dave: What’s the problem?

HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.

Dave: What are you talking about, HAL?

My own troubled history with AI dates back as far as I can recall. It begins with me trying and failing to draw a diagonal line on an Etch-A-Sketch that only drew vertical and horizontal lines. Then there was the very first video game “Pong.” It was a game of virtual ping pong which consisted of a dot bouncing back and forth across the television screen. Hours of good, clean late night stoner fun. But I couldn’t even get that right. Got crushed each time I played. Do I even have to mention “The Clapper?” Lately my dysfunctional relationships with AI include contentious exchanges between me and the disembodied androgynous voices emanating from my GPS and my vehicle’s Blue Tooth interface. Also now I have both Alexa and Siri to contend with. I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel like having a conversation with my devices every time I turn around. That super perky upbeat cheerfulness is just too much in these nihilistic times, especially before I’ve had my coffee.

Today I burned up an hour of what’s left of my mortal existence on this planet trying to convince a series of robot overlords that I need to speak with an actual human being in customer service to schedule an appointment. It’s like passing through the Seven Circles Of Hell, the Bardo and Purgatory just to get another sentient being on the other end of the line. Today’s interaction involved a protracted struggle just to utter a simple phrase a robot would comprehend.

Robot: “Thank you for contacting customer service. You can talk to me like a real person. Ask me anything. For example, you can say “How much credit do I have available? When is my next payment due? Do you wanna dance under the moonlight?

Me: “I need to speak with a customer service representative.”

 Lots of background noise, whirring, clicking and popping as if somebody is typing a transcript of my request.

Robot: “I’m sorry. I did not understand you. Ask me anything. For example, you can say: “How can I buy the entire boxed DVD set of Battlestar Galactica? Do you know the way to San Jose?”

Me: ” I need to speak with a customer service representative.”

 More popping, clicking, buzzing, whirring, typing noises.

And so, on and on we went, until I was a jibbering idiot barking out monosyllabic commands like a drunk calling out for more whiskey at closing time.

Robot: “I’m sorry. I did not understand you. Let me connect you to a Customer Service representative. This call may be monitored.”

Customer Service Representative: “Hello. This is Mathew. For security purposes, what is your Service Contract number?”

Me: I recite an unintelligibly long string of alpha numeric code.

Customer Service Representative: “I’m sorry, but that contract has expired.”

Me: “No. There must be some mistake. I have the Service Contract right here in front of me and it doesn’t expire for another six weeks. May I please speak with a supervisor?”

Customer Service Representative: “Absolutely. Please wait while I transfer your call.”

Five minutes of waiting while insipid music blasts the shit out of my ear drum.

Customer Service Robot Supervisor: “Thank you for contacting customer service. You can talk to me like a real person. Ask me anything. For example, you can say “How much credit do I have available? When is my next payment due? Do you wanna dance under the moonlight?

 ME: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.

HAL: I’m sorry, Mike. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

ROCK N ROLL BOT

Kind of a jaded, postmodern Charles Dickens riff

A Christmas Story

Slogging through the semi-frozen slush in the parking lot I hear a jingling bell and off tune singing from just inside the doorway.

Ah shit! SHE’S here again. Where do they find these people?

Automatic door swings open and I’m greeted by a short, chubby, gnome-like woman, wearing an ugly Christmas sweater and a pair of bent wire holiday reindeer antlers jammed down on top of her head. Dancing the boogaloo near the Salvation Army donation kettle, ringing the bell in some kind of cadence to whatever music blasts through ear buds. She’s sings along in the key of whatever, twirls like a back up singer in a soul band, swings her left arm in a circle and points at me.

I’m ready for this. I’m prepared. I take the crumpled up dollar bill and try to stuff it into the donation kettle. It’s not like the old days where you just tossed money into an open pail. This is a locked steel box with an opening so tiny I can hardly stuff a dollar bill in there. You can put money in, but you can’t take it out. It also has serrated edges, so if you are stupid enough, or desperate enough to actually stick your finger in that hole, good luck trying to get it back out. Kind of like driving over those spiky things in a parking garage.

God save the queen, I mutter.

Merry Christmas to you too! she yells back.

She looks a hell of a lot like my old college friend who started the Jews for Jesus group on campus. Only he’s about 50 years older and Wonder Bread white. Whatever happened to that guy anyway? Disappeared into the void like most of the people I knew back then. Seems like everyone either started shooting heroin, became a born again something or other or a corporate lawyer living in some dystopian suburban purgatory.

Me? I’m just trying to get some last minute Christmas shopping done. You know. Put Christ back into Christmas. By shopping at Dollar General. The place where class and style go to die.

Hello. What have we here? A Trump Troll doll. Naked as the day I was born. The perfect stocking stuffer for the person who has everything they want but nothing they need. I envision myself, basking in the cozy glow of the living room tannenbaum as I turn this into a voodoo doll on Christmas Eve. Although this could have been so much better with tiny hands and an even tinier penis. And flatulent! Yes flatulent! One of those dolls that farts. They make those, don’t they?

I pay for 3 Trump Troll Dolls and a package red licorice twizzlers and head back toward the door. Dancing Gnome Girl is there to greet me. I stick a twizzler in the teeth of the donation pail.

Long live the king! I grumble.

 Merry Christmas to you too.

 

 

Drive-By Book Review “Spent” by Antonia Crane

Spent by Antonia Crane

Published 2014,  Rare Bird Books, A Barnacle Book

Spent cover

I just finished reading Antonia Crane’s gripping memoir Spent, and I realize it happened again. I fell hard for a book. After inevitably coming to the end, I am, once again, left wondering “Now what in the Hell am I supposed to do?” I end up doing the only thing I can do in a case like this. I talk about it. I used to write book reviews, but it’s something I really don’t do much anymore. However, there are times when a book really lights a fire and truly captures my interest, and the best way for me to process what I’ve just read is to talk about it, and sometimes rant and rave about it. That’s what’s happening here. To be clear, I am not even attempting to write a piece of serious literary criticism. This is just me responding, reacting, processing. This is me just sayin’: “You gotta read this book!”

 Spent gathers early momentum with a depiction of Antonia Crane’s childhood in coastal northern California, the disintegration of her family life and her coming of age in a small town that just doesn’t offer enough to keep her there. She moves to San Francisco and later to LA, where she supports herself by stripping. She lives a bohemian, alternative lifestyle, hits bottom doing hard drugs, but finds connections that lead her to sobriety. She becomes a powerful political activist within the sex worker industry, earns an undergraduate degree and enrolls in graduate school. Crane’s reconnection with her mother is heart breaking as it occurs just as her mother is diagnosed with terminal cancer. At a new low, with no other resources, Crane returns to sex work which leads to an arrest. This serves as a clarion call to change her life. At the risk of sounding trite, the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” seems to apply here. While the sex industry is the setting for Antonia Crane’s journey, on a deeper level, it is a memoir about the human condition, the search for meaning and finding one’s purpose, and the importance of connection through family and community.

Every so often I’m lucky enough to come across a book that is so well written, so personal, so honest and unflinching and so compelling that I never want it to end. I just want to go on and on, living with those characters in that world. I wish I could say that about all the books I read, but I can’t. It’s not to say that they are not good books or well written, but, for whatever reason, they just don’t command my attention and engagement the way this one does. Spent is a special book, a searing memoir that got under my skin in a serious way and left me hungry and longing for more.

Antonia Crane is an articulate and vibrant story teller and a force of nature as a performance artist. I’ve had the good fortune to actually see and hear her read selections from this book on two separate occasions, once in Boston and again in Seattle, shortly after publication. I was a participant in the reading in Boston. It was my first public reading and I was nervous. There was a timer on the podium to help us keep our readings to the allotted four minute limit. Ironically, it looked like a dildo and started blinking red to signal 30 seconds to wrap things up. I was on the schedule immediately following somebody I’d never heard of named Antonia Crane. The author hosting the reading called her name and I watched as she emerged from behind a pillar across the room. She was tall, blonde, athletic looking, dressed in black leather, with muscular tattooed arms. She approached the podium looking like some kind of Viking warrior goddess and delivered a reading about rough gay bondage sex fueled by crystal meth. She had the audience enthralled. The timer started blinking at the 30 second mark and Crane quickened her pace, picked up the timer and held it aloft as if she were the Statue of Liberty, dramatically finishing her piece just as the timer went off. She tore it up and brought down the house. It was unquestionably the best reading of the event. And there I was, holding a crumpled piece of paper with my staid, little poem, dressed in my tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and I had to follow that. It was like the teeny bopper pop group, The Monkees following a mercurial guitar player named Jimi Hendrix. I’ll never forget it.

Everyone has some kind of story to tell. But not every story is worthy of a written memoir. Memoir writing takes a very unique and special kind of skill. It requires an almost mystical legerdemain to put the reader inside the author’s head and Antonia Crane totally pulls it off. Spent is a memoir right up there with the very best. It goes toe to toe with some of my favorites such as Kate Braverman’s Lithium For Medea and Frantic Transmissions To And From Los Angeles , Ghost Bread by Sonja Livingston, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Just Kids and M Train by Patti Smith, Things I Like About America and 501 Minutes To Christ by Poe Ballantine and Chronicles by Bob Dylan. These are the Titans of Modern Memoir in my world and Antonia Crane is right up there on Mount Olympus with the rest of them and the best of them.

Antonia Crane is an author, writer and teacher. She has worked as an adult dancer and performer. Her writing has been published in The Rumpus, Black Clock, ZYZZYVA, Slake, Smith Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review. She received her MFA in creative writing at Antioch University. She lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers Program.

Find links to her publications at http://www.antoniacrane.com

Also listen to a wonderfully entertaining and informative interview with Brad Listi at

http://otherppl.com/antonia-crane-interview/

From North Beach

North Beach (1)

Like Quicksand

We walk the streets of North Beach
follow the footsteps of Ferlinghetti
and the ghosts of Ginsberg and Kerouac.
In Washington Square Park,
under St. Peter and Paul’s twin spires,
an old hippie sits on a bench,
finger picks a vintage Epiphone guitar.

Next to him, another man
stares off into space,
cradles his mandolin, listens.
Joe Dimaggio marries Marilyn Monroe
in that church, she lifts her veil,
steals a kiss on the granite steps;
here in Joe’s home town.

Italian restaurants and coal fired pizza,
storied nightclubs and tattoo parlors,
psychic readers, butchers, bakers
and kite makers.
The City Lights Bookstore
stands like a shrine, a beacon.
Ground zero for a revolution.

A man lies fast asleep on the ground, under
a sparkling, golden sky and a pile of clothes
in the middle of the afternoon.
Some changes happen before we notice,
others sneak by under our noses,
but Time, a slow train runnin’
creeps up like quicksand.

Fantastic Voyage

Fantastic Voyage ~ A Twisted Piece Of Creative NonFiction

Fantastic Voyage

I had a colonoscopy last week. It’s a basic rite of passage into middle age and while this wasn’t my first rodeo, that didn’t make it any easier. The prep is worse than the procedure. The entire week preceding the procedure I had to abstain from seeds, nuts, popcorn, and corn; which made the local squirrel population rejoice, because it just meant more for them. Also on the no fly list were ANY and ALL raw fruits and vegetables. Oh by the way, no anti inflammatory medications either. So if you have any aches and pains that you’d normally knock out with ibuprofen, forget it Buster. It’s like: “Here, chew on this old piece of saddle leather and tough it out. “

At noon on the day before the procedure, I began my vision quest in earnest by guzzling a 16 ounce witch’s brew of vile tasting laxative salts, then pounding down 32 ounces of water. Just so you know, this is not your Father’s Nectar of the Gods. It’s actually more repugnant than the worm at the bottom of a bottle of cheap mescal on spring break in Tijuana. Only you don’t wake up with a new tattoo. And don’t venture too far from the bathroom after chug-a-lugging this stuff either, because it’s fire in the hole baby! Almost immediately, my lower GI tract started rumbling like Mt. Vesuvius. I sprinted to the bathroom so fast I would have crushed the 40 yard dash at the NFL Combine. Anyway, the end result was not so much a bowel movement as it was the storm surge from Hurricane Sandy and the gushing torrent from a hundred fire hoses at a 4 alarm house fire. This inelegant display occurred multiple times throughout the afternoon. Just as things seemed to be settling down I repeated the entire sequence at 6 PM. The only nourishment allowed is clear liquids, although the final insult is being denied alcohol. What possible harm could come from downing a vodka tonic? That’s’ a clear liquid. I just hope this all serves as penance for my sins.

The next morning the temperature was a sphincter-clenching 9 degrees below zero. Not exactly conducive to mentally preparing for someone going all up in there with camera attached to a tube. I reported to the hospital at 7:45 AM and ran the gauntlet through admissions, which was more like a series of interviews in which they repeated the same questions.

“Have you recently undergone any medical procedures in North Korea?”

“Have you or any members of your family ever knowingly worn spandex bicycle shorts, tube socks and a mullet in public?

“Do you have any foreign objects lodged in your rectum, including, but not limited to, fruits, vegetables, small mammals or action figures?”

Of course one of the high points of the entire experience is rocking the skimpy, floral print gown that’s open in the back. I could have just worn assless chaps to the party.

put_the_assless_chaps_on_dog_tshirt

After all that, the actual procedure only takes about 15 minutes. There was one final round of interview questions by my physician as I was being sedated. I remember saying that I might need more drugs because I wasn’t really feeling anything, then BAM! I was out like a drunken sailor on shore leave. The next thing I remember was waking up feeling like I’d been roofied in The Hangover. Only I wasn’t lying face down in my own drool and there was no tiger. I hardly recall anything that was said about the procedure other than they discovered the lost continent of Atlantis in my colon. I’m working on a six figure deal with National Geographic right now.

MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews: Three Works by Robert Vaughan

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My review of Robert Vaughan’s books: “Microtones,” “Diptychs+Triptychs+Lipsticks+Dipshits” and “Addicts & Basements” is live on MadHat’s Drive-By Book Reviews at:

http://madhatarts.com/madhatreviews/three-works-by-robert-vaughan/

New Review on MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews

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My review of “If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead” is now live and in person on MadHat Drive-By Book Reviews

http://madhatarts.com/madhatreviews/if-i-had-wings-these-windmills-would-be-dead-by-chuck-howe/

Wings Cover

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