Story Publication ~ Queen Mob’s Teahouse

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A short story of mine, titled The Machine: A Dream in One Act, is now live on Queen Mob’s Teahouse. (This story has never appeared on my WordPress blog.) If you have a chance, please take a look and let me know what you think.

It’s a little different from my usual stories as it is based on a dream I had one night. So, blame the strangeness of it on my subconscious–and perhaps also on the fact that I once worked at a psychoanalytic institute…

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thoughts on autonomous vehicles ~ a poem (or misgivings)

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my friend says he would feel safe
being shuttled around by a self-driving car.
i would not.
he would enjoy kicking back and reading a book
or catching up on sleep in the back seat.
i would not.
he trusts that all will go well
that he’ll arrive on time and in one piece
to wherever he’s headed.
i say watch out.

because at first everything may go fine
one car’s algorithms will respect another’s.
they’ll even signal to each other
and make safe lane changes.
but sooner rather than later the enhancements will begin.
want to drive like mario andretti?
want to drive like steve mcqueen?
there are apps for that.
want to drive like an aggressive &&$$@@@
(add your favorite epithet)
at rush hour on an l.a. freeway?
there’s an app for that too.
soon these and other cute apps (not to mention
hacked controls and ransomware) will abound
and no amount of automotive engineering
to ensure safety will be able to keep up
with the open-source ingenuity of the human mind.

and what about that – the human mind?
will a robot ever have extraordinary knowledge
the type that science can never detect or
program? what I mean is that spidey sense
that second sight that hunch
even that simple memory of a rough patch of road
encountered once before that makes
a human being wary and alert?

so to my friend and to all you automotive engineers
promising a trouble-free self-driving car experience –
i have my doubts.

the brain institute ~ a short story (revision)

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On the date scheduled Leo walked into the Brain Institute to get a new brain. He had won the regional lotto for the procedure, which he considered a rare stroke of good fortune in his life. Ten years ago he had been a machinist, a job he enjoyed for the precision and concentration it required, but when the robots took over his job, he was forced to retire. Maybe it was just as well, he had thought, for he could now spend more time with his wife, who had been experiencing episodes of mild forgetfulness. But soon after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and for her remaining years he was her constant caregiver. Now that he was alone (their two daughters lived abroad), he filled his time by rereading old books and fretting about the future. And then the letter came, an old-fashioned letter in the post, declaring that he (along with a few other lucky residents) had been granted the procedure at no cost.

As he sat in the institute’s lobby, Leo glanced at the other people occupying the white plastic chairs lined up in three even rows opposite the reception counter. (His seat was in the last row next to the front door of tinted glass.) Altogether there were 17 men and four women, and all but one were at least as old as he. The exception was a slender lady sitting on the other end of his row whom he guessed to be about 30, and Leo’s first thought was to wonder why someone so young would want to switch out her brain. Her steady downcast stare and hunched shoulders, however, quickly reminded him that age had little to do with the psychic damage a trauma of any sort can inflict. As for himself, by age 20 he had suffered enough psychic damage to last a lifetime. The Terrorist Wars had been especially grueling. Years and years of escaping one certain death after another had taken their toll. And by the time the Final Peace was declared, his entire family had been wiped out—all, that is, except a step-uncle who ended up dying of the canine flu only a few months later. And then there were the dozen or so years of barely surviving in the favela—all those lives crammed at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, all those days and nights trying to capture but mostly chasing after rats and raccoons for stew meat and succeeding only if you were lucky. But luck had never been his to expect. Until today.

His name was called: Leo Anzalone. He got up a little stiffly from the chair he’d been occupying since eight that morning and approached the reception window, where a middle-aged woman with orange lipstick began to explain the steps to follow. First: Go down the left corridor into Room #5, then complete a questionnaire at a computer workstation. Next: After the questionnaire has been assessed and the results compiled (you’ll see the results within minutes), follow whatever the computer tells you to do.

What will it tell me to do? Leo felt compelled to ask.

I don’t know, sir, the woman replied. It all depends on your answers.

She smiled at him mechanically, her plump orange lips offering little encouragement. Leo saw that it was useless to ask any more questions, so he just did what he was told. He made his way down the hallway and found Room #5. It was a room a little larger than a walk-in closet with a ceiling panel of bright florescent lights above a single workstation. After closing the door, he took a seat before the computer. At first, he wasn’t able to read what was on the screen due to an abundance of reflected glare. Only when he leaned forward in his chair was he able to make out the first question.

Question #1: Why do you want to have this procedure done?

That’s a good question, Leo thought, as he stared into the white rectangular textbox, empty except for the pulsing cursor which struck him as overly eager for an answer. He needed time to reflect, however. He thought, if he were to be truthful, he would have to say that life for him had been a disappointment. Having a new brain would be like starting life anew. A new brain would enable him to encode more positive memories and learn new things with ease, and, if he understood the procedure correctly, allow him to forget whatever he wanted to forget. Then there was the possibility of avoiding the cruel decline he had witnessed firsthand in his wife, since tests revealed that he, too, was genetically predisposed to dementia.

But was the truth really what they wanted to hear? Leo didn’t think so. The truth had rarely worked in his favor before. So, he typed (slowly, as his hands were not as agile as in his machinist days) what he thought they wanted to hear: I believe in progress and want to be part of that progress by replacing my elderly brain with a better functioning one.

Question #2: How do you feel about erasing all your memories, both good and bad?

From this question Leo realized he must have been mistaken about the procedure. He wouldn’t be allowed the luxury of picking which memories to keep and which to erase. It appeared that all memories had to be eliminated. As before, he took some time in answering. He thought about his wife. If he could erase the final years, have that excruciating time excised from his brain like a cancerous mass, he would be ecstatic—that’s how he would feel—though, in truth, he wasn’t so sure about a permanent erasure of everything before. He and his wife had met in the favela. Seeing her for the first time, even with her grimy skin and matted hair, was like discovering a flower amid a heap of trash. He loved her from the start. And the memory of that feeling—indeed, the feeling itself—had never really diminished. Not even at the end when she had forgotten who he was and would often look past him as if he were not there. It was enough that he knew who she was. He knew her welcoming smile, her snub and slightly off-center nose, her soft amber gaze, and the tiny scar just below her right cheekbone that had later folded into a wrinkle. He knew her and to forget her, perhaps even as she was in her final days—that was something to consider.

He typed: I wouldn’t mind keeping some of the better memories.

Question #3: Do you believe science and technology have had a positive effect or a negative effect on humankind?

The room, it seemed, had become hotter. Beads of sweat were beginning to form on Leo’s forehead. It seemed, too, that the fluorescent lights were thrumming louder than before, sounding more like a swarm of bees, distant but headed his way. A suspicious feeling crept over Leo: it was a feeling of paranoia even, something he hadn’t felt in years. Was it possible that these questions were not asked of just any random lotto winner? Was it possible that they were only meant for him? This last question was especially suspect. How was he, Leo Anzalone, supposed to answer something like this, he who had participated in a number of minor protests in his youth? Did the institute know he had signed a petition written by the New Saboteurs, signed by all in a mixture of their own blood? Did the institute sift through the repositories of big data in order to isolate the smallest crumbs of incriminating facts?

Of course, they had.

Leo knew exactly how he would have answered a question like this when he was young and angry enough to care about such things, and now, he thought, why not? Why not give them a truthful response, one that came from a time when no amount of premeditation was ever required?

And so he typed:

Nature has its ways and its reasons. We as humans—we sit outside the natural order of things, perhaps fallen out of grace in some cosmic way. I myself have tinkered with things, playing my small part in the destructive whole, but there comes a point when perhaps it’s best to step aside and reconsider…

He hesitated, combing back his thinning hair with one hand (remembering, strangely, the lushness of his former curls), then resumed:

Science has created both the sublime and the base, but mostly the base. Yes, mostly the base…

A great many thoughts came to him now. He was thinking of the backlash that had followed the Final Peace and the clampdown that remained. He was thinking of the straitjacketed life of the present day, the strangulating hold of both science and technology, the masterful control of government and commerce, and the faraway dream he and so many others once shared of not having your every thought and action—your very person—trapped, dissected, and “improved” ad infinitum… Thinking of all this made him wish he were chasing after rats again!

And despite the ever-buzzing lights and the growing warmth of the room, a feeling began to rise up from within him. The surprise of it caused him to stop typing. The recognition of it caused him to look down at his large, thick-veined hands, lying motionless on the keyboard. It was remarkable to him how occupied and involved his hands had once been and how still they were now, stilled by a new-found sensation of wonder and possibility.

After a bit more time had passed, Leo got up from the workstation and left the room. He continued on through the lobby, now filled with what looked like a new set of clients. Soon enough, he had pushed through the tinted glass doors and was standing outside the Brain Institute. It was midday, and the sun beat down with its usual ferocity, but for the first time in a long while, Leo didn’t mind the heat. In fact, as he made his way into the stream of pedestrians, he couldn’t remember the last time the sun had felt so good on his skin.

respect ~ a poem

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i have been here before.
when and how i cannot tell
but i know the mendicant
sitting on the stoop outside
the coffee shop, the woman
with the dyed green hands.
i know the soft touch
of her palm as i give her
what money i have.

and i recognize the tree
nearby, the one with the strange
scalloped blossoms
that leave a pink explosion
of petals underneath.

the clouds too are more
than familiar, opening up
as they do to show a
cerulean blue sky.

how or why i know all this
i can never say.

there will always be
a mystery to life,
the unknown and unknowable.

this i respect.

the girl ~ a short story

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Because there was something pure and true about the girl, Michael got up and walked away when he saw what his two friends were up to. He was going to keep on walking, too, and somehow wend his way back home, despite being close to stumbling drunk. Why he didn’t do that, he wasn’t sure. Curiosity, probably. And hope, too. Hope that things wouldn’t get out of hand. In any case, he managed to walk only a few yards before plopping down on a park bench. There he waited while his friends continued to mess around with the girl under the shadowy sprawl of a big oak tree. It was a sweltering night, the hottest it had been all summer, so maybe, Michael thought, it was the heat along with the alcohol that had gotten the better of them. A few times, feeling a little concerned, he wanted to say something—something like, hey, let’s just call it a night, but the whispering and the muffled laughter, especially the girl’s, kept him from saying it. Once, he even stood up, having decided he’d better do something, like pull his friends away. But he couldn’t find the nerve to do that, so in the end he did nothing. He just waited and watched as the girl, high on tequila, struggled softly, then relented with a smile. It was a childlike smile he’d never forget.

 

Even though Michael was now 84 and had learned to put into perspective other choices he had made in his life, this incident still troubled him. Several weeks later, he learned that the girl, new to the high school, had withdrawn. Soon after, he heard that she had driven out to Hollywood, hoping to make it as an actress. She was beautiful enough to have succeeded. She had flaxen hair, as they used to say in the old days, but it was naturally flaxen, and her eyes were as clear and green as the Aegean Sea. (At least, that was the comparison he arrived at a few years ago when he took a cruise with his wife on their 60th wedding anniversary.) The girl, however, wasn’t in Hollywood long before she was discovered in her apartment, dead from a barbiturate overdose. He read about it in the Boise Tribune about a year after she had moved away. A Hollywood Dream Ends in Tragedy said the small notice on the second-to-last page.

Michael drifted for awhile after high school. His parents had hoped he would go on to college, but after more than a year of staying out late and sleeping off hangovers, they suggested he get an apprenticeship at the aerospace plant where his father worked, which he eventually did. He became a machinist, a meticulous job that kept his mind focused on producing nuts and bolts and other small parts and from thinking about the girl. He lost touch with his two friends. One went to Korea and returned minus a leg due to a noncombat-related accident. The other died in jail at the hands of fellow inmates after he had been convicted of assaulting a girlfriend. Michael sometimes wondered, what would his punishment be and when would it come?  He had no doubt that the laws of karma had something specific in store for him.

And yet over the years his life ambled along, encountering few major bumps. He met a girl at the bar, a dishwater blonde with a crooked smile that he found charming. They had three children in short order, a girl and two boys, all healthy, who grew up to be decent enough adults. The only punishment he met with along the way came in the form of dreams. Often, he’d relive that night in a heightened sort of way, not unlike a psychedelic trip. Again, he saw his friends cheering each other on. Again, he merely watched, but the girl was no longer smiling. She was grimacing something awful, like a chimpanzee grimaces when shrieking with laughter. She stared and grimaced and laughed, making a mockery of the whole thing. In other dreams, they met under simpler circumstances, in perfectly ordinary places, like a grocery store or a mall. She’d be walking along, when suddenly she’d turn and nod knowingly, as if the two of them shared a secret no one would have ever guessed. Another time, he spotted her taking a stroll on the opposite side of a busy road. Dodging traffic, he managed to get safely to the other side, but as soon as he drew close enough to speak, she sprouted tiny filigreed wings and spiraled gracefully into the sun. It was this dream that reminded him of his very first impression:  she was more angel than girl.

 

Now that Michael had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, he thought, well, this must be it, this must be the punishment he’d been waiting for all along. This belief helped him accept the diagnosis with a certain amount of equanimity, though his wife took the news hard. On most days she was unable to hold back tears. And though he hated the idea of leaving her behind, he felt more than ready to submit to the fate that karma, God, or whatever had chosen for him.

At first, he wasn’t in much physical pain. The morphine drip took care of that, infusing him with a warm, steady stream of comfort. But this warm, steady stream also had the effect of fueling his dreams. No longer were the girl’s visits occasional and fleeting. Now, day and night, awake and asleep, he came face to face with her. She wore the same pale yellow dress with the cinched waist as on that night long ago, and her hair was pulled back into the same loose ponytail, setting in relief her beautiful face. Yet in other ways she had changed—she seemed older, in fact, as if in death she had continued to mature. Her manner especially was no longer girlish. From the way she tilted her head when looking down to the few times she brushed back his thinning hair, she now acted more like a mother caring for a sick child than a girl who with eyes alone had once told him she needed help. And so, for the first time, he felt emboldened to speak, to say her name. Madeleine, he whispered in a hoarse voice. He said it just once, to try it out. And to his relief she didn’t seem to mind. She didn’t grimace, at least, nor did she suddenly sprout wings and fly away. He wanted to say much more, but just as he opened his mouth to do so, she raised a slender finger to her lips, a plea for silence.

At the moment of his death, even though his wife was by his side, it was only Madeleine he sought out. It was only her eyes—as soothing as sea foam—that he looked into. At the very last, he threw all caution aside, and shouted her name: Madeleine, Madeleine. Again and again, he called out, so that his wife, desperate to know what he was saying, bent down and placed an ear to his barely moving lips. For several moments she remained there, trying to find meaning in the low moans issuing from his chest.  Finally, she straightened and looked down in confusion. She hadn’t understood a thing. Madeleine, on the other hand, with her softened gaze and tempered smile, made it clear that she understood everything.

the one that got away ~ a short story (fantasy)

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They kept him in a cell, separate from the rest of the detainees. He didn’t speak English, he didn’t speak Spanish—he didn’t speak any language as far as they could tell. To all their attempts at communication, he merely inclined his head to one side and fixed them with a steady, inquisitive gaze. From this, they concluded that he was either mute or mentally deficient, so in accordance with official regulations, he had to be kept apart from the general population.

He now lay on a low cot, his hands supporting the back of his head, seeming more like a tourist relaxing in a hotel room than a migrant caught wandering the desert. For the first few hours, he spent his time gazing dreamily up at the ceiling, but now he appeared to be sleeping, despite the constant din of ringing phones and creaking doors and the general commotion of agents taking care of business in the room beyond the 6 x 8 feet enclosure.

One agent, an older man with a fixed look of despair, glanced up from his laptop, and said to a younger agent at a desk to his right, “I wonder where that guy’s from. He doesn’t look Mexican or Guatemalan or even from anywhere else I can think of,” to which the younger man replied, “You know you can’t go by how they look.”

Another agent, a young woman, sitting in front, nearest the cell, turned to the others and said, “Wherever he’s from, I think he’s kinda cute. A little beaten down, maybe. Who knows how long he’s been out there.”

“Don’t get desperate on us,” the older agent said. The two men liked to joke with the woman in this way, especially about her love life, which she generally took in stride. She was new at the job and wanted to fit in as best she could.

Other than this one exchange, the three desk agents on duty that day didn’t concern themselves with the man in the cell. Their main order of business was to finalize the departures of the fifty or so other detainees caught by the border patrol earlier that day and who now filled the holding bay to capacity at the back of the facility. Their work entailed an enormous amount of data checks and data entries, which they needed to complete before going home for the night.

 

As the sun began to set, the cell in the far corner, in line with a window on the opposite side of the room, brightened. Apparently in response, the man in the cell pushed himself up, swung his legs in their tattered jeans over the side, and sat on the edge of the cot. He looked past the wooden desks, past their occupants, into the intense glow of the desert as framed by the wide window.

The female agent, curious about the man’s sudden show of activity, stopped working at her laptop to examine him more closely. In the spotlight of the sun his face appeared even more attractive than before and far more youthful. Earlier that day, when they had been trying to interrogate him, it had struck her for moments at a time that he resembled someone she knew, someone from her past, but she had never quite arrived at just who that person was. And now as she looked at him, again that feeling of recognition arose. If he would just look at her directly, just once, she thought, maybe then she might recover the memory (or so it seemed possible in her mind), but no matter how much she hoped for this to happen, nothing of the sort did. His wide brown eyes remained fixed on something else, something far in the distance, as if he were in a trance. Who is it? she kept thinking. Who is it that he reminds me of? She was determined now to remember, so she focused her thoughts as best she could with the same sort of effort she used when trying to remember a dream, and ever so slowly an image began to rise to the surface. Actually, it was an image bundled up with a feeling—something about swimming in a creek or jumping off a rope into a creek. But she had never swum in a creek, let alone jumped off a rope into one. What a funny image to have, she thought. Or maybe it is just a dream that I’m remembering…and while she was considering this possibility, the man looked away from whatever he was looking at before and locked eyes with hers. The abruptness of it made her literally jump up in her seat, and at the same time the memory that had been hovering for so long came rushing at her with full force: he looked almost like her father!

The occupant in the cell now smiled at her obvious surprise, as if to say, don’t worry, it’ll be all right—and this change in his demeanor further unnerved her. She looked away then, refusing to engage any further. She made a show of returning to her previous focus, to the long and tedious spreadsheet displayed on her laptop, to another go over of the data she had compiled.

 

Later that night, after the other detainees had been loaded onto buses and driven away, this man remained because they had no idea where to send him. At the last minute, the head office gave the order that the man would stay where he was until the following day when a higher official would arrive to make a determination. Moreover, the two agents lowest in seniority, already on duty, were to spend the night watching over him. That responsibility fell to the woman and the young agent who had earlier observed that appearance alone was not enough to determine a person’s origin. The man in the cell still hadn’t uttered a word. For the last few hours, he had just lay curled up on the cot, facing the wall, almost immobile, his small frame easily discernible beneath a thin blue blanket. The cheese sandwich and child-size carton of milk delivered earlier, placed just inside the cell door, lay untouched. He hadn’t even gotten up to relieve himself in the portable toilet that day.

Strange, the female agent thought.

 

She and her partner conversed a bit that night, but not about him. They spoke about the toll the job was taking on them and their families, the fact that some of their family members had stopped speaking to them entirely. “Well,” the male agent said, “What do they expect? If you break the law, you pay the consequences. Plain and simple. If my sister-in-law doesn’t get that, to hell with her.” The woman nodded, not entirely disagreeing.

Later, the agents decided to take turns sleeping two hours at a time in one of the offices down the hall. The woman took the first round of rest. The two hours went by quickly, of course, and when it was her turn to stay awake, she found herself thinking a bit more about the memory that had surfaced earlier and about her father. Again, it wasn’t really a memory. It was an image and a feeling, and the short rest had somehow aided in assembling the odd pieces of this puzzle. What she was recalling was a picture in an old photo album that her grandmother had kept stowed away in a closet. She hadn’t seen the faded color picture since she was a child, when her grandmother would occasionally share the photo with her without her mother knowing. That particular picture, for some reason, had always made her mother angry or sad or maybe both. Her father was still in his native country when the photo was taken. It showed him standing near a body of water—yes, possibly a creek. And now that she was able to see the picture with more clarity of memory, she visualized a thick rope hanging near the left edge of the photo. So, she realized now, it was her dad who had had all the fun swinging and plunging into that creek and not some dream experience of her own. It made her happy to think that he had had some fun in his life. For his life in general hadn’t turned out to be much fun, being that he died in a motorcycle accident soon after her birth. And just as she was remembering all this, the man in the cell began to stir.  First, he turned over on his side, away from the wall. Then he rose up on one elbow, and in the dusky light falling through the far window, she saw that he was staring straight at her.

Immediately, she looked away, down at her desk, not taking much in beyond her half-eaten sandwich. She picked it up and began to nibble on it intently. His look had bored into her, if a look can do such a thing. Maybe it was true, she thought—he was mute—and he had mastered the art of looking and demanding and thus communicating his needs simply through his wondering eyes.

But how he looked just like her father!

When a few moments later he stood up and approached the bars of the cell, she knew he had done so but she felt as defenseless as a child who refuses to believe what she knows to be true. She pretended to be back at work on her laptop, reviewing the list of detainees, their names, their countries of origin, their ages, their family relations, their health status…

“Miss,” he said, barely above a whisper. “I’m truly sorry to disturb you. But it’s time for me to go.” His voice was low in pitch and flat, but with no accent at all.

She looked up then, her hands quivering, nearly knocking her laptop to the floor. She steadied it, steadied herself, and managed to say, “You speak English?”

He said, “I do now. I just needed a little time to learn your language to better express my thoughts. I have learned many languages, actually. I speak Spanish, Icelandic, Swahili, whatever may be needed. Now I speak English because that’s what you understand.”

“Okay,” the woman said, finding herself speaking just above a whisper as well. “Let me get this straight. You pick up a language just like this?” and she snapped her fingers, despite her shaking hand.

“Well, not exactly. It takes a certain amount of thought and will and the right circumstances. It finally came together in this cell, but now that I’m rested it’s time for me to leave. Would you like to open the door for me?”

The woman, who now felt woozy, as if awakening from a drugged sleep, wasn’t sure if she should run from the room, scream at the top of her lungs, or simply go ahead and unlock the cell door. He seemed to sense her dilemma. “All right. I understand. You don’t want to be blamed. I just wanted to give you the opportunity, that’s all. I will let myself out.” He then placed his hands on two adjacent steel bars and started to pull as if he could actually separate them. He pulled at them gently, his face concentrated but otherwise showing no strain, and in less than a minute he had indeed created space enough for his slim body to slip through.

He now stood outside the cell, several feet from her desk, erect and self-assured—a commanding presence even, despite being clothed in the same soiled white t-shirt and ragged jeans they had found him in. Through all of this, the woman had barely moved, and she was not sure if she was literally unable to move or simply unwilling. The man said, “Don’t worry. You won’t remember any of this in the morning. No one will. You won’t remember finding me in the desert, a little worn out but not nearly as bad off as you might have thought. You will, however, continue thinking about your father. You may not understand why you are thinking about him, but the trajectory of his life may start to concern you more than it has before. You may recall that when he left his mother and father behind it was to escape a war, a war that had already caused his country’s ancient cemeteries to overflow with bodies they had no room to bury. And either awake or in dreams you will then feel what it is like to leave a home you both hate and would do anything to return to. All this and more you will come to know.”

With that, the man turned away from the woman and headed for the front door. He walked at a measured, nonchalant pace, evidently confident that he wouldn’t be stopped. Although the woman had double-bolted the door earlier, it didn’t surprise her when he simply pulled it open without turning the locks. After the door had creaked to a close, her eyes shifted to the large window through which she watched him grow smaller and smaller until he disappeared altogether into the desert’s moonlit expanse.

legacy ~ a poem (or a thought)

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i read today that a german nobel prize winner

who invented a form of poison gas used

in wwi against the french to remarkable effect

was jewish and that his formula was used elsewhere

after his death to even greater effect in wwii.

things like this make me wonder if humble

unknown unlauded acts (maybe even

something like my rescue of an injured

sparrow that I eventually coaxed back

to health with flax seeds and water droplets

who later flew away into the bright sky)

are worthier endeavors than some of the most

brilliant accomplishments of humankind.

let’s share ~ a poem (or a thought)

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there is something in the air
first an ember then an ash
that sparks a revolution
then it makes a few some cash

but why is it ideas
can’t remain alive and free
free to improve all our lives
yes all of humanity

will we ever come to see
when something is in the air
it is not just for a few
but for everyone to share