Like It or Not: Act 1; scenes 4 & 5

Scene 4: [City council chambers. Jace, the mayor, and Four Other Councilmembers sit at a long table in the front, facing the audience. The Three Peachsellers and others are in the audience.]

Jace:  Clearly we have a dilemma, and frankly I just don’t see a good solution to it. Those visitors have all the proper paperwork they need to legally sell their damn apples in Harmony. We need a miracle!

Councilmember One:  Does anyone know where they came from? Why are they even here?

Councilmember Two:  They have a right to be here, just like anyone else.

Jace:  Rights! Is it just me or is there just too many rights around here? It’s practically anarchy! Rights, rights, rights. It’s enough to drive one mad, all these rights everywhere. It’s damn inefficient!

Councilmember Three:  Mayor, I think it’s time now to open up for public comment. Will everyone who wants to comment please line up and approach the microphone one at a time. State your name and then you’ll have up to two minutes to say what you like. Please be respectful and don’t talk over one another. And please speak directly into the microphone but not too loudly, and try to enunciate clearly. Also, avoid saying your ‘p’s and ‘t’s right into the microphone, as that can be really annoying; especially the ‘p’s really can be grating, am I right?

Councilmembers:  Yes. So true. Uggh. Agony.

Councilmember Three:  I know, it’s like having someone reach inside your ears and start tapping your eardrums. P, p, p!

Jace:  Alright! Enough! Let’s hear from the public now. 

Peachseller Two:  Umm, my, my name is Pene, Penelope. Sorry, I’ll say it softer. Penelope Lind. Umm, I just wanted to say that I ate one of their apples earlier, and I wish I hadn’t. I got a terrible tummy ache, it’s been just dreadful. And, well, I think there is something off with the apples they are selling. And I think in the interest of public safety, especially for the children, I think it is incumbent upon the council to protect the people of Harmony, and shut down that apple stand!

Jace:  Noted! Did you get that down? [Looks toward councilperson taking notes.] That’s very important. Thank you Penelope for sharing that with us. I’m very sorry and I hope that you feel better soon. Let’s hear from the next speaker.

Peachseller One:  Hello dear.

Jace:  Strike that from the record. Please people, when you address the council, use formal names. We’re trying to run a city here, please!

Peachseller One:  Fine. My name is Jolene McCue, I’m the mayor’s wife. Coincidentally, I also had a strange reaction after eating an apple from the visitor’s new apple stand earlier today. I felt terribly nauseous and thought for certain I was going to pass out. I think we are risking something much worse if we allow them to keep selling those apples to unwary patrons. Not to mention the threat to our town’s reputation. I don’t think that is anything any of us want to risk.

Jace:  Excellent points! And I do hope you feel better right quickly Mrs McCue.

Peachseller Two:  Thank you Mister McCue, I am feeling quite well now I think.

Peachseller Three:  Testing, testing! Umm. My name is Tommy Collins, I sell peaches here in Harmony.

Jace:  Yes, we know who you are Tommy. It’s a small town. Get on with it.

Peachseller Three:  Right. Well, the funny thing is I also haven’t been feeling right since I ate an apple earlier today. But the fortunate thing is my cousin here, he’s right here behind me. Well, he’s, he works in agriculture testing, and he’s a scientist type you know. And he thinks those apples may have a lot of pesticides on them. Like too much, and that’s what is causing everyone to get sick, isn’t that right Duncan?

Duncan Collins:  [Leaning forward to speak into microphone.]  Yes, that is correct.

Jace:  Oh my!

Councilmember One:  That’s terrible.

Peachseller Three:  So you can see, it’s a real matter of public health.

Councilmember Three:  I had no idea. How scary!

Jace:  That settles it, I move that we shut that apple stand down, until further notice!

Councilmember One:  I second the motion!

Jace: All in favor?

Councilmembers:  Aye!

Jace:  Opposed?

Councilmember Two: No!

Jace:  Well, I’m sure you have your reasons. Can’t imagine what they’d be though. Anyway, the motion passes. Let’s get this thing written up and get on over there, and shut them down! Excuse me, Tommy. You’re cousin there, Dunbar is it?

Duncan Collins:  Duncan, mister mayor.

Jace:  Yes. Ha! Duncan, could you help us draft up a little notice to desist, or some such thing? Put in some sciency jargon like you people use and such, something about pesticide levels, that sort of thing? I think that will really help out. Come over here and take a seat! [Duncan joins the other councilmembers at the table. Jace gestures to Councilmember Three.] There we are, let’s bring him a glass of water. And put some peach slices in that, would ya?! We’ve got some work to do!

[End of Scene.]

Scene 5:  [Town square, market. Customers are purchasing from Peachsellers and Jean Arnaut’s group, and are milling about. The mayor and councilmembers enter.]

Jace:  Folks, folks! We’ve got some big news here. [Waving paperwork in the air.] It appears these apples are tainted. Several people who have eaten them have recently fallen ill. Yes, that’s right. Sickened!

Jean Arnaut:  Impossible!

Jace:  It just makes me sick too. Nobody should get sick from fruit bought in Harmony. I take it personally, though I’m not responsible for it in any way, note that. Still, my heart bleeds for the innocent victims. And we need to put a stop to it! Read this! [He hands the paperwork to Jean Arnaut.]

[Hugh enters.]

Jean Arnaut:  Pesticides! That’s impossible. No, all of our fruit is completely organic. There are absolutely no pesticides on any of our apples! This is a mistake. [He hands the paperwork back to the mayor.]

Jace:  ‘Fraid not, my friend. That’s official correspondence there. You keep it and mull it over for a bit. Says you folks are selling fruit, high in pesticides, and you are hereby ordered to cease and desist.

Jean Arnaut:  There’s no proof. I don’t believe it.

Duncan Collins:  We’re getting proof. We are taking samples and sending them off to the lab. [Councilmembers gather up apples and place in Ziploc bags.] It should take a couple weeks to get results, but in the meantime you are not allowed to sell any of your produce, by order of the EPA, FDA, CDC, and the city of Harmony.

Jean Arnaut:  I protest! I appeal. How do we appeal? Is there no due process?

Jace:  In matters of health and human safety due process always takes a back seat, dear man. Lives are at stake here. Don’t you understand that? If you want a-peel, cut up one of your apples! Ha, ha! Just a little pun. Folks! It is important to keep things light in times like these. We don’t mean anyone any harm here, we just want everyone to be safe and healthy!

Hugh:  This isn’t fair! I myself have eaten many of their apples. Nearly a dozen of them. [Aside to Jean Arnaut.] My dear Chloe did not accept our gift. But more about that later. [To the crowd.] I tell you all, after eating a dozen of these apples I am no worse than before I ate them.  In fact, I think I’m much the better for having eaten them! I feel as strong as an ox.

Jace:  Son, you’re young! That’s no big surprise. But trust me, if you really ate a dozen apples earlier today, then you’ve got some surprises coming soon! I wouldn’t stray too far from a restroom, if you catch my drift. Ha!

Jean Arnaut:  Listen to Hugh. Our apples are fine, there is nothing wrong with them.

Jace:  Just tell that to the three folks who got sick eating them. Now let’s move on, take your apples and go back to wherever it is you all are staying.

Jean Arnaut:  I want to talk to the people who got sick from our apples. Who are they?! Let me talk with them.

Jace:  That is a private matter. We can’t go sharing information like that at the drop of a hat, my friend. That would be anarchy. Sick people have a right to privacy.

Jean Arnaut:  Healthy people have a right to justice!

Jace:  Justice is determined by those who make the laws, friend. You should remember that! Now don’t go testing the graces and the patience of the powers that be; ’cause that be unwise. Just go now, and make it easy on yourselves, and on all the rest of us.

Jean Arnaut:  This is not over! Our apples are organic and perfectly healthy. We’ll be back!  

[The Visitors collect the apples and their things and exit. The Well-Dressed Man enters with Matilda Hawkins.]

Well-Dressed Man:  I’d like to collect a sample from each stand, and then compare those results to the original peach that my wife purchased earlier. Hopefully we can determine which stand that peach came from, and then I can then contract with them in confidence for our future purchases.

Matilda Hawkins:  Don’t worry, my lab will definitely be able to get to the bottom of this for you. Let’s begin here, and then we’ll visit those other two stands across the way. Can we get one peach, please.

Peachseller Three:  With pleasure. Only one? There are two of you. Take more.

Matilda Hawkins:  One will be fine, thank you. It’s for testing, we won’t be eating it.

Peachseller Three:  Testing?! Am I under suspicion?

Well-Dressed Man:  Only suspicion of excellent produce! Take it easy. I just want to determine without a shadow of doubt which of you sold my wife that peach the other day. We want to make one of you here, a very wealthy person. But they’ve got to be the right peaches. Trust me, if you knew my wife; they’ve got to be right!

Peachseller Three:  Absolutely! Here, take another one just to be safe. Test away!

[Well-Dressed Man and Matilda cross to the other peach stands. Peachseller Three motions to Duncan to join him, Duncan walks to his stand.]

Peachseller Three:  That woman over there is a scientist like you. She’s testing our peaches.

Duncan Collins:  Let her test away! It shouldn’t be a problem. Just keep her away from the apples.

Peachseller Three:  Are you certain your lab will find the pesticides? We don’t want those gypsies back again.

Duncan Collins:  Keep cool, stay calm. Our labs will find exactly what they need to find. We have all the protocols in place. It’s legit, it’s believable, and it’s scientific.

Peachseller Three:  Not everything scientific is believable. I’d like better assurances.

Duncan Collins:  Why worry? Look how smoothly shutting them down was; keeping them shuttered will be even easier. Trust me.

Peachseller Three:  You’re right, of course. To be honest, it almost seemed too easy. But it does get me to thinking.

Duncan Collins:  About?

Peachseller Three:  What if something similar were to befall our friends over there? Just imagine, what if Jolene’s pesticide levels were also a little too high? Or if Penelope’s peaches somehow came down with a fungus? I’m just saying, that would be a shame, if they had to close shop for a while. Maybe mister big-shot over there, with the lady scientist, might have no other choice but to buy our peaches; and sign that big fat contract with us.

Duncan Collins:  Yes, that would be a shame for them. I see where you’re going with this.

Peachseller Three:  Is it possible?

Duncan Collins:  Anything’s possible. I think it’s extremely likely.

Peachseller Three:  Highly probable?

Duncan Collins:  A sure thing. A statistical certainty!

[Hugh approaches Matilda and the Well-Dressed Man.]

Hugh:  Excuse me! Could you also test one of these apples?! Something’s fishy. I’m sure there aren’t any pesticides on these!

Peachseller Three:  Hey! Stop that kid.

[End of Scene.]

~FS

An Overachieving Slacker

My friend recently called himself an ‘Overachieving Introvert’. I hadn’t heard that epithet before, though maybe it was merely an adjectival phrase, but it got me to thinking about myself. While I also consider myself an overachieving introvert, I think a different moniker better applies to me: Overachieving Slacker. As in, “did you read what that Overachieving Slacker just wrote?” Or, “that Overachieving Slacker sure is incredibly lazy, but somehow he still manages to accomplish more than one would ever expect.”

I’ve always tried to subscribe to the words of wisdom: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” And the next part that comes after it makes my heart sing: “And it’s all small stuff!”  This proverb appears to give my natural inclinations full license to slack off, and I find this delightful. Were it not for other people, and their pesky insistence on tending to minutia, I’d blissfully take care of only the broad strokes of life, and leave ‘grinding out the details’ to the accountants; and there are an astounding number of ‘accountants’ in our world. They like to focus on all the ways things can be done better, more precisely, more completely, more perfectly, and God bless every one of them! But I prefer to focus on getting things done pretty nearly fine, and good enough, and that’ll do!

Weeds don’t bother me, rounding up or down is a joy, a little food stain on my sleeve? Fine, I can suck on it as a snack later this afternoon. Even so, I do actually like doing the laundry, and cooking meals. But in moderation, everything in moderation. My mother-in-law recently told me that her husband only cooked two times for them in their entire forty plus years of marriage. Now that is a bar that is set low enough that I could crawl over it. And I’m thinking this has to give me a little leverage with my wife, that man’s daughter. She can’t expect much from me, having grown up seeing the level of domestic engagement that her own dad performed. I cooked for us twice, maybe more, in just this past week. I’m wondering if this gives me a pass for the rest of our marriage.

Have you heard of the 80/20 rule? There’s a bit more to it, but it basically says that twenty percent of your effort will yield about eighty percent of your results. That’s a great ratio, I like it! But that means that the other eighty percent of your effort is only getting you another twenty percent. That’s a horrible return on investment! Think about how much more one could get done if they only apply twenty percent of their effort to everything they do, while they still get about eighty percent completion. The other eighty percent that one might still devote towards that same project, which may only yield a twenty percent improvement on that project, one can divert to other new projects instead. Eighty percent, that’s a B average, nothing to be ashamed of there.

Admittedly, I tended towards getting A’s in most of my classes, and certainly some things in life I want to spend a bit more time on to get just right. I once heard that the author Ursula K. LeGuin would spend years, perhaps decades, reworking her writing and she never considered it finished, she believed it could always be made better. My goodness, that sounds like my definition of living in hell. Let me write, as fast as I possibly can get the thoughts out of my head, and then maybe jostle them around on the page a bit to get them orientated a bit better, and then ship it out, and move on to the next project. I’m sure Ursula would call me a ‘slacker’, or maybe she’d find a different word for me, maybe a ‘hack’. But then she probably wouldn’t be settled on that word either, and would have to change it for a different one next year. God bless her!

There are few words that have more power to give me peace and joy than the word ‘No’. I love saying no when I’m asked to do things. As a child and young man I always tended to say ‘yes’ to nearly everything, in hopes that people would like me, and admire how much I could do, and respect how they could rely on me. I was the proverbial underachieving workaholic. I set the 80/20 rule on its head; I worked eighty percent to achieve twenty percent results. And was I stressed? You bet I was stressed! And I just kept grinding it out. But it dawned on me, fairly early in life that this is no way to actually live; doing all of this just so that people would consider me an accomplished hard-worker. I wondered, would it be so bad if I became a slacker? It turns out that it isn’t so bad at all. In fact it is pretty terrific! And by slacking in these special and specific ways, I am actually able to get a ton of things done, maybe not perfectly, but well enough. And that’s good enough for me!

~FS

Like It or Not : Act 1: Scene 3

Scene 3: [Hugh enters peach grove alone, carrying the basket of apples.]

Hugh:  I must be early, that’s good. I’ll hide this basket of apples behind this tree and when Chloe arrives I will first make her guess what I’ve gotten her. There. This will be good fun, let’s see if she can guess correctly. She is a very clever girl, and she knows me well. It won’t take her many guesses. [He climbs into the hammock.] I’ll just rest here until she arrives.

[After several moments, Chloe arrives and notices Hugh from a distance.]

Chloe:  Ah, there he is now, the dear. Asleep under the trees. He must have worn himself out looking for my gift. But where is it? It must be small. Oh! Maybe it’s a ring, and he has it in his pocket. That would be dreadful. He wouldn’t propose to me, would he?! How dare he even think of it! I wouldn’t like that one bit. But look at how peacefully he’s sleeping. He’s like a big bear. Look at that belly sticking out, eww, he should do more sit-ups. I’ll have to have him work on that. But these adorable cheeks, and this thick hair; yes, he’s the perfect one for me. Wake up, you!

Hugh:  [Startled.] Chloe! You’re here!

Chloe:  Yes, and I can’t wait to see what you’ve gotten me!

Hugh:  You’re in luck, it is exactly what you wanted, sweet and very romantic! Guess what it is.

Chloe:  [Delighted.]  Oooh! I know. Can I carry it?

Hugh:  Yes, you can!

Chloe:  Hmmm, do you put things inside it?

Hugh:  I suppose. Well, part of it.

Chloe:  It’s that cute handbag I saw at the market!

Hugh:  What? No!

Chloe:  [Aside.] It must be those cute shoes. The ones that girl was wearing at the market. [To Hugh.] Okay. Are they red?

Hugh:  On the inside.

Chloe:  Inside!? [Aside.] I suppose the soles are red. I guess that is also inside. [To Hugh.] Do I put them on my feet?

Hugh:  That’s strange! I suppose you could.

Chloe:  Well, yes or no, Hugh. It’s pretty simple!

Hugh:  I don’t know, that seems weird. But maybe…

Chloe:  Maybe?! Why wouldn’t you know if you put them on your feet or not?

Hugh:  You mean like at a spa or something? Like those cucumbers that people put on their eyes? Like you’d slice them up and put them on your feet?

Chloe:  Slice them up?! Are you nuts?

Hugh:  Okay! I don’t know!! I guess you could mash them up, for like a facial or something?!

Chloe:  Mash them?! Have you lost your mind?! Those shoes are worth a fortune!

Hugh:  What shoes?! What are you talking about!?

Chloe:  The gift you got me! Duh!!

Hugh:  I didn’t get you shoes!

Chloe:  What did you get me then?! I wanted shoes or a handbag!

Hugh:  [Gets the basket from behind the tree.] I got you these apples. They’re Hidden Rose. They look ordinary on the outside, but inside they are rosy pink! It’s a surprise! And they’re sweet and sour, like you! It’s romantic! But not too romantic.

Chloe:  No, it’s not! They’re not romantic. And what are you saying, I’m sweet and sour?! That’s what I am?!

Hugh:  They were supposed to say romance.

Chloe:  That’s just stupid, Hugh, they don’t say that at all. Do you want to know what they say? They say that my boyfriend, after all the years that we’ve been together, still doesn’t know me at all! They say that my boyfriend is clueless! That’s what these stupid apples say.

Hugh:  I wanted them to say that I love you.

Chloe:  How can you?! That’s why I was talking about the handbag and the shoes the whole time we were at the market. I was giving you hints the whole time! I was talking about them while you were there with me! I never talk about handbags or shoes when you aren’t with me, Hugh, you should know that!

Hugh:  How could I possibly know what you aren’t talking about, when I’m not with you? To know what you are saying when I’m not around would be difficult enough, but to know what you aren’t saying at all, when I’m not there, seems nearly impossible!

Chloe:  Well, you would know if you were paying attention.

[Silence.]

Chloe:  I think you need to think long and hard about what you’ve done, Hugh. I really don’t know if we can be together. [She starts to leave.] I don’t want to see you again until you’ve thought about this, and until you have a good answer for me! [She exits.]

Hugh:  A good answer? An answer to what? What’s the question?

[End of Scene]

~FS

Like It or Not  (A Comedy for the Stage.) scenes 1 & 2

Act I:

Scene 1: [A peach grove; late afternoon.]

[Enter Chloe and Hugh.]

Hugh:  What a great day! Chloe, I love being with you. I don’t want to be with anyone else!

Chloe:  Same here, Hugh. Being with you is like being alone.

Hugh:  That’s sweet of you!

Chloe:  And talking with you is almost as good as talking to myself.

Hugh:  What a nice thing to say! Why, I feel the same way.

[They get into hammock together.]

Hugh:  It is wonderful to be together, Chloe!

Chloe:  I always say that anything one does, will be made much better when you share it with someone else.

[Each grabs their phone from their pocket, takes a selfie and sends it to their friends.]

Chloe:  Sometimes I feel sad, when I think about all the people who have never met me; and of everyone who may never meet me at all. Ever. I’m so interesting. I mean that in a very humble and simple way, of course.

Hugh:  Of course. Why, you’re the humblest person I know.

Chloe:  And you are by far the simplest, Hugh. I consider that among your very best traits. Complicated people are so…complicated, and not very enjoyable to be around. Although they are fun to talk about, when they aren’t present.

Hugh:  I find that nearly everyone is more fun to talk about, than to talk with. Talking to people can be very tiring, but talking about people is always entertaining.

Chloe:  Speaking of that, have you seen the new people who’ve set up tents outside of town? A whole group of them are camping out there. Nobody knows who they are.

Hugh:  Interesting. I love camping.

Chloe:  Yes, but not all the time. It’s no longer camping if you are doing it all the time. Living in a tent all the time just seems selfish and inconsiderate.

Hugh:  It’s possible they don’t have a choice; I mean financially speaking. Or perhaps they like it; maybe they prefer it.

Chloe:  Like it or not, I think it’s very rude of them. And it makes me wonder why you would defend them. And why you would bring up the topic of money as well; that also is very rude. If they don’t have money, then they should keep their poverty to themselves, and not wave it all about for everyone to see. It makes people uncomfortable.  Poverty, like wealth, should be a private matter, in my opinion.

Hugh:  When we’re married Chloe, if we’re poor, I promise to never tell you.

Chloe:  That is certainly for the best. But let’s be wealthy instead, I think I’ll much prefer that. As a matter of ethics and morality I think one should always prefer to be wealthy, it makes it so much easier to be good. Don’t you agree?

Hugh:  I’ve never given it much thought. Though I suppose one could be good whether they are rich or poor; and one could also be very bad in either of those conditions.

Chloe:  You’re being very bad yourself, young man.

Hugh:  Why? How!?

Chloe:  You haven’t kissed me in nearly ten minutes, and you know how much I like to be kissed.  [They kiss.] That’s much better. I forgive you for all that talk about money. Let’s talk about something more interesting; like, what are you going to buy me when we go into town tomorrow?

Hugh:  Are we going into town? I didn’t know that.

Chloe:  It’s peach season, silly. Have you forgotten? Everyone will be there to buy peaches; and not only the other islanders. People will also be coming from the mainland as well, in their boats, and wearing their finest summer clothing. We can’t miss that!

Hugh:  Peaches are okay.

Chloe:  Okay?! Peaches are delightful; they’re delicious. They’re divine!

Hugh:  They’re peachy!

Chloe:  They’re more than that! My mother tells me that peaches pay for everything around here.

Hugh:  Okay then, they’re peachy-keen!

Chloe:  You know our town motto, don’t you Hugh? “Peach season, is the reason!” It’s true; without peaches, this island would be uninhabited. There would be no town of ‘Harmony’. You and I would never have met.

Hugh:  I’d probably be living in a tent!

Chloe:  Shush! That is not the least bit romantic. I desire romance, Hugh. You must get me something very romantic in town tomorrow. Something very romantic and very sweet. Of course, getting something is very wonderful, but giving something is so much better. That’s what they always say, and I think it is certainly true. That is why I want to give you the opportunity, to give me something delightful and romantic tomorrow, while we’re in town.

Hugh:  Chloe, that is very kind of you, and thoughtful.

Chloe:  It’s because I love you, Hugh. [They exit.]

Scene 2: [Town square, market. Two peachsellers set up their stands side-by-side, and set out their signs with products and prices listed. When each other isn’t looking, while the other is setting up, each take turns putting their sign in front of the other’s; and then increasing the prices on their competitor’s signs, finally one writes ‘free’ on their competitor’s sign. They argue and agree to set the same prices. Just then a third seller arrives with a much lower price than the price set by the two sellers; just as all the customers arrive, who see the prices of the three stands, and all flock to the third seller, leaving the original two sellers without any customers. They quickly lower their prices to match the third seller.]

Customer: [To Peachseller Three]  What kind of peaches do you have?

Peachseller Three:  We’ve got Babcock, these here are Melba, some Snow Beauty over here.

Customer:  Uhh, no. Do you have any that are more like…

Peachseller Three:  Oh, and those right in front are Doughnut.

Customer:  Really?! Do they taste like donuts?!

Peachseller Three:  Well, no…they’re peaches. But they’re sweet like donuts.

Customer:  I don’t really like peaches, do you have any that taste more like pears? Or maybe like apples?

[Two Friends cross to Peachseller One’s stand.]

Friend: [To the other.]  I actually don’t know why I came to this peach market, I hate peaches!

Peachseller One:  Would you folks like some samples?

Friend:  Are they free?!

Peachseller One:  Of course!

Friend: [Grabs several pieces, with both hands and eats them.]

Other Friend:  You just said you hated peaches!

Friend:  I do. But I love free stuff!

[Hugh arrives and talks with Peachseller Two.]

Peachseller Two:  Hello young man, can I interest you in some peaches?

Hugh:  I have to buy Chloe something romantic.

Peachseller Two:  Nothing says romance like a freshly baked peach pie!

Hugh:  I don’t know. I was hoping for something a little different.

Peachseller Two:  A peach pie is different! It’s not chocolates or roses. It’s not boring like those. It’s unexpected, but not too unexpected. You don’t want that, trust me. Be different but not too different, Hugh. Remember that, it’s important. With matters of the heart you’ve got to walk a fine line; be exciting, but not too exciting. Get her a peach pie, it will tell her you have flair and you’re a true romantic, but you are also dependable; and you can be trusted.

Hugh:  Really?! It says all that? Maybe that would be a good surprise.

[Chloe enters.]

Chloe:  Hugh! I’m glad I found you. Isn’t this wonderful? I love our peach festival, everyone is dressed so brightly and look so nice! Have you bought me anything yet?

Hugh:  Still looking. But I have lots of good ideas. I think you are really going to like it.

Chloe:  I rarely like good ideas. They make me think, and that usually bothers me. Plus, ideas demand attention and that makes it so much harder to be distracted. Distractions are much more enjoyable. Oh! Look at those, cute shoes! I’ve got to get some of those!

Peachseller Two:  I can’t agree with you more, young lady. The best things in life are distractions, and nothing distracts one as well as something sweet to eat. How about some peaches?

Chloe:  Oh! They do look good. They are all so pretty, aren’t they Hugh? It almost doesn’t matter if they taste sweet or not; as long as they look sweet.

Peachseller Two:  But they do taste sweet.

Chloe:  That’s good too, of course. But what if they looked bitter? Nobody would want to try them. You wouldn’t know if they tasted sweet or not. You’d assume they’re bad and throw them away before trying them.

Hugh:  That seems a little unfair. It’s like judging a book by its cover.

Peachseller Two:  Some ugly peaches can taste very good. But mine are all pretty.

Chloe:  Well, I always judge a book by its cover. The cover tells me everything I need to know. Besides, who has time to read anymore? So many words? A picture is worth a thousand words, don’t they say? So a video must be worth a million. Oh, I should Instagram this! [Takes out her phone and begins filming the scene.]

Peachseller Two:  You two should film yourselves eating some of my peaches, and you could post that. You can tag it, or whatever you do, call it ‘world’s most beautiful peaches’.

Hugh:  All the peaches here look beautiful. Those look nice too! [He points at the neighboring stand.]

Peachseller Two:  Oh my goodness. Don’t be fooled, their peaches are not very good.

Chloe:  But they look nice.

Peachseller Two:  Just between you and me, I heard someone got sick eating their peaches the other day. It isn’t common knowledge yet, but they are being investigated. Keep it quiet. But you may want to tell your friends, and anyone else who you don’t want getting sick. Keep away from those peaches!

Hugh:  That’s amazing, they look perfect. They look just like yours.

Peachseller Two:  Ha! Looks can be deceiving my boy. Never trust your eyes. Especially if you don’t know what you’re seeing. Trust me, I have been growing peaches all my life.

Chloe:  That’s true, Hugh. It is much easier to be told the truth, than to try to figure it out for yourself. Who has time for that?! She obviously knows what she’s talking about. You can tell just by looking at her.

Hugh:  I’m confused. She said not to trust my eyes, but then you just said that you can tell she’s an expert just by looking at her.

Chloe:  Oh, silly. Stop thinking about what we just said. You aren’t supposed to listen to people, who has time for that?! The important thing is that everything is good and we’re together, and we all agree that those other peaches are bad. You think too much sometimes.

[A very well-dressed middle-aged man enters, talking loudly on his phone.]

Well-Dressed Man:  I have no idea which stand you bought those peaches from! I’ve checked with them all…yes, I’m sure of it. No. Nobody seems to recognize that peach…I know. I know it’s disgusting. [He holds up a peach and looks boldly around at the three peachsellers. They all turn away to avoid him.] Anyone? Anyone of you sell these?! No honey, nobody seems to carry these! They’re all ignoring me! What dear? You want to buy more? But I thought you said they’re disgusting. Oh, they only look disgusting; they taste amazing?! Oh I see, well, no I was telling them all that you were very unhappy. I thought you wanted a refund. You what?! We want to buy how many more?! Are you serious?! For all of our restaurants, worldwide?! That would be thousands of peaches, dear, are you sure? [All three peachsellers listen attentively.] Well, okay. I’m not sure. Nobody seems to know, apparently none of them sold you this peach. [All three peachsellers rush towards him.] Honey, I’ve got to go. I’m being swarmed. I’ll call you back later. Okay, bye-bye.

Peachseller One:  Let me see that peach more closely, sir. I may have been mistaken, I think I did sell that one to your wife.

Peachseller Two:  Garbage! That’s not one of yours, I can tell by the smell and the color of the flesh, those are definitely from our farm. I sold that peach to your wife, sir. I’m certain of it.

Peachseller Three:  Not true! I’m all for a little friendly competition but I draw the line at boldface lies. That peach is mine, sir! I can guarantee it! I would stake my reputation on it!

Peachseller Two:  Then you’ve staked something that’s completely worthless.

Peachseller One:  Sir, everyone is always trying to take credit for what I’ve worked so hard to achieve. It isn’t fair, but that’s the way it goes. They know they can’t produce the quality that we do at our farm, so they pretend that our peaches are their own. Don’t fall for it, I would hate to see you fall for their lies. I know I sold your wife that peach, she had mentioned to me that she was going to send you back today. Now I remember her saying that to me. I don’t know why I forgot earlier, I must have been distracted and not remembering straight.

Well Dressed Man:  Well, I’m really not sure which of you sold us this peach. But I can tell you that whoever did, is going to be very wealthy in the near future. My wife wants to purchase your entire crop, and she will also want to contract exclusively with the seller of this peach for many years to come! We’ll just need to get to the bottom of this; which of you actually sold us this peach?! It’s quite a mystery. Solve that question and then it will all be easily taken care of. Simple as pie! Ha!

Chloe:  I love a good mystery, especially when tons of money is involved. Hopefully someone also will be ruined. That makes it even more exciting.

Hugh:  I wouldn’t want anyone to be hurt though. That would be a shame I think.

Chloe:  Not seriously injured, just ruined a little bit. Something dramatic that we can all talk about for years to come.

Hugh:  Just a little bankruptcy?

Chloe:  Yes, but not permanently. Just long enough to keep us interested for a while, until something new comes along.

Hugh:  And then they can get their money back?

Chloe:  Sure. Wouldn’t that be romantic? Riches to rags to riches again. I for one would be very interested if all that happened. It would be so exciting and heart-wrenching. In fact, the tragedy of losing all that money should include a death in the family, maybe a suicide.

Hugh:  But that’s so tragic.

Chloe:  Yes, but maybe it turns out that they had a serious illness after all and they were going to die soon anyway. I would be very entertained by that.

Hugh:  I’m not sure I’d want all that to happen to anyone that I know. It would be very hard on them.

Chloe:  No, but it would all turn out fine in the end, silly. I hope it happens to someone I know. Then maybe someone would interview me about them. Wouldn’t that be exciting?! I could say how I knew them, and it was so tragic, and it shocked all of us, and we never would have expected something like this to happen in our town, especially to such good friends, and such nice people.

Hugh:  It is always more tragic when tragedy happens to good people.

Chloe:  I suppose the best tragedies are the ones that happen to the people you don’t like. If only it could always turn out that way.

Hugh:  Maybe it does, in a way. I suppose everyone isn’t liked by somebody. So every tragedy makes some people very sad, and others very happy.

Chloe:  That’s a strange thought. Oh my, look at her purse! I must get one of those. Isn’t it so cute, Hugh?!

[Jace, the Mayor arrives, with Councilmembers. Steps up onto raised stage in town square.]

Jace:  Folks! Folks! Please quiet down for just a moment. I have a few things I’d like to say. First of all, for any of you who don’t know me, I’m the mayor of this little town. But that’s unimportant, what is important is you! And I’d like to welcome all of you to our Sixtieth Anniversary Peach Festival! It is hard to believe that our little community of Harmony has been holding this festival annually for sixty years running! Amazing! Let’s hear a nice round of applause for that! And let’s hear an even bigger round of applause for our amazing peaches, the best damn peaches in the world!

Peachseller One:  Honey, don’t swear! [Crowd laughs.]

Jace:  Ha, ha! That’s my wife folks. I should be on better behavior. Ha! But seriously folks, take a look at the peaches over yonder at her stand, they are among the best of the best. And I’m not just saying that.

Peachseller Three:  Yes you are! [Crowd laughs again.]

Jace:  Ha! Well, they do happen to be my peaches also, that’s true. But I can’t help that. Look folks, everyone in Harmony grows good peaches, that’s just a given. Folks, try any of the peaches from any of the stands here, you won’t be sorry. But you might be sorry if you don’t try ours. Just sayin’. Ha!

Peachseller Two:  If you like indigestion, that is! [Crowd laughs.] And like spending time on the toilet!

Jace:  [Visibly annoyed.] Ha, that’s clever. Very funny. Yes. Very nice. Folks, peaches are incredibly important to the people of Harmony. And you’ll taste the care and love we put into every single fruit. Heck! I don’t need to tell you that, that’s why you’ve come here to buy our fruit. You know it yourselves. There’s nothing like a Harmony peach. A Harmony grown peach is a little slice of heaven on earth. Why, there ain’t a problem in the world that can’t be solved by a Harmony peach! Isn’t that right?! [Crowd cheers.] Ha, ha! That might be a little bit hyperbolic. But not by much! Ha! Thanks again folks, for coming to our little peach festival here in Harmony. You’re one of the family now, and while you’re here you’ll enjoy our small-town hospitality. We welcome everyone! As long as they’re buying our peaches! Ha, just kidding! No, you can buy whatever you want, it’s a free country. Do as you please!

[A commotion as a group of seven people arrive and set up tables, signs, and barrels filled with fruit for sale. They are selling apples.]

Jace:  [Approaching the group of arrivals.]  Friends! Welcome. Welcome, I see you are setting up shop. That’s fine…but apples? Come now! This is a peach festival after all. Ha, ha! Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to bring peaches for sale?!

Jean Arnaut:  You were just saying, it’s a free country, were you not?

Jace:  Well, yes it is! I was saying that. I was telling everyone they are free to buy anything they want, but I didn’t say we’re free to sell anything we want. That would be anarchy!

Chloe:  He makes a good point doesn’t he, Hugh?

Jean Arnaut:  I would think that free consumption and free production would go hand in hand. One needs the other.

Chloe:  Oh, an appeal to romance! I do love a romantic argument.

Jace:  Yes, I was merely jesting. But I’m afraid there is a long application process to get permission to open a stand in Harmony. And there are permits, fees…a business license. It is all so troublesome for folks like you, I should think. Perhaps you’d do better to move along and sell your apples someplace else.

Jean Arnaut:  [Shows the required forms.]  I believe everything is in order. We’ve paid our fees and have our license to sell.

Jace:  [Surprised, he grabs and reviews the forms.]  Damn! Who issued these?…those infernal people in permitting. Excellent! Wonderful! I see everything is here. [Handing the forms back.]

Peachseller Two:  Mayor, they can’t sell apples! That goes against everything we stand for. I won’t stand for it!

Peachseller Three:  I have to agree, it isn’t right! They shouldn’t be allowed!

Jace:  What can I do?! They have the paperwork. It’s out of my hands.

Peachseller One:  Dear, we’ll talk about it more when we get home!

Chloe:  [Aside.]  There’s the real mayor of Harmony.

Jace:  Folks, we’ll take care of this matter later. For now, just enjoy the festival, enjoy the day! We can all ignore this little distraction. It will take care of itself, trust me! Buy peaches! Please excuse me now, we have an emergency council meeting that I just remembered. Can’t be late! [Exits.]

Jean Arnaut:  Good people of Harmony, come taste the best apples in the world. We have free samples of everything today! [Crowd gathers.]

[Peachsellers talk among themselves.]

Peachseller One:  This can’t be tolerated. It’s a mockery of our festival.

Peachseller Two:  There must be a way to shut them down.

Peachseller Three:  I have an idea. It will require a little stretching of the truth.

Peachseller One:  The truth’s malleable.

Peachseller Three:  And we’ll need to stick together, no backstabbing, no going rogue. All for one and one for all.

Peachseller Two:  That’s less appealing, but it’s for a good cause. I’m in.

Peachseller One:  Count me in too. What’s the plan?

[The three lean in and hear the plan, and then disperse.]

Hugh:  It is good to see them all working together for a change.

Chloe:  But is it a change for the better, or for the worse? I’d prefer they all stay the same and remain not so good all by themselves, rather than change and become very bad all together. Now Hugh, when are you going to give me my gift?

Hugh:  Don’t you want it to be a surprise? How can I get it for you if you’re with me the whole time?

Chloe:  Yes a surprise is better, much better. If you give it to me now, and it’s a bad gift, then my whole day will be ruined. But if I can imagine now that you will be giving me a good gift later, then my whole day is spent in wonderful anticipation. But when will you give it to me?

Hugh: Let’s meet again, this afternoon at one, at our hammock. I promise to give it to you then.

Chloe:  Don’t be late! [They kiss and she exits.]

[Hugh crosses to the apple stand and works his way to the front.]

Jean Arnaut:  You look perplexed, is it so difficult to pick a fruit?

Hugh:  To find the fruit that says all the right things, it is.

Jean Arnaut:  I see. Well my friend what does this fruit you are seeking have to say?

Hugh:  It must speak of love, and of romance, but not speak of these things too loudly, I’m told. It must whisper loud enough to be heard, but not scream so as to frighten.

Jean Arnaut:  Very poetic. We have Red Delicious of course, but that is too straightforward it would seem. Too direct and forward, we don’t want to scare the lovely lady off, right at the start. But what about a Cameo? No, too subtle, you are the lead in this romance, not merely making a brief appearance. Pazazz must certainly be too ostentatious for your purposes, and Pink Lady is perhaps to cloying. Ahhh, this may be it: the Hidden Rose! Is your lady a bit sweet, but not too sweet?

Hugh:  Yes, that is certainly her.

Jean Arnaut: This one has a sharp flavor with a hint of sweetness, and the flesh is a rosy pink.

Hugh:  That is her too! She also has a rosy, pink flesh.

Jean Arnaut:  Now, that is not something I hear every day! Your love has a rosy pink flesh. Very well, you have a refined eye, as well as a classical tongue. I perceive you’ve spent some time reading the poets.

Hugh:  A little, though they are hard to understand. 

Jean Arnaut:  No harder to understand than our present times, I propose. 

Hugh:  Yes, our present times are more perplexing, you’re right!

Jean Arnaut:  And less edifying for the effort.

Hugh:  Again! You are right! What is your name? I enjoy conversing with you very much!

Jean Arnaut:  Likewise. I am called Jean Arnaut. I am the de facto leader of this small conclave you see here selling apples.

Hugh:  Glad to meet you, and I am Hugh. I have no claim to fame.

Jean Arnaut:  And it is no great accomplishment being the leader of this little group either, believe me! But they are generous, and courageous; and humble, I will give them all that. And for some reason, they follow me.

Hugh:  Excellent! I do hope we’ll all become friends.

Jean Arnaut:  We already are! I have a sense for these things.

Hugh:  Now about those apples, the Hidden Rose. I’m afraid she might prefer peaches. I don’t want to make a mistake and get her the wrong gift.

Jean Arnaut:  When it comes to fruit, Hugh, it is hard to go wrong with an apple. The apple is epic in the story of man and woman. True, it had a rather ignominious beginning back in Eden, but it has since overcome that original stigma, and is now a herald of true love.

Hugh: Give me a dozen!

Jean Arnaut:  And I will include a little basket to carry them. No charge for that. Eight dollars for the apples. [They exchange money and the basket.] She is going to love it!

Hugh:  Yes, it suits her perfectly! She’ll be very surprised, I think I’ve really done it this time! Thank you Jean Arnaut, thank you. [He exits.]

[To Be Continued]

~FS

Sticks & Stones (reprise)

***In recognition of our country’s newly minted ‘Disinformation Governance Board’ I thought I’d share this little short story I wrote early last year about a young man working for the Ministry of Propaganda in 1930’s Germany. It is about the true story of Bernhard Lichtenberg, a Catholic priest who successful spoke out against the regime, and against the scapegoating of Jews, for many years from his pulpit in downtown Berlin, directly in the shadow of the Ministry. Eventually he was arrested and died in Dachau concentration camp, but he made a huge difference by speaking bravely and boldly, in support of those people who were blamed for the problems of the day, much as we are beginning to see in our own day:

Sticks & Stones

Now it is clear to see, who was right and who was wrong. Back then everyone thought they were right. But now we know who were the good guys, and the bad, and who the innocent victims were. But at that time, nothing was clear. Now, hindsight has sorted the roles that everyone played, though it has also inoculated us from any lessons we might learn from history. Because the roles are scrambled once again—as they were then—and once again, everyone thinks they’re right. We hear the cry, “Never again!” and yet we know that humans are bound to make the same mistake over and over again; old mistakes are newly minted by the successive generations. God forbid! But God allows.

This suffering begins slowly, imperceptibly; and gradually grows to become a tidal wave, irresistible and inescapable. This is a familiar pattern; one can insert their choice of protagonists-antagonists into this pattern, from every age and every place throughout history. It begins with words, repeated over and over again, within a context of fear, directed against some, for the benefit of others. Even children know this pattern, and can play this game adroitly; but what begins with words, unchecked, often eventually ends with sticks and stones. Someone, perhaps many, will ultimately lose their lives.

I began working at The Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda fresh out of University. While in school I had been a journalism student, and had also taken several classes in advertising. These skills were highly sought after by those working within the new Ministry. I was recruited to assist in the Ministry’s efforts to educate our people—to enlighten them. It was a far cry from working for an advertising agency, from trying to convince consumers to buy this shaving cream or that perfume, as I had always expected would be my career. It was much nobler in fact, because we were going to help convince our citizens to become better people. Our mission was to teach morality to the young and the old, and to help them understand who is good and who is bad. Ultimately, we were there to protect our people through education, and to help them recognize their enemies, in order to keep them safe from the dangers that their enemies posed. And we worked hard, for the good of our people, so that future generations could enjoy peace and happiness.

From the start, we understood that in order to control a society—for the good of society—and to rule a civilization, to establish safety and peace in that civilization—this could not be accomplished by power alone. And no single man, no matter how charismatic, could wield this power successfully for very long, without first controlling the spirit of the age, without determining and dictating the zeitgeist of that society’s culture. We knew we had to control the understanding and the thinking of our people. So they would think only our thoughts, reject other ideas as dangerous, and act as they should, for the benefit of our party, and the flourishing of our nation. Anyone, or any party, with greater ambitions, must of necessity control the cultural and intellectual life of that nation. This meant suppressing opposing viewpoints, castigating those with views different than the party’s, and eventually eradicating all opposition. The more subtly and inconspicuously this could be accomplished, the better and more complete the results. If people are unaware they have been molded by us, and if they accept the thoughts we’ve taught them as wholly natural, they will believe sincerely that they are still free thinkers. But in truth, they are not. Although, I must admit, that discerning the truth became more and more difficult for everyone, even for those of us working within the Ministry.

Within a very few years our successes mounted, to a degree that surprised us. We had essentially taken over the universities, installing professors that were hand-picked by our party, censuring or firing any who spoke out against the party. Soon after this, the ideas generated by these academics, trickled down to the secondary and primary educational systems and this gave us great opportunity to shape the young minds of our nation, and to ensure greater safety in the future, and to pave the way for a more equitable society.

Just as importantly, the press was consolidated under our direction so that dangerous ideas could be suppressed. Likewise, we gained influence over the film industry, the theaters, publishing houses, and radio. We established an overarching Chamber of Culture that oversaw the production of cultural material within our country; with sub-chambers in each specific field of endeavor: such as film, education, and radio. And each of these Chambers required its members to agree to party principles. In order to work in any of these fields, all members were approved by the Party Chamber, signed loyalty statements which ensured quality cultural, and these chambers also controlled unruly members who might become problematic within their field, and dangerous to the general public. 

In these ways, and many more, we were able to create an atmosphere of stability and safety throughout the entire country. We became a blessing to our citizens; and everyone was grateful for our efforts, and especially our results, which made people feel confident and secure. Admittedly, for some people in our country, these measures created a grave difficulty; however, these people were all given the opportunity to renounce their dangerous thoughts and activities and join our party. Well, not all were given this chance, of course, but many of them were indeed allowed this opportunity. And if they chose not to join us, they only had themselves to blame. We couldn’t feel sorry for them if they insisted on believing things that were hurtful, and damaging for our people. So ultimately if they wouldn’t change, they had to be eliminated, for the good of everyone.  

In the summer of 1937, I was promoted within the Ministry, and was given a private office on the second floor of the Ordenspalais, the Ministry headquarters, overlooking the nearby public square, in the heart of Berlin. My new job was to assist in monitoring the activities of the clergy throughout Germany. Our first goal was to help priests and pastors communicate the views of the government to their flocks. However, in cases where clergy willingly chose to corrupt the population with views opposing our party, we had authority to censure, fine, confiscate property, or if necessary, arrest and imprison them; in order to keep the messages coming from the pulpits free of corruption. We walked a fine line however, because many of these pastors and priests had very loyal followers, and were beloved; so our job demanded nuance, and a fine touch in order to gently persuade these men to do and say the right things, without causing their flocks any unnecessary concern or agitation. Time yielded successes. Most were eventually brought under our wing and willingly accepted our guidance. But there were a small percentage who remained vocal in their opposition to the government’s positions. 

One such dissident priest was named Bernhard Lichtenberg, who served at St Hedwig’s Cathedral, which was located barely half a mile to the northeast of our Ministry offices. He had been a thorn in our side for many years, preaching from the very beginning against what he termed ‘a persecution of the Jews’. He was very outspoken, and the government would have silenced him even as early as in 1933, when the Gestapo had searched his residence for seditious materials; but they came up empty handed. Complicating this particular situation, as I’ve already mentioned, was the fact that he was very well known, admired and beloved by many people living in Berlin. This emboldened him, and for nearly ten years he had acted with impunity directly under our noses; but by 1938 we were losing patience with him and his days were numbered. But then something surprising and wholly unexpected happened in the fall of that year, which led to a new and secret alliance—an alliance which shielded the priest from the wrath of the party. Well, it was more like the appearance of a hidden benefactor and protector; and this silent partner, quietly began to subvert the plots aimed at his destruction. Instead, redirecting all menace and malice away from him towards other targets, thereby allowing Father Lichtenberg to continue his work against the regime.

But now I have a confession to make, and it is one that must certainly come as a great surprise, as it stands so starkly against the flow of everything that I have related thus far. It is true that I was and had always been a great believer in our party, and in its goals for a bright and equitable future for our people. My parents were both members of the party, as were all of my friends, so I had no reason to doubt the sincerity and honor inherent in our motives and methods. So it is peculiar, to say the least, that I should have been suddenly thrust into a cataclysm of internal doubts; and a clash of values and moralities waged within me. I was never a religious person, nor was anyone close to me religious, so the marginalized and moral failings of the clergy, and their peculiar philosophy of human failure had never had any pull upon me. As far as any of us were concerned, Christianity was an abhorrent fantasy based upon superstition, and it elevated the worst qualities of human weakness. It was just one more thing to be eradicated over the course of time; so that human power and a new and better morality could exist and guide us.

At least, this is what I had always thought; this is what I was always taught to believe. Yet, in the midst of the sudden and overwhelming violence which took place all across Germany one November night in 1938, I was also overcome within myself, by a sudden and overwhelming revulsion at what I witnessed. Mobs took up stones and broke shop windows throughout the country; men gathered sticks and used them to beat fellow Germans. Granted, they were Jews, but still somehow their cries and their blood chilled me to the bone. And all of a sudden I felt newly repulsed by the plethora of our party’s words (and ideologies) which had clearly led to this violence, all of the great accumulation of statements that had been made leading inexorably towards this violence, which purposed the wholesale destruction of others. And even all of the piles upon piles of materials that I myself had generated in support of our positions, all of which blamed the Jews for our country’s economic woes and ethical failings, none of these things had effectively prepared me for the visceral reality of smelling their spilt blood, seeing their broken bones, and witnessing their destroyed humanity. Perhaps their destruction was something that should have filled me with glee, but all it did was fill me with horror and remorse. This was not the success I had thought it would be. No, this violence was wrong, and I acknowledged this fact in the depths of my being. My soul revolted against this violence, and my heart broke; my chest felt as though it would burst open in protest.

But my mind couldn’t accept this new idea, I couldn’t rationalize such a sudden and complete turnabout; my reason resisted a change of course. It couldn’t be done, I reasoned. I had an excellent position now within the party, everyone I knew were members, they were my friends, I had nothing to lose by maintaining my status quo, but everything to lose if I changed it. Could the party be wrong? It had always sounded so good and so right. Regardless what I may truly think now, it would clearly be best for me to continue to play along with the party line.

All of these things, and many others plagued me and cast me into a somber mood as I walked through the streets of Berlin later that night, weaving my way past broken storefronts, burned out buildings, and everywhere—the shattered glass. I made my way past the Bebelplatz, and continued eastward, alongside the State Opera House, where I stopped and took a closer look a poster glued to its northern wall. It was a familiar sight: a poster announcing nightly vesper services at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral, and publicly defending the rights of the Jewish minority. I had seen these posters plastered around town for many years, all put up by Father Lichtenberg himself, or by those who served under him. These posters had been an annoying nuisance up until now; but this night, I saw it as a new possibility and a calling to something within me that I had never before considered. I was curious to hear what Bernhard Lichtenberg might say in his nightly homily, and I resolved to attend vespers the following evening.

Though I could easily explain my presence in the church the next night as information gathering, and nobody in the Ministry or the party would question me about this, still I felt extremely nervous and agitated as I entered the building and took a seat in the dark, against a side wall. My heart was pounding, and sweat glistened upon my forehead. I wiped it off with a handkerchief as I looked timidly to my right and left, and then fixed my gaze rigidly straight ahead, focusing upon the figure standing in the front of the church. It was Father Lichtenberg, and he was already in the midst of his oration, “These synagogues that were burned last night, just outside, all around our fine city, these too are places of worship; these also are houses of God! No one has a right to desecrate these, to destroy them, no matter their justification. We must halt these outrages now, before much worse abuses soon fall upon us all. The Jews are not our enemy. They are not the cause of our problems. Wake up from this fallacy—this deceit—a horrible lie having been repeated over and over, to divide us along racial lines. No, we are all the enemy, each of us our own enemy, and the enemy of each other; if we allow ourselves to believe these lies and then to act upon them, we are in the wrong. You say you want to right past wrongs, to make reparations?! If this is true, then make yourself right, in truth! The past is done, nothing can be changed now that has been done before. You want reparations?! Repair your own heart! That is the reparation that is needed! Stop fearing your brother and sister, no matter who they are: Jew, gypsy, black man, or white. Demand of yourselves, each of you, courage and righteousness, virtue and honor! Settle for nothing less than goodness and mercy, forgiveness and love within your own souls. I’m asking each of you now, when you leave tonight and return to your home: Pray for your enemies! Think of them by name, and desire good things for them. And pray like this every night, from now on, this is how we will make the future brighter for our nation; only by turning our enemies into our friends! We will never be able to right the wrongs of the past. They are past. But we can right the wrongs of the future, by acting rightly: Now! How can we demand these shop owners to pay for something they aren’t responsible for? For shame! We have destroyed their livelihoods, and even beaten them in the streets! Why take our vengeance out upon these innocents?! We blame and scapegoat others, and it is immoral, and will only lead to more suffering in the future, if we don’t change course now!”

I didn’t hear the conclusion of his speech, I couldn’t sit there any longer. His words cut through me in a frightful way, and I ran quickly out the doors to escape their damning; his statements fell on me like a pile of burning embers. I wanted to be angry. I wanted to hate him more now than ever I had in the past—him, and everyone like him—but I couldn’t. It was as if my mind were shackled in place, and even under my determined prodding, it wouldn’t fly to the hateful places I was accustomed to haunting. I couldn’t think at all in that moment, but rather I fled instinctually to save myself—though in a haze—and I wandered the streets of Berlin, crossing over the Schloss Bridge, stopping there, and staring down into the swirling depths of the waters below me. The light from the streetlamps overhead reflected upon the small rippling waves as they moved swiftly past me—flickering upon the surface, jumping and catching like an old movie-reel, which lulled me into a pleasant, forgetful trance.  

The fragmented light which played upon the water slowly coalesced into images my mind could recognize: I saw Herr Goebbels, my boss, gesturing boldly before a crowd of admirers; I saw all of us smiling and laughing—my parents were there, and my friends, those I had attended university with, and some of whom I now worked with—all of us saluting and cheering in unison, happily united in our common delusions. But these images now made me nauseous. The waves upon the river’s surface shifted slightly in a light breeze, and abruptly broke up these images in my mind; and for a moment I noticed a sweet smell in the air, which I breathed in deeply, remembering the nearby Linden trees, before I returned to my reverie in the waters below. And next I saw Father Bernhard Lichtenberg there, standing in his pulpit, admonishing and inspiring me with a completely new and different set of ideas. And my heart warmed uncontrollably as I watched him; against my wishes, I smiled and felt…hopeful. This feeling startled me, and caused the images to suddenly vanish. And I looked up, gazing vacantly down the river as hope turned back to fear, and I worried for myself. What would become of me now? I couldn’t easily go back to who I had been; and yet, it was deadly to become who I thought I might be.  

I returned home and suffered through a long, sleepless night, tormented by conflicting visions of my future. I feared myself most of all. What would I do in the morning? Would I go to my office in the Ministry of Propaganda and do my work as if nothing had happened? Could I even do that? But if not, then what? Would I quit? One doesn’t quit jobs like this. So then, what?! Would I flee the country, or join Father Lichtenberg, or hide in my apartment forever?! Impossible! Why not just become a Jew then, damn it all, and face the wrath of the country?! Let them destroy me too. I despaired of myself, and of every option for my future. Bewildered by my situation I lay down upon my bed, and despair lulled me to sleep.

When I awoke the next day, my bed was drenched with sweat and I was shaking uncontrollably. I had come down with a cold or flu, and this allowed me several days of recovery, which enabled me to put off any decisions about my future life. During this time I attempted to put Father Lichtenberg’s words into action, but found I knew nothing about prayer, or how to pray for an enemy. The idea seemed very strange to me, to talk to God; who up to that moment, I hadn’t even believed existed. How does one make God listen to them? These were uncharted waters; they left me very disoriented and uncomfortable. So rather than attempt prayer, I decided to simply think a few kindly thoughts towards Father Lichtenberg. I hoped for his safety, imagining him continuing his nightly speeches in defense of the Jewish population without interference. And then it occurred to me that I could keep him safe, if I were careful and if I used my position within the Ministry wisely. 

I returned to work the following week, and among the directives on my desk, waiting for my approval, was one to authorize the detention of Father Lichtenberg, due to his outspoken critiques against the November Pogroms (more widely known as Kristallnacht) earlier in the month. If I signed the paperwork now, they would then be sent to the offices of the Gestapo, and Bernhard Lichtenberg would be arrested later that evening. I had always been a rubber stamper for these directives, never withholding my signature or raising any resistance to these arrests in the past; but now, I reconsidered my role and found my new life purpose in quietly and surreptitiously obstructing such things. My first action to this end, was crude and inartistic—I simply crumpled the directive and threw it into the trash. Our office staff was incredibly overworked, and this directive came from one of my subordinates, who I knew would never follow up on it.

Prior to adding my signature to a directive, I was the only one who would have seen it, so it was very unlikely it would ever be missed. However, after I sign a directive, a copy is then placed into our Ministry archives, another copy is taken to the Gestapo, one copy turned into an arrest warrant, and another is held in the Gestapo archives along with a copy of the arrest warrant; and a final copy of all related paperwork, including information as to the prisoner’s final destination, is placed into a file and is retained at another centralized location in Berlin. So it was very difficult to hide a directive after it left my office. I intercepted them before they made it any further.

Rather than getting arrested that evening, Father Lichtenberg gave another fiery oration, unaware of his new hidden benefactor, or how my interference had bought him more time. Weeks went by before he raised the ire of Dr. Goebbels himself, when Father Lichtenberg fiercely opposed the Cabinet’s decision to force Jewish shopkeepers to pay for the damages to all property resulting from the Kristallnacht pogrom. The Father called this decision an outrage and immorality of the highest order: adding insult to injury upon the Jewish community which first lost their shops, their properties, their places of worship, and in many cases even their own lives, and now the Nazi party insisted they also must pay for all of these losses themselves. Bernard Lichtenberg named Goebbels specifically in one of his homilies, and this incited Goebbel’s wrath. He demanded his immediate arrest and only after a great deal of persuasion, was I able to convince him that Father Lichtenberg was more useful to us free than in prison. I suggested, erroneously, that I had been investigating the Bishop of Berlin, Konrad von Preysing, and I needed Bernhard Lichtenberg free in order to finally get at the Bishop. “We need the minnow to get the shark.” I suggested with a wink; and Dr. Goebbels smiled wryly, relenting, and stated that “all the fish in the sea will eventually be ours”.

I attended evening vespers at St. Hedwig’s Cathedral at least monthly; enough to learn a great deal about Christian ethics from Bernhard Lichtenberg, but not so frequently as to arouse much suspicion from my fellow party-members. I had explained to my closest associates the need for my attendance there, in order to gather further incriminating evidence against the Catholic Church, and they wished me every success in my efforts. What impressed me the most about the Christian approach to morality was its emphasis on personal responsibility, an absence of blame towards others for the unfairness that all of us experience in our lives, and the personal courage to stand for human life, no matter whose life, and especially for the innocent and those who can’t defend themselves. Christians would do this even in the face of death. I had always been taught that Christians were weak, superstitious, and a danger to society due to their regressive ways of thinking. In my mind, they had always been the “bad” people, and I fought them aggressively; just like any good Nazi would do. However, Bernhard Lichtenberg’s speeches gave me another way of looking at this and I was shocked, and saddened, to realize that perhaps the Christians were actually “good” in that they defended life, personal freedoms; and they lived courageously heroic—in word and in action—most often to protect and serve others, rather than themselves.

My people spoke great flowing words, and made excellent speeches about the unity of our people, the hopeful future of our country, and the peace and safety we would provide for all of our citizens. However, in action we censored, and imprisoned, and finally killed those who disagreed with us, or those who we blamed for our problems. Actions speak louder than words, as is commonly said; and it was difficult for me to ignore my actions, or the actions of my family and friends in support of the party’s agendas. We valued power and control and would fight to achieve it, even though we spoke as if we cared about peace and human freedom. Whereas the Christians valued human life and freedom, and shunned power and control over others; and would even give up their own lives to achieve it. The difference was striking, and I had to admire Bernhard Lichtenberg and all those like him.

I was able to protect Father Lichtenberg from arrest for two years, but finally one evening in October 1941, the Gestapo swept in and took him, just before the beginning of his vespers service which I had become so fond of attending. The final straw was a letter of protest he wrote against our policy of forced euthanasia, which was being carried out with brutal efficiency, in order to eliminate the German population of the mentally deficient, the disabled, and those with epilepsy (among other conditions), which rendered them all ‘useless’ in the new German society we were building. His letter condemning this practice, gained widespread attention and was an embarrassment to the regime, both domestically and internationally. By 1941 I was no longer able to protect him, or any other clergy because all authority for arrests was transferred entirely to the Gestapo, and my office in the Ministry of Propaganda was no longer involved. I saw Bernhard Lichtenberg carried out of St. Hedwig’s Cathedral that evening, and loaded into the back of a truck, and I never saw him again. He was kept for interrogation in a local prison for some time, before he was finally transferred to the priest barracks in Dachau, in the fall of 1943. My understanding is he never made it to the concentration camp but died in transit, somewhere along the way.

I continued working for the Ministry for the remainder of the war, and applied myself where I could, to the covert resistance, and even sabotage where possible, of Nazi policy. When the war was over I was arrested, and tried for my role in support of the Nazi regime. Though I had also fought clandestinely against the regime, much of what I had done was difficult to prove, so in the end I was sent to prison for ten years. However, several documents were found to be material support for my defense, and I was eventually given a reduced sentence of five years. In my opinion this was fair, and I felt fortunate to serve my time, and pay for my part in that hideous experiment.

When I was released in the spring of 1951, I entered seminary and became a Catholic priest. I was trained as a missionary, and in 1955 was sent to western China to work with the ethnic Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. I have now been working in China as a Catholic missionary for nearly thirty years, and have witnessed many things between the People’s Party and the Uyghurs which are highly reminiscent of my time working for the Nazi party before and during the war. I always hoped that the lessons learned from that epic failure, would be learned and never repeated again. But alas, this is not the nature of humankind, particularly for those who adhere to the world’s vision of reality, where might makes right; and where those who hold the power, wield it in the name of goodness and righteousness, while practicing the opposite.

It is now 1984, and I still have great hope for our world. For wherever God’s people practice love and mercy, there is still hope. And in the face of oppression—or even in the face of extreme violence, such as the murderous policies which I participated in during the war, or what is now gathering here in western China—where there are courageous people ready to resist, and where there are lovers of God, there will always be hope and life.

I once believed that I was right—long ago in Germany, along with my family and my friends who served the Nazi Party—we were certain in our moral superiority. But eventually I learned, through the humble and courageous actions of Father Lichtenberg, that I had actually been very wrong. Now, I live my life defending and protecting a new minority against the inhumane actions of another party, in another country. It is the same thing all over again; but this time I know I am in the right. Yet, those in power believe I am wrong.

I am writing this letter, on the eve before my death. For I have been tried and found guilty, and shall be shot in the morning, at first light. It doesn’t matter what I have been accused of, for they are all lies; but the Party deals only in lies and falsehoods, it always has and it always will. I only hope that this letter will make it out of this place, and someone will read it, and will learn something from my story.

I am very grateful for my life. I am also very sorry for my mistakes, and for following my delusions for so much of this life. I am most grateful to Father Lichtenberg, for showing me the way of truth and light; even in the midst of utter darkness. I am in the light now, and I am joyfully awaiting first dawn. And after that, I am looking forward to a new life, lived in an even brighter light; in a day which never ends.

May God be with you all, and may He show His light upon you, as He did for me.

With Love and Hope,

Father Karl Braun

November 11, 1984

~FS

A Very Loud & Empty World

Emptiness grows here; spreading its sickness far and wide. By denying the truth we give emptiness license; and our falsehoods create a vacuum. But this is not a pure emptiness, it is alloyed with confusion and despair. And this emptiness is not a quiet place, for this emptiness is filled with loud imposters, charlatans who clamor for attention. Masked pretenders perform here, on our individual soul’s stage and on the world stage as well. We have become experts in our own delusions, believing our own lies; the memories of what is true fade fast, and are far from our thoughts, and are replaced by mere fantasies. This is the strange emptiness that befalls our world today—loud, obnoxious, and arrogant—a circus of superciliousness that is devoid of meaning.

~FS

The Way of The Babbling Brook

If you find me sitting by a babbling brook, in the shade, under the overarching branches of a stately Elm tree—join me silently, or leave me be. Leave the noise behind you; as I have done. Silence the hustle and bustle within you. Let us sit together and just be. I will not tell you what I do, so don’t ask me. I promise not to burden you with my trivialities either. Let’s be free. For now; for a time at least. Free from going and from coming, free from wanting and from getting, free from trying or becoming. Come, for now we are simply humans being. Just being. 

And when you find me, if you find me with legs crossed, and head buried deep within my hands; if I am crying, do not cheer me. For I am shedding; I must shed what’s false in me. Come cry with me, and let our lies fall into the brook; let our tears there intermingle, vanishing beneath the surface, disappearing towards the sea. And let our laughter arise spontaneously. 

Oh, if I could laugh at all infirmity. If my limbs were only made of stone, and could resist every urge towards comfort here. If I could abide all pain and not attempt to avoid it, or assuage it. Perhaps then I would live. Then, I might not lie. Then I would act as I think, and do as I will. My body would no longer be at odds with my soul, and I might learn to truly love. 

The little brook runs clear, and it is singing. Come and listen to it with me. For a time forget where you were going, and where you’ve been. Just watch the water flowing. Do you hear what it is saying? It’s saying that it’s okay. It’s okay what you aren’t, and it’s okay what you are. I don’t know if it’s okay, but the brook is saying that it’s okay. Perhaps this is why I’ve come here; and this is why I’ve sat here, to simply hear the babbling brook tell me, that it’s okay. I think I will stay here a while longer, perhaps forever, peacefully foregoing my own way. 

~FS

The Canine News, April 2022

Folks, it’s been an eventful month already, and we’re only half-way through it. It’s been cold, which makes us shiver, but we’re all very thankful for a warm blanket, and for the wall-heaters that really take the edge off. Aren’t we? But we have to admit, if we’re being honest, that the hail really scares us when it is coming down so hard on the roof. It makes us want to hide under the hearth, doesn’t it? What’s with the hail, anyways? It’s April for gosh sakes! Some of us already got our spring cuts, and it is damn cold out there without our surplus hair.

In any event, on to the news: First off, there’s a new gal in town. Not sure if you’ve seen her yet, but she’s a looker. Chunky, with a big flat nose as big as a lollipop! And she stinks to high heaven! Yes, she’s got it all. But to be honest, we don’t think she’s a dog. She snorts, which is odd, and she has this little curly tail that doesn’t wag. They say she’s called, “Chubby Chub-Chubs” and that the little girl she lives with named her. Be that as it may, and whether or not she’s a canine makes no difference to us, she’s worth a gander next time you’re in the neighborhood. If you can, get up real close, right next to the chicken-wire fence where she resides, and take a big whiff. She’s something special!

The squirrels are out in abundance lately. You’ve probably noticed. They’re everywhere: running along fencetops, up and down trees, tearing wildly across streets, even venturing to look into our houses through the back window or the sliding door. It’s fantastic, it is truly wonderful to be alive! One of our compatriots, Fritz, nearly caught an unsuspecting squirrel right off, when he went out yesterday morning, and then he chased another up a tree directly after that one, and by the time his walk was done he had chased a good half-dozen of the glorious little fluff-balls. They’re fast, they’re darty, and they’re twirley too! The larger dogs say that they’re tasty as well. We’ll have to take their word for it. There is so much about them to enjoy!  

On to more serious matters, it has been reported there is a strange blending of aromas to be found in much of the surrounding vegetation. Dogs everywhere are highly excited by this recent development, and we’re no exception. We’ll turn this next segment over to Fritz with help from his brother Rocco, who’ve both been doing some deep investigation into this story. It is a constantly evolving situation so we’ll try to give you the most current update possible. Here is what we know so far: in the shrubs alongside the main street there seems to be some combination of savory and sweet, possibly slightly urine-ical, it takes one back to the classic smells from continental Europe—possibly Paris—so first guess is it is Eau de Poodle, possibly with remnants of hamburger…or cheeseburger intermingled. Interestingly, not much further up the road some of the grass there also has traces of this same selection, although with a musty overtone added, which hits the nose slightly acidic at first, but then softens and is reminiscent of the seashore and dirty socks. Across the street from this, we think someone in the recent past probably dropped some eggs or rotten fish into a fern—maybe both—it was nearly impossible to resist, and both of us just had to roll for a while in it. The smell is fading though, so if you are interested in experiencing it for yourself, you should hurry on down before it’s gone! As we all know, good smells don’t last forever; and stink waits for no dog.

That’s all the time we have for today, it’s nearly time for treats. The weekend looks to be a bit warmer and excellent for some exercise. Get out there is ramble! Remember, if you don’t like your news, try a different news source! Canine News is your source for another perspective; widening your view of the world. There’s more to life than meets the eye; when in doubt, or overwhelmed, just follow your nose instead!  

~FS

Poetry & The Language of Creation

When I was a younger man, back when I was absolutely certain that I knew quite a lot about a great many things—whereas now, I’m only fairly confident that I know much less about far fewer things—but back at that time, when my expanding mind was burgeoning with fresh thought, the Spirit tried to teach me a little something about the world around me, of which it spoke that I was a small, but still meaningful part. Though at the time I was unsure of my part, or whether I had any part at all to play in the world—meaningful or otherwise. Yet, paradoxically I was at the same time the precise center of the entire world, at least in my own mind: a modern man—both narcissistically self-assured and insecure.

I was quick to speak and slow to listen; even so, the Spirit led me up a mountaintop to show me things I didn’t know. If only I had eyes to see and ears to hear, and a mind receptive to truths shrouded in mystery and shadows. The poetry of creation surrounded me and I was immersed in the language of the stars; like all people, made to understand (at least in part) the same celestial music that directs the moon and the wind, though I didn’t know it at the time. Perhaps I felt it then as a numinous possibility, a spiritual potentiality, but my mind was too dull, from too much calculation and from seeing the world too fully through the lens of calibration; falsely imagining that if I could measure reality, then I would know reality. We are enamored by the allure of quantifiable minutiae, making these an end in themselves rather than as markers pointing to our spiritual source. We speak but don’t listen, we speak our own language but do not try to learn, or remember, the language of creation.

When I finally stopped talking (which was very difficult for me to achieve) and I listened instead—another presence came and filled the space around me. It has taken me decades just to begin to quit talking, and to start listening. Spirit speaks poetically and enchantingly—and quietly. I try to write down what I hear. Sometimes I hear clearly, so as to take dictation in a sense; other times it is as though I am translating from another language into my own. However, when the wind gently shakes the tree tops, what else is there to say? As sunlight dances brilliantly upon the tiny waves of a sheltered bay, and as gulls glide softly through the silken water as silhouettes, why should I append this happening with any additional words whatsoever? Isn’t God clearly seen and known by what He has created; what then is the purpose of clarifying creation as it is occurring, simply with more words—as an ultimate act of redundancy?

Although…the words that we use to describe to one another the beauty and mystery of creation, might they be symbols that can and do describe something even further about God? Poetry speaks to the heart and soul, and communicates something that we humans are, perhaps, otherwise too dull of mind to perceive; directing our thoughts, and hearts, heavenward in an inexplicable encounter with the Divine—discovering word and meaning from the world around us.

~FS

When I Die

When I die I want the wind blowing into my face and around my head, and through whatever hair may still be growing there. Don’t package me up into a warm bed, in a warm room, to patiently await my expiration date. I want to be in the wilds, smelling the fresh pine, and not my own urine—if I am still able to smell anything at all. I want to feel that fresh breeze, blowing into my face; not pure oxygen from a tube thrust up my nose. Let me gaze out towards the horizon, and not up at the ceiling; out at the sky—streaked with golds and purple—and not up at an old brown water stain from a leak hidden someplace above the tiles. If I must go I want to go under the trees, and not in my bed, soiling my sheets. If you see me gasping and clutching at my chest, but I’m near a pond, on a mountain, or on a beach, leave me be. I’m dying my best death. Don’t ruin it for me with a call to the ambulance, or a trip to a hospital. When it is time to lay me down, into the earth, do not burn me. The time for fire is over; if I am to burn, let me burn while still alive: burning with love and burning with hope. Ignite me now with desire for all that is good, and all that is noble. Dress me in a simple gown, and place me in a plain pine box; and drop me into the earth to await my lord and king. And I don’t want to wear a suit, or a tie; those are fine, for other people’s funerals, but not for my own, thank you. I don’t need fanfare, I don’t expect a visit from dignitaries. Just close my eyelids, and set a little cross upon my breast. When I die, just say a little prayer and let me go. 

~FS