FIGHTING THE LAST WAR

When you have an opportunity as a journalist to speak directly with the person running a political campaign, you jump at it. So it was that I was speaking, just after the Democratic Convention with John Minor, campaign chairman for Democratic Party presidential candidate Jane Barron, a recently-elected Senator from Maine. The election of 2016 had been a disaster for the Democrats. Losing the White House was only part of it. Making so little progress toward taking back control of the Senate, let alone the House, had been disappointing. So I had to ask if they hadn’t learned the wrong lessons from that experience. “John, after the level of anti-woman sentiment that worked against Hillary Clinton in 2016, what was the thinking behind having another woman candidate in the next election? I’m not saying a woman can’t or shouldn’t be President, but are the people…the voters…likely to change that quickly?”
 
“So, Ryan…I hear what you’re saying. But Jane was selected in the primary process. Voters in a wide range of states voted for her…selected her to be the nominee…believed in her programs.”
 
“Of course. We have the system of primary elections to narrow down the candidates to one, but can’t we agree that, because of the way the electorate has been fragmented by partisanship and hot-button issues, that primary voters of both major parties are more extreme than those who vote in the general election? And it’s only gotten worse since the Republican Party has so severely shifted to the right.”
 
“You’re right, Ryan, but you’re also right that this started with the GOP being taken over by the Tea Party and the extreme infusion of dark money. I read what you wrote about that. The GOP is addicted to Koch dollars at all levels. We want to speak directly to the people…but we have to compete with far less money to work with. There are, of course, liberal millionaires donating to the party and to PACs, but the big money goes to the GOP. That’s why one item on our platform is an amendment to overturn Citizens United.”
 
“Do you ever think that maybe the multitude of goals your platform lists are too much for the average voter to grasp and get on board with?”
 
“We prefer not to insult the intelligence of our voters, Ryan. The GOP reduces everything to a bumper sticker slogan. Think about how simplistic Trump’s slogan was…’Make America Great Again’. What did it mean? We know he was assuming our country was in decline. And maybe it was, but not for the reasons he stated. He picked up a lot of disaffected whites who blamed their troubles on people of color and immigrants. He spent the entire time of Obama’s two terms accusing him of not being an American. If you were looking for a scapegoat, you might believe Trump…and vote for him. We know that wealthy extremists on the right have worked hard and long to get us where we are. And they’re still not going to be satisfied until they control everything.”
 
“Hillary called them the vast right wing conspiracy. She was right about that. But, again, if you assume that the average voter in the general election is as partisan or as well informed as a primary voter, I think you’ll have a hard time reaching them. When it came down to it, Trump’s voters believed he’d bring back the jobs…factory jobs and coal jobs, especially. We know that was a lie. The President has no such power…and a GOP Congress wasn’t about to overturn free trade pacts…if anything, they’d make them less beneficial to workers. So why not concentrate on the major issues?” I wasn’t playing gotcha with Minor, but I wanted to see how he responded to things some of us in the media were finally focusing on.
 
“Like I said, Ryan. We believe the voters can see through the simplistic promises the GOP platform makes. And many of their platform planks are just mean-spirited.”
 
“I’ll leave it with this…and not to be offensive, but I think the complicated message will work against your candidate, even in the absence of the Clinton baggage.”
 
“I guess we’ll see in November.”
 
I thanked him for his time. I was certain I hadn’t been an effective devil’s advocate…how do you convince a true believer to consider an alternative? Having a vantage point further away from the issues gave me an insight he was unable or unwilling to accept. Fighting the last war is never the best tactic.
 
© 2017 Robert Mihaly
 
Note: This story is intended to become part of a political novel that is underway. It’s topical, so I hope current events don’t leave my story in the dust.
 
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I SEE HAPPY PEOPLE

The door was partly ajar, and it was all I could do not to help it open a little more. The sound of music and gaiety poured out from within. Whoever was inside was enjoying themselves, clapping and singing along, and I thought I heard the sound of dancing feet. I remembered a night long ago, the sounds of a young couple celebrating the wedding with their families and friends. That was me and my bride, but that was so long ago that much had faded from memory. What had become of the happy couple was all those who knew them could now offer. Had they known the answer, they might have never asked. But my thoughts returned to what I was hearing now.

Walking the streets of Brugge, I was amazed at the variety of entrances and how many were so beautifully inviting. By American standards, an ancient city, canals, an inviting central square and friendly people all added to its old world charm. I think my European soul was awakened. But this one particular door kept me transfixed. Even if it wasn’t a wedding party that I heard, I reveled in the joyful sounds. Dare I look in? I thought it best to stand outside and let my imagination fill in the gaps of what I knew. As I started to turn…to walk on…a gust of wind provided what I’d been reluctant to provide. The door swung open wide, and I saw what I’d expected. Unlike so many moments in the world of late, in this moment, all I could say was…I see happy people. We…and certainly I…need to see more of those.

© 2017 Robert Mihaly
 
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LUCKY I PASSED

I was told Riffy was very protective, especially toward the ladies in the family, and that he was prone to biting weak-willed men. If you stood your ground and spoke with authority, you passed the test. Luckily, I passed. I soon learned that, even with his reputation, he wanted attention, and I quickly, and then often, found his snoot poked in my face as I sat on the couch.
 
I’ll have to admit…dogs aren’t my favorite pets. I like cats, even though my allergy made having one impossible. I especially didn’t like it when a big dog like a Huskie or Lab came up and stuck his nose in my crotch. I’m told they all do that. It doesn’t make them any more endearing. But Riffy was a midsize dog…apparently a mix of Border Collie and something else. He had the speed of a Border Collie, but not the disposition. He at least chose some people to be friendly with. Somehow the normal herding instinct went awry. Riffy was more likely to chase down a squirrel than to herd anything.
 
I guess strangers wandering through his yard looked like squirrels to him. More than one regretted their trespass when it was rewarded by a nipped rear end. Even I, in my last encounter with Riffy, narrowly avoided that fate. I saw him approaching, head down in hunting posture, and he began growling. I knew his eyesight was failing, so I  yelled, “Stop it, Riffy!” His approach immediately transformed from menacing to obedient and submissive, punctuated by a furiously wagging tail. Thank goodness he recognized my voice and that I wasn’t about to take any of his crap. We live so much longer than most other animals that it’s inevitable to have to say goodbye. It wasn’t long after that encounter that this long-time family pet made his last trip to the vet…the day all pet owners dread. He’s gone, but he won’t be forgotten…not even by those unfortunate intruders.
 
© 2017 Robert Mihaly
 
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BUT I’M A CAT LOVER!

The long-haired male ginger cat I called my buddy saw me sitting on the bottom step by the back door and hurried toward me. Soon, as always, he was in my lap and purring vigorously. The goofy look on his face told me he was enjoying it as I scratched the top of his head and behind his ears. He stretched out, and soon the purring slowed, and he knew he was asleep. I knew I had to leave soon, but how do you bring yourself to disturb a cat at peace with the world? I was glad that my cat whispering was all it took to get his attention.

My allergies keep me from having a cat of my own, but I’m always glad to welcome a cat friend. My buddy actually belongs to my neighbor. I think he’d gladly change families if I could survive it. When he’s on my lap, there’s nothing his cat mom or dad owner can say to get him to go to them. Perhaps it’s a bit malicious on my part, but I never encourage him to leave to go home.

I heard cat mom calling. “Rusty! Here, Kitty!” Only a few seconds passed before she repeated her call. No response from “Rusty” told me he wanted to stay. When I looked toward their house, I saw the muzzle of a black and white dog poking through a hole in the board fence. In his eyes, I thought I detected longing…or maybe it was jealousy. He whined.

“Sorry, Killer. I know you’d like me to pet you too,” I said quietly, then finished my sentence, “…but I’m a cat lover.” My buddy just stirred briefly, then put his head down and fell back asleep. When there’s a cat sleeping in your lap, all is good in the world. Isn’t it?

 
© 2017 Robert Mihaly
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SHOW ME, DON’T TELL ME

As Jim came downstairs on Christmas morning, he saw, once again, the wretched excess of way too much. The Christmas tree, a real tree he’d selected and mounted in the stand, was bedecked with all manner of ornaments and the large lights that were so much more appealing than the miniatures. Some lights were solid color, some translucent colors, and many blinked on and off randomly. Tinsel hung from the tips of every branch made the lights look more in number than they were, but there were plenty. And then he saw it…the stacks of brightly colored packages, many with his name on the tags. Jim had asked for nothing from Mary, and with all the things he’d been giving away, or selling if he could, Jim could have wondered the reason for so much. But he already knew.
 
Some people think that they’re showing love when they give you something…a gift. In their minds, the gift is love. Jim never saw it that way, but he knew it happens. So how do you speak to someone like that? Is it love? He didn’t know…maybe for some it is, but it never spoke to him. And how do you love them back, if someone sees it that way? Throw caution to the wind, go against the grain, and do the same? It didn’t feel right…or good in any way. Jim’s a bit of a dreamer, but also practical. How many shirts does one person need? And what do you say when there are two more added to the collection? He thought of shirts, but it also applied to ties, pants, underwear, tools…you see the pattern. It was endless. And so were the bills after Christmas. He didn’t look forward to the arguments with Mary when they came due.
 
So Jim looked at the stack of boxes, all in brightly colored Christmas wrap, all sporting ribbons and bows, and he again wondered why…why so much? Maybe someday, someone smarter than him will figure it out…do the research…write a best-seller. But an ordinary guy has to struggle to get by until then. And he’ll have to say thank you, even while he crams yet more shirts into the closet…and wait for the next charity that calls to ask for donations of “gently worn clothing”. He knew he’d have plenty to give them.
 

A SHORT HISTORY

Harley took off his reading glasses and glanced out the window at the fall sky. He’d needed a break from his task anyway. Writing an historical novel required a lot of reading obscure bits of history if he was to get the details right, but now he was suffering eye strain. He’d not slept well, waking way before his usual 8am alarm setting. He looked around the room, eyes passing by the shelves, overloaded with his reference, finally coming again to the window. Fall skies are unlike any other, presaging the arrival of Winter. Winter…a season that once delighted him…but that was when he was still a boy.

He thought about the past year, and the fall he’d taken…the fall that laid him up with severe pain for months. Recovery came slowly, but finally was complete. Now, the return of Winter and more ice and snow filled him with a new dread. All he could do was be careful. Until he fell, he’d thought he was careful enough. Nope. The cost was more than the pain of feeling like his leg was being ripped off. Nine months later, he was still unsure whether all the bills would be paid without having to resort to a lawsuit. What a pain that would be. He was as fond of lawyers as he was of dentists.

There’s no rest for the weary. Harley topped off his coffee mug and leaned back in his chair with a book about the reign of Richard Nixon, one of the worst U.S. Presidents, and the only one who had to resign in disgrace. A thought crossed his mind, that brought a smile. If only George W. Bush had been similarly compromised. History is strange enough the first time. Why do so many seem to want to repeat it…or make it worse the second time around?

 
© 2016 Robert Mihaly
 
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The prompt…

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IT DIDN’T HAPPEN

He knew it…he’d struck out once again. He’d fallen asleep thinking he’d really gotten lucky. Billy looked at the alarm clock, saw 5am, then saw that the dream from last night had split. Only later did he realize that she’d rifled his pants pockets and emptied his wallet of money and credit cards. That was how his day began. It was about to become more than a long weekend.

Billy’s a normal guy…maybe a little too normal…and not the player he brags about to his buddies. The fact is, last night was his first time out in a month. A blind date, Lola was a friend of a girl at work…or so he thought. A night of drinking, dining, and a night in bed was unusual for him. He now realized he’d been a dutiful sucker. Ginny was gonna hear about it when he got to work on Tuesday. But, for now, he had phone calls to make…to cancel his cards before Lola, if that was her name, could run up a huge credit card tally. Not even 8am, and he’d already called 3 companies. He’s lucky he had the latest charge statements handy…the cards gone, he’d never have been able to get the right 800 numbers. There goes the weekend, he groused. He hoped he hadn’t gotten a social disease…Billy actually prayed the worst was over.

Tuesday came. Ginny was there before him, but when he asked her about Lola, she looked puzzled. “I spent Friday night with Lola. That wasn’t Lola who robbed you.”

Billy knew he hadn’t dreamt what happened. The money and credit cards were gone. The other shoe was yet to drop…the debit card he’d forgotten to call to cancel. When he went to the bank before lunch, he had his checkbook, but the teller said he was overdrawn.  Billy protested, “There’s gotta be a mistake. I made sure there was $500 in checking on Friday.” A look at the bank records said otherwise. That $500 had been withdrawn early Saturday morning. There was nothing but chicken feed left. Billy wondered if there was more bad news to come. Even as upset as he was, he chuckled as he thought to himself…was he going to find out now that he was pregnant? He sure felt screwed. Whatever else he felt, he didn’t want to talk about it with his buddies. That night never happened. He decided that was his story…and he stuck to it.

 
© 2016 Robert Mihaly
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FINDING OUR WAY

 

“I’m going to disappoint you. But you knew that already.”  Bennie flashed a sheepish smile, as he sat down. Sue wasn’t amused. She’d heard that line before, and it was his way of breaking bad news. She waited for both shoes to drop. It wouldn’t take him long to disappoint her.

“So what is it this time? You know I hate bad news. There’s been too much of it lately.” She stared at him, clearly irritated…again. “Can it just once be good news, Bennie? I don’t like to always be arguing about things. We’re doing it all the time.”

Bennie looked at her, trying to gauge how upset she was. He paused, to think about what to say next. He’d already realized he’d started a serious discussion by putting himself on the defensive, riling his wife. How dumb of me, he thought, shaking his head. Would he ever learn? He stared down self-consciously at his hands clasped together on the table.

“Spill the beans, Bennie,” shocked him to attention. “If it’s bad news, just get it over with.” Bennie felt her eyes boring through him. When he mumbled something about X-Ray vision, he heard, “What?” Bennie hesitated, knowing there was now probably no way to save himself…or an ounce of his pride.

“You know that job I bid on…to remodel the old Hermann place?” Sue was listening. He knew he had to somehow make himself out as less than a fool. Good luck with that, he now feared. “I put in what I thought was a good bid. And they accepted it.”

“And?” Sue was already putting things together in her mind. “You goofed! Didn’t you?” When he heard the truth so bluntly stated, he felt three inches tall. But there was no taking anything back.

Bennie swallowed hard. “When I bid, the cost of hardwood was down. And now it’s gone up…way up. I was cutting my profit thin, hoping I would get a shot when Hermann was ready to build more hardware stores. Now I won’t break even, unless I do a lot of the carpentry myself.” He let that all sink in.

“So how does that affect us, Ben?” Sue was less upset than he’d expected. He knew the other shoe would make a difference.

“For me to do all that carpentry, not hiring two guys, I may make a small profit.”

Sue was eying him, now suspiciously. “And?”

“The downside is that we can’t take that vacation this year. I’m sorry, Sue…but what can I do?” He sighed, waiting for the blowup he’d felt was coming. Sue was staring at him.

“You thought I was going to beat you up over this. Didn’t you?” He had. “Well, here’s the thing.” She paused, then went on. “I’ve been thinking about going back to teaching, now that the girls are old enough to take care of themselves. I’d need to take a couple courses this summer to get up to date. You just made my decision easier. The vacation can wait. I’ll be in school.”

It’s always a shock when a long-married couple doesn’t know more about each other, but it shouldn’t be. It’s way too typical. Bennie took her hand and squeezed, at the same time mouthing, “I love you.”

He was glad he had a wife who did a better job of reading him than he feared…or than he read her. He was also glad to know how lucky he’d been to be sharing a life with her. His thoughts drifted to thinking he’d dodged a bullet…no divorce court dead ahead. He smiled at that thought. Maybe it’s time to ditch the line that made him fear his wife’s response. A learning experience. Who says an old dog can’t learn?

© 2016 Robert Mihaly

(Entry in a Writer’s Digest short story contest)

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ACCEPTING THE CALL

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The phone rang. “Hello?” A lapse of time with no reply told me…a robocall. I heard a not-very-real voice say…”This is your future calling.” I was tempted to just hang up, but something told me this wasn’t your typical robocall. My reaction was understated, as I soon found out.
 
As curious as I was annoyed, having been awakened before I’d planned on getting up, I waited to hear the options. The computer proceeded. “If you want to hear the most likely way your day will go, press 1,” the digital voice said. That wasn’t such a big deal. I’d soon find out anyway. “To hear the date on which you’ll die, press 2.” Hell, I thought…what is this bullshit? I was about to hang up, until I heard, “If you want your greatest desire to come true, press 3.” Then, “I didn’t hear your reply. If you need your choices repeated, press 4.” Not knowing how else to respond, I hit 3 and waited.
 
Another voice came on the line. She said she had loved me for as long as she could remember, and that I was all she needed to make her life feel worthwhile. She said she wanted me, and that she was waiting, impatiently. I tried to reply, to find out who she was, but the line went dead. And then, I woke up. Damn! Why do things like that always happen to me? I soon fell back to sleep, hoping for a callback.
 

© 2016 Robert Mihaly

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American Babylon: A One Act Play

Setting: the Mall in the nation’s capitol. Hundreds of thousands of angry white men and women are gathered, all armed, all wearing shirts proclaiming “AMERICA IS GREAT AGAIN”. All others have been rushed away; non-Christians, people of color, the ethnic looking, those with the appearance of homosexuality, the lame, those who just don’t look angry enough, and those the President-elect just eyes with suspicion of being intelligent, all headed for an uncertain fate.

The President-elect stands before his crowd, hairpiece at attention in a stiff breeze. Air is rushing in from all corners, to replace that which he has sucked out of the Capitol. A singular vitriol has replaced obstruction, which had replaced any willingness to listen to opposing points of view.

The President-elect is ready to speak. He stands bare-assed naked before his people. They can’t see it.

The President-elect: Okay, people. You know why we’re here. Now shut up, so I can speak! I won’t have you talking over me. You said you wanted a guy who can get things done. That’s what I’ll do. Just hold onto your caps.

The world doesn’t like me. The world doesn’t like how you voted. The world can kiss my ass! The world is full of losers…just like my opponents. They can go to Hell! When I take power, those losers will be sent to Guantanamo. Those two Cubans will be right at home, and the others? Who gives a good Goddamn?  They’re politicians and losers. You elected me. So Congress better get onboard. They’re all expendable.

Now, here’s the deal, people.  And you know…I KNOW how to make a deal. So the deal we’ll make is this. I know how things get done. That wall? Done! Bombing ISIS? They’ll be so done. Israel? I don’t know why Christians are so worried about a Jewish country., but okay…I hear you. They’ll get onboard too. Those Muslims will know…you don’t mess with the Jews, or you’re messing with me. If they don’t get it, I can level Mecca as fast as you can snap your fingers.

Scene: The crowd has been cheering at every proclamation. But now the volume threatens to drown out the President-elect. His ire rises.

The President-elect, shouting: SHUT UP! I’M TALKNG, PEOPLE!

That’s better. Now remember. I won’t say it again. Now listen up, people. You gave me your votes. You believed in me. You know I’m the tough guy I said I was. My opponents know it now. They’ll get theirs. You believed in me. Now I’ll tell you the deal. This is MY country now. I won’t have anyone talking when I speak. You wanted a god…and I’m your god. Now get down on your knees! Kiss the ground we walk on. Kiss the ground I walk on. This is America, and now it’s mine. Show me your faith with the sign of the “T”.

Final scene: We see now the beginning of the end. The less intelligent faithful didn’t understand that they stood with a man who sought not to be President of the greatest nation on the face of the Earth, the United States of America. They had empowered a man who would be king. The Constitution, which some claimed to revere? It’s days are numbered. Congress, an ineffectual body of argumentative fools, had fooled itself, and will become a rubber stamp or be gone. And the highest Court in the land? The President-elect made clear that its days were numbered. When he took office, it would be irrelevant. The President-elect holds supreme power. Money won. Now money rules, absolutely. And if you don’t understand it now…you’re a loser.

© 2016 Robert Mihaly

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