Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Piper's Revenge

In case you weren't aware of it, many of our so-called "fairy tales" are, or are said to be, "inspired by true events" [as you'd see at the beginning of a TV movie based on, say, the just-finished US Presidential election]. One of the most intriguing of these is "The Pied Piper Of Hamlin". The Pied [that word, by the way, just means he was colorful, NOT a fan of crust-based desserts] Piper came to the German town of Hamlin, offering to rid the community of an on-going plague of rats [themselves carriers of plague, ironically], in exchange for a small fee. The town leaders, knowing Hamlin was desperately in need of a good de-ratting, agreed.

At this point, Mr. Piper reached into his bag, and produced a music pipe. He began to play, and the town was amazed [amazed, mind you] to see the rats follow the man out the town gates, and out of sight [rumor has it that he led the rats to the outskirts of the next village over, getting ready to shake its residents down to get the rats out. The Piper probably made a fair living in 13th-century Germany, leading the same pack of rats around]. Eventually, he returned, and asked for his money. The town burghers [city leaders, not a bunch of ground meat-based entrees] conceded the thing with the rats and the flute was a good trick, but not worth what they'd planned to pay him. So they made him a new offer: leave quietly, or be beaten to death by some community-minded thugs [the fairy tale doesn't put things so bluntly; it just says the town refused to pay him. But I think we can all see how it went down].
So the piper brought out his pipe again. But this time, he played music designed to attract Hamlin's children. He led them off into the forest, never to be seen again in Hamlin [more than a few of them turned up in the next village over. Hey, it was the 13th-century!. Child labor laws weren't in effect, and some of those children made good workers. Besides, that village PAID THE PIPER [the source of that phrase, in case you didn't know]. All this, by the way, was said to have gone down in the summer of 1284.
Fast forward about 725 years. You'll never guess what German town has been infested by an army of rats. Yeah, the cheapskate Northern Germany community of Hamlin. It almost comes off like the set-up to a bad-B movie [you know, the kind that Jack Black played in before he got popular. The kind that Paulie Shore can't get out of. You know the type. A movie that's destined to be the second feature at your nearest drive-in THE WEEK IT COMES OUT. Think of three words: "direct to video". On a good day.
I'll be curious to see how Hamlin extracts itself from this one. The Pipers' Union is standing firm, refusing to enter the village in solidarity with their ripped-off predecessor. As for "scabs", James Galway wants no part of it, and Jean-Pierre Rampal died eight years ago. That leaves desperate-for-work Ian Anderson, best known for leading the art-rock collective known as Jethro Tull. He'd rather not cross the picket lines, frankly. But a man's gotta eat. Watch this blog for updates, if they have the potential for humor [I'm not saying I'll get them there. But they gotta have at least the potential].
-Mike Riley

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bloggers Unite: The Expanding Crisis

In the midst of the current worldwide economic crisis, it's hard to find "growth industries". Sadly, a prosperous, and expanding, sector is the creation of refugees. Beside the on-going tragedy that is Darfur, and the decades-long Palestinian dispersion [to name just two of too, too many], we can add the blossoming crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the war-related misery in Iraq [and make no mistake: while the roots of this ethnic-based conflict existed before the United States, never mind our involvement in the Middle East, we are also responsible for the pain that our recent actions have caused].
A few facts, courtesy of the United Nations:
- about 50 million people worldwide are believed to be victims of forced displacement;
- nearly two-thirds of the world's refugees come from nations in the Middle East or Africa;
-the current understanding of the term "refugee" includes persons who are displaced by armed conflict, but who remain within the borders of their country of origin.
Here's a little exercise [Warning: this will probably make you feel at least a little anxious. It should]: Imagine it's the middle of the night in your quiet neighborhood. Suddenly an explosion rocks your safe, secure home. Startled, half-awake, you cautiously peer out your bedroom window. Two doors down, a house is demolished. It's surrounded by a group of screaming men, many of them carrying guns. You hear thuds on your door. You won't open it, of course, but that doesn't matter. A crash informs you that it's been smashed in! The mob, or army, or you don't know what rushes in! If God, or Allah, or whomever you pray to, is kind, the invaders will simply force you out into the street. If your god is very kind, the invaders may even allow you to gather what you can carry before you leave. But if your god is not with you, or if you worship the wrong god, you are truly and horribly on your own. Just ask the tens of thousands murdered by invading forces, or the thousands of women raped and forced into sexual service by a marauding army. Or ask the millions left with no food and water, forced to wander, searching for a place of safety, a place with food and water, a place of rest. Welcome to the world of the refugee...
Not a hopeful picture, is it? We call ourselves civilized. But if we ignore the nightmare of the world's refugees, we have no business aspiring to any higher level of being. "But what can I do?", you ask. First of all, be aware! Check your news sources for information. Google the word "refugee" [as of the moment this is written, there are more than two million entries; something there should be informative]. Make sure your children are informed, whether or not their schools are involved in educating them about the crisis [here is a site sponsored by the UN that gives a good overview of the issues]. If such a response is appropriate for you, pray. Contact your political leaders [how hard is it to send them an e-mail?], letting them know your concerns. Discuss the refugee problem with friends and family. Read more blogs on this topic [it is a Bloggers Unite issue on Monday, November 10th; more than a few of your favorite sites will probably be addressing it]. Above all, use your humanity! Remember our little exercise. Someday, it could be you,
-Mike Riley

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Another Of Your Author's Secret Fears Revealed

Okay, I've got a question, and I want an answer now:

"What is the deal with birds flying around inside supermarkets?". You heard me.

This is not some paranoiac rant [I've done enough of those over the years that I think you'd know the difference]. This is a legitimate question, dammit! I keep seeing birds flying around inside supermarkets [I took the photo at left so that you'd believe me. Unfortunately, the camera was set on "portrait" and the bird flew out of frame. But it's there. Just out of your field of vision, but it's there!]. I can be in a store, picking up a loaf of bread and some cereal, and there the filth-carrying creature is, flying across the supermarket, as unconcerned as can be [do birds feel concern? How the Hell should I know? I'm a blogger, dammit, not a scientist!].

As you may have guessed from this entry's title, birds flying around inside a supermarket plays into one of my Secret Fears. It's not that I'm going out of my way to keep them secret; otherwise, this post would almost certainly be about something else. They're just fears that aren't obvious to the nekkid eye when you first see me [like the fear of losing the four or five hairs that desperately cling to the top of my head; talk about your endangered species!]. Lord knows, we all have them [hey, if you were perfectly adjusted, would you be reading/writing blogs?]. One of mine, obviously, is birds flying around inside a building. Birds flying around outside, oddly enough, make no impression on me one way or the other. But get them flying around inside your [otherwise] Friendly Neighborhood Building, and Mr. Riley is, well, unnerved.

Oh, crap! There's one now! Wait a minute, it's outside. And it's a photo. Turn off the alarms, boys. Let the adrenaline run out. No danger here! Seriously though, just like Mr. Jackson and his disliked Snakes On A Plane [why do I have a feeling that that phrase turns up in standard lists of waitress lingo? I don't know what kind of sandwich comes up when you order it, but I'll wager that's where the phrase comes from], birds flying around inside a building turns the contents of my digestive track to liquid. I once had two friends who operated a pet store. Very nice place, all in all. The animals they sold were well-cared for and healthy, and the store was clean and friendly [of course, it closed within 18 months. Maybe people really prefer "pet mill" animals]. The only thing I truly disliked about the store were the parrots and cockerels that were allowed to fly around the store. Their wings had been clipped [a standard practice in such matters, I'm told, and not injurious to the birds], so they couldn't fly far, but they did have the freedom of the place. Unlike supermarket birds, they did not stay close to ceiling level, but flew at a height of about 5' 7 1/2" off the ground. This put them at head height, in relationship to me [and, of course, just over the heads of the store owners]. Nothing like a bright red, beak-and-claw equipped creature known to capture animals in mid-flight, zooming straight for you, wanting to perch, adorably, on your shoulder. Perhaps if I were a peg-legged, crusty old sea captain [instead of a crusty old blogger], I'd be more interested in the photo op. As it is, though, not so much.

But enough about me. Let's return to the birds in supermarket question. I've asked around [you'd be surprised how little formal information exists on this vital issue], and my "experts" [some of whom work in supermarkets, some do not] have given me the following theories:

-supermarkets get constructed around them. Maybe. Birds nest in some rather surprising places, and I can see the appeal of a building skeleton to your young couple interested in starting a family. But why then do you almost never see birds in other types of newly-constructed building?

-they fly in through open supermarket doors, seeking warmth. Okay, I understand that. But, again, why are they so rare in other types of buildings?

-birds fly in through the loading doors in back of the supermarket, then fly into the main part of the store. Again, clear enough. I can even picture a hungry bird choosing a supermarket as a good source of food. But other types of stores sell food [non-Super Center Wal-Marts, for instance], and you almost never see birds in them! A related question; if you shop at one of these bird-infested supermarkets, have you ever seen food damaged by some gull catching a quick breakfast? I never have, and I frequently shop very early in a market's business day [they can't have found all the opened packages, every time]. If they're not eating there, where and what do they eat? And do I truly not want to know?
Oh, God! Not again! And there's a hundred of them! No, wait. Outside. Photo. Calm down. Anyway, this bird thing can really wear a guy out. And not in a good way.
No birds [or humans] were injured in the making of this post.
Personal note: November 4th [Tuesday] is Election Day in the United States. No matter who you support, please get out and vote for them...
-Mike Riley