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<< wit & whimsy << cover
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Wit & Whimsy by
Mark Wallace

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Music by Paul A. Toth
Art by Gene Tanta
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The Measure Everything Machine
some flash fictions from The Measure Everything Machine

 

Art by Gene TantaA man living in a small New England town in the early 17th century goes into business with his closest friend. The business fails. Not long after, the man discovers that the business failed because his friend cheated him. The friend does not know that he knows. The man arranges for the two of them to go on a long walk through a remote portion of the nearby hills, still snowy in late winter. The man tells his former friend what he knows and then kills him in the fight that follows, stabbing him several times after being stabbed himself.

Wounded, disoriented, and losing blood, the man passes out in the snowy hills, believing he’s on the verge of dying and not entirely sorry, since he has killed a man who was once his closest friend. But he wakes up and finds he has been revived and captured by a strange group of people who always wear the hoods of monks over the faces, so he can’t see them.

After spending some weeks imprisoned in a room by them in an old mansion in the hills where they have taken residence, one night the man manages to escape the room and comes across one of his captors, who is unaware of his presence. Seeing his captor partially unrobed, with a series of viscous tentacles trailing beneath his clothes, the man realizes his captors aren’t human. After several encounters with a sweet, pungent odor whose location he can’t identify and that both repels and excites him, he ultimately overhears that they intend to mate him with one of their kind. One of his captors finally admits to him their goal: they cannot proceed in their desire for world domination until they have absorbed the human capacity for evil, which he, as an apparently unremorseful murderer, seems to represent for them.

The man is conflicted between the need to commit suicide to save human life on earth and the overwhelming urge to mate with the alien creature because of the desire caused by the creature’s odor. Finally he gives in to his sexual desires after recognizing that in fact he doesn’t care to do good for other people and never has. Further, he has no wish to save a species from whom someone like himself could have been created. He feels that he is the proof that there’s no particular reason to save the human race or to feel that doing so would be morally right. He mates with the alien and unleashes destruction upon the human world.

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From a young age, a girl is told by her family that it’s important to be cheerful. They tell her constantly to “look on the bright side.” Their unrelenting insistence on cheerfulness seems fake to her, hiding an unhappiness that no one can admit. To her they often seem afraid, even desperate. She grows into an uneasy and morose young woman. She doesn’t trust her family’s assertions of happiness but feels terrible that she cannot live up to their requirements to be happy, especially since her family insists that being happy is so simple because it only requires not obsessing on anything negative.

Soon after she has been accepted at a prestigious college, she meets a young man who has just left the military. He is sometimes hostile, morose, depressed, and suffers from occasional flashbacks and bad dreams. The two of them don’t always have much to say to each other, but he never demands of her that she be happy. She marries him quickly. Disappointing her parents, she doesn’t attend college and the married couple runs away to California.

In California they both get jobs, he in a garage owned by a cousin and she in a local clothing store. They continue to not have much to say to each other. At some point, the young woman’s feeling of freedom from not being lectured about happiness begins to change into boredom. She realizes she is married to a man she doesn’t love and is working a job she doesn’t like. She enrolls in a local college not nearly as good as the one she was originally scheduled to attend, where she does quite well and graduates easily.

By then, life with her husband has become mainly evenings spent moodily watching television. These evenings sometimes flare up into arguments between them, stemming from her restlessness and his continuing desire to be left alone with his own unhappiness.

Almost exactly when she graduates from college, she leaves her husband and moves in with a female friend. Her husband doesn’t make much effort to get her back and in fact accepts her decision passively, for the most part, although he’s quick to insult her when given the chance. She has always appreciated the way he never challenges her decisions but this time she resents it, as if it’s an indication that he never loved her and just married her because it seemed easy.

The friend she has moved in with is going on to graduate school in another city. The two of them move to the new city together.

Once there, she begins to receive more contact from her family than she has in a few years. They frequently e-mail her with questions about whether she’s happy. They suggest that she still has plenty of time to be happy if she wants and is welcome to return to the part of the country where they live. She still doesn’t feel happy, but after years of what now seems to her neglect on the part of her husband, she tells both her family and herself that she likes the attention she receives from them. They really seem to care that one day she might be happy.

She makes no attempt, however, to move back nearer to them, or to develop any other particular idea about what to do next. Instead, living in the new city, she finds another job in a clothing store. She spends her free time reading and getting drunk with her friend, waiting for whatever will happen next, going back and forth between chastising herself for being unhappy and asserting that most people who claim to be happy are liars.

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Noting how many people wish to measure all aspects of their lives, either in comparison to others or on the basis of some supposedly objective numerical standard, a man invents the Measure Everything Machine. If provided with the proper input, the machine gives people a number on a scale of 1-100 for any aspect of their lives, including their bodies and health, their happiness and other emotions, their intelligence, their wealth or property or anything else related to social status.

As a product, the Measure Everything Machine is an immediate and lasting success, purchased by people all over the world. While it’s used mainly by those who can afford it, various institutional programs working with the poor even in remote or politically troubled areas also find it an extremely useful way to gather information on all conceivable subjects.

Of course the product has its critics, especially among writers on psychology and literature and left-wing political theory, but those critics aren’t taken seriously by more than a few people in their own little understood fields. Some data suggests that overuse of the Machine can have negative consequences. For instance, even after adjusting for the relevance of related factors, frequent users of the machine have a higher average suicide rate than non, light, or moderate users. Such data has been discussed often but conclusions about it remain contested. Of course the Measure Everything Machine can also measure its own performance. Those results show that it always does impeccably whatever it is asked. As most people argue, a machine can hardly be responsible for the way people use it. Blaming the Measure Everything Machine for the mistakes made with it is like blaming automobiles for auto accidents. Think about how many machines we would lose if we had to destroy them only because some people abuse them or can’t control them properly.

One of the most infamous casualties of the Measure Everything Machine turns out to be the inventor himself. Made famous and uncountably rich by the machine, every year he becomes more reclusive and more obsessed with constantly using the machine on himself. Stories after his suicide suggest that in his final days, he measured everything about himself he could possibly imagine and walked about his mansion in drug-induced torment, moaning desperately about his own failure. When they first come out, these stories are shocking. How could a man with so much to live for have collapsed so completely? Still, the answer seems apparent: aren’t many eccentric geniuses and superstars done in by their own talents? Like the madness of Howard Hughes or the early death of Elvis Presley, the suicide of the creator of the Measure Everything Machine quickly becomes part of the legend of the machine. Books and articles and films about the Measure Everything Machine, its inventor and its legend, have long since become their own lucrative shadow industry, one which many years later shows no sign of running dry and whose degree of success has been of course accurately measured.

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A minister living in a small Midwestern city develops tastes more expensive than he can manage on his salary. A man with a boisterous laugh and a hearty desire to experience life, his eloquent literary sermons make him popular with his congregation. In fact he is greeted and welcomed throughout the city. He lives a flamboyant social life involving fancy dinners with businessmen and politicians and a number of women that he dates briefly though discretely. After buying a big house in town, a vacation home in California, expensive furniture for both, several cars and a boat, he finds himself dangerously in debt. He begins embezzling church funds. Given his good reputation he succeeds for awhile before the missing money is noticed. He is caught, arrested, and sentenced to a two-year prison term.

While in jail he comes to know a variety of inmates: petty thieves, white collar criminals like himself, even a few murderers and gang members. His experiences with them are sometimes dangerous but also expose him to the struggles lived behind the walls of American prisons. He has time to look back on his past and regret the foolish criminal behavior that ruined his life as a minister. While still in prison, he writes a book about his crimes and prison experiences. Very soon after he serves his sentence, he finds an agent and a publisher. When the book is published, it sells well, since not surprisingly there are many people who want to read about an embezzling, womanizing minister radically humbled by jail time.

However, it’s not the sort of book that makes the ex-minster vastly rich or famous. It needs a lot of promotion to get attention, and the ex-minister turned writer travels to many book stores to discuss his experiences and sign the book. With his still charismatic public presence, he garners consistent interest. He finds that promoting his book is not all that different from preaching. Soon he develops a tightly-wrought public relations pitch in which he tells engaging stories about his jail experiences and dramatizes his own repentance. It helps, of course, to develop a persona. Soon the “Minister From the Dark Side” or the “Minister Gone Wrong” becomes a crucial part of the advertising for both his first book and then the second, a novel, which is published quickly to capitalize on his probably temporary notoriety.

His books are criticized by many religious leaders, but their resistance only gains him more readers and attention. Soon, part of his public relations pitch suggests that his books highlight the hypocrisy of religion and are works that “America’s Powerful Religious Leaders Don’t Want You To Read.” A widely distributed photograph shows him with a glass of wine raised in the air, toasting his friends and by implication taunting the narrow, anti-love-of-life perspective of American Protestantism. After all, some Americans love religion and some hate it, he tells himself, but all Americans love a healthy, life-affirming thief who thumbs his nose at uptight narrow-minded authority.

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When the populace of an obscure planet in a far corner of the universe believes that Doomsday for the planet is at hand, arguments begin in earnest about what has caused it. Some say poor investment practices and blame investment in A; others agree that investment is the problem but argue that more of A will save the planet and instead blame investment in B. Some blame this or that system of government; others blame the enemies or decay of this or that system of government. Still others point out that money and governments can’t really end the world; since the world is ending, it has to be because people have destroyed the planet’s environment. Others say people haven’t really done that much to damage the planet; if the planet is being destroyed, that’s because of physical celestial forces far beyond control. Some say destruction is being visited on people because of their empty, soulless lives and point to the lack of religion; others say destruction is coming because of people’s empty, soulless lives and point to the meaningless fantasy of religion. For every cause of Doomsday that someone proposes, someone else proposes a countercause, and another countercause is proposed after that and so on.

When Doomsday does arrive, a few people’s theories are proved right, but they have little time or reason to congratulate themselves, and none at all to berate or convince anybody else, who wouldn’t have believed them anyway. On the day of destruction, the claims and counterclaims continue to go back and forth until the last possible moment and would have done so unceasingly were the planet not destroyed and life on it over.

The other end to this story is suggested by other people on another obscure planet far away, who say that Doomsday never actually did arrive for the populace on that first obscure planet. According to this story, the populace of the planet continues to this day endlessly debating a Doomsday that they expect every moment to arrive. As the story goes, they do very little to notice the rest of the Universe. And as if turnabout really is fair play, in this story the Universe does similarly little to notice them.

 

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Mark WallaceMark Wallace is the author of more than fifteen books and chapbooks of poetry, fiction, and essays. Temporary Worker Rides A Subway won the 2002 Gertrude Stein Poetry Award and was published by Green Integer Books. His critical articles and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he has co-edited two essay collections, Telling It Slant: Avant Garde Poetics of the 1990s, and A Poetics of Criticism. Most recently he has published a short story collection, Walking Dreams (2007), and a book of poems, Felonies of Illusion (2008). Forthcoming in early 2011 is his second novel, The Quarry and The Lot. He teaches at California State University San Marcos. Website.

 

Gene Tanta, Art DirectorGene Tanta, Art Director. Gene Tanta was born in Timisoara, Romania and lived there until 1984, when his family immigrated to the United States. Since then, he has lived in DeKalb, Iowa City, New York, Oaxaca City, Iasi, Milwaukee, and Chicago. He is a poet, visual artist, and translator of contemporary Romanian poetry. His two poetry books are Unusual Woods and Pastoral Emergency. Tanta earned his MFA in Poetry from the Iowa's Writers' Workshop in 2000 and his PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2009 with literary specialization in twentieth-century American poetry and the European avant-garde. His journal publications include: EPOCH, Ploughshares, Circumference Magazine, Exquisite Corpse, Watchword, Columbia Poetry Review, and The Laurel Review. Tanta has had two collaborative poems with Reginald Shepherd anthologized in Saints of Hysteria: A Half-Century of Collaborative American Poetry. Most recently, he has chaired a panel at the 2010 AWP titled, “Immigrant Poetry: Aesthetics of Displacement”. Currently, he is working on two anthologies while teaching post-graduate creative writing online for UC Berkeley Extension.

 

Paul A. TothPaul A. Toth is the author of three novels, his latest being Finale. His next, Airplane Novel, will be released in July 2011. He also publishes poetry, nonfiction and multimedia pieces. Links to all of his work can be accessed via www.tothworld.com.

 

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