The Golden Fleece (Part 1)

The Shrewd Dude for whom I worked (yes, he actually called himself that, but let’s call him Jason, since he was definitely searching for a Golden Fleece) handed me a data tape one day, the usual n Track, n BPI thing.

"Yeah?" I asked.

"Hot list," he said.

My pupils dilated a little, I think. A hot list can mean a variety of different things in the direct mail business, but to Jason – and to me – it meant that everyone on the list was a dumkopf. The kind of people who would buy a brick through the mail if you promise that it will be personalized in imitation faux eight carat gold.

"And I should…?"

"Get what’s on the tape into the postcard ink jet machine."

"Okay," I say. "What’s the tape like?"

"What do you mean? It’s a tape…" Jason was not computer literate, even though he thought he was.

"What encoding?" I ask. "What data-record structure?"

He shrugged. "Just names and addresses and phone numbers," he told me. Then he smiled. "I had to squeeze my guy pretty hard, but I got the list in zip code order." He then went into great detail, telling me how badly the guy didn’t want to do it. He grinned again and again, very pleased with himself – Jason is the kind of guy who counts coup in all things.

"You threatened his wife?" I finally asked just to make sure I understood.

"Hey – Atalanta is in the biz too – I’m sure she’ll understand."

I didn’t understand. But then, I was a noob to direct mail, and though I was already infected with dreams of fancy cars, coke, and the hooker hotels on Wilshire Boulevard, I was, to guys like Jason, just a geek – not a real boiler room person. I got why Jason was proud, though – our ink jetter could box and bundle postcards if the source list was sorted by zip, which would save us money – a penny per postcard discount if the post office got them pre-sorted.

When you mail a hundred thousand cards a week, that penny matters.

"Jason," I said, "how truly shrewd you are." I myself was shrewd enough to know how much stroking my boss needed.

"You do what you gotta do," he said, looking like he wanted to salute something. This expression always sounded cryptic and nonsensical to me, but it was the slogan he lived by.

"I’ll get right on it," I finished.

I did too. Not an hour later, I picked up a case of Anchor Steam and drove my ridiculously bright green Datsun B210 to my friend Nestor’s house. Nestor was a bank branch manager, and had his own DEC Vax with an attached tape drive. He would often let me use it, if I brought a few appropriate emoluments – Anchor Steam, for example – and an interesting problem. Nestor did "reinsurance cones" on his Vax, mostly for oil tankers with Panamanian registry. He made unspeakable amounts of money and was probably responsible for the extinction of several dozen species.

So – after a few beers, some talk, a joint or two, and some music (he was a drummer with a tentative sense of rhythm, but very tolerant of a guitarist like me with a tentative sense of the pentatonic blues scale), I had the tape spun up on the Vax’s humongous tape drive, and after a few abortive attempts, got a look at the data.

I didn’t know who sourced Jason’s list, but I knew right away it was a hacker tape. There were about ten thousand records, and each record was a different length, with the first nine characters being a zipcode. I printed out a few hundred records using Nestor’s line printer, just to help me get a sculptural sense of the data.

"That," said Nestor, looking over my shoulder, "is a mess."

"Fucking Jason," I muttered. "He really screwed the pooch here. It’s all sorted by zipcode, sure, but nothing after the zip conforms to any record pattern." Jason’s "hot list" was compiled from dozens – maybe many dozens – of different lists.

"Your boss really expects you to clean that shit up?" Nestor asked.

"Crap," I said, as I look it over. "it’s all different formats. Some records got a name field 35 characters long, some got first and last name fields, some got two address lines, some three, some one…"

"The stuff is garbage," said Nestor, downing another beer and tapping on his guitar.

I called Jason up. Nestor hit the speakerphone button just as the call connected, so he could listen in.

"That tape of yours?" I told Jason. "It’s garbage. The stuff is in umpteen zillion formats, and that zipcode sort means that all those formats are mixed together. Impossible to straighten out. Get your guy to regen the tape."

He hit the roof.

"You know what I had to go through to get that!?" He screamed.

"I think so," I said. "You told Telemon you’d disembowel his wife."

"Not that," he said, dismissing this chilling threat as incidental. "That was just fucking around."

Then he let slip the truth – what he’d kept on the down-low when he first told the story: his strong-arming meant he could never speak to Telemon again – this was a one time deal, caveat emptor.

"Look Jason, I get it now, but come on – it’s only, like, ten thousand names – even if every one is a home run, it’s just a blip on the bottom line. Why you so upset?"

"That tape is just a sample," he said.

"It’s – what?"

"That’s not the entire dataset," he told me.

"How many tapes," I ask, dreading the answer.

"Not sure."

Nestor started laughing.

"How can you not be sure?"

"Well, the tapes – they’re in boxes."

"Boxes? Like small boxes? Give me an estimate," I said.

"Not small. Cartons, really," he said, "there are five cartons of tape."

"How big are the cartons?" I asked.

"Pretty big," he admitted.

I sighed. "How much did they cost us," I asked.

Jason brightened up. "That’s the good part," he said. "I got ’em for a penny each. Ten dollars a thousand names, and they’re all cherry – every one of ’em is a repeater with a sale north of a hundred bucks in the last three months."

"Fuck," I breathe. Even Nestor is nodding, though he wasn’t really in the direct mail biz. Hot name lists are worth a lot, you see. Repeaters are compulsive buyers, and they are gold, and people who have bought something recently are more inclined to buy again. Even Nestor understood what a good price Jason got. A list of the calibre he was describing could easily cost three hundred dollars a thousand, not ten.

"Jason," I finally asked, "how much money did you give this guy?"

"Ten grand," he said. Ten grand at a penny a name is a million names.

Nestor started laughing again. "I’m going to start calling you Tantalus," he said. I covered the pickup so Jason couldn’t hear him, but Tantalus – the guy for whom everything that mattered was just beyond reach – was just about right, as a nickname: a million names of proven buyers, but in garbage format. A direct mail fortune at our fingertips, but incomprehensibly jumbled.

In the sleazy mail order and phone room business, your lists are your life. Very Hot Lists can sell for $2.50 a name to phone rooms. At that rate, a week’s worth of names for the average phone room (about ten thousand records) is worth twenty-five thousand bucks, and people would kill you for a lot less. When we were doing phone rooms, I carried a .32 Beretta in the same briefcase as our "customers". I never used it, but I knew people who had.

With mail order, the list is even more important. In a good promotion, for every thousand mailers out the door, you’ll get one hundred back, and of those hundred, maybe ten will turn into a sale. So ten sales have to pay for a thousand offers. A cold list will kill your business. Understand, it doesn’t much matter what you’re selling, the same figures will apply.

Our usual promotion had fixed costs per thousand of about $150, mostly the two big Ps: printing and postage. So the average ten sales per thousand names had to each make fifteen bucks over product cost, shipping and handling (which varied for every promotion) before we could start thinking about profit.

Name list cost is not a fixed cost. It varies just like product cost. A name list usually adds significantly to your variable cost, and once you fold in the cost of your list, that fifteen bucks over product rapidly shoots up.

No mail order outfit pays $2.50 per name like the phone rooms do, but thirty cents a name is common; a million thirty cent names is a quarter mil if you buy in bulk, plus, the legit lists are sold for one-time use, with ringers buried in the mix to keep you from remailing to the same people. With thirty cent names, you’re adding three hundred dollars more in overhead per thousand mailers, thirty dollars more overhead per sale. Combined with the fixed costs, forty-five bucks are overhead per sale; you have to make forty-five dollars over cost on every sale just to break even.

Cold lists are a lot cheaper, but cold lists are hard work and more expense per sale. And even cold lists don’t often go for as little as ten dollars a thousand.

The names Jason had gotten for a penny were, according to him, a Hot List, not the usual. With a hot list, we might get twenty sales for every thousand mailers. With a list like that, fifty cents a name wouldn’t have been an unusual price, and it could go even higher. Direct mail lists are cheaper than phone lists, but a million names would still be worth a lot. A hot million names… well, we could die. Easily.

I looked at Nestor, who shook his head in sad acknowledgement of what I was thinking, and then made a zipping motion over his lips.

"You got the picture now?" Jason asked.

I got the picture, alright. We could save ourselves hundreds of thousands of dollars, if I could straighten out the stupid list.

"I get it," I said. "We got a million dollar list for chump change."

"That’s right. And a big part of that differential," Jason hinted, "could be yours. Just get it working."

I began to see things his way.

 

The Red Calf

There was a winding path of red earth, lain

along and in the fields green with Spring;

across that lane a spring-fat stream was sprung,

and there a little bridging had been thrown,

of table stones and rough cut lumber waste,

and with a careful step we both could cross

as dry as dry. The young oaks walked beside

that lane, and underneath the living wood

beside the ford and path… a red calf stood.

 

It huddled in the dappled bit of shade

the oaks could make, with Spring still young; a braid

around its neck declared it someone’s pet,

as did its well-brushed coat and painted hooves.

Its eyes were big as moons, and with a soft

and trusting tenderness, it shoved its lips

against my palm, my fingertips and thumb,

as if there was an offering I’d brung.

 

With half a dozen gentle raps we led

the lowing adolescent thing ahead,

across the stream, with both of us content

to let it lead us to whatever barn,

or to a farmhouse that it thought it knew;

we knew we’d passed no farm for miles along,

and thought that we would help it to its home.

 

We started well – the country round about

became more level for a little while,

it looked well tended, gentle and serene

but soon the calf had led us through a screen

of holly, to a cutting little rill

and down we went, into a shadowed wood.

 

This can’t be right, I muttered to myself,

and reached, then, for the calf, to turn it round –

but in a flash of rusty hide, it bound

beyond our reach and vanished in the trees;

and there we were, a brace of refugees.

 

Believe or not, just as you like, it took

a brace of hours to scramble from that nook

of wood and stream, and when at last we rose

into the clear, we stood where no one knows.

 

Though back we’ve gone a dozen times or more

we’ve never found that calf, that little wood,

or any hint of where it started from.

 

Those eyes – like moons – were clues to what we’d met:

No eyes like that arose from Earthly get.

 

Some subtle rhyming FX, along with a descending line count per stanza, ending in an heroic couplet, plus some very trippy content.

A version from 2004:

There was a winding path of red earth, lain

along and in the fields green with Spring.

Across that lane a spring-fat stream was sprung,

and there a little bridging had been thrown,

of table stones and rough cut lumber waste.

And with a careful step you’d get across

as dry as dry. The young oaks walked beside

that lane, and underneath the living wood

beside the ford and path, a red calf stood.

 

It huddled in the dappled bit of shade

the oaks could make while Spring was young; a braid

around its neck declared it someone’s pet

as did its well-brushed coat and painted hooves.

Its eyes were big as moons, and with a soft

and trusting tenderness it shoved its lips

against my palm, my fingertips and thumb,

as if there was an offering I’d brung.

 

With half a dozen gentle raps we led

the lowing adolescent thing ahead,

across the stream, with both of us content

to let it lead us to whatever barn,

or to a farmhouse that it thought it knew;

we knew we’d passed no farm for miles before,

and thought that we would help it to its lair.

 

We started well – the country round about

became more level for a little while,

it looked well tended, gentle and serene

but soon the calf had led us through a screen

of holly, to a cutting little rill

and down we went, into a shadowed wood.

 

‘This can’t be right,’ I muttered to myself.

We scrambled for the calf, to turn it round,

but in a flash of rusty hide it bound

beyond our reach and vanished in the trees,

and there we were, a brace of refugees.

 

Believe or not, just as you like, it took

a brace of hours to scramble from that nook

of wood and stream, and when at last we rose

into the day, we stood where no one knows.

 

Though back we’ve gone a dozen times or more

we’ve never found that calf, that little wood,

or any hint of where it started from.

 

Those eyes like moons were clues we should have known –

No eyes like that were ever Earthly-grown.

 

The original is nothing more than a note, and appears in my pen-journal for 1986:

There was a way of red earth, lain

beside those fields green with Spring

and cut in twain by spring-fat stream.

The tall oak walked beside that path,

and underneath the living wood

on the red path, a red calf stood.

 

It was just a reminder of the story – which was more or less true, and not the craziest story I ever found myself involved in, in these hills hereabouts. I’d be willing to swear that calf was self-aware, and not just someone’s pet, but of course, that wasn’t how it all started. The weirdest stuff never starts weird – it just gets weird.

 

All Small Little Big Large One

All small little big large one

 

boy charging up

out of the night’s comforter

like

 

horse out of harness, free

of the pasture

of his dreams

 

a

DAY

a whole

DAY

ahead, and it will

be filled

from first shriek of wonder

 

to the head nodding.

 

Poor lucky boy

poor blessed Daddy

to have had

 

a walk together, so close

and so glad

 

Another of my Colgate Witch Poems, about my son when he was a small boy, just a few years old…

 

Full Moon Buddha Day

Full Moon – this one is the "Flower" moon – isn’t that sweet?

Today is also Vesak, sometimes referred to as Buddha Purnima; not really Buddha’s birthday, although it is colloquially called that – this is a day commemorating all the major events in the Buddha’s life: birth, enlightenment, and death, all rolled into one.

It’s like a party in my chakras, and everyone’s invited!

 

Idiot’s Parade

I have watched for years

the stately progress

of this Idiot's Parade

 

the rank nonsense

of our clueless

Hallowed Emperors

as they are measured

for yet another

fancy invisible tux

 

the complacent adoration

of the fawning fools

pissing on the heads

of less fortunate others

while all that deserve praise

strobe and stutter and fade

 

I have watched the deserts

spread across the land

and the oceans die

 

I have watched

the cultivation

of ignorance

exalted to a form of art

 

I have watched

as children

learn to turn their loves

and lives

to illusions filled with

illusions

 

I have watched them

hardening toward their ends

before they even start

 

I have watched them fortify themselves

with mouths of earth in lieu of sky

 

with mouths of earth in lieu of sky

this is the consequence

of letting truth and hope die

 

This was originally drafted in 2003, one early summer dawn, coming out of a mournful bit of dream. I was still despondent about my nation’s surrender to our ridiculous president, that What-Me-Worry clone propped up by a host of Cheneys and their ilk. The worst depredations of his reign were yet to come but I had no illusions – I knew what lay ahead, and in 2003, there was no honest hope that the Republican boasts of a permanent lock on government were untrue. At the time, it seemed possible that what I thought best about the USA was permanently lost.

Thus my mournful dream, and this poem.

As it turns out, their boasts and my fears were both to some degree misplaced; five years after this poem was penned in grief and frustration, the most progressive and consequential presidency since the Johnson administration began, and Dubya slouched off the national stage in well-earned disgrace (so different from the surly, self-righteous, arrogant slouch he used as he first arrived).

We’ve had eight years, now, of halting progress; achieved despite every Republican effort to keep us trapped in Gilded-Age-style elitism. And now, the threat of reactionary impulse looms again, in the form of a looneytunes candidate even more ridiculous than the late, great, Bush-league Georgie the Second, if such a thing is even possible.

I’ve learned a lot from the last couple of presidencies.

First? We’re never safe. The idiocy of some voters, combined with the laziness of others, can sooner or later be counted on to place another hapless, half-baked, semi-literate poser with more ear wax than IQ in a position of power. Oysters of this ilk can always be counted on to do nothing, while their handlers do their worst. We’re never safe. If we want a repeat of the Bush years, that particular form of masochistic theater is always available; it is only necessary that good people do nothing to prevent it. We have to stay vigilant, awake, and pragmatic.

Second? Voting is not a luxury. It matters who we put in charge. Civic duty is a thing – we ignore it at our peril.

Third? Education is not a luxury either. There has been a pronounced antipathy to education on the part of establishment elites for two generations, now – ever since they saw what the emphasis on education in the 1950s and 1960s engendered: a populace with actual opinions – opinions they formed themselves, not opinions given to them by the elites.

Apparently, an informed electorate is a sure recipe for an unmanageable electorate, which can have all sorts of consequences that affect all sorts of things cherished by the elites: profit margins, for example, and elite illusions about their rightful place atop the human heap…

Their solution? Education has been consistently underfunded and downgraded for fifty years, in an effort to develop a more pliant sort of voter – one who mostly doesn’t vote at all, but when they do, can be easily led by their fears and appetites – very unlike the STEM children of the Sputnik era.

This antipathy to education has now borne its inevitable and most poisonous fruit, in the form of ol’ Donnie Lump and his clones – the Cruzes and the Gohmerts, the Palins and the Pauls.

What did the movers and shakers think would be the consequence of dumbing down the entire nation? I think they expected the electorate as a whole would become more manipulable, and this is indeed the case. But I suspect they assumed that they would be the ones doing the manipulating.

Perhaps that’s where their vision failed them. Ignorant clowns are running their own show, now, and listening to no one. Or perhaps that’s what our owners wanted, after all: eight years of a Donnie Lump administration, and we’ll be begging the elites to run the madhouse again, while we inmates slink back to our grinding poverty, grateful for an occasional crust…

The last thing I learned from the past pair of presidencies?

Never give up. In 2003, in the darkest years of Dubya’s reign, I had a real option to emigrate – a long-term job offer in Belgium. I almost took it, too.

I would have missed some interesting stuff if I had. And I would have missed the chance to vote for Obama. Twice.

Never give up.

We’re one October surprise away from a Trump presidency, which would be the biggest political disaster since the last Republican presidency, which was the biggest political disaster since Absentminded Ronnie Raygun and the Wifely Astrologers were playing in DC.

The clowns keep coming. They never stop. We all need to be there or the clowns will win again. Never give up.

 

The Multitudes All Aching

The Riddle of the Map is that it calls

us into what is never truly there,

though all our evidence implies a truth

was seen, or felt, or recognized somewhere.

Too often, map and territory blur –

the truth becomes a phantom in the galls.

 

Just so are we each mapped against this life;

just so do we each puzzle out our rage

and chart the furies in our random zones

(where latitude has faltered and the page

has blurred our polar lines), and so condone

distinctions twixt the cutting, and the knife…

 

Upon the withering parchment of our hearts

are careless worlds, each touched by dreams

and etched into our yellowing bits of bone,

and trapped within the ink of every map;

there are the prophecies of burning stone –

of more and less than what we call our arts.

 

Within the varicolored, bounded lands

imprinted on the foolscap of our souls

are multitudes, all aching for their loves,

and cities named for things we know in dreams –

awash with wonders we cannot describe,

in cobbled haunts we cannnot understand.

 

We dwelt there, once upon a time: in days

before our souls were barred, we lived as do

the innocents, within the mist and cloud.

From continent to continent we flew,

and all that we desired was allowed –

perfection fell at wish into our ways.

 

We raked the oceans of our joys for loot,

for rarest treasure, gathering up our hopes,

anointing them with secret oils and horn

of unicorn; we gilded each conceit

with avid tears, our overwrought desires

filled caravans with thrice-forbidden fruit.

 

All lives begin on brightly-colored maps,

and every life must win its way beyond

those startling bounds, into the living world,

where waiting grief ensnares us – traps us in

entangling boundary lines, and drags us down

amid the wrack of our profound collapse.

 

Seven six-line stanzas in iambic pentameter, with the first and last lines of each stanza rhyming, and with opportunistic rhyme elsewhere.

The mention in the first stanza of "galls" refers to iron gall ink, a very typical medium for writing, illustration, and mapmaking for well over a thousand years. Truth becoming a "phantom in the galls" is about the blurring of the lines between primary and derived realities. A map is not the territory it represents. A map is a simplification, and all simplifications have an agenda – a point of view they promote above all others.

This poem is a meditation on how and why we sometimes fail to distinguish representation from reality, and what might be the consequences of such failure.

An earlier version of this poem took a much different tack…

 

A Kiss Demands A Lip

take my pain to a minor key apart

one machine-threaded bolt

at a time each tensioned

spring each tortured nut

 

stamp the wrenched and blasted arts

to weld rust red iron armatures

reduce to smoke each dust-filled joint

shave and grind axles and oiled gears

 

take my clockwork jeweled heart

to vain and of course pieces

maul me with mallet and steel wedge

cold as quenching snow and iced tears

 

let loose every crossbow bolt and dart

ratchet down compassion’s rack

de-stress each turnbuckle catch and snap

tangle the wire nerve in its pulley

 

 

twixt the yin and the yang

my sprung unhinged

and verdigrised brass

shall see you through

 

agonies die with a killing hand

but ecstasies endure as long

as their source remains

keys demand locks

 

time can see through options

to their dense and dark home

the braying cold-as-cold center

the escapement of eternity

 

From my 2016 journal. The title restates the sentiment expressed at the end of stanza six: "keys demand locks".

Pain lives in the body; ecstasy lives in its source. This is from the introduction to what is either a short story or an epic poem about a clan of self-aware machines struggling to find their place in a world that denies them personhood. I’ve written it several times now, and never found the right tangent to make it all work…

 

Live Again

Verse 1:

C

They tell you that you've

C

landed on your

G

feet this time my friend; then they

F

pat you on the shoulder and say

am               G

luck must always end… then they

 

C

fill you up with stories of how

G

they were made the fools and they

F

wink and nod and moan about how

am               G

they are witless tools… and I

 

em

listen to how they

am

lie… how they

em

tell themselves they're just little

am

guys… and I

G

wonder when they gave

F

in and I

G                     C

wish they could live again

 

Verse 2:

C

They never do the

C

thing they want, they

G

know it'd never work; their

F

lives are chance and

F

accidents and luck and

am          G

they're all pointless jerks

 

C

they never say they like or love cause

G

then it'd go away, so of

F

course it does and then they smirk and

am               G

say they knew it anyway… and I

 

em

listen to how they

am

lie… how they

em

tell themselves they're just little

am

guys… and I

G

wonder when they gave

F

in and I

G                     C

wish they could live again

 

Oddly, people really like this tune. 1st Verse written late 2007… second a few months later in 2008. Lot of water under the bridge since then…

 

How Forever Ends

what it means is there ain’t

no room except for

that special kind of person

and most of us ain’t that

the leetz

are being polite about it

but we is nothing

just mud to them

and if Darwin is anything

like a good guesser

and I think he is

they right to see us that way

no argument from me

ninety percent of humanity

should definitely not

be reproducing

but ouchies

when you realize

you ain’t in the ten per cent

that you miss it by a hair

not about fault

not about blame

luck of the draw

maybe it was the lead

in the water pipes

in your grandfather’s house

maybe it was the generations

of tobacco smoking

or the chemical load

acquired doing business

in the deep past

in the family forge

or maybe it’s karma

or maybe it’s just you

too lazy too slow

too unmotivated

too crazy

whatever

you didn’t make the cut

and now the world goes on

without any part of you

your code is lost in the mire

your line has come a cropper

you and the dinosaurs

selected out

the competition was

too tough is all

you finished second

 

so

how do you deal with it

pat the winners on the back

wish them good speed

tell yourself

you share

ninety-eight percent

of their genes

so you’re represented

it isn’t like you’re not

part of the winning team

you still have skin in the game

but that all feels

kind of hollow doesn’t it

the kind of thing

losers always say

 

truth is

you looking at it all wrong

tell yourself about the long tail

and how we all are selected out

sooner or later

no lineage lasts forever

and only a few last more than an eyeblink

so what’s the big deal

 

you were beautiful

your line was a beautiful thing

course

you still sound like a loser

 

who cares about forever

forever is for chumps

 

we know how forever ends

 

Stanzas of 48, 16, 8, 4, and 2 lines, and then a solitary closer – the stanza length decreases as we transition our thought from long-winded to clipped.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about utility, and whether or not a person’s utility (or potential utility) is a good measure of the validity of our lives. This poem is a bit of a free-form meditation on the subject.

It’s hard for me to reconcile my mortal status with the vivid feelings I have about myself and my life, but I try…

I try.