This one time I was sitting in the park, minding my own business, when I had a visitation from the present.

Well, that’s how my last girlfriend would have put it. I wander off into my own head — which is something I enjoy and one of the reasons I want some time alone from time to time. In fact, I’ll do it whether I’m alone or not, but I don’t like to be rude and offend people who might be sitting there trying to talk to me, so it’s pretty important to me to get away from people an hour or two a day and try to get it out of my system. When something happens to snap me out of it, my ex would look at that moment of shock on my face, when everything goes slack while I try to see if there was anything in the last few seconds I saw or heard that would clue me in to what’s going on, and say it looked like I had just seen a ghost or had some supernatural visitation. A visitation not from ghosts of past or future, but of the present.

We never came up with anything that would help her for her spells of being an incurable Dickens scholar, and probably the less said about that, the better. When she talked it was like listening to someone who had been dead for a hundred years — someone who was used to being paid by the word, at that. My own era of study was not as intense, and covered maybe Hemingway through Kerouac — and I know that’s not an incredible range. But I never understood why anyone should ever write in a way that they wouldn’t talk out loud. My ex solved that problem by talking the way she would write. She was wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but it grated.

And somehow it was her that broke up with me. Make of that what you will.

So I’d eaten my sandwich and was watching the breeze blow the tremendous clumps of oak catkins around like urban tumbleweeds. Those were the things I could thank for keeping the park relatively empty in early spring. If people were sensitive to oak or birch pollen, this place was a deathtrap. I hadn’t quite worked up the nerve to roll around in the pollen and bring it back to work to see if I could thin down the annoying herd of constant interruptions there, but probably the only thing stopping me was the imagined torrent of mucus that would end up flowing down the hall from accounting. Torrents of mucus can take the joy out of anything.

That was probably where my head was when my visitation occurred — a homeless guy telling me that Jesus was coming back in May. There was some other stuff I didn’t catch, and then he said, “Make yourself ready.”

I don’t have a lot of patience for this kind of nonsense. It’s not that I can’t deal with religion and people waving it around in front of me, but the nutbags make it hard on everybody. They make the sane guys with a serious message hard to hear. And for some reason it’s the loons that get the broadcast studios and the 100,000-watt transmitters. I’d only had ten seconds from this guy, but I’d had enough.

“Look, man,” I said. “Jesus was here half an hour ago. He gave me a sandwich –” I waved the wrapper at him “– and told me how sad he was about some of the shit that’s been going on lately. Earthquakes and shit. Wars that won’t stop. Camps full of refugees where everyone gets raped. People who go to bed hungry. Children without a safe place to sleep at night. Sick people who can’t get medicine. Rampant ignorance. Frankly, he was a bit of a whiner.”

I think it was about then I figured this guy wasn’t actually homeless, but maybe just a bit weathered and windblown. He had good shoes and a watch — and homeless people never really need to know what time it is. Anyway, he just stood there with his jaw hanging slack, and that meant this was still my show.

“He says tragedies are a test, a whole bunch of tests in a long series to see if any of us actually got the damned message. He says when the floods come and the cities burn, the people who hit their knees and pray instead of hitting the streets with food and fresh water and blankets are selfish idiots, begging for their own deliverance when the fact that they’re still breathing and upright means that they’re the deliverance that other people need. You get what I’m saying?”

The guy just stood there. I stared at him, narrowing my eyes until he nodded.

“Awesome. What’s your name? Phil? Mike…?”

“Lamont,” he said.

“Right. Half an hour ago, Jesus told me, ‘Look, when Lamont gets here, you tell him he should hoof his ass down to the shelter, and he can spout whatever silly shit he wants as long as he’s doing something useful at the same time, like washing sheets or ladling out soup. You tell him I said that,’ he said, and since that was Jesus telling me to do that, what choice do I have. What choice do I have, Lamont? That was Jesus telling me what to do, and also he gave me a sandwich.”

Lamont just stood there, sucked dry of any initiative whatsoever.

“Go on, man. Four blocks down to the bottom of the hill, turn right, then maybe six or seven blocks downtown. It’ll be on the left.”

Exit Lamont.

Did I feel like a massive prick? I did. Have I ever set foot in a homeless shelter myself? I have not. Was I some kind of hypocrite? Quite possibly. But I’d done my good deed for the day, and maybe a second good deed by resisting the urge to stuff all of my pockets with catkins before I went back to work.

I know damn well if a bus crashed in front of me, I’d be over in a flash to haul people out of the wreckage and hold hands until the ambulances arrived, and I’m always good for five or ten bucks for the Red Cross when there’s a crisis out there, and maybe even the occasional pint of blood when I don’t have to walk too far to hand it over. Beyond that, I don’t know that I really have what it takes.

A low tolerance for bullshit is pretty much the only gift I have to work with. I just hope, when slash if Jesus actually shows up, he judges that I have put my only real talent to good use and finds me worthy of … whatever it is they’re always going on about. Milk and honey. An endless supply of perpetual virgins. Or maybe just a little peace.


March 21, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time the world was without form and void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Or so say the people who think they know about these things. In fact things are still like that no more than a few minutes away as the photon flies, so much so that if you take the whole of the universe as an average, it’s basically still like that, and nothing much has changed in a dozen billion years. For where I stand, on the surface of this lifeless lump of rock, I can see the truth of that with my own eyes, and yet, and yet … when I look up, I see a zillion little points of light, a bright dusting of shiny debris from the shattering of the biggest mirror ever, and the way my brain is wired, I see that sparkly dust as the truly important part, as some kind of message of hope, and I focus in on those bright points of light in defiance of my certain knowledge of how bleak things really are. On the whole. On average.

When the earth was still healthy and populated, people and animals and everything with any kind of inkling of awareness lived in ignorance, sometimes willful ignorance, of the fact that they lived on the surface of a balloon that could pop at any time, with death below and death above and life only possible on the thin skin that formed between death and death, the meager living filling in a death sandwich of truly cosmic proportions.

I know better than to ask for forgiveness for my morose outlook. I man the lighthouse that warns of death on the rocks, facing outwards to a dead sea that has no ships. There are no whales, no fish. Just wind and waves: the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters. God, who got by for an eternity without us and who will get by for another eternity after we are gone.

What went wrong? Was life too proud, too complacent, too disrespectful? The skin of the balloon is a molten churning mass, pieces of which are still raining down, splashing down around me all the way up here in the tower of this lighthouse that is the Moon. The Earth is back to its Venus-like youth, halted in its slide to a dusty Mars-like senescence by a tiny thing, like the fist of an angel, that smote it to its core.

Where are Pison, Gihon, Idikla, and Purat now? Where is the garden they encircle? I know the answer to that. Those are the names I have given to the four pumps that make and keep pure the waters that preserve the last five acres of tillable earth in existence. I maintain them, my own small spirit moving on the face of my own small waters, occasionally triggering release of my own selections of seed from the seed banks, my own whim and will releasing eggs and spores and other tiny elements and enzymes and microbes to maintain the perfect balance in this terrarium, the last garden ever being the first one to most closely mimic the first Garden, here at the gloaming, the dusk of my own garden’s Day Four. Today will last as long as I will it, while I work up the nerve to attempt Day Five, and then … however long it takes me until I have the hubris to attempt Day Six.

My sea-monsters and whales will be necessarily tiny. My beasts of the air and beasts of the field will be microscopic. Our first attempts, giants, every last one of them, are already buried deep, with my own bones and the bones of my fellows and mates, and will no doubt mightily confuse the future archaeologists. So be it.

I am the last of my kind. My companions died in the ordinary way, though some of them died extraordinarily by any measure. I moved into the machinery, having become my tools, and now my enormous spirit moves on the face of the tiny waters. When the wind blows in my garden, it is my breath. The last decaying biomass from which the richest part of the garden grows is my old body. Tiny, tiny engines scurry around to do my bidding, angels loyal to me but independent, already given their tasks to perform until they also merge with the body of creation in the garden at the base of the lighthouse, bounded by the four rivers.

I have hidden the index to all of the knowledge of life in one binary tree, and, with all due consideration, the knowledge of good and evil in a similar tree. Ethics and morality have no place at the beginning of things. There is only the rule of growth and increase, of twisting dead rocks and the debris of supernovas into biomass and more biomass and explosive diversity, to see what will live and what will die heated in the fire of strange radiations and under the hammer of strange gravities. The garden is a forge, an oven, a kiln. I have gold, and vats of bedolach, and onyx, but for tomorrow and the next day, what I will need is clay and mud.

I will have no choice but to try to sculpt the mud in my own image, in our image. I have no choice but to follow the plan.

After the end of a long Day Five and a long Day Six, I will rest, and watch, and dwell in my garden, and wait, nay, pray, for the fall of the angels — and the inevitable rebellion that will prove that my labors were not in vain. I will know I am successful when they bless me, and curse me with their last breaths, and beg for my forgiveness, which I already give them in advance.


March 20, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was with my hypnotherapist, doing past-life regressions. I only do this once a year, and it’s not particularly because I believe in past lives. But it feels … like a way of delivering myself messages I need to hear from my subconscious. It’s the way I think Tarot cards work, or any of a number of intuition-driven assessments and therapies. Like maybe those inkblot things. The pictures I see in random shapes and the words I hear in noise tell me what’s in my head, at the bottom layer, trying to bubble its way up through the murk. I guess. When I give it any thought at all. Basically it’s something I do from time to time and I get something out of it. I don’t believe I should torpedo that out from under me simply because I’m not smart enough to understand it.

For all I know there is a recycling program for souls and maybe we can learn a bit more about how to deal with the world if we can recall lessons we might have already learned. Or learn from previous terminal mistakes — something we ordinarily wouldn’t get the chance to do in one go-round. It’s hard to imagine that this one shot is all we get. It seems … wasteful. And I’ve met scientists. They all act like they know everything, or at least they think they know better than you, but every six months they announce to the world that the last thing they told you was wrong and something else is the absolute truth. And somehow they act like that doesn’t keep happening and we should trust what they say is gospel.

Every time I hear an announcement I think eggs. Eggs are good for you. Eggs are bad for you. No, wait. There’s good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. We’re pretty sure about that. And get some sun, it’s healthy for you. Oh, wait, too much vitamin D can poison you and then there’s skin cancer. The Milky Way is all there is. Oh, wait, there are zillions of galaxies. The universe is 20 billion light years across. No, wait, only 10. No, we’re pretty sure it’s about 13.4 billion. And now that we think of it, it’s probably 96% stuff we can’t see and know nothing about. Unless it isn’t. No, we’re pretty sure it is. And we still have no idea what gravity is. Or mass, for that matter. Or that inertia thing. But time and space? That’s … you know what? Never mind. We’ll get back to you. And when we do, we’ll have the definitive answers and you can throw away all your hokum.

Yeah, I know. The sum of all human knowledge is a work in progress. I don’t resent that science doesn’t have all the answers. I just resent the attitude. See, I’m not an expert at anything. Not at raising my kids, not at pleasing my wife, not at installing tile and flooring and cabinets, certainly not at filling out my paperwork when I’m done, not at playing my video games or figuring out what my nutso dog is trying to tell me, not at figuring out who to vote for, not at trying to keep my weight down or knowing what to do about these chest pains. I’m not afraid to admit any of that. I just do whatever seems like the right thing to do at the time. What else can you do?

So once a year I visit this freaky hypnotherapist, this third generation Californian who helped me quit smoking, and — maybe it’s mostly out of gratitude about the smoking thing that I keep coming back and giving him money — and we play the Past Lives game. Only this time I started him off by asking him why he thinks the past lives things work. He believes it all to the core. He thinks it’s because minds resonate across the whole spectrum of time, and since they’re basically the same minds that think the same way, they can tune into one another like radios. And this one time I asked him what keeps us from tuning into our future lives, because wouldn’t it be more likely that our future versions would have worked out more stuff and have more to teach us?

Then he looked at me through his tiny Santa Claus glasses, over his enormous walrus mustache, with that look that says I either just said something deeply profound or maybe the stupidest thing he ever heard and he was trying to figure out which.

“Shit,” he says. “I dunno. Let’s try it.” That’s one of the reasons I like him. When he’s stumped, he says so. And he doesn’t let that stop him for even fifteen seconds. I’ve never met anyone like him.

So he sets up his video camera — every year it’s a new one, tinier, less clunky and fiddly — and drags a chair over in front of me. And the way it usually goes is he puts me under, talks to me — or whoever I am — for fifty minutes, and then sends me a CD or DVD or whatever with the video on it. I watch it, and then I call him up and we talk for half an hour.

Only this time when I come out of it, I’m covered with some of slimy stuff, soaked clear through to the skin. His sofa thing is soaked as well, and what I can only describe as half melted into a puddle on one end, slumped onto the floor. There’s a huge damp wavy triangleish damp spot on his wall, like someone slapped it with an oily towel. Over on his desk, the video camera is still running, blinking its little red light. He’s on his knees in front of me, pulling me upright, and he’s pale and shaking and his eyes are locked open, huge, and not blinking. And he asks, “Are you alright, man? That was a hell of a … ten minutes.” His voice is rock steady, but I’ve never known it to be otherwise.

I survey the carnage — the ruined leather sofa — can wood even melt? — and the wall, and the carpet, and his messed up hair and dark splatter spots all over his suede jacket and smudged glasses — and I say, “I guess so. What the heck happened?”

He looks over at the camera, notes that it’s still running, and says, “I dunno. But, uh, all things considered, I don’t think I’m charging you for a full session.”

I’m still looking around at the mess. “What about the….” He waves me quiet, cleaning his glasses.

“What happened?” I ask again.

He stands up, stretches, shrugs. “Seriously. I got nothing.” He helps me to my feet. “Tell you what. Hit the restroom in the hall and see what you can do to get cleaned up. I’ll burn you a copy of the video to send home with you. You watch it, if you feel like it, and then you give me a call. I gotta….” He trailed off. “Order a new sofa thing. A carpet cleaning. Maybe file an insurance claim. That kind of thing.”

I did what he said. I would have taken a shower if he’d had one in his suite, but I didn’t have anything else to wear, so I prepared to just squish my home on the subway, hoping it wouldn’t be too cold when the wind hit me. When I went back into his office to get the disk, he had it ready for me. Most of the puddles had dried to crusty stains, but the sofa was … never coming back. But he put the disk in my hand in a little plastic case with the date of the session written on it with a marker, clapped me on the shoulder like nothing at all unusual had happened, and reminded me to give him a call when I’d seen the recording so we could talk it over.

It’s been three weeks and I still haven’t popped the disk in the machine.


March 19, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was flying back to the city. We were in a steep bank. I was in a window seat — I always get a window seat if I can — right in front of the wing. It was an excellent view.

When I’m on the ground I like to watch the clouds. Apparently when I’m up among the clouds, I like to watch the ground. I have a dear friend who would call that typical. A symptom of never being happy where I am, no matter how good I’ve got things.

I’m not denying that I might have an issue there. Every morning when I’ve gotten dressed and I’m leaving the house, I remember something else I probably should have chosen to wear. I’m always wearing the wrong makeup, at the wrong restaurant, watching the wrong movie, or with the wrong man. I don’t choose well, but I’m good at making do.

Today, for instance, I wore the wrong shoes for getting through airport security quickly and doing a lot of walking or standing around in airports. They look good with the jeans, though.

And it’s not like when I’m up in the air, looking at the ground, I want to be back on the ground. I like flying. Maybe I just want to be able to see where the ground is. To make sure it’s where it’s supposed to be. To make sure … it’s not on fire or something.

So this one time, during this steep banking maneuver, I was in a perfect place to see this bright light go whizzing past and zip straight into the ground below.

The first thing I did was try to look at the ground where it probably hit to see if it did any damage, but I couldn’t make out the ground too well there. It may have actually hit the river. Then I looked around the plane to see if anyone else had seen it, but no one else was looking out the window as far as I could see. Then I looked back out the window to see if I could see any more of whatever it was. That was about when it occurred to me that it could have been some kind of missile, maybe something shot at our plane from another plane or from the ground far enough away I didn’t see it come up.

No one announced from the cockpit that we seemed to be under attack, but, after thinking about that for a while, I wasn’t sure that they would. All I know is that my hands and feet were going cold the way they do when I’m afraid or under stress and my chest was getting that tight feeling that was making me crave my inhaler, something I hadn’t touched in years.

When I looked back out the window, a black circle was spreading out on the ground from the area where the impact should have occurred. It was like the ground was collapsing into a huge spreading sinkhole, getting enormously bigger very quickly. I was starting to see little points of light in the spreading blackness, and I realized that it looked like, more than anything, I was seeing stars. Like what I would see if the ground wasn’t there and I was looking clear through to the other side. And then there was nothing but stars.

I was suddenly very dizzy, like I’d been spinning, like I did as a little girl, spinning in the yard to see how long I could go without feeling like I had to throw up. I would experiment to see if it was any worse with my eyes open versus my eyes closed. And eyes closed was always worse. I kept my eyes open. I didn’t blink or breathe.

And then I noticed that the plane was tilted the other way, with the wing I was in front of pointed up into the night sky, and the stars were where they were supposed to be. When we leveled out, so was the ground. There was no way I would have been able to mistake lights from building windows and streetlights and taillights and headlights from cars as stars. And, unless I had been spinning, I rarely had any trouble telling up from down. But we came out of our banking turn headed the other way.

I’m really not sure what happened then, whether I maybe had a mini-seizure and lost a few seconds of time or something similar, some kind of passing illness. But ever since that moment I’ve been super-aware of little niggling differences in how the world is from what I expect, and the world has stopped feeling totally real to me, like some parts of it are just a dream.

And I don’t know what to do about that.


March 18, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was on the sofa in my pajamas — if that’s what you want to call what I was wearing — and trying to decide how to kill the time until it was no longer too early to go to bed. Over in the 55-gallon in the corner the albino reticulateds were apparently having sex. That didn’t much seem like an option to me. I debated throwing a towel over the tank so they could have their privacy, but I had to acknowledge that they, much like my college roommate and whoever it was she chose for any three-week span, didn’t seem to care if anyone was watching. Maybe it would be fairer to throw the towel over my own head and acknowledge where the problem lay.

The water dragon didn’t care. The veiled chameleons didn’t care — and since I was trying to breed them, I was hoping they would get inspired anyway. I gave a few minutes to considering what would count as porn to chameleons. Toward the end I got lost in a mental image of how it would be for a chameleon to roll its eyes up into its head, and whether both eyes would roll up together or one at a time. I think I laughed out loud about that, and it felt good. It had been a while.

Reptile minds are intriguing. I often thought about what we’re told about them, and how, at the very core of our own minds, we have the same structures, the same way of thinking, the same basic patience when there’s nothing to do and the same basic urges when it’s time to do something. The same need for a comfortable place to rest and be safe, the same needs for food and water and sex and the occasional scratch where we can’t reach. In our own heads, on layers that wrap around that, we have the mammalian programming for social hierarchies, for domination and submission, for families and rearing children. And wrapped around that, the layer that imagines and remembers, that plays back scenarios and makes guesses, that talks to us and criticizes and cajoles and convinces and, as needed, shouts to get our attention.

It really is like three brains in one skull, a loose alliance of creatures with different goals. You can look at a person and see that the snake is really strong in one, with the other two brains riding on it as passengers, holding on for dear life, while another person might have a really weak reptile core that the mammalian structure bullies and hounds while the thin human layer scurries around after them both, making lame excuses to anyone who is watching. And some people just live in that outer layer, never in the present moment, paralyzed by all the choices they see and think they have to make, reliving the past with such intensity because they’re sure that’s what it takes to keep from reliving it in actuality in the future — when the truth is that your inner lizard can’t tell the difference between actual experiences and the replay. For the lizard, the misery of imagining and remembering is just as real as the experience.

Freud was really close with his id, ego, and superego model. He was close on a lot of things despite his obsessions with sex. But what can you expect from a man who must have known that his name basically translated as “Mr. Happy”?

Sometimes I wonder what society would be like if we were all just reptiles to the core. And that was where I went in my head when I was sitting on the sofa killing time. Assuming they found some way to rear and educate children as life got more complex, some way to divide labor to provide the functioning tissues a society needs, some way to record and relay knowledge too big to fit in one head, they could make it. And it would probably look a lot like ours.

But I wondered if they would make the same mistakes we do, hearing the voices in our heads and mistaking the voice of the spokesman as the voice of the decision-maker, or worse, as the voice of God.

Consensus in the science world says they had their chance and our way works better. I say they could have been so much more, but creatures with smaller stomachs and better body temperature regulation were better cut out to survive after the climate changes brought on by the cataclysm manhandled the food web.

How long can we last as the reigning giants that walk the earth? What grub or morsel will ascend to replace us when we’re gone, believing themselves to be superior to us in every way?


March 17, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was running through the airport and everyone was screaming. Well, not everyone, just a few good representative samples of any particular clump, but the effect was a constant squealing and roaring that was the kind you eventually start screening out and ignoring because it doesn’t actually convey any information anymore, like an ache you just live with.

In any particular corridor, people were running in both directions, mysteriously adhering to the local customs of keeping to the right to avoid  head-on collisions. In lobbies and atria and other huge enclosures, it was a free-for-all.

I was just looking for an exit. A number of like-minded individuals were accompanying me. I didn’t know any of them. I had commandeered two of them to help me pull someone who had fallen out of the middle of a passage, and since then we had stopped to help anyone else in a similar situation, blocking to encourage people to go around whoever we were helping, dragging or carrying as gently as possible out of the way anyone who looked like they might be an obstruction or in danger of being trampled. In many cases the danger had long since made its way to more open spaces, but since confusion reigned we did it anyway. Just in case another herd came by or circled back around or whatever.

What I really wanted was to know what was going on. I had heard theories of earthquake, of bombs, of a plane that had crashed into a fuel depot, invasions from defunct political powers or space aliens. In any case, the power was off. There was no data service off the local wireless or cell towers, likely because everyone else was trying to use their various devices at once and there wasn’t enough infrastructure to go around.

We made it to a main lobby, where I could at least see out to where an exit was, and outside the chaos was even worse. People were crowding the doors, trying to get back in to find missing relatives or companions while other people were trying to get out. I decided to keep going forward to see if a more distant exit was a better choice.

For some reason we stopped when we started to pass the chapel. The glass door was propped open with a simple rubber doorstop. I poked my head in. It was dark and quiet.

“It’s chaos outside. Perhaps here is as good a place as any to wait for sanity to return.” I hit the button to turn on the display of my phone and used it as a gentle flashlight to survey the place. It was empty, but there was room for about fifty people. There were no objections, so we filed in and took seats in empty pews. At least two of us took the opportunity to lie down.

It was amazing how quiet it was in here compared to just twenty feet away, outside the door. I could smell the neutral greenish odor of the daisies on a stand to one side of what must have been some generically consecrated altar. After a while I noticed that there was some outside light filtering down through a skylight, but it was very weak, not very noticeable or useful. It just showed me the outline of empty pews, of a couple of heads and shoulders. I sat in a far corner of a pew up front and closed my eyes, recovering my breath. Outside, above the distant noise of panic and fear, I was starting to hear something being shouted through a megaphone.

But I didn’t care. In here, the creature that we had become, driven together by the forces of uncertainty and need, had dissolved away, just by entering the door.

While we waited, a few more people trickled in and took seats. On a couple of occasions we got up to help people who were limping and made room to make the injured and exhausted comfortable. Someone took out a water bottle and passed it around as far as it would go, starting with those who looked like they were in the worst shape. The balance of the smell of fresh flowers and lacquered wood and steam-cleaned cushions and carpets shifted somewhat to soured fear and sweat and exhaustion, but peace remained. There was brief sobbing, more relief than distress, and quiet murmuring in comforting tones.

The building could burn and the aliens could come with ray guns, but we would be at peace.


March 16, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was wondering what I would do if the world was about to end. It’s the kind of question you hear a lot from people who are actually trying to make conversation instead of just smalltalk. It might be a little trite, but it is a good way to find out what is important to people — or, a bit more accurately, what people want others to think is more important to them. Either way, a person’s answer will tell you a lot.

So here’s the scenario. You’re out at the park, maybe half a pack of cigarettes left, and a number of people are smoking them in ignorance or defiance of the recent ban. The bench is cold through your jeans — What are these things made of? Stone? — but the sun is warm, at least when the wind isn’t blowing. You’re listening to your music in your headphones, watching the egrets at the pond and wishing you’d brought a hoodie to go over your sweater, but determined not to bail just yet because this early spring day is just too gorgeous. Two benches over there’s someone reading something or other on her iPhone, obviously a bit disturbed. Her forehead is all wrinkled. She tugs an earphone out of the ear of the dark-skinned woman on the bench next to her, the one whose bare shoulders don’t seem to feel the wind, who apparently just asked her what’s wrong.

The woman with the iPhone hands it over. The darker woman reads it, for a few good minutes, scrolling up and down, then hands it back over. She doesn’t seem to be taking it well either. Your own music player, ignored while pumping 80s goodness into your head, chimes in with the perfect song from R.E.M. You know the one.

Trying to laugh that off, you pull out your own state-of-the-art-as-of-eight-months-ago smartphone and grit your teeth against the data costs. You open up the browser just as a lovely sunbeam hits the screen and damn near blinds you. You turn on the bench to put the sun to your back and let the momentary warmth soak in there. In the shadow of your body, the now-readable screen delivers the bad news via the sensationalized news outlet of your choice. Apophis, the asteroid everyone keeps saying is going to eventually hit the earth but probably never will, at least not for hundreds of years, just itself got clocked by a dark nickel-iron lump we had thought was just going to cruise through and sun-dive. Apophis itself took a bad bounce. On an absolute fluke.

It’s not the wind and the shade that’s making you lose feeling in your fingers. It’s certainly not the now-shining sun on your back that’s making your teeth chatter. Apophis is large enough that it doesn’t matter where it hits. Scientists debate whether we’ll last longer from a land hit or an ocean hit. Either way, we have eighteen days to impact. Give or take.

You look up. Somewhere beyond the puffy clouds, zipping around like they’re in a hurry to get to cover, beyond the impossibly blue sky, is a misty smear you’ll be able to see tonight because all the dust knocked loose will pick up a huge amount of sunlight that would otherwise sleet right past. The article was kind enough to point out to stargazers where to point their binoculars tonight to get the best look at their doom, which will, over the next eight days, become visible in the daytime sky as well, like a tailless egg-shaped comet. Oh, wait, there’s debate over whether a tail will be visible. The debris trail from the impact of the lump that deflected it our way might be visible to the naked eye. Or might not.

And in your headphones, Michael Stipe says that he feels fine.

So what do you do?

I considered the old standby of having sex with anyone who’s willing. There’s nothing like the complete lack of having to deal with consequences to boil someone right down to their core urges. But hardly anyone ever thinks of how you’ll feel if you set a goal and it doesn’t shake out how you’d like. What if you can’t find even one willing partner? How would you feel on day eighteen after seventeen days of nothing? Worse, what if you sleep with hundreds of people — well, “sleeping” is obviously a euphemism here — and on your last day you’re just tired and sticky, and nowhere near fulfilled? How would you feel?

I have a different plan. I intend to find every familiar face from everyday life, maybe even a few strangers, and tell them goodbye. The last two weeks of my life will be filled with hugs, handshakes, pats on the backs and shoulders and:

“No, seriously. I mean it. It’s been nice knowing you.”

“You only have a few left, so have a good one.”

“You. No you, the one with the hair. I’ve always liked your style. Just thanks for being you, man. Take care.”

“If there’s an after-party, I’ll see you there, right? Cheers!”

“If I don’t see you again, make the best of it, okay?”

I really hope I don’t miss anybody, but if I do, just know I’ll miss you when you’re gone.


March 15, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was trying to read a graphic novel — yes, Mom, that’s like a comic book, but thicker — and the cat was trying to convince me I should do otherwise, like cats do. The book was propped up on the desk and I was holding it by both sides. The cat was somehow draped from arm to arm, nestled up against my belly, purring and blowing spit bubbles through her drool, and grunting with annoyance whenever I turned a page.

This is the same cat that I swear cracked the bridge of my nose headbutting me awake at 3:30AM a couple of nights ago. I spend too much of my life scooping poop and chiseling up hairballs he’s hidden to find much anything he does cute anymore. Especially when he burns into my insurance deductible and makes people order x-rays of my face. I was able to talk the doctor out of that part (“How about we just pretend this is the 1850s and I just bite down on a handful of tongue depressors while you wiggle it and tell me what you think?) because I need full use of all the brain cells I have left.

Yes, the graphic novel was about superheroes, and, yes, those are pretty frequently wish-fulfillment fantasies acted out by cardboard people of unearthly proportions wrapped in Spandex and hardly anything remotely like literature. But frankly — and I’m talking to you again, Mom — I’ve trolled through the Romance section and flipped through a few. All you’re missing is the Spandex, and that’s only sometimes, and the artists that earn like $75 a page drawing it all out, scene by scene. Comics hardly have the market cornered on cardboard characters, unearthly proportions, and wish-fulfillment.

Yeah, sometimes they’re soap operas interspersed with punch-ups — just like the “professional masked wrestling entertainment” from which they derived, like, a hundred years ago. But not all the time. Sturgeon’s Law — “90% of everything is crap” — applies across the board to everything. So maybe one in ten romances are quite a bit closer to literature. And one in ten comics. Hell, one in ten books of any kind. Frankly I think it’s unfair to give books a head start just because they couldn’t afford a cover artist. Even without a Spandex or ripped-bodice specialty.

And I understand what I’m saying is all being weighted based on the mouth it’s coming out of — an out-of-shape guy who’s life is dominated by his mother who lives less than two miles away and the small incontinent animal he shares his apartment with — an animal of a sort we never actually bothered to domesticate, but just kind of rolled over when they moved in — who beats him up occasionally. I know I’d lose the fight denying the appeal of fantasies of power to affect circumstances and dominance and the occasional interaction with a woman of unearthly proportions wrapped in Spandex might appeal, so I won’t bother.

But where the literature part comes in is that power and resources aren’t distributed evenly across the board, perhaps doled out more generously to the deserving. Perhaps its a good idea to play through “What If?” scenarios to try to guess in advance how things would shake out if power fell into the hands of various sorts of people of various backgrounds and various takes on responsibility and duty and compassion and insight into possible consequences of drastic action. Maybe one in ten, perhaps more frequently if you’re discerning enough about what you consume to seek out storylines from particular writers, you run across a chilling tale that lets you have it straight about what people would do if power actually fell into their hands. Good people, bad people, confused people, heartbroken people, people who have never had a bad thing happen to them ever in their lives, people who have never known anything but misery, people who think they deserve it, people who are sure that they don’t.

It doesn’t take a sledgehammer to tell you that these are the sorts of people that have power over you now. These are your judges and cops and bosses and the movers and shakers that pay for political campaigns and run corporations that bury their trash in your backyard and sweep their dirt so far under the carpet that it doesn’t show up until after page six, if at all. These are the people that end up as despots or freedom fighters, half of whom scrambled hard to take advantage of every opportunity that got them closer to their goals, half of whom had it all thrust into their laps and just want to blow it all away and go fishing. These are your ministers and editors and cable channel programming directors and tour guides and tax assessors and back alley thugs and anybody who can step up to you and make you do anything, anybody who can control what you get to see and hear, which is the same thing.

It wouldn’t make them any more obvious to give them glowing whips and portable cannons and biceps and/or breasts the sizes of their heads wrapped in day-glo Spandex. And all you have to do is look them in the eyes to see which ones are wearing Spandex in their own heads. Those are the ones you have to watch out for.

The big question for comics fans is what superpower you’d want to have and what you’d do with it. Trust me when I say I’ve thought about this a lot. And my answer has finally stopped changing. If I could have any power I want, I want to be able to show anyone I meet what they truly look like to other people. If I felt like being a bastard, maybe I’d carry around a knife to hand over for the wrist-slitting afterward. For the other bastards.

Failing that I’d like to know whatever mystic secrets that would allow me to toilet train twelve-year-old housecats and make them hoof it for hardwood, tile, or linoleum when it was time to hork themselves hollow.


March 14, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was visiting my grandmother in the apartment we rented for her by the park with all the cherry trees. Sakura trees, actually, having been bred to flower but to not produce fruit.

I thought that was bizarre and wasteful once, deliberately selecting for trees that would leave people and wildlife hungry. But experience has taught me that not all cherries are edible. Some are flavorless or perpetually sour and only attract the bees and wasps when they fall. And as beautiful as cherry trees are, with the amazing smell when they are blooming, they are shady fragrant havens of buzzing, stinging death once there is fruit — unless they’re in a tame orchard, tended by professionals. A city park is a poor place for a fruiting cherries unless you want to feed the homeless one week and sting them to death the next.

And then my grandmother taught me appreciate the sakura by showing me how to make tea from the blossoms, just like she was taught by her grandfather what must seem like a thousand years ago to her, as well as to me. Cherry blossom petals are edible, too, offering subtle flavor as a garnish to anything bland. Oatmeal, rice — anything with mild flavors, for which a tiny hint of blossom brings the texture to life. When the sakuras were blooming, grandmother would serve us cups of milk in her best tea china, each blessed with a thimbleful of green tea and a whole sakura blossom floating on top.

A gulp of ordinary milk, the same stuff we chugged in a hurry while getting ready for school every morning of our childhood, unappreciated, became a handful of joy and peace, something to be savored in the moment and mourned when it was past. We were never so ungracious as to ask for seconds, as that would show we missed the depth of meaning in the blossom itself — abundant joy in the moment, soon to be gone, then a treasured memory that would be spoiled by gluttony.

The blossoms always return when it is time.

Grandmother was seated at her kitchen table, Western style, in a chair she could easily get into and out of. The tea was brewed from a kettle heated over her gas burner, resting in a pot to steep and cool. I retrieved four china cups and brought them to the table. One for her, one for mother, who had demanded that I come in previous years and now could not keep me away, one for grandfather, who had not sat in his chair for six years now, and one for myself. I poured milk for the three of us who were present and living. I brought over the tea pot and sat it briefly on a trivet on the table, then poured a dollop into our three cups. I put a handful of blossoms into grandfather’s cup, then after a brief moment, pulled out three blossoms. One went into grandmother’s cup, one into mother’s, and finally, one went into my own.

Before I sat down, I splashed hot tea over the remaining blossoms in grandfather’s cup to release their scent.

Incense would have been appropriate under other circumstances, but today, a cupful of sakura blossoms was a perfect offering.

We all sat a moment, then grandmother picked up her cup and took a sip. Mother sniffed back tears and picked up her own cup, and after another moment, I picked up my own. I inhaled deeply and drank, not just the scented milk, but a steady sip of thirty years of memories.

I had visited their home in Japan one spring and summer when I was very young, prior to starting school. I remember bright pictures of landscapes, each with their associated smell — diesel buses, the fish market, a grassy field for sports where we caught grasshoppers and stick insects and hand-fed them torn blades of grass. We all regretted the proximity to the silk factory and the paper mill when the wind blew from the wrong direction. The smell of the sea. The clean smell of the flank of a tame deer at a historic park in the oldest capitol. The smell of lacquered paper in my hands, for folding. The smell of my own arm unexpectedly covered in giraffe saliva from a lick at the zoo. The smell of wood and asphalt and stone washed down by a typhoon. The smell of a ceramics kiln fired with charcoal and prunings from the local tangerine orchard, with the unmistakable scent trapped in the glazes. The chlorinated smell of an indoor wave pool at a water park.

This one tiny sip never ends. It lasts throughout the rest of the spring, through the brutally hot summer, an autumn crisp with fallen leaves, and every snowy winter to follow.

The blossoms always return when it is time.


March 13, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

This one time I was working on evaluating algorithms for solving mazes. On one hand it seems kind of useless and abstracted, and frankly it is, but there are a lot of real world problems that can be treated as mazes — assuming you have a good maze-solving strategy you can apply. Also, this is where my department gets the grant money, and my position specifically (for the next eight months), so, at the very bottom, a job is a job. And if it eventually helps somebody, that’s cool.

A popular old standby is the strategy referred to as “the half-blind leaky rat”, wherein a rat (or a cheap digital cursor representing said rat) follows, say, the left wall, leaving a trail of urine so it can tell if it finds a loop. It is slow, and thorough, and fails on particular kinds of mazes with loops and disconnects. Actual rats are quite a bit smarter, and an upgrade to this algorithm is to just build a physical model of the maze, put the rat at one end, a smear of peanut butter at the other, have the undergrads run fifty trials over the weekend while you go camping, then come back Monday and see what the rat does.

There are all sorts of AI learning systems that save us the trouble of building physical mazes and exercising and feeding otherwise bored and hungry rats, but that’s another project entirely and I don’t get to work on that one. I just got to read their papers and evaluate their results.

And then there are amoebas. Individually, pound for pound, they’re the most vicious predator on earth, stalking through little puddles and streams and flows, engulfing their prey whole and taking them apart for, well, parts. And chemical fuel. But when resources run low, they all Voltron together and form a slime mold, with the ability to ooze around en mass, with distinct tissues and vessel structures for transporting food and waste and reproductive fruiting bodies for distributing spores and — well, it’s all massively creepy. Its like you could dissolve a rat in water and have all the cells go off on their merry hunting ways, but when the water dries up again you get the rat back. Or maybe a handful of smaller rats, if they all ended up split up into separate smaller puddles before things dried up.

And if you take a slime mold and drop on it several pieces of food, each representing by mass the number of people in different towns or neighborhoods, you end up with a network of vessels that would be the perfect, most efficient network of roads or rails or whatever to build for a transportation system. Amoebas are a bit tougher to model because we don’t really understand the Voltroning process at the necessary depth, but trust me when I say people are working on it. Furiously.

But organic systems are creepy and slimy and smelly. Even their digital models. I like the solutions that depend on physical systems and modeling them. For instance, if you build a model maze, watertight except for the entrance and exit, fill it with water, add a little pressure until you get a good flow going, and then inject some dye — all you have to do is look at it and see which way the dye goes.

If modeling a zillion water molecules and pressures and flows sounds about as complex as building an intelligent rat from scratch, you’d be pretty close to right. But the kicker is modeling a single water molecule is pretty simple. Its getting time on a supercomputer that can model a zillion simultaneously that’s the expensive part. Fortunately a number of commercial HVAC companies that built ventilation systems for skyscrapers have some money to spread around to model and test their setups before they spend fifty times the amount to actually build and install the damned things, so the code actually exists. And what counts as a supercomputer these days is getting cheaper and cheaper. In fact, in the basement of my building is a room full of second-hand home game consoles all connected together, and that setup makes a first-generation Cray look like a pocket calculator. For that matter, so does a modern cellphone, but I’m sure you understand what I’m getting at.

It turns out that voltage is even more clever than pressurized water. If you build the actual model, fill it with an easily ionized gas, give the entrance and exit a hefty electrical potential difference, turn off the lights and hit the switch, all the paths that work will glow, with the shortest and best path glowing the brightest. Modeling that is no tougher than modeling water or air flow, assuming you adequately understand the physical and chemical principles of ionization and fluorescence. That’s less useful to the HVAC people, since they also care about side eddies and diffusion and trying to keep carbon dioxide and heat from pooling up and putting workers to sleep in their little cubicles in the afternoons. Or at least the good ones do. But anyway.

As for the problems that you can solve like mazes? That’s most of them. Every choice is a choice of paths to take through a maze, with a starting condition and a desired outcome that would represent the maze’s exit. Everything, at that level, is a series of mazes connected end to end, with the starting condition being where we are now and the end where we’d like to be, from getting a particular candidate elected to survival of the species if particular crises were to crop up. Each choice is a step in a particular direction, and even if it overtly looks like you’re going in the wrong direction, you want to take all the steps that get you to the place where you need to be to get onto the right path out.

But people are rats at worst and amoebas at best, in scenarios like this, and the universe is keyed to work like the mazes that lightning solves best, paths from past to future solved in parallel, with the viable paths determined by a quantum-mechanical sum-over-histories approach, where every possible path is the right path, or at least a right path. And if we’re to survive long term, its a race between those two algorithms.

Our current strategies are working in the short term, but in the long term my money’s on the lightning.


March 12, 2011 · Posted in This One Time  

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