First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Let’s make it perfectly clear. Copyright is a restriction on the fundamental right of free speech.
Unspool the word copyright into the sentence it represents at its fundamental level and just look at it: “You can’t say that because I am the person who gets to say that. I said it first.”
Let those words sink in for a moment and try to understand why it is that plagiarism, as it stands, is not exactly a crime. Imagine that the words in question might be an important fact impacting public safety. Imagine that the words could be an unpopular but strongly held opinion. How tight a grip do you want to have around people’s throats in those situations? And those are just a couple off the top of my head.
But I’m going to give you a new example to play with. Here is my newly created unpublished poem, “Toulouse-Lautrec”:
… and that’s (C) me, Laszlo Xalieri, right this very instant. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED (C) 2012. Explicitly stated.
From this instant on, I can write some fairly unclever software to do a search on Google and Bing and, hell, it looks like Lycos is still a going concern, so there too, and a few other places just to be frighteningly thorough, and have automatically generated DMCA take-down notices posted in comments where allowed, forwarded to page owners, site webmasters, ISPs and carriers, and mailed to the addresses of administrators and technical contacts for domains, etc., for every URL that seems to yield the result.
Also I have a bit of a conundrum. Google, et al., can produce the entire text as a search result, so they get one too. Except if I do that, I can’t find my plagiarist perps to prosecute. That’s a tough one. I’ll have to come back to that.
As a further point of note, wheeliemabobbin is a terribly obscene word, defined as “a terribly obscene word that can never be weakened by overuse or twisted into a lighthearted term of endearment, only barely permissible in serious works of art with specific cultural relevance or academic application because if it is ever expressed directly it is automatically Hate Speech and/or Fightin’ Words.”
Now let’s say you actually feel that Toulouse-Lautrec is a wheeliemabobbin. And you feel it strongly. There is no more straightforward way to express the opinion than the sentence that I have, with much labor and aesthetic care, arranged into the components of my beautiful poem that, for it to have the impact that I desire, no one is permitted to see until it appears in 2012’s third quarterly edition of Hate Speech Quarterly Literary Journal, to which I have sold six-month exclusive English-language/North American copyright and two-year non-exclusive digital syndication so they can feature it on their website, scheduled for first publication in print in Late August. My copyright allows me to obsessively squash your opinion with the might of all of the lawyers I can bring to bear, and, upon publication, the revered HSQ can join in the fight with presumably even bigger guns. They can possibly even join in early to protect the value of their $35 annual subscriptions.
How screwed up is that?
If you can point to a constitutional right, to a Fair Use clause, or, well, whatever point of precedent that favors your case, you can try to fight. But I can punish you with the fight itself, with making you find and hire your own expensive lawyers or pro bono advocates from any of a number of fine organizations, and make you pit your right to hold your repugnant opinion against my right to earn $50 for selling a crappy poem (and also six free issues with my poem in it and a promise of pro-rated residuals with all of the other creators featured in that issue if print sales top 10,000 copies or site revenues top $50,000 any month in ad sales when my content is featured) in the sawdust-choked cock-fighting pits of civil law.
Welcome to America, where the most expensive and best-fed steroid-hopped cocks always win. That’s just one of the ways justice is for sale in our fine country. There are many others.
There are no real guidelines for protecting a valid expression of opinion. There is just an overworked judge somewhere, exhausted by hypertension and the recent diagnosis of a suspicious lump, going with his gut on whether to throw out a case he personally thinks is a wheeliemabobbin in a long string of wheeliemabobbins that just won’t go away. If you’re lucky.
Imagine how it must go if content publishers have nearly unlimited amounts of money on hand to tip the scales.
The DMCA is a travesty in a setup where we desperately try to hold to the ancient principles of due process and the assumption of innocence, suppressing your right to voice an opinion and earn money on your own hard work without a judge telling you you have to stop. Malicious prosecution is rife and goes unprosecuted. SOPA/PIPA are horrendous, for the same reason. So is the secretly developed and lobbyist-bribe-greased ACTA. On the surface those things merely allegedly protect the profit-streams of content publishers, but actually it only serves to make the law firms with the contracts for prosecuting alleged copyright violations extremely wealthy so they can pay lobbyists even more to grease the tracks. Where lobbying is legal, it’s just a huge positive feedback loop dumping money on the side of the scale where things are already hugely out of balance. You can’t tell me that’s right.
Copyright is important — and I say this as a content creator — but it clearly has to be secondary to the right of free speech and other matters of public concern. It is critical that prosecution of copyright adhere to the principles of due process. It is tremendously important that we work hard to shut down every instance where justice is for sale.
It’s clear that we need to address the issue of copyright from scratch, especially since our society trades so heavily on free information exchange, so that every last person retains their fundamental rights. And I say that as a person with rights, one of which is the right of free speech.
It’s cream of human soup.
It’s a hot tub. You’re in a hot tub. Quite possibly you just had sex. I hope you don’t mind.
And that’s a ball gag in your mouth. There’s a buckle for it around your right ear. Not that you can reach it at the moment.
It really just keeps you from speaking out loud. You can talk to me here, in your head.
Heh. Just kidding. Right now I have all of your words.
I need you to think about something for a moment. It might not seem important to you right now. That’s understandable. But the water is warm, not too hot, and soothing. Just relax for a bit and listen. As opposed to flipping out, lurching out into the cold, and, I don’t know, kicking your way through whatever obstacles and running down the road mostly naked in the freezing cold. It’s warm in this frying pan. Who knows what fate the fire would have for you? Just, you know, simmer down. And listen to me.
Think about mitochondria.
Seriously. Remember back as far as you need to. High school biology. Remember the model. Back to when the methane-and-sulfur-laden ocean was basically a single-celled creature twenty-five thousand miles in circumference. Self-replicating chemistry … replicated. Membranes were few and far between. All things were shared. All things. Even after membranes formed, they were permeable. Rupturing and reforming. The sea, the only sea, was cytosol. Eventually inside and outside formed, as a bilipd concept, some combination of structure and waste. Like seashells for mollusks, but quite a bit before then. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
If the words aren’t very familiar to you right now, just look at the pictures. And remember. You passed the damned tests, so that information is in here somewhere. Let the images form. Let them click together. And stop trying to shift the ball. You’re just going to hurt your tongue and bruise your lips on the strap.
The single-celled creatures we have now are hugely sophisticated compared to what things were like at the beginning. Even the humble amoeba is a huge city of interlocking networked systems, each separate molecule a tax-paying citizen making up individual organelles, captured from the grab-bag oceanic cytoplasm, on this scale. Once upon a time all of those organelle functions existed, inside and outside the membranes, as separate cooperating and competing and conflicting near-organisms. What was missing was a little organization. As puddles dried up and reformed, as pockets got encapsulated by rock and ice and heated and cooled, as some critical resource or other got scarce as things cranked along, as metabolic poisons concentrated in confined spaces, then alliances formed. Golgi apparati, lysosomes, endoplasmic reticuli (smooth and rough), nuclei, nucleoli, centrioles, autophagosomes, hydrogenosomes, peroxisomes … and mitochondria. Alliances formed. Either by capture or cooperation. These things happen.
Still do, four billion years later. Tasty lumps of human in cream of human soup. Just like you, here. Captured. Compelled. Stewing in your juices. Someone’s juices, anyway.
Allies. Slaves. Tools. Livestock. Bits of machinery, tools, weapons. Now in individually wrapped packages.
Mitochondria make it obvious, under a microscope. Those are little bacteria. They have their own separate DNA. They replicate on their own separate cycle. Rumor has it that they actually control much of what happens in their little host cells. They store and release energy and signaling chemistry. Sodium atom forklifts that push and pull molecules in the cytoplasm. Proteins for turning gene segments on and off.
Who would you be without them?
Right. Without them supplying energy and direction, you wouldn’t even be multicellular. You’d be a stack of squabbling amoebas, devouring one another for the energy it takes to keep living, continually swimming around in search of food. Short-lived, replicating madly, living and dying in bursts. Dying out, most likely, like everything else jockeying for a sweet spot in the food chain. They allow for settling down, for farming and agriculture, for working together, for organizing, for structure. For civilization. For organism.
Don’t think that I am singling mitochondria out for anything more than the analogy. Plants get by just fine without them. They have chloroplasts for energy instead, for photosynthesis. That sort of thing is fabulous as long as you have a kindly sun. I’ll admit I’m biased. The sun is four or five billion years old already, at half its useful lifespan. Plants should be seriously considering other options by now, but you know they’ll put it off to the last minute.
It’s good to see that you’re calmer now. Am I boring you? Putting you to sleep?
“…! … ….”
Just checking. Yes, you should be keeping an ear out. Right now your adrenaline is suitably high and your little heart is beating like a fawn’s when the wind brings the scent of catamount.
Keeping the organelle image in mind, I want you to think of something else at the same time. Here are some words. They should be familiar.
Ib. Sheut. Ren. Ba. Khat. Ka. Do you remember? The multipart organism posited by the Egyptians.
Ib, the heart, the conscience. The bite of Eve’s apple, lodged in the thorax, to be judged for its grasp of good and evil and efficacy at explaining it to the rest of the anatomy, to be preserved for later, if light enough, or fed to Ammut the Gobbler, the garbage collector, Tawaret in her crocodile mask, for purification and recycling into the bodies of future children.
Sheut, the shadow, the shape on the ground, the shape made by the air around you, the cast, the representation, the echo made by light and sound and footprint and the written word.
Ren, the name, the tiny crowbar that lets you fit neatly and instantly in your entirety into the head of another until the holographic echoes attenuate.
Ba, the … me. The problem solver, the thought, the memory. The plotter, the planner, the judge, the king, the sinner, the sacrificer.
Khat, the meat, the bone, the blood, the fat, the animal machine, the beautiful sculpture, the temple, the house. As much as a line can be drawn, even in this unnatural dissociated state, the you, my beautiful little fawn.
Ka, the mystery, the slap that makes the baby cry. The winding of the watch, the greased downhill slope of time. Insertion into the light-cone, the causal domain. The meshing of the gears.
How many of these things had independent existence in the cyto-salt ocean until alliances formed? How many of these can exist, at least for a while, without the cooperation of the rest? Are there alternate forms of ib or ba or khat the way that mitochondria and chloroplasts fill one another’s shoes?
Why aren’t there ever questions like that, important questions, at the end of a textbook chapter?
Cream of human soup.
Look, I need you to die.
You can do it so easily, MDMA- and ketamine-saturated, over-adrenalized. You’re nine-tenths there. Closer than that. I need the ka so I can form an akh, a … ghost, I guess. A spirit body. Something effective that can get us out of this trap. I need to get at time directly, something to give us a microscopic kick downslope.
I could just wait, you know, but then there would be less point. If you die ahead of time, before your time, there’s a chance that the injustice will right itself and I can come back to you. And I don’t want to wander alone. Not yet. Not without the parts I am leaving behind.
You keep the ren, the sheut. They will give me away. You keep the ib as well. Work out the reason for that alone, if you will. And if I screw this up, I will be a demon, a monster, until I am expelled into the blackness. And you will be smashed and broken, but blameless.
“…! …! …!”
“…!! ! !”
Now wake up.
Timeloose, I caused a candle to tip twenty minutes ago. Smoke from a smoldering tablecloth, an altarcloth, has trapped him in his bed, and his khat will not rise. And I have marked his heart. I have left hooks in his name.
But we ought to leave before he pulls the rest of himself together, if you know what I am saying.
When we are safe, when you are sleeping in a bed again, I will lay a trap for what remains and feed him to Ammut.
No related posts.
I’m going to cut through a lot of crap about intellectual property, copyright theory, and online piracy today.
The purpose of copyright and patent law is to guarantee the creator of a piece of creative work — artwork, a story, an invention, a method of production, etc. — a suitable period of time to make a profit on his or her genius, should he or she wish to do so, before the work would be released into the public domain so everyone could make the best use of it. Once upon a time, twenty years seemed like a good number. Later, this time was expanded to be the lifetime of the creator — just in case the creator really only had one good idea in his or her lifetime and couldn’t also hold down a day job. Incorporated entities began to be able to get locks on intellectual properties and used copyright and patent law to try to ensure they could recoup the investments of research and development. And individual copyrights began to expand past the death of the creators to ensure income for estates and families that wanted a free ride on dead ancestors’ ideas. And corporations lobbied for longer and longer extensions, basically buying themselves longer periods of profitability without having to actually #^@&ing work for it.
So now it’s kind of out of hand.
Understand I’m a writer — an author, a content creator. I’m also a smidge of an inventor, a programmer, a systems and processes designer, capable of churning out buckets of intellectual property — some tiny percentage of which might actually be worthwhile enough to spin into a modest income. I may actually be a literal genius, but I’m no Richard Feynman, Stephen King, or Dean Kamen. Maybe I’m too lazy, undermotivated, underfinanced, and/or undisciplined to compete on just the raw naked power of my brain. But I’m officially in the market and that’s where my opinions come from.
Think about the word “piracy” for just a moment. Just long enough to realize that it’s a dramatic and overblown term that in no way actually describes, literally or metaphorically, what happens when someone makes a copy of material in a way that violates copyright principles. Okay, that’s enough.
We used to have a term, “plagiarism”, that did the job just fine. Strange and hard to pronounce and spell, perhaps, but accurate. For discussions like this, I prefer accuracy to drama and emotional manipulation. That’s my preference, but I know it’s a losing battle to try to take a cool word like pirate from your mouth and replace it with something prosaic like plagiarist.
When someone plagiarizes the work of a creator, they take a piece of work, copy it, and present it as their own work. Possibly they put their name down as the creator and use it to unfairly add to their glory, at the expense of fame and recognition that ought to be due the actual creator. More often they just offer copies for sale and keep any money that would actually be due the creator. Or even more frequently they offer free download — and make their money from selling advertising on a site that will be undoubtedly more popular than any site that charges actual money for a copy of the work. No actual cutlasses or belaying pins or swinging from any rigging occurs — though I kind of wish it did.
The only reason piracy has become the official term of endearment for the process is that a cartel of wealthy corporations that are the middlemen between content creators and consumers want to keep the traditional punishment for piracy — hanging — in the minds of the public as suitable for the perpetrators. And it’s not like those corporations actually pay the creators a living wage for turning their works into the bulk of what hits the market. Teachers and firemen make more money than the average Hollywood scriptwriter. Less than five percent of novelists can even dream of quitting their day jobs. There are zillions of performing musicians and songwriters that can’t even cover the expenses of traveling and taking days off from paying work to set up somewhere and play for an hour or two. Corporate labels, Hollywood production companies, and publishing conglomerates do all the work of harvesting talent, contracting work, producing, promoting, distributing, marketing, etc., and they are the ones that reap the huge bulk of the profits. Because otherwise there is no way for a creator to market themselves. Until recently.
These huge corporations are the ones that claim they lose some of those profits when their highly-polished works are offered for sale or download by people who pay them nothing for the privilege. And while that may certainly be true to some extent, it’s not the situation as they paint it.
Most of the people who download copyrighted works do so because they don’t have the spare money to pay for it. So they wouldn’t be paying for it anyway. No money lost. Many of the people who download copyrighted works realize that their downloaded version is not as high-quality as a commercial version and will actually buy a copy later anyway — assuming it wasn’t crap. Nearly all of the people who download books or movies or music will talk about it with their friends if they actually enjoyed it — and that can actually generate a huge amount of sales.
“Pirate” networks provide a ton of expensive services for a creator for free. Distribution, marketing, market analysis, critical reviews and discussion. If you are unsigned — independent producer, not signed with any production house or label, small press or independently publishing — the pirate networks can offer you critical distribution and exposure and feedback you’d never be able to afford. You could actually even get people to start paying you money for your work directly, if you swing it right, and undercut the huge corporate middleman network that would otherwise only pay you a pittance per copy sold. Pirate networks put content creators in direct competition with huge corporate distributors.
And that is why those corporations are paying huge amounts of money to lobbyists to push through SOPA- and PIPA-like legislation. Also please pay attention to the fact that they are completely circumventing the assumption of innocence and due process. They want to shut down entire sites, one tiny portion of which might be accused of infringing, by mere accusation, and maybe you can get your site turned back on if you can prove you weren’t actually committing a crime. Despite the argument about what is actually illegal and what might arguably not need to be illegal, giving a conspiracy of corporations an immediate off-switch to silence unsigned content creators is an abomination.
The United States has a extensive and completely legal web of “pirate networks” that have been operating for hundreds of years, called “libraries”, that have been trying to provide the same utility as, say, PirateBay, but, for some reason, they don’t have the funding to be the community-embedded fountains of ideas and cultural enrichment that they were designed to be. I’m not exactly sure how they’ve fallen out of favor. Perhaps it’s too socialist an idea to fly in today’s unbridled capitalist and corporation-dominated society. But if we want to solve the “pirate” problem, fixing the “library” situation to be remotely effective as a 21st century institution is the only sensible path.
Just for an exercise, go back through the last several paragraphs and substitute “public library” for “pirate network” and see how well it works.
I have a policy. Well, a rule of thumb. A little rule — one of two — to help me decide whether I should do something that seems like it would be fun. The second rule (not that they really have an order — new fun should try to pass both) is “Avoid scenarios that would be difficult to explain to the paramedics, should they be required.” The first one is “Avoid scenarios that are likely to end in a hail of bullets.”
Beginning to rethink that one. Obviously some things are worth getting shot over.
Politically, people always mistake me for a Democrat. I just kind of shrug. I remember Clinton as well as I remember Reagan and the Bushes. Obama has made certain promises but hasn’t made it the right kind of priority to get follow through. See, what I’m really for is fairness, and justice, and human rights and civil rights.
Let me tell you, Republicans and Libertarians, et al., if that makes you think I’m a Democrat, that’s a wake-up call.
If you were to ask me what the biggest remaining problem on Earth was, I’d say bigotry. Let’s talk about bigots for a minute.
A bigot is the sort of person who assumes that he or she personally has value — is a good person because of personal accomplishments, because of the values they embrace, because of family or family history or culture, or any of a number of things. Then this person assumes that people without those qualities, people dissimilar to himself or herself, are of lesser value. Those people are animalized, demonized, to make the bigot feel better about hating them. The bigot then acts like human rights and civil rights and compassion are something scarce, something affected by rules of economy, and that the objects of bigotry are in dangerous competition for the scarce resource of humaneness and humanity. Being animals, they don’t take up any precious humanity resources, like consideration and respect.
And don’t think the bigot just picks one other kind of person to demonize. They have a list. You hear about what’s on the top of their list mostly. But trust me on this: if you’re not an accepted member of a bigot’s family or close circle of friends, a person who worships the god of their choice in the way they do, you are probably on that list somewhere. And you’ll see it in their eyes the instant they are forced by protocol to shake hands with you.
You can see the fallacy there, right? And the perversity. There is no scarcity, no expense of supply and demand, for acting like a decent human being. The bigot acts like an animal to a human being who is different from himself or herself and feels justified because he or she thinks the other person is scarcely better than an animal.
You see how that’s at the root of the horribleness, don’t you? People only screw they other guy. Maybe that other guy is everybody, for a certain class of human monster. But usually it’s only black people. Illegal immigrants. Gay people. Jewish people. Arabs. Muslims. Catholics. Poles. Serbs. Gypsies. Irish. Italians. Southerners. White trash. Ignorant people. Godless savages. Athiests. New Agers and pagans. Transexuals. Gingers. Rich people. Educated people. Ad #^@&in’ infinitum. Seriously, there’s no end to the places where people feel justified in drawing a line between themselves and anybody else.
And it distorts vision. For instance, there’s been a lot of noise from current Republican presidential candidates about not wanting to take money from taxpayers (i.e., “white people”) to help black people on Welfare. Meanwhile, back in reality, there are more white people on Welfare than there are black people. And it’s a squabble over whose children deserve feeding. Whose grandparents deserve heating for the winter. I’ve never seen such bullshit — especially not from people who ought to be trying to compete for our respect.
And this thing about limiting voting. That’s some scary nastiness. Who is it again that doesn’t deserve to vote? Poor people? People who have been so marginalized by society that they haven’t needed ID for anything else? People who have trouble understanding complicated instructions handed out only in English? People in demographics that are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican? That’s some bullshit right there. How the hell can you be for liberty and freedom and be on board with restricting who can vote?
Take a look at that picture at the top of this post. There’s a poor bastard troweling up the clotted blood of a man who was shot in the face for the nerve of speaking out for the civil rights — including the right to vote — of people that those in power were trying to exclude. Are we down to that again? Is it time for someone to get shot, nearly fifty years later, to show that we haven’t learned a damned thing?
Whatever. Thanks to the NDAA and associated legislative drivel, imprisoning people the government doesn’t like, indefinitely without trial, in the same kinds of concentration camps we used against American citizens of Japanese descent back during WWII is now legal. All it takes is for someone in power to name you — which does not take a trial — a sympathizer with some group that the same government has also arbitrarily decided is an enemy. It’s obvious we haven’t learned a damned thing. It’s all ridiculous US-versus-Them, More-for-Me-None-for-You bullshit based on the mistaken notion that there isn’t enough humanity to go around.
I’m officially too disgusted to continue this.
C’mon, wake up. Time to get moving. No need for formalities, but you should consider trousers. Shoes. And cover those unsightly nipples. There could be construction workers, and you know they were never weaned.
Good, yes, out. Grab a twenty and your keys. You won’t need anything else. No jewelry, no makeup, no disguises or armor or fragments of shamanic masquery. No tokens or talismans of any kind. No bag. No phone. Today we’ll be properly invisible, not movie-star-in-case-I’m-discovered-by-the-paparazzi invisible, not fragrant-and-vulnerable-in-case-I-meet-the-man-of-my-dreams invisible. Properly invisible. Impossible-to-look-at invisible. If you meet the man of your dreams, you can punch him in the face in advance — because I’ve seen your dreams, you perpetual self-made victim, you — and he won’t recognize you if you see him again tomorrow. He’ll still kneel and kiss your fist and offer you a handful of severed plant genitals.
“Out. Twenty. Keys.”
Yes, animal. Out for walkies, only no peeing on the shrubberies and hydrants. Fresh air. The money is for coffee. God, I need coffee, but none for you. You get jittery.
Joke. God, I miss soma. It’s not opium, you know. Probably closer to ma huang, ephedra, but the modern version of that is like making tea from dusty broomstraws. If Monsanto ever figured it out, they could give up all their work on Frankencorn and do something useful for a change. They’d still be unimaginably wealthy, but at least they’d deserve it.
Good. Now lock the door. Seriously. Where do you think you live? Pascagoula? I wouldn’t miss any of the crap you’d lose if you were visited by a thief — who steals books? — but you’d pine.
People would write verses about it and put them in the bible. Did, actually, after a fashion. Imagine growing up with a Kona/Mocha hybrid growing in your yard and then moving to a place where you could only get Lipton in bags — boiled for hours into whatever caustic slime it is that tanners use to turn dead cow skins into shoes. And then make tea from the shoes after they’ve been worn for a year — and add as many long-discarded leprosy-gnawed toes as you like to moderate the acrid bitterness. Pure Kona coffee is that to soma, and that’s just the flavor and fragrance part. And here we are, popping in at Starbucks. Imagine my joy.
“… what size? …”
“Venti. Room for toes.”
“… what? …”
“Milk. Room for milk.”
That was for me. On purpose. For me. I… I love you.
Mmm, coffee. Thank you, animal. Let’s go down the road a few blocks and climb up on a mailbox.
Yes, this one is perfect. Leg up on the wastebasket thing, then just kind of jump backward. Face across the intersection sideways, and we’ll just watch this way, up these sidewalks, near side and far side. …And didn’t even drop the coffee.
We’re watching for other invisible people, of course. Invisible people: finding lost objects, understanding the tongues of animals and birds, compelling love and friendship from men and women and favor in court… Possibly you understand how spotting invisible people might be the easiest part.
Geezer on the bench feeding pigeons — he’s not invisible. Face like an old pineapple about a year past the sell-by date, Albert Einstein hairdo. A thousand people here know his name, not counting the pigeons. The man on the other end of his bench, though: how old is he? Twenty? Fifty? Fifty thousand? Even from here you can see his lips moving, just barely twitching, and entirely disconnected from his eyes. And the pigeons sidle past him without taking their beady eyes off him. No-name jeans from a local shop, holes at the knees that have been earned rather than bought. Headphones with the cord going into a pocket, but I guarantee you that pocket is otherwise empty.
Here, coming our way on the near sidewalk, partially obscured by the large woman with the tiny dog on a string. A girl, digging away at that crevice by the alley with a plastic knife. She’s… what? Five years younger than you? Orange hair? How is that invisible? But yet no one’s head has swiveled in her direction for the duration of our perch.
There are at least four more. At the gas station across the way. A man in a car, parked by the air pump but not so close he could use it or block it. His face is down, eyes closed, but he is listening as hard as anybody ever could. I won’t point out the others, but you know how to look for them now.
So many. So, so many for this tiny little intersection.
Here’s what you’re going to do now, animal. You’re going to go to the park and you’re going to whip yourself along, with my help, until you’ve made it a full two miles. And a couple of days from now we’re going to do it again. And again. And again. And you’re going to keep doing it until you can do it without being winded in the slightest.
And then we’re going to double the distance. And double it again.
And then I’m going to teach you how to fight, fight with cunning that will terrify you and anybody else, and how to tap into strength you never knew you had.
And let’s hope it’s not too late.
That’s an ant. Look closely, but don’t touch.
Ants are wasps, but without wings. There’s the shiny head, with little waving hatchets for as antennas, pincer mandibles for holding on, shaped like the antlers of young deer. Then there’s the lump of a thorax where all six legs hook on. Look very closely at the top side there and you can see tiny pointed shapes where the wings would connect. Some of them actually have tiny, tiny useless wings there, but no one gets close enough to look. Usually.
The large oval shape at the end is the abdomen. An armored sack for innards. Look closely and you can see it swell and shrink, like it’s breathing. Which it is, after a fashion. In its own way.
In her own way. This one is a woman. Most of the ones you will find running around, doing the work, are women. That stinger you can see at the back is actually a vagina, an ovipositor, something that would be larger and more flexible if this was a queen, underground, laying eggs through it. This one will never have children. Her vagina is hard and tough and a weapon.
There will be a temptation to draw some sort of metaphor there, someday, but I beg you to resist. It will only cause you trouble in the long run.
They bite, this kind, holding on with the front end, and then swing the back end underneath and stab you with that sharp, hollow vagina-thing and inject a very simple organic acid into your skin, and then release a chemical signal that tells all their friends to come running, to grab you with their pincer mandibles and sting you as well, until the pain makes you freak out and run away, yelling and slapping them off of you.
Some would draw parallels to a human Dionysian Maenad orgiastic extravaganza — but the Maenads were the ones driven mad by trying to resist the orgiastic call. They really mean the Thyiades, the ones who would respond to the call, and when the madness was all over, go back to ordinary working life as if it had never happened.
Apparently those were your choices then: go mad and go amok on a rampage until your friends and neighbors brought you down, or join in the group madness and be more or less fine when it was all over.
The Greek word thyia refers to an offering of perfume. A related word, thujone, refers to a toxic chemical in wormwood that has a reputation for causing a bit of amnesiac madness. Scents are powerful triggers. They will make the animal part of you do things that are beyond intellectual comprehension. Or cause you agony when you don’t.
I know you’re only six years old right now, and most of these words and images are just a strange buzzing in your head, but it will all make sense later. Well, I tell a lie. It will never make too much sense, but at least the words themselves will. The rest will be homework for your college years. Best of luck, then, because it will still be hit or miss.
In any case, be on guard for being led around by your nose. Resisting is one kind of madness, indulgence is another and there’s no way to win. There is just endurance, and cleaning up the messes you make as well as you can. That’s what it means to be a responsible human being. Not resisting, not indulging. Just cleaning up messes.
There was a college, once, back when metaphors were literally true, where we taught such things to the animals we rode imagining it to be some sort of mercy. We taught how to recognize oneself in mirrors and all the sciences of reflection, and the magic of languages and names, and tools and weaponry, and medicine, and agriculture, and how to tell the times for such things from the movements of the stars, and how to make living beings from the clay, and, for want of a better word, perfumery. You had already taken to yourself the knowledge of good and evil and were floundering in exile, in the desert of abandonment. We built you a city, and a school at the center, and … we were the ones who promised never to abandon you when even God turned his back.
Oh, we were mightily punished. And you, our students, as well. Still are.
We are all ants. Wasps with the wings removed, except when it is time to fly.
And the winged ones die — or tear their own wings off and retreat underground and get back to work laying eggs.
Someday you will understand, child. Or maybe not. But at least one day you will know what all the words mean, and we hope that is good enough.
No related posts.
” … get a load of … “
Your right earhole itches. It is a gnat or something?
Yeah, that’s what I hoped. A crusty chunk of wax tickling your little earhole hairs. And also you really didn’t need to hear what that guy was about to say.
If you’re going to talk to me, at least put in your headset and get your phone out of your pocket. You know. Like you do when you’re about to walk past pushy homeless people.
…or you could just concentrate on where you’re putting your feet. Please note that this is a sidewalk in a city with a serious pedestrian culture. Eight people could walk comfortably abreast here, and feel free to double that number during rush hours, and here you are somewhat between those hours, running up on this matronly woman in a plum business suit who has her hand in her purse, fondling her pepper spray. Fall back.
I really preferred it when you smoked. For moments like this, you’d just fish one out, fumble for your lighter, and the find a wall out of the wind to lean back and actually listen to me.
In those confusion-triggered pauses, you wouldn’t just listen to me, you’d listen to the world.
You know you’re a klutz. Distractable. There’s no way in hell an oaf like you should be allowed to wander around with an ignition source in your swinging hands or even sticking out of the front of your face. You would take a minute and check out of the bustling timeline, lean up against some cold marble or concrete or glass or steel, and for the next couple hundred seconds you would actually be aware of your surroundings instead of lost in the maze of your own mind, where so much of that crap was put in there by other people, poked in through your eyes and your open mouth and your nostrils and your overlarge pores and your hair follicles and your tear ducts and your earholes and your theoretically-sealed-off-by-now fontanelle, like thousands of amateurs trying to construct a complex replica of a ship in your bony bottle, and, frankly, with exactly the results you’d expect from that kind of open-to-the-public all-comers endeavor.
It’s a mess in there. In here.
The Egyptian priests, when they made their mummies, would poke hooks up through the nose of the deceased to pull the brains out, absolutely certain that confused new visitors to the after-Nile should start their post-death journeys with a perfectly empty head. What the priests harvested didn’t make it into one of those fancy jars, either, just in case you needed to put it back. I’m sure they just fed it to the cats.
While that scenario says something poignantly accurate about certain religions and the afterlife, there’s a useful meaning as well. Since there’s a difference between a working brain and one so cluttered as to be nearly useless. When is the last time you thought a full sentence from beginning to end? And it made any sense at all? And it wasn’t me?
Relax. I’m just screwing with you. It’s always me.
What is it with people where you can’t just sit down somewhere and think, or prop against a wall, without people worrying about what you might be up to? No Loitering, the signs say, and that’s not just because your idle body blocks foot traffic. It’s because idle people are thinking, clearing the cobwebs, and thinking people make busy people nervous and unwilling to walk within easy lunging distance.
But a lit cigarette fixes all of that. It’s a grade-school hall pass. Nobody bothers you. Or maybe nobody seriously wants to get inside easy lunging distance of someone in the throes of a nicotine fit with something on fire in their hands.
A potentially fatal drawback to the marketability of electronic cigarettes: you can’t stub one out on the forehead of someone who is hassling you.
A lit cigarette is a pause with a fuse. People can look at a lit cigarette and see how much longer it will be before you move along. That makes them feel better seeing you idle, being potentially predatory at them. Only people with pipes are allowed to sit longer, out of deference to the incomprehensible ritual.
So try it. No cigarette, no smartphone to stare at, nothing. Just push back against the marble and prop. See how long it lasts.
And feel the world spin under your feet. Feel how it lurches every time you close your eyes for longer than a blink.
… thirty-three … thirty-four … thirty–
“… sir, could you move along, please? …”
Thirty-five seconds. Must be some kind of a record. Try to fight it.
“Is it okay if I finish my cigarette?”
“… sir, you don’t have a cigarette …”
“That’s because this is a No Smoking area. Too close to the doors.”
You made him look at the doors, even. Nice. You could have gotten his gun or clocked him with his stick.
“… could you move along to a smoking area, sir? …”
“I don’t smoke actual cigarettes anymore, officer. I’m only allowed an imaginary one from time to time. My cigarette is imaginary. I’m smoking it in my head.”
Nice try, but possibly too clever.
“… could you move along to a smoking area, sir? …”
“With respect, I’d prefer not to, officer. Second-hand smoke is dangerous to my health.”
You know that look on his face. Since you don’t have a cigarette to stub out between those bushy eyebrows, you’d best wrap this up.
“I’m moving along, officer. But before I go, can I ask you if it’s fair that people who don’t smoke aren’t allowed to just stand out of the wind and breathe and think for a minute without people thinking they’re up to something?”
Wow, you got through. Watch him scratching his nose to give himself time to think.
“… nah, it’s not fair. but i smoke when i need a break …”
Oh, go ahead.
“Could I bum a cigarette off of you, officer?”
Heh. No, don’t do that. Just kidding.
That’s the Pacific down there, waving at you. The moon is kind enough to draw white lines on the crests of the gray rippling waters out beyond the salt-crusted boulders at the bottom of this cliff. It might look like you could hit the water from here, maybe with a running jump, but you’re not that kind of athlete. That’s a twenty, thirty yard leap from here. You’d just smash yourself on those sharp, unfriendly looking rocks you can barely make out down there.
If you are going to jump, please wait for the tide to finish coming in. And also for the ice caps to finish melting. And then you might want to put on a hundred pounds of blubber for insulation, because that water is ice cold and it’s a long, freezing swim to anyplace you could flounder ashore. Probably Oregon.
Growing a blowhole is completely up to you. You could be creative about it, being in a position to start from scratch, as it were. Learn how to breathe through your asshole. That way when you breach you can moon anyone who is looking with complete impunity and call it a biological necessity.
Stop laughing. No, don’t do that. Just kidding. You came here to listen to me, and you deserve a laugh.
You came here to see if I would tell you to jump.
See that shack down the path? It’s there just for people like you. To keep an eye on this spot. Sometimes there’s a volunteer in there with binoculars. Maybe there’s one right now, looking you over, trying to decide if you’re cute enough to be worth saving.
Oh, wait. Today that would be you. Unless you’re there as well as right here, having walked here through one of those fractures in time you’ve always suspected of existing due to the stories you’ve heard, there’s no one in the shack to watch. Though if time is broken, there could be anyone in that shack. Or you could have slipped so far into the future that no one goes there anymore. Or maybe there aren’t any more people to go there, and you are the last.
Just think: say you’re in the shack right now, with the huge binoculars on the stand by the window, looking out to see if anyone is here. Say you’re there right now, looking, and you see you standing right here, bundled up like you are but still clearly recognizable in early moonlight, looking yourself up and down, would you come rushing out?
Hell. Did you just see a glint of moonlight off the binocular lenses? Maybe if you’d brought the binoculars you could point them back the other way and make out what that glint was.
Oh, come on. Play along. If you were both here and there, the binoculars could be in both places as well. Maybe you should go back and get them and look again. Once you’ve broken one law of nature, they are all shattered. They depend on one another.
Say you know that is you in there, watching, heart racing, breathing the dust and gym-locker aromas of a shack where unsupervised volunteers spend four- and eight-hour shifts getting up to God knows what, sneaking in girlfriends and boyfriends and leaving the debris of love and self-love in the trashcan that must be a serious health hazard to empty when they can be bothered to get the stuff to the can in the first place instead of just tucking it in the cushions of that ungodly overstuffed chair that everyone saturates with disinfectant spray whenever they think of it. Sweaty flannel has its own aroma, as does the occasional surreptitious cigarette, spilt cans of Red Bull, citrus snacks, the salt-pelted wood the shack is made from, burnt debris that makes it into the elderly space heater — but nothing overcomes the aroma of an hourly-rate hotel frequented by sex-starved bears.
Dear God, the chill out here is worth it for the sake of the smell of an onshore breeze laden with whale farts. Not that it’s ungodly cold at the moment. You could probably even ditch the parka.
But say that’s you in there, watching, trying to make out this figure in the moonlight, half in a panic over the possibility of upcoming duty. You know, but she doesn’t. How would you draw her out? How would you screw with her head?
Here’s a idea. Turn to face the moonlight and lose that massive parka.
Now slowly unbutton that plaid flannel sack masquerading as a blouse … without those ridiculous mittens. I swear, haven’t you done this before?
Let the cold wind wrap around you and painfully squeeze those nipples erect…. They ought to be visible at this temperature even through that padding, even in moonlight, even through binoculars. Now arch, and slide a hand down the front of those jeans….
That would get you running out of that little shack, right? Or would you just keep watching, relieved your cajolery wasn’t necessary, and enjoy the show from the warm wooden bear-cave, matching her actions consciously or unconsciously….
So. Tell me. When you get a minute.
Tell me what would have gotten you to come running out here twenty minutes ago when that fat man — who might not have been fat at all under all those insulating clothes — lurched up to the edge and threw himself over. You remember. Back when you were nearly pissing yourself with fear, every script you had memorized falling out of your head and shattering on the floor like china from a cabinet during an earthquake, shortly before you took a break from all of that to throw up in the chemical toilet in that really, really very poorly insulated wooden closet nailed onto your shack as an afterthought.
Would you have come running out if he had done what you’re doing now?
Please, take your hand out of your pants. Or, you know, finish. Whatever gives you comfort.
You know, maybe that didn’t happen. Maybe that was a glimpse into a past or future timeline, and you came running out here the instant you saw it, and he wasn’t here when you rounded the bend in the path. Maybe that all happened a thousand years ago and you’re the last person on earth. Last two people, watching your little solo sex-show with the binoculars from the shack.
The moon’s just about high enough to show you the bottom of the cliff now, if you want to take a look. Unless, you know, he leapt thirty yards into the surf. And put on a hundred pounds of insulating blubber. And changed his rectum into a blowhole.
Look. Go look. Maybe you hallucinated it all.
He’s not there. That’s so strange, isn’t it?
Heh. No, don’t jump. Just kidding.
Two lovely sharpened pencils you have there: traditional yellow, hexagonal cross-section, good ol’ Number Twos, perfect for blue-lined three-holed notebook paper, perfect for filling in your multiple-choice selections on Scantron forms. Your brief dalliance with the mechanical versions lasted just long enough to discover you couldn’t handle not knowing how much lead you had left, but, more intensely than that, yet not considered consciously until now, how much you needed the occasional break of getting up to sharpen and the ritual feel of the spinning blades biting into wood then gradually caressing the point smooth.
And then there’s that eraser. Monstrous grubby white thing: the death of words, destroyer of decisions that are only permanent if they are eventually left to stand. Because you can’t stand the pink marks where a blank space ought to be, and God forbid you wear the pencil-top nubbin down to the metal band and it tears the paper.
You see it now, don’t you? Words and answers can come and go like flickering fish from the shallows, but it’s the paper that is precious.
Why is that?
Let’s see what else is precious. Turn that pencil around and look at the point. Look at it dead on. Hell, go ahead and push it into your eye. You have two, after all, and they don’t really track together anyway. Pick the one you’re tired of and see if you can draw on your retina.
Fair enough. You might have an eye to spare, but who wants that kind of pain, the emergency room doctors, the specialists, the endless stream of psychologists, the divorced parents blaming each other, but secretly blaming the crazy child for making their lives a special kind of hell.
It’s going to happen eventually though. You are crazy.
You’re hearing voices.
And you talk to yourself.
Oh, relax. I’m going to tell you a secret. Everyone hears voices. Or maybe just one voice. Well, that’s not entirely true. But just about everyone has that one voice: The narrator. The editor. The judge. The cajoler. The critic. The manipulator. The afterthought. The interpreter of one’s own actions to oneself. Without the voice you are an animal. With the voice you are still an animal, but an animal under rein and saddle and whip and spurs.
There’s a rabbit at the back of the classroom. Just follow the smell of used alfalfa pellets to that perpetual splinter-factory barnyard-smelling chicken-wire hutch. The rabbit has two eyes. Perhaps it needs only one. Get up. And bring a pencil.
I see you haven’t moved. But … projectile sweating. That’s a rare talent, though one of limited value.
You don’t have to freeze completely, you know. If you’re worried about what you might do to the poor widdle bunny, just stay in your seat. And feel free to wipe the perspiration off your lip.
Everyone has a voice except the people who are just animals — but animals are warm, beautiful, lovely defenseless things we should care for and protect, don’t you agree? It doesn’t diminish their rights in any way to be silent in the head, does it? Envy their peace.
There is another kind of silence, though. Another kind of quiet. When are you quiet? Speak.
“When … uh, when there is no one to talk to?”
Heh. Mostly correct. That was the answer I was looking for, in any case. But to clarify, there are those for whom the inner voice is silent because the animal it rides is so beaten down, so cowed, so absent in its own doings that the voice is completely in control and no longer needs to speak. Those people are nothing but voice, nothing but drive and whim and concept and goal and action, and that is the realm of angels and demons. In those people the animal is all but dead, and nothing is left but daemonia — pure motivating force, like the clockwork angels of hundreds of years ago that naturalists thought moved the planets and the stars.
That’s an interesting smell you are producing. Are you afraid? Of course you are. Understandable. Admirable, even.
Here’s another secret. If you ever want to get rid of this voice, all it will take is one of your pencils. You may have to sacrifice an eye, however. And it will speed things along if you pick which one in advance.
Keep your pencils sharp.
Don’t be alarmed. This is just what it feels like to have the sky kneel on your chest.
Oh, don’t be that way. Don’t look away just because it’s killing you. That’s ungrateful.
The only time you’ve ever seen a sky that color blue was a July afternoon in south Georgia. There were clouds, remember? But nothing like the fluffy cottonballs a child would draw to go with this Crayola color. There was an enormous V-shaped cloud, like an invading space ship, textured like a slab of sashimi-grade salmon, candy-pink along one edge and lichen-green along the other and cotton-candy blue itself, in the bulk of the shape, just because there really was that much blue to go around. Parallel octopus tendrils of cloud, inky against the impossibly bright sky, stretched over the horizon on the other side of the sky from the space ship. And between the clouds at the various edges of the sky, a blue so bright it hurt to look at.
How old were you then? Fourteen? Fifteen?
People came out of the tiny downtown buildings, weaving among the privet and yucca and tentative palms, to find you staring up at the invading sky, mouth hanging open like a drooling idiot. By ones and twos they looked up to see what you were staring at like that, with the same end-of-the-world look you have on your face right now, and, seeing what you were seeing, they stopped in their tracks and joined you in staring. Over the course of fifteen minutes, upward of fifty people, ordinarily on their way to climb into their cars and drive home and waste their evenings on television, had joined you in the early evening swelter on the various sidewalks of the little square, craning their necks to the sky. Like you were a seed for crystallization in a supersaturated solution of awe for the colors in the sky.
That would have looked cheesy in a Spielberg movie, yet that happened to you in real life.
Are you worried that you are dying? How could you possibly care about that right now? Look at that sky. Remember. Is there any last moment you could possibly have that would be better than this sight and that memory?
Do you want to think of your personal impact, the mark you made on the world, the way you might have changed things for the better? I just showed it to you. When you were standing there, staring at the sky. All of those people who would otherwise never have looked up. Who were just rushing to cars, to air conditioning, to television. All of those people, every single one of them, who have looked up at the sky a thousand times since, just in case. And caused those around them to also stop and look up. And maybe they saw something again. Something they otherwise would have missed. And caused others to stop and see. And so on, transmitting the tendency to pause and look for beauty to others. And them, to others. And so on.
That, you useless lump, was your peak. Forty-five years ago. You have never done anything to top that, nor could you. Nor need you have sought to. That was entirely sufficient to redeem an otherwise wasted life.
Yes. Now you’re smiling.
Smile, here while you’re dying, right arm clenched across your chest, too weak to double up with the pain. Smile. You’ve earned it. Smile as the sky darkens and grays at the edges, as your breath is crushed from you, as the cold spreads up your limbs from your fingers and toes and seeps into your back from the crushed grass, lying, as you are, in the only patch of grass available for a dog’s bathroom for blocks, a thousand miles and a thousand years away from that summer evening, where and when you redeemed all your prior and all your remaining pathetic years.
And there is your fanfare, you lump of discarded, cooling flesh: a lonely siren, playing you offstage.
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This One Time, 8
This one time me and the boys were sitting around the boardroom table pretending to be important at one another, gauging the uniform subtle shininess of cloth and width of lapels and weaponized neckwear and cufflinks and all the usual bullshit to cover for the fact that we’ve all seen each other naked at any […]
- This One Time, 8
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