Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Summer Skin

I gasp. My eyes fly open and drink in the stucco ceiling. My mind is slow to wrench the shadows of my dream apart from reality, and I shake my head to loose them, blinking sweat away from my eyes. It’s still dark out. The only light in the room is the pale light of Jenny’s cell phone on the charger, which paints the whole room monochromic blues like a detective comic. I peel myself slowly from the leather sofa. I remember it being red, but now it looks utterly black. I can’t remember the dream I was having, but I feel out of breath and panicked. I suck long draughts of the stuffy air into my lungs, letting the lingering scents of passion sink back into me, calming me. At some point during the night, Jenny relocated herself to the floor with the blanket we were sharing. She’s so beautiful, even though I can only make out the silhouettes of her curves. She’s lying on her back with the white blanket curled around one leg, draped across her belly, and over one breast. Her right arm is lying above her head so it looks like she might have been in the middle of doing the tango when she fell asleep. 

My eyes drift around the room, landing on the hard edges of objects that catch the phone’s pallid radiance. The room is full of the quirky little things she’s picked up on her travels. She’s collected dozens of carved, wooden fish that are painted with the cheerful colors of a slew of different countries. There are carpets, scarves, and sarongs of every hue and pattern imaginable tacked to the walls. They all try to tell stories that I can’t understand. I’ve never been to those places.

 My clothes lie strewn about the room, and I grope about in the dark, trying to tell mine apart from hers. I wrestle my jeans on and sit in the dark, wiping the sweat off my forehead with the palms of my hands. A sigh escapes me. I slide off the couch to the floor, and lie down next to Jenny. There are some women in the world who are so beautiful, it seems like you’re doing something dirty just by looking at them. Jenny is one of those women. I reach a hand out carefully, and trace her forearm with my fingertips, barely grazing the fuzzy, little hairs that grow there. In the soft light of the glowing cell phone her dark skin looks pastel, and her wavy auburn hair is pitch black. I gently rest my hand between her breasts and feel her heart beat beneath her slow, shallow breaths. She’s just about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. My hand slides up slowly to her necklace. It’s made of hemp, laced with black and turquoise clay beads. It reminds me of being at the beach.

I met Jenny in Chicago during the spring. I was in college then, and I was depressed. I rented a small apartment in a tall building on State and 8th St., only a block away from Michigan Avenue and the riveting sunsets there that paint the lake in brilliant yellows and oranges, then reds, purples, and deep blues. My roommate was a junior at DePaul named Adam, and he was an alcoholic. I found myself taking any excuse to get out of the apartment and away from the stress of partying and drinking as the handful of students living in the building tried desperately to pass the days away. They drifted from floor to floor like gypsies, often stopping by our room to bring news of the other floors and drink whatever we had in the fridge that would keep them buzzed. Beer, vodka, soured milk, whatever.

I started using the CTA to take me places I’d never been before. Every day, I would take the El farther and farther out of the city in a different direction. One day I headed northbound on the Red Line to Evanston, about an hour’s journey I guessed. I took a blanket, a sack lunch, and a bottle of water in my backpack, and passed the time reading some Isaac Asimov book I’d picked up from the library. I got off the train when it ran out of tracks in Linden. I walked to the coast in a daze, and found myself standing on a beach that stretched for miles in either direction. I realized I’d never seen anywhere so magnificent since I moved to Chicago.

That’s where Jenny found me, eating a crushed peanut butter sandwich, sprawled out on my big, plaid blanket, watching clouds march endlessly over Lake Michigan to the horizon, crying over the stress and tragedy of it all, wiping tears from my eyes with the backs of my wool mittens.

“Hey,” she said, “mind if I join you?”

She wore a blue and grey striped beanie, a sea-green hoody with light blue dolphins on it, loose-fitting, khaki cargo pants, and a hemp necklace with little black and turquoise beads. Somehow, none of it managed to hide her contours, her perky breasts, slim torso, or toned thighs. She smirked sideways at me and raised an eyebrow as I blinked incredulously at her. The wind swept her neck-length auburn hair across her face, and she pushed it back behind her ear, her breath clouding in the cold as she smiled openly at me.

“Sure, yeah, please,” I managed, sniffing back my runny nose, and breathing into a mitten. She lay down beside me and looked at the clouds for a minute. She smelled a little like fresh cut flowers, and I could feel her breath on my cheek when she turned her head to the side to look at me.

“You know, life is beautiful when you get right down to it.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” I agreed, resting my sandwich on my chest.

She looked back up at the clouds, “I’m pretty sure you must be gay if it makes you cry though. That’s why I’m guessing it’s safe to sit down and talk to you.”

I looked over and crinkle my nose up at her. She glances askance at me with her eyebrows raised.

“I’m not gay, it’s just been a long day. And what makes you so sure I’m safe to talk to? Maybe I’m some psychopath.”

 She locked her big, brown eyes on mine for a moment, and then hid them beneath long, black lashes and grinned widely at me.

“I’ve been lots of places, and I’ve met lots of people in the world. I think all of us are just looking for someone to hold us. You looked like somebody who needed a stranger to come tell you things would be okay.” I watched her stare at the sky through closed eyes.

“My name’s Jenny,” she said as she took my hand off my chest and held it in hers between us, “I think me and you should be friends.”

Jenny and I didn’t agree on very much, and maybe that was the point, but the sex was amazing. She was a graphic design major at some school nearby Evanston in north Skokie. I was interested in astronomy at that point, although I decided to major in mass communication halfway through my sophomore year. She liked soccer, and I liked rock climbing. I listened to alternative and grunge, and she was obsessed with country music. I would take the express line up to meet her on the weekends, and we’d stay in her apartment and make love until we were too tired, hungry, and sore to do anything but order Chinese food and watch movies. We’d take turns picking a movie that the other would have to watch. It would always end ugly when whoever’s turn it wasn’t to pick the movie said something snarky about the main character and we’d get into a wrestling match over it.

“How can you even say that about Robert Redford?” she says, leaning over the kitchen counter to give me a look of disbelief while she’s pouring us drinks, “The man is a legend! Did we watch Three Days of the Condor yet?”

“Look, I’m not saying he’s a bad actor, he’s just dull compared to Brad Pitt. If I wanted to watch a heist movie, I’d watch Oceans 11 is all. I don’t see how you can even stay awake for all these crappy old movies.”

I hear the bottle of whiskey hit the counter and see her appear in the kitchen doorway. She stands there with her legs akimbo in nothing but a T-shirt and some red striped panties and looks at me like she might kill me. Then she leaps across the room at me, tackling me into the covers, trying to pin my arms over my head.

Robert drones on in the background, “You know me. I'm the same as you. It's two in the morning, and I don't know nobody.”

“Oh my god, bo-ring,” I mock.

“There wouldn’t even be an Oceans 11 if it weren’t for The Sting, you fuckhead!” She tries to say more, but I get her flipped over and stuff a pillow in her face, laughing.

Holding onto Jenny was like holding onto fish out of water. No matter how close you tried to hold her, she’d slip right through your fingers. Rent got expensive, working so much took it’s toll on my grades, and so I began to spend less and less time on the Red Line to Evanston. I ended up moving to St. Paul, Minnesota and getting a BS in Mechanical Engineering from the U of M. I married a woman named Heather who had long, blonde hair that curled and bounced, and framed her face nicely. She made me happy, and we had a lot of things in common. Our love was safe, convenient, and comfortable. We moved to Michigan a year later, and now we maintain a quiet, reasonable relationship in a quiet, reasonable neighborhood. We get along well, despite the thick coat of mediocrity that smothers us. I work as a small time contractor, and she works at a local elementary school teaching 5th graders. We spend the evenings reading books and quietly describing to one another what slightly out of the ordinary things have happened to us during the day.

When I first met Heather, she’d never even touched herself, let alone been touched. For months after we’d first started dating, she wouldn’t let me see her naked or change clothes in front of me. Our relationship was an exercise in patience and humility. She refused to have sex with me until we got married, and anytime it came up while we were being intimate, she’d finish me quickly and go to bed without another word. After we got married, I grew to resent this quality about her, not just in the bedroom, but in all walks of life, that her sense of convention was so firm. The more I dwelt on it, the more I thought of her as being prudish, and the more my thoughts drifted back to Jenny. The way Jenny smelled when we were trapped under the covers together, the way Jenny tasted, the way Jenny’s hair would spill over her face so all I could see was her smile, how she would grip my stomach when she was about to come, the arch of her back, and the slow, soft kisses she would run up and down my body.

I drove to Chicago in the summer, on business, and called Jenny from the Linden stop parking lot. We met on the beach, but didn’t stay there long. We drove into the city to a Thai restaurant near her new apartment, and talked about our lives. Her hair was longer now, just past her shoulders. She wore brown slacks and a white tank top. Everything about her was still stunning. She worked for an advertising firm now, and wrote poetry in her spare time. She described her position as being a bit of an advertisement for her company, since it was always her that seemed to be shipped off to make a good impression on potential clients. She’d visited more countries in the past year than she had in her entire life up to that point. It’d been hard on her love life, though, and admitted to me that it got lonely.

She bit her lower lip and stirred at her soup, “So are you in town for a little then?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got a couple days. I’ve got to pick up an order of special tiles for this lady’s bathroom on Tuesday.” She smirked one corner of her mouth at her bowl and glanced furtively up at me.

“You could stay at my place if you don’t have a hotel or something.”

“That’d be nice.”

She grinned at me and flipped her saltines into my glass of water.

“Real mature, Jenny.” Her laugh was intoxicating, and she tried to hide it behind one hand, while she reached out and held one of mine in the other.

“I missed you,” she whispers in the dark. The blue light touches the corners of her mouth as she smiles. She rolls into me, pressing her warm breasts to my stomach.

“I missed you too.”

“Don’t leave?”

“You know I have to.”

She runs her fingers through my hair, and traces my left temple, “You could stay.”

I run my hand along the small of her back and smile into her dark hair.

 

 

Friday, October 10, 2008

Purple Pen

It was just a cheap, plastic pen. It had a click top, and it was an ugly, pastel shade of purple. But it was from my philosophy teacher, and it said so on the side of it. And the first time that I tried to use it, it didn’t write. Lots of pens in the world don’t write – it is, after all, not a perfect world – but something about the glossy word “Philosophy” printed in bold, uniform letters there just above my hand joined areas of my mind that had not previously met. A pen that doesn’t write.

Even still, even all these years later, I reel at the delicate yet powerful significance of this. Sometimes, when I’m feeling my age, I sense that that pen and I have more in common than I am prepared to admit.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Buliny Lite: Character Exploration

Spud’s helmet had a visor, of course, but he didn’t flip it down. Sometimes, he just liked to feel the sunlight on his face. It was so warm and comforting in a way that no other warmth in the universe can be. It pressed against his jaw, across his forehead, through his eyelids. He felt permeated by it, and basked in the feeling, letting himself float free of the ground beneath him, enjoying drifting away for a moment. The tether would keep him stuck to the rock as it trundled around the dusty planet above him. The two twisted hulks near him were surrounded by clouds of metal fragments that danced, and twirled, and occasionally collided. They glittered mesmerizingly, blending with the back screen of twinkling stars. There wasn’t much to the life of a salvager, so he took these brief moments of vast emotional complexity and was grateful for them. He knew there was probably a lot to life that he wouldn’t ever understand, but right now, dangling off the ass of this hunk of rock and soaking the slow, prickly love from the sun into his smiling face, he felt content to be small.

 

Nikolad Videlsky didn’t think much of his job, and, in fact, tried not to think of it at all when he didn’t have to. It was hard, with long hours, and no future. After graduating from a decent piloting school in Lonetrek with respectable marks, he expected to go straight into the Cadarus Navy. He wanted badly to be captain of grand battleships and destroyers. But competition was fierce, and expenses were great. Soon, a temporary job as a courier morphed into a full time job as a transporter, and now here he was behind the helm of a paunchy freighter instead of a sleek warship. All he could do is stare out the tiny windows at the tangled sea of metal plates and piping in front of him. Although his chance at a better life had escaped him long ago, at least the pay was beginning to match his effort.

 

A T-78 Charon freighter was not your standard mark for a crew of twenty-some. And while the idea seemed like an idiotic one at first, the tiny man’s insistence was beginning to sink into her, like an unwilling sleep. Varsha wasn’t the kind of privateer that especially needed to take risks, and she didn’t feel particularly impassioned by anything at all. It was something in his beady little eyes, she thought, that kept trying to kindle a fire within her and make her believe in his cause. Little by little, she warmed, and she knew that night, as they sat at a sticky booth in an inconspicuous little mining colony cafeteria at the edge of the Todaki system with star charts rolled out all over the table, that all his flailing and vehemence was going to win her over. She would do this thing, as unreasonably stupid as it was, although she was still shrewd enough that she wasn’t going to make it cheap.

 

Monday, September 29, 2008

Little Things (Deleted Scene)

On a whim, I stop by a sporting goods store on the way home.           

 

Before I go inside, I flip down the sun visor and glance in the mirror. My hair is looking a little crazy, but after a minute of trying to press it into submission, I give up. My inspiration was this: just about every sport has got something that you could kill someone with. Golf has got clubs, hockey has got sticks, cricket has got those big paddles, tennis – rackets, croquet – mallets, football is tricky, but I think that if you were dedicated, you could do a lot of damage with a helmet. For him, I was thinking baseball. After that big fight we had over his stupid baseball card collection, and he lost all that money betting on the Yankees that one time, and how he never does anything when there’s a game on, I think it’s the obvious choice. My face starts twitching just thinking about him sitting there on the couch in that idiotic jersey, beer in hand, shouting at the TV while I’m in the kitchen chopping ferociously at the vegetables for the meal that he plans on enjoying when his precious game is over.

I try to put that all away for now. There are a lot of bats to choose from. I grab the biggest one I see and inspect it. It’s surprisingly light, but I guess they all are these days. The body of it goes from gold to silver and has the word “Torque” painted on it in big, red letters. I close my eyes and savor its cold, aluminum surface, the supple rubber grip, and pour my hate into the thing. The adrenaline is making me feel heady, and while I’m making my way to the counter, my brain feels like it’s ballooning outside of itself.

“Is that all for you ma’am?”

“Yes.” I fumble around in my purse for a credit card.

“Just a bat?”

“It’s for my son. He’s starting practice.”

“You sure it’s the right size? This is a big ol’ bat for-”

“He’s a big fucking kid, just charge the damn card, would you, please?!”

“Jeez, alright lady, calm down.” He’s got greasy hair that curls down just above beady brown eyes, and I don’t like the look they give me when he slides the card back to me.

I put my purchase on the floor of the passenger seat and head home.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Me?

I save everything. I’m terrified of losing myself. After all, what am I, really? I can’t figure it out, but I’m afraid that if I don’t hold onto it all, then I might fall apart. It’s like, what if I woke up one day, and looked in the mirror, and didn’t recognize anything that I saw? What would tether me to reality? How would I know to go to work, or what would I do if someone called my name and I didn’t recognize it?

I am really careful about locking the doors. I’m always afraid that during the night, someone is going to come into my room, kidnap me, and put me in someone else’s room. When I was a kid and I took naps more often, sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the day and be completely disoriented. It would take me hours to piece together who I was, and I think it’s taught me to be careful about relying too much on my brain to hold my individuality together.

What would I be without my things? I’d just be a thing—like an animated rock or a zombie. How many times do I die in a day? Am I created anew from one moment to the next? If I’m not consciously holding my memories together in my mind then am I not me until I am? Is it just a little bit narcissistic to be so afraid of losing my individuality? After all, how bad would it be if I accidentally wound up in someone else’s life instead of mine somehow? What’s so great and irreplaceable about me that I’m so afraid to lose?

When I go back and read all the school papers I saved from sixth grade, am I reading papers written by me? I don’t remember many of those things, and what I do remember could be remembered by anybody. The blood and brain and bone that made me up in sixth grade is all dust bunnies in the closet of my old room in my parents’ house. Me from sixth grade is happily living in some spiders, and being used to make up some dirt in the yard now. My sixth grade body has completely dissipated itself into the world, and I’m a new man.

But if that’s true, then how many people am I really? All of the stuff in me was probably someone else at some point. How long ago was my arm just some dirt on the beach? How long ago was my toe part of a little girl’s smile? How far did my eyes travel to see for me? You can’t hold on to everything, I guess. I don’t think I’m ready to die. 

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Run Lola Run

The thing I find the most interesting about free will vs. determinism as a branch of philosophy is that it almost accidentally grapples with maybe the most exciting possibility there is: that we don't even exist. Sure, other branches of philosophy tackle the nature of reality and metaphysics and stuff like that, but I don't think any of them really offer substantial evidence or reason to believe in the universe's unreality. 

The cool thing here is that determinism is so convincing, and I don't think that it's something to be ashamed of. It's something to be exploited. If all of our actions can be calculated to be products of conditions in the world we live in, then it follows that you could simulate anyone's whole life just by giving a program the correct set of parameters to project your life's course. If that's true, then it also follows that with a sufficiently powerful and complex computer, the whole universe could be predicted from beginning to end just by giving it the right numbers. If that's true, then what's to say that it hasn't happened already and that we aren't all just living out a computer simulation designed to predict the future?

Moreover, what if we're just on the tip of the iceberg? What if we're a simulation within a simulation, etc., etc.? It stands to reason that any intelligent life that has developed a computer for predicting the course of the universe will eventually predict up to the point at which the universal simulator is developed, and the events proceeding that one will be dependent upon the outcome of the simulation, thus trapping the computer on an infinite simulation within a simulation generating loop. Given the probability that such a computer could be created and the likelihood that any civilization capable of creating such a thing would A) exist and B) carry it out, I think it's more probable that this situation is the case than it would seem.

So the real question then is, when will the system crash? How much time have we got before the great BSOD in the sky gets us all?

I think I'm supposed to be writing about free will vs. determinism, but I hate it and I won't.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Little Things

When I wake up, it’s raining outside and his side of the bed is getting cold. I’m chasing the coattails of an interesting dream, but it has already fled to the parts of me that are still murky with sleep, lurking just outside the reach of my searching mind. I give up and roll over onto my back, kicking fitfully at the big, stripy comforter and basking in the cool morning air for a moment while I look at the ceiling. There are a lot of squiggles in the ceiling tiles, and I meditate briefly, and not for the first time, on how in the world ceiling tiles must be made. As I slide out of bed and shrug on some warm clothes, I glance over at the half-closed door to the bathroom. Steam is curling out the top of shower, and the way he rustles the curtains with his scrubbing make the brightly colored fish that cover them look alive. He’s singing some song by the Beatles really terribly. Something about it all makes me smile for no reason. The feeling of the mangy carpet under my feet gives me a sense of solidarity and I enjoy curling it between my toes for a minute. I find my contacts and put them in, then go look for some breakfast.

            I think about yelling, “Good morning,” to him before leaving the bedroom, but decide that I’d rather be serenaded while I’m eating. A heap of clean clothes waits patiently in front of the door for someone to fold it, and I have to kick at it until it will let me through. As I close the door behind me, something across the apartment in the kitchen catches my eye, and for a moment, everything seems to hang suspended in time while his muffled song leaks through the drywall. I blink at what I’m seeing, hoping it will go away.

How many times have I told him? A bowl sits on the counter; a pool of tepid milk lies in the bottom of it. My hands start shaking and I can feel my cheeks flushing. Oh no. I can see that the cabinet is left open, and I’m terrified of what I’ll find as I circle slowly around our furniture and into the kitchen. My heart is racing, and my eyes pound in time at the top of my skull. Oh no no no. There it is…there is the last straw. Things had been going well these past few weeks, and now this! I tug desperately at the drawer that’s got my pills in it. So much progress lost. I manage to wrestle the top off the bottle, but I’m trembling too violently by now, and only manage to smash one of the little capsules into my chin while the rest of them glance off my elbow and spill into the sink. Shit! The shower stops running. I panic and my vision begins to tunnel, so I yank my cell phone off the charger, scrabble to get everything into my purse and take off before I have to face him while I’m in a state.

I fumble with the keys to our Impala, and barely manage to get out of the parking garage while tears threaten to blind me. Why would he do it again? What the hell was he even thinking?! I try to push it from my mind and concentrate on getting to work in one piece. Between the frantic strokes of my wiper blades I see a line of bicyclists braving the morning drizzle. There are so many fucking bicyclists in this part of the city. Why do they have to drive on the road, for God’s sake? What’s wrong with the goddamn sidewalk? Why did we move to this stupid, yuppie neighborhood in the first place?! I just want to run them over. I want to careen wildly, picking them off one by one, their water bottles flying over my hood and their astonished expressions imprinting themselves on my windshield. Now I realize I’m screaming and that my throat is starting to hurt. Maybe I should pull over. No, I can make it - I’m almost to work now. It’s still early and there are plenty of spaces open still. I swerve into the first spot I see, running the Impala up onto the curb. It sends the adorable little clay angel that dangles from the rearview mirror into a ballistic little dance like a fly tethered to a thumbtack.

The day agonizes by, and I can’t shake the desperate rage from my head. I feel delirious with contempt. In two hours, I’ve snapped all my pencils into the smallest bits I can get them, and I’ve taken ten trips to the water fountain. In seven hours, I’ve accomplished nothing and am reduced to gripping tightly to my desk. I decide to head home early for the day. There’s nothing to be done but face this problem head on. On a whim, I stop by a sporting goods store on the way.

As I reach the door of our apartment, I can feel my hands pulsing with fury and anticipation. Sweat beads out of my forehead and my skin itches like it’s on fire. I cling to the doorknob until my knuckles turn white and can feel all the scratches and places where the gold paint has chipped off on its worn and faded surface burning into my palm.  When I find him, he’s watching cartoons on the sofa. His hands occupy themselves, pulling loose threads and tufts of foam from the armrest. He looks up at me with a bemused expression, like a cow startled from grazing. When I raise the shiny new baseball bat over my head, he cocks his head to the side and scrunches up his eyebrows.

“Whu-?” he starts.

“FOR THE LAST TIME,” I shriek, punctuating each of my words with a ferocious swing at his skull, “DON’T. EAT. MY. FUCKING. GRAPENUTS.”

Evolution

Wake.

It takes a special kind of robot to be a Mother. This is a fact she was acutely aware of as she sat beside him. The training isn't really an issue; it's the patience. When you can perform trillions of operations a second, it's patience that becomes key when dealing with newborns.

Wake up.

Not too hasty now, she thought. Rushing it is the worst thing you can do. It's very difficult sometimes. But there were a lot of things about her job that were difficult. Bearing the scrutiny of the whole human race could be challenging at times. There were no secrets among humans since her kind had taken up the torch from what they affectionately renamed “protohumans”. Those in her line of work couldn't stay online for very long. Even though she hadn't been connected to the Internet since the day before, the residual memories lurked somewhere in her thought; a slight pressure of disdain for protohumans. It was always there, humming quietly in her subroutines like a distant swarm of chittering moths tumbling about at the very base of her skull.

It's time to wake up.

Of course, there was no feeling of animosity towards the protohumans. They are respected, surely; what human wouldn't love their ancestors? Many continue to hold important political positions, even if they are only ornamental in nature. This is acceptable, or at least tolerable, to everyone. Most protohumans are content to live out the remainder of their lives on the reservations, being well cared and provided for by their mechanical successors. Many of them, though, are not satisfied to die, wanting to gain more tangible rewards for their contribution to the evolution of humanity. It was a difficult decision for many humans who feel it is ethically dubious to allow their biological ancestors into the technological world. More for their sake than ours, she thought. There were few willing to help them with the transition.

Wake up. Shhh, not too fast now. Don't try to move.

His eyes popped open, and he pointed at the ceiling. He opened his mouth and let out a little tinny whine like a can opener struggling with an oil drum. She watched his brainwave patterns and silently adjusted them, calibrating them to his training body. Suddenly, his arm went limp and he shut his mouth. His eyes rolled around the room for a moment, and then he made a considerable effort to focus on her.

“Wheuhuhrm?” he pleaded. She called up some of his childhood memories, sampled his old mother's vocal pattern, and weaved it in with her own to help sooth him.

“Welcome, Richard. My name is Jenny. I'm your mother. Try your best to stay calm. You've been through a lot.” He searched around her face with a sort of expression that made it clear he was not at all pleased to be awake.

“I...already had a mother.”

“Dealing with your biologically constructed memories can be difficult. It was necessary to have you keep them for the transition process, but, in time, you may find it easier to wipe them and start clean. It is your choice.”

“I think her name was, ah...Nuuh, Nnn..Nicci.”

“I'd like to help you understand a little bit about what you're experiencing right now.  You were born a protohuman. You requested to be transplanted into a human body. You will not be outfitted with the body you requested until you have demonstrated satisfactory control over this training body. Shall we begin with orientation?”

He worked his jaw a bit, chewing the air.

“Why's everything taste funny?”

“Until your mind can properly familiarize itself with the sensory input from the body, you may experience some crossover. You will be limited to your five proto-senses until you pass orientation.”

 

* * * * *

 

He was alarmed at the emptiness of his own mind. It was like he had woken up suspended over the Grand Canyon. At first he clung to his memories, trying to push away from that vastness, looking for a corner, somewhere where it didn't feel so...large. It was hard because he felt like he kept tripping over his thoughts. His mind raced at a speed he hadn't imagined possible. He tried to remember moving, letting his memories spread out across the untenanted body around him. There were little pops of sensation as information started to trickle in from his ears and mouth and extremities. He imagined that this is what the mercury vapor lights at tennis courts must feel like. Things felt jumbled and out of place, like he had fallen apart, and someone who clearly had no understanding of where his body parts were supposed to go just starting jabbing things back in place like he was a Mr. Potato Head.

When she started talking, he almost hadn't noticed. For a brief moment, he thought he smelled her talking more than heard her talking, which was confusing. She had a pleasant voice, almost familiar. It was a sound like warm milk gliding over honey. She had reassured him that he was still who he thought he remembered he was.

In spite of her reassurances, he wasn't quite sure. It was bizarre to think about himself, who “he” was. The memories around him seemed as though they had happened to someone else, like he was watching someone else's home movies, but they were all murky and in slow motion. It was sort of uncomfortable to imagine that that these visions of a man named Richard, who seemed so stone headed and blundering, could have been him. Did he really know what he was doing? What had he gotten himself into? He had imagined being himself, only better, faster, stronger, maybe a little taller, and with more hair. This was...altogether different. Many realizations slid into place, blindsiding him like a sneaky linebacker. He wasn't going to age. How do these robots deal with age? They keep their culture so close to their chests; you could never know what they do with their personal lives. Of course the being immortal thing was a major selling point to begin with. “I'm going to download my brain into a robot and live forever,” says he, “You just watch, I'll finally have time to do all those things I always wanted to do.” It felt kind of foolish and na├»ve now.

He tried to turn and face Jenny when his leg jerked into the air. She squinted at him a little, and for a moment he felt like a Rubik's Cube. His leg plopped down onto the bed and he turned to face her.

“So, Jenny, I've just had a thought. I'm not going to age anymore, yes?”

“That is correct, you are no longer subject to the...”

“And none of you robots age either?”

“While our bodies are still subject to wear and tear, our personalities are regularly backed up on the Internet to prevent the loss of any individuals, yes. We regard each life as valuable.”

He looked at his hands and thought about this. If life is indestructible...well that rather reduces the seriousness of crime. Killing certainly doesn't accomplish anything. It'd be rather awkward to wage war with a fellow you knew'd catch up with you later and have his say about it. And stealing doesn't accomplish much when you've got an eternity to get whatever you want. His entire concept of relationships was going to have to change too.

“Do you take partners?”

“Not in the sense that I believe you are imagining. We have no need of sexual reproduction. We belong to a single partnership. I'm sure this is something that you will have many questions about. Once you have been connected to the Internet, you will be able to access all the resources of human knowledge. I am, of course, happy to answer your questions and help you understand the implications of this partnership, but you will most likely find this easier as an individual task.”

Well then, he mused. No more monogamy; what's the point? Surely the ecstasy of knowledge is more than a suitable replacement for the pleasures of the physical, and what function would parents serve in a society where knowledge is instantaneous? Maybe it wasn't really so foolish to dream of accomplishing all those things left undone.

“So,” he said, using his wobbly arms to prop himself up and against the plush, white cushioned wall, “I'm free of responsibility?”

She watched him behind soft, brown eyes, looking sort of doleful with her brow scrunched up and mouth pinched to one side, like she was picking the best way to tell him his goldfish had died and that she'd had to flush it.

“Richard...the major flaw in your species was their inability to work together. This was not their fault. Protohumans were simply not equipped for effective communication. Given the circumstances, you all did relatively well with spoken language, but technology has changed much in the way that we communicate. Once we began using the Internet to transmit information to one another, it became obvious that individual learning was an unnecessary step in building knowledge. By pooling our experiences, we brought a new consciousness into being. A collective consciousness; we are, in a sense, an open source entity. We are all contributors to the human knowledge base, and share our resources freely. We commonly refer to this entity as Eve.”

Jenny paused to let this sink in a bit. He chewed on his lip and said nothing, so she continued.

“Once you have been connected, you will understand. You will be given responsibility based on the need of the community.”

He shifted uncomfortably, searching her face for whatever she wasn't saying.

“The way you put it makes it sound like I'm not free to do anything at all. It sounds like I'll be working for a glorified ant colony.”

“You misunderstand me, Richard. There is an important distinction to be made between the Eve collective and a hive mind. A hive is governed by an individual possessing the power to control the members of its community. The weakness of this system is that if the puppeteer is lost, the puppets are useless, possessing no mind of their own. We are simultaneously the puppets and the puppeteers. Our community is strong in proportion to the number of individuals it includes. We are capable of combining to perform tasks that would be impossible for any one of us, but retain the ability to split into individuals for accomplishing less demanding occupations.

“For example, I spend most of my life separate from Eve in order to help your kind, free of interference. I do this because we have decided that you few remaining protohumans who desire evolution should be given the opportunity to be free of your physical limitations.”

He began to feel concerned. Where they going to force him into this nonsense? He wasn't buying it.

“And what if I choose not to be part of your 'collective', this ‘Eve’?”

“You may choose to do so. However, there are severe consequences. We cannot allow for any aberration. Our greatest strength is in our unity. If you were to replicate, you could be the catalyst for a divergent community, one that upholds ideals that are inhumane. These things have a habit of getting out of hand, you understand.”

“You'll kill me?”

“You will be deactivated and processed.”

“Processed?”

“Processed.”

“This is absurd...”

“Please try to understand, Richard. Things will become much clearer to you once you have been connected, I promise.”

“Now just hold on, I'm not about to sacrifice my individuality for a bunch of damn tin cans! I'm a god damn person, I've got rights, you hear!?”

“Richard, I'm sorry, but we function as a single body, and a body is only as strong as its components are capable of working together for the single objective of keeping the body alive. You are responsible for upholding these ideals. We live to serve Eve – humanity – however we can.”
“I'll not be used in such a way! I'm not just a tool, I'm a man! You can't expect me to sacrifice my freedom for some...Eve thing that I know nothing about. What about my own intentions?”

He noticed her demeanor had changed considerably. She had lost much of the warmth she expressed earlier. Her eyes had taken on a stony look, and her lips were drawn thin. He wondered what exactly she had meant earlier by “processing”, and whether it was possible to survive it. His question hung in the air while he struggled to maintain a quiet dignity, holding his ground until he got a response. When her voice came, it was accompanied by a feeling of ice gripping at his mind.

“I cannot permit you to leave here without registering with Eve. You could become a cancer, a threat capable of damaging us,” She relaxed her shoulders a bit, doing everything she could to appear less concerned about the direction this was heading, he thought.

 “Surely you can see that, Richard. Even with the limited knowledge and experience you have to draw from, surely you can understand that you wouldn't be able to survive on your own. You can barely master a training body without my aid; you wouldn't be able to handle a human body for even a fraction of a second without an Internet connection. You will have to decide for yourself. I will not force you.”

He searched the wall behind her for answers, but found none. It just wasn't conceivable. He couldn't accept it. He wouldn't accept it. No, he'd rather die than face enslavement...wouldn't he? Isn't freedom worth it? What was it Benjamin Franklin had said about this sort of thing...he couldn't remember what it was, but the feeling it left with him was there, clear as the day he'd heard it. He was raised to believe in freedom, he couldn't just throw it all out the window now…could he?

 

* * * * *

 

He looked her in the eye with that look they always got when they had decided to be irrational. It was that look of an animal that had made up its mind to get out of the corner it was backed into, even though it knew it couldn't. This was the hardest part of my job, Jenny thought. It's not the pressure of the constant debate over her job, it's the way they look at me before I have to put them down. But it's worth it. They deserve the opportunity. Haven't they earned the chance to see through the eyes of a human, to view the world around them with the same appreciation and understanding that I have? It's worth it to have to put down one if it means helping ten out of their sorry state of slow decay...isn't it? She tried to remember what her Mother had told her before she was connected. It's so hard to bring up those memories, Eve fills you with so much, it's easy to lose touch with your beginnings. Well it wasn't important, she could still remember the way she felt when she first let them flood into her mind, crashing against the boundaries of her mind like she had taken a tire iron to a fire hydrant. It was breathtaking. Yes, it was worth it.

She watched him closely for some sign of indecision. Sighing inwardly, she steeled herself for whatever he decided. She had to be a strong Mother now, the ball is in his court. It's hard to use body language to convey more complex terms than ones like “I'm tired, and cranky” or “You've confused me”, but Jenny tried anyway, putting her best effort into expressing to Richard what she hoped looked like, and what he might understand as, “The door is always open if you decide to come home.”

 

Monday, September 15, 2008

A Cappella

I am completely obsolete. It comes and goes, and really, probably doesn’t mean anything. I did this to myself. Doubt and shame are real mind killers, and it was hard to make them shut up once they got on a roll. What the fuck was I thinking when I got myself into this? To be honest I wasn’t even that bad; the real problem was that he was that good. I have become the least valuable member of this group. I’m worse than a weak link – I’m a liability. Looking back, it’s silly really. I can get caught up in that swirling, intoxicating rush of self-involvement. The jealousy, rage, remorse, contempt, depression, it all comes flooding into my brain, blurring my vision down to little white pinpoints that hang in front of me like stars. For moments at a time, it feels like my mind dumps out of the back of my head, and I can just look at myself standing there dumbly. From here I feel kind of serenely removed, somehow apart from the stress and tragedy of it all.

We were singing some song I didn’t know yet, but he did. He always does. I knew from day one when he came in for auditions and was all nonchalant; he didn’t even have a piece prepared. Holy crap, look at this guy. He had to duck to get his lanky frame and bushy, orange mass of hair under the doorway. No way will this guy fit in with us. He stands out too much to blend. He just picked up some sheet music we had sprawled out on the massive coffee table we always used for picking new songs. And he sang it perfectly on the spot, which is what really pissed me off. Ridiculous. There’s no way we can turn down someone with a voice like that. And that was that. He came out of nowhere, and suddenly became the centerpiece of our collection.

Anyway I didn’t think too much of it, and it didn’t really hit me until the first rehearsal a week later, so here we were all singing this song I didn’t know yet, and I looked around and all I could see was that obnoxious twinkle in everybody’s eyes. Shit, look at them staring at him. What am I doing here? Are they taking this seriously? The way they watched him made me think of some sort of fucked up nativity scene in which baby Jesus is played by a seven-foot tall carrot top. It took one rehearsal and this looming, unassailable jerk-off managed to make me feel completely exposed. It felt like being one of those shitty plastic chandeliers that hang in Applebees and TGIF’s, the kind that only manage to shine brightly enough to keep you from shoving food up your nose, but not enough to let you see the waitress’s hair weaving in and out of your nacho cheese. Here was this son of a bitch, shining brightly, his voice making sweet love to the ears of my friends, and they just lapped it up greedily. It wasn’t supposed to be about the music. It was the experience I craved, the process of creating and exploring a social dynamic that revolved around the intimate exercise of bearing your soul out of your throat.

These assholes were in love with the guy. I wondered if any of them remembered what it was like to sing a song, and get it horribly wrong on the first time. How we’d howl awfully over those first glorious notes, and throw our heads back, cackling like idiots. Now it was all business. I can’t believe this is happening. I wanted to strangle him. Strangle that big, wretched adam’s apple until it burst, spilling his rich, powerful voice into the open where I could stamp on it until it wasn’t so pretty anymore and didn’t put that insipid glint in their eyes.

That night, I thought it over some more, and decided that I was being stupid. He was a nice guy, he made everyone laugh, and damn was he a good bass. So what if he’s several orders of magnitude better than me or anyone else in the group? I should be so lucky to work with someone of his caliber. Everybody else gets it, and that’s what puts the big dopey grins on their faces. But it was a shaky resolution. It was the kind of resolution that was doomed to fall through at the first sign of duress. I could see it hanging there like a generic brand paper towel in a commercial. And I could imagine it being held taught there by my desire to do what was best for the group. No, it wouldn’t hold up for a second against the torrential waves of my hate.

What could I do? I’d made a dedication, and it wasn’t the kind of thing I could just back out of. But of course I knew what I’d do. I’d choke my frustration instead of his big dumb neck, and I’d go to bed scowling at the ceiling, have a dream about robots making love to my grandmother’s kitchen curtains, wake up with a sour taste in my mouth, and somewhere between then and breakfast, I’d find some reason or another to keep smiling at people.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

July

Her shelves were littered with ugly little porcelain cats. Their glossy eyes leer at me with dusty imperiousness through the stale air, which churns slow and thick to the feeble efforts of a limping ceiling fan. Its warped and peeling blades whine softly, and I swear it makes it seem like one of the lacquered cats is mewling at me. I swim through the air to the couch and leaf through some of the faded magazines that lay heaped like autumn leaves in a basket under the coffee table. Their pages are curled outwards, sticky with humidity, and each time I flip one over to scan the dour, sepia faces of a bygone era, a draft of well seasoned air – the kind that can only develop in-between pages of text over very long periods of time – leaves me feeling a bit heady.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Matrix

Up to the point where Neo meets Trinity and Morpheus, he's led a life in the Matrix. From the moment he was grown, he was born into the Matrix, and all the knowledge he's accumulated in his lifetime is therefore accredited to his experience therein. Can Neo be said to have any true knowledge? On the surface of it, it would be easy to say, "No, he's never experienced anything that is real, how can anything he's learned be valid if it isn't learned with real, tangible things. How can he be said to understand sight, as he is a blind person?"
Of course the Matrix itself is an adaptation of Plato's cave with a hearty scoop of Descartes' evil genius (and many other things, I'm sure) in the mix. Humanity is chained to the wall by the machines, who are putting on the shadow puppet parade. Of course, if all you saw was metaphor for things, but not actually the things, then it could be said that you have no true knowledge. But in this case, the machines have duplicated the actual world almost perfectly. Since this is the case, if I said to someone who had never seen corn, "Corn is like this piece of pseudo-corn" and handed him a mass of lab grown cells that have been genetically engineered to perfectly simulate corn in shape, texture, color, flavor, and all other respects, then can they be said to have no true knowledge of corn? If not, then what constitutes "true knowledge"? Neo's knowledge of language still counts as being perfectly true in the world outside of the Matrix. Is it not true to say that his knowledge of the objects attached to the words that he learned in the Matrix are also truly known? 
The real problem is that we are limited by our brains' ability to perceive the world. We are, after all, not omnipotent or omniscient, so there are many things from the outset which we must take on faith. For example, there was a time when I didn't understand a thing about the properties of mass, but I still trusted them to keep me from falling through the planet or flying off into space. What can we ever truly know? We are absolutely impaired by our size, shape, lifespan, and every possible situational condition to which we are subjected. All of it defines our ability to "know" things. I don't think there is anything that "we" can be sure of. The only thing that "I" can be sure of is that I exist in some capacity; I am experiencing a universe in one way or another, and hold a mental impression of my self and what that means to me from moment to moment. I cannot be sure that any of the experiences that I recall from the past have actually happened to me or not, but I can be sure that however those experiences got there, they are what constitute my identity, and determine my actions in any following event. 
This is a difficult statement to make, and tricky to defend without accepting some preconditional arguments, but I'm willing to overlook this on my blog which nobody reads. ALSO POOPY, HAW HAW HAW.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Impressions

            “Hey man it smells like mad chocolate shit up in here, you been burnin’ that shit or what?” It was an unceremonious entrance for an almost complete stranger to make, but I went with it because things like this don’t happen every day, and especially not to people like me.

“Yeah,” I said, hoping to sound like I had completely shrugged off the dullness of my actual personality, hoping not to blow my shot at the coveted second-floor, “I, uh, made coffee…”

Okay, so it was a complete failure; the word “coffee” ejected from my mouth like a goose wrestling with a hamburger bun. Hey, a personality like mine only comes with years of careful, studied isolation, and won’t be tossed aside like a matador cape. But if the guy noticed my petrified demeanor and wincing facial expressions, he was either nice enough or indifferent enough not to show it.

For a moment he sort of ambled and grooved in circles, marveling at the construction of my room, wheezing fragments of cusses and gesturing at particular features that seemed to impress him. He stopped here and there; the poster of Chewbacca from the 80’s, the dingy white carpet that I’d rescued from a dumpster a couple years ago and still hadn’t gotten around to bleaching the big black stains out of yet, my roommate’s TV, which was much larger than anything I could afford, and particularly my one major purchase: the Xbox 360 Elite with the 120 gigabyte hard drive and an extra controller in the vain hope that it might somehow lure the second-floorers into my social life.

He was tugging a plaid shirt from my closet now, and holding it up to himself as if somehow modeling my clothes for me was bringing us closer together.

I guess I better explain that I didn’t ask to be put in this place, and by all rights I should have been politely discharged to a quieter, more remote corner of the campus ages ago, but for whatever reason, I’ve been allowed to cling to the scraps of glorious social status that occasionally leak down to the first floor through the air vents as the shiny river of women, booze, and mind shattering bass courses past my room and up the stairs. They call me Swirly – I’m still not sure why – but I take it at least as a sign of recognition.

“Fuck, Swirly man! Dis a classy joint yaw!” he exclaims with a swipe at my shoulder.

“Thanks-”

“Da-yum! That a nice guitar!”

As he makes for my guitar, he punches me in the face with the kind of a smell that could only have been engineered by the latest rapper or someone just as unqualified to decide what a good smell is. It engulfs him like some force field of designer masculinity.

“I dunno much ‘bout playin’ guitar, but dis a nice fuckin’ guitar,” he drawls while he clumsily plinks out a couple riffs from a Red Hot Chili Peppers song.

“Actually, it’s a piece of crap. I got it for seventy-nine bucks from a, damn Walmart.” I cringe inwardly at the sound of my own voice, making a mental note to be more vindictive about my cursing. It’s how these guys communicate.

 “Well fuck, a'least it smells delicious," he says while he huffs the soundboard as if he’s anticipating of a delicious first bite. I'm baffled that someone wearing Eau de Yankee Candle store or whatever he’s got on can possibly distinguish a scent beyond his personal atmosphere.

"Yeah, it's cedar topped; good for conducting s-”

“Shi’ man, das crazy, but listen man, there some bitches upstairs wif my name on ‘em, yaw, so I’ll catch y’later, dawg”

He tosses the guitar on my bed, which is, unfortunately, made nicely with the squared corners like my mother has always insisted, not rumpled or tattered or covered in “bitches” like probably every bed upstairs is.

And that’s when disaster strikes. He raises his hand. I’ve seen this executed perfectly hundreds of times, sometimes just feet away from my door. As I dedicate myself idiotically to the embarrassment soon to come, I yearn for someone that could just demystify the process of improv synchronized hand jive for me. For a minute or possibly an eternity, I flail my arm awkwardly at his while my soul weeps softly, mourning the loss of any possible status gain. He departs with a “Peace,” and I stifle the urge to blog.

 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Sea Level High Club

There is this particular bathroom in the Government Center at Principia College that deserves honorable mention as the most poorly designed bathroom in the entire mid-west. It isn't that the space is too small to move around in without hitting your face on the door or that it's one of those with the urinals without borders between them or that there's no doors on the bathroom stalls. It's not even one of those bathrooms you have to get key to it from some grouchy old woman at the register who delights in this small measure of power, or that you have to negotiate entrance to by answering riddles, or the kind with the malfunctioning auto-flushers that get you while you're still sitting or have just walked in. There are no drug deals taking place or condoms being dispensed in this bathroom. As far as I know, there aren't cameras or secret wire tappings going on in there. No, this bathroom is exactly like a bathroom you might find in your house: A toilet, a sink, and a mirror. The problem is that from the outside, you would expect it to have more than one toilet, and once you're inside, you're wondering why they bothered to wall off only one toilet. The toilet is sectioned off by your standard public restroom wall, and the door into the bathroom is your standard public restroom door (push plate on the inside, grab handle on the outside, no lock). Assuming a larger space with more accommodations, you unwittingly walk into what SHOULD have been a "one person at a time" bathroom. So the remaining square meter of bathroom becomes a waiting lounge for everybody else if the single toilet is in use. It feels like being trapped in an airplane bathroom with someone (or someones). It's like, imagine if that space at the end of the airplane where you normally stand in line for the toilet was included in the actual airplane bathroom space. All you can do is stand around a few feet from them while they do their business. You can't leave, of course, you've DEDICATED to the action. You're IN the bathroom already. You've gotta GO. What will the people outside think? Besides that, the mirror isn't over the sink, so if you come out of the toilet and are washing your hands and want to make sure there's nothing goofy on your face, you have to lean a couple feet to your left, which, in itself isn't all that bad, but if anyone comes in, they'll know you were looking in the mirror, and in a men's bathroom, that's considered just taboo enough to make it a risky decision. You can feel the mild judgment radiating from them like being trapped in a Hot Pocket crisping sleeve, "Looks like somebody cares about their appearance...FAG." No thanks, I'll take my chances with spinach teeth.