A Gift, At The End

Mango Shake

I’ve talked before about my mother in law, Mamacat, and all I’ve been through in the last couple of years with her. Ever since her husband had his stroke, I’ve been her driver, house hold helper, cook, and, since her health started to fail in the last year, her full-time nurse. It was a complex and difficult period for me, for my wife–her daughter–, and for Mamacat.

A few weeks ago Mamacat passed away. It’s been tough on her husband, tough on my wife, and tough on me. But overwhelming my response is very specific. It is nuanced and weird and tinged with various subtitles that aren’t all clear, logical, or even apparent, but overall I feel a specific way about it: I’m happy. In case that’s too vague, I’ll restate it in a more obvious way:

I am happy that Mamacat is dead.

I suspect most people will cringe a little on reading that. It’s hard not to. This is not something we are supposed to say when a loved one dies. I told one of my closest friends that I was happy. This is a friend who has been with me through every step of this whole process, who understands it deeply and as fully as anyone who wasn’t directly involved. I told him I was happy, and he said,

“You mean relieved, right?”

“No,” I said. “I mean I’m happy.”

And I do mean it. I feel joy. And other things, including sadness. But joy is the primary emotion. Joy that another human being has died. Not a bad human being. Not someone I hated or who “deserved it” in some retributive sense. If that kind of death made me feel happiness I would feel terrible. I’d feel wracked with guilt that I was so malicious.

I feel guilty anyway. I’ve been torn at nearly every moment for the last three weeks about how much guilt I should feel. Whether there was something wrong with me for being so happy about it. These are not easy questions to answer. But now, after 24 very long days, I think I finally understand.

Let me explain.

I’m happy for two reasons, and we’ll start with the more selfish one first. I’m happy to be free of the burden of taking care of her. She could barely move around at the end, and her mind was going. She required a lot of attention and help with nearly everything, and it was obvious it was going to get worse. How bad it would get was impossible to say, but I dreaded how bad it could get. I experienced some of that last year when she had an injury and was bedridden. I was on call 24/7, I never got any sleep, I messed up my back and my arms by lifting her up so often, I always smelled like bodily fluids, and I was in a constant state of tension.

But more than the fact of having to help her was the sense of being trapped. Ever since her husband had the stroke my wife and I have been trapped. We couldn’t go on vacation, we couldn’t move away. We couldn’t live our lives. We are in our 30s–my wife’s parents had her when they were fairly old–and that’s a tough pill to choke down. So being free of that burden is enormous. We have our lives back.

Here’s where I need to state categorically that I’m not resentful of Mamacat for being a burden. It wasn’t her fault. People get old and they need help. It sucks, but having to go to work sucks. Having back pains sucks. Sometimes things suck, and life is about getting on with them. One of Mamacat’s personality traits was that she had a stroke self-loathing streak. She blamed herself for everything. I don’t know how many times I told her that things weren’t her fault, and that I wasn’t mad at her. I don’t know if she ever believed me, but I tried to speak it through my patience. Sometimes my patience deserted me. During this time I learned for the first time exactly how much of it I have. I have great pity for anyone who is ever forced to learn this for themselves. I spoke with my patience, and I like to think it helped.

The second reason I am happy is because she wanted to go. She was ready. Never in my life have I met someone who had so little fear of death. She faced the most frightening of human experience with total peace and clarity. She faced it with a grin, like it was an old friend she was waiting to meet once she was done with this little thing right here. She believed in heaven, and often had dreams of its bright green fields of grass where she would run under the sunlight and meet everyone she had lost. But her belief wasn’t overwhelming. She thought there was probably a heaven. She hoped there was. But it didn’t matter all that much, really. Either way, she wasn’t afraid.

She had a Do Not Resuscitate order in her medical files. “If I try to go, let me go,” she told me. And that’s what we did. She might have recovered from her stroke into a shell of herself. She was already becoming a shell of herself, and she hated it. She died 8 days after her birthday, and it’s hard not to think that she got a present she didn’t expect, but that she hoped for with all of her heart.

And that’s the thing. I got a present from her, too. Not her death. I can’t bring myself to quite that crass. The present she gave me is deep, and powerful, and it was one of the most amazing things anyone has ever given me. I have only just now realized what it was, and how amazing it is that she gave it to us. The present is this:

Absolution.

I can feel joy at her death because that’s what she would have felt. If she could stand outside of her body and watch her last few breaths, as we did, it would have made her smile. It would have been like giving her the sweetest and most delicious mango smoothie she had ever tasted. I can imagine telling her that I was feeling guilty at my reaction to her passing. I hadn’t envisioned this conversation. I didn’t want to go there, because we’re not supposed to go there. But if I told her I felt bad that she had dead and it made me happy, she would have laughed a friendly and mirthful laugh and called me an idiot. She would have thought my guilty was silly. Unnecessary.

We think that death is a bad thing because it terrifies. We are afraid of dying, and we are afraid of saying the wrong thing to a friend who has lost someone. We tiptoe around it. We freeze up if we feel or do or say something that doesn’t fit on the Culturally Approved List of Response.

Screw that. Mamacat didn’t live that way, and neither do I. Death isn’t always a bad thing. People get old or sick, and they don’t need the world anymore. If everyone just kept on living the world would be a full, sickly, and terrible place.

Mamacat was an amazing person, and death was a gift the universe gave to her in the end, when she really needed it. A reward for an awesome life. And my reward, for taking care of her and being there for her, is that I get to feel joy. She gave that to me. She gave it to me with her beliefs, and with her personality, and with her disposition. And I’m sure, with every strand of my existence, that if she could talk to me one last time, she would give me that gift with her words.

The Plasma People

S&Mj adventure's CSL Plasma card

A few years ago, when my wife and I lived in Florida, she got a pass for a two free movie tickets for some film. I can’t even remember which one. It was one of those free movie events hosted by a radio station. We expected it to be pretty similar to any of the million previous times we had been to the movies together.

It wasn’t.

The people there all seemed to know each other. Many of them had done this free-movie thing before, and did it regularly. We had a long conversation with the local king and queen bee of free movie going, who knew everyone else and all the tricks on how to get free movie passes. They were also insiders, and right before the movie started a representative of the event came out and pulled the two of them inside for some kind of private consultation.

We went to see a movie. We found a community. A secret, hidden community, not because they were trying to hide, but because there would be no reason or anyone who hadn’t peered through the shroud to assume they existed. To put it another way, I already knew there was probably a local taxidermy club. I know about taxidermy, and although I have no idea what those people or that community are like, I am at least vaguely aware of its probable existence. But the free-movie community was wholly unexpected. Not surprising, I suppose, but at the same time mind-blowing. It made me wonder how many of these unimagined but fully extant communities are out there, two inches to the left of where we live our lives.

I found another one today.

I discovered that you can make some money by donating plasma. Not bad money, too, for the amount of time it takes. So…I have now donated plasma! The website for the company with the local office has a lot of copy and imagery about saving lives and being a hero. They also have a rewards program. Donating one of your bodily fluids for use in medical procedures gives you points that you can spend on Target gift cards and discounts for Taco Time. If you donate enough, you can become a gold member. I don’t know what that means.

When I got there, I checked in with the receptionist. She was very excited that this was my first time. I asked if it was mostly regulars. She told me it was.

I showed them my IDs and read a booklet and then watched a video that had all of the same information in the booklet. I heard at least four times that although they test your blood prior to every donation, they ask that you not use this facility as a way to test if you have an STD or communicable disease. They didn’t actually say “There are clinics for that, dammit! Don’t waste our time!” But someone clearly wanted to.

Then I went through a series of medical screening questions and tests with two separate but equally awesome women. The first was bubbly, and about ten feet tall She told me about the time she was in a trailer that was hit by a tornado. Fortunately, she didn’t die. The second woman was gruffer at first, but once I showed some empathy for the tedium of her situation she warmed up. We talked about how she could barely watch medical shows because of all the inaccuracies. I mentioned how I knew that defibrillators are used entirely wrong on television, and she burst out laughing and told me I was smart. I related how as a former chef I hate to watch people cook and eat on TV. The pizza is always cold.

While I was waiting for my physical two other people waited with me. The first was a pink-haired girl who was very impatient. Last time she came in she had a bruise on her arm, and they told her they couldn’t take her plasma until it healed. Now she had to wait for the technicians to check out her arm. She’d been there for 20 minutes and kept pacing back and forth and calling her husband to complain.

The other person waiting there had been told that he answered a screening question wrong, and therefore had to wait. He was annoyed and nervous.

“I’ve come here so many times,” he said. “They should know I don’t do drugs.” I told him that was rough. Then he asked in a hushed tone, “They won’t, like, care if there’s marijuana in my blood, will they? Do you think?”

I told him they stuff I read only mentioned heroin and cocaine, and besides marijuana is legal in Washington now anyway. He shhed me to keep my voice down, because an Authority Figure was walking by.

Once all this was done, the defibrillator nurse took me out to the extraction room. They didn’t call it that. They didn’t call it anything. I got priority because I was a first-timer. A VIP, you might say.

I went and sat in a curved blue bed in a large room full of curved blue beds. Almost all of them were full. I expected a bunch of quiet people, checking their phones and pretending everyone next to them didn’t exist. The kind you find in patient waiting rooms all across the country. I was very, very wrong.

Many of these people knew each other, and knew the technicians. There was life and energy and conversations. One of the technicians got excited when he saw one of the donors, and ran up to ask how her sister was doing. They talked for several minutes.

The woman that got me into bed was very nice, and clearly genuinely pleased to meet me. If anything it felt like a new neighbor moving in. She explained the process would take an hour, and how this machine would take out my blood, filter out the plasma, and return my red blood cells along with saline and an anti-coagulant. But it felt an awful lot like she was bringing me a tupperware full of cookies that she baked herself. You know, just to say “Hi! Welcome to the plasma center!”

A woman had a seizure nearby, and both the staff and the donors got very worried. It all worked out, though. Apparently she has seizures fairly regularly, and she always warns everyone right before she’s about to have one. To the best of my knowledge, she’s just fine, and once it was over everyone settled back down into their comfortable routine.

Soon enough, pink-hair and marijuana guy were seated right near me, and we struck up a conversation. They were in much better moods now that they were done with the waiting process. Pink-hair explained that her husband and kids were waiting in the car, and that’s why she was impatient.

She’d been coming here since this facility opened and knew all sorts of little tricks. She and marijuana-guy had never talked before, but they’d seen each other. Pink-hair’s husband thought marijuana guy was Samoan. He said he wasn’t, and she laughed and described the shocked look her husband would surely have when she told him he was wrong. When she left, she told both both of us it was nice to meet us, and that she’d see us around. She assumed I’d be back.

I also struck up a conversation with the woman on my left. She explained the equipment I was hooked up to, and what all of the tubes did and what the meters indicated. She wasn’t a technician, just a donor. And, by the end of that hour, kind of a friend. She and pink-hair knew each other and were clearly friendly.

Yesterday I knew that I would give plasma today, if nothing went wrong. I knew I’d get some money for it, and be entered into a reward program. I had no idea I’d find this weird little community I would never have imagined if I hadn’t seen it myself. I’m definitely going to keep giving plasma for the foreseeable future, but will I become part of this community? Will I make new friends, through a strange, hidden group whose only tie to each other is the extraction of the liquid medium of their blood? Will I, in fact, become one of the Plasma People?

We’ll just have to see.

 

Energy Drink

Neon - 4732

“Whoa, slow down,” said Sintra as she cooled her skid to a halt.

“What is it?” Mak flipped his skid sideways against the rail for a quick break, and sparks few into the air. He darted his head around to see if anyone was watching to see how cool he looked. There was no one there. Sintra smirked.

“Check that out.” She pointed to an orange and green glow at the far end of the tracks.

“What?” asked Mak.

“Right there.”

“Next to the  vender?”

“I’m talking about the vender.”

“Right,” said Mak. “I see it. Can we slide on now?”

“I want to check it out.” Sintra hit the fullbreak on her skid and it folded down into a foot long bar of metal, its resting form. She slipped it into the holder on her back with a practice motion and sprinted towards the edge of the tracks.

“Why?” asked Mak as he collapsed his skid and ran after her. “What’s up?”

“It’s new,” said Sintra.

“Oh. So? They installed a new vender. So what?”

“No, I mean it’s new.”

As they approached Mak saw what she meant. It was a non-standard vender. Whatever it spit out wasn’t what they were used to. Sintra had seen it and made it out at 75KMPH. The girl had damn keen eyes. As they approached he made out the shape the orange and green took as it became clear through the mist. The shape of a can.

“Oh hells no,” said Mak. “It isn’t…”

“A new energy drink!” said Sintra. “A new energy drink.”

“Girl, how’d you see that through all this?” he waved his hand through the mist. It was thick enough to leave trails.

Sintra tapped the carbon-glass lens of her eye enhancement with her fingernail. It made a plink sound. Mak shuddered. He wasn’t a lud or anything, but watching someone touch their eye, organic or inorganic, squiked him out a little.

“Yeah,” he said, “but still.”

“I haven’t seen a new energy drink in forever,” Sintra said. Her eyes were wide with excitement.

“You’ve got a problem,” said Mak. “You know that, right?”

“Oh totally,” said Sintra.

Mak shrugged. “Alright. As long as you know. What’s it called?”

Sintra stepped off the tracks and onto the ped platform to read the writing. It was small enough that even she couldn’t see it from anywhere but up close. Mak looked around. There was nothing that he could see except for the vender. No timetable signs, no tik booth, no flashy banner ads trying to sell the latest tooth-cleaning microbes. No people, either. In all his years skidding the rails he’d never seen a ped platform with no people. Dead at the dead of midnight in winter or in the middle of the Founder’s Day Parade. There was always someone. Was this even a ped platform? Were they even anywhere? With this much mist and no one around, it felt like a dream. A natural dream.

“Energy,” she said.

“What?” Mak shook out of his reverie.

“It’s called Energy.”

“The energy drink?”

“Yep,” said Sintra with a laugh. “Just energy.”

“Well that’s not very creative.”

“No one’s ever used it before,” said Sintra. “Maybe all the jazzy names were taken.” She was running her hands up and down the side of the vender like she was fondling it. It was weird, but it was Sintra. Mak barely noticed anymore.

“There sure have been a damn high number of energy drinks,” he said.

“Yeah,” said Sintra. “And I thought I’d tried every one out there. But I guess I missed one, because I don’t think this is new. Look.” She pointed to one edge of the machine.

“Damn,” said Mak. “What is that? Why does it look all weird like that?”

“I think it’s rust,” said Sintra.

“What, rust, like as in metal rust?”

“Yep.”

“Like it’s made out of iron or something?”

Sintra eyed him approvingly. “Nice,” she said. “Yes, iron’s one of the metals that rusted. That’s means this is silly old or made with some silly weird manufacturing. But it’s not new, I don’t think. Rust takes awhile.”

Mak laughed. “Maybe it only takes coins or something. You might be out of luck.”

“Don’t be a doof,” said Sintra. “There’s an insert right here. Give me your card. You want one?”

“My card?”

“Yeah. You want one or not?”

“What’s wrong with your card?”

“My guardian froze it,” said Sintra. “After I burnt two month allotment on that turbo. I told you about that!”

“Oh,” said Mak as he pulled his card out of his pocket and handed it to her. “Right. That turbo was pretty chill, though.”

“Tight,” she agreed. “Worth it. I need the speed more than I need the cash.” She slipped the card into the insert. The front of the vender shifted to a white-blue background and the interface popped onto the screen. The light was so bright it spread into the thick mist and gave the whole platform a ghostly glow. Sintra turned back to him with a wide grin on her face. It made her look like an ultraviolet skeleton.

“Look at this,” she said, waving him over.

He walked up behind her and looked at the screen. The interface only showed one flavor: Energy. It had a floating number and a + and – you presumably had to touch to tell it how many drinks you wanted.

“Whoa,” he said. “Old school.”

“I know,” said Sintra. She sounded excited. Really excited. Mak knew she loved energy drinks, but damn. “Do you want one or not?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Why not?”

She hit the plus sign twice, and the number changed from 0 to 1 and then to 2. Next to the number of drinks another number appeared. $18.

“Cheap,” he said. “This is old.”

There was a whirring sound, and two cans appeared in the slot at the bottom of the vender. They both reached down and pulled them out. Mak looked down at his can. Sure enough, it just said “energy.” It was a weird design, too. There was a ring dangling off the end, rather than the usual pull tab.

“After you,” said Sintra.

Mak shrugged. There wasn’t an obvious way of opening it, so he put his finger in the ring and yanked. It tore the entire top off in a single moment, and the contents exploded outwards and splashed onto Sintra.

“Aaagh!” she cried as the liquid got into her hair, all over her shirt, and in her eyes.

“Nuts!” Mak yelled. He ran over to her. “Are you okay?”

She burst out laughing. “You idiot! What the hell did you do that for?”

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, still laughing. “It doesn’t sting or anything.”

“Are your eyes okay? I mean, they’re not bugging out or anything?”

She shook her head. She blinked, and then prodded her shirt and her jacket and wherever else the stuff had landed. The shirt changed color and design. The jacket flipped from leather to wool and back to leather.

“All my tech seems to be working,” she said.

Mak sighed. That was a relief. It was all water-proof, of course, but who knew what else was in this stuff?

“You’re such an idiot,” she said.

“I said I was sorry!”

She shook her head and laughed again. “Let me show you how it’s done.” She pulled the ring, only more slowly than he had. Once again the entire top of the can came off, not just a hole for drinking. But it didn’t explode.

“Yeah, well, you had warning,” said Mak. She took a sip. “How is it?”

She took a small sip. Her face was neutral for a moment, then her eyes lit up. “It’s good! Try it! There’s still some in yours.”

He gulped down and enthusiastic mouthful.

“Bleg!” he spit it out. “This stuff is terrible. You actually like it?”

Sintra burst out laughing. “No, it’s nasty! I just knew I could get you to gulp it down like an orca.”

He scrunched his face at her. But fair was fair.

“Maybe it’s gone bad or something,” said Mak. “It’s gotta be really old.”

Sintra nodded. “I wonder how long this has been here. I doubt anyone ever drinks it. It’s amazing anyone pays to power the thing.”

“Maybe it’s cell powered,” said Mak.

“Holy shit, Mak,” said Sintra. “Why the hell would you say that?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. It would explain it, right? Just a few drops would power this thing for years.”

“Yeah, I guess. You think that’s really possible?”

“Why not? It could just be left over. None of the trains stop at this part of the tracks. I don’t even think this is a ped platform.”

Sintra nodded. “We never would have seen it if we hadn’t been skidding.”

“And without your freaky eyes. It wouldn’t just been a blip as they flew past.”

“But still,” she said. “Would somebody just leave a cell powered machine sitting around? Weren’t they all tagged and smashed after the uprising? That’s silly dangerous. I mean, what if it…” She trailed off.

He knew what she was going to say. What if it woke up.

“Yeah,” said Mak. “You’re probably right. They had to have gotten rid of them all.”

“Right,” said Sintra. “It’d be idiotic otherwise. There can’t be one left, just sitting here.”

Mak nodded, and looked over her shoulder at the machine.

“Holy hell!” Mak he screamed.

“What?” said Sintra. “What’s wrong?”

“Did you see that?”

“See what? Start making sense!”

“The screen!” he said, pointing to the vender. “It changed! It was different. Just for a second.”

“It…changed?”

“Yeah. It said…”

“What?” she said. “What did it say? Tell me, dammit!”

“You said…you said ‘there can’t be one left, just sitting there.’ And then the screen, it said…the purchase interface disappeared, and then it said…”

“What?”

“Yes, there can. For now.”

Sintra’s eyes widened. Then her face went blank.

“Wait,” she said. “You don’t think…” She looked down at the can. She held it up to his face so he could see the single word printed on it in large, orange and green letters.

Energy.

Sintra looked down at her shirt and her jacket. They were dry. There was no sign that the foul drink had every touched them. Like it had all been absorbed.

“This is ridiculous,” said Mak. “This is not, I mean, it can’t be…”

“Yeah,” said Sintra. “You’re probably right. They wouldn’t just leave it here.”

Mak laughed. “That would be damn stupid.”

“Yeah,” said Sintra, laughing. “That would be…oh god.”

“What?”

“Oh my god,” she said, her voice thick with panic. “My shirt. It’s trying to…aaaaaaah!” She grabbed her shirt and pulled it over her head like it was trying to eat her.

“Ha ha ha,” said Mak. “That is hilarious.”

“I know,” said Sintra. “Now come on. Let’s get out of here.” They put the partially full cans down on the ground instead of the vender, and walked back into the mist of the tracks. Neither one of them looked back.

The Memory of Stillness

Morning stillness

This music teases me with the memory of stillness. Of peace and tranquility. When I remember it I can almost feel it. Almost.

A fire cracks and night birds call out their cry. It’s called song, but it’s not really song. Sets of notes in sequence. It’s less melodious than song, and more beautiful.

My head hurts too much to be calm. There is too much fire in my throat. When I relax from distraction I remember all of the bills I haven’t paid. All of the potential clients I haven’t reached out to. All of the dreams that fester in the unventilated basement of my mind. Dreams never die, but you don’t have to die to decompose. If something can’t die, that just means it can keep rotting forever.

The notes of the music sound. They resonate throughout my brain. Through my skull and my bones.They raise the hairs along my arms and the other exposed places of my skin. A long, held note, accompanied by others. It is soothing in a deep way. A way that feels fundamental to all of existence. The background-radiation mantra of a meditating universe. Are we its thoughts? Are we the tiny distractions that dance into its conscious awareness and prevent it from focusing on its breathing? We are significant only because the universe cannot concentrate. How can we achieve peace, if our very form is that of a disturbance to the universe?

Yet it tempts me. It tries to pull me in with it. If only I could let myself go. If only every part of me could resonate with the notes. I’d have to stop moving. Stop running inside my own brain. Stop spinning the wheel of the mill, round and round, to turn the wheel that is grinding nothing. That’s all it would take, says the music. Just stop. Just rest. Then you’d be calm. Peace would be yours.

My brain won’t let me. It refuses to believe. What if I’m a shark? What if the moment I stop moving the oxygenated water will cease to pass through my lungs and provide my breath? What if the moment I stop fishermen will snag me in their nets and cut off my fin for their soup?

We’re all moving forward all the time. The earth hurtles through space, we hurtle through time. The arrow of time was fired from the bow of an angry archer who thought only of his target. He knows he cannot recover the arrow, so what does it matter if it splinters into shards against the wall? Life needs to keep growing or it dies. So do economies.

We are biological machines and the moment you turn us off you can never turn us back on. It’s a poor design that would never work for a vacuum cleaner. But we’re more complicated. So defined by our complexity that we’ve become addicted. We have to keep growing. We have to keep adding complexity or we calcify, then freeze, and then die. But we don’t stop growing. Not really. Our dead, useless machines become a rich bed for other organisms. A place for millions of other complexity addicts to get their fix.

I’m scared of peace. I’m scared of calm because it’s motionless. It’s adrift. And because it’s meaningless. Perfect peace has no purpose. The Buddha said that the ultimate goal is nonexistence. If you do everything right and achieve the purest and highest form of peace and stillness, you die. Fully and completely. You achieve perfection through meaninglessness.

True perfection has to be meaningless, because meaning requires that there be something more than what is there. You bite into an apple and it makes you feel good because you know it is organic and locally sourced. That is meaning. But if you take the perfect bite of the perfect apple none of that matters. The sensation of joy is so singular that it requires something else. Maybe later you’ll remember whether there were herbicides used in its growth, and maybe that will matter to you. But if that is in your mind while the sweet flesh lingers on your tongue, if meaning matters in that moment, then the moment is incomplete. It’s imperfect.

You can never understand perfection, and you can never understand calm. Not while you are there in the middle of it. Understanding is a disruption. It requires an outsider who is not part of the experience, standing and watching. Taking notes because they wish desperately to comprehend an experience through reduction that cannot be comprehended because of reduction. Because the act of ratiocination is an extra element that does not belong. It, too, needs to be removed if you want to achieve stillness.

It is hard for me to trust what I don’t understand. To cease moving is an act of faith. I’ve been there, and it’s beautiful. No, it’s that deeper place that beauty is built upon. If beauty is staring at a mountain shrouded in fog until tears line your eyes, then stillness is the mountain. It doesn’t need you and your emotions to be magnificent. It just is.

I’ve been there, and It Is. I know this. I know how I feel when I am there, and I know how beautiful I feel when I come back. Yet still I’m afraid. Afraid to stop moving. Afraid to stand still. Because I understand something. As far in as I’ve been, as much as I have slowed down, I have not reached the deepest part of the well. I have never achieved complete calm, or absolute stillness. I have brushed my fingertips against perfection, but that is all. Because I have come close enough to figure out something that is true, magnificent, and terrifying.

If I enter that place I might never come back.

Stillness leads to death not just because we must always grow. But because everything we love, all of our joys and hopes and dreams, they are imperfections. They are illusions. We desire them only because we have never drank of perfection.

If I want to be this person that I am–this fake, illusory person–then I need my suffering. I need the stress that is the inevitable result of movement. You cannot run forward without burning energy and creating waste. Entropy is exists is all reactions, and so only non-reaction is perfect. But all meaning comes from reaction. Meaning is a waste product, but it is also the source all beauty, all joy, all magnificence.

This music tempts me. It sings its few notes of stillness and they are all that is needed. It whispers to give up my fear and step into the still waters. It doesn’t matter if I drown. My lungs and my breath and my entire being won’t matter once bathed in that total perfect.

I will approach, because the feeling is sublime. But I will not listen to the whispers. As I step into the place of calm and stillness, I will keep a tiny fragment of fear in my pocket. Just enough that I will always return. I will always choose to continue to be a person, even if that is flawed and imperfect. Because there is value in this flawed and addicted universe. There is magnificence. There is meaning.

I don’t want perfection. The illusion is too beautiful.

An Apt Aphorism For Magic

Smoking Gun

 

“Move, and I will blow a hole through your motherfucking head. Where is the fucking money?”

When you have the barrel of a gun pressed to your head, I realized as I sat there in this exact situation, it doesn’t really matter if the person holding said gun is bluffing. I didn’t think that this particular gentleman was very likely to blow a hole through my head if I moved.

He presumably wanted an answer to his question about “the money” badly enough to resort to both the threat of gun violence and profanity to get the answer, and separating large parts of my brain from the other parts would be a good way to make sure he didn’t get that answer. But that possibility is academic. Even if there is a 90% chance that the individual holding the pistol is bluffing, the consequences of being incorrect are sufficiently dire that it isn’t worth the risk to explore that avenue of possibility.

It’s an apt aphorism as applies to magic, as well. If you know that someone is an accomplished magus, there is still a good chance that the amulet around his neck won’t actually turn your testicles into tapioca pudding or strike blind everyone of your bloodline if you don’t do what he says. Accomplish maguses bluff all the time, mostly to each other. Because they can get away with it. You only have to pull the tapioca-testicle trick a few times in front of the right people before word gets around and people start to take your amulets pretty seriously.

“Where is the fucking money?” he said again. “I’m not going to ask again!”

I didn’t know whether this specimen in front of me was bluffing. I couldn’t tell by the cold glint in his eyes whether he’d killed before, or if the way he held his gun meant he was an amateur. To tell you the truth I don’t know much about guns, or the people who wield them. But I do know an awful lot about magic. Which means I don’t really have to worry about either one.

“Ice,” I said.

“What? What the fuck you say?”

“I said ice,” I repeated. “It was a sort of word of power. More impressive if they’re in Enochian or Latin or something, but I’ve never had much of a head for languages and I usually get it wrong and end up with mice or something. But it doesn’t really matter. That’s just for show.”

“What the fuck you…” then he froze. Not literally, although I admit the metaphor is apt. He froze because he glanced down at his gun. He saw the whiteness that crept along the metal as the entire gun transformed into a single piece of ice. An ice gun. I nodded in admiration. If that had been a sculpture carved out of actual ice, it would have been quite impression.

He screamed. “What the fuck?”

“Does it hurt?” I asked.

“Mother fuck yeah it hurts! What the fuck did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything, exactly. Not on a fundamental level.”

“Fix it!” he screamed. “Do something!”

I laughed. “You walk into my house, shove a gun in my face, and demand money that isn’t even here, and now you’re asking for my help? You have to admit, that’s pretty ripe.”

He screamed again. I don’t think he appreciated the ripeness.

“It burns!”

“It burns because your hand is frozen to the ice gun,” I said. “It’s like licking a flagpole. Run some water over it and it’ll be fine. You might not even get frostbite if you work quickly. Maybe.”

“Frostbite!”

“Now kindly get out of my house, or I’ll do the same thing to your underwear.”

I watched his eyes widen and his face contort with fear, as he contemplated what “might not even get frostbite” in that scenario. He turned and ran straight for the exit. He knocked his head on the doorframe on the way out. Just like everyone does because it’s built for my height, only this time I didn’t have to feel bad about it.

I turned around and looked at the clock. 3:34 AM. Plenty of time left for sleep before I had to wake up the next morning. The benefits of self-employment. Still, the old nerves were a bit stretched, so I got up and headed towards the kitchen to fetch a mugful of warm milk. I wondered idly who told this degenerate that I had a pile of money in my domicile that he could acquire through through of violence. Someone who wanted to rattle me, no doubt. Something not terribly formidable, since it didn’t really work.

No, as I finished off my milk and settled down for bed, I felt downright chipper. I could have done a lot worse to that chap. He would have had it coming. But he had a wife and kids, no doubt. Or a mother at least. And there was a good chance he might reconsider the whole “gun violence” option as a solution to his financial difficulties in the future. So a little mercy, though not deserved, might go some small way towards making the world a better place. What more can a fellow ask of a midnight encounter than that?

He was just lucky I wasn’t in the mood for tapioca.

The Impossible Au Lait Incident

Café con leche - Milchkaffee (CC)
This is a story that has been rolling around in my head for a long time. Or rather, the longer story that this is the beginning of has been in there. I might continue this if it strikes me. I wrote it by hand in a green notebook during a period where I had nothing to do but wait, which is probably why it happened at all.

The Impossible Au Lait Incident

The most impossible thing about what I labelled in my daily journal as The Impossible Au Lait Incident was that I didn’t notice her. No one did. Oh, they noticed her in the absent way you notice other people on the bus. Enough not to walk into her. But she didn’t stand out. No one gawped at the giant metallic gold dreadlocks, the cascades of colored pearls that hung down to her knees. Or those impossible eyes.

I wouldn’t have noticed her at all if not for a specific combination of words, delivered for exactly the wrong reason. It was Monday morning, and I was as awake as that implies. I sat at the counter, flipping through the news stories on my phone’s RSS app without really reading them. I was impatient to get my coffee, and so I couldn’t pay attention to what I was reading. I was only reading so I could ignore the fact that I was impatient to get my coffee.

If I had been functionally awake the paradox might have bugged me. I might have noticed the world around me as something other than zombie drones whose only function in life was to crowd my coffee shop and prevent my caffeination. I might have had the perceptual faculties to read, or to focus on something other than my impending latte. I might even have noticed her. But somehow I don’t think so.

“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.” There is was. The beautiful voice of the barista, uttering the only words I currently had the capacity to care about. I bolted up from my chair and marched towards the counter to get my drink.

I reached out to grab the cup, but another hand beat me to it. I watched dark fingers close around the vessel that held my liquid salvation.

“Sorry,” said a female voice. “But this one’s mine.” It sounded like dark chocolate dancing the Riverdance.

I turned and stared at the owner of that voice. The panic I felt about my coffee fled at the sight of the strangest person I had ever seen. If a bookie had popped out from behind the raw sugar at that moment, I would have bet a lot of money that this was the strangest person anyone had ever seen.

“Excuse me?” I said. Because I didn’t have anything useful or interesting to say.

“This is my drink,” she said. She smiled, and her eyes flashed. That’s not a metaphor. She had bright purple irises, and for a moment they glowed like violet cat’s eyes in the dark.

I stared at her for a long moment.

“It’s okay to stare,” she said. “I know how this looks.” She indicated her strange attire. “I mean, no one listens to Soundgarden anymore.”

I wrenched my eyes from their paralytic position and looked away from her face at the rest of her. Sure enough, just visible under what must have been a dozen 6 foot long strings of pearls was a Soundgarden t-shirt, from the Ultramega Okay tour.

All of this overwhelmed me so much that it seemed to knock my brain into a different gear.

“That’s my drink!” I blurted out.

She smiled still wider and shook her head.

“It’s really not. We ordered the same thing. Only I was first.”

I shook my head. “That’s impossible. No one else orders that.”

She laughed. I suppose it was a musical laugh, but I’ve never heard that kind of music.

“It’s not impossible,” she said. “It’s just new.”

I blinked. It was a surprisingly intelligent response given my mental state.

“You look like you have good taste in coffee,” she said. “ The way you glanced at the baristas but not the menu when you walked in. The contented sigh you let out when you scented the specific roasts in the air. So I thought I’d borrow it.”

“My coffee?”

“Your taste.” She picked up her cup and pulled off the lid, just like I would have done. “Am I going to be disappointed?”

“It’s very hot,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “You can take it.”

It was true. I think you can really taste the nuances of the roast at high temperatures, but most people’s mouths are too sensitive. I had no such problem. My grandmother believed tea should be drank just off the boil and her children were damn sure going to learn to appreciate that. But what did that have to do with this strange woman?

I watched as she took a sip. She closed her eyes and her face melted into contentment. Was that what I looked like when I took my first sip?

“I chose well,” said the woman. “This is wonderful.” She raised her cup to me as if in salute. “Much obliged.” Then she turned and began to walk away.

“Wait!” I called after her.

She swivelled to face me and raised a golden eyebrow. Set against her dark skin that eyebrow seemed to raise a mile into the air. It just kept going.

I froze. I had no idea what to say. I had no idea why I called after her. A moment earlier it seemed like the most important thing in the world. Like we weren’t done. There was something I was supposed to ask her. Something I was supposed to say. But I didn’t begin to understand what it was.

She grinned.

“Next time,” she said.

What did that mean? I opened my mouth to ask her, but then I heard a voice. It came from behind me, and it spoke a very specific combination of words.

“Peruvian roast raspberry au lait, 190 degrees, no sleeve.”

I turned and saw the barista place my coffee on the counter. All of a sudden I could remember the strange woman ordering my coffee drink, three places ahead of me in line. Why hadn’t it struck me as strange? I heard the words. I saw the whole incident, and I understood it. But I hadn’t. Not really.

I picked my cup up from the counter and felt the comfortingly excessive heat burn my fingers. It was like Excalibur. Too hot even for the baristas to handle without a bar towel or a coffee sleeve. The heat made it delicious, but it also made it special. No one could drink it but me. Me and her, now.

I lifted it to my lips and took a long, slow sip. The scalding liquid trickled down my throat. I closed my eyes and sighed.

It wasn’t until I walked over to my table and had a few more sips that I put the coffee down and noticed the name written on the cup.

Flyndra.

Most definitely not my name. She had ordered first. I was sure of that. But still, somehow, she really had taken my cup of coffee. Or, just maybe, I had taken hers.

Don’t Thank The Chef

 

Daily Disney - Octopus Sushi Chef

I watched an episode of Gilmore Girls the other day which opens with Sookie, the chef at the inn where some of our main characters work, is standing over a table full of plates of food. She is freaking out because the guests sent back all of these plates because they tasted bad. One was too salty, one had no flavor, and one was “sewery.”

Sookie says that she tasted them all, and had her staff–ten people standing behind her–taste them. They’re all fine, so what is the problem with these jerk customers? She asks Lorelai, another character, to taste the food and tell her if she is crazy. Lorelai takes a bite of rice and says that she  now understands the word “sewery.” The food is terrible, and the staff were too scared to tell the chef about it. It turns out that there is someone wrong with Sookie’s pallet, and that’s why the food she served is all bad.

It made me want to put my foot through my TV screen. And I was watching this on a computer. But it was so infuriating that I blamed the entire medium of television, and in my rage I lacked the rationality not to blame the electronic device most commonly responsible for delivering it. Plus, I’m not going to mess up my computer. That’s nuts!

But anyway. This moment, and many similar ones on this mostly-good show, convey a common misconception that drives people in the food industry nuts. Not just because it’s inaccurate, but because it is poisonous and has genuine consequences. The misconception is this:

The chef cooks your food.

It’s not bloody true. Not only is it not true, it’s ridiculous. In this very scene of Gilmore Girls, we are shown the large staff of cooks in this kitchen. There are at least five or six of them, always running around making food while Sookie spends most of her time piping frosting onto elaborate cakes or hanging out with Lorelai. At least this show has a kitchen with a full staff. Most shows seem to think two or three people is enough to run a busy high end kitchen. This show has a full staff, although apparently all they do is peel potatoes.

There is no way for the chef to make all of the stocks, sauces, starches, sauteed items, grilled items, and other components that would have contributed to all of the food that went out being bad. Nor could she possibly taste and alter the seasoning of every single dish that they served. Especially when she also appears to do the baking. Sookie is shown as a very hands-on chef. Even a micromanager. But even if she paid special attention to each food item that went out, she wouldn’t have cooked it all, and she certainly wouldn’t have tasted each one. Are we supposed to believe that every time they serve a steak she cuts a hunk off and throws it down the old gullet to see if it has enough salt?

A chef is a manager more than anything. Even someone like Sookie who is always in the kitchen involved in the cooking, which is not the standard way of doing things, but it does happen. She is portrayed as the “genius chef” archetype whose food is a direct result of their ability to invent and execute amazing dishes. Those types of chefs do exist, but a lot of the reason their kitchens put out such great food is that they are good at training and managing a staff of excellent, professional cooks.

These cooks are the people who actually make the food. Not only that, they’re usually better at the actual execution than the chef who gets all the credit. The person who works the grill has thousands and thousands of hours of recent experience cooking steaks, of seasoning and sauces and preparing them in this exact way. That cook has more practice at the specific dishes on the menu than most people ever get at anything, because it’s a repetitive tasks. In a high end restaurant, the high standards and constant striving for perfection means that a good cook isn’t just practicing, they’re deliberately practicing. Which means they are always getting better.

The chef almost certainly can cook a mean steak. Once upon a time they may have been as good or better than the guy on the grill. But now the chef is almost certainly a little rusty. They aren’t in the trenches all the time like the cooks. Their priorities are different, as they should be. And they rose to that position not by being the best cook. At least, not necessarily. There’s a good chance the best cook in that kitchen is on that grill, and has been there for over a decade. The chef got the throne and the big paycheck because they can manage people, because they can make hard decisions, design menus, haggle with produce suppliers. And, a lot of the time, because they speak better English than the guy on the grill.

So yes, the chef is important. But they didn’t make your food. They ran a team of talented badasses who made your food. And they made a whole hell of a lot more money doing it, partially because the people who cut the paychecks have the same misconceptions as a lot of other people. The guy on screen with the great hair and the winning smile gets a lot more credit than the people behind the camera, even though their parts are equally important.

So don’t thank the chef. Everyone thanks the chef. The chef doesn’t need any more thanks. Find out who cooked that wild salmon so perfectly, and who made the almost impossibly delicate sauce, and thank them.

There’s a pretty good chance it’ll be the first time anyone ever did.