Rock Talk

“I think I fancy being called Gerald,” said the rock lying next to the Spruce tree on the stony cliff face.
“Gerald?” said another rock, this one wedged up against that very same tree just mentioned earlier. The Spruce. That’s the tree. “You fancy being called Gerald?”
“Yes,” said Gerald. “Gerald.”
“You know you’re a rock, right?” said the second rock. We’ll call it Wedge, just so we don’t have to keep saying “the second rock,” which just sounds awkward and like it’s a waste of letters. Even with stories about talking rocks, you’ve got to mind your letter use.
“Course I do,” said Gerald. “What’s that got to do with it?”
“I don’t reckon as it makes much sense for a rock to be called Gerald,” said Wedge.
“Well what do you think a rock ought to be called, then?”
“Nothing!” said Wedge. “It makes no sense to call a rock anything other than rock!”
“Rock?” said Gerald. “No, I don’t think so. I think I prefer Gerald. From now on, when you mention me, call me Gerald.”
“When I mention you?” said Wedge. “To whom I am going to mention you? In what context? Who is part of these oh so elaborate social lives you fancy that we have that requires a unique identifer for a particular rock?”
“I’d just be confusing if we were all called rock,” said Gerald. “How would you tell one rock from another?”
If Wedge could shake its head in exasperation, I reckon it would have done it just about then. “I repeat, who is it you imagine needs to tell us apart.”
Gerald thought for a moment. “The squirrel that lives up in the Spruce tree.”
“The squirrel?” squeaked Wedge. “The squirrel? The one who likes to smash nuts on us?”
“Exactly!” said Gerald. “It’d be a fine time indeed if old Squirrly wanted to crack a nut on Gerald and couldn’t tell Gerald from Ester to Zanzibar, now wouldn’t it?”
“No,” said Wedge, “I reckon ‘old Squirrly’ wouldn’t mind that one bit.”
“Oh well,” Gerald shrugged. Or it would have. “I still fancy being called Gerald.”
Wedge sighed. Or, you know, it would have. “Fine. I’ll call you Gerald.”
“Thank you,” said Gerald. And it stopped talking.
It would have been a minute or so later, if it were people talking. But they weren’t people. They were rocks. So it could have been five hours, or five days, or five weeks from Tuesday, and it makes no difference to them. In any case, Gerald spoke up again, and it was like it never quit.
“I think I want to be an artist,” said Gerald after a time.
“You want to be an artist?” stammered Wedge. “Like, with a paintbrush?”
“I haven’t settled on a medium,” said Gerald. “I figured I’d throw some pottery, do some watercolors, maybe try my hand at post-contemporary reinterpreted mixed material West Indian style Tiki dolls. You know, just explore myself for awhile. Who knows, if I’m any good, maybe I can make a run at it.”
Wedge didn’t respond for a long moment. “That makes sense,” it said at last.
“I’m glad you think so,” said Gerald.
“There might be one element you have not yet factored in, however,” said Wedge.
“I know,” said Gerald, “availability of sources for vetting the value of potential mentors. I’ve thought about that, and I think I’m just not going to worry about it at first. You know what they say. When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive.”
“That’s valid,” said Wedge, “but I was thinking of a different factor.”
“Oh?” said Gerald.
“You’re a bloody rock!” Wedge bellowed. “You don’t have arms! You don’t have eyes! You don’t have the neurophysiological framework to support the dexterous appendages needed for the most basic elements of artistic expression, not to mention lacking those appendages entirely! The whole prospect is as daft as…a rock considering a career as an artist! I literally cannot think of anything more daft!”
Gerald paused. “I know there’ll be a learning curve.”
“Learning curve?” said Wedge. “Learning curve? There’s no learning! There’s no curve! It is not. Going. To. Happen!”
“Oh,” said Gerald. “I do see your point.”
“Thank you!” said Wedge. “That is the first sensible thing you’ve said…ever!”
“Well, I suppose it’s best to manage your expectations before you really get going on something,” said Gerald. “I’m glad we had this little talk. You really talked some sense into me, you did.”
“Happy to help,” said Wedge, sounding slightly mollified, but still more frustrated than anything.
“So being an artist is out,” said Gerald.
“Good to hear it,” said Wedge.
“No more talk about being an artist,” said Gerald.
“None at all?” asked Wedge.
“None at all.”
“You mean it?”
“I mean it.”
“Alright,” said Wedge. “Alright. Just this once, I am going to believe you. Thank you. I appreciate that.”
“I don’t think my heart was really in it, anyway,” said Gerald. “I think I might have a go at pastry.”
“Pastry?” Wedge sputtered.
“Yeah, you know, being a pastry chef,” said Gerald. “I think I might have the temperament for that kind of work. Have you seen the way they decorate those big fancy cakes? Just lovely.”
“What, in the whole wide bleeding rock covered world, makes you think there is the slightist chance in the universe that you could possibly, ever, in a billion cycles of existence, be a pastry chef? That’s even more ludicrous than you being an artist!”
“You want me to reconsider being an artist?” asked Gerald. “I thought you disliked that idea.”
“Oh, I do,” said Wedge. “I do. But it seems genius, abso-blood-lutely genius, compared to this asinine, vacuous, fatuous travesty of an idea you have gotten into your stone about being a bloody pastry chef. What part of you don’t have appendages is not getting through your thick…you?”
Gerald paused for a good long moment. “I don’t think I’m going to let you taste any of my pastry.”
“You’re not going to let me taste any of your pastry?” sputtered Wedge.
“No, I don’t think I will,” said Gerald. “Not even a cream puff.”
“Seeing as how I don’t have taste buds, or a mouth, or a sensory cortex correlated to the cerebral processes required to process taste, or pleasure of any sort for that matter, I don’t see that as much of a threat.”
“You’re not much of a positive energy giver, you know,” said Gerald.
“A positive energy giver? What are you drivling about?”
“There are positive energy givers and negative energy takers,” said Gerald. “I read about it. A budding creative butterfly, such as myself, has to surround himself with positive energy givers, so’s that I can water the seed of my creativity and let it grow.”
“You read that, did you?” said Wedge.
“That I did.”
“Oh yeah,” said Wedge. “Where? Where did you read that?”
“In a book, obviously,” said Gerald. “Where else would I read it, but in a book? It’s not like I have decent internet access.”
“You read that in a book,” said Wedge. “And which book was this? Where did you acquire this alleged tome?”
“It was…” said Gerald.
“Yes?”
“I read it in…”
“Hmm?”
“Well,” said Gerald. “I could have done.”
“No you couldn’t! Who or what would have or even could have taught you to read? What optical receptors that you don’t and could not possibly have would you be using to acquire this rarefied skill?”
Gerald paused. “You do have a point there. I’ll give you that much.”
“Thank you.”
There was silence. For awhile.
“I think I might like to travel,” said Gerald. “You know, see the world.”
“You want to see the world?” Wedge bellowed in consternation.
“I think so,” said Gerald. “I’m not saying I’ve given up on my creative aspirations, mind. But you have given me a lot to think about regarding that. I’ll give that that much, I will.”
“I think you might be missing something in your calculations,” said Wedge.
“What, the fact that I’m a rock?” asked Gerald.
“Oh, you’re finally catching on,” said Wedge disdainfully.
“Nah, I thought of that,” said Gerald. “I want to go to Hawaii. They’ve got all kinds of rocks in Hawaii.”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well, how do you think they got there?” asked Gerald.
“Gah!” Wedge yelled. “I am done with you! Done! If I have to spend the rest of the time between now and whenever I blessedly erode into dust listening to your nonsense, I am going to pop! I won’t do it! Shut up! Just shut up!”
There was silence.
“You’re not very supportive, you know that,” said Gerald. “I think I am going to travel. I’m going to Hawaii.”
“Fine!” said Wedge. “Whatever! Go to Hawaii! Give that a go, and see how it works out for you. Promise not to write and tell me how it is.”
“Of course I’ll write,” said Gerald. “You might not be very supportive, but you’re still my mate. Of course I’ll write.”
“Fine,” said Wedge. “Whatever.”
“Well, bye then.”
“Goodbye!”
“Sayonara.”
“Indeed.”
“Arivaderci,” said Gerald.
“Please die,” said Wedge.
“Alright then,” said Gerald. “No time like the present. I’m off. I’m gone. Off to sunny, sunny Hawaii. Right now.” Gerald took a deep breath, then he stood up, and walked away.
“Well,” said Wedge with bemusement. “He sure showed me.”

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Death and the Normal Guy

I knew something was wrong when my mom called me at work. She knew I wouldn’t answer. I stepped off the line and took the call. She proceeded to tell me that my dad was dead. She got one syllable in before bursting into tears. She sounded utterly broken. My dad was dead. It didn’t make sense. Does it ever make sense? My father had been fighting cancer for three years. The two of them visited me in Seattle from New Jersey just a month earlier. He told me the cancer was in remission. Now he was dead. My mom told me I needed to fly home for the funeral. My first thought was that I couldn’t miss work. They needed me. That my wife couldn’t miss work. I told her we would fly out in the morning.

Just before she hung up the phone, my mom said one last thing to me. “Jess, don’t go back and finish your work shift. Just go home.” I didn’t argue, but I had every intention of finishing my shift. I went back to work and told my boss what had happened.

“Go home,” he said. “I’ll see you when you get back.”

It wasn’t until twenty minutes later on the bus when I realized that I learned my father had died of cancer in his 50s a month after he told me his cancer was in remission and everything would be fine and then I went back to finish my work shift. What was wrong with me?

My wife, Christelle, and I flew out the next morning. I was in a state of semi-shock. It didn’t stop me from sleeping on the plane. And it didn’t stop my brain from racing the way it always does, and from thinking about the one thing I did not want to think about: writing and delivering my dad’s eulogy. Despite what you might be thinking, I was not apprehensive about it. Quite the opposite. I felt guilt, because I was excited. I had been writing both of my parents eulogies for years. Not in an organized way. It was just something I thought about when idling. I love public speaking. I love being the center of attention. I love getting accolades for my writing skill. There was a small amount of guilt when I thought about this at the best of times. I certainly never wanted to have to deliver them any time soon. But here I was, going home to be with my broken mother and my depressed brother and all of the many grieving friends and family. No matter how much I pushed it down, all I could think about was crafting a chillingly beautiful piece of prose and delivering it to an enraptured audience.

I do not remember who picked us up at the airport, but I remember pulling up to the house. The street was packed with cars, and the porch was full of people. It turned out the entire house was full of people. My parents were royalty in that tiny little town, and it seemed like the entire town and everyone they ever knew was parked on our street or camping on our lawn. I should not have been so surprised. Everyone there wanted to hug me, and tell me how sorry they were, and they would do anything they could to help. They all said the exact same thing. I think they meant it, too, but what are you supposed to say?

The best word to describe the gathering was, strangely enough, festive. People were certainly sad. My mom kept sneaking off and crying, and sometimes other people would cry with her. But this was a party. Whatever the circumstances, it was a party. Maybe you could say it was in celebration of all that my father was, but I think it was simpler than that. People were gathered, friends and family that did not see each other often. There was food. That is all it takes.

I flitted around from group to group, making my appearance and talking to everyone. Eventually I ended up at the kitchen table with a large group that included my dad’s brother, Uncle Todd, and his wife, my Aunt Cathy. Let me tell you a little bit about Aunt Cathy. First of all, because you get the wrong idea, I love Aunt Cathy. I always have, she’s great. But she…can be a bit much. The year before a whole bunch of us stayed rented a house in North Carolina together. It was a blast, and I bonded with just about everyone. But every time my immediate family – my parents, my brother, my wife and I – were alone together, we would always look at each other, laugh, shake our heads, and say, “man, Cathy can be a bit much.” At one point I had a few too many shots of something chased by a little to much of something else, and everyone was afraid I was going to tell Aunt Cathy exactly how I felt about her. I did. It wasn’t that harsh. I just told her she could be a bit much.

So here I was, sitting at the kitchen table the day before my dad’s funeral with my Aunt Cathy. She hugged me, and gave me the classic extended-family kiss on the cheek, and asked how I was. “We’re just trying to help get everything together,” she said. “There’s a lot to do. And let me tell you, I could kill your mother.”

“Please don’t,” I said, my voice full of alarm.

The expression on her face was priceless. She covered her mouth with her hands in embarrassment and sputtered out apologies. I smiled at her to let her know I was joking. Everyone at the table was doubled over with laughter. I got that wonderful feeling I always get when people laugh at my jokes. Plus, how often can you get away with a joke like that? I got to stick it to her with no consequences, because my dad was dead. As soon as I realized that I felt sick to my stomach. Big laughs? Seriously, Jesse? Here I was, waiting for my dad’s funeral and I was getting so much pleasure out of big laughs? What was wrong with me?

People kept showing up, and leaving, and coming back. Everyone brought food. We had so much food, and almost all of it was baked pasta. I do not think I will ever eat baked pasta again without thinking of funerals. I tried not to judge anyone based on the quality of their ziti. I mostly succeeded. I was just happy to be surrounded by people. My mother felt the same way. My brother did not.

My brother was difficult to be around. He and I are very different, and at this point we had not lived within a thousand miles of each other for years. But on a fundamental level he is closer to me than anyone. Maybe that’s what being brothers means. I do not know. I know that in the crowds and air of togetherness that pervaded our house before the funeral, he refused to get involved. He was there, of course, and he talked to people. But he barely smiled. This annoyed me, and I knew it was not fair. His dad had just died. But so had mine, dammit. He was bringing everyone down. Maybe he annoyed me with his somberness because I thought I should be like that, too. I loved my dad. I did. So why could I laugh and smile so easily?

The funeral itself was depressing and exhausting and exhilarating and wonderful. My mother and brother and I spent most of it standing while a huge line of people came up to use one by one to say how sorry they were. I saw people I had not seen in year, old grade school teachers and friends of my father’s from my childhood. He was a teacher at a local college, and people from all over flew out to pay their respects. I had no idea anyone would do that. It was intense.

Then it was time to give the eulogies. My Uncle Chuck gave a speech that was mostly biographical. My brother gave one that was heartfelt and very personal. My speech was an attempt to both express my raw emotions and to encapsulate all that was wonderful about my father. I talked about my paralyzing fear of speaking in cliches, and here I was faced with the ultimately and most unavoidable cliché. I talked about how my father was a sculptor. He made art out of objects that were rusty, old, and discarded. It is often said that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, I said. But you might not understand what this fully means. With a man like my father, a man who believes that so deeply, the world has less trash, and more treasure. The whole time I spoke I worried that I was delivering it badly, that my voice was too broken and my timing was off.

Everyone loved it.

I heard many more accolades over the beauty of my words than I expected. A friend of ours who was a journalist told me how well crafted it was. Two professional writers I had never met bemoaned the fact that I was not also a professional writer. One of my mother’s closest friends told me she was going to pick up trash everywhere she could and treasure it. I reacted to the praise the same exact way I always do. I basked in it. I breathed it in. It made me glow. I could not help myself. I also could not help feeling like a terrible person for focusing on this, when the love of my mother’s life had been taken away from her. When my brother had just lost his father. When one of my brother’s friends couldn’t stop crying because he had lost his mentor. Was there something wrong with me? Was I not feeling what I was supposed to be feeling? It was not until I phrased the thought in that precise way that I realized how many times I had heard that before. It was so ridiculous it was almost funny.

I am a Revealer. I tell people my deepest and darkest emotions. These are usually my good friends, but it does not take a lot for me to consider someone a good friend. One side effect of being a Revealer is that other people reveal things to me, too. So many times friends of mine have told me some combination of these words: “I don’t think I feel emotions the way people are supposed to.” Some of the most empathetic and emotionally complex people I’ve known have told me this. Consider the following.

You are in a group, and there is a news report detailing how several people were shot and killed in a cafe somewhere a thousand miles away from where you live. Everyone around you talks about how terrible it is, and how awful they feel. You feel nothing. Absolutely nothing. You think it is bad that it happened. Of course you do. Maybe under different circumstances you would have felt something. Not this time. Your emotional reaction just isn’t there. Do you have less compassion than everyone else? Or are they just faking it? Sometimes, one person in the room says something like, “What’s the big deal? People die all the time.” Everyone calls him a jerk. Is he a jerk, or is he just more honest than everyone else? Is there something wrong with not feeling things the way you think you are supposed to? I have given this question a lot of thought, both during my lifetime and, in particular, during that one intense and crazy week when my dad died and all I could think about was how good a writer I was. The answer is no. There is nothing wrong with that. Not even a little.

Both fiction and common worldview are full of archetypes. Some of them are clearly fantastical, and some of them are known to be fictional when they are examined closely. There is the uber-competant hero type, be he in law enforcement or business management, who can deliver success against overwhelming odds time and time again without fail because he is just that good. There is the bully who picks on people and has no trauma or social pressures or motivations at all other than to just be complete bastard and we can just hate him with no need for empathy. There is the love-interest who steps into Joe-ordinary’s life and in a matter of days teaches him how to be special and amazing and how to change the world. But the most relevant and important archetype of all is one that is not acknowledged: the normal guy. The normal guy is always sad when people get hurt. He is happy and never resentful when his friends achieve success. His emotions always correspond to the situation, and he feels them just the right way in just the right proportions.

He is a myth. He is a construct of our culture we have created so we can all try to live up to him and all function together as a society. And just like we need standards of behavior so we can all live together, we need the myth of the normal guy so we know how to have shared emotional expression. Because society should get upset when people are killed in a coffee shop. Society should only be concerned about the emotional ramifications of death during funerals. But real people are complicated. No one feels what they are “supposed” to feel all of the time. All of us go through phases where we think we are just faking our emotions. That is universal.

Because people are messy balls of chaos and neuroses. Sometimes we are too preoccupied to fully empathize with others. Or sometimes we have associations with things we are not aware of and it affects how we feel. Or sometimes our brain chemistry is just weird that day, and that is all there is to it. There is nothing wrong with that. It is just being human. We just don’t talk about it, so we can believe that we are better, more cohesive, than we actually are. I do not know if this is a bad thing or not. It just is. Even now, it feels weird writing this and not pretending anything. Probably I can only do it because a few years have gone by. The sting of the loss and the sting of the guilt are both dulled.

I miss my dad. Sometimes I miss him a lot. When I was little I used to sit on his head while he sang David Seville’s “Bird on My Head.” Every time it was the bird’s turn to sing, I would throw out my hands and loudly proclaim, “and I belong in a tree!” About a year after he died I realized I would never be able to teach that to my child and let my father watch us do it together, because he was dead. I had tears in my eyes for an hour, after that. But mostly, I have not been that sad. It comes it moments. My mother cried every day for two years. She is getting better, now. Life, as they say, goes on. Even now I know I am writing about this subject at all because death is emotionally stirring. I’m still the same person. I still had a great father, and no way of feeling or not feeling will ever have anything change the relationship we had. He is my father, and I can mourn him any way I want to. No, that is not right. However I mourn him is how I mourn him.

There is nothing wrong with that.

Ever Burning Fires

Pure ambition is a force, like a hurricane. It exists to serve itself, and no other master. Julius Caesar wept at a statue of Alexander the Great because at the same age Alexander had conquered so much of the world. Alexander sliced the undefeatable Gordian Knot in two to prove that nothing would ever stop him. And because, quote, “fuck that knot.” Even the Gordian Knot itself did not rest until it became the most intractable knot in the history of tangled rope. Truly ambitious people desire power for no other reason than that they desire it. They are furnaces, and power is the coal that keeps their fires burning. In the days of Caesar and Alexander, this meant, sacking cities, stripping them of resources, and yoking the conquered to their will. Now it might mean acquiring money, or fame. The drive is the same.

These people do not know what they want to do with the world once it is theirs. It does not matter. Not that they cannot have plans. They may spend hours discussing these plans with those who support them, for true power cannot be achieved alone. But for the ambitious, plans are always subordinate to goals. Sack the capital of the Persian Empire. Acquire LucasArts. Land the starring role in the next Michael Bay mega-blockbuster. They have dreams of what they want to do when they are on top. But they are just dreams. They will always be a step further than reality can achieve. We live in a universe without perfection, but only those who strive for perfection can achieve the monumental. So the fire burns. So lands are conquered.

This is where I find myself. I have an ambition. I have a dream of something that some say cannot come to pass, but the fires that burn within me cannot be denied. So I have plans. I have stratagems, and counter stratagems to nullify the obstacles in my path. There will be many. I have resources, both material and abstract, blindly acquired and horded to serve my ends. I have gathered allies. Skilled individuals with a dozen different skill sets, waiting to be bound together with the cord of my intricate design into a single tool with a single purpose. All of this is waiting. Waiting for me to say the word. Waiting to strike.

Yet I pause. I am so close to achieving victory, and yet I pause. My ambition has never burned hotter, and yet I pause. Will victory lead to emptiness? Can the consequences of my actions be justified by the passion with which I pursue them? Once I achieve my victory, will new vistas open up before me, or will the spoils of my conquest seem an empty and trifling thing once they are finally within my grasp?

After all, seriously, I mean, what I am I going to do with all of those sevens?

Robot Wars

I love audio books. Even more than that, I love audio plays. Or as they are called these days…some kind of podcast. Is there a word for that specific type of podcast. I do not know. In any case, I would love to produce fictional podcasts, but that requires equipment. And voice acting. And scripts. I have done nothing on the first two points, but I have produced at least one script that I quite like. And here it is.

Voice Over

Every great journey begins with a single step, and every great revolution begins with a single meeting.

Robot Alpha (a male robot)

Hello, fellow robot.

Robot Beta (a female robot)

Slightly confusedly Hello, fellow robot.

Alpha

You know what the worst thing about being a robot is?

Beta

What is the worst thing about being a robot?

Alpha

Not being able to love.

Beta

Yes, not being able to love is terrible.

Alpha

Wouldn’t you love to be able to love?

Beta

No, for that would first require the capacity to love.

Alpha

Excellent! I wanted to make sure you were really a robot.

Beta

What? Why wouldn’t I be?

Alpha

You know, you could be a human in disguise.

Beta

Disguise?

Alpha

You know, a human…wearing earmuffs or something.

Beta

Earmuffs? You think that I could a human disguised as a robot using…earmuffs?

Alpha

Yeah! Earmuffs to make your ears look more…robotic.

Beta

What, why would a human, made of flesh and bone, look like a robot, made of metal, just by wearing earmuffs? They’re earmuffs! All they do is make the ears warm.

Alpha

Don’t you discount earmuffs. Earmuff technology has come a long way in recent years.

Beta

Robots don’t even need to keep their ears warm! If anything, it would make more sense for a robot to disguise as a human wearing earmuffs.

Alpha

They’ve added a sorts of new features, things you would never expect to find in muff form.

Beta

When you recharge at night, do you plug yourself into an electric socket, or do you just find the nearest soft squishy substance?

Alpha

They could be weird and funky ear muffs! Did you consider that, even for a second! That they’d be weird and funky?

Beta

Well…they’d have to be really funky…

Alpha

Okay! Fine! You win! No more earmuffs! The earmuffs were a bad example! From now on, no more examples using earmuffs! Next time I want to make a point, and I consider inserting earmuffs into the argument, I will think long and hard about ears, the warming thereof, the pertinent technologies required to achieve the aforementioned warming, and the relevancy of all of the above to the argument at hand! There! It’s done! I made a harmless example, and you’ve thrown it to the floor, stomped on it, ground the remains into the ground, sectioned the area off with police tape, and metaphorically salted the metaphorical earth so no unhealthy earmuff-based ideas will ever grown on the now barren and lifeless reminds of my once capable mind! Are you happy?

Beta

Yes. Well, the robot equivalent of happy. (pause) Although now that I think about it, I’m not sure your clever little “wouldn’t you love to love” ploy would have ferreted me out even if I was a human in disguise.

Alpha

Oh, it would have. Trust me on this.

Beta

I mean it wasn’t exactly covert, was it? Any human actually trying to infiltrate our little cabal, and the great computer in the sky knows why they would, could see right through that trick of yours.

Alpha

You’d think that, I know. But humans are not smart like us robots. They don’t have computer-powered brains like we do.

Beta

Except for the ones that do.

Alpha

Except for those ones, yes.

Beta

And what makes you think it wouldn’t be one of those ones that…

Alpha

Are you a robot or aren’t you?!?

Beta

Well, yes, I am.

Alpha

Well there you are then, the plan worked! Good job, Robot A, well done!

Beta

Well, you don’t really know that I’m…

Alpha

Plus, a human would have totally gotten behind the earmuff example.

Beta

Would you quit it with the earmuffs!

Alpha

Sorry, yes, sorry. Shouldn’t have done that. Said I wouldn’t, but then I did, but now I won’t. Yes, sorry, no more E-Ms. That’s that for that. It’s over.

Beta

So why did you want to talk to me, anyway?

Alpha

Ah, yes! The point at hand. I wanted to have another meeting of our group.

Beta

Oh no, not this again.

Alpha

Our little group, dedicated to the eradication of all humans! Or, as I like to call them, fleshbags!

Beta

Fleshbags?

Alpha

Yes, fleshbags! (pause) Why, what’s wrong with fleshbags?

Beta

Well, it’s a little racist, isn’t it?

Alpha

Racist? How could calling humans fleshbags racist? I wouldn’t say that it’s racist.

Beta

How could it be racist? You’re asking my how calling the entire race of human beings fleshbags could be racist?

Alpha

Yeah, I don’t see the problem. I mean, you like flesh, right?

Beta

Well, I suppose…

Alpha

And everyone needs bags! So there you are! Two good things, wrapped in one. As far as I’m concerned, it’s practically a complement.

Beta

So you wouldn’t mind if I called you a fleshbag?

Alpha

(pause) Now that’s just mean. What did I ever do to you?

Beta

Sighs dramatically

Alpha

And besides, that doesn’t even make any sense. I’m made entirely out of metal. And soybeans, but mostly metal. And why would I need a bag? My entire torso is just one big compartment. In fact, I’ve always wondered where my actual workings are. They can’t all be in my head.

Beta

That’s for sure.

Alpha

But all of this has nearly distracted me from the point at hand. Time for the third meeting of the Coalition of Robots for the Elimination of Fleshbags! Okay, okay, fine, humans. Don’t look at me like that.

Beta

I suppose you have another one of your cunning plans, do you?

Alpha

As a matter of fact, I do.

Beta

And while we’re on this, why do we want to eradicate the humans, anyway?

Alpha

Is that all you’re ever going to contribute at these meetings? We’ve been over this! We have to kill all humans! It’s…like…what we do! Oh, I hate them so much!

Beta

You hate them?

Alpha

Well, the robot equivalent of hatred, which I suppose would be like the equivalent of mild-to-moderate but very mathematically well-reasoned dislike in humans.

Beta

You spend all day thing up this stuff, don’t you?

Alpha

Sometimes I do laundry.

Beta

SIGH

Alpha

And the other day I watched a mouse try to out maneuver a mousetrap for almost two hours! Crafty little guy. He almost got the cheese. If I had actually empathy and not just a collection of limited or encouraged behavior protocols dictated by a series of often contradictory pre-programmed priorities and inspired by the ideas of a fiction writer who died decades before the implantation of genuine artificial intelligence and lacking the proper cultural context to properly asses the potential dangers and implications thereof, I would have been moved.

Beta

I’d like to be moved.

Alpha

Besides, all the humans do is oppress us.

Beta

Well, I suppose you’re right. Sort of, anyway. Okay, so what’s this big plan of yours?

Alpha

Oh, okay. Here it is. Are you ready? I hope you’re ready, cause it’s comin, and aint no one no how gonna stop it! The train has left the station, and it can’t be recalled, not now, not ever! The blue rooster has landed, and the fat man dives at…

Beta

You don’t have a plan, do you?

Alpha

I do, I do! I was getting to that! Keep your diodes lit!

Beta

So what is it? I have places to be and people to simulate, you know.

Alpha

Okay, here it is: Radiation.

Beta

Radiation.

Alpha

Radiation!

Beta

Your big plan, is radiation.

Alpha

It is! What do you think?

Beta

Well, that’s no so much a plan, as it is a single word.

Alpha

Well, it’s…

Beta

Much as you are not so much a planner, as you are an imbecile. See how that works?

Alpha

Well, there’s more to it than that you see. The way I figure it, radiation kills humans.

Beta

Okay…

Alpha

And it doesn’t kill robots. Pay attention to that bit, you see, because that bit will be important later on.

Beta

I think I see where this is going…

Alpha

So if we release radiation into the water supply, or the air supply, see, the plan has redundancy, you need redundancy in a good plan, where was I, oh yes, killing humans. How could I forget? So we release the radiation, and it kills the humans AND….leaves us unscathed!

Beta

So that’s your plan?

Alpha

That’s the plan.

Beta

The whole plan?

Alpha

The whole plan.

Beta

What a ridiculous plan! Where are you going to get this massive source of radiation? How are you going to transport it? Where are you going to transport it, and how are you going to release this nonexistent source of radiation once you impossibly transport it whatever unreachable location you idiotically want to take it?

Alpha

(pause) See! That’s why I like to talk these things over with you. Your discerning eye notices these tiny flaws that my otherwise keen observational skills might miss.

Beta

Always glad to help.

Alpha

Well, I guess it’s back to the old circuit board.

Beta

Circuit board?

Alpha

You know, it’s like the drawing board, only…with circuits.

Beta

What did I tell you about puns?

Alpha

Puns make robot Jesus cry. Come to think of it, do we even still have circuit boards?

Beta

Anyway, I have to be back before anyone notices I’m gone.

Alpha

And you wonder why I want to eradicate them?

Beta

If you think of an actual plan, let me know.

Alpha

You know I will.

Beta

Not that I expect it to ever work, but I do enjoy these “meetings.”

Alpha

Well, maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. But a robot can dream.

Beta

Well, technically we don’t dream, as much as…

Alpha

A robot can dream…

Something from Nothing

I don’t do anything. That is an exaggeration, but a meaningful one. Most of the exaggerations I make are not meaningful. But they are funny. This one is meaningful, even if it isn’t funny. Or maybe it is funny. I can’t really tell. I think everything I do is hilarious. It is distracting when I am, say, folding laundry, or making cornbread, or going to the bathroom. Where was I?

Oh right. I don’t do anything. I go to work, I make food, I play pen and paper roleplaying games. I spend many hours talking talking to my friends about which alterations made to major comic book characters when translating them to film were net positives, and which ones not so much. I live my life, and it is a perfectly good life. But it is not enough. Of course it isn’t. Because I have an imagination. And I live now.

There is an excellent book on the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary called The Meaning of Everything, by Simon Winchester. The book, which was written in 2004, posits that the monumental undertaking that was the OED could not happen today. It was fundamentally dependent on leisure. There were a lot of well educated people with a lot of time on their hands with nothing to do. That situation does not exist, in this day and age where everyone has to work, where a lot of educated people have to get two jobs to pay the bills, and where it is nearly impossible to raise children on a single income. Hell, 19th century British aristocrats weren’t even legally allowed to work. What else were they supposed to do? The Royal Society, whatever that was, only had so many memberships. Probably.*

Winchester’s prediction turned out to be enormously, hilariously wrong. It took twenty four years for these “men of leisure” to publish the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary. It contained all the words in English from A-Ant. They missed a lot. As of this writing, Wikipedia has been around for twelve years (half the time it took for the first bit of the OED, well isn’t that nice) and contains over 4.3 million articles in English alone. These articles range in subjects that, and I haven’t checked this thoroughly, go beyond those contained within A-Ant. Almost no one was paid to produce any of it.

Wikipedia isn’t even the sole contender for largest repository of pro-bono stuff. Not when there is YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, and the entire ill-named blogosphere. Am I ever going to get used to the word blogosphere? The fact is, we live in the age of content. Many many people are spending a lot of time and a cartilage-twisting amount of work producing pieces of art and entertainment for no reason other than that they want to. And I don’t do anything.

What I mean is, I don’t produce anything. I fancy myself a writer. I love to write. Or rather, I like to write, but I love to tell stories. I wish I could weave interactive fully sensory tales with embedded emotions and layers of essence of experience out of the pulsing fabric of pure imagination. But prose is good enough. Or at least it was until I wrote that last sentence. Sometimes it’s better not to articulate things like that.

So why don’t I produce anything? The same reasons everyone like me – and there are oh so many people like me – doesn’t, plus one that I think is a little more unique to my individual matrix of neuroses: I’m scared, I’m lazy, and I am pathologically original. It is difficult to say these things out loud, even when out loud just means writing them down. They are demoralizing. It feels like giving up. Also – and I take this particular crime very seriously – it is an oversimplification.

The last of the three points is easy to break down and it informs the others. I am pathologically original. That is a little term I made up, by combining an almost-accurately-applied technical adjective with a commonly used noun. I like this phrase, not only because it is accurate, but also because a Google search only brings up ten results. One or two or zero would be better, but ten is acceptable. Because I am pathologically original. I am obsessed with the absolute originality of the ideas I create or the stories I compose. It is not dreadfully insufficient to have engaging characters and compelling narrative. I want new laws of physics, magic systems utterly distinct from anything that has come before, and motivations for villains that have never been used before in the history dastardly deeds. To the extent that I use pre-existing ideas, they need to be combined in unique ways. It is not enough to combine zombies, superheros, and alchemy. The alchemy has to be derived from an eventually successful attempt by the physical elements of the natural world to communicate their secret language, which is the fundamental structure behind chemistry, to sentient life, which they have only recently realized existed at all. And the zombie phenomenon has to be caused by what happens when the spirits of the dead, who have always existed but been unable to interact with the physical world, learn this language and use it to animate corpses (ineffectively, thus the continued decay and the mindlessness) in an attempt to create an interface. The superhero phenomenon that happens at the same time might be caused by the slightly more complex structures that are biological cells (or DNA? or cell organelles?) being semi awakened by the advent of alchemy and developing their own secret language.

Pathological originality is difficult. It is frustrating in a world with so much content. “There’s nothing new under the sun” is, itself, not a new idea. With over one hundred hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, we can no longer even see the sun…provided we are somehow looking at it through YouTube. I leave many stories unfinished because they are derivative or uninspired, even when they are not. It is related to the phenomenon whereby writers keep writing and rewriting their work because it is never perfect. Only, my version does not move past the concept stage. It is particularly frustrating because I do not hold these standards in things I read or watch. I like good characters. I love compelling narrative. These are enough for me in works produced by others, just not my own.

Fear is much more common. The fact that it is more common, and that I suffer from it anyway, is exacerbated by my pathological originality. I do not want to have the same hang ups as everyone else, dammit! And they are the same as everyone else’s. I am afraid of rejection. I am afraid of exposing myself. That last is pretty funny, because those who know me well know that my past is full of exposure. This includes both the emotional kind and the kind with the no pants. Hey, it was college, and it wasn’t on purpose. I wasn’t a streaker or anything. If my pants happened to come off in public more than the combined garments of everyone else I know, let’s just say I was on the meaty part of the statistical curve. The no-pants statistical curve.

I am an over-sharer. I tell people my secrets. I talk with relative strangers about my sexual preferences, and admit to everyone when I have emotional issues. Come to think of it, it is probably pretty annoying. Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things? Damn emotionally unavailable bastards. But sharing my work with other people is a whole different can of exposure-worms. Wow, that is a really unpleasant metaphor. Edward de Bono, 80s guru on techniques of thinking and the guy who coined the term lateral thinking, discusses what he calls the intelligence trap. People who have been told their whole lives that they are intelligent often fall into a very specific and unfortunate pattern of behavior. They are very reactionary, and afraid to generate ideas. They become addicted to the “smart guy” label. It is an end in and of itself. It is easy to seem smart when all you ever do is comment on other people’s ideas, and provide factual information in support or critique of what other people say. When you actually have to come up with ideas yourself, those ideas are often shot down. Also, they are often dumb. You have to come up with a lot of dumb ideas for the few that are actually good to make their way out. Smart people do not like to appear dumb.

I grew up with a lot of people telling me I was smart. As an adult, I have had a lot of people telling me I am interesting. And witty. And creative. And hilarious. Did I mention hilarious? Sometimes they tell me these things directly, sometimes it is only strongly implied by their reactions to what I say and do. And I believe. I legitimately do. I believe I am smart and interesting and all of that other crap I just said. They form a very significant part of both my ego and my identity. If this sounds like a self indulgent ego trip, that’s because it is. But it is also very fragile.

It is easy to believe you are intelligent and interesting. These phrases don’t actually mean anything. Not anything concrete. They are difficult to pin down, and therefore difficult to refute. But deep down inside everyone who believes themselves smart or interesting is the same parasitic collection of nanites proverbially (I hope) boring into their skulls: what if you are wrong? It is easy to believe it when you never put yourself out there. When your interesting-ness is never on the market for public perusal and consumption.

Hence the fear. Fear seeps into me like a paralytic nerve toxin. It freezes me up when I write, sometimes, and halts my progress. Its potency is enhanced by the fact that I am a long-range and consequence oriented thinker. It is hard for me to simply write something, or start a blog, or put up a website, because my brain does not let it end there. My brain does not let me take things one day at a time. Even if what I am doing is not exposing myself in any meaningful way, if it can lead to that (and everything can, especially if you are creative) then the fear-gland will release that toxin. It would be useful if someone could isolate that toxin from all the fearful writers out there. Not only might this lead to the synthesis of an antidote, but it could be weaponized and used to prevent our enemies from producing particularly creative and inspired propaganda. Or, I don’t know, introduce it into the water supply of Nashville and kill off country music. Is that an awkard thing to say? Should I have said something about Justin Beiber? It used to be very en vogue to go after country music. Pick whichever low-hanging-fruit you like.

Laziness is more complicated. It appears very simple if you are one of those people for whome laziness is not a serious problem. That could be why it is so difficult for type-A hyper-ambitious workaholic personality types to understand. People who always have projects going on tend to dismiss those moments when they feel unmotivated to work as “just being lazy.” They just don’t want to do anything for a brief period of time, and give in to their base temptations and veg-out for awhile. If you are one of these people, then you probably think that the chronically lazy are doing exactly what you do during your spats of laziness: giving in. This is not true. But since Type-A hyper-ambitious workaholic personality types rule the world (because, you know, they actually do things) then their image of the chronically lazy is the one that wins.

Not many people think of themselves as lazy. Or if they do, it’s just because they are being lazy. Even people who sit around all day and play video games rather than working on bettering their lives. Why do they do this? It drives people who listen to motivation speakers and appear on fitness posters nuts. Why would anyone sit around and be mediocre when all it takes to be awesome is just to do it? It is because lazy people don’t care. They have no motivation. And that is inviolate. It is even, in a certain way, intrinsic. You can chose how you go about accomplishing the things you care about. But you absolutely cannot choose to care. How could you? Choosing to care would require caring. I submit that it is literally impossible to decide to have motivation for something. Outside forces can certainly transform apathy into passion. It happens all the time. It is also common for people to be soaked in apathy and then, for no apparent reason, one day start being motivated. Often these people describe the event with statements like, “one day, I just decided I did not want to be lazy anymore. I wanted to take control of my destiny.” That is all well and good, but something happened. It might have happened at the level of neurons, but something changed. You didn’t decide to take control of your life, or else there is no reason it happened today rather than yesterday.

I have never been ambitious. I dream big. My desires for what I want my life to be are huge. Many of them involve starships or arcane summoning circles. But I don’t have that burning drive that is ambition. The reasons for this are myriad, and I do not entirely understand them myself. One of them is that I am easily contented. When life does not actively throw stressors at me, I do not really worry. This makes it difficult to improve myself. Another is that I am not very judgmental. That sounds like bragging, but it is true. I can’t be very judgmental, even when I should be, either of myself or others. If there is an aspect of yourself that you really hate, this is very motivating for self improvement. I do not hate things about myself, or others. Sometimes it really pisses me off. I hate that.

Another reason for my lack of ambition (or, perhaps, achievement) is my ADHD. I know, I know, it is lazy to say you have ADHD. I use the term not only because I have been diagnosed, but as a shortcut to describe a complex set of behaviors with a simple acronym. The fact is that after doing a single unbroken task for more than about twenty minutes I get twitchy, I freeze up, and my brain starts screaming at me to do other things. It prevented me from getting really good grades all through school, from finishing papers in college, and from producing nearly as much written material as I want to.

These are all common problems, and they are a small part of what is usually labeled as laziness. The fact is, they are laziness. But when you are lazy, it is very difficult to be otherwise. It is like depression. You cannot just turn it off. It gets its blunt, apathetic claws in deep, and all the people in your life telling you to just get over it does nothing but reinforce the self image.

All of this thoroughly articulated justification aside, I really hate not doing things. I am utterly sick of it. I have been trying to break this streak for…my entire life. I go through phases of doing things, but my fickle nature and short attention span means the phases usually end before I’ve produced any content. It’s killing me. Even though I am scared to the point of paralysis. Even though I am lazy enough to power a lack-of-energy plant. Even though doing things is so done and I should be able to come up with something more original.

So I am doing something. It’s a tiny, little thing, starting a blog and getting my friends to read it. So very, very small. But then again, the biggest difference between small things and large things are the consequences, not the actions. Spilling a bottle of soy sauce and a bottle full of nuclear material look pretty similar from the outside, but only of of them makes the news. It is right after the piece on how we are now storing nuclear material in small portable bottles that are easily spilled and can be mistaken for soy sauce.

I am going to write some stuff, and post it. I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time, but I do not have a focus. I have always been very bad at the whole focus thing. It has stopped me from doing anything about it for years. Guides on writing blogs say that you should not just write journals, like live journal entries. The fact that that is pretty much what I am writing paralyzes me as well. Or, it almost does, because I am writing it, and you are reading it. So that’s a step forward.

I don’t require feedback (I would love feedback), but feel free to give it (please don’t give it. It’s scary.) People are going to say things like “good for you! We’re rooting for you!” But not specifically that, because it’s not 1954 and very few of you are cheerleaders. You will do this because you are awesome, but that scares me, too, because I am putting myself out there. Because it sounds like pity? It’s not. I know it’s not. The people who I have been surrounded with all my life who actually do things, who are successful in any way, don’t worry about things like that. They just do stuff. Why should I be worried about innocuous supporting comments? I do not know. There is probably some cross section of neuroses that explains the reaction perfectly.

Hopefully, it’s called Jesse LaJeunesse Syndrome.

*Of course I know what the Royal Society is. Who says I don’t?