Why I am Not an Addict

Wine Group: Pizza Wines

37, day 5.

When I wake up in the morning after a night of moderate to severe debauchery, my hangover comes with an deep and fundamental appreciation of the fact that I am not addicted to anything. A lot of the members of my immediate family are or have been addicts, and I have known a few in my social life over the years. It is a fate I have avoided, and I expect to avoid, without much effort, for the rest of my life. But it is a significant question. Why am I not an addict? It would be naïve to attribute it to willpower, or strength of character. I’m not particularly well equipped with either of those, and plenty of people who are succumb to addiction anyway. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I think I know the answer.

My mother in law and I went to a belated Christmas party today. It is an annual gathering with some friends of her family. I dreaded it. I dreaded it even though I quite like these people. I dreaded it because I am the sort of person who does not like going to vaguely unfamiliar social gatherings by default. My wife is the same way, and sometimes we don’t go out because neither one of us is willing to kick the other in the pants and force them to do it. It is comfortable, and if either of us worries at what we might be missing they have the other to assure/enable them. I also dreaded it because because my wife wasn’t going and it would mean I would be stuck with my mother in law.

I like my mother in law a lot, most of the time. She is intelligent and engaging and interesting. She is also, and there is no delicate way to put this, old. She likes to talk, and she likes to tell stories. The problem is I am one of her only regular social contacts, and she no longer has the cognitive capacity to remember what stories she has told me and which are new. She does not have Alzheimer’s, or anything. She just has standard OPDM (Old Person’s Diminished Memory), the same condition that prompted Alex Trebek to explain that he would only be good at Jeopardy if he competed against people in his age group. In addition, she also lacks the ability to tell whether a story is interesting to anyone but her. I do not think this is a factor of age. She is just like that. She has stories about meeting and hugging Desmond Tutu or climbing out along a rickety roof when she was in college just after a storm to fix a damaged radio antenna. She tells this stories with the same intonation enthusiasm as her story about spending the whole day hanging up fliers for a Church book sale in Bothel.

The Bothel story is considerably longer.

I have heard it, without exaggeration, 20-45 times. That is on the low end. I have heard the story about Jeffrey Tate and his New York Julliard London accent more times than there are discreet particles in the universe.

The party was in a house neither of us had never been to. She had the address, but nothing else. I looked it up on Google Maps, gathered up the turkey I had cooked and the party mix she spend the day making, and we were good to go. What could go wrong?

We were lost in Redmond for almost an hour and a half. I hate being late. I am usually always on time for everything, even unimportant things. I am one of those people. I think that people who are punctual do it not out of some sense of responsibility, but because being late makes them unreasonably antsy and nervous. My parents were like this. We once showed up so early for a movie that the theater wasn’t even open yet. I’ll tell you, the hour waiting in the car with my brother and my parents just flew by.

The first reason my mother in law and I got lost in Redmond was because, I think, I typed in the wrong address to Google maps. I started to type in the address, and it popped up on the auto suggestions. It was too much of a temptation. What was I supposed to do? It led us to something that sure sounded like the right street, but all of the address numbers started with 2, and ours started with a 4. So I pulled over, typed the address back into Google Maps, and got a completely different answer. It was not very far away, so we drove there. Easy peasy. I don’t know what that expression means, but I like ease, and I like peas, so I just go with it.

When we got to the new address, we found out that it was also wrong. These addresses also started with 2s rather than 4s. Also, the map my phone gave me did not quite correspond with the physical reality I saw before me. There was supposed to be a road jutting out in that direction, when all I saw was a fence. It was a very new looking community, so maybe the fence was added recently? I climbed over it and tried to scope out the addresses of the houses on the other side. I didn’t know how to get over there by car, and my 72 year old mother in law certainly wasn’t going to be able to climb the fence. But if those were the right houses, I would at least know we were in the right area.

As it turns out, houses these days rarely keep their addresses written on the back of the house. Damn inconsiderate, if you ask me. These were cookie cutter houses, and most of them had large sliding glass doors on the back that led directly into the kitchen. Through the doors, I could see children and families milling about, getting ready for dinner. Some of the children stared at me and point, most likely wondering why there was a stressed-out looking man in their communal back yard. I very nearly knocked on one of the glass doors, both to ask for directions and to explain that I wasn’t the crazy ice-pick murderer that they probably thought I was. The only thing that stopped me was the realization that it would make me seem more like an ice pick murderer. I do love me a good ice pick.

I climbed back over the fence, and eventually did ask for directions by knocking on someone’s front door. It was my mother in law’s idea. She also suggested I ask for a telephone directory. She is from an era where knocking on someone’s door at twilight and asking for things is something normal people do. The kind of people that deliver their electric bill by hand. The woman that answered the door was in a bathrobe. She was very polite, but her body language clearly said “go far far away so I can forget you exist and get back to watching Sheldon from Big Bang Theory say ‘bazinga’.” She seemed the type. I understood. About the body language, not about her taste in sitcoms. She assured me that I had the right street, but that she did not know where that particular address was. I thanked her, returned to the car, and tried my hardest not to feel like a creepy bastard. I did not ask her for a telephone directory.

My mother in law had brought a copy of the address, but not a phone number. She does not have a cell phone, and she had not given anyone at the party my cell phone. Finally, I looked up the hostess and found her address. It turned out we had the wrong address. The 4 was supposed to be a 1. That was the sort of thing Alex Trebek would probably do.

We finally got to the party an hour and a half late, roughly 5400 pins sticking out of my sense of propriety. The hostess answered the door with an indulgent smirk and a glass of red wine in a stemless wineglass. I apologized for being late. She didn’t care. I told her I needed to go back and get my box of presents and my mother in law.

“Do you need help?” she asked. “Is there anything I can get?”

“A glass of what you’re having,” I said, with some desperation. After the anxiety of the drive and dealing with the fact of hearing the Bothel story again, I needed something to take the edge off.

The party, as it turns out, was fun. I am glad I went, which I only did because my mother in law doesn’t drive. We talked about stuff. I made jokes. We exchanged stories. We ate food. I had a good bit of wine. She was serving some kind of red that has some kind of connection to Neil Patrick Harris. I misheard her slightly and heard Neil Patrick Harvest. If ol’ Neil hasn’t started a vineyard with this name yet, he’d better get on it. It’s pretty much perfect. I had a few glasses. My alcohol tolerance is hilariously low, so it did not take much to get a bit of inebriation on. Later on, she brought out a rose liqueur and a blackberry cordial that a friend of hers had made. They were 80 and 50 proof, respectively, and quite tasty.

When the time came for the evening to wind down, I knew it was time to stop drinking. I had to drive home, after all. I didn’t want to stop drinking. My inhibitions, never exactly forged of iron, were a bit looser than usual. Everything was just a little more entertaining. There was more wine left, and plenty more cordial. I could probably have drank a bit more and still been good to drive. At least, I thought I could.

But I didn’t.

Turning it down was easy. It was easier than avoiding the bacon cheeseburger I had for lunch yesterday. It was easier than going to sleep last night rather than playing the end of Assassin’s Creed IV. It wasn’t effortless. It was a legitimate temptation. But I knew it was a bad idea. I knew my wife back home would disapprove. I knew that on the off chance I was impaired enough to get pulled over, it could mess up my life pretty badly. So I refused. I had a bit more chocolate, and some water, and let some of the alcohol metabolize. When I felt okay a few hours later, I drove home. I am confident I was under the legal limit.

But why was it so easy? The lord knows I am not particularly good at resisting temptation. I can set my mind to resisting a set of temptations and do that quite handily. I went from being a serious meat eater to a vegan overnight, and stayed that way until culinary school lured me away. But the little, every day temptations, those are far more…tempting. So why not alcohol?

It is such a simple thing. Such a very small gesture, and a very fine line. But I know who is on the other side of the line. The guy on the other side of the line does more than just drink. He stays out late, and comes home to a wife who is worried to death about where he has been. He spends all of his time and effort and energy worrying about how to get the next fix. I am not inclined to do that with alcohol, but I have an addictive personality. Sure, I get bored easily, but there are some things that, once you do them, are really hard to get bored of.

I have never smoked a cigarette. I have barely ever done any drugs. It is not because I was against drugs. It isn’t even because I was against cigarettes. It was because I was a nerd.

None of my friends in high school smoked. None of them really drank. One of them got into marijuana eventually, but he was never very serious about it. He was never really a stoner. He was a D&D player, just like I was.

The thing is, at the end of high school I became highly attracted to the philosophical approach that espoused immersing oneself in experience. I wanted to try and do and be anything. For spiritual reasons, for experiential reasons, and to learn about life in all of its intricacies . For awhile, I was downright obsessed with it.

But I didn’t.

I didn’t have any idea how to even get my hands on the crazy stuff. I did not know where to begin. I liked to talk about it, but that was all it was. Even if someone had walked up and offered it to me, I didn’t want to sit in my bedroom with a chair against the unlocking door and shoot something into my veins. I wanted the real experience, with other people, and all the trappings. If I couldn’t get that, I was willing to wait. After all, college was just a year away.

The friends I made in college made the friends I made in high school look like serious light weights. Not when it came to doing drugs. Oh good god, no. They made them look like light weights in nerdiness. I thought I experienced roleplaying in the form of D&D in high school. That did nothing to prepare me for the double barreled in your face full on sensory experience that was White Wolf games. Oh boy.

I’m joking. Mostly. Half, anyway.

But more than that, they didn’t do any drugs, either. There was some alcohol – it was college – but a lot of my really close friends didn’t do that, either. It meant that if I wanted to drink I had to do it without my favorite people. Where’s the fun in that? None of them smoked cigarettes. There was a little experimenting with hallucinogens, but only the tiniest bit. Just enough to satisfy me that it wasn’t going to turn me into the Buddha or give me super powers. Also, they cured me of the naïve notion that it is possible or even desirable to “experience everything.” After all, if I was to do drugs to get experience, why not cut a toe off? Or become a South American cocoa farmer? People who seek experience are really just after the experiences they want, and they avoid the ones they don’t. The same as everyone else. I learned to pick and choose. I chose roleplaying games.

So here I am. The effects of the alcohol from the party. I could have another glass of wine, but I don’t want to. I have a blog post to write. I’m in the mood for a turkey sandwich. That seems higher priority. I have Assassin’s Creed to play. I’m sure I’m not predisposed towards being an alcoholic, but I never trained to be one, either.

Some members of my family were not so lucky. I have an aunt, and the first time she did heroin she knew that it was going to ruin her life. She avoided it for years. It caught up to her, eventually. It’s an all too common story. If I had tried it, even once, would it have been my story? I’ve had coworkers who are absolute slaves to cigarettes. They control the pace of everything they do, cost them enormous amounts of money, and fundamentally limits what activities they can and cannot do. I never started smoking cigarettes. If I did, would I still be smoking them now?

Why am I not an addict? Some people are smart and responsible enough from a young age to avoid the question entirely. A lot of my friends are in the camp, and I am as glad as anything that they are, and that they are my friends. I wasn’t. I avoided trying any of that stuff because it wasn’t around me. Because I wasn’t brave enough or wild enough to go after it, even when I really wanted to. Recovering addicts have to fight so very, very hard to get to the crappy, get up with the alarm and go to work every day most of us take reluctantly for granted. I don’t have to fight for that. I get to complain about it. And the more I analyze it, the more I think about it, the more I have to accept that the answer is very simple.

Because it just didn’t happen. Only this, and nothing more.

Science Says You’re Wrong

Confused

37, day four.

Everything you know is wrong. You’ve heard this before; it is not a new idea. It was said some time ago, by one of the foundational philosophers of the modern age . Philosophers have posited that human knowledge is fundamentally flawed as far back as Socrates, perhaps much further. But as everyone it the modern world knows, ultimately philosophy is little more than clever thinking. It is interesting for its own sake, but it does not produce anything of practical value. For the last five hundred years, philosophy has increasingly lost ground in the discovering-truths department to its younger brother: natural philosophy, more commonly known these days as science. While it is true that the inherently skeptical nature of science means that it cannot provide us with Truth, it has given us more legitimate insight into the way the universe functions and how it is structured than any other approach in the history of humanity. When I say that everything you know is wrong, I am not being philosophical. I am being scientific. Imagine the following thought experiment. This is a bit abstract, so bear with me. Picture a closed room full of chemicals dispersed in the air. There is hydrogen, and neon, and sulfur hexafloride, and other gasses. They are of different density, so they are not all mixed together, and moving through the room will move the gasses about. It is a complicated and dynamic situation in there, but of course you cannot see it or interact with it in any way you can perceive. Now imagine you are inside of that room wearing a very specialized mechanical suit. The suit is equipped with various detectors and other devices. It provides you with visual and tactile feedback that corresponds to to the various gasses in the room. Hydrogen is blue and feels soft. Helium is green with red speckles and feels fuzzy and light. The heavy sulfur hexafloride in the corner is dark and feels viscous and your feet move sluggishly as you walk through it. Further more, the suit allows you to manipulate these gasses manually. You can move the hydrogen around, and separate it from the helium. The suit does this using filters, but to you it feels like you are using your fingers. Let us say further that you do not realize the room is full of gasses you would not normally be able to interact with in an observable manner. Furthermore, you do not know you are in a special suit. What would you think about the situation? You would think that what you were experiencing was objectively real. You would think you were in a room full of substances that you could touch and manipulate, with specific textures and colors that were intrinsic to the substance with which you interacted. But it is all an illusion. It is a model provided by the suit you do not even realize you are wearing so that you can perceive and interact with a world that would otherwise be outside of your sensory experience. This may seem like fanciful speculation. But the room full of gasses with the special suit, it turns out, is not so different than the world we live in. The universe is the room full of gasses, and the human body and brain are the suit. Scientists used to think the world really was more or less as it appears: Physical objects moving around in space forward in time. In future history books, it might be said that 20th century physics was a grand project in dismantling that very world view. We know now that matter is actually made up of tiny particles that are mostly empty space. The particles themselves are made up of bundles of energy bound together through fundamental interactions. They only have mass at all because of interactions with an invisible field that stretches throughout the universe. Time is neither linear, directional, nor consistently extant throughout the universe. Most importantly of all, everything I just said is a ridiculous and largely inaccurate oversimplification. Of course, you know all of this. You know that matter is made of atoms. You know that atoms are made of subatomic particles that are themselves made of energy. You know that time and space are relative to movement. We are all taught this in school. Yet we still go around believing that pencils exist, that we can see them, understand them, pick them up and use them to write on pieces of paper. Of course they exist. You have one in your hand right now. But that does not mean it is not an illusion. Everything we see and do is an illusion created by the biological mechanisms of our brains in order to facilitate our ability to function in the universe. It is all there, but the form we perceive bears little to no similarity to whatever craziness is objectively, physically real. We are all the man in the suit, believing we are handling green and red speckled fuzzy stuff when we are actually wading through helium. There is no unifying theory as to what the universe is actually made of. The best models fundamental physics has produced to describe large and small things do not agree with each other. The best guess we have as to how to make them work together is riddled with holes. Not only do we know the world we see is very much not the world that is actually out there, we also know that our understanding of what is out there is fundamentally incomplete. Everything you know is wrong. People much smarter than either of us have said it, and some of them have demonstrated it using experimental data and millions of hours of mathematical computation. If you are uncomfortable with any of this, don’t blame me. Blame science. That’s what everyone else does.

One Shadow at a Time

Ready to launch!

37, day three.
This is a story I wrote awhile back, to see if I could write this kind of thing. I really like how it came out, but I am curious if it is confusing to people who aren’t inside my head. Anyway, here it is.

One Shadow at a Time

I peeked around the corner cautiously. I noted three mobile targets; a human security agent, a repulsor camera, and a sentry bot.

Proximty, I said silently, Can you opsat stats on those bots?

Attempting…said a cool voice in my head, The camera is a Series Seven Seventeen Mynacorp Optibot. No information available on the other target.

No information? I said, None at all?

Affirmative.

I pulled further behind the corner and ducked down as the security agent walked closer.

So it must be one of those prototypes Precon warned us about. I’m seeing a lateral diamond grid surveillance patrol pattern. Confirm?

Confirmed.

The guard was about to exit the corridor on the far side, and I could hear the footfalls of another agent coming from the other direction. It was forty yards between my current position and the nearest salient cover, a remote security kiosk which would block line of sight.

Tag analysis on that sentry bot’s optic. What are you getting?

Tagged. Analyzing. Low level sonic surveillance. One hundred and ninty two degree coverage field.

I did some quick math in my head. There was at least a minute of coverage without any security agents, but only a one point two second blind spot between the camera and the bot. One point two seconds. Forty yards. At full power, it would almost be enough. But full power was loud.

Seven Seventeen Optibot, that means a very local power supply. Cellular power?

Cellular or low fusion, said Proximity.

And there’s no way to tell? Can you hijack the power? That might allow me to overclock my sonic dampeners and hit full tilt towards that kiosk.

Power redirection could be accomplished within twenty yards of power source, if the power can be identified.

Could you hijack the full stream? Knock out the repulsors? Wait, never mind, that would definitely draw too much attention. Twenty yards, huh? Have you located the power source?

Scanning…negative. Power source not found.

Not found? Where did you…Oh, nuts.

“Possible target detected,” a smooth feminine voice said from in front of me. It had to be the sentry bot, but it did not have that hollow metallic echo every sentry bot I’d ever heard used. I just barely heard its treads as it slid towards me. I was sure I hadn’t moved, or made any sound. Whatever scanners it used, they were top of the line. I quickly shut down everything that might be making noise, my comlink, my digital info display, my camo, my breathing. They didn’t make much noise, but I had no idea what this thing was capable of. I could hear the tiny pulse of my heart beating. I inwardly swore at it. If my heart gave me away, she and I were going to have some words. I’d have to talk to the R&D boys about some kind of cardio stealth implant.

“Scanning area,” said the voice. That voice. I kept perfectly still. My camo was off, so I was slightly more visible than usual. I was confident that I was completely cloaked in shadows, confident enough to bet my life, at least, but nonetheless I sure hoped this thing couldn’t detect sweat.

“Scan negative.” The voice was too comforting; almost enough to make me relax. Maybe that was the point. It sound like my mother. Well, not my mother, but certainly someone’s mother. Someone human. Then it hit me. I realized what was going on. I switched on my active auditory filters, hoping the infinitesimal noise wouldn’t give me away.

“No target found,” the gentle voice said. I sighed very, very softy with relief and started breathing again. I switched my systems back on.

And there it was, staring at me from my digital display. They could synthesize voices very well, but they were never going to be perfect. That was just the physics of it. The timbre of a sound made by organic components is always going to be just a little different that those produced mechanically. And this was it. This wasn’t a bot with a human sounding voice, this was a human, or at least part of it was.

Proximity, quickly, scan the sentry for electro-cellular emissions.

Confirmed. Sentry bot generating 6200 KWH cellular energy.

That was brilliant. Scary as hell, but whoever came up with it was brilliant. Geared up soldiers can generate way more than enough cellular energy to power their tech, but there’s no way to harness the output and remain mobile. But keep enough organics and turn the rest of it into a mobile tank, and you could have a sentry bot powering short range local systems.

Lock on, proximity, and get me that power.

Locking on, redirecting. 12% 17% 22%…

The camera was facing the other direction, and the sentry was about to resume the lateral diamond patrol, just on the crest of my window. It was coming…coming…I charged up my sonic dampeners, my wired muscles, my reflex enhancers…

Additional power at 77%

Now.

I darted forward and charged at triple speed towards the kiosk. My leg muscles pumped and my feet slammed soundlessly against the metal floor. If the security agent rounded the corner just then, or the Optibot caught the tiniest echo that slipped past the counter-waves generated by my dampener, they’d see a fully armed and heavily armored Shadowmech running openly through a highly restricted corridor of their secure facility. Within microseconds their uplink would send and alarm to general security, and several dozen even more heavily armed guards would gun me down where I stood.

Believe it or not, I visualized this quite clearly during the eighteenth of a second before I reached the kiosk. Then I ducked into a roll and slid under the desktop, and hopefully under their radar. I held my breath and waited for proximity to pick up the silent alarm.

All clear, it said. Well done.

I don’t have any idea who programmed my proximity analysis hardware to give me little affirmations during a mission. It certainly never used to do that. All the same, I appreciated it.

Thanks, I said, Good job yourself.

I took a few seconds to reorient myself, then appraised the situation again. Nearest viable cover was a garbage receptacle next to the door. It was thirty five yards away. The way I counted, I had a three point eight second window of opportunity, but I would have to override the door lock during that period because the next window would be shorter still.

Oh well. Here we go again.

Blade Runner is the Most Overrated Movie of All Time

Blade Runner 1982

(Thirty Seven), day Two

If you have not read the title, move your eyes up a few inches and do so. Now that you have done so, I will say it again, because it bears repeating. Blade Runner is the most over rated move ever made. Even more so than Brazil. Even more so than Gladiator. I said it, and if you don’t agree with me then you are just plain wrong.

I have said this, or versions of it, many times in my life. I have said it so many times that I have almost, sort of come to believe it, even though I have always known that I was wrong. Sometimes we make assertions and then defend them virulently enough and often enough that they become part of our identity. Among my friends, if Blade Runner comes up everyone shoots me a glance. They know that I am thinking “Blade Runner sucks, and everyone who thinks it doesn’t suck sucks for thinking it doesn’t suck when it does suck!”

Sure, I could explain to them that my thoughts on the subject are more complicated, but then I would no longer be the controversial anti-Blade Runner guy. It might even get to the point that some of my friends might be able to interact with Blade Runner in some way, large or small, without thinking of me. I am just not comfortable with that. If they knew the full truth, I would probably have to do something like run around downtown Seattle wearing only a Blade Runner shirt, just to maintain the association.

My relationship with the film is a long one. It is longer, in fact, than my relationship with any person other than family. It took years to realize that I did not like the movie, and then twenty minutes after that realization to tell everyone I ever met about it. I have defended by opinion no less than thirty thousand times, by last count, and I will continue to do so, even after this article is written, and the lie is exposed.

The first time I saw it was at my friend Darren’s house in seventh grade, during a sleepover. As an adult, it seems weird to use the word sleepover to describe something seventh grade boys do. But that is the word we used, and that it what it was. Once we grew bored of playing video games, we decided to watch a movie. He pulled out Blade Runner. It was really awesome, he said. It was about Replicants. I didn’t know what a Replicant was, but it sounded cool.

We only got ten minutes in before Darren’s mom announced that it was dinner time. We had vegetable lasagna. I didn’t like vegetable lasagna, but I ate it anyway and enjoyed it. I was a picky eater as a kid in a very dumb way.

After dinner we went back to watching Blade Runner. I was confused, because we picked up where we left off and I did not quite understand what was happening. Perhaps because of this, I found it profoundly boring. I fell asleep before the end.

Twice more by the end of high school I tried to watch the movie and fell asleep. It was due to circumstances, not necessarily the movie itself, but it did not help that I found the movie very boring. Even some people that like it admit that the pace is perhaps a little too slow. Finally, during my senior year, I saw the movie all the way through. I did not care for it.

By the time I got to college, my opinion was that I did not like the movie. I had a vague feeling that I had never given it a proper chance. I told people that I didn’t like it. If you have ever told anyone that you do not like Blade Runner – and I hope that you have – the response is always the same.

“Have you seen the special edition?”

I did not know if I had seen the special edition. It turns out, there are many special editions. I think that Ridley Scott’s annual birthday celebration involves cutting a new special edition of Blade Runner. Supposedly all of them are better than the original. The salient point, I am told, is whether or not there is voice over. Voice over is bad.

Eventually someone in college screened a version of what was presumably the definitive edition available at the time. I was excited. By this point I had read so much and heard so much about how important Blade Runner was to science fiction cinema. The idea that the original was crap and the special edition was a masterpiece had been so thoroughly hammered into my skill, that I felt I had never really seen the movie. This required ignoring the fact that it was the theatrical release that was so influential, and if it was no good and everyone hated it then that did not make a whole lot of sense. The point is that I went into the special edition with more than an open mind. I expect to like it. I expected to see for the first time what I had missed all the other times. This was going to be an experience, and I was pumped.

I hated it.

I recognized that the visual design did not have the impact it once did because I saw it almost two decades after release. That did not help the underdeveloped story. Or the flat characterization. Or the wading-through-maple-syrup pacing found in every scene of the film including the action scenes. The themes raised were interesting, but it felt to me like the movie threw its themes in the air and then filmed them falling in slow motion, rather than weaving them into the story in an engaging or sophisticated way.

These opinions were calcified into my own personal dogma by two things. The first was that I read the book, and loved it. To this day, it is one of my favorite Phil Dick novels. I find it superior to the movie in every way, save for the fact that Replicant is a much cooler word than Android. One one level, this is not fair. Blade Runner is not so much an adaptation of the book as it is a film inspired by the book. It is extremely different, and this is to its credit. Phil Dick novels do not play well in other media. The best way to adapt a Phil Dick novel into a movie is to read the book five times, do a bunch of acid, then write the screenplay naked on top of a snow covered mountain. In this, I think Blade Runner was a success. It definitely feels like that’s how the script was written.

The other thing that set my opinion on Blade Runner in stone was arguing about it. I spent all of college arguing about it, with one person over and over, and with other guest debate partners from time to time. By the end of college, my opinion had transformed from “Blade Runner just doesn’t do it for me,” to “Blade Runner is the most overrated movie of all time.” I met a girl who agreed with me. We’re married, now.

I have argued with many people in many different situations about how overrated Blade Runner is. Whenever I enter into a new social group or a new person enters mine, I get a giddy little thrill when Blade Runner first comes up. It is my chance to show that I disagree with things that are more or less the consensus in the SF fandom community. There are not a lot of works that are universally loved. There are only a few people who hate Star Wars, and only a few people who hate Blade Runner. This is less true now than it used to be, with the internet having elevated disagreeing with popular things to an art form on part with the musical styling of the late John Denver.

If that joke didn’t work for you, allow me to explain that John Denver was last generation’s Nickelback. If it didn’t work for you because you just didn’t think it was funny, then I am going to assume it is because you are incensed by inflammatory opinion of Blade Runner. I would advise you to stop reading now. Things are about to get

Much.

More.

Reasonable?

Eventually, hating Blade Runner became part of my identity. This is a thing that can happen, and it can be liberating or it can be dangerous. On one level, it is great to have personality elements to hang on to, and that your friends all know about. I have…a lot of those, I suppose. On the other hand, it is important not to be enslaved to your own identity. That is a complicated issue, and past the scope of this article. This article is about dissing Blade Runner.

Until it isn’t. The terrible thing about all of this, the thing that really kills me, is that I know that I am wrong. Of course I am wrong. There is no way I could possibly not be wrong. It is, in a very specific way, a definitional impossibility.

When I say that Blade Runner is overrated, what do I mean by that? It is a statement about two things that are related but not identical: quality and value. The quality has to do with the technical aspects. How well was it filmed? How well constructed were the sets, and how well implemented were the special effects? Were there any major plot holes? Were the characters consistent, and well portrayed by the actors? The value, on the other hand, involves the emergent elements. How awesome were the action scenes? How intriguing were the ideas? How emotionally stirring were the character relationships?

It is, of course, impossible to pull quality and value completely apart from each other. They are to some extent interdependent. Badly acted movies with huge plot holes rarely deliver powerful emotional experiences. That being said, quality and value are still different. It is highly possible to have a technically well done movie that just is not very interesting. Or a movie with huge technical problems that nonetheless is fantastic and moving and well loved.

More to the point, it is much easier to critique quality than it is to critique value. You might make the legitimate point that Avengers had some messy plot elements, some leaps of logic, and some continuity errors. However, if you say that it wasn’t awesome, then you are no longer giving a critique, but rather an opinion. Avengers is widely regarded as having been awesome. If it did not work for you, then it is because it didn’t work for you, not because it didn’t deliver. There are myriad reasons why it may not have worked for you. Maybe you were predisposed not to like it. Maybe the combination of elements is one that hits home for a lot of people but not for you. Maybe you only like things that are dark and gritty, and this was too silly. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that when most people think something is awesome, then it is. That is the only meaningful metric for awesomeness that we have. Since it is subjective, then quantity of subjects is the deciding factor.

When you say a movie is overrated, what you are really saying is that either the quality, or the value, or more likely both, are more highly regarded by a wide spectrum of the audience than they should be. For a movie that is overwhelmingly loved and highly regarded, and Blade Runner falls squarely in that category, it is a tricky thing to say.

You might have a legitimate case that any given film is overrated with regards to quality. If a lot of industry insiders and professional critics disagree with you, you had better have the technical knowledge to back it up. If you think that Lawrence of Arabia is overrated with regards to cinematography and editing, you are battling against the weight of so many professionals who believe it is one of the best shot and cut movies ever. If you think the screenplay for Casablanca is overrated in terms of characterization and narrative, you better have serious credentials. Otherwise you are just some guy who thinks your opinion is more valid than people with vastly more knowledge and experience than him just because your opinion comes out of your mouth. In other words, you are probably wrong.

It is much harder to have a legitimate case that the value of a movie is overrated. Value is just about how “good” something is, and that is determined solely by the reactions and opinions of those who experience it.

When it comes to the overall worth of a film, or any piece of art, there are only a few different metrics that make any kind of sense. It has to be some combination of critical acclaim and widespread audience love and appreciation. You could fool around with the exact ratios and methods of calculation, but the result is the same. You can say that a film is overrated, but that is a meaningless statement if asserted objectively. What you really mean is, “I don’t like that film as much as most people.” That is a fine thing to say, but it is very much not what people mean when they say something is overrated. They mean that everyone who disagrees with them are wrong, and they are right, even though this is, essentially, a definitional impossibility.

I believe that, when it comes to Blade Runner, everyone else ascribes more value to it than the film deserves. People seem to think it is a masterwork of science fiction, and I think they are fooling themselves.

I am wrong.

I can quibble about how well drawn the characters are, whether or not its themes are well communicated, whether or not the action scenes are as exciting as running out of dryer sheets. I might have legitimate points about each of those. I might also be misrepresenting how much fun I have buying dryer sheets. But if I say that Blade Runner is not a great movie, then I am using a definition of great movie that is neither useful nor widely accepted. I am saying “I don’t like it,” and trying to legitimize my opinion by granting it an objectivity it cannot possibly have. It is impossible to even imagine a situation in which all of these things are true:

1. There is movie everyone one loves and says is great.
2. One man thinks they are wrong and it is terrible.
3. The dissenter is right.

That is an impossible scenario. Even if, two generations later, everyone now decides they hate that movie, all that would indicate is that the standards have changed.

I cannot say that Blade Runner is overrated without being both obstinate and cognitively dissonant. I hate both of those things, and I usually try to purge them from my being whenever I can. On the other hand, abandoning my asserted stance on Blade Runner would be like ending a relationship that has nurtured me and provided me with good times for nearly my entire life.

Clearly, I have some serious thinking to do.

Thirty Seven

Thirty Seven

Thirty seven is an awesome number. I was going to say it was sexy, but that is not quite right. Prime numbers aren’t sexy. If numbers are analogous to vastly overgeneralized social categories of human beings, then prime numbers are the weirdos. Even numbers are all the regular people who present as normal in appearance and during casual conversation. Many of them wear ties. Odd numbers are the nearly half of the population who are just a bit off. After you and a coworker share an interaction with an odd number, you turn to each other, and one of you says, “okay, she was a little weird, right? I mean, it’s not just me?” You do this even though, statistically speaking, one of you is probably an odd number.

Prime numbers are the serious eccentrics. Prime numbers are the poets who live in basements and have wild untamed hair. They are the chefs who foam things that were never meant to be foamed. They are the people who often forget to put socks on in the morning because they spend all of their time trying to work out how to apply complexity theory to the three body problem of gravitation. Or, you know, how to apply complexity theory to choosing Hostess pies. Most eccentrics aren’t geniuses, after all. Most eccentrics are just weird.

There are interesting things about the number thirty seven other than the fact that it is the twelfth prime number. For example, it is the third of the cuban primes, and if you don’t know what cuban prime is I’m not sure you got out of bed this morning. It is also the temperature of the human body in Celsius, the most commonly chosen random number between one and one hundred,and the number of the only president ever to resign. Ever since the movie Clerks, it has become synonymous with…something or other.

It is also the next seven I plan to steal.

Specifically, thirty seven days. I have been disappointed at my low output on this blog. In some ways, this is a good thing. Lately, as soon as I achieve some kind of goal, I become dissatisfied with it and want to do something else. This should make me happy. It is a sign of Ambition. Being satisfied with what you have now never got anyone anything…other than peace and harmonious contentment with all things. But I have enough of that crap. Seriously, it’s piling up in the basement. If someone wants to take it off my hands, I’d be more than happy to unload it. See my ad on Craigslist.

Ahem.

The problem is that, as I’ve said before, my ambition gland is weak and underdeveloped. It produces insufficient amounts of getstuffdonease, a catalyst human beings need in order to…do something. I’m not sure, exactly. My Latin is a little rusty.

The point is that I am getting better and better at becoming disappointed at myself for achieving my last goal over and over, instead of moving on to a new one. I am, slowly, turning into one of those people who is always looking for the next taller mountain. That is something successful people do, I am told. The problem is, desiring the next goal was my last goal.

I continue to have trouble with actually setting the next goal.

So that is my next goal: set more goals. No, no, it isn’t. That’s too vague, and maybe sort of a tautology.

My real next goal is to post more blog content. Right now I am producing quite a bit of content, but I am rarely sufficiently satisfied with it to post it. This requires editing, and I don’t like to do editing because I am a person on Earth, and editing sucks. Also, I believe my standards are all out of whack. I once asked a professional writer at a SF convention how you know when something is actually done. That is, how do you know when to stop fiddling with something you have written and to just publish it. It is never going to be perfect, because we live in a universe without perfection. Eventually, you have to just accept it for what it is and put it out there. I hoped there was some trick, some technique that I just did not know about.

“That’s just a matter of experience,” said the writer. “There isn’t much more to it than that. It’s something you just have to learn by doing.”

The other members of the panel agreed. One the one hand, this was an annoying answer. I wanted there to be a simple trick. Of course I did. I am an American, and that is how we roll. I wanted a fish pill I could swallow once a day so I can forgo all that exhausting exercise and still avoid heart disease.

On the other hand, it was nice to have some confirmation that the question I asked did not have an easy answer. I have devoted a lot of thought to the issue over the years. It was gratifying to know I did not miss something obvious. It also made a powerful point about writing, as opposed to many other fields.

The difference between an chemist working in a high end laboratory and a beginning chemistry student is that the seasoned professional has a huge set of skills and knowledge the student has not yet learned. If a student attempted the sort of work the professional does on a daily basis, chances are that student would not even no where to start.

The main difference between an experienced professional writer and an aspiring amateur is that the professional has been doing it longer. That’s it. Oh, sure there are skills and knowledge the professional has that the amateur does not. But they are little things, things that make the process easier and better. The basic tool set is one that we all already have. You just need to practice.

This blog is a way for me to practice. It is a way for me to practice both writing and letting people read my work. If people like what they read, that’s great. If they don’t, well, at least I am getting the practice. Hopefully they will like the stuff I write later more. That’s the idea. No one is brilliant at their chosen craft right from the start, even the people that are.

That brings us back to thirty seven, and my intention to steal it. I’m sorry. I’m not making any excuses. I saw thirty seven in the shop window, and I just had to have it. Sure, there are guards, and security cameras, and one of those inexplicable roving laser grids that can only be bypassed if you impress them with back flips. Don’t sweat it. It’s all taken care of. I have a plan.

For the next thirty seven days I am going to post something on my blog every day. Some “blogging tips” sites say not to post every day, but their advice does not really apply to me. Also, they disagree with each other. One of the best things about the internet is that it is the best evidence humankind has ever generated that either A: reality is highly contradictory, or B: we really don’t have it figured out.

I think it’s both.

I love the idea of posting every day. I love the idea of doing it for thirty seven days. Goals are good. Thirty seven days of blog posts sounds like a lot, but I have had friends do similar but much crazier things. I love reading about projects people have for thirty or sixty or ninety days. Of course, there was no way I could live with myself if I picked a number as prosaic as thirty. I do not want my target number of days to wear a tie. I want it to forget to put on socks because it is thinking about complexity theory. But I would settle for pie, as long as it wasn’t Hostess.

Plus, thirty and sixty and ninety don’t even have sevens in them. That would just be a waste of my damn time.

This goal is pretty small, but it is mine. Or at least, it will be.

See you in thirty seven days.

(Actually, see you tomorrow. But the other one sounded better. It’s nice to go out on a good, tight line. I would hate seem all rambley. Like this does. This side bit. Right here. I’m sure glad this isn’t in the article!)

The Girl in the Spiders

600px-Purple_spider_with_green_eyes

On balance, I would say that being able to switch your mind into the body of a spider has more advantages than disadvantages. Crawling up walls is really fun, and until you’ve experienced a body different than your own you can’t really appreciate all of the little stupid things the human body does that are so awesome. Like having to go to the bathroom. I love the feeling of having to go to the bathroom, now. It is so very…mammalian. On the other hand, spiders break their legs a lot. It doesn’t hurt exactly – they don’t really experience pain, and I don’t experience pain when I am sharing their body – but it is damn disorienting.

Plus there are the food cravings. Oh man, those are terrible. They transfer over really badly, too. It is unpleasant enough to crave insects while I am a human. Humans can ignore their cravings. Humans can ignore almost anything. People wonder why serial killers are so driven to kill their victims, why they can’t just not do it. Spend a couple of minutes as a spider and you will totally understand. Spiders aren’t always hungry, but when they are it is the only thing they care about in all the world. Think about that.

I mean, even when you are really hungry, you can still think tangentially about the fact that you love your family and have aspirations for the future. Even people who are legitimately starving rarely feel the kind of single-minded intensity spiders feel when they are casually peckish. This is kill-your-loved-ones-for-a-snack kind of intensity. When I am a spider and I want to eat a fly, it is manageable. I can get flies. There are usually things I would rather be doing with my time, but I won’t lie. Eating a fly is satisfying in a way I will not even attempt to describe. Even if I describe it successfully, it is pretty gross. But when I am a spider and I have a serious hankering for a bacon, lettuce, tomato, and avocado sandwich? Talk about frustration. Maybe serial killers just have a little spider in them.

What is my favorite memory of being a spider? Man, that’s hard. I mean, can you name off the top of your head the most fun you ever had going to the movies? Or the best sex you ever had? I think only people in the movies can do that. I took a writing class once and the first assignment was to list your “most precious childhood memory.” That’s not only hard, it is also stupid. I dropped the class. If you want me to think of some of my favorite memories of being a spider, I can do that.

I first got the power when I was eight, and I mostly used it for one thing: scaring boys. Eight year old boys are all such little bastards who like to tease and torment little girls. At least, the ones I knew were. Your mileage may vary. The worst of the worst was Tommy Jenkins. It’s funny, because when I talk about it now it seems like the perfect name for the brattiest brat on the block. If you were making up this name of the boy who tormented me and my friends, you would name him Tommy Jenkins. Probably he would turn out to be my first kiss, too, as we sparred for years and eventually all of the tension turned into passion. He wasn’t. My first kiss was at fourteen, from the same boy who took my virginity. I’ll get to that later.

Tommy Jenkins liked to throw mud at me and my sister Jan and my best friend Matty. That was his big weapon: mud. The nicer the outfit we went out in, the more likely Tommy was to throw mud on it. I have this memory of a complicated campaign of mud-based gorilla warfare, where Tommy would hunt us down at neighbors’ parties in the dead of winter when it was bone dry and there was no mud to be found. Probably that didn’t happen. It was still a problem. One that required spider-based revenge.

Even when I first got the power it didn’t seem weird. No, that is not quite right. It seemed weird that I had it at all. That sort of thing is not supposed to exist. But it didn’t feel weird. It felt natural, and I instinctively knew how to do everything. I knew how to move my spider-body around and how to switch back and forth. Maybe that knowledge comes with the territory. Maybe it is just really easy, and anybody who got the ability could figure it out. It only took me a few days of playing around to get it really nailed down. By then, I was ready to use it. I knew just what I wanted to do.

It was May Day, and Jan and Matty and I were all going to the local May Day celebration in our brand new spring dresses. Jan hated wearing dresses. She liked pants. I think her first word was “pants!” screamed at the top of her lungs. She still prefers pants. Now she races bikes professionally, so I guess it makes sense. I always preferred wearing dresses or skirts, even then. Now it is an absolute necessity. I think because the idea of stuffing all eight of my legs into pants makes me uncomfortable. That is one of the things. When you are a body-switcher, it all bleeds through, all the time. You learn to live with it.

On this particular day, Jan had acquiesced to wearing a dress. It feels weird to use a word like “acquiesce” when talking about a memory from when I was eight. I was pretty smart, but I don’t think I knew what acquiesce meant. Oh well. The fact remains that Jan did acquiesce to the dress. It was her first May Day celebration where she was allowed to dance around the May Pole. She was very excited. Mom told her that meant she had to wear a spring dress. It was a suitably persuasive argument. Mom was like that. Jan and I were both really stubborn, but mom could talk us into wearing our shoes on our heads if she really wanted to.

Matty and I were too cool and mature to get excited about the May Day dance. We were eight now. We had already done this twice. Mom had agreed we were old enough to walk the three blocks from my house to Woodlawn park where they had the May Day festival unsupervised and to bring my little sister. We had arrived.

I was actually super excited about the festival, even if there was no way I was going to say it out loud. I loved dancing. I thought the park would have different kind of spiders in it from my house or our backyard and I was looking forward to going inside of them. Matty had other things on her mind.

“Oh no, Angel,” she said to me on the way to the festival. “Tommy Jenkins is coming. I know he’s going to mess up my dress.” Sure enough, not three seconds later Tommy Jenkins walked out from behind Mr. Sandep’s tool shed. Jan did that sort of predictiony thing all the time. I think she might have been a little bit psychic. I think that sort of thing about people a lot. I’m usually wrong.

“Well well well,” said Tommy Jenkins with a sneer. “If it isn’t Devil and Bratty.” He wasn’t very creative. But he was eight, so what do you want?

“Go away, Tommy, you jerk!” said Jan defiantly.

“The little devil is there, too,” said Tommy. “I didn’t see you, cause you’re so small.”

“Am not!” said Jan. Zing.

“Just get out of here, Tommy,” I said.

“He’s going to mess up my new dress!” moaned Matty.

“Are those new dresses?” Tommy smirked. “I didn’t know that. They’re really ugly.”

“You’re ugly!” said Jan. Go get him, sis.

“You had better get out of here, Tommy,” I said. “Or else you’ll get it.”

Tommy forced a laugh. “Are you going to punch me?”

I tried to smile an evil smile like on TV. I can only assume it worked magnificently. “It’ll be worse than that. I can control spiders, and you have a big hairy one on your face.”

“Ha ha very funny,” said Tommy. “I’m not going to fall for that.”

Then I did it. There was a spider on the tool shed Tommy leaned against. A big Daddy Long Legs. I leapt into it. That’s what it feels like, to body-switch. It’s like I gather something up in my chest and hurl it at the spider. It is worth explaining at this point that when I am inside a spider I can still control my own body. It feels like I control each of them separately, at a different time, only it all happens at once. It is hard to explain.

As the spider, I leapt onto Tommy’s hair, and crawled towards his face.

“Can you feel that?” I said as my girl-self. “Crawling on your hair.”

Tommy flinched and pawed at the back of his head. Spider-Angelia was too quick. I crawled right onto his nose, and brandished my legs at him. My spider-senses could feel the panic in his body as vibrations rather than see it. He swiped at his face wildly and yelped in alarm. He ran off back where he came from.

“You better run!” Jan called after him.

I don’t know if Tommy was afraid of spiders. He was a least a little, by the end of that summer. But you don’t have to be afraid of spiders for a spider on your face to freak you out.

Matty tilted her head and looked at me. “You can control spiders?”

I smiled at her. “I’ll explain later.” I could have explained then, but I wanted to seem Mysterious. I did tell her about it later that day. She was the first person to know. We still talk about it, whenever I see her, which isn’t very often.

The May Day festivities were fun. Mostly I remember the spiders.

I didn’t meet anyone else with my ability until I was thirteen. There are a fair amount of us out there. Body-switching isn’t as rare as you might think. There is a group of eight of us who meet in a bowling ally once a month to talk about it. And also to bowl. One of the group drives all the way up from the peninsula to come, and that’s almost two hours away. There are body-switchers all over, but from talking to people online it seems to be a little more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest. Like autism rates I guess. A group of eight that can meet regularly is pretty rare. I have never actually met anyone else who could go into spiders, but there are a few people online who say they can do it. You can never really trust anyone online. That’s always true, but it’s especially true with body-switching. Most of the people online who claim they can do it can’t really do it. Probably most of them don’t even know that it is a real thing that people can really do. Kind of like people who say they are real vampires.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as real vampires. Then again, how would I really know?

We screen everyone who wants to join our group. They have to demonstrate that they can really do it. That meant meeting at the zoo in the case of Jorge, who can switch into monkeys, and Isabella, who can switch into any mammal as long as it is an albino. Jorge spends a lot of time at the zoo. Isabella finds doing it very unpleasant. I don’t know if that’s because of the albino thing, or just something unique to her. It differs from person to person. Only me and Jason, who switches into birds, can operate our human bodies fully while we are switched. The only thing common to all of us is that the urge to do it is very strong. Isabella stays away from albino animals whenever she can.

As I was saying, I was thirteen when I first met another body-switcher. Talk about life-changing.

I was at the train station, watching the trains and walking around as a spider. Pretty much my favorite things to do. I was an Eris Militaris, a bronze jumping spider, which was fun because they have badass rear legs and can leap very well. I was crawling along the ceiling above the rails, and leaping from spot to spot. I could see the top of the trains from up here. It is not a view you normally get, and it was fascinating. I had never crawled this high in the train station, and the rush from the height and all the leaping was exhilarating. On days like this I really loved being a body-switcher. Plus the spider I inhabited had recently eaten. This was good, as in my human form the soft-pretzels from the cart nearby smelled awfully good to me. I did not really want to spend my time as a spider with the undeniable urge to crawl over to the cart and hunt for errant crumbs.

I crawled around up there, reveling in the view and the leaping when I saw a lizard crawling towards me. I groaned. Inwardly, of course. Spiders can’t groan. It is no fun to be eaten, and it took me a long time to crawl this high. I could find another bronze jumper and come back, but dying inside a switched body usually kills the mood. It doesn’t hurt exactly. My consciousness pulls out just before the moment of death, so I’ve never experienced it directly. I think it is like pulling your punches when you hit something, or closing your eyes when you sneeze. It’s a protective reflex. I probably could make myself do the metaphorical equivalent of holding my eyes open, but why bother? I don’t really want to know what it feels like to die as a spider. Plus, I know your eyes probably don’t pop out when you sneeze with them open, but do you really want to test that? No, dying kills the mood in the same way that eating too much of a bland food makes you not want to eat anymore. The experience of getting there wasn’t bad, per se. You just don’t want to do it any more right now.

As the lizard approached, I did what I usually do. I flailed about wildly. More often than not, if you act really different than a normal spider, predators get freaked out and go away. This lizard paused and stared at me. Lizards pause a lot. It stayed there for a long time. It just hung from the ceiling and stared at me. I flailed my arms wildly. I trampled to and fro in a pattern that was too consistent for a normal spider. I leapt back and forth between two small outcroppings. The lizard just stared. What was going on here? Usually lizards either ignore my flailing and just eat me, or run away once I start acting un-spider-like. This one just stared. There was something strange about the staring. I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was not until a minute later, when the lizard charged forth and scooped me up with its mouth, that it clicked. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn that the lizard was amused.

I puzzled at that one all night. I barely slept. It is lucky that I did my homework before I went to the train station. It would have remained undone. I was in the middle of a Mercedes Lackey novel that I really enjoyed. I didn’t touch it. I did not watch TV, and I barely ate. All I did was puzzle. I puzzled till my puzzler was sore, as Dr. Seuss would say.

Looking back, it seems obvious what was going on. But I had never met another body-switcher at that point. For all I knew there were no other body switchers, and never had been. My unproven assumption was that I was unique. A mutant, like in X-men. I spent a lot of time thinking about joining the X-men, and getting all cozy with Colossus. I don’t know why Colossus, exactly. I had a thing for Russian guys. That’s pretty funny, too, now that I think about it.

Fortunately I did not have to wait long for an explanation about the lizard. It happened the next day at school.

It started out as a typical day. I still had the lizard on my brain, but sleep does a lot to soften the intensity of that sort of thing. Part of me wondered if I had dreamed the whole thing. I knew I hadn’t, but the kernel of unreality to the memory helped me focus on other things. Like classes. I did not get a lot out of my classes, but that was nothing new. The only ones I really liked were science and music. I could not wait until the next year when I could take another science elective. By the middle of the day, the lizard incident nestled comfortably in the back of my mind, where it belonged.

Lunch changed all of that.

I saw him from across the cafeteria. I stood in line and he was eating chicken nuggets at a table with his friends. It was like a punch in the gut. He just sat there, with his nerd glasses and his frizzy hair, like nothing world-shattering was happening inside of me. What a jerk. I disliked him instantly.

“Who is that guy?” I asked Matty, who was standing in line next to me. Matty and I weren’t exactly best friends anymore. I spent most of my time alone these days. The addiction of spider-hood took up most of my time. Matty and I were still friends, though. Her closer friends were all seniors, and they ate lunch off campus, so she and I ate together most days. She was the only one I could talk to about my spider stuff. She didn’t like to hear about it as much as I liked to talk about it. But she listened. That was valuable. I did not know it at the time, but I was pretty lonely.

“Which guy?” asked Matty. “The tall one in the blazer? That’s Jeff Johnson. He’s on the basketball team, and…”

“No, I know who Jeff Johnson is,” I cut her off. “Everone does. I mean the nerdy guy in the blue shirt. Right there.”

“Him?” asked Matty, in a tone that said, ‘Why would you want to know?’ I nodded. “That’s Anton Volovich.”

“The guy that won the geography bee?”

“Yes,” said Matty. Matty didn’t say “yeah.” She always said “yes.”

“Thanks Matty,” I said. “You know everyone. Hold my place in line, will you?”

I stepped out of line and made a bee line straight for Anton.

“Wait,” Matty said after me, “what are you going to…” I ignored her, and she let it go.

I walked straight up to Anton and stood next to him. I gave him a hard look. He turned to glance up at me.

“You ate me,” I said accusingly.

“Huh?” he said.

“You ate me,” I repeated.

A girl sitting nearby opened her mouth. Her eyes widened, and she the girls near her started babbling at each other in loud-hushed tones. There was much giggling. It struck me distantly that there was probably a better way for me to handle this. A way that wouldn’t start the rumors that were no doubt already spreading. In that moment, I didn’t care.

“Oh,” Anton blushed. “That was you?”

“You know damn right it was me,” I said.

“Miss Moralis,” said a teacher nearby. “Watch your language.”

“Sorry Miss Johnson,” I said. I sat down in the open seat next to Anton.

“You know damn right it was me,” I whispered at him. “I recognized your slimy body language as soon as I laid eyes on you.”

Anton threw his hands up defensively. “I didn’t know if was you, really. Not until you said something. Listen,” he glanced nervously at the staring faces surrounding us, “can we talk about this later?”

“We can talk about it now,” I suggested.

“Okay, okay, whatever you say. But not here. I mean,” he gestured at the open mouthed girl, who was staring intently with a huge grin on her face.

“Fine,” I said. I stood up, and grabbed him by the hand. “Let’s go, then.” I walked off, dragging me with him. He scrambled to grab his back.

“Wait!” he protested as I tugged him out of his seat. “What about my chicken nuggets?”

The whole cafeteria burst into laughter as I marched Anton out of the room. In my memory, they were pointing and laughing in slow motion with their faces all lined up next to each other. I would love to say I was so strong and self assured that none of it bothered me. The fact is I still cringe when I think about it. I don’t know why I did something so idiotic, except that figuring out what was up with Anton seemed like the most important thing in the entire world. Was he like me? Could he do what I could do? I had to know, and I had to know now. Compared to all the other times I made big scenes in high school, that was a really good reason. This one definitely goes in the highlight reel.

I took Anton to the music room because I knew it would be empty. Mr. Chavez was out sick, so music classes were canceled this whole week. I let Anton go and closed the door. I turned to face him.

“Well?”

“Well what?” he said, nervously.

“Care to explain yourself?”

His face took on that lizard-in-headlights look. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

I stared at him as if he had gone crazy. The truth was, I didn’t know what I wanted him to say, either. Something. Something specific, that would make this feeling I had go away, or make sense, or something. I just did not know what it was. So I did what I usually did. I went on the attack. I’ve gotten better about that as an adult. Honest!

“Care to explain why you thought it was okay to eat me last night?”

Anton’s eyebrows raised, and he smiled just slightly even though he was clearly intimidated. Teenage boys.

“I was a lizard,” he said, “and you were a spider. What was I supposed to do? I didn’t know there was a person in there.”

My pulse raced. “How were you a lizard? That’s impossible.”

Anton stared at me. “Um…no more impossible than you being a spider.”

I shook my head. “People can’t do things like that. It’s impossible.”

He gave me a long, hard look. “Oh Jesus. Oh Jesus.” He stepped closer to me and tried to put his hand on my shoulder. I flinched away. “You’ve never met another one, have you?” He looked at me in the eyes. “I can switch my mind into a lizard. And you can switch yours into a spider. We are body-switchers. We are not the only ones.”

A wave of emotions crashed over me. “We’re not the only ones.”

He shook his head. “I’ve only ever met one other in person. My cousin, Jason. He can switch into birds. But there’s tons of us out there. I’ve talked to dozens online.”

“Dozens,” I said numbly.

He nodded. He put his hand on my shoulder. This time I did not pull away.

I looked down into his eyes. His expression was so tender and understanding. I wanted to smack him in his stupid face.

“So why did you eat me?” I said again.

“Jesus Christ,” he threw his hands up into the air. “This again? I was a li zard. You were a spi der. It is how it goes.”

I smiled wolfishly at him. There are wolf spiders. It works.

“I’m not going to let you get away with it again, you know,” I said, still grinning.

“Fine, fine, fine. If you don’t want me to eat you, I won’t eat you. Are you happy?”

“You can try to eat me,” I said. “We’re all poisonous. Do your worst.” He looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or flip out. He shook his head. We were silent for a long moment after that. It was pretty awkward. I don’t know if an adult me would have known what to say in that moment. Realistically, probably not. The teenage me definitely didn’t. If it was a TV show, Anton and I would probably have started kissing, maybe tearing each other’s clothes off. I was only thirteen, but I would be played by a much older actress so it would be okay. Probably Selina Gomez. Ugh.

But it wasn’t TV, so we didn’t start kissing. Our clothes stayed firmly on. It was five months before I first kissed Anton, and nearly a year later that we first took each other’s clothes off.

After a long and increasingly awkward silence, I finally spoke. “So what next?”

He looked at me confused. Then his face broke into a large grin. “You want to meet another one?”

I stared at him, and slowly nodded. For once in my life, I was speechless.

“Oh, one other thing,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Um…what is your name?”

That is how I met Anton. There is no way I could have known it then, but that was when things really started to get weird. But you’re right, we are all out of time. This was really good. It is nice to talk about all of this, even the embarrassing parts.

Same time next week?

Mind Control, Tragedy, and Spider-man

Multiple Emotion

“Anything for an interesting life.”
–Ford Prefect

In an average day, two or three people walk up to me and ask, “if you could have any super power, what it could be?” Because I am a fickle person who cannot stick with any one thing longer than the five seconds it requires to take a breath, my answer varies based on my mood. Sometimes I say I want mega-intelligence, so I can legitimately fix the world’s problems. Sometimes I grin like a four year old with a triple scoop ice cream cone and exclaim, “I wanna be Spider-man!” When I am feeling intellectually self-indulgent, I say “magic,” and then smile inwardly at how much smarter I am than everyone else. Magic characters in comic books can do pretty much whatever they want or the story demands of them. It is like wishing for more wishes. It’s kind of a cheat.

Much of the time, however, I give an answer that is less popular and more controversial: mind reading. This usually receives a skeptical and disproving look. The individuals who are likely to ask me this question are just as familiar with the tropes and source material as I am. The superpower preferences query is not usually delivered by high powered tailored-suit wearing business professionals. Even though I hang out with people like that, like, all the time. No, people who ask that question have given it a lot of thought.

“Mind reading?” they invariably say in an incredulous tone. “But…that would ruin your life!” They are right, of course. If there is anything the numerous examples of mind reading in science fiction and fantasy have taught us, it is this: most writers are not very creative.

But seriously folks.

The mind-reading phenomenon is well explored in fiction. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Fringe, and Very Bad Deaths are just a few attempts to explore what the experience of being a mind reader would actually be like. It is rarely pleasant. Characters with mind reading either go insane because they are overwhelmed, or lapse into depression and loathing because they are exposed to everyone’s filthy secrets. To read everyone’s mind is to be forced to accept that everyone is horrible. Bcause we are all horrible. Everyone has a part of themselves that thinks and desires some utterly horrific things. We keep most of the horror to ourselves. This is part of what lets us function as a society. We know this, and that is why mind reading would be terrible.

There are a few counter examples. Some super heroes have it, and it works out. Jean Grey, Professor X, Martian Manhunter, and Aqualad are popular and well loved examples (although in the case of the later, it only applies to fish). But superheroes do not prove anything. Superheroes universes make no real attempt to be realistic. Otherwise they wouldn’t be superhero universes. We can accept that Jean Grey can read minds and know people’s secrets without becoming cynical for the same reason we can accept that Batman can beat the tar out of criminals and slam their heads into concrete without ever killing anyone. Superhero universes follow their own metaphysical laws. They have a genre-based, narrative causality element that lets them specifically ignore some factors of the real world so they can tell stories in a different way. There are some superhero stories and worlds outside of the Big Two that attempt to be more realistic. In those worlds, by and large, mind reading is terrible.

I do not want the form of mind reading that would leave me overwhelmed and unable to go near everyone because their thoughts are always screaming in my head. It is highly speculative to discuss an entirely fictional mechanism, but I do not think the screaming-in-the-head form of mind reading is inevitable. Humans are capable of experiencing a great deal of sensory information without being overwhelmed. There is no intrinsic reason our normal filters would not work in the context of mind reading. It’s certainly possible that itcould work that way, but in that case I would no longer be interested. I have a good healthy streak of down-home masochism, but not enough to desire a superpower that would leave me a gibbering vegetable. That level of masochism would, itself, almost be a superpower. Or something like it, anyway.

The form of mind reading where you learn everyone’s horrible secrets, on the other hand? I’ll take that one. There are two reasons for this. The first is the one I usually give: I want to know what everyone is really like. I like to tell people deep and embarrassing truths about myself, and I like when they return the favor. I would, of course, resolve to use this power for good, mostly. I would also use it for person gain, just a little bit. In a non-destructive way. So many problems could be solved if just one person in the right place with the right motivations could read the minds of others.

I am aware that this would shatter my optimistic world view. It messes me up when I find out people I care about are judgmental, or two faced. Mind reading would amplify that times a thousand. Maybe ten thousand. I am sure I would suffer a period of depression when I first got the ability. I would learn things about my closest friends and loved ones that I would be better off not knowing. I think I am strong enough to get through it. I also think, and I know this is partially speculative, that I would get past it, to a greater understanding of what people are. I do not think I would learn people are secretly horrible. I think I would learn that people are complicated, messy, inconsistent balls of self-contradiction. I could live with that.

The second reason I want mind reading is self indulgent and embarrassing. That is okay. I have a special affection for revealing embarrassing things about myself. I have written about this before. Two paragraphs ago, in fact. The second reason I would pick mind reading as my super power is this: I want my life to contain more tragedy.

Let me explain.

My life up to this point has been pretty boring. Don’t get me wrong. I have not been bored by it. I have great friends and a great relationship with a fantastic woman. I have had great fun with roleplaying games, and writing, education, reading, and many other activities. Most of the time this is enough for me. But my life would make a very boring story. This is a common situation, in this day and age. It is the ultimate First World Problem.

People with actual tragedies are likely angered when I say I want more tragedy in my life. “Easy for you to say, you rat bastard. You wouldn’t think that way if you had ever experienced real tragedy.” They are right to say that. They are right to get angry. If I got cancer, or if my wife died, or if I was taken hostage by terrorists on an airplane, I am sure all I would wish for was to be out of that situation, to go back to my normal, comfortable life. I do not want any of those things to happen to me. Not when I think about them specifically. It’s just that part of me wishes my life was crazy, and exciting, and terrible.

Sometimes I wish for tragedy in any form, just to stir things up. Most of the time I do not wish for tragedy, so much as greatness. The two are difficult to separate. Show me someone who did really great things without a life full of difficulty, loss, and tragedy, and I will explain to you how that is not the kind of greatness I am talking about. I am not talking about success. Not so much Steve Jobs as Mahatma Ghandi. Jesus is a great example, and quite possibly the main reason why, in the Western consciousness, true greatness is often linked to sacrifice.

I took exactly the wrong message from Flowers for Algernon. If you have never read it, it is about a mentally challenged man who undergoes an experiment that makes him into a supergenius. He becomes the smartest person in the world, and gains everything he ever thought he wanted. He loses the ability to connect with people, and becomes increasingly tormented and isolated the more intelligent he becomes. Ultimately he loses the intelligence, gains some friends, and realizes he is much happier this way. It is a powerful work, but mostly it just annoyed me. I wanted him to keep the intelligence. Sure, it would make him unhappy. Sure, it would ruin his life. Some things are more important than a single human life.

You have to choose happiness or greatness. You cannot have both. Not for very long. The thing that drives me crazy, the thing that really drives me crazy, is that I know that I will always choose happiness. I am not strong enough to choose greatness. I wish I was. The world needs great people more than it needs happy people. I love what I have too much. So I will always choose happiness. I know how fortunate I am that I get to choose happiness. Not everyone has that choice. A lot of people do not have happiness. They also do not have greatness. A lot of people do not even have tragedy. They are just miserable. I am naturally inclined towards happiness. It is the luckiest thing in the world. I do not deserve it, at least, no more than anyone else. I am just a happy person. A happy person’s life makes a boring story. But for quality of life, as much as I hate to admit it, there probably isn’t a super power that can compete with that.

Some day, someone is going to come up to me and offer to grant me a super power of my choosing. The day I give up on that possibility is the day I give up on life. I will not choose mind reading. I will probably not even choose mega-intelligence. Instead, I will grin like a four year old with a triple scoop ice cream cone and say the words I have said, perhaps, more than any other in my life.

“I wanna be Spider-man!”

Only, you know, without all the tragedy.