Caffeinated Mindfulness

Mocha !

I take a sip of coffee, dark roasted into anthracite of Arabica, swirled with the luxurious tropical tang of coconut cream. It rushes into my bloodstream, into my senses. I can’t tell the difference between the chemicals blocking adenosine between my neurons, or the psychosomatic reaction of my hot wet love affair with the aroma, with the taste, with the feel of it on my tongue.

My third eye snaps open. It was asleep. It’s usually asleep. But it’s forced open by the thunderclap of caffeination outside its window, blasting through sleep paralysis, it jolts up in bed and stands at attention. I close my other two eyes. I take my first breath. I begin my meditation.

I take my second breath. They are the long, slow, deliberate breaths of the practice. The same ones that I take when I am calm. What do I look like, to the bodhisattva ghosts that haunt the space around me? Do I look at ease? Do I look rested, because I breathe normally, and because I am not moving? Can they see the thousands upon thousands of lightning bugs that rest upon my skin, waiting to burst into action and light up the night?

I am not rested. I am not calm. There is more to peace than stillness. If nothingness is the true state of perfection, then perfection is flawed. I am a bundle of bundles of charged wires of a hundred different polarities that only exist in the dreams of electrons. Instead of a place without thought, drifting like leaves on a stream, the inside of my skull hosts so many thoughts, so many sensations, in such a reckless state of effortless agitation they are indistinguishable. They are white noise. My mind is a serene cacophony of beautiful tension.

I realize there is no such thing as silence. There is only deafness. In the quietest room in existence, there is still the background radiation of the infant universe. The scream of it’s birth. Not a scream of agony, but an agony of triumph. An impossibly massive explosion in an impossibly small instant, bursting outward from a single point of infinite inertness to a furiously rushing sea of endless potential. The loudest shouts that could ever be, so distant when they reach us that they have become a caressing whisper. If we cannot hear them, it’s because we lack calibration. Because our ears are too small.

It swirls around me, within me, throughout me. These thoughts and this noise are me, and they are not me. They are larger and vastly more important, and smaller than the Planck scale. Less relevant than a single crumb of food that cannot feed a mouse so small it suffers wave interference when it tries to pass through two slits in a scientist’s lab.

It is exhilarating. It is exhausting. It lasts forever, but when it ends, as all things end, it has written a poem in prose in my head. A distant reflection in arbitrary symbolic representation of the chaotic, tranquil, nasty, perfect glory of the experience of trying to meditate after my third cup of coffee. But I will share it anyway.

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Thinking About My Dad

Sunset

I don’t think about my dad that much, these days. I don’t know if that’s sad, or healthy, or both. I can bring him up in a conversation with my mom and it doesn’t make us both sad. There’s a moment where I worry that it will, because I remember when I could hear the tears in her eyes over the phone whenever I mentioned him.

I could bring up some funny memory, and we might both laugh, but the tears were there. The moment fogged with a dull blue. It didn’t ruin it. She didn’t burst into sobs. But they were there. And I felt a strange thing in my chest. Something like longing, something like hopelessness, something like desperation. A hand, tightly grasping just above my heart, slightly to the left.

It’s a feeling I get when I think about things that were beautiful but now are gone forever. It could be a person, or it could be the ruins of a castle in the mist. The part of me that exists only to laugh and hurt doesn’t know the difference.

That doesn’t happen any more. Now we can talk about him like something from the past. I don’t know when that happened. I think it’s probably a good thing because it means there is less pain. I have enough pain in my world. Everyone does, and my mother has far more than her fair share.

We can talk and laugh about the dumb jokes he used to tell, mention things he enjoyed, bring up a saying that he used to say—and he had a million of them—and it’s just like talking about anything else in the world that isn’t around anymore. Joe DiMaggio. The Roman Empire. My great grandmother.

Just another thing, and if there is pain, it is the memory of a sting. I can feel how it used to hurt, and that feeling is still unpleasant just like any unpleasant memory. But it doesn’t hurt anymore. Not really. It doesn’t burn. That’s probably better. I think it has to be better.

I know that, but right now, right here, soaking in the thoughts and memories, I’m not so sure. I feel some strange ache, impossible to describe because it lives in the same places as other things that shouldn’t be real because they don’t make sense. It can’t be a bad thing that I can think about my dad without hurting inside. It means that I’ve let go of the hurt. Let go of the pain. But the problem is that once you let something go, you don’t have it anymore.

Things that only live in the past don’t hurt. You can’t get cut by a knife you haven’t had since you moved away from your childhood house and didn’t take it with you. The things that still hurt do so because never move into the past. They’re still inside of you right now. Still living, still breathing, still edged. Some people have jagged fragments of memory that flow through their bloodstream and never stop cutting them. They spend all of their time bleeding. But that’s not the past. Just because something happened a long time ago doesn’t mean it has passed. Not for you. Not if it still cuts you. Not if it’s still sharp.

The opposite of sharp is dull. When an image is dull, you can’t make out its features. My memories of my dad can’t cut me, anymore. Not most of the time. But that means they’re losing their edges. Losing their clarity. When someone won’t move on from the death of the loved one even though it hurts them, they know this. Inside of them, they know this. To lose the pain is to lose the immediacy. The now-nesses of it. If someone can still hurt you that means they are still in your life. They still exist. They aren’t just a series of photographs, a little more faded with each year.

And they still have cancer. And you still get that phone call at work telling you that, despite the fact that you thought he was getting better, your father is dead. It happens so quickly that it’s hard to believe. He seemed fine when you saw him a month and a half ago. Too skinny, unable to eat very much, but fully himself.

Fully alive, and fully able to complain that he can’t eat bbq ribs with everyone else, but with that amazing and effortless humility that someone makes the rest of us feel okay eating them in front of him. You can live in the happy memories as much as you want, but if you want him to still be here, still in your life, then you have to relive that phone call. Over and over again.

Nothing is ever all good or all bad. There is no way to move on without giving something up. Everything we do means we didn’t get to do all the other things we could have done. It’s a cliché to say that loss is important because it makes way for new things.

New things are important. Moving past pain and tragedy and sadness are important. But so is remembering. And if the full memory–the rich and intense and sensory memory where our loved ones are, for a few impossible moments, still with us—if that memory is painful, then pain is important, too.

If living without the sadness of my dad’s loss means thinking about him less, then that’s what I’m going to do. But if the only way to feel him still in my life is to sometimes leap into that pool of sadness and let it soak into my clothes and weigh me down for a while, then I’m going to do that, too. I never want the pain to go away completely, because I never want to lose him completely.

Sometimes I have to hear his laughter and see that goofy grin and feel my own tears sting my eyes because he’s there in front of me right now, but I can’t touch him. It means the pain will never be gone. Not completely. But then, neither will he. He will never be just a photograph.

Why Creativity Is Not Problem Solving

brain

Me: I’m really disliking my job these days.

Brain: Trust me, I’ve noticed.

Me: I used to like it, but it’s turned into a serious slog.

Brain: Well, maybe you should look for another job.

Me: But I hate looking for other jobs!

Brain: Well, which do you dislike more?

Me: Both of them.

Brain: I’m not sure what to tell you here, dude.

Me: You’re not being very helpful!

Brain: What do you want out me?

Me: I don’t know! A solution! You’re my brain. You should be able to come with something here! Something that lets me do or not do both of these things at the same time. You’re very creative. Aren’t you always telling me that? That we’re creative.

Brain: I do tell us that. I believe it, too.

Me: Right. So…come up with something!

Brain: Okay, I’ve got it.

Me: That was fast.

Brain: I’m a massively parallel organic processing unit with more potential interconnections than grains of sand on the earth, if every grain of sand had a pair of twins with every other grain of sand. Give me some credit.

Me: Fair enough.

Brains: Besides, it’s not like I…you…we…haven’t been thinking about this a lot.

Me: If a chaotic maelstrom of unpleasant emotions and half-baked notions can be called “thinking.”

Brain: What can I say? I’m complicated.

Me: Okay. What’s this plan of yours.

Brain: Alright, so first you get on the running shoes that you bought just before you stopped running regularly.

Me: Okay.

Brain: Put them on, lace them up, and head out into the woods.

Me: The woods? What does that have to do with my job?

Brain: Are you going to let me finish? I am your brain, here.

Me: Fine, fine. Carry on.

Brain: Your British accent is terrible.

Me: I know.

Brain: But I don’t judge you.

Me: I appreciate that.

Brain: Okay, so you head out into the woods, and you look for some squirrels.

Me: Squirrels.

Brain: Squirrels. Gray or black, it doesn’t matter. You start tracking down squirrels, and incapacitating them in some way. So you can put them all in the same place where they can’t get away.

Me: How do I incapacitate them.

Brain: You don’t know how to do that?

Me: No.

Brain: Well then neither do I! I’m your bloody brain!

Me: Oh. Right.

Brain: It’s something you’re going to be able to figure out. But that should be kind of fun, right?

Me: Yeah. I guess it should. I mean, kind of wrong, but a good thing to know how to do.

Brain: Right. So, you gather up these incapacitated squirrels, at least 49, but 51 will do, and…

Me: And?

Brain: You swallow them!

Me: Swallow them?

Brain: Yep! Just gulp them up!

Me: And…that will solve my job problem?

Brain: No! Of course it won’t! But you never listen to anything I say anyway! Just start looking for a new goddamn job like I’ve been telling you to for the last two months! Dammit!

Me: Oh.

Brain: Sigh.

Me: Did you just say “sigh?”

Brain: I did. I did do that. You made me do that.

Me: Sorry.

Brain: It’s okay. And sorry for the bait and switch.

Me: It’s okay. You made your point.

Brain: I appreciate the understanding.

Me: So are we still friends.

Brain: Yes we are. I mean, assuming that term applies when I’m a physical organ and you are an abstract representation of an amalgamated and probably fictional concept that can’t realistically be separated from me other than for the purposes of thought experiments like this one. I don’t know if the world friend applies.

Me: It’s an interesting question.

Brain: Indeed. We should spend the next nine hours discussing it.

Me: You think so?

Brain: No! Get off your ass and start looking for a god damn job!

Me: Right. Of course. Sorry. Getting right on it.

Please, Stop Asking

squirrel

A little story I wrote that has nothing to do with any pre-existing character. Any resemblance is distracting, and would require me to try to actually sound like that character and capture their essence which was not the point of this story. Anyway, I think it’s pretty fun.

 

Please, Stop Asking

Stop. Don’t even say anything. I know why you’re here. It’s obvious from the fluctuations in your galvanic skin response. From the anxious teeming of neural firing in your sympathetic nervous systems. From the way you’re sweating.

Besides, why else would you be here? You only come here for one reason. Every other week, it seems like, ever since you all found out where it is. This was supposed to be my special place. I brought a single person here, and this is what happened. It’s not that I don’t care about you. I think I’ve proven that more than enough times. It’s about trust. It’s about appreciation. And there’s only one reason you people come here.

It’s never to invite me to dinner at the White House. To offer me an award for my services. I’m not asking for a Liberty-sized statue or anything. Just a simple award, to show that you give a damn. Hell, I probably wouldn’t even accept the award. But you could offer. It’s not like you couldn’t offer.

No, don’t say anything. You’d say anything right now, the way you are. You’d promise me anything. You’re panicking, and what you say now doesn’t matter. You’ve had plenty of time to say all of those things, and mean them. I know what you are going to say, and I’m going to give you what I hope is the last response I’ll ever give to this question, even though I’m not naïve enough to think it actually will be.

It’s a request. A simple request, and it’s this. Please, stop asking. I’ll say it again. Please, for the love of whatever divine power or higher purpose each of you might hold to, stop asking me to save the world.

I’m not saying I won’t do it. I’m not saying that. I’m insulted that you would think that’s what I mean, after everything I’ve done. After all of the times I’ve done it without being asked or thanked. Oh, okay, fine, some of you have thanked me. But never once have I saved this planet, or any part of it, from destruction, mutilation, or enslavement without a wave of criticism so enormous that even I’d have trouble stopping it. You’ll accuse me of focus on the wrong incident. Or of not saving enough of you. Or of causing property damage.

Lately, there’s an entire set of memes with a zoomed in photo of my face during the Thief of Eternity incident–that stupid photo where my hair looks like two badgers trying to maim each other–accusing me of causing the ludicrous number of near-catastrophic events that have fallen on this clumsy rock these last few years. Me! It’s my fault that the radiation from a sentient pulsar almost boiled the planet into so much overcooked kale? Or that the thing that hatched from the Earth’s core after 4.5 billion years of gestation decided to wake up and drink the mantle? And what about that German fellow, the one you all thought was dead? He spent 60 years calibrating those clockwork mechanisms across the world to line up with that planetary conjunction. 60 years. If you’ll notice, that stretches back to before I was born.

Okay, I confess, I am responsible for part of how those events played out. Specifically, the part where you are not all dead, and your species and entire biosphere relegated to a badly translated footnote in the Encyclopedia Galactica’s Book of Useless Facts.

Sure, I’ll be the first to admit that there’ve been an awful lot of invasions by extra-temporal conquerors lately. And attempts to devour your souls. Or replace your DNA with fungus. The point is, it’s been a bad time. I know that. I know how difficult that is for you. But blaming me? The person who stops it all? You sound like the guy at the office Christmas party who gets rejected every one of his female coworkers and decides they must all be lesbians. Have you considered that maybe the problem is…you?

Again, I’m not saying I’m not going to save you. But you know what, I’m not saying I’ll do it, either. That’s what you want to hear, and you haven’t earned that. That’s just taking me for granted, and I’m not going to live like that. Not any more.

Oh, I know what you’re going to say. “But we’re going to die, we’re going to die!” Cry me a river. You think I haven’t heard that before? I mean, homeless people need to eat, but you probably step over them on the way to your cushy corner office. How is this any different? Do you think the universe at large would care that the planet that brought them Threes Company got wiped off the interstellar map? I assure you, they wouldn’t. They’ve got the DVDs.

It’s not like I don’t have other things to do with my life. Oh, you never even imagined that, did you? You don’t care about me except when I’m punching things into subatomic dust. But I have another life aside from saving your collective asses. I’m playing a lot of MOBAs these days. I have a Twitch channel, and no, I’m not going to tell you what my username is. And I have a boyfriend, now. Yes, a boyfriend. Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like I’m remotely the same species as you are. Why should I conform to your tired gender roles? Hell, you don’t even seem to be doing that anymore. Good riddance.

And another thing, you know that swarm of stellar piranhas that showed up around Thanksgiving? You know how I finally got rid of them? You never asked about that, did you?. Just happy they weren’t going to ruin your Macy’s Day Parade. I lured them to a distant star, one orbited by a now lifeless planet that used to be inhabited by a bunch up upright-walking hairless apes. Sound familiar? It was the only thing I knew would tempt them. By using a machine I built out of the remains of derelict precursor vessels I picked up and assembled while they gave chase, I tricked the piranhas into flying into the star. And then I devoured it. The entire star. I didn’t know if I could do that. I didn’t know if I could survive, but I did it anyway. For you. Because it was the only thing I knew could stop them.

And you know what? It was glorious. A moment of transcendent sublimity a million times greater than pleasure, a billion times more magnificent than love. And for one eternal, impossible instant of fractured time, I experienced the truth and beauty behind the everything. I saw the tiniest sliver of the meaning of it all. This messy, sharp, painful universe of children with bone cancer and premature ejaculation actually made sense. It mattered, despite the seeming futility of life, despite the agony we all suffer, I caught the tiniest glimmer or purpose, and I realized it isn’t all for nothing, after all.

Then it was done. It was gone, and it’s nothing but the memory. But I could get it back. I could complete the puzzle, and maybe fix this awful mess of a reality, if only I could taste it again. I think that maybe that’s what I’m for. That this might be my real purpose, what I could do to fix this broken universe, rather than just stitching up this tiny corner whenever it starts to bleed. Oh, don’t give me that look. I’m not going to eat your sun. I’m not a monster. But there are others like it out there. It’s a very large universe, even for me. I could look. I could find them.

But I won’t. Because of you. Because you are so helpless. I just know that twenty minutes after I left here your oceans would wake into sentience and decide to hug you all into a Kevin Costner movie. Or some idiot with an internet connection and no stable social relationships would build a bomb to turn your atmosphere into peanut butter. Or some gray squirrel in a park somewhere would transform into an omnipotent and angry god. Again.

So here I am. And you know that I’m going to do it again. And again. Because I am who I am. Power doesn’t give you any more choices in life. Not really. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell self-help seminars. So you’d better get out of my way and let me do my job. There’s a world to save, and no one else is going to do it. Just try to show a little appreciation next time. Bring a fellow a craft beer, or something. And for Pete’s sake please, please, please, just stop asking.

What Our Worlds Teach Us

Circle

We become what the loom of time and causality around us weaves us into. We can only interact with the world that we can see, that we can touch, that can cut against both our flesh and our conceptions, and make them bleed. We develop the reactions, instincts, beliefs, and worldviews that this world demand, and we act accordingly. We do this because to do otherwise would make us useless, or worse, mad. We do this to survive. All of this applies full well to my call center job at the cell phone company. Also, I’ve been reading a lot of Lovecraft.

At the most basic level, any job we take or social circles we move in require not only their own rule of behavior and action to be successful, but also their own coping mechanisms. You either develop them or you don’t move very well in those worlds. They make for the weirdo stories that populate the pages of the internet that collect those kind of weirdo stories. All professions have their fair share, but customer service oriented fields seem to produce them with gusto. Likely because CS involves dealing with a lot of humans. And humans are, taken in mass, pretty special.

As you can imagine, being a CS rep for a cell phone company involves listening to a lot of complaints. Whatever the flavor, they require the same kind of mental toughness and framing skills to handle. A lot of the complaints are a legitimate. Those are tough, especially when we can’t help. Some of them are so wacky they are almost difficult to believe. Sometimes, those are tougher, even when it only takes five minutes of distance to realize that they are also hilarious. And sometimes it is difficult to tell which category they fall into. Like today, for example, when a woman told me that by doing my job, I was going to kill her baby.

“Can I have your first and last name please?”

“Nicole Jenkins,” she said. Obviously I’m making this up, partially to protect her identity and partially because I don’t remember. I could tell just from her name that she was tense. Something you learn how to do, if you stay in this kind of job too long.

“What can I help you with today Nicole?”

“I need to transfer my number, or else get my own fucking account.”

Terrific. Excellent start.

Her line was suspended, which means it wasn’t currently working. I also saw that she wasn’t an authorized user on the account, which meant there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. She couldn’t make changes, or get much information. I knew I had to tell her that, and I knew she would yell at me. But I also knew that I was protected from the consequences of her anger by that favorite shield of both corporate employees and war criminals the world over. I was just doing my job. It diffuses a surprising amount of tension. From my end. Not so much the customer’s.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but without seeing you as an authorized user, I can’t transfer the service. I would have to get authorization from the account manager. I can reach out to them, if you want.”

“It’s my fucking boyfriend,” she said, “and he removed me from the account.”

“Geez, that is really rough.”

“Yeah it’s fucking rough! Can I move my damn number? I want to transfer the service. I want to transfer the service to my own line. Under my name.”

“Ugh. I really wish I could do that for you,” I said, and I meant it. I think people can hear that in my voice, most of the time. Not so much this time. “But legally speaking the number is under his account and so you can’t remove it onto your own without his authorization.”

“This is a domestic violence situation!” she screamed. “There is a domestic violence order against him!”

“Oh geez,” I said again. “That’s awful. Listen, there might be a stipulation about that in our policy. I am so sorry about this, the whole thing sounds really awful. Let me put you on old for a minute and see what I can find. Is that okay?”

“Fine.”

I took a look. I didn’t find anything. I reached out for held to see if anyone else knew anything, even though by that point I was fairly certain that if there was some kind of exception to the rules, which there sometimes is for domestic violence, I would have found it. My support person confirmed this, but explained that we have other channels for this kind of situation. It was good advice.

“Hi, Nicole?”

“Yes?”

“Thank you so much for holding, I’ve looked into to this to try to see what we can do. I can’t do the transfer from my end, because like I said from our end the line legally belongs to him. But we do know that awful stuff like this happens, and we have a team that works with law enforcement in situations like this. You’re going to have to go through the police or through your legal representation, and they can contact our team and see how we get this done for you.”

“I need my phone working!” she said. “I have an eight month old baby! I need my phone!”

“I really, really feel for you here,” I said. And I did.

“Fine!” she shrieked. “If my baby dies tonight, that’s on you!” She hung up. If phones could still slam, she would have slammed it.

I was shaken. I don’t know why not having a phone would kill her baby, but getting accused of infanticide is not the highlight of my day. I took myself out of available status and sat there trying to collect myself.

In that moment, just before she hung up, if I could have bypassed the rules for her, I would have. Which is exactly why they don’t let me do things like that. I had no way of verifying her story or even her identity, and scammers and identity thieves know that suckers like me work in customer service.

I told myself this, and I started to feel better. I told the story to some of my coworkers, and they agreed I’d done the right thing and the woman was being unreasonable, even if she was telling the truth. What else was I supposed to do?
And that’s all true, but this isn’t about policy. It’s not about whether or not I did the right thing or if I could have done anything else. It’s about how very easy it was for me to recover. It’s about all of the support and mechanism the world I work in gives me to move past even a situation like a woman accusing me of murdering her child. It is easier for me now than it would have been a few months ago. I imagine it will only get easier. Just ten minutes after that call, my main worry was that she would fail me on a customer satisfaction survey. But it was a minor worry. If she did, I could probably get it thrown out.

Compelling Evidence for the Nonexistence of the Universe, Interlude Part 3

Shattered Car Window

Interlude: The Brandywine Incident

Part 3

John smiled. He didn’t know whether or not the mechanic meant the statement as a joke, but a smile seemed safe.

“Keep me updated,” he said.

“Will do,” said Jaworski.

John turned towards Stantz and tapped the investigator, who was now leaning into the Dodge through its shattered window, on the shoulder. “What about you? Have you found anything?”

Stantz pulled himself out of the car and stood to face John. “There is no shortage of evidence, but this is a complex process with multiple stages that must be performed in order to obtain useful results.”

“Of course,” said John. “I’m not rushing you. I just wanted to know if the evidence suggested any preliminary conclusions.”

Stantz pursed his lips and gave John an appraising look. “You said your name is Mellanger?”

“John Mellanger, that’s right.”

“Are you of any relation to the local Mellangers? To Stacey Mellanger?”

“My family,” said John. “Stacey is my grandmother.”

“Oho!” Jaworski’s voice boomed from behind John. “We’ve got ourselves a member of local royalty, here.”

John tried not to grimace.

“Does that mean you are from Ducksburg?” John heard officer Handy call from the other side of the scene. Apparently he’d been listening.

“Oh yes,” said Chi loudly from her spot near Handy. Apparently none of these cops had anything better to do but listen in on his conversations. “He grew up here, didn’t you, detective?”

“That’s right,” John called back to Handy. “You and I went to highschool together. You were a sophomore when I graduated. I was the captain of the fencing team.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Handy. “I think I remember that. Lead us to state, didn’t you?”

“Nationals.”

“Right.” He turned to face Chi. “Did you follow the fencing back then? Hotter than the lacrosse team this last year, even. Never would have thought you’d be able to drag me to a match, but we all went.”

“Oh no,” said Chi. “I was a bit young for that. But I do remember…”

John stopped listening. He turned back to Stantz, who was staring at him, waiting for his attention.

“Are you close with your grandmother? Would you say you see the world in the same way?”

“I’m not quite sure what you mean,” said John, although he was fairly certain he did.

“Let me put it a different way. Do you consider yourself open minded, Detective Mellanger?”

“I try to be.”

“In my work, it is rarely possible to construct a narrative that explains one hundred percent of the findings. There is always something—an unidentified scuff mark, a drop of unknown liquid—that does not fit the ultimate explanation of the incident.”

“It’s the same with police work,” said John. He thought he knew where Stantz was going with this, but he decided to let him finish.

“This occurs,” Stantz continued, “because the world is complicated. Noisy. Not everyone who ever walked through a crime scene was involved in the crime, and no matter how careful the investigators, if they don’t contaminate the scene, the universe will. We just have to hope the noise is not so loud that it obscures the signal.”

“The truth is hard to find, even when no one is trying to hide it.”

“Indeed. All of this makes it tempting to dismiss any unusual or conflicting findings as outliers. Irrelevancies, particularly if doing so allows for a logical and coherent narrative. Most of the time, this is the correct approach.”

“But not this time?”

Stanz pursed his lips again, but didn’t say anything.

John could tell Stantz didn’t want to say what he was thinking. He was probably afraid of being labelled a crackpot. If John was any judge, he’d probably been labelled one before. It would explain why someone with his credentials was in Ducksburg. Or at least, it would half explain it.

“Listen,” he said, “I know that all of your findings will be in your reports. Right now, we’re just throwing out ideas. We’re just two investigators mixing the pot to see if we can stir up any leads. Nothing has to leave the scene of the accident.”

Stantz nodded. “Take a look.” He leaned towards the open window and gestured for John to do the same. He pulled a UV flashlight from out of his lab coat and flicked it on. She shone it inside the car.

“It looks clean,” asked John. “Did you spray for blood?”

“Yes,” said Stanz. “But I’ll do so again.” He bent down and picked a spray bottle up off of the ground and spritzed the inside of the car. There was no change.

“So the driver wasn’t injured,” said John.

“At the very least, they did not sustain any injury that resulted in lacerations,” said Stantz. “Unlikely in an accident of this magnitude.”

“Unlikely, but not impossible.”

“Indeed. Their clothing also did not leave any trace of damage on the inside of the cab. And look at this.” He pulled his arms out of the window and pointed to the door. “Do you see where the compression of the collision warped the frame?”

“Yeah,” said John. “This door isn’t opening any time soon.”

“It’s even worse on the other side. Now look at the window.”

John eye followed Stantz’s finger as he traced along the inside of the shattered window frame. It was safety glass, and so all that remained were some rectangular fragments jutted out from the edges.

“The hole is almost large enough for someone of small build to crawl through, although you expect more disturbance of the glass” said Stantz. “But there is no blood, no fibers, nothing to indicate that the window was traversed or broken subsequent to the collision.”

“So how did the driver get out?”

“That is the question.” He paused, and after a long moment John spoke.

“You think that, what, there was no one in the car when it crashed?”

“As for that,” said Stantz, “it’s too soon to say. But right here, at this point, that’s what the evidence is saying. Now look at this.” He marched towards the rear of the vehicle and pointed to the road. There was a thick layer of rubber skid marks leading back from the tires.

“Consistent with a car braking at 60 miles per hour,” said Stantz, “although I’ll need labwork to be sure.” He gave John a significant look.

John grimaced. He didn’t need Stanz to spell it out for him. It there was no one driving, who slammed on the breaks. He glanced over at Stantz, and saw the man’s intense gaze aimed right at him.

“This means something to you?” Stantz asked.

“Yeah,” said John, as much to himself as Stanz. “It means it was time to come back. It means my damn grandmother was right.”

Previous Bit/Next Bit

More Than Just Fear

candyman

 

“Candyman’s not as scary as Freddie,” Alexis said, leaning on her desk.

“He’s much scarier,” said Gene. “Freddy’s not scary.”

“Freddie kills anyone. With Candyman you have to say his name three times in front of a mirror. Who’s gonna do that?”

“Well, yeah, but with Freddie you have to say ‘Kruger Kruger Kruger.’ So it’s the same.”

I watched the conversation with abstract anthropological interest. Or at least, that’s how I describe it now. As nerdy as I was, even I didn’t see myself as a pop-culture anthropologist among my peer group in sixth grade. But I did find it fascinating to listen to people talk about their passions, even those I didn’t share.

This conversation further cemented something for me: I hated horror movies. After all, they were all about making you feel scared. That was their entire purpose. Who would want that? Fear is terrible. I spent enough time frightened of dark and impossible things as it was. Adults wax about they miss innocent joy and belief in the fantastical children possess. But they forget about the fear.

Children spend so much of their time afraid, because they Believe. How can they not? We only know that the world is round, that certain mushrooms can kill us, that there used to be a thing called the Roman Empire where they spoke a language no one speaks anymore except the Pope and some Catholic school teachers, because someone you trusted told us, and we believed them. To a children, the world is full of dark, hungry things. They are just as real as Santa Claus, life after death, and the Boston Tea Party. Things that are never seen or touched, but that, in the right moments, cannot be doubted.

I just watched Candyman for the first time the other day, more than twenty years after Gene and Alexis made me never want to watch it. It sprang to my mind because I saw Tony Todd, the actor who plays Candyman, in two separate episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Playing two separate characters, although in their defense one of them was a Klingon. To many people I’ve known, Todd is and always will be Candyman, no matter what other roles he plays. Seeing the actor made me realize I’ve never seen the movie, and that was a gap in my knowledge. Because now, as an adult, I love horror movies.

I love them in a way I never could as a child. There are two major reasons for this. The first is that I came to realize that my middle school classmates had a very unsophisticated view of the purpose of horror. They were after what might be called “popcorn horror.” Popcorn horror is all about the fear. It’s about the thrill of being scared, decontextualized from any exploration of themes or interesting narrative or character work.

A friend of mine, writer and filmmaker Evan Alexander Baker, summed it up perfectly with the following quote:

As a lifelong horror fan, I ABSOLUTELY DO NOT prioritize being “scared out of my wits.” I watch horror movies because I want to be confronted with interesting, resonant images and ideas relating to the abject and the uncanny.

I am not there for a “thrill ride.”

Are there some genuinely scary horror movies that are also masterpieces of the genre? Absolutely. Are they masterpieces of the genre BECAUSE they are scary? Nope; they’re scary as a byproduct of their ideas and imagery.

When filmmakers set out, first and foremost, to be “scary,” they produce hollow technical exercises.

It took me years to appreciate that it’s not horror that I don’t like. It’s cheap horror. A lot of people gauge horror on the “scare” scale–like it’s a love-tester with “love” replaced with “fear”– and there’s nothing wrong with that. Popcorn horror has its place, for the people who like that kind of thing. I’m just not one of them.

I still don’t exactly enjoy being scared, but I love being unsettled. I love engaging in the vast landscape of imagination that exists in the places of the human mind that make us uncomfortable. My favorite kind of horror is the type that makes me doubt my view of reality and the world.

I love it for the same reason that I love really fantastical fantasy like China Meiville or AD&D Planescape setting, or conceptually experimental science fiction like the works of Philip K. Dick or John C. Wright. I love them because they are mind-expanding. At its best, horror is even better at this than any other genre, because it is unafraid to stretch your worldview until it breaks. Until it bleeds. It expands the mind in a way that is both intellectual and viscerally primal. Cartesian radical doubt for the senses.

The other reason I love horror as an adult, when I could not as a child, is because I can take it. I no longer Believe. Not the way that I did. I still get scared walking into the basement in the dead of night, but it’s not the paralyzing dread it was as a child. I can grit my teeth and make myself do it, because this basket of clothing isn’t going to wash itself. Hopefully. When something is frightening enough, it is real. As a child, you might understand intellectually that the shadow on cast by the door doesn’t contain a smiling beast with teeth for eyes. But emotionally, you know it is there. In your brain you feel it as strongly and completely as if you had seen it walked across the living room floor.

Adults have this kind of fear, too. You can see it when a parent loses track of their child in a crowded grocery story. They might go into complete panic until they find them. The odds that the child has been abducted in those three minutes are very small, but the fear is so real it feels like a certainty.
As we grow older, we learn what the world contains and what it does’ t. We come to rely on these patterns. They’re comfortable. The world becomes a safer place because we’ve seen its shadows enough times that our belief that they are harmless is stronger than the monsters. I can watch horror movies now, even though they still frighten me, because that fear is no longer the threat that it once was. It won’t slip under my skin and whisper in my blood for years, the way it did when I was small.

But it still frightens me, because I still Believe. Not as much as I did, but it’s still there. I dread the person I’ll become if I ever lose that entirely. I don’t think humanity will ever fully understand the world, and so there are places for the things that live in the cracks and lap at the wounds of our nightmares. I did not find Candyman to be that frightening, but I’m not going to say the name out loud. Because I just don’t know. And even now, as I write these words, I’m happier than I like to admit that there are no mirrors in this room.