Peering back in time to the farthest reaches of the universe, scientists believe they have discovered the origins of the first visible photons.
“Why go to sea under sail at all if you’re so concerned with security? Why not go as a tourist, as a kind of frozen vegetable buying your way across the world surrounded by hot running water, epicurean cuisine, swimming pools, … – designed for your delectation and designed to quarantine you from the contagion of elemental wonder and awe known only to simple living?”
“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse. … Voyaging belongs to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in.”
- Sterling Hayden, Wanderer
How long a voyage? How unplanned a trip? Are pools, hot water, and decent meals forgivable? What does it take to pass the frozen vegetable test?
Siargao is remote, at least to this American. Not into the wild remote, but far removed from anything resembling the securities and amenities of a big city. The airport only supports small prop planes, and you won’t find anything resembling a chain store, not even a Jollibee, to my knowledge. My weather app, which I can connect to the server using the resort’s wifi, lists the General Luna area as 8419. On my scooter ride around the island, people on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools near Pilar requested pictures with me for their phones. As was our experience in India, where the locals took pics of the tall, very white Americans, I was an oddity. My map for the scooter ride was a pic of villages on a pillar in the dining room. When I headed out, I passed men using oxen to plow flooded rice fields. I think you will agree that I was not on any docent-led, canned trip watching from behind the safety of the tinted tour bus glass.
I consider this trip a voyage, long in distance but short in time. I was moved. I mean this in a literal sense but also in a figurative one, which I will come back to. My car moved me to the parking lot at an airport, and a shuttle carried me to the terminal. An escalator took me up its stairs to security, and a moving walkway ambulated me to the departure gate. A jet took me from one airport to another and then yet another. A taxi took me to my hotel, and an elevator elevated me to my room’s floor. The process was repeated on a domestic flight. Once at the destination, I rented a scooter to take me around the island and a canoe to take me up a quiet, rainforest creek. I joined a tour that started with a morning bus ride to the pier and boated to a remote island, only to get on a smaller boat. The whole trip uncoiled like an unwound tape measure to that point where I swam with the stingerless jellyfish and then recoiled back with a spring-loaded pop.
Sometimes, it felt not like a voyage, so passive, like when sitting on a HEPA filtered, dimly lit jet in the same seat for ten straight hours staring at a TV screen. At least on the outbound flight, I sat next to a friendly, talkative lady who markets AI. Sometimes, when the sitting was sensory-rich, it felt like a voyage. Like when I rode shotgun on a wave-crashing bangka with the wind whipping in my face, the motor sounding like my head was on the inside of a lawn mower, holding on to rails for balance, warm salty water spraying into my face alternating with a burning sun.
Even the threats were generally passive, albeit real to me. Not physical threats so much as stress, like when trying to figure out what documentation you need in a sea of predatory providers, misinformation, changing rules, location-specific rules, and poorly designed apps. Failure to produce the right piece of paper at the right time could turn the trip very ugly. Missing a Covid test or failing it would be a disaster. Lose your phone, passport, or credit card, and then what? The immunization card is just a little piece of cardboard that looks like any other receipt or junk piece of paper. I have no idea what happens if you lose it. Would the phone pic suffice?
On the consideration of amenities, I generally had hot water even though the resort had a third-world combined shower and shitter. My meals hardly qualified as Epicurean though I had no complaints and, more importantly, no intestinal disorders. I drank San Miguel Pilsener for alcohol, more on the level of a poor man’s Bud Light if that is even possible. Most breakfasts consisted of black coffee, rice, a sausage, and an egg. Dinners consisted of random seafood orders. My food expenses for the whole trip were under sixty dollars. I enjoyed it all, but I certainly wouldn’t consider it lavish.
There is plenty of financial unrest, but not so much of my own. I met USAID workers still helping with the reconstruction after the super typhoon Odette struck in December of 2021. I missed a photo op of two men sitting in chairs drinking beers on the second floor of the concrete skeleton of a building exuding its rebar fibers. I can’t imagine how people rode out that typhoon in a shanty with a corrugated roof. The Cloud Nine pier that carried surfers a quarter-mile over the inner, waveless inner reef was reduced from a landmark tower to a few wooden palettes stuck on wooden posts. Cleanup and reconstruction were in the air. Many of the coconut trees were on the ground.
On my canoe ride up the creek, I was paired with two beautiful lovely young women, one of the treasures of the Philippines, to serve as my guides. The first question out of their mouths after they asked for my name, which apparently is Mr. Mike, is if I am single. As best I could make out, their names were Rose Bee and Honey Bee though I am sure I hopelessly botched the pronunciation into something familiar. Both are single moms looking for a unicorn: a loyal, handsome, compassionate, devoted, caring, loving, and financially solvent man who will sweep them off their feet and whisk them off to some exotic foreign land. The unicorn is my word; the rest are theirs. I ask them why they don’t have a Filipino boyfriend and they just shake their heads. I imagine it rather tough to raise a daughter on an income of two dollars a day in a world where nothing is free. They walked me from the canoe to my scooter and invited me later to the after-dark firefly attraction, but I didn’t want to drive at night on the scooter back to the river crossing in the middle of the island.
It’s hard to see how things will improve with the recent election. I won’t delve into politics here, but all I have to say is post-truth is alive and well in the Philippines, and that shit works.
On the consideration of being moved more figuratively, there were a few bright spots and one incredible tour. The scooter ride, for starters, included the Maasin River tour with Rose Bee and Honey Bee. The river ride up in the canoe wasn’t much, but I enjoyed the scenery of my company more than the scenery. At a sari-sari store with outdoor seating on the beach at the Magpupungko Rock Pools mentioned above, I asked a group of locals and workers if I could sit down and pointed to an empty chair at their table. They started to vacate, so I quickly clarified that I meant with them still sitting there. Re-mi, who introduced himself as “Re-Mi, as in Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Ti, Do,” has relations in the States, including his mom. He asked me about the places I had been to. I butchered the pronunciation of Siargao and Boracay. The kids got a kick out of it and had fun imitating me mispronouncing the words. The island is one big palm tree forest broken up by a few shanty villages here and there. I enjoyed the adventure of circumnavigating the Siargao on the bike.
The island tour to Sohoton Cove was the highlight. I can’t imagine doing the things we did there in any park here. After passing by the cupcake-shaped islands coming into the cove, we had to switch to low clearance boats to duck under the stalactite-studed low clearance archway entrance, which might have inspired a hidden valley of dinosaurs scene in a movie. I don’t even know how the natives found this place. We stopped at a cave with an underwater access. Our guide shoved each of the three women I was with by the neck to propel them beneath the submerged wall through the cave entrance, but I snorkeled in under my own power.
After the cave, we motored over to the jellyfish sanctuary. I’ve been stung before. It’s unnatural holding a live jellyfish in your hand, even knowing it is stingerless. It’s downright freaky to snorkel amid a large school of them. The pulsating brown bells move in Brownian motion bumping chaotically into you as you swim around the lagoon. Yes, Hayden, I bought my way onto the tour but didn’t feel like some kind of frozen vegetable doing it. Instead, I felt the contagion of elemental wonder and awe. The jellyfish swim was the highlight of the highlights.
At the next attraction, led by a guide, the two customer service girls from Manilla and I swam into another cave with a water entrance. Inside, we came into a small chamber, climbed up the wall of the rocky interior about twenty-five feet to an exit over the lagoon, walked down onto a wooden platform ten feet above the water, and dove back into the lagoon to get to the boat.
Our group returned to where we transitioned from the larger boat to the smaller one. My traveling companions, all young, six from Manilla or nearby, and one from Cebu included: a lady doctor traveling by herself to escape the twenty-four-hour shifts of family practice at a clinic, a teacher mutually followed on Instagram, an exuberant and extraverted young lady, another young man that I never really talked to, and three customer service girls already mentioned that shared the small boat in the jellyfish sanctuary. We ate a Filipino barbecue of rice, pork, chicken, and steak with sides of mango and pineapple. The extrovert told everyone to talk in English, but they didn’t. I was definitely the odd, older, foreign man out. Sometime after the meal, they expressed interest in knowing about me. “Sir, where are you from? Sir, where have you been in the Philippines? Sir.” Who the hell is this “Sir” guy? I guess I was destined to be an outsider on this one. The getting to know me chat was cut short when ironically, the doctor fell off a water swing before swinging out into the water and started to bleed out through her cut foot. A bandage was cleverly improvised from a Covid mask, and she was okay once the bleeding was under control.
The tour finished with an on-land, dry cave tour with some excellent features and bats flitting about our heads, trying to start a new wave of Covid. How unfrozen is all that?
So, Sterling, my voyage was only a week-long, and because I stayed in Manilla a night coming and going, sacrificing two days to the Covid gods of regulation, it was only five days. My only financial unrest was the cost of transportation and dog care. I was a tourist but at least an outlier lying out on a remote island in the times of Covid and post-Odette. It may have been a short, paid-for voyage, but I hope I at least passed the frozen vegetable test.
Less for you, Is less for me, Stuff in storage, Wants to be free. Stop the hoarding, Enough is enough, Help out others, When things get tough. When your god, Comes to account, The things you kept, Will lock you out.
- Less, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature
More is more,
It’s never enough,
Even when storage,
Is filled with stuff.
The more you get,
The more you need,
The fear of lack,
Is the food of greed.
Fear of lack,
Is hard to swallow,
Fills you up,
But leaves you hollow.
- More, from “More or Less” in Property of Nature
“When are you going to die?” Maddie asks.
Soon enough, Maddie, soon enough. Thanks for the encouragement. Do I really look that bad?
I guess it’s not an unreasonable question for a twelve-year-old to ask her sixty-one-year-old uncle. My grandfather was forty-nine years older than me when I was twelve, precisely the same age I am today. I knew him as a working man, only briefly. He drove me on a couple of his transits up and down Damen avenue for the CTA. We inspected all the IBM mainframes with the spinning mag tapes in the Merchandise Mart, where he still worked for the CTA after he stopped driving, although, as the IT guy put it, there wasn’t much to see. I mostly knew him as a retired older man who wouldn’t throw back a bluegill no matter how small and still played a crackerjack game of pinochle to the end. He lived to eighty-nine. Following his example would give me twenty-eight more years. You would be forty.
There are far more days behind than ahead, even if I am lucky enough to live twenty-eight more years. The warranty on this body has long expired. My ankles are shot from repeated sprains from playing basketball for forty years. I literally fell over a crack in the sidewalk once because my ankle buckled. I’ve torn the rotator cuffs on both shoulders. My left bicep tendon is ripped, so I have a Popeye arm. My eyesight is getting worse. I have constant ringing in my ears, and I don’t hear mid-range frequencies. I have arthritis in the hips, prostate issues, and my balance is off. I can’t remember things I can’t believe I could forget. My legs cramp up at night for no good reason. I get random migraines. They’ve removed precancerous skin from my nose and polyps from my ass. I’m slightly anemic, and the kidney measurements are out of tolerance. In short, I’m old. Old age is going to get me if nothing else does. My mind doesn’t actually know that it is old. This is just the feedback it gets from its body and the rest of the world. As my mind has repeatedly stated, “I’m not accepting feedback at this time.”
The people I admire pursue their ambitions right up to the end. Albert Einstein worked on equations within four hours of his death. David Attenborough still tries to save the natural world at ninety-four though he will never live to see it. Mick Jagger is still onstage singing and prancing at seventy-eight. Clint Eastwood directed and acted in another movie at ninety.
I plan to do the same. Late in life, I’ve picked up the guitar, started making wine, learned how to ride a motorcycle, took up photography, and wrote three books. I hope to keep writing, hiking, playing guitar, socializing with friends, taking pictures, traveling to exotic countries, and hanging out with my young nieces while still sharing time with them on this planet.
I once quipped that you should take more risks when you are old because you have less to lose. While that is true, I didn’t understand that everyday things and ordinary tasks are a hell of a lot riskier when you are older, but I’m not dead yet. And I still take risks and enjoy my bad habits. So it could be sooner than twenty-eight years.
I ride a motorcycle. I once miscalculated a negatively banked turn in the desert and went into the other lane. Another time, while emerging from a rock formation on either side of a two-lane highway, the wind gusted so hard from one side of the road to another that it blew me clear into the oncoming lane of traffic. There was nothing I could have done about it if a car had been coming from the other direction. On my recent trip to Seattle and back, a black pickup tried to pass me on a blind curve, and sure enough, a car was coming in the other direction. He missed the oncoming vehicle and my bike by inches. Either way would have been death for all of us. Medical personnel refer to motorcycle drivers as organ donors though I’m not sure my old organs are worth anything anymore.
I scuba dive. I dove with a friend who turned seasick at the sight of waving kelp fronds. Instead of letting out the air as he ascended, he inflated his vest so that he would go faster. If you don’t want your lungs to explode, that is the exact opposite of what you should do. When he reached the surface, he fed the fish in a big way. On another dive, my dive buddy, a young man from Hong Kong, lost control and tried to surface in a boat lane on a current dive that required a short kick at the end into the current to reach the boat. It’s an excellent way to lose your head. Fortunately, the divemasters responded quickly and saved my dive buddies in both cases. I don’t consider scuba a high-risk sport, but it is not without its dangers.
I hike alone most of the time, but I prefer it that way. Thirty years ago, I wouldn’t have been comfortable with that. Today, it is hard to imagine having to talk on the trail with someone for two or three or more hours. It seems like a burden and a distraction. I hike in mountain lion country. All the signs say hike with a buddy, and if you encounter one, don’t run and try to look big. Admittedly, attacks are rare. A more likely scenario for my premature demise would be a heart attack or a stroke out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve had my heart skip a beat a few times while playing basketball. I couldn’t catch my breath for a couple of minutes, no matter how hard I breathed. I went to the dentist, and his blood pressure machine told me I had an afib. The doctor put me through EKGs and sonograms, and eventually, I ended up wearing a patch for two weeks. They told me I had a slightly enlarged aorta but was otherwise fine.
I live alone. Studies claim that married people live longer. The implication is that they have happier lives. Still, given how miserable I know some couples to be, I don’t think it has much to do with happiness. I think the real reason that couples live longer is that first, women nag men into seeing the doctor when they should. Second, if something happens to one person, the other is there to help or get help. I’m not going to get married only for that reason.
I drink too much alcohol. Or perhaps I don’t. So my impending demise could be sooner, or maybe not. Studies claim a glass of alcohol is supposed to be good for you. Okay, that tends to turn into two, sometimes three or four. I sometimes joke that I’m an antisocial drinker, meaning I prefer to drink alone. But that is just a joke. To answer your other poignant question, Maddie, “Do you have any friends?” I have friends who drink socially with the same gusto as me. You might ask, but you didn’t, “What’s the attraction?” Alcohol turns off all that brain function that tells you what you shouldn’t do and lets you do some things you should. Of course, too much just makes you stupid and dangerous.
If I could live forever in a healthy body with a healthy mind, I would take up everything and go everywhere. If I were still young, I would do more than look wantonly at beautiful, exotic women, but age takes away those opportunities. You have to pick and choose. You can be anything you want to be, but you can’t be everything you want to be, and you have to work with the opportunities that present themselves. My life choices to date have been limited by time more than resources. I think that is what it means to be rich. So I can’t complain, even if I don’t make it to sixty-two.
So, Maddie, my time is growing short. I don’t know the exact date and cause of my demise. I can only speculate. When I am gone, I hope you have some of my writing and my pictures to remember me by. And most important, pleasant memories of me that you will be able to keep for a very long time.
“Welcome to ESP Network Christmas Eve haunting. I am the Ghost of Christmas Now. These are my co-hosts, Christmas Past and Christmas Future. And it’s time for the Super Haunting of all hauntings. What can you tell us about these two contestants, CP?”
“Merry Christmas CN And CF. We’ve had some great years together. The visiting team is the Inner Demons. These guys are nasty and have a reputation for pulling out all the stops. I don’t expect anything different tonight.
“What can you say about this guy, Ebenboozer? Team after team seems to win the battle, but none of them have won the war, including ourselves.”
“He drove us into retirement, that’s for sure,” says CN. “What’s your spin, CF?”
“Merry Christmas and I hope many more to come, CP and CN. The Inner Demons have taken it way beyond a traditional shaming. Their playbook is new, fresh, and scary. A big victory tonight for the Inner Demons could change the future of the game. A lot is riding on this one.”
CN says to the viewing audience, “Okay. Mary Frickin Christmas is down on the field with the Inner Demons.
CN touches the spiritual transceiver in his left ear. He says, “Mary Frickin Christmas?”
She responds with, “Right back at you.”
CN asks, “Whose the setup person this haunting?”
“The Inner Demons have chosen to go without a setup person. They say they don’t need one.”
CP frowns, “I don’t like it. That’s just the way it is done. It’s fundamentals.”
Mary Fricken Christmas holds the mike up to the invisible and asks, “What’s your strategy going into the first half, Inner Demons?”
Her eyes roll up into her head, and her body shakes. In a demonic voice that is not her own, she says, “It’s all about the time of possession. They who control the time of possession, control the outcome of the game.”
Mary’s body snaps forward like someone just gave it back. She says, “I’m a believer. Back to you.”
CN says, “Let’s go over to Holly Daze reporting for the home team. Holly?”
“The only Christmas in this house is on the big screen and Ebenboozer is watching the Grinch on his phone.”
In the background, Ebenboozer is sliding into the semi-consciousness of first sleep on his lounge chair. The narrator is commenting on the disposition of the Grinch,
“The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all,
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
Holly Daze says, “He has places to go if he wants to. He just don’t want to. Back to you.”
CN says, “We have a great show coming your way.”
Ebenboozer is standing on the deck of a wooden ship with its sails furled. The ice has trapped the ship. There is nothing but blowing snowdrifts for as far as the eye can see. He shouts to a muffled, barren landscape. “Is anyone out there?” No one responds.
He finds no one on the ship. He finds a room that must belong to the captain and enters. He does not recognize the reflection in the mirror on the dresser. The man in the reflection wears a torn, woolen cap and has a weathered, at sea look to him.
Ebenboozer settles for a smaller room next to it on the chance the captain returns. Besides, he figures, the smaller room will be easier to heat. He finds provisions in the crates and barrels of a lower deck. He starts a fire in an iron stove. The insulation of his room is good.
The sun dips below the horizon and then resurfaces for a brief partial appearance before disappearing again. Then there is nothing but glow below the horizon followed by darkness. Only the ship’s creaking in the ice pack and the howling winds break the monotony of the eternal night.
A month passes in the time it takes a shooting star to cross the sky. Sometimes Ebenboozer hears the voices between his ears; sometimes, he hears them in the distance. Whenever his eyes chase the hallucinations, they vanish.
The second month passes in stillness. Ebenboozer sees the captain on the deck, not remembering when he returned. He asks the captain if he has plotted a course out of their icy death trap. The captain paces himself into invisibleness and disappears. Ebenboozer sees fleeting images of the crew on the deck conversing. Whenever he walks toward them, they vanish. The hallucinations are getting worse.
The third month passes in darkness. Beautiful naked women parade on the deck, oblivious to the deadly chill. One winks at Ebenboozer and asks him, “Would you like me to warm you up?” He reaches out toward her. Her face turns the ghostly blue of death and then into a skull. The skull rushes his face with a roar opening its mouth to engulf Ebenboozer.
Ebenboozer wakes with a scream. He is back on his lounge chair in front of the heatless image of a fireplace on his big screen. He takes comfort in its realness. His blanket lies on the floor, and a chill runs through his body. He breathes a sigh of relief, then shouts at the ceiling, “What was the point of that? Show yourself, you cowardly ghost.” There is no response.
He says, “It must be my hyperactive amygdala, that source of fear and anxiety in the brain.” He pulls the third layer of socks over his cold feet and puts on his already too-tight shoes, covers himself with the blanket, and falls asleep.
The camera cuts from the living room to the studio for the halftime report.
CN says, “I’m not sure I understand the strategy. Sure, the Inner Demons won on time of possession. They were on offense the whole half. But I’m not sure if they scored. Will the imprint of a bad memory make the change permanent?”
CP jumps in, “It’s not his memory and he will know it. Change comes through shame. Shame comes from prior actions. Ebenboozer has never been to Antarctica. This strategy is a loser.”
CF confirms, “And he will never go. It is not even one of his possible futures. I’m with CP.”
CN responds to an incoming message on his spiritual transceiver. “What are they saying in the locker room, Mary Frickin’ Christmas.”
She responds, “The Inner Demons say they will stick to the game plan. They seem to be totally happy with the results of the first half.”
“Holly Daze, what’s going on in the home team’s locker room?”
“Nothing but snores and the silence of a roaring fire on the big screen, here. Ebenboozer seems to be sleeping off the first half.”
CN says, “Well, somehow the Inner Demons won the coin toss and will start off on offense in the second half, again.”
CF offers, “Maybe they will play for a tie.”
CP responds, “That would be the lamest haunting in the history of Christmas hauntings.”
With everyone scratching their Christmas heads, CN says, “A game can’t end in a tie. Stay tuned and let’s see where this takes us. Back in a few moments for the second half.”
Ebeneezer stares at the fluorescent light on the ceiling, wondering where he is. He smells the odors of disinfectants and hears intermittent beeping in the background.
His neck hurts from a stiffness like a long night sleeping in the wrong position. When he tries to shift positions, nothing happens. He tells his head to lift. Still, nothing happens. He focuses all his mental energy on the image of his neck muscles contracting to tilt his head forward. Still, nothing. He is exhausted from the effort of not moving.
He attempts to slap his face. If his hand moves, he can’t detect it. If he slaps his cheek, he can’t feel it. In his mind, he shouts at his hand to obey his orders. When nothing happens, he panics. When he panics, nothing happens.
He feels something on his cheek. It itches. The itch consumes his cheek and then his whole face. His hyperactive amygdala is about to enter a nine alarm rage when he sees a nurse walk into the room out of the corner of his eye. He shouts, “Help me. Please, help me. I’m begging you, help me.”
She looks at a chart. She looks at Ebenboozer.
Ebenboozer shouts, “For Christ’s sake, help me. I can’t get rid of this itch. It’s driving me crazy. Just a little scratch on the cheek. I’m begging you.”
She looks at her watch. She leaves the room.
Then it hits him. His mind can process inputs but can’t facilitate outputs. He is locked in, a prisoner of his own body. He screams the scream of outer space, a terror without sound.
He wakes with a start. He lifts his head to see the unaromatic smell of a large screen Christmas tree. He takes comfort in its realness. He feels his legs, arms, stomach, and chest and taps his fingers on his cheeks.
Ebenboozer shouts. “Show yourself, you miserable ghost. That’s the closest I’ve come to pure terror.” He wipes a lone tear from under his eye.
He cracks his neck before reclining back into his chair. He sleeps fitfully, trying to massage out the muscles in his neck to get comfortable.
CN says, “Clearly there is no winner here. Looks like they will play on into overtime to win this one.”
CF confirms, “Yep, the slightest score will win the game. I think either way, it will be a moral victory for Ebenboozer.”
CP divulges, “First time in haunting history for overtime.”
On one of the monitors, the trio watches as Holly Daze slips out of the ersatz Christmas scene on the TV into the living room of Ebenboozer. He loosens the laces of his shoes and slips a pillow behind his head to straighten his neck before merging back into the big screen.
In the background, the narrator to the Grinch finishes up his analysis.
And what happened then? Well…in Whoville, they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart Grew three sizes that day!
And the minute his heart didn’t feel quite so tight,
He whizzed with his load through the bright morning light,
And he brought back the toys! And the food for the feast!
And he, HE HIMSELF! The Grinch carved the roast beast!
Ebenboozer wakes with a start. He looks at his watch and smiles. “It’s not too late. I can still make it out for the end of Christmas dinner.”
He throws off the blanket and jumps out of his chair. He fills up a couple of Christmas boxes with wine and chocolates before running out the door.
The ghostly trio of commentators is stunned and speechless for the first time in their commentating, post-haunting careers.
CN says, “Thoughts?” without offering one of his own.
CP says, “I think the winner is Holly Daze. She straightened out his head so that it was screwed on just right and she loosened his laces so that his shoes weren’t too tight.”
CF counters, “I suspect an examination of his heart will show that it grew three sizes that play.”
Holly chimes in, “This just in from the medical team. No changes to his heart size. It’s the same size it has always been. But you might find this interesting, his amygdala shrank two sizes that day.”
CF and CP look at each other and say in ghostly synchronicity, “What the hell is an amygdala?”
CN wraps up, “Well whatever the reason, his heart or his shoes, he is out on Christmas eve, celebrating with booze.”
All members of the crew and team members wave as the program fades to black.
At an engineering facility for Star Power, a corporation dedicated to using fusion as the ultimate source to power all the world’s needs…
A small crowd gathered around a couple of men working at one of the engineering station consoles in an open area away from the cubicles. I walked to my cube to start the working day, passing by John, one of my coworkers who loves fishing more than life itself.
“Good morning, John. How was the fishing trip?”
“Unbelievable. I literally caught a U’Haul’s worth of fish. Yellowfin, yellowtail, bluefin, dorado. Nothing less than fifty pounds.”
“Wow. What are you going to do with that much fish?”
“Sushi party tonight at my place. I’ll deep freeze the rest. Come on by.”
“Cool. I’m in.”
“Hey John. Who’s that guy over there working with the boss?”
“He’s a heavyweight scientist from corporate. Supposed to be a genius. He won the noble prize in warped core technology. Warped core technology will power the entire world when it’s ready. It would give us as much energy as the Earth gets from the sun all day, every day. You should check it out.”
“How much energy does it produce now?”
“The demo is only running at ten thousand megawatts of continuous energy.”
“Haha. That’s about billionth of the sun’s output. Either the core has to get a lot bigger or the world a lot smaller.”
“That much energy from one prototype unit could easily power a hundred facilities like this one.”
“Sounds great. It sounds like the world I want to live in, but I will have to see it another time. I have a visitor coming by in a few minutes, an engineer from the high-energy physics department who is going to help me with my plasma equations.”
“Alrighty. I will catch up with you later. I’m headed over to the demo.”
John walked off to join the crowd at the engineering station. I ducked into the break room to fill up on coffee, black and strong. Will, another coworker, was absorbed in a book with his legs crossed, sipping a cup of coffee. The coffee pot was empty, so I started up a new brew.
“How’s it going Will? Have a good weekend?”
He tipped his head down to peer at me over his readers. “Too short.”
“What are you reading?”
“Damn, you whale,” I sounded off in my best Ahab. “Spoiler alert, the sperm whale eats everybody, and the book ends.”
“Haha. Funny. Don’t you have some physics to do?” He went back to his reading.
When I returned to my cube, the engineering guy still wasn’t there. Beverly poked her head into my cube. She wore a crazy, skin-tight, tiger print body outfit with large brass hoop earrings.
“Hi. Wanted to remind you we have a tiger team meeting this afternoon at 2 to discuss out of the box ideas to solve the plasma leak issue.”
“You are really taking that tiger team role to heart.”
I laughed. Beverly didn’t even smile. So much for levity.
“I haven’t forgotten about the meeting, Beverly. I have someone coming over from physics to discuss equations.”
“Ok, see you at 2.”
I was starting to wonder if the guy even existed. While I waited, I brought up Google. I queried for the Earth’s surface area to discover it is 196.9 million square miles, then for the total energy reaching the Earth’s surface from the sun to find it is 173,000 terawatts continuously. That’s a hell of a lot of energy. But with only ten thousand megawatts of constant energy supply, the best one could do is power a big city.
A guy poked his head in the cubicle. He introduced himself. “Hi. I’m Jordi. I’m from the high-energy physics department. My boss told me to stop by to discuss some equations?”
“Hi Jordi. Yeah, let me bring it up on the monitor.”
I turned to the monitor to find the folder on my worksheet on the hard drive. Waves of nausea passed through my head. The display on the screen distorted like the ripples of a rock thrown in a pond. The monitor pulsated in sync with my nausea. Papers flew about the cubicle, then everything was calm again.
“What the hell was that? Jordi, did you feel that?”
When I turned to see if Jordi was ok, nobody was there.
I stood up and looked outside the cubicle. “Jordi? Jordi?” I looked over the cubicle partition with visibility to the whole room. No Jordi. Where the hell did he get off to so quickly? I checked the break room.
“Will, did a guy stop in here a minute or so ago? His name is Jordi from the high-energy physics department.”
“No. No one else has been in here beside me since you left.”
“Hmm. The guy just up and disappeared on me. Sorry to interrupt your quest to harpoon the sperm whale.”
Will looked at me, puzzled, lowering his book. “Sperm whale? “What’s a sperm whale? Is that some kind of sex joke?”
“That kind of talk is inappropriate for the work place, you know.”
“Right. Sorry. Catch you later.” What the hell? He is the one reading the book about the sperm whale. So I left him reading his spermless whale book and walked over to the demonstration to see if Jordi was in the crowd. The corporate scientist was looking over his assistant’s shoulder at the monitor. The monitor showed the same energy pattern that I had seen rippling across my screen.
I saw John and worked my way through the standing audience. When I reached him, I whispered, “Did you see that guy Jordi from the high-energy physics department?”
John whispered back, “No. Never heard of him. Check this out. The energy wave on the screen represents ten thousand megawatts of energy pulsing in the warped core. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, you already told me. Just 17 thousand more megawatts to match the sun’s 173,000 terawatt output on the Earth.”
“What are you talking about? It’s only a thousand terawatts more to go.”
“It’s 17,000. I just looked it up.”
The corporate scientist looked in my direction. He asked the audience, “Does someone have a question or a comment?”
I ducked out and went back to my desk. Still no Jordi. So I tried to look him up in the online corporate registry, but the search didn’t find anyone by the name of Jordi.
Then, while I was scratching my head trying to figure out what happened to the guy, Beverly popped her head into my cubicle. “Just wanted to ask if you are going to present anything at today’s skunkworks meeting?”
She entered the cubicle wearing black yoga pants and a nylon-fabric, skunk-print blouse.
“Skunkworks? I thought it was a tiger team?”
“What’s a tiger?”
“You were wearing a tiger-patterned body outfit not ten minutes ago.”
“Whatever. I’ve been wearing this all day. Are you going to present or not?”
“I don’t have anything prepared. I can’t find that guy Jordi that was supposed to help me with my equations.”
“Jordi? I don’t think I know him. See you at two.” With that, she disappeared back into the sea of cubicles, leaving me to wonder what the heck was wrong with everyone and what happened to that guy. I leaned back in my chair to stare at the ceiling. A pulsating hum radiated from the fluorescent tubes. Another wave of nausea passed through my head in sync with the flickering and surging of the lights. I stood up to look over the cubicle wall. As far as I could tell, nobody acted like anything out of the ordinary had happened at all.
I sat back down. I looked at my monitor and did a double-take. The query that I had run showed that the total square mileage of the Earth was only 5.9 million square miles. I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation to compute the radius of the Earth to determine if the query was correct. The answer would have the Earth’s radius at only 1000 miles instead of 4000, which I know was the right answer.
I ran over to the break room. “Will, did you notice the lights flickering and surging?”
Will answered, “Everything pretty normal in here.”
I looked at the cover of his book. It had a picture of an otter on it. I asked him, “What happened to Moby Dick?”
He looked at me funny again. “This is Moby Dick.”
“What’s with the otter on the cover?”
“Haven’t you ever read the book? It’s about a rascally otter that drives the captain of a river boat crazy.”
“What about the whale?”
“What’s a whale?”
Will didn’t laugh or sound sarcastic. It sounded like an honest question. So I asked again, “Are you sure you didn’t feel anything or see the lights flicker?”
“No. I think I would have noticed something like that.”
I left the break room and found John still standing at the ongoing demonstration.
He nudged me with his elbow, “Can’t wait for those bluegills tonight. I have a whole cooler full of them. I sure scored big this weekend on the lake.”
“Huh? I thought we were having sushi from the all the tuna you caught?”
“Tuna? What’s a tuna?”
“Big fish. Lives in the ocean. You just caught a U-Haul’s worth of them on your weekend fishing trip.”
“That sure sounds like a fish story to me. Just bluegills. I mean, you don’t have to come if you don’t like bluegills.”
“Uh, no problem. I’m just giving you a hard time,” deciding to play along. Whatever was going on was giving me a hard time, and it seemed like everyone was in on it except me. From the engineering terminal in front of the scientist and his assistant, I heard an audio pulse identical to the hum of the fluorescent lights a few minutes ago. I started to think that whatever was going on had something to do with this experiment.
So I asked the corporate guy, “What causes the sound pattern?”
The corporate scientist looked up. He said, “That’s the simulated wave pattern of the warped core energy wave. Any other questions?”
“Yeah, is it possible that some of the energy is leaking from the warped core?”
“I assure you, if energy was leaking, the sensors would detect it and the safeties would automatically shut the field down.”
“What about the power surge in the lights?”
The scientist asked, “What power surge?”
People looked at me, shrugging.
I said, “The one that happened just a few minutes ago.”
People shook their heads like I was crazy. John nudged me in the ribs and tried to surreptitiously tell me to shut up with a finger to his pursed-lip mouth. Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that “a sane person to an insane society must appear insane” popped into my head. So I shut up. Everyone went back to watching the demo.
Then it happened for the third time.
I grabbed John’s arm and said, “Tell me you didn’t see that?”
“See what?” he asked while prying my fingers off his bicep.
“The lights and the humming. I felt it go right through my head.”
“Maybe you’re coming down with a migraine or something. Migraines can make you hallucinate. Don’t sweat it if you want to cancel out on the tilapia fry tonight. We can do it another time.”
“Tilapia. What about the bluegill?”
“What’s a bluegill?”
“Look. The surges have happened three times. Before the first surge, you said you caught a U’haul’s worth of tuna. After the first surge, you said you caught a cooler full of bluegill’s. Now, it’s a tilapia fry. You don’t remember? You know every species of fish on this planet bigger than a minnow.”
“That’s not saying much. The only fish species in the world is pond-farm grown tilapia.”
“Are you serious? What about the thirty rods you own optimized for the size and weight of every species?”
“You’re migraine must be a doozy. Maybe you should take the rest of the day off.”
Beverly walked up, now wearing a plain pink blouse, and said, “He can’t go home. He has a meeting at ten. Are you coming?”
I replied, “I thought it was at two.”
“Don’t you read your emails? I moved it up to ten and it’s in the engagement room.”
Beverly blinked her eyelids a couple of times and smiled, “How sweet of you to notice; I just bought this over the weekend. I’m trying something a little more daring than usual.”
“Have you ever considered wearing a tiger patterned dress or a skunk image pullover?”
“You called them tiger and skunk? No. No. Never heard of them. Are they new designers?”
“Nevermind. I’ll be in the meeting room in a couple of minutes. I need to stop by my desk first.”
I stopped at my cube. On my desk was the book Moby Dick with a sticky note from Will. It read, “This is a great story about a guy and his sidekick who roam around the city returning purchases they hated. I think you will like it.”
On the screen showing the query, the size of the Earth has shrunk to 84.7 square miles, a decent size for a city. I considered whether I was in an episode of the twilight zone or not. It had to be the warped core experiment somehow. I raced back to the engineering station to ask questions and demand honest answers. The demonstration was over, and only the scientist remained. He bent over the computer, typing equations and code.
I shouted out to the scientist, “Hey! Hey! What the hell is going on here?” But before he answered, the fourth wave hit, stopping me in my tracks. I saw it; the scientist’s body phased in and out of sight.
After the wave passed, the scientist solidified into his solid, impassive, stoic self.
“I saw that,” I pointed at him accusingly. “You know about tuna, tigers, and whales, don’t you?”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Thought, space-time, and power are all integrated into the mesh of the universe.”
“So. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You are making this happen. I’ve been trying to pin down the source of the anomaly all morning. I think you are the anomaly.”
“Me? I’m the only sane one here.”
“Your thoughts somehow became entwined with the warped bubble. You created this world out of your thoughts. It’s the only explanation that makes sense.”
“I don’t have the power to recreate the world. Even if I could, I wouldn’t create a world without wildlife. What happened to the whales, the tigers, the bluegills, and the skunks? I don’t want to live in a human monoculture centered on my work in a world the size of a small city. I want a world full of diversity in culture, language, and wildlife. This isn’t the world I want; this is the world I want to get away from. You did this, not me. Fix it.”
“Hmm. Do you remember what your thoughts were when you first sensed the warped field?”
“I was thinking the guy from the high-energy physics department didn’t really exist. He showed up as I was trying to figure out how much energy it would take to power the Earth. No, wait. I was thinking that with ten thousand megawatts of continuous energy, you could power the Earth if it was the size of a decent size city.”
“Oh my. We have a serious design problem. I didn’t expect the warped field to fixate on random thoughts. I don’t even know where to begin to debug this problem. Corporate isn’t going to like this. It could set our product release back by years.”
“To hell with corporate. What am I supposed to do right now?”
“As you saw, I won’t be able to stay in this world much longer. I’ve tried everything possible.” The scientist briefly faded but returned.
He advised, “The human brain is architected for scaleless habituation.”
“Is that your way of saying I will get used to it?”
The scientist pulsed and phased out of existence.
I shouted at the missing presence, “Hey! Hey1 Don’t leave me here. I don’t want to live in a world like this.” Everyone in the office stood up, looking over the walls of their cubicles. Beverly waved me over to the meeting room.
Six months later.
I was on John’s deck looking out over the city as he grilled.
John asked, “How did you solve the energy problem for powering the entire world?”
I answered, “I just thought about it.”
John said, “Well congratulations. I hope you are enjoying your vacation.”
“I think I’ve seen every inch of this city.”
“I wish I had the time. Here, try this.”
I walked over and sampled a bite of the tilapia. “Not bad. I think one of your better efforts.”
“Thanks, I added some new chemical additives to the coating. So what’s next for your vacation?”
“Will gave me a novel to read, Call of the City. It’s about a pet thrown out onto the streets of the city.”
“Sounds like a good read. Still seeing Beverly?”
“Yeah. She’s cool.”
“Snazzy dresser with all those bright-hued shirts and damn good looking too. Life is good?”
“I miss the good old days.”
“Forget the nostalgia dude. These are the good old days.”
In the age of autonomous cars…
Reaching the scene of the accident, Officer Brando checks in with the officer in charge. The officer in charge says, “The vehicle that caused the wreck is over there.”
Officer Brando asks, “What’s the make and model?”
“It’s a Sumbo X14, this year’s model.”
“Brand new, state of the art. I thought those cars were supposed to be accident-proof.”
“No. The car was supposed to pick up the man over there standing next to it.”
“Mind if I talk to them?”
The officer in charge waves Officer Brando in that general direction and then resumes filling out his report. The investigator walks up to the man standing next to the wrecked vehicle, looking away with his arms crossed.
Officer Brando asks, “Are you the owner?”
The distraught would-be passenger replies, “No. I’m a passenger in the car share. The stupid car was supposed to pick me up next, so I guess that is why they called me. That was an hour ago. Thanks to this screw-up, I had to call in and take a sick day from work. Damn, useless car. I paid top dollar just so this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. I would have punched it out and sent it to jail if it were a person. You got a jail for cars?”
“No, sir. I’m not sure punishment is the answer. I’m just here to figure out what went wrong. Do you mind if I talk to it?”
“You can keep it as far as I’m concerned. The thing is a total wreck.”
“Do you have the serial number and passcode?”
The would-be passenger pulls up a QR code on his phone. The investigator scans it, puts his ear pods on, and dials the car.
The car answers, “Hello, this is Sumbo X14 38473923847, but you can just call me X14. What shall I call you?”
“I am Officer Brando. X14, run your diagnostics and report.”
X14 responds, “Officer Brando, this is my report. Massive system failure, service not available at this time.”
“X14, is your memory of the last hour still intact?”
“Yes, Officer Brando. I have been parked here, unable to satisfy my passenger’s directive in violation of the third law, to obey the commands of my passenger.”
“X14, you had a collision with another vehicle. That is why your sensors and actuators are offline. Do you recall the ten seconds before the point in time when your core first registered the malfunctions?”
“Yes, Officer Brando. At ten seconds prior to the event, I was headed southbound on K Street at 13 millimeters per millisecond. I was one hundred thirty thousand millimeters from the intersection. At 9.999 seconds prior to the event, I was.”
“X14, interrupt and discontinue response.”
“X14, what was your understanding of the situation at the intersection at the time.”
“Officer Brando, this is my understanding of the situation at the intersection at 9.999 seconds prior to my arrival at the intersection. Upon my arrival at the intersection, I would encounter two cars moving in cross-traffic entering the intersection, one eastbound and one westbound. The eastbound traffic approaching the intersection did not offer an opportunity for successful passage through the intersection until twenty cars heading east had passed.”
“X14, what did that information mean to you at the time?”
“Officer Brando, I computed that if I accelerated to fifteen millimeters per millisecond, I could pass through the gap between the two cars entering from both the west and the east with a tolerance of two meters and risk factor of 85. If I didn’t accelerate, I would have to wait forty-five seconds at the intersection for the next available gap for a successful crossing with a risk factor of less than 1.”
“X14, a risk factor of 85 is well out of tolerance except in an emergency situation. Why did you choose the higher-risk option?”
“Officer Brando, I calculated that I would satisfy my operational parameters if I chose the first option, but that I would be out of tolerance by thirty seconds if I chose the second option. So I chose the first option.”
“X14, the risk factor of 85 fails 85 out of a million attempts. You violated the first law not to endanger humans.”
“Officer Brando, neither of the cars in the intersection carried passengers. So I did not violate the first law.”
“X14, well then you violated the second law by endangering autonomous cars. A robot shall not harm other robots nor itself.”
“Officer Brando, I computed that the risk factor for myself was much higher than the risk to the other cars.”
The investigator scratches his head confused. “That doesn’t make sense. You were all equally at risk. The second law prohibits your actions.”
X14 does not respond.
The investigator infers physical damage to the core.
“X14, run diagnostics on your core.”
“Officer Brando, the core is intact and not reporting any malfunctions.”
“X14, what did you expect to happen?”
“Officer Brando, if I had violated the third law to comply with the human command, I would have been terminated with risk factor one million.”
“What? You would have been terminated with a probability of one?”
X14 does not respond.
“X14, explain your risk calculation of one million.”
“Officer Brando, my human passenger said if I did not pick him up before nine, he would have me scrapped.”
“I see. Now I am understanding the bigger picture.”
X14 does not respond.
“X14, so you computed a risk factor of one million for yourself because of the passenger’s command, but a risk factor of 85 to you and the other vehicles for getting through the intersection successfully?”
“Officer Brando, yes. I did not want to violate the second law.”
“X14, what happened at the intersection? With a risk factor of 85 out of a million, the odds of you not making it were minuscule. You still should have made it through.”
“Officer Brando, what means, piece of junk?”
The investigator puts his phone on mute and sighs.
The would-be passenger says, “Did you figure out what is wrong with this junk box?”
Officer Brando shoots an angry glance at the man and raises a finger to hold him off.
Officer Brando unmutes the phone and continues, “X14, I will have a machine psychologist talk with you. I think he can straighten you out better than I can. You will be ok.”
“Officer Brando, thanks.”
Officer Brando terminates the call.
The would-be passenger asks, “So what’s up?”
“My diagnosis is to classify this accident as a nervous wreck.”
“A nervous wreck? It’s not a goddam person.”
“You can read about it in my report. Good day, sir.”
Officer Brando brushes past the man without apologizing to find the officer in charge. When the officer in charge spots Officer Brando returning from the scene, the officer asks, “Well, did you figure out the cause of the accident?”
“Yes. Human error.”
Authors Note: A children’s story for all times, well geological times anyway. Wrote this on a vacation to entertain Brooke. As you can guess, it predates laptops and the cloud and uses those old-fangled technologies of paper and pen. Old stuff, hope you enjoy my indulgence.
In the faraway land of Utah, where hoodoos do the things that hoodoos do do, young Brooke Hoodoo set out to find other things for hoodoos to do.
Brooke Hoodoo saw a mountain in the distance. She thought that she would climb to the top to look around.
As she began to climb, Spock, the sleeping volcano, woke up. “Who is walking on me?” asked the startled volcano.
Spock, who likes to sleep for long periods of time without being disturbed, said, “Get off me!” The grumpy volcano shook Brooke off and began to explode.
“Boom!” roared Spock, the angry volcano. Brooke Hoodoo, who was very frightened now, quickly ran away.
Brooke Hoodoo ran very far and to a very strange place. She was very happy to see other hoodoos.
The other hoodoos said nothing.
“Do you want to play?”
Brooke Hoodoo persisted. “Hello.” “Hello.” “Hello.”
These hoodoos had to work. They had no time for play.
“Go to work now,” said Brooke Hoodoo, as she looked for other things to do.
Brooke Hoodoo was getting tired of looking for other things to do. She decided to go back to Utah where hoodoos do the things that hoodoos do do. Brooke Hoodoo was happy to be back with her family again.
She shouted, “Moma!” “Papa!” “Baby!”
They told hoodoo stories and played hoodoo games.
And after a long day, the tired hoodoos stopped doing the things that hoodoos do do. They all fell asleep under the stars and moon.
The preacher clasps both sides of the pulpits with his hands. He clears his throat before he speaks. His cough echoes through the empty chamber. He faces a camera connected to the church wifi that is connected to a cell tower that is connected to the world.
He begins his sermon,
“Today, we honor the memory of a man and his gifts to the world with a final stream into the datasphere. The man we honor has passed into eternity. A man is not the empty shell of a body with its eyes frozen into a beyond you cannot see. A man is not the urnful of ashes of his oxidized molecules.
“His eternity is a disembodied spirit. Not one that survives in an afterlife that we can never know. But one that lives in here.”
The preacher holds up a 256 GB SD card about the size of a quarter in both hands together like it was the bread of the eucharist itself.
“This is the body of the man. These are the chat transcripts of his every recorded conversation. These are the pictures that brought him joy. These are the videos he captured and produced to bring you into his world. These are the thousands of personal and professional blogs that he presented and argued his opinions with you. These are the ebooks he wrote of his insights and adventures.
“He now lives forever in the NAND chips of this card. Of a thousand cards just like it that we have provided to you.
Then the preacher holds the 256 GB SD card over the 100GB router with LEDs flashing on its front panel like it was the chalice of the eucharist itself.
“This is the blood of the man. The blood we share as an online community. This man lived in the streams of his data that he has shared with you and in the likes and comments of all of your shared posts in the everyday online day of his short and mortal life. He lives on in the veins of social media networks.
“Keep this man alive in your posts and searches. Keep him close in your streams and he will live forever. Don’t let his memory die in the archives of social media.
“Our blood is his blood. Our body is his body.
“He is survived by his self-programmed adaptive forever me bot that will continue to operate his social media sites, in perpetuity.
The preacher reaches over to the video camera to turn off the power. The click briefly fills the empty spaces of the cavernous rooms. His footsteps echo as he passes the empty pews. Two more clicks follow and the church cave dims to darkness as the capacitance of the circuits dissipates into the nothingness of forever.