Human Monoculture

Reading Time: 10 minutes

At an engineering facility for Star Power, a corporation dedicated to using fusion as the ultimate source to power all the world’s needs…

1

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?”

“Moby Dick.”

“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.

2

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?”

“Yeah. Haha.”

“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. 

3

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. 

4

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.”

“You changed.”

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. 

5

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?”

“Of course.”

“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.

6

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.”

Nervous Wreck

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.”

“Nice car.”

“Brand new, state of the art. I thought those cars were supposed to be accident-proof.”

“Any passengers?”

“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.”

X14stops talking.

“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.”

What HooDoos Do

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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.

“Hello?”

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.

Death of a Dataist

Reading Time: 2 minutes

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.

“Amen.

“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.

Desert Storm

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Soundless lightning flashed unseen in the distance while stars blinked placidly directly overhead. Andromeda floated overhead off the foot of Pegasus in her wispy dress. I looked for the galaxy of the same name but did not see it.

The desert had heated up to a hundred degrees in the afternoon and the hot air hung over the evening. I wanted to cowboy camp but heeded warnings that there was a chance for thunderstorms late at night by setting up my bivy to sleep on with the idea that should rain come to pass, I could jump inside for shelter. In case you’ve never seen one, a bivy is more body bag than tent.

Listening to an audiobook to pass the time in the early evening, I watched the stars disappear behind unseen clouds. The sky continued to flash with increasing brightness and regularity to the west of us, up Palm Canyon and into the mountains. It was only nine in the evening when the winds first gusted while raindrops pelted the ground. Brooke and Arturo scrambled to put the rain fly on their tent. I tucked myself into the bivy but the rain barely lasted more than a minute.

The rain stopped but the wind didn’t. The wind rippled over the tent and the bivy in gusting waves. I went back to cowboy camping because the body bag was too hot. The wind continued to intensify. Arturo and Brooke’s tent trapezoided into a nearly flat position. Brooke and Arturo moved the tent inside the Ramada, the stone wall structure with a slotted board roof that enclosed picnic tables and a stone fireplace. I quickly followed their lead placing the bivy and my body just inside the wall next to the entrance.

Lightning flashed growing brighter and close enough to echo in the canyon. Sprinkles of rain came and went. I retreated inside the bivy occasionally resurfacing to cool off. Blowing sand attempted to use my head as the foundation for a new sand dune. The lightning-thunder gap closed from ten seconds to five seconds to three seconds to two seconds. I wondered if I should be in the car riding out the storm awake but alive. I pictured Brooke’s and Arturo’s faces flashing in the lightning while pounding on the windshield to let them in but me shaking my head no because there wasn’t enough room for them and all the gear. (That’s a haha).

The gusting storm cooled off the air enough to seal the bivy without breaking into a sweat. The lightning passed and the sprinkles went their way. For the rest of the night, wind ripped at the bivy flapping the material like you might see on a tent during a blizzard on an Everest expedition. Somehow, during all of that, I fell asleep.

When I woke up, the air was calm. The remnants of a storm cloud made for dramatic horizon fronting the morning sun. You could be none the wiser for the night of terror. Later reports informed me that this was one of the worst lightning storms ever experienced in San Diego county at some 4000 strikes during the night. I for one was glad to not make the bivy body bag my final resting place.

A Ride on the Road

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Covid Compromises

The original plan, the dream, was to motorcycle all the way to Prudhoe Bay and back, a ten thousand mile, six week, round trip to the top of the world highlighted by travel on the infamously dangerous Dalton Highway of ice road truckers. Of course, the elephant in the room, or maybe the bull in the china shop, is Covid, which is still a long way from releasing its grasp on the course of events of the world. Covid washed out efforts to ride last year but this year we remained hopeful all the way up until June 21st waiting for and expecting Canada to open its borders. But Canada faltered, I think perhaps their low-budget wall to keep us lower 48 Americans out. You are dead to me Canada! Until our trip to Jaspar and Banff anyway.

Some trip had to be made and it had to be made this year because I am no spring chicken and because I had the housesitter arranged and the vacation time approved. So after flailing around with alternate trip ideas, Hetal convinced us (and rightly so) that the heart of the original trip was to stand at the top of the world and travel the Dalton Highway to get there. We met some people that made the trip through Canada on the Alaskan Highway. It required either a work permit or a house in Alaska, a rigid itinerary that didn’t even allow for a visit to Whitehorse just a few miles off the main highway, and typically an interrogation by Canadien border personnel.

So the compromise trip was to ride motorcycles to Seattle, fly to Alaska, and drive a ruggedized rental car to Prudhoe from Fairbanks, then sightsee in the rest of Alaska for a bit, fly back to Seattle, and then finish the trip with a ride inland hopefully to Jaspar and Banff to visit the Canadian highlights of the originally planned trip. Of course, the Jaspar and Banff piece didn’t pan out either as Canada still hasn’t opened its borders as of this writing. Oh, Canada. You are nothing but an ocean to fly over to me.

Another casualty of Covid is car rentals, the agencies having sold off most of their covid-idled stock. But Hetal made it happen and we planned our trip around rental car availability. Of the few motorcyclists we met, one rider made his trip by shipping his bike to Anchorage, a five thousand dollar proposition at best. It would have almost made sense to buy one for those costs.

Masks are still required in airports and on planes. Mask requirements were lifted in Oregon and Washington only a few days before we arrived. Many people still wear them now out of habit, something unimaginable just a year and a half ago although some Americans are kicking and screaming the whole way down. As one woman who refuses to give in to the demands of Covid with either mask or vaccination put it, I hope I don’t get Covid but if I do get it, I hope it is mild, and if it kills me, then it is just my time. Maybe she could just substitute the idea of not getting a vaccine with the idea of standing on the traffic lane of an expressway. Maybe she should think about the people she might give it to.

And so on July 1, 2021, some three years after conception and significantly compromised due to world events, three travelers left San Diego in a caravan of two motorcycles and an SUV.

The Caravan

The caravan has a daily rhythm. Ride the ride. Find a place to stay. Set up camp. Do whatever the place affords. Sleep. Morning coffee. Tear down. And on your way. Never a night in the same place. (On only two occasions did we stay in the same place, Denali and Oakland.) Each day has a different feel and each night is a new setting and a new cast of characters.

  • A trafficked ride through LA and a meandering ride through Ojai with hints of the heat and cold to come. Pizza and wine on the square at Paso Robles.
  • The winding roads of the PCH1 stopping to see elephant seals. An austere house in Hayward and brutal Covid stories of a respiratory therapist.
  • A time costly trip to Pt. Reyes National Seashore to see a lighthouse and fortuitously, a pod of humpback whales. A walk-in campground at the mouth of the Russian River.
  • More time on the PCH1 through red wood forests not stopping to see them to make up lost time. Fourth of July in a Crescent City in a warm Air BnB after searching for a camping spot on a crowded holiday and a cold, cold shore.
  • Slow travel up the crowded roads of Oregon. A night in a hotel under the impressive bridge at Astoria.
  • Weaving through the tree farms and clear cuts of Washington and hiking to a waterfall in Olympic National Park. A night staring at the forbidden shores of Canada across the Staits of Juan de Fuca.
  • Ride to the airport with a backdrop of Mt Ranier and flight to Fairbanks. A night at Salty’s talking about the challenges of travel through Canada.
  • Ride to Coldfoot in the spotty rain through spartan spruce forests each tree ever diminishing in size as we travel north. Dinner on a pull out just outside of town in a barracks hotel.
  • Ride over the Atigun Pass in the Brooke’s range and through the tundra. A trip to the Arctic ocean and through the oil works at Prudhoe.
  • Return to Coldfoot on a much drier day driving over the Atigun Pass. A night in the farthest North bar in Alaska drinking canned beer with the locals.
  • Return to Fairbanks stopping at the Yukon river for a roadside lunch and a hike to the scrotal finger. A night in the Musk Ox house finding Musk Ox in the morning.
  • A short drive south to Denali for two nights of camping at Savage River campground hiking Mountain View and the Savage River loop. Attacked by an Alfred Hitchcock gull and sleeping in the rain.
  • Ride down to Knik stopping for a plane ride over the Anchorage glaciers. A night with an overly friendly dog on a horse farm in Knik.
  • A day in Anchorage hiking the Knik arm from Earthquake park to downtown for beer and reindeer sausage pizza. Drive back to Fairbanks for a quick night in a small apartment with an all-night TV.
  • Transfer to the Bridgewater. Walk ten miles covering the entirety of Fairbanks including an Indian lunch and a flock of sandhill cranes. Lousy company at an overcrowded bar.
  • Fly back to Seattle to recover bicycles and a night in a crappy basement Air BnB for Chris’s birthday.
  • A morning brunch in East Lake with Chris’s people and a ride through the cascades stopping for a river float. A night in Pateros sleeping on the road next to the bike.
  • A smokey ride to Sandpoint, Idaho stopping at the Coulee Dam. Dominoes pizza and craft beer at a pub.
  • A smokey ride to Westchester, Idaho through the unbelievable scenic Hell’s Canyon National Park. A night fishing and sleeping on a dock holding a woman’s hand while she unloads and cries about all her family issues.
  • A smokey ride through the unbelievably scenic stretch of the Snake River with the road just feet above the dam lake and a night ride with a near death experience. Night camping at a BLM site in the middle of no where.
  • Another amazing stretch of scenic highway with a not so dry lake of water and salt and various shades of algae. A night in the pine forest of Lassen national forest.
  • Various stops in a very smokey Lassen national park followed by a fifty degree temperature change from the mountains to the valleys. A pizza party at Brooke’s new house.
  • A long ride home more cold than hot.

Each moment is structured to be free within the matrix of destination, camaraderie, and equipment. The reward is the experience of ups, downs, and in-betweens while the regret is the unchosen and the left behind.

Here it is in pictures: https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=1t1iTJmhaAUycbphfRdvGRz2NCZO0pNQd&usp=sharing

Highlights

In general, the highlights are the unexpected moments of turning a corner and running into stunning scenery.

  • Turning onto the PCH1 to see a white wave washing over a black rock in a green ocean. (Actually, pretty much everything on the PCH1 if it weren’t so damn cold.)
  • Seeing the sixteen percent grade of the Dalton Highway ascend up the side of a mountain into a cloud bank.
  • The entire valley of the Atigun pass surrounded by snow-patched black mountains with green bases and interesting rock formations overlooking a river road, the pipeline, and the soon to be ubiquituos tundra of the North slopes.
  • Big sky country stretching to the horizon under puffy cloud shadows throughout central Alaska.
  • Driving through Hell’s Canyon, a river gorge in Idaho deeper than the Grand Canyon.
  • Driving along the Snake River at near surface level for twenty or thirty miles on a road selected off a map for its gray line and off-the-beaten-path route.
  • A near dry lake stretching for miles in Northern CA on the 395.
  • Glaciers on the small plane ride over the Knik glaciers outside of Anchorage. You can’t ask for a better view though we were somewhat worried about that co-pilot.
  • The view from the mountain view trail in Denali.

Traveling within the Arctic Circle was certainly interesting. The midnight sun messes with your head as much as your circadian rhythms. Time has no meaning during the two-month day at the 70th parallel. The sun never sets playing havoc with your sense of time and normalcy. Every day has a second noon: a high noon and a low noon and what business does the sun have being to the North of you in the northern hemisphere anyway? Why do stores close? What do owls do? Would you dare to pull an all-nighter in the winter? It broke my weather app which showed a 3 PM sunrise at Prudhoe. We started a three-hour hike at seven in the evening and never worried about hiking in the dark. We came out of the farthest North bar in Alaska in Coldfoot at midnight in the middle of the day. Or maybe it was towards the end of the day, the day not ready to end until sometime at the end of July.

Wildlife viewing is always a highlight for me. A day of travel in Alaska is measured by the number of moose seen. Our best day was a four-moose day. In total, we saw one bear from the safety of a plane, more than a half dozen moose, deer, elk, a lynx, an angry fox chasing after shorebirds, a golden eagle taking a crap at the top of a pine tree, a flock of sandhill cranes, caribou, a pod of humpback whales off the point at the lighthouse at Pt. Reyes, and myriads of small critters. As side notes: Caribou and muskox live off lichen and moss under the snow during the dark winter of the tundra, my definition of heroic. In the western hemisphere, reindeer are simply seasonally employed caribou.

Flower-blooming flora, though generally more overlooked than fauna, was on full display. Large patches of fireweed added reddish-pink hues to the landscape. Alternating yellow, violet, white, green, and purples lined the roads.

Of course, it was great to see and even stay with the relations. We thank them for their support.

Lowlights

In general, the lowlights were the temperature extremes and swings. Ironically, I nearly froze my ass off riding on the trip North where we hugged the coast in the perpetual fifty-degree chill with Mark Twain’s astute observation gliding across the ice in my hypothermic head, “The coldest winter I’ve ever experienced was a summer in San Francisco.” But on the inland trip ride home, we fought the heat much of the way experiencing the remnant of the heat dome over the Pacific Northwest. Forced out of the mountains by a fire in Lassen National Forest on the stretch of highway from Chico to Fairfield, we rode in a dehydrating 105 to 110-degree heat. On that particular day, the temperature swing went from 50 in the pines of a Lassen campground to 110 on the I-5 heading south and then back into the low 60s as we headed into Oakland. Note to self, need to lobby for flexible roads in that narrow band of about five miles between the freezing coast and the burning inland empire. Maybe put Elon Musk on the job.

It’s hard not to mention another elephant in the room, or on the ride… Global Warming was in our faces during much of the trip. Alaska has interior warming of 7 degrees. The spruce beetle population is exploding resulting in the devastation of spruce forests around Anchorage and beyond. As one Alaskan put it, “You don’t have to prove global warming to an Alaskan. All an Alaskan has to do is look out the window.” There is nothing subtle about the direct cause or the results. The spruce forests are patchworks of green and dead trees. Back in the mainland, we dodged forest fires in Washington, Idaho, and California. In California near Lassen, we had to double back due to road closures or drive all the way to Reno to go around. The re-route briefly took us back into an ominous, sun-obscuring, red-orange smoke cloud on a road lined with green fire trucks and firefighters in their yellow suits.

Mosquitos were inevitable and anticipated. In fact, they were not nearly as bad as I anticipated. In Denali, I spent two nights under the stars (ok, under the twilight) without once fainting from blood loss.

An Alfred Hitchcock moment when I was forced to wave off an angry seagull with a stick because I had inadvertently entered a nesting area. Warnings were posted at the side near the road but we came in from the opposite side. Birds make people happy, particularly if those people are the ones watching you get accosted by an irate nesting bird.

And one near-death experience, when a jackass decided to pass the SUV and me on a blind curve and had to cut me off to narrowly avoid a head-on collision with a car coming at it from the other direction. If I wasn’t on the right side of the lane or if the oncoming car was going just a couple of miles an hour faster, it would have been ugly for a lot of people. F**king jackass.

Midlights

Driving over the Atigun Pass was actually a highlight tempered only by the confabulation of what it would have been like if we had attempted the thirty or so miles of slippery road on a motorcycle on the trip up. Slippery mud from light rains looked manageable on the mostly hard-packed road but slippery mud is a tricky thing on a steep grade. On the much dryer return trip, it looked easy, at least in my confabulation of the ride. But we will never know.

Standing in the Arctic Ocean was an emotional highlight. it represented the pinnacle of the trip and the purpose of the mission but it’s not a particularly pretty sight, rocky and barren with a backdrop of oil-pumping plants in the background. You have to pay for a tour for the few miles across the privately held oil lands to actually get from Deadhorse to the Arctic Ocean. I always have mixed feelings about the canned patter and the false camaraderie of people working the trade. But in this case, it was useful learning about all the inner workings of the oil pumping process at Prudhoe and tires that under a million pounds of drilling equipment burst into flames from overheating if they move too fast.

My favorite met person was a bi-polar, elderly lady working an information kiosk in Fairbanks. She is bi-polar only in the sense that she has been both to the Arctic and the Antarctic. She worked out of Point Barrow providing medical care to nearby villages for many years and then participated in expeditions to the Antarctic to teach high school children about the environment depriving them of their electronic connections during the journey. We should all be bi-polar! After our conversation, I drifted over to the exhibits. The bi-polar woman shamed me as I walked past her again asking me in a good-natured spirit, “What did I learn?” I muttered something about the Ididerot race but I hadn’t really read anything, just looked at a relief map of Alaska. So she called me out on a wasted opportunity.

The weirdest encounter was with a forty-six-year-old, single woman proprietor of a flower shop on a yearly gathering with her family. She poured out all of her family issues and tragedies on a dock in a state park to three complete strangers. At one point when she was crying, I offered my hand for her to hold. I felt kind of awkward because I didn’t know how long she needed it for but I didn’t have any immediate use for it, anyway.

Other interesting encounters included a dance in Sandpoint saloon with a decent band, an itinerant worker in Coldfoot who skied tree-barren mountains in Alaska by driving up in a snowmobile then letting it self-drive to the bottom while he skied down to meet it, and all the people Hetal introduced herself to, particularly in bars. The names and stories of the others have already faded. But that is the way of the caravan.

There is a certain glamor in motorcycle riding but the reality is isolation in a space capsule helmet with earplugs and the discomfort of riding in more or less the same position for hours on end despite alleviation from bike yoga stretching routines. Of course, hiking is pretty much the same way in the sense of isolation and discomfort. Both are long periods of repetition punctuated by a few moments of interest justified by the sense of accomplishment at the completion.

Pulling off-road to cook a meal is a great alternative to paying for every meal at a restaurant, especially if you are on a road like the Dalton Highway that doesn’t have them for stretches of a couple of hundred miles at a time. On more than one occasion, we cooked with the stove in the car on account of inclement weather. Sitting down at a restaurant on occasion is nice too; different food to try and different folk to interact with. We never succumbed to convenience food at the many gas stations we frequented though I did pick up a couple of bottles of convenience wine as gifts for Brooke so we didn’t come in empty-handed.

I spent five nights sleeping under the stars without using a tent, once under a shrubby tree in Woodland Hills, twice in Denali, once in a parking lot in Pateros, and once on a dock in Westchester State park. Actually, it’s pretty comfortable but for some reason, haha, I tend to awaken at sunrise. In Denali, on the second night, I retreated into the bivy for an hour or two when it started raining at 7:30 in the morning. Not all city folk need a roof over the head, Mr. Muir.

Rant all you want about being online and connected, we relied heavily on the devices to navigate and find places at night. On every day during the trip, we were connected at some point. And I still took satisfaction in providing my trophy pictures to the world through Instagram completing my mission of a daily post for one year.

All of our equipment never gave us any serious trouble. The motorcycles and the truck fired up each morning and started promptly after sitting for ten days at a Seattle motel doubling as an airport parking lot. Given how rarely equipment actually does what it is supposed to do, I might consider this a highlight, too.

Postpartem

So now it is over and while I am quite happy that my motorcycle performed and I performed on the motorcycle, its future is definitely uncertain even though I am much more confident of my riding ability. I am staring at four walls and have a ceiling permanently over my head. I don’t think I will miss sleeping literally on the road but, damn, a couple of weeks ago I was standing knee-deep in the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world having traversed the Dalton Highway. Even though I conceived of the idea, I would have certainly failed to execute without the determination and persistence of Hetal and Chris. A proverb echoes in my head, “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” I might change that a little, “If you want to back out, tell no one, if you want to go far, go together.” Damn it, motorcycle or not, we did the Dalton Highway. We went far. To the ends of the Earth far.

Confabulate

Reading Time: < 1 minute

I’m not sure where I picked up the word confabulation, but it is my current favorite word. In psychology, it refers to a dysfunction of the mind to manufacture believed memories no matter how fantastical. I generalize its use as a verb for the tendency of the mind to fill in the blanks, to provide the missing pieces, to make up fantastical stories, to create a satisfactory explanation out of chaos without proof, to find a pattern in the randomness that doesn’t exist, all without any intent to deceive.

Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” is a story of confabulation. Of the need to go back in time to convince ourselves that we took the right path and that has made all the difference when each is equally as good.

Anti-confabulate, a word I just invented, would be to resist this urge to confabulate though I am having a hard time convincing myself that anti-confabulate and confabulate aren’t the same thing. In other words, everything is a confabulation because we can’t resist our proclivity to provide an explanation. Unconfabulate would be to tear down a confabulation.

Confabulation as an exercise in imagination is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, it’s better to go for the most outrageous story rather than the most accurate one. Maybe someday you will get lucky and have both.

Muskoxen

Reading Time: 2 minutes

From my youth, I remember the photos of snow-bearded muskox huddled together in an outward-facing circle to protect one another from the arctic blizzards. They are to the cow as the wooly mammoth is to the elephant, a stringy-haired relic of the ice age that didn’t get the memo to go extinct. They only live in the tundra of the far north latitudes surviving on lichen and moss during the harsh long winters.  

One of my ambitions was to watch and photograph these beasts in their native habitat on our trip to Deadhorse, Alaska.  From our ship container(-ish) hotel room, the hotel manager told me that they were on the river’s edge earlier in the day before we arrived. He peered out the window across the road and toward the river but didn’t see any. He said they might come back later in the day, although that might have been a trick answer because the day in the Arctic summer is two months long. So I checked every couple of hours through the course of the nightless day during our twelve-hour stay and on the trip in and out, but the ice age creatures failed to reveal themselves.

Two days later, back at Fairbanks, we overnighted in an Air BNB place that was interestingly called the Musk Ox house. In the morning, looking out the back window onto a field behind the house, I saw a large black mass of fur which I guessed to be a grizzly bear. So I bravely or foolishly grabbed my camera and ran out to capture a photo trophy. You have probably guessed already that the grizzly bear was in fact a muskox. It turns out one of the few herds of captive muskox live at the U of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station which just happened to be in the backyard of the overnight rental.

So I saw muskoxen although not really on my terms. Which now that I think about it, might actually be the underlying theme of our trip. Hashtag on #prudhoe for more on the trip, if you are interested.

Author’s note: subsequent research tells me that muskoxen are more closely related to goats and sheep than cows. (https://uaf.edu/lars/animals/muskox.php)

Abduction

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Author’s note: As the protagonist moves into the underworld of the subconscious through injury, sleep, suffering, and cojiba, he enters the negative space of the mind where he encounters shadowy inhuman figures and chases after the golden earrings. In this encounter, he has banged his head against a concrete floor in the basement of the museum in San Juan after an argument with the curator.

Your eyes don’t focus. A silhouette of an inhuman shape stands in front of you in the darkness of semi-consciousness waving a hand in your face. It asks, “What do you see?”
The ribbon of the golden earring chases itself around the edges of three lobes against the blackness of the void. “The golden earring. It’s mine. Give it back.”
A shadow speaks. “What would you do with it?”
“It doesn’t matter. It would be mine again and I could forget about the past. I could forget about her.”
“It does matter. History repeats for those who don’t learn its lessons or who forget. You of all people should know that. What would you do different this time once you had it back?”
“Put it in a safe deposit box for safekeeping. Just in case.”
“Just in case what?”
“I don’t know. Something bad happens. They cut my pension. I don’t become a full professor or worse, I lose my job. Who knows? You can’t be too careful these days. You can’t rely on anyone. The only person you can rely on is yourself.”
“The golden earring is not mine to give, it is yours to retrieve. It is yours if you fulfill your mission.”
“Mission? What mission?”
“To change history.”
“Change history? How?”
“By keeping your promise to save the tribe from the brutality of the Spaniards in one year.”
“What? Oh, you mean my conversation with the curator? Come on. That was just a throwaway line in the heat of an argument. Of course, I would save them if I could.”
“You would help the poor children of La Gonave if you could. You would take the time to get to know young people if you could. You would save all the Tainos if you could.”
Your head hurts in the numb intermingling of pain and confusion. “What do you mean, save the Tainos if I could? It’s a little too late to be saving a tribe five centuries in the past, don’t you think?”
“It is your promise. You have the power to change history. You can be the hero you have always wanted to be.”
“Yes. I have already submitted an abstract to the journal and they rejected it. Maybe they will take a rewrite. Are you with them? It won’t change the history of the Tainos for sure and doubtful it will do much to change ours. I just want my golden earring back. I will give you a reward if you return it to me.”
“You won’t be able to buy it with money.”
“I don’t have to buy it, I own it.”
“You don’t own it. It owns you. It is the boundary between your strength and your weakness. When you prove worthy to receive it, it will return to you without asking.”
“It’s just an earring.”
“It is so much more. It transcends the material and the spiritual. It transcends the past and the future.”
“Well, what does it matter? It’s gone and it isn’t ever coming back, but how exactly would I prove myself?”
“In your mind, you believe yourself to be strong, wise, and creative. Demonstrate your strength and not your weakness.”
“How?”
“That is for you to choose.”
“What if I don’t choose?”
“You live with your irrelevance.”
“I’m perfectly happy with my irrelevance, but what happens if I don’t succeed?” Of course, you lie about that self-truth. Never show weakness. Your dad told you that.
“You will always be the man who never was.” the voice says fading into silence.
You don’t like mystical voices who speak in Zen riddles. The silhouette disappears and all you can see is the pulsating form of the golden earring. You reach for it, but it recedes. You chase after it into the black void. The faster you run the faster it moves away from you until it disappears into the far distance leaving you alone in the darkness of your mind.

Career Path

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Authors Note: This section introduces Professor Murphy. It gives his career aspirations and the motivation behind them. Alex Murphy is the narrator giving the story to a former student. When the professor narrates, he talks in the second person and in the present tense.

Idea

You are a tenured history associate professor at NYU. You have a love and hate relationship with your subject matter. You love telling the stories of history’s heroes but it makes your own life feel hollow. You’ve seen a statue of Columbus. The inscription says, “…testimonial of the values and virtues which the figure and enterprise of the great explorer has bestowed upon our people.” Why can’t you be a hero and have a nice statue of yourself in a public square somewhere? You could go for your own statue and you would be a deserving hero not a brutal conqueror like so many you’ve written about. You would make the phrase “values and virtues bestowed upon our people” to stand for something positive.
The problem with being a hero is typically you either have to kill or get killed. The only person you ever wanted to kill was your ex, so ruthless and calculating. You loved her once but she is the only person you genuinely hate. It burns you to the core that she is out there wearing your golden earrings given to her under her false pretenses. You can’t count the number of times you have fantasized about ripping them off her ears with one hand while the other hand chokes her neck beneath her gasping, redding face. Not that you care about the earrings themselves so much, it’s just the idea of it. She is out there flaunting her conquest at your expense. You want those earrings back more than anything, even the full professorship you have been fighting your whole career for.
The one silver lining out of all of this is that she has inspired an idea for a paper. You came across a line in an excerpt from an article in the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” about how trusting and open the Taino people were, the ultimate victims who swam out to greet Columbus with offers of cemi statues. In return, they were rewarded with torture and genocide. The imagery resonates with you. You feel a certain empathy towards the long-lost people. Your own cemi is the golden earrings given to your ex-wife. In return, you were rewarded with torture and humiliation. You wonder who had it worse.
The Tainos didn’t have it all bad, at least not before the Spaniards arrived. You wouldn’t mind moving to a tropical island and living near a beach with the natives. You like to camp on those rare weekends you can get away. You like DIY even though you never really have the time for it. You could live a simpler life with people who would admire you for your modern wisdom and skills. You would treat them right. You would be a god to them.
But life isn’t so simple. Their simplicity came with an awful price. If they hadn’t been so open and giving, maybe they wouldn’t have been so easy to kill. Maybe they would have given thought to defense and security. Perhaps there is a lesson for you to learn there.
They remind you of birds on remote islands nesting in the open leaving their eggs and chicks, that is to say, their gold, completely exposed on the ground for all to see, never developing any defenses other than their isolation, leaving themselves vulnerable to even small opportunistic predators like rats. A life without predators leaves one weak and defenseless. A life with unearned trust leaves one vulnerable and exposed.
A naive trust opened up the Tainos to conquest. As Columbus said in his journal, “…wishing them to look on us with friendship, I gave some of them red bonnets and glass beads, which they hung around their necks, and many other things of small value, at which they were so delighted and so eager to please us that we could not believe it.” Perhaps a little dose of reality on the motivations of men could have saved them. Perhaps a lesson on the value of things might have tipped them off. Perhaps there is a lesson for all to learn. That is your working hypothesis, anyway, for an article you have tentatively titled, “Case Study of the Tainos: What isolation in primitive societies teaches modern man about evaluating risk in modern times.” You submit an abstract and outline of the idea to the prestigious journal, “The Journal of Modern Antiquities”.

Rejection

You wait. You wait some more. You figure it would be nice if they could at least let you know if they received the damn abstract. Well, maybe they didn’t receive it.
Long after you give up on the submission, you walk out to the mailbox and find a letter from the journal. Nothing good comes in the mail. You don’t have to open it. You know what it is. You bring it inside unopened and place it on the coffee table in your living room and stare at it for a while not wanting to open it. You fight the urge to know but you have to confirm the obvious. You tear the letter open and read it. No surprise. Another rejection.
A rejection letter. A formal rejection letter. It says your idea isn’t sufficiently developed for publication. It says more research needed. It says your hypothesis is not a hypothesis but at best a conjecture with no discernible null hypothesis to measure against and at worst an unprovable supposition on your part.
You feel like you are a victim again. Who judged it? What was the basis of their assertion? What are you supposed to do, go back in time to teach the Tainos how to combat failure of imagination? History is extracting meaning from the experiences of those that lived before us. History isn’t an experiment to be re-run. What do they want?
You don’t know. Fuck them. Some wizard of oz behind a curtain screwing with your career. Lately, you are feeling more Tainos than Columbus, more victim than hero. You’ve studied the heroes of the past, the men who made a difference. It’s killing you that you don’t.
You throw out the letter and walk into the bathroom. You wash the frustration from your face. You look into the mirror. You see an old person you barely recognize. You see a person whose life is passing him by.
If the old man in front of you died of a heart attack at this moment, no one would be any the wiser. If you died right now, it would be months before anyone even missed you. You have to die for something, not for nothing. Is death what it takes for your life to have meaning? Would it kill someone to give you some real recognition in the here and now? To acknowledge your hard work? Your insights?
The face in the mirror turns from yours to your father’s. What’s the point he asks? You are irrelevant. Life has no meaning. Death has no meaning. It’s okay to let go. It’s okay to leave the rat race. Let it go.
Getting beaten down is one thing but you are not giving in. You are not giving up. You will not go out that way. You are not your father. He is an embarrassment to you. You tell the old man to fuck off. You leave the miserable old man behind.

Reset

Another late night at the office buried in a stack of books and the lonely night glow of a computer monitor. You have to work harder. Tenure is the only secure thing you have. They can’t take it away from you without you completely fucking up but you want to be a full professor, not just an associate professor.
You want the challenge. You want the feeling that you are still a vibrant and creative man. You want to prove that your mind is fertile with ideas worthy of great minds. You want to prove that you are more than just a claven sitting at a bar throwing out random and irrelevant history facts.
You want the security. You want the extra money. Associate professor provides more than enough for you to get by but it still feels like you are living hand to mouth. Someday you would actually like to retire well enough off to enjoy it. You work for a living to pay the mortgage on your home and the endless stream of bills. After your divorce and the last stock market crash, you figure you are going to be stuck working until you are ninety years old.
You want the status. Your academic clock is ticking. Your life clock is ticking. You are over 50 years old. It’s not so late in the typical career to become a full professor. But there are a couple of hot-shot, younger associates breathing down your back with more publications than you. Publish or perish, that is always the mantra. With all the shit that has been going on in your life with your family, you haven’t been able to keep pace.
You could submit to the other journals, the ones desperate enough for the material to publish your work. The ones aspiring to the status of the journal. Perhaps an abstract to the “Journal of Caribbean Culture.” It would keep the NYU administration at bay. But the “Journal of Modern Antiquities” would put you in line for a full professorship and better standing in the community.
If the journal wants hard evidence, you need hard data. You plan to visit the museum in San Juan and a few archaeological sites in Puerto Rico to baseline the gulf between Spanish and pre-Columbian societies in values and technology.
Normally, you would look forward to spending time on a placid tropical island, soaking up the sunlight, finding a nice isolated beach, and observing the culture, where the culture to you mostly means rum tasting (and you have the t-shirt to prove it). You would love to take the time to snorkel with a manatee, kayak the coast, or hop on a fishing boat. You’ve worked hard for NYU for over two decades, and wouldn’t mind taking advantage of the few perks the job has to offer. But if you nail this paper, you can resubmit to the “The Journal of Modern Antiquities,” and finally lift yourself out of obscurity. You don’t have time for play. You don’t have the time for the pleasures of modern life. You book your flight on the day after the last day of finals in December for San Juan.