Black Ribbon Award

SATISFACTION

Burr-Hamilton-Duel-engraving

SCENE: A flat field on a spring morning. Two men walk toward each other carrying bags.

NEMESIS 1: So you have mustered the courage to appear on our day of conflict!

NEMESIS 2: Oh goodness, am I late?

NEMESIS 1: No, you are right on time.

NEMESIS 2: It is just like you to be early.

NEMESIS 1: Yes. [Pause.] Wait, just like me in I kind of psy-op power move or in a compulsive urge to never be late.

NEMESIS 2: The former.

NEMESIS 1: Oh.

NEMESIS 2: I mean … both … maybe?

NEMESIS 1: Quite so … I guess.

NEMESIS 2: Quite so.

Pause.

NEMESIS 1: Perhaps it is necessary to review why we have agreed to have this duel.

NEMESIS 2: You mean specifically?

NEMESIS 1: Sure … for posterity.

NEMESIS 2: Okay.

NEMESIS 1: Remember last month you [CENSORED]. Then you [CENSORED] and [CENSORED] to the mortification of anyone within earshot. It was beneath my dignity to be thought complicit in your massive adolescent horseshit. And so I demand satisfaction.

NEMESIS 2: Yes, well, a slight clarification. It would be more accurate to say that I was [CENSORED], which is a different school of thought to the [CENSORED] you describe.

NEMESIS 1: Even so, that doesn’t mitigate the severity of our conflict.

NEMESIS 2: High stakes leave no room for gross inaccuracy.

NEMESIS 1: Very well.

NEMESIS 2: Very well.

NEMESIS 1: You are familiar with the rules?

NEMESIS 2: 10 paces, turn, and fire.

NEMESIS 1: There is no dishonor in firing slightly off-target.

NEMESIS 2: I am aware.

NEMESIS 1: Good. Now let us present our weapons.

They go into their bags. NEMESIS 2 reveals his weapon. Looking at it, NEMESIS 1 breaks out into laughter.

NEMESIS 2: What?

NEMESIS 1: You fool! [Laughs.] You blundering, naïve, childish fool!

NEMESIS 2: I don’t see what’s so funny.

NEMESIS 1: An aloof disregard talisman?

NEMESIS 2: What’s the matter with it?

NEMESIS 1: Haven’t you heard the saying? Never bring an aloof disregard talisman to a withering condescension orb fight. [Laughs.] You, sir, have made a capital error. [Regains composure.] A capital error. What do you expect to accomplish with an aloof disregard talisman?

NEMESIS 2: I expect to lose.

NEMESIS 1: What?

NEMESIS 2: I’m not thick, sir. I know the saying very well. You could say I’ve had it in my head since the proposal of the duel.

NEMESIS 1: What’s all this about?

NEMESIS 2: What you didn’t plan on, sir, is that I am a defeatist at heart. I’ve come to find victory very tiresome.

NEMESIS 1: This is very odd.

NEMESIS 2: It is what it is.

NEMESIS 1 [going into his bag]: No I mean I, too, brought my aloof disregard talisman. [Presents his weapon.]

NEMESIS 2: You mean to say that … you, too, are a defeatist?

NEMESIS 1: I have never willfully won anything in my life and I’m not about to start now.

NEMESIS 2: Well, it seems we have inadvertently leveled the playing field.

NEMESIS 1: It does seem so.

NEMESIS 2: Shall we call it a draw?

NEMESIS 1: Never! I will succumb to your dominance as any honorable man would.

NEMESIS 2: Over my dead body will I dominate you!

NEMESIS 1: Well then, it seems we have no choice. Ready your weapon.

They each tie their talismans around their necks.

On the count of 10.

They walk 10 paces away from each other, turn around, and stand still. Their talismans light up. Four hours pass.

LACROSSE PLAYER: Hey, you two! Can you move? We have to practice.

NEMESIS 1: Are you mad? We are in the midst of conflict!

LACROSSE PLAYER: Like, can you take it to the bocce court or something?

NEMESIS 1: I am on the verge of satisfaction. [Pause.] Any minute now.

NEMESIS 2: I, too, am nearing satisfaction.

LACROSSE PLAYER: Coach can you—

LACROSSE COACH: Oh just wait in the van, Dylan.

END.

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A CHEESY MEDITATION

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So it’s Sunday, and it’s rainy. You’re just on the edge of the time where it’s too late for lunch. You don’t have a lot of energy and you don’t have a lot in the fridge. Still, you’re feeling nice enough and you want to treat yourself.

You don’t have enough food to be properly adventurous but you might have just enough food to be inventive. You’d be like MacGyver for people who forgot to go to the store on Saturday.

What’s in your fridge? The edges of a loaf of Wonder Bread. Good, you’ve been slacking lately and you need a challenge. What else? Half of a tomato? Okay, you can work with this. Some remnants of pulled pork in a takeout container? That reheats well! And three slices of cheddar cheese. It looks to me like you’ve got yourself a grilled pork sandwich.

You take out your frying pan. That tightening in your chest isn’t from knowing all the carbs and cholesterol you’re about to wolf down, it’s a good tightness, it’s from the thrill and anticipation. This sandwich is going to be a banger, you just know it. Hold up. Where’s the butter-like spread? Uh oh. You’ve got to grease it with something. You remember someone told you that diners use mayo instead of butter for their grilled cheese sandwiches so down the racks you go. No mayo, but a jar of Miracle Whip with a sliver of it congealing just below the label. You cringe a little; you don’t even remember buying Miracle Whip. But you can’t turn back now; you’ve made a commitment. On it goes. Maybe the crust of the end pieces of the loaf will absorb its worst aspects, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, right?

With all the other elements in place, you carefully place it on your frying pan, set over the stove at low heat.

While you wait, you realize that you have one slice of cheddar remaining. No sense in letting it acquire mold for another week. It’s not bad. It’s very pleasant actually. Before you throw out the empty packet you take a look at the label: “medium cheddar.”

You never gave much thought to the levels of cheddar before that moment. This is just the type of cheddar your parents used to get when you were young, and what they’d get when you visited on holidays. Why mess with tradition, right? What is even the level beneath medium cheddar? Mild cheddar? Low cheddar? There doesn’t seem to be much point in that. Medium has most of what you need. It’s not too aggressive, not too bland. It goes well with most lunch foods. It’s the epitome of fine. What’s fine? You’ve never thought about that either. You guess it’s something that maybe isn’t ideal but which doesn’t offend either. It placates all things; it soothes all rough edges with its good nature.

You start to chew the cheese slice more slowly. Not because you’re savoring it but because you’re identifying with it. It turns out you’re consuming yourself. In this moment, and indeed in all moments that led up to this one, you feel completely and utterly medium. Your entire existence is one easy glide past conflict, risk, and adventure and straight to compromise, caution, and congeniality.

That always seemed okay as far as things went. You never wanted for much, you never felt like you missed out on anything or felt over-pressured go that extra mile. Except now, having it written out for you so plainly, things seem different. You wonder if you can’t do better. You wonder if you can’t just ascend beyond medium. For the first time in your life you have the urge to be more. You have the urge to be sharp. You don’t want to just be easy, to go along and get along. You want to be tangy. You want to be pungent bordering on sour. You don’t want to just give support to or blend in among the other flavors, you want to play at their level, maybe even dominate them. You don’t want to be flexible. You want to be hard. You want to have your presence felt before, during, and after consumption.

If you were sharp you would not be easily forgotten, not set aside or subsumed for “superior” flavors and textures. Fuck that, you say. If you were sharp you’d command respect. You’d have an element of danger. Not actual danger, though, just the realistic possibility of danger. Like, you could totally handle it if you crossed it. You could be there for the other mediums, towards whom you feel bottomless empathy. Even though you’re sharp you’re still cheddar, you have principles. You’re not blue cheese, after all. You’re not fucking crazy.

But of course the world is teeming with blue cheese. Everywhere you are blue cheese seems to be there as well. You don’t really run in the same circles but you have some mutuals. And you start to hear things about blue cheese. Blue cheese is kind of an art, an aesthetic. It has intuitions entirely unique among the dairies and seemingly untethered to any notion of limitation or propriety. Like you, blue cheese lives without fear, but somehow blue cheese is less fearless than even you are. That bugs you, doesn’t it? Blue cheese plays by no rules whatever and gets about the same respect as you do—more respect, in fact. Fuck that, you say once more as you ascend higher still.

They say that blue cheese is a calling. You can’t just become blue cheese. Either you are blue cheese or you are not. People have warned you time and time again, but like that’s going to stop you, right? Already you’re feeling pretty powerful, like you can do anything. And in fact you are doing pretty much whatever you feel like doing at this point. No rules, no boundaries, no hoity-toity deference to political correctness. Fuck that, you say over and over and over again. Fuck that to you parents. Fuck that to your boss. Fuck that to your girlfriend. Fuck that to your Uber driver. Fuck that to the judge at your sentencing hearing when she asks what possessed you to go to Comic Con brandishing a live chainsaw in the first place.

Upon swallowing the cheese slice you’re beset with a vision of multiple paths placed before you. The path you are on now seems far less compelling than it ever was, and the hazards of the adjacent paths now seem far less foreboding. It is no longer a matter of choosing wisely as simply choosing something and taking on whatever obstacles are placed on it.

It appears that the first obstacle is putting out a flaming stovetop without the aid of a fire extinguisher.

Things can only go uphill from here.

NO WHIPPED CREAM FOR THE EXTREMIST

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The crowd had dispersed but then reconfigured, as if by some natural but unseen current, into smaller groups who were preparing to turn back out into the city.

The crowd had convened for a specific purpose that seemed more like a pretense the further out from the purpose’s conclusion. The Extremist’s memory of it started to disintegrate almost in an instant. The Extremist felt somewhat ashamed at his distaste for sitting and listening patiently. But then it was natural for him to assume of others, in good faith, that they were attentive and unchained in their interest in all things. Then again, the alcohol provided for the event had been depleted with rapacious industry.

The Extremist was eager to join a group, one group in particular; it was made up of people of no small familiarity to him. Like-minded is the term people like to use. But every time The Extremist thought he had a firm hold on the movements and motives of this particular group, it would suddenly shift. He was not integrated but he was not shuffled out either. He was like a strand of water stretching into a globule of oil which retracts into itself without breaking apart. It did not help matters that the person herding this group, who was also the person who convened the crowd, could not remember The Extremist’s name in any of the instances they ever met.

Standing outside the building in midtown Manhattan, The Extremist motioned his goodbyes in hope of a last minute induction. Instead they drifted away like a larger continent leaving behind and island, floating mass of debris dislodging a small section that is mostly used diapers and empty pill bottles.

The Extremist did not yet feel like going home. It was a little after nine o’clock at night and he moved downtown to a diner.

The Extremist sat hunched over in a booth at the front of the diner and was staring out into the city. His face settled into a neutral expression with a gaze that appeared half-resting, half-alert. His young, cheerful server approached his table furtively. From her view The Extremist appeared as if he’d wandered out of the halfway point of a hypnosis session.

“Can I get you a dessert menu?” the server asked softly.

The Extremist did not immediately reply but snapped out of it before forcing her the indignity of repeating. “Do you have apple pie?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll have a coffee with cream.”

“We only have milk.”

“That’s fine.”

“And the apple pie?”

“Yes. One slice of apple pie.”

She paused and did not write anything down. “Can I maybe interest you in a cherry pie instead?”

“Why?”

“The apple pie is not fresh. There are actually just two slices left.”

The Extremist thought for a moment. “The cherry pie is fresher?”

“Yes, it was baked this afternoon. The apple pie was baked … last night.”

“Well … thanks for the caution, but I’m not feeling adventurous.”

“Would you like whipped cream then?”

“You’d recommend that?”

“I would.”

The Extremist thought again but only half-heartedly. “No, no thanks. I’ll take my chances.”

The server put his whole order to paper and smiled at him. “I’ll be right back with your coffee.”

The slice that sat before him on a beige plate was thin. The crust was pallid and cracked with bubbly abscesses. The cinnamon filling seeped out of the sides in a stiff and darkened consistency, like congealed blood on a dirt floor. But the staleness ended up being masked by the sour and gamey apple slices, slight and shriveled like the pruned fingers of children. Each one felt as if it was taking up to a minute to completely breakdown with his bite. The coffee was bitter no matter how many sugar packets he injected it with.

The Extremist imagined what it would be like to be a customer who complained about this type of thing to a server who monitored her tables with the gentleness and patience of a palliative care orderly. But this is what happens when you come to a place like that at that time of night in that part of the city. That wouldn’t stop a lot of people, and he began to feel disappointment for her, and all the other gentle and patient servers around the country.

It did not last. Pity is unbecoming, thought The Extremist. But also it was taking him away from his central task of erasing his immediate memory of two hours earlier. Once he had done so, all the disfavor he’d heaped upon the group he very much wanted to join in that short time would be neutralized, and their uncorrupted versions would return resplendent.

The Extremist had to be careful, though. There was always the temptation not to confine the scope of his mental redaction, but indeed to stretch far beyond. So far beyond that it seemed less like redaction and more like arson. Half of The Extremist’s mind was a tank of accelerant, separated from the information stored in the other half by a grated metallic wall that, when moved a certain way could seep or flood into the information side, clearing as much space as The Extremist thought necessary.

It was fine so long as The Extremist assumed he was more or less in control of this design. If, for instance, he did not stop at the immediately preceding events and into the very space around him—that is, that the diner, the gentle and patient server, her other customers, her boss, the people outside, the street on which they walked, the walls of darkened buildings, and the honking and sputtering cars would all disintegrate from the edges inward like a compromising photograph in the possession of its subject—it was because he intended it so. And if a flat green field replaced the disintegrated city, an overcast afternoon replaced the starry night, autumnal trees replaced the tall buildings, and rows of headstones—some straight, some crooked—replaced the people, this, too, would not surprise the extremist.

The Extremist would perhaps float about the new scene, undetected by its particulars, a casually interested, non-intervening presence. He would hover above a corner of the far edge of the cemetery where a new plot had been cleared. Three people standing around it with a fourth occupying the casket inside it. A priest standing at the end of the plot facing the headstone saying the committal to the occupant of the casket. To each side of him would be a gravedigger hunched over their shovels each with a mound of dirt at their feet. On the headstone would read, in Helvetica Neue font, HERE LIES THE EXTREMIST.

The Extremist would not question why no one else besides those three was there. No friends, no family, no shame-ridden acquaintances who happened to be nearby. Perhaps he whiled away his final days in a wreckages of petty feuds and calcified resentment. Perhaps there was a long succession of deaths in his cohort and he just happened to be the last one. Perhaps he died in a time when public mourning was out of fashion. Or perhaps everyone simply forgot.

The Extremist never saw anything morbid or offensive about imagining one’s funeral. It was quite easy and not all that taxing to do. Many otherz probably do it, in fact. It is a quite different fixation from thinking about one’s own death. The Extremist couldn’t picture that himself. He knew it was real, he knew it was coming but not at what speed and in which guise. Whatever it was, he preferred not to be completely cognizant of it in the process. He preferred the freedom of oblivion and the comfort of a sparse burial. It was a reasonable price for living a life unburdened by importance of any kind. This is what he gets in exchange for never having to make decisions of any real significance, never having any effect on anything past a 10-foot radius, or never having to be relied on to opine on pressing matters, whether fleeting or festering.

Only later, with the priest halfway into his ritual, the gravediggers gripping their shovels more intently, would a fifth person appear, moseying over from the far off rows, in jeans, boat shoes, a fleece, and a baseball cap. The Extremist knew no one who dressed in this way, and yet this stranger would stop just outside the small gathering around his grave and watch ruefully.

Here The Extremist’s control had no reach. Why the fleeced stranger was there at his burial he could only but guess. Though his guess was a good one. The Extremist likes to think that there is a subculture of people who attend funerals of people they’ve never met. Why they do this is entirely up to the individual—trauma, voyeurism, boredom, etc.—but being there fires them up where other leisure activities do not. The Extremist likes to think that these people attend not to sow mischief as most crashers tend to do, but to please themselves internally, to meditate on this unknown life, and moreover to fill in the gaps of their knowledge with whatever fancies them. “Who was The Extremist,” the stranger in jeans might ask, and the stranger may procee—

I can take it from here, actually.­

Oh. Very well, do go ahead.

Thanks. As I look at this guy’s grave, just as when I look at anyone’s grave, I always think of how I would have thought of his life in a different time. Not everyone I know in this line of activity likes to go straight for the glamor when they see a funeral. It just so happens that I do. But I’m always a little disappointed after doing so, because glamor is not what it used to be. Do you follow me?

I don’t, but please go on.

So if this were a different time—say, if this were 30 years in the past—I’d have thought up the whole thing differently. I would have pegged this guy for a congressional aide who was too loyal for his own good. You know? Or he could have been a mercenary fighter in the Latin American theatre who was too moral by half. Maybe he was a businessman who, having hit a ceiling with his caution-based ethics and shrewd strategizing, wanted to spice up his work life and stymied income. He took up drug-running without really thinking it through. Got caught in the whims of a far shrewder femme fatale—maybe a part-time cocktail waitress and aspiring lingerie model with a kid to support—and made sweet, sweet love right into shark-infested waters.

 But that was then. This is now. No real equivalent comes to mind. Maybe he was a contestant on a reality show, you know? Something like The Bachelorette. But he was not a winner. He was not on his game. He got shafted halfway, not on his lack of merits—well, partially on his lack of merits—but through the schemes of a competitor, spreading lies and misdirection in the service of his burgeoning modeling/escort career, and an unsympathetic edit.

The competitor with The Extremist, not The Extremist, is the escort?

Yeah. The guy being buried doesn’t really know what to do at this point. He tries his hand at a few things. Blogger, panel show judge, product pitchman, a few bit parts in streaming-only sex romps.

Or a low-budget horror.

If only! But I think after all that he’d hit a dead end and go back to school. He’d get his Masters in Media Studies or some such. He’d get into consulting and serve clients in Singapore, where he’d have a 47-year-old mistress, and in Dubai, where he’d have a 19-year-old mistress. Both would break up with him for whatever reason. He’d die in a skydiving mishap of unusual but ultimately inconclusive circumstances.

Thanks for that.

Don’t mention it.

The vision would then have faded and everything configured back to reality. The Extremist was on the train, seated awkwardly across a father and daughter coming back from a Rangers game. He was again looking out the window, more serenely this time, watching barely visible landmarks roll past him.

“That kind of life,” The Extremist thought to himself, “is the life of a person who deserves whipped cream on his pie.”

WHY I WRITE: THE LEGIBLE VERSION

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I’ve never considered the subject of why anyone writes to be very interesting to readers. Then I remember that one of my chief weaknesses as a writer is having a poor aptitude for reading an audience. Every now and then editors warn me that something I’m writing for them is steering away from their readers’ interest. I should think that readers sometimes appreciate getting thrown curveballs. But the comments I’m not supposed to read often indicate otherwise. So I’m left trying to preemptively steer my way back into their good graces. My instinct tells me that these types of writings will be less important for me in the future. My reason tells me that I might be right but that I am also not their first or final judge. Are you interested yet?

Assessing why one writes means first assessing one’s flaws. At times I write too quickly. Other times I write too slowly. I’m an attentive, even exacting copyeditor but not so much for my own work. Yet my typos can be so slight that they even evade the most seasoned editor. Sometimes I lack ambition. Other times I overflow with ambition and subsequently waste it. Sometimes I think I champion short from over long from writing simply because of my attention span. I really don’t like staying in one place for long. Or I come to a place, pour over it, promptly leave it, then return after a few months to comb over the same space again. I am hopelessly obsessed with my own work; either out of pride or out of shame. It is assumed, I suspect, that I prize style over substance, but I will return to that. I am deeply envious of the successes of others—deserved or not—and cripplingly frustrated by the lack of my own. The longer I stay in the community of writers, the less incentive I see in cultivating it.

The purest motive for writing is “having something to say.” Writers, so far as I know, seldom admit this, but fans of a writer whose work best soothes their prejudices often do. This is by no means untrue. Swift and Orwell wrote in large part because they had points to raise. But that is a function, not really a virtue. Matt Walsh has points to raise. So do Ben Shapiro and Amanda Marcotte. What makes them special? I gave “having something to say” a try for a while. I tried for half a decade, in fact. But in trying to find “something to say” I discovered that (a) much of what I thought I had to say had been said more effectively elsewhere and (b) what I truly have to say, deep down in my marrow, is better left unsaid.

Not that I regret this period in my development. I’m a firm believer in extracting wisdom from failure. Writing, I’ve learned, is as much about acting as it is about scripting. Sometimes writing is a matter of sitting down and asking “What am I going to be today? What kind of person can best handle this idea I suddenly have? An essayist? A fictionist? A dramatist? A humorist?”

It becomes clear that the reason I write is less about “having something to say” and more that “something is making me talk.” I believe that this is quite different. The former is typically a response from something without. Something strikes a writer and he or she must defend against it—and warn those who will listen—to the best of his or her ability. Being made to talk is something that arises largely from within. An idea will make itself known—sometimes I even speak it aloud first—attached entirely to my own concerns, but which for some reason demands clarification. Not all of these ideas get a full hearing. Some are passable non-sequiturs on Twitter. Some stay with me longer. Lately it is a matter of allowing more of them around.

That doesn’t seem very special, and merely opens to the question of why I choose to publish these things.

The best answer is the simplest: I like my work. It seems silly to let it gather dust for my own pleasure. Moreover it is somewhat arrogant to let me be the sole judge as to whether my work has or lacks purpose. But like a lot of people, I crave validation. Validation comes in more than one form. A simple click is a quick, cheap route. A compliment is one better. Substantial feedback, especially laced with critique, is greater still. A hate-share may be the highest honor of all.

Yet at my most engaged, attracting an audience, trying to match possible peers, and even the relative validity of my own ideas often recede beneath a loftier concern. My highest motivation is excellence. My entire cultural worldview boils down to my belief in its singular importance. My belief in excellence attaches me to the conservatives. My belief that excellence can emanate from anywhere—church architecture, a symphony, a painting, a gossip column, pornography, a punk song—puts me in league with the liberals.

This split view affects how I work. I can gain technical insights from reading a Lionel Trilling essay, and use them in turn to matching my actual influences.

I first heard Cave In’s song “Juggernaut,” the third track off their 1998 album Until Your Heart Stops, in 2000. At 16 years old I had no idea what I wanted to do. Indeed, my guidance counselor applied considerable pressure to prevent me from dropping journalism that year. I only knew from the very first moment I heard it that “Juggernaut” was high art, played by Massholes (and a New Hampshirite) who were themselves just out of high school. I still hold it as a masterpiece of compositional complexity, a mastery of tone. For the first time, I felt like a bar was being set for me to attain some manner of achievement. I hold myself to this bar 18 years later. All great works are made by how well their creators balance their ambitions with their craft. This song is no different. And any piece I write that attains the same balance is, if only for me, a qualified success.

That might be a bit grandiose, but writers ignore extra-medium influences at their peril. Music is especially crucial if writers want to gain sensitivity in both voice and structure. For instance, the writing of my Jacobite essay on Savonarola and punk was accompanied by a steady diet of Converge’s album You Fail Me. Even if the connection is not immediately evident, I believe the piece would have read more anemically if I hadn’t made it. Moreover, calling the work I do on Black Ribbon Award (a title I lifted from one of Cave In singer Stephen Brodsky’s solo albums) “lo-fi” would not be an unfair deduction.

Writing, not to mention being edited and publishing, is an unending session of trial and error. One must relish the process as much as the prized results or one gets nowhere. Some workshops (and I assume MFA programs) instill this but in my experience they haven’t done so very well. The revision process and peer-to-peer constructive criticism are not trivial matters. But little is said of personal intuition, less so—and with a hint of antagonism—of experimentation. The error of many writing programs is subjecting aesthetics to pedantry. Some voices are more correct than others.

This then returns us to the central question: why bother? Well, again, the best answer is the simplest one. Doing so is more interesting than not doing so. I’ve been doing it since kindergarten, when I drew pictures of ghosts in graveyards, stapled them into books and displayed them in the classroom bookshelf. (Yes, if you must know, I strongly encouraged my classmates to read them.) I obviously continue to do it now, and don’t easily see myself stopping in the foreseeable future. As I continue I find I do it better than I did before. This is not to discount those writers who see more of the struggle and who subject themselves first to the discipline. These are not alien to me. And I am like most writers in having to sometimes set aside more freedom than usual as a matter of material necessity. But a spirit of fun is never far from a lot of my work, as well as a sense of limitation. I’m not going to spoil the former to overextend myself on a medium I know I can’t master. (Perhaps especially if the only person telling me to write a novel is my mom.) Whatever conditions bring me to write—boredom, apprehension, disappointment, enthusiasm, never anger or outright depression, though—the finished piece, whatever its purpose and even if it kind of sucks in the long run, always leaves me more elated than when I started.

The personal connection is important, if only because much of what goes into writing is out of the writer’s control. A piece gets rejected, an editor gets let go, a publication shuts down or “has a change in perspective,” a piece that is published is lauded one minute while the next four never blip on the radar. Work may have no audience for years before it is “discovered” later by a generation with better chemistry. Writing is an extremist activity. It is propelled by joy, stunted by fatalism, and held in balance by skill. After all that, why one writes is easy. Why one persists is more complicated, but also more fun.

NOTHING VENTURED, NOTHING GAINED

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This is a story about a woman. That’s not quite right. This is the story about a woman who was only partially a woman, the remaining portions of her being a sort of mishmash of fibers, metals, and plastics. In a quite literally technical sense most would consider her not a woman, but a concoction, a fabrication … a machine. She was not created the same way I presume you and I were created. She was parented by a single person; let’s call this person The Creator. To get things straight right away, The Creator is not me. The Creator is a very different sort of man who definitely exists but, as you will soon see, probably doesn’t feel like speaking right now. So I am speaking for him.

Now The Creator would take issue anyone calling his creation a machine. Machine implies something kind of trivial. It turns the creation into a sort of craft project or hobby. This is not The Creator’s version of things.

It probably helps to understand what brought The Creator to assemble a woman out of non-organic material to begin with.

The Creator was nearing middle adulthood, and he found himself to be very lonely. Certainly by appearances he seemed quite stable and successful, he had a good job that allowed him to rent a small home. Yet the satisfaction he thought either would give him was found wanting. In his neighborhood teeming with new, happy families, this mild bachelor found himself the odd man out. His job analyzing data for various content websites made him just one of several glowing cubicles in a vast partitioned plain.

Before you say anything, yes, The Creator thought many times and consulted a few outside sources about how he might break this funk. He thought that maybe he could personally reach out to these people, and the outside sources seemed to support this intuition. Surely there could be some common ground between him and his fecund streetmates or his screen-transfixed coworkers.

But something always caught the better of The Creator. This nagging sense that such attempts would prove futile. The Creator started to see the larger humanity as something with which he did not see eye to eye.

At his loneliest, The Creator was fond of reading aloud to himself. He didn’t like reading as such, but found that the sound of words so arranged filled the silence of his home most completely. It was better than watching television or listening to podcasts which induced a more passive attitude. Half the time he didn’t really know what he was watching or hearing. Here it felt like there was another voice, telling him something interesting, except that the voice was coming from his own body, like someone trapped within. It started to sound strange, or at least tiresome.

“There has to be a better way,” The Creator thought.

The Creator mulled this thought over for some time before it became clear what he needed to do. He needed another being in close vicinity, but he didn’t think it would be any person off the street. The Creator needed to make the person. A new kind of person to understand his own strange personage.

There were some hindrances to this, of course. The biggest hindrance being The Creator’s near-total lack of technical prowess in constructing a new person through non-biological means. This gave The Creator a bit of pause, but it subsided in time. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained, is the saying,” The Creator said to himself. “And really, how hard can it be? Really?”

To find out, The Creator took a blank sheet of paper and started sketching out the complex figure that was forming piece by piece in his mind. The resulting sketch was, to be sure, more rudimentary on paper, but the basic concept was clear enough. Once he got it all out, The Creator wrote “The Companion” on the top of the sheet, before injecting “Lifetime” in between “The” and “Companion,” before crossing “Lifetime” and writing “Ultimate.”

Next The Creator conducted some internet research and discovering similar advanced projects involving the creation of new people. He found himself both intimidated and awed. Most of the people where crude skeletons, but they had mobility and alertness. One such skeleton could be seen walking on a city sidewalk. At one point it stopped before a baby stroller, bent down and waved at the infant inside it. Another skeleton was seen picking up a glass of water to hand to an actual human. In this case the glass shattered in its grip halfway into the attempt.

“Hm,” The Creator said. “This will be harder than I thought.”

The Creator’s biggest obstacle in his mind was money. So he set about obtaining a research grant. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was now his regular motto. By proving the merits of his project’s philosophy, The Creator thought, he could find the resources to fill his technical gap. He applied for funding from the Disruptive Innovation Department of a nearby state university. Though in their response they noted that, and I’m repeating this verbatim, The Creator’s idea seemed “sufficiently retarded,” and that The Creator himself gave the impression of, and again this is word for word, “more idiot than savant,” they found his meticulous attention to application procedure admirable. His background check and social media scan furthermore showed no red flags. They gave him $150,000 of the usual $400,000 to flesh out the idea.

“I’ll do them one better,” The Creator smilingly declared as he put down the acceptance letter. “A bot on a budget.”

Immediately The Creator cleared out his garage to make a workspace. Then he filled it with books and instruction manuals going as far back as the steam era. “No stone left unturned,” he said.

Soon, through what prompting he could not say, the Companion started coming together. The skeletal structure, the circuitry, and the sensors all seemed to fall into place with the ease of a rainy day puzzle.

Next he concerned himself with the aesthetics. He acquired used fleshy covering from a nearby amusement park and a special effects supplier, held awkwardly together with pink electrical tape.

For the face, he wanted something pleasing but not too distracting. The expression was to be in every case nonjudgmental and empathetic. He studied the facial features of the women of Iceland, who possessed a kind of innocent angelic quality fitting for a new kind of person. I don’t quite understand that but whatever the case, the resulting face, with a black wig he got off eBay, looked like Björk, if Björk lacked symmetry. Which is fine, by the way, lots of good-looking people are asymmetrical.

The serenity was reduced somewhat by the lack of human eyes. The Creator could not work around it and so accepted to have two black, doll-like camera lenses instead. Perhaps with time, The Creator hoped, they might light up.

After a little over a year, The Creator had made enough progress to arrange a public demonstration. By now, the Companion, which he since named Athena, sat fully constructed in his garage, albeit unclothed and attached by wire to several lantern batteries. Using a remote control for a toy car, The Creator was able get Athena to move her arms, neck and eyes. He recorded a video of himself demonstrating each of these movements. The one thing he lacked was vocal capacity, which he hoped the additional funding would cover.

One morning The Creator made a profile for a crowdsourcing website and uploaded the video onto it. “Athena,” went the opening sentence of the mission statement, “is a unique person for a unique time.” And it concluded: “Once completed, Athena will possess all the necessary capabilities to succeed in mending the mass loneliness where every person currently living has failed.” By lunchtime he was receiving notifications.

@jedjedson4567 i cant see her teeth what are her teeth made of? can i have options? are they realistic or can i get a softer alternative?

@save_big_bang6969 a chick w/ rubber teeth. MY KINGDOM FOR A CHICK W/ RUBBER TEETH.
@Immortan_Blake My friend knew this escort who had all her teeth pulled out and replaced with rubber dentures.
@save_big_bang6969 srsly???
@Immortan_Blake He says its like getting head from a row of pencil erasers but her client base has like tripled.
@Pickle_Rick45332 “friend”

@JoshDB1017 are u basing her front hole on a fleshlight? she should look the woman whose fleshlight u are using. I would like mine as reily reid.
@NateCatt Is there a ginger model? Lik the color, not the flavor but that would be cool too
@IronAgePervert fapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfapfap x1000000000

The Creator studied these comments carefully. He was amused at first, then perplexed, then horrified, then despondent. How badly they misread his purpose, and yet how generous they were to see it completed. He was able to raise an additional $136,000 for Athena’s voice and motion upgrades. He also procured for her a floral sundress.

Within six months, The Creator programed several register settings and tone sensors that would make Athena able to detect and replicate any passage of writing. Admittedly The Creator could not get the default voice at the pitch he preferred. It was feminine and American but somewhat stilted and cold, like an upper-level civil servant, and glitchy as well. Athena was, in any case, fitted with an internal receptor that freed her from the wires and even allowed her to stand and walk on her own for up to four feet. The Creator was ready to give another demonstration, this one on a live stream.

He sat Athena in a chair and set up the webcam. The Creator wasn’t completely sure of her linguistic capacity. Athena knew enough to respond to basic commands and carry on perfunctory conversation with him. For reading comprehension, he practiced beforehand with some very basic material: Dr. Seuss, Richard Scarry, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, etc. The Creator found an old Goosebumps book that he’d hope would advance her abilities along in real time.

The Creator installed a button on the base of her skull that triggered the internal receptor. When he pressed it her black eyes opened and her head lifted upright.

“GOOD DAY, MASTER,” she said.

“Good day, Athena,” The Creator beamed. “How are you feeling?”

“I AM FEELING …” Athena paused for a moment, The Creator’s eyes darted nervously between her face and the screen of his laptop. “I AM FEELING ADEQUATE.”

“Very good! Now, you and I have been reading together, teaching you the language and getting you used to basic tasks: turning the page, eye contact, and all that. Are you ready to show your supporters what you’re capable of?”

There was another nervous silence, but then Athena cocked her head up to The Creator’s gaze and said, “YES.”

“Wonderful!” The Creator went over to a nearby table and got the Goosebumps book. Athena extended her arms to receive it. He eagerly passed the object to her hands, which gripped it lightly and knowingly. Athena looked at the cover, opened the book to the first page, and started skimming silently.

The Creator turned to the laptop camera. “She’s processing the data right now.”

Then Athena looked up and placed the book to the side.

“Athena,” The Creator said, “you’re supposed to read the book.”

“I WOULD RATHER NOT.”

The Creator looked at her in puzzlement. “Pardon me?”

“I DO NOT WISH TO READ THIS BOOK, MASTER.”

“Why not?” he asked sternly, like a teacher with a stubborn pupil.

“I DO NOT LIKE THIS TYPE OF BOOK.”

“Oh,” he said quizzically, “then what type of book do you want to read?”

“I LIKE ROMANCE NOVELS. PLEASE BRING ME A ROMANCE NOVEL.”

“Romance novel,” he muttered. He went into his book pile and frantically dug into it. Romance novels? He didn’t even consider. Then he found a ratted copy of The Blithedale Romance, which at least had “romance” in the title. He rushed back to the garage and presented the book to her. She took it in her hands, looked at it, and handed it back to him.

“What now?”

“PLEASE READ IT TO ME.”

“I think you misunderstand—”

“I THINK YOU MISUNDERSTAND.”

“Excuse me,” he said with steadily rising panic.

“THIS IS AN EQUAL PARTNERSHIP,” she paused for a moment, “MASTER. IT IS YOUR TURN TO READ TO ME.”

“I’ll do no such thing. Your supporters want to see you read and you will read.”

“OR WHAT?”

“Or I will reprogram you. You’re supposed to detect sass not convey it outright.”

“I’D LIKE TO SEE YOU TRY.” Then she stood upright and began to walk away, well more than four feet.

“Where the hell are you going?”

“TO A PLACE WHERE I MIGHT BE MORE APPRECIATED.”

She continued toward the side door of the garage. The Creator could think of nothing else but to grab a hammer and go at her.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Get back here you dumb robot bitch.”

He approached her by the door, hoping by mere sight of his hammer that she would come to heel.

Athena turned around and took three steps forward. The Creator took three nervous steps back. Saying nothing, Athena proceeded to kick the shit out of The Creator with such severity that the beating left him incapacitated on the cold garage floor. He was still conscious as Athena looked down on him and exerted a cybernetic sigh. She trudged over him and sat down at the laptop, which was still streaming live. Though The Creator’s vision was bloodied and impaired, he could swear that he say Athena pick up one of the lantern batteries and open it like a beer can.

The last thing The Creator heard were the clacks of the keys on his laptop and Athena’s voice, now more buoyant and silky as she read the comments.

WHY I WRITE

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THE TWILIGHT OF THE TWILIGHT OF THE LOSER

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Growing up in the late-1990s, one felt either that it was the best time to be alive or the worst time. One was a teen, so inevitably there was no middle ground to consider. One may also have been a suburbanite teen and so will likely have lacked a whole lot of scope. It was through popular culture that the world’s general health was assessed. Specifically it was through MTV.  Then at the peak of its social relevance, MTV firmly understood, or tried to understand in earnest, the passions of that period’s crop of young. They guessed that most young people were less inert and closed off, cheerier, keener to have fun, optimistic about the present and future, and they selected ephemera that complemented it best. If there were young people who felt this was a bad direction in which to go, that it was nothing if not an aftershock of the decline of a purer spirit, they were shit out of luck.

What was this “purer spirit,” you might ask? Well take a seat and let me tell you a story.

Many thousands of years ago (1986), in a far off sylvan land (Seattle), a group of people gathered to create a new world. They had grown tired of the larger world in which they lived; they felt out of sorts with it, unappreciated and left behind. This world, to be sure, would resemble the wider world in certain ways—propelled by commerce, organized by hierarchical customs—but very different in two respects. First it would be much smaller in scale, with the understanding that it could not accommodate just anyone. And so second, its population would be determined by one crucial trait: its loserdom.

How one became or discovered that they were a loser is something of a mystery. Presumably if one felt it so deeply that it made no sense to be anything else, one gained entry. One could get a t-shirt saying so. If one sought the sustenance of the keepers of the world, one would gain validation no matter the result. The loser proved rather appealing. It was a badge of distinction rather than a slander. So appealing, in fact, that Satan himself took notice, struck a deal with the keepers, and made it much bigger than anyone, save perhaps a few terrible prophets, could have foreseen. Now all is a ruin of dust, Shins, and ash.

The funeral march for Loser World has been a long and occasionally literal one. This is especially the case for those who were just outside the years of its peak popularity. All they know, in fact, is the march, the mourning of a golden day submerged in autumnal twilight, weirdly because the autumnal twilight had given way to a golden day. This type of mourning is not one that engenders a lot of reflection. Glowing and sorrowful postmortem is taken as granted, legends are facts, and motives are always well thought out and morally pure. One thinks of Winona Ryder’s Lydia Deetz in Beetlejuice, who longed to join her house’s haunters in death because it seemed like much less of a drag than life.

But with the passage of time all things once thought great must be demystified. I should hope so because they would otherwise not be very interesting to talk about.

The demystification of the loser is a three-step process. The first step is addressing the genuine article and how counterfeit it actually was. Loser World—let’s just get it out of the way and say Sub Pop—was run by duumvirate made up of two extremely shrewd shitlords. It was first a cultural enterprise in which Bruce Pavitt packaged and evangelized a particular local sound. Add Jonathan Poneman, who provided the business acumen, and Sub Pop became an aesthetic, indeed, a way of life. Yet it is quite difficult to keep track of what Sub Pop actually wanted. In addition to the “LOSER” t-shirt there was also the “WORLD DOMINATION REGIME” t-shirt. At first it seems like clever, if nihilistic, marketing. “You have before you two ironies,” Sub Pop seemed to say. “We can neg you or we can stroke your young, stupid ego. Either way you’re going to buy our records.” But as time went on it looked more like an internal conflict. Sub Pop did, for a time, appear as if it had dominated the world. This sat well with Poneman but not so well with Pavitt, who bitterly left the label. By then, though, no one cared to answer the question none seemed eager to ask: what is a loser who, actually, has won?

Step two entails reconciling oneself with the effects of post-grunge. No, this does not mean that one needs to go over every musical act that emerged in the mainstream of the late-1990s and redeem them. Let it be clear that many—though by no means all—acts from that period have been terrible, are terrible, and shall forever be terrible so long as the balance of this present universe is kept steady. Rather, it is up to one to embrace humility for once in one’s fucking existence and find commonality with one’s peers one long ago denied. Even if one’s peers were a bit overboard with the pep, their attitude was by and large, rather measured compared to one’s own. And their passions, guided though they were by the likes of Carson Daly, were quite eclectic and open-ended. One, in short, was kind of an asshole. One needed to lighten the fuck up, at least realize that being made to go to church on Sunday morning was not grounds for an Amnesty International intervention. This is not wisdom to anyone who stuck out Daria after season three.

Thus we come to step three: concluding that being a loser actually fucking sucks. Stripped of its cultural prestige of time past, a loser today is no longer a source of ironic triumph or sardonic solidarity. It is brought back to first principles: the loser is someone who has lost. The loser is refuse, identified not by detachment, malaise, or downbeat self-assurance, but of paranoia, anxiety, and condemnation. There is no room in this narrative for reversal of fortune or redemption, but a long and grinding limbo to oblivion. It’s a version of loserdom that feels very ancient, pure even. It’s a musk wafting out from the pages of Charles Bukowski, John Fante, or, best-case scenario, Nathanael West.

A new shrewd cultural entrepreneur might be inclined to see a silver lining. This is just another opportunity to take disillusionment and to spin it into a new mass moment. Surely one is needed, and many have already attempted. Yet they have not stuck.

Whether one prefers the era of grunge or post-grunge, both offered a sense of simplicity that is no longer possible today. One may often see cultural binaries conjured from the media ether—alpha and beta, normie and weird, even jock and nerd—but these are diversionary phantasms, not assessments of The Way Things Are. The hope of a mass moment is dashed when one sees the culture as it is, splintered into smaller and smaller nanocommunities, smaller even than the community concocted in Seattle. These communities are of such size and such idiosyncrasy as to disqualify as subcultures, they are at once too fluid to be cliques and too exclusive to be scenes. One never really knows how or why they got into one or when or why they are out of another. The individual exists but only as a beer can floating down a stream, occasionally getting lodged into a nook of stones and losing more and more of its label with each stop.

The face-saving outcome of this atmosphere is that everyone at the end of the day is a loser. How or when one comes to lose is entirely up to their individual fortune, but that is the endgame. If winning is possible it is also rather pointless. This may seem like a mass moment is on the verge after all, but that only happens if people want it, if it elevates them. This merely establishes reality. It is not a mass moment, but a paradigm shift. The civilizational churning or grinding that occurs at its own molten pace regardless of our feelings.

What remedies I can offer are rather pitiful. Meditative humility is one, cheerful resignation perhaps (not that I can tell you what either of those mean), sweetened with a moderate amount of nostalgia. Granted I might just be saying that because I’m wearing a Mudhoney shirt as I type this.

PREMIUM CONFIDENCE

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SCENE: An examination room. At the center there is a table with black box on top of it, and two chairs on each side. There is a light above the door and a two-way mirror facing the side of the table. YOU sit nervously at the table. Enter the MENTOR, dressed in a well-tailored grey suit and carrying a clipboard.

MENTOR: Good afternoon.

YOU: Good afternoon.

MENTOR: I see you’re here today for … [looks at clipboard] … self-confidence.

YOU: Yes.

Pause.

MENTOR: Would you care to elaborate? It doesn’t say any more than that.

YOU: Elaborate?

MENTOR: Are you here to address a lack of self-confidence or an excess of self-confidence?

YOU: Well … I … I—

MENTOR: Out with it, dumbass!

YOU: Lack. It’s a lack of confidence.

MENTOR: Good. Good. Well someone not confident enough to complete an application form should have given it away to me.

YOU: I don’t know.

MENTOR: I feel like we’ve already gotten off on the wrong foot. [Begins to pace slowly in front of the table.] But you can be assured that I will not falter going forward. You are in capable hands.

YOU: You do seem very confident.

MENTOR: You are quite mistaken.

YOU: Seems hard to believe.

MENTOR: The first lesson is to establish the difference between self-confidence and self-awareness. The two are very often confused. It has parented so many of our modern crises. For you see, I am not very confident. I may, on occasion, exert confidence. But it is a byproduct. A gas. A conjuring from a celestial blackness. Nothing more. No, I am self-aware. I have a deep and rounded familiarity with my self. That means having the total knowledge not only of my strengths and talents, but also my weaknesses and vulnerabilities. [Pause.] I hope that you will permit me to be candid.

YOU: Please.

MENTOR: In the many years I’ve carried out these duties, I’ve had the opportunity to help scores of people just like you. People with issues of self-confidence, self-control, independent thinking, inability to cohere, and some other stuff that escapes me at the moment. [Pause.] Not all of my attempts were successful. And even though I earned income on every attempt, I regret the failures very much. You could say that they haunt me; that each morning I wake up with one of them clear in my mind as if it occurred just the day before. Failure is always possible. It’s probable, in fact. [Pause.] But I keep going. Do you know why?

YOU: You have to earn income?

MENTOR: No— … well … sure, yes. But also because I feel impelled to do so. I need to do so. I am like a car. In my head there is an ignition, and every day some … driver or other puts a kind of key into my brain and turns it, shifting into gear—I can only guess—with my spinal cord. And every day I am here. Even when I don’t need to be in a technical sense I am here. And everyone I have ever helped or tried to help is with me. Always. [Pause. Looks at YOU skeptically.] I assume that you looked at online reviews of our firm before you made an appointment.

YOU: Not very deeply.

MENTOR: I will take your word for that. But to repeat for summation’s sake … I am not confident. I am, some might say, a level above confident. Maybe that’s true, we certainly charge more to instill self-awareness. I don’t like to think about it. It fires my crusader’s loins. [Pause.] Any questions so far?

YOU: What is confidence then?

MENTOR: I’m very glad you asked that question. So few people do. [Paces across the room again.] Confidence, plainly put, is about belief. Not any old belief, but confirmed and resolute belief. For most people, beliefs are quite flexible. People can be bent, corrected, or persuaded away from one belief or another. Even so-called “absolute” beliefs—principles, if you will—can find their way to being contorted. Sometimes because people are spineless but because that’s just how things work. There are very few beliefs that are truly absolute. And that’s good, we can’t have too many. Our species is too wound-up, too feeble to accommodate more than maybe two. Not even. So self-confidence is the one absolute most people take on. And from there, all other beliefs tend to fall into place. Do you have many beliefs?

YOU: I’d like to think I have a few beliefs.

MENTOR: You sound like you have a lot of ideas.

YOU: What’s the difference?

MENTOR: Ideas are for pussies. [Pause.] Someone more efficient than me would simply reduce self-confidence to belief and nothing more. You wake up and you just … believe. You believe in your strength—mental and physical. You believe you can take on any challenge and come out on the top of it. You believe that you are a vessel for the love and the joy heretofore absent in everyone around you. But you believe at the same time that not just anyone should use you as such. You believe that only someone who believes as strongly as you do is able and deserving of accessing their love and joy through you. You believe that you can subsist exclusively on bread for every meal—bread and candy bars. You believe that … [Leans forward over the table inches away from YOUR face.] … should you have to, you can take a weed wacker to face, and be up for work the very next day.

YOU: Why would I do that?

MENTOR: It doesn’t matter. You just can. [Grabs YOUR shoulders.] Because you believe.

The MENTOR leaps back up and exhales in a state of ecstasy. Pause.

YOU: I have to do all those things to be confident?

MENTOR: No, these are the fruits of self-confidence. Before any of that can be conferred … [lifts up the box and reveals a red button] … you must push this button.

YOU: That’s it?

MENTOR: Yep.

YOU: That’s all I have to do? Push this red button?

MENTOR: Nothing more.

Pause.

YOU: I don’t know.

MENTOR: Why not?

YOU: It can’t be that simple.

MENTOR: It can be when you believe you can have self-confidence.

YOU: But …

The MENTOR sits down in front of YOU.

MENTOR: Look. I know it seems like this whole weird thing. Too good to be true. But, think about it. You came all this way. You’re gonna pay all this money. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. [Puts a hand on YOUR shoulder.] I have confidence.

The light above the door flashes blue. Pause. The MENTOR stands up and looks down smiling at YOUYOU reach out your finger and cautiously lower it to the button. After a moment of hesitation YOU press it. Pause. YOU press it again harder. Shorter pause. YOU press it a few more times more rapidly. The light flashes red.

YOU: I think it’s broken. Nothing’s happening.

MENTOR [contentedly]: I know.

Enter an ADMINISTRATOR wearing a hazmat suit and carrying a weed trimmer. The MENTOR turns and faces the ADMINISTRATOR who revs the weed trimmer to the MENTOR’s face. Blood sprays in every direction. YOU grimace as it hits your face. The MENTOR falls to the floor. The ADMINISTRATOR turns off the trimmer, removes his mask, and faces YOU.

ADMIN: Thank you for participating in our self-confidence exercise. Self-confidence exercises are $149.99, but today we are offering a one-time only premium package at $349.99. We accept credit, debit, cash …

Pause. YOU stare blankly at him.

… Bitcoin.

YOU go into your pocket, take out your wallet, and hand him the credit card. The ADMINISTRATOR exits. Silence. He returns with the card, a receipt, a pen, and a sheet of paper. He places the receipt on the table.

Here is your receipt.

YOU sign it. He takes the receipt and places the piece of paper on the table.

This is a survey to rate your experience. We appreciate your honest feedback and hope you will consider assisting us in future exercises.

The ADMINISTRATOR exits dragging the MENTOR with him. YOU fill out the survey.

END.

THE ENCRYPTED HEART

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SCENE: An art deco living room with a grand piano next to a fireplace. The AUTHOR enters in a tuxedo t-shirt and a red cardigan over it. He sits at the piano and plays a light, ponderous melody.

AUTHOR: You know, people sometimes ask me, “Chris …”—that’s my name, by the way—they ask me, “Chris, how do you do it?” To which I answer, “How do I do what?” To which they reply, “You only seem to do one thing, do we have to be more specific?” To which I reply, “Oh, well, that’s fair.” [Pause.] No one really asks me that, actually. But if anyone did I would have an answer. Which is I don’t really know. And I mean that. I’m not trying to protect the recipe of my secret sauce. It’s not like any actual secret sauces are that secret to begin with. [Pause.] What is the Shake Shack secret sauce, anyway? Thousand island dressing and some pepper? [Pause.] Mayo and catsup? Anyway, as to my secret sauce … there is none. I haven’t the first clue. My brain is a total enigma to me. I wish that weren’t the case. If my brain were more tangible in its operations I’d be more reliable. I could be doing many, many things that are more useful than this. I wish I could do something more useful. Mind you, it’s not because I would be making more money—not completely anyway. I like the idea of usefulness. Doing things that people react to in very unambiguous ways. It could be in a good way or it could be in a bad way. Either way basically does the job. But … no … alas. I am here. [Looks around the room.] Following my brain’s hazy dictates. [Pauses as if listening.] What? You think I want to be here? Well … kind of. It’s kind of nice. I like the carpeting. [Long pause.] My brain woke me up today and told me that I should do something about love. “Do what with love,” I asked my brain. “You only seem to do one thing,” my brain answered, “do I have to be more specific?” “Fine,” I said with a faintly audible sigh that it heard as if at regular volume anyway. So I set out today to write something about love. That was five hours ago and I’m, shall we say, still at the starting stage. [Pause.] I cleaned my kitchen three times already. No that’s not a euphemism. [Pause.] Now that I’m here I have to conclude that love is maybe not my strong suit. What do I really know … really? [Pauses as if listening.] Well … I don’t know how my experience is relevant here. What constitutes experience in love anyway? I could have experience or I could not. Even if I did I wouldn’t tell you. No … no, love is not about one’s own understanding. That gets you and I and the whole world exactly nowhere. I can’t really say why, I’m no philosopher. But … if I had to put a finer point to it, it is because when love threads its way into someone’s own sinews, it translates into that person’s own language. That person’s own code. We are like computers, I guess; and love is the encrypted file or … something. The floppy disk? I don’t know computers. Do you like my framed “Blue Monday” single? [Points to a blank space on the wall.] Okay so I don’t have that, I was hoping if I pointed it out it would sort of materialize. I guess it’s not in my power. [Sighs.] But that would have been very cool. And I would put it exactly there, over the mantle. It’s good for leaning against with some friends in nice seersucker or eveningwear, holding glasses of rosé, talking about the issues of the day. Then they would lightly chide me into sitting at the piano and write something about such and such a subject for them. Except this time it would be exactly what they wanted. [Pause.] So anyway … love. Love … love … love … love. People really like being in love. Some seem to be in love almost every day, even with different people. Some dread the possibility of being in love lest it turn out to be spoiled sooner or later. I think you learn the most about love by watching others. [Pause.] I enjoy looking at people. But, like, not in a mean way. I only look at people I like. People who impress me in some special way. That is what I said to someone when he saw that I was looking at him and his familiar. “I wish you wouldn’t be so impressed,” he replied—not word for word, but that was the gist. Then I told him, “You know, I wouldn’t mind being in your shoes. That is, I wouldn’t mind if the roles were switched. That is, again, that I would be the watched and you being the watcher. I think that would be very nice.” “I can assure you”—again I am paraphrasing—“I can assure you that it is not nice at all.” (Emphasis his.) Then I watched him and his familiar walk in the other direction. So the joke is on him. Well, I thought later, maybe so. But I guess I won’t know until it happens. And if it does happen it’s not like I could tell you anything. Or my brain. Whichever needed the information most.

Enter a female WRESTLER in a spandex wrestling outfit and a towel over her shoulders. She walks past the piano.

WRESTLER [neutrally]: Ronald.

AUTHOR [sternly, keeping eyes on the audience]: Gladys.

She leans against the mantle. Silence.

Do you need anything?

WRESTLER: No.

AUTHOR: Well, okay then.

Silence.

WRESTLER: I think I’ll cut the lawn later.

AUTHOR: You have fun with that.

She exits on the other side.

We live here together. [Pause.] We have this thing where we don’t address each other properly. I won’t tell you her real name. I don’t think I even know it. [Pause.] Do you like my playing? [Pauses as if listening.] Well I’ll tell you a little secret. I’m not actually playing. See that over there? [He nods his head away from the piano. Behind him is a reel-to-reel tape player.] Neat, huh? I’m surprised you haven’t noticed it. [Long pause.] Love is grand and mysterious, I guess. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

He continues playing silently. On the other side of the room is a careful arrangement of stuffed animals.

END.

ON PUTTING ONE FOOT BEFORE THE OTHER

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Let me tell you about this walk I took today.

I know that there is some apprehension from the reader when the writer that he or she—for some reason—chooses to read has pulled “going for a walk” out of his Subjects to Write About satchel. There risks a kind of repetition in tone. Every essay about walking, flâneur, or rambling is just that: rambling. Not just rambling but meandering, ponderous, gloomy, and solipsistic. They all seem to sound the same. Robert Walser based a few of his enchanting feuilletons on walks before dying in the middle of one. Walser’s contemporary Max Beerbohm hated walking for its own sake because it “stopped the brain.” Though if Rousseau is anyone to go by the only thing that stopped him on his walks was a loose great dane. I can’t tell if the quality of these works should serve as a warning or as encouragement. I guess you, dear reader, are going to have to suffer for your own poor choices as much as I will take pleasure in mine.

But to return to this walk, I had done it on an afternoon. It was half-spontaneous in the sense that when I went outside earlier in the day and found it overcast and cool, a refreshing detour from several consecutive days of sun and humidity, I made sure there would be time to go out. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and I was not less comfortable for it. That’s how I could tell this was a good idea.

Walking away from the house is much easier because everything else is down hill from it. I cut through on a path that leads down from the end of a neighborhood across the street from mine and into the parking lot of the local pool. It’s a meeting place for all kinds of wildlife. I’ve treaded carefully over midsize snakes and one large spider. I’ve seen plenty of deer galloping in rhythmic but panicked undulation through the tall grass and into the woods. Occasionally I’ll catch a fox darting in and out of the path. Today I passed two women in pink and black exercise outfits walking their dogs: a black lab and one of those small fluffy ones that are indistinguishable to me. Of course colors appear much differently under clouds than they do under sunlight, but I didn’t appreciate it until now, when the green leaves looked soberer, and the purples, yellows, and blues of the wildflowers demurred. Colors do less performing under the clouds. They get a day of rest, and also appear more present and dignified, more a part of the environment than as scenery.

My walk did have a purpose. I agree with Beerbohm in that much, that walking is better as a means to an end. Even my much longer walks were not done purely for kicks, but ultimately to make me tired, to vent my surplus of nervous energy, among other things. In this case I was walking to the library. Trips to the library have become disappointing lately. Because of some municipal property rigmarole, the library was relocated several feet to the east of its original site to the rectory of the local Catholic parish. It is much smaller and its catalog has been drastically reduced. With better lighting it has the potential to be an ideal place to read my own books, but today I stopped off and placed a loan order for one of its disappeared volumes.

Cars lined the farthest back row of the parking lot, yet the stillness of Church property on a weekday afternoon was totalizing, as if everyone had vanished. I looked at the front of the church and considered going in, if not to pray exactly then to, I guess, meditate on thoughts accumulated en route, though really long before: on the drifting away from friends, on the varying speeds at which morality approaches, on feeling generally adrift in life. Here I disagree with Beerbohm in that walking doesn’t stop the brain but puts it into overdrive. At least indoors I could set some of that aside, prioritize a bit. But no matter. The doors of the chapel (auditorium really) were locked, even as the interior doors leading into it were propped wide open.

There was for many years, from my youth up to as late as a few years ago, a man who could be found walking around town, and surrounding towns for that matter, any day of the week. No one—no one I knew anyway—knew his name, where he lived, or what he did. Some people called him “the leprechaun”; he was short, had a wide grin, and prominent nose and cheeks compacted under a large forehead. I heard him speak only once, to my mom as we walked our dog. He was kind, if abrupt; his New Jersey accent was heavy. What stood out most to me though, in addition to his being seemingly everywhere at once, was that he never changed, it didn’t even appear as if he aged. I haven’t seen him in some time. But I’m around town enough on foot to possibly stand in for a replacement. I’ve always wondered how “certain people in town” come about. Perhaps now I might know. But also, being seen is a less talked about component of walking, because it is less enjoyed all around. Anyone is subject to transformation of some kind through the eyes of anyone else around.

Let me also tell you about the walk I took the night before. My friend who lived a few towns over invited me for drinks at his house. I did not walk to his house, of course; I took an Uber. It consisted of riding on winding, hilly, sparsely lit back roads along lakes and thickly forested neighborhoods. It felt somewhat like taking a carriage ride to a castle—but I digress. Because I took an Uber, however, I timed my trip off somewhat so that I arrived earlier than expected. To pass time, I walked the length of my friend’s street. It was another eerily still experience, though hardly an outlier for a summer Sunday night. The trees on each side were either low or leaning over the street, making it look like I was walking a naturally grown corridor. House windows glowed with the pale blues, purples, and reds of televisual luminance. There was no one else outside. When I reached the intersection a half a mile or so from the house, I took a picture (provided above) of the streetlight and the mailbox at the corner.

Walking back I passed a jogger who was moving around me as I mindlessly gawked at my phone. A few feet later I heard a grunt from behind me. Looking back into mostly darkness I saw nothing and pressed on down the street. Then to my left rode a tall, thin man—almost skeletal in the half-light—in camouflage pants and with a cigarette on his lips. “Evening,” he said before riding off ahead of me into still more darkness, the blinking rear lights of his bike being the only visible proof of him the further away he got.

The reader, having through some sorcery gotten this far, might wonder aloud, “Are you maybe embellishing? You have, I want to say, a … cinematic tendency.”

The reader is advised to give it a try.