Goin’ Down Slow: A Commentary on Time from my book on Tom Waits’ Songs

Some nights lasted forever, the bands of time stretching out like the taffy from cold molasses, rich and dark and thin without ever seeming to break on the shoals of morning until they were invisible to the eye. Such nights were impossible to identify from the early mornings, they only began to surface once the water was up to the crotch and rising. By midafternoon each day was like another, a long string of beads that had an end but was pulled from a bag of tomorrows so you never knew until the last bead escaped. The early evening’s liquid embrace of the heat of afternoon turned to frantic energy gave no clue as well. Only once the clock was climbing the slow-motion mountain of the night did the dark proclaim itself, and he knew he was back in another massy place where time was Einstein-slow and Schrödinger-uncertain.

This was one of those nights. He’d waited through the day as though for a dentist appointment, the vague pain of normal life pulling at his jaw, but as the dark began to creep over the city, coming first from the mountains and then along the flat land and finally rising from the sea, he began to suspect the minute hands of slowing, pulling themselves only reluctantly past each hour’s marker. The second hand too, was sweeping more quickly at first, but as reluctant as glue on a windowpane, caught in the jelly of the impending weight, it crept forward, its rapid jerk turned to anxious thrusts.

It might have been the lack of waves offshore. That would sometimes slow the entire city to a crawl. Or perhaps the drifting clouds, that would normally be driven back and forth by the tug and pull of land breeze and sea. Sometimes he even wondered if he were the one, somehow unravelling the ballet of normal living until the legs arched and the toes uncurled and left the body behind. He’d seen nights like this one before, and sometimes he’d sought to escape into sleep. He’d feel the slowdown around midnight, like Bangkok rush hour caught by the sticky heat of the King’s anthem and therefore commanded to a crawl. Once he slept his dreams would chase him from theme to denouement, each demanding and suggesting, until in the journey through the night he’d only slept an hour or so, his body and mind so active that he’d had to rein them back just to get out of bed.

Nights like these it was best to ride it out. Like the first time user on mushrooms, he was going to let the flow take him, and if it stalled in the gutter or the food tray at the movie theatre, or a drunk tank, that’s where he’d wait out the endless night.

When he would try to explain the dripping of the minutes to a friend, they would nod as if they knew and offer advice about women or cutting down on the booze. Strangers in bars, more honestly, recoiled, and he’d learned to judge people he didn’t know by whether they felt the same phenomena. He approached them on an angle, like sneaking up on a chicken. But instead of reaching out in a leap to throttle them into knowledge, he’d suggest the clock was out of sync. If the look of recognition came he knew he’d found a companion for the endless hours, some haunted look that sought the same when the minutes were on the rack of hours and the hours had been tortured into days.

Then they would say no more about it, and instead set their teeth to endure, hands clamped to the bar for safety as the thick tar of time flowed around them, rising to the knees and over, dampening their trousers with a sticky residue that would be impossible to remove from the weave. They would wait while ten o’clock forced its way along the wall, a huge man pushing past them on the sidewalk for the bus, and then settled in for the fight as eleven peeked over the edge of the hour and then, as slowly as a foot-long cockroach in the gloom, approached in the dark. Once eleven was underway, twelve seemed to arrive more quickly. Only a day or two would pass as the barkeep took hours to trickle a drink into a glass, and the blinks of the patrons were a drooping eyelid to close and many minutes to open.

Twelve was the hardest hour of all, for it was time’s own peak of the mountain, and nearly all clocks strained toward it. The analogs, with their sweeping hands, hesitated and they fought with twelve, unable to approach directly and sometimes failing. Most clocks died just before midnight, Tom had heard from a wizened man at a repair shop, while others had died in their glory after the hour was achieved. After twelve, he and his seatmate would usually congratulate themselves on the accomplishment, the uneven tick of the seconds dripping like a faulty faucet, by times long trickles, by times anticipation of a drop which hung under the outlet like a cloud on a cloudless day.

The night pressed in on itself after midnight, and the hours crawled by on all fours to bedroom doors, the minutes trailing from their pockets and leaving a slimy trail on the stair, the seconds left behind in someone else’s bed. By one he would have settled himself in for the voyage. It was never easy once the crest was achieved; after that it was the descent, more dangerous than the climb. It was too easy to sprain an ankle or slip on a rock, to be hurled howling into the blank time below with a broken back and bleeding from the mouth. After one, care was demanded, and Tom had seen people who hadn’t made it past such a small sharp hour.

By two there was more space to stand, as the hours unfolded as if they were going to double their way to morning. Talk began again, water flowed more easily, and the long honey moments of one were not quite gone but had been watered past what would sell on a grocer’s shelf. Three was easy after two, and by that time the liquor helped. It forced time back into its bucket; like a pile of eels wriggling on the table, it was manageable if messy. Holding down his gorge, Tom could fight with three. It was at least something a man could get his hands on, and before long four would come, with its reminders of dawn somewhere over the mountains, and the crusty-eyed resilience demanded for journey into the day.

It wasn’t everyone who could make it through to morning on such a night, but there were shelters and diners all over the city to help them acclimatize. Usually he’d spill off the bar stool at closing and seek out an all-night, off-the-strip, jukebox at every table place until he could sort out what had been done to the timing in the songs. Four would wrench only slowly on the cap of five. Some said it was the hardest hour, although anyone who had made it past midnight had the skills, the wary sense of disdain and almost frightening prophetic insight that could make it into the watery light of morning.

It would usually take four cups of coffee to face the dawn, but once it came, some force, a gigantic boot on the horizon, would kick the day into starting and all the clocks would shudder as though released. Jumping ahead a few seconds they would reset into a more functional timescape, and sugar would spill from the paper packet in tiny grains like an hourglass, each one more rapid than the last, until the table was sanded and the server’s eyes were red.

By then Tom knew he had won, that the ruptured guts of the night had been gathered up again by unwashed hands, shoved back into the cavity and then stapled in place. When the sewing was done, the skin puckered into long folds, no one even remembered the sticky entrails spilled on the street, although they guessed the knife that did the stabbing, even if it was gone, would likely reappear.

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Las Vegas Wedding

Las Vegas was more than merely rhinestone glitter and a parade of reflected glory, more than a money-pocket for a sign and a snatching hand and booze-filled weekend pliers to the teeth. It was a place which encouraged invention. If Edison had been in Vegas he might never have found the light bulb amongst his workers in the lab. He would have spent and wasted until he was too gutshot to save, and he’d be found screaming in the desert to the mountainous west. Vegas was new songs, new stories, a place where a man cannot go too far, where excess doesn’t exist, and where degradation was merely a pair of shoes a man put on when he left another’s bed.

A few years on the strip and he’d come out changed, and although he didn’t know what direction that would take, he thought about the jaunt over the mountains into the impossible valley, the city that shouldn’t exist, a kind of cheap drive-by Shangri-La, and how he could disappear there like anyone else.

That night the crowd took on a flavour that was cinnamon-sprinkled over woodsmoke and cordite. He meandered between songs and took long breaks to talk to Moses and Emily about how he’d found a destination. He told them about what he’d gain there that he’d lost in Los Angeles on the side of the road. They listened, began to offer an opinion, and then bought him a drink.

Every song, he told the crowd later on, is either about arriving or leaving. If you spent your last dime on a phone call and the voice on the other side doesn’t want to listen, then you are writing a leaving song. If you throw down fifty on a ring and parade up to the chapel door, then you’re telling the story of an arrival, the story of a man hauled down like a side of beef from the rafters in the barn, or picking through rusted-out Cadillacs in the bright sun of a junkyard day.

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Consumer Misery in Steve Cutts’ “Happiness”

The terrible truth that Steve Cutts reveals in his short animated film “Happiness” is that consumerism entices but does not lead to happiness. His rats are surrounded by consumer messages that promise that they—even the main rat character—will be happy if he merely buys the product, but each time the rat believes in the message he is betrayed and becomes even more unhappy than ever.

The thousands of rats in Cutts’ film are surrounded by advertisements. The hordes of rats in office clothes that make up the citizens in their crowded city, are hemmed in on every side by an advertising that promises each of their products will deliver delight. Each of the rats, most importantly the main rat we follow in the film, are convinced enough by these messages that they avidly pursue each promise. Perhaps because he is trapped in a maze of billboards and ads, our leading rat follows others and buys a pile of products only to throw them away when more products are in front of him. He pushes in with his fellow rats on black Friday and then fights with his fellow shoppers until some have lost their limbs and blood covers the walls. The ads’ promise of happiness is so convincing that even this experience does not change his mind and soon he is driving a convertible until he stalls in traffic with thousands of others, his brief joy turning to morose misery as his car is vandalized and it begins to rain. The promise of happiness in the form of an alcohol ad on a billboard leads him to his next pursuit and soon he is drunken and seeking a flyer’s promise of happiness in the form of prescription medication. Once this promise is broken, he is destitute but still pursuing the consumer promise of a hundred dollar bill which takes him to a factory workplace where he is trapped by his wish for money enough to endure the misery of his job.

As the litany of the rats’ attempt to pursue happiness implies, each time he tries to fulfill the promise offered, he is betrayed by the ultimate emptiness of the promise. He believes consumerism will lead him to enjoyment, but he merely ends biting his fellow rats over a big screen television. He believes that the car will offer him the freedom and success of the car ads, but the traffic of the city defeats that possibility and the liquor he embraces as the film nears its end merely symbolizes his desperation. The cycle of consumerism and misery the rat is confined by is symbolized by the images of entrapment, such as the maze of ads, the claustrophobia of the commuter train, the anger of the confining angry crowds on black Friday, but the rats’ misery becomes more apparent when he resorts to alcohol and ultimately drugs. The prescription medications, we learn in the film, do not remove the cause of his misery, but rather mask it with yet another portrayal of happiness: the Disney castle of fantasy. This fantasy does not endure, and before long the rat falls into the street with other destitute rats. There a chance hundred dollar bill, with its similar promise of ultimate happiness, leads him to the terrible image of an office job. The rat trap clamps down on his neck as he reaches for money and his unending misery—which has been implied by his pursuit of consumer goods—is assured as he types with a million others.

Although Cutts’ rat seems to be happy enough as the film starts—in that he is free to pursue what he wishes—his chase after the consumer goods from the ads which promise happiness merely ensures that he will be trapped chasing after money and the trash that money can buy. Ultimately, he is as trapped as all the other rats in a cycle of buying, throwing away, and suffering for money. Although Cutts does not offer an alternative to the promised lifestyle of our society, his unflinching portrayal does little to make rampant consumerism look inviting. Instead he offers the argument that consumerism is a trap into which we willingly walk and will lead us to misery.

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Losing the Brakes

I was in rush hour traffic outside Lévis, Quebec recently when the driver in front of me slammed on his or her brakes. I knew I had a weak brake line but I found out exactly how corroded it was when I pressed my brake pedal, the car slowed, and then the pedal dropped to the floor and I knew my brakes were gone.

I was saved by a few things. I never tailgate, and I always drive slower than the drivers around me. My lack of trust for the behaviour of those in front of me was more than helpful this time, and I was able to cut the wheel to the right and steer onto the breakdown lane long before I would have impacted the car in front of me.

Once I was in the breakdown lane and driving slowly in third gear with my hazard lights on, I’m sure more than a few of those caught in traffic beside me watched me pass with envy. They no doubt thought I was cheating the system, and using the breakdown lane to my advantage. I was ready for a cop to question me though, for I would merely point out that I had no brakes at all apart from the emergency brake.

Once I was leaving on the first off-ramp, I watched the light at the end of the lane warily. When it suddenly changed colour, I pulled up the emergency brake and the rear tires squealed me to a stop. The woman behind me honked and then gestured that I had accidentally left my emergency lights flashing and I waved to acknowledge that I was aware. Directly across from the intersection was a parking lot for a local pub, so I pulled into an empty part of the parking lot and pulled up the hood. At first the telltale oily mixture that is brake fluid was invisible to me in the undercoated engine compartment, but I knew only one brake line could be responsible. All of the other metal lines had been replaced; it could have been a flex hose to the individual wheels that went, but they rupture more rarely than the main lines, at least in my experience.

Once I found it was the brake line I suspected, I cut it in two with my wire cutters—I carry a full toolkit in the car as well as brake fluid—and then disconnected it from the juncture which is fed by the main brake cylinder. Then I used my pipe wrench in lieu of a hammer and bent the line back on itself and hammered it shut. After binding it with electrical tape, just in case the thousands of pounds per square inch pressure on the line caused it to expand, I reinstalled the short bend line on the juncture. That means the system as a whole is sealed again, and that I have enough braking power to at least search Lévis for a brake line.

Tentatively, I pulled out of the parking lot and went toward a major stretch of busy road indicated a more industrial section of the town. In the heavy traffic I was happy to have even three brakes, and when I pushed the brake and pulled naturally enough to the right—given that only one front brake was working—I was able to compensate by turning the wheel. I found a NAPA store but once I pulled in and exercised my poor French, I found they didn’t have a line in stock. They would be able to get it to me by the morning, they explained, but I merely asked about a Canadian tire store. Their forty dollar and a day late brake line wasn’t that inviting anyway. I followed their directions, but soon realized I had lost something in the translation.

At a gas station I had better luck, and my French was slightly more honed, to the topic at least, and before long I was in the parking lot of the Canadian Tire store. I tried French, which deteriorates very quickly to Spanish in my case, that being my stronger language, but the man in automotive parts merely asked, “Do you speak English?” Sheepishly, I continued in English, bought a thirty inch line that compared in terms of thread with the line I had brought into the store with me. This is done by pushing the threads together and looking for gaps when you hold them up to the light. Short of threading them into a hole, this is a way to ascertain that you are buying the right part. I supplemented that with a litre of brake fluid, and soon I was jacking up the front tire and removing it.

I had parked away from the main lot when I’d come in, for this very reason, for it is not strictly acceptable to work on your car in the parking lot, although it is common. I’d also parked under a tree in order to take advantage of the shade on a hot day. Once I had the tire off, and I’d cleaned and then removed the brake line from the coupling to the flex hose behind the tire, ensured the bleed valve was not rusted shut by loosening it, I bent the new line to thread it into the coupling. I wanted to loosen the part in the juncture as late as possible in the procedure so I wouldn’t bleed out too much fluid.

Threading a line is an art as well as a science. The line has to be bent so it does not make the bolt cross-thread, and that often means trying it over and over and bending it slightly while doing so. When it was installed, I bent it into the configuration it will need to go in to work around the master cylinder, and installed it as well. Then I refilled the flagging master cylinder with the brake fluid I still had—it turned out I had enough for the job after all—and then loosened the bleed valve.

The main problem with bleeding brakes is sucking air back into the bleed valve even as you get rid of air in the line. One way to do this is to keep replenishing the master cylinder and let the fluid gravity-feed through all the lines on its way to the bleed valves. I didn’t have time or inclination, so I pulled a hose from my windshield washer pump—which is conveniently located under the hood—hooked that up to the bleed valve and placed the other end in a cut off plastic water bottle. Then I pumped the brakes slowly, the fluid filled the translucent hose and its end sealed against reintroducing air by flooding the bottom of the bottle. Once there was two centimetres of fluid in the bottle, I tightened the bleed valve, put the hose back in the windshield washer system, put the tire back on, and sent a message to my friend in Montreal that I would be two hours late.

The entire fix took around two hours from the time my brakes went on the highway to being on the highway again. Most of that time was faffing about, although when I fixed the brakes I worked slowly and deliberately so that I would not make a mistake or break something else I would have to fix. Fixing a car beside the road often means you are rushed, and that is a bad headspace for a system as essential as brakes. The job took about a half hour, and I was back on the highway before I thought about how that experience would be entirely different depending on who was in my position. Many people would have had to wait until a garage could fix their car, and wait on getting parts from a dealer. While they were waiting, the mechanics would sense their desperation and find other parts that “must” be replaced immediately.

With some tools in the car, some knowledge of basic auto systems, and the willingness to try to fix it, a days-long ordeal can merely be a bump in an otherwise smooth road.

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The Passing of the Years

My nephew was just visiting me and one of his passions of investigating old ruins of houses. We spent the last ten days doing just that, and he has flown out today armed with a few hundred year old coins and some old bottles. When we were trying to find some of the old farms in what is now forest, I was struck by how little remains. One village we were searching for has been gone a hundred years, and we found little beyond a broken tine off a dump rake and the shattered remains of a cast iron kettle. Another farmhouse, where we spent a few hours yesterday, was a sunken basement with large trees growing out of it, although when I was a child I had crept into the house even as it was falling down and abandoned.

This reminder of my mortality comes increasingly often as I get older. When I visit places I had been as a child, or even a young adult when I was able to travel more, they had changed considerably. The roads had been shifted to a more convenient rockcut, and houses had been covered in plastic or disappeared entirely. This is more profound with the old farmhouses. I have traced my fading memory with my nephew, trying to find what had been standing houses, although ruinous, when I was young, only to discover that distances had been elongated, or shortened, that the short distance up the hill was now nearly on the brink of the slope, and that the faded notion of the well had been replaced by weeds and brambles along the slope.

On this latest trip I returned often to my memory of the view from the broken windows of the last house we found. I had gone a number of times when I was a child, watching helplessly as the wiring was looted from the walls and people broke out windows to more easily shoot passing animals. The house was located on the opposite hill from the main dirt road, and was accessed by following a precipitous driveway and crossing a small stream where an unsteady bridge afforded the determined adventurer passage, and then walking up the hill past the apple trees on the slope until I stood in the breezes of the hillside below the house beside the lilac at the front gate, and looked back over the pretty valley I had just traversed. It was as beautiful a view as one could hope to see, and more than once I sat on the edge of the rotting well cover and looked over what the farmer and his family must have seen when the land was a working farm.

Finding the house this last time was more difficult. The fields have grown up enough that even the slope of the land is hard to recognize. In the distance shrill machinery strove to destroy the remenants of forest, and close at hand we wandered through meadow grass long since gone to golden rod and broom. We were circling one likely site, the thick raspberries and blackberries which usually indicate a barn, when I happened upon a patch of rhubarb. One of the first plants to grow in the spring, rhubarb was treasured for it tart taste and early season vitamin C, and nearly every old farm had a cluster of the thick leaves growing along a fence or near the house. I wasn’t sure I remembered where I had seen rhubarb on the land before, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t too close to the house. I cut some of the rhubarb, which was just as healthy looking as though it had been carefully tended instead of abandoned to its own fate after the homeowners had left the farm, and wrapped it in its own leaves for transport.

With our valuable booty, we finally stumbled over the basement, further down the slope from what I remembered, and closer to the tiny bridge. The old road became more apparent too, once we were standing on it and could see straight lines amongst the fractal greenery. My nephew dug into the dirt of the basement while I tried to compare my memory to the piled rock and huge trees in front of me. He located enough broken pottery to convince him of the building’s age, and before long we packed up and returned to the car with a few old square-head nails and a sizable bundle of rhubarb.

It’s tempting to see the rhubarb as a symbol of continuity, as an affirmation that life leaves its traces even as we grow older and the world shifts around us. The happy accident of the lingering plant, and the grown wild apple trees like witches brooms reaching above the alders and balsam fir below them, tell me more of a story about the fecund callousness of the natural world. Whether a buttercup seeds in a log or a human skull is a matter of indifference to the flower, and likewise the traces we leave behind us, the stones in the graves we visited, their writing fading as the marble weathers, disappear before the busy hand of time, the memories shifting with the bulging roots until they are as upended as the cemetery stones, a blank testament that someone was here.

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There, Their and They’re – What Word Choice Says about the Chooser

Many grammatical or diction errors are easily forgiven, especially in English as it is spoken in North America. Because the countries of North America, such as Canada and United States—and less so Mexico—are largely immigrant cultures, there is a lot of tolerance for syntax errors, diction problems, and accent when speaking English.

Most speakers, and more importantly those trying to listen can ignore or work around utterances that in other languages would be incomprehensible. For instance, in the tonal languages words take on an entirely different meaning while the equivalent in English, the use of stress, can operate very differently and the word is still understood. In Thai, the word maa can mean mother, the verb to come, dog, and horse, depending on its tone. In English the word emptiness means the same whether it is said EMtiness, emTIness, or emtiNESS. It may be more difficult to parse for the listener, but they will be able to detect the outlines of the word spoken.

I was in an Algarve bus station in Portugal once trying to buy a ticket. I wanted to go to Olhão, which you can guess by the tilde is pronounced with a nasal sound. I tried a dozen different combinations before I resigned myself to writing it on a piece of paper. Once the ticket agent took the paper he made a point of pronouncing the name correctly, which was very little different from what I had said. The circumstance as particularly annoying because the other possible destinations—Albufeira, Portimão, Lagos, Tavira—did not sound even remotely the same. Part of the problem can perhaps be blamed on an irritable ticket agent, but at least part of it lies with a language which does not tolerate mispronunciation.

Other errors in English, such as commas, all over, the place, can be easily ignored, while the easy confusion between a semi-colon and colon is not universally understood in the language anyway so most people would not even notice problems in their use. The type of errors that stand out for English speakers are those associated with homophones. For some reason, the writer who confuses your with you’re and their with they’re make their readers suddenly and vociferously derisive. Although not every one of those gloating trolls online who find the mix-up between its and it’s would know the reason the word and contraction are an exception to the rule, they certainly can tell when it is used improperly.

The ease of detection has more to do with this derision than the issue with the error itself. The words are pronounced the same, therefore the problem is not one of misunderstanding. Instead, it is because the error is so easy for a native speaker to notice, they immediately are flooded with two very different feelings. Because they have so easily detected the simple error they instantly feel a satisfaction which can only come to people who are rarely given chances to flaunt their knowledge, which gives you a sense of their commitment to the subtleties of language, and they immediately feel an undeserved feeling of their own superiority. As we found from the Dunning-Kruger effect, the barely competent person has a greatly enhanced opinion of their competence. That they noticed such an obvious error is for them—online at least—proof of their skills with the language.

This means that if English is your second, third or even tenth language, you can afford to make some mistakes and still be understood, although you should avoid mixing up homophones. If you mistake were for we’re, which for witch, here for hear, are for our, buy for by, to for too for two, and hoard for horde, then you will be branded as stupid by those who are much more stupid that you are. You needn’t worry about garnering the respect of people who make judgements on the basis of such simple errors, but in case they are in positions of power over you—as your professors, prospective bosses, president, and landlords—it is worth realizing that even if their focus on the errors says more about them than you, you will have a difficult time shaking their judgement and it might have a devastatingly out-of-proportion effect on your life.

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Tolerance, Ethics and Conjoined Twins

On CBC radio’s The Current this morning, Anna Maria Tremonti interviewed a doctor who was responsible for the multiple surgeries that separated conjoined twins at MassGeneral Hospital for Children in Boston. 00000The story was mostly concerned with the ethical implications of the surgery, as well as some details about the family involved. The parents had twin girls who were born joined at the pelvis and abdomen and had elected for surgery to avert the nearly inevitable circumstance in which one of the girls—the weaker one who was subject to illness—died while still attached. The subsequent load of toxins would soon overwhelm the other sister and kill her.

Although the surgery might prove to be fatal to both girls, and quite likely would kill the weaker one, the family—in consultation with a medical team, ethicists at the hospital, and their clergy—decided to go ahead with the procedure. They accepted the risks of the procedure since they might lose both girls if they remained conjoined. The surgery proved to be fatal to the weaker twin, since she could not live without the other. Scans before surgery showed that her weak heart was heavily dependent on a massive artery that went from her healthier twin to her heart. Once that artery was cut, she succumbed with ten minutes.

The background of the story was interesting enough, and I was as drawn to the medical information surrounding the procedure as anyone, but one relatively minor aspect of the story drew my attention in particular. The family came from a rural village where their superstitious neighbours were considerably worked up about the birth of the twins. The girls were not seen as unfortunate victims a genetic accident, but rather as a harbinger of evil. In their Christian village the 00000family was shunned, and the girls—on the rare occasions that the parents took the babies outside—had rocks thrown at them. The family feared for their lives, the safety of their children, and both their social and professional lives were considerably disrupted by their neighbours’ reaction.

I understand this part of the story well enough. In a world of ignorance, their likely uneducated and superstitious neighbours readily found a mythological explanation for the occurrence. Although they might have taken another route to their differential treatment, like the conjoined children born in India who are viewed as lucky, their profound intellectual privation no doubt fueled their extreme prejudice. Their reaction might be seen to be understandable on this level, for if they believe in the ineffable then the magic of the twin’s birth might well affect them, much as a cat puking up a hairball can predict a surge in the international stock market. Once reasoning is thrown aside, then anything becomes possible.

The part that becomes harder to understand is their neighbours’ subsequent application of mythology to the family’s attempt to ameliorate the girls’ situation. The family sought a medical alternative to the daughters’ care, and that also proved to be a problem for their superstitious fellow villagers. Their “reasoning,” if I may use the word so loosely, was that god had created the children in that form and it was up for the parents to accept god’s superior judgement. The villagers’ reasons for throwing rocks at the children becomes difficult to understand once they have made that claim, however. Were they intentionally stoning god’s work, and either forgetting that aspect of their own reasoning or enacting parts of the bible that encourage rock throwing as a punishment for a host of crimes, working on Sunday, adultery, and wearing mixed fabric.

If we accept the premise—that god created the children, or allowed them to be born conjoined—then it follows that their birth state would have his explicit consent. Presumably he would have some grand reason to cause such misery. Perhaps god was testing the family’s resolve, 00000and they are merely a modern version of Job who was tormented so god could prove to satan that Job’s love was real.

The part that becomes difficult to comprehend is how their reasoning follows from that initial flawed and unsubstantiated premise. Even if they presume that god did such a thing to the unfortunate children, it does not follow that the neighbours would be able to predict god’s reasoning. Perhaps their god knew the family was too sedentary, and this was the only way he could imagine getting them to move away from their home village of superstitious fools. If his project was forcing change upon a resistant family then he might well have tinkered cruelly with the girls and thus lead them on a path toward what he wanted.

The villagers not only presume god is behind the children’s medical condition, but that they know better what god might intend than the god to whom they ascribe the action. If god is responsible for the accident of birth, then why are they throwing rocks? Do the villagers believe that their god had the children born so that they would have someone to lob rocks at? If god is responsible for the children’s situation, why do the villagers despise a family who has furnished such palpable proof of god’s existence and malicious involvement in the lives of his most helpless subjects?

Once they have thrown their rocks—and they still believe the children’s circumstance is due to god’s interference and therefore should not be medically tinkered with—how do they know god’s intentions so well that they know the doctors should stay away? Do they avoid all doctors, since the same reasoning would apply to anyone? Does anyone in the village 0000wear spectacles without fear of a stoning, since they are circumventing god’s divine plan for their partial blindness?

The story declined to report on the family’s home country, let alone village, in order to protect the remaining relatives in the village. If the neighbours get wind of the children’s surgery, and that god’s divine plan of irate and violent villagers has somehow been evaded, then the family fears the neighbours may attack their relatives. They have no faith that god can take care of his own vengeance, even given a bible that offers a plenitude of proof the contrary, but they feel that they need to supplement his possibly delayed judgement day with a divine village lynching.

The true gods in the village are the neighbours, for they have determined the accident of birth is divine, they have ascribed a punishment they think suitable, they have set the limits on what can be done to improve the children’s life, and they have decided to punish any who do not follow their commandments.  Certainly they are the worthy inheritors of the cruel god of the Old and New Testament, for they invent reasoning on the spot, assign punishments as cruel as the initial deformity, and then demand that the girls stay in the fallen state so that they have someone to torment.

One of the reasons that modern humans have rejected such superstitious claims as those of religions is situations like these. Since the villagers have chosen to act as they will and merely use any god they can get their hands on as an excuse, there is no reasoning with them. The family had no choice but to escape, and even if they miss their homicidal and intolerant neighbours, they cannot go back for fear of their lives. They will still consult with their clergy, who are largely responsible for this type of intolerance, but in other ways the human species will continue to drag the decaying retinue of the mindless village into the future. Although their beliefs are harmless enough when they don’t deicide to inflict them on others, they are easily turned from a plowshare to a sword.

Once reasoning has been set aside, once we have decided that evidence is not important when judging the world around us, then we open ourselves to the ravening beast of such cultural artifacts. If the villagers were amendable to reason, then the family could have asked them to consider that they are attacking—according to their own beliefs—god’s children. If revulsion still overcame their emotive control and they still wanted to throw rocks, they might have been reminded that the same type of medical interventions they take advantage of might work with the children. If their eyeglasses proved to be within the line of god’s treatments when major surgery was not, then they might have been asked what the hapless family might be expected to do.

The empathy we would like to expect from our fellow humans should make up the shortfall of their reasoning, but once poisonous ideas help to shore up visceral antipathy, and reasoning has been subsumed under mythology and madness, we are left no recourse but to leave. Many people around the world no doubt applaud the family and feel for their twin’s circumstance, and mercifully those who are all too eager to cast stones are largely confined to small communities and we may hope in the future their mental weaknesses disappear entirely.

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Living in the City: Boxes

Although he would at times forget the scampering and rustling that marked people amongst the monoliths, like the worms in a graveyard or rats in a sinking ship, at moments he would look up to see the lit windows of a thousand tiny00000 lives, made small by the distance down the boulevard, and smaller still in apartments which didn’t allow them to expand into anything more than an infestation. It was then that he recognized that although the buildings bore the parasites with the stoicism that comes with the knowledge of extermination, the people lived their moment on sufferance and it would take more than the cost of their rent to give them back the open skies and unfenced vacant lots.

Compartmentalized from the moment they slipped from the womb, they fell from one rigid box to another, their uneasy path littered with the castoff shells of past occupancy, of the jerk and fall that was being tipped out of the soft womb. From that soothing roundness, they fell into the barred walls of the cradle, 00000and occasionally a hang reached from the sky and tilted it alarmingly back and forth. The cradle led to a small room housing a bed and other boxes, and they were meant to stay there for a half dozen years or so until they graduated to school. Education, they had to learn quickly, was a system for boxing, a long conveyer belt that led the00000 still-soft mind to desk to room to larger room and back again. Viewed from the outside, a privilege the child was afforded briefly as they stepped from the bus, the school was built from a giant’s play, the unsteady blocks leaning on one another until a hand reached down to sweep them to the floor.

After school they found a job somewhere amongst the huge warehouses and skyscrapers that dwarfed them and their concerns. Along another conveyor00000 they would build boxes with their roughening hands until the hollering boss would lean out over the fence that protected him from his worker and pull the cord which announced they could eat or, later in the day, go home. By this time they would have found one of the tiny apartments and if their evenings were not too tired, or when the weekend mornings found them fresh enough, they would work on conceiving another baby for the boxes.

When Tom imagined an entire system built to serve square walls and the tiny insects that lived in the cracks 00000and amongst the insulation of buildings that endured their presence, he always saw himself as though from above, or a long distance, a miniscule crooked figure angled away from the street and pacing the confines of a tiny room. He thought about how he’d been brought up in the open air, and had come like a million others, drawn to the city like a moth to a candle on a windowsill, his eyes wide with the wonder of humans living in droves, great open-mouthed hordes rushing to and fro with the commuter traffic day, and collapsing in exhaustion at night.

He acknowledged that the buildings were not alien constructions, that they had been designed and erected by those who thought about making money from their00000 fellow humans, but that took away none of the horror of living in the midst of the roiling crowds, and the feeling of scurrying on the bottom of a pit. There were those who cried foul and left, to end their days rubbing their limbs against the rough bark of the forest trees and grubbing in the dirt for food, but many more treasured a fantasy of themselves above the common run, that far above the anthill they would one day be able to look down, their fellow hurrying back and forth far below, and they would be able to parade their success and escape before others who thought to dream their way out of the shared nightmare.

Those people became flint-eyed in their quest of the higher box, and they hammered nails into their feet so they might easier climb the backs of their fellow sufferers. They earned their place in the sky, their view from far above the toiling multitudes, but they gained it by way of malice and betrayal, it came at the expense of their better selves, and even when they were as high as they could get, the penthouses on the tallest buildings, their eyes only looked down. They had pinned so many hopes on bettering themselves at the expense of others that they had forgotten about the sky.

Even the lowest worker in the subbasement terror of their daily existence had the occasional beam of sunlight bounce off a glass-sheathed building and into their face. On their weekends they might play accordion along the high wall in which people had confined the river, and for a moment be more than an ant waiting for a magnifying glass. 0000The penthousers had no such release. Even once they pried their bloody shoes from their feet, their necks were so twisted from their climb that they could no longer look up, and they only found pleasure, their fingers scrabbling on the paper in front of them, in the numbers which traced their success against the losses of the many who had failed.

A vast machine for the grinding of human hamburger, the cities could kill a dream more easily than a man steps on a cockroach, but Tom assured himself that he 00000knew the story and could therefore evade its most likely outcomes. Somehow there was a middle ground, a vacant lot where kids pried away the fence and kicked a ball above the dust, and he was more determined to find it now that he was old enough to realize it existed. The many cracks and mouse holes meant there were others who had survived a different way, and he was determined to find out their stories, although in the meantime he would be scrabbling in the streets like the rest of them.

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Preface to my Novel about Colonizing Mars

I first thought about the lone colonist of Mars by the chance association between two very different and, some would say, antithetical ideas. I designed a university course on the changing perception of Mars in literature over the past two centuries at nearly the same time as active projects to take people to Mars were finding their footing. As well, I realized when I was looking through the information on the planet online, that some deluded people thought the planet was already inhabited, although they could not explain their reasoning at all cogently.

In preparation for the course, I read 00000about Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, which seeks to place humans on the surface of the planet within a few years, and the more recent Mars One team’s scheme to televise the adventures of the colonists they claim will be in place in 2025. I was especially interested in the Mars One’s idea of one-way colonization. This makes much more scientific sense than Mars Society’s bypass venture whose only purpose is to grab some rocks and return, although it is also much more challenging in terms of engineering and human resourcefulness. While looking through the photos from the Mars rovers, I began to understand that 00000while I was excited about recent scientific advances, there were others online who were both distrustful of authority and extremely gullible.

One of the most profound examples of this paranoid naiveté are the people who pore over the latest NASA rover images looking for evidence of life. NASA is accustomed to people like the flat-Earthers claiming that their photographic evidence is manufactured and that their findings about the burgeoning carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere are 00000false. But more recently, as they post their pictures, there are people who expand the view in order to find what NASA has missed. Some of these people are determined to both prove NASA wrong and to be the first people to discover life on Mars. Accordingly, they scour the pictures of the surface looking for geological anomalies, familiar shapes, and more significantly, living beings.

These armchair investigators’   000003  use of pictures leads them to cite hard-to-interpret bulges in the landscape or angular rocks which resemble familiar shapes as evidence. When they are asked for something more substantial, they immediately reply with conjecture, cut-and-paste from Wikipedia, and 000010pixelated photos. They argue for the significance of dozens of photographic anomalies, arguably the most famous of which is probably the hill on Mars which they claimed resembled a human face.

My reader may remember the Face on Mars controversy that so bruised the public attention that even NASA felt compelled—to counter claims of a cover-up—to00000 change the orbit of one of their craft for a second look. Their audience showed so much more interest in the face than they ever had NASA’s legitimate science, that when public statements advised it was merely an artifact of the light and play of shadow, the gullible public accused NASA of hiding the truth. For the armchair investigators on Earth, this was proof positive that Mars is or had been inhabited, although they offered little explanation for the family resemblance between Martians and humans.

Another famous image that has diverted attention from real science is that of a curiously-shaped rock outcropping that looks like a human figure. 000020For the “investigators,” it can be taken to be evidence of “a woman waiting for a bus on Mars.” Although some people come to laugh on the Reddit pages where such debates find a fertile ground of poor education coupled with profound ignorance, there are so many who take the picture seriously that the joke falls flat.

I was entranced by the bland naiveté of the comments below articles where good-intentioned people would undermine such conjecture by reference to the woman’s relative size. They pointed to other photos from different angles—for a similar analysis was the undoing of the Face on Mars. One person with more of a science background vainly tried to explain that the woman could not exist because Mars possesses one percent of Earth’s air pressure. They were attacked by others who claimed the people could be using suits, like scuba gear, and still others sailed further offshore with their argument that their god could have given them an atmosphere or had them live without it. In the face of such blind assurance, scientific verifiability is as helpless as a fish on the shore, but there are lungfish. Like those tidal creatures, I began to wonder if I might be able to get some use out of conspiracy crowd’s profound ignorance.

Once I realized that these people who were arguing back and forth about the possibilities on the basis of such slim evidence were not merely trolling, I decided to place a colonist on Mars. In the absence of living beings on Mars, and in an internet environment which included so much blind faith, I decided to pretend that my colonist was sending regular reports from the surface. I used the latest pictures from the00000 Opportunity and Spirit rovers, as well as what is known about the planet, and invented the difficulties that surrounded his attempt to survive such a harsh environment. He was never meant to be a spokesperson for Earthly environmental concerns, or to make pithy statements about managing the resources on a planet that the readers might take to heart. He was merely verbal flypaper, using thin watery honey to attract the flies who are drawn to nonsense.

I set him up on BlogSpot, gave him a name, and watched as he dutifully wrote his daily, and by times weekly, blog entry from the red planet. Unfortunately, for my experiment, few were drawn to my bald-faced tomfoolery, and no one stepped forward to claim that NASA was lying about a colonist while a simple google search proved his existence. I collected a few serious followers who were perhaps excited by the creative project, such as a NASA scientist who specialized in ionization in the upper atmosphere, but in those early days of Mars online, my struggling colonist attracted little attention.

Perhaps because I was spending so much time making sure my colonist was encountering a real Martian environment and designing a course about how Mars has been written, I began to think more about the red planet. Within a year I was working on a novel about fifteen colonists and before long I turned back to the original inspiration and found my lone00000 colonist’s story compelling in its own right. Perhaps because I was intent on making it appear both evocative and scientifically accurate, I had to imagine the life of a person millions of kilometres from Earth who was living with the knowledge that their food was running out and that rescue was not a possibility.

The ignorance of humanity, combined with our willingness to seek out knowledge, continues to be an inspiration to me. Although the first colonist on Mars is still to come—at least outside the pages of this book—it is a testament to the various space agencies around the world that we know as much as we do about Mars, and it is a testament to our own intransigence that we know so little.

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Yard Sale Culture

Sometimes he felt as though he’d wandered into a world where everyone’s life had been spilled out like a gut-shot man, as if their sentiment and possessions were stacked in boxes at a planet-wide yard sale. He thought of what his life would resemble, all the liquor bottles having not quite made it to the recycle bin taunting him from a college sophomore’s top shelf. 000003There would be wedding rings and pawnshop promises scattered to the horizon and the only thing that would save him from crippling humiliation would be the millions of other displays that were the tragic comic lives of everyone else.

It was yardsale day off the main road, and he’d wandered into it by mistake, his shoes scuffed by the uneven sidewalk and unfriendly curbs. The time periods were easy enough to tell by the owner’s crushed faces, even if the metal toys and spray on window-frost were not a giveaway. He pretended an interest he didn’t feel, thinking only about escaping, as if the highway lay on the other side of a million compartmentalized lives. He avoiding meeting anyone’s eyes, 000020letting his fingers drift over vinyl albums from the fifties, yellow piles of National Geographic and rumpled piles of children’s clothes.

If he were to buy, he knew he would have to buy the lot, and then, staggering, he would go back to his car carrying the most meaningful part of their life. He would bring the hasty decisions and regrets, the petty triumphs and Walmart-greeter lives back to his own apartment and there they would fester until they invaded his own life. He would find his hobbies taken over by half-finished needlepoint and he would have to buy cigars to feed the cigar cutter he had no real use for.

He gave up on the debris from their broken lives and began to watch the people who would have nothing to do with their sales. They were a mixed group. 000003Children with tear-streaked faces watched their favoirite toys bought for pocket change, dolls they had embraced through nights too terrible to recall grasped by the greedy hand of their parent’s avarice and then thrown into the gaping maw of the cement truck appreciation of a child as unlike them as a winter day is like a dandelion. There were mothers who watched people paw over the shirt their baby had been wearing when he first walked, heard them bargain with the husband from where she stood on the step, taking that precious memory for twenty cents and almost dropping it as they gathered their armful of what might as well be stolen goods. Some fathers saw tools that they had never used but had been worn by their father’s hands disappear into plastic bags and the thanks that accompanied the crumpled bills suddenly corrupted their past with cheap tinsel and twisted fir of a Christmas tree kept long past the point it had browned into dry rot.

He needed to retrace his steps. Behind him, somewhere beyond the trinkets and toys, the ties and piles of granny squares that would have been an afghan if 000003grandma had lived long enough, somewhere behind plastic furniture and chipboard discount lives, his car waited, its engine impatient for the road. He threaded his feet, placing them sideways amongst the boxes and spilled contents of tables in order to avoid stepping on the goods he might suddenly owe someone a quarter for, but the piles were oddly similar. He’d seen purpled hands grasping bulging bags, as their new owners—little knowing that their new goods were more dangerous than poison or weaponized fertilizer—carried them to their own homes. Hundreds of pounds of clothing and differently shaped plastic junk had been swallowed but he now realized the supply was endless.

The tables still creaked under the burden of twenty, forty, sixty years of living, and boxes were still overflowing with free or bargain marked down and cheap books and magazines and screwdrivers and old coffee mugs with slogans on the side. He suddenly realized that beneath each normal-looking home was a vast pit into which they had been throwing off-the-rack trash for generations. The bottomless pile that represented the human wish to cover their despair and fear with junk would mean the yard sale could last for years. Some children would be conceived in old copies of Playboy and months later born amongst the maternity wear. They would grow up on top of boxes of toys and play cryptic games under tablecloths while 000003others shopped. If their parents’ determination to clear out their cornucopia of a house continued, the kids might range wider into other yard sales, swapping out goods so that the great swirl of garbage that was the suburban crescents and bays could feed itself, chewing up its own children in order to greed-satisfy their parents. They would grow older amongst the teen novels and pellet guns, pawing over the clothes that were old styles come new again, until they were ready to take up professions. Then they would be into the books, a DIY series competing with physics and chemistry textbooks and literary works in perfect condition. They would eventually take their own part in the parade that was humanity pushing more and more garbage into its own mouth. Some of them would never leave the permanent yard sale that was their neighbourhood, and instead would suckle their children on the endless consumer cycle.

Once the full horror of what he’d stumbled into came to him, Tom almost ran back to his car, ignoring the supplicating arms that held out a shirt and a tie, a monkey wrench and plaster Elvis. He pushed past hands like they were branches in an animate and malign forest, and stomped plastic containers and spilled record compilations as he ran. Once he was in the car, he drove above the city for the first time in a month, and there, high in the hills, he looked down through the brown smear that 000003belted the horizon with smog, and thought about the whirlpool he had barely escaped. Beyond the city was the Pacific, and in its centre swirled the great Pacific garbage patch. He’d never seen it, but he felt he knew more about it now that he’d noticed the permanent yard sale that was the lives of his neighbours. Like the patch, they circulated the trash until it broke down into its component parts, and then they drank the viscous slurry like energy drinks, ingesting enough plastic to get them through another day.

It was dark when he drove below the smog line back into the city. The piles of clothing would still be on tables and the late night obsessed would be running fingers through rayon and pinching vinyl, but amongst the 000003clutter tired children would rest, their sticky hands still clutching toys and their mouths automatically chewing on the corner of a curtain or the remains of a pleather purse. He turned away from the sight, although he knew he would be haunted by porcelain dogs and glass figurines whenever he visited a friend’s home.

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