The Perfect Line

This morning–and this is true–I had a dream unlike any that I can recall. There were no images except for words scrolling by, and no characters except for a disembodied man’s voice reading the words as they crawled. Unlike most dreams where words seem elusive upon waking, this time the entire script remained in my mind almost intact. I quickly wrote everything down from memory. Here is what the voice said:

Have you ever been in a conversation in which you’re fully engaged and contributing easily, and it’s all going so well that, like a chess player, you begin to think of responses and rejoinders several sentences in advance, until at one point you think of a turn of phrase that, while delectable, doesn’t quite fit into the context of the conversation, but instead of discarding it completely you inexplicably continue turning it over in your head just because you appreciate the rhythm and flow of your fragment? Isn’t it especially funny how you’ll keep the germ of an idea even when it’s not perfect–even when it might be far more efficient to discard it completely and respond in a more natural way? “Or blues, in this case,” you think, even though the conversation has nothing to do with “blues” and you don’t even know where that phrase came from, but the key is “in this case” which sounds quite smart, particularly since no one’s said “in this case” yet. Then you think, “or words, in this case,” which is the perfect fit for the conversation at hand because it allows you to riff off of the words of the other person while at the same time sounding confident with impressive economy. All you have to do is wait for an opportunity – have you missed one already? You kind of drifted off there for a moment, though it will be worth it when the entire conversation benefits from your contribution.

As the dream faded, and as I drifted back up toward the surface, I remember thinking, “That’s one damn insightful observation about the mechanics of the human psyche. Dammit. It would have been perfect for a story… if only I’d thought of it first.”

Year 34–Thoughts

The universe doesn’t care. All of the thoughts we have on cunning or iPods or dirt are so much electrical discharge, no more consequential than static. Humans are incidental material, and their self-awareness is a byproduct of their particular material configuration. If you view Earth on the infrared scale then it looks just a little brighter than Mars. The difference negligible. When you zoom out, any individuality loses meaning and all we see is the collective crust of biomass, like frost on a window pane.

On the other hand, life and frost are similar in that they’re both manifestations of order in chaos. Life seems significant to us because of this, and because patterns provide the basis of one of our primary survival senses. We are pattern-seekers. Life defines itself from inert matter in that it seeks to preserve itself at any cost, while natural order seeks to preserve or encourage a sustainable mechanism. Raw ecological sustainability is most often a factor of this inertia, and choice is usually not a factor in the matter. Humanity, however, is guided by factors beyond mere survival.

We contemplate resource allocation, accumulation, and control. We hoard and obsess and create things that satisfy esoteric desires that lie beyond basic survival needs. We contemplate our own thoughts, and intangibles, and abstractions. Tradition, fashion, ritual, habit, preference all seem geared to cope with (or to manage) the fact that there can be no absolute if the universe as we know it is without perceivable end. But what truly defines us? Is it curiosity? Or sentience? Play? Creativity?

Curiosity – Inert objects do no possess this quality as far as we can tell, but its value seems an integral part of who we are. As we seek to isolate that which defines us we focus on these things. Why do we exist? Do we deserve to exist? Is there a single answer? I don’t think there are absolute answers to those questions, because those aren’t the real questions at all. Those questions form as a byproduct of sentience.

Sentience – The real question will always be: How is it that I am able to question? I think the troubling realization of awareness is behind our collective desire to abstract our reality. Our choice is limited, and is significant not because it exists, but because we are aware that it exists. A lion may choose which gazelle to pounce upon based on whatever factor, but it will not contemplate the choice later. We contemplate our place within a continuum.

Play – It’s worth noting because play is not universal. Does the wind play? Do amoebae play? Do plants practice a slow play that we can’t comprehend? Are they having fun? Do they possess a sense of humor or creativity? Where does play come from? Much of it seems to be about practice: basic survival mechanisms manifesting without the consequences of survival. Play can be about domination (wrestling) and sex (dancing) and food (bonbons) and communication (music). I think these things suggest that play is a primal source of advantage.

Creativity – This seems more an augmentation of intelligence. It means that we may realize that there are manifold, non-linear ways to realize a desired goal. Creativity, its expression and the observation of it, gives us pleasure. It rewards us, which means that it is of some benefit. Why? Simply because the meta goal that drives cleverness and cunning is innovation. Innovation is advantageous, but not always linear.

But those things are only the start. A clearer answer emerges as we examine these factors:

Choice – Of the things above, what we honor – what we choose – is guided not only by our individual perception, which is a factor of our material configuration, but by factors beyond the immediate.

Significance – It implies qualification. Love and beauty and conscience and meaning feel significant to us because they are advantageous to our preservation. Doubt and fear and waste and guilt and pain, insofar as they represent some measure of immediate disadvantage, are troubling, but are no less the byproducts of an overall successful mechanism.

At its root, choice involves using certain criteria to arrive at a decision when presented with multiple options. But can it not be more than that? Creativity, intelligence, and an awareness of significance – of persistence within a continuum – provide a choice that lions cannot conceive. To a lion the decision to go for the smallest, closest, or meatiest gazelle depends on a given set of circumstances. But we can arrive at a choice born of something more than circumstance: intuition, projection, sacrifice, or curiosity.

What if we go after the fastest gazelle, with the realization that our chances of catching it are slim, just to see how fast it is? We might learn something from that that will add to the overall body of our knowledge, which will provide advantage in the future. What if we were to go after the second closest gazelle because our friend isn’t as fast as we are, and we are willing to act in a way that we both may eat? Is that sacrifice? What if we intimidate the gazelles until they become mentally weary, and then pick off ten of them at a time? Perhaps it’s not ecologically sustainable, but we are no longer acting as part of the ecology alone when behavior transcends mere survival.

Our unique advantage is that we’re able to perceive a greater whole than ourselves, and have the capacity to understand that an immediate loss might somehow preserve or benefit this greater whole. The conscious notion of this possibility in combination with creativity might lead us to ways that we might provide others without detriment to ourselves.

But why? If this whole thing is an accident, and there’s no goal, no absolute right, nor wrong, why bother? Maybe for the fun of it? Or maybe because doing good feels good because it’s most efficient. I don’t know. How can we be fulfilled while avoiding pain? Can we give more than we take? Can we help more than hurt?

Having said that, I’ve just swatted a gnat.


I lost my bearing not too long after the robots began to sing. It’s part of a childhood memory that could only have happened within a particular context, though the realization of a certain experience there haunts me still. I was enjoying the second in a series of pilgrimages my family made to Disney World. It took us several days to drive there by Vega, my brother and I lying on our backs under the hatchback’s glass nearly the entire way. Staring up at the sky for hours on end, the long transition from our mundane world, with the freeway sections palpating us the entire way like the clicks of a climbing roller coaster, had a dissociative effect. By the time we arrived we were stir-crazy and rabid – Disney’s pliant subjects.

General Electric’s Carousel of Progress was like an immense theatre in the round with its stage divided into quarters. On the stage an animatronic family straight out of the early 60s delivered a drama in four parts, with each section followed by the quarter rotation of the entire audience around the center stage.

It is perhaps to this cumulative disorientation – of being rotated in the dark, already beside myself with excitement, and a million miles away from anything familiar – that I can attribute my mistake. To my recollection we had taken our seats with my father’s girlfriend to my left, and my father to my right, with my brother next to him. So it was when the lights went down. During the course of the presentation my mind was positively achatter, and I vented some of this via a running commentary to my father’s girlfriend, nudging her in the side so that I might deliver another insight. “Look at that guy’s hair! Their kid looks like the dog! If that guy’s a am-a-no-tronic then how come he’s getting older?”

I remember all of this as if it were yesterday, because when the lights came back up after the show the woman on my left stopped being my father’s girlfriend. I had been confiding my thoughts to a complete stranger for the duration of the show. I was mortified, and felt lost suddenly. In desperation I shot a glance to my right to make sure my father was still my father. He and his girlfriend were both sitting obliviously to my right. For her I felt a special kind of scorn. She had betrayed me somehow, just as much as the stranger to my left had. Indeed, this strange woman might have said something to me to stem my utter loss of face. “Kid, I’m not your friend.” Or simply, “Don’t talk to me.” That would have been enough.

Instead, there is a basic mistrust in my own perceptions that I harbor to this day. Are the people I think I know really who I think they are? The only way to be sure is to look them over with the intensity of an archaeologist with a fossil, and even then I never can be too sure. When I recognize a friend from across the park and wave to them, I can’t be certain whether they’re waving back only because it’s best not to upset the crazy man. There’s always that moment of doubt – I’ve been wrong before. When I come up and rub my partner’s back in the grocery store, there’s no reliable way of telling whether I’m groping a complete stranger. Will they be receptive to my desperate pleas once I’m caught? “Oh my god, I’m so sorry – but I have identity issues!”

Maybe the only real solution is to avoid recognition of any kind. Do not make eye contact, and never speak first. Hold everyone in suspicion until they have repeated the pass phrase.

Or maybe it’s the opposite. Stop caring altogether, and greet people I don’t know as friends, and rub peoples’ backs without inhibition. Why should there be social boundaries of any kind? It’s a small world, after all.


She’s not there.

It stops me on the sidewalk. I stare through my reflection into the cafe, but the table is empty. Actually I don’t think I would have thought of her if she had been there. She’s taken lunch there nearly every day for the past seven years, at the same time and at the same table. This I know because I’ve been walking the same route for ten.

Except for her regularity she never struck me as remarkable. Regularity is noteworthy because it’s so fleeting–it’s really nothing more than a drawn out pause. But it’s around these ephemeral axes of stasis that other changes happen, and are all the more noticeable in contrast.

Resisting inertia and entropy to enjoy a sandwich takes gumption. Doing it for seven years straight takes something that I understand all too well, except in myself. She’s gone, and the distress comes at the fear that my chances of understanding stasis have vanished along with this girl, though the answer could never have existed until she left. The answer comes at the moment of change, at the realization of will.

I wish I could interview her now. “What is it that made you walk past your table today? Is something going to happen? Is it something you’ve considered before? Did you ever think about how it might affect someone you didn’t know?”

“Can I help you?” One of the staff have come to check on the funny little man staring in through the plate glass window. I merely wave and continue down the sidewalk with the feeling that I’ve left something behind.

Overheard At Work

tall – I see her before she sees me, the way her desk faces, you know.

short – Yeah.

tall – And it’s weird because, like whenever I’m coming toward her I see her suck in her stomach.

short – Oh, really?

tall – Totally. It’s not a lot or anything I mean, just, you notice. And I don’t know if it’s because she knows someone’s coming–or maybe because it’s me?–or if she’s, like, doing some kind of isometric workout at her desk and I just happen to be privy to it.

short – Isometrics, huh? How are you privy to isometric exercises?

tall – They’re… everyone knows. It’s not just me.

short – You do isometric exercises.

tall – No.

short – Yes you do. You sit at your desk flexing, I bet.

tall – Yeah right! Give you something to think about?

short – Oh, you give me plenty to think about.

tall – Dude!

short – What?

tall – Just. Not cool. Tone it back a little. I was talking about this girl.

short – I’m only kidding.

tall – Fine.

short – I think you should scare her and see what happens.

tall – Scare her? Like, scare her how?

short – Just jump out from around the corner next time and see if she sucks it in, and be staring right at her stomach so she knows you know.

tall – Right! That would totally ruin it.

short – Ruin it? Oh, you mean this little isometric romance you have working for you?

tall – Dude, whatever. I think she’s cute, that’s all.

short – Abdominal control! Moth to the flame…


The thought occurs to me: What precisely would it take to incite someone to physical assault?

Oh, that’s not how it starts, of course. It begins with the wind whipping up and felling the clothing store’s outdoor display, and myself instinctively lending a hand to straighten it back out. “Hey, thanks!” the sales girl says. “You didn’t have to, you know.” Sensing a turn in the weather she drags the entire thing back into the store and, already enlisted, I hold the door for her.

So, gratitude, and with it the familiar companion thought: How easy would it be to spoil this gratitude? Could I turn it into loathing with something as quick as a mock lunge and a snarl? Or how about if I began to tip over the clothes racks systematically, my face a mask of dull determination? Destroy.

The compulsion to break a good thing is strong, and it’s something that’s been ingrained in me since childhood.

In the summer of 1995 I’ve just bought my first CD player. CDs are still in their infancy, and I’ve saved up my allowance for nearly a year to buy into the phenomenon. The first unbidden thought–I remember it clearly–occurs to me as I remove strips of adhesive and sheets of protective plastic from the new appliance. Break it. I sit back on my bed and admire the digital pyrotechnics on the front face of the CD player. Drop it. Push it. Stab it with the screwdriver.

I press Eject and watch the tray slide out for the first time, admiring the mechanism, the way the little motor whirrs as the CD tray slides smoothly out and snaps into place, hungry. And vulnerable. The tray must be sturdy enough to support the weight of my hand. But what if I lean on it? Or how about if I raise my fist high and bring it down on the tray with the force of a sledgehammer?

Base needs will not be denied. The thoughts come naturally, but survival–sustainability–is most often a matter of control… or at least of moderation. I may leave my CD player, my television set, my half brother intact, but not a day will go by when I don’t at least consider the alternatives.

I’ve been thinking about it again lately. A week ago I receive a kind note from a client after completing a simple wedding website for his family. “I wanted to thank you,” he writes, “for helping us to commemorate this family event…” And so on. A real note on real paper, just like they used to do in movies. Not only that, but the words are hand-written–and what letters! His script is conservative, but elegant, and written with unwavering consistency. Less than an hour later and I’ve already fired up my font utility, and am busily converting his letter into my own private alphabet.

Now, is it a show of questionable judgment to respond to his letter in kind? That is to say: in his own handwriting? I don’t think the answer is absolute. “Hi!” I write. “I enjoyed doing the work for you–particularly because I got my own font out of it! You’ll notice that I’m using your handwriting even now, and I’ve already written to several of my other clients with it!”

His response–a typed letter just a few days later–is absolute: I am to cease using his handwriting immediately, under threat of physical retaliation.

Finally, here is something I can relate to. I place this letter on the table next to the original thank you letter, and my eyes flit from one to the other, savoring the causation that turns the sweet sour. And I am giddy for it. I’m also glad that I’ve stumbled on a means of channeling my impulse–this will satisfy me for a while.

Still, these needs, integral to myself, are not inherent to humanity. So, what specifically is the root cause? Surely my formative years were not free of perception-altering influences.

Was it my fractured adolescence, being placed in a chain of foster homes as I watch each time the promise of something new wither inevitably into disappointment and loss? Possibly… but that explanation doesn’t wholly satisfy.

Or perhaps it’s watching, over the years, my teachers’ eyes as they attempt to harness and cultivate my preternaturally advanced intellect. So bright and full of promise they are at the beginning, but soon realizing–without exception–that they’re simply not up to the task. Now we’re getting somewhere, but again, there are pieces missing from the puzzle.

How about the world class bodybuilding then? Not likely? Consider what the highly-illegal offshore camps drum into us from the start: In order to build strength you must destroy the muscle, and then allow it to rebuild itself. And then destroy it again. Repeatedly. Forever. Strength through destruction. Perfection through pain.

The answer dovetails nicely with the rest of my understanding of the world. My tendency toward destruction then is the result of my intent to make stronger my relationship with something of value, my disappointment of watching hope fade into loss, and my fear of seeing the new become mundane.

That and the prolonged, ritualistic steroid abuse.