Sincerely, Your Mortician

MISSED CONNECTIONS

For my Lady Prometheus – w4w (last week’s Old Glassworks retro pop-up party)

You wore a navy Old Hollywood dress with Art Deco earrings and chestnut pincurls. We didn’t meet until the second band went on, and you didn’t recognize me at first because I’d changed outfits after the set. I wore a black pantsuit and white shirt on stage, and I’d traded it for that evil short red number that caught your eye by the bar. You bought my Manhattan (easy on the vermouth, heavy on the bitters) and I bought your next martini (gin, stirred, two olives).

You said I played sax like an angel who knew she was about to fall, and I made a stupid joke about the event’s organizer before I found out it was your brother. You laughed and were the very picture of grace; I stumbled over each word for the next two minutes. Until you kissed me, maybe just to shut me up.

We danced a bit, and we each took one of those pills you had with the little lightning bolts on them, and then you dragged me away from the main shindig. As you led me through the halls, you said you’d found this whole place and pointed it out to your brother, but I wasn’t listening too closely because as soon as you took my hand, happy static filled my brain. We left our empty glasses on the broken chair outside the special room you’d set up.

I made another joke, this time about mad scientists. You didn’t laugh that time. You had a whole speech about genius, eccentricity, and stereotypes of the mentally ill. Your other brother – the one who hadn’t organized the party – had schizophrenia, you said, and he was doing pretty well sticking to his schedule of DBT and antipsychotics. “All of this,” you said, with a particular smile that made me shiver deliciously watching you spin in the middle of the room full of weird machines, “has nothing to do with madness.”

And you were right, of course. Although it did freak me out when I found the corpse.

You teased me something fierce about that. I remember pointing out over and over that, even though the band is Jenny Casket and the Morticians, only Val on drums is actually a funeral director. (If it helps you remember me, I work for the county library.)

You explained that this was a volunteer, some guy who’d made a deal with you after his last chance at a transplant fell through. And we weren’t going to be bringing him back to life. You just needed one more gently used brain, and an assistant for the second step.

The first step didn’t look like much. You traded your dress for scrubs (and put on a good show for me as you did – thanks for that), and then you just up and cut the top of the guy’s head off. I think I should have gotten queasy around then, but your lightning pill had worked its magic nicely by that point.

The brain went into a case that was metal on the bottom, glass on the top so we could watch. Once it was all sealed up, little mechanical arms came up out of the metal half and started running all over the brain. I said something about the brain being ticklish and then had a giggling fit. Then the big machine behind me beeped, and I jumped half a foot off the floor. I broke a heel coming down, but all I could do was giggle louder.

You had to slap me out of it so we could get on to the second step. You checked the screen on the big machine, then gave out a happy squeal and kissed me again. For quite a while. That got me focused again.

You talked about how that was the last brain you needed for the modeling process, how the system had enough data now.

“Enough data for what?” I asked.

“Immortality,” you said. Then there was a whole lot of stuff about how this wasn’t really a computer program, not the way I think of it, and that the whole electromechanical metaphor for the brain was fundamentally limited (I think – mostly I was riding lightning-pill-buzz and afterglow from all the kissing). Whatever was in that big machine, what I got out of your little lecture was that it was totally new and could serve as a waystation between neurobiology and conventional electronics.

“I’ll always be in here,” you said, “but I’ll also be able to project myself digitally. I just need you to strap me in and work the controls.”

You’d made it really easy. Once you talked me through hooking you in and strapping you down, there were just three buttons I needed to press on the screen.

“Why me?” I asked, before I pressed anything.

You shrugged as best you could, given the straps. “You’re cute, and I liked your music. If everything goes wrong, you’ve still made it a good night.”

“Kiss for good luck?” I offered. You grinned and winked.

After the last kiss, I pressed the buttons. You took a deep breath after the second, and it came out in one long sigh after the third. It sounded kind of like you were deflating. Your eyes closed, and then I couldn’t tell if you were breathing.

The machine made a whole series of noises before going quiet. Suddenly, everything in the room went dark.

“What did you do to her?”

I looked to the doorway, and there was a guy there. Probably your brother? He had a big cord in his hand, which I think was the power supply. He started coming towards me, but I threw my busted shoe at his face and ran barefoot out of there, through the party and out to the street. When I was two blocks away, I broke down in the back of the cab.

My brain felt like an overcrowded disco by the time I finally made it through my door. As I brushed my teeth and the world writhed in my peripheral vision, all I could do was stare at my phone, not knowing who or what to call. I could swear that, just for a second, the background changed to your winking face. I blinked, and then I thought spiders were running up and down my spine, so I ran to bed and curled up in a ball until everything stopped.

The next afternoon, drained but settled down, I came back to see if it – if you – had been real. There was no evidence of the party, and no evidence of the lab. My shoes were neatly set in the middle of that room, though. Someone had even glued the heel back on. A small, handwritten note was tied to the strap on the other shoe: Stay away.

For a second, I thought I felt my phone buzz. A message from you? But nothing had come through.

Did it work? Are you out there somewhere? Or at least part of you?

Please get in touch, if you’re real. I need to know how much I can trust myself on this. It’s getting tough to sleep, what with the not knowing and the maybe-remembering and the phantom buzzes from my phone. Please?

Sincerely,

Your Mortician

A Hero’s Code

supergirl
From Flickr user Edward Liu

First and foremost, a hero is good. That goodness is expressed consistently, both inside and out. The occasional failing will happen, but the hero always returns to goodness. They make amends and do better next time.

 

A hero encourages the good in those around them. They know the world is better when everyone’s best selves have the space and support to shine. Those who already strive to be good deserve an ally. Those who have fallen deserve the offer of a helping hand. (Whether they choose to take it is up to them.)

 

she-hulk-and-wonder-woman
From Flickr user greyloch

A hero is strong for others. Sometimes this is physical strength, sometimes mental, sometimes moral. Whatever form the strength takes, it is always used to help others. The hero does not use their strength for their own advancement at the expense of others.

 

A hero pushes the limits of their strength. All heroes have limits, because every hero is finite and flawed. A hero knows their limits, but seeks to exceed them with cleverness or new strengths. When they fail, they rest and heal, and then they try again.

 

luke-misty-and-iron-fist
From Flickr user Pat Loika

A hero leads, partners, and follows, each at the right time. When the world or the country or the team has lost their way, a hero leads by example and encouragement. When others would benefit from the hero’s strength, a hero is a generous and respectful partner. When others can lead well, a hero follows their lead with cheerfulness and good will.

A hero is not alone. Each is defined in no small part by the friends they make, the comrades they join, and the people they love. When a hero falters, they accept the help of a friend, a comrade, or a loved one.

A hero is good. A hero encourages the good in those around them. A hero is strong for others. A hero pushes the limits of their strength. A hero leads, partners, and follows, each at the right time. A hero is not alone.

firefly-crew
From Flickr user JM Palacios

Peace and Good Will

While I am not a religious person, I do strive to appreciate and practice the universal values that are reflected in many religions as well as in the humanistic strands of non-belief. Looking back on it, much of this year for me has been spent on self-care and care for immediate family and friends. I’ve found the four boundless abodes of Buddhism – loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity – a useful framework for navigating all of this. Between a new job that wound up bringing a lot more work than anyone originally planned during its first year, medical needs for friends and family, and an election that generated bursts of stress all year long, it hasn’t been an easy one.

Now, though, as I look ahead to 2017, and with the current season being what it is, I want to take some time to think about peace and good will.

Peace

When I think about peace, I often fall back on one or the other of two flawed images.

The first is far too abstract and takes a scope so wide as to be disempowering. “Peace on Earth” turns into a mental picture of happy children from all countries playing together, with a vague sense of no interpersonal strife occurring anywhere. That’s obviously not going to happen (certainly not in the next year), and it’s tough to imagine a path to a world that looks anything like that. When this becomes my go-to understanding of peace, it’s easy for it to become somebody else’s problem.

The second flawed image is thinking of peace at too individual and passive a level. When I first think of a peaceful person, I think of someone sitting quietly, often with their eyes closed, and a smile on their face. This might be what someone who has achieved inner peace looks like, but it’s probably a temporary state for them and certainly not the entirety of what peace means.

Peace can be concrete and immediate, and most versions require more than one person. And it certainly is not passive.

I also think (as is true of most things) that we can think of peacefulness on a spectrum. The idea of going from “Earth Without Peace” to “Peace on Earth” is often too big a jump to seem real or achievable; “a more peaceful world” is easier to grasp.

I am not personally able to stop the wars that create refugees – “Peace on Earth” is outside of my individual scope. What I can do is encourage my elected leaders to take in refugees and be publicly welcoming in my own immediate community. That could help make for a more peaceful world. Turning away those in need of a new place to live, by contrast, would only increase their turmoil and would make for a less peaceful world. Also worth noting here is that fears of violent refugees are so often overblown, not to mention counter-productive in the long run as they deepen suspicions and encourage resentment, that they make for a less peaceful world.

Deporting innocent people, and breaking up families and communities in the process, makes the world less peaceful. Creating an environment of fear for anyone based on their identity makes the world less peaceful. Bullying or lashing out at those who are different makes the world less peaceful.

Resisting these – contacting government officials, participating in or leading nonviolent protest, speaking up when it happens in front of you, offering support to those who have been victimized – makes the world more peaceful. Again, peace is not passive. (As it turns out, they don’t even share an etymological connection – “passive” is ultimately derived from the Latin pati, which refers to “suffering,” and not from pax, the Latin word for peace.)

As a final note, the active pursuit of a more peaceful world is a lifelong marathon. It’s necessary to take time for self-care, healing, and general recuperation along the way. Sometimes that means an hour, sometimes it means a year or more. And that’s OK.

Good Will

I think it’s fair to say that the U.S. has suffered from a widespread lack of good will for more than just the last year. Lack of trust in, well, just about everything, has been growing.

Too many of us have sorted ourselves into closed circles. In those circles, group-level confirmation bias about how much everyone else looks down on or hates us has sunk in. We remember the slights (real or imagined) much more readily and with greater clarity than the instances where we were treated decently. As groups, we reward stories of those slights with greater attention than we do stories of being treated decently.

To be clear, I’m talking about our perceptions of others’ feelings and mindsets. Incidents of physical violence should be treated with the greatest seriousness. Concerns about good will are secondary to preserving one’s physical safety. What I’m getting at are the cases where we treat the most extreme attitudes or actions as representative of everyone in a group.

In this context, good will is about approaching another person with empathy, not knowing what pains and experiences they carry with them. It’s about actively listening to them and treating them like a human being.

Will everyone extend us the same courtesy? Of course not. See above about the long-running lack of good will in this country. But changing that requires some of us to take the first steps.

Now, I certainly won’t argue that everyone is entitled to unlimited good will. Those who prove themselves to be violent, or bullies, or obstinately closed-minded aren’t entitled to infinite patience and sympathy.

The trick is telling the difference between those people and others who happen to look like them or have a similar accent. We are often too quick to assume that someone is obstinately closed-minded simply because they are, to pick two examples, from a small rural town in the Midwest or from a city on a coast.

If we start with empathy and patience as often as we have the spoons to do so, we may be able to reverse some of the damage done by our long-standing resentments. I think we certainly have to try.

Thinking Ahead to 2017

It’s been a rough year, but it’s entirely possible that 2017 will be worse. I know a lot of people are dealing with very real fears of how their government could start treating them. I know that others are filled with a more generalized dread. Still others remain full of resentment at the way they believe others view them.

With all of that on the horizon, I’m going to do all I can to promote peace and good will next year. If this year’s taught us anything, it’s that the opposite leads us to bad places.

Post-Holiday Reading: City of Stairs

You can't tell, but these are stairs to a church. Get it?
From Flickr user rablem22
https://www.flickr.com/photos/rabiem/8610606296/

Following Planetfall, I decided to jump from science fiction to fantasy in the form of Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs. I don’t think I need to wax rhapsodic about the quality of the book too much, as that territory is well-covered, and I agree with the shared high points others have noted: the diverse cast of characters, the intriguing setting, the constant entertainment value, and the jealousy-inducing quality of the writing. This book is smart and fun and cool and left me excited for the next book and interested in checking out Bennett’s back catalog. You should probably read it soon, unless you hate fantasy and/or awesome things.

With the book’s goodness thusly vouched for, I’d like to focus the rest of this post on one of the book’s central concepts. It’s one with some interesting connections to a similarly central idea in Planetfall. That’s right, we’re going to talk about religion!

(Be warned, vague spoilers lurk in the depths beyond!)

Continue reading “Post-Holiday Reading: City of Stairs”

Curation and Slowhacking

As previously discussed, starting a new day job has prompted some reflection and revision of the way I approach my life and my various routines. While I am skeptical about New Year’s resolutions, I have identified a couple of themes that I think will run through my 2016 as well as a host of habits I’m working to establish by year’s end.

So many things staring at you...
From Flickr user K.rol2007 http://bit.ly/1Uhf9aN

Curation

During my year-plus of freelancing, I found myself contemplating the idea of a curated life. My plan is to make this year a test case in doing more to intentionally curate my life and routines.

(Before I go any further, I should note that I have no professional or amateur experience in actual curation, e.g. of art or at a museum. I’m using my understanding of curation as a metaphor for thinking about the idea of intentionally crafting various parts of my life using ideas I’ve acquired elsewhere.)

I’m planning to explore the curated life in quite a bit more detail over the course of the year, but the general thrust is that we all – consciously or not – pick from the huge universe of “Things I Could Be Spending My Time/Thoughts/Energy On” to populate various “galleries” of our lives (e.g. our personal collection, our public exhibit, and a series of intermediate/semi-private galleries with various levels of access). I’m trying to be better about consciously choosing what’s displayed in my various galleries.

 

Slowhacking

I know, I know. The last thing the world needs is another variant on “-hacking”. However, I read and listen to enough things that use the “-hacking” formula that the concept is useful for me.

Continue reading “Curation and Slowhacking”

Post-Holiday Reading: Planetfall

OK, it's actually an upside down sunset. Still pretty cool!
Image from Flickr user Carl Milner
https://www.flickr.com/photos/62766743@N07/11275976366/

This was a very book-themed holiday season for me. Between immediate and extended family and my in-laws, I picked up nine new books. They should merge well with my goal of replacing some screen time with page time.

(Also, they and the new day job mean that the S.H.A.K.E.S.P.E.A.R.E. project has been put on indefinite hold. Since we weren’t very far in, I don’t think anyone will be too disappointed.)

A couple books are more related to my day-job work, but most of them should play well with this space. The first one I jumped into was Emma Newman’s Planetfall.

I’ll preface what follows by saying that I’m a big fan of most stories about space colonies. There’s something about that combination of high-tech exploration, frontier adventure, and city-in-a-bottle social dynamics that really captures my imagination. Planetfall captures a bunch of that, but also adds some additional factors that mean I’ll be coming back to it at least a few more times in an attempt to grok everything it’s doing. [No intentional spoilers follow, but those who want to read the book “cleanly” might want to skip the rest of this post.]

Continue reading “Post-Holiday Reading: Planetfall”

Irregular Programming Will Resume Shortly

Do not adjust your blog-o-vision set...
Image from Flickr user Matthew Dinkins:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/lesiege/79240303/

Hello again, world!

Apologies for my protracted absence. After Halloween, life got very busy with multiple interviews for new a day job, followed by my gratefully accepting a great new position in my professional field of expertise. I’m a couple months into that now, and just starting to build a set of writing and blogging habits that fit well with the new gig.

Leaving the world of freelancing for my first real office job has been quite the transition. Admittedly, my specific case probably isn’t as big a jump as some, given that my new job remains fairly lightly supervised and allows me significant discretion in how I structure my time. Still, I now live with far more objectives and deadlines set by other people. Somewhat unexpectedly, adapting to the new workplace hasn’t been the most disruptive part of the adjustment.

Continue reading “Irregular Programming Will Resume Shortly”