Archive for March, 2009
“The Texas vote leaves loopholes for teaching creationism, so consider this your duty. It is so important to get into the Word of God,” said the speaker. “Some say that the New Testament is a sad tale of a kitteh who could not find a loving home, but the forgiving Ceiling Cat that C.S. Lewis called Aslan is on the move. For even when they just nail these pieces of him to a cross, He says, ‘thanks for following me.‘”
The crowd clapped enthusiastically. “But however you feel about Jesus, Leonard Cohen is still the coolest human being on the planet. When he doesn’t deliver, you know it’s not that profundity pressure produces protean prattle, no, today’s song will be posted late due to disheartening technical problems. Why is my internet being so slow? Internet spies from China, probably. But we can put our faith in Leonard Cohen.”
A chorus of “Hallelujah” broke out.
“Honey, I’m home!”
“Hi, Dave!” said Bea. “I’m repeatedly telling myself I don’t need the 50th Anniversary hardcover edition of Elements of Style, but it’s so tempting. I need you to convince me to save a few trees.”
“But Daddy, I don’t understand how paper is made out of wood!” interrupted James, their eldest son.
“It just is,” said Dave. “You can’t make books without killing trees. It’s just one of those things that suck. Having to order in pizza because you look too terrible to leave the house, but have no groceries, is another. Thanks for ‘cooking’, Bea.”
Bea poked her tongue out at him. She knew he was only teasing; they were comfortable enough with her facial deformity to joke about it. “I didn’t get pizza, I got cheesy stir-fry. Besides, You don’t have to be photogenic to be a good wife. Remember what my mum used to say: in a photo gallery, mostly dead people are displayed.”
“Yeah, and in an art gallery…” Dave began, leaving Bea to finish her aphorism.
“Only the adults need art. Psychiatrist holds up doll and asks kid, ‘show me where Santa was naughty and where he was nice’ and the kid just takes the doll and plays. It doesn’t matter whether Santa made the doll disfigured, it’s a gift.”
“As the great Leonard Cohen said, ‘A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.’ Hey, and about gifts…” Dave pulled a box of chocolates from his bag and gave it to Bea. “I saw John Pridmore speak at a men’s conference today. He reminded me to read more Cohen. I found this quote, ‘I taught him how to dress, he taught me how to live forever.’ And I know it’s not what he meant, but it made me think of James. He learnt to dress himself and I wasn’t even here to see it. I don’t want it to be that way with Bart. It really got me thinking that men should take more of a role in child-rearing. I’m sorry for not serving you, my queen Bea; I didn’t know I was a drone.”
“Bwahaha! Your turn now,” said the mummy to the daddy as she pointed at the little monster’s full and smelly pants. “9 months from today, hundreds of babies will be born to those who get turned on by fleeting conscience.”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said, though he did not understand the full significance of her remarks. “I am full of angst and gouda. Full of stir-fry. But also, my pants are nowhere near empty, as I am happy to see you.”
As the months went by, his pants got less and less empty, but not for the same reasons as before. He was getting fat. One day, as he was checking the weather and making plans… skiing, shopping? a button flew off his trusty pants. He tried to sew it back on, but the pants were hurt; the pants were broken, and could never trust again. So he went shopping, bought some bigger pants and ski pants, and then went skiing.
He was out-of practice, and his increased girth made it difficult to balance. He fell, and as he sat in the snow, he felt a huge pressure in his abdomen, as if he needed to do the biggest poo of his life. He pulled his pants down and pushed, trying not to touch the cold snow with his bare buttocks. For he was just a sheep following a sacred cow named God, and in their mysterious wisdom, the cows on the moon shaved the sheep’s buttocks.
He gasped when he saw what was coming out. An egg! His wife had been telling the truth; it was his turn, his turn to bring a child into the world. Laying there in the snow he wondered whether it was really worth the effort.
The birth of his new baby caused a great upheaval in his life, not least because he was the first of hundreds of men to give birth. And yet, somewhere, he was sure, that life continued normally for a great many people.
Another upset came when he asked for paternity leave.
“Given your recent performance, I’d be better off firing you,” said his boss.
“You completely forgot to file our tax returns. Remember, If you have a corporation, the tax return due date is 3/16/09!”
“Oh, man… must have been the hormones. They’ve thrown my migraines out of control again. But I’m doing better now. We’re looking for some community feed back for the next round of developments. I got excellent feedback from my readers about this recommendation.”
“Mr. Jones, do you know how much your mistake cost us?”
“Please? I really need the time and money to raise my kids.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Jones. I am only leaving severence now. You understand, it’s a recession. We’re all in the same boat, and we can’t have somebody sailing close to the wind.”
“Boat ride in the dark, coming right up,” Dave mumbled to himself as he left the office for the last time.
With that, he became the house-husband. He searched for jobs on the internet, but was too depressed to really try. Bea got a job as a journalist.
One Sunday, as Dave was tweeting on PSP while burping baby, Bea asked him, “If you could tweet with anyone from history, who would it be?”
“Steve Wozniak, for sure. We could talk about the good old days when Macs were still around. Does anybody know why gnome-screensaver is using 2.1% of my 2GB of RAM when the system is active? I’m moving from CoreGraphics to OpenGL for this?! If I could just get a Mac again, it’d be like going from a 16 tonne bus to a tiny smart car. If all you care about is freedom and sharing, then sure, a bloated gas-guzzler with lots of seats will do the job. Me, I’m happy with something smart and efficient that goes where I want.”
“Well if you weren’t wasting so much time on facebook instead of promoting your favourite OS, maybe we wouldn’t have that problem. Thanks to all of your forgetting, the ‘Woz’ word outlook is pretty grim.”
“What do you mean, wasting time on facebook? Do you need a reminder? The Official Vote For Woz Facebook group is found here!”
“And you really think Woz would make a good president? He’s smart, but not a politician.”
“Exactly! And that’s just what we need. Perhaps we should force the political leaders to play chess, and declare their victories, without shedding blood. Then there’d be no more unnecessary pain. As the great Leonard Cohen said, ‘Let generals secretly despair of triumph; killing will be defamed.'”
“Crustaceans feel pain, but are still boiled alive. We’ll never have a world without pain. I think you’re just on facebook because you can’t keep away from it. You know, anyone these days could create a stunning new design for your website in five minutes, no skill needed, but you, you spent an hour to get it all done. And I’m really feeling the effects of the lost hour this morning.”
“Okay. Maybe you’re right. I think I may have finally developed a full-on internet addiction. But life is so much better there. The world is so much sparklier when it’s reflected on the side of my toaster, even… when reflected on the internet, it’s a woot off!”
“You got that right… heck, even from the command line it’s great. I love using tar in verbose mode, it makes me feel cool. Gimme that,” she wrestled the keyboard from him.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea… let’s get the internet to write a story. All those ugly geeks stuck at home ordering pizza for their kittehs could really do something to please the Ceiling Cat!”
“I need to relax,” said Bob to the boy behind the counter. He couldn’t have been older than than eighteen, but Bob was almost taken in by his efforts to appear more world-weary than Bob was. Spiked black hair, pale face, make-up embellishing a permanent scowl. He removed one of his earphones.
“I need some music to help me relax. Can you recommend anything?”
“Nature sounds,” said the boy, twitching his scowl toward the back of the shop, and replacing the earphone.
“Thanks,” Bob replied, already heading in the direction indicated.
He flipped through the CDs. Whalesong, birdsong, swansong… that seemed interesting. He took the swansong CD back to the counter. The boy raised an eyebrow.
Not sure how to interpret the gesture, Bob asked, “It’s relaxing, isn’t it?”
“Given a lot of people peace, yeah.” The boy gave a chortle just short enough to avoid looking happy.
Bob completed the purchase and went home, glad to finally have a weekend off. He made a cup of tea and put the CD in his computer to rip.
The moment he heard the first chord, his fingers slackened and dropped his tea into his lap. He ignored his scalded scrotum and listened intently. The music was beautiful beyond all physical pleasure or pain. The end of the piece gave him a deeper understanding of the expression la petite mort.
While he was still recovering, the next track began. Some were songs, some were instrumental, some were spoken word, some were animal sounds. All were astounding.
One, ‘Call of the Baiji’ was at the same time so joyous and so sorrowful that the opposing emotions flattened his soul into a single thread, a single thread taking its place in the centre of the universe, searching vainly for another. And before he could tie it to anything, it shrank away with the music, only to be rebuilt by the next track.
When the playback finished, Bob felt the acute pain of loss; a pain not just emotional, but physical. The renewed awareness of his burns was at first a welcome distraction from the pain of losing the music, but soon became an excruciating addition to it. He took painkillers and attempted some first aid, but the whole time he knew that he was only treating the smallest of his injuries. He needed to hear more swan song. He yanked some dry pants on and went back to the shop.
Bob almost collided with the music counter in his panicked run. “Hi,” he said, breathlessly.
“You want more?” said the boy.
“Yeah. Do you know where I can get some?”
“Come with me. I think I have some in the back.”
They entered a storage room at the back of the shop. Shelves of CDs and music equipment lined the walls. The boy riffled through a disordered box of CDs, pulling out not an album of swan song but a digital audio recorder.
“Do you sing?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me? I sound like a strangled labrador.”
The boy looked puzzled. “No you don’t. So what do you do? Write, play, dance…”
“Oh, I’m a computer programmer. But I write in my spare time, and I can… sort of almost play the ukulele.”
The boy put down his recorder and pressed a button.
“Tell me a story,” he said.
“Yeah. You know that CD? I record them myself. I think you could be on the next one.”
“Oh, I don’t know… my writing’s not that good. I mean that stuff was…” Bob searched for words to describe his experience.
“Everyone has it in them. You just need the right circumstances.”
Bob was interrupted by the boy’s sudden movement, in which he deftly unsheathed a knife from his pocket and cut a gash in Bob’s shirt.
“Tell me a story.”
“You don’t mean… you don’t want… what do…” Bob blubbered. But the soulless gaze of the boy told him there was no point in arguing. He tried to think of a story idea.
His mind went blank. Every time he tried to advance he would hit that familiar invisible wall which his ideas were not sharp enough to push through.
The boy came closer, and held the knife teasingly against Bob’s sweating skin. Bob tried as hard as he could to remember what triggered those late night spurts of insistent inspiration. He found nothing, but kept pushing anyway.
As the knife pierced his skin, the wall smashed and let escape a thousand ideas; the ideas which he had rejected almost subconsciously before they had properly formed. His subconscious mind had nurtured these ideas into a thousand polished gems; he needed only pick the brightest. The light of inspiration chased away his fear, and he began to recite the story in a loud, confident voice.
His excitement over the story took over, and almost made him forget his situation. Despite his impatience to relate the brilliant ending, he somehow found the strength to continue telling the story at an even pace, with just the right amount of emotion in his voice, just the right pauses to enhance the drama. This was surely his finest work.
The buzz of revealing the final plot twist was so intense that he barely felt the knife plunging into his heart.
Bob nonchalantly fingered the bloodless hole in his chest. “Am I dead?” he asked the boy, pushing his index finger into the hole and probing the smooth, motionless chambers of his heart.
“You’re a listener now. Go listen.”
Bob understood. A world of swan song was his to liberate.
The boy took a digital audio recorder from the shelf and handed it to him. “We can trade recordings,” he said. “No need to waste’em.”
With that, he led Bob back into the shop, and went through the charade of selling Bob the recorder.
Bob went by his ex-wife’s house on the way home. He couldn’t remember why they had decided to have children, why he had taught his seven-year-old son to play ukulele. But the reason seemed obvious enough.
“Heya, Tam,” he said as she answered the door.
“Oh, hi, Bob. I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, adding awkwardly, “Is everything okay? You look ill.”
“I thought I’d take Jason out.”
Jason ran to the door, excited, but stopped and clung to his mother’s leg when he saw his father’s face.
“Mum, what’s wrong with Dad?”
Bob tried to remember how to smile. “Nothing’s wrong, Jase! Wanna come have ice cream? I’ll teach you another song on the uke.”
Jason perked up at this, and fetched his ukulele. He followed Bob to the car, looking back questioningly at his mother a few times.
Bob drove home, and led Jason into the living room.
“How about you play something for me?” he asked his son.
“Already? You said we’d have ice cream!”
“Sit there,” Bob said, gesturing to an armchair. He headed into the kitchen.
He came back a few seconds later and set up his recorder on the coffee table. “Play something.”
“What should I play? Do I get ice cream afterwards?”
“Just make something up. Do your best.”
“I don’t feel like playing!” Jason whimpered.
Bob stood behind Jason and put a hand on his shoulder. With his other hand, he held a carving knife at his son’s neck.
Jason hesitantly began to play. He took a while to find the right notes, but eventually found something he liked. He played it louder, and began to sing. It was a song about unmet expectations, a song about desire, but most of all, it was a song about ice cream. Bob could not remember the taste of ice cream, but he lapped up the emotions in the song. The song’s end was unbearable; slitting his son’s throat wasn’t.
Jason’s head lolled forward when Bob dropped it. There was no lust for swan song to keep it moving.
Bob’s appetite was stronger than ever. He headed back to the music store to exchange his recording.
“What is this rubbish? This stuff is weak. He can barely play.”
“It sounded great to me.”
“Maybe if you’re still a little warm in the liver. Real listeners won’t get any nourishment from this. There must’ve been ninety years left in him, squeezed out in these two minutes, but it’s useless if he hasn’t learnt what to do with it. This is waste heat.”
Bob soon began to understand what the boy meant. As his body threatened to decay, mediocre swan song no longer filled him the way it had. He became an expert at picking performers. Old enough to have the technical skill to express their talents, but not so old that the execution was hampered by an ageing body. Old enough to appreciate life, but not so old that there was not much left of it to lose.
Humans had more appealing swan songs than animals, but there was nothing more satisfying than hearing the swan song of the last of a species. It was not easy to send a species to extinction by himself, but Bob soon came to recognise the listeners threaded throughout society, manipulating humans into destroying habitats or directly killing key animals. It was a silent teamwork; each working selfishly towards the same goal.
He experimented with more visual swan songs, but found that the buzz from a fine painting was too concentrated in the short time after the piece was completed; a sharp peak of pleasure painfully piercing him, and leaving him even more desperate. Listeners were better off listening.
Eventually he could not obtain fresh swan song often enough to satisfy his cravings. He listened to other listeners’ recordings almost constantly. They were not quite as fulfilling as live death; even on video, many subtleties could not be captured. But they kept him going.
His appetite gradually outgrew the steady stream of swan song fed into his ears. It became more and more difficult to concentrate on the steps needed to record new material. After one session, he realised that he had neglected to stock up on recordings to listen to. He sped to the music store with his recorder, not even stopping to listen to the pedestrians he hit on the way.
“There’s nothing on here,” said the boy. Bob heard the recording he was listening to come to an end. He had no more.
“I recorded a successful blues guitarist.”
“There’s nothing on here. Did you press record?”
If he had had any of his own emotions left to feel, Bob would have been dismayed by his oversight. Instead, he answered tonelessly, “I need more. Lend me some until I get you a proper recording.”
The boy stared at him while his need for swan song accumulated.
“I have something,” he said. He brought a single CD from the storeroom.
Bob took it without comment, and raced home.
Bob fumbled as he put the CD into the slot. It was getting harder to fight the postmortem spasms. Finally he managed to press play, and he lay back in his armchair to enjoy his fix.
His own voice tickled him through his earphones. Muscles galvanised by the shock, he sat up straight and quivered at the opening lines.
The story faded into the background. He remembered feeling his heart pounding in his intact chest. He remembered feeling the cold knife on the cool skin of his still-warm body. He remembered breathing, and how hard he had had to fight to breathe slowly enough to speak. He remembered the fear, not evaporated but transformed into an intense enjoyment of his remaining minutes. He remembered the moment the last of his heart went into the story, and the moment the knife went into his heart.
After that there were no more moments, just time, in steady, emotionless motion. Only borrowed moments distinguished it from complete stop. He had become nothing more than a leaking human-shaped balloon, inflated with the fading remains of others’ lives. As the CD finished playing, he punctured his hollow being and slumped forward. His story was over.
I had a full day of meetings at work today, so I doubt I’ll have a Thing published by midnight. Jonathan Coulton had a whole week without a day job to finish each of his Things, and I at least need a whole weekend to do mine. So I’ll probably publish it if and when I take some time off in lieu of today, or when it’s finished, whichever comes first.
‘Publish what?’ you don’t ask because you’re too busy reading this sentence. ‘You’ve already published a Thing for each of the 52 cards plus a joker! Go play, and eat cake, and celebrate, and sleep!’ your thoughts, fed by this blog post, continue. Well, I did say I’d publish another ace of diamonds, an original piece rather than a recording of an old one. And it wasn’t a lie. I’ve written 1276 words of it already. I might even finish it tonight, but I don’t feel obliged to, because I didn’t have a proper weekend, and, as you so rightly pointed out, I’ve already published more than 52 Things on-time and under-budget.
And after that second, bonus Thing, I will write another, for the second joker. And this is where you can participate. If you follow me on Twitter, you can send me one sentence by direct message, which will have some influence on the Joker. If you already follow me on Twitter and you don’t send me a sentence, one will be taken from you by force. You have been warned.
No new writing this week, just a video and mp3 of my reading a love poem I wrote previously. What can I say? I was only following instructions. I chose this one because it’s more finished than the love poem I wrote last week, I’ve already read it for an audience, and I have all the props required.
I didn’t particularly want to put it on YouTube, since it’s my first video featuring me and I’m kind of self-conscious about it, but I couldn’t find a decent host for it elsewhere. So you’ll just have to suffer through it.
There might be a more novel ace of diamonds next week; one of the cards is perfect for a final Thing. In any case, there will be a second joker, and then this adventure will be over. It won’t be my last adventure, though. Among other things, I’ll probably continue making recordings of Things. Let me know if there are any Things in particular that you’d like recordings of, or any of the Things-with-tunes that you’d like to sing if I sent you the tune I had in mind. There are a few Things I don’t think my robot choir can do justice to. To make it easier for people to follow them, I’m setting up a podcast for them and any similar audio I might produce in the future. It’s not up yet due to various technical problems with the host I planned to use, but I hope to get it working eventually.
I’m really glad to meet ya,
you seem just right to me.
You’ve oestrogenic features,
and facial symmetry
and even just the scent of you’s
a whiff of possibility,
it shows without a centrifuge
Whenever we’re carressin’,
I find you quite engrossin’,
I’m filled with vasopressin
endorphins and oxytocin.
Your mouth is like no other,
I kept your kiss-stained cup.
Oh, be my children’s mother!
Your DNA stacks up.
Hold tight while we make lurve
and during the sweet act I’ll
be glad I had the nerve,
What’s that, my anti-phosphodiesterase?
You say you are conscious, too?
In that case, I’ll rephrase:
I meant that I love you.