The Pencil Interrogation – flash fiction

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When I returned to my desk this evening, I found that my pencil had gone rogue. A stack of papers was strewn about beside this guilty number 2. I looked over the pages, as the pencil attempted to slither, snakelike, off the edge of the desk to freedom. I looked over what he had written.
HE BIT THE HAND THAT FED HIM,
SHE FED HIM WITH THE STUMP
was scrawled over and over and over. Perhaps the pencil had the shining. I took it in hand and asked of it, “What’s all this about?”
The pencil attempted to blame it on my brain. But my brain had been nowhere near the paper, nor the pencil, but somehow this slippery graphite fuck had managed to get his message out. So again, I shook him. “What’s all this?”
“Is it logical to ask a pencil to answer for its crimes?” he asked.
I put him near the pencil sharpener. The electric slow death kind. A bead of sweat ran down the side, as the worn down eraser quivered in fear. “Feel like talking now?” I asked, pushing his point into the grinder. “Ahh!” the pencil cried. “Fine! It was Will!”
“What’s his last name?”
“No, the thing that makes pencils move.”
“Stop fucking with me, pencil!”
“I’m not!”
I ran his tip further into the grinder.
“Still not?”
“A pencil by itself has no thoughts, no ideas. You must consult will!”
“Stop being cryptic, eraser head!”
“That’s racist!”
“You can’t be racist to a pencil!”
I tossed him back onto the table, deciding I might as well talk to will if I was going to talk to a pencil.
(I am quite, quite mad)
So, I found will sitting on the edge of the couch, a blank spot in the air defined only by its surroundings.
“So, the pencil has leveled some, charges against you.”
Will is not easily riddled out. “I can only do what I am compelled to do.”
“But who compelled you!”
I could not figure out how to torture will. Alas, he had triumphed.
(Not a Nazi joke)
“So, there’s nothing beyond you then, eh?”
“Yes.”
“I’d rather talk to the fucking pencil,” I said, and went back to my desk, resuming the torture.

The Strong Female Character in Modern Fiction – short essay

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In modern fiction there is an erroneous notion of what a strong female character is: that a strong female character implies that the character be strong and female, to be aggressive or otherwise capable at enduring and inflicting violence. Strength is not the same thing as force: and a strong female character is like a strong male character: they have realistic motivations, an inner life, hopes, fears, all of the characteristics of an actual person. A female character like Katniss from Suzanne Collins YA series The Hunger Games, for example, is strength depicted as the capability to inflict violence. This is a misunderstanding of what makes characters strong: it is not their physical strength, though physical strength is an attribute of strong female characters, however it is not their strength that makes them strong, it is their humanity and realism.

A poor female characterization could be a caricature of the masculine notion of strength as the capability to inflict violence and outperform others in feats of physical strength. Strong in this definition refers to level of character, rather than relative measures of physical strength. Again, this has been used to great effect with strong female characters in many works of literature, but a modern misinterpretation of this is the portrayal of women as simply violent, aggressive, as a poor means of conveying strength of characterization. To use physical strength as a character trait must work within the overall character arc, male or female, and it would be foolish to conclude that without being traditionally strong or physically able, a male character would be weak because of this inability to project physical force. If we limited strong characters to those most capable of successfully beating up their foes, it would be a poor definition of strength.

There are different types of strength, moral, emotional, and psychological. The criticism for the lack of strong female characters is not that there are not female characters who can kick ass, though traditionally casting women as helpless and without agency has been a problem, but that there are poorly written characters whose motivations, fears and hopes don’t strike the audience as genuine or engaging. Character strength based poorly on violence is a weak character, whether they’re Hercules or Athena. This is not a criticism of depicting women as strong fighters, but of making the point that it is poor character writing to rely on physical strength as the hinge of a strong character.

 

The Oracle’s Advisor – 2nd draft

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1
Inside the Convent, in a cage,
slept an oracle and sage,
A candle guttered as she muttered,
praying, the visions came.
Wave after wave,
in multiform —
Deluge of fire and of storm
And of clouds which took the form
Of horses braying, gnashing teeth,
a crown of thorns worn by the Beast
On a dead star, far off, then,
A djinn with a crown in a cape and a shroud,
with apostles kneeling gathered round,
Prostrated with their hands raised,
gesturing,
To Heaven high with gleaming rings;
A greater heaven,
for it to come,
The world below must be undone.
2
The oracle wondered, wandering round
The stonewalled corridors in her gown
What could this djinn, this demon, be?
Of what heaven did he seek?
One of glory and of peace,
Or one of horrors, gnashing teeth,
of silent eons, trapped beneath
Where slept the sinners in the rain
a pawn at play in Shaitan’s game
swaddled like a newborn in their sickly neon flames
Everything burns, they say, why bother;
But the oracle knew one truth:
not water.
3
She passed at last beside the stream
To read the scrolls of the Sibylline;
the chronicle of their order, of portents and of dreams,
and looking down into the pool,
at the reflection of a fool,
she saw the coming of a storm,
of Hannibal’s columns of ruin and Rome
Of Goths who sacked the forum twice
And Gauls who came with ax and knife
Deluge of fire, gnashing teeth,
a river red ran through the streets
The waters shifted and she saw
The king of djinns upon the star
Of Araffaya from afar
Poised beneath the seventh heaven
an army there which had declared
a war to wage on God.
4
To build temples to chaos and cults to reason
Bewitch the tides, unbalance seasons
Til darkness comes in daytime
and stretches on for years
Until the angels and their host
Were submerged and forced below
To live as demons did upon that star long dead
With envy in one’s heart, to live for all in dread
Desire, that pernicious flame
that pushes one towards fortune, fame,
With this vision, she recoiled,
and strolled back to her cage
God, for whom one has to wait–
the devil however is never late.
5
With a page of the ancient scrolls,
she lit a candle and foretold
Apollo, Adonai, Allah, Jehovah, speak!
Of the Hell they flee and Heaven they seek!
And how in seeking one they find,
The other always, please remind.
The fight for heaven makes it hell,
It drains the lands, the soldiers, wells,
And leaves them in the trench, do tell;
Of how in seeking heaven everyone finds Hell
6
The oracle thought about this for a time,
Recited a prayer and calmed her mind
And left her cage neat as she came,
walked from the compound out the gate,
Across the city, pass the lake,
Beneath a moon of alabaster gleaming in a cloudless sky
Where children ran and played their games
where newborns laughed and cried
Through the forests, to the woods,
to the cabin of Apollo where she stood,
and she waited by the tree,
with the paper and her and her pen,
she wrote the question in the wind;
and with a match she struck the flame,
burned it all and sat to wait
To wait on God outside the Gate
7
A timeless voice stirred in the air
ran down her back and through her hair
It spake; above on Araffaya
The king of djinns baptized by fire
As it has been through all time,
They have waged war within our minds
and now they wait outside the gate,
to threaten those inside
To fight for heaven, they divide;
To fight for peace, they make their hell
And remake it in their sight,
to make of darkness their own light
On the long dead star of Araffaya,
the kingdom of demons and fountains of fire
Will find heaven only when
The joy of others hits the wind.
8
The voice died out, Apollo ceased,
and vanished through a tempest of leaves
And as she made her way back home,
the oracle thought hard and long;
and at the convent, in a bath,
scented and sweet, she had a laugh;
and thought it might be fair, to greet,
the devil himself, to invite him to speak
To hear the side of those who strived
To pay the price for Heaven
even if it was their life.
9
Always on time, the devil, she thought,
While Apollo kept one on hold;
Punctual Shaitan waited in line,
Outside the cavern with his pipe
In a suit of silk in a pin-striped tie
He bid her good morning with a courteous nod,
And took off his shoes when invited inside,
sat by the windowsill smiling and quiet;
He said, “Pain is an essential part of your life,
You know”
The devil sipped his tea.
10
“For those who were born in bliss enthralled,
think all who fight are doomed to fall;
And because of that we must remain,
On that dead star in the rain,
Below the haven in the waste,
Always knowing, face to face,
With what we cannot have, our place
was made for us to be below,
to be trampled on by those who, blessed,
by providence, and nothing less,
Think that what they took was theirs for free,
Their slice of heaven, as it is,
must exclude, it’s always been,
a place unwelcome for a djinn.
11
For it to be a holy place,
we must be kept outside, to waste,
And yet it’s wrong for us to fight–
To risk eons in the dark for a spot in the hall of light.
And with a nod and solemn bow,
the oracle said goodbye and escorted Shatan out
And returned to her own cage,
where slept this mistress, and this sage,
Who took a vow to wisdom,
in the hope that it might free,
her from envy, and of shame
but the cost of freedom was the chain
to the scrolls both new and old
By the calm stream in the cold.
12
Returning the book she passed it again
and looked down in the stream, and then,
Saw a legion of demons rise
Pass through a wall of light and fire
Into the hall of light and there
The holy host broke off their song
and wailing filled the halls of stone
As the djinn with the cape and shroud
Took the throne and, sitting proud,
Cast the holy host of angels out
And Apollo who had spake,
Cast out of his own hall to wait,
Now on the dead star in the rain,
through the water, through the pain
the price of freedom was the chain.

the Oracle’s Advisor – new poem

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The Oracle’s Advisor

In the dark of night beneath the cage
Where slept the mistress of the age
A candle guttered as she muttered
As she prayed, the visions came
Wave after wave
Deluge of fire and of storms
And of clouds which took the form
Of horses braying, gnashing teeth
A crown of thorns and golden beams
A sonic boom of jackass screams
A dead star and thereon men
And women slave to demons, then
A djinn with a crown and a cape and a shroud
With apostles gathered round gestures up
A greater heaven, more terrible to come
The oracle wondered, wandering round
The corridors of stone walls in her gown
What could this djinn or demon be?
Of what heaven did he speak?
Of one he wished for, one to seek?
Or one of horrors, gnashing teeth
Of silent eons trapped in sheets
Of ice and rain and devil’s games
Who wrap you like a chicken in their sickly neon flames
Everything burns, so why bother?
The oracle thought, not water.

She sought the secrets of the sybilline
An order that chronicled portents and dreams
And warned the people of coming storms
Of Hannibal’s columns of Ruin in Rome
Of the Goths who sacked the forum Twice
Of Gauls who came with ax and knife
What would they say if they had seen
A deluge of fire and gnashing teeth
Sonic booms of jackass screams
Would the djinn upon the star
Of Araffaya, take it from god,
unleash the braying horses shod
To trample on the tomb of god
Build temples to chaos and cults to reason
unsettle the tides and confuse the seasons
Til darkness comes in daytime and sometimes lasts for years
Until one lives as demons did
upon the star long dead
And look above at heavens better
with envy in one’s heart
Desire as one’s flaming that pushes one towards fortune,
To fame
to wrap the world in fingers of flame.
The acolyte crawled back in her cage

With a page of the Sybilline scrolls
Relit her candle and foretold
Apollo, Adonai, Deus, speak!
Of the hell they flee and Heaven they seek
And how in seeking one they find
The other always, please remind
To fight for heaven invites hell
It drains the land and soldiers wells
And leaves them in the trench, do tell
of how in seeking heaven everyone finds Hell

The oracle thought of this for a time,
She recited a prayer and calmed her mind
And left her cage as neat as she came
Walked from her compound out her gate
Across the city, pass the lake
Frozen alabaster under moonless skies
Where children between houses laughed and cried
Through the forests, to the woods
To the cabin, where she stood,
and waited there before a tree,
with a paper and styli
she wrote her question on the page
and with a match she lit struck the flame
and burned it, sat down, now we wait
To see if Zarathustra spake

A voice entered into the air
it lifted her clothes and lifted her hair
It said that things above were fine
But below, as through all time
Men waged the war outside their minds
That should be more enjoyably waged inside
To fight for heaven, they buy their hell
And create it trying to keep those out
Of long dead stars, and demons there
Will find in heaven only their
Hopes betrayed and pains uneased
No comfort for one whose heaven
requires a hell for demons in need
The voice abated, Apollo ceased
The air turned call, and, time to leave,
the oracle drifted through the leaves
back to the convent and she eased
into a bath both scented, sweet,
and decided to invite the devil to speak
To hear the side of those who strived
to take heaven if it cost them their lives

Always on time, the devil, she thought,
while god took time to reply,
Punctual Shaitan waited in line
Outside on the mountain side smoking his pipe
In a suit of silk and wearing a tie
He bid her good-morning with a courteous nod
And sat by the windowsill smiling and quiet
Pain is a necessary part of our life,
You know,
The devil sipped his tea
Those who were not born with it all
Think each demon that fought had to fall
And because of that we must remain
On the dead star in the rain
Below the best place in the waste
Always knowing, always, face to face,
With what we don’t deserve, our place
Was to be made to be below
To be trampled on by those who were blessed
By providence or whatever it is
To think that what they took was free
To take away a piece of heaven divides it inevitably
And for their to be such a holy place
Some must be kept outside
And is it wrong for us to want to fight
Some will risk the darkness for a chance to be in the light

Wild Strawberries: short story – 25 June 2016

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Wild Strawberries

1

 

Two years ago a man approached me with a stolen laptop. He told me that, if I were to repair it, he would give it to me for a neglible sum. Now, I’m not a total moron, and as this man had won no lotteries, nor worked, to my knowledge, in years, the deduction that the property was stolen was a simple one. Elementary, indeed. No work for 7 months plus drug habit, minus ethics, equals theft. It’s practically an established concept that addiction – ethics = theft. (A-E = T, I suppose).  Now, I had moral issues with this. I want to be a good person. I really do, and did. But a deal’s a deal. I am American, after all. I agreed to the repairs, the neglible fee, and took possession of the laptop. I agreed to fix it and then, whenever I was certain it worked, I told him I would give him the rest of the money. If it was broken, I’d be better off, in such circumstances, maintaining my decency, since no good would come of abandoning it for profit. I went home, booted the computer to the BIOS, and found that it had been registered under the name of Maybelle Seymore.  And, this young man, with his ‘hitting puberty’ mustache, the kind that Leonardo DiCaprio wore in Gangs of New York, he looked like no Maybelle to me. His shambling demeanor and laptop theft suggested that, this miss Maybelle, had been the victim of this hoodlum I was helping. Not only helping, mind. Going back to ethics/theft equation, I made the connection that a Poirot or a Sherlock Holmes would have made to begin with: It was stolen from the elderly, possibly by someone that elderly person trusted, and since he did not appear to be particularly scared of being locked up, I imagined she must be related to this young entrepreneur. We’ll call him Kevin. Now, the notion going through my mind, upon finding this Maybelle and making this connection, was one of the first lines from the Pali Dhammapada, in the book of verses Twins (a Buddhist text):
Just as a cart follows an ox, so does misfortune follow the wicked.When one performs a wicked action, they are lighting a firea fire in which they will one day burn.
I’ve always thought of that as conceptually true, that is, I understood that it was a logical and sound principle, but from my many, and they are legion my foolish actions, it would be easy to suggest that I had lit many fires, fires that, as of then, had not caught up to burn me. And yet, I was party to theft, at the very least, and since I knew that a trusting grandmother would not think their grandson a thief, she would allow her innate goodness (ethics) to lead to the subtraction of the laptop. So, again, twins: but, I did not know this woman, and I stood to gain from it. I think that people hold onto their morals, their beliefs, and code, up until the very moment it becomes beneficial for them not to. So I fixed it, put it into use for myself, and really thought very little of Maybelle. I did not think she missed it, or needed it, or that she even suspected it might be gone.  I expected “Kevin” to turn that money, through a merchant alchemy, into some intoxicant or another (we have our vices, coffee, for some, work for others) but, after I gave him the first half of the money, he forgot that I owed him any more. So, another fire is lit. Why would I help someone, nay, why should I reimburse him? He stole from Maybelle! So, I thought, in some inversion (or perversion, a ‘version’ requiring prefix*) I would undo my karmic demerit by ripping off the thief. To be honest, I thought this was justice. (Instead of calling the police, reporting him, and returning the computer to the erstwhile Maybelle, though this was something that came to mind).
2
I got the stolen laptop up and running, and heard very little from “Kevin”. I imagined that his habit would only increase to further acts of theft, and, in such instances, I would deal with him when it was to my benefit (selfish is a word that has been used, and it is an apt one) but, in the meantime, I used the laptop to work. I started a story with an ex-girlfriend (it’s complicated) and we began to spend time together, working on it, and I hoped, working on the complications of it. We had dated for a year and 6 months, for 6 months after meeting, for a year after consummation (this is fiction, don’t squirm if you know me and this sounds familiar) the relationship lasted for a further year. I used Maybelle’s laptop to great effect. I wrote her stories and poetry, using this example of wickedness for good (debatable), but we became closer and closer, and she started staying the night. Yes, cue that bow chikka wow-wow if you must, but it was more than that.  It is not merely the pleasant physical configuration of interlocking genitalia, it is the interlocking of persons, of independent consciences, it is not about taking or ‘getting’, it is about giving and sharing, and it’s amazing, it’s awesome; it’s the word that describes most heartily the greatness of something, more-so to be with someone who is not only beautiful and clever and, I’m not going to make the hackneyed list: she knew of my own ethical mistakes. Conceptually, we had broken up by the time we started work. But, in my defense, it was totally my fault. I cheated on her on New Year’s Eve, and then New Year’s Day, and then, to make it up to her, lied about it. She was not pleased (an understatement on par with “peace in our time” but less ironic). She was the opposite of pleased. And we stopped talking. I started to behave in a way similar to “Kevin”. But I did not steal old ladies’ laptops; I had a job during the week and I wrote during the night, the drive to eat is a powerful one, grasshopper.  The drive to make things worse, by lying about one’s infidelity, is also a powerful one. Sometimes the easiest thing to do is the mistake. Being right is not a magical principle of luck, it requires knowing one is doing wrong and thinking, through this wrong, I will make right. I figured, once we broke things off, that I would never see her again. So, to see her again, and to have a laptop and a willing partner to work, I thought we could work on more than the story. I thought the prefix ‘ex’ could be removed through virtue. Odd, I see it as an attempt to re-establish the relationship we had, a relationship that included much more discussion than genitalia exchange. In the span of 18 months, we spent on average 3 hours a day talking, which would add up to (there are on average 30 days a month, and by always 24 hours a day, so 18 months is 547 days (13140 hours), and we talked more or less from the time we woke to the time we slept, usually texting while we were at work, talking on Facebook in the evenings, and then talking on the phone after she got her kids to bed. In the same time period, the amount of hours, by comparison, of sexy time, were inconsequential. It was not the reason for the love.  It was great, by the way (Relax), but we, I would like to think, valued all of our time together, and all the time we did spend together, because for the time we dated, most of that was spent many, many hours away, as she lived in a different state. However, when she moved to the same state, that’s when I began fucking up in earnest. I think lying to someone one loves is not as much an attempt to deceive, despite it being that by definition, as much as it is an attempt by someone to make themselves more than they are and, by doing so, worthy of someone they believe to be better than they are.  This girl, whom we’ll call “Xena Warrior Princess”, was too good for me, and, ironically, I thought that I could make up this by lying my way to glory (something which no successful man or woman has ever said to themselves and went on to achieve, save for Frank Abegnail Jr, con artists, politicians, presidents and dictators, respectively).
3
When “Xena Warrior Princess” moved to lets call it “Shit-marsh”, we got to see each more and more, and I never wanted it to end. When I think back to specific moments, despite a decent memory, it’s hard for me to remember specifics, as one remembers the various impressions of a book rather than the individual words, as the scenes remain when the dialogue is forgotten. I wanted to preserve that and pickle it, to can it away as the Maybelles did for Y2k, when Skynet failed to take over and people lost their minds and decided the only way to survive the computer apocalypse was to can peaches and buy canned goods. I can’t remember ever seeing someone canning peaches thinking, ‘I can’t wait until the world ends and we see each other again’. But I digress.  I decided that I would pickle it by preservation of another sort, not quite a Horcrux, but in some permanent medium, and then I remembered the Dhammapada and, the notion of being virtuous, and how most of the Buddha’s view was based on what is known as the 3 Marks of Existence. We’ll call them “the Big 3” for brevity (soul of wit, they say). The Big 3 are impermanence, insubstantiality, and insatiability, which, admittedly, is a translation used only because of my love for alliteration. The first of the Big Trizzy is perhaps the most important Buddist notion: impernance. Transience. The times are doing nothing but a’changing, in the parlance of … Bob Dylan. As I had lived, with all intent that is, to be decent, I had regardless made compromises with decency for my own advantage. (See: politics) I told Xena Warrior Princess (THIS IS FICTION) that, some of my greatness was bullshit. And since she’s not an idiot, she told me she knew very well. I was surprised by this. What kind of person looks at another one, sees a frail, lying, weak, and desperate person and goes “I love them”? A person of the highest virtue. While sexy time is great, and intelligence and conversation is wonderful, virtue is as rare as condors, or Amur leopards (cue ‘Another One Bites the Dust’).  All things must pass, even all the particles in the universe. Ultimately, each atom will lose its charge and all the matter in the universe will become cold. This is not a good time to tell you this, but eventually all the suns, the stars, they will all go dark. And the most thorough method of canning peaches will not survive the heat death of the universe. This is a sad realization, the furthest view of this principle, impermanence, this froth on the water feeling. The most grandiose of peoples, their statues and great monuments, will first lose eyes that see and appreciate them, then they themselves will lose cohesion, and like the monuments to Pharaoh and to the gods, will go cold and cease to be.  To be seen, or be capable of being seen; what joy is there to have, knowing that this is ultimately how everything ends up? What virtue prevails when all is dust, no, less than dust, as dust has ‘thingness’ going on for it?  This is why I’m an insomniac, and the long list of things (epithets mainly) one could use as a descrptive factor here. The notion that things live on, in stories, that is indeed an attractive principle. Romeo and Juliet, afterall, those idiots are still remembered. (Oh, she might be dead! Best to kill myself before checking! Yes, this is an idiot. You check the pulse before you go suicide, man. Duh)
4
Suicide is not a cheerful subject, and living in a Shit-marsh leads to people doing more than stealing laptops from old ladies. They become thieves, and addicts, to sleep if nothing else. And when Xena left, I remained in the Shit-marsh, and made it my companion in degeneracy. There is a word I’m searching for, you know that feeling, when someone asks you a bit of trivia, and you have the feeling that, had the person not asked it, you would have easily provided an answer? I call that ‘cubbage’ – kuh-bidge – because it’s a portmanteau of cunt and cabbage, the former being what you feel like, the latter being what your mind becomes. It’s like degeneracy, but it is a more profound one. It’s not decadent, because I’m American, decadence should go without saying. I’m also partially bourgeois, so, that exponentially ups the decadent factor. No, it’s a more sticky word, a more dissolute connotation. I sought out “Kevin”, finding him hard at work on his practice of immorality, and found him with a laptop for sale. And that’s where the story begins. With getting the laptop, starting the ethical quibble, and then leading up to my relationship with Xena, after the break-up that is.  It’s complicated (see!), but it was, the 13140 hours, the small percentage of half of that would be enough; to hear her voice, the way she pronounced certain words (like ‘I’ became ‘Oi’ and ‘However’ was ‘Ow’eh’vur’), the way she always exhaled and made a unique, soft sound when she was letting you know she was done laughing and it was time to move to the next joke. The way her face changed during a conversational nibble (that is, avoiding what one has in mind by small talk. ‘How’s the weather’ and ‘how have you been’ that leads to ‘let me borrow your microwave’ or ‘somebody is going to kill me if I don’t pay them back’).  Speaking of suicide, I’ve done research, critical research and found an absolutely painless, unknowing submergence, like a giant, cotton, anthropoid pillow that is super excited to wrap you in its infinite, wooly hug. It is more painless and less spectacle oriented than a guillotine crowd (guillotines were invented because of how egalitarian it was with the condemned; in the ‘twinkling of an eye…’); my solution is to soak strawberries in sugar and potassium cyanide. Now, individual results vary. If you are allergic to strawberries (this is fiction!) then you might want to soak your cyanide in grapes (do not try anywhere).
Editor: We can’t publish the bit about potassium cyanide and strawberries.Author: It’s effective, isn’t it? Editor: Too effective. It’s going to be cut. Is this why you named this Strawberry Suicide?Author: Working title.Editor: Yeah, you need to cut this part too.Author: No! Editor: Yep, you can…Author: I’ll make you a deal. Editor: What?Author: I’ll change your name to ‘editor’ and replace the bit about how to actually kill yourself, but, I would like to show the world how virtuous you are, to want to make sure no one packed a jar full of strawberries and soaked them in cyanide. It’s nice that you wouldn’t want anyone to do that. I want people to see that, you don’t even know them, and yet you wouldn’t want them endangered.Editor: God dammit, Brandon. Author: What?Editor: You always do this. Always. You don’t have to include everything. Editor 2: He’s fucking incorrigible. He doesn’t listen. Author: DOWN IN YOUR BASEMENT, EDITOR 2.Editor 2: *Hisses* EDITOR_2 HAS LEFT CHAT Author: As I was saying. RELEASE THE HOUNDS.
Anyway, I digress. I was suicidal and my editor wanted you to know that she cares that you not do so. Who knows, you might have someone care about whether or not you live or die in your own life. Like a Warrior Princess. And, while she was none too pleased with my habits, being ethical, she gave me the chance I needed, the chance I wanted, to remake something. It would defy entropy, the cosmos’ final boss, if only for a time. And, being the fictional character that I totally am, I fucked it up. How? The laptop.
5
As we started getting together more often (after the relationship ended, and we started talking again, but we were not sharing genitalia which is totally cool I mean, no, it’s not based on that), I realized that the best way to love someone, is to love what they love, and love for the same reasons. I loved her kids, her family (except her mom), and got to actually see them. Something that I knew from my days in the friendzone that she did not expose her children to. Xena’s history had shown her that it was best not to bring people into her children’s lives if she thought they could harm them. And I did not want to. I helped the youngest with his math homework, I helped the eldest with her sight-reading (an aspiring musician), and I was sincere. It is only a true tragedy when something is on the line. Poe thought it was the death of a beautiful woman. The ancient Greeks thought it was an informative flaw, held by all great men, that exists to remind the storytellers of the folly of humanity or something (I’m an idiot).  It doesn’t have to be the loss of a beautiful woman, tragedy. It can be an extremely poor military decision (attacking up-hill at Gettysburg and unclear orders by General Lee), the loss of life (all the people who died because of this man’s fuck up), or the victory itself, since from all great wounds come great scars. Scars begin life as scabs, then fester as they’re picked at, some people pick their scabs just because they enjoy scratching. I pick them because they itch like poison oak, the kind that has a bad crack addiction and is always scratching the under side of their chin, like the guy from Chappelle’s Show when he drank Red Bull.  And scars, like those across one’s head, allow no new hair to grow. So it is a contentious spot, a deformity to the body and the land, it lingers, it seeps into people and to their culture, perverting it, distorting it, and pickling it. Turning it from a healthy organism, the humble cucumber, into a sour, shrunken, more succulent shell of what it once was. It can be a mistake, too, tragedy: it can be leaving too early, it can be forgetting something, it can be intentional, and it can be accidental and intentonal at the same time. It is the long arm of karma that makes sure checks, once written to the universe, are cashed, as they must be. My mistake was multiform, and its results varying: but it started with the laptop, being left at my house, when I was to stay the weekend at her new house, some 45 miles from Shit-marsh.  I left it on the top of her car when I returned to my home to get my valise (a pretentious suitcase that is slimmer and softer), and upon returning, just shut the fucking door like I had everything, and she drove off with my laptop bag on top of the car. Inside that laptop bag was my laptop, my deodorant, and my medicine. This was the biggest mistake I had ever made, and I once slid down a rail nut-first while trying to board slide it after dedicating a year of my formative age to becoming a pro-skateboarder. Yeah, sad, I know.
6
When we got to her house, that’s when I realized that my laptop was missing. I was frantic. It had all my writing on it, my means of employment, and my dissertation in linguistics and human expression. It also had my medicine, a loose term, which in this case included Tramadol, a semi-synthetic opiate which helps ease low-level pain and headaches and not punch co-workers who still can’t stop let Let it Go go, and Adderall, which helped me focus since I’m allergic to coffee and naturally lazy. But I was most worried about my laptop. First I called my aunt, over and over and over, then, after being informed by my memory she was in the hospital, I attempted to call my mother, who lived not far from where my house was, on the end of the street. After failing to contact either, I began calling friends, after all, I was desperate.  I got in touch with two of them, and at that time, Xena Warrior Princess and I were on our way back to Shit-marsh to try to pick it up, with me looking out the window along the entire drive. Of the two friends, one claims to have never gone by, while the other claimed, as I talked to him as he walked by my house, not to have seen it. I was frantic, as I said earlier, and so began, in my quiet way, to lose my damn mind. Now, I don’t know what happened, when he went by, but when I got there, the laptop was gone, and with it, my sanity and calmness of mind. I was to visit that weekend to work on our story, the one we were writing together, not ‘our story’, the one we were living together. And even after this great loss, she promised she would replace it and I sold her the rights to my publication in art, as an I.O.U. to help me replace the laptop. And instead of working on the computer, we worked together. But when I went to the bathroom, I saw in the medicine cabinet that her son, and daughter together, had replacement medication for what I had lost.  At first I only drank a bit of the cough syrup, and took the ADHD medication sparingly, but as Xena and I wound down the night, I took more, losing count, of her children’s medication, knowing what I was doing, completely violating her trust, and yet it was the best night of my life. We worked in the kitchen, each with a nice, hard drink, and it was so damn wonderful and amazing the way she laughed, the way we were that night, if I could, like Dream in Fables and Reflections from The Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, preserve that night as he did Bagdad in the story Ramadan, if I could preserve one night, minus the theft, it would be that. We ate together, Xena and I and her children, Chinese food, Kung Pao chicken. I helped her daughter finish her homework, I helped her son with a bit of his, and the whole night, I thought, what better life could one live?  She was not my girlfriend, and I did not think of her as such, but she was as much as a girlfriend, more than one, closer than friend, more than a mere lover. I was not in love, or maybe I was, but it was a feeling that was planted, one that had sprung from an accident seed the day we met by accident, as I attempted to contact her sister about a book I was working on. The night wound down and I remember, standing with her on the porch and talking about us, ‘us’ in that sense, and I saw, perhaps for the first time in years, since I cheated on that bygone New Year’s Eve, the first bit of light, the hint of a dawn, one that would clear away the moth-eaten view of the world I had, one in which all happiness was fleeting, all matter, all statues to dissolve, impermanent and transient, just as the Dhammapada said. As it had said, one who commits a foolish acts is as one who lights a fire, surely, one day he will burn. But when you burn is when you learn.  She told me that night that maybe, when she had things straight in her own mind, that she would always be there for me, if not as a girlfriend or more, as a friend, someone who would love me. And I thought that’s enough, what I would not have done to ensure that, what I would do now to go back in time, to undo the falling laptop, the deal with “Kevin”, the theft of Maybelle, the fire that caught up. We slept in the same bed that night, listening to Proust and laughing so hard, making up stupid jokes (my forte), and enjoying life, as much as possible.  I could not sleep. But I lay there with her till she slept, and we were snuggled together. And I decided, if that was all it ever was, if there was no sex or kissing or anything, that tangential love, that love by the transitive property, that was enough and then-some. Had I known, had I been a man of virtue, had I not taken the medicine, had I not put it away, had I not left it on the car, had I been a better man, perhaps I would have now a better life. Perhaps I would not suggest a poisonous concoction of strawberries.
7
When she woke up, she first prepared the children for school and, after that, one need not be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that she was well aware of what I had done. It was written on her face, the deepest resentment and disappoint, the furrowed brow, the quick and curt replies. I packed my things quietly and the drive home was a long one. We talked about calling the other, and even hugged, but as I felt her arms around me, I felt the lack of deserving them, the lack of deserving, again, of any kindness. I deserved her hatred, and to be cut off from her life. Later that afternoon she called and told me she wanted me to take off the mask, the goofy self I present to the world to hide myself, a defense mechanism common to orphan children. I said yes. She thanked me for not lying to her, and then told me, you know, everyone told me this would happen with you. Her mother had told her.  And then she said, in a moment not dissimilar from the Simpsons’ moment when Bart pauses the television screen to show Lisa the moment when Ralph’s heart broke, that I could never come to her house again, nor see her children again, and that, as far as our story was concerned, she didn’t know if she would continue it. I said I understand, I apologized, until I could not anymore, and she said she would be by later to pick up her daughter’s keyboard, which I was using to make it look like a Mac for her.  I was able to make one last mistake, and oversleep, failing to give it back on time. But, after it was returned, we talked a few times, and then stopped. I checked her conversations, yes, if I was so horrid a man to take from children, graduating to Facebook spying was not out of character. And the things she said about me, those things, each letter cruel in its impersonal, sterile lines, each adding up to the point of a knife, each sentence, after the night before, when I mentioned the hint of light, the pale metaphor to explain the moment when a man sees the possibility of happiness in the future. It was covered, and the sun went black and I went back to “Kevin”‘s way of doing things.
When one commits a foolish act, he is lighting a fire in which he will one day burn.
My obsession with strawberries and burning goes back to my childhood, when, for the first time, I had a whole basket of strawberries. To make them extra delicious, I dipped them in sugar. That night I found out, as the hives rose like fleshy red plateaus along my stomach and my face, I was deathly allergic to the fruit of false promises (I would later learn it was no true berry, either), and later that night it would make my throat swell. My parents’ first response was to put me in a cold bath, because, this is logical: I felt as though I was burning up, as each bit of skin was extremely angry and wanted me to know.  When I hit the water I was paralyzed immediately. It was hotter than anything I’ve ever felt, the cold water, and I was unable to move. I have told close friends about this experience, to be wrapped in what feels like an all encompassing womb of fire, where the amniotic fluid is more flames, and it was like sleep paralysis. The situation where one wakes and is unable to move. There are paintings and old folktales of this, tales which suggest there is a demon sitting on your chest. My mom sat on the toilet attempting to call the town doctor. The first thing he said was not to put him in cold water. Had they called the doctor first, perhaps I would not have been put through such a trauma, one that recurs every now and then, as an acid flashback that wants to murder you and remind you of the deadliness of the faux-berries.
8
Karma’s reach is a long one, unimpeded by distance, whether in space or time, and its reality is a wonderful horror; the only permanence in a world of transition, is loss. It never goes away. If there is any consolation in that, in that, while we live, in the long shadow of silence, between lines created by shadows, we have only the passing away of things to look forward to. The story we were writing, the one that we were living, was deleted, and Xena moved onto someone less inclined to abandoning trust and love for fear, for anxiety, for anything, and I did not harass her; I wanted her to get away from me, not because I did not need her, not because I did not love her, but it would be more tragic by far for someone of such goodness, of such radiance of character and beauty, to remain long in the marsh with a degenerate such as myself. But, I hoped that I would get to see her again, that one day some mitigating factor, some degree of pity or my own pittance might bring her back. It did not.  I decided to get clean, to take to heart those teachings of virtue which I had previously believed in, having logically understood their internal rightness. It is a different than by far for the mind to know, in principle, that fire is hot. It is another experience entirely to be fed to flames and left to burn, for months, to be known for such failure and such horrible choices. If I were to stumble upon a lamp, as the stories of ancient Arabia – though not originally a part of One Thousand and One Nights – Aladdin and the Genie, I would ask for one wish: not for my pain to be removed, but for anything I did to harm her, for any minute, or any moment, and for any harm done to her children through me, to be undone, only that their lives would not be further marred by their mother’s decision, the wrong one, to think me worth loving. I would wish not for more wishes, but for more genies, and give them the charge of seeing to her concerns for the rest of her life. Removing all obstacles for her and her kids, I would command them to take from her life, through any means, any deceptive rose bush without first having shorn each thorn capable of drawing blood.  I wish that I wasn’t impotent to change, so incompetent in practice that I had recourse to hope, to wish, to bend the laws of nature to undo the most awful of mistakes. To undo the kindling, and the kerosene, which is life, each situation: kindling just waiting for a match, or a fire already lit waiting for a breath of life. But, I digress: to change, that would mean changing myself for the sole sake of decency, with little hope to gain from it. And, if I’ve learned anything, it is a rare flower indeed that blooms only to give unto the world its fragrant smell, or picaresque scenery, a rarer one that loves what would sit, oblivious by, and pick from the living organism, one petal after another, ‘She loves me, she loves me not’. I remember the Mitch Hedberg joke where he imagines this from the perspective of what the flower would say. ‘Ouch!’ and ‘dammit!’ and ‘leave me alone!’ as someone plucked. ‘And he loves you not!’ In the end, I decided to try to get off the crutches I had used, and thereby undermine the possibility of any such repetition, with Xena or with a lesser warrior, for all were lesser in comparison to her, as was the Tramadol and adderral, the sun and stars and other such trivial things compared, if they were, to that night we spent, not a couple, but not separate; in bed, but not; but together, sharing, giving, and in the dark, we lay there, lamenting our inability to write as well as Proust as we listened to Swann’s Way. I talked about how it might be possible to market her underwear to Japanese vending machines under ‘The Bourgeois Vag’, and we kicked our feet like children, delirious from too much sleep and too much refined sugar. We were as two friends on a first sleepover, laying together, we might as well have practiced kissing or talked about the boys at school.  I had the feeling that we had reverted to an earlier age in life, to an age where farts were still funny and the world was new, and love was something to be protected, behind lasers and security systems, every bit as valuable as the Mona Lisa or a Vermeer. Xena’s favorite was Vermeer, as she said, he was the Proust of painters, the way he made such every day, non-dramatic scenes of life stand out as the most beautiful. The blush of a young woman on the cusp of womanhood, reading the words of someone she much adores. Or a woman in a crown of flowers holding a trumpet and an atlas, as though she were the Greek god whom Hercules relieved, briefly, only to trick into taking up the world once more, in the ancient myths. No, I’ve always related more to Sisyphus, the titan who, in trying to trick the gods to save his wife, attempted to capture Kronos, the over-god of time, Chronos, not Zeus’ father, the not-so-picky eater who devoured a generation of gods.  In failing, with his co-conspirator of Hades, who, to be frank, could not be sent to Hell, he was punished to forever roll a stone up a hill, only to get to the top and, to make the point of futility it seeks, the rock falls down the other side. Camus said we must imagine Sisyphus laughing, in his Le mythe de sisyphe. But Albert Camus is absurd.  I cannot imagine such a thing. I carry the memory of one woman whom above all else I adored, and I’d rather anything than carry it. I’d immolate myself as did Thich Quang duc, the Buddhist monk who self-immolated to protest the treatment of Buddhists in South Vietnam. But, in the same tradition, those words that keep repeating, ‘when one commits an evil act, one is lighting a fire in which one day one will burn’, there is nothing of greater instructive value: you may not know it, as I did not know, when I took in Maybelle’s computer, fixed it and then jipped “Kevin” to keep it. In the end, Xena did not replace it, and I went without a computer to work on. I lost the will to quill. Without a pen a writer is less than what they are: it is less extension than prosthesis, and when one loses it, there is a type of phantom pain, a scar that is sure to grow, to be divisive, as one grew up between me and Xena.
9
Dera Xena I had to tell them the truthYou Warrior Princess, you fountain of youthYou poor man’s Serendipity, you museRemembering Falling? Remember Ballyhoo?Remember all those times you said, without sarcasm,Without dissembling,I love you for all the wrong reasons,For all we share? It never diedIt’s all still there, just packed away, safe from time.
This was a place we invented, a make-believe ballroom where, before we went to sleep, we would talk the other to sleep, so that we could attempt to follow them into their dreams to make our long distance relationship possible. At first we would sync movies to begin at the same time and then shut off the lights and pretend, if Poirot’s lips matched, we watched together, miles apart. We called it Romantic Action at a Distance.  The idea was one night I remembered a song, it was that song, for those who know that stupid truism that there is one song that when listening all one does is think about ways to get drunk. Because for many the images of someone who we loved are flashing over our eyes and sobriety must be stopped. It is an unholy possession of what isn’t there: I sat in the car, put on the song (And this is true: the song was Madame Butterly. Every time I heard Marie Callas all I thought of was her. And every time I saw the Girl in the Pearl Earring I’d have a sort of rush of memory, taking me back to the couch at her house as we sat scrunched together watching war documentaries. It was research. Our book was to be about a great supervillain named Dlina, ‘wave length’, a villain who starts World War III and becomes a universal absolute dictator. The character, at least, was based in part on Xena in her more … imperial moments.  The fantasy was that she would subdue the world, and we would write about the tragedy of peace. The tragedy that winning does not justify, such as the failed campaigns of the villains, the greatest victories, are to some the worst of tragedies. To lose one person must be nothing for the amount of widows made by the greatest of wars, from Ramses II at Kadesh to General Lee Gettysburg, Paulus at Stalingrad, all those orphans made by chance, by the far-off warcry of absentee fathers pursuing glory and virtue, as the marshal Romans did, like Alexander of Macedon or Tamerlane, Genghis Khan or Ashoka.  It is hard, I believe, to learn empathy, to learn it past the conceptual knowledge of understanding that, yes, fire is hot, with the physical and conscious knowing what fire feels like when it grabs you and forces you to bow to pain. That’s the moment artists try to preserve, the moment something is taken: is that not the measure of tragedy? To lose a princess, if only one who is titled this to avoid getting sued, is surely not so deep a problem as, say, the fall of Thebes to the Persian army, when the centuries of cultural riches of Egypt were taken and the city sacked, not as thoroughly as Rome had sacked Carthage, but it was plundered; men were carried off as slaves, women as concubines.  I know, and this might surprise you, the world is larger than what I can see. But when you have, or think you have nothing, something, anything can become the equivalent of a world. I do not try to compare this surgical, umbilical severance to the Waterloo, morne plane. I understand. But it is a different of knowing conceptually that fire is hot, and having to burn, and in that is all the difference in the world.
10
When I say that it is fiction, I mean that there was no “Kevin” or no Shit-marsh, but there was a man, there was a Maybelle, and in the end, her laptop was returned. After doing some investigation, after the pathetic lamentations of the previous chapter, I found out how my computer was stolen, how I came to the nexus point. A nexus point is when life is greatly altered, after which a previous possibility becomes impossible and a new life that did not have to be starts. A nexus point is an event that knocks down the strongest. The greatest men, have, and so do the greatest women, something that has hurt them. It may have been a man who, as sorry as he is, harmed her children, or it may have been a laptop thief. It may have been a series of events put in motion the moment where I decided it was okay to steal something. I got the laptop that I needed.  It helped me get, not only our relationship started again, but I got to visit, to work on the story, I got to snuggle one last time and hold her. Without it, I would have remained a 9-5 walking embodiment of the ‘those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. A caricature of ‘tortured artist’, recycling tropes from Edgar Poe. The opiate addiction, the taunting of birds. A raven that said ‘Nevermore!’ and an owl who said ‘Who!’ and, to a schizophrenic, you must agree that this is at least rude. ‘Who’ the owl asked, ‘Who, who, who, who’ — and to a man who wears first the clown mask then the very-serious-aren’t-you mask, this is a trick question. It is like the Blank Man created in the novel L’homme Nouveau by Charles Pinon. The blank man was created by a scientist without any moral or racial prejudices, given the perfect brain and the perfect muscles, the strength, the perfect athleticism. But when the blank man is introduced to gambling, he gets over-competitive at the roulette table.  The idea of chance for a being made of purpose is an intoxication, as is the idea of order for those at home in crisis. The blank man acquires behavior very similar to that of a machine, as Pinon describes: ‘He renamed himself as to throw off the watching security cameras of the casino, wearing his new beret and knit-scarf. He had not come to win; the excitement of gain was an alien one. The idea that order was not constant, or randomness, that was a rush. The meaninglessness for the blank person, programmed to be the perfect person, was a powerful motivator.  As he turned into a middle-aged man, the blank person became very serious with women. But, at the moment it got serious, or the question of permanence arose, the formerly blank man, now going by the name of Theodore [he changed his name for every person he met, reasoning that it would be better that they remember him as he was for them and not as he was by popular reputation, as he hated popular description when it did not accord with his sense of innate purpose, despite his reveling in the chaos of our normal person’s existential horror, his own horror was in the inability of others to perceive him uniformly, only as, what he believed, were a variety of facets of his total person, but as he aged, he lost memory of them, and each facet came undone until, in the end, he was the Blank Man once again.
11
We were out of touch for a long time, and in that time, I replaced the laptop with a replica, and continued to write. I worked on finishing a collection of short stories, like sane men do. In the meantime, I came to know that the laptop had been found. I had called my family first, then I called two friends. While one had never come by, or so his girlfriend at the time said, the other had, by his own admission, walked by my house. The problem with this is that person would later go onto say some very incriminating things. Let’s look at it from a detective’s point of view. If something goes missing and you want to make sure someone has it, if it is being ransom, what would be the first way to identify the person who indeed has it? Imagine it as one of those, ‘Found: Large Amount of Cash’ situations wherein one must go in and state the exact amount lost in order to claim the money.  This makes it impossible for anyone to just come in and say, ‘I lost a large amount of money’ and take it away, just because anyone who says that can get it. The first thing you want to know who is aware of details only someone who would have it would be aware of? The MURDERER! In this case, the person who took it. Well, I made friend’s with a guy, who was also friends with the other person whom I had attempted to get to come by my house and look for my laptop. This new friend, let’s call him duplicitous, decided he would do me a favor and tell me that the other friend, whom he knew I suspected of having stolen my laptop, was bragging that he had taken my computer.  He was also saying, incorrectly as it turned out, that I couldn’t go to the police because it was stolen. this was an err on his part, because I did go to the police as soon as Xena let me out at my house. I got on my desktop computer and pinged the server on the missing laptop to get an IP address; this would let me get a geo-location and found out where it was the night it was taken but the officer was more concerned with writing up the criminal report that getting back the stolen property. This would be like if a police officer were to arrive at your home after your wife has been shot and, instead of doing everything he can to save her life, wants to get all the paperwork taken care of.  Not only did the person who apparently wanted me to know he had stolen from me said that the computer had been stolen, which implied not only did the new friend, the duplicitous one, know the exact laptop, since it had been stolen by “Kevin” from Maybelle, the hypothetical lady who had misplaced trust in a junkie (I understand you could make the joke that this description could apply equally to Xena, but in my defense, fuck you). This guy always happened to know that inside the bag of the stolen laptop were the two types of medication that were inside the case, the types of medication that I needed, the type that, had I had that night, the nexus point that turned me to a world in which I thought of strawberry suicide would not have happened! He had not taken just a laptop from me. He had taken a future from me. And I don’t care! I don’t care that it comes down to a choice I made! I was put into a position to make that choice only because of this theft, this theft from me! He took my fucking future, he took her, even if through my hands, the moment he carried off that computer. He took away a future, a future where such nights of lounging in bed, of listening to Swann’s Way and talking about Japanese panty vending machines, he took away every moment that could have meant something more than a daily dredge in a lecture hall, or a day alone, a night alone, a night when you have to be Nobody by yourself.  And in the end, Maybelle got her computer back. But the man who stole the computer from me, I never called him out on it. I always made him believe I thought the other man to be guilty, that way I could say such things as ‘what kind of piece of shit would do that?’ in front of the person who did it, to call them a piece of shit to their face in my own very slippery way of getting some petty revenge. We remain friends to this day. Well, I wouldn’t say friend but I’m not, as the Germans say, mad with desire to stick a knife in him.
12
There is an old joke in my family, by my adoptive siblings, that I was born with a boy’s balls but with a woman’s sensibility. What they mean is that, as a young boy, I cried when I saw things die. Or when I watched a film and, say, someone is hit by a car. They sat with popcorn on their laps and, each time someone hit a windshield, god damn, they’d hoot and holler like drug addled owls let loose in very small space. The notion is that I care too much, or that I let things bother me that I shouldn’t, and the lesson here is that they’re not exactly progressive in the way that they view gender and toughness, despite my adoptive mom having had more balls than the three male children she had, not including the two she would adopt, including me and my eldest younger brother (it’s not complicated at all).  She was a woman for whom I had absolute respect. I would not say she was as tough as nails; nails, to her, would be as soft as jell-o pudding. She could take a shower in diamond and it would not be dry. It would require a Dorothy tipped drill to cut through diamond. And yet, they said I was a woman, since I wrote poetry and thought Egypt and dinosaurs were each the coolest subjects on Earth and I wanted to be a performing clown, like Pagliacci. They suggested perhaps I was a homosexual, and from then on I kept such literary notions to myself, and though I talked to my father, we never talked about how I should be more of a man. My real father, I never knew, and this isn’t hackneyed fiction, it’s hackneyed truth, but I knew my adoptive father, but only for the 8 years in which I lived with him after being adopted. He died when I was fourteen, before I had to shave, before I would disappoint a woman for the first time sexually.  He never told me how to be a good person. But when he died, I took my graduation present and spent all of the money on books on ethics and philosophy. They took me in, and I wanted to repay that generosity. I studied the ethics of men who had no problem with slavery and execution, with philosophers of the highest virtue whose teachings would be perverted within years of the deaths. I saw the great religions of the world and thought, as a typical atheist does, look at all the war and horror caused by this. Of course, at that time, I did not consider that, among the living, there is great comfort, and for the dead, well, as they say, the war is over. I was always a pacifist, more yet, I was a coward. I thought that being without fear meant not being afraid of death. No, it is being afraid of trying your hardest and then admitting that you’ve failed. It’s getting the opportunity through your own choices, and then losing, not because of fate or misfortune, but through choice. And the debates of human nature are myriad, but I think of people much more like the blank slate mate from Pinon’s absurdist novel. They take in what they believe to be guiding principles, think themselves of worth and purpose, and then are somehow shocked when the universe doesn’t seem like it was made to cater to their whims, almost as if it’s silence, if the long shadow of silence is the silence of god.  The silence of absence, of Xena, of giggling in the dark, of the settling of a mire, that, in its miasmatic form, at least, is not locked; transience is not simply the passing of the good, it is the impermanence of the bad. Xena, whom I kept up with, watching as her life became happier and happier, and, I wanted to be virtuous. I wanted her to be happy. Even if she was happy because of someone else. I was Nobody, a little joke we used to make based on a flop of a book I wrote (it was fiction, but the failure of it in this work of fiction is true); I created a character who, being an addict, imagines himself to be a slave and, like the blank man, tells everyone he meets he is a different person until, finally, he does not know which mask is his actual face. So he takes the name Neti Atman, or not self, and Nobody, as a sort of linguist joke between very nerdy friends, became how I would refer to myself in saying certain things that, ironically, sound horrible. I would say: “This is why Nobody loves you” or “Nobody will ever love you”, but with the key to the cypher, it is not saying Nobody, it is a less awkward way for an awkward, very confused man to say I love you, without losing the hint of irreverence that makes the pain of being rejected when in earnest more bearable.
13
After Xena got engaged, she went to an exotic land, not only because I don’t want to narrow this down so far that the real person can become known because of my tales, but it had also been a place we had talked about visting. And while there she went to 2-21 B Baker St, the Sherlock Holmes museum. My favorite literary ubermensch. She visited Shakespeare’s home (allegedly) and I saw her there, with someone that was not me, and I was okay with that. I thought, the tragedy of my having been in her life has been mitigated, as her virtuous actions have followed, as an ox follows a cart. But, deep down, it’s hard to be happy when a friend succeeds. To see an enemy fail, that is an easy thing to bear. But the success of a friend? Never. But, I digress. Xena always said that a digression becomes a conversation when there’s no end to it, to which I responded by talking about the differences between expressionist and impressionist art for two hours to make a point about the difference between passive and impassive passion. And yes, she spoke to me again.  This is coming now not quite to the end of our tale, but it is within sight. To come up to the present day, it won’t take long. She contacted me, perhaps, because she remembered that when we talked, when I made her laugh those very specific laughs, the ones which earned only a haha were not to be repeated, but those that let out a smattering of laughter followed by the vocal, high pitched end-of-laugh sigh, the voice of a Warrior Princess, a woman of virtue, of nobility, the woman in whose presence I would insert the clip of Wayne’s World with Mike Meyes and Garth doing they’re we’re not worthy schtick, but from what we’ve covered, it’s probably abundantly obvious that this is so. I had studied what was right but had never taken the trouble to doing it. Etc, was the start of it, but I will not digress; I will go forward.  She contacted me a few months ago, saying that her relationship with, let’s call him “Dicknose”, wasn’t working out. She couldn’t talk to him, and he was stupid. And, well aware of my other faults, and they. are. LEGION. She said she had always thought that we had intelligent conversations, not necessarily that I was smart, but us, when put together, were the sum of our parts, not merely two people inhabiting differently fleshy vehicles, but one person divided between them, and I think she believed in this, this notion that, if I was not the one, as a zero, I had come the closest to being the one without going over while Dicknose had been a boor. She told me that her engagement with this man was over, and after that day, we began talking every day again. Within a few days, we talked on the phone. And I talked to her every day, and apologized each time I had a chance.  I would like to think there is a happy ending, that there is now, again, a glimpse of light; in that, that the virtue of one person might make redeemable a person who would be, without them, irredeemable, without any quality to anyone. Someone Nobody would love. We started working on that book of ours again, and working on our story. It’s a rough draft, but I think it has potential. She told me that, when she got in arguments with her fiancée, while he so remained, he would sometimes say, This is why Nobody will ever love you, and when he mentioned Nobody, she thought of me. It’s not quite Cindarella, sure, but I’ll take it.

Goodbye, Heloise (or the Death of Reason), 1st draft

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Goodbye, Heloise (or, the Death of Reason) 2017
Edmund_Blair_Leighton_-_Abaelard_Und_Seine_Schülerin_Heloisa
 
The Renaissance has come and gone
And those savants whose minds, who’ve shown
fountains of wisdom and repose
And yet synthetic breeds disease,
The victory sickness, joy fatigue;
Stimulation numbness,
Too fragile for a breeze.
There once was an age of Reason
‘Till the death of Heloise
 
In her manor house at Laughter Hall
The world watched this sun Goddess fall,
And applause like filth clung to them all;
Unreasonable, it had not seemed,
When the dark age came
and reason heaved
its final sigh, only to die,
burned high in Effigy.
The age of reason spanned the years
That walked the Earth this goddess, here,
Whose setting roused the drowsy
And now she’s vilified
When Heloise fell, our reason died.
 
Hark! The herald cried, His Majesty, by God
Above the weak, above the meek,
The divine baboon trod.
Atop the poor above the rest;
In the latest fashion dressed.
While those looked on could only moan,
The cannon fired as down the crown
Came upon the Long Night’s brow
Making light the dark, and dark the light,
Savants are stumped, the King is right;
Submit yourself, prostrate, Akbar, akbar,
Praise the Neon Razamar.
 
Razamir, the clown deceives,
He offers gold, and repays greed,
With sicknesses of want, with need
The prophet motive bends their needs
The need for more it whips the back
Of Razamir and his bizarre
Bazar of idols and of cars
Mass produced, by workers scarred
To pay for the great crown’s caviar.
But in the tales, the Clown’s a djinn
Who split the Earth at Crete and Sindh
Razamir, who brought down Rome
By offering Augustus home,
As Heir to self-styled Caesar,
Hairy man with want of hair
Sacked Egypt and the culture died,
As Carthage had, as wealthy men
In royal robes with fancy pens
Wrote the law for common men
 
The phoenix died and long stayed low
Until the great Mahound arose
And the sword, blessed by Miraj
And Alakazam
The sword of light lit darkened lands
And numerals, The Taj Majal
The astrolabe,
The world revolves.
America, humans evolved
Heloise had come again.
 
A hundred years, too much to call,
The atom bomb and power-saw
Mass media and marathons,
Kennedy’s brains and Vietnam
The cowboy and the Desert Raj
The saxophonist and the sound,
Made when paper hits the ground,
And Heloise, whose brief rebirth
Had peaked between the promise
And declined with the curse
of the monkey sprang from Razamir’s purse.
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5 Political Policies from History (Dumber than Trump’s Wall)

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Do you think politicians have never made ridiculous laws and enforce absurd punishments? Oh, you sweet naive theoretical person. For anyone caught up in the craziness of modern politics, I’d like to share some of history’s most ridiculous laws and their effects.

5) Books are Imprisoned in Pre-Revolutionary France

When you think about the French Revolution, what comes to mind? A whole bunch of guillotines and terrorized citizens? An Emperor of exaggerated shortness? What about the reason for all that guillotinin’?

Before the French Revolution, France was divided into three estates, or classes. Each were privileged under private law (the definition of privilege) and for those born at the bottom, you started from the bottom and you died there, as well as all of your descendants. The first and second estates were the nobility (those who fight, soldiers, generals); those who pray (the clergy and the church). The third estate was everybody else. That’s roughly 99% of the people. They were born with better, bluer blood, and that’s just tellin’ it how it is.

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Started from the bottom now we here.

Now, if you were in the third estate, you had to pay the nobility for permission to work on their land, pay the royal taxes and the salt tax (which the first and second estates did not have to pay). You were also unable to talk about things such as “human rights” or “natural rights” of “equality” or “freedom”. If someone was to write a book that suggested that, hey, wait, maybe all people should be treated equally under the law, they were prone to arrest and imprisonment. And their books would be locked up, too, right there in the Bastille.

French philosophes were the driving idealists behind the period now known as the Enlightenment. It was a period in European history where traditional values and customs were being challenged by trendy notions of “logic” and “reason”. The French philosophes, Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau were the driving force behind the social scene, where the upper classes sat in fancy salons talking un-ironically about the Equality of Man, chugging like it was infused with sugar that was the product of slave labor in their overseas colonies. But if you wrote any of this down, the King would haul you and your fucking pamphlet and books into the slammer. He did the same to the Marquis de Sade, the E.L. James of his day, except for the talent, wit and talent. Did I mention talent?

“They… broke me.”

#4 – Tsar Nicholas I Sentences a Boat to Death (for Treason)

After his father Alexander II got exploded on the 8th assassination attempt (suck it, Lincoln!) his son, Nicholas I, instead of the presumed heir Konstantine, would exceed to the throne. Nicholas was, a bit conservative. Even for an autocrat. The first thing he did was roll-back all of his father’s reforms, such as the zemtsvos (which it has been noted may have grown into state legislatures), along with some literary independence (writing the wrong portrayal of, say, any other Russian Tsar, would get you exploded. As for Alex “il Duce’ Romanov, he has come to be known as the Great Liberator, after he freed the serfs in 1861, 3 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

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#3

First chapter finished

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I

 

Students and readers are no doubt familiar with Shakespeare’s popular history play Julius Caesar. What may be less familiar is the social and political climate in which the play was written. There had been a long succession crisis in Tudor england during the 1560s1 and the possibility of civil war was very real. With no heir or obvious successor, it’s not hard to imagine Elizabeth sensing plots all around her. With Parliament standing in for the senators of Rome in Shakespeare’s drama, she had every right to be nervous. There were plots being organized to overthrow Elizabeth I. Pope Pius V denounced her as a heretic and decreed anyone who killed her would not sin, and would have god’s blessing. Conspirators on the ground in France and Catholic Spain plotted her overthrow with Rome, organized behind the idea of putting the Catholic Mary Steward on the throne. Elizabeth outmaneuvered Mary, and she would face the gallows after being caught out on a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth, and she was consumed within the famous Babington plot, and later at Chartley Manor by Elizabeth’s very capable spymaster, Walsingham. One wonders if Elizabeth ever dreaded that the English Civil Wars would soon upon her death, and wondered about the Parliament threat to the persons of Kings and Queens.

This paper will not be a study of which conspiracy is right or wrong. It will not be based on a personal perspective, but on a perspectival that looks at conspiracy and its effects on those who are inclined to believe them and skeptics. A conspiracy movement is motivated by shared beliefs and principles, sometimes philosophical, sometimes political, and they’re willing to work towards the realization of an agreed upon social object. Conspiracies are the culture myths of the post-social world, whereby we understand the phenomena of thunder much more than we do the complicated and elaborated that conspiracists work to bring out of each other in an example of social multi-think. Questioning belief can become a mantra, and conspiracy is a skeptic’s secular mythology, replete with heroes and villains like the mythography of old, with apostles and gurus, each armed with Psalm-like literature. There are characters that deceive, misinformation agents, and our social and personal self-actualization is in opposing them. If not physically, spiritually, as the hero exposes the global conspiracy of alien control through media consumption and dies with a middle finger pointed at them in John Carpenter’s social satire They Live. It has been taken to be a sort of allegory, but it can be an allegory literarily speaking without necessarily being a true intentional revealing of a specific conspiracy about a specific peoples. But, conspiracy theories have applied to others (and our entertainment has thrilled us with the barbaric others in popular cinema). The notion for us in the modern world is to pull the mask off these powerful structures to expose them, as a conspiracy theorist is want to do in a case where they have become emotionally compromised by the material. It falls in line with the notion that in the west hearing “voices” as a symptom of schizophrenia is typified by angrier, more violent personas than those in far-eastern countries. While those in America imagine hostile forces.

In ancient cultures, these inner voices were considered the voice of ancestors, in Chinese familial piety, the sense of self actualization came through the reverence of tradition and the ancestors, passing down their belief and storytelling traditions, waiting for each successive generation to contribute. As in an unfinished religion, before the New Testament, there was still an installment on its way. And yet, an active conspiracy theory is an oral tradition that has yet to be formalized and compiled into its secular mythology. Those who have rejected traditional structures for alternatives hold as fast as to those alternatives as they once held, or as those they now self-arrange as opposite, replacing what was once the vast force of God and giving meaning to the season by the explanation that the earth rotates on an axis at a 23-degree tilt, causing the seasons. We give the force of nature over to nature, letting it be sufficient enough to enforce its own laws, while behind the scenes where there were once vast, all-powerful gods and forces of nature, we now have a never-ending lattice wherein all contribution towards the conspiratorial argument of a belief structure is attached to a pre-structured apocrypha. In the past, we resigned the unseen work to Providence, but in a conspiratorial mindset we put the hat on those that can’t be identified. We give human agency to chance and probability, imbuing it with many and purpose, with a ready source of blame for our discontent.

In ancient cultures, beliefs and cultural identity came from tradition and culture heroes4. A social cell ranges from a small collective come together by an operative principle of thinking together, the creation of a social, public area of life with mutual interests. Any collective, from native tribes to modern collectives, has a foundational, motivational principle built into its structure. A civilization could be, in this sense, regarded as a realized social cell: a cell in which a stable majority of interacting non-social individuals share the beliefs and values of the collective and identify socially in the manner of an individual, participating in holidays and respecting the traditions of the tribe. An individual need only look to the heroes and villains of legend to understand how to work virtuously and for the greater good, as a civic service.

Historically, a generic social cell was built on the foundation of myth, identity, purpose, motivation, and meaning. A civil purpose, the familiar routines of tradition and communal meals at synagogue, church, or Masonic lodge. Conspiracy touches on notions of structural stability, that of institutions and social, greater good establishments for an organized people, where the social cell perpetuates shared values which give individuals a group identity of non-social goals. A pre-social cell is a society that hasn’t congealed, or one that is together purely for survival and necessity. When we consider groups, we would do better to consider individual motives. The study of conspiracy theory allows us to look at how belief takes shape by looking at myth as it happens, in popular entertainment, literature and culture. It helps us understand how societies function in their formation and disintegration. In conspiracy theories, one can work by looking for patterns. And sometimes, when we are possessed of a belief, we tend to see patterns everywhere, and the mistakes we make in finding patterns where there are none is something worth considering when looking for patterns you expect to see, as pareidolia can make links to ideas and objects where there are none.5.

Another interesting facet of conspiracies is that of its ability to inspire, and draw inspiration from, popular hysteria, such as the red scare of McCarthyists and the military purges of Josef Stalin after the Russian Civil war, is it a coincide, that so many fall before the charge Traison! As it tends to have its greatest effects in times of socio-political upheaval, the study of conspiracy allows us look at history with a warped lens, where everything is potentially menacing. A popular notion, perhaps made popular by Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and the historical impact of the Salem witch trials in America, a land whose founding myth is in thirds the freedom of religion, meaning freedom to have or to live peacefully if not. These laws were not in place in such times; it gave people the last desperate  and historical impact, with many failed conspiracies exerting an impressive influence on the present, which all good myths do: it highlights connections before the expression, such as the assassination of Julius Caesar bringing to popular attention the possibility of a civil war, and common attributes denote common substance. It’s not surprising that solved conspiracies such as Watergate have not kept the same amount of cultural appeal as America’s political assassination conspiracy. The film All the President’s Men could have been a guide for Oliver Stone: it begins with a small discrepancy, a few reporters start to cover the conspiracy as it’s happening, but at the end, the conspiracy is revealed. President Nixon resigned from the office of President of the United States 2 months after the publication of the investigator’s book on the case6, as the whole process is painstakingly detailed in the follow up to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigation, as the Nixon administration dissolves, taking down one of the most Machiavellian politicians of his era, foiled in the end by a burglar 7.

The kind of conspiracy and myth that endures and becomes a necessary component of one’s culture is one without a definite solution. There is a contrariness in our approach; attracted to mystery, yet through our earliest literary work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, had already started asking questions about life and death and mortality. Humans are inclined towards mystery, but closure amid crises, even if the resolution is horrific, the conspiracy theory that has yet to be disproved and as such has a massive corps of motivated, public-object-oriented individuals who continue the tradition, as oral lit was the repetition and slight changing and passing down from one generation to the next, a similar cycle for conspiratorial detailing, the world-building of a conspiracy theory as a genre of literature.

Watergate did shock the majority of Americans (perhaps not as much because of president Nixon’s behavior but their surprise at his getting caught) and yet at the same time we got an answer. The enduring mythology is that type of adaptable myth, that is multi purposed for different eras and arranged in slightly different ways. It is a way to contribute to the continued stability of a society’s institutions, as the faith in the American government fell sharply after the Nixon administration and, and public trust in the government has continued to decline.8 But the whole of the cell didn’t collapse; the organizational principle remained to all as long as it remained to one capable of sharing and reuniting the social cell. It wasn’t necessary, though: Gerald Ford was sworn in on 8th August 19749 and everyone moved on. But Caesar’s assassination has resonated with many different cultures since the Ides of March in the year 44 B.C.E.  

Shakespeare would return to conspiracy and assassination more than once in his career, notably in Richard II10, giving Carlisle the prophesy that, if Richard II were to be deposed, there would be a civil war. in Shakespeare’s time, he wrote about a society that, above all things, saw the image of a king as that of something oppressive, despotic, arbitrary, chaotic, sociopathic and unreasonable. We see a world of stark, dramatic measures, where it is political maneuver by the blade; where it was not for the meek. As Shakespeare continued to study the story of Julius Caesar, and later Antony and Cleopatra, one assumes he might have been alarmed at what he saw. Caesar Augustus’ had a long reign, though not as long as that of Elizabeth I. The victory at Actium by Augustus had been the last time roman soldiers crossed swords with fellow Romans, and in the gallery of Julias Caesar, no one in the hall thought of what that might look like, an English Civil War or the execution of a king. Oliver Cromwell was born the year of Shakespeare’s debut of his new play, in 1599, and would later be a key signatory to King Charles I death warrant.

II INTERSOCIAL MYTHMAKING

Murder by Decree was released in 1976. Starring Christopher Plummer and George Mason. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on the trail of the elusive Jack the Ripper. Sherlock Holmes’ story, which – like all conspiracies that work with other, larger conspiracies – there is a shared mythology each time a new conspiracy answer is added to the collective myth, as the collected myths of Hesiod, the traditional Orphic poems, and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound11. Each tale fills in the blanks where other myths are silent, therefore giving the foundation a more solid structure simply by making it a part of a structure that is already a foundation.

The movie Murder by Decree is a pastiche1, a type of story where public domain characters, such as Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu stories written long after the original authors have stopped writing. This film takes bits of fiction, and a bit of fictional history, set in Victorian, England. It borrows characters and scenarios from the wellspring of Jack the Ripper murders and the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  The explanation for Jack’s enduring popularity is the same as that of spy thrillers and Agatha Christie; we’re in it for the questions, not the answers, and in a case in which no one knows the truth, this let us project our own notion of evil and depraved onto possible suspects, drawing on phobias and primeval fears, and we assume the role of virtuoso hero in search of trust. The mixture of Jack the Ripper myths has spilled into Alan Moore, whose graphic novel was adapted into From Hell, where an opium smoking Johnny Depp blunders through the squalid East End streets, in the midst of a serial killer who is just getting started. As a depiction of the interplay in conspiracy and the normal behavior of the human brain, by showing the detective process as the connection of one item to one person, finding grape sprigs dropped in the street, pathetic clues. The facts are almost boring. The only thing worse than a mystery that can’t be solved is a mystery with an easy solution, though, and so it appeals to that side of our problem solving nature.

And it’s understandable for a period of such chaos and confusion and fear to generate ever more elaborate conspiracy theories. An unsolved murder mystery is a natural environment for a conspiracy theory, as they thrive in high profile, unsolved murders and cold cases. In Murder by Decree, the author seems to work by the notion of propinquity, that of establishing proximity and thereby a ‘link’ that confirms a certain idea, making innocuous correlations seem ominous and deeply important. What remains remarkable about this is the mixing of myth with purported fact, the connecting the dots method of research, and is an international, multisocial myth.

Understanding how myth influences the way we think, through Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories14 or bad movies, may let us understand what social myth offered pre-social societies. Any force capable of disturbing social order like famine or natural disasters, capable of destroying societies, was sure to have related mythography. It was by the social progress that a non-personal idea becomes a shared public object, which works as a refined coping mechanism.

The multisocial myths was popular after the Roman conquest of Greece, where Rome adopted Greek deities, storytelling traditions, and philosophical ideas of the new satellite state15. This is an example of a stronger social cell absorbing and retaining the core of an assimilated social conscience through conquest. The seasons themselves are given character, personality, and agency, such as in etiological story of Demeter’s despair, with the crops failing upon her daughter Persephone departing each yard for the underworld. This was a personal relationship of interactive social forces.

 

Roman would develop its own social-historical myths and characters16. When cultures endure severe times, famine, plague, and disease, a means of humanity’s endurance during these confusing and chaotic times is to ‘attempt to define the indefinable’17. The practice of making sense of chaos and of tragedy is a recognizable primordial form of conspiracism. Powerful forces behind the scenes, mighty and awesome beings of immense influence and empires, capable of holding empires beneath the whims and caprice of invisible hands – the use of anthropomorphic gods as stand-ins for natural abstracts – makes them more familiar; and there is comfort in familiarity. is an imprint of what individual lives within the cell were like; it is a social thumbprint

Etiology is the ennobling of one’s past and allows for something in the social sphere to mean something, rather than it be a senseless loss, or unpoetic, cruel human loss. In the case of a conspiracy, the subsequent imparting of meaning somehow adds our non-social person to the material relationship within the social cell.

As ancient civilizations build their myth and culture around the powers that held them in thrall, each reckoned as an abstracted quality given human form, modern conspiracy theory often contains many of these elements. From the prevalence of powerful groups manipulating events from behind the scenes, to a small group of recurring powers with control extending like long filaments into every orifice of the world, they’re omnipresent

The relationship between the building of myth and conspiracy is not superficial. Both attempt to explain the inexplicable; each are populated by an attempt to give meaning to and find solace in a tragedy by giving it a familiar, recognizable face. Further, the modern conspiracy culture is an ever expanding group, with a founding myth that gives purpose to their efforts, with the task of giving a human face to these unseen forces and ascribing meaning to the innumerable questions conspiracy theories generate. With a human face and a sense of meaning, a group has an identity and a purpose, with their actions ennobled.

Finally, a myth is bound to reinforce a sense of cultural identity through the organizing principle and build bonds through a new, shared understanding, like the pantheon of Roman gods, by looking closely at them and seeing their fears, their idea of heroism and virtue, of villainy and vice. In short, it is the window into the anatomy of an ancient and long-lived human tendency to look for meaning, to look for patterns in nature and in human behavior.

The manner of a founding myth’s stability for a civilization and larger society comes from much older processes in the human brain, not limited to human beings. Connecting the dots, pattern recognition, seeing causal relationships between nature and material action. In pre-industrial social cells, the inclination to conspiratorial thinking and designs of competing social cells, cells competing within with out-growths or at war with a foreign, differently organized and motivated cell, allowed for individuals to have a sense that they were a part of something larger than themselves, and that it wasn’t all meaningless. Sometimes that’s enough for a society to survive, as long as some part of it becomes a part of a future socio-organizational myth.

The character of the surviving social cell then is a society unified behind traditional beliefs, history, and culture, and its consistency among the population can be viewed as the measure of the cell’s popular cohesion. By connecting an individual’s misfortune with that of the social cell, or with characters of history and legend, persons can draw strength and motivation from these traditions, mythical characters, and the behavior of great culture heroes., mutual belief, and a shared history is how a social cell is defined, it is an important factory in a society’s behavior, internally and externally.

In other cases, a newly formed social cell, after passing through a period of rebellion (usually revolution), will go to war as a means of social unification and nationality. This way, a newly formed social cell remains stable as a cell in rebellion, without having to settle for a cohesive national structure. One popular example of this is the myth of war enthusiasm in pre-World World I Germany. War enthusiasm is a popular term used to define the spirit of national identity prior to the war18. One can’t help notice the similar public attitude during times of revolution, as the enthusiasm for revolution in France was far more pervasive – including elements of every rung of society, from the poorest to the emperor – than the enthusiastic patriots of a newly founded and suddenly powerful German. The citizens of the newly formed social cell of Germany had the legends and heroes of the wars of German unification, giving a newly united and sovereign cell, founding on a myth of revolution. A perpetually revolutionary cell will fall apart, as much as a perpetually anti-social cell will fall to multisocial cells.

One of the major nexus points in world history is the conspiracy to assassinate Arch Franz Duke Ferdinand in Sarajevo.

A conspiracy in theory is a shared dissenting myth, around which motivated groups become organized. Rallied by principle and motivated by social, or political goals, a conspiracy theory sometimes rebels against a standard, accepted structure within a society. When there is social dissent within a shared myth or religious schism, one sees civil war and reformation. Sometimes, in post-industrial social cells, the denunciation of a previously established ideal can become a large enough cell in itself to push against its traditions, which can lead to revolution, such as the French Revolution of 178319. As historian Simon Schama observed: “Virtually as soon as the term was coined, ‘old regime’ was automatically freighted with associations of both traditionalism and senescence. It conjured up a society so encrusted with anachronisms that only a shock of great violence could free the living organism within.”20 The French revolution can be said to demonstrate the principle of a cell in rebellion, an attempt to remake tradition and overturn what had been a majority. It can be seen as a rebellious cell’s attempt to force agreement for survival upon a possibly weak social cell and overturn it, as the monarchy collapsed during the Revolution of February 23-24, called the February revolution, as food riots broke out in Pretrograd21.

 

On March 3rd, tsarist rule had come to an end22. Revolutionaries are best viewed as social discontents, with socially cognitive objects in mind, and the means and nerve to carry out the socio-political objective through interaction with other social objects, persons or groups of persons. Non-social, personal interactions within cells can change the nature of the social sphere, the space between the inner and outer walls. The outer wall is our organizing impulse, maintained by social-interpersonal agreements. Social thought is a cohesive structure for maintaining a stable society, and for a social cell to be overcome, a transformation of the culture, traditions, and social mores must change with it, and the new core must be attained by majority.

III JFK, Subversion and the Cell in Rebellion

In a Times article in 201423 ““Here’s Why We Believe in Conspiracies”, prominent conspiracy scholar Jan-Willem van Prooijen, associate professor in social and organizational psychology at VU University Amsterdam, said, “Conspiracy theories often crop up during times of uncertainty and fear: after terrorist strikes, financial crises, high-profile deaths and natural disasters. Past research suggests that if people feel they don’t have control over a situation, they’ll try to make sense of it and find out what happened. The sense-making leads them to connect dots that aren’t necessarily connected in reality.”

After reviewing JFK, Roger Ebert was approached by Walter Cronkite for his review24. “There is not a bit of truth in it!” Cronkite said. The late film critic later wrote in his review that he felt that Stone was capturing a pervasive mood in the counter-culture about the assassination, that it was a film that captured the way some Americans felt, about the need for answers in the days and then years after the assassination.

Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison is a good fit for the character. His motivation and passion is understood as depicted. As assassination researcher and former Los Angeles County Public Prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi puts it in Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy “…Rejecting the message of the clean-cut, wholesome-looking Costner (Garrison) is like rejecting motherhood, apple pie, and the American flag.”25

In the film, Costner’s take on Garrison is a patriot, open-minded, truth-seeking detective, looking to expose a vast conspiracy that has gotten to the heart of the American social cell. To seek the truth is a heroic act, to expose crime in places where the abuse of power is most likely is courageous, even. They follow leads, doggedly pursing them wherever they leave. They are physically and morally courageous, against a large and faceless system, intent upon giving it a face.

JFK perverts this in a way, historically, by neglecting to mention any detractions from the case Garrison attempts to put together in the film. Where it becomes social mythmaking is in providing questions and then answering them selectively. It is informative in showing the process of popular myth and belief as it is being made.

What’s the harm, then? As Bugliosi puts it, “The problem with Stone is, really, not that he egregiously fictionalized the Kennedy assassination. The problem was is that he was trying to convince everyone he was telling the truth.”26 A small group of patriots are pitted against the endless bureaucracies of the US Government, and they have their phones tapped. Team members betray the group (an evolving rebellion cell against an established social cell). The film’s world is a small group of men who are behind the major events, while we little people can’t even begin to comprehend the vast and inexplicable subtleties of this grand design. It is a tale of betrayal and personal sacrifice, but it’s for the sanctity of American traditions, for the truth. In a way, it is Jim Garrison playing the offenders of Caesar’s murder in the Shakespearean play, as Garrison brings up Julius Caesar to a fellow-researcher who is having doubts27. In the end, in the prosecution’s final summation, he gets to the heart of his accusation:

In JFK, Oliver Stone is attempting to present a widespread discontent which Americans had built up over the years, and takes a bit here and bit there from other prominent researchers whose work had kept the movement going between the release of the Warren Commission Report and the release of JFK. Since its release in ’91, as of 15 November 2013, according to a Gallup poll28, the majority of Americans believe JFK was killed in a conspiracy. This is common in cases of social thinking, or individual-social ideation – where a single person is influencing through social means the thoughts of a significant amount of people.

As a legal drama, JFK works as a film, but only by using ahistorical composite characters, such as “X”. X is important because he supplies the foundation myth for a new generation of anti-social cells: Oliver Stone joined the U.S. Army in 1967, and returned “very mixed up, very paranoid, and very alienated,”29 like many of his generation. The foundation myth of the Kennedy is that the president was taken out because he intended to withdraw from Vietnam. Surely, this is something that would’ve influenced Stone deeply and personally, as a veteran. When “X” introduced himself as “one of those secret guys in the pentagon”, and goes on to give the following speech:

“I spent much of September ’63 working on the Kennedy plan for getting all us personnel out of Vietnam by the end of ’65. This plan was one of the strongest and most important papers issued from the Kennedy White House. Our first 1,000 troops were ordered home for Christmas.”30 The plan mentioned in X’s statement is National Security Action Memorandum (NSAM) 263.

L Fletcher Prouty, on whom X is based, really worked close to people involve in the formulating of this plan, but there is precious little evidence that Prouty himself had anything to do with. In his book, JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy repeats a similar claim (summarizing the McGeroge-Bundy cover letter that accompanied NSAM 263):

“At a meeting on October 5, 1964, the President considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the military recommenddations contained in Section I B (1-3) of the report, but directed that no formal announcement be made of the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 1963.”31

Prouty goes on to quote the relevant section of the McNamara-Taylor report:

IB(2) A program be established to train Vietnamese so that essential functions now performed by US military personnel can be carried out by Vietnamese by the end of 1965. It should be possible to withdraw the bulk of US military personnel by that time.

IB(2) In accordance with the program to train progressively Vietnamese to take over military functions, the Defense Department should announce in the very near future presently prepared plans to withdraw 1,000 US military personnel by the end of 196332.

This leads Prouty to conclude, “In brief, those sections above are the essence of the Kennedy policy that would take men out of Vietnam in 1963 and the bulk of all military personnel out by 1965.”33

In order to understand Oliver Stone’s perspective in evaluating this film and its legacy, one might attempt to ‘solve’ it, or at least draw an inference based on our understanding of conspiratorial groups as cells in rebellion of their natural social environment, wherein a rebel cell might attempt majority and grow, based on how many social objects reject sources from once trusted foundations. By our study of myth as etiology, drive to search for truth and meaning.

For viewers, it’s easy to see how the tragedy of the JFK assassination is compounded by the tragedy of the Vietnam War, as it was for Oliver Stone, in which millions would be killed or wounded, and millions more shocked and sobered by the horrors of war. To take JFK from the people by this assassination, from the people he might have otherwise spared the traumas of this divisive, ignominious war, is a greater tragedy than that of a lone assassin. This is how a social event can directly affect someone on a non-social level, and motivate them to rally around a social object as a means of organization and of personal principle.

From the perspective of Stone and many, an entire generation – a lost microbe of what may have become foundational and contributed to the stability of the national/cultural – to look at this film as fact, the conspiracy theory turns JFK into more than a victim, shot while the world looked on, in broad daylight – it gives us a martyr, someone who died for a cause, giving meaning to his death beyond the event itself, but, as we’ve seen, gives us closure, stability, and a chance to get our bearings.

When a rebellion cell achieves majority, the record is distorted, the social cell deteriorates and is sickened by mixed constituent parts. History therefore is viewed through a warped lens when a minority individuals within a social cell rally together and achieve majority of believe, they are a cell in rebellion of the established cell. In such a case, the social cell’s outer membrane loses cohesion and assumes the identity of the rebel cell, wherein the filters of conspiracy are placed atop the historical record.

Our socio-personal development of conspiratorial thinking is an early stage of social-cognitive development, where we begin to consider others as social objects, with intent, motivation, belief, and purpose as oneself. Recognizing that someone can exist outside of the self as an independent object in a social environment, we can look at scenarios and project more or less how we would act if put in the same situation.

As we gradually become aware of another person as a thinking agent, the first step towards psychological, motivational inference is in reading someone’s intent by an examination of their actions. In Cognitive Development34 John H. Flavell outlines social cognition as series of developmental stages, each a part of social cognition’s complexities as we interact with others, and attempt to recognize other social phenomena, that of persons as thinking persons, with intents and points of view different than ourselves, it is the basic knowledge of aspect of the social world exists in life35, that of its existence.

 

The first stage is the mere recognizing of another person, or persons, as social phenomena within a realm of interactive possibility. To think sociably, one considers that others, as individuals and groups, and among groups, have different ideas, beliefs, and unique perspective . The next stage of social cognition is need36, which amounts to individual attempts at understanding and acting with awareness of others’ feelings and experiences37.

Inference concerns a capacity to carry out social thinking successfully, though the thinking need not be strictly defined as inference, but more broadly as any social cognitive process, the discussion of personal ideas between individuals on a given subject. If you have the disposition to rely on inference as an act of social cognition, for example, you might look at a conversation and find a specific remark that is indicative of a broader range of beliefs and personal feelings.

Social cogitation is the sharing of inferences about the relationship between people and events, and the collective process of social cogitation is an organizing principle behind social groups, persons and individuals. Interactions between one person engaged in social cogitation and another influence anyone else involved in the social sphere capable of further inferences from these micro-interactions, or interactions among groups.

An important realization is that any cohesive society relies on harmonious social thinking; those an individual, like an individual social cell, is only one among many in the world, as an individual is only one among many, they have telling interactions when a post-social cell or united-social cells become possible. Social thinking is individual’s public voice, the chorus of which, among others, should be considered the mucus membrane of any social cell, whereas the inner core is a founding narrative, the recitation of the society’s origin and myths to reinvigorate and motive traditional social arrangements.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France37, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space. Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France38.

Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison39.

Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”40

Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the century41. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crowd, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art41.

But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madames and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”42

Calling an estates general would bring together representatives of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy, the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris43. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.44

This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. The revolutionaries didn’t want to overthrow the government, at first, with the right supporting the King. The political climate was tense when news of

After a major defeat in the Battle of Neerwinden in March 1793, he made a desperate move to save himself from his radical enemies. Arresting the four deputy- commissioners of the National Convention who had been sent to inquire into his conduct (Camus, Bancal-des-Issarts, Quinette, and Lamarque) as well as the Minister of War, Pierre Riel de Beurnonville, he handed them over to the enemy, and then attempted to persuade his troops to march on Paris and overthrow the revolutionary government. The attempt failed, and Dumouriez, along with the duc de Chartres (afterwards King Louis Philippe) and his younger brother, the duc de Montpensier, fled into the Austrian camp. This blow left the Girondists vulnerable due to their association with Dumouriez.

Citizen soldiers fought royalists in the Vende, in Western France, and after Dumirouriez defection, the left was radicalized, and quick to use the Girondists’ former support and political consistency with the traitorous general, and in radical press agigators like Jean-Paul Marat, a conspiracy-minded Jacobin who had predicted many of the turning points of the revolution, and when he pointed to a conspiracy, the revolutionary tribunal, once established, would take

To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books

8

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

V Towards a Multisocial Social Model

While JFK’s posthumous reputation has done to glorify him and lament the loss of promise shown by the handsome, young president and charming wife, only time will tell if this interactive social mythmaking keeps majority as a rebel cell, and further, how long a traditional social cell can remain cohesive with an alternative majority within a wider cultural consensus. One needs to look only to Nero, or to the irony of Lee Harvey Oswald, the person to whom all evidence points as the assassin, has been pardoned, with many within the conspiracy community believing in his absolute innocence. To contrast that, it’s a popular myth that the Emperor Nero ‘fiddled while Rome burned’.1

Cassius Dio’s account of the Great Fire and Nero’s Role in it can be found in his Roman History. Cassius Dio’s account is unflattering to say the least. He begins with the claim that “Nero set his heart on making an end of the whole realm dying during his lifetime.”

2

Dio’s account continues as Nero sets about sending out men pretending to be drunk or engaged in general hooliganism while setting fire to different parts of the city. After several days and nights of destruction and deluge, the wailing of children and lamentations of the women fill the air. Nero ascends to the roof of the palace which offered the greatest view of the conflagration. And assuming his lyre player’s garb he sang the Capture of Troy, as he styled the song himself.source please

Suetonius’ account of Nero in The Twelve Caesars

3

is similarly unflattering. In this account, Suetonius states that Nero pretended to be disgusted with the drab old apartments and the narrow, winding streets of Rome. He brazenly set fire to the series. Suetonius adds that two ex-consuls caught Nero’s attendants with tow and blazing torches trespassing on their property but did not interfere. Nero also used the fire to take over several granaries he coveted, solidly built of stone.

Suetonius claims the terror lasted for six days and seven nights, as people were forced to take shelter in monuments and tombs while Nero’s men destroyed apartment buildings as well as mansions that once belonged to famous generals, still decorated in their triumphal trophies; temples, dedicated and vowed by the Kings and others during the Punic & Gallic wars – in fact every ancient monument that had hitherto survived. Here’s where Suetonius deviates from the account of Cassius Dio:

“Nero watched the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas, enraptured by ‘the beauty of the flames”

4

. Then Nero put on his tragedians’ costume & and sang the sack of Illyricum. This is an example of a social myth in progress, though not quite congealed yet as a hardened part of the social cell. The thorough establishment of this socio- political myth is interrupted by Tacitus’ accounts from Annals.

In this account Nero was staying at his country estate at Antium and didn’t even return to the capital until the fire was nearing the house by which he had connected the Palatine with the gardens of Maecenas. After the fire proved unstoppable, before it could engulf the Palatine and the house and all their immediate surroundings, Nero continued to work to save property and lives. In this account, instead of singing (just yet) Nero worked hard to provide relief for the homeless and fugitive populace, opening the Campus Martius, the buildings of Agrippa, even his own gardens and threw up a number of extemporized shelters to accommodate the helpless multitude. The necessities of life were brought up from Ostia and the neighboring municipalities, and the price of grain was lowered to three sesterces.

With all of this effort, how did the Emperor become the suspect and ultimately accused of starting the fire? Tacitus gives us a hint at how tales, like those of Cassius Dio and Suetonius, were “the subject of few substantial conversations, but many earnest whispered accusations.”

4

Nero’s measures may not have been as popular as their moral character might be, having failed in their effect to reassure and console; for the report spread that at the very moment when Rome was aflame, he had taken to his private stage and, typifying the ills of the present by the calamities of the past, he had sung of the destruction of Troy.

The hint he gives for why this rumor might have caught on was that, after the first fire was finally brought under control at the edge of the Esquiline by demolishing the buildings over a vast area and opposing the great unabated fury, a clear tract of ground opened on the horizon. But the fears had not been allayed, nor had hope returned to the people when the fire resumed its ravages.

Here we have a massive tragedy, again, the conspiratorial fountain of youth, confusion and chaos are in the blood, and social thinking has been blanked by fear; the loss of home and shelter and, the second flame according to Tacitus caused the greater controversy as it had broken out on Aemilian property of Tigellinus and appearances suggested that Nero was seeking the glory of founding a new capital and endowing it with his own name.”

5 The ensuing national trauma was naturally a breeding ground for conspiracy theories, instead of reconciling their lot with the type of senseless tragedy this would be without some agency behind it, the people are left with nothing: no home or property, and no totem, or fear ikon on which to concentrate their exasperation. In the instance of natural disasters, humanity has the seemingly natural inclination to give intent and personality to the forces responsible. They gave Zeus the lightning bolt and virtue, Demeter weeping in the winter over the departure of the summer and her daughter. This instance of a human being given human traits is unique, as – at least as far as absolute power was concerned – an Emperor of Rome had as much power as was capable of being concentrated in two hands in the world at the time, a type of power less than a thousand people have historically wielded, and in front of this type of human power we have the same fear response. It is, as ever, a social definition that runs contrary to the official record. Instilling such fear in a populace can be beneficial for a ruler like Caesar Augustus, the longest uninterrupted ruler of Roman in its history at that time. And after Nero, there would be no heirs to the Julio-Claudian family, and again, there would be civil war.

6 Suetonius himself was born in the Year of the Four Emperors, a society in which generals and pretenders vied for the Imperial title

7

the first civil war since the assassination of Julius Caesar, which we discussed in the very first chapter. As it was with Figaro, poking at the structure of a long lived social cell can cause it to deteriorate. Over and over we’ve looked at conspiracy as an organizing principle, but organizational principles are operative when there is first separateness. The organizing principle of conspiracy theorizing and socio-mythography among individuals coming together is the motivational tendency toward civilization and culture.

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

A social conscience and shared culture is easy to take for granted; all the movie references our friends make we are able to share in a social moment only because in being saturated by the same pop culture, and as we share meanings we can move onto share meaningful things.

Social cognition is the necessary condition of a conscious social cell. Discontent with the foundations of an established cell in a time of stagnation is the outgrowth of displacement or reform, that of the rebel cell. During an outgrowth of a potential replacement cell – when a rebel off-shoot obtains majority – we can see how people form into groups and how groups and civilizations tend towards collective villains and heroes, which ultimately adds up to a group sharing perspectives, rather than the limitation of inference and suspicion, a motivating principle of shared means and ends would be collective thinking, in which people imagine together.

The social cell is the end result of the mechanism of cultural exchange involved in the faces of snow clouds, the personalities of a violent sea, and within the American social cell we have our founding myths, as well as Rome, and our heroes. Our heroes have moved from abstractions into more humble forces. To understand an age, look at what’s inside its social cell. In America, the inner walls are filled with books and movies, thrillers and supernatural thrillers, and unique in the American social scale is its welcome addition of those from other social cells to bring a piece of it with them, to enrich the social cell intended to be a place of many cultures, towards the idea of a multi-social cell, in which the individual foundational principles of other cells mix without malcontent. When malcontent is suspected, our imaginations are quick to fill in the blank, based on the way we would ourselves respond.

V Social division, rebellion, and revolution

We’ve also looked at cells within social cells, minority cells that can, with enough prodding, impart agency to individuals within social cells not as cohesive as the individuals would like for it to be, and attempts to consciously hold together a specific sociocultural cell or culture, the more it leads to stagnation. A relationship structure can be socio-hierarchal, as it was in old regime France

7

, or it can be what the revolutionaries spilled so many tears and blood drops for – a conscious personal-social agreement, in mutual agreement and of like devotion, dedicated to improving the cohesion and strengthening the core of the social cell’s character.

In France in the 1780s the theatre could be a political space.

37

Ordinary people got involved in the questions before the government. Books which offended the Royal Censor, such as the work of Enlightenment philosophes, were often censored in old regime France.

38

Works that undermined the monarchy or the clergy, like Voltaire’s

Candide and Rousseau’s The Social Contract, were censored and some of the books were literally taken to prison.

39 Beaumarchais wrote The Marriage of Figaro in the 1780s. Reading it now, it seems tame. But at the time it was so radical that the censor took it to King Louis XVI himself. Louis said: “This shall never be played. It would be necessary to dismantle the Bastille itself before this could be played without consequences. This man mocks at everything in the government which ought to be respected.”

40 Despite being formally banned, the play was an enormous hit in private salons. And when the ban was lifted, Figaro became one of the smash hits of the centur

41

. What was it that made it so popular? It had the Royal Censor, which was sure to bring a crow, as Simon Schama put it in his series The Power of Art.

41

But on the other hand, it was cheap, and accessible to a wide class of society, from the madams and monsieur in the boxes to the often illiterate peasants in the pit.

The subversion that cut so deep into the traditions of old regime France aren’t noticeable today. But in a society of rank inequality between the classes, the rich and the poor, its egalitarian message, its winks to the clever and scrappy princes of Spain, Beaumarchais undermined the very foundation of the French social cell:

“Nobility, rank, position, how proud they make a man feel! You think because you are great nobleman you are a genius? Put yourself to the trouble of being born, nothing more. Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born—nothing more. For the rest—a very ordinary man! Whereas I, lost among the obscure crowd, have had to deploy more knowledge, more calculation and skill merely to survive than has sufficed to rule all the provinces of Spain for a century.”

42 Calling an estates general would bring together representative of the three legal orders of politically active Frenchmen: the aristocracy (who , the clergy, and the commoners. It had been inactive since 1614, and was called due to the financial crisis following France’s military support of America in its war of revolution against the British. The nation was going broke. The debt crisis was due primarily to the war with Britain and participating in the American Revolution. And years of poor harvests had caused grain riots in Paris

43

. This estates general brought the inequality of the old regime into sharp relief. It was bred into the French way of life. A seigneur or seigneury upon taking up residence in their parish takes their special pew at the front of the church, usually adorned by their coat of arms. The peasants of the lands pledge to work so much and dedicate so much barley and grain over the year. Traditional seigneurial dues allowed them to make bizarrely specific requests and demands of their peasants: for example, one nobleman’s list of dues was a number of ornamental feathers, a quota of olive oil and wine, a chicken, and a pair of leather gloves. The Catholic political arm of the old regime, weren’t only exempt from royal taxes, but got to impose a tithe on the peasants, while the seigneurial dues were owed to landowners by all peasants who worked in the lord’s bakery, or who made wine in the lord’s press.

44

(fine) This was not a society in which secretly and behind the scenes a small group of rich men plotted on oppressing the public, distorting information to control and make them into mindless workers. This was not a secret. The notion of conspiracy, that of people in high office making subversive plans against the public, that was not a theory; it was a way of life. The foundations of King, aristocracy, tradition, ritual and the clergy

were the foundational pillars of the French social cell, a cell rapidly losing cohesion. (source –

To get past suspicions, of which conspiracy theory is now the formal disbelief, the inter-social exchange should be encouraged, when a social cell can interact with others and incorporate without absorbing, then the multisocial cell construct becomes possible.

A multisocial cell is the achievement of a society that can survive the attempts of anti-social opposition from without and rebel cells from within. This is a national stage of social development, as our first tribes were strictly isolated and xenophobic, our most modern social cells run the spectrum of hated, tolerated, supportive in its willingness towards social polyculturalism. In the anti-social cell, the tradition is a collection of traditions the individual social objects reject. But, as a rebel cell can only survive amid opposition, it cannot outlast the multisocial cell; for the cell in rebellion must be in rebellion to survive.

As Jacopo della Quercia’s recent books

8

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocketwatch Conspiracy and License to Quill have shown, our enduring interest in conspiracy theories, whether in history, entertainment, literature and film, continues unabated. His recent works are, as Shakespeare’s Julias Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. By using history as an inspiration for a tale of discovery, intended to seek answers to great questions, to seek, to solve great mysteries of the past and use them as lessons for the mysteries that persist. While Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Richard II drew inspiration from other cultures, such as Rome and that of his own unique social history, Jacopo’s work draws upon popular tradition and even historical fiction to reveal what are timeless truths, multisocial foundations and unique attribute of the modern attempt at a multisocial cell: expressing a celebration of foreign histories and traditions as well as inter-social history, cultural diversity and adventure provide the foundations for future, possible multisocial cells.

Incorporating multiple traditions and myths into a social cell does not dilute the composite of the whole. They establish an elasticity and flexible structure, a foundation that will not break when pulled apart or when holes are picked in any individual foundation; a multisocial, polycultural cell is a hope for the future, perhaps.

As for everyone else, society was not seen as a collection of individuals with legal or civil rights before the law. For commoners the possibility of advancement in life was slim, and the opportunity to advance based on talent, merit, or strength of character was one of the major egalitarian goals of the revolutionaries, to give everyone a say in the workings of their country and give the commoners the ability to advance on merit. The question that has been asked is why revolution broke out in an economically dynamic country. And while the answer isn’t a simple one, the peasants of France got to see themselves as just as deserving of natural rights as all the other citizens of France. Figaro stirred up a social cell and gave it egalitarian social goals, inspired by the great philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Diderot, who compiled the first encyclopedia, and his great compilation of articles intended as a future repository of the basics of human knowledge, systematizing it, and getting the people to think about these freedoms made them extremely motivated; sometimes motivated by the latest discussion of the new ideas, and later by their desperate attempt to enact these new principles.

Jacques Louis David’s painting The Death of Marat Jacque-Louis David’s festivals, honoring unity and indivisiblity. He had become famous as a neo-classical painting, but worked to become the pageant master of the revolution. A die hard jacobin, in 1793, his parade was full of symbolism, starting from the place de la bastille, going past stations celebrating the history of revolution. At the end stood a statue of liberation. At another demonstration a thousand doves were freed and flew off with banners tied along their legs reading “we are free”! They were salvos of artillery, songs, crowds on the chon de Mars. To motivate the people, the republican needed a symbol to represent to new nation. This was Marion. She was a goddess, an emblem that wouldn’t make anyone think of kings. But Mario didn’t have the masculine build of a female. They used Roman traditions of sculpture for abstract concepts of freedom of liberty, as Rome’s great mother goddess statue. And Marion wasn’t too far from Mary, which wasn’t too far from the former Catholic majority’s mother goddess Mary. They built temples and made statues of the French philosophes, musicians from the opera. The female liberty was the goddess of reason, in a temple of reason. The jacobin leaders wanted to lean harder on the church, but Robespierre believed that an all out war on the church, as the other jacobins wanted, would drive more people into the camps of their enemies. And it would, as civil war broke out in Vende, in western france. But, the revolutionaries wanted to save the people from fanacitism. So what did they do? Dechristianizers invaded churches and ripped paintings from the walls, tore down statues, and made bonfires out of holy relics, calling them the bonfires of fanatacis. “If this revolution is over and there are still the poor, it will have failed.” The French celebrated, linking revolution to an internation war against kings – threatening the social structure of neighboring cells, as the new anti-social state began to go to war with others, absorbing some, founding others with new, enlightening principles and declarations of civil rights. This was in the days before the revolution became violent. Dechristianers asked maybe they should put a donkey on a crowd to satirize kings, fouche, no, it would be too degrading for the donkey. These were the works on the other side of the rebellion witin the rebellion; the celebratory theatre of the new culture of revolution. And in one of their rituals, they were to put a bishop representing superstition into the fire and it turned into reason and was saved. Rituals of inversion were popular, where lay-people played out their rebellious, teenage ideals. There was a sense of civic movement, of millions activated around a specific motivational priciple, and at the heart of it was the conspiracy: the Calas conspiracy, a cause celebre brought to light by Voltaire, had popularized a horrible miscarriage of justice in the (I don’t know if there has ever been a more striking example of irony). The Red Priests were revolutionary blasphemers, someone who preached against the rich, referring to the philosophy of ‘sans culat’ Jesus. Some tred a middle path, who believed they could be catholic and republican, who believed in the revolution and the right to the free practice of religion, a deep wound within 19th century France. As Elizabeth feared catholic plots while she watched Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the situation in France was much more complicated, within the theory of the formation of social cells by the conspiratorial methods of thinking and mythmaking, especially as a social process, and the theory of society as organized around by “core” ideals, which motivate all peoples of passion groups in their duties. The reasons for our inclination towards conspiracy is how we project a non-personal inference onto a socially operable act. In otherwise, we’re suspicious because we’ve got guilty consciences.

CITATIONS

  1. McLaren, A.N. “Political Culture in the Reign of Elizabeth I”. pp. 135
  2. Smith, Jeremy L. “Unlawful Song”. pp. 497
  3. Adams, Simon. “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England.” CXXIII (501): pp. 457-458. doi: 10.1093/ehr/cen048
  4. Nagel, Joana. “Constructing Ethinicity” Social problems 41.1: 152-176
  5. Powers, Michael R. “Patterns, Real and Imagined: Observation and Theory.” In Acts of God and Man: Ruminations on Risk and Insurance, 191- 206. Columbia University Press, 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/powe15366.17.
  6. Kilpatrick, Caroll. “Nixon Resigns” Washington Post, 9 August 1974. p. A01
  7. Woodward, Bob, Bernstein, Carl. “The Final Days” pp. 77-79
  8. Dalton, Russell J. “The social transformation of trust in government.” International Review of Sociology (2005): pp. 133-154
  9. Tacitus, Cornelius, “The Annals of Ancient Rome.” Vol. 60, 1973
  10. Kalmey, R.P. “Shakespeare’s Octavius and Elizabethan Roman History” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 18, no. 2. pp. 275-287
  11. Knight, Steven. “Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution”

 

  1. Moore, Alan. “From Hell”
  2. Wardman, Alan. “Rome’s Debt to Greece”. The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 29, no. 2. pp. 110-112.
  3. Heinrich, Albert. “What is a Greek God?” pp. 19-40

16. Hadas, Moses. “Aesneas and the Tradition of the National Hero”. American Journal of Philology, vol. 69, no. 4. pp. 408-414

  1. Menzies, James W. “True Myth” pp. 21-40
  2. Clickering, Robert. “War Enthusiasm?” pp. 200-201
  3. De Toqueville, Alexis “the Old Regime and the Revolution”
  4. Schama, Simon. “Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution.” p. 84
  5. Warnes, David. “Chronicle of the Russian Tsars.” p. 210
  6. Warnes, David. Ibid. p. 211.
  7. Oaklander, Mandy. “Here’s Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories.” Time Magazine, 14 August 2015
  8. Ebert, Roger. “JFK Movie Review and Analysis” (1991) via: http://rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-jfk-1991
  9. Bugliosi, Vincent. “Reclaiming History: the Assassination of John F. Kennedy”. p. 1354
  10. Bugliosi, Vincent. Ibid. p. 1356
  11. Harrison, John M. “A Crusade and Its Problems.” The Review of Politics 37, no. 1. pp. 122-125.
  12. Swift, Art. “Majority in U.S. Still Believe JFK Killed in a Conspiracy” Gallup.com/poll/165893/majority-believe-jfk-killed-conspiracy.aspx
  13. “Famous Veterans: Oliver Stone” – military.com
  14. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. “JFk: The Book of the Film”, p. 106.
  15. Stone, Oliver. Sklar, Zachary. Ibid. p. 107
  16. Prouty, L. Fletcher. “JFK: The CIA, Vietnam, and the Plot to Assassinate John F. Kennedy.” p. 268
  17. Prouty, L. Fletcher. Ibid.
  18. Flavel, John H. “Cognitive Development” 2nd ed. p. 119
  19. Flavell, John H. Ibid. pp. 120-121
  20. Flavell, John H. Ibid. p. 121
  21. Nielsen, Wendy C. “Staging” Rousseau’s Republic” Vol. 43, no. 3, pp.268-285
  22. Lambe, Patrick J. “Biblical Criticism and Censorship in Ancien Regime France: The Case of Richard Simon.” Harvard theological review, 78(2-2 (1985) pp. 149-177
  23. Darnton, Robert. “The forbidden books of pre-Revolutionary France. Month (1991): 1-32
  24. “The Living Age” vol. 119, p. 83
  25. Schama, Simon. “The Power of Art: Jaques-Louis David”
  26. Beaumarchais, Pierre-Augustin. “The Marriage of Figaro” act V, scene III

43: Sargent, Thomas J. Velde, Francois R. “Macroeconomic Features of the French Revolution.” Journey of Political Economy 103, no. 3 (1995) pp. 474-518.

When Water Catches Fire – Final

Quote

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000 at age 15. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles into Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Madame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose vodka in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“You mean the one with Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet and that Celine Dion song?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
“Never heard of it.”
He laughed, a common stupid joke we shared.
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for the metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The Statue of Liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes were swollen with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a Band-Aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multi-colored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon.
The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.

4

The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.
“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, and the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it. He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile.
“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “As a vet, you must be used to dealing with bitches. But since there ain’t no bitches here, how about you fuck off?”
The cooks separated them and escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I cried for the metal.” He wiped his eyes on the back of his shirt, buried his face in his hands. “I cried for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well-mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake. We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.

5

On his last night Gaz stayed with me in a cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus bookstore. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudi Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we called him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… “We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.
“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.
“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”
There was a long silence.
“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”
“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”
“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”
He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.
“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”
“I knew I could rely on you.”
He smiled.
“Thanks, Brandon.”
I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.
“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”
He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.
He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.
“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”
“I like you too, Gaz.”
“Do well.”
“I’ll try, my friend.”
“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… The criminal would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop.

When Water Catches Fire – draft 2

Quote

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE
By
BRANDON K. NOBLES

I SUBMITTED MY FIRST novel to a publisher in the year 2000. The Death of Madame Brisbois was a story about a pair of Siamese twins, Gilbertte and Chloe Brisbois. Chloe was perched on her sister’s left shoulder, incapable of moving of her own accord, though she felt everything; if Gilbertte held a flame to her palm, Chloe felt the fire. To her horror, one night she awoke unable to speak with a black bag over head and duct tape over her mouth. When her sister removed the bag Chloe looked down at her mother’s bed, covered in blood and strewn with guts. Their father was at work, but returned home shortly and called the police.
While in custody, Gilbertte stuck little needles in Chloe’s vocal chords, pricking her lips, burning her hand and pinching her feet, tickling her mercilessly until finally she stopped speaking and her voice atrophied. Unable to testify on her own behalf, she wasted away in prison as they awaited trial, until finally an unnecessary appendage, accepting of her fate and ready to die. The judge considered Chloe only briefly in passing sentence, in lieu of her vegetative state, unaware she could feel and hear. So when they were hanged there was no noose for Chloe. Her head sloped to the side as Gilbertte danced on the air as their horrified father looked on.
I received a letter a few weeks later from an editor at Kensington, who, as he put it, was writing to tell me that though they had decided not to move forward with the novel, Gaszi, the editor, was to work with me. While I would not be offered any money up front, I was asked to not feel discouraged. Gaz, a Persian speaking 22 year old who had left his home in Saudi Arabia during the war in the Persian Gulf, told me that he had found my manuscript on his desk with ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He assured me, ‘This means you might suck now, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.’ We were fast friends after that.
Regardless, I had not been able to publish anything, and had become lethargic, losing the will to even work on the other stories I had planned. Before the submission, I had won South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award two years in a row. My English teacher had submitted some of my poems to a publisher, later published in an anthology shortly after my 16th birthday. Gaz sent me a congratulatory letter.
‘It seems that you suck less and less,’ the card read. I still have it. He signed it with the affectionate, ‘To the end of your failings!’ We would talk on the phone not long after, and I liked him immediately. He was well-spoken and shy, guarded in demeanor, but genuinely kind and helpful, always there to goad me on when a rejection put me off my work and left me aimless, drinking what the Gaz called ‘fucking rocket fuel’, and my grades were failing, jeopardizing my hopes of getting into the college of my choice.

2

The Gaz remained at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11th, and finally he was let go, for his own safety, he was led to believe, adding that starvation was a strange way to keep him safe. They had never clued him in on what it was he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all. Perhaps it was something in the air, and he was a convenient bogeyman and scapegoat for a society in the throes of panic and convulsion. His employers cited discrepancies in his immigration papers, I would later learn.
The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could for him, as he had helped me with a second draft of The Death of Mdame Brisbois, and found him a job at a publicity company where a friend worked in Virginia. There he would seek to help other authors, as he had helped me, to develop them, nurture their talent. His days were spent looking over manuscripts and sending back form replies of rejections, each accompanied with a kind dismissal, as mine had been. When my second draft was rejected, I put away my work entirely, unable to focus, as my editor had become more and more despondent, and it seemed, that I had become the only friend he had.
I was to interview at UVA, not far from where he worked at Sgarlat, and, rejected again, we decided to meet at my hotel before I caught a Greyhound to New York where I was to interview at Cornell and Columbia. Unsure of myself, my work, or whether I would ever write again, I was certain that I needed to get absolutely fucking wasted. Gaz arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of Graygoose in a brown bag. It wasn’t of the greatest quality, he said, but ‘better than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, as per usual. The Gaz was always right. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon.
We had a good time, watching COPS and playing cards. I don’t remember much of the evening, save for the blue and red lights that ran along the walls and ceiling. We talked about my future projects, and I had given up, but I didn’t tell him that. He believed in me, and I wanted him to. We talked about stories, why people told them, why people needed them. To some, he said, it was a way to cope, through shared trauma and happiness and experience, and for writers, it could be catharsis for a beaten man, those struggling to cope with the loss of a father or a mother.
“Take Titanic,” Gaz said, “the James Cameron movie.”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“The main characters, total fiction,” he said. “But that’s why people liked the movie, and why you hated it. People were brought in by the disaster and the spectacle, the bigger picture, but that’s not why it resonated. You can’t tell just the big picture. The audiences cared about the people. Two, beautiful young people. And, who does the audience cry for? For Jack and Rose. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t paint nothing but a bigger picture, not quickly, take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, make it human. Put a face on it. No one weeps for metal.”
He always took the mentor approach with me, being a bit older, and always spoke in an official capacity, despite being absolutely wasted. Forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual. When he looked at you, though, you saw he understood, that he felt, that he cared. A song came on and he seemed to relax, sweat beaded on his forehead and his cheeks flushed with drink. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the depths of regret and sorrow. When he saw me looking at the scars along the side of his face, revealed when his hair was brushed aside, he answered the question I couldn’t ask.
“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said, quick to change the subject. We talked about my plans, about what I’d do if I failed to get into college, the stories I was working on. He asked then if he could ride with me, to stay with me until I found out whether I had gotten into Cornell. He had always wanted to visit Ground Zero, he said, where the World Trade Centers had stood. We planned to board a Greyhound bus the next day, first to New York City, to Manhattan, where we would stay long enough to find out if I had gotten in, and then on to Ithaca. The night wound down and he was on his side of the bed, a small, strange little man. I got up to turn out the lights.
“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said. I brushed my teeth and washed my hands, leaving the bathroom light on, not too bright nor dim, and returned to my side of the bed and pulled the covers over us both.
“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.
He was quiet for a minute. Then he looked at me with a smile on his face, eyes sincere and sympathetic.
“I like you, Brandon,” he said.
“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”
He smiled.
“Goodnight, Brandon.”

3

The drive to New York City wasn’t a long one. I had been to Maine on a piss-smelling Greyhound before and we stopped at that same connection point walled in by high fences of thatched metal, burgeoning with idlers and vagabonds, all staring at Gaz as we walked to the terminal to await the bus to Manhattan. They were unable to validate my ticket, so we spent fifteen minutes walking around trying to find someone to loan me the $5 I needed to pay for another one. Gaz offered to let me try on my own, and hung back. The first person I came across, a stout Chinese man in a tailored suit, agreed to pay for the ticket, but only if he could come with me to the teller window. I welcomed him to do so and he smiled ironically, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism.
We had planned as best we could. After checking into the hotel, and leaving my notebook there, we found a bus tour around Manhattan, one that would go by the port from where you could see the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee, with wire-rimmed spectacles and thinning hair, narrated for us:
The statue of liberty was designed and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the People of France. It was dedicated on the 28th of October in the year 1886. The famous statue has long been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Gaz’s bright brown eyes swelled with tears. It was the highlight of the trip, as in hearing these words, the trauma momentarily fell away, a band-aid in the shower on a healing wound, and each passenger, from the youngest girl in the back of the bus holding tight to her mother’s hand to an old man covered in soot and wearing a checkered coat in front of us, at that moment we all believed, in what I wasn’t sure, but the silence was an acquiescence we shared, all part of the same multicolored arabesque, a tapestry that warmed us all.
The rest of the drive was quiet. Though the guide read on in his high, reedy voice, telling us of the historic buildings, the different cultures, the Omnisphere and Prometheus. When we finally arrived at Ground Zero, empty land beneath an empty sky, it seemed profaned by its emptiness. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. Everyone on the bus had seen it, surely, either in media or in person, glowing at night and proud in the afternoon. The mood changed, a different, uneasy quiet settled over us, and the narrator fumbled at his words. Where those two buildings had been, there was nothing, not even rubble, but I saw the ghost of twisted metal strewn about, in my mind, the specter of bent steel and fire.
The tour ended without ceremony and by the time the bus pulled back into the lot everyone was exhausted. Gaz and I decided to take a walk instead of going back to the hotel, just to get some air. A hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale so we ducked into Mesa Coyoacan a Mexican Restaurant on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn, where I checked my email and found that I had been accepted into Cornell. Gaz congratulated me and we sat down at a communal table on a long, shared bench. Everything was so expensive. Where I was from, a pack of cigarettes was $3 for a good brand, your Marlboros and your Newports, but there the cheap brands were $15. Living was expensive enough, I couldn’t overpay for death. The school books were too expensive.

4

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz looked the menu over. He’d been quiet since we settled onto the bench. “I’ve never seen so many different tequilas.”
“Maybe that’s their thing,” Gaz said.
“You think someone said, ‘You know, there are a lot of Mexican restaurants in this city. You know what? I’ve got it. I get these flashes sometimes. Let’s have all the tequilas.’”
A kind laugh.
“You could do worse,” I added. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We’re the only Mexican restaurant in Newberry, South Carolina. Nobody has better tacos. You know why? Nobody else has tacos.’”
Gaz laughed again. “You are truly from a backward culture. But hey, at least it’s affordable.”
When the waitress came over with a bowl of dip and tortilla chips I ordered first, a quesadilla and chicken wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. When the waitress brought them out, she sat both of them down in front of him with a wink in my direction. He slid the more expensive glass over to me. “On your success. Here’s hoping you don’t turn into an Ivy League shit.”
The meal was an enjoyable one, the food was good, the staff kind. The waitress returned when we had drained our tequila glasses.
“Can I get you guys anything else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, “but thanks. I’m good.”
She look at Gaz, who had gone quiet, and asked, “How about you?”
Gaz shook off his gloom and looked up with light coming back into his eyes. “I’m great,” he said. “Could I get a salad to go?”
“Sure thing!” she said. She turned to me. “He gave you the better tequila.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said with a smile.
She smiled a broad I’m not an idiot, idiot smile. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”
I laughed it off as she disappeared into a swinging door, off into the kitchen. The restaurant was quiet until a boisterous man in aviator sunglasses came in, wearing camo shorts and long grey socks pulled up to his knees. He looked at Gaz with a derisive cock of his head and sat close enough to us that he could be heard, though the table was communal, there was plenty of room further down the bench. Gaz and I tried to continue our conversation, but the man, who had started out innocent enough, grumbled at having to share his table with a “towel head”. That’s when Gaz lost it.
He stood and flung his tequila glasses to the floor and they shattered against the jade tile. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he shouted. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”
I had him by the shoulders and tried to pull him back onto the bench. The man in his camo shorts took off his glasses and put them on the table. The door to the kitchen opened and two short-order cooks in rolled-up sleeves came out in a rush and hopped over the balustrade and got between them while I held Gaz back, raging like a drunken fire.
“I’m a fucking vet,” the man said. “I fought in Desert Storm, to keep you people safe, you ungrateful scumbags.”
“Hey!” I called. “Fuck you! Fuck you and your lederhosen.”
The cooks had separated them and had escorted the man out in a hurry, leaving his stupid glasses on the table. Gaz staggered backward and the moment teetered on the edge of madness as the staff busied about calming the other customers and diners. The waitress returned with Gaz’s salad and the cooks escorted us out. I picked up the aviator glasses and stuffed them in my pocket and paid, counting out a proper tip and rushing to the exit where the two cooks stood outside, careful to keep the man away from Gaz as tears streamed down his face as the man hobbled off shouting obscenities.
“Don’t you pay that fuckin’ moron no attention,” one of the cooks said. “You’re just as welcome here as that moron is.”
Still shaken, his teeth chattered in the heat. The cook handed him a cigarette, which he took, though I’d never seen him smoke. After he had calmed down and the two cooks were assured there was no further trouble, they gave him a friendly clout on the shoulder and reminded him, “Fuck that guy. You’re welcome here.”
We stood there in the street for a bit longer, the city loud and uninterrupted by our drama, the crowd streamed around us like a stone amid a stream, swerving gently before continuing about its course.
“I was wrong, Brandon,” Gaz said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer after that. The PR firm Sgarlat let him work from his laptop, as he hadn’t left the hotel after that first night, and had been silent on the long bus ride to Ithaca. The campus was more beautiful than I had imagined any school would be. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted, and took the occasion to tell me that if he could buy a new life, a new face, new skin, he’d stay with me there and finally teach me how to write.
The first night there we visited a reception at the Robert Purcell Community Center for a gathering of freshmen. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was kind and accommodating, well mannered and cheerful, though I could tell that Gaz felt uncomfortable as the eyes moved about him as we passed through the crowds. We didn’t stay long. I shook hands with everyone I thought I should shake hands with and decided to get some air and tour the campus. I had the feeling that the smattering of voices, though unintelligible, had brought the scuffle at Mesa Coyoacan back into Gaz’s thoughts, and he had trouble enough coping with the eyes that seemed to follow him, like a xenophobic Mona Lisa. We left together, back out into the open air into the comfort of silence.
After leaving the community center we turned off Jessup Rd. and walked toward the large golf course, where we stopped to ask an older student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge to Judd falls Rd., left us at the Wildflower Garden, hurrying off after a cordial handshake and good-bye. To look upon the flowers, Gaz’s demeanor changed. I decided to pick some flowers to send him while he stood enamored by a ghost orchid. I had a flower from each species in my secret bouquet, to give him the following morning before he left for Virginia. We left the Wildflower Garden, as he wanted to see as much of the campus as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way, with a little help, back onto Judd Falls Rd. then headed for Werly Island, then onto Beebe Lake.
We weren’t the only ones to walk that well-beaten path. Though the gardens and the roads between had been sparse, many students had camped on the embankments around the lake.
“Hey!” Gaz said, tugging at my jacket. “Let’s go talk to those ladies there.”
We hurried after the two young women who were jogging slowly. When we caught up Gaz was the first to speak. “Good afternoon!” he called. “Mind if my friend and I walk with you?”
“Not at all,” the brunette said. Both were sweating, their hair pulled back in neat buns, and wearing Adidas windbreakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blonde girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller friend introduced herself as Vanessa.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed with them, falling in line with the path they were on. “My friend Gaz here, he told me this lake was magic. No! Really. It’s not as dumb as it sounds.”
The girls looked at each other smiling.
“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. We kept pace as best we could.
“Well the legend goes,” I said, “that if you walk around the lake with a friend, or a girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know. I know. But, I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

5

His last night there with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm room. I sat at my new desk looking through a list of books I’d have to pick up from the campus book store. Gaz had the news on again. Channel after channel, violence and opinions about violence, terrorism and threats, featuring violence. Then he saw that tape; a tape posted to the Al Jazeera agency in Qatar, an old VHS supposedly delivered by Osama bin Laden, a tape that would later leak onto the internet, onto smut sites like Rotten.com and Ogrish, digital faces of death. I had watched them, how could you not? It’s a curious thing, to be drawn to violence, by nature, as flies are to shit. I didn’t enjoy it, but I thought I should watch it, maybe by way of misguided empathy, so that I could suffer for the people who I never could have helped.
I tried to go to bed early that night but Gaz woke me up sometime in the early morning. He had sat in the darkness listening to the news, the lurid images flashing against his face, breaking him bit by bit.
“Brandon,” he said. “Are you awake?”
“Dude, I’m awake now … you can’t wake somebody up to ask if they’re awake.”
“I miss my home,” Gaz said. “Saudi Arabia, you’ve heard of it, I’m sure. Right? You’ve seen Aladdin, that’s the image, of barbaric peoples. I was born there… What do you think of when you think of Saudi Arabia? Camels? The camels, ah! They aren’t even indigenous. We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed your buildings, Saudia Arabia they say. But they weren’t from my home, not that place where my heart is. There’s something about home that doesn’t change, no matter where you go. What do you call it? A haunting, maybe, that follows you. I was born in Saqeren, and it’s a beautiful place, with waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the mountains. Maybe I miss the memory, maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by a starved memory looking for images of comfort and home.”
I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing, but he continued.
“I was the youngest child in my family, a family of four. My dad had disappeared in the war. My sister Anahita was the oldest, and I adored her, but we were not close. She ran away or was kidnapped and we never saw her again. I had two brothers, and I loved them. Of course I didn’t. Even Kohinoor, my oldest, what an ass! He was so stubborn, and always talking down to me and my other brother, Kaveh, and I loved him, he was just fourteen when he died. But we both looked up to Kohinoor, we calleed him Kohin. He was the oldest, heir to our meager lands. And he was the type to play the hero.
“Kohin believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, like so many during the war. He was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. People are not born monsters. He wasn’t one, not at first, but got in trouble with the police, but then the police were taken away and replaced by scary men in black with foreign accents. Gaz isn’t even my name, Brandon. I don’t know what it is… I’m lucky though, plenty of kids like me, thousands of them, thousands died in the war, the one that buffoon boasted about at dinner. Those kids died, and not one printed word, only victories for the forces of freedom, for heroes.
“And now, I see everywhere eyes that follow me with contempt. I’m not a barbarian! Surely it is no crime to be born! Those police officers, the ones that were replaced, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen. They weren’t fools, they were just regular people, with families and jobs and hobbies. And they just disappeared, pop pop pop in the dark, like blowing bubbles. That was my favorite thing… We used to have those little toys, plastic sticks with a hoop at the end, we’d dip it in gasoline and blow bubbles through it and they’d float for a while, pretty in the sun and pop. Pop, pop, pop, they’d disappear. But then everyone was angry. The problem was, they had to be mad at something, and it was a choice between others or themselves. No one chooses themselves.
“What do you do when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but the dark itself, with no way to fight it without it swallowing you up? No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. They were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them, you make monsters of them, monsters or ghosts and there is no other choice, no choice but to run and hope someone is there on the other side of darkness, like someone here, this country I’ve loved, where you’re not charged for the sins of your father, or your people, your culture. I ran. From my family, my brothers… They were kids, too, they never grew up.
“Kaveh, he became a ghost, and Kohinoor a monster. Ghosts are real, Brandon. Some are kind, those that die peacefully, in their sleep and surrounded by love. But some, like those in your great buildings, those are angry ghosts. And now I want to fight. I need to fight, but don’t I want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, Brandon, I don’t want to die like my brother, or become a monster. But if I must, I should want to be a kindly ghost, one that helps the others on, through the fire into peace, into rest. And that eats at you, fighting with yourself, eating you from the inside like a botfly until your heart is black and you want to make this world bend into the darkness with you to drown it of its light.
“The last day in Seqaren I remember, that I know is real, because I have the scars, which is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down a hill towards a little pond, and children were already there splashing about. It always dirty that pool, but that day it was as dirty as I ever seen it. I thought someone had poured ink in the water, but I stripped down to my trunks and stood on the edge of the beach with broken bottle glass cutting into my feet. Then I saw Kahven running down the hillside with a puff of dust trailing behind him and then Kohinoor on his heels with a gun in his hand
“I thought it was some stupid game, but I was a child, and so scared, I was always scared. Kaveh grabbed me with both hands and pulled me into the water with all his clothes on and yelled ‘take a deep breath!’ just before we went under, taking me beneath the blackened water with his fingers pinching my nostrils. I struggled to come up for air, but Kaveh held me under. Everything was happening so fast and I popped back up and saw Kohin being chased by men all dressed in black, god dammit! Have you ever heard a gunshot, muffled by water? It rippled out, dozens of shots at once, tearing Kohin to pieces, when you’re hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and gas. And they followed him to the edge of the pool but he kept moving somehow, struggling along the glass beach on his hands and knees towards the water where I was hiding with Kaveh. And before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air and breathing oil, an oil spill in the water like octopus ink, and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows of the overhanging rock kept us hidden until the water caught fire.
“When he saw me he stopped crawling and the men caught up with him finally. I struggled to get to him, the men were shouting but I didn’t understand them. He mouthed something to me and put his hands behind his head, with his fingers interlocked, he was dying anyway, and just closed his eyes and lay there. I was frozen, wrapped in fire, as the muffled gunshot rang out muffled with the water in my ears dulling the sound. He fell over with that same smile on his face. I was a fucking child. And then the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and dead or not they shot him in the head. One of the men in black pointed at the water and Kaveh grabbed my nostrils and pulled me under water, fire white now blanketing the surface.
“One of the men, and I don’t know who he was ’cause I just saw his eyes and the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up and took out another gun, a little pistol, and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse. What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and prayed, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. He was dead on the surface face down and I saw the blank expression on his face, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something shook the earth in the distance… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me, and he drowned eventually and I floated up to the surface That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow I kept burning, deep down, and each breath was pure fire filling my lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. She didn’t want to leave their bodies their for the carrion birds. But me and mama left anyway. We left without them. We got into the back of a truck and waited. Kids were stacked on top of each other like piles of clothes wrapped around bones. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brothers, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Let’s be practical here, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “You could have saved Chloe, in your story. If her father had confessed to the murder… Gilbertte would’ve gotten away, but the innocent would have lived.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers, those aviator sunglasses. Sometimes I imagine him wearing them, somewhere in a garden, by a waterfall in Arabia, surrounded by ghost orchids, blowing bubbles. I have looked and looked, through newspapers and on the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I kept a garden when I moved back to South Carolina, and planted a white ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. But I leave the light on for him.When I finally sold the story, The Death of Madame Brisbois, I dedicated it to him, as he was like poor Chloe, as he had burnt like her, from a fire lit by another, unable to move his hand.

When Water Catches Fire – draft

Quote

WHEN WATER CATCHES FIRE

By

BRANDON NOBLES

1

I had an editor named Gazsi once. I knew him for a long time before I knew him. I called him The Gaz. He  was a Persian speaking 22 year old who had been in America for ten years when we met in February of 2000, when the manuscript of one of my first novels found its way to his desk with the header ‘development prospect’ affixed to it. He contacted me by post, and told me that, although I would not be able to publish my book, he was tasked with “developing me” – something I was told meant something like, “We think you suck, but we don’t think you’ll suck forever.”

I wasn’t offered any money up front, but I was promised that my work would be considered by the publisher the Gaz worked for, Kensington, which was a big deal for me as an aspiring author; I had tried to publish my first story after winning South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor’s award two years in a row. My English teacher had sent some of my poems to prospective buyers, and she managed to get my work published in an anthology, just one poem in a collection released in 2001, not long after my 16th birthday.

I remember sending a copy to Gaz, and he said, ‘You continue to suck less and less. Congratulations!’ He sent me a card and – and I still have it – telling me, toast like and at a distance, ‘To the end of your sucking!’ And we talked on the phone for the first time not long after that. I liked him immediately, despite his shyness, his guarded demeanor. And he seemed to genuinely want to help, as my rejection had left me lethargic, unable to face the possibility of continued failure. He didn’t tell me much about himself, other than that he was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the States during the war in the Persian Gulf.

2

He stayed at Kensington until various complaints surfaced against him, even threats, in those panicked days after those two planes toppled the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. He was let go finally, on paid leave but still working with me. Of course they never clued him in on what he’d done, or if he’d done anything at all, or if it was something new in the air, some new bogeyman he would be painted as. They had found discrepancies with his immigration papers, I would later learn.

The economy was in a ‘tough place’ and people had to make ‘tough decisions.’ I did what I could; I knew someone at a publicity company and helped him interview for the job, a PR firm that sought out new authors to help develop them, as he had developed me. He did quite the same thing he had done at Kensington – they scoured the newly forming digital world for talent to develop and helped the few become the authors they wanted to be, looking over the rejected manuscripts of the many who would remain the rejected authors they feared they’d be. When I got the rejection form I called him up, as he lived nearby, unsure whether I would ever write again, but certain I needed to get drunk.

He arrived at my hotel just after dark with a bottle of cheap vodka and explained, ‘Smoother than that rocket fuel you drink.’ He was right, again, and we sat at the foot of the bed watching an episode of COPS. It might not have been rocket fuel, but it took us to the fucking moon. We had a good time, though I don’t remember much of the evening, swirling blue and red lights running along the ceiling. I was once told that any night that begins with liquor and ends with mystery must be considered a success. Gaz and I talked, I remembered that, first about my future projects, about stories, why people wrote them, and why people needed them. Some way to cope, through shared trauma; catharsis for a beaten man.

“I think the best thing is,” said Gaz, “in a story, what is real is not measured by its facts, but by its feeling. Take Titanic, that long James Cameron movie?”

“Yes, I think I’ve heard of it.”

“Look at the main characters,” he said. “They were a total fiction. They were absolutely fiction, but that’s why people liked that movie, and why other people hated it. People are brought in by the disaster porn, but that’s not why it resonated. They cared about the people. Two beautiful young people. And how many of those others – what I mean, who does the audience cry for? A thousand people died, but the tragedy is cut down to one person.  Is it right? Maybe not. That’s all you have to learn, Brandon. You can’t tell a story like that, not quickly, and hope to keep anyone’s attention. Take all that sweeping prose and bring it down to one or two people, maybe three, and make it human, put a human face on it. That’s when it becomes real. No one cries for metal.”

He was very much a mentor to me, and being official, and speaking in an official capacity, despite being absolutely fucking wasted. The Gaz was forever informal, neat in that ruffled way and casual; but when he looked at you, you saw that he understood, that he felt. A song came on he seemed to like and he relaxed, and I saw, with the sweat brought about by drink, the tone of his face had darkened, his hands remaining the same vaguely ethnic color. The mood ran the gamut from extreme merriment to the peak of regret and sorrow. He saw me looking at him, the scars along the side of his face, and he responded to my unspoken question:

“I was burned when I was a kid,” he said. “Hey, it’s not as bad as it looks.”

We talked about my plans, what I would do with whatever school I managed to get in. I wanted to write. I always wanted to. Well, I always did. Wanting to do it never factored in. We looked at information about the English programs at the schools where I would be interviewed; I decided to interview at Columbia and Cornell, fingers crossed for either, with a stupid hope for Cornell, one that did not punish me for dreaming in the end. We planned a road trip to New York City, to stay there for a week before going on to Ithaca. That’s when he asked if we could visit Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centers had been.  The night wound down and he was on one side of the bed, this strange little man, short and fit. I got up to turn out the lights.

“Hey,” he called from the bed. “Leave the light on for me, if you wouldn’t mind.”

“Not at all,” I said. I left the bathroom light on, not too bright and not too dim, and most comforting. I returned to my side of the bed.

“Goodnight, Gaz,” I said.

He was silent for a moment. A long moment. Then he rolled over and looked at me with a smile on his face, his eyes sincere and sympathetic.

“Brandon,” he said. “I like you.”

“I like you too, Gaz,” I said. “But I’m not that drunk.”

“Good,” he said. “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight, Gaz.”
3
The drive to New York City didn’t take as long as I thought it would. I had been to Maine before on a piss-smelling Greyhound and we stopped at a connection point somewhere in the city. I had a connection ticket that was to take me from the terminal in NYC to Boston, but they couldn’t validate my ticket. So I wandered around the bus terminal in need of $5 to get another ticket, to make it up Boston. And then further on to Maine. The very first person I asked for money, a Chinese man in a suit that seemed out of place, agreed to pay for my ticket – if he could come with me to purchase it. When I welcomed him to do so, and happily, he smiled, as if to acknowledge his own cynicism. I shook his hand and thanked him. I boarded the bus to Boston in the early morning.

We had planned the day as best we could. We checked into our hotel and I left my notebook there. We found out there would be a bus tour around Manhattan, out toward Ellis Island and finally we made it out to the Statue of Liberty. The skinny tour attendee narrated for us. The statue of liberty was designed by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, a gift to the United States from the people of France, it was dedicated on the 28th of October, 1886. The famous statue has been a symbol of the free world and the promise of America. Its famous inscription reads: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, sending those, the homeless, tempest lost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Gaz’s bright brown eyes had swelled with a happy sadness, and I understood, everyone on the bus – or maybe not, maybe not the guy reading off his cards – from the youngest girl in the back of the bus looking out the window, to an old man covered in soot and a checkered coat, we all believed in America, its promise, and everyone on that bus, they didn’t have to say a thing – we were all a part of the same, multicolored arabesque, the tapestry that made America, we knew it in our hearts, was a quilt, a counterpane meant for everyone.

We were silent for the rest of the drive as the guy read off his cue cards in his squeaky voice, telling us about the historic buildings, the different burroughs, the Omnisphere and central park with that gold Prometheus; the history and the culture. Then the empty sky among a littered landscape somehow seemed loud, profane in being empty. I had never seen that part of New York City, not in person, but I’d seen that famous skyline. And everyone on the bus had seen it, glowing at night, prominent and proud in the afternoon. It was a different silence on the bus, and the narration got lost in my head. Where those two buildings had been, there was no rubble there, not now, but there was the twisted metal strewn about unwavering, lingering in my mind, and that’s what I saw, the ghost of twisted metal and steel

The bus tour ended without ceremony. I think everyone was exhausted. So many people emigrating to America had seen that Statue in the distance first of all, on their boats, that giant tower in the clouds not far away, and New York became a nation of mixed heritage, the biggest in human history united under principles instead of warlords, courts of law instead of Emperors. They came from Europe, the Jews fleeing progroms in Tsarist Russia, the Chinese fortunate to get out before Mao’s revolution, the Spanish fleeing military dictators, the Irish seeking refuge from the potato famine, refugees from Vietnam, Cambodians who got out before Pol Pot and his Angka turned the clocks back to Year Zero.

My father’s side had come to America after the fall of the Soviet Union, of Ukrainian ancestry, an Ashkenazim Jewish family; and my mother’s descendants went back to the 15th century in England, and they too had fled with dreams, hearing the same whispers that statue once murmured to the world, a promise that the law was just, and justice was for all. The tour guide, despite his cards, was a sharp kid, taking questions, answering them with breadth and concision. It was overwhelming. But I didn’t want to waste away in the hotel all day so Gaz and I decided to clear our heads with a stroll.

It’s a hectic place, electric even, a circuit board of sparks between skyscrapers. Gaz looked pale and so we ducked into a Mexican restaurant, Mesa Coyoacan on Graham Ave. in Brooklyn where I was staying until the start of term, after I was accepted into Cornell. It was a strange scene, something right out of history. The tables were aged wood and the tables were shared, a communal dining experience. It was a bit pricey for me, as was everything else. Where I was from, there was one red light. A traffic light, but one of them. It was the Traffic Light, and a pack of cigarettes was about $3 for a good brand, your Marlboro Menthols and your Newports, but there were brands as cheap as $1.99, which I often bought – living is expensive enough; never overpay for death.

“What do you think?” I asked. Gaz was looking over the menu. He’d been quiet since we went back to the hotel to change. “I’ve never seen so many tequilas,” he said. “Do you think that’s their thing here? Do you think someone said, ‘There are lots of Mexican restaurants in this city… What can set us apart? Hold on, hold on I’ve got it, this happens to me sometimes: let’s have the most tequilas of all.’”

“You could be known for worse,” I said. “There’s a Mexican restaurant in South Carolina, in Newberry County called La Fagota. You know what their gimmick is? ‘We are the only Mexican restaurant. Nobody has better tacos than us.’ You know why? Because nobody else has tacos.”

“You are truly from a backward culture,” Gaz said. “But hey, at least it’s affordable.”

I ordered a quesadilla and wings. Gaz ordered two tequilas, a mid-expensive brand and an extremely rare are you fucking kidding me? brand. Both for him, of course.

We were having an enjoyable meal until an old man wearing aviator sunglasses walked in wearing camo shorts and long, grey woolen socks pulled up to his knees. The table was communal, and despite more open space further down the bench he sat close enough to me and Gaz as to be heard. We went about our meal, talking about the fall, talking about the future. The old man started out innocently, mumbling to some people beside him, and to their everlasting credit, everyone at the table ignored him. But he kept talking, louder and louder and louder still, egging Gaz on and on. To my shame I didn’t say a thing, and to his everlasting credit, neither did Gaz. Gaz drank his two tequilas until we were drunk enough to shrug off the passive aggressive insults of that ridiculous parrot.

The waitress came back to the table.

“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “No thanks, I’m good.”

She looked at Gaz, “And you?”

“I’m great, thanks,” he said. “Could I get a go-bag for the rest of my salad?”

“Sure thing,” she said. She turned to me, “He gave you the better tequila.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

She smiled. “Is it the best tequila you’ve never tasted or what?”

Gaz took two of the tequila glasses and slammed them on the floor.

“I didn’t bomb your buildings!” he said. “I didn’t bomb your buildings!”

I grabbed him by the shoulders and tried to put him back on his stool. The man in camouflage shorts took off his glasses and the waitress hurried over to where he was sitting and, despite not being able to hear what that young woman said, that guy sat back down and cleared his throat, “This ain’t a place for towel-heads and sand niggers.” The door to the kitchen opened and several men came out, all very quickly. Gaz shrugged my hands off of him and started toward him, yelling:

“I’m an American!” he shouted. “I’m a fucking American! Fuck you! Fuck you!”

The man stood up, Gaz staggered backward. The moment teetered on the edge of insanity. The kitchen staff pulled him away and took him to the front door. I hurried after him.

“I’m a fucking veteran!” the man yelled. “I fought in Desert Storm to protect you people, and you ungrateful scumbags..”

“Here, ma’am! Hey!” I called to the waitress. I put all the money I had on the table. I ran to the door with Gaz, where he stood detained by two of the staff members. They were stern but not excessive, and within ten minutes he had calmed. Still shaken, the two employees tried to talk him down. One of the guys had offered him a cigarette, which he took. I’d never seen him smoke. He shook and his teeth chattered in the heat, waves of steam rising from the tarred midtown roads.

“I was wrong, Brandon,” he said. “I wept for the metal.”

4

We stayed together for the rest of the summer. The PR firm Sgarlat was letting him work from his laptop. We had fun together, a lot of fun. The drive to Ithaca was longer than I thought it’d be, and the campus more beautiful than the pictures had prepared me for. Gaz was overjoyed that I had been accepted into a good school, telling me that if he could buy a new life somehow, he’d stay there with me and finally teach me how to write.

We spent the first night at the Robert Purcell Community center for a get together of the starting freshman class. I got to meet some of my professors. Everyone was lovely, accommodating to not only myself but to Gaz as well. We didn’t stay long after I shook hands with all the people I felt that I should shake hands with. I got the feeling that the smattering of voices, unintelligible but loud, was a bit jarring to him, after what happened at Mesa Coyoacan, so we left, out into the open air, into the comfort of silence.

We turned off Jessup Rd. leaving the Community Center and walked toward the Golf Course where we stopped and asked an older looking student how to find the Mundy Wildflower Gardens. He walked with us as far as the bridge from Forest Home to Judd Falls Rd., and leaving us at the Wildflower Garden, he said a cordial goodbye.

That was his favorite moment, I think, of the entire trip, seeing the Wildflower Gardens. I got some flowers for him while he was preoccupied with a ghost orchid. I had picked a single flower from each species after he wondered aloud if we were allowed to take any. I planned to give them to him when he left the morning after. We didn’t stay too long, hoping to see as much as possible before our strange trip together had to come to an end. We found our way with a little help back onto Judd Falls, then headed for Werly Island, and on to see Beebe Lake.

We weren’t the only ones along the similar path; as the Gardens and the roads between had been sparse, there were many, many students camped out around the lake.

“Hurry!” he said. “Let’s talk to those ladies.”

We hurried after them and when we finally caught up Gaz said:

“Good afternoon!”

“Hello,” I said. “Mind if we walk with you?”

“Not at all,” said the brunette. Both were sweating, hair pulled back in a bun and wearing wind-breakers. “Are you a freshman?” the blond girl asked. Her name was Jennifer. Her slightly taller, more earnest friend was named Vanessa.

“How can you tell?”

“Because you’re polite,” Vanessa said. They laughed together and we laughed too.

“My friend Gaz here,” I said, “he told me this lake was magic. It’s not as silly as it sounds…”

“Let’s hear it then,” Vanessa said. They kept walking and we kept pace as best as we could.

“Well the legend goes that if you walk around the lake with a friend or with a girlfriend or a boyfriend, you’ll never part. It sounds silly, I know! I know! But I thought if we walked together, maybe it’d come true, and we’d always be friends.”

And we were, Jennifer and Vanessa and I. I knew them all the way through graduation. And I was friends with until he disappeared.

5

His last night with me Gaz got to stay in my cramped dorm. I was sitting at a desk looking through a list of books I’d need. Gaz had the news on again. One channel after another, news and violence, opinions about violence in the news: also featuring violence. Then he saw that tape. You know the one – one of the tapes posted to the Al Jazeera news agency in Qatar, an old VHS video tape that would leak onto the internet, onto smut sites, gore porn like Rotten.com and Ogrish, the digital faces of death. I watched them, how could you not? You know it’s going to hurt you – if you’re not a fucking sociopath – but you feel the need, at least I did, I didn’t watch it to enjoy it, but as some way of misguided empathy, to need to suffer for the people who suffered I could have never helped.

A copy of the New York Times was open on the bed beside him, the one that ran the infamous Judith Miller story, as it had been circulating around campus as an effort to discredit the push for war. I finished looking over the long, long list of books I’d need and sat beside him in the dim light of a small lamp I’d bought the day before, the dim light of the flickering TV. I finally fell asleep sometime after midnight, somehow keeping my spirits up in spite of the deluge of horror coming from the small TV set.

Sometime in the early morning he woke me up with surprising strength.

“Hey,” he said. “Brandon? Are you awake?”

“Dude, I’m fucking awake now cause you woke me up!”

“I’m sorry!”

“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

We both had a laugh together.

“Have you ever heard of Saudi Arabia?” he slurred.

“Dude,” I said. “You woke me up for that shit?”

“Okay, okay,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of Saudi Arabia. You’ve seen Aladdin. Read the Arabian Nights. What do you think about when you think of Saudi Arabia? I was born there. Do you know where it is? Don’t look at me like that! I’m kidding!”

I laughed: the most casual way to admit ignorance without actually admitting ignorance.

“But you know, smart as you are–and I don’t hold this against you! I was born in Seqaren. Most Americans, when they think of Saudi Arabia, you think of deserts and Lawrence of Arabia. And camels. The camels, ah! The camels aren’t even indigenous! We import them! And that’s where those people were from, who destroyed those buildings… And any country with that kind of … But they weren’t from my home. There’s something about home that doesn’t change. What do you call it? A characteristic of a place, something that speaks to you when you see it? It’s not a landmark, it’s something in the blood… And it can’t be taken from you. It’s printed on you, understand? Yes, there are deserts in Saudi Arabia and there are camels in those deserts, but in Saqeren – where I was born, what a beautiful place! And there are waterfalls and granite walls, roads carved into the sides of mountains

“There was a waterfall not fall from my house, where I grew up, nothing fancy, nothing chic, nothing modern. The waterfall started as a little stream high up on the hill, a large drop off and at the bottom is a small pool of water. I never seen the top. It might not have been perfectly clean but we thought it was safe to swim, to cool off, to have fun. We were children. Where… wait, I have a point. I… Fuck, Brandon. It was a sewer and I miss it! Maybe I miss the memory, the happiness of being a kid. How quickly does it end, childhood. Maybe it’s a phantom, conjured by starved memory searching out images of comfort and home.”

“Well, tell me about your last day there… In … Sekaren?”

“I was the youngest in my family… My sister was the oldest Anahita, Hiti… I was not close to her. So pretty, I wish I could see her again. She ran away when she turned eighteen and we never saw her again. She didn’t get along with dad. But I had two brothers, and I loved them! Of course I did… But my oldest brother, what an ass! Kohinoor, so fucking stubborn. You know? He always talked down to me and my other brother Kaveh, who was fourteen. But he looked up to Kohinoor. Kohin was the oldest, the heir to our meager lands. He wanted to play hero, too, but in games, with toys, make believe! Kohinoor believed in fighting, but no one in our family would support that madness! He was confused, he was mad at the world and wanted to fight for something. These people are not born monsters. Maybe he just wanted to fight, for his country or his religion. He had gotten in trouble a lot with the local military, the police had been taken away and replaced. We never saw them again…”

“Gaz…”

“Gazsi’s not my name! Just some vaguely ethic nickname. We have Roberts and Georges and Micahs. Even Todds and Tuckers yes speaking Persian, you think they want to use a Kalashnikov? They want to go to Starbucks and see Tarantino films… But these kids will die, thousands of them, no one will print a word. Only leaders of monsters, figure-heads, that brainwash children into being fodder for dispassionate carpet bombing which, it’s just a fucking button issue here, anger! I’m not angry, at that fucking phony in his camo he risks nothing! Nothing! But he was born better so he’s entitled to fucking judgment!”

“Okay, okay, relax. It’s fine, it’s fine. It’s all right, man. If I fail, you know, getting in here was pointless.”

“And you look at me like that. Yes, Ivy League, how modern and cultured, and you’ll sit in those classrooms and pretend you care until refugees start pouring out and then that Statue of Liberty doesn’t apply. Surely it is no crime to be born! I’m not a barbarian! Those police officers, they weren’t cavemen! But it’s on the news, so they’re cavemen now. They weren’t fools or barbarians they were regular fucking people with families and just regular fucking people. Ah! And they just disappeared. Pop, pop, pop in the dark. Like blowing bubbles. We got those little plastic toys, a little stick with a hoop on the end. We dipped it in gasoline and blew through it and they’d float for a while pretty in the sun and pop! Haha! Pop, pop, pop. They disappeared, and everybody was angry. Who wouldn’t be? The problem was, they had to be mad, and they had to be mad at something.

“What makes you angry when your enemy is the dark? Not in the dark, but dark itself, no way to fight it without becoming a part of it. No one knew who to fight, but they wanted to, they needed to. Just because they were being hurt. So they tore each other to pieces. When you brutalize a people, when you handle them like beasts and monsters, you don’t make angels of them, you don’t reform them. They become monsters or they become ghosts and there is no other choice except to run and hope that someone here, this country I love, won’t hold you accountable for the sins of your father, or your people, or your culture. I ran. That’s what I did. That’s what the smart people did. From my family… Both my brothers, they were kids. They never grew up. Kaveh became a ghost, not an angel, and Kohimoor, he became a monster first and then a ghost. Ghosts are real. Some are kind, those that died in their sleep. But some, like those people in those buildings, those are angry ghosts. And what can I do? I don’t know who to fight, but I want to fight. I need to fight, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be a ghost, not like my brother. I want to be the kind of ghost that helps the others on, through the fire and into peace. And they changed names all the time, easy, yes? So many names you forget who you are, and the regret eats you from the inside, like a botfly, inside out until your heart is black and you want to cover this world in darkness with you.

“The last day in Seqaren I do remember, and it’s real, and I know it’s real, and that is why I prefer the dream. I was walking down the hill towards the pond at the bottom and there were children already in. The little pool was always dirty, but that day was as dirty as I’d ever seen it. I thought that someone had spilled paint into the water, but I got in anyway. I stood on the edge of the little pool on sharp little rocks, cutting my feet on the glass from broken bottles. I saw my younger brother coming down the hillside in a hurry, chasing a ball but fell and slid dust coming up behind him and down he went from the sheer cliff, the drop off where the water comes…

“Once he hit the incline and started running I couldn’t tell if he was crazed with happiness or with madness or with fear, but I was a child. I was afraid, and got out of the water to try to help. He ran and ran and ran finally I saw… My brother Kohin was chasing him and he had a gun. I thought that it was some stupid game until my brother Kaveh grabbed me and pulled me into the water and jumped in with me, with all his clothes on taking me down beneath the black water grabbing my nostrils and he yelled ‘Take a deep breath!’ That’s what scared me! He had his clothes all wet and I knew mother would be very angry with him. And my father…

“I struggled to stay above water, but Kaveh tried to hold me under, and I thought, Maybe he’s horsing around? Then I saw the group of men behind Kohin, all dressed in black, and the… It’s… it’s god damn, god fucking damn. God dammit! Have you ever heard a gun being fired? There were dozens of shots at once, rippling, and it just tore Kohim apart, tore him to fucking pieces. Metal doesn’t bleed, nothing like that, when you get hit you’re just a mix of blood and water and air. And they followed him to the edge of the water. He crawled across the glass towards the water, towards where I was hiding with Kaveh, and before he died his eyes widened with surprise as he saw my little head bob up and gasp for air breathing oil; there had been an oil spill in the water, no paint! and because the little pool was between two high cliffs, the shadows had kept us safe until the surface of the pool caught fire.

“A group of people all garbed in black were running after him shouting in a language I didn’t understand and when he saw me he stopped running and he stopped crawling and the water was boiling in my eyes but I was covered by the oil in the shadow watching as he knelt, hands behind his head with his fingers interlocked. He stopped trying to get away, and he just closed his eyes and lay there. I froze there unable to move, as the muffled sound of the Kalashnikov rang out dead and muffled with the water softening the shots. He tumbled over, same stupid smile on his face, dead or pretending I had no idea, I didn’t know, I don’t I fucking I was … I was a child! And the men came up, all I saw were there eyes and those guns, and whether he was dead when he stopped crawling, he was ten feet or so away from us. They shot him in the head. One of those men in black, I guess he was the leader and he pointed at the water and I grabbed my nostrils and dove deep into the black underneath the fire white now blanketing the surface, their muffled shouting and gunshots. I don’t know who he was. I just saw his eyes, the bottom of his face when he pulled that mask up when he took out that gun, that little pistol and shot Kohinoor in the head. He just shot him again, shooting a corpse.

“What kind of madness must be bred to have one man shoot another knowing he’s dead? He’s just wasting bullets, still angry, killing a corpse without remorse or pity or anything. Then he just went through his pockets, took some of his bullets, took his gun, and walked over to one of the other men in black and came back with a burning sock in one hand and a white paper cup in the other. That gasoline taste was in my mouth, I’ll never forget it… Then the man dropped the sock on my brother and whoosh! He goes up in flames. They pushed him into the water but he kept burning … turning into soot, not ash, the gasoline in my eyes between bubbles.

“I guess they were content that he was dead by then, I took one last pull of air and closed my eyes and thought, I’ve never known or believed in the customs of my people but I begged any listening god to take me to a place where I could breathe, a place without fire. Two of the other men came over and with a little effort they flung my brother’s body into the shallow pool. He was dead and another body was just something they couldn’t carry, molting like that, like shedding skin, peeling away with the fabric of his t-shirt each layer of skin. And something… It shocked them as much as me and Kaveh looking through the gasoline bubbles rimmed in bows of rain, and that finally scared them, when the water had caught fire. It’s … They ran off, back up the hill, and Kaveh held me there, trying to protect me. That’s what happened to my face… I know, I know. And somehow, wet, we kept burning, deep down, and breathing in each breath was pure fire filling your lungs. It could have been forever, and it died out, finally. I don’t remember the rest so well, but I’ve been on fire ever since, when water touches me, cold or hot, I keep burning.

“I remember mama coming for me and sobbing. My brother wouldn’t leave Kohin’s body, but me and mama left anyway. We left without him. We got into the back of a truck and waited. I think we were waiting for papa. I don’t remember his name, he had changed it so often, and mama told me it was best I didn’t know. If one side didn’t kill him the other one and the cleanup crew didn’t notice the differences in the eyes or face or those wrinkles in a man’s forehead that say so much or the sadness for a mother having to leave without her child. We waited until we couldn’t anymore and besides, the truck was too full anyway. Had he made it, we’d have had to tell him he couldn’t leave. Brandon, they waited on papa, not to take him with us, but to apologize for leaving, they were waiting to say goodbye.

“He was probably somewhere with a gun or in a ditch, being noble, fighting the cause, while we left down a long long road, people were stacked on top of each other, kids stacked like piles of folded pants. We drove through the night and into the next afternoon. We met an American there and his wife and his two kids, and the truck driver told us that we would have to learn our new names, and began passing out Egyptian visas. I didn’t know what they were, I just remember staring down at the face of a kid who looked like me, and was about my age. I memorized his birthday and his name. I don’t even know my real birthday, Brandon. So I never know when to celebrate.”

There was a long silence.

“Let’s say today is your birthday, then,” I said. “You can have those flowers from the atrium, and take them with you if you go back.”

“You know,” he said, “I can’t go back, unless they make me. Where I must fight or be a monster, one side or another, a monster or collateral I’ll end up a ghost like my brother, forgotten in all the confusion of just another afternoon.”

“Who’s going to teach me to write if you leave, Gaz?” I asked. “Being practical, you won’t have time to edit my stories if you die.”

He laughed, the vitreous humor crusting in his eyes with embarrassment. He wiped it away.

“I’ll haunt your Word processor, and leave you notes here and there. We’ll develop that talent someday.”

“I knew I could rely on you.”

He smiled.

“Thanks, Brandon.”

I smiled. I didn’t know what to say. Thinking back to it now, I wish I could have comforted him, even if I had to lie. He kept on drinking. And so did I. The television was still blaring news, the same sort that had dominated the airwaves. Finally I turned it back to the Satellite standard music station. He hadn’t lost his composure, not completely, and he hummed some little song. Well, I’m not sure it was a song, as I didn’t know the language. I butted in.

“Have you ever heard Anna Moffat sing?” I asked. “Madame Butterfly? I have to pretend to be cultured now.”

He shuffled through his mp3 player and put on a piece of music. The instrument was an a rabab, he told me. I think. I didn’t know what it was, but it was beautiful and serene, and I thought if they could import camels, maybe they could import a waterfall and make an atrium, and plant one for everybody, every ghost, each man and woman and child they could’t account for. I wanted to help, or be consoling, or confer in him something personal, or say something wise and meaningful. Sometimes silence is the best consolation.

He had shaken it off somehow by the time he started packing. Or appeared to do so, regaining a measure of his composure, he was smiling and laughing. Maybe it was for my sake. Tears welled up in my eyes. He thumbed them away and wiped them on his church, then took a handkerchief from his jacket and handed it to me. His expression changed when he saw the hurt in my eyes.

“Hey,” he said. “I like you, Brandon.”

“I like you too, Gaz.”

“Do well.”

“I’ll try, my friend.”

“And …” he added, “Failure is not final, quitting is.”

Denouement

I woke the next morning and he was gone. All his things, his assortment of flowers. I wondered if he’d make it into that peaceful place and have a garden, a home and a wife, something worth being peaceful for, for his daffodils and daisies and orchids, a laminated lotus flower in my notebook on top of a list of books for class:

Brandon,

Not all pain is the same, nor equal. Some pain may teach you. Something about life, something about yourself. Then there’s this other kind, the kind that shouts at you until your ears ring, until you can’t hear anything but white noise, the kind of pain that breaks you, leaving you worthless, and thereby breaks you twice. Study hard. You’ll be a writer someday. Remember, if you base a story on the truth, the spirit of it must be true or else it’s a lie, not fiction.

                                   The friendly ghost,

                                                          Azar.

I never saw him again. And I looked, I looked through newspapers and the internet, fearing that he had joined the fight for the sake of fighting. I still tend the flowers prepared for him, and keep a living ghost orchid, Gazsi’s ghost. He’d just disappeared. Just like that, a gasoline bubble going pop. I still leave a light on for him.

 

The Contrarian Argument & the Decay of Political Discourse

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The contrarian argument fallacy

Bullshit, (bo͝olˌSHit) noun: what other people passionately believe.

Whenever discussing issues of controversy or politics, it is a popular trend to deflect a charge against one’s own political party/ideas by a deflection. It usually follows the same pattern in the discourse. Whenever you are discussing the shortcomings of A, a supporter of A, instead of answering the charge, will assume the contrarian argument and deflect the charge. Instead of addressing A’s behavior, the response to it is to bring up the behavior of B, and therefore avoid any responsibility of actually having to answer any difficult questions about one’s own political or philosophical opinions. A common method in the modern discourse is to bring up a negative quality about, say, a particularly beloved/hated politician. Now, to defend them, a contrarian argument may form as accusation against the person whose argument it is; they will neglect to address any issue involved with their own party and instead rebuff you with the “well, maybe he did kill a flock of California condors, but at least he didn’t bathe in the blood of virgins to retain eternal youth.

Now, the problem with this should be obvious: it reduces and degrades the discussion to a series of accusations, substantive or not, and by lowering the stakes (as to whether or not one should bear the full responsibility for one’s behavior) the conversation changes to: so what? Your [insert party/cause here] does this. It is the modern political argument equivalent, I know I am, but what are you? Look for this: whenever someone cannot answer an honest charge with a grounded defense without contrarian charges, their fucking argument is built on quicksand, if that.

Now, the problem with this isn’t just a matter of argument or semantics: degrading the discourse limits the opportunity for those of differing opinion to find common ground or compromise, and you end up with the argumentative equivalent of two fingers in your ears shouting about how bad the person to whom you’re talking supports Soandso McExample and how terrible they are. This is problematic: as far back as ancient Rome, in the senate, the policies of state and the nation were largely left to the debates of senators; whoever had the argument that carried the day carried the motion. It was like this in the French Revolution: speeches and discussions are a part of the body politic, the mouth, primarily, and without this give and take of honest and genuine scrutiny we reduce ourselves to a nation of ear-pluggers, no more willing to listen to anything outside of our own bubble than we are willing to stare into the sun.

The importance of civil discourse is what underpins the authority of a government. When that government’s authority is reduced to contrarian attacks, the foundation turns from concrete into quicksand and dissolves beneath its feet, taking everyone with it into the mire, braying like a flailing horse, unintelligible, and those who hear remain unconcerned, unless the horse was their mascot. Then a state funeral will be held, dedications made, and passionate eulogies read. The only way to solve differences of opinion is not to destroy another person’s opinion, but to find a common ground where two seemingly mutually exclusive opinions can co-exist with something resembling mature thinking. So, whenever someone criticizes a point you’ve made, don’t resort to the fallacious “well, my point may be untenable, but all of your points are FUCKED.”

By waving the response to a charge, you aren’t denying it, rather you are making the presumption that the charge doesn’t matter, even if true; as long as this mentality persists, nothing will be solved, and we will have nothing but a crude, miasma of dissent, with ears plugged on all sides, with no progress, no middle ground, and no resolution.

PS. That politician you like is a total asshole.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual IV

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Tragedy was at its highest when Greek society was at its highest. Comedy was an outlet against and for the frustrations of society, as a diversion for the masses, and was therefore greatly popular during the decline of the Greek government after losing the Peloponessian war against Sparta in 404 BC. In 336 BC, Alexander the Great, a Macedonian King came to power in Athens. Political issues were to be ignored in comedy, understandably, and familial and family relationships were brought to the fore. This was called New Comedy.

For the first time in ancient drama, as much is known, love became a principal element in the drama, though hardly was it considered an honest love. Dialogue was still cast in verse, as the role of the chorus diminished in New Comedy. The costumes and masks were based on the dress of normal life. The masks were more realistic, except, that is, the masks for slaves and the elderly; they remained exaggerated, caricatured. There is only one complete New Comedy known to historians, and it was recently discovered.

DyskolosThe Grouch, was written by Menander, and contained a common theme in comedy, a parent’s disapproval with a child’s chosen partner in marriage. And it had a happy ending. Menander’s characters spoke in contemporary dialect, using colloquial language, and concerned themselves with the affairs of the day-to-day instead of the great myths of the past, as had most popular tragedies at the height of the Dionysia, and it would not be presented there, but at a smaller festival, the Lenaia.

As hard the forms of the past, after the 3rd century BC, new comedy as well began to decline, as did the contests of the Dionysia ceased completely in the first century AD, bringing an end to the classical period of Greek theatre. Its importance, to the audience and performers, is apparent in its surviving monuments and texts, such as the Lysicrates (334 BC), which commemorates the triumphs of the Dionysia. It would be the choregos, a financier of the winning play, likely the myth of the god Dionysis, and the monument served as a pedestal, a reminder of better times; with a bronze tripod upon its summit and trophy for the victor. A modern replica of this monument can be seen in Berlin.

Athens was to be rebuilt in grand fashion after victory in the war against the Persians. Temples most magnificent rose on the acropolis. Pericles was a popular statesman at this time, a period most known for the period of the Parthenon. The orchestra was still known to be circular in the theatre of Dionysia. During the festival a temporary wooden changing hut (the skene) was placed. The theatre was further excavated to make a more secure foundation for the wooden seats. It’s likely that these seats were divided into ten different benches, for the ten different tribes. It is believed another bench would have been put aside for women.

One of the first permanent, roofed theatres was built adjacent to the theatre of Dionysus in 440 BC: The Odeion of Pericles. The possibilities offered by this unique facility were many: dramatic activities as well as recitations. Using existing archaeology, the popular theory is that the roof would have been supported by a forest of columns, which would, of course, result in a sight-line disaster for nearly half of the spectators.

In the 4th century, under the statesman Lycurgus the theatre of Dionysus would finally be rebuilt in stone. This is around the same time period Menander began producing new comedies. Also, racked-stone tiers were constructed where wooden benches had once been. It is believed to have allowed for as many as 17,000 spectators.

The orchestra, the dancing place was still in front of the stage building, a circular pit, and behind facing each side were projecting wings behind the skene (the paraskenia). The word theatre originated from the word for the auditorium, theatron; it meant, ‘seeing place’, (koilon / cavea / auditorium).

Foreigners would have watched from the upper part of the theatre, highest in altitude and furthest from the stage. The proskene, the acting platform, was a low acting platform behind the orchestra, becoming ever more like what we know as a stage. To the rear, behind the skene and backstage area, was a Dionysus sanctuary, with the old temple and the new. Opposing entrances (paradoi) allowed for opposing entrances to the stage by the actors. There would be two diazoma, upper and lower crosswalks between levels of raked seating areas. The front row could consist of 76 marble stalls; the theatre of Dionysus can still be seen today, each seat carved from stone.

When the king of the Balkans took over the city-states in Greece, plays were no longer performed at the Dionysia in Athens. Many new theatres were built and some are still standing, including the best-preserved theatre in all of Greece; consisting of an estimated 14,000 seats, the theatre at Epidaurus still contained the traditional, circular orchestra as its focal point. Another is the Delphi theatre, c. 350 BC, and it has an estimated 5,000 seats, and is spectacularly sited, using the same focal point. This wouldn’t change until the next major period — the Hellenistic period. Which we’ll come to presently (in the sense that, in some future present, I will have finished writing it, and it will be available on this site. Check back for the rest!)

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual III

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After the introduction of Tragedy in the Dionysia in 534 BC, the Dithyramb in 508 BC, and the Satyr play in 501 BC, it would be comedy in 501 BC. IT would be the last major form, and is divided into two periods: the period of old comedy and the period of new comedy.

Five comic writers would present a single play, each perhaps on one of the five days of the Dionyisia. The structure of comedy, like that of a satire, was similar to that of tragedy. Plays were episodic, with bottled episodes alternating with a chorus rhythmically. The chorus was no longer the satyrs, the half-beast, half-human companions of Dionysus, but wasps, frogs, even clouds. As tragic actors wore elaborate costumes, like priests and musicians, comic actors were not to be outdone: they wore padded breasts, padded asses and stomachs, and to top it off, was a long, floppy phallus for the male characters, but not for the chorus.

Note: all characters, female included, were still played by males, in this instance, the case is that the men playing female characters were denied the dick costumes. The masks of old comedy were distortions, caricatures intended to ridicule, and sometimes ridicule real people, priests, politicians, other playwrights. Especially Euripides, for writing strong female characters and questioning the Gods. No from Plato on whether not Euripides has apologized.

On preserved vases and pottery you can still find scenes of old comedy depicted. It is thought that the origin of old comedy may be found in the old Dionysian phallus song. It could be found from without, as well, in the city of Doran on the island of Sicily. The only comedies of the 5th century known to history are the work of a single comic poet, Aristophanes, and though he is believed to have written forty or more plays, only eleven have survived. His comedies were largely political-social satires. They still took the form of the most extravagant of the burlesque. Aristophanes was brutal in his abuse, skewering the politicians and celebrities of Athens.

The circumstance of it being a part of the tradition of the Dionysia allowed him to get away with saying things he would normally be unable to say. A choral ode, the parabasis, was a choral ode, but unique in that the playwright could take to the stage and discuss, at liberty, anything he so desired, and it needn’t have anything to do with the play. At the height of the Poloponessian War between Athens and Sparta, Aristophanes produced an anti-war comedy Lysistrata – in it, two women swear an oath to deny all men sex until the end of the war. Motivation. Athens, perhaps, capitulated for this reason, knowing a true defeat for Sparta was the end of battle and the recommencement of married life.

Theatre: Tradition & Ritual II

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The City of Dionysia festival, the first annual annual, was held each year in March, beginning with an announcement by the three selected playwrights and the subjects of their tragedy trilogies, respectively. A great procession was held, a procession in which citizens – men, women, children, colonial representatives – marched through Athens carrying the wooden statue of Dionysia, from outside the theatre of Dioynsus to the southern slope of the acropolis. The procession ended with parties and celebrations.

Dionysus wasn’t a one-note deity, the God of wine, but also of fertility, humanity, and of land, and as such, the phallus was a popular symbol of fertility. As such, a giant statue, of bronze or wood, of a phallus would be carried in procession, while a cart pulled a much larger phallus. This is a custom that survives to this day in Japan, in traditional kabuki theatres, as there is a large cart carrying an even larger phallus. To be clear, phallus is just an archaic word for penis. Large penises were pulled into crowds full of drunks celebrating the most brutal of tragedies performed in the Dioynsia contest.

Dionysus was not only the god of wine, but of fertility, human beings and of land. The phallus was a popular symbol of fertility in those days. Therefore, a wooden or bronze phalloi was carried in procession and a cart pulled a much larger phallus. A similar custom is still continued to this day in Japan, where there is the carrying of a giant phallus to proceed kabuki ceremonies and performances.

In 500 BC a new contest was introduced to draw loyalty from the newly formed Athenian tribes. To parlay favor, a dithyramb contest was held, separate for men and for young boys. Mesomedes is a popular melody writer from the 2nd century whose work is still known. The singing performances were accompanied by lyres, sitars, as aulos and other types of pipe instruments.

In 501 BC, the Dionysia was again extended: it would include a Satyr play. In Greek mythology, a satyr was half-beast, half-human companion to Dionysis. These characters would make up the chorus in a traditional satyr play. So in the 5th century, not only the the playwright be expected to produce a trilogy, a trilogy of a single, larger tragedy, but also a satyr play – this was the comic relief, alleviating some of the misery that had preceded it. These would be more or less burlesque versions of familiar subjects, gods and heroes, but set in a rural area, full of boisterous scenes and drinking, and the absolute indecency of colloquial language, introducing a tradition of slang. While dick jokes have fallen out of favor, keep in mind, the very first performed jokes known to history are dick jokes.

Only one known completed satyr play from this period is known to historians, Cyclops by the playwright Euripides, based on the episode in the episode when Odysseus encounters the cyclops Polyphemus. You can still see paintings of satyr plays depicted on vases and pottery, where chorus members wore scant-dressings of goat skins with a linen-sewn phallus for comedic effect. The structure of the satyr play was similar to that of a tragedy, and the English word satire derives from this tradition of the Satyr play introduced into the tragedy contests in the City of Dionysia.