The children I used to babysit had a train set and dollhouse in their nursery. When we played “house,” they would spend hours setting up: arranging furniture in the house, building railroads in the town, and devising an elaborate legal system that governed every detail of the dolls’ lives. But the dolls never actually lived out these roles; the kids spent the whole time building and planning. Whenever I suggested that we move on to the “playing stage,” they insisted that they weren’t done getting ready yet. But they were never done getting ready—bedtime always came first. Eventually I realized that I was missing the point: the preparation was the playing for them. I feel like I’m doing the same thing in my life. I download apps that will maximize my productivity and take classes that will enhance my resume. I spend all my time calculating and planning and laying down resources—for what? For living. For my “real life” that hasn’t started yet, but is to take place at some indeterminate moment in the future. But will I ever get to the playing stage?
The New Republic came in the mail the other day, with its scary green cover featuring an open grave in the shape of the number “1.” The superimposed headline: “The Terrifying New Science of Loneliness.” Although it took me a moment to orient myself (what did loneliness have to do with cemeteries?), the message eventually crept through to me in two sobering parts: 1.) If I wasn’t careful, loneliness would kill me, and 2.) Thanks to “new science,” I could now be sure of it. As it happens, these two points do turn out to encapsulate most of the New Republic’s “terrifying” cover story, although, like all articles of this kind, what becomes clear as one reads along is that the “new science” (if you’re familiar with this genre, you know that “new science” always means either brain science or genetics, and usually some combination of the two) does not know anything; it simply suspects some things, based on several “famous” and “ingenious” experiments (we know they are famous and ingenious because the author of the article, who is not a scientist, has been told that they are)—and that the things it suspects are things that have been suspected since roughly the days of Aristotle (for instance, that people are healthier when they’re social). Which doesn’t stop the authors of said articles from relating the studies’ findings as if they offered light where before there was nothing but darkness, confusion, a miasma of “vague platitudes” and non-scientific thinking. “We now know,” announces Judith Shulevitz, in the assertive tone we reserve for things we’ve learned third hand, “that loneliness, a social emotion, can reach into our bodies and rearrange our cells and genes.” Having gotten this remarkably meaningless news off her chest, she is at least free to get to the good part: “What should we do about it?” What should we do about loneliness? Finally, I felt—a question worthy of a human being. Shulevitz’s first suggestion—or, more precisely the first suggestion of one of the “award winning” social scientists she interviews: A “mobile app,” where you would “check an item off the list, say, if you remembered to talk to anyone that day.” This is meant seriously, I think, although it’s hard to tell how seriously since Shulevitz quickly moves on to the hard stuff: drugs. “Imagine giving people medications to treat loneliness.” Imagine it? Don’t we already do it? If not, what are all those Paxil commercials about, with the dead-eyed people looking forlornly out of windows? But don’t worry, if none of that surprises you (Ok, it’s true I didn’t know that “Tylenol can reduce the pain of heartbreak”), Shulevitz saves her most radical suggestion for last: perhaps, she says, lonely people should be “taught to respond to others without fear or paranoia.” Yet another thing we would never have thought of without cognitive mapping! The new science—not to mention the new journalism that keeps us so up to date on its life-altering progress—really is on its way to solving all our problems.
I taught myself how to draw by copying the illustrations Leonard Cohen litters throughout his books of poetry. Now that I make little amateur sketches of my own, they all turn out to be of either a naked woman gesticulating in a bathtub, or middle-aged me sitting on a park bench with a secret behind pursed lips—themes borrowed directly from Cohen’s verse and sketchbook. Somehow I identify comfortably with the thought that these are the images I reproduce—but, contained to such narrow themes, I can never tell whether it’s my artistic talent that’s so limited, or rather the range of my emotional introspection. What’s especially frightening is the thought that these themes, with which I identify so intimately, might be empty. Maybe it’s kind of like Federico Garcia Lorca, Cohen’s poetic inspiration, said: “The gypsies are a theme. And nothing more. I could just as well be a poet of sewing needles or hydraulic landscapes.” So I borrowed from Cohen, he borrowed from Lorca, and Lorca could just as well have rhymed about sewing needles. Which means: I could be a thimble.
My unfairly elegant, beautiful, and delicate roommate complained one day about her lack of exercise, and in a fit of self-conscious guilt at my own lack of exercise I suggested we try a free zumba class together. Immediately I regretted it—but it was too late to back out. On the day of the class we lined up with the other fifty or sixty young women on the floor of the basketball court, and the instructor, a fit, exuberant woman with the springiest hair I’d ever seen, started blasting the music. Then she started moving. I was horrified. I stumbled along as we bounced around, morbidly transfixed by the leggings and Spandex-clad feminine posteriors smartly switching back and forth towards me, hips rolling, legs strutting. I couldn’t keep up. My face burned. My feet fumbled. My arms and hands didn’t have a clue what they were doing. I turned my head and there was my roommate, switching her knees in and out with the rest of them, and here I could barely figure out which direction we were moving in. Then the instructor clasped her hands above her head and started doing some kind of ancient Egyptian dance. Despairing, I mimicked her movements—and suddenly, I was doing it. I was getting it. I was getting zumba. Arms bending in neat angles, jerky neck turns, stoic face, my god, I’d secretly always wanted to be one of those ancient Egyptian priestesses and here I was. I was like Nefertiti! And then, right as I enthusiastically jerked my elbows to the right, the music changed. The instructor started hip rolling again. I stumbled to a stop, the spell broken. Rapture is transient, exercise hopeless. And after the one-hour torture session had ended, I could only respond to my roommate’s enthusiasm with a primitive grunt.
About three years ago, I bought a big glass jug at a Unique Thrift, which I was planning to use to hold 128oz of iced tea. As I’m washing it for the first time, I drop it into the sink, which then proceeds to fall wholesale off the wall and onto my foot. The foot doesn’t take this too well, starts bleeding profusely, and I get driven to the ER. After waiting for an hour and a half, I get stitched up and limp out. A few days later, a bill for THREE THOUSAND ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY FIVE DOLLARS AND SIXTY EIGHT CENTS comes in the mail. I call Aetna, my insurance provider. Pat tells me they could cover a “portion” of it—provided, of course, that I fill out a “brief” Accident Report Form. So they mail me the accident report form, which is, indeed, only 10 pages. I fill it out and mail it back to an address listed at Remittance Drive, Munster, IN. A few weeks later, I get a bill from the hospital that says I owe THREE FUCKING THOUSAND ONE FUCKING… So I call the number on the back of my insurance card, and wind my way through Ann®, the racially ambiguous customer service robot, and her labyrinth of “PRESS 5 FOR CLAIMS, PRESS 6 FOR SELF IMMOLATION, PRESS 1, 4, 9, AND 9 SIMULTANEOUSLY TO SPEAK TO A CUSTOMER SERVICE REPRESENTATIVE.” After calling back a few times, I’m finally connected to Keith. Keith tells me that my claim is void because I put down the wrong date on the Accident Report Form. I ask why they didn’t just contact me and get the right date. Keith says they did try to contact me, sending me not one, not two, but three letters and leaving “multiple voice messages” on my “voicemail box.” (Notice that they knew the date was wrong, implying that they knew which date was right). The message, here, is that the next goddamn time I hear how the government can’t manage to do anything right because of red tape, bureaucracy, job-killing regulations, and an army of slack-jawed public workers, I’m going to drop another goddamn 128oz jug onto my goddamn foot. I’m curious to hear what mode of organization private sector companies use. Is it aristocracy? Kleptocracy? If at any point whatsoever you have to “PRESS 5,” then you’re dealing with a bureaucracy. And it doesn’t really matter if the robot on the other end is being paid by Aetna or your tax dollars. It’s the same damn thing.
Earlier this month, Assata Shakur became the first woman to make the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list, and a $2 million reward was placed on her head. The FBI is no doubt capitalizing on a surge in public confidence after the made-for-TV melee that resulted in its capture of the Tsarnaev brothers, who struck fear into the hearts of Americans about the possibility of “domestic terrorism.” But Assata is a civil rights activist, not a terrorist—and her inclusion on the FBI’s list is a reminder of how retrograde our criminal justice system is. Forty years ago, Assata was shot by a New Jersey state trooper with her hands in the air, then charged with the “execution-style murder” of a police officer who was killed in the ensuing shoot-out. Her conviction is dubious, given that the all-white jury deliberated amidst fear-mongering racist news coverage, but, even if it were just, it is unclear why Assata is not simply a criminal but a terrorist. The head of the FBI’s Newark Division characterized her as a “threat to America.” After 40 years of peaceful exile in Cuba, one wonders what constitutes Assata’s “threat.” Certainly not a physical threat. An ideological threat, then? Shakur’s views are anti-imperialism, anti-racism and anti-sexism, and she speaks out against the United States government when it commits injustices. So does that make her a threat to America?
Having heard many cases for smart phones, I could have told the Verizon Men why I like my dumb phone. I like that it helps me to get lost, I could have said. I like that when I swipe it with my magic swiping fingers I just leave a smudge. Sometimes, with my dumb phone in my pocket, I just am where I am, with exactly no apps. Sometimes a beautiful person does something beautiful in the beautiful world and I just have to remember or forget it; that is all. Maybe we’re at a glittering heteronormative boardwalk, dressed in easy irony, and the glorious sun is setting, and we’re talking about heteronormativity and also things we watch on Netflix instant streaming, and I want to take a photograph, as though from my 1981 Holga, with my 2014 phone, but I just can’t, I just can’t. All the time, I could have said, this phone helps me to incorrectly answer, or simply not answer, any number of given questions. At dinner, there’s no point to putting it on the table, so I don’t. And when I wake in the morning, if I want to look at freshly posted photos of you, I’d have to walk to the back of our house and turn on the computer, and select from the various networks, including the intriguingly named “PoliceSurveillanceVan4,” and kneel in the kneeling chair, which I do not want to do. So I look out the window, and I look at the sky. Some days the trees are rosy. Some days the trees are fleeced. Beneath that window, on the bedside table, there is a lamp, a clay dish, and a landline. In the daytime, only the Disabled American Veterans and my mother call our landline. But someday I want to call you on it, because I miss the sound of your voice. It may be illegal by then, or at least sacrilegious, and the call will have to be patched in straight from my brainhole to yours. I will say, “Hi, Is this my friend?” And you will say, “I think you said, ‘I’d like to take the train to Poughkeepsie.’” And I will say, “No. Is this my friend?” And you will say, “Did you say, ‘Departures from O’Hare?’” And this will go on for some time, until I start begging your bot. I’ll say, “Human, please. Human please. Human please.” And finally you will come to me. And I will say, “There you are! I’ve been missing you!” And you will say, “This connection is incompatible. I lost your contact long ago.” (continued from Point 121)
When I took the phone that I’d purchased at the combination violin repair / used electronics shop, with its dilapidated population of koi, to the Verizon store, with its special brand of infinite blandness, and was asked if I wanted an upgrade, and replied that I did not want an upgrade, it was like I had peed on the floor. They looked at me funny. Then they looked at that funny cast-off phone. It had come all the way from 2007, which was several lifetimes ago, or lifetimes of phones, anyway, because with all their dying it must follow that they live. The phone was old, they said. Their tone was like Euthanasia Is Legal in Several Western States, and also Forward Ho! And didn’t I want an upgrade—really, come on—or was I just gonna pee on their infinitely bland floor? Standing there, with the Top 40 Hits wisping low in the climate-controlled air, I felt sympathy pains for the original Anabaptists, round about 1693, when they passed on buttons, and kept using hook-and-eyes, and at first it just wasn’t cool. Buttons, man. Gotta close that shirt with buttons. Then the next thing you know you’re a farmer in a bonnet, while everyone else is making out in Google glasses. They’re like Kiss me! What’s on Facebook? Kiss me! I’m gonna go powerscan HuffPost. I’m kissing you! How do I look? That headline I half-read made me really angry! Here’s my tongue in your mouth! Emoticon, emoticon! And you’re just like plow, plow, plow. (Continued in Point 122.)
I’ve heard it said that no two people experience anything exactly the same, and that part of the value of art is how open it is to different interpretations. But there’s a difference between experiencing something differently and missing the point entirely. Recently I was assigned to read Jim Shepard’s short story “Love and Hydrogen,” which is about a homosexual couple working on the Hindenburg zeppelin; and I came to class prepared to talk about my impressions of it. My teacher started discussion off by saying what a big gamble it was to mention the Hindenburg’s fate on the first page, let alone to write about homosexuality and Nazi Germany, and other classmates chimed in about how their perceptions of the characters were influenced by knowing from the start that one of the gay lovers blew the zeppelin up. Meanwhile, I was trying to remember what Hobbes had said about human nature, that all men believe they’re naturally equal because everyone thinks they’re at least as intelligent as the next guy. I was trying to remember if my history teacher ever mentioned the Hindenburg during those high school lectures I’d forgotten so quickly. I was trying to figure out how much a fairly well educated member of society is expected to know and how many pieces of art and literature had been absolutely lost on me because of my ignorance. When it came around to my turn to speak, I said, “Clearly, I’m the only one here that didn’t know the Hindenburg blew up.”
I have a close friend who once cut himself in the hand while he was chopping carrots. I saw metal and a bunch of different colored wires in his hand instead of blood and veins. He made me promise not to tell anyone that he was not really human. I have always respected his wishes because he is a close friend. But sometimes I have the urge to tell someone. Because I think he should be destroyed.