Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

Pool Rules.

All swimmers must shower before entering the pool.

All swimmers must be appropriately attired to use the pool and pool area.

All swimmers under the age of fourteen must first pass a swim test.

All swimmers under the age of five must be accompanied by an adult at all times.

Individuals with open cuts, sores, communicable diseases, or who are Kevin may not use the pool.

No glassware is allowed in the pool or pool area, including tumblers, highball glasses, shot glasses, vases, light bulbs, chandeliers, punch bowls, stemless wine glasses, windshields, Chihuly sculptures, champagne flutes, cake cloches, water coolers, butter dishes, marbles, condiment trays, pitchers, carafes, beakers, decanters, flasks, jars, urns, flagons, cruets, ewers, growlers, or amphorae.

No food or beverages are allowed in the pool.

No chewing gum in the pool area unless you brought enough for everyone.

No alcoholic beverages are allowed in the pool or pool area unless you brought enough for the lifeguard.

No spitting, nose blowing, or bodily fluids in the pool, and, hey, get out of here, Kevin.

No running in the pool area. If you can do it in the pool, hey, go for it.

No horseplay, including Equus, Ben Hur, or the Erik Satie ballet Parade.

In the event of severe weather the pool will be closed.

In the event of a fire calmly and quietly exit the area. Do not stand around and say, “Hey, how did a fire break out in the pool?”

If any object ball is jumped off the table, it is a foul and loss of turn, unless it is the 8-ball, which is a loss of game. Any jumped object balls are spotted in numerical order.

No person shall throw any item into the pool or pool area that could endanger the safety of any person. Items include weapons, chairs, other furniture, cans, Jarts, refrigerators, scissors, hazardous chemicals, angry housecats, housecats who are not angry but will be when they’ve been thrown into the pool, car tires, cars, suspension bridges, cider, very small rocks, churches, lead, ducks, black holes, needles, shoes, live electrical wires, half-eaten tuna fish sandwiches, bulldozers, and Kevin.

Except during specified times fishing with dynamite is not allowed.

A first aid kit is located somewhere around here.

Drowning is strictly prohibited.

There’ll Also Be Plenty Of Hot Air.

Here is the weekly weather forecast for the office:

On Monday sunrise will be at 5:52AM. The building will be open at 6:00AM but you’ll still need to use your key card to access the elevators because the maintenance guy keeps forgetting we’re no longer on Daylight Savings Time and at this point he might as well leave it like it is.

Gary will be in at 10:23AM and be careful because he’ll still have a wicked hangover.

On Tuesday expect a frosty reception from Meredith who will be upset that no one watered her plants while she was on vacation even though she didn’t ask anyone and they’re all succulents anyway. And technically she should be more upset that no one really noticed she was out Monday.

There’s also about a 60% chance that project that’s 90% finished will be cancelled.

An envelope for contributions to Pearl’s retirement gift will circulate through the office and there’s an 80% chance you won’t have anything smaller than a twenty.

On Wednesday morning you’ll need your key card to access the elevators because the maintenance crew did something to the alarm system the night before and now everything’s locked down.

Wednesday afternoon expect a high pressure front to move through as Rick and Gary get into an argument over whether or not to close the blinds on the western side of the office in the afternoon. This could cause significant delays in getting out that earnings report, so be prepared and make sure you’ve got your noise-cancelling headphones.

You’ll go to the vending machine and there’s an 80% chance you won’t have anything smaller than a twenty.

In the afternoon be prepared for delays in the break room because that’s when Meredith is going to want to tell you about her vacation.

On Thursday there’s about a 75% chance the construction guys who’ve torn up the sidewalk on the west side of the building will cut a cable causing a loss of internet access, all power, or both. If this doesn’t happen you can congratulate them as you’re forced to step out into traffic to get around the mess they’ve made, or you can wait until next week when the chances they’ll cut a cable will be up to 100%. Also at around noon on Thursday Terry is going to heat fish in the microwave, making you wish there were such a thing as smell-cancelling nostrilphones.

Watch for slick spots in the break room on Thursday afternoon too after Terry spills a bottle of Sriracha and is astoundingly, but not surprisingly, oblivious.

In the late afternoon Rick from the fifteenth floor will discover an accounting error and will storm into the office and figuratively eat someone’s lunch.

On Friday it will rain. It won’t affect your plans to go out for lunch but dress accordingly.

Terry will discover leftovers from Giacomo’s in the office fridge and literally eat someone’s lunch.

Also on Friday afternoon Steve will drop by and ask you to proofread the handouts for the meeting and by “proofread” he means “collate and staple”, so you won’t catch his hilarious misspelling, inserting an “i” in the word “pens”. And it serves him right for scheduling a meeting for 4:00PM on Friday.

Every day over the coming week be careful driving in the parking garage, especially between 7:30AM and 8:30AM when most people are coming in, between 4:30PM and 5:30PM when most peple are leaving, and between 9:30AM and 10:30AM because that’s when Gary comes in.

The cold front will continue for the foreseeable future as long as the building managers persist in the belief that shutting off the heat at 6:00PM every night and only turning it back on at 6:00AM the next morning is actually saving money.

At some point this week there will be a fire alarm. I can’t say when exactly it will occur, and it’s probably just a test, but there’s a small chance that it’s a real fire or other emergency, so I leave it to you whether or not you want to wake up Gary on your way out.

 

‘Twas The Morning After The Night Before Christmas.

All of us kids woke up early and came downstairs on Christmas morning. The presents were there like always. The fire had burned out overnight but there was still the sweet smell of ashes in the air. Ma was in the kitchen getting breakfast started. We were going to start opening presents when we noticed Pa in the corner, just sort of rocking back and forth. Ma came in, still wearing her bandanna over her hair.

“Why’s everybody so quiet?” she asked. “What’s going on?”

“Something’s wrong with Pa,” I said. “Look!”

“Oh,” said Ma, “so this is where you went after you left the bedroom window open. I had to get up and close it. It was freezing out there. What were you thinking flinging it open like a crazy man in the middle of the night anyway?”

“So much noise,” Pa muttered quietly, still rocking. “There was so much noise outside I had to see what was going on.”

“I didn’t hear anything,” said my big sister Emily. She looked at us. “Did any of you?” We all shook our heads except for my little brother who picked up a piece of candied fruit and started sucking on it.

“He was flying,” Dad said, his eyes wide. “I swear it’s the truth. He was flying along in a tiny sleigh pulled by miniature reindeer.”

“Reindeer aren’t that big,” said Emily. “Some are less than three feet tall at the shoulder.”

“Hush,” hissed Ma.

“He—he had names for them,” said Pa. “Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Blitzen.”

“Somebody’s Blitzen all right,” said Ma. “What’s with you?”

“And Donner,” Pa added.

“Like the party?” asked Emily.

“They landed on the roof,” said Dad, oblivious to the question. “So much noise. They were stamping all over the roof.”

“It wouldn’t have been so loud if you’d replaced the insulation in the attic this summer like I told you to,” said Ma.

“How’d you know they were on the roof?” asked Emily. “Did you lean out the window and look?”

Pa kept staring ahead. “I came downstairs. I came downstairs and he came in the house.”

“We were robbed?” said my little brother. “On Christmas Eve?” He started crying. I nudged him.

“Cool it. The presents are all here, see?”

“What happened?” asked Ma. “Did he fall through the roof where you haven’t replaced the shingles?”

“He came down the chimney,” said Pa. “Just popped out of the fireplace with a great big bag.”

“Didn’t we have a fire last night?” asked Emily.

“He was a large, round man in a bright red fur suit trimmed with white,” Pa went on.

“Where do you get bright red fur?” I asked.

“Somebody probably threw paint on it,” said Emily. “Fur is dead, you know.”

“I just sat here and watched him,” said Pa, “watched him pull presents out of this great big bag he carried. He put them under the tree and then when he was done he went back into the fireplace and flew right up it.”

I giggled. “Because his ass was on fire!”

Ma gave me a smack and said, “Knock it off!”

“I looked out the window and he just flew away into the night yelling ‘Merry Christmas!’ loud enough to wake up the whole neighborhood,” said Pa. “Didn’t even go to any other houses. Just us. Just us.” He started rocking back and forth again.

We were all quiet for a long time, then Ma said, “Kids, your father’s been under a lot of pressure lately. Let’s just give him a little bit of time. He’ll come around.”

We all got quiet again and stood around awkwardly. The silence was only broken by a loud snap from the kitchen.

“I’d better go check that mousetrap,” said Ma.

See Androids Fighting.

Source: Wikipedia

Kino’s red eyes pulse gently. The effect is disquieting. It’s as though he’s really looking at me.

We’re in Athena’s workshop in a corner of warehouse in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay, a space she shares with other “artisan engineers”. We’re surrounded by peg boards covered with tools and heavy tables with meters, oscilloscopes, cogs, wheels, and other spare parts. It’s like being in a combination of Frankenstein’s laboratory and a hobbyist’s garage.

She has her own carefully organized tool box with multiple trays of carefully labeled parts, as well as peg boards with a wide array of larger tools, and a safe where she keeps Kino. I’m surprised when she pulls a small screwdriver out of the red bandanna that holds back the thick, curly hair that frames her head like an enormous halo.

“It came with my first kit,” she says. “It’s my magic wand.” The metal end is still shiny but the plastic handle is worn and cracked. It still works, though, and she uses it to tighten screws in the back of Kino’s head.

Kino, of course, is Athena’s android. She dislikes the term “robot”, derived from the Czech for “forced labor”, and Kino’s humanoid body, she explains emphatically, make the term “android”, from the Greek for “man-like”, more accurate. It—Athena insists on gender-neutrality—stands three feet tall and is very much what you might expect an android to look like. More than anything else it resembles a stripped-down astronaut, all molded white plastic, with a slightly squashed helmet and, of course, those red eyes. Advances in battery power have allowed the removal of the bulky backpack from earlier models. The name comes from Robert Kinoshita, one of the original designers of Robbie The Robot, not the first robot in film but arguably the first robot film star. Kino’s only decoration is a decal on its torso of a red, snarling beast on two legs, the monster from Forbidden Planet, a movie that Athena’s father loved.

“I wanted to pay tribute to him,” she tells me. “This is not where he first wanted me to be but I think he’d be proud.”

Her father, who died when Athena was nine, expressed hopes she’d be a lawyer like him, or perhaps a college professor.

“He used to put me to sleep reading The Iliad and The Odyssey to me,” she says, then gives a short laugh and emphasizes each word. “Put. Me. To. Sleep.” When she took apart and rebuilt his lawnmower he changed tactics and started buying her robot kits, a practice her extended family continued. She excelled academically and would eventually go to MIT where, in spite of continuing to excel, it would still take her six years to graduate.

“I came home a lot. There weren’t a lot of girls in the engineering program, and most years none who looked like me, you know?”

I know and yet I don’t know, unable to really imagine the challenges of being an African American woman in engineering, a field where the pace of demographic change has been glacial. After school she went on to a successful career in robotics, advancing autonomous vehicles and the machines that would build them, and was even a founding partner of a robotics firm. All of which leads to the question that brought me here: why did she leave all that to build fighting androids on Coney Island?

Instead of answering me she says to Kino, “Bed time.” Kino’s head swivels around and it steps backward into its storage safe. Then she turns to me. “You like Hungarian food?”

While we’re waiting for the food to be delivered she carefully puts her tools away, saying, “A place for everything and everything in its place, that way there are no surprises.” Then she says, “I really didn’t leave my career. This is more like a sabbatical. I was all wrapped up in the business side of things and I wanted to get my hands dirty again. I wanted to build something again.”

There’s a knock at the door. She taps her phone and the door at the end of the warehouse slides open. A young man with straight black hair comes in carrying a canvas bag.

“Sawasdee,” he says.

“Good evening Adrien,” Athena replies. “You know where to set it down.” She then turns to me. “Adrien prefers the restaurant business but he helped with the coding of all the androids except Kino. I did that one myself even though programming is something I can do but it’s not the strongest item in my wheelhouse. Sometimes staring at a screen it gets to be like staring into The Matrix, you know?”

I think I do know: computer code is less of a language and more of a filter, a way of processing input and generating output.

As we tuck into our soup Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers Athena continues her explanation of why she and a small band of followers have embarked on this project.

“Everything I was helping make was also putting people out of a job,” she says. “Automation is a growing field but it doesn’t always create as much as it takes away. We’re still adapting and some people are being left behind. And while I was thinking about that I was seeing what was going on in sports, all the injuries, even all the deaths. And I thought, here are these African American men injuring themselves for entertainment in almost every sport.” She snorts. “Except hockey and wrestling. I don’t want to put them out of a job either but I also said, why not let technology do what technology does and build something to take people out of harm’s way? Boxing forces two men to beat each other until one can’t get up. If people want the spectacle we can have that without the hurt.”

“But you’re setting up something you’ve made to be damaged or even destroyed,” I say. “What about that?”

Athena shrugs. “Pyrotechnics. People who make artistic fireworks put all that effort into something they know will get blown up. How different is that? Or this?” She plucks a dumpling from her soup with her chopsticks and holds out in front of her. “Why make food that looks good when all it really has to do is feed us?”

We talk a bit more about how machines, even though they’re supposed to create leisure time, seem instead to prompt us to spend time creating more machines. Then I change the subject slightly and ask if she’s concerned about the singularity, the hypothetical artificial intelligence that could exceed and even wipe out humanity. Athena shakes her head.

“It’s possible but we haven’t even started to reach that. Predictions that put that within a few decades, or even this century, are way off in my estimation, even at technology’s current pace. Look at Kino. Everything it does is programmed and predictable. Right now even if we could build even the equivalent of a human brain the space needed would be enormous, and you have to build a brain before you can build a better—.” Her watch dings and she looks at it. “All right. Let’s go fight some robots.”

The fight is held in a theater near Luna Park. From the outside the building doesn’t look like much, a smaller version of the warehouse we just left. A wooden cutout painted to look like a circus tent frames the door. Ahead of me Athena and Kino walk side by side. I expect to see them greeted by fanfare. Instead they step aside behind the bleachers. In the center of the theater a band is performing “Little Red Riding Hood” by Sam The Sham & The Pharaohs. It turns out the android fight is the lower half of a double feature. I settle into a seat to wait while Athena and Kino go to the back to get ready.

The fight does not go well.

Kino is, structurally, indistinguishable from its opponent, Gort, but still seems outmatched. At first the robots circle each other, hands up, not unlike real fighters, but it lasts too long and the audience gets restless. Then Gort throws a punch. Kino blocks it with a hand but is still thrown off balance and falls to the floor. Traditional-looking boxing ropes mark the ring but the floor is concrete, not canvas, and Kino crashes hard. Athena, in the corner, is unable to help, but the referee, a bald man with wire-framed glasses and a tie-dye Doctor Who t-shirt, steps in to put him upright again. Gort punches with his left fist. Kino steps aside but Gort, apparently having predicted this, hits with the right. Kino goes down again, this time cracking an arm. More parries and hits follow, with both Gort and Kino having to be lifted up, but Kino takes the worst of it. After several more blows and visible cracks and pieces of shattered plastic thrown to the floor Athena walks around the ring and talks to the young man on Gort’s side of the ring. Together they step into the ring and talk to the referee, then Athena turns to the crowd.

“Thank you, everyone. We hope you enjoyed the show.”

Later, outside the theater, Athena looks slightly dazed. To our left we can see a low yellow moon almost perfectly framed by Coney Island’s Wonder Wheel.

“Do you think you’ll try to reprogram him?” I ask.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. That was hard to watch.”  She pats Kino’s head. “Come on, let’s go.”

As they walk away from me Kino reaches up and touches Athena’s arm. She stops and looks down at him, then takes his hand, like a mother and child, and they continue on.

Getting Deep.

Spending the night in a cave was fun.
I went in with my Scout troop. Spoiler alert: I also came out with my Scout troop. Well, most of them, anyway. We might have lost one or two. We were touring Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee. Part of the fun was that we left home after school on a Friday afternoon in the fall so we arrived after dark and had to make our way up the trail to the cave entrance with our flashlights out and our sleeping bags on our backs. The cave rangers, a group of guys in olive drab, heavy boots, and bright yellow hard hats, led us down a stairwell and into the main entrance room, a high-ceilinged area that was brightly lit and had a canteen area and restrooms at one end and at the other stretched away into darkness. We were told to leave our bags there but to choose a spot carefully because it was where we’d be sleeping. I picked a spot away from the main group. I wanted to get the full cave experience and if I rolled over to one side I could look into the abyss. I didn’t think about how that might affect my sleep. In fact we were then taken on the spelunking tour at what seemed like very late at night. In fact it was probably not later than six or seven, but I realized time has no meaning in a cave. There is no day or night underground. There is only the passage of time, a passage that, for most caves, is measured in slow, steady drops that build hanging stalactites, the rising cones of stalagmites, and that wear away the stone to reveal crystals of quartz or gypsum. In one massive room we were told that where we were sitting had once been the ceiling, that it had collapsed approximately ten-thousand years earlier, and I hoped it wasn’t due for another makeover, but that’s another story.
After we had been through the “wild” part of the cave, where the only light we had was our flashlights, where we had to crawl through tight spaces, and where we went through the infamous Bubblegum Alley, a stretch where the mud nearly sucked the shoes off our feet, we were brought back to the main room. Everyone settled into their sleeping spots. All the lights except the ones just overhead were turned off so that we were in a warm pool surrounded by darkness. One of the rangers, a tall skinny guy who stood out because he was the only one without a beard, came and stood among us.
“I’m going to tell y’all why you don’t go spelunking alone,” he said. Shouldn’t this have been covered before the tour? I thought. “I’m going to tell y’all about a Scout like you who was at the back of the line and decided to go explore a side tunnel. His name was Kevin. He thought he could find his way back, but if you’ve done spelunking you know the way back never looks like the way in. There are turns and tunnels that you didn’t see that open up. Not all these caves have been mapped either, and we don’t know how far they go. Search parties were sent out but Kevin was to deep, and he kept moving. If you get lost in this cave,” and he looked hard at all of us, “you stay in one spot. It’ll make it easier for us to find you.” He walked among us, continuing to talk. Kevin drank water from pools he found and ate the cottony fungi that grew on the walls. It tasted terrible but it was all he could find. Then he started to catch small cave fish, and he caught bats and would drink their blood. Kevin managed to survive a year, then two years. His clothes were shredded on the rocks and he went naked. One night he found his way into the main room. As the ranger told us this I thought about Gollum, and stories of subterranean humans, and wondered if those creatures were inspired by real events. None of us asked how the ranger knew all this in such detail.
“It was late at night and Kevin walked among the sleeping campers,” the ranger went on. “He knelt down next to a boy and touched him. The boy woke up and screamed. All the lights were turned on and Kevin saw his own body for the first time in a long time. His skin had become translucent, his organs visible and pulsing. He ran and disappeared before anyone could grab him.” The ranger crouched and started tracing the dirt with his finger. “No one knows if Kevin is still out there. People think they see him sometimes on the tours, and rangers report finding footprints in the farthest ranges of the cave. We don’t know if he’d hurt anyone but where he touched the boy he left a mark, a white mark, right on the boy’s jugular vein, where the blood flows, like the blood of bats that he drank to survive.”
The ranger stood up. “Well, good night kids!”
All the lights were turned off and we were left in total darkness. There is no moon, there are no stars in a cave, only a ceiling of stone.
I was bleary-eyed at breakfast the next morning. After picking up a pack of cereal and a carton of milk I sat down at one of the long tables across from the ranger who’d told us the story. I looked over and noticed he was wearing a name tag.
Kevin.

Life In The Sublurbs.

Book Blurbs Written About Blurb, My New Novel Written Entirely In The Form Of Book Blurbs:

“Stunning!”

-The New York Herald

“Incredible!”

-The Boston Spectator

“Thrill-seeking!”

-The Tuscon Citizen

“I couldn’t put it down!”

-Stilton Blue, The Seattle Scene

“Surprising!”

-The Leavenworth Leader

“Staggering!”

-The Breckenridge Post-Dispatch

“You’ll wonder where it’s going!”

-The Steamboat Springs Chronicle

“Leaves you wanting something!”

-The Ketchum Banner

“A novel idea for a book!”

-The Bismark Telegraph

“The novelty quickly wears thin!”

-The Sturgis Herald

“An unusual premise that keeps you turning the pages, hoping it will eventually develop into something!”

-Emmental Dickinson, The Bay Times (Omaha, NE)

“Not really a novel!”

-The Ontario Olympiad

“Like no other novel I’ve ever read!”

-Caerphilly Wells, The North Platte Telegraph

“I can’t believe this is a book!”

-Brie Rogers, The Davenport Mirror

“Why would someone do this?”

-The Duluth Star

“About three-hundred pages!”

-Bloodstone Publishing

“About three-hundred and forty grams!”

-Fynbo Shreeve, scientist

“I couldn’t pick it up!”

-Allen Walker, The Catchall

“Just keeps going!”

-Terry Cheshire, The Whitehorse Observer

“Completely messes with your head, and not in a good way!”

-Feta Hampton, The Telluride Post

“The most entertaining drivel I’ve read this year!”

-Red Windsor, The Winnipeg Inquirer

“We only publish reviews of academic non-fiction in the field of biology!”

-Nature

“I keep it next to the toilet!”

—S. Clemens, author of The American Claimant

“Floats well!”

-Boaters Digest

“Responsible for an outbreak of diphtheria!”

-Tiverton Tribune

“Reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake, and by that I mean completely unreadable and people will only refer to it to sound pretentious!”

-The Ely Telegraph

“Makes you look at aardvarks in an entirely new way!”

-Annapolis Reader

“Opened up a trans-dimensional portal that I fell into and now can’t escape! Please send help!”

-Terry Weiss, The Marfa Bugler

“You might want to read it!”

-The Dorset Times-Picayune

“Potential best-seller.”

-Poughkeepsie Plain Tribune

Coming next year: the sequel, Disblurbing The Peace.

Aesop’s Prequels.

The Fox Tries Some Grapes

The Stag offered the Fox a bunch of grapes.

“Hey, I’m really full and don’t want these. You want some?”

“No thanks,” said the Fox. “I really don’t like grapes.”

“Come on!” snorted the Stag. “What do you mean you don’t like grapes? Everybody likes grapes.”

“Well I don’t,” said the Fox. “So clearly not everybody likes grapes.”

The Stag threw the grapes down. “Look, I was just trying to be nice. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. You say you don’t like grapes, fine, don’t eat the damn grapes then.”

“Fine!” yelled the Fox. He bit off a few grapes and chewed them up. His mouth puckered at how sour they were but he forced himself to smile anyway.

“Good, aren’t they?” said the Stag.

The Fox nodded, suppressing the urge to spit chewed up grapes in the Stag’s face.

Moral: Sometimes you just have to eat the grapes.

The Grasshopper & The Ant

The Grasshopper was a hard worker who diligently prepared for the future. From morning to night the Grasshopper collected food and cleaned house. One day, carrying home a heavy parcel, the Grasshopper bumped into the Ant who dropped its load of seeds wrapped in a leaf.

“I’m sorry,” said the Grasshopper, putting down her own parcel and helping the Ant gather the seeds.

“I don’t have time for this,” muttered the Ant.

The Grasshopper placed more seeds on the Ant’s leaf.

“It must have been hard work collecting these. Why don’t you take a minute to rest?”

“No time to rest,” said the Ant, collecting the rest of the seeds. “We have a saying: If you rest it’s the death of the nest.”

The Grasshopper held up a seed. “You really should take a break once in a while.”

“No breaks,” said the Ant, snatching the seed and wrapping it up with the others in the leaf. “We’re born, we work, we die.”

After the Ant left the Grasshopper sat and thought for a long time. Finally she stood up.

“I’m never going to be like that.” She turned toward home. “And I really need a drink.”

Moral: What are you busting your ass for if you’re not going to enjoy life once in a while?

The Tortoise & Friends.

The Hedgehog looked to the Rat who looked to the Goose who looked to the Tortoise.

“So,” said the Hedgehog, “we’re all agreed. We’re sick of his bragging, we’re sick of hearing about how fast he is, and we’ve got to take him down. We just need to decide who’s going to run the race.”

The animals all looked at each other.

“Well,” said the Rat, “there’s only one of us who hasn’t raced the Hare and lost.”

“Fine,” said the Tortoise. “I’ll do it. I just have one question. Who’s gonna slip him the sleeping pill?”

Moral: Fill in your own answer here.

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