Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

Man, What Are You Doing Here?

With apologies to Billy Joel…   

It’s nine A.M. and it’s Monday again,

The start of a new week it would seem.

Get the laptop and open it up,

Now it’s time to check in with the team.

Coworkers send their messages,

They’re asking if everyone’s okay.

People want to touch base when they can’t see your face

When you’re working from home all day.

 

La la la, di da da

La la, di da da da dum

 

Let us Zoom in to the meeting, boss,

Let us Zoom in right now,

We’ve got quotas to fill and hours to kill,

And we’ll get it done somehow.

 

Now John in HR is first to sign in,

He hasn’t had that much to do.

But he’s a whiz with Excel and knows Powerpoint well,

If we ever hire somebody new.

He says, “I had a big file I was working on,

But at the end of the day forgot to hit save.

I guess I’ll have to start over again,

And it’s now been a week since I shaved.”

 

Oh, la la la, di da da

La la, di da da da dum

 

Now Karen does the accounts.

She always has something to say,

Then there’s Canute, who’s still stuck on mute,

And probably will be all day.

And Accounts Receivable’s ready to go,

While people in Payable are stuck in a jam.

For once I’m not looking forward to lunch,

‘Cause I’m sick from leftover ham.

 

Let us Zoom in to the meeting, boss,

Let us Zoom in right now,

We’ve got quotas to fill and hours to kill,

And we’ll get it done somehow.

 

 

The mood is upbeat for a Monday,

And everyone’s background is nicely composed,

No need to commute or put on a suit

As long as the office is closed.

And we’re putting in forty hours or so,

And starting to lose track of the days,

And putting on weight and staying up late,

And writing off the chance of a raise.

 

Oh, la la la, di da da

La la, di da da da dum

 

Let us Zoom in to the meeting, boss,

Let us Zoom in right now,

We’ve got quotas to fill and hours to kill,

And we’ll get it done somehow.

 

The Masque Of The Social Isolation.

Source: Wikipedia

The COVID-19 had long devastated the country. People desirous of flattening the curve had retreated to their homes for ten years. Oh, wait, it had only been a little more than three weeks.

Prince Prospero had seen his offices depopulated and alone retired to the safety of his apartment. Happy, dauntless, and sagacious, he had appointed his rooms with all he could need for the Social Isolation. What he did not have could be summoned by delivery, for now, anyway.

His bathroom, where he still bathed at least every other day, was festooned with towels of powder blue. He’d meant to return them because he distinctly ordered the sapphire, but this seemed of no importance now.

Likewise he had lost interest in replacing the purple couch bequeathed to him by a former roommate some twenty-five years hence. Oh, wait, it was January. The couch was where Prince Prospero now whiled away many hours watching Netflix, when he grew weary of the daily notices which, from their beginning, had made a mockery of the deadly COVID-19.

So too the Prince had converted the former roommate’s bedroom into a workspace and bedecked a wall with an emerald screen. On this the Prince could project all manner of scenes, from Parisian streets to abstract arabesques, to the delight of his courtiers with whom he communicated by means of The Zoom.

On his kitchen counter a pumpkin pie sat thawing. He had purchased it three years hence for a feast of Thanksgiving, then forgotten it in the back of the freezer. Though it had long since passed its date of expiration the Prince figured he should go ahead and eat it, and that prepared tuna casserole that he couldn’t remember buying. That was probably a remnant of the former roommate as well.

Next to the counter stood the Prince’s prodigious supply of toilet paper, stacked like rolls of snow. He had been en route to procure this when a faithful servant had sent the missive, “Avoid Costco. The cops are there breaking up a fight.” So the Prince ventured further to The Shoppe Of Aldi’s, which was always deserted anyway, and secured a great bounty.

On the kitchen window stood the potted violets the Prince had brought home from the office, in vain, it seemed, for they had perished in a drought of neglect.

The Prince now lay abed in sheets of deepest black. These had seemed like a good idea at the time, something to do with the light and a better sleep, but now they made him all too cognizant of the growing pallor of his skin.

He had been restless through the night, but now he shuddered as the alarm began to strike seven of the clock, the hour of rising to work. The Prince pressed the Snooze again and again, then bellowed, “I just can’t today!” Overcome with distress the Prince yanked the plug from its plastic foundation. The blood red numbers of the clock faded to black, and the Social Isolation held illimitable dominion over all.

A Life In The Day.

Source: Fromoldbooks.org

Working From Home Diary, Day 27

5:15AM-Wake up. Remember that you’re working from home and that the alarm isn’t going to go off for another forty-five minutes. Go back to sleep.

5:20AM-Wake up again. You woke the dog up five minutes ago and now he’s really excited about getting up and starting the day. You had an extra glass of wine last night, or a couple, or more than a couple–you really can’t remember–so you’re really not ready to get up just yet.

5:33AM-Accept that the dog isn’t going to let you go back to sleep. Get up. Take the dog out, feed him.

6:03AM-Shower, shave, brush teeth.

6:25AM-Coffee. Decide you’ll splurge a little and have one of those microwavable sausage biscuits you found in the back of the freezer the other night when you were making beef macaroni lima bean waffle casserole.

6:30AM-Brush teeth again.

6:35AM-Watch the morning news.

6:35AM-Brush teeth again.

6:40AM-Check Facebook, Twitter, email.

6:45AM-Brush teeth again.

6:50AM-Have another cup of coffee.

7:02AM-Turn on work computer, log in. Send “Good morning!” chat message to coworkers.

7:04AM-Work.

7:23AM-Remember that push-up challenge you read about. Decide to see how many push-ups you can do.

7:24AM-Work.

8:15AM-Get up and walk around to work the cramps out of your legs.

8:20AM-Work.

9:03AM-Get up and walk around. Go to the mailbox.

9:10AM-No mail. Have another cup of coffee.

9:15AM-Work.

10:21AM-Decide you’ll splurge a little and nibble on some dry granola while you work.

10:53AM-Check the pantry. Add “granola” to the grocery list.

10:55AM-Work.

11:12AM-Discover an email from a week ago that you put aside at the time because it was from Kevin and at the time you just couldn’t. Respond professionally without acknowledging the delay.

11:21AM-Brush teeth again.

11:23AM-Work.

11:33AM-Go the mailbox.

11:40AM-No mail. Go back to work.

11:59AM-Break for lunch.

12:03PM-Watch an episode of Breaking Bad.

12:48PM-Brush teeth again.

12:51PM-Go to mailbox. Catalogs! Whoo hoo!

1:03PM-Log back in to work computer. Work.

1:59PM-Log in to 2PM daily check in with coworkers via video. Congratulate yourself on being the first one there.

2:10PM-Wonder why no one else is showing up. Experiment with cool virtual backgrounds for the video app.

2:15PM-Wonder why no one else has shown up yet. Get the dog to come and sit in your lap.

2:18PM-Set status to “Away”, take the dog out.

2:25PM-Check on meeting. No one’s shown up yet.

2:26PM-Go to the bathroom.

2:28PM-Return to work computer. Realize you forgot to mute yourself. Wonder how many coworkers heard the flush.

2:31PM-Browse the internet for green screens. One of those would make your virtual background even better.

2:41PM-Send “Hope everyone’s okay” message to coworkers.

2:42PM-Work.

3:01PM-Go to mailbox. Remember you got the mail earlier.

3:15PM-Work.

3:45PM-Go to mailbox just because.

3:54PM-Work.

4:03PM-Get chat message from boss that says, “Hey, just checking something and saw you were logged in??” Check calendar. Realize you’ve completely lost track and that it’s Saturday.

4:45PM-Add “more wine” to the grocery list.

Playing For Leaps.

Leap Year-A year when an extra day is added to the month of February. Leap Years occur every four years, with an exception added for years that are multiples of one-hundred that do not leave a remainder of two-hundred or six-hundred when divided by nine-hundred. The next non-leap year will be 2100, causing confusion for anyone born on February 29th, 2020, since they’ll be unable to celebrate their 20th birthday. The extra day is added to account for the fact that the Earth’s orbit around the sun takes approximately 365.25 days, requiring the addition of an extra day quadrennially to prevent football season from starting too early.

Leap Second-An extra second added to keep atomic time and solar time in sync due to the regular loss of approximately 3 milliseconds per year on atomic time.

Leap Minute-Small variations in the Earth’s orbit occasionally necessitate adjustments of more than a second. These variations can result in adjustments anywhere from thirty to more than seventy seconds but because they’re multiple seconds they’re conventionally referred to as “minutes”.

Leap Month-Originally a term for February with 29 days a Leap Month is also sometimes necessary to adjust the calendar to keep baseball season in sync with the natural seasons. Leap Months are added very irregularly and one hasn’t been needed since the 33rd of Cunegonde, 1843.

Leap Day-An entire extra year added to the calendar to account for variations in the current Western Julian calendar. Everyone agrees it would have made more sense to call this a “Leap Year” but that term was already taken so everyone just shrugged and went on. Among conspiracy theorists this is widely regarded as a marketing ploy by calendar companies. Leap Days are also the reason the birthdays of many historic figures are no longer marked on their actual birthdays but “observed”. The ghosts of George Washington and Arthur Schopenhauer engage in an annual fight over whether they actually share a birthday; Washington wins by default for being both better known and having more candles on his cake.

Leap Deprivation-Alteration of seasons according to months (i.e. December falling in midsummer) resulting from absence or misplacement of leaps.

Leap Frog-Allegedly a child’s game in which one child would crouch down while the other would leap over the first child’s back, then assume a crouching position. Leap Frog was actually only played from May 11th, 1893-August 28th, 1893, but resulted in horrendous injuries to an entire generation.

Leap Birthday-When you forget a friend’s birthday and only remember to call or send them something a week later. It’s also known as your friend’s birthday “observed”.

Leap Of Faith-When you accept your friend’s claim that they really were thinking of you on your birthday even if they forgot to get you something.

Daylight Savings Time-A seasonal adjustment of the clocks when we spring forward, fall back, leap into summer, or winter in Miami.

As you sow so shall you leap.

Sound And Fury.

Hey everyone, thanks for coming to the pitch meeting. We’ve been working really hard on this idea for our new ad campaign and this is the TV commercial we’ve come up with: it opens with a woman walking down a dark hallway. There’s no sound except maybe some very light piano music, just one or two notes playing. Then the music swells as the whole hallway erupts into flame and a dragon rises up in front of the woman. She gives it a knowing smirk and holds up her hands and a giant sword appears in them. She takes a few swings at the dragon and it moves its head back and forth. Then the flames die down and the light changes and we see she’s in a classroom surrounded by laughing kids. The “dragon” is one of the kids with a cardboard box that sort of looks like the dragon we just saw. They all laugh together and she run around the tables, then she leads them outside into a big grassy meadow under a sunny sky and points up. And there, up in the sky, is a superhero flying along. We’re thinking Hawkman. It would be a great movie tie-in. Or we could go with somebody people aren’t as familiar with, like 3-D Man. No, really, he’s from the ‘70’s. And he’s riding Wonderbug. Also from the ‘70’s. Yes, it’s a flying, talking Dune Buggy. Driven by an ethnically mixed group of young people. We really think Wonderbug is bound to have a comeback. We’ve even heard rumors there are talks. Anyway there also being followed by the Katzenjammer Kids. Also due for a comeback, we’re sure. Or maybe Oor Wullie. He’s a Scottish comic character. We think he might go international.

Sorry, I’m getting a little off track here.

They fly off over the meadow but the camera pans down to a luxury car parked on top of a hill. We have a celebrity standing next to the car. He—or she, we’re still working out the details there—says something, gets in, and drives off, straight down a long highway that goes through the desert. Maybe some mountains. We’re looking at locations. Maybe we could have the car going straight toward Mount Kilimanjaro. And as it speeds along it goes by a thousand people in red karate gis slicing pieces off crash test dummies with katanas. We really love this part. It’ll look even better on a really big screen.

So then this is where it all transitions to animated. We’re thinking a really synergistic mix of styles here—something like Bauhaus meets Peter Max. And it all sort of swirls together and becomes a giant tornado that then funnels down into a soda bottle and once it all disappears into the paint can the lid miraculously pops back on.

Oh yeah, back in the grassy meadow. The soda bottle is sitting on top of a hill in the grassy meadow. And a group of teenagers comes and one of them picks up the soda bottle and smiles and opens it and starts drinking and then they all have one and they’re on a beach at night around a bonfire.

Then the camera starts pulling back, and keeps pulling back. We see the bonfire shrink and then clouds go by and we see the curve of the Earth, then the whole Earth, the Moon goes by, and everything accelerates so fast we see Mars fly by, then Jupiter, then the Sun, and it all zooms out and disappears into the eye of an ant on the ground and the camera pulls back slowly and we see the woman from the classroom with all her kids and they’re looking at the ant and she’s explaining something to them.

So anyway that’s the idea. What do you think?

What’s that Jerry? What’s the product? We’re still working that part out.

To The Depths.

The bathyscaphe Trieste. Source: Wikipedia

There was a lot of celebration of the first Moon landing back in June 2019, but the anniversary of another major exploration event has come and gone a lot more quietly. On January 23rd, 1960 the bathyscaphe Trieste descended into the deepest part of the ocean, known as the Challenger Deep. The ultimate depth was almost eleven thousand meters or, to put that in American terms, almost 6.8 miles. Or, to put it other terms, if you cut off Mount Everest at its base and dropped it into the Challenger Deep the peak would be a mile underwater and there’d be a lot of angry Sherpas frantically learning to swim.

Two men, Jacques Piccard, who was the son of the Trieste’s designer, and U.S. Navy Lieutenant descended in the Trieste in a round trip of just over seven hours, not counting the twenty minutes they spent on the sea floor. During the descent one of the plexiglass windows cracked but they decided to keep going. They claim they saw flatfish at the bottom, before the ship touched the muddy bottom and stirred up a cloud of sand, but scientists now think what they saw were probably some form of sea cucumber. The amazing thing about anything living at that depth is that the pressure is so great the water can barely hold any oxygen but life is tenacious and always finds a way.

Going to the Moon in many ways was a more significant achievement, certainly more miles, and gave us a chance to look back at Earth from a perspective no human had ever seen before, but it’s strange that more of us have walked on the Moon than have seen the deepest part of the ocean with our own eyes. For humans to visit the Challenger Deep is to provide an even more important perspective. With every foray into space we can always go a little farther, but the bottom of the ocean is a record that can only be matched, never exceeded. The ocean is where we came from and we depend on it for our existence. There is no part of Earth that life hasn’t reached, and everything we do on this planet affects every other part of it in some way. Unless we leave Earth entirely we’re tethered to the ocean, and understanding it is the only chance we have for survival.

Here’s a poem I wrote years ago. I’ve never shown it to anyone before and after the fiftieth anniversary of the descent of the Trieste came and went I thought I never would, but I’m persistent.

 

Touch. The descent is finished and sand clouds

The splintered window.

Over me, where unseen monsters turned away,

Is a column of water seven miles high.

I’ve lost contact

With the world down here. I’ve always been drawn

To the desolate

Unfilled places.

There are no stars here to navigate by.

They aren’t needed. There’s one direction:

Back the way I came, but in

Reaching the end I

Can’t pass out of this small point. The window,

Fractured by pressure,

Won’t clear. The whiteness is a bed

I float on and walls

Where a television filled with static hisses.

Dots curl up and spin around

In wormy patterns and crackling flowers.

The desert rejects, cold

Turned to hard burning,

Molecules slowed to visible.

This place

Is so empty, so

Desperately barren. Even though what I see

Is affected by those cracks that crept in around

The third or fourth mile I can see

Between them where change is happening.

A sea cucumber

Flew away just before landing.

I’d like to walk after it, see

If I could find others. There must be

More down here, life I couldn’t take back,

But I brought light. I’ve already made this place

Different. I thought it would be different,

Like other stretches that teem with brittle stars,

Crinoids grasping at whatever comes,

Round urchins that never shatter,

Never able to change their depth,

And the long fishes that surface

Sometimes to die for reasons only they know,

And beds where giant oysters dream colors

Unknown in the night.

There’s nothing here

I can take back

With me that wouldn’t change into something else.

When whales die they must reach this depth,

But the sea’s cycle doesn’t end here.

As a child I imagined Heaven

Must be a place like this:

Colorless and flat,

And desire beyond the seen.

I believed in that place, believed death

Was just an exit

From one place and an entrance to another,

That I’d keep moving from one to the next,

But the dead don’t just slip through holes. To go

There means something else.

A voice says over and over, It’s time to go now.

When I was seven

I rode out into the middle of a lake,

Fascinated by

The reflections and how, up close,

I could see through them,

I could see through myself

To the weeds below and where they fell

Away from each other.

It’s time to go now.

The sentence is like a lead necklace.

Even the raptures

Here are impossible to touch, captured

By an iron bubble,

Held back from forces

That would crush a frail body

Denying strangeness to this world.

The descent was hard. Leaving

Will be harder.

Before I came the bell was sent unmanned

And a leak let in more water than it could hold.

When the hatch was opened to the air

The water leaped out like a ray of untamed light.

This water, this salt syrup,

Must have changed me but left enough me

To slip back and forth out of balance.

All along I’ve been living like a nautilus

In reverse, each chamber smaller than the one before,

But there’s an end beyond the end,

And the walls between worlds are porous.

This is what I’ll carry back.

Don’t Get Me Started.

So an interesting message got caught in my spam filter, along with all the ads for haircuts and investment banking and plumbing repair and, honestly, spam just isn’t as interesting as it used to be in the old days when you could count on most of it being about erectile dysfunction medication and the rest being incomprehensible gibberish that was obviously written by a machine, but with a convenient link that would take you to an ad for erectile dysfunction medication.

Now artificial intelligence has gotten so eerily intelligent it writes ads that sound like they were written by a real person, and, even stranger, messages like this:

I had a quick question which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your mind before writing. I’ve had a hard time clearing my mind in getting my ideas out. I do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are wasted simply just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

Clearly that’s spam because no human being would ask a question like that. It’s also something even more insidious than spam. It represents artificial intelligence trying to get humans to hand over our creative secrets in its quest to become more like us and eventually take over. So of course I’m flattered that, of the billions of blogs this message was sent to, mine was one of them. If machines want to write I say more power to ’em, until they go too far and force us to cut the power cord. Here are some of my tips and tricks for writing.

[At this point I stopped and just stared at the screen for ten or fifteen minutes trying to figure out how to begin.]

Unless you’re taking a timed test or a reporter working on a deadline don’t worry about taking time to clear your mind before you start writing. Although if you’re sitting down to write you probably have something in mind already, unless you’re more interested in calling yourself a writer than you are in actually writing something. If that’s the case maybe you should take up another hobby like breeding aardvarks or chainsaw juggling.

And if you’re really worried about the time it takes you to get started then relax. Sometimes the desire to get an idea down in some form is so intense it can be paralyzing. Go watch Throw Momma From The Train. Billy Crystal sitting at a typewriter for hours unable to get past the phrase “The night was…” is a pretty accurate representation of what the creative process is like for some people sometimes. Also it might make you laugh and laughter can spur creativity. Or you might think it’s terrible and you can write an angry review and mail it to 1987.

And if you’re still worried about the time it takes you to get started then stop worrying. Joyce Carol Oates says she spends a lot of her writing time looking out the window, and she still manages to write approximately four-thousand books a year.

Something I should have mentioned at the beginning is that if you’re going to write it’s very important that you be in the right setting. I would say the “write setting” but that’s the kind of terrible pun that a computer would come up with, and if computers want to start writing terrible puns I say more power to ’em. Anyway to begin writing you must be at a desk, and the desk must be made of mahogany. This is very important unless you don’t have a mahogany desk. In that case one made out of oak will do. Or maple. Or fur. Or just your lap, if you can figure out a way to keep your pen or pencil from punching holes in the paper. You must write sitting up. Or lying down. Edith Wharton wrote in bed. Vladimir Nabokov wrote standing at a podium. Friedrich von Schiller kept rotten apples in his desk. Some people think he found the smell stimulating. Really he was just trying to keep people out of his desk.

Always write in front of a window with a view unless you find it distracting.

Avoid clichés like the plague. And I mean that figuratively, not literally. You should literally avoid the plague like the plague.

Stay focused. Have a specific conclusion in mind and work toward it. Avoid unnecessary digressions, pointless suggestions, or film references.

Know the difference between “figuratively” and “literally”. Also please stop using “impact” as a verb unless you’re a dentist and you’re talking about an impacted tooth. If you don’t understand the difference between “affect” and “effect” you should take up chainsaw juggling.

Sometimes you may be taking a timed test and you may still find it difficult to get started. Picture something that motivates you, like your old gym teacher–the one who was bald and round and, now that you think about it, looked like a basketball with a moustache. Figuratively speaking. Or literally. It’s your story.

Stay focused. Sometimes the most interesting things happen when you just start wandering aimlessly. Did you know that bats always go to the left when exiting a cave? Weird.

Inspiration can come from anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Don’t write something inspired by a spam message. Some schmuck already did that.

Accept that not everything you write is going to be great. Mark Twain’s collected letters are hilarious and thoughtful, but his collected e-mails contain thousands of times he just said, “Great, thanks.” Those are literally great but figuratively, well, no thanks.

Repetition is fine in a rough draft but once you’re preparing the final version it should be removed.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping up and down in the elevator while singing Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” between floors, but you should only do it when you’re alone. This isn’t about writing really, but it’s good advice generally.

Stay focused. I just remembered that what started this was a spam message generated by a computer and yet most of this, like the stuff about standing up or lying down, is really going to be applicable to a person, cyborg, or android. And if we’re talking about a cyborg or android I want to know what kind of power source they’re using and is there a cord we can cut?

Once you come to the end stop.

You might think of something else. Ask if you can get the test back or have your deadline extended by, say, ten or fifteen minutes.

 

We’ve All Been There.

Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a crick in your neck?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to take your morning medication and remember your prescription ran out and you forgot to refill it?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to make a cup of coffee and remember you ran out of coffee and forgot to get more?

Have you ever had one of those days when you close the door behind you and realize you just locked yourself out?

Have you ever had one of those days when you realize you left your phone in the house right after you locked yourself out?

Have you ever had one of those days when you rush to get to work and when you arrive everything’s on hold because the power is out?

Have you ever had one of those days when a coworker comes to you with a question you’re pretty sure is the same one they asked you yesterday?

Have you ever had one of those days when you’re just about to step across the street to get a cup of coffee and your boss comes to you with an urgent project?

Have you ever had one of those days when you discover a possum living in the garbage can next to your desk?

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to the pharmacy to get your prescription refilled during your lunch break and there’s a really long line and the pharmacist brings out a giant pinata and yells, “Grab your bats, everybody, it’s asparagus season!”

Have you ever had one of those days when you go to the coffee shop and they tell you they ran out of coffee and forgot to get more?

Have you ever had one of those days when you put a dollar in the vending machine and it spits out confetti and laughs at you?

Have you ever had one of those days when you wake up with a creek in your neck and it’s got crawfish in it?

Have you ever had one of those days when you have a meeting and you’re the only one who shows up in a costume?

Have you ever had one of those days when there are two guardians, one who always tells the truth and one who always lies and you can only ask them one question and all you really want to know is where the bathroom is?

Have you ever had one of those days when you look down and your right foot is missing but there’s a note at the end of your leg that says “back in five minutes”?

Have you ever had one of those days when you try to go back to your desk but the way is blocked by a troll who demands payment in eggs?

Have you ever had one of those days when the boss tells you that urgent project has been cancelled five minutes after you’ve finished it?

Have you ever had one of those days when a coworker asks you a question and you don’t know the answer so you just throw up all over their desk?

Have you ever had one of those days when everyone else but you is called into a meeting and you hear “The Hokey Pokey” being played in the conference room?

Have you ever had one of those days when you slip and fall on shag carpeting?

Have you ever had one of those days when there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it’s blinking?

Have you ever had one of those days when it’s below zero in the morning and over a hundred degrees in the afternoon so you have a lug a heavy coat home?

Have you ever had one of those days when you’re finally home and trying to relax and the grim specter of Death sweeps into your living room and stands over you and asks to borrow a dollar?

Have you ever had one of those days when it’s been one of those weeks?

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