jeffry through the chronosynclasticinfindibulum

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I got to taking with a physicist friend of mine; I’ll call him “Joe”. We have a great relationship because I am his intellectual equal and he can bounce ideas off me as he can with only a very few people. By our third diet coke we were a little amped and Joe started going on about the Lense-Thirring Effect and Closed Timelike Curves, a line of discussion we’d touched on before. We started lazily sketching on a napkin and within a week we had built what is popularly known as a time machine. It achieves its effects through a common relativistic phenomenon known to math hotshots as Frame-Dragging. For reasons known only to our Danny Kaye-like Creator, when massive objects rotate they drag spacetime around them, twisting the surrounding real estate in such a way that not only are tremendous potential energies produced as the spacetime is torqued, space effectively bends back on itself too, creating what’re called “closed timelike curves” and the theoretical possibility of traveling through time. It was agreed that I would subject myself to the effects of the completed machine, becoming the first man in human history to be hurled backward in time through a knothole, or whatever they’re called.

I elected to go back to visit my 9 year-old self. At that age my fascination with the future was peaking. I read comic books voraciously and hurriedly built Revell models of jet airplanes and spaceships, my raised thumbprints mottling the gray surfaces of my flying machines in smeared Testor’s model cement. These small harbingers of my future manual ineptitude I hung from my ceiling with brown twine. How great would it be to go back to myself at 9 years old, reveal myself as Future Jeff and report on the ACTUAL future? Joe and I discussed Novikov’s Self-Consistency Principle and decided nothing I could say or do back there would produce any causal paradoxes. If I was going back in time next Monday, I had always been going back in time next Monday.

We designed the machine so that my quantum insertion into the past would happen as gently and as unobtrusively as possible. In the event, when I materialized in my old room I was announced by a bursting plume of green smoke and a sound like sheet tin being cut with a buzz saw; Margaret Hamilton in a meth nightmare. Jeffry jumped out of bed with a girlish scream and began a panicked running in place in his Davy Crockett footie pajamas, flapping his little hands in abject terror. Embarrassing. “Ssshh! Ssshh!!” I gestured calmness, an orchestra conductor damping the violins, my right hand knocking askance a hanging LTV A-7D CORSAIR ll, a modernist jet at the time which I’d elected to paint sky blue. Oh, yeah. That Jeffry. By the by, little noodle-man calmed down, staring at me as I stared both at him and at my old room. He scooted his tiny little ass up onto the edge of his bed, his pipe-cleaner legs dangling, clad in a motif of coonskin caps and tomahawks. Had I really ever left this place? And why? Momentarily he put it together. “You’re me,” he said.

I took a breath. “Yeah.”

“You’re…from the future.”

“Right.” I was stuck for stuff to say.

“Holy crap!”

“Language, Jeff!” I barked, then caught myself in a fit of mild dizziness. This must be the summer Gary Chapman taught me the word “crap” as an expletive, my dad laughing his ass off at the dinner table one night when I’d burst out with it. My dad.

“So, uh, listen. I wanted to come back and see you because, you know, I was always freaked about the future, what it would be like, what stuff would look like..” My stick-figured little counterpart started in, shifted his tiny pajama butt around the bed’s edge in a gesture of preparedness, his dumb little features crammed cruelly down into his lantern chin and crinkling with anticipation. “Well what’s it like? What year are you from?”

“2015,” I said falteringly. I could barely believe the sound of it as I spoke.

“2015! Holy crap!” Aw, what the hell.

“Cool?”

“Yeah!” my stick-like little forerunner squeaked. “My sister took me to see 2001 downtown, but 2015?”

“Yeah, man. It’s very very cool. You wouldn’t believe the stuff we’ve got — “

“Flying cars?”

“…..uh, what?”

“Flying cars! What do they look like? How fast?” I thought of a local news story I’d seen a day or so before. “Car leaves road in fiery crash. Texting suspected.”

“Yeah, we’ve got flying cars, you kidding? What’s the future without flying cars?”

He grew quiet. “What about mom and dad?”

“Dad passed in ’97. He will pass in 1997, I mean. Mom is going to …  pass away in 2014.”

“Huh. 2014.” He looked down at his hands, then sneaked a look up at me. “Were you…will I be very sad?”

“Yes. Of course!”

“I know.” He reconnoitered. “Well, what do the spaceships look like? Have you been in one? Are they all over the solar system? In 2001 the airplanes fly so high they orbit the Earth. They fly all the way to the moon!” I vividly remembered the Kubrick movie and my big sister taking me downtown to see it, remembered the Space Shuttle design of the PanAm plane in the movie, the stewardess walking up the wall to serve drinks to First Class. The movie completely electrified my head jelly, especially the indecipherable, quasi-religious final reel of the movie, where the Future had been masterfully conflated with all the dizzying, indefinable wonder of a generation raised on space capsules and crewcut argonauts in flattering, sci-fi-friendly NASA pressure suits. Our space shuttles had been real enough, though I don’t know that they’d ever served cocktails aboard one of them. And anyway the shuttle program had been mothballed a couple years before, or about 45 years after debuting in Kubrick’s visionary movie. What the hell? Had I actually leaped backward in time from a Charlton Heston dystopia, a green-cracker-eating world of denuded resources and overheated cityscapes where ice becomes the new currency of the rich? Not quite. But I was starting to see the beginnings of a mothballing of all the stuff we’d dreamed about as a high-flying little 1960s bean-heads, who, while the sexual and rock revolutions and political assassinations and jungle wars raged around us, were fixated on Lost in Space and Star Trek and Fireball XL5, and just knew we were going places. But we didn’t think to screw down the lid tightly enough, and the dream shriveled, right there in the jar. I can’t lie to this kid. Maybe if he knows the score he can readjust the time flux, fiddle with the Destiny Dials, repurpose the chronosynclasticinfindibulum, as Vonnegut might suggest.

“Yaaa…uh, look, Jeff. Jeffry? We don’t have spaceships, actually. The last moon landing will happen while turtlenecks and mutton chops are still in fashion. NASA’s going to remain a pioneering outfit, but they’ll be pioneering ways to do space exploration on the cheap, dropping radiometric salt shakers on Neptune, stuff like that. They’re gonna give the spaceship-building over to a billionaire whose invention let’s us shop in our underwear. No space stations, no cloud cities, no giant robots…none of that stuff will happen by 2015. We…shifted priorities.”

“Well…whatta you guys got?” I took my Android Galaxy Edge 6 out. Android, baby!

“Have a look at that!”

“I already have an Etch-a-Sketch.”

“That’s no Etch-a-Sketch, Jeffry! That’s the future!”

He dropped off the bed and walked over. “Cool. What is it?”

“Um. It’s a phone.”

“…whaddya mean? Like a telephone?”

“Yeah. But, uh, look at all the other stuff it does.” There was no internet to speak of in ’69 so I flipped on a game. Angry Birds. He looked bored for a minute, then reached for the phone and started staring intently at the screen, trying to play. I saw the 21st century in that gesture, writ crushingly huge. “Uh, let me have that back, Jeffry. You’ll, uh, have plenty of time for this later.” He went back and sat on the bed.

“The future is a phone,” he said in a disappointed little My Three Sons voice, but petulantly. What, am I supposed to feel guilty about the flying cars?!

“The future is people, you little twerp!” I hissed. “Just like the past.”

“Jeffry!” my dad called suddenly from downstairs, and my head swam. “Hit the hay, pardner!” “Oh, Bob, leave him alone,” my mom said, as she always had. “Well, who the hell’s he talking to?” my dad said in his amused, loving voice. “He’s talking to himself!” mom said. The bean pole looked at me with a rapt expression as I listened, seated on the edge of his bed with his hands folded in his lap, watching. I could picture Bob and Aloha sitting by that lamp with the brown cork base. Somewhere, they were always alive and good naturedly sparring in the living room, sitting around that lamp. Somewhere. Is that what a continuum is? Note to self; ask “Joe”. Bob Wing had passed twenty years ago. In that way the past has of furtively moving away from us even as we think we’re hanging on to its largesse, my dad had become as remotely a piece of Yesterday as the graven image on a Lincoln penny. Jesus, to see him again. He would laugh and his face would crinkle into a squinty mask of homely hilarity. Like mine. Or vice versa. He’s here in the house, in this house! Our red brick house in Cheyenne, our white collie, Casey, probably laid out at his feet.

“Daaaad!” Jeffry called with his thin little-girl voice, and looking right at me. “Will you come up here a minute?”

“Sure!” my dad said. In the near household distance I heard him grunt lightly up and out of the tattered wingback chair he refused to have reupholstered, his feet padded to the foot of the stairs and started climbing. I hadn’t seen him climb stairs for years. He’d become somnolent late in life, no more laughter, no more talking. Alone in the tv room. I gestured. What the hell is this?! Jeffry raised his twig-like Davy Crockett arm and motioned me to the closet. Huh! I got in there and drew the door closed, grabbed the knob for support. Bob Wing made the top of the landing and lightly bounded onto hardwood, made the u-turn and began his easy lope down the long hall to my room. I looked at Jeffry through the crack in the closet door but he was out of frame. The sliver of him I could see was sitting at the bed’s edge, squirreling his little chicken butt around. Then he leaned his nondescript little face into my verticalized slot of reference. He wore that big-chinned idiot smile I’d always hated in the mirror.

“Here he comes!” he whispered urgently.

a version of this piece was

published in vol 4 issue 19 Sept 26, 2015 SB Sentinel

sadness of the animate

laika in a relaxed state

It’s as if there were a cumulus of sadness adrift through the floor plan, a cloud of melancholy filling the rooms and hallways, swirling around the appliances and inhabiting the corners and interior architectural niches like a….cloud. It’s not terribly literary. Maybe it’s just pity.

“for the human condition?”

I just got done telling you it’s not literary! It’s not a malaise, or whatever! It’s not that French guy on Sartre’s ‘Nausea’ dust jacket with his hand on his gut. All I can tell you is that the bad feeling, when it shows up, emanates from my daughter’s guinea pigs. It moves out through the house from there.

“your – “

yeah. Maybe it’s just pity. I said that. Anymore I’m beginning to think it’s simple pity, but the pity or sadness radiates out from their little cage on the floor at the back of the house. Their utter helplessness has real power; radiant power. It colors the whole house some days. Like the old animation of an atomic blast radius, which starts from ground zero with the illustrator’s naïve and almost playful little cartoon spark, because despite the horrid magic of what follows the viewer needs to understand the catalyst is just a bomb going off. The spark is followed by a red swelling ball, and it quickly swells outward from ground zero in a perfect circle, filling all the irregularities of the doomed city; the alleyways and schoolrooms and churches. I think this ‘swelling bubble’ atomic blast radius illustration was informed more by the technical limits of that day’s commercial art than by atomic science or the observed practice blasts they’d conducted in the field, but it makes the point with an unintended accuracy. And the guinea pig sadness is like that, or feels like that.

So sometimes (every time, actually) when I feed the guinea pigs I watch them eat and I feel a nearly debilitating sadness. It seems related to the sadness I felt one weekend afternoon as a teenager, watching a man lean over the glass at JC Penney, carefully poring over the wrist watches. The guinea pigs’ names are Chloe and Buffy, they’re two little girls. Their food is fancily packaged hay. The hay neatly fills an elaborately printed plastic bag, but is clearly just dead grass swept up from some field somewhere and jammed into these bags, bits of thoughtless meadow, minutely parceled out to those whose interrupted Darwinian lot was to roam the meadow. Now we bring the meadow to them. I raise the hinged top of the cage and the hay is stiff and comes out of the bag in longitudinal clumps that have to be smashed down into the dumb little bowls, two bowls, one for each guinea pig. Per the human conceit the meadow has to be eaten from bowls, so the straw and bits of dried flower get jammed down into the bowls and all the while the guinea pigs are making their whistling sound of joy or excitement and raising themselves up with their forepaws on the horizontal bars of their cage. Then they run in to the eating section of the cage, over a little ramp, as lithe as you please. They eat with their grateful but, honestly, expressionless little feminine faces, looking askance at me like I might take the food. Me, the giver. I’ve stood there for 15 minutes, 20 minutes. They’re completely unconscious, unenlightened, pure id. They don’t know they’re captured. What will they do after they gratefully eat? They’ll crap and then eat again. They don’t know they’re alive. What are they for? Why are there living things that don’t know they’re living things?

“We’re at the top of the food chain.”

shut up. every little scrap of meaning isn’t defined or explained in terms of what eats who.

“Life is an end, not a means.”

wrong.

“Well. You mean being alive is a state that is only available so that the living can see themselves.”

yeah. it sounds buddhist or whatever, but it’s not.

“What’s so great about knowing? What’s THAT for? You want to ascribe a purpose to everything. Try that one.”

i’m working that out.

“The animals are fine. Their cognitive darkness is a salve. They don’t know enough to be sad.”

The guinea pigs are a pillow pressed over my face. Eat sleep eat eat sleep. Like the JC Penney guy. He wanted just the right watch.

“He probably got it, too!”

NASA Rules

who do you think you are

don’t unscrew your gloves while outside the vehicle.

don’t “drive” the spaceship. the sleep-starved guys on the ground in their crewcuts and short-sleeved shirts, hands frequently folded behind their heads in terrified attitudes of phony repose? They are driving the spaceship.

relax, but sleep lightly with one hand near the Charles Nelson Reilly thrust actuator. like you need to be told that.

keep the earthworms fed and watered and happy and no more games.

don’t get uppity, you have the ass of Captain Kangaroo in that dumb outfit. this isn’t Gemini.

ignore strange sightings or at the least don’t report them, we’ve got enough going on.

we saw your eyes tearing at the pre-launch press conference; wtf. one more of those and you’re out. keep the lid on.

don’t jawbone about The Wonder in an unguarded moment. wonder is a sandwich bread. we’ve been over this.

Don’t pull an Aldrin.

The fecal evacuator is not a toy. we won’t tell you again.

godspeed.

habitable region around a dwarf star

habitable region around a dwarf star

you may approach a dwarf star, but what’d be the point

Is it the dwarf star that collapses in on itself, the Mysterio inner forces dragging the sun-spotted skin and corona inexorably (always inexorably) downward into what we are assured is the uncomfortably warm nuclear ‘furnace’ (o’ make it homely and domestic that we may understand its incomprehensible anger) such that the gathering densities aggregate into a very tiny embarrassed ball of light whose spoonfuls famously weigh tons? Tons we can understand. Here I am, a Susan Polis Schutz (nee Schultz) poster, and I am that dwarf star or maybe it’s a neutron star I’m imagining. An inward collapse, a weakening carapace gone translucent with the desire to vanish, an upbraiding of passerby be they friend or foe. What is this thing called love. A furnace of incalculable energy that some would yet reduce to the status of a toaster. A half-light hell. Well it’s much more than a toaster or anyway is meant to be. So I’ve always supposed. Time will tell.

Carp Diem II

Jean-Paul no Ringo or George

Despite the brief and lilting feeling of uplift you may experience seeing the title of this piece, this little essay without purpose is not going to exhort you to grasp life with both hands, bound sunnily into the Offered Moment, or rapturously twirl on an Alp. Note that the first word in the title is Carp and not Carpe. Carpe is a word popularized by the poet Horace around 23 BC in his Odes, a near-ancient collection of lyric poems of reportedly unsurpassed beauty. His suggestion was to carpe, or pluck or pick or seize, the day. You know, with joy or vigor or something. But the first word in the title above is actually Carp, without the suffixed ‘e’ that so makes the heart skip with its suggestion of joyous lunging. Carp means carp; a type of fish. In fact, it is the type of fish French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously resembled. And so we have not ‘Seize the Day’, but ‘Carp Day’. You will not rush headlong into the waiting hours with your stubby little mitts already grasping at a promised epiphany. You will join me in contemplating the way five fused cubes of ice will suddenly decouple from the bottom of the Tom Collins glass you are stylishly tipping while you glance rakishly sideways at your beautiful date. Because you have a glass to your lips your smile will be more a leer; something Mannix might have tossed at Peggy, however involuntarily. As your leer reaches apogee the sparkling and asymmetric agglomeration of rounded, hugging ice cubes, which has waited all this empty eternity to arrive just here just now, will release from the sticky, electrically charged cohesion of fluid at the bottom of the Collins, slide like a cold heavy rock straight into your nerve-filled teeth and as your left incisor is jarred sharply loose from its greedy blood-lined socket you will scream briefly like a lady and the hostess, across the jostling room and poised on the shag-carpeted landing, will start with a gasp and in her vivid orange form-fitting cocktail mumu fall dreamily backward down the stairs with her newly purchased silver tray in a flinging, yelling confusion of limbs and canapes and an affronted spinal cord whose Newtonian adventure will stem, finally, the flow of chemical signals to her brain and stymie further attempts to don the mumu. 1971. Sartre has 9 years.

what the Zanti Misfits have taught us

Zanti Misfits_redundant

don’t be so pleased with your little mouth, cross-eyed Zanti Misfit

*for Paulie, with whom I discussed the redundancy of the term ‘Zanti Misfits’ one evening in Phoenix 100 years ago.*

On December 30, 1963, Bruce Dern, all hooded eyes and upturned nose and unshaven bank-robber jaw, drives carelessly into a restricted area in the middle of a desert. His reward for this otherwise mild bout of trespassing will be an entymological bitch-slap to end them all. In the car with him is his silent, odd-looking, angular, hideously chain-smoking moll, an actress named Olive Deering who is scarier by several orders than the alien nemesis they will soon encounter.

Bruce and Olive and Zantis Soon

Baby, you as scary as a big ol’ ant….baby?

Dern has just robbed a bank. He is fleeing by car the scene of his most recent lapse in judgment. But as he is rocketing through the desert something catches his eye, a glint of silver descending through the sky like an inept drawing. It comes to rest on a hilltop and there goes the neighborhood. Dern has to investigate. He leaves the car to shamble up the side of one of those loose-rocked hills that little spaceships tend to land on with some regularity, and whose gravelly gradient makes for useful horror-slipping as our B actors try without success to flee the various repulsive meanies that pursue them. Dern quizzically approaches the silver conical spaceship, a little door pops open and out marches a not terribly threatening army of ants the size of prairie dogs, each with a little nose and strange little cupie doll lips one might be tempted to kiss if they weren’t affixed to ant heads.  The invaders step out onto conquered earth in a stop-action goose step that makes them appear very easy to escape, but startled Dern slips down the hill and is knocked unconscious. He awakens to find a Zanti with Drew Barrymore lips strolling up his forearm, which insectoid sashay inexplicably kills him. It develops the Zantis are themselves criminals from the planet…wait for it…Zanti. It’s that same ill-conceived sci-fi t.v. convention that gives us Vulcans from the planet Vulcan; a strangely ubiquitous bit of screwy extraterrestrial nomenclature that would have people of this planet called ‘Earths’.

Ant Problem Spoils Army Luncheon

Ant Problem Spoils Army Luncheon

By previous arrangement we had agreed to accept the landing of the ship in a Death Valley-like location and to provide the passengers a desert cordon in perpetuity. We probably also told them this g*d forsaken baked hill in the middle of desert nowhere was a popular beauty spot here on Earth, keeping Hawaii and La Jolla secret.  “Secure for us your most beauteous place for exile, Earths!” Okay, you dumb ants. Here are the coordinates. Happy landings! At any rate Dern screws the whole agreement up and the affronted Zantis, feeling pretty good for having killed him just by walking on his arm, take off in their little ship and land atop the U.S. Army’s flyblown command post/Zanti Welcome Wagon in a nearby tumbleweed-choked desert ghost town. The diminutive and ill-advisedly cocky ‘invaders’ exit their ship, rappel haughtily down the side of the clapboard army building and begin a slow, twitchy march in the direction of heavily armed men in khaki who waste no time dispensing with the uppity space ants with pistols and grenades and clubs and, yeah, shoe leather. It’s not much of a fight, and indicates the Zanti criminal element did not do its homework before choosing this particular planet to terrorize. One or two men in khaki, probably aspiring stage actors in 1963 who, like Dern, thought they would sidle into Hollywood history via this hastily executed teleplay, are ‘attacked’ by Zantis and run screaming around the room. One unfortunate soldier has a Zanti climb under his uniform and seems to go to sleep on the floor. Even a jug-eared 7 year-old sitting cross-legged in his flannel pajamas could see the foolishness in this.

When the Zantis are vanquished we learn they were sent here deliberately by their overseers to be killed by the bloodthirsty humans, as executions of even the most hardened criminals are illegal on the awkwardly named planet Zanti. So this was a sort of extraordinary rendition. We must suppose that the passengers on the doomed Zanti penal ship selected for this expensive route to the Death Chamber were chosen based on the delicacy of their beautiful little mouths, which on the unfortunate planet Zanti are considered to increase the sense of facial Zanti menace. We know the opposite is true.

What are the takeaways from The Zanti Misfits?

1. If an ant is as big as a field rodent and has a human countenance, it is likely a thug from space.

2. Don’t simply step on a bug when you can shoot it or blow it up or laboriously beat it to death with an army-issue baton.

3. Don’t make deals with government officials from other planets concerning their jailbirds. If the Zantis had been armored grizzlies or acid spewing giant starfish or face-hugging trachea enthusiasts we’d’ve been really screwed.

4. If you agree to having a plastic ant placed on your arm and screaming for the camera you may be nominated for an Oscar one day.

There is also a valuable lesson here about cultural relativism, as one man’s horrific goggle-eyed bug from space is another man’s DMV misstep from the stars. Back on Zanti the ineptly produced teleplay thrills the little ones in their Zanti exo-pajamas, but there the episode is called ‘The Great Parole Board Fuckup’, and is used to frighten the kids into cleaning their Zanti rooms and not falling in with the badass Zantis at school.