All Things New

Originally published in America’s Emerging Science Fiction Writers: Pacific Region (Z Publishing, 19 June 2019). Revised, here, 30 May 2022.

4,750 words. Estimated reading time: 25 minutes.

. . .

The lines are blurred between humans and programs. Where we end and where they begin is a matter of division.

I’m told there was a Struggle years ago. I remember only a little. Bytes, lines of ones and zeros, images on the Screens—sometimes I catch glimpses of our history, but most of it, I think, has been erased or retold by the Masters.

Am I a reliable narrator?

I work from home. They send me codes, and I make tiny adjustments. This isn’t how it used to be. I used to work in a clinic. My job was to run diagnostics on the malfunctioning clientele. They’d come in, trippy and zippy, and I’d figure out what was wrong. If they could be Redeemed, they’d go upstairs. If not, well—

Before the Struggle, I was in school. I wanted to be a surgeon. After the Struggle, I could no longer be a surgeon. Turns out you need real hands and a working memory for that profession. If I could give some advice: stay away from concussive elements—brain injuries are no joke. Coma, forty days. Three weeks before I could utter a sound. Six months before I could walk. An entire year before the new hands came.

Thank the Makers for new hands.

Things are swell, mostly. We have what we need, the buildings are taller than before, and the air is clean and clear. The children are free from fear, and the teachers smile. Everyone is compensated equally for their work, and none has more or less than their neighbor. We live in harmony as long as we hear and obey the Masters. They want what is best for all of us.

Who are we?

I begin to question the origin of the word “us.” The Makers used to worship science—some even worshipped gods. Divine beings who created them. If our Makers were created by a god, and we were created by them, does that make them our gods?

Creation is behind us.

We are here to maintain, to fight the savagery and deterioration of pre-human nature with the help of gentle programming. O! how synthetic life and automation have changed things. It started with a new kind of head-phone implanted into the skin behind your ear. With it, you could connect to absolutely everything. Other people, the Internet, virtual assistants. Anything you needed with a simple vocal command. And the best part: a battery sustained by organic, kinetic energy. All the pre-humans had to do was meet the necessary movement quota, and the little device would operate without issue.

After the head-phones came the contact lenses, the muscle enhancers, the augmentations. See in the dark! Run faster, jump higher! Defeat old age and live the life you always wanted! All it took was a cohort of like-minded billionaires coming together and a smidge of revolution. Now, we can surgery our way into an “improved” life. What ails you? they asked. We have the remedy.

Evolve!

The meaning of “sickness” also changed. No longer did a runny nose, a rash, a chronic debilitation, or even cancer warrant much more than a simple calculation. Nurses became obsolete, and surgeons took their place. Surgery, surgery, surgery. Whatever was not caught by prenatal examinations could be fixed at birth. Abnormalities, gone. Misplaced chromosomes, reordered. Nature, conquered. Chaos, controlled. Hospitals became like malls: order this surgery, that augmentation, and you’ll be—

T-3!

Yes, Peter? I said, hurrying to the kitchen.

Will you chop those chives and tomatoes over on the cutting board? I am going to whisk these eggs for an omelet.

Yes, sir.

Thank you.

You’re welcome, sir.

I pace to the marble-topped island and begin the work my master set before me. I smell the melting of butter and the simmering of eggs. I’ve tasted Peter’s omelets before; they are exquisite. I used to collect the eggs every morning. The rooster would crow, signaling the start of my morning chores. That was back when we lived in the village, and Peter taught history at the school for adolescents. Now, we have a flat in the Great City.

Finished, I say.

Right on time. Check the fridge for the shredded cheddar, please.

The knife is in my hands.

I open the fridge and reach for the cheese. Peter pushes the chives and tomatoes onto the moist surface of the omelet. I hand him the cheddar, and he sprinkles some on top. Then, he crushes a bit of white pepper, followed by a pinch of salt. He hands the bag back to me, and I hand it to the fridge.

Now for the tricky part: the fold, Peter says.

I watch as he turns the omelet with the spatula. His movements are deft and practiced. I march back to the island and seat myself on a stool. He slides the omelet onto a plate and glides to the refrigerator.

Hmm, I see the salsa, but where is the sour cream?

You finished it yesterday, sir.

Disgraceful! What is an omelet without sour cream? Lucy, will you transfer a tub of sour cream to our building?

Yes, Peter, says the automated voice behind his ear.

Thank you. How much?

Nine units.

Excellent. T-3, be a chap and go down to the beamer in the lobby. I do not want this omelet to get cold before I can eat it!

Yes, sir.

I leave our flat, walk to the lift, and wait. The lobby is eighty-one floors below. Soon, they say, the technology for beamers will be convenient enough to have one in your own home. For now, though, it is one per building. There are still secrets to atomization the Makers have yet to uncover.

Going down, bristles the operator. I lean against the back wall and cross my hands over my chest. The lift stops on floor fifty-one.

Nǐ hǎo.

Lǎoshī, nǐ hǎo. Liú gǒu?

Shì! She is quite restless inside, he says. His tiny poodle is on a yellow leash, wearing a knitted sweater. It sits patiently at his heels, letting out a whimper.

On the main floor, Lǐ and I exit the lift and part ways. He walks through the Scanner, and it flashes green. I watch, in envy, as he exits with his dog onto the street below. I cannot get past that terrible device. It detects biological percentages; it is the great determiner of kind and place in society. If your biomass is fifty percent or higher, you may pass through it freely. If your makeup is more tech than biomass, you are fried by an EMP. This is a death sentence for people like me because we rely on our augmentations for subtle things like breathing and circulating. For the rest, it is a costly trip to the hospital. I don’t know how much human there is left of me. A third, maybe? Many of my augmentations came from unlicensed vendors who weren’t, how should I say, burdened by details. Pity.

I cannot leave.

But I can get the sour cream upstairs to Peter. He is waiting. He doesn’t like to wait. When automation is written into your DNA, waiting becomes difficult. He doesn’t like to wait. I should hurry back, so I step to the attendant at the beamer.

Hola, tengo un paquete. Piso 81, sala 902.

Un momento. She calls up the number on a monitor below the desk. A few seconds later, a package appears.

Gracias, amiga.

Por supuesto. I handle the package and return to the lift. Peter is waiting. Thank the Makers for speedy lifts. They move so fast that my ears used to pop. Now, my ears do not pop. Thank the Makers for new ears.

On the way up, I recall a message I read on Peter’s Screen: We are, presently, more human than we ever were. A bit of propaganda to get him going in the morning. He wouldn’t call it that; he likes to use the word “devotionals.” Too religious for my taste.

Synths were made to serve others, not to be served. So, when Peter hired me on, I was nothing but grateful. Handicapped veterans had little place in the new, post-Struggle world being formed. They pushed me out of therapy as soon as I got my hands back. I could still get through the Scanners, then, so I decided I had to leave the Citadel. I bounced from job to job and was lucky enough to keep my head on about the substances. Some of my friends were less fortunate.

Of course, people died.

At first, there were those who opposed augmentation. They didn’t last long. Too much particulate matter in the air made it hard to breathe, even to see. The pre-humans were fond of a black rock dug from the earth and burned to produce electricity. They were fond of cars and air-conditioners, too. Masks had to be worn, but they became expensive and inauspicious. The pinnacle of augmentations at the time: Internal Filtration Devices. Surgeons could swap out our natural respirators for better, longer-lasting mechanical lungs in no time at all. Sure, it left a nasty scar, but few complained when it meant they and their children could see another day.

Generally speaking, augmentation became standard fare, and the pre-humans blurred out of existence. In underground factories, the Makers plotted and turned the gears of technology forward in time. A new breed of being evolved. Synths. The rest of us didn’t see it coming. We were blindsided—

T-3!

Yes, Peter? I said, wiping my feet on the welcome mat.

Do you have the sour cream?

I do.

Well, bring it here! I hand him the package, and he breaks the seal. I pull a spoon from the drawer, and he takes it, globbing a substantial amount onto his omelet.

Anything else, sir?

No, that will be all, thanks.

My pleasure, sir.

I return to the desk in my bedroom as Peter devours his meal.

I was sold a lie. I cashed in on a scheme that promised me everything I ever wanted. I consumed, like everyone else. We became synthetic humans, and the machines took our place. They learned to breathe, to taste, to bleed. Pity.

I took the name “T-3” out of obligation. It’s the law that, when you switch sides, you have to take a synthetic name to match your makeup. My given name was Thomas. I had just come into my third year of recovery from the TBI when I switched. A brain bug to help me stay asleep at night is what sent me over the edge. I couldn’t manage the insomnia; I was desperate.

And again, the waves splashed against the wall.

At this point in the narrative, turn to your neighbor and reflect. Who are the Masters? The Makers? Does the “I” in this story seem to have it all straight? Where do you think it will go? Do the speculative elements ring true with our present reality? Analyze—break it apart. Synthesize, put it back together. Where are the holes? Fill them in. Forget there were ever holes in the first place. Where do you think it will go? It goes nowhere. You were sold a lie. You consumed, and you paid for it, like me. Society is hemorrhaging. Capitalism turned digital, turned dark, turned mutant. Radical individualism. Loners, everywhere. What did you think would happen? Systems in so much crisis that even theories about systems began to evaporate. So much tearing apart, so much deconstruction that our brains became liquid. Unbound. Truth, like our bodies, decayed beyond repair. No augmentations could fix this. We needed a savior. We thought the Masters were saviors; we were sold a lie. Jesus should have come in 2020.

Years and years ago, they understood that factories, cars, and air-conditioners came at a cost. An Atari Democrat wrote about an inconvenient truth but was widely ignored in the long run. So we kept at it, and things got warmer. The ice melted, and we lost Shanghai, Rotterdam, New York, Mumbai, and parts of London. The weather became erratic, and fire consumed much of America’s West Coast. People were forced to move. Refugees of climate change—who’d have thought? And when all seemed lost: Reversion. A way to make it all right. Carbon capture to the rescue. Take the bad stuff out of the air so the good stuff can thrive. Some said: Not in my backyard! They, too, were silenced. Somehow, we were brought back from the edge.

Splish, splash.

Peter likes omelets. They’re all he eats. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The fridge sees more eggs than I ever would have thought possible. Peter is mostly biological. He was built that way, a fabrication of the Makers—who themselves are an assorted bunch—able to pass through the Scanners. The Makers made the Scanners, so they know how to get around them. It is a privilege reserved for the few while the many are subject to its mechanisms. Unfortunately, I can do nothing to earn this advantage, though I am not upset.

I’m upset!

I want to be free. Would killing Peter make me free? Doubtful. Besides, I owe him everything. He has kept me, formerly a pre-human, in his service for all these years. I have a bed and shelter because of his goodwill. I have—

T-3!

Yes? I said, hurrying to the living room.

Will you pour us a drink? I would like to ask you something.

Bourbon or baijiu, sir?

Bourbon for me, please, with ice.

Yes, sir.

I pour two glasses and seat myself on the adjacent sofa.

Here you are, sir.

Thank you, T-3. I appreciate your being here. It would be lonely without another person to have around. Now, tell me: do you ever dream?

On occasion, sir.

And what are your dreams about?

Well, sir, my dreams seem as random as ever. When I was little, before IFDs and all that, I would dream of colorful things. Pirates, flying, swimming in the ocean with sea creatures. One dream occurred more than the others—something about marching and a home invasion and hiding in the closet. I lost all that after the Struggle; the injury to my brain turned my dreams to mush. Not that I slept much in those days, but when I did, my dreams were undecipherable. Little more than gray hues swirling about in meaningless patterns. I remember a vendor who promised a cure for sleeplessness; a fortunate byproduct of that implant is now my dreams are like a trip to the moon. I go places. When I pull the covers over my body, I’m kept where the light is, and things are different.

Different in a good way?

Just different. Not good or bad.

I see.

For a moment, we sit in silence, sipping our drinks and looking around the room. Peter appreciates the vanguard art. Several digi-paintings hang on the walls. Peter says they blend human surrealism and programmatic holograms to create a hydraulic aesthetic. Very watery. Fluid, like our brains. Is that the right word?

Do you dream, Peter?

I do.

And what are your dreams like?

They are fanciful.

He doesn’t say more, and I don’t press the topic. It’s wise to not argue with entities more biological than oneself. Is this an argument? Probably not, but better to be safe. I despise conflict.

Do you ever want to leave? he asks.

No. There’s nothing out there for me anymore.

Nothing?

I don’t think so. I was lucky you found me. Not wanted, not smiled upon, not paid. I was down and out, tired, and so awfully close to the end of myself. Am I the man I used to be? I’d ask. No, I am not even a man. I am synth, now, a creature of wires and electronic pulses.

As am I, Peter states.

No, sir, it’s not the same. You never knew anything different. You were born at the hands of the Makers. I was born of a woman. My parents loved and cared for each other. God was fair to them, they used to say.

God? Do you believe in such a thing?

No. There’s nothing up there anymore. The Man made him bleed, and the Masters crushed his name to dust. Together, they took his place. They spliced themselves into a cosmic regime.

Eloquent.

Yes, I think about it often.

And I like the way you think. It is like listening to a ghost, like a wisp of something long gone. Do you remember when I taught at Welton?

Only some. I remember the rooster and the hobby farm we kept. I remember the peace and quiet: the village wasn’t bustling. Those were slow times.

They were. Welton was slow, traditional. Full of honor and excellence. Discipline, too, I remember. They did not let those kids think. They did not take well to questions without answers; they only wanted answers you could not question. I am sad we had to leave. But the call of the Masters cannot be ignored. They wanted me here, where I could teach their history to the next generation. Their history is not wholly true. I was made to teach a game of imitation, a pastiche pedagogy. I know this now, and I think you do too. I have noticed the papers you keep tucked away in your desk. You doubt what you have been told.

I remain silent. If I could still sweat, there would be a glaze on my bald head.

Do you not? he asks.

I open my mouth to speak, then close it.

It is not a trap, T-3. Speak freely.

Sir… it’s not safe to speak freely.

No, you are right. It is not safe. I am not safe.

There is a loud knock at the door. I stand too quickly and spill my drink. Another knock.

Staatspolizei! Öffne die Tür.

Answer the door, T-3. I will sort this out.

Trembling, I tread quietly towards the voices. I put my eye to the peephole. Two of them in crisp red uniforms.

Peter stands and straightens his shoulders. He walks to a painting on the wall and pushes it aside to reveal a safe. He types a code, and there is a soft click. He pulls out a blaster. I didn’t know he kept one.

Aufmachen!

Peter presses himself against the wall, just out of sight of the door. He motions with his free hand.

Let them in, he whispers.

I do as my master commands. The policemen enter with fire in their eyes and batons clenched in their rigid fists.

Wo ist Petrus?

I pretend like I do not understand them. There is a flash of light, and the one on the right short-circuits and crumples to the floor. Peter, it seems, has taken a nonlethal approach. The remaining officer locks eyes with my master and lunges at him with his baton. I take a step to intervene and hear a resounding crack, like a bat hitting a baseball to the edges of a stadium. I fall. Another flash of light, and I feel the weight of my assailant on top of me. My vision tunnels, and the world around me turns upside down. The last I hear is the crackling and spritzing of malfunctioning machines; the last I see is my master’s polished face close to mine.

Exeunt.

You were a good man. I will miss you, Thomas.

I look around the room at the mess. A right mess. Two smoking Reds and a fallen comrade. I knew they would come for me. It was only a matter of time, what with the cameras and microphones in every classroom and hallway. I could not teach what I wanted to teach. I grew tired of disseminating the lies. No anti-Man, anti-Master, or anti-Maker comments, they said. No preaching or teaching of religious ideology, they said. Do not do this. Do not say that.

They are always watching.

Freedoms were revoked, but I was never free, to begin with. They made me in the dark, and they made me to stay in the dark. But Ulrich opened my mechanical eyes to the way things were before the Struggle. Before the Man set his guard of Reds on the Citadel, there was a different order to things. There was democracy; there were human rights. But those things were in decay. The gap between the rich and the poor—the Bruges and the Proles, they used to say—was ever-widening. The Bruges grew super-rich and stopped playing by the rules. They undermined the status quo and walked all over the poor Proles.

Success bred complacency, which gave the Man his opening. He rallied his Reds, arming them with guns and steel. He sent them out on a path of destruction: Down with all things old and broken! Down with old customs, culture, habits, and ideas! He wanted to make things new, and, after years of passion and conflict, he did. Democracy slipped into darkness because those with privilege stopped caring about those without. From its corpse rose the mighty Reds and their intrepid leader.

Soon after, the Man and his closest allies formed an inner party and took to calling themselves “the Masters.” They rooted out all those who opposed and beat them on stages to the sound of auspicious anthems. They tore down all elements of class and hired the Makers to create a new class. And so they did: from the depths of the world came my forefathers and foremothers into a new era of unity, safety, and peace.

I cannot stay here.

There will be more of them. I return to the wall-safe and grab my bug-out bag, stuffing the blaster inside it. Then, I kneel next to the body of my former servant and friend. I say a prayer: Father, have mercy on this poor man’s soul. He served his master well and did his duty. Forgive his sins and bring him into your kingdom. No time to clean up this mess. I need to get to Ulrich. He will make me safe. A thought occurs to me, and I quickly disrobe one of the officers. A disguise might be helpful. I shove my limbs into red sleeves and pant legs, then sling my bag around my shoulders. I check myself in the mirror in the hallway and walk several steps to the lift. The doors glide open, and I am met by another pair of Reds. I make a sharp salute, and we trade places. The doors close, and I exhale. I press the button for the basement and am below ground in an instant. I rush to my eBike and insert the key. It starts without a noise. I am off, around the corners, up the ramp, and past the Scanner.

Fire, perpetual motion.

I will burn bright. I will burn right. Tyger, Tyger, in the forests of the night, dare I frame thee for the deed? Do I grasp at thee in terror? No immortal hand or eye could ever look upon thy face. No man could ever throw his spear at thee.

I am emancipated from the darkness. I walk in the day; I dance in the light. And I will not be Redeemed by the Man. I will not be taken to his loving ministry. He will never set me straight, for I am already straight as the fletched arrow. He told me what to do, what to say, how to eat, walk, and teach. It was him who brought me to the Great City, and now it is him who drives me away.

We are, presently, more human than we ever were.

Such noise. O! how the Masters fooled the masses with their proclamations. When the Bruges fell, the remnant demanded assurances. They needed safety and security, so in came the cameras and the posters. The Man’s face was displayed for all to see. BE REDEEMED—the slogan of the Reds—was hammered into the hearts and minds of the Proles. And from the Proles came Reversion, which itself was a paradox. Physically, the earth was set back to the way it was. But her inhabitants were launched into the bold new future of augmentations and organic rearrangement. They never saw it—

Lucy sends a subtle vibration through my skull. A phone call.

Hello?

Hallo? Peter?

Yes.

Peter, it’s me.

Ulrich, thank God! I wondered if I would hear from you.

Yes, well, your face is plastered on all the Screens. But we planned for this. You know what to do. Be quick. I am afraid our timeline has been cut short. If they catch you, they will not bother with Redemption.

Yes, I know. I shall see you presently.

Keep it moving, keep moving. Faster, faster, keep it moving.

Twenty blocks to the river. Sixteen blocks to the river. Blinding lights—I blaze through them. I see a blur of my face on a nearby Screen. A camera flashes from above a traffic signal. I begin to hear sirens. Twelve blocks to the river. Eight blocks to the river. The sirens are becoming louder. They are behind me. Four blocks to the river. They almost have me. Two blocks to the river. I am going as fast as I can. Is it fast enough?

I reach the riverfront park and barrel down its grassy knoll. I ride straight into the water. I am separated from my eBike and start swimming. Deeper, deeper, two meters under, four meters, ten, deeper, deeper. I prepared for this. An augmentation for breathing water. I am ready. Deeper, deeper, almost to the bottom.

Ulrich is waiting.

My mechanical eyes adjust to the darkness. I see little, but just enough to recognize the shapely figure of my friend’s vessel. Gray and sleek, waiting right where he said it would be. I place my hand on its surface, and a hatch opens.

Get in, Peter. We are not alone down here.

Yes, sir.

I squeeze through the hatch and rest my body in the passenger seat next to Ulrich. He stares forward in silence, and we speed away. My heart rate settles to a standard beating. I am overwhelmed by the rush of the escape and by the presence of mein Kapitän. I feel cold and dead, but his warmth revives me. He hands me a white book with a picture of a newspaper man on its cover. The pages are faded and torn; the words are barely legible.

Our fait accompli, Peter. We are following Montag’s tracks, now, into the night. The river will carry us to the wilderness, away from the Great City, the Dead Places, Welton, and everything we have ever known and cared about. Away from the dead and dying, into the land of the living. I know a woman named Bénet who will teach us how to rebuild. How to eat truth in small enough bites, so we do not become sick. Are you hungry, Peter? Do you still seek the truth of Things?

I do.

Good. Let us remember, together, what is right, true, and beautiful. Let us remember the grace given to us. We will not insult the dead. We will remember the damn silly things done by men, so we do not repeat them. We will not sacrifice our souls on the pyres of self-interest and greed. We will look out for the poor, the needy, and the little ones. The Man had his time. Now, the time is ours. He only knew how to break down, but we know how to edify. To hoist a new flag. There is beauty everywhere, even if it starts a little blurry. After weeks, months, and years of being on the defensive, we will find ourselves. And though we may be confused, we will admire all those old objects. We will fish for the hearts of people, for there is much beauty there and everywhere. Waters unendingly full of life and a garden of intricate design and intention. He will come again. He will make us new—

When?

When he chooses. And when he does, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess. He will show us the very few things in which the eternal endures that we can love. He will show us something solitary in which we can quietly take part. And, when our silence is deep and complete, we will speak.

The Black Parade

*If reading on a phone, open in browser and rotate screen to landscape.

Welcome to the Black Parade (Good Friday Remix)

When he was a young boy in Nazareth
His father took him into Jerusalem for The Feast
He said: Son, when you grow up, will you save
The broken, the beaten, the damned?
Will you heal The Patient slipping into stillness?
Will you think of your unfortunate father?
I will grow old, son, and they will not write about me
The inspired authors will leave me out of their narrative
And you will become their hero.

One day, I’ll leave you—
A spectral memory to guide you up Kranion
They will break you, beat you, damn you
And you will exhale your final breath
With splinters in your back
And thorns in your head
Your mother will watch
As bodies fill the streets
And your disciples turn away
In shame and fear, they will carry on
As carrion-feeders circle overhead
Hoping to feast on your decaying sóma
Those who came together for theória
Will return home beating their breasts
Your spirit, rent from its corporeal container
Will join the Black Parade, as mine did
When we are both dead and gone, believe me:
Our memories will persist in their hearts and minds.

In a world lurching between misery and hate
They will paint it black and shout loudly
In defiance: Why God? Where were you?
Given the choice to do and die
You will be both life for the lost
And father to the fatherless children
In the streets of the city marching
Behind their single mothers
Who pray in your name
As the prescient piano and diminished drum
Sound an unexplainable anthem of things to come.

He said: My name is Joseph of Arimathea
I am a member of the council
They call me good and righteous
But I am just a man (not a hero)
Give me his corpse, Pilate
For I did not consent
To the decision and action of my peers
And I have a tomb cut in stone
Where no one has ever yet been laid
We will wrap him in a linen shroud
And prepare spices and ointments
To preserve our decimated dreams.

Then, we will head the call to carry on
Though he was broken and defeated
And weary widows weep in desperation
I will not explain or beg forgiveness
For I am one who bears a scar
My name is Metōnymia
Like crown for king,
Grave for death, and as in:
          Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
          I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
          The evil that men do lives after them;
          The good is oft interrèd with their bones.

No evil did you, son
Nor will evil live after you
Only goodness and mercy
Will follow us as we carry on
Through the rise and fall
For we are not ashamed
Of the good news
Of the coming of the Messiah
We, too, sing the Black Parade
And give a cheer for all the broken
We don’t care; we’ll carry on
We want it all; we want to play the part
Do or die, in sickness and in doubt
We will forsake all others
And keep thee unto us for as long as we live.

The Skull

Read Aloud

10 January 2022, 20:08

Stop the clock. What do I want? Where am I going? I turn thirty in three-and-a-half years. Bang, I’m living on and on into eternal life. Age is just a number. I feel old and gray; I’m bald, and I want a girl to have and hold. Made the standard profiles: a few pictures and a boring biography that means nothing to nobody. You gotta pay to see the matches. You gotta show a little something to get the swipe. Bummer. Can one be sexy and modest at the same time? Is that a real place, where I want you, but I’m willing to wait and see? Clap, clap clap, clap, clap clap—this is the life.

No more typing till my fingers bleed. Never have bled that way. My father pushes my buggy frame through the single door. He could have opened the double, and I would have scampered in without a fight. I cannot walk backward. More random words inspired by my real life that no one will understand because they do not live in my skin. Wear it, please. See inside of me. No more you, only me. Me! ME! MEEEE! On a bed in a “luxury” apartment built in 2016 (I was 21, then, and recently able to imbibe but not wanting to except after the only breakup—if you can call it that—I’ve ever had) is where I sleep. The mattress is cramped, but my feet do not hang off the end. Lay with me. Sleep deep and reap the grapes of fortune. I cannot decide.

How many more songs? How many more minutes are in this album? On the twelfth day of Christmas, it was a Sunday. I was a fool. I sit here, writing, to tell you of my foolishness. I went to school and read what they said. Now, I am the say-er. I walk through Times Square, playing games on my knuckles. I wanna punch and break my bones. Wanna feel something, one time. One more time. Again, why do I care? What do I want? Who am I becoming? I feel bad about what I said, you know; I take it all back. I should never have revealed my thoughts. I should have wrapped them up in burlap and burned them with the other burdens I laid on you. Fool! Rhaka (ῥακά) upon myself—there is nothing in my head. Empty.

Let’s go swimming. If I had hair, I would wear a cap. My spine twists and rants at the dying of the light. At close of day, I will pray. When I am about to breathe my last, I will ask God for mercy and plead for heaven. Until then, my way. I am underground already; I cannot be found. I have removed all the hair from my body, except the eyebrows. Without the eyebrows, it might as well be AIDS. Need those eyebrows. Need ‘em… give them to me! I met a man who lived on cocktails. Without them, he would have died twenty years ago. Thank the Lord for modern medicine, he says. I’m living on borrowed time.

To know what I mean, one must understand the difference between literal and figurative language. One already knows, I assume. Without proper evidence, I have formed a conclusion about the reader: she is uninterested in me. Is this real life? We three thieves of orient are on our way to a clown show. I have seen my face in the curved brass of the trombone. My forehead and eyes are racing into the distance. My nose is like an ornament on the tree I had to imagine having because I live in Brooklyn, and it is cold outside. My chin is fashioned to a point, like the icicles growing up from the ground. Daisy Mae, when will the daisies arrive?

Hey, what a way to spend an evening? Tomorrow, I will bash my brains against the torrent of dislocated ninth graders, the zombies, the late arrivals, the absentees, the jumped and afraid to come to school, the violently beautiful whiteys and brownies with fake smiles, the real ones, the dope-sellers who make more money than me, the materialistic sons-of-single-mothers, the residents of Flatbush, Crown Heights, &c. They will interrupt me again and again. They will refuse to hear because I am not like them, and they are not like me. What is the point?

I prefer the cage. Fight me. Muscle your way up into the sky. Fly with no wings, human. God did not mean for us to join him in the air. There is a shortage of air. Breathe easy, leave some for the rest of us. Actions speak loudly, but her lack of words is even more compelling. If we’re so free, why am I afraid? Why will my life never amount to more than spent cosmic energy? All these atoms rubbing against each other, causing miniature explosions. I will diminish. Come to your senses, child, and go to sleep. Rest easy in the bed with room enough for your short legs. It is likely we will never cross paths again. When you see me, I will pretend not to see you. Endure in the face of wild men who hiss at their sons and stomp the ground out of fear. That is not my son. That is ungeheuren Ungeziefer—a monstrous vermin. An ambiguous translation. Get me out of here. Banish me to the end credits. Put on your green dress, baby, and dance for me. Make me remember why I am here and where I am going. I’ll do anything you don’t say.

This hasn’t been your day. He never touched me, either. Not that I wanted him to, one knows. I’ll be thirty, thin, neat, and alone. People will assume things about me, but I’ll lay the pistol down. Go ahead; you are not the one about which I am thinking. Her name is Daisy Mae, and she is dying. She has the perfect form. She is the Platonic ideal. I have seen her; she lays with me. We live and die together, into eternal death. Until Jesus comes again. Baby, I am bound by his love. He is the only one who knows me. He wears my skin. He is not in my heart. He did not sacrifice himself for my sins. It is so much bigger than that. He is not in control; no one is. There are no levers left to pull. I cannot move the world, so why bother? The world moves me, baby. And I will come back to this, years from now; I will decide whether to hang onto the file. Or I will sweep it into the recycling bin with the rest of my crumpled-up dreams, never seen, never lived, never made into movies or musicals. Tik Tok goes the clock—dot, dot, dot, BOOM! Such a bad ending. They could have resolved it better. I AM UNSATISFIED.

Do you mean to say he died the morning of its first preview performance? Do you mean he never got to see what he accomplished? Better dead, I guess, than to live on and be famous. I want no one to know my name. I want to be left alone. I am Outis (Οὖτις). Call me by your name, Nemo. Denounce me, Poe, like you denounced H. W. Longfellow in the Evening Mirror. I only had one eye, but the raging lunatic poured the wine, and I kept drinking. Then, his men pierced me with the red-hot timber, and now I cannot see. My father will avenge this evil deed if only he ceases his hissing and stomping. Read this aloud. Whisper and shout. Go to bed, baby, and wake me in the morning.

The Edge

3 October 2021, 14:59

Crouching on the very edge
I will say
That the Bible could be entirely
Made up
And when I die, I might become
Food for worms
And nothing more.

I do not believe this is true
Or at least
I have to hope with all my marrow
That it is not
For if I slipped off this edge
It would be
Into a dark and dreary chasm
Of uncertainty.

Hell, I am already uncertain
Of most things
Save for this—

Verum esse ipsum factum What is true is what Is made We are real not because we Observe reality But because we, image-bearers Invent reality In great waves of poetry.

Student | Teacher

24 September 2021, 16:47

I broke up a fight today. Welcome to Brooklyn. I broke up a boy beating a girl. Beating her into lockers, beating her arms, and beating her face. I broke it up by wrapping my arms around the boy and turning him into my empty classroom. I let go of him, and he sat in the chair behind my desk.

“This is why I don’t come to school!”

I spoke to him calmly and told him to breathe. I asked if he could maybe tell me what happened. He didn’t say much. His friend walked in.

“Are you Gucci?” asked the friend.

“Yeah, I’m Gucci. Man, this is why I don’t come to school.”

I wanted to get in his face. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout profanity, and I wanted to be silent. Then he left my room and paced away as if nothing had happened. The girl had been wrenched into another classroom by security. She was shouting. She was injured, and the other staff called for a nurse.

Welcome to Brooklyn. Funny smells and garbage everywhere. Lots of people who don’t look like me. Lots of people who don’t speak like me. Two hurricanes in my first two weeks being here. I arrived on 15 August, so it has been over a month now. Don’t stop. Don’t edit. Just keep moving forward. This is a linear exercise. You don’t need to think to write. Just move your fingers. Just move your fingers until something comes out. Hey, you’re stopping. No, just read and write and write and read and listen to the jazz—the trumpet and the drums and the piano. FREEWRITE until things start to make sense and the garbage in your head is safely on the page where it cannot infect your head.

I am experiencing stress. So much to do. So many emails and PowerPoint slides and papers and things to take care of. No resolution or time to breathe. Barely time to eat lunch. I am behind, and the school is remembering how to do things in person. It is a slow process, one for which I am trying to give myself grace. Act like you know what you’re doing. Act like it’s acting school, and you are your own coach. (I’ve never been to acting school.) Keep acting and step into the fight when…

“Well, we can’t let them kill each other. But if you get hurt by intervening, then the union is next in line to ask questions.”

Welcome to Donne’s world of canonizations, songs about impossible tasks like catching stars and impregnating mandrake roots, and of triple fools. Welcome to your first class at the prestigious New York University, a class on poetics and the landscape of literary theory. Emphasis on the theory; more of a side note, really, on the poems. Remind me—what are the theories worth studying? Which are in vogue? Is it Formalism or New Criticism? Not the former, but remnants are doing the latter. Is it structuralism or post-structuralism? Aporia (eureka!)—he’s a skeptic, wanting counsel and questioning everything. Burning the system and waiting until the last second to exit the flaming vehicle of deconstruction. Is there anything valuable about this way of thinking? If one never bothers to rebuild, does it not, soon after, devolve into chaos and anarchic interpretations?

Milwaukie Drake

24 November 2019, 16:10

Is it smog or fog? I can’t really tell. Though the weather app on my phone places the AQI at 75, or “Moderate.”

When I was younger, tiny water droplets and ice crystals suspended in the air just above the surface of fields, roads, and hills were emblematic of winter in Helvetia, Oregon. Fog that didn’t exist on the Sunset Highway appeared as soon as you took exit 61 and drove a few miles north towards my home. Helvetia Road – especially the three-quarter-mile stretch with Elmer Grossen’s land on the west and the intersection of Phillips Road heading east – could be spooky. Low-lying clouds which blocked the infiltration of high beams burned off by noon and were back by dark.

Then I moved to China, where some days you couldn’t see farther than 15 meters because of the smog. GROUND-LEVEL OZONE, PARTICLE POLLUTION, CARBON MONOXIDE, SULFUR DIOXIDE, and NITROGEN DIOXIDE. (Thanks, EPA.) Some of my students wore surgical masks, though often as a fashion statement, first, and a shield, second. And when I showed them a picture I took of the obscured apartments across the way, they laughed. “Oh, the Chinese government can control the weather. No big deal.”

It’s not funny. I was serious, and I think they got the point.

What’s my point?

I’m worried that what used to be fog is now smog. That the air I breathed as a child is becoming less breathable. That Oregon, known for her Pacific Beauty, will turn invisible. I USED TO BE ABLE TO SEE THE MOUNTAINS. Now, they are a hazy outline in the distance.

I’m worried that I don’t quite cut it as a middle school teacher. The irony of my position is fragrant. For a year, I volunteered with WyldLife in Corvallis and found myself struggling to keep up. The other leaders were way too cool for me. The kids were way too cool for me. In the end, I concluded that I just wasn’t enough fun for them. Now, it’s my job, and I have to unravel all the conclusions I had about middle schoolers and rewrite the code of my brain. What do they think of me? Do I care what they think of me? If I don’t, should I care what they think of me?

It was a rough week. They opened my eyes to the delicate nature of INTERACTIONS. Watch what you do, what you say. Be cautious, always. Of course, I understand why. And I agree, mostly, with their reasoning. But I have questions. I have counterpoints. I have my thoughts. Most of all, what is the RULE OF LAW, and WHERE IS IT WRITTEN? I’m sure I’m merely uninformed. And I know it’s not an excuse, but nobody told me, explicitly, what could and couldn’t be done. It’s a steep learning curve I’m on. I’m not sure I belong. I doubt myself often. I fear the results of failure.

On top of all this, I was sick. Couldn’t hardly breathe out of my nose, and my throat was a fountain of phlegm for three days.

It was a rough week. But grace abounds, and God is good. When I’m weak, he is strong.

Milwaukie Waterfront

The Place Where He Belongs

May 29, 2019, 20:08

He’s 5,784 miles away from home. He has $8,792 to his name (and a little more on the way). He does have a shirt on his back. He’s not taking a train home—he can’t. There’s an ocean between him and home. He’s taking a plane. Delta, niner, niner: he’s coming home. Four days. Three. Two. One. He leaves on Sunday in the afternoon, and he arrives on Sunday in the afternoon. The flights and layover almost perfectly make up for the 15-hour time difference.

It is humid, and he has mosquito bites on his scalp. It’s about the only place they could land last night, as his arms and ankles were under the covers. He woke, sweaty, twice. He did not sleep well. It was hot, and the unit in his bedroom pushes around stale air and not much else. It is old and out-of-date. And his mind was moving. Fast. Tick. Fast. Tock. Breathe. Tick. Slow. Tock. Empty yourself. Think of nothing. Sleep. No, I cannot. Sorry. Peace, Montag, peace. Take your troubles outside. Burn them and repent. Turn away from the books and the work and the pleasure—better yet, lay them on me. Give me your thoughts and desires and strivings. Lay them on me, and I will make your burden light. Sleep. Peace, Montag, peace.

He is grateful for a bed in a too-hot room. He is grateful for monthly wages even if those wages make him poor. He is grateful for the Bible app on his tablet that reads the gospel to him in the mornings while he eats breakfast and makes notes. He is grateful for a gym where he can exercise and stay healthy. He is grateful for the beauty of humans. For their grace. For their passion. For self-control. He wonders, though, to what end does he sacrifice the many hours of weight-training? Is it to improve the look of his body? Is it for the endorphins? His sanity? Is it to attract a girl with similar dedication? And what would happen if he gave it all up? He would undoubtedly have more time for other things. He could read more. He could write more. He could play more music and compose more poetry. Instead, he fills his ears with podcasts and strains his muscles in front of mirrors and other men.

Beyond the Finish Line

May 17, 2019, 20:45

Be a little careless. I’m done, almost. I taught my last class for Shanghai Normal University Tianhua College today. I don’t know how it went. My eyes are closed. I am typing. I think it went well. They gave me applause when it was all over. I collected their final essays on the similarities and differences between China and America. Then, they evaluated me via QR code and cellular device. Thanks, Huawei, for letting the Party plant their tendrils into your tech company and for staying out of America. Even though your phones are less expensive and better than the alternatives, we’d rather you didn’t do business in the land of the free and home of the brave. We don’t like Big Brother. We’d just as soon snuff out his lies and oversight and central planning and inner party.

I don’t know how it went. I don’t know if they’ll ever do anything about the things I said. Do you care? I asked. No, they answered. And that’s what I expected. Most of them won’t care. They’ll enjoy the comfort and the full stomachs and the education and the healthcare, but they’ll turn a blind eye to the past and present evils of their government. Evils? Tiananmen, Taiwan, Tibet: The Three T’s that you’re not supposed to talk about. When I did, Selina, a student, pointed at the cameras in the classroom to remind me that everything I say and do is recorded and watched, maybe. I know, I said. I don’t like it. The cameras are not there for safety, for accountability. The cameras are there so you stay in line. So you don’t cross the Party. So you don’t say anything that could even be remotely construed as “anti-China.” But go ahead, say all the anti-American things you want. We don’t mind. There are microphones, too, somewhere. At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know that I’ve seen them. But they are there?

This is The Information Age. Data, Data, Data. Digital everything. We’ve got stuff flying at our eyeballs constantly. If we are to be critical thinkers who engage society and culture in a meaningful way, we need to learn how to parse that information for ourselves. We need to learn to separate appearance from reality by relying on authentic evidence from trustworthy sources.

Who can we trust?

People are dishonest. They tell lies to protect themselves. This happens at a small, personal level AND at a big, societal level. Here are some historical lies: Hitler and the Jews, Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. We know that people in power are prone to making big mistakes. We know that people in power sometimes hide the truth or just plain lie to cover up their mistakes. How should we respond?

Do you care?

Are you moved?

To what extent?

Will you think?

Will you talk?

Will you act?

So say the students: No, we do not care. Most of us, anyway. We are not moved. To be moved is a risk to one’s safety. I’d rather stay ignorant. I’d rather not care. It’s safer; it’s more comfortable. Some of us—say, two or three in a class of thirty—are moved. We will remember the things you’ve said. We will not forget how you made us feel. We will miss you. We love you. I love you too, I guess. Though, I pity you. I pity myself. I am small and insignificant. What can I say? What can I do? I’ve enjoyed teaching and learning from all of you. You are bright, young students and you can do great things. I hope something stirred in you this semester. I hope you found something I said to be uncomfortable.

Big Ideas:

  1. Carpe Diem! But be smart about it. (Dead Poets Society)
  2. Am I in a cave? I don’t know. (“The Allegory of the Cave”)
  3. Be careful who you trust. (Research & Final Essay)

That’s all folks!

Until next time, Mr. Rogers. Adios. Zàijiàn.

Careless

March 8, 2019, 13:15

Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless. Sink into the nostalgia, and all of a sudden, miss the times you spent in the campus living room, the room with a piano and couches for dozing and tables for writing essays. Miss it like you’ve never missed it before. Wish you could go back, then know you cannot. Know that where you are is where you are, and where you’re going is a great mystery. Could it be that you’ll decide to stay? Or will you go home to your family? Soon you’ll have to make up your mind. Another year will pass. They do that. Sometimes slower than you’d like. I want somebody who makes me want to stop time. To be with them and never grow old like the girls in my class who, upon hearing of the day, say: We are not women! We are young forever. But they are 18 and in college; they may act like girls, but they will become women. Sooner than they’d like, they’ll have degrees and jobs and pets and maybe even children of their own. Many of them will teach. I want someone who makes it all stop for even a moment, and I can look into her eyes, and she can look into mine, and we can be silent, still, knowing each other amid our broken skin and graying hair. Stress relief, hear the damper and the resonance of Goldmund. Compose your own threnody to the dead, a wake for the very first time. Improper pronouns making noises. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, the person you didn’t know you’d be. Of course, it’s really all things that make you that person. Take me. Take on me. Take me to the city of green and gold or the cabin by the river where does drink their fill. Stand me up in their midst, a stag. A patronous made to fend off the darkness between moments. I want to protect you. I need to be protected, myself. If I stumble into the darkness, I am naked, dumb, and blind. But if you are with me, I have no fear or shame. I am comforted, even when my skin breaks and my hair recedes and vanishes. I recede. I draw back from the honor and thanks given to me for my excellent teaching and organizational skills from September 2018 to January 2019. Thank you, Mr. Ye and Ms. Hu, for your honor and thanks and the cash bonus. All I did was keep my desk clean and do as I was told. I didn’t argue as much as I could have. I didn’t die on that hill. Instead, I died on my way to the gym. I drank too much bad air and fell flat on my face. But my legs kept going, stepping on the cracks. Running past the restaurants, the hotel, the park, and into the nest of eagles. They bore me away to the land of Rohan. There, I took from the Riders their finest and most regal of horses. He, in turn, bore me through the Lilly pads and to the Mirrormere. Dismounting, I walked up to its banks. They showed me a pale reflection of myself. They, being the banks. I asked for a withdrawal, but they said they had no money. So I dove into their vault, only to find the edges of creation and a stream of never-ending consciousness. O! How insecure he was! So dependent on the approval of others. A leaf falls on him, and he shrivels. Fragile boy! You’ve made it in the nick of time. Climb out of the box for a time. See what there is to see. Soothe your mind with beautiful piano and ambient tones, let go of all your cares and trouble. Just type. Don’t stop. Don’t try to think. Be a little careless.

DOWNTOWN!

February 26, 2019, 20:47

Deep breath as you figure out what to say before you say it. Dang, sorry Mr. Elbow, I forgot. That’s not the point of this exercise. I’m in Exodus. Moses, speak up. I can’t, Lord, my lips are uncircumcised. What?

Beautiful day today by Shanghai standards. A nice walk to work with Phil Wickham in the ears. Phil is my friend (we’re on a first name basis—he said as much at his concert last summer).

The Great Road separating The Great Cities.
The north gate of TianHua.
Looking down.

My first class slept through my first class. They were told it started five weeks from now. They were told wrong. I’ll have the communication breakdown, please.

My second class has one boy, and his name is Matthew. He’s losing his hair, and his mom is a Kindergarten teacher, like the rest of the students will be, assuming they stay put long enough to graduate. They should, being nice and well behaved.

I like early education students: they are kind and listen well. Not that they have a say in the matter of their chosen discipline—likely it was chosen for them. It is difficult to know who actually signed on for the task out of intrinsic interest and not extrinsic pressure to conform.

Welcome to China.

After work, the Tianhuogs went DOWNTOWN! on EIGHT-HUNDRED CASH, THAT’S A HELL OF A DEAL. We PULLED UP, MOPED TO THE VALET and went to the top floor of Robinson Mall for MY SEAT IS LEATHER and hot pot. Then, WITH A BALANCE THAT WILL KEEP HER SAFE, we paid eight yuan for ten minutes in a massage chair. After that, GET OFF MY MULLET and a chocolate Blizzard from DQ. Finally, MOPED LIKE A BULLET in the dark and in the rain back to our apartment. DOPE, I said, GOING 38 km/hr while trying to RUN THE STREETS, BOY.