Friday, February 27, 2009

The Patient

We took our seats at the back of the hospital’s lecture hall as they carted it in on a gurney, though what it was was as of yet not completely clear. It was hard to get a good look at it from my vantage point, concealed as it was behind a thin drawn curtain. What I could make out was but a shadowy outline, the general form of what appeared to be a rounded, semi-transparent case, possibly filled with a fluid of some kind, with something moving, that is to say, floating inside it.

A whole slew of wires, presumably attached the case in some fashion, ran out from behind the curtain and connected up to a small machine positioned on a nearby table, resembling a portable radio with an elaborate, glowing interface, the small patch of light shining brilliant and profound in the darkly lit room.

Out of the handful of lab coat-clad doctors and researchers standing before the small assembled crowd, one eager gentleman with a shock of white hair stepped forward.

“Velcome, velcome, everyone. And thank you for joining us today on dis, a very special occasion. My name is Dr. Verloop, and I ‘ave the ‘umble privilege of presenting to you the latest advancement in consciousness preservation. This device behind me vich my colleagues an’ I ‘ave vorked tirelessly on, spending years perfecting, represents nutting less than a revolution in human consciousness as ve ‘ave come to undastand it.”

Dr. Verloop used the platform to explain to those in attendance, many of whose faces were transfixed by the curious curtain behind him, how the mysterious machine functioned.

He explained how it could maintain the brain’s vital functioning without the need of cumbersome flesh-and-blood encasing. Through the use of specially configured sensors that allowed it to receive incoming sound waves, it was able to then transmit those same sound waves back to the bodiless brain bobbing around safely in its new solid shell compartment. Once received—and this was the part he was most excited about, as indicated by his animated face, broad gestures and booming voice—a counter signal, generated from the electro-induced stimuli, would then be sent out, to create a response which the device could then convert into discernable speech, translated into any of hundreds of different languages. Taken together, this new device would in effect act as the free-standing brain’s ears and mouth.

Some time after the presentation drew to a close, to a rousing ovation all round, I found myself seated in the hospital’s waiting room. With me from the event was a friend from school, a fellow Ph.D. candidate, and our Professor, who had brought us along at his urging, and had since spoken with one of the presenters and arranged for us a meeting, a face-to-face of sorts. A nurse soon appeared and escorted the three of us down a long corridor.

Inside the room, a curtain was drawn around the bed, the device from the presentation arranged behind it in some unseen, undisturbed fashion. The only signs of life came from the voice that echoed through a nearby set of speakers. The voice spoke clearly and precisely in perfectly formulated sentences. Refined really. Its nuanced inflections and authorial tone were like that of a television or radio announcer, only without the self-conscious projecting to a large, generalized audience—to entertain, to capture, to draw in others with a conceited display of elevated oratory. It was a cold voice, computerized. But there was also the hint of something else, something that could almost be construed as human.

My professor, a double Ph.D. in the field of philosophy and critical theory, began by conversing with the voice, engaging it in matters related to everything from history to linguistics to psychology to analytic philosophy. The voice never missed a beat, was there to meet all of his points and opinions with a quick, informed response, and, moreover, had its own share of original knowledge and ideas to impart.

A nurse came in. She leaned in behind the curtain, making a few adjustments before sealing the curtains tight with a sharp flick of her wrist. She played around with a few settings on the machine next to the bed, and as quickly as she had appeared, was gone.


I looked over at my friend and he looked back at me with an expression hard to read but insistent all the same. It was my turn to speak. Nervousness overtook me. I felt something I to this day cannot fully explain. Was it just nerves, being put on the spot like this, or something else entirely? I wish for the life of me I knew.

Or maybe not. Maybe some things are better left unknown, left to operations beyond our honest comprehension. Cosmic strategies long ago put in place, since time immemorial. Who’s to say? Discretion is a tricky mistress. At the time, all I could do was work at a nonexistent itch behind my right ear.

Sudden movement from behind the curtain. A shadow stretched up along the thin fabric and curved along the ceiling. But it was an empty shadow, indistinct; like it was waiting to be filled with something, given form.

I addressed the voice finally, as best I could, in all my scattered incoherence. And it responded in turn. It responded automatically, without much in the way of forethought, its general language sinking back into the soft seas of complacence, the turtle receding into its shell. I pressed on, trying to coax it out, attempting with everything I had to generate some form of meaningful discourse.

It was no use. The voice continued to respond but its pop was gone; the sense of intellectual curiosity it showed earlier had weakened, grown flat, bored. I kept on talking, trying to fill in the gaps, but it was all for naught. Like trying to resurrect the dead, hold up a crumbling structure, as if my words were the pillars supporting a collapsing expanse of impenetrable silence.

I was growing desperate. My words spilled out carelessly like so many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle tossed out at random in preparation of the tedious task of being fitted together into a connected whole. What could be said to correct this, set things straight? Nothing seemed to make sense. I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks causing them to flush as I became acutely aware of the others, my friend and our Professor, in the room with me, the thoughts and judgements they were forming about my performance. My hurried speech, now verging on hysteria, careened forward, word upon word spit out with reckless abandon, toward some unforeseen end at which point—my hope held out in vain—all would be made clear, lucid.

“But what is thought, insight, all the powers of the intellect at your disposal, what is its worth without, without experience. You are limited to yourself and yourself alone. Don’t you see? Without some connection to the world how can you measure your theories, go about implementing them into concrete reality? How can you even conceive of a concrete reality? How can anybody except to be in it, a part of it? This is the point where theory is put into practice, the theoretical measured against the actual. I ask of you now, how can you speak with such certainties about matters that only ever operate within your own mental self-conception? Every theory seems pure and infallible until it inevitably meets with the chaotic, murky waters of life. Life as it is lived not just imagined.”

I cut myself off. Breathless, spent. It had all tumbled out of me at once, out of my control or reason, as if I had been overtaken by a force outside—or even inside—beyond myself.

The room again fell silent.

I waited for something, anything in the way of a response, from either my Professor or my friend or even the maddening figure behind the curtain. No one spoke. The shadow shrunk down from the ceiling like it had been dropped into a hole, a grave. The light from the machine's interface went off and the room was thrown into darkness.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


I am woken up by a group of musicians rehearsing in the next room. There are maybe four or five of them and they are jamming out Metallica songs. They are excited because James Hetfield is supposed to come over later. Other than that I don’t know what they are doing here. I am mad they woke me up. Their presence irritates me. I pass by them in a daze and shuffle upstairs. I am shocked to discover that all my stuff, furniture, books, everything, has been removed. The rooms are empty. The floor is covered in dirt and debris. There are extension cords and wires running down the hallway and through all the rooms. I’m confused. I go into the bathroom. While hanging it out I accidently knock a pile of hot wires into the toilet. They hit the water and come alive like pissed off electric eels. I drop the seat but don’t flush. I go back out into the hallway. My landlord is there. He is not happy about the loud music downstairs. Neither am I, I say, and tell him I’ll make sure they leave soon. He informs me he’s going to be doing some renovations. He is a licensed carpenter and plumber. He tells me the renovations will take four or five weeks, working on weekends, if they are diligent.

I leave my apartment. I go to a movie with a friend I’ve known since we were ten. It’s been about six years since I’ve last spoken to this person. Something to do with a girl both of us liked. I was with her and he wanted to be, I guess, but wasn’t. In their MSN conversations he told her what a big loser I was. Later she printed off these conversations and showed them to me and I took them over to him. He denied having said anything despite the evidence to the contrary I held in my hands. This is what happens. The hazards of life. At the concession, instead of giant watered down sodas and buckets of gooey yellow popcorn they hand out cushions and pillows so we’ll be more comfortable. We take a few and go to our seats. The theatre is very small by average theatre standards. Cineplex’s they’re called now. Everything has gotten so big they now must be referred to as “plex.” Imagine going down to the Bowlingplex on a weeknight and tossing rock hard balls down one of the hundred-and-fifty slicked up hardwood lanes all running the length of a football field to a set of itty bitty pins that resemble a row of bleached white front teeth. Even though it’s a small theatre there are two screens playing two different movies at the same time. On one screen a movie is showing that stars Benicio del Toro as a charismatic political radical not Che Guevara. On the other screen is a comedy starring a chuiwawa or maybe Dane Cook, it’s hard to tell the difference. I’m not sure what part of the audience came to see which movie. After the movie we hang out for a while, then go get something to eat. We have a good time and agree to hang out again sometime soon. I am glad we are friends again.

I go back to my apartment. As I approach my street I see that large crowds have gathered and traffic has been blocked off. Police have been brought in to keep things in order. The reason for the excitement is the Cohen Brothers are in town to direct my home renovations. To get in closer I decide to go undercover. I disguise myself as a telephone booth. I make my way through the people undetected. An officer waves me in, and I’m home. Inside, the renovations are complete. I go in and look around. The apartment has been drastically transformed. For one thing, the walls are red. There are more rooms then there used to be, all of them divided into snug little compartments designed in perfect geometrical dimensions. There is one room that is rectangular like a hallway only it doesn’t lead anywhere. A dead end. Also the floors are on a downward slope so that when you stand in the front hallway you have to brace yourself against the wall so you don’t fall forward. At first I am no at all happy with the new design. Then I slowly start to warm to it. It is a unique apartment, I think. Nobody else has one quite like this one. And besides that, I have a newly renovated apartment and am still paying the same rent as I used to, the Scottish part of my brain says. I tell my landlord I am happy with the changes, I will stay here. We shake hands. He leaves and I go upstairs into a large, perfectly squared room. All my furniture is back, including my bed and desk. I plug my phone in to charge it. I never got to meet the Cohen brothers.

I’m in my new house. I have moved from my old apartment. I’m with a girl. She has dark hair and dark skin and blue eyes that are as big and inviting as her smile. I tell her, where I used to live I was close to the ocean and almost always alone. Now you’re in the middle of the city, she says, and surrounded by people. I know, I say. She smiles at me. I laugh for no reason. I look out the window at the rows of houses along the block and recognize some of the people outside. That night we will go inside some of those houses and drink and eat food and laugh for no reason.

Monday, February 9, 2009

This is a Poem, This is a Place

This is the door that opens wide
This is the hall that fills with light
This is the cat that paws the air
This is the child’s toys left strewn

This is how birds announce the day
This is how sun breaks thru the clouds
This is how trees green in the yard
This is how flowers come to bloom

This is the bed that sags and creaks
This is the tap that drips and leaks
This is the lamp that flickers off
This is the fridge door hung open

This is how cracks form on the pane
This is how dust grows on the sill
This is how silence fills the dark
This is how clocks no longer toc

This is a purpose without aim
This is a will without belief
This is a faith without passion
This is a mercy without love

This is the street where blind men meet
This is the bridge where jumpers leap
This is the field where cold wind blows
This is the spot where lovers go

This is a poem that slips from me
This is a heart that breaks for you
This is a day that runs and fades
This is a night I give to you