One Too Many

Straggling through a tangle of suburban streets, clarity found me swaying at the brink of some nameless back alley. It was there, teetering at the threshold of strewn refuse and raw sewage, that I caught my first glimpse. A vague shape crumpled limp in the muck, wedged between tarmac and relentless concrete. My bleary eyes blinked and strained deeper into the gloom.

Was it… a person?

A person! The excitement spat and sizzled. People! The grim laneways of my tumbling mind snapped into a technicolor carnival of infinite possibility. Thousands of people! Anticipation crackled high above our heads, raining showers of shimmering silver before our eyes. The beats strolled out warm, wealthy, and luxurious, so we wore them loose like an old pair of jeans. Everyone was here. Everyone was moving. Everyone was fucking amazing!

Though Curiosity teased with her tight swinging curves and swivelling hips, it was the wide eyed Naivete who took my hand in hers. Syrupy sweet euphoria melted over me, and staring into those wild sapphire eyes, I knew in an instant that I would follow them anywhere. Everywhere. To the end of everything and the beginning of forever. The bass kicked up like a long lost friend, and together we romped an audacious path through the tattered edges of reality. Carefree, careless, and utterly carnal, we plunged ourselves deep into the throat of that foul alleyway; as it retched, and spat, and choked, until it swallowed us whole.

I was fool to follow, but the inevitable can be a stubborn mistress.

Then she was gone. The carnival was over. Beneath the dim buzz of burning neon I was alone again. When did she leave? Abandoned to the mounds of rotten filth that lay spattered over cold tarmac, the stench was nauseating. Where did she go? Wind whipped sharp streaks of drizzling rain across my cheeks, and it streamed bitterly from the tip of my nose, rolling over cracked lips, dripping from an unshaven chin, into the rotten swill that washed about my feet. In that moment, I thought this was the end of everything; but it was just the beginning of forever.

At first, I didn’t even recognise him.

Pressed into a brutal angle against the cold concrete wall, he lay just inches from my feet. Unmoving. Was he… Air rushed from my lungs as if squeezed by thousands of invisible hands, but the final dreadful word never arrived. Rigid and awkward he made no sound. Time slowed. Cramps clenched the pit of my stomach, tightening to a suffocating, seeping dread that climbed to my throat with spindled fingers. He can’t be… Terror burst from my chest like a parasite, bringing with it a crushing stampede of primal hysteria. I had to get away. Anywhere. It didn’t matter where, I just needed to run. Run. I’m think I’m fucking losing it.

The body twitched.

My eyes adjusted to the dirty gloom and drew focus. It twitched again. A withered head balanced precariously on it’s rotted stalk, scarred and stained for years beyond what could be natural. I watched in slow motion as cracked lips peeled barely apart, unveiling a swathe of ulcerous sores and cankered gums. Rust-red smears wept slowly down one side of his sharp crooked jaw, while a single clouded eye lolled slowly inside its socket without focus, purpose or intent. Alley-worn and filthy as he was, relief washed me clean with welcome release. He was alive. I snapped from my drifting haze with the weight of reality. He was alive; he was alive, and I had to say something.

“Hey… Man, are… Are you okay?”

A sensation I could not place swept jaggedly up my spine and into conscious thought. Somehow this man was familiar, but I was convinced that I stood before him a stranger. The notion persisted, and my mind circled. How did he end up here? How long had he been here? Was this where he lived? Did he have family? Is anyone looking for him? Who was this man? No sooner had the words formed clearly in my mind’s eye, than his head turned slowly upwards to face me. Him, sprawled at any awkward angle barely alive; me, swaying beneath broken neon like some two dollar saviour.

Our eyes locked, and for a fleeting and fragile moment, time stood completely still. We connected.

An overwhelming barrage of vivid tragedy poured unrelenting from wide open floodgates, drowning my tiny island of reality under wave upon wave of everything and the emotional beyond. Hopelessness. Loss. Grief. Isolation. Failure. Regret. Betrayal. It was all there and more, yet this torrent of unwelcome memories rushed over and through me until I was saturated with sorrow. Then, at the most lucid point of irrevocable climax, came a chain of revelation that I am still unable to understand. Somehow, standing naked and alone at the centre of this collapsing bridge, with angry waves of angst crashing around and above me, it all made perfect sense.

This was the real me.

Not a parallel or alternate me, borne from tangential science-fiction fantasy. Not a Professor Jeckyl kind of me, confronting the irresistible urge to become something monstrous in the name of science. Not a clone, copy, android or simulacrum. No, it was far simpler than that. He was indeed me, and it was I who was not.

Then who was I?

Like a Sackful of Chickens

You might want to sit down and take a deep breath before reading the rest of this sentence, because by the time you reach the little punctuation mark at the end, it means that you have successfully connected to the Internet. Yes, I’m totally serious. You’re using it right now. The Information Superhighway. Cyberspace. The military computer network formerly known as. The World Wide Web. Sort of like The Matrix, but a bit less Keanu Reeves and a lot more Laurence Fishburne.

Of course it’s OK to be excited.

The first thing you should know is that your amazing new Inter-majiggy doesn’t really have much of a user manual. Well technically it does, but the current version consists of about one hundred million pages, loosely scattered over the world, decorated with animated cats, and written in languages designed for machines to read. Sounds awesome right?

Well it is, and that’s why we’re here.

So before you go strapping yourself back into that Gamma Wave Stimulator you bought from the nice man on the telly, here’s your very own handbook. It was made especially for you, and it’s yours to keep foreverever. Once we’ve covered the basics, you’ll be chewing bandwidth faster than we can email pictures of unusual testicles to the same Hotmail address you’ll later spend years begging Microsoft to cancel; but we’re jumping ahead a little bit now. Take as much time as you need, and we can get started whenever you reach the next full stop. See? You’re getting the hang of this already.

Like a sackful of chickens.

The Internet is like a sackful of chickens. It’s cruel. It’s complicated. It’s awkward to conceal at work. Some people would be far better off not knowing anything about it, and to stick your face inside while pouting like a forlorn vagina would be desperately unwise. Yes, the Internet can be used to whip up an outstanding pine nut meatloaf, but no matter how outstanding, meatloaf never tastes the same once you’ve had your lips pecked off by a thousand angry beaks of vengeance.

The world is not connected to you.

You are connected to the rest of the world. The difference between the two might seem subtle, but that’s because it is. Even really smart people get confused thinking about it. Don’t be like the really smart people who get confused, just know that the Internet doesn’t give two half fucks about the name of your family station wagon, that really clever thing you said to some guy at the shops, or the astonishing firmness of your newborn’s most recent stool. If you find this difficult to accept, by all means go right ahead and build yourself a personal web page. People all over the world will snidely smile themselves to sleep at night because of your selfless martyrdom. You will be the Patron Saint of Why The Fuck Would Anyone Ever Do That Dot Com, and acolytes will worship you from afar.

It’s probably your fault.

Unless you have reliable experience, information, or expert advice to suggest otherwise, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re to blame. Whether you clicked the wrong button, didn’t read the message, or collected something untoward at dirtymanbags dot com, it really doesn’t matter. Fact is, you’re not going to make friends and influence people with the old ‘my computer broke itself’ routine. People know you’re lying. You know you’re lying. People even know that you know you’re lying, so just come clean and maybe somebody helpful will stop thinking about the weekend for long enough to listen.

People on the Internet don’t like you.

Look, we get that you’re fun to be around and everything, but the Internet is a pretty big place. Sooner or later, you’re going to discover that some of the nearly 2.1 billion people online think you’re a complete wanker and wouldn’t dribble piss on you if they had a leaky bladder stapled to their face. You may also discover that these same people are incapable of typing using lower case letters, spout slogans popular with white supremacists, and only became your Facebook friend because they wanted to bang your older sister. Whatever the case, don’t let it upset you. These things happen, and it helps us grow as people.

Welcome to The Future.

Well, that covers the basics, but seeing as you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of the page, we’ve added this super-special epilogue so you can show off to all your friends. You can totally read it as many times as you like, but right now we’re going to travel through time in an eighties model sports car. Yes, seriously. Watch your fingers on the gull-wing door. Great.

Here in the future, there have been some changes. Cell phones are digestible. California is a monarchy. Paris Hilton was converted into a hologram for improved depth. And… you’re totally awesome on the Interwebs! That’s right, a future version of the very same you that’s reading this guide right now. Being a helpful sort of person, you devote a lot of time to those less informed than yourself in getting their amazing future computers working just right. Sometimes, after helping those who are particularly demanding, ungrateful, or downright rude, you write condescending, passive-aggressive articles about how to use the Internet.

Sucks to be you.

Our World Is Shrinking

As global population booms towards the fourth stage of demographic transition and a predicted nine billion peak, we still manage to cram nearly four hundred thousand new people onto our tiny planet each and every day. It’s no secret that newborn babies are quite small, but even if we deny all evidence that our global land mass is shrinking, that’s still a whole bunch of baby toys to make room for. Thankfully, some of the brighter crayons in our global box came up with recycling or we’d all be swimming in Duplo by now.

The upside to our rampant population growth is that every day, we create another four hundred thousand minds, complete with unique thoughts, ideas and inspiration to join our humming, thrumming, global human think-tank. With so many active contributors, it’s little surprise that our universal melting pot sustains an uncanny knack for the impressive, the astounding, and the unusual. You know what I’m talking about. Things like teleporting the atom, controlling electronic devices with our mind, or generating electricity just by wearing a shirt. At very least, it seems abundantly clear that the mobile devices we carry near our genitals and press against our heads aren’t adversely affecting our fertility just yet.

So if the idea of thumping out two hundred and fifty new children a minute feels a little cramped for you right now, the cascading social and cultural implications of our postmodern new world order are probably downright claustrophobic. Current thinking suggests that pretty much everything we conceive requires some form of space and time to exist within. This notion could be tangible, such as the physical area a particular artwork might occupy, or metaphysical, like the fleeting moment of inspiration that exists only within the artist’s mind. Both are critically important to human development, and arguably our very existence.

All this talk of space and time delivers us neatly into the grasping hands of our ever incremental globalisation through technology. Using modern science to reduce the physical or metaphysical distance between formerly unattainable experiences or unreachable destinations is what draws together the farthest edges of our humanity. In this context our world is indeed becoming smaller, but have we considered the repercussions as we rush headlong towards some form of technological singularity? As we fill our space and time with exponentially more people, ideas and new things, the gaps between become narrower, and our world becomes smaller. Inevitably we’re left with less physical and metaphysical room to manoeuvre, and like most everything else, culture and identity depend on this space to exist. In equal measure, individuality and originality is best nurtured when free of controlling influence.

If the metaphysical gaps between different cultures become small enough, they effectively share the same space, and it is only a matter of time before each begins to exert influence over the others. Whether this influence is objectively beneficial or detrimental, active or passive, direct or indirect; both entities become entangled through a mechanism of mutual causality. Taking this concept to a conclusive extreme, what if every culture that currently exists became entangled with every other? If we accept that the strongest entities exert the greatest influence, eventually all cultures would mimic the most powerful, or be destroyed then absorbed as a functioning part of the original. Individuality, originality and innovation is replaced with globalised, uniform homogeneity, and human diversity becomes weaker as a result. On the bright side, if complete globalisation brings an end to our potentially miserable, homogeneous existence with a deft precision strike of corporate branded fridge magnets, at least we’d all go out in unison.

While we anxiously await the impending fridge magnet apocalypse, it’s just lucky that our global cultural supermarket remains stuffed full of new things to consume; and as consumers, our choices say a whole lot more about us than just the fine print on our favourite brand of toothpaste. Well, that’s what we’re led to believe, but do any of these choices actually provide a meaningful path towards expressing our true selves? Or are they just the end result of a bland equation where economic dominance delivers better product placement? Do I choose Android or Apple? Should I wear Nike or Adidas? Shall I drink Coke or Pepsi? Am I a Star-belly or Plain-belly Sneetch? And what does that last sentence even mean?

Dr. Seuss’s tale of The Sneetches was penned in 1963 as a parable that satirises discrimination between races and cultures. Although probably never Seuss’ intention, we can draw a surprisingly robust analogy from the plight of his Sneetches, and apply it to questions of modern identity. Like The Sneetches, whether born with stars on our bellies or without, defining and continually re-defining ourselves is an increasingly expensive commercial venture; our choices are not free. Like The Sneetches, prejudice, status, discrimination, and the burning need for acceptance can all drive critical decisions about our identity. Like The Sneetches, people will strive, suffer and sacrifice in a quest to belong, but it’s Seuss’ wily representation of commercialism – namely Mr Sylvester McMonkey McBean, and his money spinning “Star Off” and “Star On” machines – who really win out in the end. Whatever the outcome for The Sneetches, the money is already made, and he smugly rides off into the sunset with a quip about how those Sneetches will never learn. Are we those Sneetches of the beaches? And if so, will we truly never learn?

So after a long day of shopping for our identities, or counter-balancing the semi-automatic birth rate by slaughtering each other over ideological differences,  how else do we choose to occupy our time? If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you’re one of over 1.2 billion social networking account holders, and it probably comes as no surprise that people are talking to each other over the Internet. Multiple accounts aside, this figure is more than a sixth of our current global population, yet doesn’t even begin to touch on the multitude of other methods we could use to interact. The wealthy, the poor, male and female, young and the old, what intrinsic value could such a significant and eclectic group of people all glean from staring at screens or poking fingers at portable devices?

By opening our minds to the full measure of online experience, conversation, expression and interaction, perhaps we begin to appreciate just how diverse, intricate and incredible all the living cogs of our shrinking world have become. While the Internet is hardly a viable nominee for the next Nobel Peace Prize, and it would be laughable to suggest the majority are using our new technologies for solely educational purposes, surely it’s refreshing to entertain the notion that all this online interaction,  no matter how menial,  holds enough value to unwittingly propel us into an era of increased awareness, acceptance and understanding?

If nothing else, it’s a promising thought. Perhaps we should all blog about it?

Another Day At The Office

Mr Bateau rattled away at the old plastic keyboard and the world slid smoothly into the background. Familiarity etched the resignation to his brow. This day was like every other. Productivity was on annual leave, Enthusiasm had left early, and Inspiration called in sick for the third time this week. From time to time a lucid moment muttered down the hallway unnoticed whilst a giggling group of rosy-faced ideas laughed and played over by the filing cabinet. Oblivious to their irritating squeals of delight, Mr Bateau maintained grim focus on the screen before him.

“Coffee!” chimed a melodious voice from the most annoying portion of his mind.
“Now?!” Mr Bateau snapped back. Silence. His edge was sharp. Offering no reply, the melodious voice paused for a moment, then continued in silence. All that remained was the same old vacuum of unanswered questions, and the wear was beginning to show.

More silence, but this time it was significantly louder.

As if on cue a pin dropped. Then another. And another six. In an instant, fistfuls of the pointed protrusions were being flung overhead by pint-sized pin catapults. Hordes of miniature warriors streamed from both sides of the desktop stationary in an increasingly epic melee that quickly spread from telephone, to tape dispenser and beyond. Pairs of pin men duelled across the space bar, while others  wearing bright blue tunics held tight formation behind the stapler. As the pin men fought, bled and died, Mr Bateau typed deftly over, around and between them, ever determined not to be distracted from his moment of diligence.

A particularly dramatic rogue staggered in circles of ever-decreasing diameter, gruesomely impaled on a pin and wailing on a tiny war trumpet without respite. The death throes stretched on for an eternity, but after more than one faux finale, he eventually collapsed for the last time with a gurgling shriek; just as Mr Bateau’s dodging finger jabbed into the point of his protruding pin sword.

The outburst was a hot crimson haze of strobing slow-motion.

“FOR. FUCK. SAKE.”

Mr Bateau beat both closed fists on the desk to punctuate every strangled syllable, and abruptly stood up from his chair for further effect. The pin warriors bounced with each impact as they scattered anxiously back behind whatever cover they could find, dragging the wounded as they went. Silence.

The chair swivelled nonchalantly on it’s own.

Silence. Very loud silence punctuated by tiny little breaths. The clock knocked out a tock that reverberated indefinitely, and Mr Bateau sat back down with intent. He shuffled some papers, massaged his forehead, took a deep breath, then exhaled as he closed his eyes and began to type:

“Mr Bateau rattled away at the old plastic keyboard and the world slid smoothly into the background. Familiarity etched the resignation to his brow. This day was like every other.”

Yesterday

“Can you call the police? I need the police.” Fingers moved to cover the side of his face as the question left his mouth. There was at least a little fear in the youth’s dark brown eyes, though he was far from frantic. Sweat beaded heavily on his brow, as it did mine in the rotting heat of this late afternoon. He looked a little out of breath. Perhaps it was the scarlet nail scrapes across his neck, but he had an uncertainty about him I did not trust.

“I don’t have any call credit” and it was true. “What’s up?”
“He attacked me. This guy. He’s sitting over there…” I looked over to where the youth was pointing and sure enough, on the far side of the oval a distant figure in a cream shirt was seated in a seemingly relaxed position on the grass. He was looking in our direction, but was too far away for me to make out much detail. It was clear that the youth was flustered, and I had no doubt that he was slightly injured, but I remained cautious.

“So you got away right? There is a police station just around the corner…”
“But my little brothers are still in the house,” he blurted. With a near audible twang, my heart strings bounced back into place. That phrase snapped my thought process from one of vague Samaritan interest to a growing concern that knotted my gut and pounded my heart that little bit harder.

“Hang on – what house?”
“My house.”
“Where?”
“Up on the corner. He might go back there and bash my little brothers too. That guy was in my house and just went psycho. I don’t even know him. He nearly broke my fucking nose”. I looked to the youth again. By now he had pulled his hands away from his face. Sure enough his nose was an angry red and slightly swollen. Sensing that I was looking to him for proof, a controlled grimaced flashed across his face while one hand went to the bridge of his nose for effect. I don’t think he realised at the time, but I was caught off-guard by the new information far more than the clumsy ruse for sympathy. The effect however was the same.

“OK. We’ll call the police. I think I can call emergency numbers.”

As I fumbled to switch off the mobiles’ in-built MP3 player, I could hear it belting out a breaks remix of an old Yes tune from the ear buds that dangled like a noose in the afternoon breeze. Quickly unplugging and tucking them safely away in a pocket, I dialled 000. When I heard the line connect and start to ring, I passed the youth the phone while watching him carefully and keeping tight grip on the lanyard to which it was still attached. I still didn’t trust him, twanged heart-strings or not.

“Fuck! He’s heading back up to my house!”. The youth scrabbled back my phone to my hand – still ringing – and took off towards the corner of the main road to which I had been originally heading. He only stopped briefly to kick apart a small jaundiced table – left as roadside junk – and grab for himself a full arm-length piece, testing it for weight as he ran. Christ, the kid wouldn’t have been more than sixteen. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I looked across the oval, and the man dressed in cream stood up and moved quickly away from us and toward the main road behind him. In a mild panic, I hung up the call and jogged towards the corner with more urgency than I would have liked.

The house the youth spoke of was a little way further down the main road and as I approached, he was standing in the centre island; make-shift wooden club by his side so as to shield it from the afternoon traffic. I noticed a younger boy, likely in his early teens clambering over the roof of the house in question and his older brother called out to him:

“Where is he?” The boy on the roof pointed to the back corner of the house and waved a glinting sliver mobile phone in the humid air so his brother could see it from his vantage point in the centre of the road. “Call the police!” he shouted across the dull drone of the passing vehicles. Nobody stopped or even slowed. It was then that a third and younger boy – of not more than eight or nine years old – walked gingerly from the front door of the house towards us. He was barefoot and still had the rosy red glow of an innocent beaming from beneath his tanned skin. I breathed an inner sigh of relief that the child seemed unharmed. By this stage I had crossed the first two lanes of traffic and was now standing next to the older youth in the median strip.

“So where did this guy come from?” I asked, keeping my gaze fixed on the driveway.
“He’s our neighbour. He just went schizo at me. He’s a schizophrenic”. Alarm bells rang. Hadn’t he told me earlier that he didn’t know the guy? Things weren’t matching up, but for a moment I doubted my own hearing which is average to say the least. After a confusing pause of indecision I took a subtle step away from the youth with the club. He didn’t notice as he was busy shouting to his brother who was two lanes of buzzing metal away.

“Go get my sword!”
“Which one?” the youngest of the three shouted back unfazed.
“The short one… And call the police!”. The child turned back into the house.

This was rapidly escalating to ridiculous. A boy with a club that was soon to be a sword? Delivered by an eight year old? To defend himself from a schizophrenic neighbour? In broad summery daylight? On a median strip with mid-week traffic pouring around us? I paused to allow Bruce Willis or Wesley Snipes enough time to combat-roll cameo into the scene, but neither showed. Instead, the youngest re-emerged from the house carrying – surely enough – a shining silver machete that sent sharp shards of light across my eyes as I squinted. I shielded my face as much to hide my astonishment as to reflect the light. The child carried it much the same way as his brother held the club – by his side, point down – suggesting he had received some instruction as to it’s proper handling. It was a sword alright and looked pretty fucking dangerous to me.

“Is he medically schizophrenic?” I asked as casually as I could manage. My guess was that man in cream wasn’t schizophrenic at all, but I wanted clarification on that teenage turn-of-phrase so I could review my options for calling help should the need arise. No answer.

“You know how to use that thing chief?” I continued, eyeing the sword steadily. “Walking into battle with a weapon you don’t know how to use will only get you killed”. The olive-skinned youth didn’t seem at all worried by the concept, and still did not answer. I tried a different tack, “Besides, I finished calling the police before and you’ll get busted if they catch you carrying that around in public.”. It was an out and out lie of course, something I am neither particularly good at nor fond of, but it was all I could think of at the time and seemed well delivered enough to elicit a response. He turned to me abruptly.

“Well what else can I do?”

As the youth sent me that fiery stare well beyond his age, a trillion appropriate answers flashed through my head quicker than I could grasp any of them. Once again, he had dumbfounded me. Despite my urge to diffuse the situation, I was in way over my head. I had as little idea of how to appropriately deal with this circumstance any more than this youth was trained to wield a machete. Besides which, the child had now crossed the road and handed the blade to him, and up close it was clearly of ludicrous proportion. Enough was enough and I began to back away slowly, ready to make a break if he should decide to use it on me instead.

“I’m going to kill that fuck. He nearly broke my fucking nose.” He touched his face again as if to make a point. I could hear the frightened fear in his voice change into one possessed with red-blooded anger and the smouldering heat of revenge. Time for me to exit. I am not a warrior.

“Call the fucking police!” was the last thing I heard him yell, though I am still not sure if it was to me or either of his brothers. I crossed the road through a welcome gap in the streaming traffic and walked away quickly; turning regularly as I moved, mainly for my own safety, but also to satisfy the niggling need to know there had been no confrontation as yet.

I cannot claim to know a great deal more, but my last view before turning the next corner of my brisk walk home was of the youth clambering over the high chain-link fence to the oval while the man in cream (wearing light coloured shorts, thongs and sporting a flowing blonde mullet-cut) negotiated the last two lanes of traffic in hot pursuit. I checked today’s paper for news of an assault, murder or divine intervention and found nothing. I also checked Stephen King’s web site to make sure I hadn’t somehow become embroiled in a gripping lead up to the climactic slaughter-fest from his latest novel. This wasn’t Derry, Maine.

So where were the parents? Was the man in cream one of them? Who was at fault? Where did that big fucking sword come from and how did the child know how to handle it? Did anyone get hurt? Should I call the police? So many questions bounced through my mind on that long walk home. I have neither the means nor the need to be responsible for everyone in this world, but still couldn’t help but feel multiple pangs of guilt over both my action and inaction alike.

Roll on the Apocalypse.