Friday, August 29, 2008

Short story

A park. There is a small playground, sand contained within a rectangle of old railroad ties, with a creaking metal swingset and a broad metal tongue of a slide, the kind that burns you when you ride down it in the height of summer. It is not that hot now, thankfully; it is October, the air clear and cloudless blue, crisp and chilly with a slight breeze that childishly tousles your hair and wordlessly bids you draw your light jacket a little closer to your chin. The playground is surrounded by grass, too tall and full of weeds from weeks of neglect since the end of the warm season. Trees farther out in a concentric circle; narrow and tall deciduous trees, light-colored bark and varicolored leaves, some still green, more yellow and brown. Some on the grass below. Beyond that, a baseball diamond, and a paved path meanders around through the trees from the parking lot as far as the edge of the neighborhood, occasionally following a small creek, overgrown with underbrush and icy cold.

A small child is climbing the small fort of the playground equipment, the worn timbers shaking slightly under his heavy, unsteady steps. He is probably four or five, bundled in a coat far too large and too thick for the pleasantness of the sunshine. He pulls himself up the wooden steps, carefully maneuvers the rope bridge, attains the heights of his castle and then slides down, sometimes on his belly, others on his back. Repeats this cycle, endlessly amused. There is sand in his shoes.

His mother, a thin, brown-haired woman of her early thirties, sits nearby on an old park bench. She has dark-rimmed reading glasses and carries a bulky bag, laden with those items which an attentive mother always has in her bag. Kleenex. Granola bars. Her cell phone. A change of socks for her son. She has a crime drama novel with her, but she glances up from it to her son every few seconds, delaying her reading progress. He squeals with the delight of a young child at play and she smiles, making a mental note to run to the store and pick up a few stalks of celery before dinner.

The neighborhood is relatively quiet. It is the kind of morning that is brisk and compelling of silence. The breeze rustles leaves in the trees and pushes them halfheartedly along the grass, and birdsong is subdued, but not unreasonably so. There is a peacefulness here, a kind almost unknown at the airport on the other side of the city. It is a normal airport with normal passengers and a normal food court. One of these passengers finds herself gazing sleepily out the window that looks out over the tarmac, waiting for boarding to begin. Her connection was only a few minutes late. Nothing terrible like that evening spent in Dallas. Three gate changes and five extra hours of waiting, that time. And in Texas. It was nigh insufferable.

The plane, an average-sized Airbus with newer paint and two wing-mounted engines, arrives at the gate. Employees bustle, passengers disembark. Fuel, baggage, food, cleaning. She watches, silently. A lump rises slowly in her throat. It is almost time. She checks her boarding pass again.

“Anne?” She turns her eyes to the young man sitting next to her. He has lowered his book. “You scared?”

Anne sighs, inaudibly to everyone but herself. The lump remains. “Yeah.”

“You've done this a million times before. You made it here already. You know it's perfectly safe.”

“Yeah, I know.”

The young man takes her hand in his, gently, his book now closed. “Look at me.” She does. “I promise you, it will be just fine.” Anne flinches, just barely, at the words, but she sees her hand in his and trusts him. She searches for words, but he beats her to it. “Do you trust me?”

“Yes.” Her breath is short, shallow, painful.

There is a sorrowful look in the young man's eyes, something deep and buried. “It hurts me to see you like this. I love you too much to sit idly and watch you suffer.”

Anne feels a twinge of guilt. “I can't help it, Greg” she manages to whisper.

A woman with a strong Spanish accent is announcing the boarding. Others are already dragging their bags through the gate and down to the plane; Anne and Greg stand, slowly, and join the line. Anne twists the boarding pass nervously in her hands, which are clammy. All that therapy for nothing, she thinks to herself. They board. They taxi. She grips Greg's hand as the plane accelerates down the runway. Take off. The landing gear retracts, the engines are cut back, the flaps pulled in.

Anne stares willfully out the window next to her seat. She can still see the ground from here; look, there is the parking lot of the airport. A highway. A shopping mall, the parking lot still considerably empty. More roads, stores, a McDonald's. The plane rattles, and she draws her breath sharply. Greg takes her hand, squeezes reassuringly. A neighborhood, somewhat wooded. She exhales. A small, nice-looking park. They are banking slightly to the left now. The plane rattles. The plane explodes.

A tremendous explosion rocks the entire plane violently to the left. The smell of smoke, ozone, jet fuel. The plane is spinning about some imaginary axis, shaking and shuddering and filling with smoke. It is falling from the sky. Screaming and crying, the whine of one engine and the frightening mechanical rumbling of the other. Anne is hyperventilating, whimpering. She tears her stare from the sickeningly spinning horizon, looks at Greg. She's not certain she can even see him. Her stomach turns, the disgusting taste of bile stopped high in her throat. The noise is unbearable, and the smell of burning grows by the second. It is getting warmer, and they are falling. Anne squeezes her eyes shut. She prays.

It is suddenly silent. Not the sort of ringing silence that follows an explosion, but utterly devoid of sound. There is no sensation, either. Anne opens her eyes, cautiously. There is nothing but herself and a homogeneous background of white.

Anne becomes aware that she can see her own body as though she was still in it, but that it provides her no sensation except sight. She can hear nothing, smell nothing, taste nothing, feel nothing. To her horror, the skin on her arms begins to blister, then crack and curl as if burning. But she can only see it and think it; there is no sensation. What is happening to me? she asks. Am I dead?

Dying, replies a Voice. It did not come from outside her. It was inside her head. Or, more honestly, coming through her head.

I don't want to die! she protests to the Voice, panic rising in her chest.

If you accept it, you will find peace, the Voice says.

Anne is terrified to find she can't seem to move. There is no reference for movement. Her arms are charred now, and her clothing torn. A deep gash, down to the bone, has appeared in her left leg. She cannot feel it. The Voice anticipates her question.

If you choose to return, you will feel it. It will be immensely painful.

Anne wants to cry, but isn't certain whether she is or isn't. I'm too scared. I don't want to die, she protests again.

Greg desires to stay, the Voice tells her.

Anne struggles with something within herself. That doesn't sound like him, she replies. He would want to be wherever I am. He's waiting for my choice.

You are correct, the Voice states, but he wishes for you to stay.

Anne surveys her body, broken and burned and seemingly detached from her. She feels as though she exists only in panic and this frightening, bleak whiteness. God, I'm not ready, she thinks, finally. What of my family?

There comes a sound that seems to surround her and eminate from her, all at once, almost like a chuckle. It is soothing in a way she cannot explain. That is the Anne I know, the Voice indicates. You are not so selfish, sometimes. Anne can almost sense that the Voice is smiling. Its approval is an inexplicable relief to her.

Where is Greg? she wonders.

Right beside you, if you will really look, the Voice replies. Anne glances to her right, and Greg is there, somehow, right next to her. In fact, their hands are still clasped tightly between them. He is smiling at her.

Anne, I will go where you go, he says lovingly. She doesn't understand how she can hear him. His lips do not move. But his voice is there, and so is he.

What happens now? she pleads the Voice. Again, the enveloping almost-chuckle.

Now, you must choose. I cannot choose for you. The Voice is more stern than she expects. She is still panicky and desires unbearably to relax. She hates not having control. You do have control, the Voice explains. Whatever you choose shall be.

Anne turns again to Greg, who is there and not there; a body and a mind but somehow unreal and distant. He is damaged like she is, but his eyes are clear and bright and assessing, as they are at the best of moments. You're stubborn, he laughs, unmoving. You want to go back.

Sentences ended with prepositions; she hates that. I want to return, Anne corrects him. Then everything is black.

A noise; something distant but growing closer, a repeating beeeep-beep, like an electronic heartbeat. It was beside her now. Anne forced her eyelids to rise, lead weights, both of them. It was an electronic heartbeat; a machine monitoring her pulse. A hospital bed. Voices, disembodied. A searing flash of pain in her leg, and she emitted an uncontrolled, weak and airy yelp, acutely aware of her body now. The voices approach. Not the Voice, but several, distinct, human.

“You're awake,” one says. Anne didn't know, but it was one of the surgeons, the husband of the woman who had witnessed the plane crash from her peaceful park bench.

The word was on her tongue, dry and unpalatable, but she shoves it out: “Greg?”

The voices speak softly amongst themselves. There is paper flipping. Anne drops her eyelids again; the weight of them too much, the brightness of the room exceptional. “He's here,” says another voice. “Down the hallway.”

Anne consciously follows her breathing, in and out, slowly and with tremendous effort. Labored. You're stubborn, she hears him say. And she cries.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Conrad Noel

"When I was a boy, with others I used to sing with hearty delight: 'Jerusalem the golden, with milk and honey blest,' and I fear I thoroughly enjoyed the milk and honey, or rather milk and water tune, to which it was then attached. Both tune and words gave us a 'comfy feeling' and reminded us of that Heaven beyond to which we aspired. But as I grew older I began to feel rather ashamed of my love for such hymns, with the growing conviction that Heaven was not to be sought beyond the skies, but to be brought down from those same skies, and established upon the earth. I began to see what a hell men had made of this earth, and resented their telling the poor to keep quiet here, for all their wrongs would be righted above." - Conrad Noel in "Jesus the Heretic"

Friday, August 15, 2008

Fear of death

To Whom it May Concern:
I am deathly afraid. It is a fear which haunts me even in sleep; it grips the very heart and soul of me and refuses me respite. It is a fear which prevents me from living the life I was - or, at least, believed myself to be - intended to live. It is a fear which shakes my foundations and rattles me to the core, leaving me gasping for breath, palms clammy, muscles taught, jaw clenched, heart pounding. And now I am forced to face my own certain death once again.
Psychologists call it a "phobia." It is irrational at best. I know it is illogical, unreasonable; that it constitutes something within myself that I am completely and totally unable to control. I have a decisive lack of conscious willpower over one tiny unconscious thought, and so that one tiny thought is able to spread fear throughout my psyche as one small drop of yeast leavens the whole loaf of bread. Whatever the cause, the symptoms are obvious.
And so I am writing to request two things of those who know me and would call me friend. I am convinced, due in totality to this unnamed fear, that I will not live to see the sun rise on Monday morning. I humbly ask these two favors, then: that my book manuscript be published, and that my thesis be submitted. If, then, the world awakes to a new week in which I am no longer present, a legacy of me may still exist. Perhaps prideful or selfish, I know, but I fear being unable to complete those works which I have set out to do before my time ceases.
This is the last and most painful wish of a weak and frightened human being.
With all my love,

Friday, August 8, 2008

Shakespeare and sandwiches

Went for dinner with the boys last night, then over to Shakespeare on the Square. I realize that the production of The Merchant of Venice (and goodness, had I forgotten how antisemitic it was!) was not meant to be a highly glamorous or professional one, but - I hate to say it - I was at least expecting costumes. Antonio and his hacks are all played by young Tennesseans who think to be Italian is to be Italian American (think Tony Soprano), but Shylock's performance was decent enough to remind us of which play we were viewing. The evening ended with a pleasant bowl of ice cream before leaving Market Square.
On the way home, the strange topic of "southern" cuisine managed to work its way into the conversation. If you can't coat it in sugar, ketchup (or, equivalently, bar-b-que sauce) or gravy, you can deep fry it. This, for no reason, bid us delve into the strange world of the montecristo sandwich. Now I can understand the frying of individual, quantized, whole objects - a shrimp or a chicken breast or something - but whose idea was it to try and construct a sandwich out of many constituent parts, and then coat the entire thing in batter and fry it as a whole? "We're sorry, sir, it seems like a fine idea, but we build the sandwich and then go to fry it, and as soon as we do, it breaks apart and is no longer a sandwich." Does anyone else see the idiocy of this idea? At some point in time, someone had to engineer a solution that problem. We could be spending our time solving world hunger, but no! - we have to figure out how to keep this sandwich from falling apart when we deep fry it. What a marvel of human ingenuity.
Sometimes I wonder.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Science Rap at the LHC

This is what happens when you let a bunch of physicists make a movie.

CERN Rap from Will Barras on Vimeo.

I love it.