Happy Thursday, you cooky-nutters (trying something new, sue me).
It was my birthday yesterday. Not bragging, especially since 26 isn’t exactly a landmark birthday, just layin’ down some context. For more context: when I was sixteen, I went to go see ‘Inglorious Basterds‘ with my Jewish uncle (which was a pretty rad combo). Sometime around then, if not a little before, he had a birthday (I know, almost like we all get one) and I’d asked him how he spent it. “Oh, slept in a little,” he said, “picked up the house, took myself out to brunch, got a haircut, and went and saw a movie.”
“That’s it?” I asked, fifteen at the time.
He let out a big, happy sigh and just said, “Yup.”
And since then (since I was about nineteen, actually), that’s been the model birthday I’ve loved most. So yesterday, I slept in a little, took myself out to brunch, went to the library, worked on a story outline, and bought a book. The book in question: “Why Does the World Exist?” by Jim Holt. In short, so far it seems like an exploration of that at once utterly inchoate and distantly profound question. It brought me back to my own angsty wrestling matches with existentialism (the type I’m sure we’ve all either passed through or at least referee’d once or twice), and it made today’s post seem pretty appropriate.
This one started on the drive to work one fateful morning.
One thing that should be noted…well…like…have you seen ‘500 Days of Summer?’ You know how at the very beginning, the beautiful Joseph Gordon Levitt is all, “This is a love story, but they don’t end up together in the end” n’ stuff? (Fun fact: That’s the fifth ‘500 Days of Summer’ reference I’ve made this week.) Anyway, I say it because I want you to know something here at the top: this thing is unfinished. As in, truly. Does not have an end. It ends abruptly in the middle of conversation. I’d had plans a while ago to shape out an ending where Danny waxes about a dream he had wherein Milo Yannopolis chases him around one night, Terminator-style, and he uses a block party and a sympathetic sheriff to…y’know, we’ll just finish it up in a future post.
Okay. Cool. As you were. * ahem *
Little Lion Man
Danny sat in the pallid gray light that came through the cafe window that rainy September afternoon. They let him smoke so long as he left the window cracked and business was slow. He took a long drag and tapped out the ashes onto his napkin. As he let it out through the window, he ran his fingers through his thin hair, half-massaging his scalp while the nicotine coursed through his veins. He put the cigarette out in his napkin and held up a pausing finger while he took a deep drink of coffee, preparing to speak.
Lloyd sat patiently across the table from his brother, a slight irritated pursing of his lips while he waited for Danny to finish his cup. “You should have let me take the umbrella,” he said. “It wasn’t even raining when you left.” Lloyd motioned to his jacket which morosely hung dripping by the front door.
“I had a feeling it would.”
“Ah, well maybe that precognition could’a gone to buying two, or maybe calling me down here sooner. What’s this all about anyway?”
Danny laughed to himself and pointed across the table. “That’s the question, isn’t it?”
Lloyd’s face contorted with confusion at the statement. “The fuck does that mean?”
“I just don’t understand this.”
“What?” Lloyd muttered. “Understand what?”
“I don’t understand this,” Danny repeated, punctuating the statement with hands motioning to the surrounding air. “I don’t understand what this is all supposed to be or be for and I keep going back and forth on whether I’m okay with it or not.”
Lloyd readied a quip in reply to his brother’s nonsense, but on a second thought, left it unsaid.
“It used to be,” Danny continued, “I would just say I was feeling contemplative, right? Lately, lately it’s more like I’m coming up for air after being denied breath for a time, or like I’m finally waking up but I was never asleep.”
“Poetic,” Lloyd said simply.
Danny chuckled under his breath. “You remember that trip to Yosemite that Sam and I took?”
“Well, in a lot of ways, it was the same when we went there. She’d tell the story a bit different, but when we made it to the top of the Upper Falls I went to look over the edge and she about lost her mind. You know, telling me to ‘back the hell up’ and ‘Jesus Christ Danny you’re gonna fall’ and stuff. She hated it but I shrugged her off and leaned to get a real look at the valley floor. The trees were so small they just looked like bristles on a brush. There’s no guard rail so I got to sit down and hang my feet over the end, lie back, and just feel the wind and sun. It was so beautiful to just kind of meditate and really feel where I was, y’know?”
“I’ve been before. It’s nice and high up for sure.”
“Exactly. When you look over the edge, it’s twenty-six hundred feet – that’s half a mile straight down. And maybe it should have, but it didn’t scare me. I told her then what I still believe now, which is that the full gravity of the height didn’t settle on me for some reason.”
“Because you’re an idiot.”
Lloyd motioned a bow with his head and hand.
“Not you. Thank you,” Danny said again, to the waitress refilling his coffee cup.
“Could I,” Lloyd ventured with an embarrassed smile, “perhaps get one of your lovely raspberry scones to go with my refill?”
“Of course,” the waitress replied sweetly.
“Thanks. Anyway,” he said returning to Danny, “you were saying?”
“Yeah. Looking down I guess I was more fascinated, really mesmerized, at the view of the valley than I was cautious. I just couldn’t grasp the idea of the sheer height I dangled my foot over and what a misstep would mean. I couldn’t fully grasp it. I was too focused on everything I was feeling.”
Lloyd ponderously chewed his freshly delivered scone as Danny continued.
“When I get in these moods now, it’s similar.”
“Like, as far as we know, this all exists. You and I exist. Can you really tell me that you understand that? That you have a fully realized, thorough underlying comprehension of that idea? Just physical existence in general. A comprehension so thorough that there are no further angles to explore.”
“I’d have to understand you first.”
“We have names for the things around us. We presume too much. Just look around as if you don’t have a name for it, as if you’ve never seen it before, like it’s completely alien to you – no attached association for function or purpose or origin, totally new.”
Lloyd finished another bite of scone and leaned back in his chair, examining the cafe space acutely. “I see,” he began, “several odd wooden arrangements, squares of stone laid out decoratively about the floor, and a lovely young female that…oh, clearly goes to Pilates.”
“You could almost take it serious,” Danny said, his expectant smile belied the tone of disappointment.
“I just don’t know what you want from me on this,” Lloyd said, laughing.
“Some company, I guess.”
“In this misery of yours? Would you shut that damn window!”
“More or less, yeah,” Danny answered, closing the window. The rain was starting to pick up again outside. “I’m just starting to feel these ideas beginning to strangle me a bit. It’s that squirming feeling you get when you can’t remember a song title or the name of an actress, the ones you can feel rip you apart until you have it. Except, I can’t just Google this. This is something there isn’t an answer for. Everyone has their explanations, for sure, but nobody has solid answers.”
“Huh,” sounded Lloyd through his last bite of scone. “This really has you turned around, doesn’t it? You been sleeping alright? Everything not okay at work or something?”
“Work’s been…interesting since about a week ago.”
“Oh God. What now?”
“It’s just something stupid.”
“Usually is. What happened?”
“I challenged a friend and coworker to out me.”
“To out you?”
Danny grunted a sigh while he searched for an explanation. “A few months ago, we got into a long, deep chat while trying to kill time during one of our shifts and-”
“This story have a point?” interrupted Lloyd.
“You’re the worst goddamned audience member, you know that?” Danny pitted his lips and held up a finger to preemptively silence his brother’s protest. “Anyway, we talked about evolution because I mentioned Darwin and it came out that I don’t quite believe the popular theory.”
“Told you that shit would get you in trouble, didn’t I?”
“But why should it?”
“It makes you too friggin’ contentious.”
“People could have and in fact did say the same thing about today’s world religions at their origins or Darwin in his day. Not that I’m at all a comparison, but why should it be wrong to not subscribe to something you don’t understand?”
Lloyd shook his head in confusion. “How do you not understand it? We started as soup, to fish, to monkeys, to folks.”
“A classmate said the same thing once. That he’d read the Origin of Species and that it was all plain as day.”
“It is!” exclaimed Lloyd with a laugh and a clap.
“Have you read it?” asked Danny flatly.
“Ah, come on, Danny.”
“No,” Lloyd capitulated. “But the logic behind the theory is all there. The process makes sense.”
“Of course it does!” Danny shouted. The look from some members of the wait staff reminded him where he was. He collected himself and, in a quieter voice, continued. “Of course it makes sense, or else positively nobody would follow it. That doesn’t make it necessarily true. In the end, all thinking follows a path of logic. Scientific theories, mythologies of old, even observations of children all follow logical thinking.”
“You’re saying that the birth of Aphrodite and The Big Bang are on the same level?”
“What?” Danny scoffed. “Alright, yes and no. They’re both explanations for how things came to be, right? I just haven’t been convinced that either of them happened the way they were described. They totally could have been, fuck it, but I can’t say that I know that’s the case. Why is that so wrong?”
“It’s not wrong, really. Just weird. Makes you seem kind of…”
“And isn’t that part of the problem, too? For scientific communities boasting these reputations for being inclusive of new ideas, willing to contest and incorporate them – which, at large, they don’t, by the way. Just ask John Anthony Hopkins – why is it such a high social crime to say you’re not quite convinced?”
“It’s not criminal, Danny. I just don’t see how you can’t be persuaded to give it a second look, you know? Or if not that, then what happened?”
Danny rubbed his temples and ran fingers through his hair. “It isn’t about proposing an alternative. It’s about contesting what we have in front of us. You don’t need to propose another suspect just because the first guy has a solid alibi. Maybe, as the analogical police, you need to reshape your theory of what happened.”
“Kind of a weak analogy.”
“So long as it demonstrates my point, that’s fine. That being, why do we need an alternative? I’d rather live with the comfortable uncertainty of accepting that I don’t know what happened, than to agree to the popular theory in lieu of an alternative. Just, here-” Danny got up from the table and walked over the chalk board on which the available daily brews were written. Using his sleeve, he started erasing the list and picked up a piece of chalk from the rail.
“Hey!” shouted one of the baristas.
Danny quickly brandished his wallet and made a show of depositing a fifty dollar bill in the tip jar. “For the trouble of rewriting it,” he said.
The young man’s eyes widened as he gave a quick nod and went back to his work.
“Now,” Danny said as he addressed Lloyd with the chalk. “Humans have, for ages, used themselves to measure their surroundings. Mountains aren’t big, just as ants aren’t tiny. They just are the size they are. We only describe them and think of them as huge or minuscule because of their relation in size to us, right?”
“I suppose,” Lloyd agreed with a disgruntled sigh.
“Don’t be embarrassed, the shop’s pretty much empty, alright? Just suffer me this.”
Lloyd waved his hand for his brother to continue.
“Then,” Danny pressed on, “consider how goddamn immense the earth beneath your feet is. Try and wrap your head around how freaking gargantuan it is, yeah? Now, if we’re right about where we fit in relation to the other objects in our universe, this-” Danny paused to make a painstakingly small dot in the center of the large chalk board, “is still way too big of a representation of our planet compared to known, or rather visible, existence.”
The Take: Hmm, you know, reading this back for the first time in a few years, I still like it. I’d probably edit down some of the phrasing and workshop the flow a little bit, but I think this was one of my first exercises in a mundane, single-location, dialogue-heavy work. Not so much a story, but a think-piece. Anyway, food for thought, yeah?
Catch ya Tuesday, you beautiful bitches (and ladies).