Radical Responsibility

Jean stood in front of me to block my exit from her dining room.  I had rented a room in her house during my second year of grad school.  She said, “You told me that you’d call once you got to Pennsylvania.  You didn’t.”  I had just moved out after graduating from the University of Delaware to rejoin my wife in State College.  But I had to return one last time to Newark, Delaware to clean up loose ends.  Meeting Jean was one of them.

Jean demanded an apology.  I didn’t remember promising a phone call, but my former landlord and part time art mentor was damn sure I had.  I came up with a few excuses invented on the fly, and gave her a lukewarm apology.

She didn’t buy my routine.  She gave me the following instructions instead:  “When you’re wrong don’t explain and explain and try to weasel your way out.  Just say you’re sorry!”

I took what she said with a grain of salt as she had never once acknowledged any wrong doing on her part in the two years I’d known her.  She’d accused me of misdeeds I hadn’t committed, and had vented her spleen (at my expense) on a several occasions.  She hated men as a matter of principle, and the best compliment she gave me was, “You’re not a man.  You’re a person.”

But she never weaseled, justified, or blamed anybody else for her actions.  She claimed them…

I’ve recently been reading about the Stoics, a group of Greek and Roman philosophers and statesmen, who believed in responsibility.  They stated that there are few things that we can fully control beyond the choices we make minute by minute.  They suggest that a person can become virtuous by owning the results of their thoughts and actions. Good individuals can elect, in the face of uncertainty and malevolence, to do what they consider to be right.  They don’t blame circumstances or the influence of other people for their mistakes.

Psychological research tells us that unconscious impulses, biological drives, and social mores direct our behavior.  In some ways, our personalities are products of heredity and cultural indoctrination.  Our personal history, family traits, and worldly influences can be blamed for our misdeeds.

But we give up a lot of power if we take the escape route of passing blame.  We cede control over our lives when we center responsibility outside ourselves.  How can we grow into our best selves if we are nothing but puppets and victims of fate?

It’s easier to live as if we are puppets, of course, and being weak can be addictive.  A familiar form of melancholy settles in when we accept the lowly and defeated state of our existence. But isn’t this a shadow life?

The only form of fulfillment we can gain is by taking responsibility for ourselves, by striving to see ourselves clearly and to make changes.  Life takes on a new sense of purpose when we look at our circumstances as sources of challenges, challenges that teach us to be better persons.

 

 

 

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A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 4

2036 (New Standard Timeline: Post Aubrey Piazza Mission)
Donald Rutherford signaled the waiter and asked for the check. His dinner with Brooke had not gone well. She had worn a low cut blouse, a push up bra, and a short, tight skirt that hugged her thighs. Her hair curled just over her ears, framed her high cheek bones and gave her the look of a silent movie star from the 1920s. A hint of pink blush enhanced the intensity of her green eyes. But while he had been intoxicated by her assets and attractions when they first met outside her apartment, he had been unable to fully appreciate her company as they sat at their table, picked at their entrees and attempted a conversation. His thoughts kept drifting back to the tongue lashing he had received that afternoon from a man named Robert Angstrom, the history department’s liaison to the powerful Subguru Singh.

Angstrom was an officious toady and had a long history of criticizing the methodology and results of Donald’s research. Angstrom had studied under Dr. Harold Plogman at NYU, and Plogman had engaged in a relentless academic feud with Dr. Sheldon Silverstein, Donald’s PH.D. advisor. The feud had led to several refusals when Donald sent articles out to scholarly journals. The anonymous peer reviewers who rejected his papers never commented on the results, but attacked the rationale of the research instead.

Silverstein used his connections to land Rutherford a job at GURUTECH when it looked like Donald’s academic career would be stonewalled by Plogman and his brethren. Rutherford soon discovered that Plogman had placed some of his own men in the time travel organization as well, and Donald’s survival strategy gradually became one of hard work, careful preparation and cautious avoidance of conflict. He had a few allies who valued his work for its consistent quality, but he was outnumbered by historians and liaisons who owed allegiance and favors to Plogman.

Donald could not tell if Angstrom persecuted him because they belonged to opposing camps, or because the two of them simply rubbed each other the wrong way. It was probably both. Whatever the case, the blame for the failure of today’s mission was unfairly being laid in his lap once again. He did not believe that he was in danger of being dismissed, however. Donald knew that there had been doubts among the transportation techs and historians about the traveler’s ability to perform her mission. Aubrey Piazza had been tagged as a high risk traveler because of her personal history and emotional volatility: verbal abuse as a child by her drunkard father compounded by physical abuse by her ex-husband had led her to suffer as an adult from abrupt mood swings and hypersensitivity to physical stimulation and social contact. She had fallen into the defensive habit of making aggressive attempts to domineer the people around her, and often displayed a violent temper when thwarted in her attempts to control her environment. Donald had ensured that the trip facilitation techs had taken extra precautions in evaluating and training her, and in sending her off. And he knew that his work in measuring the branching ramifications of the mission had been meticulous, painstaking. Whatever had caused the time line to remain nearly identical to the latest standard course had to be the fault of the traveler or the influence of some unknown factor. Five failed missions in a row (only two of them planned by him) meant something unaccountable must be going on, something that did not to show up on probability charts and time fluctuation tables.

Altering the progression of time had always been a tricky, delicate business, and a certain rate of failure was to be expected. There was not any way for them to anticipate and adjust to all the factors influencing the outcome of a particular moment, just as it was devilishly difficult to chart all the consequences that branched outward from a single action. The goal was to subtly influence a stem event, to intervene at a key moment so that a welcome change in the time line would take hold. The greatest danger was in going too far. Waves of unforeseen consequences could significantly damage the stability and integrity of the present. The historians referred to this as the Goldilocks Challenge, and most turned gray before their time worrying about whether their calculations had been just right.

Donald had heard rumors of sabotage and that there might be an Existentialist mole in the ranks of the subgurus. The historians who had worked on recent failed missions were whispering about one or two targets for their suspicions. Donald did not know if any of it was true, or whether his colleagues were looking to shift blame away from themselves. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s processing session would give them useful information, but the traveler who had returned today looked dangerously out of synch and had to be heavily sedated. Donald hoped that she would soon be able to recount what had happened back in 2015, but knew that he might have to wait a week for her to recover before she was debriefed.

Rutherford jumped when Brooke touched his hand. He had nearly forgotten that she was across the table from him. Her smile looked uncertain but friendly, and he knew that he still had a slim chance of turning the evening around. He tried to smile back at her.

“So you say there’s a bookstore right around the corner?” he asked.

“Yes, we can walk there,” she said.

Rutherford paid the bill and they stepped outside into the steam bath heat of a summer’s evening in central Florida. A light breeze from the south stirred the air and whispered a promise that a thunderstorm was on its way. The bookstore was in a row of shops off the main drag and down a brick paved alley way. The sign above the door read, “The Olde Bookery”, and the warm colors and mellow light of the interior welcomed them to enter. They ordered espressos at a counter near the front. Brooke led him back to some shelves near the rear of the store and showed him books about Mongolian conquests and the movement of plague throughout medieval Europe. It was obvious that she knew her way around this section, and Donald was surprised that she took an interest in their work during off hours.

They drifted from the history section into an area dedicated to poetry. Donald plucked a volume of Roethke off a shelf, quickly paged through the book as if already familiar with it, and surprised her by reading a love poem out loud. The poem spoke about a woman whose bones were beautiful, of the beating of the poet’s heart in time with the sway of his lover’s hips. Donald looked up from the book and saw Brooke studying him in a thoughtful way. She looked amused as he blushed, closed the book and returned it to its place.

It started to rain just as they left the shop, and they had to run for his car. They were soaked by the time Donald had fumbled for his keys and opened the doors. He expected her to be annoyed by his clumsiness, but she laughed. As he started the motor she ran her fingers through the wet tangles of her hair and said, “I must look like a drowned rat!”

She invited him back to her place in a Delaney Park neighborhood near down town. It was a small apartment in a converted garage that stood behind a Victorian, wood frame house. She sat him down in her kitchen, tossed him a dish towel from a drawer under the sink, and excused herself so that she could change. He rubbed his head and the back of his neck with the towel, and nervously combed his hair with his fingers. The shiny, metal toaster on a counter by the stove served as his mirror. When she came back she wore pink bunny slippers and a loose cotton shift printed with a floral design, and had a towel wrapped around her head. She made them mugs of milky, black tea and laid a plate full of homemade, chocolate chip cookies before him. She sat down across from him, slumped back in her chair, let out a long, comfortable sigh and closed her eyes. “It feels good to be home,” she said.

Brooke eventually sat up and took a sip from her mug. She watched him over the top of her tea while he chewed on a cookie. He began to feel self-conscious, but she smiled at him and patted his hand.

“Relax, Donald,” she said. “Robert Angstrom can’t find you here.”

“What?”

“The word on the street is that Angstrom has been gunning for you, that he’s blaming you for today’s mission. That’s what you’ve been brooding about all night, isn’t it?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Jenna in Static Records told me. She passed by your office this afternoon.”

“Does she make it a habit to listen in at closed doors?”

“She didn’t have to. She was heading for the elevators after her shift was over, and she heard him yelling at you.”

“Great.”

“I was kidding about ‘the word on the street’. She didn’t tell anyone but me.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, I told everyone in transportation about it.”

“You did what?”

“Just kidding, Donald, just kidding. You’ve got to learn to lighten up every once in a while.”

“That’s easy for you—.”

“Shut up and drink your tea. Here, have another cookie.”

“But I—. “

“Relax, Donald. Relax,” she commanded. So he did.

They went out again the next night, saw a movie in Winter Park, and took a stroll in Baldwin Park. They kissed for the first time beneath a live oak with long twisting branches. It was a hesitant, unexpected kiss, and they separated quickly as if both were afraid of where it might lead. At that particular moment it led to a banal, awkward recitation about the park’s past as a naval training base. Donald rattled on about the Blue Jacket, a large model of a destroyer that used to sit in a field of grass not far from where the Winter Park Middle School now stood. It had been used for boot camp drills. It was made of concrete. It was the only training vessel in U.S. naval history that never could, ever would float. Brooke mercifully ended the monologue by putting a finger to Donald’s lips. She drew in close. Their second kiss was less timid. After the third they no longer cared about what the upcoming fourth and fifth meant.

They were both too busy to see each other until Sunday, but made hurried plans as they stood together on Thursday afternoon in the crowded hallway outside of Transportation Suite Ganesh. She would make a meal, and he would bring dessert. Donald felt a heightened sense of anticipation, a current of energy that flowed between them, and he wanted to take her into a deserted room and strip off her clothes. She leaned in close to him, both hands on his chest, kissed him on the cheek and whispered “See you when I see you.” As she walked away he admired the sway of her hips and the pert motion of her buttocks, and felt the soul warming satisfaction of a man who had just received an unmistakable invitation.

After they had eaten her spaghetti dinner and his cheese cake dessert, they shared a snifter of brandy as they lounged together on her sofa. There was never anything good on television on Sunday nights, so they passed the time kissing and gradually getting acquainted with the shape and feel of each other’s body. Brooke suddenly pushed him away and stood up. She stared down at him with an odd, unreadable expression, and Donald feared that he had gone too far too fast. His hands had been busy exploring the topography of her body, sliding over raised contours and down into declivities. Brooke’s face softened, finally, into a wistful smile and she took his hands and pulled him off the sofa. She led him down a hallway past the bathroom to a closed door at the end. She kissed him as she opened it.

Her bedroom was simply decorated: no throw pillows with frilly edging; no stuffed animals and dolls left over from girlhood; no cheesy, sentimental posters. She had a double bed covered with a simple quilt. A photograph of her father and mother was hung near the closet, and a large oil landscape of an unromantic stretch of swampy wilderness dominated the wall above her dresser. A vase of flowers and a scented candle gave the room a moderate touch of femininity.

They sat down on the edge of the bed and began to kiss once more. Donald ran his fingers up the back of her neck and massaged the scalp at the base of her head. She broke off the kiss when she tilted her head back and sighed. He kissed her throat and worked his way up to her ear. Her hands fumbled with his shirt as he nibbled on the lobe, and she pulled the cloth out of his pants with a firm tug. She undid his belt buckle and opened button and zipper. He felt her hands circle around his hips to his lower back. She kneaded the muscles with slow, circular movements of her fingers. The tension of the past few days at work drained away under her ministrations, and when they kissed again he began to feel pleasantly drunk, not from the brandy but from the pressure of her soft lips on his, the jasmine scent of her hair, the sheltering warmth radiating from her body.

One passionate entanglement led to another and to another. Exhaustion followed their last coupling; a sweet fatigue washed through him. Donald felt no pangs of regret or uneasiness when she cuddled up against him under the sheets. The pressure of her arm on his chest and her breast against his side reassured him, and he had the odd sensation that he had finally come home. She smiled and murmured to him as she fell asleep. He brushed a strand of hair away from her eyes and studied the slopes and planes of her face. He wondered, as his eyelids drooped, why that particular configuration of hair, flesh and bone had suddenly become so precious to him.

Crazy-Makers and Anger Addicts

I sometimes recall angry confrontations and betrayals to draw energy from my residual resentments.  I use the resultant adrenaline rush to power my way through tired spells.  This automatic process kicks in when I’m doing tedious work in rough conditions.  I’ve learned to look for signs of creeping negativity.  I try to remember to take a break when my attitude turns sour.

My addiction to past-event-anger offers a false reward.  Every relapse into this practice, while giving me a bit of juice, also saps my sense of well-being and steals vitality. I can feel myself becoming a miserable s.o.b.  The world gets lonely as the people around me retreat to a safe distance.  I can take offense at their withdrawal, add it to my list of grievances, punch the anger button, and reinforce the feedback loop.

I’ve noticed that other folks suffer from this malady, but some take a different approach to tapping the anger-battery.  Crazy-makers look for an outrage to fight against.  If a crisis isn’t available, they’ll invent a problem and start a crusade.  They recruit unwitting co-workers, family members, and representatives of rival political parties to act as villains. Their righteous anger propels them forward.  If folks around them capitulate, a crazy-maker simply makes up another issue.

Perfect people set up scenarios in which they give, give, give to everyone around them.  While they inspect their actions and motivations for flaws and correct them as fast as they can, they also direct their judgment scanners on those around them.  Ordinary folks never consistently live up to standards of excellence, never give enough in return.  Perfect people are like Diogenes, the Greek chap with the lantern who looked day and night for an honest man.  They search everywhere but find no flawless pearls of goodness except in themselves.  Smugness, not anger, becomes their fuel.

Schadenfreude warriors draw sustenance from others’ pain.  They attach themselves like leeches to sufferers and offer false sympathy to make their victims feel worse.  They say things like, “That must hurt,” and “I’m so sorry you’re going through this.  I wonder how you’ll ever manage,” and “My aunt had troubles like yours…She died of cancer a few years later.”  Schadenfreudians gain satisfaction and sustenance from little dynamos running constantly in their heads.  Their internal generators are powered by this thought:  “Better him than me, better her than me…”

All of these strategies are traps easy to fall into and much harder to escape.  I catch glimpses of my real life (one of spontaneity, joy and acceptance) when I manage to step free from my anger snare.  But some pets prefer cages to freedom.  I return, like them, to my familiar confinement.

I may benefit yet from seeing the truth, from understanding my weakness and my addictive tendencies.  Clear sight may be the first step toward a final release.

 

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Aubrey felt confused, but was not overly upset. She was afraid of the two monks who had carried her off from the reception area, but did not mind being afraid of them. And here they were walking beside her as she glided on a gurney down a dimly lit corridor and into a brightly lit room filled to bursting with oddly shaped bits of equipment. She felt like smiling at her two companions, but she doubted that they would notice as they kept their stern eyes in their stern faces focused straight ahead. Perhaps they were eunuchs.

They had treated her indifferently when they carried her from the reception area into an examination room, wrestled her down onto a table, and injected her arm with a hypodermic needle. The shot had at first heightened her senses before a wave of passive tranquility had washed through her, and she had seen, while she still was able to struggle, that the monks took no more notice of her body than they would a slab of rock or a wooden plank. She knew that some men got excited when they treated women roughly—her ex-husband had—but she had felt no sexual energy from them as they held her down on the table and waited for the drug to take its full effect. She had writhed and squirmed on her back and had screamed filthy words into their ears, but they just kept their faces blank and their breathing calm and even.

The brightly lit room with the odd equipment looked like a stripped down operating theater to Aubrey. A man in orange surgical scrubs and mask stood near a tray covered with metal instruments. He held a computer chip up to the light above the tray and studied its surfaces. She blacked out when they gave her another injection, and woke with a mild headache and a dull pain in the back of her head. The skin of her scalp felt like it had been pulled taut. She did not like her pain and discomfort, but disliking something felt all right. The two monks wheeled her out of the room and they entered another hallway. They glided past men and women who were dressed in black and gray, and some others who wore yellow uniforms and carried clip boards. The yellow uniforms were pleasant to look at. The yellow was buttercup yellow.

She tried to sit up to take a better look around her when she had stopped gliding and had come to rest in a large room with glass enclosed booths along one wall, but found that she could only move her eyes. A large, silver machine loomed over her on her left side, and she vaguely remembered its shape from a diagram in a brochure. Something about time…the brochure talked a lot about slices of time. Time could be cut into thin shavings as salami could be cut into slices. Or was it bread? A loaf of bread and a slice of salami made a sandwich in time but she did not feel particularly hungry. The monks opened the side of the machine…it looked like they had lifted a giant, rubber-lipped mouth up and off the side of the silver thing, and they slid her inside the opening behind the mouth. She realized that she had come here today to be eaten by a machine, and while that bothered her, it did not bother her all that much. They closed the door on the hatch and she felt a tightening around her arms, ankles and forehead. A gentle light bathed the interior of the chamber, and while she should have been suffering from claustrophobia, she felt soothed by the closeness of the white walls. They glowed softly as if lit by moonlight.

She heard a hissing sound and felt puffs of air on her cheeks. Her thoughts became clearer and she remembered why she had come here today. She was going to kill her ex-husband before he became her husband. She had told the gurus that she was merely going to give him a piece of her mind, to deliver some choice words that she had been saving for him after their divorce. But he had got himself killed in a bar fight two years after the papers came through, and she never had a chance. She told the monks that she needed closure, but that was a lie. The baldies would not have nodded and smiled if she had told them the truth: she was going to kill Jeff before he got a chance to ruin her life with his threats and beatings and verbal abuse. She was going to kill him before he got a chance to desecrate and destroy the sweet, loving girl that had once lived inside her.

Thoughts of vengeance usually raised her blood pressure and created a burning sensation in her chest, but now as she lay in a white chamber inside a silver machine she felt calm and tranquil. Killing Jeff was just something she would do today. She had cleaned her kitchen, drove with Bill to the Hall of Time, had fought with monks in orange robes, and was resting calmly inside a time machine. Killing her ex would just be one more item on her to do list.

The hissing stopped and Aubrey faintly heard the sound of voices outside the machine. A click sounded in her ear, followed by a squeal of feedback on a speaker embedded in the ceiling above her head.

“Aubrey, Aubrey Piazza. Aubrey,” said a deep bass voice.

“Yes?” she whispered.

“It’s time for your journey. It’s time to travel. It’s time to close your eyes and focus them on a point on your forehead in the center of your brow. Focus. Focus your eyes. Focus your eyes on the third eye. Follow your breath, in and out, in and out. Om and aum, in and out…om and aum, in and out,” said the disembodied voice.

“Om and aum,” Aubrey whispered as she closed her eyes. She followed her breath, om and aum, and stared with closed eyes at the point in the middle of her brow. She felt a tingling sensation in her forehead. The tingling sensation spread to her head, her neck, down her torso and legs until it curled her toes. The sensation grew more intense and pulsed from the top of her head down to her toes and back again in rapid cycles…It felt better than sex…it felt…

A chorus of chanting voices erupted from the speaker and reverberated inside the chamber. The intensity of sensations and the rapidity of the cycles grew much stronger, and Aubrey began to fear that she would fly apart if things went any further. The chanting sounded like her om and aums, but had variations in pitch and rhythm that seemed to build a living, pulsing unity of vibrating movement within her body. She opened her eyes when the power of the cycles sent shimmering waves down the length of her and she felt as if she were no longer solid. She briefly hoped that the process would stop before it was too late, before she disappeared. The last things she saw were the chamber pulsing in fluid waves around her and the sight of her toes dissolving into nothingness. Darkness descended on her mind and she became nothing. Nothing and everything…she was no one and all things. She was nowhere and everywhere. She was everything everywhere.

Then she saw a point of light in front of her and she sped faster than thought to it like an arrow seeking its target. She pierced the point of light and began to spin downward in slower and slower spirals to a green and blue world that looked achingly familiar, like home. She felt her feet touch earth, and her body began to slow the swirling dance of its molecules, to gel and solidify from her feet up to her head. Her hair whipped around her eyes and ears for several more seconds, and then her body, her self came to a standstill.

She was standing in an alley behind a dumpster. A maroon pick-up truck was parked at the rear of a bakery. The fading, mud smeared bumper sticker on the tail gate read “Romney/Ryan: Take Back America.”

What Kind of Man Are You?

I had contrasting male role models when I was a boy.  My Mom’s dad sang in the church choir, helped out around the house, read books and listened to classical music.  He was a calm and thoughtful man who took care of others.  The men on my Dad’s side drank whiskey and beer, smoked cigars, hunted and fished, played cards and bowled.  Some referred to cooking, cleaning and child rearing as “women’s work”.  They maintained an allergic attitude toward anything related to the “c” word: culture.  That’s not to say that they were stupid, but more that they liked what they already understood.  Reading a book, going to a museum, listening to a concert seemed like pointless exercises.

The movies I watched as a kid (pre-cable, often in black and white) starred John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, and James Garner.  These actors represented contrasting styles of manhood.  John taught me to suck it up and endure danger and physical trials with little or no complaint.  Women were to be treasured and protected, but would remain largely unknowable.  Robert showed me that men may act on evil tendencies and can’t be trusted at first glance.  James acted as a jester, as a man who pointed out the absurdities of life.  Running away from a stupidly dangerous situation, not of one’s making, was acceptable.

I’m not like any of these examples, and I can’t really define precisely what makes a man good or bad.  Many men I’ve known drift back and forth between kindness and cruelty.  Most lean hard in one direction, but even the extreme cases have surprised me on occasion.  Some evolve from one form of manhood into another.

I guess that my bases for self-judgment draw on all these influences.  I know who I’d like to be while remaining aware that I fail to meet my own standards.  I try not to judge other men’s lifestyles and choices, but a recent public example of  “tough guy” manhood seems particularly repugnant to me.  I’ll never take that hot mess of hyper-inflated ego, blind cruelty, and pointless domineering as a guide to anything exemplary about manhood.

Here’s what I believe:

  1. A good man accepts defeats and success gracefully.  He doesn’t blame others for his failures and doesn’t claim full credit for his advances.
  2. A good man acts for the welfare of his family and community.
  3. A good man does not denigrate others or spread gossip and slander.
  4. A good man acknowledges his mistakes and sincerely strives to do better.
  5. A good man admits that he feels pain, and does not pretend that he is invincible and immovable.  Stoicism becomes an act of choosing a rational response to hardship, not a denial of pain.
  6. A good man tries his best to follow through on his commitments.  He does what he says he will do.
  7. A good man does not exploit the weak and less powerful.
  8. A good man tells the truth as he knows it, but doesn’t believe that he is the sole and complete possessor of truth.
  9. A good man does not believe that his current good fortune is God-given proof of his higher worth.  He chooses to be grateful for blessings received.
  10. A good man is humble.  He understands that he is a small speck in a vast cosmos.

A Narrow Slice of Time: Chapter 2

 

Control Tech Brooke Marlow sat in a booth in Transportation Suite Rama and studied the layout of the next scheduled trip. Her supervisor had warned her that the mission was of vital importance and that she should triple check the time/destination coordinates against the setting of the vibration chamber. Any misalignments during the transport could mar the insertion of the traveler into the correct slice of time. Brooke sipped a cup of jasmine tea and hummed to herself as she inspected the readouts on the panel in front of her. When the charts and graphs satisfied her, she got up with her cup, grabbed a clipboard and wandered over to the silver metal chamber in the center of the room. It was fifteen feet long and resembled a sperm whale minus the fins: the end with the readout screen was broad and bulky; the body of the chamber tapered to a flattened, rectangular box at the other end. A horizontal, oval hatch in the center of the “whale’s” side opened up on a narrow chamber big enough for one person to lie in. A hard pad served as a cushion for a reclining body, and arm, ankle and head straps were attached to the white walls of the interior. The walls were made of a flexible, plastic material that softly gave way when pressed, and quickly regained its original form when the pressure was released. Brooke compared the numbers on her clipboard to the numbers on the readout screen. All was in order, as usual.

There was nothing more to do until the sedated traveler was delivered into the suite, so Brooke took her place back in the booth and pulled out her copy of the Bhagavad Gita. She was not an avid reader of scripture, however. She had hollowed out the center of the book and taped a paperback romance novel inside.

At breakfast Brooke had reached the part of the story where Dixie, the beautiful and mysterious heroine, had just met Buford, a handsome Confederate general. Brooke found the passage where she had left off, checked the departure time once more on her control board, and began to read intently.

Brooke suspected that Dixie would soon find herself locked in the embrace of Buford’s scarred but manly arms. As she read Brooke discovered that the young belle was really a northern spy sent to seduce General Buford. Dixie was directed by her superiors to spurn her suitor’s advances while further enticing him. Whenever he drew near she opened her shawl to reveal the fleshy curves of an ample bosom prominently displayed by her low cut gowns. Her mission was to befuddle and emasculate her victim before he commanded his troops against a new Union offensive in northern Virginia. Unfortunately for the spy the general’s tragic mien (he had lost a lot of men in battle) and bewilderment (her behavior had been most contrary) had softened her heart, and Dixie found herself longing to respond to his advances, to embrace him and kiss his lips.

Dixie met Buford one moonless, but starry night on a bench in a formal garden behind the governor’s mansion, and gradually gave way to her rising passion. Buford, a true Southern gentleman, took three pages to get her clothes off. The author followed with a detailed account of their consummation of a love so noble, so pure, and so sexually aroused that war and suffering could not dim its brilliant intensity. As the entangled, preternaturally limber couple attempted a maneuver that defied gravity and violated basic rules of hygiene, Brooke gripped the book tightly with sweaty hands.

Brooke heard the shoosh of the automatic door opening behind her, snapped the book shut and slipped it back into her Gita. She spun around in her chair and saw Donald Rutherford standing in the doorway. He was dressed in his official historian’s uniform of black and gray. Tall and gaunt, solemn and slow moving, Donald was not the type of man that Brooke found attractive. The transportation techs referred to the history officers collectively as “the undertakers”, and Donald’s expression this morning was suitably grim.

“Mr. Rutherford! You startled me!”

“Sorry to interrupt your spiritual meditations, Brooke. I’ve been sent down review the trip with you,” he said.

Brooke blushed and pushed the book of scripture from her lap into an open uniform bag that lay on the floor at her feet. The Gita fell open upon landing and the cover of the romance novel was revealed. A lurid illustration of a Confederate officer holding a scantily clad woman presented itself. The burning plantation in the background mirrored the fiery passion shared by the foreground couple. Donald swooped down and plucked the book out of the bag.

“Hmmm. I don’t recall this illustration. Is that Arjuna dressed in drag? Isn’t Krishna holding him a little too tightly? I bet this is a new translation. It’s got a much different…atmosphere…than my copy at home. Can I borrow this? I’ll get it back to you. I just want to compare this text with the one in mine,” he said.

“No, sir. And please keep your hands off my personal belongings,” said Brooke.

Donald tossed the book into the bag, and Brooke angrily zipped it shut. She looked up and saw a patronizing smile directed at her. He apparently found her amusing.

“Please wipe that smirk off your face, Mr. Rutherford. You may spend all of your spare time with your nose in a history book, but don’t act like you have the right to judge other people who do not share your taste in reading material.”

“Do you think that it’s a good idea to talk to me in that manner?”

“Yes, sir, I do. Mr. Downing is my superior, not you.”

“Well, I apologize if I seemed to be judging you. I just was surprised to see you reading something like that. I thought that you were the sort who read serious novels and poetry.”

“I do, but sometimes I like something a little more…simple and direct…”

“I see. Try a western next time,” said Donald. His smirk returned.

“I’m curious about this next mission. Could you tell me why everyone is so worried? What’s the big deal? And what’s with the cupcake? That’s a pretty odd mission objective,” said Brooke.

“You know all of that is classified. I can’t tell you anything beyond what’s laid out in front of you right now,” he said.

“But you know something. I’ve seen little groups of historians whispering together in the hallways. You all seem nervous about this one. I’ve heard rumors that there’s a spy in the central ashram, and that some of our recent missions have been sabotaged.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Jenna down in Static Records says that the time line has been fluctuating along multiple paths during recent trips, and that it hasn’t all been the fault of our travelers. She said that the new time line keeps snapping back to fit the static line, and that we’ve wasted four trips in a row.”

“I think that you and your friend should stick to your jobs and not worry about things outside your areas of expertise.”

“Jenna thinks that Existentialists have a new model of the Tabula Rasa in production, and that they’re blocking our attempts to disrupt its development. Is it true that the Existentialists want to wipe human history clean? Or do they just want to erase all the religions?” Brooke asked.

“You need to learn to keep your mouth shut and your eyes and ears focused on the job at hand. It’s not your business to know anything more, so take my advice and stay out of matters that do not concern you,” he said sternly.

“Oh come on, Donald. All this concerns me. All this concerns you,” she said with a slight purr in her voice.

Brooke stood up and approached Donald slowly. Her curiosity had been piqued and she was determined to find out what he knew. If the Existentialists had come up with a new and potent means of disrupting GURUTECH missions she might soon be out of a job. She had heard, oddly enough, that the dry historian thought himself a lady’s man, and that he fancied brunettes with short hair, long legs and intelligent minds. Brooke knew that she fit that description and wondered if her glasses enhanced her powers of attraction. It might be fun to pump him for information while setting him up for a fall. She never wanted to see him smirk at her again.

Brooke smiled at Donald, gave her hair a little toss and edged nearer to him. She hoped that she was being the right sort of obvious; men could be impenetrably thick when it came to reading her signals. The look on his face was hard to decipher, but his lips twitched involuntarily. She gazed at him steadily. She knew from experience that she could will the weak ones into a temporary state of submission.

“Donald, would you be interested in getting something to eat after work tonight? I know a place near the Olde Bookery on Colonial. We could browse a bit after dinner and get an espresso…what do you say?”

“Uh…”

“My apartment is right around the corner from there. I’ve got an antique copy of The Stranger that I’d like you to see. Do you read French?”

“Uh…”

“And a book of old daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. You’d be surprised by the subjects they photographed back then.”

“Uh…”

“Uh yes, or uh no?”

Donald stammered and looked very uncomfortable. Brooke was almost touched by his befuddlement. His black eyes had a certain softness in them that she had never noticed before, and she began to find the line of his jaw attractive. But before Donald could give her an answer, the door to the Transportation Suite swung open and two monks guided a stretcher into the room. A middle-aged woman with auburn hair was strapped down to the gurney. Her eyes were fixed in a glassy stare.

“I’ve got to look at your diagrams. Now!” said Donald.

“Keep your shirt on, Mr. Rutherford. They’re right here. You’ve still got at least ten minutes to look them over. They’re bringing in the chorus for this one, and that’ll take them time to get everything in place,” Brooke said.

Donald stepped around Brooke and began to pore over the diagrams on the console. He could feel the heat of her body as she leaned in beside him to watch the charts and graphs march across the display; she answered his occasional questions about unusual spikes and accents in the temporal flow chart. Her soft, low voice both soothed and distracted him. The smell of her perfume was lilac. They lightly knocked heads when he straightened up, and he fumbled his way around her after bumping against her hip. He tripped on her bag and nearly fell. He straightened up and paused in the doorway of the control booth, tugged at the lapels of his jacket and adjusted his tie. He had reestablished his sense of personal dignity, but found that he could not look Brooke in the eye. Donald focused on her pink, glossed lips instead. They slanted upward on each side of her mouth in shiny, mocking curves.

“The mission charts, the graphs…it’s good…uh, it all looks fine, Brooke.”

“I’m sure it does, Donald. Pick me up at seven.”

The Morning Call

I sometimes wake at dawn to a feeling of dread buried deep in the pit of my stomach.  Sometimes I know the source; other times I have no clue.

The morning calls began in February, 2008.  My sister called one night to tell me that her advancing struggles with lifting her feet and walking had been diagnosed:  Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  Her callous neurologist delivered her death sentence just before Christmas.  He said, “You’ve got ALS.  Go home; quit your job; buy a wheelchair.”

Carla died in 2013.  My wife’s recovery from intense vertigo began, in the same month, to drift backward into a nasty, prolonged relapse.  From the fall of 2013 to the spring of 2014, I often woke up in the gray predawn to worries about my wife’s health and our financial future.  A gnawing feeling ate away at my stomach, and nothing made it go away until I gave up on sleep and got busy with the work of the day.

I woke up this morning with a similar sensation in my gut.  Nothing terribly bad is going on in my life at the moment, though worries about my parents nag from time to time.  I tried to pinpoint the trouble spot generating my discomfort, but came up blank.  I chalked it up at first to free floating anxiety, but became dissatisfied with an easy dismissal of the problem.

I thought about this possibility:  maybe fear is a form of emotional PTSD.  2013 endures in memory as the worst year of my life, and the waves of upheaval and unease I’m still experiencing are just late arrivals.  Starlight comes to us from eons ago.  Maybe the pain from a past event still approaches like a dissipating wave from a distant source.

Another possibility:  I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday, and my eventual demise no longer seems all that eventual.  My uncomfortable morning gut might just be my body and unconscious coming to grips with death.

One last possibility:  fear is the ground of existence.  I fear death.  I fear pain, emotional and physical.  I fear conflict and failure.  I fear losing whatever measure of love, comfort and success I’ve gained.  I fear dying alone.  Buddha said that the basic condition of life is suffering.  Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe.  It feels more like fear to me.

Einstein reported that qualms of mortality had begun in old age to transform into another sensation, one of merging with nature.  As his body failed, so did the barriers between his ego and the cosmos.

Many claim that death is just the transformation of an energy signature into another form, an escape from the drudgeries of mortal life to an immortality of freedom and light.  That sounds pretty good to me…

But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that I’m getting close to Albert’s state of transcendence.  Acknowledging that I’m afraid, paradoxically, makes fear more bearable.  If fear is a norm, there’s not much point worrying about it or even taking it too seriously.   Denying fear is like trying to avoid the effects of gravity.

Douglas Adams jokingly described a method of flying:  a person must throw themselves at the ground and miss.  Maybe courage and good cheer are gained by throwing oneself at fear and missing.

Wish me luck.