A Mind That Divides: A Small Lesson in Brain Function, Politics, and Bias

The human brain, despite appearances in every day human behavior, is an incredible organ. It does a lot to make normal information processing a lot easier.

Just for fun, I’ll walk you though a theory of how the brain sorts and uses information when it’s needed. One of these theories, conflated some with other theories that I think are likely, involves this great neural network where “like” neurons are grouped together so they can be easily accessible should you need a word that starts with “sp.” This grouping can also be done by smell or other associations. So, for example, when I walk outside on a clear summer afternoon and the sprinkler is going, my brain reaches to that location where I’ve smelled that smell before, and immediately I am back in my toddler’s pink polka-dot bathing suit running at a forty-five degree angle down a hill as water clings to my eyelashes.

These neurons, or these little receptors that are named and associated are “primed” based on how much they are needed. So, for example, the neuron named “Parker” is always mostly primed. What this means is any time I want to be able to reach the word “Parker,” it doesn’t take my brain long at all to reach it and pull it into action because it’s primed. It’s something I use a lot.

The brain is incredible! One of the reasons it does this is for efficiency’s sake, but, as I’m sure you can imagine, another reason it might do this is for survival.

If you have had a near-death experience with carbon monoxide, the part of your brain that collects memories about that will be ready at all times, it will always draw that feeling of dread because your brain doesn’t want you to wander into a trap. It wants you to know for the next time that carbon monoxide smells a certain way, makes you feel a certain way, may be dangerous when this certain thing that happened the last time is happening again.

Why am I telling you this? Mostly for fun, but also to say that you brain is not always as 21st century as we’d like it to be. Yes, it’s efficient, and much of what your brain tells you to think and believe is for your survival, but it doesn’t always make sense.

Theories like the above indicate many things, and one of them is that you cannot help but be biased on an instinctual level. It’s not the fact that human beings have bias that’s inherently bad, it is when we don’t recognize it and try to battle it that’s bad. For example, since 2001 when media coverage began to paint people of Muslim faith as dangerous, it’s been an uphill battle in many American’s brains to dislodge the threat that their brains filed under “pay attention, lest you die.”

Sometimes bias is helpful. We are all, for the most part, wary of certain neighborhoods. It is GOOD to be wary, but it is not good to assume that all who live in dangerous parts of town are dangerous people. Were it not for this little alarm signal in our brains, we might waltz into potentially deadly situations without heeding the possible threats.

Another thing that your brain does is file information in a way that aligns you with and against other people, it groups you with like-minded people, and sets you against people that don’t believe the same. This is a social psychology principle, and while somewhat confirmed through testing, is often more contested than the above theories. What this means is if you believe that President Trump is the next incarnation of Jesus Christ, you will likely create a “tribe” of people that believe the same. You will love these people because they are like you, and you will believe that those who do not believe as you do are a threat to you and your tribe. They are stupid, evil, and are out to ruin everything you hold dear.

Is this somewhat natural? Yes. Is it okay? Absolutely not. Because humans can’t be defined by political affiliation, skin tone, or gender. They are so much more and their beliefs are not as linear as your own or mine or anyone’s.

I remember when I first found out about the spotlight affect (the belief that people are watching and judging you), it really hit me that no one is actually paying attention to me. I went through a thought process of, “Do I judge people?” Answer: “No, of course not! I don’t even notice who is wearing leggings in public.” So, consequently, I can somewhat safely assume that no one gives a care if my hair is less curly on the right side than the left. (That is not always true because some people are jerks, but for the most part, people are. not. looking. at. you.)

Understanding that you are more like other people than different from them can help you to accept and love people more. I know that I don’t care what people wear or what they look like, so I can stop worrying about what my hair looks like when I’m in line to buy toilet paper. No one cares!

In the same line of thought, I can assume that since my beliefs are flexible, I believe they are rooted in love and acceptance, and I want for ideologies like mine to take precedent because I think they are good for the world, then others have the same kinds of beliefs.

If you are a cynic and can’t imagine that most people are inherently good, then this argument is null. You will not believe anything I say, but, if you want to keep from going crazy and believe that people care about their friends and family just like you do, then you may stop aligning yourself against them as if they are the antichrist.

Those who believe differently from you are not evil, no matter what your brain tells you to keep you safe. Tell your brain that you appreciate everything it does for you, but it can take a nice rest when having the next political conversation, because in all likelihood, you are perfectly safe and can behave as a reasonable human being.

Peace friends. Go tame your brains.



P.S. I did graduate with a degree in Psychology, but that doesn’t mean that I am by any means an expert. If you’d like, go ahead and delve into research about how the brain protects you and organizes information to confirm what I speak of or create your own, science-founded beliefs. Do not take anything I’ve said as incontrovertible fact.

Aokigahara (Suicide Forest), the Tumor of a Cancer-Stricken World

Header image from: http://lookingforalosea.blogspot.com/2010/11/aokigahara-forest-suicide-forest-japan.html


The forest called Aokigahara feels almost too dark to be real, like a suspended bubble of fiction that our brains try to refuse a place with truth and light.

Just like any other forest, Aokigahara feels the breeze rustle through its leaves, and it whispers to the passersby. The shadows that loom over the earth are cold and protected, and the earth is moist, the soil alive and thriving with decay and rebirth. The forest is not a made up nightmare, suicide forest is as real as any other forest on Earth, but it is tainted with the stain of death and horror.

The forest lays at the feet of the wondrous Mt. Fuji, one of the most beautiful and iconic mountains in the world. This mountain is like the flag on the Earth’s surface that declares its ownership, its stewardship of the land. Aokigahara is, indisputably a distillation of beauty so intense that one’s mind boggles at the hint of despair that is now running as deep as the forest roots through the land.

Masahiko Kitahara and Maki Watanabe studied the forest and surrounding lands, putting a lens to the life that thrives in the area. In their study, they were able to identify the edge of Aokigahara as an ecological “hotspot” for butterfly diversity. The surrounding edge of the forest thrived with rare and threatened species, likely because they were searching for a spot to avoid dangerous environmental change (Diversity and rarity hotspots and conservation of butterfly communities in and around the Aokigahara woodland of Mount Fuji, central Japan).

I know the writers of the study would be horrified at my conclusions of this study, but I do find poignant poetic indications about the endangered butterflies thriving at the edge of this place, a beautiful herald surrounding the locus of death, a place they dare not enter.

Imagine the man who sets out for the forest, determined to end his life. He has lost his job, his honor, and his family, and he finds that the world doesn’t need him, just another blight of disease on the Earth. So, he begins his journey into the heart of the forest. The forests edge is decorated with signs from the police:

Meditate on your parents, siblings, and children once more. Do not be troubled alone.

Another reads

Your life is something precious that was given to you by your parents.

If the walker ignores these pleas that he reconsider, he will find several more opportunities inside the forest to change his mind. The paths are decorated with ribbons that show the way out.

Unfortunately, many who enter the forest never make it out again.

How is it that such a majestic part of the world came to be so haunted and heavy with desperation?

Much of the history of the forest is drenched with speculation and legend, but the speculation still paints the appropriate picture. It is said that ancient Japanese families used to take unwanted family members to the forest in times of famine, freeing up remaining resources for the other members of the family. Such a depressing history of murder, loneliness, and death is rumored to linger in the soil of the forest, paranormal activity being a common occurrence between the moss-laden trees and jutting trunks.

The forest has been a lost-and-found for poor souls for hundreds of years, but the publication of a 1960s novel that ends in the co-suicide of two lovers in the forest has become the named reason for the soar in suicides in the forest, numbers reported in the hundreds of dead.

The topography, beauty, and supposed supernatural phenomenon create a new face for an otherwise peaceful area of the world, and one can’t help but wonder why so many turn to such a sad, otherworldly place for their final moments, alone, sometimes accompanied by a suicide manual published by Wataru Tsurumui. They leave behind wallets, packages of food, egg-carton bedding, or nothing but the noose.

Aokigahara is mysterious and beautiful, despite its morbid associations, and one can’t help but extrapolate to the world as a whole when contemplating the disease of Depression that has seeped into the deepest, most vulnerable parts of human existence. The suicide forest is like the tumor that the world begins to notice, gets checked out by a doctor, and gets the prognosis of a cancer that pervades the entire body.

Before recent media attention put the limelight on Aokigahara, I was unaware that such a place existed, not that suicide was remotely new to me, or to anyone else in this world for that matter. Suicide and Depression have become something that everyone has experienced in themselves or in those they love. Suicide takes pure hearts from the world with the help of these menacing whispers from Depression, the pressure of performing as a perfect, successful, or likable human being too much for any normal person to bear.

The forest is but a symptom. It is not actually a localized disease that has seeped into the soil of a beautiful world, it has spread to every horizon and darkened brilliant minds to the butterflies at the forest’s edge, the rarity that lies in wait for them if they follow the ribbons out.

Of all people, I’m aware that Depression isn’t a choice. It’s not something you can conquer by will of the mind alone. It requires support, sometimes medication, and it requires a heart that is willing to follow the ribbons.

This article is but one of a million like it that pretends to understand what this world experiences that lead them to the forest, but the message is the same, and it’s one that can’t be understated.

Your life is a gift, a miracle by all definitions of science and spiritualism. Your presence is important to the functioning of this broken society, and it can make a difference. It’s never too late for you, and nothing you’ve done has ever brought you past the point of love and redemption.

Remember the butterflies. You may have to gets scrapes and bruises on your way past the trees, and you may have a mountain to climb once you’re in the clear, but you are in a beautiful place. This world is pure, and you are a part of it.

Remember the butterflies.

Nuclear Bombs, Godzilla, and Metal Gear: A Culture Changed by War

On How We Are All Alike

Today, I did something odd that I think most people do. I looked at myself in the mirror, speculatively, as crisp morning air filtered through the blinds. I noticed the goosebumps on my neck, rising and falling with the pulse, with the dancing beat of my heart in my neck. Sometimes I get stuck just thinking about 7 billion other people who have a dancing heart just like mine.

I spend a minute noticing how much smaller my eyes were through the lens of my glasses. My eyes are so round. Were they always that round? My nose, once again, doesn’t quite hold up my glasses, so they slip down my face a little. I imagine myself as any other person, trying to memorize the curve of my own cheekbone, noticing how transparent my eyelashes are in the sun. I am one of 7 billion people alive, and in many ways, we are all alike.

We all fiddle with our eyebrows and notice stray hairs. We all gaze, bemused, at the peach fuzz on our faces. We all glance, amazed, at the dancing heart beats in our neck that never stop celebrating being alive, at least, not until they do stop.

I try to approach life with this in mind, and talking about our culture of threats, outrage, and weapons makes this approach, the approach of empathy, all the more important.

Godzilla is What Happens to a Culture Changed by Nuclear Destruction

I watched a newer version of Godzilla with my husband recently. It was utterly uncomfortable for me to watch and realize what a culture of people, permanently changed by nuclear bombs, could come up with as one of the most monstrous, feared, and repeatedly reimagined monsters in history.

Get this: Godzilla is literally the incarnation of nuclear ambition gone wrong.

Godzilla is literally what happens to innocent lives when people play around with things they don’t understand.

In this rendering of Godzilla, the United States gets involved, assuring the Japanese government that they are the ones that can destroy this creature with—GUESS WHAT?…Nuclear warheads.

The Japanese are understandably upset about receiving this ultimatum that they get their people out of the city, or they get destroyed along with the monster by the bombs. Their culture is practically built around a fear of nuclear weapons, a hatred of them, a desire for peace. But, in the end, the Japanese agree that there is no other way. The city is evacuated, and they prepare for nuclear war on the hibernating Godzilla as he recoups his strength for another blow on the city.

Scientists involved with coming up with a way to defeat Godzilla won’t have it, though. They refuse to leave. They continue orchestrating a plan to defeat Godzilla before the bombs can touch down. It’s not an easy fight, and it involves a great deal of resources, math, and quite a bit of death from the people fighting, but science wins the day.

Godzilla ultimately does not fall to nuclear war heads. Why would he, anyway? He’s basically made of the stuff. He falls to science, to perseverance, dedication to a cause.

I’m not a huge Godzilla fan, but I’ve been especially attuned to anything “nuclear-related” these days, as I’m sure you can imagine why. Ever since I learned about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a relatively young girl, I’ve had an unmitigated hatred of gigantic weapons that destroy without conscience, without intelligence, without discrimination.

Metal Gear Solid: Priming Gamers to Choose Peace

Another interesting tidbit for you: Japanese games also reflect a changed culture and disdain for nuclear weapons.

My husband is an unabashed fangirl of a man named Hideo Kojima.

Kojima is one of the most innovative game makers in the world. He is brilliant, eccentric, and does not hold back his metaphorical punches.

Kojima is primarily responsible for a series of games called Metal Gear. There are five of them up to this point, and any further Metal Gear games will not be associated with him, as he left the company that owns the rights to them.

Kojima didn’t want to make a war game, but that’s what he was recruited to do all those years ago when his Metal Gear journey started. But, never fear. If he was going to make a war game, he was going to do it HIS way.

In the Metal Gear games, the dialogue is renowned for bits of life-altering knowledge and mind-game-like changes in perspective that force the player to examine themselves while playing. This can be in instances where the villain directs his inquiries to you, the player, not you, the character.


Because I love my husband, I’ve watched several videos going into deep explanations of the purposes behind stunts like this. Despite myself, I find it incredibly interesting.

So, what would be the purpose behind scaring the wits out of the player. In this instance, you, the character, are facing the villain, Psychomantis. The villain, instead of addressing this “fake” you, this “fictional” you, address YOU, you. He digs into the history on your game system and talks about what other games you’ve been playing. In my opinion, this is the classic, put a mirror in a room to cause self-awareness scenario.

In case you’re unfamiliar, many psychological studies involve having someone undergo testing in a room with a mirror. This has been proven to cause people to be more self-aware, reflective, introspective. In other words, being self-aware is a positive thing and it can be forced by implementing tools like mirrors (or Psychomantis).

Video games are meant to take you out of your own mind. You get to pretend to be someone else. You adopt someone else’s thoughts and principles. Not here. Kojima wanted to player to realize as he was facing down a villain and a threat that this wasn’t a normal interaction, and what was about to go down was meant to be directed at the player.

“From the moment we’re thrown into this world, we’re fated to bring each other nothing but pain and misery.”

-Psychomantis in Metal Gear Solid 1

Look at the quote above and imagine a villain saying that. First of all, what an excellent video game character. Second of all, what a way to get someone’s attention. This wasn’t meant to get lose in the swarm of cheesy video game dialogue. This was meant to stick in the mind of the player, as it did with my husband. It was meant to change people.

I’ve never seen these earlier games in action, but I have watched Parker Play Metal Gear Solid V. In the most recent rendition of Metal Gear, I’ve learned there is a game mechanic that plays off this early attempt at self-awareness.

You play as a medic, transformed to look like the character “Big Boss” who is really not a very good guy. But, you, the you underneath can choose to really be “big boss” and kill indiscriminately, or you can play the game as it’s meant to be played, with stealth, without killing anyone, as a medic would. You can choose to be like the person you are underneath: a healer.

As Big Boss, you have many duties. One of them is collecting money and material to make your base bigger, fill it with competent soldiers, and, if you choose, defend it with nuclear war heads. One of the brilliant things about this mechanic is that Metal Gear Solid Five is always online. Other players can interact with your base, can destroy it with their nuclear war heads if they choose.

Why did Kojima put something like this in place? It wasn’t to watch the world burn, if that’s what you’re thinking.

He did it because he wants people to choose peace. If no one has nuclear bombs, then no one fears that someone will destroy them with nuclear bombs, and nuclear bombs are rendered unnecessary.

It’s a guessing game, and a dangerous one. And that’s the point. Kojima doesn’t play around with war games. He has a purpose, and that purpose is to make the player self-aware. That brings us to Death Stranding.

Death Stranding: A Game to Change a Generation

As with Metal Gear, I’ve watched many videos about the upcoming release of Death Stranding. There are a lot of basic things to know about this release, so I’ll try to sum this up quickly and easily:

  • Kojima no longer works for the people who made Metal Gear. He has creative freedom.
  • Kojima wants to change the way video games are played. This could mean changing the way players interact with each other in a mechanic similar to choose or don’t choose to have nuclear bombs and destroy each other as with MGS5. It could also mean that he intends to change the way players think about themselves in the game as with MGS1 (recall the conversation with Psychomantis).
  • Kojima has released several previews for the game, all of which have been heavily, heavily analyzed like pieces of literature. I’ll link to them below, in case you’re interested.




Here are some analysis videos:



Because most of what we have seen of this game comes down to speculation, I’d like to share some of mine.

In the previews, there are some gigantic creatures that I feel are Godzilla-like representations of nuclear power. In one of the previews, Norman Reetus’ character has this thing on his back, powered by a fetus, that is able to pick up on the presence of the monsters, much like a geiger-counter. When it moves, you know one is near, and when it’s near enough, you better not even breathe because it will find you and it will toss you into the death void.

This black, vitriolic substance that the monsters are made of seems to stick to everything. It’s everywhere! It leaks from the walls, it clings to animals, and it pours from the eyes of Mads Mikkelsen’s character.

Here’s another thing you need to know about Metal Gear Solid Five, the most recent Metal Gear game as I mentioned:

If you choose to have nuclear weapons, and the more you kill, the more the piece of shrapnel in your head grows like a horn in accordance with the blood on your hands.

Death Stranding seems to be implying a similar mechanic. My theory is that this black substance everywhere is almost like that horn. It clings to everything, it pours out of the eyes of the tainted villains, it gets control, it forms monsters that answer to no one.

Every bit of this leads back to one thing: Kojima is trying to change the world, and he is trying to create a culture that wants no part of nuclear weaponry.

Twitter Threats and Epithets

“North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)

Japan is under threat again, lying directly in the line of fire between two madmen. As are we all. Japan has become a culture of honor, considerateness, and pacifism more than ever before because of what nuclear destruction did to them.

The messages of Godzilla, Metal Gear, and Death Stranding grow more and more important each moment that we sit and pretend that powerful people aren’t playing with nuclear weapons like they’re measuring sticks of political power.

Nuclear weapons aren’t toys, they aren’t threats, they shouldn’t even be tools. I think Hideo Kojima is right. If we can choose, all of us, not to let the black taint of nuclear ambition, violence, and hatred taint us, keep the ever-vigilant geiger-counter of future generations on our backs, then the world will be better for it.

Be vigilant. And remember. We are all human beings with dancing heartbeats in our necks, and more than anything, we are all very much the same. We can succumb to peace generation by generation.

Painting, Like Most Things, Is Great For Second Chances

I’m a writer, mostly. But, I grew up with a pen in my hand, crayons in my mouth, markers holding up my pony tail. I grew up, curious, touching cheap canvas, smelling paints as my dad set out his oils, desperately trying to get pictures from my brain into reality. I draw, I paint, and I love to leave the mark of my mind on things that will outlast it.

I was painting yesterday, and this wonderful thing happened where, in the silent of the house, fingers gripped to brush, swirling colors together like an art-alchemist, my mind hit the smooth pavement of its thoughts and cruised. It felt dangerously free. It felt inclined to remind me of everything I wasn’t really wanting to think on at the moment. But, at times, it simply was. I simply was, and my fingers did the talking.

It’s great to paint with cheap acrylics because there’s almost no such thing as a permanent mistake. I drew a quick sketch with an art pen, mixed my colors and slathered on the first layer. The freedom that comes with that sloppy strokes, covering ground recklessly, is knowing that the first stroke is nothing but foundation, nothing but a primer to cling to the better stuff to come.

As I progressed, I adjusted. I saw that things weren’t quite right, and I went darker, deeper, thinner, fatter, clearer, more detailed. Sometimes my shaking fingers didn’t quite get the curve right, didn’t quite capture the precision I was going for, so I let it dry and tried again.

With painting, there’s no pressure. You experiment until it feels right. I wonder why it’s so much harder to accept this in other disciplines and in life in general. With writing, we think it must be perfect on the first draft. I’m a bad writer if I make that mistake, if I can’t quite portray what I mean to.

But writing, like painting, is made for second chances, second drafts, and second opinions. It’s made for fresh eyes and readjusting.

Don’t let the mistakes get the best of you. Just adjust and try again.

America, We’ve Got a Problem

I know things are sensitive. People are sensitive. I know that lines, that boundaries, that territorial disputes in the political realm are sensitive. But, I’d say what’s even more sensitive is premature and violent death of family and friends.

I know that it’s good to be proud of your nation, to sing your anthem and think upon the centuries through which great heroes and common ideals have brought it into the new age. But, now is not a time to be proud. Now is not a time to fake patriotism. Our system is broken, and that does not make me proud. It makes me angry. I feel the injustice, greed, and power-hungry lies and placating, brown-nosing and cowardice like a slow, drowning anger.

I don’t hate America while having some beef with it. I’m not Anti-American for saying that there are some problems that need to be addressed that many are refusing to address. Let me tell you one thing, if I hear one more person say, “the left” or “the right” I will light all my clothes on fire and streak naked through the streets until I rot in jail. This isn’t a political issue. This is a human issue and people are playing party lines for tweet likes and continued power. That’s evil. That is evil.

Let me just walk you all through a scenario. Imagine that Jimmy has forty two life-sized teddy bears with mechanical arms, he only ever uses his teddy bears for hugs and for holding things. But, Jimmy’s next door neighbor uses his teddy bear to get food, and that’s okay, too. The strong arms of the teddy bear are great for picking cans up off of shelves. What really blows Jimmy’s mind is that someone would use something as strong and dangerous as a teddy bear to hurt people. Jimmy’s never hurt anyone with the teddy bear, so what would compel someone to hurt other people with the teddy bear?

Just think about this. I heard the argument that no one ever makes restrictions on fertilizers when bombs start going off (that’s not true), but even still, that’s not the best analogy. Fertilizer has a non-lethal purpose. Fertilizer is meant for the earth. Teddy bears are built for hugs and holding things. If someone went into a supermarket and beat someone to death with a hammer, you wouldn’t see outrage about the accessibility of hammers because hammers have a non-lethal purpose.

Tell me, what is the inherent purpose of a gun? It’s not to hug it. I will let you know right now that I won’t support guns being taken away from people. Guns are for hunting and recreation, but their core purpose, the reason they were made was to hurt and kill. Aristotle had this way of thinking about things where he would refer to a thing’s virtue, it’s telos. Telos refers to what something’s ultimate goal or purpose is. Aristotle questioned this because he wondered what the telos was for human beings, but in demonstrating this he would use objects and say things like, “What is the telos of a knife?” Well, what do you do with knives? You cut with them, so what is it’s purpose? What should it be? Sharp. The knife, should be sharp. What is the telos of a gun?

I don’t want to take anyone’s legally-obtained guns away. If anyone hears that as an item on the agenda from the news, then the anchors and writers are playing into the problem and they deserve to be fired.

You know what else? I understand that making things illegal would only mean that people would get more from Mexico and the wrong people would find ways to get guns illegally. The point is not to make guns illegal. The point is to make them very hard to get for psychos. If you’re a normal person who doesn’t have murderous tendencies, that shouldn’t be a problem, now should it? Already have fifteen guns in the gun closet? That’s great. Keep a close eye on those suckers. Your life won’t change except for that it should be so illegal for you to sell your guns in a back parking lot to some nobody that the penalties aren’t worth the risk. That doesn’t sound like too much of a request, now does it?

We want the good guys to have guns to defend their families. As much as I personally hate guns, I understand the need some people feel to have that safety blanket. Regardless of statistics that more people die in homes with guns, regardless of the studies that show aggression increases with the mere sight and presence of a gun. Guns are aggressive, violent creations no matter what anyone says about it. But still, I don’t want to take those away. Stop making this a party issue, world. It’s not. This is an American issue because hundreds, no…THOUSANDS of people are dying.

Like during any epidemic, the leadership must figure out a way to nip it in the bud. And we must be there to think about it reasonably, to discuss it without regard to party lines, to find a solution to the problem alongside the people who run our government.



“Uploaded” Part 2

The following day, I take my day off from school to go to Paul’s house. When I knock on the door, it takes several minutes before the door creaks open. I see Paul’s mom’s red-rimmed eyes in the crevice. I begin to think I’ve made a horrible mistake by coming when she opens the door a little wider.

She looks pale and thin….gaunt, even. “Loren, it’s so good to see you. Come in.”

I follow her into the home I’ve been in and out of since I was five, and I feel like a stranger. Paul’s Dad and sisters are not home, so Lisa takes me to the kitchen and sits me down at the bar.

“Would you like something to eat?” she says, sounding like she has the urgent need to blow her nose.

“I would love something, if you have it.”

“How about some macaroni? It’s a bit old, but still good, I think.”

“That sounds amazing,” I say honestly.

She heats the macaroni in the microwave, pours me a glass of water, and sets it all down in front of me.

“How’s school?” she asks. I think to myself this is probably deliberate. She knows why I’m here, without a doubt. I play along, regardless.

“Oh, you know. We’re going through a history unit in almost every room, so that’s kind of unfortunate. But, I hear we’re going to get some technology and cyber development units in pretty soon, so we’re all pretty excited about that.”

“I can imagine!” She leans on the counter, pulling a used tissue from her pocket and sliding it under her nose.

“Lisa…” I say, putting my fork down on the counter. “Are you all right?”

I watch in anguish as the woman who has cheerfully acted as my second mother lowers her head, her lip trembling uncontrollably, fresh tears sliding down her face.

I leave my seat immediately and go around to her, hugging her. Even as she cries, I look over her shoulder at their upload unit, tucked away in the corner of the entertainment room.

She guesses where I am looking and says, “I never guessed, Loren. I never even thought to make sure he was doing it.”

“Then…it’s real. He really didn’t upload?”

She nods, her chin sliding down again, her arms hugging herself. I feel a bit like I’m sliding, sliding into a chasm of despair. Never seeing Paul again…that was…it was too much.

I sit mechanically at the counter and begin to put the cold macaroni in my mouth, not tasting or enjoying.

“Isn’t there a way we can fix this?” I ask her, feeling the morbid permanence of my friend’s absence with a sudden force.

The woman smiles sweetly at me as she tosses another crumpled tissue into the trash bin. “If only there were. Thanks for coming, Loren. I’m sorry I don’t have better news for you.”

I shake my head and get up from my chair, forgetting the macaroni. “Let me know if you need anything, Lisa.”

She kisses me on the forehead and lets me out of the front door. I see Red’s car pull in with the girls in the backseat, but with my earbuds tucked in, I ignore them and move on. I don’t have room for anyone else’s sorrow. I am brewing a plan fit to put all of this grief behind us. I will only face them when it is accomplished.

I make a visit to the only morgue in town. Presumably Paul would still be present before they passed his body into the hands of the morticians. When I enter, the woman at the counter looks at me with bland, bored eyes.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m here to see Paul Brennan.”

“What for?” She didn’t remove her eyes from his face, nor did she change her expression. “He’s dead, you know.”

I try to stifle the rage, and, shaking, I close my eyes to take a breath. “Can I see him or not?”

“I guess. Wouldn’t do any harm.” She pushes a clipboard toward me which I sign before passing through the double doors marked “Authorized Entry Only.”

The only autopsy technician in town is a renowned AI called “Frank.” The thought was probably that such a hilariously commonplace name would make people feel easier about a robot programmed to do such a gruesome job, but of course, it only made things more uncomfortable for the humans whose loved ones went under the robot’s knife.

As I enter, I can see that Frank is busy sterilizing his tools at the sink.

“Excuse me?” I approach carefully, seeing that many of the things in his grip are quite sharp. “I was hoping I’d be able to see Paul Brennan?” I say it as a question, trying to seem as harmless as possible to the calculating brain of the AI.

He turns to look at me, the laser red pupil of his eye wiggling as it searches me from head to toe. “Why do you come to see a dead man?”

“I wanted to see for myself…that he’s’ really dead,” I say with some honesty. After some staring and bobbing in space, Frank turns and leads me into the room with the refrigerated slabs. I feel a rush of uneasiness as I follow the robot into the filing cabinet for corpses. I’ve heard stories of Frank, and I’ve imagined what the inside of a morgue looks like, but the experience itself is altogether more unnatural than I’d imagined.

Frank hovers to the slab marked 3B and pulls it open. Chill, rotting air pushes out of the tomb and into my nose, and I gag twice.

“He was a handsome boy,” Frank says as observation.

I nod, and approach the body, relieved that, aside from the paleness, the blue lips, the zig zag scars on his chest, he looks very much the same as he did in life. He did not look as broken as I imagined him to be.

As if sensing what I might be thinking, Frank says, “The trolley did not damage his body overmuch. It was the brain that suffered the mortal blow.”

“His brain?” I feel a rock plunge into my stomach, more nausea clinging to me as I contemplate what this means. “What? I mean, is it even salvageable?”

The AI ran his spinning pupil over me, calculating, reading, analyzing. “His occipital lobe was like hammered meat, but the rest was intact. Some bruising on the frontal lobe from the rebound into the front of the skull.”

“God,” I feel the bile in my throat.

“We were able to collect several preserved slides for AI personality integration research. This is common procedure for human deaths.”

“Yeah,” I close my eyes and steady myself on the handle of another slab. “I know. You gotta get your quirky personalities from somewhere.”

Frank, for a moment, does not look at me, at Paul, or anywhere really. He clicks his dexterous fingers on the metal of the slab while seeming to descend into his strange, coded thoughts. After several moments, during which I am beginning to notice the careful stitch-work around Paul’s scalp that sealed up the brainless skull, Frank speaks again.

“I, fortunately, am not a mind reader. I am very good at sensing human motivation, however, and I can see that you have some cause for coming here and talking of the boy’s scrambled brains.”

I ignore the probe for information as a thought strikes me. “You…did you do a neuronal-electro-activity scan?”

If it is possible for a robot to show surprise, I think Frank does it as he tilts his strange head at me in confusion.

“Come on, Frank. School is making a genius of all of us, these days. Now, did you?”

Frank nodded slowly.

“What were the results?”

“Nothing substantial. We did see imprints of his last emotions, predominantly fear, and there is evidence of frequently-traveled neural networks so that we could draw up a personality profile for our research.”

“Do you have the data for that? Can I have a copy of it?”

Frank, then, does something I don’t expect. Renewed horror creeps down my spine as his mouth turns up in a wicked smile.

Teaching Myself Joy

Poetry is purposeful. It’s like a very long breath after having been underwater. One doesn’t write poetry like prose is written, or at least, if they do, they’ve ascended to a level of existence that I won’t understand.

Poetry is not the quick-fingered composition of a novel or a blog post at the keyboard. Sometimes, it is a pen-in-hand, blank-stared emptiness that is only broken by the first stroke of ink on the secure page of a journal. One must slow down to a quarter the speed of life to process what needs written, to place words precisely at the end and the beginning of each line like the zig-zag thread of a repairing stitch on the heart. One must write to the rhythm in their heads, lest it get over-excited and run off the page and into their life.

I find that when I’m not writing poetry, I’m not slowing down. I’m not processing, not enjoying, not being grateful for the minutia of a life as blessed as mine. I once wrote an entire poem about Parker’s freckles, another about the fans of wrinkles beside his eyes when he laughs. I’ve written pour-me-out poems that delve deeper than I wanted to be dug into, that extricated the tumorous glob of untapped bitterness that turned into some of the greatest works I’ve ever made. But, to find that tumorous glob is pain.

I feel that every writer, once something good is written, fears that they will never again write its equal. They’ve finally hit the bottom of the well, and no more magic waters will fill it. There is nothing left to draw on. Of course, sometimes, when the poet feels as if the well is empty, they stand on the porch in the west Texas summer, they see a bird that dips, hovers, and spins, its fan-shaped tail like the oar of a boat, and the sky is its ocean. A poet looks at a bird, painting the sky with movement and the delight of freedom and finds that nothing within herself matters more than the flight of a bird in summer time. Not in that moment.

I think the key to being joyful is pausing. Slowing down. I may not even realize that Parker has freckles on his cheeks until I stop and trip, mentally, on his bodacious eyelashes. Then, a whole epic could be written about the construction of those freckles into constellations, map-markers of adventures in the sunshine.

Of course, sometimes poetry is like drawing blood. The blood that’s tainted that keeps pumping back through the poet’s heart cannot continue to live in the bloodstream. It must be drawn out and given its place on the page. Once the cancerous blood is allowed its seat of honor on its own page in the journal, the joy returns then, too. I paused and respected the wish of the pain to be let loose, and it respected me in return.

I, the poet, and many other pausers and writers do not often give enough effort in our emotional extrications. We may glimpse the cancerous tumor and allow it to continue blowing itself up like an alcohol-imbibed liver because it will not be fun to really give it the attention it asks for. We also do not want to be joyful in our writing because it would require that slowed down time. It would require the effort of scavenging for the satisfactions that lay like perfect autumn leaves on a bed of lesser ones.

I wish to pinch the red maple leaf with its fine points and webbed veins in between the pages and preserve it for another lifetime. It is beautiful, after all.

“Uploaded” Part 1

Picture by Larisa Koshkina




I leave the house as I always do, eyes skirting the floor, headphones plugged deep into both ears, a faint nod to my mother on the way out.

My neighbors think me a bit odd for not taking the tram to school, but it’s such a short walk, and the weather is so temperate. I walk in with a light, humid sweat on my face and several of the more traditional-minded students whisper about me to their friends.

My friends are at the lunch table in the far right corner, as they are every afternoon. It seems we’re eating vitamin preserves for the fourth day in a row.

“Ugh,” I say as I join them. “At least tell me they’re not raspberry flavored again.”

Harv slaps his spoon onto the gelatinous substance and we both watch it jiggle. “Nope, I think it’s raspberry. But, my mom’s making hamburgers tonight, so I can swing this.”

“Lucky,” I say, eyeing everyone else’s portions bitterly. “I think I’ll just skip it today.”

“Careful,” he says, barely slipping a bite in between his teeth. “You only get two skips a month, and you’ve already used one, remember?”

I snap my plastic spoon and hang my head, “Now I do.”

“Just muscle through, Loren. It wouldn’t be worth a detention.”

I do as he suggests and begin to spill the vitamin supplements into my mouth in an attempt not to taste it or dwell on the texture. I look down the table and notice that Paul’s seat is empty. It’s extremely rare for students to miss school, so I feel a tickle of worry crawl up my spine.

“Have you heard from Paul, Harv?”

“No, I haven’t. Actually, come to think of it, I messaged him this weekend about seeing a movie and never heard back.”

“Huh…” I dump my lunch container in the trash incinerator and stew in my thoughts for the rest of the lunch hour.

As the bell rings, we make our way to the classrooms. I split ways with Harvey and arrive in room B107, the Biography room. I sit, along with twelve other students, in an arm chair which cradles my back, and feel the upload helmet slip over my head and morph to my face.

I hate the smell of the upload helmet, but if the lesson is interesting enough, I usually forget about it.

Today I only get to choose between early 20th century war heroes and Renaissance painters of the 14th century. I weigh my options carefully before selecting the painters lesson and let it stream into my brain. Though uploads only take a few minutes, it feels like hours as your brain slows down to process all the information. I would drift off, but the system automatically caffeinates you every time you feel the urge to yawn, so I’m wired and jittery by the time the lesson is over.

I switch rooms three times and churn through whatever uninteresting material they have to sponge into us before they let us out for the day. As with most days, I avoid going home until my mother absolutely expects me back.

It’s 5:59 as I finally broach the porch to my house, and I can smell dinner filtering out through an open window. It smells smokey and burned. I take a resigned step indoors and flick my earbuds out of my ears to say hello to my mother. I am faintly exhausted after three upload lessons and several hours at the arcade in VR.

“Hey, mom.” I swing my backpack off and avoid looking at her. I can sense without looking in her direction that she’s already a mess for tonight.

“Hey, honey!” she calls from the kitchen, suddenly making a lot of noise with pans. “I tried to make spaghetti for dinner, but I lost track of time and burned it up pretty good.” She rounded the corner from the kitchen and looked at me guiltily. “Do you hate me?”

I roll my eyes. “Why would I hate you, mom? Let’s just order some Chinese.”

“I’ve got them on speed-dial one if you want to use my phone.”

I do as she says and order our usual. Even with the general chaos of clanging pans and smoke alarms blaring every few minutes, I can sense that something else is wrong with her. She’s hiding some kind of stress.

“What’s up, mom?” I ask from near the open window, so I can breath properly.

“Well, honey. I’ve got some bad news for you.” She abandons her mountain of charred pots in the sink and turns to me. “Come and sit with me on the couch a moment.”

I refrain from rolling my eyes again. She’s done this bit more than once, and it doesn’t ever get easier to sit through. She sits next to me on the sofa and reaches for my hand. “Honey,” she says, and I lose track of time staring at the bags under her eyes.

I think, “Man, has she always looked this old? Is it because of the Divorce? I wonder if the Chinese place has any job openings…only two manned positions per restaurant after the AI Inclusion Ordinance. It’d be nice to waste some time in the evenings being productive…and I’d probably get free food…”

“…are you going to be okay?” she asks after a while.

“Hmm?” I rip my stare away from her wrinkled eyelids.

“Are you going to be okay? I mean…nothing like this has ever happened to you before.”

I start a tumultuous war in my head trying to decide if I should ask her to repeat what she said or just pass it off.

“Did you hear what I said? Paul…Paul is dead.”

This time, I’m alert. I look at her, but don’t see her. I feel my tongue tracking dryly across the roof of my mouth, and I try to swallow. “W-What? Paul died?”

“Yes, dear.” And then she does something uncommonly motherly by stroking my hair. “He got hit by a tram last Friday. His family has been keeping it quiet.”

“But—But I saw him Friday afternoon at school!” My mother looks at me with pity, and I suddenly feel so much anger at her that I want to hit her. She senses my frustration, it seems, because she leaps off the couch and puts some distance between us.

“Honey…that’s not all.”

“No, I think I’m done with this conversation.” I close my eyes and rub my temples, trying to maintain control. “When the delivery guy gets here, don’t forget to tip. I’ll be out in a few hours.”

“But—dear, you should know—“

“Shut. Up. Shut up.” I see her wrinkled eye bags quiver as a fat tear begins to form in the corners of her eyes.

I leave her like this, refusing to feel guilty. If she’s correct and Paul really is dead, then there’s any easy solution to this.

I slip into my room and strip my clothes, attaching cables to my temples, heart, fingers, knees, and feet. I then sit carefully back in my chair and call out, “Initiate transfer.”

When I open my eyes again, I’m on my bed in my room and Bacon is there. He jumps on my bed, purring loudly and rubbing his fluffy tail against my face.

“Hey buddy,” I pick him up and scratch his ears and chin and plant kisses all over his fuzzy whisker face. “Got some errands to take care of. You’re welcome to come with me.”

I leave my room, then, with Bacon at my heels and cross to the room to the right of mine. I do not knock before entering. The fire is going and grandma’s rocking chair is tilting rhythmically as she reads. When she hears me come in, she shoves her book underneath the afghan on her lap.

“Hey, Gramma. How’s your day?” I crouch next to her chair and grab her proffered hand.

“Oh, just about like any other day,” she smiles and chuckles.

“Reading Dean Koontz again, are we?”

Gramma blushes and hangs her head. “Now, don’t give me any grief about it, Loren. This one’s juicy, but your mom already blacked out all the good stuff.”

I smile at her and kiss her cheek. “Remind me to get you a copy you can hide from mom.”

She looks at me with a glint of hope and treason in her eyes, “You would do that for me?”

“Come on, Gramma, you’ve got to have something to look forward to for the rest of eternity!”

“Damn straight!” Gramma says and winks at me.

“I’m going to go check on some others, okay. I’ll be back tonight after dinner.”

“Chinese food again?”

“How’d you know?”

There were several other rooms in the quadrant with inhabitants that needed visiting. When I had made my rounds, Bacon stealing pats and tickles from every room, I shiver and brace up to what I’m about to have to do. It’s never fun the first time.

I approach the download screen and search “Paul Brennan” on the monitor. The search is slow as several other faces with the name “Paul” assigned filter through and disappear. When his profile comes up, I scroll to the bottom for the download link.

Paul Brennan, born 27 January, 2290. DOD 10 April, 2309.

I feel a heavy sigh escape me. I scroll further. The last thing written at the bottom of his profile strikes me cold and hollow.

No Downloads Available.

“That can’t be right.”

I erase the search history and type in “Paul Brennan download link.”

To which, the monitor replies: No Results Found.

“No. That…That can’t be right. He wouldn’t do this. Who would do this?”

I feel Bacon rub his sides against my ankles. He always had a sense of when I was upset. I pick him up and cuddle him to my face.

“I won’t panic, yet. This isn’t absolute.” I leave the visitation room with the resolve to visit Paul’s parents tomorrow.

Gunmen and Reality More Cruel than Fiction

The tossing hum of the laundromat and its faint, mechanic heat lulled me as I waited for my clothes to wash. In and out, people carried their tubs of clothes, their tired faces and the mid-afternoon breeze pulling through the open door made me feel like a contented spot on the floor. An unnoticed piece observing the greater workings of human life.

I like to sit on the outside and observe. I like to empty my brain and feel like a spot on the tile, an ornament. But, as I enjoyed my anonymity, my recession into my thoughts, the droning of the television caught my attention. Headlines of massacre pulled me up and sat me firmly on my feet. “Worst Mass Shooting in U.S. History,” the television read.

A man, peeking through a hotel window with a heavily powered gun watched concert goers through his scope and waited until the time was ripe.

I am breathless as I stand, several others near me as riveted to the screen as I. I wonder, I stumble, I wheeze in consternation. Only moments before, I was anonymous, but as I singled my vision on the number of dead, all of the sudden, I felt like I was standing on the edge of the world, watching as the people next to me, one who was holding my hand, another who I had shared coffee with were leaping off into the chasm.

Some like to think that the world is a more dangerous place now than it has ever been. I’m not an expert, but of course, I don’t think that’s true. Humans have been annihilating each other since they could find sharp enough sticks or rocks to accomplish the task. Ambition, greed, jealousy, power…instinct? These deep seated, easily overlooked pieces of the character of mankind rear their ugly heads and take down the innocent in droves.

When I first started studying Psychology, I was introduce to something called The Stanford Prison Experiment. I won’t attempt to go into it here, if my reader is unfamiliar, but I will say that it sent me into such a disgusted depression, that I accomplished nothing but writing an angst-filled song at the end of the night. Are we animals? Are human beings incapable of controlling their violent temperaments? Are we going to keep murdering each other senselessly for the rest of time?

Am I going to have to cling so tightly to my loved ones that they can’t attend concerts, can’t board planes, can’t take the trains, can’t leave the gosh darned living room? For Pete’s sake, will I have to wear a bullet proof vest to leave the house?

Of course, the idealist in me screams at the injustice. We all wonder why in times like these. We wonder why the man shot all those people, and newscasters were ignorant as to his motive at the time of the broadcast. They saw no motive, no connection, nothing but the unstable mind of the murderer, son of a man on the most wanted list. Well, I thought about it. I puzzled and puzzled, as I often do when things go horribly wrong in the harmony of life, and I began to think that I had some semblance of an answer. It’s an answer I’ve had for many things in the past years, but I will nonetheless apply it here, too.

Why do people kill? How can someone turn a gun at a crowd of innocent people, none of which he has ever met before?

The answer? Humans have trouble seeing other people as human, too. I mean, really human, not by definition, not by association, not by comparison. Really, really human. They have trouble looking past a face that looks like their own, a title, a name that they go by, a package carrying a personality with its own perceptions and desires.

We label, we categorize, we disassociate. We lump.

Personally, I have a difficult time leaping out of my own head and seeing people. My husband is probably the first person that I truly saw. And by golly, I sure loved what I saw.

I don’t have a solution to accompany this answer, necessarily. I’m no less troubled, no less heartbroken at the existence of evil, murder, self-consumption. However, I can hope upon hope that humanity will one day learn to stop lumping and start talking, reading, and seeing.

We’ve All Got to Anchor Somewhere

Sometimes, I feel like a bobbing buoy, detached from its lifeline, flailing about in the waves of a grumpy storm. I’m not drowning, but I’m definitely unhappy out here.

A buoy belongs on its tether, and sometimes it should be allowed to sway here and sway there, piddle along with one ripple or another, hop free of the water for a brief moment, taken with the momentum, but it must always return to its tethered center. It must be centered, or it is lost.

—-0—–0—–0—–0—-0—–0—-0—-\(. _ .)/—-0—-0—-0—-0—-0—-0—-0—-0——-

It’s taken me a while to know myself, and in a way, it’s beautiful that I’m still figuring out my own brain, but it’s also disorienting, sometimes painful. It was only in the last year or two that I figured out that other introverts, like me, have to have a “base.” This might be common to all people, but particularly for introverts, this base is a place that they have as their own. It is their place to defrag and sort out the mess of their consciousness.

For me, while I was in college, this place was a coffee shop near campus. I liked it best when there were a few other people there, chatting quietly to cut the quiet, no music, just car noise from the window, a slight breeze giving it a good shake. I like to find my corner, put pen to paper, and let latte lips and fingertips drive me back to sanity. I know, that probably sounds so “hipster.” But it was my place, my anchor. I became so dependent on this routine that every time I went to the coffee shop, I knew I’d be able to come back to my dorm with a poem. I knew that I’d leave with something I’d created.

I cried many times in my corner of the coffee shop, disregarding the throngs of people, in-and-out, laughing maniacally, sometimes singing and asking for a highlighter to be thrown at their face. I would go when my frazzled brain tips were wigging out inside my brain, flinging themselves like tantruming toddlers all over my thoughts. I would be on the verge of a breakdown, tears brimming, heart empty, and more than once, the barista behind the counter would fake ring-up a coffee. Their kindness and the relief of being in that place would center me, would push me over the edge so I could get that cry out and put myself back on track. I used to eat stress three meals a day, but at least I always had that.

Right now, I’m adrift. I try to always find my center, my anchoring place, though I haven’t had a true “home” since before I graduated high school. At my in-law’s house, I found a home at my father in-law’s hand-made table at the far end, surrounded by windows, my back supported by a soft cushion. I’d cross my legs and thousands of words would fly out me to find their home in my fiction. It wasn’t ideal, maybe, but it was my center. Their home wasn’t my home, but it was a good enough stand-in, a beautiful stand-in.

Here, we make our stand-in home at a hotel. There’s nowhere to sit, and sometimes I don’t see another human face for eleven hours. I find myself bereft of inspiration, energy, or determination. I feel emptied without having gone through the effort of emptying myself. I feel drained, as a matter of fact, and often, I blame the fact that I don’t have a tether. There is no place to which I can relocate to physically and mentally distance myself from whatever issues are associated with the space I live in. There is no place I can go to where people in a similar state of mind gather to work out their tangled inner coils.

I feel like I’m a flailing buoy, head upside down in the ocean, legs kicking skyward like mad.

Don’t get me wrong, there are joys here. I have three constant blessings, all of them living things that renew my spirit and hopes. But, renewing emotional strength isn’t just a matter of my loved ones being near, it is about an enriching environment, a welcoming space where welcoming minds make tremors in the world, silently, on paper, in their thoughts, in whispers by the window.

Introverts, find your centers. Humans, get your tethers together. Everyone needs a room of one’s own. We all need our anchors. Heaven help the flailing buoys.