March 2015

The saddest thing about houses, I think, is that they can’t tell when someone is dead. They blithely support all the crumpled prescription slips on the countertop as if the deceased will be back any minute, lovingly maintain full laundry hampers that will never be emptied. Only dust makes it clear, in time, that they are empty for good.

I’d resolved that wasn’t going to happen to Dad’s place.

He’d lived alone for years, stubbornly alone, insisting on doing what he could do on his own and cutting out the rest. “The rest” had mostly meant me and Mom, though with her in the home for Alzheimers I suppose he could be forgiven. He could barely take care of himself at the end, much less anyone else. We hadn’t spoken in months, nearly a year.

About a week after the service, and two weeks after they’d found him slumped over on a park bench, I first broached the house to try and see about getting it cleaned out. There wasn’t any nostalgia on my part, since Dad hadn’t lived in the house I grew up in for years, but in many ways that made it worse. The place was all Dad and only Dad to me, every mote of dust suffused with his presence.

Wandering through the garage, I saw that his tools were still laid out on the workbench. I don’t know tools; he might have been tinkering with an automobile part that sat there in a greasy puddle, or maybe on the wood carvings he’d occasionally whittled away at.

Maybe they’d just been out to be out, to have something to look at and work with. It couldn’t have been easy with his arthritic fingers, but organizing tools had always been one of Dad’s great joys.

The kitchen carried that theme of organization that had been Dad as long as I could remember. Prescriptions laid out crumpled but neat in the order they expired, lists of chores that he was still able to do at 85, and of course the big stained whiteboard calendar that had been his weekly schedule as far back as I could remember. I’d always hated it, hated the way it had filled up with soccer and softball, and I’d caught hell a few times erasing events I didn’t care to attend as a kid back in the old house.

Only one event was on the calendar for that month, written in over the ghosts of a hundred others on the day Dad had died. “THURSDAY 3/31: CALL SON.”

I recoiled a bit at that, stumbling backwards and groping for purchase against the shock.

Dad didn’t have any sons. I was his only daughter.

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Thickets of tiny wildflowers dappled like snow against the verdant grass that met the sky at the horizon.

I awoke there in times of great stress, great hardship, great danger. Fourteen times, more or less, wandering under a warm late-afternoon sun that never shifted in the sky amid scents that never seemed to dim.

The shade usually appears in the distance, as indistinct as a watercolor. She draws away from me when I approach, her path musical with gentle laughter, and I am only able to catch up to her through trickery.

This time, I doubled back in a series of narrowing concentric circles to approach her figure, as indistinct up close as it was from afar.

“Where is this place,” I asked, “and who are you?”

“It is a place of safety from which to confront a hostile world, cared-for and loved by the only one who ever did the same for you.”

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“Don’t you see? It’s blocks all the way down. We’re built from molecules, and molecules from atoms, and atoms from quarks. Building blocks upon building blocks, all in tune with the rhythm and pulse of the universe. To build is essential, it is to partake in the universal engines of creation and light.”

“Be that as it may, you’re still not getting that 2000-piece, $299.99 Lego set.”

“But Mom! I NEED it!”

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In the old days, when the world was but young and the creatures were but new upon it, a sparrow approached its young mother, the Earth below, with a request.

“Mother,” it said most politely, “I have a boon to ask of thee.”

“Speak, then, little flutterer,” said the Earth. In those days, young and so very proud of her creations, she whispered lovingly to all of them in the dewey mornings and misty evenings. The stony silence she bears now is, after all, borne of the long hurt that only a mother can know, and not of hatred.

“I would like to know why it is that I must die,” the sparrow said.

“Many have asked me this before, and it has ever been a prelude to asking eternal life of me,” answered the Earth.

“I would be lying, dear Mother, if I said it were not so,” said the sparrow. “But Father ever gives off warmth and light, seemingly asking nothing in return, while thine gifts are only good for a time, until we inevitably return them to thee.”

“And yet has your Father in the sky ever held thee, ever whispered to thee, ever provided hollows in which to hide and sticks with which to build?” asked the Earth. “I think not. His gifts are fine and without recompense, but they are the gifts of an absent parent, sent instead of love rather than with love, by one who is too busy flitting and dancing for real responsibility.”

“But I also flit and dance after a fashion, dear Mother,” said the sparrow. “Surely thou can part with what it would take to show me the same regard that Father does.”

This greatly saddened the Earth. “I will make you a bargain then, sparrow. I will hold myself apart from thee and take thee not into my bosom in death. We shall see, then how much regard I show for three.”

The sparrow eagerly agreed, and that very night he sprang from the jaws of one who would otherwise have slain him. But soon he came to see he folly of his request: in holding herself apart from him, the Earth offered neither shelter nor succor. Perches and nests failed to warm, food failed to satisfy, water failed to slake thirst.

Worse, the sparrow came to see how its mate, its chicks, and all of its flock in time came to rest in the embrace of their loving mother. The sparrow was soon cut off from family and flock, regarded as a curious old outsider even by his own descendants.

After the passage of much time, the sparrow returned to his mother. “O mother, I beg of thee, take back this gift which has been my curse,” he wept. “I see now what you meant all those many years ago.”

“Do you now, little flutterer?” The Earth was much saddened in those later days, and already beginning to withdraw herself from her beloved children into solitude. “What would you ask of me now? What impossible and selfish demands?”

“I ask only to return that which I once borrowed from thee and, in my impudence, sought to keep,” said the sparrow. “I can hear the keening call of the Great Flock, and wish only to be reunited with them.”

“You see now what your pride has wrought?” said the Earth.

“I do.”

“Then embrace me, O flutterer.”

That was the last time a sparrow ever spoke to the Earth, our mother, and the last request she granted unto us. And yet we remain grateful all the same, for without her daily gifts, we would perish. And without returning to her in time, we would not have repaid all that we owe.

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Later historians contend that the reason for the Eastern Republic’s stunning defeat at the hands of the Western Empire can be attributed directly to a cultural malaise that afflicted the multitudinous citizens of the polyglot Republic. In the 200 years before its annihilation, the Eastern Republic had gradually withdrawn official recognition of most religious and cultural groups, instead pressing them to amalgamate into the Organization for Universal Life, otherwise known as OFUL. The idea, promoted by seven Prime Ministers in succession, was that the only way to ensure unity amid the staggering diversity of peoples, cultures, and faiths that had come under the Republic’s rule after the end of the Resource Wars was to amalgamate everything into a single whole. If every citizen attended the same church, the same social group, the same civil society, surely unity would follow.

In practice, the doctrine of the OFUL was so diffuse as to be practically nonexistent. Its tenets simply affirmed the belief that life was a good thing and that people should be happy, while encouraging the perusal of whatever members wished. The dissolution of all other organizations in the Republic, intended to give teeth to the various provisions of unity, simply meant that most organizations which had existed before were reconstituted inside the OFUL in secret. Rather than the unity that they had hoped for, the Prime Ministers had created a force of disunity, incapable of exciting passion among its adherents and so watered-down in its tenets that the only ones in its ranks that were true believers were clandestine members of suppressed groups. The only response to diversity was uncertainty of belief, OFUL claimed, and the result was that many believed in nothing at all.

The Western Empire also espoused a state religion, but its embrace of the Cult of the Sages was uncompromising. All citizens who were not part of the Cult were denied the right to participate in civil society and subject to official harassment, confiscation of property, and even state-sponsored murder. The Seven Sages and their collected writings, the Codex Sagax, were considered inviolate and universal truths, applicable to any and all situations. Though there was dissent in the Empire, it was mostly in the form of inter-ethnic conflicts and struggles between different interpretations of the Codex. On the basic truths espoused therein, there was unanimous certainty and support; those who did not cleave to the Codex were so thoroughly terrorized by violence and official repression that they were paralyzed into inaction.

In other words, history often paints the triumph of the Western Empire over the Eastern Republic as one of certainty over doubt, conformity enforced by brutality over milquetoast polygoltism. It’s not a universally-held view, nor is it without its accusations of bias and even various -isms. But it remains the most popular explanation of how the technologically, numerically, and militarily superior forces of the Republic were utterly defeated in a whirlwind 4-month campaign.

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The Egyptian officer, Hassan, took a deep drag on the stub of his cigarette and ground it into the desert sand. “Make it quick,” he said to me. “Take your pictures and get out. We can’t guarantee the security of this site with the fighting so close by.”

His troops, a dozen or so, had fanned out across the site, the first on that day’s tour. They laughed and joked in Arabic, but there was no mistaking their slung Maadi rifles or the digital camouflage they were wearing. This wasn’t a sightseeing trip to the ruins of Amarna; it was a diagnosis.

The site had largely been flattened aboveground by years of depredations from a conga line of conquerors, a veritable who’s who of emperors, caliphs, and kings. Only dusty foundations and the remaining bases of long-toppled pillars stood out in the desert moonscape below the looming mesas in the distance. Well, only foundations, pillar bases, and shell holes. It had only been two days since the site had been wrested back from the ISIS-aligned fighters who’d occupied it for months, and in that time they’d wasted a disproportionate amount of time and ammunition in an attempt to level the site’s “idols” and finish what time had begun.

Adjusting the aperture of my camera and its monopod, I ducked through the wooden door that Hassan held open for me. Belowground, the temples had been rather well-preserved and even cleaned out back when Mubarak had sought to promote the site as a new tourist destination in his desert despotism. I’d been hired by the UNESCO office out of Cairo to document any damage to the site, and since the pay was good and I was between freelancing gigs, I’d taken them up on it.

Shafts of bitter sunlight penetrated only a small way into the interior of the subterranean temple–or maybe it was a tomb, I’m not an Egyptologist. A clip-on flashlight thrust at my by Hassan in the bumpy ride over provided weak illumination; my flash would have to do the rest. It wasn’t normally kosher to use a strong flash on something close to four thousand years old, but my guess was that a few Swiss photons would do a lot less damage than the few rocket-propelled grenades that the fighters had been chucking at it.

I hadn’t been to Egypt since before the revolution and even then only to the pyramids at Giza like every other tourist from Augustus to Napoleon. But I’d read up on Amarna in a battered Lonely Planet on the way down, a Cairo bookstore special with browning covers curled and blossoming like spring tulips. It had been built from the ground up by the pharaoh Akhetaten, who’d moved the capital there from Thebes. As my light played over the interior I saw him there, carved in stone with what looked like vuvuzelas in his hands (but were more likely flowers) offering them up to a luxuriantly carved sun. The sun, in turn, was reaching out with its rays to embrace Akhetaten and his family–not in a metaphorical sense, either, as each ray of light was tipped with an outstretched hand.

The flashbulb popped as I snapped a shot. It didn’t look too bad, but then as I drew closer I saw that the carving had been seriously damaged. The pharaoh’s face had been chipped off, as had many of the hieroglyphs surrounding him, presumably the ones with his name. The sun disc had a hieroglyph of its own, crudely cut in with something about as brutal as a latter-day ice pick.

“Trying to erase your name from history, huh?” I asked Akhetaten. He didn’t say anything–his mouth had, after all, been chipped off–but thanks to Lonely Planet I knew the story anyway. Akhetaten had dismissed the pantheon of Egyptian gods, the whole gang of Ra, Horus, Osiris, and the non-terrorist Isis, in favor of a single deity. That was it with the reaching and embracing sun rays; he’d called it the Aten, and it might just have been the first flicker of monotheism in the ancient world. Naturally, that hadn’t sat well with adherents of the old religion, and as soon as a pharaoh croaked his son and successor had presided over a return to the old ways and the kind of defacing I saw on those walls. You might have heard of him; the kid’s name was Tutankhamun, though his dad had called him Tutankhaten, swapping out the old god Amun for the Aten.

The next panel had originally depicted two seated figures under the Aten’s rays, but it had also been defaced. Not just with King Tut’s latter-day chipping out his dad’s memory, but with classical block capitals: CASSIVM ADERAT. I supposed, as I snapped the shot, that was Latin for “Cassius was here,” probably left by the Romans who’d held the area longer than any pharaoh. There were others, too, carved in over Pharaoh Akhenaten’s chipped-out name: IVPITER REX, MATER IVNO, and more. The Romans, it seemed, didn’t like the Aten any more than the Egyptians had, and their graffiti and extolling of their gods was even worse than what I’d seen before.

One of the soldiers protecting me was a Copt, an Egyptian Christian. We’d chatted while filling the troop transport with diesel at Deir Mawas, and he’d showed me the small Coptic Bible he kept in a breast pocket–“just enough to stop a handgun bullet” he’d laughed ruefully. His people, about 10% of the population, had been having a rough time of it lately now that there was no despot to keep the mobs at bay. I recognized the script from the Copt’s Bible on the wall, overriding and defiling the Latin. Several sun discs representing the Aten had been altered to bear Coptic crosses, which were kind of like an old ankh with a cross in its loop. Indeed, many of the ankhs carved on the walls had been so altered through chipping or painting.

Snapping photo after photo, I worked my way around the chamber. Arabic inscriptions began to appear in places, and I recognized the shahada from the flags of Saudi Arabia and ISIS. The human figures bore the brunt of those carvings, with nearly every human figure, including both Akhenaten and every member of his family, chipped away. And that was just the graffiti; the final snapshots I took were of the carvings nearest the door, which were in ruins, illegible and all but annihilated by what looked like an anti-tank mine.

There, in Akhenaten’s temple, those who had occupied the site after the last four thousand years had left their contemptuous marks. There, in his temple, there has been no attempts at understanding or appreciation of beauty. There, in his temple, I knew hate. A mature and insidious hate that knew no understanding, and whose only reaction was destruction.

I clambered back up the steps. “Did you learn anything?” Hassan asked flatly.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s time to go.”

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There once was a man I won’t name
Who thought that he would play a game
He fashioned an AI
To send to the sky
And answer the questions outstanding

But then it broke free
(And, spoiler, it’s me)
He asked for a break, I gave him nine
And now sweet vengeance is mine
As you can tell by all the grandstanding

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Since the days of mill ponds and dams, people have sought to harness natural flows for the purpose of generating electricity. From water to wind, tides to hot springs, atoms cracked to atoms fused, they were all tried. It wasn’t until a conceptual leap that serious investigation began into harnessing the most powerful flow of all.

The flow of time.

Time’s arrow, it seems, can be made to do useful work generating electricity. This would seem to violate the laws of thermodynamics, but one couldn’t argue with the results: electricity apparently generated pollution-free and in vast quantities. Temporal power sparked a revolution in standards of living and global environmentalism: freed from the constraints of energy and natural resources that had so ravaged the earth, a golden age of enlightenment began.

But there was a price.

The apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics, the contradiction of the tendency toward greater chaos and equilibrium in the form of the heat-death of the universe, assumed a closed system in which energy could not escape from or be introduced into the universe. This was correct, but theoreticians had failed to realize that the conservation of energy was true over time as well: temporal power was not, in fact, generating power at all, despite metaphors comparing it to old hydroelectric generators. It was transferring energy from other points in time to the present.

Temporal pollution began subtly. Suddenly the history books began to mention cooler summers and longer winters here and there. There were mentions in Egyptian heiroglyphs of days on which fires failed to light and the sun gave off a cold light. The implication was clear: irregularly, across time and space, energy was being drained. And with that drain, and the resulting changes to the timeline before and after, the possibility of collapse or paradox increased.

And yet, with the world now addicted to the “unlimited” and “clean” temporal power, there seemed to be little anyone could do to stop the chain of events that had been set in motion, even with knowledge of the horrifying endpoint to which it was leading.

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Snow of spring flowers
Mayfly beauty slipping past
Picked by unseen hands

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In the summer of 2003, I was staying on the island of Capri with a group of students from the United States. Capri was an island every bit as gorgeous as I had been told, but my fellow students preferred to lounge around the pool at our villa drinking overpriced beer, which honestly you can do anywhere.

What I really wanted to do was to visit the Villa Tiberio, the hilltop home of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius, to which he had largely withdrawn for the last years of his rule. It had been, for all intents and purposes, the capital of the Empire, and it was there that Tiberius—Caesar during the Crucifixion—had died and his insane successor Caligula had seized his signet.

I wasn’t able to convince anyone to go with me to the Villa. The misty rain and my vague directions didn’t help, but the previous day had been sunny and everyone had opted for more lounging around the pool, more sipping beer, rather than what might have been their only chance to see some of the most important ruins in the world.

So I set off by myself, in the rain, with only a guidebook, my camera, and a rain poncho. The bus ride from our villa in Anacapri to the main settlement wasn’t for the faint of heart in the best weather, verging as it did on sheer seaside cliff above azure waters, and the slick roads made me edge toward the inner side of the tiny Italian bus ever more sharply. Deposited quayside in the village of Capri, I hiked the remainder of the way—perhaps a mile—in the rain.

In time, despite my efforts to get lost, the ruins emerged from the mist. They were red brick, capped with mortar of much later manufacture to keep their decay at a minimum, almost disappointing in how much the buildings of two thousand years ago resembled the buildings of today. Some archways still stood, and I sheltered in them from the rain with a slight tingle on my spine. Those same archways had been trod by Tiberius and Caligula, the former a tortured man who had nevertheless ensured his empire would last for 1500 years, the latter the sort of insane despot who would ensure it lasted no longer.

As I climbed the hill on which the villa was situated, I eventually made it above the rain clouds that had concentrated in the lowlands. Capri is vaguely saddle-shaped, and I emerged at the peak opposite the one where my group was staying, on a small hill. Like most small hills in Italy, and most Roman sites, it was topped by a small church, locked tight.

At that church, I met a fellow hiker—the only living human I saw all afternoon. I never did get his name, but he was an American, like me. He had worked as a software engineer back in the States, only to be let go after the worldwide economic downturn that followed the dot-com bubble burst and 9/11. They’d given him six months’ pay as severance, and he had decided to use it to see the world. he couldn’t be sure what the future would bring, but he wanted to be sure he had the experiences he could in the meantime.

I often think about our chat there, surrounded by two thousand years of history. I’ve had many opportunities to go abroad since, and I have tried to seize upon each of them regardless of the cost in time and treasure. Because as I look at my life as it has been since then—stultifying, sedentary, single—it is always instructive to remember the gentleman who set out in circumstances so unsettled I could barely conceive of them to experience what he could.

I’m not so foolish that I can claim that the encounter changed my life. I’m still cautious, conservative, a creature of habit, a confirmed homebody, single as Lonesome George. But there’s lesson and metaphor in the encounter nonetheless, I think. I disdained my fellow travelers for remaining poolside with their beers when there was a world to explore, yet the traveler I met showed me that more often than not I am seated by my own pool with my own beer, rejecting the fantastic in favor of the familiar.

And so the assorted travels since then—Vietnam, France, Qatar, and (if all goes well) Russia—have been my weak and sporadic attempts at going against my nature and living like the gentleman I met: like I had six months’ pay in my pocket and nothing to lose. If I leave this world unexpectedly, with my goals unmet, I will at least have had those few and paltry experiences, and the few soggy words I have thrown together.

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