I went for breakfast one morning to find that the Shining Star, a greasy spoon on Amsterdam and 78th had closed. It was Saturday morning and the people I shared my life with were still in their pajamas. Signs taped in the window said goodbye and thanked everyone for being loyal customers and we’ll miss you. Businesses up and down the avenues were closing because of high rents. And on the cross streets, too. The empty restaurant stayed vacant a long time, until after we left New York I think, but I can’t be sure any more. Maybe a bank moved in, or a drug store.
Now it’s winter in a different city. It’s on days like today I want to get lost in the city, to get on the subway, transfer to a line I’ve hardly ever taken, get off at a strange stop, and then walk, camera in hand like a tourist. There aren’t subways in this town, though. I could Uber, I guess, but it’s harder to get somewhere by accident in a car.
What is a day like this? Cold, but not bitter, the sun sharp enough to make your eyes ache, but not bleed. A day with unallotted time, where you’re itchy and your legs twitch, eager to pound unfamiliar sidewalk where whole sections are swallowed up in the long shadows cast by the winter sun.
“It made me feel sprung upon,” is a sentence near the beginning of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, a New York novel of the late 1930s, and it’s New York I wish was outside my window, like it was every day for the first fifteen years of this century. I’m re-reading Rules, comparing it structurally with a story I’ve been working on for nearly forever called the New Palace Hotel.Hotel is decent enough, but needs work under the hood. For stretches, it just rolls along the highway, like the old Toyota on the first page, purring as it disappears around a mountain bend. And then chokes and coughs out some white smoke. It’s needs work to turn into something reliable. Anyway, I really like that sentence, “It made me feel sprung upon.” If I could tap out a few sentences like that, well, that would set things right.
The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.
“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.
“We have a hull breach on decks
three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”
“Can’t you just fix the hull
“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine
can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”
“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a
good idea,” Oates said.
“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked
for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”
“Yeah, do that.”
The ship gonged again. Kath was in
the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only
three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one.
It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but
it ended up just being confusing.
“We’re third in the support
queue,” ANDREA said.
“The wait is less than eight
“What is the status of ship’s
systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs
“The ship is losing air. I
recommend sealing the basement.”
“Kath’s down there.”
“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced
through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.
“I didn’t know we had a deck
four,” said Oates.
“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used
to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”
“I see,” said Oates.
“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”
“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.
“Sir, support is picking up.”
Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”
He returned to the main deck and
strapped himself in.
“Good morning, passenger, how are
you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”
“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells
me there’s a hull breach.”
“For quality assurance purposes,
this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line
and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”
“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is
leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better
word, he thought. Protruding into space.
“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s
see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re
in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?
“Have you upgraded to the latest
“I don’t know…I thought we signed
up for automatic updates.”
“Let me check that for you. You’re
running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download
“Wait. I thought I had to be
docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”
“Sir, I can’t do any remote
analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”
“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said.
“I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in
performance during the download.”
The lights in the cabin dimmed
while the screens displayed a progress bar.
“While the system updates, would
you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your
ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”
Except for the screen, the ship
went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy
cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.
“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.
“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have
a hull breach on three and four.”
“And you’re quickly losing air.
Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the
“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”
Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.
People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?
“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.
“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed
off decks three and four while you think things over.”
“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”
Amir continued, “Try to maneuver
your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”
Oates pressed the gas pedal, a
silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a
muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.
“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA
“Let me troubleshoot that for
you,” Amir said.
“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered
and a little bit lightheaded.
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said,
“Can you fix that?” Oates said.
“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.
“You’ll need to go down to deck
three and manually repair the line.”
“I see,” Oates said.
“Put on your approved space suit.”
“My space suit…”
“Your space suit,” ANDREA said,
“is in the basement.”
“What do you recommend?” Oates
“Eject?” Amir said, for the first
time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.
“Eject?!? To what?”
“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said,
her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”
There was a knock on the basement
door. Then a pounding.
“Oates, let me in. Open this door
“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”
“Of course, it’s me. Who else
would it be?” Kath said.
“Opening the basement door will
result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.
“I thought it was you, but your
voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”
“I’m wearing a space suit. Like
you’re supposed to.”
“Great. Yeah, I should have thought
to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.
“Ask her to fix the leak in the
fuel line,” Amir said.
“Kath, did you hear that??
“What? I have a splitting
“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m locked out of the basement. I
can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”
“Do you think Kath can take a
moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”
“It’s really hot down here,” Kath
“That’s just the atmospheric friction,”
Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you
“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA
said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.
But Kath, now helmetless, drifted
by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she
entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and
disappeared in a flash.
“Your warranty covers catastrophic
failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit
toward a Model 10.”
“But Kath’s gone. What difference
does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.
“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.
“Listen, you don’t have much time,
I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”
“Question 1: On a scale of one
through five, with five being the best…”
Note: for best results, listen to Elmer Bernstein’s The Great Escape while reading this document.
A letter from my old acquaintance Petrovsky arrived just the other day. Until two years ago, I hadn’t seen P since the old days and thought P had disappeared from the face of the earth. But recently P’d resurfaced and we’ve met periodically at highway service stops halfway between our towns for the last two years. We mostly talk about old times but I suspect he wants to enlist my help in solving Ptarmigan’s Riddle. When P’s letter arrived. I wanted to post the actual letter, handwritten in the old style, however, it disintegrated shortly after I read it. Luckily, I have a photographic memory…
My Dear DS, With the holidays coming up, I wanted to let you know that traditionally, I don’t give presents, however I expect that you’ll want to give me something. Which is very thoughtful of you. Please do not spend more than $800 because that’s too much, unless you feel as if you must. Since you and I have never exchanged holiday gifts in the 40 years we’ve known each other, and assuming that starting from our time at The Delinquency School, you probably would have spent $10, and that over the course of four decades, that amount might have crept up to, say, $35 per annum, then $800 seems reasonable (which is crazy because no on in their right mind would spend $800), however, you’ve had that money available to earn interest, to invest, or to blow on Betamax tapes, so the $800 not spent over the years on a trinket for me would be worth many thousands by now. Knowing you and your market savvy, you bought Apple in 1976, and that’s worth a fortune, so why would you gripe about $800? I would not be at all hurt if you needed to save up and you put off your holiday present til next year, but it will likely run you closer to $835. It’s up to you. Again, I do not give presents. Everyone knows that, so please don’t expect anything in return.
By the way, I have big birthday coming up next year and you’re way behind on birthday presents, too. No need to sweat that now…we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I do give birthday presents – birthdays are important and meaningful – but I never remember birthdays, so you probably won’t get one from me.
It was definitely Steve Jobs. Sure, Steve Jobs has been dead for years, but the person in the body was Jobs. Lean build with casual clothes loosely hanging on him. He sounded like that actor, not Peter Coyote, the other guy, who was in that movie with Russell Crowe and Guy…what’s his name. Pierce Patchett was the character. It will come to me.
Jobs had twin boys with the exact same face, the face of this guy pretending not pretending to be Jobs. Round, flat, moon faces, tanned, with prominent noses. Faces of character that looked older than they were, and except for the boy bodies and boyish exuberance, you’d think they were adults.
They were playing ping pong on a long table, 2/3 the width of a regulation table with rounded ends. The net in the middle rose and fell, sometimes regularly, other times staying in place. The whole setup was on a turntable that slowly rotated, occasionally stopping and reversing.
My wife knew I’d want to play, and Jobs took note. “When the boys are finished, well have a go,” he said. “Do you play well? Are you good?” I play hard bat, an old school form of spongeless ping pong, from ping pong’s golden age. Before I could answer, another set of twins, these older, and less Jobs-like, came into the room carrying a telephoto lens about 8 feet in length and gave it to a woman, a doctor. I said something about the enormity of the lens and she said, “why shouldn’t I, it’s my vacation.”
While the boys played ping pong, Jobs showed us around. “What brings you to Atlanta,” he asked. Then, “Wait, don’t tell me, you’re here to bicycle the rivers. Of course you are.” Which was how we arrived here. His sprawling house complex crossed the river and the bike paths on either side went straight through the house. We were just pedaling past, admiring the furniture when he waved us over. “Have lunch with me,” he said. “We’re having grilled asparagus and some other things. Chips, maybe.”
Periodically, things, the furniture, tall, deep shelf drawers would automatically open, and Jobs would react, either removing an item, or putting something away. “If I miss it, I have to wait another day for an opening. Crazy system works,” he said. David Strathairn, that’s the voice Steve Jobs used. Really good choice.
A Jobs nephew, climbed on to his rotating bed as shelves were opening and removed some clothes, tossing off and throwing the old ones in a just opened chute. The doctor with the camera watched. “Why shouldn’t I watch? I like to see naked people especially when they look good. It’s my vacation.”
The boys came running up, each holding a ping pong paddle. “We’re finished,” they said. “You can play now.” Jobs looked exasperated. “No, no, NO,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He patted his chest. “What do you think of this body? It works, but the design isn’t as user friendly as it should be. Look at these hands. Let’s play ping pong.”
We went to the table and slid it out, away from a couch. “Which side do you want?” he said, taking the side he wanted. “Grab yourself an iPaddle. They’re all the same.”
I picked up a paddle. Wood handle, rounded striking surface made from maybe cork. Slightly tacky. No rubber. Jobs hit me a ball and I returned it. The tack on the surface allowed me to get a little topspin and the ball dove nicely for me. My first shot landed deep, and high-bounced Jobs. He said,”whoa!”
He hit short balls, hard ones, angled ones and I returned them, each time eliciting a loud exclamation of praise from Jobs. A crowd gathered and I hit the ball back and forth with Steve Jobs, occasionally slamming one just to let him know I could do whatever I wanted, that I was in complete control.
Do it as long as I have and you’ll see a lot of PowerPoint. Bad PowerPoint. Slide after slide crammed with words, bullets, charts, and clip art. That’s right. Clip art. And a presenter reading every word you see on the screen in glorious 1024 x 768 high fuzz resolution. Sometimes they get creative and the words bounce in, or fade in, or drop in, or look like they’re written with lasers. All that does is draw attention to what amounts to a waste of time. My time. Your time.
Call me an evangelist. Call me an agent of change. Call me a disrupter. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I set about showing the world how to use PowerPoint for good, not evil. It’s all about restraint. Don’t use words. Don’t use PowerPoint’s features. Just images. Not just any image, but an image that perfectly accompanies the words that are coming out of the presenter’s mouth. That’s it. No words. Just images.
The steps are simple. Maybe a little bit too simple. And that’s where the trouble started.
Does what you have to say need to be said? If not, maybe send an email or put your feet up on your desk and take a nap. If so, OK. Go to the next step.
Understand that few people really care, so just invite those who have something at stake to your little presentation.
If you make a slide show, use only images. You can have a title for each slide, but use few words. Don’t make people read your slides. If they’re reading, they’re not listening.
Make it snappy. Just make your point, answer some questions, and let them out as quickly as you can. Don’t be boring or self-indulgent. Or boring.
This radical concept got me banned from the League of PowerPoint Presenters. They revoked my license. For months, Traditionalist PowerPointilists sent my family harassing, wordy slideshows. Eventually they forced me to recant my doctrine in a very public and humiliating slideshow with slide after slide of bullet-point lists and stock clip art. They made me use charts with incomprehensible metrics based on irrelevant data. I lost the audience after 3 slides… I was ruined.
The lesson here? The PowerPoint fundamentalist faction governs the slideshow community. Presentations are the currency of power and the world is a cruel, cruel place.
In 1987, the world’s human population reached 5 billion and the last of the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō(Moho braccatus) died. According to the bird’s Wikipedia entry, “The last Kauaʻi ʻōʻō was male, and his song was recorded for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The male was recorded singing a mating call, to a female that would never come. He died in 1987.”
Back in those days when there was still wan hope for the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, I took a creative writing class for what I hoped would be an easy few credits on the road to a long-delayed undergraduate degree. A guy wrote a short story called “Fear of Falling,” about a man who managed to fall into holes in the ground. I don’t remember much about the story, but the writer impressed me. He was lean, wore John Lennon glasses, and always had a scarf on and some kind of tweedy long coat. He looked like I imagined someone starting out as a writer did, and he used his adjectives to great advantage.
The story receded from memory until recently and has resurfaced as a brand new fear. In these days, there are lots of things to fear, but, a month into the news blackout, I’m left to my imagination, a place darker than the combined output of all media, fake and real.
This is the dog’s fault. Several times a day, the dog must be released into the back yard so that she might pee, poop, sniff and chase things. I stand watch, plastic bag in hand. Recently, on a windy day, a branch fell from the old sugar maple, landing a few feet from me, but ever since, I’m convinced that this will happen:
On a brutally cold day, a branch falls, striking me and knocking me out. As my blood leaks out, I slowly freeze to death. The dog, heroic and well-meaning, but barely 40 pounds, tries to drag my dying body to the door and to get the attention of my family. Alas, she is too small and my body is discovered hours later, only moments after dying.
Now, whenever I leave the house, I scan the trees, looking for telltale signs of imminent branch failure, ever vigilant, ever fearful that something will fall on me. I also check for a Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, ’cause even though this isn’t Hawaii, you never know. You just don’t.
It has been 14 days since my last post, and 18 since giving up passive news intake. There have been a few news leaks, but the break from information has made what does slip through seem more like snippets of a Margaret Atwood novel than news of current events. I love Margaret Atwood as much as the calm feeling that all is well and we do not live in one of her worlds.
Good news: I’ve finally had the time to fulfill my lifelong dream of starting a small-batch, basement-made, Artisanal Onion™ line of products. These are available for purchase just in time for the annual International Major Religious Holiday Day.
Order for that someone special by midnight tonight and receive it in time for, if not any of the upcoming holidays, some future holiday or another.
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