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The Apocalypse

Ever since I was a child, I’ve had a healthy fear of the apocalypse.

My parents sent me to Sunday school but didn’t have the heart to reinforce any of the dogma. So when I’d tell the lords of the church (ministers? priests? scary robe men?) that I didn’t believe in that big bearded dude in the sky, they’d kindly explain that well in that case I was going to Hell.

And when you’re just a kid, the Hell thing is a rather daunting prospect. There’s all this burning and general unpleasantness that, in my minor experience with burning, seemed like it would not be nearly as much fun as, say, playing in the jungle gym.

I never understood why parents send their kids to these fire and brimstone churchy things. I guess maybe it helps turn their offspring away from sin, but in my case, all I gained was the certainty of eternal damnation. If you’re as frequent a sinner as I am, there’s really no hope, and as far as I can figure, eternity lasts a pretty long time. It’s a concept that can freak anyone out, let alone someone who gets scared every time he commits to going on vacation for a whole weekend. When will I get my writing done?!

James Joyce has this incredible passage in Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man that goes something like, “Imagine that once every hundred years, a bird flies to a beach to pick up a single grain of sand. Now imagine that this bird has the beak-control to perform such a task, and that it can live forever so it can complete said task a lot of times. And imagine that it has some important reason to continue doing this, like, say, it made a promise to its dying wife. Now that you really understand where this bird is coming from, what’s driving it, think about how long it would take the bird to clear the entire beach of sand. A long time, right? After it had cleared a thousand million cajillion beaches, not even one single instant of eternity would have passed. So you have to wonder, why does the bird take only one grain every hundred years? I mean, it can live forever, so it must not have to forage for food or anything. What else has it got to do? If I’m this bird, and moving the entire beach is my only goal, I’m taking at least one grain every thirty, thirty-five years minimum.”

That’s one of my favorite Joyce quotes. I can really relate to the way he so masterfully examines the ineptitude of birds. Anyway, the point of the matter is that eternity takes forever, and if I’m going to be stuck experiencing it, I’d rather it be pleasant. And after having suffered through Dante’s Divine Comedy, I know that Hell, whether it’s fiery or icy, is not a place I want to end up. Although, no matter what it’s like, it probably won’t be as bad as reading Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Still, whenever I close my eyes, I see images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse riding through the sky and running amok. I was never clear on what they did exactly, so it always came down to “running amok.” Do they attack you? Or are they just there to look scary while all the good people are taken up to Heaven? Do they simply stop by earth to enjoy a game of polo? I don’t know.

I spent most of my childhood and teenage years and present day considering every possible Apocalyptic scenario, debating the likelihood of each. Aliens were a frontrunner for a long time, especially after I saw Independence Day. I was sure they’d come down through some wormhole/slipstream thingy and enslave us all, or at least do a good deal of probing. But then I took a physics class and my professor convinced me that space travel was impossible, and even if some aliens somehow managed it, they’d probably be disinterested in probing. So I switched to zombies.

The television was always convincing me that humanity would create some virus that turns us into the walking dead, and if I can’t trust that magical talking box in my living room, what can I trust? Or would we recreate dinosaurs? Or would radiation make cockroaches into giant, people-eating monstrosities? Or would we create artificial intelligence so powerful that our robots would turn on their masters? There were so many ways it could all end!

Despite this neurotic and never-ending fear, I still manage to cope…mostly. But there was one day in high school when I lost it, sure that the world was ending and I’d soon be saying hi to nice Mr. Satan.

It was a Friday night, and my friend Tom had a football game. His parents were on vacation, so he was set to spend the night at my house. Sleepover! Yay! But like, for dudes. It’s an exciting game (he’s playing running back), but on this play toward the end, he just gets blown up by one of the defenders. Suddenly he’s on the ground and his face is bleeding everywhere and he can barely form sentences. The game ends and now he’s in my care. He clearly has a concussion, and I’m completely unprepared to handle the situation. Are concussions life-threatening? Or do I like, get him an ice pack?

I decide to drive him home and reassess with the aid of adults, but on the way to the car, we run into some huge guys from the rival team, and they start taunting us.

“Hey stupid!” they yell, cleverly. “How’d you like that loss?”

I respond the way I always respond to this sort of thing. “It was the best!” I like to be overenthusiastic and as genuinely excited as possible. “Losing is my favorite!”

“Hey shithead, you messing with me?”

“What? Why, I never! Me? Mess with you? It couldn’t be.”

“Listen, buddy—”

Tom chimes in. “Russ,” he says, woozily. “These guys could kill us. We have to get out of here.”

This sparks my fear of death, so I wrap up my pleasant conversation and stuff him into the car.

That night, after much worrying on the part of my parents, Tom and I finally manage to fall asleep downstairs in our sleeping bags.

The next morning, I awake to the Apocalypse.

It’s just past dawn, and something isn’t right. Tom is missing, and I’m hoping he hasn’t wandered away in a fit of concussion madness. Then I see him outside, arms extended, head facing the heavens, as if he were embracing an oncoming tidal wave. Or as if he were enjoying a bout of concussion madness.

I join him and immediately understand. The heavens are alight with brilliant color. This is no sunrise; the entire sky, once blue, has turned to blood and fire.

The air is filled with ash, floating down upon our shoulders, swirling through the daylight, landing on the pool, burning our lungs. It might be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure I see some horsemen just above the tree line.

I immediately begin remembering everything I’d ever done wrong and wondering if it adds up to enough to warrant eternal damnation.

Tom hasn’t said anything, trapped in similar contemplation. The world is utterly silent. Maybe everyone else had already been taken to Heaven and Tom and I are the only two left. This strikes me as odd, since Tom had always seemed such a decent fellow. Maybe Tom’s concussion has somehow rubbed off on me and neither of us is seeing clearly. Or maybe those guys really had beaten us up and now I’m in some sort of coma.

In the midst of our silent introspection, the crowing began.

“Bckaw! Bckaw!”

The chickens had somehow escaped their pen, perhaps driven mad with a desire for freedom by the tearing of the sky. And thanks to some primal instinct, they had flown to the highest point they could find, the peak of our roof. There they stood, beckoning the end with their demonic cries, silhouetted upon a backdrop of fire and uncertainty, the unholy harbingers of the Apocalypse, there to judge you and, with their beady eyes, measure your worth.

Turns out this was the morning of the devastating San Diego fires, and not, as I thought, the end times. Rather than the entire world being destroyed, it had only been a gigantic swath of the wilderness and a few hundred houses. And instead of the horror of eternal damnation, I got to skip school for a week. Still, being confronted with the possibility of divine retribution makes you think, you never know when that day is going to come, so I’d better go try to be a nice person, or if not that, maybe a funny one. Does blogging help offset sinning? I sure hope so.

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Rich People Are Scary

Remember all those computer science friends I jealously mentioned back in the first post? Well now they’re working at startup companies with so much promise that venture capitalists are racing their yachts at ludicrous speed to arrive in time to be the first to invest. In fact, Brian (the roommate) was so tempted by the allure of nautical-themed, computer-science glory, that he hopped into his silicon-covered wagon and trekked to California’s gold rush 2.0, leaving me to my own devices in our apartment.

Not long ago, I used to work amongst those people, but when the company realized how unimportant writing is to the success of a video game, there was a bit of downsizing. They attempted to make it up to me, however, by granting me a one-weekend stay in their six-bedroom, three-yard, one-pool mansion.

Within minutes of my arrival, their productivity was reduced to a full-scale, mouse-pad-Frisbee war that soon devolved into a highly alcoholic game of Settlers of Catan. Sometimes I have the distinct feeling that nerds don’t know what to do with huge quantities of money.

We pulled ourselves together the next morning because the founders had an important social function on a yacht filled with potential investors and their absurdly hot girlfriends, who I found out later were united by a common affinity for wealth. Now, I was the black sheep of the company, but there was an extra spot in the car, so after a brief automotive nap, I found myself stepping onto a massive, fancy boat, attempting with all my strength to fight my hangover and make a good impression on the surrounding millionaires.

Initially, I tried my hand at small talk, only to receive looks of complete and utter disdain from  numerous beautiful women, a not entirely new experience. One deigned to talk to me long enough to regale me with the tale of her company’s camping trip, during which her coworker had slept without a tent and woken up all wet.

“She certainly didn’t know what she was dewing,” I said, and the girl literally moved one chair over just so she wouldn’t have to be next to me.

I wanted to save face but couldn’t think of anything that would help me recover from that abysmal foray into the world of conversation, so I just sat there, staring into the comforting endlessness of the ocean, trying my best not to be noticed. Luckily, I was soon summoned to meet the owner near the prow of the ship. I’d never met wealth-based pseudo-royalty before (though Christian Slater once told me he liked my shirt), and as I headed toward the bridge, my stomach fluttered with excitement.

The moment I laid eyes on him, however, I burst into hysterics, which is a suboptimal way to make a first impression. He was at least 50, the quintessential cliché of pompous opulence: reclined on a large, luxurious cushion of presumably exotic origin, a glass of fine wine in one hand and a small, fluffy dog yapping with ceaseless delight in the other.

As his 20-something girlfriend, also of exotic origin, sidles up a little closer to him, our group sits down on some tacky Astroturf amidst a circle of lowly peasants bequeathing gifts upon him in an attempt to curry favor. The moment he opens his mouth and greets us with his thick, Eastern-European accent, all I can think of are the countless Eurotrash villains Bruce Willis has dispensed with a vengeance.

I introduce myself, but it’s one of those moments when you can tell the person considers you to be as inconsequential as a speck of dust, which, I suspect, is the fate of most specks of dust. After responding with the minimum required number of hmms and hrms and not making the slightest attempt to mask his disinterest, Richy McWealtherson resumes his conversation with an attractive young woman and they start joking about Tetris, of all things. Apparently they’d watched a competitive Tetris tournament, and this experience had led the boat king to an epiphany: finally, the baron of all technology could understand how the masses might enjoy something as pedestrian and lowbrow as football. I chime in with “Yeah, Tetris is a lot easier to get into. You’ve only got like a half-dozen players to follow.” They both just stare at me. “You know,” I continue, trying my best to salvage the situation, “like L-block, the square one…”

“There were far more than six people competing in the tournament we observed,” Richy replies, peeved by my disgraceful ignorance. My friends are horrified that I’ve offended their potentially life-changing contact, but before things can get any worse, another worshipper arrives with a bottle of wine. The king points to Juan, one of my friends, and says “go open this,” fully expecting his command to be obeyed with haste and groveling, which it is.

I then have to hold my tongue while the pharaoh and the wine-giver transition to discussing the zombie apocalypse. Somehow, he manages to ruin even this topic, sucking all the joy out of it like a zombie-eating vampire. It’s as if he knows the conversation is widely considered to be pleasurable, but he has no conception of why. Like an alien in human skin, he imitates our species’ smiles and mannerisms to determine how best to conquer us, yet cannot grasp why we might engage in such frivolous endeavors as love, laughter, and debating hypothetical, world-ending scenarios.

Moments later, Juan scurries back and hands me the bottle—cork 80% of the way out—and some glasses, and tells me to start pouring while he gets more cups. I give the stopper a swift yank, only to have it completely disintegrate in my hands. All these tiny bits of cork are flooding into the bottle of wine, and I glance up, horrified that I’ve been exposed as a despicable, wine-ruining plebian. As luck would have it, the wine-giver still has the king’s attention, though the rest of the retinue is staring at me like I’d just murdered their first-born child.

I leap up and sprint into the heart of the boat, frantically searching for some tool that can help me remove the rest of the cork. I weave in and out of computer scientists and beautiful women until I reach the kitchen, but the only things on the table are some plastic cups, a carrot cake, and chopsticks. After briefly employing my lateral-thinking skills in an attempt to deduce the connection between the three, I simply grab a chopstick and start stabbing the cork until whatever parts still had a little bit of structural integrity give in to my brutality and fall into the wine, which is about ten percent cork at this point. I haphazardly siphon it into cups (thus utilizing 2 of the 3 tools available to me), fish out the cork with my fingers, and then pour it back into the bottle, doing my best not to spill it everywhere.

It’s actually sort of working; the only problem is it appears that some hideous, and likely poisonous, fungus has been growing inside the bottle ALL ALONG! I’m suddenly very worried that someone is attempting to bump off the non-terrestrial, millionaire vessel owner (probably to gain an inheritance/become the new overlord of his species) and place the blame on me, the unsuspecting and incompetent cork puller.

After all, why did I feel the need to sneak off with the bottle of wine? Why did I head down to the kitchen where I could tamper with it alone, unobserved? I’m about to hurl the bottle overboard in a frantic attempt to save myself, when in walks the king’s girlfriend. “Ah, there you are,” she says, and ominously explains that everyone’s been waiting for me. Too afraid to voice my concerns, I hand her the wine and follow her back to the prow. I cringe as she pours out a full dose of poison for all the guests, but before my friends can drink it, I surreptitiously point out the fungus, and we all watch in dismay as king and girlfriend quaff it with hearty abandon.

Luckily, nobody died, so maybe that guy’s immune to poison by now. Or maybe it was some kind of “cultured” wine, like the cheeses that are supposed to be old and disgusting.

After making a whole swath of faux pas and bad impressions, I escaped the royal party and ended up talking to one of the hot girlfriends who happened to be an English major turned author. It seemed that she had avoided the post-graduation English-major blues by being stunningly attractive and not entirely socially incompetent. I stuck with her the rest of the time.

When we got back to the mansion, I drank away the memories, and, in a moment of metaphor, climbed onto the roof and shed all the physical possessions that were weighing me down. I mean, what good is a boat if you never even leave the dock because there’s a chance it might get scuffed? I wanted to live in the moment, to be the kind of person who judges people not because of their status, but because judging them makes for good comedy. But mostly, I just wanted to jump off the roof of the mansion into the pool naked, because nobody’d done it before and there’d be the added benefit of burning a scarring mental image into everyone’s brain. Oddly, I haven’t been invited back since.

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