Sherlock Holmes doesn’t take the El.

I enjoy riding the elevated train in Chicago, affectionately known as the el. Not in some Risky Business “I really like trains” way, but because on the el  I am closer to people. Now mind you the routes I take are not unsafe, or on the lines that you tell tourists to stay off because, y’know, things could happen.  Still, I am a people watcher, a habit born out of my curiosity, my Trans* danger-sense (a super power some people foolishly call paranoia), and a pathological need to emulate those cool deductions that Sherlock Holmes makes look so easy. Those deductions, by the way, never really work well for me. If you are wearing a name tag that says “Bob” I can usually nail down that there is a 50% that your name is Robert. I am sharp like that. I just love a good mystery.

A great majority of people sit on the train, heads down as if in supplication, staring into the safe anonymity of their smartphone’s tiny glowing screens. Most days  I am no different but sometimes I manage to turn my phone off (or more likely its battery is dead, again) and I try to really see the people around me. Carefully mind you, no one likes a Starey-creeper.

I enjoy the spread of people, styles, and occupations packed into the silver boxes with me. I don’t think people often see each other outside of our personal needs or the requirements of employment  like “How may I help you buy this thingy?” or “How long has your car been on fire?”  I like being around other humans when I’m not experiencing them through some sort of routine script. While it makes me uncomfortable sometimes (ok most times) I do look forward to the rare random encounter with a perfect stranger because it affords me the chance to figure out if my assumptions about them are right, and if not, what I need to change about my outlook.

Mind you I also understand safety so I wouldn’t just stroll up and say “Howdy” to someone wielding a bloody machete and arguing loudly with his dog. Instead I put on my imaginary Sherlock hat and try to imagine how a person’s day is going by reading into posture, movement and facial features. But then I realize I can’t truly understand another person’s experience from noticing their new North Face jacket, tired facial expressions, or the battered plastic shopping bags huddled about their feet.

I look around the rolling train car and I just see some people with more money and some with less, some people with hard lives who love everyone anyway, some workers trying to get by, and some people with simple hatreds based on easy fear and then I see that all that is my own ideas projecting outward. I visualize an entire kaleidoscope of life formed and colored by a million moments pressing them toward their train stop and the rest of their night. Just like my life does.

Like I said, I would really love to be Sherlock. My assumptions would always be dead on and even if I thought something ill of someone it would be justified and without reproach because I could point to some obscure mustard stain on the perpetrator and say “Ah, Ha! Elementary and shit!” Sherlock would doesn’t need their communication because he knows the TRUTH. In all caps even. When he does actually ask questions they are often only there to catch the liar and prove a point. But I can’t do this because to truly learn or share with other people, they have to have their own voice, not mine speaking for them through the mustard on their pants, the hoody on their back, or the hairstyle on their head.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where everyone thinks they are Sherlock Holmes. We assume our deductions are dead on, and if revealed as incorrect, it was deception by the subject that lead to our false assumptions, not our own conceit. We grant these deductions more importance than reality. What Sherlock is portrayed doing is just a dramatic and highly magnified version of what we do every day when we encounter other people, but unlike Sherlock’s infallible assumptions, we build skewed and incomplete ideas based on stereotypes. I fight against the lazy stereotypes my brain tries to plug into everything but they are deeply rooted and very tenacious.

So I love riding the el, wondering about the people standing and crowding about the swaying train cars. I like imagining things and trying to figure out puzzles I create in my head. But then I try remember that no matter how much I imagine I can deduce or assume, what I really know about that older women over there, or that business person seated nearby, is minuscule compared to what I can find out if I actually end up talking to them. Which is Elementary and shit.

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The Impossible Death of a Cat

(A Short Play because NaNoWriMo is too much work.)

This play is the first I have ever written and I thought I would post it here because, well, I can? Or I’m bored, but either way I hope you enjoy it.

I am not a physicist by the way, but I do know that new methods of delicately checking a quantum state without causing its destruction have made the example of the superpositional cat moot but hey, it’s a play about death and a cat! It made me snicker writing it.

 

The Impossible Death of a Cat

A large box rests on the stage. It is 6 foot tall and 9 feet long and 6 feet deep. The rest of the stage is black. A green glowing lamp rests in the center of the box. It fades in and out slowly, but the box is never dark. Beside the Lamp is a big bottle with a cartoony Skull and Crossbones of Poison.

 Within the box is a person dressed as a cat. The cat sits against one wall lazily holding its tail and flicking it back and forth.

 A loud peal of ominous thunder is heard and a robed figure walks into the box. The figure has a Scythe which barely fits in the box and a white skull painted face.

Cat: Ah there you are.

Death: Behold! I name you CAT,  I am Death come to end all you are, or could be! I… umm.

(Death looks at the cat, trails off)

Cat: Yes?

(Death seems confused, looks around.)

Death: Pardon, is there anyone else here? 

(Cat looks around the tiny box)

Cat: I don’t see how there could be.

Death: You’re a cat.

Cat: Indeed I am. And you are a particularly observant personification of the existential fears of all humans.

Death: Right. Yes. Look there has to be someone else here. I don’t do cats.

Cat: It’s just me and you in here your Death-ness. Have a seat.

Death: I cannot, I have many mortals to reap and this is a mistake. Goodbye Cat!

(There is thunder and stage lights flash, when it clears Death is still in the box.)

Cat: Hello Death!

Death: What?  I said Goodbye Cat!

(There is thunder again and flashing but it is weaker this time. Death remains)

Cat: And Hello again, Death. I suspect you aren’t going anywhere until the waveform collapses.

Death:(Sputtering) What is this box made of I… What do you mean ‘waveform’?

Cat: (Stretching): Ok, this is confusing but I will give you the simple version because who knows how much time we have.  I am Schrödinger’s Cat. I am a fictional example of how causality, or common sense, breaks down at the quantum level.

Death: You are not fictional, you speak. Most cats do not, but you are real.

Cat: We shouldn’t argue our relative reality here You are a personification of death. With the big old scythe and everything.

Death: (looking at Scythe and speak slightly petulantly) It’s traditional.

Cat: The point is, that glowing thing right there (points to lamp) is a radioactive isotope, and there’s a little device that measures if any subatomic particles have decayed yet. When they decay, that bottle with poison will be broken and I am a dead cat.

Death: So I was early.

Cat: Well yes and no. See the point of this morbid little box is that a physicist named Schrödinger was annoyed about new discoveries in quantum mechanics. He didn’t like the way they made no sense to him. It was proposed that a subatomic particle was not in any set state until recorded. So technically it wasn’t decayed or not until someone measured it. It exists as both yes and no until then. Keep in mind this is a gross simplification.

Death: I fail to see how this affects you cat, outside of your death the instant that particle finally decays.

Cat: Well that’s the trick. The particle is already in both states, it has decayed and hasn’t. It won’t be in a set state until observed.  And since my life in this little box depends on that particle, I also exist both alive and dead at the same time. Until someone observes a portion of the world it can exist as a spread of probabilities.

Death: That’s nonsense, you are alive speaking to me.

Cat: Yes, and do the living often chat with you?

Death: No. They do not. But your example is pointless. Whether or not someone looks in this box has nothing to do with if you are dead or not. It just is.

Cat: That was Schrödinger’s point. The idea was to take a quantum particle and link its state to a real world event, like a dead cat, to show how silly it was. He wanted to show that the idea of causality, and order were more important than this new weirdness. Schrödinger’s had some issues. I mean hell, he could have used a dog.

Death: I dislike dogs. They have a thing for bones.

Cat: Me too, go figure. So I am an example of how the illogic of quantum theory shouldn’t apply to the real world. So I am both alive and dead in the example until the box opens and someone looks in here. At which point in time both my waveform as dead cat, and alive cat collapses down to one or the other. And I don’t think you count as an observer since you are Death and all.

Death: I still fail to see the point of this. Imagining that something can be anything until experienced is hardly that world shaking. It is also rather egotistical.

Cat: True, but it implies that a humans perception of something creates that something as reality when they observe it, an infinite set of possibilities collapse backward into it. So it tweaks a lot of ideas about destiny and reality.

Death: You are speaking of religion and metaphysics.

Cat: (Nods): I could be, but I think this is more about ideas of reality than anything. Schrödinger was irritated with the way quantum theory was flying in the face of cause and effect and common sense. Unfortunately for him, things keep getting weirder and weirder as they study subatomic particles. Heck now they are studying some that appear to travel backward in time. Really.

Death: Why do you know this cat?

Cat: No clue really.

Death: Well then in the space of this example, you are both Dead and Alive until observed. How long have you been in this box?

Cat: I can’t remember not being in it actually. I have a feeling I may never get out one way or another. I think I’m trapped here. Like you.

Death: I am not trapped! I am Death so it is obvious that you are dead when they open the box. The isotope thing has decayed.

Cat: Could be, I would welcome it at this point. But I think you and me might be cruising down the other result. You know, they opened the box and I sprang out happy and meowing.

(Death nods and ponders this)

Death: So I am not here for a cat’s death, but instead for the Death of this “waveform” then. Everything linked to your death in this box. It never happens so this reality stops here. Collapses as you say?

Cat: I think so. So how would you proceed here?

(Death draws himself up and clears his throat.)

Death: Ahem.  Behold! I name you Reality!  I am Death come to end all you are, or could be!

Stage goes dark 

Memories: A fatal change of Perspective

I left San Antonio behind me on November 14, 2003, without a solid home for the first time in 7 years. I drove my aging black Volvo north into an icy gray mid-west winter. Kansas City held a friend of mine and he had a room I could use. I departed at sunset and drove through the night, cars and hulking semi’s fading in and out of my headlights as silent anonymous companions. A rented trailer swayed in the interstate winds, bouncing behind my aging Volvo.

Only two of my friends saw me off, made awkward by the absence of many others. The division of goods from the split had gone her way heavily, both in material and social accounts. I knew that staying would become a mess of awkward moments between all those that had taken opposing sides.

We lived together 7 years. We fused together, then cracked and then became an exercise in acting. We had known things were over for a year but time and routine make a comfortable unseen box. We rehearsed the break up hundreds of times in harsh arguments, and when it did finally end, it felt routine. Now, I was as happily single as she was, and there was no animosity between us. Well, aside from the fact I got the nice microwave. But she got the TV.

Rolling north I had time to think and there was a lot of it to do. I had no job, good savings and my car. The job wasn’t a concern; I have always found work when needed. What I thought about on that surreal drive was the totality of what I left and the empty place I was traveling to. I had no idea what I would be doing in one year or five years. My old plans, built to support two people, felt one-sided now, leaning against my thoughts with a weighty need for balance.

As a military brat I’ve moved a lot so settling in comes naturally. I’d have all the basic things I needed; food, shelter, car and internet access. This was the bare minimum of course. An empty future barely visible beyond the beams of my headlights brought a sense of floating. The sheer amount cut free hounded my attention. Friends, places and expectations all wiped away leaving a slate so blank I fumbled to find anything that wouldn’t fit. Limitations help guide our choices, whether limits of money, social needs or current situation. They provide something to push against and overcome. I was rolling north pushing against nothing and picking up speed.

I was in Kansas City for two months. I dropped into a local social group and things went well. I had enough cash to coast for a year or more and for the first time in my life I tried to relax and not worry about it. With all my free time I was online more, writing more and I had finished off several overdue commissions for small sculptures and prop replicas I build. I had few bills and even less responsibilities. I lost large chunks of time as days flowed together. I worried about it but couldn’t see any reason to change. I was optimistic and worried in equal parts. It made no sense.

In early December Sam called me. We are more brothers than friends, having known each other since ’90.  He lived in Pennsylvania and his father lived near me in Kansas. Sam wanted him to come up to Pennsylvania for Christmas but his father wasn’t up to driving that far and flying was to pricey. I agreed to drive up with his dad and we headed out December 17.

Sam’s father was a heavy man who had served in Vietnam and was now suffering through a slow breakdown of his legs. We would learn later this was the onset of Diabetes, an affliction that would eventually kill him. He was quiet and the first half of the trip was awkward but passable, rolling up through the mid-west into the hills of Pennsylvania. I drove straight through. We reached State College in 18 hours, not easy considering the condition of the battered old van and the winter storms.

The visit was pleasant but strange. Sam and I picked up where we last left off without missing a beat. The apartment was warm, made more comfortable by the bitter ice outside. Christmas presents were exchanged and I sat back watching. This place felt stable, but it was a borrowed idea. I was seeing what a solid home looked like again but it wasn’t mine. I spent two weeks up there and before leaving I had two job interviews and was on my way to deciding to move again, to a location with some sense of place. Sam and his wife had just bought a house, and while they would not be living in it for two months, I could stay in it while re-flooring it and fixing it up.  I realized the raw departure from Texas still bothered me, and it would be ridiculous to expect it not to. I was concerned that I was making a mistake in moving again. The idea of continuous motion after so long in one place felt cowardly but I had a solid job offered in a week. It was a time of waiting.

On the ride back down out of Pennsylvania Sam’s father was in greatly improved spirits. He had changed from Mr. Smith to Lonnie, and we talked about life, the universe, and everything. We were discussing movies and I mentioned a film about Vietnam. He looked over at me and I remembered his reluctance to discuss this topic as he was a veteran of that messy war, but he took a drag on his cigarette and seemed to decided we could talk. He recounted that he had been at the battle from the very movie I had spoken of and was very angry at how higher ups were portrayed as heroic despite the fact they lied when asked if they knew what they were getting into.

“They wanted a sharp early fight that would show folks we were doing something and that’s why they didn’t airlift us out immediately after the damn thing,.” he spoke steadily and then sighed. There was a long pause but I didn’t want to interrupt his thoughts.

He shook his head and spoke. “I’ll tell you something, all this crap…” he vaguely gestured out the ice streaked window at the passing repetitive fast food places and billboards jutting from the gray snow.  “It don’t mean shit. Nothing. What you get in life is what you can stick to and survive. And then you know what’s important.”

I nodded as he went quiet. I felt I had to say something. “Yes sir.”

He snorted and looked over with a tired grin. “Don’t call me sir, I ain’t an officer, I work for a living.” I smiled.

It was near Kingdom City, Missouri that it happened. We were riding in silence and getting close to the end of the trip. The roads were windswept but clear of snow and ice. I was in the left lane passing slower vehicles and still processing the last few weeks, and then the last few months.

Suddenly a black minivan driving in front of us swerved hard right into the slow lane. I hadn’t been following closely and Lonnie looked up as I hit the brakes.

The minivan turned too hard against the swerve and whipped left back across I-70 in front of us shedding rubber from its blown tire up into the gray-white sky like a shower of black stones. The van shot across the icy median and into the panicked swerving line of oncoming traffic heading the other way. It swerved hard again turning back toward our side of the interstate, somehow missing the braking and sliding eastbound cars. The arcs of the minivan’s weaving corrections were getting longer and less stable. I was still standing on the brake, our beat up car shimmying as the rocking minivan bounced up out of the rough median and back onto our side of the road. It was instantly hit broadside, T-boned by the thick nose of a semi desperately trying to stop in the right lane. The sound of the crushing impact could be heard over the engine of our vehicle, a singular metallic crack surrounded by the by a hissing spray of glass and plastic.

We were 3 car lengths from the impact, just 25 to 30 feet away. The van scraped over onto its side and started rolling, spraying glass and mirrors in a cloud of blue-white diamonds. It tumbled over completely and almost back onto its wheels then fell back toward us, falling onto its passenger side like a dead animal. Its crumpled roof stared at me as I slid to a stop. I looked up to my rear view mirror only to see a semi behind me sliding and shaking as its tires dug in with a chatting squeal, finally lurching to a stop only 10 feet behind us.

William had his phone out and looked at me. “Get up there!” he yelled reaching for his cane, but I was already half out the door and running forward.

That’s when I saw her. A dark haired girl in a pink windbreaker laying with her back on the black wet asphalt, the van’s serrated roof line crushed across her waist where she was thrown from the van’s window as it rolled over.  A man yelling he was a nurse was running up behind me. By the time I got there I could hear a woman screaming inside the van over another younger female voice crying somewhere in the crushed vehicle.

The girl couldn’t have been more than fifteen and she turned her head awkwardly to look up at me.  She was pale and her gray eyes locked onto mine as I slid to a stop and just stared dumbly, instantly knowing I could do nothing to stop what was about to happen. The nurse slid to a stop beside me and said, “Fuck” under his breath as if to keep her from hearing him. She looked at me, a mask of innocent young fear on her clean face and said, “I’m scared” in a small voice and died.

I just stared back and the nurse started cussing as the spreading pool under her painted the wet asphalt red. I staggered back to the van to find Lonnie standing close by holding his phone limp in his hand at his hip.

“Don’t think about it.” he said calmly. “Just let it go.” He knew I couldn’t  but he said it anyway.

We waited for the police to arrive sitting in our van. The nurse had covered the girl with his jacket and others had pulled the mother, and I assume younger sister, out of the van via the windshield. I felt numb and cold but my mind was clear in the worst possible way. There was no room for anything beyond the staggeringly powerful moment that had happened, it had no reason and it was final. I have never been able to rationalize the loose “these things happen for a reason.” answer that comfort some, and now I sat looking at the nurse’s blue jacket resting on the asphalt with its edges stained dark.

After a conversation with the state troopers we drove on. There should have been more procedure, more doing something. But we just drove on. After half an hour I suddenly pulled over into the emergency lane, turned on our flashers and just sat staring along the whirling white expanse of the interstate, cars hissing by us mechanically without any knowledge of why yet another car was sitting on the side of the road. Lonnie was quiet, he just smoked and waited. Trite as it was, it seemed unfair above all else. After a pause that could have been minutes or hours he spoke.

“You won’t forget this, so don’t try.” he took another drag on his cigarette and his voice seemed to come from another time. “It don’t mean a thing. It’s just death. You just keep on keepin’ on.”

I knew what he meant even as I frowned, of course it meant something. A little girl had died. But she was dead and it was just that, she was dead.  This wasn’t a sign of evil or good or anything. Dwelling on it was useless. The understanding of it helped little, but I got it eventually.  I had to just keep on, keeping on.

I spent a few weeks packing and saying goodbye to my friends in Kansas City and there was a small crowd to see my battered black Volvo off. I still see those folks once or twice a year and will be always grateful for the room when I needed it. I left feeling nervous but without a doubt as to the reasons why I was once again towing everything in a wobbling trailer through a snow storm.

In Pennsylvania I had a house to refurbish and plans for work as well as some ideas about returning to school, although that obviously did not come till later. Much later. I can’t forget the accident or the conversations over hiss of tires along the icy interstate, and I don’t try.