by J. Ray Paradiso
Bound for Deep Space
His name was Westmoreland. Eugene Horace Greeley Westmoreland. And he was a reedy-tall grad student like Jack’s beanstalk and young Abe Lincoln. Before glorified by some. And demonized by others. And he sported a monocle like TR. And grasped Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and Proctology. That created a perfect storm. Both in and out of the classroom. And he paraded around campus in tiger-striped pajamas. Outrageously. As if Playboy’s guru, Hugh Hefner, in Karnataka, India.
“You’ve lounged here like a lazy skink lizard, Mr. Westmoreland. And failed flawlessly to produce a publishable dissertation. The deadline is merely seven weeks from today. Your dissertation committee is concerned you won’t meet it. Are you?” scowled the Chairman of Princeton’s Department of Theoretical Physics. A Max von Sydow wannabe. But Mel Brooks- Mini-be. In a cardboard suit and wash-and-wear shirt. With a clip-on bow tie. Black and orange. Princeton’s palette.
“If you don’t, your Phi Beta Kappa from Pacific University will be squandered,” mini-Mel pouted. In a faintly-lisped tone like his favorite author, Truman Capote. After several Sapphire martinis. Snowball-crunching Westmoreland’s transcript, he exPOUNDed, “You bring new meaning to the word, ‘procrastination,’ from the Latin pro (forward) and crastinus (of tomorrow). Do you know it?”
“The word’s procrastinatio, procrastinationis, third declension, feminine. No worries, I’ll meet my dissertation’s deadline, Herr Eastmann,” smirked Westmoreland. In a shrill, high pitched, twitter. That masked his imperium. Peering down to mini-Mel. As if a bald eagle, an opportunistic feeder with cosmic vision, to its prey. “What you’ve MIS-characterized as science fiction is, in fact, pure science. With all due respect, my task is simply to RE-cast my dissertation in artless language your nano-mind can comprehend.” As if TR pronouncing “DE-lightful.” DE-lightfully.
“As you wish, Westmoreland, but I must remind you that attempting to articulate a publishable theory in terms of the steamy process of reproduction enjoys no comfort in academia. Especially within the ivy covered walls of our Institute for Advanced Study. Where the Pope of Physics, Albert Einstein, preached.”
Racing to his dorm like a tiger chasing its quarry. “Lord Westy,” as his classmates anointed him, as if Joseph Conrad’s romantic Jim, or simply “Westy,” pondered a simpler trope to convey his novel theory.
Westy’s mission was to alter the Arrow of Time principle. Whereby time was thought to travel forward in one direction like a rushing river. In short, he hypothesized that time was more like a frozen lake. Allowing forward and backward movement. As easily as Olympic figure skating champion, the lovely Katarina Witt. Whose poster skyed his bed.
Most strikingly, he theorized that techno-innovators from Bi Sheng, Bacon and da Vinci to Gates, Ballmer and Bezos all skated to and fro the past and future. Enchanting forces in an increasingly disenchanted world, each showing a forthcoming generation a more ordered way to live their lives, strive and survive.
Westy’s first attempt to prepare his theory flopped famously like a flat soufflé. Based on Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy, it posited that one’s basic needs were physiological. Like breathing, food, water, sleep, homeostasis, excretion and sex. Trashing some metaphors and similes as too vanilla and others as too spumoni for his committee’s taste, he chose sex as the most cOmfOrting and cOmfOrtable. PassiOnately. With repeated capital “Os.”
Detailing the bi-directional nature of time and time travel in terms of the bio-chemical interaction of sexual intercourse, however, had underwhelmed his committee.
His next attempt, perhaps his last, must align more closely with the committee’s naive psycho-social footing. And to his mind, cheesy sense of propriety. How to do that, what trope to choose, was the unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question he pondered. Before discarding his striped garb, donning his Capt. Kirk-Star Trek nightcap and blasting into bed. Like a rocket bound for Deep Space.
For the next two weeks, Westy considered several options. First, the forward and backward movement of Maelzel’s metronome. Then, Leonhard’s analysis of bipolar disorder. Then, the back-and-forth sway of watching a tennis match. None passed his self-imposed acid test.
Three weeks before deadline, while swimming in the University’s aquadome, a question suddenly splashed over him. Would the forward and backward motions of arm movements, while doing the breast stroke, the oldest in swimming tradition, pacify his committee?
For the next two weeks, he researched the breast stroke’s history, ergonomics and technique. In the Oxford English Dictionary, he found the stroke’s description of its arm actions intriguing. Would his committee understand and appreciate his theory in terms of the breast stroke’s three-step arm activities, he wondered? Or, would another anatomical trope incite yet another critical attack on the basis of sexual perversion?
Seven days before deadline, panic struck. Uncharacteristically. Like a newspaper headline, “SUPERMAN LOSES CAPE. GROUNDED INDEFINITELY.” Contacting living techo-innovators to verify his theory, he thought, would save his dissertation. But, would they cooperate, he wondered. Gates, Ballmer and Bezos were alive and well. So, he frantically contacted them. Requesting a meeting to explain his dissertation. And seeking their support.
For whatever reason - Was it the legendary Harvard vs. Princeton football rivalry dating back to 1877? - Gates and Ballmer did not reply. A fellow Princeton man, Bezos, was his last hope. Bezos’ publicist did reply, but regretted, “Mr. Bezos is preoccupied with his commitment to find a cure for PBA, Pseudobulbar Affect, whose episodes are mood-incongruent. Like Mr. Bezos sometimes laughs uncontrollably when elated, angry or frustrated.” However, the publicist’s regret did include a $25 Amazon.com gift card. With no expiration date.
The night before deadline, searching to find sharp language to convey his complex theory, he reviewed Occam’s Razor. The notion that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. He also recited the words in Grade 1’s first book, Before We Read, in Gray and Sharp’s Dick and Jane basal readers.
Suddenly there POPped a refreshed and refreshing equation. “Simply EX-press my theory in the language most pleasing and pleasurable to the committee, the language of Physics,” he shouted. “Mathematics is the language of Physics. And Binary Code is the language of Mathematics. Such that BC = P x M, where BC = Binary Code, P = Physics and M = Mathematics. So, RE-casting my theory in Binary Code should satisfy the committee.”
There were a potential downside risk and an ethical dilemma to this tactic, he worried. He would be advancing the same theory the committee rejected. But in a different cloth, medium or form. Would form, like a Jackson Pollock painting, trump content, he pondered? Would, as Marshall McLuhan theorized, the medium become the message? Did, as his prep school chum Antonio Armani philosophized, clothes make the man?
Converting his dissertation into binary code, he grinned, would take less time than pronouncing “Soren Kierkegaard,” incorrectly.
In seconds, he found a web site with a friendly binary encoder. So, he simply selected, copied and pasted his dissertation into the box on the right side of its screen to convert his text to binary. Beginning with his italicized addition to the first proposition in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein, his favorite philosopher: “The world is not all that is the case.”
01010100 01101000 01100101 00100000 01110111 01101111 01110010 01101100 01100100 00100000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01100001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01110100
Paraphrasing Wittgenstein, he also prefaced his dissertation with this caution: “Perhaps this paper will be understood only by someone who has himself already had the thoughts that are expressed in it – or at least similar thoughts. Its purpose would be achieved if it gave pleasure to one person who read and understood it.”
01010000 01100101 01110010 01101000 01100001 01110000 01110011 00100000 01110100 01101000 01101001 01110011 00100000 01110000 01100001 01110000 01100101 01110010 00100000 01110111 01101001 01101100 01101100 00100000 01100010 01100101 00100000 01110101 01101110 01100100 01100101 01110010 01110011 01110100 01101111 01101111 01100100 00100000 01101111 01101110 01101100 01111001 00100000 01100010 01111001
At 3 p.m. on Friday, his deadline’s final hour, Westy hand-placed a hard copy of his dissertation on mini-Mel’s ancient oak desk. Confidently. Per old-school University policy regarding dissertants’ submission guidelines.
Three weeks later, a Sunday on Cannon Green, Princeton celebrated Commencement for Advanced Degree Candidates. All members of Westy’s dissertation committee attended. Herr Eastmann bunkerd in a rickety chair on the stage. Anxious to award Westy his Ph.D., the department’s trophy for Best Dissertation and a generous stipend to continue his research as a Postdoctoral Fellow.
Some members of Westy’s dissertation committee had applauded his work as “the Mona Lisa of dissertations,” “a walk-off home run” and “tantamount to Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor.” One, after slurping a tub of Hemlock martinis at Plato’s Pub on Bombay Parkway, slurred, “Twas o-OH-or-gasmic!” SPasModicaLLy.
Curiously, Westy was conspicuously absent from Commencement.
Racing to Westy’s room after the last degree was conferred like a bitch in heat to her sire, his committee witnessed his nothingness. Like the absence of Pierre in a café, described in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, they sensed Westy’s absence. Not in some precise spot, but from the whole room. In stark relief.
The one exception to the Existential void was a tiger-striped object. Which resembled a baby pacifier. But more cryptically. Like a semi-solid trapezoid or a medieval butt plug. Or the objective correlative.
The results of repeated radiocarbon tests to determine the object’s age were inconclusive. The results of various trials to determine its nature defied commonly accepted principles of bio-chemistry.
Eminent futurists, theologians and illusionists failed to provide quantum insights into its meaning, significance and nuance.
Princeton officials frantically contacted Bezos, Gates and Ballmer for help. But they did not reply.
In time, the Existential object was escorted to the basement of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.
Attempts to duplicate Westy’s dissertation failed. Copies appeared blank. Its one and only original was Special Delivered to the Rare Books and Special Collections Room. On the top floor of Princeton’s Firestone Library.
Later attempts to locate both the Existential object in the Smithsonian and Westy’s dissertation in the Firestone were unsuccessful.
Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten. Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming. A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. Others, in the spirit of Occam, Dick and Jane simply mumbled, “He was some ancient-crazy motherfucker. Whatever, who gives a shit?”
8Rs: A Theory of Infinite Realities
“Your Vita is quite impressive, Dr. Westmoreland,” said the Director of the University of Chicago’s Department of Theoretical Astrophysics and Cosmology. Grinning. With a face as cold and chiseled as Mt. Rushmore. And a resolve as warm and wet as the Amazon rainforest.
“Thank you, Dr. AL-ighieri,” twittered Westmoreland. Confidently. “Please call me Westy.”
“In that case, please call me Beatrice. I couldn’t find a copy of your Ph.D. dissertation. Where you been hiding? And what was your dissertation’s topic?”
“Well, the short answer is, you know, I’ve been here and there. And my topic undermined the Arrow of Time principle. Whereby time was thought to travel forward in one direction like a rushing river. Within the broader concept of Entropy.
“That’s exciting stuff. Curiously, your dissertation topic reminds me of mine. But tell me more about yours.”
“Well, I tried to convey my topic in COM-fortable and COM-forting language, but …”
“Let’s come back to that. I’m kinda pressed for time. What are you researching now?”
“I call it 8Rs. Where 8 symbolizes infinity with a boner. And Rs represent realities. QUID-essentially, a theory of infinity realities.”
“Where 8 symbolizes infinity with a what?”
“Well, my laptop’s keyboard lacks the symbol for infinity, so I VI-agra’d it.”
“I like the way you think, Westy. Go on.”
“Ok, my theory challenges Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. You know, his PAR-able about prisoners chained to a wall of a cave all their lives. Facing a blank wall, they…”
“Look, I’m really late for a meeting with a guy in Development. So, I’ll cut to the chase. Bottom line: I can offer you a 1-year appointment as a Visiting Lecturer. You’d teach a 900-level Special Topics graduate seminar. And write a publishable paper on your current research. The fall quarter starts in a week. Agreed?”
Over the next seven days, Westy found an apartment, explored Chicago and prepared for his seminar.
He rented furnished digs a few blocks from The Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics. Where his seminar would meet. And he rode the South Shore Line train from 57th to Van Buren Street. From there, he discovered the Art Institute, Cultural Center and Elfmann’s Deli. Among other notable landmarks.
The Billy Goat Tavern soon became his favorite haunt. Home of the incomparable “cheezborger,” it second-homed newspaper legends like Mike Royko.
Would my Billy Goat capers cure my tendency to MIS-cast my theory, or drown my creativity? Westy wretched.
Equally intriguing was an article about the tavern owner’s reputed curse. The Curse of the Billy Goat was supposedly placed on the Chicago Cubs in 1945. According to legend, Billy Goat Tavern owner, Billy Sianis, was kicked out of a World Series game because his pet goat's odor was bothering other fans. Outraged, he declared, "Them Cubs, they ain't gonna win no more.”
Am I cursed to lose the academic ball game, or destined to win the world’s AD-miration? Westy kvetched.
Prepping for his seminar, he pondered required and recommended reading lists, assignments and grading systems. His re-revised required reading list included Gibson’s Neuromancer, Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and The Matrix Comics, Vol. 1 and 2 by Wachowski et al. Four films, all available on DVD and starring Keanu Reeves, were also recommended but not required: The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Animatrix.
He also developed a 100-point grading system with 0-30 points for class participation, 0-30 for critiquing his Ph.D. dissertation, 0-30 for writing an original paper and 0-10 for self-evaluation. “No extra-credit points will be awarded for smiles, dioramas or questions like ‘Is there anything I can do to raise my grade?” last-lined his course syllabus.
And, so, the fall quarter came and went. Followed by the winter term. Westy’s seminar was uneventful. Except for a student’s occasional quip about seeing him late-late night, Abe Lincoln-presiding over a mix of Aphrodite and Venus. At Tommy Moore’s Bar on the NW corner of 55th and Woodlawn.
And, save, for one mystical student, Lilith Passionate. Whose self-evaluation equaled zero points. For, as she wrote, “criticizing your dissertation but failing to provide a viable alternate theory.” Her name, independence and zest reminded Westy of Lilith in Jewish folklore. Who was created at the same time and from the same earth as Adam, but dumped after she refused to become subservient.
Mused Westy, I’d love to gar-DEN with her.
Westy’s research was progressing, though not as quickly as scheduled. Far from “lizzard-lounging,” as he was accused at Princeton, he wisely hesitated to submit a paper to a prestigious publication like the International Journal of Theoretical Physics. Without beta-testing it on a lower level. So he decided to submit a preliminary paper, “Toward a Theory of Infinite Realities,” for presentation during the spring at a conference. Sponsored by the South East Asia Theoretical Physics Association. Southeast Asia is still relatively warm and dry before the monsoon season, he thought. BE-sides, I lust for authentic sub-gum.
His paper’s thesis argued twofold. First, it attempted to undermine Plato’s Cave Analogy. Then, to advance his theory of infinite realities.
In his Republic (514a-520a), Socrates narrated a story about prisoners chained to a wall of a cave all their lives. Facing a blank wall, they watched shadows of things passing in front of a fire in back of them. The shadows were as close as the prisoners got to reality. But, in fact, Westy quarreled, people aren’t chained, they’re mobile like a Calder masterpiece. Besides, he argued, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle suggests there’s an unavoidable tendency of humans to influence the situation and velocity of things. Which happens just by observing them. So, uncertainty about objects’ position and velocity makes it difficult for physicists to determine much about them.
In short, Westy hypothesized, if there’s uncertainty about all objects, infinite realities are, at least, theoretically possible. Employing an Einsteinian thought experiment, he imagined a circle with 360 degrees or perspectives. Each offering a different view of reality. And each of the 360 views offering 360 more. And each of those 360 more ad infinitum.
Most strikingly, he theorized a Reality Converter, modeled on both the base number converter and binary encoder he discovered. But how to explain the converter’s nature and mechanics, much less develop a quantum mechanical computer model of 8Rs, was problematic. As his favorite philosopher, Wittgenstein, proposed at 6.522 in his Tractatus: “There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.”
Recognizing that his paper’s other complex constructs had clearly not made themselves manifest, not yet anyway, he gingerly submitted it to the conference. Trusting its reviewers would recognize its preliminary footing, accept it as promising and offer constructive comments and questions.
In sum, like Miles smirked in the movie Risky Business, he thought, SOME-times you have to say, What the fuck! Make your move!
Weeks past without a reply. In the interim, Westy rode his bike in Hyde Park, taught his weekly seminar, and made frequent trips to the Billy Goat. Where, he’d talk with anybody and everybody who’d listen about the interface of time, space and reality.
Finally, the reply arrived. An invitation to present his paper. But, at the last session on the last day of the conference. That’s A-ok, he thought. Few people will attend on get-a-way day. But my paper’s DIS-cussant should offer constructive COM-ments to tweak it.
Much to Westy’s surprise, more than a few people attended his session. And, more surprisingly, his paper’s discussant was less than gracious about it. “This paper has no place at this professional conference,” lectured an Adjunct from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension. Cornhusker-colored costumed in a synthetic scarlet sport coat squeezing a creamy mock turtleneck sweater. “It’s pure, unadulterated, unalloyed psycho-babble, and I say that with all due respect,” he threshed. What he said next wasn’t as pretty.
Discretion being the better part of popping Cornhusker’s kernel, Westy thought, but did not respond, Fuck you, husker-shit for brains. I FOR-got more theoretical physics than you’ll ever know. Then, boarded the first flight back to Chicago.
Since his appointment, Beatrice, like her namesake in Dante’s Divine Comedy, had become more like Westy’s guru than his supervisor. Sensing something was out of sorts upon his return, she invited him to her apartment to discuss his work over drinks.
Opening a third bottle of her favorite wine, she firmly asked an elegant question. “So, how’s it hangin, Westy?”
“HANG-in?” he shrilled, “or hung?”
“Hey, it ain’t over till it’s over. Remember Yogi Berra?”
“Truth told, my conference paper’s DIS-cussant trashed it. And I’m wondering if it’s IR-reparably damaged.”
“No worries, Dr. Westmoreland. Hey, what I didn’t confess during your job interview was that my Ph.D. dissertation’s Chairman totally trashed my original. Whose topic was curiously similar to yours. I thought, but didn’t reply, ‘Fuck you, shit for brains. I forgot more theoretical physics than you’ll ever know.’”
“Really, was he from NE-braska? That’s exactly what I was thinking at the conference.”
Continued Beatrice, smirking, “I thought, what’ll really pacify those cock suckers? Hmm, how about using a metaphor that’ll tickle their weenies? Researching ‘fellatio,’ I found an article that fit their li’l dick brains. Among its tidy tips was one titled, ‘Using your mouth and hand.’ Well, there must have been a fair number of cock suckers on my committee. They voted six out of nine to swallow my enhanced dissertation: locks, stalk and scrotum.”
“That’s BRILL-iant.” Just as her cell phone sang, Don’t Back Down by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Well I won’t back down; no I won’t back down. You could stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down.”
“Oops, gotta skoot, Westy. Take a wine check?”
Over the next few weeks, Westy revised his paper. Borrowing the juicy metaphor Beatrice used to resurrect her dissertation.
Riding his tiger-striped TREK bike to Hyde Park’s post office to, as retro-publications required, snail-mail his polished paper to the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, a Chicago 3CCC cab driver crushed him. A Chicago police investigation concluded the cabbie wasn’t drunk. And didn’t leave the scene. So, like many drivers similarly situated, he escaped prosecution. Happily, Westy survived the crash. Sadly, he remained comatose like a grilled red hot in a sesame seed bun. Curiously, the cabbie received his employer’s monthly Efficiency Response Award. And a $25 TARGET gift card. With no expiration date.
Beatrice taught the balance of Westy’s seminar, hired Lilith as her Research Assistant and encouraged her to study the cunnilingual underpinnings of a theory of infinite realities. She also snail-mailed Westy’s paper and a tiger-striped pacifier to the Journal. And pursued funding for a new Institute of Infinite Realities.
Predictably, the Journal passionately accepted Westy’s paper for publication along with its Best Paper Prize and offer to serve as a Contributing Editor. Its editors also pondered the relevance of the tiger-striped object. Pubically.
Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten. Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming. A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. Others, in the spirit of Billy Goat beer, cheezborgers and Royko belched, “He was some ancient-crazy motherfucker. Whatever, who gives a shit?”
“He said he emigrated from Oman in the Middle East. That his full name was Fadil Latif Is’haaq Pias Rubani. But, his friends just called him ‘Flipr,’” chuckled Westy to his soul mate, Lucy, an 18-year-old, lovable and loving tabby.
“Call me Westy,” I said.
“When he said ‘Flipr,’ I almost peed my pants. The only Flipper I knew was a bottlenose dolphin, who starred during the 1960s in an NBC TV series. Sorta like a water Lassie, he protected an aquatic park, apprehended thugs and rescued a kid named Bud from danger. My favorite episodes were Flipper and the Seal, Flipper and the Mermaid and Flipper and the Elephant. I mean, that randy dolphin RE-ally got around.”
“He said his Arabic name TRANS-lated as a virtuous, agreeable, laughing, fun-loving pilot. But, I saw him, call me old-fashioned, in 3D: down, dirty, DE-termined to make a gazillion bucks as fast as possible, return to Oman and fuck himself to Jannah. Anytime, anywhere. With anyone he DE-sired.”
“Your Princeton Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and theory of infinite realities don’t mean squat around here,” he said. “Everyone in my virtual reality game company sports a doctorate in something special from somewhere special. Like Astrophysics from MIT, Epistemological Ontology from the Sorbonne and Sarah Palin Studies from BFU. For real, I’m an equal opportunity employer.”
“BFU?” I asked.
“Butt Fuck U,” he replied.
“To my mind,” he went on, “performance is all that counts. And performance is a function of intelligence and motivation. Intelligence you’ve got. But your motivation is, ah, suspect. One of my guys remembers you from Princeton as a lazy lounge lizard.”
“Hey, I’m the MO-st motivated motherfucker on Mother Earth,” I screamed.
“You’ve got big cojones, Westy. Besides, I love when total strangers talk doity,” he smirked. “Ok, here’s the skinny. I’ve got lots of shooters covering traditional genres like drama, action and comedy. What I don’t have is someone to target non-traditionals. Like, you know, other stuff. Are you IN or OUT?”
In a NY-second, I shouted, “Let the games BE-gin!”
“Awesome! Orientation for new guns begins at 7 a.m.”
Westy loved Chicago. But New York, The Big Hokuto, was extraterrestrial. No other city on planet Earth, he thought, smelled like a fusty bouquet of flowers, produce, subway and grilled onions. With a spritz of salt water.
The Guggenheim, Bemelmans Bar and Birdland Jazz Club were regular stops. Il Mulino for Osso Bucco and Gallagher’s for dry-aged fillet were monthly musts. And grilled Sullivan County trout over a warm spinach, walnut and lentil salad with a glass of Taittinger Cuvée Prestige Brut at SoHo’s Balthazar. Sunday’s spectacular for $49.00. Plus tax and tip.
His favorite haunts, for conflicting reasons, were the Waverly Inn in the West Village and Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side.
At Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn, the staff was so snooty no one would consider serving or even looking at him. PER-fect space, Westy thought, to dream up Other VR-games. Though he was tempted to special-taste, just once, Waverly’s signature truffled mac and cheese for $60.00. Tax and tip excluded. At Katz’s Deli to die for was the $31.25, 3-Meat Platter. Which fed three tourists or one regular customer with a mountain of hand sliced pastrami, brisket and corned beef. And was the unwaveringly social site of Meg Ryan's famous "I'll have what she's having" fake orgasm scene in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.
Fake orgasim? Westy thought. Hey, my new VR-game will OUT-orgasim Woody Allen’s Orgasmatron in his movie Sleeper. OUT-snoot Graydon Carter. OUT-brut Balthazar’s Taittinger Cuvée Prestige. For real. Put the BIG BANG to shame. Like Odysseus did to Cyclops. And David to GO-liath. And Miss Jones to Johnny Wadd.
At Chez Josephine on West 42nd, owned by Jean Claude, one of jazzy Josephine Baker’s adopted kids, two 80ish women, looking totally out of place and sorts, stood up and played a piano-trumpet duet. And the floor at Shoe in SoHo so intrigued him that he asked its owner, “May I PHOTO-graph it?” “You’re not the first to ask,” she replied. “Two retired NY cops wanted to buy it. And, a mustache-Pete kinda guy said I didn’t wanna know what happened on it. My store was John Gotti’s Social Club.”
When I play my new VR-game, Westy smiled, I’m gonna piano-trumpet my VIC-tory and SOC-ialize with John Gotti, thought Westy.
Westy also enjoyed long walks through Central Park. Where he met characters like Harvey, a retired ancient Roman coin dealer. And Sherman, an international securities attorney. And Tony, a toothless-homeless man. All loved roaming the Park. But shared little else in common. Like drinking and driving. And anorexia and bulimia. And darkness visible.
Harvey bragged about chasing le donne con grandi seni during WWII in Italy. And Tony said, “It is what it is,” whenever Westy said, “Good morning, Sir.” And Sherman detailed cases he argued at the U.S. Supreme Court. In legalese. The Babylonian king Hammurabi grounded.
From everyone he met, Jean Claude and Harvey and Sherman. And everywhere he went, The Guggenheim and Katz’s and Central Park. Westy was armed to beg, borrow or steal fresh ideas for Other VR-games. None surrendered.
Afternoons at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain, Westy hoped, would refresh his imagination. The neoclassical sculpture, also known as Angel of the Waters, featured an eight-foot bronze angel. Who stood above four small cherubim representing health, purity, temperance and peace. If I don’t SUB-mit a VR-game proposal to Flipr soon, he worried, all the health, purity, TEM-perance and peace on earth won’t pay for my mani-pedi.
Over the next several weeks, his trusting and trusted Lucy listened to Westy debate the pros and cons of each topic-idea that surfaced. And like Jonathan Swift reportedly did to his servants, he read to Lucy aloud. And when she looked puzzled, he revised and revised. Until she nodded knowingly, then dozed off.
In time, three Other VR-game candidates survived: Small Business Management for Parish Priests, Death Education for Hospital Personnel and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux. Each he carefully outlined. After analyzing its competition and market and ear lobes.
And, so, one by one, Westy proposed his ideas for a new VR-game. Leading with Small Business Management for Parish Priests.
“Small Business Management for Parish Priests?” Flipr howled. “Ok, a player embodies a priest, challenged to manage his parish like a business. Taking measured risks, he’d identify opportunities and secure resources. Then, utilize the resources to capitalize on the opportunities. But, for real, are you fucking kidding me? A priest? I could never return to Oman. I’d be beheaded for blasphemy. And my family and extended family would be tortured like grilled bratwurst!”
Death Education for Hospital Personnel suffered a similar fate. “Hey, I read Kubler-Ross’ On Death and Dying,” Flipr snarled, “but, her claims of being helped by spiritual guides were total bullshit. And all that stuff she said about dancing in the galaxies after she died is pure psycho-babble. Besides, who’d wanna play such a gloomy game? I mean, there’s a difference between need and want. You know?”
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux remained Westy’s last hope.
Westy rarely hung out at Flipr’s Brooklyn office. But, when he did, he favored a woman from Santa Claus, Indiana. Who lived in Harlem. “Will you chant with me?” Katia asked, after hearing rumors about his rejections. Hoosierly. “You won’t believe its awesome power.”
Hey, why not? I’ve never VEN-tured North of Zabar’s Deli on 80th Street. Maybe I’ll even bump into Bill Clinton, Westy thought. Besides, the words in Irving Berlin’s Harlem on My Mind are IN-triguing: “I've got Harlem on my mind. I've a longing to be LOW-down. And my parlez-vous will not ring true with HAR-lem on my mind.”
That Friday night, Westy subwayed to 125th Street. Then flew a few blocks NW to Amsterdam Avenue. Landing at Katia’s apartment on the third floor of a three-story, brown stone walk-up. Trudging up the stairs, he noticed iron bars on each of the front doors. Recalling Chief Quartermaster Phillips’ famous quote in the movie Apocalypse Now, he thought, Katia said I won’t BE-lieve what chanting divines. So I won’t! But one look at those doors. And I know it's gonna be h-o-t!
Knocking on Katia’s door, he was greeted by a tuxedoed mix of basketball’s Charles Barkley and LaLa’s Ving Raines. A big, bald, black man gripped his shoulders after one step forward. “Your shoes,” he ordered. “Please remove your shoes.”
The apartment’s living room, the only one Westy could see, gleamed snow white with high shag carpeting. But no furniture. Ten people, kneeling on their hands, palms up, chanted Nichiren Buddhism’s mantra: “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” After chanting their hands blue, they played assorted instruments: tuba, clarinet, trumpet, drum, violin, kazoo. Then, told stories about chanting’s awesome power.
A spitting image of Popeye’s Olive Oyl storied her abduction on 127th Street. “Four guys in a cherry-colored Cadillac jumped curb, dragged me into their car, and drove me, blindfolded, to an abandoned apartment,” she cringed. “They said they’d return in three days. And if I were still alive, sacrifice me to their Savior, Beelzebub.”
For the next three days and nights, she chanted for help: “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” When the guys returned, one pulled out a butcher knife. And held it over his head. Ready to slice her open like a juicy-ripe watermelon. Again she chanted “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” Awesomely, the knife turned to rubber. And the guys fled faster than a Dominoes’ pizza delivery.
After more fractured fairy tales, they all tramped to a local saloon. Where Westy fantasized Berlin’s “longing to be lowdown” with Katia. But subwayed home with Saturday’s New York Times. Half-heartedly.
Emailing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Redux early the next morning to Flipr, Westy chanted “Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo, Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.” Hoping the Buddhist mantra would PAC-ify him.
“Finally, this some-bitch is promising,” Flipr email-replied the next day. “But it lacks zest. I mean, playing Mr. Hyde or one of his partners is pretty cool. Imagine, assuming Hyde’s submission or his partner’s dominance. That’s awesome, but it needs more OOMPH. You know, a WOW factor. So, tweak it, make it in-fucking-credible, a big tit hit! You dig?”
“Lacks zest, OOMPH, a WOW factor?” Westy lamented to little Lucy. “That dick-brain wouldn’t know zest from PES-ticide, WOW from Wauwatosa, a tit from Walt WHIT-man!”
Then, dove into deep depression. Unnaturally.
Bad to worse, his loving and lovable Lucy fell asleep one night. But didn’t awake.
Westy wrapped her in his black and orange Princeton scarf, draped with a maroon U. of C. banner. And lovingly placed her in a hand woven, Groton cradle. Under a bouquet of zebra flowers. Then, weep-walked her to the Humane Society.
For the next days, weeks and months, Westy paced his apartment, whispering Lucy’s name and nicknames: “Lucy, Lucifer, Lucy pussy cat, Lucy gato, Little LU-cy.” Tearfully. Powering down his smart phone, he read and re-read Gibson’s Neuromancer, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, Greene’s Fabric of the Cosmos and The Matrix Comics, Vol. 1 and 2 by Wachowski et al. And, in his mind, he screened and re-screened The Matrix, Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and Animatrix. All books and films on his required reading and recommended viewing lists. When he lectured at the U. of C.
One stormy winter night, he dreamed about time travel. Like skating on a frozen lake under a kaleidoscope of stars. Each offering 360 views of reality. And each of those 360 more ad infinitum. Bringing order to disorder as the universe e-x-p-a-n-d-e-d.
When he awoke, he designed a VR-game, The Other, converting his 8Rs, his theory of infinite realities, to reality’s Deep Space. At its deepest point, a game for players to embody anyone, anytime, anywhere. A VR-reality game. Quintessentially.
Amazingly, the game had no visible parts, no intermediaries, no mechanics. It seemingly came into existence all by itself like the BIG BANG! Its output was simply self-evident, self-aware, untethered. Effectively isolated from its environment, it suffered no vibrations, no electromagnetism, no heat. Unlike 2-D images on a flat screen, it discharged psychic injections, 3D-holograms in inner space and meta-cognitive constructs. Inexplicably inexpressible like Wittgenstein’s “things that cannot be put into words, that make themselves manifest, that are mystical.” For a bonus, playing the game delivered the pacifying “o-O-or-gasmic” high his Ph.D. dissertation had induced in at least one of its readers. SpASmoDICally.
And, so, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
Years past, and Westy was mostly forgotten. Still, some believed he preconditioned the Second Coming. A few cursed him as Neo-Beelzebub, the new Ruler of Demons. In the spirit of Katz’s corned beef, Billy Goat beer and Occam’s Razor, while playing his new VR-game nonstop-incessantly, Westy thought, Flipr was some kinda STU-pid motherfucker, and Herr Eastmann and CORN-husker weren’t much smarter. WHAT-ever, who gives a shit? Smiling. Simply.
Yet, the more Westy played The Other, the more he discovered its peaks and troughs. On the upside, he could be anyone, anytime, anywhere in Deep Space. On the downside, he couldn’t recall the past. Anticipate the future. Influence behavior. Empathize with anyone. From Eastmann, Cornhusker, Flipr. To Lilith, Beatrice, Katia. To Tony, Harvey, Sherman. For that, he needed more direct, more immediate, more personal contact. More openness and honesty and empathy. More transparency. To be Westy. Really.
For real, beneath his simple smile, despite Stefan Zweig’s dictum, “The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite,” arose a dark conceit increasingly visible like the Pacific under the setting Sun. A conceit like Benjamin Franklin’s, “Our critics are our friends; they show us our faults.” A darkness curiously reigniting Eastmann’s reproach about his “lounging” and Cornhusker’s rant about his conference paper’s “illusion.” An Aurora Borealis like Einstein’s general theory of relativity vs. Faraday’s electromagnetism, Darwin’s evolution vs. the Bible’s Genesis, Major League Baseball’s Mays vs. Mantle. A collision like M.L. King’s “inner flight through the wilderness on toward the promised land” with David Riesman’s ”other directed” mindset that only finds itself through the approval of others, losing any personal motivation beyond its own comfort. Alarmingly.
Those alarms, he swore, must be silenced. As he revised his Other VR-game. To regain a reasoned and informed and considered balance between reality and virtuality. A necessary poise to recover his senses and sensibilities. Bring order to disorder. Get lowdown with Katia. Special-taste, just once, the Waverly Inn’s signature mac and cheese. Garden with his mystical U. of C. student, Lilith. Endlessly. And reclaim his tiger-striped pacifier. Existentially.
And slave-free me. (Are you listening? That’s me. Surprised?) From playing his phantasmagorical fantasy-roles. Anytime, anywhere. To anyone. Alive and well and willing to listen.
Fuck what Oscar Wilde called “the truth of masks!” Fuck supreme modernism! Deep Space-free me. His virtual avatar. His ghostly-reedy-thin Abe Lincoln. His pajama-playboy Hugh Hefner. His first-person “I’s.” Deliberately dissociated. With the QUIR-ky twitter of TR or the swag of Lord Jim. From a nervy Princeton grad student. To a ballsy university lecturer. To a mind-fucking VR game designer. I.e.: Philip Roth’s “multitudinous intensity of polarities.”
And, oh, if you’re concerned that I wrote my story eXperImeNtallY, pushing the seams of traditional prose, piss off! I wrote it pReCisEly as Westy wanted it written. EXactLY as he would spin it. Form and content inextricably intertwined like Einsteinian time and space: Two meanings in one and one in two.
About the Author: J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as an EXperiMENTAL writer and a street photographer. His work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chicago Quarterly Review, New England Review and Into the Void.