Switching gears

I can still remember the day when I first met Karl. He was a teenager back then. Many youngsters, at his age, are spreading their hands around, trying to create some space in a world that feels, let’s be honest, a little bit too crowded. And from the space they created, they are yelling to the universe: ‘we are here!’. Karl was … well, different. True, he was stubborn, like his peers, but in a quiet manner. In fact, that was his strength. Listening. And where most people have trouble following word after word, especially when they’re too many in a sentence, Karl had patience. Sometimes for hours unending. And there he sat, following not only every single word you said, but also your thoughts, your emotions, your subconscious, your unconscious, your heartbeat. It was as if, at his young age, Karl has already lived a hundred lives, and one of those lives was yours.

I will not talk about how difficult it was for Karl to convince his parents to let him study psychology. No, that’s not important for this story. I’m going to jump right to the accident. Of his uncle, Frank.

One morning, Frank was in a rush. He jumped into the car. Pressed the gas full pedal till it hit the floor, forgetting to check the gear. The car went fast into the wrong direction, hitting the wall behind. 2 months in the hospital left Frank a completely different person. And nobody could tell why … not the doctors … not his family. There were no signs of brain trauma. Not much was different, except for one very important thing. You see, Frank used to be a very successful storyteller, and the trademark of his craft was his optimistic, meaningful stories. Now everything was gloomy, negative, hopeless. And the worst thing was that Frank couldn’t tell the difference between his older stories and the ones after the accident. For him it was all the same.

It was because of this accident that Karl’s father decided to pay Frank a visit. As soon as they arrived, Karl’s focus was entirely on Frank. Through the day, Karl listened patiently to the stories, and through the night, he would roll in his bed, trying to figure out what … what … what happened with the storyteller? Until one night, it was about 4 o’ clock, when Karl jumped out of his bed with an idea. He sat down at the table, and started re-writing the stories.

First story (as told by Frank, in his hoarse, cancerous voice):

I made it. My daughter asked me to speak for her at the graduation ceremony. The lights are on. A sea of eyes, staring at me, eating my soul alive. I’m already sweating. I start to run towards the exit. Fast, hurry up, they must not catch me. I jump into the car. The engine starts, the gear is in reverse, I need to see the danger with my eyes, they must not catch me, I don’t care about what’s behind. I drive like there’s no yesterday, sharp turns, the rubber squeaking. And the eyes … the eyes are following me everywhere. I get lost, it doesn’t matter, the eyes are still fixed on me. Another sharp turn, I crash into a fence, and find myself in front of a jar of jam. The clock is beating 18:30. I’m a dreamer. Where is my memory? I’m late, I’m always late. I go to sleep. I am so tired.

Re-written by Karl

It’s afternoon, I’m really tired, so I go to sleep. The clock is suddenly beating 18:30. Where is my memory? I’m late, I’m always late. I’m a dreamer. No time to eat, I dip a slice of bread in the jar of jam in front of me and jump into the car. I’m late, no time to open the gate, so I crash through the fence. All I can see in front of me are those eyes fixing me, waiting for me. I run towards the eyes. The eyes are everywhere, so I get lost. Oh no, I’m late, they’re waiting. I drive like there’s no tomorrow, sharp turns, the rubber squeaking, I run towards the eyes. The theatre is in front of me, the eyes are inside. The backdoor, I hope I didn’t forget the keys, good, good, they’re here. I run towards the stage. I’m already sweating. A sea of eyes, and there I find them. The eyes of my daughter, who asked me to speak for her at the graduation ceremony. Those kind eyes, they are my soul. They make me feel alive. The lights are on. I made it! In time! For the first time!

Second story (as told by Frank):

That’s all that matters. The beginning of the day. The ring is on her hand, and she says yes. I kneel down. Her radiant, surprised face changes into an angry one, once she remembers. I smile, a smile that could make a crocodile really cry. It doesn’t work. She hits me. I am once again late, 3 hours late. I walk away, discouraged. Well, I still have my work left. And I’m late there too. Why didn’t I take this day off? The boss waits there, impatient. Two words: you’re fired. Why, why me? Well, I still have my home left. Today is the day! The end of the day. I look around. My home is gone, no trace of walls, just the bed left in the middle. So I sit down. My mind, once full of thoughts, is now empty. Darkness.

Re-written by Karl

I can see only black. My head is empty. Until I wake up, and then, it’s full of thoughts. I jump out from the bed. Aaah, Today is the day! I look around, and it’s as if the house has no more walls, and I can see far far away. To the end of the day. Oh no, I’m late to work. The boss is waiting there, impatient. Two words: you’re fired. Why didn’t I take this day off? You know what: it doesn’t matter. I run. I run as fast as I can, because I’m late. So late. 3 hour late. She hits me. It doesn’t work. Because I’m smiling, a smile that could make a crocodile really cry. Her angry face, turns surprised and then radiant, once she remembers. I kneel down. The ring is on her hand, and she says yes. The end of the day. That’s all that matters.

It was silence in the room, filled with over 500 people, who were listening breathlessly to Frank’s story. Many people were checking their watches, not sure whether time went in reverse or not. Fortunately, in each and every case, time went forward, undisrupted, or so it seemed.

The people were so caught by the fictional story that they couldn’t tell which one was the real Frank – the story teller, standing in front of them, or the one inside the story. Just like you right now, they were confused, as waking up from a dream that was too much like reality, maybe asking … what is going on?

(yes, I know you’re surprised, but it’s true, Frank is the one who has been telling you this story from the beginning, and you’ve been sitting for all this time in a large hall, with 500 other people)

(Frank switches voice, and talks again in his hoarse, cancerous voice)

My life started in mid July, under the sign of cancer, an animal born to walk backwards. And just like the cancer, I’ve grown to live in reverse. Until somebody suggested that I was driving in the wrong gear.

The trick that did it was the following mantra: Cancer not am I. Ups, not that way. I am not cancer. Oh, and by the way … my name is not Frank.

(Switch to normal voice)

It’s Arthur.

And now, I’d like to leave you with three pieces of … I wouldn’t call advice … let’s call it something … I’d like to leave you with two pieces of something:
– First: Always check your gear before pressing acceleration.
– Second: have now a look at your watch and make sure that time is still going forward.
– Last: if you ever get the chance to turn your life upside down, do it, it’s totally worth it!

Hey everyone it’s so cool to be with you! The title of the story that I’m about to tell is: Reverse!

Story written with both hands

(published in NXS #2, Synthetic Selves)

I don’t know how others deal with it, but I talk to the hand. All day long. And the hand is listening. Both of them are in fact. In perfect communion, they embrace my thoughts, giving shape to all the nonsense that flows between my ears…. Set free those two teams of pointy fingers, and I am able to reach out to things and call them mine: an extended version of the self that feels confounded with the air in my room, a barely legible writing that looks more like a time-varying signal, the sharp sound of the violin I haven’t played in ages.

I talk to the hands while washing the dishes, when they are both covered in soap. At the hairdresser, when they are hidden beneath the barber’s cape. While I’m outside wandering through the city, and my hands, tired from too much walking, rest in the pockets. I talk to the hands at my desk, when they are both, for once, uncovered. Imagine that! The left sits on the mouse, the right rests on the keyboard. Talking to each other, the hands are trying to shape the countless universes dawning upon me. One hundred billion neurons. Hundreds of trillions of synapses. Should be a fine match for the mere one billion websites. More or less.

I remember vividly my first seizure. It was the day when I reached my first million. Of websites. Viewed. On the screen, a spectacle of light. On the chair, an earthquake. I thought, naively: this must be what freedom feels like, away from personhood, the ecstasy of a world connected, a whole body shaking in synchrony.

I try to do my thing. Talk to the hand. To both of them, in fact. And not one of them is listening. Moving above in the air, my hands take a life of their own, scribbling a writing that does not look like mine.

It took another million websites to experience the second seizure. And then a thousand. After a year, I couldn’t load a new page without shaking.

The diagnostic: my brain has grown to be a replica of the internet. One idea links to ten, maps to a hundred, creates a thousand anew, which are, of course, better summarized by a million others. An ever-multiplying hydra. A rock falling off the tip of a mountain, taking down with it, one by one, blades of grass, trees, pieces of land, the whole mountain. All of that amounting to a predictable earth-shaking contraption.

The one and only solution: split. The two conjoined twins that live together inside my head. Break the avalanche in the middle. Cut away the corpus callosum, and leave each hemisphere on its own. The decision was made. The scissors cut through. Or so they say. I wasn’t there. I was asleep.

Earthquakes are now what they should be, rare, less intense. Thousands and thousands of pages coming alive in between my synapses, without a shake. It worked. But something else has also changed. I’m talking to the hands. And the left does not seem to be mine anymore. Fast forwarding through the never-ending flood of information, it swings lavishly on the hypnotic waves. It takes the shape of objects around me. It touches every button, clicks every link, drags and drops things around, according to its own imagination. When the left hand is not sitting on the mouse, its middle finger scrolls through the air, pages and pages of content from my mind. Whether I like it or not, it randomly streams the subconscious, jumping between distant corners of my memory.

And the right hand, well the right hand tries to give shape to the nonsense that flows between my ears. With all the fingers rolling down the keyboard, it lives to tell the story. Or, better off, to make it. Sometimes painting in the color of dreams, other times, looking for logic in the puzzle of distant memories. Yes, the right hand is rewriting the story of the gestures made by the left hand, creating, according to its own imagination, meaning.

Left Right
Looks around for something new.
Celebrity haircut. President tweet.
The last season. The newest series.
Conflict. Peace. Incoming. Outgoing.
Red carpet entrances. *exits.
I need to read some history.
The hand starts all over again.
History? News
At the intersection of all things moving,
I count the beginning of moments,
with only one finger.All the while, my other fingers,
are catching water drops still in the air,
before they get lost in the sea.

Distracted by every other liquid passer-by,
the eyes have also
become part of a flow,
with no memory,
no judgement,
no color of its own.

In between the falling droplets,
I sometimes grasp, still in the air,
a glimmer of the sea.

It’s all anew,
I think…
I don’t remember.
The past,
is obsolete.

Left Right
I can never remember the time,
when people were still collecting stamps,
tabulating the symbols,
of letters not yet sent,
never to be sent,
many of them,
duplicates.
In my time, in my book,
I’m collecting just names, and their faces,
the post office has moved, from downtown,
everywhere,
and the faces,
the names,
are still waiting for letters…

Strolling down my collection,
a lone finger sends waves to the crowd,
moving back, moving forth, till it stops,
pointing one name at random,

It’s the first on the list.

Open window,
And send:
Worried face,
A thumbs up,
Then a quick middle finger,
Laugh out loud on the side,
Zipper mouth, dollar eyes,
Throwing up,
Then an eye roll.
Goodbye!
The hand starts all over again,

Pointing one name at random.
It’s the second on the list.
I can never remember the time,
when I sent away my last letter.
The post office has moved, from downtown,
everywhere.Silent whisper,
has become our exchange.
With no words, only signs,
intertwined, disconnected,
by the beautiful,
grammar … of emotion.
Left Right
The hand feels the phone.
Presses the camera icon.
Turns on selfie mode.
Takes pic, pic, pic, pic x 100.
Browses through.
Deletes everything.
I need to eat.
The hand starts all over again.
Now takes selfies with food.
The untraceable shape of a room full of mirrors,
lures a light flashing from somewhere … from everywhere,
to multiply all the facets of my soul:
the pigments, the dark spots,
the light in the eyes, the shadows of the past,
into a hundred figures, all the same,
distorted pixels of each other.A voice, trapped to hear no one but the self,
searching in vain for its own complement,
calls into the hollow, glittering glass:
Mmmmeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.

The liquid sand, frozen, perhaps forever,
shatters with the sounds of an earthquake,
enclosed in a space too small,
playing back the fading echoes of an old underground melody:
Mmmeeeeee, Mmmeeee, Mmeee, Me.

In between two corners of the room,
I discover another light, a smile, a new muscle memory,
large enough to stretch onto the left and right,
in between bites of food,
munching away the vowels still reverberating everywhere:
Mmm,mm,mm,mm,m.

The curve sweeps into the past and the future,
a new image of who I was, the one I am becoming.

I am my own complement.

 

The right sits on the keyboard, the left covers the mouse. The eyes are closed, just resting for a while… In my head, I can see the hands moving away from each other. Like in a game of Snake, where both head and tail are growing at the same time. Speed levels 1,2, and 3: it takes an eternity to move from one corner to the other. I don’t want to grow old doing this! 4,5 and 6: the hands are swiftly avoiding each other, like people rushing quickly through a crowd during the rush hour. Crossing my fingers and jumping straight to level 10: my eyes, though closed, are spinning, following the mish mash of gestures. And then silence. They finally collided. In a forced embrace my hands have come together again…

I’ve trodden many hidden paths, and stepped into the unexplored. But this is new. I’m talking to the hands. For once, the right is quiet, and the left is speaking. I’m talking to the left. And it tells me back its own alien story. It’s beautiful. Grasping, reaching, drag & dropping, swiping, scrolling, touching, feeling. The story of the one who wanted to live outside her own mind. But it couldn’t. The right has always tried to figure out why. It’s about time the left gave it a try:

In epilepsy, neural networks are characterized by hyper-excitability.[1]

A simple stimulus can lead to seizures, periods of hyper-synchronous brain activity.[2]

During an epileptic seizure, one may experience convulsive body movements.[3]

When seizures occur often and the condition does not improve with pharmacological treatment, surgical intervention is advised.

This may involve the resection of the brain area that is the source of epileptic activity, typically the temporal lobe.[4]

Or the removal of the corpus callosum, a white matter structure comprising most of the connections between the two hemispheres. [5]

Side effects.

Sometimes, alien hand syndrome, typically affecting the left hand, where the person perceives the hand as acting on its own, reaching for objects according to their affordance, as opposed to acting according to the person’s intention.[6]

Confabulation: Visual processing is crossed, the left hemisphere processes stimuli in the right visual hemifield, the right hemisphere processes stimuli in the left visual hemifield. In patients without corpus callosum, a stimulus may reach the right hemisphere, and the person may act on it, even though the stimulus didn’t reach the other, left hemisphere. The left hemisphere is responsible for describing behavior verbally. If the left hemisphere sees the behavior, but doesn’t know the stimulus that caused it, it will just confabulate, it will make up a story. [7]

I’m talking to the hand. All day long. The hand, which gives shape to all the nonsense that flows between my ears.

I am … the hand.

The … hand.

[1] Basic mechanisms underlying seizures and epilepsy https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK2510/

[2] Reflex seizure https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reflex_seizure

[3] Epilepsy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epilepsy

[4] Temporal lobe resection http://www.webmd.com/epilepsy/guide/temporal-lobe-resection#1

[5] Corpus callosotomy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corpus_callosotomy

[6] Alien hand syndrome https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alien_hand_syndrome

[7] Confabulation https://www.edge.org/response-detail/11513

Confucius

Many people think … they know me. So I’ve decided that the time has come for me to step forward with the truth.

You see … I have a medical condition. I have a very good memory, I can remember all the names, but I cannot tell which one is mine…

It may seem like it, but I’m not here to make a confession of sorts. I’m here to share a story.

So I sat down one evening to write. The room was warm and cozy. On the table, my pen was scribbling the beginning of a story I’ve already written before. Soon enough, as it often happens, I fell asleep. And dreamed. In that dream, I heard a story. And the name of the story was: Confucius. Here it goes:

Once upon a time or, twice… I don’t remember, there was a lovely girl locked in a tower, guarded by her stepmother, obviously… And on the top of the tower, higher than the highest clouds, there was a tini tiny window, which trapped a ray of sunshine into the small room where our princess lived. The one thing that made her special, besides her beauty, was that her hair grew really fast. But her stepmother was envious of her long hair. The old woman wanted herself to have the longest hair in the kingdom, yet her hair couldn’t grow nearly as fast as the step daughter’s. Every month or so the stepmother would ask: “Mirror mirror on the wall, what’s the longest hair of all?“ And whenever the answer was her stepdaughter’s, she would go and cut down the girls’ hair. Day by day passed like that, until one day, actually, one night, when the stepmother died, suffocated in the length of her own hair, leaving our princess alone, locked in her room at the top of the tower.

She left her hair grow long, so very long,
To catch at least one lover, attracted to her song.
Who’d climb up to the window on her hair,
And save her from a life she couldn’t bear.

But who could know how long would take
For a brave prince a trip to make
To climb up to the window on her hair,
And save her from a live she couldn’t bear.

So she decided to sleep and wait,
And leave her hair fall down as bait.
She took some tea, fell down asleep
But didn’t plan to nap so deep.
And her pure song without a score
Turned to a loud and rhythmic snore.

And she slept, and slept, and slept the sleep of beauty, and dreamed the dreams of freedom. For hours, days, and years.

In the meanwhile, far, far away, in the country of Neverland there was born a child who refused to grow up. And because he didn’t want to grow up, he grew forward instead, his back curving as a hunchback. The princess had already slept for too long hidden in the tower when our guy turned into a handsome 25 year-old, well, save for his hunchback. He didn’t have any friends, so he was really surprised when at his birthday he received a bag from an unknown sender. Yet even more surprising than the bag itself was its content: an old rusty lamp, a Persian carpet, a pair of lady’s shoes, a shiny knight’s armor, and a brand new horse. Don’t ask me how the horse fit in the bag cos’ I don’t know.

He tries the shoes and they don’t match.
They’re lady’s shoes, yeah, that’s the catch.
He doesn’t know, o poor hunchback.
And puts them slowly in the sack.

Then takes the armor, puts it on,
And plans to leave before the dawn.

The horse is ready, breathing fire,
The guy says go, the horse: yes, sire!

They ride along, and chase the sky,
To Neverland, they say goodbye,
They ride along, with wind behind,
Through sunny days, one of a kind.
They run through deserts, storms, and rain,
With sadness, fear, joy and pain.

Until one day, one of a kind,
Our mighty tower they do find.
They hear music from up there,
A clear theme that fills the air,
It’s not a song without a score,
but just a loud and rhythmic snore.

He sees her hair, it’s grown so long,
And tries to climb, he’s not so strong,
And then annoyed, for such an ending,
He tries a trick, rather mind-bending.

He takes the magic carpet, jumps on it,
And flies up there, and there… and there … and there… he sees … Her.

For a minute he freezes at the sight of her beauty. He wakes her up. it takes about 5 minutes for her to figure out what is going on because, we’ll she’s been asleep for years, even decades. She’s now much older than him, yet, having slept through most of it, she lived less than he did. Time freezes when beauty sleeps, so she still had the face of a child and the mind of a young princess.

He tries the shoes and they do match,
They’re lady shoes, yeah that’s the catch
Hmm … Cinderella … is that your name?”

I’ve seen the mirror on the wall,
Snow white, you’re honestly too tall.”

You slept so long,
I heard the song,
Hey Sleeping Beauty is that you?”

Your hair grew, down from the sky,
You are Rapunzel, oh … oh my!”

And then she looked at him bemused:

Those lady shoes were perfect fit, are you the Prince?
Came all the way from Neverland, you Peter Pan?
I see a Hunch sits on your Back, from Notre-Dame?
A flying carpet you have brought, you Aladdin?”

It’s so confusing, who are you?”

In that moment, when time slowed down, the two looked at each other confused and answered, together … “I have … a very good memory. I can remember all the names … but I cannot tell … which one is mine…”

Suddenly the guy remembers that in his bag there was the magic lamp. He didn’t have any use for it yet. Now was the time! He rubs it 3 times, and then the grand spirit of the lamp comes out, filling the small room where they were. Together, the guy and the girl looked up to the spirit of the lamp and said: “My dear genie… I grew up … with sooo many stories. With so many wonderful people around me. I learned to speak as they spoke, to act as they acted, to think as they thought. I learned all their names, but … I forgot mine… My dear genie, what is my name?”

The spirit of the lamp looked down, smiling, to the two beautiful people in front of him, and answered: “I live to fulfill other people’s wishes. I have a very good memory. I can remember all names, but I cannot tell which one is mine. So how do you expect me to tell you what your name is? But one thing I know: the best story that you can tell … the best story you can be … is not somebody else’s. It’s yours!”

It was morning … or evening, when I woke up from my dream… I don’t remember. I have a very good memory! I can remember all the names, but somehow, I couldn’t tell which one was mine. That day I remembered my name. And it wasn’t Confucius anymore.

There is one thing you can try. On a random day, at a random time, go to one of your friends and tell them, Congratulations! And unless they think you’re a bit random, and, off, all the time, they will come to you and ask: Congratulations, what for? Answer back: For everything! Congratulations for who you are, for what you represent! For your story, told, or untold. For your fights, and dreams! Congratulations … to every single one of you … for everything!