Sick Day


Dear Great Great Grandpa.

I know you will never read this letter, because you are dead. You died of heart disease in the year 2043 and I never met you. I'm writing to you because this is an assignment in my level 12 English course. I'm not sure if you had computers back when you were alive, but now instead of going to an old brick building to learn job skills we do it at home on the computer. The computer also makes food, and it's also where you put your head when you want to go to sleep.

I was having trouble thinking of what to talk to you about, because the only thing I know about you is that you are dead and that you died of heart disease. I don't know anybody that's died or anybody that's had a real disease, so I guess I'll talk to you about that. Also I asked my dad about you and he said he never met you, but that he hated his grandpa. That's your son. I could talk to you about why did you raise a son that my dad hates, and accuse you of being a bad dad to my dad's grandpa, but I won't. Because you died. You died when my dad's grandpa was a baby and that's why he grew up to be a sour-puss that was to be hated by my dad.

In the world I live in no one dies from heart disease, because disease has been eradicated. Humans are born perfect and healthy, genetically guaranteed, and live easy lives; never worrying about lung cancer or anthrax or restless legs syndrome. And when someone gets an injury: a chopped off arm or leg, a burnt eyeball, a intestines getting vacuum-sucked out -- we can simply fix it with nanobots. Nanobots are seriously great. They build all of our cities, they eat all of our waste, and they live inside of our brains. That's why we don't worry about psychological scars. When Janice Toaster dumped me so she could focus on running track, and also to date that guy Pete who runs track, my brain told me to be sad. But then the nanobots went to work and told my brain to stop telling me to be sad. Now when I see Janice and Pete running track I just smile, even when I don't really want to.

I said before that I never knew anybody that's had a real disease, and that's true. But I have known lots of people who have had fake diseases. You see, Great Great Grandpa, in the current time, since we don't have illness, sometimes people go to a Sickness Engineer -- which is a guy who designs special drugs that make you feel like you have a specific disease -- and they pay that guy, and then they take those drugs and then they feel sick.

I imagine it might sound strange to you since diseases used to kill everybody, but it's regular for us. When someone wants to take a day off work and relax they do a "Sick Day". That means they stay home and take drugs and feel sick for 8 to 12 hours. They lay in bed and moan and hold their stomachs and heads and drink chicken soup. It's a restorative experience, and the next day they're ready to go back to work and be productive.

The computer told me that back when diseases were free and everybody had them that no one realized how lucky they were. Getting sick was an excuse to stop working or going to school, and you could just lay around wallowing in pain and let your body die. I don't blame you, because I know you had no choice, but if you stopped working and died now, in the present, everyone would think you were an awful person. Like a bum or a thief. Somebody who got to live in society for free and then clock out before they've paid off their birth-debt.

That's why when my dad wanted to take a Sick Day he had to schedule it three months in advance and before that had to make an appointment with the Sickness Engineer to talk about the kind of illness he was interested in having. He thought he wanted schizophrenia or rabies but the Engineer talked him down to getting low blood sodium. My dad asked if he could get hallucinations with that and the Engineer said sure. Then when the day finally came my dad diarrhea'd and vomited a lot and saw evil shadows crawling around the house. It made him really happy.

I think when I get my first Sick Day I'll try the flu, or maybe food poisoning. Those are pretty common for first-timers. I don't think anybody ever does heart disease, sorry. I know it was popular as an actual disease, but I guess it's just not an interesting enough experience to bother with as a fake one. Plus it's one of those things you can't really do in a single day. You'd want to set aside a week or two to get fully into it, and who has that kind of time?

I do know one girl though, a friend of Janice's named Gwen, whose family is super-rich and last year they took an entire Sick Month. Their whole family got cancer of the gallbladder and went through all the stages together. They were all bone-thin and shaking and crying and wouldn't shut up about all the cool lessons they were learning about mortality and stuff. They took staged photos where it looks like a surgeon is removing a tumor from their gallbladder. But that guy isn't actually a surgeon, and they never had any real tumors. One day I saw Gwen at the mall and she was wearing a wig and it fell off to reveal her bald head, and then she bent over and vomited blood. I was so jealous.

But when I think about the time you lived in where diseases were common I have to remember that it's a trade-off. On one hand it would be nice to get sick once every week or so and have a day off, but on the other it would be a drag to get heart disease and then die. I bet if you had a choice you would rather live in my time, huh Great Great Grandpa? But you might not like it. My dad told me that back when you were alive people could take off work even if they weren't actually sick, that sometimes people would take off two days a week even if they felt fine. That sounds crazy to me, and I guess that's why your society collapsed. I think overall it's good that it's illegal to stop working, and that when you take a Sick Day the police come and make sure you've taken your disease pills -- that way people don't abuse the system.

Now the computer is telling me that my dad is a liar and that it's time for me to stick my head inside of it and go to sleep. I surprisingly enjoyed writing this letter to you, even though I hated it. I guess that's the nanobots again. Talk to you later, Great Great Grandpa. I hope you enjoy being dead and I hope someday I will be dead too.

Living In Hell


I'm not going to lie to you man, Hell has problems. Hell isn't perfect. Are there places I'd rather be than Hell? You bet. Heaven, for one. Or even South Dakota. But you don't always choose where you end up. Sometimes you end up in Hell and the only choice you have is either belly-ache and moan about how bad you've got it or buck-up and make the best of the situation.

Again, is Hell my favorite place of all time? No. But do I think about how awful it is while I'm going about my day? Do I cry and carry on about it instead of doing what needs to be done? Yeah, sometimes I do. Very often in fact. But not as much as I did when I first got here.

You might say we "Do things a little differently" here in Hell. It takes some getting used to, I'll give you that. I find myself looking down on the new arrivals, the transplants and gentrifiers, and scoffing at their naive attempts to assimilate. I went through it too, and I know it ain't easy. But it's almost a sacred duty to give these bright-eyed dreamers a rough time of it. A little taste of reality to go with their pre-conceived romantic notions of the place.

Are you going to suffer unbearable pain for all of eternity? No. Are you going to be tortured? Not likely, nobody has time for it. Is some demon going to rip your guts out and wear them as a scarf? Probably not. Depends on the neighborhood. Are you going to be haunted by visions of your loved ones moving on with their lives and forgetting you ever existed? Yeah, but that goes away after a while.

You get used to the permanent twilight, the noise, the sulfur smell. You'll even get used to the food. I can honestly say I get cravings for the rubbery translucent things we skim out of the blood swamp. Dry 'em out, fry 'em in goat fat, pinch of salt. Delicious.

And the locals? What you call "Demons"? Some of the nicest creatures I've ever met. Well, once you learn how to act around them. Obviously they don't like when you sneak past them shivering in wet fear, or like when people wail and scream and run away. It's disrespectful. Would you like it if someone you just met started crying and begging you not to torture them? No, I bet not. You might even torture them just to prove a point. The locals can be a little cruel, sure, but they were here first and if you wanna get by out here you'll learn to deal with them just like they've learned to deal with us.

Once you get acclimated you'll start to appreciate the area. The landscape is amazing, first of all. The Terror Valley, The Lake Of Mercury, The Bone Spiral, The Fear Zone, The Impossible Mountains, the list goes on. And some say if you stare into the sky long enough with its strangely shimmering surface like molten glass that you'll go insane. It's that impressive. But besides the nature spots we've got the best cultural scene around. All your favorite actors, musicians, comedians. They all end up here eventually. There's always something going on, given that we've lost the ability to sleep.

But the most important thing you're going to discover is your own strength. The fact that you ended up here, whether you wanted to or not, and you stuck it out. It can be weird, it can be hectic, it can be overwhelming and alienating and even scary. But you still gotta get out there and do your best. That's all that matters. You're in charge of you and despite whatever might happen you'll at least have the knowledge that if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.

Ant Farm


One of the first things we develop our imagination for is pretending to be God. The actual first thing is imagining how you would act as an adult. You see mom as a giant who takes away your toy and asks you to eat a plate of spaghetti instead of a fudge pop. Even though you made it perfectly clear you want the fudge pop. This is the most important thing you can learn about God and if you don't get this lesson then you'll probably get sucked into religion. God can't be bargained or reasoned with, God operates on another level. You get the spaghetti because God knows something about spaghetti that you don't. Your human wants and desires amount to squat next to the cosmic order.

Of course, you find out later that mom is also driven by human emotions, not some kind of transcendental genius. She gets a lot of stuff wrong, actually. And maybe she gave you spaghetti because you were being a little shit and somewhere inside of her, even though she loves you, she wanted you to suffer. That's another lesson about God.

So anyway you imagine what if you were a giant adult. You would step right over mom and reach up into the freezer in the sky and take the entire box of fudge pops and eat them all. Then you would get into your car and drive to the beach and tame a shark. Then you would make the shark eat all the bad people in the world: teachers, fathers, babies. You would also drink beers because that's what adults do. Adults drink a lot of beers and then fall down and hit their head and blood comes out, and then they yell at each other. They like drinking beers so much they forget to make food and then you cry and they give you a fudge pop, which is great.

But even in your wildest imaginations being an adult isn't enough to sustain you. They have to go to jobs where they have a boss that scares them and they always talk about running out of money. None of the adults in your life do anything exciting. Your dad drives a garbage truck. Which would be cool, except he has to drive it to where his boss tells him. He can't just drive down the street throwing cars and mail boxes and people into the trash compactor and he's never once found a treasure chest full of gold in the someone's garbage.

Adults are powerful but they can't do the things you really desire: they can't ride dinosaurs or fly in space or become a super-villain. So then you imagine that you're God, and you remake the world so that cool things happen all the time instead of never. You create in your mind your version of Heaven. The world is magic and everyone is rich and happy and anything is possible. Eros actualized. It's an entertaining thought for about two minutes and then you arrive logically to the real meaty chunk of fantasy, the thing that will occupy you for the rest of childhood and dig itself deep into your subconscious and color your outlook forever and be a force you grapple with in therapy and relationships and when you're alone and can't just enjoy the nice things in life like sitting in the sun eating a piece of tropical fruit and listening to bland folk-rock.

You get into pain.

The thought of utopia gets old quick. It's hard to figure out a world where everyone's happy.  What would that even look like? On the other hand it's easy to imagine a world where everyone is in constant horrible agony. Entertaining, too! You figured it out young, you little Buddhist. All is suffering. You step into your God-shoes and take back the advanced alien civilizations and the super-powered mutants who keep order, the talking dogs, the shining cities of smiling brainless beauties and you replace them with wars and famine and evil aliens that wear human skins like mittens. You've stopped playing with your toys. Now you roll around on the floor for hours, eyes unfocused, lost in your own personal apocalypse, drunk with power.

It's even better when you have this game running side-by-side with real life. A big lady is in line ahead of mom at the grocery store and it's taking too long. Well, what if she exploded? A big dog scares you, but it wouldn't be so scary if you kicked it into the sun. And then the sun exploded. This is another lesson you learn. The fantasy realm is where everything important happens and real life is gray and slow and impossible in comparison. An earnest attempt to function in this miserable disenchanted world would be like admitting defeat.

Dad loves his beers more than you, but would he love being trapped inside of a giant beer bottle? A giant beer bottle that's being drunk by a giant You? Probably not. Probably he would hate being sloshed around in your giant guts and being attacked by the creatures that live in your belly. Maybe one of them would take pity on the human and drag him back to the village and tend to the wounds he sustained from your stomach acids. Then he would have to live in the town and get a job where he drives a truck down to the butt hole and dumps the village's trash into a pile that gets turned into poop.

I think every kid discovers ants as a reasonable substitute for actual tiny humans to lord over. You dig up your backyard with just your hands, capturing dozens of workers at a time and occasionally finding valuable pockets of pupae and drones. You fill a baking pan with dirt for them to live in, and decorate their new home with geodes and plastic army men and a flag you make out of notebook paper. You smile down upon your kingdom and are proud of what you've created. On the first day God made Ant-topia, and God saw that it was good.

On the second day you get home from school and find the ungrateful little shits have fled your kingdom in droves, and are currently carrying the last few pupae back to their neglectful mother Queen. So you fling the baking pan across the yard and send the fuckers flying. Well, the Garden of Eden was a failure too. So you re-build. A bigger container -- your dead cat's litter box -- and a plan. You line the bottom with gravel and pile dirt high in the center. You place a couple Little Debbie Honey Buns on top of the dirt and grab just a few workers and drop them in.

Meanwhile, Mom is starting to complain. There's holes all over the backyard, her baking pan is missing, and ants are in the house. At night when you take a bath you discover a few stowaways have clung to your body and they float on the surface of the water, dog-paddling. It gives you an idea.

The next day there's a bunch of ants in the little box breaking up the Honey Buns and you pat the dirt down tight around them, creating a gap running around the container. You come back with a gallon of water and slowly pour it. An island nation of cast-offs. Paradise. Ant-lantis. You watch for hours as the workers slowly piece together what's happened. At dusk their tiny dark movements blend into the dirt and dance in your vision like a black flame. A hallucination. You can almost hear them.

The next day you hurry to the backyard and see the litter box empty against the fence. Wet clumps of mud pocked with dead ants and Honey Bun crumbs sit all around it. You tear into the house screaming murder. Mom, what have you done? It's an Ant-pocalypse. Over and over you've been shown to be powerless. Someday you'll come to terms with it. For now, you take a jug of bleach and dump it all over the spot with the pupae and drones. Mom wants the ants gone, fine. I'll do it my way.

When the Queen dies the remaining colony begins a funeral procession out of your yard and down the street. They're going to find a new home. You've never seen so many of them and in such a neat line, about the width of a pencil. For fun you drop a grasshopper and few roly polies on the line and watch them get quickly taken down and swept along like twigs in a river.  They were never yours in the first place, just part of the world. A world you can't control.

When God retreats and allows his stubborn creations to live for themselves, what's left for him? What is power un-exercised? Does he simply cease to exist? Or does he occupy himself with the fantasy that things could have gone another way? I don't believe in God, but I do believe in powerlessness. When the day-dream of control vanishes and you find yourself trapped in real life, it's something you can truly rely upon. Not just for yourself, but your parents and bugs and dirt and everything and all of us. Powerless. Start there and you can do anything.