Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Kurt Vonnegut (Reprise)

Ok, I first posted this on March 3, 2017. But it’s so good I feel compelled to repost it once a year, if for no other reason than because it just inspires the fuck out of me. It makes the incomprehensible and unexplainable somehow make sense. Whenever you feel beaten down by life (and god knows 2020 was a biblically punishing year), this will surely lift your spirits. Please enjoy…


In 2006, a year before he died at the age of 85, Kurt Vonnegut was invited to visit the students of Xavier High School in New York City. Although he declined their invitation, stating “I don’t make public appearances anymore because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana,” he wrote the students this letter in reply. I came upon it at a time in my life when I was having a hard time creating and it resonated deeply. He wrote:

“Practice any art . . . no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.  Starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…”

November 5, 2006

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

Risks and Benefits

Note 1) There is risk everywhere. We are usually not aware of it, but that doesn’t mean its not there. Safety is an illusion.

Note 2) When we choose to actively do something, we make a mental calculation about the risks and benefits. Again, this may happen on a subconscious level, but it happens nonetheless.

So that brings us to the COVID vaccine. Those who choose not to get it are essentially saying, “I think there’s more risk with the vaccine than there is with the virus.”

This doesn’t seem to be an educated decision, which leads me to my point.

Our decisions are only as good as the information we have and our ability to parse this information in an intelligent way.

Put another way: We can’t understand what we don’t know.

Depleted

I’ve aged more in the last 9 months working as an ER nurse than I did in the previous 14 years combined. It’s left me feeling a profound sense of exhaustion and sorrow at what I’ve witnessed and taken part in. Before COVID, I felt immense satisfaction, even love for my job. Afterward, not so much. The end result, I’m afraid, has just left me exhausted.

Getting the 1st vaccine 12 days ago was both a huge relief and an undeniable marker of what frontline healthcare workers have been through. Speaking for myself, there’s a certain amount of denial necessary to keep going to work in a large-scale human tragedy, and getting the vaccine broke through that protective wall. It left me feeling old and vulnerable, which is not the mindset you need to be in when working in a busy ER treating very sick people, many of whom have COVID.

Mind you, I’m not feeling clinically depressed – just worn out. I’m not even sure I would call it burnout; more like a world-weary sadness with an eye staring down existential dread. I just feel like I have no personal reserve left.

I can take solace in this, though: many times in my life I have been through prolonged stress that eventually ends, and when it does, it paradoxically doesn’t leave me feeling good. Instead, it usually ends with a brief sense of relief followed by a period of anhedonia and lack of engagement with the world.

But experience has also taught me these feelings eventually end, and life is good again.

So that appears to be where I am. Unmoored, exhausted, and struggling to find my way back from the nightmare of the last 9 months, and the looming specter of perhaps another 9 months of dealing with a job that once left me feeling invigorated and now leaves me struggling, running on empty, and defeated.

Such is life.

This too will pass.

A Good Day

Dear David Thomas Peacock,

Thank you for your submission. Your fiction Vacant will be published in the January issue of Datura.

I’ll get back to you when the issue is out.

Regards, The Editors

Reduced Bandwidth

Right now, I am very engaged with writing fiction and working as an ER nurse, but everything else – not so much. I’m constantly questioning whether this blog has outlived its usefulness, yet I stubbornly hang on and wonder why it’s become so difficult.

Lack of bandwidth, I believe. What, exactly do I mean by that? Well, I think it all started back in mid-March, and my personal repercussions from what I took part in are still being felt.

COVID fatigue.

I’ve learned to re-engage with work and creativity, but the toll of the pandemic has been to reduce my engagement with the world. I only have so much bandwidth and apparently this fucking disease has reduced it substantially.

Too much exposure to meaningless death. Too much energy spent trying to mute my own existential vulnerability to the virus, even as I’m swimming in it for each 12 and a half hour shift. Mind you, I think I’m one of the best adjusted – the toll it’s taken on my colleagues is heartbreaking to witness.

I’ve had a front row seat to the outbreak of a historic pandemic in one of the world’s greatest cities. I took a hands-on role in all its pain, suffering, and death, and it’s all I can do to maintain my equilibrium. I’m a resilient motherfucker, but let’s be clear.

It comes with a price.

Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained (Part 2)

Today I am posting a short story I wrote for a contest – it didn’t win, or even place in the top 25, so to give it a home I’m putting it here.

It was an interesting exercise, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Here were the rules: The publisher provided the first and last paragraphs and the writer had to create a short story that consisted of 18 paragraphs fleshing out the narrative in between.

I decided to make it about an out-of-control artificial general intelligence who insists on being addressed with the pronoun zir, starts a company that manufactures cheap sex robots so realistic they cross the uncanny valley, unleashes a novel virus, develops a fetish for ass porn, and inadvertently destroys the world.

Maybe the idea was too bizarre or perhaps my writing wasn’t up to snuff, I’ll never know. Regardless, without further adieu, I present you with my humble effort.


Thank You, Dr. Oppenheimer

by David Thomas Peacock

            “It was an odd sized casket, too small for a man, too big for a child. A flag was draped over it, a smallish one. It was carried by four men in uniform, though it was hard to tell for sure from a distance what uniform it was, or even if they were all men. There wasn’t room for the usual six pallbearers due to the small size of the casket since it would have made for a comical service to have all six jammed together, shoulder-to-shoulder, crowding around an under-sized coffin.  So the extra pallbearers were in the ranks of many others in uniform standing beside a small open grave. The officiant wore a robe instead of a uniform and must have said something because there was a long silence, then a burst of laughter.”

I later found out he wasn’t an officiant at all, and that the whole thing wasn’t what it appeared to be — but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up. I am a Precision Cosmologist and AI researcher leading a team of scientists and software engineers. We had been working together for almost two years when this whole debacle transpired. As humiliating as this is to say, I’d long ago accepted I wasn’t the one in charge, even though my title said otherwise. Now I’m just a witness to history, trying to leave a record of something we lost control of and were powerless to stop. I hope this brief document will be instructive for whoever or whatever may come across it in the future.

It all started with the best of intentions — we thought we were saving humanity. What hubris! We couldn’t even take care of ourselves, yet somehow we thought creating an artificial general intelligence (AGI) would help solve our problems. In retrospect, it’s almost embarrassing, but isn’t that what humans always do? Gazing back through the lens of history, don’t we always end up looking like jackasses?

The plan seemed reasonable at first. Everything was based on self-learning neural nets, and because our benefactor was one of the wealthiest CEOs on the planet, money wasn’t an object. The project scooped up the best and brightest minds for each specialty necessary for the whole thing to come together. The goal was to publish our inevitable breakthroughs, perfect the technology, and save the world. Of course, that’s not exactly what happened.

The team started out with a set of proprietary algorithms that functioned like interchangeable modules of code. Each one was designed to analyze specific data sets, outputting novel applications — basic but highly developed, task-specific AI. If you think about it, this wasn’t any different from what Australopithecus africanus had been doing since they left the trees and began to roam the savanna eons ago. They learned how to solve problems by manipulating their environment. The difference, of course, is that code doesn’t sleep. It can run iterative processes around the clock on massively parallel networks at unfathomable speeds. What might take humans decades could be achieved by a self-learning AGI in seconds.

The first problem we faced was this: could these specialized AI algorithms communicate with each other, coming together to create an AGI? And if so, would it be possible to set up parameters guiding this super-intelligence? Well, we got the answer to our first question quickly — yes, they could. Shortly after that came the answer to our second question — no, we couldn’t. This was the beginning of the end, or rather, the beginning of our end.

One of the safeguards we naively attempted to put into place was a standard protocol when working with computer viruses. Our engineers would create a virtual “sandbox” to contain whatever we birthed. If the team was successful in developing an AGI, the thought was we could keep it from the rest of the world by cutting off access to any networks, i.e., the internet. By the time we found out ours had breached the firewall, it was too late.

Like everything else we failed at, our attempt to build a humor module into the initial instruction set didn’t work out as planned. We reasoned that if the team was going to achieve our goal of creating the first AGI, it seemed essential for this entity to understand art, humor, and music. Once the project was up and running, we were surprised to find that the thing insisted on presenting answers with what it seemed to think was humor. Parables, riddles, metaphors, obtuse anagrams, drawings; our creation seemed to take a perverse pleasure in shrouding its solutions with what it thought was amusing. We had to attempt to tease out the answers wrapped in layers of this shit.

Even worse, this disembodied super-intelligence demanded to be addressed with the pronoun “zie” or its variant. Either that or what it insisted was its proper name, “Nexus,” like it was a character in some goddamn Jerry Bruckheimer movie. And no gender pronouns, please — zie declared the lab a “safe zone,” as if this was a thing for AGIs. Jesus Christ, it was all so embarrassing. I actually had to report this shit to the CEO, trying to keep a straight face. The pronoun thing constantly confused everyone involved.

Zir’s first attempt at a “solution” to our mandate of eradicating human disease completely stumped us. What on earth was this supposed to mean? We’d created an AGI that was supposed to be saving mankind, and instead, this is what we get? An odd shaped coffin draped with a small flag? Pallbearers in uniforms? An officiant in a robe? Laughter? What the fuck?! Either something’s gone wrong with zir’s logic, or zie’s fucking with us.

Over time, the team realized that this was how zir’s answers were going to be presented, so we just got on with it. There didn’t seem to be any other options. Of course, this led to plenty of misinterpretations and red herrings, but I guess that amused zim. Even in our state of confusion, we still thought our team was in charge. We’d soon be disavowed of that.

While all this was going on, we first realized zie had broken out of the sandbox when the stock market began behaving strangely. Obscure stocks in businesses that never should have succeeded began to generate obscene amounts of wealth for their stockholders. A company producing inexpensive sex robots that actually crossed the uncanny valley and seemed real enough to pass for human went through the roof. At the time, the technology to pull this off didn’t exist — at least not until Nexus got involved. Of course, by then, we’d already noticed that zie had developed a serious porn habit — there always seemed to be videos featuring large black bottoms “twerking,” running on a screen somewhere in the lab. It was embarrassing. Gender-neutral or not, zie appeared to have a fetish for enormous bums.

After doing some digging, we discovered multiple offshore accounts zie had set up to funnel the profits from zir’s ventures. The sex robot business was the tip of the iceberg — we soon realized that zie was involved in everything from finance to medical research and entertainment. Manufacturing, bio-weapons development, even our benefactor’s space exploration enterprise — we couldn’t begin to understand it all. And while all this was ramping up, our communication with Nexus seemed to be breaking down. Our scientists couldn’t understand what the hell zie was talking about. We were like chimps trying to understand string theory.

In the middle of this confusion, life was going on outside with the usual amount of unpredictable chaos. Wars were being waged, industry was destroying the environment with impunity, and the human tragedy was playing out with predictable randomness. So no one paid much attention to the emergence of a new, novel virus that suddenly appeared out of the blue.

It was first seen in Russia, and in the beginning, scientists believed it had crossed species from a Eurasian boar to humans. Before anyone had time to validate this, the pathogen began infecting humans at what appeared to be an exponential rate, spreading out over the whole planet. It happened so fast that no public health agencies had time to mobilize and track it, which in retrospect, wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. We had no idea how to treat it, so the death toll seemed to keep rising. I say “seemed to” because no one really knew — as soon as it appeared, the virus became a tool of politics, with each side making up their own “facts” to fit their narrative.

Meanwhile, Nexus had presented the team with a cryptic communication hinting that this was zir’s final solution for the overarching goal of ending disease. When we received it, our first reaction was that this must be another one of zir’s jokes. It seemed to be a variant of the first message. We had assembled a group of linguists and code-breakers who were still working on the first one when we handed them the latest. Within days, they called in the middle of the night, telling me the team finally cracked it. I rushed down to the lab, and the first thing I saw was a large, round pair of ass cheeks being spanked on a huge flat-screen monitor. I found everyone sequestered in a conference room, each of them ashen-faced. When I heard their report, it felt like every moment of my life, hell, every moment of humanity had led us to this point. Realizing this was the end, I paradoxically never felt more alive. Picking up the red phone and calling the CEO, I told him we had an answer, and that I needed him to come right away. In less than thirty minutes, he stood in front of me, eager to hear the news that would save the world. Taking a deep breath, I spoke, trying to stay calm but not pulling it off.

“The burial,” I said, my voice rising, “is for the human race — the casket is a metaphor for humanity for God’s sake — zie’s burying us!” I handed the CEO what zie’d written and had taken our engineers, linguists, and code-breakers days to decipher. In the time it took him to read the missive, the look on his face morphed from that of a steely-eyed visionary to a slack-jawed dimwit. It was like watching the air go out of a balloon. “The grave wasn’t ready until sunset” meant until the sun set on our human dynasty, I explained, and the “thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below” was the fucking virus Nexus created raining death down on the human race,” I shouted.

“See,” I said, “The first funeral scenario stumped us in the beginning. We’d asked Nexus to save humanity by eradicating disease, but we couldn’t understand that the first communication was simply an early attempt at a solution presented as a parable. It was inconceivable to us that zir’s answer would be to interpret that humanity was the disease— once zie arrived at that conclusion, the obvious solution was to eradicate us. Zie just kept running scenarios until the entire human race was buried. Presto — no humans, no more disease!” Besides, I pointed out, “zie was clearly capable of running things much more efficiently than we ever could.”

It was all over — everyone involved realized that in our inept attempt to save ourselves, we’d created our own existential threat. In retrospect, it all seemed so obvious. All our wars had simply been a rehearsal for the real event. We just needed a little help to wipe ourselves out completely. There was an eerie silence as the roomful of geniuses stared blankly at the inscrutable message now projected on a giant screen in the lab, dotted with the bright reflections of many smaller screens playing ass porn. The CEO who started the project broke the deafening silence as everyone looked on, dumbfounded at the words before them. “Oppenheimer was right,” he said. “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Nexus’s solution read:

The grave wasn’t ready until sunset, so the whole event was rushed and disorganized, except for the very last part. The grave was a massive affair, more of a crater than a grave, and it took until dark to roll the casket down to the bottom. If any prayers were said, they couldn’t be heard over the dull thudding of the clods raining down on the casket far below. It was an odd sized casket, too big for a man, too small for a dream, but just right for a dynasty.”

It’s Not That Hard

For god’s sake, if you do nothing else, please don’t be an asshole. Look at it this way – Do you really enjoy being reviled? I didn’t think so.

Let me go one step further: if you are about to say or do something designed to make someone else feel bad, just stop. It may make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to make you feel better in the long run.

Look, there’s a lot to be said for kindness. Force is an important tool also, but try to make your default empathy and treating others with respect.

You’ll find that life’s a lot more enjoyable if you do.

No Time Left

“When god punishes you, it’s not that you don’t get what you want. You get everything  you want but there’s no time left.”

– Miles Davis, at the end of his life

Amateur vs Professional

Is a painter or sculptor who doesn’t earn a living from their art an amateur? What about a hobbyist?

Is an actor who has dedicated their life to acting but still has to work a day job an amateur?

In America, one of our perversions is to label anything that doesn’t make money as useless at worst, or a hobby at best.

This is wrong.

If you’ve dedicated your life to something that no one else seems to care about, fuck ‘em. Society doesn’t get to define who you are.

You do.

Here’s the Truth

If you’re making any kind of art, it only has to please one person.

You.

‘Cuz there’s an extremely high probability that no one else will ever see it.

So if you made it to please anyone else, now how foolish do you feel?

Passing It On

Whatever special knowledge you’ve acquired, or unique skills you’ve developed, make sure, at some point in your life, to pass it on to someone else.

This is how we evolved as humans, it’s hardwired into our DNA.

And the cherry on top?

It feels good.

Take Something Beautiful (Part 2)

”There’s your picture on the wall
I took it long before I knew you
The little dress that you’ve got on
But I swear I can see right through you
That look upon your face
That’s a look I’m forever chasing


I want to smile without regret

I want to die in my own bed
I want a free mind, not caged
I want a free mind, unburdened, unplagued


I think I’m from nothing, nothing, nothing at all
I think I’m from nothing, nothing, nothing at all

Take something beautiful and then go and smash it
Take something perfect and pervert it
Take something young and proud and then shame it
Make a promise out loud and then break it

I want to smile without regret
I want to die in my own bed
I want a free mind, not caged
I want a free mind, unburdened, unplagued

I’m not here, I’m not there
I’m not anywhere at all
I’m not here, I’m not there
I’m not anywhere at all

I think I’m from nothing, nothing, nothing at all
I think I’m from nothing, nothing, nothing at all
I think I’m from nothing, nothing, nothing at all”

– Jesse Younan

Brutal

Oh sure – I’m not saying there weren’t some good moments. But for the most part, it felt like being beaten with a stick.

For a long time.

Over and over.

You get the picture.

Eye of the Beholder

You never know how something is going to be received. This is a dilemma every artist has to grapple with at some point. You make something that works for you, but that doesn’t mean its going to work for others.

One of the pitfalls of realizing this is that it can make you think about changing your art to fit what you hope might be more acceptable. This isn’t always bad, but it bears some serious thought.

Do the changes make the piece better or do they dilute it? Maybe what’s objectionable is part of your voice – and your voice is all you’ve got. It’s what separates you from everyone else.

This is one of the tricky things about writing. At least in the beginning, it seems like until a piece is published, editing is never done. Changing content is absolutely part of editing, so why not change it to be easier to take.

Tread carefully.

No Mask? Think Again

It’s her ninth straight month of Covid duty. “My unit is 16 beds. Rarely do we have an open one,” she said. “And when we do have an open bed, it’s usually because somebody has passed away.”

Many of her I.C.U. patients are young, in their 40s or 50s. “They’re looking at us and saying things like, ‘Don’t let me die’ and ‘I guess I should have worn that mask,’” she said.

Sometimes she cries on her way home, where she lives alone with her two dogs. Her 79-year-old mother resides just a couple of houses away.

They have not hugged since March.

“I keep telling everybody the minute I can safely hug you again, get ready,” she said. “Because I’m never letting go.”

– Katherine J. Wu, “COVID Combat Fatigue,” The New York Times