You Wake Up On A Table

You wake up on a table, blinking out the haze under bright lights. Your skin is goosebumping against a sheet draped over your body. Your breathing is slow and…. clear. Deep. As you inhale greedily, you become aware of a strange lightness, and with the exhale you realize that it is an absence of pain. You’d forgotten what that felt like.

You sit up, a little faster than you meant to. The room is a strange cross between a hospital and a hotel lobby; there’s wires hanging out of the ceiling and a large machine covered in screens by your bed, but the ground is carpeted and the walls are draped in heavy salmon curtains patterned with pineapples.

This isn’t your room, the little converted closet your family had put you, waiting for you to finally die, with the blue peeling wallpaper and the drone of that old fan in the summer heat.

A man enters with a whiff of cologne. He is holding a clipboard and is wearing little round glasses.

“This is the year 2442 AD,” he says before you can think to ask any questions. His tone is abrupt, procedural. “You died four hundred and three years ago at the age of….” he glanced at his chart.

“Ninety-two,” you croak. You turned ninety-two last month, but you certainly don’t feel dead.

“Correct,” he says with the tone of someone who’s said these words many times before. “Your body was selected as part of a program by a startup company which would later become the corporate governance known as Jericho. Your brain was scanned and saved in its exact configuration – your memories, personality, subconscious, instincts, your entire brain structure. All of it was compressed and put into a file. Over time Jericho amassed hundreds of thousands of these scans, and recently has begun an initiative to boot them back up in artificial bodies.”

Artificial bodies. You look down and see what you already knew – a smooth, taut skin surface, poreless, with texture lightly imprinted for realism. There are tiny bolts in the back of your elbows. You can’t find the outline of any veins in the back of your hands.

The man continues. “We’ve constructed an artificial body that nearly perfectly resembles a human body, with a few improvements. It will not age, it will not get ill. It can eat, dance, and enjoy sexual intercourse. It cannot reproduce, but we have new methods for that now, which we can address later. It must recharge every night, but sleeping is no longer necessary.”

This is absurd and you are somehow accepting it, numbly. 2442 AD. This means everyone you knew has died. They should have brought in a counselor, or someone who at least started out with “my condolences.”

“Did you download the personalities of everyone, when they died?” you ask.

“No.” His voice remains even, but he glances at you from beneath his spectacles. “Only corpses within a certain eligibility were saved at first. Later on we expanded our reach to 85% of the world, with 100% coverage in developed nations. We have a few thousand prior to your time as well.”

“Wait,” you say. “How do you save the personalities of people before 2042?”

“We reconstruct them,” the man says. “We place bits together from memories of loved ones, of writings, of records. It is a long, painstaking process.”

These questions are something to hold onto, some sort of anchor that gives your mind grounds to think. “How do you know it is accurate?” You ask. “What if you make a mistake?”

“There is a variance in every replica,” he answers, with a bit more spark this time. Maybe he isn’t used to these sorts of questions from…. new bodies. “It’s around 0.02%, even in yourself. The variance in personalities recorded prior to 2042 can reach up to 0.09%, but it is a negligible difference. All the presidents of the United States are currently living, as well as many major historical figures. A version of Shakespeare is currently living in New Jersey.”

“A version?”

“Historical records were not comprehensive enough for high levels of accuracy.”

“So is it him?”

“More or less. We have philosophers to argue over the petty details now, but if it means anything, he’s been writing some additional great literature. You should read his newest play By the Shore if you’ve got the time.”

You run your fingers over your skin and have an eerie sense of being sixteen. Sixteen with the mind of an ancient.

“Will I ever die?”

“Your body will eventually fail,” he says. “Artificial macrocells last for approximately 240 years before they must be replaced. Don’t worry, we have a financing option.”

“And then I’ll be put into another one?”

“Yes, unless you specifically request a non-continuation of your memory.”

You stand from the table and test your walk. Your legs take a moment to respond to your will, but your new brain picks learns fast, and within a few tries you are spinning around on one leg with absurd balance. It is a good distraction.

“So if you can reconstruct memories, can you change them? If I ask, can you erase shame, or the memory of death of loved ones? What if I were a murderer? Can you erase sadistic tendencies in people?”

“Yes,” he says. “There are extensive modification forms you can submit for change upon your next body shift if you wish to improve yourself. We refuse to reawaken criminals unless they agree to positive modification.”

Your mind immediately flies to the extremes. “Do people change so much they become someone else? Wait, no – can they choose to forget who they were, entirely? Are there people who want to be someone else upon their next… wake-up? Like a reincarnation?”

“Transferral into another body is something we call a birth. This is your second birth. And yes. There are many people who choose an identity and remove memory of their prior lives. Most of those are not aware that they are on their second birth; they believe they have simply been born. Some opt to put in false memories from a life that didn’t exist, just for the fun of it.”

“Then how are they even the same person?” Your brain may be fast, but it is still yours, and it has limits. “How is this any different than booting up any arbitrary consciousness with random specifications you feel like making? How is it them?”

The man shifts, and you don’t remember at what point his enthusiasm had become discomfort. “It isn’t.”

You realize you are naked. He doesn’t seem to care. You can feel the ligaments within you moving… differently. More precisely. Cleanly. It is hard to focus on your body with your mind whirling. There are a thousand questions to ask at once.

“Are my children alive?”

He consults his clipboard, obviously relieved to have an easier question. “You have four children alive.”

“I only had three children.”

“One elected to be birthed twice.”

“What?”

The man talks calmly. He looks pleasant now. You wonder if his body is organic or artificial. “Your child Miranda lives in Texas. She also lives in New Canada.”

“What are you saying?”

“Canada had sort of an identity crisis last centur-”

“No, about Miranda. Are you saying I have two Mirandas?”

“Yes. There are two bodies that carry her consciousness.”

“But – which one is her?”

“Both are her.”

“Both? How do you have two of the same person?”

“We booted the file into two different bodies.”

“You what? You can do that? Could you do that to me?”

“Of course.”

You stand there dumbfounded, and stare at the man with his stupid little glasses. He’s shorter than you. You have an urge to push him over, but suppress it. “So if you booted me twice, would the other one be a clone?”

“Not any more than you’re a clone right now, I think. That’s actually the subject of the presidential debate’s new platform right now, outlawing of multiple copies. But I personally think it’s just the same thing, there would just be two of you.”

“And this other me – over time it would be subjected to different experiences. It would be me for a little while, but then it would change. How could it really be me, then?”

“You think because it has gone through different things, that it is not you?”

“Then how do you draw the boundary between what is and is not me? Could anyone be me?”

“Some say everyone already is you.”

“But how? I can see and touch them!”

“You can see and touch another instance of your brain booted up into another body, too. Just because you’re looking at another body you’re not in doesn’t mean it’s not you.”

You grab your head – full of thick hair – and run your hands down your face, smooth and unfamiliar.

“What am I?”

“That is a very good question.”

“Is this me? You’ve taken something that remembers some life of mine, some collection of ideas – hell, they might not even be real, maybe I elected to have them imprinted inside of me because of some some twisted idea that it would be fun – and now I’m something that can be replicated? What is this? I died! I was gone, and now I’m awake again and I remember being me. I remember my children.”

“We don’t use the term death anymore,” he says, gently now. “We call it sleeping.”

“Don’t try to soften the truth. People do die. I died.”

“And when you’ve gone to bed to sleep at night? You closed your eyes, fell unconscious, and then hours later you opened your eyes again and remembered being you. We could have replaced your body when you slept every night and you would feel no different. And just now – you’ve closed your eyes and opened them four hundred years later. Sleeping is no different from death, except with sleeping, you just remember who you were last time. With death, the memory leaves. If you remember who you were, then you haven’t died, you’ve only slept.”

You have no words. The man continues. “You will meet many people who are on maybe their tenth births who will not remember their past births.”

“What about me? Have I lived in the span before this time and chosen not to remember?”

“If you had, I would not be at liberty to tell you.”

“Why do people choose not to remember?”

“Most will say they got bored. Immortality is quite the fad, but it seems a lot of people get tired of it. They say it’s not really fun to be a kid again if you already remember being an adult. You’re just smaller and nobody really takes you seriously. So you can’t really be a kid if you don’t die first.”

“I thought you said you didn’t use the word death.”

“We do in cases of non-remembrance – if you elect to be rebirthed and not remember it. I don’t really think that’s any different from regular humans being born and dying though, but that’s just me.”

“How many times have you been born?”

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Does anyone know, for sure?”

“No,” he says. A beeping sounds from outside the door. He reaches into a drawer built into the wall and hands you a simple robe. “My shift is up, though. Take this. Are you finished with your questions?”

“No,” you say.

He smiles, his first real expression, and you catch an artificial green reflection in his pupil. “You can come back whenever you wish. There is food waiting for you. You will also find a full manual and a trained Birth Specialist just down the hall. Two of your children will meet you outside.”

You thank him, your head still spinning, and with your new legs you step through the door.

Why I Can’t Say Yes To Sex

I am visiting South Africa. I’m staying in a beautiful apartment overlooking the ocean, I am all alone, and my sex drive has been stupid crazy.

I figured it would be nice to go on a date with a guy from Okcupid, maybe have some casual sex, and never see him again. I searched, found many possibly eligible men, but none really pushed me over the ‘action’ cliff. And so I spent nights alone, drinking wine on an empty vagina.

Why couldn’t I get laid? Why wasn’t I letting myself get laid? Why did I have these impossible standards about who I fucked when it didn’t really matter in the long run? I would obviously enjoy it while it was happening. I was cockblocking myself and I hated it.

I want to make clear that my following explanations for my behavior are not describing a conscious decision, but rather an idea of what must be happening behind the scenes.

Saying no to sex is a form of power – not because I want it to be, but because of the way the system is set up.
A lot of men want to sleep with me (as they want to sleep with nearly all young women) and saying ‘no’ to them all is kind of power, because it means

A: Men want something (me), and B: They cannot get the something – because I’m the sexual ‘selector’ and thus sexually superior to them.

I only say ‘yes’ to men I find sexually superior to myself. If a popular, handsome, and charming movie star – say a generic Chad McMuscles – came around and paid attention to me, I would probably at least start out with sexual interest, because he would be the most sexually superior mate. I assume I must be very motivated to have superior mate in my vagina, because I assume I’m programmed to try to produce the best baby, and settling for an inferior mate is just not great for my line of DNA.

This means that when I say yes to Chad McMuscles, I’m essentially telling him that he is the hottest/smartest/most intriguing man who’s paid attention to me – but more importantly, I am admitting he’s the best I can get. I’m submitting my sexual power, in a way, and it’s a very vulnerable position to be in.

This might be fine, because fancy moviestar Chad McMuscles is pretty high hanging fruit – but the problem is my subconscious brain doesn’t think so. My subconscious brain is an asshole.

“Are you sure you can’t do better?” it whispers to me (usually on the first date when he asks if I want to go back to his place). “Are you really going to let him know he’s the best you can possibly get? Your power is in saying no. You’re about to say yes. Are you sure you should be saying yes? Is this a good choice?  You know you lost all your superpowers, right? Is this worth it? Is it?!?

Of course this is very silly. I frequently just ignore this stupid voice because I am an adult and I like sex. I also frequently ignore it because the kind of people I like and respect as individuals are people who aren’t generally very good at triggering the primal side of me, and if I want to be intimate with them, I have to shut myself up, usually with copious amounts of alcohol.

But I do think this has had an effect on what I like in bed. Forceful sex is a primal way of taking away the stress of choosing a sufficiently high status mate – that I am not admitting anything about my sense of sexual self worth by having sex with his person.

And I think it feels so freeing because I no longer have to worry about whether or not I’m giving up power. It tricks me into feeling that I did not say yes to this. I am not giving up power. There is nothing wrong with my sexual value because I neither asked for it nor allowed it. Really, it just reaffirms my ideal view of the world – of course a man would want to have sex with me so bad that he would ignore my ‘no’.

I trick my primal brain into believing this, and then it allows me to enjoy sex.

Now, I’ve been followed and chased twice before – one involved chestkicking a man out of my apartment door when he tried to shove in after me, and the other involved a man trying to grab me in a dark alley in the middle of the night. Both were absolutely terrifying and horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

But those events later turned into sexual fantasies. I felt fucked up because it turned me on, like it shouldn’t, like I was betraying some sort of moral code, or admitting a victory to those horrible men, by allowing myself to fantasize about it.

At some point I just have to throw my hands up. I’m not going to judge myself for the things that get me going. I engage in safe, consensual play. I in no way condone actually forcing anybody into a sexual experience against their will.

I don’t know how many other women experience this sort of mindset. Part of me wants to think it’s widespread, because a lot of women are into rough stuff, and the idea of a woman having sexual value by being approached by men and then saying no to men is a
huge
part
of
our
culture.

Men don’t really get the same message. Generally you don’t hear them bragging about how they said no to all the women. Men get the message of sexual value by getting lots of women to say yes (cue every single music video of rappers coated in a writhing blanket of womanflesh). When men do brag about being “too sexy for you” it’s almost always done for comedy.

(disclaimer: this seems to be the case regarding initial dating or flirtations with the opposite sex, or pure sexual desire. Messages about love and relationships are a whole different category.)

It doesn’t seem like too big a leap to hypothesize that maybe this emphasis on a woman’s sexual value in rejecting leads to anxiety about accepting. And in a world where rejecting sex is celebrated as a status symbol of value, this may be what leads to slut shaming – where those who accept too much are viewed as having given up their status symbol.

So… maybe we should stop celebrating women who say no?

Going Braless in Saudi Arabia

A few weeks ago I spent seven hours in a Saudi Arabia airport.

Minus the international layover lounge, nearly every single woman wore abayas, and the ones who didn’t wore niqabs. They had a separate security line for women in a private room, staffed entirely by female officers. The bathroom signs signaled gender not with cartoon bodies, but with icons of head coverings.

I was wearing skintight leggings and a loose shirt with no bra and feeling very uncomfortable. I put a scarf loosely around my head to try to make up for it, but I don’t think I was fooling anybody.

While I was waiting for my flight, I struck up a conversation with a Saudi businessman. He told me about how the West had a lot of misconceptions about Islam. Islam is really a religion of peace and fairness, he said. All the Muslims in Saudi Arabia thought that radical Islam was a bad thing. Saudi Arabia was really a wonderful country and that I should visit.

“Maybe I will come back!” I said.

“Of course you need to bring a male guardian,” he said. “You can’t go anywhere alone. Women cannot drive here, it’s illegal.”

He didn’t say it apologetically, and I was a little surprised. I guess I’d expected him to be at least a little apologetic about it, since he was trying to get me to see how progressive they were.

I wasn’t really sure how to respond. “the West doesn’t really support that,” I said.

“The West sees it as oppression!” he said. “That a woman is a man’s slave and she is under his thumb. This is not true! In Islam, the man is to love the woman and esteem her higher than anything. Really, the woman is the fortunate one. She gets everything provided for her and the safety of a man, commanded by Allah, to take care of her. The man has to go out and make the money and support the household. It is hard for the man. The woman lives like a queen because the man must fight and be a hero for her. ”

Do women really want a hero? I was doubtful. But I didn’t really want to loudly debate women’s rights while I was wearing tight leggings, so I just nodded.

Later, thinking about it, it made more sense than I liked.

Of course I support women’s rights. I really like driving and the only thing that in this world that could drive me to commit murder would probably requiring permission from a male guardian to do things.

But it seemed to me that this Saudi culture treated the idea of responsibility more as a burden. If you were expected to earn money, that was hard. That was not inherently desirable. Men had to be strong because of the weight on their backs. Being a hero was glory at a very high cost, and they emphasized the cost.

The idea of responsibility as a burden is something that exists in our society too. We view a state of excess wealth and a life of leisure as desirable. We want to have jobs where we wake up at noon and stroll pantsless into our art studio to paint whatever genitals we feel like that day. We view welfare positively, where you get monetary assistance to help you if you fail at life. We talk romantically about being a carefree child again. Being a responsible adult who has to take care of yourself is hard, and a lot of us don’t really want to do it.

Obviously having the ability to choose is important, and that is where Saudi Arabia is lacking. If a man would prefer to stay at home and have his wife earn all the money, he would be laughed out of the country and/or stoned to death or something. If a woman wants to work, she… kind of could, with permission, in really specific jobs, serving other women. Saudi Arabia picks the two categories, smashes in the genders, and eyeballs it and goes ‘yeah that looks about right’.

That businessman beamed so much when he talked about the queenliness of women that a part of me ended up sympathizing. Yeah, responsibility does suck. Yeah, having someone else there who is going to pay for food on your table forever would be kinda nice. I can see why they think women have it good.

But then I went on Wikipedia and read that Saudi Arabia segregates its genders. There are separate male and female entrances to nearly all homes and businesses. A woman requires consent from her guardian in order to hold a job – and she is only allowed to work in a job where she serves exclusively other women. Women gained the right to vote last year. Men receive a text message if a woman under his custody leaves the country. Polygamy is legal and marriages are frequently arranged. And all of this is largely supported by both men and women. My sympathy shrunk a little bit after that.

But the question remained – do Saudi women really want a hero?

The next day, in an overpacked van headed to Afrikaburn, this song came on the radio:

I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s someone reaching back for me
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet

I hadn’t felt weird about the song before that conversation with the Saudi businessman, but I felt a little weird now.

The Three Oughts

TV Repair

Jerry worked at a tech help center. He got a call from an irate Bob, who had bought a television and was upset that the television wasn’t showing colors.

Jerry went over to look at the television and found that it was a very old television. He said, “this is a black and white television. It’s not built to show color.”

“That isn’t right,” Bob said. “I think this television ought to show color.”

“That’s nonsense,” said Jerry. “This television is in perfect working order, and probably a worthwhile antique too. I can show you how it’s built on the inside. There is no possible way for this to display color.”

But Bob was very upset. “I want to see color and I think the television ought to show it to me.”

“Isn’t that more about yourself than the television?” Jerry said. “If you say the television ought to be different, you’re really saying that you want something the television isn’t giving you. The television is operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality, I don’t know what more you want out of it. You can rebuild it if you want, or buy a new television.”

“But you want me to accept the fact this television ought to be black and white, not color! If I do that, just accept, then I would do nothing, I wouldn’t rebuild it or buy a new television. I have to believe that this television is wrong if I’m going to do anything about it.”

Jerry sighed as he started to pack up his things. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world. Buying a new television doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice and Carl

Alice loved Carl. Carl was wonderful, but not perfect. He got upset whenever he was interrupted in conversation. Sometimes he would insult people for the sake of laughs. Sometimes he would leave the toilet seat up.

Alice, while she got along with Carl well otherwise, was very upset by the things he did. She believed he ought not do them, and that he was behaving unethically, and she told him so.
Alice married Carl, and after many decades, she began to understand – not just in a rote psychological way, but in a deep, empathetic way – why he behaved like this. Carl had a poor upbringing which had convinced him, at a young age, that he was worthless. Fear of abandonment underwrote everything he said. He wanted love, but didn’t know how to receive it.

Eventually, when Carl insulted Alice, Alice saw not just the insult, but also the network of motivations that pushed the insult to the surface.

And after this, she did not tell Carl that he was being unethical. She did not tell him that he ought not to insult her. Carl was doing exactly what he was built to be doing. The way she felt had nothing to do with it. Telling him he ‘ought not insult her’ was more about herself than him, really. She just wanted something he wasn’t giving her – affirmation and love. Carl was operating perfectly well according to the laws of physics and causality. What more could she expect from someone?

She told this to her friend Ethel over dinner, and Ethel was skeptical.

“You’re accepting the fact that your husband is an asshole – even that he ought to be an asshole, and not a good kind man!” Ethel said. “If you do that, just accept, then you won’t do anything about it, like going to therapy or leaving him. You have to believe that he’s a dick if you’re going to do anything about him.”

Alice sighed as she stirred her coffee. “We are capable of taking action without feeling like we must correct some offense with the world.  Dealing with Carl doesn’t have to be any different.”

Alice ended up divorcing Carl once she felt he caused her more unhappiness than happiness, and she wasn’t angry with him at all.

The Genie

Dan wasn’t who he wanted to be, and he hated it.

He wasn’t handsome enough or witty enough. He was too insecure. He said the wrong thing too much. He wasn’t attractive to women. He drank too much and couldn’t stop. He ran away from his problems instead of facing them. He was lazy and unmotivated. He wasn’t sure how anyone could love him if they got to know who he was, deep down.

Sure, he was functional. He had a social group and made jokes people laughed at and was respected at his job. But at the core, he was dissatisfied with himself, and it manifested in a constant, low-key anxiety that he was doing the wrong thing.

Dan was not who he thought he ought to be. There was a vision in his mind of the “correct Dan,” and he was not it. The discrepancy ate at him.

One day Dan found a genie.

“You can have one wish,” said the genie.

Dan, not being too bright, immediately wished for a million dollars.

The genie shook his head. “No, I don’t give you what you think you want, I give you what you really want.”

The genie reached forward and touched Dan’s head, and in a single glorious second, Dan was granted total self-awareness of every facet of his own mind. When a thought arose, he felt where it had come from, could trace it all the way back to its origin. It was terrifying and painful and beautiful and peaceful all at once.

And Dan understood exactly why he sometimes said the wrong thing, why he thought he wasn’t witty enough, why he was unmotivated, why he drank, why he ran away. It was like he was looking at the inner workings of a television that were firing away in exactly the way they had been programmed to, or like he was looking at someone he had loved for dozens of years.

He watched his own discontent with his life with interest. It didn’t leave – the desires he had were still there – but his anxiety over not being ‘ideal Dan’ dissolved away before the face of Real Dan.

“Huh,” said Dan.

“Do you have the fear,” rumbled the genie, “that if you accept that you ought to be the way you are now, that you will do nothing? That you will cease trying to improve yourself or rid yourself of fault?”

Dan hadn’t really thought of the question because his mind was so flooded with the answer. “No,” he said. “I am capable of taking action without feeling like I must correct some offense in the world. Improving myself doesn’t have to be any different.”

“So if not obligation, why do you seek to improve yourself?”

“Well… what else is there to do?” Dan said.