"For a pure sense of being tumultuously alive, you can't beat the nasty side of existence. I may not have been a matinee idol, but say what you will about me, it's been a real human life!" Mickey Sabbath, in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My own favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and Muddling through Life after Life.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Soul of the Skeptic: What Precisely Is Sam Harris Waking Up from?

(5,484 words. Printable version.)

             Sam Harris believes that we can derive many of the benefits people cite as reasons for subscribing to one religion or another from non-religious practices and modes of thinking, ones that don’t invoke bizarre scriptures replete with supernatural absurdities. In The Moral Landscape, for instance, he attempted to show that we don’t need a divine arbiter to settle our ethical and political disputes because reason alone should suffice. Now, with Waking Up, Harris is taking on an issue that many defenders of Christianity, or religion more generally, have long insisted he is completely oblivious to. By focusing on the truth or verifiability of religious propositions, Harris’s critics charge, he misses the more important point: religion isn’t fundamentally about the beliefs themselves so much as the effects those beliefs have on a community, including the psychological impact on individuals of collective enactments of the associated rituals—feelings of connectedness, higher purpose, and loving concern for all one’s neighbors.

            Harris likes to point out that his scholarly critics simply have a hard time appreciating just how fundamentalist most religious believers really are, and so they turn a blind eye toward the myriad atrocities religion sanctions, or even calls for explicitly. There’s a view currently fashionable among the more politically correct scientists and academics that makes criticizing religious beliefs seem peevish, even misanthropic, because religion is merely something people do, like reading stories or playing games, to imbue their lives with texture and meaning, or to heighten their sense of belonging to a community. According to this view, the particular religion in question—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Christianity—isn’t as important as the people who subscribe to it, nor do any specific tenets of a given faith have any consequence. That’s why Harris so frequently comes under fire—and is even accused of bigotry—for suggesting things like that the passages in the Koran calling for violence actually matter and that Islam is much more likely to inspire violence because of them.

We can forgive Harris his impatience with this line of reasoning, which leads his critics to insist that violence is in every case politically and never religiously motivated. This argument can only be stated with varying levels of rancor, never empirically supported, and is hence dismissible as a mere article of faith in its own right, one that can’t survive any encounter with the reality of religious violence. Harris knows how important a role politics plays and that it’s often only the fundamentalist subset of the population of believers who are dangerous. But, as he points out, “Fundamentalism is only a problem when the fundamentals are a problem” (2:30:09). It’s only by the lights of postmodern identity politics that an observation this banal could strike so many as so outrageous.

            But what will undoubtedly come as a disappointment to Harris’s more ardently anti-religious readers, and as a surprise to fault-seeking religious apologists, is that from the premise that not all religions are equally destructive and equally absurd follows the conclusion that some religious ideas or practices may actually be beneficial or point the way toward valid truths. Harris has discussed his experiences with spiritual retreats and various forms of  meditation in past works, but now with Waking Up he goes so far as to advocate certain of the ancient contemplative practices he’s experimented with. Has he abandoned his scientific skepticism? Not by any means; near the end of the book, he writes, “As a general matter, I believe we should be very slow to draw conclusions about the nature of the cosmos on the basis of inner experiences—no matter how profound they seem” (192). What he’s doing here, and with the book as a whole, is underscoring the distinction between religious belief on the one hand and religious experience on the other.

Acknowledging that some practices which are nominally religious can be of real value, Harris goes on to argue that we need not accept absurd religious doctrines to fully appreciate them. And this is where the subtitle of his book, A Guide to Spirituality without Religion, comes from. As paradoxical as this concept may seem to people of faith, Harris cites a survey finding that 20% of Americans describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (6). And he argues that separating the two terms isn’t just acceptable; it’s logically necessary.

Spirituality must be distinguished from religion—because people of every faith, and of none, have the same sorts of spiritual experiences. While these states of mind are usually interpreted through the lens of one or another religious doctrine, we know this is a mistake. Nothing that a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu can experience—self-transcending love, ecstasy, bliss, inner light—constitutes evidence in support of their traditional beliefs, because their beliefs are logically incompatible with one another. A deeper principle must be at work. (9)

People of faith frequently respond to the criticism that their beliefs fly in the face of logic and evidence by claiming they simply know God is real because they have experiences that can only be attributed to a divine presence. Any failure on the part of skeptics to acknowledge the lived reality of such experiences makes their arguments all the more easily dismissible as overly literal or pedantic, and it makes the skeptics themselves come across as closed-minded and out-of-touch.

            On the other hand, Harris’s suggestion of a “deeper principle” underlying religious experiences smacks of New Age thinking at its most wooly. For one thing, church authorities often condemn, excommunicate, or execute congregants with mystical leanings for their heresy. (Harris cites a few examples.) But the deeper principle Harris is referring to isn’t an otherworldly one. And he’s perfectly aware of the unfortunate connotations the words he uses often carry:

I share the concern, expressed by many atheists, that the terms spiritual and mystical are often used to make claims not merely about the quality of certain experiences but about reality at large. Far too often, these words are invoked in support of religious beliefs that are morally and intellectually grotesque. Consequently, many of my fellow atheists consider all talk of spirituality to be a sign of mental illness, conscious imposture, or self-deception. This is a problem, because millions of people have had experiences for which spiritual and mystical seem the only terms available. (11)

You can’t expect people to be convinced their religious beliefs are invalid when your case rests on a denial of something as perfectly real to them as their own experiences. And it’s difficult to make the case that these experiences must be separated from the religious claims they’re usually tied to while refusing to apply the most familiar labels to them, because that comes awfully close to denying their legitimacy.
*****

            Throughout Waking Up, Harris focuses on one spiritual practice in particular, a variety of meditation that seeks to separate consciousness from any sense of self, and he argues that the insights one can glean from experiencing this rift are both personally beneficial and neuroscientifically sound. Certain Hindu and Buddhist traditions hold that the self is an illusion, a trick of the mind, and our modern scientific understanding of the mind, Harris argues, corroborates this view. By default, most of us think of the connection between our minds and our bodies dualistically; we believe we have a spirit, a soul, or some other immaterial essence that occupies and commands our physical bodies. Even those of us who profess not to believe in any such thing as a soul have a hard time avoiding a conception of the self as a unified center of consciousness, a homunculus sitting at the controls. Accordingly, we attach ourselves to our own thoughts and perceptions—we identify with them. Since it seems we’re programmed to agonize over past mistakes and worry about impending catastrophes, we can’t help feeling the full brunt of a constant barrage of negative thoughts. Most of us recognize the sentiment Harris expresses in writing that “It seems to me that I spend much of my life in a neurotic trance” (11). And this is precisely the trance we need to wake up from.

            To end the spiraling chain reaction of negative thoughts and foul feelings, we must detach ourselves from our thinking, and to do this, Harris suggests, we must recognize that there is no us doing the thinking. The “I” in the conventional phrasing “I think” or “I feel” is nowhere to be found. Is it in our brains? Which part? Harris describes the work of the Nobel laureate neuroscientist Roger Sperry, who in the 1950s did a series a fascinating experiments with split-brain patients, so called because the corpus callosum, the bundle of fibers connecting the two hemispheres of their brains, had been surgically severed to reduce the severity of epileptic seizures. Sperry found that he could present instructions to the patients’ left visual fields—which would only be perceived by the right hemisphere—and induce responses that the patients themselves couldn’t explain, because language resides predominantly in the left hemisphere. When asked to justify their behavior, though, the split-brain patients gave no indication that they had no idea why they were doing what they’d been instructed to do. Instead, they confabulated answers. For instance, if the right hemisphere is instructed to pick up an egg from among an assortment of objects on a table, the left hemisphere may explain the choice by saying something like, “Oh, I picked it because I had eggs for breakfast yesterday.”
            As weird as this type of confabulation may seem, it has still weirder implications. At any given moment, it’s easy enough for us to form intentions and execute plans for behavior. But where do those intentions really come from? And how can we be sure our behaviors reflect the intentions we believe they reflect? We are only ever aware of a tiny fraction of our minds’ operations, so it would be all too easy for us to conclude we are the ones in charge of everything we do even though it’s really someone—or something else behind the scenes pulling the strings. The reason split-brain patients so naturally confabulate about their motives is that the language centers of our brains probably do it all the time, even when our corpus callosa are intact. We are only ever dimly aware of our true motivations, and likely completely in the dark about them as often as not. Whenever we attempt to explain ourselves, we’re really just trying to make up a plausible story that incorporates all the given details, one that makes sense both to us and to anyone listening.

            If you’re still not convinced that the self is an illusion, try to come up with a valid justification for locating the self in either the left or the right hemisphere of split-brain patients. You may be tempted to attribute consciousness, and hence selfhood, to the hemisphere with the capacity for language. But you can see for yourself how easy it is to direct your attention away from words and fill your consciousness solely with images or wordless sounds. Some people actually rely on their right hemispheres for much of their linguistic processing, and after split-brain surgery these people can speak for the right hemisphere with things like cards that have written words on them. We’re forced to conclude that both sides of the split brain are conscious. And, since the corpus callosum channels a limited amount of information back and forth in the brain, we probably all have at least two independent centers of consciousness in our minds, even those of us whose hemispheres communicate.

What this means is that just because your actions and intentions seem to align, you still can’t be sure there isn’t another conscious mind housed in your brain who is also assured its own actions and intentions are aligned. There have even been cases where the two sides of a split-brain patient’s mind have expressed conflicting beliefs and desires. For some, phenomena like these sound the death knell for any dualistic religious belief. Harris writes,

Consider what this says about the dogma—widely held under Christianity and Islam—that a person’s salvation depends upon her believing the right doctrine about God. If a split-brain patient’s left hemisphere accepts the divinity of Jesus, but the right doesn’t, are we to imagine that she now harbors two immortal souls, one destined for the company of angels and the other for an eternity of hellfire? (67-8)

Indeed, the soul, the immaterial inhabitant of the body, can be divided more than once. Harris makes this point using a thought experiment originally devised by philosopher Derek Parfit. Imagine you are teleported Star Trek-style to Mars. The teleporter creates a replica of your body, including your brain and its contents, faithful all the way down to the orientation of the atoms. So everything goes black here on Earth, and then you wake up on Mars exactly as you left. But now imagine something went wrong on Earth and the original you wasn’t destroyed before the replica was created. In that case, there would be two of you left whole and alive. Which one is the real you? There’s no good basis for settling the question one way or the other.


            Harris uses the split-brain experiments and Parfit’s thought experiment to establish the main insight that lies at the core of the spiritual practices he goes on to describe: that the self, as we are programmed to think of and experience it, doesn’t really exist. Of course, this is only true in a limited sense. In many contexts, it’s still perfectly legitimate to speak of the self. As Harris explains,

The self that does not survive scrutiny is the subject of experience in each present moment—the feeling of being a thinker of thoughts inside one’s head, the sense of being an owner or inhabitant of a physical body, which this false self seems to appropriate as a kind of vehicle. Even if you don’t believe such a homunculus exists—perhaps because you believe, on the basis of science, that you are identical to your body and brain rather than a ghostly resident therein—you almost certainly feel like an internal self in almost every waking moment. And yet, however one looks for it, this self is nowhere to be found. It cannot be seen amid the particulars of experience, and it cannot be seen when experience itself is viewed as a totality. However, its absence can be found—and when it is, the feeling of being a self disappears. (92)

The implication is that even if you come to believe as a matter of fact that the self is an illusion you nevertheless continue to experience that illusion. It’s only under certain circumstances, or as a result of engaging in certain practices, that you’ll be able to experience consciousness in the absence of self.
****

            Harris briefly discusses avenues apart from meditation that move us toward what he calls “self-transcendence”: we often lose ourselves in our work, or in a good book or movie; we may feel a diminishing of self before the immensities of nature and the universe, or as part of a drug-induced hallucination; or it could be attendance at a musical performance where you’re just one tiny part of a vast pulsing crowd of exuberant fans. It could be during intense sex. Or you may of course also experience some fading away of your individuality through participation in religious ceremonies. But Harris’s sights are set on one specific method for achieving self-transcendence. As he writes in his introduction,

This book is by turns a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the feeling of self we call “I.” I have not set out to describe all the traditional approaches to spirituality and to weigh their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion. There is a diamond there, and I have devoted a fair amount of my life to contemplating it, but getting it in hand requires that we remain true to the deepest principles of scientific skepticism and make no obeisance to tradition. (10)

This is music to the ears of many skeptics who have long suspected that there may actually be something to meditative techniques but are overcome with fits of eye-rolling every time they try to investigate the topic. If someone with skeptical bona fides as impressive as Harris’s has taken the time to wade through all the nonsense to see if there are any worthwhile takeaways, then I imagine I’m far from alone in being eager to find out what he’s discovered.

            So how does one achieve a state of consciousness divorced from any sense of self? And how does this experience help us escape the neurotic trance most of us are locked in? Harris describes some of the basic principles of Advaita, a Hindu practice, and Dzogchen, a Tibetan Buddhist one. According to Advaita, one can achieve “cessation”—an end to thinking, and hence to the self—at any stage of practice. But Dzogchen practitioners insist it comes only after much intense practice. In one of several inset passages with direct instructions to readers, Harris invites us to experiment with the Dzogchen technique of imagining a moment in our lives when we felt positive emotions, like the last time we accomplished something we’re proud of. After concentrating on the thoughts and feelings for some time, we are then encouraged to think of a time when we felt something negative, like embarrassment or fear. The goal here is to be aware of the ideas and feelings as they come into being. “In the teachings of Dzogchen,” Harris writes, “it is often said that thoughts and emotions arise in consciousness the way that images appear on the surface of the mirror.” Most of the time, though, we are tricked into mistaking the mirror for what’s reflected in it.

In subjective terms, you are consciousness itself—you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what you are. (139)

This is what Harris means when he speaks of separating your consciousness from your thoughts. And he believes it’s a state of mind you can achieve with sufficient practice calling forth and observing different thoughts and emotions, until eventually you experience—for moments at a time—a feeling of transcending the self, which entails a ceasing of thought, a type of formless and empty awareness that has us sensing a pleasant unburdening of the weight of our identities.

            Harris also describes a more expeditious route to selflessness, one discovered by a British Architect named Douglas Harding, who went on to be renowned among New Agers for his insight. His technique, which was first inspired by a drawing made by physicist Ernst Mach that was a literal rendition of his first-person viewpoint, including the side of his nose and the ridge of his eyebrow, consists simply of trying to imagine you have no head. Harris quotes at length from Harding’s description of what happened when he originally succeeded:

What actually happened was something absurdly simply and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of alert limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. Past and future dropped away. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given it. (143) 

Harris recommends a slight twist to this approach—one that involves looking out at the world and simply trying to reverse your perspective to look for your head. One way to do this is to imagine you’re talking to another person and then “let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze” (145). It’s not about trying to picture what you look like to another person; it’s about recognizing that your face is absent from the encounter—because obviously you can’t see it. “But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change in perspective, of the sort Harding describes” (146). It’s a sort of out-of-body experience.

            If you pull off the feat of seeing through the illusion of self, either through disciplined practice at observing the contents of your own consciousness or through shortcuts like imagining you have no head, you will experience a pronounced transformation. Even if for only a few moments, you will have reached enlightenment. As a reward for your efforts, you will enjoy a temporary cessation of the omnipresent hum of anxiety-inducing thoughts that you hardly even notice drowning out so much of the other elements of your consciousness. “There arose no questions,” Harding writes of his experiments in headlessness, “no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden” (143). Skeptics reading these descriptions will have to overcome the temptation to joke about practitioners without a thought in their head.

            Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all based on dualistic conceptions of the self, and the devout are enjoined to engage in ritual practices in service to God, an entirely separate being. The more non-dualistic philosophies of the East are much more amenable to attempts to reconcile them with science. Practices like meditation aren’t directed at any supernatural entity but are engaged in for their own sake, because they are somehow inherently rewarding. Unfortunately, this leads to a catch-22. Harris explains,

As we have seen, there are good reasons to believe that adopting a practice like meditation can lead to positive changes in one’s life. But the deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self—and to seek such freedom, as though it were a future state to be attained through effort, is to reinforce the chains of one’s apparent bondage in each moment. (123)

This paradox seems at first like a good recommendation for the quicker routes to self-transcendence like Harding’s. But, according to Harris, “Harding confessed that many of his students recognized the state of ‘headlessness’ only to say, ‘So what?’” To Harris, the problem here is that the transformation was so easily achieved that its true value couldn’t be appreciated:

Unless a person has spent some time seeking self-transcendence dualistically, she is unlikely to recognize that the brief glimpse of selflessness is actually the answer to her search. Having then said, ‘So what?’ in the face of the highest teachings, there is nothing for her to do but persist in her confusion. (148)

We have to wonder, though, if maybe Harding’s underwhelmed students aren’t the ones who are confused. It’s entirely possible that Harris, who has devoted so much time and effort to his quest for enlightenment, is overvaluing the experience to assuage his own cognitive dissonance.
****

             The penultimate chapter of Waking Up gives Harris’s more skeptical fans plenty to sink their teeth into, including a thorough takedown of neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s so-called Proof of Heaven and several cases of supposedly enlightened gurus taking advantage of their followers by, among other exploits, sleeping with their wives. But Harris claims his own experiences with gurus have been almost entirely positive, and he goes as far as recommending that anyone hoping to achieve self-transcendence seek out the services of one. 

            This is where I began to have issues with the larger project behind Harris’s book. If meditation were a set of skills like those required to play tennis, it would seem more reasonable to claim that the guidance of an expert coach is necessary to develop them. But what is a meditation guru supposed to do if he (I presume they’re mostly male) has no way to measure, or even see, your performance? Harris suggests they can answer questions that arise during practice, but apart from basic instructions like the ones Harris himself provides it seems unlikely an expert could be of much help. If a guru has a useful technique, he shouldn’t need to be present in the room to share it. Harding passed his technique on to Harris through writing for instance. And if self-transcendence is as dramatic a transformation as it’s made out to be, you shouldn’t have any trouble recognizing it when you experience it.


            Harris’s valuation of the teachings he’s received from his own gurus really can’t be sifted from his impression of how rewarding his overall efforts at exploring spirituality have been, nor can it be separated from his personal feelings toward those gurus. This a problem that plagues much of the research on the effectiveness of various forms of psychotherapy; essentially, a patient’s report that the therapeutic treatment was successful means little else but that the patient had a positive relationship with the therapist administering it. Similarly, it may be the case that Harris’s sense of how worthwhile those moments of self-transcendence are has more than he's himself aware of to do with his personal retrospective assessment of how fulfilling his own journey to reach them has been. The view from Everest must be far more sublime to those who’ve made the climb than to those who were airlifted to the top.

            More troublingly, there’s an unmistakable resemblance between Harris’s efforts to locate convergences between, on the one hand, science and contemplative religious practices and, on the other, the tendency of New Age philosophers to draw specious comparisons between ancient Eastern doctrines and modern theories in physics. Zen koans are paradoxical and counterintuitive, this line of reasoning goes, and so are the results of the double-slit experiment in quantum mechanics—the Buddhists must have intuited something about the quantum world centuries ago. Dzogchen Buddhists have believed the self is an illusion and have been seeking a cessation of thinking for centuries, and modern neuroscience demonstrates that the self is something quite different from what most of us think it is. Therefore, the Buddhists must have long ago discovered something essential about the mind. In both of these examples, it seems like you have to do a lot of fudging to make the ancient doctrines line up with the modern scientific findings.

            It’s not nearly as evident as Harris makes out that what the Buddhists mean by the doctrine that the self is an illusion is the same thing neuroscientists mean when they point out that consciousness is divisible, or that we’re often unaware of our own motivations. (Douglas Hofstadter refers to the self as an epiphenomenon, which he does characterize as a type of illusion, but only because the overall experience bears so little resemblance to any of the individual processes that go in to producing it.) I’ve never heard a cognitive scientist discuss the fallacy of identifying with your own thoughts or recommend that we try to stop thinking. Indeed, I don’t think most people really do identify with their thoughts. I for one don’t believe I am my thoughts; I definitely feel like I have my thoughts, or that I do my thinking. To point out that thoughts sometimes arise in my mind independent of my volition does nothing to undermine this belief. And Harris never explains exactly why seeing through the illusion of the self should bring about relief from all the anxiety produced by negative thinking. Cessation sounds a little like simply rendering yourself insensate.

The problem that brings about the neurotic trance so many of us find ourselves trapped in doesn’t seem to be that people fall for the trick of selfhood; it’s that they mistake their most neurotic thinking at any given moment for unquestionable and unchangeable reality. Clinical techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy involve challenging your own thinking, and there’s relief to be had in that—but it has nothing to do with disowning your thoughts or seeing your self as illusory. From this modern cognitive perspective, Dzogchen practices that have us focusing our attention on the effects of different lines of thinking are probably still hugely beneficial. But what’s that go to do with self-transcendence?

            For that matter, is the self really an illusion? Insofar as we think of it as a single object or as something that can be frozen in time and examined, it is indeed illusory. But calling the self an illusion is bit like calling music an illusion. It’s impossible to point to music as existing in any specific location. You can separate a song into constituent elements that all on their own still constitute music. And of course you can create exact replicas of songs and play them on other planets. But it’s pretty silly to conclude from all these observations that music isn’t real. Rather, music, like the self, is a confluence of many diverse processes that can only be experienced in real time. In claiming that neuroscience corroborates the doctrine that the self is an illusion, Harris may be failing at the central task he set for himself by making too much obeisance to tradition. 

            What about all those reports from people like Harding who have had life-changing experiences while meditating or imagining they have no head? I can attest that I immediately recognized what Harding was describing in the sections Harris quotes. For me, it happened about twenty minutes into a walk I’d gone on through my neighborhood to help me come up with an idea for a short story. I tried to imagine myself as an unformed character at the outset of an as-yet-undeveloped plot. After only a few moments of this, I had a profound sense of stepping away from my own identity, and the attendant feeling of liberation from the disappointments and heartbreaks of my past, from the stresses of the present, and from my habitual forebodings about the future was both revelatory and exhilarating. Since reading Waking Up, I’ve tried both Harding’s and Harris’s approaches to reaching this state again quite a few times. But, though the results have been more impactful than the “So what?” response of Harding’s least impressed students, I haven’t experienced anything as seemingly life-altering as I did on that walk, forcing me to suspect it had as much to do with my state of mind prior to the experiment as it did with the technique itself.

            For me, the experience was of stepping away from my identity—or of seeing the details of that identity from a much broader perspective—than it was of seeing through some illusion of self. I became something like a stem cell version of myself, drastically more pluripotent, more free. It felt much more like disconnecting from my own biography than like disconnecting from the center of my consciousness. This may seem like a finicky distinction. But it goes to the core of Harris’s project—the notion that there’s a convergence between ancient meditative practices and our modern scientific understanding of consciousness. And it bears on just how much of that ancient philosophy we really need to get into if we want to have these kinds of spiritual experiences.

            Personally, I’m not at all convinced by Harris’s case on behalf of pared down Buddhist philosophy and the efficacy of guru guidance—though I probably will continue to experiment with the meditation techniques he lays out. Waking Up, it must be noted, is really less of a guide to spirituality without religion than it is a guide to one particular, particularly esoteric, spiritual practice. But, despite these quibbles, I give the book my highest recommendation, and that’s because its greatest failure is also its greatest success. Harris didn’t even come close to helping me stop thinking—or even persuading me that I should try—because I haven’t been able to stop thinking about his book ever since I started reading it. Perhaps what I appreciate most about Waking Up, though, is that it puts the lie to so many idiotic ideas people tend to have about skeptics and atheists. Just as recognizing that to do what’s right we must sometimes resist the urgings of our hearts in no way makes us heartless, neither does understanding that to be steadfast in pursuit of truth we must admit there’s no such thing as an immortal soul in any way make us soulless. And, while many associate skepticism with closed-mindedness, most of the skeptics I know of are true seekers, just like Harris. The crucial difference, which Harris calls “the sine qua non of the scientific attitude,” is “between demanding good reasons for what one believes and being satisfied with bad ones” (199).  



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Creepy King Effect: Why We Can't Help Confusing Writers with Their Characters

            Every writer faces this conundrum: your success hinges on your ability to create impressions that provoke emotions in the people who read your work, so you need feedback from a large sample of readers to gauge the effect of your writing. Without feedback, you have no way to calibrate the impact of your efforts and thus no way to hone your skills. This is why writers’ workshops are so popular; they bring a bunch of budding authors together to serve as one another’s practice audience. The major drawback to this solution is that a sample composed of fellow authorly aspirants may not be representative of the audience you ultimately hope your work will appeal to.

Whether or not they attend a workshop, all writers avail themselves of the ready-made trial audience comprised of their family and friends, a method which inevitably presents them with yet another conundrum: anyone who knows the author won’t be able to help mixing her up with her protagonists. The danger isn’t just that the feedback you get will be contaminated with moral judgments and psychological assessments; you also risk offending people you care about who will have a tough time not assuming identify with characters who bear even the most superficial resemblance to them. And of course you risk giving everyone the wrong idea about the type of person you are and the type of things you get up to.  

My first experience of being mistaken for one of my characters occurred soon after I graduated from college. A classmate and fellow double-major in psychology and anthropology asked to read a story I’d mentioned I was working on. Desperate for feedback, I emailed it to her right away. The next day I opened my inbox to find a two-page response to the story which treated everything described in it as purely factual and attempted to account for the emotional emptiness I’d demonstrated in my behavior and commentary. I began typing my own response explaining I hadn’t meant the piece to be taken as a memoir—hence the fictional name—and pointing to sections she’d missed that were meant to explain why the character was emotionally empty (I had deliberately portrayed him that way), but as I composed the message I found myself getting angry. As a writer of fiction, you trust your readers to understand that what you’re writing is, well, fiction, regardless of whether real people and real events figure into it to some degree. I felt like that trust had been betrayed. I was being held personally responsible for behaviors and comments that for all she knew I had invented whole-cloth for the sake of telling a good story.

To complicate matters, the events in the story my classmate was responding to were almost all true. And yet it still seemed tremendously unfair for anyone to have drawn conclusions about me based on it. The simplest way to explain this is to point out that you have an entirely different set of goals if you’re telling a story about yourself to a friend than you do if you’re telling a story about a fictional character to anyone who might read it—even if they’re essentially the same story. And your goals affect your choice of not only which events to include, but which aspects of the situation and which traits of the characters to focus on. Add in even a few purely fabricated elements and you can dramatically alter the readers’ impression of the characters.

Another way to think about this is to imagine how boring fiction would be if all authors knew they would be associated with and held accountable for everything their protagonists do or say. This is precisely why it’s so important to avoid mistaking writers for their characters, and why writers feel betrayed when that courtesy isn’t afforded to them. Unfortunately, that courtesy is almost never afforded to them. Indeed, if you call readers out for conflating you with your characters, many of them will double down on their mistake. As writers who feel our good names should be protected under the cover of the fiction label, we have to accept that human psychology is constantly operating to poke giant holes in that cover.

Let’s try an experiment: close your eyes for a moment and try to picture Jay Gatsby’s face in your mind’s eye. If you’re like me, you imagined one of two actors who played Gatsby in the movie versions, either Leonardo DiCaprio or Robert Redford. The reason these actors come so readily to mind is that imagining a character’s face from scratch is really difficult. What does Queequeq look like? Melville describes him in some detail; various illustrators have given us their renditions; a few actors have portrayed him, albeit never in a film you’d bother watching a second time. Since none of these movies is easily recallable, I personally have to struggle a bit to call an image of him to mind. What’s true of characters’ physical appearances is also true of nearly everything else about them. Going from words on a page to holistic mental representations of human beings takes effort, and even if you put forth that effort the product tends to be less than perfectly vivid and stable.

In lieu of a well-casted film, the easiest shortcut to a solid impression is to substitute the author you know for the character you don’t. Actors are also mistaken for their characters with disturbing frequency, or at least assumed to possess similar qualities. (“I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV.”) To be fair, actors are chosen for roles they can convincingly pull off, and authors, wittingly or otherwise, infuse their characters with tinctures of their own personalities. So it’s not like you won’t ever find real correspondences.

You can nonetheless count on your perception of the similarities being skewed toward gross exaggeration. This is owing to a phenomenon social psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. The basic idea is that, at least in individualist cultures, people tend to attribute behavior to the regular inclinations of the person behaving as opposed to more ephemeral aspects of the situation: the driver who cut you off is inconsiderate and hasty, not rushing to work because her husband’s car broke down and she had to drop him off first. One of the classic experiments on this attribution bias had subjects estimate people’s support for Fidel Castro based on an essay they’d written about him. The study, conducted by Edward Jones and Victor Harris at the height of the Cold War, found that even if people were told that the author was assigned a position either for or against Castro based on a coin toss they still assumed more often than not that the argument reflected the author’s true beliefs.

The implication of Jones and Harris’s findings is that even if an author tries to assure everyone that she was writing on behalf of a character for the purpose of telling a story, and not in any way trying to use that character as a mouthpiece to voice some argument or express some sentiment, readers are still going to assume she agrees with everything her character thinks and says. As readers, we can’t help giving too little weight to the demands of the story and too much weight to the personality of the author. And writers can’t even count on other writers not to be biased in this way. In 2001, Eric Hansen, Charles Kimble, and David Biers conducted a series of experiments that instructed people to treat a fellow study participant in either a friendly or unfriendly way and then asked them to rate each other on friendliness. Even though they all got the same type of instructions, and hence should have appreciated the nature of the situational influences, they still attributed unfriendliness in someone else to that person’s disposition. Of course, their own unfriendliness they attributed to the instructions.

One of the theories for why we Westerners fall prey to the fundamental attribution error is that creating dual impressions of someone’s character takes a great deal of effort. Against the immediate and compelling evidence of actual behavior, we have nothing but an abstract awareness of the possibility that the person may behave differently in different circumstances. The ease of imagining a person behaving similarly even without situational factors like explicit instructions makes it seem more plausible, thus creating the illusion that we can somehow tell whether someone following instructions, performing a scene, or writing on behalf of a fictional character is being sincere—and naturally enough we nearly always think they are.

The underlying principle here—that we’re all miserly with our cognition—is bad news for writers for yet another reason. Another classic study, this one conducted by Daniel Gilbert and his colleagues, was reported in an article titled “You Can’t Not Believe Everything You Read,” which for a fiction writer sounds rather heartening at first. The experiment asked participants to determine prison sentences for defendants in imaginary court cases based on statements that were color-coded to signal they were either true or false. Even though some of the statements were marked as false, they still affected the length of the sentences, and the effect grew even more pronounced when the participants were distracted or pressed for time.

The researchers interpret these findings to mean that believing a statement is true is crucial to comprehending it. To understand the injunction against thinking of a pink elephant, you have to imagine the very pink elephant you’re not supposed to think about. Only after comprehension is achieved can you then go back and tag a statement as false. In other words, we automatically believe what we hear or read and only afterward, with much cognitive effort, go back and revise any conclusions we arrived at based on the faulty information. That’s why sentences based on rushed assessments were more severe—participants didn’t have enough time to go back and discount the damning statements that were marked as false.

If those of us who write fiction assume that our readers rely on the cognitive shortcut of substituting us for our narrators or protagonists, Hansen et al’s and Gilbert’s findings suggest yet another horrifying conundrum. The more the details of our stories immerse readers in the plot, the more difficulty they’re going to have taking into account the fictional nature of the behaviors being enacted in each of the scenes. So the more successful you are in writing your story, the harder it’s going to be to convince anyone you didn’t do the things you so expertly led them to envision you doing. And I suspect, even if readers know as a matter of fact you probably didn’t enact some of the behaviors described in the story, their impressions of you will still be influenced by a sort of abstract association between you and the character. When a reader seems to be confusing me with my characters, I like to pose the question, “Did you think Stephen King wanted to kill his family when you read The Shining?” A common answer I get is, “No, but he is definitely creepy.” (After reading King’s nonfiction book On Writing, I personally no longer believe he’s creepy.)

            When people talk to me about stories of mine they’ve read, they almost invariably use “you” as a shorthand for the protagonist. At least, that’s what I hope they’re doing—in many cases, though, they betray no awareness of the story as a story. To them, it’s just a straightforward description of some real events. Of course, when you press them they allow for some creative license; they’ll acknowledge that maybe it didn’t all happen exactly as it’s described. But that meager allowance still tends to leave me pretty mortified. Once, I even had a family member point to some aspects of a character that were recognizably me and suggest that they undermined the entire story because they made it impossible for her to imagine the character as anyone but me. In her mind, my goal in writing was to disguise myself behind the character, but I’d failed to suppress my true feelings. I tried to explain that I hadn’t tried to hide anything; I’d included elements of my own life deliberately because they served what were my actual goals. I don’t think she was convinced. At any rate, I never got any good feedback from her because she simply didn’t understand what I was really trying to do with the story. And ever since I’ve been taking a reader’s use of “you” to refer to the protagonist as an indication that I’ll need to go elsewhere for any useful commentary.

I’m pretty sure all fiction writers incorporate parts of their own life stories into their work. I’d even go so far as to posit that, at least for literary writers, creating plots and characters is more a matter of rearranging bits and pieces of real events and real people’s sayings and personalities into a coherent sequence with a beginning, middle, and end—a dilemma, resolution, and outcome—than it is of conjuring scenes and actors out of the void. But even a little of this type of rearranging is enough to make any judgments about the author seem pretty silly to anyone who can put the true details back together in their original order. The problem is the author is often the only one who knows what parts are true and how they actually happened, so you’re left having to simply ask her what she really thinks, what she really feels, and what she’s really done. For everyone else, the story only seems like it can tell them something when they already know whatever it is it might tell them. So they end up being tricked into making the leap from bits and pieces of recognizable realities to an assumption of general truthiness.

Even the greatest authors get mixed up in people’s minds with their characters. People think Rabbit Angstrom and John Updike are the same person—or at least that the character is some kind of distillation of the author. Philip Roth gets mistaken for both Nathan Zuckerman (though Roth seems to have wanted that to happen) and Mickey Sabbath, two very different characters. I even wonder if readers assume some kinship between Hilary Mantel and her fictional version of Thomas Cromwell. So I have to accept that my goal with this essay is ridiculously ambitious. As long as I write, people are going to associate me with my narrators and protagonists to one degree or another.
 ********

Nevertheless, I’m going to do something that most writers are loath to do. I’m going to retrace the steps that went into the development of my latest story so everyone can see what I mean when I say I’m responding to the demands of the story or making characters serve the goals of the story. By doing so, I hope to show how quickly real life character models and real life events get muddled, and why there could never be anything like a straightforward method for drawing conclusions about the author based on his or her characters.

The story is titled The Fire Hoarder and it follows a software engineer nearing forty who decides to swear off his family and friends for an indefinite amount of time because he’s impatient with their complacent mediocrity and feels beset by their criticisms, which he perceives as expressions of envy and insecurity. My main inspirations were a series of conversations with a recently divorced friend about the detrimental effects of marriage and parenthood on a man’s identity, a beautiful but somehow eerie nature preserve in my hometown where I fell into the habit of taking weekly runs, and the HBO series True Detective.

The newly divorced friend, whom I’ve known for almost twenty years, became a bit of a fitness maniac over this past summer. Mainly through grueling bike rides, he lost all the weight he’d put on since what he considered his physical prime, going from something like 235 to 190 pounds in the span of few months. Once, in the midst of a night of drinking, he began apologizing for all the time he’d been locked away, gaining weight, doing nothing with his life. He said he felt like he’d let me down, but I have to say it hadn’t ever occurred to me to take it personally. Months later, in the process of writing my story, I realized I needed some kind of personal drama in the protagonist’s life, something he would already be struggling with when the instigating events of the plot occurred. 

So my divorced friend, who turned 39 this summer (I’m just turning 37 myself), ended up serving as a partial model for two characters, the protagonist who is determined to get in better shape, and the friend who betrays him by being too comfortable and lazy in his family life. He shows up again in the words of yet another character, a police detective and tattoo artist who tries to convince the protagonist that single life is better than married life. Though, as one of the other models for that character, an actual police detective and tattoo artist, was quick to notice, the cop in the story is based on a few other people as well.

My own true detective meets the protagonist at a bar after the initial scene. The problem I faced with this chapter was that the main character had already decided to forswear socializing. I handled this by describing the relationship between the characters as one that didn’t include any kind of intimate revelations or profound exchanges—except when it did (like in this particular scene). “Oh man,” read the text I got from the real detective, “I hope I am not as shallow of a friend as Ray is to Russell?” And this is a really good example of how responding to the demands of the story can give the wrong impression to anyone looking for clues about the author’s true thoughts and feelings. (He later assured me he was just busting my balls.)

            Russell’s name was originally Steve; I changed it late in the writing process to serve as an homage to Rustin Cohle, one of the lead characters in True Detective. Before I ever even began watching the show, one of my brothers, the model for Russell’s brother Nick, compared me to Rust. He meant it as a compliment, but a complicated one. Like all brothers, our relationship is complimentary, but complicated. A few of the things my brother has said that have annoyed me over the past few years show up in the story, but whereas this type of commentary is subsumed in our continuing banter, which is almost invariably good-humored, it really gets under Russell’s skin. In a story, one of the goals is to give texture to the characters’ backgrounds, and another goal is often to crank up the tension. So I often include more serious versions of petty and not-so-memorable spats I have with friends, lovers, and family members in my plots and character bios. And when those same friends, lovers, and family members read the resulting story I have to explain that it doesn’t mean what they think it means. (I haven’t gotten any texts from my brother about the story yet.) I won't go into the details of my love life here; suffice it to say writers pretty much have to be prepared for their wives or girlfriends to flip out whenever they read one of their stories featuring fictional wives or girlfriends. 

I was initially put off by True Detective for the same reasons I have a hard time stomaching any hardboiled fiction. The characters use the general foulness of the human race to justify their own appalling behavior. “The world needs bad men,” Rust says to his partner. “They keep the other bad men from the door.” The conceit is that life is so ugly and people are so evil that we should all just walk around taking ourselves far too seriously as we bemoan the tragedy of existence. At one point, Rust tells some fellow detectives about M-theory, an outgrowth of superstring theory. The show tries to make it sound tragic and horrifying. But the tone of the scene is perfectly nonsensical. Why should thinking about extra dimensions be like rubbing salt in our existential wounds? The view of the world that emerges is as embarrassingly adolescent as it is screwball.

But much of the dialogue in the show is magnificent, and the scene-by-scene progression of the story is virtuoso. When I first watched it, the conversations about marriage and family life resonated with the discussions I’d been having with my divorced friend over the summer. And Rust in particular forces us to ask what becomes of a man who finds the common rituals and diversions to be resoundingly devoid of meaning. The entire mystery of the secret cult at the center of the plot, with all its crude artifacts made of sticks, really only succeeds as a prop for Rust’s struggle with his own character. He needs something to obsess over. But the bad guy at the end, the monster at the end of the dream, is destined to disappoint. I included my own true detective in The Fire Hoarder so there would be someone who could explain why not finding such monsters is worse than finding them. And I went on to explore what a character like Rust, obsessive, brilliant, skeptical, curious, and haunted would do in the absence of a bad guy to hunt down. But my guy wouldn’t take himself so seriously.

If you add in the free indirect style of narration I enjoy in the works of Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Hilary Mantel, and others, along with some of the humor you find in their novels, you have the technique I used, the tone I tried to strike, and my approach to dealing with the themes. (The revelation at the end that one of the characters is acting as the narrator is a trick I’m most familiar with from McEwan’s Sweet Tooth.) The ideal reader response to my story would focus on these issues of style and technique, and insofar as the comments took on topics like the vividness of the characters or the feelings they inspired it would do so as if they were entities entirely separate from me and the people I know and care about.


But I know that would be asking a lot. The urge to read stories, the pleasure we take in them, is a product of the same instincts that make us fascinated with gossip. And we have a nasty tendency to try to find hidden messages in what we read, as though we were straining to hear the whispers we can’t help suspecting are about us--and not exactly flattering. So, as frustrated as I get with people who get the wrong idea, I usually come around to just being happy there are some people out there who are interested enough in what I’m doing to read my fiction.  

Also read: 

The Fire Hoarder


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Fire Hoarder

[This year's Halloween story. And since this is a lying-on-the-couch read more than a scroll-down-the-screen one, here's a link to a printable version.]

When the song filling the space of his thoughts cuts out mid-verse, Russell Arden is approaching the incline toward the part of the nature preserve he calls the Orchard. Maintaining his stride, he lifts his arm to check the device strapped to his shoulder and sees nothing but the undulating reflective glare on the clear plastic case, so he reaches across with his other arm to activate the touch screen. But the surface of the device remains blank. “Goddammit,” he huffs, charging up the rise, aiming his steps into the winding groove along the side of this otherwise grass-covered section of the trail. The ankle-twisting cant of the track and the backward curve up the hill make this the second least pleasant part of the path for him to run—along with his having to traverse it twice every lap to complete the figure-eight route he takes to cover all the most scenic stretches of the park.

Pulling the buds from his ears and letting the cords drape over the front of his chest, he curses himself for not plugging his phone in to charge as he listened to an audiobook the whole drive from his apartment downtown to Bicentennial Woods, a good twenty-five minutes north on the highway. Nothing to do, he determines, but finish these last two laps in silence. Right away, though, the commotion of his erratic breathing jolts him out of this resignation, momentarily forcing him to work at reconciling his stride with his intakes of air. And no sooner has he reached the top of the rise, just as his breathing fades once more from his attention, than he’s surrounded by the echoes of an argument he’d been carrying on with himself earlier, making him wonder if it’s been continuing in some part of his mind beneath awareness even as he’s been busy concentrating on other matters. It’s stupid, he insists to himself—not worth obsessing over like this. If he’s known me for going on twenty years and still doesn’t understand me, if he’s going to take what I say so completely wrong, well, then, that’s his fault not mine. And what does he contribute to my life anymore at this point anyway?

The grassy trail winds down from the first rise through clusters of tall weeds and slender trees with duck-under branches before lifting up again still higher to a section along the boundary between the nature preserve and some neighboring farmland where the sky opens up and you have a westward view over the Orchard to the billowing tops of the more aged trees of the forest in the distance. Aware now of diffuse aches in his left calf and right hip, Russell looks over the vista backlit by the lowering sun and thinks how running these trails is such an intense, complicated variety of bliss, a Saturday ritual he looks forward to all week, even more than the nights out with his friends that usually ensue later in the evening. Returning his gaze to the trail, he realizes that the app he uses to monitor his average speed and total distance will have ceased functioning along with his MP3 player, and annoyance briefly chokes off his enjoyment of the experience, until he consoles himself that he can probably go in and record the stats by hand on his laptop at home. 

For the past two weeks, he’s been completing the figure-eight through the park three times instead of two—for a total of seven point four miles—in fulfillment of a resolution he made to resist any temptation toward physical and intellectual complacency as he approaches his thirty-ninth birthday, a month and half from now in November. Maintaining an even pace along the curve back toward the shaded paths beneath the forest canopy, he can’t avoid thinking of Jason and how his old friend, back when they were in their late teens and into their twenties, used to do five-mile runs along the stretch of road by his house twice a week—this in addition to the individual regimens they were always comparing notes on and boasting about to each other. Then just last month Jason comes to him asking what he should do about his suspicions that his wife is having an affair. I tried to hedge and be polite, Russell thinks as he plunges into the palpably distinct atmosphere of the woods—cooler, the air thicker, heavier scents of wood and soil and green flesh of plants—but he kept pressing me: We’ve been friends for twenty years and I know there’s something you’re not saying and You’re the one person I count on most to be straight with me. So I tell him what I think. And he promptly forgets that’s exactly what he just asked me to do.

For one moment, Russell doesn’t remember if he should go down the long wooden staircase into the Willow Creek ravine or veer off to complete the top of the figure-eight, but he only has to recall where he was just before his phone battery died and he’s off along the stretch of trail atop the steep embankment. Massive trunks bulwarked with bark in curling, corrugated slabs or peeling flakes or twisting strands stretching brokenly upward into the canopy stand separated by distances of forest floor abounding with plants like tiny neon trees aspiring to the darkly looming heights of their impregnably encased neighbors. He watches the scene pass before him, glancing between the trees and the startling carnage of countless felled limbs and the rotting mushroom-infested wreckage of ill-fated boughs littering the trailside. He calls this part the Graveyard of Trees. This wooden holocaust and the infinite twilit intricacy of living greens and browns speckled with bursts of sunlight in a tableau that stretches out before him up the rise to one side and out over the sheer drop to the creek into the far-off treetops lends to this area of the park an air of dreamlike enchantment, at once hectic and peaceful, and he struggles to absorb it as deeply and lastingly as he can.

Bristling out from behind a smaller tree to the right of the trail at just about head-height, a bundle of straw comes into view, tucked between branch and trunk. He’s passed these bundles—he counts three over a span of twenty or so yards—a few times already today, but until now he’s taken little notice. His first thought is they’re part of some Wiccan incantation. But, he reasons, it’s probably something more prosaic than that. He scans all the trees for more bundles or other artifacts until he’s struck by the oddity of a lone sycamore surrounded by what he assumes are oaks and maples and walnuts. More than once over the past few years, he’s resolved to learn how to identify all the most common species of tree. He went as far as buying a pocket guide from Amazon. He downloaded an app. He even discovered a walkway on the campus of the community college he attended for his software engineering degree that actually has labeled specimens of dozens of trees along it. And yet, to date, he’s never managed to make it a priority.

The trail arcs out over a promontory along a slight downward gradient near the sharpest curve, a gentle prod for him to lengthen his stride before digging his shoes in to make the turn, a practice he calls Tempting the Cliff. Every time he enacts this ritual he smilingly imagines slipping in the loose dirt and tumbling down the stone and branch-strewn slope. As he runs back up the rise away from the drop-off he’s once more successfully avoided, he wonders why no one ever does bother to learn the names of trees. With all the mental energy expended on deciding who deserves to win Dancing with the Stars, or what the quarterback for the Seahawks should have done in the fourth quarter of last night’s game—with the hours upon hours of pointless prattling about indignities suffered at work or at the hands of uncouth spouses, why does nobody put even a miniscule bit of effort into learning about something that’s not exactly the same shit everybody else thinks is so important they simply can’t shut up about it?

The rise he’s on now takes him up over a fold of land that drops back down onto the stretch of trail that will take him once more into the Orchard. Only this time he’ll turn left instead of right once inside, bringing him back into the forest, onto the strip with the straw bundles in the trees, and back to the top of the stairs down to the creek and the bridge taking him across. Years ago, Russell brought Jason to Bicentennial Woods, and he even talked to him about his plan to learn the names of trees. Jason responded by recalling a time when they were teenagers, how they used to go on about all the places they wanted to travel to, all the languages they were sure they would someday learn, all the books, all the women, all the adventures. They were going to learn everything, sample the whole world—or all the really good parts of it anyway. But now whenever he hears about someone doing something that takes some level of discipline and achieves no practical end, Jason said, a category encompassing efforts at things like learning the names of trees, “I just imagine all the things it would take time away from if I actually did it. Time with Kate and Ian. Time to relax and catch up with all the stuff I have to do around the house. Time to relax and just watch some Netflix.”

Two years on, Russell still winces at this. He ponders all the people he knows who used to impress him, people he was sure would go on to do great things, however vague his conception of greatness happened to be. Somehow, to a one, they’d all let life just happen to them. Shamefully out of shape and overweight. Confined to their nearly identical offices all day, their disturbingly similar homes in the evening, prizing the precious moments of silence afforded by their commutes, their chief joys coming from the meager accomplishments and developmentally appropriate discoveries of their kids and the victories of the sports teams they unaccountably identify with. In response to Jason’s pleading for his true take on his marriage problems last month, Russell decided to indulge him.

“Well, here’s what I see. When you guys first met, you were this interesting guy who did things like going on impromptu trips to the Grand Canyon, filming amateur documentaries about truck drivers and lot lizards, and trying to read every book by Philip Roth. You worked out all the time, went out to bars and parties and mingled with all kinds of other interesting people. But then you got married, had a kid, and that interesting guy up and vanished. You were the cool high school teacher who bartended on weekends and summers. You got your dream job teaching literature. But then you just stopped moving. You settled in. You’ve become Typical Small Town Middle Class Guy, putting on another ten pounds every year. Now, I don’t know what Kate is or isn’t getting up to—but can you blame her if her eye is wandering?”

Gathering momentum from the downward slope of the trail until he’s at a full sprint over the tract where his music cut out, Russell lets his mind ride the fierce urgency of its own defenses—he asked me to give it to him straight, I’d gone so long without saying a word, and if he thought he heard a note of disdain in what I said maybe it arose from his unacknowledged betrayal. He had no idea how he’d let me down these past years, because I never said a word. The motion of his legs fades into a blur, a wave of energy like a canon burst propelling him up the hill along the uneven groove through the grass.

“Ouch—tell me what you really think,” Jason had said, forcing a laugh, as if by doing so he could retroactively turn what had passed between them into a joke. Then he stoically withstood Russell’s advice—stop worrying about what Kate’s doing and start doing something yourself, get back in shape, take up some kind of project, go back to being that interesting guy again, insofar as you can manage it anymore, and the relationship issues will work themselves out, either in reconciliation or divorce. It won’t matter either way, Russell insisted, because at least by then you’ll have your own life back. You’ll be yourself again.

Instead of taking the rising path up to the stretch of trail along the edge of the park again, Russell cuts through the short section of the Orchard back into the woods. Jason had listened to what he had to say, protesting limply that things were more complicated than Russell made out because they had Ian, his four-year-old, to consider. Russell was satisfied that he’d served his role as friend and honest observer, feeling no need to press the issue. The next he heard of the matter was at Dupont Bar, where the two of them had gone to have drinks with Russell’s older brother Nick. Russell likes Dupont because he has a longstanding friendship with one of the bartenders, a charming young woman named Amanda who is perennially mired in an endless series of unsatisfying relationships. “She’s been in the process of breaking up with her boyfriend ever since I met her,” Russell told them, “and that was five boyfriends and seven years ago.”  This “in the process” status of hers afforded him certain opportunities. “Still,” he explained, “we’re mostly just friends.”

Whatever Russell and Amanda are to each other, Nick apparently saw being in the presence of one his younger brother’s mystery women—seldom talks about them, never brings them around to meet the family, gets touchy whenever anyone else brings them up—as a chance to get some answers to questions he found pressing. “How do you stand this guy?” he boomed drunkenly over the bar. Amanda responded cutely, “Oh, I can’t really—I just like to have him around because he’s pretty.” Nick, his arms folded on the bar, his impressive middle class paunch protruding into his lap, his blurred features registering scant awareness of his surroundings, proceeded as if she hadn’t spoken. “I mean, he seems really interesting at first, right? Really smart.” “Scary smart,” Amanda agreed. “But then the more you get to know him it’s like the more impossible he is to get along with. He has to tell everyone how wrong they are about everything. And he’ll tell you what book or study he read that proves it. Like he has book smarts but he doesn’t have people smarts. That’s why almost everyone who really gets to know him ends up totally hating his ass. Don’t get me wrong. He’s my brother and I love the bastard. But he really pisses a lot of people off. And even for me, sometimes he’s tough to get along with.”

The annoyance of that night resurfaces undiminished as he reenters the woods overlooking the ravine, prompting him to make an effort at casting his attention out into the surrounding scene. He reminds himself to look out for clues as to the provenance and meaning of the straw bundles tucked into the trees. But he’s already replaying the memory of Jason chiming in after his brother. “Oh man, you should hear what he said to me when I was trying to talk to him about my marriage troubles.” He was addressing Amanda more than Nick, feeling the need to reduce Russell in her eyes, either in retribution or because he couldn’t resist the opportunity to be top guy, if even for a moment. “You come to him for a friendly ear and he breaks it down automatically to the brass tacks, like ‘Here’s what you’re doing wrong.’ I mean, no compassion, no emotion at all. I know he writes software for a living, but I swear that’s how he lives his life too. He treats problems like software bugs, like the answer to everything is some kind of reprogramming.”

Russell knows this is the rap on him, according, he thought, to family members who found it difficult to grant that he could possess any truly useful form of intelligence. Nick is fond of flipping it around though; it’s the people who know him best who know him to be book smart but not people smart—an assessment easily dismissible as the compensatory rationalizing of an older brother. Except now Jason, who really should know better than just about anyone, decides to reinforce this self-protective fantasy of Nick’s. Amanda alone seemed appropriately skeptical. She drew back with a squinting expression that said, “This guy?” Russell, seeing her response, reviewed in his mind his series of successes with women over the past few years, along with the time when one of Amanda’s boyfriends showed up ready to kill him and ended up buying him shots. He looked from Nick to Jason, shaking his head all the while, smiling viciously. “If either of you two especially are thinking that I’m the one here who lacks social skills, you’re in some serious trouble.” He thinks now of the other two women he’s dating, besides Amanda, and how baffled they too would be by his brother’s decades-outdated characterization, newly endorsed by his nominal best friend.

The truth, Russell thinks approaching the head of the wooden staircase, catching a glimpse over his shoulder of a girl standing on the bridge spanning the creek below, the truth is that I piss a lot of people off because I don’t think like them, and because I speak my mind, but there was only ever one person who really hated me the way they’re talking about. And she got pretty much every true thing about me perfectly wrong. He rounds the top of the handrail and starts the halting forward bounce of his descent down the stairs, looking out carefully at every juncture for the next step and trying to keep some semblance of a pace. Why do I bother, he poses to himself. Why continue making the effort to find time for Jason when he no longer does or says anything that interests me? Why go out of my way to spend time with my brother when he clearly has some unspoken beef with me?

He fantasizes about what his life would be like were he to swear off all this pointless sociality. He would still have to attend meetings at work, but he almost never has any interaction with clients. Most of his exchanges are with his managers, as they plan and monitor the progress of development projects. He does peer coding too, but that’s so task-focused that it hardly counts as being social. Besides, he thinks, it’s not shooting the shit with the guys at work that I want to avoid. It’s all the time I squander driving through town to meet friends who either bore me half to death or want me to play some stupid game I have no interest in playing—Boost My Ego, it would be called. Tell Me Everything I Do Is Right and Brilliant. Try Your Hardest to Outshine Me But Fail Every Time. He laughs, leaping from the bottommost stair, remembering how one of his brother’s favorite boasts when he’s winning at cards, or at a board game, or at corn hole, or at any of the other colossal time sucks people around here love, is to say, “It’s called ‘I Win, Bitches.’”

            After the ten or so paces that separate the last flight of stairs from the bridge, he rounds the handrail and thrusts himself up the first three steps up onto the wooden planks. Exerting his beleaguered but still sturdy legs into a full stride once more, he looks ahead to the tree that grows midway between the handrails on either side of the bridge, one of the two-hundred-year-old oaks that give the reserve its name. Russell calls this one the Ghost Tree because its gray trunk stands out against the green foliage and darker bark of the other trees. His lips stretch into a lazy grin because this ancient apparition and the more recent man-made structure that point the way toward it—like some elaborately constructed slingshot hurling you at an elevator into eternity—signal his nearness to the trailhead atop the rise beyond it and the parking lot it opens onto. Only—he has one more lap before returning to it.

He’s over the stream and stepping down off the bridge before it occurs to him that the girl he saw from the top of the stairs—dark hoodie, gray sweat pants, light blonde hair—is nowhere to be seen. “Odd,” he mumbles, turning in either direction to look for her. He finally decides she must also be running and already around the bend a ways down along the bank. He figures he’ll probably cross paths with her on his way back toward the stream.

After leaping down onto an island of gravel and mud in the middle of a tributary of the creek, he launches himself up on the slippery clay bank on the facing side, a maneuver that extends his circuit around the park by maybe twenty yards, giving him the pleasing sense that he’s getting as much out of the trail as he possibly can. Plus, it’s fun. Can’t let a little jump over a stream stop you, now can you?

Savoring the thudding noise of his feet against the dry dirt as he takes to the rise back up toward the park entrance he’ll pass by in stride, he considers how every time he comes here, no matter how long he has to wait in traffic on the way, no matter how sore his muscles are afterward, no matter how muddy his Nikes get, he never feels like he’s wasted his time. Unlike so many other occasions he feels obligated to attend, so many other gatherings he goes out of his way to join. How often, he silently laments, do I leave thinking I didn’t really have to devote those precious moments of this brief window of existence allotted to me to something so dull, something almost physically painful to endure? 

He checks the little parking lot through the stand of trees separating it from this part of the trail and sees his red pickup, bought from his dad after he retired, stretched in its manly, versatile crouch, as if beamingly happy to have the sylvan nook beside the road all to itself. Russell is deep into the woods, hurtling with long, liquid strides down a descending curve toward another, much shorter wooden bridge over a nearly dry brook when it dawns on him the girl on the bridge must have either left already or come here on foot—because there were no vehicles in the lot besides his truck.

He starts the climb up the hill on the other side of the muddy brook, feeling the strain in the backs of his thighs. The third lap brings with it a sense of relief tinged with a reluctance borne of having to overcome the accumulation of fatigue. The second lap used to be when he would really find his rhythm, forget his legs, and let his mind soar. But losing concentration on the final lap, with the exhaustion setting in, could mean catching a toe on an exposed root, or rolling an ankle over an unseen rock. He recognizes though that with increasing physical weariness it also becomes more difficult to deliberately control what you focus your attention on. And his mind seems to want to return to the topic of programs, how the operation of his mind and the exertion of his will themselves depend on a substrate of programs—programs pondering programs, a wearying line of thought for a weary mind.

Leaping forward in bounding strides down another hill, absorbing the impact with the balls of his feet and the muscles of his calves, he does manage to stay vigilant lest he trip or take a misstep. Still, he can’t help reserving space in his consciousness for a lecture serving to set Jason straight on the finer points of his philosophy, which isn’t even his philosophy. It isn’t like some t-shirt he dons because it suits his tastes—it’s his understanding of the work of countless scientists and intellectuals pushing toward ever more refined approximations of the truth. Everyone else, it seems, chooses their beliefs based on what’s in fashion. That doesn’t mean he has to. An image of the girl on the bridge comes to his mind, standing there in her oversized sweat shirt and loose sweat pants. You never see women in sweat pants like that anymore, he thinks. It’s always yoga pants, or those tighter fitting sweats without the elastic around the waistband and the ankles. And where the hell is she?

On an uncustomary whim, Russell begins silently weaving a tale about the girl he saw standing in her outsized, outdated sweats, who only appeared to him because he had unwittingly performed a ritual by running first one way and then the other along the strip of trail atop the steep embankment, the stretch demarcated by the three bundles of straw in the trees. The bundles were put there by the girl’s aunt, a strange woman, one for whom the standard Christian rites held no meaning, one content to live on the margins, no matter how lonely she was there. The ritual of running along the top of the embankment calls the girl back from the realm of the dead because it’s a reenactment of her flight from the man who eventually caught up to and murdered her. And the aunt cast the enchantment with the straw bundles so the mourning mother, her sister, could see her daughter once more.

Russell laughs at himself, at how he managed to go from formulating the perfect response to Jason, one that would get through to him once and for all, clear up all the confusion about whether his beliefs disqualify him from recognition as a human, to whipping up a story starring some girl he barely glimpsed. The thread that unites them, he realizes, is the theme of the outcast, the person who doesn’t think, and who doesn’t live the way most people do—and then he laughs again because that means he’s something of a witch himself. He remembers an occasion when he was getting head from a certain young woman who loved all things Harry Potter—at the last moment he pulled away from her mouth and shouted “Expecto Patronum!” just before coming in her face. “Sorry, I learned Latin in a Catholic school.” She hadn’t found it as amusing as he did. Though of course Jason got a good laugh when he told him.

As he continues his run and his mind sets to roaming as predicted, Russell’s thoughts range from his most memorable sexual encounters of late to the nature and causes of human consciousness, and from who he feels like hanging out with tonight to what he should set as some goals for the next five years. He pumps his legs like a pair of derricks thrusting him up the longest staircase on the opposite side of the park from the one that brings him down toward the bridge, and recovering his breath he glides happily along, marking the absence from his mind of any of the piffling idiocy that’s been preoccupying him. And on he runs as if on the wings of a light-hearted dream, hardly even aware anymore that he’s being forced to do without the music that usually helps maintain his pace. 

He’s already completed the first pass along the embankment and into the Graveyard of Trees to complete the figure eight. So when he returns to the top of the stairs and sees the blonde girl in sweat shirt and sweat pants leaning on the handrail near the far end of the bridge he senses that something strange is going on. He keeps an eye on her as he bounces down the stairs, half expecting her to disappear again as soon as he looks away. She remains in place, resting her elbows atop the rail, as long as it takes him to clear the bottommost stairs and jog over to the steps leading up to the bridge. It’s not until he’s only a few paces from her that she turns to face him. Russell almost draws to a stop, so closely does she resemble someone he knew more than twenty years ago, but he retains the presence of mind to realize the intensity of his gaze may frighten her. The last thing he notices before she turns back to the creek and he passes behind her is her swiping a hand across her cheek, her outstretched fingers dragging under her eye, to wipe away the tears wetting her face. He’s several yards away from the bridge and taking mincing steps to position himself for the leap over the smaller brook before it occurs to him that he needs to talk to her, to tell her about the girl she reminds him of, to ask her what’s wrong, why she’s crying, if there’s anything he can do.

But he struggles up the muddy bank after jumping across the stream and continues up the final rise to the parking lot. An adult male simply can’t walk up to a teenage girl alone in the woods without the gesture being construed as a threat. So he finishes his silent run, emerges from the woods into the gravel of the parking lot, gasping, his heartbeat throbbing in his temples, his legs at once aching and numb, sweat soaking his shirt and the sides of his face. If she walked here, he wonders, will she walk back out through the parking lot?
—————————

Jason was right about Russell believing that if you’re unhappy with your life you really do have to debug your coding somehow. Or else create an entirely new program. Where he goes wrong is in thinking that programming leaves no room for compassion or emotion. Those are just as much a part of your program as anything else. Some people’s genetic coding primes them to be more compassionate than others. Some people pick up habits of thinking and behaving that make them more attuned to other people’s feelings. The mistake most people make is to think of coding as mechanical or mathematic, like logic, and of logic as antithetical to feeling, while emotions are what? Uncaused? Unexplainable? Spontaneous? Supernatural? The reality is that one isn’t either human or machine; rather, humans are a complex breed of organic machine.

Okay, so I could have been more sensitive in my phrasing, Russell decides as he paces across the parking lot after his run, letting his muscles cool down gradually before climbing into his truck for the long drive back to his apartment downtown. But if I sugarcoated it he would’ve dismissed it even more readily than he did. It seemed like a time for some tough love.

            Russell looks at the lifeless gizmo strapped to his arm and feels uneasy about being disconnected for so long—and maybe uneasy too because of the girl on the bridge. He goes over to open the door of his truck and turns on the engine so he can plug in the phone to charge while he finishes his cool-down routine. Jason will likely have texted him, as will have Susanne. Her, he’ll be happy to hear from. Jason, though—ever since that night at Dupont Bar Jason has been especially anxious to get together, as if he wants to make sure everything is copacetic between them. The problem is that he seems to think he offended Russell and so feels it necessary to make amends—but Russell wasn’t offended that night so much as he’s just fed up in general. And not just with Jason, but with his brother, along with most of his other friends. He keeps giving the people in his life the benefit of the doubt, only to see them wallowing in their own shameful mediocrity, and trying to make him feel guilty for not being content to do the same. 

            The wind picks up and whirls some leaves about the lot. Russell tilts back his head to watch their bereaved relatives still aloft in the branches perform their trembling dirge. It’s warm for a late September evening, but he’s sure he can detect a shift, something in the texture of the air that foretells the full ripening of fall, and he imagines the transformation that will take place in the woods. He’s run these trails more this summer than ever before, finding that the ritual sustains him, restores some part of his system that operates in an inaccessible portion of his mind. So even as he looks forward to the splendor of the coming season he can’t help dreading the cold that will eventually make running more unpleasant than it’s worth. Will I still make it out here, he wonders, even if it’s just to hike through the snow?

The previous winter had everyone in the region holed up indoors for longer than they were accustomed, locked away for endless days of record-low temperatures and record volumes of snowfall. By the time the last of the white patches in people’s muddy lawns were trickling away into the blasted unmown grass and down the filthy storm drains, everyone was out of sorts. Even Russell, for all his self-sufficiency, was thrilled to feel himself recharged by his forays into the belated warmth of the approaching summer, only appreciating how depleted he’d been—how much extra difficulty he’d had waking up, moving from any sitting or recumbent position, mustering any enthusiasm for his life or his future—until being granted the welcome reminder of what it was to feel normal.

The difficulty of the past winter, along with the approach of his last birthday before turning forty, was what inspired him to recommit to a proactive way of living. Over the past five years or so it seems, any time he’s succumbed to one or another form of inanition he couldn’t help attributing it to a permanent shift in what it was like—what it would be like from now on—to live life as a man at his current age. It was the same with all the aches and illnesses he suffered. When you’re young, pain and disappointment and listlessness are temporary setbacks. Annoyances. Pull a muscle in your back in your late thirties or beyond, though, and you feel a jolt of terror at the prospect of living with this twanging nerve forever—well, until you die anyway, or until other, more excruciating pains drown it out.

“Ugh,” he groans aloud, turning at the edge of the lot back toward the truck. This is exactly the type of thinking that prompted him to conclude he could either settle complacently into his life, waiting for the next bad thing to happen—and oh they were coming for us all, those bad things—or he could set himself to a series of projects and undertakings to give himself something to occupy his mind and his time, something to look forward to, a sense of progress and improvement—or at least of arrested decline—so he could feel that he was living life instead of recoiling from it. Reprogram? Why not? If you’re not happy with your life or with yourself, you have to change. And about the only things that are really within your power to change are your own habits. Unfortunately for Russell, he seems to have been determining he needed to reprogram himself to be more active and deliberate at about the same time everybody else he knows was deciding they were going to stand up for their right to be lazy and content with their own mediocrity, with all their already meager faculties on the wane.

Still pacing, he thinks of the girl on the bridge, and the old girlfriend she reminds him of. He doesn’t want to get in his truck because he fears the sooner he stops moving his legs, the more the inflammation will set in to his muscles, and the more likely the aches will be to keep him awake later tonight. So he keeps walking back and forth across the lot, thinking back to when he was in high school, when Vicki seemed the point from which all his joys radiated, all his feeling of living a charmed life, all his plans to wring the last drop of life’s piquant elixir from the rind of daily existence at its most banal and disappointing. This beauty, this empathic soul, drunk on the ambrosia of innocence and youthful promise, aglow with the radiance of starlight in his sleeping and waking dreams, glittering night and day. Anybody could see she was someone important, and she recognized in him some fire, some quality of roaring, relentless insatiability. In her adoring gaze he felt the touch of destiny. And since the day he first felt that touch he’s been stoking and protecting his fire like an acolyte in some long-forgotten pagan temple built to house it.

It was Russell who decided to break it off with Vicki the summer before they both started college, not because he loved her any less, not because he feared the effects of distance, but simply because she was his first, first love, first girlfriend, first everything adult and sexual, first taste of what was in store for him—or so he thought. What he couldn’t have anticipated was that he would go on to dream about her for the next twenty years, that he would go through months of heartache, overcome at random moments with bouts of sobbing, gasping. This is life, he told himself, life at its most excruciatingly, exquisitely real. Learn to master these feelings and the world will yield up all its most refined pleasures and mysteries. Succumb to them and be mired in middling miseries for all your days, consoled only by the dullest of commonplace gratifications. Today’s reminder of her brings him no gladness.

He returns to the truck and reaches in over the driver’s seat. His phone shows no messages at first, but as he begins sliding back off the seat he hears the indicator. After typing in his code, he sees three messages, one from Jason, and two from Susanne. “I met ur friend Hallie last night,” the first one reads. The second says, “U r a lying scumbag.” Russell throws the phone in the passenger seat, not bothering to read Jason’s message. He rests his head against the steering wheel between his two hands, and before long he feels himself clenching the wheel in tightened fists, the muscles on the sides of his jaw doing a motionless dance. Finally, he leans back into the seat, exhaling, shaking his head. It was bound to happen, he thinks. We all hang out in the same bars and restaurants. And you knew, he tells himself, Susanne would react this way. You knew not telling her about the others, as far as she would be concerned, is the same as telling her they don’t exist. “But I never fucking lied to anyone,” he says aloud. He leans over to grab his phone again but doesn’t get past the first two digits of his code before he starts imagining how the conversation with her will go. He tosses the phone back into the seat beside him.

Stepping down from his truck, he lifts his hands up to the sides of his face, presses his fingertips into his temples, and begins walking again across the leaf-strewn gravel parking lot. Okay, he thinks, I’ve been having a shit-ton of fun with Susanne, but this isn’t the end of the world. It’s not worth a bunch of fucking drama to try to get her back—especially since I’m not even remotely interested in a serious relationship with her. Hallie I’ve only been out with a few times, so that’s no big deal either. If I decide to go out tonight, I’ll just go to Dupont. Or hell—I’ll go somewhere I don’t usually go and meet someone new.

He stops his pacing in the middle of the lot and looks up to the overcast sky. He doesn’t want to admit it, doesn’t even want to think it, but he’s exhausted. Part of the reason he went out with Hallie was that he wanted an excuse not to answer Susanne’s texts. Part of the reason he tries to keep three or more women at outstretched-arm’s reach but no closer is that aside from a few drinks and a good laugh or two, aside from some make-out sessions and blow jobs in his truck, and every once in a while sex in an actual bed (or on a couch like the last time) he found them each wearisome to be around. As he recently said to Jason, “You know, I don’t think there’s anything sexier than a woman who barely has time for me.” They both got a good laugh out of it.

Russell walks back over to his truck, braces his hands against the back gate of the pickup bed, and leans down as if stretching his calves. But he isn’t stretching. He has no choice but to admit that he’s not happy with his life, not just at the moment but for the past few weeks at least. He’s not sure what the core problem is, but he doesn’t see the trajectory of his life into the near future—autumn, the holidays, another hard winter, and another calendar year—as promising anything worth looking forward to. So what’s keeping you from doing something about it, he asks himself. With that thought, Susanne’s text starts to look like a blessing. Why? Because I feel harried. Because I’ve got so many schedules and routines that by the time I might pause to reflect and plan I’m too mentally exhausted. And lately any time I have reserved for myself to decompress I end up spending at a bar, sustaining a relationship that has no business being sustained.

“I’m done,” he says aloud as he lifts himself up from where he was leaning. I’m done with Susanne, done with Hallie. I can put things on hold with Amanda—that’s one of the great things about her. I’m done with my brother. Russell turns and begins crossing the lot again, feeling a renewed sense of purpose and vitality welling up. Most of all, he thinks, I’m done with Jason.

The plan starts taking shape in his mind. He’s been considering taking some time off from work lately anyway. He imagines what it could be like if he takes all that time for himself, to take stock of his life, to assess the effectiveness of his routines, to reevaluate his goals. He could take on a few short-term projects, catch up on some reading, and most of all do some house cleaning, the figurative kind, to clear away all the time sucks that contribute nothing. From the far corner of the lot, close to the entrance from the road, he marches back to his truck, galvanized, giddy even. This is a perfect fucking idea, he sings silently, a smile stretching over his unwatched face. Yeah, on Monday I’m going to put in for the time off. He figures he can put in for vacation time beginning the second half of October, the week after he’s supposed to visit his dad in Ohio for his birthday. In the meantime, he tells himself, stepping up and sliding into the truck, pulling the door closed beside him, there’s no need to bother with Susanne. You’ll see plenty of Nick in Ohio in a couple weeks. There’s no reason to bother with anyone—at least until, when? The middle of November?

            As he’s pulling out of the lot onto the road, trees on either side reaching up as if to clasp hands with those on the other, his text indicator sounds again, and he can’t help glancing over to see the name on the screen. Ray. He remembers he talked to Ray about possibly meeting out tonight at Mad Anthony Brewery, a bar close to both of their houses. For several moments as he drives through the arched corridor of trees with leaves on the cusp of their fiery celebration of their own departure from life, he wonders whether he should ignore Ray too. The forest passing by through the side windows entrances him, empties his mind. Then abruptly he knows his answer. Ray’s a bit different from my other friends, he thinks. I’ll hang out with him as one last farewell to my nightlife before retreating to my hideaway.  
—————————

The wretched irony of realizing that you’re unfulfilled is that it’s your lack of energy and enthusiasm that makes you realize it, which means you don’t have the energy or enthusiasm it would take to make any lasting change. This may be especially true of people past a certain point in their thirties. Whether you plan to or not, you fall into routines in every area of your life, and even if those routines are physically or cognitively or emotionally demanding you still do them automatically, without deciding, without any exertion of will. But to change your routines, to transition to a new career, to relocate to a new city, to get divorced and start dating again—it all takes an appalling amount of thought and energy and discipline.

Russell often reflects on this and prides himself on having made a drastic change at thirty-two. His entire dating life up till then he had spent looking for women he would have some deep intellectual connection with—women much like him. After the breakup with Sheila, though, he decided the only condition that needed to be met before he would be open to dating a woman was that he feel some physical attraction for her.

“I was shocked to find out how easy it is to get along with most women, and the fact that I was so shocked told me just how disagreeable all the women I had been dating must’ve been—which means I must be really disagreeable too. Now my relationships aren’t all crazy-intense like they used to be. They’re lighter, more fun. I don’t go rolling in the deep nearly as often anymore, and there’s actually something profoundly reassuring in the discovery that I don’t have to reveal my most troubled and my most troubling thoughts to make a connection with another human being. I can get by solely on charm and wit.” He and his friend laugh at this.

Russell’s sitting at the rail in Mad Anthony Brewery next to his friend Ray. They’ve known each other long enough that it wouldn’t be quite right to call them drinking buddies. But Russell also knows his friend tends to lose interest somewhere in the middle of his longer stories or rants. They seldom talk about their childhoods, and when they do they don’t go rummaging around for deeper insights into each other’s personalities. There’s not much back-and-forth between them about their respective philosophies. Sometimes Russell will go on—the way he will with just about anyone—and it’s not like Ray interrupts him or tells him to shut up. He just gets distracted, looks at his phone. Or he dons this expression like, “Whoa! Where did all that come from?”

Russell is never offended by it; he understands rather that it’s he who has breached the tacit agreement between them. He actually finds the limited scope of their conversations to be a great comfort. Nice having a friend who likes being around you when you’re not being impressive, when you’re not talking that much, a friend who likes who you are when you’re quiet. Most people get a taste of Russell and become intrigued. They start asking questions. At some point they start to get the wrong idea about him from what he says. It’s all so strange and unsettling. Lately, he’s had this sense that if someone spends time with him when he’s not talking much, or not answering too many questions, that person will get a truer feel for who he really is—even though the deeper stuff is closer to where lives day-to-day. He realizes now that what he’s saying to Ray verges on violating their contract, but his friend in quietude, the one who’s never been misled by his seemingly inhuman thoughts, doesn’t mind much.

“Yeah,” Ray says, “you start off thinking girls are just around for fun and you just want to sample a big variety. Then you mature and start wanting some kind of deeper connection. And then you have a couple of deeper connections—find out how fucking annoying they are—and you realize you had the right attitude when you were young and stupid.” They share another laugh. Despite the limited nature of their conversations, Russell appreciates Ray’s off-kilter take on things. He’s a man with his own ideas.

When they met seven years ago, Ray was a vice narcotics officer, and they would often hang out when he was on the clock. (“Just don’t bust any of my friends,” Russell often joked.) He was suited to the job because, as a tall rangy guy sporting a mess of light-streaked brown hair and taking his fashion cue from the grunge movement of twenty years ago, he didn’t give off anything remotely resembling a cop vibe. He’s been married most of the time Russell’s known him, but he and his wife enjoy an unconventional arrangement, not exactly an open marriage but one in which free passes are exchanged on rare occasions. Originally educated to be a graphic designer, Ray began a second career in tattooing when he was in his late thirties. A detective now, he plans to retire early from the force to tattoo full-time. Even in his dress clothes, though, you would never peg him for a cop, especially now that he’s nearly sleeved.

“I don’t think men and women were ever meant to live as close as most married couples do,” Ray says. “They didn’t evolve that way. It’s kind of like you can either be best friends with a woman or you can have some torrid romance with her. But if you try to do both with the same woman it’s a recipe for disappointment and frustration on both sides. All married couples learn that. Most of them settle into best-friends situations and pretty much give up on the all-consuming passion stuff. For me, though, I think you have make room for that somehow. Or you’re going to end up resenting the shit out of each other. Your situation is great, though. If I were you, I’d be hooking up with someone different every weekend.”

Russell laughs at this suggestion before saying, “But even with my relaxed requirements it’s not so easy to find women who are cool—and who I’m attracted to. I do alright though. The thing that’s worrying me now is that all my life I sort of assumed I’d settle in to one of those best-friends situations too. I never got around to thinking about how I’d deal with the missing torridity, of course. But over the past two years or so I’ve almost always had multiple casual partners—fuck buddies. I made a point of arranging things so that I wasn’t ever obligated to be anywhere, or do anything, or fucking check in all the time. But whenever I want to do something, whenever I want to have some drinks and get laid, I can call someone. And if she’s not available I can call someone else.”

“Like I said, dude, that’s fucking awesome. I think if I were you I’d be broadening my horizons even more. I see tons of girls you could go talk to. That waitress over there has been checking us out—you should flag her down.”

“I may still. But what I was saying is that I’m worried that having all my base needs met without having to invest anything emotionally, you know, I’m worried I might be spoiling myself. I mean, I don’t feel guilty or anything—I don’t owe any of them anything. I make a point not to make any promises. I’m just worried about the effect it’s going to have on me in the long-term, like if I actually decide at some point that I want something more serious.”

“I think you’re worrying way too much. And this may just be me, but I think you’re deluding yourself about those serious relationships being the most desirable end-point.”

Ray goes on, telling him about how dull the grass is on his side of the marriage divide, but Russell is thinking how all the great fun with fuck buddies is well and good—until you get ass cancer that eats you from the inside out. Or until you simply get to an age when you’re no longer as motivated to chase after the hot young waitresses, or the dolled up nurses out for girls’ night. Or until coming home every day to an empty apartment, with no one to share your life with, no one to tell about your day, no one to make anything that happens to you seem at all significant—or even real—until it makes your life seem so utterly pointless you wonder how you don’t just fade out of existence. Russell won’t go in to any of this, not with Ray.

To keep things light, Russell tells him instead about what happened with Susanne. “The funny thing is, my last committed relationship ended because she was convinced I was screwing around when I wasn’t. Now my casual, uncommitted partner is breaking up with me because she suspects I’m fooling around—and she’s totally right.”

What Russell isn’t telling Ray is how betrayed he felt back then, not just by Sheila, but by his whole family, by almost everyone he knew. Everyone except Jason. She had accused him of something he found loathsome, something he didn’t do—couldn’t do—and yet everyone assumed she had some valid grievance. Even if he hadn’t done what she accused him of precisely, he still deserved whatever punishment she had cooked up for him. His brother Nick had said outright that he was being stupid, that he should just shut up and do whatever it took to earn her forgiveness. As if the accusation weren’t its own offense against him. Because no one wanted to sift through all the he-said-she-said, all the gory details of their competing narratives, but they knew, because everybody who knows Russell knows, that there’s just something off about him. “I don’t know what happened or didn’t happen, but Russell is Russell after all”—bullheaded, stingy with his time, withholding of his affections, always right, a bit superior, book smart, and condescending as hell. Just like his dad, the kind of surly sixth-grade math teacher kids still hate decades later, and before him his grandfather. A family curse—is there a shittier type of guilt by association?

So Russell decided to keep the best of himself to himself—and fuck everyone else. If women bristle because they care more about the social value of beliefs, the value to their own identities, than whether or how much they correspond with reality, then fine, he thought. I can tell some stories, have some laughs, make some wisecracks. You don’t need to know what I really believe.

But Jason knows. Jason of all people should understand why he thinks the way he does and that his thinking that way doesn’t mean what everyone else seems to think it means about him. Russell has always thought the test of a true friend was whether you could be really bad with him without him ever suspecting you’re really bad. Now Jason is toeing Nick’s line. And so fuck him too. Casual, high-turnover hookups and friends like Ray—that should be sufficient, he thinks. That should leave me free.

“Oh, and I wanted to ask you about something,” Russell says to Ray. “Before I got the texts from Susanne, I was running the trails at Bicentennial Woods, and I saw these bundles of straw stuck in the trees. I think they’ve been there for a long time, but I’ve never thought much about them.” He cups his hands in front of him to indicate the dimensions. “There were three of them along about a twenty-yard stretch at the top of an embankment. You ever seen anything like that? It just looked so deliberate—I thought it might be some kind of pagan symbol, or some girls doing witchcraft. I don’t know why, but the first thing that came to mind were those stick effigies hanging from the trees in The Blair Witch Project.”

“Straw bundles in trees? I’ve never heard of anything like that. I’ve gone to some—I don’t even know what to call them—gatherings for neopagans, though, and it’s all pretty improvisational. That’s kind of the appeal. They don’t like the rigidity of the major religions. They like the freedom and open-endedness. A lot of stuff they just make up as they go along.”

“Do you guys ever see much occult stuff? It seems like when I was a kid I was always hearing stories about how the FBI was tracking some satanic cult that did blood rituals with babies or some shit.”

“You’re talking about the Satanic Panic of the 80s,” Ray says leaning back. “It was sparked by all the movies about possession and devil worship—there was also some big thing with recovered memories. Turns out, with hypnotism you can trick people into remembering just about anything, from satanic rituals to alien abductions. There were never any verified cases of a group sacrificing or ritually abusing children. It was all nonsense. The funny thing is, I know of all kinds of cases where kids were abused by Christians who were trying to rid them of demons.

“The real Satanists,” he goes on, “are just inverse Christians, followers of Anton LeVey, you know, angry teenage outcast types who grow up thinking Christianity is corrupt or oppressive or conformist. For them, Satan isn’t a symbol of evil; he’s a symbol of rebellion. The others, the witches, the wiccans, the neopagans, they’re reviving practices deemed satanic by the church as part of a propaganda campaign, to win converts. Those stick figures in Blair Witch, which everyone thought were so creepy—they’re actually for fertility as far as I understand it. Which, when you think about it, actually is pretty creepy, since they were made by a ghost who kills children. But the point is, no matter who you worship you believe you’re right and good. People don’t wake up and decide to be evil one day and then start worshipping Satan.”

“But might people start worshipping Satan and then turn evil?”

“That’s probably closer to how it works. But it depends on how you define evil. People get all worked up about this cult, or that serial killer. But really not much excites people more than the idea of real evil—they love it. Everybody says they want to do something with their lives that helps other people, makes the world a better place. That’s not a terrible thing. That’s admirable. Look at the turnover rates at the jobs that actually do help people, though—the helping jobs like homes for kids who come from fucked up backgrounds, nursing homes, schools in dangerous neighborhoods. And that’s the people who actually try it for a while. Most people, when you get down to it, just want to do whatever they feel like doing and pretend it’s serving some lofty purpose. Even rat fuck Wall Street types, you ask them and they’ll tell you all about how they make as much money as they do because they perform some great service to the economy.

“Evil is pretty much just a fantasy for everybody to ooh and ahh about. When you see the horrible shit that goes on close up, in real life, you know—that’s almost the worst part—how stupid it is, how senseless. You don’t need any grand metaphysical idea like evil to understand it. I mean, it’s usually just sad. But all over TV you see how the solution to the mystery, the criminal at the end of the trail of breadcrumbs, he’s always some mastermind. It’s always some big agenda. The horrible shit cops see—hell, some of these people’s lives are so fucked up you can’t help thinking stray cats live better. The people who hurt kids, they’re not leaders of some criminal syndicate. They don’t have grand schemes. They’re the most pathetic people you’ve ever seen. Guys who hate black people. Guys who hate women. Women who hurt their kids. Nine times out of ten you can tell right away they’re either half retarded or there’s just something wrong with their brains.

“That’s the extreme, though. Most of us hurt people all the time in some minor or indirect way. But we manage to rationalize it, convince ourselves we’re still good people. Honest fucking truth—most people are if you give them the chance. Good people, I mean. That’s the norm. But there’s so much shit that can go wrong. And people latch on to the idea of evil because it makes it easier for them to think they’re the good, worthwhile humans. It gives them a sense of awe, like it’s this cosmic force only they can resist. And it proves that there’s more to existence than genes and shitty parents and teenage boys trying to prove how tough they are. Tell people a story about an honest-to-God evil person, and watch their faces light up. Look at how obsessed people are with Hitler. Whenever people hear about an evil person, they’re like, ‘Let’s all get together and be heroes.’ You’ve seen it. You’ve seen how rabid they can get. Look at all these new Facebook activists. They totally believe they’re battling evil and working to make the world a better place, when most of the time they’re really just adding to the noise. But, no, let’s cut off the balls of some child molester, let’s bring this politician’s cheating to light and publically humiliate him—so we can all feel like heroes. Being a Facebook feminist is way more fun than teaching troubled kids or cleaning bed pans.

“And, dude, I know I’m being cynical right now. I know it’s actually a good thing that people want to believe they’re good, that they want to have some sense of purpose in their lives. But a lot of times to play the role of hero they have to distort their perceptions. They have to exaggerate, or invent, some offense so they can stand up against it. Wanting to be good like that actually inspires people to be evil. Hitler thought he was battling evil. Bin Laden believed he was a great martyr for the holiest of causes. To me, evil isn’t all that scary. To me, it’s people who believe most strongly in evil who are scary. Especially when they can look around and see hundreds of other people believing just like they do.”

Ray falls silent as they simultaneously lift their beer glasses to their mouths. This time, Russell thinks, it’s Ray going off on the rant. I must have hit on a sore spot. He feels his lips pulling tight over the rim of his glass, and he wishes his friend would continue. Of course, Russell doesn’t believe in evil as any kind of cosmic force either. What thrills and delights him about Ray going on like he just did was that he was saying exactly the kind of stuff he says himself that ends up pissing off so many people. And that Ray began at a moderate trickle before releasing the torrent meant that he’d been holding back, probably because he knew the feeling all too well of having thoughts and not being able to share them without giving the wrong impression.

As Ray goes on to say he’ll ask another guy he knows at work who’s a bit of an expert on occult stuff about the straw bundles, Russell is ruminating on those teenage outcasts, the ones attracted to symbols of rebellion and nonconformity. He supposes he’s acquainted with the grownup version of many of these guys from his work. And there must be a female variety too, the ones who balk when everyone else is rushing off to church on Sundays, the ones who make up their own rituals in the woods. Their beliefs, their ideas, their thinking, it doesn’t mesh with the culture for whatever reason, and so they find themselves on the outside of it. Russell has never really identified with the geeks and outcasts before. But there are definitely certain similarities in their situations.
—————————

Taking to the trail which leads over the old wooden bridge into the woods behind his parents’ house in Clarksville, Ohio, as the maniac dog that’s been harassing his nieces and nephews bolts past him with enviable abandon, Russell imagines the relay race of generations, his grandpa in the hospital with the incision down his sternum that looked as though the edge of skin on either side had been folded back under itself before the sewing began, then his dad in the same room almost exactly a year later—and no one noticed until he woke from the quintuple bypass surgery to point it out. “We thought he was doing this,” Russell remembers his dad saying of his grandpa, as he traced an upward trajectory on an invisible graph, “but he was actually doing this”—steep decline. So despite the doctor’s assurances the following year of his own surgery’s success, he felt a dread he couldn’t hide. Someday, it would be Russell’s turn, not from smoking or poor diet or a sedentary lifestyle, but from something, eventually. Then it will be the whole to-do: everyone talking about how he has to fight; everyone acting like it’s some cosmic injustice; everyone going through the motions, as if the outcome, the ultimate outcome, could be altered. His dad has already had almost ten good years since his heart attack. It’s not always a bad idea to hang on. But it is a bad idea more often than people acknowledge.

Us outsiders, he thinks, closing his eyes and lifting his face to the broken beams of light seeping through the countless fizzling pixels of yellow and green and orange, us introverts, for people like us who don’t thrill to the presence of other people, all those visits, all that being trapped in a room, strapped to a bed for doctors and nurses—strangers—to poke and prod you, well, there are worse things than dying a week earlier than you otherwise would. Or a month. Or a year. Where do you draw the line, though? If I’m being honest with myself, Russell thinks, I have to admit that if my life was considerably less pleasant, or considerably more difficult, for a significantly lengthy amount of time, I would consider checking out. That’s the thing about people like us, we’re not as tied in to the world. We don’t feel obligated to live through misery and pain because our kids need us, or our spouses need us, or anyone needs us. We are free to drift away into nonexistence, knowing our family may go through the motions, knowing our few true friends will be genuinely, albeit temporarily, grief-stricken. But jump ahead six months or so and the world keeps turning. You’re nothing but a bunch of fond memories.

For a lot of people, he knows, this attitude of his would sound terrible, but it’s the flipside of true freedom, the freedom to live your days on your own terms, the freedom not to have to fulfill some role, not to have to support your contribution to the next generation, to live however you decide you want to live. Jason can complain all he wants about how I look at life as nothing but the output of so many programs—at least I’m free to change my programming whenever I want. All those other people, the extroverts, the family types, the ones tied in to the world, their programs are set for them, set for good. Sure, it’s easier not to have to decide what you’re supposed to be doing every day, not to wonder why you bother doing anything at all, to have all those questions answered for you once and for all. But is it worth it to never have a day in your life when you’re truly free? So free you could do anything—even die—and people would barely notice?

The rocky trench dividing the hill he’s climbing in two slopes down for maybe a couple of miles. Once, a couple of years ago, he clambered down to the bottom to find that it curves off anticlimactically into grooved channels that run along the border of some farmer’s fields. Now he decides to cross it and climb up the other side to see if anything but more forest lies over the top of the second rise. The air is chillier than he’d reckoned, making him wish he’d worn that jacket his sister-in-law tried to push on him. His nose is running. But the farther he gets into the woods the less the cold bothers him. The chill feels to him like a type of emptiness, a space where he can float freely, where he can let the contours of his mind and his disembodied essence stretch outward and blur into the vacuum of airy nonexistence. He breathes it in, this release from the pressure cooker of the house full of kids and animals and small talk and pointless screams and crying and petty dramas. Even my family, he thinks, has become too constrictive. They can no longer manage to leave enough space among them for me to be myself in their presence—if they ever could manage it. No, he thinks, I simply decided to be myself despite their poorly suppressed suspicions and not-so-subtle condemnations and self-protective snidery; it wasn’t like they ever allowed for me, sought to understand and accept me on my own terms, because those are the very terms that threaten them. But that’s just how families are. I should’ve known there was no point in coming here this weekend.

Rushing across the hill ahead of him, the rambunctious pit bull-border collie mutt startles him to the point of making him lurch backward on the shale slabs in the trench, nearly tripping over a storm-sheered branch lying in a mess of orange leaves. He’s taken to calling the dog Spaz, or Psycho. It’s another of his stepmom’s rescues, one his dad isn’t particularly fond of. “If you can find a way to make sure he doesn’t come back from the woods with you,” he said to Russell as he was setting out, “it’ll probably keep him from taking a few years off of my life.” Thinking how the dog had bowled over his niece, not just the once but three times so far this weekend, Russell wonders now how he might actually do it—how he would kill this damn dog rampaging obliviously through the woods with him, disappearing for long stretches only to reappear and scare the hell out of him.

The leaves rasping and crunching overhead and underfoot, as well as the wayward falling loners sashaying lazily through the air, put him in the holiday mood like none of the kitschy decorations—inflatable ghosts and pumpkins, green-skinned witches astride their brooms on houses—he passed on the drive through Ohio. Halloween is the one holiday he still enjoys. He remembers a shift occurring every year in his dad about the middle of October when they were kids, in the weeks after his birthday. All summer, as he set about keeping himself busy with lawn care, home maintenance and improvement schemes he had no business taking up, and taking advantage of the luxury of pursuing a few of his own scholarly interests, like biographies of famous explorers or inventors. Toward the middle of August, though, he would start to get sullen and irritable. Russell and Nick simply avoided him for those couple months, insofar as it was possible for people living in the same three-bedroom house to avoid each other. Then as Halloween approached he would undergo another inexplicable change. His spirits would lift. He’d take them on trips to parks to take long hikes along the myriad trails. And they’d all go to The Haunted Castle on some Friday night. More than anything else about that place, an old church done up to provide some starts and scares, Russell remembers waiting in line to get in, and the pleasurable warmth of anticipation. His grandma had hated what they did to that church; she always reminded the grandkids that it was where she had been married to their grandpa. 

Cresting the rise on the opposite side of the trench, Russell looks out over a gradual descent and sees nothing but more trees, promising little else but more leaf-strewn forest for the cost of an hour’s hiking. He turns and starts to climb up toward the source of the rocky trench, and comes after a few minutes to a line of pine trees, beyond which he finds an overgrown grassy trail separated from a stagnant, algae-covered pond by head-high brush. As he picks his way through the line of trees into the tall grass, he shouts loudly for the dog but hears no panting, no crunch of leaves in response. Maybe he’ll just get lost out here, he thinks—because I don’t see any good way to kill the bastard. Before rounding a sharp curve in the track around the pond, Russell sees the back end of a rusted car. His dad had mentioned a junkyard back here.

A half dozen cars hunched atop sagging or absent tires and exhausted suspension, grown over with vines and weeds, giving the illusion of melting into the ground, sit eternally parked along either side of the trail. Imagining how readily his dad would be able to identify the makes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, Russell weaves a path among them, as more come into view the farther along he goes. When he hears someone advancing toward him at a frenzied clip through the weeds and grass, he’s only alarmed for a couple of seconds before remembering Psycho. Sure enough, no sooner does Russell look back than he sees the dog bursting out from the brush along the pond to come hurtling, elated by his own freedom and surging energy, across the trail and back into the woods on the other side of the curve, where he collides—with comical abruptness—against an unseen wire fence, bounces backward into an upright, unmoving, almost chastened stance, a look of bafflement on his piebald, bullet-shaped face. Russell doubles over with laughter. The dog turns toward him, still wearing the high-eared, tilted-head quizzical expression, and Russell knows he won’t kill him. “Psycho, you idiot!” The dog runs off up the trail in the opposite direction, quickly disappearing into the desiccated grass, and before long is out of earshot. 

Looking back toward the woods and the cars he’s passed, he becomes aware of how spooky this place is. The sound of the leaves is muted to an eerie hush. The cars seem like newly lifeless things that at any moment could spring back into motion. And it would be really easy for someone to camp out here—plenty of places to hide and escape the elements. The thought comes unbidden that he could be having a lot of fun in this junkyard if someone else were around to share the experience with. He walks over to push apart a thin spot in the brush separating him from the pond. That’s the whole problem with Halloween, he thinks. That’s the whole problem with any holiday. It’s like they’re designed to force you to hang out with other people, especially kids. You carve pumpkins together. You go trick-or-treating together. Even for adults, it’s parties, pumpkin spice everything, huddling around fires. If ever there were a holiday for us loners and outsiders, he thinks, it should be Halloween. This year, he determines, I’m going to make a point of celebrating it on my own, in my own way.

Turning to continue down the path as it becomes ever more crowded with the carcasses of automobiles, Russell sees something in the trees on the side across from the pond. About head height, bristling out from the trunk, is a bundle of straw folded over one of the branches in the lowermost row. The chills spreading on the back of his neck surprise him, arriving before he’s had a chance to consider what this discovery might imply. He hasn’t, until now, thought of the possibility that other people may actually be in the vicinity. But who would come out here? He approaches the bundle, reaches up to examine it, feel how solid it is so he can get an idea how long it’s been hanging here. It comes apart with the gentlest tug. Russell’s mind goes back to all the searching he did to learn about the bundles, all of which came to naught. Here he is, though, in Clarksville, a good three hours’ drive from Fort Wayne and Bicentennial Woods—and he finds another bundle of straw bound the same way, braced over a branch in the same way. Could there be some cult, or just some group of people, who use this as their symbol?

Continuing along the path, scanning the trees for more bundles, he thinks of what Ray had been saying about all the boys who never manage to assimilate into any of the recognized institutions, the ones who come together around their symbols of rebellion and celebrate, however resentfully, their status as outsiders. Russell’s never really felt like that himself, never really felt excluded or ostracized. For him, it’s always felt like a choice—like please come to church because if you come it’ll be better for all of us. But I just couldn’t bring myself to take it seriously after a certain point, he thinks. So am I a different kind of outsider? And do all those thoughts about how outsiders have the freedom to drift away, to wander off unceremoniously and die, does that apply to the geeky kids who never get laid, who have to marry the first woman who’ll accept them, however horribly she treats them? They have their tight-knit little groups, though, their Dungeons & Dragons gatherings, their network of rivals and teammates for first-person shooter games. They have their own cultures even, like tiny tribes. And what about the survivalist types, the ones who hate the government, hate civilization, choose to live off the grid in their generator-powered, woodstove-heated shacks and lean-tos? So many people the main programs don’t accommodate, who have to, or choose to, make their own way, live by their own lights, play their own games, either because they’re sure to lose the officially sanctioned games or because those official games just don’t mean anything to them.

He spots the second straw bundle, and quickly afterward the third. So again there are three. Who the fuck is putting these here? He wonders first if it could be his brother playing a trick on him. Then he decides that’s too unlikely, that it must just be a common practice that for whatever reason isn’t discussed much online. There’s got to be all kinds of stuff like that. Up ahead, around the curve on the far side of the pond is a large, rusted-out bus, and beyond that he sees what looks like an old tool shed. He stops moving and pricks up his ears for any sound that may indicate the presence of another human being. “Hello,” he calls, without deciding to, following some impulse he catches himself trying to justify after he’s done it—even though he has no idea why he’s done it. He braces himself to receive some punishment for his mistake. But nothing happens. All he hears is the wind soughing through the leaves in the treetops.

“Hello,” he calls again, his actions following some set of actuating principles disconnected from the silent monologue in his mind. He takes a step forward, wondering if the best idea now may be to heed the “No Trespassing” signs he’s been so wantonly disregarding. Still, nothing around him, not the overgrown weeds, not the ruins of the bus, certainly not the barely standing shack with clouded-over windows, none of it suggests any recent visit by a living person. He listens for another beat, and then he continues along the path around the pond as it becomes ever more cluttered with the remains of cars and vans, until he passes a final one, after which there’s nothing to see but more overgrown grass, weeds, and the trees with leaves alight in the middle stages of their resplendent death throes. His steps have become more deliberate, his progress furtive. If he finishes the circuit around the pond, he’ll be far away from the bundles and the shack, emerging on the far side of the rocky trench in the woods, which must, he realizes, together with the pond, form some kind of long-forgotten drainage system. But he decides to overmaster his silly foreboding and turns to head back through the junkyard so he can reenter the woods closer to the trail that leads to his parents’ backyard.

Russell inhales sharply before turning. Amid the cars once again, he reflects on the permanence of their desuetude. They’ll sit here, inert, forgotten, until it comes time for someone to build a neighborhood here, or a city, or a parking lot. Or maybe they’ll be here forever, until they sink into the ground and dissolve into their constituent minerals. Like old, abandoned houses, you can barely begin to imagine the stories—where they’ve been, who’s driven them, the fights, the moves to new cities, the sex in the back seat, the singing, the crying, the near misses, someone’s first car, someone else’s last. Behind the glass grown opaque with grime, you see the driver’s seat, and its emptiness is unconvincing. The headless space before the headrest seems startlingly alive, so much so you almost can’t accept, when you look closer, that the figure you glimpsed hasn’t simply ducked beneath the window. Passing before the shack again, Russell can’t help holding his breath, veering toward the pond to cross in front of the weathered door at as great a distance as he can manage while still retaining an air of nonchalance.

He’s around the bend, on the stretch with the straw bundles in the trees, when his mind finally moves beyond his surroundings to the house he’ll be returning to and some possible methods for coping with its inhabitants. “Hey,” someone behind him calls. Russell’s mind remains divided from his actions as he responds inwardly with an eerie sense of alarm and outwardly with a casual sociability.

“Oh, hey,” he says, turning around.

“Lookin’ for something?” the man behind him asks. Russell sees he’s massive in a way that’s less intimidating than pitiable. But he’s still imposing enough, his posture insistent, his tone unmistakably aggressive.

“I’m actually just exploring,” Russell replies.

“What the fuck are you exploring here for?” he demands.

Russell sees that here is an example of the type of person he’s been thinking about, a grownup version of those kids we all know from high school, the ones who fit no role but that of spectator and bitter outcast, the ones you find at the edge of the party limply criticizing and enviously ridiculing their more engaged classmates. The guy is wearing a black rock-and-roll hoodie with vaguely satanic red etchings that looks like it’s never been washed. His gray jeans, straining at the seams and threadbare in patches near the point of bursting, fray at the bottom in filthy tentacles about a pair of boots that look like lumpy mounds of petrified dough.

“I already told your friends,” he says, stepping toward Russell, “this place happens to currently be occupied by someone who doesn’t give a fuck. I also told them if I ever catch any of you fucks creeping around back here again I was going to fuck ‘em up.”

As much as this man wants to intimidate him, Russell’s fear is concentrated elsewhere, not on any particular danger but arising from a sense that he’s on the verge of uncovering some long-held secret it may be better to leave undisturbed. “I don’t have any friends,” Russell says stupidly. “None that have been out here anyway.” The man steps toward him, raising his right arm. He’s holding what Russell at first thought was a stick or a short club but now sees is an oddly shaped blade. Even as the man shouts a series of curses at him and Russell takes several steps backward through the tall grass, he remains unpanicked, somehow assured that the threats are mere bluffs. “Dude,” Russell calls over the shouts, his hands raised before his face, “I’m fucking leaving.” But the man, stepping forward with his left foot, cants his right shoulder back slightly, enough to make Russell think he may actually try to bring the blade slashing down across his body—and yet he still can’t accept that such a thing could be possible.

In the middle of another backward step, Russell’s left leg is jostled into his right, sending him toppling sideways into the grass. The growl he hears is enough to finally ground his fear in the present crisis, and he frantically parts the weeds to see Psycho lunging up to seize the man’s arm in his jaws, the now lowered arm wielding the machete. Having latched on, the dog swings about and begins jerking violently, so much like a game of tug-o-war with a sock, except there’s nothing playful about it. The man’s screams go from outraged to desperate in the span of seconds. And just as Russell gets to his feet and rushes to pull off the dog, he sees that same arm flinging upward in a rapid arc, prompting him to brace himself for the downward slash that Psycho must have interrupted. But the man is spinning, off-balance, and the blade is nowhere to be seen. Russell comes out of his defensive crouch in time to watch the man disappear into the weeds—and then he hears glass shattering.

Psycho barks twice as the man lets flow a stream of obscenities. Russell picks his way toward the man cautiously, calling along the way, “Are you hurt? What happened? Do you need help?” The only answer he gets is “Fucking dog! Motherfucker!” The first thing Russell sees is the broken driver’s side window of what he thinks is a Studebaker—and a spattering of blood running down the outside of the door. His own blood goes cold. “Oh shit,” he mutters. “Where are you?” he calls again. “Don’t fucking cut me—I’m coming to help you.” No curses or obscenities come in response, certainly no assurances.

Russell follows the blood along a trail out of the weeds and back into the tall grass and sees where the man has fallen. Approaching him, Russell looks first for his hands—finding them immediately, slimy red beneath his chin, his right clutching his left, his left clutching the side of his neck. “Oh fuck.” The man tries to talk but only manages to get out “Mmaaugh.” Russell reaches into his jeans pocket for his phone as pulsing gouts of blood seep out between the man’s fingers. He’ll be dead for sure by the time anyone gets here, he thinks. Standing there, his thumb hovering over the touchscreen, he stares into the man’s eyes. They register no panic. Has he lost too much blood to feel terror? What his expression seems to speak of, though, is not exhaustion or delirium so much as resignation. Russell glances up to see one of the straw bundles in the trees along the trail, and he says aloud, “We’re free, you and I, to simply drift away.”

He slides his phone back into his pocket and looks back to the man’s face as his exiguous splashes of breath turn to ice and scrape and crunch into the air. Russell considers, for a mere few seconds, whether anyone will be able to trace his presence here. He hasn’t touched anything, save for the straw in the tree to gauge how old it was. The broken chunks of breath flow from the man’s gaping mouth at widening intervals, until he chokes out what seems the last—until two more come, one abruptly after the other. Then he lies still and silent. Russell continues watching him. His eyes look the same, like a living person’s eyes, until they don’t. And then Russell has to wonder if they looked this way—uncommunicative, withholding, detached—all along, if he only imaged them conveying some message of vitality from within, that light that people talk about going out.

When he turns to continue back to his parents’ house, he notices blurred splotches along the edges of his vision and a ringing hum suffusing the silence. He immediately realizes that his mind is slipping into a perturbed state, and he wills himself to monitor it. The shock. Is that what it is? He imagines the information processed by each of the modules in his brain leaking into all the others occupying the surrounding tissue. Time begins to progress by lurches, not in its customary smooth unfurling, so he steps into the woods one moment only to find himself twenty feet farther into them the next. Worrying he may lose his balance and fall once more, not from vertigo but because the forest floor itself won’t rest even, he braces himself with an outstretched arm against a tree and holds his eyes steady over what he recognizes as the rocky trench and the hill beyond, meaning he’s somehow gotten himself turned around, facing the direction opposite the house. Holding his gaze in place, the blurred patches moving in ripples along his periphery, he exerts his focus to settle whatever inner turmoil of conscience or shock of fright is bringing about this queasy nightmarish confusion of his senses.

Steadying his breath with deliberate effort, he succeeds after several minutes in calibrating his vision and his feeling for level ground. He stands upright, turning to head back to the house, but before taking a step forward he sees something that holds him in place. It looks at first like a thin, leafless tree, its upper branches twisting around, as if moved by the wind. Russell blinks, squeezing his eyes tight before reopening them to see it standing, human-like. The rotation was its turning to face him. The legs, the arms, even the torso, the entire body is composed of sticks, branches, the living appendages of trees, making it freakishly thin. The joints of the legs are angled backward, like those of a bird, and stretching out from its back are the gnarled arching frames of a pair of wings. Russell squints, struggling to bring the head into focus, seeing only a blur of white—which he thinks may be the skull of some long-snouted animal, like a deer or a horse. It appears to be looking directly back at him. When after several moments it fails to resolve into something more tree-like, more mundane and dismissible, Russell feels a welling up of sickening revulsion and fear which erupts from him in laughter at the sheer preposterousness of what he’s seeing.

He falls to his knees, thinking he must’ve hit his head when he fell back in the junkyard. Lifting his hands to feel for a wound or a swollen lump, he sees that they’re both covered in blood. He reaches frantically for the leaves on the ground in front of him and drags his hands over them top and bottom. “What the fuck? I didn’t touch him,” he says in a whimper. When he squeezes shut his eyes again, though, an image flashes through his mind of his own hands tearing the machete away from the bleeding man’s hands. “No, no, no—what the fuck?” He remembers his right hand, shining with blood now, bringing the machete down on the side of the man’s neck opposite the wound from the broken car window. “It’s not right. It’s a hallucination.” The next memory that surfaces is of the sound the machete made plunking into the middle of the stagnant pond. He laughs again, hunching forward. When he sits back on his heels, he looks up to where the stick monster, the wood demon, that preposterous thing stood, but it’s no longer there. Scanning the trees, he sees that it’s no longer anywhere. “Ha ha ha. What the fuck!”

He makes a plan to get into the house—or better the garage—to wash his hands before anyone can see them. He needs to find the dog too to make sure he has no blood around his maw or anywhere on his coat. Filled now with the urgency of his predicament, he stands up and feels his legs sturdy beneath him. He considers going back to see if the dead man really does have two neck wounds or just the one—so he can be sure. But he’s anxious to be out of these woods, far away from where the wood demon had stood turning to face him, to gaze at him, to look into him, testing him, tricking him. Russell sets off at a pace toward the house, giving wide berth to the spot where it stood. Before long he’s stepping into the grass and moving quickly toward the garage—and the sink inside—calling out for the dog. He stops midway through the yard to look back toward the trail into the woods, scanning the line of trees. The wind picks up just as he’s looking, setting the millions of leaves aflutter. Russell shudders. Then he turns and heads for the garage. 
—————————

Not interested. The mantra of the age. No one is interested in anything. You either like a thing, or you don’t like it. If the slightest effort is involved in learning to appreciate a thing, no one bothers trying to marshal the discipline; no one possesses an adequate flicker of curiosity. Will it make me feel good? Will it make me look good? Will it be fun? Will it be entertaining? If not at first, then too late. We’re not interested. Whether it’s a way to pass the time, a body of knowledge to master, or even a method for coming to the truth, we only evaluate it according to the strictest consumerist and hedonistic principles. You can’t blame us. Life is short. These days there are so many things competing to fill our days. We have so much to choose from. Why choose anything that doesn’t drip succulently down our chins when we bite into it? Tell me of some exquisite pleasure to be had as the culmination of some long struggle and I’ll show you some other way to get a shot of dopamine straight into the reward center of your brain at a fraction of the effort.

The only people who ever take interest thereby alienate themselves. The very interest they take marks them, not as interesting themselves, but as geeky, as if by learning or putting forth effort you can’t help but render yourself awkward, unsexy. Or rather it’s assumed that if you have the time or the inclination to engage in demanding endeavors it must be because you’re incapable of getting laid. And, to be fair, Russell thinks, that’s true enough in many cases. Plenty of guys at work like that.

He sits with his legs folded on the hardwood floor of his apartment, books and magazines strewn around on the floor, the coffee table, the couch. Presently, though, he’s burying a razor through the outer rind and into the moist spongy flesh of a pumpkin. His cut follows a path established earlier by a pencil as part of an intricately detailed monster face—a demon with wizened skin, mirthful malevolence in its eyes, horns, and a mouthful of spiked fangs. The eyes promise to be the most exacting, so he resists an impulse to save them for last—for when he’s had a little practice at wielding his scalpel with the requisite fine precision—and instead goes right for them, on the principle that a pristine surrounding surface will give him more degrees of freedom to make the toughest incisions. This decision occurs in a mind space seeded with ideas about how minds go about making decisions.

On the floor next to the couch are books by “computational neuroscientist” Douglas Hofstadter, philosopher of science Patricia Churchland, and renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, whose contribution to Russell’s latest research obsession is surprisingly off-topic. This particular work by Sacks isn’t about how neurons create consciousness—not directly anyway. It’s about the causes and meanings of hallucinations, a topic he’s developed a newfound fascination with in the wake of his trip to Clarksville. Russell decided that as part of his swearing off of people he would give up all his social media activity as well, including his blog, where he routinely posts reviews of whatever books he reads on software engineering and various fields of science. So instead of a quick thousand-word post he’s working on a lengthier essay, though what he’ll do with it once he’s finished is a question he’s given little thought to.

Rounding off the first cut to shape the top of the demon’s left eye, Russell marvels at the power of the most subtle alterations in the lineaments of a face to signal such powerful nuances of expression. He fears he’s not capturing the playful sadism he found so appealing in the pattern. But he has no choice but to proceed, hoping if it doesn’t convey the same state of the creature’s mind then it at least gets at another one, equally creepy, equally fun. One the books that brought Sacks to fame was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of essays about patients with rare brain afflictions, minds that by going awry illuminate some incredible facet of the brain’s normal functioning. The title essay is about a man with damage to his fusiform gyrus that has led to a condition called prosopagnosia, which means he doesn’t recognize faces as faces—and therefore often can’t distinguish between people and inanimate objects. Sacks later revealed that he suffers from a much milder form of prosopagnosia himself. The perception of faces, down to the minutest details of individual visages and the dynamic signaling of emotion and intention, is something we take so much for granted it’s hard to wrap our minds around how even a severely malfunctioning brain could possibly fail at it. So much of what we perceive as occurring out there, in the world, is actually a function of what’s going on in here, within our own minds—a theme Sacks reprises in the book Russell is currently reading.

On the TV is a movie called V/H/S, a found-footage horror flick Amazon recommended after he ordered The Blair Witch Project. Aside from the unwatchably obnoxious framing scene, the individual vignettes that make up the movie are each pretty decent. Hanging over the TV is a stick effigy he made after watching Blair Witch for the first time in over ten years. You simply lash a straight horizontal twig to a vertical one that wishbones at the bottom. Then you drape a piece of burlap over the shoulders—with a tiny hole cut for the head—and fold it down like a poncho. Viola. Russell had already made three of them before leaving for Clarksville, and he’d planned to make several more. But what he saw in the woods drove him to Sacks’s book, and from there he was compelled to move onto Hofstadter and Churchland, so he hasn’t had a chance yet to turn back to the stick dolls.

He was surprised to discover, upon arriving home, that he wasn’t frightened or disturbed. Partly, he’s excited, thinking what happened was a good thing—a genuinely mysterious experience. Already it’s pushing him to read books he hasn’t felt like he’s has a good opportunity to read, explore some he hasn’t read in years, and put together disparate ideas to form a more holistic vision, a more comprehensive understanding of things he’s only ever nibbled around the edges of in the past. As for the Death Metaller, what scares Russell most about the incident is how little it scares him. Even when he exerts himself to ruminate on the murky and conflicting images in his memory, he’s protected from guilt and fear of detection by a bizarre and almost cumbersome sense of the appropriateness of his actions. The man had threatened him. He’d played no part in the fall through the window. As for what happened afterward, if anything happened afterward, that could be justified too—would it be better to let him slowly bleed to death?

Still, he couldn’t say he’s completely unfazed. The scary movies and the horror stories in the anthology he’s reading—they’re not bothering him at all, with the minor exception of Hawthorne’s “The Man of Adamant,” about a guy fed up with society who goes to live in a cave. But he feels himself being watchful, like he doesn’t trust the information coming in from the periphery, like he has to constantly check and recheck the static nature of his surroundings. And there’s a bug in his mind driving him to explore the very nature of his mind with all its other bugs. It’s a topic he’s been fascinated with at times in the past, but never with such intensity. He wakes up in the night perturbed, thoughts chasing each other with hectic urgency, as if some danger loomed on the other side of his failure to grasp the mystery. But when he dreams it isn’t about the Death Metaller or the Wood Demon or the nature of conscious experience—all three times he’s woke with a memory of his dreams they’ve been about Vicki.

Completing the last cut for the second eye, Russell sets the razor aside and holds the pumpkin at a distance from his face. The eyes look convincingly eye-ish, he thinks. But the expression—not so much mirthful malevolence as smiling through the pain. He smiles lopsidedly himself. Jason’s voice sounds from somewhere in his mind, making a joke about how looking at your pumpkin shouldn’t be like looking into a mirror. Though Russell is perfectly able to reject his absent friend’s premises, he has to admit his demon—at this stage—is looking a little lonely.

The only people who are trapped by their programs, he takes up arguing again, despite himself, are the ones who aren’t aware of following them. Neurons firing together creates an association, the basic unit of physical reactions and the first stage in forming mental concepts. Crosstalk between different kinds of association in different locales forms the basis of analogical thinking. Hot tempers are like hot kettles. One level of connection bootstraps connections at a separate level. Each layer of abstraction brings us closer to the abstracted self, and having a dynamically updated self-concept makes possible an ongoing awareness of self. And isn’t that consciousness? Once you have a self-concept, moment by moment experience begins to have an ever-ready reference point. You no longer simply look out and wonder what is happening—you wonder what is happening to you.

Nested abstractions, masses of neurons contemplating the nature of neurons underlying the contemplation of neurons, minds imagining themselves, all localized functions, all emerging from a physical, electrochemical substrate operating on the binary logic of to fire or not to fire. Russell sets his pumpkin down and reaches for the remote so he can turn the movie off. He’s exasperated by his inability to fully grasp the theories—or of the theories’ inability to fully account for the phenomenon. Switching to a higher layer of abstraction, he reasons that being aware that you exist is the basic requirement for the sense of having free will, the illusion that our disembodied essence operates independently of the infrastructure that supports it to make choices. The “I” in “I decided.” In the same way, being aware of your routines, which aren’t merely behavioral but perceptual as well—with attendant emotions too of course—being aware of your habits of perception, which to everyone else must seem like delusion, is the first step toward recalibrating your perceptions, escaping your personal demons.

In his book I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter writes about the intellectual journey he took in the aftermath of his wife Carol’s losing battle with brain cancer—what bitter irony in that, Russell can’t help thinking. He writes about how similar he and Carol were, about how if consciousness, the soul, resides in the brain, if it’s the illusion rendered real through all those self-reflective loops, then there’s no reason one person’s soul can’t reside in another person’s brain, albeit with poorer resolution than the original. Russell, perhaps because he’s been reading about Hofstadter’s loops alongside classic ghost stories, keeps wondering if he’s not reading a scientific description of hauntings and demonic possessions. For someone to become possessed, the locus of control, the will, the executive loop would have to transfer from one reference to another. But for a haunting all that would need to happen would be a transfer of attribution from the inner chambers of the mind to the outside world. He looks over at the drawer under the table by the door—where he stashed his phone so he wouldn’t be tempted to check it, since checking it is one step away from staying connected. He feels uneasy at certain moments thinking so intently at such lengths of time about things like other people in your head—or outside your head—as lonely as he is.

Russell sits up from a reclining position on the carpet next to his lonesome-eyed demon pumpkin. I’m going to keep at this, he thinks, at least until after Halloween. But I’ve definitely learned that my insatiable hunger for solitude isn’t really insatiable. He hasn’t made any more of the stick dolls since returning from Ohio because, for one, he was distracted, but also because it seemed somehow inappropriate, a scanting of his encounter in the woods. But now he feels impelled to continue making them—and he has a new idea. What if I flesh them out with the straw from those trees? He considers the problem of clothes. A toy store. He’ll buy some doll’s clothes. They’ll be like little scarecrows. Maybe I could even find some tiny pumpkins to fix atop the sticks for heads, or some plastic skulls.

He’s been back to Bicentennial Woods already once, but he passed the entrance when he saw that it was overcrowded with vehicles. Now that it’s the height of the season and the trees are mimicking some operatic lament with all the splendor of gold and fire and blood, the forest is drawing its audience—and Russell’s sanctuary is being overrun.
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Russell is in the Orchard when the sky sounds its first low rumbling growl, gently shaking his insides. Emerging from the forest he felt a shock of deeper cold tightening his skin, but he dismissed it because the air of the Orchard is usually more rarefied, as he’d dismissed the sudden dimming of the sunlight owing to the later hour of his visit, meant to avoid the throngs of autumn-leaf tourists, those representatives of lowest humanity, whose mental processing has slowed to a rate essentially bovine—“Whaa? You’re running? You’d like to get by? I have to move out of your way? I have to pull in my dog’s leash? That’s a lot to deal with.” There’s still a chance, he thinks, that the rumble emanated from a large truck, but it’s an outside one. It vibrated down through the trees and reverberated up from the ground. Yet with his intact stream of music how could he be sure? Several paces in among the worryingly denuded trees of the Orchard, with their bare skeletal branches, and he’s already being pelted with tiny droplets, not much more than a mist. But the view of the sky that opens to him tells him all he needs to know about the impending storm. He’s on the third lap. His only choice is between forgoing the turn back to complete the figure eight and heading directly back to his truck.

The sudden darkness reminds him of the first time he visited Bicentennial Woods, all those years ago, with Vicki. They’d passed the parking lot on their bikes earlier and decided to come back with the car because the sun would be setting in a couple of hours. Once on the trails they were enchanted, and couldn’t believe a place like this existed so close to where they lived without them even knowing it was there. Following the trails in the opposite direction Russell always takes on his runs now, they made their way across the big bridge, the Slingshot to Eternity. After getting themselves turned around in the Orchard, they wandered past all the signs reading Private Property and No Trespassing to check out the large storage shed you could see on the old farmland, and beyond it the two-story house. The kids had long since christened the peak-roofed shed with their graffiti—“Death Shed”—and broken a first-story window in the house to provide ready entry. Ducking through the frame and tip-toeing through the rooms of the long-abandoned house, he and Vicki were drunk on the thrill of transgression and the promise of discovery. They felt like a couple of raiders casing a workaday palace, a couple of almost grownup kids up to no good.

“We should come back and decorate this place for Halloween,” Vicki had said. “Then we can have everyone come and tell stories about all the ghosts that live here.” She tugged him by the hand to pull him to her for a mashing together of lips. And now Russell marvels at his own obliviousness, not recognizing how magnificent and precious that moment and countless others like it were.

As dark as the Orchard has become beneath the looming clouds, Russell still isn’t prepared for how difficult it is back in the darker woods to make out the lineaments of the trail under the layers of leaves fresh from their final journey, piling up in shredded papery stacks of glorious carnage. The gleaming of the yellows radiates as if it were its own source of light, the only one under the still seamless canopy, so he can at least anticipate when his steps will collide with the ground. He’s already turned to complete the full figure eight, even though he suspects it’s a bad idea. Only by completing the same pattern of passes along the embankment where the straw bundles still hang can he know if doing so will produce the same effect as last time.

He’s nearing the curve out to the promontory and the Graveyard of Trees when the sound of a footfall on the leaves up ahead of him sets his eyes darting up from the trail. He digs in with his feet and has to draw back to stop. Before him, not ten feet away, is a moving, living shadow, its contours tinged with a glow of silver light. Russell’s heart jolts as if his sudden halt has caused it to crash into his sternum, and tingling spikes shoot through his hands and feet as he retreats a step before realizing what it is rushing across the trail in front of him. No sooner is he watching it safely off than another comes shattering the silence around him, this one passing behind him. Two more pass in front. He turns to watch their stampede down the impossibly steep bank, a heard of deer, their upthrust white tails bouncing erratically, like bursting puffs of popcorn spotlit against a curtain of black. As he watches them, a sky-splitting wedge of thunder cuts off what would’ve been the beginning of a peel of laughter and sends him running at full stride to complete his ritual circuit through this bewitched forest.

While running along the embankment for the first two laps, Russell had looked down at the ravine and thought how it no longer looked full to bursting with the colors of the season. It was looking less like a giant bowl, he thought, overflowing with fruit and sweets, a symbol of the sleepy abundance we associate with the approach of the holidays and all their gustatory temptations, and more like a blast crater, the site of some calamitous impact that spelled doom for every living thing within the radius of its fiery shock wave. But now, turning back into the Graveyard of Trees, the yellow of the leaves on the ground glows like the molten surface of some alien world. As the wind rends the darkness overhead, cascades of the slow falling bits of yellow light, like raining ash, further lend to the otherworldliness of this ominous dreamscape. He trudges up the rise with unflagging urgency, even as the space beneath the trees fills with some medium that lulls the passage of time. 

Intently monitoring the ground before him as he careens in bounding leaps down the opposite side of the fold of land, he hears more diffuse rumbling and tries to gauge the true amount of danger he’s in. Might lightning strike a tree nearby and conduct the charge into his body? Or sheer off a limb that falls on him? His legs pump indefatigably on, powered by the fear and exhilaration, scarcely slowing at all as he climbs the rise into the Orchard. The clouds have yet to break open, but the wind is stirring the creaking and groaning treetops with a fury. The first lightning flashes as he’s entering the woods again, near where he spooked the deer just minutes earlier, and it shows him, right off to the side of the trail, the same wood demon he saw in the woods in Clarksville, turning at the waist to regard him, the plane of its wings rotating with the shoulders just as they did before. But Russell hasn’t even come to a halt when another lightning flash reveals it to be a slender tree, its trunk snapped as if at the neck, so all the complicated outward branchings of its upper limbs dangle upside-down and swaying in the wind.

He watches it as he passes, craning his neck. But it keeps to its amended version of itself until he’s forced to turn back once more and continue picking out the trail through the dark. He’s nearing the head of the stairs down into the ravine when the storm takes up in earnest. The flashes and the obscene bone-splitting cracks make the forest dance and cry as Russell learns firsthand why so many of the trees in Bicentennial Woods stand amputated or lay dismembered. Trundling awkwardly down the stars, all but blind, he drags his hands along the banisters as his feet probe and slide. Both feet on the uneven earth again, he finally thinks to look up toward the bridge to see if the ritual has recalled the apparition of the blonde girl. The rain rattling on the leaves both aground and aloft suddenly becomes deafening, and Russell has to reach up and wipe the drops from his eyes before he can make out anything.

Jumping at the stairs, he manages to miss the last one and tumbles forward, rolling over his shoulder into a supine position a short ways from the middle of the bridge. From here he can see a tiny undulating strip of electrified sky. In the violent whoosh and cracking and rattle and bone-crunch of the storm, he’s found a pocket of peace and feels no need to do anything other than dwell there, alone as he saw he clearly is, indefinitely. He doesn’t even realize he’s laughing until the laughter has nearly bent him in half. And then he doesn’t realize he’s sobbing until he nearly chokes, and rolls over on his side coughing. Rolling onto his back again, he continues looking up, minutes, an hour, until the storm is passed and night falls on his furiously shivering body.
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How many loops can any one mind handle? It must depend to some extent on the individual’s working memory capacity. Maybe too it’s something that can be exercised. We all have countless people’s minds stored in our own minds. Are the actors who do great impressions capturing other minds with greater resolution? Man, just think, if someone were to tell you to do an impression of one of your friends, or of a celebrity, or of your significant other—you may not be able to pull it off all that well, but it’s not like you couldn’t do it well enough for other people to know who you were impersonating. We have bits and pieces of so many people’s habits of thinking and behaving in our minds. And they don’t even have to be real people. They can be fictional people. Or we can make them up ourselves. How often do you have imaginary conversations in your mind with people you know? How often do you wish you could grab some character in a movie by the lapels and tell him to quit being so damn stupid? Writers—fiction writers, screenwriters—must be the most expert at hosting other minds.

Russell is sitting on the wasted wood floor of the abandoned house tucked in behind Bicentennial Woods in the back corner of the vast but fallow fields that expand along the west side of Highway 327 along a stretch the locals know as Coldwater Road. It’s Halloween night, and after waiting around his apartment for an hour for a single trick-or-treater, he’s come to this spooky house which he’s been visiting almost nightly for the past week to prepare for his lonely celebration of the holiday. Along the trail through the park, Russell has hung straw figures from the trees at intervals of a few paces. Anyone following them would come to the house, which was likewise peopled, not with the stick figures, but with tiny scarecrows made from dolls’ clothes and stuffed with straw. Outside in the woods, the figures are meant to be scary. Their heads are demon-faced pumpkins or little plastic skulls. But inside Russell is working on a veritable family of straw children with more traditional dolls’ heads. And there’s also a much larger figure, a life-sized one with features drawn onto a burlap face, propped on a gouged and half-disintegrated couch. This one sits with feet tucked daintily under the legs, in imitation of someone Russell actually used to know. And it wears a hoodie he found at a Goodwill store that closely resembles one routinely worn by this character from his past.

The room is lit by over a dozen jack-o-lanterns and twice as many short white candles. Russell is also making use of the old fireplace, but since the chimney is stopped up he’s restricted his efforts there to a few handfuls of kindling and three larger sticks. The smoky haze hangs in the air, carrying the orange glow of the pumpkin light throughout the room. From a lone speaker wired to a diminutive device in the corner emanates airily distorted alternative rock music from the 90s, back when he was in high school and still coming of age. Just now Russell is taking Snickers and Milky Ways and Twizzlers and stuffing them into the pinned-together arms of the doll-faced scarecrows. His idea is that in the coming days adventurous kids and curious adults will discover the bizarre and mysterious and creepy effigies of stick and straw hanging from the trees, follow them, and then find this unsettling tableau of a frighteningly uncanny family offering Halloween goodies to them as reward for their interest taking.

“Of course,” he says to the figure on the couch, “they’d have to be pretty crazy to eat any of it.” He imagines her laughter, and he laughs along with it. Then he stands up and walks over to a window, one that has yet to experience any cracks and thus provides a murky but still intact view out over the dark and barren fields. He’s been trying to come up with names for all his straw children, but now he begins to try to imagine his way back into his own real life, back into work, back into hanging out with his brother and visiting his dad and talking to his mom on the phone, back into going out to bars with Ray and his other arm’s-reach friends, maybe even back into those endlessly meandering conversations he used to have with his best friend Jason, back before everything go so stupidly and pointlessly complicated between them.

At least that’s what I like to imagine went through his mind then. I imagine him then turning around to consider his handiwork, his entire straw family, a gathering of burlap and plastic and sticks and tiny clothes—and one life-sized figure in an old-fashioned sweat suit watching over them all from the couch. In that final moment I imagine him being fully aware of the irony, maybe even muttering aloud something like, “If there was ever a guy who didn’t need to spend a bunch of time in self-imposed solitude…” Finally, I imagine his laughter, because whenever I think of him I hear his laughter peeling through my mind, wicked, contagious, masking his pain, transforming it into something he could live with—until he couldn’t. I imagine him looking one last time out of the window at the barren fields before turning around, and, almost as if on a whim, kicking over several of the candles. It’s impossible to tell which one first ignited one of the straw figures. By the time anyone even noticed the old house was alight it was already almost burned entirely to the ground.

The words you have been reading about Russell Arden’s last days were written by me, though many of them were either inspired by or directly transferred from the many notebooks-full of writing he left behind. I am the Jason of the story, but that’s not my real name, nor is Russell the real name of the man you’ve been reading about. I wanted to honor my friend without violating either his trust or his privacy. All the names and identifying details have been duly changed. Certain strange circumstances surrounded his death and its discovery, so no news crew ever showed up on the scene to interview the fire marshal or the police detective. No one ever read about it in a newspaper. But I was contacted at one point as part of a police investigation. That’s how I learned what had happened.

I won’t go into how things turned out between my wife and me because that’s not what this is about. Nor can I shed any light on the events he describes in the junkyard in Clarksville. All I can say is if there was a body found or an investigation undertaken I was never informed. (My suspicion is that the detectives never made it that far into his notebooks before turning them over to me, which he made clear was his wish on the inside covers of several of them—the closest thing he left to a will.)

I began writing this story two months after I learned of his death and began reading the contents of all those notebooks. This is the project I undertook to honor my friend, in acknowledgement of how right he was about how I had betrayed him. I truly did let life just happen to me. I justified it to myself by grasping onto the idea that it’s what happens to all adults, especially those with kids. When he punctured that bubble I’d been living in, I lashed out at him the worst way I knew how. He poked at my insecurities with such surgical precision I assumed it had to be deliberate, so I retaliated in kind. But the truth is that behind my insecurities lay the heart of my troubles, not just with my wife, but with a lot of things.

I should have been there for him. Whatever the nature of our falling out, I should have done more than send a few text messages to inquire about his absence. We really do forget how easy it is for these people who live alone to just disappear one day, with no one realizing they’re gone until it’s too late. However intense his preoccupations, however strange his beliefs, he shouldn’t have had any reason to doubt how important he was to me, to his family, to his other friends. We all let him down. So I’ve written this story as the beginning of a larger project to work toward some measure of atonement. I’m going to live a life of my own alongside the life that just happens. I’m going to expend the effort to take interest instead of waiting for it to take me. Most importantly, I’m going to make a point of taking interest in my friends and loved ones. Oh, and I’m going to learn to identify the species of trees—even if it kills me.

This account was already well-underway when I was first contacted by Jim Conway, who was working on his own telling of the story as part of a larger project of collecting strange stories. To him, Russell’s story was of a man who went crazy and made thousands of dolls out of straw to hang in the trees and all through the abandoned house he retreated to, the place where he died under mysterious circumstances. The “urban legend,” as he called it, came to his attention because a bunch of kids he’d surveyed told him about how they were finding newly made straw bundles and straw people hanging from the trees in Bicentennial Woods as recently as this past summer—three years after the fire. (You can still see the house’s foundation today.) Mr. Conway informed me the story was probably as much inspired by the legend that grew up around some Island of the Dolls in Mexico as it was by the real events. (It’s hard to know how many dolls Russell made, but I’m guessing it was closer to a hundred than a thousand.) Still, he was interested in what I had to say. I told him, as much of a kick as Russell would’ve gotten out of being the center of a local ghost story, there were some points I needed to clear up and some other points I needed to add. When I let him know I was writing my own version of the story, he was delighted, and it’s thanks to him that you’re able to read it here. 

Also read: Encounters, Inc.