The Silver Year: Chapter 2

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Chapter 2

Love is a Loaded Gun

 

MARCH 2011

 

“Why are you wearing that perfume?” Walter asked as he weaved through traffic.

“I like it,” Amber said. “Why? You don’t?”

“No. It reminds me of the smell of rum. I’ve told you that. Why are you wearing it today of all days?”

“Because I like it, okay? I’m sorry. I’ll never wear it again. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal is I can’t think straight because the smell is all I can think about, and you know how much that smell bothers me—”

“Walter watch out!” she yelled. His Prius jerked to the right, narrowly missing a stopped car.

“Fucker should learn how a brake pedal works!” he shouted. “Asshole still had a hundred yards in front of him.”

“I should’ve drove,” Amber groaned. “Can you please slow down? They’ll understand if were a little late . . . Maybe we should just cancel. You’re in one of your moods where everything’s wrong with the world and no one can convince you otherwise. I’d rather not have my family meeting that Walter as their first impression.”

“No, I just…” he struggled to explain because he couldn’t tell her exactly how he felt. “I’m just nervous, that’s all. You were only engaged to Greg two months ago, and I cost your mother thousands of dollars.”

“To cancel a wedding that would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life. It just took meeting you for me to realize that.”

“Not meeting Amber, cheating. It took getting caught cheating.”

“Yes, it took an earthquake to shake me up, but who gives a fuck? They’re my family Walter. If I’m happier to be with you, than they’re happier I’m with you. Besides, they never did like Greg. They could see I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. But he never really loved me. But you, you love me; accept me for all I am: the good, the dark, the beautiful—I can truly be myself with you. And not only that…” she said, playfully caressing his face, “I totally upgraded in the looks and intelligence departments too.”

“But not the money department.”

Amber sighed loudly, then took Walter’s hand. “Please stop,” she said. “I know this isn’t you. You have nothing to worry about. My mother is especially excited to meet you. And you know you two will have a lot in common with science and all.”

“Yeah, she’s one of the nation’s leading cancer researchers and I’m a failed physics major who’s working as a rental car agent. We’ll have a lot in common.”

“Okay, I’m just going to call and cancel . . . Fuck Walter!” she screamed, the levee of her patience finally broken and now flooding with anger and tears. “As kind as I know you can be, you can also be such a selfish asshole. Forget what this day is to you, and think of what it means to me. I was the one who had to take responsibility for the wedding, not you. I was the one who had to stay silent while his family mercilessly slut-shamed me to my face, not you. Yes, I cheated on him, and I’ve had to pay for it every day since, but today, I finally get to move on. I finally get to introduce to my family the man I really love, but I guess he decided to stay home because he’s too much of a coward.”

Walter bent with shame. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “You’re right. Please forgive me?” She squeezed his hand tighter.

“Of course,” she said, her anger quickly seized by those gentle eyes and that motherly-lovery smile. “I understand why you’re so nervous, but this really is a happy day, okay? I love you.” And again she reminded him of the real reason he was so uneasy.

“I love you too,” he lied. He hated to do it, but if Amber needed foma, now was the time.

Amber wasn’t the first woman he’d prematurely given his heart to. As with all things new, once the shine dulls is when you see truth. And it wasn’t necessarily her fault, it was his. It was always his. He had convinced himself this was the woman he loved, but himself like to change his mind a lot and became easily bored whether it be his friends, his lovers, his art, his interests, his life. The prospect of something lasting forever was what ultimately always scared him out of any sort of committed relationship. If only his heart kept in mind what a whore it was, it would stop believing anytime a woman gave him affection it was love. But a heart can never be a mind no matter how well it can convince you differently. The heart is great at weaponizing love for its own self interests.

Although Amber and he shared their depression together, there was a growing list of things on which they differed. While she initially told him she was also an artist, a novelist, she hadn’t actually written since college, and her depression or work was always her excuse for not continuing. While he empathized greatly with her depression—and her work for that matter, but as someone who knew depression well, he knew the difference between it and just plain procrastination. He tried to encourage her by showing her how he turned his depression into art, but she said writing a book was different and something he would never understand. But he saw it for what it really was: the root of her depression and procrastination was her perfectionism, the same perfectionism inside him, however, hers expressed itself in much less productive and time-consuming matters. Her constant need for designer clothes; her hours craned over her phone, perfecting photos for her social media feeds and compulsive checking for assurance of this perfection; her hours of applying and reapplying her makeup even though Walter told her he preferred her face makeup free. He could see that being no more valued than one of Greg’s over fifty Rolexes for the last two years had taken its toll on her psyche. But how do you start faulting someone when it’s your fault they’re in need? And how do you leave someone in a time when love is desperately what they need? So out of guilt, he did his best to love her, and convinced himself through this love someday she’d see, but it was starting to become evident it might be a pipe dream.

So he pretended to love her although his heart was really with his band. They were beginning to get label attention and had a two-week tour planned. It was all his vacation time for the year, vacation time that took nearly a year of no vacation to accumulate, but something told him it would be the last time he’d have to take vacation, something told him he would soon be something great.

 

“So Amber tells me you’re the singer of a pretty popular rock band?” Amber’s mother, Doctor Karen Evans said to him. Walter felt shaky under the blade of her steel blue eyes and the brilliance contained beneath. Almost every advancement in cancer research over the past twenty years this woman had had a hand in in some way.

“Just in the L.A. area, but only because we’re also an even more popular Guns N’ Roses tribute band,” Walter replied, still trying to comprehend his surroundings and company. The dining arrangements were very modest for someone of her echelon of accomplishment: some greasy Irish pub named McCool’s, and Amber’s family, just as unassuming: a longhaired and bearded uncle, “Uncle John”, and Karen’s best friend whom Amber just referred to as “Aunt Tilly”. This was not what Walter had in mind when Amber said she wanted him to meet her family for dinner, but then he remembered the family members she actually loved were in the vast minority. However, she only revealed how casual the dinner would be after his miniature meltdown almost killed them on the road.

Amber’s parents divorced when she was very young, her mother remaining only wedded to the lab thereafter. But in her limited leisure time outside it, she, Uncle John, and Aunt Tilly—who were also in cancer research—went to McCool’s every Thursday for corned beef and karaoke, and for the most part, these three people were what Amber called her family. The rest were either dead, arrested, or estranged, including her father, who after remarrying and establishing a new family, had moved to Oregon when she was six and became a nonentity.

“Guns N’ Roses, eh?” Uncle John said, topping off Walter’s half-empty glass with one of their two pitchers of beer. “Are we going to hear some Axl Rose then?”

“I’m sure you will if I keep drinking like this,” Walter said. “Remember, I have to drive later.”

“No you don’t,” Amber said. “Especially not after the way you drove here. I’ll drive. You just drink and relax.” She kissed him on the cheek and patted his back.

“What’s your band’s name?” Aunt Tilly asked Walter.

“Perfect Crime. It was the name of the band when we were only doing covers, but we couldn’t think of another name, so we just kept it.”

“Yeah, but tell them about your stage name,” Amber prodded.

“No, it’s so embarrassing. I wouldn’t even go by it if it wasn’t what everyone knows me as, but I’m kind of stuck with it now.”

“Come on, they’ll get a kick out of it.”

“Fine. Quinn Quark—no not a dorky super hero, but my winning choice of stage names that only a twenty-two-year-old physics undergrad would think to dub himself.”

Everyone began laughing but Karen. Instead she locked dead-eye onto him with a smirk that felt like an autopsy. A thick, silver ribbon of gray hair played with her cheek from a jet black mane of waterfalling curls. She was definitely the source from which Amber’s good looks sprang; looks that were so captivating, it drove Walter to commit adultery against his better judgement.

“So is Quinn Quark an up, down, top, bottom, strange, or charm quark?” Karen asked.

Walter delighted with a smile. It’d been a long time since he’d heard someone crack a physics joke.

“I guess he can be all six flavors at times,” he replied.

“Sounds like Quinn Quark is a little full of himself, like he fancies himself a Higgs Boson or something.”

Everyone laughed now but Amber.

“What?—oh forget it,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t understand anyway.”

“It’s not that difficult,” Walter said. “Quarks are elementary particles—meaning you can’t get any smaller than them. However, their mass has to come from somewhere, and it is believed that the Higgs Boson gives it to them. Each quark has a unique behavior profile called flavors, and depending upon these behaviors and the interactions of the quarks, some of the most essential components of matter are birthed. It’s how we get existence from nothing in a sense.”

Huh?” Amber said mockingly. “I told you I wouldn’t understand. Definitely wasn’t blessed with my mother’s scientific aptitude.”

“Science doesn’t require an aptitude, just an interest. Anyone can learn it, it just takes some time to warm up to because it can seem enigmatic and unfeeling at first. But the more familiarity you gain with its characters, the more comfortable these engrossing universes within our own become opening up to you. Science can be just as endearing as a good novel.”

“I’ll just stick to my novels thank you. Don’t need science mucking up the only thing I find pleasure in. And you know me, I’m just more on the artistic side anyway.”

“You do write exceptionally well,” Karen said to Amber.

“So does Walter,” Amber said.

“No, not like you,” he said. “You were a creative writing major and wrote novels in college; I write lyrics and poetry.”

“I wrote really bad novels in college. The only decent one I never finished.”

“I really wish you would finish it,” Karen said. “Writing was good for you. You need an outlet from all the stress of work.”

“When Mom? During my day and a half I get off from my sixty hour work week? I don’t have time to sleep, let alone write.”

“Walter has the same schedule and still manages to play in a band. I know that can’t be easy.”

“Walter doesn’t work at the airport anymore. They moved him to a branch that’s only open five days a week after—actually, can we just stop talking about this? Please.”

“Okay, but you know if you ever wanted to quit and finish your novel, I would support you.”

“Thank you, but I don’t need your support just like I didn’t need Greg’s. I’m a grown woman fully capable of surviving on her own. Yes, rental car agent wasn’t what I had in mind when I graduated college, but in these times I’m lucky I even have a job. For now, I’m just going to support Walter while we both wait for the job market to recover or he hits it big with the band. I just have this feeling he’s so close…”

“So you also had a hard time finding work after college?” Karen asked Walter after a brief silence.

“Yes, but I can’t blame it all on the economy. I graduated with a physics degree, but barely, and if you can’t get into grad school, well, a physics degree’s kind of pointless.”

“That’s not true—well, maybe in this economy it is, but not normally.”

“Yes, talk about 2009 being a shitty time to graduate. But I had to start paying off my student loans somehow, and luckily Endeavor hires anyone with a degree. So yes, it’s not ideal, but hey, I never would’ve met Amber otherwise.”

Again the elephant in the room plunged them into an uncomfortable silence.

“Um, hey Walter, you mind having a shot with me at the bar?” Karen asked. “Karaoke’s starting soon and we’ll need them before we put our songs in, right?”

“Uh… sure,” he said.

“You don’t mind Amber?”

“No, not at all,” Amber said. “I’ve been wanting to get you guys together for some time now. I know you’ll have a lot in common.”

 

“So what kind of shot do you want?” Karen asked once at the bar.

“Truthfully I’m not much of a shot person,” Walter said, “but how about Jameson on the rocks?”

“Good answer,” she said and ordered two. “It’s not like the purpose of coming over here was shots anyhow . . . Cheers.”

“Cheers,” Walter tensely clanked his glass against hers. “So what did we come over here for then?”

“To tell you you can relax. Don’t worry, we already like you so much more than Greg—in fact we’re elated she’s not with him anymore. I won’t get into it, but the guy was a piece of work, and so often I tried to tell her he wasn’t good for her, but you know Amber, she always sees the best in everyone, and you’ve ultimately got to support your daughter. But then you came along, and thank God she saw the light. You’re a blessing for her and us. She’s an artist at heart and should be with another artist. But you’re kind of a jack of many trades, aren’t you?”

“Not really. Music’s the only thing I could say I’m exceptional at, but I’ve still yet to prove it.”

“Well, I saw some of Perfect Crime’s videos online—sorry I was curious, and I have to say, you have some serious stage presence and talent. It’s a unique sound too. I couldn’t put a finger on it, but it was like an amalgam of Guns N’ Roses, David Bowie, and The Clash, sprinkled with some Queen and Pink Floyd. But it also reminded me of something even more heavy metal at times, like Metallica.” Walter began laughing.

“You’re good,” he said. “You pretty much nailed all my influences.”

“Okay I’ll admit, I might’ve saw that somewhere online, but it’s true. So you write all the songs?”

“The other guys have a part in fleshing them out, but yes.” Walter was fidgeting with his paper coaster, unable to look her in the eye for more than a few seconds.

“You still seem anxious,” she noticed.

“Sorry, I was just expecting something else tonight and I’m still adjusting. While I’m pleasantly surprised, I’m still very surprised. I wasn’t ready for karaoke and corned beef.”

“What were you expecting?”

“I’m not sure, but not this. It’s just so hard for me to imagine someone like you at an Irish pub, taking shots, drinking beer, singing karaoke. I mean don’t get me wrong, this is right up my alley, but you’re Doctor Karen Evans, one of the forerunners in cancer immunotherapy. It’s hard for me to imagine you anywhere outside a lab.” Karen chuckled.

“So you’ve done some homework also,” she said. “And most of the time I am in a lab, but when I’m not, I’m still a small-town girl from Tennessee, fond of her dive bars, whiskey, and admittedly country music—but real country, not that shit Nashville’s been churning out lately. Knowing Amber, though, you probably never knew she had a rednecky mother.”

“Never. I mean, Amber’s nothing like that, and on paper you—well, I guess no one’s ever just what they are on paper, are they?”

“Speak for yourself. What you were saying back there, that didn’t sound like a failed physics student. How could someone who has such a visceral enthusiasm for science have done so poorly in it?”

“Because at heart I’m just a simple boy from Arizona with foolish dreams of becoming a rock star and I’ve never let anything take priority over that, including school.”

“But what if being a rock star doesn’t work out? Will you regret not taking school more seriously?”

“I’m not thinking about that for the moment.”

“I see . . . So Arizona, what brought you to California? School?”

“You got it. I went to your alma mater too, UCLA. But my maternal grandmother, who I live with now, has always lived in Torrance and I spent many summers in California. It’s always been a second home to me.”

“Are your parents still in Arizona?”

“My dad. My mother passed away.”

“I’m sorry to hear. When?”

“Um…” Walter cleared his throat. “She died giving birth to me.”

“Oh,” Karen said caught off guard. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay, something I’ve obviously dealt with my entire life. My parents, it was just a one-night stand. My father was working as an IT consultant at the time and was traveling in L.A. when he met my mother while she was performing at an open mic night. She was a songwriter like me. Anyway, they hit it off, and she got pregnant after. She told him she was going to have an abortion since he had a wife back home, but she couldn’t do it in the end. My father only found out after I was born and she was already dead, so he did what he thought was right and took me in . . . I’m sorry.” Walter shook his head suddenly aware of what he was saying. “I didn’t mean to tell you all that. I haven’t even told Amber all that. I don’t know if it’s the whiskey, or if it’s just easy to talk to you.”

“Must be the whiskey,” she said, “because a moment ago you were having trouble even looking at me . . . About time to put our karaoke songs in. Will Axl be making an appearance?”

“Perhaps if Dolly Parton does.”

Karen shook her head grinning.

“I knew I’d like you.”

The Silver Year: Chapter 1

No new movies or television shows for a while? How about binging a new book, my new book, the Silver Year! Yes the day is finally here after a long eight years. For those of you who know me, especially those who’ve known me since this journey began eight years ago, it will be immediately apparent this is a story inspired by my life. I can’t deny that. However, although inspired by my life, this story is far separated from the original sources of inspiration and is truly a 100% fictional story. This in no way expresses my true feelings about any such persons in my actual life. Becoming comfortable with the uncomfortableness of this was one of my biggest hesitations about releasing this book to the world. But since the theme of my book is the Buddhist principle of enlightenment through suffering, this is me becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable, a message I think we could all use right now. But I also hope you can learn, love, but most of all laugh at this message too. Enjoy everyone, and as always, stay curious my friends!

P.S. I prefer to go into a book as a tabula rasa, but if you insist on knowing what you’re getting yourself into, you can find a synopsis here.

SIDE A

  

Chapter 1

Happy Birthday!

There it was, that cross. It haunted Walter’s Tuesday afternoon like the empty drink that sat beside him. “Nothing lasts forever, even my muthafuckin’ birthday,” he drunkenly sang to the tune of “November Rain” on his front porch while picking his backpacker guitar. It felt fitting as he imagined Slash kicking down the door of the old Catholic church across the street from him, wielding a guitar in a grand solo like the “November Rain” music video. Reality, however, was less dramatic: the door opened peaceably and a wedding procession filed out, while that t-shaped shadow kept creeping ominously closer.

The bride’s wedding dress was a luminous white against her dark Hispanic skin. Her hands were tucked under a bouquet of red roses, her figure shaded in an aura of fragile purity. It was her last still frame of innocence and the crowd excitedly snapped away to capture it. As she edged the sidewalk, her face met Walter’s eyes. The crimson lips were flared like the rose petals above her hips; a rich river of black hair rounded her face like a stone, the smooth curves advertising an age of still-budding beauty. She smiled at him. The shadow of the cross affixed to the top of the church then at last touched his feet, and for a pregnant moment they were alone in that shadow. In his polluted perspective, she looked like a slave on an auctioning block.

Mon Amour,” he whimpered as the bouquet was cast to the crowd behind her. She smiled again, turned, and abandoned him.

Walter’s heart crumbled as he watched “Amour” climb into the back of a limousine with a groom twice her age and size. As the car honked goodbye, Walter waved to them with a dumb smile and tears on his cheeks. He’d been left alone with his madness for too long and it was beginning to devour him.

The day began as almost all days began with a banana and peanut butter bagel sandwich called “The Elvis” at the Sit n’ Stay Café, half a block north of his home. There, the previous night’s scribblings were deciphered into a more legible and cohesive being, but there was still nothing of meaning. He’d lifted every stone within himself in search of a story and thought a bag of mushrooms might find some he’d missed, however, the only stones and stories found never should’ve been lifted or put on paper, as drugs, depression, and desperation can reveal a person’s sickest perversions. Around eleven, the first wedding began, and by four, he’d fallen in love with three brides and wished he’d been carried off in one Hearse. The day was February 14, 2012. It was Walter’s twenty-fifth birthday—and of course Valentine’s Day—and he was miserably alone.

Walter had a simple home in Huntington Beach, California within earshot of ocean waves on the city’s best and most historic intersection in his opinion: Tenth and Orange. Within a few blocks were his favorite restaurant, bar, and café; catty-corner from him, the houses of the city’s first mayor and judge, and directly across from him, a hundred-year-old Catholic church whose attendees always seemed oblivious to the singing lunatic across the street. Families, college students, vagrants, and billionaires lived harmoniously around him, and more bicycles and surfboards fed past his porch than cars, along with year-round posies of half-naked people so long as the sun was out. There were Sunday drum circles by the pier, Tuesday night street fairs, and the largest Fourth of July parade west of the Mississippi. Huntington was a beach city, tourist destination, and small town swaddled into one. It also had crime, seedy citizens, and plenty of assholes, but that only added to its charm in Walter’s view. It wasn’t as pristine and out of touch with reality as so many Orange County coastal communities were. It had attitude, authenticity, and just the right amount of gravel in its gut to stay grounded.

After the last wedding of the day, Walter began cleaning up the empty beer bottles and snubbed-out joints festering his porch. He’d been on a rampage since the night before. It started innocently enough with a few marijuana joints and a full bottle of merlot, but when he went back to the liquor cabinet for more, that’s when he discovered the shrooms stashed away for a special occasion, however, there were no more special occasions, so he ate them all. The remainder of the night was then spent in nudity, surrounded by candles, Jim Morrison spoken-word poetry, and crumbled up pieces of his manic thoughts. Other than this, his two-bedroom cottage was bare except for a camping cot, a patio chair, and a portable stereo. All his furniture had been sold, and anything remaining was in his grandmother’s garage awaiting his arrival. Tomorrow he was handing in the keys.

Feeling the onset of a headache, Walter set out on his regular walk to flush it, a stroll down Orange to Main Street, then to the end of the pier. He was going to miss his walk. It had been midwife to many ideas and decisions, including his recent one to become a writer—although he hadn’t told anyone yet. No one would understand and most likely no one would be happy. Not even he was happy. But writer is not a vocation most people choose; it’s an incurable affliction, only made worse by the tragedies of life.

ENDEAVOR RENTAL CAR LAX AIRPORT RETURN LOT, CHRISTMAS DAY 2010

 

Walter hated Christmas. It was why he didn’t mind spending the first eight hours of it on graveyard shift, isolated from the world in his unheated green, glass and metal booth just large enough for him and a backed-barstool chair. He’d also managed to sneak in his backpacker guitar as he would be free to fondle her most of the evening undisturbed. Filled with unwelcoming florescent light, his booth burned like a ghostly lighthouse on the black bitumen plane supporting a sea of sleeping rental cars. There was something holy about being in a place normally inhabited with crowds and noise. The LAX holiday rush had already swarmed and was now at their transient homes with their families, or with their intoxicants to forget their families, or tucked into bed with gleeful thoughts of Santa Clause and Christmas morning presents in their head.

Walter only had depression in his head. Not because he was depressed beyond his normal draping of it, but because it was the subject of his new, half-created song. While depression had often been motivator, this was its first time as subject.

Walter always wrote best alone, and alone he was. He hadn’t seen another person since his shift had started at midnight. It was now three. No one was returning a rental car on Christmas, especially at this ungodly hour. But ungodly hours were when Walter’s imagination reigned supreme; the hours of mischief, mystery, and romance. In the night the world becomes much more imaginary, and what’s dark in the day can be seduced by the strangeness of the night. Darkness was his greatest friend and worst enemy.

Yesterday I felt like I could do anything…” he sang softly into his booth, its flimsy, metallic materials shaking with the perfect tinny reverb. “But today I’m just struggling not to kill myself. But if tomorrow I feel like I, I could do anything, it only would be to escape, escape this hell, without you baby blue.

That was as far as he’d gotten in articulating his feelings perfectly. Even in expressing his flaws, he wouldn’t accept anything other than perfect. Nothing was immune to his perfectionism, which was why it was also catalyst, trigger, and savior of his melancholic schisms. But this ouroboros was also his creative core, churning like a pulsar star’s, crying out from the cosmos not wanting to be forgotten before it spun out and died.

“Nice singing,” a female voice scared Walter out of his head and back into his body, however, it was too late to save the former as it bashed against the back of his glass and metal capsule. He had had his chair leaned back and the unexpected voice sent just enough of a tremor through him to tip it backwards.

“I’m so sorry!” the voice said, then bent down to meet him, but its face was blocked by his crotch as his legs had folded over himself, wedged between the chair and the backside of his booth.

She carefully pulled the chair away and his legs unfolded, revealing the kindest face he’d ever seen. Even in the harsh light of his booth, it shone softly, reminding him of the church girls of his youth. The full contours of her plush lips and cheeks embellished this glow, and drew him into her button nose, so lovely he wanted to lick it. Her deep set eyes and long, wavy hair were earthy brown, accented by her pastel pink business coat and dress.

“Are you okay?” she said, her left hand reaching to the back of his head with a diamond wedding ring so protruding it nearly clawed his eye.

“Yeah,” Walter said. “Luckily this shack isn’t well-built and the walls are deceptively lenient.”

“Well, there’s nothing deceptive about this bump on the back of your head. I’m so, so sorry.”

“It’s okay. If it’s anyone but myself, I’m very forgiving.”

“That’s a strange thing to say to a stranger . . . It’s also very brave.”

“Not brave. I just have a bad habit of being overly honest in situations I shouldn’t.”

She smiled and it only further melted Walter. It had the gentle quality of both the caring mother and the caring lover he’d always wished for but never had.

“Bad habits are in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “I think it’s admirable.”

“Well, you’ve never been the victim of my bad habit . . . Are you new here?” Walter realized she was probably his coworker here to lunch him. No one else around his age in formal business attire—a requirement of Endeavor—would have reason to be there. His coworkers came and went so much and there were so many that an unfamiliar—although not always unwelcoming—face was nothing new.

A four-month term at the airport was required of all new executive-trainees in the greater Los Angeles area, and although Walter had never participated in Greek life in college, he envisioned the “Executive Training Program”, Endeavor’s official name for their LAX corporate labor camp, was something like a co-ed semester of it. After all, that is where Endeavor funneled most of its employee base from. Forty to fifty recently-graduated twenty-somethings exposed to only themselves, exhaust fumes, and their customer and management overlords—many still naïve adults themselves, working ever-shifting ten hour shifts five to six days a week to ensure no consistency of sleep, and the holiday schedule of a Jehovah’s Witness. Not only were they always physically and mentally strained, but micro-managed, dress-coded, and fucked in a three-way formation resembling the Eiffel Tower. While forced to live in the crotch and ass of their supervisors—some doing so literally, they also had to hand their own asses to frustrated business travelers, as rental car agents were a favorite target for them. Relief only came in the form of uncommissioned brownie points during the few times they succeeded to dupe unsuspecting tourists into buying often-times overpriced and useless upgrades and insurances. The carrot at the end of the stick was to someday hold the stick itself. The stick became their entire meaning, but what many failed to realize it came at the price of their soul, health, and youth. Simple street-gang tactics, just dressed in neckties instead of colors.

“Yes, it’s my third day,” she answered.

“What a shitty time to be called to the ETP,” Walter said.

“I know, they never give you any warning beforehand. Needless to say, my fiancé wasn’t happy. He actually told me to quit over it, but he’s been telling me to quit since I started. But where else am I supposed to find a job right now? This one was hard enough to get. Secretly, though, I don’t mind so much. I’ve never been a fan of Christmas. When you hate most of your family, it’s not a pleasant holiday.”

Walter smiled. “That’s a brave thing to say to a stranger,” he said.

“Hi. My name is Amber,” she said shaking his hand firmly as he still sat. “Amber Evans-soon-to-be-Sinclair.” She then helped him to his feet.

“Hi. My name is Walter, Walter Huxley.”

Walter. That was my late grandfather’s name, one of the few family members I love.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot. Not too many Walters under sixty.” Walter was again rewarded with a smile.

“What were you singing before I interrupted?” Amber asked.

“A song I’m working on.”

“Oh,” she said her eyes shifting to the side. “You must be the guy in the band.”

“So you’ve already heard about me? That’s been happening a lot with the new people lately and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet.”

“It’s mostly about your band’s shows and what a party they are. Although a few women have had some choice words.”

“None of them bad I hope.”

“Not exactly. But I wouldn’t call them flattering to a woman who has a fiancé.”

“Well, I don’t intend to flatter women with fiancés.”

“Just sorority girls who don’t mind you’re sleeping with them all simultaneously?”

Walter cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I’m always safe,” he said. “We’re just trying to find a little fun in this hellhole.”

“I’m not judging you.”

“Sure doesn’t feel that way.”

Now Amber became uncomfortable and looked away. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Anyway, I’m here to lunch you.”

“Hard to call it a lunch at three o’clock in the morning,” he said, “I’m not even hungry.”

“What are you going to do then?”

“The same thing I was just doing, but in one of those cars out there.”

“What’s the name of the song you’re working on?”

“It doesn’t have one yet. Just a verse and a chorus.”

“Can I hear it?”

“I don’t know. It’s not a happy song.”

“It didn’t sound unhappy from what I heard. In fact, it sort of cheered me up. Not that I was sad exactly, but my mood’s always more vulnerable in the winter.”

Walter grinned. “You must’ve not heard the words then,” he said, “because the song’s about my depression.” Her pink-shadowed eyelids flexed open, the whites of her eyes looking like headlights of an oncoming car. “Sorry, my bad habit again,” he said.

“Don’t apologize,” she said. “Again, I wish I was brave enough to be so open.”

“Because you also suffer from depression? Vulnerable isn’t a word most people use to describe their mood.”

Amber gasped and closed her eyes, then turned away to reopen them out of sight. “You’re awfully perceptive Mister Huxley,” she said, “but that’s not something I think we should be discussing. However, I’d still like to hear your song.”

Walter began, and by the end of the first chorus, a perfect second verse somehow magically formed on his lips from the phrases and words he’d been plying over all night.

And today I woke up thinking you, you were my everything. But by tomorrow I know you’ll be somebody else. And I know it’s just me, me and my imagining, that you and only you can save me from myself. All of you, baby blue.”

Once finished, the air in his booth had become much warmer, the windows now noticeably fogged. Heat was radiating from them both like arms that couldn’t be held, only intensely yearned.

“I thought you only had one verse?” she said.

“I thought I did too,” he replied.

ONE MONTH LATER

“Pucker your lips as if you’re going to give a baby’s belly a raspberry kiss and blow while humming like this, bebebebebebeee… Now hum the scales with me…”

“bebebebebebebebe . . .  bebebebebebebebe . . . beb—” Walter’s phone vibrated in his pocket. A text from an unnamed number.

Are you in your car now?

            Yes.

Be there in two minutes. I can’t see you after the show, so I want to see you now.

He still had an hour before he needed to be onstage, so he put his vocal warmup CD on pause, a CD that had not left his car changer since his first and only vocal teacher had given him it three years earlier. Despite his band’s once-a-month gig at the Hollywood House of Blues providing a green room, before he had green rooms, he only had his car, and his car was still the only place that could calm his preshow jitters and where he could practice his preshow rituals uninterrupted. But for her, anything could wait.

Walter switched his stereo to the auxiliary channel, then scrolled through his iPod to On The Beach, their favorite album to have fun to. Soon, she appeared out of the clusters of cars around him in the parking garage, a few blocks away from the venue. He was careful to park on the basement floor, somewhere not too obvious but not too suspicious, not too crowded, but also not too empty. He wanted his 2002 unwashed, plain-gray Prius to look even more inconspicuous than it already was.

“See The Sky About to Rain” was playing as she opened his passenger side door.

“Ah, you queued up my favorite song,” she said as she sat in the seat and closed the door.

“Only because the sky is about to rain.”

“I know. Hopefully I’m not walking back in it.”

Their lips then went for each other’s. Walter reached over her waist and grabbed the side seat adjustment, leaning her back while his body floated over the center console, landing softly upon hers. He wanted to hide their actions below the window line.

“I don’t think we’re going to have time for a full meal tonight,” she said. “I’ve got to go back soon.”

“That’s okay. This is enough.”

“Enough to get you off?”

“If I focus hard enough, maybe.” He smiled.

“Here.” She pushed him up and back into his seat, leaning his seat back as he’d leaned hers. “Were you doing your raspberries?” she asked.

“Yes, but I put them on pause for you.”

“Don’t do that. I want you…” she undid his pants, pulled them and his underwear to his knees, then firmly squeezed the base of his penis, “…and your vocal cords to be relaxed and ready for the show . . . Let’s start the song over and we can raspberry it through.”

They began raspberrying together—she performing while also sliding up and down his shaft, but a minute in they were laughing so hard they could no longer focus.

“I’ll just finish you with my hand,” Amber said. “The key to a good BJ is the handwork anyway.”

As she did and as they kissed, Walter couldn’t help but think what a blessing and curse she was. He’d never been happier, yet never felt more ashamed. The one person he could finally share his body and darkness with was practically a married woman. But this was the only woman who did not shy away when he showed her his black dog. In fact she had a black dog of her own, and they were the greatest of playmates. Amber’s depression was beyond the comprehension of her fiancé Greg, so she began sharing it with Walter. But such shared secrets can only grow larger, less concealable ones.

“Oops,” Amber noticed he was going and swooped down to swallow the seeds of her sowing. He groaned and bit his lips while his hips arched as her mouth and hands worked to get every bit out of him.

“Thank you,” he said after. She rested her head on his lap with one eye looking up at him and half a smile. “Mind if we just lay down in the backseat together for a few more songs?” he asked.

“I can’t. I left Greg back at the venue with his friends. I said I needed to get some tampons.”

“You brought him?”

“How couldn’t I have? Plus, he’s a big Guns N’ Roses fan.” Walter raised his head above the window line. “What’s wrong?” she asked. He took a while to respond.

“Nothing,” he said, and brought his head back down. “I just wish I didn’t always have to meet you like you’re some kind of hooker. I just wish . . . I wish we could have a real date together.”

“Walter, you know that wish can’t come true. This has to stay just fun.”

“I know, but this is becoming more than fun for me. I… I think I’m falling in love with you.”

Amber’s face became mute, its muscles tensed in-place as if someone had pressed her pause button.

“Amber? . . . Amber?” He caressed her cheek, but she remained paused. “Amber!”

“What?!” she came to life.

“You just froze like someone turned an off-switch.”

“I what? . . . You what? You… you love me?”

“Never mind. I think something’s wrong. You don’t look right. I’m taking you to a hospital.”

“What?” She brought her head up woozily. Walter adjusted her seat to catch it with the headrest. She rested against it and closed her eyes. She took a deep breath, and when her eyes reopened, they had a new sobriety. “No, that’s not possible,” she said. “I haven’t had one in over ten years.”

“You haven’t had what in over ten years?”

“A starring spell. I used to have them as a kid, but I grew out of it . . . I need to go.”

“No, I’m taking you to the hospital.”

“No you are not! I’ll be fine. And even if I did need to go, that’s my fiancé’s responsibility, not yours . . . I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“But you did.”

She looked away as tears began streaming over her cheeks. “Fuck, my mascara,” she said. “Do you have any tissues?”

“There’s some napkins in the glove compartment.”

She slid open his sun visor mirror, and began dabbing her eyes to stop the flow of black tears. “We can’t keep doing this,” she said to her reflection. She then clicked the cover closed, and with no further words, left.

Onstage with his guitar, Walter looked out to the crowd he was tasked with entertaining. It used to be a lot more scarce during their first set, but in the last two years of playing, it was now nearly as full as their second set. His band, Perfect Crime, began as a Guns N’ Roses tribute, and because they weren’t middle-aged men like the six other Guns N’ Roses tributes in the greater Los Angeles area, they quickly became the go-to reincarnation in absence of the real band which was not Axl’s cut-rate version. Walter soon realized, however, that he could turn this counterfeited notoriety into real notoriety if his original music became the opener.

So now he had everything he wanted: just as many people there to hear their music—which in all but name was his music—as the icons they were later imitating, and all he could think was: Where is Amber? During his lifeless performances of the first two songs, he’d been scanning every corner of the venue for her, but it was becoming obvious she wasn’t there.

“Um,” Walter said to the already unenthused crowd, “this next song is a new one.”

“Walter, no!” his bassist Brain “Squids” Squibbs said from the side. “We are dying right now and that song will kill us. Skip it. Let’s do Minerva.”

“No Squids. I need this song right now. It’s the only thing that will save this set.”

“I’m not playing it.”

“Fine! Then get the fuck off stage. This is my music and its mine to kill if I want to, not yours.”

“Fine,” Squids said. He then turned off his amp, unplugged his bass, and walked offstage. Walter’s other bandmates didn’t try to stop him as spats between him and Walter happened pretty regularly, and Squids always rejoined them eventually.

“Um,” Walter said again to the unenthused and now also confused crowd. “I guess without further ado, here’s ‘Baby Blue Part 2’ . . . Y-yesterday I-I felt like I c-c-could d-do anything, b-but, but today I’m just str… str… kill myself—or shit. Um, I’m sorry. Let’s start over.”

But when the band did, he couldn’t sing a single syllable and he sure as hell couldn’t get in a wig and perform as a singing stripper after this. So he left, going out the backstage door, then back into the safety of his car.

He began driving, driving just to be driving. Not a heavy but not a light rain began falling, his wipers wiping across the coppery street lights and glowing green signs of Sunset, Santa Monica, and eventually PCH. He stayed on PCH, driving south with nothing but 100.3 The Sound quietly on the airwaves.

I’ll drive to midnight, he thought looking at the blue-green digital clock on his dashboard display reading ten-fifty-six. But when the clock reached its destination, time continued to flow south until just a little before one when Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels” came on. Being a station staple, he thought nothing of it until the line of the song it was named after cut into him.

His eyes began to moist. He grimaced and cleared them, but they only grew more saturated, rapidly filling his eyes and dressing his cheeks. No longer able to see, he pulled alongside a parking meter on the side of the road, just inside Huntington Beach city limits. There he surrendered to sobbing. It was the first time he’d let himself since he could recall. As a child, he’d learned to hold in his tears, but now he was repaying for those lost years.

Walter opened the door still crying and stepped into a heavy rain. He ran from the car onto a large grassy knoll, over a beach bike path and onto the sand, where he continued running until he reached a lifeguard tower. He hoisted himself onto its slippery, plastic banks and tucked under the rattling eves of its empty turret. Facing the dark ocean and tempestuous sky, he began taking deep breaths, his lungs moving with the crush of the waves until they at last they washed his tears away. The rain then lightened and he allowed himself to smile. He was still mostly unhappy, but he’d found peace with it. But again he was interrupted by his cellphone.

“Oh my God, it’s Amber,” he said recognizing her unrecognized number. “Hello? . . . Hello? . . . Amber can you hear me?” the call then ended. His phone screen having been unshielded from the rainwater soaking his pockets, immobilized, then shut off, Walter failing to resuscitate it. Accepting it was a good sign she was reaching out to him, again his heart had hope.

After driving to his home in Torrance which was also his grandmother’s home, having done this to his cellphone before, he made a bowl of dry rice and dunked it and its battery in, hoping for the best in the morning.

When morning came, it came with success as his phone powered up as normal. There was a voicemail notification from the unrecognized number. He pressed play. First, he heard only crying, then a threatening male voice.

“Who is he?” the voice said. “Tell me who he is!”

“A-a-a friend from work, that’s all.”

“What’s his name?”

“What does it matter?”

“It matters because you went to see him when you were supposed to be getting tampons, but you’re obviously not even on your period.”

“I started earlier, b-but it was just light, so I took it out before we got home. I swear.”

“Amber tell me who he is!”

“Walter. The singer of the band. I just wanted to wish him luck, that’s all. I swear it’s the truth.”

“Why wouldn’t you tell me?”

“Because I knew you’d react like this. You react this way with every male friend I have—or had.”

“Have you slept with him?”

“What? No. Never. Our wedding is three months away.”

“Amber, I’ll ask you again. Have you slept with him?” There was a silence, then: “You have? I want you to tell him because he can’t hear you nodding.” Another silence. “Tell him Amber! Tell him who’s been fucking my fiancée . . . Say it you fucking slut!”

“Walter! I fucked Walter Huxley! Okay?”

“Thank you,” he said. The call ended.

Coming Soon…

I just wanted to announce I will begin posting my entire novel chapter by chapter to my blog very soon free of charge. Now is not a time to charge for art or to sit on it. I wanted to do a line and proof edit and had a big launch day planned, but none of that seems important right now. Here is my novel’s epilogue. Although it won’t spoil the ending, I figured the ending was more important than the beginning right now. Anyway, back to work. Look out for chapter 1 very soon.

L’Epilogue est Sans Issue

Novelty is a weakened form of fear and that’s why so many of us inadvertently slip into the safety of habit. But when habit guides your life, your brain lacks significant mile markers to lynchpin your memory to and years blur into oblivion. Nevertheless, in the face of fear—even a mild form like novelty, your memory is jolted into logging every moment meticulously for self-preservation. It’s why time seems to slow during a bungee jump, a car accident, or even in a moment of awe, but in fact life is not slowing down, your brain is just making more note of it. So this was how we “hacked time”; we microdosed on fear in order to keep our brains engaged in being alive and to keep the years from slipping down the shoots of habit.

But in the process, we also discovered novelty does much more. It also helps build an immunity to unjustified fear, the fear that plays our own primitive instincts against us under the banner of self-preservation, the one that tells us to choose familiarity in education, politics, employment, social circles, beliefs, and morals, all while looting life and truth right out from beneath us. To me, it’s life’s greatest irony. Although we’ve been wired with fear for survival, unfettered, it’s also our greatest threat. But perhaps novelty is humanity’s vaccine for not letting its insanity cannibalize itself. From the looks of things lately, it sure looks like we need a vaccine. However, looks can be deceiving without scale, and the scale of history gives me hope.

Many people don’t realize how far we’ve come since the time we were animals, but our reptilian brains still manage to lead us astray colossally at times. But like the drunkards around me, humanity has always taken a Hegelianistic approach to progress, teetering from thesis to antithesis to eventually synthesis once the better parts of our brain beat back those reptilian ones—let’s just hope they don’t decide on the nuclear option first.

Speaking of that, the newscasts have been apocalyptic lately. It’s been raining in Southern California for three days now and every television screen at the bar is filled with images of the deluge now that the sports games are over. Floods, mudslides, power outages, idiots in cars being swept away at water crossings; I pretend to watch, but my mind is elsewhere.

I’ve got a new music project, Magpie Pi!

Hey! I’ve got a new solo project/album out today! Magpie Pi- Love Songs in A Minor Crash. I know a lot of you are aware of my upcoming novel, however I’ve also been secretly writing a mock opera/concept album loosely based on it, but with some significant differences. I’m hoping to put together a band later this year and record this album properly, but for now here’s the garage band version I recorded over the last five days in my bedroom.

Teaser for My Upcoming Novel, The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

The Silver Year: A Great Adventure of the World & Mind

It had been Walter Huxley’s dream to become a rock star and he sacrificed everything to make it come true: a promising future as a physicist, a loving girlfriend, and arguably two people’s lives. But when one is born with the desire to brand his name on the world, he’ll destroy his own to do so. However, what happens when you realize your dream was not your own, just an expectation of everyone around you? And even worse, you realize this just as you’ve made your dream a reality, a reality you now hate but can’t escape.

On his twenty-fifth birthday, this is where Walter finds himself, living in the shadow of his own creation, his stage persona, Quinn Quark. After attempting to destroy Quark and abandon rock n’ roll altogether, Walter finds himself lost and in financial ruin, but surprisingly more famous than ever. Just as he’s on the verge of a mental breakdown—all in view of the public eye, he becomes the unexpected recipient of a birthday gift from a forgotten and unexpected friend, an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe. At first reluctant, he only goes as a means to escape his newfound fame in America, but in the process of traveling through eight countries, Walter meets a cast of characters whom will alter his life forever.

.

 

What Science Would Be Without Religion

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By Bradley Stockwell

A few years ago if you were to have asked me whether or not religious institutions have impeded the progress of science, I would have given a vehement ‘hell yes’. I would’ve given the accounts of Giordano Bruno, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, and the many others who risked or gave their lives in the name of science as examples. However over the years I’ve learned that making such a blanket statement is rather prejudiced. This is not to say there hasn’t been significant efforts by religious institutions to repress science, but also without them, most of the principles and methodologies of modern science and medicine would’ve never been established.

The Roman Catholic Church was vital in the development of systematic nursing and hospitals, and even still today the Church remains the single greatest private provider of medical care and research facilities in the world. The Church also founded Europe’s first universities and Medieval Catholic mathematicians and philosophers such as John Buridan, Nicole Oresme and Roger Bacon are considered the fathers of modern science. Furthermore, after the Fall of Rome, monasteries and convents became strongholds of academia, preserving the works of Euclid, Ptolemy, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Simplicius and many more. Clergymen were the leading scholars of the day, studying nature, mathematics and the motion of stars. And while some may blame Christianity for the Fall of Rome and decline of intellectual culture during the Middle Ages, this claim is unjustified and is a much more complex issue probably better reserved for a history class. Additionally, many forget that while the western half of the Roman Empire collapsed, the much more Christianized eastern half remained relatively strong and continued into the 15th century as the Byzantine Empire.

Not to focus solely on Christianity, Islam also had a part in the preservation and flourishing of science. An Arab Muslim named Ibn al-Haytham, considered to be one the first theoretical physicists, made significant contributions in the fields of optics, astronomy and mathematics, and was an early advocate that a hypothesis must be proved by experiments based on confirmable procedures or mathematical evidence—essentially the scientific method. Caliphs during the Islamic Golden Age established research institutes, sent emissaries around the world in search of books, then funded projects to translate, study and preserved them. Much of the Ancient Greek science we have today would have been lost and the European Renaissance hundreds of years after would not have been possible without their efforts. Also, at one time arguably, Arabic was the language of science. The “al’s” in algebra, algorithm, alchemy and alcohol are just some of the remnants.

The Islamic world also imported ideas from Hindus, which includes the Arabic numerals we still use today and the concept of zero. Also, as mentioned in a previous post, The Spirituality of Science, I see many parallels between science and Dharmic beliefs, such as reincarnation and entropy: the universe is cyclical; life and death are just different stopping points on a grand recycling process; matter, like the body, is created and recycled, while energy, like the soul, is immortal and transferred. The correlation I find most fascinating though is the Hindu concept of Brahman to the laws of thermodynamics. According to belief, Brahman is the source of all things in the universe including reality and existence; everything comes from Brahman and everything returns to Brahman; Brahman is uncreated, external, infinite and all-embracing. You could substitute the word energy for Brahman and get a simple understanding of the applications of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. It’s funny how the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, seemed to grasp these concepts thousands of years before science did.

In conclusion, although it’s still hard for me to look past some of the civil atrocities wrought by religious institutions—in particular when they’ve been intimately tied to a governing body, I think when you tally up the scores, science has benefited greatly from religion and any impediments are heavily outweighed. In a day when it seems popular to present everything in a dichotomous fashion—either you’re with or against us, I think it’s important to remember that for the most part, we all have what’s best in mind for humanity, and it’s when we work together that the best results are produced. Until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

How Old Are You?: How The Atomic Age Solved One of Biology’s Greatest Mysteries

atomicbomb

By Bradley Stockwell

My two favorite arenas of academia are science and history, and the more I study the two, the more I see how interwoven they really are. There’s no greater example of this than something called the “bomb pulse”. Whether you know it or not, lurking inside of you is a piece of Cold War history—even if you weren’t alive at the time—and it is this little memento that finally solved one of biology’s most elusive secrets: How old are you? And I don’t mean how many times has the cellular clump of mass known as you swung around the sun, but how old are the individual cells that make up that mass? Your skin cells, heart cells, neurons—your body is constantly renewing itself with new cells and it is only as of 2002 that we began to have a definitive answer for how old each one was. With this post, my intentions are twofold. One: I want to tell you about one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the 21st century, and two: I’m hoping that by wrapping them in this titillating story, I can also slip in a few basic principles of nuclear chemistry. With that said, let’s begin!

Between 1945 and 1963, over four hundred nuclear bombs were detonated, unleashing an untold number of extra neutrons into the atmosphere. Some of these neutrons found their way into nitrogen atoms, causing them to eject a proton. If you’re familiar with some basic chemistry, when a seven-proton nitrogen atom loses a proton, it becomes a six-proton carbon atom. However, because these carbon atoms still have two extra neutrons from when they were nitrogen, they become something called an isotope, a variant of an element which differs in neutrons, but has the same amount of protons. In this case, these slightly more massive and radioactive isotopes become an isotope of carbon called carbon-14.

When I say radioactive, all I mean is that the atom’s nucleus is unstable; that it is emitting energy in the form of ejected subatomic particles or energetic light waves to stabilize itself until it becomes a stable isotope, or a completely new element altogether. This radioactive decay comes in three main forms: alpha, beta and gamma. Alpha decay—which only happens with heavy elements like uranium—is the ejection of something physicists call an alpha particle, but chemists just call it a helium atom, a bundle of two protons and two neutrons. In fact, almost all the helium here on Earth came from this type of decay. Think about that the next time your sucking down a helium balloon; you’re inhaling the atomic leftovers of uranium, thorium and other heavy, radioactive elements. Beta minus decay is the ejection of an electron and beta plus decay is the ejection of the electron’s antiparticle, the positron. Gamma decay is the emission of an extremely energetic light wave called a gamma ray and it is often emitted in conjunction with alpha and beta decay.

alphabetagammadecay

The time it can take for a radioactive element to reach a stable form can be anywhere from instantaneous to far longer than the age of the universe. Because individual atoms decay unpredictably, the way in which we measure this loss is through probability, or something called a half-life. This is the time it takes for half a quantity of radioactive material to decay into a more stable form. This is not to say if you have four radioactive atoms, in x amount of time you’ll have two necessarily, but more that each individual radioactive atom has a fifty percent chance that it will decay to a more stable form in x amount of time. For example, carbon-14, the star of our story, has a half-life of 5,730 years. This means if you had a pound of it, after 5,730 years you’d have a half pound of carbon-14 and half a pound of nitrogen-14, carbon-14’s more stable form. Then after another 5,730 years you’d have a quarter pound of carbon-14 and three-quarters pound of nitrogen-14, and so forth. This is how carbon dating works; by measuring the relative portions of carbon-12 and carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter, archeologists are able to determine its age.

carbon14Dating

The period between 1945 and 1963 in which all this atomic testing was happening is now called the “bomb pulse” by the scientific community. It was called this because the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere was doubled during this period from all those free neutrons crashing into nitrogen. In 1963, when the Soviet Union, the U.K. and the U.S. agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty which prohibited all above-ground detonations, the amount of carbon-14 began to decrease by half every eleven years and will eventually be depleted somewhere around 2030 to 2050. This isn’t because the carbon-14 is decaying into nitrogen-14 (remember the half-life of carbon-14 is 5,730 years), but because it is being absorbed by the life inhabiting our planet, which includes us. Although carbon-14 is an altered carbon atom—a carbon isotope, it still behaves like a carbon atom because it is the number of protons in an atom that determines its chemical behavior, while the number of neutrons determines its mass; and like a regular carbon atom, these carbon-14 atoms have been binding to oxygen, forming CO2, which is sucked up by plants during photosynthesis and then fed to the rest of us through the food chain. Like the plants, our bodies too can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14, so for the last seventy-plus years all this extra carbon-14 has been used by every living creature to build new cells, proteins and DNA.

bombpulse

While our bodies can’t tell the difference between carbon and carbon-14 (because they have the same amount of protons), scientists can because of their slight difference in mass (remember carbon-14 has two extra neutrons). The difference in mass is measureable through a technique called mass spectrometry, which sorts atoms by weight. Without getting too technical, an instrument called a mass spectrometer strips atoms of some of their electrons and launches them into a magnetic field, which alters the atoms’ course, and because of inertia, heavier atoms take a wider path than lighter ones. By measuring how many atoms travel along certain paths, scientists can determine how much of a specific atom—in this case a carbon-14 atom—is in a sample.

So what does this have to do with determining a cell’s age? Well for a long time nothing. But somewhere around 2002, Krista Spalding, a postdoc at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, wanted to challenge the longtime doctrine that said the human brain couldn’t create any new neurons after the age of four. There had been growing evidence that the adult hippocampus—a seahorse-shaped region deep in the brain that is important for memory and learning—could regenerate neurons, but no one knew for sure. Spalding and her postdoc advisor, Jonas Frisén, had a hunch that the “bomb pulse” period could somehow offer a solution and it did, culminating in a paper by Spalding, Frisén and their team published in June 2013, which conclusively found that the hippocampus did produce approximately 700 to 1,400 new neurons per day, and these neurons last twenty to thirty years. How you ask? Well there’s an episode of Radiolab (a wonderful science podcast I recommend you all listen to) that has a much more colorful version of Spalding and Frisén’s journey here, but because I know I’m probably already pushing your attention spans, I’ll just give a brief overview. You see, atmospheric scientists have been measuring the amount of carbon-14 and other elements in the atmosphere every two weeks since the late 1950s, giving us an extremely accurate timetable of how much carbon-14 is and was in the atmosphere at any given time after. By correlating this data to the amount of carbon-14 found in a cell’s DNA (while other molecules are regularly refreshed throughout a cell’s life, DNA remains constant), researchers can determine not just the age of a hippocampal neuron, but any cell. So by accident, the nuclear age finally shed light on when tissues form, how long they last and how quickly they’re replaced.

490-t1-CellsBodyReplacementRate-16

You—and every other living organism—are continually creating new cells. Cells that make up your skin, hair and the lining of your gut are constantly being replaced, while others, like cells that make up the lens of your eye, the muscles of your heart and the neurons of the cerebral cortex, have been with you since birth and will stay with you until you die.

So why is this so important? Well firstly, it gives us a key insight into the mechanisms behind many neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and many more. Really we’ve only just begun to dig into this Pandora’s box so to speak, and unfortunately time is limited (well unless we start blowing up a bunch of atomic weapons again, but let’s hope humanity has moved past this) because, as I said, this measureable spike of carbon-14 in our atmosphere from the “bomb pulse” will eventually be depleted somewhere between 2030 and 2050.

Despite what the “bomb pulse” is and will offer to scientific research, isn’t it cool just knowing which cells have been at the party of you the longest? Or that like the rings of a tree, or the sedimentary layers of rock, our bodies too tell the story of our times? With that, until next time, stay curious my friends.

 

 

How Pencil Lead and Sticky Tape Won a Nobel Prize

 

pencil_lead_and_tape

By Bradley Stockwell

First off, I want to apologize to all of my six followers to this blog. I know I left you in anxious anticipation over my follow-up post to Climate Change Part I on future green technologies. However, after three months of procrastination, I confess I still haven’t written it. I’m sorry, but I’m easily distracted and while attempting to assemble it I came across a story too good not to tell about a fascinating material called graphene. Graphene is the thinnest, strongest and stiffest material on Earth; it conducts electricity and heat better than any other known material; it is transparent and two-dimensional and is the basis for all future technologies and A.I. At the moment, its potential of applications looks limitless. Oh did I mention it was discovered with nothing more than pencil lead and tape? They even gave the guys who discovered it the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics. Shit, if I knew it was that easy I could’ve scratched Nobel prize in physics off the bucket list a long time ago.

So what is graphene exactly then? In short, it’s a sheet of pencil lead (graphite) an atom thick. But to understand how we arrived at the discovery of graphene, we need to tell another story, the story of carbon. Graphene is an allotrope of carbon which simply means it’s one possible way to structure carbon atoms. The carbon atom has six protons and typically six neutrons in its nucleus. Sometimes the nucleus has eight neutrons, in which case the carbon atom is known as carbon-14. Carbon-14 is unstable, meaning it radioactively decays, but the decay is consistent over long periods of time. Because this form of carbon is found in many materials, measuring its presence gives us a way to age materials—or what is known as carbon dating. Carbon-14 however is not an allotrope of carbon, it is what is known as an isotope, something covered in detail in a previous post, Flight of the Timeless Photon.

Allotrope formation is dependent on the electrons of a carbon atom and the way in which they bond to other carbon electrons. Carbon has six electrons, two of which are buried in its innermost shell near the nucleus, and four in its outermost shell which are called valence electrons. It is these four outermost electrons—and a ton of heat and pressure—that make the difference between a lump of coal and a diamond, another allotrope of carbon. In diamond, a carbon atom’s four valence electrons are bonded with four other carbon valence electrons. This produces an extremely stiff crystalline structure. In fact, a typical diamond is made up of about a million billion billion atoms (1 with 24 zeros after it) all perfectly arranged into a single pyramidal structure, which is key to its extraordinary strength. But diamond is not the strongest and most stable allotrope of carbon. Although DeBeers may want you to think otherwise, a diamond is not forever; every diamond in existence is actually slowly turning into graphite. The process however takes billions of years so no need to worry about your wedding ring just yet.

Graphite is not a crystalline structure like diamond, but planes of carbon atoms connected in a hexagonal pattern, with each plane having an extremely strong and stable structure—stronger and more stable than diamond. Some of you may be asking, is this not the same graphite we write with and grind up into fine powder lubricants? Yes indeed it is, and the conundrum of descriptives can be blamed on electrons. In diamond, a carbon atom shares its four valence electrons with four other carbon atoms, whereas in graphite it shares its electrons with only three (see graphic below). This results in graphite having no electrons left over to form strong bonds between layers, leaving it up to something called van der Waals forces, a weak set of forces generated by fluctuations in a molecular electric field. Basically it’s the universal glue of matter and is something all molecules naturally possess. Because these forces are so weak is why you’re able to write with graphite—a.k.a. pencil lead. As you press your pencil to paper, you’re breaking the van der Waals forces, allowing layers of graphite to slide across one another and deposit themselves on a page. If it weren’t for the weak van der Waals bonds, pencil lead would be stronger than diamond and this is behind the advent of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is spun graphite, lathered in an epoxy glue to overcome the weak van der Waals forces. Restriction of van der Waals forces is also behind the phenomenality of graphene.

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Since graphene is a single layer of graphite one atom thick, there is no need to worry about weak van der Waals forces. By default this makes graphene the strongest and thinnest material known to man. Also, because its carbon atoms are not structured in a crystalline lattice like diamond, which leaves no free electrons, it also conducts electricity and heat better than any known material. This means because of its transparency and thinness, we could literally add touch sensitivity to any inanimate object and possibly entire buildings. It also allows for something called Klein tunneling, which is an exotic quantum effect in which electrons can tunnel through something as if it’s not there. Basically it means it has the potential to be an electronic dynamo and may someday replace silicon chips and pave the way for quantum computing. Graphene was purely hypothetical until 2004 when Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov discovered it. As stated in the title of this post, they discovered it with nothing more than a lump of graphite and sticky tape. They placed the tape on the graphite and peeled off a layer. They then took another piece of tape and stuck it to the piece of tape with the graphite layer and halved the layer. They continued to do this until they were left with a layer of graphite one atom thick. I’m not exaggerating the simplicity of the procedure in any way. Watch the video below and you can replicate the experiment yourself, the only catch is you need an electron microscope to confirm you indeed created graphene. Until next time my friends, stay curious.

Climate Change Part I: Where It Went Wrong & Why It’s Stupid to Still Deny It

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By Bradley Stockwell

1878 World’s Fair: Augustin Mouchot’s solar-powered motor is a gold medal winner and initially receives generous government funding for development. However the funding is soon cut due to a dramatic decrease in the cost of coal production.

1900 World’s Fair: Commissioned by the French government, the Otto company displays the recently invented diesel engine running on peanut oil without any modification to the original design. The inventor of the engine, Rudolf Diesel, learns of this and becomes a leading proponent for the development of biodiesel fuels to spur agricultural development. However after his death in 1913 and with the emerging petroleum market on the rise, the motor is redesigned to run solely on petroleum diesel fuel.

The Egyptian desert 1913: Frank Shuman, the inventor of safety glass, presents a solar power plant which promises to make solar energy—a limitless, renewable energy source—more cost-efficient than coal. He too receives generous accolades and funding from the German and British governments, but ultimately with the outbreak of World War I shortly thereafter, funding is cut and put into the exploding petroleum market, leaving Shuman’s solar collectors to be recycled into weapons.

Detroit, Michigan 1908: Henry Ford’s first Model T rolls off the assembly line and it runs on gasoline and/or corn ethanol. Ford envisions one day however that all vehicles will run solely on agricultural fuel sources. One of particular interest to him is hemp. In 1941 he even constructs a lightweight car that runs on hemp biofuel and is constructed with plastic panels made partially of hemp. Nevertheless the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937—backed by the petrochemical company DuPont—would eventually kill the domestic hemp industry and with the onset of World War II, gasoline engine technology would only see further dominance.

Now that we’re facing down the barrel of a global climate crisis, it’s easy to look back and see where it might have been averted. It’s not like we weren’t warned; as far back as 1896 (read here) the scientific community has cautioned us about the consequences of a fossil-fueled civilization. But humanity’s myopic view of the future has not only undercut our ingenuity, but it now endangers the survival of our species—and many others I may add. However there’s hope and I’d like to pay tribute to this hope by highlighting today and tomorrow’s most innovative and coolest technologies on the frontline in the fight against climate change. But first…

THE PROOF:

Believe it or not, our planet breathes. In the spring, the forests of the Northern Hemisphere inhale carbon dioxide to grow and the amount of CO2 in the air decreases while the amount of oxygen (O2) increases. Then in the fall, when leaves fall and decay, that CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. This same respiratory cycle happens in the Southern Hemisphere, but there is far more ocean than forest in the South. This has been happening for tens of millions of years, but wasn’t noticed until 1958 when the oceanographer Charles David Keeling devised a way to accurately measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. However this discovery also unearthed quite a big elephant in the room for humanity: climate change.

You see, CO2 in our atmosphere acts as an insulator for heat sent here from the sun. Without it, our planet would be a frozen wasteland and with too much of it, it’d be hell on earth and the difference between the two is not much—six molecules of CO2 per ten thousand to be exact. Since the formation of the earth, volcanoes have been spewing CO2 into the air. Then water and life came along and the CO2 was absorbed into the oceans and harvested into more organic matter. Over the course of millions of years, this bled our atmosphere of CO2 (which is a good thing when you’re cultivating life) until CO2 comprised just three-hundredths of a percent of our atmosphere—three molecules per ten thousand. And for at least the last 800,000 years this percentage has stayed relatively the same until the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Hmm… anybody see a strange correlation? We know this because we’ve drilled into glaciers and extracted and measured trapped air from that long ago. Since about the turn of the century, CO2 levels have risen a staggering 40%. And as of January 2015, we’ve officially added another molecule of CO2 per ten thousand—four per ten thousand in total—in the span of about 100 years. Earth hasn’t seen CO2 levels this high in over three million years, when horses and camels roamed the high arctic and sea levels were at least 30 feet higher; a level that would drown many major cities today.

While one more molecule per ten thousand may not sound like much, remember the difference between frozen wasteland and hell on earth is only six molecules per ten thousand and life providing oasis sits delicately in the middle at three. And it’s not like the earth is just naturally dumping all this additional CO2 into the air. We know it’s man-made because CO2 created from the burning of fossil fuels is slightly lighter than that of say volcanic CO2.

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This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

The strongest force driving climate change is us. It’s undeniable and those who deny it in my opinion are just too scared to admit it. And it is scary. It’s not like we can keep going along like this and still have another 200 years before we add two more CO2 molecules per ten thousand to the atmosphere. We’ve already set off a chain reaction of sorts. Because temperatures are rising, ground that’s been frozen for a millennia is now beginning to thaw. That ground is densely packed with organic matter and the thawing of that organic matter is releasing more CO2 into the air, causing the temperature to rise even higher and thaw ground even quicker. This positive feedback loop is also happening with the melting of sea ice. As ocean temperatures rise, more sea ice melts and more heat is absorbed into the oceans instead of being reflected back into space, which causes ocean temperatures to rise faster which in turn melts the ice faster. Not only are we contributing heavily to climate change, but now we’ve triggered Mother Earth to follow suit.

But as I stated previously there is hope. We haven’t reached the “point of no return”—the point at which no amount of effort will save us from catastrophic global warming—yet. That point is at 4.5 molecules per ten thousand, so we are damn close. If we continue at our current rate, which is adding two more CO2 molecules per million per year, we’ll reach the “point of no return” somewhere around 2042. But I have faith in humans; faith that we’re too smart and too adaptive to let that happen. After all, we come from a long pedigree of very successful survivors, so let’s put it to use. If not for the sake of saving the world, at least for the sake of technological progression. We know fossil fuels won’t last forever so why not start solving that problem now? Also wouldn’t it be cool if we had concrete that healed itself and roads that talked to us while collecting solar energy? This is just a preview of some of the green technologies and innovations on the horizon that I’ll cover in part two of this series. Until then, stay curious my friends.

Why Drive-Thru Attendant is The Proudest Position I’ve Ever Held

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By Bradley Stockwell

The further I progress in my adult life, the more I realize what an important role my first job had in building the foundation of it. Let’s be honest, working as a fast food drive-thru attendant just plainly sucks. It’s extremely stressful and degrading; you make minimum wage, have some horrible bosses and you go home every day smelling like greasy meat. I had everything from insults to water balloons to milkshakes to sex toys thrown at me (yes for some reason people love playing practical jokes on drive-thru attendants). I witnessed physical altercations—was even involved in one myself, auto accidents, arrests and people performing sex acts while I handed them their food (completely separate from the sex toys incident). Yet despite all this, I am continually grateful for the preview the drive-thru gave me of the real world in all its ugly and fascinating glory.

Social Skills

Customer service is an obvious requirement of a drive-thru attendant. Since food is a universal need, the walks of life I came in contact with—and had to make happy—was quite expansive. Also if you get between hungry people and their food, be prepared to see some claws come out. To avoid—or if need be remedy—angry customers, I learned there was no one-size-fits-all approach. Everyone has their own individual ticks, stresses and personalities and to succeed in customer service you need to be an excellent reader of people. As a naïve 16-year-old boy who was raised in a nice suburban community, I wasn’t so good at this in the beginning. However by the end of my two-year tenure in fast food, there wasn’t a soccer mom, senior citizen, crackhead, or corporate businessman I couldn’t charm.

Communication

As the drive-thru attendant you’re sort of the quarterback of the team. Every part of the transaction runs through your hands from taking the order, collecting the money and handing the order off to the customer. All three of these things need to be double-checked for accuracy because if something goes wrong, all the blame comes back to the customer’s only point of contact—you. While much of this was dependent on me, the food—the most important part—depended on my kitchen staff. I found out early in my fast food career that having an open line of communication with them was crucial. For me this meant I had to learn some Spanish. Repeating orders out loud in Spanish to my kitchen staff increased the accuracy of them tenfold and I can’t tell you how many times knowing a little Spanish has come in handy later in life.

Teamwork and Leadership

Additionally, I also took interest in my kitchen staff’s job roles. While my initial motivation to get behind the grill and fryer was out of curiosity, it helped me realize some of the challenges and stresses they had to deal with day-to-day—such as getting burned constantly. I even let my kitchen staff take a few cracks at the headset to understand my job also. Although we preferred our own positions in the end, it built rapport between us. Understanding and respecting how each person contributes to the team’s success as a whole was an invaluable lesson that helped me succeed later in management. But most importantly, I found working with people who respect and have a positive relationship with each other can make even the worst job very enjoyable at times.

Stress & Time Management

To this day, it’s hard to put into words the stress I felt during a lunch, or dinner rush. The headset is constantly ringing with nagging customers, orders need to be bagged, drinks need to be made, customers need to be greeted at the window, and it only took one slip for the whole thing to fall into chaos. Along with the above mentioned duties, it was also my job to make sure bags, condiments and cups were stocked and the shake machine and ice bins were regularly cleaned and filled. If these things weren’t done before a rush or shift change it meant disaster. My fellow employees, and most importantly the customers, depended on me getting these tasks done, so I quickly learned not to procrastinate them; to instead get them done in small chunks throughout the day. To also ensure rushes ran as smoothly as possible, I memorized the totals with tax for almost every combo meal and the dollar menu up to ten items that way I could fill orders while taking new ones without having to be in front of an order screen.

Optimism

My most valuable lesson sort of happened by accident. Being a musician, I began treating rushes as performances just for the fun of it. Instead of focusing on how much my job sucked, I instead focused on how many people I could make smile or laugh. If the situation was appropriate, I sang to people over the intercom, did caricature voices and just really tried to be the most entertaining drive-thru attendant I could be. I learned that when I took pride in my job—no matter how menial it was, the day went by a lot faster and at times I didn’t even want to go home.