Chapter 13: Madcap Laughs (excerpt from my upcoming novel, The Silver Year)

Good news! I’m on the final leg of my second draft and my book should finally be out in spring to early summer of next year! Until then, I’ve decided to tease you with another chapter. If you haven’t read the book’s synopsis you can find it here. Enjoy!

Chapter 13

Madcap Laughs

 

Each palpitation of bass pushed Walter farther away from himself. But really, who is myself? the quivering voice inside his head asked. I’m thousands of miles away from any type of familiarity. I don’t know these people, their language, this country, this city, or even what type or how many drugs I’m on. I don’t even know how I got here . . . Am I at a rave?

Electronic dance music chomped with the precision of pneumatic machinery, slicing the air around him into rhythmical bouillon cubes of music and noise. Blacklit glowsticks and the smell of Vicks VapoRub pulverized the dark as glistening skin pumped and thumped around him in an orgy of neon movement. What beautiful oddity allured me to this strange plane of existence and time this time? He soon found his answer in the half-naked body bouncing her buttocks upon his hips.

Wally—Walter’s drunk persona—had a tendency to “go exploring” when Walter was blacked out and this was a fatal flaw in a city so bipolar as Amsterdam. In the sobriety of day, a serene Dutch beauty, but in the inebriation of night, she was a shape-shifting she-devil, and not the place you wanted to come to in not knowing where you were, how you got there, or where your friends went.

Hello Planet Amsterdam! You are strange and so am I, so please accept me as one of your own . . . please?! Walter begged inside his head.

Tracers of light from above froze in rejection, while faces within his vicinity began to change and unhinge. He swallowed in fear and suddenly felt himself falling, cannonballing down the mineshaft of his mind. How far above reality was and what lay below he was unsure, however, if he could find a tether, perhaps he could still save himself. He just needed to find out when and where reality escaped him.

I am Walter Huxley—for the most part, I am Walter Huxley, he started with what he could last remember to be true. I am in Amsterdam. I came here on a Contiki trip… And that was all memory would give him for now.

Thunderclouds of panic began to brew. Well, this is a new and frightening high, he thought. I’m not even sure if I’m really alive. This feels like a dream . . . Well, I think you did it Walter. Whatever you took it’s killed you, or put you in a coma, or somewhere in between, because whatever this is, it isn’t real life . . . But then what is it?

Okay Walter, get a grip! Calm down! We can handle this. WE can handle this . . . We just need some quiet right now. We need to find a restroom. Not only because we suddenly really need to pee, but this orchestration of strobing lights and merciless EDM is fucking our psyche with the grace of a jackhammer. Once we’re there, we’ll get a good look over in the mirror to reaffirm our—I mean my existence, and that will bring we—I mean, me—back to reality . . . Fuck, I hope.  

Fog machines began dousing the dancefloor and a pulsating cloud of color and disorientation began to swirl around Walter as if the dream was fighting back, not wanting him to leave. As the music began a crescendo, he felt as if the ground was lifting, and if he were to leave, he’d fall to his death.

Doooo you know where the bathroom izzzzz?” he yelled to the girl whose behind he was humping. Inside his head, his voice sounded like it was being run through a pitch-shifter. The music was so deafening it was not only affecting his hearing, but blurring his vision from the reverberations of his skull. Certainty’s outlines kept going in and out of focus.

She looked back quickly and shrugged her shoulders, then waited to be humped into again. He turned her back, and shouted: “Is there a proper place to urinate, or shall I just go on this dancefloooooor?!”

Punch drunk and certain he was in a lucid dream, he then unzipped his pants and exposed himself to the girl in a challenge to reality. “Wheeere do I take this guyyyy?” The girl screamed and everyone turned to see the freakshow unraveling in the middle of the dancefloor. But before Walter could start discharging himself, two hefty and very real security guards hauled him out of the cloud and onto the cobbled streets of the Red Light District. “Thank yooooou!” he yelled as they sloppily tossed him to the ground.

 

The industrial stomp of the nightclub soon receded into sounds of urban nightlife as Walter’s mind calmed for the time being. Okay, so I’m still in reality, he thought. I still am in Amsterdam . . . God, I need to take a piss. He then remembered a green, spiral-shaped public urinal he’d used earlier on his way to…

The sex show! the memory climbed out of the abyss. I went to a sex show and . . . and I ate a banana? . . . I ate a banana out of a girl’s vagina! . . . I was pulled onstage and ate a banana out of one of the performer’s vagina . . . Okay, nope. I excitedly volunteered myself to eat the banana. The memory flow then ceased, and Walter’s thoughts went back to his bladder, so he set out in search of another city urinal.

The air was cool as it hit his lungs. The roads had been polished by a recent rainstorm and were gleaming and menacing as the District’s red lights echoed off them. This red-tinged reality, however, soon began rattling his bearings again, and again the drugs took advantage of the loosening grip. Chemical demon upon chemical demon loaded itself into his neural network until violently erupting and spilling a world of animated insanity upon his settings. Voices cooed and cackled at him from every corridor, passersby twisted and stretched in hellish facial contortions, while the streets burned in a fire of blood. The monsters of paranoia were encircling Walter and there was nothing to do but surrender or run.

He chose the latter, his feet setting a frenetic pace as they bounced down the alleyways like a pinball off the rubbery walls of his imagination. The faster he moved, the less time his senses had to play tricks on him. Anywhere else this public display of lunacy would have attracted notice, however, everyone was too busy managing their own demons of the Red Light District to worry about his. He was just one among many madcaps out of their minds—or in his case, trapped within it.

Fortuitously, Walter struck upon a urinal while zigzagging through the city with no other strategy than madness. Shelter! he thought as he cuddled against its piss-stained walls. Now surrounded by only green-painted steel and darkness, the malicious animations of his mind had little to work with. The urinal was nothing more than a spiraled shade around a hole in the ground.

He waited until his heartrate and breathing regulated before finally relieving himself. The piss felt as good as an escaping possession, but stirred up a foul odor of stale urine, vomit, and spoiled milk. After finishing, he fished into his pocket for his cellphone. He couldn’t make a call, but it did have a front-facing camera and he needed to see his own face just to assure himself he’d found the way out of his own mind, but when he turned it on he was only greeted by a black screen. He pressed the screen and his face against the steel walls, hoping to catch some reflecting rays, but the darkness ate them all up.

Walter then resolved to using his phone’s primary camera which had a flash, but his eyes and mind were in a tenuous state, barely beginning to reclaim normal function, and using it came with the risk of being sent back into a lunatic fit. So with eyes closed, he pointed the camera carefully at himself as if it were a loaded gun. The flash then exploded and an imaginary force of voltaic monsters came rushing in under his eyelids. Reactionarily, he threw the phone in fear, and after several seconds of blindness, a sad image waxed into view. There, in a pool of public excrement, lay his phone like his spirit: shattered. He squatted down and picked up the splintered device and its assorted pieces. He pressed the power button with both thumbs as if choking it, but to no avail. Unable to confirm himself, he gradually waned back into the ether, left to swim again with his chemical demons.

Inner catcalls began oozing in from the grates above as Walter cowered over fetally onto the floor. His body writhed as he held his hands to his face and cried. The filth on them, however, soon invaded his eyes, leaving Walter in a deserted and burning blindness. But sight wasn’t the last of his senses to abandon him. Slowly, he retreated from any bodily sensation until there was nothing left but thought, then only one thought: This must be what death feels like. It bounded down the halls of his empty consciousness until it was nothing but a whisper, then finally, dense silence.

Undisturbed of the outside world, Walter was left to wander within himself in search of any trace of himself; any proof he had ever existed. An ember of life began to flicker. It was the oldest memory he could revive from the database of his existence. A young woman was humming, the light hush of her breathing and the slow rhythmic pulse of her heart pressed against his ear. There was no sight, only sound. He was in his mother’s womb.

For a lot of his life, Walter was made to feel unwanted. He entered into the world unwelcomed, and in some sense that sentiment never left him. But in his lonely foxhole, he found he was not actually alone. There was and always would be one person who saw worth in his existence, so much so she gave her life for it: his mother. Nothing could ever change that; although he never had a mother, he had and always would have his mother’s love.

Soon her heartbeat became all Walter could hear, and it beat with the fury of a war drum until his outside tormentors withdrew. Slowly, corporeality returned to his soggy, corduroy bellbottoms, rinsed in a marinade of rainwater, piss, and the other unknown elements Walter shared the floor with. He picked up his cellphone again and spoke into it as if it were still operable.

“Hi Mom,” he said out loud. Mom: he wasn’t sure if he had ever even said the word. “Even though I’ve only met you in pictures and Grandma’s stories, I want you to know you are still very much a part of my life—a part of me. No matter where I am, your love is and always has been with me. I guess somewhere along the way I forgot that. But however neglected it may be, when I need it the most, your love is always there to shush away my demons, and that is what I’m most grateful for Mommy. When the world tells me I don’t belong, you tell it I damn sure do . . . I don’t know the last time or if I ever told you this, but I love you Mom, and I’m sorry I don’t tell you that more often, but I love you.”

Partially absolved, Walter sat up with a more peaceful mind. He was still high as shit, but at least the monster was manageable now.

“I thought you came here for something new and revelating?” Walter’s familiar therapist inside his head spoke out loud. “Yet, I don’t think the bottom of a urinal is exactly what you had in mind, huh? But I suppose once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right, right? But still, you shouldn’t be wasting this trip in a goddamn urinal reflecting on your past. You should be outside of it creating a past worth reflecting on; inspiring a story that will hopefully keep you entertained for an eternity, because in the end, the story of your life may be all you have left to read.

“Now, as you know, I’m an advocate of moderate drug use, but you’re doing it all wrong. Traveling the world is already a mind-altering experience itself, and additional intoxicants should be taken with extreme care—especially when you’re in a place you’ve never been before. Drugs can enhance the experience of life, but too much and you’ll destroy it altogether as you’re starting to do with this trip.

“But there’s hope for you Walter. I’m glad I found you when I did. You still have a chance to salvage your one night in one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t blow it on account of a bad trip. We all have them. But that’s why it’s called a trip, you can always stand up…”

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.

 

The Spirituality of Science

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An obviously very doped-up me after my colonoscopy 

By Bradley Stockwell

To spare you of the intimate details, I’ll just say recently I’ve had some ‘digestive issues’. Two weeks ago I had a colonoscopy to check out these issues. Although I realized the possibility that they may be caused by something serious such as cancer, when my doctor presented me with that reality, it dug in a lot more than I thought. Fortunately, it seems this world is stuck with me a little longer for all my biopsies came out okay. However during the five days in which I had to wait to hear these results, I couldn’t help but contemplate my own mortality and what death means to me as an atheist.

For lack of a better label, I am an atheist but I am not spiritual-less. I find a deep sense of sanctity and humility in the scientific observations of nature. To make clear, this post is not intended to degrade or disprove anyone’s religious faith. The world is richly diverse in beliefs, cultures and opinions and I think that’s a necessary and beautiful thing. What I do have a problem with is the contention surrounding the subject of faith and I in no part want to contribute to it. The reason I love physics so much is it seeks to find unity amongst division and I apply that same philosophy in all facets of my life. Simply, I’m presenting how I sleep at night without believing in a god(s) or an afterlife because it is an honest question I’m frequently asked.

The primary source of my peace of mind comes from the laws of thermodynamics which describes how energy behaves. The first law, the conservation of energy, states energy cannot be created nor destroyed. This law was exampled in a previous post, Flight of The Timeless Photon, on how the photon (aka energy) is transformed from hydrogen proton mass into the life-providing sunshine we all know. The energy we consume, and consequently life, is all sourced from the sun. And the sun’s energy is sourced from the matter within the universe and to find out where the universe’s energy is sourced, we would’ve had to been around during The Big Bang. However according to multiverse theorists, it’s a good chance that it may have come from the matter of a previous universe which was chopped up and scrambled by a black hole into energy. Regardless, the point I’m trying to make is energy is immortal. It is the driver of the circle of life not just here on Earth but in the entire universe. As special as you think you are, you are nothing more than a temporary capsule of mass for energy to inhabit. Death is nothing more than a dispersion of this energy and this is what I take consolation in. When I die, all the energy that was me, my personality—my soul, my body even, still remains in this world. I’m not gone; just less ordered. I am a part of what keeps the arrow of time moving forward as the universe naturally moves from a higher state of order towards a lower—the second law of thermodynamics.

The universe is very cyclical. Life and death are just different stopping points on a grand recycling process. Matter, like our bodies, is created and recycled and energy, like our souls, is immortal and transferred. If you’re familiar with Dharmic beliefs, this probably sounds familiar. It’s funny how the world’s oldest religion, Hinduism, seemed to grasp these concepts thousands of years before science did. While I’m not a practicing Hindu, nor do I plan to be, if forced to choose it would be the closest to my belief system due to the many correlations I find between it and science. One correlation I was most awestruck by was the concept of Brahman to the laws of thermodynamics (aka the laws of energy) mentioned above. 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.

If you can’t fathom the thought of an afterlife as some form of your current self, I can understand that. Once again I’m not here to convince you differently, I’m just presenting my viewpoint. However in regards to the value of life, I do hope to convince you that there is no deeper appreciation than through the eyes of science. I only stress this to debunk the perpetuated myth that science somehow devalues the beauty of this world by picking it apart. Once again, the reason I love physics is it widens the perspective of my existence through unifying the universe’s many diverse creations and movements. It connects me to the infinitely larger cosmos above yet also to the infinitely smaller universes below. I have an atomic connection to the stars, a chemical connection to the earth, a biological connection to life and a genetic connection to my fellow humans. When you see the world on so many dimensions, I can personally attest that suddenly everything becomes very interesting. Even the things we don’t give much thought to, like sunshine, weather, the way in which water ripples, or why your friend’s beer overflows when you smack the top of it with yours, become regularly appreciated with a new sense of awe and curiosity. The world becomes much more absorbing than anything a smartphone or television can provide and you find yourself wanting to experience everything it can offer. There’s no greater feeling than the intercourse between knowledge and experience. This perspective is perfectly captured by one of my idols, the great physicist Richard Feynman.

 “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

When I finally do say goodbye to this world, I hope my friends and family will realize this is not actually the case. Everything that was me is still very much a part of this world, just partaking in a different dimension of it. The energy contained within my body will go back into the earth so that it can provide new life to the flora and fauna which kept me alive as I dined on them throughout my own life. Every joule of energy that was me will be released back into this world to live life anew. And will the unique combination of matter the winds of energy deposited as Bradley Stockwell be forgotten? Well I hope I will have done something impactful enough to be remembered by history, but if not, I can always depend on my beloved light particle, the photon, to ensure my existence will mean something. Explained in detail in my previous post, A Crash Course in Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, according to relative velocity time dilation, the photon’s existence is timeless relative to ours because it moves at the speed of light. A funny thing happens to time at the speed of light—it ceases to exist, at least relative to our perception of time. That is of course until I interrupt this so-called photon’s path by absorbing it as heat and become that photon’s entire existence; forever altering the universe. And this is not the only way the photon will preserve my existence. I of course don’t absorb all the photons I come into contact with—some of them bounce off me and are collected in the photon detectors (aka the eyes) of my friends and family members. These photons then create electromagnetically charged webs of neurons, better known as memories. Well until next time, stay curious my friends!