Ch. 5

They crowd around the bar, bathing in its red lights like a brood of baby spiders, swirls of wretched youth who it seems like their only purpose on this planet is the production of pheromones. Community college kids mingle with a younger blue collar crowd to reinforce a pseudo-intellectual narrative where freedom comes from negotiating a path between a culture of media manipulated mindless drones and the ivory tower sycophants of the academic hierarchy. Children of an edgy anti-cynical cynicism reaping the benefits of technology while swearing allegiance to “authenticity” and self-determination. Like everyone, they think they know how the world works. That we’re all just doing our best, that power corrupts, that the only conspiracy is the promulgation of conspiracy theory. They sit beneath the upside-down pawn-shop furniture dangling from a ceiling no one notices anymore, and drink what they’d imagine Americans drinking in the 80s, Coors Light and Rainier. Steel driving beer. Sweat of the brow. Desperate for a subculture that hasn’t been tainted by hipsters and revisionists. Acting like there’s nothing left to envy.

There are screens everywhere. Hardly a direction you can look without seeing one. Whether it’s one of the 24 ancient plasmas, the digital juke box, the PoS stations behind the bar, or the holographic wall space ads with integrated neon (for that old-timey pub feel) slapping you with colorful new reasons to get your hands on everything from the beer you’re already drinking, to the condoms you’re here to find a use for, to the car you think will help you lock that down. There’s always your own personal portable screen if you’re feeling overwhelmed. I’ve got one. I’m no luddite. I like it. I like the frame. The segregation of my visual space into multiple realms. Same as looking out a window or admiring a painting. Even books have frames. You are all engineers for the seduction and conversion of attention. The line between. The frame is your most primitive tool. Walls kept out the lion and the rain, but kept the focus in. So you invented the window. The outside blurs. It’s optical, intentional, and you can flip the switch on it anytime you like. Slipping from one world to another without moving a muscle—well, just one: the imperceptible contraction of the ciliary. You have a floppy lens. You evolved to modify your perception of the world without resorting to the violence of motion, which is more perceptible than shape to the deadly brain of the reptilian enemy. You no longer had to hide on one side of the frame or the other. The frame itself was sanctuary. The frame became your ally, your best defense. Pupils dilating, eyelids wide. All the better to eat you with.

The nearest screen, strategically positioned to serve this booth, is running some science program. Cosmology. Zooming out on the universe. I think the point is to put in perspective the relative scale of everything that exists: from quarks to quasars. The camera starts on a man in a park, asleep on a blanket. Then it pulls back, way back, morphing into an animation above the atmosphere. Perspective rocketing at impossible speeds until the Earth is a mere speck in orbit around the sun. Closed captioning of the show’s narrator tells me that the solar system itself is just one of 200 billion specks, located on the remote Orion arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. A tiny yellow circle on that arm indicates the boundary of most of what we can see in the night sky—every visible star only a scratch on the film. My hands cradle the sensual bulge of a glass of amber beer. My neck tilted slightly back, my eyes fixed on the screen, pretending I’m alone.

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(rough draft: rev. 3)

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