A GENIZAH FOR THE MODERN AGE

Power lines crushed by the weight of four days of freezing rain in Boucherville near Montreal, Robert LaBerge, via BBC Archives, 1998.

A genizah, in Jewish tradition, is the storage area for religious texts that need to be disposed of. Any text that contains the name of god cannot simply be thrown away; it must be given a cemetery burial, and until enough texts are amassed they stay in the genizah as a sort of fermenting, holy hothouse. This is why you see the word “God” written as “G-d” in certain Jewish circles; it’s a loophole that allows the paper to be disposed of normally.

However, I recently noticed that a friend of mine, an Orthodox Jew, writes “God” with all three of its letters present in his Facebook posts. It got me wondering whether the Talmudic decree that requires genizot in real life also governs the internet. A quick review of modern rabbinic debate shows that is a general consensus is no, the rule does not apply to anything typed on a computer or read onscreen.

Yet the internet is by no means undying; it is a digital ship of Theseus in which websites, profiles and their physical infrastructure (fiber optic cables, server farms, etc.) are cyclicly decommissioned or replaced. Imagine, then, a genizah burial for the internet; a server where the name of god has been inscribed lowered into the ground, the mourners’ kaddish recited. How far would this need to extend? Are the power lines that facilitate the computer’s function also complicit in divinity? Is the noncorporeal wifi that ferries the name of god to your screen, or just the routers? Perhaps what we wind up with is a concept similar to the Kabbalistic divine shard: everything has a piece of the holy in it.

NOT AS IT SEEMS

At the start of the pandemic I signed up for a local CSA to meet some of my produce needs without going to the grocery store. Each Monday they would bring me my order in an insulated bag, and approximately four times in the first twenty weeks that bag was stolen from my doorstep. Not a great ratio. This CSA supplies lockboxes to certain customers, so I requested one. When it arrived I inspected it to see how it worked, whether there was a key or a code lock, only to find that there were no such measures at all. It was simply a metal box with a weighted lid, without so much as a latch, that anyone could open and continue to swipe my produce from. The only thing the box provided the illusion of security, no actual security involved. Yet since its arrival, none of my orders have been stolen.

This got me thinking about a job I held a number of years ago. I was a fake manager at a customer service line for a high-profile retailer. When an irate customer would utter the magic words “I want to speak to a manager”, they would be transferred to me, not a manager, and the illusion that they were being helped by someone with authority would lend the interaction a certain expedience. There was a whole team of fake managers who didn’t manage anything. We were there to sell a lie: that the customer was in control. It was patently ridiculous, but it worked. The company only had to divert approximately forty of their six hundred call center workers to take on a fake job title; that fake title convinced the customers that their “service experience” mattered, inducing them to follow through on sales they might have otherwise reneged on. This was clearly of enough value to the company that they promoted being a fake manager as a prestige position internally.

So many of our interactions are, at their core, theatrical; participation may be entirely content-devoid so long as the correct intention is communicated. A lockbox with no lock, a fib of a job title, hygiene theater, the use of tactical gibberish to allay stock market fluctuations, all contribute to the same two-faced interactional schema: each participant gets what they want, so long as neither addresses the black box between actions and results.

STATE OF PLAY

Purple Atmosphere by Judy Chicago, 1969

During my pre-surgery quarantine, I had the lysergic pleasure of reading Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Along the way, I became enamored with its concept of the Zone: a subcontinent of intelligence overlaid across war-broken Europe, its borders and residents determined not by allegiance to any particular government, but by possession of insider knowledge. The Zone exists outside and within the world simultaneously. If you’re in the Zone, you know what the Zone is. You’ve been inducted to its society and operate accordingly as one of its actors, playing out its dramas. Anyone outside of the Zone cannot know of its existence. The Zone is someone yelling “I lost the game” from the third-story mezzanine of a convention center in the mid-aughts: if you know, you know.

Pop culture loves a secret game because it imbues the world with the unknown. Early last year, when we all thought covid was a matter of staying indoors for a couple of weeks, I listened to the podcast Rabbits, in which an everywoman protagonist is inducted into a game played once per generation that is essentially secret-society capture the flag, played via high-stakes geocaching. The podcast left me cold because it didn’t seem to grasp the mechanics of its own game. “You play with your life” may have been Rabbits’ unspoken premise, but it never elucidated where the danger inherent to playing came from, only telegraphed it through character disappearances that would be introduced for dramatics and then never followed up on. Rabbits fails as a secret game because it can’t imply its gameplay to its own players, leaving them to wander as a series of clueless human MacGuffins. The protagonist passes through the game uncomprehendingly, and we as listeners can only bob along with her like balloons on a string. Meanwhile, Gravity’s Rainbow succeeds because Pynchon understands that even characters who don’t comprehend the entirety of the Zone’s internal workings can still act in service to it. Pynchon’s protagonist is also a bumbling everyman, but his actions determine the state of play in the Zone even if he isn’t fully aware of this. By the end of the novel he can sense the Zone’s design, though he will continue to bumble, missing cues and bypassing fated meetings that are central to the Zone’s endgame.

Rabbits failed because, in the terminology of James Carse, it thinks it’s an infinite game when in reality it’s a finite game. To pull from Carse’s text directly: “A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities – from sports to politics to wars – in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game – there is only one – includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants.” A game that hides in plain sight, only visible where reality decoheres, would, on the surface, look to be infinite; but if its players are only ever competing for dominance or survival it is by definition finite. Meanwhile, the Zone exists to perpetuate its own culture, which recontextualizes preconceived notions of power, nationhood and kinship. Though the Zone has a concrete goal (which I will not spoil here), its exists as an eternal present where play is not undertaken for duty or survival but is actively manifested as a living drama. The Zone wills itself into existence, with its residents acting as archetypal, almost planetary forces within it. The Zone exists in service of itself, underlying all the finite games of the “real world” such as war, money, life, death.

We live in the era of the ARG: QAnon, covid denial, even Pokemon Go all toy with the idea that there is a reality within and yet distinct from our own, in which hidden competitions play out. The gamification of information is near-perpetual. It’s up to us to determine whom the game serves, and whether our participation in these Zones is compulsory (finite) or chosen (infinite). The borders are never as clear as we think.

SITREP

Hi friends. Sorry for the slight absence. As you may have seen if you’ve come here from my other social media, I’m recovering from gender-affirming surgery, and as such my brain is swamp from learning to navigate a body that is distinctly mine but very different from what it was a few weeks ago.

While in recovery I attempted to write a longform piece about my transition, and the scientific implications of trans origin theories in general, but gave up. I think the internet has been terrorized by the inanity of thinkpieces, and I firmly believe that the invocation of personal traumas to tell “worthwhile” stories is contributing to our polarized media wasteland. That, and putting so much personal information online seemed like an infosec issue. So, I’ve decided not to publish it, at least not in its current form.

Before I attempted any sort of physical transition, I was averse to stories that framed the trans experience as a “journey”, a before-and-after snapshot for the cis to gawk at. I may have just been smarting; without a linear visual narrative to bolster my trans identity, I was afraid of being seen as less-than by transmedicalists, whose opinions carry quite a bit of weight in mainstream circles. Now that I have physically altered myself, I’m in this sticky spot of having to reassess where I stand in the public narrative as well as in my own self-concept, while also being completely removed from real-life contexts because, until I heal more, I lack the independence to go out and test it. It feels like I’m in limbo, waiting to be discharged into a world where people can react to me. Until then, I can’t quite know what I am.

Anyway, I’m fine, I’m healing, and my mind and body are recohering into something more comfortable than before. I’ll be back here shortly, and hopefully better for it.

Thanks.

LOVE WILL SAVE YOU

A.V. Harrison, from This Series, 1970-75

As a self-described Big Gay™, I occasionally seek out queer news media. I do not enjoy this. Every time I type Them.us or Autostraddle into a browser it fills me with a deep sense of shame, both in myself for feeling so separate from queer culture at large, and at queer culture for its piss-poor sense of what constitutes newsworthiness. Yet I do this every few weeks because it seems important, from an ethnographic standpoint, to keep abreast of the things the gay community deems important enough to write about.

Gay news is bad. Gay news and journalistic standards occupy nearly separate circles of the same Venn diagram. It’s an online ecosystem built on breathless praise of neoliberal politicians that sidesteps the issue of How To Have Politics entirely. It riffs endlessly on the usefulness of cancel culture while simultaneously calling out authors, actors and social media personalities for meaningless slights that have no long-term significance. It encourages parasocial relationships with public figures. It takes Trump’s offhand remarks at face value, shunting them into anxious screeds that encourage the reader to panic, but not to consider the probability of whether the man’s ravings have any likely consequences. It revels in the clapbacks, the sassy merch, the coupons for sex toys, and the most inconsequential tea you can find on the internet, all while having no sense of what constitutes actionable, helpful information.

So sure, the news is bad, and every time I see a friend link to a Pink News story in utter seriousness I cringe so hard I could implode. But what worries me more than the news itself is the state of unfettered emotional investment this style of discourse encourages. Gay news swings between two poles: hypervigilance and hypercompersion.

Hypervigilance is for the negative: threats of anti-gay legislation, upticks in hate crimes. These are justifiable fears, but there is a sense of scale involved that these stories omit. Just because a bill has been proposed, it doesn’t mean it will pass. Just because hate crimes happen, it doesn’t mean they will happen to me, a white person in an affluent liberal city. Though there is a contingent that is encouraged by these threats to the gay community, be it the Proud Boys or the Boogaloo or whatever the 4chan militants of the moment are, these groups’ actions are generally difficult to predict outside of the context of protest events, and as such are not something I would recommend the average person worry much about. Taking in enough of these stories encourages a manner of self-marginalization that I have noticed amongst people overexposed to them. They experience a generalized despair that precludes any marginally useful actions, like donating to aid funds or getting involved in ground-level politics (I do want to note that these actions don’t solve the problems of anti-gay legislation and hate crimes, but they do contribute to a sense of personal fulfillment that can keep the wolf from the door for a time, and may provide some measure of support to those in need). Poisoned on the idea that the whole world hates them, they are rendered unable to act.

In a landscape so bleak, good news must provide a hefty counterpoint for the panic-stricken. This good news is often comparatively small – a TV show featuring gay characters, a personal essay about feeling affirmed (oh my god, there are so many thousands of personal essays) – so it winds up being an oversized section of these sites’ content, provided rapturously and, again, without scale, which encourages a hyperempathetic worldview. Clearly these stories are supposed to be personally illustrative or satisfying for the reader, despite the fact that they have no personal relevance beyond a desire to queue up Netflix, or the general human ability to empathize. To describe the feeling these stories are intended to evoke, I am borrowing the word ‘compersion’ from polyamory theory. Compersion is defined as a state opposite to jealousy, a fulfillment brought about by witnessing others have experiences that you desire. Compersion is beyond empathy; it is closer to emotional entanglement. In reading these soul-baring accounts of people I don’t know in relationships I can’t mimic, on trajectories I cannot follow, it feels like the ideal gay person is supposed to experience compersion for every strangers’ positive experience, and exist in state of sustained hyperempathy. Even minute exposure to this seems tiring to me, a person with robust boundaries between my self-concept and the media I consume. But to someone with a lower threshold, I imagine this sensation could be dangerous, and could easily result in emotional burnout or unrealistic expectations for personal relationships. The messaging behind so many of stories in this vein seems to be ‘love will save you from this bleak world’. That strikes me as a dangerous thing to promise, especially amongst demographics that statistically experience heightened rates of precarity.

I am currently counting down the clock on a large gender-affirming surgery, and these stories have taken on a new shade of offensiveness as a result. I see a great deal of messaging about how the ecstatic love of my communities will ferry me through my recovery. I have no caretakers; I have no lovers willing to spend weeks doing undignified things to assist me while I’m mostly incapacitated. I am not unusual in this way. I think most people would be met with a decent amount of skepticism if they reached out to their acquaintances to arrange this manner of intensive care for themselves. Yet if I am to believe the media I see, I should infer that my surgical results will be worse than average because I do not have the boundless support network made out by gay media to be the norm. I feel systematically alienated by this, and I’m someone with a decent amount of control over their emotions. Someone else could easily be driven to despair by this same idea. That’s an infohazard. It’s irresponsible to promote.

I would love to take the reins back on gay media and create an environment where nuance is encouraged, where facts matter, where celebrities are inconsequential, and where we don’t need to be spoon-fed optimism to feel secure about our place in the world. As an extended community, we have constructed very stupid idols that are due to be burnt. We shouldn’t need to construct this desperate folklore about how love will save us. Maybe we don’t need saving. Maybe we’re fine. Maybe the only sinking ship here is our skewed perception of our own vulnerability.

SELF AGAINST OTHER

Here’s a new self-isolation low to add to the list: I recently exposed myself through an infohazard through the medium of my own dreams.

I dreamed that I had flown halfway across the world to see a friend, but once there, she only seemed interested in dragging me through whirlwind a tour of her material successes: the perfect partner, the perfect bathroom remodel, the perfect landlord, his perfect wife, the perfect plant-based dinners they all shared. I found myself to be an accessory to their worldbuilding. In the dream, standing outside some bustling Berlin thrift shop while waiting on her partner, I told her “I’m not interested in any of this. I came here to see you.” She responded: “maybe you should consider that you’re an NPC here.”

Cue waking in a cold sweat, texting friends in a panic, etc. Could it be, that despite all my self-importance, I don’t matter at all?

NPC theory is one of the few useful models that my not-shitty intellectual circles have adopted from 4chan’s especially shitty incel-adjacent corners. An NPC lives a life according to routine, with little variation. An NPC feels it goes against form to strive for positions above their station, and while they may be unsatisfied by their mediocrity, they feel they have little power to change their circumstances. An NPC is, above all, predictable.

An NPC also exists on the periphery, parallel to a narrative but not integral to it. As someone who considers themself to be a healthy opportunist, I have made a point, at various times in my life, of hitching myself to particular zeitgiests and riding them for a while. While I may contribute work with some value, I am not often crucial to the zeitgeist’s success. This is accompanied by a certain amount of handwaving and ‘this suits me fine’ rationalizations; it is in my nature to be more of a support player than a firebrand (after all, I play bass. How could I not know this?). It’s structurally safe, yet vital to an operation’s utility. Yet with it comes a desire to be the person with enough recognizable je ne sais quoi to be believable as a protagonist.

The issue of whether or not NPC-dom resonates with you comes down to how you construct meaning. Ideally, meaning is highly subjective, with each individual constructing their own internal and self-sustaining support networks. Meaning should be able to survive without external influence, and should provide solace consistently and without significant sunk costs. It would seem that in a much healthier world, we’d all have our own proprietary meaning-software; in this model, everyone would be their own protagonist. Yet the issue with meaning is that when enough people share their internal models and find commonalities between them, you wind up with societal meaning-making that often foists its demands on people incompatible with them, I.E. when everyone tells you it’s time to get married and have children, when you don’t see yourself as being fundamentally cut out for that type of life. In the societal model of meaning-making, meaning is primarily sourced from others. It relies on reciprocal networks. If I matter to my someone, having meaning assigned to me has then willed me into a personally meaningful existence. I invest my resources into cultivating these links, and in return, I exist.

I tried to live according to the second model around 2017-2018, and it was an unmitigated disaster. It turns you into a performer. You have to be constantly trafficking in your own emotional availability or else you lose the plot. You’re basically yelling ‘MAKE ME A PROTAGONIST’ at everyone around you. ‘I’VE APPORTIONED MYSELF ACCORDINGLY, SO PLEASE, MAY I HAVE A CRUMB OF MUTUALLY-CONSTRUCTED SIGNIFICANCE.’ It was draining. Someone recently uncovered a candid photo of me from this time and I look like a POW: dead eyes, slumped posture, my ribcage dangerously visible. Yet every now and then, this method of meaning-construction comes back to haunt me, because unfortunately operating as a meaning-unit with other people is highly fulfilling, and also means you won at society. It is dangerously appealing, but I don’t find that I can sustain it without neglecting my capital-S Self.

So yes, the ideal method of meaning-construction is to assume you’re responsible for your own narrative. You were the protagonist all along. In admitting this I find myself to be a bit of an antihero, poisoning the well of what we typically assume to be the correct mode of fulfillment. Yet I think I’ll sleep better with that knowledge, that it’s ultimately more sustainable to leave mire of expectation in favor of personal fulfillment.

ARMY

As one does after most of a year in insolation with serotonin is in short supply, my roommate has gotten into Korean boy band, extreme GDP producer and probable psyop BTS. While waiting for their new album to drop on a livestream last night, she noted that people were posting to the chat at such a rapid pace that it made the entire screen flicker, threatening to crash YouTube’s infrastructure under the weight of thousands of rapid-fire “come to brazils“.

BTS’ official fan club, known as BTS Army, numbers some 40 million individuals. This means there are more officially registered fans of BTS than there are people in Saudi Arabia. It is an absolutely massive conglomeration that outstrips a number of key demographics in sheer size. So yes, BTS fans could easily band together and crash YouTube; they were certainly able to crash Trump’s online infrastructure earlier this year. The more I thought about it, the more it struck me: when it comes to groups united around a common cause or fandom, I can’t think of any other groups of this scale that aren’t registered political parties. For a fan club, Army has a massive amount of power. And after their forays into political activism surrounding the US presidential election, they’re starting to relish it.

So really, who needs to launch a DDoS attack or depose a wannabe dictator when you can just send Army to deal with it?

UNDER FIRE

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, California burned and noxious smoke consumed the West Coast. Hunkered down in my weather-sealed apartment, I was assigned to write about the fires for work. After a rather prosaic analysis of the conditions that lead to such reliably huge annual blazes (surprise! It’s capitalism!), I came to think that I was really onto something with the following idea, which I would use for the paper’s conclusion: since fire reduction efforts are 20-30 years behind and are unlikely to stop on what is now an exceedingly lethal yearly occurrence, what we really need is a psychological framework for surviving, if not thriving, in the Pyrocene.

The coping mechanisms I had been seeing in my peers were not workable, amounting to suicidal environmental nihilism. The more imaginative harbored near-paraphilic fantasies about human extinction saving the earth, which presume that some cosmic, highly Catholic idea of penance will exist even once the Catholics die out, and the reward for mankind’s sacrifice would be a world that can live on in peace (unfortunately, the world after us will continue to be filled with our microplastics and our carbon dioxide, so we cannot assume it will be kind to whatever species remain optimized for the post-anthro Anthropocene). Those less inclined to fantasy resorted to social media doomsaying, declaring ‘DON’T YOU GET IT? IT WILL NEVER GET BETTER. NOTHING WILL EVER BE NORMAL AGAIN’, an act of ugly self-commiseration in the middle of the digital agora. It wasn’t mass hysteria but mass dysphoria, the inconsolability of knowing the destruction won’t end. No life, they proclaimed, is worth this.

These sentiments amount to an intellectual death: there is no desire to persist or even regain functional equilibrium in either one. Yet I could not find an alternative that seemed useful. Mere blanket optimism is unreliable against the scale of these fire events, as one can only suspend their disbelief so far. The only positive response to climate nihilism I came across posited that we should continue to practice our individual ecological stewardship efforts not because they will have payoffs in the future, but because we can convince ourselves that they provide us with an inner sense of purpose. It sounds nice, until we consider that recycling does nothing and we console ourselves with our purchases because holistic care isn’t accessible or viable, so this individual stewardship method reads like just another failed avenue for American individualism.

What, then, is left to do? Pivot to absurdism? We need new paradigms to not only live but live well in these conditions, outside of pinning worths to lives vs. lifestyles vs. products and playing ecological calculus with all of them. We need a radical means of staying whole that isn’t rooted in existing philosophies, because people have never lived like this before, and existing philosophies won’t apply.

I thought I was truly on a roll with this. I made a big Facebook post, breathless about my new idea. I sent strings of excitable texts to my coworkers. What I failed to realize was that I had been breathing the same air for a week in my sealed apartment, and the poor oxygenation was making me loopy. This line of thinking had no place in a nonpartisan paper and I wound up cutting all but a sentence or two. Yet unwittingly, this meant I had stumbled onto something more trenchant. The psychology of surviving the Pyrocene isn’t about maintaining worth and dignity, at least not at first. At its most useful it will only teach you how to maintain baseline functionality when you can’t physically breathe the air.

A philosopher’s mistake: surviving isn’t about self-respect, at least not in the immediate sense. First, it has to be about filling your lungs with the correct molecules to sustain the electric goo in your skull, and how to avoid total derangement when those molecules aren’t readily available.

I don’t know what this would look like in practice. Some kind of death-positivist zen, most likely. This might be my project for the next fire season so I don’t fully embarrass myself before I realize what’s happening.

MACHINE POETRY

Carolee Schneemann, More Wrong Things, 2001

I’ve become a bit fascinated with GPT-3’s predictive text abilities. Beyond the potential to replace an entire wage tier of freelance journalists (dare I say good riddance?), GPT-3’s ability to unintentionally create art is probably the most successful thing about it. The ever-reliable Gwern tested this to great effect, with the AI returning the following poem when trained on acrostics:

…H A M M E R
H ands | Hands you must hold the hammer with to pound the nail
A rm | Arm you must raise to strike the nail to make it fall
M ind | Mind you must think with to know when to strike the nail
M achine | Machine you can make a hammer from a rock
E ngineer | Engineer you can be to make a better machine

H A M M E R
H uman | Human life is the most important thing we have
A ction | Action we must take to preserve life for all
M oment | Moment of time is what life is all about
E nd | End is something we all must face one day
R eason | Reason is why we should preserve life on Earth

This poem immediately reminded me of Russian poet and socialist organizer Aleksei Kapitonovich Gastev. A metalworker by trade, Gastev codified Soviet technology fetishism into the school of machinist poetry in the 1920s. Notable for its observationalist style and severe restriction of vocabulary and form, machinism repackaged poetry as technical instructions for life in an industrial age. In Gastev’s view, human cognition and anatomy could be honed through repetition to become ever more precise, with the ultimate goal of biomechanical perfection: man-as-machine in transcendent symbiosis with his tools, able to swing a hammer with profound, replicable accuracy or operate a typewriter with divine aplomb.

Per Gastev, poems were to be recited in “uniform batches…as if one were operating a machine”, that the listeners should perceive them as “a libretto of crucial processes.” Machinism provided instructions for technical mastery. See below, excerpted from Gastev’s 1921 publication A Packet of Orders:

To the machines.
Stand.
Pause.
Charge of attention.
Feed.
Switch on.
Auto.
Stop.
Half-minute interval. Switch over.
Operation B.
Method two, method four.
Seven.
Series twenty, begin work.

English translation via Flesh to Metal: Soviet Literature and the Alchemy of Revolution by Rolf Hellebust

Gastev is notable for predicting the datafication of the body at work about a century early: the optimized, measured, and surveilled body of Gastev’s mechanized laborers has a parallel in the modern employee subject to productivity tracking. Yet farther afield, the training of an AI such as GPT-3 represents a human-machine interface that Gastev could hardly have predicted. Gastev’s machines were tactile, iron and steel, blood and muscle. An AI, especially one tucked behind a proprietary API like GPT-3, is a black box. The user and the AI communicate in a sort of disjointed language, acting in tandem but without full knowledge of the mechanism that drives their mutual work. In this sense, AI is incompatible with Gastev’s vision, lacking in physicality and explicable processes. Yet if the goal of machinist art is to render the human more mechanical, is there not also potential for making the machine more humanlike? GPT-3, with its accidental artworks, might be an inverse machinist: a machine that aspires to reciprocally humanize its behavior.

RANDOM ENCOUNTERS

Judith Schepers, That Which Darkly Thrives, 2018

I wasn’t interested in playing Randonautica until it led two teens to a suitcase with a corpse inside, on a beach in my city. They put it on TikTok. Flash forward a few months, and a suspect is in custody.

Randonautica is approximately ten lines of buggy code in an ARG trench coat. All it does is generate coordinates, but does so with a modicum of style. The mystique of the app dwarfs the app itself. Enough users have reported confluences, strange occurrences while playing, that the app is now “haunted”, in Buzzfeed and HuffPost parlance. In my experience, the app is broken but serviceable. The user provides the haunting.

Here’s how it works: in a simulated chat screen, you select whether you want your coordinates to be an attractor (a place other users have visited, almost always a public park in my experience), a void (a place other users have not visited; typically inaccessible, or in the middle of a body of water), or an anomaly (some statistical middle ground between attractors and voids – I always select this option because it sounds the coolest, and has the potential to be the most interesting). You make your choice; a compass appears. The app tells you to focus on your intent. Once it spits up your coordinates, which takes an awfully long time, it redirects you to Google Maps, and you redirect yourself to your destination. You take a long walk. Going by car defeats the purpose; it’s about the journey, the chance encounters, the assemblages of geography laying themselves out underfoot. Ideally, you tell the app when you get to your destination and upload photos of the trip, but mine always crashes by the time I arrive, erasing any breadcrumbs I might have left it. You walk home.

Hungry for some excitement in the doldrums of quarantine, I thought to myself: sure. Let’s make my statistical likelihood of finding a dead body incrementally higher. The more places I visit on my walks, the more interesting things I am likely to find. Instead of bouncing between the same few familiar parks day in and day out, I’ll let myself be directed by chance. Along the way there will be trees, coffee opportunities, houses with no appeal other than being able to say that I have seen them, and possibly intrigue.

When you’re looking for anomalies, it follows that everything becomes an anomaly. Every pumphouse is an occult shrine and every side street is a crime scene when you want them to be. I have not found any bodies. More often than not, my destination is a mildly interesting car, which leads me to think that the “magnetism” of Randonautica’s coordinates has something to do with GPS data sourced from a mapping app. However, I have found some things I wouldn’t have found otherwise, which have brought me some wonderment, or at least amusement. They are:

  • a hidden park on the lakefront, with a dock just large enough for two people to sit and soak their feet in the water
  • two black cats (one would not let me pet it; one was too far away to pet), one orange cat (screamed in my face and then left fur all over my black pants)
  • two wooden footbridges with fantastic forest views
  • a church that looks like a Disney version of a medieval castle, complete with those parapets like gapped teeth, you know the ones
  • a grave, belonging to no one of importance (I checked)
  • a beautiful Victorian home, burnt mostly to the ground
  • many Little Free Libraries (take a book, leave a book), with a few books worth taking, on occasion. For some reason, I find Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick in these most often. Everyone apparently read this book and decided it was not worth saving; so I too now have a copy, and I will decide whether it’s worth saving.
  • a 1940s pickup truck, lovingly restored
  • a purple Mustang
  • many wild rabbits, each one small and round and precious

Maybe someday I’ll find that corpse, me and all of the TikTok teenagers hoping for some excitement in a world that has been mostly compacted down to our immediate neighborhoods. In the meantime, while bodies generally do not abound, novelty does, if you know not where to look but how to look.