Please join me in welcoming guest writer Christi Peterman for this week's Fresh Story! This is a moving piece about love and loss and what it truly means to receive a gift. I think you'll really like it.
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Each one should faithfully use whatever gift he has received to serve others.
Friday, my brother, our spouses, and I began the third “round” of disassembling mom’s house plate by plate, dish by dish, linen by linen, pillow by pillow, box by box, what-not by what-not. This followed her death on December 30, 2015. We knew what we would find along the way with regards “stuff”, but we were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what mom had acquired and neatly organized in closets and drawers over the years. Things we had never seen or used or shared or enjoyed with her. There were several sets of dishes with matches linens, a plethora of shoes we had not seen on her feet but maybe once or twice, decorations that were used at Christmas for a year and then stored or not used at all, gift items bought with the intent of one day giving, etc….Mom’s collection of stuff is not to be confused with your idea of hoarding; there was no clutter, nor were there piles. She liked her things, but she wanted them neatly put away.
We tediously unearthed the treasures and repeatedly found items that we or someone we knew had given her that had clearly never been opened or used! There was a decorative show shovel with a cute winter scene on it that still had the tag on it, which was given to her by a dear friend. The friend, who mom loved, clearly wanted this gift to bring joy to mom. I found the Hot Sox I bought her to keep her cold feet warm in the winter that she never took out of the package. In the back of a closet we discovered a wind chime made of “old looking” tin pans and bowls. I recall that I bought both of us one of these many years ago just knowing how she would enjoy hearing it when the wind blew. Mine had long deteriorated due to weather and wind. Hers was unopened and never enjoyed. Someone found a luscious feeling throw for the couch that I know she got from a grandchild for Christmas two years ago which was meant to remind her of him and keep her toasty as she watched her beloved ballgames on TV. It was never taken out of the box. There were also cookbooks (even though she loved cookbooks) that you could tell had never cracked the cover on to enjoy. My sister-in-law said you could always tell whether or not mom would use a gift she received; if she was not going to use it, she returned it neatly to its box and set it aside. She would, of course, say all the right things in appreciation, which gave the giver a false sense of joy.
This author’s point here is not to say that we should not give gifts. Speaking from this experience, I want to pose these questions; with what intent do we give gifts? What is the purpose of a gift? Should we all rethink gifting?
As I look out by window and see the wind chime I gave mom gently swinging in the breeze with its gently clanging sound, I am saddened by the loss of joy that this gift gave my mom. When I bought it for her, I envisioned this moment for her. I envisioned her looking at it and hearing it and thinking of me; a child who thought of her when she bought it. When the friend who gave her the decorative shovel saw that mom had obviously never used it, she had a momentary look of sadness on her face. It was also a look of “this didn’t bring the joy to Faye that I thought it would.” I was sad each time the “giver” found an unopened gift because they were robbed of knowing it brought joy. Possibly we should’ve not been looking for gifts for her (and others) outside of ourselves, but inside ourselves. Maybe those kinds of gifts would bring the greater joy.
To apply this experience to real life my thought is that the old saying, “the joy of giving is greater than the joy of getting” is true. The giver spends time and thought (for the most part) getting something for a person they think will bring joy, a smile, and happiness. The recipient, on the other hand, should be able to not only enjoy the gift, but all that it represents; love, friendship, warmth, caring, thoughtfulness. The question for us is this; would we be better off giving gifts of time, service, energy, and simplicity (Not every time, of course!)? These are things that require just as much thought, but are guaranteed to be opened and enjoyed!
To apply this to spiritual beliefs, all of us are given “gifts.” That is what makes us unique. Our mom’s gift was the gift of never meeting a stranger. She also had the gift of graciousness and being kind of others. She gave the gift of true friendship. As she got older and wiser all of these gifts intensified. She liked to give. Yes, she also gave material gifts and did so with great gusto. When it came to material gifts, she was such a “Santa Claus” all year. She listened to your everyday conversations and comments and knew your needs and wants. We loved it! But basically, she gave her love, hugs, long conversations, wit, humor, and graciousness. Those were her spiritual gifts.
As for what I have learned from the unearthing of mom’s material treasures; I will give a LOT more thought to any gifts I give. If I cannot come up with a gift that I KNOW I will never find in the back of someone’s closet unopened, I will give them a gift certificate for time, service, or a dedicated 30 days of prayer for them, or a homemade treat……something that will bring joy to me and to them and can’t be ignored!!!!
In the end, I will ponder the unopened gifts that we found at mom’s house. This writer is lead to ponder what “unopened gifts” are in my heart and my soul that need to be discovered which could truly impact those that I love? I can tell you this for sure; the gifts are DEFINITELY NOT HOT SOX AND WIND CHIMES!
With Peace and Love,
About the Author
I am a recently retired principal with a total of 32 years in education. My husband and I have four adult children between us and three grandchildren. My passions in life are reading, cross-stitching, baking, and the enjoyment of family and friends. Being an avid reader for as along as I can recall probably laid the foundation for my love of writing. The messages that authors convey on a sheet of paper have always fascinated me. For me personally, I enjoyed the fact that I could manipulate words to get my point across, send a message, persuade, please someone, or honor someone. Only recently have I written and shared personal thoughts and stories with others. I have been pleasantly surprised that readers have enjoyed what I have written. I hesitate to call myself a writer. Rather, I refer to myself as an "expressor of words."
Q: How long have you been writing?
For as long as I can remember.
Q: who/what are some of your favorite writers/books?
As a young person, I was addicted to the infamous Nancy Drew books! I could never get enough Nancy Drew! That fueled my passion for books by John Grisham, Mary Higgins Clark, and Dorothea Benton Frank.
Q: what do you like to write about?
I like to write about things that reflect real life experiences.
Q: As a writer, what inspires you?
Life. Plain and simple.
Q: What is the best writing advice that you've ever been given?
Write legibly; that never worked, so I am extremely thankful for fast typing skills!
The third and final installment of In Vacuo is below. In this part of the story Alex gets his first chance to prove himself.
Let me know what you think in the comments section.
As a reminder, Fresh Story Friday will be returning on 12/2.
In Vacuo - Part (3/3)
‘Alright, so I came up with just, ah, a list of, like, some things that we should be testing in these cells.’
I turned my back to the group and started writing on the whiteboard. This group, five in total, including myself, consisted of all of the members of the Doane group that were currently working on electrolyte additives for lithium-ion batteries.
‘Okay, so, a lot of this I took from Jim’s email but I threw in a couple more things that might be worth considering.’
This was me in my element. There was a time when I was a hands-on cell engineer; when I spent hours on end in the lab, elbows-deep in the glovebox assembling cells, staying late, getting tests started. And I was good at it. Actually, I was pretty damn good at it. But, it’s that thing where, if you become good enough at something you’ll eventually be asked to stop doing it and start teaching other people how to do it like you do it. That’s the point that I’d reached at MagTech. By the time I left, I was more of an engineering manager than an engineer, which, like everything, has its pros and cons. True, I was a little rusty with the hands-on, nitty-gritty of cell-making, but I’d gotten pretty good at putting together a DOE and I knew how to effectively run a meeting. I guess that’s why Jim asked me to host this ‘MIT chin-wagging session’ to qualify and validate the 280mAh pouch cells that the Doane group had recently received for electrolyte testing.
‘Okay, so, as per Jim’s email, we need to look into the following.’ I looked down at the printed copy of the email that Jim sent out earlier that week where I had also added a few of my own notes. ‘So, we need to get the dee-vee dee-cue data for the half-cells.’
I grabbed a blue marker and made a horizontal dash on the board. Next to it, I wrote ½ cells for DV/DQ.
‘We gotta lock down the electrolyte volume. Jim suggested starting at point seven grams, but I think Pred followed up saying that we should do one point two, so I was thinking that we’d start at, like, point nine and work our way up incrementally to one point two. That sound good to everyone?’ I turned around and looked at the four battery researchers seated at the round table behind me and got a few vague head-nods. ‘Yeah? Cool.’ I turned to the board and, after the second dash, I wrote Elyte amount - 0.9g+.
I continued on in this fashion, writing up bullet points, looking back at the table behind me for occasional acknowledgement or feedback, then writing some more. Adding notes next to the bullet points when necessary. Some of the experiments were crossed out, some were modified, until eventually we had a pretty comprehensive list of experiments that covered about half the width of the dry-erase board. We then went through and decided on who was responsible for what and I wrote their initials beside the respective bullet points. Then, recognizing that some items were more important than others and that some experiments needed to be done before you could start others, we went through and gave each action item a ranking of one, two or three. One, being the highest priority, was reserved for experiments that could be described as qualification. These were the minimum tests that needed to be done in order for us to use these cells. Two was standardization, which focused on locking down certain testing parameters to ensure that all of our testing was carried out in a similar way. A ranking of three meant that the test was focused on optimization/application. That is, tests with this ranking were really meant to fine-tune our previous work and/or were focused on obtaining the initial real testing data. Data that would go into papers.
After we assigned ownership and priorities to everything, we came up with a few initial cycling parameters. For these I drew heavily from Matt’s input. For all intents and purposes, Matt Shaw was the most senior battery guy in the Doane group. He was a fourth year physics PhD student and, while there were other members who’d been there longer than him, he was one of the co-inventors of the HRC and, as a result, had published the most papers of anyone else in the group. He was from Rhode Island and he wore Fleetwood Mac T-shirts and had a receding hairline that, at the age of 26, had already retreated into a 3-4’ long peninsula of hair jutting right down the middle of his scalp. When talking with him, I would catch myself running my fingers through the thick, light-brown forest on the top of my head. I would let out a slow breath through my nose and would accept the fact that life wasn’t fair and that sometimes people get things that they don’t deserve.
‘So we’ll, I know Jim is going to want to have the formation cycle and the rest of the cycling data in one file.’ Matt said this as he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. ‘So we’ll just, what we’ve done in the past is, for LMO, I’m pretty sure this is LMO, we’ll do the formation cycling and hold it at three point six volts for two hours so that you can come in, suspend your channel, degas it, and put it back on for cycling.’
‘Well, alternatively, we could just stick to using the Maccors for this round of testing. That way we can use the append to archived test feature and not have to worry about catching the cell in that two-hour window, right?’
‘Uh,’ Matt furrows his brow and quickly looks over at the others seated at the table and gives me that creeping halfway smile that you give someone when they’ve just said something stupid. ‘Maccor doesn’t have an append feature.’
‘It does. It’s part of the advanced start options on the opening dialog box that pops up when you start a test.’
‘I don’t think so.’ Again with that you’re a dumbass smile on his face, only this time more exaggerated. ‘Chuck Mills at Maccor told me you couldn’t append files on there. I was asking him about this a while back.’
‘Hmmm. That’s, I don’t know why he would say that. Unless you guys have an older version of MacTest thirty two. I used to append files all the time.’
‘Really? Well, if you think the guys at Maccor are wrong, you’re welcome to try it out. A-a-and let us know if it works. This would be really helpful to a lot of people.’ His tone was doubtful and laced with sarcasm.
‘Yeah, okay. I’ll check it out right after this and send out an email to everyone. I might need to update the software, but that should be easy enough to do.’ I took a breath in through my nose and looked around at the other members of the group seated at the table. ‘Okay. So, is that it? Anything else? Any questions? Anything?’
They all looked around at each other and shook their heads. ‘No, I think that about covers it,’ Matt said.
Nirav, a post-doc from southern India spoke up; ‘Yes. This is good.’
‘Alright. Thanks guys. I’ll, uh, I’ll capture all of this in a word document and disseminate it around to everyone.’
‘And you’ll check on appending files on the Maccor?’
‘Yep, I’ll look into that right after I leave here.’
‘All right,’ Matt said, with a slight chuckle.
Everyone started getting up and shuffling together the various pieces of paper and folders and books that they’d brought in with them.
‘Bye, thanks Alex.’
‘No problem. Thank you.’ I turned around and pulled out my phone and took a picture of the dry-erase board that was covered in notes. Then I grabbed an eraser and wiped off the blue dry-erase ink in clean rectangular streaks. This was my first chance to prove myself here and I’d killed it. I could feel it deep down in my bones.
I gathered up all of my stuff from the room and walked up to the third floor lab. I had about an hour and a half to kill before I had to return to this same room to TA the first year physics students for six hours so I figured I’d go check out the append file feature on the Maccors, run over to Subway real quick, then still have time to transcribe the notes from today’s meeting and email them out to everyone.
There was no one around when I walked into the lab. The only sounds were those of the cyclers humming and beeping away in the background. I sat down in front of the Maccor. Okay, I thought. Let’s see who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I jerked around the mouse in loose circles until the screen awoke from sleep mode. I clicked on a channel at random, channel 14, and the font turned green as the status changed from Available to Selected. Alright, right-click, start test. Sure enough the start test box popped up. I looked at the bottom right corner of the prompt box where the Advanced Start button should be.There was nothing there.
I could feel the color leaving my face. My chest felt hollow. Shit! Shit-shit-shit! I’d just gotten into a battery testing pissing contest over the existence of this feature and now, in the place where this button should be, there was a tan, blank nothingness. No. No, I couldn’t start off my tenure in the Doane group like this. I couldn’t publicly contradict one of the senior members of the group and then turn out to be wrong. Think. Think-think-think. Why isn’t the Advanced Start button there? Why? Why-why-why-why-why-why?
I sat there, hunched over and staring dumbly at the computer screen. I’m not crazy, right? I know that I’ve used this feature before. But why isn’t it here? Was this software out-of-date? No, I could tell by the interface that this was either the newest or second newest release of MacTest32; both of which definitely had the Advanced Start feature. Why, then, was the bottom right corner of this prompt box so glaringly smooth and button-less? Then I remembered something. Something about how this button disappeared if you had multiple channels selected. Yes. That’s right! You couldn’t use the advanced start option if you had more than one channel selected.
I x-ed out of the prompt box and scrolled down the list of 96 channels. Sure enough, there it was. Second from the bottom, channel 95 and the word Selected radiating from the monitor in barely-readable neon green on a white background. I clicked it and the status changed to Available as the font reverted back to black. I then scrolled back up to channel 14, right-clicked, Start Test, and there it was, in the bottom right corner of the prompt box, in all of it’s rectangular, courier font glory; the Advanced Start button.
Things were going to be okay.
-- the end
 Design of Experiments
Again, my apologies for the late story. I had an eventful weekend.
Anyway, this week's story is part (2/3) of In Vacuo. If you haven't read part one yet, you may click here to read it before continuing any further. I'll wait....
In this story, Amanda and Alex come up with their official Sugar Twin aliases (or ali?), Thaniel and Tamuald, respectively. And Amanda makes a scene in a restaurant. Throw in a little cheeky banter, and, bam! you got yourself a story.
Let me know what you think in the comments section.
In Vacuo - Part 2
Amanda takes a sip of her coffee.
I purse my lips and squint my eyes as I look at her. ‘Stay Sweet,’ I say, in the same obscenely-effeminate voice from before.
Phbbbbbbb! Amanda leans over to her left and spews coffee out on the floor next to her chair as she breaks out into strained, gasping laughter.
‘Jesus Christ!,' I say, as I grab the edge of the table and push myself back in my chair. ‘Get a hold of yourself!’ I turn around and look towards the cash register. No one there. I look back at Amanda.
‘Ugh. Uh man,’ she uses the side of her hand to wipe off speckles of coffee and drool from her mouth. ‘I think some of that came out my nose.’
‘They’re going to kick us outta here,' I say, as I hand her a napkin. 'Here,’
‘Oh, man.’ She wipes the corners of her eyes with the knuckle of her index finger and reaches over and takes the napkin from me.
‘How bad is it?,’ I say, as I push back from the table and look underneath.
‘It’s not bad,' she says, as she grabs the napkin and leans over the side of her chair. 'I got it.’ She uses the napkin to blot up the spray of light brown liquid from the floor and the wall.
‘Hey,’ she says, as she comes back up. ‘At least I was able to aim it toward the wall.’ She wads up the coffee-stained cloth with her hands and places it at the edge of the table.
‘Ha! That’s true. I, ha, I don’t know what I would've done it you just, like, spewed in my face.’
‘Ha! Just like that.’ Amanda makes a motion with her hand like she's spraying a cone of liquid onto my face.
‘Yeah, ha! I don’t know. I think I would've just, like, sat there and taken it.’ I sit upright with my arms folded and my eyes closed. ‘I would've just, like, not moved while you cleaned it up off of my face.’
‘Damn! You would’ve just taken in the face?’
‘Yep! Wouldn’t even flinch. I mean, how many times in your life to do you get the opportunity to have someone just spray a mouth full of coffee, head-on, right into your face like that?’
‘I guess that’s a good point.’
‘Right? And, likewise, that’s another thing on my bucket list; to spray a mouthful of liquid - doesn't have to be coffee - into someone else’s face and have them just sit there and take it.’
‘Damn. We could have each had a bucket list item crossed off just now. If only I’d not turned away and sprayed coffee in your face instead,’ to which Amanda slaps her forehead with the palm of her hand.
‘Oh well. There’s always next time.’
We continued to sip our coffee cautiously. I scan around the restaurant to find that we were the only one’s there. I think there might have been another table when we arrived but I guess they’d left. Possibly at some point during the coffee spewing scene.
‘Did I ever tell you about the, uh, about those twins that I went to school with?’
‘No, I don’t think so.’ She holds the mug out in front of her mouth with both hands, blowing on it between sips.
‘The Wilson brothers; Nathaniel and Samuel Wilson. Well, the thing is, though, it feels weird referring them by their names like that.’
‘How so?,’ Amanda says as she scrunches her eyebrows over her cup of coffee.
‘Well, the thing is, they had, both of them had this, like, speech impediment. It was like, kind of like a lisp, but more than that. I can’t,’ I look up to the left and shake my head. ‘I can’t think of, like, how to describe it. But, basically, I only ever knew them as Thaniel and Tamuald.’
‘Are you serious? That’s awesome.’
‘Yeah, I remember I used to think that they had a British accent.’
‘Yeah, I mean, I’d been in school with them since, like, kindergarten. Maybe even preschool, so I don’t know where I thought they picked this accent up from. And I’d met their parents, neither of which had a British accent. But, I don’t know.’ I shrugged my shoulders. ‘They just talked really weird.’
‘Huh? Maybe their parents made them watch the BBC at home?’
‘Yeah, maybe. Anyway, I remember being in first grade with them and, uh, and they were like really into Thomas the Train and - you remember Thomas the Train, right?’
‘Well, yeah, they were like really into that and, like, trains in general. And I remember that they would, like, bring their Thomas the Train toys to class and sit up front in the corner by the door and just, like play with their trains and giggle and talk to each other all during class. Every now and then they would get into these really loud giggle fits and the teacher would have to quiet them down. I’m pretty sure that if they were growing up today they would be diagnosed with Asperger’s.’
‘Damn. Whatever happened to them?’
‘I don’t know, I --’
‘Okay.’ The server appeared at the table with a steaming plate in each hand. ‘I have z’bacon and z’ham,’ to which she gently placed a plate of food in front of Amanda. ‘And z’sausage.’ I picked up my coffee cup and held it up to my chest as she put the other plate in front of me.
‘Awesome, thank you!’
‘Thanks,’ Amanda said.
‘No problem. Anysing else?’
We scanned around the table and glanced over at each other’s platters. ‘Nope, I think that’s it, thanks.’
‘Some more coffee?,' the server asks.
‘Uhhh.’ I looked down into my coffee cup. ‘Sure.’
‘Okay, I’ll be right back.’
I looked down at my plate; at the golden mound of scrambled eggs with cheese; at the lump of crisp potato shavings; at the glistening bumpy surface of the sausage patties with the little pool of grease running out from underneath. This was it then. Another $6.99 - my food allowance for three days - and I was about to gobble it all up in one sitting.
But there was something that I was thinking of earlier. Some justification. Some reason why I was okay splurging on a breakfast platter today. Ah, yes, that’s right. Yesterday’s chin-wagging session. Yes, yes I’d done well. I’d done well and this was my victory meal. Yeah I thought, as I looked down at my plate and nodded. I’ve earned these eggs.
- to be continued...
Thank you for showing so much love for last week's guest writer, Kathryn Mattingly! And Kathryn, if you're reading this, thank you again for allowing me to publish your beautiful piece on my site. I look forward to collaborating again in the future.
Anyway, below is this week's story, In Vacuo. This tale finally reveals the origin of The Sugar Twins... duh duh dunn...
Let me know what you think in the comments section!
Also, A note about this story and future Fresh Story Fridays; this work will be presented in (3) parts. Parts 2-3 will be published on the following (2) Fridays, 11/11 & 11/18, respectively. The next Fresh Story Friday will be on 12/2, and will switch to a monthly feature after that, falling on the first Friday of the month. The reason for this is simply because I am consumed with finishing up the last +5% of my manuscript and I am finding it a little too overwhelming for me to keep up with the weekly newsletter/fresh story in addition to putting in the work that I need to on my novel.
But, on the upside, switching to a monthly commitment is going to allow me to do some pretty exciting things both with the stories and the newsletter. What kinds of things? Check out my newsletter to find out:
‘So I was thinking that, in order to make it easy to put on and take off, I would stick to kay-eff fittings for this. I mean, I’d have to replace the antechamber door with a kay-eff gate.’
‘Yeah,’ Jim said, ‘but you’re not going to be able to get the same vacuum.’
I was expecting this response. Actually, I was only partially expecting this response. In my head I was waiting for his response to this to gauge how deeply he would think about the problem. While it is true that a KF fitting would not be able to achieve the same vacuum as a CF fitting, it was negligible because the door-and-latch CF shutter that was currently being used to bring samples in through the antechamber was actually sealed by a rubber o-ring, probably Buna-N. That being said, the antechamber is still subject to the outgassing of the rubber o-ring and would not be able to achieve a base pressure lower than 10-8 Torr anyway. Switching to a KF-50 gate valve would not adversely affect the vacuum level of the antechamber at all.
‘Right, so,’ I used the tip of my pen to point to the gate on the drawing. ‘This should be able to get you down to ten-to-the-minus-eight, which is more than enough for the antechamber. I’ve already talked to Ivan about it and he’s okay with it. I checked the size of the opening and you’re only going to lose about a half inch, but you’ll still have, like, a two inch diameter to transfer your samples through, which is more than enough.’
Jim had his right forearm on the table and leaned over the drawing to where he was below my height. He pointed up to the top of the page. ‘Is this what you’re calling it?’
‘Ha, yeah. That was Ivan’s idea.’
‘Vacuum-Suitcase.’ He nodded his head and smiled. ‘I like it.’
* * * * * * * * * *
‘Gettin’ that fuckin’ Plattitudez.’
‘You’re Platt’n it up?’
‘Yep. What’re you gettin’?’
‘Hmm.’ She twisted her lips into a sideways S and looked down at the menu. ‘I don’t know, man. I mean, everything looks so good.’
‘Can’t go wrong with that Platitude.’
‘I feel like I get the platter every time.’
We were sitting at one of the tables set up along the left wall as you walked in. I was facing the front door and the strip-mall-windowed-entrance. I was sitting opposite Amanda and propped up against the wall. One of my only frail shows of chivalry when I’m out for a meal with a girl is to take the seat with the worst view by default. However, I have a mental partition in my psyche between friends and girls and Amanda, as the universe hath thus willed it, was in the former category. We ran on an alternating seating schedule. This was my turn to have the better view.
‘What can I get for you?’
The proprietors of Laura’s were from some indiscriminant Slavic country and they said their w’s with a barely discernable vh- sound.
‘You ready?’ I look over at Amanda and she strains the corners of her mouth as she bends over and scans the menu more closely.
‘Uh, you go ahead. I’ll, I’ll be ready by the time you order.’
The server turns and looks down at me with her hands clasped together at her midsection. ‘Vhat can I get you?’
‘Can I please get a, uh, a water and a coffee…’
There’s also something about they way she says cream. There’s an extra h or a vowel or something there. Kind of like the way that I used to pronounce Karim’s name - Kha-reem, but subtler than that.
‘Yes please. And I’d like to order the platter, please.’
‘Can I get bacon and two sausage patties, please?’
‘Szure. Hesh browns okay?’
‘Yes.’ I folded up the menu and handed it up to her. ‘Thank you.’
‘Szank you.’ She took the menu from me and tucked it under her arm and turned to Amanda. She smiled down at Amanda and said nothing.
‘Uh, I’ll have a coffee and a water too.’
‘And, uhhhh…I’ll get…’ She looked down at the menu briefly then folded it in front of her and looked up at the server. ‘I’ll get the platter too, please.’
Amanda looked over at me after she said this and I squinted my eyes and nodded.
‘Can I get the ham? The bacon and the ham, please. And hash browns too, please?’
‘Szure. Szank you,’ she said, as she took Amanda’s menu and folded it under her arm next to mine. ‘I will be right back with z’coffee.’
‘Fantastic, thank you.’
In my head I was doing the math, okay, platter; $6.99, coffee; $1.99. Nine dollars. Two dollar tip. $11. Good. I had $14 in my wallet and about $22 dollars in my checking account. So that will leave me with, er, $25 for the remainder of the month. That’s about $2+ dollars a day. Okay. Okay, I can swing that. I got ramen and canned soup and enough weed to last me until payday.
That’s the thing with being poor. There’s this constant gnawing at the back of your brain; this incessant voice that pops up whenever you spend any finite amount of money on anything that says you can’t afford that. Every dollar that I spent on anything besides minimum articles needed to sustain life came with a black fugue of guilt and paranoia. I had a good, financially stable life back in Cambridge and I knew that I was going to need to make some drastic cutbacks in my lifestyle when I went to grad school, but this?! This was a level of poverty that I’d never known before. Even when I was doing my undergrad I was getting more money from the GI Bill than I was currently getting from my graduate research stipend. I don’t know how they expected people to live like this. I didn’t know how I was going to live like this. All I knew was that I had to live like this and I had to do it for the next four years. I’d travelled too far to fail. I’d given up too much to let a little poverty get in my way. But for now I tried not to think about that. Right now I was out at breakfast with Amanda and I was the newest member of the most elite battery research group in the world. Neither the empty refrigerator in my apartment nor the daily string of unanswered phone calls could change that.
‘Okaay.’ The server came back balancing a tray of beverages. ‘Here is z’coffee,’ she said as she placed steaming mugs in front of both of us. She went on, naming each item as she placed it on the table. ‘And z’cream… and z’waters.’
‘Okay.’ She turned the tray sideways and tucked it under her arm. Then she clasped her hands together loosely in front of her waist. ‘Anysing else?’
I made a forced frown and raised my eyebrows as I scanned around the table. ‘No, I uh, I think we’re all good, thanks.’
‘Thanks,’ Amanda said.
‘You’re velcome. Z’food vill be out shortly.’ Then she did a slight bow and retreated back into the kitchen.
I reached over for the packets of sugar that were filed away in a rectangular ceramic dish at the end of the table against the wall. I did this thing that I learned from my dad, where I would grab two packets at a time and, holding them side-by-side, I would flick them so that the sugar would settle out at the bottom before ripping off the top of the two packets in one move. Then I’d pour the two packs into my coffee simultaneously. Incidentally, most of the things that I distinctly remember learning from my dad involve beverages. For example, when you’re drinking beer from a can, you can use your index finger to put a little dent in the can opposite of the opening so that you’ll always know where the mouthpart is without having to look down and take your eyes off the road. There are many things that can be said about William James but, admittedly, he is the safest drunk driver I’ve ever known.
I grabbed two packets of sugar and began to go through my flick-rip-poor routine when something on the label caught my eye.
I held the packet up next to my face and curled the corners of my mouth and looked over at Amanda. ‘Sugar Twins,’ I said, in my most obscenely-effeminate voice.
‘Ha! You mean Twin Sugar?’
I looked back at the packet. ‘Oh. Shit.’
'Ha!' Amanda patted the table lightly as she shakes her head and laughs, 'Sugar Twin!'
There was as series of muffled dinks as I stirred the sugar into my coffee with a spoon. Then I poured in the cream and watched the fluid spiral as it got caught up with the circling motion of the hot liquid. I picked up an empty packet and examined it out in front of me.
‘I think I was thrown off by how big the word sugar is. Look at it.’ It turned the empty packet around so Amanda could see. ‘It’s like twin…SUGAR!’
‘Totally,’ Amanda said. ‘Plus, Sugar Twins is like a way cooler name anyway.’
-- to be continued
Please join me in welcoming my guest writer for this week, the very talented Kathryn Mattingly! I am honored to bring you her short story Cheating Paradise, which was a winner of the Writer's Digest Short Fiction Contest. I really like how she manages to give this story a dreamy feel yet keep it grounded in reality with crafty descriptions of people/places/things. I can't think of a more pleasant way to start your weekend than being warmed by Kathryn's beautiful prose.
Show some love in the comments section.
By: Kathryn Mattingly
It is hard truths
Make us run.
Make us hide.
My view from this room has deeply affected me, like a painting that speaks to the soul through the artist’s brush. At first all I saw was the very average and dated décor. When slipping through the sliding door onto the deck, disappointment was further felt at how small the inlet was with its white sandy beach barely bigger than a picture post card. There were lots of native Hawaiians everywhere at first glance, and although I found them interesting, they were somewhat intimidating. At least, upon my initial arrival to shores more foreign than familiar.
But slowly the view from my deck transformed… became interesting, as it gathered personality and depth, just as you did. The cumbersome black lava dock that seemed less than picturesque with its noisy machinery - at second glance - is merely the backdrop for the tiny boat-studded bay. Dock activities upon even closer examination are one intriguing event after another, and never boring to observe from my binoculars.
The sailboats bobbing in the sea beside the broad dock have set my heart to dreaming unencumbered dreams that have no boundaries, no rules to fence me in. There is just ocean blending into sky as my thoughts soar unrestrained.
I have observed the mood shifts of this scene outside my window, created by the different shades of light and array of sounds, just as I know your moods by heart. Each morning a rooster crows in the distance while pigeons coo in nearby palms. The sky glows a soft pink and hills beyond the bay shimmer in a rosy mist. Canoes and kayaks are neatly arranged on the early morning shore, and there is order in the peaceful dawn, where soon there will be chaos.
After the rooster quits crowing and the mist on the hills lift, people begin to appear on the beach and along the wide dock. Skippers are preparing their boats to set sail, or transport divers and deep-sea fishing tourists to where they can renew their spirits. Each day they embark upon a different adventure and capture another memory to sustain them on the mainland through stress filled days ahead of hectic routines, just as our stolen moments sustain me through the harrowing weeks without you.
By mid-day toddlers run in the shallow waves and lovers lay side by side on towels letting lotion-drenched bodies absorb the mystical powers of a tropical sun. Kneading out knots formed by a career of choice, spouse of choice, lifestyle of choice. Loosening muscles constricted by daily duties that weigh us down and send us looking for where the clock stops. Where time stands still. Where palm trees, sun, surf and sand merge as one priceless therapy session.
Early evening brings a subtle breeze to lick at hot, oiled skin and clear out semi-conscious thoughts of selling everything you own and leaving everything you are to come here and be someone else, anyone else. The lights begin to glow in the lamps that dot the shore and line the dock of the tiny mystical inlet, or fantastical lazy bay. The harbor changes color like a chameleon, from sea greens and misty blues to shades of melon and peach as a tender sunset caresses the shoreline.
In the middle of the night I lean on the rail and feel as one with this setting, as I now feel as one with you. The sprinkling of lights everywhere give feathery shadows to the palm leaves moving ever so slightly in the balmy, barely distinguishable breeze. Sounds are noticeably nocturnal. Hushed, reverent. Lush greenery rustles - swaying like a whisper, and the tide is but a tiny ripple kissing the sand. Boats in the harbor are moored with creaking ropes that strain against the lapping sea. Silent twinkling stars light hills beyond the bay. Nothing stirs in the predawn but my imaginings.
A morning serenade from the neighboring rooster awakens me. The native birds are quiet, but can be heard in the late afternoon as a frenzied chorus of chirping in the bushes beside the paths traveled endlessly by browned, barefooted beings. I know the routine well - the sights, the sounds, the life outside my railing on this miniature island beachfront postcard, with the long wide dock and glistening sea-blue bay. It is holding me hostage for a fraction of time, an instant. It is a taste of what life can be at its most illusive height of non-reality –just as you are.
I have come to know your sounds - your touch. Memories of you tickle me like a soft tropical breeze. Who you are has melted into who I am, similar to this view, this inlet, this bay of sailboats silhouetting the horizon. You are my paradise. You fill me up with your poetry, like exotic flowers - delicate, fragile, oozing a sweet scent. Luring me in, seducing my senses. Like blossoms on the breeze, salt spray in my hair, your hands on my body. Caressing, arousing – tasting, tantalizing.
Your love is like shimmering colors in the mist, with no hope on the horizon, as we dare to dream beyond where even sailboats boldly roam. I lie near the shoreline where waves rush over me. Foamy, frothy, and glistening as they soak into the sand beside me, as I sink into your strong arms, fall into your mirage of safekeeping from the world. For only an instant - like paradise - fleeting, costly, not obtainable, not really. Not for long. Not forever. Not for every day tangible touchable reality. Because we have lives to return to, love ones to protect, lies to tell.
Why do we hide who we really are, what we really are all about? Why do we cling to images and illusions that define us through others, but not through our own eyes? How did fear and deceit come to rule us? What courage it would take to give up the falsehoods we hide behind, to respect others with our honesty. We are cheating those who trust in us to be true, cheating on private beaches with stolen moments.
What could be more foolish than that?
I am sad to leave this room and this view that I have grown so accustomed to. I will mourn the loss of my short stay in paradise. I will never forget the sounds and the moods, the various settings of light and shadow. Like the back of my hand, I know this picture of perfection - these palm trees, lush hills, and sleek sailboats. This harbor will live forever in my mind, only its details fading with time.
But the monstrous dark lava dock will remain crystal clear to me always, because it is part of the real world, the everyday busy working world. It is the link from fantasy to reality, the lifeline that clearly defines the truth of the matter - I cannot return again to your open arms, any more than I can ever forget our time in paradise, our last hurrah, our final kiss, our love that could only leave a wake of destruction in its path.
An illusion of integrity merely makes a mockery of it.
And so the tiny picture postcard of our shared fantasy will sit unassumingly in the journal of my life, and if I could write upon the back and mail it to your door, my sweet, lost, forbidden love, it would simply say that paradise comes with a cost.
And that price is more than I can bear.
- The End
About the Author:
Kathryn has taught writing at numerous private colleges. Aside from her literary suspense novels and short story collection with Winter Goose Publishing, her work can be found in a dozen small press anthologies and several print magazines. Kathryn has been fortunate enough to win five awards for her fiction. She coordinates the Top of the Mountain writing contest for the Northern Colorado Writer’s Conference and is an annual judge for the Writer’s Guild Harvest Festival in Bend, Oregon. When not writing, she can be found reading or engaging with good friends and great wine. Her third literary suspense novel Olivia’s Ghost will be released in just a few short weeks.
Amazon Page: Kathryn Mattingly
This week's Fresh Story is especially surreal for me because I'm composing it from the beautiful Halifax Central Library. That's right; I'm here for a few days for research, relaxation, and, of course, Nocturne. Just had an excellent brunch at Black Sheep*, now it's time to write.
The third and final part of The Doane Group is below. If you're in the "battery scene" then there might be a few characters in this one that seem familiar to you. I would, however, like to remind everyone that this is a fictional story and any resemblance to actual individuals, living or dead.... blah blah blah... is purely coincidental.
*I never thought I'd say this, but they have an absolutely killer side salad. Seriously, if you're ever up here, you gotta get in on that action.
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The Doane Group - part 3
In addition to reading the Feynman book, I kept myself busy during the next few days by taking care of some of my ex-pat obligations such as setting up a Canadian bank account, getting a phone, and registering for my Social Insurance Number. I tried to keep myself occupied during the day but I would think about Jelly Belly before I went to bed and I’d start crying. I missed my dog and I missed my girlfriend and I missed my friends, but most of all I missed my dog. I kept having to remind myself that this was it; this was the sacrifice that I had made in order to be here. I just had to focus on making the pain worth it in the end.
And then it was Thursday. The symposium was being held at the medical school on campus and featured six speakers, a poster session, and a panel discussion at the end. Zan was going on at eleven and Jim was speaking at three thirty, right before the panel discussion. Having played hooky for the past three days, my guilt compelled me to get there at 9AM and sit through the whole symposium. There were a handful of people scattered throughout the seats of the lecture hall when I walked in. I found an aisle seat midway up and sat down.
I flip open my bag and pull out a paper that's folded down the middle lengthwise and begin reading one side of it. This was one of the newer papers to come out of the Doane group and I’d already read it a couple of times before so it was covered with notes and yellow highlighter marks. Before I came up here I’d used the MIT online research database, which I still had access to for some reason, to print out Jim’s ten most recent and ten most cited papers. This paper was one of the ten most recent and was written by a guy named Sachar. The author had used high precision voltage measurements to study degradation and self-discharge in lithium-ion batteries while stored in the charged state. He then used that data to develop a theoretical model to explain long-term battery failure mechanisms. I was reviewing his calculations, making sure I was 100% clear on how he had come to his conclusions, when I heard Zan’s lofty Belgian syllables come floating down the hallway and in through entrance at the left side of the classroom.
I look up from my paper so see Zan and Jim walking into the symposium together. I decide to wait a little and let them get settled in before I head over to say hello.
I walk up cautiously behind Zan as he's finishing up discussing some matter with one of the symposium organizers. ‘Zan,’ I put my hand on his shoulder and stuck out my other handin greeting. ‘Long time, no see.’
‘Alex!,’ he says as he turns around and shakes my hand. ‘How’s it going? How are you liking Canada?’
There is no shortage of stories about Xander de Groot; some of them true, most of them exaggerated. But, one fact that I can absolutely attest to (and the one that I think best summarizes who he is) is this; at the time he was hired, Zan was the youngest professor in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was 24 years old and it was the first job he'd ever had.
‘Good, good!’ I say, as I shake his hand. ‘Just, ah, just gettin’ settled in.’ I motion over towards Jim with my eyes. ‘Just waitin’ on this guy to show up so I can get some work done.’ I reach my hand out towards Jim. ‘Hello Jim. Nice to see you again.’
‘Hello Alex,’ he says, as he shakes my hand.
‘So,’ we release our grips and I hold my hands out to my sides as if to present myself. ‘I’m here.’
‘Good! Good, good, good.’ He puts his hands on his hips and kicks his head back as he nods. There was a curvy nature to Jim’s words; like his voice projected out to you straight from his throat. ‘You talk to Tammy?' he asks. 'She get you all squared away?’
Aside from being heavy-hitters in the world of battery research, Zan and Jim had very little in common. Let’s start with appearances; Zan mostly wore European, slim-cut suits with pointy leather shoes whereas Jim adopted a more utilitarian approach to clothing; on the few occasions that I’d met him, including this one, he wore a nondescript t-shirt tucked into denim shorts and a pair of those clunky white new balances that so many middle-aged dads seemed to eventually succumb to.
It was also interesting to note how differently each man carried the weight of his accomplishments. Zan was a wunderkind that had achieved (and exceeded) every single academic and professional expectations that had been placed upon him. He taught a graduate course in thermodynamics at MIT that was considered a weed-out class. When I’d talked to my friends that had taken this course, their feedback was basically that, yeah, you learn a thing or two about thermo, but, above all, you learn to accept the fact that, no matter how hard you try, you will never, ever be as smart as de Groot. Jim, on the other hand, was less artful and seemed to slink away from the blinding light of his success. After talking with him for a few minutes, you quickly got the impression that all of the dozens (and possibly even hundreds) of awards, medals, and commendations that he’d been given over the years were probably stuffed away in a box somewhere in the back of his closet. I was proud to be a part of his group.
We made small talk, to the extent that Jim was capable of small talk, before returning to our seats for the start of the symposium. Just before Zan is scheduled to go on, I notice a group of graduate-student-aged people walk in together and make a clandestine movement towards a row of seats close to the entrance. Zan’s presentation was a sleek, polished version of one that I’d seen him give a few times in the past. He had, once again, succeeded at making the world of computational materials exploration for novel cathode materials seem sexy and cool and exciting and the crowd ate it up. The moderator had to eventually stop the subsequent Q&A session with a few hands still in the air so that we would have time to break for lunch and the poster session.
When we returned from the break, I sat through a few more presentations that, while captivating, were nonetheless irrelevant to my research. Then it was time for Jim to go on. As with Zan’s talk, just before Jim was set to go on I notice the same group walk in stealthily and take seats up in the front two rows. This time there seemed to be about ten additional members. This must be the Doane group, I thought. I studied their faces as they sat down; I would be meeting all of them very soon.
Jim’s talk was exactly as I expected it to be; practical and data-driven; no frills. He talked about the work that his lab had done, including the High Resolution Cycler, but he also spent a good amount of time discussing the battery industry as a whole. He was surprisingly candid about some of the techniques that his largest sponsor, Method 6, uses to maintain a stronghold in the battery industry. He had a whole slide dedicated to a practice that Method 6 calls letting the pig get fat. Basically, this is where Method 6 would discover breakthroughs in battery chemistry and, rather than going through the effort of implementing those inventions into their current infrastructure, they would wait for some other battery company to discover them on their own, implement them, and start making a profit before the Method 6 legal team came through and sued the pants off of them for infringement of intellectual property. Jim relayed all of this with a hint of disgust in his voice. I would come to find out that there were actually several papers that had come out of the Doane group that Method 6 would not allow to be published. They would have the final draft notarized and then lock it away in a safe somewhere until the pig got fat enough for them to file suit.
After his talk there was a lengthy Q&A that, once again, the moderator had to end in order to get on to the panel discussion. As soon as Jim’s segment ended, the group up front silently stood up and left the room as a unit. I decided to stick around for the panel.
The panel crawled along as the speakers pontificated and waxed intellectual with each new question. I could see Jim growing physically more and more impatient. Finally, after a particularly long-winded answer from one of the other speakers, Jim raised his hand.
The moderator raised his chin up at Jim. ‘Yes. Professor Doane?’
‘Hey, ah, do you think we could wrap this up?’
‘Yeah, ah,’ he spins his two index fingers out in front of him like he's turning a hamster’s wheel. ‘Do you think we can go ahead and finish this thing up? I’d like to talk to Professor de Groot about research before he has to head back to the states.’
‘Uhhh..’ the moderator raises his eyebrows and looks out towards the audience for affirmation. ‘Well,’ he pauses momentarily. ‘What time is it,’ he says, as he looks down at his watch.
‘It’s four thirty four,’ Jim answers into the microphone in front of him. ‘This thing was supposed to be over at four thirty. We’re already over time.’
This gets a chuckle from the audience.
‘Well, uh…’ the moderator looks down from the podium and scans the faces of the other members of the panel. ‘Well I guess that’s it, then,’ he says, as he shrugs his shoulders. ‘I want to--’ he stops and looks over at Jim, who has already stood up and is now making his way back over to his seat next to Zan. ‘I want to thank everybody for coming out and joining us.’ His eyes are still following Jim, who has his back to him and is now standing in front of his seat and putting on his bookbag. Jim does not seem to notice that everyone in the room is watching him. ‘I would like to thank our panel,’ he motions over toward the people still seated at the table to his right, ‘and Professor Doane,’ he motions towards Jim who, without looking up, raises his hand up in the air in acknowledgement, ‘and everyone who made this symposium happen…’
The moderator begins reading off an exhaustively detailed list of collaborators as people start to get up and gather their things. I grab my bag and run down to catch up with Zan and Jim before they leave. Zan shakes my hand and wishes me luck and Jim and I make a plan to meet at his office tomorrow at 8AM to discuss my future in the Doane group.
 This was the summer of 2012. The practice of letting the pig get fat is no longer allowed. Now, in order to have any claim on new inventions, one has to file an official patent application with the US Patent Office. Method 6 is back to making their money the old-fashioned way.
Below is part (2/3) of The Doane Group. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.
Wait, what's that you say? This just isn't enough to satisfy your weekly short-story itch? You want more? Very well. It just so happens that you're in luck this week. Head on over to my friend Grinia's blog mirrorsoul.org and check out the short non-fiction piece that I wrote about my mom.
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The Doane Group - part 2
‘I’m Alexander James. I believe I owe you some documents.’ I padded the side of my messenger bag.
‘Yep, Alexander James. We’ve emailed back and forth a few times.’
‘Yep. James is my last name.’
‘James is your last name!’
‘Yep.’ I shook my head and waved it off. ‘Don’t worry. That happens all the time.’
‘Ooh.’ She flashed a quick look of dismay on her face. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No problem.’ I shook my head and waved off the comment once more. ‘Like I said, happens all the time.’ I looked over at the receptionist, who was now standing and propped up on her elbows on the counter in front of her. She looked back at me and shrugged her shoulders and have me a, kind of, eh, she makes a good point, kind of look.
‘Please.’ Tammy said, as she opened her hand out towards one of the two metal chairs facing her desk. ‘Come have a seat.’
I wasn’t like this when it came to paperwork. Usually I would have every form perfectly type-faced and formatted and with signatures in all the places that required signatures and initials in all of the places that required initials. I learned to be meticulous with paperwork from the military and from being a landlord. I don’t know what it was, but, as much as I was excited to finally being going to grad school, I found myself completely uninspired when it came to my visa and graduate school documents. I just barely got my paperwork in on time and complete enough to get into the country. But now I was here with Tammy to shore up all of these loose ends that I’d overlooked.
‘Hi.’ I shook Tammy’s hand from across the desk and pulled my bag up into my waist as I rocked down into one of the seats. There was a barely-audible sssss as the vinyl cushion underneath let out enough air to conform to the shape of my ass.
‘So,’ she turns and looks towards her monitor and starts clicking her mouse. ‘You’re coming in from the States, right?’
‘Yes, that’s right. From Boston.’
‘So, when did you get into the country?’
‘Oh, I got in, uh, late Saturday night.’
‘Goood. What did you, did you fly in or did you drive?’
‘We drove. We drove up in a U-haul. I got a moving truck and my mom flew up from Georgia and rode with me up to Halifax.’
Tammy turned towards me and leaned back in a stance of slight shock. ‘Well, that was awfully nice of her. Must be a good mother.’
‘Yeah.’ I raised my eyebrows and nodded. ‘Yeah, she’s pretty great.’
Tammy scrunched her chin and looked over at me. ‘It must be hard sending your son off to another country like that. I can’t imagine.’
‘Yeah.’ I nodded my head and looked down. ‘Yeah, it got pretty emotional when she left off for the airport.’
‘Aww.’ Tammy sucked her teeth and made a pouty expression with her mouth.
‘Anyway.’ I waved out in the air in front of me. ‘So, uh.’ I reach down and unsnap the plastic clips at the bottom of my messenger bag. ‘So, I am so sorry about all this hassle about my paperwork. I don’t know what I was; I was just confused, I guess. But,’ I said as I fished out a folder with a BFU logo on it that was stuffed full of papers. ‘I think I finally have everything here and filled out and signed and ready to go.’
Seriously, though; what was up with my paperwork? I remember when I applied to Kennesaw State. My application was perfect. I spent hours pouring over the webpage for their registrar’s office. I was in Iraq and I was going back to the US in February and I was getting out in May and I was going to be in school in the Fall and nothing was going to stop me. Everything was perfectly in order. All of my documents were there on time in exactly the form that they were supposed to be in. Same thing when I transferred to Georgia Tech. I had the transfer requirements and dates memorized. Same thing when I first applied to grad school. I kept an extensive spreadsheet of all the different schools and their required documents, and their deadlines, and their GPA requirements, and their application fees and I would constantly update it with the status of each. I submitted everything flawlessly and in accordance with every requirement and timeline. The only thing that kept my application from being perfect was my GPA. I got rejected from every school that I applied to except for one.
But, here I was, only a couple of years later and I now had an offer to get my PhD from the most prestigious battery research group in the world, and I couldn’t even hone my attention enough to read all of the admission requirements on the BFU website.
What was up with that?
There was part of me that knew that I knew the answer. Or at least part of the answer. I knew enough Freud to know that there was something in me, deep down in my subconscious, that didn’t want to me come to grad school. Something pulling me to keep my life in Cambridge. I mean, it’s not like it’s hard to think of a few reasons why I wouldn’t want to leave: my dog, Edith, my career, making money, my friends. I gave up a lot and I guess it was a little more than my subconscious was willing to accept. Either way, regardless of whatever ulterior motives my subconscious had for me, I was here now and had somehow managed to at least complete enough documents to get in the door, so there was little else standing in my way. This was my future. This was my life now.
After finishing my administrative obligations, Tammy led me upstairs to a public school style door at the end of the hallway on the third floor. She pulled out one of the three keys that she was holding in a fist in her left hand. It was a clunky key with a rectangle on the end with curved corners. She stabbed it into the door handle and, after an elaborate series of wrist motions, she succeeded in cranking the doorknob clockwise and opened the door.
The room was carpeted and had a group of small cubicles arranged in four columns, front to back, six deep, with the last row of cubicles up against the large paned window in the back of the room. Outside of the window one could make out a metal lattice, like the kind that they use to paint buildings, and, just on the other side of this, an off-white tarp that completely obstructed any hope of a view.
‘So your desk is gonna be…’ She yanked off a sticky note from the palm of her left hand and held it out in front of her. ‘Three A. Which should be…’ She looked up from the note and pointed her finger and counted each column of cubicles, from left to right, whispering the number of each as she counted. ‘Riiiight…here.’ She walked over and stood behind the chair of the first cubicle in the third column. The chair was angled out 45° and she patted the back cushion of it. ‘Right by the door.’
‘Awesome.’ I patted my belly, ‘closest to the bathroom.’ Tammy put her hand over her stomach and let out a light chuckle. I walked over to the desk and pulled my messenger bag over my head and lowered it onto the chair. ‘Oh? What’s this?’ I look down and there, under the narrow table of the cubicle, over to the left, was a black leather portfolio briefcase. I look up and notice a few scattered pens and pencils and a highlighter on the desk. ‘Looks like somebody left their stuff here.’ I open up the cabinet at the top of the cubicle to find a couple of books on electrical engineering along with a spiral notebook and a Rubik’s Cube®.
‘Huh?’ Tammy studies the open cabinet containing the books and the notebooks. ‘This should be…’ She looks back down at the sticky note, which is once again on her left wrist, and takes a few steps back toward the entrance. She counts off the columns again. ‘…Three A. This should be it.’
I waited while she went downstairs and found the seating roster. After a little asking around she realized that a summer student had taken my spot by accident. But then he’d only taken my spot because someone else took his. And then that guy had only taken his spot because…. I was eventually assigned a temporary desk in an office in a tucked away part of the third floor that was being torn down at the end of the summer to make room for Jim’s lab expansion. I shared the room with a post-doc in Professor Gold’s lab that was not too keen on having an office-mate for the remainder of the summer. ‘It’s okay,’ I said, after Tammy introduced us. ‘I’ll mainly be doing literature review this summer, so I'll be spending most of my time in the library anyway.’
Tammy informed me that Jim was in DC at the moment and wouldn’t be back until Thursday, at which point he would be the keynote speaker at a materials symposium that was being held on campus. Another speaker at the conference was going to be Prof. Xander de Groot, my former boss at MIT and co-founder of MagTech. What an introduction to grad school! I’d just had my exit interview with Zan last week and now it looked like he was going to be on-site for my first formal meeting with Jim.
Once we’d gotten the room situation sorted out, Tammy walked me around and showed me where all of Jim’s labs were located throughout the building. As we got to each room she would try out each of the keys in her hand until she found the one that worked. Then she’d open up the door and let me take a quick look inside before handing me the key. At the end of the tour I had a pocket full of loose keys and zero obligations until Thursday.
A couple of days from now I will be sitting down and discussing my project with Jim and then that will be my life for the next four years. In the mean time I had three days of total unaccountability. I’d been part of the working world long enough that I’d learned to appreciate brief moments of no-responsibility like these whenever they came up. I decided to head over to the library to read the Richard Feynman book that Natalia had given me as a going-away present. I didn’t feel too bad playing hooky on my first day of grad school to run off to the library to read the Feynman book; it was a collection of stories and interviews and it was actually getting me pretty pumped to start my research. Richard Feynman was the kind of renowned, eccentric genius that I wanted to be. Coming here was my first step towards that.
-- to be continued...
This week's story is another excerpt from my manuscript. This would nominally be chapter 2, so it would take place right after Alex arrives in Halifax. If you want to read this as it will appear in the book, then this story would be immediately followed by the first part of So Help Me God (up until the first **********).
Also, there's quite a bit of battery jargon in this story. I've added footnotes at the end, so hopefully that helps. If I recall correctly, I was reading Infinite Jest when I wrote this, which explains a lot.
That's all. Enjoy!
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The Doane Group (Part 1)
Jim Doane was a legend. In addition to being the author of more than 500 papers, he also had his name on the patents of over 80% of the cathode materials currently used in commercial lithium-ion batteries. He was a down-to-earth, no bullshit, straight-talker. When reviewing drafts of papers, he had a binary comment system; in between the margins, in red felt-tipped pen, he would write either the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life or this is genius!! I joined his research group in the summer of 2012.
The Brendan Fraser University Physics building looked like an old high school and Jim’s lab space was spread out over the top two floors. He also had a machine shop with a dedicated machinist located in the basement. I arrived in mid-June, so I was ahead of schedule of the incoming class that year. I walked down the third-floor hallway and stopped in front of the double-doors leading into his main lab space. This is it I thought. I’m here. I’m at the Doane Group. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and exhaled through my nose, before pushing the door open and walking in.
Upon entering the lab, I heard the familiar droning and beeping and clicking of test equipment humming away in the background. In front of me was a floor-to-ceiling wall of carefully arranged high-precision voltmeters and current sources with blinking digital displays and temperature-controlled test chambers that blocked off the back half of the lab from view. This, no doubt, was the High Resolution Cycler (HRC); the crown jewel of the Doane group. I’d read about this before coming up here, but to see it here in person, in all of its wire-tangled, obtrusive glory, made the hairs on my arm stand up and gave me a slight tingly feeling just behind the corner of my jaw.
Allow me to explain:
The battery pack of an electric vehicle (EV) makes up about a third of the cost of the car; by far, the most expensive single component. Additionally, even with the current state-of-the-art in energy storage technology, one could only really expect the battery pack to last a little over 3 years. As you can imagine, having to spend over 30% of the cost of your car on a new battery pack every 3 years is a strong deterrent for potential customers. Ideally, we would like for our batteries to last 10-30 years - to even outlast the car itself and be transferred into a new car. So, of course, all of these battery research groups all around the world are devoting their time and energy researching chemistries that will extend the lifetime of commercial lithium-ion batteries. The problem is; how do you know that a battery will last for 10 years unless you spend 10 years testing it? Well, you could assume two full charge/discharge cycles a day, everyday, for 10 years - that’s 2x365x10 = 1,460 cycles. So, if you wanted to test out a new chemistry without waiting 10 years for the results, you could up your current and, instead of doing 2 cycles per day, you could do 2 cycles per hour (4C), and it would take you just over a month to get enough cycles to give you the answer. So, in theory that is an excellent way to test your batteries and, in fact, that is the way that several prominent research labs assess the performance of new battery chemistries. That does not, however, keep it from being completely wrong.
As several battery researchers were starting to discover, notably among them being Colclasure, et al, the number of cycles that a battery was subjected to had very little to do with its degradation in performance. Actually, the term cycle-life was kind of a nothing metric. Rather, the vast majority of the capacity loss in a battery was due to time-dependent parasitic reactions that were occurring in the background during normal cycling. These reactions were continually consuming electroactive species by doing things like forming a solid electrolyte interphase (SEI) on the anode, thus reducing the number of lithium-ions available for charging and discharging which, in turn, gradually reduced the performance of the battery over time. The rate at which these reactions happened was independent of how fast or slow you cycled your battery. That being said, whatever new battery chemistry you were testing, the only valid way to prove that it could last 10 years would be to cycle it for 10 years. As you can imagine, this would slow down battery research to a grinding halt.
Enter the HRC; the Doane group's brilliant solution to this very problem. Instead of waiting ten years to know whether or not your battery was going to fail, what if, instead, you could know, to a very high precision, the rate at which your battery was failing? If your resolution was high enough, you could determine the fade within the first 10 cycles and extrapolate to determine how long your battery will last. This is exactly what the HRC did. Through a few simple, back-of-the-envelope calculations, Jim had determined that, in order to be able to predict the lifetime of a particular battery in any reasonable amount of time, you would need to be able to measure the coulombic efficiency  (CE) of said battery to within an accuracy of ±0.01%. The current state-of-the-art in battery cyclers could, at best, get down to an accuracy of ±0.1%. They had to be ten times better than anything else out there.
Achieving a CE accuracy of ±0.01% was no easy task. One had to find a voltmeter that was capable of resolving voltages below 100μV, a current source that could deliver currents to within 0.01% of the specified value, and, on top of all of that, one had to monitor and control the temperature of the cell to within ±1°C. To monitor the voltage, they went with the Keithley Instruments model 2750/2000 scanning voltmeter. For the high precision currents, they chose another Keithley instrument, the model 6220/220 programmable current source. Being the pragmatic, resourceful researcher that he his, Jim was able to obtain all of these instruments off of eBay for considerably reduced prices. For the temperature control requirement, all cells were cycled in home-built thermostats that were coupled with Omega CNi3233/4201A-PC2 temperature controllers with a precision of ±0.1°C. Once all of the pieces were in place, he coupled them together with in-house software written on LabView and, voila, the High Resolution Cycler was born. I knew all of this because I had meticulously read all of the HRC papers that I could get my hands on before I came up here.
To my right, as I walked in, was a hodgepodge collection of desks and computers, three rows deep, that were all unattended with the exception of a single Indian guy with big eyes sitting at one of the computers in the middle row. His shoulders were hunched up and he was staring intently at this monitor; the classic position of someone sifting through cycling data. He looked up at me briefly with an indifferent expression before reverting his attention back to the screen in front of him.
‘Helloo,’ I said.
‘Hi,’ he replied, as he looked back up at me over his monitor. A warm smile crept up on his face and his shoulders relaxed down to regular height. I hadn’t noticed how poorly lit the room was until I saw how the glow from the screen made the top half of his face, from the nose up, look especially dark by contrast.
‘I’m looking for Jim,’ I said. I’d been cautioned against calling him Dr. Doane or Professor Doane. Everyone who knew him knew him only as Jim.
‘Ooh..’ he said with a slight frown as he shook his head, ‘no, he’s not here. He won’t be back until Thursday, I think.’
‘Oh,’ I said, as I looked down to the left and released a shallow breath through my lips. ‘Okay. Alright. I’ll, uh, try back then. Thanks.’
I gave him a quick, karate-chop hand-wave. ‘Thanks,’ I said again, as I let myself out. He watched me with an expression of mild bewilderment as I exited. As I got to the stairwell down the hallway, I heard the door to the lab complete its slow, pneumatically-controlled closing motion and click shut behind me.
I headed down to the administrative office on the second floor to get my new-student paperwork taken care of. I’d been in correspondence with the graduate coordinator for the school of physics, Tammy, during my application process and I knew I owed her some documents.
‘Helloo…,’ I said, as I knocked on the metal door frame.
‘Hi there,’ replied a heavy-set lady with bedroom eyes peeking up from behind the chest-high reception desk opposite the entrance. ‘What can I do you for?’
‘Hi. I, ah, was wondering if Tammy was in.’
She looked over to her left toward a middle-aged lady with possibly-died black hair sitting at a desk in a recessed section of the office space.
‘Hi, I’m Tammy,’ she said.
There was a slight raspiness to her voice that told me that she might have been a smoker at one time. She also had a motherly tone to her words that seemed fresh, and out of place for her age. Like a woman whose maternal nature hadn’t been dried up by having kids of her own.
‘Hello,’ I said, as I held up a still-handed wave.
-- to be continued...
 C-rate is a measure of a current delivered to a battery relative to its nominal capacity. For example, 1C equates to a full charge or discharge in an hour, 2C would take 30 minutes, and C/2 would take 2 hours, etc.
 A. Colclasure, K. Smith, and R. Kee, Electrochimica Acta, 58, 33 (2011).
 Coulombic efficiency is the measure of the capacity of your discharge cycle over the capacity of the subsequent charge cycle and is a good indicator of the loss of electroactive species due to parasitic reactions. duh.
I am so happy to welcome guest writers Ralph Walker and Grinia Bradwell to reecedaniel.com for this week's Fresh Stories. That's right - stories! We've got (2) pieces here for you, hot off the press.
The first piece is by Ralph and it's a flash/science-fiction piece. I really enjoy this one because, true to the author's forte, this story deals with the intersection of technology and the human condition. That's all I'm going to say about it; I'll let the story do the rest of the talking.
Next we have a piece by blogger/mother/scientist Grinia Bradwell. Grinia and I have been friends for awhile and, while she typically writes non-fiction pieces for her blog, I asked her to put something special together for my site and she did. The result is this beautiful poem about her late grandfather.
That's all for now. Once again, I would like to thank my guest writers and I would also like to thank you, the readers, for stopping by website. Of all the places in the whole world-wide-web you could be and you're here. I'm, well, I'm blushing...
By: Ralph Walker
Becca pushed a breath through gritted teeth.
We have to go faster. “Accelerate”
Swift’s voice was even. “We are currently on the fastest route.”
“I didn’t say talk back. I said accelerate!” I watched the number projected on the windshield rise.
“Accelerating to maximum allowable speed.”
She loosened her grip on my wrist. I felt the tingle of blood return to my fingers.
There wasn’t anyone on the road at this hour. “Go Faster!”
Swift spoke. “We are currently traveling at twenty nine point nine miles per hour. You will arrive at your destination in nineteen minutes.”
Her whole body was sweating. Back to the windshield, she stretched out as far as she could. Her eyes locked shut trying to keep her body in check.
“How are you doing?”
“It’s coming.” She squeezed the words between short breaths. “We have to get there.”
I tried again. “Accelerate.”
“We are currently traveling at maximum allowable speed.”
Maybe there was another way. “Reroute.”
“Routing options.” Four potential routes were illustrated in light on the windshield. This was definitely the most direct way. I stabbed the windshield with my finger.
“Route confirmed. Proceeding to destination.”
Becca let out a long grown.
“Do you require assistance?” Swift asked, still even toned.
“Yes!” Becca’s eyes opened. “I need to get to my goddamn doctor! Robert why did you buy this cheap car anyway. I am not having our baby inside Siri’s stupid brother.”
“Assistance requested. Medical, Civil or Criminal?”
Maybe this would help. “Medical.”
The car slowed. “Rerouting to safe rendezvous to await assistance.”
“NO!” We both yelled together. The car jumped as if startled.
“Rerouting to closest hospital.” The car made a turn.
“NO!” We both yelled again.
“Maintain route to the Birthing Center, to Dr. Amanda Nevin! Accelerate! Go Faster! Stay on the route!” I tried every version of the command that I could think of.
Swift returned to the original route, same speed.
Becca pulled her knees up. Her hands balled into fists. Her face tightened. All of her strength was locked in the birth canal.
“Time to destination?”
There had to be another way to get there faster. Emergency services would take us to the wrong hospital. Highway patrol protocols wouldn’t let autonomous vehicles speed. Maybe I could reason with it?
“Override requested. Provide authorization.”
“My wife is having a baby.”
“Congratulations. Provide override authorization.”
“My wife is having a baby now! Technical support.”
“Congratulations. Technical support wiki uploaded.” The windshield filled with pull down menus; mechanics, steering, map options, entertainment, audio controls, night vision, satellite service providers, parental controls, manual supports. I stabbed the manual supports button and scrolled to the bottom of the screen. Three screens deep I found the number.
“Direct call 011-82- 98-663572.”
The ringtone repeated four times before a voice engaged.
“Thank you for calling Fi-Tech. Your call is very important to us. How can I be of
“Please provide the following information so we can ensure you are receiving the best
possible attention. May I have the make, model and year of the vehicle you are calling about?”
“Voltrack Swift. 2025.” The car was so damn old.
“Are you calling from the vehicle now?”
“Have you upgraded your system?”
“Not in a long time.” Wrong answer.
“I’d like to upgrade your system at this time. Our latest upgrades include new modules for direct lift parking, immersion entertainments and privacy improvements as well as new patches to suspension and braking systems.”
Becca peeled open her eyes a sliver between contractions. “What are you doing?”
“Just concentrate on you. I’m getting us there.” I squeezed her hand. I am not sure she even felt it.
“No. Do not upgrade. I just need to go faster. My wife is having a baby, right now! And we need to get to the hospital as fast as possible.”
There was a pause at the other end. “Your vehicle is currently moving at the fastest allowable speed.”
“I know. I need it to go FASTER!”
“I’m sorry, but I…”
I had an epiphany. “Supervisor. Get me a supervisor. NOW!”
The line went quiet for a heartbeat.
“Thank you for calling Fi-Tech, where we aim to please…”
“I need a supervisor, now!”
“Please hold for the next available supervisor.”
A human voice came on, at least the inflection sounded like a human voice. “Who am I speaking to?”
“Robert Simellete. My wife is having a baby right next to me in our vehicle. I need to get to the hospital, but this damn car won’t go over twenty nine miles an hour.”
“Sir. Is she really having a baby?”
“You can see her through the ignition camera can’t you?”
He paused. “How far away are you?”
“Ok. Have you ever driven before?”
“Only for the test.”
“Follow these instructions exactly.”
“Disengage mapping system. Engage drive by sight.”
“Now here is the hard part. You’ll have to disengage the satellite link.”
“That’s not so hard.”
“But you’ll have to steer.”
“Ok. I can direct.”
“No, you’ll have to steer, by hand. The car will be driving blind. You can control the speed, but it won’t know where to go.”
I felt a hand lock on my calf. “No Robert. No. Call the doctor and have her override.”
I blushed at my own stupidity and poked the windshield ending the call.
Dr. Amanda’s head nurse picked up on the second ring.
“Becca’s having the baby now!”
Rebecca’s wrist monitor lit up as the nurse downloaded vitals. “Where are you?”
“On the road, in my Swift. Fifteen minutes away.”
“Ok. Hang on. I’ll drive.”
Swift spoke. “Remote override engaged. Automated control disengaged. Passengers please remain in your seats.”
* * * * * * * * * *
Through My Eyes
By: Grinia Bradwell
Through my eyes you were a hero
Going through the dark, fighting dragons
Through my eyes you were the light
Shining hope, defeating fear
Through my eyes you were love
Warming hearts, calming spirits
Through your eyes I was in danger
Helpless, abandoned child
Through your eyes I was an angel
Innocent, fighting to survive
Through your eyes I was the future
Open book, blank page
Through your love I found safety
Through your care I found peace
Though your eyes I found myself
Through my life I found hope
As your eyes close, my heart breaks
The darkness, the dragons, the fear
As you go, I lose my soul
The safety, the peace, the hope
Through the memories I find strength
The love that never dimmed
The smile that never fainted
The trust that never left
Through my eyes you are now a memory
In my life you are the inspirer
In my future you are the hope
In my heart you are love
- The End
About the Authors:
Ralph Walker is a writer, architect and father. His nonfiction writing has appeared in a number of environmental websites, and he recently received an Honorable Mention in the Writers of the Future contest. This is his first published piece of flash fiction.
Ralph spends his time building worlds; Legos and blocks with his kids, buildings in the landscape, whole planets on the page. His work explores the challenging relationship between nature and technology, and what it means to be human in tomorrow’s world. Ralph lives in New Jersey with his wife and two kids. You can find out more about Ralph by following him on twitter or exploring his website.
Grinia Bradwell is a chemical engineer and materials scientist currently staying at home with her two daughters. Grinia is originally from Brazil but doesn't like soccer or carnival. She loves hiking and enjoys a nice glass of red wine. She started a blog as a hobby and found writing to be both therapeutic and addictive. Her blog is about sharing life stories and the everyday challenges and joys of motherhood. She is not a professional writer, but would love to invest more time in learning and practicing these skills.
My apologies for the late story today. Currently in the mountains of north Washington with extremely shotty reception.
Anyway, the final installment of Nocturne is below. Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments.
Also, I am pleased to announce that I will be hosting guest writers Ralph Walker and Grinia Bradwell for next week's Fresh Story. These are both very talented writers and I think you'll like what they've got in store for you next week.
* * * * * * * * * *
Nocturne (part 5)
At the south end of the pavilion, rising up about six feet above the sea of little bobbing heads, was what can only be described as a rolling wave composed entirely of small children.
‘Jesus Christ! What the fuck is this!?’
The child-wave was pushing down the middle of the aisle, gaining momentum as it surged toward us.
We turn and pick up the pace with even less regard for the little bodies that we’re having to knee and shove out of the way. The muscles in my thighs begin to throb as we plow through the sea of miniature people towards the exit.
There’s a cry from overhead and out of the corner of my eye I see Amanda go down as a little Asian boy drops down from the ceiling on top of her.
‘Shit!’ I reach over and grab the Asian child off her back and pick him up diagonally by the thigh and bicep and do an Olympic discuss-style spin. I let go and send him crashing through a plywood rack full of scented candles. I turn and lean over to help Amanda up. ‘You alright?!’
‘Yeah, let’s go!’ I take her hand and we start back for the door. The sea of children starts to rapidly recede below us as a chorus of screaming, youthful laughter begins building up to a crescendo above and behind our heads. We turn around just as the massive child-wave envelops us in its shadow.
We turn and dive forward and are immediately picked up and carried off in an amorphous surge of Velcro-strapped shoes, ponytails, chocolate covered faces, and sticky little hands that roll and tumble out of control along with the movement of the wave. We ride the wave, hand in hand on our bellies as it begins to crest and break overhead.
‘Seriously!’ I yell out over the sound of child-laughter, ‘where the FUCK did all these kids come from!?'
Amanda and I are riding the wave with surprisingly good balance, and making good time toward the exit. The glass doors were coming up quickly on the left, but the wave is plowing forward, on a direct course for the brick wall adjacent to the exit doors. Just before the wave looks like its about to make impact, I dive down into the mob of children, yanking Amanda down with me. We are trampled down by little feet and little warm bodies as the wave passes by overhead. We shoot up and gasp for air just as the wave crashes against the wall and splashes back. The recoil flings open the glass exit doors and we are picked up in its wake and funneled out onto the sidewalk along with a couple dozen kids that come tumbling and rolling out underneath and behind us.
* * * * * * * * * *
‘It’s, well, if you think about how long humans have been around, right? And then you think about how long we’ve had language. It’s really, if you think about it, human beings have been around and communicating with each other way, waaaayyy before we ever had any words to capture our thoughts.’
I put the pipe back in my mouth and stop to take a couple of puffs before handing the pipe and the lighter over to Amanda.
‘No problem,’ I say, as I hold the smoke in my lungs.
Amanda flicks the lighter a few times to get it started as I admire the statue of Governor Edward Cornwallis shooting up from the middle of the park to our right. I empty out my lungs into the evening in a slow, steady exhale as I recall the last time I remember walking through this park. It was a few days after I’d arrived in Halifax and I remember being very sad. I was passing through this park on my way back from having just dropped my mom of at the Halifax Westin. I waited there with her until the shuttle came to take her to the airport. She cried as she hugged my neck and climbed onto the shuttle. I watched the bus pull out of the parking lot and drive off before crossing the street to head back to my partially moved-into studio apartment. I remember walking through here and suddenly realizing that the one person that I knew in Canada was now gone and that I was all alone. My heart felt heavy, like it was pumping mercury instead of blood, and I sat down on one of the benches surrounding the statue. I remember starring down at the ground as tears began to pool up along my bottom eyelids and drip down onto the concrete below. I missed my mother.
Amanda nudges my arm with the back of her wrist as she hands the pipe and lighter back over to me. ‘Here you go.’
‘Thanks.’ I take the items from her, pocketing the lighter and shoving the pipe back in my mouth, and we turn and continue north up Barrington Street.
‘Anyway, so, yeah. So, basically, what I’m saying is that we, as a species, have been communicating with one another for longer that we’ve had the words to communicate.’
‘Right.’ Amanda nods as she blows out a plume of smoke.
‘So language, while it has been hugely helpful to our species as far as effective communication goes - and don’t get me wrong; language is awesome. Words are awesome. The development of language is probably the best thing that we’ve ever done. But, for all of its benefits, language has also held us back too.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, it’s basically; we’ve basically relied too much on it. We’ve gotten ourselves to this point where, to us, language is communication. In other words, many people - most people, I would say - are of the belief that, if there isn’t a word for it, then it doesn’t exist. I mean, I don’t think that that thought actually goes through anyone’s head, but, subconsciously…’ I tap the side of my head, near my left temple, with my index finger. ‘Subconsciously I believe that most people feel that way. Which really just isn’t true.’
‘Yeah, right. Like, just because there isn’t a word in the dictionary for something, it doesn’t mean that it doesn't exist. I mean, like, everything is unnamed until it’s discovered, right.’
‘Right. But, I’m not even talking about physical things, like discovering a new element or a new species of bird. No, I mean like emotions,’ I make a gesture like I’m pulling a lump of something from my chest, ‘like feelings.’
‘Right, right. I--’
Still considering myself somewhat of a visitor in a foreign land, to hear someone call out my name in the street was a bit startling. I look up and see Jim’s daughter Halle up ahead of us, standing at the end of the sidewalk. She was lurched over and wobbling, ever so slightly, from her waist. She held two bottles of beer in each hand and kept one eye squinted closed as she looked at me.
‘Halle!’ I jog up to her and throw my arms out for a hug.
‘It’s you,’ she says as she leans into my hug and reaches around with one of her two-beer-wielding arms and pats me on the back.
As I hug her I suddenly remember that I am on mushrooms and my pupils are the size of nickels. Not wanting my advisor to find out about my recreational drug use, I decide to remain a safe distance away for the remainder of our encounter and to avoid eye-contact if possible.
‘How’s it going?’ I say as I release her from the embrace and step back.
‘What’s…’ she furrows her brow and let’s her head fall to the side as she points up at the pipe in my mouth.
‘Oh, ha!’ I say as I pull the pipe from my mouth and hold it out in front of her. ‘You like it? It’s my pipe?’
‘Pipe?’ From the way she says this and the accompanying look of confusion on her face, you would have thought that I had just told her that I was holding a time-traveling butt-plug or something. Realizing that Halle was at a level of inebriation where she would almost certainly not remember this conversation tomorrow, let alone what size my pupils were, I am suddenly more at ease talking to her.
‘Yep. Oh…’ I turn to motion towards Amanda, who had just walked up on my left. ‘This is my friend Amanda.’
‘Hi,’ Amanda says, as she waves and pinches her face into a smile.
Halle turns her head lazily as she looks over at Amanda and uses the beer bottles in her hand to give her a single, semi-circle wave.
I use the mouth piece of the pipe to point over her shoulder. ‘You out for Nocturne?’
‘Yeah, you know, Nocturne? The art festival?’
‘What’s a Nocturne?’
‘You know,’ I put the pipe back in my mouth. ‘It’s where they open up all of the art galleries in Halifax and they have all these public art performances all around the city. Its really cool. You should, uh, you should check it out.'
Halle looks at me with disinterested eyes and shakes her head.
‘Alright, cool.’ I nod my head. ‘Where you headed?’
She looks over to her left and points vaguely to a cluster of houses. ‘There.’
‘Cool, cool.’ I look over at Amanda as I take a breath through my nose. ‘Alight, well, it was nice seeing you. We’re going to, uh, we’re gonna head off and go check out some more art.’
Halle closes her eyes and waves to us with the two beer bottles in her left hand. It seemed like she attempted to tell us bye, but nothing came out so she just ended up mouthing the word instead of actually saying it.
‘Okay, see ya.’ Amanda and I wave as we walk around her and head toward the South Street crosswalk.
‘Who was that?’ Amanda asks, once we’re across the street.
‘That was Jim’s daughter. She worked with me in his lab this summer. She’s in medical school now, though. Just started this semester. Her and her twin sister.’
‘Shit. Looks like she’s having a good time tonight.’
‘I know, right? Yeah, I’ve never seen her like that. I mean, I’ve only hung out with her a couple of times, but, you know, she’s generally got her shit together.’
We pass Pavement Coffee on our right and I turn around to see how far Halle had made it in the direction of her party. She is nowhere to be seen.
Amanda turns around. ‘Damn. Where’d she go?’
‘I don’t know,’ I say, as I pull the pipe from my mouth. ‘But she's moving surprisingly fast.’
‘Yeah,’ Amanda says, as she shrugs. ‘Didn’t expect that.’
‘Neither did I.’
We continue to look back in silence for a moment before turning around and continuing our trek toward the city.
‘Anyway, where was I? We were talking about language, right?’
‘Yes. You were telling me your definition of art.’
‘Right. Yes. Yes, the problem is that we’re relying too heavily on language. It’s like the only things that exist to us are the things that we have words for.’
‘Alright, yeah. Yeah. I can see that. But what’s, ah, what’s this have to do with the definition of art.’
‘Yes. That. So, I’ll tell you. So, that’s my definition of art. The whole of art and artistic expression, it’s all an attempt to communicate in a way that is beyond language. It’s communication via a primitive, unspoken, unspeakable language. That’s it. That’s my definition of art.’
‘Hm.’ Amanda looks down and furrows her brow in thought.
‘That’s the criteria by which you evaluate all art; how well it speaks to you in this ancient language. Does it evoke things inside of you; in your head; in your heart, that you don’t have the words for? If it does, then it’s art. How effectively it does this is the metric by which you asses the quality of the art. That’s it.’
‘Wow,’ Amanda curls down the corners of her mouth and nods. ‘I like it.’
‘Yeah, and this applies to all art: painting, dancing, filmmaking, sculpting, you name it. Even writing, which uses language itself to communicate in a way that goes beyond language. All of it, all of it, all art must strive to communicate via this ancient unspeakable tongue. If it doesn’t then it’s not art. All else is just, well, it's not art. Everything else is just limerick and propaganda.’
* * * * * * * * * *
We laid there splayed out on the sidewalk, me on my stomach and Amanda next to me on her back, taking deep breaths. The children around us had nonchalantly gotten up and dispersed out in all different directions, laughing and skipping into the evening.
‘Th’fuck just happened?’ I say, with my cheek mushed up against the concrete. ‘Th’fuck did all those kids come from?’
‘I don’t know man,’ Amanda says as she rolls side-to-side and gradually props herself upright. She sits spread eagle, in a slopped forward ragdoll position. I sit up and on my side with my knees bent and most of the weight on my hip and the palm of my right hand. I look over at Amanda. She had a strained expression of thoughtful disbelief on her face.
‘Man,’ I say, as I shake my head. ‘All those fu--’’ - donk!
A vacuum insulated thermos comes spinning through the air and nails me on the side of the head, ricochets off, and hits the ground with a hollow tink-tinktink-tink, and starts rolling away.
Fucking Christ!’ I say as I rub the side of my head, where I could already feel a bump swelling up. I look up toward the exit doors to see a chubby little kid in one of those stupid knit-caps with the thin ropes hanging down from the sides and a little puffy yarn ball on the top. He is in, what looks to be, a little-league pitcher’s follow-through stance. ‘Fuck you, you little shit!’ I yell out at the kid, as I scramble around for a rock or something to throw back at him. ‘You fuckin - fuck! Shit!’ Of course, the one time that I really need a rock or a chip of concrete, there is nothing to be found, so I settle for indiscernible yelling; ‘AAAHHGGGRRM!!’
I look up at the kid and he produces a meaty little middle finger before darting back inside.
Amanda’s eye’s light up as she sees the thermos, ‘Fuck yeah; the tea!’
I sit there for a minute with my eyes closed, rubbing the side if my head and rocking back and forth. Amanda helps me up and we brush ourselves off, grab the tea, and start down the sidewalk towards the waterfront.
‘That guy Pat,’ I say, as I continue to rub the side if my head. ‘What time you think he goes to bed? Like tonight. What time you think he’s going to bed tonight?’
‘I don’t know. Nocturne’s over at like midnight. Say, an hour commute. I guess, like, maybe two. Two thirty?’
‘Like, you think he’ll be asleep by two thirty?’
‘Yeah, I would guess so.’
I pull out my phone.
‘What’re doing?,' Amanda asks, as she looks over at me.
‘Setting an alarm.’
- the end