I don't know what to do with this whole situation anymore. On one hand, I'm tempted to do the safe thing, and just run. On the other, I could just throw myself into entirely, come what may.

The worrying was tearing me apart, so I decided to buy a gun instead.

I left the house with a few hundred bucks in my pocket and proof of residence. I went to the first gunstore that I could find online, and ended up in a rather questionable looking neighborhood. Amidst rent-to-own stores, furniture discount warehouses, check cashing joints, and taco trucks, I matched the address on my printout to a name : "We Buy It All Pawnshop."

They buzzed me in the door, after deciding I wasn't a threat. I waited twenty minutes for a fat couple in front of me to finish pawning their wedding ring. I doubt it's to pay rent, it's a little late in the month for that. There's a safety exam required in this state before you can purchase a handgun. The idea of it really struck me the wrong way, until I actually took it. I was done in about two minutes, and I didn't miss any. You're allowed to miss 30%. The fact that they would allow anybody unable to get this entire test right was shocking and disturbing to me.

Sample question:

You should not shoot your gun :
A. At children
B. Up in the air
C. At pavement
D. All of the above

Shooting your gun while drinking is in no way unsafe:
A. True
B. False

Truly shocking.

I ended up just buying a .22 rifle. After realizing that ammunition would quickly eat up what precious little of my college student budget that doesn't go to paying for my student hovel and gruel, I decided that shooting the cheapest thing possible might enable me to go shooting more than once a year.

A friend suggested to me that things like this make for great writing. So I think that I'm just going to continue on, in the most poetically appropriate manner possible, because I don't know what else to do. I'm not going to leave, but I'm also not altering my course, destined for shipwreck or no.

What's it been now, three weeks? Or so, yeah, three weeks. Some things are settling in. Wearing jeans in 80 degree weather. Bought a dresser, finally. But home is still just doors and windows, and I just bounce back and forth from condo to cubicle, not sure yet this is real.

Furr's Cafeteria doesn't help matters much. There's a tiled atrium with benches and that win-a-prize-with-a-little-forklift game they have in bowling alleys. Fifty people could wait there. Inside there are maybe thirty. The first face I see is waxy white, a caricature of a morbidly obese American. But she's not a cartoon, she's sitting right there, giving me the stink eye over her chicken piccata. The girl running the buffet line asks over and over again, "And what else?" until there's nothing else, just pre-plated Jello cheesecake and sweet tea with free refills.

In the corner it smells like hospital disinfectant, not really covering the smell of piss. So I push the food-jelly around on its plates, eat half of everything like someone I knew back home who applied that lesson impartially to both pancakes and broccoli, trying to lose a little holiday weight.

Out the window the thick spring leaves are rustling under a sky that goes from dark grey to sunbreak and back. I didn't know Texas would be so windy. Whenever I walk anywhere beyond the brick confines of my building it seems a strong wind picks up coming from whichever direction I'm going, strong enough to straighten out my hair like a flag as the blast hits and blow dust into my eyes. I hear the whistle of old westerns and a voice telling me I've come to the wrong place and I should turn back. Too late now.

Work is unsatisfying and the evening is too short. I find I've fallen back on old habits trying to make the surreal feel familiar. There's was a point to all this, but I lost it. I got sucked into one of two Furr's Cafeterias here off the intersection of several overhead state routes and the wind is blowing too hard to leave and there's nothing to do but go back for more.

On my way home from Armenia last month I stopped in London and there a few noders were kind enough to meet me and escort me around their fair and hyper-expensive city. I got to meet several people I have corresponded with electronically over the years. And indeed, each of them was a beer drinking person, flesh and blood, with lives lived and futures to be had.

Each of my hosts was different. One wore a business shirt, jacket, and tie. One wore magenta stockings and a blazing orange coat. Two wore t-shirts and jeans. But as always I was left with the impression that noders are a uniquely definitive sliver of society. That I could tell them apart in a crowd of hundreds of tube riders. That there was an interest in the form and substance of life experienced from an obtuse inverted angle.

That they all required higher-bandwidth network access.

Etc.

I tried to buy an inexpensive dinner of pizza and beer for my hosts, (after all, I was on expense account), but as it was about to run me a month's rent in a decent apartment, I accepted their chipping in. Twenty quid is a week's worth of sushi lunches for me back in the states, and besides, a twenty sitting in my sock drawer till my next trip to London inevitably nets me several percentage on the arbitrage due to the ever sinking U.S. dollar.

After leaving the fine London noder community, I moved immediately into the apparently necessary horror of Heathrow's terminal five.

By now most people have heard of T5 as it has become an icon of failure. British newspapers have called it a "national disgrace." One presumes London as a unit would distance itself from T5 the way one would like to distance himself from a ruptured appendix. But like an errant vestigial body part, Londoners must face this painful conflagration daily until it is excised or repaired. For this, and for the fact that from now on people will measure the degree of all operational failures relative to T5 ("Space shuttle crashed into a twelve-story orphanage? Well, at least it's not T5,") I am truly sorry.

"I take full responsibility," said soon-to-be-former president of BA, Willy Walsh. If he means what he says and could possibly get his way responsibility-wise one would have to question his sanity. A conservative estimate would place in the six-figure range the number of people who would like to see Willy tarred, feathered, and run naked through the streets of London in front of an angry mob with torches and pitchforks. And I suggest the employees of British Airways would be at the front of the mob.

When the conveyor belts at the security x-ray screening broke down in front of me, one of the BAA employees said to me, "Well, at least people are happy today," as she savaged the conveyer belt with a shoe, repeatedly and maniacally as if trying to flay the rubber from its steel bands, spittle and hair flying from her head, whacking and beating until the thing sputtered back to movement.

She stopped in near exhaustion and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. To my surprised look she replied, "German made. That's all I'll say."

But really, my own T5 experience is trivial compared to the mayhem and abuse put up with by many other BA customers. For instance, one reads that a dead man's luggage is still circulating in the bowels of Heathrow's baggage system, or perhaps it has been opened and sold by gypsies in Milan, which is where many pieces of luggage were sent when BA realized it was incapable of sorting them. As luggage sorting would have to be a core competency for any airport, the depth of the decay is in evidence.

Though, once inside T5 one can experience a literal bazaar of duty free items for sale. Rolex watches. Designer clothes. Custom mixed alcoholic beverages. Coffees from all over the world, and the latest electronic gadgets are all available to the holder of a Visa card. The shopping at T5 rivals the world's greatest malls, and the availability of flights follows the same pattern. It is easier to catch a plane from the men's clothing department at Nordstrom's in downtown Seattle than from a gate at T5, though it is just as easy to find a fine wool Italian suit.

To the dismay of the T5 vendors who solicited my interest in everything from weird mineral samples to women's cologne I was not in the terminal to shop but rather to board an aircraft.

"Surely you jest," one said to me in reply to my comment that I did not have time to consider his Danish designer kitchenware because my plane was boarding.

Apparently he was right.

After a two hour delay we were informed that our plane contained a four-ton shipping crate that could not be moved for lack of a forklift. It seems there were at that time no devices capable of unloading such a crate from a Boeing 747, even though the crew in Nairobi (the origin of the plane and crate) were able to load it, one presumes with elephants and giraffes, or perhaps trained Bonobo apes.

However it was done in deepest Africa, the infrastructure in the most expensive city on earth was not equal to the task. And I assume they were considering emptying the London Zoo of its elephants when someone managed to drive a liftruck from the other pieces of Heathrow airport (conveniently located some 20 minutes drive away at high speed), to T5, and save our flight from cancellation. Most of T5 would not be so fortunate that day, as nearly a hundred flights were cancelled, after baggage had been checked by the unfortunate travelers.

This will be an important point in determining the full measure of responsibility that should be taken by Mr. Walsh.

While the four-ton box was being removed from the plane, announcements were made over the general PA system in T5. Most of these were the usual every-15-minute babble about not losing control of one's personal belongings and not taking candy from strangers. But deep in air-delay-induced ennui, I became aware of one announcement being made at ten or twenty minute intervals.

And that announcement was: "British Airways regrets to inform its customers that check-ins are hereby suspended."

This is the first announcement I heard that day, that in all my 30+ years of air travel I had never heard before. And I allowed myself to imagine the full scope of the chaos happening at the front of the terminal where erstwhile travelers suddenly learned of the airline's decision to terminate their holidays, business trips, and visits to grandma. Because there is no other airline flying out of T5, and suspension of BA check-ins meant nobody was going anywhere from T5 anymore.

While I believe no one was killed, we have evidence that the dead man's luggage is still unreturned by BA. Though he perished on a BA aircraft, (pure speculation: he died of heart arrhythmias induced by T5 employees driven to insanity by system breakdowns) somehow only his physical person was returned to his family, but neither his hand carry or checked luggage can be located, even with the help of MI6. Presumably the return of his belongings is a lower priority to the return of the luggage of the living with which BA continues to struggle, these weeks after collecting them.

The second announcement I heard that day that I had never heard uttered before in air transit was this one: "We have damaged the plane removing the four-ton box, and so we will not be able to load your luggage. You can get on the plane and go to San Francisco, but your baggage will have to be put on another flight."

The third announcement I heard that day, that I had previously never witnessed was said after 9 hours in the air, one hour before our landing in San Francisco. The flight's purser came on the plane's PA system and said, "All passengers are advised to save receipts."

This caused a flock of mental question marks to rise from the heads of every traveler and pool on the aircraft ceiling forming a quagmire of confusion impossible to ignore.

The purser then clarified in the halting tones of one about to be murdered, "We regret to inform our passengers that we cannot locate your baggage, and we can confirm no delivery date."

Until that moment I had never been in an aircraft in which the passengers had been informed their luggage was gone, never to be returned, and that they should go to the store upon arrival at their destination and buy replacement items, refundable to a maximum amount of 100 British Pounds.

At which point conversion to terrorism was seriously considered by all 250 inhabitants of the plane, and a lynch mob formed with the expressed desire to shove the flight attendants into the microwave ovens, storm the cockpit, and reroute the plane Bermuda where fruity drinks could be had by all.

As I had been traveling with only hand carry bags, I was immune to the intense display of failure and incompetence. And I felt deeply empathetic to the poor British Airways employees who had to "take one for their sniveling ineffective team." I suppose after the whole "WMDs in Iraq" affair we in the west are accustomed to bald-faced lying by people who control our fates, and it was a weak attempt by BA to try to monopolize on that effect while tossing their employees to the wolves. Because in truth, as we had just learned, exactly zero pieces of luggage had been loaded onto the plane, not because the plane's cargo hold had been damaged, but rather, because the luggage checked in to the T5 system had been systemically and purposefully lost -- as we now know -- tossed into a pile in a warehouse, the growth of which served the pitiful amusement of news watchers all over the world. This includes, especially, those people who checked their bags and were then informed they could not board a flight due to cancellation.

One wonders what BA is doing with everyone's underwear. Perhaps the true purpose for shipping the luggage mountain to Milan was not so much for purposes of sorting and redistributing, but to calculate the full measure of income that could be derived from the sale of so many personal goods outside the boundaries of the UK, where innocence-via-ignorance could be claimed.

We landed in San Francisco three hours behind schedule, and I left behind me in customs a crowd of bewildered, jet-lagged civilians, each now deep in calculation of the magnitude of personal loss and necessary rescheduling.

I matter to my daughter. In fact, I matter so much that she cries every time she thinks I'm not paying attention to her.

I matter to my wife, who constantly tells me how much she loves me and how grateful she is for the things I do.

I matter to my employer, or else I wouldn't have gotten a promotion and this office.

So why do I feel like I'm immaterial?

I feel as though, these days, I serve to perform a set number of functions. I look after our one-year-old; I clean up the house; I make some of our meals; I perform my requisite managerial and coding duties here at work (when I'm not daylogging, anyway). Things are happy and safe and reasonably secure and really quite wonderful. It isn't as though I'm in some sort of crushing depression, or paralyzed with anxiety about the future. My daughter, more often than not, makes me deliriously happy, proud, and thankful to be a parent.

And yet...

So often, life just proceeds. I can't put my finger on it, but so often I just feel like I'm passing the time. And I think it's because the peaks and valleys of the past have smoothed out. You see, a few years back was a ridiculously tumultuous time. It was a year of unemployment in 2002, followed by years of struggling to help rebuild a company and simultaneously pull us out of debt. It was years of friends graduating from college and entering crazy, young, hip, single lives. It was hedonism and unpredictability at every excuse and every opportunity. It was the first time in my life that I actually felt like I was a part of this big, crazy, fun group. Crushing lows of failing to get jobs, struggling to pay the bills, or transferring balances from one credit card to another yet again were medicated by dizzying highs of overnight parties and groups that lightly tested the boundaries of intimacy.

But things settled down, and not just for my wife and I. Friends moved into the professional world. Many folks moved out of the state to pursue their various careers. Others moved into city apartments. Driving out to the suburbs was no longer economical nor cool; why should they, when so many of them lived in the city, and there was so much to do there? Meanwhile, my own hangups found me reluctant to drive into the city; outwardly, my arguments ranged from saying that I sucked at parallel parking and hated frenetic city traffic (which was true) to arguing that we had a single-family house and therefore more room (as though that really made a difference). Inwardly, the real reason was that entertaining at home gives me a comfort zone, a place where I can retreat into my own bedroom if I start feeling sick or uncomfortable.

Some friends drifted away slowly due to physical and emotional distance. Former common interests were no longer common as tastes changed. Others split violently after giant fights that ended in resentment and name-calling. The parties stopped. Casual get-togethers dwindled. There was no chatting on IRC anymore. The only remnant was blog posts that let us know what everybody else was up to.

Nowadays I post blog entries, or leave comments on others' blogs, and I am lucky to get one or two responses. The rest are sucked into a digital black hole. I find myself wondering if most of those people supposedly on my "friends list" even read anything I write anymore. There are perhaps three people in this world, other than family or coworkers, that I still consider friends, and sometimes I even feel light-years away from them.

I am delighted to come home and hear my daughter squeal "HI!" when I open the door. She is definitely the shining beacon in my entire life. But sometimes I look back on those crazy days when I really felt like I was connected to something important, and miss them. I am a father, a husband, a Team Lead Engineer, a homeowner... but sometimes I miss being a "person that other people want to hang out with."

At a recent science fiction convention I became involved in a long conversation with a woman who is an active user of Second Life. I'd heard a little about it and she was interesting, so I thought I'd take the plunge and try it myself.

First of all, it's not for the hardware and data bus challenged. I have a recent iMac with the good graphics card and a cable modem, but screen draws can take up to a minute to really fill in the details. Slower during heavy use. But the software of Second Life is very impressive and some very creative people have invested in it. There are some very cool and beautiful creations places constructed by the builders. Getting started is fairly easy, and you really don't need any money to play. Plus there is a Battlestar Galactica sim that looks like fun, if time intensive. A couple nice dance clubs that play good music, and give you a chance to meet people while tango software protects you (and your partner's shins) from the effects of two left feet.

But I was looking for a free bathing suit and ended up in a ghetto. For some reason, somone took the time and effort to design a real slum, complete with burning cars, dark nights and plenty of vice. Complete with real streetwalkers. Yes, there were actual characters standing around 'dressed' as cheap 'hos, looking for johns.

My friend told me sex and weddings were a big business in Second Life. I didn't believe her. Now I do. Sex sells in the land of pixels. It's everywhere, with automated genitalia and companionship available for the right price.

The way I see it, if I'm going to have a 'Second Life', it ought to be to do things I can't do in real life. Like drive a Formula 1 car or fight Cylons. I don't want to see a slum, I want to see Rivendell. And if I wanted a hooker I'd prefer the kind that gets politicians to resign. A streetwalker made up to look cheap is off the menu. And what sort of person would play that sort of character? If you wanted to play a prostitute why not play some outrageous courtesan? Hang around with Princes and Generals at Versailles and service rich nobles. Or maybe live on an exotic world from one of Robert Heinlein's wet dreams. Build Castle Anthrax. Pretending to be a streetwalker is just whacked.

Or maybe it's just a failure of imagination. After all, real people voluntarily appear on The Jerry Springer Show. Money matters in 2L and if you don't want to spend real greenbacks to get linden (the local currency) then you must find another way. Maybe people simulate real life where people trade on what they have at the minimum, because they can't see their way to the top. Maybe instead of escaping real life, they've just copied it.

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