The Door in the Very Back

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose

Janis Joplin

Attachment is the root of suffering

Buddha

We live in Scottsdale, an outpost latched to the Sonoran Desert like a tick on the back of a bony mongrel. It calls itself a city, but it is not. Cities are permanent settlements which arise spontaneously from commercial roots. A city has some external basis for its existence, like a navigable river, a mineral deposit, or rich surrounding farmland. Being based on a natural utility, a city bears the confidence of legitimacy coupled with the discipline of responsibility. Take a port city for example, which grows a superstructure founded upon its waterfront. Though they may grumble about their tax bill, no citizen of the port need wonder why the city government spends money on building docks and dredging the harbor.

Scottsdale has no such foundation. Instead, it is an amenity for its amenities. The city provides an airport so that wealthy snowbirds can migrate to the desert when the first frosts make their hometowns uncomfortable. There are golf courses soaked in stolen water from the Colorado where executives do business in information technology and professional players entertain resident retirees. Many districts are zoned to allow restaurants and shops mixed with apartments and office buildings. The resulting environments have adopted the label “live/work” for themselves. Metaphysically, it is radioactive and I blame exposure to its rays for my wife’s parasomnia.

She does not sleepwalk, nor does she exhibit signs or symptoms of any other ordinary sleep disorder. Her affliction may even be unique, since I have found no record of similar cases in the literature.

This is how it manifests: as I am falling completely asleep, she grabs my shoulder and shakes me.
“How long did you say it would be until humans go extinct?”, she asks.
“About 100,000 years,” I answer.
“Really?” she exclaims” Then what is the point of all this if humans are just over someday and nobody will remember any of us or anything we did?”
“Well,” I say “that question is just bad. Asking an existential what’s-the-point-question is like asking why isn’t round, green. Separate things entirely.”

“Well,” she persists, “I don’t see why we try so hard to accomplish all these things that will be completely forgotten in the end.”
“It is just who we are,” I offer.
“I still don’t see why we try to do anything at all,” she says.
” Try not doing anything at all, and remember, sitting home eating ice cream is doing something,” I say.
There is silence now from her side of the bed.
“Say,” I ask, “do you want to go to Walmart tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” she replies, “that will be fun.”
She settles back and goes to sleep then, but I know she’s unconvinced. We will have this same conversation again, on another night in the near future, in the few minutes before sleep overtakes us.

The trip to Walmart will buy us a couple of peaceful nights. She loves Walmart, like most of us do. The store has a broad-based appeal, as evidenced by its presence in the middle of upscale Scottsdale. Our local Walmart typically has as many BMWs as it has Chevys in the parking lot. It took me a long time to figure out why we find Walmart so attractive. It isn’t the items for sale. Everything in Walmart is available someplace else. Buying the same goods over the Internet is generally more convenient and may be even cheaper than going to the store. The physical environment isn’t the draw either. The aesthetics of Walmart’s interior design leave much to be desired, and practically, it is a maze crammed with items that are sometimes poorly marked.

The ingenious curation of items is the key to Walmart’s appeal. Everything on the shelves serves its purpose up to the highest level manageable by a layman. When a shopper walks through the front door with a certain need, intent on a particular item which they have calculated most likely to fulfill that need, they may or may not find the object of their intent. But, they are almost guaranteed a solution amongst the goods in stock.

Say a shopper comes in looking for a dovetail saw, because they want to cut thin plywood and figure that they need a saw with a straight, self-supported blade. What they find on the shelves at Walmart is a variable speed, electric reciprocating saw. As they consider the electric saw, they realize that they really don’t know anything about the dovetail saw, other than the fact that it has a straight blade which is self-supported. Maybe, they think, they were about to get in over their head by buying a dovetail saw. The electric saw looks like it will do the job, and is guaranteed to be manageable for an amateur like them. All the items in Walmart are instructive in this way.

When I first grasped the secret of Walmart’s draw, it seemed like magic. But it turns out to be something less. In fact, I think the Magi in the back room of corporate headquarters sorted out their strategy by watching beavers. At first glance, beavers seem to be brilliant little creatures. Their dams and dens look like masterful feats of engineering. But in truth, all the beavers do is put sticks where they hear flowing water. The dam is just a manifestation of accrued impulse.

The Magi understand that humans are just the same as the beavers. Everything man-made is a manifestation of accrued impulse. Instead of reacting to the sound of water flowing, we respond to an urge to preserve. Our impulse to save the status is expansive, and pertains not just to personal existence, but to the entire infrastructure of personal identity. Wherever we hear a trickling leak of currency dripping into memory or memory into oblivion, our species hustles over to plug things up again. To get the job done, we will use anything that we can get our hands on: monuments, literature, culture, or personal possessions.

Over the centuries, we have built up dams made of dams to preserve us. In a room in the very back of corporate headquarters at Walmart, the Magi have a model of the whole thing. They can see what sort of patch will fit a particular defect in the barrier. The dam of dams model shows them exactly what kind of jersey to put in the men’s athletic wear section: A tank top which recalls the shirts of famous players long retired, without naming names, yet a garment current enough in its design to acknowledge present stars. This sort of insight is just too perfect to attribute to anything less than informed and premeditated action. It requires a model of the dam.

On occasion, right after I am shaken awake to answer existential questions, I fantasize about taking my wife to corporate headquarters, where we will find the the door in the very back of the complex. I could then show her the full extent of the dam. I wouldn’t say a word. I would let the monstrous complexity of the model speak for itself.

But when I awaken the next morning, I never get up to pack the car for a road trip. Rested and little more sober in the light of day, I suspect that a peek at the whole structure will not cure her sleep disorder, anymore than my reasonable words. I think that she will need to see what the dam contains, and not the dam itself. That stuff is transparent and liquid to the touch, though. It will be dangerously easy for her to dismiss the stuff of identity, even if she were able to dip her toe in it. I doubt that the Magi have gone so far in the name of realism as to fill the reservoir behind their model. They don’t really need that part of the simulation anyway.

It doesn’t really matter. I can survive a little lost sleep. My answers to her questions remain adequate, even if she does not find them conclusive. Besides, in a few decades, the desert will shrivel and the Colorado River will be sucked dry. The city of Scottsdale will flop over with its legs curled in the air. The rest of everything humanity has built will follow shortly, in geologic time. No one will recall her metaphysical sleep disorder. I think I will not keep thinking about a cure. It is a unique experience after all. And there is always the solace of a shopping trip the next day.

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