Ancient like clay, hot like fire
By Ross Goodwin
This is not an essay about machine learning or creative code, and I did not generate it with a machine.
I wrote the first draft of this in 2016, shortly after completing my first Adventures in Narrated Reality piece. I also made the somewhat questionable decision to circulate the unedited manuscript via Google Docs to many friends and acquaintances. Quite a few of these folks were concerned about me after reading that raw version, and they were right to be. At the time, I initially insisted I was fine, but I was manic, and I should have been more careful. (Mostly, I wrote a furious 8,000-word essay in one night, so I should have known what was happening.)
This piece is fraught for me, and it took me a long time to return to it for editing. But I have done so and published it here because I’ve been told by multiple people whose opinions I trust that it genuinely might help someone.
Photographs are my own.
After my first episode in 2011, long before my diagnosis in late 2012, I remember sitting in Pete’s office in the West Wing of the White House, demanding a better job. Halfway through this meeting, which I had requested, POTUS summoned Pete to the Oval. As the grandfather clock in the corner of his office ticked away, I could feel my time serving at the pleasure of the President ticking down as well.¹
…I also knew everything would be all right, because I had assumed a more distinguished title than President Obama could bestow…
Here’s how that happened:
My friend Jack, through no fault of his own, made a symbolic mistake. He either gave me or let me take home a genuine, official Mormon bible, complete with tactical ballistic nylon case and zippered pamphlet pocket. Jack is an ex-Mormon who’s very critical of the church, and that’s another story entirely.
Personally, I have nothing against anyone who believes anything. I suppose I’m only critical of those who choose to act on their beliefs, though I find even that difficult, since, in my experience, most of those acting on their true beliefs tend to have good intentions, at the very least, which is worth something, even if we pretend like it isn’t most of the time in our political and legal systems.
Those who do not act on their beliefs — those who conceal their intent, or refuse to explain what they will do once they achieve power, are those who should never achieve power, but so often they do. But we were having a discussion about the Mormon Bible — I can’t remember the details; Jack either insisted or allowed that I borrow it.
It doesn’t matter.
When I saw that bible on my coffee table, I knew it was there for a reason. I knew that Jack, as a hilarious prank, had performed a very special ceremony that only Mormons know about. It involves a large piece of bread — Jack had been clever to choose the frozen pizza on my kitchen counter as an appropriate stand-in for the prescribed bread product, which I don’t really remember much about — it was something expensive and similarly meat/cheese laden. Very, very hot — a special dish, only for one very special Mormon: their leader, the Pope. Mormons hate hot things — “hot drinks” is the term they use for alcohol. A few other items in my room were things that Jack had placed in special arrangements to ensure the ceremony would be legitimate, and thus would require official recognition from the Church of Latter-day Saints (CoLdS).
Jack, in his wisdom and tomfoolery, had performed the official ceremony to make me the Mormon Pope. And all I had to do to fulfill this was eat a pizza — so I set to work.²
Within the hour, I also somehow became Catholic Pope and the leader of the Orthodox Jews, and it was clear to me that the apocalypse was imminent, hence: Triple Pope of the Apocalypse (TPotA).
I was convinced that elite CoLdS snipers were positioning themselves on the rooftop of the building next to me, waiting for a clear shot at my head. That’s why my father, or perhaps my Uncle Phil — can’t remember which of them saw this — found me huddling in the bathtub of my apartment, anxiously awaiting the barrage of gunfire that I knew would imminently tear me to shreds.
It all ended with The Long Walk, which is what I still call it inside my head.³ Almost nine miles I walked—beginning at 4am, when I escaped from my terrified father after scaring him⁴ with an enormous steel hammer⁵ (pictured above) I made for an art class in college—from Columbia Heights all the way to my Uncle Phil’s House in Bethesda, Maryland,⁶ muttering nonsense and screaming at anyone who would listen to me.
Before I began to walk toward my Uncle’s house, I escaped from my own apartment and my terrified father for reasons I cannot recall. I walked a bit and was standing in the traffic circle of the Washington Hilton. The early morning was still dark. I saw lights from planes flying overhead, and I instantly inferred from their formation, size, velocity, and heading that these aircraft were heavy bombers with nuclear payload on their way to annihilate North Korea, which in turn meant that a genuine apocalypse was about to occur.
I knew that I would be consumed imminently by fire as the blast wave of a 50-megaton thermonuclear warhead spread outward from the White House in a fraction of a second, any moment from now. I turned around and looked up at the massive, concrete facade of the hotel behind me, imagining its immense weight on top of me, knowing that the structure, whatever its composition, would collapse this close to ground zero.⁷ No building would offer shelter, but merely another choice of materials in which to become forever entombed.
I had to try something, so I began jogging toward Bethesda, away from downtown DC, which I knew would be reduced to radioactive rubble in a few seconds.
I got further than I thought I would on that jog, which turned into a resigned, brisk walk up Connecticut Avenue, when I felt a tinge of warmth on the back of my neck.
This was it — the blast wave. I closed my eyes. The warmth slowly became hot, and I knew that soon I would be on fire, then… gone.⁸
I was not prepared for the end, but it was happening despite my desire to remain among the living. I had no control.
The blast wave seemed to be taking its time, slowly closing in on me, as the warmth on my neck continued to grow. I did not dare to turn around. That would be far too terrifying, like staring right into a rising tsunami of fire and debris. I have always been terrified of staring down into deep water, and something told me that staring into whatever chaotic terror was behind me would be like staring into the deepest thing imaginable.
Time seemed to pass, but it was still getting warmer, closer. I began to feel confused. Then again, I considered that I’d never experienced the end of the world before, so maybe there were some aspects for which I had not accounted — like maybe some deus ex machina bullshit was about to go down. Perhaps time had been frozen, or at least slowed down quite a bit. This made me all the more reluctant to turn around, as I figured the gyrating firestorm moving in ultra-slow motion toward my location would be more than I could handle.
Or perhaps, I thought, everyone actually experiences death in slow motion, and mine was going especially slow, which terrified me because that meant I would be on fire for what might seem like a very, very long time before dying horribly.
Warmer, warmer, slightly hot, hot — oh fuck, fuck, fuck, here it comes —
It was the sun rising.
And I was furious — I believed someone had tricked me, and I didn’t realize the deceptive root I sought was so much closer than I could know. Because it was me, part of me at least, and I had invented all of this in my own head.
Near the Maryland border, I thought a homeless man was an undercover CIA agent, and I knew I outranked him, so I asked for his side arm.⁹ I don’t remember what he said back to me.
I also asked someone “What game are you playing?” I thought he was a North Korean spy, and I was negotiating for the rest of humanity. Again, 5am, empty streets, feels like a movie set or something.¹⁰ I ask this question and the guy answers with, “Ingress.”
“Ingress,” the augmented-reality game for Android. I didn’t know that existed at the time because I had an iPhone and didn’t play augmented reality games, so all I had was a set of phonemes devoid of meaning, a totally blank slate — total delusion food.
My mind constructed an entire mythology around this word. It involved members of my family as CIA plants, deep cover agents that had been watching me my whole life, even my real birth at Area 51¹¹ in Nevada, an elaborate conspiracy hatched across decades, a plot so elaborate and dense and precise that it had to be real.¹²
I arrived at my Uncle’s looking for someone named Ingress, screaming her name quite loudly and enthusiastically hoping to summon her to my presence, as I knew that she was behind this elaborate ruse. Only she could help me unravel the truth and determine exactly what was really happening to me. Because something was amiss. The apocalypse hadn’t happened — or at least, it was very late.
I logically figured Ingress lived in the house next door to my uncle, who seemed somehow involved in all of this, so I threw a brick through her window, broke a few potted plants, and the police quickly arrived.
For context, you should know a little bit about the town of Bethesda, Maryland, so I’ll provide a few select facts from the city’s Wikipedia page: In April 2009, Forbes ranked Bethesda second on its list of the 10 Most Livable Cities in America, and that same year the city ranked first in Total Beauty magazine’s list of America’s Top 10 Hottest-Guy Cities, along with second on Self magazine’s list of the healthiest places for women in the country. Though in 2008 it had ranked first on that final list. Additionally, the 2000 Census ranked Bethesda the most educated city in America with a population above 50,000 residents. The town’s median income, as of 2011, was $184,606, according to CNN Money, which that year ranked Bethesda as the nation’s “top-earning” town.
If I were a person of color, I would be dead now, because I dealt with the Bethesda police in a way that people rarely do, unless they want to die. I ignored the officers’ instructions, and did/said just about everything you’re absolutely not supposed to do/say when you’re being arrested, short of running away or physically trying to fight a police officer.
ARMED POLICE OFFICER
Put your hands on your head!
[Reaches into pockets] Wait, I got shit in my pockets you should know about, hold on a sec —
ARMED POLICE OFFICER
[Yelling, with hand on weapon] HANDS OUT OF YOUR POCKETS — ON YOUR HEAD, NOW!
[With closed hand outstretched, holding something] I think this is a pen. Do you want this? How should I hand it over? I think I got more shit in here — always losing shit in these pockets. Is this a lighter? I can’t really tell, but I’ll know in a second…
Imagine me saying these things as a 6’ 6” Black or Latino man. I would be dead, or beaten savagely at best. To this day, I believe at least 90% of the reason I was not hurt or killed by officers of the law, just a few miles from the capital city of the United States of America, is the color of my skin.
I almost got tased, but was able to talk my way out of that experience somehow. However, four officers surrounded and handcuffed me, then strapped me to a gurney with my hands still cuffed behind my back, which felt incredibly painful at the time, though the ordeal suspiciously left only slightly visible scratches on my wrists, and I can’t be sure of the actual amount of pain I experienced for reasons that should be obvious.
I have since confirmed that being cuffed in the way most police officers will cuff you does indeed hurt quite a bit. And if you’ve ever experienced that, imagine the addition of the full weight of your body on top of your wrists — that’s what I was experiencing when I was strapped to a gurney with handcuffs on, and it was agonizing.
I screamed at the EMTs the entire way to the hospital. Told them I was a famous computer programmer, of all things,¹³ and that they were breaking my hands.
One thing my father said after I got put in the police car, while I was waiting for the ambulance to show up, really set me off. I love my dad, and he handled the whole experience very well — although I could tell he was incredibly freaked out the entire time, and I was not sympathetic, which must have been very difficult for him.
“Don’t worry, we’re going to take care of you,” he said as I lay cuffed and screaming on a gurney about how much my wrists hurt.
Dad, I’m saying this to you now in this essay, because I didn’t know how to explain this when you said it, or in the time since. I love you, and you did an incredible job that day — saved my life in all sorts of little ways — but should this ever happen again, you need to be very careful about what you say to me when I’m having a manic episode.
If you don’t catch my drift, read that quote again, but imagine the person who’s saying it is not my dad or your dad or anyone friendly. Imagine it’s a mafia boss you just seriously pissed off… Do you see the dual meaning of that phrase yet?
So, Dad, when you said that to me, that’s why I started screaming even more. Not because I hated you or was releasing some kind of repressed rage in your direction. But because I thought you and the police and the EMTs were going to kill me. And I know that sounds ridiculous, especially now, but it’s true.
The voices never go away, you know? They come back to me, especially at night. In the dark, I can hear them, but they’re softer now, and totally under my control, for the most part. I’m listening to them right now while I write this.¹⁴
Back in Bethesda, near the end of The Long Walk, before I was subdued by law enforcement, I told myself that if I stared at the sun twice that would cure the CIA bipolar mind virus through subliminal cues — which reminds me, I now totally understand and pity anyone who believes in conspiracy theories. If you find yourself inclined toward them and you’re reading this, please get checked out. You might be sick like I am, and this could happen to you at any point. Also, you might have a gun in your house, and you could do something you’ll regret forever, without ever really knowing why you did it.
That’s really why I’m writing this now. I’m writing this for you, Donald Trump¹⁵ supporter — if you bother to read this, but I’m not sure you will, so I suppose I’m hoping this sentiment I’m expressing about mental illness gets injected into the zeitgeist and finds its way to you somehow through the memetic airwaves of peer-to-peer communication.
I saved the best delusion for last: at one point, when my father showed up, I started to believe that North Korean spies had bugged my apartment.
And that would’ve been fine and typical of my condition, were it that alone, but the delusion had more layers: I believed the North Koreans had placed tiny, sophisticated video recording equipment, and that all my private moments at home had been meticulously recorded and catalogued. I believed Kim Jong Un had been watching my girlfriend, Lily, and I have sex, and that he had secretly begun masturbating to this content; that he had become sexually obsessed with our relationship, and that he was the true source of the strange postcards I received in my dorm room mailbox a dozen or so times during my freshman year of college over the span of a couple of weeks when someone, likely as a prank, began sending me strange old greeting cards with all the eyes on the cartoon characters blacked out crudely and furiously with a ballpoint pen, and strange obsessive messages added to their otherwise innocuous greetings. Each card was postmarked in Boston and had no return address.¹⁷
I believed Kim Jong Un’s sexual obsession with Lily and myself had begun escalating out of control in recent days; that he had only very recently become totally unhinged and begun impulsively splicing individual frames of me and Lily fucking into his state television propaganda; that the upper echelons of the North Korean political elite, in their sycophantic obsession with their Supreme Leader had followed suit, carefully and religiously watching his voyeuristic pornography, attempting to find deeper meaning in it beyond its carnal appeal; and, as a result, that any person of Asian descent I saw on the street, who smiled at me or talked to me, or seemed shy for some reason, or overly friendly, was in fact a deep cover North Korean spy trying to get my autograph. Because I had become a famous porn star—perhaps the only porn star—in their hermit kingdom. This only led to further revelations: that my celebrity status in North Korea had been abused by my former contacts in the Obama administration; that American spies at the CIA were using me as a tool to end Un’s reign…
Yeah, so it’s probably time for me to wrap this up.
In case you missed the point, this essay was about mania. The Greeks described it. Ancient like clay, hot like fire.
You might be wondering what the stories I tell myself in my head sound like now. Well, I don’t really know, because it’s pretty difficult to judge the tone of my own thoughts most of the time.
You tell me.
P.S. As humans, we believe we use language to communicate, as if it were something that someone consciously invented at some point, something that we could control, like a technology.
But language is not like a technology. It’s more like technology, the entire concept of it, and we cannot control changes in our language any more than we can control the exponential advance of our technology, in the aggregate. The delusion of linguistic control¹⁸ is an ancient, hardwired delusion — une folie à plusieurs — that we must reconcile.
In Mother Night, which is about an American propagandist who accidentally helps the Nazis with his galvanizing voice, Kurt Vonnegut writes:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
I am a reformed propagandist, and I say those who believe they can control language merely pretend to do so, and so they must be careful…
Because we do not use language. Language uses us.
- In the darkest passage, may the bridges I have burned light my way.
- Sadly, this work did not actually involve eating the pizza.
- Almost certainly stolen from the Stephen King / “Richard Bachman” novel I read in high school.
- Though I didn’t actually mean to, even at the time. Sorry again, Dad.
- An art project I welded together in college that probably still gives my poor dad nightmares. He actually asked me to throw it away at one point a few months later, but I declined because it’s something I made and I was, before all this happened, actually quite fond and proud of it. Maybe I should oblige, but then again, I don’t see how destroying my artwork will make me somehow unthreaten my dad with it.
- Meaning I literally walked to another state.
- I knew that along with the approximate blast radius of a 50 MT bomb from a class I took at MIT on weapons systems — from which I also knew there was no vehicle that could outrun an imminent air burst detonation at my distance.
- I’d seen photos of the shadows that Hiroshima victims left in the sidewalks of their city in the same class I learned about blast radii—thanks, Professor Postol.
- Speaking of side arms: this whole experience has made me terribly concerned about gun control. If I’d had access to a gun, I have absolutely no idea what would’ve happened. I have fired guns on more than a few occasions — as a boy scout and summer camp attendee, firing 22-caliber rifles at targets was among my favorite activities. And I was pretty good at it. I even earned an official NRA Sharpshooter pin-on medal at some point, which likely remains in a box in my parents’ garage.
- Early morning joggers know what I’m talking about.
- Actually a secret base where the government tested experimental surveillance aircraft for high-altitude flights about the USSR. There were no aliens (don’t be ridiculous), but the base did also contain a facility where scientists were splitting infants’ brains — including mine — along the same tissue barrier that had been found missing in Einstein’s brain, in order to create a new generation of superscientists that would invent the requisite weapons to end the Soviet Union once and for all. I was the only child who had miraculously survived these bizarre experiments, and now I was hearing the two lobes of my brain fighting with one another, like Einstein had when he solved the Unified Theory of Everything in April 1955. (The CIA couldn’t let that information get out though, for obvious reasons, so they had him killed a few days later and incinerated all his notes.)
- Delusional cliché: “It couldn’t have just appeared in my head like this, could it?”
- This has since become slightly true: I am now sort of a well-known programmer / code artist. Although when I was cuffed and on a gurney in the back of an ambulance, I was willing to say anything in order to get those cuffs off my wrists and my hands out from under the weight of my entire body.
- After all, how do you think the words on this page (or screen) manifested themselves?
- N.B. for a relative: I hear you voted for Donald Trump. I have never met you, nor do I know you, nor do I know your story. But if you did in fact vote for Donald Trump, as I hear through family channels that you did, do not bother coming to my wedding because you are fucking dead to me. People like donald trump deserve absolutely no power, in this reality or any other, except over their own demise.
- Donald, or rather The Donald, which I assume shall become your supreme title if your awesomeship might find thyself reading this humble missive as Emperor of America. Please don’t kill me. All of this was purely fiction. And if you enjoyed it, sir, I have the capacity to produce many more entertaining tales of sorrow and joy. I shall be your poet laureate, Great Leader, your grand court jester, if only you spare my life and that of every person I specify. All of this was █████’s fault. █████ did all of this. Please kill █████, and spare me — I beg of you. Please, Great Leader of America and Savior of All Mankind. The Donald, please…
- This actually happened, early in my freshman year at MIT, and it was creepy as fuck. I was so freaked out at the time that I stuffed all the cards in a drawer and didn’t tell anyone about it, not even my roommate, Tony, even though that seems totally idiotic in retrospect. They could’ve all been from a serial killer who had meticulously tracked my movements from my LiveJournal blog, where I’d posted my address a few times — in fact, it’s still entirely possible that someone sinister very much wanted me to die, and simply lost interest right before committing the act, or perhaps went back on their medication. I think I still have a few of these cards in a box of loose paper I saved from college. Old friends of mine who are reading this should take note: if you sent me a series of creepy anonymous postcards for some unknown reason my freshman year of college, and you want to come forward now, please do so. I will forgive you.
- It’s no secret that Dr. W. C. Minor, a man confined to a mental asylum,¹ was the most prolific contributor to the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Whatever organization now publishes the OED tries to hide that fact on their website, which I find insulting. There’s an entire book about it, after all.²
1. He was locked in there because he killed a man for no apparent reason while experiencing a paranoid delusion.
2. The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester, originally titled The Surgeon of Crowthorne — and I can see why Winchester changed it, because the original title calls far too much attention to the book’s dramatic climax, wherein Dr. Minor cuts off his own penis because he believes evil forces are whisking him away at night to diddle kids. (Despite being a convicted murderer, Minor was that concerned about such an abhorrent possibility.)