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Photo illustration by Ryan Burger.

I sank to my knees at the foot of the bed. I made the sign of the cross, folded my hands, and closed my eyes. To the sky — technically, the ceiling of my bedroom — I said a “Hail Mary” followed by, “Please, Mother Mary, watch over Comet as she crosses over to the other side and please light her way.”

I simply could not stop sobbing.

Though my family had not yet met our puppy in person, we had grown to love her. The runt of the litter, Comet was so tiny yet so spunky in every video that her owner had sent us that we felt as if we had known her for years. We had no idea that puppies, especially small breeds (she was a mini-Australian), could die from routine vaccines. And after I had been putting off getting a dog for years — “spunky” little family members eat up way too much bandwidth, and for a family of three strung out by the pandemic, “spunk” could get in the way of survival.

The Table_(300 × 250 px) (1)

I’d also heard all the horror stories.

“Don’t get a dog,” one of my friends told me. “The kids are great with it for about three weeks, then after that, you’re the only one doing everything. Hard no.”

See? Horror.

I love dogs. Adore them. I also love my bandwidth, which has become pretty annoyingly full over the past couple of years. My life went from fun and fun-loving — writing! drawing! playing guitar! getting my drink on whenevs! — to a Conan-like wheel of routine: wake up at 6 every weekday morning, make breakfast for our 10-year-old A., helicopter-parent over him as he brushes his teeth and gets lotioned and dressed, drive him to school, work from home, work out at some point (maybe), pick up A. from school, take him to taekwondo Monday and Wednesday nights, take him to baseball Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, take him to play therapy every Friday, repeat. It’s not A.’s fault. Our son was living in a West African orphanage when my wife D. and I adopted him, and that trauma has imprinted itself on his amygdala, which manifests itself in all sorts of unacceptable behaviors, which leads to all sorts of fun phone calls from school. There’s also piano and a 20 minute-minimum reading time every night and meals and playtime and chores and … The only pro-dog argument I’d heard was that maybe the little furry critter would be good for teaching our son some (more) responsibility. Then after three weeks, you’re the only one doing everything. Then after three weeks, you’re the only one doing everything. Those words still haunt me. All I can do is not let that happen. All I can do is get my hands on more bandwidth … from the bandwidth fairy?

I had prayed hard in the days leading up to Comet’s death, had said so many “Hail Mary”s to keep that sweet little angel from dying that I’m positive no one in my ZIP code had said as many prayers as I had every day, and like most Saginaw/Keller dwellers, I live next to three churches.

Every time I made the sign of the cross and folded my hands together, I was alone. I made sure of that.

And that’s the way it’s been since D. and I got married nearly 15 years ago. We had a Catholic/Christian/something wedding. Not quite sure why. Maybe because D.’s parents are not just church-y but living, breathing saints — they sacrifice nearly all of their retirement helping others, genuinely living the way Jesus intended. Now, being Catholic, or Christian, is almost completely anathema to the progressive causes dear to D. and me. She and I avoid organized religion as best we can. Our lone acquiescence is saying “Merry Christmas” this time of year. Publicly, even to D., I’m agnostic. Privately, I’m a praying fool, and it’s not just “Mother Mary” and Jesus I’m launching hosannas to.

Did you know there’s a new Matrix out?

 

Courtesy of Wikipedia
The Messiah Complex

The first movie in the franchise is a fun little inside joke between D. and me. It came out when we started dating, and every time she said we should see it on one of our Wednesday date/movie nights, I came up with an excuse.

“I wanted to see The Matrix every week for about a year,” D. still complains, “and Anthony dragged me to crap like The 13th Warrior.”

Which is all true. The explanation I offered was that I hated crowds (still do but for different, more ballistic reasons), and I was sure that every theater on the planet showing The Matrix was packed every night.

I kept the honest answer to myself. The Matrix was too real.

In what little spare time I have, I tinker with writing SF novels. I’ve finished two. One is dumb. The other, the one I wrote during lockdown, is borderline decent, according to me. One of the first concepts I came up with before I started taking novel writing a little more seriously than just daydreaming about it was about multidimensional consciousness. It’s as goopy as it sounds. I got into this kind of stuff the way most Gen X’ers did: OMNI magazine. Having read a little about The Matrix before seeing it (not in OMNI; in regular newspapers and magazines), I knew it sounded great, so great that it was going to crush my dreams of ever writing anything worthwhile. There was just no better way to illustrate the dichotomy between reality and virtuality than the way it’s depicted in the Wachowskis’ first entry: Our AI overlords are using our physical bodies as fuel, and to keep us satiated, the machines have trapped us in a mostly lovely virtual reality. The cancer and the layoffs and the war and the Republican party exist to balance out the falling in love and the Grand Canyon and the Bud Light Platinum. When Neo finally realizes his divinity — understand, becoming one with the Universal Mind opens up infinite possibilities — it’s almost as cathartic as Rocky Balboa knocking out Ivan Drago. (Almost.)

One of the Wachowskis’ biggest influences was Neuromancer, the 1984 novel from William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace” in a 1982 short story published in OMNI magazine.

Courtesy of Wikipedia

From that point on, I started questioning reality and, more specifically, spirituality. Now that The Matrix is part of the cultural lingua franca, there are probably enough of us spiritually confused Matrix lovers to start our own religion. So, when I pray, I’m also trying to appease our AI overlords, who, I’m confident, want us to live ethically and morally. Based on my 50 years of existence, living ethically and morally leads to rewards. Much in the same way Jesus wanted us to recognize our divinity and live it, I do what I can to avoid “sinning.” I try not to talk about people behind their backs. I try not to cuss out trick mother-fuckers. I try to keep my word. I don’t overindulge. I avoid porn. I don’t insult people not named Donald Trump.

Like I said, I try. I didn’t say I’m always successful.

 

The Final Boss Is Us

The release of The Matrix Resurrections this month just seems too appropriate. It’s like everything since the first movie has been building up to this climax. Tracing back from the biggest glitch in the Matrix, the pandemic, look at all the weird shit that’s happened over the past few years alone: the unlikely presidential election of a racist conman credibly accused of sexual assault by nearly 30 women; Brexit; the Oscars envelope mix-up; the universally hated New England Patriots coming back from 25 points down to win the Super Bowl — taking this oddness all together, it isn’t totally crazy to think that someone or something is messing with us.

The mounting evidence is hard to deny. A well-respected theoretical physicist claims he’s identified computer code in the equations of string theory. Error-correcting codes are “what make [web] browsers work,” he says, “so why were they in the equation I was studying about quarks and electrons and supersymmetry?”

In 2017, a multidisciplinary group of researchers at the University of Washington was trying to show that gene-sequencing computers were vulnerable to attack by embedding malicious code into physical strands of DNA, possibly revealing that what we mistake for biology has been computer code all along.

There’s more. The Earth exists in the Goldilocks Zone, close enough to the sun to be warmed by it but far enough away to remain cool, juuust right, and we’ve discovered the pixel-sized building blocks of life. They’re Planck-length, the point at which our concepts of gravity and spacetime no longer apply. If our world is simulated, a theorist said, the Planck-length would be equivalent to one bit of information, i.e. a pixel.

What’s craziest is that now that we appear to be on the verge of developing the kinds of technology to be able to simulate worlds, we are also about to go extinct — wouldn’t our demise be totally appropriate for our AI/alien overlords, preventing us from achieving their lofty status?

With all due respect to Jesus, the man who — like the good Buddhist he was — lived his divinity and wanted only for us to do the same, is the evidence of a simulation any wilder than, say, some dude walking on water or turning water into wine?

“Philosopher Nick Bostrom argues that it’s not clear that creating a universe like ours would be wrong, despite the suffering that exists,” writes a theorist in The Conversation. “He also points out that our possible digital overlords, like the gods of traditional religions, could reward us with a blissful (simulated) afterlife. This is a traditional theological response to what is known as the problem of evil, but it still leaves the question of whether it is ethical to make us suffer first and only provide compensation later.”

Praying the Catholic way is what I know, having spent my first 15 years at Immaculate Conception Grade School and the succeeding four years at Central Catholic High School. Catholic praying is also what comforts me. As rough and sucky as Catholic school was — and going to church every Sunday, and being beaten down by homicidal-minded nuns, and crying because I was going to hell for spanking the monkey — I always loved the comfort of knowing that maybe if I supplicated hard enough, I would be rewarded, that my family would be rewarded, that good people throughout the world would be rewarded. I have a hard time complaining. My loved ones and I are healthy, we have running water, and we have a nice albeit small roof over our heads. All the big stuff in life seems to have worked out. My undeserved good fortune demands that I thank someone or something. The way I do that is simple. I pray.

I know enough to know that my prayers to “Mother Mary” are no better or worse than other people’s prayers to their gods. The thing that keeps me forever on my knees with my hands folded is that all of them — Mother Mary, Jesus, Yahweh, Vishnu, Mohammed, Satan — are based in the human, in the corporeal vessel, which is totally something an NPC would do in a video game, model his gods after himself, caring about or doing human-type qualia instead of exploring the universe or transcending spacetime. I hope the Matrix knows that by praying to “Mother Mary” I’m also praying to Keanu Reeves.

There appears to be way more facts in support of a higher, AI/alien intelligence than any organized or disorganized religion. One of my favorite library (read: toilet) sites is Glitch in the Matrix. The Sub-Reddit is loaded with weirdness. Most of it is “I lost my bra but found it a day later” and “I can hear my sister snoring and watching TV at the same time,” but there are some nuggets. One of my recent faves is of a skier who answered a call from his father’s number to hear an officious man describe the skier’s exact location, like in The Truman Show when Jim Carrey hears police chatter about him on his car radio. The skier’s younger brother was a witness to the call.

I also have my own glitch story. I prayed for something specific not too long ago, and it came true.

My son got a hit.

 

Little Boy 1, Astral Knights 0

With one eye, I kept checking my laptop for my Zoom meeting.

With the other, I was stealing glances at my phone, desperate for updates from my wife. It wasn’t the win or loss that I was worried about. I didn’t want A. to throw his bat on the ground again like he did after his first time up. D. was in the stands of his Little League game, texting me updates. I was at home virtually attending a writer’s conference, and I was as committed to getting my nearly two-hundred bucks’ worth as I was honestly trying to find an agent for the 86,000-word YA/SF novel I wrote during lockdown. Please. It was the only game I’d missed all year.

D. and I — and A.’s teachers, and his psychiatrist, and his therapist, and his classmates — had grown accustomed to his outbursts and meltdowns. That didn’t mean they were any less dispiriting. Or that they were any less capable of making you want to crack a crucifix in half.

It needs to be said: My son is a true sweetheart. Say “ouch!” around the house, and he sprints to find you a Band-Aid. Tear up, and he runs to comfort you. To the few people who show him grace at school, he makes them the most extraordinary origami: moving swans, ballooning hearts, fish, frogs, all intensely beautiful works of paper.

If only there were more of them. If only there were more people showing him grace.

I’m not blaming them. I can’t blame anyone. My son throws incredible tantrums when he’s frustrated. It is a little scary — for us, for his teachers, and especially for his classmates. The other day, A. said that the one kid in class who’s hung out with him — one kid — wants to “take a break” from their friendship. My heart shattered, and it’s still in not much better shape. I sank to my knees again.

Please, Matrix, since we’re talking about breaks, how about giving one to my sweet son?

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The kids on A.’s baseball team have not really seen him in true meltdown mode. There’s a chance with them. A clutch hit would help. I’ll say another “Hail Mary”?

Because the Matrix conspires against me, because life isn’t challenging enough, A. was coming up to bat again around the same time I had to join my scheduled, paid-for pitch session with a literary agent. I had to remind myself it was for A. that I decided to sign up for the conference in the first place. It was also for A. that I wrote Kofi Alton and the Astral Knights. My young Black son loves adventure stories but never sees anyone like him between their pages. Now it was my time to express my artful love to someone who could make Kofi Alton, an adventure story starring a young Black male, more than just a Word doc on my laptop.

“He’s on deck,” D. texted.

Holy shit. My skin bristled hot. I had just checked into my Zoom meeting. Now I was waiting for the agent’s box on my screen to turn green at the same time my young special-needs son was about to go through one of the most stressful parts of the sport he’d just picked up a few weeks earlier — batting while down by one in the last inning with two outs. There was a guy on first. Or second. I don’t remember.

I had never spoken with an agent before. I had emailed a ton of them recently, pitching my novel, and every convo was one way: me emailing them, them emailing me a form rejection notice back. Now here I was, two-hundred smackers poorer, about to speak to a genuine literary agent. Was my hair sticking up? Was my beard all out of whack? Was I going to say “um” a million times as usual? Was my phone going to ding?

Sitting at my bedside in front of my laptop, I gripped my 11 like the handle to a weapon. I kept checking it. Occasionally, the little ellipsis between my wife and me would start bubbling before just as quickly disappearing. I was left only to imagine the tension.

With about a minute left until my pitch session, I sprinted into the living room, a spot in our tiny abode known for its wonderful natural light. I sank to my knees. After a spitfire rendition of “Hail Mary,” I slowly prayed out loud, my eyes slammed shut, my clasped hands digging into my forehead, “Please, Mother Mary, please watch over A. Please guide him, help him make good decisions, and give him the strength to regulate his emotions. And if he gets on base, I will tell all the world I believe in Jesus. Even my wife. Please, Mother Mary. Please.”

It bears repeating again. I despise what has become of Christianity, Catholicism specifically. Gun-toting rednecks who can’t see beyond their own lawns have taken over the faith, and I couldn’t be more unlike any other type of creature on Earth. D. feels exactly the same way. Saying I believe in Jesus would lessen me in the eyes of pretty much everyone I know, especially my lovely wife.

Saying I believe in Jesus and the Matrix? Eh …

On my knees, I had made a commitment. On the walk back to the bedroom and my laptop, my phone dinged. It was D.

“A. knocked in a run, and we won!”

Fuck.

 

Hugs, Not Red or Blue Pills

The garage door began to kerrang open. What do I do? Tell them I love Jesus right away, or do I wrap up A. in my arms and tell him I’m so proud of him?

I’m a coward. And a hugger.

I squeezed the shit out of him.

As A.’s curly hair snuggled up against my scruffy cheek, I felt the slightest tinge of guilt.

Later, Jesus, I thought, smiling, still hugging my precious child. I’ll tell them later.

 

Let It Be

There seems to be a sense of shame that comes with believing in a higher power but not in AI overlords. Maybe that makes me feel like I’m smart or something, like I’m not any gun-toting, crucifix tattoo-having backward-ass. The distinction is important. Everyone loves to rep their tribe. We all want to comingle among kindred souls, to effect change, ostensibly, to have someone to go to happy hour with, more likely. D. and I wave our flags with pride. She wore a Notorious RBG T-shirt to Kroger the other day, and before I hurt my wrist, I went for a jog around the neighborhood in my BLM shirt.

I told myself I’d wait until Christmas to come clean to my family — not that I’m Catholic or that I’m going to start going to church or anything (haha, no, no, no) but that I believe in a higher power and that the only means through which I can tap that power is what I had been taught since kindergarten, the sit-stand-kneelings of Catholicism. When I fold my hands and close my eyes, I honestly don’t know if I’m praying to the lovely young white lady from the statues of my youth or to the beneficent matron from “Let It Be.” Or maybe a little of both? I dunno! Who knows!

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Catholicism also reminds me of easier, less stressful times. It reminds me of my childhood. It wasn’t easy — I spent a lot of time alone. It was just simple. All you had to do was go to school and come back in one piece. No mass shootings. No embarrassing moments broadcast on social media. Just blistering paddlings by linebacker-sized nuns and piles of homework a mile high to worry about. The era was not great for Black and brown people, and I know that, and I feel that. I still can’t divorce myself from my soothing memories — mine is the only soul I’ve known.

On the way home from the skating rink at Panther Island last week — I was pretty sure I’d shattered my wrist when I hit the friggin ice as quickly as if a ton of bricks had fallen on my head — we drove by quite a few outdoor Christmas decorations. One of them in our neighborhood was of the Nativity. As we passed it, going a breezy 15 miles an hour, with my injured hand I quickly made a little sign of the cross.

Did they see that? They saw that. Maybe they didn’t see it. Whew, glad that’s over. 

 

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