Listen to S.G. Browne read CHAPTER ONE
(On KQED’s The Writers’ Block)
Such a simple rule, really. But here I am, sitting in a mall in Paramus, New Jersey, and I’m getting frustrated.
Eighty-three percent of humans are predictable creatures of habit who get stuck in routines and lifestyles and addictions or who go through their lives swapping one addiction for another.
My eighty-three percent. My humans. All five and a half billion of them.
The mall is one of the best places to go to see human nature at its best. Or worst, depending on how you want to look at it. Men and women, teenagers and children, shopping, eating, gossiping, filling up the vacuum of their lives with retail therapy and empty calories. My favorite malls are old-school. The ones that aren’t as big as Sri Lanka and still have food courts with Orange Julius, Panda Express, and Hot Dog on a Stick.
In the United States, there are twice as many shopping centers as there are high schools, and the shopping mall has replaced the church as the temple of cultural worship. In a society that encourages its citizens to measure their worth by financial success and material possessions, American humans spend more of their income on shoes, watches, and jewelry than they do on higher education.
Sure, it keeps Greed and Envy busy, but it makes my existence a living hell.
Back when humans were still in their hunter-gatherer phase, existence was all about survival, fulfilling the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, so it’s not like there were a lot of options for better living. Food wasn’t prepared by Martha Stewart. Clothing didn’t come with a Calvin Klein logo. And shelters didn’t require Ralph Lauren curtains with a matching duvet.
The thing about humans is that they’re addicted to products.
Habitual consumers. Indulgence abusers. Gratification automatons.
Programmed to need and want and buy.
MP3 players. Xboxes. PlayStation 3s.
TiVo. Surround sound. High-definition flat-screen TVs.
A thousand cable channels with movies and music and pay-per-view.
Distracted by their desires, overwhelmed with their needs and wants, they’ll never remain on their assigned paths. Their optimal futures. Their most beneficial fates.
That’s me. Capital F. Little a-t-e.
I set my humans off on their paths at birth, assigning fates that range from career criminals to CEOs of oil companies—which really aren’t all that different, when you think about it. But no matter how promising a fate I assign to someone—movie studio executive, second-string NFL quarterback, governor of California—the majority of them invariably screw it up.
It’s human nature to underachieve. To not live up to one’s full potential. Granted, there aren’t a lot of delusions of grandeur with fate. You don’t get awarded a Nobel Peace Prize or become Stephen King. And when someone’s future involves mental illness, drug addiction, or a career in politics, I can’t really expect any pleasant surprises. Once I’ve assigned a fate, that’s it. That’s the best I can hope for. But that doesn’t mean things can’t go wrong.
Within each human’s preassigned fate, there are significant moments of decision that will determine if and how they stay on their path. Choices that influence the way they go about living their lives.
Every one of these choices one of my humans makes requires a reassessment of his or her future. A reassignment of his or her fate. And at every choice, I get to watch the vast majority of them make the wrong decision.
As I sit on a bench between Foot Locker and Aeropostale, eating my Hot Dog on a Stick and drinking my Orange Julius, I peruse the assortment of my mistake-prone humans and their inevitable failures.
There’s a nineteen-year-old jock with a cell phone and a GameStop bag who could have a successful career as a utility infielder for the Philadelphia Phillies. Instead, he’ll be fat, bald, unemployed, and masturbating three times a day to Juggs magazine when he’s thirty-two.
The twenty-one-year-old Asian evangelical Christian proselytizing to shoppers outside of Bebe will find the man of her dreams when she’s thirty, but will be filing for divorce and having sex with men half her age when she’s forty-five.
And the eleven-year-old kid with the short hair and angelic face devouring a chocolate glazed from Dunkin’ Donuts has the potential to be a wonderful father, but instead he’ll be thinking about molesting his five-year-old daughter when he’s twenty-nine.
It’s times like this I wish Death and I had a better relationship.
Sure, the eleven-year-old is just a kid, but at least I could save his daughter the lifelong trauma and therapy if I could get Death to help me out, but that would be interfering, which is a definite no-no. Not to mention the cosmic ramifications of preventing the birth of his daughter. Plus, Death and I aren’t talking, so there you go.
Instead I just sit on the bench and eat my Hot Dog on a Stick and watch the endless parade of future sexual miscreants.
Not every human being has some kind of sexual hang-up or disorder or desire waiting to be realized. But most Americans do. This probably has something to do with the fact that the United States demonizes sex and represses sexual energy. Personally, I prefer the Italian and French. To them, sex is just a part of their culture.
Speaking of sex . . .
Down the mall about halfway between me and Macy’s, beyond the T-Mobile kiosk and a steady flow of future-challenged Americans, a plume of red hair is making its way toward me. I’m hoping it’s not who I think it is, but then the crowd magically parts and beneath the red hair is the beatific, smiling face of Destiny.
Perfect. This is just what I need to cheer me up. The immortal personification of all that I’m not. All that I covet. All that I’m denied.
Think malignant tumor.
“How’s your wiener?” Destiny asks, sitting down and eyeing my Hot Dog on a Stick.
The thing about Destiny is that she’s a nymphomaniac.
She’s wearing a red tank top, a red leather miniskirt, a pair of red go-go boots, and a perpetual smile. She’s always in a good mood. Why wouldn’t she be? It’s not like she has to spend eternity dealing with child molesters and chronic consumers and more than five and a half billion other screwups who can’t seem to get their shit together.
Contrary to what most humans think, destiny and fate are not the same. Destiny can’t be forced on someone. If they’re forced into their circumstances, then that’s their fate. And fate has a morbid association with the inevitable, that something ominous is going to happen.
His fate was sealed.
A fatal disease.
A fate worse than death.
I mean, come on. How much worse can it get than one-upping Death on the dystopian scale?
Destiny, on the other hand, is divinatory in nature and implies a favorable outcome, which generally carries a much more positive connotation.
Destiny smiled upon him.
She was destined for greatness.
It was her destiny.
“Can I have a taste of your meat?” Destiny asks, projecting such passion and beauty that I just want to smash the rest of my unfinished corn dog in her face.
Fate predetermines and orders the course of a person’s life. But even though my humans make decisions along their paths that can have an adverse impact on their futures, they don’t get a say in their reassigned fates. You don’t get any choice with me. I’m not into collaboration.
Think Henry David Thoreau.
And even if I wanted to help, even if I wanted to offer some guidance or make a suggestion or give a subtle hint, I can’t. The whole “free will” manifesto. Humans have to be allowed to make their choices and live with the consequences.
Think of my humans as disobedient children who don’t get a say in the severity of their punishment.
But with Destiny, her humans are more involved in the process, for without a subject’s willful participation, there is no destining. Her humans choose their destiny by choosing different life paths. They can still make mistakes, but we’re talking two Oscars instead of three. Maybe a Pulitzer instead of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Think of Destiny’s humans as honor roll students who get to choose whatever college they want to attend.
I should have read the fine print on my job description.
“How about letting me suck on your straw?” asks Destiny.
“I’m busy,” I say. “Why don’t you go bother Diligence or Charity?”
“Oh, come on, Faaaaabio,” she says. “I’m just having some fun.”
Whenever Destiny calls me by my pseudonym, she always draws out the first syllable as if to mock me.
Not all of us have pseudonyms. Destiny prefers her given name, while Death has adopted the name Dennis. Most of the Seven Deadly Sins have noms de plume because no one really wants to be called Anger or Envy or Greed. All of the Seven Heavenly Virtues have embraced their formal names, except for Temperance, who prefers everyone just call him Tim.
“So when did you get back?” asks Destiny, twirling her hair with a coquettish flair and looking at me with big, bedroom eyes. While she’s not as big a slut as Lust, she definitely has her moments.
“I don’t know,” I say, finishing off my Hot Dog on a Stick and sucking down the last of my Orange Julius until I’m slurping the bottom of the cup. “Couple days ago.”
Most of us call New York City home, though we’re not there year-round. With more than six and a half billion people on the planet, we have to be fairly ubiquitous.
“Anyone else around?” I ask.
“Remorse and Hope,” she says. “A few of the Deadlies, of course. And I hear Prejudice is trying to put together a poker game but he isn’t having much luck.”
The thing about Prejudice is that he has Tourette’s syndrome.
Destiny and I sit on the bench for a few minutes in silence watching the mall zombies stagger past, their primitive brains thinking about threesomes and iPods and Cinnabons.
“Interested in some noncontact sex?” asks Destiny.
Destiny may engender intense feelings of loathing and envy in me, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t like to watch her peel off her red miniskirt.
“Sure,” I say. “Your place or mine?”