A Minor Task
Written by Eric Rasmussen on January 28, 2007.
Baramuda was intent on accomplishing something today. Something, or perhaps an impressive array of nothings that might be catalogued and later reflected upon as “something” to the uncritical eye. More than anything, he really just wanted his book back, as he silently resolved never to let anyone borrow anything ever again.
Certain books held within them an undeniable power: once you’d read them, you could keep them on your shelf and draw strength from their presence. One such book, A Fascinating Guide to Normal Behaviour for the Socially Inept, left its indelible imprint on Baramuda almost immediately. In his enthusiasm to share its profound insights and wonders with friends, he made the elementary mistake of voluntarily lending his only copy.
Determined to rectify this critical lapse in judgment, he prepared for the day, engaging in his normal morning rituals of eating breakfast, showering, brushing his teeth, and tending to his ferrets. He was a man on a mission, and the day would not end before he retrieved his most prized possession. Time be damned: it would just have to stretch and bend as much as necessary to allow for his success before nightfall.
He picked up the phone and called Nikette to make clear his intentions. Disappointingly, he only reached her answering machine. “You’ve reached Nikette! I really don’t want to talk to anyone right now, or maybe I’m not even here. You probably shouldn’t be calling. I’d prefer you didn’t leave a message…” The interminable diatribe continued for an eternity, or at least a solid 90 seconds, before the tone offered a well-earned respite.
Baramuda decided on intimidation as a means to announce his visit. He intoned as deeply as possible, “NIKETTE. I AM COMING FOR WHAT IS MINE.” He paused, debating whether further elaboration was necessary. “I mean the book. My whole bookshelf is in positive disarray without it. It looks empty. I need it back, OK? I’ll see you soon. Thanks.” He momentarily regretted his ad-libbed addition to what might have been a very imposing and ominous message, but reminded himself that either way he would once again have the obscure treasure in his possession.
The book, which Baramuda had labeled “The Guide” in his usual pragmatic fashion, was in many ways considered unusual and somewhat suspect. Very few were aware of its existence, and those that were could never entirely figure out whether it was a clever parody, some kind of subtle prank, or a work by an individual whose well-being would enjoy a noticeable improvement once reigned in with proper medication and a lengthy, mandatory, stay in a suitable place of healing.
The controversy, or heresy, as it was regarded by the pious, was largely based on the book’s opening, which posited the existence of quasi-humans from space and their unwelcome intrusion into the gene pool. Baramuda suffered from a particularly debilitating form of social ineptness, and was thus quite eager to latch onto any explanation for his failings – even a theory involving long-traveled spacemen. The Guide’s introduction is reprinted here with kind permission of the author:
Introduction: Learning to be human
Or, an intricate study of genetic divergence as it relates to social norms
Have you ever suspected that you are not, in fact, fully human? Your suspicions may well prove correct! In ancient times, a subset of hominids split from humanity’s ancestors and travelled between the stars for thousands of years before returning home.
Their great starship civilizations wished for peace, but understood that humanity was not yet ready to learn of their existence. Having honed their patience over the centuries, they formed a long term plan: they would slowly introduce their own genetic material into humanity until the time was right to come forth and bring about a new age of prosperity for all.
They engaged in selective mating rituals to produce human and quasi-human hybrids. Careful to avoid detection or arouse suspicion, their extensive interviewing process tended to favor the inebriated and intellectually deficient as surrogates. Over time, their DNA garnered a significant foothold, allowing for the existence of thousands of hybrids worldwide.
These hybrid beings are, by all outward appearances, perfectly normal humans. The physical differences are completely unnoticeable even to the most intensive, advanced scientific tests known to man, but the social differences become apparent very quickly. Ask yourself the following:
Do you avoid people?
Do you frequently find excuses to stay at home and tend to your obscure hobbies?
Do you have trouble smiling, laughing, or dancing?
Are your only friends wary and suspicious of you, keen to derive amusement from your antics but hesitant to get too close?If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you may be harboring DNA borne from humanity’s distant space cousins. Our series of graded lessons will assist you in mastering successful social interactions and will catch you up to the social norms for the areas in which you have continued to lag behind. Read on to discover a new you!
In preparing for his encounter with Nikette, Baramuda thought back to The Guide’s first lesson: Embrace Stupidity. The two words looped in his brain until they became a personal mantra, readying him for the unexpected. He had learned through past encounters that there were socially acceptable and unacceptable ways of dealing with stupidity. Much to his surprise, launching heavy projectiles at unwitting offenders was generally deemed to reflect poor taste.
The Guide, however, took things a step beyond the mere toleration of stupidity. You must learn to live it, breathe it, become it. Baramuda mentally reviewed the lesson’s important points as he drove to Nikette’s home. Stupidity was defined as, “harmful, insensitive, or incomprehensible behaviour perceived to be the result of conscious, informed decisions instead of the actual underlying ignorance of action and consequence.”
In short, it was all relative, and everyone was bound to be stupid to someone. The lessons did allow a few minor digressions. You might decide to recycle, for instance, or publicly criticize large, gas-guzzling motor vehicles, but going too far would quickly exile you from all but the most obscure fringes of modern society. The Guide maintained that most importantly, embracing the human side of your ancestry necessitated acting without any thought of consequence and learning not to think too deeply (or in some cases, at all) about more than a handful of important issues.
Nikette lived only a few miles down the street, and Baramuda reached her quickly. She greeted him enthusiastically. “Oh, it’s you. I thought it might be. Well, come in, I guess.” Baramuda obliged. Once inside, he noticed that Nikette had thoroughly overhauled the layout of her living room. The previously wide, open spaces and inviting furniture pieces were now charmingly decorated with assorted styles of unlaundered clothing and food wrappers.
A growing compulsion to clean began to overtake him, but he suppressed it forcefully. Learn to enjoy it, he thought. “I love what you’ve done with the place. Really. It’s very modern.” He carefully swept aside the pile of pants and shirts and candy wrappers that now adorned the couch. Once he was certain that the cushion was free of miscellaneous detritus, noisome stains, or anything visibly alive, he sat. “So. You know why I’ve come. I really need my book back. You’ve had it for weeks.”
Nikette sighed deeply and walked towards a pile in the corner. Each step carried with it the weight of the entire world; a strained pressure pervaded her every motion and gesture. With an almost theatrical display of difficulty, she stooped down and laboriously searched the pile. After a minute, she sharply yelped, “Hyah!” Startled, Baramuda rushed to her aid, already picturing a large, uninvited mammal emerging from the pile to attack his friend. Instead, she offered him the book. She was standing calmly, her brief enthusiasm at successfully completing a minor task dampened once more by the unsupportable density of all existence.
His heart rate slowing, he accepted the proffered guide and began flipping through it. “Wait a second… there are pages missing. What happened to pages 43-45?” His voice assumed an unnaturally high and hysterical tone as he continued, “They… they’ve been torn out! What did you do to my book? What happened?”
Although Nikette had expected this reaction, she had hoped discovery of the missing pages would occur outside of her locked home while she remained safely secured indoors. “I spilled some juice inside when I was reading it. I thought it might upset you.”
“Yes!” he cried. “It upsets me very much! But that doesn’t explain why the pages are gone entirely!”
She took a breath and resumed her explanation. “Well, I knew you’d get mad if you saw the stains. I didn’t want you to get mad. The juice wouldn’t come out. So I took out the pages instead.”
Baramuda paused to consider her logic. An endlessly branching tree of possibilities flowed out before him. His first impulse was to grab the nearest heavy object and toss it in Nikette’s direction, but past experience had long since subdued his most violent tendencies. He considered yelling, or crying, or giving himself over to the impending breakdown he had barely kept at bay for years.
He looked down to the book for guidance. What would a normal person do? And then he remembered: Embrace Stupidity, lesson one. He was over-thinking the entire matter. What was the use in questioning her actions? She was only trying to help. In a moment of inspired normality, he briefly hugged her, thanked her, and left without another word.
During the drive home, Baramuda grossly violated the tenets of his sacred guide. He mentally replayed the scenario with Nikette over and over, imagining hundreds of different outcomes. He strove desperately to find meaning in the encounter: had he acted normally? Would this benefit him socially? Would society’s collective consciousness pick up on his newfound harmonious and blissfully ignorant qualities?
The Guide, although very clear in describing the steps one must take for social success, provided no answers to his questions, and he was incapable of giving up completely on thought. Surely there really was a benefit to thinking and thinking and thinking. He wondered at how anyone could truly manage self-improvement in the absence of conscious intervention.
Not for the first time, he placed an inadvisable measure of faith in the idea that he was not entirely human. On that point, if nothing else, he believed The Guide had the right idea. Maybe he was born with an abnormal disorder that had so far escaped discovery, or maybe he did have a distant ancestor from space. But if The Guide was correct, why did it try to pacify the people who were ultimately destined to bring about great change?
Arriving home, full of unanswered questions and fruitlessly struggling for a deeper meaning, he found solace in feeding his ferrets. He carefully placed The Guide on his bookshelf, and decided that even the smallest accomplishments held some significance.
The day’s events had opened him to a myriad of new ideas, and he began again to feel that curious childlike acceptance of mysteries and the unknown. He didn’t need all of the answers. He didn’t need The Guide. There was more to this planet, this galaxy, this existence, than he could ever learn in a thousand lifetimes.
As night fell, he went to the backyard and stared intently into the sky. Far up among the stars, the briefest flicker of light, unimaginably distant, seemed to wink in his direction.