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Existence Costs

Existence Costs - Brad Simkulet This book has a very artistic and experimental feel to it, so I’m sure there are a lot of possible interpretations. “Existence Costs” What does that even mean? Existence costs who? And what does it cost? And what happens if you don’t pay? When this slim little book arrived in the mail, I just had a chance to see the cover, before I was called to dinner. Chizuru and I ended up having a conversation about what the title might mean. My best guess came from the animal kingdom: all animals- carnivores and herbivores alike- can only continue their existence if they eat other living things. It’s a cruel mathematics that you don’t see among plants, who pull their sustenance from minerals, water and the sun. That’s what all the old creation myths are getting at- the Garden and Eden and the like… they all imagine a peaceful and verdant paradise, back when plants covered the Earth, before animals. Once animals and humans came on the scene with sentience and motility, they brought this brutality with them, which necessitated killing in order to survive. It’s a sort of original sin, or more like a built-in, ongoing compulsory sin. You can read more about that here, if you want to.My wife thought “Existence Costs” means that there will ultimately always be more pain in life than joy. I don’t know if that reflects her Buddhist upbringing, or eight years of marriage to me. Here are the stories. You can decide for yourself whether our guesses were close to the truth.Calvary: A silent film(a screenplay)This is about the failure of social safety nets. America is famously coldhearted towards those who find themselves down-on-their luck. I thought Canada was a lot better in this regard, but I guess times are tough everywhere. This is about a family tragedy that spins out of control, leaving a man and his young daughter homeless. This could absolutely be nonfiction. Easily. Trying to tie this back in with the “Existence Costs” theme: social programs like jobs retraining, social security, workman’s compensation and unemployment insurance all have a cost, and there is a lot of grousing done by the taxpayers who fund them. When I was a teen in the early 80’s, a lot of people we knew were laid off from manufacturing jobs- including my father, for a while. We went on unemployment, and there was a shame attached to it. Ronald Reagan was on the television just about then, talking about “welfare queens” as if everybody on welfare was a serial abuser of the system. None of the families I knew on unemployment ever gave me cause to think they were just living it up, partying on the public dime, never giving a thought about the future, and not trying desperately to get another job. My friends’ fathers were ashamed to be accepting handouts. Dad never talked about it, and we never brought it up. At the time, Western New York State had an extreme Republican bent. Even though those communities were hard-hit by “downsizing” in the manufacturing sector, they always seemed to vote for a party that cut welfare, and demonized those who accept it... even though it is basically an insurance policy, which a person shouldn't feel guilty about collecting on, AND because it is illegal to refuse paying INTO, to begin with! Oddly, defense spending never seems to get cut, even when stories come out about contractors charging $1000 for a hammer. Maybe we need more Corporate Personhood before we can successfully portray General Dynamics as a welfare queen. Existence has a cost here: a lot of shame, which I resent. I’ll venture that over the course of our lifetimes, my family paid in a lot more revenue than we ever took out, yet accepting help was stigmatizing. Meanwhile, corporate welfare seems to carry no shame. Fuck them.Awake I-VIThese are a series of disjointed story fragments about… what? Construction of artificial life? Genetic breeding of a slave race? Robots? It isn’t clear to me, and maybe it isn’t supposed to be, but the important thing is that mankind has created something sentient, and has commoditized it. Their existence costs them a life of servitude, and it costs us the spiritual price that all oppressors bear- the excuses we tell ourselves to rationalize unethical behavior. Of course this subject only has a thin veneer of science fiction. It isn’t hard to see the slaves of our past history in this story, or exploited third-world labor, or the cruel way we treat animals. New Orleans SaltThis was my favorite story of the collection. Tobe is quiet man who has worked bartending in a small town for decades. When Bill’s dog Gus gets a face full of porcupine needles, Tobe is the only one around to lend a hand. As he goes about treating the dog, the two men strike up a conversation which eventually reveals Tobe’s hidden past. Living with a secret can be a price of existence, especially in a small town, where everybody knows everything about everybody else. The price is going to work day after day in silence; withholding one’s opinions, and avoiding confrontation or relationships which might bring unwanted scrutiny. It’s living half a life; the slow suffocation of not being who you really are. It’s an enormous price, paid over decades, just so one can survive.Abel(a screenplay)This is a tragic and disturbing story, but I must admit: I don’t have a good connection to offer to the “Existence Costs” theme. Rather than pulling something out of my ass, just to make this review complete, I’ll leave Abel for other reviewers to deal with, or maybe for the comment thread.WyrmWas it all in that kid’s head, or did it really happen? Do kids dream up this sort of stuff, because our modern world doesn’t fulfill some primal urge to fight for survival? Is that why we’re seeing an increase in all sorts of behavioral problems with kids these days? Is our consumerist, post industrial existence just too unnatural? Are ADD and childhood depression a cost of existence? Under the Gauntlet(a play)This is a story about journalists who risk their lives to print the truth. Memorial Day was last week in the U.S., and that really is the time to remember people who’ve paid the price for our existence. Really Memorial Day is about remembering soldiers’ sacrifice on the battlefield. Our existence- this one we know today, with freedom of speech, a right to assemble at our will, and all the rest- was paid for by them, often in blood, and certainly in the pain of enduring trauma among those who survived the battle. This play rightly points out that some journalists have also made payments in blood for our freedoms. Journalists and authors have risked their lives, their livelihoods, and their families’ safety to express dissenting opinions; to make known embarrassing truths that governing authorities would rather keep hidden. Martin Luther, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Dietrich Bahnhoffer, Alexander Solzehnitsyn, Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez and many more have suffered for speaking truth- and in doing so have enriched all of our lives. They’ve each paid a price for our existence.This is a quick read, and very interesting.I'd give it 4.5 stars, if we had 1/2 star ratings.