Stupid Social Instinct
“My head’s about to explode,” Erik groaned, hours and hours later. Through the wall of windows behind him, one could see the sun shining like a new copper coin above the trees. On the floor, one could see the caffeinated beverages Erik and Sean consumed to keep themselves awake.
“What, you’ve never pulled a troubleshooting all-nighter before? I’m disappointed in you, son,” Sean said as he collapsed into an enormous technicolored heap on the dirty carpet.
“Shut up,” said Erik as he massaged his temples in slow circles. “At least the databases are back up. Let’s call it a day.”
Erik and Sean reported production was back in operation to their program manager. Then they went home with their manager’s blessings, but not before warning her having only one System Administrator (Sean) and one Database Administrator (Erik) on the team was unsustainable, so please hurry up and hire more people.
Erik spent the rest of the daylight hours napping. He only rose from his slumber when Moses Canes called him.
“Hi, Moe. Sorry, I didn’t call,” Erik mumbled, sleep leaching into his voice.
“That’s fine. Hard day at work, I take it?” said Moe.
“YES,” Erik groaned, thinking: you better believe it! Servers in a remote installation died of heatstroke—and why the army decided to put a data center in the middle of an Afghan desert, I’ll never know—production databases in suspect mode, backup files corrupted…
“Well, a guy like you will be saying F.U. to work in no time. Emmy says ‘hi’, by the way,” said Moe mischievously.
“Oh. Um, thanks,” Erik muttered, as he wondered who this Emmy was. Then, feeling the familiar dread that always crept on him when he was running out of things to say, he blurted: “I read up to chapter five.”
“You actually read Frost from the beginning!” Moe cried.
“I had to. My niece wanted me to read it to her as a bedtime story,” Erik grumbled.
“How old is your niece? Frost is a bit heavy for youngsters.”
“Five, turning six. She’s a bit precocious,” Erik replied, thinking: But I always wonder where Rena’s DNA went. I guess I can always blame David, but even that doesn’t explain Rachel’s weird. I mean, it has to be in there somewhere…
“I also take this to mean your sister is aware of it,” said Moe.
“Well aware,” Erik confirmed, and then he added: “Obviously I didn’t know she knew. I’m not surprised. She’s not the type to blather.”
“Certainly not to you,” Moe teased. “I’m sorry, but is it okay for us to talk?”
“Yeah, sure. I’m at home, and I’ve got about an hour to burn before I head to my sister’s.”
“Good, that’s very good,” Moe said. “Now listen: two of my blogger friends are planning to host a qi meetup in a couple of weeks. Wanna go?”
Erik stopped himself from saying ‘no’ on instinct. “I don’t know if I’ll have the time,” he evaded.
“It’ll be on a weekend and there will be free-for-you food,” Moe wheedled. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.”
Erik scratched his chest through his T-shirt as he thought about the risks and benefits.
“Are you going, Moe?”
“Of course! Why do you think I booked a flight with a two-month layover?”
Erik stifled a laugh. Only an old hand in Financial Independence and traveling would plan two-month layovers. Really, it was the ability to say such quirky things—plus the promise that he would have the means to live a life that wasn’t as drab as the one he was living now—that got him interested in Financial Independence in the first place.
“Who’s hosting it?”
“Jenna and Jeremy. They run frugal is the new sexy dot com.”
“Never heard of them.”
“You should look them up. They’re a very cool couple.”
“Where are we going to meet?” Erik asked, not only to stall but because he couldn’t think of a place around the capital that was suitable for a meetup where one could talk about superpowers and wouldn’t cost thousands of dollars to host.
“The National Mall or Great Seneca Park,” Moe replied.
Why didn’t I think of that? Erik howled in his head, but saying: “Great Seneca is a good spot. Plenty of shaded picnic tables and the entrance fee is only three bucks per car. So what’s on the agenda?”
“No formal agenda. We’re all pretty laid-back, and Jeremy said they’re going to play it by ear.”
Dammit. They’re practically inviting chaos, Erik complained to himself. Then several thoughts occurred to him: How big was this meetup? Did everyone know each other? Would he fit in?
“How many people are they expecting?”
“Around ten, fifteen people.”
“Are most of the attendees involved in Personal Finance?”
“Yup. Not all of them run PF blogs, of course, but most of them are into financial independence and early retirement.”
“So it’s more of a PF gathering,” said Erik, heart sinking.
“Yes and no,” said Moe. “It all started when someone brought up qi at that mini-retreat in Asunción. That person wasn’t me, by the way.”
“Did you learn about Frost there, or were you the one who brought it up?”
“The latter. Frost is a book you can check out from a public library, believe it or not.”
“Really? Wow.” Erik went wide-eyed. “How did you find it?”
“My youngest granddaughter,” said Moe. “She loves reading. We basically lived in the library when the last company I worked for kicked me to the curb after the Great Recession.”
Erik smiled. “It caught her eye one day and you read it with her.”
“Yup,” said Moe, sounding fond and nostalgic. “On a side note, I went looking for it at my local library a few weeks back, but I couldn’t find it. A few of my qi aware friends later told me that they found an abridged version of the book in the children’s novel section. That one calls qi magic, and doesn’t go over the laws.”
Erik frowned. “How does that work? The Major Laws are a key plot element.”
“We say so because we know qi is real and are trying to learn something about it,” said Moe sensibly. “For someone who doesn’t know or doesn’t care, Frost is just fiction. And why not call it magic? The original Frost calls qi practitioners wizards. Not exactly trying to hide its Fantasy roots, is it?”
Erik kept his mouth shut to give the impression he agreed. In reality, he was bursting to argue names were important and that Fantasy didn’t equal False. Whenever he did, his counterpart would say something along the lines of ‘extraordinary claims requires extraordinary evidence’. As if that settled the issue. If Erik pointed out the statement presumed the existence of an objective way to determine that which was extraordinary, his counterpart would complain he was getting worked up over nothing. Worse, they’d get into a heated argument over consensus and standards. Erik didn’t want to argue with Moe. Besides, it wasn’t as if he believed Frost was a narration of true events.
“Do you think the discussion will center on the book?” Erik asked, after a beat.
“I have no idea,” Moe replied. “It’s only been three months since it became a shared secret. Most of us were too busy deciphering our holy writ if you get my drift.”
Erik smiled again. “What’s one burning question you want to ask?”
“Oh, where do I start!” said Moe, laughing. “I most definitely want to ask about the three major laws of qi. I mean, are we supposed to accept them all as true, or are we supposed to think they’re wrong or partially obsolete?”
“You’re talking about Helix arguing the third law is wrong after Frost pushed away pain.”
“Oh, yeah. Besides wondering if we can actually do what Frost did—and I get a sense she’s something of an anomaly—I’m not sure if Helix is correct. Physical pain is electrical signals. There’s matter behind the whole process. The third law still holds true, then, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Erik, his brain clicking away to recall all the things he learned from last night’s reading. “I happen to think the three major laws hold up to scrutiny, and Helix, being an arrogant sod, was overstating things. But I also think he was onto something.”
“Like you said, physical pain is sensation our brains interpret as unpleasant,” said Erik. “In short, it’s information. With me so far?”
“I’m tracking,” said Moe.
“Let’s assume for the moment qi can really push away pain,” Erik continued. “How would it do that? Block the pain signals? Numb the pain receptors? Helix is pretty empathic about qi not being able to do that, and if he was wrong, I’m pretty sure Weaver would’ve said so.”
“But he doesn’t,” Moe noted.
“No. This suggests whatever it is that Frost did, it didn’t involve manipulating bodily processes directly.”
“Wait a minute. Are you saying Frost might have manipulated information?” Moe exclaimed.
Erik smirked. “If it isn’t the physical medium that stores the information, then it has to be the information itself. I mean, why not? We do this all the time. When you look at a sheet of paper that has ‘Helix is a smartass’ written on it, the information on the paper is instantly copied to your mind. No superpowers necessary, and the two different physical mediums didn’t have to mingle. Burning the paper won’t eliminate the information, even though it’s where the sentence originated. And if you tell the sentence to someone else, you personally forgetting it won’t annihilate the information, either. Therefore: information and the medium that stores it are the not the same things.”
“Huh,” said Moe, like the wind got knocked out of him.
“Mind you, this doesn’t explain the why,” Erik warned. “I mean, why can qi touch abstract things like information but not body functions? But then we’d have to ask: why do we have qi in the first place?”
“You’re very insightful,” Moe said earnestly.
“I can’t claim credit,” Erik demurred. “Most of this came up when my sister and I had this huge debate about the origin life and information.”
Moe chuckled. “You and your sister are one of a kind. My sisters and I debate only one thing, and it’s: who’s gonna host Christmas Dinner? Not me!”
Erik didn’t have the heart to tell Moe that he’d only initiated the debate seven years ago when he’d been entirely unimpressed at the amount of interest David was paying to Rena, thus tried to scare him away via Rena’s brutal intellect. Needless to say, the tactic backfired spectacularly.
“Thank you, I think,” he said instead.
“You should tell this to everyone at the meetup,” Moe said.
Erik fought the instinct to refuse and lost. “How about no.”
“What kind of answer is that?” Moe scolded. “But really, you should.”
“But I’m a newb,” Erik protested.
“You read the first five chapters of Frost. That puts you ahead a lot of people,” Moe argued. “And what you’ve just told me in these last ten minutes shows me that you’re well out of the newbie state.”
“You don’t have to talk if you really don’t want to,” said Moe, now sounding a bit exasperated. “Can you at least come? We won’t bite, I promise.”
Erik hesitated. In the back his head, he could hear his inner Rena voice, which told him agreeing would lead him to further involvement, which wasn’t something he’d want. Yet his front lobes seemed to whisper: say yes, you dope, Moe’s going to be disappointed. Besides, how can it hurt…?
“…Okay,” Erik heard himself saying.
“Excellent!” cried Moe. “I’ll email you the time and date. I expect to see you then. Don’t flake out!”
I’m going to regret this. I am so going to regret this, Erik thought numbly as his mouth parroted: “Don’t worry, I won’t…”
Erik ended the call. Then he glared at the ceiling.
Stupid social instinct; this is why I hate being human, he fumed.
Erik told Rena about Moe’s phone call later that evening when he came over to babysit. She reacted exactly as he feared.
“You’re going to a meetup,” Rena stated in frank disbelief.
Erik nodded glumly.
“You’re going out to meet people, most of whom which are strangers, to talk about superpowers,” Rena went on.
Erik looked away in shame. “I don’t know what I was thinking.”
“Are you sure you were?”
That kicked the tripwire of Erik’s temper. “WHAT DID YOU SAY?”
“Well, what else am I supposed to say?” Rena snapped. “I warned you about the dangerous people out there! You’re normally not this stupid! Moreover, you hate people!”
“I’m not, and I still do!” Erik shouted.
“Why did you agree, then?” Rena demanded.
“Apparently, I’m not sociopathic enough!” Erik snarled.
“Stop trying to be my male double, it’s tiresome.” Rena heaved a sigh. “So you agreed. I can’t imagine you not showing up.”
“Yeah, I’ll go. Maybe I’ll swear off qi by the end of it,” Erik grumbled.
“Be careful what you wish for,” said Rena cryptically. “Now question for you: do you want Moe to like you?”
Erik scowled. “What do you mean?”
“If you didn’t care about what he thought, you wouldn’t have hesitated to say no, a thousand times, no,” Rena reasoned. “Therefore you must want him to like you.”
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around?” huffed Erik. “I like him, I want us to be friends and all that usual rot?”
“You’re too cerebral and calculating to like someone from the get-go.”
“Maybe I had an idea what he was like before we met.”
“That only tells me you like the idea of him,” Rena rebutted. “But it’s interesting that you found the idea appealing.”
Erik groaned. “Why are we fighting over this?”
“Your wellbeing is of great interest to both of us,” Rena replied. “So when is this meetup? I might go.”
“You what?” said Erik, flabbergasted. “But you don’t like people, either! Normal humans make you feel like you’re surrounded by concussed goldfish!”
“Perhaps I’ve learned to appreciate ordinary people.”
“Then you’re a lying liar who lies.”
“So you think,” said Rena, her thin lips curling. “Forward me the date, time, and address.”
“Why should I?” said Erik defiantly.
Rena looked at him.
“…Great Seneca Park or the National Mall. Exact date and time TBA, but will be on a weekend within a month,” said Erik, after three seconds.
“Thank you,” Rena then waved a hand in dismissal. “Now get thee to Rachel’s bedroom before she cries.”