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I've been in a deep blue funk of late and have turned to Janelle Monáe in the way I once turned to The B-52's when I was coming out, when hearing someone sing "If you're in outer space, don't feel out of place, because there are thousands of others like you [others like you]" was a magnificent bulwark against the desolation of loneliness. When Ms. Monae sings "I'm trying to find my peace - I was made to believe there's something wrong with me," it is like divine brain chemistry, with the right molecules on the right receptors at the right moment to make it all right that things are not all right, and may not be so for some time.

I was a robot as a child.

I was meant to be a team player, and my guidance counselor would sit me down and look at me with a grave, thoughtful look, and say "Look, Joe—maybe you should think of school, or life, even, as a game. There are rules you can play by that will make things easier and you can set goals and accomplishments as a part of the play."

I thought this was stupid, largely because I have always thought sports metaphors are as stupid as a gym teacher's most shambling, hackneyed wisdom, but primarily because accepting the sports metaphor meant accepting the possibility that life, too, picked me last, and only then because I was the lone gangly kid standing in the line of humiliation to the bitter end.

"Well, I'll give you guys a bonus point 'cause you're stuck with Wall," said beloved gym teacher Kevin Kelly of Hammond Middle School, not to be specific or anything, and that was that.

As for me, I was not going to think of life as a game. I'd read far too much glorious alienating golden age science fiction by then, and I had an even better idea.

I am not like you. I am an adventurous robot, sent by unseen forces to observe.

It didn't improve my grades, or my academic outlook. I was still the last one picked for any team. I was still bullied, often with particular brutality and cruelty, but being a robot has advantages.

You cannot hurt me. I do not feel. I cannot be shamed.

Sticks and stones merely clang against my duralumin substructure.

One day, everyone like you will be moldering in the earth, and I will abide
.

Asimov taught me well.

I had a Craig model 2603 cassette recorder with a stickshift control and a genuine leatherette carrying case, and I cultivated my love of the cold and the robotic. I transcribed Wendy Carlos and Kraftwerk from my sister's record collection, holding the recorder to a big Advent speaker to make primitive mix tapes, and added in tweedly space music from Klaus Schulze and the repeating mathematics of Glass. Oddly, I also lurched into the territory of funk in this way, too, listening to WOOK FM -Your OKAY 100 and finding science fiction wonderlands almost incomprehensible to a small town white kid in the trippy blowouts of Parliament/Funkadelic. Synthesizers were the future, and were the music of well-informed robots, and guitars were the tools of the laughably old fashioned.

I'd tune into the future on my Craig, with a little white cord tied into the little white nipple of a malaise-era earphone. Around this time, the world of the original Hitchhiker's Guide opened up around me like a gateway twisted out of nothingness by my radio, and as much as I thought maybe I was Arthur Dent, or styled myself as Ford Prefect (to the point of telling my classmates that my name was Ford, not Joe, in my first day in high school, but that's a whole other tale), I felt like Marvin—colossally sad, put-upon, and hopeless.

As luck would have it, I had one of the few surviving flying buildings in Ringworld at my disposal, too. I'd sling my Craig over my shoulder with its accessory leatherette strap, tuck a Bradbury in my back pocket, climb onto the railing of the back porch, then scrabble onto the low roof over the utility room, climb on top of the cast iron pipe for the sewer vent, then carefully sling myself up into the V where gables met. The real world would fade, and the jumble of gables and angles would become a floating refuge, watched over by the sentries of chimneys topped with swiveling galvanized helmets that kept the rain out of the Franklin stove and furnace and directed the smoke into the easy flow of the wind.

The ground around me would recede, the troubles would drift off, and I would be there, alone—a robot perched in the rooftops over a strange, old world, with the tinny soundtrack of my tapes and all that Bradbury could accomplish with his lurid and sensual use of adjectives.

I may be the last of my kind, or maybe one day a spaceship will bring another lowercase n.

Everything is so far away. I need nothing more than what I am, my music, and my stories.

My mission is to watch, to learn, and to keep notes. This is my program. I do it well.


In the same way superheroes live, with a twinkle in the eye, unnoticed by all, that sums up their otherness, being a robot was my secret identity. I knew, on one level, that it was not real, and that it was just a game to keep the mind sharp whilst one is imprisoned in the same way that I survived church by staring into the overhead lights until a blue afterimage was seared into my retinas, then guiding it around the sanctuary to touch every head and jab at the groin of the choir director.

It's just—well, the sports metaphor doesn't work for me because sports metaphors are as stupid as a gym teacher's most shambling, hackneyed wisdom, but making my life into a B-movie with rockets dangling from strings, with exhaust going up despite our being in space, and  screeching rubber Japanese monsters terrorizing space stations and the cool wonderland of our lost moon starring Catherine Schell as me seemed to fill the void. In the future, I can be as calm and flat as the acting of Barbara Bain. I can be a robot. Robots don't hurt and robots don't cry. Robots outlive their tormentors with patience.

"Now look, Joebie—your books are on the floor! Aren't you gonna pick 'em up?"

OBSERVE: SUBJECT IS USING SIMULATED CONCERN TO PROVOKE THIS UNIT
ACTION: GATHER BOOKS

OBSERVE: SUBJECT IS KICKING BOOKS AWAY

"Oh, you can't pick 'em up? Why can't you pick 'em up?"

OBSERVE: SUBJECT HAS KICKED SOCIAL STUDIES BOOK TO END OF CORRIDOR
ACTION: SHUT DOWN. NO ACTION POSSIBLE

I stood there, still as a statue, with eyes as dead and empty as the eyes of a porcelain doll. Joey Decker pranced around me, looking for a larger audience, and kicked my books around the corridor. He sneered and laughed at his dime store grand guignol, casting out his net.

"You're not funny, Joey Decker," said Tracy Day, my usual savior in these moments. She was my best classmate in Special Education, and the lone one who seemed to get me. Not that I was fond, or anything, because robots don't have feelings. We don't have time for your human emotions.

"Look, Joebie, your retarded girlfriend is here to save you! Nice job, 'tard."

OBSERVE: SUBJECT HAS LOST INTEREST. SHUT DOWN SUCCESSFUL
ACTION: RETURN TO ACTION. GATHER BOOKS. WALK WITH TRACY DAY

"That boy's 'flicted," Tracy said, handing me the last book.

On days like those, once the school bus had lumbered back to Scaggsville, I would climb onto the roof with my talisman in my pocket, an R5-D4 action figure with a sticker worn away until he looked like a trash can with a robot head, put my best robot music into my Craig, and dance wildly on the roof to "Jocko Homo" until my father's silver and purple Suburban would turn into our driveway.

Back on Earth, familiar conversations would unfold.

"The boy's on the roof again, Jane."

"Oh, I know. He must have had a good day—he's been thumping around up there for hours. I wish his batteries would run down, though. Jenny's nowhere to be found and I need him to go check on the nest boxes."

"Your kid's a piece of work."

"He's my kid now? Should I get him down from there before he falls off?"

"Let him work it out. He's like a damn mountain goat up there."

This, of course, was not true. I was a robot. Robots are naturally dextrous.

As it happened, just when robot music was getting really, really good, my sister brought home a new album, and my days as an observational automaton were pretty much over, because all I was ever looking for was another open door.

I did get to live in the future, though, and here I am.

Still.

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joebelknapwall

January 2013

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