Original artwork by Pete Jeffs - www.peterjeffsart.com

Original artwork by Pete Jeffs - www.peterjeffsart.com

There are a few ways the following story can go. Here is the first. Sometime before his death in 2011, the minimalist artist John McCracken worked in secret to construct, via a German company, a ten-foot tall, stainless steel, monolithic structure. Without alerting anyone, he managed to convey this massive piece of metal deep into the red canyon desert region of Utah, where he planted it into the earth. Someone certainly helped him do this, but if so, they have been completely silent about it. At least ten years later, while doing a routine aerial survey of bighorn sheep (a magnificent mammal), Utah state workers noticed the strange object, managed to land in the difficult (and very remote) terrain, and announced that they had found something, they did not know what, to the press. All of this is almost certainly true.

Almost all of the above is a fabrication, including the last sentence. While John McCracken was indeed a minimalist sculptor, and an ardent fan of science fiction, and while he did once muse to his son that he might like to leave artwork in remote places to be found long after his death, he did not create the steel structure (or have it made). First, the vast majority of his work was in fiberglass, not steel (although he did do a few pieces that appear to be similar to the Utah monolith) and he prided himself on producing meticulously crafted work alone. But more to the point, those who knew him, including the artist Ed Ruscha (perhaps best known for his paintings of gas stations; don't get me wrong, I really like his work and he is among the most notable artists of the last hundred years), reject the idea that McCracken would do this, as he was known to dislike pranks. Expert, preliminary analysis of the structure further suggests that it is not up to what were McCracken's rigorous standards. So, the second way this story goes is that someone else did it and is not saying who. Or whom. Which, of course, is all a lie.

The real story is this: a million years ago, emissaries from a race of superior beings came to earth and placed a perfectly formed stainless steel monolith among the red canyons of what would someday become Utah, where it would be subsequently discovered by a small band of hominids who were dwelling nearby. When a young female let her eyes take in the shape against the sky, straight lines and perfect, ninety-degree angles, this so fractured her reality that her mind almost instantaneously made an evolutionary leap. Within minutes she began to fabricate tools, then weapons, and, within hours, her tight-knit band invaded and slaughtered a neighboring collective. We do not know if this is what the ultra-advanced beings had had in mind, but in the ensuing millennia, we have gotten much better at this slaughtering thing. Then, one day, during a terrible, global pandemic during which it was not possible to go hang out in bars, a small group of wildlife experts, surveying Ovis canadensis nelsoni in the area, re-discovered the alien structure. As one of their number, a forty-something field worker, gazed upon the perfect shape with its exquisite, straight lines and ideal ninety-degree angles, it so fractured his reality that his mind instantaneously made an evolutionary leap, and, within hours, he and his colleagues were slaughtering a case of beer. Beer that had a higher alcohol content than the three-point-two percent mandated by Utah law. Whether or not this is what the massively advanced aliens had in mind when they planted the structure is not known.

It is quite easy to completely prove that the above story is a lie. In November 2019, the Utah legislature raised the three-point-two percent limit to five percent alcohol by volume (or ABV) on beer. The monolith that had been ensconced in the Utah red canyon region by aliens of unfathomable intelligence was not discovered until a year later. It is a fact, however, that the majority of really good beer is around six or seven ABV. Ciders are higher, around nine percent ABV. A nice, dry cider on a clear, warm day (which, coincidentally, is what I happen to be sitting in right now) is absolute proof that God loves us. Okay, Benjamin Franklin said this first, although he was talking about beer. My niece works at a very nice cidery in Vermont, where her fiancé is fabricating wonderful, dry ciders, putting his degree in microbiology to exceptional use. Wait, what were we talking about?

Oh, yes, Stanley Kubrick's movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on a short story, and then a novel, by Arthur C. Clarke. I happened to see a bit of it when I was channel surfing last night. (I am sure that faithful readers knew that this is where I was going. You are very smart). In the film, Heuristically Programmed Algorithmic Computer (or HAL) 9000 kills most of the crew of the Discovery One, on its way to Jupiter, except for Frank Bowman, who becomes some sort of space baby later in the film. HAL is capable of speech and speech recognition, natural language processing, interpreting emotional behavior, facial recognition, lip reading, art appreciation (although there is no mention of HAL's opinions on Ed Ruscha, HAL likes Frank's painting), spacecraft piloting, playing chess, and murder. The last bit was apparently the result of his need to resolve a logical paradox (this was not explained until Arthur C. Clarke wrote the sequel): although he was constructed for ‘the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment’ he had been ordered to conceal the existence of the Jupiter monolith from the crew. The only logical solution was to kill the inhabitants of Discovery One, so that there would be no one to whom he would be required to relay all information without distortion or concealment. “So there, Mr. Spock, and your pointy-eared logic,” quips Dr. McCoy. (No, I am not confusing 2001 and Star Trek, but wanted to point out that John McKracken was good friends with Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in not only the original series but also several movies, even when he moved to a new universe, and recently made a posthumous appearance in the latest series, called Star Trek Discovery, which has no relationship to Discovery One). HAL was activated in 1992.

All of this is true. Or none of it is. And that is the point. (‘Come on, Mole, there cannot possibly be a point here!’). What we have actually been doing is a take on a completely different film, Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, released in 1950. It takes place at the Rashomon Gate in Kyoto (actually, Rashomon is literally, ‘city wall gate,’ so saying ‘Rashomon Gate’ is like saying ‘city wall gate gate.’ But I will anyway, just as I refer to ‘The La Brea Tar Pits,’ which literally translates as ‘the the tar tar pits’). In the film, several conflicting stories are told of the murder of a samurai (I forget to mention that this takes place in the 8th century; really, you should just see the film), first during a downpour at the gate, and later in a courtroom, by an outlaw, a woodcutter, the samurai's wife, and the ghost of the dead samurai, who speaks through a medium (this was the 8th century). Oh, there is a happy ending, which I won't ruin for you, because as I say, you should just see the film.

There are so many, conflicting stories of this Terrible Pandemic (see? I do have a point. Sometimes I just take my time getting there). Masks, quarantines, and social distancing protect us from a disease that can be crippling and even deadly, far too much to ignore. Masks are ineffective, isolation and social distancing have irreparably damaged the economy, and the risks and consequences of the disease are overblown. Several vaccines have been shown to be effective and will soon be distributed. Immunity to the virus is, at best, transient, and vaccines can do more harm than good. Natural herd immunity to the virus is achievable; natural herd immunity to the virus is theoretically impossible. When we take these together, we have a logical paradox that would drive a heuristically programmed algorithmic computer (we have, apparently, had these since 1992, but that could be a lie) into a psychotic break.

A monolith has been found in the Utah desert, surrounded by bighorn sheep. Maybe it will protect anyone who touches it from the virus. Probably not. But I am pretty sure that there are people hiking to it as you read this. It was placed there by a minimalist artist, it was placed there by a prankster, it was placed there by benevolent/malevolent aliens, it does not exist. It is raining, and we are huddled under a gate in the city wall, telling our stories. It is a lovely clear day, and my niece has sent me a nice, dry cider. So, what's your story?