"[I]f wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one . . . who is fuller into him who is
emptier . . . I set a great value on . . . sitting next to you."
- Symposium, Plato, 1925
"Heaven is a house, Hell the Earth and life a dream. Which would you choose?"
- Anthony Wilbourne, 2020
Having opened a new tab, Dane Freitag clicked on a shortcut in his browser's menu bar. The link directed him to his YouTube channel that bore--among other things--a fetching banner and video object, which was flanked by a bold title, minuscule view count and description whose two hyperlinks barely made the cut of the "READ MORE" tag. His most recent upload played automatically. He saw himself sitting in the exact same chair, looking into the exact same screen and talking into a sleek condenser microphone, which peered into frame. Much of the video's audio was overtaken by that of another video playing in a different tab. In his video, Dane discussed his one-year anniversary at work, the extra half-hour he and his co-workers received to partake in a buffet during their 30-minute lunch breaks and his indecision to stay with the company. Dane already knew that the content wasn't great. It had all the makings of almost all his competitors' videos--right down to the obvious cuts within monologues. If his monitor had eyes, it would have seen a tired, defeated man gazing into the reflection of another being. A person he had seen thousands of times. A hack.
Dane woke up some time before noon. His favorite radio station, 96.9 VOSS FM, sang "Unwell" by Matchbox Twenty. The digits of the radio clock yielded a fleeting smile. He had managed to get a whole six hours of sleep, not the usual four or even three as in previous mornings. He stumbled to the bathroom outside his room, clumsily switched on the lights and entered the shower stall--soaking his body for approximately twenty minutes. Dane had been working from 6 PM to 4:30 AM since starting his job. He typically arrived home at about five in the morning and passed out shortly thereafter. Dane didn't like the harsh schedule, but where else could he have gotten a 3-day weekend to follow his dreams.
At about 1 PM, Dane rushed upstairs, grabbed some creamed coffee and Toaster Strudel, promptly returned to his room, and opened Twitter. He glimpsed the hashtags in the "Trends for You" card, hoping to find something he could mention in his next video. #Funimation. #PositiveTwitterDay. #GunRangeFire. None of the topics particularly interested him, so he perused his feed--intermittently viewing people's profiles. Everything focused on something somebody else had already covered in some way.
An hour later, Dane visited YouTube. If he couldn't find anything relevant, he could at least kill some time watching videos. Several videos pertaining to the Me Too Movement had appeared on his homepage lately. Today, he watched a couple of homemade critiques about the allegations of two men who claimed they were, as children, groomed and sexually abused by Michael Jackson. They recounted their tales in a recent documentary titled "Leaving Neverland." While perusing the recommended viewing pane, he--for no discernible reason--clicked on another video. In it, an elderly former actress sat before an audience and shared her story of unbridled manipulation by Alfred Hitchcock. He barely kept focus, using a second tab to visit a different website every few minutes.
"This is like network TV," Dane said. "The same stuff over and over again."
After the video had played for fifteen minutes, Dane entered "biblical contradictions" into YouTube's search field and hit Enter on his keyboard. The first page of results displayed a list of mostly non-custom thumbnails, which linked to interviews, discussions and list videos. After another fifteen minutes, he searched "gig economy issues." Although he received the same kind of content, these videos focused on matters slightly more interesting. He clicked on a link titled "The Sobering Reality Of Uber In America."
Almost as a tease, a young stylishly clad millennial announced, "Hi. My name's Jayson. I'm a photographer and cinematographer, and I build my website with Wix. Check it out."
Dane impatiently--repeatedly--clicked the Skip Ad button and, after its clock reached five seconds, initiated the video. It seemed that many workers had grown tired of Uber and other such companies cutting their rates, deactivating their accounts and pushing the apps' operational expenses onto them. He also typed "challenge videos" in the field, but didn't initiate a search.
His interest in the content was superficial. Dane had no insight into the subjects. He didn't care for religion, lacked the experience to discuss gig work--even if he had, he wouldn't have wanted to become a mouthpiece for the community--and considered challenge videos inane and childish.
At about three-thirty, Dane watched a few movie reviews. This was a subject he had looked into before. At one time, he considered becoming the NestorNosto for films of his generation. NestorNosto not only pioneered the sub-genre of internet movie reviews but also inspired scores of successful and unsuccessful filmmakers, comedians and critics to leave their day jobs, produce internet series and get paid in the process. But that trend ran its course. It became the thing to do when there wasn't anything else to do. Now, it was about criticizing NestorNosto and breaking the bonds of victimhood. Relatively unknown content producers were ranting about the internet personality's decision to forsake his creative followers for excess money, inferior content and product placements. Like Me Too, former associates had unveiled certain indiscretions within the company he created.
While watching a review of "The Lion King (2019)," Dane said, "Over a million views and subscribers? Please. I wonder how popular he'd be if he published something truly original." Something unknown.
He could hardly look at the producer.
As "The Lion King" video played in the first tab, Dane opened his YouTube Studio. The screen presented a loading graphic and then assortment of cards that had flown into place. Each card revealed a unique set of content. Collectively, they ranged from news to metrics. The Channel Analytics card caught his attention first. His channel had only 700 subscribers--about 0.5% of the population of Clery, a valley town. In the last twenty-eight days, he had no subscriptions and a watch time of 48,234 minutes, which basically meant that only 40% of his subscribers--if they were indeed subscribers--watched at least two-thirds of his videos' lengths. Dane wasn't eligible for video monetization, but he didn't care. Even if he met the minimum subscriber count YouTube required, only a select--dare I say chosen--few actually made money as content producers while publishing their own stuff. The data that hurt the most though was the views. He had only three-hundred. A round, un-nice three-zero-zero. Dane looked lost.
"Don't forget to like, comment and subscribe," NestorNosto demanded from behind the second tab.
If another person asks me to do that, I think I'll give him a dislike or bad comment.
While in high school, during his sophomore year, Dane took a TV & Video Production class. It was an 18-week course that contained four phases in which students learned and practiced scripting, shooting and editing with tools like a vision switcher, EFP cameras and computer applications. The fourth phase entailed the production of an actual newscast. This is where Dane discovered nonlinear editing, audio manipulation and file compression. He also discovered the power of passion. The studio environment was fast-paced, unpredictable and invigorating. There were a few prima-donnas, but everybody was on-board to make his/her class the best it could be--proving that age wasn't a handicap for drive.
Dane's introduction to the world of radio occurred when he was 12-years-old. He had contracted the chicken pox. Initially, the experience was marginally dull. Aside from enduring the burden of numerous itchy red sores, he got to skip school, stay in bed and watch TV. When the itching intensified, he tried to occupy his mind by playing video games. On day three of his staycation, a cold front swept Clery. The melting snow froze, pushing many trees and electrical distribution cables down to the ground. The Freitags weren't prepared for the inconvenience. Without the electric furnace, they had to depend on the fireplace, which couldn't heat the whole house. On day seven, Dane acquired a cold, and a few days later, bronchitis. He thought the virus had come from the chilled air, but it actually came from his younger brother Conner who was sick a week prior. With the power out, Dane turned to a battery-powered radio in the form of a shrunken boombox. The routine of rest, chicken soup, binge-watching, some games, more soup and more rest had gotten old. The radio transmitters, as it turned out, weren't affected by the adverse weather.
Over the course of two weeks, Dane grew intrigued by this new medium. Although he had heard snippets of the FM stations before, the AM ones of which he never heard offered a different perspective. The voices were modest yet authoritative, the topics unpopular yet important and the advertisements local yet objective. In a sense, an AM radio program was like an audiobook. Because it used words to convey information, a listener had to use his imagination to not only receive the message but also construct it into something sensible. There was also a community aspect, a flavor that was similar to the public-access shows he encountered from time to time. Hosts interviewed listeners and vice versa, unrehearsed and unscripted. The medium seemed geared to the free transmission of ideas, a phenomenon for which the internet was once known.
Dane tried to re-invent the experience from his current bedroom. It served as a production studio for his community-centric talk show and vlog, which he titled FreiWave. FreiChan was already taken. He used a portion of the space to interview locals--none of which were celebrities--and discuss matters that concerned the citizens of Clery. Occasionally, if she happened to be at home, Kelly, one of his roommates, played hostess. She treated guests to homemade cookies, cheese or sparkling water before the crew moved to the make-shift studio. If Dane didn't find anybody, he invited his best friend Paulo to sit in a chair opposite and act as co-host/interviewee. If the prospective interviewee wanted to meet someplace else, Dane conducted the interview outside of the house with Paulo capturing the event via a Sony HD prosumer camcorder, which he taught his friend to use. Whether Dane completed one interview or several in a week, he always published at least one--using additional recordings as future or bonus content. The finished videos went straight to YouTube while edited audio-only versions went to Stitcher, SoundCloud, iTunes and his Radio.co station, which also played VOSS-FM-styled music of his choice and advertisements paid by locals.
Dane's bedroom was formerly the basement or bottom floor of the house in which he lived. Kelly and his other roommate, Tanner, occupied the two bedrooms upstairs where the living room, kitchen, first bathroom and patio lay. Everything in the downstairs room was strategically placed. A mattress and box spring lay atop a queen-sized iron frame in the back, which stood lengthwise beneath a long rectangular window. Dane covered the window with thick black mat boards on days he recorded his show. To the room's right lay three club chairs, glass-top table and his mother's contribution of a Persian rug. A banner, bearing his show's title/logo and tagline, hung behind the furnishings while three 130-watt Fresnel lanterns--mounted on light stands--stood beside them. This was where he held his interviews. To the room's left lay an old couch, closet and shelves that held pictures, papers, lighting gels, a canister of clothespins and camcorder. A door, which led to a staircase, the second bathroom and garage, lay no more than ten feet to the front. A computer desk, sliding door and dresser--equipped with a widescreen TV and sound bar whose speakers and subwoofer were optimally distributed around the room--lay perpendicular to the bedroom door. Like the window, he would cover the sliding door with a blanket. The desk was his workstation where he recorded his monologues, uploaded, edited and published (his) videos, and used the internet.
Tanner, who was the house's only lessee, offered the basement to Dane as a way to meet his living expenses. Within the past decade, a fulfillment center, several outsourcing and staffing companies, and many shops and restaurants opened in Clery, which ushered an influx of transplants. As if overnight, new apartment homes and modern housing developments sprang from fields and empty lots. To keep up with increased property values, many landlords--including the owner of Dane, Kelly and Tanner's house--increased their rental rates. Many tenants who lived in apartments in or near the town's center took on roommates or moved into older houses. Tanner moved into the Owner's house three years ago. Kelly moved in a year later. The Owner agreed to sell Tanner her house after four years.
Dane had been living with Tanner and Kelly for one year now, paying only $350 per month plus utilities and internet. He liked the house because it contained several things that an apartment didn't, such as a private driveway, spacious backyard and peaceful setting. He didn't have to worry so much about a person hitting his truck overnight or stealing his packages. Dane and his clan could use the backyard to grill burgers, roast marshmallows or play volleyball. Plus, he wasn't forced to pay for facilities he rarely used, such as a weight room or sauna. Most importantly, he could save money to meet his financial goals. He had been trying--and mostly succeeding--to save money since graduating from high school despite the cost of running his enterprise. He had plans to leave YouTube and start his own brick-and-mortar FM radio station that would revolutionize the medium, using his small established audience to muster more followers. Maybe he would get Paulo and his other friends, Scott and Jessica, to fill various roles. Maybe he would even resurrect the forgotten radio play. Clery, he assumed, had no shortage of inspiring actors or creative writers.
Maybe I should just break down and start doing videos shirtless.
Dane's eyes roamed to the clock in his monitor's taskbar and he realized that it was almost 5 PM. Time to go to work. In a lethargic mechanical fashion, he lifted himself from the task chair and sauntered to the closet. He scanned his shirts several times before selecting a white T-shirt with red tape on the sleeves and neckline despite the presence of several newer decorative ones hanging in the forefront. The cargo shorts he selected were the same ones he wore yesterday. They were a little wrinkled but presentable enough to pass as clean. He tossed the clothing onto the coffee table. In a slower progression, he stripped his body of the check pajama bottoms and tank-top he had worn since awakening and threw the garments onto a thin teal carpet. He slumped into one of the club chairs, rolled a fresh pair of socks over his feet and secured them with two high-tops whose midsoles had started to tear from the sides. He put the shorts and shirt on last. Moving twice as slow as he had initially, Dane finished this routine by shutting down his computer, pulling his cell phone from a charge cable, closing the blinds and locking his bedroom door with a ruby-plated key--leaving his dishes behind.
Kelly and Tanner didn't notice Dane enter the living room. They didn't even hear the increasingly audible stomping that had ascended the staircase. Their faces lay fixedly on their phones. Dane paused for a moment upon reaching the top floor banister. His hair was untidy but not ugly. His mouth, almost imperceptibly, quivered as if he wanted to say something but didn't. Nonetheless, he entered the kitchen via a portal, grabbed a prepared lunch from the refrigerator and easily leaned against the width of another portal, which lay to the first one's left. Like the wall that enclosed Dane's bedroom, the left portal was an addition to the house's original layout. The living room possessed a strange, dreamy quality.
Quite the contrast to my darkroom downstairs.
In reality, this room was no brighter than Dane's. The absence of the lamps' artificial light accentuated the afternoon sun's rays--revealing an array of glowing, hard-edged bars that varied in size and intensity. His roommates, however, didn't appear as dreamy. Their eyes rolled like dark marbles against empty cups. Their thumbs, like robotic arms from an assembly line.
Are they still mad at me?
About a week ago, at around the same time, Dane had gotten into an argument with Tanner over stolen property. Some days before, a man contacted Dane on Facebook and asked to appear on his talk show. The messenger had claimed to have seen one of his episodes and wanted to share his story of escaping the world of homelessness and entering that of Clery's lower-middle-class. Dane agreed, assuming it could open a dialogue about attitudes toward the town's growth. On the day before the argument, the man came to Dane's house. Through a series of amateurish, uninformed questions, the man explained that, within only a year, he secured a job as a delivery driver and was promoted to operations manager. Before then, he slept in empty buildings and panhandled to a bevy of mostly disaffected faces that received him as a nuisance or nothing at all. Dane was touched but naive. If he had been wise enough to check the man's references, identify the signs of a meth user or even ask him how he became homeless, he wouldn't have accepted his offer. In the past, he always supervised his interviewees--never turning his back on them--but on this occasion, he left the trustful man alone in his studio while he used the bathroom. The Operations Manager was actually a thieving druggie who, after sneaking into the garage, stole an eight-hundred-dollar gold watch that Tanner had mistakenly left behind. When Dane resurfaced, the man was gone.
"From now on," Tanner shouted in a tone Dane hadn't heard before, "I don't want any strangers in my house without my permission."
Tanner valued time. The watch was symbolic to the status he had earned as an accomplished, responsible hotel manager who, like the fictitious operations manager, started at the bottom. Dane's problem was more complicated. His roommates both worked nine to five Monday through Friday while he worked nights Sunday through Wednesday. If he agreed to Tanner's ultimatum, he would probably have to change his shooting to Saturday afternoons or Thursday or Friday evenings. There were still Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, but those wouldn't leave him much time to wake up and prepare for work.
"Saturdays could work," Dane muttered, but he would probably have to conduct more interviews outside of the home.
"Have you thought about renting a space in town?" Kelly said sympathetically.
"Yes, I'd like to, but the only ones big enough are at least five-hundred dollars a month."
Five-hundred dollars that would drain his savings in a hurry.
"Well," Tanner said, still angry, "what about a job at a station? You could make more money, work days and probably make a few connections."
Despite his unfavorable opinion on corporations, Dane liked the idea. He considered it many times and, unbeknown to his roommates, submitted résumés and applications. It was the only career alternative he would accept. A quality job could lift him out from the pit of online publishing to the realm of respected, universally recognized radio distribution--except...
"Every radio position I've applied for requires a Bachelor's degree."
The ones that didn't appeared online and seldom gave responses.
"What about financial aid?" Kelly suggested.
That was easy for her to say. She came from a lower-class family whose EFC (expected family contribution) was often zero. As a result, she got the full ride to total academia, but settled on a paralegal certificate. Dane's EFC was considerably higher. The one time he inquired about financial aid, the advisor told him that, because of his parents' middle-class income, he or they would have to pay for approximately ninety percent of the tuition, lab fees and books. After the Freitags heard about this, they offered to contribute a thousand dollars per quarter. Mr. Freitag had been laid off from his job a year prior and the family was living off of his wife's income, unemployment compensation and the savings that were meant for the children's education. Dane respectfully declined. Because Forsythe's School of Journalism and Media Production didn't offer online or flexible classes, he would have needed to resort to part-time work, which wouldn't have given him enough on which to live outside of his parents' house. Even if he had stayed home, he would only have a couple hundred dollars left to spend after college expenses. Exhausted, Dane acquiesced and agreed to his surrogate landlord's new rule.
Later, Dane asked himself, "All this money. This equipment. Is it really worth it?"
"Hi, guys," Dane said.
As if awoken from a trance, Kelly looked up and said, "Hi, Dane."
Less enthusiastically albeit just as friendly, Tanner said, "Hey, bud. Sleep well?"
"Yeah," Dane replied, taken aback. "Great. Thanks. You?"
"Not bad," Tanner replied, distracted.
The awkward silence continued until Dane blurted, "Anything happening around town?"
"I hear Weezer's coming." Tanner threw Kelly a quick smirk, his thick mustache rising at one end. She threw one back, taking a sip of coffee.
Dane suspired inconspicuously. "Are those new phones?"
"Yeah, they're called..." Tanner hesitated for a second before saying, "…pseudopods with a capital 'P.'"
Pseudo...pods? Amused, Dane asked, "What the heck is a Pseudopod?" He emphasized the three syllables as if trying to uncover some deeper meaning.
"Only technology's newest gift to Clery," Tanner announced in an exaggerated, self-aware tone that Kelly and Dane found humorous. "Believe it or not, it's a phone that runs apps specifically meant for you. Kelly and I got ours today."
"Check it out, Tanner," Kelly chirped. "They've even taken the ads out of videos."
"Really? I thought that was just the Pseudopod's apps."
"Nope, says so right here."
Kelly joined Tanner on the couch, whipping her hair to one side and presenting the dialog box that bore the incredible news.
No ads? Does that mean producers like me will have more of a chance? Yes. The lack of revenue could drive certain people away. No, wait. There's still Patreon. That means I'll have to work even harder to build an audience. "That's cool," Dane said resignedly. "Do they do anything else?"
"Didn't the technician say they could charge themselves?" Kelly asked Tanner.
"You know what? He did. Set your phone down for a minute."
"No," Tanner asserted with a smile, "face down."
Kelly obeyed again, her face having twitched with an expression of annoyance and apprehension. Tanner laid the back of his Pseudopod against the back of hers. The LED borders around the phones glowed neon red and faded to nothing continuously. Each appeared to be using the other's battery to charge itself.
Dane was intrigued. "How much did they cost?"
"Well...nothing," Tanner said, a chuckle escaping his lips. "The dealer agreed to sell us these if we traded our old phones in for a one-year contract."
"He said Clery's the first city to sell the Pseudopod to the public," Kelly commented.
"Why Clery?" Dane said.
"Something about the technology being experimental."
"Come take a look at this, Dane," Tanner said.
The home screen was interesting to say the least. Except for the usual status bar, it didn't contain widgets detailing the time or weather. Only eight round icons, six of which in the top and middle rows lay equidistantly from each other. The two in the bottom row lay parallel to the left and middle columns, leaving an empty space to the right. The background was nothing but a clear celestial blue solid that undulated with subtle--almost ghostly--reflections of yellow, red and green. Colorful translucent trails flew across the solid's surface.
"Sharp, huh?" Tanner remarked.
The app icons were even more interesting. They not only stood perfectly still against the animated backdrop but also bore odd symbols. If you focused long enough, you might see the objects as stylized illustrations of familiar things, but if you didn't, you might summarily regard them as hieroglyphs. Words of a language that only its writers--and some users--could understand. Unlike ordinary icons of this kind, their fill colors--magenta, dandelion, shamrock, azure and lavender--appeared arbitrary. For instance, the Pseudopod's phone app wasn't dandelion because that was its signature color--kind of like in the case of Amazon.com--it was dandelion simply because it was.
"The icons have no titles, but I guess I can live with that."
Dane continued to stare at Tanner's phone, squinting and cocking his head. Trying to make sense of the symbols. "Look!"
The icons started to drift in random directions, gradually moving faster as if reacting to the frequency of the backdrop's waves. They changed directions as they bumped into others. The trails flew above the icons now. Like a screensaver, the effect seemed to have been triggered by Tanner's inactivity with the device.
"How about that," Tanner commented.
He slowly moved to touch one of the roaming figures. As if fending off an attack, it promptly multiplied into three new icons--each of which snapped to an invisible two-by-two grid that lay in the screen's center.
This is new.
Dane tried not to jump. These new icons replaced the others and each bore one of the three unique fills and a different, never-before-seen glyph. Tanner touched a magenta one whose symbol could have resembled a tree. The dynamic little critter seemed to have reacted before even making contact. Opening like a tunnel approaching you at warp speed, the app led its viewers to a custom map that extended three square miles around their current location. Pins and text bubbles rose and fell asynchronously like the targets of a Whac-A-Mole game.
Casey? Dena? Bradley? Ten websites visited? EAP $50.00? "What's this?" Dane said.
"Oh," Tanner replied, "it tells me who in the neighborhood's looking to buy bamboo. It even shows their addresses."
Tanner sold bamboo on the side. In fact, the garage was filled with the stuff.
"And all you have to do is sell it door-to-door," Kelly jested.
"Nah, I'll get the Mormon missionaries to do that. Five dollars for each person they convert to bamboo. Free Fanta included. Dane, you could run the ad on your radio station."
"Oh, sure, and make me responsible for corrupting the minds of the pious youth." Yep, Tanner's acting like himself again.
"Could make for some good entertainment."
Dane smiled. "There's that much of a need for it, huh?"
"There's a need for everything these days."
Dane's eyes reached the Pseudopod's clock and he realized that he had less than thirty minutes to get to work. "It's five-thirty," he panicked. "Gotta go."
"Ah, shoot. We're sorry. Didn't mean to hold you up."
"It's all right. If I get a half-point for tardiness, it'll disappear in a month," Dane reassured himself. "Thanks for showing me your phone. It's something else." I'm deeply sorry about your watch. Don't hate me, Tanner. Kelly.
Just as Dane was about to reach the staircase that led to a landing, Kelly said, "Say, would you be interested in getting one? We could text you the address of where to go."
"No, thanks," Dane professed. "I'm content with my current phone."
"You could earn two-hundred-and-fifty dollars if you get one of your friends to sign up," Tanner added.
Two-hundred-and-fifty bucks, 'ay? Zero-down? One-year contract? "What would I pay per month?"
"Sixty dollars--give or take. You just need to show proof of a Clery address."
No kidding. That's almost half of what I pay now. "Okay. Sure. I'll think about it. Send me a text."
Before Dane could reach the stop sign near his house, his Android dinged. He unlocked the device and saw a push notification from Kelly, which accurately read, "1842 E Syracuse Ave, Suite 3."
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