Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Summer bucket list

We downloaded the first list from Pinterest. A summer bucket list. It was the middle of July. Half of summer already gone so there was no time to waste. Something had to be done, urgently.

The list said. Make paper airplanes. Climb a tree. Feed ducks. 

‘Do drugs’, Tomas noted. 

‘We’ll fit that between paper planes and ducks’

The list was colorful and cheerful with flower doodles on sides and pastel colored fonts. Perhaps better suited for someone closer to 12 than 30, but it was still a good, solid list.

And so we started.

Tomas was my friend. We met on a meet-up he organized. His meet-up was called ‘Let’s talk about death’. We bonded over shared resentment towards life.

Next day, we met outside. It was a Saturday morning, but it could be pretty much any other day. The bucket list said: make paper airplanes.

Not far from the center, there was a large train tunnel junction where teenagers came to smoke weed and leave tasteless graffiti. It took 10 minutes to get to the place. For a few minutes we sat there and watched trains going back and forth from the tunnels below. 

The first task on the list was a serious one to tackle. But I was prepared. With a package from Koh-i-Nor, right there, I had a whole heap of paper in front of me, gridded, delineated by fine lines. Just as God created man out of dust and ashes, it was now time for a man to give shape to formless cellulose. The task was simple: take one sheet, lay it in front, fold in two. Bring upper corners towards the center, press with the fingers. Make two triangles. Fold the paper in half. After a few minutes, I had a fairly solid airplane in my hands.

Another sheet of paper. Three folds, four movements. The Berliner train rushed into the tunnel. Blue livery, 6 cars, a diesel locomotive unit. And as it was half-way gone, that particular minute, Tomas lifted his hand and launched the first paper plane into air.

‘This one is from Al-Qaeda’, he said. ‘Flight 175. United Airlines. Boston to Los Angeles… Didn’t land exactly where intended’.

And before I had time to open my mouth and utter something like ‘what?’, the paper plane rushed forward and disappeared down below, amid cars of the train unit, somewhere between a dining car and a compartment for children.

Tomas lifted his left arm again. ‘This one? This one is from Hezbollah.’ As the Regiojet train was approaching the tunnel on the right track, the second plane quickly swirled down the air.

‘Flight 847. Cairo airport, 1985. They hijacked it around Athens, took to Beirut, then Algeirs. 3 days of keeping hostages in the air, you know…’

‘What?’, he finally met my questioning gaze, ‘I thought you watched all episodes of the Mayday too.’

And surely I did. So the second plane landed on tracks and was shortly smashed by the Regiojet.

The train driver waved cheerfully. I waved back.

Tomas continued. ‘Germanwings Flight 9525. Crashed into French Alps’. He paused. ‘The suicidal pilot. There was a group of children on board. All 144 died. They made a buzz about a girl’s beaded necklace.’

The morning light was still, the dusty air above quiet tracks halted.

‘Aeroflot 593. Moscow to Hong Kong.’

‘Steep bank, vertical dive, stall, spin, 75 dead scattered across South Siberian Mountains.’

And as another train disappeared in the dark pit, the sunlight dissipated too. And the summer morning, and the air shrank, and the light waves collapsed in one deep well of darkness.

‘Wait, I don’t think we’re doing it right’. I said.

No. This was all very, very wrong. The world was clearly full of categories of good and bad things. So the things had to be done the right way. I looked down the list in hands. The list was a key, a spell. Just do the things in a right sequence, and you’ll get it – a perfect experience of summer.

I fetched my iPhone from the pocket of cargo pants. ‘Let’s just pick something less controversial. How about… best ice-cream in town?’

***

That was supposed to be an easy task. Unapologetically simple. You cannot spoil the best ice-cream, can you? They don’t make it hard for people to enjoy life, and whether to enjoy it or not is up to people.

15 minutes later, the best ice-cream in town materialized in the form of a shop with a rating of 4,8 on Google and a hipsterish interior. In front of us, there were shiny steel containers with the multitudes of flavors. Pistachio. Black current. Salty caramel. Smurf-blue.

Smurf-blue! Klein blue. Ultramarine. Navy. Cobalt. Indigo. How plentiful the mankind is in the invention of shades. Nature offers one blended spectrum – but a man, only man can split it, cut it, slice, and categorize it.

‘What the fuck is Smurf-blue…’ Tomas muttered while opening a Wikipedia article.

He slid finger down the screen. ‘Apparently in Germany it’s called Schlumpf, in France – schtroumpf. Gosh, it’s like with every language it’s getting worse’.

He scrolled down. ‘It’s supposed to taste like bubble gum, but the original version was flavored with castoreum, which came from…’

‘The anal glands of beavers.’

‘I meant it came from Milwaukee… The shithole of Midwest.’

Which basically made it a double shithole. The theme of shithole was indeed repetitive for one short encyclopedia article.

‘And how do they extract anal glands from a beaver?’, he muttered thoughtfully.

My enthusiasm for Smurf-blue had visibly diminished.

So we settled on the flavor of orange with Nutella instead. A plump lady with outgrown hair roots handed me the chocolate waffle cone with rainbow sprinklers. 

I took the cone, made a bite. The first bite quickly filled the mouth with chemical flavor of industrial orange. Like the one they put in shower gels and kids tooth paste and Orbit Juicy Orange. And Nutella… Nutella was never meant to resemble anything natural anyway, so its truthfulness was at least something respected.

It took only 20 seconds until the ice started to melt and drip. First through fingers, wrists, then elbows. Dissolving cheap paper napkins that the cone was wrapped in, dripping on trousers, sandals, toes.

No. These irrelevant sensations were supposed to be ignored. The taste of orange and Nutella – that was a feeling to focus on. No practicality, no pragmatic concerns, just the pure taste inside of mouth of the two flavors mixed in one.

But the subtleties of flavour quickly subsided.

Perhaps pistachio with Ferrero could have been a better choice. It’s clear that the best ice cream was surely there, perhaps with a different flavor, in a different cup, with pistachio and Ferrero or Kinder Bueno and coconut. The perfect combination, the key to perfect summer experience had to be there… Only awaiting to be revealed.

In any case, the ice-cream only sparked joy for a minute. We needed something more long-lasting.

‘Let’s better smoke a cigarette’

‘No’. With sticky fingers I fetched the bucket list. ‘How about…. Spend a day at the lake. That doesn’t sound like too much of a torture’.

It was only noon anyway.

***

After approximately half an hour of filling out forms and papers at the car rental place, we stood near a grey Renault Logan. But the car looked so generic that it could have been Hyundai i30 or Peugeot 307.

We picked a suburban lake based on 2,300 ratings on Google. On the way there, in the speaker of Renault, Tom York was singing something about damaged goods, motorways, and disappointed people. 

Thinking of lakes, I promptly ran a search through the mind repository. Lake Garda in Northern Italy. Achensee in Austria. Lake Annecy in France. Surface sparkling like diamond dust. Water – perfectly cool. But not too cool. Something between 25 and 28 degrees. Color – Pantone Turquoise, 7465 C. Bathing you like a gel, like a fruit syrup, like Kissel.

The sound of car breaks quickly shook these images away. Outside there was just dust and a smell of gasoline. Tomas shut the door of Renault and headed towards the water. I dragged behind. Ten meters from the lake I could already glimpse the perfectly clear water. Weeds, fluffy grasses. Three meters away, patterns started to materialize: wriggly lines, abstract shapes, shades of green. The water seemed like an impressionist watercolor. But at one meter distance, things started to go wrong. The surface no longer looked as clear – it had stuff on it. 

The actual lake was nothing like the pictures of lakes. I made a few steps to the wooden pier and sat on the edge. A perfect picture of a lake with a reflective water surface – it all broke down into hundred details. There were water striders. Tadpoles going up and down. The lake bottom was slimy. And under water salamanders were devouring some smaller, less fortunate animal. The number of details was almost unbearable. And what’s even a lake? It all seemed just like a collection of miscellanea. The idea of a thing is always better than a thing.

And the movements, the sounds! An overweight woman in a bright fuchsia top followed two children leaving an odor of aerosol deodorant behind (it’s not even children that are annoying but women that talk to them, constantly narrating every trivial action – their forehead wrinkles constantly tense). A bald man in silver chains stood knee-deep in the water. Too skinny, too pale. Not a farmer type – perhaps recently out of prison. The whole landscape was accompanied by horrendous polyphony of tunes people played on portable speakers.

‘God save me from the ugliness of this world’, I muttered.

Once again, I looked below. There was that long thing, like a tape worm but not really a worm, more like an embryo of a snake. It was twigging unpleasantly. The stuff around was too… alive.

‘Do you know how the dinosaurs died?’, Tomas grinned. ‘Ants sneaked into their bodies through buttholes and ate their intestines from the inside’.

And at that moment I thought it’s for the best that they died.

There were some purple flowers of meadow geranium around, dog daisies, bird’s-foot trefoil. Perhaps flora was less disappointing than corporal fauna. But to tell the truth, they were all just unremarkable grasses and the most interesting thing about these plants were their names.

A group of teenagers suddenly appeared at the wooden dock. Three boys, two girls. A tall boy jumped into water. Then blew his nose loudly. It was instantly clear there was something wrong with these teenagers. They seemed… too normal. Pathologically normal. The girls in leopard print bikinis climbed on shoulders of two boys and started splashing water at each other. I wondered why they aren’t sitting at home, curtains shut, browsing the Internet, like all normal children do.

‘I always had a certain… disdain towards life’, I finally confessed.

‘Not a surprise. Have you maybe considered converting to Christianity? They have a pretty good picture of afterlife. If not this life, perhaps next one would be better.’

***

But it was too premature to give up on life. I looked down the bucket list: the next point said… feed the ducks.

And how convenient that otherwise authoritarian command was! For a few meters away from the busy swimmers a few ducks were floating under the willow tree. 

Tomas fetched a slice of bread from his backpack. He was prepared too.

‘The first thing for taxidermy of a duck that you need is a sharp knife. And a pair of fake eyes’, he started.

‘You need a needle and a thread. Turn the body belly up, cut along the breastbone. Without touching the guts and intestines’, he proceeded, while throwing crumbs in the water.

A couple of fat ducks quickly directed their course towards the bread floating on surface.

‘Proceed to the neck, separating flesh from skin, then vertebrae. Drain the blood, you don’t want to stain the feathers. Chop off the wings, then legs.’

While throwing more bread crumbs, he continued. ‘Did you know that a duck is a rare bird that can go through all surfaces like a 4×4 truck: it can walk, swim, fly?’ He grinned. ‘Anyways – not anymore.’

More ducks were hurrying up to fetch the bread. Unchopped. Still fleshy and full-blooded.

‘Yeah… taxidermy’, I mulled over the whole thing. ‘Don’t you find it strange that people are eager to take hobbies like making ugly pots on ceramics classes but no one’s taking classes of taxidermy?’

‘Darwin did. More people will. People are bored to death’.

We sat in silence for some time. In fact, this was not too bad. The lake, green waters surrounded by sage-colored willows, branches half-submerged. The sun was setting and the shadows were getting longer. Rectangles of light illuminated skin in yellow hue.

Suddenly, a piece of fluff landed on my leg. Half-spherical. It also had little legs. Around 40, white-colored, like a bird feather. Nature is a lazy artist, it uses templates all the time. The piece of fluff persistently escaped examination, dissipating between my fingers.

Three little boys in hats of various colors were playing in shallow waters of the shore. The children seemed to at least mildly appreciate this existence. Discussing the softness of rocks, whistling tunes. There was a shrub of field thistle growing behind them. That’s where the fluff was presumably coming from. I followed the fluff: past the bushes, to the left, right behind the willow.

Next to the bush, there was a man standing. A bit old, hair long and thin, but the top of the head almost bold. His shirt was unbuttoned exposing fat belly, round like a ballon. Arms at hips. Mouth opened with an unabashed smile. It was clear he was watching the boys in colorful hats. Above the long black socks and knees in military-coloured shorts, his left hand was resting in pants. The man looked at me. I looked at him. The little boys in the water, baseball hats under the tree…

I wish he diverted the gaze, but instead he just grinned, pushing his hand deeper into the camouflage pants.

I retreated. This is it. The unapologetic defeat. No more field thistle, no more lake, no more outside world. There had to be some place better elsewhere.

We promptly headed towards Renault. ‘Truth will mess you up’, Tom Waits was singing in Renault speaker, a song about relief from euthanasia.

***

Despite the grimmest of moods, there was still one last thing to do. The evening was reserved for one special occasion, the final point on the list. I put on my cleanest t-shirt (it had a logo of Ku-klux-klan on it). Because the list said: go to amusement park and eat cotton candy.

Amusement fair. A fun fair. That’s where people come to have fun. Dragons nest. Jumping frogs. Aeronaut extreme. Game stalls. Snacks. Bubbled waffles. Cold slush drinks. 

The place stank of fun.

‘So how many people you said die here every year?’, I asked Tomas as we walked past the hot dog stand.

He kept silence, just constructed a half smile. He was always good at expressing elusive emotions, my friend Tomas.

Getting through cheerful crowds, busy rollercoasters. They said it’s the time of my life. Then why does it feel like shit?

As we walked past the Super Mario Slide, I finally braced myself and said it. It was time to say the thing.

‘So I was thinking about following. There was that paper by Gottlieb Frege, from 1892. ‘Über Sinn und Bedeutung’ where he famously makes a distinction between term, sense, and reference’.

‘There’s a name to every object and every action. Well, almost every. Ducks. Summer day. Pond. Swimming in a pond. And there’re obviously physical objects these terms refer to. Well, at least loosely, approximately. But there’s also a third thing here, a sense. That’s what Gottlieb Frege discovered. What exactly is a summer day? For you or for me, a summer day is supposed to be joyful and sunny. No one envisions summer day as a cold shitty day spent reading Wikipedia on a sofa. Bathing in a pond is cool and refreshing. It’s not submerging yourself into a brown mud full of Cyanobacteria. This is supposed to be fun.’

I pointed at the Disney cup ring slowly rotating around. A man in Canibal Corpse t-shirt with long greasy hair was lazily pressing levers at control deck.

Following impartial dictate of the summer bucket list, we stopped next to the cotton candy kiosk. Girls in sundresses were taking pictures in portrait mode on the background of blurry lights of the carousels. 

‘I think sense basically emerges from seeing all these places and situations repeated in millions of movies and books and Instagram until everything becomes a cliche. But the meaning is anyway clear.’

‘But the problem is – the world as it is, this massive chaos of objects and referents, it got shrunk to a very limited inventory of meanings.’ 

‘I think we got lost in replications and representations. The sense has gone hopelessly deviant from the referent, from the actual objects. What I’ve been trying my whole life, I’ve been searching for a referent. Of joy, of happiness, of fun, but it’s nowhere to be found, I don’t think it even exists.’

‘Unless you redefine the terms’

***

Next morning, Tomas sent me a link. It was a webpage that said: VR girlfriend simulator. One of those GPT things they train via open API. The other page had contacts on it: Twitter account with a username shittycoder1.

‘The VR experience of summer. It was supposed to be a girlfriend simulator, but I scraped the girlfriend part, she was too annoying. Anyways. The environment. Shit goes straight into your brain. Not too detailed, some forms are pretty octagonal. Otherwise it would take up too much computational power.’

‘I added ducks. And lakes – look at the reflection. Lots of computation going on there. Heaps of ray are calculated as cylinders. This shape was easy to program. And the cotton candy kiosk. It’s mostly just a stash of pink and blue rectangles but it portrays the idea pretty well.’

‘It doesn’t have insects. Or humans. And most importantly – if you approach it, it doesn’t break down into a myriad of shitty details. It’s just as it looks – from any distance.’

‘You described the world in old terms. I’ll describe it in my terms.’

It was the most boring VR set I’ve ever seen.

So we spent the rest of August playing Deus Ex and Doom 3 in Oculus.

The summer was almost over. It was time to create an autumn bucket list.

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