Order of Operations
When the old man leaves, it’s just us in the neighborhood sauna—each coated in a thick sheen of sweat, my face dripping as I lean forward, torso over knees, forearms pressed upon thighs. You immediately put our newly gained privacy to use by telling me that your wild confidence is actually synthetic. Which doesn’t surprise me. Hardly anyone nowadays has truly wild confidence, and your attitude has never been tremendously different from most people’s, aside from your vehemence in voicing opinions—now amply manifesting as you expound upon how your parents have done you a tremendous disservice by misleading you for all these years.
You don’t bother explaining how the truth about your confidence came to light. Apparently, that’s beside the point, the point being how upsetting the revelation is, how you’ve been so wronged by the belief your parents fostered—that your grandmother wrested what would ultimately become your confidence from bears in the tundra. A piece of apocryphal family lore inappropriately perpetuated indefinitely for the sake of making you feel special.
In the flickering orange glow of logs burning in that ancient iron stove, your eyes are as fierce as your words which boom off the wood-panel walls, making it unmistakable that you’re outraged—furious with your “misguided” parents for claiming, however lovingly, that your confidence was a matrilineal heirloom meant to help clear a path into the world for one’s true self. Of course you’re indignant. Synthetic or not, this confidence is still a part of you, doing its job, fueling the certainty that it created, that you’ve been so wronged.
And though I want to be supportive of how you need to process this disruption to your sense of identity, I entertain the possibility that someone will come in and you’ll put the kibosh on your rant because, as incensed as you are, you’ll still adhere to good sauna etiquette. But my wishful thinking goes unfulfilled, and you only bring me deeper into your situation by asking for my assistance in obtaining actual wild confidence.
I ladle up a scoop of water from the bucket beside me and pour it over the hot stones. Once they finish sizzling and the fresh steam has soothed me, I say, “I know you’re upset, but your confidence has gotten you this far in life. Clearly it works. Why replace it?”
“Because it’s not the real thing, which should be even better,” you reply.
I’m not sure about that. Wild confidence is reputed to have a certain ineffable something, but that’s all anecdotal—and quite possibly a placebo effect. What I am sure about is that historically, “naturally” sourcing confidence definitely hasn’t made things better for the wildlife involved. For decades, countless animals were rendered ambivalent and indecisive, unable to maintain their long-standing livelihoods—many a mighty species reduced to relying on the steady supply of food promised to them in exchange for their confidence. Then there were the issues that threatened the very existence of future generations. The exploited animals lacked the confidence to not only hunt and migrate but also vie for mates and raise young. Unsurprisingly, this steadily brought entire ecosystems toward the brink of collapse. Until finally, people saw the error of their ways and made the shift to manufactured confidence. A highly effective substitute.
Now, with your man-made confidence all fired up, any mention of this unfortunate chapter in humanity’s development is sure to launch a heated argument. I’m left with little choice but to play along in hopes of finding some flaw in your reasoning that I can gently bring to your attention.
“OK, so you want to barter with animals for their confidence,” I surmise.
“Right, I knew you’d understand! I need you to put your data-sleuthing savvy into action and identify the animals in our area who have the greatest confidence.”
That piques my interest. Of course it does. You know I can’t pass up an opportunity to delve into data. So I keep playing along.
It doesn’t take long to get the information you want. Ever since we stopped swindling every species we could out of it, animal confidence has been closely tracked—rigorous data collection necessary for monitoring the residual impact of that regrettable trade. Fortunately, the latest stats show that confidence in wild populations has rebounded significantly in recent decades.
After pursuing several leads, I arrange for us to meet with a tiger who is getting on in years, ready to fully retire and mellow out after a second career performing at birthday parties and other private events—a self-run business he started when he was tired of life on the road as a star attraction in a traveling circus. His tenure in show business has allowed him to accrue various trappings of a luxe lifestyle. But, crucially for us, though he has amassed much in the way of material possessions, he hasn’t acquired the avocations necessary to fully enjoy the other form of wealth he will soon have: time. So he’s interested in trading his confidence for the means to realize his aspirations of spending his retirement as a patron of the arts.
In the foyer of his massive, lavishly decorated house, we exchange some pleasantries with the tiger, then he leads us around back where two flaming hoops have been set up on the vast lawn. In a show of confidence, he launches himself at the rings of fire, swiftly clearing the centers of both in a single bound, the stunt finished with a somersault on the grass followed by a majestic stance on all fours with head held high. Impressive—so much so that I clap—but you ask him to roar with confidence, for good measure. He obliges and bellows with throaty gusto. Satisfied, you initiate the bargaining we’re here to do by making an offer.
These days, few people are interested in obtaining confidence from animals so we have the upper hand in the negotiations. Nonetheless, they are tense. The tiger wants more than your fluency in neopostmodern literature, but you think his confidence isn’t even worth that. Though this discrepancy in valuation is annoying, it is reassuring that the tiger’s confidence is getting him to drive a hard bargain. Which doesn’t turn out to be too hard. After putting up some feigned resistance, you strike a deal that includes your appreciation of ballet, which I know you’re more than willing to let go of.
You sign all the documents to complete the transaction, then we take Maringa to a nearby park that she likes. Tail wagging vigorously, she’s happy to be outside after waiting in the car the whole time we were with the tiger, and she’s especially happy when you give her the tiger’s confidence. Newly self-assured, with those pointy husky ears all perked up, she trots straight toward her favorite part of this park: the climbing logs. On her way there, the dogs she passes recognize her as the alpha, giving her wide berth and refraining from barking at her. She pays them no attention, interested only in ascending the heap of lumber. You’re pleased with this.
After Maringa has been sitting atop the logs for a few minutes, a beagle approaches and scampers up toward her. Maringa keeps her claim on the apex of the log stack but doesn’t growl or stare down the newcomer, and it’s apparent your appraisal of the tiger’s confidence was correct. It lacks the edge we expected, probably weakened by the recent years of low-stakes gigs with easy-to-wow audiences that don’t require him to flex much if any audacity. Skill honed through practice may have played more of a role than confidence in his jump through the fiery hoops—that roll on the lawn more of a safety precaution than a flourish adding some panache to the stunt’s finale.
Regardless, you’re sure this natural confidence is superior to anything synethetic. So we turn our efforts to making the switch—but to no avail. The synthetic confidence is tightly lodged in your personality. Still set on leading your life with wild confidence, you opt to double up and layer the tiger’s confidence over yours, despite my concerns that you’ll overestimate your abilities and end up prone to risky activities. I’d feel better if the additional confidence were counterbalanced by greater humility.
But in the following days, you simply become a clarified version of yourself—your personality taken to a logical extreme that’s expressed as cogent articulations of your values and vigorous engagement in authentic, resolute action. This most prominently takes the form of a manifesto–style proclamation that you must recommit to the pursuit of what’s truly meaningful, which launches you into crafting a beauty compass: aesthetic intuition suspended in a vacuum chamber that allows the intuition to swivel of its own accord, free of social pressures, to point toward the elegant and exquisite, which you are convinced offer the best chance of contact with what really matters in the world.
And though you’re all the more passionately certain about your beliefs—to the degree that they are unassailable subjective truths—you’re also more compassionate and thoughtful. When we’re out with friends, your bad habits of interrupting people and getting defensive don’t flare up—aren’t even trigged when Qalixy makes some dig at a foible of yours. For the most part, you are gracious. Like your virtues have been cranked up and your vices dialed down, presumably because you have greater confidence in who you are at heart.
Soon, your conduct convinces me that you are well on your way to being the mature person your parents set you on a course toward.
Then I see you put the beauty compass into action, and I’m not so sure. It seems to be leading you off track, if not astray—to stands of chicory and hovering hummingbirds then to works of neuropunk literature and abstract holography. A scattershot obsession with alluring aesthetic qualities that distracts you from the deeper engagement with the world you so desire. Though maybe the compass is taking you on a scenic route to greater maturity, which could be what you need. After all, when it comes to personal growth, the shortest path is seldom the best.
To refine or refute this working hypothesis, I tag along when you go out to search for beauty in the twilight autumnscape. Bundled up against the cold with Maringa sauntering alongside us, we make our way through the woods at the edge of the city then linger in a clearing where we can see the full moon hanging low and large in the purpling sky, its glow pouring down upon the swath of bunchgrass and shrubs before us. You take a compass reading then point at a tree just to our right. A rounded form stands on the lowest branch.
It’s a barred owl, the dark eyes commanding my attention. Set in a face of light plumage ringed with crescent arcs, the black orbs make the owl seem so keenly observant, capable of perceiving the future—the forest’s nocturnal augur with a thick, streaked coat of feathers practically regal, adorning a dignified poise. As mesmerizing as this majestic predator is, I shift my gaze to you. Enthralled, you stare at the owl, eyes asparkle—with reflected moonlight that conveys… something. Perhaps that beauty is the match that lights the candle of your wonder, to illuminate some truth about the world.
Something like that. I can’t say for sure. I’ll have to observe more of your encounters with beauty. Right now, what I can say for sure is your fascination with the owl here warms my heart in a way that being around you hasn’t for a while. And on such a chilly evening with air like cool metal on my cheeks, this is a welcome delight.
Soramimi Hanarejima is the author of the neuropunk story collection Literary Devices For Coping. Soramimi’s recent work appears in Pulp Literature, Cotton Xenomorph and Outlook Springs.