The mania for tulips ended a long time back. Way back in the sixteen-thirties, to be exact. Back in the 1630s, people were paying hundreds, thousands of dollars for a single tulip. (Well, guilders, actually, since this was a Dutch thing.) Then the market crashed and everyone went broke. Even so, if you have a flower shop, here, today, you still need tulips.
You get the message? The speculation was across the road from sanity, but the basic product is still good. When radio came along, there was wild speculation in radio stocks, and then everyone went broke. But you still have a radio, right? You still tune in, listen to music, hear the adds. It's the same thing with the dot.com world. The bubble burst, sure, but the basic product is still good. The Internet is here to stay, and you need it.
I'm Bob, and I'm in sales. Kind of. Actually, I'm a bogeyman. You're a bricks and mortar outfit? You don't have a presence out in cyberspace? Well, my job is to scare you. Convince you that the sky is falling. Naturally, my company will save you - for a price. You've left it too late, really, and it'll cost us big bucks to save you from joining the dinosaurs. But we can do it. If you let us start right now.
A couple of years ago, the pitch was this: the Internet or die. Then all the dot coms went into the tar pit, and the pitch had to get reshuffled. Now it's both bricks and clicks, which is less fun to sell, less satisfying to buy. Everyone preaches moderation but what people really want is absolutes. So I'm looking for the next big thing ... but, meantime, I'm making enough to keep my head above water.
To get this job, I had to do a course. Training. Only two weeks. (Only? Hey, I know a guy who did an MA over a weekend, another guy who did an MBA in a week.) Two weeks was about six months too long for me. I hate sitting in classrooms. Always have. Always will. I start acting up.
The low point was during the group work. Two teams, competing against the clock. Ours finished first. I looked across at the other guys. They were sweating a bit.
"Hey, guys," I said, "we've finished our intelligence test."
That earned me a couple of dirty looks. Sue the trainer, Ms Mature Tolerance (seriously - she was a very nice person, and good at her job) - looked at me and said, "Bob, remember, you have to work with these people."
She smiled as she said it, but she made her point. I'm an adult - right? A grown up. I shouldn't be acting out in class. So, after that, I tried to keep my big mouth shut. But these terrible things just kept falling out of it. I'd say something, then be shocked at myself. Did I just say that? It seems I did.
Once out of the classroom, I did okay. But, if I ever have to do another course, I'll be just as bad all over again. I can't help myself. It's the way I am. I've always been that way. I remember walking out of high school on the very last day thinking, "Hey, great, I never have to do this again." But I've lost track of the classroom hours I've put in since then. College, the military, antenatal classes with Cindy - it's a long, long laundry list.
I've come to the conclusion that school is not natural. This is easy to figure out - it's not rocket science. By nature, we're hunter-gatherers, slightly modified apes from the plains of Africa. Nothing in our evolution equips us for this five solid days a week of alleged learning. It's unnatural. It's only to be expected that some of us won't be able to handle it at all. Or will - like me - have problems.
Pavern doesn't see it this way. Pavern Canterbury is my old buddy. We go right back to elementary school. (The name is his own invention. He used to be just plain old Ted Bundy.)
Pavern is now in the business of drugging kids. He's a dealer, but it's totally legitimate. Uppers, downers, heavy-duty anti-psychotics - you can feed anything to little kids as long as you've got a team legally authorized to produce the right paperwork. The aim seems to be to have a hundred per cent of the kids on drugs. We're not there yet, but, naturally, a lot of money is being made along the way.
Supposedly, the kids need the drugs because there's something wrong with them. They open their big mouths too often, can't sit still, fiddle with their pencils - but that's me in any classroom you care to think about. (Even in the military I couldn't keep quiet. The instructor has a question? I have an answer. Made myself unpopular that way. Think you're smart - right? Yes, I do. I am. Smarter than you, buddy, at any rate.)
"We got a new drug," said Pavern, last time I saw him. "It cancels out the Debradegga thing."
He was really earnest. Mister Serious on a mission to save the world. But I wasn't exactly sure what he was on about.
"Debradegga?" I said.
"You know," he said. "The Tibetan wizard thing."
Then I remembered. Debradegga is a cartoon character with his own merchandising empire. With five kids of my own, ages seven through thirteen, you'd think I'd know. But, to tell the truth, my own kids are into other things. The oldest, in fact, is heavily into explosives, and is in trouble with the cops right now for bringing a pipe bomb to school.
Hyperactive? No. He's heavily introverted, stares at brick walls for a hobby, and broods. Two years ago, he stabbed me with a scalpel dipped in formalin. (This was after an argument over his "real mother", as he insists on calling her. He still won't accept that she's dead.)
My oldest kid, then, is a wild one. When he's a little older, I'm going to give him some promotional literature on the Foreign Legion. French, they tell me, is a very beautiful language.
"There's a lot of sick kids out there," said Pavern. "They just can't stop."
"Stop what?" I said, momentarily caught up in a capsule daydream of myself in old age, meeting my mature and mellow grown up son, a civilized creature - at last - after thirty years of unrelenting French military discipline.
"I just told you," said Pavern, irritated. "Debradegga."
"Debradegga ... oh yeah, right."
Now I was oriented. Right now, the small children of this great nation of ours are in the grip of a collecting cult of ravenous intensity, seeking the holographic images of Debradegga and his cohorts. And a lot of people are worried. But intensity comes naturally to little kids. Don't you remember the time when we, too, were cultists?
Pavern was so enthusiastic about his new drug - it results in a kind of transitory chemical lobotomy, apparently - that he started digging out promotional literature to show me.
"Pavern," I said, trying to head off a lecture in therapeutic biochemical engineering which I'm not intellectually equipped to handle.
(I don't like the name. It sounds - well, it would be politically incorrect to say what it sounds like. But I have to use it. This old buddy of mine made it real clear what would happen if I ever again called him Ted.)
"Pavern," I said. "Don't you remember the acorns?"
He had no recollection. Even when I supplied details, he completely couldn't remember. He'd done a data dump someplace, wiping his memory clean with all the thoroughness of a politician doing a total brain-scrub just ten minutes before his grand jury appearance.
"You know," I said. "We use to use them as money. Buy things. Sell things."
"Acorns?" said Pavern. "As money? That's nuts."
But we did.
This was back at the Little Blue Cotton Reel Starter School in the little town of Love Handles, which was in the news last year on account of the twenty-dog massacre down at the city pound (and, no, the police never did catch the nut who did it).
Anyway - the acorns.
Nobody knows how it got started, this acorn economy. But suddenly everyone was in on the act. It was like the Internet taking over the world, only faster, more absolute. In a couple of weeks, all us kids were part of it. Building our acorn empires single-mindedly, obsessively, as if we'd been virally infected with an obsessive-compulsive complex.
First we foraged for acorns, gathering these shiny nuggets of value from under the old oaks on the edge of the school's extensive playgrounds. I can still remember the glee of discovery, the silky rapture of possession.
Sex? We were seven, eight, nine. We had nothing to sublimate. (Freud might tell you otherwise, but that's my story, and I'm sticking to it.)
After the gathering of the acorns, the trading. For anything. Buttons, scraps of cloth, postage stamps, old toys. I can't actually remember what I bought or sold with my acorns. The buying and selling was not the important part.
What I do remember, very clearly, after all these years, is the assembly. And that was way back, back before the plane crash, back in the days when I'd never been either fired or downsized, back in the clear-eyed days before I got two different kinds of skin cancer and got divorced from three different women.
We were paraded in front of the headmaster, lined up like so many delinquent prisoners of war, and -
"If we were all acorn junkies," said Pavern, interrupting my reverie, "how come none of us remember it? What is this? Recovered memory stuff, or what?"
I remember, then. That was probably the year that Pavern spent in hospital. Not all of it, but most of it. Supposedly dying. Some kind of cancer, and we're not talking skin cancer, either. Maybe Pavern really does have seriously repressed memories, but, if so, they're not about acorns.
"I guess it wasn't a big deal," I say, protecting him, but making sure he doesn't know it - he is, after all, my best friend. "Some do, though ... maybe because of, uh ... special interests. Anthropology, for instance."
Jane Adrams remembers, for example. She was at school with me, and there was a time when I was in love with her. (She, as it happens, is the first woman who ever slapped me in the face. So far there have been five of them. I'm not kinky, but I keep count.)
Jane has a theory. Way back when, we were all apes. Our ancestors were. Back on the plains of Africa, people who could scrabble together a surplus would do better in the lean times which followed. And you could pretty much guarantee lean times.
Furthermore, if people passed around the good stuff, the group as a whole would grow stronger. And the individual relied on the group. Jane, then (I think Ayn Rand would put her up against a wall and shoot her for this) thinks altruism evolved as a survival necessity. Moreover (and this is a big step - a step too far, in my opinion) Jane sees the whole world of commerce and trade as just one big happy festival of sharing. (My last job died in a hostile takeover, so you can guess what I think.)
Now an even bigger step.
If you can believe Jane, our genetic inheritance includes a "grammar of survival", a set of latent skills which can be activated by opportunity and experience. Her ambition, plainly, is to become the Chomsky of anthropology.
Chomsky? I'd heard the name, but Jane had to explain it to me. Chomsky is the guy who thinks your fundamental grammar skills come with your DNA. When you get born into a particular culture, you activate your latent grammar skills and customize them to conform to local custom. Add vocabulary - which you have to learn - and, hey presto! You're talking.
Now what Jane says is that the Dow and the Nasdaq are just an updated implementation of the plains of Africa. We're still the same old apes, still foraging and hoarding, still trading news about the place with the good white ants and the honey lode in the hollow log the bees have colonized.
That's why we've never achieved Plato's utopia, the utopia of "The Republic", the frozen stasis of lockstep order, obedient slaves yielding to the order imposed by stern but pure-minded military masters. We're not designed for order. We're designed, rather, to seek, splurge and gobble, our conflicting desires to save and binge both survival traits. (Eat the white ants now! The lions might chase us away from here tomorrow! No, save them - we've still got the dead antelope, and the ants aren't going anyplace.)
"Yeah, well," said Pavern, "how did it all end?"
"Oh, it's only just gotten started," I said. "All Jane has is this hypothesis. The research is still to come."
"No," said Pavern. "I mean, the acorns. Like - how come I don't have a room full of acorns someplace?"
"Oh," I said. "The school made us stop."
An assembly. The teachers lined us up, and the headmaster laid down the law. No acorns. Forbidden on the school grounds, as from now. Why?
"Because people might start throwing them."
It was a lame excuse. I thought so at the time, and I think so still.
The truth is, obsession is a natural state of childhood, but adults are scared by it. Quite rightly. In adult life, obsession equals cults, stock market bubbles, computer hackers, Armageddon enthusiasts, serial killers. And the other thing is that we get upset when kids switch us off, treat us like so much life support apparatus. Hey, guys, I'm your teacher, your father, the real thing - me, not the Tibetan wizard guy. And not your acorns, either.
So Plato spoke, and acorns were banished from the Republic. Outside of school, the acorn economy limped on for a few months, but it was crippled by the destruction of its major marketplace. I can remember the final act. My stash of acorns was safe in a box in the fork of a tree someplace, well removed from mothers and other hostile forces. One day I went to check it out - things were so slack I guess I hadn't been there for a couple of weeks - and found my treasures soft and damp and crawling with ants.
I didn't recognize the ants as value. Maybe my African ape genes never got switched on properly. What I recognized, rather, was the end of the road. I wasn't fussed about it. It was time for the next thing, which, for me, was assassinating the President.
"You?" said Pavern, amused. "You were going to assassinate the President? Why?"
"Why not?" I said.
"You should have been on drugs."
"Probably," I said.
As a general rule, I don't believe in drugging kids, but there are exceptions. If I'd been my own parents, there would have been times when I would have drugged myself. And, in the here and now, I'm seriously thinking about drugging my kid. I'm tired of having the cops come round. It's all the worse at a time like this. I hate school, as I've said, and I'm only halfway through the road safety course ordered by the court after the pile-up in which two old ladies went to hospital after a complicated accident involving a cow, a motorbike, a stolen taxi driven by the ambassador of one of the minor Latin American republics, and my sedan. (The two old ladies were both on the motorbike.)
"Pavern," I said.
However many times I use this dumb name, I still feel goofy. But there's no option. He once threatened to sue me if I called him Ted, and the bizarre thing is that he wasn't kidding. Anyway, I asked him if he had some free samples. He did. It's strictly illegal to use this stuff without a prescription, but Pavern did the altruistic thing and shared with me.
"You're going to try it on your son," said Pavern, who knows something of my problems - he didn't need to specify that it was my eldest son he was talking about.
"Yeah," I said. "Mickey finn the little monster, see where that gets us."
"You'll be happy with the result," said Pavern. "Trust me on this. Give me a call later on, I'll put you in touch with a doctor. You can get it done long term and legal."
Yeah, but do I want to? I'm starting to quite like the idea of my son growing up speaking fluent French.
Then Pavern started telling me about his own problems. His two sons are living with Velvet, and got themselves arrested last week for breaking into a liquor store.
"Kids these days," said Pavern, shaking his head. "They're totally reckless. They've got no discipline at all. Our generation, at least we never took things to excess."
He seems to forget that he's talking to me, Bob, his best friend, who once shot him in the back with a .22, and not entirely by accident, either. But I let it pass, and tell him I'll give the chemical stuff a shot - sorry, no pun intended - and him you know how it goes.
This story, "Acorns", made its first appearance when posted online by Hugh Cook on 2003 February 16 Sunday. Copyright © 2003 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.