A short story about doing nothing in the age of doing everything.

When Dan did things he did them not to die. Standing 5-foot average and weighing a hundred and median, Dan was as forgettable as he forgot about the things in his life. His hair sat in no particular direction, like a Lego hairpiece. His jaw could be chiseled from rock or molded from Play-Doh, you wouldn’t know unless you peeled back his chubby cheeks to take a look.

Dan was a Boy Scout once, a year away from Eagle when he met a man named Chad. Chad took Dan under his wing and Dan had begun to have feelings for him. Chad taught the young Dan to do many things, dangerous things, manly things. Climb. Skin a buck. Load a musket. Start a fire with flint. Chad taught Dan to choose the food cooked at the highest temperatures when dining out, especially overseas. Dan lived by this rule. That is, until a particularly fateful night at a Chester’s Fried Chicken, Dan contracted E. coli, the most heinous type, the O157:H7 type. Dan did not die though he lived as if he did.

Dan’s world was upside down for a while, not because of the E. coli, but what preceded it a week before. Chad had been arrested for placing cameras in Porta-Potties at the 4H rodeo in Gainesville. Police later found a consortium of illicit voyeur contraptions and necrophilia among other things in his home the officers weren’t sure were legal or not. The Boy Scouts of America denied Chad’s application to be a counselor thereafter. Chad had given Dan courage then took it away when his true self was revealed. Dan stopped doing dangerous things. Dan stopped doing most all things.

This was not his goal of course. At least not consciously. But Dan did little introspection, even long after Chad exited his life. He lived in daily fear, mostly of people. Missed brunches. “Gweneth’s 30th Birthday Bash!!!” Check: Maybe. Signing up for Meetups but not going. It wasn’t the people, per se, or their conversations. Rather what the conversations led too. “This Escape Room just opened up in Oak Estates. We should totally go.” “Oh my god, I just went skydiving, you have to try it.” “Have you seen that new documentary on Netflix. You’ve got to watch it.”

Go here. Try this. Watch that. Doing things. Everyone was always doing things. But when you’re depressed doing things becomes a series of meaningless motions, like a mime. What’s the point of this charade? Life becomes a reduction, the alcohol burned out, the fat rendered charred. Inedible. Do things then die.

Dan wanted to remove the part where you do things. He thought about how he’d do it but nothing more. The problem: Dan was conditioned to do things not to die. Wielding a blade, fixing a rope, loading a rifle: all things he knew how to do. All things that required motivation. What kind of cruel joke was this? What sort of manic mad hatter was nature to create such a paradox? For Dan to die he needed to do something.

Dan didn’t die. He wandered. Not in the lustful way, like a newly divorced American, free from the bondage of Midwest suburbia. He lingered. Awkward. Ruminating. Tangled in his own mind, tired, and Dan never drank coffee.

That’s what he told the woman who snapped him out of his daze. She held the door open. “Are you coming in?” she asked. Dan realized he was blocking the entrance. “I haven’t drunk coffee,” he replied. Unsure if that was a yes or no she held the door open still. A standoff. Awkward for Dan but not for her it seemed. She was content to let him exist in this state of suspension indeterminately. Dan entered. She followed.

Dan found himself in line, staring at the menu above the barista. He was next. “I think I’ll have the Chai Latte,” he said to no one. “Don’t do that,” the woman said behind him. The words tingled the back of Dan’s neck. A familiar set of vowels and consonants he spent most of his energy avoiding. Do this. Do that. Do things. Negated by the blunt force trauma of a hammer: don’t.

“You don’t drink Chai Lattes,” she said. It was true. Dan didn’t drink Chai Lattes. He had once, years ago because a college girlfriend did. She told him he had to try it. In many ways, this woman was the opposite of his last girlfriend, only girlfriend. She wore two different color Chucks, one blue, one pink, with black skinny jeans and a white tank top. Her hair matched her shoe colors, with streaks of blond and brown at the roots. Her glasses were an intentional size too large.

“I don’t drink coffee,” Dan said. A confession it seemed. He felt the need to apologize. Dan, you’re in a coffee shop. Drink the goddamn coffee. “Then don’t,” she stated as she moved past him. She stepped behind the counter and threw on an apron. There it was again. Perhaps his new favorite word. All of this baggage, this weight of life’s expectations, all of it shattered by that clunky contraction, don’t. With its equally clunky cousin: “I won’t,” Dan said then left.

Dan returned to his wandering. Not so much aimless (a little) but with confidence (some). He approached a man holding a clipboard and wearing a Greenpeace t-shirt. Normally Dan would cross the street to avoid this interaction but he kept going. They made eye contact. “Do you have a minute for the environment?” the man asked. “I don’t,” Dan replied. Just like that Dan flowed seamlessly around someone else’s expectations.

Empowered by the will to do nothing, Dan ventured out more. He went to brunches and birthdays and when his friends asked him to meet someone, or try something, or go somewhere Dan hit them with the proverbial hammer. It was off-putting for his friends. Dan was engaged in the world but uninterested in it. Social expectations fell off him like wet tape.

Eventually, Dan’s old friends moved on, finding his newfound peace-of-mind unsettling. Dan did not care. This was who he was. This was what he did, nothing. He did it with zest and zeal. He did it with purpose. He said No with conviction, a renaissance man in the dark ages of social fakery, of mindless doing. When others did, Dan didn’t.

With all this freedom Dan began to feel he had the space to try something on his terms. He thought long about what it would be. Nothing appealed to him. Then he remembered the place this new life began and thought to himself, I’ll try coffee.

When Dan arrived he looked for the woman in two-colored Chucks but she wasn’t there and people entered and a line began to form. Dan felt obligated to stand in it. But the desire was no longer there. Dan didn’t want coffee. Dan wanted to see her. But it was too late. He was in a line. He was next. He had to order.

“Whatever you decide, don’t do the Chai Latte.” The woman stepped out of the bathroom. Dan smiled and settled back into line. She moved behind the counter to take his order. Her name tag said Alex. “I don’t know what I want,” Dan says. Alex proceeded to list off a series of drinks. Do you want to try a Machiatto? No. Americano? No. This continued on until Alex stopped asking, smiled and placed an order.

“I know what you want, you just don’t know what it’s called,” she said. She motioned her head to the side, telling Dan to move out of line. Dan made his way to the end of the bar as Alex wrestled with a large stainless steel contraption. She hammered an ice cream scoop looking thing and then crammed coffee into it. She shoved the scooper up into its nether regions and the machine hissed and squealed. A few minutes later she slid a toy cup towards Dan. “Espresso,” she said, “no fuss, no excess, just coffee stripped to its barest self.” Dan stared at it. “Don’t try it,” Alex said with a wink. Dan grinned and did.

“What do you think?” Alex asked. “I don’t like it,” Dan replied. “Okay,” Alex responded as she moved onto other drinks. Clanking and cramming coffee in scoopers, switching nobs on the hissing machine. Dan took another sip.

Six months later Dan had become a regular at the coffee shop. He had acquired a taste for espresso, which he later learned was the point. No one liked their first cup of coffee, real coffee anyways, stripped of hazelnut and sugars and half-and-half. But just like the first day, it wasn’t about coffee as much as it was about her. She accepted him and wanted nothing in return, a reciprocal relationship with no expectations. Their friendship blossomed.

Dan and Alex remained platonic, with the exception of one horny, drunken night. Dan awoke in a panic, afraid he had ruined their friendship. Alex left the mistake in the past where it belonged. She dated a Yoga instructor named Luke and after they broke up suggested Dan ought to ask him out. But Dan didn’t. He met a man, Ben, who taught meditation.

The relationship took its natural course but the practice of meditation stuck with Dan. It immediately made sense to him. It was what he had been trying to articulate through his bludgeoning of social expectations. Dan excelled at meditation, upping his daily practice from an hour to two to four. Two when he woke. Two before bed. Coupled with eight hours of sleep that was twelve straight hours of purposeful inactivity. Meditation: concentrated nothingness. Focused. Controlled. Contained. Don’t didn’t need to be a weapon, it could be a tool.

Leonard arrived late to El Segundo Ranch. The third time since Monday. He feared it was his last. Russel was fiery and carried a lot of gumption for a hippy and owner of a silent retreat. When out of earshot of his clients, who paid upwards of $5,000 to sit in silence on a wooden floor, Russel barked order after order. Paint this. Fix that. Put that there. Silent retreats were not much different than other luxury business models. They were a brand. Russel’s brand was the best, a top-notch facility. At least on the surface. Behind the walls laid an 80-year-old infrastructure that Leonard did battle with every day.

The old AC unit in the attic continued to leak and Russel refused to purchase a proper one. $5,000. So Leonard spent the week patching and prodding, replacing pipes and fashioning drip pans. Multiple trips to the hardware store. Three times in a week Russel called Leonard around 1 a.m. because water had begun to leak into the meditation room. Caulk this. Replace that. Duct tape there. Three times in a week Leonard spent 2 hours concocting a quick fix.

Dan arrived at El Segundo for a five-day silent retreat. Ben had worked summers at El Segundo and recommended that Russel hire Dan to replace him. Dan was apprehensive. He had mastered nothing and in turn, took control of his life. Would turning nothing into a job make it something that took control of him? These concerns were relayed to Russel so he invited Dan to try out a five-day retreat.

Three days in and six out of nine of Dan’s peers dropped out of the retreat. The silence was overwhelming. Dan didn’t need to endure. He excelled at the silence. He was meditating twelve hours a day, stopping only for two light meals and water. In the meditation room Dan emptied his mind and in the process found his answer. He knew what he was going to say when Russel offered him the job.

Dan, however, didn’t make it to the end of the retreat. In a freak accident, the AC unit above the meditation room suffered a catastrophic failure. A rupture fractured the floor, causing the unit to come crashing down. Dan sat directly underneath. Inspectors later determined that Leonard had done so many things to the machine that it simply collapsed under the pressure.

It’s hard to understand Dan’s death. Russel blamed Leonard. The insurance adjuster blamed Russel. Ben blamed himself. Alex blamed no one. She knew it to be nothing more than the randomness of life. You never know when it’s your time, she said in Dan’s eulogy. She paid for the funeral and headstone. She even took out space for an obituary in the local paper. No fuss, no excess, just an obituary stripped to its barest self, the way he would have preferred: Dan died doing the thing he loved.

Data Science Consultant. Former FBI Agent. Writer and explorer of emerging technology.

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