Divine Aphasia

dreams are real

September 24, 2007


Everyone is lonely.

If you can believe what you read, everyone’s been lonely for a long time. Since Ginsberg left Carl Solomon behind at Rockland, since Godot didn’t show, back to when J. Alfred Prufrock took his fucked-up walk through the fucked-up streets of London, we’ve been lonely. It happened pretty fast—no way was Walt Whitman lonely; that guy loved everybody. In 150 years, we go from “For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” to McCartney lamenting the lonely people over a string octet and Linnell and Flansburgh singing to us that “Everybody dies frustrated inside and that is beautiful” and Grandma Death telling Donnie that “every living thing dies alone.” Sociologists write whole books about how we never do anything together anymore; the bowling leagues and bridge clubs and bar trivia nights don’t attract lonely souls because lonely is now just how we all are.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. It shouldn’t be. We’re in McLuhan’s paradise, the Electric Age is bringing us together, we’re the new tribal society, the global village. We send e-mails, we IM each other, Facebook and MySpace are keeping us in touch with every friend we ever had and every friend we never had. But until teledildonics becomes mainstream, the Internet is just masturbatory, and not just because of porn. PostSecret isn’t an art project, it’s a massive turn on, because we’re so damned lonely that we can only dream about having someone to share our darkest secrets with. Here in the future, with the technological singularity approaching, openness and honesty turn our cranks like nothing else can. We get hot when we see someone reaching out.

We know deep inside that we don’t want to be this way. In the words of the poet, we’re burning for the ancient heavenly connection. But we don’t know where the connection is anymore. So we have to go looking.


xkcd is a webcomic written and drawn by Randall Munroe. It’s a brilliant mix of nerd humor, romantic ideas, and childhood dreams, as interpreted by a cast of stick figures. Most of the strips are clever and humorous, or confusing to those less mathematically inclined. But a few are indicative of a terrible fear of isolation and an implacable desire for adventure, or even contact with an alienated world.

In March of this year, he published this comic, entitled “Dream Girl.”

The coordinates are those of a jungle gym on a playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The date, at the time the comic was published, was in the future: 2:38 PM on Sunday, September 23rd, 2007.

It’s hard to know if Munroe had any idea what the impact of this comic would be.

Soon after the comic went up, members of xkcd’s forums began wondering if something would happen at that point in space-time. People announced their intention to show up at the playground at the appointed time. A thread, and eventually a separate board, to discuss plans for a meetup appeared. A Facebook event for the meetup had upwards of 500 people listed as “attending” before it disappeared around a week ago. People began booking flights, buying bus tickets, and planning carpools.

The comic itself seemed to discourage the whole enterprise: “It turns out wanting something doesn’t make it real.” But the lonely people planning to converge on the jungle gym that day were determined to make it real for themselves.


I was one of those lonely people. An avid xkcd reader, as soon as I got wind of the meetup, I determined that I would be at the appointed spot at the appointed time. I knew that whatever was going to happen, it would be momentous and thrilling, even if nothing happened. As long as there were other people there, people to connect with, I was going to be happy. When it came time to decide where I was going to go to college this April, Hampshire’s relative proximity to Cambridge was a factor causing me to pick it over Oberlin. When I got here, my half-hearted attempts at finding a ride didn’t pan out, so I bought a Peter Pan Bus round-trip ticket to Boston at the more-or-less reasonable price of $44.

Laughing in the face of centuries of Jewish tradition, I left for Amherst early on the morning of Yom Kippur. Walking. For future reference, kids, the 38 doesn’t run until 10:30 or so on Saturday mornings. But the walk up 116 was pleasant enough, and I plunked myself down in front of 79 Pleasant Street to await the arrival of my chariot. And by chariot I mean bus.

I spent Saturday with some friends at Harvard and MIT. The details are of no interest to you, dear readers, other than that, if you were not aware, Harvard is really fucking nice. They have nice things, like chandeliers and statues and waffle irons that imprint the Harvard seal into your waffle. Really.


Sunday, September 23rd. The Day Of. Around 1:15, I left with my gracious host Charlotte (Thank you Charlotte!) for Rev. Thomas J. Williams Park, about a half hour walk down Mass Ave from Harvard. At least that was its official name. I would soon discover a carefully drawn sign reading “Randall Munroe Sweetass-Park” attached conscientiously over a legit sign. But that was not the first thing I noticed.

No, the most immediately obvious feature of Munroe Park around 1:45 was the jungle gym. First of all, it’s a really sweet jungle gym. It’s a bit hard to describe, but it consists of a UFO-shaped frame with ropes tensed between its vertices in a three-dimensional web of squares and hexagons. But that was not even the most obvious feature of the jungle gym.

What attracted the eye to the jungle gym were the several dozen people occupying it.

When I joined the crowd on the ropes, I was provided with a list, on which I was name number 71.

This was still early.

I was resolved to introduce myself to people as much as possible, and so I started with a young man named Scott, who said he had recently graduated from Brown. He told me, “I don’t have a place in the real world yet.” It got me thinking about my eventual place in the real world, about society’s expectations that I get a job and develop a career and live like the middle class white Jew boy that I am. And I thought that maybe I didn’t really want a place in the real world.

But I digress.

As the minutes ticked by, people flooded the park. Nerds, geeks, and dorks from all over showed up, long hair tied back (or not) and T-shirts nerdy. (Quote: “I think every nerd shirt I’ve ever seen on the Internet is here.”) I joined in for a while with a game of “Wah”, which is loud and spirited and entirely frivolous. Loud, spirited frivolity being approximately the nature of this whole enterprise.

A young man by the name of Jesse had purchased spray paint and a pile of T-shirts, and crafted a variety of stencils out of cereal boxes. He was selling custom shirts for $10 apiece. He told me that he only recently learned the subtle art of shirt stencils, having been taught by the people he went to Burning Man with.

Burning Man.


The appointed time approached. 2:38 PM ticked closer. Hundreds upon hundreds of nerds filled the park. The piles of happy people filling the jungle gym counted down the minutes. With a minute to go, Randall entered with a team of friends carrying whiteboards. The final seconds were counted down. The crowd cheered wildly.

“What do we do now?” someone shouted.


Randall addressed the masses. The following transcript is approximate.

“Hi everybody.”


“Thanks for coming.”


“So I drew this comic, and in the end nothing happened. The girl didn’t show up. But it looks like someone did show up.”


“I guess wanting something does make it real.”

Wild cheers.

“So the comic is wrong, so we’re going to fix it. I drew the first few panels on this whiteboard, and we’ve got about 20 Sharpies and we’re going to fill in the rest.”

And so we did.

There was more of course. Tape-measure-extending competitions went down. Red spiders bedecked trees. People generally hung around being friendly and happy. Sidewalk chalk was produced, and people wrote theorems and Perl programs on the sidewalk. A raptor attacked, and was repelled with swords.

Randall signed a page of my Moleskine notebook and drew in it. He also signed a Guitar Hero controller, a number of dollar bills, a mattress, and at least one pair of breasts.

In a word, it was epic.


I left with Charlotte around 4:00 PM. The crowd had begun thinning out, but plenty of people were still walking around, talking, connecting.

Eventually, though, everyone had to leave the playground, and return to their places in the real world.

Evan Silberman