A horseshoe crab has nine eyes and ten legs and an internal clock that gauges time and tide. On full or new moons in the early summer the crabs scuttle up to a sandy beach and breed. The mating pair senses the sand. You can’t fool a horseshoe crab with a fake beach made from imported sand. The horseshoe crab intuits the essence of its natal sand and that ineffable sandy something cannot be re-created artificially no matter how many variables a scientist may account for.
I too was called to a beach. What called me was one of those crumpled papers that sits at the bottom of my daughter’s backpack until I decide to go spelunking for school-related missives and pull out all manner of torn tests, twisted paperclips, dirty socks, and important multi-colored scraps requiring my signature. That’s how I found out that my daughter’s much-loved sixth grade science teacher had offered to take us out to a desolate spit of sand on the Connecticut shore to look for horseshoe crabs. Here, in the light of a full moon on a warm evening, we would find horseshoe crabs and band them as they mated. We would teach our children, though active, experiential learning, how science is done and what humping crabs look like.
I pictured this science hike as a rare opportunity to pry my daughter from her room (where she is held hostage by hormones and a hundred pale visages of some British boy-band that, like a north-going zax or a south-going zax, can travel in only one direction.) My daughter and I would hike as we used to – always hand-in-hand and talking and stopping frequently for her to pee in the forest. How many times did we hike together? Five? Ten? It seems like “hiking with my daughter” is a central event in my life but in total that time was brief, just a few afternoons in length. And now that life is over.
Tween girls are basically glorified Pan Troglodytes (Chimps) who have a very strict sense of social order and group themselves into little squealing packs that do not include dads. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the Bluff Point State Park, my daughter loped over to her pack (about twenty yards from a rival pack) and began sharing an instagram of a scrawny boy with puffy blonde hair. The adult male who approaches such a bolus of excitable tweens is likely to be met with a hiss and nasty look. At that point, the male slowly backs away towards the Camry and focuses on packing the gear for the two mile hike out to the end of the spit.
The prospects of a warm summer’s romp to the ocean began to look bleak as we hiked out to the beach in the late evening. The slate-grey evening became a cold night of cold rain and cold wind. I walked with two other dads, keeping a safe distance from our daughters (none of the sixth grade boys had shown up for this excursion). We clutched cold coffees and slipped into dad-talk which revolved around the warm and womanly things our wives were probably doing at that very moment while we were on a freezing forced march to find some ancient arthropod that looked like a cross between a trilobite and a larval Cyberman. Our middle-aged male bonding touched on children, work, and basketball. We were a fart joke away from an Adam Sandler movie.
In the new indie platformer The Swapper your character, a faceless person in a spacesuit, uses the eponymous device to shoot her soul around the room into one of a possible four clones. Right click a clone into existence, zap your personhood into it with a left click, and boom — it’s the new you. You leave behind a sparkless husk who mirrors your actions but is not you. If the clone is mangled, crushed, or falls, so what? You have shed the person you were. As a game mechanic, the concept is brilliant and implemented with groovy, diabolical puzzles involving orbs and lights and gravity and pressure plates. As metaphysics it runs into the transporter problem.1 There is no way to separate you from you without losing yourself.
Personally, I’ve never had much use for a soul so I am not bothered by rainy-day philosophical conundrums such as the transporter problem. What am I supposed to do with my soul? Where do I plug it in? What OS does it run? Look, if humans had souls, we would have already figured out how to load them into a gun or at least 3D print them as a pizza topping.
If you happen upon freezing dads out at the end of mile-long stretch of sand in a piercing rain late at night, you may note that they foolishly stand alone, keeping at least a foot away from the warmth of other dads. Their daughters will be clutching each other in cliques, using their tiny bodies for warmth and attempting to upload rain-soaked selfies to the world.
One thing you won’t find on the cold beach late at night in the rain are horseshoe crabs. They pull the warm blanket of the ocean up over their chins (if they have chins) and say “Not tonight honey, it’s too cold to mate and besides I’m not feeling all that well after I stubbed my seventh eye on a rock.”
“You see,” I helpfully mansplained to the girls, “in science, finding nothing is also a result. And if we had not come all this way to find no crabs then we would not have known there are no crabs to not see.”
As I shivered and waited for crabs that would never come, I caught my daughter and her group in the shaky light of my headlamp. She does not remember the hikes we took when she was four or five or six years old. In a sense, as Locke would say, she is no longer the girl who went on hikes with her father and held his hand and talked and peed in the forest. She has not just “grown up” but is literally not the person she was. She cannot, will not, can never be the girl who walked with her father. She didn’t need a soul to swap into the new person she is, she just needed time.
I remember a movie where I am a boy standing on some beach and my father runs to me and picks me up and throws me into the air. I remember the movie but not the event. I am not the boy who on the beach with his father. I am the man who digitized the home movie and .giffed it into a new life. A few seconds of light recorded forty years ago and snatched into the future. But for those few seconds of converted film, I have forgotten everything about being that boy on that beach. I have forgotten more than I will ever know.
Time makes swappers of us all. Each day we arise anew and need to orient ourselves to the body we inhabit; we figure out the compass points of our life and set sail into the wild day, using our instinct– there is so much we just know without knowing, like a horseshoe crab — and using our intellect. With instinct and time we swap ourselves for ourselves. With intellect and empathy we fashion our own Swapper gun and shoot ourselves into objects, people, the future, the past, and the imagined worlds of nine-eyed water beasts. Our swapper is a multi-dimensional, timey-wimey, thought-gun that is infinite in scope and use. Well, not infinite. Empathy won’t save a lone dad from hypothermia. Smart dads know when to trudge back to the Camry and call it a night.
Three dads and three girls hiking on the ocean shore. Six tiny headlamps in a great big night. Six bodies, fleeting particles of matter, carrying with them time and empathy. Leaving behind their past with each step. Becoming what they will become. Like a horseshoe crab senses the sand, they know the way home.