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Musin’s and Thinkin’s – June 2012

I was at a party with noted essayist Sven Birkerts when someone hunkered down in front of us at an especially low coffee table to grab a cracker and a bite of cheese.

“You don’t see people hunkering anymore,” said Sven Birkerts. “That’s what your next column should be about.”

“I am going to go you one better, Sven Birkerts,” I cried. “I am going to build a lifelike automaton whose only purpose will be to hunker down on the ground. That way the lost art of hunkering will never be forgotten.” Sven Birkerts seemed unconvinced. He stared morosely into his warm Hawaiian Punch. “This is within the realm of possibility,” I insisted. “We have the technology.”

“Pendarvis, you’re a madman,” joshed Sven Birkerts, but the bruising death grip he held on my arm and the pleading lack of joshery in his big, wet eyes lent a certain piquant air to the exchange.

I hastened to the lab and got to work right away on my hunkering prototype, the HunkerBot 2000. Soon it was hunkering almost as authentically as some old farmer you might spy picking butter beans on an old butter bean farm. In fact, one such local “son of the soil” took umbrage at the very idea of a machine that could hunker better than a man. Naturally I had taken to screaming about my accomplishments in the quaint and dusty country lanes while people were trying to sleep. And thus it came about that crusty Phineas Brown challenged HunkerBot 2000 to a hunkering contest.

People came from miles around to eat homespun cotton candy and witness the old farmer perish almost immediately from a hunkering-related injury. So much blood. Still, everyone agreed that he had put up a brave effort and probably proved something encouraging about humanity, though none of us could figure out what. Had you been there on that fateful day, you might have noticed the winsome half smile that crossed my intelligent face before it retreated, becoming a mere ghost of a smile, into the safety of my capacious brain, covered in its luxurious yet protective housing of magnificent chestnut curls—which I also happen to have on the outside of my skull. Nor was my satisfaction due merely to the efficient manner in which the robot had dispatched the old farmer. For, you see, I fancied that even HunkerBot 2000 sensed that something very special had passed between herself and her human competitor. My wife theorized that my conclusions were crazy, and also noted that a robot who did nothing but hunker was boring and stupid and why didn’t I ever finish college. She requested that I stop calling HunkerBot 2000 “she,” and told me to stop kissing and hugging it in public all the time whilst repeating in a stage whisper, “Soon the divorce will be final and we can be together forever, my sweet.”

What my dear wife fails to understand are the basics of marketing. If my planned army of HunkerBots is ever to assume the hunkering tasks of a grateful nation, people will need to be comfortable with their increasingly intrusive presence in our daily lives. Hence, the elaborate humanization protocol I had devised. The addition of a comely polka-dot hair ribbon and a few Magic Marker eyelashes on the old tin bucket that served as HunkerBot 2000’s head completed the desired effect. It may even have worked too well.

“I have such strange stirrings in my internal wiring,” said a halting, mechanical voice. “Is this what it means… to love?” That voice was mine, of course. Robots can’t talk—it’s a common misconception.

Still, my wife’s notions had made a kind of twisted sense. A robot that could hunker as prettily as HunkerBot 2000— or, as I had come to call her, Angela—might certainly be taught to preserve other folkways in danger of vanishing. I scoured the country for other old pastimes, such as quilting and whittling, which it turns out are the only two old pastimes there are, if you don’t count hunkering. That certainly made my task easier. Soon Angela was hunkering, quilting, and whittling with the best of them. The inevitable quilting and whittling contests, well-catered and organized by angry townspeople, resulted in numerous deaths.

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