Somewhere south and east of Oakland, “the future is being imagined.” So says the New York Times in a recent profile—a silhouette? A sketch? is it even possible to profile a secret and undocumented entity—of Google’s clandestine Bay-Area laboratory, Google X, a dream shop where “robots run free” and engineers are hard at work on…well, we don’t know what they’re doing. That’s the point. Google X is covert in the cloak-and-dagger sense of being truly Top Secret. Even Google employees don’t know what happens there. If you believe the Times, and why not believe them, Google is developing everything from robot drones and driverless cars to a space elevator, which, so far as I can deduce, is a kind of hybrid, Wonkafied rocket-cum-slingshot. Great, I say go for it, Google! To tell you the truth, I don’t care about intelligent droids, wireless refrigerators or a dinner plate that loads my bio-feedback straight to Facebook. My interest is in that ‘X’ and it’s whispered hint of secret happenings. The sex of X, the intrigue, that’s what caught my attention, because—here’s my confession— I am obsessed with the letter X. At ten I was attracted, at 18 I was engrossed, and now, at 26, I am full-tilt obsessed.
Indulge me as I wax poetic: In mathematics X is independent, unknown and unstable. Highly variable. And yet the mathematical X is concrete, physical, a transliteration of the Arabic word شيء: thing. Thing X, Person X, Place X. Google X seems apt. X-rays were so called because Wilhelm Roentgen didn’t understand what he had measured. X as end. The end of conversation, end of exploration. Third to last in our English alphabet, the final concealed in the pre-penultimate. X marks the spot, it blights the eyes of the dead and severely drunk in cartoons. X as arrival. X as illicit. Stable support of a cross-beam, saw horse, axis. There is, in X, a lot to love, even if there’s very little to hold on to.
X appears in nature but haphazardly, a marker at the site of crossings, chance encounters, confrontations. On a slope above the beach, where two palms cross, the treasure’s buried. In the city or the suburbs branches tangle, wires too, and on the edge of town the train tracks cut a diagonal path across the highway. At the cellular level, X, the most mysterious and supple letter-form, carries out the function of transporting genes during the act of reproduction, X the ark that ferries our essential stuff. In Japanese, the katakana X means ‘me.’
So what? It’s a fair question. X is just a letter among many. X is not the least commonly used letter in the English language, that honor belongs to Q, followed by J and Z. But X has something, some incalculable appeal, that Q can’t touch. For one thing, X rides solo whereas Q is always dragging U behind it, and U is far too obvious, a greedy cup, needy, nasal, frankly unpleasant. X on the other hand is sibilant, a whisper or a hiss, a kiss, a quick thrust. When you spend the better part of each day wrestling with language, it isn’t Q or J or L you fall in love with, at least not me.
I once wrote a story in which two characters fell in love passing notes over a wall. Their affair was clandestine; they were named X and X. At the time it seemed alright, inspired even, that the story would turn on a character revealing her true name. The woman passed a note over the wall and signed her given name, Jane, I think it was. The romance ended then and there. Once the mask of X was stripped away, the affair crumbled, X and all it carried was the essence of their mutual attraction.
Advertisers know the power X wields. The proof is on our shelves. In English, fewer words start with X than with any other letter, but the preponderance of brand names and trademarks that start with or include the letter X testifies to something innate—is it in me? in X?—a magnetic attraction between X and ourselves. Xerox, Xcel, Xbox, XL, Rain-X, X-men, X-Max, X-Rite, not to mention all the advertising jargon that replaces “ex” with X, Xtreme, Xpress, Xcite, and the ever elusive Brand X.
In the market and online, I will always pause for X and advertisers know it. I’m not stopping to mull over the merits of Xtreme Crunch Doritos or XTC Body Spray, in fact I lose the product altogether in my fog of recognition: there it is again, I think, my beloved, lovely X, drawing me toward that point of intersection where the two legs approach, cross and uncross all at once. Now, advertisers would say that I’m wrong. I don’t lose the product at all, I retain it in some dark drawer of the mind. Even if they’re right, they’re wrong. I retain it as a another point of interest on my map of X, a waypoint by which I might find another means on ingress into the deep mystery of X.
This is a lot of baloney, but it’s real. It’s real for me. Xanadu and Xist and M-mas. More than I believe in Love or Truth or any sort of unified, expressible Self, I believe in the power of Mystery, it is the pillar upon which my whole philosophy stands. And I’ll give you one guess what that pillar looks like, what shape can bear the weight.