Apocalyptic scenarios have been certainly been prevalent lately. Its hard to pick up a book, watch a movie, thumb through a graphic novel or play a video game without stumbling into some depiction of the End of everything on Earth. How strange it is that they we seem so intent on imagining our own demise.
This weekend I participated in the Annapolis Book Festival where I joined authors Diana Peterfreund and Larry Doyle in opining, only partially tongue in cheek, about zombies, mutants and even unicorns determined to destroy the known world. The kids in the audience took all of this quite seriously and asked really probing questions. They were wide eyed, like they thought an end, some kind of imminent end, was a done deal, something for which they ought to prepare. In fact, they asked their questions with the excited resignation particular to children and early adolescents; young enough to discern prevailing world views, and old enough to want to react and take action to what they were discerning.
“Couldn’t the zombies reproduce?” one asked.
“Do unicorns always want to kill you?” asked another.
“Can I get credit at school for reading this?” (This question was my favorite. It seemed both practical and simultaneously laudatory.)
As I flew back from Maryland, I thought about the popular and growing obsession with the End. This must be on my mind as well, I realized, noting that I just found myself watching the original Mad Max movies via Netflix streaming video. Weirdly, as a kind of penance I guess, I then went and watched the 1963 version of Lord of the Flies. The similarities to Mad Max’s challenges to the primal pecking order among the boys in Lord of the Flies were uncomfortably present. I even wrote a novel about a zombie apocalypse, in which I imagine 2/3 of humanity gone and the once mighty UN sitting proudly and secure on a tiny guarded island in the South Pacific. You know what? I think, sometimes, I’d like a bunker of my own.
So, what's going on?
Well, let’s first do a reality check. The seeming allure of "the End of Days" is all over popular fiction, but it might not be all that great. Consider those frightening moments when our fiction becomes reality. Any compunction we might indulge in wishing for the simplification that the End would afford quickly loses its fictional whimsy as we watch Japan, one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth, struggle when the Earth itself literally begins to shake.
And yet, I will always remember the quiet, almost sheepish comment from a soft-spoken physician who was brave enough to offer his opinion on these matters last year at a national gathering of psychiatrists. This physician was part of the audience at an American Psychiatric Association meeting in which film director and producer George Romero and myself were discussing, among other things, the allure of apocalyptic scenarios in movies. This is of course something for which Mr. Romero is well known to have depicted with sardonic realism on the big screen.
The doc who voiced his views had stayed behind in New Orleans when Katrina took her toll. Almost sheepishly he raised his hand and admitted, as if in confession, that sitting there trapped on the porch of his house, the hurricane and later its aftermath raging, there was something simple and straightforward about the gun he kept at his side. The buck really did stop with him, and though he was terrified, he knew at least exactly where he stood. Anyone who feels this kind of thinking doesn't make sense needs to go back and watch Shane. When there's no one to tell you what's what, when the law is a three day ride from home, there is a freedom afforded by taking matters into your own hands. As one of my patients recently told me after watching I Am Legend:
"Dude - a zombie apocalypse would be so cool. No homework, no girls, no SAT's. Just make it through the night, man...make it through the night."
So, in our modern world (and here I am aware that I refer more to the so-called "developed" nations), a world where we are fed data that feels miles long but only millimeters thick, perhaps the allure of destruction is the simplicity that it procures. But, let's be careful what we wish for...I can't believe that the good doctor on his porch wanted to stay there for too much longer.
It's been a long day at work. I've seen all sorts of patients, and I'm thinking I need a cup of coffee and maybe a cookie or a banana, but I want to write my notes into the medical record first. I've just finished walking a new patient to the waiting area and now I'm heading back to my office to think about what to do next.
Without really looking, I absently mindedly sit down at my desk and then get that feeling one gets when there's someone else in the room. In fact, I think there's more than one person, because in my computer monitor I can see the dim reflection of three distinct individuals sitting directly behind me. I slowly spin around in my chair and am somewhat floored to find that staring right back at me are Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson.
Suddenly, I'm panting, as if I just finished singing and performing a broadway tune. There's the dim noise of a crowd in the background, and I am aware that my shirt is perhaps frayed at the collar. I would have dressed nicer if I knew they were coming.
"Yo, dog," Randy begins. "I mean, I dunno, but what were you thinking? I mean, this is, like, crunch time, you know, and you just send them out the door to schedule another appointment?"
"But I can do better," I plead. I seem to know my lines.
"Of course you can honey," J-Lo says, and I'm so tickled that she calls me "honey" that I can't really make out the rest of her comments. I hear a sort of muffled feminine sexiness but I am unable to re-focus.
"Schloz, you're beautiful," Mr. Tyler says. He sounds nothing like J-Lo, so I hear his words clearly. He also looks nothing like J-Lo, and for a moment I am transfixed by the odd and genuinely sincere way this guy is making eye contact. Even before he says more, I notice that his expression feels paternal, even mentoring. Steven Tyler is going to tell me that it's going to be OK. He's going to make me feel better.
"You just gotta take it easy and swim with it, you know. When you asked him about the video game...well, hell, that was a homerun...but go easy on his parents. It's hard being a parent..."
J-Lo is quick to chime in, but again I am lost in her eyes. I think she says something nice, even encouraging.
"Yo, Schloz, yo," Randy says. "It's just that you're raw, dude. You're... tired."
"He's right," I think. I'm am tired.
"Thanks for noticing, Randy," I say, "But you see, I got stuff to do."
"Well that's good," Tyler says, "Cuz were sendin' YOU to Hollywood!"
I start jumping up and down just as the Three Benevolent Judges fade from the room like wise visitors in an old Kung Fu movie.
And then I realize the truth of their assessment. I've been walking my dog, spending time with my family, working my butt off, really. Burning both ends of the proverbial candle, and all the while waiting for my first ever novel to hit the shelves. (Today's the day!)
But as long as I have Steven Tyler and J-Lo and Randy on my side, then its all gonna be OK, right? I wonder what song I'll do next week...
These are dangerous waters into which I reluctantly wade. Some may disagree, even vehemently, with what follows. Remember, this is just my opinion, but spiced up a bit with a tincture of neuroscience.
Here’s the issue, as I understand it. Public institutions are suffering because local, state and federal budgets have been on life support. As with a very sick patient, we are watching the slow multi-organ failure of many facets of life which we happen to cherish and paradoxically also happen to take for granted. In short, things like our schools and our libraries and the very fabric of publically supported communities are being subjected (appropriately) to a painful triaging process. If we continue this medical metaphor, we are as a society working hardest to preserve that which confers the greatest chance of survival.
But, with these public institutions, as with patients, things are rarely straightforward. The difficult art of triage requires careful consideration of both long and short-term goals. In the crudest sense, one might favor perfusion of the heart over oxygenation of the brain, but then one must reckon honestly with what exactly it is that one is attempting to preserve and salvage.
So, if we think about our schools, arguably the most fundamental and important of our publically funded endeavors, I urge all of us to consider carefully the short and long term consequences of current decisions. It seems every day I read a new article, hear a new story, listen to a sad parent lament with frustration the loss of services at their valued public schools. I don’t argue for a second that everyone involved in these debates has what he or she believes is best for our children absolutely central to the proposed changes to what our schools offer. Nevertheless, the decisions we make can be informed more, I think, by neurobiological advances that have only recently made empirically clear what we have intuitively long understood.
Take music, for example, or art. Both subjects often find themselves on budgetary chopping blocks when times get tough. The extent to which we are all tightening our belts means that many schools are considering what would have been seen as drastic, even draconian cuts in these previous stalwarts of our curricular endeavors. I would like to make the case, based very much on what is known about the needs and wants of the rapidly developing brain of a child, that these cuts are short sighted at best and at worse potentially downright dangerous.
Here’s what we know:
1. The brain craves creative challenges, especially during the phases of rapid development characteristic of childhood and adolescence. This has been shown in rats through somewhat nasty experiments involving blenders and brains, and with humans more humanely using outcomes measurements and functional MRI. Mammalian brains grow more when they are given free reign to create and explore. A rat in a maze will have a bigger brain than a comparable rat in an empty cage; the biggest rat brain, however, comes from the rodent lucky enough to “play” in a cage full of novel and cool stuff.
2. The National Academy of Science recently hosted a Science Education Summit that I was lucky enough to attend. Innovative educators from across the country and the world made their collective cases for preserving science education via preserving larger and more complete education as a whole. It is mighty difficult in our culture to teach math and science in a relative vacuum devoid of art and music. Every science teacher at the summit was adamant regarding this assertion.
3. Kids do not, in fact, separate their educational experiences by subject. We have good educational evidence that students take what they learn in one setting, and then imbibe, observe or intuit in “specialty” courses such as art and music, and subsequently apply this newly derived set of skills to math and science. In other words, subjects compliment one another, and that’s the way our brains want it.
4. It is true that we “lag” behind many other countries in technology education, and I am not at all suggesting that music and art hold hegemony over math and science, or vice versa, for that matter. I am arguing that our national tradition of enviable innovation stems directly from the nuanced intermingling that art and science enjoy in a classical curriculum. We owe our kids this experience.
5. Finally, there exists very cool data showing that supple facility with music, agile manipulation of art, “playing” with ideas themselves, creates exactly the neurobiological environment for optimal learning in all spheres and for a future in which young brains grow to literally “want” more cool ideas well into adulthood
I suppose the most worrisome part of these proposed changes, therefore, is the way their effects might ironically propel forward exactly the mile wide and millimeter thick ways that people today tend to figure things out. Anyone can “Google” a fact. My students check what I am saying in real time in the classroom using laptops that seem increasingly like organic appendages, and that’s fine. However, the ability to play with those facts, to break through to new ideas, to discover: that’s the stuff of both sides of the brain.
If we get rid of literally what half of each brain craves, then we’re going to produce a generation of young adults who have the misfortune of experiencing literally half of what they need to enjoy and relish the good fortune of being whole.
In fact, he made me cry a couple of days ago.
And, moreover, making me cry was his expressed intention.
He looked me straight in the eyes and he pulled directly, quite personally really, for my own precious tears. This all took place in Toronto’s beautiful Elgin Theatre where Mr. Plummer is currently performing as John Barrymore, a part for which he was awarded a Tony “way back” in 1997.
So, here I am in my mid 40’s, creaking, grumbling, lamenting my sore feet on the subway, surrendering myself to the occasional compulsion that I must pluck an errant eyebrow that stubbornly sits high like a schnauzer’s whiskers above my wrinkled eyes, and I find myself tearing up with pleasure at the energy I can draw from a man twice my age.
“Why cry at Barrymore”, a friend asked? He was perplexed. “How can you watch Bruce Campbell in those Evil Dead movies and not even bat an eye, and then find yourself crying at Barrymore? You’re a zombie dude, dude. Man up.”
Well…I have my reasons:
I could cry at hearing Shakespeare’s prose mixed with the cleverest of Limericks throughout the play. The Bard was always bawdy, and the limericks enhance rather than detract from the deceptively melancholic script.
I could cry at the conceit of the play itself, Mr. Barrymore’s predicament, the familiar pathos, the reenactment of those who struggle to put down their gauntlets, to rest, to stop what they’ve done for so long and so well.
I could cry at the agonies of alcohol, the pain of addictive romance, the targeted spoils of fame, or the equally precise sharp stabs of being forgotten.
For me, though, the tears did not flow until Plummer’s character broke from his drunken stupor and burst the boozy ramblings with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.
“What a Piece of Work is Man,” he exclaims, owning those lines with a precious delicate mixture of sarcasm, solipsism, and celebration. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…”
And I lost it. Christopher Plummer, for God’s sake! Celebrating and decrying the strengths and fallacies of humanity. I’ve loved poetry since Shel Silvestein. I’ve loved Shakespeare since I was nine.
I view language as the most powerful of all our inventions.
And because of all this, a man in his 80’s can make me weep as I reckon with the relentless nuance, the timeless beauty, the undeniable prowess of words, words, words.
Today, while dropping off my 5 year-old at school, a person driving a large construction truck became frustrated with the 20 second delay that was created when the person in the car in front of the truck slowed down enough to offer a clearly uncomfortably cold family walking on the sidewalk a ride to school.
I don’t know who was driving the truck, so I can’t say “he did this” or “she did that” but whoever was in control of the truck, lost, at least temporarily, his or her sense of decorum and drove the truck out across the solid yellow line into opposing traffic in order to pass the car that was blocking the way. This required a healthy acceleration, the truck’s back wheels sending little shards of dirt-covered ice onto the sidewalk, and the truck swerved first left to pass and then right again to rejoin the proper lane.
About 15 yards ahead, obscured at first by the stopped car that the truck was passing, was the crossing guard for my daughter’s school standing in the middle of the street. My daughter and I watched all of this like a slow motion film, one of those cautionary tales from an insurance company or maybe an after school special. The crossing guard, a nice woman who somehow manages to remember many of our names, was wide eyed in terror with what looked like more of a visceral than cognitive recognition that her life and the lives of the children crossing the street were now entirely dependent on the reaction time of the truck driver and the efficacy of the truck’s brakes.
Tires screeched, the truck ground to halt, and the children crossed with their parents, unscathed but shaken.
I tried to imagine what was going on in the mind of the truck driver. I can imagine being angry at the traffic and late for wherever I’m going, and there have been times as well where I have done things a lot like what the driver of the truck did. This is not meant to be an indictment of the driver (thank goodness if doesn’t have to be), and I can imagine the driver feeling awful after screeching to a stop just shy of an elementary school crosswalk.
“Why’d he do that?” my daughter asked. (I guess she assumed the driver was male, but that assumption is the subject of a different blog)
I stumbled through a cobbled explanation - “maybe the driver was angry but that doesn’t make it OK” and “Sometimes people lose their tempers” and some other clichés that I’ve now forgotten – but I found myself thinking instead and unexpectedly about that strange moment now more than a year ago when a congressman yelled “You lie!” at the President of the United States during a national address on health care reform. I suppose my mind went there in part because of tonight’s State of the Union Address.
After the “You lie!” episode, my older daughter asked me why the congressman yelled what he did. Regardless of one’s politics, it certainly seemed to her a retreat from the decorum we’d like to teach our children.
I decided to remind myself of this incident when I arrived at work, and I came across the news stories on the internet that noted that during today’s State of the Union Address the very congressman will be sitting, like the rest of the chamber, with members of the opposing political party. That’s good, I thought. Gestures carry meaning. (The person in the truck today did not, after all, stop to apologize, which I guess would have been nice.)
And then, as I started toying with how I got from witnessing a near tragic episode of apparent road rage to a fairly egregious political transgression of national and civil decorum, I started wondering about how we can know, neurobiologically, why these things happen, and whether this neurobiological insight can offer as well any pointers on how we can better behave ourselves.
We know, for example, that when people are angry, or happy, or just deeply moved with pretty much any emotional experience, they act “impulsively.” On the internet today I read that the congressman who yelled “You lie!” reported the next day on national news that his outburst was “spontaneous.” In this case, I think we can read “spontaneous” as the chronological description of an impulsive act. Neurobiologically, it is well documented that spontaneous acts that appear to lack forethought or judgment are in fact the result of “hot cognitions,” moments when the primitive regions of the brain cannot talk quickly enough to the executive regions of the brain in order to create a response that one can later understand to have benefitted from a balanced neurobiological consideration.
For example, flipping someone “the bird” in heavy traffic is most often impulsive. Recognizing that you are about to flip someone “the bird”, and then considering all the reasons it might be or might not be the best of ideas, stops being impulsive and starts being thoughtful.
So, here is my concern: What if we are increasingly reacting with our most important decisions like the person in the truck did today? I don’t think the truck driver had a pre-formed thought that planned “if that car in front of me slows down I’m gonna pass that car illegally, spray people with dirty slush, and then almost hit a bunch of kids in a crosswalk.” I think it was an impulsive act, and things turned out mostly OK this time. There is in fact a body of literature that shows that with politics, much like with road rage, constituents often fail to engage the more cognitively skilled regions of the brain.
But what does it mean if these hot cognitions are rewarded? I think the congressman raised a great deal of money following his accusation at the President’s speech. Even if he would have raised that money anyhow, it’s hard not at least to postulate that some people will read that increase in fundraising as support for this kind of spontaneous behavior. As the congressman said his remarks were “spontaneous”, I am inclined at least for the purposes of this essay to believe him. That said, what does one do when this kind of behavior is rewarded, or even appears to be rewarded?
We acknowledge what has happened. That’s the best I can do with this issue. We acknowledge that we’re human, that we screw up, that we’re not perfect, but we do not absolve ourselves of the responsibility to examine our behavior later, to apologize if needed, to make amends. And if we appear to be rewarded for our actions that are in fact spontaneous (after all, the truck driver did “safely” pass the car in front and did in fact get where ever he or she was going a little bit sooner) than we ought to acknowledge that as well. We ought to acknowledge that our impulsive, spontaneous acts sometimes work out, but that this does not mean they’re not impulsive. Mostly we ignore our higher cortical functions at our own peril. That’s not a bad thing to keep in mind as we wander into 2011.
This question, this innocently posed inquiry, infuriated me. It felt like goading, like a deliberate twisting in my aching back of the serrated knife that comes with being a fan. Alas, the question was not intended that way. It was an honestly posed issue from a wide-eyed special kid (my then 8 year-old daughter) who had, in her desire to understand my love of professional sports, made a gentle foray into a world that until that moment had been my own realm of personal suffering.
She was drawing a conclusion, of course, based on the Teams of New England. Her conclusion was in fact a reasonable and even scientifically derived one. We had been working for a few years on a very important part of her education as my daughter, and in this light she had heard much about the incredible, amazing, even deific performances of Boston's teams over the last decade or so.
We have watched on the internet clips of skinny Pedro Martinez somehow throwing 95 mph bullets. We marveled over and over at the snow covered 45 yard kick that Adam Vinatieri produced in 2001 to upend the dastardly Raiders. We have watched Brady (and his chin) challenge Joe Montana as perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time (I know there will be protests to this pronoucement, but you gotta admit Brady’s at least on the list).
I’ve even kept the now yearly tradition of dragging her to see my home team, the poor Kansas City Royals, every time they take a deep breath and face another day at Fenway. At those games, despite my proud wearing of the KC hat, young guys, guys barely old enough to shave (but old enough, it appears, to drink lots and lots of beer) always seem to refrain from pouring any of their spirits over my head as punishment for my support of the opposing team.
Instead, they shake their heads and recall stories that their parents have told them of the once great Royals of the 70’s and 80’s, and then they look at me, glassy eyed and curious, as if they are wondering whether they can in fact believe what they’ve heard. “Dude,” some kid told me “My grandpa says they were pretty good once.”
But, it all is different now. This could be my year. (Hope Spring Eternal)
My Chiefs, my beloved Red and Gold, are back in it. Though we former and current Kansas Citians might worry a bit about Sunday’s game, I will be my usual crazy self in front of the TV in the living room for one of those rare occasions where MY team is broadcast nationally somewhere outside a 100 mile radius of the Missouri River.
My daughter, now 10, is somewhat worried. She knows how much this means to me, and, to tell the truth, she’s even a bit hesitant to have friends over while I watch the game. I scream a lot, and I wear the same red sweatshirt that used to have a round Chiefs logo on it. (I tore the logo almost 20 years ago in response to a long forgotten dropped pass in the endzone of Arrowhead Stadium.)
And then, what do I read this morning? I log on to the internet and read that the Chiefs are sick.
They are barfing or coughing or something, and their locker room is being washed in bleach the way those cruise ships where everyone gets sick are scrubbed down.
Now, I know that Boston can be a town with little sympathy. However, I also know it as a city of immense empathy and compassion under the right circumstances. For this Sunday, this one game, please, good people of New England, root for my team. I’ve spent the last 20 years adopting New England. For Sunday, how about all of New England joining me in hoping that the Chiefs at least stop barfing. I might even buy me a new Red and Gold Sweatshirt.
On Saturday, Rue died.
She also managed to die last week, and I think she passed away as well sometime during vacation in August. She was sweet, and nimble, and moved through the trees like a sprite, like an innocent creature trapped in a savage land. In the end, she took a spear to her belly, and Katniss sang to her as she gasped her final breath.
I would not so glibly describe the death of a child were she in fact “real”, and yet, to my my10 year-old daughter, enthralled as she is by all of the characters who people Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, losing Rue is something that must be experienced over and over, must be contemplated and wrestled with, must, inevitably, be questioned. “Why does she have to die, Dad?” That’s the question my child asks me, and it does no good to remind her that Rue is a character in a novel, because to my daughter, at the moment of Rue’s death, Rue is a real as our front door, and our front door, she knows, opens to a world full of some not-so-nice stuff.
My kid reads the The Hunger Games over and over. She adds this to her blossoming roster of a zillion other dystopian novels. There’s even a special section in the bookstore for “young readers” who can’t seem to get enough of this stuff. This year’s holiday reading list for kids has got to be among the most fascinating (and unsettling) to emerge in years.
What in the world is going on? What does my kid find so compelling? She read I think all of the Margaret Haddix’s books (children hiding from government authorities less they should be discovered to be the illegal extra child that the State has expressly forbidden). She read an eerie and beautiful fictional memoir called The Adoration of Jenna Fox. Here a girl is illegally saved from death by her father’s miscreant use of tissue engineering. Is Jenna the same girl now as before the accident that tried to claim her life? Was her father’s sacrifice worth the risk, worth the fact that the whole family is now endangered?
She even dove into what could have been an almost tawdry novel called Girl in the Arena. Here, the girl’s father fights to the death as a professional gladiator in a soon-to-be and uncomfortably recognizable Cambridge, Massachusetts. The girl soon finds herself drawn to similar life threatening battles.
In all of the stories, those who lead us are pretty awful. They are brutal, totalitarian, lying, and violent. Protagonists must make grave concessions, often sacrificing their very lives, or else face the prospect that the dystopian drudgery of existence will remain stubbornly fixed and unaltered. In other words, in all these stories the world seems pretty damn dismal. And yet, the books that tell of these worlds are being gobbled up in record numbers in the Young Adult section of your local library or bookstore.
(This is not, by the way, necessarily how I feel about our leaders. I am trying to see all this through the eyes of my daughter.)
Is it bad that kids love this stuff? I don’t think so. Stories are powerful means by which difficult topics can be safely addressed, and certainly our world if full of difficult topics. I was quite taken by The Hunger Games, and while I know that it is not everyone’s cup of tea, it felt real to me. It felt like it asked the right questions. What would YOU sacrifice to make the world better?
So, driving to buy high chocolate at the local Starbucks near my house, my daughter and I pass under a bridge that supports the commuter rail. The bridge rattles like a tired old man, helping the train to drag folks home or off to work, and people dismount at the station and pull their collars tight against the winter breeze.
As there have been for the past 10 or so years, there were banners again this holiday season hanging from the bridge, welcoming soldiers home for the holidays. And, as happens thankfully more rarely, there was a different looking banner this time as well, more solemn, not colorful, full of palpable sadness and pride. It thanked a brave man from my town for his sacrifice in the efforts over seas.
I asked my daughter what she thought of all this, all these banners and signs that mix with the lit up trees and the festive quest for Hot Cocoa.
“What do you mean?” she responds.
“The signs,” I say. “What are your thoughts? Did you notice them?”
“Dad,” she says calmly, too calmly I worry for her tender and innocent years. “We’ve been at war since I was born. There are always signs.”
Wow, I think, though I guess I knew this. It just sounds weird coming from her mouth.
Neither of my children has ever known a world when we are not at war.
And I have never fought in these wars, but she wonders, every now and then, when we see a soldier in an airport or when she catches me reading the paper, if I ever will.
“Will they call you to fight like they do in The Hunger Games?” She knows the answer for now, but still she finds the question necessary, and a little worrisome.
After staring more at the banners, she begins again to tell me about Rue. “I’m just not sure she had to die,” she continues, perseverative in her contemplation of this fictional character’s short but noble life.
We sit in silence as I wait for a car to vacate a spot that I plan to take.
“But I guess sometimes things have to happen a certain way…..”
How Zombies Celebrate the Human Spirit: Where Chuck Klosterman and I Differ with Regard to the UnDead
OK, I am treading on seriously thin ice. Sometimes, I guess, to make a point, you gotta take a risk. I just hope it doesn’t hurt too much.
I am going to challenge one of my favorite writers, one of the very best commentators on popular culture. Prepare yourself, Mr. Chuck Klosterman, author of Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, prepare yourself despite your place on my bookshelf; prepare yourself precisely because you, through your wonderful musings, helped me to truly grasp the formidable power of funny-as-hell pessimism, even nihilism, especially when these sentiments are crooned with such folksy eloquence.
In the New York Times, on December 3, you, sir, characterized modernity as zombie-like, and wondered in a brilliant piece whether the current zombie craziness correlates with the extent to which “Modern Life Feels Rather Undead.”
I couldn’t agree with you more on that general theme. I thought in fact of those very sentiments just this morning as I shambled through the line at Starbucks, my great act of rebellious individuality expressed in my ongoing insistence to call my medium sized cup of coffee “a medium” rather than a “Grande” or whatever they call it. Doesn’t it seem, at this point, that I’ve already lost the battle? I mean if my rebellion is driven because the rest of the world has seemingly adopted these faux sizes of beverages, then really I am reiterating the dominance of Starbucks over any silly desire on my part to fight “the (Starbucks) Man.” But this is of course old territory. Go rent Role Models for the famed great coffee-ordering scene.
But, I digress.
At the end of your essay, Mr. Klosterman, you suggest, based on the crushing and deadening effects of modernity (the internet and voice mail are good examples of the heftiness of our technological surrender) that we are “living in the zombies’ world” and you note, in that patented Klosterman way in which the reader feels both understood and simultaneously scolded, that “we can do better.”
Well, I think we already do.
This is probably the Pollyanna in me, but I can’t be what I’m not, so if I am Pollyanna, I ought to at least explain how I got to such an optimistic place with regard to zombies.
I think the zombie construct has garnered such impressive momentum precisely because it generates a kind of cautious optimism. Zombie stories, like all folk tales (and anything that catches public attention with such strength and psychological resonance becomes to some extent a folk meme) are cautionary tales of what NOT to do. Can you think of a folk tale you heard and remembered in which the protagonists actually get it right? The shell of the zombie, the "nothingness" of the zombie himself, is in fact an opportunity to celebrate what makes we humans unique. I don't think that the internet, video games or even changed words for “medium” and “large” at Starbucks are taking away our capacity to be pretty cool creatures. In other words, I don't see the zombie craze as a sign of our lost humanity. I see the zombie craze as a challenge, an invitation even, to understand better how we define ourselves as both part of a pack and as uniquely separate. The dialectic of every zombie movie involves exactly this struggle: that is, can a motley crew of seemingly never-to-get-along humans behave in a good-enough fashion (not perfectly) for most of the time (not all of the time) so that they can be proud of how they handle a relatively easy crisis 5 years later when they are all hopefully there to look back on it?
This interpretation allows us as well to make sense of the subtle but slow merging of zombies with the apocalyptic scenario. In the first of the modern zombie flicks, the construct of the walking dead was not really tied to Armageddon. How’d we go from shambling corpses to the end of the world?
Well, for starters, we have a tendency as a species to forget how cool we are. Think of Battlestar Galactica, think of the brilliant movie Splice, think of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. If we forget how cool we are, then the world can go to hell awfully fast.
Let’s take it out of the zombie realm for a moment. Consider the story of John Henry, the “steel drivin’ man.” He accepts the challenge to take on the merits of a steam powered hammer, beats the damn machine in a race, but ultimately pushes himself so hard that he dies. When I was a kid, I loved this story exactly because I saw it not as a celebration of the silly machine, but as an example of John Henry forgetting what he already had and ought to have already known. At the end of the day, you shouldn't have to fight a machine to know that humans have things that machines just don’t. John Henry dies, in some ways, because he forgets in accepting the challenge that being uniquely human is way cooler than being a machine, especially since every steam powered hammer will be built more or less like every other steam powered hammer. (Sorta like a zombie.) Ultimately, John Henry surrendered his humanity and became that machine – and he did therefore exactly what machines do. He broke. Thus, our folk wisdom offers displaced caution so that we might avoid calamity in the world of the living.
I see every zombie story as an example of what not to do, and chief among the list of what not to do is to forget our ongoing, unique, and rarified tension between the drive to be pack animals and the drive to be something special. This balance is a dialectic, and always will be, and the living dead – hell, they’re script is already written. It never really changes.
note that a version of this essay appeared at www.psychologytoday.com.
Much has been written about the rule changes in the NFL designed to prevent brain damage. I thought the issue had been put to rest, but this weekend, all over internet fan sites, what I suspect were otherwise reasonable people were once again complaining that these adaptations will change the game to something akin to “flag football.” Some writers even implored those who agree with the rule changes and currently happen to be playing professional football to instead “take up golf.”
(As an aside, my daughter knocked me out cold with a wanton swing of a golf club last year. Perhaps absent minded fathers – I had turned my back – can learn something from the wise people at the NFL.)
I suggest we think of these rule changes as Darwinian. We could, by the way, also think of them in terms of “Intelligent Design.” I do not believe in the "intelligent design" theory. I just think that if we were to take the position of intelligent design theorists, at least on this issue we'd all agree. In other words, my point in brining up Darwin is explicitly not to start a debate about the merits of evolutionary theory. My point is that if we use either the theory of evolution or the theory of intelligent design, both schools of thought would call for a rule change. There is simply no way the game can continue to occupy its rarified and hallowed niche in American culture without changing those rules. The brain just matters too much.
I speak from limited albeit not entirely absent experience. I played football from 6th grade until I left for college, and I played in the Midwest, with big guys who had muscles where I don’t even have places. My poor mother felt compelled to damn near vomit at every game until I finally told her she wasn’t doing anyone any favors by attending. I also went to every Chiefs game until I left home, and I will watch football anywhere, anytime, anyplace, and always have fun. I am a fan, even a rabid fan, and I will remain a fan for as long as the game allows me to watch it being played.
But let’s talk a bit about the brain. Here, I have more experience and a bit more authority. My professional pursuits make me consider the marvels of that mess of tissue daily, and I remain in awe of both the incredible prowess and the frightening fragility of our neural circuitry. Think of all those twists and turns in our cranial cavities, highly vascularized gyrations of tissue packed tighter than a growing adolescent’s feet into last year’s sneakers. Our skulls are super-hard, and they evolved that way to protect all that gray matter from getting banged around too much.
However, the very complexity of the brain means that it can be injured in subtle and nuanced ways. The manifestations of these injuries are oddly in concert with what we’re learning about brain damage among our returning veterans, and I know, having seen some of those vets, that the NFL and the American people do not want to see this kind of damage while happily enjoying their turkey and cranberries this Thursday.
So, in short, give me a break. The game is still plenty rough, and I like it that way, but if we need to tweak the rules a bit to prevent what we now know is a form of intolerable barbarism (and promoting brain damage is without question barbaric), than I am all for it. I want my football, but more, as a fan, and as a doctor, I want the folks who play football to protect the very organ - their incredible brains - such that they can remember and revel in the glory and the privilege of playing this uniquely American game.
These were moments of great exaltation for me. My older daughter was starting to eschew my musical tastes for more modern vocalists, and, like all parental clichés, rather than let her have her own music, I engaged in the scripted and therefore futile tired didactics of parenting. I tried of course to convince her, based on my years of experience and wisdom, that it was obvious that my music was just plain better.
“A band,” I patiently explained, “Has a someone on guitar, plus a bass player, a drummer, and vocals. You can’t call Lady Gaga a band. She doesn’t have these things.”
With the confidence that youth affords my older child would then go to the computer and show me pictures of the folks playing guitar and other instruments in the background of Lady Gaga’s performances. I suppose I had been paying more attention to Ms. Gaga herself and not enough to her band.
Still, I persisted. “But she’s not called ‘Lady Gaga and The Upper East Side Band,” I argued.
“So what was Bob Dylan’s band,” my daughter triumphantly countered.
And it was clear to me as it ought to have all along that we were going nowhere with this, just as my parents had gone nowhere with me when they tried to make their case that Harry Belafonte kicked butt when compared to The Who. (My folks did not use that particular phrase – ever, really – but that’s the general sentiment I recall in these debates.)
“But Townshend does this windmill thing,” I’d say to my parents. This mattered to me. They needed to know that Pete Townshend spun his arm like it existed on a swivel, like it might come lose at any moment and fly into the adoring crowd during “Won’t Get Fooled Again.”
“And you should see how fast Mr. Belafonte plays those drums,” my Dad would say, smiling at my mom in a conspiratory way that of course conjured for me images of my parents courting each other and doing other stuff to tunes like “Day-O” and “Jamaican Farewell”. At that age I much preferred the image of Pete and his windmill guitar to my parents making out in a car somewhere while listening to Calypso music. In fact, unless I am particularly prepared for this kind of thing, I guess I still prefer to imagine Pete over my smooching parents. After all, I’m still their kid, for goodness sakes…
So, you’d think I’d have learned my lesson. But then you’d think every parent who ever liked music would have learned their lessons as well, and still there I was, reading from the script that has existed as long as there’s been music and bands and kids. “My music is better than yours and that is an objective fact and now let me tell you why.”
So, back to the “Hairy Old Man.” My then 3-year-old would ask if before we tuck her in we could watch this guy on YouTube croon a bit, and her favorite number was by far “Sugaree.” There we’d sit, she on my lap, rubbing my bald head like it was Buddha’s tummy, both of us watching and listening to Mr. Garcia’s slightly strained voice beg us to “forget you knew my name."
And why do I write this today? Because today I caught my youngest daughter humming Sugaree once again. She was happily playing with some plastic farm animals and she didn’t seem to recall the source of her musical reverie.
I knew better than to remind her about the "Hairy Old Man", because for now she thinks it comes from her way cooler big sister’s repertoire. And I am tempted to tell her (blasphemy!) that it is in fact by Katy Perry or perhaps, more likely, the Plain White T’s.
For now, though, I will relish the proof, literally music to my ears, that some of my stuff actually got through at those bedtime concerts when my little one was ensconced in the musical innocence of being 3.
You can’t really deny the zombie thing.
You can shake your head and you can wonder and you can ponder and you can act like none of it makes any sense to you, but you just can’t deny it. The evidence screams (or, more appropriately, moans) that zombies are definitely in.
Recently, I gather, zombies wandered around Time Square as part of a publicity stunt for the new series “The Walking Dead.” Similar occurrences took place all over the Globe. There are zombie walks for hunger (zombie humor has always been blunt), zombie-themed bars, zombie parties, zombie romances, zombie dolls, guides to surviving a zombie attack, and guides to surviving your reanimation should you become a spanking new zombie. The zombie hordes have in fact shambled with remarkable stealth into the very fabric of our culture.
Look at the news. The construct of the cinematic zombie has been increasingly co-opted as a potent metaphor for social and cultural events that appear at first glance entirely benign but end up being paradoxically lethargic and simultaneously horrifying. Terms such as zombie banks (banks that do nothing but sure look like banks), zombie loans (loans that are worth nothing but sure look like loans), zombie mortgages (mortgages that are worthless but sure look like they have worth) and so on and so forth are part of our every day lexicon. We’ve got zombie consumers, zombie bosses, zombie threats, and, at the end of the day, an odd sort of zombie egalitarianism. Zombies can be anything, because zombies really aren’t anything at all. I mean, I know they’re fictional (here I refer to the movie zombies - not the Haitian or West African Zombies), but zombies represent certain fundamental truths of modernity.
Consider the necessary and classic scenario that is characteristic of any good zombie flick:
“He’s already gone! some poor guy yells, imploring his friend to more aggressively dispatch the approaching, deadly corpse. But the buddy, the one who needs to fight, just stands there, his weapon slack at his side, his eyes wide with disbelief. He’s just not ready to take action; the guy who needs to attack is transfixed, mesmerized, trying his best to discern whether there is even an ounce of humanity left in the approaching, stumbling, blank eyed figure that sure looks like the girlfriend he’d been dating for the last few months. And, boom. Another zombie wins.
You see, it doesn’t matter to the zombies. They’re shells, taking the place of something that once was. They’re like the ruins in Percy’s Ozymandias, broken things that are beyond needing or wanting our respect.
They’re just hungry.
So, why? Why the craze? I am going to speak this weekend at the largest gathering of zombie enthusiasts probably ever assembled. The event is called ZomBcon, and it takes place in Seattle. There will be literally thousands of people there. I wrote an entire novel – The Zombie Autopsies - that is coming out in March, and when my friends hear about this literary endeavor, they raise their eyebrows and look at me funny. “A zombie novel?” one friend asked. “I always thought your first story would be a children’s book.”
And there’s the answer, I’d hazard, or at least one of the answers. Zombies, or, more accurately, our responses to zombies, are, ultimately, childlike. Zombie stories are without question the primitive stuff of children’s literature taken one gory step further.
When Neil Gaiman has Coraline meet her “other mother” (for me, that scene is still among the most masterfully written and scary as hell passages I’ve ever read), he’s riffing off the childhood fear that we all share when things are not as they seem they ought to be. My “real” mom wouldn’t make me turn off the TV. My “real” dad wouldn’t make me pick up the sticks in the front yard before he mows it. These “parents” must be imposters, people taking the place of others that they say that they are not.
In the zombie genre, it all just gets a bit worse. Zombies aren’t, in fact, imposing anything at all. Imposition, the very act of being an imposter, is an act of deliberate will.
Zombies don’t have any desire to impose. My goodness, they can’t even open a window. Their motivations are totally mindless and thus lacking in conscience purpose. A zombie wanting to eat you is not at all personal. At least Coraline knew that the “other mother” had it in especially for her. At least for Coraline, the challenge was, by definition, uniquely personal.
But zombies just don’t care. Can you think of a better metaphor for waiting on hold to talk to your health insurance representative, or sitting in an airport staring at the bars on your computer in the hopes that they’ll signal a functional internet, or for the deadened way you feel staring into the tired, blank eyes of the clerk at The Registry of Motor Vehicles as you shamble forward and are given a number that represents you in the most impersonal of ways for the next two or three hours that you are trapped under the auspices of fluorescent lights and low ceilings.
Wouldn’t it be strangely better if all these battles were in fact personal? What if everyone got on the phone with their health insurance representative and got exactly what they needed except you? What if no one but you got stuck in traffic? At least then you would have a better defined gripe. At least then you could, like Coraline, take uniquely personal action.
But any schmo can be a zombie. So any schmo can also be attacked by a zombie. It’s not personal, and to that end, zombies represent the mindless lack of humanity that increasingly characterizes modern life. And, as a species, we have a long and productive history of laughing at the messes we’ve wandered into, so maybe that’s why we smile at all this gore.
Zombies are here to stay, and they’ve amply made their point. But don’t get me wrong. I’ll still love the zombie genre even if things get better when I have to call my health insurer.
When I was 22 years old, my best friend and I decided to seek our summertime fortunes wandering the Northern Rockies. We drove my car, which required me to teach my buddy to drive a standard. If anyone has seen any movie where a guy tries to teach someone else how to drive a standard, then you know that the someone else is almost always a girl, and that the driving instruction is almost always a proxy for some kind of covert and soon-to-be overt flirtation. (Go rent Say Anything and watch John Cusack’s character teach his friend to drive) This was not the case, by the way, with Eric and me, and as were both versed in the enactment of pedagogy as a potential flirtation, we dispensed with our discomfort by using lots of obscenities and damn near wrecking the car. Still, whenever, Eric took over the driver’s seat, the car jerked forward like a drunken sailor until it found its groove into third gear on the high ways of Middle America.
It was on this trip that Eric and I began the “What if” game. We had long swatches of open country to cover, and long times in the mountains with a week’s worth of supplies in our backpacks weighing us down as we rounded the inclining switchbacks. When we tired of singing Neil Young songs, we would resort to “what if” scenarios. The ranger at the park headquarters had advised us to make plenty of noise in the woods lest we should startle a grumpy grizzly, and taking the ranger’s warning to heart, we probably sounded downright manic and incongruous in those dark, quiet forests.
“What if,” Eric asked, “Sarah had never met Wade. Do you think you’d still be dating her?”
“Pass,” I said, frowning. “My turn.”
“What if,” I asked, “Reagan had lost to Carter?” I was left of center politically and Eric was more to the right, so if I needed to direct attention away from past heartbreaks, I could count on politics.
Eric smiled at that one. “Not going there,” he said. “And I’m glad I don’t have to.”
More songs then, a setting sun, the air growing cold at 11,000 feet and soon a campfire around which to huddle. Something caught my eye, something bright, probably a shooting star made preternaturally noticeable in the unfiltered mountain air. It shot across the sky like it was alive, and it seemed to actually make landfall at some very distant place.
“What if,” I said, staring into the fire, “That light, that alleged shooting star, wasn’t really a shooting star? What if it were a ship, a space ship, and what if it crashed just over that hill, and what if the whole forest was lit up at a distance from whatever it is that crashed, and what if you and I saw the whole freakin’ thing? What if that happened?”
“I don’t get,” Eric said, more a fan of Depeche Mode than Star Trek.
“Would we go check it out?” I asked. “Would we get on board? Would we, like, go for a ride?”
This was before The X files, before Independence Day, before the cultural rebirth of any real possibility that we might someday board an alien spacecraft. Sure, we’d seen the cute frog-like thing croon about going home in ET, and we’d seen the sweet boy returned to his mother from the musical craft in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but a crashed ship, its intentions unclear, and we’re the first to get there? This was new imaginative ground for Eric and me in 1989.
Eric was an engineer (now a doctor), and gifted with impressive common sense. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he said, tossing a stick into the fire. “No way I’m gettin’ on any ship. I just met Melinda.”
And so I sat there all quiet and conflicted, because I really, really want there to be aliens, and, more, I really, really want them to be nice. I know that Stephen Hawkins recently suggested that aliens probably do exist and that we’d do best to stay the heck out of their way. Here’s a link to the article in the Times of London where he warns us that smart aliens probably won’t think too well of we humans: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/space/article7107207.ece
But then, on Monday evening, I was staring at the Boston.com web page, and I watched a video link of the most extraordinary set of testimonies at the National Press Club in Washington. (Here’s one of the links to the videos: http://www.necn.com/09/27/10/Shocking-revelation-Former-Air-Force-per/landing.html?blockID=319245&feedID=4213) Former air force officers, who looked like they were straight from central casting for “former air force officers”, all testifying about recently revealed experiences in 1967 near the nuclear missile silos in Montana. I won’t give the story away because I need someone to watch these videos and comment, but the short version is that each officer reported some bright light hovering over their silos and taking each warhead off-line. Each “hovering craft” had deactivated the missiles.
Hello, The Day the Earthy Stood Still? (And I mean the original, though I had fun in the one with Keanu Reeves also.) Wouldn’t it be totally cool if super-advanced aliens thought of us as a nice but sometimes hot-tempered species, and wouldn’t it be great, if, like some kind of bug-eyed benign parental figures, they came down here and gave all of us a big ol’ fashion time out?
“What if really smart aliens gave us a time out?” That’s my question. Then, could we get our act together?
Three times recently I have had occasion to celebrate AC/DC’s "Back in Black."
I haven’t really thought of the song in any sort of visceral way for quite a while, but recently two kids and one movie soundtrack (Iron Man 2) brought it rushing back to memory. Boy, I wish I could convey music in words.
Da. Da-da-da. Da-da-da…….dee-dee-dee-dee-deeeee. (repeat)
That must be one of the very best opening guitar riffs of all time. I’m not talking technically sophisticated riffs (though some will disagree) because I think technically difficult guitar riffs are all sorts of other places in music and that it would be insulting to musicians like Eric Clapton and to musicians like AC/DC if I referred to “Da. Da-da-da. Da-da-da…….dee-dee-dee-dee-deeeee. (repeat)” as technical. Listen to the beginning of Clapton’s "Layla." Tell me it’s not genius.
But the opening riff of "Back in Black" makes me want to parachute from a plane, to blithely enter a boxing ring, to brazenly go back and be 17 years old again and dial the last digit of every phone number that belongs to every girl that I ever almost called. It is a genuinely empowering riff.
But why I am writing this in a blog? Well, for one thing, it was the opening riff for two encounters this week. I can’t, for reasons of confidentiality, go into details, except to say that my business to some extent involves talking to kids who really would rather wait in line at something like the Department of Motor Vehicles or get dragged through TSA droves at airports than meet with me. (I got permission from the kids to write this) I gotta get them talking somehow, and in the cases to which I allude, each kid came in wearing an AC/DC shirt. “What’s this?” I thought. I recalled Angus Young’s long zig-zagged hair going back and forth on top of his head, the sweat flying off his face and chest in old MTV videos, the surprisingly complicated metaphors inherent in lines like “She was a fast machine, she kept her motor clean.” Stack that verse next to the utter lack of ambiguity in Kesha’s (Ke$ha’s) lyric “Brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack,” and I’ll take imagination over literalism any day.
But, I’ve gotten so used to the tattoos of demons or flowers or Maori symbols, so accustomed to celebrating with my patients the genuine creative talents of Lady Gaga (I don’t have to like her music to know that she’s got talent) that I was unprepared for the welcome flood of nostalgia when those lightening bolted AC/DC emblems showed up on a couple of kids. (My first real concert was Foreigner, a show for which I wore my flannel shirt defiantly loose from my Husky jeans, a golden Mezuzah dangling in my imagined chest hairs, and a black, flat comb just barely visibly sticking out of my back pocket. My hair felt nearly greasy enough for the show, and I went with my buddy and his very attractive older sister, deciding to tolerate the music – I wasn’t much of fan – in order to sort of get my first concert out of the way the way one muscles through a first kiss. Mostly, I recall long lines at the bathroom and the smell of beer and other stuff in the air…)
But, I digress. Here’s the thing. When a kid comes in with an emblematic shirt, any shirt, but in this case an AC/DC shirt, it is a gift. I looked at the first kid, tried to size up his surly resistance, and, after the opening niceties with his folks, I asked if I could meet with the kid alone. As soon as the door closed I looked at the shirt again and smiled.
“Da. Da-da-da. Da-da-da….”
He grinned and grabbed the nearest air guitar (there is always one in the office) and finished the riff.
And we were off and running.
There are times I really love my job.
Something strange and awful happened almost immediately during the 13th year of my life, in the first week of my second season playing football. The season before, after noting my weariness and disgust, our coach had written an unpleasant and anatomically oriented designation on my helmet using a large permanent orange marker. I would have to get a new helmet if I wanted to play another season.
Why I came back I’ll never completely know. Maybe it was my Bar Mitzvah. Things were different. I strapped on my shoulder pads slowly and deliberately. I cleaned my helmet after every practice. I refused to join the team in barking out the count during our warm-up calisthenics. I gave up on our coach’s desire for the “war cry” before games and after practice.
I enjoyed the smell of my jersey.
I also just somehow knew that anyone who faced off against me was in trouble. I spoke very little, and I was careful not to praise or to criticize anyone else on the team. I refused to help anyone up, and I refused offers of help when I found myself knocked on my tush. Without saying a word, I went absolutely berserk from the beginning to the end of every play, and people were afraid of me.
On the sixth day of practice, I lined up against Tom Roberts. About five months earlier, in the early spring of 6th grade, Tom had nonchalantly approached me during recess and shoved a cupcake into my ear. I had thought that he meant to offer me the cupcake, and my humiliation was that much worse for my misinterpretation. Now, after two days of actively showing almost no emotions, I nearly gave myself away. I looked up at Tom from my three-point stance and I felt an odd mixture of lust and misery. Was this really me? Was I really going to extract revenge for an incident that seemed now a thousand years past? Tom smiled at me, though the exact meaning of his expression was unclear. Years seemed to pass before the coach blew his whistle. The play began.
I came up under Tom's helmet with my left forearm, catching his chin with the protected side of my arm pads. I brought my right elbow into his stomach, and I buried my helmet into his chest. I was dimly aware that behind him the grass was interrupted by a round metal sewage plate, and I had the realization that I could flatten the back of his helmet onto that rusted metal surface. I drove forward with the wide based stance that our coach had taught us, and as Tom's body went backwards I had the greasy sensation of a warm cupcake dripping down the back my neck. Tom landed with the side of his helmet on the sewage plate, one knee under his hip and his arms flailing behind him as he attempted to break his fall. The whistle blew, the play ended, Tom writhing and wincing as he rolled around on the ground in apparent pain.
Although half of me wanted to help him up, I walked, even-paced, back to the practice huddle. Our coach looked amused, pleased, and little puzzled. "Schlozman," he asked, "You been eating raw chicken this summer?"
I was a bit puzzled myself, as I became aware of a kind of inevitability taking place. I felt like Eve just after leaving the garden. I had tasted something delicious, something forbidden, and I was not even aware I had been tempted.
Today, as I started to see those first signs of Autumnal college students migrating throughout Boston, I found myself challenging the nihilism of my youth. I went to school in the 80s, and that decade, the Reagan 80’s, were often considered by my friends with considerable agitated ennui.
“The most non-descript decade of the 20th century.” One of my friends actually wrote that very description on his white dorm wall in red magic marker, as if this were his great act of rebellion.
But surely I learned something back then.
And maybe because of the clear sky today and the corresponding slight tinge of sadness that some of the kids projected as they and their parents unloaded their packed cars, I indulged in one particular memory that I often try to avoid.
It was during a drive across US Highway 50 in rural Nevada, a road sometimes called “The Loneliest Rode in America.” In fact, there are road signs across the state with that very designation. I drove both east and west on this rode many times, depending on whether I was heading towards school in California or back home to Kansas. Sometimes I saw nothing but thunderstorms in the distance and a couple of cows. I remember once being caught in a herd of sheep, the poor things surrounding my car on the highway, bleating in plaintive rhythm to the curly-cue riffs from a bootleg version of Sugar Magnolia that a friend had allowed me to copy onto a cassette tape.
I often slept in my car, somehow not worried about all manner of strange and awful things that could have happened on a dark desert night. One day, however, a black storm of dust came rolling across the desert like a living thing, just as evening was approaching. I watched the cloud gather speed and the air felt biblical, like a pillar of salt was just around the corner, so I checked into the nearest motel and spent the night to the sounds of a howling salty wind.
The next morning was bright and clear, the residue of dust everywhere, covering my car window so completely that I had to wipe it down with a wet towel from the room. I went across the street to the diner and got some coffee, settling in at the bench next to a man who looked as old as a prophet. I couldn’t see his face; he sat hunched over, an old denim shirt hanging off of his skeletal body, his jeans torn and faded and ancient boots on his dead-still feet.
“Water’s what I want,” he said to the waitress. “Just hot water an’ a straw.”
The waitress smiled, her clichéd weather-beaten face recognizing the old fellow. “The usual, huh?” she asked, but the old guy didn’t look up.
I sat there drinking my coffee and the man turned to look at me. It was horrible, what I saw.
One of his eyes was set well below his nose and the other rested up high, near his forehead. His pupils didn’t move in unison, and it was hard to tell which one of them held the gift of sight. His smile was scarred and his brow was furrowed, gray wisps of hair falling over his ill-formed scalp.
“You’d be lookin’ at my face,” he mumbled.
Startled, I responded without thinking.
“Yea, I guess I am.”
“Wanna know how it happened?” He asked. He was staring down again, studying the steam that was rising from the cheap porcelain cup filled with water that the waitress had just set before him.
I didn’t answer and just sipped more coffee, hoping, I suppose, to buy some time.
“I was deep down there,” he said into the Formica table, “Mining for silver and such. They yelled for us to clear the area, that we was about to blow it up. But I was lost down there and didn’t hear ‘em . Next thing I knew I was in the hospital and my face looked like this.”
He paused to sip some of his water through the straw, positioning it between a gap in his teeth at the side of his mouth.
“The union told me that there was better doctors, but that they ain’t got the money,” he said. “I’m just an old fool, is all.”
And he went back to his hot steaming water, not seeming to want a response. I looked around and was surprised that no one seemed to notice us. Folks were reading their papers and sipping their coffee, and I wandered back out into the desert and continued the long drive east towards my suburban home.
It’s basically a medieval faire. You get word some time before that the event is taking place and you clear your schedule, set out on your donkey or maybe your horse for the increasingly frenzied journey into town.
In my case, I park my donkey at the Alewife station and board progressively more crowded trains as my daughter and I make our way towards Lansdowne Street. The excitement builds in correspondance with the sweat, pouring off our faces at the Park Street Station, waiting as we unsuccessfully force our way onto one, then another, and then finally a true boarding of anything Green that is heading to Kenmore. There are troubadours singing in the station, and there are smells down there that rival anything whiffed in the dark ages of Europe.
My daughter reaches up and grabs hold of any part of me that won’t slip loose with salty perspiration, and we squeeze onto the Green Line in abject rejection of all laws of physics or even simple mechanics. There is simply no way we can fit on this train, and yet, there we are, red sox hats plentiful now, all of us crammed on that old train in that ancient tunnel, wondering whether Archimedes and his notions apply to air as much as water. Surely this many people on the platform of the subway must displace the available oxygen. This calls for careful planning, a rationing of respiration.
But the crowd defies Archimedes and I guess common sense itself.
“Hey, they sing this at the game,” my daughter yells, as some kids somewhere in the morass croon Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” I can’t see my kid – she is obscured by a woman’s large designer purse and some other kid’s worn baseball glove, but I can feel her straight brown hair with my right hand, my left hand clinging to what I hope is the top of the train but I suppose could have been another part of humanity as well. Man and machine merge in these fevered movements.
Three or four stops to Kenmore, agitated folks starting at us from the platform, no room, no way, they ain’t getting on. “Sweet Caroline” continues, and Kenmore arrives, where we stampede out like horses, walking across the Pike and towards the Park.
There are jugglers and hawkers and the call for tickets in the air. I grew up in wide open spaces, where a ball game is something orderly and pristine, but Fenway is an urban mural, festive, people dancing in the streets like a war just ended. A young woman giggles expansively, riding on the back of some guy she presumably knows at least somewhat, galloping past us in the hot evening sun. A blind man sits muttering “Mikey’s back” as he sells his sausages hot off the grill to those whose stomachs are made differently than mine.
We sit in the old seats, under the balcony in right field, and watch the guys in uniforms warm up. A gentleman with his 21 year old son sits next to us, in from Tucson, having taken a train up from New York to see Fenway. “We’re Mets fans,” he explains, as if he needs to clarify for me his trip to New York. “But this,” he notes, settling his back against those uncomfortable old seats, “This is something special.”
I smile and nod, and he keeps talking. He strikes me as a quiet man who is now bound by excitement, and he cannot contain his usual reticence. “Theses seats aren’t comfortable, are they, but then it’s not about that, is it?”
“Nope, that’s not the point,” I reply, proud of my adopted team. I explained that I still root for the Royals out of homage to my hometown, but that this exercise in masochism feels sometimes like cheering for Cameroon in the Winter Olympics. He laughs and gnaws on his hot dog.
In the bottom of the second, one man on, Mike Lowell’s name is shouted over the speakers. The crowd rises, almost spiritually, that odd prescience of an audience knowing that they can actually will the fantastic to occur.
And one pitch later, the old warrior swinging with the abandon that his position affords, that ball leaves the park forever, disappearing into the Monster in right field. It is cinematic, surreal.
“I’ve been to a lot of games,” the man’s son tells me, “But I’ve never seen anything like this.”
My daughter and I high five one another as I agree with him. “Neither have I,” I say. And even the beer tastes good.
I’ve watched the double rainbow video on you-tube at least 35 times now. (Boston Globe CultureDesk, July 8th, 2010). That’s a lot, when you consider that it was first introduced to me only last week. At first I watched it with friends, a bunch of us crowded around a computer monitor, our faces lit up by the blue electronic glow of the screen, some of us crouching to get a better view, others craning necks at uncomfortable angles so as not to miss anything.
People have gone to great lengths to watch this clip.
“Hey, did you see the double rainbow thing,” someone asks, and you can tell that the asker is hoping for a taker, maybe a first time viewer or perhaps someone who also can’t get enough of it. The clip starts, and everyone smiles and shakes their heads, tries to make sense of the unseen guy holding the camera, the lens shaking as the guy sounds like he’s trying to steady his hand amidst sublime celebration. “A Double Rainbow!” he exclaims, at one point elevating it to a “TRIPLE RAINBOW!,” but later retreating or forgetting about the possibility of a tripartite celestial phenomena.
Two rainbows are more than enough for this guy.
He is really, really into it. I guess we all are too. It’s hard to argue with over 5 million views. That’s a small nation. All of us laughing, celebrating, but, I suspect, walking away and thinking about it also. I mean, how do you explain 5 million views? People have got to be struggling with this question.
And, as I am now among the 5 million, I imagine I have followed what I suspect is a predictable natural history of watching this 3 minute footage. I laughed with others at first, and later I chuckled on my own, but after the 5th or 6th viewing, I think I stopped laughing. Its not that it felt, necessarily, wrong, and lest anyone worries, I am not going to attempt an explanation for the guy’s elation. That would be unethical and unprofessional. I can only wonder at my own reasons for watching this video so many times.
So, I went for a long bike ride and I thought about it. I peddled along the Minuteman Bike Trail and tried to figure out how this guy got 5 million views.
And, as sometimes happens, my attention wandered. That means that every time I focused on the dilemma – 5 million hits for a 3 minute clip of a man’s delight in a double rainbow – I instead starting thinking of something else.
I was listening to the cicadas. They’re really, really loud right now. They do that two-toned thing, breathing in and out with their hollow thoraxes (I read about them on Wikipedia last night), and if you listen they sound like they’re singing to each other, to the summer sun, to the bald guy riding his bike through Arlington. And, before I knew it, I was happy. I was riding my bike in the middle of summer and I’ll be damned if I didn’t think I was riding to meet a buddy to play basketball, or maybe to get some ice cream. Kid stuff, really – stuff I did whenever the cicadas sang as I was growing up. Can’t play basketball anymore…two ruptured Achilles tendons took care of that hobby.
And then it seemed to me, thinking again of the double rainbow clip, that we all were crowding around that computer laughing at what we envy. Like I said, I can’t pretend to know his motives. But I can be envious of what sounds like his unbridled joy. If I can read Walt Whitman (“the scent of these armpits is an aroma finer than prayer”), if I can revel in Dylan Thomas ("now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs"), if I can watch 16 Candles 400 times and never get tired of the girl getting her guy at the end, then who the hell am I to do anything but wish I could express with the same relished excitement the grandeur of a double rainbow?
And why can’t I? What gets in the way?
Probably my balding sensibility on the bike trail. I never wore a helmet as a kid (no one did) but having it up there now can’t help but to remind me that the carefree world of a bike-ride ain’t free anymore. You wear a helmet for a reason.
And if I won’t take the risk of riding without a helmet, can I take the risk of celebrating the cicadas with the same jubilation as that fellow on you-tube celebrates his rainbows?
So here’s what I did:
I took my four year old on a walk that evening and asked her to be quiet and tell me what she heard. She sang, in perfect tune, the desperate song of the male cicada. We even found an empty cicada shell on a tree, a molted cicada flying somewhere high above. And she laughed as I stuck the shell to my shirt, while she was imitating perfectly the cicada’s of my youth, asking for ice cream, holding my hand.
And it is all so very fleeting.
"Thump-Drag" used to scare the hell out of me.
At 12 years of age, the stirrings of hormonal shifts tossing my voice towards increasingly unlikely octaves, my every glance in the mirror a furtive look for peach fuzz or an Adam's apple...something that might declare the burgeoning manhood that I was sure was just around the corner, I must admit that the mere mention of "Thump-Drag" made me wet my pants.
And here's the thing:
I knew it wasn't true.
I knew right when the counselors told me about him - about how Thump-Drag lived in the lake next to the cabin and used to be a "circus freak" but escaped and never quite forgave the normal folks for laughing so callously at his deformities and thus emerged from the water on moonless nights to tear upper-middle class kids at Camp Thunderbird from limb to gangly limb – well, I knew it just couldn't be true.
Using the concrete logic of a pleasantly scared, acne covered near adolescent kid, embracing the hard work of nearly a half-decade of careful contemplation regarding comics and old fashion horror flicks, I reasoned that if Thump-Drag's only abnormalities were a horrifically ugly face and one badly malformed leg (hence his name – he walked with a "THUMP", a pause, and then a long "DRAAAG" as he pulled that malformed appendage through the pine needles of the North woods) then he could not really live in the lake.
Things in lakes have gills and big glassy eyes. There just hadn't been enough time for Thump-Drag to evolve into a water dwelling humanoid with the same efficacy with which someone like Tolkien's Sméagol had achieved by virtue of the nefarious Ring.
So, Thump-Drag couldn't be. He "weren't nothin' special," to quote one of the cooks at Camp Thunderbird, and until they told me he had some supernatural traits I just wasn't buying it.
Except for this fact: There is nothing, short of maybe your first slow dance, that is better when you're 12 years old than being scared out of your wits with 10 good friends in a drafty cabin surrounded by conifers.
So I bought the story of Thump-Drag just enough to be frightened.
And on those nights when the heavens broke loose and a good old fashioned thunderstorm saw fit to gush down all over the cabins of Camp Thunderbird, and our counselors all just happened to have a meeting to attend and therefore needed to leave us alone in the cabins, and then there just happened to be the sound of Thump-Drag himself shuffling around the cabins, grunting and growling and sniffing the air like a bear or maybe a hyena, and we campers sat in our bunks with our covers pulled tight, laughing at the sheer joy of being with each other and knowing that we could safely afford to be terrified….well, I guess I got into it.
At those moments, Thump-Drag lived. He was out there, and it was after all pretty cool to have Davie in the bunk below and Stuart at the other side of the cabin and Kyle sitting on his bed, carving some green Ivory soap with his Swiss army knife, even though we really weren't technically supposed to have knives but now that the counselors were gone and there was a monster on the loose it seemed fair to guess that camp rules were open for utilitarian interpretation.
Remember this as you pack your kids off to Maine or New Hampshire: It is a well established fact that every summer camp must have its ghoul.
There's a witch in a cave, or a troll in the pines, or maybe some kind of half-man, half-weasel running around the woods, the subject of some horrible government experiment gone terribly awry and now ignored by the very people who created him and thus angry and hungry and lonely and really not good to run into on a moonless night in the forest.
Ask your kids, or your friend's kids, or, if you're lucky, search the deep recesses of your own delighted summer-camp terror, and you'll be treated to some of the very best horror you can find. Forget the movies! These camp stories will be told with agitated, ecstatic, twittering glee.
Because camp monsters are totally awesome.
My uncle Frank loved to watch football, but you wouldn’t know it at first if you ran into him at a game and managed only to spend a few surly minutes of small talk.
First, Arrowhead Stadium, home to his beloved Kansas City Chiefs, was usually about half full. When I was a kid, the Chiefs were lucky to draw 50,000, and the damn place could hold near 80. It was like watching a game in some kind of geological wasteland.
The Chiefs of the late 70’s were horrid - I believe the appropriate clinical term would be something like “cachectic.” If the they had played for New England, my guess, as a Boston Transplant, is that people would have a field day on AM sport’s radio, creatively learning the most colorful and opportunistic ways to say “they suck,” over and over, making sure to use plenty of “r’s” that could be appropriately and musically dropped as is the custom with New England expressions of athletic disdain.
Also, you’d only be able to talk to Uncle Frank outside, in one of those rarely filled seats at Arrowhead, no matter what kind of nastiness mother nature decided to call forth on game day. It could be 5 degrees, the wind blowing so hard that the snow seemed alive in the midst of the stadium, swirling around on the field like a third team intent on mocking all of us for even showing up.
He’d cough hard near the end, the cancer working its way slowly through his apparatus of respiration, and you’d find him wrapped in a red blanket like an old toy in an antique shop, sitting by himself in the cold, steaming coffee being nursed from a plaid red thermos that he brought to every game.
I’d leave the Ford Motor Company Suite (my grandfather owned a Ford Dealership in Kansas City, so we had access), and, I’ll admit, I found the concept of an indoor space at a football game a strange and conflicted place. A man in a white shirt and a black bow tie would serve me Dr Pepper for free and everyone seemed dressed up and chatty. Only Uncle Frank seemed to appreciate or even care how much the Chiefs sucked.
“Don’t you people have any pride?” I’d think, working hard to bring the tangy soda into my mouth from the cocktail straw, and I would tell my dad that I was going outside to find Uncle Frank.
“Pretty cold out there, tiger,” he’d say, and I’d nod. “Sorta the point,” is what I was thinking, but I knew Uncle Frank would understand.
He’d be about halfway down the suite section, his wool blanket covering his body. only his face exposed. He looked like a babushka from the old country, but he’d manage a smile and motion for me to join him. He always offered me coffee, but I would make clear that I was happy with my Dr Pepper.
“You can’t see a damn thing on TV,” he’d say at first, and then, a long sigh after pausing to watch the Chiefs anemically flub something else, he would motion with disdain at the window behind which the warmth of the suite was present. “And that,” he would say, “watching a game indoors and getting served your drinks?” He’d shake his head like a fundamental law of nature was at risk. “That comfort is no way to watch either.”
We’d sit in pleasant silence, and it was like the cancer in his lungs was somehow known on the field, the Chiefs suffering their own crab-like destruction, failing at each opportunity to make good on the simple act of breathing.
Boy, it was bad back then.
So, one time, sitting there next to Uncle Frank, his body skinnier than even a month before, his eyes sunken, his cough a whole body experience, his coffee unopened, and the temperature no greater than freezing, I asked him why he came.
“If they’re this bad, why watch?” I asked. It seemed a fair question, and though I was only 11 or 12 at the time, I thought I ought to make some effort to get a sick man out of the cold.
He didn’t look at me, but he smiled, the skin pulled tightly against his rapidly aging face.
“Because it's great,” he said. “Hell, they’re out there for us, Steve. I mean, don’t you think its great?”
The score would be something like 35 to 3, and it didn’t look all that great, but Uncle Frank meant it and, after all, he’d watched a lot more games than I had.
So, he up and died not long after that conversation, but I gotta say there was never a bigger fan. And sure, the guys we watch now are paid all sorts of money, and they do all sorts of stupid things, and maybe Frank would feel different if he were a fan today, but still, this I think I know:
If Uncle Frank were from Boston, he’d be glad he’d watched last night. He’d be grudgingly proud of the Celtics and he’d tell anyone who would listen.
And I know I couldn’t have a better companion on those cold days at Arrowhead.
It’s hot, even for New Orleans.
That’s saying something. That’s like saying it’s cold for the Arctic, or gorgeous, even for Bardot.
The sidewalk did that funky thing, where what you see has waves, the heat rising off the pavement like it's alive, like it needed to escape the smell of stale beer and last night’s excess. But no relief, the air just as hot as the ground, maybe even hotter, that much closer to the tropical sun, and so it lingered there, waving, distorting whatever I could see, making me stop to wipe my glasses again and again with the front of my shirt.
An empty sidewalk at 8 in the morning on a Sunday, the smell of wreckage in the air, last night’s debaucheries, contemplated now in a thousand hotel rooms and not a few houses, men and women woken by crushing headaches and a need to explain to someone why last night went so wrong ... why last night happened at all. It seems this city is filled with the potential for a thousand apologies.
So I’m walking to my meeting as the oil gushes rank in the unforgiving Gulf, and for reasons of probably feigned propriety I am wearing a sport coat. It’s 98 degrees, maybe a hundred, and I can feel the sweat seep down my back and make its way under my belt, teasing me, tempting me, that it might drip farther.
And there isn’t a soul in sight. No noise, no people, not even a car.
And then from nowhere, out of the shimmering sidewalk it seems, a middle-aged black man approaches me with a sheepish grin. He’s carrying a red gasoline can, the kind I used as a kid to fill up my lawnmower in Kansas, and he doesn’t ask but I stop and smile back.
“Can you help me, friend?” he says, his articulation perfect, but his voice with rhythm, the soft menace of cymbals. “I don’t live her, you see, and need a few dollars for gas. I hate to ask, but I need to get home. You understand.”
I was already reaching for my wallet, ashamed that I both anticipated a request and also worried that he might ask for my change less kindly. I hand him five dollars, Mr. Lincoln looking relieved to be out of my pocket and into whatever air he can breathe.
“I’m sorry to ask you, friend,” the man says, taking the money and pocketing it.
“You don’t need to be sorry,” I say. “It’ll come around.”
He stopped for a second, just a second, but you could sense it, like he was about to tell me something but decided against it, and instead he just grinned, gold and silver teeth catching the rising sun.
“I believe it will.” He said laughing. “I believe it will.”