January 10, 2013

Necrophilia: The Rise of the Zombie Apocalypse

    Why do we like zombie apocalypses so much? It’s not a new idea; Shakespeare’s age was obsessed by the idea of Judgment Day, which was much more morbid then than we tend to think of it now. People painted the dead walking out of their graves. My professor says you can see the fear and morbid fascination with the idea in Shakespeare’s plays. Think of all the bloody ghosts; think of Romeo’s and Juliet’s statues; think of the improbable resurrections. 

      Resurrection is there, too, of course; America is a predominantly Christian nation, and even those who aren’t Christian are often shaped by Christian culture and ideas, as I have been, and Christianity revolves around one particular member of the walking dead: Jesus Christ himself. Every schoolchild who learns about the resurrection of Christ must have, deep down, a slight, niggling wonder: if Jesus can come out of his grave, well, who else might? Is death really permanent? What if we come back not in the heavenly, angelic sense, but in the physical, putrefying sense? Zombies combine familiar religion with the adolescent fascination with death and the grotesque for a dazzlingly disgusting effect; no wonder so many people watch The Walking Dead

     The zombie apocalypse appeals to a particularly American way of thinking in more ways than the religious, however; it’s a violent fantasy world wherein every man really is for himself, independence is paramount, guns are requisite and killing one’s neighbors (once they’ve been infected, of course) is more than necessary, it’s heroic. Zombies are human, but not really; to kill a zombie is to murder, but without the guilt. It’s a first-person-shooter fantasy that absolves the human being pulling the trigger: not only are zombies the enemy, they are no longer human. It’s putting them out of their misery. It’s us versus them, and they are blatantly cultureless, blatantly soulless, blatantly mindless. The protagonists of zombie apocalypse stories can be antiheroes that are really just heroes; they can kill without losing the moral high ground. There’s the illusion of moral complexity without real ambiguity. 

     This isn’t to say that that’s all all zombie movies or shows do, not at all; I simply think that this is why the general idea thrives. The Walking Dead, for instance, delves into complexity when it examines the human-human relationships under the stress of the end of the world, with the threat of a member of us becoming one of them, and so no longer him-or her-self, dead but not dead, ever-present; it asks what makes us human, civilization or something more intrinsic, something we carry with us (it’s also brilliantly materialistic; humanity is, quite obviously, lodged in the physical brain and destroyed when the zombie virus hits the brain, physically). It asks whether moral absolutes exist, and doesn’t always give us a clear answer. 

     But why are zombies so popular right now? Perhaps because of the economy; perhaps because we as a culture harbor secret Fight Club fantasies of destroying all the debt, equalizing everyone. Perhaps we dream of a world that involves physical and moral work, and that invokes necessity if not certainty. Perhaps it is a response to the cultural critiques that call us metaphorical zombies, enslaved to our 9-to-5 jobs or our electronics or the Internet or Facebook or TV– all the things a real zombie apocalypse would destroy. We live with the threat of an epidemic of a strange and deadly disease (which makes us afraid of proximity to each other; epidemic diseases are communicable); we live with the fear of bioterrorism. We are concerned that we don’t know what the government is up to, and we haven’t trusted it since Fox Mulder first started investigating the paranormal (or perhaps not even since the 1960s). We are afraid of our own dependence on technology; we are afraid of globalization; we are afraid of being too disconnected from family and community; we are afraid of being too far from our roots; we are afraid of nature and that we don’t know how to survive “in nature.” We are afraid of medication and the loss of it; we are afraid of machines replacing people. We are, as we have always been, afraid of death. 

     I think the fear of and fixation on zombies in Shakespeare’s time was probably a result of the trauma of the plague and of a rapidly changing society; for us, it’s largely the same thing, only the plague is terrorism, or something. We are filled with a nameless anxiety about the shifting contours of the world. I’m not quite 22, and I’ve seen the world change immensely in my short lifetime. When I was small, we didn’t even have a home computer; no one did. No one really needed one. I remember cassette tapes. I remember dial-up Internet. I remember the reign of AOL and AIM. Facebook didn’t exist until I was a teenager; neither did smartphones. Tumblr didn’t exist until I was in college. And so quickly, these things have become indispensable to so many of us. My younger siblings don’t know what cassette tapes are. They barely know what flip phones and CDs are. They will probably never use a physical library card catalog. They have no idea what it is to be without a world of information in the palm of their hands or the pocket of their jeans, instantly accessible. 

    This kind of change, so fast and so apparently irreversible– it is exciting, but it also evokes fear and nostalgia. And a zombie apocalypse at once titillates us with terror and shows us a world that, paradoxically, soothes the fears of those of us who knew a different world. It shows us that older skills and technologies (like a bow and arrow, a Stone Age technology curiously ubiquitous in 2012’s blockbusters: younger kids had Brave‘s Merida, tweens, teens, and adults had The Hunger Games‘s Katniss, in a dystopic world requiring skills not unlike a zombie apocalypse, and everyone had The Avengers‘ Hawkeye, whose archery skills make him stand out, positively, in a world with Tony Stark’s technology) could still be relevant and necessary. All one has in the zombie apocalypse is family and memory. Communities are forged and draw close under threat. Globalization is firmly over; one can’t even contact the next state without walking there. The government might still exist, or might not, but it isn’t relevant; all one has is oneself, one’s survival skills, and, most importantly, the people around one. Watching The Walking Dead is like doomsday prepping lite. It simultaneously stirs and calms our fears about the churning uncertainty of our wild world, a world constantly on the brink of various collapses, metaphorical and literal: the fiscal cliff, the Mayan apocalypse, the point of no return for climate change. It’s a conservative, reactionary fantasy world, where we are reduced to the far-distant past and must cling to moral universals that may or may not really exist, while using a personal arsenal of guns to defend one’s family against unquestionably bullet-worthy intruders who literally want to eat your family– but it also reflects a certain reality. We are on the brink of immense social change on a global scale, like it or not; the way things are economically and socially is not sustainable. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree that may not be worth even a minimum wage job is not sustainable. Our actual planet is not sustainable. The two-party system as it stands in the US isn’t sustainable, nor is the cavalier way we treat guns, nor is our prison system, nor is post Citizens United electioneering. 

    What with all the problems we’re facing, no wonder some people think a zombie apocalypse is nigh. Perhaps dealing with that– a solution that mostly involves pointing, shooting, and  exploding zombie brains– would be simpler than coming up with workable solutions for our complicated real life problems on which we can all agree and cooperate. 

    Too bad. It’s what we have to do. This is how we keep humans going, guys. I suggest grabbing a book. As a Doctor who would be of enormous usefulness in a zombie apocalypse once said, they’re the greatest weapons in the world. 


   Arm yourselves. Trust me, the impact will be far more positive than doing so with a gun. 


December 29, 2012

Drifting, with Apples, or: No, I Didn’t Read for Class, for Once

That is actually a lie. I am pretty sure I have literally ALWAYS read for class. But it’s a metaphor, so that’s okay.

Sorry for the long absence, I’ve been devoting most of my time to my senior thesis. I’m graduating from college in a few months, you see, and for the first time in my life what happens next is really, truly, a matter of choice. And I am overwhelmed.
First world problems, educated people in this economy problems, I know. But everyone keeps giving me disheartening news and disheartened looks, and all my heart wants to do is either leap or give out or both over the sheer paralyzing CHOICE that has suddenly made itself apparent.
Of course, I’m writing my senior thesis on Doctor Faustus, so you may not want to consult me on the kind of choices academics make.
There’s option A, the easiest one. The path of least resistance and most debt, the expected path, the one that stays on the same road I’ve been on since age 4: more school. Not that I don’t want it; I can’t imagine myself not taking classes, writing papers, not learning. Of course, this may be due to the fact that I’ve never had the chance to do anything else. That doing anything else is heresy, unimaginable. I could go to grad school for a master’s, which I really do want to do; I’m not done. Smith is a great liberal-arts education, but I’ve forgotten how to interact with male peers. It’s a tiny bubble in a great big world, and while I may not be ready for the world, I want a bigger bubble. I also know I’m not really prepared to sign away the next three to ten years of my life to a law or doctoral or medical program, so a master’s in anthropology– which I’d need to make my biological anthropology education meaningful or useful– or even English– makes sense. I want to go abroad and I don’t need more than a year for the above to happen. So the UK. That’s all fine.
But my friends are talking about moving to D.C. or NYC or LA and the prospect of heading off to uncharted territory and staking a claim, of being young with other young people, of throwing off scholars’ robes and making a go of it in a center of something, of a new kind of community that ties ideas to action– that’s enticing. That’s something I want. And I’m afraid of missing the train if I head off for another year or more in the ivory tower (Oxford or Cambridge or UCL;  The ivoriest of all the towers, as it were, and something I want deeply and truly anyway). And I want London, on which I have no claim and which I can’t afford. It’s one of the oldest cultural writers’ dreams, it’s Shakespeare and Marlowe, it’s go to the big city, the biggest city, the only city, and write.
But, Jesus, that’s terrifying.

It’s all terrifying. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve kept on thinking what I’ve thought since I was a kid– that at some point, 14 or 17 or 22, one became An Adult. One developed poise and magically absorbed all the rules of self-sufficiency and responsibility. One knew what one was doing.
Well, I don’t. I wrote five personal statements or statements of purpose or whatever the hell without a single clue as to how to do so. I slept through the appointment— which occurred on the morning of the first application deadline, I’m a planning genius, clearly. Even though I’d done the application well before, and slept through the appointment because of rewriting an essay on impenetrable anthropological theory three times, after which it made even less sense because I was nonfunctional exhausted — at the career office, where I was supposed to learn how, and I’ve been too embarrassed to do it again. And too exhausted, because essays and thesis and obligations and just plain insomnia, like I’m having right now. So I sent them off as they were, depending as I so often do on luck and charm, on good grades and clever phrases, to overcome my probable failure to follow the directions no one gave me. Not that I didn’t try. Not that I don’t work hard. Who thinks college students are lazy? Hahahaha. College students, at least the ones I know, are the hardest working and most exhausted people I’ve ever seen. And they’re paying for the privilege. And it IS a privilege. Sometimes I just don’t understand why the world works the way it does. Or HOW.
Anyway, My English professor liked my statements. And he went to Oxford once. So there.
No one’s outright told me I’m abysmally fucking it up, so I’ve just kept going. Which is, I guess, adulthood.
One back-up plan is living in my parents’ house and getting a job and writing my novels and selling some stories, hopefully, maybe freelancing a few articles on the Internet, maybe taking some science at the community college or paying to do it at University of Chicago so I can maybe go to med school like I maybe still want somewhere deep down, or maybe taking the LSAT and admitting to the same professors that wrote my master’s letters that I didn’t get in and I need them again and applying to law school, like I thought I wanted to do until I was about 19. Maybe taking on mountains of debt to do either, when I know the kind of law or medicine I’d be doing would make me very little money, ever. I don’t even know if it’d make me happy. I’d be doing my duty, assuaging my guilt. I’d be being the Lutheran I still really am, even though I don’t believe in God.
But I may have forgotten how to work, nose to the grindstone, without dreaming. I may also have forgotten how to chase my dreams. Somehow in between applying to college and getting in and working my ass off despite somehow also being massively bored for three and a half years, I’ve sold or lost or just misplaced my little soul. I think about making a go of it writing, and my brain replies, “But that’s HARD. The odds are so bad. Don’t do that.” But that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. Well, no. I’ve always wanted to be a detective of some kind, and I’ve always wanted to write, and somehow the college admissions process and college itself have beaten into me the ideas that odds and stats and reasonable goals are the be-all end-all of everything.
I’ve worked hard and I’ve done well and I’ve done what I was supposed to do. I was going to apply to like 16 grad schools. Different programs, all over the world. There were charts. Reaches and reasonable and safety schools. I was going to take the LSAT and the GRE and apply all at once. Defer Harvard Law if I got into Oxford for a master’s. And then my parents and my sister’s therapist all told me that was way too much, so I applied to Oxford and to Cambridge and to UCL, because the very next thing I want to do is go abroad and learn some more stuff. And then I think maybe I want to join a human rights organization and go somewhere where my life is in danger and work until my fury is back and I care again. And then maybe I want to go to law or medical school and do something more about what I care about with that. Or maybe I don’t. Or maybe I just want to write books because telling stories is what I can do.
My second back-up plan is to use what money I’ll get from writing awards from Smith, which is where basically my entire bank account right now is from (so why do I think making a living off of writing would be so hard, when writing is where I’ve earned most of my money? Why don’t I believe I’m maybe exceptional anymore?) to buy a plane ticket and get myself somewhere mad and write a story about some terrible thing someone’s doing that no one’s talked about and try to get people to talk about it.
Which is also terrifying.
Or move to DC or New York but not LA because I don’t hate myself that much and look for something else I can do and see where it goes.

It sounds terrifying. It sounds terrifying because for my entire life I’ve been told what the next step is, and how to plan it. I’ve been handed applications to fill out, or told where to find them. There have been rules and I’ve followed most of them. There have been tests and I’ve taken them. There was a clear path and a clear goal, and following one to the other was simple and necessary. Bourdieu’s doxa; it was self-evident. There was no other choice, no possible heresy.
And now…there is. I am terrified i can’t live in the real world. I don’t really understand taxes. If I wanted to invest my small amount of money I would probably end up crying from frustration on the floor. I’ve never rented an apartment. I don’t understand cars or insurance and when my car broke down so did I because I had no idea what to do. I’ve done my taxes, kind-of-not-really, by calling my dad and asking what the hell? When I turn 26 I won’t know how to get my own insurance. Probably I will forget to go to the doctor. Thanks to Smith, I don’t really know how to buy or budget my own groceries. When I skip college meals I usually just eat like three granola bars or drink a Naked juice or just drink more coffee. I am so clearly not a real person that it’s not even funny. I still write stories. Hell, sometimes I still write fanfiction. Sometimes I get a tiny bit drunk and feel a lot guilty. I still feel guilty over the one and only time I got REALLY drunk. People I know do it every weekend and don’t worry that they’re alcoholics; I worry about it whenever I have a glass of wine. But I still have a glass of wine. Sometimes while I’m writing an essay.

I put off work now, on occasion. I always get it done and done well, but sometimes it’s done on Sunday instead of Friday nowadays. I never used to, but now I have friends whose conversation means more to me than one more essay. I have friends who are family. I have friends that I love. I have friends in China and Russia and Denmark who I won’t see again before I graduate and more than any worries about what comes after that’s killing me. I have friends from my hometown who won’t come home for summer break anymore and that’s killing me. I have friends I’m glad to move away from for awhile and friends I wish I could move in with. Friends maybe I will move in with.
And I feel guilty about that, about putting people before output. But the output isn’t always so great. The best essay I wrote last semester got a B+ and the worst got an A, because I had to learn to write to the professor’s bullshit specifications. And I DID. Because grades matter more than anything, or so they’ve tried to teach me; grades and work. Not good work or worthy work, but all and any work. The education I’ve gotten has been from professors who didn’t try to make me be something I wasn’t but who tried to help be more of who I was. Who appreciated my imagination and my thoroughness. Who were so full of concepts and ideas and brilliance that it kept spilling over, too big for powerpoints.
But the system doesn’t like that; they’re the exceptions. The system doesn’t want me reading on my own time and bringing that education into my papers. The system doesn’t like it when I pick my own topics, get excited, do extra research. The system wants me to focus on my three page history paper and not my thesis, because the history paper is due tomorrow and the thesis isn’t.
And I did. I gave in. It was stupid of me, and it wasn’t sustainable. Once I did what I needed to do; college tried to make me do what I was told. High school did make me, because it could. Sometimes I run too far and too long and wish I were running away and not in circles. Sometimes it’s too hard. Sometimes I’m exhausted for no reason; sometimes I’m exhausted because I stayed up all night, for no reason. Sometimes I stay up all night to talk politics and philosophy and literature with the best friends I’ll ever have, and it’s worth it, and there’s more education there than in any classroom. Sometimes I stay up all night writing; I don’t do that often enough. Once I stayed up all night because I’d fallen in love, and no one knew; once I stayed up all night because my heart was broken, and that was a secret too. The joy and the anger danced inside to the edge of my skin and then pulsed back to my heart, electric and alarming; my brain sat back screaming “STOP, YOU LOVESICK CHILD, STOP; YOU’RE HURTING YOURSELF, YOU FOOL!” but none of the rest of me listened and my brain, used to being obeyed, threw a fit like a petulant child itself.

It was right, but still, and all the way through, and I’m supposed to care about the Spanish Inquisition when I’m feeling THIS? But I did. I sat down and I researched and I wrote my paper and I packed my bags and I got to the airport and made it through security and it’s all still a secret, or it was, I guess, and that was being an adult too.

I don’t know what admitting that you’re in love to the person with whom you’re in love and dealing with things with maturity would be. Being a god, I think maybe. I’m not there yet, anyway. But at least I’m self-aware. And lucky; I can do love and work. I can have love and be a scholar. I have to make choices, but I can make more of them than people could in the past.

I’m learning that from my thesis, on Doctor Faustus. I’m learning about Christopher Marlowe casting off his scholar’s clothes and being poor and trying to break out of something too rigid to bear, and dying in the process. I’m studying a man sick of studying, ready to DO. I’ll never be sick of learning, but I’m getting sick of studying. I can’t turn to magic, but I’m lucky where Faustus wasn’t; there are other things I can do. As Laura Marling wrote, “I’m on my own/It’s too hard/Feel like running, feel like running.”

Faustus tells himself to settle his studies and sound the depth of that he will profess and proceeds to list the options like damnations themselves. That’s not an option, not for me.

Like most people I know, unlike everything we’ve ever been told we’re supposed to do and be, I don’t have a plan. I’m not prepared. I didn’t read for class today, Professor, for the first time ever.
It’s scary and my heart’s hanging by a thread, beating like mad, in my empty chest. I’ve got nothing but adrenaline on my side. And deep down, below the abject terror and the screaming anxiety? I’ve never been so excited in my life.

It’s almost a new year, and I’m almost twenty-two. I’m a human and one day I will die, but before that day, knock on wood, I’ll get to do and try and be a whole lot of things, and I don’t need to know every what and when and who and how of that. I’m glad I don’t.

It’d be easier if I did. Just like living in the garden of Eden staring at fruit we couldn’t eat would be easier.

But that really wouldn’t have been too much fun, either. And we wouldn’t have apple pie.

Tl;dr: Plans are overrated, and so are rules that don’t make sense. And apples are delicious.

November 7, 2012

Welcome to the Future

America’s most diverse electorate ever has just said no to extremism, no to going backward, and yes to LGBT rights and women’s equality. We said it loudly and we said it clearly; we have showed the Republican Party that the Tea Party is not anything we want a part of and if they want to win any presidential election ever again, they had better listened.

I have never been so moved as I was with my friends tonight as senate race after senate race was won, as women filled the seats of next year’s Capitol and gay rights initiative after gay rights initiative went forward, and finally– finally– as Obama won. I know he’s not perfect, I know he’s done things with which I disagree– but still, it was beautiful to see my friends cry with joy. Tonight I heard: “I can get married!” “My sister can get married!” “I can take my medicine!” “My mom can get a kidney transplant!” “I can get insurance for my preexisting condition!” “My president thinks I’m equal to everyone else!” “I don’t have to move to Canada!” “I feel like I belong to America!” My sisters and I, my friends and I have retained our reproductive choice; my friends can marry whomever they choose in a few more (not enough) states– but we have a president who we know supports their right to do so; my friends who need birth control to prevent debilitating pain, who need their parents’ insurance to pay for serious health problems, who now know that when they get their own insurance they won’t be punished for having preexisting conditions, however serious. Millennials have said what we want next and we have been heard. Those men who would tell us what “real” rape is, who “deserves” an abortion, who should have contraception, who should and should not get married– they have been told firmly and loudly, “NO.” We have in their place sent more women to Congress, sent the first openly gay Senator (a Smithie!) to Congress, and decided to head forward, into a brighter future in which we are more equal and more egalitarian, more willing to work together and to respect each other because we KNOW each other. Get ready– I’m so glad I’ll one day be able to go to all of my friends’ weddings and celebrate with them, to see my siblings’ wanted children born to happy, prepared parents, to see my friends and my sisters choose their careers and family lives, to watch the impact the incredible women I know will make on a world that is finally getting ready. Watch out, America; the next generation is here, and you’ve never seen anything like us.

August 6, 2012

Why I’m Not Sure I Still Want to Be a Member of this Species

Oh, humanity. I really don’t know what’s been going on with us as a species this summer, but I’m so, so tired of it, and it makes me so, so sad to think of; we keep killing each other with seeming senselessness or a terrible kind of twisted sense, as with the apparently racially/ethnically/religiously motivated shooting at a Sikh temple yesterday morning by a man described as a neo-Nazi.

But really, of course, it’s the atheists; as only Pat Robertson knows, the best way to respond to a hate crime, a crime against those who are different, is to blame it on other people for being different. And Satan, of course, who is obviously best friends with all the evil atheists:
“People who are atheists, they hate God, they hate the expression of God, and they are angry with the world, angry with themselves, angry with society and they take it out on innocent people who are worshipping God.”
– Pat Robertson, being an exemplary human being as usual.

I wasn’t going to write about him, but then I read about this and got sad, because it was so predictable, and angry, because it was so predictable, and then indignant, because neither shootings nor awful stupid obfuscatory responses to them should be predictable. So my response to Mr. Robertson:

1. Most atheists don’t hate god because atheists don’t believe in god. Hating something you don’t think exists is extraordinarily silly and a waste of energy. Those damnable unicorns, I just can’t stand them– except, oh, wait, I don’t have to, because they’re not real.

2. You know what? I am angry, Mr. Robertson. I am angry at the world, I am angry at society, I am angry at YOU. I am angry because people shooting other people makes me angry. I am angry because people hating other people for being different makes me angry. I am angry because humanity is disappointing me in so many ways right now. I am, you’re right, even angry at myself for being part of this species, capable of such horrific cruelty, capable of deliberate malice and conscious massacre.
I am so angry because, since I don’t believe in god or an afterlife, I believe that killing a person ends them, completely and forever, and destroys the whole world that they are. Murder, the deliberate destruction of a human being– and so their thoughts, their imagination, their feelings, their experiences, these things that no one in the history of the world and no one in its vast future has or will ever think, imagine, feel, experience, ever again– is the most terrible thing imaginable. It is a vile arrogance. It is the lowest form of egotism, to assume the right to end another person’s existence. To do so as part of a massacre is perhaps worse– it further denies the person individuality. It makes them part of your own message. It subsumes them. It is abhorrent and disgusting and it infuriates me. And, Mr. Robertson, you would accuse me and all atheists of complicity in this horror, because we don’t believe in your god, a god who allows such things as punishment for the erring thoughts of others? I’m sorry, no. That I cannot believe does not in anyway lessen my reverence for human life; human life and the human mind are the sole things I hold sacred. I am angry at myself for being angry at humanity; we do these things, we are capable of murder, but we are also capable of sending things to Mars! We aspire the stars and we leave each other to bleed in the dirt. I love us and I loathe us but I could never kill a single one of us unless he or she were going to kill me or another.

Of course when people commit acts like this we want to know why, and racism or insanity are unsatisfactory explanations. We are a curious species, a social species, a mostly empathic species; we want to know why others like us do things that we cannot fathom doing, that we find vile in the extreme. We want to know why someone would act in a way we cannot understand; our attempts to do so push against the otherwise almost untouchable walls of our imaginations.
T.S. Eliot writes, Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

The shadow lies between our conception of an action– we can think of murder, even massacre, begin to understand that someone could do such a thing– but carrying our natural empathy to the murderer, thinking through what it would take to actually load and pick up a gun and with it stop another human’s heart– this we cannot fathom. We balk. We falter. Thank our minds that for us the shadow falls and we cannot see our way to the act.

Hate is behind this act; Pat Robertson is right about that. But not hate of god. Perhaps too much love for one god, perhaps hate for another, but it wasn’t hate of the idea of god that did this thing, it was a man who hated himself and therefore hated other men, blaming them for what he could not admit was on his head.
(WARNING: SARCASM AHEAD. PLEASE BE AWARE THAT MANY STATEMENTS BELOW ARE MEANT IRONICALLY) It was a mad man with a gun, but NRA knows we can’t blame /that/, no– far more logical to blame atheists and their best friend, Satan (because, clearly, atheists believe in him). A Christian Post article on Robertson’s remarks also notes “evangelical leader Jerry Newcombe”‘s remark that the Aurora shootings last month occurred “because Americans have lost a strong grasp on the realities of hell.” Oh, yes, because in societies where everyone believed in Hell, it’s not like people wore swords everywhere and stabbed each other over the bill in taverns or anything! (hint: they did). It is, however, rather difficult to commit mass murder with a knife, but we mustn’t talk about easy access to guns, or a political and cultural discourse that admits an ugly, vitriolic racism and loathing for the visible Other; no, of course not. It was the atheists that did it.

Today is the kind of day that makes me want to turn in my human card; only the fact of Curiosity and Mars tempts me to keep it. But if I change my mind, I wonder, Mr. Robertson: would summoning Satan help me abdicate my membership to this species? Because I’m not sure I want to be a member of a club that admits you.

July 28, 2012

Oxford Edition 5: Dartmoor: In The Footprints of a Gigantic Hound

   From Bath on Friday, we’ve gone to Exeter, and today we got to Dartmoor, by train, bus, automobile, bike, and foot. We started out renting bikes and made it 2.4 miles– a third of the way to Dartmoor National Park– before Tina started having tire trouble, so she and I turned around to catch a bus to Morehamptonstead…Moretonhampstead…something, which came an hour later and which we caught solely due to the attentions of a lovely elderly lady, who informed us that the bus actually came to a different stand than the one listed, and where to disembark when we got to Moretonhampstead. However, upon arrival, we realized that we actually had no idea where to go, and wandered into town to ask at a cafe, where the owner pointed us toward a map shop. There we got directions, a map, and a book of local folklore, and, as directed, hired a taxi to take us to Hound Tor. Because we had, clearly, stepped into an ominous 19th century novel, the driver, after telling us the story of Kitty Jay, a young servant girl who fell pregnant to her master and was kicked out of the house on a cold night, after which she hung herself in a barn and was buried along the road, where people still leave flowers, informed us that he could not pick us up later, but that we should “climb over Hound Tor to Hay Tor, and once you’re there you’ll see Bovey Tracey, and you can get a bus there into Exeter.”  

   So, we happily made our way to Hound Tor, upon which I, as a proper Sherlock fan, climbed and brooded, though, because it was 70 degrees, I did not have a giant grey coat, and picked out Hay Tor.. down a ridge and back up, a distance that looked far more impressive than the two miles it was (during our aborted biking attempt earlier, we had walked/ridden about 6 miles, so going from Hound Tor to Hay Tor made it 8). The trail down the ridge and through it was among the most beautiful things I have ever seen. We wended our way down the hill on a narrow footpath, past, inexplicably, a catapult-like device, and finally to the bottom of the ridge, where we found a glen straight out of As You Like It, with a babbling brook, shady trees, and even a few sleeping campers, as though under a spell (perhaps it was rather A Midsummer Night’s Dream). Then we began to climb back up toward Hay Tor, a rock-ridden journey during which we accidentally- and literally-stumbled onto a mire, fortunately drier than usual due to the heat. This felt right out of Wuthering Heights. No wonder everyone was always turning their ankles; we almost did several times, even wearing sneakers. It’s also no wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle stole the stories and landscape of this place for The Hound of the Baskervilles; in addition to Kitty Jay’s story, Hound Tor is supposed to be several hounds turned to stone by the Devil, who seems to frequent Dartmoor (I would, too), and then there’s the prisoner from Princetown Prison who disappeared on Fox-Tor Mire after having escaped. I could picture Henry and Louise wandering the paths; the dog running red-eyed on a windy night…Then we scrambled up Hay Tor and back down, and began the journey to Bovey Tracey, assured by several passersby that it was only two miles down the road. Apparently this means five or so miles down a road with no sidewalks, during which we nearly got hit by cars several times. I’ve never felt more like I was in a film about backpacking college students, probably in the 1960s; that’s just what it felt like. Finally, we reached the Holy Grail of Bovey Tracey, where we nearly embraced the “Welcome” sign. After calling the bus company and ascertaining that a bus would go to Exeter in about half an hour, we obtained some of the best pizza in the world from the Pizza Box, hopped on the bus, and were back in Exeter in 40 minutes…only eight hours after we began the day on bicycles. 

July 21, 2012

Dark Romanticism: The Poetics (or lack thereof) of the Age of Mass Murder

 “With diadem and sceptre high advanced                                                                                                         The lower still I fall, only supreme                                                                                                                           In misery; such joy ambition finds.”

       -John Milton, Paradise Lost, IV.90-2.    

“The mind which is immortal makes itself                                                                                                  Requital for its good or evil thoughts–                                                                                                                 Its own origin of ill and end–                                                                                                                             And its own place and time”

-Lord Byron, ManfredIV.129-132

“No one ever became famous by beating his wife to death in an alley; but virtually all our multiple murderers achieve true and lasting fame.” -Elliott Leyton

“His mission was his own public recognition.”

-Professor Scott Bonn on Luka Magnotta, in the Huffington Post article “Luka Magnotta, Accused Canadian Cannibal, Attracting Female Fans” by David Moye. 

     The English Romantic poets grew up in a time of global chaos, during which their home remained at relative peace. They watched revolutions spark and grow or fail around them, nearly tasting the glory of living and fighting and dying in a cause– but at one remove, in the calm of their almost universally well-educated, well-off families. Wordsworth spent time in France and was preoccupied by its revolution; Shelley went to Ireland, and hoped for its rebellion; Byron fought in Greece, and died there– not in battle, but of illness. Their imagination and passion, a reaction against the rational, ordered world of the Enlightenment, made them want battle and magic, despite the freethinking and anti-religious bent of many of them. They hoped and feared the secret that made life run and looked for it both in science and in the elusive soul. 

   I am, of course, grossly oversimplifying, but I think there are certain parallels between the Romantic period and our own– and I think this in part explains the rash of mass shootings from a slightly older part of my own generation. I was born in 1991, nearly fifty years after the end of World War II, just as the Soviet Union was falling and the Cold War ending, and, of course, ten years before 9/11 and the beginning of the War on Terror. For a child born into a middle-upper class white American family in the 1980s and early 1990s, the world held only promise. The one fear that plagued children and parents was the specter of child abduction. Even with the World Trade Center attack in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, there was a sense that these were isolated incidents propelled by individual madmen. There was little impress of existential angst on my generation during our childhood, no fear of atomic bombs or pervasive terrorism. There were no rations, there was no sense of urgent patriotism, no pro patria mori sold to us as glory. The Holocaust was dead history to us, the Soviet Union even unimaginable, nuclear weapons something generally bad, but whose making was necessary, and no one was threatening to shoot them, Iran and North Korea didn’t have them (and those just names in atlases, countries to place and memorize on a map, if that). Instead, we got praise, music lessons, the value of art and literature, soccer and tennis, camping and museum trips handed us by our schools and our parents, told that we could be whatever we wanted. And then we grew up, and the world changed. 

   But before the world changed: the older part of our generation– or perhaps even the half-generation before– who was beginning to be grown up in the late ’90s– was realizing that there was no magic, and that not everyone can be whatever they want to be. That suddenly the world grows flat and you march on towards death, without greatness or even much excitement, without meaning. This is best epitomized in the novel Fight Club, which came out in 1996, and the film, in 1999. This was also around the time that school shootings became almost a regular occurrence, a kind of national sacrifice– but to what? Why did kids shoot each other? Why, now, do bright young people– note that now the shooters tend to be older, of the same cohort as the teenage shooters of the 1990s  and early 2000s were–shoot up classrooms, and now, most recently, movie theaters? 

     Serial killers have always had an element of celebrity to them, and as often as not that was part of the motivation. This has not changed: Luka Magnotta, who killed his lover in Canada, put a video of the murder on the Internet, and sent his victim’s limbs to schools and political party headquarters, is merely this old impulse writ large and hopped up on serial killer movies and TV shows. Someone recently wrote of Magnotta that he was a mission-killer, and that his mission was his own fame. This is what is new to serial murder, and mass murder, and it reflects a larger cultural trend: a quest, a mission, can simply be about promoting oneself, creating oneself, selling oneself. This is the extreme end of “be yourself” in all times and in all places. Being one’s self is not evil, but, like a person’s right to swing her fist, it ends at the tip of the next person’s nose. The imperative to “be yourself” does not extend to creating that self at the expense of another. People must never, ever, be mistaken for props; this is what Hannah Arendt described as the elimination of another person’s spontaneity, the reduction of a human into an interchangeable cog, that is the real evil of totalitarianism. 

    It’s that new kind of cause, shooting up a school– a self-cause. The easy explanation is always bullying, but in practice that’s rarely true, nor can it be the whole story. Why is the same cohort, from the same singular moment of peace and prosperity in the U.S., continuing to produce mass shooters? There hasn’t been nearly the same volume of high school shootings since; Virginia Tech, NIU, and now the Aurora shootings have come from people roughly in the same age group as those in middle and high school during Columbine and the other shootings of the late 1990s. What is the value, why did they do it, why do they keep doing it? Part of it, as with serial killers, is celebrity, the desire for which has been heightened by a culture that obsesses over its celebrities, and in which Facebook and Twitter now produce constant venues for navel-gazing, where YouTube produces its own celebrities. But people have wanted lasting fame since history began, and not many have killed to get it– only that’s not quite true, is it? Generals get fame. Mass murderers who were at the time legitimated by their own tyranny gain fame. Violence does get you recognition, so that’s one piece; competition with the strange brethren of mass killers and the growing capabilities and availability of assault rifles together drive up the body count at each event; the idea of making some statement in blood is usually there, too, the killers never realizing that running blood drowns out all words and makes them nothing to the corpses that provide it. But there is in all these motivations, most tellingly, a desire to join some coterie of greatness (because, as we children of the 1990s know from Harry Potter, one can be both terrible and great). If one has grown up being promised greatness, and no quest, no mystery, no pitched battle, no moment of decisive heroism, no defining adventure has yet presented itself, then perhaps, to some twisted minds, the opposite possibility begins to suggest itself, of being not Harry but Voldemort– or Tom Riddle as was– the possibility of transformation through violence, of becoming someone new– someone great– through becoming evil. Of acting, however horribly, of drawing oneself into a starring role in big, historical events of one’s own invention. It is a terrible form of self-making that works through impressing other souls into one’s own grand theatre against their will and then destroying them in the service of lifting oneself up as above the world, written in red ink in the big book of Notoriety. Becoming Voldemort, becoming terrible, becoming a thing of blood to be both feared and remembered (Coriolanus– Caius Martius as was– made his name, literally, through his bloody actions, too). But in some sense it’s less the fame than the greatness, the excitement, finally getting inside the world of fantasy and video game and story, being part of something thrillingly beyond the scope of the everyday– the world of adventure promised by a childhood not filled with fear, if on the other side, no longer in the role of the hero (though some still manage to cast themselves that way, their human faculty for self-justification not nearly so broken as that of empathy). 

    How does this relate to the Romantics? Well, there’s the vicarious pursuit of a cause, of glory, of an adventure and excitement that seem out of place in the world to which one was born. This can be parlayed into something good, if one wants mainly the cause and the meaning, or to do good– or it can become a form of thrill-seeking, which in the darkest minds becomes something which requires the sacrifice of others to the goal of self-transformation, of making something happen. Some men just want to watch the world burn– others want nothing more or less than to set it ablaze, whatever the cost. The Romantic poets were obviously not of this stripe, not even Byron; there is something in those capable of really good poetry that holds them back from the edge of this abyss. Perhaps this is the reason why, however much they try, serial killers and mass murderers cannot write well. To write poetry or literature, or even to write to any kind of an audience, requires empathy, moving beyond the all-consuming narcissism (for it isn’t simply self-love, it’s also deep self-hatred) that drives the thrill-killer or the mission-killer. We call their writings mad ramblings not simply because of what they’ve done, but because of the fact that they can’t get outside of themselves enough to compose with another mind in view, because for them there is only one mind, their own. One who can conceive of another human being as a listener or who can create one as a character cannot in good conscience destroy one, and certainly cannot mistake the destruction of another life as art. Art is creative– and this is why it is often said that evil cannot create. If not empathy, creation requires at least an intellectual understanding of how another mind works, which necessitates the conscious holding in one’s mind the fact another person’s humanity (sociopaths are, I think, quite capable of doing this for a period of time, and of intellectually understanding the importance of other people; it is sadistic sociopaths, those who both lack empathy and require the destruction of another person’s dignity for their satisfaction, who cannot). The Romantics loved Milton’s Satan– but they were never him. He spoke poetry, true, and was certainly more sympathetic than Milton’s rather ugly, awful (but entirely theologically accurate) God– but he could not create people. Even he, though, was better than these murderers are– not only does he not, in Paradise Lost, actually kill anyone, despite fathering Death in several respects– he is also capable of building Pandaemonium out of Hell, of some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language (as, before him, were Faustus, Mephostophilis, and Macbeth), and, most importantly, of insight. He knows what he is, he understands how fallen he has become, and he makes the conscious decision to continue in evil– as does Macbeth, as does Faustus. This faculty for self-comprehension and analysis, for understanding the evil one does, is very often absent in mass murder and serial murder. These killers are not haunted by the ghosts of their victims, one finds; they would do it again. Lucifer had a cause, a kind of freedom at least. Faustus wanted to break the limits God placed on human knowledge. Macbeth himself comes closest, in admitting that his only motivation is ambition, but even he is capable of a deep and destructive guilt, and of admitting his own evil. The fact is, the Romantics wouldn’t have very much liked a character truly based on a mass murderer or serial killer, because the plain fact of them is, they  aren’t very interesting. They do the things they do because that fascinates people, that compels us to listen to them, to wonder about them, to write them letters and ask them questions and write whole books speculating on their states of mind. They’re famously solely for their sin, and they sin solely to become famous, to be interesting. They couldn’t make adventures on their own, without hurting someone else. Really, what they are is empty. If they didn’t murder, no one would ever want to write a book about them, or talk about them– and that obsolescence is the thing they fear. 

    I think these kind of shootings have been so much less common among the younger part of this generation– mine– because of 9/11 and the War on Terror, and because we’re now more worried about getting jobs than being rock stars. Our expectations have lessened, in part– and we’ve been engaged in a global conflict for most of our lives, cast in terms of a battle between good and evil by George W. Bush when we were young. I was against going into Iraq when I was twelve; I had impassioned arguments against the implementation of torture and the selling of our nation’s soul when I was thirteen and fourteen; I’ve felt, as we’ve all felt, the terror both of being glared at and harassed with impunity by the TSA and of stepping onto a plane not knowing how well those scanners actually work (and once, of finding a knife forgotten in my own carry-on, and wondering what else was missed). Growing up not only with the spate of school shootings that scared us more than tempted us, I think, but with the bigger enemy of terrorism haunting us from childhood made us somehow different than those who came immediately before, perhaps more chary of our lives knowing that some large external force might destroy them (I’m sure the great amorphous dragon of terror that consumed our lives utterly in the days after 9/11, thinking that at any moment “they” might attack again, and worse, made some fundamental mark on us). 

    The other important thing that has happened– this one a good thing– that began in earnest only a year after I left high school is the recognition that bullying is, actually, a very traumatizing and legitimately concerning issue, not just a case of “kids will be (disturbingly sadistic borderline and sometimes actually assaultive) kids.” The recognition of this comes with more attention not just toward bullying itself, but toward kids on the fringes, who might take dramatic and deadly action. I think such shootings often must come out of nihilism as well as lack of empathy and a portion of sadism or a delusional idea of mission, and these things, when bullying and the kids who might be its victims are examined more closely, become more easily evident to administrators and teachers. 

     Obviously, another thing is assault rifles; what the hell does anyone think people are going to do with assault rifles but kill other humans? The Founding Fathers did not mean assault rifles when they wrote the Constitution. No one outside of the military needs an assault rifle for a legitimate purpose, and it would be far better if no one, including the military, had them at all, I think. Guns make it much easier to kill than knives. To kill someone with a knife requires a terrible intimacy, requires you to face what you are doing, and to whom you are doing it. Guns make it easy to hide from your own actions, to pretend that what you are shooting is not really another person, to suspend empathy even for those who do have it. But guns aren’t the only problem, either; without guns such a person doesn’t mount quite as high a body count, but I think it likely that they would, in this kind of case, still try to kill with gas or bombs or, as in We Need to Talk About Kevin, perhaps even arrows (one can reload more of them more quickly than you might think). They kill out of their own emptiness and lack, out of a dark and incomprehensible inner void that requires the death of others not only to transform themselves, but to create a self, because without their actions they don’t have one at all. They kill to become someone, anyone; they kill because they can find no better way to live. They are death, in a sense– an utter lack that demands to be fed by those who possess life. There is no sense in it for those of us who have a self made by living; we could never know what it is to need to leave a teenage girl bleeding on a theater floor, or aim a gun at a four-month-old infant. We could never need to shoot a politician in the head, to kill an old man and a nine-year-old girl, not to make a political statement but out of delusion and the need for fame, for others to write about us and to, in effect tell us who we are. Because that is what they gain– what not even Milton’s Lucifer needed, because he knew himself well– they gain the attention of other people, but more than that, in killing others they drive us, compel us, to wonder and analyze and attempt to conclude something about who they are. We tell them, because in killing they drive us to ask the same question they’ve been asking all their lives, because they think their need to have it answered for them rather than working it out themselves is greater than others’ need to live. We tell them who they are, and in their minds, murderer is better than nothing

July 19, 2012

Oxford Edition 3: Once More Unto the Breach! Also, Paris

   On our first weekend at Oxford, our entire group went to London on the train. Most of our group did not want to see Henry V at the Globe for five pounds because they’re clearly delusional, but four of us did and promptly fell in love with Hal. Because, obviously. Seriously though, during his scene with Katherine I don’t think there was a single person in the audience not holding his or her breath– and then my high school friend, Patrick, who is staying in London, and I went to Paris. Pretty much that quickly. By this I don’t mean we got to Paris quickly, but we left the Globe, ate a lovely dinner, took the Tube to Victoria, got mildly lost in the coach station, and then left for Paris. On a bus.

     This bus– the London to Paris bus– was driven by a man who spoke only Spanish– no English and no French– and who communicated with shouting and gesturing vehemently to the blank incomprehension of most of the passengers. For a brief period of absolute panic, we thought there was no toilet on the bus, at which point Patrick informed me that if he had to pee in his pants on a bus next to someone, he was glad it was going to be me, which I’m still not entirely sure was a compliment. But fortunately there was a toilet. An unnecessarily hidden toilet, but a toilet. This was mostly fortunate for the rest of the passengers, because Patrick and I, having only brought backpacks, had decided that if there was no toilet, we were going to find our way into the hold of the bus and pee with, or perhaps accidentally on, the luggage. 

    Having assuaged our urine-related fears, we settled in for an eight-hour ride to France, thinking we’d likely sleep once we got to the Chunnel. Clearly someone at some point had misinformed us as to the nature of the Chunnel, because we were under the very much mistaken impression that one can drive a car– or a bus– through it, which is not, apparently, so. Blissfully unaware, we watched an incredible full moon, harvest orange and enormous, rise over London as we drove out of it, through Deptford, which introduced us to the notion of the 24 hour defense law practice and which, apparently, remains precisely as sketchy as it was when Christopher Marlowe was stabbed in the eye there in 1593, but with the added benefit of neon lights. 

     We were also the only people to get visibly excited as we drove through Deptford, because Christopher Marlowe and his awesomeness are sadly neglected, even in England. However, I have decided that I will probably not be following through on my plan to explore Deptford on my own, because I quite like being alive and am deathly terrified of being poked in the eye, let alone stabbed. 

     Having left Deptford, we talked through the darkness of the English countryside, annoying a Spanish man in front of us. I was unsympathetic to his irritation as a) he clearly felt no compunction to help out with the driver’s shouty madness, and b) he had leaned his seat all the way back well before the talking, leaving us practically no space, something exactly no one else on the bus was doing because it was obnoxious. Then I saw a monstrous white thing gleaming in the night. And another, and then another, looming like terrifying, craggy, mossy teeth out of apparently nowhere. We had reached the white cliffs of Dover. I was excited. Patrick was not. But things soon got the other kind of exciting, the kind that ranges from mildly agitating to the imminent fear of death. We soon realized based on clever deductions from the other buses, road signs, and giant boats nearby that the Chunnel was not a thing for buses, but thought that perhaps we would simply get on a ferry and sit on the bus inside of a ferry. This was a thing that would have made sense, but instead we pulled up, with not even a shouty incomprehensible Spanish explanation, at a shed in the middle of a parking lot, and, after sitting there a minute, began to realize that we were all supposed to get off the bus. We had no idea whether or not we would ever see the bus again, nor did we know what was going to happen in the shed, so we grabbed our backpacks and joined the passengers from several other buses in a queue…for customs? For death by firing squad? For a ferry? We had no idea. As we got inside the shed itself, we realized that the balance of probability was that we were going through customs, but the unlabeled haphazardness of the whole thing, plus the fact that everyone’s bigger bags were still on the bus, plus the open and pointedly visible interrogation closet inside the shed made us wonder whether, after checking our passports, they wouldn’t simply shoot us as we walked through the door. We knew there was a 99.99999% likelihood that this wouldn’t happen, but since we’d been on a bus for several hours already, there was the slightest possibility that, in those several hours, the entire world had gone to shit or someone had nuked someone else or Congress had finally, actually, spontaneously imploded from utter madness and America wasn’t a country anymore, or something. The complete lack of any explanation for anything was the most nervewracking part. 

     Obviously, we were not taken outside the chemical shed and shot, at least not in this universe, but the rather mad journey continued to be…rather mad. We got back on the bus, drove about 100 yards, and stopped again, again with no explanation. We all started to get up, but were shouted back down by the driver; eventually we were made to understand that bags from the hold were being randomly selected for search by customs, and that we were only to get off and go through security if we saw our bags taken out below. Then we waited an unnecessarily long time for someone to claim the last bag and go through security with it. They kept asking, and finally brought it on the bus and held it up, at which point Mr. Super-Reclining Irritated Spanish Man realized it was his and dragged His Royal Highness off the bus to submit to peasant security or whatnot, which the customs people did not appreciate very much. Finally, he strolled back onto the bus and we drove for perhaps another 300 yards before getting into a queue of buses to get onto the ferry. Once on board the ferry, we were all kicked off the bus and marshaled up a staircase with about a million other people, until we emerged onto one inner deck of a ferry, which seemed designed (by which I mean was designed) to get people to make bad decisions, not to sleep, and also as the sort of hell Anthony J. Crowley might design if put in charge. Flashing lights, a bar, gambling machines of some kind or other next to the bar (because Hell isn’t really subtle and neither is capitalism), and, basically, a big shiny floating mall. Also, a coffee shop, because there is some mercy for damned souls, apparently, or perhaps it was just to ensure that no one slept. Also, it was about 2 am by this point, and the ferry journey was 90 minutes. Also, because it was that kind of night, the bathroom on our end of the deck was out of service, which necessitated walking through the entire floating mall to get to another one. 

      Having survived the ferry journey, which, when we were sitting away from the floating mall, was actually kind of fun, we all clambered back onto the bus and headed off into the sunrise. I managed to sleep for an hour and a half, and woke to see the orange light of very early morning just beginning to illuminate the French countryside, which was actually kind of awesome. Less awesome was when drove into the banlieue, which was apparently where our Metro stop was, just through all of the graffiti ever and past the “hobo’s nest,” as Patrick termed it, with a couch in it (admittedly, if you’re going to have a hobo’s nest, this one was pretty impressive). Then we were kicked off the bus and sent into the metro station with, again, no guidance. 

     Because I occasionally think things through, I had checked on the Paris Metro system and knew precisely how to get to our hotel, so this should have been the easy part. But before we could take the Metro, we had to get tickets. Of course, because it was 7:30 in the god-damn-morning and we hadn’t slept, the ticket machine was completely unamenable to our accomplishing this with our debit cards, which was a problem because we had decided to wait to exchange pounds for euros until we got to France, on the unassailable logic that we would probably get a better deal. This is as it turns out not a sufficiently good reason to not have any of the currency of a country you’re going to when you get there, unless you are going to arrive in a major airport full of currency exchanges. Otherwise, bad plan. Fortunately, the man behind the counter eventually managed to make our cards work and get us our tickets, and to understand our garbled exhausted-person rusty French through a glass window. 

     We got to our hotel, where a disgruntled French man told us in English to come back around noon or one. His cat appeared equally disgruntled. Also, it appeared in a hotel, which seemed partly useful (for killing mice) and partly ill-advised (people with deathly allergies to felines not being aware of said cat’s existence prior to arriving). 

      As it develops, everyone in Paris on Saturday morning is still sleeping off Friday night in Paris until around noon or one, because nothing was open. We wandered down the Champs-Elysees (as it turns out, Hell, or at least Tantalus, is confounded in Elysium, because there were so many lovely cafes…all shut up for the next several hours. Water, water, everywhere…), looking for food or a currency exchange or a chair or a something, wandered some more, wandered some more again, and finally went back to the Starbucks in the Champs-Elysees– the only thing that was open– in abject American defeat. Then, there was more wandering, and some more, and then we went to the Eiffel Tower, but not up to the top, and then some sitting, and then some more wandering, and then it was time to go back and finally put the backpacks that someone seemed to have been surreptitiously sneaking stones into all morning away, but of course finding a metro at this point became obscenely difficult. Or perhaps this happened somewhere else, earlier– or perhaps later– but Paris shifts and moves and tricks you cruelly, and time there as well as space is hard to pin down– but we eventually managed it. 

     I took a great dislike to the concierge/owner/whatever of the hotel/hostel/house at once. This was because, like a stereotypical French concierge, he was enormously condescending, but there was nothing remotely great about his hotel, which had an unadvertised cat, and had, contrary to its website, no ensuite toilet, though it did at least have an ensuite sink and shower. It also had no visible outlet, meaning that I spent several hours charging things at Starbucks while Patrick was napping at one point. Later we discovered that, despite Mr. Snootypants’ condescending assertion that the outlet was (obviously) near the lamp and the mirror, it was in fact behind a headboard. Which was in the opposite corner from the lamp or the mirror, so fuck you, dude. Before going to Starbucks again (because god knows whether outlets are too declasse for French cafes, or something), and before Patrick’s nap, I had a minor/major breakdown of sheer exhaustion/hunger, because we’re all one night’s lack of sleep and two missed meals away from histrionic toddlers. But I calmed myself, though I almost started up again when it turned out that finding shampoo or soap that is not a million dollars in France is actually really difficult. Eventually I found some kind of 2-in-1 hair and body “wash” that was “soap free” at Monoprix, which was somewhat alarming. Then I got to watch a tourist from somewhere else in Europe and the barista get into a screaming fight in English, which was both of their second language, over whether or not he had made her drink incorrectly, because apparently they do things differently in France and she took exception to this, so that was a fun fifteen minutes (no, really, it was fifteen minutes) for everyone involved. Patrick met me there after his nap, and we went up to the Sacre Coeur, which was cool until, on our way down, one of the men who tries to hawk “friendship bracelets” grabbed me by the wrist for the second time that day despite my telling him no. 

    If you don’t want to hear a feminist rant, you might want to skip this paragraph. 

     So here’s the deal: these guys– and they were everywhere near the Sacre Coeur– didn’t target Patrick, they targeted me, because I’m a woman. And because it happened both on the way up and down that someone not only got in my face after I’d told them no, but physically grabbed me by the wrist, I was really, really pissed off. Because I know it sucks to hawk pieces of yarn by French monuments, and that jobs are hard to come by, and that they’ve had a harder day than me, and a much harder life. But the fact that it’s seen as okay to grab a strange woman by the wrist after she’s told you no in an attempt to force her to buy something is a problem. It’s also not a good way to get me to give you money. It’s a good way to get me to kick you in the nuts, which I only managed to not do because I really didn’t want to get arrested in France, or to get me to scream, “Touch me again and I’ll call the police, I said no,” which is what I in fact did. The response to this was “Fuck you, bitch,” because obviously he’s totally entitled to grab me in public because he wants something from me and doesn’t respect me saying no. Except for no, not really, at all, ever. Rape culture, people, it’s a real thing. Also, this kind of thing made me really dislike Paris, which is sad. But everyone there seems to want something from you, and has no qualms about demanding it. And the Metro takes a lot longer to show up than the Tube, and is much more likely to smell of piss. Also, Chatelet metro station is actually the ninth circle of Hell. In some universe, Patrick and I are still lost down there, damned to wander forever without escape. That part was kind of horrifying. 

    We did manage to find our way with only minor incident (namely that it started pouring more rain than I’d seen it pour– yet– in England) to the Centre-Ville to have dinner before going on a boat tour of the Seine. We found, after much searching for a place that did not cost approximately a million dollars and was also not McDonald’s, a nice restaurant with a waiter who seemed highly and inexplicably amused by our existence, but who was nice enough to not burst into open hilarity. The food was also quite good, and I had my only glass ever of French wine in France, despite having gone when I was eighteen, but still listened to my parents (kidding. Mostly). Then we took a boat tour, which was lovely, except that I kept falling asleep. Some of the people sitting by the Seine decided to moon us, which was just what I was looking for on my boat tour, so thanks for that. It was really cool to see everything by night, and going beneath the bridges on the water gave the city a very medieval feeling. 

      The next day was also nice; we tried to go to the Louvre but realized that we’d be standing in line until we had to leave, so we wandered to Notre Dame and then onto the Left Bank, where we looked at St. Severin’s church and then went to Shakespeare and Company bookstore, where we’re totally going to live and write at some point in the near future. I bought a wonderful book of short stories by Chris Adrian, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which reminded me a bit of some of Glen Duncan, who is one of my favorite authors (sorry, Tara). Then we searched for a place that had takeaway food for a while, and at it outside of Notre Dame while discussing the possibility of vampires living in the crypt (where, like the crypt at Sacre-Coeur, Patrick refused to go. So if I ever go back to Paris, it’s going to be with some of my anthro friends who aren’t creeped out by dead people, which I had honestly forgotten that most people are). Then we got on the Metro from the Cite station, which was actually pretty cool, and went to Gare du Nord, where we had a mild adventure in obtaining our train tickets and then got on a rather Hogwarts Express-esque car. It was mostly Hogwarts Express-esque because it was full of schoolchildren, who were actually much better behaved than their adolescent and young adult chaperones. So we did, eventually, get to go through the Chunnel after all, which is, like most things, only abjectly terrifying if you think about it, so I tried not to, for once. 

     Back in London, I conducted some rather heroic maneuvers on the Tube: having hopped on a train that was claiming to be a Hammersmith via Paddington train from St. Pancras, I and several other passengers were rather surprised to hear the announcement at Edgware Road that the train would not be stopping at Paddington (nonetheless, I was elated to be back on the every-two-minutes, bright-shiny-clean Underground rather than the Metro. Sorry, Paris). Most elected to stay on; noticing that the District train stopped across the platform was also going to Paddington, I darted out the doors of one car and through the doors of another, just in time. Arriving at Paddington and making my way into the National Rail area of the station, I saw that the express train to Oxford was boarding and would leave in three minutes, so I collected my ticket from the machine and booked it halfway across the station, leapt into a car, dropped into a seat, and watched as the train pulled out of the station, feeling rather impressed with myself. I was back in Oxford in time to get dinner, a feat of engineering (and not a little running) that has made me quite impressed with this whole “getting to another country in two hours European high-speed rail” thing. 

    In conclusion, I much prefer London to Paris, which is pretty apparent given that I found myself referring to Paris as some form of hell more often than was perhaps appropriate. But it is good to know that my love for London is real, and that not even the glamour and perfume of Paris can seduce me away from my true love. Nor, in fact, can Oxford; its smooth sandstone curves and smell of old books may be sexy, but in the end the crowds of tourists in and out on the weekend just infuriate me far too much (and I am deeply, deeply sorry for the awful extended metaphor in deep need of a jackhammer. But I would marry London if they would let me. London is definitely the one). 

July 19, 2012

Oxford Edition 2: “Independence Day in the Land of Tyranny” (Thanks, Mom).

I was going to write a post on the 4th of July, but then we may or may not have pinched some tea from the dining hall and dumped it in the Thames and I’ve been distracted pretty much constantly ever since…it’s actually a pity that I did spend the 4th of July here this year of all years, because as my friend Tara posted beautifully about on Facebook, I’ve finally begun to, you know, kind of love America again, even though we still have our spats, and if it elects Romney we may have to break up or at least not speak for four years. But for a long time now I’ve thought I’d live abroad, and I still want to, at least for a while (because London has completely ruined me for everywhere else, ever), I might actually– gulp– move back to America, and, like, live there. But the idea of living anywhere forever still kind of makes me want to throw up.

But America has its charms. Like supermarkets and people walking in some semblance of an orderly fashion (THIS IS A THING, PEOPLE CAN’T DO IT HERE, I THINK IT’S BECAUSE THERE ARE SO MANY TOURISTS AND THEY WALK ON THE RIGHT INSTEAD OF THE LEFT OR JUST ANYWHERE BECAUSE CENTER OXFORD IS A SHITSHOW AND IT DEEPLY FRUSTRATES ME). Mm. American Starbucks also has classic syrup, and hence “double-shots,” which are actually four shots shaken over ice with classic syrup and then have milk added and are fantastic rocket fuel. But British Starbucks actually has a reasonably sized seating area, and much more food. Neither country has things other than nightclubs open late enough for my life, so that’s even. And I am never going to a nightclub ever again, so that’s irrelevant. Nightclubs are exactly like high school dances, but strangers don’t get yelled at when they grind on you, unless you yell at them, and no one has to pretend not to be drunk. And I hated high school dances, and I hate nightclubs, so that’s that. Bookstores here, though, are much much better, and it’s a problem. But America was the great Enlightenment experiment (not that you’d necessarily know it now), and I’ve developed more affection for its noble aims, for what it tried and still tries to do. And all those peaceful transfers of power– even 1860, though violence erupted afterward in part due to Lincoln’s election, and may again now, because we’ve got some of the same poisonous cocktail going on– is nothing to sneer at. It’s earnest and big and noisy and inordinately proud, and while that pride is often destructive I know that I myself am inordinately proud, so I feel a kinship. It is a country that feels things deeply and broadly and expresses itself openly and constantly and in a thousand different ways. Our freedom of expression laws are the most liberal in the world. That is something important and necessary, and I am glad that I come from a place whose laws have for hundreds of years codified and defended and held most dear of all things the absolute right to say whatever one wants, no matter how offensive or inconvenient, and that against all the challenges that have been made to that right, it has won and remains the strongest and most unifying piece of our nation. We can all agree that we like, in theory, freedom of speech– the thing that gives us the right to shout at each other to shut up when we don’t like what the other side is saying, and for us all to blithely ignore that commandment and go on shouting.

July 2, 2012

Oxford Edition 1: A Room of One’s Own (ish)

    Today, at around 9:40 am, British Summer Time, I was admitted as an external reader at the Bodleian Library of Oxford, which probably ranks among the most exciting things that have ever happened to me, especially because it was in the College Parliament room, immediately adjacent to the College Courtroom, where Percy Shelley got expelled from Oxford for writing his pamphlet expounding the virtues of atheism…and then sending it to certain dons. Because he was a badass. A badass afraid of scary stories, granted, but a badass nonetheless. 

    I think the first time I ever heard of the Bodleian Library was in reading Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, when I was around fourteen or fifteen, and quite early on she has herself wandering around Oxford, carefully avoiding the grass as one must, unable to gain entry to the library, because to become a reader one must be a man. This was nearly all I could think of (aside, admittedly, from a little bit of HOGWARTS!! which, for someone of my generation, is pretty much inevitable. It may also have had a bit to do with my suitemate reciting most of the Sorting Hat poem at breakfast, as well…), and, sitting on the bench where members of the British Parliament once actually sat (around 1645, when Charles I was having just a bit of difficulty in that regard…), I began counting. There were six students from the program, including me, getting our cards, and five others, mostly older woman from various places. Two of the students were men. So of the eleven of us being admitted today, nine were woman. So, I have my card now, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, history or the Republican Party can do to take it away, and that makes me deeply, furiously, happy. 

   Of course, Oxford can take it away. Especially if I violate the oath that one must take, in one’s first language, out loud and in front of witnesses, to get a reader card. It primarily concerns not setting fire to anything, ever, ever, ever, in the library, and not damaging any of the nine million books it contains. Our introduction to the library, and our oaths, were given by a lovely woman named Helen, who, like everyone we saw working in the library, wears academic robes (which did nothing to dispell the whole HOGWARTS! thing going on). When she heard that my thesis was on Doctor Faustus, she exclaimed, “Good! Knowledge!” 

   So, since I haven’t really got a point right now other than I HAVE THE BEST LIBRARY CARD EVER, SERIOUSLY, GUYS, THE BEST, AND ALSO NINE MILLION BOOKS WHICH IS MORE THAN TWICE AS MANY PEOPLE AS LIVE IN IRELAND, IN CASE YOU WERE CURIOUS, my current thinking is that “Good! Knowledge!” may just be able to overcome the not-inconsiderable-ungrateful-lazy bit of my brain that is quite tired and would really prefer to go home and sleep in the sun for a not-inconsiderable period of time. Which is a better solution to academic ennui, I suppose, than summoning a demon. Erm. Well. Not that I haven’t tried. Ironically, of course, as is my wont, but nonetheless tried. So. A better solution than successfully summoning a demon. And selling it your soul. Which, I mean, really, if you’re already going to Hell you might as well try to get something out of the whole thing, although asking for only twenty-four years is selling oneself a bit short, I think. But yeah. So, good, knowledge! And aspiring pride and insolence to boot. We’ll see where and how this one goes…

June 23, 2012

Wrapped in a Flag, Carrying a Cross

“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

-Sinclair Lewis

“I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience…Here I stand. I can do no other.” – Martin Luther (this will be important later. Trust me).

Just when I’m back to thinking humans are kind of great and all, a family member (not immediate family, thankfully) with whom I am friends on Facebook posted this gem: Literally Wrapped in a Flag. (I hope that link works, because I am not in fact excellent at links). In case it doesn’t, it’s a picture of an elderly woman who is literally wrapped in a flag and also waving one, and the very large text in the picture reads, “Hey! It’s either One Nation Under God, or bite my ass and just leave!”

Ah. The eloquence of intolerance. It’s quite…stunning. Some of the comments are even better. My personal favorite, if by favorite one means “the one I am actually considering reporting to some sort of authority as a terrorist threat” is “Amen! And pass the ammunition if they don’t [leave].” Lovely. Lovely, beautiful, empathetic human creatures, sharing in the bliss of our brief but astonishingly brilliant lives. Oh, fucking hell.

I should say that I am always extraordinarily careful to be respectful and polite about my family’s religious beliefs around them. I carefully block certain of my Facebook posts so as not to offend, put up with my parents telling me how great God is and how they wish I had faith, and keep silent about my own feelings on the issue (basic logic –> atheism, at least for my brain, but I know it’s not like that for everyone). If my extended family (other than some of my more likeminded cousins) knows I no longer believe, it’s because my parents told them. So this kind of thoughtless ignorance and insensitivity, NOT TO MENTION BLATANT, RAGING, DISTURBING HISTORICAL INACCURACY, really pisses me off. Even though because I’m so quiet about this with my extended family, the family member in question probably doesn’t know I am personally offended. Although thinking back to myself at thirteen, right before I lost my faith, I think I would probably have been offended anyway, because telling people to leave America for disagreeing with something or not speaking a certain language or doing or believing a certain thing has always, always, made me REALLY MAD.

Plus, this is like the time I went to the dentist’s in my old hometown in the boondocks. On the wall of the little exam room where they put me, there was a sign that said “[Name of the hygienist’s] heroes: saving america from the godless communist heathens” and had a black and white picture of a soldier. I thought it must be some kind of inside joke (because who says godless communist heathens and isn’t joking?). I was so, so wrong. The hygienist (who was about ten years younger than my mother, who is now 51, and so did not have age as an excuse), with her hands in my mouth, proceeded a story about her daughter which managed to demonstrate marked, casual, unquestioned bigotry toward African-Americans, Latinos, LGBT people, and atheists. In fact, it concluded with, “But the guy she was dating turned out to be an atheist. That just isn’t right, you know? I mean, I’d rather she date a black guy than an atheist.”  I was so shocked that I couldn’t even summon the wherewithal to bite her. I wasn’t shocked that she thought these things, because I know intellectually that there are people who think like this; I was shocked that she was so open about it, that in 2009 or 2010, she thought it perfectly acceptable to tell a stranger about all this and expect agreement, to think it was safe and that I was part of her ‘us’ simply because I’m white. If she’d done it this year, I probably would have waited until she finished and then just sweetly said, “You know, atheists aren’t all bad. I mean, my boyfriend and his parents quite like me.” (This would not have been a lie in 2009, although my boyfriend at the time was also an atheist). I do firmly believe that no one has the right not to be offended, but good god, what a stupid assumption it is that underlies interactions like that, and postings like this.

I think she may know I’m an atheist now, because this is what I posted (not on the picture, because it’s family and I want plausible deniability; just on my wall, hanging out, all innocuous and stuff:

Freethinkers were among the founders of this nation. ‘Under God’ was added to the pledge in the 1950s. This country was founded on the premise that men and women are free to believe and speak according to their conscience. I am an American and an atheist. These are not mutually exclusive terms; atheists have fought and are fighting for our country. We have been part of its intellectual formation and its growth, and now we are part of its diversity and its strength. You don’t have to like it, but I will NOT leave, I do not believe, and you can bite MY ass. There is no religious requirement to be an American; that’s the POINT of America.

I also posted a similar comment to the picture itself, though not on my family member’s wall. This one included what may become my new catchphrase: “I’m not believing, I’m not leaving, and I won’t be quiet about it either.” Or, alternatively, as I’ve always really wanted to say: “Here I stand. I can do no other, bitches.” (perhaps important was the wrong word). But what Martin Luther said is relevant here, I think, although if I were a Christian, I would, at this point, have to be a kind of Calvinist. I believe that some people are ‘wired’ to believe, and others are not. I don’t think this negates free will, necessarily, but rather that it highly predisposes some people to an easy, certain, confident faith and others to doubt, struggle, and questioning. Maybe for some of the first kind of people, logic could alter that faith, or it could be brought to bear on something other than religion, depending on the environment; the second sort of person might still cling to their faith (or might consider themselves non-Elect Calvinists), or find a faith in which their doubt was acceptable. But it certainly makes it much more likely that the first sort will be some kind of religious believer, and that the second sort won’t. I can’t believe. I have tried. Hard. It would in some ways be nice if I could, but that is not the way my brain works. In good conscience, I can’t say I believe, or– worse, because this would involve lying to myself and betraying the core of my being– force myself to engage in some facsimile of belief, ignoring the painful cognitive dissonance, distance from reality, and logical, cognitive, and personality gymnastics that this would involve for a mind like mine. My conscience dictates that I do not and cannot believe in god, and that I should not and cannot pretend otherwise. It also dictates that I should be polite and respectful to those who have not behaved in such a way as to disallow them politeness and respect from me, and so that I do not need to announce my disbelief to everyone when it is not necessary or appropriate.

But. This. Jesus. Or, rather, not. This has made me say, alright, hell with that (and with me, but we knew that one already). I am an atheist. I am an American. Deal with it, because I’m just as much of an American as anyone else and I am not going to shut up about it. I am sick and tired of it. I’m tired of people saying things like “pass the ammunition” and then pretending they’re afraid my scary scary nonbelief is a threat to democracy? SHOOTING PEOPLE YOU DISAGREE WITH, OR EVEN THREATENING TO SHOOT THEM, IS A THREAT TO DEMOCRACY. IT IS THE END OF DEMOCRACY. It’s not okay. Legislating your intolerance is not okay, and murdering for your intolerance is the definition of not okay, and hiding your intolerance behind the bulwarks of “tradition” and “sacredness” and “American patriotism” is both disingenuous and cowardly as fuck-all.



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