A Quiet Little Apocalypse

The idea of an apocalypse is no longer foreign. It’s gotten to the point that movies like A Quiet Place, with eight-legged spider-inspired hard-of-hearing monsters that have destroyed the world are perfectly plausible to the average viewer. We have lived there, in zombie movies, in flu-virus decimated cities, in worlds where technology went haywire or nukes or zealots or aliens or nothing at all really have destroyed the world so frequently, so thoroughly, that a world devoid of human life is almost expected.

The only question is, which way will it end? Global warming, fascism, an asteroid, stubborn dictator, stubborn leader of the free world (this is fill in the blank now!) or famine, or plague, or Flint, Michigan.

The most convincing of these all, now, is a logical conclusion. We need the panopeia of desolation. We need a world so thoroughly ravaged that every fear, those of terrorists and demagogues and over-running tributaries, of flesh-eating fungi and dead guy, ray-gun and immigrant, all converge into one singular annihilation event.

Can you imagine it? Influenza infected green men hacking on zombies that have fungus growing out of their radiation contaminated teeth?

Plus giant soundwave-pouncing spiders. All of it. Coming down on your head.

Now that’s something original.

Which isn’t to say the movie, A Quiet Place, wasn’t good. There were iconic scenes which I’ll never forget—the bathtub and the running water and shouting at the waterfall, a baptism into manhood, for instance—and John Krasinki’s portrayal of a father’s love, which in itself was a nod to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, was excellently rendered. The script was about as perfect as you could have hoped for, even if it did remind me Signs. And, if pressed to identify a weak link in the cinematic experience, I’d have to say that I was more annoyed by the utter silence of the movie theater than appropriately unsettled. I could hear kids munching popcorn three rows away and the bass of whatever blockbuster played in the adjacent theater. I’m not sure if it would have been better or worse at home.

It stuck with me though, because as the final credits rolled, I wondered why we crave annihilation. What about the idea of a world where there is only us, armed with our wits and years of cumulative distrust for the system in a hostile world, is so appealing?

Perhaps it’s because, on same base level, we know it’s so close. We already inhabit a world just waiting to fire, evict, condemn, expose, bully, and humble us at any opportunity. The environment is trashed and democracy is a steadily eroding beach. The world has been at war, in one place or another, since World War I. The post-apocalypse, then, is not only inevitable to our psyche, it is a world where no one is left with any good will and the hope that anything good will happen has finally been removed (mostly). There’s no more doubt about what’s trying to hurt you.

And, as a bonus, there’s plenty of solitude.

Maybe, subconsciously, that’s the future we look forward to when indulging in movies like A Quiet Place.  Whatever causes it to come to pass.

Researching Rome

I’ve been spending a ridiculous amount of time researching 1st century Rome lately, specifically the time period of Claudius and Nero, and I’ve learned a lot.

About Locusta, the poisoner responsible for deaths carried out by Agrippina and Nero of Claudius and Britannicus, respectively. Britannicus was especially brutal, his skin turning black so that there was no mistaking his poisoning. Nero made her prove her poison worked on a pig before administering it. Poor Locusta, it sounds like she got into the biz to support her large family as a single mother.

About Seneca, the ladder-climbing philosopher who balanced writing with advising Nero, a neat little madman of a performer who truly took his art a little too seriously.

About the ritual public executions during the lunch break in the amphitheater. “A little throat cutting so that there can be something going on” before the main event. And how they slaughtered ridiculous amounts of animals after torturing them. I guess there are worse things than spending your time watching Youtube.

About the cult of Cybele, the Magna Mater, who was brought from Phrygia to help defeat Hannibal and required ritual sacrifice of a bull. The initiate, in a chamber beneath the bull, would be showered in the bull’s blood after they slit its throat. The other way they could be initiated was auto-castration. Good fun, that one. Even the Romans turned their noses up at that. The bull was most likely their idea as a way to allow citizens to participate in a religion that was very much a part of the fabric of Rome.

It’s fascinatingly disturbing in a cold hard facts sort of way, but it gets a hundred times worse when I have to imagine this stuff in detail. It kind of scars the subconscious. The worst part is, this isn’t even the darkest period of Roman, or world, history.

An Oral History of Loss

I got verklempt in class today.

My students are undertaking an oral history project which will see them going to a local assisted living facility to interview senior citizens, then transcribe and edit the interviews into a personal history. As a former healthcare worker with extensive experience in long-term care, the project has a special meaning to me. I used to work nights and there were many times I got to sit down and get to know some of my residents. Without those experiences, I wouldn’t be the same person I am today.

While my students are preparing for this tricky interview, we’re also reading the play Our Town. I’ll admit it’s a boring play full of on-the-nose dialogue, but at its heart lies themes so universal they’re hard to ignore—the kind of themes I’m hoping my students can uncover as they go about their interviews. Most importantly, the play drives home the point that every single moment is important.

While we were preparing for the interview, the topic of being sensitive and tactful came up. Let’s face it, anyone who has lived into their eighties or nineties has lost people along the way. For a moment, looking into my students’ innocent, fun-loving faces, I saw a frightening image of them touching a nerve and turning to one another silently, doing the awk-waaard eye roll and quickly changing the subject to something safe, thereby losing what could be the most profound part of the interview.

Here’s where I got verklempt.

When my grandfather died, a lot of people kept saying to me, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

I could go the rest of my life without hearing that phrase again. When someone finally said to me, “It seems like you really cared about him. What was he like?” I was able to tell my story.

The night my grandfather died I was working a sixteen hour shift at a nursing home and was scheduled to stay until morning. I got a call from my mother telling me that it was happening. My grandfather, he had defied death for years. He actually spent months in a hospice facility and he might be the only person who didn’t leave there with a coroner.

My grandfather, he went home and lived for another year.

He’d had one foot in the grave so long we might as well have carried a broom with us when we went to visit because there was so much dust on him.

This time though, it was for real. My mother knew it when she called me, and knowing what I did about palliative care, I knew it too.

I drove the hour it took to get to my grandparents’ house in heavy rain, greasy windshield wipers doing their best to obscure the road. When I arrived, everyone was there. My mother has a large family, and the living room was so packed we couldn’t take a step without bumping into a hug.

Everyone he loved was there.

You know, I’ve seen a lot of people camp on death’s door. Sometimes, they wait until every last member of their family is there. The daughter that lives in Texas, the brother from Hawaii. They travel for days and then, minutes after they walk through the door, their loved ones pass.

My grandfather, he waited for me.

I held his hand. I don’t remember what I said other than I loved him, and then I moved out of the way to let his daughters, his wife, and everyone else rush back in.

I don’t remember what happened after he died. I can see in my mind the honey-sick-sweet light reserved for a room with someone sleeping and the bodies colliding together and getting stuck, holding onto each other as if for dear life.

I’m sure it was exactly how he wanted it.

I do remember being outside in the rain a short while later, talking to the hospice nurse who had the kind of strangely beautiful view of death that only one who has truly seen someone suffer can understand, then walking away into the darkened, misting rain glittering in the porchlight.

I crouched behind a vehicle and for the first time that night, I balled.

I cried harder than I had right to. I wasn’t even particularly close to my grandfather. He was quiet and didn’t often talk, but when he did it was always measured, intelligent, and kind. I knew enough to know that I not only loved him, but that I’d missed out by not knowing him better.

Of all the people crying that night, the person who held it together the best, the one who kept everyone else together, was my grandmother. She was the reason I had to walk away to cry. I couldn’t lose it in front of her.

I didn’t tell my students all this. We had a lesson to get through, an interview to prepare for, and, after all, I’m a writer. I’m don’t need an interview to tell my story.

We all have stories to tell though. Those little moments that Thornton Wilder said make all the difference, the ones that add up to everything that means something. Sometimes I wonder what good they are unless we have someone to share them with.

We have to be brave enough to ask, and care enough to listen.

Orlando, the site of the largest mass shooting in American history.

I’ve been watching the news feed all day. Scrolling through social media, trying to imagine how so much hate can fester to the point that an individual can think the only reasonable outcome is that people must die.

And I’ve been dealing with the fact that, as a teacher, I must do more. I’m firmly convinced that racism is the biggest problem America currently faces and I am on the front line.

When the clock kid hit the news, I was more than a little upset. I teach at a diverse school with a large Muslim population and all I could think was, it could have been one of my students. ANY of my students. I spent half the night tossing and turning because I knew the next day

I had to talk about racism.

I’m white, male, hetero. I’m playing the game of life on the easiest difficulty level imaginable. What on earth could I possibly say or do that would resonate with my students?

The next day, my class read a news article about the incident, then I asked them to write a response in their journals. After they shared, I told them about my experience on the receiving end of racism. Instantly I saw the interest on their faces. A white guy? With short hair, no tattoos and nice clothes on the receiving end of racism?

I was working with one of my friends as a plumber’s helper. I was a gopher. Go for this, go for that, and I basically stood around and watched him doing all the figuring and calculating and we joked around all day while riding around in his truck. It might have been one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I learned a lot and goofed off all day.

One day, while working at a residential job, my friend said to me, “Go out and cut four one inch pieces of 1 and 1/2 inch pipe.”

I went to the back of the truck, stretched out the measuring tape, and made four little pencil scratches on a long section of  pipe before grabbing the saws-all. Now, for the uninitiated, a saws-all is exactly what it sounds like. You can cut through walls with it, cut through metal wires and pipes. For a plumber it’s essential–and I was decent with it.

Zip, zip, zip, zip I made for cuts and efficiently let each piece hit the ground without stopping.

As the last piece of the pipe hit the ground I realized the homeowner was returning from getting the mail and saw the whole thing. Without hesitating he said, “You cut four pieces and none of them are the right length? What are you, French?”

As a matter of fact, I am.

Now, I’m not so French that I speak the language or identify as French or anything like that, but my last name is French. My ancestors were some of the first French settlers on the continent. It’s kind of a point of pride with me and my family.

And at that moment, as the homeowner walked away, for reasons I wasn’t even sure I comprehended, I was beyond angry. My mouth went dry, the saws-all fell to my waist and for the life of me, all I could think was, I want to cut him to shreds. I want to curse and shout and yell…but I didn’t. I was working for my friend and this man, who casually walked up into his house that I couldn’t afford, was my boss’s boss.

And I couldn’t. Say. A. Word.

I knew that if I swore and called him an asshole he would have laughed at me–halfheartedly apologized–and I would have lost as soon as I started my tirade. He’d have gotten exactly the reaction he wanted and had a story to tell about it–the little plumber’s helper who he happened to get a rise out of.

Racism, when you see it in action, is shocking. It’s so scary and visceral and utterly repulsive that when you see it, you don’t know what to say.

I told my students that day, don’t be like me. Don’t stand there stupid and wishing you had more than expletives to say. KNOW what you’re going to say because sooner or later you WILL see it, and it might be happening to your friend or, worse, you.

You better damn well know what you’re going to say before it happens.

My heart goes out to everyone in Orlando. God bless.

 

A baby, a book, and a work in progress

I hate, hate, HATE, self promotion. It’s like making a little bit of extra noise in a world that’s already full of shouting. But yesterday I got home from our baby shower to an unexpected surprise on my doorstep: two boxes full of freshly printed books.  It hit me that two things are going to happen this summer, whether I’m ready or not. I’m going to be a father and I’m going to have to do something to promote my book.13267928_10209659972359812_5498748765586947882_n

I feel like I can handle one of those things. The other, well…maybe there’s a book out there on networking and self promotion I can read.

Doesn’t matter. Life has it’s own timetable.

So, if you like time travel and are at all interested, please take a moment to pre-order my book.

After all, I have a baby on the way.