Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Chapter 18: Rock and No Water and the Sandy Road (Complete)

“BOZE!” cried Taylor, bursting into my room without warning one cold and sunny afternoon in the first week of April. “It’s so beautiful! The cosmic brilliance of it all! My suspicion is that the only reason we’re here is to embark upon some grand adventure!”

“That’s my suspicion!” I cried suddenly, rising from my desk.

“This year!” he said, propelled to the top of a whirlwind by the currents of my enthusiasm, “… this year so far has been one successive nightmare after another! And March… March has been the month of crashing dreams! It’s so climactic! Something is bound to happen!”

“So you have a sense of anticipation?” I pressed him, with a growing sense of urgency. “Of something lurking just ahead?”

“You obviously don’t know me well enough,” he answered, blazing brightly. “Anticipations happen to me every day—the anticipation of a new day, of a new friend, of new faces in the crowd. Anticipations are what keep life interesting! There’s a certain drama that I know is going to unfold, and I can’t wait to hear the music!”

“What do you think is going to happen?” I asked him.

“I don’t know,” said Taylor, raising one finger grandly in the air. “Listen to this, though: I just talked to Kyle Simpson, and he told me that Cross Training is going on a camping trip this weekend. He invited me to come! He said you could come, too!”

“That’s excellent!” I said. “Who all is going?”

“That’s the best part!” he exclaimed. Clearly, this was the part he had been waiting to tell me. “Okay, well, first of all, Suzy Fudge is going. So that’ll probably be kind of awkward. And Bonnie, that fat fundamentalist, who is… creepy and unattractive. And this one girl who’s also really creepy, and in love with Kyle.”

“Why are we going on this trip?” I asked him.

“Wait, I’m not done yet,” he answered. “Guess who else is going?”

“Anna Beal?” I suggested, after a long moment’s pause, so as not to seem too eager.

Taylor nodded gleefully. “And… guess who else?”

“Allison,” I said with certainty. He nodded. We high-fived, then both spontaneously broke into a dance of triumph. Taylor played the air-guitar like one possessed.

“YES!” I shouted. “This is so exciting! Now we can finally both pursue the girls we’ve been wanting to get to know for the longest time! The only two girls at this school who really seem to appreciate the beauty of existence and the adventure of living! Now things can finally begin to happen!”

“Love is an adventure that waits for no man!” said Taylor. “I’m… I’m just loving it! Boze, our life is a novel! It’s insane. My mind is falling apart. I can’t even tell people what I think anymore. I don’t even know what I believe! I love life and it’s all beautiful and it’s all… wow!”

Clutching at his heart, he staggered backwards and collapsed onto the lower bed. Taylor was one of the only people I had ever met who knew what it was like to be as overwhelmed by life as I was. All the windows were closed, but a wind seemed to be blowing into the room from some hole in the sun. It was as if joy was an actual location you could go and visit—a place where lovers danced, not by moonlight, but song-light, and sailed off towards morning together on a sea of foam and laughter.

“But when nothing happens,” he whispered, after a long silence, during which he seemed a saint in some religious ecstasy, “this also is something. I relish those moments of quiet peace. I live for drama, but there’s times when all I want to do is sit and ponder the story. Here is the question.” He sat up and fixed me with his rainy stare. “Are we content to just sit back and watch our lives unfold, or are we egotistical enough to take the pen and write every word ourselves?”

“Taylor, is something going to happen?” I asked him again. It was the first week of April. School was nearing its conclusion. Finals were less than a month away. But except for the incident at Christmas (about which I had still told no one), it had been an uneventful year.

Yet something had shifted—a change in the wind. My heart was filled with terrible forebodings. Taylor seemed to feel it, too, to the degree that I could understand him.

“Sometimes,” he answered sagely, “the plot is not revealed until the final chapter.”

“Well, that’s certainly been true in my case,” I replied. “You have no idea. But I’ve been haunted of late with a suspicion that a story was developing. I can’t exactly put it into words. It feels like… something old. Something I haven’t felt in almost a year. Something supernatural. And I don’t even believe in the supernatural! It’s almost as if I awoke one day and found myself inside a book.”

“I think if we only opened our eyes,” said Taylor, rising from the bed, “we could awake one day and find that a book was in ourselves.” He swept with a majestic flourish towards the door. “And now I must bid you adieu. Farewell.”

“Farewell.”

We left Southwestern with Kyle and Allison shortly after she finished with her final class on Friday afternoon. The camp grounds were an hour’s drive from Georgetown, nestled in the bosom of enormous cliffs which cragged in an imposing way above a vast, transparent lake.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” said Kyle, as we drove in. “We’re looking for our camp site. I haven’t been here in five years. I have no idea where we’re going. But I’m pretty sure there’s a place for us… somewhere.”

Suddenly, the face of Suzy Fudge appeared at Kyle’s window. Taylor screamed.

Kyle rolled down the window.

“Hey guys,” said Suzy with admirable placidity, tilting her head and grinning in a vacant way. “The rest of us are all here. But we can’t find the camp site. We were waiting for you guys.”

“Yeah, good luck with that!” said Kyle, sweeping the curls of his ‘fro out of his face and blinking rapidly.

We parked the truck in a small clearing at the end of a sandy dirt road. There was dust everywhere. Bonnie, Anna, and a girl named Helen were gathered around a stone fire pit. Over it rose a birch tree that was no more than a stripling. Into the clearing strode Kyle, gazing with an irritated, uncertain expression over a map of the camp grounds and turning it this way and that like the helm of a ship in a storm. Taylor and I stayed close to one another. Allison was gone.

“You four, go and find her!” Kyle commanded the girls at the fire, when he learned she was missing. “You two, stay here. I’m about to call management and find out what the deal is.”

“This is the worst camping trip ever!” cried Taylor, with a thrill of the utmost delight. He held out his arms to the sky like Christ in His ascension. “But look how beautiful it is,” he added, breathing deeply. “Ah, the transcendent joy of the moment!”

Nodding serenely, I fell back against the tree.

“This tree, for example,” said Taylor. “These leaves. I think a lot of religion depends on your perspective, and how you see the world. We need to have a transcendent view of the glory of God in everything, even a leaf falling.”

There was a stirring of leaves at the back of the clearing and Allison appeared. She was wearing a look of contented dreaminess. A cloud was on her eyes, and she seemed not to see us.

“Where have you been?!” shouted Kyle, racing towards us from the entrance, his brown curls bobbing like bells. “I sent four of the girls out to search for you! You just go wandering off!”

“I went exploring,” said Allison, with unperturbed calm. “It was pretty…”

“Well, I’ve got bad news, and bad news,” said Kyle. “First of all, it turns out this is our camping site.”

“This patch of dirt?” said Taylor. Kyle nodded sadly.

“Hee-hee-hee,” Taylor giggled. “What’s the other bad news?”

“Well, it just gets worse,” said Kyle. “Apparently someone else has already reserved all but one of our tents. So it looks like about half of us are going to be sleeping out in the cold tonight. Because otherwise, we have to fit eight people into a four-man tent.”

By now, Bonnie, Helen, Suzy, and Anna Beal had arrived back at the camp site. Helen and Anna both groaned when they learned Kyle’s news, though Bonnie stood smirking off to the side with an expression of irreproachable smugness. Suzy merely stared at me and grinned.

“This stinks!” Anna said bleakly. “We can’t all fit into a four-person tent. Besides, some of us are boys and some of us are girls. That would be very inappropriate.”

“Well,” said Kyle, kicking the dirt beneath the tree into a small cloud of dust, “at least we have this cute little island.”

“As long as we’re cute,” I agreed, with a sullen glance at Anna which expressed my disappointment at her sudden flowering of crabbiness.

“Because frankly,” he went on, “you’re probably not going to be sleeping in a tent.”

“And nobody brought any water,” said Anna. “This is awful.”

A shadow passed over the sun. The clearing darkened. It was that loneliest of moments, the exact instant where the day begins its irreversible decline into night. There is always something chilly in it, as of death. I looked around at all of us and thought of us aging. I wanted to store us all away inside some secret vault and keep us as we were forever. I looked at Anna. She was staring into the fire pit with a sorrowful expression, and my heart felt sad for her, the way it has always felt towards women who have proven less than I expected them to be.

But there was nothing disappointing in Taylor. Even in the face of this relentless pessimism, his exuberance remained unclouded. That was the great thing about him: There were no surprises. You could always count on him to be exactly as he was.

“Think of how glorious this is!” he shouted, spinning round with arms spread wide. “It’s a glorious misadventure. There is beauty even in accidents and inconveniences that some people are perhaps too blind to see. The world is the play, we are the actors, and God is our audience! Think about the here-and-now! How real this is. This moment… our existence… LIFE!”

“Wow, that’s really true!” said Allison. “I just finished reading a book by Thomas Merton, and he says something like, we should be grateful for everything God has given us, and He has given us everything. Every breath is a gift of His grace. I know I miss out on so much if I don’t value the moment I’m in right now, because that’s what is real.”

“Yes, EXACTLY!” shouted Taylor, doing a dance around the tree. Allison laughed. I strode forward resolutely and shook her hand.

“Let us be friends!” I declared. “No second is secondary, and every moment is momentous!”

All of which, taken together, Allison found so entertaining that she fell to her knees in laughter.

“Y’all are hilarious!” she shouted. “I don’t feel funny enough to hang out with you guys!”

Taylor raised his brows at me from behind her, and his blue eyes glittered with a solemn but confident expression like a prince in love.

“Okay, change of plans,” said Kyle, coming in again from the direction of the truck. “Everyone pack up your things, we’re moving.”

“Moving?” asked Taylor. “Where are we going?”

Kyle turned away. For a long moment, he did not answer. Then he seemed to have made up his mind, for he looked at us again, and his jaw was clenched tight. He pointed to the top of a cliff to our right.

“We’re climbing to the top of that mountain,” he replied. “I hope you brought your sleeping bags, because we’re sleeping on the cliffs tonight.”

* * *

We ascended the hill together in the cool dark of early evening. It was blue and windy. There were no trails to follow, only places here and there where the trees and scrub and brush became less frequent and the grass more trammeled. Surrounding us on every side were high brown rocks. Like an explorer in the Cambodian forests, traversing the ruins of a once-proud monastery where oversized statues of the Buddha lie on ivy pillows dreaming; or when, sailing through the Arctic, shoals of whales surround you, we gazed with a sense of awe on the enormous, unexampled rocks which ringed our upward path —an archipelago of landed glaciers in the nettled eddies of a vast, green sea.

Kyle strode slightly ahead of the rest of us. He was wearing a Mexican poncho and carrying a long staff he had picked up on the ground near the base of the hill. Following shortly behind him was Helen, who seemed heedless of the wind and grass and trees and stones and was speaking animatedly to Kyle with an avidity which suggested that she was ignorant of the rest of us, and of the fact that Kyle had given up listening a long time ago. Suzy, Bonnie, and Anna Beal had formed their own group, although Suzy couldn’t seem to resist pausing every few paces and turning and grinning at me like a shark of the crags. Bonnie was explaining how she had seen an angel earlier that day, but refused to tell anyone about it except to note that she had seen an angel earlier that day who had forbidden her from talking about it.

Taylor and Allison and I were together. It was the greatest day of our lives. It was also the worst. It was everything at once. We didn’t know what it was entirely, but it was soaring. Taylor soared; I soared. No longer were we trekking up the mountain; we were running with the clouds. We had left that little cliff behind a hundred years ago.

Allison was telling us that she thinks life is a puzzle, and that every person she meets in her life is a part of that puzzle, but that she won’t understand it in fullness until she comes to the end of her life and sees the whole thing laid out in front of her, and I was just getting ready to quote a line from the “angel” sequence in It’s a Wonderful Life and see if anyone got the reference when Taylor interrupted with a long story about how he had walked into a room that was nothing but mirrors, and how he had seen his whole self in its totality from every angle, and he said he thought that half his life had been an out-of-body experience. “Existence is a strange thing to me,” he said. “But as a stranger, I give it welcome.” Then I talked about how exciting it is to know that, when everything comes crashing down around you, you have yourself, your resolve, and the strength of your own mind, and then I threw God in for good measure, and I talked about the beauty of life among ruins, and the light that shines in chaos, and the pulse, the fever, the excitement, of even the most horrifying things, and Taylor agreed, but then Allison said that that sounded depressing, and Kyle (who had left Helen in the lead and appeared alongside us, his belled curls beadily sweating), called it “a bunch of random garbage that you just strung together,” so Taylor and I immediately began talking about the unutterable beauty of living, and how everyone needs to embrace the reality of reality, and Taylor made jazz fingers, and I jumped around doing jigs of excitement until Allison laughed so hard that she had to bury her head in the back side of Kyle’s poncho and there was no more to be said.

Night was waiting for us at the summit of the cliff, an elegant blue lady clad in stars. There must have been a thousand of them; I had never seen so many at a single time. It made me think of being in love, and how much I pretended not to want it. Camping trips, pillow fights, late nights, starlight, the Chapel, the Chapel Garden… clich├ęs.

There was a fire pit set in the gravel, and Kyle was running around like Diogenes seeking for someone, anyone, to help him build a fire. But Taylor and I were currently engaged in spinning around in circles like a pair of Oompa Loompas, which rendered us, for the moment, entirely unable to assist him. Bonnie was quoting the Bible in that unnaturally meek and supercilious voice she always used when she wanted to indicate her superiority to the rest of us. Suzy was crouched low in the shadows at the base of a tree in the hopes of watching me when I passed without the indignity of being noticed. Anna was sitting sulkily at the top of a boulder on the margin of a wood to our left like a monk among the enchantments, so that there was no one left to help Kyle but Helen, who had stormed off in a huff after he ordered her (in a voice that echoed through the hills) to take a vow of celibacy.

“SILENCE!” he added, after a remarkably awkward pause during which everyone gawked at him. “I meant, ‘SILENCE!’”

Allison was wrapped in a blanket, standing on the crest of a rock at the mountain’s utmost edge. The night was in her hair and in her eyes and the wind blew around her in whispers and the stars had formed a crown around her head.

“Boze,” she said brightly, as I stole up behind her, “I’ve got that song in my head that you and Taylor were playing in the car on the way here. But I only know the chorus.” She began to sing it. “‘And ain’t that, and ain’t that the way that the wind blows you home?’”

“Here, I’ll help you out,” I told her. I began to sing—timidly at first, and softly, but with mounting emphasis:

“Allemande
Where have you gone?
Did I know anything about you?
Many moons have come and gone
They wane so easily without you

All along I said we’d be
Sorry, sorry, and so we are…”

Suddenly, Taylor was between us. We were all singing together, Allison in a melodious soprano, Taylor in a tenor.

“And ain’t that, and ain’t that the way that the wind blows?
And ain’t that, and ain’t that the way that the wind blows you home?
Sorry, sorry, and so we are.”

I was quiet and sad when we had finished. Taylor took me by the shoulders and shook me with something like paternal affection.

“Your singing is horrible,” he informed me.

“I know,” I answered coolly (throwing off his arms). “I should just stick with quoting poetry. It’s what I’m best at. ‘Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.”

“The mystery of BEING!” Taylor exclaimed. Allison giggled.

“‘I do not think that they will sing to me.’”

“I think Boze memorizes poetry the way Allison memorizes songs,” said Kyle, strolling over from the flameless pit. “I’m going to laugh when, one of these days, you quote Romantic poetry at a girl and she quotes it right back at you. You would be scared out of your wits!”

“That’s definitely one of the Twelve Signs of the Apocalypse,” I agreed. “I would run.”

“Allison, there’s a bug on you,” said Taylor, reaching over my head towards Allison’s shoulder like a toy crane. “Here, I’ll get it off.”

“No, I like it!” said Allison, grinning at the bug in a manner which intimated the bond they undoubtedly shared. “I read a poem by ee cummings once. I liked it so much, I memorized it. It’s about the spring.

since feeling is first
who pays attention to the syntax of a thing
will never wholly kiss you… ”

“Oh-ooo, that’s my absolute favorite ee cummings poem!” I shouted. “Let me recite it with you.” We recited it together.

“wholly to be a fool
while spring is in the world

lady, i swear by all flowers—don’t cry
the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelid’s flutter
which says, ‘we are for each other’

then laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
(and death, i think, is no parenthesis) ”


“We should all memorize poetry,” I concluded, when we had finished. “Poetry is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

“Everything is the most beautiful thing in the world!” shouted Taylor gaily.

Allison was almost trembling with laughter. Her silhouette shuddered in the darkness.

“That’s true, though!” she yelled. “Let’s try and make every day the best day of our lives!”

“What could go wrong?” I replied.

“Exactly!” cried Taylor. He seemed not to have noticed the thin undercurrent of sarcasm in my voice. “Hell is only one step behind us every moment of our lives, heaven only one step ahead!”

“I’m so glad I finally found you guys,” said Allison quietly. “You don’t know what it was like… all those months of school when I would see you walking around together and wished I was with you. I even told my friends, ‘I know these two guys, and they’re like the funniest people I’ve ever met!’ I seriously just thought about walking right up to you and saying, ‘Let’s be friends!’ But I didn’t know what you would think of me if I did that.”

“We felt the same way,” said Taylor. “We even talked about doing that.”

“It was all we ever talked about, in fact,” I told her.

“And I told my Jewish friend Michael about you, Boze,” she went on. “I told him, ‘I know this guy who is just writing his whole life.’ And he said, ‘Well, there ya go, you oughtta write him a letter. And I was like, ‘No, he’s probably too busy writing his life to write to me…’”

“But we’re friends now!” Taylor shouted again (drawing the subject of the conversation away from me in the process). He folded us up in a hug. “‘Joy, gentle friends!’” he exclaimed. “‘Joy, and fresh days of love accompany your hearts!’”

“Yay!” cried Allison.

“Ah, what joyyy!” he growled. “Ah, the hearts of us all are one! Laughter, flowing through the channels of friendship like a river from its source to the limitless ocean, the cycle that never ends, the beauty that never dims! Every day is more beautiful than the previous, every moment a little closer to celestial perfection and I can’t get enough of LIFE!”

****

And after the sunrise, the morning, the downward climb… after the sunlight warm on sleepy faces… after the lakes, the river walks, the trees… and lunch along the shore…

We returned to Southwestern. Yet there was something slightly off about it. Even the landscape looked different. Hills, flowers, grass, sidewalks, stonework… all were changed somehow. It was as if the school I knew, the one in whose soil I had flourished for the last nine months, my home, had folded up its tents and fled away in the night. Suddenly the entire campus was alive with color. The monochromatic existence I had lived since Christmas was no more.

“Wooooo, BOY!” roared Taylor, bursting into my room after supper like a missile getting ready to explode. “I just ate dinner with the Phi Lambs.” Phi Lambs was the Christian sorority of which Allison was a member. “It was JOYOUS! I told them the story of the time I killed an entire pack of coyotes with nothing but a stick! They loved it! Allison loved it! I love Allison! Boze, she is IT! So much revolves around her! She is the Perfect Girl! She is the only perfect person I have ever met! Her blue eyes… her brown hair… her body… her HEART! She is just the right size and shape in every area!”

“I think I know what you mean,” I agreed quickly, cutting him off before he embarrassed himself. “I’m afraid we’re in the same boat, in that respect.”

Taylor said nothing, but smiled serenely with a look of mischief in his twinkling, sea-blue eyes. He knelt on the edge of Shands’ old bed—the bed which lately he had made his own. Alex had come to me on the day before we left for the camping trip wanting to know where Taylor disappeared in the evenings now, because he hadn’t slept in his own bed in weeks. A few days earlier I had overheard Mike Predetetchenski telling his roommate that Taylor and I were gay, and that he had moved into my room.

I had been chatting with Booth about Allison on Instant Messenger when Taylor came in. Now, after asking him if he could hold on for a moment, I turned and faced Taylor.

“There’s a small problem with mathematics here, don’t you think?” I asked him. “I can’t allow this to happen. I won’t! I’m just going to keep denying it and hope it goes away.”

“You can’t deny it forever,” said Taylor in a sage and irritatingly unruffled voice.

“I CAN’T LET MYSELF FALL FOR HER!” I shouted.

“You can’t like her,” he answered mystically. “But you can love her.”

I realized there was no use trying to talk to him about it. I could be tempestuous, tormented, vengeful, suicidal, murderous… it wouldn’t make a difference. It was all a game to Taylor. He was too literary to be true—much like myself. I could try and explain what I was feeling: I could tell him about the overwhelming sense of nausea with which I’d woken up that morning when I realized that I liked my best friend’s girl; I could narrate my creeping sense of horror as I came to see that he was slowly taking over everything, and that I didn’t fully trust him; I could make a third or fourth futile attempt to explain my senior year of high school, and what it really means to be the central character in a novel, and that it isn’t the jolly lark he kept making it out to be, that weird things happen, people get hurt, the end of the year is all-out chaos and there’s absolutely no preventing it from happening, and how would you like that to be your existence? But he wouldn’t listen. He would bombard me with his idiotic self-invented aphorisms, paradoxes, witticisms and inversions till I gave up in despair. There was no sign of the Taylor who had once complained that I withheld my heart from understanding and affection. He had been replaced by someone altogether much too much like me.

“Love is like a drug,” he was saying. “Every now and then you need a fix… withdrawals can be painful… you learn to live without it, but once it starts up again, you learn to live with it, and who knows what’s going to happen? And now,” he concluded cheerfully, cracking his knuckles against the underside of my bed, “let the battle begin.”

“I’ll be back in a moment,” I told him. I ran down the hall to the restroom—it was empty—flung myself into a stall and fell against the door.

It was hard to reassure myself that this was really happening without sounding a little hysterical. How many times had it happened in the last year and a half that I refused to believe in something that was plainly happening because it seemed too crazy to believe? It wasn’t the fact that we both liked Allison—as hard as that would be to deal with, it was a pretty ordinary situation. As long as there were women to be loved, men would quarrel over them, and I’d have gladly acquiesced if I had trusted his intentions. It was obvious to me that I could never win this fight: for though Taylor and I were oddly similar in personality and passions, he was handsomer and funnier and taller and braver and shrewder and wiser than I. And the light in her face, the high ring of her laughter, the very posture of her body plainly indicated the direction in which Allison’s affections tended. She was already gone, and didn’t even know it. Only time was lacking to fulfill his dreams.

That was all very well. No girl in her senses had ever been drawn to me like that, and that was something I would simply have to accept. And up until a day or two ago, I would have done so. But Taylor was changing. There was something not quite right about him lately. He wasn’t himself. I had once read a story in a book of fairy-tales about a poor, starving scholar whose shadow acquired sentience and separated from its master. The shadow and the scholar both fell in love with a beautiful princess, but the shadow was wilier and far more cunning. They went to a ball, and both danced with the princess and had the most extraordinary time. But after it ended, the shadow appeared to his former master. “This is what I am about to do,” it said. “I am going to take your appearance. I am going to pretend to be you. The princess will think I am you, and she will marry me, and I will have you killed as an impostor.” And he did.

It was early evening. A light rain had begun falling. I could hear the peal of distant thunder as I left the stall and crept back down the hallway towards my room.

A nasty shock awaited me when I returned. Taylor was sitting at my computer. He was reading my conversation with Booth.

“Hey, shoo, shoo,” I muttered, with a pretense of calm. He returned to the bed.

Silence fell across the room, and for a long while there was nothing but the patter of rain and the throat-clearing rumble of the thunder to disrupt our thoughts. The sun was slowly setting in the woods behind the school, but it had not yet reached the point where darkness is predominant. The sunlight trickling down through the eaves of the storm leant a purplish appearance to that part of the room which was nearest the windows, so that as I stood pressed against them gazing out upon the rain-soaked grounds I felt a little like a fish inside a public aquarium.

“Oh, I almost forgot to mention,” Taylor said calmly, after a great while. “When I was coming up here earlier, I came the back way, and looking up into your window for a moment I beheld a subhuman face. It was hovering just outside the window, staring into your room.”

“Really?” I answered, with a nonchalant air. “You must have been frightened.”

“You don’t seem surprised at all,” Taylor pointed out.

I turned and looked at him and shook my head. “If what you say is true,” I replied, “then there’s nothing surprising about it. I grew accustomed to this sort of thing a long time ago.”

Briefly I told him the story of the heavy breathing which I had first encountered shortly before the adventures of my senior year in high school, and explained how it had found its way to Booth.

“Oh, no way,” said Taylor with suspicious and unnerving calm. “That exact same thing happened to me… this heavy breathing noise, almost like someone snoring. It was in my bedroom back in Elgin. It must have been… well, when did you and Booth first hear it?”

“I heard it in May of 2002,” I replied. “Booth didn’t hear it until January 25, 2004.”

“Well, that’s really weird,” said Taylor. “I heard it in November of 2003.”

“Well, of course you did,” I said, with only mild condescension. Either Taylor didn’t notice, or he chose to ignore it. He returned to his meditations.

Feeling I might have reacted a little unjustly, I added, “I guess it would make sense. You’re suddenly seeing things, and it’s the end of the semester, and we both have a sense of something about to happen. And… well, I had always had this crazy notion that when I got to Southwestern, I would be with a group of people who had supernatural abilities. It would be odd if it turned out that the people I was with now ended up being the group I had been expecting. But I guess it isn’t too surprising, when you really think about it. Maybe you, me, Allison, and Kyle are supposed to prophesy and cast out demons, or something. In which case, maybe we’re both making a mistake by getting entangled in romance when our focus should be elsewhere.”

Taylor said nothing in response, but merely went on staring up serenely at the bottom of my bed. The day sank slowly away into memory, and darkness covered all.

When finally he spoke again, there was none of the usual amiability in his voice. He seemed to have done away with pretense altogether.

“Listen,” he commanded. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but I’m about to ask Allison out on a date. If that goes well, which I expect it shall, then I intend to ask her out again… and again. When she’s spent enough time with me, she’s going to realize that she likes me, and when that happens, we’re going to go out. Love is an adventure that waits for no man, my friend. I’m sorry you feel left out, but I guess it’s better to be ready, isn’t it?”

The sky seemed to shudder for a moment; the muttering thunder was nearer than ever.

“Maybe when Booth gets here in the fall,” I said, in a distant, wispy voice, “he’ll like Allison, too. And we can all be the best of friends, and not have to worry about romance spoiling the love we share. Yes, that’s the solution: We can all like Allison next year.”

Taylor said softly, “She’ll be mine by then.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

"Look Up into the Stars and You're Gone": The Internet, Distraction, and the Vanity of Modern Culture


“When everybody else refrained,
My uncle Johnny did cocaine.
He’s convinced himself right in his brain
That it helps to take away the pain.
Hey Johnny…”
– The Killers, “Uncle Johnny” (2006)







As a result of my “arrest” at the age of fourteen for making “terrorist threats,” I was grounded from the Internet for three years. It was a fine time in my life, right up until the end: I read Lord of the Rings, and Catch-22, and The Christ Clone Trilogy (yeah, don’t be hatin’), and the novels of Frank Peretti and Charles Williams and probably about a dozen other authors. I spent an entire summer typing up a history textbook, ten hours a day for thirty days. I memorized huge portions of the Bible.

I become all the more grateful as I realize I might have been born in the last generation in which such a life was possible. I’m old enough to remember a time before the Internet (and most of our subsequent modern technologies), and thus old enough to remember a time before it had become everything. I remember Newt Gingrich shutting down the government in January 1995 and not feeling the urge to “Tweet” about it. I remember when people still used AOL, and when "lolz" was just something you hit when life slowed down a bit (remember when life slowed down?).

The reason I find myself waxing suddenly so sentimental is because it seems every doctor, professor, counselor, high school history teacher, scientist, politician, and blogger in America has decided that this was the year they were finally going to finish that book they always wanted to write about how the Internet is physically reshaping our brains and destroying the attention span of an entire generation. Anyone looking for a bit of extra Christmas money need only dash off a few hundred pseudo-academic, hastily-researched pages on how—isn’t it the strangest thing?—lately they’ve been finding themselves so easily distracted… —and the publishers will line up at your door. I’ve seen more books about the dangers of Internet usage this year than I have children’s fantasies about magical boarding schools.

First out of the gate this summer was Nicholas Carr, who in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, expanded on a theme he had first discussed in an article for The Atlantic Monthly two years earlier. His was the most controversial, and at this point probably the most incisive; when I opened the pages of the New York Times Book Review four days ago and discovered a review for a newly-published work entitled The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, by David L. Ulin, it was obvious that a certain amount of ennui had set in among the educated classes. “The publishing industry, like every industry, needs product to push,” writes Christopher Beha. “[N]otwithstanding the fact that a truly necessary book is a rare thing. Here is a challenging and confounding truth you won’t find anywhere in Ulin’s pages: There are too many books, and this is part of the problem. David Ulin’s intentions are beyond reproach, but his book is another distraction.”

Ouch. You can almost hear the groans as the book reviewers excitedly tear open their new packages of books to be reviewed, only to find that—alas!—they’re living in the year 2010, and the only people who haven’t been pulled into the Internet are the ones writing books about it. Indeed, the increasingly laborious, increasingly ominous titles of these terrifying tomes have a definitive flavor of Harry Potter about them: One thinks, for example, of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, and Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (exactly what I was planning on titling my first fantasy novel, but my agent insisted it was “too scary”).

This is from the Publisher’s Weekly review of that last book, written by Maggie Jackson: “… Our near-religious allegiance to a constant state of motion and addiction to multitasking are eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom, and cultural progress and stunting society’s ability to comprehend what’s relevant and permanent.” All profoundly true; one of the great problems I find in discussions of these books about the stultifying effects of Internet usage is that while everyone seems to recognize the problem, no one seems to have any notion of a solution, and thus most of those doing the discussing are as trapped in the vortex as anyone else. If not more: it can create a certain sense of cognitive dissonance to scroll through a long series of blog posts on diminished attention spans written by someone (Andrew Sullivan, say) who spends twelve to sixteen hours a day blogging.

The last few weeks have produced two widely-discussed essays on the issue, the first one from a serial blogger, the second from a novelist of some repute. The film critic Roger Ebert wrote a blog post on his website entitled All the Lonely People, in which he wonders aloud why the Internet seems to attract all the loneliest sorts of people (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/11/all_the_lonely_people.html). As lucid and witty as Mr. Ebert nearly always is, he can also be profoundly moving:

"Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet. It's always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: "You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship."

"What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction. Encouragement. Change. Feedback. Someone once said the fundamental reason we get married is because [we] have a universal human need for a witness. All of these are possibilities. But what all lonely people share is a desire not to be – or at least not to feel – alone…

"When I was a child the mailman came once a day. Now the mail arrives every moment. I used to believe it was preposterous that people could fall in love online. Now I see that all relationships are virtual, even those that take place in person. Whether we use our bodies or a keyboard, it all comes down to two minds crying out from their solitude."


This post created a reaction the likes of which he had never before seen on his blog. Hundreds of people responded to tell him their stories, to explain why they were bound to the Internet, to defend the small, irresistible pleasures of the sixteen-inch life.

What I found more haunting than the post itself, was a particular remark near the top of the comments section. “Almost everybody I know, either personally, second-handedly, or observationally, has turned to the opiates of the current day. Escapist entertainments, the addictions of rage and intolerance, alcohol and drugs and emotionally absent sex, endless political square offs… the void seems to be growing.”

To which Mr. Ebert replied, “Sometimes I feel that in my lifetime I have seen a healthy society ripped to pieces.”

In her review of David Fincher’s new film The Social Network (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/25/generation-why/?pagination=false&printpage=true), British author Zadie Smith distinguishes between what she calls “1.0 people” and “2.0 people.” 1.0 people grew up in the world as it was before texting and blogging and Facebook; to one degree or another, they’re struggling to maintain some measure of depth and three-dimensionality; light doesn’t just pass through them. 2.0 people are always connected, always on the go. It’s as though they’re perpetually late for an appointment, but never seem to know where they’re going.

She ponders the possibility of a world in which the whole Internet will become like Facebook: “Falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous.” “If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out… It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX.”

I remember in the summer of 2005, when we first discovered Facebook, Booth’s dire prognostication that it would take over the world. At the time, Facebook was only accessible by students with access to university email accounts, and numbered hardly more than fifty million people. Today it claims 500 million and growing (even my parents have it), and it recently unveiled a new email service of its own, and I received a notice in my inbox this afternoon informing me that it’s now planning to integrate with Skype. Soon there will no longer be an Internet; there will just be Facebook. (Booth, incidentally, deactivated his account over a year ago, when it finally occurred to him that his prediction had come true).

When I was twelve years old, I gave up watching television altogether so that I could read the novel War and Peace. I never took it up again—except for LOST, and the first few seasons of The Office, which I watched online, it seemed a massive waste of time, a huge, gaping hole in the center of our modern life where heart and thought had dissipated in a void of tired sitcom jokes and deadeningly-stupid advertisements. Yet now I read in the London Daily Mail that the Internet is actually more detrimental to the brains of growing children than television is, because it offers the promise of immediate gratification rather than the ten-minute span of attention required for a show, or the two hours for a movie. Only now, for some reason, does it occur to me that all the reasons for which I grew up hating television are amplified and exacerbated by the lure of the Internet. To me the Internet always seemed a refuge from television—a quiet, sane, controllable retreat from the poisoned world of professional wrestling and maddening suburban jingles. I promised myself long ago, during that luminous summer of Tolstoy in fact, that when I grew up and got married, I would never, ever let a television in my house. Yet the Internet has become vastly more unwieldy, more inexorable, more addictive, more draining—and more indispensable. How do you get rid of something that you can’t do without?

Last week I took the first step. On Thanksgiving Day and the day after I shut myself in the cupboard under our stairs with only a lamp, a blanket, a few books, a package of tortillas, some honey, and a notebook; and I only emerged once a day to shower and stroll about for a few minutes in sunlight. Only when you attempt to undertake something of that magnitude do you begin to feel the pull it has on you. There’s an itch in the heart that I cannot resist. I had tried to sit still, but I couldn’t; I was yanked by invisible chains from one distraction to the next. It didn’t even have to be the Internet; it could have been anything. I would awake in the morning, read three pages of a book, set it down and find another, scan a few lines of a poem, check my blogs, check the news, write a paragraph in my novel, not like it, have to rewrite it five or six times… then I would set my computer on the floor and try to pray. A moment later, I would take up another book—it was irresistible—I couldn’t bear to be alone. That hole was all-consuming—and had ravaged all my inner life. I had an insatiable need to be preoccupied at every moment of the day. “Hell and destruction are never full,” saith the Proverbs; “so the eyes of man are never satisfied” (Prov. 27:20).

When I went into the cupboard, I discovered the key to it all: intense amounts of shame—intense amounts of fear. I was afraid to confront my own failings, and afraid of grace. I was afraid that if I stopped reading and writing and working, even for a moment, I would be bombarded with the unbearable reality of my pitiable condition. My heart was like the Guatemalan sinkhole; I was being drawn to the edge; underneath me yawned a terrible abyss; but I couldn’t look down, it was awful, if once I faced the blackness, and the blankness, and the bleakness of my inner life, the ground would give way and I would plunge headlong into condemnation, scorn, and self-reproach, down, down, down, into the very depths of hell. I realized that everything I said, everything I did, nearly everything I thought about, was an attempt to escape the unthinkable horror of my own existence. I realized there were pains in my past so horrific that I expended virtually all my time and energy in walling myself off altogether, that I might not have to face them. SEARING PAIN—O God, the pain of it goes on forever! I remembered the scene in Pi (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aulRoQTK5HY) where Max finds the brain in the subway station—it’s his own brain, though he doesn’t know it—and he touches it with a pen, and the pain splits his skull asunder. Leave me alone in the room for an hour, or a day, or a week, with nothing between me and God but the walls of my heart, and the agony of the encounter is likely to drive me insane.

And yet the depth of His presence—the richness of His knowledge—and the comfort of His healing—were my only hope.

There in the cupboard, I thought very long, and (for the first time in a long time), very deeply, about an article I had read that weekend in the New York Times: “Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/21/technology/21brain.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1). It narrates the life of a boy named Sean, who plays four hours of video games on weekdays, and twice that on weekends. “He says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study, because he finds it hard to quit when given the choice. Still, he says, video games are not responsible for his lack of focus, asserting that in another era he would have been distracted by TV or something else.”

Sean remarks, “Video games don’t make the hole; they fill it.”

There’s a song by the Killers called “Uncle Johnny”, the lyrics of which I borrowed for the epigraph to this entry. Brandon Flowers wrote it about his Uncle Johnny—who, incidentally, loves the song—and who for a long season of his life was devastated by cocaine addiction. As with most Killers songs, however, the song grows and develops with an intensity both musical and lyrical, eventually addressing devils and dilemmas far beyond its stated purpose. Half the song is sung from the perspective of his uncle, half from that of family members who are pleading with him to seek help. “My appetite ain’t got no heart,” sings Johnny: “I said, my appetite ain’t got no heart / Shockin’ people when you feel that pull / Shock and drop ‘em when you know it’s full,” eventually admitting, “I feel a burning in my body core / It’s a yearning that you can’t ignore…”

To which Brandon cries (somewhat sarcastically, I feel), “Hey Johnny, I got faith in you, man, I mean it! It’s gonna be ALL right…” And the whole family sings in unison: “Tell us what’s going on, feels like everything’s wrong / If the future is real, Johnny, you’ve got to heal…”

Yes, Johnny is addicted to drugs—but he’s hardly alone. The things that you love will destroy you.