THERE ARE NO PAN-AM Luna Clippers to take us to the orbiting space station
on our way to the Moon colony. Well, there's no Pan-Am anymore, and the
only desolate, rocky place in the news today is Afghanistan, which leads
me to conclude that the world we're living in is still more Rudyard Kipling
than Arthur C. Clarke.
The biggest disappointment of 2001 was that I didn't get
to take my brother-in-law to see a re-release
of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, all restored 70mm widescreen
print with Dolby Digital soundtrack and THX seat-shaking thunder at an
actual theatre. Almost twenty-five years ago, my brother-in-law took me
to see his favorite movie at the late, lamented University Theatre, back
when the film was celebrating its tenth anniversary. There was much talk
of taking a spiffed-up 2001 back on the road this last year, during
its namesake anniversary, but apart from a handful of screenings at theatres
on the west coast, it didn't end up making its way to my local megaplex.
I suppose someone probably blamed 09/11, but it probably had more to do
with already dwindling returns and tight budgets in the movie industry.
I was hoping to treat Lou to a screening; a nice way of
bringing something full circle. In his salad days, in college and just
after, he'd see 2001 over and over, the experience enhanced by the
powerful acid and weedy pot of his youth. Many years later, just after
dropping out of college, and inspired by my brother-in-law, I'd make my
way to rep house screenings of Apocalypse Now -- my 2001
-- fortified by the watered-down tab acid and superstrength pot of my youth.
I suppose you could mine quite a bit of sociological significance out of
that little anecdote -- something about one generation's trippy optimism
turning into the next generation's gloomy paranoia in what turned out to
be the sour, waning years of the Cold War -- but it's been done before.
My life is a cliche, but a comforting one, nevertheless.
SO THE PRESENT in no way resembles the future. We have
personal computers and space shuttles and satellites and cloning but the
house I live in is a slightly shabby Victorian brick pile that the original
owners would easily recognize. All the miracle technology that we rely
on every day isn't anything that wasn't imagined in a 1950 issue of Popular
Science, nearly all of it on the ho-hum side of mid-century technological
prognostication. There's almost nothing in our apartment that my newlywed
parents didn't already have, or couldn't learn to use. No videophone, no
robot maid, no kitchen protein resequencer. The only practical innovations
of real importance are the way we've joined the telephone with the walkie-talkie
and the motion-picture camera with the tape player. It seems we don't invent
anything new as much as we find ways to put together the stuff we already
have. The big difference isn't even so much one of quality as quantity
-- we have so much more than our grandparents did. I'm so glad.
I suppose the joy of science fiction -- or its dumber
but richer, business conference cousin, futurism -- is making a low-gravity
leap into the future, unencumbered by the weight of mundane technological
limitations. Personally, I'm happier here on the ground, anchored by the
burden of the past that we drag into the future, a container-load of old
furniture, covered in pet hair and leaking stuffing, messing with the clean
lines and soiling the backlit perspex floorboards, covering the porthole
panorama of the Galilean moons with chintz curtains, next to my yellowing,
framed print from Hogarth's "Rake's Progress". I'm such a bad spaceman.
IT'S BEEN A YEAR I WON'T SOON FORGET. Even without 09/11
and the new war, it's been one of those years, a prominent kind of landmark
in the landscape of my life. It was, after all, the year when I got married
-- something I was certain, even as recently as five years ago, would probably
I remember 1996 drawing to a close, another anxious Christmas
and another desperate New Year's Eve lunge at drink-fueled hope for the
year to come that would already begin to subside into regret and embarassment
with the next day's hangover. I didn't know that, within a year, I'd meet
my future wife; that in two years I'd have to give up the apartment I'd
clung to for over a decade, through bad roommates and worse landlords;
that in 2001, instead of flying Pan-Am to the orbiting Hilton I'd be married
in a Catholic church -- a modest local reproduction of a 16th century Roman
basilica-- in a Latin ceremony, to a woman wearing a 1952 silk dress. I'd
like to think I'd have the wit, then, to realize this was good news.
In 2001, I made less money than I've probably made since
I worked retail. I wrote a magazine feature that, while not perfect, was
probably the best thing I've done in a decade and a half as a journalist.
I probably added barely another chapter or two to a novel that I can't
bring myself to abandon. I pushed out another year of diary entries, improbably
keeping alive the most ambitious writing project I've ever begun, for an
audience of friends and strangers, many of them -- judging by a handful
of e-mails -- an inspiringly accomplished bunch.
I took fewer photos than in any other year as a professional
photographer, while feeling more confident of my work than I have since
I bought my first camera. Every new year, as part of a January ritual that
served to mitigate whatever optimism I might bring to the new year, I used
to scrutinize my work from the previous year and decide whether I'd shown
any improvement, whether there was any point continuing, whether I stood
any chance of becoming the kind of photographer I used to envy and admire.
This year, for the first year, I didn't bother with that ritual. While
I could fit all the contact sheets from 2001 into a tidy, 8 1/2 by 11 manila
envelope, I like everything I've done, see myself finally free from the
anxiety of influence, doing work that looks like my work alone. If only
I thought that anyone was paying attention.
I WANT TO FINISH MY NOVEL THIS YEAR. To that end, I'm
taking it offline -- I'd rather not have the reminder of my unfinished
business out there until it's more of a teaser and less of a taunt. I'd
like to write another novel -- lately, I've become interested in two Biblical
figures: Saul of Tarsus (otherwise known, after the whole thing on the
road to Damascus as St. Paul) and Judas Iscariot. They're both troubling
figures, the former a stern man, sometimes even a fanatic, the other a
popular villain who was probably given a bad rap. There's a lot more to
Judas than most people know. I think we should all try and understand Judas
a bit more, especially given the Judases who've made the news these days.
SO, IN THE END, it all just telescopes down from the awful
spectacle of planes slamming into towers to confused, unhappy children
and their guilty, sorrowful families. I don't mean to sound all prosaic,
but I suppose that's the only way we can hope to comprehend just what's
I'm not at all surprised that unhappy strays like John
Walker Lindh and Richard Reid have been hauled out of our troubled seas,
flailing madly in the net -- according to the British press, yet another
one has turned up, a Scotsman
named McLintick, yet another troubled convert to Islam. The same response
as well: "He seemed such a gentle soul..." I don't know, but it's the gentle
souls that have had me scared for years now.
There's something so desperately hurtful about Reid's
"suicide note" to his mother: "You will never see me again. You
had better all convert to Islam." You'll be sorry. I wish I'd never been
born. It's just a shame all this misery couldn't have been fought out in
a living room fight that ends in slammed doors, or in a nasty scene at
the local mall. It just makes all the terror and death, the whole vast,
pitiless machinery of our new war seem so banal.
I'm not complaining. I think these little dramas go a
long way to making us understand how personal all this is, especially for
the vast majority of us who've watched it all unfold on t.v., exempt from
personal loss. I'd like to think that the John Walker Lindhs and Richard
Reids -- as much as we might deplore them -- will bring the whole terrible
scope of this war a bit closer to home.
After all, I'm sure we've all known someone like Lindh
or Reid, respectively either the spoiled product of privileged dissent
or a hopeless
criminal's son. I'd like to think that we'll get beyond calling for
the carpet-bombing of Berkeley or the summary detention of people who buy
organic couscous or the regulars at Chez Panisse, but I'm not a hopeful
person and besides, when you're on an ideological hunt, the easiest thing
to catch is a scapegoat.