Thursday, April 20, 2017

other people's stories

Last week, in rural New Jersey, my little nephew took me to visit an alpaca farm. I mean, technically, his mother took us both, but it was his idea, spiritually. He’s not quite three years old and I’ve never met someone so fully on my level. About a week before the visit my sister got a call from the farmer, who was sure it was going to rain. (It did.) “The alpacas don’t like getting wet,” he told her. We don’t either so she changed the day. Farmer Nick thought the visit was for my nephew, but the occasion was in fact my birthday. We got there early, and as we waited the herd regarded us with benign curiosity. We were aliens who had landed outside their pen, and I loved them so much I thought I might die.  

This particular birthday was not one of the unsettling momentous ones, but the one before that—the kind that really make u think. That morning my nephew bounded into my room at the crack of dawn with a balloon he’d picked out at the grocery store. He had already told me about it when I was still in Chicago, but still. It was a good day, a long one, and just before I went to sleep I looked at my phone for the first time in a while and realized that, while we were at dinner, the U.S. had fired 59 missiles into Syria, in retaliation for the government’s use of sarin. I know a lot about sarin because I watch Homeland on Showtime. Part of me wishes I didn’t.

The first story is the alpacas: Ella, Titan, Clarisse, Olé. Fifteen of them in all, including the weird horny one who had to be kept separate from the others and the one who bit me, Angelina. I was a little mad at her even though it didn’t hurt. Farmer Nick told me the poufs on top of alpacas’ heads are called topknots, which is the most perfect fact. I don’t have a framework for the number 59. Is that a lot, as these things go? Brian Williams quoted Leonard Cohen and I was so tired I thought I surely misunderstood. That’s always my first thought: maybe it’s me. It almost never is.

There’s this thinness to things I’ve always felt, I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s a membrane between the life I lead and infinite almost-lives I could have led or might lead yet, and it’s impossibly delicate, like a soap bubble. It’s weird to know. In a month or two Nick will shear the alpacas except for their topknots, and some lady will use the fleece to make dolls in their likeness to be sold in the farm’s little shop. Angelina’s effigy costs $24, and her topknot is perfectly rendered. It takes the lady about four hours to make. Sometimes the alpacas hum to one another—the real ones, not the dolls—but Nick doesn’t know what it means.

Here's Tucker Stone on getting clean, a thing I read right before my trip. I see myself in his story, even though it’s different. I know what it’s like to look for the line between giving yourself some credit and romanticizing your worst mistakes. I don’t have a story about that time really, at least not a narrative that’s firmed up in the way the stories that you tell people about yourself tend to do. Some stuff happened, and then I got into the sort of thing that men mythologize in their important novels, or women do on nighttime dramas about sexual murder. You know how it is. At the time I valued nothing, least of all myself, and I didn’t have an adult who was in a position to help me see past what would prove to be a moment in time. I couldn’t have known, just for instance, I’d have this funny little nephew. Back then the future wasn’t for me, and now the past is something I can’t quite relate to. We have our routines, but they change. Every morning Nick bangs on a trashcan to let the alpacas know it’s time for breakfast, and they come bounding down a short dirt run with hilarious urgency. Those alpacas love to eat.

When I got home from New Jersey I watched the Walking Dead season finale. It was uplifting, with last-minute saves and a tiger who eats some bad guy’s fucking face. You know things are bad when the Walking Dead seems hopeful. Historically, its finales, like every other episode of that show, have been bleak stories about death and dread and the relentless way in which the world will beat you down. Well, not this time. A few months ago I read that the producers thought the real world was so messed up that they needed to dial it back and give people a break. The day before I watched the tiger maul the bad guy a reality television star decided to drop a 22,000-pound bomb on Afghanistan. I don’t know what to think about that, but I’m still mad as hell that they killed Glenn. Ugh, imagine thinking Rick’s some kind of hero. The tragedy of that show is that Rick Grimes will never die.

It’s curious to me, the stories people find inspiring. Last summer I went to a museum completely dedicated to the Kon-Tiki expedition, which is the one where a deluded Norwegian sailed on a raft from South America to Polynesia. 4,300 miles on the least impressive log raft you’ve ever seen in your life. One of the first things you see in the museum is this plaque:

I’m not sure how long I stood there staring at it, but it was a while. This fucking guy. I found myself thinking about James T. Kirk for some reason—Chris Pine’s version. I guess I’d recently watched one of the Star Treks. But more generally I was thinking about white guys who do crazy things they plainly should not do, against the advice of literally everyone, and somehow it all works out for them and we call that heroic. I have this theory that maybe it’s not.

This season Walking Dead had an episode about a white guy like that. Some soldier, I don’t remember his name. He was gunning for war with another group of survivors, and to get the ball rolling his big idea was to get himself murdered in the dumbest, most melodramatic way possible. It didn’t work and he ended up getting this gentle teen murdered instead. Morgan, a principled pacifist who loved the gentle teen, pieced together what happened and confronted the soldier, who made a condescending speech about how he’s going to lead their army to victory, and Morgan had better fall in line. It brought tears to his own eyes. Morgan took this in in total silence and then, later, without warning, murdered the soldier--brutally, with his bare hands. At first you think he’s had a psychotic break because he hates this soldier so much, which would have been fair, but then Morgan starts echoing back parts of the soldier’s speech to the bad guys and you realize he’s made this clever move to gain their trust and therefore the advantage. I’m obviously not explaining this well at all but trust me, it was incredible.

After the bad guys leave, Morgan tells the whole story about how the soldier got the gentle teen killed. We know it’s true because we just watched it all unfold but truly, he sounds out of his mind. Ezekiel (the guy with the tiger) believes Morgan immediately, like doesn’t experience a single second of doubt even though Morgan sounds like a lunatic. It’s this implicit trust between two black men who deeply respect each other. Twenty minutes before I had watched that soldier give his condescending speech to Morgan and thought: here’s a guy whose deluded machismo has worked for him his whole life. A guy who’s absolutely bonkers, but in this way that’s been coded as heroic. Now he’s running around getting people killed because he thinks he knows best, and no one calls him on it, ever, because it’s invisible to them. (This guy was a total Rick, come to think of it.) But Morgan saw. And then Ezekiel, and by extension the audience. I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent because what do I know about the black experience, but I know what it’s like to watch guys like that soldier walk around, impervious to critique, while they assume that you’re incompetent or dumb or crazy when you try to tell them the most basic things you know and believe. If you’re not careful you’ll come to make those assumptions about yourself.

When Morgan repurposes the soldier's words, the implication is that he—not the soldier—will lead the resistance. But then there’s another turn: the final scene is about Carol, this middle-aged lady who the soldier had wanted to sacrifice to the bad guys in yet another dumb complicated plan that didn’t work out. (Long story.) Carol’s the most heroic, capable person on the show by a mile, but people outside her core group constantly underestimate her; it’s one of the few subtle themes the show conveys really well. So anyway Carol’s walking around and it’s suddenly clear that she’s going to be the one who leads Ezekiel’s army. It’s the opposite of the dead soldier’s crazy plan, a reversal that is absolutely earned and perfect. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much it moved me, seeing this clichéd white guy savoir story turned on its head by these two characters. I don’t mean to make the Walking Dead sound too good—it’s often terrible, and even the episode I’m talking about had some problems—but occasionally it blows me away. You know, alpacas aren’t prone to violence, Angelina’s zombie chomp notwithstanding. While we were walking around Nick’s farm, every once in a while an alpaca would just drop in the dirt, giddy, and roll around like a dog. Apparently this is how they style their hair.

Peter Quinn’s my favorite character on Homeland, or maybe anything. I get why people hate that show, but the acting is really something to see. Rupert Friend (that’s Quinn) is the best, in my opinion, and I say that as someone who’s crazy about Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes. Quinn’s whole thing this season was recovering from a brain injury caused by sarin. Nerve gas was a big storyline last year. Quinn talked about it at great length; in fact, I think he used more words just explaining sarin than he’s used all the other times he's ever talked on the show put together. He’s not the kind of guy to give a speech.

Last year Quinn showed his terrorist friend a sarin attack on YouTube not so long before his terrorist enemies gassed him (and put that on YouTube). Life comes at you fast, as they say. He convulses and foams at the mouth, and it’s awfully hard to watch. Very graphic. The show has gotten a lot of mileage out of that scene; if you watch the series you’ve sat through it at least a dozen times, like the show is stuck in this recursive loop of a spectacle it manufactured itself. Homeland is very true to life in that way. At one point Quinn watches himself foam at the mouth on Carrie’s phone. You wouldn’t believe Rupert Friend in that scene. Jesus Christ, he is tremendous. Anyway Quinn should’ve died but he’d been given a partial vaccine or something? The writing on that show isn’t always that great.

More than a quarter of the 80-some casualties in the Syrian sarin attack were children. It’s a horrible way to die, Quinn told his terrorist friend, and that was striking because, seriously, he’s seen some shit. In New Jersey a Sesame Street balloon bopped gently around my room as I watched the clip of Brian Williams quoting Leonard Cohen. Cookie Monster, my favorite. Sometimes I find it hard to track what’s going on, to hold the threads, to find a coherent narrative arc. I crunched the numbers: 86 people, two dozen children, 59 missiles. Fifteen alpacas and, later, one big 22,000-pound bomb. The truth is I’m very bad at math. Around half a million people have been murdered in Syria since 2011. The reality television star was eating one beautiful piece of chocolate cake. I was eating chocolate cake that night, too, actually, because it was my birthday. But I had two pieces.

Peter Quinn was a CIA assassin. His spiritual predecessor, Nicholas Brody, was also a murderer, but he was tortured for eight years in Afghanistan so it doesn’t really count. Brody was sort of annoying, to be honest, but in Quinn Homeland found a way to make this messed-up nightmare killer a very sensitive subtle character, and that was years before his injury. Carrie: another complex portrait of moral ambiguity. Beautifully written. Some estimates say that Muslims account for more than 90 percent of terrorist fatalities, but that’s not the world you see on Homeland. I’d ask how that show has never believed in itself enough to make the death of a single brown person mean something in six seasons of being on the air, but that’s math that even I know how to do.

This season Quinn struggled to come to terms with his brain injury, and watching it was sort of unbearable. We have a brain injury in my family, so in a way I’d been watching for most of my life. Drunk driving is a lot like sarin, as it turns out, except for the degree to which the government cares to address it. Carrie’s self-righteousness in the face of her own inadequacy was so familiar that sometimes watching her made me want to puke. A lot of Quinn’s story was nuanced and true in a way you just don’t see on TV. He thought he had nothing to offer but you could so plainly see all the ways in which he was wrong. I bristled when some small-hearted recapper at the New York Times wished he would just go back to normal. God, I was absolutely fucking furious. You know, actually, I’m still really mad. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that I said something very similar about Quinn to my sister just the day before. Sometimes you glimpse a piece of yourself in someone you don’t wish to be. But it’s only a piece.

Representation is a thing we hear about a lot these days, and there are those who mock calls for it as though it’s some childish form of narcissism to hope to see yourself in other people’s stories. More than our literal reflections I think stories show us the selves we struggle to understand, and their potential. It helps to have many different points of view. Grace to be born and live as variously as possible. I’ve been thinking about that line for 15 years. At some point I figured out that a story’s lack can be the story itself, so that’s the one I try to tell—an effigy in its likeness, with a topknot that’s remarkably true to life. Alpacas are wary of people, did you know that? Much more skittish than you might think. Nick said that if you stick around long enough, they start to relax. They can see you’re still a dumb old human, of course, but on some cosmic level they come to regard you as an alpaca. Sometimes they’ll hum to you even though you won’t know what it means.  

1 comment:

  1. Jesus. That was... that was really good. I almost want to watch the Walking Dead now. I definitely want to not be bombing people now.