Sunday, October 18, 2009

Orbit

The Earth took his training wheels off only a few billion years ago. Before then, he obediently followed the other planets through their frenzied orbits, barely keeping out from under their feet. He wasn't the typical middle child, quiet and demure. The Earth was curious and inquisitive, constantly asking questions like:

Why do I have to wear sunscreen?
What if I don't want to eat my vegetables?

and
Are we there yet?

Despite the endless questions, the other planets liked the Earth. He was innocent, green, and good-natured. He never even made fun of Uranus... which was hard not to do. There were a few years during puberty, when his face erupted in a volcanic mess, that the Earth was a little moody, but that was all behind him now.

The Earth was settling - reluctantly - into middle-age. He was none too happy that his formerly tight pangaea was giving way to urban expansion. His rainforests were receding. His doctor was even nagging that his rising sea levels "might be cause for concern."

In other words, the Earth wasn’t happy.

He worried that his life was moving in circles, never really getting anywhere. Parts of him felt like the days went on forever and the night would never end. He enjoyed his yearly commute around the sun, but how many times could he smile and make small talk with Venus as they passed? Sure, she was attractive. Saturn was dying to get his rings around her. Even Pluto, a shy planet with an obvious identity crisis, wanted to talk to her. But for all her charms, Venus wasn’t much of a conversationalist. The Earth needed more.

He wanted adventure.
One day, shortly after putting the finishing touches on an amazing sunset, the Earth heard some unsettling news. An asteroid was coming. The Earth wasn’t eavesdropping, of course, but it’s hard to ignore a few billion voices whispering in your ear. As soon as the asteroid was sighted, television reporters across the world began talking about "the catastrophic event," "our pending extinction," and "the violent end of life as we know it."

And the Earth was listening.

News of the asteroid’s approach rocked the Earth to his core. The dinosaurs hadn't done a very good job of warning him about the last asteroid, a surprise from the black that hit him like a cosmic car accident. One day he just turned around, saw the asteroid swerve into his orbit, and thought, "shit, this is going to hurt." And it did. Bad.

"Whoever's out there throwing rocks needs to stop," he thought. "I'm too old for this."

Unfortunately, the asteroid that was on its way wasn't just a medium-sized rock meandering through the universe. It was bigger. Much bigger. A rock several times the size of Earth, the asteroid was technically a small planet that had broken free from its own solar system and achieved geologic independence. Apparently, when planets stop orbiting a single sun and start freelancing through the universe, they earn the slightly more sinister title of “asteroid.” Unencumbered by the obligations of orbit, the “asteroid” went wherever it wanted, aggressively barging its way through an otherwise orderly universe.

The asteroid was sighted on a Tuesday. Within a few weeks, it would become visible as a small speck in the Milky Way. The speck would grow as the asteroid approached, slowing filling the night sky. First the North Star would disappear. Then the Big Dipper would loose its handle. Within a few months, Orion, Scorpio, and all their twinkling friends would be hidden from view, eclipsed by the asteroid’s huge girth.

Several weeks before the Earth and the asteroid met, its gravity would pull the Earth’s oceans from their beds, gathering them together until they looked like a giant raindrop falling up into the sky.

Then, at the moment of impact, the Earth would shatter like a snowball, barely feeling a thing.
“It’s just obnoxious the way these asteroids think of no one but themselves,” the Earth ranted. “They go wherever they want and do whatever they want with no thought of who they’re inconveniencing or what they’re destroying. It’s not as if the stupid asteroid doesn’t know where I’m going to be 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes from now.”

The Earth had a good point. His schedule was as regular as clockwork. In fact, his schedule was the basis for clockwork. Everyone always knew where the Earth was going to be several years before he got there. That’s the beauty – and monotony – of orbit. It leaves little room for variation.

If the asteroid knew where he was going to be and when he was going to be there, then why, the Earth wondered, did it insist on running into him?

The answer, of course, was that the asteroid was terribly inflexible. Concepts like “yield,” “stop,” and “turn” implied compromises that the asteroid, who was both terribly selfish and very hard headed, saw as signs of weakness.

In 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes, the Earth and the asteroid would meet somewhere on the other side of the sun. The Earth couldn’t decide which he hated more – the anticipation of conflict, or conflict itself.
The Earth wondered how the people would deal with the approaching asteroid. He suspected they would recycle one of their Hollywood clich├ęs and shoot a missile at it. The people, of course, had the same idea.

Within hours of the asteroid’s discovery, a swarm of satellites started buzzing. China talked to England. Mexico and Canada joined in a conference call with Australia. NASA turned its telescopes to the heavens and told everyone the end was near unless they acted fast.

The people acted fast. Their leaders pressed buttons and unlocked doors, uncovering weapons hidden long ago like eggs in the Easter grass.

“If we can split an atom,” the people thought, “surely we can split an asteroid.”

But given the choice between fight and flight, the Earth wasn't sure picking a fight with the asteroid was the best idea. "Flight," he thought, "might be a better option."

Afraid for his own future, the Earth began to formulate a plan.

"If I start running now," he thought, "I can just get out of the stupid asteroid’s way. I can be halfway across the solar system by the time it arrives. If I’m 186 million miles ahead of schedule, I won’t even have to brush shoulders with it when it passes!”

The Earth knew that speeding up would require everyone – including himself – to adapt to a new schedule. The change would be hard for the people. Traditionally, even slow changes that obviously needed to happen (like evolution and equality) had been difficult for them. But what choice did he have? Change was coming whether he (or they) liked it or not. He simply couldn’t continue on his current course and expect to survive.

And so, before the people could launch their missiles at the sky, the Earth took a deep breath and started speeding up. Faster and faster he ran. The faster he ran, the faster the days flew by, passing with quickening speed until a single week was little more than a blur of sunrises and sunsets.

He sped straight through summer and practically skipped fall. The long trip that usually took a lazy year to finish was done in a matter of weeks. Birds, confused by the strobing sunsets, flew south for the winter only to find their homes under several feet of snow. Children were equally surprised when spring break started three days before Christmas.

The children loved the new schedule. They had hardly finished one birthday before the next one began. Girls celebrated their sweet sixteen with Barbie Doll cakes and Dora the Explorer parties. Boys were old enough to buy beer before their voices changed.

Anxiety levels also rose among college students who complained they didn’t have enough time to study for exams. Pulling an all-nighter was practically pointless. The sun came up before they could finish a second cup of coffee. And when fraternity boys partied all night on Friday with plans of sleeping late on Saturday, it was sometimes Monday morning before they woke up and wondered where the weekend had gone – which wasn’t very different from the way things had always been.

Even Santa’s elves were disgruntled. Unable to keep up with their new production schedule, the doll division threatened to strike.

The future was simply coming before the people were prepared for it. Before the Earth began his sprint toward safety, both the quick and the careful could order their lives because they knew what words like “next week,” “next month,” and “next year” meant. Like “one pound” and “four meters,” the meanings of “one minute” and “four days” were constant. This predictability not only sold thousands of calendars at Christmas, it also gave the people an illusion of control.

But now “tomorrow” was like a menstrual cycle -- reliable, but unpredictable. The people always knew it was coming, but they didn’t know exactly when it would get there or how long it would stay.

Across the globe, petitions were signed asking the Earth to slow down. Concerned citizens gathered at community centers and organized anti-Earth demonstrations. Unlike the great protests of the past, however, the people marched without knowing where to go. Since City Hall couldn’t solve their problem, the people wandered aimlessly, hoping the Earth would hear them yell.

At a march in Oregon, an environmentalist who had once fought to save the rainforests led a group in chanting “stop the world, I wanna get off!” At a rally in Atlanta, a construction worker carried a shovel, but never followed through with his threats to dig a hole.

It didn’t take long, however, before the people realized that there wasn’t anything anybody could do to make the Earth slow down.

Activists couldn’t boycott anyone.
Armies couldn’t attack anyone.
Police couldn’t arrest anyone.
Lawyers couldn’t sue anyone.
Men couldn’t threaten anyone.
Women couldn’t manipulate anyone.

The AARP, whose membership had recently doubled, printed an informative pamphlet, but nobody had time to read it.

The Earth knew the people were frustrated, confused, and afraid… but it felt so good to finally control his own future.
The Earth felt it first in his North America. Then it spread to his Europe and across his Asia. This wasn’t one of those headaches he got from too much pressure along his tectonic plates. This headache was the direct result of 6 billion feet marching across his surface in angry unison. If they didn’t stop stomping soon, he would be forced to knock the people off balance. The Earth hadn’t been this upset since the invention of high-heeled shoes.

During what he considered the puberty of their race (generally referred to as “modernity”), the Earth felt the people had become disturbingly self-centered. Maybe he had a heart of stone, but the Earth was tired of being taken for granted. He was tired of letting ungrateful people walk all over him.

Wasn’t he always patient during their Thanksgiving Day Parade? Didn’t he suffer quietly through their New York City Marathon? He even allowed their military to practice their ridiculous advances and retreats at all hours of the day and night. His patience, however, was growing as thin as his ozone. The endless protest marches had to stop. They were not only irritating, they were insulting.

The Earth wasn’t deaf. He knew what the people were saying about him. He was listening when Greenpeace voted to take his name off their website. He noticed when Earth Day was cancelled and replaced with a symbolically violent tether-ball tournament. He tried to ignore preachers when they filled their Sunday Sermons with stories comparing him to somebody named “The Prodigal Son,” but he couldn’t. From pulpits across the globe they shouted that he was like an arrogant child who ran away from his father and leapt carelessly into the future. They said he “neglected his responsibility” and “denied his true calling.” They condemned him for “choosing a path other than the one assigned to him” and urged him to return to “the natural state of things.” They didn’t think the Earth realized how serious things had become.

The Earth was offended that the same people who invented oil-powered engines and artificial sweeteners dared to lecture him about “respecting creation” and “acting according to the laws of nature.”

Why, the Earth wondered, didn’t the people understand that he hadn’t broken away from his pre-determined path? He was still following the same circle around the same sun… he was simply doing it differently than he had before. And even if he had rushed into the future, he hadn’t done so carelessly. He had done so from necessity.

Self preservation and selfishness are two entirely different things.
Right in the middle of the evening news, the people looked up and saw it.

Fist the North Star Disappeared.

Then the Big Dipper lost its handle.

When a shadow fell across the sun, the people began to panic.

Some of them ran deep into underground cellars. Others herded themselves into churches to pray. Just as a few important people prepared to push important buttons and send missiles streaking into space (with little or no effect on the outrageous rock), a physicist scribbled something on her chalkboard. Out of the lines and numbers rose a wisp of chalky hope.

“But how is that possible,” the important people asked. “We already calculated that if the Earth is orbiting the sun at 29.77 km/s and the asteroid is traveling in a straight line at 56.2 km/s, then we should collide with it… 7 months ago?”

The director of the CIA stormed into the room, brushing the first flakes of a light summer snow off his jacket.

“So, you’re saying what?”

“The asteroid,” the physicist said, “is apparently going to miss the Earth by 186 million miles.”

“Well,” he stammered. “I’ll be damned.”
Before the asteroid arrived, the Earth’s path was familiar and frictionless. Every day he moved through space carried by his own momentum, hardly working to spin through the seasons. In the vacuum, there was little need for effort or exertion. Nothing worked against him. Trusting his instincts and inertia, the Earth took for granted that he would always coast easily through life. But now, everything was different. As the asteroid came closer, the Earth felt his forward motion interrupted by a sideways force. For the first time since he settled into the routine of orbit, The Earth felt resistance… friction… gravity pulling him in a direction other than the one he had always known.

At first the asteroid’s gravitational pull was as indefinable as emotion – little more than an idea tugging at his corners. Like happiness, fear, and excitement, it could be felt more than it could be explained.

As the asteroid came closer, however, its gravity grew into something more concrete. The Earth’s oceans noticed it first. Suddenly disinterested with the moon, they found themselves attracted to the asteroid, drawn to its rugged strength. Like crazed fans, they crowded the beaches and fought for the best view of its approach.

Like a ball fighting to roll uphill, the Earth strained against the asteroid’s gravitational pull. But when he tried to move forward, the asteroid’s gravity tugged him back. It didn’t matter how tightly he tried to hold to his orbit. The Earth was a movable object fighting an unstoppable force.

The Earth didn’t know what to do. He had already done everything he could to control his future, and was worn out with the effort. He couldn’t run any more.

Finally, after weeks (or was it months? or years?) of straining against the asteroid’s gravity, the Earth finally accepted what he could not change. He stopped fighting the invisible truth. Exhausted, he stopped running. For the first time since the asteroid was sighted, the Earth relaxed and let nature take its course.

And as the asteroid passed – only 186 million miles away – its gravity wrapped around the Earth’s middle, slowly pulling him away from the sun and into the deep, dark unknown. The predictable curve of the Earth’s orbit was straightened into an infinite line. Like a puppy led on an invisible leash, the Earth left his home and followed the asteroid into in the unknown of space.

When the asteroid was first sighted, the Earth tried to save himself. He chose to run – to avoid the asteroid rather than let it collide with him – and his plan worked. He hadn’t been destroyed by an impact. But despite his effort (or perhaps because of it), his path had been forever changed. Now, as the Earth followed the asteroid past stars he had never seen, he wondered which was better, change or annihilation? He didn’t yet know.

He noticed, however, that the people weren’t saying anything about what happened. They weren’t admiring the view or complaining about the cold. They were all strangely quiet.

The Earth thought he might like them better that way.

The Extra Credit Kid

When the boy was ten, his 5th grade teacher used the hour after lunch to teach her class the beautiful language of the deaf. Even though everyone in the class could hear – even though they all listened to their radios at home and turned their TVs louder than their mothers would have liked – this particular over-achieving educator wanted her class to know sign language. She wanted to teach their still innocent hands how to do something constructive. She wanted them to learn gestures that would communicate without offending the elderly.

The children loved their sign language lessons. Once, during a silent game of Ring Around the Rosie, they even got so rowdy that the teacher had to remind them to use their inside hands.

After the first week of learning to speak with silent words, the boy told his teacher that his mother was deaf. He said that everyone in his family knew how to use sign language. He had been doing it for years. Sometimes, before bed, he even used his hands to read out loud to his mother.

"But not the Bible," he said. "All the whosoevers and wherefores make my knuckles crack."

The teacher was amazed. Like an exotic exchange student from a quiet and faraway land, the boy was a native who already knew the language. He was a natural tutor. In a moment of instructive genius, the teacher offered bonus points to any child who spent time with the boy whose hands could talk.

He was the extra credit kid.

Within hours of the teacher’s edict, the extra credit kid became the most popular kid in class. His lunch table was always full. His seat was always saved. He never spent recess jumping rope by himself. He was extra credit.

Every afternoon The Extra Credit Kid leapt off a bus full of new friends, eager to tell his mother how popular he was at school. With exhausted fingers, he bragged about how everyone wanted to spend time with him because he was good at something. Because he knew something. Because he could do something no one else could.

Because he was extra credit.

The teacher asked The Extra Credit Kid to keep a journal of the time he spent with friends from their class. She wanted to be fair when she assigned extra points. The Extra Credit Kid soon noticed that he was invited to lots of birthday parties and sleepovers, but only on nights before the teacher tallied progress reports or just after difficult math tests. He played lots of video games with the lazy kids, but was never spoken to by the smart ones who had stars next to their names on the bulletin board.

In March, everyone celebrated The Extra Credit Kid's birthday by singing Happy Birthday with their hands.

In April, his class took a special trip to a school where the children couldn't hear. The Extra Credit Kid ate lunch at a table full of deaf kids and told a joke so well that a boy almost choked on his peas. Everyone from The Extra Credit Kid's class turned around to look. The rest of the cafeteria hadn't heard a thing.

In May, everyone waved goodbye to each other and promised they'd play together at the swimming pool.

In June, when school was over, the Extra Credit Kid's new friends stopped returning his calls. His hands, once limber from telling jokes and stories, grew lazy and fat. Summer vacation wasn't nearly as much fun as the school year had been.

The sixth grade was even more disappointing than the summer. His new teacher, Mrs. Espinoza, had severe arthritis and wasn't interested in sign language. She wanted to teach the children Spanish. The Extra Credit Kid had never been to Spain. For a month he spent the hour after lunch memorizing conjugations with his hands folded politely in his lap.

It was hard crossing from extra back to ordinary. It always is.

During the seventh grade The Extra Credit Kid learned to play the trombone.

In high school his hands were often busy, but with a new form of “sign language” that involved him talking mostly with himself.

The Extra Credit Kid eventually went to college and found a job and became a man.

After a while, the man almost forgot that he had ever been extra credit.

But then, when his mom visited, they would sit together and tell stories with their hands. And laugh. And he would remember.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Red Light?

New York is a pedestrian city. New Yorkers don’t walk for recreation or because we can’t find a closer parking place. In New York, the closest parking place is New Jersey. In New York we walk because it’s too expensive to hire a $20 taxi every time we leave the house. Poor and unwilling to remain confined to our apartments, we walk everywhere, littering the sidewalks with our smaller carbon footprints.

When we walk, we watch the traffic signals. New Yorkers know that when the green light turns yellow, the stream of cars blocking our path will slow to a stop and we can get an early start across the street. Unlike their suburban cousins, New York drivers are trained to never speed through a changing signal. In New York, running a red light means running over twelve people.

Last weekend, Jeremy and I were part of a crowd of NYU students and out of work actors crossing 18th street before we should. Several seconds before the red hand gave way to a walking man, a little girl on the opposite sidewalk stepped away from her father and into the street, following a herd of bad examples.

I saw the little blonde girl step off the curb, disobeying the red flashing hand that told her not to. Her father saw it, too. He shouted for her to stop, but in the chaos of the crosswalk it was hard to tell if he yelled more from fear for his daughter’s safety or hate for what his insurance company would do if she got hit by a car.

The little girl heard his shout and quickly stepped backward onto the sidewalk, safe and repentant.

When he knelt in front of the little girl and put his hands on her shoulders, the middle-aged man was still a father – angry, frightened, and flawed. But when he opened his mouth to scold his daughter, he was also something more – part prophet, part poet, part messiah. If the little girl remembers his advice, it will help her survive more than just the city.

“What have I always told you,” he said, sternly. “Don’t follow the people. Follow the signs.”

I listened too, and was thankful for the reminder.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

SNAP!

Mice haven’t invaded my apartment, but they’re beginning to send spies. Every few days one scurries across my kitchen floor and hides under the stove. One by one they enter… but they never return home.

When the first mouse was spotted, my roommate shrieked, “it’s not even cold outside yet! I’m not emotionally ready for this!”

Is anyone ever emotionally ready for mice to invade their apartment? Isn’t the hallmark of a good invasion that it starts as a surprise? Would the Nazis have succeeded in occupying Eastern Europe if Hitler had RSVP’d with Poland for a September attack? Probably not. That’s why it’s important to end an invasion before it begins.

And so, with Old Testament vigilance, I’m catching the mouse spies one by one and killing them.

(Technically, and is the incorrect conjunction in the preceding sentence. The story shouldn’t read “I’m catching the spies and killing them.” It should read “I’m catching the spies by killing them.”)

SNAP! is my new favorite sound.

While I happily accept the role of grand executioner, serial killer, and/or instrument of rodent death for our apartment, Casey (my roommate) is a pacifist. She’s not offended by death, but she doesn’t think it should be forced on anyone (or anything). She wants the mice exterminated, but she doesn’t want to hear stories about it. Like the problem in Darfur, she’s aware of the killing, but thinking about it makes her sad.

Casey and I briefly discussed buying catch-and-release traps, but agreed that the theory behind catching and releasing is only effective if there’s an element of rehabilitation involved. Otherwise, your kindness is mistaken as hospitality. After the “release,” you’re practically guaranteed the mouse will bring its rodent friends back to your apartment to meet the nice people who keep filling the wire box under the sink with cheese and snacks.

The instructions for these pest-control placebos should read like the back of a shampoo bottle: “catch and release… and repeat.” Unless you have an infestation of golden retrievers, why bother?

It might be true that ever time a mouse dies, PETA cries… but in my opinion, the best way to catch a mouse is to kill a mouse.

***

Belly-up is always a posture of death. When you see a mouse trap flipped on its back, you know your resident rodent has finally joined Puckers – the goldfish you forgot to feed – on the other side of eternity.

This morning I looked behind the kitchen trash can to check a trap. It was sprung, tossed at a wild angle by the force of its snapping spring. The bait, a walnut tied to the trap with a piece of string, was completely intact and uneaten.

Beside the trap laid a dead mouse.
It wasn’t injured.
It wasn’t broken.
It wasn’t bloody.
But it was dead… next to the trap.

The mouse was resting three inches from the overturned trap, just far enough to blur the line between cause and effect. It was like finding a dead man across the street from a car accident.

Mysteriously, they both lay there, coldly divorced from each other, their bodies not even touching.

As far as mysteries go, “the case of the mouse who died, but wasn't caught” isn’t a very good one. I’m smart enough to know that cholesterol isn’t the only thing that causes heart attacks. When, on a calm autumn afternoon, your tiny mouse heart is already beating at over 9 times per second, SNAP! probably isn’t your favorite sound.

Animal rights activists can say what they want, but this confirms what I’ve always known. I’m not a killer… I’m a heart-breaker.