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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Sayings that are Bollocks

Oh my gosh, you guys, I am so tired of the apocalypse. You know how long people have been writing about it? The answer is all of the time. All of it. Every major religion is based on an impending apocalypse and I know that because I heard it once. Every one.

Why do we love it so much? Is it because we hate civil society and want a reboot? Do you think that in a world without technology you'd somehow become your better self? Or do we think that during the current geopolitical climate/domestic politics/impending ecological doom makes it an inevitability?

If you want to live off the grid so bad live off the dang grid now. There's nothing stopping you, you know. You don't have to have a smartphone. Nobody is forcing you to watch TV or take warm showers. Live the dream, you iconoclast hippy/hyper-right-wing doomsday prepper! You don't like living around people? Let me introduce you to a little concept I like to call most of Alaska.

I know. Everyone thinks that if there's an apocalypse they'll somehow be the one who beats the odds and survives, and then you get to be one of the few starting society over. We'll do it right this time, you say, because my ideas are better than the whole of human society's gradual evolution through trial and error. Like let's all sleep in hammocks, guys! Hammocks. That's my political platform for post-apocalyptic America. Hammocks hanging from the burned out husks of trees, swinging in the desolate winds of nuclear winter.

Or is the world really ending? Here are 26 charts and maps that show that the world is getting better due to human society's relentless progress. Literacy is up, child mortality is down, homelessness is disappearing. All that stuff comes from us working together, but yeah, I see the appeal of being split up into tiny bands of people we don't trust and burying babies on the roadside. The good old days!

Here's a fact for those pining for the doomsday: preeclampsia, essentially extreme hypertension during pregnancy, effects somewhere between 2-8% of expectant mothers and is the leading cause of death for expecting mothers. In Africa and Asia, 1/10th of prenatal death is due to hypertension, and in Latin America, it's one quarter. It took Sybil Branson from us in Downton Abbey, but it also could have taken my wife during her first pregnancy. Add that to the fact that I depend on a monthly supply of medicine waiting for me at the pharmacy to treat kidney disease and guys, I like it here.

There's some scary stuff out there, obvs. Mass shootings, climate change, modern music all sounding just like old music, these are all distressing. Though in spite of all the mass shootings in the U.S., the rate of U.S. violence has been on a steady decline since 1993. Terrorism, though, you guys. Scary. Or Iran. And sure, that's disconcerting, too. You know what else was disconcerting? Drills in schools in the 60s where children were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear bomb. You think the world's "bad" now? Try being a Russian during World War I. Twelve million Russians fought. Nine million died. That's 76% casualties, and that's just soldiers. Another 1.5 million civilians died in Russia due to starvation and disease caused by wartime privations.

And that's not counting the flu! Let's talk about Spanish Flu. Seventeen million people were killed in World War 1. Three times that many were killed by the Spanish Flu worldwide. During the pandemic that conveniently took Lavinia Swire from Matthew, US life expectancy plummeted by 12 years. It infected one-fifth of the entire world. Climate change is scary, disease is scary, So yeah. I'm glad I live when I do with the stuff I have, thank you very much.

Speaking of pandemics, and speaking of post-apocalyptic fiction, I read Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.

“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”
Wait. No more Howie's Book Club?

In spite of everything I said, in spite of me just so over all of this, I loved Station Eleven. In it, a handful of survivors navigate the inhospitable world after a great pandemic reduced the population by something like 99%. What's left are the usual scattered communities of people, this time gathered around truck stops and big box stores. One of our main characters, Kirsten (already we're off to a good start because she has a real name), is an actor in a traveling caravan putting on Shakespeare plays and orchestral music. Another was training to be an EMT. Another is a woman who self-published a graphic novel while becoming successful at business. All are tied in some way to an incident that happened at a theater right before the disease struck.

The narrative moves back and forth between the times before the apocalypse and after. There are the usual musings on the banality of life before:
“But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think - this will maybe sound weird - it's like the corporate world's full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I've had front row seats for that horror show, I know academia's no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood's full of ghosts."

"I'm sorry, I'm not sure I quite --"

"I'm talking about these people who've ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They've done what's expected of them. They want to do something different but it's impossible now, there's a mortgage, kids, whatever, they're trapped. Dan's like that."

"You don't think he likes his job, then."

"Correct," she said, "but I don't think he even realises it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”
And the strangeness of life after:
“All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient."
There is another character, a pretty scary Prophet, who repeats the refrain that "Everything happens for a reason," a saying that drives me crazy. If everything happens for a reason, why are the people who say that so often angry on Facebook at something that happened? I'm not buying it.

Station Eleven doesn't have to be put into a category other than just good books. If you're into this kind of thing, I think you'll find it meatier than the usual fare, like a homemade pot pie instead of the ones from the frozen section. If you're bored with these kinds of books, I say give it a shot anyway.