Biography 25.1 (2002) 203-213
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Living on the Human Road
In the year 1991 it became possible to see the year 1992, and in 1992, 1993 looked probable, but the year 2000 implied 3000, 4000, 5000, a dizzying telescope of anticipation. Now that it's A.D. 2002, I can't lose the tic of seeing the human world around me already smothered, lost in a remote archeological past.
It's not just me. My people—meaning my human, American, now-people—keep making futuristic movies where earth gets threatened by asteroids or warty alien ships. And we make movies about evil and apocalypse, turning the metaphysical prism around and around. The devil's been a handsome guy (End of Days), a bumpkin (Little Nicky), a beautiful sexual woman (Ninth Gate). He has been everything we are, in a dozen or so major films in a few years, many more in minor films and television. God puts in the occasional appearance, maybe as a female pop singer (Dogma), but mostly does not show up, leaving us to deal with her nemesis on our own.
I care about the appearance of the devil—why I'm not sure—and watch as many of these movies as I can.
I walk across the campus where I work one day, in the ten minutes I've squeezed out at noon to get some soup. A preacher, who visits our campus every year and calls himself Brother Tom, turns on me from his small group of listeners. The crowd of students looks mostly amused, using Tom to punctuate their swallows of Starbucks. Tom is middle-aged, hardlooking, his face like a callous with features—a callous on the open hand of a God about to smite.
"You might think you're a good person!" he yells at me. "Your friends and family might think you are a good person. To God you are not a good person. To God you are an evil rebellious wretch."
All around us—me, Brother Tom, the few students milling around—the spruce and hemlock and long-armed cedars wave their limbs like many-armed [End Page 203] Hindu gods. Ours is a maritime climate; there's always a good wind here. It's spring, around Easter time, when Brother Tom comes back with the robins and the Canada geese.
This campus is red. Red brick buildings with tall windows rounded at the top, coaxed ivy: the self-conscious college. When I see the buildings, they stand both as they are, in the blush of warm spring rain, and as they might be dug out in a few millennia, caked, crumbled, in a tilth of rubble, compacted volcanic ash. I don't want to see this way: it's like a sickness. The crumbling future slumps across my eyes. To Tom I walk across campus like an embodiment of humanity's fall. What am I wearing? I don't mark that in my notebook.
How do you know? I imagine myself saying to Brother Tom. How do you know I'm not saved?
Or maybe, How do you know so much about me? And meanwhile, at the omniplex, Arnold Schwarzenegger in End of Days fights the devil, handsome Gabriel Byrne, with the help of some really, really big guns. He doesn't bother calling on God at all, and though Byrne at one point manages to crucify him, Arnold escapes.
* * * * *
The spring of Easter, and Lent's close. I don't give anything up; I haven't for years. Does Brother Tom smell that about me? A pod of five gray whales swims into our harbor in Bellingham Bay, a detour in their annual Alaska migration. Our bay is polluted with mercury and chlorine from the Georgia-Pacific plant, which produces toilet paper, treating the paper with chlorine to make it whiter. The plant sends a nonstop cumulus of chemical-smelling steam into the air, like it's manufacturing another brand of sky. I accept the plant as part of the landscape, like the Northwest's chronic real clouds, and in my...