Friday, April 19, 2013

The Need to Believe

Sitting in a coffee shop, overhearing a conversation about the Boston Marathon bombing. As of now there are two announced suspects, one dead, the other being pursued. Information is spotty but what we have been told indicates the people involved were alienated, operating alone in a sad and violent and muddled "political" act.

And of course, the talk I'm overhearing involves the "probability" that the bombing is the result of a government conspiracy and the "suspects" are framed patsies.

Much is made of apparent sinister "inconsistencies" -- why was the MIT security guard shot, what did he see, what did he know, was someone trying to silence him? (Seriously, this person I'm listening to is actually saying this.) And so on. It's hard to describe this even as speculation since speculation is usually dependent on extrapolation from facts, and this conspiracy proponent isn't even suggesting he possesses any facts. He just has "questions" which in themselves imply answers.

Obviously, he's nuts, but he's trying to sound so thoughtful and reasonable, and really, what he's suggesting follows logically from the usual paranoid ramblings of all anti-authority conspiracy theorists. Now he's talking about gunshots, and how those shots aren't properly connected to other testimony about the bombing, and so on, making all of it up out of whole cloth, just spinning and weaving without regard for how any of this connects to what we laughingly refer to as our shared reality.

It occurs to me, listening to him, that what he's expressing through his paranoid conspiracy theorizing is the secular version of orthodox religious belief.

In both conspiracy theory and theology, the proponent is trying to make sense of something frightening and inexplicable -- the possibility that life and death and evil are random and meaningless. Faced with the bleak reality that the universe really doesn't care whether we as individuals live or die, or whether good or evil is triumphant, the religious man theorizes that life operates according to the incomprehensible plan of a loving god. Because we are in the hands of a loving god, the theory goes, bad things happen for what must ultimately be a good reason. Therefore the terror we feel when faced with random cruelty and evil is ameliorated by the reassuring fantasy that God Has A Plan. In this way, the godly man (or woman) is comforted.

Similarly, the paranoid conspiracy theorist, faced with the evidence that we are at the mercy of random events and that our authorities are powerless, ultimately, to protect us, creates a theory to reduce the anxiety this sense of vulnerability creates. Because he or she wants to believe the authorities are powerful enough to protect him or her from random evil, when the authorities fail to do so, the conspiracy theorist concludes that failure was part of an incomprehensible plan. Just as the godly man assumes that God is in charge, despite all evidence to the contrary, the conspiracy theorist assumes the Authorities are also in charge -- again, despite all evidence (or no evidence) to the contrary.

In both cases, the believer believes because he needs to believe. The alternative -- that we are at the mercy of forces beyond our control -- is too horrible to accept.

Fantasy is so much more comforting.

Friday, April 12, 2013

The loss of secrets

I'm in Montreal for the next twenty or thirty minutes, until I board a train for Toronto. I've been here two days, but it's been so cold I haven't seen as much of the city as I'd hoped. (The truth is I'm a bit tired from traveling a lot the last couple of weeks and I've embraced the cold as an excuse for some down time.) But the cold did give me an opportunity to experience something I might not have otherwise -- the underground passages between buildings in downtown Montreal, a necessity for a city that apparently spends a good part of the year locked in a pre-glacial Ice Age.

I loved it, and it filled me with a crushing sense of sweet nostalgia for (bear with me here) a secret New York that doesn't exist anymore.

I haven't lived in Manhattan in almost forty years, so I may be completely wrong about this, in which case I expect I'll hear about it from more well informed New Yorkers, but what I'm about to describe is, I believe, a secret city that was on its way to being buried and/or locked away before 9/11, but was certainly shut down soon after the Towers fell.

Let me explain.

Way back, in the late 1960s, I discovered something that other New Yorkers had undoubtedly known for decades. It happened when DC Comics moved into a building in Rockefeller Center. One afternoon I went with a group of friends to get a bite in the building's basement lunch room, and afterward several of them decided to wander over to the underground concourse at 30 Rock to get magazines at one of the new stands there. They showed me how our building connected to the concourse through an underground tunnel. This wasn't a "secret" in the sense that it was hidden, it was a "secret" because it wasn't something you'd know about unless someone actually showed it to you. It wasn't on any public map that I was aware of; no prominent signs in the 30 Rock concourse showed you the way (I think there was one small sign near the tunnel exit). It was just... something most people didn't know about. A group secret. A privilege for the special few (hundred) who had a "need to know."

Midtown Manhattan, I soon discovered, had lots of secrets like that tunnel. Underground passages linking one building's basement to another, hallways that connected forgotten subway access tunnels, stairwells that led down one side of the street and up again a block away. In fact, by the mid-1970s, I'd learned it was possible to negotiate your way from Grand Central Station halfway across midtown Manhattan almost to 53rd and Broadway without once stepping on the sidewalk. (This was incredibly useful during snowstorms, much as it must be in Montreal during, say, mid-April. It's snowing outside as I write this.)

I left New York in the late 70s, but when I retuned for visits in the 80s and 90s, most of the "secret" passages were still there. Still secrets waiting to be discovered by the curious or the initiated, little gifts from New York to those who cared enough to explore.

9/11 slammed and locked the doors on those secret tunnels, in the name of "security" and "safety." Padlocks and chains, rusty gates, steel fire doors permanently sealed, and armed guards with suspicious glares, are what greet the urban explorer nowadays under New York. The secret empire of underground Manhattan is no more.

I miss it. I'm not sure what we've gained by giving up our secrets, but I know what we've lost.

Monday, April 08, 2013

I love train travel, and here's why

Mostly, because it's slow.

Most people would consider this a negative, but most people are in far too much of a hurry to get nowhere in particular. Life speeds by and the destinations we seek are far less interesting than the journeys we take to get there. Traveling by plane short circuits the best part of the journey, which is the sense of traversing space and time, going from here to there, and processing the experience in real time. When you fly from, say, Los Angeles to New York, your experience of the journey is this: you arrive at a building filled with anxious, usually frustrated people; you stand in lines and have your personal space invaded repeatedly in the name of "security"; you wait with other anxious, potentially frustrated people in a room to find out if you're going to have to wait for a longer period of time, or whether you'll just have to wait the regular period of time; you get in a small crowded room with hundreds of other anxious, potentially frustrated people, and spend four to five hours scrunched in an uncomfortable seat, hoping that when you need to use the bathroom you won't find yourself trapped behind a food cart; you exit this small room and walk through endless corridors without windows to another big room filled with anxious, potentially frustrated people, and wait to see if you're going to get the baggage you handed over hours before to strangers who really don't care if you ever see your shirts again. Then you leave this building and take a bus/car/taxi/train to your "final destination." Where, exhausted and emotionally drained, you spend the next couple of days adjusting to the change of time zone, change of weather, and change of pace.

Yeah, that's traveling in style.

To sum up:

You pack and prep on, say, Sunday for an early-morning Monday flight. It has to be early because you'll be fighting traffic to the airport. And you have to get there at least two hours before your plane takes off to be sure you can get through security in time. So you leave your home on Monday morning at, say, six a.m., which means you have to be up by five a.m., which means you've probably not had a good night's sleep. So, before you even start on your trip, you're emotionally drained and exhausted.

Monday, you travel. Forget Monday. Monday is a lost day.

Tuesday, you recover. You try to do stuff on Tuesday but you're dealing with jet lag and general trip exhaustion, so whatever you do, you more or less do it in a half-stupor. Maybe you tell yourself you're having a good time because you're in a great city and being tired doesn't matter, you're fine, what a wonderful time you're having, let's all go to that museum, let's have dinner, let's see a play. Tuesday night, to your surprise, you crash early and you're asleep hours before your usual bedtime, and when you wake up Wednesday, you're a little disoriented, but you're beginning to feel a little better.

By the end of Wednesday, you finally feel about as good as you felt on Saturday.

And you tell yourself you're having a great time. To prove it, you pack in a lot more activities, fill the hours up with tours, more museums, more restaurants, more touristy things. Surprisingly, none of this will make much of an impact on you in memory, which is why you'll take a ton of pictures, to prove you were actually there at the Statue of Liberty. But you've got to rush to catch the boat back to the city because you have a Broadway show to see at eight and the traffic is a killer going uptown.

Now, in contrast, here's your train trip:

You pack Sunday and get a good night's sleep because your train doesn't leave till eleven and that's well after rush hour, and you don't have to get to the station before ten thirty because there's no security line. And that's Sunday.

So on Monday, you leave home more or less relaxed and you get on the train and you unpack, walk around, have a coffee, read a little, take a nap, enjoy the scenery, talk to your fellow pretty-relaxed passengers, watch a video, do some work (in my case, writing), have a meal, watch the scenery. The scenery is pretty damn nice. And you can see where you've been, you know where you are, and you can imagine where you're going. You have a sense of moving through space. You're not in a small room crowded with other passengers. You're in a moving vehicle passing through places, through towns, over hills, under hills, across fields, past garbage dumps and baseball stadiums and school yards and lakes. You're moving through America. You're traveling in the rhythm of time.

Tuesday, more of the same. The climate is changing, the towns are different, the people getting on and off the train are from a different place, and they occupy a world different from the one you've always known. They aren't rushing to get somewhere, they aren't compelled to see something, they're here, they're here right now, and so are you. Surrounded by rivers and mountains and long fields of grass. And are those cows? Yes, yes, those are cows.

Wednesday, it's night when you move through a large Midwestern city, and the city is a sculpture of light and shadow. You see people moving in lighted windows. You see cars passing on bridges. The trees are different here, the homes are different, it's a different place, and you can see it because you're here, right here in the middle of it all, passing through, slowly, like a long drawn breath.

Thursday, you reach your "destination." But you don't feel pressed to see everything Right Now because you've already seen so much, so you can take your time, you can experience the moment, you can be in the now.

Tell me that's not a better way to travel.

And that's why I love trains.

Also, on a train, you can write a blog post like this while watching the countryside sweep and roll past your window. And then you can post it. Like I'm about to do... Right now.

Travelin' man mini-review of "The Place Beyond the Pines"

I haven't forgotten the implied promise in my previous post to continue a discussion of "Big Dumb Movies." For the last couple of weeks I've been in Family mode, accompanying my daughter on a series of college tours ranging from New Orleans up to New York, and haven't had the time or energy for a Big Think post. (Actually I'm considering a Big Think post about college tours before I get back to BDM, but we'll see.) However, after seeing Rachel off on her way back to LA yesterday (I'm continuing my own trip further up New England to do some location research for my upcoming YA novel), I caught a movie last night, and want to share a few quick thoughts about it.

The movie was "The Place Beyond the Pines," and while it has a lot to recommend it superficially -- great filmmaking technique, an interesting and underused location (upstate New York) -- it is, ultimately, a pretty weak, if not outright bad, movie pretending to be A Film.

Take away the directorial grandstanding, the big name male leads, and the unusual location, and what you're left with is a remarkably vapid, ill-conceived cliche of a story that relies almost entirely on a ridiculous coincidence and undeveloped character moves to create one momentary dramatic crisis that seems completely unattached to anything else in what's come before. Plot lines are introduced only to be abandoned almost instantly, moral questions are raised and left to dangle without any development, characters appear and disappear and do things that don't matter but are convenient for the plot, an entire story arc is introduced without any credible character underpinnings --

It's a mess.

What astonishes me is that this is a well-reviewed film by a supposedly "serious" film maker, with a script that wouldn't pass muster for an episode of Pretty Little Liars.