We Should Hang Out Sometime (Embarrassingly, a True Story)
by Josh Sundquist
When I went to graduate school, I left Earth for Mars. What I actually did was leave Mars for Earth, but that’s not how it seemed at the time. I assumed, as I think most young people do, that everyone in my culture did things in an objectively normal way, so I could leave Brigham Young University wearing my Martian clothes and go on being my 21-year-old celibate, non-drinking Martian self in a Writing Program. (Feel free to laugh hysterically if you’ve been to any writing programs or any colleges where people drink alcohol at parties and sleep together.)
It’s true that I ran into a few tiny problems right off, one of them being that it’s not normal on Planet Graduate School to believe any of the things I believed about mating rituals. During week one of a class in literary theory, the instructor wanted all of us to write down four synonyms for “male.”
SO EASY! I wrote down my four words and waited while everyone else wrote his or her words, and around the room we went, saying them aloud.
Honestly, a lot of those words could not be spoken on the planet where I grew up. A pretty popular choice rhymed with mucker. There were a lot of bastards and sons-of-bitches. Who have these poor women been hanging out with? I thought.
Then it was my turn, so I said, “Um . . . Dude. Fellow. Gentleman. Boy.”
Based on the discussion that followed, none of these women thought, Wow, I would really like to date an alien from your planet! Instead, a good number of them thought, O how deluded Long-haired Martian Woman is from her lifetime of brainwashing by the patriarchy.
I’ve been on Earth a long time now, and it's only possible to detect that I'm a Martian by birth in six or seven ways, such as my impulse to bring baked goods instead of wine to a party, but sometimes I meet a person or read a book that reminds me fondly of the years I spent in high school and college among men like Josh Sundquist--courtly, sweet, self-deprecating, and intensely honorable in their search for the kind of love that could never be called hooking up.
This is Josh's book:
And this is his author photo:
Sundquist begins his memoir with the paragraph, “When I was twenty-five years old, it came to my attention that I had never had a girlfriend. At the time, I was actually under the impression that I was in a relationship, so as you can imagine, this bit of news came as something of a shock.”
Are you noting Sundquist’s age in this statement? Twenty-five? I think we can agree that this is similar to what someone approximately ten years younger than Sundquist would say on Earth, so you may think, as I did, What planet is this person from where he can still talk about girlfriends in this virginal way at 25? Is it perchance in the Christian Galaxy?
Yes, but please stay on the line even if you hate that galaxy. Stay on the line even if you especially hate and cannot imagine being born upon Planet Christian Homeschool. There is one more factor you must know, and it’s large. “Josh Sundquist,” says the jacket flap, “is a Paralympic ski racer and cancer survivor.”
When Josh was nine, he got cancer, which he survived, but his leg was amputated from the hip down. This meant that he did not become the type of amputee who could run and play sports with a prosthesis on. He became a hip disartic, which means the leg doesn’t swing through fast enough to permit running.
“For most types of athletic activities, I would take my leg off and run with my crutches, or set my crutches down and hop. I was faster and more agile without the leg. But I was also more self-conscious, and with the crutches, I didn’t have my hands free to, say, carry a plate of food. Which is why I would wear my leg to the dining hall for dinner, and why I planned to wear it to all nonathletic social activities during the retreat.”
That’s how Josh spent his time at camp and in the public high school he had to beg his conservative parents to let him attend: trying to figure out, in the most recessive way possible, when to wear his leg, how to carry a cafeteria tray, how to talk to girls, how to make new friends, all the while following his personal rules:
It’s no surprise to me that this would make dating, which is one of the hardest things anyone does on any planet, even more complicated, but what's endearing about Josh is that he was surprised. The memoir has a quirky, comic, and somewhat excruciating aim: Josh will find all his old girlfriends and/or crushes and see what they remember about dating him. He'll describe what he thinks went wrong, and ask what they think. Sprinkled throughout these cheerfully painful examinations are a series of droll graphs:
I can’t overstate how much I love the graphs in this book, which takes the reader from Josh’s eighth grade crush, Sarah Stevens, to a Miss America contestant named Sasha.
Funny as it is, the book takes the reader deep into the heart of a question that's relevant on all planets, whether or not you are disabled, whether or not your parents tried to keep you from seeing any movies or drinking or sleeping with someone before you were joined at the altar, and that question never quite goes away:
Can anyone love me the way that I am?
Although Josh makes fun of his predicament from the very beginning, in graph after charming graph, this is a man who lost his leg at the hip when he was nine. He is so doggedly optimistic as he lives through and reports on his years of romantic forays--never be a burden, never be different—that he never admits to himself until the very end the insecurity behind the book's "investigation." His real question is the big one: fate or self-determination? Specifically, in his case, can I be a normal guy, not an object of pity, despite losing a leg to cancer? If I pretend it’s no big deal, will it not be a big deal?
“I would have considered my investigation successful,” he says, “if one or two of the girls had told me they didn’t want to date me because I was an amputee.” He’s 25, and this has been his condition for all of the years when he and everyone else on Mars and Earth were lusting and were lusted after. “I was insecure,” he admits. “It made me feel inferior. I had not wanted to admit that there was an element of my disability I had yet to overcome, so I concocted this investigation to find some other explanation.”
At this point in Josh’s book, the whole larky, madcap aspect to it, the oh, ha ha this is how nerdy and sheltered I was in middle school, so I’m going to hold the microphone up to these girls and ask why didn’t they didn’t like me! vaporizes. Josh’s plight becomes: can anyone just think I'm normal?
I don’t want to ruin the book for you, but would it ruin the book for you if I told you that of course someone could? This is a comic memoir, after all, and I think you should read it right now.
I finished it. Let me stipulate a few things first.
1) If you love and/or respect this book, rest assured that the Nobel Prize committee, Lionel Trilling, and Stephen King are on your side.
2) The idea of marooning kids on an island is a fantastic and fruitful idea for a novel.
3) The prose in this book is complex and often beautiful.
I stand, however, on the following ground: Lord of the Flies is a flawed novel with a flawed premise, but we’ve made it compulsory reading for 60 years because it’s an adventure story, because it’s about boys (rather than girls), because it’s short, and because the violence and cruelty make it seem important.
I can tell you’re already thinking, Laura, this is a bloooooooog. Do you have anything funny to offer me?
Yes: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.
You can buy it now or when we’re done, but if you or your offspring has ever been asked to discuss Original Sin in Lord of the Flies, you should hang with me a sec.
Here's what William Golding says in his introduction to an unabridged reading of the book:
There have been a great many things said about how it came to be written, and I don’t know whether any of them are true or not, but as far as I’m concerned it happened because one day I was sitting to one side of my fireplace and my wife was sitting on the other, and I suddenly said to her, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” And she said, “That’s a first class idea. You write it.” So I went ahead and wrote it.
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, "Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?" my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.
Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.
The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
Everybody okay? Anyone need to beat up a pillow or do what a good friend of mine used to do when she was a teenager and her parents were going through a messy divorce, which was to climb up on the water tower and hit tennis balls as hard and as far as she could?
Please join me as I race to the top of this water tower with my bucket of balls.
Forehand stroke to the east: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books?”
William Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911, so he would have been a child during World War I and its aftermath. I know you don’t want to sit here on the water tower while we discuss the history of children’s publishing, so let’s just stipulate that children’s books of that era probably contained more idealistic role models than might be found in YA literature of the present time. All I want to emphasize here is that Golding’s stated purpose is to show us how real boys really behave.
Forehand stroke to the west:
Golding: “. . . if you, as it were, scaled-down human beings, scaled-down society, if you landed with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.”
Watch your head. I’m going to have to really wail on this one.
Society, according to Golding, can be replicated with a group of one gender, but not with the other, but don’t worry, you crazy feminists! You are the superior sex!
And yet you have no place in a fable about civilization.
Forehand stroke to Florida: “I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.”
Hold that thought about sex, which actually does raise its lovely head on Golding’s island, though William and I use the word “lovely” ironically.
Setting aside a few obvious questions (Is sex trivial? Is it disconnected from the problem of evil?) I want to ask (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) this story about the problem of evil came to be such a central part of the education of American children, and how a group of English school boys stuck on an island for what must be a few weeks or months at most can accurately represent the rise of Nazism, which was foremost in Golding’s mind when he wrote it:
“It was simply what seemed sensible for me to write after the war when everyone was thanking God they weren’t Nazis. I’d seen enough to realize that every single one of us could be Nazis.”
Presumably, the “sensible” part is the value of seeing one’s own capacity to be evil. Since it’s Jack’s group that likes to kill weaklings and dissenters, Jack’s group represents the Nazis. But how many readers identify with Jack and thus see their inner Nazis? Jack, for one thing, is innately cruel. His transformation into a brute is swift and obvious—hardly a transformation at all, and it cannot be avoided or undone. It's more likely that the reader identifies with Piggy and Ralph, and that the book is thus read as a lesson about how you are never more than five feet from a person who could turn into a Nazi for no reason you could possibly understand and flatten the least popular person in your village with a giant rock and then hunt you with a stick that’s been sharpened at both ends (which is what many middle school kids already have on their minds as they exit English class for lunch).
It’s thus really a horror story, not a revelation about the self. In the horror genre, the monster can neither be understood nor killed.
Let’s travel now to a review in the Guardian of John Carey’s 2009 biography: William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. I’ll hit a few tennis balls to Switzerland while you’re reading it, or you can just read the parts I’m going to quote here.
The author of the review is Peter Conrad, an Australian professor of English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, and the author of 19 books, and this is what he says: “As a set text for schools, Lord of the Flies went on to sell millions of copies, introducing adolescents worldwide to the idea of original sin and the knowledge of their own barbarity.”
“My innocence came to an end when I opened Lord of the Flies.”
Knowledge of their own barbarity. The end of innocence. Is he possibly being ironic? There is no sign of that. Perhaps I’m mistaken about the number of readers who are willing to see themselves in Jack. Perhaps many accept this notion of barbarity within, and their innocence, in some sense of believing in the goodness of human impulse, is gone.
“Yet the man,” Peter Conrad says, “who wrote Lord of the Flies spent the rest of his life regretting that he had done so. Golding considered the book "boring and crude," its language "O-level stuff.” Its classic status struck him as "a joke" and he disparaged his income from it as "Monopoly money."
“Towards the end of his life, he refused to reread the manuscript (much revised, on Monteith's orders, before publication): he feared he'd be so dismayed he might do himself a mischief. Golding whispered the truth about these protests in his journal.”
I wonder if you could wait a sec while I go buy a new case of tennis balls.
We teach this book as a moral fable, a brilliant and terrifying glimpse into the soul, and yet the author thought the book crudely written, so bad, in fact, that he couldn’t bear to do what children everywhere are doing right now: parsing it line by line, tracking the Biblical allusions, identifying the beast as themselves.
I understand Golding’s self-doubt and recrimination. I understand the fear of finding one’s own book crude and horrible and boring. But I happen to believe his dismay has merit. When a book is used to teach enormous moral lessons, when Piggy and Ralph and Jack and Simon come to symbolize All Boys and all aspects of society, there is some obligation to ask how real, exactly, the boys are, and how symbolic of the rest of us they can be.
The book is, in fact, crudely imagined in the following ways:
1) The boys know they were put on a plane as part of an evacuation but do not seem to know each other or where they were going. How did this come about? What did their parents tell them? Did the parents say, “Look, we’re not sending your sister. She’s not worth it. We’re going to keep her here even if there’s an A-Bomb. Also, we’re staying here. But just go. It’s for the best.”
2) If we can enter the point of view of various boys—Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon—why do they never ruminate on any of the above events, as you would once your parent’s decision to pack you off with a bunch of strange boys goes horribly wrong. I mean, it’s basically what happens at summer camp amplified a couple million times.
3) Why don't the boys ever think about the foods they miss--butter on a hot crumpet served by mother on Sundays, gritty delirium of sugar on a sponge cake on a rainy afternoon--even though this is the number one activity for homesick people everywhere? We get just two paragraphs of nostalgia in the entire book--Ralph's memories of home on page 112--and these paragraphs contain one sentence about food.
4) Why do they talk to one another so little, given that a boy at camp or a new school or stuck on a stranded bus would likely ask, Where did you live before? Where did you go to school? Where do you think we were supposed to be going? Why are you wearing that weird black cape? None of them are bored enough to socialize as you would on any playground of any school in the world?
5) Would boys aged 6-12 who have grown up principally in boarding schools and not in survivalist camps in Montana be this naturally good and enthusiastic about slaughtering a wild animal running around with its babies?
6) Would boys killing only the second pig of their lives (with remarkable precocity) really feel the kind of Oedipal sexual lust described in the book with so much feeling that I find it hard to believe Golding actually thought he had written a sexless fable?
7) I have more, but this is the last one I’ll go into here because I know you have things to do. Why (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) is the only female thing on the island—the sow the bloodthirsty boys hunt and kill as if they are not just killing it but having sex with it—instantly turned into a male beast the minute they cut off its head and it becomes the main symbol of the book: Blood-soaked Head of the Dead Mother on a stick = Lord of the Flies?
I wish I could tell you I’m finished with this bucket of balls, but I’m only warming up.
Storytellers of the world, please consider writing a book that could replace Lord of the Flies in our curricula. Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Tessa Hadley, Julian Barnes, Tobias Wolff, Jane Gardam, Tina Fey, Jason Gay, Harrison Scott Key, and Maria Semple, you could do better than this. You could write a book about real boys or real girls on an island, funny or not funny, and I would believe it. It would still be dark because we’re competitive creatures. I’m not saying no one is going to die or kill something to eat. I’m just saying that it needs to be a lot more real than this before I’m going to look into the eyes of my own boys and say, “This is you. This is the real, innate, barbaric you, and this is society in a microcosm.”
This book is a lot of things, but it isn’t that.
It’s the time of year when I’m forced to acknowledge the innate barbarism of boys.
I don’t mean the way our sons forget to unclot their balled-up, sweaty tennis socks or carry piles of clean, folded shirts five feet to their dresser drawers, barbaric as these things are in their own ways.
I mean that once again a person born to me has, when asked “What is your homework?” produced from his backpack a school-issued copy of Lord of the Flies.
Before I argue that this book is more poison than broth, I will present my credentials as a young reader who appreciated, even relished, a book about the utter destruction of one’s hopes for happiness.
Remember Ethan Frome? Ends with a horrible sledding accident? I actually liked this book.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Beautiful innocent peasant girl is raped by her titled cousin, loses the baby born out of wedlock, finally marries her true love, and is rejected by him when she confesses that she slept with the titled cousin? Ends with the line “The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess?”
A Farewell to Arms? You know, the book Bradley Cooper throws out the window in “The Silver Linings Playbook” in a scene that I truly love even though I've actually been the type of English teacher he's railing against and this was my favorite book for many formative years.
You see where I’m going with this. Sad = okay by me.
Lord of the Flies, mes amis, is another matter. I’ve kept my secret all this time, but I’m telling you now in a low whisper: I have never been able to finish reading this book. I always plan to do it, if not for myself, for the Children. Specifically the ones who live in my house and say, “I have an essay on this book due in 15 minutes. Can you read my rough draft?”
Plus there’s the matter of it being a Modern Classic. As of today, this book has 1,327,932 ratings on Goodreads, where the plot description is truly enticing: “At first, it seems as though it's all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious & life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic & death.”
Help me, Rhonda. The rough draft, I remind you, is due in 15 minutes.
I will report back, I promise you, when I’ve finished reading the book and somebody's rough draft, but first I’m going to say a few words--posit, as we used to say pretentiously in grad school-- about why children read, why teenagers read, why adults read, and what you should put on your bookshelf right now to help you recover from Lord of the Flies.
Children read to be someone and somewhere else. Ditto teens, except here I would add that they also read to learn about sex and to see if other people feel as worried and embarrassed and left out as they do all the livelong day. Adults read for the same reason, if they still read anything at all, having learned that most books make them feel the way Bradley Cooper feels when he throws A Farewell to Arms out the attic window. To be elsewhere, elseone.
But what about books that are published for young people to read on their own (hopefully), and books that are assigned every year, year after year, in school? What are adults up to when they set those gigantic machines in motion?
I would argue that the motive is the same in the marketplace as it is in the curriculum: to teach kids something we really want them to learn. You’re still going to go elsewhere and be elseone, estudiantes, because that’s the nature of a book (or movie or video game) but we want to make sure you learn something we’re trying to teach you right now about justice, sexual identity, loving yourself as you are, and Socialism. (This is also the time of year when someone born to me is likely to bring home 1984 and Animal Farm.) Is this instructional motive bad? No. It’s inevitable. School is for teaching our kids to be exactly like us only nicer and smarter, though not too much better, because we work really, really hard and by God when we were children nobody unclotted our balled-up socks or paid for this many tennis lessons.
If school is for teaching kids to be smarter and nicer than we were at their age and, hopefully, than we are now, it’s important to ask what role pleasure has in reading, even in compulsory reading, and what kids gain from being in the particular elsewhere of a book. I don’t mean we should ask, “Hey, how are you kids liking this book? Should we finish it?” We don’t do that with Calculus or chemistry, and we shouldn’t do it with Macbeth. But the thing is, reading started out differently from those subjects. Stories were fed to us in the beginning because they were, at some level or every level, fun. Books exist as a recreational device, and all of the books that are widely assigned in schools--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby--started out not as a cog in the educational machinery but as novels that were bought voluntarily by adults.
If that’s true, then Lord of the Flies was published because a for-profit company thought adults would willingly pay to immerse themselves in that experience, and it’s now taught in schools because we believe it will teach kids to be smarter and nicer.
Before I read beyond chapter three (the farthest I’ve ever gone) and see how it does or doesn’t do that, I’ll say this: I believe that the reason I have never finished Lord of the Flies is that you can tell in chapter one that you are living in a world where the cruelty of boys is innate and unstoppable, and where you cannot take the supreme and only comfort that art offers when the innocent die or are unjustly destroyed, which is to inhabit the mind of an empathetic character.
Secondly, I suspect that the number one reason we teach Lord of the Flies is that it punctures the fantasy of the young that they would be much better off without us, that if they could go to a tropical island without teachers and parents and coaches they would be FINE. So much happier, in fact. This book says, No. You would not be fine. You need us to keep you safe.
I’m definitely going to admit it if I’m wrong in Part Two of this post, or you can tell me why and how I’m wrong now. But meanwhile, here’s what I would set on the bookshelf or nightstand if you, like me, are about to join Ralph and Piggy on the nightmare island of panic and death for the first time:
Could someone handle the laundry for a while? Make the boys turn their own socks right side out first if you can.
I’m going in.
I just read the most fantastic article about a problem that plagues me even more than my inability to remember passwords and usernames in times of crisis (i.e. seventeen times per day), and that is:
What Is My Point on Social Media? Why am I on Twitter when I could be doing sit ups or eating Golden Grahams, or both?
Patricia Rossi says (and feel free to pop over and read the whole thing because there's a great picture of her legs, too) the savvy writer will do three things: educate, encourage, and e-something. (I really believed, when I thoughtfully closed the paper, that I could remember three tiny things. They all start with "e"!) Plus her approach seemed so virtuous and positive, like when I used to go to church and we would say hopeful things that we really and truly believed about eternal life and forgiveness. I would do it! I would stop using social media to confuse myself and others, to depress myself and others, and to shame myself and others. I would stop taking screen shots of that post where a person completely unlike myself (I don't brag about my kids or my vacations or my work, do I? I mean, ever?) said that annoying thing about how all of the alumni of her child's prep school go straight to a school that rhymes with Whale. I would educate, encourage, and emolliate on Facebook, and I would furthermore do exactly what she recommends on Twitter, too, and Tumblr and LinkedIn and THIS VERY BLOG: namely, I would write down my social media goal for each weird hateful platform and stick to it.
My social media goal on Twitter is very simple. I stare at my feed. Scroll, scroll, scroll. "Favorite." Scroll. Click. Read. Scroll. Consider saying extremely witty thing to New York Times writer guy. Click "Reply." Type something. Revise. Erase. Start over. Realize it is stupid anyway and too long. Log out.
Sometimes I vary this routine and think of something pithy to say. I type it and realize it's 4,000 characters too long. I erase it. Write shorter. Erase. Log out. Or once in a long while I respond with umbrage and indignation to some extremely arcane literary feud/dust up/scandal in a great white hot flame four words long and then I log out with a triumphant feeling.
Thirty days later, I return to Twitter, determined to master it like Bach's Two Part Invention #13 in C Minor, the one I spent my whole freshman year in college practicing at 6 a.m. on a battered Steinway in the catacombs of BYU, and discover that whoever I jabbed with my insightful comment jabbed me back and I simply wasn't there. Dial tone. Thirty days had passed, so it was completely over and I lost.
But still, there was more cunning stuff here. Patricia Rossi of the leg photo was very clear on something I've been pretty squeamish about, and I know you have, too, if you've published anything at all, like a church newsletter or a book of poems or a photo of that sweater you knitted last year. How much bragging am I supposed to do on these channels? How much about me is too much? I mean, the main reason I'm on all these empty stages in the convention halls of virtual hell is that publishers totally want you to be there. Ideally, you'd be stripping, but since you're not a stripper, you need to do something to Attract Attention to Your Book. This lovely leggy woman, Patricia Rossi (look at her legs! Seriously!), says the proper ratio is 80/20. And she means 80 percent other people, okay? Not 80 percent LOOK AT MY BOOK!! LOOK AT MY STARRED REVIEWS!! AND THEN LOOK AT MY SON'S S.A.T. SCORES!!!!!!!!! and 20 percent "Happy birthday!"
Eighty/ twenty. Educate, encourage, exfoliate. Set a goal for every outlet.
Except for Twitter. Twitter, my friends, is hopeless. For me. Not for you. I'm sure you're great at it. But here on the blog (doesn't "blog" sound exactly like a synonym for barf? As in "I blogged all over his car after I ate a bad taco"?), I've learned a thing or two. My last blog, as I pointed out in my Inaugural Post, has disappeared into the black hole people say doesn't exist in the age of the Eternal Internet. And I don't want to flame out again, so here's what I'm going to do. I'm going FOCUS. Over on Tumblr I'm still going to be a total mess, and LinkedIn is still going to be nothing but that picture of me eating Key Lime pie in Florida 4 years ago, but right here on the blog I'm going to educate, encourage, and extemporize on only one thing, and that will be other people's books. Libros. No recipes or travel stories (except as they relate to other people's books) or poignant essays about my kids (except as they relate to other people's books). And if I manage to get anyone to take a picture of my legs looking really fabulous, I'll add that because, you know, I do get 20 percent.
You know how people say the Internet is forever? As in, once it's on there, you can't remove it?
One day about a year ago I sat down in front of my blog with a deep purging impulse. The essays I'd posted during the preceding years sat there like clothes I'd worn to parties in the 80's when I had feathered hair. To get rid of those clothes, I would not even have to drive to Goodwill. Blip.
There was a certain frisson, like when you burn a photograph of someone you loved that you want to forget. But I felt, deep down, that it wasn't really burned. Teenagers (of which we have two) are always being warned that naked/drunken pictures of themselves will never, ever go away from the Internet. Don't post anything you don't want people to see forever! This is the kind of alarmism I can get behind; plus, in my experience, you can delete your Instagram in a why-am-I-taking pictures-instead-of-writing funk, and then, when you realize you miss seeing a friend's gorgeous baby, you can resurrect it in five seconds.
A few months later, I went looking for my thoughts in the cemetery of the Internet, thinking, hey, maybe I could shorten the hems a little, and I was reminded of a documentary I watched long ago about an attempt in 2001 to identify three victims of the Titanic:
The disinterments began as
scheduled with bodies #240 and
#281, located in adjacent lots at the
lower end of the Titanic section. Following
prayers by Browning, workers
began to open the side-by-side
graves. As they did so, they encountered
large amounts of water, due to
the low elevation of these graves and
the high level of water table. Though
they examined the graves carefully,
they found no remains at all.
This development shocked the team, causing
them to ask themselves, in Parr’s
words, “What are we going to do?”
It's a shocking thing to dig up a grave that's only 86 years old and find nothing. The whole principle of a grave is to preserve the idea of ourselves as a physical presence. We may say "dust to dust," but we don't believe it. The resurrection, the apocalypse, zombie movies, those whirling, waltzing, skeleton-ghosts in Disneyland's Haunted Mansion--they are all based on the belief that if you dig up a grave, you will find the remains of a person, not loam. And as much as we may complain about the everlasting permanence of the worst picture of ourselves ever taken (usually as the #4 image on the Google search page, where my hair looks like Rosalynn Carter's) there's something compelling and deeply comforting about a collective repository that is so invincible.
But it isn't. I'm sure that if I were to become a terrorist, someone in the FBI could find my old blog. Barring that (and I am unequivocally promising you that I'm only going to kill the fleas in my house, on my dog, in the sofa cushions, in the back of the garage--wait, there's one on my thigh I KILL YOU WITH MY TWO SHARP FINGERNAILS), it's not even loam.
This doesn't matter except as a small warning to any of you out there who have, as I do, a certain Camille Claudel tendency, an overwhelming, episodic urge, when you look at your work and it isn't what you wanted it to be, to smash every statue in the whole atelier. Every badly lit picture of you where you have Aqua Net hair or you are naked or you are holding a bong will live until the apocalypse on the Internet, but you can destroy your own work pretty easily.
This is a photograph of Tom and me looking like we're buried up to our heads under something called the Thomas Hardy tree in London. The headstones mark the graves of bodies that had to be exhumed and relocated during the construction of St. Pancras Station, a project Thomas Hardy was forced to supervise when he was an architect's apprentice. His poem "The Levelled Churchyard" can be read here.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal