Nonfiction

Good Night, Hiroshima

I’ve been in Japan for twenty-six straight days now. That’s almost twice as long as I expected this business trip to last, and I still have no return ticket booked. The delay is the mundane kind — no catastrophe, no accident, just an engineering project that’s been 90% of the way complete for days. If you’ve ever tried to debug a cabinet full of wires or find the one broken sensor in a tool the size of your bedroom — or if you’ve ever struggled to find the right word, or labored to fix a mysteriously leaky faucet — you know how infuriating that last 10% can be, like you’re swimming up and up and up in a deeply black ocean, the surface perpetually out of reach until one day, suddenly, in a stroke of insight and with no warning whatsoever, your head breaks the surface and you gulp down victory like oxygen.

So I’m here. Still swimming. But as places in the world to be trapped go, I’ve picked a nice one.

Matsuyama is the largest city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Even with a population of more than 500,000, Matsuyama has a reputation for being a little sleepy, and certainly when compared to the nonstop electric veins of Tokyo, Matsuyama’s pulse beats slower. It’s a hot spring town, built around the Dōgo Onsen, a spring that’s been used for over a millennium. (I checked, not a translation error.) There are cherry trees on the hills and a long history of haiku poetry, all surrounded by a ring of emerald mountains that shepherd the city to the sea. The city’s age leads to narrow streets, compact cars, and without a burrowing subway like Tokyo’s, the narrow streets are almost always full of those compact cars, so that my five-mile morning commute stretches on in the backseat of a taxi for half an hour. But no one seems to mind the pace, no one seems to mind the wait, and whether this is Japanese politeness or just Matsuyama’s own relaxed tempo I haven’t yet been able to determine.

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The downtown is dominated by a giant forested hill, capped with Matsuyama Castle, a 17th century fortress built by some feudal daimyo that overlooks the entire city. My hotel sits in the shadow of the castle, as does the prefecture capitol building and Okaido, the half-kilometer-long covered pedestrian thoroughfare that’s lined with shops, sushi restaurants, and 7-Elevens. The new nestles right up to the old. Following Okaido away from the castle on the hill, it dead-ends into the Gintengai pedestrian alley, which runs perpendicular for another half-kilometer of fashion, ramen, and fancy stationery until it dumps you out at the city’s gargantuan department store, topped by a massive Ferris wheel that carries you up into the sky until you, too, can have the view of a feudal lord. You can see for miles in every direction, but in the summer there are almost always clouds threatening tropical rain on the horizon.  Every restaurant has a cache of cheap umbrellas they give out to patrons if the sky opens up during dinner.

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I’m working in a neighborhood called Nishihabumachi, an industrial port right south of the airport. I’ve watched planes land and planes depart, and a week after I first arrived a giant container ship, the Santa Serena, pulled up to dock a hundred meters away, gravid with logs — more logs than I’ve ever seen. I watched the massive metal cranes on the ship’s deck duck and nod for two whole days, unloading piles and piles of wood, before with a blast of its foghorn the Santa Serena heaved itself loose from the shore, turned, and headed back out to sea. More planes took off. I took a taxi back to the hotel.

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But today is clearer than I’ve ever seen it in Matsuyama, so clear I can see islands in the distance between the Seto Inland Sea and the Iyo-nada Sea that I didn’t know were there. The geography I can see from Nishihabumachi is breathtaking, all these rocky islands that burst from the crystal blue ocean, dotting the sea and the horizon as they fade away into the distance, into eternity. It’s hard to be upset about being here, looking at those islands. But they are all so separate, so distinct, that they seem lonely, isolated despite their numbers. The more islands that reveal themselves out of the mist, the lonelier they look. They are travelers that surfaced from the sea to find themselves adrift and unconnected.

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Matsuyama is 42 miles south-southeast of Hiroshima. I’d have a clear line of sight to the famous city from the pier where I ate lunch today if it weren’t for those islands. For the first time today, as the sea seemed to stretch on forever, I realized just how close I am to Hiroshima, how close I am to the place where mankind dropped hell out of an airplane and onto a city for the first time, where in an instant we turned 80,000 lives into glass and smoke.

I have conflicting feelings about the U.S.’s atomic bombing of Japan. I think everyone must. It’s an impossible question, a moral morass — was it necessary to end the war? was it a way to intimidate the Soviet Union? was it the best use of a generation of scientists’ talents? was it revenge for Pearl Harbor? did it save countless American lives? did it murder thousands of Japanese civilians? did it spare the lives of Japanese soldiers?  I don’t envy Harry Truman, the farmer turned haberdasher turned senator turned president, thrust into the decision by Roosevelt’s sudden and complete cerebral hemorrhage. But mostly what I thought about today, as I ate lunch and stared across the sea — tried to stare straight back in time — is what Matsuyama must have seen on August 6, 1945.

This is Hiroshima on that day in August, 71 years ago. A tower of flame, an inferno 60,000 feet tall. Fire and fury and ash and void. Buildings vaporized; human lives turned to shadows on the pavement. If you were standing where I was standing in Matsuyama, would you have seen the flare, brighter than anything in history, a new sun rising violently on the horizon? Would you have heard the blast, loud as hell’s own thunder, rupturing the air? Surely you would have seen the cloud, that ominous cloud of smoke and souls, rising like a hunched vulture above the city, above the rain clouds themselves?

Maybe it’s because the sea northwest of Matsuyama is so beautiful, but it’s hard for me to imagine any of that. This is not a desolate or war-torn or ugly place, not a desert in New Mexico or a war zone in the Middle East, but blue and alive and sparkling. And yet there are plenty of 80-year-old Japanese men and women I’ve passed in the streets, eaten next to at sushi restaurants. There are people to whom this is not history but reality, not an abstraction or imagination but something seared into their memories.

This is, more or less, a feeling I’ve had before, when I visited a concentration camp in Germany. That the world was so beautiful — the sky so perfect, the grass so green — that nothing atrocious could have ever possibly happened here. It’s a fallacy, obviously, but it makes me wonder what will happen when the witnesses are gone and only history remains. It’s easy to lose the past in the present.

Japan seems to be keenly aware of this, and integrates its past with its future fairly seamlessly — I’m in a town where the main tourist attraction is a thousand-year-old hot spring, after all.  I’ve linked to yesterday’s obituary of Elie Wiesel in the previous paragraph, but I think I want to close with two quotes from him, both given in speeches, not written in his books.

First —

It’s up to you now, and we shall help you — that my past does not become your future.

And second —

If anything can, it is memory that will save humanity.

Good night, Mr. Wiesel.  And good night, Hiroshima.  May we leave the world a better future than your pasts.

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Seasons’ Greetings

SUMMER

Washington, D.C.

Summer in Washington, D.C. hits you like a wall.  It’s a gelatinous season, a jello mold of equal parts humidity and rigidity that seeps right into the jetway at Dulles and smothers the city from June to September.  In a way, D.C.’s geography mirrors its summers: three perfectly straight lines separate our nation’s capital from the rest of Maryland, but D.C. is slowly dissolving on its southwest side into the sopping maw of the Potomac.  Watching the aides and consultants and lobbyists rush around the marble monuments in business casual, you can almost see them melting in the heat, too, the stark lines of their formalwear dark with spreading sweat.  You walk a block or two down the streets — either lettered, numbered, or named after states — and find yourself looking for an excuse to duck back inside, into the loving embrace of an AC unit.  The city seems thick — humid, yes, but also muggy with history and with activity, as you watch recent graduates like yourself scurry down halls that have been scurried down since John Adams was president.  Everyone in D.C. is either twenty and just moved there or sixty and has lived there forever; like in Congress, there is no middle ground.  It’s a mixture of free-flowing youth and enduring marble, and the amount of conversation, information, and aspiration is enticing and intoxicating, even more so than the Irish lagers at the pub near Dupont Circle.  So you sit on the Mall at night on the Fourth of July (only the darkness tells your California brain that it’s night, since the temperature and humidity have barely budged), watch the fireworks behind the Washington Monument, and wonder what it would have been like to major in Political Science.  You also wonder, once you get home, if you can figure out a way to watch “The West Wing” reruns in your gym’s sauna.

Columbus, OH

But nothing — even the nation’s capital — embodies the Fourth of July like the Midwest.  The suburbs in Ohio are America in its purest form, Eisenhower-era environs that ooze charm and apple pie.  The perfect grids of tree-lined streets in Columbus are made for fanfare and parades, and you sit in a folding lawn chair on the curb and watch ruby red firetrucks roll by, flanked by troops of meticulously groomed girl scouts.  The mayor, the veterans’ brigade, the Model T club — mainstays of main street motorcades drive by like the decades rolling past, right before your eyes.  Columbus feels like it’s been plucked from a bygone era, which is not to say it’s backwards or parochial.  It’s the opposite: vibrant and close-knit, woven into the fabric of an America you thought was only true in textbooks and television.  You go to a neighborhood block party — an actual neighborhood block party, hosted by a solid block of houses in the neighborhood — with tables as far as the eye can see, rickety folding legs bent heavy with the weight of rib racks, jello molds, hamburgers.  People you’ve never met welcome you into their yards, and after the sun sets they herd you through the crowded streets to the best vantage point for fireworks.  When the pyrotechnic afterimages fade from the sky, streaks of saltpeter and slashes of sulfur drifting into mist, ten thousand fireflies rise up from the grass to take their place, and even in the cool night air a warm glow remains.

San Francisco, CA

Like many cities, San Francisco is prettiest from a distance: exiting the tunnel on the 101 South, barreling down the hills from Marin to the Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a vista where, for a few brief seconds between twisting turns, you see the entire fifty square miles of San Francisco spread out before you.  It’s a pastel cityscape tableau that grows from west to east, starting with the perfect rectilinear grid of low-slung houses in the Sunset, moving to the three-story cake frosting homes that crowd around Alamo Square, crescendoing to the dizzying spires of the financial district which spear the sky behind the slender, piercing point of the Transamerica Pyramid — and then crashing, abruptly, into a jumbled series of wharfs that tumble into the bay.  The slender white spiderweb of the Bay Bridge shoots out from the east to grab at Treasure Island; the stately vermillion span of the Golden Gate Bridge thrusts north to anchor the peninsula to Marin.  That’s the view you see, at least, if you’re lucky.  But most summer days, the drive down from the Marin hills is a descent into a gray unknown, a heavy layer of coastal fog that envelops everything from the headlands to the peninsula in thick, slate-colored clouds.  San Francisco seems to slumber under this shroud, with only the peaks of its bridges and skyscrapers emerging above that mist, that impenetrable cloak that hides San Francisco from the outside world like the lost city of Atlantis.  In many ways, San Francisco is an Atlantis — a city set apart from the rest of the United States.  It is a sophisticated, technologically advanced utopia, the birthing grounds for miracles of science and software that the rest of the world can only dream of and never truly understand.  It is also a nightmarish dystopia of conflict between old and new, tradition and progress: a bastion of progressive idealism and a derelict hulk without the infrastructure to sustain it.  San Francisco is all these things at once: old and new, progressive and decaying, Uber-laden and taxi-heavy, space-age and Victorian — and so it makes sense, perhaps, that in the middle of summer, this funereal fog rolls in and drops the temperature so low that software engineers venture out of their overpriced apartments in peacoats.  The beauty of San Francisco lives in its contradictions, and the seasons are no exception.

FALL

Santa Clarita, CA

It’s probably the years of academia talking, but fall always felt like new beginnings to you, far more than some random month in winter did.  January was always an arbitrary line drawn in the Gregorian sand, but fall — fall was when things changed.  This feeling has lessened since grad school, in that post-college desert you’re left to wander through without markers or signposts every September.  But it never goes away, and especially not in your home town.  Eighteen autumns you woke up here ready to embark on something new, something different.  And five more falls after that you found yourself, for one reason or another, in Santa Clarita before heading back to school.  It’s an incubator, a launching pad, a nest — it’s home.  Two valleys removed from Los Angeles, Santa Clarita was amalgamated out of smaller towns in the area, communities knitted together at the seams and now rapidly climbing up the slopes of the hills around them with one tract housing development after another.  What used to be mostly onion fields is now mostly sidewalks and wide streets, planned neighborhoods with fake Spanish-sounding names, dozens of chain restaurants, and one large amusement park.  It’s also almost literal proof of the fallacy of trickle-down economics: the affluent neighborhood of Stevenson Ranch, where Weeds was filmed and where the streets are all named after famous writers, perches atop the hills to the west, affording its residents a spectacular view of the Santa Clarita Valley and the poorer, older neighborhoods in downtown Newhall or far-flung Canyon Country.  But despite its flaws, Santa Clarita is welcoming, inviting, comforting.  Maybe it’s the personal history, or maybe it’s the spacious streets.  Maybe it’s the old, brick buildings of your high school, or maybe it’s the oak trees in your parents’ backyard.  Maybe it’s just a halcyon, nostalgic haze.  But like those oaks, Santa Clarita stands tall and central in your mental map of California.

Silicon Valley, CA

The 280 winds like a snake’s spine along the center of the San Francisco Peninsula, cutting northwest from the 101 and straight up to San Francisco.  It’s a wide freeway that swoops and swerves through the foothills, revealing majestic vistas of both the hills and the Bay as it barrels on to San Francisco.  About a third of the way along this sixty-mile interstate, the hills are split by a deep, perfectly straight cleft that crosses under the freeway at an oblique angle and seems to go on for miles.  This is the Stanford Linear Accelerator — SLAC — a two-mile long cannon that blasts electrons from Menlo Park into Palo Alto.  It’s also one of the few views of the Valley you get from the 280, since the highway runs through the hills above the cities, but the view is an appropriate one: Silicon Valley often feels like it’s the epicenter of high-energy collisions.  SLAC sends electrons hurtling towards each other at ludicrous velocities, creating bursts and bouquets of subatomic particles, and the Silicon Valley has done the same thing with emerging technologies.  It was semiconductors first, the silicon itself, huge R&D facilities set up in Santa Clara to soak up talent from Stanford and Berkeley PhD programs.  Then massive, Scrooge McDuck piles of money appeared on Sand Hill Road, and more intangible ideas started to grow, drawn and pulled and formed out of the sea of brilliant engineers and venture capitalists like those silicon ingots the decade before.  As you travel north in the Valley the technology gets more abstract: from Applied Materials to Intel to Hewlett Packard to Apple, eBay, Google, Facebook, or whatever the hell a company called Kaggle is supposed to do.  You come back every fall, as students pour into Stanford, and flow of talent is almost tangible.  Engineers come from around the world, descending on the Valley like pilgrims with MacBooks, and the resulting explosion of ideas means tech startups blossom and grow in a spray of creativity.  Like any pilgrimage, that means plenty of snake oil vendors and charlatans have set up shop on the roadside, peddling “big data” and “disruption” as if the words themselves held the secret, as if being “mobile” and “local” will save your soul.  The Silicon Valley’s soul seems to swing back and forth, from life-changing technologies to $6 lattes, from crucibles of ingots and innovation to hyper-inflated rent, from the soaring hills of the 280 to the roil of molten ideas in the Valley, each screaming and clambering for the chance to be pulled from the froth as that fragile silicon crystal grows and grows and grows.

Las Vegas, NV

Southern Nevada is miserably hot in the summer and miserably cold in the winter, so that leaves only a couple months to visit Las Vegas if you want to soak up the Strip instead of spending your entire trip at a poolside club or in the heated confines of the labyrinthine hotels.  But if the weather in Vegas isn’t oppressive in the fall, certainly everything else is.  Las Vegas: the words have become a metonym for excess, for a land with lights everywhere, noise everywhere, money everywhere, and a thin golden glitz stretched over every surface like plastic wrap.  The Strip is unlike anywhere else in the world, a road where Egyptian pyramids jockey for skyline space with Roman palaces and miniature Manhattans.  Everyone wants to sell you something infinite: endless buffets, bottomless drink tickets, innumerable call girls.  But the Strip is only four miles long, a mirage constructed in the sand out of sheer force of will, lush with lust and bustling in defiance of the desert around it.

WINTER

Flagstaff, AZ

You know Arizona is a desert, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for Flagstaff’s winter.  This isn’t Phoenix, where the climate ranges from “pleasantly warm” to “center of the sun.”  Flagstaff is high desert, a plateau thrust up seven thousand feet from the sea, and that means it’s fucking cold in the winter.  You get there, check in to your hotel — your haunted hotel, if you believe the placard on your room’s nightstand — and venture out into the little brick- and sand-colored downtown, wishing you brought a heavier coat because there are actual snowbanks on the side of the icy road.  Christmas lights are strung along facades and electric wreaths hang on old iron streetlights, bathing the streets in a yellow-orange incandescent glow.  The word charming keeps popping into your head, because the city looks older than it is, still clinging to frontier town status even as the world’s frontiers, let alone the United States’, disappear.  Huddled for warmth in a cozy pub, you can imagine stagecoaches clattering down the streets, even as cars race by on Route 66.  The red dust around Flagstaff stretches on for miles, but it may as well be forever, leaving this city a frozen time capsule buried in the hot Arizona sand.

New York, NY

In New York City, at least, you’re prepared to be cold, but the first winter weekend you spend there isn’t nearly as bad as the ice skaters at Rockefeller plaza would make you think.  The canyons of Manhattan whistle with winter winds, but it’s early in winter still and it hasn’t snowed yet.  The air is crisp, the skies pastel, the streets inked with the blacks and grays of winter coats.  Despite the clear skies above, you find New York claustrophobic, in a way: all these people and all these buildings crammed onto Manhattan Island with nowhere to go but up and up and up.  Everything you could ever possibly want is in those twenty square miles, but somehow that’s limiting, not liberating.  You could live a full life without ever venturing farther north than Harlem — and this is the fact that makes you happy you’re here for a weekend.  Not that this makes New York any less captivating, and its sheer size and history and promise live up to your lofty expectations.  Even the skyline of the city is spellbinding, each building telling a story about the year it was built: the rectangular financial district towers; the twisting, majestic tower of One World Trade Center; and, of course, the art deco diadem of the Empire State Building.  Regardless of the current year or fashion fad, New York is an art deco city, a city centered on geometric shapes and patterns.  From the gridline of streets and avenues to the sharp profiles of skyscrapers, the city’s countenance is shaped by human hands — not grown but engineered.  Even Central Park, the heaping helping of nature scooped into the trough of Manhattan, is bounded by perfectly rectangular borders.  Winter seems to makes these lines clearer, starker, as trees lose their leaves and become another instance of the patterns of lines and angles, a desolate mathematical beauty that begins to merge with the regular tessellation of fire escapes and the crisscrossed burrowing of subway trains.

Los Angeles, CA

Christmas in Los Angeles means something different to you, you who have never celebrated any Christmas, let alone a white one.  There’s no muffled snowfall, no bootprints in blanketed white forests — just the normal buzz of traffic and some palm trees with extra tinsel.  The city of Los Angeles sprawls across southern California, indolent in the heat, covered by a blanket of azure sky pulled up to the neck of the San Gabriels.  Emerald lawns sparkle in the dew of industrial sprinkler systems, bringing color to the lavish front lawns of Beverly Hills, the pristine golf course on Sepulveda Pass, the glamorous cemeteries of the rich and famous.  It’s seventy degrees on Christmas day, so you hide in an air conditioned movie theater along with half your suburb.  Maybe you think about going to the beach, but the chill of the Pacific knows no season.  Winter in Los Angeles is like summer in Los Angeles, the season only given away by the crisp, cold mornings’ condensation on your windshield that turns to rivulets as the sun rises over Mulholland.  L.A. will always be strip malls on Ventura Boulevard, will always be houses perched precariously in Laurel Canyon, will always be billboards and lights and freeways.  It is timeless, a snow globe without the snow.  Unlike San Francisco or New York, cities defined by their geography, the L.A. downtown rises from nothing in the middle of a wide basin, buildings stretching up to pierce the sky like a blossom of crystals.  Lattices of concrete and steel build and grow on top of each other, amethyst windowpanes budding and duplicating, and though the landscape changes, to you this wonderland is always the same, always home, in a way that nothing else will ever be.  To you, it is truly crystallized, lapidified, and though crystal-gazers will stare at this snow globe trying to pierce the veil of celebrity and scry the next trend poised to erupt from Los Angeles and ripple over the country, the warm winters remind you that L.A. will always be there as you remember it, always be there when you need it.

SPRING

Chicago, IL

It takes you a while to make it to Chicago, despite its promise and its prominence.  O’Hare and Midway seem to be just that — midway, stopping points on journeys elsewhere.  Even once you reach Chicago, the city takes its time to reveal itself.  It seems backwards, twisted, because it runs headlong into an endless body of water on the east, not the west.  But once you travel down the Chicago River, the buildings unfold.  The water runs through skyscrapers and high rises like a twisting river through a canyon, cutting a path through glass and steel and concrete the way a stream wears down rock and stone.  The walls of this constructed canyon are tall, perilously steep, and getting taller everywhere as cranes sweep back and forth in a delicate ballet of ballast and beams.  Every turn of the river reveals new views, new petals of Chicago’s blooming skyline.  The downtown district seems massive, full of skyscrapers everywhere you look, and you feel like an explorer on a boat through uncharted territory. Between the modern mirrored glass facades are glimpses back in time, staid concrete behemoths as well preserved as Sue the tyrannosaurus.  Older buildings, adorned and crenelated, face jutting slabs of sparse modernism, and through it all the river winds on and on until it deposits you at the edge of the steel blossom, back in districts with wide streets and brick low rises, the wind rising off the lake and pushing you away from downtown, back west, faster than you wanted it to push.

Eugene, OR

It’s green in Eugene — so many shades of green that you struggle to describe them all, the emeralds and jades and celadons that cover everything, even seem to tint the slate, overcast skies.  But the greens are deep, rich; none of the shades are sickly or yellowed or look anything other than acutely alive.  The city looks alive, too, and like it emerged from the ground, shouldering aside vines and trees as it thrust and clawed upwards.  The land in Eugene wasn’t bulldozed and leveled and constructed on — the buildings emerged as part of the landscape, draped in verdure like a cloak.  The effect is more primordial than houses have a right to be, but Eugene nevertheless feels lush and somehow old, a somnolent titan waking from underneath the earth and slowly shrugging off the moss.

Whitefish, MT

The size and grandeur of Montana are spellbinding.  You’ve spent the last three days driving here from California, watching the landscape transform from redwood forests to the Columbia River gorge, then swell into the rolling hills of eastern Washington and the lakes and valleys of Idaho.  But Montana is on an entirely different scale than anything else you’ve driven through, like someone found the corner of the landscape and dragged it up and out, scaling everything up and up and up.  From a distance, the Rocky Mountains seem impossibly large, behemoth stone gargoyles perched on the horizon; at their feet the Rockies are simply unfathomable. It’s still chilly before Memorial Day, and Glacier National Park still looks the part, with snowdrifts in the upper crevasses of the mountains that make them seem even larger, even more looming.  Glacier is a place where nature dominates, and the manmade additions — the giant lodges, the enormous cabins, the roads blasted through the rock — simply pale in comparison.  Every winter Montana swallows them up one by one, yet every spring the lodges and roads are thawed and returned to civilization, doled back out as if for good behavior.  The cycle goes on, year after year.  Freeze and thaw, melt and ice.  Winter and summer and winter again, season after season, our cities standing like pillars of rock amid crashing ocean waves.

Little Trouble in Big China

In the last six months, I’ve spent about twenty days in China — twenty-five if you count Hong Kong and Macau.  I would not consider myself an expert in any regard (at 26, I’m hard pressed to think it’s possible for me to be an expert about anything, really), but I find the place fascinating, and I’ve tried to unravel what goes on behind the scenes there many, many times in my head.  I don’t think I’ve been successful, but it at least means I have some stories.

*

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A R R I V A L

Light.

There’s light everywhere in China.  Not just the blinding fluorescent light that douses any airport in any country — there to help you forget what godforsaken hour it is in this part of the world — but lights of every color, every shape, a colorful panoply of illumination that pulls your eyes in every direction at once.  Giant Chinese characters burning with lambent neon fire, colossal LCD billboards shining like squat searchlights in the night, scrolling LED signs playing message after message written by some calligraphic pointillist.  If territorial holdings were what ensured the sun never set on the British empire, it’s technological holdings that make certain the sun will never truly set on the Chinese empire.

(more…)

Flight 1964

Every time I fly back from a trip home to southern California, which I seem to do in fairly regular three- or four-month intervals, I take the same flight.  Not always the same number, I suppose, but the same flight path, the same rituals, the same trip: a Southwest flight from Burbank to San Jose.  It’s about an hour gate-to-gate — forty-five minutes in the air — or just about long enough for the flight attendants to sprint down the aisle and throw peanuts at me before we start our descent.  It’s a great flight, Burbank may be the easiest airport in the world to fly out of, and Southwest is pretty cheap.  So why would I ever change the itinerary?

The one thing I do change, I suppose, is the side of the plane that I sit on.  Most of the time this comes down to where my carryon fits, since Southwest has this (possibly Marxist?) no-assigned-seats policy, but it gives me dramatically different views of southern California as I leave.  When Southwest takes off from Burbank, the runways point south, so the plane has to wheel around after takeoff to avoid taking us all to Tijuana or — god forbid — Long Beach.  That means if you sit on the left side of the plane you’re on the outside of the turn, and there’s a brief moment after the wheels retract and before the plane starts to bank that you can see the Los Angeles skyline emerge from between two hills that separate the valley from the LA basin, sliding into view as the plane rotates.  The LA skyline isn’t a skyline that rushes to the water, buildings elbowing each other out of the way in a rush to reach the shore; there’s no precipitous architectural cliff that tumbles from the city into the ocean, like the canyons of New York or San Francisco or Boston or Seattle.  Like everything else in Los Angeles, the skyline is sprawling and bizarrely positioned, spikes of steel and glass that rear out of the middle of, well, nowhere really and stretch towards the sky, metal fingers jutting from the impossibly flat sea of the basin like a slowly sinking ship.  Then the plane starts to bank and LA is swallowed by the sky, sometimes smoggy and gray, sometimes clear and cerulean, but always hungry.  By the time the plane levels out it’s hills and farmland and sometimes the coast until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose.

On the right side of the plane, the inside of the turn, the views are very different.  Burbank looks like a grid of gray roads and grayer buildings, and when the plane starts to bank your eyes are drawn to a cemetery, the lone patch of green seemingly for miles.  The cemetery is beautiful in its own way, as individual plots blur and smear into a greenish-gray hole in the city, but it’s certainly not as striking as a skyline.  The cemetery always makes me think about who’s buried there, under the shadows of countless flights, the eyes of innumerable passengers — voyeurs, always looking at the stones, but never able to read them.  Then the plane starts to level out and it’s hills and farmland and sometimes some mountains until the pilot announces the descent back to San Jose. 

As for the landing, well, I’m usually too immersed in a book to notice anything until wheels hit tarmac.  Maybe the next flight I’ll pay more attention, but that would involve changing my mental itinerary.

Indian Guidelines

The recent news about the Washington Redskins losing patent protection for their name is a long time coming — even if it does remind me of what might be the most on-point Onion article ever.  I’m happy someone’s finally trying to leverage something to get the D.C. team to change their name.

Plus, I figure it’s as good a time as ever to trot out the audio essay I wrote senior year of college about my time in the Indian Guides and as a Hart High Indian.  And by “trot out” I really mean remind me how great this art form is and convince myself to try to make another audio essay.  So stay tuned?

Anywho, here it is: Cub Scouts and Indians.

(Big thanks to the Dandy Warhols, the Village People, the Hart High Regiment, and the lovely singing voices of Winter 2011’s English 191T.)

Actually, I’m Jewish

Actually, I’m Jewish.

It’s a phrase I’m used to saying, for one reason or another.  What are you doing for Christmas?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: going to a Chinese restaurant.)  Why are you dressed in a suit and walking away from class on the first day of the quarter?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: going to shul for Rosh Hashanah, and then probably to a Chinese restaurant.)  How come you didn’t play Little League?  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: and Koufax I ain’t.)

I’ve been saying it for as long as I can remember, since my second grade class wrote letters to Santa—and I wrote one to Harry the Hanukkah Elf.  I’ve got the tone down, too, inflected enough to not offend whoever makes me say it, but casual enough to not sound offended.  Done right, it’s downright diplomatic.  Actually, I’m Jewish.  (Subtext: but thanks for asking anyway, I mean it, really, and don’t feel bad about it, there’s really no way to tell—not like we have horns or something—and if you’d like to know anything about my culture I’m probably a mediocre ambassador but I’d be glad to do my best to use my bar mitzvah, my Hebrew school, my bits of Yiddish, my ability to tolerate gefilte fish, to use anything, really, to help explain whatever may be on your mind.)

I’ve been saying it for so long, in fact, that I’m completely taken aback when, in the back seat of a luxury sedan in the middle of Berlin, the ethnically Persian, culturally German girl beside me—who’s a bit of a world traveler and has carried on conversations with two people in this car and one on a cell phone in four different languages—turns abruptly in her seat and asks me, without warning, “Are you Jewish?”

“Actually, uh, yeah, I am,” I stammer.

* * *

If you’re expecting me now to say that being Jewish during the quarter I spent studying abroad in Berlin was weird or isolating or deeply significant or anything like that, well, sorry to disappoint.  Most of the time I didn’t even think about it.  I really didn’t even think about it when I applied to the program—Berlin was just another European city, a name like Paris or London or Venice.  Unlike Paris, London, or Venice, though, Berlin was faceless.  I could picture those other three, could picture Moscow or Madrid or Dublin, without having been to any of them.

But Berlin was blank.  It had no Eiffel Tower, no watery canals, and for whatever reason the sights and monuments I would fall in love—or at least wanderlust—with had never entered my sphere of, ummm, “world travel awareness.”  (There’s a German word that captures exactly what I’m trying to say here, I’m sure, but hell if I know what the word is.)  I associated Berlin synecdochically with Germany, and Germany with, well, Bavaria.  Munich beer halls, dirndls, fantastic accents.  Hans Gruber.  The Sound of Music—which, I know, takes place in Austria, but the two countries were pretty thoroughly amalgamated in my mind before I visited both of them.

Of course, there were also the wars.  World War I’s all spiked helmets and U-boats to me, maybe because I’m hard-pressed to imagine a Princeton professor leading my country to war, or maybe because it’s largely eclipsed in media and high school history by its successor.  World War II is the spoiled child of military history, getting all the attention with its whole war-on-fascism and final-battle-between-good-and-evil deal.

So I guess Berlin wasn’t really completely blank.  Stretched over the empty canvas of that city like a dirty film were images of wide streets lined in stark red and black iconography, iron crosses and swastikas, Nazi rallies and narrow little mustaches.  But, I told myself, I was young enough and progressive enough and forgiving enough to look beyond that, to let Berlin dump its demons into the abyss of the past and travel there with a clean slate that I was ready to fill with beer and pretzels.

My family had other ideas.  My parents seemed fine with it—if perhaps a little unsure why, exactly, I was choosing to go to Berlin out of the ten or so other study abroad programs easily accessible to me—but my dad made a point of telling me what his dad would have said if Papa Winger hadn’t snuck so many Denny’s cheeseburgers into his doctor-prescribed, heart-healthy diet.  My grandfather, born in the roaring twenties in New York and second youngest of twelve, left Winger Bros. Meat Company to join the US army as a cook, ended up on a command plane in the 82nd Airborne division (the how of this story is a little unclear to me), and one cloudy June morning in 1944 landed behind enemy lines on a beach in the north of France.  His eyesight, like mine, was abysmal, but instead of discharging him the army had taken his rifle, given him a gold bar on his uniform and a Thompson submachine gun, and told him to squint and kill some Krauts.

The point being I can understand, at least superficially, why my grandfather never so much as looked at a Volkswagen for the rest of his life.

My other grandfather had also been drafted into the army during World War II, but hadn’t fought in Europe.  He had the same bemused questions as my parents about why Berlin, but went one step further.  “What do you think it’s like to be a Jew there?” he asked.  I didn’t know.

* * *

The quick answer is that being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else.

* * *

I found out a year after that conversation with my grandfather that, Jewish or not, going to Berlin was probably more of a homecoming than I ever thought.  I always assumed “Winger” was an Ellis Island name, assigned by lottery to replace some Polish construct held up by an arch of consonants pushing on the weary keystone of an O.  But one of my dad’s cousins did some digging into the family’s past, unearthing the earliest recorded Winger sometime in the eighteenth century in eastern Europe—a long time before any huddled masses yearned to breath free, before any of my relatives, tempest-tost by Teutonic turmoil, washed up on the shores of America.

This cousin’s guess about the origin of our name?  It evolved from the German word for our ancestor’s profession.  Some Winger progenitor followed the German vineyards that were exported to Poland in the middle of the last millennium.  We’re winemakers.  Winger.  Weinmacher.  Pass the Manischewitz.

* * *

But back to that luxury car idling in Alexanderplatz traffic, and the question from the high-class German-Persian girl next to me, mercifully in English, but otherwise out of nowhere:  “Are you Jewish?”

Actually, no, I could have said.  I’m German.  More German than you, even.  Or I could have told her I was Swedish, since my ancestors lived in what was technically the Swedish Empire, which swelled into eastern Europe in the 15 and 1600s.  Or Polish, or Hungarian, or Czech, or Ukrainian, Silesian, Russian, Lithuanian—borders that swam around the Winger clan so often that different generations were often wildly different nationalities.

But that’s just it—the borders changed so much, and so long ago, that I have no connection to any of those countries.  When I think family history, I don’t think of German wineries or Hungarian dairy farms.  I think bar mitzvah.

So I say what is the obvious answer, even if I am caught a little off guard.  “Actually, uh, yeah, I am.”

The girl leans back in her seat, looking pleased with herself.  “I thought so,” she says, and makes some vague hand gesture that could be referring to a nose, some hair, maybe even a circumcision.  It’s hard to tell.

* * *

It’s not hard to tell, apparently, that I’m new to Berlin, despite my efforts to blend in.  I bought a trendy European jacket and by sheer luck already owned the same pair of Adidas that dots the aisles of every U-Bahn train like a conspiracy of leather ravens, bobbing their heads rhythmically with the sway of the train car as German commuters tap their feet, shift their weight, huddle by the exits.  Within a week of getting to the city I made a point of not carrying the subway map with me on my commute to class.  But I reek of America.  It’s in the way I walk, the way I quickly look away when my people-watching is discovered.  It’s in my plaid shorts and my cheap pay-as-you-go phone, and hopelessly ingrained into the English copy of Lolita I’ve been reading on the train.

I expected all of that.  I’m a Californian and proud of it, and trying to blend in came from a desire to distance myself from tourists, not from my country.  But I didn’t expect to find out that it’s also apparently not too hard to tell that I’m Jewish.

Less than a week after I was called out in the car in Alexanderplatz, I’m having dinner with my host mother in her apartment.  She’s middle-aged, single, and—I’m extrapolating—probably lonely in her tiny two-bedroom flat, with only a stream of one-quarter students keeping her company.  Ten weeks and they’re gone, absconding in the early morning to catch a flight back to their homes, their loved ones, their families, just like I’m planning to do in a month and a half.

My host mother isn’t German.  She’s a Bosnian immigrant, speaks German as a second language and English as a third.  Between my rudimentary German and her passable English, we manage to communicate in hybridized, halting Deunglish, thought I can’t help but feel something’s always being lost in translation.  Perhaps by necessity, our conversations are usually curt and simple.  I can’t do anything more in German.  But tonight, over steamed spargel and boiled potatoes, she breeches new ground.

“So.  You,” she says, out of nowhere.  “Are you, ah, Juden?”

I’m caught off guard again, but this time I manage a smile and take a bite of asparagus.  “Ja.”

“Ah,” she says, leaning back in her chair.  “I had thought so.”

Again with the certainty.

* * *

The long answer to my grandfather’s question—what’s it like to be a Jew in Berlin—seems to be this:

Being a Jew in Berlin in 2010 turns out to be a lot like being a Jew anywhere else, except that you’re thinking, all the time, about that question your grandfather asked you and wondering if maybe things are different but you’re just not noticing them, wondering if the fact that acquaintances come right out and ask about your religious identity in a way that’s almost unheard of in America is indicative of a cultural difference, a shamelessness akin to nudity at a public beach, or if it portends some lingering Semitic sensitivities—not necessarily anti-Semitism, mind you, but maybe just some sense that German history was different for these Jews, diese Juden, these once-yellow-starred and starving people, and that this is something to be aware of, something to note, to observe.

Then again, neither of the people who asked me straight out about my Judaism were truly German.  They were, undoubtedly, Berliners—but Berlin is a city of immigrants and emigrants.  The street signs just happen to have umlauts.

* * *

There’s a long history of Jews, those eternal immigrants and emigrants, in Berlin—lives lived well before the Holocaust, which in both my secular and religious education was the only facet of German Jewish history ever discussed.  The city’s grown around them, but the sights are still there.  Majestic synagogues, ancient Jewish day schools.

Berlin is a new city, shining metal skyscrapers erected out of bombed-out rubble, jockeying for skyline space with the few crenelated nineteenth-century low-rises that survived the Allied assault and the dull gray soviet housing projects that dominate the east.  The new construction didn’t leave the Jews behind—their ghosts are etched in the jagged lines of the Liebeskind Museum, in the ivied statues of the Rosenstraße memorial, in the endless field of concrete blocks dedicated to die ermordeten Juden Europas.

I’d be lying if I said the thought of experiencing the more infamous side of German Jewish history didn’t enter my mind when applying to study in Berlin.  But I didn’t know these memorials existed, that architects and sculptors had attempted to recreate in concrete and granite the terror and inhumanity of the Holocaust.  What I did know about, what I was prepared—what I hoped, even—to see, was a concentration camp.

* * *

I had my chance one week before people started confronting me about my heritage in cars.  A group of students was taking the train to a camp, led by a German history professor.  I went along.

We didn’t go to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or Dachau, though, not to any of the names that had been painted in blood and tears and human ash on the inside of my skull by history teachers, Sunday school rabbis, Spielberg movies.  We went to a little town north of Berlin called Oranienburg, and visited the monster slumbering in its belly: a camp named Sachsenhausen.

There are a lot of reasons you’ve probably never heard of Sachsenhausen.  I had certainly never heard of Sachsenhausen.  It wasn’t a death camp, first of all, which would be a distinction worth something if 100,000 people hadn’t died there.  And though it was a concentration camp, it was largely used for communists and political dissidents.  (Somehow in the wash of history people always seem to forget that Nazis murdered not just one multitude, but many.)  The camp now centers around an enormous memorial the Soviets erected after liberating it, a giant obelisk depicting brave communist comrades who stood up to their Nazi jailers.  Unlike other camps, Sachsenhausen is more Soviet museum than mausoleum.

I only thought about all of this hours after I left the camp.  The entire time I was there, I could only think about how goddamn beautiful it was.  The sky wasn’t dull gray like I imagined it was at all these camps.  It wasn’t cloudy or brooding or menacing.

It was blue.  Fucking blue.

And it was big and beautiful and stretched on forever to the horizon, forever up to the heavens, forever back in time, oblivious to everything that happened underneath it.  At the time I thought it had no right to be so be beautiful.

I realize now that I had no right to tell it not to be.

I came to Berlin partly to be a part of history—the history of the twentieth century European Jew, a history of my own aunts and uncles and cousins whose names I don’t know, my history.  The skeletons of crematoria are still standing in Sachsenhausen, charnel houses to hold sepulchral the shadows of burning human flesh and the echoes of desperate screams.  There are also gravestones.  Large stone blocks placed evenly around the footpaths, granite slabs with memories interred.

The thirty or so people I was with walked past the first grave marker, but I hesitated.  I kicked the dirt around at my feet until I found what I was looking for: a rock, irregular, small, and a little dirty.  I picked up the rock and rolled it in my palm twice, then placed it slowly on the granite block.  Everything looked for a second like the rolling green hills from my childhood, like Eden Mortuary in Los Angeles, the bronze plaque of my grandmother’s plot, the embossed words, Ruth Felder, beloved wife and mother and grandmother, the little rocks to lay by her name that my brother and I would run around collecting—frolicking in the cemetery—and then it was gone.  A pebble on a slab of gray.  The blank slate of countless futures, the single point of the present, the weight of the past.

When we left Sachsenhausen, one of my classmates asked me why I had stopped to put the rock on the gravestone.

“Well,” I said and paused, trying to find the words to sum up a long funereal tradition, wondering how much detail to delve into, if other customs—rending clothes, covering mirrors—should be brought up.  How do you talk about one part of tradition without giving the whole story?

“Well,” I said, as I realized all that needed to be said.  “Actually, I’m Jewish.”

The Lost World

[Preface: Coding footnotes into a WordPress blog is… arduous.  I think these are all correct, but you have my sincerest apologies if something goes terribly, terribly wrong.]

This is a story about fame.

Well, not really fame so much as my tangential connection to fame.  Regardless of what you’ve heard, I’m really not that famous.  I’ll still send you my autograph if you want it ($8.99 plus S&H), but somehow I feel like you won’t be taking me up on that offer.  My last starring role came when I played the time-traveling professor in my fifth grade class’ school play, the climax[1] of which saw me faint in a histrionic fit and be carried off stage left by two of the lovelier girls at Peachland Elementary School.  Rave reviews from all the classroom parents, mind you, but not exactly Oscar material.  Hell, not even Golden Globe material.

No, this is a story about other people’s fame.  My uncle[2] is an actor—a lot of television and plays lately, but he’s been in a decent number of more-than-decent movies, too.  I’m not about to list them, but I’m sure that you could puzzle out who he is and what they are if you really wanted to—you being a very bright and capable human being, with the whole of humanity’s knowledge before your fingertips, lurking under the right combination of key strokes.[4]  For this story, it is only important that he was in The Lost World, a Steven Spielberg film which takes its name from a novel by Michael Crichton, which in turn takes its name from a novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame).  The Spielberg movie, much like both books, is about dinosaurs.[5]  Again, I won’t tell you whom my uncle plays, but rest assured that by the end of the film he has been eaten.[6]

Despite the tropical locale of Isla Sorna,[7] the fictional island off the coast of Costa Rica where the majority of the movie takes place, a lot of the film was shot in Los Angeles on the Universal Studios backlot, located north of Hollywood via the Cahuenga Pass.  So because of this filming location, and because by the age of seven it was well known among my family that I had a bit of a paleontological predilection,[8] and because I happened by so much luck or coincidence or providence or what-have-you to have grown up in the suburbs of the City of Angels, I was invited to see the filmmaking process.[9]

This chain of events led to one morning in 1996, when I found myself in my dad’s red and rather ordinary Jeep, passing through the barricaded gate to the Universal Studios backlot.  We parked near the entrance, next to several large, green, military-grade Jeeps branded with the word “InGen.”[10]  At the time, I didn’t know anything about this Lost World movie besides the fact that it contained, in some form, both my uncle and dinosaurs.  But that was enough to incite inside a small boy’s mind small galaxies of anticipation—imagine yourself in my (velcroed) shoes.

I’ll try to recreate the next few minutes as faithfully as a decade and a half of separation allows.[11]  The building my father, brother, and I approached after we left our Jeep was large, with gargantuan sliding doors.[12]  We entered through a normal-sized side door and were greeted by a bank of computers, station after station of monitors and keyboards and joysticks, each occupied by a technician staring intently at his screen.[13]  Huge bundles of cables snaked away from the computers and disappeared into the foliage of the rainforest that took up the opposite half of the warehouse.  (Yeah.  A rainforest.  Inside the warehouse.)  That half of the room was pouring rain, a torrential tattoo punctuated only by fake lightning and thunder.[14]  I had just about wrestled my brain into believing that there was a verdant jungle living in this concrete warehouse—and settled into the peaceful tranquility that comes from accepting the surreal—when the sound of rain was shattered by Scream Number Two on the list of the five most blood-curdling screams I’ve ever heard.  Across the warehouse, two twenty-foot-tall tyrannosaurs were busy eating a man out of a Jeep.[15]  The T-rexes’ heads bobbed and their massive jaws opened and closed silently, six-inch serrated steak knife teeth illuminated in strobe light lightning flashes like Satan’s Cheshire cat.  The man in the Jeep—pudgy, balding, soaked, and terrified—was glancing rapidly between the pair, screaming without drawing breath.

And then, in the final moment—the moment right before the tyrannosaurs bent down and plucked this wailing man from his car and devoured him in front of my innocent eyes—right then, like a deus ex machina that he is far too gifted a director to ever employ,[16] came the cry, the command, the commandment, the mighty voice from on high booming out over the silent crowd: CUT.

This was, after all, Hollywood.[17]  And with that one word the act was over.  The tyrannosaurs hung lifeless, unmoving, dull eyes surveying the crowd of people in the room without so much as a hint of predatory malice.  The rain was shut off, the strobe lights were turned off, and the shrieking man was toweling off in silence underneath one of the dinosaurs.  I had watched the entire sixty-five million years since the K-T extinction pass in about sixty-five milliseconds.[18]  The throng of men and women standing at attention around the set burst into life as the rain and the dinosaurs died, and out of this horde emerged my uncle.

“Hi boys,” he said, his voice different, almost imperceptibly, the ever-so-slight Alabama[19] drawl[20] absent, replaced with something more genteel.  “Glad you could make it.”

My dad and uncle’s conversation soared over my seven-year-old head, so I spaced out, watched the dinosaurs.  I reentered through the Kármán line of the conversation when my uncle turned to me and said, “Hey Seth,” but said it in such a way that I knew—knew—I was being let in on a big secret.

“Seth,” he said, “I think there’s someone here you’ll want to meet.”

Following my uncle, we walked across the warehouse towards a man in a baseball cap who was sitting in a folding chair and talking quickly to another man with a clipboard.

“Steve,” my uncle said, as the clipboard hurried away, “this is my [brother / brother-in-law][21] and his kids.”  The man in the baseball cap turned around and shook hands with my dad, then bent down to look me in the eye.  HI SETH, he said.

Now, I’m not sure that I even knew who Steven Spielberg was at the age of seven, let alone appreciated the genius that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I was given the impression that this man was in charge of the dinosaurs,[22] and so I believe I behaved suitably star-struck.  I managed to hand him my copy of the novelization of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (here book had followed movie and not vice versa), which he signed with great looping strokes of his pen—

TO SETH, OUR GUEST IN THE LOST WORLD

—and handed back to me.  I took the book with shaking hands and clutched it to my chest.

SO, the man in the baseball cap said, I HEAR YOU LIKE DINOSAURS.

Well, yes sir I do, I said.  The next thing I knew, the man in the baseball cap was picking me up.  He set me down on his right knee.

IN THAT CASE, he said, LET ME HEAR YOUR BEST DINOSAUR ROAR.

To recap: I, Seth Mandel Winger, seven-years-old, unemployed-but-looking and single-but-also-looking, without a shred of acting experience to my name, am having my first audition.  Said audition is taking place on one Steven Allan Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning lap, and I have been asked to do what any seven-year-old does quite naturally: bellow like a bloodthirsty Mesozoic reptile.

I nailed it.

*  *  *

So that, ladies and gentlemen, is my story about fame,[23]  about my excursion into the land of the lionized, that holy wood, that magnificent Lost World beyond the dominion of the ordinary, where strange and wondrous creatures roam the earth.[24]  If you want my autograph now, I’m still more than happy to supply it ($19.99 plus S&H).  Reenactments, however, are strictly out of the question.


[1]

I spent a nontrivial amount of time browsing the internet to figure out if there’s a fancy French word for this, like there is for dénouement.  As far as I can tell, there isn’t.


[2]

Related to me by marriage, but the particulars of this distinction aren’t particularly important to this story. For all intents and purposes[3] uncles are just uncles.


[3]

“Intents and purposes”: a great phrase, but until more recently than I care to admit I thought it was actually “intensive purposes.”  Which is a much more understandable misunderstanding than my childhood belief that anyone “lactose and tolerant” must be very nice.


[4]

By this logic, don’t you think you got a pretty remarkable deal on your computer and internet connection?  An example, dug out from this wondrous lode of information: The current letters in the famous HOLLYWOOD sign are five feet (1.52 meters) shorter than the original versions.  The internet is full of beautiful inanity.


[5]

Or about the plummeting real estate market in San Diego (if you’re a pessimist with a penchant for metaphor, at least).


[6]

Spectacularly.


[7]

This translates to “Sarcasm Island,” but I’m not sure if that’s intentional.


[8]

Leading to many hilarious jokes told to me about the thesaurus and why it’s the smartest dinosaur, but those are another story.  And also not hilarious.


[9]

Je weniger die Leute darüber wissen, wie Würste und Filme gemacht werden, desto besser schlafen sie nachts.  (A slight twist on a German saying—note the typical German grammatical conciseness and syntactic simplicity.  Teutonic terseness is almost an oxymoron.)


[10]

It is perhaps at this point that I should explain to you that this word meant nothing to me at age seven.  Jurassic Park was rated PG-13—parental guidance required for those under the age of thirteen—and my parents’ guidance had deemed this film along with all other films bearing such stipulations strictly off-limits.  It is also perhaps at this point that I should explain to you that InGen is the name of the genetics company which clones dinosaurs in a colossally stupid fashion in Jurassic Park.


[11]

That is to say, at least a third of it will be made up.


[12]

If I’m being fast and loose with my thoughts, my memory makes it look like a Quonset hut.  But if I really stop and think about it, the building was much more square and not really like a Quonset hut at all.  The constructs of memory are strange and protean beasts—and if you relive your thoughts enough, how long until you forget entirely that the fabricated pieces are fabrications?


[13]

Like a Bond villain lair full of real henchmen, henchmen who are sweaty and balding and wearing Hawaiian shirts instead of svelte and built and wearing black turtlenecks.


[14]

Strobe lights and some clever use of reverb, respectively.


[15]

The only simile I can think of involves boxes of Crackerjacks and hidden prizes, but this only works if temporary tattoos can feel terror.


[16]

Refrigerators excluded.


[17]

Or at least a section of a warehouse in the backlot of a studio located over the hills several miles to the north of Hollywood.


[18]

For the record, the first sixty-five million years of the Cenozoic, when compressed to under a second, sound a lot like gaffers yelling about lighting and smell slightly like damp rubber and stale coffee.


[19]

To protect his identity from all but the most dedicated of investigators, not his real home state.


[20]

This is, however, his real manner of speech.


[21]

No hints, Holmes.


[22]

Maybe more accurately, all those technicians were in charge of the dinosaurs, but Spielberg was at least in charge of the technicians.


[23]

Or, if you’re one of the previously-mentioned pessimists with a penchant for metaphor, about mildly creepy but mostly endearing pedophilia.


[24]

These creatures usually roam in white Hummer limos (modern day ivory towers, I suppose), and their world is not so much lost in the Spielberg/Crichton-esque sense (which are Frankensteinian parables about the dangers posed by renegade science) as it is lost in more of the Doyle-ish sense (wherein the missing world is simply sequestered on a South American plateau, passed by by time and outside influence, insulated by its own secluded and exclusive nature—a truly “lost world” in the sense that, once found, it is ever alluring, yet simultaneously a land almost impossible to enter and harder still in which to dwell).