Childhood and the Extinct Animal

I was in an airport when I saw the sign: there are only about 3,000 tigers left in the world. Actually, the phrasing on the sign was very diplomatic. It read something like, There may be as few as 3,000 tigers left in the world. Even as the tiger sprints toward extinction, it still defies the neat categorization of humans. We cannot be counted.

Still, the number remains, however approximate: 3,000. Point being that there are not very many tigers left.

I read the number and I immediately thought no, we can’t lose the tigers, but it wasn’t simply because the extinction of any creature is a tragedy. It was because the tiger stands for so much more than just an animal. “Tiger” is to “animal” as “red” is to “color”: a primary component of the category. One of the building blocks. A thing you learn about in kindergarten, for Darwin’s sake. After you’ve exhausted the creatures of the home and barnyard—cat, dog, pig, rooster, cow, horse, sheep—you level up to the animals of the jungle and the plain: tiger, lion, panther, zebra, giraffe. As a child, you don’t need to know—yet—about finches, anteaters, sloths, the mucus-covered stingray, the razor-toothed piranha. For a few years, it’s enough to know about the tiger and his compatriots.

The tiger was my brother John’s animal. Mine was the giraffe. I mean this literally: I had a tiny plastic giraffe, he had a tiny plastic tiger, both purchased in Rome. This dichotomy certainly shaped our taste in animals, if not our personalities themselves. I went on to favor graceful, vegetarian animals (the giraffe, the horse, the flamingo); John wore a pair of striped socks on his hands and was a tiger, John got a bike for his birthday that was decorated to look like a tiger. I collected small horse figurines, but there was always a tiger or two prowling around.

As a kid, you learn pretty quick that animals are mortal. Our family was cursed by a particularly gruesome string of pet deaths (ask my brother to tell you the story of the gerbils’ murder-suicide), but it’s not just about seeing a pet die, it’s about knowing that the animal world itself is in danger. I don’t remember the moment I realized that nature was not, in fact, a perfect biome that would go on forever and ever, but eventually I came to understand that it was grubby with human fingerprints—that it was burning out. Fireflies will die in a jar, no matter how many holes you poke in the lid; the baby bird you “rescued” is not going to survive off warm milk and crickets; the dog frothing behind the fence will never calm down, even after his owners have him neutered; the crisp shed skin of the snake is technically progress, but it will always look, to you, like a corpse.

Forever and ever, the primary animals of childhood march through our brains in a neat line: the dog, the cat, the horse, the cow, the lion, the zebra, the giraffe, the tiger. We owe them half of our personalities, three-fourths our strength of will. It’s sad that the dodo bird is extinct but the dodo bird did not teach us to snarl, to sleep in a tree, to devour, to embody power. That bird did not show us force, movement, menace, blood—the components of a passionate life. For that, we thank the tiger.

I know that time doesn’t go in reverse; what happens today can never affect what happened twenty years ago. But if the last tiger dies, I feel like hours and days of my childhood, too, will vanish from the earth. I won’t remember that there ever was a tiger. The little plastic tiger from Rome will never have existed. We’ll drift about, glib and unburdened, with no idea of the power that we’ve lost.

Forgotten Towns

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One Saturday in August, Charlie and I spent 12 hours driving toward, along, around, and away from the Texas-Mexico border.

The first thing to know is that our entire “day trip” was informed by a very devious, very outdated, and quite frankly UTTERLY FALSE AND DIABOLICAL flier that we picked up at an overly hip hotel in Marfa, Texas. The flier urged us to visit the nearby hot springs—turns out you can only soak in the springs if you rent a cabin, like, decades in advance. It went on to recommend that we swing by Presidio, a quaint Texan border town filled with charming hotels, lots of restaurants, and “outstanding shopping.”

With visions of colorful woven baskets and kitschy Texas-themed merch dancing in my head­, we packed three types of film cameras, bagel chips and cheap spreadable cheese, hiking shoes just in case we came across a mountain, and a gallon of water I happened to have on hand. Then we peeled out of town.

Presidio

An important thing to know about me is that I LOVE things that are objectively depressing (though what’s more subjective than the declaration that something is “objectively depressing”?). I get a distinct thrill from them. This isn’t an ironic “hipster” consumeristic thrill, either—it is real, it is poignant, it is unexplainable. I love Dollar Trees. I love sketchy motels. I love happy hours at TGI Fridays. I love half-abandoned buildings, failed businesses, dusty opera houses. So when it became clear that Presidio was not a bustling little town, but rather a stopover on the long and lonely highway from Death to Hell, my first thought was: maybe I could love Presidio. 

We drove around and around, admiring the broken signage and faded lilac buildings, but soon it became clear that Presidio was nothing but dust and “Closed” signs and sketchy restaurants located in people’s actual houses. Eventually we made our way to a dollar store and bought peanut M&Ms in order to get a crisp $50 bill via the “cash back” function.

Why the money, when Presidio was otherwise business-less? Because we were about to cross the border to Ojinaga. And in Ojinaga, the mendacious flier promised us, we would find even better shopping.

Ojinaga

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Okay, this trip wasn’t just about indulging in a rampant consumption of “authentic artisanal crafts” with “Made in China” stickers on the bottom. It was also about spectre of The Border and the archetype of The Border Town. These things loom large in our cultural imagination, and I think it’s very important to see things like that IRL, to see as much as you can, no matter how far removed it all seems from your regular life, no matter how many miles away your real home happens to be.

The border itself was like something out of a dystopian novel. Looking at it—the military green uniforms, the huge white buildings, the mysterious “under-construction” structures that seemed destined for strange and foreboding purposes—you really got the sense of the magnitude of the State, the cruel, cold efficiency of Law, and the pointless stagnancy of Bureaucracy. The soldiers seemed . . . well . . . overdressed. I felt odd about the ease with which we whipped across the line.

Where Presidio was dead, Ojinaga was alive. I’ll give it that. But the town was confusing, sprawling, full of dead ends that spilled out into gravel pits. It was stuck in the hot humid gunk of transience that characterizes all things that live on the edge. Sure, there were schools, and stores, and men selling hammocks by the side of the street. My favorite part was the graveyard—festive with color, bleak with wire fencing. But you got the sense that people didn’t want to live there, that they were coming or going (or unable to come and go, trapped under the great black boot of the American Border Patrol).

The above paragraphs demonstrate a fallacy: my tendency to filter my experience of things through my own preconceived ideas of them. Is the Ojinaga/Presidio border actually foreboding? Are people in Ojinaga really stuck in a gunk of transience, waiting to cross over? Why is it so easy to convince yourself that you’re picking up on real human woe and boredom and despair? We all like to think we’re some beautiful empathetic channeler of pain, quivering like a dowsing rod, so tuned in to the agony of the world that by simply glancing at a colorful graveyard we feel—nay, we TASTE—the pain of a thousand border crossings, THE AGONY OF IMPERMANENCE, THE VERY CLASH OF NATIONS THEMSELVES!

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Getting back across the border was characterized by a flurry of confusion. We had to pay $1.50 to get back into the States (an oddly petty fee) and only had our infamous $50 bill on us—and the people at the border toll simply didn’t have any change. We looked at them in disbelief as they told us to make a u-turn and go back into town and buy something to break up that albatross of a $50. So we went spinning back into the streets of Ojinaga, where Charlie sidled up to a currency exchange and I bought three beaded bracelets from a woman who had given us directions earlier. Then there was some waiting in traffic, some brief and disinterested questioning about our citizenship, and we were across.

Big Bend State Park

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The Rio Grande is muddy and slow. The road snakes alongside it, mimicking its curves. We curved along the road. I looked for falling rocks, since the signage implied that there was a 75% chance we’d die that day under a rock fall. We got out to look at the hoodoos—rock columns that have been eroded on the bottom, so that the rocks appear to balance on top. Two women were taking a selfie. I thought about offering to take their photo, knowing how often I wish someone would offer the same to me and Charlie. But I didn’t. I was feeling awkward, sensitive to other humans, content just to nestle against Charlie and look at the mushroom-shaped rocks.

Later, I broke the law of the park by filching a purple rock, studded with crystals. In my defense, the rock was already sitting on the road. The next semi truck would have crushed it. You could say I saved it. You could say I was truly a Good Person in that moment. Couldn’t you?

Terlingua Ghost Town

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If you want to commune with the ghosts in Terlingua, I have a recommendation: meet them in the cemetery just before a rainstorm, when the wind is making the milagros rattle against the hand-hewn wooden crosses.

It wasn’t raining when we got there. We scrambled into the incongruous gift shop (no ghosts there) where we snagged a map of the tiny town, put a dollar in the “suggested donation” box, and set out to explore Terlingua on foot. The sun was brutal.

Terlingua used to be a mercury mining town, and now it’s mostly laying in beautiful ruins. The town seems sensitive about mercury poisoning and insists that very few people actually died of it, despite the size of the graveyard. My favorite ruined building was the former house of a very rich man, which was tall and thin and gorgeous (the house, not the man), and is now half-hotel, half-ruins. I’m sure the insurance company has a field day with that. The windows on the top of the house were built purposefully narrow, to protect the house against Pancho Villa. How these narrow windows protected the inhabitants against Villa was unclear to me. Less glass, less chance that a bullet is going to fly through a window and snuff ya out? See, I would want big windows, massive windows—not just because I love natural light, but because I want to see my enemy coming.

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The church was also beautiful, and seemed to be still in use. But it was so hot and humid and airless that we moved around slowly, dripping sweat. I liked these little pictures that narrated the walk to the cross. I know other people would find them cheesy, or tasteless, but somehow they managed to strike me as very sorrowful—perhaps because they were so small, and tacked so high to the wall.

Residents

In the ghost town, as we were staring at what looked like an abandoned movie theater (but was actually a functioning restaurant housed inside an abandoned movie theater), a man in his 70s asked us if we were enjoying Terlingua. He was wearing a shirt that said “My Indian Name is Runs-With-Beer.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“We’re living in Marfa this summer, then Chicago in the fall,” I said.

“I hate both those places,” he replied.

I laughed and didn’t say anything.

“Okay, Marfa has like three cool things about it. But this place has eighty thousand cool things about it.”

He told us that his house was the one with the rock sculptures around it. “Are you an artist?” I asked.

“No!” he scoffed. I really dug his denial.

The residents of Terlingua have a vague truther vibe. You have to be a little bit cracked to reject the venerated cultural capital of Chicago and Marfa and settle among ghosts in one of the most striking and desolate parts of the world. I think it’s admirable. The town’s population is, like, 50 people.

Police

Our stint with the border patrol was far from over. At night, on our way back to Marfa, speeding down some lonely and flat highway, we were waved into a border patrol checkpoint. A huge drug dog with a manic look in his eyes smelled the wheels of Charlie’s car and gave some mysterious signal to his handler who gave another mysterious signal to the man who was interviewing us who, in turn, informed us that our car had drugs inside it.

No, we said.

They looked at us sternly. “It will be so much easier for you if you’re honest with us,” they said.

We speculated afterward, racing away in our drug-free car, that they were bored, that they had a long night to kill, and that the dog was just hyped up on all the human attention.

It’s hard to know what to take away from that interaction, as it is with most things in life. There were five of us: two men, the dog, me, my husband. Who was just doing their job? Who overreacted? Who tried too hard to be right? Who could have tried harder to be kind? Under the fluorescent lights, in the Texas night air, we were all looking warily into each other’s eyes, trying to read the situation, wondering how real it all was, striving to calm our animal selves as the beautiful mad dog leaped around, panting, confused, happy to be alive.

On Being the Stranger  

 

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You get a sick thrill when you stumble across a website that has been cobbled together to provide “solace” for people who are mourning a stranger. You can read through the comment section and see the way raw grief paralyzes grammar. You can look at the last names and piece a story together: there’s his cousin, there’s his sister.

You find yourself wanting to mourn them too because mourning feels good and soon enough the tears are stinging your eyes because you have somehow—inopportune and sacrilegious freak that you are—found the father’s obituary for the son. Nothing is sacred. Everything is accessible. Here, he is spewing aphorisms because they are the only way to bandage that geyser of grief, and he is signing off as “Heartbroken,” and you are reading the whole thing without apology. Past midnight, you search the Internet to find the boy’s real name and tuck it into your dark heart.

And the whole time you recite to yourself a litany of the people you have not lost. This is not the same as the litany of people you thought you might lose.

Recommended Readings for Unstable Times

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There are usually two ways people respond when I shriek, “THE WORLD IS OBVIOUSLY ENDING, RIGHT?” Some people (my beloved, my close friends) are like “yeah” and then we shiver together over a glass of wine. Others chirp “things are great!” and we stare at each other without saying anything more. If I had any philosopher friends, I like to imagine that they would gaze deep into my soul with their limpid, color-shifting eyes and soothe me with ambiguous wisdom. But alas, I have no philosopher friends. This is a wind age, a wolf age, before the world goes headlong.

But friends, I take some cold comfort in the fact that things have literally never been stable (except maybe in ancient Greece and/or ancient Egypt and/or the ancient Abbasid Caliphate, before the libraries were destroyed??). If, like me, you are quivering on the edge of becoming a full-fledged conspiracy theorist, here’s what you should be reading and why.

The book of Habakkuk: For hallucinatory non-answers to why the world is so violent. Habakkuk was the most mysterious of all the prophets, and (I think) the only one to openly question God:

How long, Lord, must I call for help,
but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not save?

Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion: For the amazing way she captures a feeling of generational dread and grapples with the idea that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold“:

At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society’s values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.

“Explica Algunas Cosas” by Pablo Neruda: Depending on your career, this piece is either a) a heartbreaking explanation of how art sometimes falls silent in the face of violence or b) a guilt-trip for artists who aren’t explicitly political. The ending is like a punch to the face:

…from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull’s eye of your hearts.

A Google search of the term “folie à deux”: to understand the dark side of love and the fragility of a person’s identity as a Single Self:

Depending on whether the delusions are shared among two, three, four, five and even twelve people, it is called as folie à deux, folie à trios, folie à quatre, folie à cinq, and folie à douze.

Your own childhood journals: To remind yourself that “priorities” are malleable and relative, even the priorities that, today, you consider defining pillars of You Yourself.

“Little Gidding” by T.S. Eliot: Because of the dance that is love/pain/God/the world:

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.

[Credit goes to Charlie for discovering this one]: The poem Völuspá: Because it is about the end of a mysterious world:

Do you still seek to know? And what?

 

 

Everything in Moderation Except Listicles

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Photo: Joseph Lyons

  1. Hello, Reader.
  2.  My friends and I used to read this incredibly pretentious blog where the blog-writer was always addressing the Reader: singular, and capital-R. It works for Jane Eyre but let me put all doubt to rest right now: it doesn’t work for you.
  3. The longer I let toridotgov.com go without updating it, the harder it felt to update it. It was like I had to break my silence with some magnum opus: Here is What I Think About Writing, Here is What I Think About Love, Here is What I Think About Life. I didn’t want to write any of those opi (?!) at the moment, so I kept not-updating…but now, to cure myself of this stagnancy, I’m breaking my silence with the easiest of all literary genres: a list.
  4. The ENORMOUS IRONY is that I have been thinking about all those big ideas. That’s the thing about freelancing—it really forces you to examine things under a microscope. I mean, you could coast along forever writing listicles for $25/piece, but if you’ve got any sort of intelligence at all you’re gonna want to be constantly growing, expanding your writerly resumé, and usually working toward some vague end goal like Be a Great Writer or Sell That Screenplay or Get Published in The Atlantic. I have goals, some vague, some not…maybe I’ll write them down here someday, so the great choking hand of the internet can hold me to them. Anyway, I’ve been thinking a ton about writing—especially the way writing relates to money—and love and life and religion and the plight of the earth, but either my thoughts are still too vague to blog about or too precious to blog about or too convoluted to bl—HOLD UP, this isn’t a blog, I forgot. This is my “online portfolio,” and don’t you ever forget it.
  5. I have come up with a GENIUS money-making scheme that is already threatening to ruin my life. I sold a book (“Congrats!” “Oh, thanks!” Moving right along…), and in order to fund my extravagant lifestyle while I write said book, I have decided to first write a romance novel, sell THAT book, and live off the profits. It’s a sort of Russian nesting doll of book-selling, if you will.
  6. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for one year now! Whoa. I own only one succulent and a dead air plant, which in this, the city of succulents and air plants, is an absolutely disgraceful lifestyle choice.
  7. In this, my twenty-seventh year, I sold a book and got engaged (to the author of Charlie’s Opinions, no less). I wonder what twenty-six-year-old Tori would have thought of that. Multiple people have told me that massive changes happen when you’re twenty-seven. I love change—in fact I might be addicted to change.
  8. BUT!!!!!! In the six years since graduating college I’ve lived in six different apartments in three cities. I’m tiiiired, guys! Part of me wants to keep moving forever and part of me wants to buy a tiny white house in Marfa, Texas. Guessing I’ll fall somewhere in the middle: a flat in Paris and an apartment in every American city that inspires me (so, all of them).
  9. Note to all potential editors: do you want a piece written about the changing economic climate in Reno, Nevada??? I will gladly fly myself there and pay for my own housing. This is not a joke; I need to write a piece about Reno. No I am not copying Tom Wolfe!! No Vegas is not next on my list!!!!!!!
  10. I’m seeking a partner in crime for something very specific: I want to go to a diner, drink a ton of cheap coffee, stay up all night, and emerge the next morning having both written a film noir script. It has to be diner coffee and it has to be a film noir. Any takers? LET’S PUSH EXPERIENCE TO ITS AWFUL LIMIT!