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.

Thirteen Nightmares

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I dreamed that deep in the forest preserve, a man shot my brother.

I dreamed you said you never loved me, and you clutched your phone. I wrenched it away from you. I didn’t want you to text another girl.

I dreamed I was running up stairs.

I dreamed I had an older brother, and we passed a monster every day on our way to school. We fed the monster peanut butter sandwiches, but one day, he wanted me.

I dreamed we ran in and out of a pink building, looking for a place to kiss in secret.

I dreamed I was in love with a short skinny boy I knew when I was fifteen.

I dreamed my high school crush kicked me into the sky like a balloon.

I dreamed the line, “When I woke up, I wasn’t anybody, not even Alice.”

I dreamed I was waiting tables in an infinite loop, and nothing was going wrong, and the perfect rhythm was terrifying.

I dreamed that you died. And you, and you, and you.

I dreamed I was swimming with a beautiful woman.

I dreamed I couldn’t get away from the witch.

I dreamed I lay back on a table in the dark.

In my dream, I was screaming and screaming.

I tried to stop him, but he pulled out the gun.

It went off, and—as in the rules of the waking world—you dropped like a dead man.

The Thorin Oakenshield Dilemna

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After watching a movie that strongly favored a bunch of short men run around in furs fighting goblins, I realized that I know nothing about men, despite having a younger brother who was sort of a nudist at one point.

What do men want? What are their dreams? Who are their role models? Do all men secretly want to be hairy barbarians, pillaging the countryside, or do they want to be Brad Pitt or do they want to be Usain Bolt or do they want to be Mark Zuckerberg or the Old Spice guy or Franz Lizst or Elvis or what?

I don’t think the answer is “boobs” or “beer.” If it is, why are you reading my blog, KEN? I KNOW WE USED TO CHAT ON AIM AND THERE WAS THAT ONE WEIRD TIME AT THE MOVIES BUT I NEVER LIKED YOU! Excuse me. My point is, men must have gaping existential depths just like women do—a man authored Nausea, after all. But the men I know tend to keep their jagged chasms close to their chest.

Women are mysterious creatures of mist and flame, but if you want to know what women want to be like, the answer is simple: Carrie Bradshaw. Oh shut up everyone and stop stressing out, it’s true. We all love to hate her, but we all want to be her: cool career, tons of free time to smoke cigarettes while gazing mournfully out the window of our amazing apartment, voluminous hair. And then we want to be our own fabulous selves at the same time. That’s why we’re all so troubled. (If a girl doesn’t want to be Carrie Bradshaw, she’s a soul-sucking hipster, and I simply don’t have time to tell you why that’s so terribly wrong.)

After watching Thorin Oakenshield fight the Pale Orc in his sexy fur vest, I was forced to ask myself: do I really know my boyfriend? What does my boyfriend truly want? He is descended from Viking stock. At the end of the day does he just want to run around in a fur vest, killing Orcs and re-conquering his ancestral home deep in the mountain? I’m totally cool with that. This begs the question, why don’t we live in Middle Earth? Yes, the living conditions are fairly primal, but not when you live in RIVENDALE! #elfpride

I know you’re all looking for some sort of closure here, but unfortunately, when I tried to figure out exactly what men want, the equation quickly backfired:

Men like…bacon!

…so they also like…cupcakes! (Maple-bacon cupcakes are very popular in the States these days. QED.)

…and that means they must like…Sex and the City! (Magnolia Bakery.)

…and Carrie Bradshaw!

….?

Speak up, men: what’s your deal?

Intricacies of Divorce

Here’s the thing about divorce: it’s not just for spouses anymore.

Yes, my friends, you can divorce anyone these days. Your boss. Your coworkers. Your dogwalker. Your college professor. The tenuous threads that bind humanity together are growing ever weaker, ever more translucent. One day they will all be snipped. But until then, it’s up to us to do the snipping. Surely you follow me.

Take me, for example. I recently divorced one of my brothers for several weeks. Of course, he never realized we were divorced but that’s because he never calls me, which is why I divorced him in the first place. Lack of communication: it’s not just for marriages anymore. Then one day he showed up at my doorstep, bedraggled and starving, begging me to buy him a train ticket. So I undivorced him. Because I have a soul. A soul called Kindness. Or maybe it’s called Shared DNA. What’s the difference? Now there’s a deep thought.

As many of you know, I’ve been divorced from multiple baristas at my ex-favorite coffee shop for months. They couldn’t understand why I always bought the extremely cheap drinks and stayed there for hours. If you can’t understand my art, if you can’t support my career as a fiction writer (yeah I said “career” non-ironically), then there’s no place for you in my life. Am I right, ladies? Steam all the milk you want, but you’ll never know me. 

You can also divorce your friends. If you try to skin me alive and eat my heart while making me listen to the story of how you and your boyfriend broke up for the millionth time, wellll…I might not want to be friends with you.  There’s “being there for people” and there’s “psycho killer, que’est-ce que c’est?” if you catch my drift.

I’m pretty sure last night my boyfriend divorced the Gilmore Girls. It was pretty sad. Thankfully I was there to lend him a shoulder to cry on.

Divorce is a good way to teach people lessons. They’re all, “I want you to do this meaningless task in exchange for money!” and you’re all, “I’m worth more than this, bitchezzz,” and the next thing they know there’s a beautifully-wrapped package on their doorstep. And they get really excited, but inside? DIVORCE PAPERS. Because you were sneaky and wrapped the divorce papers in peach-colored tissue paper and tied them up with raffia. That’ll learn’ em.

One of the many great things about divorce papers is that you can hide other useful things between the pages, like restraining orders and documents that say “I hereby swear to publish this novel” and your divorcee will probably sign them without realizing it. Who just achieved their American dream? You did. You.

Traumatizing Moments From My Past, Volume 5: Ug Bug

“But I don’t WANNA marry you!”

When I was five, my family moved to Eritrea (the land where so many Traumatizing Moments From My Past took place: Volumes One, Three, and Four). My brother John and I made friends with an older boy who, at the time, seemed like a grown man, although he was probably about 17. Well…we pretended to be his friend, but we actually hated him. Our miniature psyches knew that he was weird and creepy. So John and I christened him “Ug Bug” behind his back.

If I remember correctly, Ug Bug lived next door. Sometimes we would spy on him over the wall. (I know, this is starting to sound like “Traumatizing Moments From Ug Bug’s Past.”) We knew there was something sinister about Ug Bug, and although we played with him and baited him with falsely cheerful childish giggles, we were perpetually alert, determined to find out the evil that lurked beneath.

Finally, Ug Bug’s dark motives were revealed at church. Where else? After the service, as John and I played outside, Ug Bug came up to us and began to express how much he loved us in creepy Ug Bug fashion. His English wasn’t perfect, but the message came through loud and clear: PSYCHO KILLER! Qu’est que c’est! FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FA FAAAR BETTER! RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN RUN AWAAAAAY!

“You will be my brother,” he said to John, smiling down at him. John looked confused.

“And you.” He turned to me, smile widening into what can only be described as a Leer of Horror. “You will be my wife.”

They say every girl’s first proposal is a magical moment. They never knew Ug Bug.

Traumatizing Moments From My Past, Volume 3: Blood and Morality

It was Sammy, in the backyard, with a rock.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, my best friend Elsa and I got into a big argument over 3 pieces of gum. There were 2 yellow pieces. Fair enough, for there were 2 of us. But the argument got infinitely trickier when it came to the fascinating, elusive, delicious BLUE PIECE.

Who would get the blue piece? The unspoken question resonated dangerously between us. (Little kids are captivated by the most unnatural colors.) We vibed each other in the way that only children can, pretending not to care, shuffling our feet, and avoiding eye contact, while JEALOUSY AND RAGE SECRETLY CONSUMED US.

Before we could come up with a civil solution/feasible way to murder each other, a horrible message arrived. My baby brother Sammy had split my brother John’s head open with a rock. (This was the first of 3 similar incidents, but that’s not the point right now.) Elsa and I looked at each other with horror and rushed over to John’s side. We found him crumpled among the golden dried grasses of late summer. He looked up at us, pale and drawn, gasping out each word with incredible effort: “I…forgive…him…”

Wait, what?! Rewind.

Elsa and I looked at each other with horror and rushed over to John’s side. Elsa took one look at the geyser of blood spouting from his severed cranial nerve and fainted dead away. Choking on my own vomit, I tore a length of muslin from my dress and made a quick tourniquet.

“Johnny,” I said, binding his wound, “Johnny, look at me. Don’t leave me, Johnny. Ever since Ma and Pa died in the great blizzard of ’72, you’re all I’ve got.”

Wait, no. I swear I’m going to fire my fact-checker.

Elsa and I looked at each other with horror and rushed over to John’s side. He was bleeding pretty badly from his head, but he had the presence of mind to tell us how he put his hand up to his head, felt the moisture, and thought he was “sweating really badly!” (Ew.) Elsa and I looked at each other again with the solidarity that comes from great tragedy. We knew what we had to do.

As my father loaded John into the car to take him to the hospital (spoiler alert: he lived), we pressed something small and metallic into John’s hand. “We thought you should have this,” we whispered. The car drove away in a cloud of dust, taking our bleeding brother–and the stick of blue gum–with it, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.