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.

The Wilds of the Midwest

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I live in the Midwest but I’m not from here at all. I’m an East Coast baby, a move-around-a-lot baby. I lived abroad as a child, and before I was a teenager, the only place I really put feelers into the soil was the little town of Lenoir, North Carolina. And then once I was a teenager–well, teenagers are by their very nature rootless. But anyway, we moved to Chicago. 

I’m not a Midwesterner, though occasionally I catch the ghost of a Chicago twang in my a’s (Shi-cahh-go). I’ve lived in Chicago for years now and I have yet to feel any sense of home in this city. But then I take I-80 West and the fields start streaming by.

See, my family is from Midwestern farmland and they’re from here deep.

I always forget that ancestry means something. It means a lot. I always think of my identity as me: small Tori, skipping through states and countries in her missionary-child girlhood. But I’ve been helping my grandma with a book of our genealogy lately and it’s really moving to hear about the people that run in your blood. Me isn’t just me. Everything is a composite, even the things we thought were pure, like my secret vampire teeth or when I was twelve I drew a picture of two people kissing. 

The things we can catalog besides my childhood portraits: the German immigrant. The mysterious death of the brother. The sod house in Nebraska. Two boys walking home, staring down the wolves. The died-in-childbirth. The year they thought they weren’t going to make it. The year they built the little white farm house, the farmhouse that’s still standing, the farmhouse that I’m sitting in right now, wrapped in blankets on a narrow vintage bed.

At night I hear footsteps in the room above me and I whisper come down and see me.

I wish those people knew me. You know: my ancestors. I want to run up to them and be like, hey, you made me, whatcha think? I want them to be proud of their own boundless potential, proud of filling up this huge country with tall children. Still, I feel like I’m not of them at all. Actually don’t come down. Actually I’m scared. I’m this other person, this rootless girl. Not a speck of DNA in this body. I didn’t grow up anywhere; some days I feel like a mannequin with a small girl ghost inside it. But other days, to keep my feet on real dirt, to shake myself into some sense of existence, I walk around these empty fields repeating, this is what I am. This is what I am. And the fields might respond, if I could just take my stubborn legs and kneel.

Advice for the Wandering Girl

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When you’re alone, you have to pretend like you’re in a movie. You have to, or you’ll go crazy. If you don’t see yourself as the sweet, sad heroine of some beautifully-wrought journey, you’ll start asking the dangerous questions:

Why did I come here?

What am I trying to find?

Why am I not afraid?

 

I’ve been writing an essay about my home and thinking a lot about ghosts. 

The Work of Writing: Week Three Update

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Oh, week three: meant to be a full-fledged orgy of inspiration. Epileptic fits of pastoral joy, “Look at that flame-edged leaf! I muse in agonized ecstasy on its transcendent contours…”, weeping over a perfect shard of broken glass, and so on and so on–basically all the things that make the world hate writers. Sometimes that’s the way it works, is it not? Though you might tremble at the cliched nature of your activity, sometimes wandering lonely as a cloud really does make your heart dance with the daffodils (and then with Microsoft Word and then with Submishmash and then with the PEN/Faulkner award).

But none of that happened this week. I did get weepy at the sight of a water tower. But there was more to the story than just superficial beauty. I’ll elaborate below. Oh, I also cried because an idiot customer yelled at me because his tacos were (gasp) on the same platter as his friend’s tacos. It’s moments like those that remind me I need to buy pepper spray and also fully shuck off societal politeness in order to live as my truest self, which is a FURIOUS OMBRÉD WHIRLWIND OF MISGUIDED VINDICATION!

Instead, I felt like this past week was simply me pushing the reset button. It was full of simple contemplative moments like Oh, I really like reading and writing by hand feels nice and I should write an essay about this feeling and I like music too I guess, just little sweet interludes that reminded me what I love about not just writing, not just about art, but about life. 

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This is what I did:

1. Read Atonement for hours, lying on the couch in a patch of sunlight–the Platonic ideal of novel-reading.

2. Went for sushi in one of my old Chicago neighborhoods (I’m masochistically nostalgic), sat alone, and wrote in my journal for a long time.

3. Went to the movies by myself, which has long been one of my absolute favorite things to do. Necessary: some dusk-colored street-wandering afterward.

4. Went for a one-block walk with my Canon and tried to see things in new ways (results here). I also threw a Coors Light bottle into the air to photograph it. You can guess what happened 0.5 seconds later. Sorry, City of Chicago! Don’t be mad, I got nasty beer/spit all over my fingers, it was punishment enough!

5. Made a tiny movie called ACTRESS FILMS ANOTHER FINAL SCENE with Rose Truesdale (watch it here).

6. Filmed another movie with two amazing Chicago actors in the graveyard where Charles Dickens’ impoverished brother was buried. Cue creepy out-of-tune piano interlude. The film is called THE NARCO’S WIFE and it should be ready for your rapt viewing pleasure in week or so…AAAAAIIIIEEEEEE!

7. Went to the Art Institute and wandered around the ancient parts.

8. Went to the World Music Festival Chicago twice, once with wine, both times with a handsome bass player.

9. Took a train back to my somewhat-hometown, Western Springs, for the strangest afternoon of my life. Suffice it to say that I experienced everything from tear-inducing nostalgia (yes, I started sniffling over the sight of a water tower) to a floaty sense of displacement to surrealish nausea to scoring a hardback of my favorite book of the summer, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, to accidentally buying a second large black hat, to nabbing some birthday presents for my dearest ones. Good day.

10. Started a little zine some like to call CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.  Every morning I do 100 push-ups, eat a raw egg, and start reading. Okay, I actually haven’t finished the introduction yet. But I’m really liking the introduction!

11. In general, spent a little less time online and a little more time interacting with the tangible–flowers, the page, the ancient Japanese sculptures at the Art Institute, which apparently you’re not supposed to touch or take home with you??? NEWS TO ME. I thought “400 BC” was the PRICE TAG, OKAY?

12. One last thing I gotta say, not really part of the week but I just need to be annoying for a second: the first screenplay I ever wrote got honorable mention in a contest!!! And even better, nobody told me about it–seeing your name on a list when you weren’t expecting it is the best shock in the world. I hope to experience it again some day HI MACARTHUR FOUNDATION NO NEED TO CALL ME I’LL JUST KEEP REFRESHING YOUR TWITTER FEED.

Get out there, my loves, and have your own week three, and no need to create something from the experience. Sometimes it’s best to just let things flow through you, I guess. C’MON AND DO THE JAILHOUSE ROCK WITH ME!

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In Defense of Babies’ Rights

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In this day of hyper-stylized political sensitivity and outrage over perceived “income gaps” and “gender inequality,” it is truly appalling how willingly society turns a blind eye to the terrible plight of a huge portion of our American population. I refer, of course, to babies. These silent sufferers are objectified, victimized, and discriminated against on a daily basis. How long will we ignore their high-pitched cries? If the following list of outrages moves you to tears, please consider signing this petition.

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STOP THE MASS EXPLOITATION OF BABIES!

We, the undersigned, urge the Government of the United States to CEASE its SHAMEFUL conduct toward the infanta americana, colloquially known as BABIES. We hereby protest the pervasive and unjust treatment of this valuable people-group as demonstrated in the following abusive societal trends that are TO THIS DAY unrecognized by those in power:

1. Babies are victims of sizeism and unfair beauty standards.

Our society professes to accept alternate shapes and sizes, yet babies are glaringly absent from this dialogue of tolerance. If you are unfortunate enough to be an American baby, you live under crushing social pressure to be “chubby,” “roly-poly,” or a “butterball.” Woe to the skinny baby who just wants to drink green juice! A baby who does not conform to our outdated, narrow-minded beauty standards (characterized by offensive adjectives such as “cute,” “squirmy,” “squishable,” and “drooly”) experiences blatant discrimination, while his/her chubbier compatriots receive the preferential treatment that has characterized the privileged class from time immemorial.

2. Babies are denied access to higher education and better-paying jobs.

There is a shocking dearth of federal laws in place to protect the educational and employment rights of babies. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin–yet what of the ambitious baby who applies to Lehman Brothers? No law prohibits discrimination against him. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA) protects individuals who are 40 years of age or older–yet even this so-called “progressive” law turns a blind eye to the plight of those 2 years of age or younger. The situation in colleges across the nations is much the same: while it is federally forbidden to discriminate against a college applicant based on disability, race, gender, or a host of other qualifiers, Harvard has existed for 377 lauded years without once admitting a baby.

3. Babies are forced to learn the dominant language of the privileged heteronormative white Western male.

Generation after generation of monolingual Americans have ignored this issue for long enough. It is time to implement the study of Baby in language programs across the United States. Not even Rosetta Stone has addressed this problem.

4. Babies are objectified by the Adult Gaze.

Babies are presented in film, music videos, Anne Geddes photo shoots, and family gatherings as little more than passive, to-be-looked-at objects. The figure of the baby is fragmented into “tiny fingers,” “squeezable cheeks,” “dimpled thighs,” etc., fragments whose sole meaning is derived from and dependent on the viewing pleasure of the despotic Adult. Babies are clothed in useless accoutrements such as headbands (when they have no hair) and socks that imitate shoes (when they cannot walk). What benefit does the baby receive from these shallow signifiers of adulthood? They are nothing but tools to advance the scopophilia of the Adult Gaze.

5. Babies are subject to a restrictive, reactionary dialectic w/r/t  “crying.”

When a baby screams or cries, society reacts as it has for millenia: by naively assuming that the infant is expressing a basic human need. Politicians, social theorists, psychoanalysts, and biologists have purposefully and consistently refused to give the matter the scientific and academic attention it deserves. Perhaps a baby’s cry signifies more than the prevailing patriarchal/matriarchal interpretations of “hungry,” “tired,” and/or “dirty diaper.” Perhaps these babes in the woods are shrieking in existential terror as they gaze into the depths of the abyss.

6. Babies are forced to be nude in public.

Societal outrage abounds at the unethical actions of Dov Charney, the founder of American Apparel, who infamously demeans his models. But when a baby is placed naked on the beach by his or her parents, the world blinks nary an eyelash. We demand that the baby is first consulted about his/her willingness to appear nude, and then asked to sign a Nude Model Release and Agreement contract. This exploitative parental behavior must be stopped.

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A Few Thoughts on Nostalgia

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(Isn’t it great that we can title things “A Few Thoughts On…” and it gives us the excuse to totally abandon all but the barest bones of form and cohesion? I’m just so glad I live in 2013, you know?)

It’s nearing midnight here in the magical city of Bloomington, IN, and I have created a lopsided playlist of twangy-sad songs about loss and heroin addiction, and I’ve been feeling that vague and pervasive sense of unplaceable nostalgia that I believe haunts any person with the slightest religious and/or artistic inclinations who happens to live in the Internet age and/or happens to be Proust.

Then I made the mistake of looking at photos from my last visit to my Chicago home, which took place right before my parents moved halfway across the country and abandoned me to the wilds of the Midwest.

My parents aren’t even in the photos–much less my thousand and one crazed younger siblings who are all freakishly athletic, whatever, I can  touch my toes if I warm up for like 2 minutes–they’re mostly just photos of our neighborhood, bathed in this weird blue sunset light. It’s taken with my old camera (I have a new camera now) and I’m wearing my favorite summer shirt. And since when are sunsets blue?

Here’s the thing about nostalgia: I’m not necessarily longing to repeat the experience, or to see the people. I don’t even need to write about it because oh wait: I’ve written about this exact experience before. It’s just–it’s just–I was just wracked by the fact that it ever existed and now I am somewhere else. Do you see the difference? It’s not the desire to be there, it’s the little grief over the fragmentation of past and present selves. In a way, nostalgia is a deeply selfish emotion, but of course it will always be one of the most forgivable ones. For me, nostalgia is always going to be intertwined with love: I miss you because I love you, I love you because I miss you. You can feel nostalgia for things you have never experienced, and you can love intangible things, and you can miss people when they’re right next to you, and you can hold a million things in your heart.

Children are Stupid

You may have clicked on this link because you assume, based on the title, that this is some protofeminist rant about gender roles and the dated burden of motherhood. I have no idea what “protofeminist” means, btw. Is it real? Who knows.

But this has nothing to do with made-up words or feminism. Having children is not stupid. Children are stupid.

I work for eight children’s magazines. And let me tell you, those little suckers are D-U-M-B. We recently put out an issue on “trees.” I was like, SNORT. You idiots don’t know what trees are? “Why do the leaves turn golden in the fall, Miss Tori?” “I don’t know, Paulie-bear, why does your mom drink so much?” That’s how I handle little kids. WITH FISTS OF IRON. With whip-smart sarcasm.

Oh wait, using sarcasm on little kids is a total waste of time. You make a hilarious joke, they drool. You do some prime physical comedy (you should see my slapstick routine–I run into a wall and then fall down. It’s hysterical, and what’s even funnier is how little my health insurance covers!) and they start crying. You surprise them by jumping out from behind a bush and suddenly you’re off the babysitting roster. Know what I’m saying? It’s a total waste of time trying to get little kids to laugh, unless you’re the type of comedian that finds artistic fulfillment in putting your fist in your mouth.

Also, it’s time for little kids to GET THE EFF OVER MOTHER GOOSE. Can we all just MOVE ON, PLEASE? Jack jumped over the candlestick: FIRE HAZARD. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe: SANDUSKY. I will sail my little ship: SNOOZEVILLE. Children’s literature has been stuck in the decaying claws of Madam Goose for far too long, but of course kids are too dumb to seek out aesthetic innovation.

Here’s the type of poem that little kids like to read:

Butterfly
Flitting by
Pretty pretty to my eye

Here’s the type of poem that adults like to read:

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!

ADULTS WIN. And no, I will not cite my sources. If you don’t know who wrote that last poem, you’re either an idiot or you have mercifully avoided the “I’m into Beat poetry” phase that we all wallowed in for about 2 years. If you don’t know who wrote the first poem, well, it was me.

My Career Goals To Date

Ages 0-5: Princess, Sparkle Princess, Mommy

Ages 5-8: American (we lived in Africa and I really missed America for some reason)

Age 9: Destroyer of Walmarts (when we came back to America I loathed Walmarts)

Ages 10-14: Horse Owner, Professional Horse Rider, Horse

Age 14: Concert Pianist

Age 15: Mrs. Frederic Chopin

Age 16: Anything But Concert Pianist

Age 17-18: Actress, BAMF

Age 18.5: Lady Macbeth

Age 19: Vagabond

Ages 20+: Writer, Professor, Professional Existential Wreck, Assassin, Sugar Baby