We are our history.

Too complex for words, we are every casual and causal link that has built to this moment, from Adam’s dust to the steel and rubber that transports us into one another’s lives and pulls us apart.

World Knowledge (BW)

All of human history at our fingertips and we’re stuck on the last page, reading over and over again as madmen and mad women tear it all down, to start over again or to rebuild, but not to make a better world for our children; for we are childless, and we are children.

I could cant plaintive aspirations for the future and the utopian landscapes of post-crisis self-realization, cry that you are an end in and of itself, the omega. But you don’t listen, and I’m not speaking; somehow, the silence gets filled up all the same.

London on the Thames (from Tate)

We are our shared perspective, from where we see the world and agree, that yes, from up here, it does look to be burning. Or perhaps it’s just the stifling, unifying cigarette plumes of eight billion cave dwellers who have agreed that the world has little time left, so why not just light one up and wait it out. If the world doesn’t end, well, we will anyway.

PA091787 (BW)We will always have our history.

Preserved in museums and memories that come back to us when the night’s libations have let us down, our history is the story of a species gradually, painfully, resiliently gaining consciousness and then, upon achieving this feat of evolution, imbibing every painkiller until we are no longer conscious.

We are our ancestors.

They cower, afraid to look up.

I tried to be a stone wall in the nuclear holocaust predicted by you, but every shadow that burned into me was just another reminder of all the ways that I am, too, human, too human, and made of skin that ripples and stains like a leaf of paper. On it, written the words you have already acknowledged as the pleas of a coward. I am shaken.

PA101798 (BW)

Totems (BW)Rosetta Stone (BW)I’m stuck between wanting to tell you that you are a towering example of strength and a sharpened shard of beauty, but I know the words only get lost from my mouth to your ears; impossible to cross the divide that separates us now that you have heard it all.

I talk about history.

You talk about dying.

We both get it.

I don’t get what I’m doing here, each passing moment stretching out to eternity and then it’s tomorrow and nothing has changed; I’m still failing at everything I try to do. I could see the whole world from down here; I don’t, though.

British Museum Ceiling (BW)

Cricklewood (BW)*

I was sitting in your living room when I received the note; a sky so full of clouds that I thought it must be night. It was the end of a day.

Another history brought short.

Another shadow on my wall.

History is what we label that which we cannot change; this is another part of our history, even if it isn’t ours.

I go on. You go on. She go on. We go on.

And then you’re gone and I go alone.

It used to be that if “love” were spoke with enough hope, with all the power of Hannibal’s elephants and all the radiance of Chernobyl and all the precision of Oswald’s bullet, any broken heart could be mended, no matter how many times it had been shattered.

That is now a part of history, too.

Head of State (BW)

So what?

So what if there’s nothing to be done? So what if our history is a collection of stolen artifacts and carefully curated facts to placate our brittle consciences? If our time is short, why shouldn’t our memories be, also?

PA091779 (BW)

I want this to be all okay; you, me, her/him, all with the collective sigh of our history.

PA101808 (BW)It isn’t, though.

It is rotten, I know.

It isn’t true.

It only trickles through.

We are guilty

of faux civility

weak and shallow

nothing more than a show.

This is our legacy.

This is our destiny.

This is our history.

I don’t control what I’m saying. I think in couplets when I’m away from you and you are acting as though nothing has changed. Everything’s changed. You dismissed my lips, unkissed.

Deceased (BW)

We have history.


You have history. It’s not easy to forget, it’s not easy to forgive, and when the cruel gray crows scatter your smile across a desolate field, it’s not easy to let go.

I am not a historian, I cannot be that detached.

Theatre Row (BW)Nor am I merely a supplicating audience member, waiting to applaud, steady with my tears, happy to concede defeat to the playwright. I write, too, and I don’t care if they are Shakespeare’s Histories, I make up my own endings.

You will loathe this, every word.

You will loathe me, too, and find my incessant presence to be a bother. This is already of history.

Yet, here I am, in attendance.

I bought the ticket, I took my seat, I put the world on silence for you.

So sing your song, recite your monologue, hit your mark, and kill the critics in the crowd who will insist that you’re not right for the part. The part is right for you.

I should’ve said that.

I didn’t say anything. You wept like Ophelia’s willow, threatening to drown all of Europe, but it only rains in London these days; the skies are gray, sure, but also close enough to touch. We didn’t touch. We stayed dry, we stayed indoors.

Underground (BW)

And then, that was it.

I’ve returned to this place I’m calling home now.

See the world, learn its histories, trace the rivers diverted by time and escape to the cities built on bones. Every street, every window, all of the tastes and smells, they lambast us with the history we think is behind us. Paint the walls, if you must, climb the scaffolding; it will all be history soon enough. History always wins.

PA091768 (BW)

We are history.

Queen (BW)

How music can save a life

I was falling apart. Just weeks after having reached the anticlimactic denouement of 10 Cities/10 Years, I’d sunk into a depression as toxic as the poisoned well from my year in New Orleans.

I felt an overwhelming emptiness. A decade of my life had been dedicated to this one purpose, and now I had nothing. Nothing to show for my efforts, nothing to look forward to, no sense of myself. I was just another broken branch thrown into the bonfire of Brooklyn, turning to ash.

There were acerbating factors, as well. Suddenly broke, I started two new office jobs on top of my bartending gig, working six to seven soul-crushing days a week. Wanting nothing but to curl up in my darkened bedroom, I’d come home to an apartment bustling with an unrelenting rotation of new roommates and temporary guests that stripped me of any sense of solitude. Making matters worse, one of those guests was a girl I had briefly dated; relations had soured between us and her presence was a constant source of anxiety.

Even once I did pass through the gauntlet of the living room, I’d step into my bedroom and onto a drenched throw rug: my room repeatedly flooded from rain water that poured in through the shoddily spackled walls. Peace of mind was always on tomorrow’s to do list.

One Saturday night, having bartended until two in the morning, I returned home but couldn’t bear being inside my apartment where the paper thin walls ensured I was never truly alone. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and ascended to the roof.

Usually, I would have the black space to myself, but that night, three of my neighbors were upstairs sitting around candlelight and listening to music off of one of their phones. Providing the bare minimum of social interaction to be part of the group, I sat and listened.

While the guys chatted about topics I couldn’t pretend to care about, a song began that immediately grabbed my attention, the first mournful strum of a minor chord ricocheting through me like a scream in a cavern.

“Coxcomb Red” by Songs: Ohia is heavy, a love song haunted by death, or maybe more accurately, a funeral dirge pierced through with aching love. “Every kiss is a goodbye,” the singer confesses, then repeats more insistently. It’s a mournful ballad, a heartbroken and brittle cry, and in that moment, it pierced through me like a religious revelation.

I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The chorus repeated inside me – “Your hair is coxcomb red, your eyes are viper black” – like it was some sort of incantation, a summoning to a lost spirit.

In a trance, I bid goodnight to the neighbors and immediately went online to track down the song and its album, The Lioness. I spent a few days hoping to find a CD in local record shops – for some reason, I felt compelled to own a physical copy of the album – but when the search didn’t pay off, I downloaded the album and spent the next month listening to it almost exclusively.

Laid low by depression, the music of the late Jason Molina wrapped around me and kept me warm, kept me sane; kept me alive.

Songs Molina

I’m recounting this now because over the weekend I had the good fortune to see Songs: Molina – A Memorial Electric Co. at the Littlefield here in Brooklyn. If that name is a bit cumbersome, it’s because it pays tribute to a complex and troubled artist. The concert, in honor of Jason Molina, was performed by a group of his former bandmates, tourmates, and friends.

Molina was the driving force behind Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., among other musical acts. He was a prolific songwriter and an omnivorous consumer of genres, shaping them around his singular voice and lyricism. By the time I discovered “Coxcomb Red” on that September night in 2015, Molina had been dead for over two years, the result of alcohol abuse and addiction. He had been 39.

I wasn’t entirely unaware of Molina’s work before his death. I had a passing familiarity with Magnolia Electric Co., mostly as a name I read in headlines on Pitchfork or saw listed on compilations. There are so many artists, it’s hard to know where to start, especially when it seems like it’s just another white guy indie band. Perhaps for many, that’s all the collective output of Molina will ever be, but once I discovered it, it became a salve.

Molina put out a prodigious amount of music under his various names, whether as a solo artist or with a band. I’ve spent the nearly two years since I first encountered Songs: Ohia listening to as much of Molina’s music as possible, and yet, at the memorial concert, there were still a handful of songs I had never heard, and talk of recordings I’ve never tracked down.

Standing in that audience with people who had loved Molina’s music and hearing stories about the man from people who had known him in life, I was moved near to tears. I, like I imagine many people, had found his music in an incredibly bleak time in my life, so I came prepared for a somber affair, and while at times there were moments of solemnity, the show was more often a celebration, a recognition of both the man and the friendships that he had helped bring together.

That is the power of music, the magic of a song. On this blog which is ostensibly about traveling, there are nearly as many posts tagged “music” as there are “travel.” In my lowest times, I’ve always turned to musicians. They lift me up, console me, give me perspective, and often articulate my own emotions better than I can.

On at least one occasion, music has literally saved my life.

Sigur Ros Untitled

I’ve previously recounted my ill-fated college road trip to Seattle on this blog, so I won’t rehash the full story here. The relevant portion took place on the second night of the trip when, after having crossed into Wyoming, I was waylaid by a late season blizzard that sent my poor two-door Ford Escort flying off the road and into a snowy ditch. I spent two hours in a gulch before a tow truck pulled me out and I was able to cautiously drive my hatchback through the night until I found a rest stop.

Hoping the storm would keep the authorities otherwise occupied, I broke the rules of the rest stop and settled into my back seat to sleep through the night. I hadn’t packed for a blizzard (it was early spring and back home was already experiencing summer temperatures), so as I shivered in my back seat, I slid on any layer of clothing I could find and wrapped myself in a blanket that I always kept in the back. It wasn’t enough.

For two days, all I had consumed was half a box of granola bars and a few cans of warm Sprite. My body was sore and exhausted, I didn’t own a cellphone, and  my emergency funds were already depleted after paying for the tow service. I was also acutely aware that no one knew where I was.

While my stomach growled, I was too tired to think straight, but too frazzled by my predicament to sleep. I closed my eyes and hoped unconsciousness would arrive, but my mind was racing, my heart beating unsteadily as I couldn’t shake the fear that I might have hopelessly driven myself into a whited-out no man’s land.

To calm my nerves, I slid on my headphones and used the last of my weathered, portable CD player’s battery life to listen to Sigur Rós’s untitled album (the cover stylized as an empty parenthetical). The eight-song suite of tranquil, atmospheric instrumentals paradoxically evoked images of a snow-covered tundra and the enveloping warmth of a sun-bleached day.

The album soothed me, like aural Prozac, my panicked mind now focused solely on the lilting and crescendoing themes. If I was to be buried in a mound of snow, at least I wouldn’t be alone. By Track 5, I had drifted into sleep.

To say that Sigur Rós saved my life is not to suggest I would have died without music. But, if I had not been able to sleep, if I had continued to try to forge through the intensifying blizzard while sleep-deprived and dangerously low on blood sugar, the next day’s bad decisions would have likely been even worse. I was lucky to get through that ordeal; I very easily could have been unlucky.


I turn to music for strength, whether I’m trying to get through a long work day or in the midst of an existential crisis. All art forms – literature, film, television, photography – offer some form of comfort against the ceaseless horrors of human existence, which is why art exists. Music just happens to be the most immediate form, a mainlined narcotic.

I do not abide people who call certain types of music “depressing.” That’s not how depression works. Depression isn’t just feeling sad or thinking about something unpleasant; it’s the deeply penetrating iteration of destructive, self-hating thoughts that cannot be reasoned or wished away. Depression has many triggers, but minor chords aren’t among them.

For those who have come to love the frequently subdued music of Jason Molina – though his oeuvre can span the spectrum from exultant to funereal – what resonates so deeply is the stark honesty and humanity he projected. He was an artist who could convey raw emotions more nakedly than almost anyone, which, admittedly, doesn’t always make for the easiest listening experience. It’s not supposed to.

I was lucky to find Songs: Ohia when I did. If one wonders how someone in the midst of a depressive episode could find appeasement in the bleakness of an album like The Lioness, it’s quite simple: when Molina was singing in my room, I didn’t feel alone. Isn’t that why we listen?

BARchetypes: The One Who’s Gonna Die Here

It’s been some time since I wrote 1 of these, but seeing as I’m in my last month, I figured I’d bring back this feature for an appropriate send off.

Bar regulars are a varied lot. There are the assholes and the loners, but somewhere in between sits the patron saint of all drunks: The one who’s drinking until he (or she) dies. The bar is the pharmacy for the depressed lot who can’t afford therapy or medication, or who just find it easier and less humiliating to self-medicate.

Look around: One of those bar stools is occupied by someone on their way out.

The Nearly Departed might be funny or morose, talkative or monkish, man or woman, but no matter their character they have arrived for one reason: Life is unbearable and they want to numb themselves until it’s over. The bartender is their Kevorkian.

In a perfect world, every person who suffered from depression, bi-polar disorder, anxiety or one of the other related mental illnesses would find peace and solace through some healthy outlet. This isn’t a perfect world. It never will be. Actually, in a perfect world a lot of bars would probably go out of business, so I guess there’s no such thing as a perfect world.

As someone who works and spends a lot of extracurricular time in bars, it’s not hard to spot the outgoing mail. Maybe they are the Dylan Thomas-type, sacrificing their mental health for their art until they succumb at the bottom of a pint of Guinness. Or maybe they took a job straight out of high school and they’ve been stuck in a Groundhog Day-esque loop ever since. Either way, their shoulders slump in resignation.

It might seem sad, but really, there are worse fates than to waste away in a place where you feel at ease and welcomed. They know your name, they know your drink and they know when to leave you alone when you’re in one of your moods. Some people search their whole lives for such an environment.

But your first impression was right: It is sad. Not because they will die – we all do – or because they are finding peace at the bottom of a glass – we’re all addicted to something. No, the sadness comes from the knowledge that at one point, there were infinite paths set out before them, and either because of bad choices, bad planning or bad luck they settled on a road of least resistance.

It’s not the kind of sadness that deserves pity. They would reject yours if you offered it. It’s just the sadness inherent in living, because despite all the childhood pep talks and optimistic sloganeering, it isn’t possible for everyone to achieve their dreams. The world isn’t so kind.

Some people will, inevitably, fall to the wayside.

And in most of those cases, it’s not the priest or the rabbi that picks the fallen up. It’s not even a good Samaritan.

It’s the bartender who pours the shot, pops the cap off the beer and says, maybe for the hundredth time, “Hey, how was work?”

Condoms... Condensation


We’ve Been Having A Mouse Problem

I am a month away from my final move and still looking to lock down an apartment somewhere in Brooklyn, but until then I remain here in student-invested housing in the Allston neighborhood of Boston. As with most areas heavily populated by people of the college persuasion, this neighborhood sacrifices cleanliness and basic adult courtesy for late-night pizza and a plethora of bars. Pros and cons.

Because of the slovenly living habits of the post-adolescent/pre-adulthood human, the nooks and crannies tend to become inhabited by unwanted creatures, and I’m not just talking about ex-girlfriends. We’ve had mice. Lots of them.

From pretty much our arrival here in Allston, my three roommates and I have had to deal with an invasion of rodents. Initially, we were alerted to their presence because of the holes in our food. We put our edibles on higher shelves, they still came. Then, we started to see them. We’d be sitting in the kitchen and one of us would catch a glimpse of a little fur ball flashing by underneath a counter or behind the stove. Sometimes we’d search and no trace could be found, but still the original eyewitness swore they had seen Mickey scurrying across the floor, sometimes disappearing into a hole behind the dishwasher, or into a corner, and even into a burner on our stove. Eventually, all four of us had at least one sighting.

We took action.

Mouse-proofing your apartment requires many steps, the first obviously being traps. Though the mental image of a wooden slab with a spring-loaded metal bar is what comes to mind when one thinks ‘mousetrap,’ the variations on a theme are numerous. We’ve put down sticky pads for non-lethal capture, and black boxes holding bricks of green poison for decidedly non-non-lethal capture. Then there’s the white, semi-circular contraptions that work like your traditional mousetraps but with a concealed container so you don’t have to see the dead mouse. All the rage with the ladies.

Of course, we’ve got traditional mousetraps, too. After everything, they’re the only ones that had any success.

Our mouse infestation began in the fall when the proliferation of new students and their resulting trash heaps made Allston the Times Square of Rodent City. It was not unusual to step over a flattened rat in the streets or to see them racing under cars as you walked back to your apartment in the evening. Luckily, those nasty bastards stayed outside, but that only meant that their smaller, twitchier cousins stayed inside with us.

When we alerted our landlord of the problem, we received a nicely worded reminder that ‘this is the city, so deal with it.’ So we did. We bought traps and spray foam and steel-wool to fill in the many, many (many) holes in the walls. We also bought electronic mice repellents that emit a high-pitched noise to deter rodents. For a few weeks, we even seriously discussed getting a cat for the apartment. In other words, we weren’t kidding around.

(At some point, someone must have reminded our landlord that Boston law requires them to provide a rodent-free living environment, because they sent someone to fill holes and leave behind even more traps, months after we had already done it.)

By winter time, our mice infestation seemed to be under control. We didn’t know if this was due to our vigilant mouse-proofing or because mother nature is just fickle like that. Either way, our mouse problem seemed to be solved. Until…



On a warm spring night, a tall WOMAN cleans in the kitchen, all alone. She washes her dishes, then wipes the counter. Opening the cabinet under the sink, she pulls out the trash can.

CLOSE ON a small mouse walking along the edge of the can. Startled, it scuttles up the WOMAN’s arm.

WIDE-SHOT: WOMAN screams. The trash can falls, scattering its content across the floor. The mouse escapes beneath the stove.



WOMAN knocks on the door. A few seconds pass, then it opens, revealing a tired-looking LYTTLETON.

What’s up?

They’re back.

LYTTLETON’s eyes narrow. An ominous song plays.


Thus began the ‘2nd Great Mouse Hunt.’

We’ve doubled down on our efforts to capture or expel the sunovabitch, but despite a tireless effort and a thorough cleaning of the entire apartment, the mouse keeps popping in to say ‘Hi’. Mostly from the trash. And usually when my roommate is in the kitchen by herself. Apparently he’s fond of her.

This past Monday night, though, I had the good fortune of getting a trash can visit of my very own. It was like spotting a celebrity in a nightclub, except, not like that at all.

More traps have been set. Our determination to get this guy (or girl; don’t want to be rodent-sexist) is unwavering. In fact, around two in the morning, hours after having seen the creature for myself, my curiosity got the better of me and I checked under the sink. And, lo, what did mine eyes behold: a four-legged garbage disposal, its hind leg stuck under the metal arm of our trap.

This clever girl had managed to eat the cheese off of two traps without setting them off, and it would have gotten away with it, too, if I hadn’t scared its furry little ass when I opened the door. I heard the trap snap. Jerry was lodged behind a copper pipe in the back of the cabinet, too awkwardly situated for me to reach with my hands. Should I leave him there to undoubtedly cry in abject terror all night, or should I attempt to pull it out and toss him into the street like DJ Jazzy Jeff?

The thought of the Tell-Tale Squeak echoing through the apartment all night felt a little creepy, so I opted for the latter. My efforts to pull the trap towards me, however, only loosened the mouse, and as swiftly as he had been caught, Speedy Gonzalez was up the wall and in a crevice that up until that moment I didn’t even realize existed.

The animal’s leg is probably broken and its access route to our trash has been blocked with steel-wool, so with any luck, our persistent invader will find some other apartment to squat in. That is, if a larger predator doesn’t pick it off first. I realize even typing that sentence will mean I’ll likely never receive another Christmas card from Morrissey, but I can live with that.

It’s been over 24-hours since the last mouse sighting, so perhaps we have finally won. I will admit, though, I have to feel some admiration for the little beast. It’s avoided traps, chewed through pounds of foam, and lived off the most miniscule of kitchen scraps, all so it can repeatedly scare the holy living crap out of my roommate. That’s some dedication.

I hope that nod of respect fills his tiny heart with pride when he’s burning in mouse hell.

A Better Mousetrap




It’s Okay To Be Happy That Fred Phelps Is Dead

Fred Phelps, the controversial, bile-filled preacher famous for popularizing the phrase, “God Hates Fags”, has died today, March 20th.


There will be much talk of how we must meet hate with love, and how instead of protesting his funeral with angry signs (as his group often did at the funerals of soldiers), people should show up with offerings of love and support for his family. It’s certainly a nice idea, and if people do it, it’ll make for a pleasant photo-op to splatter all over the Huffington Post and Upworthy.

But let’s be real: Death doesn’t suddenly make horrible actions immaterial. No one mourns for Hitler, no one mourns for Pol Pot, no one should mourn for Bin Laden, and I will not mourn for Phelps, even on behalf of the small percentage of his family that escaped his nightmarish church and brainwashing.

A bad person is dead, and that is a good thing. He didn’t die a martyr, he died the way all wretched, atavistic beliefs die: Slowly but inevitably. Phelps’ death, unlike his life, is worth a smile.

It’s a nice sentiment to say, ‘All we need is love.’ But love and hate are not enemies. How can we appreciate the full force of love without recognizing the might of hate? If there are things in this world worth loving, surely there are things in this world worth hating, such as oppression and the systematic destruction of people. Fred Phelps was not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. But Phelps was a terrible human being, a man led as much by self-aggrandizement as his black heart of hate. And for that, I have no love.

I will not go dance on Phelps’ grave, nor will I protest his funeral or attack his mourning family. His years of vile and contemptuous hatemongering have come to an end, and it’s enough to merely say, “Good.”

May everything he stood for come to a similar end.


Turn Off the News!

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’
I agree with the second part.” ~ Se7en


How bad is the world?

It’s not post-apocalyptic, Kevin Costner drinking his own piss bad, but it’s bad, right? Just look around. People are shooting up movie theaters and schools, others are getting murdered over loud music and Skittles. If pretty white ladies aren’t disappearing, they’re killing family members. And the children! Oh, won’t someone please think about the children? We live in a crazy, fucked up world. If only we could go back to the Golden Age, the 1950s.

Let’s take a trip through time.

Here are some statistics* for the United States (based on most recent year for which data is available, 2010).

U.S. Population: 313,900,000
Life Expectancy: 78.5 Years

Total Deaths: 2,468,435 (.0079%)
Deaths due to Heart Disease: 597,689
Deaths due to Cancer (Malignant Neoplasms): 574,743
Deaths due to Accidents: 120,859
Deaths due to Diabetes: 69,071
Deaths due to Flu/Pneumonia: 50,097
Suicide: 38,364
Deaths due to Liver Disease: 31,903
Infant Deaths: 24,586
Homicides: 16,259
Deaths due to Tuberculous: 569

These are the related numbers from 1950:

U.S. Population: 150,697,361
Life Expectancy: 68.2 Years
Total Deaths: 1,452,454 (.0096%)
Deaths due to Heart Disease: 535,729
Deaths due to Cancer (Malignant Neoplasms): 210,675
Deaths due to Accidents: 91,322
Deaths due to Diabetes: 24,413
Deaths due to Flu/Pneumonia: 47,168
Suicide: 17,179
Deaths due to Liver Disease: 13,864
Infant Deaths: 103,825
Homicides: 6,932
Deaths due to Tuberculous: 33,907

These are not exhaustive lists of every cause of death, but they hit most of the major ones (as you can see, some of them are less major now than they were in 1950).

As our population has grown, the rates of death have dropped, both overall and per cause. The trend doesn’t carry across the board, such as with cancer which has risen from 14.5% of deaths in 1950 to 23.2% in 2010. It’s very possible, of course, that the rise in the rate of cancer deaths coincides with our greater understanding of the disease and thus simply represents more accurate diagnoses. Or, maybe more people are just dying of cancer.

On the other hand, a smaller percentage of people are dying of heart disease, the flu and pneumonia and tuberculous (so much fewer in the latter’s case that it doesn’t even belong on the Leading Cause of Death list anymore). And infant mortality rate has nosedived. If the world truly is a worse place, at least we have those silver linings.

There are other kinds of deaths, though, and they’re up. I’d distinguish these as ‘active deaths’ (as opposed to diseases and the like which would be ‘passive deaths’). The current rates of suicide (0.016% of all deaths) and homicide (0.007%) are up from where they were in 1950 (0.012% and 0.005%, respectively), which clearly indicates that we live in a more depraved, dangerous time. Perhaps our passive means of dying are on the decline, overall, but our active means are rising. We’re making the world worse, obviously.

To be fair, though, suicide and homicide deaths accounted for 0.000122% and 0.000052% (again, respectively) of the entire population in 2010, whereas they accounted for 0.000114% and 0.000046% in 1950, so in neither year have they been as prevalent or threatening to the public as you might suspect just from watching the news.

But we do watch the news, and that’s the problem.

CNN logo

CNN Will Be The Death of Us

Look, I love the news, I love newspapers. I love journalists, both in the idealized world of fiction where a dogged reporter always gets his story and in the real world where hours upon hours of research and dedication will lead to 7 pageviews, while a story about Lindsay Lohan will be shared a million times.

Newsmen and women are doing some of the most important work in the world, and I respect the hell out of them. But, goddamn, CNN is terrible. And Fox News, and MSNBC. All of that round-the-clock, on high alert, Breaking News, staccato-music blaring noise is the worst.

Maybe this is because I grew up on Jon Stewart and the Daily Show, or maybe it’s because I’m forced to watch endless hours of it on mute while at work (it’s that or the same sports clips on ESPN), but the 24-hour News is a harping farce. This isn’t about politics. Forgetting all the sloganeering and political one-upmanship that these “news” stations employ, the single most corrosive element of these channels is their fearmongering. Whether it’s comparing various political figures to Hitler or highlighting fake violent trends, the Newsentainment peddlers are only as strong as their audience is scared.

It’s not entirely their fault: 24-hours of news sure sounds like a good idea until you put it into practice and realize that no amount of wars, political opera, celebrity deaths and international intrigue can possibly fill up 86,400 seconds of one day, let alone every day of every week of every month of every year. Of course they’re going to fill airtime with sensationalist pablum.

Still, no amount of excuses justify the baseless and systemic pursuit of terror. Maybe it was 9/11, maybe it was the Bush years and the war in Iraq, but for whatever reason our culture is being fed an endless stream of fear, and we’re eating it all up. There have always been fearmongers, there always will be fearmongers, but the problem in our current culture is that all this domestic terrorizing is making us oblivious to how good the world really is.

Every day they find some new outrageous murder, shocking trial or horrifying accident to feature and return to every half hour, and if there isn’t a new story to sink their teeth into, they’ll rehash something from a month ago. Every time a white kid from the suburbs dies, an entire news cycle is devoted to it, but a death of a black or Latino kid in the city isn’t worth a scrolling headline (unless of course there’s a race angle to play). Maybe that’s why it was recently found that optimism among blacks and Latinos is on the rise while whites are growing more pessimistic. White people think they’re being killed left and right.

I Have To Admit It’s Getting Better

In a previous post, I mentioned Steven Pinker’s phenomenal book, The Better Angels of Our NatureThe book is too good and too extensive for me to even begin summarizing or cherry picking data points. Instead, I’ll urge you to pick it up, and in the meantime read this recently published article, which examines both Pinker’s claims and those of his detractors.

If Better Angels had a logline, it would be this: The world is less violent than you’ve been led to believe and, counter to common religious wisdom, our morality is becoming more extensive, not less.

Essentially, as the book lays out in page after page of thoroughly researched data and historical evidence, despite anomalies like World War II and the Holocaust, the 20th Century was one of the most peaceful, least violent centuries in human history (if taken as a percentage of all human population), and the 21st century is furthering that trend.

People naturally balk at that statement (I know, I’ve had this conversation frequently) for a whole host of reasons, but if I had to narrow it down to one, it’s because they don’t know history. What do you think is the most violent conflict in all of human history? If you figured it was World War II, you would probably be in the majority. And by total number of dead, you’d be right. 55,000,000 million people were killed in that war (including victims of the Holocaust). However, if you take that number as a percentage of the world’s population, WWII is only the 9th most violent conflict in human history.

You know what is first? The An Lushan Revolt of the 8th century. Ever heard of it? Me neither. 36,000,000 people were killed. 36 million, in the 8th century! Pinker suggests that in modern numbers, that would be equivalent to 429,000,000 deaths. No nuclear bomb necessary.

I said I wasn’t going to try to summarize the book and I won’t. I just wanted to make a point. Our understanding of the world and how “bad” it has become is based entirely on our perspective, which is myopic at best, borderline blind at worst. Despite the internet, despite globalization, we still tend to see national and world events through the lens of our tiny little neighborhood. This is especially true for people who are born and then raised and remain in the same town or region all their lives. We think we’re worldly if we can find Crimea on a map, but we know so little.

Not only are we globally shortsighted, we’re temporally obtuse. Anyone who tells you the 1950s was a better time than the 2010s is not black, Hispanic, Asian, female, gay, an ill infant, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, poor or working menial labor. The world has definitely changed since the 1950s, so much so that many of the people who are better off because of those changes don’t even appreciate how much better off they are. If we suddenly reverted back to 1950s America, half of Fox News’ devotees would be worse off, to say nothing of the rest of the country.

Thanks to science and medicine, passive deaths are largely on the decline, but what most people are surprised to learn is that active deaths are declining, too, and rapidly. I don’t need to say the world isn’t perfect, that’s self-evident. But the world is so much better than it once was, even in the “Golden Age.” Unfortunately, with the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality steering our national news, all we ever hear about are the inexplicable rage killings and tragic deaths.

the better angels of our nature

So What?

So what’s to be done about it? That’s not an easy question. In some ways, I think we need people to think the world is a shithole so they’ll keep working to fix it. After all, it’s the restless souls who wanted a better world for their children who actually made the world better for us, their children.

On the other hand, we spend so much time fretting about invisible monsters and statistically rare tragedies (such as terrorist attacks) that we accomplish very little real change anymore. The 20th century positively exploded with social change, medical advances and scientific breakthroughs that shaped a new world, a world that if viewed from the 8th century would be considered utopia. Now, though, we seem stuck in place, largely because we’re cutting scientific funding, but also because a nihilistic view has crept into every facet of our pubic lives, especially politics, and instead of taking bold steps forward we’re constructing steel barriers to hide behind.

Perhaps I’m being myopic. In 100 years, maybe the first decades of the 21st century will be seen as the most innovative and socially enlightened period in our history. We can only hope.

Even if that’s true, it won’t change the fact that we are becoming a nation utterly beholden to fear. You are not in danger. Your children are not in danger. Statistically, the odds of you being shot down by a crazed gunman is next to nil. Statistically, you will live longer and healthier than any of your ancestors (for the most part, this is true across the globe). The news is making you believe that you’re in the line of fire. You aren’t. The news is lying to you.

Turn off the news!

You might be an outlier. You might be killed in a terrorist attack. Your child might be kidnapped. Your family might be the Kardashians. Tragedies happen all the time. But, just from a pure numbers game, you are far, far, far more likely to live a long, boring life with a couple of marriages and some bratty kids and a job that doesn’t excite you but doesn’t really strain you that much, either, so heck, just keep doing it (which, for the record, I find far more terrifying than any suicide bomber).

No one can predict what will happen to you as an individual. That’s life.

Turn off the news!

With pretty firm certainty, I can say you aren’t going to die in a terrorist attack, you aren’t going to be knocked out by a kid on the street and your kids aren’t going to go missing from the playground. I’m not saying don’t be vigilante, I’m saying don’t be so scared, you little coward.

Turn off the news!

Turn off CNN. Turn off MSNBC. Turn off Fox. Just turn them off. Get your news from a newspaper and read an article written by someone who actually bothered to get the facts before going to press because they didn’t have the 24-hour News obsession with being the first on the scene. We’d all be so much better off if 24-hour News went belly up.

Turn off the news!

Don’t believe the hype. The world is not bad. The world is actually pretty dang good if you just turn off the news and look around you. All those things you’re afraid of, all the things you’re complaining about wouldn’t even register to someone from 1950 because OH MY GOD YOU HAVE A TALKING MACHINE IN YOUR POCKET!!!

Seriously, turn off the news. I don’t agree with Hemingway very often, but he was right, the world is a fine a place. Wouldn’t it be nice to see that headline once in a while.

*Statistics retrieved from these sources:
CDC.gov, InfoPlease, Vital Statistics of the United States by U.S. Dept of Health