Madrid sits amidst some of Spain’s most historically significant and picturesque locales. That means a short train ride in almost any direction will deliver you to views worth capturing. Over the weekend, our troupe of Anglos, all in Madrid to study Spanish and/or teach English, took advantage of the city’s ideal location.
Our destination: Toledo, Spain.
We met at the Atocha Cercanías, a Renfe train stop and major hub at the southern tip of the city center. Well, the intention was to meet there. In reality, our fractured group, arriving from all directions, barely made it on to our 10:20 train. As the minutes ticked away, we found ourselves frantically zigzagging through the terminal, trying to determine our point of departure – receiving no help from the Barney Fife of Spain – and, when the dust had settled, well, some of us didn’t make it. Travel is a tough business.
Luckily there was an 11:20.
Toledo is literally an ancient city, one of Spain’s oldest, and like many of the older cities in the country, it was once protected on all sides by a massive wall. Built atop a towering hill, it currently overlooks a web of surrounding homes as well as the el rio Tajo (Tagus, as it’s known in English), which runs around the city center. Tajo is the longest river on the Iberian Peninsula, crossing from Portugal through much of Spain.
Buses are available to take you up to the city center, but our group opted to walk, following a painted pink ribbon along the road that led us to a series of escalators to the city center.
In addition to the spectacular views from this towering vantage point, one of the main draws of the city is the architecture, influenced by the three major religious groups – Christians, Muslims, and Jews – which many centuries ago co-existed within the city’s walls (an edict in 1492 was enacted to expel non-Catholics from the region).
Though Toledo is now mostly a tourist destination – with a squadron of double-decker buses swooping visitors by the main historical sites – the city was once the regional capital and one of the most important trade and travel destinations of its time. It is a city of definite historical importance and a window into a past of relative (to the centuries that followed, at least) religious harmony.
Also, it’s pretty.
(Click on an image to enlarge.)
The city houses a number of museums devoted to both its artistic history and its religious roots. The El Greco museum sits in a recreation of the renowned painter’s home, and some of his works are on display, but many of the art pieces on display are not his works, as the proprietors have used the space to exhibit paintings by other, lesser known Spanish artists.
Many of the museums are free after a certain time, and even those that cost money are affordable for visitors on a budget. For instance, it only cost 4€ for us to check out the demented creatures, sadistic torture devices, and phallic celebrations of la Brujería (witches exhibition):
For all of its reverence to history, though, Toledo is still a Spanish city, which means countless bars and restaurants breaking up the souvenir shops. Plenty of chinos, too. As our group wandered, mostly without consulting the map, we’d often cross from heavily tourist areas to streets that looked like any other neighborhood in Madrid, never more than a few steps from a cerveza.
Now only a shadow of its former economic prominence, tourism surely accounts for much of Toledo’s current economy. In many similar towns, that often results in a garish mix of cheap plastic mementos and overpriced “destinations,” but not so (or, at least, not much so) in Toledo. If you’re in the area and looking for a day trip, especially considering its close proximity to Madrid, it’ll prove a rewarding visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
I want this to be all okay; you, me, her/him, all with the collective sigh of our history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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 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.
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.
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.
With all the people I meet who learn of my project, I inevitably end up rehashing a lot of the same material. The list of cities I’ve lived in gets rattled off with all the rhythmic precision of a scripted speech. My favorite city? How do I pick my cities? What will I do when I’m done with ten cities? All those frequently asked questions.
But once those details are covered, most people want to know if I’m keeping a record of my years. Am I actively taking notes or keeping a journal?
The truth is, no.
Obviously, I have this blog, and from time to time I write out an amusing anecdote about an evening out, but I’d say 90% of the content on this site has little to do with the personal moments of my life. This blog was never meant to be a diary. I don’t even keep a Captain’s Log. Over the years I have flirted with writing down my day to day happenings in a notebook, but such habits have never lasted more than two consecutive days.
The problem is that I hate writing about myself. It’s really a loathsome activity. Not exactly the greatest attitude for a would-be memoirist, but in all fairness, when I started this project I never expected to write about it. This is your fault. Everyone I met who said, “This would be an interesting book,” you’re to blame for my cognitive dissonance.
The truth is, I’m flattered when anyone takes an interest in my banal life, so I’m happy to talk about it. But sitting and scribbling down a play-by-play of my daily activities strikes me as being one of the more particularly vicious circles of hell. I don’t care how interesting a person you are, most of your days are filled by strings of boring happenings that no one needs to read about, even via Facebook.
When I set out to finally write this book, I’ll have notebooks of essays, poems, attempted journal entries and random scribbles to help piece together the chronology of my life (because, lord knows, my whiskey-addled mind isn’t remembering most of it). But I believe the majority of the material I’m going to abstract for the final product will be derived from interviewing old friends and acquaintances in each city.
When the time comes, I hope to fly back to each city for a week, one right after the other, and revisit old haunts, reconnect with people there and see what sorts of flashbacks I can trigger. Maybe when the time comes I’ll create a Kickstarter project to help fund my 2 1/2 month journey around the country and through my past.
Memories are notoriously unreliable. Mine sure as hell is. It’s not that I believe getting other people’s versions of my history will help me craft a more accurate chain of events. If anything, it’ll probably corrode my own memory further and distort reality to an even greater degree.
But the very thing that makes memories so capricious is what makes them so fascinating. Our mind stores memory in a complex neural net that puts very little emphasis on accuracy. It’s all about associations and mental links, and those ways in which each mind remembers an event tells us more about the individual than the actual occurrence.
When we take the collected memories of a group of people and try to form them into one cohesive narrative, we get something far more powerful than a memoir or history. We create a myth.
10 cities in 10 years is not a goal. It is not a dream.
It is a story I tell at parties. It is the thing people attach to my name like it were a title.
It is the root of a myth.
That tag has been in the About section of this site since I first created it. Don’t let me be misunderstood. I’m not attempting to craft a false history to seem more interesting, a la James Frey. What will end up in 10 Cities / 10 Years: The Book will be as factual as I can manage, with as much research and secondhand supporting evidence as I can amass.
But no memoir can ever aspire to 100% accuracy. Until someone invents a time machine out of a Delorean, there is no hope of truly recapturing a personal history. Even with the most fastidious note-taking over the previous 7 years (and the next 3), I couldn’t hope to get everything right. Sure, it’d make remembering dates and names easier, but greater details don’t make for a better myth.
So, no, I’m not taking notes. I’m living my life, and in a few years when it comes time to type it all out I’ll sew together my memories with those of others and fashion my own myth.
“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” ~ Atticus Finch
While nothing definitive has been settled, today certainly marks an auspicious day in the fight for equal marital rights.
I have written before on the lack of logical or rational arguments against Gay Marriage.
But, in reality, laws are rarely, if ever, based on logic and rationality. The forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were greatly inspired by the Enlightenment thinkers in the crafting of our Constitution, but ever since then we’ve been taking giant steps back from our Age of Reason foundations because God doesn’t get His proper due in such elitist thinking.
No, our laws today are far too often bought by moneyed interests groups or voted into law by a majority based on fear, anger or ignorance.
In the case of Prop 8, all of the above is true. 52% of California’s voting populace listened to the fear-mongering messages of the Church of Latter Day Saints and tossed out equal rights. And the message we heard when it happened (I was living in San Francisco that year) was that majority rules, the people’s voice should have greater weight than the state’s Supreme Court.
That’s true, unless of course the majority’s voice rejects liberty for the minority. That’s why we have the Supreme Court.
Prop 8 is not going to stand. Don’t get me wrong, the war ahead is still a long one, and this current battle could be lost if it comes down to a partisan vote by the U.S. Supreme Court (7 of the current justices were appointed by Republican presidents, though 4 of the total 9 lean liberal in their votes).
Even if the Supreme Court upholds Prop 8, it will merely be a bothersome roadblock for the inevitable legality of same-sex marriage.
If you are Conservative and believe you have sound, logical arguments against it, you still have to see the writing on the wall.
Six states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont) and Washington D.C. currently allow same-sex marriage. Washington will almost certainly be the seventh before 2012 is up, and if Prop 8 is struck down as unconstitutional, California will be the eighth. And then the dominoes will just keep falling.
Public opinion is gradually turning to general acceptance of it, in that your average American probably doesn’t care if same-sex marriage becomes legal. They may not vote for it, but they won’t vote against it either, and that’s a huge step.
This is partly because people like Rick Santorum and Pat Robertson spread a message of hate and religious people with moderate views are turned off by it.
I’ve made my arguments for legalizing same-sex marriage in other posts. This is not a continuance of that argument. This is a message of victory (or defeat, if you’re on the losing side of this fight), because it’s going to happen.
Many people have fought long for this point in history, either through marches and protests, sponsoring laws or writing their congressmen, or simply being willing to debate the issue with people who held onto ignorant views.
The war isn’t over, the battles ahead will be many. But those who stood for equality will end up on the right side of history with this fight.
Even those opposed to same-sex marriage have to see that now. The longer and harder they fight, the more they start to resemble the old, sweaty racists from classic movies who always give long speeches about ‘tradition’ and God but ultimately end up losing to the handsome young lawyer.
This is our Atticus Finch moment. Which side of history are you on?