Wednesday, January 16, 2008

On Safety and Fear

S___ and I were playing the hookster last week, meeting some friends in Georgetown to get some kabobs for lunch. Window shopping on our way there, we heard a loud steam whistle start to sound. It's a sound that you generally have no reference for, but maybe you've seen movies with old steam trains. This was amplified and didn't take breaths.

When I worked at the University, I volunteered to be the office fire marshal. Part of this job, in addition to leading my coworkers to safety in Virginia with my backpack full of water and fruit rollups, was helping run the "shelter-in-place" drill. When there was an emergency that required everyone to clear the quads and run into the buildings, the huge steam whistle on top of Healy Hall would sound and the fire marshals would run outside to ward everyone in. This was necessary because while everyone knows what to do in a fire drill (run outside!), the steam whistle had just been installed and no one knew what it meant when it sounded (run inside!).

In theory, it would go off due to belltower sniper, dirty bomb, poison gas cloud, etc. When it sounded last week, it could be heard all the way down M street and no one knew what it meant. I tensed a little, since I knew it was either a drill or something horrible, and I contemplated pulling S___ into a store and leaving everyone else on the street to die. Then something else took over- there were no police cars blazing down the street, no explosions, no one falling to the ground clutching roses. The part of my brain that has been trained to be afraid lost out to feeling safe.

I know that's bullshit and maybe this actually makes me less safe. I'm sure there are survival stories that could be thrown at me of people who were prepared, followed their training, and lived to tell it. Those are riveting stories and I'm sure they're true, but damn I bet they're statistically insignificant. I read my environment that day and my monkey brain said "safe" no matter how scared and prepared that steam whistle is meant to have made me. I know in Iraq some bases have signs that say "Complacency Kills" on the gate to the outside but that's Iraq and I refuse to walk around my city, on my way to getting a lunch special at Moby Dick, and put my senses on a war footing.

Sometimes I feel like we're doomed by our frozen evolution to not be able to step outside our tribal instincts. My monkey brain wants to see the same hundred faces, to know their names and their proclivities, to trade in good faith and mete out punishment to those who break it. Too many strange faces inflicted on people who are already cut off behind single family homes and car windows, suddenly you find yourself railing against the day laborer depot with that cluster of strangers doing strange things that MUST be criminal. Be afraid, because your tribe is invaded every day. Shut yourself off, become a conservative, fear change and defend your family against all takers and comers.

I understand that, but it ends badly.

The only way I can read the news, or do my job, and not hate everyone is because I'm coming to realize that all anyone wants is to feel safe. The only people I distrust are those that seek to make you afraid to their advantage, whether they're a bully or a priest or a president. I've also been extremely lucky to arrive where I am, with the love I have, without having been knocked around and damaged and distrustful, so I can't blame people for feeling encircled.

I feel safe and I'll always do my best to remember your face and welcome you into my tribe.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Culling Our Books

When my mother is asked to describe the relationship I have with my wife and the likelihood of its success, she invariably says something along the lines of, "oh, the two of them were made for each other, they both read books."

There's a lot more going on with S___ and I, but I'd be peeved with my mom more if she hadn't helped us move into our apartment together and watched box after box of books come in. If you've ever helped us move, thank you. I know the books are the heaviest, after the sea chest (partially full of books) and the antique jelly cupboard (those colonists made their jelly storage devices to withstand the ravages of savages and catholics).

We have six regular sized bookcases and they're all full. This is a problem, since we've refused to learn an object lesson and stop buying books. We considered a rule that no new books should be bought until we had read all the ones in the house, but that did not make it out of committee. We tried an experiment where we just went to the library, but it was bothersome because all the good ones were checked out. We also made a charitable donation to Arlington County because we're lazy and couldn't be bothered to get the books back in time.

I don't know what it is about books, but if we did this with porcelain figurines or star wars pogs you, our dear friends, would not be the sexy and fashionable people that you are. Your clothes would fit poorly and you would smell like sourdough bread. Because we have a maddening surfeit of books instead, not that many people think we're nuts.

I have a hard time getting rid of books, even when I won't ever need or read them again. One of my favorite things is to have friends browse the shelves while we make dinner or put on our BSG cosplay (I go as Caprica Six, S___ as Baltar. Hot hot hot!) and hear, "Is this any good? Can I borrow it?" We have an apartment full of ideas and you can just walk in and borrow one. I like that and I don't think that will ever change.

However, it's a small apartment full of ideas and some ideas are apparently worth culling. We kept a pile of books in our living room the same way some people keep cardboard boxes of kittens in the front yard. Free to a good home, but not that many takers. What we were left with are weighty fantasy tomes from S___, most of my Stephen King and all of my Tom Clancy, two Ayn Rands, and some Middle East history and politics books that we had duplicates of. I just put them all on last weekend and I've had six buyers so far- we've got cut-rate prices and our inventory must be reduced!

What is interesting (the payoff of the whole post! soon!) is that selling best so far are pulpy fantasy novels and that these are selling to rural addresses. I imagine part of that is due to the spring semester not starting yet, but I was surprised by the rural route numbers or towns with "elk" or "raccoon" in their names. When I want to load up on trash fiction, I can hit two decent used books stores in the area and take out a sack of books. Of course, they rarely want to take these back and we arrive back to our storage problem. If you don't have one of these stores nearby, however, what a treat must be- the selection far surpasses anything you're likely to find locally and you can often pick which book has less wear and tear. Hell, you can even find an earlier edition without the movie cover if that bothers you.

The unfortunate thing is that while my books are being sold at used bookstore prices (generally between 75 cents to a dollar), there's the additional two dollars in shipping. I do feel bad about that- right now I'm wrapping the books in old grocery bags, just like I used to when I couldn't afford wrapping paper, and sending them as media mail through the post office. I couldn't possibly charge less money for shipping. Still, it's nice to know that somewhere out in rural America people are gathering their own collections, even if I should send a note saying "you'll grow out of it" with the Ayn Rand books.