When Did The World Change?

Happy Halloween. Here’s a treat.

By Henry Allen, Washington Post Staff Writer
July 10, 1995

You rent a house at the beach. One night, just back from the ice cream place, you say to your kid, “Wanna go for a walk?”

Over the sea grass and through the dunes. You step out of your sandals and look at all the darkness out there, the flop and fall of surf. You feel privileged, as if you were backstage watching it rehearse.

A different world. There’s a bonfire way down the beach. Sand comes up through your toes.

“Dig your toes down a ways,” you say. “You can feel where it’s still hot from the day.”
“Wow,” your kid says.

You walk. This is great.

“Is this like it was when you were a kid?” your kid asks.

“Sure,” you say.

“I don’t know,” your kid says. “I look at old pictures, like you with your backpack in college, and it looks like things were different back then.”

“Not the sand, not the ocean,” you say. Farther out, the water is the color of leather.

“No,” your kid says. “Just the way things felt back then.”

“Like when we lost in Vietnam, or the space shuttle blew up?” you ask.

“No, that’s stuff we get in school. This is something, like, I can’t say . . .”

Now you understand.

It’s the nothing-has-been-the-same-since feeling.

Like, nothing has been the same since the phone company turned “information” into “directory assistance.” Since salad bars. Since the druggist moved the condoms right up front with the vitamins. Since you weren’t allowed to burn leaves in the fall anymore.

You say: “I remember when I was even younger than you and the Dodgers left Brooklyn and went to Los Angeles, 1957. I have this feeling that nothing’s been the same since.”

“You got it. Like, I remember when they changed some of the colors in crayons, and it was like, I got the feeling . . .”

Crayons! You’re standing at water’s edge now, sinking into the sand, a soft, tight buildup as if someone were covering your feet with layers and layers of Band-Aids.

Band-Aids! You remember when Crayola dropped the “flesh” color, but the Band-Aid people had picked it up for the new plastic Band-Aids that replaced the canvassy white ones that had the heavy smell of Boy Scout tents, but sweet.

You decide not to explain this notion.

“Watch for shooting stars,” you say.

“You see how the waves get phosphorescent?” your kid says.

Yes. That hasn’t changed. But the feeling of being alive in America hasn’t been the same since . . .

Bumper stickers. Pantyhose. Since the sun became our enemy, blighting us with wrinkles and cancer, and now the weather report on the phone gives you the ultraviolet radiation count along with temperature, humidity and wind. Plus ozone, pollen counts and air quality. Life cannot be the same when you believe that invisible menaces, understood only by scientists, are everywhere.

“When I was a kid, nature was our friend,” you say. “Like in Walt Disney cartoons — if you got lost in the woods, bluebirds would bring you lunch in a little basket. Now nature is our enemy. We annoyed it and now it’s going to drown us or fry us . . .”

“Global warming,” your kid says.

“Exactly. You can’t mess with it. The Boy Scouts don’t even let you build campfires anymore.”

Since tennis balls changed from white to yellow.

Since the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center.

Since the day you got on an airplane and the stewardesses were old; it was like a bus, you could smell the exhaust.

“Do dolphins come in and leap around at night or just during the day?” your kid asks.

“What?”

“I changed the subject,” the kid says, snapping fingers. “You gotta keep up.”

What will this summer feel like when you remember it? What moment will be the signal that the ghost is dead, that another time of your life has run out?

You say, “The thing about the way things felt is that you don’t really know until it’s over, and then you think maybe it’s just nostalgia.”

“Like after Grandma died, and every time we went to see Grandpa the kitchen didn’t smell the way it did and now it doesn’t have any smell at all,” your kid says. “It made me feel sad. Like I’d gotten older all of a sudden.”

“That’s it,” you say. “Wait till you’re my age and everything has changed.”

Since women stopped wearing gloves, and dentists started wearing them. Since cops stopped wearing hats, and mail carriers started wearing whatever they felt like.

Since the long-ago Halloween when kids showed up at your door and, instead of bags for candy, they held out donation boxes for UNICEF.

Since stuff in stores got either shrink-wrapped or blister-packaged, making it unreal, like an idea — not a hammer but a “hammer.”

Since Detroit took away wing windows and hood ornaments.

Not bad, not good, necessarily, just changed. Irrevocably. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a whole book about somebody who thought you could recover the past: “The Great Gatsby.” You hear a voice.

“Wow, what are you thinking about?” the kid says.

You take a big breath and lie.

“Shooting stars,” you say.

“It’s cloudy, you can’t see shooting stars. What’s neat is the phosphorescence. Hey look, you’re buried almost over your ankles!”

You lift your feet. It’s hard enough to be pleasantly startling.

Since women took off their girdles in the 1960s.

Since your college roommate reported that six U.S. dollars would buy one cup of coffee in Switzerland.

Since we started importing Granny Smith apples from France because here in the land of Johnny Appleseed our own had no taste.

Since you learned there wasn’t any Lassie doing all those tricks but a pack of male collies that each knew a couple of tricks. And you noticed that the Lone Ranger and Tonto always rode around the same rock so they were probably indoors, actually. And rock music, country music, maybe all recorded music got put together out of strings taped one day and drums another and then the singer in headphones — music made out of different modular units like a toaster oven or a tire.

Since the National Hockey League started holding the Stanley Cup finals in summer.

Since men started crying because women said they liked it, except that they really hated it.

Since stores were allowed to open seven days a week and Sundays no longer had the radiant quiet that was another category of reality.

Since drugstores got rid of their lunch counters, which, in retrospect, seem so civilized.

Since we stopped thinking about how many Americans died in World War II, and started worrying about how many Japanese and Germans did.

“You keep saying Vietnam screwed up this country,” your kid says. “Is that what you’re talking about?”

“No, it’s never the big stuff. It’s like, in chemistry you’ll see a thing called a supersaturated solution, a jar of liquid, and one little tap from a glass rod and it starts turning solid. One little tap. That’s what we’re talking about.”

The kid is quiet for a while. You sense something ending.

“Aren’t I supposed to be in bed by now?”

You turn around. You start walking back. The kid relaxes, running in and out of the water, not because bed is near but because there’s no need to fear a stupid parent will get lost.

“Since jogging,” you say. “When I was a kid people didn’t exercise at all. If you’d jogged, people would have pulled the curtains and talked about you.”

The health thing. Since spandex. Since women started commuting in sneakers and changing into heels at the office. Since steak stopped being good for you.

Since Waylon and Willie got together and sang songs not about love or jail but about each other.

Since Elizabeth Taylor got really, really fat for the first time.

Since Elizabeth Taylor married a heavy equipment operator.

Since mints appeared on nighttime hotel pillows.

Since aluminum baseball bats.

Since men stopped whistling songs on the streets, with trills and flutters.

Since everybody had to have helmets: bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets (the law keeps changing), skiing helmets, windsurfing helmets, hockey helmets, baseball helmets, construction helmets, SWAT team helmets, virtual reality helmets, riding helmets as decorating touches in the front halls of tract mansions in Potomac. What’s next? Golf helmets for spectators every time Gerald Ford tees up? How about Washington dinner party helmets, with radios: “Roger I copy your transmission regarding retaliatory tariffs.” Helmets for playground swings? Sex?

Since “victim” and “hero” became the same thing.

You’ve spotted your gap in the dunes. You walk toward it, up past charred logs and a beached catamaran and a million daytime footprint dimples of absolute darkness in the sand, getting soft around the edges as the wind fills them.

“Hey, wow, look!” says your kid. “Oh, you missed it, you always miss it!”

“Missed what?”

“Okay, it was like, I mean . . . can you have phosphorescence in the sky too?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe it was lightning.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Great. I just saw a shooting star so humongous you could see it shining right through the clouds!”

You look at each other with a wild surmise. For a moment, anything is possible. It’s a nice feeling. Maybe this feeling will be part of an era your kid will remember at the very moment of realizing it’s gone, that things haven’t been the same since . . .

Getting Better

The only thing that would have made this any better is Four Loko. Oh, wait.

Here’s Chris Jones: An ancient oak tree stood behind the main house, and the dozen of us ducked under its branches on the walk back to the screen house after lunch on Saturday. We’d pulled from a giant, delicious pot of Brunswick stew, with sides of salad, cornbread, and big glasses of sweet tea. Now we dodged the Spanish moss and vines that hung from the oak tree.

A breeze came through the screen house and each of us picked up our rustling piles of newspaper and magazine stories and the opening chapters of unfinished novels. We had all written something to contribute to the pile, and now we began to talk again about what worked about them and what didn’t work about them and wondered aloud whether we might become great if only we could better figure out the difference.

Stewart’s Shtick

Stuever: In search of the surest way to reach and encourage his core constituency during the midterm elections, President Obama visited “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” Wednesday night — a show that prides itself on never taking anything seriously but still treated him with sympathetic awe.

That’s how things are done now in the postmodern politiscape: Two men — Jon Stewart and Barack Obama — brimming with mutual regard, each of them funny in his own way, but managing to not be very funny together for the show’s entire 22 minutes (plus a minute or two). Like any smart “Daily Show” guest, Obama knew the best bet was to play it straight.

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A Very Important Brain

What you won’t read in the November Esquire is that my friend Luke spent six years reporting this story. He began when we were both working together at Atlanta magazine, when it was just an idea that we talked about for hours; an idea that transformed into actual reporting, with some big and fascinating roadblocks along the way. I knew that if he ever wrote it, it would turn out to be a great story; that it had to be; that by the very nature of the subject matter, and since he was a great writer, it would end up being even more. When he told me a couple months ago that he had actually sat down to write it, I thought about the years in between then and now, our friendship, the stories that we wanted to do, and how good we wanted them to be.

Luke Dittrich: The laboratory at night, the lights down low. An iMac streams a Pat Metheny version of an Ennio Morricone tune while Dr. Jacopo Annese, sitting in front of his ventilated biosafety cabinet, a small paintbrush in his hand, teases apart a crumpled slice of brain. The slice floats in saline solution in a shallow black plastic tray, and at first it looks exactly like a piece of ginger at a good sushi restaurant, one where they don’t dye the ginger but leave it pale. Then Annese’s brush, with its practiced dabs and tugs, gently unfurls it. The slice becomes a curlicued silhouette, recognizable for what it is, what organ it comes from, even if you are not, as Annese is, a neuroanatomist.

He loves quiet nights like these, when his lab assistants set him up with everything he needs  the numbered twist-off specimen containers, the paintbrushes, the empty glass slides  and then leave him alone with his music and his work.

Annese coaxes the slice into position above the glass slide that lies half submerged in the tray, cocking his head, peering at it from different angles, checking to see that he has the orientation right. The left hemisphere must, when you’re looking directly at the slide, be on the right side of your field of view, just as it would be were you staring into the eyes of the brain’s owner. Although brains are roughly symmetrical, they are not entirely so, and Annese has become familiar with the individual topography of this one, all its subtly asymmetric sulci.

For additional reference, Annese occasionally glances at a digital photograph on the screen of the computer. The photograph, two months old, was taken during another late night at the lab. It shows a bladed machine, a cryomicrotome, similar to a meat slicer in a deli. The machine holds a block of frozen gelatin and the block of frozen gelatin holds a brain. Annese had sheared the whole brain into 2,401 seventy-micron-thin slices, the camera snapping once before each pass of the blade, and this particular image captures the moment before he sheared off the slice that now floats before him. The picture provides a useful comparison for Annese now, showing the slice as it looked in situ.

That night of slicing had not been as solitary as this one. Not only had all his lab assistants been here, but thousands of other people had been present in another sense, since Annese had streamed the event live online. A colleague of Annese’s later confessed that he had watched the Web stream with anxiety, hoping that Annese wouldn’t become famous as the second doctor to screw up this particular brain.

The Future Is Long

Love this idea from Mark Armstrong at Longreads.com:

…When I click a headline at NYTimes.com, I can never tell whether I’m going to get a 200-word blog post or a 10,000-word epic. At work, I want the former; at home, the latter. But my browser doesn’t care. Graydon, you would never ask me to read the Vanity Fair cover story standing at the newsstand. Yet that’s precisely what VanityFair.com and others do.

Now that I have the ability to “read later,” I will. It’s time for publishers to start recognizing this need for “time and place”-specific content. I humbly offer up “Longreads” as the tag by which we, The Internet, will understand when content is meant not just for scanning but for reading, savoring and digesting.

Can’t we all see where this is going? The online world no longer needs to be 500-words-or-less. Instead of killing long-form journalism, the internet can help save it.

Now that we have a time, a place, and a format where the best journalism in the world can thrive online, the appetite for it is obvious. It’s on the iPhone, iPad and Kindle. It’s on apps like Instapaper, where you can read offline and on your own terms. And it’s from writers and reporters who can expand our worldview and move us to tears — or better yet, action — in 7,000 words.

Go check it out.

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All The Generous Upright Days Of Their Boyhood

Happy birthday to Pat Conroy, born Oct. 26, 1945, in Atlanta.

From Beach Music, page 281:

In that summer, I would remember my friends and their souls, light and air-streamed as mallards, set loose among the vast table linen of the great salt marshes, happy among the green riches of a land so full with life that the rivers smelled like some perfect distillate made of spartina and the albumen of eggs. The boys of the low country were accustomed to taking their pleasure from the rivers around Waterford: fishing trips that lasted for days, floating through a dozen tide changes, rubbing baby oil and Mercurochrome on their sunburned shoulders as the game fish of those moon-leavened waters fought for permission to take their hooks — the sheepshead, the migrating cobia, the spottail bass, the sweet-tasting trout — all those fresh fillets would turn golden in their frying pans and fill their bellies and brighten all the generous upright days of their boyhood. The marsh country satisfied all five senses of a boy a hundred times over. I could close my eyes while throwing my cast net for bait in a tidal creek at low tide, and the summer air would fill my lungs. I could believe that I was a sailor, a merchant marine, a sea-born creature of water and marshes. The black mud of the creeks squirted between my toes and I could hear a porpoise driving the mullet toward a sandbar in the river.

One Sentence

Far out on the desert to the north dustspouts rose wobbling and augered the earth and some said they’d heard of pilgrims borne aloft like dervishes in those mindless coils to be dropped broken and bleeding upon the desert again and there perhaps to watch the thing that had destroyed them lurch onward like some drunken djinn and resolve itself once more into the elements from which it sprang.

–Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, page 111

American Fiction 101

An interesting issue came up at Auburn Chautauqua this weekend that calls for the help of Gangrey nation.

If your friend is one of the best magazine writers in America and he doesn’t read fiction, what would you suggest to get him going?

The Prison Paper

Lane DeGregory: Outside the prison library, the women were waiting for their teacher, holding a copy of their newspaper, trying to decide what to do.

They had named the paper Time Flys. Their teacher didn’t correct the spelling.

They had spent a month reporting and writing, collecting photos and quotes and jailhouse recipes. Inmate #071 had two-finger typed six long pages. Finally, the October issue was ready.

They had planned to pass it out during writing class. They had told their bunkies they would bring back copies. Promised their kids they would mail some home.

But now the guards were saying they couldn’t distribute it. The officers didn’t want their names in the inmates’ paper — even if the article was a “shout-out” to those who had helped. And the warden deemed another article “too racy.”

After five issues, the inmates were being censored. They were angry, upset and confused.

“What if we just take out all the officers’ names?” asked one reporter.

“We were just trying to include them,” said the typist.

“Let’s all take a step back and breathe,” offered the columnist. “This is a publication by inmates, for inmates, right? At least it’s ours.”