Sunday, January 8, 2012

2012: The Year that Perseus Finally Confronts the Medusa

It's finally here--the year when we find out whether the Mayans were right about the world ending in 2012, OR NOT. Gazing at Medusa's image in his bronze shield and pretending to look one way, Perseus reaches back over his shoulder and severs Medusa's head. Having neither shield nor sword at my headquarters, I've been wearing my Frida Kahlo sox and Zulu love letter--an African beaded one-inch square attached to a large safety pin--instead, as my personal amulets against disaster. (Both were Christmas presents last month.)

One strangely ominous portent has not escaped my notice, however. This is the second year in a row that thousands of blackbirds inexplicably fell out of the sky on New Year's eve in the same small town in Arkansas. Last year, officials thought the bizarre deaths might have been caused by fireworks or a hailstorm, but this year the fireworks were outlawed, and the weather was calm. So it's pretty weird. But maybe no weirder than the poisonous lies raining down on us inexorably from the GOP presidential campaign. They, too, are a bad omen. "Barack Obama has failed America." Have you checked out the "Obama misery index" lately? Have you been to a jobs fair? "Please go," urges a Romney strategist. "If John Steinbeck were alive today, he would not be voting for Barack Obama."

Well, it just so happens I once met John Steinbeck. We were introduced by his son, whom I had encountered on board a ship when we were both crossing the Atlantic, going back to America from Europe. We saw each other several times after that in New York, and on one of those occasions, the son took me to meet his father. I think I can safely assert that, whatever view John Steinbeck might have held of Barack Obama, he would not be voting for bobble-head Mittens instead. However, Mitt Romney, and the entire GOP clown circus, represents only one of the looming disasters facing us in 2012 that make imagined prophesies of doom seem ever more potently real.

Even if you are not disposed to give credence to ancient prophesies, it is hard to ignore the severity of the crises intensifying the global stakes for cataclysm of some kind. Everything is either under siege, being protested, about to explode, or ready to systemically collapse. I don't know if it was by chance or by design that my local movie theater ushered in, during the first days of the New Year, a movie called "Melancholia," in which a rogue planet (named Melancholia), having been previously hidden by the sun, is now stalking the earth with orbits edging closer and closer, in a kind of death dance that threatens its annihilation--should there ever be a collision. Slowly but leadenly, we are left wondering whether the worst will actually happen, and the movie morphs into a study of people's different psychological responses to the threat of total destruction. "At times," wrote one critic, "the film comes close to being a tragic-comic opera about the end of the world."

As in real life, in the film most people are obliviously and blithely going on with their lives. The central characters, however--especially the lead actress, Kirsten Dunst, along with her sister, her sister's husband and their young son--are constantly tracking the planet's doom-filled progress, mostly through hidden sites on the Internet, and, in the case of Dunst, tracking with a kind of rapturous obsessiveness that for a time afflicts her with a disabling mental breakdown. (Dunst's performance won her the Best Actress Award for 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival.) When it seems like their final moments on earth are about to come, the family (minus the father, who has already committed suicide) retreats to a protective "magic cave" they have prepared on the lawn--a make-shift, Indian-style teepee composed of a few tree branches--to await their fate.

An end-times scenario even made it into Time magazine this year, with a special page entitled "The Last Party"--how to ring in Armageddon. Meant, of course, as a spoof on the Mayan calendar prediction of the world's end on December 21, 2012, it offers suggestions for both optimists (those who believe they can survive anything or that nothing will happen) and pessimists (those who believe there is no way to cheat death). Optimists may have to dole out some serious moolah if they want to upgrade their chances of survival, though. For $35,000, they can reserve a share in an Indiana "underground shelter network for long-term survival of future catastrophes; it includes a year's supply of water, food, and clothing, As for pessimists, that is, if you're not to nervous to eat that night, the suggestion is that you can dine in style at a new restaurant soon to open in Houston called "Underbelly," and eat your fill of pork belly without having to worry about clogged arteries.

Honestly, faced with these wonderful options, I might just go for the teepee, as long as somebody is there telling me pointless jokes. (Virgil?) On the other hand, maybe I'll opt for the knock-out punch, because who wants to live in a world without Starbucks java-chip frapuccinos anyway? Whatever you think this says about me, I know I don't.

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