July 15, 2007

It Didn't Have to Happen This Way But It Did

I drive by a field where a painful incident in my past occurred, and I feel only a mild wistfulness as I keep going forward, the strands of myself separating and recombining, mutating and adapting. These quiet days, even my metabolism feels new: a craving for fruit has come over me: pineapple, cherries, blueberries, blackberries, mangos, plums, any fruits you can name, and once a day is barely enough, as if I’ve regressed into some kind of tropical forest ape.

I lull myself to sleep with scary movies. I cherish the unnerved feeling after it’s over, when you feel you’re still in it, the monsters coming at you, the cave getting pitch dark. Sitting in your easy chair you’re in a deep-breathing, slow-lifting trance that’s almost postcoital. I recommend The Descent, about a group of six adventurous women -– all, coincidentally enough, raving beauties – who get trapped in a deep cave. Never before in my adult life have I been tempted to sleep with the lights on.

Change works through the drifting days as well as the dramatic ones. This is how you make your trail, your worldline, the unique squiggle in spacetime that represents how you danced and ran and squirmed from birth to death. You take one step, then another, none of them necessary until it’s already taken, and at the end you can read your whole life’s unplanned choreography, the curlicued signature you left on the page of eighty years, and it looks just right.

My worldline has led me back to reading science fiction, as I did in adolescence. Currently it’s Stephen Baxter’s panorama novel Evolution, which covers all of primate history from 65 million years ago to the present -– in fact the future. It’s like an exceptionally readable textbook in human paleontology, with imagination added where the fossil record is sketchy. There’s a wonderful set piece about a handful of anthropoid apes set adrift on the ocean on a downed tree after a flash flood: it’s a lifeboat survival tale, complete with long-delayed cannibalism, and reads like Life of Pi except with all the characters as animals. Baxter renders the full stink and slime and gore of animal life; it’s shocking to think of my ancestors defecating on each other to assert dominance or obsessively picking bugs out of each other’s pubic hair to establish social bonds. But that’s us, dear readers: we’re “bipedal, tool wielding, meat eating, xenophobic, hierarchical, combative, competitive” and possessed of “doggedness, exuberance, courage, and vision.” Chance and opportunism, smart or foolish or arbitrary choice, pre-adaptation or blind leap, guiding us through an unexplored cave so that we miraculously chose the right passageways and crawled through into the light. We’ve still got the dust on our clothes.

Some of us back then lived among sabertooth cats who were specialized to prey on hominids. No need for scary movies. No luxury of splitting the monogamous pair.

I look back gratefully at my four-foot-high, stone-axe-chipping, fireless, garmentless forebears of a million years ago and wonder at the courage of the primitive. It’s still all we have.

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