I want to begin by saying that, intellectually, I do not believe the world is going to end tomorrow, or on any other particular day--as an adult, I don't believe the ending of the world, such as it might be, would be a single-day affair. But as a child, I was terrified of it.
For those of you who may somehow be unaware of this cultural institution, the Weekly World News was a grayscale tabloid that was basically The X-Files in newspaper form, only if Mulder had never had a Scully. And one day, I was shifting idly from foot to foot in the checkout line behind my mother and our grocery cart, as you do when you're eight years old and you're having to do adult things with adults, and time slows to a crawl, maybe even starts moving backwards. I was one of those Good Children you hear about, who never threw tantrums or whined, and endured all rips in the time-space-attention span continuum with infinite quiet. So I'm reading the Weekly World News front page, and this particular summery week, they are here to inform me that the world will end, most definitely, on a particular date about two years in the future. Ironically, as much as this date haunted me for two years of my young life, I can't even remember what it was now. I doubt the WWN staffers even remembered what it was the next day; they had already moved on to another Elvis sighting and the Continuing Adventures of Bat Boy and probably three other world-ending dates. The WWN was the best fiction you could buy for your dollar, but I was only eight and didn't know that--the news, all news, was gospel. All I knew was, it was 1987, I was never going to grow up, and we were all going to die. And because I was a Good Child, I never mentioned my anxieties to anyone--I never broke my quiet to ask my parents, you know, hey, what are we doing for the end of the world, have you thought about this yet? (Probably a cookout. We had a lot of cookouts.)
And then, two summers later, the end of the world rolled around, and I watched the sky all day, and was relieved, if still a little uneasy, when it didn't even so much as rain. I won't say it was The End of My Faith in Journalism, but I was confused--maybe even a little angry--that a newspaper ("newspaper") had decided to scare the shit out of me for two years solid for no real reason. Because newspapers were never wrong. If the Weekly World News had told me something that was not true, it was because they had LIED. I mean, was Bat Boy not real either? Was the President not really a Martian robot replacement for the real President who had actually died after being shot all those years ago? Why do people go around telling stories that aren't true as if they are just to scare people? I was already an aspiring young writer, and serious as a heart attack about it--the school had sent me to Young Writers' Conference in town every year since I was six years old, and I had even had a story published in a student-teacher magazine when I was eight, those two years before--but I had never, ever tried to claim that my story about the talking animals whose rich eccentric owner had set them free into the world on a bet to see if they could find their way back in a year (I seem to recall that they rafted over a waterfall and later hailed a cab on their travels), I had never tried to claim that such a thing could be true.
I... I was maybe a strange child. As all children are.
The interesting thing about the time in which I grew up--I was born in 1978 and turned 34 last Friday, for reference--was that doomsday warnings were not a one-off event. For some reason, the zeitgeist of 1990 was all about a sort of cheerful environmentalism--for kids!--that tried to sweeten its tidings of certain doom with a thick frosting of can-do child activism. In particular, anyone who doesn't recycle is KILLING THE EARTH, never keep the fridge door open more than two seconds, and hairspray is evil (tell your mom!). (Oddly, in addition to the neo-hippie, literal "earth child" fashion statements of the time--we are all children of the earth, you know--I remember animal print being a big trend as well. This seems... somewhat counterintuitive, in retrospect.) This was the age of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and also, in the vague recesses of my memory, a prime-time all-star TV special in which Whoopi Goldberg was a hospitalized Gaia who had all kinds of celebrity visitors who explained, at length and in small words, why saving her--the Earth itself--was so important. And then, at the end, she died. SHE DIED. THE EARTH DIED. You know, let's not even get into all the Cold War "everyone dies horribly in nuclear fallout, sadface" things they showed us in school before that. Or the fact that the (very admirable) AIDS Awareness push (you might or might not know what sex was, but it was definitely going to kill you) was happening simultaneously. What I'm trying to tell you here is that television during my childhood was fucking terrifying. Really? Minimizing the chlorofluorowhatsits from our refrigerator doors is going to do anything? WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE.
I'm glad that eight, ten, twelve-year-old me doesn't know that, twenty years later, it's going to be even worse because no one listened to Captain Planet or Vice President Gore, and no one in our government who could have done anything about saving the earth did anything about it, and we're pretty much to an irreversible point of environmental damage. But, like I said. The end of the world might be a lot of things, but it won't be a one-day affair, and I'm pretty sure we'll see it coming.
(And yet, I find myself putting off the oddest things. Who wants to spend their last day on Earth tweezing their eyebrows? Does it matter if the kitchen counters are clean? Can the Christmas cards wait till Epiphany? Who wants to do laundry? Well, no--my favorite shirt is in there; I'd like to have it clean.)
To be honest with you, I'm really anxious about December 21. Not because I believe that some kind of Mayan hellfire will actually rain down on us, but because other people might believe it will, and there are a lot of people in this country who have guns. I had a really depressing paragraph here about the scary stories we tell ourselves around the electronic campfire, the conspiracy theories and the politcal antagonism and the apocalypse specials on TV, but I think I'll spare you the details. We all know that things--in this country, certainly--are real-world adult-scary right now, and I don't really need to belabor that point. Suffice it to say, I'm more concerned about the stories we tell ourselves, the way we kept squeezing this apocalyptic boil until it's gone septic. We're trying to drain the infection with zombie-invasion stories, we're trying to cancel the apocalypse, but we are all so afraid of each other, and so afraid of what we've done, what we've neglected to do, and what it's too late to fix.
I've always hoped that the world would end not with a bang, or even a whimper, but that it would just end. Like a television turned off; like closing, as a world, our eyes. It would end so quickly that we wouldn't even know it; we would simply cease to know anything. It wouldn't be days of screaming and suffering and outrunning lava like in all the disaster movies; it wouldn't be nuclear sores or hiding from zombies or fighting over fallout shelters. It wouldn't even be a Judgment Day full of beasts and angels. The world would just end. If we have to lose this world, a world of beautiful and marvelous and wonderful things, and of ugly things, mistakes that we'll never have the chance to try and make right, of riddles we'll never solve and secrets we'll never uncover, let that be punishment enough. Let the world just
- Thoughts on the apocalypse