Six Questions — February 20, 2013, 9:00 am

This Is Running for Your Life: Essays

Michelle Orange on the art of the personal essay, navigating cultural overload, and the distance that separates two human heads

Michelle Orange. Photograph by TK

Michelle Orange.

As a film critic and a long-time contributor to The Rumpus, Michelle Orange has made a name for herself as a social and aesthetic observer who eschews bromides and empty sentiment. Droll, honest, and incisive, her writing glides effortlessly between artistic criticism and personal anecdote. In her new essay collection, This Is Running for Your Life: Essays, she covers subjects as varied as Ethan Hawke’s face in Before Sunset, her compulsive running habit, and the fragile peace in Lebanon, connecting a rapidly evolving cultural landscape to the small and limited world between our ears. I put six questions to her about the book.

1. Your background is in film criticism, so both movies and the act of watching them pop up as motifs in your essays. How does the consideration of film as an artistic medium shape your writing on broader issues?

Film criticism was a great accident for me. Although I studied film in school, professional criticism wasn’t an aspiration of mine. So I’d almost want to put it the other way — that my interest in the world shapes the way I watch and feel about movies. But there is definitely a tension there. I’m drawn to the space where energy is exchanged between a subject and a work of art. With movies, for me, that space and its magic seemed pronounced. It echoed or elaborated on the tensions that exist between people in a very basic, visceral way. I think I’m always looking for different versions of that space.

2. Your essay on traveling in Beirut soon after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 stands out against most of the others in the book, which show you sifting through North American cultural markers, as an attempt to come to terms with an unfamiliar cultural environment. How do you approach writing about a foreign culture, compared with writing about your own? And what was it about Beirut, specifically, that attracted your interest?

There are probably more overlaps than differences in trying to write about any culture, but different elements require different levels of vigilance. It’s a little easier to stay curious and fresh-eyed and awake, for instance, in an unfamiliar place. But then unfamiliar places require a writer to have an especially healthy sense of her own stupidity. Maintaining the necessary humility may be easier at home, strangely enough. There are parts of American culture that remain quite foreign to me; constantly confronting and grappling with them is one of the great and humbling pleasures of living here.

But you asked about Beirut. Since I was little Beirut had a very specific place in my imagination. Growing up white and Canadian in the Eighties there was a good chance Lebanon and specifically Beirut was your first or best idea of the Middle East. Something about the name, for a kid who liked words, had a menacing, faraway quality. 

The 2006 war had me thinking about the city again. At the time I was trying to work more on fiction, and I had this fantasy of going to Beirut to try and flesh out one of my ideas. It also seemed like a decent starting point for someone trying to gain a better understanding of the region. What moved me, having built it into this fire-breathing monster as a child, was finding just a city, a wounded city.

3. Your writing is striking for the ease with which you weave together experiences from your life and observations about your subjects. For example, in “War and Well-Being, 21° 19'N., 157° 52'W.,” you travel to Hawaii to attend a psychiatric conference on the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, with the ostensible aim of reporting on the changes being recommended to the book, but you finish up the essay on a very personal note, confronting the process of aging in a surfwear shop and then finally connecting with someone on the beach. Where do you start when you’re figuring out how much of yourself to put in an essay?

That’s a very good question, and I’m afraid I don’t have an answer to equal it. I can say that I felt that including my own experience of the subjects I wanted to deal with in the book might lend some dimension to the story that would also feel of the story. I hoped it might also help replace certain boundaries within and between the essays with something more intuitive. And I wanted to be free to do that across different stories and different ways of telling them.

Especially with “War and Well-Being,” figuring out what I had to bring to the story was the first imperative. Because I’m not an expert, I’m not a psychiatrist, and mine was certainly not going to be the comprehensive or credentialed account. (I’m glad we have Gary Greenberg’s forthcoming Book of Woe for that.) I was just interested in what was going on.

So it was always going to be a layperson’s experience of the situation and the issues involved. I figured it might as well be my experience. I wanted to present as useful a picture as I could of what was at stake on the ground, but I also wanted to stay attuned to the larger themes and the personal nature of the decisions being made.

In the writing, working under considerable time constraints probably had some effect; I had to commit to certain choices without second-guessing. Limits can be good! I also just had one of those extraordinary, clarifying moments on the beach in my last hours in Honolulu, desperately sorting through my notes on kappas and axes and other quirks of modern psychiatric diagnostics when a gentleman sat down and initiated one of the most memorable conversations I’ve ever had. As a writer you live for that kind of thing.

4. You frequently touch on the interplay between having experiences and representing those experiences in art, for instance in your essay on the historical shift from the depiction of faces in literature to photographic portraiture. The title of the collection also seemed to me to evoke this tension, in that you present an action that’s about as visceral as it gets (“Run for your life!”) in an almost detached way. How do you tackle those almost metatextual ideas without becoming so self-conscious it becomes difficult to actually write?

Barthes is a good example of someone who mastered the problem you describe. When he describes, say, looking at a childhood photograph of his mother, there is a good possibility that the reader will recognize some part of the experience. His effort to close the various gaps of detachment involved in looking at a childhood picture of his mother extends to the reader as well.

My much humbler version of Barthes’ effort was to poke around some new gaps, or in new versions of old gaps. In one essay, for instance, I suggest that the internet is the ultimate realist medium — seemingly designed to promote “real” interaction, raw information, real-time exchange. You could also argue that it’s the ultimate postmodern medium — made of infinite, irreconcilable bits and pieces; it is what it’s about and it’s about what it is. But if we tend to experience it as a realist medium, then a gap opens up. And all this crazy, interesting stuff happens inside.

From “Do I Know You? and Other Impossible Questions”:

Something scrolled up behind my ribs in anticipation of what comes next: Wait, who do you remind me of? She reminds me of someone — who is it? I told them I hated this game and that it never ended well, but soon three others were pointing their noses in close to mine and shouting celebrity names like Scattergories clues. . . . But this guy was half-lit and wholly tenacious. Eventually he left the room to seek out a computer and google his mind to rest. He gathered his team around the monitor in the study, where they deliberated over the actress he had in mind. No one noticed when I pulled my coat from the closet behind them and walked out the door.

5. You grapple with identity throughout the book, perhaps most directly in your essay on the uncomfortable experience of being mistaken for a variety of (not altogether similar) movie stars. Do you think the preeminence of pop culture in our lives is making it more difficult to relate to each other as people? 

What can feel like cultural overload has certainly made human relations more interesting. I’m trying to remember where I read it, I want to say in Mary Karr, but there’s this line about how there’s no greater distance than that which separates two human heads. We’re adding rest stops and roadblocks and detours across an already insurmountable distance. And we’re relating in more formally elaborate and unexpected ways, and so ordinary problems — like how to connect — and attendant behaviors are presenting themselves in startling, sometimes alienating new forms.

It always comes back to those two human heads, though, doesn’t it? What feels a little newer is the effect of this stuff on a person’s ability to relate to herself. Taking in and putting out so much information, I would imagine especially for someone just developing a sense of herself, creates that many more opportunities for confusion or alienation. It’s just the way we become ourselves now. There’s more pinball involved, more to negotiate. And who knows, that may have the ultimate effect of creating stronger identities, because they’ve been forged by a kind of hellfire of possibility.

This Is Running for Your Life6. In your essay “The Dream (Girl) is Over,” you track representations of femininity from Marilyn Monroe through the Manic Pixie Dream Girl that currently dominates in Hollywood. Do you feel any sort of similar pressure as a woman writer to conform to the broader media narrative of femininity you perceive around you?

I’m not sure what that narrative is, so I’d have to say no. This is not gender-specific, necessarily, but I was conscious of the current emphasis on charm and likability in certain strains of nonfiction. I don’t know that I felt pressure but I was aware of it, and decided . . . not to care so much.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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