Postcard — November 22, 2017, 9:00 am

Brief History of Time

A day on Noah’s Ark

Noah’s ark was bigger than I had imagined. Having grown up with the story, I had pictured something colossal, but it still took me by surprise. It was more beautiful than I expected, too: the wood bright and fresh—handcrafted by Amish artisans—the light color emphasizing the ark’s vast bulk.

Ark Encounter, a theme park featuring a replica of Noah’s Ark built to biblical specifications, opened its doors in Williamstown, Kentucky, last year, and has since welcomed more than 1.1 million visitors. The park, which also features an outdoor stage, restaurant, zip-line course, and zoo, is a $102 million for-profit venture, built in part with $18 million in state tax breaks. The ark itself is a behemoth at 30 by 50 by 300 cubits (an ancient measurement, the distance between one’s elbow and fingertips), meaning it’s about 51 feet high, 85 feet wide, and 510 feet long, the largest timber-frame structure in the world. It is as tall as a four-story building, could fit three NASA shuttles nose-to-tail on its roof, and has the capacity of 450 semitrailers. It’s an impressive structure, and though I carry with me ambivalent memories of growing up in the church, I still found it alluring.

We approached the ticket windows. There were many of them, and an accompanying series of roped-off queues, but my partner and I were two of only a handful of people there. We each shelled out $40, climbed a ramp, and entered the ark, a long, open hall filled with effulgent gold light from a run of rustic chandeliers. The walls were made of exposed natural timber beams, like a log cabin. Up ahead, the ark widened, and signs welcomed us to various exhibits, some like little coves flowing one into the next, others with mazelike partitions. Then came the baby dinosaurs.

The ark is one of several educational ministries founded by Ken Ham, an Australian fundamentalist Christian who believes in “young-Earth” Creationism. The Bible is the infallible word of God, to be understood literally. As such, the days mentioned in the Genesis creation story must be seven twenty-four-hour days, making Earth about six thousand years old. With only six thousand years to squeeze in all of geological and biological history, dinosaurs and humans are said to have overlapped. And because God told Noah to bring “two of every kind,” dinosaurs got a ride on the ark right alongside the lions and tigers and bears.

The dinosaurs, like all the creatures in the museum, were stuffed or sculpted and positioned in rows of wooden cages alongside hay bales and clay water jugs. Some of the dinosaurs had birdlike beaks; others looked like giant lizards or mini brontosauruses; none were labeled with their scientific classifications, because they represented “kinds” which, as we learned later, is a broad category comprising animals that can mate with one another. Many species were represented by a single kind, and after the Flood, these kinds proliferated back into the diverse animal kingdom we know today. “Species [gave] rise to new species, modified characteristics develop[ed] over time, and the fittest animals survive[d] best,” one plaque read. “Sounds a lot like evolution, right?” But speciation, or “the biblical creation model of changes within kinds” still doesn’t support “molecules to man evolution,” which requires changes intrakind.

Another plaque tethered to a cage of giraffe sculptures asks: “Why is the giraffe’s neck so short?” “Today, giraffes are often considered in light of their most popular member: the long-necked giraffe. However, the other living member of the family, the okapi, has more reserved proportions. Indeed, the majority of fossil giraffes had shorter necks than the modern giraffe. This suggests that the Ark giraffes were probably more okapi-like appearance than the giraffe . . . only one example of variation within this kind.”

The caged animal sculptures ran the full length of the boat on two decks, while animatronic Noahs and other mini exhibits filled the outer rooms. As I walked through the wooden corridors, I was overwhelmed by the amount of explanatory text. I passed by video screens, timelines, models of boats to test seaworthiness, interactive doodads for kids to lift and twist and press, and a multitude of plaques—on the surface it looked much like any other science museum, except the only source quoted was the Bible.

“DIFFERENT WORLDVIEWS LEAD TO DIFFERENT CONCLUSIONS,” explained one sign, detailing the planet’s history:

6,000 years ago—CREATION

4,400 years ago—THE FLOOD

4,000 years ago—THE ICE AGE

2,000 years ago—CHRIST

My partner, who’s Jewish, stood slack-jawed before this timeline, so abbreviated from his own understanding. I knew about young-Earth believers, had expected this, but still began to laugh. The Ice Age, we read, resulted from the Flood and caused the dinosaurs’ extinction. There was no mention of how other animals and humans survived.

Most of the exhibits were focused on the minutia of ark-building and the care and keeping of its passengers. There were about 1,500 “kinds” of animals on the ark, at most, 7,000 animals in total. God instructed Noah to take seven of each “clean” animal—creatures that he could later sacrifice. For easier care and transport, Noah likely would’ve chosen baby animals. He used elaborate water-delivery systems—clay pipes running aqueductlike across the ark and delivering water into troughs, self-feeders for food delivery for the birds and smaller animals, slotted, slanted cages for manure collection, and roof windows, as stipulated in Genesis, as a rudimentary ventilation system.

His family also played a crucial role. They are depicted throughout the museum feeding and watering animals and cleaning cages. Noah’s wife, in particular, was essential personnel. “Mrs. Noah,” as she’s called, was likely quite “fit and active,” despite being six hundred years old, and cooked and wove textiles in addition to helping care for the animals. “Noah’s wife is one of the more overlooked characters of the Bible,” her introduction read, “considering every one of us contains some of her DNA!” We never learned her name.

Other plaques addressed more specific questions about the animals’ care. “How did Noah keep the polar bears cool?” posed one attached to a cage of stuffed bears. If polar bears had been on the ark, they wouldn’t have required cold to stay alive. However, polar bears weren’t actually on the ark at all. “Polar bears are members of the bear kind,” the plaque explained. “We know [they] can produce offspring with grizzlies and other brown bears, and brown bears can interbreed with black bears. Thus, the various bears of the world belong to the same bear kind. The two bears on the Ark were the ancestors of the many bears in the world today, including polar bears.”

“Were unicorns on the Ark?” asked another sign, affixed to a cage of sculpted rhinoceroses. Though older translations of the Bible include the word “unicorn,” we learn, this was likely a reference to a wild ox or rhinoceros.

We continued through the ark to find an exhibit dedicated to ridiculing Bill Nye. In 2014, Nye debated founder Ken Ham, arguing for the veracity of our fossil records, which prove that Earth is billions of years old. The screens in the room loop highly edited clips, making it seem as if he’s at a loss for words each time Ham quotes from the Bible.

By the time I watched the videos of Nye, I’d stopped laughing; I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was being trolled. And in a way, I was—because Ark Encounter’s greatest vitriol is reserved not for Bill Nye, or any full-blown heathens, but for those interested in thoughtfully engaging with both science and spirituality, who think the Bible could be operating on a metaphorical level. On one wall, a red serpent wound its way around a gilded inscription: “If I can convince you that the Flood was not real, then I can convince you that Heaven and Hell are not real.”

In a far corner of the ark one exhibit was set off by thick glass doors. The room was dark, its backlit shelves casting a glow on colorful children’s stories of Noah and the Flood. When I slipped inside, I felt at peace among the books, recognizing Veggie Tales characters, and Who Built the Ark? from my childhood. But as I moved closer, I realized the display is titled “7D’s of Deception”—the cutesy illustrations of lions and flamingos marching two-by-two are apparently the enemy. Atheists, the exhibit said, “use fairy tale arks to mock the Bible,” and the presence of “fanciful objects attack the truthfulness of scripture.” Beside me, a pair of little boys stared at the books in horror. I staggered out into the light, blinked the dinosaurs back into focus, and let my eyes readjust.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

1 in 2

A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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