AFTER GETTING OUT of bed Thursday morning, I clicked on the coffee pot, having prepped it the night before, and returned to the bathroom to shave my neck. My neck I shaved smooth daily whereas my face I shaved down to the scruff every four or five days. Half of the males of Northampton, MA, seemed to do the same, and the other half didn’t bother shaving at all. Northampton was home to lots of hippies and academics and artists and writers. All of them liberal, most of them white, many of them LGBT and especially lesbian. It was a city of Buy Local and farm shares, of reading on the bus and Sunday brunch. It was a city of mostly kind people who nonetheless didn’t say hi on the street. It was easy to make fun of. It felt like home.
I washed myself without a cloth, using a body wash that employed little dots of rice to exfoliate the skin, and shampoo and conditioner out of enormous Kirkland bottles. Idly I wondered just how much a neighbor could see of me—and more to the point, how much they could see of Liz—through the thin translucent curtain between the window and shower. We didn’t know the young neighbors the window faced—coed, possibly Hampshire students, who got drunk and yelled every so often and seemed to exist only to themselves. Across the street was the grouchy grizzled old man, wild-eyed and potbellied, who in nice weather maintained his lawn shirtless and in booty shorts. At night he’d put out a cone beside his driveway so we street parkers would not back into it as we turned our cars around in the morning, and he spoke up only to scream at poor visitors who’d parked their cars too close to the wide driveway’s mouth.
As I toweled off, I noticed I’d dripped a lot into the interstitial zone of exposed bathroom floor between the mats, and with my foot I guided one of the mats over the zone, makeshift-drying it so that Liz would not later that morning step there, slip, fall, and die. This was not what Newt Gingrich would refer to later that evening when he said, “I think people need to understand how real this is: this world is in danger of becoming dramatically more dangerous in the not-too-distant future;” he was instead discussing the possibility of Pakistan being armed with “well over 100 nuclear weapons,” which was probably not true, though today our military linked Pakistan’s spy service, the ISI, to last week’s attacks on the US Embassy in Kabul, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen said, “The support of terrorism is part of [Pakistan’s] national strategy and that has to change.”
And to make matters worse, the world was told yesterday not to panic, but just to be aware: Hurtling toward us at ever-increasing speed was a six-ton satellite.
The Upper Atmospheric Research Satellite (UARS), the biggest NASA craft to fall to Earth since our first space station Skylab fell in 1979, was expected to hit sometime late Friday. Because the UARS was orbiting the earth as it fell, it was tough to say exactly when it would alight.
It was also tough to say where: Definitely not the North Pole and definitely not the South Pole, but pretty much the rest of the earth was fair game. People took bets over where the UARS would hit on an Irish gambling site. Stephen Colbert said, “Let’s just pray it falls somewhere it can’t do any damage—like Detroit,” and in a political cartoon by Cam Cardow, an advisor consoles President Obama about his poor approval ratings, reminding him that “[t]he trick is to remember to always look up,” just before the UARS hits the White House.
NASA set the odds of the satellite debris hitting someone at 1 in 3200. To many, these odds sounded too tight, so NASA later clarified on Twitter, “The chances that you (yes, I mean YOU) will be hit by a piece of the #UARS satellite today are one in several trillion. Very unlikely.” Still, NASA warned us not to touch any found chunks of satellite debris: They could be sharp. And we were fragile, after all. The Earth’s diameter was less than 1% of the diameter of the Sun, whose core burned at 15,700,000 degrees Kelvin, and that was how we liked it. A little colder and we’d all die. A little hotter and we’d all die. And the Sun, middle-aged with its 1,983,307,500,000 days to live, planned to grow 10% hotter every 1.1 billion years so that a billion years from now, the surface of the Earth would be too hot for liquid water to exist, and life on Earth would be finished.
Some people want us to master space travel so that when the Earth becomes uninhabitable, we can simply leave for Mars or elsewhere, but other people say it’s too expensive or too silly to even talk about because the idea reminds them of sci-fi movies—kid stuff. Meanwhile, Google continues to develop a self-driving car and a pair of glasses that looks up whatever you see on the internet.
Our planet celebrated its 4.54 billion years of existence by heating up even faster than the Sun’s burning demanded, and by hosting more humans than it had ever accommodated before. It was possible that as of today, the 7 billionth baby had already been born, though the official “best guess” was that he or she would be born next month on Halloween. According to the Global Footprint Network, if we humans wanted to sustain our current rate of growth and consumption, we were going to need an extra half an Earth. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” said environmentalist Paul Gilding.
Mats of oil lay on the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico, left over from the 2010 BP Oil Spill. It was discouraging to researchers that the oil, some of which had earlier in the month floated to shore in a tropical storm, had not yet hardened into tar—a sign that the oil was not breaking up as quickly as we’d hoped.
The “Missoni for Target” clothing line had meanwhile sold out in many Targets throughout the country, and people who’d managed to order Missoni products online watched as their shipping dates kept being pushed back without explanation from Target, while others had their orders cancelled but had not yet had been refunded, while others were given tracking numbers from Target that UPS knew nothing about, and someone on Facebook called this “the BP Oil Spill of Fashion.”
Today, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s inspector general Richard Moore stood by a report he’d written blaming the TVA for the enormous coal ash spill of 2008—the biggest in United States history—saying that for years the TVA had ignored warnings that the pool of coal ash was not properly confined.
The TVA’s position was that according to the testing they had done, the 1.1 billion gallons of “toxin-laden sludge that spilled on a rural riverside community,” enough to flood 3,000 acres one foot deep, did not actually cause any harm, despite that the ongoing cleanup cost $1.2 billion and that coal ash contains lead, mercury, selenium, and arsenic.
After the spill, TVA spokesman Gil Francis Jr. said that “in terms of toxicity, until an analysis comes in, you can’t call it toxic or anything,” which was semantically true. The EPA had in the year 2000 proposed regulating coal ash as a hazardous pollutant, but the coal industry, utility companies, and the Clinton administration got them to back down. So while the coal ash could kill you, you couldn’t call it toxic.
Meanwhile, it was reported that there used to be a 5th giant gaseous planet in our solar system, but then, four billion years ago, the planet collided with Jupiter and was knocked way out into interstellar space, scooting Jupiter further from the sun. “Our solar system looks calm and quiet now, but we pretty much know that it had this violent past,” said David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute. “The question is, how violent was it?”
Eddie Wayne Moore was arrested today after hitting a man in the head with some nunchucks, Aaron Mills allegedly stabbed his dad several times in the abdomen after his dad told him he had to move out, and Byron Lane said at his sentencing, “I am not a diabolical person,” having agreed to murder a rival gang member for $1,200. Lane explained that he wasn’t really going to murder anyone—he just needed the money so that he, at age 26, could move out of his mom’s house. And today it was reported that Robert Lyons was sentenced with 20 years to life for stabbing his mother after she refused to buy him tickets to an Avril Lavigne concert. After the murder, he poured Drano on her body, went shopping, and was arrested that evening at Hooters.
The fired deputy chancellor of the Texas A&M University System Jay Kimbrough said he meant no harm yesterday when he brandished a knife at the men who came to get his office keys, telling them, “If anyone is man enough to take them, bring it on.” About the incident, Kimbrough explained, “This is Texas.”
And today in Alabama, murderer and Harvard-educated biology professor Dr. Amy Bishop pleaded “not guilty due to insanity” in the 2010 killing of three colleagues at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.
In retrospect, there had been warning signs that something was wrong with Bishop, though the university was aware only of small stuff: the preponderance of grad students who had quit on her, the petition other students had sent around complaining about her, and rumors of a tendency to flip out at colleagues when she didn’t get her way.
The university didn’t know, for instance, about the time when Bishop was at the IHOP in Peabody, MA with her family and saw that another woman had taken a booster seat Bishop wanted for her own child. Bishop demanded the booster seat and when the woman refused, Bishop punched her in the face, shouting, “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!”
Nor did her colleagues know that Bishop and her husband had been questioned when someone sent a pipe bomb to one of Bishop’s mentors at Harvard, a professor with whom Bishop had recently had an argument.
Nor did they know about the time, much longer ago, when Bishop, 21, had an argument with her father in their home of Braintree, MA. Afterward, her father went to do some Christmas shopping and Amy went up to her parents’ bedroom, found her father’s 12-guage shotgun in its case, loaded it, took it to her room, and fired it. She investigated the holes the shot had made in the wall, and tried to hide the holes with a book cover and Band-Aid tin. Then she took the gun downstairs, where her mom and brother were. “I have a shell in the gun and I don’t know how to unload it,” Bishop said.
“Don’t point it at anyone,” her mom said.
Bishop pointed the gun at her brother and shot him in the chest. As her brother bled to death, Bishop ran out into the street toward the commercial district, still wielding the shotgun. She stopped at a Ford dealership and made a guy working at the body shop put his hands up. “I need a car,” she said. “I just got into a fight with my husband. He’s going to kill me.” She was arrested minutes later near a newsstand, but Bishop and her mother both said the whole thing was an accident, so the police left it at that
The second cousin of novelist John Irving, Bishop was also the author of three unpublished novels. In one of them, Amazon Fever, a depressed scientist named Olivia struggles with thoughts of suicide while a herpes-like pandemic causes miscarriages throughout the world.
On February 12, 2010, in her last semester at the university after having been denied tenure, Bishop taught two classes, Anatomy and Neuroscience, appearing normal throughout, then sat through half an hour of a faculty meeting before she stood, pulled out a 9mm handgun, and shot her colleagues in the head, execution-style, beginning with the one closest to her and working her way around the room. After shooting six colleagues, her gun either stalled or ran out of ammo, and Debra Moriarty, a dean, stood and approached Bishop, asking her to stop. Then several of them pushed Bishop out of the room and barricaded the door.
Bishop called her husband, asked him to come pick her up, and was arrested minutes later while she waited just outside the building. When police asked her what she had done, Bishop said, “There’s no way,” insisting, “They’re still alive,” and claimed not to remember a single thing about the shooting. And while it was quite possible that Bishop was telling the truth and had lost her sanity, it was also possible that the insanity plea was made out of self-preservation: Alabama used the death penalty often and enthusiastically, was in fact executing a convict today. Bishop, having murdered colleagues in a way that seemed premeditated and cold-blooded after a history of aggressive behavior and possessing a face a defense lawyer might call “unsympathetic,” was a prime candidate for the ultimate punishment.
In the morning’s New York Times was an obituary for American counterintelligence expert Brian J. Kelley, most famous for having been interrogated and followed by the F.B.I. and C.I.A., who suspected he was a K.G.B. mole. His family was also interrogated, and told with certainty that Kelley was a Russian agent. Kelley himself was eventually accused outright, fired from his job, and nearly charged with a capital offense.
But he wasn’t the mole. The F.B.I. got proof years later that it was an F.B.I. agent, Robert P. Hanssen, when they paid $7 million for an audiotape of the mole’s voice. They thought it would be Kelley’s voice they heard on the tape and were shocked to find it was Hanssen’s. The F.B.I. apologized to Kelley and the C.I.A. gave him a medal. Kelley’s wife Patricia said that Kelley’s lifelong journey was “to teach people, so hopefully this never happens again.”
On the front page of the same paper, below the fold, was the headline, “Georgia Inmate, Facing Execution, Asks Supreme Court to Step In.” Although Troy Davis was already dead, the dwindling number of people who relied solely on the paper’s print edition did not yet know it.
Where the story left off at the time of printing: Davis’ lawyers had asked the state of Georgia to give Davis a chance to take a lie detector test, and the state declined. “I’m rejoiceful he’s still alive,” said a friend of the family in the obsolete article, “but I’m hollow inside.”
On this day in history, American revolutionary Nathan Hale, 21, said that his only regret was that he had but one life to live for his country, or he said something a little longer to the same effect, or he quoted a play by Joseph Addison that was making the rounds among Whigs, “How beautiful is death, when earn’d by virtue! / Who would not be that youth? What pity is it / That we can die but once to serve our country,” but certainly on this day in history he said something, and was hanged by the British for spying. And though one could say that both Hale and Davis died to serve their country, it would be more accurate to say that one died to enable his country’s sovereignty and the other died to accommodate its fear.
Liz and I met in college in Los Angeles in the fall of 2005, my senior year and her junior year. I took her to a play I had to see for my playwriting class, one about a child rapist, a play that got a lot of attention first for being good and then for plucking certain passages wholesale out of an academic study, and in the audience that night was the actress who’d played Dana the straw feminist on “Step by Step,” which Feminist Frequency today explained in a YouTube video was one of those personality types that did not exist in reality but showed up all the time on TV: a bra-burning ball-busting bitch who reads gender inequality in a world that already solved that problem long ago, and though they do not mention Dana specifically, they do cite a season of Veronica Mars where a band of straw feminists fake a rape to maintain power and an episode of Powerpuff Girls in which a villain named Femme Fatale brainwashes the Powerpuff Girls into “seeing benign routine everyday things as a conspiracy against women” and terrorizing the men of the city. My gender was wildly successful at turning the straw feminist into the postergirl for all feminism so that even today, young women who wanted equal rights for their own gender and agreed they ought to make more money and have better movie roles and get their more of their books reviewed in the New York Times, often hastened to add that it wasn’t like they were feminists. Liz, a seller of documentaries with titles such as The Purity Myth: The Virginity Movement’s War Against Women and The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men, was much better-versed on this topic than I was, but I was learning, and I am told that in the Jean Kilbourne lecture film Killing Us Softly 4, I can be seen laughing appreciatively in several audience reaction shots, likely my greatest contribution to feminism thus far.
Our first date was in November, and we’d fallen easily in love by January. We sang and played guitar together. Liz showed me her favorite Woody Allen movies (Manhattan, Annie Hall) and I took her out to Duke’s for her first legal beer on her 21st birthday. There was a 1:00 a.m. guys’ curfew in girls’ dorms (it was a Christian school), and I would often stay too late and then bolt out of the building before an RA could catch me and write me up. After I graduated, I stayed in town and got a job at the college, and then after she graduated, I got into grad school and we got married and moved to Northampton, where we discovered that no one in New England got married as young as we had.
This morning, I put on some pants in my office and soon heard Liz stirring. We greeted one another through the door, and she offered to make me some eggs. Lately, on my long Tuesdays and Thursdays, Liz had begun to cook me two eggs with two pieces of toast. She knew I would not take the time to do this for myself, and knew also that I would function better as a teacher and as a human being if I had more than a Nature Valley Oat n’ Honey bar for breakfast.
While I ate, Liz showered, put on lotion, put on makeup—a favorite part of her day, the morning bustle—and put on her favorite black underwear, blue pants, a black v-neck shirt, a brown leather belt, and a light wool sweater. In the mirror she became displeased with the outfit, though not so displeased as to change it.
I poured coffee into my travel thermos, fixed it with a little cream, a little sugar, then returned to the bathroom to put stuff (Rough Paste, it was called) in my hair, and finished dressing: a white button-down shirt with my blue stripe-patterned tie. When I was in grad school, I never dressed up nice to teach, but now that I was a graduate it felt important to step it up. My tie implied a professionalism I hoped to wield.
Almost ready to leave, I faced a decision: the stylish work shoes or the comfortable work shoes. The stylish shoes, long and slender, were some of the most flattering I’d ever owned for how well they matched the contours of my slim high-arched feet. They came from a discount outlet called Marty and Liz Shoes in Tullahoma, TN, a town where this afternoon a storm would blow nearly the entire roof off of Kickin Kuts By Lena, a hair salon on South Jackson Street. Unfortunately, the inner heel on the shoe’s right foot had rubbed off very quickly, and the exposed edges of the shoe’s lining scratched against my heel with each step. The comfortable shoes were functional but unremarkable, and tended to smell awful at the end of a day. The shoes’ innards included some technologically advanced padding that felt great while eagerly absorbing foot stink. My feet tended to be more offensive than most because of a condition I’d had since childhood, one I shared with an estimated 2.8% of the population of the United States, called primary hyperhidrosis: I sweated too much. Some people’s hyperhidrosis was generalized to the entire body; mine was localized to my hands and feet. What got old was when I would occasionally shake someone’s hand and they would say to me, “What, are you nervous?” And then, just after I selected the comfortable shoes, the power went out.
As I paused, hoping the lights might immediately flicker back on, the UARS satellite drew closer, the media having reminded us that a woman had already been hit by a piece of space junk. In 1997, Lottie Williams of Tulsa, OK, was walking in the park when a piece of metal, later confirmed to be a piece of a Delta II rocket, fell from the sky and hit her on the shoulder. About the UARS satellite, she warned, “You will not hear it coming, you just have to see it heading for you.”