“Dear Telepath: I Just Want to Be a Letter, Preferably a Vowel” – or – How I learned to stop worrying and love the apocalypse

Screen shot 2015-09-18 at 12.28.39 PM
Slim Pickens rides the atom bomb in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

Dear Telepath,

I am 16 years old and I am going to go crazy.  I can’t stop thinking about the Apocalypse. I keep seeing and hearing things, and they all add up to one fact: It’s coming. I feel like it is pointless to even do things because I know it is all going to end soon, either by mass starvation with the death of bees, an asteroid hitting our planet, or by nuclear bomb, global warming, bird flu, or human flu, or AIDS, whatever. I am trying to cut high fructose corn syrup out of my diet and every time I think I have triumphed I realize that it’s in everything!!!!!! Splenda causes lesions to the brain, meat causes heart attacks, organic foods are twice the cost of non-organic, yet non-organic foods have pesticides and toxins.

Did you hear about Hanover tomatoes? The tomatoes there grow particularly sweet and big, but they’re filled with arsenic. Soldiers killed during the Civil War were embalmed with it, and one of the largest burial grounds is in Hanover County, Virginia. Everything the government says is a lie. everything they do is false. We are being deceived and treated like cattle. We are choking on our population, yet I see more and more women pregnant, and they are getting younger and younger. California is going to break off, Florida is sinking, New York will flood and religious freaks are becoming more freaky. So are diseases. People have become immoral and hedonistic. There are riots everywhere. The poor are poor and fat, and the 1% are rich and skinny. There are poisons in our food, the media lies. We don’t know what is really going on. The haters are growing more hateful. People are lost and mad, rabid and treacherous. They’re really cutting real heads off and showing it on the Internet!!!!

Most families disintegrate into jealous dust. My friends make fun of me because I have two parents who still love each other.

Most people I know are massively self-destructive and secretly crazy.

Why have children? Why love? Why do anything?

We are nothing but serial numbers and bar codes and dollar signs and tattoos on our arms, like the Jews in the Holocaust. We’re nothing but a number and They have ours.

I just want to be a letter in the alphabet, preferably a vowel, so I can fit in anywhere and disappear between all the hard consonants. A vowel is just an instruction for breathing, like a Pranayama exercise. Ahhhh  Ohhhhh.  Ehhhhhhh. Letters don’t lie, they will always be perfectly themselves and maintain their composure, their composition. Words and numbers may change, values will go up and down, but not letters.  I just want to be a letter.

Thanks for listening to me, although you were really telepathic you should have just read my mind and gotten back to me. ♥

Yours truly,


Dear Chloe,

Everything you say is true. You’re right about the poisons in the food and the way the corporations run things and how people are filled with hate and how poverty and ignorance are pervasive and people are blowing each other up all over the world, and the world seems to be getting more crowded and more ignorant and hateful.

However, the big picture – your conclusion that it’s all going to end – is NOT true. Remember, I’m an expert in this stuff, and not just as a scholar or as someone who really knows and understands what you’re feeling, but because I’m old! I understood the paranoia of KNOWING the entire world was going to hell in a handbasket. I was once besties with the fear that it’s all going to end soon because we can read the signs that point to it, conspiracy theories my catnip, my shoot-in-the-arm junk which go hand in hand with apocalypse, flip sides of the same paranoid coin.  I was SURE that there were secret cabals of the powerful who were plotting the destruction of humanity. I know from alienation and nihilism. Heck, I wrote the dissertation on apocalypses.

So how did I get to be this age and raise a mostly happy family and three mostly terrific children in a quiet little street in a quiet little suburb in a mostly nowhere corner of the world?

Under any circumstances it takes an extraordinary optimism to marry, have kids, work hard, save your money, buy a home, take care of it lovingly and to think that your sucky little nothing life down the block from nowhere is somewhere. It is especially optimistic – or foolhardy – when you have this apocalyptic edge to your imagination, as you and I do. So how do you go on in this crazy life and pretend normalcy when everything is always crumbling?

Well, first of all, you MUST CHOOSE LIFE over death. It is the essence of life itself. Every second of every day, choose to live. It’s the best way to greet the end, even (or especially) if The End is indeed impending. Savor every letter, Sweet Vowel. Yeah, it would also be nice to have a party. But hiding under your bed waiting to die is not acceptable.

Please trust me. The Apocalypse is NOT COMING. It’s been cancelled. Re-scheduled. Not gonna happen. Even if it were, don’t you want to drink the sweet juice of life to the very last, non-high-fructose-corn-syrup drop? And which is the better bet? I mean, if you do bet on the apocalypse, how you gonna collect?

You asked me how you can learn to live with your certainty about the impending apocalypse. It reminded me of the Stanley Kubrick movie made in 1964: Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It ends with a US General riding the nuclear warhead that will start WWIII like a bronco, screaming “Yahooooooo!”

The Apocalypse is *always* about to happen. Our imaginations are always riding the Bomb to destruction and screaming “Yahoo!” There have always been prophets of doom who predicted the world was coming to an end next Tuesday, in every period and in every culture. But then, like the Music Man, they had to take their show on the road. THEY WERE ALWAYS WRONG! Life always went on, is always going to go on.

Second, chillax. I hung out with a guy whose nicest nickname was Dirty John. I once found myself in a car filled with (fellow) hippies high on acid, including the driver, who stopped to burn a cross on a real estate developer’s lawn on Jay Peak, Vermont.

You may laugh, but driving is my favorite cure for the apocalyptic blues. What could driving possibly have to do with the end of the world? Well, did you ever notice that 99.9999999% of the time, people are driving or trying to drive without killing each other? Thousands of two-ton cars are heading towards each other in opposite directions at 65 miles an hour – that’s 130 MPH! – and they’re only a few feet apart, divided by two thin yellow lines, and they don’t crash into each other.  It’s not just because they’ll get hurt, it’s that they are exercising restraint, following the rules and avoiding doing and getting harm. 99.9999999% of the time, drivers don’t drive up on a sidewalk and take out gaggles of pedestrians. When they do, anywhere in the world, it’s instant news on Twitter. If it happens in Bangalore or Boston, we know about it.  But the reason we know about it is because IT’S SO RARE!

Basically, people are well-behaved and want to get along and live peacefully and drive on their side of the road, if only for self-preservation. The tempting response to all the crap going on in the world might be huddling in your room and being afraid to drive the car or walk in crowded spaces for fear disaster is going to happen any minute. But the right response is to realize that there’s a billion opportunities for something bad to happen like that every day AND IT DOESN’T HAPPEN! So you get back in the car, and you drive to work.

Chloe, chances are pretty good your grandparents or great-grandparents came here as immigrants and lived through the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, the Atomic Bomb, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, the stock market crash of 1987, 2001 and 2008. I bet they have or had serious diseases and experienced the deaths of loved ones.  It’s been sixty years since we were “ducking and covering” under our school desks in PS 221 in Brooklyn, awaiting the nuclear apocalypse, and it never happened.  In 1986, it was AIDS. In 1997, it was getting hit by a meteor. In 1999, it was the Y2K computer bug that was going to bring the world to an end. Nothing. In 2001, it was  9/11. In 2003, it was bird flu. In 2006, it was global warming. In 2012 it was the Mayan Calendar Prophesy. Today, it’s global warming and the Iranian nuclear bomb and ISIS beheadings and Trump/Putin.

Has bad stuff happened? Yes. Are we pouring poisons into our atmosphere and water and bodies? Probably. But we’re also living healthier, longer, safer lives than humans have in all of history. For the first time, poor people as you noted are fat! They have sneakers and cars. In the tens of thousands of years we’ve been on Earth, this would have been a wonderful problem to have. We will probably figure out how to deal with global warming, even if it means living in domes or caves or putting giant sunglasses in orbit or injecting our bodies with nanotech sunscreen and building super-sluice dams.

We’re still here. It may not be much, but it’s better than the alternative.

In the meantime, it’s a great time to hug the person next to you and if you’re alone, hug yourself and take your soul out for a walk.

And one more thing. You’re a great writer. You are already all the letters in the alphabet AND a few diacritical marks. We need you. Who knows, maybe your particular arrangement of letters are helping forestall the apocalypse. Please don’t stop writing.