I recall a February of rain. On the first of the month, the first drops fell. It didn’t let up until March. I idled the whole time warmed by electric heat, entertained by flickering images cast on phosphorous and glass. A full month of rain, and I spent it dry and warm. I used to be annoyed at February. Now it terrifies me.
After the Collapse, after the missiles flew, after the countless billions of lives gently winked out in a brief atomic holler, after the miserable few left over finished their terminal crawl though the radioactive wreckage, it was the ancient tooth and fang of the wild—the gnashing of winter—that hewed to the merciless cull. I’ve been lucky enough to count myself among the fortunate few to escape an icy death at the side of the overgrown highways of this once-mighty nation.
Anyone likely to read this will already know The One Crazy Trick To Surviving The Merciless Embrace Of Unforgiving February, but I’ll share anyway, since I want to relate a tale. The trick is fellowship. There’s a biological imperative to gathering food and fuel to last out the howling winds and piling snow, so unless you’ve lost your elementary animal instincts, you’ve already stocked up for Persephone’s sojourn. The choice then is to spend it alone or with others. I’ve done both, and my new null hypothesis is that loneliness and isolation will kill you just as dead as ice and wind. It might take a little longer, but dead is dead, and better to end it quick than to have to contend with the long yawn of the void at the center of all things first.
So it was that I found myself among a small huddle of pilgrims this shortest of months, braced against the insistent gale, feeding our hearth out of smutty, unseasoned stock. Below the smoke and the gathering creosote we swapped stories of mankind’s broken faith and of how clear-eyed rationalism took hold. One story lingered with me more than the others. Its teller was a wisp of a girl, no more than fifteen, though a life in the bracken heaped years on her thin shoulders that I can’t help believe wouldn’t have set on her in a suburban home, going to high school, gossiping about boys, using telephones. She told an old tale. I’ll let her speak.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, a princess pricked her finger on an enchanted spindle and the whole castle fell into a deep sleep. The evil sorceress had put a thousand-year curse on the land. Thorns covered the fertile lands and a vicious dragon with jet-black scales and fiery breath so hot it could melt stone guarded the keep.
I held my tongue. As everyone knows, black dragons have acid as their primary breath weapon. Of the chief chromatic dragons, only the reds have fire breath. Still, I know when to interrupt a tale, and this wasn’t the time.
So for hundreds of years, countless princes born of neighboring kingdoms would don their armor, strap a broadsword to their hips, mount their steeds, and ride out to slash through the thorns, slay the fell beast, and rescue the princess from her slumber. One after the other fell dead, slain by the magical thorns that always seemed to go for the eyes first, or burned up in a dragon belch, or sunk in the swamp. For literally HUNDREDS of years this went on, and no prince was ever even able to get past the barbecue.
She meant “barbican.” A barbican is a fortified gatehouse leading into a walled city or castle. “Barbecue” is something we can still get when we hunt the pig and kill the pig and cook the pig. Again, I let it slide.
Then one day, a prince who had been groomed his whole life for the heroic task laid down his shield and broadsword. He took off his armor and unsaddled his trusty steed. When his mother and father the queen and the king asked him why he refused to don the mantle of his birth, he looked them straight in the eye and said, “Your Majesties, for hundreds of years princes from lands near and far have rushed to near certain death to claim the promise of vast riches hidden in that locked-up kingdom. How many more would you see slain? How many more of the fallen must litter that impassible road? Yes, the rewards are great: wealth untold, but the risks are final. Mother, father, if I go I will surely die. If I stay, perhaps I can help our kingdom grow more prosperous, maybe marry modestly, raise a family of my own, tend to the needs of our subjects. Instead of playing at the fantasy of hero, I can be the best I can be here and now.” His parents heard him and never again asked him to take up his arms and armor for a silly suicide mission. And the tormented kingdom encircled by thorns and guarded by a fierce dragon was never again challenged by foolhardy heroes. The castle, the thorns, and the dragon could not defeat the implacable hand of time and it all eventually crumbled to dust, ignored and forgotten.
The longer I wander in this barren land, the more seldom I hear storytellers end their tales with “happily ever after,” but in this case it would have been appropriate. The prince who hung up his arms and armor… he was us. We stopped lying to each other and it led to faith collapsing in our political institutions, yes. But we also stopped lying to ourselves. We stopped lying to ourselves about the limitations of our own abilities. It’s not that we gave up, it’s that we took the brakes off our prudence. There was a what, 75% chance of a business venture failing in the first 5 years of operation? And that’s even if you pour your whole life into it, working yourself ragged with 140 hour workweeks and no vacations the whole time. We stopped grabbing for the brass ring.
And the carousel ground to a halt.
And now we crowd around a sputtering fire telling each other dismal stories to fend off the shadows and the ennui. The entrepreneurs are fertilizer in our rotting orchards. The lies were the system, the lies we told ourselves just as much as the lies we told each other.
Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence (Dunning & al)