The Blackboard, Slated to be Wiped Clean

by Mark Lotto

The day I learned that the Earth would be cracked open by a comet, that the seas would turn suddenly to steam and the wind from every direction would catch fire, that the sky would be covered over with heavy tarps of black burning dust and every one of us would end up stenciled like letters into the fossil record, I went to the movies. But then Richard Gere burst out into “Razzle Dazzle,” and my heart went nuts and my head went light and my skin went damp and it went cold and the only thought I could manage was this: “The world is going to end and I’m sitting here watching fucking Chicago.”

This was 2003, and on NASA’s “Upcoming Close Approaches to Earth” table, there were no disconcertingly near near-earth objects.

On the Torino Impact Scale, there weren’t any 8’s (“A collision is certain, capable of causing localized destruction”), 9’s (“A collision is certain, capable of causing unprecedented regional devastation”) or 10’s (“A collision is certain, capable of causing global climatic catastrophe that may threaten the future of civilization as we know it,”) — not even a 2 (“a discovery, which may become routine with expanded searches, of an object making a somewhat close but not highly unusual pass near the Earth”). Out on the streets, no one had pulled over to stare up at a wrong-colored sky. Instead, traffic kept inching along and people kept doctor’s appointments and dinner dates; the grocery store shelves were still well-stocked. Everyone was basically fine, I guess, except me.

Blame Harper’s, and a Tom Bissell piece I’d read that morning, about comet strikes and asteroid impacts and the scientists who study them. His conclusion, after 15 calamitous pages:

Mass extinction serves as speciation’s necessary foil, and the victims run well into the millions: today’s extant species account for less than one per-cent of the total number to have ever lived… Life is a huge blackboard filled with a million marks of chalk. Every thirty million years that chalkboard is forcefully wiped clean, leaving only a few small smudges in the comers, whereupon life begins again without regard to perfection of adaptation, what has come before it, or the miserable consciousnesses of those few creatures able to wonder why they are here.

My blackboard? That fucking thing? I’d filled it with a million pointless marks, itineraries that had led me farther astray, stories I told about myself to myself to make me smaller and sorrier, resume lines designed to punish me then and embarrass me later, rotten relationships and blacked-out nights and the pounds I’d put on. I wanted it all forcefully wiped clean, not thirty million years in the future or thirty, but that day, or the next, and not by some screaming snowball whose meaningless orbit would vaporize everything that had ever meant anything to us — every bad marriage and every good one, every mailbox and most every flower — but by simply, suddenly, spectacularly, choosing better and choosing to be better. I wanted my world to get started before it ended.

I stayed there panicking and palpitating in the giant, dark theater all the way until Velma and Roxie reprised “All That Jazz.” And by the time I stumbled back out into the radioactive L.A. sun, I’d resolved to un-fuck my life. It took a whole lot longer than I expected, and maybe I’m still working on it. Maybe there’ll be time, though, to become a real and proper human being. Before you go the way of the dinosaurs, you want to squeeze in as much evolution as you can.

Mark Lotto is an editor at the New York Times.