by Brendan O’Connor
Earlier this month, the Barclays Center was filled with children and animatronic dinosaurs. Both of them made a lot of noise. “Walking With Dinosaurs” was an approximately two-hour long show, hosted by a man with an Australian accent in a leather duster who claimed to be a paleontologist. His name was Huxley, and he invited us to join him on a journey through time, “to see how far dusting off a few old bones can take us.”
There were no bones, but the kids in the audience didn’t care. “That dinosaur is pretty big,” observed the young man next to me. “Are they gonna fight?” he asked his dad. They did. The animatronics shuffled forwards and backwards, towards each other and away again, loud roars playing over the speaker system. The dinosaurs looked very obviously fake, but also very obviously expensive; the risk of damaging them far outweighed the desire to pretend to spill blood to sate the cries of bloodthirsty five-year-olds — a reluctance which, in its way, reflects what anyone who’s watched a nature documentary knows: that predators in the wild will rarely risk injuring themselves. That’s why they prey upon the weak and the old, though whether this nuance was apparent to the rest of the audience was not clear.
The show started with eggs hatching somewhere on the megacontinent known as Pangea. (There was sort of a funny use of the past tense to describe Pangea: “This continent was known as Pangea,” as if there was anyone around at the time to call it that.) That was the only place to start, of course, because it was the beginning of the story, and in the beginning, and there is nothing, and indeed there was nothing in this particular corner of Pangea, no plants, no dinosaurs, no other animals, just the eggs, until one of them, shortly after it hatched, was stolen and eaten by a scavenger. It is a harsh world, “Walking With Dinosaurs” tells its audience. The first to hatch is only the first in line to be eaten.
The mother dinosaur arrived, eventually, to fend off another marauder. Her eggs hatched, and the audience ooh’d and aah’d as baby remote-controlled dinosaurs squirmed around the stage, squeaking. This went on for a little bit longer than it needed to — like every segment — before we transitioned to the Jurassic period, which Huxley describes to us as “a wonderful time for dinosaurs.” In the Jurassic period, we met the brontosaurus and allosaurus, who also fought (“fought”) and whose fight (“fight”) took the form of a mother dinosaur successfully defending her child from a predator. It would be too gruesome, maybe, to expect children to applaud while watching predators feast on the flesh of a mother and child, still living; the velociraptors — a pack of two males led by a dominant female — were the only carnivores who got to eat anything during the show, tearing imaginary pieces out of the corpse of an indeterminate dinosaur we didn’t get to see them kill.
In the Cretaceous period, we met the Tyrannosaurus rex. It was big, and loud, and the maternal dynamic was flipped: Her offspring, investigating two large, armored herbivores, found itself trapped in a corner, facing down horns on one side and a clubbed tail on the other. Not a moment too soon, the curtains pull back and the big rex emerged with a roar to chase off the lumbering, leaf-eating bullies. It then cantered around the arena, eyeballing the children in the audience and roaring about its dominance.
Like any reasonable five year old, I wanted to be a paleontologist when I grew up, and my favorite dinosaur was Tyrannosaurus rex. There were periods of time, certainly, when I might have pretended to favor other dinosaurs, especially around the time of the discovery of the big, clever Utahraptor. Those were lies, mostly: my first and truest love was always Tyrannosaurus rex.
Dinosaurs are nothing if not mysterious, or at least mystifying — gargantuan, practically alien creatures that are said to have existed some incomprehensible amount of time before human beings were around, so there’s something deeply satisfying about the memorization and categorization and organization that goes into being a fake paleontologist. My obsession with dinosaurs was eventually replaced by obsessions with airplanes and then birds — equally mysterious, and equally categorizable, in their own way. “What kind of bird is that, Brendan?” I might be asked, half-mockingly, half-seriously. “Black vulture,” I’d say. “You can tell it’s not a Turkey vulture because of which part of its wings are translucent.”
I received the Catholic sacrament of confirmation around the peak of my enthusiasm for bird-watching, though I’d stopped considering myself Catholic a little while before. I was raised Catholic, and I believed in God, in the way that kids do, which is to say I believed that if I didn’t go to church, or committed some other egregious sin like telling Tyler Kalian to go to hell when he cheated in flag football during gym class or coveted my neighbor’s sunglasses, then something bad would happen unless I went to confession, and then, having gone to confession, felt further guilt in recognizing the fact that whatever confession I’d made couldn’t have been that genuine because I still felt like Tyler was a jerk for having cheated, and I still wanted those sunglasses. (They were Oakleys: grey steel frames, orange lenses.)
By the time I was confirmed, I’d discovered that not only that were there other religions, but that there were people who thought that institutional religion wasn’t even really worth one’s time at all. I read the Transcendentalists and argued with my father; I told him I believed in God, maybe, but that I was anti-ecclesiastical, and moreover, that I couldn’t square with the Catholic belief in transubstantiation. They were big words and I took smug pleasure from the thought that maybe he didn’t even know what they meant, because I was in seventh grade and was therefore insufferable.
Ironically enough, it was in college that I re-discovered Christian literature, full of miracles and meaning, if not Christianity. Poets like Milton and the (maybe, secretly, Catholic?) Donne and Herbert brought me into contact with questions of God, and faith, and solipsism, and the necessity of recognizing and remembering that there are people in the world besides myself more readily than any mass, or any catechism class, I’d ever been to.
So when a priest refused to let me participate in the baptism of my cousin Emma this weekend because I’m not a practicing Catholic, I was knocked back in time to seventh grade, grinding my teeth and yammering away wordlessly, soundlessly in my mind about the Church’s bureaucracy and hypocrisy — that didn’t they see that this is what necessitated the transition from the Old Testament to the New Testament in the first place, the overemphasis on empty rites and rituals, the hollowing out of meaning and on and on in a simultaneously self-pitying and self-aggrandizing spiral that spit me out into the parking lot outside the church, cursing.
“Your parents raised you Catholic,” the priest said. “They want you to be Catholic.” (My mother rarely went to church, and doesn’t take Communion when she does, for weddings and things, and my dad converted to Episcopalianism a little over a year ago.) “Let me know if you start doing what you ought to be doing, and I will consider naming you Emma’s godfather,” the priest concluded. What I ought to be doing, of course, is going to mass — and probably also giving money to the church.
“As far as we are concerned,” my aunt told me, “you are still the godfather.” I had found myself bragging, a little bit, before the weekend, to friends about the fact that my aunt and uncle had asked me to be their daughter’s godfather, my zeal for the position coming in no small part from the fact that it’s the closest thing I’ll ever be to an uncle, but probably also because I miss participating in that kind of institutionalized meaning-making: a man in robes waves his hands around, muttering, and afterwards you are something that you were not before. Children aren’t more readily religious because they’re stupid, or naive, but because they’re still able to take things on faith — that is to say, to trust that the meaning of things is what it is and that that meaning is true. When you’re a kid, if you know a thing’s name you know the thing. This is the power that God gave Adam in the Garden: “Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.” What power, to point to a thing and to say: this is what you are. Some years later, we met this idea again — twisted, dessicated, petrified yet recognizable, in Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden: “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth,” says the judge. “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos.”
And yet, surely there is a way to put things in their place without being a total fascist about it. I moved into a new apartment a couple months ago, and for the first time I have a desk. I’m trying to keep it clean, or at least neat, and not just on top of the desk but in the drawer as well. My desk faces a window and hanging on the wall to my left is a corkboard, covered in notecards organized into columns: Ideas; Pitched; Assigned; Reporting; Writing; Filed; Revision. Notecards move through these columns at various speeds. Some get stuck. Others spend hardly any time up there at all. When I’m feeling panicky — about work or life or dating or anything at all, which can so easily become everything at once — I lean back in my chair and just look at the corkboard.
“Life on earth will never again be this grand,” Huxley announced, at the end of the Jurassic, to his audience of mostly children. “But it will get a lot scarier.”
Brendan O’Connor is a reporter in New York.