The hardworking gargoyle at left is helping to hold up Wat Arun, in Bangkok. Not in the photo, but surrounding the 250-year-old Buddhist temple, are dozens of identical figures, each with the same burden and the same carved expression -- a cross, viewed straight on, between a grimace and a grin. Climb a dozen steep steps, and there are more of him, and then again, and onward and upward for 262 feet and change, although at the upper reaches the temple tapers towards an unborne spire. Most of the height is there. The views get more and more dizzying, the steps less and less appealing in their steep suddenness, and the pathways wrapping the temple are anxiously narrow. The effect, as always for me at places this old and sacred, is a reminder both of how important it is to get nearer to God, and at how small people once were. Or at least how little extra room they used to cut for themselves in their structures.
Thailand is beautiful and difficult and welcoming and very far away. We did finally make it there, after this year's Storm of the Century -- bigger, admittedly, than last year's -- wiped out the day in which we were supposed to travel, and after a happy fluke put us on a flight on December 28. If we'd been unlucky, or if I'd not doofishly hung around the Cathay Pacific ticket counter for an hour and a half on the early afternoon of the 28th waiting patiently for the frazzled ground crew to load a flight with people who were supposed to have left on the early morning of the 27th, we might not have left until the 29th. As it worked out, we were in Thailand for not all that long a period of time, and certainly barely long enough to get our bearings. (How long it might have actually taken to get our bearings in a place so profoundly foreign is a different question altogether) At any rate, while our bodies never quite figured out what time it was -- and still haven't, although my body clock was pretty insanely in-the-red before we left anyway -- we enjoyed ourselves immensely. We ate well and drank well and slept as well as we could when we could, and generally enjoyed the comforts (in Bangkok) of a comfortable and exciting city that seems to work quite well, as well as the company of a great amount of beauty, and my very wonderful sister and brother-in-law and a few million other generally friendly people, none of whom felt quite as desperately close as did the residents of India, in the last big non-honeymoon international trip I took with my wife. It felt like a vacation, overall. And then we came home, the way you do when your vacation is over.
That is, we came home to the United States, which is where I grew up and live, and also a place where, on the morning of my return, a rageful loner and apparently untreated paranoid schizophrenic who bought an automatic handgun with an extended, assault-style clip at a Tucson-area sporting goods store, fired those very same bullets into the head of a third-term congresswoman and the bodies of 18 other people. At which point the aforementioned loner was wrestled to the ground -- the gun jammed, or he was trying to reload, or something; reports are unclear, but there's no answer that isn't horrific or trivial -- and finally arrested. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is still in a medically induced coma, but appears, somehow, likely to pull through. She's the first congressperson to be shot in what I guess one would have to call the line of duty since Rep. Leo Ryan was killed at Jonestown back in the 1970s.
And it's horrible, of course. It's a horrible thing in any and every way, and harrowing in its impenetrable and essential meaninglessness -- the shooter, Jared Loughner, appears to have been an adherent of a paranoiac theorist who goes by the unconventionally and VERY intentionally punctuated name :David-Wynn: Miller (more on him here), and was obsessed with issues of grammar and ontology so nuttily far-out as to be effectively non-partisan. As James Fallows points out at The Atlantic, that's ordinarily the way it goes with assassinations and assassination attempts -- any asshole can rock a shoulder holster and a tricorn hat, but history shows that it takes a crazy person to draw down on a public figure. The buttheads protesting imaginary tax increases from behind the guy with the fife and drum might roll out the revolutionary rhetoric, but they're too privileged -- and too sane -- to actually try to deliver on their own self-flattering revolutionary rhetoric. The words, the whole Water The Tree Of Liberty pomp, is there to make them feel more important. Which I guess is fine, as that's a common-enough use for words, but which is also not without consequence, because words mean things.
And so while Loughner is pretty clearly a non-denominational crazy person, what he did is political, insofar as the victims included Giffords and federal judge John Roll (who was killed), and insofar as it highlights political issues ranging from the way we treat the mentally ill to how easy it is for those people to get incredibly deadly weapons to how dazzlingly casual has been the proliferation of the language of violence in our political culture. And the response to it has been political, too -- lesser intellectual lights on both sides trying to tie Loughner to their political opponents, and everyone generally doing what they usually do in the way in which they usually do it. Already idiots on both sides are parsing Loughner's cache'd MySpace (of course) page, weighing his avowed taste for The Communist Manifesto alongside his taste for Ayn Rand, and doing all of it with the fissured poker faces of assholes trying harder than usual not to seem like assholes. Keith Olbermann went on TV and, with his usual meaty solemnity, demanded that a grip of conservatives immediately repudiate their gunsight-adorned websites and "second amendment remedy" rhetoric and whatever else, at the risk of being no longer deemed credible by Keith Freaking Olbermann, who very probably was already at least considering unsubscribing from their email newsletters. Taken together, it's gross. It's grosser than usual, and my people that is fucking gross. But.
But yes, it's enough to make me want to head back overseas, to go someplace else. And you can see the pictures throughout this post -- once you see Wat Arun, you want to see it again, you want be there in it and breathe the cleaner air higher up and look out over that sprawling city and feel that strange and unearned and very human feeling of pride that comes with surveying humanity's accumulated work. But even in Thailand, spending time in a place like Wat Arun is functionally hiding -- the Thais are nice people, it seemed to me, but their country is not always a nice place, and it is governed cruelly and poorly by a not very good prime minister and a military shadow government and a revered and vain and embalmed-looking king, who would be kind of ridiculous anyway because he's a freaking king, and it's 2011. Thailand is subject to censorship of things big and small -- people still go to jail for things like lese majeste (which you can occasionally but not always read about on Wikipedia and can almost never post about on blogging platforms like this), and it has not been long since there was violence in those streets, and it may not be long until it happens again. There are real reasons for unrest and actual problems there, just as there are everywhere.
And so I guess coming back to all this, and touching down in a nation that's not appreciably less thwarted and ulcerous and terrified and indignant and lost than the one I left just a few days ago, is just a reminder of both why vacations are necessary and why they must end. There's a detail in the Wall Street Journal story on Loughner I link to above that comes to mind, here. While in the thrall of his Wynn:Miller-inspired linguistic solipsism, which sounds like a rejected footnote from Infinite Jest and revolves around "the government controlling our punctuation," Loughner called out a question to Giffords at a public event much like the one at which he later shot her. "How do you know words mean anything?," he reportedly asked. Giffords paused, and (strangely) gave him an answer in Spanish. The piece doesn't translate it, and Loughner apparently perseverated on it with all the fever in his ruined mind, right up until the moment he shot her -- and a judge, and a nine-year-old kid, and 17 others.
And it's tempting to say something like "This is how we know," but I think that's not it at all. While there's clearly a sense that the brutal ambient fervor of the political discourse set the stage for Loughner's savagery -- and while certain political undeniabilities did create the circumstances for it -- it seems increasingly clear that Loughner was coming from a place beyond reason and (ironically) language; the bitter irony of his fixation on seeming reasonable (he posted a serious of incoherent YouTube videos filled with Escher-ian syllogism and batshit logic games) and using language precisely isn't lost, but it also isn't worth much. Words are worth something only insofar as we can and do use them.
Thailand is all sound, but to a tourist without the language, it's finally so much polite noise. Here, at home, I speak the language, and am back in my element. What greeted me here at home, and the world into which I'll soon make a grudging return, is not easy to love, but words matter here, and you and I have that much, at least -- for all of Palin's glib and infantile apocalypticism and the gallons of Glenn Beck's porky millionaire stage tears, we can at least talk freely. Can and must and, I hope, will -- talk about this as people who hate that it happened when we can, and talk about those who can't or won't see it that way when necessary. I'm not expecting any of what surrounded and anticipated and half-occasioned this awfulness to sort itself out, and I'm certainly not expecting to sort any of it out myself. But as nice as the holy silence up Wat Arun was, I knew that sooner or later it would be time to come down, and to come back, and to maybe get to work. I'm not looking forward to getting back to my actual work -- although I am kind of eager to get back to cracking jokes about football coaches -- but I am, perversely but honestly, somewhat glad to be home, and certainly eager to get started on whatever is next, and to get on to doing whatever I can do to be a part of whatever will come after this.