On a family trip to Los Angeles last year, I noticed many signs of the impending apocalypse: wildfires, mudslides, Lindsay Lohan, a guy in a white Corvette whose licence plate read, “I slim u.” One day I looked up on Fairfax Avenue to find above me a giant billboard proclaiming: “The world will end on May 21, 2011 … the Bible guarantees it!”
So, on May 22, when I awoke to my usual choice of Cheerios or toast, I felt quite ripped off and went in search of compensation. Neither Moses nor Abraham had left a forwarding address, and the writers of the gospels had also gone to ground, so it wasn’t much of a guarantee. Certainly not a money-back one. No matter. There’s always another armageddon around the corner.
Or, in our case, three weeks away. My e-mail inbox has been pinging lately with constant reminders of the alleged Mayan prophecy concerning Dec. 21, 2012, which is either the end of the world or the day you’re supposed to change your tires, I’m not quite sure.
A vast literature has sprung up around this Mayan prophecy, and should you have a spare ticket to Crazytown, you can go and read all about the 13th baktun and polar realignment. One correspondent wanted me to know about his new book, in which the Large Hadron Collider and a super-volcano in Yellowstone National Park will somehow combine in a fatal marriage to bring on “the Mayan Doomsday.” It’s a work of non-fiction, by the way.
Now, I’m always on the lookout for signs of approaching end times – vegan haggis suddenly appearing on the menu at my local pub, or Rob Ford running for mayor of Toronto again. But these are generally cataclysms of our own making, not the universe’s.
I think we can all agree that the Mayan apocalypse is a load of caca, which is the Mayan word for caca. Curiously, this does not stop us from a) disregarding the actual looming calamities we face as a planet or b) obsessively worrying about things that are not harmful, such as whether acorns are weapons of mass destruction or whether death lurks in the bottom of the salad bowl.
You think I’m kidding about the salad bowl? Then read the new Encyclopedia Paranoiaca, a hilarious and deeply sobering catalogue of 21st-century fears, most of them nutty, a couple of them not. With forked tongue in cheek, authors Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf write that they decided to embark on their project when they realized “the end was far nigher than anyone had previously anticipated.”
To flip through their book is to wander the Garden of Affluent Neuroses. Take the humble salad, for example: Leafy greens are veritable Porsches for carrying pathogens. Menus and microwave handles are germ troop carriers. Kitty litter is radioactive. Bike seats lead to erectile dysfunction. Laughing while eating can cause you to choke. Clowns traumatize children. Hot tubs may disembowel the unwary. High-heeled shoes can cause arthritis, and low-heeled shoes give you plantar fasciitis, but you can’t walk barefoot for fear of used syringes or athlete’s foot. Living in the safest society ever has provided a lot of leisure time to worry.
The juxtapositions in Encyclopedia Paranoiaca are particularly funny. Mascara, which may cause eye infections, appears next to mass extinction, which is, unfortunately, self-explanatory. Gherkins (too much high-fructose corn syrup, bad for the diet) sit next to global warming (I think we remember what that is, even if the government doesn’t).
Maybe everyone was too busy checking that their water bottles were BPA-free to notice that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently moved the Doomsday Clock – which essentially measures the crappiness of our predicament – ahead one minute. Now it’s five minutes to midnight, due to a failure to address stockpiles of nuclear weapons and to produce any cohesive response to global warming, the results of which become more apparent by the day.
You might think doomsayers would have noticed, in late October, the river of luxury goods floating down the streets of Lower Manhattan while the Statue of Liberty contemplated the breast stroke in the distance. But the fretting lasted about one news cycle.
Perhaps it’s human nature that we listen for the bang but are deaf to the whimper. T.S. Eliot had it right in the final lines of The Hollow Men, although he might have wanted to give it a slight tweak for modern end times: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but under water.”