In the light of a July morning, I crossed a bridge over the Tiber that was built in the year 62 BCE and wondered if, in all the Earth, there is an older bridge still in daily use?
Standing there with that thought, I saw a large seabird, a kind of grey gull or maybe an albatross, fly beneath the bridge, skimming over the bubbling surface of the rapids in search of food.
I don’t know how long an old gull will live. Is it longer than a Labrador Retriever? I know that some gray parrots will live as long as most humans. Could a gull be as old as I am? I wondered if he was descended from some old bird that dove for fish in this spot when the bridge was being built, 2,080 years ago. And if he is, does he have a sense of that connection?
That’s the kind of thing you find yourself thinking about when you walk around Rome, because the question of what lasts and what doesn’t last – and maybe, what should and shouldn’t last – is always right in front of you.
Some conclusions are obvious. Gelato should last. Pizza Bianca should, but never does. And wine, of course. Not only should it last, more than almost anything worthwhile that humans have created, wine just refuses to go out of style. The men who built that bridge I was standing on drank wine on the job, not because they were lushes but because the water, fed by Roman sewers, would have killed them. And the wine they drank came from vineyards that are still happily growing grapes today, ancient vineyards not far away from that ancient bridge.
Wine lasts, and with good reason. Although when somebody asked the famous Silver Oak winemaker Justin Myers how long a bottle of his wine would last, he said, “Around our house, about a half an hour.”
In the same way, there are ideas that should last and ideas that should not, and where we fall on those choices can divide us. That’s the fulcrum of human history. But, of all the ideas that unite or divide smart people on the left and right, one we can all agree on is this: a zombie apocalypse would be bad.
Even the most optimistic researchers say that we have no way to win that fight. Serious scientific models, such as those done at Arizona State University (look it up) show that no matter what authorities do, the population of the reanimated undead will grow faster than our ability to protect ourselves from them. Because the problem with dead things that keep walking is obvious: they’re already dead. What’s the worst you can do to them? Choke down their broadband access? They’ll still eat your brains.
There’s no question: we need a unified approach to zombies.
I’m this writing on a rooftop terrace in Rome, over a converted stable from the 19th century, as likely a place for a zombie attack as any. A few years ago, in the street below me, workers laying phone cables discovered a section of ancient Rome no one knew existed. Instead of finding Roman zombies, they found indoor plumbing. You could look into the dig and see houses with drainpipes running from the kitchen and bathroom and down into the sewer below, which drained into the Tiber.
While dumping raw sewage into the river is an idea that is past its freshness date, indoor plumbing is an idea that will never die. I don’t care how much digital disruption we’ll see in the next few decades, there will never be an app to replace indoor plumbing. Or a move to cloud sewage, we hope.
Zombies, however, will always be a bad idea, unless your idea is to make money in movies, in which case, go for it. Zombies fill theaters.
The first zombie movie was 1932’s White Zombie with Bela Lugosi, in which, according to Wikipedia, “zombies are depicted as mindless, unthinking henchmen under the spell of an evil magician,” which sounds a lot like some populist campaign organizations. The movie seemed to suggest that it’s one thing when really monstrous things happen to people of color on a distant Caribbean island. But when it happens to a cute, upper middle-class white girl from America, that’s worth a movie.
There’s a “zombie idea” we don’t seem to be able to kill: that some human being’s lives and experiences are more worthy and valuable than others.
Every six feet in Rome (that’s about four cubits) you can see a painting celebrating the Nativity, a story which makes kind of a big deal of the idea that even this refugee kid born to an impoverished single mom in an outbuilding behind an inn is as worthy and deserving of respect and attention as any king.
Imagine if we thought that about any one of the immigrant children separated from their mothers along the Texas border in recent weeks. If we thought even one of them, as a human being, was worthy of the same respect we’d give our own children.
Oh wait. Most of us do. Never mind.
Not that it worked that way in Rome, of course, at least not during the Renaissance, when Rome was filled with floods of annoying immigrants and refugees. Popes immediately banned them and tried to drive them outside the walls of Rome. The last thing they wanted was random virgins from out of town having miracle babies in the stable.
There’s another zombie idea we need to stop reanimating: walls to keep out immigrants. Historically, that’s one of the most expensive bad ideas ever, with the lowest return on investment since Keno.
Ask Hadrian, who spent a fortune building a wall to keep the Scots out of Britain, instead of inviting them to come build golf links outside Londinium. It didn’t work. The Scots climbed right over them, even in kilts, which is not a pretty sight.
The Chinese built their Great Wall to keep the foreigners out and how did that work? Genghis Khan just rode around it. So did the Manchus when they brought down the Ming rulers. And two thousand years later, the place is still swarming with tourists.
And the mighty walls of Rome? It only took the Visigoths about ten minutes to get through Aurelian’s famous wall and into the heart of Rome, sacking it, packing it, and stacking it to take back up north.
Walls don’t work. The zombies just keep coming.
On the other hand, everywhere you look in Rome you see ideas that never die. They’re out on every corner and Caravaggio is running around the piazza Navona at all hours to remind you. Not a zombie Caravaggio (now there’s a movie idea) or his ghost, but his one, very simple, really astounding Caravaggio idea that a painting could do more than honor religious doctrine, it could honor human experience. He painted real human beings caught in the moment of realizing they were about to kill or to be killed; real human beings having to deal with shocking, confusing, embarrassing reality, like Matthew being tapped to get off the money-counting bench or Jesus being arrested by soldiers.
Caravaggio was the first artist to honor the honest and essential human experience of the moment, which is effectively the basis of all art ever since. Including blog posts, at least the good ones.
In White Zombie, Bela Lugosi slips a zombie cocktail to the beautiful, pure and innocent (did I mention she was white?) Madge Bellamy visiting the island plantation and soon she’s doing the monster mash for him— his submissive plaything—although, at least on screen, the only thing she plays Is his piano. Admittedly, it was a stretch to call her a zombie, since she wasn’t dead before the cocktail temporarily ate her brains and was sufficiently recovered by the movie’s end to swear she’d give the plantation a bad review on TripAdvisor. But central to the idea of zombies is the necromancer, a power-mad narcissist who wants to control the world, or at least everything he can get his name on.
And so, he tries to make a deal with zombies. But, as both movies and history show, the zombies always turn on him.
Rome has had its share of such men. You can tell by the size of the monuments they built to themselves. And not just nuts like Nero but Popes, as well, some of whom used their power for the glorification of themselves and their families, making teenage nephews Cardinals and themselves rich.
After Mussolini took control of Italy, he reset the calendar to year one which, had he succeeded, would have made this 96.7 AM (Anno Mussolini), which sounds like a really bad talk radio station. Seriously, he expected the rest of the world to agree that historical time restarted with him and his fascisti. Talk about a narcissist!
But that’s the kind of thing you’ll go along with once the zombies eat your brain.
Of all the reanimated zombie ideas that just won’t stay dead, victimization is the ultimate brain-eater. It’s taking the idea that Mom loves your sister best and you have to wear her hand-me-down dresses (tough, if you’re her little brother) and pumping it up to geo-political proportions that sway elections, move armies and make genocide sound like the best of all possible solutions.
Mussolini worked hard to convince Italians that they were the victims of international corporations, Communists, Jews, and the Church. At first, they didn’t take him seriously, but after he let the idea chew on their brains for a while, many Italians were suddenly happy to let him lead his Facisti into Rome and take over the government. Yeah, no, definitely! Go for it, dude. Let’s shake things up!
He rode a horse and waved a sword and they swallowed it like spaghetti carbonara. By all means, they said, return us to the glory that was Rome, and don’t forget the bread and circuses.
Hitler, and of course at first it was subtle, blamed the Jews. Not the ones who were your neighbors, because they looked just like you, but people like them. No, he said, we are all the victims of the Jews who run the global financial markets (and by the way, they do a terrible job!) and, by extension, all the governments of the world including ours. They’re the ones who sold us out in the last war when we should have won, who betrayed our Fatherland, reduced us to begging, and stole our future. They’re the ones who sucked your jobs up. And the only way we can get our patrimony back is to defeat those who victimize us.
Simple as that.
Oh, and that includes those suspicious next-door neighbors of yours, the ones you thought were just like you. We won’t hurt them, we’ll just make them leave. On the next train. Don’t ask where it’s going. We’re making Germany great again.
Or uber alles, as they liked to sing.
Italians and Germans chewed on the victimization rag and it ate their brains until they had none, and then they sang patriotic songs in four-part harmony and broke things they couldn’t fix, even after their brains returned and they went, WTF, how did this happen? And then they pretended they didn’t remember that they really were into it while it was happening. Or, at least, they meant to vote while they had a chance.
And if you want to know what the good Germans were doing while all that mishugas was going on, I’ll tell you. They were waiting for the next election, so they could vote Hitler out of office. Only that election never came.
I’m not saying that could happen to America. Even if we were ignorant of history, and I’m not saying we are, even though only six percent of Americans have read a book since they left school, that doesn’t mean we’ll relive someone else’s history, does it? But it’s a good idea if a referee throws a flag every time a politician plays the victimization card, because it’s like that funny man with the candy in the van outside the school. That’s not the kind of candy you bite, it’s the kind that bites you.
I was waiting to cross the via del Quirinale the other day when I heard an American voice behind me, saying, “Listen, I don’t think he’s such a great guy and I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but these people have been sticking it to us for decades and we have to stop letting them do that to us, because it’s not fair.” He was speaking, with outrage in his voice, of our dear leader standing up to those terrible, awful countries of NATO who let America pay all the bills and defend the whole world, while they lean back on pillows and eat grapes in their welfare states. Poor America, we never get a break. Nobody treats us fairly. And was the man not right to be offended by the idea that we should be victimized so blatantly? Right, dude, that sucks!
And that’s when I heard the zombie start to eat his brain.
Because he forgot to ask himself the fundamental question that is the single defense against zombies: is the proposition you’re being fed true and factual, or are you being played?
Are we really forced by other countries to spend 54% of our federal discretionary budget on defense? Or do we just like to do that because it feels manly and is a good quid pro quo for the defense contractors who support our legislator’s campaigns?
Are the refugees swarming our borders really in need of refuge or are they just another trojan horse filled with rapists and murderers, sent by our enemies to weaken America?
And are they really swarming or is this the same North/South migration we’ve been seeing since before Cortez even asked for his second shot of Mescal?
Because if you don’t stop to ask those questions, ask them from the long view of history and fact-check your answers, you run the risk of zombies making huevos rancheros of your brain.
And here’s another question we have to ask ourselves: in an age and in a country that so prizes and rewards personal responsibility, what does it say about us when we suddenly decide we’re victims of countries like Estonia, which only 10% of Americans can find on a map, largely because it’s so small? Because if, in response to that thought, instead of calling foul on ourselves, we start having military parades and rolling tanks and rockets down the main streets of the Capitol while our leaders stand in the bleachers and salute, the crunching sound you hear isn’t just boots, it’s zombies chewing our brains.
What every zombie movie will tell you is this: once the dead start marching, it’s only a matter of time. Researchers at the American Physical Society (look it up) have run serious scientific models showing that no matter how fast we run, zombies always catch us. They don’t have to sleep, and they can travel anywhere because they’re not bothered by middle seats in coach. Get one zombie on a flight to the heartland and as Wichita Falls, so falls the nation. Even the US Government has spent our tax dollars, victims that we are, on an odd strategic study called CONPLAN 8888-11 (look it up), a plan to defend America against a zombie attack, if not make us great while we’re at it.
Their conclusion? You can’t beat the zombie apocalypse.
Sure, we’ll try to convince ourselves that it can’t happen here. We’ll play Plants Vs. Zombies and think the zombies will play by the rules of the game in the real world, but they won’t. In fact, just thinking that is the first sign the zombies are eating your brain.
Now, about that wine those bridge builders were drinking in 62 BCE: it probably sucked. Think Gallo Hearty Burgundy gone sour, because quality was hard to control back then. The minute you opened the amphora and filled a jug, the wine started to go bad.
And that refugee kid born in the shed out back? Christ’s first recorded miracle was at the wedding at Cana, where he was invited by his mother, who made a respectable life for herself in spite of what the Romans thought of her kind.
That wedding was when he turned water into wine; not just any water, and not just any wine. The water jugs, as specified in the Aramaic, were not just for the storage of water, they were jugs sanctified for purification ceremonies, jugs set aside for spiritual transformation. And the wine, as recorded by Matthew, was of such a superior quality that Jesus reserved some to share privately with the married couple at the end of the night. The story of the wedding at Cana is an allegory of purification of the human spirit, a transformation from our egoistic, zombie selves into a human experience of transcendence. Not a symbolic experience, but the real thing. I don’t know about seagulls, but if you’re a human, that’s the highest thing of all.
The miracle of Cana – like the miracle of the bridge that still stands across the Tiber after all these generations – is how we transform our minds from victimized zombie bait into genuine, creative, human selves that can create history, not just relive it. Your essential self is free as a bird. It builds bridges across divides. And it pours out a kind of wine for everyone who meets you, a wine that invites them to take a moment to reflect on what it means to be alive, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.
A kind of wine that keeps the zombies at bay, which is something we can all drink to.