And He Shall Be Levon

September 30, 2010 at 10:50 pm (Fiction) (, , )

The other night, I was listening to Elton John’s Levon. (Linked here because apparently the whole world didn’t grow up listening to gay pop from the 1970s.) And then… this poured out of me.

Profiles in Heroism: Levon Tostig

Levon Tostig was not born into a world of promise. As one of the first children to arrive after the Infection Event, Levon entered a world of uncertainty, tumbling from his mother’s womb on the very day this newspaper declared the war against the Infected begun. The day was Christmas, but no one was celebrating. God had quite obviously abandoned our kind.

Levon grew up amid the fearful and poverty-stricken in a government holding center in Springfield, where his father, Alvin, served as a guard. Emergency drills were a part of his daily routine from his earliest conscious moments, but that didn’t stop the young, curious Levon from exploring the edges of the compound one day during his twelfth year. He still bears the scars of the bite he received during the resulting Infected attack, a bite that necessitated the amputation of three fingers on his right hand. Levon has never sought to hide this wound, however. If anything, he has flaunted his deformed hand, wearing it proudly as evidence of his ability to survive the worst that fate might throw at him.

That pride would serve Levon, and all humankind, quite well in the following years. Unwilling to accept the state of constant fear and deep despair under which humanity was living at the time, Levon devoted himself to scientific study and sought a fool-proof way to fight the Infected without the use of imprecise, ineffective weaponry. It was through a process of trial and error, during which he managed to escape death by inches on a daily basis, that he discovered the scientific fact that has dictated our interactions with the Infected ever since: the toxicity of helium to the creatures’ bodies.

Levon would go on to develop the safest and most effective mechanism for distributing helium. He calculated the precise amount of gas necessary to fill a balloon that, when popped, would eject the helium into the space immediately surrounding the Infected’s body, destroying it instantly. Before long he’d formed the innocuously-named Levon Cartoon Balloon Industries, a company that is, today, among the most profitable corporations in the world. By selling his weaponized helium balloons at reasonable rates to both private citizens and the military establishment, Levon enabled the human race to turn an important corner in our ongoing war against the Infected.

As Levon’s innovation spread across the globe and humans cautiously began to rebuild civilization, Levon himself retreated to a largely private life, marrying an old sweetheart from his childhood holding center and later welcoming their son, Jesus. The name was a provocative one, spurring popular debate about Levon’s alleged hubris, but when asked about its intent Levon has always evaded the question, claiming to have simply liked the name.

Jesus, now eighteen and a graduate of Springfield Preparatory High School, was poised to inherit the family business upon Levon’s retirement. Much of his childhood had been spent helping his father, blowing up balloons at their flagship store on Springfield’s Main Street. Jesus, however, chose a different career path: he was among the first to volunteer for the Venusian mission that scientists believe could ultimately create a viable alternative to our own Infection-scarred planet. While Levon has stated that he respects his son’s decision, he has been curiously silent on the topic of the Venus expedition itself and has dodged all questions about the longevity of his company in the absence of a family heir.

These days, Levon lives humbly despite his abundant wealth, choosing to reside alone (his wife, Amy, passed away several years ago) in a dilapidated garage on a pre-Infection highway at the edge of Springfield. He claims that the highway reminds him of all that’s left to accomplish in our brave new world. Though most people alive today, Levon included, have no direct memory of the world Before, Levon believes our war will not truly be won until we have reestablished our societies as they once were, before the gripping fear of the Infected overtook all other emotional impetuses. Notoriously protective of his money as he may be, Levon has recently instructed his corporation to expand beyond the confines of helium production to begin studying the best methods for bolstering global housing and transportation infrastructure.

We can only hope that the man who gave us helium still has many good years ahead of him – years in which he may very well change the world all over again.


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An Open Letter to Meg Whitman

September 22, 2010 at 2:27 pm (real life) (, , )

There doesn’t seem to be any direct way to contact Meg Whitman, Republican candidate for Governor of California. Given that inaccessibility, I’m going to post publicly what would have been a private e-mail or letter. Ms. Whitman, if you see this, feel free to contact me at

Dear Ms. Whitman,

My name is Jennifer Smith. I graduated from Princeton University after the 2007-2008 year, which also happened to be the year of the grand opening of the Whitman residential college, whose construction was largely funded by your generous contributions. It’s a beautiful complex of buildings, and at the time I was proud to be the very first Princeton student to choose a room in Whitman College. When you spoke in the courtyard to dedicate the college, I happily attended the gathering. I still have my Whitman stationery, my Whitman sweatshirt, and my fond memories of the cozy bedroom, dining hall, and study rooms where I spent so much time that year.

I preface my letter with all of this information to cast in sharp relief my disappointment in your stated platforms as a candidate for governor of California — in particular your support for Proposition 8, which denies the right of marriage to same-sex couples.

As a Princeton student, I was heavily involved in the Pride Alliance, the LGBT organization on campus. LGBT rights have always been very dear to my heart, for I see no reason that my closest friends shouldn’t have the same rights and privileges I myself possess. I fondly remember late nights in college spent hanging up posters and encouraging activism, including pro-same-sex marriage activism, before I returned to the haven of my dorm in Whitman College. Now, I find that you are using the power of your wealth – the very wealth I myself benefited from – to drive a campaign that counts among its aims the barring of American citizens from the benefits of full equality under the law. This is wealth that could be better used to support any number of causes or platforms — particularly to bolster California’s schools, which are in crisis. As a Whitman resident, I believed you to be a self-evident supporter of education, but I see now that bigotry and the power it endows is more important to you.

There was a time I was proud to be a resident of Whitman College. But your recent actions have made me ashamed – ashamed that I took advantage of your donation, ashamed that the money that is funding your prejudiced political campaign also paid for my bed. I don’t want to feel this shame. I want to appreciate your generous gifts . But until you reject bigotry and hate, my shame will endure.

Jennifer Smith
Graduate Student in Communications, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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September 11, 2010 at 12:10 pm (Reflection)

I was fifteen years old on September 11th, 2001. When the planes hit the towers, I was probably in English class, though in the confusion of the immediate aftermath no one in the school knew anything for at least another hour. During 4th period chemistry class, an announcement came over the intercom from the principal: all students whose parents worked in the World Trade Center were to come to the library. That’s when we knew something was wrong.

I lived in New Jersey, in a town with a big commuter population. Lots of kids’ parents worked in downtown NYC. We were all worried when the announcement came, but our chemistry teacher, looking nervous, just said, “A plane hit one of the towers. It was probably an accident.” We continued with class.

Fifth period was lunch. I sat with my friends as a second announcement declared all after-school activities canceled for the day. Rumors flew around the cafeteria, and I heard the word “terrorists” thrown out for the first time. My friend Lauren, who knew no more about the situation than I did, yelled, “Damn you, terrorists! You made them cancel band practice!” We all laughed.

It wasn’t until 6th period history that I got information. I will always be thankful to my 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Tomczyk, for going against the school’s orders and giving us details. We didn’t have live TV in our classrooms, and the only way we were going to learn anything was if a teacher told us. Mrs. Tomczyk believed we had a right to know, and so she closed the door and told us.

When she said the towers had fallen, I let out a sharp laugh. I didn’t think it was funny, of course. But my instinctive physical reaction was one of disbelief. Gone? How could they be gone? At the time, we still didn’t know how severe the damage would be to the rest of the downtown area. A completely apocalyptic image surfaced in my mind, and it’s still one I hold, even years later. We spent the whole class discussing what happened, acting as support for each other. We didn’t learn history that day. We were living it.

The next period was gym, but I didn’t stay — my mom came and picked me up from school. She’s a volunteer at heart, and she wanted to be there at the elementary and middle schools to help the kids who might not have anyone to go home to. So she wanted me and my younger brother to be home first and foremost, so she would be free to help others. I planted myself in front of the TV and watched the news, and saw the images for the first time.

My history homework that night was to read Patrick Henry’s most famous speech. “Give me liberty, or give me death.” I cried.

I did not personally know anyone killed in the attacks. But one of my best friends lost a cousin. A girl a year below me, who’d lived in my neighborhood and worked with me on the school newspaper, lost her older brother. The tragedy was very immediate in our town, and we’re lucky we didn’t lose more people.

So though it’s been 9 years, and all that’s happened since has been hard to separate from the memories of that day, it’s still vivid in my mind, and still horrifying. I still feel ill on this day, morose and contemplative. And I thought it might be best for me to share that. This is the first 9/11 I’ve spent outside of New Jersey, and I find myself wishing I was on the east coast, to share the experience with others who lived it like I did. But, since I can’t do that, I felt I should at least share my experience with all of you.

The day after the attacks, an AP reporter came into that same history classroom to write an article about student reaction. The article is only available behind a paywall now — and is, frankly, some pretty terrible journalism — but I long ago copied and pasted it into a document, and I share it now, below the cut, for posterity.

Read the rest of this entry »

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