By Kelly Jean Cogswell
I know it's an old question, but what's in the name of a thing? I looked out my window the other morning, and where there are usually pigeons picking their way across the red roof tiles, I saw this bird not unlike a crow, but with much longer tail feathers and bright patches of electric blue along the sides, like a kind of penguin.
I don't know anything about birds, but that didn't keep me from thinking, "Tern, I wonder if it's a tern." At least that's what I wondered, until I stuck it in my blog and "Ampy" wrote in and said from the description it was probably a magpie.
She'd be appalled at my friend Zon who knowingly calls every tree a dogwood, even the enormous chestnuts along the Seine. It's perverse, but by and large who cares? Words can mean anything we want. No one else has to agree unless the desired end is communication, and not just some generic word for tree, though "tree" does well enough in most cases. Still, Zon argues, it doesn't have the poetry of dogwood.
The implications are different in Washington where politicians play games with language every time they open their mouths, and not for the sake of poetry. That word "America," can mean a field of corn, a cross, a gun, especially when it's followed by any combination of phrases that include either, "War" and "Terror" or "September."
And in the face of everything meaning almost anything, I'm tempted sometimes as a writer to go mute, that or develop my own dictionary, a lexicon of lexicogswell. The problem is it'd be outdated as soon as it was printed. Words erode as soon as they leave my mouth. Or computer. Starting with September.
I remember when that word used to mean the start of school, used books with their hoard of words, the trying on of hand-me-downs from my sisters, new shoes. In the countryside, it meant goldenrod and asters, the first turning of the leaves. Then there was the winding down of baseball.
Yeah, September was a nice word for a nice time, even in New York. And the day the towers fell was as beautiful a day as New York's seen with blue, blue sky and sun behind the towers, glinting off the falling glass, falling papers, falling people, then the dust and the fires that were only the beginning.
I wish New York could have mourned alone, instead of having a flag planted in our hearts like a dagger. Now it seems ridiculous to pause and grieve when America has thousands more dead, not to mention, (they never are) the tens of thousands of Iraqis that were liberated not only from Saddam but the convenience of regular food supplies, health care, safety, peace, and finally life itself.
That's September for you -- the new word for cynicism and profiteering in the midst of death, chaos, collapse, ruin and patriotism.
In the U.S., on the eleventh, all the baseball stadiums now hope to have a New York team so they can project the tumbling towers and the Star Spangled singer can get that extra little catch in the throat, so that they'll sell a few more twenty-dollar flags. In Washington, they trot out the date to sell new terrorism acts, or war plans.
General David H. Petraeus is at the front of the pack this year, hawking his plan to keep us in Iraq, so he can test a few pet theories on counterinsurgencies and put off the chaos of any withdrawal until a Democrat gets in office and has to clean up the mess.
Meanwhile we pour dead children into our cars along with the oil. Meanwhile, Rudolph Guiliani, Republican candidate for president sells himself as New York's wartime mayor from the blast. Even protests couldn't keep him away from the commemoration ceremony.
I even question our remembrance of LGBT fire fighters, and 9/11 heroes, using them to push ourselves forward as genuine patriots. If the end of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy finally gets bought by Congress, and it's suddenly okay to be queer in the military, it won't be because they admire our courage, but because it's easier to waive the ban on dykes and faggots than reinstitute the draft to recruit more bodies.
This September I'm in France where it's all rugby, rugby, rugby from the World Cup. There's still the Iraq War and September 11th remembrances, but I can watch kids buy schoolbooks without wanting to puke. I can look at the sky, and yellowing chestnuts (dogwoods) without feeling disgusted at how their falling leaves have been co-opted.
We have to remember what words mean, beginning with September, and moving along to truth, justice, and if we dare, America.