Thursday, June 02, 2011


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

The dogwood is blooming in the back garden. The clematis is full of fat purple flowers, and for a change we have a million red roses. I finally learned that this wasn't the species you prune the hell out of, trying to get rid of what they call suckers to make room for strong, promising growth. No, the thick and thin branches alike put out their gloriously fragrant buds.

The only problem, and there's always one in Eden, is that the rats are tunneling up underneath the roots. We tried the home remedy approach of shoving mothballs down the hole because, we were told, they really hate the smell. We learned that was true, but not necessarily effective, because all it did was infuriate them. For the next few days they angrily tossed the little white balls right back up at us, scattering them among the hostas.

Then we tried putting our old standby down the hole, peanut butter-flavored poison, but they returned that, too, probably because by then it also smelled of moth balls. When they finally did abandon that hole, they just dug another a couple of feet away. Which we dropped more poison into. At least one rat ate it, because it dropped dead under the roses and I had to extract its stinking, maggoty corpse from among the flat hosta leaves and a few thorny rose branches dipping down to the ground.

At least we're allowed to kill them if we can, though murder doesn't really work in the long run. It just signals to them that they need to reproduce more, replace the little scattered corpses. If you want rats to disappear for good, you have to starve them, cover your garbage well, and prevent restaurants from dumping grease and other crap in the drains. Good luck with that in the East Village. The place is disgusting. When it really gets hot the smell in the street will curl your hair.

We're really American in that way, do whatever we can get away with, whatever makes it easier right now. Which I understand. Every now and then when mold starts growing on the roses, or some horrible insect starts chewing away, I get whatever toxic substance is nearest and blast the crap out of them. Screw the water supply.

Activists, of course, are almost always reactive in the same way. We try to kill the rats, or at least silence them, instead of changing the conditions that encourage them to breed. That requires an entirely different strategy. Even establishing legal guidelines for equality, like overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, is only mid-term thinking. How can we change the whole game?

It seems impossible. It probably is. But shouldn't we let ourselves think about the impossible every now and then? Let our minds loose? I admit I've been reading Emerson, Thoreau, even Oscar Wilde who has more in common with the others than I thought. In some ways he was more farseeing, also more practical. He was an early advocate of socialism, distributing resources so that the poor would be liberated from their poverty and the rich liberated from the stifling weight of their possessions, which would allow everyone to fulfill, he thought, their individual potential. Except he also saw how easy socialism was to hijack, turn into one more version of fascism.

In fact, he all but declared real socialism impossible, before going on to say, "This is why it is worth carrying out, and that is why one proposes it. For what is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish."

The bigger question is why Americans have given up on utopias. (And queers on liberation). Communism, of course, gave utopias a bad name. Slaughters and tyranny will do that. We had a brief, drug-fueled wave of optimistic thinking in the Sixties and Seventies. Now, our only politics is that of the possible.

Why? Maybe we really believe everything important has already been done, and now all we have to do is refine things a little. Or maybe both the Right and the Left have come to prefer dystopias, and visions of the end of the world. On one side they scream, my god, the Muslims are coming, or Muslim black commie socialists. On the other, watch out for the reign of Sarah Palin. Or Gingrich. Whatever the devil is du jour.

We've ceded our imaginations to the rats. But they are only good for comic relief. Like the ones in my neighborhood, that jump out at unsuspecting partiers on the street as they scurry from parked car to garden to garbage heap.

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