Monday, August 29, 2011

After the Flood

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

My girlfriend and I snuck out of New York well ahead of Irene’s arrival, but didn’t miss much here in the Catskills what with the rain that came pouring down, and the creek roaring up, and the wind hurling tree branches against the cabin roof. The electricity is out again, and for the first time in years I’m writing with paper and a pen.

Between all that, and the earthquake that had our Manhattan apartment dancing around last week, I feel comfortable announcing the world is coming to an end. Or should. I’ve been longing to see an end to the world in which we Americans pretend to be invulnerable in every way, though all it takes is a nice sized hurricane to disable our aging East Coast cities that are already losing ground to warming oceans. And the collapse of any segment of our financial infrastructure, like, say, the housing market, can bring our economy to its knees. Likewise for our broken political system that comes to a halt on the federal level every time some Tea Party monkey throws a wrench.

America seems increasingly ridiculous. Like a naked wrinkled Lear raging at a storm, but with even less a chance of coming to our senses. And it’s only going to get worse. In a little over a week it will be September 11th and the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Politicians of all stripes will hover like vultures claiming the dead for themselves. Waving them like flags over struggling presidential campaigns. Eating them for breakfast. Using them as excuses to prolong wars, or conversely to retrench at home. To build bunkers. To prevent mosques. To celebrate the deaths of the likes of Osama Bin Laden who will no doubt be resurrected for the occasion, then killed again at will. To declare above all, that America is number one and a bunch of terrorist thugs can’t take that away from us.

I used to think only New Yorkers had a right to mourn all those secretaries, and delivery guys and stockbrokers and waiters, and cleaning people, and IT folks, and cops and firemen lost at the World Trade Center. Now, I believe the dead belong only to themselves. And we should raise no monuments to them. Including the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. whose new creepy fascistic memorial was featured in the same edition of The New York Times that revealed the increasing ways black and minority Americans are being disenfranchised all over the U.S. with voter drives being thwarted, and federal I.D.’s required.

There was also a story about James Craig Anderson, a black man robbed and beaten by a group of white teenagers, then mowed down by one of their pickup trucks in a hotel parking lot. There’s not much to do in Jackson, Mississippi, so let’s play scare the nigger. Extra points if he’s fag.

Yeah, that’s right. It took the Times twelve paragraphs to reveal this “family” man’s partner was a guy and together they were raising a relative’s kid. And only a couple more paragraphs for Times writer Kim Severson to announce sexual orientation wasn’t a factor at all, even though she did report the driver, Deryl Dedmon had been accused earlier of gay-baiting a preacher’s kid and taunting him for having black friends. Why the coyness? Was he out cruising, partying? Are his biological family homophobes?

I suspect the only reason we use headstones and monuments is to weigh down the dead, keep them safe and impotent in their graves, save the living from their fury. C’mon, MLK. Sound the trumpets. Roll that stone away.

We Americans aspire to govern the world, but can’t control the worst parts of ourselves. And the contests in which we can claim number one are embarrassing. Like our top ranking among developed nations when it comes to income inequality. Or the most likely to let superstition trump science. Because if there is God as described by the Creationists, and we were conveniently created in his image that very first week of the universe’s existence, then we can dominate the earth, and all its lands and creatures, including those second-rate countries like Iraq that should have pacified themselves by now. We can play god. Kill faggots and the sons of Cain. We can do what we like.

God knows accepting evolution throws our current world off kilter. You have to value patience, acknowledge that the arbitrary plays a role. We’re a part of the world. Not in control of it. What a relief. Let us decide as Americans to retreat to the second or third or fourth spot in the global order. Let the dead bury the dead. Embrace modesty and thoughtfulness. Let us call down another storm that will wash away the hubris and crap we’re saddled with. Let us begin anew.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Checking the Weather

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

We’re up in the Catskills with no car and I’m obsessed with the weather. Will the storm hold off until I can hike to town and back for groceries? Will the sun last long enough to dry the laundry? Is that rain, or just wind moving through the birches or elms or whatever has that silvery bark and dangly, whispering leaves? Will I catch pneumonia if I get soaked?

I check the thermometer probably as much as I used to check the news, and use my dial-up Internet minutes to visit Yahoo’s weather page. It’s a change from activist drama, and the spectacle of blundering politicians on the U.S. stage. They’re doing their best to destroy what remains of the economy, while trying to blab themselves into the hot seat of the White House.

Among the Republicans, there’s no heavyweight preparing to emerge as a serious, thoughtful candidate, but that doesn’t mean anything. In the 2000 bid, George W. Bush ran mostly on charisma and that gee-shucks grin of his. For that matter, a nice smile didn’t hurt a flip-flopping Obama, either, when he was on the campaign trail. We like a genial president. Not too short. With nice, thick hair.

Pretty soon, they’ll all come into town and wave the flag and shed crocodile tears over New Yorkers dead these long ten years. If I could, I’d stay in bed until November. Up here, the only thing I listen to on the radio is Yankees baseball, and even then it’s more for the human voices than the suspense. Somebody’ll get a hit. Somebody won’t. After nine innings or so the guys will go home with another win or loss. I don’t much care.

I get philosophical up here staring at the sky. I have a cold. I’m depressed. With a few minor edits, I’m prepared to announce resistance is futile; nothing will ever change. Or can. Mark Twain in his day was already announcing American politicians were all scoundrels, and I see no reason to dissent. And Thoreau, who retreated to Walden Pond, but apparently within a safe distance of his mother’s cooking, declared you could pick up last decade’s newspaper and it would read more or less like one from the next full of political or economic intrigue, and a war here or there.

How can you argue with that? There is always a war. There are always politicians and merchants and missionaries lying through their teeth and bamboozling the population at large. Even riots seem the same. The broken shop windows and burning cars in London seem like the second act of the riots in Paris a couple of years ago, also set off by the death of two minority kids at the hands of cops.

Community organizers hold a sedate march or two, then testosterone takes over and rioters damage above all the mostly poor neighborhoods where they live themselves. That’ll show ‘em. That’ll change things. Protesters, of course, say they’re doing it to show their anger with the cops, and the racist system that leaves them unemployed and unemployable, and cuts services to the broke before taxing the rich. But every now and then a kid would admit, “I like burning cars. It’s fun.”

So why lift your eyes above your navel? Try to push back? Or influence the outcome? Why pick a team when there are idiots on all sides? Why cheer? A lot depends on perspective. The usual reasons have to do with the particulars that fill in the blanks. Just where is that pesky war? Whose house burned down? Was it your sister on the latest foundering ship? Are you part of a community still getting hit with an epidemic? Is it you loading your suitcases when you can’t pay the mortgage?

Or did you just recognize something of yourself, something human in that emaciated body on the front page of the newspaper? Or that pedestrian on the way to town? It happens every now and then. That leap of kinship. Lately, I’ve benefited myself. Our neighbors recognize my backpack now and have begun to stop, offering me lifts into town or back. They slip me phone numbers. “Call. We’ll arrange something. We go into town almost every day.” They know we’re two women together and don’t really care. What they can’t get over is how we have no car. Now that’s perverse. One neighhbor, Carol, has ordered all her friends stop. What does it cost them to pull over? I almost always accept. Grin. They already know where I live.

Today, thunderstorms are likely, again, with a high of 71. There’s a chance of rain weighing in at eighty percent. Tomorrow, more rain and thunderstorms in the afternoon. Then showers. Then thunderstorms. Then showers. Still, I’m covered.

Monday, August 01, 2011

The War on the Present

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

You see it in the city all the time, the big crane and wrecking ball bringing down whole blocks of perfectly good tenements or warehouses that people were living in until the week before. Destruction seems cheaper than renovating, and besides you can usually build higher, construct more apartments, more offices. Make more money. Make your mark. I think of it as a kind of transmogrification of the flesh.

You see it in politics, too. Those impatient, uncompromising extremists from both the right and left trying to bring a government to its knees, destroy it altogether. Tea, anyone? If they only had a blank slate, an empty lot, then anything is possible. A few go so far as to mow down whole classes of people. What are they but old stones standing in the way of the glorious future, or the even more glorious past? Toss gypsies or queers in jails or concentration camps. Get out the wrecking ball for landowners, native peoples, Jews, Armenians. The teenaged supporters of the Social Democrats -- the governing party in Norway.

I'd like to say I don't understand at all, how Anders Behring Breivik could slaughter all those kids to resurrect a Muslim-free Europe. Or jihadists can kill thousands of people imagining that the fall of something like the World Trade Center would bring down World Trade itself and somehow make room for the Grand Caliphate 2.0 to reemerge. But the destructive impulse belongs to us all.

Who hasn't wanted to wipe the smiles off smug faces, or maybe erase the faces themselves? Who hasn't yearned for a moment to throw off the yoke of society, and the smothering burdens of history or family and culture? In college, an artist friend of mine spent a lot of time fantasizing about invading museums with a squirt gun full of acid and taking out every painting in sight. And with all that gone maybe he could create something new, express himself without all that weight around his neck.

Plenty of queers would have preferred to see the end of marriage altogether, rather than add same-sex couples to the already unsavory mix. You don't want to be like your parents. And you can't bring down the master's house with the master's tools and all that. Though American history says you can at least change the inhabitants. We have a black president in the White House.

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times had an enormous photo of Mayor Bloomberg, the two guys he joined in marriage, and their little girls. I think they were at Gracie Mansion. It didn't take bombs, just a hell of a lot of work. We can always hope that now we've joined the marriage club, the whole unworkable structure will collapse from the weight.

Often, the destructive impulse would remain just a brief urge without a network of religious thought behind it. Not just because the perpetrators are often true believers, but because it's usually religion that shapes how we understand what change is and the role it plays.

A couple days after the slaughter in Norway, I was walking home from the Laundromat and saw a woman with an enormous wooden cross hanging from her neck. There was a human figure nailed to it, preparing for death and resurrection. I grew up with the image of the cross, and don't usually think much about it. But as big as it was, with a tortured human figure hanging from it, I suddenly thought, What a barbaric thing to worship. Worse, there's no more dangerous model of change than transformation through violence. Or sudden miracles for that matter. There is nothing incremental about that whole water to wine thing. The best, the only change, is violent, quick, and totally transformative.

No wonder, even direct action and street protest aren't quick enough for the destructive character. They don't just hate Muslims, or queers, or Jews. Or Democrats. Or Republicans. They hate time itself. Being constrained to this moment where they are not free to rearrange history or perfectly manipulate the future. They are furious at the compromised present. The bricks and mortar. Our limiting flesh. The way things are. They don't just want to redeem the world or create change, but annihilate everything.

Lately, I've started to wish for more real atheists, more agnostics, more people who believe this world is all there is, and this moment is all we have. Forget any magic wrecking ball that will clear away the present and resurrect the past or propel us into a perfect, heavenly future. This is all we've got. Hard as it is to accept, our future like our past is rooted here. You have to claim it to move on. Like my friend who wanted to acid blast art, but conserves it now.