Spring and Doom

One of the petty sad things about climate change is that it makes a nice day feel like a doomsday portent. And nothing ruins a beautiful day like a sense of climate guilt. I’ve had that feeling a lot this winter, since this winter has basically been mostly spring. (Sorry, East Coast, I’m not trying to grind it in.) The lilacs and the apple tree began blooming in March, and I did my Annual Flower Count today, and though I did it ten days before the 2013 count date, I did it late. The ideal day is when there are still daffodils and one or two forsythia flowers, but also lilacs and apple blossoms. That day was over a week ago, and now most of the daffodils are gone and the only reason I even got 37 (compared to 40 in 2013) was that I counted all the flowers I bought at the nursery on Friday. Also, the flowers might be out, but the insects aren’t, and I’m worried about the pollination of our fruit trees.

If I slow down, I trust that the Earth will deal with all of this and life, in the most cosmic sense of the word, will be ok. But humans might not be there to see it, and I love my particular life and my species and my flowers a lot.

On a side note, this is also why I’m hesitant about AI. It seems perfectly likely to me that any sophisticated artificial intelligence is as likely to knock humanity down for the good of life in general as it is to annihilate us out of selfishness, and both seem more likely than that it will peacefully be our slave forever. But geeks don’t listen to me. Anyways, Happy Easter.

My Novel, the Poem Version

The following is my novel, reduced to 500 words and given line breaks. Thanks, Autosummarize, for this literary masterpiece. (P.S. I had no idea I used this many exclamation points. I think it got every single one.) Enjoy….

No Lake Ever Loved Us (the poem)

Etta! Etta. If you had only had children, said Matilda. Really Etta, said Matilda. Well! Our little houses. Harvey with his long, thin hands.

Well if you must know, Harvey is Caucasian. Father, Harvey is a professor…. Especially if my father is against it.

Ah well, never mind. Never mind, Etta. Take Harvey’s love for America. Harvey stood behind my chair. Caucasians, said Harvey. Etta. Harvey’s kind. Harvey was the only Hindu. Thirsty, said Harvey. Harvey blushed. Harvey was craning his neck. To Harvey?

Mother says if you could come…. Mother says if you could come.

Matilda! Matilda cried.

Old! Well.

Etta – Etta Chakrabarti. My father. Father! If it isn’t Henry! Harvey and I – I paused. Matilda? Well! Matilda? Not a word from Harvey.

Love. Etta Chakrabarti. Harvey wasn’t coming home. Harvey.

If sex works, that is. Well if it ain’t Etta herself. Men will be men, she was saying.             Etta! Etta – said Harvey, looking pained.

Harvey laughed. Harvey was in California. Well!

Harvey – I mean, Arabinda. Matilda!

Colman’s eyes. What if you fell in?

Love? Well! Harvey’s eyebrows flickered. The man’s eyebrows jumped.             Bloody hell yourself, Harvey. Harvey began backing away.

Etta. I had loved Harvey. It was Harvey. Harvey, what a surprise.

Why it’s Harvey! Right, right. Harvey smiled a weary smile. Etta. Etta.

If I loved you? I asked Harvey. Hello, Etta, said Harvey.

Harvey put his hand on my knee. Harvey held open the door.

Right! Harvey winced at the sound.

I won’t sign, Harvey. Harvey. Harvey folded his hands on the tablecloth.             Mother! Mother! I’m – excuse me, Harvey. Harvey did not follow.

Harvey is so cultured. Etta! Etta.

Hello Harvey. California, Mose said to Harvey. Harvey smiled, squinting his eyes. Harvey smiled, a real one this time. Ah yes, said Harvey.

Ah, said Harvey, shaking his head as if to sober himself. Harvey laughed. Harvey watched without a word. Harvey – my voice was hoarse. Harvey I want you.

Etta, my Etta. Harvey, I said. Etta? Why Harvey! See if he smiled.

No Harvey on the street. My father. Oh, Matilda.

Matilda sniffled. Your poor father. Father –

Harvey lost his citizenship. Matilda prickled.

Harvey! Harvey shrugged. Walking.

Harvey shrugged. Never mind.

Etta – Let me go, Harvey.

When my arms tired, Harvey carried Maurice and when Maurice squirmed, Harvey let him walk, Harvey’s finger in Maurice’s firm little fist. Come now, Etta, Harvey said uncomfortably.

Harvey froze. Fish? hooted the man. Etta. Hurry, Harvey!

Whatever for? asked Harvey. Hush, said Harvey. Are you all right, Harvey?

Harvey was right – Maurice was fine.

Harvey? Harvey was gone.

Harvey! Ah, Etta. Yes, yes, said Harvey, shaking his hand.

Look, Harvey, I turned to him. In Ravenna? asked Harvey.

Harvey watched me with his deep water eyes. Harvey had ahold of my hand.

Harvey held my hand. Matilda –

Harvey, good grief! Harvey was not talking.

If you wish. I’m not divorcing Harvey.

To leave Harvey? Mother is.

Father! Be serious, man! Like mother?

Etta!

Seattlelandia: Episode One, “Ladies on the Loose”

Sometimes life is too much like Portlandia.

The scene begins with a morning trip to the neighborhood artisan bakery for a scone for her and a ham and cheese (excuse me, ham and gruyere) croissant for him. On the way, he throws the chickens a yogurt tub of chicken food and lets them out to run freely in the yard.

Only much later, as she takes a break from working on her tortured masterpiece of fiction and eats her artisan bread/organic butter/homecanned tomato/sustainably-caught-sardine lunch concoction does she notice that the back gate is open. Dunh dunh dunh…. She rushes down into the yard, the dog at her heels. Ruba, Diamond, and Licorice Chick are gone! Only Puff remains, brocking a lonely brock in the empty dirt.

Soon they are both searching the block for the lost ladies. “Excuse me, have you seen any chickens?” they ask again and again.

“I know how to hold a chicken rully rully good,” says a proud child on a pedalless bike (which, like all modern and trend-setting children she rides instead of a trike so that she will never have to use training wheels).

“We had two hundred chickens when I was a kid,” says another neighbor, who now has three small free-ranging dogs. “If I find yours I’ll chuck ’em over the fence.”

Next thing, she’s putting up LOST CHICKEN signs and he’s wandering the alleyways. Then she has to abandon the search to go to a bodywork appointment, which she has strategically timed so that her drives sandwich rush hour (this is Seattlelandia, after all). When she gets out, walking regally and in pristine balance through the golden Wallingford air, a text: They’ve been found! Someone read a sign! Someone called! Diamond resisted capture, but he prevailed, and the ladies are home!

She drives home listening to an obscure band sing about saber-toothed tigers and drinking water (as instructed) from a reusable glass juice jar. There is traffic on the University Bridge. Two cops have pulled some people of color over on her street. She feels incensed and drives on by, then uses her turn signal on her driveway, just in case the cops care. The chickens pace in their run. He cooks dinner. She walks the dog. Happy violins play and the sun sets behind the construction site.

I Heart Rednecks, Sometimes

In college I took a poetry class from a guy who brought a littered beer can to class every week. It was a class about the modern nature poem, but he spent a lot of time picking up the can and saying “I understand this [mimes drinking] but not this [mimes throwing on the ground].” I guess that relates to every American nature poem of the 20th century or something.

Anyways, I took Squinch and his brother to the river today and there was a campfire littered with beer cans and plastic bags. Classic Snoqualmie redneck party. One of my students just wrote about the giant garbage patch, so I decided to pick up the trash. Keep it out of the ocean. I understand this but not this, said my professor in my head as I poured the beer dregs out on the sand.

But I disagree. I think I do understand. It’s something we all do. But rednecks are just more upfront about it. How many times have I listened to a story about climate change on NPR while driving around in my car? I can’t point any fingers here. I was getting maudlin about the smell of stale Rainier and cottonwood trees, when the dogs started barking at a lady in a bougie jogging outfit. I apologized and she told me to be careful because “there was a leash law and there might be other dogs.” Which is something I just can’t see the throwers of the beer cans saying, especially since what she really meant was “don’t let your dogs bark at me.”

Sometimes, I just prefer the redneck thing.

Grammy: Trendsetter

My great-aunt, whom we all call Grammy, is a pretty phenomenal woman. She knows everything about most good things, and is happy to share that knowledge. She’d be the one I would call if I wanted to know what a strange bird was, or how to blanch something, or how to save a favorite quilt, or what my great-great-great grandfather was like, or how to play cribbage, or why exactly Pebble Mine is so controversial, or if I just wanted to feel loved.

A giant, trendy, Grammy-endorsed boot?

She is widely considered to be an authority on many things, both by my extended family and by her community. However, she is not often called on for her fashion expertise. You see, Grammy is a very active, naturally-beautiful, practical woman in her eighties, who values comfort and utility and long-lasting materials over trends. She is usually seen wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt, probably one with birds on it, and Birkenstocks with white socks. Her glasses, which she swings behind her back when she gives you one of her incredible hugs, hang on her chest by what I remember as a turquoise foam cord. Not really a fashion trendsetter, even in a Macklemore Thriftshop kind of way.

This fall, however, I saw her wearing boots that were so comfortable, durable, and practical, and all around awesome that I decided to copy her and get myself a pair. When I went to order them, they were backordered, and I waited painful weeks of cold rain without my exciting new fashion splurge. You see, they were L.L. Bean boots, which have been around forever, but are suddenly trendy. Trendy with young people.

At first, it really amused me that Grammy’s fashion was hip with the youth, but then I got to thinking about what else young people wear and the truth is they wear a lot of sweatpants and t-shirts of things that they like. Of course, their shirts have things like Notorious B.I.G. on them instead of Seabirds of Alaska, but let’s not quibble.

Also, how awesome is it that comfortable, practical, durable, made in the US women’s footwear is cool? It gives me hope that Youth of Today might grow up to be as awesome as my Grammy.

Your Mama, My Boogers: Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Like many of people, I’ve been following the story of the shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, and because I’m always good for an opinion, it turns out, I have one.

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The attacks, obviously, were horrific and wrong. To quote my mother, “people are not for hitting.” It goes without saying they are also not for shooting. Equally obviously, free speech is incredibly important. A free and just society is an active, constant creation, much like love, and speaking freely and truthfully is a crucial part.

But just because it is your right to say it doesn’t mean it’s right to say it. I’m not talking about political correctness or other people telling you what not to say — censorship of all kinds is frightening. I’m talking about taking responsibility for the power of your words.

Words are very powerful. “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” is a flat-out lie. Satire is a particularly powerful tool, because of the way it can speak truth to power. This is where Charlie Hebdo was right, and this is also where I think they were wrong.

We’ve been hearing a lot that Charlie Hebdo is an equal opportunity satirist. However, the implications of making fun of different people are really different. Satire is imbedded in the political and social structure — it’s whole role is to comment on that structure. But that means that it can’t escape the power dynamics of race, gender, class, and the colonial residues that are part of that culture.

Making fun of Islam in a country that a) colonized a lot of North Africa, and b) has a long history of marginalizing Muslims, and c) etc. is not the same as lampooning the president or the Catholic Church. It’s not speaking truth to power — it’s picking on the underdog. Clearly, the editors thought differently, as is their right. And I may be missing something, since I’m getting these cartoons in translation. But the conversation I’m interested in isn’t so much about that particular newspaper as it is about free speech and responsibility — both of the speaker and of their society.

We have the right to write all kinds of things. I can say anything I want to about your mother (as long as it’s true!), or talk endlessly about my own boogers. If I want to do these things, I shouldn’t be censored, but I can be held responsible for what I say.

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about one of my favorite essays, “Boats Is Saintlier Than Captains,” by Robert Bringhurst. It’s an essay ostensibly about morality, language, and design, but it doesn’t stop there.  He says that “there are always plots afoot to limit the moral sphere. These schemes are often called philosophies, but they are rarely more than claims to the ownership of power….” He goes on to define morality as a “working relationship” with humans, other life forms, objects and ideas. Artists are those who “act from a developed moral sense towards certain inanimate things.” Paint, or wood, or cartoons, for instance. This doesn’t make artists more moral than other people, it just means that “the artist is, in his particular field, articulate. We might, in a healthy culture, ask the artist to meet many more criteria than that.

What criteria might we ask our satirists to meet? That they write courageously in the face of intimidation, yes, but perhaps also that they write from a spirit of love, or that they pick their targets with the good of people in mind, or that they are wise, or kind, or genuinely funny. And what about the rest of us writers?

This (along with how to keep the recent events from fueling Islamophobia) is the conversation I hope we all have.

(A couple relevant links:  In a look at the problems with the cartoons, Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian wrote, “Nobody should have been killed over those cartoons. Fuck those cartoons.” And an interesting article from 2012 in Slate about the hypocritical way we treat offensive speech against Jews vs. that against Muslims.)

I’m Alive! You’re Alive!

YOUR FLU SHOT IS WAITING, said the sign outside Bartells, when I drove home from work last Friday. Ha! Who needs a flu shot, I said, through a tickle in my throat. The next day, that tickle was a mild cold. I went hiking. The day after, it was a bad cold. I played Scrabble on the couch. The day after that, it was the full-blown flu, and I slept except when I was blowing my nose or rolling over or groaning. Nate made me tea and drew me a bath and put my pj pants on me like I was a toddler. He rubbed garlic and oil on my feet and put plastic bags and socks on over. The garlic made its mysterious way up through my feet and into my breath, loosening my lungs on its way — my dad’s most folksy cure.

The next day, things got better, and it was like the whole world was new. Tiny things became incredible. I ate a tangerine. Kazam! The perfect orange sweet flesh zing. The rain fell on my hands. It was cold and I didn’t scrunch away from it. Alive!