Plague Poems #10


Conspiracy Theory

For Laura McCormick

How quickly we are usurped.

A few weeks in our own zoo
banging on the cages,
occasionally escaping to spread germs and havoc
—and look!
Not just squirrels and rats and foxes
and raccoons and coyotes and bunnies
and bears and ducks and geese
who already cohabit easily
and otherwise with us, but

lions sprawling on South African golf courses,
sunning themselves on the manmade savannah,
rhinos and elephants strolling through Nepal and Thai towns,
taking shortcuts formerly denied them,
deer herds lounging on the green in East London
where the best forage is,
kangaroos hopping down empty Adelaide streets
because they can,
ostrich flocks reasserting themselves everywhere
because they’re pushy birds anyway,
elephant seals sunning on the quays of Argentina
and some poor sod’s small sailboat
like it’s a party, man,
cougars prowling yards from Colorado to South America,
reclaiming their native grounds,
wild boar foraging on the streets of Paris and Arizona,
sheep on the merry-go-rounds in Scotland,
some rarely seen ring-tailed creature in the striped crosswalk in India,
otters, capybara, mountain goats frolicking
in the middle of cities—
reasserting their ownership.

We have always thought this world was ours
with our opposable thumbs, our big brains,
our upright posture, our tools and weapons.
But our fellow inhabitants
have been sending in the occasional bear or fox or coyote
to challenge that notion—more often, lately—as they see us
wobbling on our hind legs, less sure of ourselves than before,
muttering about climate change, and hot zones, and “that lab in Wuhan.”

Don’t blame the pangolins,
or the Homo sapiens in lab coats. All this time,
it’s been the bats
brewing our demise.

‒May 2, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner

Stupid Rules of Which I'd Like to Rid Myself

Badgirl MoiI don't like making New Year's resolutions, but I usually take on a project of changing something about myself, big or small, each year. Sometimes they're on-going, life-long projects, like getting a grip on my temper (notice I didn't say anger; there's a real difference. I've come to realize that anger is just fine; it's what you do with it that can be a problem.) Sometimes they're just small things, like getting some clothes that don't make me look like I'm wearing a sack. A lot of them are anxiety-producing rules for good behavior from the 1950's middle class upbringing I had, the one that was always at war with my dad's blue collar "lack of manners." I've made peace with my affection for using four-letter words, which, like smoking on the street, I was taught ladies never did. I've made peace with the fact that I'm not ever going to be a lady. I can simulate one, and I clean up well, so that's okay. Some of them are social control rules I learned growing up in a small town or as a pre-feminist, and were part of the reason I embraced feminism and fled to New York. And it's funny how many of these rules come to me in my mother's voice, too. She was great at communicating her anxiety about other people's opinions of her to me. Some of these, though, are self-imposed and come out of my own social anxiety about being "correct" and accepted. I suppose some of that is only-child anxiety, but they're not relevant now. I have a huge, accepting, beautifully varied family of choice now.

I still have these rules in my head, 50 years later and that's boggling in and of itself. It's time to let go of some of them. Here's a few of them. Don't laugh. I said they were stupid.

  1. Not ending sentences with a preposition. Fuck that.
  2. Certain foods can only be eaten at particular times of day (breakfast food must be eaten at breakfast; dinner leftovers aren't breakfast food; etc.). 
  3. All barns look good painted red.
  4. The bed must be made every day.
  5. Act your age.

That's probably enough for the moment. And not all of these are completely bad, like making the bed every day. I like getting into a neat bed at night. But some days, that three minutes it takes to make it is just more than I have. So what? I will stop feeling bad about it.

I should explain that #3 is a saying of my mother's meaning that wearing red, especially if you're fat, invites unfortunate comparisons. I've had a life-long aversion to the color because of that, even though I look good in it. How stupid is that?

Number 5 needs some explaining too. I've always had this distinction in my head between being an adult and being a grown-up. Grown-ups are boring and all about responsibility and maturity; adults are mature and responsible, but still know how to have fun. Now that I'm 50, I feel a totally unreasonable internal pressure to be a grown-up. There's a lot wound up in this: looking younger than I am, being a very responsible and precocious child, discussions about dressing age appropriately, a society that wants older women to fade into the woodwork. I've been dressing more conservatively as I got older, thanks in part to corporate jobs, and I kinda miss my loud colors and wild earrings and socks and shoes. Living in New York also did some of that, where black is just easier to take care of, but this is a fashion capital too, and I'm an artist, so I'd like to get some of my funk back:  cobalt hair, a visible tattoo. I'm tired of the camouflage, because it's becoming counterproductive. I'm short, round, older and rapidly becoming invisible. Nice in that I don't get harassed as much, but annoying as hell when I'm trying to get waited on.

And what is age-appropriate? I don't necessarily think the schoolgirl look is a good one for 30-year old women, but I don't think forcing older women into widows weeds is a good idea either. So what's age appropriate? And who gets to define that? Same with behavior. Tantrums aren't pretty on anyone, but I'm appalled by my growing anxiety to be home before midnight, as though I were Cinderella. WTF is up with that?

I'll let you know how it goes.

feminism and me—it's complicated

HotheadPaisanMary Daly died recently, and that has set me to thinking about my relationship with feminism, since so much of it is wound up in my relationship to religion. My mother was a proto-feminist who taught me that girls could be anything they wanted to be, and made damn sure I went to college, because education was the way to economic independence. At the same time, the religion we belonged to told us we were to be subordinate to male authority and not allowed to teach in church, while at the same time women did the majority of the grunt work in evangelizing from door to door, which was a big part of worship. So we could serve in the trenches, but not at the "altar." And that was different from Catholicism or mainstream Protestantism (or any other religion) how? Women's studies courses and departments were just a gleam in most feminsts' eyes when I was an undergrad, but the college I went to was strongly feminist and had its own radical tradition. That's where I first read Mary Daly and heard her mentioned (I forget by whom) and ran into the idea of God the Mother for the first time. And didn't that rock my world.

At the same time, there was something uncomfortably male-hating about many of the feminists I knew then. There was a strong separatist contingent at the school, and that turned me off. Men were a pain in the ass, but I wasn't by any means sexually attracted to women (I know this may come as a shock to some of you), so what's a girl to do? I distanced myself from the feminists. It didn't change how I acted or dressed or how I felt about sexism (wrong, immoral, vile) or my propensity to call people on it, but I stopped calling myself a feminist.

Then I went to grad school, where I was talked over in class by guys and had my ideas paid attention to only when they were picked up and repeated by men. And that pissed me off enough to reclaim that label. I haven't stopped calling myself a feminist since. Getting jobs outside academe only reinforced that choice. Male behavior is so often institutionally, deliberately, casually, and/or even just unconsciously sexist that it's impossible to live as a self-aware, intelligent, and self-confident woman and not want to call somebody on some kind of stupid sexist shit at least once a day, usually more. Sometimes with a frying pan upside the head. With hot grease in it.

We live in a culture—hell, a world!—that systematically and consciously not only devalues women but, in many cases, actively beats them down and beats them up. In addition to the gap in pay, the lack of support for children and family issues, and the general marginalizing and silencing of women, there's the outright violence. Far too many of my students are living day to day with male partners who threaten their safety and well-being physically or emotionally or psychologically. At least once a semester I deal with a student who is either going into, living in, or coming out of a domestic violence shelter—or who needs to get into one and doesn't realize it yet. Sometimes it's more than one. That movie "Precious"? Ask my students how real that is. Many, many of them have been raped in the past, sometimes more than once. And it's not just my students in their socioeconomic ghetto, it's my friends, as well, rich and poor, educated and not. I can count on one hand the number of my female friends who have not endured some kind of sexual or physical or emotional assault from men. It's enough, really, to make any woman a riot grrrrl, like Hothead Paisan.

But. There's always a but, in any movement. They're never all good, no matter how noble the cause, because people are complicated. And the "but" in my case is the constant rage and utter joylessness in so many feminists. Lately, I'm feeling a little bombarded by it in blogs, books, articles, whatever. Even when there are steps being taken to change people's ideology and awareness, even when there is something positive happening, it never seems to be enough for some folks. It's a bit like the people who are pissed off with Obama for not initiating the changes they wanted instantaneously upon taking office. Here's an example, just a small one:

A comic I read with regularity, "Luann," apparently does not pass muster in this particular instance, even though it has a main character who is a strong, independent female firefighter who fixes her own cars and extricated herself from an abusive relationship to have one with a guy who happens to appreciate her just the way she is—not, incidentally, just because she's beautiful. The writer then goes on to carp about how comics are just not as funny as they used to be. Boohoo.

I really like this comic for precisely the reasons I state above. Toni is a great role model for girls: a fully realized person, and a woman who is strong and self-confident enough to have rescued herself and work in a male dominated field and find a new guy who respects her strengths and abilities. This is not feminist enough how? Taken out of the context of the storyline, this panel isn't a particularly funny comic but I fail to see the outright sexism. In context, it takes on a different meaning, one not particularly insulting at all: Toni's got a better touch with Brad's car and that makes Brad feel inadequate and betrayed by his own possessions. That doesn't mean he feels Toni is inferior in any way. I feel that way every time a tech person can get my computer to do stuff I can't, regardless of the tech person's gender.

And there's more carping at something that is not "enough" in some way: sending special care packages to women soldiers with (gasp!) make-up and Cosmo in them! That the Dove self-esteem campaign actually helps sell Dove products at the same time it raises girls' awareness of the fakeness of advertising! That the Nicholas Kristoff/Cheryl WuDunn book Half the Sky does "more harm than good" by not being a weighty, theory-heavy tome! Jesus, people.

My point is that if you are going to take active offense at everything that is not perfect, or not just the way you think it should be, you will hate everything in the world, including yourself. Lighten the fuck up, and stop the navel-gazing. The suffering of women is not the center of the universe or the source of all injustices or problems in the world. Yes, the world would be a far, far better place if women were respected and valued in equal measure to men. It would also still not be a utopia.

While I happen to agree with Barbara Ehrenreich's thesis that too much positive thinking is akin to brainwashing, I think that applies in the opposite direction as well. Anger can be a very powerful force for good in the world, but on its own, cut loose from compassion or any sense of joy in life, it becomes destructive, self-destructive; coupled with any ideology without the tempering of joy or compassion, it becomes fundamentalist extremism. We've all seen how destructive and dangerous that is, to those who swallow that joyless ideology, to others who refuse to embrace it, and to the movement itself. If we don't use our anger constructively, if we only see what's wrong and not what's right and what's changing, we risk losing people who may support us and yet cannot bear to see everything in the world as a horror show. Every war needs victories and needs to celebrate and enjoy those victories to have the heart to keep fighting. Don't rob people of that.

Feminist-BookstoreI keep this Callahan cartoon around to keep me honest in my feminism.  Yes, it's a stereotype, but every stereotype exists because somewhere, somebody fits it. Ask yourself, sistah, if it's you, and how much your own attitude is making you miserable—and hindering the movement, too.

thought for the day

Badgirl Moi I thought maybe I'd start sharing some of my favorite quotations. I've amassed quite a few and what's the point if I don't share them? So probably once a week or so, I'll drop one of these in here. I'm sort of working my way backwards on the list, as this is one of the most recent ones, which I've taken from Neal Stephenson's most recent novel Anathem, strangely appropriate to the present economy:

Fraa Erasmus (a cosmologist): "I always tend to assume there's an infinite amount of money out there."

"There might as well be," [Fraa] Arsibalt said, "but most of it gets spent on pornography, sugar water, and bombs."


If you can't be famous, be notorious

ConfusedmoiOkay, this is getting very weird. There I am lecturing away in class about Realism, Naturalism, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Experimental fiction, New Journalism and all those other isms when another faculty member knocks on my door and asks if she can come in for a second and advertise some new classes being offered. No problem. She introduces herself, I introduce myself. I barely get the first syllable of my last name out when she says, "Oh, Professor Kottner! I've heard about you!" and obviously in a good way, not that, "I've heard about you, missy! And you're in deep shit!" way.

Can I just say how utterly bewildered I am by this? I mean besides being called "Professor Kottner"? (At least it's not Fraulein Doktor Professor Kottner.) It's starting to freak me out, because every time I speak to one of the regular faculty I get the same response: "Oh, I've heard about you," or "I've heard good things about you." Not that I'm complaining. It's infinitely better than having the more or less complete strangers who are my colleagues come up to me in the hall and go, "I've heard you suck!" But still, it's a little weird that everyone I meet at school, including the students, says the same thing.

Continue reading "If you can't be famous, be notorious" »

It's, Like, An Epidemic, Like

GimmestrengthmoiThe sponsoring association may be fictitious, but I almost wish it weren't. God knows the MLA is officious enough, and I hate the Language Police as a general rule, but enough is enough, people. I don't hear this particular tic much here; maybe it's a SoCal thing. We've all got verbal tics, you know? Our spoken vocabularies are usually smaller, and that contributes to the problem but sometimes it's hard to tell if the speaker is just shy, inarticulate, or, well, just plain stupid. You decide. (h/t to MG) I


Archaeology, Science, Beer

Beermug_moiJen and I had a great conversation recently about the pervasiveness of science in our lives. It really is everywhere: your furniture (engineering in the milling of the pieces and metal that connects it), the obvious places like your computer and media, textiles (weaving and spinning were some of the earliest technologies); the paint on your walls (chemistry); your transportation (engineering and physics); most of our jobs involve some kind of science, even if we're only pushing electronic paper (computer science). Even agriculture is a science: fertilizers, crop rotation, planting and harvesting technologies.

Then there's beer.

Ben Franklin's assertion that "beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" goes farther than any number of scriptures in proving His existence to my mind (even though the quote itself may be a fake). And the quest for substances to "make us happy" has a led to a lot of scientific advancements, not the least of which is basic chemistry (One of my favorite breweries, Magic Hat, actually has a brew called Chaotic Chemistry). Beer is based on the chemical transformation of starch and sugars into alcohol through the use of biological agents (yeast). The fermentation still is one of humanity's greatest inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel, in my personal opinion.

There are scholars who actually spend time studying the history of beer and brewing (why didn't I know these people in college? More importantly, why didn't I grow up to be one of them?) Irishmen Declan Moore and Billy Quinn are two of them, and they set out to discover how Bronze Age Irishmen might have brewed up their IPAs. "This quest" they say in their very important article, "took us to Barcelona to the Congres Cerveza Prehistorica, [this sounds even better than the Medievalists' bash in Kalamazoo which is always a big party, and how did I miss this on my trip to Barcelona?] and later one evening in Las Ramblas in the company of, among others, an international beer author, an award winning short story writer, a world renowned beer academic ["Beer academic"?!? You mean that's a job description? Not a foible? Damn. . . .] and a Canadian Classical scholar - all of whom shared our passion for the early history of beer." Here's Dec and Billy's demo and tasting party, complete with grilled dead pig. Sláinte! And happy Fourth to all you Budweiser-swilling, grilling patriots, carrying on the long tradition of beer and pig-roast.

[Thanks to North Atlantic Skyline for the tip]

The Church of Typography

Going_to_church_moiLdsposterEvery now and then my worlds collide, producing some really interesting mashups. I love cathedral and church architecture, especially the Gothic and neo-Gothic. I love typography and I'm a big fan of poster art of all kinds, but especially letterpress. So I was in a little ecstasy of delight when I ran across this amazing, amazing piece of typographical design by Cameron Moll, via Veer's website (click the "Ideas" tab for more coolness from Veer). You can see other pictures of it at Veer's website or order one for yourself. Half of them are gone already, at $50 a pop + postage and I just ordered one for myself, so if you love this kind of stuff, get on it now. I'll let you know how glorious it is and gloat a little when it arrives. Just the pictures have really knocked my socks off.

Ldstemple This is only a detail of the whole 16"x24" print which is a rendering of the main Latter Day Saints Temple in Salt Lake City [click for full size pics]. Though it was designed to advertise a design review independent of the church itself, there was a time when I would have hesitated to buy this because of what it depicted. I'm not a Mormon and never was, but you have to admit that their Salt Lake City Temple is a gorgeous building, just like Notre Dame or Westminster Abbey, Wells Cathedral, or my personal favorite, St. John the Divine. The church I used to be part of spent a lot of energy separating itself from what it called "Christendom," or the general community of Christian beliefs in all their various sects and schisms. No grand buildings for them, just plain meeting halls (that were somehow still too sacred to play a little jazz in for my mother's funeral; guess God doesn't like jazz). So I often felt a bit guilty for my love of soaring Gothic arches and stained glass, for the grandeur of these enormous churches built to the glory of God. There were people of my faith who wouldn't even go to a relative's wedding if it was held in a church, as though entering that building would somehow contaminate them. That always struck me as overly superstitious anyway, especially since we were taught that a building was just a building. (I'm not sure when that changed, or if that was a personal quirk I encountered at Mom's memorial service.)

Part of me understood that impulse to build these grandiose buildings that reach to heaven, to build a place not for God to dwell in, because that obviously wasn't necessary, but a place to reflect the grandeur of creation and to have a little part in it too. But I understand too the flip side that sees it as a waste of money that could have been used to feed the poor. I've always thought Christ's response to the the woman who washed his feet with expensive oil was a little enigmatic and harsh. Yes, it was an act of worship, but I empathized with the disciples who thought it was a waste of money too. They're competing sensibilities that don't co-exist very easily, similar to the impulse that wants to make art that reflect's God's glory warring with the concept of idolatry. No easy answers to that one either, like most such questions.

Since starting this blog, which seems to have been a watershed moment, a turning point, I've encountered more and more little things that used to a source of conflict and guilt for me that no longer have to be. It's liberating and scary at the same time, like all changes. But it also allows me to find beauty everywhere and surely beauty is a part of whatever the term god should mean to us.

[Cross posted in much shorter form at Spawn of Blogorrhea]

George Carlin, 1937-2008 RIP

Georgecarlinrh04_2 George Carlin, one of my heroes, has died at the age of 71—way too young for such a free spirit and incisive observer of the absurdities of life and language. Fitting that he was recently honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor; I can't think of anyone's style that reminds me so much of Twain: irreverent, sarcastic, disrespectful, and fearless. One routine he'll go down in history for was the Seven Words You Can't Say on TV:

"The original seven words were, shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands and (laughter) maybe, even bring us, God help us, peace without honor (laughter) um, and a bourbon."

New York radio station WBAI let him say them on the air in the early 70's and in 1978, the obscenity case went to the Supreme Court, where the censuring and censoring was upheld, perpetuating stupidity like the fines for the Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction." Carlin was particularly good at pointing out societal hypocrisy, which is probably one of the reasons I loved him so: "The word shit, uh, is an interesting kind of word in that the middle class has never really accepted it and approved it. They use it like, crazy but it's not really okay. It's still a rude, dirty, old kind of gushy word. (laughter) They don't like that, but they say it, like, they say it like, a lady now in a middle-class home, you'll hear most of the time she says it as an expletive, you know, it's out of her mouth before she knows. She says, Oh shit oh shit, (laughter) oh shit. If she drops something, Oh, the shit hurt the broccoli. Shit."

I also loved his language consciousness. He did an entire routine on what he called "soft language" that's worthy of George Orwell's 1984 (see sidebar). You can see it here. He's so un-PC that it's wonderful, fearlessly pointing out that those nice comfortable words like "pre-owned" have simpler meanings, like "used": "It's getting so bad now that any day I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an 'unwilling sperm recipient.'" Language like this doesn't just distort truth, it's us bullshitting ourselves. Carlin had the same horror of  of euphemism that I do. In this routine, in fact, he rails against the use of the terms "pass away" and "expire" ("like a magazine subscription") for "died."

And now that he has, the language police have won a little victory.

[Cross posted at Spawn of Blogorrhea]

Teach the Controversy

TeachermoiI mentioned on my other blog that I've gotten back into teaching after a 10-year hiatus, and I'm loving every minute of it. At the moment, I'm teaching a class on journal writing at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx campus, and though I haven't taught this class before in any shape or form (which makes it a lot of prep work) I'm having a great time with it. I haven't had a group of people in a class that I've enjoyed so much since I taught honors science writing at MSU, one of my alma maters. My students absolutely rock; they're bright, motivated, funny, not afraid to talk back and challenge me. And they are so eager that they teach each other (and me) as much as I teach them. I'm high after every class, just from their energy.

Devil_2 But I digress. In the years since I've been away, especially from teaching science writing, the Creationists have started using a new tactic to get their bogus "science" taught in place of evolution which they call "Teach the Controversy." This is so wrong on so many levels, the main one being that there is no controversy. Evolutionary biology, while termed a theory (which is what scientists, in their caution, call a fully developed and tested set of ideas; and what else would you call that?), as an overarching paradigm is fact. Details are still being worked out, and disagreements about those details break out, but that doesn't mean there's any question about the theory's validity or truth. That's how science works; it's based on argument. There is something like a marketplace of ideas: the more testable facts, the better the argument, the more firmly it becomes an accepted part of the body of scientific knowledge. Intelligent Design, which is the latest thinly disguised Christian evangelical conversion tool, does not hold water, not even in the courts.

I'm not entirely opposed to the idea that there is a Creator out there somewhere. "How" S/He made it happen is less important to me than "if." I think evolution is a completely workable tool for developing life. Just because the human metaphor for making things involves factories and exacting, get-it-right-the-first-time craftsmanship doesn't mean it's the only way to accomplish that goal, especially when it comes to life. Evolution may, in fact, be the most efficient way of producing intelligent life. What looks entirely random and without structure to us, from inside the system, may actually be just be so extremely complex that we can't, at present, fathom it. It may be one of those things that we have to wait until the Post-Human to really grok.

GeocentricWhat's all this leading to? T-shirts. I was highly amused to run across Wear Science's Teach the Controversy designs on one of my favorite science blogs, Deep Sea News. I was so amused, in fact, that I bought myself a sun-yellow messenger bag with this design on it in blue. The one above, with a devil burying all those dinosaur bones, refers to the age of the earth problem and those pesky fossils of creatures that no longer exist that keep turning up. Young Earth creationists have been known to claim that God put them there as fossils when he created the earth. As I've said before, I think that's a pretty cruel and petty God to go obfuscating himself like that. Evolution is so much neater. But we all know the sun revolves around the earth. Right?