Mortality

Plague Poems #22

PandemicMoi

I'm in Facebook jail today for insulting white people, even though I am one and we are fucking stupid, so this is only going up here today. We'll see if it gets cross posted.  

[Edit: And the answer is ... Nope. Because I am offensive to some people. Poor little white snowflakes.]

 

The 100,000

Six full-page columns of unrelieved grief
in stark black and white for one paper,
“Second Coming” headline type for another.
Still, nothing conveys the enormity
of one hundred thousand lives
consumed
in this national dumpster fire of disbelief and inaction, not
the trenches in potters fields visible from space,
not the piles of coffins in funeral homes awaiting interment,
not the refrigerator trucks pressed into service as portable morgues
full of unclaimed and unclaimable bodies,
not the two-line obituaries of a mere one percent
of “human capital stock”
sacrificed to Mammon and Adiaphoron
stacked in neat rows of bold and Roman type
unbroken by a thousand-word picture
each one of them cries out for,
not the slap in the face
of black three-inch high numbers
heavy as a spray of blood
bludgeoning the reality
of mass death
into our thick skulls.
Nothing.

If you have a merciful god or gods
send up a sweet smoke to him or her or them
that they might turn away their wrathful faces
or at least mask them
because we won’t.

‒May 28, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #18

PandemicMoi

Abyss

We used to go for months—
sometimes years
—without seeing each other,
without speaking, even,
picking right up where we left off
over dinner and drinks
when one of us flew into town.
These are the best friendships,
we insisted, then, the strongest, when
you’re not in each others’ pockets
all the time.

And now we can’t be.

At best, we must,
for the sake of love,
stand six feet away,
air hugging and blowing kisses while masked,
handing off gifts and supplies
(which have become the same thing:
yeast, flour, bleach)
like a ransom drop,
latex or nitrile between us,
shouting down the street a muffled
Goodbye! Goodbye!
thinking, I hope that’s not the last.

Even letting that thought
seep up into consciousness
feels like a betrayal, a jinx,
like asking for it.

I always thought
I’d be good at this,
being thrown into solitary
in some imaginary place
where I am persecuted for my beliefs,
whatever they are,

until I discovered I’m not,

even here in my own comfortable home.
Perhaps if it were involuntary, or
something more radical,
something more righteous,
an enemy less invisible and
more political, an act more heroic
than saving somebody else’s life
with a piece of cloth and shouting distance,
than saving my friends and loved ones,
than merely keeping the abyss
from devouring us.

‒May 13, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #17

PandemicMoi

Classified

While we are counting and grieving the lives we have lost—
each someone loved, each life valuable, so many unnecessarily gone,
unable to even say goodbye before death, to hold funerals, to bury them,
instead filing them away in coffins in refrigerated trucks
against the time, if ever, when we can hold the proper rites and ceremonies
—our dear leaders are classifying those lives lost for us:

Not regular people: the folks who slaughter and pack your meat
(send them back to work!)

Lazy, cowardly takers: anyone afraid to go back to work
before we have treatments or vaccines

Fortuitous collateral damage: Black people and other minorities, the
majority of the deaths (Hey! Worth keeping this plague thing going for, right?

People who will make our Dear Leader or his sidekick boy wonder
 look weak to wear a mask around:
WWII Vets
factory workers making those masks
patients and health care workers at the Mayo Clinic
personal staff
Secret Service members (just another kind of a bullet!)
the entire West Wing (until it’s too late)
their own children

The minions follow suit, threatening anyone who calls them out
for standing too close, not wearing a mask, or menacing others
with guns and germs.
Anyone who disagrees with them is unAmerican.

Billionaires and shareholders and financiers agree:
Arbeit macht frei, especially when it is free
of liability, protection, or any care for your workers’ welfare.
We are just sacrifices for the growth of their portfolios.

If there is an actual war against this disease, in this country,
(and how our Dear Leader, the coward, likes that metaphor)
the front lines are hospitals and labs
and the real designated Heroes are there, toiling,
weeping, inadequately protected for the sake of our Dear Leader’s ego,
laying down their own lives for fellow citizens and other humans.
Meanwhile, Doctors Without Borders flies in
from some other third world country
to lend aid to Native Americans
who are not real Americans,
and should go back where they came from, after all.

There are not enough tests for all of us, but our dear leaders
get one or more every week.

We are not worthy.

‒May 12, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #13

PandemicMoi
On the heels of the realization that T-Rump is trying to kill us because he knows he can't get re-elected now, this seemed appropriate:
 
Curse
 
April 28, 2020, 3:55 p.m. EDT: After three months, the United States hits 1 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, one-third of the world’s total. By 5:40 p.m., 58,640 Americans had died—352 more than in 19 years of the Vietnam War.
 
What wall will we build for this?
Will it be pieces of that rusted steel
joke at the southern border, dismantled and
the names of the dead etched in acid
or carved through with fire?
 
I no longer have the words for this.
There is not enough articulate invective
to rain down
what this man and his minions
deserve in their exploitation and failure.
Even the careless recommendation
of cake to the starving
does not meet this benchmark of cruelty and
sadistic disregard for human life.
 
The war dead already mock him
in his cowardice.
But we too are in a war, and too busy
trying to live without the help
that is going to those who don’t need it
to have time for mere outrage.
It requires something cosmic:
 
—a lightning strike,
burning him up on the spot,
his corpulence catching fire
like one of Nero’s torches
on his Virginia golf course
 
—a funnel cloud reaching down
from the blue heaven of Florida
to sweep him into its bosom
and drop him from 10,000 feet
at Mar-a-Lago
 
—a meteorite, just a tiny one,
the fiery iron core all that’s left
from its trip through the atmosphere,
like a bullet through his head
outside his tower on Fifth Avenue.
 
And a timeless internal moment
of the utter awakening of his conscience
to the facts of his deeds
and their consequences
to torture him
beforehand.
 
‒April 30, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020
 

Plague Poems #12

PandemicMoi

Lucky

Lucky I moved before this happened,
so I’m not cooped up
in a run-down, over-subdivided, low-ceilinged fourth floor walkup
with my sullen roommate’s two cats shitting everywhere,
and a stifling eight by ten room
for work and privacy
to share with a fractious calico
of my own.
Lucky my new place is rent stabilized
and still affordable
so I don’t have to go on rent strike.
Lucky I am not still teaching
four classes at three colleges in two states
and trying to get them all online
on different platforms
at the same time,
knowing this is the end
of my precarious teaching career.
Lucky I have a job
that allows me to work from home
and sent me there early on
with technical support and assurances
of continuing employment—
lucky enough to be able to share
my puny stimulus check
with friends who haven’t yet gotten
their unemployment checks
or welfare.
Lucky I’ve got a good computer
to work from during the day
and Zoom with my friends for a small fee
and stream entertainment from
at night, when I’m restless and sleepless
and scared.
Lucky to have picked
a low density neighborhood
where I get an ocean breeze and
hear carillon bells every day at six
and only the occasional ambulance
taking the sick and dying to the hospital.
Lucky I have great healthcare
if I do get sick,
so a ventilator wouldn’t bankrupt me
if it didn’t kill me.
Lucky I’m white,
and my doctor would take me seriously
if I needed a test.
Lucky I don’t need anything more
than a handmade cloth mask
and lots of soap to stay
uninfected.
Lucky I can afford
to have my groceries
and nearly every other need
from liquor to cat food to vibrators,
delivered by people
less lucky
than me.

‒May 3, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #8

PandemicMoi

Cranky this morning after yesterday's encounters. So there's this:

Cover Up

Fashion statement or
cosplay for survival?
All the cool kids are doing it.

The DIYers are making their own
of every style, from
elastic ear-looped to tie-in-back,
to the full out Plague Doctor
like the Venetian Carnival
in steampunk leather,
Halloween latex,
or home-school cardboard
with lesson plans.
The less crafty among us
improvise with
long-sleeve tees, bandanas,
old nylons.
Designers offer
bright-colored fabrics
in bold patterns—all
to keep us from spreading
our poisonous spit
everywhere to everyone.

It’s not all fashion.
Some of us are desperate
for the medical- and construction-grade
versions, unlovely as they are,
because that’s what
the professionals need and
what the heroes wear
or the folks who
were smart or lucky or who
might die without them.

So now you can stop
mocking/fearing/hating
the woman in the niqab
who has always worn it to protect
her modesty, her reputation,
her way of life,
because her faith
asked her to.
You look just like her in that get-up
of a long-sleeved T-shirt
wrapped around your head.
And now you can stop
following black people
wearing medical masks
in the midst of a pandemic
around the grocery store,
like a racial profiling jackass.
And stop blaming Asian-Americans
for taking precautions
before it was cool.

Because contempt
for your fellow humans
is now bareface(d),
running, biking, shopping
with your sneer
clearly visible,
your ignorance plain to see,
your breath spewing time bombs and
spit flying like shrapnel
without regard for your neighbors.

Get a mask.
Nobody
wants to see
your infectious face.

‒28 April, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #7

PandemicMoi

I've been on a tear and wasn't sure what to post today, but I see the anti-lockdown assholes are at it again, so here's this:

Life, Liberty

For Dr. Lorna Breen (1971-2020), who survived COVID, but not treating it in the New York-Presbyterian emergency room in northern Manhattan.

Sunny today and 62,
the sky blue, leaves
unfolding like origami released
against it
as Spring eagerly erupts
after a week of cool rain and clouds.
I see only slices of it
from my windows,
under self-imposed
house arrest, voluntarily
immured like some anchoress.
Always a bit of a recluse,
staying at home has not been
much of a burden for me,
but I understand the difficulties
of sharing small spaces
with more than just an uppity cat—
the need for the touch of breezes,
for sunlight on the shoulders,
for the sense of unrestricted
space to move around in,
for some relative quiet and the presence
of others not contemptuously familiar
or dying.

My co-workers, whom I see in the ether
of the Internet each day,
mail occasionally to say they are going out
to exercise their kids, or dog, or themselves,
or just to get out while they can,
and come back with furious tales
of the unmasked and the too-close,
the heedless and the self-absorbed.
The missives sometimes sound too much
like Captain Oates’s self-sacrifice to the arctic blizzard.
I imagine the blizzard of virus particles
swirling in the air outside from an uncovered cough
and I stay inside,
in the luxury of assisted, privileged isolation,
listening to birds and helicopters
and sirens.

I think of Patrick Henry,
of World War II fascist fighters
like my dad, and
of all those forced
to go outside right now
to keep me safe, fed, comfortable
enough to keep propping up the economy
—and out of an emergency room—
like some pampered princess
on her mildly annoying pea,
and the people who are treating my sick friends
in crowded hospitals in New Jersey
and London and South Carolina:

It was my liberty or my death, knuckleheads,
not the death of others traded
for a superficial liberty
to do whatever you please, regardless
of consequences,
or liberty in death, unless
you have seen too much of it
and cannot face another,
not knowing
when it will stop.

What will you do with your liberty
when those you love are dead
of your gullibility, your ignorance, your faux patriotism,
of your inability to be temporarily inconvenienced,
or to sit with yourself or your kids or your mate,
or to lie in the bed you’ve made?
Who should die for you?
Do you know who has?
Are you counting them?

‒April 29, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner 2020


Plague Poems #6

PandemicMoi
Hunted

Every morning
I wake to the dawn ruckus of birds,
and the cat beside me,
her tail lashing
in the desire to be outside
and kill.
But this morning I wake late
and the cat is off
stalking water bugs
beneath the sink instead,
the sky is full daylight
but grey with rain,
and there is only
the lament of mourning doves
and a vague memory
of the tik-tik-tik-tik
of nearby lights changing from
red to white to red to white
in that hour
before dawn.

Something passed over
in the night,
touching me only with sleep.

Who’s to say why
I was not prey,
though I have been hiding
for 58 days now,
creeping out at night
to take out my trash,
skittering around the corner
—gloved and masked like a thief—
to forage for food every few weeks,
furtively washing my clothes
when no one else is,
opening the front door
only when I’m sure I will find
just a package and not
my fellow humans
waiting.
And washing, washing
like Lady MacBeth.

Perhaps one killer
in the house
was sufficient threat
for now.
The other one will eat me
when I’m dead.

‒April 27, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Plague Poems #3

PandemicMoi

Black Horses

I hear them in the night
when the flesh is weakest,
somewhere at a distance,
our little crossroads
of small houses and
apartments hardly taller
mostly spared
until today.

This one, brazen,
stopped right outside, silently
painting my walls red/white/red/white
under the storm-grey skies,
the driver and partner
masking and gloving up
like highwaymen
but carrying two tackleboxes
like fishers of souls.

It used to feel like help was coming
to see the strobes of light
come up the street and park.
Now it’s like seeing
the black coach-and-four of the Cóiste Bodhar and
the hearing the siren wail of the Bean-Sidhe.

And yet I called out the window
to thank them
for wading into a building
like a leper colony,
afire with infection,
only to be relieved, later,
to watch them leave again
without a passenger
and no hearse behind them—
no one overrun
by nightmares
this time.

‒April 23, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 2: Science Will Save Our Asses

PandemicMoiI got a private message from a FB friend recently that basically said she felt insulted because I argued with her about the folk "cures" and preventions that are going around the Interwebs (esp. Facebook) for COVID 19. She's learning to be an Ayurvedic therapist and feels, somehow, that this is on par with the level of knowledge that microbiologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, pharmaceutical and organic chemists, and MDs on the front lines of treatment are bringing to the COVID 19 table right now. Imma just say it: older is not necessarily wiser. 

The argument was over this piece of disinformaton (with my comments in brackets), which Snopes has debunked piece by piece:

Doctors are reporting they now understand the behavior of the COVID 19 virus due to autopsies that they have carried out. This virus is characterized by obstructing respiratory pathways with thick mucus that solidifies and blocks the airways and lungs. So they have discovered that in order to apply a medicine you have to open and unblock these airways so that the treatment can be used to take effect however all of this takes a number of days. Their recommendations for what you can do to safeguard yourself are ...

1) Drink lots of hot liquids - coffees, soups, teas, warm water. In addition take a sip of warm water every 20 minutes bc this keeps your mouth moist and washes any of the virus that’s entered your mouth into your stomach where your gastric juices will neutralize it before it can get to the lungs. [gastric acids do not kill it; it's been found in feces. Liquids must be 133° F—hot enough to scald you—to "kill" it.]

2) Gargle with an antiseptic and warm water like vinegar or salt or lemon every day if possible [only bleach, alcohol, and soap "kill" it. These gargles do nothing.]

3) The virus attaches itself to hair and clothes. And detergent or soap kills it but you must take bath or shower when you get in from the street. Avoid sitting down in your home and go straight to the shower. If you cannot wash your clothes daily, hang them in sunlight which also helps to neutralize the virus. [You do not need to wash your clothes every day or shower every time you go out. Nobody is doing this. Just don't shake what you've worn outside as it releases the virus into the air.]

4) Wash metallic surfaces very carefully bc the virus can stay viable on these for up to 9 days. Take note and be vigilant about touching hand rails, door knobs, etc. and keep these clean in home home [This is true.]

5) Don’t smoke [this is true in general.]

6) Wash your hands every 20 minutes with any soap that foams and do this for 20 seconds [You don't need to wash your hands every 20 minutes. Only if you've been outside or touched things that have come in from outside.]

7) Eat fruits and vegetables. Try to elevate your zinc levels [Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn't]

8)Animals do not spread the virus to people. Its a person to person transmission. [This is true.]

9) Try to avoid getting the common flu as this already weakens your system and try to avoid eating and drinking any cold things. [Getting the flu or anything else doesn't weaken your immune system. If you get too many things at once it might stress it though. Eating and drinking cold things don't affect you one way or the other; that's a holdover from Chinese folk medicine and they have a different definition of hot and cold foods that has nothing to do with temperature.]

10) If you feel any discomfort in your throat or a sore throat coming on, attack it immediately using the above methods. The virus enters the system through the throat but will sit in the throat for 3-4 days before it passes into your lungs. [The virus does not sit in the throat for 3-4 days. It immediately enters the mucosal tissue in the mouth and nose and starts replicating itself.]

In addition ...

Experts suggest doing this simple verification every morning: Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds. If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty, this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection. It is recommended to do this control every morning to help detect infection. [Fine. whatever]

The problem here is that the pathogenesis (how the virus infects and proceeds to make you sick) is not just factually false for this virus, but the recommendations are starting from a baseline assumption of some immunity. We've been exposed to cold and flu viruses for years and have some immunity even if those viruses mutate a bit. They are still cold and flu viruses, and we already have some antibodies to them floating around in our bloodstreams from exposure and vaccines. The blueprint for more antibodies is already programmed into us.

For this virus there is nada. Nunca. Nothing. Squat. Fuck all.

Those pre-existing antibodies from other corona viruses don't help. Our baseline means nothing right now. This is an entirely new species. It doesn't matter how healthy our immune system is because it has nothing to work with. We are starting from zero. None of these things mentioned above will help us produce antibodies to a brand new pathogen any quicker. Perfectly healthy people with well-functioning immune systems are getting this and are totally overwhelmed by it. Something similar happened with the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. It was the healthy people it really pummeled, overactivating their immune systems. We were terrorized by that virus for much the same reason that we are being terrorized by COVID 19: there were no vaccines to jumpstart our antibody production. We're at the mercy of this corona virus as we were at the mercy of Yersina pestis, the cause of the Black Plague—except that we now have Science on our side. 

When we talk about a "healthy" immune system, we're talking about one in which all the component parts function as they should. That's a lot of different kinds of cells, and a lot of complex processes. While it's true that being healthy in general, and eating real food that's good for you probably means your natural processes are getting the fuel they need to work as they should, that's no guarantee you won't get sick, because you can't guarantee you won't get infected with something. Some vitamins and minerals, which are best gotten through diet and not supplements, directly contribute to the healthy functioning of your immune system, but the way you boost it is to get vaccinated.

Vaccines provide the blueprint for possible future infections and prime the body to start producing the specific antibodies in large enough quantity to overwhelm and shut down the invader when it starts showing up in large quantities in your body, whether it's bacterial or viral. Without a vaccine for a pathogen, you have to fall back on treatment and support. For a totally new pathogen, finding a treatment is a bit hit or miss. You have to look at the symptoms and decide what's causing them, then match that up with an existing pharmaceutical that treats a similar problem. That may or may not work because you might have the wrong cause, or there's a different mechanism causing that symptom. Failing successful treatments, you can only support the body physically while it fights like hell to produce enough antibodies on its own to kill or deactivate the invader. In the worst cases of COVID-19, that can mean ventilators, because the most horrifying and critical symptom is the production of bloody mucous that floods the lungs. Sometimes the support is enough. Sometimes it's not.

Common sense should tell you that if gargling and good food and not smoking and avoiding the flu were enough to prevent getting this, we wouldn't have an out-of-control pandemic. People like to think they can do easy things to avoid terrible consequences because we're all basically lazy and it gives us a sense of control. Good news! In this case, you can do some easy things to avoid getting sick:

  1. Stay the fuck home. If at all possible, don't go out for groceries or anything else for the next three weeks, especially if you live in New York (we're kinda fucked right now). Isolation will stop this virus dead in its tracks. That's the best case scenario and it's not going to happen. The best we can hope fore is keep it from overwhelming our medical facilities. Staying home is literally the best thing you can do. 
  2. If you do have to go out, wear gloves and a mask, don't touch your face, and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. I know the evidence for cloth masks is uncertain right now but here's something else to think about: a mask reminds you to not touch your face, and it keeps other people safe from you by catching the moisture from your breath. It's also a reminder that this is serious business.
  3. When you get home, or when you touch anything you or other people have brought in from outside, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after you've disinfected what's been brought in with a bleach solution or wipes (or Lysol), or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it. If you're wearing gloves, peel them off so they turn inside out, and for God's sake, don't throw them away in the parking lot of the grocery store. Who do you think is going to have to pick them up, and why are you spreading your germs around more?

You won't kill the virus doing any of these things, but you will thwart its spread or deactivate it. I use the word deactivate because viruses, bless their freaky little selves, are not living things. They are molecular constructs built to deliver RNA or sometimes DNA to the interior of a host cell to hijack the host's replication machinery and insert its own genes to make more of itself rather than the host cell. In the case of the corona virus, there's a lipid (fat) shell, holding together little protein molecules that bind with the surface of the host cell and let it penetrate the host. When you wash a greasy pot with soapy water, the grease breaks down and washes away. Same thing with the virus. When the soap breaks the lipids down, the virus falls apart and the mechanism by which it enters a cell becomes inert. Deprived of moisture, it dries out and falls apart, also becoming inert. So you want to either break down the lipid shell or dehydrate it. Soap, bleach or alcohol are the only things that do this.

So if somebody is telling you to use vinegar or peroxide or some other non-toxic "natural" cleaner, wake them up. I've been moving from some of the more egregious chemical cleaners to less toxic ones; I clean my windows with vinegar instead of Windex, for instance. But I keep bleach and alcohol in the house to disinfect surfaces and really ugly wounds (like cat punctures), respectively. This is a mean virus and it needs to be dealt with harshly. Bleach, soap, alcohol. This is what the scientists tell us, and they've been doing their damnedest to keep us all safe. The other people telling you other stuff? At least some of them are out to make a buck. Some of them mean well but don't have any scientific basis for what they're saying. Some of them don't believe in science, and those are the most dangerous.

Rigorous, science-based medicine and hygiene based in germ theory are the new kids on the block, relatively, but the track record for them is a hell of a lot better than anything else we've come up with in the last 6,000 years for just about any acute and infectious disease and condition that you can name: typhoid, yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rubella, chicken pox, small pox, intestinal ulcers, cancer—you name it. Anything that was a scourge to humans before germ theory and antibacterials and antivirals, western medicine has done a great job of getting a handle on it. So great that people have forgotten what it's like to live just like we're living now: in terror of something that we can't see without a microscope. People who got AIDS or were at risk for it remember, but the treatment and prevention of it have been so successful in my lifetime that the younger generation has never experienced that terror, either, and has too often thrown caution to the wind. That's the beauty of science based medicine: it's its own worst PR. But no other theory of health successfully found the cause, explained the mechanism, and developed those treatments and preventions. No other system is going to do it now. Peer reviewed, systematic, replicable science is going to save our asses.

Unless you can explain the actual mechanism of how what you're touting works on this virus and its symptoms in the body, just sit down and let the experts save lives. Stay at home, sanitize with bleach or alcohol or soap, wear a mask if you go out, and wash your damn hands in the meanwhile.


Catching Up, Starting Over

Feeling My Age MoiOkay, so it's been a while. The last thing I actually wrote, as opposed to just posting some graphic, was in 2015, about a year before I lost my summer teaching job at NJCU and things started to change. I promised in the last post that there would be a catch-up about why I haven't written anything here lately, and this is it. Its a long and kinda of ugly story, about five years worth of ugly story that I'm still sorting through and—though I hate this word—processing. Where one enters a story is crucial and I don't know where to do that to explain this to you; five years is a long time to encapsulate.

Encapsulate. Huh. The image I have of that is of a sliver, a piece of shrapnel that can't be removed, enveloped and surrounded by the body, encased, so it does no more harm, so the sharp edges are blunted and infection doesn't spread. That seems apt.

As I said, it's a long, convoluted tale with numerous actors and locations and consequences, bad employers and good employers, brokeness and broken-ness, desperation and relief, good friends and bad. It involves another move, a new job, the end of a friendship, another rescue cat, and what it feels like to be starting over while pushing 60. All kinds of doors opening and closing, losses and gains. I'm not sure how important the details are and I don't want this to sound like a wailing litany of misery, because it wasn't. It was just Not Right, and Not Good For Me.

O Hindsight, You are a Cruel Bitch.

IMG_0858
In Parkchester

Let's try this: back up a bit, to June 2013, when I take in a Friend who is jobless and being evicted from her apartment. Foreshadowing: I'm the only one of her friends or family to offer to do this. I'm living in Parkchester (pic at right) and have an extra bed, though the apartment is only a one-bedroom. She has two teeny cats that my then-beastie, HRH Queen Mab the Cruel and Beautiful, loathes (and has met before since Friend had been HRH's initial rescuer). So right off the bat, we have cat fights and separate litter boxes (more foreshadowing). I think the stress of two cats in her territory made HRH sick and killed her before she should have died. She gets sick and I have to put her down not long after the Friend moves in. That breaks my heart.

The humans living together doesn't go too badly otherwise, though we are worlds apart in ideas about neatness and cleanliness. Friend makes an effort, which I appreciate, though I fail to fathom people who have no personal concept of "cleaning up after yourself." She's getting welfare and SNAP benefits, but there's no way in hell I'm not going to share my food with someone who needs to eat, regardless of what those fuckers in the benefits office think is reasonable. Six months in, she gets a job, though the salary is minuscule and generally unlivable, and offers to split the rent. I tell her to keep it, to start getting herself back on her feet, thinking she'll use this as a launch pad to a better job.

About that time, my landlady, a friend of a sort-of former friend (there's another long story, but I have no need or desire to go there), informs me she's selling the condo I'm renting from her and offers me a very generous "buy out." Roommate and I decide we "haven't killed each other yet" (her words) and decide to keep living together to help each other out (my words). I still have to borrow money from my friends (you know who you are and I am still paying you back) to move us to a new place, smaller and four flights up, in Harlem, that Friend finds through her connections. It has the potential to be a cute apartment with decent amenities, but this is where it all goes to shit.

First of fall 2016-1
From the Dunbar, Harlem

I run out of money and can't retrieve roommate's stuff from storage after all, as I'd promised (although she's been working for three months now, she's contributed little more than half of one month's rent; I've covered the damage deposit and brokers fee, in addition to moving expenses and my half of the rent); I don't know what else to do but apologize, which I do. When it comes time to write the checks for rent after the moving is done, I get "billed" for her storage fees for the next couple months, until I reasonably ask why I'm paying for her storage. This precipitates screaming accusations of me lying to her (and reveals her failure to hear my apology), but she starts writing her checks for the full amount of rent she owes.

When I try to talk to her about splitting chores, she looks at me like I'm asking her to murder her cats and just shakes her head in apparent terror. I cannot keep up with her failure to clean up after herself. It's like living with a frat boy who never puts anything away, never takes out the garbage, never cleans a dish, never mops, wipes a counter or sweeps, never washes out the sink or tub or toilet, doesn't scoop the cat box, and tramps through the apartment with wet and dirty feet without cleaning the mud off. I never unroll my good carpet. The cats use it as a scratching post.

We argue. Loudly. Not often, but enough that I start walking on eggshells, never sure what will set her off. I am now the enemy. We stop talking to each other except when necessary. I hate this. I don't mind confrontation, but I hate unnecessary conflict. We're two adults, we should be able to have a reasonable discussion without name calling and screaming accusations. I hate the person she brings out in me; it's one I've fought all my life not to be, with the temper I have. A lot of passive aggressive shit gets done by both of us because there's no possibility of reasonable communication and I will not be screamed at. The cats shit and piss all over the apartment, ruin my furniture and belongings, kill my plants. Roommate (no longer Friend) ruins a fair number of my possessions too, out of sheer carelessness. This goes on for a total of four more years. By the last year of it, I'm only sleeping and showering in the apartment. I've quit trying to clean it. Another friend who's only here part time lets me hang out at her place when she's not there. I'm not homeless in the literal sense of the word, but I'm Home-less. And Home is deeply important to me.

Working (For) It

In the meanwhile, in June of 2016, NJCU's shithead Badmins close down the Writing Center where I've been working over the summer, without any notice, leaving me and my colleagues unemployed. Director and staff wage a hard-fought battle for its life, but we lose. I'm literally a week or so away from utter penury and considering bankruptcy. Roommate offers no help, doesn't seem to give a shit. So much for mutual aid. 

MDRCVeseyCube2
My office cube at Vesey St.

Miraculously, after sending out at least a couple of resumes every week for, like, five years, I finally get an interview with a non-profit for nearly the same job I had at AKRF, lo these many years before. It's even in the same neighborhood. But, unlike ARKF, it's full time and the pay is much better, as are the benefits. It's a nerve-wracking couple of weeks before I get hired, but get hired I do. I'm sad to leave teaching. I'm sad, to be specific, to leave the classroom and my students. I am not sad to leave the exploitation, the terror of not knowing if I'll have classes enough to live on every four months, the scramble to get by, the utter insecurity, the indifference of Badmin to both students and professors, the indifference of tenured faculty to the ruination of their profession and the living conditions of their colleagues. I haven't had a full-time job since 1990 and I'm worried about how I'll feel about it after a while. I've loved having the freedom to create art, to sit in cafes and write, to be able to take terribly paid but deeply rewarding teaching jobs in my field—but not the freedom to starve. The economy has changed too much and I'm 56. Freelancing is too precarious. Teaching doesn't pay well enough and is also too precarious. I need new glasses, good healthcare, dentistry, disability insurance, a retirement plan. A decent salary. Safety nets. Stability. I have to start taking care of myself.

Thanks to eight years of lousy academic "salary" and sudden unemployment I am up to my ass in debt: friends, credit cards, federal and state taxes. My credit rating is in the toilet. But I'm working now, in a great job with great people, and working toward getting the fuck out of this apartment. I cannot stand it any more. I start squirreling away cash in a strong box under my bed. State tax arrears come due and suck up all  my meager disposable income. This job is good, but it's not that good. Friends come to my aid—swarm to my aid—in a GoFundMe and I manage, with their financial and physical help, to get out of Harlem and into a new apartment in March of 2018. (Shout out here to Daniel Chow of Leonidas Realty, who really went to bat for me.) In a final fit of rage when I don't sign the lease again, Roommate accuses me of "always getting what I want." I'm not sure what that means. That I was supposed to keep taking care of her? There had been signs of that all along, and resentment when I haven't. She's still in the same badly paying job she was in five years ago, having made no effort to move on. Last I hear, she is in North Bergen, New Jersey, commuting to Times Square every day. 

20181021_204641
Jillybean Calico

A few months before this, I find a little hell-cat calico abandoned in her carrier on the street, with the door left open. She's scared and fiesty as hell, but I get her shots and spayed and move her into my bedroom, like I did with Taz, the tuxedo the Roommate brought back after her wee sister cats died. This calico stays nameless for a long time because I'm trying not to get attached to her, thinking it's going to be hard enough leaving Taz, who thinks she's mine. I don't have the emotional wherewithal for any more cats, or the income. But eventually, she convinces me that I'm hers now, and that her name is Miss Jillybean Calico. She's full of piss and vinegar and made of sharp edges, but a great snuggler and funny as hell. She comes with me out to Brooklyn in her carrier, in the front seat of another friend's car, and when I cut her loose after the movers have gone, she runs around the apartment in utter joy at all the space and snarls like a cougar that this is hers now. All of it. Me included.

It seemed to take a Herculean effort to move this time. It was too messy, in too many stages, and the last one involved way too much of me running up and down four flights of stairs, throwing out my possessions. I think that finally broke me, physically. Six months out, I'm just starting to feel a tad less exhausted and getting some stamina back. It's taken me that long to unpack, too. The last two boxes were just emptied this weekend, and the contents await the pleasure of the people I've offered them to, or of folks who will love them more than I do. 

This account, of course, has two sides, and many more details of everyday cruelties offset with moments of beauty. Harlem is a great neighborhood and I liked it up there. It feels like New York in a way Brooklyn or anywhere else I've lived doesn't. It's a close-knit neighborhood. I wish I could have afforded to stay, but it's just as well I couldn't. It doesn't need white people. It needs more well-paid Black folks loving it so people like me can go enjoy the great jazz spots, the restaurants, the architecture and art, and go home to elsewhere, leaving our money behind. I always felt a kind of guilt living in Harlem, and a lot like an interloper. Part of the problem, not part of the solution. So as much as I liked living in that part of Manhattan, I don't particularly miss it. 

As for the friendship that went south, well, after enduring four years of verbal abuse, false accusations, and irresponsibility, I don't miss that either. When people show you who they are, believe them.

Home Again, Home Again

20191005_132738
Fall in Bath Beach

The City of New York took a while to feel like home, but it's definitely that after 33 years. But nobody lives in the City of New York; you live in the neighborhood. In the run up to the move, I was forced to think about what I really require in a home and in a neighborhood. My previous moves have been opportunistic or of necessity. This time, I had the opportunity to find somewhere that felt like home, instead of having to wrest the idea from what I was given. I  had a cute, cheap apartment in Sunset Park, but the neighborhood was (then) pretty grungy and amenity-free. Parkchester was the closest to home that I've come, and I did love that apartment and neighborhood. But not the Bronx so much. Parkchester was an enclave, sadly, not part of a wider borough I felt at home in. Harlem was a great neighborhood that spoiled me in a lot of ways: great restaurants and bars, good grocery store, handy laundry, excellent cafes, libraries and bookstores, and a great commute. The building was seedier than it should have been, because it had clearly once been glorious, but the apartments had been chopped up and were tiny and claustrophobic, even without a roommate who, left to her own devices, would cover the floor knee-deep with her detritus. My bedroom barely held my queen-size bed, a dresser, my hope chest, and a dry sink. The closet was like a coffin. So was the room, after a while. I don't know how Jillybean survived in it for as long as she did. I'm not sure how I did, either.

I stopped looking for a new place in the Bronx after a while, disheartened by grunge and distance, and focused on Brooklyn. When I saw the picture of the building I'm in now, something about it just felt right. It was the third place I looked at on a really raw, rainy day and even in the dark, I knew this was it. I don't know what made it so, but I basically just told the realtor to take my money once we got inside. I gave them the down payment that night. Brooklyn feels like home and always has.

Some of my habitational requirements have been constrained by my accruing years. I'm done with non-elevator buildings unless I'm on the first floor. That's where I am now, with four steps up from the entry, and some days when I first moved in, it was all I could do to get up those. I don't know how I did four floors every day. I don't know how I dragged stuff up and down it. I want more quiet than I used to, and this is blissfully quiet. I want a neighborhood, like Parkchester, that I can walk around in and shop in, and Bath Beach is definitely that.

I'm still discovering its charms. Every workday, I stop and chat with Phyllis, my Jewish neighbor who feeds the pigeons at the end of the block. I say Ni hao! to the Chinese immigrant woman who fishes for cans and bottles in our recycling bins. Her smile is always luminous. The neighborhood is full of Chinese folks, storefronts in alphabets I can't read, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Russian, and Italian food markets. My neighbors are Polish and Russian immigrants and long-time Brooklynites. I haven't tried the restaurants yet, but there are several that look enticing. Still looking for a bar, but found a good diner and a couple of bakeries. I come home via Bay Ridge, and it half feels like an extension of my neighborhood, it's so close. I've discovered the good grocery stores (even the Key Food here has a great pasta selection; advantage of living in an Italian neighborhood): JMart, Net Cost, and the little Middle Eastern shop with barrels of turmeric and gram flour and a Halal butcher.

Being close to the water—smelling it, watching the freighters come in closer than I ever did on Lake Huron, hearing it crash against the breakwater—is heavenly. It's a low-rise neighborhood of two and three story houses and apartment buildings, tree-lined so heavily on my street that when I come home at night I have to have a flashlight in the summer. In the winter, Orion hangs in the sky over my building. I don't miss Northern Michigan, where I grew up, but I have missed being walking distance from water and seeing the stars and fireflies. On July 4th, there were 360 degree fireworks: Coney Island, Satan Island, on the bay, and behind us in the park. 

It's different out here, a bit more suburban, though still urban density without the high rises. I don't miss those either. Not quite car country like the interior of Bensonhurst or Satan Island. Enough of a commute to get some reading done again. If I had the heart for that.

Next! Next?

So here I am, back in Brooklyn, the borough where I started out in 1986, alone again in a 700 sq. foot ground-floor apartment half a block from the water, where I can see Orion in the winter sky and fireflies on the lawn (lawn!) in the summer. I have a hilarious, half-mad rescue calico whom I never meant to keep. I'm simultaneously deliriously happy, relieved, exhausted, and ... numb. I've never felt like this before, so I don't have words to describe it. I hesitate to call it PTSD because I don't feel traumatized; I might be a bit beaten up, but I'm pretty resilient. I'm not suffering anxiety, nightmares, or any of the typical symptoms of PTSD. I suspect what I'm feeling is more like exhaustion, and has more to do with staring down the barrel of 60, but also with various losses and the grief of those losses, and with the realization that I'm starting over.

I've lost half my furniture in the last two moves and what I've got left has had the shit beaten out of it by Roommate and her cats and time. I abandoned a lot of stuff out of necessity, not being able to afford to move it. Some the smaller stuff disappeared into the maw of squalor that was the Roommate's bedroom and rec (wreck) room over the course of five years. I need a new dining table and chairs (old ones were claimed somehow by Roommate, who insists I promised them to her), a new daybed (given away when it didn't fit in the new Harlem apartment), new accent chairs (one gave up the ghost in Parkchester, the other was ruined by the Roommate; neither owed me anything at their age). I've already bought a new, cheap trestle desk, where I'm writing this. But I can't yet afford internet service (work has graciously loaned me a mifi) and I need a promotion and better salary. Half my take-home goes to rent. I lost $800/month in disposable income between higher rent and paying back the tax man. Only a couple more months of the latter, thankfully. 

I've lost a lot more than possessions, though. I've lost my cooking chops, which is weird, because up until the last year when the building management ripped up our kitchen and never fixed it, I cooked a lot. Things I used to make with confidence come out tasting weird, or just wrong. Maybe it's the ingredients. I'm buying cheaper stuff than I used to. Or it's learning the quirks of a new kitchen. And not having good pans anymore. I've also lost my singing voice because once the Roommate moved in, I stopped using it. I used to sing all the time, and I'm starting to do so again, though I don't have any music equipment set up but my phone right now. I suppose that will come back too, the more I use it. In the meanwhile it's painful. I've always had a good strong voice and now I sound like a weak old lady who can't carry a tune. I'm afraid I might be one.

The worst thing is that I've lost the sense of who I am when I'm alone, and this is the thing I'm having the hardest time both explaining and dealing with. I think part of the reason is that my fantasy life has wandered off on its own somewhere. I used to have a rich and deep one, full of characters and plots that developed over weeks or months as I walked through my day. Now it's all empty up there. There's no people to "try on." The non-rent-paying boarders in my head that I used to joke about have vacated. I'm alone in my own head.

Alone, but not lonely. I do miss my cast of characters, but it's bliss having space to myself again. I just ... I don't know how to fill it. I don't mean the furniture. You should see the Pinterest boards I've got for that. I mean that I spent so much time on my laptop on FB, raising hell and instigating by way of distracting myself from my home situation that I don't know how to be in my own head, my own physical space, my own body anymore. I'm disconnected enough that I don't even know what that feels like, what emotions I have about it. Not dissociated, but not entirely present, either.  Here in body, here in intellectual capacity; maybe it's the emotions that haven't caught up yet. Disconnected, maybe. 

In that disconnection is my need and desire to hunker down on the weekends, stay indoors, and not see anybody. When I was living up in Harlem, I saw folks quite a bit, in part because it was a way of being out of Hell Apartment, and partially because, well, I like my friends. And I had more disposable income. Now that I'm alone again for the first time in five years, I kinda wanna just roll around in it. I cook, clean, do laundry, tease the cat, watch a show or two sometimes when the signal is good. I'm done unpacking and mostly with arranging, until I get more furniture to arrange, and I'm making small things. What I'm not doing is writing or reading, for various reasons.

Island&cat_sm
Jillybean contemplates the Maker Space

Until I moved, I hadn't had a work space of any kind for five years, and now have more than I quite know what to do with. It's not all set up yet. I haven't hooked up the desktop and its peripherals, or got the maker space quite the way I want it. There's not yet enough storage space to clear the island top for working. I haven't made any books in ages, but I've been doing teeny little craft projects related to the apartment since I moved in. Last night I bought two 12x12 galvanized steel tiles to make into bulletin boards and got out the washi tape to put a border around them. I've made a gazillion magnets out of my old pins and buttons. I miss the sewing machine I left behind because all of a sudden I have a bunch of things I want to sew.

But the beauty of writing is that you don't really need much of a work space for it. What you need the most of is headspace, and I've lost that, too, in my lack of privacy and retreat from my living conditions. I haven't written much in the last four years, either fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. For a while there I was churning out a lot of political pieces for the Cause. I had a frenzy of poetry after the election and that seems to have exhausted me. And fiction... pfft. I've had this next novel churning around in my head for years now and I cannot bring myself to even do the research for it. I keep looking for a way into it and everywhere it's a locked door. Even the fanfic is on hold. I've been doing mostly graphics at work, since that's my job, and even got to make a book there, but it's not the same. It's work. Sitting in front of this computer at a desk again, crafting something with words, feels good in a way that sitting at the one at work doesn't. I don't feel blocked, just empty. That's more disturbing.

I blame The Orange Dumpster Fire for some of my malaise (for everyone's). The shit show that is his regime (not administration; there is no administration. There are only cronies and sycophants.) has taken the heart out of many of us, and added to a lot of the anger I was already feeling with the Roommate. It changed and reduced what I could bear to read, changed the focus of my poetry (not for the better), stripped me of energy to do anything more than run my political action boards on FB (The League of Nasty Women, a clearinghouse for resistance actions and education and Against Trumpism, which is my personal shitposting about T-Rump), and march when I have energy.  Because I do not have that energy anymore, dammit. It's occupied too much of my headspace too, both being angry about how I'm living and being angry about the Orange Regime.

All this is a very long way to saying that I am Starting Over. I keep thinking about Lewis Thomas's essay "The Selves," which I've written about elsewhere. If I've written this long screed as a way to figuring out what the fuck is wrong with me, I think it's this: I'm between selves. I'm aging, and getting used to that. I'm alone again, and getting used to that. I'm not teaching anymore, and getting used to that. I've become far more politically active and opinionated, and getting used to that. I'm living somewhere new and working somewhere newish. I have a new cat. It's all new. The integration has not yet happened and I'm still disparate parts of a whole.

What a puzzle. Hope the pieces are all still here.


Unsung

9-11Moi

The City rebuilds itself on its own ashes,
like Troy on sixteen other Troys—
this burned out hulk where cop and fireman died
herding the innocents in downward flight
no different from the scorched ruins
left beneath centuries
of building and rebuilding in Anatolia.
Except
with no Homer to name their names,
assign their metaphorical attributes,
and send them in perpetuity
with their doomed engines of salvation
to the high smoking towers,
who will know them fifty, a hundred,
two thousand years hence?
Already we forget the names—if we ever knew them—
of the soldiers new fallen in Assyria’s sands
by the waters of Babylon,
the half million citizens
dead of our retribution
against a city that stole nothing
from us.

No bells toll
so read the names,
but intone them all, linking dead with dead:
Agamemnon, Father Mike, Hector;
the Myrmidons, Spartans, Amazons,
Luis Moreno, Allen Greka, Linda Jimenez (the new dead of Akkadia);
the cops, the firemen, the EMTs,
Uhuru Houston, two Angelini, Yamel Merino;
the lawyers, brokers, office workers
of Cantor Fitzgerald, a whole company erased;
Helen and Cassandra, Hecuba,
mothers, wives, and sisters
of busboys,  janitors, CEOs, salesmen; and after,
the searchers, sifters, dismantlers
still choking on the dust and ash.
Even the rescue dogs, exhausted, sad, and footsore,
finding no one alive.

All that’s missing is the gods.

9/11/12


It's the End of the World as We Know It . . . And I Feel Fine. Sorta.

MissedChurchEvilDrm The hoopla this week about the May 21st Apocalypse (capital A) has shown me that you can take the girl outta the religion but ya can't take the religion outta the girl. Or at least outta her hindbrain. Having been a more than 20-year member of what I realize in retrospect is an apocalyptic religion, I've found it hard to shake those nasty little "but what if they're right?" voices every time I hear a doomsday prophecy.I spent so many years living with the idea that the World (not the planet, but the current systems of governments and societies) was going to one day cease to exist in a cataclysmic event, I still get a little frisson of terror whenever I hear mad prophets. Like the doctrine of hell (which was not part of our belief system), the Apocalypse is just another way to keep your followers towing the line and donating, and the core of that success is fear: fear of death, fear of rejection, fear of making the wrong choices.

The tragedy of living like this is that it stunts your life. People who leave my former religion (and other similar ones) are often embittered not just by their experiences, but by what they've missed. The emphasis in these religions, more than mainstream ones, is always on the world to come, whether it's heaven or a New World Order of some kind here on earth. You're told that your life here and now is just biding time, that you shouldn't invest too much in it, or make big plans, or try to get rich, or have any sort of ambition that doesn't involve serving God. If you do have desires outside that narrow focus, you're accused of being "worldly," i.e., heathen and ungodly, or just plain wicked. Serving God almost invariably involves not having a lot of money, or a good job, or a nice home. As a consequence, members spend a lot of time policing each other for their materialism and focus. But without ambition of some kind, without a desire to improve yourself, one's life remains stagnant and stunted, in more ways than one.

15-Leonhardt-popup-v3 For instance, according to data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public life, Jehovah's Witnesses are among the poorest and the least-educated of religious groups. There's a reason for this. College attendance has, until lately, been actively discouraged. It's been seen as the quickest way to get your children to leave the faith, and there's some truth in that. A good college education gives people analytical abilities and exposes them to new sources of information. It's hard to swallow the party line hook, line, and sinker when you start asking questions. Absolute faith (though not spirituality) relies on unquestioning belief as well as the desire to belong. I'm not saying anything new here, but one of the ways to get people to not question your doctrine is to make them afraid of losing something precious, like their lives, their friends, their community. This is what apocalyptic dogma is all about. And fear is a really effective brainwashing tool, no matter how well-educated and analytical you are.

So most of the people I grew up with who were JWs got married young, didn't go to college, wound up working blue-collar jobs for not much money. But I went off to college, thanks to my mom's firm belief in education for women and the necessity of women's economic independence. For this, both of us were vilified as bad influences. Bad enough my mom was married to an unbeliever (though fellow traveler). Worse that she planned to send me off into the world, instead of making sure I ended up barefoot and pregnant, volunteering 20 hours a week to the door-to-door ministry. But I couldn't see myself staying in Northern Michigan for the rest of my life, and I had no desire to get married and have babies, and even less to proselytize. I was too intellectually hungry, and ironically enough, five hours of Bible study a week helped make me that way; that was were I got my first tastes of history and literary criticism, where I learned the rudiments of close reading, and the wondrous complexity of creation. So off I went to college, where I did, indeed, gradually "fall away" from the religion I'd been raised in, as I learned more about history, science, and biblical studies. But the fear of the Apocalypse, of making the wrong choices, never left me.

 When I was a kid, I used to love reading post-apocalyptic novels. One of my favorites was A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller, published the year I was born. If you haven't read it, it's worth the effort, not so much for the view of life after nuclear war as for the big picture Miller paints of the cycles of history, the rise and fall of civilizations, and how religion creates its doctrines and saints. That long view is one of the ideas that influenced my interest in history, and the long view of its cycles I've always found so fascinating. In addition, I gobbled up Frank Herbert's The White Plague, Nevil Shute's On the Beach, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon, and a lot of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick. Need I mention Blade Runner? This was sparked by the same impulse that makes people watch monster movies; everybody likes a good scare. Most of these apocalypses were death by nuclear war or natural disaster, not fire from heaven or the manifestation of God's power on earth, so they weren't frightening in the same way. What I was really fascinated by was the way society began to pick itself up and put itself together again afterwards, and what the critical mass of people to do this was. There were only 3 million JWs then; was that enough to repopulate the earth and maintain civilization? Or were we going to crash back into the Dark Ages? That seemed more and more likely the longer I ran the numbers and studied history. And that grew less and less attractive too.

2012 We Were WarnedAs I became more conscious and aware of the world around me, disasters didn't seem so interesting and the people I came in contact with didn't seem so horrible, for all their worldliness. And, I discovered, there were some amoral assholes inside my church too. The Apocalypse began to seem more horrible, more arbitrary, more malicious. My taste for post-apocalyptic fiction finally bottomed out with the AIDS crisis. The idea that a loving God would visit that kind of horror on decent people who didn't worship Him in this particular way became more and more abhorrent to me. That was not what I wanted in a god. After a while, I wasn't even sure I wanted a god at all. They seemed to be more of a pain in the ass than not. Now, when I watch the previews for something like the movie 2012, images of the wholesale slaughter of what Douglas Adams called "mostly harmless" people don't give me a cheap thrill, they nauseate me. But it still scares the crap out of me. There's nothing rational about it; it's completely visceral, a conditioned response. And that, I totally resent.

There are too many real problems in the real world that need to be fixed or at least mitigated for me to waste time being afraid of an imaginary disaster. I resent the way this dogma blinds people to the disasters that are going on around them right now and makes them think only God can fix these things, the way it strips away responsibility for crapping in our own back yard, the way it fosters learned helplessness. We've got a genuine apocalypse looming, one that's of our own making—climate change—that the same people who spout off about the Rapture are happy to ignore. Well, I got news for you folks, and it ain't Good News: nobody's going to save you or any of us when this natural disaster happens. Start scaring your people with the real thing. We need all the help we can get. Turn some of that money and effort into education and influence for saving the world we've got now, not waiting for someone else to destroy it.


Jean Courtney 1960-2010

 JeanJeannieMy friend Jean Courtney took her life yesterday and I hardly know what to say. This is the first friend I've lost to suicide, and though Jean and I had talked about it, and I knew it was an idea that she seriously entertained on her darkest days, I did not know she'd reached that point again. At left is Jean in May at my house, right before she was going to meet some old friends from high school in Parkchester. She seemed chipper then, if a little apprehensive, and determined to get the most out of her "up" mood, as if she knew it was going to disintegrate soon, as it did.

Very shortly afterwards, she moved into a new apartment, which she found very stressful but was pleased about, I think. There were some other stressful events and she let us all know that she wouldn't be visiting her Facebook account for a while. Then today, on her last post, her ex-husband (or wasband, as Jean called him) informed us that Jean had "passed peacefully from this life" at her apartment yesterday. Apparently, she left a beautiful note behind, though I have not read it.

Jean and I knew each other from our days at AKRF, when we were in what later became the Publications Department. We were somewhat less than editors, something more than mere word processors for the company's quite technical environmental impact statements. It was often high-pressure, deadline-driven work held to exacting grammatical and stylistic standards for which we were responsible, and Jean bore the pressure with more grace that the rest of us who worked there. She had a fantastic sense of humor, loved comedy and jokes, movies and celebrities, and could almost always find the humor in just about any situation. "Did you see [name of movie]?" she would say. "This is just like that scene where . . ." and it was! And the similarity would leave you chortling. Here's some of the movies she listed on her Facebook page: "Young Frankenstein," "A Clockwork Orange," "Religulous," "The Room," "My Suicide," "The Aristocrats," "Rear Window," "Borat," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Pulp Fiction," "Lolita," "Dr. Strangelove," "North by Northwest," "All About Eve," "Bourne," "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," "Memento," "American Beauty," and "High Anxiety." You can see she had a taste not only for clever comedy, for for the darker dramas and psychological thrillers, as well as political satire. If the movies you like are some indication of what kind of person you are, Jean was clearly pretty complex.

In those days, Jean was a seeker. She was enthused about, by turns, just about every brand of New Age spirituality that came along, and some not so New Age, serially monogamous to all of them. She studied Sufism, reiki, and about a million other brands of faith and woo that I could not keep track of, all in the quest for happiness, or at least some explanation about why she was in so much pain. I tried to respect her search, but they always seem to fall short of her expectations or needs, some more than others, when the practitioners turned out to either have clay feet or be outright charlatans. Unfortunately, Jean seemed to be the type of person that the unscrupulous and predatory repeatedly take advantage of, emotionally and in other ways, something that contributed to her depression. It's not that Jean was an unthinking sucker; like all my friends, she had a quirky analytical intelligence, but I think her emotional need made her a little desperate. Once she'd seen through whatever flavor of the month religion/spiritual shenanigans she'd been involved in, she could be brutally analytical about their shortcomings.

We lost contact for a while when we both left the company but had gotten back in touch again about two years ago. Since then, I saw or spoke to Jean a couple dozen times, in various states of happiness. We ran into one another again at a Patti Smith/Television concert where we ogled David Byrne and Brian Eno hanging out in the back of the crowd with us. At some point prior to this, she had been hospitalized for deep depression and suicidal thoughts, gotten a psychiatric diagnosis and gone on disability, which actually seemed to be a relief to her. I think she felt she knew what was wrong now, and could stop searching for answers and just concentrate on being healthy and happy. She was seeing a couple of therapists and getting some good drugs, and confronting and dealing with traumas in her past, especially some of the harm done her by predators and the woo practitioners, about whom she was intending to write a memoir. From the stories she told me, it would have been a hell of an exposé.I wonder now if that might have been part of what broke her. I know she endured a lot of awful slander on some of the discussion boards she'd been on and some of the things people said about her were unconscionable, especially in people who are supposed to be following some kind of spiritual path.

There was a time when I would have been judgemental about Jean's suicide, but I've come to understand how, for some people, that can seem like the only sensible solution. That that is true is the real tragedy. For all the fantastic chemicals we now have for treating various kinds of mental illness, they're not by any means a cure-all. They work for some people and not for others; they work for a time and then not at all. They only alleviate some symptoms and not others. And sometimes the side effects are so horrific that it's better to be off them than on them. And our society does not treat the "mentally interesting" as Jean called herself, very well. When they can get disability, they live on the edge of poverty, if not right down in it. Housing is scarce, often substandard, and may take forever to get into. Funds to support you while you wait are laughably (cryingly, sobbingly) inadequate, for the most part, especially in an expensive city like New York. If your family wants nothing to do with you, or is the source of your problem, that makes it even more difficult. Who do you rely on then?

One of my friends told me "it's all right to be angry with her," when I posted about Jean's death, but I don't feel angry with Jean. I feel angry with the people who contributed to her pain because they were too fucking self-absorbed or selfish or greedy to not hurt someone so vulnerable. I feel angry with a social system that does so little to support its weakest members. I feel angry at all the people who took advantage of her. And I feel deeply grateful to all the people who did help her—friends, relatives, social workers, psychiatrists, other medical and mental health professionals—even if it wasn't enough.

I understand Jean's choice, though I wish she had not made it. I wish she had called me. I wish I had called her. I'd been intending to this weekend, to see if she wanted to go to a a concert with me. Over the summer, we'd gone to see a couple of movies together—"Iron Man 2" and "The A Team, which we'd both enjoyed tremendously. We both loved Robert Downey, Jr., in t he former and Liam Neeson in the latter, and were laughing at exactly the same inside jokes in "The A-Team." We're probably the only two people on the planet who really liked it. Jean was a lot of fun to go to the movies with because she gave herself over to them whole-heartedly, in the spirit in which they're meant to be watched, the way kids do. We laughed! We cried! We had a great time! I was looking forward to seeing many more movies with her in the future, and getting to know her better. I always expect to get a lot of wear and tear out of my friends, and at 50, they're too young to be dying, especially of despair.

When I saw Jean last summer after I came back from China, she was quite depressed, but struggling valiantly to claw her way up out of that black pit. We met for coffee and I gave her a little jade pendant of Quan Yin, the Chinese Buddha of Compassion, the one that always spoke most to me, because I thought she needed it more than I did. The world is hard on gentle people like Jean, and I hope that pendant gave her a little comfort, insubstantial as it is. One of her last posts on Facebook was a link to raise money for the Muslim cabbie who'd been stabbed by a drunken, bigoted student. She had plenty of compassion of her own, for other people, but there didn't seem to be enough around for her.

I'll miss you, my friend. Whatever comes next, if anything, I hope it brings you peace and happiness. And if there's nothing, at least the pain is done. I really hope you're laughing your ass off somewhere with George Carlin.


The Selves--Apologies to Lewis Thomas

ReinventedMoiThis is the avatar of the me that never was (and probably won't ever be): urbane, sophisticated, glamorous, thin. What you get right now with me is, well, not that. I remember watching a soap when I was pretty little, maybe 4 or 5, in which one of the characters said to another: "You've changed!" in a sort of shock and horror. And I remember thinking, "That's weird. People don't change. They're always themselves." Sometime later in high school, I read a great essay by Lewis Thomas called "The Selves," in which he talks about our psychological development occurring in stages or different selves, and how sometimes we're between them, just waiting for the next one.

Now that I'm 50, I'm starting to see behind me a string of selves: the kid who lived and grew up in Michigan; College Self, who lived in Pittsburgh and East Lansing, and New York Self. The places we live in define us, as much as who our friends and family are. My New York Self, though, breaks down into a number of different Selves too, as my kid self did. I've said elsewhere that I think I've grown and changed more while living in New York City than I have since I was a kid in Michigan. A lot of my College Self slopped over into my early New York self, while the city taught me some hard lessons about being an independent yet interdependent grown-up. Three years of therapy made a whole new Self too. As did turning 40. My 40s have by far been the best decade. I felt competent, adult, and most of all, happy.

My 50s are going to bring some interesting changes. The older people I've taken for granted are dying, my friends and I taking care of them as they go. One of my aunts, my Mom's sister, is developing Alzheimer's like my Dad's sister did. Mel is watching her mom struggle to communicate in a nursing home, and my friend Eva is watching her mom deteriorate in one. Roz has parents in two separate places to look after, neither of them easy to get to for someone without a car. Paul's parent still seem to be doing well. I hope that goes on for a long time. I look at everyone else and almost feel lucky that my parents went quickly and without suffering or prolonged deterioration. I feel like I got off easy.

But I'm noticing more changes in me, too. I'm one of those lucky people who still looks a lot like I did in college: just a little grayer, but not much. Sadly, however, I'm not as, er, robust, as I used to be, to use a word much in vogue in the business world. No matter how much yoga I do, my back still goes out and my nerves get pinched, and it takes a long time get them unpinched. I don't sleep as well as I used to, and when I do, it's an occasion for much rejoicing. I don't bounce back from exertions like I used to. The most annoying thing is the arthritis in my hands and hips though. It's really not funny in my hands. My typing speed has dropped precipitously and I'm much more error prone. It's going to make book-making an interesting proposition in the years to come.

But the change I find most alarming, or at least disconcerting, is that I've begun to lose interest in things I was really passionate about: books, music, beautiful things. Don't get me wrong, I still love to read, but the amassing of books for their own sake is growing old, like me. I used to be greedy for them because there might be something in them that I desperately needed to know. Perhaps it was really more a hunger for knowledge, because I used to be that way about the Web, too, surfing compulsively, bookmarking everything. It's not that I think I now know everything, but I don't feel nearly as ignorant as I did, and sometimes I surprise myself with what I do know. As the Chinese calligraphy on my wall says, "books are treasure mountains," for what's in them, but I feel less and less of a need to own them. I also used to have music on if I was conscious and it was possible (e.g., not at work); now I'm just as happy with and likely to prefer silence, or the news. I've long fallen off the bleeding edge of knowing who's cool in music, and my tastes have changed too, though they're still pretty eclectic. And the pretty things? They're just as lovely in the store or the museum, and I don't have to clean them there. I like to visit other people's beautiful things, like I like to visit other people's kids.

Mostly, I don't care passionately about much of anything, anymore. I blame it on menopause and the lack of hormones, and I'm not really that sorry, just a bit bewildered. Passion is nice, but it's exhausting. I still like a good argument, but more and more, I like a good laugh just as much. The one passion I still have is a growing sense of compassion, and the desire to express that. I want to help make other people's lives better where I can, and draw attention to it where I can't. I care passionately about the people I love, and there is a growing number of them: friends, family, family of choice, students; the circle keeps expanding.

I jokingly call this my Old Fart Self, but I don't feel particularly old, except a bit physically. True, I'm losing my nouns in conversation (and lord a do hate, passionately, having to grope for words and being so inarticulate), but in compensation, I also care a whole lot less about what people think of me than I once did. I still like new music, I'm not afraid of technology, I want to keep learning new things as long as my brain still works, and I want to travel as long as my body still works.

RealMoi So here's what you really get, or the avatar of what you really get with me now: an aging boho with a lasting fondness for the funky and non-mainstream, but a weakness for pop. She likes beer and tequila and hanging out in bars and tea houses. The East Village feels like her spiritual home, but it's too damn noisy. Her hair's a little spiky and going gray. When it turns white, she'll dye it cobalt blue: a blue-haired old lady with a vengeance.