31 January 2013

The watercourse, a speeding bullet

I. August 2011

Today I sit in an air-conditioned, boxlike structure, near the edge of a continent, waiting. On the opposite edge of the same continent, a wall of water unleashes its fury on the city on whose contour I was raised. Well-fed, a bit tipsy, lonely, I wait out the gale, wait wondering how the storm will vent its spleen and where and when. This is the second time this summer those I know and love have been evacuated due to natural disaster. The Earth twitches as the dead rattle before succumbing, while two female politicos talk drill, baby, drill and dismantling the EPA, and pretend they’re not women who sustain life.

ashland oregon, lithia park, oregon parks, Heidi Utz photography
photo: Heidi Utz
Last night I walked in Lithia Park and watched the Ashland Creek shoot across the rocks in its twisty, curvy trajectory through the woods. Stood on a bridge and looked out with a question on my lips…What will it be like if I stay here? And what will it be if I go back to the desert? Divination came in two eddies, side by side. The first, for staying, was black and flat, with nearly no movement the eye could see. The second, for going, was a gentle circular swim—not a whirlpool or anything close to dramatic, just a foamy, leaf-flecked swirl in the same direction, over and over again. Both seemed like little circles of bathwater, set aside from the main current which seemed to fly. This, something told me, is the current of much of the world. In living here, in this isolated valley, you are set aside, a protected observer.

I walked further through the woods still unsettled, as I could feel a pressure in my body, the foreboding of a wall of water about to upend mile after mile of concrete barriers mortals had placed against her. Waves of a planet that had withstood so much for so long, finally exploding in fury… And soon I heard water splashing loudly, as if dammed and released, dammed and released. Charging through a pipe into the creek.

Thirty-one summers ago, my mom and I sat on the shore of a barrier island, where the waves landed gently inches from our beach chairs, and we read long novels and allowed the water to hypnotize us day after day. The small stores that sold plastic rafts and pails and colorful long towels and suntan lotion felt like innocence. And sometimes I did not know if this was her last summer walking barefoot in the wet sand. But I knew that whatever happened, the land beneath us would not waver. That the shore in Jersey would always remain, year after year, a place of unique identity, escape, a reliable spot to see fishing boats and dirty seagulls and blue sea glass with soft rounded edges.

The storm ducks and weaves through territory I know, the place of my birth, the province of my ancestors, my father’s home now, the dwelling place of friends and former lovers, the streets I’ve walked, the skyscrapers my great-cousin the architect once built. It’s a hot clear day in Oregon, nearly 100, hardly a cloud in the blue sky, a light breeze. I stand in a graveyard ready to harvest blackberries in a spot my love once showed me. I feel more than 3,000 miles from the East as I walk past a pristine duck pond and the residents honk and squawk. The berries are still not quite ripe, sitting red and green and grey in tiny clumps on the vine. Last year this time they were plumper, blacker, and more ready. But spring came late and the whole cycle of nature is thrown off. I walk back up the steep hill to where the graves are. See a stone marked “NOBODY,” with a birthdate in March 1981. Another, more sculpted white stone has no name, but a curved sliver removed: “Passing through.”  

When I left my mother in her human form, she was in a small, medicine-green room on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waiting for a wall of water to carry her war-torn body to higher ground. I stood vigil and could feel her readiness and fear of leaving, the stillness of a life ratcheted down to just its essential operations: breathing, moving blood through small channels, the barely perceptible throbs within organ tissues. A storm that had come to her nine years prior, with black-shrouded visions of apocalypse she gave no quarter. Came as a notice to evacuate, leave her earth-body as a shell, give in to the inevitable. She waved it on as one refusing when all the sheriffs and mayors and official mandates told her she could not stay. And for nine years she sat in her attic ducking waters that kept rising and holding her ground, even when the house was marked “occupants dead.”

verrazano bridge, carlos ayala, hurricane sandy
photo: caphotosnewyork, Carlos Ayala
III. Bloomberg has ordered the evacuation of hundreds of thousands, and the city that never sleeps has no mass transit, no flights coming or going, no exit routes for thousands sitting waiting in its five boroughs. The streets are empty, subways stopped. Nine are dead. Two million have no power. The rest have no agency. Irene brings tide like no New Yorker has ever seen to its jaded doorstep, commanding respect from even the most cynical. The island is surrounded on every side with water, a fact so easily ignored when you are walking beside a thousand others on their ways to work and play at 8 or 10 or midnight. In a place so given over to the human-made, nature is the animals in the Bronx zoo on a class trip or a skinny sapling tied to a stake with a length of rubber hose every six blocks. Taxi tires may swoosh in a rainstorm, lightning may crackle in a summer sky. Other than that, it’s entirely the man-created world, reminding you of your sinew, your strength, your engineering prowess…at least for a couple hundred years of history. You drive a mile through a tunnel barely remembering that on the other side of that concrete wall is the entire force of the Atlantic Ocean. You travel through it, dry and unscathed, forgetting you are surrounded by sea. Without reminders of your guest status in nature, leaving your primacy in the land human made feels silly and even annoying. How could anything so ridiculous as “nature” threaten these massive 100-story monoliths? How could the splashes of water even touch what all-powerful beings have so carefully constructed? A hurricane? Just another show. We’ll stay home and watch it on our flatscreen TVs, drink beer, light candles. Have a little party. Hey, Irene, show us whatcha got. And get the fuck outta here by tomorrow because this nature shit is a real pain in the ass.

My favorite photo of my grandmother shows her standing on the beach, Avon-by-the-Sea, wearing ballet shoes, one pointed toward the water. She is in her sixties, sporting cat-eye glasses, smiling wistfully toward the ocean. Even when she was a girl, growing up in Paterson in the early part of the last century, nature and NJ did not often intersect. They sat in different corners of the boxing ring, and usually man came out swinging, while nature cowered and ducked blows. The century was being industrialized and we were winning, triumphing OVER and ABOVE. It was a match, and we were so frequently (albeit ostensibly) victors. Harnessing power of rushing waters. My grandmother and her father and sisters and brothers worked in a mill on the Great Falls using the seas of the Atlantic to make fine silk for the world. My grandmother, a soft, sensible, sweet, and very smart woman, did not see the harm in the illusion of control over—if it crossed her mind at all.

oregon forests, Heidi Utz photography
As churchgoing and God-loving as she was, nothing told her that the natural world was not ours to use. Her way was the way of all early-20
th-century city dwellers. When you don’t live in a forest, it’s hard to feel the heartbeat of a tree pulsing through its rings. When there are modernity and Machine Age notions of progress to cater to, those that live and breathe become merely resources.

V. January 2013
I sit behind a wall in a sad, loutish city. It’s winter; the five strands of green in the yard are dead. Drought makes the desert even drier than I’d remembered it, the spirit much more gristly and insular. If you want water here, you need to walk where the earth opens up. In Santa Fe it’s deemed acequia; here it’s just “the ditch.” Under the ugly brown mountain, there are few poets, and the remnants of indigenous identity are discarded somewhere near the confluence of routes 25 and 40. I leave my house seldom because there’s little I’m connected to outside and no one wants to talk, really. They text my avatar and I hit Ignore. People live in condos and shop at Walmart and work for the military-industrial complex or Taco Bell. They get lost in their adobe and concrete microcosms, in their screens and phones, and forget to glance up at the edges of sky and points of stars. When you walk the streets, no one will risk eye contact because you are nondigital and therefore suspect. They mostly look at themselves, and more importantly, themselves.

Last fall, the hurricane of the year before was superseded by an even greater behemoth, one whose wreckage still litters the Jersey shoreline. The patch of coast from which my mom and I surveyed the horizon has washed away. The beach houses we rented each summer, the restaurants we frequented, the pier we played on, all of it, gone. Thousands have been homeless all winter, freezing in tents while Congress equivocates. Twelve-foot waves subsumed everything, pressing southern coastal NJ into memory and memory alone. We are told that this is the way it’s going to be from now on, that the storms will get bigger, the waves mightier and more arrogant, the damage more incalculable—as if incalculability had degrees.

Here in the middle, we die a different death, death of desiccation, of poverty, of people who lack nature and nature that lacks respect. And into this standoff America brings anger and guns, decides that kids are acceptable victims, and vents the collective spleen through bullets and displays of madness and hubris we’ve been told is “our right.” Our children sit in lockdown as our oceans take our homes. And the politicians tell us nothing’s wrong. It’s all as it should be. And in a sense, they’re right. As every reaction demands an equal and opposite reaction, we stand in the path of a balance coming due. As it should be. And despite making baboon-like shows of macho bluster, the AK-47s and overamped testosterone, there is nothing left for us to do but wait in absolute vulnerability for that which will inevitably carry us back into the stream.

29 January 2013

Don't Fear the Reader

I have no idea whose photo this is - just found it online. But it's more than a little Heidi and Lois, circa 1967. Funny how I still have the same reaction to bad literature...

27 January 2013

Film Review: Any Day Now

Garret Dillahunt, Alan Cumming, Any Day Now film
Garret Dillahunt & Alan Cumming, Any Day Now
With the recent flurry of gay rights victories—and even an inaugural nod by Obama—it can be tough to recall how incredibly homophobic the US was during the 1970s. While attitudes were becoming more liberal on many fronts, GLBT people were decades from being accepted by most of the population. Gay marriage was just about nonexistent, unless enacted in private. And 2 gay men adopting a child? Completely unheard of. Gay men were largely judged not by their character but by their sexual activity, which was condemned as “immoral.” Thus, bringing children into the picture was considered less desirable than letting them live with drug addicts or serial abusers.

Inspired by a true story, the new film Any Day Now relates the story of a gay couple who decides to fight for their right to adopt a child. This is not just any child, but an utterly charming young man with Down syndrome, who has been abandoned by his junkie mom in LA. Remarkably it was directed by a straight man (Travis Fine), who related to it via his own custody battle.

Alan Cumming plays Rudy Donatello, a musician and cabaret drag performer who’s as queeny as his partner, Paul (Garret Dillahunt), is straight-laced. Former NYer Rudy pulls no punches, and when he sees that his junkie neighbor is severely neglecting her teenage son, Marco, he steps in to take care of the boy as his own son. An attorney for the DA, Paul is initially less enthusiastic, worried about the potential legal challenges should they attempt to keep Marco permanently. The pair have no experience in caring for children, but their deep love for the boy informs their fight through the legal system.

Some of the most touching scenes in Any Day Now show the couple dropping Marco off at school for the first time, dressing him up for Halloween, and playing at the beach. It’s clear that the men’s love is allowing him to blossom from a withdrawn kid who once hid in the corner to a vibrant teenager who loves to disco dance. When they set him up in his own room, his only question is, “Can I stay forever?”

And yet… The court system and even Paul’s coworkers simply will not allow the evidence that the couple is providing a loving, happy home to suffice. The film shows the degree to which members of the system seem to delight in their prejudice against the couple, in no way grasping the role of love in this family.

Garret Dillahunt, Alan Cumming, Isaac Leyva, Any Day Now film
Dillahunt, Cumming, and Isaac Leyva, Any Day Now
First-time actor Isaac Leyva does a stellar job of portraying young Marco, whose enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures put me frequently on the edge of tears. Alan Cumming plays what could have easily been a stereotypical role with heart and grace. His character is a fierce advocate, yet funny and tender—ironically the exact guy you’d choose for a dad, if you were allowed to pick. Paul nicely balances Rudy’s more overt theatricality with his stable, consistent, loving presence. Marco intuitively understands that they are the people who love him most in the world, and thus, recognizes where his home is. They form a band of outsiders who know all too well the hole left by being marginalized by society.

George Arthur Bloom’s script, written more than 30 years ago, feels so authentic to the times, and makes us truly grasp just how prejudiced and hate-filled that era could be, despite appearances to the contrary. Musical supervisor PJ Bloom provides an exquisite ’70s soundtrack. 

Any Day Now is one of the few gay films I’ve seen where the focus is on something other than 2 people of the same sex falling in love--as if that were unusual. Three decades ago, it was a novelty to watch a film that had gay central characters, so it didn't have to be all that complex. Maybe it’s a sign of progress than we can finally focus on other, more thought-provoking facets of gay life, such as justice in the child-adoption process. 

Currently more than a million gay people are parents, and 2-6 million more would like to be. Let’s hear it for New England, the West, and all of the 16 states in which these people are able to do so legally, without being tried as perverts. I'll spare you all the "love makes a family" bumper sticker cliches that would make for a cheese-ola ending. But see the film. Just see the film.

01 January 2013

Into the Woods: Too Good to be True, by Benjamin Anastas

I read Too Good to be True because the arc of my own story is similar to the author’s and I wanted to see how it affected him and what conclusions he drew from it.  Ben Anastas' memoir is set in the recent past, when publishing industry economics forced many of us verbal types to watch our jobs, career paths, bank accounts, lovers, and dreams fly out the window faster than a speeding bullet. In well-crafted prose that carefully avoids predictable platitudes, Anastas shows us a writer full of promise, educated at the best MFA program in the country, who authors well-reviewed books for esteemed publishers, then falls quite suddenly into a black hole.

This is Job territory, where it’s all coming so fast and thick that it feels like a deeply personal, targeted attack: Marital strife and separation. Divorce. Abandonment. Unexpected fatherhood. Career failure. Poverty. Loss of self-confidence. And not knowing when, or if, it will ever end.

Some of the answers lie in Anastas’ past, where his parents battled  mental illness, poverty, and marital strife while embracing some of the clich├ęs that made the ’70s so colorful. His beatnik dad, also a writer, struggled to both write and feed a family of five. His mom’s hospitalization for depression left her son with attachment scars that ultimately affected his relationships with women. The template of these painful childhood experiences have etched his current-day crises with an eerie symmetry. “How much of our lives do we write, and how much of them are written for us?” he reflects.

Though much is lost on the outside, Anastas does manage to gain the very insights into his family and past that give him a foothold toward exiting his pain. In a lovely final chapter, he begins to share his earned wisdom with his young son:        “…The fog was thick and it kept roiling in, the darkness of the woods was looming all around you. I know that you will wander in someday. It’s inevitable in this life. There are shadows there to draw you deeper than you meant to go, voices that will leave you spellbound. I will not be there to stop you. I will not be there to call your name and make you turn back. There will be the woods, and there will be you. A boy with a flashlight.”

And there is a flashlight here, though it’s not the big lantern-battery neon-yellow kind.  It’s more the soft, gentle light thrown by someone who lives consciously and reflects on the page genuinely and wisely. For those who have been through the wringer—literary or otherwise—Too Good to be True compels reading and reflection.