Scenes From a Pandemic: 14

6 07 2020

by Vasia Markides

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

(photos: Vasia Markides)

Something’s Happening Here

Stillwater, Maine

Biking through my neighborhood, I notice a new Trump/Pence sign on the lawn strewn with Americana ornaments. A far cry from the rainbow animal sculptures down the road celebrating LGBT pride. Our small community on the Stillwater River is sandwiched between the progressive college town of Orono, headquarters to the University of Maine, and the working-class paper mill community of Old Town, near the home of the Penobscot Nation and the world-famous canoe. These disparate places are connected by the river, which I am fortunate to have winding along my backyard. It was this river that offered sanctuary to my parents after a war divided our country, Cyprus, in 1974. This river was my companion as a child who spent most of her time outdoors. This river urged me to move with my family back to Maine from New York when, after eight years, the apple started to sour. This river, a small artery in the web of life, offers me relief today as humanity cries, I can’t breathe.

* * *

It may be hard for urbanites to understand the impact of nature’s elixir on those of us who choose a more rural existence. It is also hard here to maintain equilibrium kayaking down a lush river, say, knowing that tear gas and batons await so many who are dear as they take to city streets to demand basic human rights.

Over Zoom calls and driveway check-in sessions, I have heard friends struggle with depression and anxiety, crippled by fear.

Why am I at peace? 

At the risk of sounding detached, it struck me why my response feels different from what it perhaps should. The past two decades have dealt some First World blows. Financial hardship, physical injury, and professional disappointment were the start, but it was the two miscarriages and the premature death of seven people I adored that made the Grim Reaper more of a sidekick than a boogie monster.

At the same time, over those years, my anxiety about the state of the planet festered in the form of dystopian nightmares. Those nestled in my waking brain with the 2016 election. I knew nature would be sacrificed. Looking at my then-1-year-old, this felt like a hand around my throat.

Now, as human lungs labor across the globe, Earth has a reprieve. The Himalayas peek, unobscured by curtains of city smog. For a brief moment in the continuum of human destruction, a virus hit a pause button on us. The lonely filling station in town advertises gas at $1.48 a gallon. How low could the prices go? I wonder. Cars remain in the driveway, and billions of years of fossilized matter remains in the ground. Fewer particles choke the air.    

The planet’s future feels less grim, and in my tiny bubble this relieves more anxiety than Covid-19 produces. Could we collectively imagine that future without the suffering? Transfixed by the river, I have watched islands of ice break apart and thaw with each passing day, the geese announcing their victorious arrival in flying V formations. In the forest, seedlings take root around decaying birch trees, frogs croak sounds of a new season. With death comes life.

By confining us, the virus sends us inward. The killer becomes the universal muse, cracking open our minds and offering us new stories to tell. Anyone who has the luxury to reflect must at least acknowledge this moment of opportunity.

* * *

By month three of quarantine, those here who have yet to suffer a devastating personal loss appear to be adjusting. Like Alice falling down Wonderland’s well, we recognize our shattered reality. Familiarity with the Reaper offers us each a chance to start anew. As hibernation wanes, we can put one foot in front of the other and build a mosaic out of the shards. New projects arise; movements are born. People talk about revolutions.

In the forest, my now 4-year-old daughter finds a message, a painted rock hidden inside a dead tree trunk. On it is written the word breathe. She tells me she is going to leave it there, for nature. Yes, nature does need to breathe. She is our ventilator, after all. 

After years meandering this river’s edge, mosquitoes gnawing at my neck, ticks crawling up my scratched, muddy calf, I begin to understand the difference between living inside fear and living alongside it. Reassurance arrives in simple moments. A song lyric spontaneously crystallizes a thought and releases me from worry. Two bald eagles soar overhead just as, in the midst of a conversation, I mention my two late cousins, one having died of AIDS, the other of cancer. Timed just right, such occurrences stop me in my tracks, leave me dumbfounded. They remind me in the darkest hours that nature—this force that exists both inside and outside of us—hands us a kaleidoscope to see reality differently. Enables us to imagine what we cannot yet see, but might co-create. I walk, one foot in front of the other, soaking in the infinite hues of green.

Vasia Markides is a Cypriot-American artist, filmmaker, and activist. A painter by origin, Vasia is now director of the documentary Waking Famagusta and founder of The Famagusta Ecocity Project, an internationally recognized effort that aims to unite Greek- and Turkish-Cypriots in reclaiming the occupied ghost town of Famagusta, and reviving it as a model ecocity. She also freelances as a video producer in the US and abroad. Vasia participated in the Kopkind/Center for Independent Documentary Film Camp in 2018.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared on July 1, 2020 on The Nation magazine’s website. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Truth in Every Joke

Lauren LoGiudice, an actor and comedian, typically creates characters from life experience. Below, “Spoiled Brat on the Beach”.

Lauren was a participant in Kopkind’s 2009 CineSlam mini-camp, organized around lgbtq film shorts. You can check out her characters and varied projects here. For the past few years she has also been doing impressions of Melania Trump in darkly comic short videos, public performances, and shows. She has a new book out: Inside Melania: What I Learned About Melania Trump by Impersonating Her.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 13

30 06 2020

by Jewelle Gomez

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

(photo: D. Sabin)

Something’s Happening Here

Oakland

I am deeply urban. My shoes, clothes, eyeglasses, are all assembled with an understanding of how they relate to pavement, changeable weather, and the glare bouncing off city buildings. From Boston to New York City to San Francisco and Oakland, I’ve felt perfectly attuned to the cityscape. But with quarantine, everything went askew, as if I turned a corner into the Twilight Zone.

We’d lived in Oakland for only several months before I left in January for New York City, where my play about Alberta Hunter was enjoying a successful run—an engagement that ended just before the coronavirus landed with both feet in the US. I returned to Oakland as the city was gearing up for lockdown. I thought this would be fortuitous; I’d write endlessly, perhaps in all genres. We had masks. We had access to food. I could read books for unending hours and watch movies and television shows til dawn. The money we previously spent on eating out, going to plays and movies we’d donate to relief efforts.

I have friends who have been teetering on the edge not of armed rebellion but of despondency. I restricted myself to one broadcast news show, allowing my anxiety to be channeled through the erudite rantings of Rachel Maddow as I pondered who cut her hair. I felt a warm spark at seeing other people’s homes in Zoom interviews of political/medical/legal experts. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s vast freezer of ice cream! Stacey Abrams’ bookshelf with a copy of The Night Tiger, a novel I’d been on the verge of ordering! I felt connected to them.

I couldn’t, however, reconnect with myself. Inertia settled around me like the fog I’d left behind in San Francisco—I couldn’t see the pen in my hand in front of my face. Sunny weather filled my days as camelia blossoms burst forth in the backyard. Birds trilled safely as if they knew they could mesmerize our indoor cats.

But if I read for more than three hours my eyes went blurry. My back rebelled from sitting, although I was only halfway through 10 seasons of the British detective series Vera. Even with my totally non-green thumb I was rewarded by my verdant backyard, a profusion of calla lilies, birds of paradise, and the struggling fuchsia I’d rescued from a plastic bin bag. After dutifully watering, though, I couldn’t just sit and watch them grow.

Something was missing: the ebb and flow of traffic; voices and laughter when people walked by, and any number of sounds that had underscored my life in the city. I enjoy the click of a cricket as much as the next person, but the roll of tires slowing for the STOP sign at the corner had always been the click track of my life.

So, I retreated to the little cottage office in our backyard in search of my own rhythms. I fell into them almost by accident. I’ve been a longtime fan of the British radio soap opera “The Archers,” so I tuned in and was immediately soothed by various English accents, the evocation of a world continuing on. I couldn’t write anyway, so I used listening to the radio online as a time to clear out the boxes still cluttering my office since we’d moved. And here’s where I found what was missing.  

A fragment of history tumbling out of the author’s archive

In the little cottage, once I’d disposed of the recycling that we humans tend to box up and lug from home to home, I dove into a large box of photographs. There I was aged 9 in my tap-dancing costume; there was the past tumbling out: my youthful great grandmother; my best friend and I looking unbelievably dewy at our high school graduation; a group of feminist poets after a benefit reading; my first publisher and I when we were young enough to stand up all day at the American Booksellers Association; a clipping from the fight against the New York Times over its coverage of AIDS; and a kaleidoscope of handsome women with whom I’d been lovers over the previous 40 years.

Nancy Bereano, founder of Firebrand Books, and Jewelle at the American Booksellers Association

That was what had been missing—being deeply sunk into myself and a history that had always been sweet and dangerous, creatively rebellious and persistent in the face of grief and greed. I started to feel the heartbeat emerging from within. The city sounds, my natural (or learned) soundtrack, were really only the background, like elevator music. The faces and memories were pulses reconnecting me to the well of emotion and ideas that sparked my life and my writing. They were the jumpstart I had needed. 

The author’s great grandmother, Grace, 1897

Once the engine turned over, I figured out how to divide my day into past, present, and future. Now I spend some time continuing to organize old treasures whose roots in last century’s battles against oppression keep me upright. For the future I investigate what nonprofits could use my support to defeat voter suppression—again, as we did in the 1960s; or to find safe places for those without shelter; or gather food for out-of-work parents. (I also plan what to wear when I do return to those urban sounds, and finally get to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first gay liberation march on its 51st anniversary.) With the past and the future regular parts of my day, the now feels more compelling; change seems more possible. Now I’ll get back to my new play if it still wants me.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of The Gilda Stories, now in its 27th year in print and recently optioned for a TV miniseries. Her plays about James Baldwin and about Alberta Hunter have been produced on both coasts. She is a member of Kopkind’s honorary board.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 24, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Letter From Peter Linebaugh (Archival)

On June 29 the Supreme Court declined to hear a death penalty case, thus allowing the government to proceed with the legalized killing of four men in July, the first federal executions in 17 years. What follows is an excerpt from a letter by Peter Linebaugh, written at another crossroads of epidemic, police violence and execution. The letter originally appeared in Socialist Review No. 177, July/August 1994. With thanks to the Socialist Review Archive.

Protesters in front of the Supreme Court, right before their arrest, 2017 (photo: JP Keenan/Sojourners)

When the state kills one person, it is preparing the killing of two. When it kills two, it is preparing the way to kill three. And with three, it prepares to get ready to kill many. Perhaps these changes are not arithmetic; perhaps they are geometric. Or perhaps they are without a mathematical pattern at all. But what is clear is that the death of one leads to the death of many by hook or by crook.

Those who favoured the Vietnam War argued by analogy with a line of upright dominoes. We may put forward a domino theory of the death penalty. One domino knocks over another, and then another and another in a clattering series of collapses, until none are left standing. The death penalty is the first domino. It is followed by another. This second domino might be, let us say, the more frequent informal shoot outs by the police. A third might be a public health disaster where certain populations are deliberately left to die. A fourth might be a massacre for purposes of terrorising a city or a region. A fifth might be the slow enervation of wage reductions and unemployment that inescapably leads to fatal wasting away. Life is devalued.

We might also compare the death penalty to the thin edge of a wedge. A small tap with the hammer is enough to lodge that thin edge into the thick section of the toughest tree trunk. Another blow of the hammer finds a space among the fibres, and a third blow widens it. Afterwards it is only a question of the number of blows from the sledge required to split the trunk in twain. The death of one leads to the death of many.

In Hitler’s Germany the Reichstag Fire Decree of 1933 imposing the death penalty led to others, like the Law for the Protection of German Blood, the Law on Dangerous Habitual Criminals, or the Decree on Asocial Elements which culminated in the death camps of the 1940s. The wedge widened, from the death of one, to a genocide, all in a decade.

Looking at the US states which have reinstituted the death penalty, can we not see that subsequent to the death penalty is the growth of other forms of social morbidity – gang violence, family violence, police violence, tuberculosis, AIDS?

The US Congress is about to make a mighty turn of the screw as it begins hearings on the expansion of the Federal Death Penalty. They are considering 50 new capital offences.

. . .

The state’s brief [in a case] at the Supreme Court of Connecticut … proposed a truly loathsome sentiment. ‘When we lose the collective “nerve” to act, however unpleasant the action required, we sow the seeds of anarchy.’ This notion is profoundly foul. It is the idea that lay behind President Clinton’s personal attendance upon the execution of Ricky Ray Rector in February 1992, and which prepared so directly his victory in the New Hampshire primaries. It is the notion of blood sacrifice. The politician must prove his readiness to kill. It is revolting in every possible way. It is the law of the tyrant; it is the practice of the bully.

Peter Linebaugh is a radical historian. His books include The London Hanged, The Many Headed Hydra and, most recently, Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He was a mentor at Kopkind in 2014 and a guest speaker in 2019.





Scenes From a Pandemic: 11

15 06 2020

by Jon Crawford

A continuing series of dispatches from Kopkind participants, advisers, guests and friends on life in coronavirus time as they observe it.

(Photo: Jon Crawford)

Something’s Happening Here

Mountain View, California

It turned out to be an Arkansas-sized dog in a California-sized apartment, so I asked my landlord to pull up the remains of last season’s tomato bushes to ease the recreations of the foster hound. I didn’t plant the tomatoes. The patio’s concrete had stopped at a freshly tilled plot, but they grew—volunteers—from generations of fertile farmland.

“Distraction,” says the dog trainer, who is standing six feet away from me, the scent of Purell bathing her fingers. “Distraction. It is one of three key elements to training a dog.”

I understand distraction. It’s California’s biggest product, along with food. Social media has perfected distraction. TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, even the news, pinged directly to your phone, snapping your focus away from what’s in front of you. I live in Santa Clara County, the first US epicenter for Covid-19, and have a job in Silicon Valley. Until the crisis, with my three meals usually served at work, I didn’t venture much outside the work-to-home routine. Then suddenly the place felt as if everyone and the redwood trees were holding their breath. BARK! The dog at the end of the leash has seen the only other dog and is entranced with a desire to say hello.

“No pulling,” the trainer commands. The dog had gone too far. “Distance,” the second rule to training a dog.

Distraction helps curb bad behavior in a dog. Say it sees a squirrel; it becomes excited, even anxious, therefore it cannot concentrate on your request. Because we want to control the dog, for its safety and our peace of mind, we lure its attention away with a high-value treat, cheese or sausage, something special. We make sure a dog understands distance because the dog knows when you can’t see it, and if not properly trained, when your back is turned it might become unreliable.

An affluent county, we listened to the experts, the scientists, and prepared for the curve even before state mandates. At first, sheltering in place felt like a cozy day inside. Almost like one of those looping low-fi music videos, mellow beats with an illustrated fox in a sweater doing homework filling the screen, anxiety curated away. Until, RING! My parents call. The virus hit Arkansas. There is no shelter in place. The curve goes up. Doordash doesn’t deliver out there, not where they live. Wholefoods, nope; it doesn’t either. Who in the family is the healthiest and can risk going into town? RING! My sister in Toronto, asks the same question. What can I do? A simple video call, a simulation.

The leash, when tugged, is tight and choking. The dog returns, no longer chasing the scent of the other dog, or the smell of the soil between the cracks of the concrete. “Duration,” the trainer says, is the foundation of training: start small and add time.

I’ve been here over three years, in Mountain View, with predictably pleasant weather, not like Little Rock, where the humidity hangs like a comforter, both oppressive and consoling. When you live in a place designed to make the world seem closer, the city itself starts to lose its sense of regionality. Now regionality starts to matter. A sense of place, a culture made by the habits of people, gathering, cooking, watching, and holding each other, together. The feeling of being home, of knowing a spot no one else knows, knowing someone. Here, at this moment, a city full of people from all over the world, who connect the world, but whom I have rarely ever seen, can feel sterile.

The dog learned to sit nearly in an instant. But she won’t hold it. Not for long. This is because I wasn’t paying attention to when I would give her praise. Timing matters.

Training is really the study of behavior. Something this town knows well. At some point, when no one is looking, when we have waited for the appropriate time, I hope we will give chase, slip the leash, and jump up into each other’s arms—without a word of reprimand. We will remember what it felt like to be in our first bar, to see a film with others, to eat in a small diner, or hear live music, we will remember to wander off the leash and find new smells, celebrating the places and people that allow us to gather. Or, perhaps, we will remain where we are, well trained, our behavior acceptable, content with distraction, able to be left alone.

Jon Crawford is a documentary filmmaker, working in the Bay Area and often the American South. He participated in film camp, a collaboration between Kopkind and the Center for Independent Documentary, in 2018 and 2019.

Scenes From a Pandemic is a Kopkind/Nation magazine collaboration. This piece originally appeared June 10, 2020, on The Nation site. We thank Katrina vanden Heuvel, D.D. Guttenplan and The Nation crew.

Bonus: A Poster From Alex Melamid

Copy, print, post (legally, of course). And kindly wear your mask, don’t throw it.

Alex Melamid is a Russian-born artist, an emigré to New York, where he has lived and worked since the 1970s. In the Soviet Union he was instrumental, with Vitaly Komar and others, in the Sots art movement (a parallel to pop art in the West). Komar and Melamid were a creative team until 2003. One of their projects, “The People’s Choice,” about popular dreams of art and the funny thing about opinion polls, was chronicled in JoAnn Wypijewski’s Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Alex was a virtual guest speaker at Kopkind when that was unusual, in 2016.