Alternate History: Refusal 5

The next day, truckers spoke over the radios, recalculating their routes, passing the word along. Air traffic controllers refused to let planes land. No one who drove a truck or flew a plane or ran container shipping in the Gulf would bring any concrete or rebar or wire or cable or steel or cement or construction equipment or surveillance electronics to anywhere at all in California, Arizona, New Mexico or Texas.

Companies in these states that made or used or sold these materials and tools made haste to sell their products, at a discount, to people and companies building anywhere else–other states, overseas. Ann Arbor and Vladivostok both took big deliveries of cranes, for some reason, and a lot of materials went to Haiti and Georgia.

People who worked large-scale construction in those states knew that the government would probably bring in prison labor anyway, but just in case, they went to visit relatives in other states if they could, or picked up work far from home. The unions passed the word along.

On the border, men with guns and men in suits stood with no power to move or build anything more than a handful of dirt.

*

Rhode Islanders can see if Dorcas International needs volunteer help. Anyone can call their city’s or town’s mayor and ask what they are going to do to protect and accommodate their immigrant and refugee neighbors.

This refusal is for everyone who was murdered trying to make the crossing, and for my students, who are still alive.

 

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Alternate History: Refusal 4

The next day, the students came into the well-appointed classroom, with its big windows and its new desks and its variously computerized boards and screens, and I sat there and said nothing.

I refused to teach them and my colleagues refused to teach them and the people who worked in the offices refused to explain anything to them or process their paperwork or even help them withdraw, and the custodians refused to empty the garbage cans and the groundskeepers refused to shovel the snow, and the people who ordinarily cooked for them refused to cook for them and turned the delivery trucks away, or unloaded them and then gave the food directly to their own and their neighbors’ families.

I lost my job and I went home, frightened, sick to my stomach, with less to lose–less status, less money, less safety–and free to do more, or do differently. They all did, we all did.

(There’s another version of this story where I was the only one to refuse, but I like this version better.)

*

I actually feel like teaching is one of the areas where I can be useful, but I could be wrong about that. The founders of the institution that employs me made some of their money by buying and selling human beings (which they have acknowledged) and they built it on land stolen from the Narragansett Tribe (which, as far as I know, the institution has not acknowledged).

The proposed “track straightening” of the Amtrak Northeast Corridor would pass through Narragansett tribal land and sacred sites, and members of the tribe have voiced their opposition to it. (It would also damage or destroy forests and wetlands, both of which can help Rhode Island weather climate change.) You can see the environmental impact statement here, and via email you can tell Amtrak/NEC Future not to build this track: info AT necfuture DOT com. They are supposedly taking comments until January 31st.

You can also call the office of Senator Jack Reed, who is in favor of building the new track, at (401) 943-3100, and tell him why you’re opposed to building it. I’ll post some words later today that you can use, if you want.

Alternate History: Refusal 3

The next day, everyone who worked at the Alyeska Pipeline Operations Control Center in Anchorage locked the doors, typed in the codes that would stop the flow of oil at every pump station within four minutes, and sat on their hands.

That’s not entirely accurate. Someone had brought a Sudoku book with only half the puzzles done. They played the game of who could ignore the most phone calls, emails, texts. They’d laid in a stock of food and bottled water, but someone also found it necessary to microwave a box of stale Peeps left over from last Easter. Someone had brought a carving he was working on. They sat and waited for–who would come? There was a betting pool: riot police? Hostage negotiators? Tanks? Most of them had left a letter, just in case.

About half of them had rifles, because they hunted on the weekends, and one person had brought her compound bow because she thought it would be funny, no matter how many times someone else told her that none of this was funny. “Sure it is,” she said.

*

Share what you can spare with the water protectors fighting the Sabal Trail Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Trans Pecos Pipeline.

This refusal is dedicated to all of them, past, present and future.

Alternate Histories: Refusal 2

The next day, everyone who could walk, walked in the street, and everyone who could roll, rolled in the street. At first, they would do it until someone yelled at them, and then when that person was gone they’d get back in the street. In later days, when there were more of them, they just kept walking and rolling.

When drivers or police asked them where the fuck they were going, at first they said, “Work,” or “The store,” or “My girl’s house,” or “School.” Later, sometimes, they said, “Boston,” or “The ocean,” or “The future.”

They got where they were going whenever they happened to get there. So they made other refusals possible: their supervisors had a choice as to whether to mark them late, cops had a choice of whether to harass and threaten and hit them, drivers had a choice whether to honk or keep quiet. People on either side of a desk or checkout counter–social worker and client, checkout clerk and customer–got where they were going at the same time, just later. The number of cars abandoned by the side of the road increased, incrementally.

Sometimes there were just a few people, strung like beads in ones and twos along a road in a small town. Sometimes hundreds, thousands of people were walking and rolling, all the mobile people in a city.

Over at the feedlots, the stockmen opened the gates and turned off the electricity and the cows stumbled out to walk among the humans and eat the bitter grass by the side of the road.

*

In honor of this refusal, please write to the North Dakota Legislative Assembly, especially the transportation committee, and tell them that House Bill 1203–which would allow drivers to hit protesters with their cars with impunity–is disgusting and inhumane. If you, too, get on a roll, there are similar bills proposed in Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and Washington State.

This refusal is in memory of Mark Baumer.

Alternate Histories: Refusal 1

The next day, every medical and dental practice that treated a member of Congress removed their annual checkups and their colonoscopies and their root canals and their physiotherapy appointments from their schedules.

From that day forward, every medical receptionist looked blank when a congressperson came in. The dermatologists and urologists said they were so sorry, but they weren’t taking new patients. Pharmacists shrugged and said they’d never received that prescription. Chiropractors and podiatrists and acupuncturists, even the few psychotherapists–all  doors were closed, all voices smooth and regretful.

At the urgent care clinic, congresspeople watched old people in compression hose, little kids with cold sores, a pregnant woman in her early 40s, a blue-haired person in a wheelchair go in ahead of them to see a doctor. We’re sorry, they said at the desk, we’re sorry, we can’t help you.

*

This refusal is accompanied by an invitation to call elected officials about the Affordable Care Act, today, if you live in Providence and are free between 12 and 3; by a second invitation to pay attention to Fight4Medicare and see what you can do for them in the coming days.

This refusal is in memory of Esmin Green.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza opposes fracked-gas processing plant

“Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza is opposing National Grid’s proposal to build a natural gas liquefaction facility at Field’s Point in Providence.”

Other mayors of other towns and cities, please take note: this is the correct move.

Let’s work toward a version of history where we leave behind the methods of fueling our endeavors that also damage us and everything around us. Maybe that means alternative methods. Maybe it means fewer, or different, endeavors. At minimum, refusing this LNG plant is one of many ways to take care of this city’s people. Thank you, Mayor Elorza, for doing that.

Alternate History: A Just Transition

This alternate history, whose task is to show our current choices as contingent rather than natural and to imagine a world that works better for more people, owes a great debt to the ongoing work and words of Mariame Kaba.

7/8/16

That day we recognized that police officers were like coal miners or offshore riggers, maintainers of imbalance, people distorted and damaged by the work some of us were asking them to do, and that they were in need of a just transition away from dirty, dangerous, dehumanizing work. They needed true and possible paths that would allow them to recognize themselves and others without damage.

We did all the usual things, to start. We made cordons with our bodies around entire neighborhoods, three and four people deep. Similar cordons formed around the Public Safety Complex, around the parking garage, around at least some cops’ houses. The moments when one threw their gun or taser on the ground, out of reach, and came to stand beside us were precious to us; this didn’t happen very often. More often, we said to armed men and a few armed women: this line can open to you. There’s a place for you beyond this line. But you can’t force it open. You have to tell us what you’re going to do. And it can’t be anything like what you did before. We said: you can’t stay on that side of the line alone, forever.

They didn’t hit us, didn’t shoot or gas us. They knew, we think now–and some of them have even said, since then–that the time for that was over. That was the beginning of their part in the change, but not the end.

It’s a struggle every moment to unschool yourself as a bully, but it was part of their reparations to the rest of us: when they asked us what we wanted, what would satisfy us, after the days of blocking their paths everywhere they went, we said that we couldn’t undo the past but that we needed to undo a future of violence, starting now. We said, you have to be the ones to do it; our job will be to make a place for you as you get better at it.

A person who doesn’t know that they are desperate is dangerous, and a person who doesn’t know that what they’re doing is a decision is equally dangerous. We stood in front of them. We said, we’re desperate; this is what desperation looks like. We said, this is our choice; this is what a choice looks like. Do you want to see who you could be on the other side of the line? What you could have? What you could leave behind?

People who weren’t cops stopped calling the cops. More and more cops quit. Like everyone now, they were guaranteed a living whether they worked or not, but they told the rest of us that that wouldn’t be enough. They needed something else to attach their ideas of themselves to, like the mussels that cling to the rocks; they needed to do work, and they needed to learn how to feel fear without doing harm. Well, so did we.

The world we were making was full of necessary daily work, both grim and joyful; the need for extreme heroics, sea rescues, fire control, resuscitations and transfusions; plenty of dead bodies to tend, despite everything we could do. There was a lot of that kind of work for them, in addition to the slow, grinding, stammering labor of breaking survival away from entitlement, identity away from blame. Most of them were very bad at this at first, no matter how willing they were: it always had to be someone else’s fault. But there was no one else’s fault for it to be.

The men’s houses were helpful for some of the ones who were men. (Free access to hormones, and confidence of their welcome as women–though not necessarily as former cops–in all places, was helpful for some of the ones who were in fact women.) The anger shrines on street corners, with their punching surfaces and screaming chambers, saw a lot of use, too. Some of the ex-cops spent time tending horses, as veterans also did, forming a new understanding of risk, fragility, care and trust. We were using horses more for certain tasks by then, even in the city–hauling things that weren’t in a hurry to get there, supplying manure for our farms–and occasionally for fast city-to-city transportation, since the solar shuttles were still in prototype.

More people were living more of their lives in public, too, by this point–houses were fuller, streets and waterways more active, privacy more a matter of courtesy than of soundproof walls and locked doors. It was harder to hide cruelty, and there was less to steal. The night watch made it harder for people who wished to stab and twist and violate to do so under cover of darkness. We used Build the Block and Creative Interventions as models for emergency response. We mostly didn’t allow the ex-cops to do these things with the rest of us: it was too close to the wound of what they had been for us to be safe with them, and sometimes, in spite of all that work, they were the people we needed to stop.

We sunk the guns in the last of the concrete–it was the easiest, most permanent thing to do with them.

 

Alternate History: 5/12, 5/28, 6/8

[Here’s an explanation of alternate histories.]

5/12/16

Heat, dryness, really sick people, kind of barren landscapes. A lot of–as I’m listing things off it looks a little bit like what’s happening right now, in terms of economic and cultural devastation. A lot more complete separation of folks with resources and folks without resources, a lot more violence and globalization from below–people joining forces, people finding commonness where they couldn’t before because they thought they were in competition.

That part sounds–not exactly hopeful, but like something that you would like to see.

Yeah, that is.

So what’s the fear part?

Starvation?…but when you go to identify it, it’s different than what you think. I like to think of the world as an ecological system. Basically the fear is that turned on its head and nothing being able to sustain anything else. I don’t even know how to file that, where to put that.

*

5/28/16

I’ve been down here 10 years working with the homeless. Last year they had a sign that said there was no smoking in the park, so then of course people came and smoked out here, but now people are smoking in the park again. … I’d like to see people down here motivated to clean up the park.

What do you think might motivate people?

I think people need to take ownership of it.

But what makes you take ownership of something? Like, do you own your house, what makes you feel like the owner of your house?

I think you have to tap into what people can do instead of what they can’t do.

*

6/8/16

The story of competition is only one story.

D hangs laundry in his backyard, bees rocking and rummaging in the rhododendron pollen. He has a backyard, at the moment, that he can say “his” about. If he’s honest, it belongs also to the bees, to the rhododendron, to the grass; to the native trees that the rhododendron and grass replaced, to the Native people that his ancestors displaced, to the slaves that cleared the land of trees the first time; to the bugs that thread through the grass and the worms and grubs that tunnel through the dirt; to the microfauna in their guts and the fungal hyphae laced around them. All those whose speech is in their operation. The living and the dead. There’s enough backyard for all of them, if he does it right.

Until now, the other meaning of ownership has trumped this shared meaning in his mind: the getting of what you pay for, the holding of what you have. The recognition that he is always taking part takes him apart.

He does a few things. He and his neighbors on the one side work together on a pass-through through his yard between theirs and the street, breaking up the concrete of his driveway into pavingstones with moss between them, leaving half the fence to slow down noise and building the rest of its boards into a trellis. When he waters the plants or digs in compost, he treats it like an offering; when he poisons the carpenter ants that are gnawing down his house, he holds a funeral for them. When his neighbor on the other side comes out running from his other neighbor, her girlfriend, he sits with her on the porch and helps her make a plan about what to do next. Later he says to the girlfriend, “If you want to hit her, come talk to me instead. Whatever it takes for you to not hit her. Don’t do it again.”

“Or what?”

“What do you mean, or what? Don’t do it.”

The girlfriends break up and move away, taking advantage of the northward convoys. D doesn’t know what they do, what happens to them. Other people move in, turn the house next door into what turns out to be one of the first free clinics and build out a giant trellis to let the ivy and grapevine make it a superstructure of shade, stabilize its temperature in the increasingly sharp spells of dry heat and downpour. D chats with the people waiting to pick up their doses of hormones and makes tea for the people dying of cancer to wash down their painkillers–iced tea would probably be better, but he needs to repair the connection between the refrigerator and the solar cell. If the next storm doesn’t rip this house away, if food poisoning or accident doesn’t nab him on one of his work trips out into the countryside, he’ll probably die here, too. He belongs here, and so do the plants that scaffold or strangle each other, the tiny animal deaths that feed into insect and fungal life, the remnants of the dead, the visiting birds (ever fewer), the relations among all of these.

Many years later, on that same spot, circle of people sit in a dry and ragged landscape, a stretch of dust punctuated by tree stumps and a few ragged foundations, in whose shelter the weeds grow and they can sleep. They are tired and dying, looking for the end of the wasteland. They pass an old thermos around. Each of them takes about half a sip. In the morning three of them are dead. The others form a circle, pass an old thermos around, each taking about half a sip. Then they keep walking, the slightly stronger ones bolstering the slightly weaker.

It doesn’t have to last forever, whatever it is, for you to be tender to it, for you to share with it; you won’t last forever, either.

Alternate Histories: Oblong Books & Music, 6/2/16

I gave a reading at Oblong Books and Music, the bookstore I went to and bought books at when I was growing up, and I invited the audience to write alternate histories for each other’s climate anxieties. These are what they shared with each other and with me.

As with the climate anxieties people share at the booth, I want to make it clear that I don’t endorse these, necessarily: rather, they’re expressions of what people are able to imagine for each other, part of the picture of how people are thinking, and what they think change and responsibility and possibility are.

 

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Less rain, water will become more and more scarce, more droughts, harder to garden, grow food and bathe.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: I read an article in the Times that some MIT student resorted to Kickstarter to get funding for his Rainmaker. No conventional grant givers were interested, since they don’t believe in global warming. But on his own, he made it rain on the farms in California last month, and he’s on a path to everywhere. He tested it first in his own garden. It does not require clouds, or even sky. Sometimes where there is a quirky smart guy, there is a way.

 

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I fear that in the next 50 years, 100s of millions of people will die because of climate change–what will happen to compassion?

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In the process of losing everything, people will suddenly awaken to their true nature as children, and will make their first priority to go outside each morning, kiss the ground and then bring something yummy to their neighbor. All extras will be brought together and shared as needed.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Losing my inherent instinctual connection to nature because of habitat and/or species loss such that when looking at my cat one day we both realize something crucially important is gone even as this loss bridges a potentially powerful and unknown connection between us.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: Knowing the love and connection you have to nature, do not dismay. Mother Nature thrives and survives, is deeper and more regenerative than our comprehension. The ecosystems which may be dwindling now create an environment for an evolved version of its ancestor.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My child is too gentle, kind and anxious to survive in this harsh, harsh world

ALTERNATE HISTORY: “Global” anxiety may be at an all-time high, with resultant aggressive and defensive emotions and behaviors by [adults? illegible] in difficult situations around the world. The only saving grace for society, some will realize, belatedly, is to foster a new tenderness and gentleness in children. Your child will be an ideal person to help others in pain and denial. The talents of your child/growing adult will be more and more valued with each year that passes. A child of peace grows into an adult of mercy, compassion, love and health. It is only from such souls that the cosmos continues. NB: A delicate perennial may appear too vulnerable to possibly survive the predatory vicious freeze of an intense northern winter, but survive it does–and can re-emerge next spring even more lush and powerfully beautiful than before.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: Political corruption is everywhere. Politicians working to better themselves and not the common people are everywhere. We can’t do much about this.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: 3 children in a desert devise a mind-altering “helmet” that is so beautiful, everyone needs to put it on. It tells the wearer to share, not thinking about rewards. Soon, everyone has all they need. All feel compelled to uplift, educate, feed, heal, comfort … la dee dah.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I fear the powerful corporations that produce much of our food because so much of it contains things like sugar that bring on diabetes; individually people suffer and require medical care.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: There have always been toxins (although we have not always been aware of them). Life did go on–perhaps in forms yet unknown to us–but it survived–and we will–but we might not recognize now what it will be then. I only wish I could visit then to see now what will be–

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY:

– Werewolves in the White House

– Death camps for dissenters

– Disappearance of hedgehogs

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In the same way that smoking in public places went from being desirable to nearly gone, those who have the sensitivity for compassion will overcome their fears and provide safety and kindness.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: I’m worried that we don’t teach our children enough self-love and compassion, and that we let magic and imagination not take enough importance.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: In this world you cannot succeed. You are not helped to jump over the wall–you are helped to laugh at the wall or sing to it. You never want to win or get it or manage it. You never think it is now compared to then. Everything is liquid and inviting and sweet and amusing.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: In a world of resource abundance, I feel hopeless that some take so much without caring [for] those who need.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: People will share what they have. New resources will replace old resources, no longer needed.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My anxiety is that people will never stop thinking that time is what they think it is. My anxiety is that everyone will forever be imprisoned–trapped–by the idea that it is now.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: One day, the sun rose and every single person rose to greet it. People woke up and breathed in peace and felt peace. And exuded peace to each other and all of life on the planet. And every single living thing sang the song it was born to sing.

*

CLIMATE ANXIETY: My fear is that we will run out of drinkable water in the foreseeable future.

ALTERNATE HISTORY: Drinking water is being synthesized from the rising sea–billions of gallons of fresh water pours from international spigots. Everyone bathes three times a day and drinks all they want.

 

 

Alternate Histories: The Subway Series

I went to New York, realized that what I was seeing in the bottom of the subway tunnels was water, and wrote this story.

*

When we pried up some of the streets, we laid down metal grid and limestone and marble and peat moss and sharp sand and the bones of some of the dead and broken glass turned back to sand. We planted salt-tolerant grasses, beach peas, heathers, junipers. We left plenty of streets, don’t worry. The ambulances and the power chairs can still get through.

 

The negotiations between the builders’ and plumbers’ and electricians’ unions (whose representatives drove in from Queens and Staten Island each day), the water’s lawyers (arriving on foot and on bikes), the various tenants’ rights cadres (some of them armed and riding the city buses), the Doctors, Nurses and Patients’ Coalition (in wheelchair-compliant vans), the delegation from Riker’s Island–these took almost a year, even with everyone eager to be fair, to admit that they might have been wrong or done wrong, to outlive years and decades and centuries of mutual suspicion and uneven violence. Pain and anger and hatred all wash out slowly, slowly, and only when people stop renewing them.

 

Rainwater filters down through the grids of plant and sand and stone into what used to be the subway tunnels, diluting the dank sick dark-brown water with clearer, washed water. In the storms, on the wettest most tantrum days, the tunnels become flood tunnels: the seawater crashes in and the skywater pours down: we made a place for them, because everyone and everything needs a place to be, and sometimes more than one. Spillways open and when the storm subsides, they close; when the storm subsides, sunlight comes down through the light-and-ventilation shafts and makes the water steam up.

 

We don’t need the subway tunnels for the subway anymore because work doesn’t work the same way. Most people live pretty close to the work they do, and no one works for a living; people live and they work. This took a long time, almost as long as it took to pry up some of the streets. We started doing it, and some of us got tired, and lay down, and the rats and the dermestid beetles from the Museum became our undertakers, and we gave our bones to the water.

 

This is terrible, we hear you saying, how can you stand it? There are pilgrimages to the catacombs but there’s no horror, or rather, horror is a part of our lives, a neighbor. We combined a few of the many things that people have done with the dead, since the beginning of the world.

 

We admit that we smashed up some of the buildings to get the marble. Even the softest stone is still hard, and holds a lot of memory. We wanted it to communicate some of what it had known to the water; we wanted its power to be transformed. But we didn’t smash up any people, or trap them into smashing themselves. We worked slowly and we worked with care, and no one worked past or even close to the limits of their strength, to move the stone on rollers, we chanted rhythmic encouragement and carried cleaner water, water gathered before it hit the ground, in the heat. Our plant and animal neighbors fed us, or calmed our minds, or renewed the air, or shit fertilizer. That’s how they were to us. How we were to them: pruners, killers, renewers of air, cleaners of habitat.

 

The rats have their own routes; the light that filters in, the unpredictable waters, and the lack of dropped food–there isn’t nearly enough to waste, anymore–make it less of a place for them. They live there, and sometimes there are terrible rat stampedes–we feel disgust–we stand as still as we can, shuddering, while they flood our ankles. They stay out of the water, though, now, we don’t know why. Science works differently now, too, we cut fewer things open, we stop fewer processes. Its motion is even slower, making some of us feel crazy. Those of us who can write, write our findings up on the tunnel walls, and sometimes the floods wash them away. Depending on the changing levels of dampness, moss and fungi flourish or dry to dust and sift down.

In the tunnels a few bats live, refugees, but they’re shy of people. We found out about the crayfish when the first raccoons came down. We stay away from them: they carry rabies, and there’s no vaccine anymore, not anywhere in the city or the world. But they’re among the best at finding exits and entrances, so sometimes we follow them at a safe distance, to see if there are places we should be watching out for, places where we poorly understand the change from aboveground to underground, where they understand it well. We don’t eat the crayfish. You can go to another storyteller to find out more about how we feed each other and where we sleep, the various ways we decide about children or pray or joke or clean. This is about the way we know the water underground.

 

Year by year, decade by decade, century by century, the water in the tunnel bottoms becomes sweeter. We lay marble tile from the smashed-up buildings, with cracks between so it can seep back down into the cycle, what we used to call the water table but now call the belly. The tunnels are long throats. This metaphor will break down pretty soon, but that’s okay with us. We build things now to be breakable, reparable, to flood and subside. Sometimes the water that sinks back down is seawater, is salt. We know this slows renewal, poisons roots, just like it would make you sick to swallow. We hope for time to dilute it.

 

On the hottest, driest days, the former tunnels are cooler than the streets, and we walk down the long ramps to lower our temperature, and that’s how we notice–after some generations have passed–the stalactites starting to form on the roof, just little nubs with a drop of water glimmering. Their roots are deep tobacco-stained brown; their extremities are gray and pale tan with the slightest surface glitter, as the sediments work their way down. When you see them changing, you don’t know it’s change you’re seeing. They are made up of millions of years of the minute dead, in aggregate, now entering another form, moved by the requirements of matter. They aren’t beautiful yet. Neither are we.