Maybe it's a period of grace
It’s all the things I’m going to have to miss
I watched a video of an osprey hunting a fish just now. It was a magnificent and terrifying thing to behold the type of thing you’d say holy shit about if you saw it transpiring in real life. You’d say holy shit if you only saw it on a video too but with a little less oomf behind it.
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Ospreys which can reach about five feet long in wingspan circle above bodies of water and their eyesight is such that they can spot a fish from up to like 100 feet in the air and when they do see one they hover and hover then begin what looks like a headfirst dive bomb but at the last second before impact they adjust their bodies so that they’re actually plunging in feet first to complete the strike and next thing the fish is absolutely fucked.
In this particular instance the osprey was successful it grabbed what looked like a pretty sizable fish some people said it was a shark but then other people said it was a dogfish and then other people still said a dogfish is actually a type of shark fucking dumbass why don’t you go kill yourself etc. You know how conversations go online.
So it has the fish now and this was a curious thing to me because I would have figured it would have flown off directly to its nest or a perch somewhere to begin eating it but instead it circled around and circled around over a beach where people were swimming and sunbathing oblivious to the drama overhead with the shark or whatever it was in its grasp which you would assume would be dead or close to it but then you see the shark wriggling around like it’s still alive and I got the idea and I know that I am anthropomorphizing things here that the bird was giving the fish something like a tour in its final gasping minutes of a world that it had never had cause to know existed. This fish that had never even seen land was perhaps beholding albeit briefly the entirety of the sky and I thought there could be worse ways to go all things considered. I thought of Jodie Foster struck dumb with awe thinking they should’ve sent a fish poet.
Everyone is talking about the war almost exclusively right now and that is certainly understandable. I wonder if it persists for weeks or months more if the TV news will lose interest at some point? Wars tend to stay in the news longer than other stories because the TV guys get to put on the little helmet and vest and they love that shit more than anything. Wars that we acknowledge are happening in the first place anyway.
People are also talking about nuclear war and so I broke out the old copy of On the Beach to poke through here and there this morning. It’s a novel written by Nevil Shute (and yes he’s British with that name if that’s what you’re wondering) in 1957 during the Cold War and it concerns an American submarine officer and a group of people he meets while stationed in Australia after nuclear war has broken out across the globe and they are waiting for the fallout to reach them. They get to live a little while longer than everybody else does.
Commander Dwight Towers befriends a woman named Moira Davidson who reacts to the knowledge of impending doom at first by drinking heavily and despairing which I can relate to because that is how I spend most of my time and it’s not even the end of the world yet.1 Towers tries to keep his shit together for the most part even though he knows his family back in the States are likely dead by now. At one point the two are discussing how the winds will eventually carry the radiation southward toward Australia. If they had blown more directly they would all be dead by now already he tells her early in the book.
“I wish we were,” she tells him. “It’s like waiting to be hung.”
“Maybe it is,” he says. “Or maybe it’s a period of grace.”
I suppose those are the two ways you can look at a normal life in general as well. We’re all born waiting to be hung and we can either despair over that fact or consider the interim a gift. Every day a last minute reprieve from the governor. I think we all know which one I’m going to personally do but you can do it differently it’s your life buddy.
“There was a little silence after he said that. ‘Why is it taking so long, Dwight?” she asked at last. ‘Why can’t the wind blow straight and get it over?’”
And then he talks about how the wind patterns work for a bit and she says it’s not fair they never did anything they never dropped any bombs and he says no it isn’t fair but it is how it is.
“There was a pause, and then she said angrily. “It’s not that I’m afraid of dying, Dwight. We’ve all got to do that sometime. It’s all the things I’m going to have to miss...”
She turned to him in the starlight. “I’m never going to get outside Australia. All my life I’ve wanted to see the Rue de Rivoli. I suppose it’s the romantic name. It’s silly, because I suppose it’s just a street like any other street. But that’s what I’ve wanted, and I’m never going to see it. Because there isn’t any Paris now, or London, or New York.”
He smiled at her gently. “The Rue de Rivoli may still be there, with things in the shop windows and everything. I wouldn’t know if Paris got a bomb or not. Maybe it’s all there still, just as it was, with the sun shining down the street the way you’d want to see it. That’s the way I like to think about that sort of place. It’s just that folks don’t live there anymore.”
She got restlessly to her feet. “That’s not the way I wanted to see it. A city of dead people... Get me another drink, Dwight.”
What a luxury to be able to read books about war instead of living through one. As the bombing in Ukraine seems to be getting more intense and indiscriminate I was reminded earlier of this piece in the New Yorker about the bombing in Syria and what a bomb actually does to a body.
For almost a year, Syrian government helicopters had been lobbing barrels filled with shrapnel and TNT onto markets, apartment blocks, schools, and hospitals. Welded tail fins guide the barrels to land on top of an impact fuse. The methods of targeting are so rudimentary and indiscriminate that, in Aleppo, many residents have moved closer to the front lines, risking sniper fire and shelling, because the helicopters don’t drop barrels near government troops.
That part kind of fucks you up there doesn’t it? To move closer to the people trying to kill you because you know at least they will be a bit more discriminate about what they’re exploding from the sky in that particular area.
When a large bomb explodes, it destroys bodies in consecutive waves. The first is the blast wave, which spreads air particles at supersonic speeds. This can inflict internal damage on the organs, because, Nott said, “the air-tissue interface will bleed. So your lungs start to bleed inside. You can’t breathe. You can’t hear anything, because your eardrums are all blown out.” A fraction of a second later comes the blast wind, a negative pressure that catapults people into the air and slams them into whatever walls or objects are around. “The blast wind is so strong that in the wrong place it will actually blow off your leg,” Nott said. He showed me a photograph of a man on the operating table, whose left leg was charred mush and mostly missing below the knee. “It’ll strip everything off your leg. And that’s why people have such terrible injuries. It’s the blast wind that does that, followed by fragmentation injuries,” from bits of metal shrapnel that rip through flesh and bone, and the flame front, which burns people to death.
In the aftermath of a barrel-bomb attack, Nott said, “as you walked down the stairs to the emergency department, you just heard screams.” Barrel bombs blow up entire buildings, filling the air with concrete dust; many people who survive the initial explosion die of suffocation minutes later. Every day, patients arrived at the hospital so mangled and coated in debris that “you wouldn’t know whether you were looking at the front or the back, whether they were alive or dead,” he said. “Every time you touched somebody, the dust would go into your face and down into your lungs, and you’d be coughing and spluttering away as you were trying to assess whether this patient was alive.”
After that I read this poem that my buddy Paul shared on Twitter today. “Kurihara Sadako was a poet who survived the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima,” he wrote. “In 1946 she submitted proofs of her poetry collection Black Eggs to US censors during the occupation. They redacted entire poems, including ‘What Is War?’ which you can read below.”
The only thing scarier than bombs are people.
Later in On the Beach Dwight echoes Moira’s line about how we all eventually have to die anyway but with less anxiety and more acceptance.
“I’ve got used to the idea, I think I’d rather have it this way,” he says.
“We’ve all got to die one day, some sooner and some later. The trouble always has been that you’re never ready, because you don’t know when it’s coming. Well, now we do know, and there’s nothing to be done about it. I kind of like that. I kind of like the thought that I’ll be fit and well up till the end of August and then—home. I’d rather have it that way than go on as a sick man from when I’m seventy to when I’m ninety.”
There have been a lot of fucking unhinged bloodthirsty takes on what’s to happen next with Russia but this guy who was the Obama administration’s ambassador to Russia has been really setting the bar pretty high lately.
I wonder if that same imperative to protest imperialist wars applies within our own country now or if it is still frowned upon like it was with Iraq and Afghanistan? Fuck it we can’t even protest the police without being accused of treason and hating the country these days never mind protest the troops who as everyone knows are braver and more sacred than the cops.
That reminds me I really liked my Discontents colleague Katie Way’s latest from her newsletter All Cops Are Posters on Blue Grief.
If Indigenous teenagers and Black trans sex workers and homeless people are the less dead—marginalized to the point that when they die violently, it’s par for the course—then cops are the more dead, because every cop’s death is reflexively treated like a tragedy. That’s why every officer flatlining on a ventilator because he didn’t want to comply with his city’s Nazi vaccine mandates dies “in the line of duty.” A cop’s death automatically matters, and the only decent response—according to his fellow cops and the God-fearing Americans who love them—is to show unwavering respect to both the deceased cop and the institution of policing in the wake of this profound loss.
And the institution of policing knows how to make its losses unignorable—by making its grief spectacular. Take the funeral processions for two NYPD officers, Wilbur Mora and Jason Rivera, killed in January 2022 after responding to a domestic disturbance call in Harlem. NYPD cops in their dress uniforms mobbed the streets of New York City for Rivera’s wake, then Mora’s, blotting out whole blocks of pavement in the middle of Manhattan with a swarm of navy blue bodies. The resulting scenes were best viewed from above.
Most of you remember this of course but it was so easy to get some random guy ready to beat your ass for not being enthusiastic enough about the Iraq war at the time and this is a country with all of its faults where it’s exponentially easier to take to the streets than in Russia. Have you thought about what it was like back then recently? I still have this vivid memory of a couple years into the war — and this is pretty much why I stopped going to live sporting events — of not standing and saluting hard enough for some dumb fuck parade of troops at a Patriots game and the entire section around us was ready to do a The Day of the Locust on me and my friends. You’re either with us or against us.
It’s hard not to think about the concept of protesting against unjust imperial violence perpetrated against civilians and not think about some of the largest civil rights protests in recent history in this country and around the world just a short couple of years ago culminating thus far in this the other night from Joe Biden:
Hard to imagine how we could somehow possibly spend more money on our cops than we already do but maybe we’re almost there. Maybe we just need to top them off a little more and they’ll finally figure out how to stop crime?
Who is this “fund the police” shit for? Republicans are still going to pretend like Joe Biden is going to Suicide Squad serial killers into teaching kindergarten and anyone who was going to vote Democrat no matter what is going to vote Democrat no matter what already. This is nothing more than a demoralizing fuck you to the left which is I suppose what the Democrats are always best at doing no matter the scenario.
Look at this guy:
Swalwell almost immediately started pushing for the idea of expelling all Russian students from the country once the first bombs dropped in Ukraine. Thousands of them who have nothing to do with anything.
As Osita Nwanevu wrote on Swalwell the other day in The New Republic:
A just society cannot punish people, on the basis of their nationality, for actions they aren’t responsible for and may not even support. Those who can’t grasp this exceedingly simple principle should consider whether it would have been fair for American students to have been mistreated or inconvenienced abroad over the policies of Donald Trump. Opening a book—or even a Wikipedia article, whatever their minds might manage—on internment during World War II would also be worthwhile.
After watching the video of the osprey again I was reminded of this poem of sorts by the actor Vincent D’Onofrio on Twitter.
“Pigs can't look up. But I could pick a pig up one night and raise it into the sky and tilt this pig ever so gentle. I can make sure this pigs eyes line up with the stars. Imagine seeing the stars 4the first time.I want 2b treated that kindly and see the stars for the first time.”
That is a lovely thought and some extremely Vincent D’Onofrio shit to say but sadly I guess it’s not technically true. While pigs can’t look directly up they can in fact still see the sky from certain angles and also especially can see it when they roll around on their backs in the mud which is one of the more famous things that pigs do. A poem doesn’t have to be true to be true though.
Then that all reminded me of this poem by Laura Gilpin which I have shared in here before but is always worth reading again.
The Two-Headed Calf
Tomorrow when the farm boys find this
freak of nature, they will wrap his body
in newspaper and carry him to the museum.
But tonight he is alive and in the north
field with his mother. It is a perfect
summer evening: the moon rising over
the orchard, the wind in the grass.
And as he stares into the sky, he sees
twice as many stars as usual.
The time I shared that Gilpin poem in here previously I also wrote about Ash Wednesday which it was yesterday apparently. It was 2019 and I had to try hard to remember what the specifics of the day even are then and now three years later I remember even less. Every day I become somehow less and more Catholic at once.
I remembered what they used to say to us before they blessed us with the ashes which was remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, which is a pretty fucked up thing to say to a LEGO playing nerd who can barely do division.
The prayer is based on a quote from Genesis which goes like this:
By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.
I didn’t watch the State of the Union speech because I was busy catching up on the second season of Raised By Wolves which if you’re unfamiliar is a science fiction series created by Aaron Guzikowski but executive produced and directed for a couple of episodes by Ridley Scott. The story concerns two androids named mother and father (filled with Ridley Scott milk blood!) who are tasked with raising a number of human embryos on a distant planet after two warring factions have rendered the Earth largely uninhabitable through war. In the first season when it was at its best it was something like Scott taking a stab at a Prometheus do-over and attended to a number of similar themes such as the origins of human life as we know it beginning on another farflung planet. Also like Prometheus at its best it was the type of story that dug deep inside of me and changed how I think about existence in a lot of ways. Sometimes unfortunately and especially in the second season it is further like Prometheus in that there’s always some fucking guy doing something so fucking stupid and you gotta sit there thinking come on with this fucking guy and it’s almost bad enough to ruin all the good parts.
The reason I bring it up is that it’s also in large part about something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately since I watched the Swedish film Aniara (which I wrote about in here recently and which fucked me up pretty bad) and read the book The Sparrow (which I also wrote about in here) and even the silly joke tag at the end up Don’t Look Up which is the concept of being able to flee Earth on a spaceship and arrive at a planet that you are fairly certain is habitable. Not safe per se but habitable.
There’s a common trope in sci-fi when humans first arrive on an alien planet after traveling an unfathomable distance where they slowly take their helmets off and realize they can breathe and there’s all manner of majestic looking plants and rock formations around them and sometimes waterfalls and shit. Some kind of space bird flies overhead and cries out. A tree that is much bigger than you would expect a tree to be. Sometimes the terrain is harsh and desolate and they’re like ah fuck what now but they have nonetheless arrived somewhere else. They are standing on another planet millions of miles away in the galaxy and they are alive. I never understand why they don’t all fall to their knees and weep every time. Every sci-fi film should just be scenes of everyone crying in awe for 90 minutes.
Would you want to do that if you could? Maybe the world is ending or maybe you have an idea it is going to soon and someone tells you you could get on a ship and while there is no guarantee what will happen — this is a very dangerous business this space travel stuff — you have a very good chance of reaching another Earth-like planet. Of getting out and walking around for who knows how long. Maybe the rest of your natural life. Then again perhaps you’ll be immediately snatched from the ground by a space pterodactyl or whatever and hoisted up into the sky screaming but you still made it to Earth 2. In those last terrifying seconds you might see the expanse of the new planet for miles around you toward the horizon and think my god this is beautiful.
I think I’d do it.2 If only just to at long last know this right here wasn’t all there ever was.