Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What lives can drown

I remain continually stunned at how beautiful a read Anderson Cooper's _Dispatches from the Edge_ is. I have never had an interest in him, not personally, not professionally, not physically (though he is a handsome devil). I don't even care if he's gay or not. I picked up the book at the library/community book sale for a dollar. I think it was even half-price day, so I may have gotten this feast of semi-current events and elegant syntax (original price $24.95) for 50 cents. It’s even made me cry three times, which is more than he's cried at all the things he's witnessed. What’s most striking to me is his global comprehension. He sees the world as boundaries drawn not by politics or state lines, country lines, etc, but by the lines of famine, war, natural disaster. Things that don't ever go away, they just shift location. There’s an interesting moment when he's on Route Irish from Baghdad airport to the city when the driver says that "they" say it's the most dangerous road in the world. He responds somewhat absently that they always say that. The book moves forward in a sort of see-saw manner, for each chapter he talks about two different times in his life, different places he's been (for example Iraq/Bosnia for the chapter titled "inkblots of blood" (taken from the metaphor that each individual reads their time in Iraq like a Rorschach)). Tragedy in the book, all the disasters, all the death, all the suffering starts to feel the same so that our relationship to the places he mentions, in that we forget where he is, parallels the disorientation he experiences at seeing images repeated, seeing a Sri Lankan boy throwing rocks at the gulf after Katrina, seeing his dead brother in the face of a beggar in Thailand.

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On Niger, experiencing, and going home:

"Sniper warnings posted like billboards. Buses and boxcars stacked at intersections. Old men in boxy suits walking to jobs that don't exist in offices that aren't there. It all blurs together. Desert. Mountain. Rice paddy. Field. Farmers bent over. Heads rise as you pass. Eyes follow eyes. Little kids run to the road, stand frozen, not sure if they should be happy or scared. They keep their weight on their heels so they can run back at the lurch of the car, the crack of a shot. Houses, whole towns, nothing but rubble--roofs blown off, walls burnt out, crumbled. Desiccated, eviscerated, gutted, and flayed.

At some point though, the disorientation fades. You put it behind you; go on. There is adventure waiting. Life happening. It's not your life, but it's as close as you'll get. You want to see it all.

One minute you're there--in it, stuck, stewing in the sadness, the loss, your shirt plastered to your back, your neck burned from the sun--then you're gone, seatbelt buckled, cool air cascading down, ice in the glass." (p85-86)


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On Hurricane Katrina:

"It begins as a breeze, barely noticed, brushing the land where man was born. A bush pilot flying out of Kisangani might have found himself buffeted by a surprisingly strong current of air, or a farmer on a rocky Rwandan slope stretching his back as he stood could have felt the cool wind on his face. But it's not until the third week of August 2005 that meteorologists take note of a powerful tropical wave of wind and water moving slowly off the coast of West Africa." (p123)


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He talks a lot about Katrina, the aftermath mostly, though he stood in the storm somewhere on high ground, windbreaker flapping, gore tex eventually soaking through. He stayed a month, and didn't want to leave, hoping if he could tell just a little more of the horror, someone else's face, someone else's story, that more people would stand up and notice, stand up and really do something.

"My office is insisting I come back, 'at least for a little while.' That's what they say, but I know it means it's over. They'll let me return, visit from time to time, do updates, but soon there will be other headlines, other dramas, and those who weren't here will want to move on." (p201)

His fascination with Katrina seems to stem from the fact that (like many of us felt), 'this shouldn't have been able to happen here' and 'we're America, we should have taken care of our people.' He (and we all) expect these thing to happen elsewhere, which doesn't make them lesser in intensity but less unexpected. If we are a rich country what does it matter? And driving home the fact that we are not one country, united. We are rich and poor. Two countries. Cooper doesn't go into the politics much, not more than he did on his show, shaming a politician from patting other politicians on the back for what (little) they had done. And he stays open about his privilege, his culpability. He admits to horrifying a photo shop employee with pictures of the skin of a corpse peeling away from a hand like a glove interspersed with soldiers having fun. He guilts himself over calling human beings "corpses" or "bodies." It seems natural that he should want to know their stories. He wonders at times how he can laugh, smile as bullets fly, drink a beer while bodies float. To some degree he says he travels the world looking for feeling, like his brother who wondered if he'd ever "feel" anything again, right before he dropped off the 14-story balcony.


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I don't remember where I was when I found out the levees broke. I remember the time before the storm. I remember the weekend in North Carolina meeting Carol's parents, her father only four months from death, her mother figuring out how she and I "met" within five minutes of meeting me, giggling in the airport parking lot. I remember sitting in the livingroom staring at the Weather Channel at CNN. I remember thinking, saying, that storm, the levees, a city underwater. C's mother, father, C and I talking about the potential for disaster. C remarking how cheerful and botoxed the female newscasters seemed. I remember that just hours before landfall while the radar got angry on the screen that we feared even the layover in Atlanta, hundreds of miles away.

I've only been to New Orleans a few times. I remember convincing myself I could feel the hum of machinery underground, the pumps that keep the streets dry. I was fascinated from the get-go that anyone would think to build a city under sea level. That my nerves buzzed every hour, irrationally waiting for the wash of water that was sure to come, no matter how blue the sky stayed. I became fascinated and later read about how bad off the walls were, how likely a flood, how the water wanted in.

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