Thursday, December 24, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar, Dec 24, Alex Marzano-Lesnevich: The End of the World Is Also Its (Queer) Future: Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children”

 As 2020 finally draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future. Or rather, I’ve been thinking about how impossible it is to think about the future, really think about it, hold a space and shape for it in my mind. 

Maybe that’s why Joseph Osmundson’s “Fitness: How the Climate Killed My Children” remains the essay that fucked me up the most this year, the one nearest to both my heart and to my fear. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read it, or how many people I’ve sent it to, yet it still retains a slippery clutch over me. I can’t quite keep its progression in my mind, only the sensation of reading it. For example, I always think of the essay as beginning with the image of Osmundson as a child, a little cisgender boy dreaming himself pregnant—an impossible image, one that holds both a sweet amount of hope and the knowledge of that hope’s failure. 

But it doesn’t. It begins with a violent end, a grandfather’s suicide—a suicide that is Osmundson’s legacy to hold as much as any hope is.

When the pandemic hit and 2020 became its impossible-to-imagine self, I was at a writing residency on a beach in Florida, where every day I would look out at the surf and try to comprehend the changing headlines on the copy of The New York Times the residency director left on a white wicker table with a glass top. The setting utopian, my own little studio, a kitchen that remained sparklingly clean even though we residents never cleaned it, a mug I could fill with hot coffee and carry—sand between my toes—to watch the crashing surf. The Illness Now Has a Name, the headlines said. The W.H.O. Declares Global Health Emergency. Ventilator Shortages Ahead. When the fear was at its apex, a lover drove down from Maine to retrieve me—remember when we didn’t wear masks, when we were suspicious of every surface, when we couldn’t name what exactly the threat was and so the threat was everywhere—and drove us back from Florida to Maine in one stretch, the two of us peeing in the bushes and curling up together in the back of the car by the side of a Georgia road, in the morning chugging back cold black coffee we’d poured into an empty bottle of Absolut found in the residency trash. 

And there was still, I confess, a bit of thrill to our ride, the headlines still unreal. Doesn’t every great apocalypse movie feature a road trip? Doesn’t (and Osmundson’s essay promises this) the end of the world amplify even the sex?

Or at least I think the headlines felt unreal to me. In a way I’ve never prepared for them. I’ve never named an apocalypse team, never joked about the end of the world. I don’t watch zombie movies, or any horror films at all. The idea of an apocalypse has never felt recreational. Unreal, maybe, but not recreational. If you had asked me why then, I would have told you that I didn’t trust its fictionality. That, like any queer person who had to jettison one imagined life and make another, I already knew my world could break open.

That’s the genius of Osmundson’s essay. Reading it, you can’t avoid the breaking open of the world. Its spine is a scale of numbers that count upward as you move forward: parts per volume CO2. He’s illustrating the incremental accretion of human damage to the atmosphere, our slow destruction of the conditions of our own survival—and then acceleration, how we will combust and implode. In the body of the essay, he thinks about whether to have children, he thinks about sex, he talks about the love he has for his friends and students, he invokes all the forms of connection that give life meaning and hope.

And the numbers climb, the numbers that will kill.

He doesn’t explain this at first, of course. He just lets you stay distracted by the prose narrative, while the numbers add endlessly up.

So the form enacts the content. Brilliant. My favorite thing essays can do. We live by constantly forgetting we’ll die.

As Jane Alison observes in Meander, Spiral, Explode—a book I have been immersed in these last few days of this meandering, spiraling, exploding year—super-short begin-again paragraphs like this, lines like this, disrupt the gaze again and again, and so disrupt the thought, requiring a swing to the left and start anew at the next section. Reading Alison made me recall T Fleishman’s book-length Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through, my favorite essay of last year, though I’d argue it presaged this year most effectively. (Just look at that title. I don’t know about you, but just about the only thing I’ve moved through this year is time.) Fleischman’s essay is also about queerness, also about becoming, also about sex and destruction and beauty. And in it, too, there are super-short snippets that stop and start, no explanation. Again they begin again. 

Queerness is not yet here. Queerness is an ideality, writes José Esteban Muñoz. We may never touch queerness, but we can feel it as the warm illumination of a horizon imbued with potentiality.

Whatever we are reaching for, we won’t reach. We’ll never make it. 

Re-inventions, textually enacted on the page in the face of certain failure. Could there be anything queerer?

Now the future promised by headlines all year has arrived, a mix of doom and hope. The hospitals are once again filling. Again, warnings of impending ventilator rationing. A friend from South Africa calls to tell me they’re in the middle of a second wave, and then she pauses, because we both know what I don’t say: the American wave never ended. Most of my neighbors, tired, have abandoned wearing masks, and I duck to avoid them in the stairwell as the daily case count in my state sets a new and newly unthinkable record daily, up fourfold from the spring highs, and still it climbs. On a walk with a new friend—so distant, always masked—who works on a Covid unit in the middle of the state, they tell me they are tired of watching people die through glass. And then they stop short, words failing.

In the essay, Osmundson declares that he can’t and won’t have kids. He can’t imagine bringing them into all these promised dooms. And he can’t imagine being required by love not to claim for himself the suicide he opens with. I don’t know if I can make that promise—the promise to keep on living—to anyone.

And the vaccinations have slowly begun, the turning back of one end of the world. I talk with a friend about his desire to become a father, a desire that’s become more urgent during this awful year. Will he foster or adopt? Lately he’s been thinking he’ll get pregnant, he says. His transness allows him to make for himself that impossible image Osmundson offers. Another friend of mine’s kid corrects them when they misgender themselves just trying to move through the world, just trying to fill out all the medical paperwork this year demands. She insists my friend exist. The desire to be named correctly may fail them; the kid demands they do it anyway.

And about five months before the world changed forever or maybe not at all, I started taking testosterone. I had spent nearly a lifetime thinking about it. I wasn’t ready, and then I was. I had spent years poring over the lists of effects that were permanent (voice drop, hair growth) and the ones that weren’t (fat redistribution, libido), but in the end I don’t think the lists made any difference. When I was finally ready, it wasn’t a rational decision. The scales just tipped. The future became the present, the new world the now.

I am, of course, terrified of the future Osmundson heralds, of the future any scientist who understands what’s coming does. I think back a decade ago to grad school, to a climate scientist who told me how trashed she and her colleagues would get at the hotel bars at conferences, after a day of panels promising the end of the world. I didn’t tell her then that we writers knew plenty about hotel bars—that once, legend had it, we’d drunken one of the conference hotels right out of hard liquor. The despair we had felt soft, indulgent, even melodramatic. Hers had felt real, informed by the science.

Hell: Hers felt rational.

I find Osmundson’s despair impossible to argue with. His conclusion, too. 

So I can’t quite tell you why I find this essay so hopeful in the end. He’s made a case for not having hope. He’s laid it out as rationally as the climbing numbers. He’s already told us he’s the only male Osmundson—the implication being that with his choice, the name will die with him.

And maybe the point is that whatever’s coming, we will have to remake it. The way queer people always have. Whatever’s coming will and will not look like the world of now, and we don’t know the ways yet, we can’t. We are still living in the before time, still loving and breathing all over one another, and we just don’t know what’s next.  

What else, then, but to live. To stay and find out and remake. What else but this stop-short start-again rhythm and the awareness that we always were and always are doomed, we mortals, and god we fucked this up, and we’d better try to fix it but also it sure seems like we can’t, and that living under that condition—making art under that condition—is one of the only hopeful acts available. Maybe what I find so moving is that he felt all these things, all this despair, and he thought about it, and he made us this essay.

And in the reading, here we are, all of us, connecting. From six feet apart, as whatever is now ends.

And whatever comes next begins.


Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir and the forthcoming Both and Neither. “Body Language,” an essay adapted from that book, appears in The Best American Essays 2020. You can find them on Twitter (way too often) and on their website.

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