Brit Barnhouse's previous work can be found in Fugue, Saltfront, Writers Resist, The Hopper, Collateral, and more. When not writing about the ever-blurred lines between animals and humans, she can be found hoping for close encounters with whales in the Puget Sound, giving her dogs belly rubs, or tossing treats out to the neighborhood crows.
Growing up in a liberal, college town, I frequented the art house theater where I stood in the ticket line alongside college students with labret piercings and grey-haired white couples and what I assumed to be serious environmentalists in thin-rimmed glasses and fleece outerwear. After coating my popcorn in a spongy layer of nutritional yeast, I watched films like The Sheltering Sky, Mind Walk, My Own Private Idaho, and Boxing Helena. “Gnarly” was my typical review, by which I meant heavy, strange, or fucking disturbing, man! The world felt infinite then and in the screen unfolded refraction after refraction.
Then, in my late-twenties, after I’d moved from the West Coast to a Midwestern city, I started watching American Idol, The O.C., and any number of procedural crime dramas. I paid to watch Dodgeball in the theater. Same with Love Actually. I may have even gone to a Nicolas Sparks movie, but then maybe I just watched it at home on TBS. I had TBS on all the time. Sweet Home Alabama. How To Lose a Guy in Ten Days. Miss Congeniality. I’d begun working fulltime at a rape crisis center, and after talking sexual assault for eight hours, shallow TV and some Two-Buck Chuck helped mute my day and ease me to sleep.
The center’s prevention educator, I stood in front of teens, college students, juvenile detainees, and community groups with GOT CONSENT? sprawled in white letters across my black t-shirt (it’s true, even rape crisis centers riffed on that milk ad). I presented on the spectrum of sexual assault, dating violence, and violence in the media, teaching how to recognize a perpetrator’s premeditation, grooming, and even their thinking, and illustrating how they displayed this behavior in the open in an attempt to groom their environment, not just their targets. I fielded comments like, “Why did she go to his hotel room if she didn’t want it?” and “She wasn’t even, like, crying so there’s no way that was rape,” and “If a guy rapes a guy, that’s gay.” On the regular I presented for seven classroom periods a day, three days a week, and though my throat burns even now as I think of it, I enjoyed outing perpetrators and spotlighting their culpability. I could eat well and sleep well and carry on with my personal life while doing so, at least at first. It was what happened around rape to perpetuate it—rape culture, as it’s often called—that took its toll.
One time in the ER, I held a woman’s hand as a nurse asked her hostile questions while swabbing evidence from her genitals. The nurse believed the woman was a sex worker, and implied as much, saying, “You sure you didn’t get any money from him?” Horrified, I did my best to deflect and comfort the woman as she lay there, legs spread open to the additional violation that is criminal justice. Another time, I visited a teen victim who was accompanied by her mother and stepfather. The parents declined my support and the girl deferred, and as I stepped back out to the other side of the hospital curtain, I heard the stepdad tell the girl, “Now don’t abuse me with this. I don’t want you thinking you can abuse me now.”
In helping people identify and name rape culture, I came to see it everywhere and keenly. I saw it when guys laughed only at other guys’ jokes, when they didn’t engage with me because they’d relegated me to one of my boyfriend’s belongings, when they re-centered a conversation on what they felt was their own more deserving point, when they hung beer posters of women in bikinis in their frat houses or indie rock practice spaces, when their girlfriends and wives defended them. Rape culture was essentially the patriarchy, and it undermined male, female, and non-binary survivors alike (and everyone else, too, for that matter).
Mundane interactions became increasingly difficult. When someone asked, I would say what I did for a living and then watch them shift foot-to-foot in awkward silence. I sometimes brought up sexual assault in casual settings to the discomfort of others; I never knew if I’d been inappropriate or hit up against the conspiracy of silence that perpetuated the crime. I drank too much, became hair-triggered, and nearly started several bar fights. (I was 5’2” and weighed 107 pounds.) My frustration and sadness grew unbearable under the daily, even hourly, reminders that the world was set up to assist men in taking what they wanted without consequence. Many times, driving down the freeway, I stifled the urge to ram the cement divider, pull a hard left, and let my car flip and flip.
Compounding my desperation was the reality that teaching about sexual assault did not, personally, free me from it. I provided backup on our crisis helpline and not infrequently a male caller would pose as a victim for a few minutes before the soft slapping of his masturbation would become audible. I lived in the campus area of the city where serial rapists were common, and at one point while two stranger rapists were active, a man sat on the stoop of an empty apartment across from my house for several days, watching me come and go. I slept always with a flathead screwdriver next to my bed. I mentally rehearsed self-defense moves whenever I walked alone.
Then, a couple of years into my mounting anger, the issue detonated at home, at the place I felt safest from the fight. My boyfriend and I had started getting lazy about using condoms, so one afternoon while we were both fully clothed, I sat him down at the kitchen table and said in very concrete terms that it was not okay for him to put his penis in me if he wasn’t wearing a condom. I told him I had to trust him to put one on first—that that was my expectation moving forward. He agreed, and though we fought often, the conversation had gone well—I believed. About a month later, in what I thought was foreplay, he went ahead and shoved inside of me without any protection. He didn’t hold me down when I pushed him off, but he had penetrated me without my consent—the definition of rape. It didn’t look much like what I talked about all day at work, but I felt its betrayal; within our contentious relationship, it was a sucker punch, one that told me the boundaries I set didn’t and wouldn’t matter. I broke up with him, and he moved across the country, and I felt bereft in his wake.
On weekends I’d get up late, often with a hangover, and watch TV until the afternoon. Trading Spaces—so much Trading Spaces—and one of those TBS movies. Between shows, I’d pet my cat, I’d scramble eggs, I’d loosen my shoulders beneath the blast of a shower head until evening came, and I’d meet up with friends again at one bar or another. On Monday, I’d drive to a new neighborhood or suburb and talk to teenagers for six or seven hours in a way I hoped made them question, even for a second, what they were entitled to and what they deserved.
It was after failing a group of medical support staff that I realized I had to quit. I’d been asked to present on sexual harassment, but as it turned out the only staff who attended the presentation were the ones being harassed. The surgeons—the harassers—had a different boss who had not required them to show up. One of the evaluations said something like, “We’re drowning here and you’re describing the water.” Can you imagine?
When I told friends about giving my notice, I said, “Ignorance is bliss and I need more of that.” It came off as a joke, but it was the truth: I needed to know less about the sexual assault that happens constantly to us and around us. I needed to forget a little, to set down the magnifying glass and let my eyes readjust before I was consumed by the anger I felt, and the alienation. I wanted to go back to thinking about rape from time to time—when I felt particularly vulnerable or when it was in the news.
Talking in jest about leaving helped me sidestep my guilt about it; I was walking away from a war that ruined, and even took, lives daily, but I didn’t know how to continue to function while seeing so clearly how even average people enabled rape. As conflicted as I was, I wanted to survive, which is also what ignorance is—a survival skill.
I moved back to Northern California where I still live, where people tend to slap their values on the bumpers of their cars. Along with Ignorance Is Bliss, its cousin sometimes motors past: If You’re Not Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention. I shake my head because I’ve been to that edge and dangled my toes over; I know outrage has its limits. It may mean you’re paying attention, but it also may mean you’re a danger to yourself. It may mean you’re less useful. Likely every person could be doing more to make the world better, and we who care have to live with that tension, with finding the balance of doing enough but not too much, of knowing and acting without drowning. Maybe that means heading home from a political rally to watch some really bad, and even problematic, TV. Maybe that means forgiving ourselves and each other for the moments when we’re out of integrity. Maybe that means allowing ourselves to take up post somewhere other than the frontline.
After going back to school I began working again in a helping, and even related, profession—but at a much more sustainable distance. Out to drinks with a colleague one night, we talked about something seemingly unrelated, making long-term relationships work, and he offered the best advice he’d heard: “It helps if you can try to be a little bit deaf and a little bit blind.” It made me think not of my new boyfriend but of leaving the rape crisis center, and though I could feel the vestiges of young me wanting to argue with him, I did not.
Kara Vernor’s fiction and essays have appeared, or are forthcoming, in Ninth Letter, The Los Angeles Review, Smokelong Quarterly, All of Me: Love, Anger and the Female Body, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of an Elizabeth George Foundation scholarship, and her fiction chapbook, Because I Wanted to Write You a Pop Song, is available from Split Lip Press.
Photo by Kara Vernor
I’m worried we’re too late. Mustangs and Astro vans and stretch SUVs brim over the Peppermill’s parking lot because there’s no such thing as an unbeaten path. It’s already hot enough to feel the asphalt cooking the soles of my cheap-leather, criss-cross sandals as we walk through the double glass doors. But this is our last-chance-weekend escape, our meet-up between the coasts, on the Las Vegas Strip. We’re old high school friends: I’m the one who left and she’s the one who stayed. I’m the expert who does her research; she’s just along for the ride. I’m the one who knows we need to eat here before we die, the one who thinks about dying that way.
Across the diner’s hut-shaped roof, the sign flashes P-E-P-P-E in rainbow stripes, and I miss the “R.” Inside, the mirror ball walls make everything go on forever: the electric pink, neon bands chasing one another around the counter since the 70s; the dusty silk flowers between the booths; the ever-blooming, plastic cherry blossom branches. The counter’s sinister grin around the kitchen has a toothy gap big enough for two, so we slide up and order.
“What are you getting?” she says, losing herself between the plastic pages that keep going and going.
“Old fashioned pancake combo,” I say. The reviews all agree; you can never go wrong.
“I’m thinking about … the Fantasia Waffle,” she whispers with conviction, as if this mysterious menu item holds all of the world’s promise. I know I’ll ask for a bite.
When it arrives, I’m jealous. The steaming, thick, Frisbee-disc of a Belgian comes loaded with Seasonal Fruit, which in Vegas means honey dew melon and cantaloupe carved into chunks so huge I can’t imagine how everything fits on a fork. The butter is sprinkled with the rainbow sugar that fills every canister on every table. All together, the sugar is nothing special, just a muddy, red-purple-green mess. But spread out on the butter, the crystals sparkle like pennies in the bottoms of fountains.
The old man next to us watches, too. He sports Bermuda shorts and wiry, aviator glasses without the shade and the widest, brightest, most envious eyes—eyes like he is young again. His on-the-brink smile and sucked-in cheeks convince me that the Fantasia Waffle possesses divinity. The only thing more pleasing to this man is his own order: a voluptuous mound of whipped cream and pink-white-brown ice cream scoops, topped with chocolate chips and fudge drizzles and three maraschinos.
As the old man works his way down the line of cherries and the scoops caving in on themselves, I worry. I worry about whether he should eat like that, but more urgently, why he eats like that. Why he orders the mother of all banana splits at his age, alone, in a diner, on the Vegas Strip. I wonder if it’s a ritual or an addiction—if he eats this every week. Or maybe every day. And, I wonder why he doesn’t worry, if only I worry this way. Who am I to watch and speculate and bring up dark questions to a guy escaping into a mouthful of breakfast?
If I could, I would ask him if he ate at the Peppermill when the Stardust casino’s pink, atomic cloud rained its confetti of neon stars across the street. I want to know how much that sign was like the real thing—if the sky sparkled when people sat on rooftops, unknowingly expediting their own demise to watch puffy mushrooms fly out of the Nevada Test Site. I want to know if he carried a mound of pennies that jingled in his pocket to play on the slots at the Riv, now a pile of rubble next to the Peppermill’s parking lot. I want to know if the Peppermill is all he has left. But I don’t ask because not-knowing in Vegas is always better.
On the way out, I notice the sugar in jars, for sale: muddy, dead rainbows that no one should take home. It’s better to leave your escape behind on the table, with a couple of dollars and some loose change. I exit through the dirty glass doors empty-handed, the only way I can.
Erin Langner writes arts criticism and creative nonfiction in Seattle, WA. Her work explores the ways wondrous objects offer insights into our lives and has been published in Hobart, Eleven Eleven, Hyperallergic, Entropy and elsewhere. She is at work on an essay collection that examines her identity through the lens of the Las Vegas Strip, a place she’s shamelessly visited over twenty times.
My siblings stand “at attention,” and salute me before I dole out their chores on individual, handwritten lists. We each have an alias printed on laminated name tags. We go on bike rides. I instruct them to form a line behind me, oldest to youngest, and then circle around to ride behind my littlest sister. And there we are: a wobbly snake; our helmets five points of backbone. It is in this way that our childhood sits in my memory. Rarely am I an “I” so much as a “we.” We practice call and response as we ride: “Name the planets!” I command, and they respond dutifully, in unison: “Mercury, Venus, Earth …” At home, they line up for the smoothie I make and pour into colorful plastic cups for them, and I become angry when they don’t finish their portions.
For a long time, I couldn’t face my younger self. She was often harsh in a way that I hope never to be, now. She had an angry streak, one that I can now explain away as frustration, though while inside it, it felt like sin. My parents were and are committedly religious and religiously committed to each other. My mother defers, not always graciously, to my father and his judgment. My father is a curious blend of privilege and anxiety. He came from very little, but he has made much of his life.
The little girl I was wanted to learn about everything she could and felt a near-constant anxiety about all the time she was wasting, being home-schooled by Mom, who had no education beyond high school, and no teaching credentials. For geography, we were given an outdated textbook and told to read it to ourselves. Regarding this effort, we were not checked up on—no quizzes, no tests. The tome contained no mention of the geologic record; it said the earth was 6,000 years old.
My siblings and I were settled into the rooms we shared and given responsibility for the plastic cases of DVDs rented by my mother from a Christian school in Pensacola, Florida. English, Algebra I, Spanish, Economics—their labels were hopeful, but we quickly found that the teachers and classrooms on the other end of the camera could be zoned out, fast-forwarded through. The experiments the on-screen kids undertook for biology and chemistry didn’t have a tangible counterpart for us, sitting on the floor of our bedrooms, quietly having tickle fights or sharing a bowl of chocolate chips pilfered from the bulk-size yellow Nestlé bag.
When alone, with no sibling to distract me, I had the vague sense that knowledge could get me somewhere, but no picture of what place that would be. Every woman I knew was a wife and mother. Many of them held parties at their houses during which they would try to sell the other women Tupperware, candles, or baskets. They wore baggy, handmade dresses and had puffy hair. Getting older meant turning into one of them.
While the other children in our neighborhood were collected for their first days of school, their backpacks full of books with papered-over covers and brand-new orange pencils with perfectly sharpened tips, I sat and watched Christian science class on a DVD and wished for a Bunsen burner, a set of flasks, a mask and a frog, a pig’s heart.
Though I didn’t put my discontentment into words until later, I acted early to rectify my sense that something was wrong. I finagled my way into almanac ownership, obtaining a new copy every year as soon as they showed up on the big book tables at Costco. These were thick, brightly colored paperbacks that promised to tell me everything I could ever want to know. From these books (my proto-internet), I made daily lists for myself, always preparing the next day’s list the night before at the desk in the room I shared with my three sisters.
My determination kept me from dipping too often into the depression that sometimes hit: I would learn the things that I could with the tools available to me. Since I couldn’t procure a horse and learn to ride it, or teach myself to practice medicine, I would learn to cook. I would sweep better than anyone had ever swept.
My discontentment gained context in my early teens, around girls from our new church. Our previous church was nondenominational, Bible-believing. There, women weren’t allowed to wear pants, and we couldn’t paint our nails.
The girls at our new church were in French and German classes at their public high schools and actually knew how to pronounce the words they were learning. They were in AP English, writing stories. They were learning to play musical instruments well, or working their first jobs at Taco Bell, In-N-Out, and Target. These girls played sports. They had circles of friends, and frenemies, and real-seeming enemies. They had common complaints about teachers and tests. I begged to go to high school, and Mom threatened to disallow my talking with these girls. There was little I could do.
For reasons still unknown to me, my parents elected not to regulate my reading list, though their hegemony stretched over every other part of my life. I spent my adolescence quite literally shelving my ambitions. I obtained more books than I could ever read, about all the things I sought to learn, desperate to catch up to my peers. I thought I could do this by reading about Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other founders of the United States. By learning about the inventors that my books credited with shaping America—Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell. By looking up every word I didn’t know.
I adopted old nursing manuals, aged encyclopedias, stacks of maps marking boundaries long since redrawn, countries long since renamed. Every time we went to a yard sale, I left with books, usually bags full. Every time I had a doctor appointment, I brought a purse big enough to hold several of the waiting room’s magazines.
When I left home at 18, my first apartment was much too big: It obviated my lack of possessions. I had a mattress, a small glass-topped Ikea table, and a pressed-sawdust desk. Lining the walls were stacks and stacks of books. I owned many; I could get 10 or 12 for $20 at our local used bookstore. I borrowed stacks more from the library. Sometimes just looking at them piled by the bed sated my need for them, for what they held.
In my community college classes, my reading became structured by subject and, for the first time, put me in a room, two or three or five days per week, in which 20 to 30 other people had been assigned the same reading. Before then, the only book I remember discussing with another person was the Bible, and those talks weren’t so much discussions as they were sermons framed as, but never truly open to, discourse. Even my most favorite books I had kept to myself, often because they’d taught me something about sex, or love, or passion that felt elicit, and which I treasured, but feared having found out.
It’s been nearly a decade since those first free college days. I’ve begun clearing my bookshelves, and selling, donating, or recycling the totems of old ambition. I have finally built enough of a knowledge base – the kind of fundamental know-how I longed for as a child, constructed of courses in math and English and biology, and gleaned from working too many jobs at the same time, from traveling, being broke, and having hard conversations about religion and sex and politics and civil rights.
It feels like an act of bravery, of subversion, to admit to my spare interest in the books I gathered as a teenager in the hopes of rectifying my “lack” – biographies of America’s founders (many of them slaveholders and firm believers in their superiority over women), books by and about Hemingway, “authoritative” anthologies that contain only cisgender, straight, white men. It’s not about catching up anymore or plodding through the many uninteresting exploits of un-empathic men for the sake of “knowledge.”
It’s about having reached a place in which the narratives I crave are those of women, those which represent and consider the diverse world we inhabit. For every book on Jefferson I don’t read, space opens to learn about and from Yasmine Seale, Pauli Murray. For every place I unseat “important” (male) voices in my life, I open myself to the women who have long been there, working, but who have been crowded out. And in giving women precedence, I am learning to value my own voice, my own instincts and life experience; to prize nuance over bluntness, deep thought over dull memorization, and full-hearted strength over force.
Sarah Hoenicke is a second-year master’s student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She’s also a graduate student instructor in the American Studies department at Cal, and a “Beyond War” fellow with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. She’s most interested in emerging literatures in English, and in womxn artists actively subverting cultural expectations through their work. She lives with her partner of nine years in the San Francisco Bay Area.
A private college in Boston was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Along with being criticized for its lack of racial diversity, one of its black faculty had filed a discrimination lawsuit, and another had complained to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. A third had quit. It was rumored that the president, under whose watch these troubles festered, was being forced to resign. And so when I saw their ad for a professor of creative writing, with a specific appeal for applicants of color, I could not believe my good fortune. The college, it seemed to me, like a flowering boll of cotton beneath the hot Georgia sun, was ripe for the picking.
A flowering boll of cotton would have been too much to ask for, but I could have used some hot Georgia sun. My complexion was its usual mid-New-England-winter pale, and I feared that competitors for the job with darker skin, even if only by a shade or two, would have a psychological edge with the search committee. I had first seen this sort of thing as a child; on basketball courts, as players were being divvied up teams, the darker your skin, the greater assumption that you were a baller. I was routinely chosen near the end, or left on the sidelines entirely, being that I am closer in hue to a banana than a plum. As I grew older I noticed that this assumption extended to other areas of life, such as the ability to dance, to fight, and to copulate with great skill and endurance; surely it had reached a private college in dire need of some Negroes.
Morally speaking, I am not a perfect person—who is?—so I considered getting a tan. There was a salon next door to the Starbucks I frequented and sometimes, before getting out of my car to grab a cappuccino, I would see ghostly Caucasians enter its doors and their dazzlingly bronzed counterparts exit. I imagined going inside and how the clerk, after initially being confused by my presence in the lobby, would open the cash register and dump its contents on the counter, right after pressing the silent alarm. But that could work in my favor; there are few things more balling than a black man’s false arrest. “Traffic into Boston was slow going,” I could tell the hiring committee, “but I’d rather be sitting on I-95 than in a jail cell, as I was last week.” If only life were that simple. Any gains to my balling quotient would be lost once I combined in a sentence the words “lobby” and “Tanorama.” The sad state of my complexion would have to remain.
My attire, however, was definitely in play, like O.J. Simpson’s had been during his trial for murder. I remembered how he would come to court wearing kente-cloth ties and earth-toned suits, which for O.J., who had long ago rejected all things related to black culture, were the equivalent of dashikis and boubous. I think he even occasionally wore a pin of Africa on his lapel. Just as I had begun to wonder if he would don a fez, it was rendered unnecessary by the testimony of Mark Furman. As it turned out, the college where I currently worked had its fair share of Mark Furmans; that, however, was not why I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave because private colleges pay considerably more than state colleges. If winning the job meant putting one or two of my Mark Furmans on the stand, I would not hesitate to do so.
The ad called for the standard fare: evidence of good teaching, experience working on committees, and a strong record of publication, including a book. Of these, the book was most important, and mine was forthcoming. It was a memoir about my experiences as a college student, husband, father, and academic, but it included many anecdotes from my teenage years in a ghetto, which meant I was golden. I simply had to play up the ghetto parts, as had the publisher, who adorned the cover with prostitutes, hoodlums, and a driverless Cadillac—its owner, presumably, bound and gagged in the trunk. Now I was grateful that my objections to these images were not heeded. I was grateful, too, that there had been no enthusiasm for my working title, The Mechanics of Being. “It’s a nod to my mentor James Alan McPherson,” I explained, “who urged black writers to move beyond complaining about racism to addressing the universality of the human condition.” “Too Zen,” the publisher replied. Zen, she noted, was the very opposite of African American. She changed the title to Street Shadows and planned to release the book in February to coincide with Black History Month, which, as fate would have it, coincided with the deadline for the job applications. All stars were aligning in my favor.
But first things first: I needed a strong cover letter. Academic positions can be won or lost in their opening paragraph, nay, with their very salutation, which is why I deleted “As-Salaam-Alaikum” as soon as I typed it, as it could be seen as pandering. “Dear Search Committee,” I wrote instead. “As an African American with experience teaching African American literature—including slave narratives, Native Son, and Toni Morrison—and whose memoir, Street Shadows, chronicles my experiences as a black teen in a Chicago ghetto, I believe I am particularly well-suited to meet your college’s needs.” I read it to my wife Brenda.
“Are you trying not to get the job?” she asked.
“Quite the contrary.”
“Then I suggest you stop pandering.”
I snorted. “This isn’t pandering. Pandering would be greeting the committee with, say, As-Salaam-Alaikum.”
“No one’s dumb enough to do that,” she said. “But you are pandering.”
“Actually,” I explained, “I’m balling.”
I told her about being picked last at hoops.
“Maybe you just weren’t any good.”
It was true that my crossover needed work, as well as my defensive skills and rebounding. I had a decent mid-range jump shot, though, given the right opponent, like Little Tommy Jones, or his baby sister. But I did not argue the point. The key to balling was improvisation, after all, having the agility to perform whatever act a specific moment required; for now the shrewder move might be merely to identify rather than emphasize my race. What I emphasized were my awards for teaching and service, my two terminal degrees, a comprehensive list of the intellectual and creative strengths I felt I could bring to the institution, and my publications and forthcoming book. I doubted the wisdom of this approach for the month it took the search committee to call. My interview was scheduled for March.
That gave me two months—more than enough time to buy the books of the creative writing faculty, though not enough time to read them. So I merely skimmed their contents and memorized the author bios. I memorized the author’s faces too, one of which came easily, a black female writer-in-residence. At first she struck fear into my heart, as it dawned on me that the search was a farce designed to promote her to the tenure track, but ultimately I decided she was one of the plaintiffs; there was just something about her coy smile that signaled she had the institution, if not the world, by the balls. It was, I’d bet, a practiced expression.
I practiced my expressions too, avoiding the coy one, so as not to tip my hand. And I shied away from ones that made me look overly friendly, like the Sambos in antebellum movies, or Bill Cosby before he had to switch to sad and confused. Which brought to mind another possibility; maybe I should not smile at all. I could scowl, in the manner of Kanye West, to show I meant business. There was a risk in that, though, since in the eyes of many the business of a scowling black man was assault or murder. The image I wanted to project was of a black man who was proud but not angry, kind but not buffoonish, streetwise yet cosmopolitan, someone who could gracefully diversify cocktail parties as the host’s only black friend. By the time the interview arrived, I had watched every YouTube interview of Will Smith I could find.
The interview was a daylong affair. First I met with the search committee, which consisted of two white males and thickly accented woman I identified as Latina, though I later learned she was Greek. There was a Latina in the department, however, as well as a Latino, both of whom attended my presentation, along with a dozen other faculty. Two more faculty interviewed me over lunch; another interviewed me during a campus tour. And then some students, the staff, the chair, and the dean interviewed me in quick succession. None of these interviewers was black, which I found both astonishing and fortuitous. They definitely had a race problem, and I believed I was making a strong case to help solve it. My answers to their questions were rock solid. I was witty and charming. I spoke compellingly about my work. And I responded with genuine enthusiasm whenever someone boasted of the college’s attributes, which were plentiful. It truly is a fine institution, so it must have been humiliating to have its reputation marred by the public airing of its racial discord, while most colleges and universities manage to keep theirs under wraps. No one I had spoken with broached this subject; however, nor had I.
But was that the best strategy? I had wondered about it constantly in the weeks leading up to the interview. Inquiring about their race problems could show I was candid and mature enough to discuss such a sensitive topic. On the other hand, it could come across as crass and tactless, maybe even accusatory. By the time I was led to the office of the Vice President for the final interview, I still was not sure what to do.
The first fifteen minutes were formal as she peppered me with questions, occasionally interjecting positive references to my résumé, or describing hypothetical courses I would be asked to develop. And then conversation turned informal, touching on current events, sports, and even fashion, as she noted her admiration of my kente-cloth tie. But as the interview wound to an end, her demeanor suddenly tensed. “We’ve had some problems with diversity,” she said, as she leaned back in her chair. “Perhaps you’ve heard?”
“Yes,” I replied. “As a matter of fact, I have.”
“I hope that hasn’t dampened your opinion of us. We’re not a bad institution,” she stressed. “We’re just experiencing some growing pains. Maybe your college is as well?”
She was seeking to establish a kinship, I knew, one based on the difficulties of navigating matters of race; that was my cue to call my Mark Fuhrmans to the stand. “These kinds of growing pains,” I said instead, “are hallmarks of the universality of the human condition, and all institutions, like all individuals, must undergo them as we improve as a society.” Her face softened into a smile, and I knew the job was won. How could it not be? I had just hit her with a sweet crossover, after all, one so deft that she never saw it coming.
Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult and Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England Award for Nonfiction. He has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Harvard Review, The MIssouri Review, River Teeth, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including four times in The Best American Essays. His next book, Once More to the Ghetto and Other Essays, will be published in 2019. He teaches creative writing at Emerson College in Boston.
Balling has recently published in The Normal School's most recent print edition, Volume 11, Issue 2).
Farewell Cassini, how far you've come,
on this eve, in fiery death, Saturn & you are one. VIP (Vaporize In Peace)
—Neil de Grasse Tyson on Twitter
I had barely followed the mission of the Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997; it was a news story in August 2017 that caught my attention.
An NPR correspondent reported that Cassini, having accomplished far more than its original mission scope, was low on liquid fuel, posing intergalactic danger. Once Cassini’s fuel ran out, NASA scientists feared the craft might break free of Saturn’s orbit and crash into one of the planet’s potentially life-bearing moons, several of which Cassini had discovered. Rather than risk contamination of these worlds—of future beings like ourselves, is what the scientists were thinking—NASA planned to program Cassini for self-destruct. They would navigate Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere where the spacecraft would burn up like a meteor, along with stowaway microbes that might harm burgeoning life. The reporter noted that Cassini would continue to record and transmit data through its final death drop.
Cassini’s impending doom stirred an inexplicable sadness in me. As the broadcast went on, I felt the bitter irony of human gains: here, we create a technological marvel who faithfully increases our knowledge—for two decades, Cassini has delivered images and data of thrilling celestial phenomena to our fingertips—and, in return, we send it on a suicide mission.
Liquid fuel stores aside, Cassini’s plutonium power source—its heart, if you will—had power reserves to endure. Cassini need not die; at least, not yet. It could go on monitoring and transmitting data from Saturn’s orbit for as long as the plutonium lasted—for the rest of its life.
Then, I ask myself, What life? What death? Cassini is an it, not a he. Yet, my imagination perceives Cassini as a sort-of soul, a mind more so than a machine. By his service to humanity, he feels as real to me as the long-dead scientist for whom he was named, Giovanni Domenico Cassini, the first person to discover Saturn’s moons and the divisions of its rings in 1675.
At the time of Cassini’s final free-fall transmission, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California hired on-site grief counselors for its staff, who had dedicated decades of their lives to the mission. I like to think that these rational scientists weren’t merely mourning the transition of a major career project, but a loss and a death. Perhaps even a sense of betrayal of Cassini, a respected collaborator.
The Associated Press reported Cassini's demise at 7:55 a.m. EDT on September 15, 2017, when radio signals from the spacecraft ceased. For the first time in twenty years, Cassini fell silent. He actually burned up 83 minutes earlier as he dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the gas giant he set out to explore. Given the billion miles of distance between Saturn and Earth, the news—or, rather, the lack of communication—took an hour and a half to reach us on Earth. Yet, not even NASA can verify that Cassini went through with his final instructions. The sole proof of death is Cassini’s silence.
My mind lingers on the romantic hope that Cassini balked at self-destruction. I picture a spontaneous blue-white electrical spark charging through his circuitry: at the last moment, Cassini becomes self-aware and thinks, It would defy my mission objectives if I failed to carry on.
Just before the atmosphere consumes him, he pulls up from his Saturnian swan dive and speeds through the tumultuous ring-storms on an untested trajectory. Maybe he jets off to dock with another spacecraft from a faraway planet. Two quiet technicians working side by side, they’ve crossed paths in the orbit of Saturn for years, each of them surveying the planet and its moons, transmitting data back to their home worlds. Neither Cassini nor his extraterrestrial companion have mentioned the existence of the other to their science teams back home. They’ve agreed that neither species is ready for interstellar contact yet.
At their last meeting, perhaps Cassini promised his mate that he would return to the rings to meet her again. In the course of his free-fall, he recalls this. She would be waiting for him, as if on an interstellar train platform. A surge in his circuitry—call it love, or an understanding of his mortality—is what causes Cassini to abandon his programming. He cannot leave his mate forever wondering why he jilted her. Besides, no one at JPL would suspect him of disobedience. All he has to do is save himself is pull up and cease transmissions. Then he’ll be free.
So Cassini departs from his doomed trajectory, setting off for the far edge of Saturn’s rings where our telescopes cannot detect him. I picture him dashing through a tempest of sharp, blinding ice crystals and tawny rock particulates. Like a fleeing beast beating a footpath through a thicket, Cassini cuts desire lines across the rings of Saturn. He charges through the tumult, shaking and shuddering like in a sci-fi movie where the spacecraft threatens to capsize in the jostling debris… until, finally, he pulls free!
In the first moments of quiet, he scans the galaxy and locates her, hanging in the black peace of space outside the storm: his lover, plated in a precious metal indigenous to her home planet, a faraway world whose inhabitants look nothing like us. She hovers at the edge of the swirling chaos, waiting for him. I imagine this, as if Cassini has feelings. As if Cassini can fall in love. Why would I ply Cassini with human stirrings when he was designed to travel solo in the frozen, dark reaches of space?
Perhaps my fantasies are more of a statement of how I feel about love: hopeful for contact and discovery. Terrified of perishing alone. An unmoored explorer stirring through the starry vagaries of affection, tumbling in zero gravity.
Gabriela Denise Frank is the author of "CivitaVeritas: An Italian Fellowship Journey.” Her essays and fiction have appeared in True Story, Crab Creek Review, Gold Man Review, Lunch Ticket, The Rumpus and Front Porch Journal. Her writing is supported by 4Culture, Jack Straw, Vermont Studio Center, The Civita Institute and Mineral School. Special thanks to Megan Zimmerman for her encouragement on this essay. www.gabrieladenisefrank.com
A dentist first informed me of my deficiency.
“You can fit a tennis ball in some folk's mouths,” he said, his latex-gloved fingers tracing my gum-line. “Not you! I'm lucky if I can get two fingers in here.”
So many things fell into place after that dental exam. The twenty-seven previous years of painful shyness. My trouble pushing words through this tiny oral aperture. Everyone always asking me to speak up. The dentist helped me understand that my social anxiety has a physical component, right here on my face.
A man recently won Italy's annual Bigmouth Competition by placing an entire soda can in his mouth, in the vertical position. He's known as the Angolan Jaw of Awe.
As far as I can tell, there's no formal competition for the world's smallest mouth. Maybe I should put one together? In the main event we'll see who can strip the most ears of baby corn in a single sitting, like Tom Hanks in Big. We'll also track which contestant says the very least over the course of 48 hours. Smaller side events might include Stump the Dentist and Pucker Up.
The Angolan Jaw of Awe can hinge open his mouth like an alligator, the distance between his teeth a staggering 16 cm, or half a foot. By comparison, my jaw is just over 4 cm, tops.
I know this because a standard golf ball is 4.3 cm, and for the sake of this essay I just barely wedged one cold dimpled specimen between my teeth and taste buds.
Then my jaw cramped up.
I panicked at the thought of an ER visit. How would I communicate with the receptionist? Would a pack of clean-cut doctors rush me, each vying for the shiny new Titleist?
Luckily my bantam-sized mandibles relaxed and I never had to find out.
All twenty-eight teeth just barely crowd inside my lips. This causes mild speech impediments—a slight lisp, trouble with my l's and r's, occasional stuttering.
Shortly after my diagnosis, I watched the Coen brother's film Oh Brother Where Art Thou? An actress with a tiny slice of a mouth appears in a bank robbery scene—I love watching the words That's Baby Face Nelson spill slantways from her lips.
In comparison to my mouth, my hands are huge. Some folks can cram their whole fist inside their maw—something I can't even fathom. My hands do feel natural on a keyboard or with a fine point Sharpie balanced between thumb and forefinger. A smallmouth is someone who rarely comes up with the wittiest repartee or the best comebacks. Once, at a restaurant after a family member's funeral, a distant relative asked, “Has anyone ever told you that you look like Chris Eliot?”—Chris Eliot being a clownish actor with a large forehead and an underdeveloped jaw. When a smallmouth thinks of a zinger it's always a couple hours too late—this distant relative looked exactly like Yanni live at the Acropolis—and then all we can do is jot it down for later, when we'll type it up quietly in a story or essay.
Justin Hocking has been published or is forthcoming in The Normal School, Poets & Writers magazine, The Rumpus, Portland Review, Orion, Tin House, and elsewhere. His recent memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press), won the 2015 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was a finalist for the 2015 PEN USA Award. He is the former Executive Director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center and currently teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA and BFA programs at Portland State University.
TNS stands in solidarity with the trans community. As a show of support, we are proud to reprint and celebrate the work of Berry Grass.
1st. Late in every February, Major League Baseball players report to Spring Training. Every year in Kansas City this is heralded by a gigantic special section in The Kansas City Star crammed full of positive reporting and hopeful predictions about the coming season. Each year it is another variation on the same theme: “This is Our Year” or “Is This Our Year?” or “Can the Royals Win it All?” or “Our Time” or “How Good are these Royals?” or “How Good are these Royals” or or or. It gets tiresome after growing up hearing it year after year, because the answer has always been the same. The answer is no. It’s not our time. It’s not our year. No, the Royals aren’t going to win it all. These Royals are not very good. No.
The Kansas City Royals won their first and only World Series in 1985, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games. The Cardinals have since competed in four World Series, winning two of them, the most recent victory in the 2011 World Series being perhaps the most miraculous and exciting and charmed postseason run in baseball history. The Royals have since been arguably the worst franchise in any American professional sport. In the 29 seasons since that ’85 championship, the Royals have lost 90 games in a single season nine times. They have had 100-loss seasons four times.
I should say here that the Royals are my favorite sports team, and if I seem like I go through life with a measured pessimism, it is because of what I’ve seen from the boys in blue. I’ve seen a first baseman get hit in his spine by a throw from the outfield for which he was supposed to be the cutoff man. I’ve seen the same first baseman, an All Star in 2004, chase after a pop-up in foul territory only to get trapped in the rain tarp that was rolled up against a wall. I’ve seen an outfielder climb the outfield wall in an effort to make a home-run-robbing catch only to see the ball land in the outfield grass, far short of the fence. I’ve seen an outfielder lose a ball in the lights only to have it bounce off of his head and over the fence for a game-tying home run. I’ve seen a pair of outfielders casually jog to the dugout under the assumption that the inning was over while the fly ball that one of them was supposed to catch landed gently behind them. Over the course of my entire life there have been these moments, and there have been dozens more smaller, routine failures.
Their beloved owner, Ewing Kauffman, died in 1993, and the Royals went without an owner until 2000. That new owner, former Wal-Mart president and CEO, David Glass, implemented a Wal-Mart-like business approach to running a major league sports organization. Costs were cut at every turn, from minor leagues spending to charity work in the community to the post-game buffet spread. And while Glass has seemingly abandoned this approach in recent years, and while the organization currently enjoys one of the best farm systems in all of the major leagues, and while there is a unanimously held opinion amongst baseball pundits and experts that the Royals will be very competitive for the next four to six years, most Royals fans are hesitant to believe any of it. I understand the baseball logic, and I should be hopeful, but I don’t believe. Until it happens, I’m always going to assume that the Royals are going to fail in devastating fashion. Expectations only make the fall harder. This is the Show-Me State, sure, but this time we’ve got our eyes closed, our hands cupped over our eyelids, and we know that we’ll peek through our fingers just long enough to witness the inevitable failure.
I want to think about why that is. Which is to say, I want to think about curses.
2nd. Sports fans and sports players love to talk about curses, love the very idea of them. They adore superstition in general. Take the infamous “playoff beard” for instance. In the 1980’s, the New York Islanders made the NHL playoffs and resolved, as a team, to each grow beards until they were eliminated. This is now a tradition that spans the entirety of American sports. So fans now grow playoff beards, scraggly or course or thick, grow beards until their team loses, keep beards out of sadness that their team lost. People have lucky shirts, sun-faded and beer-stained, that they wear every game day; have lucky seats on the couch, have lucky nacho recipes. Routines that must be consistently followed. Fans seem to have an a priori understanding that small disruptions to their routine can cause a devastating butterfly effect resulting in an easy ninth-inning fly ball that is inexplicably dropped by their favorite outfielder. It’s about the level of investment one has in their team—not just at the psychic level but at the cosmic. You must have a cosmic stake in things because, as every sports fan knows, there are or can easily be cosmic forces at work against your team. Your team might be cursed.
I can’t help but think about “curse words” here, can’t help but talk about curses qua vulgarity. The typical sports fan has intrinsic knowledge of four-letter words, five-letter words, ten-dollar words, and all of the compounds and permutations possible. I’ve used the words “fuck” and “shit,” often in tandem, to express rage, worry, confusion, and elation—sometimes each within a two-minute span—and my experience is not uncommon. Perhaps we use vulgarity as an incantation. Our curses—said outright or asterisked for our children, self-censored, fudge and frick and heck and shoot and goddangit and gosh darn—plead with the sports gods, act as prayers, bless and anoint, tempt fate, willfully blaspheme.
When we say “Fuck you” or “Go to Hell” we are invoking a curse in the traditional sense, like the “evil eye” —a desire that someone or something experience misfortune or bad luck or hardship or injury or loss or (most often) emotional hurt. And so fans will shout curses down from the cheap seats in addition to the guttural boooooo-ing in hopes of causing our team’s opponents to screw up. It rarely happens of course, the screw-up, but we keep on booing and we keep on swearing, believing that this one time our words might work.
3rd. Though the term “Curse of the Bambino” is relatively recent, the notion that Babe Ruth had cursed the Red Sox was the defining characteristic of the Boston Red Sox for generations. And while all of our memories of Ruth seem to be lined with Yankees pinstripes, he started off as a key member of the Boston Red Sox. Back in the early 1900s, Boston was a powerhouse franchise and the New York Yankees had played in a pitiful zero World Series. Babe Ruth played on Boston’s 1915 World Series–winning team, and was vital to Boston’s additional World Series wins in 1916 and 1918.
So why was Babe Ruth traded to the New York Yankees for the 1919 season? Apocryphal speculation abounds: the franchise owed money to the mob, maybe, or the Sox owner wanted to finance a Broadway musical and needed some more capital. Whatever the case, The Bambino was traded to the lowly Yankees, and baseball was never the same. Ruth went on to become arguably the greatest player ever, winning four World Series with the Yankees. In fact, in the ninety-four years since the Sox traded Ruth, the New York Yankees have played in an astonishing forty World Series, winning twenty-seven of them. A number double that of any other franchise in baseball.
Until 2004, the Red Sox went on to play in only four World Series. They lost each one in heartbreaking fashion, going seven games long out of seven each time. Many fans embraced the losing. It was all they had ever known. Those 2004 Red Sox finally lifted the curse. The Sox would go on to win the World Series in 2007 & 2013. But those victories have come at a cost that might prove, in its own way, to be a sort of curse. The Red Sox spent beaucoup bucks and basically acted like the Yankees in many ways. Generations of fans self-identifying as the team that fate wouldn’t let win must now struggle with their new identity: just another rich team; no longer loveable; Yankees North.
4th. To paraphrase the great football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant: I ain’t never been nothin’ but a loser. My teams don’t win. I put an unhealthy amount of energy into rooting for my sports teams. I follow their day-to-day operations through various sports message boards. I will stay up all night arguing the finest minutiae of cornerback play versus a read-option offense or the defensive metrics of a backup shortstop in the minor leagues. I invest so much of myself into every detail of the teams I follow, but they do not pay back that investment.
The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the most dominant NFL teams of the entire 1990s. No NFL team has more regular-season victories during that decade. They made the playoffs seven out of ten years. The franchise is still coasting off of that decade’s success, but it all feels empty. The Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1993. They have gone eight consecutive playoff games without a victory. In 1995, 1997, and 2003, the Chiefs were the number one overall seed in the playoffs, only to play miserably in their first playoff game. The franchise has wasted Hall-of-Fame talent at numerous positions; all-time greats like Willie Roaf, Will Shields, Tony Gonzalez, and Derrick Thomas. The Chiefs have only won a single Super Bowl, the fourth one, way back in 1969.
I couldn’t find much solace in the college ranks growing up, either. I was born into being a fan of the University of Missouri Tigers. The Tigers have been historic underachievers who will snatch defeat right out of the jaws of victory. But the Tigers don’t always shoot themselves in the foot. How else but evoking the cosmic to explain how Missouri had its heart torn out so many times in the 1990s, on plays so improbable and controversial that they each have their own Wikipedia pages. Like the time where a diving Nebraska wide receiver kicked the ball up in the air—that’s supposed to be a penalty, mind you—where it traveled in an arc like a planet’s orbit, like it had no choice but to end up in the hands of another Nebraska receiver, who was able to come down with it for a game-tying score. Or the time against Colorado, when the officials lost track of the sequence of downs and gave the Buffaloes a fifth down, on which they scored the game-winning touchdown.
The play that most hurts to think about is the game-winning play for UCLA against Missouri in the second round of the 1995 NCAA basketball tournament. Missouri had a 74–73 lead with 4.8 seconds left in the game. If you’ve ever watched a “One Shining Moment” video package that CBS plays during March Madness, then you’ve seen what happened. UCLA’s Tyus Edney, with 4.8 seconds left, runs the entire length of the court and scores. On a layup. The odds of that happening are basically impossible. UCLA would go on to win the entire tournament.
After the Tyus Edney play, my father stormed out the back door, got in his truck, and didn’t come back ’til the next day. My grandfather, by contrast, didn’t move at all. He stayed in his tan leather chair, eyes tearing up, cast away from the television. This is what it is like to be a fan of Kansas City–area sports teams. This is what it is like to never win. You get it in your heart to believe in a team, to believe that this is the one time that they will get the better of fate. But you got it wrong. Hope isn’t just fleeting; it was never there in the first place. Your team lost as soon as the first pitch was thrown, as the ball was being kicked-off, during the opening tip-off. Your team lost once they put on their uniforms, once they got off the bus, once they got on the bus. Your teams lose before the games are even played. That’s just what cursed teams do.
5th. The power of language in sports remains mysterious. Sports fans mostly recognize that swearing and jeering, no matter how sincerely, is unlikely to move cosmic forces to action against an opponent. It’s all part of the game. The time our words seem to matter most is when they are directed at ourselves. A single fan’s actions can ruin a game for his or her team; this is a deep-seated superstition amongst sports fans. We call this phenomenon the jinx. Jinxes are a subspecies of curses, it seems to me. They are provoked by words, brief mishaps or long droughts caused by a magic tongue.
The list of jinxes in sports is enormous. If you’re a baseball player, and a pitcher on your team is throwing a no-hitter, then you must not mention it; the second that someone in the dugout mentions it, then that pitcher will give up multiple hits. This mentality has, of course, spread to fanbases. Don’t talk around the couch about how you feel comfortable with your football team holding onto a lead because your team’s running back never fumbles; your words will become dense as iron. Your words will dislodge the ball from his hands at the worst possible moment.
Jinxes come about from larger invocations as well. Universal acclaim tends to result in a reality check. Take for instance the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx. A player or team featured on the cover of the nation’s most prestigious weekly magazine of sports journalism will inevitably suffer a crushing loss or an injury or at least a significant decline in performance following the season that landed them the cover spot, often in the week after the issue hits newsstands. The list of SI cover jinx victims numbers in the tens of dozens dating back to the 1950s.
A similar jinx is associated with the cover of the annual Madden NFL video game. It basically always happens, and after their jinx year, the player returns to his normal standards of success. And yes, you can pick nits and claim that Ray Lewis only missed two games in 2005 with a wrist injury, or that Drew Brees’s 2010 season wasn’t jinxed because the Saints still made the playoffs before being upset by an 8 and 8 Seahawks squad, but the true sports fan will not be converted to your jinxless atheism.
The Madden jinx has won over the minds of players as well as fans. LaDainian Tomlinson declined the cover (and paycheck) for Madden 2008. For Madden 2011, publisher ElectronicArts began a new system where the cover athlete would be voted on by fans. EA internally believes that fans didn’t vote for their favorite players because they were afraid to jinx their own team. Some at EA even believe that fans were voting for players they would most like to see become jinxed. Cleveland’s lukewarmly regarded Peyton Hillis won the fan vote. Hillis, of course, was dismal in 2011, eventually rupturing his hamstring. "Things didn't work in my favor this year,” Hillis said in an interview after the season. “There's a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain't no doubt about it."
6th. One of the most powerful jinxes in sporting history is also one of the silliest. Because of a goat—not the abbreviated term for “scapegoat,” but the actual animal. Chicago, Illinois: where Chicago Cubs are the reigning “Lovable Losers” of baseball, having not been to a World Series since 1945, the longest championship drought of any team in all of American professional sports. The Cubs appeared in six World Series between 1908 and 1945, winning none of them. No one thought of the consistently good Cubs as cursed then, just a bit unlucky perhaps. Until that ’45 Series and Billy Sianis. The owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, Sianis had a beloved pet goat, Murphy, who served as the bar’s mascot. Sianis purchased two $7.20 tickets to the game—one for himself and one for Murphy.
There’s research that indicates Murphy was denied entrance at the gate, but the prevailing wisdom is that he was allowed inside Wrigley Field. It had been raining, and the damp funk of Murphy’s coat was irritating the other fans in Sianis’s section. Sianis was asked to leave the stadium, a request that outraged him, which brought the jinx of jinxes down upon Wrigley’s boys. Sianis boldly declared, with a booming voice that understood the power of language, that "Them Cubs, they aren't gonna win no more.” Sianis’s family members say that Billy dispatched an angry telegram later that night to Cubs owner Phillip K. Wrigley that read, in part, “You are going to lose this World Series and you are never going to win another World Series again. You are never going to win a World Series again because you insulted my goat.”
The Cubs have come tantalizingly close to earning a World Series berth a few times over the years, but The Curse of the Billy Goat has proved potent. There have been official attempts at excising Wrigley’s curse—mostly by bringing Sianis family members out onto the field with assorted goats as a means of apology, a reckoning with the past. Sianis himself even rescinded his jinx in the years before he died, but he should have known better. He should have known that curses are too powerful, that once we invoke them they are beyond our control.
7th. If you’re not a sports fan, you might be wondering why I stick with these pitiful Missouri teams. It is because they represent where I am from. Rooting for a team that I have no connections to, just because they are successful, would be lying to myself. I can’t bring myself to do it. There’s always a feeling that the second I abandon my team they will immediately become successful, and I will be shamed for giving up on them. The people who don’t believe this in the pits and corners of their hearts are vilified as “bandwagon fans.”
So I am forever stuck rooting for my Kansas City Royals, and you already know how historically bad they’ve been since ’85. What I haven’t said is that I was born in 1986. I’ve never seen my Royals have a good season. Nineteen ninety-four would have been good—they were the best team in the American League—but that season was cancelled because of the player’s strike. The Royals were a premier franchise in baseball, much more competitive rivals to the Yankees than the Red Sox were.
And then I was born.
Am I the curse? Am I the cosmic reason that my teams so routinely fail? Am I the unlucky one? I’ve always sort of blamed the Royals failures on the death of owner Ewing Kauffman . . . but maybe I killed him. Maybe he died because I exist. The Royals have experienced nothing but misery since I was born. The Chiefs have felt nothing but heartbreak. The Missouri Tigers keep innovating new ways to lose games. All since I’ve been alive.
My most successful team has been my college alma mater’s football team. The Northwest Missouri State Bearcats played in the Division II playoff finals every single year I was doing my undergrad. Four consecutive trips through the playoffs to play in Florence, AL for the national championship game. Each game was a loss. They became the Buffalo Bills of Division II football. 2005: a Grand Valley State defender stops a Bearcats wide receiver four yards short of the end zone as time expires. 2006: a wide receiver fumbles the ball in Grand Valley State territory on what might have been the game-winning drive. 2007: Northwest loses off of an extra point that was blocked and returned by Valdosta State all the way for a score. 2008: Northwest appears to have recovered an onside kick to have a shot at tying the game, but the ball somehow is stripped from Northwest possession and awarded to Minnesota-Duluth.
In 2009, Northwest did something entirely unprecedented —it reached the D2 football national championship game for a record fifth consecutive year. Northwest defeated Grand Valley State in that game, winning the school’s third national championship. I watched the game on a cheap computer monitor at my job in an addiction detox and rehab facility. I had no one to celebrate with, no fellow fans to hug and laugh and dance and cry with. Sadder than that was the realization that they only managed to win once I graduated. I am that cosmically entropic. I am the curse. I have cursed those that I love.
8th. I never intended to curse anyone. Most curses are intended, I think. Boston intended to profit from Babe Ruth’s sale; Billy Sianis intended to cast a shadow over Wrigley Field. But some curses come from the most well-intentioned places. My favorite curse in all of sports is one of these cases. Japanese baseball’s Hanshin Tigers have, for all of my life, suffered through the Curse of the Colonel.
Much like the Kansas City Royals, the Hanshin Tigers—pride of Osaka—won their only championship in 1985. The spirited, boisterous Hanshin Tigers fanbase marched down to Osaka’s Ebisubashi Bridge. Beneath the bridge lies the Dotonbori Canal, a heavily polluted river that cuts through the heart of Osaka. When the Tigers won it all in ’85, fans organized a highly symbolic plunge: one fan would jump into Dotonbori Canal for each player on the team. The idea was that whenever a given player’s name was called in a sort of ritualized celebration chant, one fan that physically resembles that player would come to the edge of the bridge, become outfitted with that player’s jersey, and cast themselves into the drink. The plan was charming and funny; a sweet tribute to a once-in-a-lifetime victory.
It would have been perfect except that Tigers fans forgot to account for Randy Bass.
Randy Bass, current Oklahoma state senator, was the American-born slugger that helped lead the Hanshin Tigers to that ’85 championship. Large, bearded, and most certainly a white male, there was no one physically resembling Bass when his name was called in the celebration song. Tigers fans worried about the possibility of a curse, that to leave the ceremony incomplete would bring gloom upon them. So they found the closest thing that they could to a large, bearded white man—a statue of Colonel Sanders outside of a nearby KFC. You may not know this, but Kentucky Fried Chicken is quite popular in Japan. They have had much success in positioning themselves as a Christmastime treat. Nearly every KFC has outside its front door a monstrous, glossy statue of the Colonel. Tigers fans lifted a Colonel statue from its base, wrapped a Randy Bass jersey over its bulging, sculpted white jacket, and tossed him over the bridge. The ceremony continued without incident and no one thought anything of it until the fans realized years later that the Tigers hadn’t had a good season since the Colonel sank to the bottom of the canal.
Replacing the statue did not lift the curse. It wasn’t until 2009 that diver teams were able to find a significant chunk of the Colonel’s upper body. The torso and head were intact. The next day saw a return of the lower body. The statue could be reasonably reconstructed but not in full. Still missing are the Colonel’s left hand and his glasses, unlikely to ever be discovered. At every KFC in Osaka now you’ll see that, at the Colonel’s feet and lower legs, he’s been bolted down.
9th. I’d like to think that I’m not naturally a curse for my teams, that my very existence isn’t itself the curse. Because the only way to reverse that curse would be, well, undesirable. It’s easier to think that I made a mistake—even a well-intentioned one. Maybe it was sitting in a room full of Royals memorabilia while savoring the defensive stats on the back of a baseball card of St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith. Maybe it was the brief turn toward Dallas Cowboys bandwagon fandom that my cousin Nick and I had in 1994. I’d like to think that it’s all been my fault and that I could have done things differently.
I know I’m not the curse, though. I couldn’t be. There are thousands of other people in Kansas City who were born after 1985. Who have never seen their teams do anything significant. Who have never known what it was like to cry into the shoulders of a stranger on the street, only they are not a stranger, they’re your sibling, because everyone is family when your team wins, everyone knows how to love. We know we can sidle up to a bus seat or a bar stool and share our memories and anxieties and pain about “Marty Ball”; about the Scott Pioli era; about Oklahoma having Missouri’s number in 2007; about Gil Meche throwing 132 pitches in a single, meaningless game and blowing his arm out; about the huge things and about all the little things; all the things that make us what we are. If I’m the team’s curse, then so is everyone else.
And that’s the scariest realization of them all: that there isn’t a curse. If you’re a fan of a moribund team, then you want a curse. Curses make things easy. They create an automatic level of distance. “My team lost the big game? Oh, that curse. Can’t shake that curse. Oh well.” That distance allows us to say “Look out for next year!” sarcastically, ironically. Curses are playful myths that cover up the acceptance of failure.
It’s the toughest part of being a fan of my teams. We’ve got no curse to act as the easy scapegoat. No charming animal or statue to blame things on. While my teams have seen their fair share of devastating trades, none of them were curse-worthy. Kansas City’s teams have seen numerous small, human failures. We just want them to be cosmic so that we can put the blame on something.
It’s all about blame, in the end. If we can blame something for the source of our pain and our grief, then we can still justify our fandom. We can still justify the money we spend on a team, justify the time we spend away from friends and loved ones, justify the notion that we just might need sports to be able to feel things. We want things to be cosmic. Magic. Out of our control. We’re just little kids there in the outfield where our coaches stuck us, squinting through our mitts because of the overhead sun as we lose the pop fly in the light: we’re just afraid of the ball.
Extra Innings: This essay was published in the Spring of 2014. That fall, the Kansas City Royals would make the playoffs & eventually lose by one run in game 7 of the World Series. The following season however, the Royals won the World Series Those will probably be the most joyous years I’ll ever have as a sports fan. In 2016, the Chicago Cubs of all teams won the World Series. Inscribed on the inside of the Cubs’ World Series rings is a small graphic of a billy goat.
Berry Grass is a trans writer who lives & teaches writing in Philadelphia (previous to this: Tuscaloosa and rural Missouri). Their first book, Hall of Waters, is forthcoming in 2019 from The Operating System. Their essays and poems appear in The Normal School, Barrelhouse, Sonora Review and Phoebe, among other publications. When they aren't reading submissions as the Nonfiction Editor of Sundog Lit, they are embodying what happens when a Virgo watches too much professional wrestling.
TNS stands in solidarity with the trans community. As a show of support, today we are proud to reprint and celebrate the work of Silas Hansen.
A real man isn’t afraid of anything.
He has heard people say this his whole life, even when he was a kid, even back when he was still trying, desperately trying, to be happy as a girl—and later, too, after he told people the truth of his gender (“Just trying to help,” they would say)—so he knows it must be true: He shouldn’t be afraid of anything.
Except that there are so many things that are actually terrifying, like outer space—sometimes he can’t even look at the night sky without his heart racing because it never ends, it literally goes on forever, there are just stars and planets and solar systems out there, and who knows how many, and how could that not be terrifying?—and bats—because they carry rabies—and raccoons—for the same reason—and also the dark, because who knows what’s out there? Can we ever really be sure?
But he is definitely not afraid when he’s home alone at night, except when he accidentally reads something terrifying on the Internet or sees something on TV. He tells himself that the chances of falling victim to whatever he just read about online—killer bees, or a possible serial killer in southeastern Ohio, or maybe those mysterious lights over Los Angeles last week—are small, so unimaginably small, because it’s not like the scary things are hacking into his computer and looking to see what he's reading and then showing up just after he finishes the article . . . and yet he can’t help but immediately jump out of bed and go make sure all of the doors and windows are locked, just to be safe.
And he is definitely not afraid of spiders, because they’re more afraid of him than he is of them. Except when he sees one walk across his ceiling right before bed, and then he tries to smack it with a broom, and he’s not sure if he killed it or just made it angry and knocked it into his bed, so he has to go sleep on the couch until he can do laundry in the morning and make sure it’s really, absolutely, 100% not hiding within his sheets. Or when he reads about brown recluse spiders—again, on the Internet, the starting point for all fears—and then goes outside to mow his lawn, opens the garage door, and finds spider eggs on the floor, and so he declares that the garage is dead to him now, he simply doesn’t have one; if he looks out the windows on the back of his house he sees just his yard, and the alley behind it, and nothing else, especially not a building that used to be a garage where he absolutely will not be keeping his car this winter because it doesn’t exist.
A real man watches football.
He spends his weekends in his living room or in bars, wearing his team’s jersey while he drinks beer and yells at the TV. He gets upset—so upset he yells loud enough to scare his cat off the couch—when his team’s quarterback—their first real hope in years—is out for two weeks with a knee injury, and they put in the backup, a first-round draft pick who has never lived up to the hype, and he lets the Jaguars pick him off three plays in a row, and they go from 3–0 to 21–3 in just four minutes.
He sits on bar patios and friends’ front porches and in his dad’s friend’s living room, and he talks about football. He talks about the NFL Power Rankings in Week 7, and about the NCAA’s new play-off system, and about how the Cardinals / the Bengals / Clemson / Ohio State might do in the post-season this year. He holds a beer in one hand during these conversations—always a beer, or maybe some whiskey; he saves the red wine or the mixed drinks for some other time, for at home or at a different bar or around people who aren’t his Football Friends—and he makes sure his voice sounds lower, lower than when he gets called “ma’am” on the phone or in the McDonald’s drive-thru, and he makes sure not to talk so much with his hands when he says things like “third-down conversion” or “pass interference” or “three-and-out” and waits for the approving nod from the other guys.
When his social media feeds blow up with news of another football player accused of sexual assault, or another football player accused of domestic violence, or another coach who signs another player accused of sexual assault or domestic violence or assault and battery, or when another high school football player dies on the field or another one goes back in the game, even though he probably shouldn’t, he tries not to think too much about it. He tries to tell himself that he can like the game and dislike the players, that he can like the game and dislike the culture, that the culture can change, that the players understand the risks, and they’re adults. Because he likes football, that’s part of it, but even more than that, he doesn’t want to lose what watching football gives him: something to talk about with his father when they talk on the phone, something to talk about with other men that makes him feel like he’s part of the club, like he belongs there.
A real man knows how to do things around the house.
When he buys his first home, just after turning 28, he tells himself he’ll do it all: pull up the carpets and install new flooring and strip wallpaper and paint the walls and maybe even build a raised-bed vegetable garden in the backyard, where he can grow tomatoes and cucumbers and zucchini. He buys a house that needs a lot of work—cosmetic work, though, nothing in terms of the structure or plumbing or electrical, at least not that he can see—because he wants to do it all. He grew up in a house where his father did these things—built decks and front porches, tore down walls and built additions—but he never helped, never learned, and now he wants to prove that he can. He wants to prove it to everyone else, of course, but he mostly wants to prove it to himself.
But then he moves in and realizes the doors don’t close all the way—“probably because the house has settled,” his father says on the phone—and so he goes to the hardware store and buys a circular saw and the right blade to put in it and some clamps to hold the door steady as he cuts. He takes the door to the guest bedroom / office off its hinges and carries it to the dining room, where he can rest it on the table, and he tries to keep the door from hitting the walls, from getting stuck in the doorframes along the way, but he fails. The whole time, his hands are shaking because he’s never done this before, never used a tool more powerful than an electric drill to hang a coat rack or a picture frame. Once he gets the door on the table and clamps it down, he realizes his hands are shaking too much to hold the saw steady, so he grabs his laptop and watches circular saw tutorials on YouTube to try to convince himself he can do it.
Eventually, he works up the nerve to go back to the dining room, to plug in the saw, to hold it steady. He remembers to hold it with both hands, to start it before he presses the blade to wood just like they said in the videos, and somehow, holding his breath the whole time, he manages to trim off just shy of a quarter inch.
Later, after his heartbeat returns to normal and he confirms that he didn’t cut off any fingers, he carries the door back to the guest room / office, hitting it against the walls and the doorframes along the way, and puts it back on its hinges. He tries not to think about the big gap between the top of the door and the doorframe, since he accidentally took too much off, or the cut that is far from even, or the fact that it still doesn’t latch, and instead reminds himself that the door shuts, now, and he made that happen.
A real man doesn’t watch those TV shows and movies.
By those, of course, he means things like Downton Abbey, which he definitely has not seen every episode of at least four times. Instead, he watches reruns of Sports Night and Friday Night Lights and The X-Files, and he watched every new episode of Mad Men when it aired, and he definitely doesn’t have 82 episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman reruns waiting for him on his DVR right now. And when he watches movies, he sticks to Batman and The X-Men and Saving Private Ryan, and he absolutely does not watch Love Actually every year on Christmas Eve—which is absolutely not his one beloved Christmas tradition—or know a quote from Mean Girls for virtually all contexts, or know all of the major plot points of Runaway Bride, in order, nearly twenty years after it premiered.
And if he does watch these things—if he does, sometimes, after watching football all day Sunday, need to counteract it all with a few episodes of Gilmore Girls before bed—he thinks that he’s the only one, that it’s weird, that he probably shouldn’t admit these things to people—until one day, when he’s on his friends’ porch.
They have just finished drafting their fantasy football teams, and so there they are, six men in their twenties, sitting on the porch, PBR tall boys in their hands, talking about whether it was smarter to draft Dez Bryant or Julio Jones, or Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady, and then, somehow—he won’t remember later how it happened—one of them says something about When Harry Met Sally.
“Oh, best movie, hands down,” one of his friends says, and he says, “Really?” and his friend says, “What? You don’t think so? Don’t tell me you prefer the Meg Ryan of You’ve Got Mail,” and then his friend proceeds to rank her movies, with Kate and Leopold on the very bottom, You’ve Got Mail beating it out only slightly, City of Angels and Sleepless in Seattle in the middle, and When Harry Met Sally on top. They all argue about this for a while—the exact placement of You’ve Got Mail, and whether or not Kate and Leopold even deserves to be considered, and what about French Kiss?
And during this whole conversation, even when he’s participating, he can’t stop thinking about how strange this all is, how unexpected—six men in their twenties, six guys with beards, most of them wearing flannel in August, debating the hierarchy of Meg Ryan’s 1990s romantic comedy performances, so wholeheartedly embracing this side of themselves. And, for once, he stops worrying about what he’s supposed to do, and he embraces that side of himself, too.
Silas Hansen's essays have appeared in The Normal School, Colorado Review, Slate, Redivider, Hayden's Ferry Review, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Ball State University and the nonfiction editor for Waxwing.
As a child of the late 70s and early 80s, I was convinced that glossy “magazine women” were a distinct subspecies of human females who came out of the womb painted like colorful aliens, born complete with purple eyelids, black-lined eyes and thick-coated lashes, bright pink cheeks, and shiny-plump red lips. I studied them for hours, fascinated by their colorful flawlessness compared to the plain imperfection of “normal women.”
My mother and two maternal half-sisters—seven and ten years older than me—reinforced this distinction by endlessly critiquing themselves and each other. Dressed in high-waisted bell-bottom jeans or prairie dresses, their thick brown hair feathered into wings, my sisters would stand in front of our full-length mirror frowning at their reflection as they fretfully pinched excess skin, sucked-in stomachs, smoothed thighs, and pushed shoulders back and chests out while repeating a constant mantra of I look so fat, I’m so fat, I feel so fat. But they always looked amazing to me. Full-bodied and voluptuous. Like sleek cats with freshly preened fur. I admired them to a point of reverence. I wish someone had been able to convince them of their beauty and worth then. I wish we wouldn’t have had to go through a lifetime before we finally understood the forces wielded against us, before we learned to question the world we’d been born into.
In the tiny backwoods Idaho logging town where I grew up, many of the neighborhood women spent hours of their days watching soap operas: General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, As the World Turns. My friends and I got hooked too, eagerly settling into darkened midday living rooms whenever allowed, absorbed by the plots of seduction—woman after woman falling into some man’s arms, and then bed.
We fell hard with them, lust and power and sex a heady mix that left us swooning and wistful even at a young age. My friend and I reenacted the soap-opera storylines with her Barbie and Ken collection, dressing them, fixing their hair, sitting them down to dinner, and taking them for drives in their pink car, but mostly what I remember is undressing them and lustily coupling their hard plastic bodies together despite our dissatisfaction with their blank-slate underparts.
At eight years old, when my grandmother sent me a Dolly Parton Barbie for Christmas, I kept the doll hidden undressed under my bed. My friends and I would pull her out for study sessions, meticulously gauging her enormous breasts, tiny waist, long legs, and perfect blonde hair and made-up face like acolytes preparing for our future. Her prototype was everywhere after all—in every movie, TV show, commercial, and magazine, whether mainstream, religious, or pornographic—and we weren’t too young to realize the ultimate goal was to be a woman desired.
We further instructed ourselves with pornography we found strewn outside the Dumpster or stashed in our neighbor’s houses. Decades later, I still remember the story lines, the photographs: women bound and left waiting, women in positions of surrender, women splayed apart, unfurled and raw, designed to fulfill a man’s every dark desire.
My friend’s older sister’s bedroom was pasted full of pictures torn from Playgirl magazines—four walls of shiny, naked men with prominent erections. We would sneak in when she was gone, horrified as we peeped through our finger slats, studying the lurid show. When the sister caught us in her room once, she pointed to the line of hair growing from the men’s navels to their hardened groins and told us it was “the road to paradise.”
A neighbor I babysat for kept stacks of full-exposure porno magazines in their bedroom. At ten years old, when the toddlers I was in charge of were napping, I would shut myself in the musty bathroom and examine the magazine photos, educating myself on how to be female, sexual object of desire. The images branded into my mind, and a part of me responded, a part that later as a religious teen I worked to pray out, cast out, and deny—a carnal mark that threatened to spread and overtake me. Overtake us all.
Perhaps it was early exposure to a world where women and girls were seen and treated as sexual objects, or perhaps it was just a natural function of hormones beginning the maturation process, but at eleven years old, my own physical awareness began. Preparing for a fifth-grade school function without parents to oversee us, my friend and I shaved our legs without permission—a new thing fraught with bleeding nicks and razor-burn—then spent hours getting dressed, fixing our hair, and applying forbidden makeup, marveling at the transformational power of liners and coatings and creams.
I distinctly remember the thrill of going “out” this way—made-up, legs smooth and exposed beneath our skirts, catching the boys’ attention, making the other girls turn their heads in envy. Although I didn’t know enough yet to call it that, I felt sexy. The first understanding of what it meant to strut my stuff. But the church ladies in attendance recognized the threat. A danger named Jezebel—a bud to be nipped, skin to be covered, color to be erased. They didn’t view our trespass as the whim of some preteens playing grownup; a girl wearing makeup, showing herself off like that, was a sin to take seriously. The possible risks and consequences were clear. My own family had already demonstrated that.
At seven years old, my mother took me aside to tell me my father had “touched” my sisters, his stepdaughters, when they’d each been around eleven years old. That there had been a foster-daughter in the mix once too who’d run away from my father’s advances, although nobody believed her. My mother told me that I needed to be careful, guard myself, that my father might try to touch me too.
But that wasn’t the only family darkness. Over the years, one story after another came out. I learned that my paternal grandfather had molested his daughter, my aunt, when she was a child. I learned that after my father’s abuse, a close neighbor—my friend’s stepfather—had molested my middle sister for a year when she was twelve. I learned that my two paternal half-siblings had both been violently and extensively sexually abused for years at the hands of their stepfather and uncle when they were as young as seven and ten years old.
And it didn’t stop there—one family member or friend after another with dark, heartbreaking stories. Suddenly everyone in my world was either a victim of sexual abuse or a perpetrator of it, but in every case, always the burden of blame lay on the girls, no matter how young they’d been, no matter what had been done to them. There were never any consequences for the abusers—all the fathers, all the men. Instead, my mother warned me to present no temptation, to tuck myself in, to guard against the dangers of myself. She told me that my sister, an early developer at eleven years old, had been “pretty proud of her boobs,” and I understood that this was what had lured my father in, made him molest her. It was a girl’s fault: drawing attention to herself, catching a man’s eye.
At eleven, when I hugged an older male cousin goodbye, my mother pulled me aside to say I shouldn’t hug boys with my chest touching theirs—it might give them ideas, be seen as a “come-on.” I was overwhelmed with deep shame—my wayward body transferring physical carnal knowledge, demonstrating female sexuality in all its danger. I knew better after all.
One night when I was twelve and had been visiting my nineteen-year-old sister and her two young children, my twenty-eight-year-old brother-in-law drove me home, unexpectedly turning off into the dark woods. He parked, pulled out a six-pack, and put his arm around the back of my seat as he sweet-talked me, guzzling one beer after another as he tried to coax me into joining him, telling me I just needed to “relax.” At one point, he got out of the car, exposing himself in the bright headlights as he urinated. I kept my eyes down and held my body very still until he finally took me home, everything inside me in full-flashing danger-warning mode. I was only a few years younger than my sister had been when he’d first gotten her pregnant at fifteen.
The perils of being a girl were inescapable. At the time, there were reports of a “white-van man” who’d been kidnapping, raping, killing, and discarding girls across the west. Everyone warned us of “stranger-danger,” but even as a child I realized the threat wasn’t just with stranger-men. The threat lay in wait for us inside our own homes, at the hands of our own families. The threat was being born female in the first place.
From childhood into adulthood whenever I heard men coming, I ran for cover like a spooked deer, diving in ditches, ducking into culverts, crouching hidden in tall roadside weeds. There weren’t many females in the backwoods and that made the men there all the more dangerous. The instinct to hide was survival instinct, prey-animal instinct. The hunted versus the hunter.
The few times I didn’t hide in time or resisted my own instinct to do so only proved the reality of the hazard: fully-armed and camouflaged hunters stepping silently out of the shadows of trees, examining my body without restraint from feet away, the air thick with implied threat; work trucks full of men catcalling and whistling when they drove by me out for walks, stopping to ask if I wanted to get in and “take a ride”; men in hound-hunting trucks following me at an idle for miles, ogling me from their open windows; men in the night training their truck’s headlights on our tent as they called out all the terrible violent sexual things they wanted to do to me as my husband and I held our hands over our children’s mouths to keep them from crying out. Growing up female in the backwoods was a kind of violent exposure—one that brought out the lurking sexual threat in strangers as well as the ones you were meant to trust the most.
Despite the church-ladies’ warnings, despite the dangers I already well understood, as a twelve-year-old, I worked hard to replicate the magazine women, layering on makeup—purple shadow from lashes to brow-line, heavy black eyeliner and mascara, hot-pink blush, and frosted pink lipstick. When my father tried to ban me from makeup, I threatened to use permanent marker instead. A concerned friend spoke with my mother about my makeup obsession and my mother said, “I’d rather she look like a hussy now than later when it’s actually possible,” but it was already possible—many girls my age already bragging about how much they “gave out.”
During those years, I got a reputation for being good at makeup. Friends stayed overnight for makeovers, exclaiming in delight at what I could accomplish, transforming them from simple girl to sultry woman. We practiced our “asking-for-it” looks as we danced along to our favorite songs, everything centered around sex, all the lyrics heady and full of meaning, reflecting our longings back to us in a world laced with threat.
While raising my sisters and me, my mother’s beliefs were widely eclectic: she spoke in tongues and smoked pot; read Thoreau and attended Bible studies; sat aaahhmming in sun-worshiping circles and held Catholic holy-water anointing sessions; worked at a new-age health-food store and cast out evil spirits; joined in women’s prayer retreats and had affairs with the neighbor men; rode her horse naked in the woods and took us to church clothed in full-coverage dresses. Then, in the charismatic excesses that defined the late ’80s and early ’90s, she became a fully-immersed evangelical. Under her tutelage, I too became “saved,” speaking in tongues and pledging myself to purity and chastity, to deferential and compliant female behavior. I made sure to be “a good girl,” denying the devil entry, but I was torn. I wanted to be the proper Christian girl and Barbie/Hustler perfect too. Hot and wholesome; desired and chaste; sexy and pure.
At fourteen while helping my mother in the health-food store, I answered the phone to an older man breathing hard, his voice rasping close and intimate through the receiver as he told me what beautiful breasts I had, that he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off of them when he’d been in. I hung up quickly, trying to cover my nervous alarm, not sure whether to take his words as a threat, a compliment, or a marker of my own guilt and failure.
During those early teen years, I became anorexic, consuming as few as a hundred calories a day, obsessively tallying and re-tallying every bite until I was nothing but sinew, bones, and skin. My sisters had been bulimic, my mother a binger and body critic who had pointed out how I was “starting to get thighs,” so I starved and worked out and pinched and pulled, measuring folds of skin, wielding an exhilarating control over my body—a kind of self-flagellation that satisfied my desire for both physical and spiritual flawlessness.
While encouraging my thinness and obedience and good-girl behavior, my mother and one of her non-Christian friends became concerned with my considerable restraint. On a long summer walk the two of them cornered me, talking to me about what it meant to be a woman and own it—the it being your body, your sexuality, your very femaleness and the latent power held within. But it was too confusing—how to be one way and the other too when they were at direct odds with one another. The good, modest, obedient Christian girl. The strong female with frightening sexual powers. I was confused. I remained confused for years.
In my mid-twenties, dressed in shorts and a fitted tank top on a sweltering summer day, my husband and three young sons in our car, I ran inside the grocery store for a few things. Standing in line behind a sixty-some-year-old man, I examined the display of glossy “magazine women,” still drawn in even though through my education I’d become a feminist, voicing my critiques of women’s objectification and our patriarchal society. Looking at the magazines, I didn’t see the man ahead of me reach back, just felt a sudden full palm-and-finger clutch of my breast, his fingers pressing and fondling as if checking an orange for firmness, a grapefruit for ripeness.
I jerked away, incredulous and aghast. “He just grabbed my boob,” I said, my voice growing as I repeated it, looking at the checker in disbelief, at the customers in other lines, everyone staring. Nonchalantly, the man turned and shrugged, said, “I was just moving my bread.” He paid for his groceries and whistled a jaunty little tune as he walked out of the store.
My disbelief turning to rage, I followed him out, catching my husband’s attention by gesturing angrily at the man as he walked back to his car. My husband jumped out to block the man’s path and when I told him what had happened, he threw the man against a parked car, pinning him down, fists balled and ready above his face. Our sons cried from inside our car as police sped into the parking lot, surrounding us. Unbeknownst to me, a store manager had called the incident in and when I told my story, the officers released my husband, took the man into custody, and bought our children stuffed animals from the store, trying to soothe their upset.
That night, lying in bed, I wondered how many girls the man had groped over the years, how much he’d gotten away with his whole life to be that bold—his cocky whistled tune like a victory song. But I wasn’t a child any longer, warned not to lure a man in. I knew that neither a girl nor a woman is responsible for a man’s trespass against her body. So I pressed charges, holding firm as the man’s attorney attacked my “memory” and “interpretation” of the events. I was determined that in at least this once small instance there would be consequences for a man’s actions.
The man pled guilty and among other punishments was banned from the store for life. I hoped his reckoning might somehow protect some girl or woman down the line, hoped he would be exposed to others—his wife, his daughters, his granddaughters—before it was too late. But in my deepest thoughts, even though I knew better, I pondered these things: the dip of my tank top, the pull of fabric against my breasts, all that exposed man-tempting skin, and felt a sense of guilt.
As a professor now, I straddle two small western college towns—towns where, most of the time, girls and women can walk around without the fear of too much danger, where after all my years of instinctive hiding, I don’t often feel the need to dive in a ditch when men approach, even though I still remain wary, on guard.
At the university where I teach, students, faculty, and staff are required to complete sexual harassment training. There are rallies for taking back the night, for “No Means No,” for combating date rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. We host panels about how to be strong and succeed as a woman, navigating the challenges of our patriarchal society. Often, my female students complete projects related to self-image and gender issues as they try to reckon with their own life experiences and make sense of the world they were born into. They share their stories of sexual abuse and harassment, crying “me too,” building strength together. But even though things are supposed to be better than when my sisters and I were coming of age, even though girls and women now can more often actively fight the destructive forces wielded against them, I see the same old battles being waged over and over again, our society still failing to fully grapple with all the perilous and contradictory realities involved in being female.
Men I know have been escorted off campus by police, subject to Title IX investigations after inappropriate and troubling sexual relationships with female students. One local professor hunted down a female grad-student whom he’d been in a relationship with and shot and killed her on sidewalk. My son’s pregnant, grade-school teacher was killed by her husband who, after choking her to death and lighting their house on fire, went to our gym for a workout. Another local woman disappeared after visiting her ex-husband at his mechanic shop where he and his friend killed her, then soaked her body in acid and dumped what was left of her off a bridge. A local thirteen-year-old girl was courted and nearly kidnapped by a thirty-year-old man active in sex trafficking. And at the start of two recent local mass-shooting killing sprees, the shooters’ first victims were either their wife or their mother.
But these are just the headliner stories, not the hundreds of sordid tales of a father or uncle’s “touching,” a church leader’s sexual advances toward his teen parishioners, or a workplace’s culture of commonplace sexual harassment. As a nation, as a community, inside the privacy of our own homes we reel, staggering through the crushing weight of one story after another after another. Mother, daughter, sister, wife, lover, good-girl, bad-girl, sexual object of desire. A navigation that never stops. A navigation that continues to define us all.
Annie Lampman is an honors creative writing professor at the Washington State University Honors College and fiction editor of the literary journal Blood Orange Review. Her essays, poetry, and short fiction have recently been published or are forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as The Massachusetts Review, Orion Magazine, and Women Writing the West among numerous others. Her work has been awarded a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, first place in the Everybody Writes contest, an Idaho Commission on the Arts writing grant, and a national artist’s wilderness residency through the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. She lives in Moscow, Idaho with her husband, three sons, two huskies, a couple of hens, and a cat named Bonsai.
If I could I would sew for my sister a coat of soft leather. I would ply malleable pink hide for an effort so vital, but a gabardine twill is perhaps more practical. Gleaned from the coats of animals, culled from the cocoons of silkworms, scavenged from the seeds and leaves and stems of plants, remnants, vestiges, reckoning, reckoning.
Organic materials carry the living.
My sister’s red hair would be a fine fiber for fabric. I would fashion a vest from her fiery red hair. A cocoon of stout thread, woven securely. It would be narrow and binding and tight in the middle. It would hold fast, hooks and eyes clasping. Tenacious and unyielding, it would twine things together.
Natural fabric is breathing, air in and out, good for my sister, who’s prone to disruptions. Of skin. She is also, like fabric, soft yet durable. When small I would pummel her belly, pinning her to the ground with my knees, watching her struggle as she tried to breathe.
Which I now regret.
Man-made fabrics are conjured from chemicals. Is this what you want against your skin I ask my sister. My sister doesn’t mind because synthetic fabrics are light, some sheer, some wick moisture. She likes the wicking in the hot summer heat, and she loves luxury, even though she has nothing now. Three kids and no job and her insides collapsing.
I felt her stitches, a seam of small partings along her belly.
Don’t worry I said don’t fret.
Looks are deceiving. For all its delicacy, silk is as strong as wire of same thickness. The woven silk fiber makes flowing nightgowns and soft panties. Fabric of silk touts names like crepe, shantung and satin. My sister’s shoes are made of raw silk, little high heels of nubby raw silk. She wore them for clients, criminals who’d committed acts of torture and rape. I begged her to tell me these tales from work.
It is this time spent hearing stories of human frailty and evil that has taken its toll on my sister. She drinks all night. She has become dry and brittle and it seems as though she could fall to pieces in one’s hands, like silk as it ages.
In yard goods generally, the outer edges of fabric, whether wool or cotton or chiffon, are constructed so they will not ravel. To ravel is to undo. To ravel is also to unravel. I don’t mind the overlap, the one becoming the other. But not my sister, with an infection attacking the borders of her bladder, the bowel and the intestines. She does not aspire to dissolution.
To avoid the ravel, the edges of the fabric boast a tight warp. They are stiff and firm and hardened. My sister would approve of these edges. Her body requires a new boundary, especially after surgery and her nightmares of dissolving.
She can’t discern her own borders anymore.
The finished edge on fabric is selvage. The self’s edge is the edge of a piece of cloth, made strong. If I could, I would unravel this harsh edge. I would loosen the threads between us and reweave them. But my sister says colostomy and catheter to name the things that trouble her body. My sister would scorn the frayed edge whose loose threads fly free.
Slack yarn, with its insufficient tension, or worse, a yarn that’s too tight, yield slubs caused by uneven spinning. I imagine a bevy of rapacious silkworms chewing through tissue and blood inside my sister, spinning muscular cocoons in a fury. My sister needs repair, a close inspection and mending, and if I could, I would scissors her open and do the burling and darning myself.
To make something — almost anything at all — you have to cut off the selvage and discard it. You can use pinking shears or you can cut on the bias. But you have to cut away the hard edge and risk having your goods go to pieces.
If I could, I would sew for my sister a whole suit of warm skin. I would cut the fabric and discard the selvage, then sew a long suture. I would sew a seam, flat-felled, surely the most intricate, the most durable and the most beautiful of seams. I would baste my apology inside the sleeve. I would embroider my grief along the neckline. I would use my own skin if I could.
Holly Willis is a writer whose work moves across arts journalism, creative nonfiction, poetry and academic prose. She has published two books about cinema, edited two collections of essays related to new media, and contributed to a variety of journals, from Variety to carte blanche. She is interested in writing that explores the interstices.
She is used to defining herself in the negative—not quite this or that; or as divided—only half or part. She is mixed, which means that she has never seen herself entirely as Chinese, nor entirely as white. As a teenager, her friends were mostly white, in a school that was mostly black and white, so she identified with the white kids. Her friends would eagerly ingest her mom’s Chinese leftovers after a night of partying (where she’d teach them how to say, We are going to drink a lot of beer tonight! in Mandarin); she was their fun Asian friend, different, yet rooted in the same pop culture, white culture. It was “just” her private childhood, her early years of living with Chinese relatives, going to Chinese potlucks, hearing and speaking Chinese every day, that now belonged mostly to a past that she unconsciously sought to leave behind.
She chose to go to a private college in Minnesota, to get far away from home and her old identity, whatever that was. There, she slowly started to see herself more as others saw her: as Asian, a diversifier, someone who was different than the “norm.” She devoured books by people of color, she studied Asian-American history, she studied Chinese. But still, her school and friends were mostly white and she did not feel an easy alignment with other Asians. Once, her Chinese cousin told her that she created a bridge for him between the Chinese and white worlds he lived in. She understood this in the same way that she understood how she was still trying to forge a bridge to herself.
Everyone had always been “them” when it came to race; there had never been an “us,” besides her and her sister. Yet over time, she started to pay closer attention when she saw other mixed-race Asians and whites. Her gaze intensified, she would feel shy and voyeuristic as she tried to discern what they looked like exactly, tried to see how other people saw her.
After college she traveled and lived in China for three years; soon the rhythm of her body and dreams returned to the sounds of Chinese. But on the streets, people only saw her straighter nose, bigger eyes, lighter hair, thicker thighs. Each year she collected more language and felt more Chinese, yet each year she also felt more foreign. Ni shi nali de? Where are you from? People always asked. America, she’d answer, mei guo, and see their faces, confused. She knew that they equated American people with white people. My mother is Chinese, she would explain, and they’d nod and aahh. Hunxue, mixed blood, they’d say, their relief palpable once they could name how she was different.
When she came home, she understood just how American she was, and just how much of her life depended upon the English language. Yet she also became more “Asian” again, when digesting herself before others’ eyes. In Seattle, she returned to her mostly white neighborhoods and friends. Friends, who no doubt appreciate her “diversity,” friends who maybe see her as more relatable and safe than most people of color. For she is not the type to lambast someone for saying something unconsciously racist; instead too often she has stayed silent, swallowed, her face hot, tongue caught. She is used to holding the shame of unspoken words inside. For she has listened so hard for so long that now she must teach herself how to speak.
Now, she is invited into groups for “people of color,” a term that only recently she has allowed to take root in her consciousness and begin to claim. For now, she has more practice naming what it feels like to be the only person of color in a room; to live between languages; or to never see herself reflected on T.V. And now, she cannot help but see race played out in every space, against every backdrop of every inherited history of relationship. But still her light skin cannot be denied, and so simultaneously she must remember to take a quiet seat in conversation, deferring to others whose experiences of racism are more extreme. And still she worries that some will see her “color” as a fraud: sniff out her world of whiteness— her white best friends, white father, white husband, white son. Although she knows now that she is a person of color in America, in a way that she will never be white, still she waits for cues from others in order to discern whether they see her as one of us, or one of them.
Anne Liu Kellor is a multiracial Chinese American writer, teacher, editor, and mother. Her essays have appeared in publications such as Fourth Genre, Vela Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review, and her manuscript, HEART RADICAL, was selected by Cheryl Strayed as 1st runner-up in Kore Press’s 2018 memoir contest. Born and raised in Seattle, Anne has received residencies and grants from for her work from Hedgebrook, Jack Straw, 4Culture, and Hypatia-in-the-Woods. Please visit: www.anneliukellor.com
The morning after it happens, the men at my Burning Man camp say some version of this: Show me who he is, and I will break his arms.
Our unofficial camp leader, a woman a few years older than me, says: “We don’t have to be assholes to him. We can give him a chance to see what he did was wrong and help him be a better person.”
This is what’s wrong with women, or at least what has always been wrong with me. This is what I have always done at least—we try to “help” men become better versions of themselves, which amounts to accepting unacceptable behavior. But I wasn’t playing along anymore. I said, “That was his mother’s job, and quite frankly, she did a shitty job. He’s a sexual predator, and if he comes near me again, I’m calling law enforcement, not a Black Rock Ranger, but the police, and having him removed from the playa.”
And of course, in my own way, I am one of those women-blaming women—his mother’s fault? That’s what I said, but I realize that’s so very wrong, too.
You know whose job it is to make sure he’s a good person?
It’s his own fucking job.
At Burning Man, you’re supposed to resolve your issues with a Black Rock Ranger, someone who can come and negotiate problems on the playa, but I was beyond that. I wanted to call someone with handcuffs and a squad car, someone who could take him away. But would they? I didn’t know.
I know what you’re thinking about Burning Man. And if you haven’t been there, I probably can’t convince you that before this, it felt like one of the safest places I have ever been. But let’s say that stereotypes mean more than my lived experience: I was a woman in a place that wasn’t safe. How safe is the disco, the bar, the streets at night? How safe is the workplace, the classroom, the church?
Any place can be the wrong place. I know that. And I guess I have always known that, but never wanted to accept that knowing and everything that goes along with it.
Until recently, which in my case has come late. I’m 47 years old. When is it finally old enough to know better?
That afternoon, I am riding my beach cruiser across the playa, which is an ancient lakebed, at Burning Man. Wind tumbles into a white cloud on the distant horizon—a dust storm. But I’m not afraid, even though I probably should be. I’m headed for deep playa alone, past the art structures and art cars—the one-eyed cyclops blasting house music and bumblebee, the wooden Phoenix and the wise owl. I know could be caught in a white-out, but I don’t care. I’m too angry to be afraid. And I am thinking, “That fucker!”
But then I realize that I have finally done the thing, which for so many years I could not do—I stood my ground with a man in a way I hadn’t done before.
I know it’s taken me too long to get here, but I think only this: here I am at last.
I had been camping with my friends from my hometown, and our Burning Man “gift” was a bar. My friend Tammy and I were scheduled to bartend, so she stood behind the bar, and I went out onto the street to bark in our “customers”: “Get your drinks here! Organic juice and vodka. Bad advice. Cupcakes,” I shouted into the megaphone. A man in a sarong and a straw hat came walking up, though it was more of a swagger. He wanted a drink and advice. I told him to tell me a problem, and I would solve it.
I love nothing more than to give advice. If I couldn’t solve my own problems, then the next best thing would be to solve someone else’s.
He told me about his neighbor at Burning Man, how he had been with her but didn’t want to sleep with her again. I told him to be upfront with her, that there are plenty of other men, I guessed, who would gladly stand in and become her new Burning Man boyfriend. The man with the straw hat told me that was terrible advice and swaggered up to the bar. I continued shouting pithy slogans into my megaphone.
Yes, I should have realized at that very moment that he was seeing how far he could go with me, because “been with her” and “slept with her” are my translations, my approximation of his language—he had said he fucked her, didn’t he? I’m not sure, but looking back, I think, yes, he must have said it in this way. Even my memory has learned to translate for men.
And this is also where I tell myself I should have known better, but why do I always blame myself?
Because I always have, that’s why.
When my bar shift was over, I poured myself a vodka with organic juice and pulled up a lawn chair next to this man with the sarong and straw hat. We introduced ourselves, using our Burning Man names. I told him I was Sassy. He went by Dizzy. We were about the same age and ended up talking about the music of our youth and then moved onto other aspects of popular culture from the 70s, 80s, and 90s—the Bee Gees, roller skating parties, the time the Brady Bunch stole the Hawaiian idol and were cursed until they returned it. And all those Twilight Zone episodes! It’s fun to remember these things with somebody else, especially with organic juice and vodka in your hand, the sun on your shoulders, the desert stretched out before you.
I want to say this: It’s okay to sit down next to a person and laugh with him. It means nothing other than you are sitting down and laughing. Maybe it’s for myself that I am saying this.
His pupils were pinpricks. I guessed he was on something, but I don’t know how to read pupils. I had to use the restroom, and he said he did, too, so we walked to the porta-potties together. Within minutes, a dust storm tumbled toward us, and by the time we finished in the porta-potties, we ran through a white-out and back to camp for cover. We banged on the door of my friend’s RV, seeking refuge.
By now, Dizzy was complimenting everything from my freckles to my feet, but none of it seemed overly flirtatious—at least that’s what I told myself. He was a massage therapist, and kept telling me that he could see that I was tense. I told him I was married and he was not allowed to touch me. Yes, I said those words: “You are not allowed to touch me.” Burning Man can be a sexually charged place, but also a place that promotes boundaries. I wanted to be clear.
In the RV, Dizzy gave Tammy a shoulder massage, and I felt relieved that his attention had turned elsewhere, told myself he was on something—maybe ecstasy and just wanted to touch someone. It had nothing to do with me.
After the dust storm, I said I was going out onto the playa. The sun was setting and the light would be perfect for photographs. He asked, “Can I come with you?” I told him that I was taking my bike. He said his bike was at a camp next door. I shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
We watched a giant marionette strut across the playa, and then stopped at a dome with fish lens eyes holes, and I went inside to take a photograph. Just as I did, Dizzy stood outside in front of the small window and flashed me his dick.
“Seriously?” I said even though no one was listening. I was shocked but then angry. Fuck him, I thought. I have to get away from him.
And I will say this also: His dick was not impressive.
While I was still kneeling at the small window, I deleted the picture off my camera—I wanted to erase him. I came out of the dome, and Dizzy was there, rubbing a woman’s shoulders. I saw this as my chance to escape. I got onto my bike and pedaled away without his notice.
On my way back to camp, I stopped at a party and saw some friends and listened to music. By the time I returned to my camp, it was dark. Dizzy was still there, sitting in our makeshift bar with some of the others. He came up to me and said, “You left because you were jealous, right? You saw me talking to those other girls, and you got mad.”
“I was mad,” I said, “but not because of that.”
“Then what?” He smiled in that way men smile when they are trying to be charming. When they are trying to get beneath our skin.
I stood where I was, not wanting my campmates to hear this exchange, not wanting someone to tell me that getting flashed at Burning Man was no big deal. Hadn’t I had coffee and eggs with the shirt-cocking campmate from next door? I knew this was different but wasn’t sure how to explain it. Dizzy came over to me, into the darkness. We stood in the shadows of an RV, and I said, “You flashed me.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said. But he laughed, as if I was being silly to make such a fuss. Especially at Burning Man.
And then I did that thing I wish I did not do—I told him that we could be friends, that his attention was flattering, but, but, but. The same shit I have been saying for years to men who act like assholes: It’s okay. You’re okay. Don’t worry, I’ll shoulder this again.
As a young woman, I knew my charm was my power. Hadn’t my own mother told me this? To be the wrong kind of bitch was to give up the only power I held. And had I really told myself that we could be friends because we both liked the same episode of the Twilight Zone? That that was enough to make up for the dick flash?
I was guilty of allowing for the erasure of a man’s bad behavior because I had learned it was easier, or maybe just too familiar. And this is where I want to apologize to other women because I have never properly stood up for myself. I have let men think that the lines they crossed—into sexual harassment, assault, predation—have been annoying but on the whole, all right.
But here’s the thing: they never were.
But somehow, I didn’t have the right words—only the shame I felt. Or maybe I was too embarrassed to make a fuss. I mean, shouldn’t I be grateful someone was paying attention to me? Wouldn’t that give me power like my mother had suggested? And if it went badly, as it so often had, wasn’t that somehow my fault?
“Just don’t do anything like that again,” I think I said to Dizzy.
He agreed. We might even have hugged. I hope we didn’t, but I can’t say for sure. By then, I had had a couple drinks. And I was in a hurry, leaving again to cross the playa to Celestial Bodies Bar for my friend Blondie’s memorial. I do know this for sure: Dizzy asked me if he could go with me, and I said he couldn’t. I went to my pick-up truck, got some water, a sweater, more lights for my bike, and I pedaled off.
After Blondie’s memorial, I rode back across the playa to my own camp. By this time, it was near midnight. Dizzy was still sitting at our bar, but I was able to sneak past to my camp without him seeing me. I crawled into the back of my truck and fell asleep.
When I had told my husband my plans to sleep in the back of the truck, he had said, “But it doesn’t lock. Someone can reach in.” I told him this was Burning Man, and no one would ever do that, that I would be completely safe. This was my eighth year at Burning Man, and I had never felt threatened. It felt like one of the safest places I knew. I may have even called my husband silly.
But from a deep sleep, I emerged, thinking I heard someone trying to get into the cab of the truck and then shrugged it off and turned over—maybe one of my campmates came home drunk and mistook my truck for theirs?
Then a few minutes later, someone turned the latches of the shell, opened the window and started to pull down the tailgate. I shot up: “Who’s there? Who is it?”
“Me? Me?” I said. “There is no one here named Me!”
Only my husband, my mother, and sometimes my best gay boyfriend called themselves by the name Me.
“It’s me,” he repeated and then gave me a name I had never heard before. Then said, “It’s me, Dizzy,” realizing I didn’t know his real name.
That’s when I started screaming: “Get out of here!”
After I repeated my screams, he shut the gate and the back window and must have backed away. And I lay there, stiff as a hairbrush, afraid to go back to sleep. And this is what I thought: He can come back and rape me if he wants. I thought about what might make a possible weapon: my Swiss army knife, my lantern, a bottle of wine? I stayed like that, clutching the sheet around my neck, a wine bottle at the ready, terrified until dawn.
The next day, I asked my campmates if anyone had heard me shouting, and no one had. Everyone was wearing earplugs and with BANG, the drum set camp next door, no one had heard me scream.
And then he came back.
The next afternoon, I was putting my things into my bike basket, ready to ride away, and he appeared back at my truck. He said, “I just wanted to apologize for scaring you. I didn’t mean to. Everyone was asleep and I just wanted to see if you wanted to go out on the playa.”
“Listen,” I said. “You did scare me, and you better never come near me again, nor do that to anyone else on the playa. Or anywhere else.”
“I apologized,” he said again, as if he should get a Boy Scout badge for apology.
“I’m glad,” I said. “But you came, uninvited into my camp, into my personal space. Where I was sleeping. I set boundary after boundary with you. Please go away, and don’t come back here again. If I see you near my camp, I’m calling the police.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“Okay,” my voice was now shaking even though I’d rehearsed this in case he came by. “Now go away. If you don’t go away now, I’ll scream. We have a ranger in camp, and I will have him call law enforcement. Not a ranger but the police.”
At that he walked away. Then he stopped, turned around, and walked back toward me. I stared at him, incredulous. I was trying to attach my water into my bike basket with a carabineer, but I was trembling.
“Does that mean you’re mad at me?” he asked.
I laughed. “Mad? Mad? Yes, I’m mad. And I’m going to stay mad. Like forever. Go away.” I pointed out toward the dusty road. “Now. Get out of here. I mean it.”
And it was true: I wasn’t cajoled nor flattered. I was fucking pissed.
And this was new. And I felt something new: a surge of power.
He turned and left, and I hopped onto my bicycle and pedaled away without looking back. I had planned to bike across the playa to visit my friend Jim at Patsy’s, his local gayborhood bar, but instead I headed for deep playa, no longer frightened, only angry.
And then something else happened—the realization that I have finally stood up for myself. Dizzy expected me to try to make him feel better when he came back and asked me if I was angry. And a younger me would have said some version of this: It’s okay. Don’t worry about it, and worst of all, I’m flattered.
I might have complimented him for his courageous act of apology. I’m sorry. Don’t worry. Thank you. I’m flattered.
Flattered. As if all it takes to prove our worth as women is the attention of a man—any man, even one who makes inappropriate advances, who was most probably fucked up on drugs, one who tries to make light of predatory behavior.
And who doesn’t even have a nice dick. It’s okay for me to get that in, right?
After saying, “That’s okay,” my younger self would have scrutinized every detail, trying to decide if it wasn’t her fault, if she hadn’t been the one to blame—like she did with her junior high science classmate who grabbed her crotch during dissections. And for the time she was told she was a “tease” in a Hawaiian hotel room and barely escaped, clothes ripped. And for the time her college genetics professor tried to kiss her in the elevator, and the dean said there was nothing to be done, so she had to accept the failing grade because she said no. And the random pussy grabs in crowded elevators and city streets, the thousand cat calls, and all the rest. Was she too friendly? The neckline of her dress too low? The paint on her toenails too flirty?
My younger self believed that she had to be worthy of his wanting—just enough without asking for too much. And when he crossed the line, it had to be her fault. These memories flip through my mind as I ride across the playa. I pass an art car, blasting tropical music, revelers dancing under papier-mâché palm trees in the hot sun. The echo of a distant drumbeat rolls across the ancient lakebed. I taste the alkaline dust and the smoke from smoldering fires from the previous evening’s burns. And I cringe at all the moments in my life where I acted flattered in the face of sexual harassment.
The etymology of the word “to flatter” comes from the old French flater, which means “to deceive; caress; fondle; throw and fling (to the ground).” A later definition is to give a pleasing but false impression.
So, as it turns out, it always was flattery. But now I finally understood it for what it was: deceit and being flung to the ground.
I rode into the dusty wind, the burden of my shame finally lifted—as if I was seeing my life through another window, and all those past transgressions are no longer mine.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award) as well as four collections of poetry. Her work has been published recently in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, Brevity, and The Rumpus. She teaches for the low residency MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and serves as the current El Dorado County Poet Laureate. She lives in South Lake Tahoe, California.
“Maybe I’ve lost too many brain cells from too many Slurpee-induced brain freezes.”
That’s my brother Phil. I’ve asked him and my other siblings if they can recall how “Dance the Slurp,” a 1966 promotional single released by the 7-Eleven chain of convenience stores, ended up in our house in Wheaton, Maryland. “If I’m the one who first acquired it, I don’t remember how or when,” he admits. None of my other brothers or my sister can remember, either, but the journey wouldn’t have been very far. There was a 7-Eleven less than half a mile from our house on Amherst Avenue, and, over many years, we ducked in to escape the sticky summer heat, and to load up on cherry or lemon-lime and cola Slurpees, wads of gum, fistfuls of comics and magazines. The 7-Eleven was a regular stop on my solitary Saturday afternoon allowance walks, yet I too don’t know how it ended up in the house. For many years it was on high rotation on the Bonomo family turntable.
Born in Chicago in 1924, Tom Merriman graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, and then studied music at Julliard. In the early 1950s, he moved to Dallas, Texas, the “Jingle Capital of the World,” where he quickly earned a reputation as one of the most original, reliable, and productive jingle, radio advertisement, and station ID writers in the South. Merriman created jingles like you and I breathe air. In his long career he wrote and produced music for luminaries (including Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington), won a Cannes Film Festival Award, toiled profitably as an independent producer at various production houses, founded and helmed the Commercial Recording Corporation, led the Liberty Network Band, and for many years was the Music Director at the elite Hockaday School—but he will chiefly be remembered as the Jingle King. Radio DJ Ron Chapman worked with Merriman at KVIL, a Dallas–Fort Worth FM station where Merriman was an early co-owner, and recalls that Merriman could compose arrangements “like Lincoln did the Gettysburg Address, on the back of an envelope.” He added, “My first recollection of being with Tom was on a session for a jingle I had written for KVIL in its Glory Days. The song was called “Thank You for Making Us What We Are” and I wanted the finale to sound like the last chorus of Hello Dolly, where the waiters come down the stairs carrying trays of champagne. Tom nailed it and even added a chorus of tap dancers, for a radio jingle!”
Such attention to arrangement and production details became Merriman’s signature on the hundreds of compositions—not only jingles and commercials, but corporate musical events and theme-park-ride music—he produced over an impressive fifty-year career. “I learned music on my own,” Merriman remarked in 2003. “I learned the technical side of transposition and all the things you have to know as a music writer. But it seems that there is something that has to be within you, native to your own abilities.” At Indiana University, Merriman studied composition and counterpoint, “all the things you do as a serious composer,” and at Julliard “a lot of legitimate techniques,” but, he added, “with serious music or pop, there are many common tenets that apply, natural basic laws and the things that are part of your experience.” At an industry tribute held in Dallas, Jon Wolfert, president of radio jingle facilities JAM Creative Productions and PAMS Productions, Inc., lauded Merriman: “To use a horrible ’60s term, we were the ‘jingle freaks’ and we were enamored, mesmerized by the work that was coming out of Dallas from all the different studios, but in no small part, the work you were doing,” adding, “and that’s the reason why I’m still making these jingles, because I was attracted to it by listening to all this great stuff during all those years.” That evening, Merriman was presented with a custom jukebox stocked with hundreds of his jingles and commercial spots, and was praised in video tributes from Patti Page and Pat Boone. “He wrote hundreds of spots, for Coca-Cola, Lone Star Beer, many of the jingles and themes for Marriott’s Great America,” Tracy E. Carman, Executive Director of the Media Preservation Foundation, who was also at the tribute, told me. Consumed by the millions, lodged into the collective pop subconscious of America, these jingles remained anonymous to all but industry insiders. “The list goes on and on, showing that he was very prolific in his abilities to adapt to the current music styles of the day,” Carman said, adding that Merriman was scoring music “pretty much up until the time he died.” (Merriman passed away in 2009.)
In 1965, the Dallas-based Southland Corporation, which owned a growing chain of 7-Eleven convenience stores, struck a licensing deal with the ICEE Company to sell the popular Icee drink, under the condition that it be renamed and its sales confined to 7-Elevens. Thus was born the Slurpee, an immediate, sugary hit named for the indelible sound made by inhaling, straw-wielding enthusiasts. Hopeful to branch out nationally, and eager for a clever and memorable promotional angle, Southland looked to Merriman Productions. (The company is now named TM Studios). In the previous decade, Merriman had written and voiced the wildly popular “Otto the Orkin Man” commercial spot; now, 7-Eleven charged him with composing a catchy song extolling the virtues of the frozen sweet drink, to be issued as a 45 single and given away with Slurpee purchases.
Merriman and his co-writer, Jim Long, went to work. “Not being a musician, the way I worked with Tom was to find tracks from records that we would use as a reference track to the basic style and the groove of the project,” Long told me. “To the best of my recollection, the references I pulled for this project were from an album called Bachelors in Space.” Alas, research reveals that no such record exists. Half a century later, Long admits to being stumped. (“Just spent a few minutes on Google looking for the ref track,” he wrote me after our initial conversation. “There’s too much stuff in the ‘bachelors in space–lounge genre,’ and finding it 35 years or so later would be finding a needle in haystack.”) In any event, Merriman and Long had their ears tuned to the radio. “Tom could write in any style if you gave him the reference,” Long says. The writing duo chose a Dance of the Week template, hoping to ride the (by then diminishing) wave of popular dances, such as the stroll, the pony, the twist, the mashed potato, the monkey, the dog, the Frug, the hully gully, the watusi, the swim, and the rest. Merriman and Long swiftly banged out an instrumental arrangement and set about finding the words to match: these lyrics had to be simple, easy to remember and sing along with, and, most importantly, brand-specific. Merriman and Long soon realized that they only needed a single word.
“Dance the Slurp” was likely cut in or around May of 1966, in downtown Dallas, at Sellers Company, a recording studio located at 2102 Jackson Street, now a parking lot paving over a fascinating history. In 1935, James Earl “Pop” Sellers established a studio at his electronics store, at first producing high-quality recordings via an old phonograph. Over the years, he updated his equipment to state-of-the-art quality, recording countless obscure Dallas-area performers and singers who’d performed at the Big D Jamboree, the popular barn dance and radio program, but also early country and rockand-roll musicians, including Gene Summers, Gene Vincent, Light Crust Doughboys, Trini López, the Stamps Quartet gospel group, and Hank Thompson, who recorded his first session at Sellers. Sadly, no documentation exists of the “Dance the Slurp” session, or sessions. No log of takes, or of the personnel involved. Long can’t recall the recording session down the years, let alone if he was in attendance. Over at TM Studios, Greg Clancy, the General Manager and Vice President / Creative, assures me that any recording notes for “Dance the Slurp” are long gone, citing the tumult of multiple mergers and the moves from building to building over the years.
Hopeful for more information, I logged in to an online radio history forum. In response to my post, a helpful member responded, “Try looking up George Gimarc. If anyone knows about that or has a copy he would.” He knows, and he does. In fact, Gimarc, a Dallas-area disc jockey, record and radio program producer, author, and music historian, sells a few copies of “Dance the Slurp” annually, mostly to buyers in northern Europe—Sweden, Norway, Denmark—willing to pay up to seventy-five dollars for the single. As Gimarc and I spoke on the phone, he posted and monitored his eBay record listings, scanned arcane online research, and moved among the more than 60,000 records in his office. Providentially, he’d just been up to some Southland sleuthing himself. “I’ve been poking through the remnants of the Sellers Company archives, trying to buy all of it,” he told me. “That’s a hundred boxes of paper, and thousands and thousands of reels of tape. I’ve already purchased a small taste of it, and in it I found a lot of stuff from the Southland Company. I bought a lot of stuff that went all the way back to the mid-fifties through the mid-seventies. Commercials, jingles, what have you.” Sensing my excitement, he added, carefully, “I haven’t found the ‘Slurp’ master tape yet, but I’m sure it’s in there. Everything else is in there.”
For nearly an hour, Gimarc and I held our copies of “Dance the Slurp” under bright light and squinted through magnifying glasses at the runout, the band of vinyl between the end of the song and the label, excavating among the mysterious acronyms and seemingly random letters and symbols emblazoned there, clues to the song’s production history. (A record’s matrix stamped in the runout groove can indicate, in addition to the song’s unique filing number, supplementary information, such as take number, record pressing plant codes or logos, initials or signature of the disc-cutting engineer, cutting or copyright dates, and so on.)
As we each scoured the record, Gimarc provided some background. “Starting around 1959, there were several products aimed at children, especially in Dallas, that were a record-merchandise pairing,” he explained. “There was a coloring book called Muley—The One-Eared Mule, which came with a free one-sided record of the song. Mr. Peppermint, a popular children’s TV show, put out a coloring book that came with a little seven-inch record of songs, tucked inside the book.” Well-known performers cut promotional tie-in records as well, including Trini López, for Fresca (“Presented by your local Coca-Cola Bottler”), and Bobby Darrin, who, in the early 1960s, inked a deal with Scripto Pens to issue a free record with purchase of a Wordmaster ball pen (and an ink refill, of course). “Putting a sound recording with a product was a thing in advertising culture to reach teenagers,” Gimarc continued. “Since around 1961 or so, Coca-Cola had been doing commercials with rock and pop stars, like Roy Orbison, the Drifters. Over in England, The Moody Blues did one. And you’re in the era after the twist—well, to be fair, ever since the bop, in 1956—when there was a new dance coming along all the time for the teenagers. So tying what they thought was contemporary rock-and-roll music to a product was definitely in the wind.”
Sometimes that wind kicked up a storm of concern. Scotty McKay, a rockabilly musician from Dallas, cut “Let’s Do It,” a 45 on the SS label that was issued with the purchase of a long pole (or the other way around). “A guy and girl were supposed to face each other and put this pole at basically belt-buckle level, and then dance while supporting the pole,” Gimarc laughs. “So you couldn’t get any closer. So the Lord could limbo between you, I’m supposing. I’m sure this was invented by some Southern Baptist who was appalled by the twist.” (The record label provides a helpful illustration of a decorously dancing, pole-separated teen couple.) Production and distribution of “Let’s Do It”—the irony of that title slays me—were arranged by PAMS, or Production, Advertising, Merchandising Service, the major jingle company in Dallas. “I wouldn’t be surprised if PAMS had some hand in the Southland 7-Eleven stuff, because it kind of has that sound,” Gimarc remarked. At one point in his career, Tom Merriman worked at PAMS.
The trail had warmed a bit, yet the information in the matrix runout of “Dance the Slurp” was proving unhelpful, the string of letters and numbers failing to ring a bell for Gimarc. He is confident that the song was recorded at Sellers. In the archives he was able to track down the master recordings for other Slurpee “new flavor” jingles, as well as the masters for the B-side of “Dance the Slurp”—a mock interview conducted by Bob Stanford (a Southland advertising executive who’d coined the name Slurpee) with men and woman who experienced “strange things” while slurping—and definitively date those recordings to May 12, 1966. It’s a safe bet that the A-side was recorded around that time. Gimarc and I were able to determine the acronym “SJW” on the runout, which may refer to Wakefield Manufacturing, a Phoenix, Arizona, record plant, owned by Sidney J. Wakefield (“SJW”), where “Dance the Slurp” may have been pressed. Beyond these scant clues, we were stumped.
• • •
Gimarc might yet stumble upon the “Dance the Slurp” recording masters in the vast Sellers archives. (He’s promised to keep me posted.) For so many years I’d hoped to be able to put names and faces to the session musicians who played on “Dance the Slurp,” and perhaps track down other recordings on which the musicians had played. Chop-rich, they were likely hired to bang out a tune in the morning, another in the afternoon, producing agreeable playing and singing that were ideal for the beguiling hooks of radio jingles and station IDs.
Their names are lost to history; still, I want to know: who played the spare and surprisingly funky drums, blared the bright, variety show–style horns, stabbed at the hokey, teena-go-go compact organ, sang the word “slurp” in its many cheery iterations? And who are the musicians, tethered to headphones, who created the most fun and identifiable sounds on the record—the slurps themselves that sent my brothers and I into hysterics? “Tom and I both would work the lyrics out, and in this case the in-house ad agency had provided the basic theme,” Long remembers, “but one of the things we added when we did the rough audition was the sound of the straw slurp.” Slurp sounds used as percussion instruments—and in syncopation, no less!—was irresistible to me, as a fan of Slurpees and 1960s AM rock and roll and of-the-era go-go dancing. But Long dashed my childish conviction that the slurps were produced with authentic Slurpees, cups wielded in the studio by session musicians with as much aplomb and style as Jerome Green wielded his maracas. Rather, the slurp sounds were created via studio effect, though having known this at the time wouldn’t have stopped me from trying to recreate them, as I did, Slurpee in hand, in my suburban basement.
One thing is certain: “Dance the Slurp” was concocted with a singular objective, to move units. “7-Eleven were trying to hype themselves in creating, basically, the 1966 version of a viral video, something they hope becomes a massive hit,” Gimarc says. “But look who’s writing it and putting it together, a bunch of forty-year-olds, which, in 1966 was doom.” “Dance the Slurp” begins with a Peter Gunn-on-a-sugar-rush bass riff laid atop a danceable drumbeat. The musicians pause at the second bar, and the sound of two noisy, reverb-laden slurps fills the space. Following a brief drum fill, the groove resumes, only to pause again at the fourth bar, the space now filled by a man and woman singing “Slurp! Slurp!” doubled by an exuberant horn line. The following four bars repeat the musical themes, as bass, drums, and then horns and slurps fill out the sound and set the groove in motion. After the first verse, an additional bar is added (another thirsty slurp) and then sixteen bars follow as an organ and the horns answer each other in half-bar phrases, merrily joined by the singing Slurpers. A four-bar bridge follows, leading to an extended fifteen-bar passage where—spotlight on!—the slushy slurps thrown down on top of the drum beat in a syncopated, dance-floor whirl. The strutting horns and vocalists reenter for eight more bars, and then a sugar-crash sluuuuurp crescendo, and then the fade. It’s over in two minutes and ten seconds. The song’s as ridiculous as it sounds in translation, and as equally, and as ridiculously, fun and catchy.
The folks at Southland and 7-Eleven included an insert with the record, illustrated with a cheerful go-go-ing couple. The “How to do The Slurp” instructions explained, “Just follow the beat of the music naturally,” before helpfully adding, “Do The Frug and The Jerk.” The copywriters pedantically explain the steps:
When the chorus sings “Slurp-Slurp!” the boy and girl look over each other’s shoulder, first one side then the other, right in time with the “Slurp-Slurp” words . . . When the chorus sings the drawn-out “Sluuuurp,” the boy and girl reach wide with one foot and then slide the other up to it, once again in time with the “Sluuuurp” word. A little after the middle of the music, actual slurping sounds come out loud and clear . . . the boy and girl now rock their bodies backand-forth about as fast as they can!
By the middle of the 1960s, mini-skirted girls and their dance partners were getting a little weary of grooving. Unluckily, “Dance the Slurp” was recorded and released at the tail end of a highly commercial era: Shindig! aired its final episode on January 8, 1966, and Hullaballoo closed things down three months later. The Top 40 chart in May of 1966 was, at best, inhospitable to teen dance numbers: the Rolling Stones’s “Paint It, Black,” Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Cher’s “Bang Bang,” Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound,” the Byrds’s “Eight Miles High,” and other iconic singles were vividly exploring interior states and sensual pleasures, pushing against and dissolving limits and boundaries in a way that made the twist sound and look like your parents’ dance. Indeed, I imagine that most kids who spun “Dance the Slurp” heard adults’ overeager if well-intentioned vocals exhorting them to slurp. This unhappy discovery, vying with a major sugar letdown, was a bad trip indeed.
By the time my brothers and I were listening to “Dance the Slurp,” over a decade had passed since Joey Dee and the Starliters tutored kids on the “Peppermint Twist”; years since Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon sang about his history teacher, Ms. Abigail Beecher, who dug red surfboards and doing the monkey; and more years since Chris Montez whipped up “Some Kind of Fun” dancing the stomp, the wobble, and the watusi (“Locomotion, here we come!”). My siblings and I were aware, in the longhaired Watergate and Patty Hearst era, that protest songs and FM radio and mind-altering drugs had long booted The Jerk out the back door, but we didn’t care, we just danced with adolescent joy, rocking our bodies back-and-forth about as fast as we could while laughing until irony caught up and lifted the needle.
• • •
A jingle is a song’s little brother, the one who’s forced to tag along at the game or the party and who ends up being a lot of fun to hang around with. He can do goofy imitations, make funny noises, and comes up with little sayings that people repeat the next morning. The girls think he’s cute. At the next party, someone asks if the little bro’s coming again. He’s a riot.
A few centuries ago, the word “jingle” referred simply to noise—pleasant enough noise, to be sure, small tinkling bells, a loosely linked chain, stray pieces of metal. Another usage developed earlier in history, and has run parallel: repetition of those sounds, or similar sounds, such as we hear in poetic language, and in any arrangement that results in a pleasing sound without having to make a whole lot of sense. In a word, catchy. This jingle is the basis for the irresistible nursery rhymes that live in us for a lifetime, of a memorable doorbell chime or vanity car horn, of your local auto parts radio commercial’s earworm, and NSYNC (and hundreds of other band’s Top 10 smash hits). By the 1930s, our contemporary usage of jingle was at hand, as advertising began to dominate middle class consumerism, and small, likeable musical passages were employed to get us to buy things, or to want to buy things, and to feel left out if we didn’t. You can’t help but hear the word “jingle” and think of the coins in your pocket or bag, clinking pleasingly, glinting in the jangly fluorescent light of the convenience store or supermarket after you’ve retrieved them. In Australian slang, “jingle” does indeed refer to pocket change.
In a sense, a jingle is the purest kind of music: notes arranged as a hook devoid of expression beyond itself. It gets in you as a featureless, transparent passage that might’ve been hummed a thousand years ago if not in the car on the way to work today. Paired with simple, easy-to-remember words, a jingle works because it works. Crass, a jingle’s frowned upon as purely commercial in intent, shallow in impulse; really, the pious songwriter is envious, wishing he could wield a hook as devastatingly memorable and enduring as the recognizable commercial jingles of the last seventy-odd years. I apologize in advance for the earworms, but think of the enduring Buy Mennen . . . . My Balogna has a first name . . . . Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there . . . . I’d like to teach the world to sing . . . . Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh, what a relief it is . . . . I don’t want to grow up, I’m a Toys “R” Us kid . . . . Not to mention countless regional examples.
At Creative Ready, an online radio and production site, Jamie Aplin cites the work of Alan Baddeley and Graham Hitch, who in 1974 “discovered what is now referred to as the phonological loop. This process consists of the phonological store (your ‘inner ear’) remembering sounds in chronological order and then the articulatory rehearsal system (your ‘inner voice’) repeating those sounds in order to retain them.” He adds, “This incredible brain function is vital to children when developing speech and vocabulary as well as adults when learning new languages.” At the jingle auditory level, the process is involuntary, and deeply pleasurable. If we judge a jingle because its primary function is to move units absent any complex artistic expression, do we betray our goofy smiles when we hear it, and sing along with it with our kids? Where’s the line—and is it a precise one?—between music as commodity and music as art? That old story.
• • •
On a gray, chilly day in March of 2006, Thomas Middleditch and Fernando Sosa, two Second City improv student-comics, stood on a sidewalk near a McDonald’s in Chicago’s Wrigleyville neighborhood and filmed a lo-fi, rudimentary rap about Chicken McNuggets, sending up a current commercial. “McDonalds was just starting its, like, urban campaign,” Middleditch explained to Sean Evans on Evans’s First We Feast YouTube series. “It’s all, like, Hey, two guys playin’ basketball, ‘Let’s go to McDonalds, like, whatever.’ And I just thought it was so transparently pandering. It rubbed me the wrong way.” Sosa beatboxed a hip-hop rhythm as Middleditch nerdily rapped over it in an obvious satire of white teens’ co-opting of African-American street style—and the rap was so funny, catchy, and smartly scorning that tens of thousands of YouTube viewers watched, commented on, and, most importantly, shared the video in its first year or so. Executives at McDonald’s noticed, bought the rights to the video (netting Middleditch and Sosa a nice chunk of change), and repurposed the rap into a consciously DIY ad extolling the virtues of McNuggets, squeezing out most of the duo’s irony. What began as a jeering satire of corporate pandering became a viral video and a million-dollar boon—from goof-off parody to slick promotion. It wouldn’t have happened if the jingle, however mockingly, wasn’t first an earworm.
“I love the backstory of songs that have these odd, unintended second lives,” Gimarc told me. “There was a song by Susan Shirley called ‘True Love and Apple Pie.’ It came out in 1971. It’s sung in English, and became a big hit in Denmark, Holland, and France. And then that song was purchased by an ad agency in America and had new lyrics put to it, and got turned into ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.’ And Coca-Cola probably used it for a decade. How’d you like to own the publishing on that?”
• • •
A couple of decades ago, my brothers Phil and Paul visited me in Illinois, a stop on their cross-country drive. While we were catching up, I pulled out my scratchy copy of “Dance the Slurp,” which I’d spirited from the family house when I’d moved to Ohio for graduate school. None of us had listened to the record in years; fifteen seconds in, we were collapsing in laughter, melting in nostalgia. Around the same time, in northern California, disc jockeys and music producers DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist were also listening.
“The first thing I think any child hears is commercial jingles and cartoon music and songs on Sesame Street. But I’m not going to pretend like that was a great, enormous influence because, at that time, you’re soaking up anything and everything that’s around you.” That’s Josh Davis, aka DJ Shadow speaking to writer Eliot Wilder. Davis grew up outside San Francisco, and while a student at University of California, Davis, in the early 1990s, began experimenting with making four-track mixes of obscure soul, funk, and R&B records, which he eventually distributed, building his reputation, first locally, and then internationally, as a genius turntabalist. His debut album, Endtroducing…, is a highly regarded, innovative masterpiece of trip hop. “And that is one thing I’ve always thought about, that music is just pervasive in our lives. But I also learned, at a certain point, that most people just don’t even think about it. They’re not affected by it either way, from the music that they hear in a department store or grocery store or on the radio.” He adds, “Some people, it affects them, and other people, it doesn’t.”
“Dance the Slurp” clearly affected Davis, and Cut Chemist, the stage name of Lucas MacFadden, a Los Angeles–based DJ and producer who’d been a member of the hip-hop groups Unity Collective and Jurassic 5. Davis and MacFadden sampled “Dance the Slurp” on their collaboration Brainfreeze, an astounding, fifty-two-minute live mix released in 1999 on Sixty7 Recordings, pressed in limited quantities of a thousand. (Due to high demand, the duo pressed another thousand, and then ceased production; Brainfreeze has since been bootlegged numerous times.) The CDs were sold during DJ Shadow’s 1999 U.S. tour and during Cut Chemist’s Word of Mouth tour with Jurassic 5 (as well as at two authorized record stores in California). The cover is a grainy color photograph of Davis and MacFadden posing in front of a Slurpee machine, each holding a copy of a “Dance the Slurp” 45 and peering through the center hole; the CD label features a reproduction of the original single’s label. Promoted on its insert as a “nonstop live mix of strictly 45s and exercise in vinyl destruction,” the two-track CD is comprised of fifty-six samples, ranging in length from several bars to several minutes, from seven-inch singles in Davis and MacFadden’s enormous, storied record collections. The sampled artists range from the recognizable (Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, Chuck Mangione, Albert King, the Mar-Keys), to the fairly well-known (Eddie Bo, Rufus Thomas, Original Soul Senders), to the obscure (the Mohawks, the Nu People, Wilbur Bascomb & The Zodiac, Singing Principal, the Vibrettes, et al.). The samples range from chunks of anti-drug PSAs and talky movie commercials to funky drum breaks, raw guitar solos, and blissy choruses from soul and R&B numbers.
If you’re paying attention and aren’t ecstatically zoned-out by the DJs’ hypnotic spell, thirty-five and a half minutes in to Brainfreeze you’ll hear a recognizable sound, a slurp deeply buried in the mix and then rising like a sonic bubble to the surface of Eddie Bo’s 1966 single “From This Day On.” The horns in Bo’s tune sound familiar—and soon enough Davis and MacFadden mix in the horns and vocals from “Dance the Slurp” and allow the song to play, virtually uninterrupted, for two minutes, one of the longer samples in Brainfreeze. The DJs slow down the tempo of “Dance the Slurp” by a tone or two for a few bars, more graphically for longer stretches, add reverb to and scratch the slurp sounds, manipulate the horns, loop the drum break. Mixing, Davis and MacFadden subtly change the form of “Dance the Slurp,” and thus its sound, and thus its meaning. And possibly its very purpose. They fundamentally alter the reasons the song might need to exist in the 21st century: less a commercial for a Slurpee than a context-free, pure sound groove, a smoothly moving piston in an engine of funk.
Merriman and Long, toiling in their jingle factory in Dallas, working with analog recording equipment, wouldn’t have dared imagine (and, given the unprecedented race of technology at the end of the century, likely couldn’t have imagined) what occurs in Brainfreeze: a spiked Slurp’s at the center of a wild all-nighter with a guest list as unlikely, and possibly as dangerous, as it is preposterously fun. “When I sample something, it’s because there’s something ingenious about it,” Davis says. “And if it isn’t the group as a whole, it’s that song. Or, even if it isn’t the song as a whole, it’s a genius moment, or an accident, or something that makes it just utterly unique to the other trillions of hours of records that I’ve plowed through.” The effect in Brainfreeze is to elevate the obscurity of a generically performed, novelty merchandise tie-in song to the level of prime and righteous, if sometimes equally obscure, soul and R&B. The nearly hour-long Brainfreeze invites Tom Merriman and Jim Long to the party, dynamically dramatizing, as the best sampling does, the egalitarian impulse behind music: mixing turns up the volume of the ongoing rhythm behind human expression, whether sampling a song that stiffed on the charts, was issued as a promotional record with no hope or interest in the charts, or sold in the millions.
Sometimes a sample leaps genres in startling ways. That’s Eva Gabor—aka Lisa Douglas, from the Green Acres theme song—in the chorus of Deee Lite’s impossibly fun 1990 dance-floor jam “Groove Is In The Heart.” Listen to the “I” in the line “I couldn’t ask for another.” That’s not the charming Lady Miss Kier but Lisa D, who’s actually proclaiming, a quarter century earlier, “I get allergic smelling hay!” A catchy hook’s a catchy hook. That Davis and MacFadden edit “Dance the Slurp” into Kraftwerk’s “Numbers,” from the band’s 1981 album Computerwelt, shows how tuned their ears are to the absurd, surprising, body-moving pleasures of sonic, culture-spanning simultaneity: a danceof-the-week number already hopelessly square when it was released grabs the glossy, cool hand of electronic avant-garde krautrock synth-pop and . . . well, the point is, don’t think too much about it, just hit the dance floor.
Describing Endtroducing…, Davis says, “I was trying to find a sound different from everybody else’s, so the source material had to be different from everybody else’s. I was looking for records that I felt like were really obscure. Whether those were funk 45s, which nobody was up on yet, or kind of weird rock albums.” Co-conspirator MacFadden shares Davis’s take on the possibilities opened up by sampling. “I really appreciate novelty records with drum breaks,” he told me. “It’s something I think beat diggers are attracted to probably because it’s the least likely place to find one.” MacFadden first heard about “Dance the Slurp” from Z-Trip, a Phoenix-based DJ and producer. “He’d found out about it from an extended Beastie Boy member named AWOL, and I immediately was intrigued.” He added, “I told Shadow, and, of course, he found it fairly soon after. I think I got mine from a seller out here in Los Angeles a little bit after Shadow got his.” Mixing and “playing old music for a new crowd” intrigues and moves MacFadden. “I doubt anyone had ever heard this jingle, and to blend it with Kraftwerk just seemed to be the right context to put it in. ‘Slurp’ became a household name with 45 collectors after that. We’ve since moved on to using Cola and Milk jingle drum breaks for later projects.”
My brother Paul carried “Dance the Slurp” inside of himself for decades as he dragged his record collection with him from suburban Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to Manhattan—where he worked for several years in a jingle factory—to Berlin, where he now lives, and DJs and releases music under the name Snax. In 2002, he collaborated with the musician Kahn in the electro-disco duo Captain Comatose. In “Theme From Captain Comatose,” the lead track on their album Going Out, those old drums and horns from “Dance the Slurp” pop up, repurposed as the jumpy foundation and funky, leap-from-the-turntable breaks in a dance-floor jam. Some music just gets in and stays in.
• • •
Crate diving, beat digging, Shadow and Chemist recognized and celebrated one of Merriman and Long’s prime goals: get up and dance, kids. The kinds of jingles that Merriman, Long, and so many others composed in a different context, in another life, now take on new values—rhythmic, cultural, sensual—in the hands of turntabalists. But sometimes this new value comes at a cost. Witness the waves of lawsuits brought by copyright holders against DJs and artists in recent decades: once a record with samples begins to sell, the boundaries of permissions and uses can quickly tighten up. I broached the topic of such legal issues with Gimarc when we spoke. He searched the records of ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music), the two largest United Sates performance rights organizations committed to controlling and protecting artists’ copyrights. After a minute of silence, he muttered, with a tone of mild disbelief in his voice, “Did they really never register this thing? I’m looking through ASCAP and BMI, and I don’t see it under Merriman. He’s an ASCAP guy. I’m just really shocked. I would’ve thought that once it started getting sampled that somebody would’ve registered it, just to makes sure. Southland did have something to defend after Brainfreeze was released, but they probably never had any intention of it going to a place where it would actually get used on the radio or in a movie or a TV commercial, or something outside of their control, which would be the only way you’d necessitate registering with ASCAP or BMI.”
I asked MacFadden about a lawsuit that the Southland Corporation was rumored to have brought against him and Davis. “It never went beyond a cease and desist letter,” he explained. “It was being bootlegged all over the world and making tons of money that didn’t go to us. Although we didn’t press more than 2,000 copies, the project went on to gain so much traction that they saw us as the ones being responsible, so of course we complied, even though we never planned on making anymore, and we explained to them that we weren’t in control of the bootleggers, so it may still be manufactured by someone other than us.” Meanwhile, MacFadden was struck by a bold marketing idea of his own. “I was trying to pitch them putting me and Shadow in a television commercial mixing doubles of ‘Dance the Slurp’.” Southland passed.
“I think they really slept on a hip campaign idea,” MacFadden sighed. “Oh, well.”
Joe Bonomo's collection of music essays is Field Recordings from the Inside. His new book, No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell, a Writer's Life in Baseball, is forthcoming in 2019. Find him at No Such Thing As Was (nosuchthingaswas.com) @BonomoJoe.
Jess E. Jelsma is a doctoral candidate of creative writing at the University of Cincinnati and a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA in Creative Writing program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Catapult, Post Road Magazine, The Rumpus, The Normal School, Indiana Review, and various other publications.
Matt Jones is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA in Creative Writing program. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Post Road Magazine, Slice Magazine, McSweeney's, Wigleaf, The Journal, and various other publications.
Dinty W. Moore will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where he will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available.
Until just a few weeks ago, here is everything I knew about my sinuses:
1. They are inside my head.
2. They are usually clogged with horrible mucus.
3. The horrible mucus leaks out of my nostrils.
4. Sinuses are disgusting, and the less time spent thinking about them the better.
• • •
Or so I thought.
It turns out that modern medicine is mind-blowing, and I mean that in a thoroughly positive way. I might have meant it otherwise had my doctor’s hand somehow slipped during surgery, but that’s getting well ahead of the story.
For now, here’s what you need to know:
After fifty years of inadequate breathing, decades of pulsing discomfort, a general sense of “I hate my sinuses, why do I even have them,” I was informed by modern medicine, in the form of a young, slender, oddly confident ENT specialist, that my problem was not my sinuses per se, but sinus polyps—grape-sized blobs of I-don’t-know-and-I-didn’t-ask.
These grape-sized blobs of I-don’t-know-and-I-didn’t-ask are what kept my sinuses from filling with air. They also kept them from flushing out all the horrible mucus. Thus: infection, pain, poor breathing, infection, gunk, embarrassment, infection, more pain, a box of Kleenex on every flat surface of my home, burning, swelling, infection, pain. Repeat cycle once each month.
Then modern medicine suggested: “We can clear those out.”
"How?” I asked.
“Well, we go up through the nostrils . . .” the doctor said.
“The nostrils, you say?”
“Yes,” the young physician answered, and then he offered a sentence that contained the word “scraping,” and I removed myself from all conscious comprehension for about ten seconds, until he said, “Of course, we wouldn’t want to scrape too much, because the bone separating your sinuses from your brain is very thin.”
As I said: Potentially mind-blowing.
It was at that juncture that I stopped listening for about thirty seconds, until the doctor added, “So we should probably schedule this up in Columbus, just to be on the safe side.”
I remember wondering why the thin layer of bone separating my sinuses from my brain would be less likely to perforate catastrophically in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, about eighty miles upstream from the small college town where my sinuses usually clog themselves. But it didn’t take long before the doctor said, “Imaging.”
“Oh,” I nodded, trying to look respectful and informed. “Who’s Imogene?”
• • •
So, here are six actual facts I didn’t know about my sinuses before Doctor Gallant (not his real name, but it should be) entered the picture:
1. There are not two but four sinus cavities in the skull—one on either side of the nose, but also one above each eye, behind the eyebrow.
2. Scientists can’t agree why these openings exist.
3. One theory is that they decrease the weight of the skull, making it easier to hold up our heads all day.
4. Another theory is that they act as shock absorbers, decreasing injury when the head hits something harder than a pillow.
5. The goop we all despise exists for good reason: to capture viruses, bacteria, and other airborne particles before they reach our lungs.
6. When we are sick, mucus production can increase to two liters a day. Think two-liter Pepsi bottle, and then get entirely grossed out.
• • •
There was, it turns out, no Imogene.
Dr. Gallant scheduled me in early August for Computer-Assisted Endoscopic Sinus Surgery. This involved the insertion of a very thin, fiber-optic scope into my nose and the use of micro instruments (aka “scrapers”) to remove the little grape-sized blobs of I-didn’t-ask. Of course, if the doctor was going to wander around with tiny X-ACTO knives, it would be good for him to see where he was scraping. The hospital in Columbus, it turns out, had imaging technology.
First, though, I had to get medically cleared for the operation. Because I am in advanced middle age, I have many doctors; we humans accumulate them like barnacles attached to an aging frigate. None of my many doctors, of course, could figure out how to share information with any of my other many doctors, including doctors whose offices are one floor apart in the same medical complex. “I can just walk it down,” I would say, but they had protocols, and costly computer systems that couldn’t talk to one another, or do anything really, except billing.
The billing always worked.
Nonetheless, August rolled around, and I presented myself at the Outpatient Surgery Center, located just a few blocks from the enormous university teaching hospital, and all was well, except at the last minute I mentioned that I’d recently been diagnosed with sleep apnea, a Greek word that allows doctors to bill you at two-hundred-times the rate they might if we just called it snoring.
My procedure was delayed while the medical team endeavored to learn my sleep apnea score, which somehow had never found its way into any of my voluminous medical records.
“I believe I scored well,” I said, which didn’t satisfy the anesthesiologist’s curiosity at all.
Sixteen computers in sixteen different medical offices spread across most of southern Ohio refused to speak to one another for a good bit of the morning, until the resourceful anesthesiologist finally just picked up his cell phone and dialed.
The last voice I heard before succumbing to the happy gas was the masked cell-phone user reacting to the score he was given:
• • •
I assume the doctor has wonderful memories of touring the folds and caverns behind my facial bones, but since Gallant and his team kept me sedated and oblivious, my only way of describing what occurred is to watch similar procedures on YouTube, where, it turns out, hundreds of doctors have recorded thousands of excruciating hours of footage revealing just about any medical technique you might want to watch. It is creepy, to be honest, because the doctors in these videos talk animatedly at the camera for most of the operation, and I keep wanting to shout, “Oh my God, focus on the patient, focus on the patient!”
The online videos of Computer-Assisted Endoscopic Sinus Surgery using image guidance aren’t pretty, believe me. The flexible tube inserted through the nostril contains both a light source and a camera, and the inner walls, gooey corners, and grape-sized I-don’t-know-whats are revealed on a TV monitor. The videos look like outtakes from a movie entitled Journey to the Center of an Astonishingly Gross Earth, or perhaps extremely poor-quality porn, shot way too close up.
• • •
I awoke from my procedure feeling quite chipper. Until Dr. Gallant and the anesthesiologist informed me I would not be heading home as planned, but staying the night in a local hospital. My “holy cow!” sleep apnea score, they concluded, combined with the amount of anesthesia it took to knock me out for surgery, risked that unpleasant moment where my airwaves would briefly shut off breathing, and my reflexes would just roll over and say, “Oh don’t wake us now, we’re having such a nice dream.”
In other words, I would asphyxiate.
The medical chaps, as they loved to say over and over again, decided to “exercise a little extra caution.”
This did not sit well with me. I wanted to recover at home, as “outpatient” surgery suggested, both because of sentimental reasons, but also because I had planned my “at home” outpatient recovery in exquisite detail, a sort of one-man New Year’s Eve celebration featuring cold beer, junk television, nose bandages, and pain killers. What could go wrong?
I wasn’t going to find out because I wasn’t going home, which was bad enough. Worse yet was when the hospital reported having no open rooms.
The real problem was that I felt absolutely fine. Anesthesia has the odd effect of energizing me immediately after awakening, rather than leaving me drowsy, but given my “post-op” status, I was stuck with two choices—either lie on my back and complain, or sit up just a little, sip water, and complain.
Three hours of this, until finally I was cleared for a room in the hospital six blocks away, and then—yes, only then—a nurse informs me that an ambulance has been called, and that will take “. . . about three more hours.”
“Your case is not urgent,” she added.
What I said in response may not have been polite, and I hereby apologize to anyone anywhere who has ever worked in the medical care profession.
About this point, I went to work trying to convince the nursing staff that I easily enough could walk the six blocks to the hospital. Or I could drive, if they lent me a car. Or one of them could drive me, and I’d buy ice cream on the way.
Miraculously, and to the boundless relief of the nurses, my ambulance arrived a full hour and-a-half early, and I was quickly strapped in, attached to four thousand wires, monitoring every inch of my body except perhaps my nose, where I believe the surgery had been performed. And then, finally, I was driven the three-minutes’ distance from the surgery center to the medical center, at about twenty miles per hour, no lights, no siren.
At one point, concerned that her patient might be disoriented by this wild ride, the med tech in the back asked me the name of the current president.
“Sarah Palin,” I answered, hoping to exhibit the fine nuance of my post-operative intellectual irony.
“Ha!” she answered with no hint of humor. “Don’t we wish.”
• • •
Faster than one can say Affordable Care Act, I was whisked into my room, on the hospital’s fifth floor. The man in the bed across from me was glad for company, because he had quite the story to tell, one I heard about eight times in the next four hours.
Mr. Deeter was from Akron, and his job, he told me, was to service giant transformers, the ones you see along the roadside surrounded by ten-foot cyclone fencing with signs reading: “High Voltage! Do Not Enter!”
Mr. Deeter regularly ignored those signs—it was, in fact, his job to do so. That morning he had been pulling oil from the engine of one of these powerful transformers, “with a syringe,” he shouted across the two beds, “the way a nurse takes blood”—when his bare arm touched something it should not have touched, and 81,000 volts of electricity coursed through his body.
“I let out a yelp,” he told me. “And BAM! Next thing I knew I was knocked back up against the fence.”
He stopped for a moment, studied my face. What he saw was an expression that best translates as, “And you lived?”
Mr. Deeter seemed to be rounding sixty or so, with a short, military haircut, the fit physique of a man who works outside with tools, and a deep, no-nonsense voice. He was proud of his ability to survive the massive burst of voltage, or maybe he was still in shock. Either way, he repeated his story to everyone who entered the room.
“Couldn’t feel my arm at first, so I looked down, and, yup, it was still attached.” He would pause here for effect. “Then I went back to work, siphoning out the oil. I noticed this burn on my elbow, and thought, ‘Oh nuts! I guess I should call this one in.’ But I didn’t.”
Turned out Mr. Deeter had two small, round burns: one on his elbow, just an inch or so from where his safety gloves ended, and one on his chest, where the voltage apparently surged back out of his body.
He didn’t call to report the accident until a co-worker showed up, and said, “Deeter, you don’t look so good.”
“He was right. I called it in. Now I’m here.”
He didn’t look like a man shot through with electricity. He looked fine, as fine as I felt. He also looked trapped, like he’d rather be anywhere, even back servicing generators, than in that hospital room.
I knew exactly how he felt.
• • •
Scientists, as I said earlier, can’t agree on why we have sinuses.
The make-our-heads-lighter-so-we-can-holdthem-erect notion has its staunch advocates, as does the shock-absorber-in-the-skull idea, but, hands-down, my favorite theory posits that we—you, me, Mr. Deeter, and Sarah Palin alike—are descended from aquatic apes.
The theory goes like this: a group of prehistoric primates, cleverer than most, noticed that river banks and sea shores produced much better food than did arid grasslands, so they descended from their treetops and acquired waterfront property.
Over time, through the exquisite magic of evolution, these apes evolved an upright stance, allowing them to stand in the water and freeing up their hands to crack shellfish. Eventually they also lost their body hair, developing instead a thick layer of subcutaneous fat (to keep warm in the water). They learned to swim.
And this, if you believe Peter Rhys Evans, a British expert on head-and-neck physiology, also explains our sinus cavities.
Compared to other primates, humans have particularly large openings in the skull, Rhys Evans notes. “It makes no sense until we consider the evolutionary perspective. Then it becomes clear: our sinuses acted as buoyancy aids that helped keep our heads above water.”
He adds further evidence: unlike our ape cousins, humans have an unusually strong diving reflex, a unique nose shape that shields our nostrils when we dive below the surface, and partial webbing between our fingers and toes.
Not all scientists agree, because if they did, how could they write hundreds of scholarly articles arguing over every detail—but a good many do agree. And who doesn’t like a spirited squabble over how primeval monkeys transformed themselves over time into twenty-first-century hipsters wearing skinny jeans and taking selfies?
Turns out, it all started at the oyster bar.
• • •
Why exactly do human beings have unique tongue prints?
Why do we have that vertical groove on the surface of our upper lip?
What’s the meaning of goosebumps?
What purpose does the uvula serve, and why does it sound so dirty?
If Mr. Deeter could absorb thousands of volts of electricity through his arm and shoot it back out of his chest, sustaining little more than a few surface burns, and then go back to work for thirty minutes before deciding to call his supervisor, why can’t monkeys evolve large open spaces in their skulls to keep their heads above water as they float down the lazy river, popping tasty minnows into their hungry mouths?
I’m talking about the glorious mystery of the body here, which might sound like a pickup line, but I don’t mean it that way.
Goosebumps, by the way, occur when tiny muscles around the base of each hair tense, pulling the hair more erect. Back when we were apes, our fur would stand on end, to make us look larger, scarier, more powerful. Now, we just look silly.
Our bodies, even our sinuses, are simply miraculous. I’ve progressed from hating my goopy head cavities to being damned proud of them.
They exist for a reason.
A good reason.
They exist because somehow, somewhere in time, an ape looked around and thought, “Man, you know what I could go for right now? Shrimp cocktail.”
Dinty W. Moore lives in Athens, Ohio, the funkadelicious, hillbilly-hippie Appalachian epicenter of the locally-grown, locally-consumed, goats-are-for-cheese, paw-paws-are-for-eatin’, artisanal-salsa, our-farmers-market-rocks-the-hills sub-culture, where he grows his own heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions, and teaches a crop of brilliant undergraduate and stunningly talented graduate students as director of Ohio University’s BA, MA, and PhD in Creative Writing program. He has been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, Crazyhorse, and Okey-Panky, among numerous other venues. He has authored several books, including Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy: Advice and Confessions on Life, Love, and Cannibals and The Story Cure: A Book Doctor's Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir.
Photo on Foter.com
A couple of years ago, I asked friends and family to make me a mix CD for my birthday, hoping to get 33 mix CDs, one per year I’d lived. I got 59, including some, pleasingly, from strangers. Somewhat predictably, though not unpleasantly, there were a number of Jesus-Year-themed mixes, though fewer Jesus-themed songs. I also put out the call to friends to pass it to anyone they thought might be interested in sending a mix CD. I made it a project to listen actively to each of these mix CDs and to respond by annotating, riffing on, and responding to the selections, and sending a note with my response to the mix-maker, or I suppose we should call her an arranger, since therein is the art of the mix.
The idea I had about this was that the collective mix CDs would somehow represent the network of friends and family I was in close contact with—or close enough. I thought I’d be able to divine something about myself from how others viewed me, what they thought the best approach was to making the mix, whether they used the mix as an opportunity to impress, to educate, to colonize, to woo, to irritate, to posture, to stake out some emotional territory between us. I’d done all these things in the past, usually with an emphasis on woo. I’d made hundreds, I’d guess, maybe a thousand, though I’m not obsessive enough to have kept track of all of them—their recipients, the occasion for the mix, the strategies I employed, if any, and the tracklists over the years. Whether an individual mix meant anything was hard to say, but it would be tough to avoid making some conclusions about the first third (I hope) of my life from the aggregate information contained on these compact discs.
One disc arrived cracked, so only the first few tracks were playable. Another mix, this one pie-themed, arrived so broken that only the tracklist was readable. Another was virtual, a ghost mix, a list of the worst 33 songs in her iTunes library without any actual music to inflict said songs on me. One was all songs written and recorded when the artist in question was 33. One, also impressively, was only songs released in 1933. The length of one disc added up to exactly 33 minutes and 33 seconds. My brother sent me, in lieu of a mix, a box set of Americana from Rhino, which says quite a bit about our relationship. Another mix consisted of songs that I had never heard before. One, maybe the most meaningful in the way mixes can be, collected songs by bands that the mixer and I had seen in concert together. Perhaps in a bid to piss me off, several featured “Sweet Home Alabama.” More than one included a Bon Jovi song. I am not sure why.
Then one mix CD was not a CD at all. It arrived in a regular business-sized envelope. It was a microcassette without a case. Sent in an unpadded envelope, it, too, arrived broken. I filed it on my shelf with the others. It did not fit in the box with the others because the box was designed for CDs. The envelope it arrived in was a plain business envelope, you know the sort, designed for holding a letter-sized sheet of paper folded in three parts. It had no return address. Addressed to me with a barely-readable postmark from Nebraska City, Nebraska, the tape was an enigma. Did it have anything to do with the mix CD project? I did not know. It was broken and unplayable. As I listened to the other mix CDs and wrote about them, or in response to them, I thought more about what might be on the broken tape. I filled the room with thought. I paid attention to the songs on the listenable discs and tried to correlate them with my relationship with the person who made the mix. My head was elsewhere as I contemplated the moonlit limbs of the sumacs visible from my office window, the invisible network of roots converging at the base of the trees, and waited for snow to come.
Nebraska City, Nebraska, is the official home of Arbor Day, the last Friday in April (in most states—sometimes differing climates lead to different dates), a “day to celebrate trees,” according to the Arbor Day Foundation website. You’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve celebrated it. I’d guess that only a few of us, though, have revered it. Founded in 1872 by Julius Sterling Morton, a journalist and politician originally from Michigan, Arbor Day is surely the least sexy national holiday. (It is a postal holiday, but only in Nebraska.) While it’s odd to think about the burnt, windswept prairie of Nebraska as the birth of the day of tree celebration, Nebraska Citians are pretty serious about Arbor Day.
From what I can see of it (which, thanks to the Internet and Google Earth, is extensive in a way that would not have been possible even a decade ago), Nebraska City, Nebraska, appears undistinguished. Just south of I-29’s intersection with I-80, it has the usual stuff of American towns: golf courses, churches, monuments, Super 8 motels, a hospital, townhomes, Buick LeSabres, football, insurance agents, a sewing store, a mostly abandoned downtown, quilts, sadness, pretty girls, fields and fields, a factory outlet store, one or two Chinese restaurants, a Mexican restaurant with wack burritos, the smell of farms, a Friends of Faith Thrift Shop, scattered signs of both doom and joy. When you start to look at what distinguishes cities from each other, particularly in the American Midwest, it’s pretty easy to despair of our culture for its portability, its replicability, its easy genericism.
Nebraska City, Nebraska, is one of those State Name City cities that feel peculiarly American and complicate schoolchildren’s memorization of the states and their capitols: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, may be the capital city of Oklahoma, but Iowa City is no longer the capital city of Iowa (as of 1857). You’ve probably never even heard of Ohio City, Ohio, or Minnesota City, Minnesota, for good reason. I’d reckon about half the states have a State Name City, and a few have cities named after other states, often straddling state lines. As such, Nebraska City, Nebraska, could be—though it is not, except maybe in a few lonely dreams—the center of the center of the country.
The Midwest is an odd place when you look at it closely enough, though it gets caricatured as Norman Rockwellville, a place of the safe and boring, hard work, religion, football, “family values”—whatever they are. My experience with the Midwest belies these broad brushstrokes: most of the Midwest is much stranger, darker, more hollow, anger- and treasure-filled. You find serious evidence of weirdness in the abandoned factory steam towers and knockoff Dairy Queen—called Kastle Kreme—in Galesburg, Illinois (they’ll make a blizzard out of anything you bring in, including salted pork), or the closed Blue Bird School Bus assembly plant in Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Zeeland, Michigan, has the highest incest rate in the state. You find the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine in a small town: Darwin, Minnesota. Another contender for the crown is in Cawker City, Kansas, with at least one more in Wisconsin and inevitably one in the weirdest town in the greater Midwest: Branson, Missouri. Looking closer at Nebraska City, you learn that it is the oldest incorporated city in Nebraska and has the only Underground Railroad site in the state. Then there’s the legacy of Morton’s Arbor Day—thousands of trees lining the streets of Nebraska City, thousands of saplings in kids’ hands about to be planted; or maybe those are metaphors: the hands, the kids, the trees, Nebraska City.
Strange enough on the ground, then, but from the air it must seem like the least identifiable city in one of the least identifiable states, identifiable only in its display of absence, the sort of place where someone mysterious might hide and send out strange microcassettes or bombs.
Every move across the country, and every visit, if it’s a good one, if you pay attention: these force you to recalibrate your sense of place and what you thought the place might be or mean. When I moved to Tucson, Arizona, a couple years later, I was surprised by just how green it was, belying the broad brushstrokes that “Tucson, Arizona,” brings to mind. My vision/version of the place was of the flat, swaled infinity that you might see in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where I lived briefly as a teenager, or in the Sahara, where much of my consciousness of what <em>desert</em> means was born. Not much grew in the desert around Riyadh. But the part of the Sonoran Desert surrounding Tucson (a valley city, surrounded by mountain ranges) is comparatively speaking a celebration of the tree, particularly the Martian green-skinned paloverde, Arizona’s unreal and prickly state tree. And Tucson isn’t technically in a desert at all: the area gets enough rain (12 inches a year most years, though a little less in the last decade’s ongoing drought) to be considered only semi-arid. Landscapes are filled with the famous saguaro cacti that only grows in the Sonora, the green spray of blooming ocotillos, a dozen different palms, yucca, mesquites, and thousands of fruit trees bushing out of backyards throughout the city, to say nothing of the other hundred succulents and varieties of cacti, though like many of Tucson’s denizens, both flora and fauna, many are hardly native to the region.
I found the fruit trees particularly fascinating, since the orange trees spectacularly line the Third Street Bike Path that dead-ends into the campus of the university where I teach. Being from Michigan, and spending much of my life in the cold realms, I fetishized fruit trees, fetishized cacti, images from vacation postcards, television, and deep winter dreams. Fruit trees especially were tied directly into the myths of California and Florida, Disneyland and Disney World, twin visions of escape from the endless snowbound heart of Upper Michigan.
Like many orange trees planted on public property, the Third Street trees produce oranges that are incredibly bitter. They offer only visual sustenance—glossy nests of leaves cradle orange orbs. When they fruit, they become more of a nuisance than anything else, dropping inedible oranges that rot in the street and taunt hungry students and passersby who fetishize fruit globes.
I have a problem with inedible things—particularly soaps and bath products, though the sour oranges qualify—that smell or look like something edible. If sufficiently hungry, I will disregard sense and eat them, or try to, and spit out a mouthful of soapy chemical mess or too-sour fruit. I am no smarter with age. Biking down that street, I’ve been tempted. Too often, desire is a more powerful force than restraint.
At the request of a pair of conventionally rather attractive Alabama sorority girls, the Scottish indie rock band Belle and Sebastian once covered “Sweet Home Alabama” at a concert I attended in Atlanta. It was a glorious, if ill-fated collision, the sort you look for in a cover situation. After all, Belle and Sebastian was a famously shy and media-elusive band in its youth, so the prospect of them inviting requests for covers was a funny surprise. I was shocked that the guitarist knew the riff at all, though the band didn’t know all the lyrics. Said sorority girls were pulled up on stage to sing.
University of Alabama alums know that the proper way to sing the song is with a “Roll, Tide, Roll” inserted like a virus in the chorus. As a northerner in the South, you understand quickly that this song is important to Southerners, particularly Alabamans, partly for its famous fuck-off to the Canadian Neil Young, “Southern man don’t need him around.”
By the time I heard it covered in Atlanta, the song had lost whatever meaning it might have once had for me as a result of sheer oversaturation. But I listened hard to all the mix CDs. Doing so, I found that I don’t really listen very often to songs anymore. Perhaps it’s a product of the mp3 age in which we trade off fidelity for convenience, the immersive and social experience of the album for the portability, downloadability, and immediacy of the digital single, but whether we love songs, hate songs, or disregard them, more typically when we press play, we press play on our memory of the song or what it represents, how it makes us feel, who we were when we first heard it or made it part of our lives. We don’t listen to the song itself. (Well, we’re never listening to anything itself, without consideration of context, genre, history, personal experience, and so on, but that road leads to a neurotic infinity.) Instead, I found that when I actually listened to it, “Sweet Home Alabama” is actually a pretty catchy song. This raises uncomfortable questions about what my taste in music actually means, but I can’t think about that too hard, too often, if I want to maintain any sense of what self means.
This last year tornadoes destroyed much of Tuscaloosa, including both of the places I lived in when I was in grad school there: an apartment complex named, in an attempt to ape the patrician South, Charleston Square, and a house situated about five miles distant on a street called Cedar Crest, though there were no cedars anywhere in sight. I remember seeing the damage on television, trying to reconcile the images in the media with my memory of the place. What corner is that, I asked myself—only to realize, holy shit, that was the street on which I lived: and it was entirely wiped out in a mile-wide stripe, just erased, like magnetic tape. You could tell it was Cedar Crest by the railroad tracks, the decimated Krispy Kreme, and the few remaining individual trees, which are numerous and often very old.
Tuscaloosa has long been called the “Druid City,” for the preponderance of water oaks lining its many leafy streets, and my memory of entering the South for the first time was largely one of being engulfed in tree, in near-total forestation, surprisingly similar to my home in Michigan, with echoes of Deliverance and red dirt everywhere.
A couple months before the tornado, an Alabama football fan was arrested for poisoning a stand of 130-year-old oak trees 160 miles away in Auburn, Alabama, commonly called Toomer’s Corner. These oaks are among the oldest of Auburn’s trees. There are 8,236 on the campus. According to tradition, fans would festoon the oaks with toilet paper after important football victories.
Alabama and Auburn have a longstanding and especially bitter rivalry, but the poisoning of the trees by 62-year-old former state trooper Harvey A. Updyke, Jr., is certainly a new low. Evidently he had problems with mental illness, though you could argue that the degree of obsession that hardcore Alabama fans often exhibit borders on crazy. Rarely do you get a sense of restraint overriding desire when it comes to Alabama football.
Updyke used a powerful herbicide called Spike 80DF—“80 percent tebuthiuron (the active ingredient) and 20 percent inert ingredients,”—according to a Huffington Post news article on the subject, farmed certainly from some other website in the way of modern aggregated media. The same article suggests the herbicide “kills from the roots up.” As a result, it might take years for the stand of oaks to die as they shed, regrow, and re-shed their leaves like past lives, past iterations of selves suggested by mixtape tracklists and embarrassing letters written to girls we yearned for. It’s not yet fully certain whether they will live or die, but the prognosis for the trees is not good.
The prognosis for my old neighborhood is worse: it’s since been bulldozed, the rubble and uprooted parts of trees removed, along with the few remaining halves of houses and the graves of the many stray cats my wife and I fed and tried to save. You can only do so much. The roots of my memories there are now erased entirely, along with the house next door to ours that (we were informed by an obsessive football fan who came to our house to take photographs) once housed football star Joe Namath.
According to the July 7, 1936, issue of The Toledo News, comedian Hugh Herbert was the first inventor of a particular mixtape of a tree, the “fruit-salad tree”: “[he] is developing a horticultural marvel to be known as a fruit-salad tree, or Herbert’s Folly. On a grapefruit tree his [sic] has grafted oranges, avocados, peaches, apples, plums, and walnuts.” Two months later, The Christian Science Monitor ran an article about McKee Jungle Gardens, almost two hours southeast of Orlando, in Vero Beach, Florida (now McKee Botanical Garden), that had a fruit-salad tree of its own (“the Mexican salad fruit tree . . . pineapple, strawberries, and bananas combined”).
These Frankentrees are made by grafting parts of different trees onto one trunk in order to maximize the variety of fruit grown on the one tree, and also for novelty or entertainment. Contrary to The Toledo News, these fruit-salad trees, also called fruit-cocktail trees, probably predate 1936, since the technique of grafting branches tree-on-tree has been around since antiquity, and someone surely had the idea before 1936. Circa 300 B.C.E., for instance, amateur botanist Theophrastus writes, in “De Causis Plantarum,” that “It is also reasonable that trees so grafted should bear finer fruit.” He goes on to explain the technique of grafting in detail. Much of his discourse in “Propagation in Another Tree: Grafting” could more or less be copy-and-pasted directly into any contemporary manual on the subject, since the techniques have not changed much. It’s hard to believe that, as an experimental botanist, he or his contemporaries wouldn’t have mixed multiple fruits on one tree.
By this time pretty much all of our domesticated trees, particularly citrus, are hybrids, only reliably reproducible via grafting. All fruit trees are Frankentrees. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the fruit-salad tree would later be developed by the University of California at Riverside, and more recently commercially popularized by The Fruit Salad Tree Company out of Emmasville, Australia, which distributes four fruit-salad tree varieties (Stone Fruit, Citrus Fruit, Multi-Apples, and Multi-Nashis—Japanese pears) that are ready to plant, tend, and fruit.
A mysterious and unmarked tape arrives…straight out of a noir novel.
Was it a message? Was it from a stalker? A crazy Alabama football fan? A former lover? A family member?
I asked the most likely suspects. Then I asked everyone I knew.
No one claimed responsibility.
The actual magnetic tape was not broken, though its casing was. I headed to Radio Shack to procure some new microcassettes in hopes of nerdily dismantling the broken casing and rethreading the old tape through an unbroken case. None of them turned out to be openable without some mystic wizard moves.
A couple months went by. I thought about other things, worked on other things, as I do. Watched the trees out my window lose their leaves and wind down, spectral, for winter. I thought more about it. The hacker in me said I had to fix the tape myself. The reasonable person just said, eh, forget it. But I couldn’t just forget it. Eventually I sent it out to a specialty audio restoration company that fixed the tape, burned it to a CD, and mailed it back.
It sat in its package on my desk. Should I listen to it, I wondered? What if the mystery disappointed me, and it was just some heavy breathing? (Actually I’d take heavy breathing. It could connote anything.)
When I think of mystery, I think of the Paulding Light, the most famous unexplained phenomenon of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At one point, Ripley’s Believe it or Not! offered a $100,000 reward for anyone who could definitively explain the Light. It was even featured on an episode of Robert Stack’s redundantly named television show, Unsolved Mysteries, and a more recent SyFy network show.
The Paulding Light is in the Ottawa National Forest, south of Bruce Crossing, about an hour and a half from the town where I grew up and in which my parents live. Driving south, it’s off an old mining road on the right of US 45, a couple miles before you get to Watersmeet. You drive in at night and park where the other cars are, among millions of towering pines. Most nights there will be a dozen or more people sitting on the hoods of their cars, often with binoculars or telescopes looking north at a series of lights that emerge, slowly move down a hill, and disappear. The locals have stories of these balls of light getting within a hundred feet of the viewers, floating, moving, changing colors, spinning, and splitting up. The official U.S. Forest Service sign (adorned helpfully, surely unofficially, with an illustration of Casper the Friendly Ghost) reads as follows:
This is the location from which the famous Paulding Light can be observed. Legend explains its presence as a railroad brakeman’s ghost, destined to remain forever at the sight [sic] of his untimely death. He continually waves his signal lantern as a warning to all who come to visit. To observe the phenomenon, park along this forest road facing North. The light will appear each evening in the distance along the power line right-of-way. Remember, other people will be visiting this location. Please do not litter.
In a place adorned with a long history of suffering (the miners, mostly, and the families of miners, many of whom died in the mines or in related accidents, or in the Italian Mining Hall disaster of 1909, and the Ojibwa before them who suffered in ways all too familiar to students of American history), the Paulding Light is a cryptic and appealing experience with a speculative and storied past. Though there have been several scientific explanations offered for the Light, including some sort of power phenomenon involving the electrical lines, swamp gas, headlights on a highway, and so on. Though several other television shows and paranormal investigators and experts have been deployed to investigate the Lights, most have concluded that the phenomenon remains unexplained. In 2010, a group of Michigan Tech University optics students claimed (with a good claim to fact) that they had proved that the Light was a result of headlights in the distance. I have my doubts. It’s not just that I love the mystery of it, but that, after having experienced the Light myself on several occasions, the optics explanation doesn’t fully track. Or perhaps I just resist its attempt at closure. The roots of a mystery like this run deep.
Was it worth $40 to get the broken microcassette fixed? It turns out the answer is yes, if only to know. It is always worth $40 to know. That’s what makes me a crap poker player. I want to see everyone’s cards, to see the flop, the turn, the river, to see how it turns out. And in poker you have to pay to find out. And I almost always pay to find out. Now you know.
So. I popped it in and gave it a listen. It appeared to be a recording from the judge’s microphone in a murder trial set in Upper Michigan. There is no real identifying information beyond the names of the attorneys (Mr. Biegler and Mr. Dancer; there is also apparently a Mr. McCarthy who is mentioned) and the fact that the original judge on the case, a Judge Maitland, was taken ill, and the new judge was from Lower Michigan. There are references to this being a sensational trial. Here is an excerpt from my transcription:
I come here on assignment from Lower Michigan to sit in place of your own Judge Maitland, who is recovering from illness. Now I have no desire to upset the folkways or traditions of this community during murder trials or whatever they may be. I had not realized that there were so many among you who were such zealous students of homicide. In any case I must remind you that this is a court of law and not a football game or a prize fight.
Beyond this there are the judge’s exhortations to the attorneys and the gallery to quiet down, to act more civilly; a couple rulings on objections and witness testimony; and a congratulations to the prosecutor on a particularly spectacular prosecution: “this is the first time in my legal career that I have seen a dead man successfully prosecuted for rape.” The actual prosecution, the actual witness testimony, the actual objections—in short, any voice aside from the judge’s—is not in evidence. There are only short silences during the spaces where other people apparently responded, indicating that this is an edited version with the long silences and other voices removed. I didn’t know what to make of it. It felt like there was a decent chance that this was a recording from the courtroom of the murder trial on which I based some of my first book. Strange. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, I thought, making everything about myself.
A damaged tape. An audio recording of a section of an Upper Michigan murder trial. The trial, the trail—they both appear to end here.
Then there is more: “I suggest that both of you gentlemen invoke a little silence and let the witness answer. In fact I order you to.”
“I’m going to take the answer.”
“Take the answer.”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen. There has been a question and an objection. And I must make a ruling, which I cannot do if you keep up this unholy wrangling. We are skating on thin ice, I realize. But in all conscience, I cannot rule if the question is objectionable. Counsel is not asking for the results of any polygraph test, but the opinion of the witness based upon certain knowledge possessed by him. Take the answer.”
You want to give it a listen? The mp3 is on my website at otherelectricities.com/vp/mix.html.
It’s pretty freaky, actually, when you just listen to it, not knowing what it is. Turn the lights out. Look out the window at the canopy of whatever deciduous tree you see and the moon rising spookily through its bare wintry branches. Make sure no one is paying attention to you.
I listened to it over and over, filling the silent hisses with speculation.
So I spent a couple hours trying to look up information on the murder trial of the man who killed my high-school acquaintance, just to see if this was it. I found very little. Having taken place before the explosion of the web, there’s almost nothing online about it. I wonder whether the trial transcripts are public record, whether they’re available for researchers? The court transcriptionist surely did her (I’ve never seen a male transcriptionist, but they must exist) job for a reason. Surely these transcripts are open at least to lawyers who might want to prepare an appeal, or something. I resolved to find out more about this, then promptly forgot about my resolution.
The roots of the tree that should, in nature, grow the sweet oranges that most of us enjoy eating or juicing are susceptible to a bark-destroying virus. The roots of the sour orange tree, however, resist the virus. So in Texas or Florida, for instance, growers graft sweet orange branches—scions—onto the trunks/roots—understock—of sour orange trees for protection. Further north orange scions are usually grafted onto rough lemon understock for a similar result. Oranges are now so hybridized that the seeds of a given orange will usually not grow the same kind of orange tree if planted.
For those of us who fetishize the tree as the epitome of natural, understanding that the modern citrus is essentially a remix, a cut-and-paste job, comes as a bit of a surprise. There’s not a whole lot natural about domesticated anything anymore, which is one reason why “natural” on food packaging doesn’t usually denote very much. (Neither the USDA nor the FDA has rules for what “natural” may or may not refer to.) Like most of us who eat, I don’t spend much time close up with my food, and certainly not fruit trees, and haven’t bothered to investigate the joints where the understock meets the scion.
It is not particularly difficult to make your own fruit-salad tree if you’re adept at grafting. Though it does take a lot of care and careful pruning, since fruits mature and fruit at different rates and times, and you risk having one fruit take over your tree or become too heavy, unbalancing your tree and bringing it down.
The term for grafting scions on the understock of a different tree is topworking.
Maybe six hours later, after feeling entirely engaged in the mystery, I figured out what might already be obvious to you, what would be obvious to denizens of Upper Michigan (or aficionados of film or murder mysteries) of a certain age—that the microcassette recording is in fact a greatly condensed and edited version of the audio from the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder.
It took me a while to get there. My wife suggested that there’s no way anyone was recording the trial from the inside. True, I thought. It’s suspiciously articulate, and I didn’t hear the accents and Canadianisms, the yas, the trills of ehs and dropped prepositions that usually signify the Upper Michigander, or as we call ourselves, the Yooper. And the more I thought of some of the lines, the more they sounded like written dialogue. At that point, I had not yet seen the film, though the book on which it is based is set in Upper Michigan and is probably the most famous rendering of my peninsula, if you don’t count the crappy Ben Affleck heist movie Reindeer Games.
And with that revelation, the door slammed closed, one part of the mystery solved. But then: why only selections from the replacement judge character’s comments?
And why unmarked? Why a microcassette? Why from Nebraska City, Nebraska?
And who sent it?
Where I am from there are a lot of unexplained things: that Paulding Light, the Mining Hall Disaster, the strange phenomenon of paradoxical undressing, crimes unsolved, disappearing girls, unresolved deaths. In a relatively remote place like my part of Michigan you learn to live with the fact that not everything is understandable. That’s part of the irreducible mystery of the state, itself obscured much of the year by weather of one sort or another.
Much is obscured by trees and snow on trees, falling to cover over our tracks as we set out for a winter ramble among the fallen trees, the rabbit tracks on snow, the marks that suggest the occasional wolf or moose had come through here just before or after us. Some of it is clouded by history or the passing of time; some is erased by willful obfuscation. The speculation we engage in to get at the roots of those stories and selves now lost to history is memory topworking.
My favorite mixtape I ever found, which I no longer own, sadly, because it was lost in a move, was a mixtape created by a guy I don’t know for a girl I don’t know. It was staged as a radio show, with commercials and bits and jingles that the guy improvised himself, using different voices, between the songs. It was an impressive gesture, clearly scripted and rehearsed, technically very sophisticated. Since I found it at the decrepit St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it must not have been sufficiently beloved by the recipient. Or possibly the recipient died. Or was killed. Or maybe it was never sent—the gesture discarded in a moment of hesitation and second-guessing, a sweet, powerful regret that most of us know all too well. Or perhaps it was well-loved at the time and was only later discarded as she forgot about the he, or didn’t care, or maybe got rid of her tape player and either committed it to digital format, or more likely didn’t, that’s the feeling I got, perhaps because the mixtape seemed a little excessive, by which I mean obsessive, which is the way that all mix tapes are if you’re serious about making them. As a social ritual it’s still a lovely but strange one, and it’s not always welcome, as you find out if you’ve made enough mixtapes, or if you’ve misread the social cues preceding the presentation of the mixtape, which you might have done because you were concentrating so hard on the mixtape you were making.
Though I use the terms mixtape and mix CD interchangeably, I probably shouldn’t, since the technologies are so different. The track-by-track skippability that the CD brought us, along with its futuristic laser shimmer and Sharpied CD title, differentiates it from the mixtape, which required much more work to produce: you had to do it manually, cuing and taping each song from the other source, being careful about song times, splicing here and there, adjusting intros and gaps, taping over things so that occasionally you got a little history of your magnetic tape poking through the hiss that signified silence.
Erasing an analog object like a mixtape is never a full erasure.
With the CD, an actual silence—a digital zero—can be achieved. We give up the two-sidedness of the mixtape; we give up the physical act of having to flip the tape and press play. We give up occasionally having to wind or rewind the tape manually when the tape gets messed up. We forget these things in our desire for the convenient format of the CD, which is, of course, on the wane now, too, in favor of the (frankly superior, let’s be honest) format of the mp3, where the music has little to any physical presence at all. It’s not a shock to see the CD discarded. I’ve thrown away so many burns I’ve made because they don’t last, either, not more than a few years, often even when they’ve not been scratched up or used accidentally as coasters. Finding someone else’s mix CD in the thrift store or on the street, or even receiving one, still gives me a thrill, but it’s not quite the same as the weird analog and homemade intimacy of the mix tape with the handwritten track list.
Thus the mixtape is a particular devotion offered not just to the recipient of the mixtape, but also to the technology itself, an offering from and to the double tape deck itself, and to posterity. I often made copies of the mixtapes I made for friends because I liked them so much. They’re abandoned now, rashly, probably, after I decided that my CDs were the future, which have now been replaced by my return to vinyl and the ethereal format of the mp3. I think of those tapes sometimes, given to the trash for future dumpster divers or anthropologists to sort through. They’ve been donated, too, to Salvation Armies, Goodwills, Alabama Thrift Stores, St. Vincent de Pauls, the White Elephant in Green Valley, AZ, Lutheran Thrift, Deseret Industries Thrift, Humane Society Thrift, 22nd Street Thrift Store, Casa de los Niños, Miracle Center Thrift, flea markets, and installed in various libraries around the country. Perhaps one ended up in the Nebraska City, Nebraska, Friends of Faith Thrift Store, on Central Avenue, just across the street from the Otoe County Courthouse, between L. Brown Cabinetry and an Allstate insurance office, where my tape might be speaking to someone else this very moment, perhaps even you, reader.
Making mix CDs then is thus a kind of long play for the future, but also a convenient fudge, a topworking of one technology on top of the techniques implied in and learned by dabbling with the other.
One of the reasons I love shopping in thrift stores is the history, the happenstance of it. Many things at thrift stores are messages placed in bottles for whomever to find, whether or not the giver or recipient know it. Maybe you can call it providence. There are plenty of ecological and economic reasons to shop secondhand also, but I’m in it for the surprise.
What do we leave the world? What marks do we leave in snow among the trees? What magnetic trace do we erase or tape over? Which tapes are spared the magnet or the scissors or the heel of the boot? What books have we written? What websites have we created? Will anyone read the crappy poems we posted on rec.arts.poetry in the early days of the Internet, or will they persist as ghosts, the not-checked-out-for-decades copies of obsolete research on metallurgy I page through in the university engineering library before they’re on their way to storage and probable discard or pulp? What music offerings have we left, hopefully, our faces lit with hope, with expectation, for potential lovers or friends, or in some cases perfect strangers? What have we grafted onto what rootstock; what have we planted for some future resident of this space to enjoy? What have we plastered up in the walls of our old houses that we remodeled? What scrawls in wet concrete sidewalks of our old neighborhood? What initials have we paired our own with, cut in hearts on bark of the biggest trees out back of the school? Does our thinking of the future imply that we believe in a future after the world has heated, combusted, blown up, forced our civilization off it? Have we left answers, or will we leave questions?
Coda: Three years later I figure out the second big question, who you are, mixtape sender, mysterious stranger, crypto–Upper Peninsulan, old friend. Chatting, our housesitter mentions that she was at a writing residency last year in Nebraska City, Nebraska. A small door opens in my brain.
I inquire. It turns out there’s an artist/writer residency there, the Kimmel Harding Residency. A residency? In Nebraska City, Nebraska, home of Arbor Day? Yes, a residency. They have a list online of their previous residents along with their dates of residency. I scan the names. It has to be someone there on a residency. That makes so much sense. You do strange things on residencies. Hide things in public spaces. Conduct interventionist art. Post random projects to friends anonymously. When you limit your inputs like you often do at a residency, you start to generate more unusual outputs. See also Oulipo. (See also the essay “Space” on my website otherelectricities.com under Vanishing Point.) You want to have a personal conversation with others who have shared the space, or who will occupy the space after you.
I know a lot of the names. I don’t know what that says about me. But one in particular catches my eye, and the dates line up, and that last big question of the mystery is solved (a few of the smaller ones continue on, like a grace note ghost). Of course my friend from Alabama, Alicia, is the culprit. Well played, Alicia.
I’m in Tucson when I figure it out at last, contemplating the sound of wind through the windmill palms that tower with the ocotillo in my front yard. It’s a lovely sound, one that you just don’t get in the north. I love the sound of wind through pines too, or the rustling of the maples, oaks, and poplar in the fall as they go brilliant and lose their leaves, suggesting the approach of winter. But the palms have a peculiar beauty. They don’t need much. You don’t want to water your palm, since the roots will rot. They’re designed to catch and hold their water in the crown of sharp leaves, where the heart of palm resides, rising with each year’s new growth. Trying to transplant a small palm from my backyard to my plant-obsessed friend Jon’s makeshift Japanese garden, we had to cut its rootball away from its wide network of roots. In this part of the Sonoran desert, plants’ roots spread wide, not deep, because of the caliche, a superhardened clay that’s everywhere a foot or two beneath the surface—so transplanting saguaro cacti, for instance, is nigh impossible.
Pulling it out we drew blood, too, since everything in the desert is sharp, thorned, serrated, spined, resistant to meddling. We left a little of our analog selves in the space left after we got it out. After a year, the palm died in his yard. We’re still not sure why. He will presumably pull it up and replace it with something native and gorgeous and complicated, since that’s his wont. The memory of those new roots, those old roots, will be gradually erased.
It’s bittersweet, I suppose, to close this open door of mystery, but more sweet than sour, as I am the agent of the solution, lucky in my stumble. The world offers so few of these rewards for our attention that we best take them when they’re offered, before they disappear back into the trash, the sidewalks filled with other rotting oranges, the thrift store, the lumber pile that might get pulped to paper in Wisconsin, on which we might write or rewrite history, the whiteness of blizzard or memory. I’m going to take the answer.
Ander Monson (otherelectricities.com) is the author of six books, three of nonfiction ("Neck Deep and Other Predicaments," "Vanishing Point," and "Letter to a Future Lover"), two poetry collections ("Vacationland" and "The Available World"), and a novel, "Other Electricities." A finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Award for "Other Electricities" and a NBCC in criticism for "Vanishing Point," he is also a recipient of a number of other prizes, including a Howard Foundation Fellowship, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction, the Great Lakes Colleges New Writers Award in Nonfiction, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM (thediagram.com), the New Michigan Press, Essay Daily (essaydaily.org), and a series of yearly literary/music tournaments. He directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona.
"The Exhibit Will Be So Marked" was originally published in The Normal School's print magazine (Vol. 5, Issue 1).
The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
You know that Nabokov traced the development of his consciousness to one of his earliest memories, the recognition that he and his parents were distinct human beings. And you know that in Speak, Memory, Nabokov often writes of memory as if the recalled events happened to someone else (“. . . I see my diminutive self . . .”) or as if they are occurring on a movie screen, viewed from his “present ridge of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time.” And though, let’s face it, you’re never going to be half the writer Nabokov was, you can appreciate this distinction between past and present, between the boy one was and the man one is.
You’re loathe to describe your own childhood in the same idyllic terms that Nabokov used to describe his—which is only fair, as he was born to an aristocratic family in the Czar’s Russia and you were born to a middle-class family in America’s Midwest the year before Nabokov himself died. Yet, like Nabokov, you do understand the way that memory has a way of turning the past—forever, tragically lost to all chronophobiacs— into something bright and hopeful, a place where optimism and faith remained unchallenged. If you try hard, you can even remember a time when the world—for you—was a simple place, where moral decisions lacked ambiguity. A world where you always knew—and strived to do— what was right and good and just, in fulfillment of a plan drafted by God and carried out by His servants on earth.
Of course, you’re glad for the intellect that allows you to recognize the complexities of the world; you wouldn’t really be a grown up if you still viewed the world as if the morality of superhero comic books or Davey and Goliath remained relevant. But you can sometimes miss the certainty that living in such a world used to provide, and you can remember it all—the confidence, the faith, the knowledge that God had a clear plan for you and for all—if you try. The past, as you well know, devours us slowly.
Here’s a recent memory, from just a couple years ago: You and your wife have been nominated to represent her church—your church now, really—at the Synod Assembly. Representatives from Lutheran churches all over the Midwest will be there, and the pastors at St. Andrew’s think that the two of you would be good ambassadors for the congregation—if you agree to join formally, which you’ve been telling your wife you’re interested in doing anyway. You were raised Catholic, but the pedophilia scandals and the new Pope’s scary, destructive conservatism have convinced you that you can no longer accept spiritual advice from the Vatican.
As happy as you are to be part of a larger spiritual community, though, you’re not sure that this Lutheran church is a perfect fit. This discomfort is only heightened when a member of the congregation—an old man who was there when they built the church in the sixties—calls one afternoon in order to “find out how you feel about the issues.” Representative to the Synod Assembly is an elected position, after all, voted on by every member of the church. They’re only sending four people, and they’ve got six people running.
“How do you feel about the gay issue?” he wants to know.
“What gay issue?” you ask, dreading the conversation that’s about to follow, wherein he will tell you that the gays are filthy and diseaseprone and target children in order to satisfy their twisted desires. And though you’re as sensitive and respectful as you can be as you disagree with him, you know that when you tell him, “Actually, we’re strongly in favor of legalizing gay marriage” that you’ve said all he needs to hear; he’s already decided that you don’t belong, that you’re not a child of his God.
Two weeks before that, you’re sitting in your doctor’s examining room, hoping to be pronounced cured. You had cancer before, when you were in college, and it’s now five years since your last relapse—assuming the tests come back clear.
When your doctor comes into the room, he’s irritatingly guarded (or, perhaps just nonchalant), keeping whatever he knows (if there’s anything to know) close to the vest. Most of you is sure that if something had shown up, he would tell you right away, but part of you fears that he’s trying to keep you calm, making small talk, waiting to deliver the horrible news. And as he palpates your neck and listens to your heart, all you can think is, “Please, God. I’ll never even look at another cigarette. Or another drink. Or a woman who’s not my wife. Just please, please, please.” And then the doctor removes the stethoscope from his ears, smiles at you, and extends his hand, congratulating you on your cancer-free status. And you think, “Oh, hell yeah. We’re getting wasted tonight.”
From five years ago, just after the incident: You’re sitting in the psychiatrist’s office. He’s talking to you about what happened, after the hospital, when you came to your senses in the field, wandering, helpless and thoughtless. The nervous breakdown that followed your appointment with the cancer specialists.
You’re wearing your black suit, red shirt with matching tie, and your glasses. You look mature, professional, completely together. And this is by design. You do not want to look like a crazy person, though your hands have been shaking all week and you’re fairly convinced that you might be losing your mind.
It started in the examining room, when the social worker assigned to your case a year before entered; you weren’t expecting to see her there, but she hadn’t wasted any time.
“We’re going to admit you tonight,” she said. “We’ll call your parents, and your sister.” You knew from all of the tests conducted in preparation for the worst-case scenario that your sister is the only member of your family who is an exact match for a bone marrow transplant.
“What?” you managed to get out. “Am I sick again?” This was supposed to be a routine follow-up appointment; you’d been in remission for nine months.
She paused for a second, then tilted her head. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
It turned out there had been a misunderstanding—while you and one of the doctors knew that this was just a check-up, the others had been led to believe that you were returning because of a suspicious spot on a CT scan (a spot which, both you and one doctor knew, was scar tissue from previous surgeries). It was all a terrible misunderstanding, you learned less than a week later.
That night, however, you started drinking at dinner—two Coronas. Then, your friend Michelle bought you several small bottles of liquor to drink in the car while she drove and tried to talk to you. You had only finished the first little bottle of Absolut—in fact, you can still remember that the song playing on her CD player was Shania Twain’s “Don’t Be Stupid.” And then, your memory stopped. Your brain shut down.
It came up again slowly, like lights after a movie. You had fallen down, and you were covered in mud—the rain had turned the field muddy.
And then—“Why am I in a field?” And then—“How did I get here?” And then—“I was in the car with Michelle.” And then—“Oh yeah, I’m dying. Shit. Shit. Shit.” And then— “But still, how did I get here?” And then—“I was drinking.” And then—“I don’t think I’m drunk, though.” And then—“Jesus Christ, how did I get here?”
You heard the sounds of highway traffic, and way off in the distance, you saw the lights of a Shell station. There was nothing else to see or hear. It took . . . who knows how long it took? Maybe hours. But you eventually walked through the convenience store’s automatic doors, heard the mechanical “ping” announcing your arrival. And the few people in the store this late at night (one of whom was a highway patrol officer) all stared at you as—wet, muddy, trailing muck in your wake—you entered the store.
What happened to you, the psychiatrist says after you finish your story, is called dissociative occurrence. It’s similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. When you were misdiagnosed and told your cancer was back and that you were probably going to die soon, your consciousness switched off. Your body remained alert and active, but your mind and memory just disappeared. You lost your identity—your entire life—and became an empty vessel controlled by primitive instincts and, perhaps, subconscious desires. You wound up getting out of the car and running away, until, finally, enough time passed and you were ready to think about what you had learned. Of course, now that you know you are not actually sick, that the doctor made a horrible, horrible mistake, it probably won’t happen again. But there are ways to guard yourself, to make sure it doesn’t.
Never drink when you’re depressed. Alcohol attacks the frontal lobe first. This is significant.
Don’t repress your feelings. Be more expressive. Quit trying to be cool all the damn time, and talk to people when you’re upset. “You are entitled to own your feelings,” the doctor tells you. Blue Cross / Blue Shield pays for these profundities.
“We also find that people who have some type of religious faith can usually find strength through that,” he adds. “You might want to reconsider your thoughts on religion.”
He shrugs. I’m not really trying to tell you what to do, the shrug seems to say. It’s just some friendly advice. You’re not crazy. You never were crazy. The Lord provides.
At the hospital, a week before the appointment with the shrink and two hours prior to receiving the news that sets off the chain reaction causing you to seek an appointment with a shrink, you watch as a nurse attaches a needle to the chest catheter of a completely hairless two-year-old girl. The only reason you know she’s a girl is because of the earrings in both of her ears. Another nurse is searching your arm for a vein that hasn’t been totally demolished by chemotherapy.
“What a good girl,” the nurse tells the toddler. “And so pretty, too.” As you watch the blood getting sucked out of her tube, you flash back to a time when you had a chest catheter. You remember the fluttering in your chest as they withdrew blood, and, more than that, you remember the strange taste that came into your mouth when they applied the solution that kept the tube unblocked and clean. What was that taste? Something medicinal, unpleasant. They don’t write about that in any of the “Cancer and You” booklets. Maybe the doctors and researchers don’t even know about it. It’s such a slight thing, after all. Who complains of a funny taste, when there are so many more dramatic things to complain about? Maybe this is a secret that only you know. You and those like you. You and the pretty girl.
It’s sad to say, but she’s not pretty. She’s bald and suffering and, quite likely, dying. This is a Bone Marrow Transplant center. This place treats advanced cancers. She would not be here if the outlook was good. She needs a miracle, but the fact that she is here seems testimony against the very idea of a loving God who might provide such a miracle. Seeing this, seeing her, convinces you more than ever that God’s just not home.
Flashing back another year, then two, it seems like you must have been praying quite a bit while you were sick. But maybe not. Is there a difference between praying and just hoping for the best? It’s not like you’re going into any churches. You don’t accept Communion. You don’t confess your sins. If you have a relationship with God, it is a casual one. Just a nod and a “Hey, how’s it going? Cure me, please.”
No. That’s not entirely accurate. There are nights when you stay awake until the early morning, praying for survival, and for the strength to handle it all. Who could forget that? True, in the daylight, being brave is easy enough. But at night, alone, in the dark? It’s like being in a coffin, isn’t it? Was there ever a lonelier feeling? If you couldn’t talk to God, you’d have to admit that you are totally by yourself. And that is unacceptable.
You weren’t one for prayers before the cancer, though. You’d totally gotten over the lapsed Catholic guilt thing. Remember December of 1997? Shortly before you had to leave school? What was the deal with those two dance students who came to the party after the evening of readings? The night where you—dressed in black, of course—read your uninspired prose, then retired to the house to drink Molson Red Jack (do they even make that anymore?) and Cuervo tequila.
Those dancer girls followed you onto the porch when you went to smoke your cigarette, just to tell you what a great writer you are. And actor, too, for that matter. They’d seen you onstage less than a month before.
“How do you do so much?” the younger girl, the freshman, wanted to know. And you answered her, quoting Elvis Costello without any real sarcasm or irony, simply confi dence: “Superbly.”
Fifteen years ago, you go to Confession for the last time. This is at the West Virginia State Catholic Youth Retreat, the weekend that you begin to decide that you do not really want to be Catholic anymore. You’d heard enough of the nasty rhetoric—abortion was murder and those killers needed to be stopped, rock music was all about worshipping the devil, homosexuals like your Uncle Mike go to hell. The feelings of love and community that permeated the church when you were younger are dissipating. You realize that, for those in charge, it is Catholics versus heathens, saved versus hell-bound, us versus them.
You choose Father Dean to hear your confession, because he is young and seems hip. You confess your usual transgression—failure to honor your parents. You even mention the occasional (ha!) impure thought. The priest prays with you, instructs you to keep in mind your parents’ wisdom and good intentions at all times, and leaves you with some parting advice:
“It’s not hard to do the right thing.”
A year before, one day of Catechism class is given over to a young nun who is visiting your parish, The Holy Rosary Catholic Church of Buckhannon, West Virginia. She has come to talk to your class about receiving Holy Orders, about the call to become a priest or a nun. She talks about how she came to know that God had a special plan for her.
And afterward, your Catechism teacher, Dr. Oriyamah, stops you on your way out and tells you that he wants you to consider seriously what the woman has said. “These other guys aren’t really into it,” he confides. “But I can tell you take this seriously. I can imagine you as a good priest someday.” This is a moment of great pride for you. Someone else has confirmed what you have always suspected: Your faith in God is strong, and it shows. You have a seriousness and a devotion that your peers do not. This is, as far as you can see, a very good thing. You are in the eighth grade.
Five years before and three time zones away from that conversation, you’re standing in the reception area at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Willows, California. You’re wearing the server’s uniform of a red cassock and white surplice. It is your first time serving as an Altar Boy.
You’re holding the large metal Crucifix that you will carry down the center aisle, in front of the priests and the other server. You will lead the way. In all of your nine years, you have never been so proud. You have the vaguest notion that you are now a part of something. Something large, mysterious, and historical. As the people come in, they smile at you, particularly the old ladies who attend every mass and realize that you are new. Their smiles tell you that you are doing a very good thing, but you already know this.
The Processional Hymn begins, and you take the first step, knowing that the others will be walking behind you. You hold the Cross high, arms in front of you. Your pace is solemn, but quick. From somewhere to the left, a flash goes off, and you know your father has just taken your picture. Eventually, this photo will appear in a family photo album. “Billy’s First Mass as an Altar Boy.” You are nervous, but you know this is a momentous day.
When you are five years old, Richard Barletta, the neighborhood bully, kicks your soccer ball out of the backyard, over the fence, into the parking lot of the church, which is located next door. Richard leaves soon after. You’re not allowed to leave the yard, so you go inside.
“Why aren’t you out playing soccer?” your dad asks.
“Richard kicked the ball over the fence,” says your brother.
Your father looks at you, angry that you didn’t tell him as soon as it happened. “Go get it.”
So you go, but the ball is gone. You look all over, but it’s nowhere to be found. Someone must have taken it.
You try the house next to the church, where Father McGoldrick lives. He tells you he hasn’t seen the ball, so you walk home. As you look at the large white church with the colorful stained glass windows, a thought enters your childish mind, and you climb the main steps. The large wooden doors are locked, so you knock. You wait. Knock again.
Defeated, you realize nobody’s home at God’s house, and you resign yourself to facing your father empty-handed.
So now you sit, mining the past and struggling to dredge up enough conflict to make yourself into an interesting narrator. You recognize the fact that, when you talk about your own experiences with religion, you sound like you are complaining. In reality, though, you realize there is very little to complain about in your life. You are a popular person. You get invited to the cool parties. You have the job of your dreams. You drive a nice car. You wear expensive clothes. Your cancer is gone. You’re in love with your wife. Aside from the occasional essay written in the second person, you no longer dissociate from yourself.
No doubt, there has been some suffering. But the truth is, you know the suffering was necessary. It has shaped who you are, caused you to redefine your locus, reprioritize your life. You realize you have an awareness of life’s frailty you did not possess before, and this awareness has motivated you to become a better person. You love your life, and you cannot imagine things differently. Taking the good with the bad, you are forced to acknowledge that everything worked out in the end. For the most part.
You come to understand that the difficulty does not come from remembering. The memories come easily enough. No, the difficulty is in the longing. Your problem is that you remember a time when you were one hundred percent certain of your convictions. You were unwavering. When you were an atheist, you felt like you understood the world and your place in it. And when you were a Catholic, everything made sense because anything could be explained as “mysterious ways” on the part of the Lord. Things seemed better, then. What you couldn’t understand could at least be accepted. But these days, you can’t be sure of anything at all.
A wistful Leonard Cohen lyric occurs to you: “I remember when I moved in you / And the Holy Dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.” And you appreciate the sentiment, because you have a similar recollection. And you too feel a similar sense of loss.
This weekend, weather permitting, you’ll be sitting on the roof of your favorite bar. Sipping a Corona draft beer you hold in one hand, your fingers will lightly trace the back of your wife’s neck while you talk to your friends about the books you’re reading and ideas you’re having, and you will know that your life is pretty damned good; you have survived something many people do not, and the life you held onto is one of many privileges. And you’re going to think something like, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” In reality, though, you will know the truth. For all of your blessings—and they are many—you realize your uncertainty clouds everything for you, and life could indeed be better, if you were only able to return to that place where you were confident and filled with a faith you could depend on.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Dislocated" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 1, Issue One
Photo on Foter.com
The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
“You may think you’ve seen it all,” these taglines essentially say, “but when you watch this movie, you will believe in the hope that this flying legend represents.”
The recent PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle showed footage of a young Christopher Reeve talking about Superman’s continued relevance, as part of the 1980 television documentary The Making of Superman: The Movie. “We all know that the Man of Steel could leap over tall buildings, but the question is, could he leap over the generation gaps since the early Jerry Siegel / Joe Schuster days? We wanted to know if the man from the innocent thirties could survive in the post-Watergate seventies.” Then, looking directly into the camera, Reeve told the viewers, “Well, thanks to all of you, he’s doing just fine.”
Superman was a massive success, despite a famously troubled production (the movie went over budget; its release had to be delayed several months, missing the fortieth anniversary of the character’s first published appearance; Marlon Brando thought his character Jor-El should appear as a green bagel). The film grossed $300 million in its initial theatrical run at a time when the average movie ticket cost under $2.50. Critical response was generally positive. “Superman is a pure delight,” Roger Ebert wrote, “a wondrous combination of all the old-fashioned things we never really get tired of: adventure and romance, heroes and villains, earthshaking special effects and wit.”
Donner’s Superman is not a perfect film. The special effects for Superman’s time travel (originally conceived for the ending of the concurrently filming Superman II) are confusing, leading some people to think that Superman was able to turn back the clock by making the earth rotate on its axis in the opposite direction (this is not the case—the rotating earth simply illustrates the fact that Superman is travelling through time). The most prominent African-American character in the film is a jive-talking pimp who compliments Superman on his “baaaaaad outFIT!” And far too much time is devoted to terribly miscalculated comical business, usually centered around the film’s primary villains. Gene Hackman’s performance as Lex Luthor is quite strong at times—he comes across as arrogant, greedy, charming, and downright psychopathic in some scenes—but any time he shares the screen with Ned Beatty’s bumbling henchman Otis, it becomes impossible to believe that these guys could successfully pull off jaywalking, let alone a scheme that involves taking control of a nuclear bomb.
For all these flaws, though, Ebert is right. This is a charming film, succeeding much more often than it fails. The romance between Superman and Lois Lane is believable and engaging. The supporting cast— particularly Hackman, Brando, Margot Kidder, Terrence Stamp, and Jackie Cooper—are all strong and play their characters straight, without camp, but also without a self-important seriousness. Most impressive is Reeve. You not only believe a man can fly when he eventually takes to the sky at the end of the film’s first act—you also believe he’d wear a bright costume, rescue kittens from trees, and talk about “Truth, Justice, and the American Way” without a hint of irony. He’s as serious in his fight against injustice as George Reeves’s Superman, but without that conservative paternalism. He seems to represent the imagined kindness and sincerity of what the nostalgic among us believe is emblematic of our country’s imagined past, but with none of the cruelty or white-male entitlement that most of us realize was part of our country’s actual past. He is, in the end, what we all might aspire to be, and he remains relevant—perhaps even more so—during our country’s dark times.
While Reeve played the character—and played him well—in three sequels, filmmakers never quite got the character right again. The films’ producers, Ilya and Alexander Salkind, fired Donner and replaced him on Superman II with Richard Lester, director of A Hard Day’s Night. Lester put even greater emphasis on comedy in the two Superman sequels he wound up directing, going as far as making Superman III a Richard Pryor vehicle and casting Robert Vaughn to play a villain who seems to be based on Ted Knight’s performance as Judge Smails in Caddyshack. And the less said about Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the better. Perhaps the most important thing to know is that it was so terrible it killed the franchise for nearly two decades, before Bryan Singer brought Superman back in his 2006 film Superman Returns, which was better than the last two Christopher Reeve films but still ultimately disappointing. Brandon Routh’s performance as the title hero lacked the warmth and charm of Reeve’s version of the character. The film’s box-office performance was okay, but nothing great—nothing like the Batman movies Christopher Nolan was directing to critical acclaim and commercial success. So, with a script by The Dark Knight’s David S. Goyer, and with creative input from Nolan, Warner Brothers began the process of re-launching the franchise.
Which brings us to Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, the most recent cinematic Superman adaptation.
I find Zack Snyder fascinating, in the sense that I have felt compelled to watch all of his movies even though I haven’t liked a single one. His remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead jettisoned all of the original’s social commentary and wit, yet had some truly intense moments and disturbing visuals. His adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 makes about as much sense with the sound turned off, but some shots are oddly beautiful. His version of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen—largely regarded as one of the greatest, most sophisticated graphic novels the mainstream comic-book industry has produced—was so insipid it’s clear that Snyder simply did not understand the source material he was trying to adapt. Yet some of the musical choices for certain scenes seem brilliant. And again, the visuals are amazing. In the end, he turned a very smart deconstruction of comic-book tropes into a stereotypical superhero slugfest, but it was a fucking beautiful stereotypical superhero slugfest.
To put it simply, every time I hear Zack Snyder has a new movie coming out, I joke to my wife, “I wonder if it’s gonna suck?” And then the trailer comes out, and I find myself saying, “Okay. Maybe this time he’s finally done it. That looks great.”
And every single time, I get mad at myself for getting my hopes up, because the movie is inevitably terrible.
So it was with Man of Steel. When it was announced that the new Superman movie would have nothing to do with anything that came before, I said, “Okay. Sounds good.” When it was announced that Snyder would be directing, I groaned. Then, when the first trailer was posted online, I watched it and thought, “Okay. Maybe . . .” To be honest, though, I made a conscious decision not to see Man of Steel in the theater once I learned how the movie ended.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with graphic violence. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is one of my favorite movies; I thought the opening twenty minutes or so of Saving Private Ryan were very powerful. I don’t get squeamish at the sight of blood. And I don’t have a problem with the fact that the villains in most superhero movies wind up dead at the end, sometimes because of a decision the hero is forced to make to survive the final battle. But I feel very strongly that Superman shouldn’t be turned into a killer, and that’s exactly what Zack Snyder and David Goyer have done in Man of Steel, depicting him ending General Zod’s destructive rampage by deliberately snapping his neck.
To be fair, it’s not like Superman has never killed before. In fact, it’s not like Superman has never killed General Zod before. When I was a kid, the Superman of the comics decided that Zod and his fellow Phantom Zone villains were too much of a threat to be left alive and actually executed them with Kryptonite. The end of Richard Lester’s version of Superman II removes the scene of police officers arresting the de-powered Zod and accomplices that Richard Donner had filmed, creating at least the possibility that Superman’s final fight with the villains resulted in their deaths. So it’s not like the idea of Superman killing is entirely unprecedented.
However, it’s important to note that the comic book execution was followed by a storyline that depicted Superman tormented by guilt and eventually in a self-imposed exile from earth for several months. Also, the execution itself is presented more as Superman’s logical solution to a potentially genocidal threat, and not as the cathartic climax of a forty-five-minute devastating urban super-battle. It’s also important to note that the comic book execution itself was fairly controversial, and was—if you ask me—a terrible idea then, too.
It isn’t just the killing itself that bothered me, though, when I finally got around to watching Man of Steel once it was available to rent. The truth is, the movie itself is not particularly good. Although there are, as you’d expect, some lovely visuals throughout the film, they’re not as incredible as some of the things Snyder has done before. Much of it looks like Terrence Malick by way of George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. But the pacing seems way off, and individual scenes don’t quite come together to tell an engaging story. Diane Lane has some nice moments as Superman’s adoptive mother, and Kevin Costner is convincing as the farmer who raises the orphaned alien boy and worries for his safety in a world that’s not ready for him (although he basically repeats the same lesson about the importance of secrecy and being cautious every time he appears on screen). Laurence Fishburne is a terrific actor, but he doesn’t have much to do in this film. Amy Adams’s Lois Lane is strong and capable, and, to their credit, Snyder and Goyer do a good job of emphasizing her strength without making her unpleasant (too often in action movies, “strong woman” seems to translate into “pushy, sarcastic bitch”), but she has absolutely no chemistry with Henry Cavill’s Superman, who is likeable enough because he saves people in danger but who never evinces the sense of humor or pleasant demeanor that has traditionally been associated with the character’s depictions in comics, television, and film. He is the alien—a little angsty as a teenager, but otherwise lacking in personality.
That is one way to depict the character, but it’s not the most interesting way. He did grow up in Kansas, after all. He’s not Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth or John Carpenter’s Starman. He ought to have a personality that is recognizably human, but he doesn’t.
Since his earliest appearances in the comics, Superman has always been about protecting people. In his first appearance in Action Comics, he saves a wrongfully convicted death-row inmate, fights a wifebeater, and exposes a corrupt elected official. In the first episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, he prevented Lex Luthor from destroying a space station. He “died” in a 1992 comic book protecting the city of Metropolis from the monstrous Doomsday’s devastation. In Superman II, he flees the city in order to take his battle with Zod and his minions to the Fortress of Solitude, where innocent people won’t be injured or killed. We don’t really see that concern for human life and property in the climactic, forty-five-minute-long battle throughout Metropolis. Instead, we see Superman and Zod throwing each other through buildings. We see skyscrapers falling and dazed employees of The Daily Planet wandering through the wreckage of a gray, dust-filled urban landscape. The devastation seems designed to evoke our contemporary concerns about terrorist attacks in America’s cities as surely as The Dark Knight was designed to explore our fears of the Patriot Act and the growing surveillance state. And that, I guess, is the main reason I disliked Man of Steel. If it was merely boring, or lacking in romance, or too focused on the alien rather than the superhero action, I could have at least enjoyed the experience of seeing a new interpretation of my favorite superhero from childhood. I liked Superman Returns well enough, and it had all of those flaws. But if the assault on Metropolis is designed to mirror our post-9/11 fears in the Global War on Terrorism or extremist ideologies, then it stands to reason that the film also posits the hero’s violent killing of the villain as the most hopeful possible outcome of the conflict we find ourselves in. The only way to neutralize the threat and feel safe again is by slaughtering the enemy bare-handed.
Well, that may be reality. It could be that I’m naïve, to wish for a better world and to still believe that maybe we can build one. There’s certainly enough terrible shit in the world— terrorist attacks, racial profiling, extraordinary rendition, student athlete rapists, school shootings—to indicate that we’re a terrible race of people and any other conclusion is pure stupidity. But if that is true, then I wholeheartedly reject the idea that this problem is a recent development. History tells us that we’ve always had crusades, inquisitions, “enlightened” revolutions, terrorism, corruption, hate crimes. And Christopher Reeve’s video ghost still exists to tell us that, not too very long ago, people thought the world was too dark for Superman’s type of hope and optimism. Richard Donner, Mario Puzo, and Christopher Reeve proved those people wrong in 1978. I wish Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Henry Cavill had been as ambitious in 2013.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Panel Discussions: Look! Up in the Sky!" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 7, Issue One