Curses by Berry Grass

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.

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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[1]  “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.

What Real Men Do by Silas Hansen

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.

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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 SchoolColorado ReviewSlateRedividerHayden's Ferry ReviewBest of the Net, and elsewhere. He is an assistant professor at Ball State University and the nonfiction editor for Waxwing.

The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, or How I Learned to Love My Paranasal Sinuses By Dinty W. Moore

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.

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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:

“Holy cow!”

• • •

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 ReaderCrazyhorse, 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.

 

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The White Death By Justin Hocking

Justin Hocking 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. 

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In the posthumous afterword to the poet Charles Olson’s book Call Me Ishmael, the writer Merton Sealts describes visiting Olson in his tiny Greenwich Village office, where Olson was holed up, surrounded by old, heavily annotated copies of Moby-Dick, while finishing his doctoral dissertation on Melville. Sealts offered him a draft of one of his own essays on Melville. Olson—a great bear of a man—sat reading it, smoking his pipe, nodding in approval.

“Well,” Olson said, “I see … that … THE WHITE DEATH … has descended … upon YOU … too.”

THE WHITE DEATH. Noun—1. Simo Hayha, a Finnish sniper in the Winter War, nicknamed “White Death” by the Soviet Army. 2. A slang term used to describe incurable diseases such as Tuberculosis or AIDS. 3. Great White Shark (vernacular) 4. An all-consuming obsession with the novel Moby-Dick and the life of Herman Melville.

I contracted my own White Death back in graduate school, when I was first assigned Moby-Dick, and had to wake up at five or six a.m. to swim its immense dark waters.

In a typically droll essay, David Sedaris details how he had to force himself to get through Moby-Dick by not taking a bath until he finished. I loved Moby-Dick from the beginning, but I can sympathize with Sedaris. Melville’s language is often brilliant, pulse quickening, Shakespearean—the deeper midnight of the insatiable maw. His intensity and worldly wisdom are apparent, but so is his insecurity about his own lack of secondary education, a fact of his upbringing that he often tries to cloak with vainglorious prose or the overuse of alliteration: mingling their mumblings with his own mastications. You sometimes feel embarrassed for him, the way you do for historical interpreters or people in costume at a Renaissance fair. Or, like many Moby-Dick readers, you simply give up on him about halfway through, exasperated by long-winded tangents about the minutiae of whaling.

Not one to easily give up, though, I made it through Moby-Dick.

It’s a book about constant movement—about the relentless pursuit of passions—all things to which I can seriously relate.

I became obsessed with a book about obsession.

Searching for critical work on Melville, a couple of grad school friends and I ventured down to the fiction and literary criticism sections in the basement of the Colorado State University library. The library was flooded during a torrential rainstorm the previous year, copies of my favorites like The Odyssey and To The Lighthouse and The Shipping News tossed around and taking on muddy water, little paper vessels foundering in a storm. Though all the drowned books had been restored via irradiation, the basement still had a faint, mineral smell of floodwater.

After browsing a few stodgy critical anthologies, I discovered a title called Melville’s Moby-Dick: An American Nekyia by a Jungian analyst named Edward F. Edinger. I’ve always been fascinated by Carl Jung’s theories—with the fact that he accepted and honored spiritual experience whereas Freud denied it. In An American Nekyia, Edinger proposes the very Jungian interpretation that all the characters in Moby- Dick comprise one unified entity, that each individual crewmember is actually a different splintered archetype within the psyche of the main character—a spiritual seeker named Ishmael.

As proof, Edinger quotes from passages like the following:

They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of contrasting things—oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp—yet all these ran into each other in one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness…

The word Nekyia derives from the title of the eleventh book of The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus descends into the underworld to commune with the dead. According to Edinger, Moby-Dick is the quintessential American Nekyia—a metaphorical “night sea journey” through despair and meaninglessness, symbolizing the dark passages that we all embark on during our development as individuals and as a society. In Jungian theory, most spiritual journeys begin with a kind of universal descent into the underworld, where we come face-to-face with our own darkness, weaknesses, and fears—our shadow. Moby-Dick can be read as Ishmael’s confrontation with his own dark side, in the form of Ahab, just as most of us wrestle daily with our own dark moods and impulses, and our country reckons with its imperialistic shadow side. The clash turns bloody and violent, and Ahab’s resentful pursuit of the white whale brings down the entire ship. Only Ishmael is reborn through the wreckage; having assimilated his own shadow after this deep psychic battle, he floats upward through a spiraling whirlpool. In Jungian terms, this circular current is a mandala, an ancient symbol of wholeness and individuation.

I liked this spin on Melville’s tale—especially because a more literal analysis of Moby-Dick tends toward the melodramatic and purely tragic. The Jungian interpretation allows for darkness and shadows and tragedy, but ultimately points toward the light.

This is where it began: my own White Death, a syndrome characterized by obsessive thoughts about Moby-Dick and Herman Melville, the collecting of old volumes of the novel and the schlepping around of one or more of these volumes at almost all times, and constant talk of Moby-Dick—its brilliance and relevance to contemporary life—to anyone who’ll listen.

These early symptoms are mild compared to what manifests as the disease progresses.

{The White Dead}

Philip Weiss, contributing writer for The New York Times and confirmed Melvillian, who, in his 1996 Times article, describes how after reading Melville’s exalted letters to Hawthorne, he found himself in a sort of Melvillian dream; who, in the same article, states I had lost my own mind to Melville.

Laurie Anderson, who claims Moby-Dick is the strangest book she ever read; who hails Melville as a master of the jump cut; who spent the 1990’s creating a two-hour performance-art opera entitled Songs and Stories from Moby Dick.

Elizabeth Schultz, who admits to being obsessed with the novel; who wrote the meticulously researched Unpainted to the Last: Moby Dick and Twentieth Century American Art, a work that documents the hundreds of American visual artists who’ve attempted to paint what Melville believed could not be painted.

Junot Diaz, who quotes liberally from Moby-Dick in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; whose own literary voice mixes an ecstatic, wild style vernacular with highbrow sensibilities that can be described as Melvillian; who, in a 2012 interview with Bill Moyers, said, I had grown up in a place called Lemon Terrace, New Jersey, where the guy down the street was Uruguayan, the woman across the street was Korean, the person around the corner was Egyptian. There were Dominicans. There were African-Americans. There were white folks. And I felt like we were growing up in a tiny little Pequod . . . and when I was reading Moby-Dick, I was like, “Man, this guy really has his finger on the pulse of the America that I came up in.

David Foster Wallace, whose father read him Moby-Dick as a bedtime story; who counted Moby-Dick as one of his favorite works; who, while struggling with his own mental illness in college, wrote three essays about The Castaway section.

Jocko Weyland, who spent years writing his memoir The Answer Is Never: A Skateboarder’s History of the World; who struggled with piecing together so many disparate personal memories, history, interviews, sketches; who was then directed to Moby-Dick, where he found the answer.

Jackson Pollock, who, according to Elizabeth Schultz, spent years in Jungian analysis, where its emphasis upon primitive archetype, myth, and symbol, prompted his interest in Moby-Dick; who executed several paintings based on the novel; who, according to Ellen Landau, may have been able to associate Ahab’s search for the great white whale with what Jung called the Nekyia, or night sea journey; who himself spoke of the American chiaroscuro which dominated Melville, Hawthorne, and Poe; who hoped to replicate this contrasting light and dark in his own work.

Sena Jeter Naslund, who grew fascinated with the book at age thirteen; who, decades later, spent more than five years researching, writing, and revising the stunning, 666 page novel Ahab’s Wife.

Damion Searls, who, after learning of Orion Press’s recent abridgement of Moby-Dick into a Compact Edition for the overly busy or impatient reader, decided to trace every item excised by Orion’s anonymous editor, down to the last semicolon, and publish this 400 page demi-book called ; or the Whale in a special edition of the Review of Contemporary Fiction; who did this to preserve and celebrate the original novel’s digression, texture, and weirdness.

Tony Kushner, who became obsessed with Moby-Dick in grad school; who claims the novel is the single most important influence on his work, including the second act of Angels in America; who is quoted in the New York Times as saying One falls in love with him, and I certainly have, completely, as most of the other Melville freaks have; who learned from Melville that it’s better to risk total catastrophe than to play it safe as an artist.

Frank Stella, who spent twelve years creating over 1,500 abstract sculptures, collages, murals, paintings, engravings, and prints, each titled after Moby-Dick chapters; who claims that this obsession nearly destroyed him; who felt abstraction was the most effective way of representing the novel, that it mirrors Melville’s drive to express the raw, ineffable powers of nature.

Salman Rushdie, who claims Melville as a literary parent in his polyglot family tree; whose novel The Enchantress of Florence features a seafaring main character and a maximalist narrative style reminiscent of Moby-Dick.

Orson Welles, who played Father Mapple in John Huston’s black-and-white film version of Moby-Dick; who wrote and directed a play called Moby-Dick Rehearsed that was performed in London in 1955; who apparently made a film version of the play that is now lost; who later made another twenty-two minute film in which he enacts scenes from the production, playing all the parts himself—Ishmael and Ahab—while footage of rippling water projects on his face and the wall behind him.

Andrew Delbanco, who wrote the definitive biography Melville: His World and Work; who claims that Moby-Dick was not a book for a particular moment. It is a book for the ages; that Melville experienced the great city as every true New Yorker has always experienced it—with a combustible combination of love and hate; that Moby-Dick is the story of a young man’s rebirth.

Gilbert Wilson, who, during the mid-20th century created over three hundred paintings and drawings related to Moby-Dick; who became obsessed with the idea that the White Whale was a potent symbol for the destructive power of the nuclear bomb; who tried and failed to stage an opera called The White Whale, which he hoped would promote world peace.

Barry Lopez, who read the book three times before college, while living in New York City; who cites Moby-Dick as one of the main inspirations in his drive to render in writing both the light and dark aspects of the natural world.

Richard Serra, who grew up near the shipyards in San Francisco’s Ocean Beach neighborhood; whose monolithic steel sculptures are influenced by the process of shipbuilding; who made a famous piece entitled Call Me Ishmael; who said Moby-Dick has become America’s central epic poem. We are all influenced by it.

Dan Beachy-Quick, who created A Whaler’s Dictionary, a collection of essays about Moby-Dick, where he writes, What follows is the result of the mad task I found within myself after more than a decade spent reading the same novel. I meant not to exhaust Moby-Dick of meaning, but to exhaust myself of the meaning I found in it.

John Updike, who was a lifelong admirer of Melville’s novels and stories; who, in a 1982 New Yorker article, explained that despite Melville’s failure as a novelist and a life filled with personal tragedy, he never quit writing, not until his death.

Hershel Parker, who apparently wakes up in the middle of the night to pour over Melville’s personal letters; who wrote the seminal two-volume work Herman Melville: A Biography, each volume weighing in at 941 pages.

Elizabeth Renker, who cried as she read from Moby-Dick at her own wedding; who loves Melville’s work but not necessarily Melville the man; who writes openly of his alleged misogyny, alcoholism, and domestic abuse of his wife.

Adrian Villar Rojas, who created a nearly life-size, impaled white whale from unfired clay at a Moby Dick–themed art show at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco.

David Dowling, who documents his participation in a twenty-four-hour marathon Moby-Dick reading in his book Chasing the White Whale; who writes, If we are up to the challenge of endurance that the novel poses, especially as it is read in the marathon format, great rewards not only of survival but also of exultation are in order.

Nathaniel Philbrick, who in his book Why Read Moby-Dick? states that This redemptive mixture of skepticism and hope, this general stoicism in the face of such a short, ridiculous and irrational life, is why I read Moby-Dick; that it’s the one book that deserves to be called our American Bible.

David Shields, who in Reality Hunger writes The Novel is dead. Long live the anti-novel, built from scraps; who prizes Moby-Dick as a prototypical anti-novel; who, in How Literature Saved My Life, lists Moby-Dick as one of fifty works he swears by.

Matt Kish, who, on August 5, 2009, began making one drawing a day, every day, for all 552 pages of his version of Moby-Dick; whose work was later published in a book entitled Moby-Dick in Pictures.

Margaret Guroff, who created a copiously annotated, online version called Power Moby-Dick.

Nick Flynn, who loosely based the structure of his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City on Moby-Dick; who writes in the final chapter, We know [Ahab] lost his leg, and that that loss became a story, and the story became the obsession that in the end defined, and ended his life. We have to be careful of the stories we tell about ourselves.

Hart Crane, who wrote the poem “At Melville’s Tomb;” who ended his poem with the line The Fabulous shadow only the sea keeps; who later drowned himself in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

This is an excerpt from his memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld.


Justin Hocking’s memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, was published by Graywolf Press in early 2014 and was a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Hocking is a recipient of the Willamette Writers' 2014 Humanitarian Award for his work in publishing, writing, and teaching. His nonfiction and fiction have appeared in The Rumpus, Orion Magazine, Portland Review, The Portland Noir Anthology, Poets and Writers Magazine, Swap/Concessions, Rattapallax, and elsewhere.

"The White Death" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 7, Issue One

 

Photo on Foter.com

 

 

Communication Breakdowns By Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello 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 she will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available. 

Elena Passarello.jpg

By Elena Passarello

Well, what I'm not is a rock star and uh, you know, some people think I am. —Howard Dean

In order to energize the town hall meetings, rallies, and fundraisers that stretch a contemporary presidential bid to well over a year in length, American politicians have become increasingly reliant on the campaign rock ditty. Nearly all recent races for Chief Executive have employed rousing soundtracks with lots of power chords and blunt drumming, all used to motivate their voter bases in a fist-pumping, BIC-in-the-air sort of way. John Kerry chose Van Halen's “Right Now.” Al Gore opted for Bachman Turner Overdrive. George W. Bush played a Tom Petty song for a bit of his reelection campaign and Michelle Bachman used Petty's “American Girl” for a few months, but both quit their songs after Petty threatened litigation. And poor John McCain was first discouraged from using an ABBA song, and then outright denied the right to tunes by John Mellencamp, Boston, Van Halen, Jackson Browne, and Heart before commissioning a Top 40 country star to write the totally awesome “Raisin' McCain.”

To me, classic rock choices say that, along with the increased volume of appearances in a contemporary political bid, there must also be an uptick in aural volume—a post-baby boom expectation of our candidates to take their shtick up to eleven. We expect sonic vigor from someone who promises change. We expect Reveille and bombast. We expect jock jams.

And, judging from the vocals in many of these songs, we may also expect a fair amount of yelling. Mellencamp, Sammy Hagar, and Bruce Springsteen (the Boss's songs have been used in the past six elections) are all examples of the vocal style that permeated post-Woodstock rock in the 1970's and 80's—an odd mix of acrobatic crooning and the harsher yells of old blues. Even PBS can explain how such loud and dangerous singing juices us, and how it has done so in bulk for a half-century. We thrill to Springsteen and his laryngeal brethren because their performances wrestle down a product of the body meant to remain unbridled: the uncontrollable scream.

Screamed rock melodies work the outskirts of the voice, bringing an outré sound to an artful place. In classic rock, the ability to hold tight to a beastly scream—to best it despite our biology— is to have unwarranted control over the tones we traditionally reserve for involuntary rage or horrible behavior. This is what made screams the voice of swampy double entendre, of Stagger Lee, of bong hits, of “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” So it is somewhat surprising that we've also allowed rock screams into the dictatorial hype-church surrounding Your Next President.

Let us not forget, too, that the most celebrated rock screams came from bodies that belong to the same subgeneration as our recent front-runners (and their most moneyed supporters). Sammy Hagar was born the same year as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Rick Perry is seven months older than Tom Petty. Had he attended Cleveland's St. John Cantius High, Bon Scott would have marched with a class of '64 that included Dennis Kucinich. As young men and women, these musicians and politicians must have, in some way, shared a distant context of noisy vocal expression, whether or not they ever scored tickets to a Captain Beefheart show. Whether they like it or not, these men and women are all members of a sort of Screaming Baby Boom.

Plus, in a world of flag pins and $100-a-plate dinners, a hot, ham-fisted rock scream provides a service. The screams of Springsteen, Daltrey, and Scott are aural palate cleansers—blunt sorbets to cut through a two-hour bout of heavy rhetoric. This is because no candidate's words can rile a Carbondale gym like the canned scream of a rock god, especially if the candidate of the hour lacks verbal dynamism (paging Gore, Kerry, Huntsman). Though humans are significantly less-attuned to sound than other animals are, we still experience multipronged arousal in the presence of loud noises, especially the noises of our own species. I'm talking about that shot of norepinephrine that drips all over the cerebral cortex, heightening the senses in the presence of a human scream. Elsewhere in the body, it sends a jolt of adrenaline to quicken the heart and tense major muscles, prepping them for a sprint across the veld away from danger. This hardwiring is what allows dank rock vocalise to connect political agendas with heightened sensory experiences, with socks in the trousers, and, of course, with cool.

What's more, a rock scream that once topped the charts is familiar to us. It might even come off as weirdly trustable to a broad chunk of the voting public. A killer scream from a 70's rock god could sound like a venerable statesman's endorsement of a new and unproven candidate. And in this way, these rock screams serve as a badass Cyrano: by-proxy pleas from the stuffed shirt who skipped Altamont to attend the Alameda County Policeman's Ball. Crank The Stooges in a Muskegon rally, and Iggy himself will tell the crowd that this candidate, along with wanting to exact campaign finance reform, also wants to be our dog.

All these associations, however, must work the crowd subliminally or at least at an absolutely crucial remove. No matter how much Hendrix you add to your Town Hall playlist, a candidate and his or her handlers cannot allow a scream to come from the Town Hall stage. Mike Huckabee can play Skynyrd on bass and Bill Clinton can wow Arsenio with his “Heartbreak Hotel” sax skills, but neither man should ever consider opening his mouth to offer a take on the perfect scream in “Won't Get Fooled Again.” Those candidates who dare to take their voices into rock-marked territory face a gauntlet of scrutiny. The most memorable example of this is, of course, Howard Dean.

Aside from the scores of classic rock standards piped into its debates and rallies, 2004 was a fairly low-decibel race. Many noted Kerry's Como-like delivery and droning parallel structures, and Edwards's entire shtick was essentially his honey twang, which he kept at a grinning, almost breathy distance from the listener. Al Sharpton was the only true vocalist of the stable of Dems, though his oratory skills snagged fewer and fewer sound bites as his campaign waned. Only two loud moments made big headlines: Democratic Senator Zell Miller's rabid invective at the Republican National Convention and Howard Dean's rant to a thousand of his own “Deaniac” volunteers on the evening of January 19.

Howard Brush Dean III was born in 1948, the exact same year as Vincent Damon Furnier (who would become Alice Cooper), Stephen Victor Tallarico (soon to be Steven Tyler), John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne, and the greatest of all rock screamers, Robert Anthony Plant. Dean's own multiplatinum recording came in the fifty-sixth year of these five men, long after Plant had defected to bluegrass, Cooper had opened a sports bar, and Osbourne was a reality TV dad. By 2004, only Tyler still screamed in public, with the help of several corrective surgeries and a nearly operatic level of vocal instruction.

Maybe a Dean scream would have been celebrated had he made it as a younger man, in the style of the rest of the 1948 quintet. Maybe he should have done it shirtless and hopped-up on 'ludes in a Capitol recording studio. Perhaps listeners might have embraced his scream in the Iowa Veterans Memorial Stadium after he bit the head off a bat, like Ozzy did in 1982. In fact, Dean's scream did ring just five miles from Iowa Veterans Memorial, but it came two decades later than Ozzy, in a universe with its own specific sonic laws: the laws of caucus night, the laws of a third-place finish behind Kerry and Edwards, and the laws of netting just eighteen percent of the party vote.

We've all seen the Dean clip, shot from the vantage of the news cameras behind the crowd of West Des Moines's Val Air Ballroom. Shortly after “Baba O'Riley” (in which Roger Daltrey screams, “THEY'RE ALL WASTED!”) rattles the PA, Dean takes the stage. He crosses past a line of key Iowa campaigners who stand shoulder-to-shoulder: a makeshift backdrop of awkward white people. He shakes hands and hugs a few members of the backdrop, offers one dude a very enthusiastic, very high five. He hands his jacket to Iowa senator Tom Harkin and speedily cuffs his shirtsleeves, and then he takes a deceptively measured breath.

“Wow,” he croaks, gently waving his open palm over the audience like a pontiff. “I was about to say, I'm sure there's some disappointed people here, but you know something? You know something? If you woulda told us a year ago that we were gonna come in third in Iowa, we woulda given anything for that.”

Dean's larynx, like most modern candidates', was surely unaccustomed to the poisons of nonstop campaigning: contaminated motorcades, overheated Sheratons, bitter Iowa air, and exponentially more hours spent speaking than sleeping. Thus, his tones are noticeably belabored in these first sentences. But just as he seems uninterested in admitting his unexpected caucus defeat, he also refuses to accommodate his wounded cords with lowered intensity. There's a new push in his voice when he continues: “And you know something? You know something?” A crescendo of yells comes from the crowd.

Here he begins an oft-repeated list of states in the union with upcoming primaries, rising a bit in pitch and fervor with each one: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico!”

Hundreds of supporters in front of and behind him are yelling his name, perhaps even screaming a bit. Some people interviewed after the fact remember yelling “More!” but those prompts are not audible in the clip. We do hear the stomping of the carpet and a dozen random cheers. We see various hands, some of them applauding, some holding glass bottles like torches.

Dean's hands count down the states, first on his right thumb, then on the whole hand, then with his arms swinging in rhythm with the names of the final three: “And we're going to California and Texas and New York . . . and we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan!”

He playfully tosses the microphone back and forth from each hand. It's a unidirectional mic, meaning its reservoir is designed to trap his voice and not much else for the clearest possible broadcast. That mic ignores the crowd and shoots Dean's roll of state names straight to the cameras in the back. By now, Dean's voice is hard and low and wet in his throat, a loud growl matched by pointed brows, bared teeth, and a squint. His use of the simple future tense, combined with this grimace and rasp, makes Dean seem like a pro wrestler clad in Brooks Brothers, talking ringside smack. What's more, though the distance from which the clip was filmed makes it difficult to confirm, his diaphragm appears to contract with sharp, forceful breaths after naming each of the last three states. This extra air allows even more juice for his Hulk Hogan tones.

He gulps air once more before the “and” of his final phrase: “and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!” Here is a rise into a question-mark pitch for the last word, then a fist lifted just behind his head. He holds a pose here, like a Maneki Neko Luck Cat, or a slot machine before a pull. Then Dean pauses. He doesn't inhale. He might even begin an exhale on that pause, stopping the more righteous circle of breath and limiting his respiratory power, which could explain why the final sound of his monologue gets away from him. From there, with his lungs, lips, and larynx in their most politically incorrect positions, Dean makes the sound we care most about, the hostile mutation of a “Yeah!” cheer that many blame for the death of his election hopes.

It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. Or, rather, it is all three sounds at different milliseconds, smooshed. It meets his unbuttoned collar and the sloshing bottles and the fibers in that long mic cord and the tone of the Val Air HVAC to make a unique recorded moment—an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.

Two-and-a-half years after caucus night, the scream still a rogue part of our various lexica, Comedian Dave Chappelle christened it the delicious and onomatopoetic “BYAH!” in a comedy skit. This name has welded itself to the clip and, in some respects, to the man, ever since.

Though the website was created sixteen months after Dean withdrew, YouTube is now hundreds of “BYAH!” strong, and these hundreds of videos have collectively accumulated millions of hits and hundreds of thousands of comments. There, nearly a decade after Dean's loud night in West Des Moines, we can access the “BYAH!” both as the mic recorded it and from the more forgiving perspective of an amateur cameraman in the center of the crowd. At that sonic spot, Dean's scream is barely audible among the thousand screaming voices.

A little YouTube window-shopping reveals that we can hear a quarter-speed “BYAH!” forward and backward on a ten-minute loop. We can watch stills of howling moose, fighting zebras, dramatic prairie dogs, and Edvard Munch's screamer with multiple “BYAH!” as their underscores. We can see a bald infant mime a spot-on “BYAH!” We can learn a club dance to Soulja Boy's “Superman” that mixes Chappelle's 2006 “BYAH!” and Dean's 2004 arm gestures. We can pit the '04 “Dean Scream” against the '08 “Hillary Cackle.” We hook in “Apache” or the bass line in “Boogie Oogie Oogie” —is ripe for sampling.

The bandy of Dean's scream are a flat F in the high register—the same lofty pitch Robert Plant finds at minute 2:09 and 2:11 of “Communication Breakdown.” This song, one of Zeppelin's dozen laments to coy mistresses and the blue balls they elicit, features Plant's F during the wordless outro; it is the “WHOA” in his “uh-WHOA-oh!” This is the highest and loudest pitch of the song, and it rises above his established falsetto, above the thrumming rhythm section, above the guitar and the teasing call of the background voices, to ride like a war whoop straight out of the track. Plant's F, as pitch-perfect as any rock scream needs to be, finishes with a drop down to a solid high D, then defiantly repeats—a double backflip of sex and longing that nails its ten-point landing, twice.

In the context of the song, it proves one of two things: either that Plant's character leaves “Communication Breakdown” even more determined to get into the pants of his woman, or that he has actually been driven “insane” by this broken-down communication and now is running away, screaming, to go jump off a levee or something. There is a contradiction between Plant's lament—that he can't communicate with the woman he wants—and the two-by-four of bedroom logic bursting from that F-note. That contradiction between the lyric and the sound his body makes is one of the sexiest parts of the song.

Dean's F is wobbly and much less sustained than any of Plant's recorded high notes, and it sounds as if it tickles his false vocal cords, which would make it a more legitimate scream than a part of any sung melody could be. But the “BYAH!” and “Communication Breakdown” Fs are still somehow sonic kin, for a few weird reasons. Both carry a compelling tension within them: these are not the glittery, sky-written Fs of a lyric soprano. The strained energy of these Fs excites and annoys the ear, like a child's spastic Christmas morning cries buzzing the calmer adults around the tree.

What's more, these are not the unplanned yells of men unexpectedly pinned by tractors, or chased by cheetahs, or watching the Hindenburg explode. We know Dean and Plant have worked themselves into their particular frenzies, and that both “uh-WHOA-oh!” and “BYAH!” are conscious decisions to dig deep, to go big, and to make highly emotional sounds for a rapt group.

Finally, both bright sounds push away any surrounding noises, assuring that no other tones can blend into them, and this makes the screams stick out in our consciousness. Obviously, microphones emphasize this, but even when mashed up into the alternate Internet landscapes mentioned before, the pitch and timbre of Dean's “BYAH!” stand alone, like a sharp lead vocal in a thrash metal mix. Like so many of Plant's noises, Dean's Val Air F is a lone-wolf note that both pops and begs for travel.

These are the elements that made Dick Bennett of the American Research Group note, in the days that followed the “BYAH!” that “that thing has legs.” We can't experience culture- jammed oddities—be they euphonious, silly, or both—just once. We find ourselves reaching out to see if the rest of the world also finds them odd. As with a two-headed calf or third nipple, there is a kind of glee in collecting a leggy note and then revisiting it. That second listen somehow grants us ownership, license to open the curio cabinet again and again, just to see if the pull of the sound is still there—and if it is still just as weird. We laugh selfishly to find out that it remains in our power. Each reappropriated Dean clip we visit pushes his voice further into our imaginations, light years away from that ballroom, which was the only space in which the “BYAH” ever had a chance of making sense.

But here is where Dean and Plant differ: one man's sound was added to an arsenal of awesome rock alarums, while the other man's scream became a dangerous metonym for his entire voice, then body, then self. Those 600- plus replays didn't just kill the 2004 Dean campaign; for a little while they erased Dean the man. Though his approval rating was already slipping over the course of caucus week, by the time he left Iowa to head for New Hampshire, it had dropped over twenty percent, which many blame on the “BYAH!”

In the week between the scream and the New Hampshire primary, voices from both sides of the aisle marked the sound as a death knell. According to Pat Buchanan, “Dean's Iowa defeat was a real setback to him, but his postgame commentary was a disaster. That tape will be on every national talk show, and I don't think it's survivable.” After a tour of several New Hampshire campaign events, Democratic strategist James Carville concurred that “it hurt him,” and Leon Panetta explained, “When the country sees that kind of reaction, it makes them nervous because they're looking at a potential president of the United States.” TIME called the “bizarre performance” a chance to hear “the sound of a candidate imploding,” while Dick Meyer said that, to many, it unveiled the true voice of Dean as “a hothead, a bully, a chesty, argumentative, inflated, pushy guy you wouldn't want in your poker game.” This, says David Bauder of the Associated Press, “turned the former Democratic presidential front-runner into a punch line and arguably hastened his campaign's free fall.”

This is not to say that the “BYAH” only spoke to us as a wild meme. Many think that it led listeners to a practical judgment: something about Dean did not compute. Right before the New Hampshire primary, Byron York of the National Review said Dean's “redfaced, shouting, teeth-baring, air-punching demeanor” indicated some serious character flaws. A New Hampshire pollster-blogger agreed, noting that the scream “kind of crystallize[d] people's fears about Dean—the electability and temperament issues.” And after Dean garnered only a quarter of the New Hampshire turnout, David Letterman quipped that voters, in a bit of Sarah Palin reverse-prophecy, “didn't want a president with the personality of a hockey dad.”

Both CNN and CBS released statements admitting to overplaying the “BYAH!” and even those that did not formally apologize confessed to amping the hype. Their excuse was that the scream was newsworthy; it exposed a hotheaded emotional center that Dean had spent months trying to mask. That exposure multiplied because, to quote an ABC News Senior Vice President, “the amount of attention it was receiving necessitated more attention.” They then cited Dean's earlier trail gaffes and smatterings of colorful language as just cause. We were informed that all of America was—all of us were—nervous. We sensed what a few writers called Dean's hidden “mad How” disease, his secret short fuse. The TV buzz told us that the yell contradicted what a candidate's persona should be and insisted that we were shocked to see such a display of unbridled anger.

But perhaps we should give our ears more credit than they did.

For starters, voters don't necessarily consider fired-up noises to be non-presidential. A 2007 CBS News poll found that 57 percent of Americans would elect a president with a reputed temper. Political journalist John Dickerson notes that Nixon's, Johnson's, and Kennedy's White House tapes are all full of ranting and profanities, which historians treasure in hindsight, even though few invectives were ever uttered in earshot of the nation. What's more, in 2010, reporters and commentators balked at Obama's even-toned response to the BP oil spill, saying the president wasn't acting angry enough to satisfy the American people. So, apparently, the commanders of our armed forces are all but expected to have a war cry within them. Maybe not a fifth-octave F war cry, but some loud, angry noise.

Dickerson adds that presidents are especially allowed to erupt in public before they take office, especially at the beginning of primary season. This was the case with Reagan's 1980 outburst in New Hampshire (“I AM PAYING FOR THIS MICROPHONE, MISTER GREEN!”) and Clinton's heated 1992 speech in a New York supper club (“I have treated you and all of the other people who have interrupted my rallies with a hell of a lot more respect than you have treated me, and it's time you started thinking about THAT!”). Both these yells garnered applause from their audiences and spurred only minor backlashes.

Further, though we never got the chance to see him hide his rage in office, John McCain ran two entire campaigns on a loud and angry line. The 2000 and 2008 McCains were slow-burn brutes whose frustration with Washington's bullshit were jackhammered into his furrowed brow. McCain went on Saturday Night Live and parodied his trademark anger in skits about Barbra Streisand and Tim Russert, to the delight of the late-night audience. So if the “BYAH!” told us Dean was angry about his surprise loss in Iowa, or that his fight back to first place would be fueled by rage, there is precedent that this should not bother us. History suggests Dean wouldn't be completely counted out just for sounding fierce.

But let us not forget that Dean took that stage in West Des Moines to give a small concession. He was up there to admit that, yes, a week before, he was slated for an easy caucus win, and yes, for over six months he had been the front runner for the Democratic party, but now he was in third place. Yes, the day before he made a few stops in Iowa to venues in which the campaign staff outnumbered the constituents. And sure, twenty-four hours before the Val Air Ballroom, writer Walter Shapiro had already compared him to “an aging rock star reduced to reprising his greatest hits in smaller and smaller clubs.” And he had to admit that he'd spent at least $45 million dollars, nearly half of which came from tiny online pledges, to get to these Iowa clubs. And yes, a half million people had rallied behind this man with no national political experience, 3,500 of them quitting their jobs or leaving school to knock on doors in key caucus cities. And he had to own up to the fact that his gaffes, paired with his antiwar, repeal-the-taxcuts stances, trumped all that human sweat. Collectively, they made him appear so easy to defeat that the National Review put his face on their cover with the headline “Please Nominate This Man.”

He was too vulnerable, and as he rolled up his sleeves and hugged Tom Harkin, maybe that fact was finally heavy in his gut, lungs, and throat. Maybe that scream was part of the acknowledgment that even Dean had seen the buttons— “dated Dean, married Kerry” —in Des Moines, Mason City, Ottumwa, and Cedar Falls. Dean himself told Diane Sawyer, “I say things that I probably ought not to say, but I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there, leading with my heart.” Maybe this little piece of his heart jumped into his lungs, past the trachea, and out the bared slot of his mouth, only to contradict the rally cry he'd spoken immediately before it. This, I think, is what we heard.

This is not to say that we heard the contradiction between his triumphant monologue and the conciliatory “BYAH!” and then voted him out for being dishonest. America understands that a president can't always tell the whole truth, and studies show that, as long as they aren't lying about voluptuous interns or campaign spies, we're cool with it. According to a 2010 CNN poll, seventy-four percent of Americans think George Washington probably lied to his constituency, and over two thirds of the country think even Lincoln lied (albeit for the good of his country's citizens). Besides, what good coach wouldn't be forgiven for an exaggerated speech, maybe even a little “Eye of the Tiger,” after losing the first game of a big season?

Maybe what we heard in the sound is that it was over, that Dean's body had admitted defeat before his brain did. The “BYAH!” let us know that that was it, and we should now just go home and get on our computers or something. Dean's will or reason could fight it, but the parts of him that made the “BYAH!” are louder than will or reason—and older than microphones, or Hardball, or oxford shirts, or health care, or even Tom Harkin. They are older than speech. They are at least as old as the practice of yelling to a drum beat.

On January 19, we heard Dean's body tell us that we were not going to go to California or Connecticut or Georgia or Maryland or Massachusetts or Ohio or Rhode Island or Minnesota or to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Instead, we heard that we were going to board a plane to Portsmouth and land in a frozen hangar filled with 500 Yankee Deaniacs who were just like us. Someone was going to find the perfect jock jam for that New Hampshire predawn—it ended up being Tom Petty's “Won't Back Down”—but the 56-year-old body that took the stage, grooving a little to Tom Petty's measured, middle-aged baritone, was not going to scream out of the track like a rock star.

We could hear that, in four weeks—before Super Tuesday, even—we would see him stop moving. And that two months from then, he would endorse John Kerry, then campaign to chair the Democratic National Committee. And that in seven years, he would still be on our televisions, but we would only be able to see his head and shoulders, his wild arms and body cut out of the frame like Elvis's were on Sullivan. His tie would be knotted, and he would glare at us head on, surrounded by tweets and text boxes and stock tickers. He would join the machine that shamed him, now talking politics and YouTube clips on a cable news show. And that the show would be called Squawk Box.


Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat. Her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, BETTER, and Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Slate, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, as well as the music writing anthology Pop When the World Falls Apart. She is an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa, an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University, and the first female winner of the Stella! Shout Out screaming contest in New Orleans.