Tiny droplets of water scatter across the window, accelerating with the car. They race together, then swirl in the bottom corner under the fog of my breath. Curls of hot air spread and shrink. I draw a smiley face. Then I wipe it off the window, drawing my hand back, wet and cold.

My Dad asks if I’m warm enough. I nod and turn my gaze back outside. Pastures slowly morph into city lights, still hazy in the early hour. The car’s twists and turns harmonize with the music he’s playing, so that we stop at the last light as the final song begins. The light turns green as the brass accompaniment belts its first notes. I drum my fingers on my knee; my dad turns the volume up. 

Paul Simon’s voice floods the car, and I soak it in, energy building in my veins. We reach school just before the final chorus begins. A kiss goodbye and the door opens with melodious whistles and trumpets announcing a new day, my every day.


I never asked why he played the same playlist every morning. I didn’t ask my Dad much of anything. I didn’t see him often beyond that 20-minute car ride together every morning, since I would be asleep before he returned home late. I knew his peculiar routines but couldn’t tell you much about his life before I was born. He arranged his books alphabetically, owned over 30 ties, and often only ate an apple before dinner. I knew from a young age that he liked his martinis dirty and that he believed civilization had been in decline since Rome fell. There was no animosity between us, no dislike—just indifference and a bit of fear. We were intimate strangers.

On Sundays, classical melodies would echo through our home, signifying a meditative silence until we left for evening mass, where I would sit with my head under a lace veil, alone in the glossy pew. Only men could participate in the Catholic service, and my Mom wasn’t welcome—she’s Protestant. During that time, I witnessed my Dad’s relationship with God as proof of his capacity for love. It just never seemed to be directed at me. 

I tried to fill these gaps in understanding by making occasional visits to the house where my Dad grew up, and where his parents still lived, in southern Kentucky. Soft pink lace and embroidered angels dominated the decor and a massive harp filled the small living room. My Nanna was a renowned harpist, although I never heard her play. My Papaw was a carpenter and mechanic; he made me a jewelry box when I was nine and lined it with red felt. 

To this day, I have never met two more pious and gentle people than my Dad’s parents. Yet Dad rarely came on these visits, and when he did, there was always a palpable awkwardness. He was the puzzle piece with the stiff corner that didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Once when Dad was at dinner, I saw Papaw fumble through the blessing, his big reflective eyes filling with tears, anxious for our salvation. Perhaps he was concerned because my Dad’s presence reminded him that they were Baptist and we were Catholic—but I never had the opportunity, nor desire, to ask. My pride kept me silent. His inability to understand kept him distant. 


When I was in eighth grade, Mom told me she had filed for a divorce as she backed out of the driveway one morning after Dad had already moved out. This was no surprise to me; if anything, I was glad they had given up on delaying the inevitable. 

I said okay and sat wondering if I should say something else. It seemed unnatural for me to try to comfort someone who had so often comforted me. Then a loud pop filled the space for me. “Fuck,” my Mom said, with a quiet bitterness. She jammed the car into park, wrenched open the door, and jumped out.

She had run over a basketball that we had discarded after a recent game. Once the lifeless leather was thrown into the yard, she got back into the car. She mumbled an apology and we sat there for a minute, her ragged breath going in and out. Hands gripping the steering wheel, squeezing the cream-colored leather. I concentrated on the grimy rubber mat under my feet, staring at the dirt and crusted grass wedged in the cracks. Anywhere but at her. 


I only saw Dad occasionally after that. There was his house, first on Sycamore, then on Della, and finally on Lime. He never bought enough furniture—I think because he knew he wouldn’t need it. What little common ground we had was being pulled out from under us, and neither of us did anything to cushion the fall. He had an obnoxious girlfriend whose name sounded German but wasn’t. I made no attempt to be welcoming. I wasn’t unwelcoming, necessarily. And he and I never fought. But maybe that’s just because we deal with emotions the same way—by letting them boil under the surface, too scared and too stubborn to push them through the cracks. 

He didn’t invite anyone to mass on Sundays because he no longer went. I wasn’t around to witness this sudden rejection of his lifelong faith, I only knew that he now rolled his eyes at churchgoers and didn’t care whether I said my prayers before bed. He changed more than just his address in those few years, but I was too concerned with my turbulent adolescence to give it much thought. 



The day before I left for boarding school, Dad gave me a CD. Shiny, silver, and unmarked. It seemed like a lazy, noncommittal form of communication that I didn’t want to accept. I considered not listening to it at all. 

But a few days later, my defiance gave way to curiosity. I dropped onto my bed and slipped the disc in. It was only one song. I listened to the unfamiliar lyrics:

As long as one and one is two

Ooh ooh

There could never be a father

Love his daughter more than I love you

My cheeks were damp before the final chorus ended. This was the Paul Simon I had known from our daily morning car rides, yet in a new vulnerable light. It was an obvious declaration of love, of promise. Yet it felt intangible—a virtual affection. Even now, hearing that song evokes a residual sadness. It’s an emblem of my Dad’s love and of his inability to say it.


My boarding school in Virginia had a long driveway that ended at a building held up by looming, white pillars. I had to get permission slips to leave the campus and complete a mandatory Shakespeare exam to graduate. Confederate flag-embroidered belts on salmon-colored pants were not uncommon, and to rebel against the pretension, my friends and I would skip chapel and eat extra desserts in the music rooms. (What a rush.) I listened to a lot of The National and was agnostic about everything.  

Dad visited a lot. He loved the old library, the sense of tradition, the fact that I rowed crew. He constantly told me how proud he was of me, which I took to mean that he loved saying he was visiting his daughter outside D.C. this weekend, who was in boarding school and doing great. He never saw my friends or what I painted; his pride was selective. We discussed my grades, and I began to grow resentful. I resented that he felt at home in a place he couldn’t see I hated. I resented how changed I felt and how unnoticed it went. In those years, my disappointment thumped beneath the floorboards, its consistency almost comforting. 


Mom and I drove back with all my things from Virginia to Kentucky in a straight stretch. I lounged with my feet squished against the windshield, the heat from my skin leaving little toe prints on the glass. We were heading towards the end of West Virginia, twisting through the evergreens and dusty mud cliffs, and she was ranting—at first about Dad’s lack of communication and then about his “overall flawed character.” I was used to this and gave an occasional, discreet sound to indicate my indifferent affirmation. I tried not to engage in this kind of behavior; to still be upset seemed childish to me. A waste of energy. Perhaps this reveals my naiveté—I had yet to love another, to understand how the wound of that betrayal lingers. 

There was no immediate change in perspective—it had snuck up gradually. It might have started when, upon starting college that fall, I decided to go by “Tucker” instead of my given name, “Ann Tucker.” I was choosing who I wanted to become. I did not want to depend on anyone else for change. 

“I’ve forgiven him,” I said to Mom.

 “Okay. Why?” she responded.

 “I’m tired of it,” I said honestly, but unsure exactly what I was being honest about. I think I was tired of waiting for him to change and being let down when it didn’t happen. It seemed like the time to try to be different.  


During my sophomore year of college, my Dad and I sat before a stage, watching people mill about. They wandered through a maze of green plastic chairs, spilling beer and searching for friends. The sky was violet, and the audience buzzed with anticipatory energy. But the minutes were turning slowly before the music began, and I was impatient. To fill the silence, I turned to Dad and asked what he did right after he graduated from college. 

He told me that he had spent a year back in his hometown, working at the steel mill and finishing his thesis paper that he had yet to turn in. For someone who I had known to be a rigid professional, this aimlessness came as a pleasant surprise. He didn’t expand, but what he said was enough. “This has been a good break for us,” he told me the next day. It was relieving: he finally seemed to be recognizing what was lacking between us. 

I don’t know if we’ll ever understand each other. We are bent on our respective paths with divergences that outnumber the intersections. My dad is now an atheist, owns 40 ties, bakes the best bread pudding and doesn’t eat any of it. He remains a collection of pieces, but ones I no longer force to fit a mold of what I want to see. 

We are both in constant states of redefinition where we may be learning to understand ourselves better, but not necessarily the other. Sometimes the space between us seems like a chasm with no visible bridges; other times, it feels as if it’s drawing to a close. We may never settle that distance, but we recognize it’s there. 

"In this day and age, we’re losing millions of Jews to assimilation. We have to save the Jews!” So declared Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education and minister of diaspora affairs, in a speech livestreamed from Jerusalem last November. “A hundred years from now we will be asked: ‘You knew what was happening with the Jews in America, in Eastern Europe, in South America. What did you do?’” He continued, “I am effectively the minister of the Jews. I am your minister. Shalom.”

Full of pride and urgency, the self-declared minister of the Jews went on (and on) about assimilation, the new disaster the Jewish people are facing. Following Bennett, other members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, have expressed deep concern about the high percentages of Jews who marry non- Jews and shift away from Jewish traditions, which apparently include blind support of the Israeli state. Yisrael Eichler, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism alliance, has gone so far as to call assimilation in the United States “the destruction of Judaism” and “the silent Holocaust.”

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has waged a defiant war against this purported “silent Holocaust,” and is determined to protect the Jews from “God-forbidden” potential non-Jewish partners and anti-Zionist propaganda (read: critiques of the Israeli occupation of Palestine). Naturally, all means of protection are kosher.

Although Bennett’s declaration certainly has political motives, equating assimilation to a new Holocaust is more than a strategy to mobilize voters. Israelis and Americans have been combating assimilation for decades. Back in 1999, the Birthright Israel project was founded by billionaires Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt in an attempt to, in the words of Birthright’s website, “strengthen Jewish identity, build a lasting bond with the land and people of Israel, and reinforce the solidarity of Jewish people worldwide.” Since its foundation, Birthright has offered young, mostly American Jews a fully funded 10-day trip to Israel. Eighteen years later, Steinhardt sees Birthright as a vital defense against assimilation, telling The Times of Israel, “There’s 60 to 70 percent intermarriage rates [among young non-Orthodox American Jews], and a falloff in synagogue attendance. There’s all sorts of things like that. There are no easy answers, but the best answer to date is Birthright. I’m tempted to say it has saved a generation.”

The objectives of Birthright are stated clearly on its website: “Birthright Israel seeks to ensure the future of the Jewish people by strengthening Jewish identity, Jewish communities and connection with Israel.” This statement alone reflects a century-long history of conflating Zionism and Judaism: for Birthright, Jewish identity cannot be separated from the Israeli national identity. Established in Europe in the late 1800s, Zionism arose in response to other nationalist movements. As Italians identified with Italy and Germans with Germany, many Jews felt the need for a state of their own, especially in response to the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. Once Zionism had become the nationalist movement of the Jewish people (specifically European Ashkenazi Jews), Zionists had to find a territory to which they could attach a national identity. After attempts to find this land in Uganda and Argentina failed, the Zionist movement settled on Palestine.

In order to fit the modern European framework of national identity, certain aspects of Judaism were played down—for example, the diaspora—while others were amplified. (The Jewish diaspora refers to the historical dispersion of Jews and their settlement in other parts of the globe.) The traditional longing for the biblical land of Zion was reinterpreted as a core pillar of Jewish identity and became a modernized mission of colonization and settlement.

Jewish heritage is no longer associated with places around the diaspora—like Casablanca, Baghdad, Madrid, Warsaw, and Budapest, places where Jewish communities and traditions have prospered for thousands of years. Instead, Zionism constructed “Jewish heritage” in a land which today is marked more by the colonial violence done by those who claim it their own than by rich, peaceful traditions of the kind that used to exist all around the diaspora.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, and along comes Birthright, hoping to “motivate young people to continue to explore their Jewish identity [and] support for Israel.” Jake Battock, a Colorado College student who participated in Birthright last winter, told me that he had decided to go because he had grown distant from Judaism in high school and college. Birthright for Jake was “a way to reconnect” to his Judaism.

Jake talked a lot about the time the group spent in Jerusalem: “We went to the military cemetery [Mount Herzl], and there was an American soldier who was buried there … He went on Birthright, and he volunteered in the Israeli military and died in one of the conflicts with Gaza. There were a bunch of American flags by his grave and it was kind of weird to see … They weren’t pushing that, but the connection between Israel and America was always present.”

Another formative experience for Jake was visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. “The Holocaust museum was its own kind of separate experience,” he said. “Really beautiful … That was a really emotional experience for me. I learned a lot.” Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem are two formative locations for “Birthrighters.” In his book “Tours That Bind,” sociologist Shaul Kelner writes that the rigor of Birthright trips leads participants to experience an overwhelming emotional intensity that deflects their attention from the ideological incentives or critical thinking of the trip. Other participants I talked to also spoke of the intensity that Kelner describes.

Indeed, the trip promises that the young diasporic Jews will not miss anything that is not “worth missing” in the Holy Land, be it riding camels in the Negev desert, floating in the Dead Sea, clubbing in Tel Aviv, or walking through the pastoral minefields of the Golan Heights. The border walls, security checkpoints, and segregated roads are all, apparently, worth missing.

Another attraction is the company: Israeli soldiers from top-tier units of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are selected to join the trip for five of the 10 days. According to the Birthright website, the objective of the mifgash (the union of the soldiers and foreigners) is “to foster participants’ understanding and identification with Israel … and strengthen the solidarity of Israeli young adults with their Jewish peers abroad and develop the Jewish identity of individuals in both groups.” The American participants and soldiers who participated in Birthright clearly felt solidarity with each other. Meshi Djerassi, an Israeli ex-soldier who participated in Birthright last year towards the end of her two-year service, said, “We were participants in the trip…we prepared a short activity about the IDF, we let them wear uniforms, but otherwise we were participants in the trip just like them. We hiked with them, ate with them, slept with them. The official role was to show them Israel through our eyes, soldiers of the same age as them.”



The soldiers’ unofficial role was to make connections with the participants as they all fought assimilation together. When I asked Jake about his relationship with the soldiers on his trip, he told me that he had befriended one Israeli soldier in particular. “It was interesting hearing about her life in Israel,” he said. “Like the social norms are kind of different for her, and what her upbringing was like … I had a really good relationship with that one soldier.” As Jake put it, “I walked away feeling a lot of pride in Israel just because, seeing what the soldiers were going through, there’s a human face to what is painted as a villain by most of the world.”

Israeli soldiers are, of course, human beings with aspirations, opinions of their own, and different ideologies and approaches to life. As an Israeli, most of my friends have served or are still serving in the IDF. Most of my family members have served in the IDF. Obviously, they are not villains. They are, however, tools in a system of military occupation, whether they are in support of it or not. Birthright does expose participants to the “human face” of soldiers—as if they were ever lacking one—but at the same time Birthright and its patrons use those faces as human shields to legitimize the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Yes, Israeli soldiers are human, but the military system in which they serve is far from humane. Birthright, with its objectives to make connections, makes all the wrong connections in the service of state violence.

When I talked to soldiers and participants, it seemed like all of them were aware of the propaganda like feel that Birthright has. Djerassi, the soldier I spoke to, told me, “Israel is presented in the trip in a single-sided way, but I think that it’s legitimate because the people who fund Birthright wouldn’t want to take them … to Palestinian refugee camps, or Arab and Bedouin villages. They have an agenda and specific purpose, and that’s their way of pursuing it. It’s their money and they can do whatever they want with it.” She continued, “The goal of Birthright is to encourage Zionism, to promote Jewish immigration to Israel, or at least political and financial support.” Clearly, to participants and observers alike, it’s no secret that Birthright is politically motivated.

A closer look into the organization’s funding reveals that Birthright is more than simply tourism and propaganda. Naturally, a 10-day trip full of fun attractions Indeed, the trip promises that the young diasporic Jews will not miss anything that is not “worth missing” in the Holy Land, be it camel riding in the Negev desert, floating in the Dead Sea, clubbing in Tel Aviv, or walking through the pastoral minefields of the Golan Heights. The border walls, security checkpoints, and segregated roads are all, apparently, worth missing. and good company, free of charge, sounds awesome. But Birthright’s biggest donor is Sheldon Adelson, the American billionaire who gave over $100 million to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. Adelson happens to be close friends with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Adelson also owns the daily newspaper Israel Today. This paper is handed out in train stations, malls, universities, and street corners in Israel for free. Just as most people seem to know that Birthright has propagandistic elements, it is widely known that Israel Today is filled with pro-Netanyahu propaganda. And just as Birthright, despite its propaganda, is popular because it’s free, Israelis read Israel Today because it’s free.

Adelson has funded a number of Israeli projects in the West Bank, among them residential settlements, Ariel University, and a military base. In the opening ceremony for the Dr. Miriam and Sheldon Adelson School of Medicine in Ariel, Netanyahu praised Adelson as a “great patriot of the Jewish nation.” The money behind Birthright is not simply coming from pro-Israel sources— it’s coming from someone who is actively supporting the occupation of Palestine. In fact, the same guy who funds trips that paint a reality of Israel where the occupation of Palestine does not exist is the guy who makes sure the occupation remains an unyielding reality that will continue to exist for years to come.

Who else funds Birthright? Aside from Adelson, Israeli taxpayers have contributed a third of the Birthright budget over the past 10 years. Somehow bringing Jewish Americans on a fun 10-day trip to Israel has become the responsibility of every Israeli. But Israel is not a country that can afford such luxuries. With a failed education system, high poverty rates, numerous corruption investigations (many of which involve Netanyahu), and draconian military spending, the Israeli annual budget clearly needs restructuring. But, under the Netanyahu-Adelson leadership, it has been more important to make sure that young American Jews get an opportunity to visit Yad Vashem, cry, connect to their heritage, and tell their parents how great Israel is. Ideally, they’ll also tell everyone that Israel protects the Jews of the world from another Holocaust.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. For Adelson and Netanyahu, Birthright is a kind of investment. Adelson (and Israeli citizens) pay an upfront cost to get young Americans to fall in love with Israel, so that 20 years later, Israel might gain some powerful and wealthy supporters. But consider that out of the 200,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, 50,000 live under the poverty line. Maybe the Israeli government should focus on aiding elderly Holocaust survivors instead of paying for Birthrighters to study them in a museum. But whatever, the (American) youth is the future anyways.

With what rights should a citizen be born? The right to healthcare, we’d like to say, the right to an education and an equal chance at being employed. The right to vote and have a passport, to move freely and be equal under the law. The right to die of old age.

These rights often become codified in a nation-state. When a right becomes a law, it’s considered legitimate, more legitimate than those rights that are not laws.

The “Law of Return” was passed by the Israeli government in 1950. Jews had been pushing for a legal right to return, and the government promptly made that right a law. So, two years after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War (also known as the Nakba) and the establishment of Israel, the state asserted that Jews deserve to be able to return to the state of Israel and gain Israeli citizenship.

But Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war also claim a right of return, contesting the notion that Jews are the only ones who deserve the ability to return “home.” Palestinians want to return to their property (or their ancestors’ property) in what is today Israel and West Bank territories. Both of these principles—the Law of Return and the right of return— are rooted in the concept of a birthright. The former is a legal right, while the latter remains a mere idea, one which the Israeli government has continuously delegitimized.

So, what would make one inherently more deserving of that right?

When it comes to the rights of Palestinians living in the occupied territories and the Gaza Strip, the rights they should have are far from those they do have. The result of the military occupation is that public schooling, healthcare, and welfare are dependent upon the goodwill of philanthropists and NGOs. And when you are under military occupation, you can’t vote for the government that controls you. You have to stand in checkpoints for hours every day just to get to work. You don’t have a passport, and you can’t travel. Your chances of receiving proper medical care are close to zero. Your chances of dying of old age are minimal.

As an Israeli citizen, I was given all the rights that those who were born at the same time as me, 20 or 30 minutes away from my birth place, were not given at birth. I didn’t earn those rights. I was just a baby lucky enough to be born on the “right” side of the border. Why is this so? Because an integral part of the Zionist construction of Jewish identity is the active exclusion of anyone not Jewish from the “national territory.”

Just as European nationalist movements defined themselves by removing those who did not fit into their national identities (for example, Jews), Zionism defined Jewish national identity specifically in contrast to the Palestinian identity. The Zionist community, in fact, cannot exist without the exclusion of Palestinians. This exclusion is necessary to draw the community’s boundaries. The granting of rights to Israeli citizens depends on depriving Palestinians of those very same rights. In this way, Zionism is intertwined with the Israeli occupation of Palestine economically, politically, and ideologically.

In 2017, at a gala for Birthright participants, Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to a crowd of thousands: “As you go back home, tell your family, your friends, your classmates, your colleagues about Israel, tell them to come see it for themselves, and then come back soon to visit, to study, to live. We’ll be waiting for you, because this is your birthright.”

To those of you who think it is your birthright: it is not. The Zionist claim to the land of Israel is a colonialist claim that renders the lives of Palestinians inferior and disposable. Birthright is not about Jewish heritage, Jewish identity, or a transnational Jewish community. It is about ideological profit.

Many participants go into Birthright with a full critical awareness of the politics behind it. But it is difficult to be critical of a community while you’re in the midst of it. Collective identification is alluring; the comfort of being part of a group teaches us to turn a blind eye to the violent and exclusionary rules of the group.

So potential participants critical of the occupation should consider that Birthright is funded by the same people who are funding the occupation. And if you already know what’s wrong with it, you should spend your time resisting the people and politics behind Birthright, not partaking in it. 

You can tell her you don’t give a shit,” Jake Lauer interjects. I’d just asked David Becker if his relationship with music has changed since it went from a hobby to a career. He was sifting through his thoughts when Lauer interrupted him. Becker is the bass player and Lauer the drummer for Mad Wallace, a rock band formed at Colorado College. I’m interviewing them in their house in Denver. The comment is funny only because Becker does, in fact, give a shit. Actually, he and the whole band give many shits, seeing as they’ve dedicated themselves to their band with the hope that they can eventually support themselves on their music alone.

The other two members of the band, guitarists Jake Sabetta and Jamie Rushford, chuckle and nod their heads. Becker fires back, “That’s why I play the bass. I don’t have to give a shit.” Almost every question I ask is followed by a punchy joke among the band members, before they settle into their more serious thoughts and opinions.

I remember seeing Mad Wallace at Colorado College’s Battle of the Bands last year. I went mostly to catch a glimpse of the infectious grin that can be seen on Sabetta’s face during a particularly satisfying guitar solo, but I stayed for the electrifying energy that the whole band created. Although Mad Wallace traces their humble beginnings to CC house parties, they are more than your run-of- the-mill basement band. Granted, they did record their entire EP in their basement, and they do practice there, but my sources have informed me that they do, in fact, leave sometimes. Mad Wallace is expanding beyond the confines of their carpeted underground lair—they’ve begun playing at major venues in Denver, and they’ve found that the world above the basement is brimming with musical possibility.

It’s apparent throughout our conversation that Mad Wallace is more than just four guys who play music together. They form a comic chorus: sharp and witty, they’re constantly interjecting and adding to each other’s thoughts, interacting with refreshing ease. I’m struck most of all by their unwavering humility. When I ask what they look for in a listener, Sabetta is hesitant to answer, assuring me that Mad Wallace is “by no means reinventing the wheel.” When he notices my extensive notes he says, “Our music isn’t deserving of that!” But that’s the funny thing: their music does deserve attention.

In this age of computers, home recording studios, and YouTube tutorials, Mad Wallace stands out for their captivating live performances. Although they have released recordings on SoundCloud, they thrive in a live setting. So much of what they do is tied to their distinctive live sound, which does not always come naturally to musicians. Mad Wallace stresses the importance of being open to experimenting and moving away from what’s comfortable and practiced. In live performance, no song is ever played the same way twice. But while most bands slip into the comfort of playing the same song in the same way, Mad Wallace is willing to experiment.

In the spirit of improvisation and creativity, many of Mad Wallace’s live performances feature a jam— an improvised section with no set time frame. The jam creates an interactive space in which the instruments can have a conversation: one musician may ease into a motif or chord progression that he repeats until the other band members pick it up, and they build it together from there. Sabetta describes it as a “continuation of the songwriting process in real time.” It’s a dynamic call and response that only works if the musicians listen closely to each other. It’s very difficult to recreate that kind of energy and sound in the studio.

So let’s say that you just went to see Mad Wallace live. You’re standing there with your jaw dangling near the ground, head still bobbing to the beat that resonates in your ears long after the band has left the stage. You know there’s something different about the music you just heard, but you can’t quite put your finger on it until the obvious answer smacks you across the face: they are just really fucking good. Sabetta explains that they want their live sound to be “something that keeps your musical intellect interested, but also makes you want to stomp your feet and jump up and down and just get weird and lose yourself. It can be primal sometimes, or it can be really peaceful sometimes.” When the band plays live, they take the audience on a journey, and each note adds a subtle twist and turn. Mad Wallace songs will often reach a destination—a moment when different motifs rise together and cohere—only to let the destination open up into a new pattern. And the song rolls on.


These open-ended destinations are what Lauer calls “arrivals.” He says, “Our music is about arriving places. When I’m playing a song, whether it’s a jam or a written part, I get the most enjoyment when we all arrive somewhere together. Whether it’s something dark, or something happy and light, or something angsty, when we hit arrivals in our music, whether it’s choreographed or not, I just smile a whole bunch. You’ll see that when I’m playing live. You know when I’m smiling, that means we’ve done something right.”

Lauer pauses as his bandmates chuckle. (Sabetta later confesses that Lauer really doesn’t smile that often when they perform.) Lauer continues, “When I think about the background driving forces of our music, and what I want people to experience, it’s the feeling of a journey and an arrival. That doesn’t have to be the same feeling, but I want it to be an arrival to a certain feeling, and I think that changes with each song.”

From firsthand experience with Mad Wallace, I’d say the band is, more than anything else, like a big peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For our purposes, let’s say the music is the peanut butter and their relationships with each other are the jelly. In the metaphorical sandwich that is Mad Wallace, said peanut butter and jelly combine. Although they are two individual elements of the sandwich, once you’ve smeared the peanut butter and jelly together, it’s almost impossible to completely separate them. As Lauer puts it, “It’s really hard to separate music from our relationships. When practice ends, it’s hard to turn off the music and turn off the connections that we’ve just built. So however practice goes is kind of how our relationships go.”

It may not be ideal to tie personal and professional lives so intricately together, but Sabetta compares being in a band to “being in a family.” He says, “Everyone’s got to pull their weight, you can’t be an asshole, you’ve got to control your emotions, even when you’re pissed or when you’re really sad. You’ve got to bring your best. That’s the toughest, when you’re grieving over something, or life’s got you down, and you have to bring your A game, you can’t be a Debbie Downer. You have to bring some positive energy, or else practice is just shit.”

These guys know each other inside and out. According to the members of Mad Wallace, this can be good. But it can also be detrimental to their relationships and music. Or, as Sabetta put it so eloquently, “dishtrimental,” as in when someone leaves their dirty dishes in the sink and the rest of the band members chuck crusty dishes at the guilty party during practice. Throwing dishes might seem messy and counterproductive, but the band’s somewhat aggressive conflict resolution is actually an art of its own. Becker says, “The house isn’t built with the thickest walls, and Jake [Sabetta] practices singing all the time, so it’s just like being a stay-athome dad.” Lauer adds, “It’s like the roommate that sings in the shower, except the shower is two hours long.” (And the bathroom is the whole house.)


In the midst of all the mom jokes and playful jabs, there is an undercurrent of seriousness, especially in the way that Mad Wallace talks about their music. During these moments, they muse with all the thoughtfulness of careful critics. One particularly insightful comment comes from Sabetta: “Choosing to pursue music is our best option to make some sort of impact. I think all of us think about that, either subconsciously or not … People come up to us after the show and say ‘Man, this week was so shitty, I was thinking about transferring from CC, or just dropping out completely, but your music refueled me and gave me hope for the future.’ If you can have an impact like that on one person every time you play, or just at all, then you’re doing something good. And I think that’s our hope—that we can make enough money to get by playing music, but do also something good and have a platform to spread the joy that we get from our music to other people.”

All four members mention that playing music professionally has been a dream since they started. Now that they’re pursuing the dream, they say it feels surreal. On the ground, however, it involves grunt work— they no longer have the luxury of playing at college parties where people can come for free and casually enjoy the music. Now they have to schedule venues, record demos, and convince people to pay money to see them. Being a professional band is not just about the music, it also involves marketing themselves. Considering the extreme humility and self-deprecating humor that cropped up during our interview, I’m not shocked when Sabetta makes a comment about how the band is pretty bad at self-promotion, hoping that “the music will promote itself.”

So, I am now going to try my hand at this so-called promotion (because obviously, so far I’ve been a completely impartial observer). Mad Wallace is remarkably talented. Just talking with them for an hour left me impressed and feeling lucky that these four musicians are generous enough to share their art with the rest of us. I would be glad to pay to see Mad Wallace live. Hell, I even want to start my own rock band. But the thrill of the music is better left to Mad Wallace themselves. I’ll let them tell you about it, in their classic witty way:

Sabetta: “When you play live and you have that connection with the audience, you all feel like you’re there together, it’s a high unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced, drugs, sex, whatever, and nothing satisfies it until the next show. It keeps you wanting to keep going, to do more of it.”
Lauer: “Post-show letdown is such a real thing. There are times when we played a great show, and the second it’s over, it’s just like, ‘Well, fuck, I’m depressed now.’”
Sabetta: “Yeah, let’s go see what heroin’s like.”
Lauer: “It makes sense, you know.” Sabetta: “I can see why so many musicians do…”
Rushford: “This is over…”
Becker: “You should stop there.”
Sabetta: “Make music! Make music, don’t do drugs, kids.” 
MadWallace-00537_David Lauer.jpg

It was a raucous Saturday at Rastall dining hall, during my first-ever brunch, when I picked up a trifold pamphlet from the table and read aloud, “At least 20 percent of ingredients are sourced from small farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and food crafters within 150 miles.” My heart skipped a beat. Rastall seemed like a food geek’s dream—Bon Appétit, Colorado College’s food service provider, claimed to support fair trade, cook seasonally, and source humanely. A chalkboard outside listed all the local farms that (I presumed) provided the produce that lined the counters. I turned to look at a poster on the wall, an image of a cheesemonger with his arms full of the artisanal products he had obviously so lovingly crafted just steps from our campus.

But I had been naive to believe that this marketing indicated a true moral commitment and that this corporation could uphold ethical values without pressure from consumers. To be clear, I still hold the same values that I did when I arrived at CC: that food should be sourced sustainably, ethically, and locally. But the illusion that Bon Appétit upheld those values evaporated when I was invited to tour the Rastall kitchen with Randy Kruse, general manager of Bon Appétit at CC.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim light of the storage room, I blinked, wondering why the crates of local produce I had imagined failed to materialize. In their stead, I saw boxes labeled “Del Monte” and “Kraft,” companies that outsource their labor to developing countries, mow down protected wetlands, and spray their crops with toxic chemical pesticides—companies that privilege profit over people. 

I asked Kruse about the boxes, and he explained that Bon Appétit aimed to purchase 20 percent of their food locally. But it’s really more like 12 percent on average, he said, particularly in the winter when there’s not much fresh food available from farms in Colorado Springs. I was disappointed, but slightly mollified. It was just the climate here, after all. What could Bon Appétit hope to do about that?

In order to figure that out, I joined Real Food Challenge (RFC), a national organization that has pushed campus dining services all over the country to source more of their food “locally, ecologically, fairly, and humanely”—criteria that collectively make up what RFC calls “real food.” By giving us access to Bon Appétit’s invoices, this would at least let us determine how many of CC’s claims about its food purchasing were true. 

That meant a lot of paperwork. I roped the rest of the student-led CC Food Coalition into spending almost a year sifting through eight weeks of Bon Appétit’s invoices, writing down every item that had been purchased and whether or not it qualified as “real food.” Meanwhile, we spoke with local farmers and ranchers about their experiences with Bon Appétit. We learned that while many had once considered Bon Appétit their biggest contract, their sales to the company had dropped to almost zero. Cattle rancher Mike Callicrate was livid to learn that Rastall still advertised its beef as “Callicrate Beef.” Since 2015, he’s lost over 90 percent of the sales he had been making to Bon Appétit, around the same time his company made a large investment in Peak to Plains Food Distributing. This was established, according to Callicrate, “to improve the region’s ability to deliver what Bon Appétit said they wanted: high quality, local food.” 

 Additionally, a member of Arkansas Valley Organic Growers, a coalition of farms south of Colorado Springs, told us that Bon Appétit used to be one of their biggest customers, but over the last couple of years, Bon Appétit’s purchasing has dropped off. The supply is there, but Bon Appétit is not buying. Clearly, Bon Appétit’s drop in local purchasing is not attributable to the short Colorado growing season. 

This anecdotal evidence was reinforced by the findings of the RFC study: only seven percent of the food that Bon Appétit provided was ecological, two percent was fair trade, one percent was humane, and only six percent was local—down from 12 percent local food three years ago. The total of “Real Food B,” defined as food that met one of the above criterion, came to 10 percent, while “Real Food A,” food that met at least two criteria, totaled only two percent.

We later learned that our auditing process was going to conveniently coincide with Bon Appétit’s contract expiration and the ensuing renegotiation in the spring of 2018. The results of the RFC study convinced us that Bon Appétit could do better, and the contract renegotiation was a chance to make that happen. We wanted Bon Appétit to live up to its commitment to sourcing locally, humanely, ecologically, and fairly. We also wanted to make changes to a meal plan that was far too expensive. 


Many colleges, of course, have much worse dining services than those at CC. So it may come off as entitlement to rage against a system that allows you to swipe a magical card, enter a cafeteria full of hot gourmet food and out-of-season fruits, and eat literally as much as you can put into your body. Never before has such a level of convenient eating been not only possible, but also normal. But this new normal, while certainly luxurious, conceals a world of inequity—a world that hurts both food growers and students themselves.

The CC Admissions Office touts the quality and sustainability of Bon Appétit’s service in its pamphlets, and boasts about it on tours. It’s fair to brag about the food’s appeal; no one wants to eat soggy tater tots for four years, as college students did a few decades back. 

The increase in the caliber of food is part of a broader trend in the economics of higher education, in which colleges are providing more (and more expensive) resources in order to stay competitive. In “The Dismal Science,” published in Cipher in September 2016, Nathan Davis ‘18 reported that $1.05 million of Colorado College’s 2016-2017 budget increase went to raising what the school termed “quality.” It’s hard to put your finger on exactly what CC means by “quality,” but it appears to mean anything that would make an 18-year-old pick CC over schools like Oberlin, Vassar, Pomona, or Smith. It is thanks to “quality” that CC students can share the luxurious experience of waiting in line for fresh-rolled, real-crab sushi, or of entering a brand-new $24 million library where a fully functional one stood only two years prior, or of skiing down a campus hill on snow trucked in from faraway mountains. 

Sometimes what the school calls “quality” truly improves students’ lives—like the six free sessions at the Counseling Center, which fulfill a real need for affordable access to mental health resources. But there is a difference between “educating the whole person” (the long-held aim of a liberal arts education) and luxury in excess. “Quality” has increasingly come to signify the comfort and safety of a gated-community-meets-summer-camp. It is not, for the most part, what students need to study, succeed, and live—40 years ago, soggy tater tots were the norm. But in an extremely competitive higher education market, ramping up superfluous school amenities is apparently the only way that middle-of-the-pack liberal arts colleges can successfully stand out.

So the college’s food service has become a tool that adds apparent value to the student experience at CC. It makes CC competitive with similar institutions that have expensive and undeniably delicious food, and it works—countless prospective students have ambled around Rastall, making their decision to attend CC in part because of what they eat for lunch. But what they don’t see—at least at first—is that this “quality” comes at a price. Aside from the monetary cost, we’re sacrificing food sovereignty and food security.

“Food sovereignty” is a term coined by Via Campesina, a grassroots organization that advocates for farmworkers’ rights. Food sovereignty is the notion that farmers and buyers, rather than corporations, should control the mechanisms of food distribution. Because food sovereignty is hardly ever implemented in the global food system, lobbying power goes to big corporations that are rarely good stewards of land and community. Centralization may drive food prices down, but the cost is absorbed in externalities like unemployment in rural communities, suicide rates among farmers that are twice as high as those of veterans, excessive greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion, migrant farmworker enslavement, and chemical pesticides that cause birth defects, cancer, and neurological disorders. What we do not pay at the counter (or the dining hall) somebody else pays in poor health, sublegal wages, unemployment, and the disastrous effects of climate change. 

A vision of food sovereignty therefore includes the right to healthy, ecologically produced, pesticide-free food that also accords with the eater’s cultural identity. Although almost no one has access to this kind of food on a regular basis because of the near-ubiquity of industrialized food production, the global corporate food system systematically deprives some individuals of this access to food. According to the anti-hunger organization Feeding America, one in eight Americans are food insecure, meaning they are often forced to choose between spending their money on food or spending it on other necessities, like utilities, medical care, housing, and education. Those who experience food insecurity are thus constrained to purchase food that supports exploitative corporations and does not uphold food sovereignty, in a vicious cycle that maintains the status quo of the global food system.

“Food equity” combines these two issues of food sovereignty and food security into the demand that all people have equitable access to healthy, sustainable food. Food equity is not achieved when food access means nothing but access to cheap, highly processed items produced by unethical and unsustainable practices. Food equity is only achieved when both growers and eaters are treated with respect and dignity.

This is why convenient access to luxury food items and lukewarm commitment to ethical standards are not enough to achieve food equity on campus. If a vision of food sovereignty includes placing economic power into the hands of local food producers and farmworkers, CC and Bon Appétit have failed. Bon Appétit’s contract stipulates that 20 percent of all food be purchased locally; the website claims (based on a previous RFC audit) that 12 percent of food is currently purchased locally. But, according to the new RFC audit, only six percent of its food was purchased locally during the 2016-2017 academic year.

These figures don’t seem to matter when you’re putting “fresh” pineapple (available at Rastall breakfast every morning) into your mouth. But that pineapple on the brunch bar in January likely came refrigerated across the Pacific from Hawaii or the Philippines. Dole Food Company is the largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world. We can’t say for sure whether or not Bon Appétit sources from Dole, but this company is a telling example of the practices of many multinational food corporations, and its poor human rights track record illustrates that college students eating pineapple in Colorado are, in some way, implicated in global food insecurity. The International Labor Rights Forum reported in 2009 that Dole has a history of paying poverty-level wages to its workers across East Asia and South and Central America, union-busting (including bankrolling the alleged murder of 1,000 Colombian organizers), and exposing its workers to hazardous chemicals. Dole frequently uses DBCP, a carcinogenic pesticide, which can cause birth defects when inhaled by farmworkers or running into the groundwater of local ecosystems and the drinking water of residents. In 2012, Dole was sued for purchasing 290 million pounds of bananas from an environmentally destructive supplier in Guatemala—a supplier Dole knew had poisoned water sources with pesticides and destroyed wetlands after damming a local river. 

All this is not to say you should feel guilty for enjoying pineapple at Rastall. The fact is, it’s incredibly difficult to source pineapple ethically. But it is possible to source other produce ethically—we’d just have to part with tropical fruit. Even in winter, when the hundreds of farms along Colorado’s Front Range and Eastern Plains end their growing season, there are farms within U.S. borders to the south and west of us that grow produce all winter long—farms that have been certified organic and fair trade. 

Of course, Dole will continue its exploitation whether Bon Appétit buys its pineapple or not—Dole is only a small part of a problem of intractable scale. Most corporations are complicit in this kind of exploitation, because their behavior is determined by a profit-based bottom line more than any other factor. 

But Bon Appétit purports to be a different kind of company. And to be fair, it is different. It is the gold standard in the college food service industry. According to its website, it was the first large food service company to commit to a transition to local sourcing, and it was the first to start buying Seafood Watch-certified sustainable seafood, humanely-raised ground beef, and cage-free eggs. Bon Appétit has also partnered with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmers’ union in Florida. But its self-reported resume is longer than its list of genuine achievements. The story Bon Appétit tells is incomplete, and its purchasing practices—even if and when Bon Appétit follows its own standards—do not go far enough to ensure equity for the people who grow our food. At the end of the day, it is a corporation, accountable to Compass, its parent company, the biggest multinational food service provider in whole world. The ethics of food sourcing will always come second to financial gain for corporations that need to maximize profit, and it should come as no surprise that Bon Appétit is no exception. 


It might seem fair to argue that even if CC is supporting exploitative food policies, at least all CC students have enough food to eat, and so the question of food security on campus is largely irrelevant. But this is not true. Although it is hard to know exactly how many students experience food insecurity at CC without CC-specific data, there are indicators that many students likely do.

Colorado College’s meal plan is extraordinarily expensive. At a cost of $2,418 per semester on Meal Plan C, the minimum required for all students living in dorms or small houses, food costs for students amount to $151 per week. The USDA’s recommended spending for a “thrifty” 22-year-old male is $43.40 per week. So Meal Plan C is more than three times the baseline price of groceries in the U.S., and it only buys students two meals a day.

Financial aid appears to cover the burdensome cost of the meal plan. But even though CC claims to meet 100 percent of financial need, almost all aid awards include loans. In fact, 31 percent of CC’s student body in 2016-2017 was taking out federal student loans, at a maximum of $27,000 for a four-year plan. These loans are often applied to the student’s living expenses, meaning that students are borrowing money in order to pay for the school’s meal plan—money they might not otherwise need to borrow if they were allowed to spend less than $2,418 per semester on food.

And it’s not easy to opt out for reasons of financial insecurity. With the exception of the Synergy House, all campus housing requires students to be on some form of the meal plan. And all CC students must live on campus for their first three years at the college, with few exceptions. Meal plan exemptions are currently granted to students by Bon Appétit’s managers, and require proof of medical or religious dietary restrictions that cannot be accommodated realistically by the food service. Financial considerations are not made, nor are considerations for cultural, ideological, or mental health reasons. It’s no wonder that Bon Appétit makes exemptions so difficult to access, because of course Bon Appétit wants to boost its profit by keeping as many students on the meal plan as possible.

Students on financial aid are mostly likely to be food insecure. A 2016 report by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness surveyed students at 26 four-year institutions to determine the prevalence of both occasional experiences of food insecurity (defined as “lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food”) and “very low” food security that qualifies these students as “hungry.” Forty-eight percent of respondents had experienced some level of food insecurity within the past 30 days, while 22 percent of students experienced very low food insecurity. The percentages are higher for first-generation students, students on financial aid and African-American students. Most surprisingly, having a meal plan requirement does not abate food insecurity. In the same sample of 26 institutions, 43 percent of meal plan enrollees experienced food insecurity within the last 30 days. 

This statistic, though not specific to CC, can best be understood when you consider that Meal Plan C only covers two Rastall meals a day. Finding the money for a third meal requires dipping into discretionary funding, which can be hard or impossible for students and families with little to spare. The stress of finding funds for a third meal can also contribute to unhealthy binge-eating at Rastall as students try to get their money’s worth and fill up for the day. Furthermore, the closest supermarket is Safeway, at 1.6 miles away, putting our campus squarely in the middle of a food desert (as defined by the USDA), and making access difficult for students without cars. So while the meal plan—as it exists—is not sufficient to eradicate food insecurity, simply eliminating the meal plan would leave financially insecure students without food access.


Though it’s hard to say exactly why meal plan prices are so high, we know that the prices are not the result of increased commitment to local or sustainable foods. The school’s meal plan was actually cheaper back in 2013, when Bon Appétit was purchasing twice the quantity of local food as it does now. Some claim that the higher cost of food stems from Bon Appétit’s commitment to paying a living wage to its employees. But it’s been 10 years since it signed on to that commitment to raise wages, and prices have been going up continually since then. So although we don’t know what exactly caused the increase in price, we do know that it’s not because Bon Appétit is purchasing more local food. In general, the excessive cost of the meal plan appears to be coming from somewhere else.

Instead of sustainable, local, or ethically-sourced foods, the source of the high cost may be the abundance of luxury food items available through the food service. According to the results of the RFC, more than a quarter of food purchased by Bon Appétit was snack food, not including beverages. These snack foods—dozens of varieties of chips, high-end gummy bears, frozen burritos—are more expensive and less healthy than whole ingredients, as they require further processing and often carry an inflated price tag due to branding. Plus, Bon Appétit buys an enormous variety of high-end snacks—different kinds for Benji’s, Local Goods (known colloquially as the C-store), the Preserve, and Susie B’s. By purchasing hundreds of different kinds and flavors of snacks, Bon Appétit loses the opportunity to receive discounts for buying in bulk. 

While pound-for-pound, local, ethical, and sustainable produce, dairy, and meat is admittedly more expensive than produce, dairy, and meat from a factory farm, Bon Appétit could choose to prioritize better sourcing for primary ingredients over buying 16 different flavors of Noosa yogurt. This is where the key difference between quality and equity comes into play. While having access to a panoply of options may attract students to the college initially, luxury snack items (even though they may be organic) do little to serve food equity on or off campus. Snack foods are not what nourish students’ bodies; it is the whole foods, the ingredients that go into Rastall dining hall, that provide the bulk of students’ daily calories. A commitment to food equity demands prioritizing access to healthy, sustainable, ethical meals. When Bon Appétit purchases Annie’s Organic Cheddar Bunnies (even though they may be delicious and more sustainable than Goldfish), it is still feeding dollars into corporations rather than hard-pressed local farmers. Pursuing the current elusive definition of quality by providing seemingly limitless choice has led to mere luxury at the expense of equity. 

It’s hard to know where to place the blame for these problems, because no single entity or person decided that the pursuit of “quality” would lead to this mess. Is it a result of CC’s competition and marketing strategy, or of Bon Appétit’s profit model? Both are likely at play, but either way, the renegotiation of the contract was a chance for students who cared about food equity to interact directly with both entities in an attempt to question the existing thinking about how to run a school food system—in other words, for students to redefine quality on their own terms. 

Armed with the results of the new RFC audit and a critical perspective on Bon Appétit and CC’s alliance, we turned to college administrators. We expected them to be indignant, as we were, or at least to express some surprise at our findings. We hoped they might even consider replacing Bon Appétit with an in-house food service. But we began to realize that the fight we were waging amounted to throwing pebbles at the windows of the ivory tower. It might be enough to make a little noise, but all the school had to do was plug its ears.


So we turned our attention toward reforms that Bon Appétit and the administration could enact. We wanted to propose a food service model that would accord with the values of food sovereignty and uphold food security. We thought we could marry these two ideals. Food equity is, after all, about justice at all levels of the food chain. 

The solutions we proposed in a campus-wide petition, which we later brought to the Bon Appétit renegotiation committee, included practices that could help the college move toward food equity by improving accountability, accessibility, autonomy, and sustainability. In order to increase accountability, we asked for a shorter contract period and weekly meetings between a committee of students and Bon Appétit’s staff. To move toward real sustainability, we petitioned Bon Appétit to commit to more sustainable, local, and ethical ingredients, without increasing the cost of the meal plan. To give students more autonomy, we asked that meal plan exemptions be decided based on looser standards that would allow students to opt out of the meal plan for health, financial, cultural, religious, and ideological reasons—in essence, treating students as competent adults capable of deciding where, when, and what they want eat. We also asked that decision-making power about those exemptions be transferred from Bon Appétit to an independent staff member or faculty agency. These are all relatively simple changes that leave the general structure of food service at Colorado College in place. A larger change we suggested was the addition of a diversity of alternative dining options including co-ops, wholesale buying clubs, and a campus grocery store. 

Food co-ops often include a shared living space, shared financial responsibility for food, and fairly-distributed cooking responsibilities. Food co-ops teach students how to purchase the food that accords with their values of food equity and their budgets, allowing for greater food sovereignty both short-term and long-term. Plus, because students in food co-ops are not only eating but also cooking together, co-ops foster community just as well as, if not better than, CC dining halls. Students who do not live in the co-op could also buy into meals, allowing them access to home-cooked food at a cheaper rate than Rastall. The food co-op model has been highly successful at other college campuses. Oberlin College is a particularly good example: a small liberal arts school also serviced by Bon Appétit, Oberlin operates dozens of food co-ops. 

Wholesale buying clubs, which are groups of people who place collective bulk food ordeWWrs, could serve students in food co-ops, apartments, and dorm Living Learning Communities in order to offset the admittedly higher cost of purchasing with food sovereignty in mind. This is a model that could work either on or off the meal plan: buying clubs could be organized groups of students, but could also be routed through Bon Appétit’s own bulk ordering process. Since Bon Appétit already orders large quantities of food at wholesale prices, it wouldn’t be difficult to tack on the buying club’s orders, providing students with ingredients at below-retail prices. Buying clubs could also work with community supported agriculture (CSA), which allows for bulk buying of local produce, eggs, and even meat delivered to your doorstep in large quantities from local producers.

For those who don’t want to buy wholesale, or have sparser ingredient needs, we proposed that C-store be transformed into an on-campus grocery store to serve students both on and off the meal plan. Currently, whole ingredients for cooking are not always available at C-store, and when they are, they are often sold with exorbitant markups. We suggested replacing some percentage of the chips, wafer cookies, and fruit snacks available through C-store with whole ingredients like flour, produce, eggs, grains, protein, and spices, at prices reflective of Bon Appétit’s own bulk discounts. Transforming C-store in this way would both increase students’ autonomy to cook for themselves and provide a grocery retail outlet for off-campus students living in a food desert.

These solutions, while far from perfect, would begin to fulfill a vision of food sovereignty that students can get behind, one that just might improve the school’s “quality” while creating opportunities for students to gain autonomy over their food system. 

Notably, we have not included a plan to reduce the price of the meal plan. While it would have been ideal to reduce costs for all students, we don’t actually know the breakdown of where Bon Appétit is spending its funds. (The RFC audit only gave us access to food purchasing, but not the budget as a whole.) This meant that we weren’t able to suggest the most effective places to cut costs, so we focused instead on what we knew Bon Appétit could do: give students alternatives and the ability to choose.


We believe that food equity is a value that should stand on its own, without needing overwhelming student support to be upheld. But we knew that even if CC wasn’t convinced by values alone, the college understands the importance of image. In order to get administrators on our side—for them to really listen—we had to prove that the student body agreed with us on these issues.

Many students who enter CC enamored with Bon Appétit’s lavish services fall out of love with them at some point. After publishing the results of the RFC study in the Catalyst and in flyers around campus, we sent out a petition. The petition, signed by 450 students, staff members, faculty, and alumni, detailed our proposed solutions. “Every time we purchase industrial food,” signers agreed, “we support this system of injustice [that] ... contributes to global climate change, to the exploitation of black and brown bodies through migrant and prison labor, and to neoliberal economic policies that limit the development and potential of the Global South.” 

Even with widespread support, the administration hesitated to engage with our ideas. Although we were initially told that we would have the opportunity to join the committee in charge of the Bon Appétit contract renegotiation, a few weeks later we were informed that the committee had already been formed. Shocked that the process had been executed so quietly, we protested, but were told that it was too late to add new members. The committee did not include any of the students who had been so closely involved in the audit and in conversations with Bon Appétit. At best, it was a surprising oversight; at worst, a deliberate exclusion of those with a clear demand to reform the campus food system and the college’s relationship with Bon Appétit.

In some recognition of our work, the contract committee invited us to give a presentation in early January. We showed them the audit results, presented the demands of our petition, and outlined the key principles of food equity and how each of our petition demands aligned with them. Our key point was that affordability and values did not have to be mutually exclusive. With over a quarter of Bon Appétit’s budget spent on snack food items, there is plenty of room to trade out another variety of nut butter in the C-store for more ethically sourced produce, grains, and meat in our dining halls.

The committee was receptive and encouraging. It seemed like they supported our petition and wanted to fully understand our proposals—they asked questions for nearly an hour. But the survey they sent out to the student body afterward did not reflect the understanding of food equity that we had hoped to convey. It did request student input on co-ops, wholesale buying clubs, cooking classes, and on-campus grocery access. But it asked these questions on the last page after a long section on the operating hours of the current dining services. And to our frustration, it misleadingly asked students to prioritize either taste, cost, or quality, as if only one could exist within the college’s food system. 

This language of the question represented the heart of the problem around food equity: quality food is perceived as a luxury item, a privilege, an arrogant mark of elitism, rather than as a right. It’s true that because of the realities of today’s global food market, fresh, good, healthy food is often more expensive than conventionally grown food. But right now Bon Appétit’s food service has the price tag of a locally sourced, ethically sound diet, without actually being locally sourced or ethical. 

The core of our proposal was a call for good food at a fair price for farmers and students—and for students to have more autonomy over that food. Thus, this vision of food equity isn’t elitist; it’s the opposite. We did not gloss over this point in our presentation to the committee; this point was our presentation to the committee.


It is not hard for students to be heard by this school’s administration. Plenty of administrators at the college truly wanted to listen to our ideas and took time out of their day to invite us into their homes and offices. The problem is that “listening” and “dialogue” lose all meaning if you don’t actually take different voices into account in decision-making. By the time the voices of the many students who supported the petition’s goals reached the ears of those in charge of the renegotiation, the message had already been diluted. It felt like playing a giant game of telephone wherein the administrators on the far end got to decide the fate of the students and farmers on the other. What looks like a system that allows students’ voices to be heard and incorporated into systemic change is mostly an illusion.

At the end of Block Five, the contract committee provided a written set of recommendations to Vice President of Finance Robert Moore and Dean of Students Mike Edmonds, who will now draft the contract language and enter negotiations with Bon Appétit. Of course, whether these administrators will listen to the students, faculty, and staff who have expressed their support for food equity is ultimately beyond our control. If they do, it will involve a major redefinition of “quality,” that ambiguously defined extra 1.05 million dollars that dictate enrollment, donations, supposedly, and the failure or success of a school. Whether “quality” means luxury or equity is—like so many things—out of our hands. 

That’s not to say that wading through all that bureaucracy was fruitless. Since we’ve started this work, the local farmers we’ve spoken to have seen their sales to CC rising once more. Kruse is reportedly looking into the possibility of instituting a small garden next to Benji’s in collaboration with the CC Farm, which would supplement Rastall produce. Callicrate told us that Bon Appétit has now placed a new order for his meat (although, he noted, that the order is still far less than he’s capable of providing to CC).

But in the absence of our direct participation in the negotiation process, we can’t know for sure what influence we have had, or whether the impacts we already see will last if structural change is not made. A firmer commitment to food equity at CC certainly would transform our food services, but perhaps even more importantly, a firmer commitment to equity in general would transform the way that processes like these happen in the future. Such a commitment would have given students a say in what “quality” means to begin with—and how much they would be willing to pay for it. If there is a lesson from our experience that transcends the issue of food equity, it is this: getting Colorado College to represent the demands of its student body requires persistence, the persuasive clout of many students, and an enormous time commitment. 

Being at an institution of higher learning, we are in a unique position in the food system. While most change in the marketplace requires that consumers “vote with their dollar,” the contractual relationship between CC and Bon Appétit gives the college enormous power to influence the kinds of food Bon Appétit is purchasing and how it offers that food to students. After our long effort to convince CC to wield this power more wisely, we’ve realized that currently, students have minimal ability to enact the values of food equity. It might seem that students must simply be louder, angrier, and more persistent to achieve change. But we have gotten loud; we have been angry, and we have persisted—only to achieve marginal change. For significant change to happen, the college must give students access to real decision-making power. Although the administration is well-intentioned, the lack of student influence has left the college deeply misguided. We need to transform our administration from an opaque bureaucracy into a student-powered, democratic entity. What would this school look like if students and faculty led the way?

Neutral grounds in New Orleans have always been places of reckoning, of understanding, of communion. These grassy areas situated between traffic flowing in opposite directions are normally littered with haphazardly-strewn couches or bowling pins or even old poetry books. The term “neutral ground” comes from the early 1800s, when New Orleans was divided into separate semi-autonomous regions by the city’s Creole and Anglo populations, which would only communicate on this ground that marked the border. When I was 17 and made my first friend from outside Louisiana, I learned that the rest of the country called these spaces “medians.” This new word didn’t sit well with me because it erased the community I associated with the neutral ground. Suddenly, that space was not about bonfires in Mid-City on New Year’s Eve, where Siobhan’s mother made gumbo and we kids ran around with blankets on our heads, pretending to be the rougarou from Cajun folklore. Nor was it about Mardi Gras, when my mother, who worked at the Burger King on St. Charles, could look through the windows while calling out order numbers and see her husband and children setting up ladders and lawn chairs. “Median” was mathematical, distant; “neutral ground” was my city, my family.

My brothers and I spent our childhood on the neutral ground. Our relationship to that space, to that state of being suspended in the middle, informed our relationships to the world and community around us. Uptown, this community looked like bowling in teams of two on the Napoleon Street neutral ground. Downtown, it looked like drinking Abitas after class on a couch that we had bought from a thrift store and dragged to the St. Claude neutral ground. With my father, this community looked like standing on ladders on the St. Charles Avenue neutral ground, dressed in costumes, holding our hand-painted signs, and trying to catch beads thrown from floats by masked parade riders.

My father is a teacher. A physical education coach, to be exact, at an elementary school across the canal from our house. He walks to work everyday, baseball cap shielding him from the Louisiana sun as he shakes his head at neighbors and friends offering him a ride. His gray tennis shoes slapping against the burning asphalt remind me of the trip that my family would take to the Nike Outlet on Tulane Avenue once every few years. When we were younger, my mother would pile me, Blayde, Zach, and whoever else was living in the house at the time into her blue van. At the store, before my father had even tried on his first pair of shoes, my mother had found a chair. Blayde, Zach, and I would occupy ourselves for the first few minutes trying on shoes, but later, we would watch as our father tried on his own. He always had to double knot the laces, walk through every aisle in the store, look in both the long mirror on the wall and the short mirror on the ground, and then approach my mother and ask for her advice. She was honest every time: “I don’t like the color” or “You don’t look like you got enough support” or “Them laces already fraying.” Eventually, Blayde, Zach, and I would grow bored, and complaining would land us back in the car with our mother driving home and telling our father to call her when he was ready to be picked up.

During these trips, my father always tried to buy two pairs of the same shoes. I don’t know how often my mother agreed, but I do know that he justified his two pairs with mornings walking to work or afternoons on the football field, training high schoolers. Behind his explanations, I remember my family’s evacuation to Ponchatoula during Hurricane Gustav. At the time there were only five of us, and I remember that week crammed in one bedroom, using the small generator to power the television and play Wii Sports during the day. At night, Blayde and Zach cried and shrieked and my own body was wracked with nightmares. I saw floodwaters seeping under our front door, moving through the hallway, and spreading through our bedrooms. I saw my father’s pair of shoes soaking in these waters while rain pounded against the storm shutters. I woke up panting night after night, lungs tight with the ghost of floodwaters. I feared drowning on the hardwood floors, so I asked my mother if I could sleep on the bed with her, but both Blayde and Zach and my father had already beat me to the mattress. She instead climbed out of bed to lie on the floor with me. After crying quietly, I fell back asleep, nestled against her chest. 

When we returned home after the hurricane, our pet turtle was miraculously still alive. The hem of my mother’s wedding dress, which had been hanging in the closet, was destroyed, along with everything that had been lying on the floor: books, toys, shoes. Our mother promised us that things were going to work out, that we would return to school and sports while she and our father returned to work. Blayde, Zach, and I groaned at the prospect of going back to school. Our mother laughed that same full, reassuring laugh as our father walked over to the closet. He looked first at the pile of water-damaged shoes on the ground, then reached over the shelf above his head and retrieved an orange box. Inside this box rested a pair of shoes identical to those that lay damaged from toxic floodwaters at his feet.

I have inherited my father’s aversion to change. His distaste for mourning and moving forward has colored my own relationship with destruction and grief. His commitment is always to the restoration of the life before. While my mother pieces together a new life for the family, my father holds onto his second pair of shoes. The orange box on the top shelf promises that his feet will still trek the same paths, that the same neighbors will offer him the same rides, and that the same sweat will bead on his neck as he politely declines—but new shoes do not promise functional storm shutters or working generators. The canned food in the back of the pantry and the gallons of clean water in the cabinets and the storm candles nestled behind old cookbooks are all strategically placed by my mother for the preservation of the family. The shoes are for my father. Now I wonder if the shoes are for me and my brothers as well, we who have inherited the way my father copes with survival. 

After every storm, something new is to be bought for the home: Hurricane Isaac and a basketball rim, Hurricane Gustav and a mailbox, my brother’s fist and a mirror. And with every new purchase, my father begs my mother to buy two. “For the next time,” he always says. I understand now that I have also picked up on his habit of pairs, of feigning preparedness: two phone chargers, two backpacks, a knife both in my pocket and in my desk drawer. Even my family seems to come in pairs, with Blayde and Zach working the basketball court together as Nick and I navigate university, Erron and Perry write from jobs outside of New Orleans, and Ladarius and Paul continue to not pick up our mother’s calls. We live in twos—Nick and I in one room, Zach and Blayde in another, my mother and father in another—and travel in twos, with my mother calling from over her shoulder, “Take one of your brothers with you!” 

Perhaps the reason I feel so lonely this Mardi Gras season is because I am one and not a pair, and I know that in being one, I have forced my family members to, in their own respects, be alone as well. And there is a vulnerability in this loneliness. Blayde will not drive to Beads by the Dozen with me to work long hours selling Mardi Gras merchandise to tourists and parade riders. My mother will not chop the maurepas on the butcher’s block in our kitchen as she demands that I continue to stir the roux. And my father will sit at the dining room table alone, with one pair of tennis shoes at the door and a second upstairs on the shelf in the closet. 

dear lehna,

I’m the one who sits four seats down from you in lecture. couldn’t help but notice you today. we met eyes for a second until you broke the contact. maybe come make dinner at my apartment tonight?




I’m one week out. She came this morning and took everything, even the notes. Now I’m scouring the apartment, looking for something that might still smell like her, or have her tiny script on it. Nothing. She took her IKEA hamper, even though I still had clothes in it. I open the fridge, hoping for a half-drunk bottle of water that still had the touch of her lips on it. She took everything she bought, including the Heinz ketchup. She doesn’t even like ketchup. I look under the bed, in the bins on the top shelf of the closet. I find a bit of comfort in the bathroom, the only place in our apartment where she has failed to scrub her existence from tangible memory. There’s an old prescription bottle in the back of the cabinet under the sink; I smooth my thumb over her name on the plastic orange container.

 “Okay,” I try speaking out loud for the first time all day. “Let’s do a shower.” I sound stupid. Maybe that’s why she left me. Everything about me is probably why she left me, but I like trying to parse it out myself, figure out the breaking point. It’s easier to think she left me because I always leave clothes on the floor, because my hands are clammy, because I told her that Jake kissed me at the company’s holiday party. She did get mad about Jake, which made me laugh, which made her more mad, which made me nervous. I remember the fight like it was two weeks ago. Because it was two weeks ago.

 “You did what?” she asked, green eyes flaring already.

 “He kissed me. While we were leaving, he just grabbed me,” I shrugged.

 “Lehna, what? Did you kiss back?” She put her fingers on her temples, brow furrowed like she was thinking hard. I don’t think she was, though.

 “Greta, I’m gay,” I told her, like she didn’t already know. “Come on. I love you.” I reached out, and she shrank away from me.

“I know. I know you do. It’s hard standing on the pedestal you put me on.” She sighed, and I looked at her expectantly. I knew she loved me, or I thought she did, but she didn’t give me the satisfaction of the words.

“Greta? It’s me and you. There’s no pedestal—” I began, but before I could continue she stood up and stormed out the door. But she came back an hour later with a bag of limes, mint, soda water, and a smile. “Mojito night!” she said. I figured she was over it.

I think she really was over it, though, which just confirms the worst. She didn’t leave because I did something she didn’t like. She left because I am something she didn’t like.



dear lehna,

I had so much fun last night, staying up with you just talking until the sun came up. I didn’t go to sleep until three the next day. still thinking about your lips. see you on monday.




Four days out. “Well, honestly, it’s better that she’s gone,” Cara tells me over brunch. I’m eating a hardboiled egg because I don’t deserve better.

“Parts of the apartment still kind of smell like her, if I really stick my nose in them,” I say, not really listening to Cara.

“I don’t know how you stayed with her so long. She was insufferable, Lehna. She was awful. She had a Smiths tattoo on her ribcage, for Christ’s sake!” Cara is right, she did—well, she still does—have a Smiths tattoo. She loved Morrissey.

“I’ve got the 21st century breathing down my neck,” I whisper, remembering how it felt to brush my fingers over the smooth ridges of her ribs, kissing the first letter of every word.

“That’s a fucking stupid quote!” Cara says, pissed on my behalf. “I’m sorry, am I going crazy? How is that a good lyric? It’s not even a good Smiths’ song.” I’m still not listening. “Frankly, Mr. Shankly” is echoing in my head. Cara’s right—it isn’t a good song. I don’t care.

Cara’s poached egg bleeds all over her toast, the charred rye absorbing the yellow like a sponge. I wonder if the yolk could ever be taken out of the toast, if the toast could become bread again, if the bread could become yeast and flour and salt and water again.

“I mean, were you guys ever really that happy?” Cara asks. I look up sharply.

“I’d never been happier in my entire life. You don’t get it, you’ve never been in love, not like this. She wasn’t just beautiful, she was enchanting, she was … she was Greta, that’s what she was.” I don’t want to snap at Cara, but her words are fingers in my fresh wound.

“Well, yeah, she was enchanting. That’s the point, Lehna. She, like, beguiled you.” Cara keeps trying. She’s a good friend, the kind you don’t want at a time like this. Good advice is useless when you want to keep doing what’s bad for you.

“I don’t need your grand theories about my relationship, thanks.”

Cara raises her eyebrows but drops the subject. She starts talking about an upcoming writer’s event that she wants me to come to, but her words are drowned out by my same crappy, unending thoughts.



dear lehna,

I saw this persimmon tree on my walk home so I picked you a few. I remember you said that persimmons taste like sunshine and honey and I want you to eat them and think about me like I’m sunshine and honey.




On day zero she says, “I just don’t love you, Lehna. I don’t know why I was trying to convince myself that I did. What I’ve figured out, what Sara has helped me figure out, is that I had been searching for someone who had the same baggage as me instead of finding someone to carry it for me.”

She tells me this with an air of finality. Sara is the new girlfriend, though I didn’t even know I was the ex-girlfriend yet. In the back of my mind I register how bad Sara’s advice is, because putting all your shit on someone else isn’t the recipe for a healthy relationship. Sara writes poetry, though, so it makes sense that she’d give shitty advice.

I try to work with this stupid metaphor despite myself. “Gret, just because we have the same baggage”—we don’t, first of all—“doesn’t mean I can’t carry yours for you.” I reach my hand across our little two-person dining table. Her fingernails are painted dark green.

“I should’ve known you’d be difficult about this,” she sighs and looks down. “My horoscope told me to look out for people trying to prevent me from making progress.”

“What did mine say? Not to let go of the ones that I love?” 

She gives me a pained look and mutters, “You are so textbook Pisces it’s actually ridiculous sometimes.” I consider asking which fabled astrology guide she’s so keen to fit me in, but it’s not the time or place. And anyway, that would probably seem “textbook Pisces” to her.

 “This just seems very sudden to me, Gret,” I start, words balling up in my mouth. “I love you, and I think that you love me. I get that sometimes things are confusing and maybe we forget along the way how we feel, but we’re for each other, we’ve said it time and again and it’s true!” I’m fumbling my words.

She interrupts, “If you noticed anything at all you’d know it’s not sudden, at least not to me. I’m sorry you feel that way. But I can’t hold on for your sake.” My stomach ties itself into eight different sailor’s knots. This is not just another fight.

“It’s like, in ‘Wuthering Heights!’ With Catherine and Heathcliffe, that quote, the … we’re made of the same soul stuff, Greta.” I try so hard not to cry, but it’s pointless. I do, and she’s uncomfortable, but leans forward to gently touch my hand.

“Lehna, that’s a novel. This is life.”

“I will do anything to make you stay. Anything you want. What do you want?”

“I don’t want anything.”

Greta tells me she thinks she has a star inside of her, her energy, her something. Greta tells me that I am killing her star, that I will make her a supernova and eventually a black hole. Greta tells me she is leaving me—it’s final. Her phone starts buzzing on the table. It’s Sara. Sara’s poetry collection was apparently just published by an independent publisher in Chicago. It’s called, “while I was saying it I wished that I weren’t.” That night when I order it online, I laugh because maybe if she wished she hadn’t said it, she shouldn’t have published an entire fucking book of it. I laugh so hard I choke, and keep laughing until I cry.


dear lehna,

happiest halloween morning! I’ll be back by six or seven, the show might go late but I’ll try my best to make it. remember to get candy just in case the hansen’s kids knock. they’re so precious I could cry. makes you wonder about someday, doesn’t it?




Day one. Today I won’t change out of my sweatpants or wash my hair, or really do anything. Cara calls to check in and tell me to eat. Greta left last night after we talked. Sara came to pick her up on her motorcycle. I hate Sara because she’s a cooler queer than me. She has tattoos her friends gave her of daggers on her thighs and carnivorous plants on her biceps. She’s tall and thin and model-like in her sexy androgyny. Sara is the kind of edgy but non-threatening queer, the kind magazines feature to seem modern and politically aware. Sara spent a year in Berlin, and she got into Berghain every time without a problem. Somewhere in the back of my mind, or maybe the front of my mind, or really all over my mind, I wonder if Greta loves Sara because of these stupid things she is and I am not. Greta wants the flash and fire of long nights out and cigarettes at 6 a.m., not Joni Mitchell albums and tea. Maybe I have it all wrong, maybe I’m using an old model of Appropriate Gayness. I forgot to update my operating system. I bet Sara has no bed frame, I bet Sara’s mattress just sits on the ground. But I love bed frames, I think as I lie on the bed.

Greta’s things are still here. I pick up her comb and stare at the bright blonde strands dangling from the plastic rectangle. I consider eating one strand. Love makes us do crazy things. I don’t eat a strand, but because Cara told me to eat, I eat 11 applesauce cups and then sit on my bed and listen to Greta’s records. Greta says she listens to vinyl because it makes listening to music more special, more of “an event.” I think it’s kind of stupid, but here I am. Once, I found her the British version of the Beach Boys’ single “God Only Knows,” where it’s the A-side and not the B-side. She says that was the best thing I ever did for her. The best thing Greta did for me is love me. I think. If she did.

I don’t know when she’s coming back. She ended our conversation last night with, “I’ll come back soon. To get my things,” which was promising in a doomed kind of way. I couldn’t wait to see her again, to try and convince her to stay.

I suddenly realize she could come at any moment, and I am already playing the part of the deserted girlfriend, desolate and greasy and clutching the remaining traces of her, so I throw myself into the shower. My stomach is bloated from all the applesauce, and my eyes are still puffy from crying, lying under the striped cotton sheets, alone for the first time in two years.

Greta’s shampoo smells like coconut. She said she needed special shampoo for curl definition, so I bought it for her. I squeeze the pearlescent, viscous liquid into my hand and slather it into my hair even though she hates when I use it. The smell is familiar. Suds well up between my fingers, and I scratch my head over and over again until I feel something like clean. I see my body, alone, reflected on the glass of the shower door. I remember the showers we would take together when we first moved into the apartment, hot water glistening on her skin and kissing her collarbone and the soft underneath of her arm down to her fingertips. We would get out of the shower and, shivering, dripping—wrap towels around one another and sit next to the window and decide what we would plant in the garden we did not have.

In the mornings, when I left before her, she would stretch her arms out to me and arch her back and half-whisper-half-whine, “Don’t leave, stay here and kiss me,” and I’d think in my head about how I didn’t have to stay because there she’d be when I got home. And then there she’d be, when I got home, belly up underneath the dining room table trying to fix its loose leg.

I get out of the shower and crouch on the bathmat with my towel wrapped around me like a cape. I find that 2 p.m. is quite possibly the loneliest hour of the day.


dear lehna,

please try to understand where I’m coming from. I know words can hurt and I’m trying my best to say how I feel. remember that honesty is important and I wouldn’t say these things if I didn’t care for you. I want to be the person you see in me, for both of our sakes.



Greta knew definitively that she was gay after her third boyfriend told her, “Greta, maybe you’re gay,” as a joke after he watched her kiss their mutual friend at a high school party on a dare. It had started with that special teenage boy breed of lechery, boys intrigued by women together after their first forays into the lesbian section of Pornhub. Greta, ever impressionable but also host to a voracious curiosity, caved into the boys’ dares and tentatively kissed Ella, a volleyball player four inches taller with a body that Greta had always been drawn to. She’d always figured it was just envy, but when Ella tucked a long black piece of hair behind her ear before they kissed, Greta realized envy was not the word for it. 

Fifteen-year-old Greta, three beers in and still reeling from the rightness of the kiss, broke up with her boyfriend later that night. He did not connect the dots. Afterwards, she snuck back into her house, quietly tiptoed past her parents’ bedroom door, and laid down in her clothes. She couldn’t sleep for hours.



dear lehna,

I know I’ll only have been gone a few hours by the time you read this, but I miss you so much already that my ventricles may burst open in want for you. three days without you is three days too long, can’t wait to be back in your arms. my mom called this morning to ask one more time if you please could make it. I’m asking the same in my head but I understand, love.




Three weeks out, and I am very drunk. I know this for two reasons. First, because Cara saw me stumble on my way to the dance floor and told me, “Lehna, you’re very drunk,” and also because I’ve had five drinks in the past hour and a half. It’s Friday night which means “Girls’ night,” which means Cara and the others drag me to a bar so we can all pretend I’ve been functioning for the past two weeks since Greta packed up and left.

Cara is worried about me. She’s trying to meet my eye across the table, and when she finally does I try on a winsome smile but it feels more like a Novacaine grimace. I consider telling her I’m fine, but this would only solidify the fact that nobody thinks I am fine. Which makes sense, because I’m not. But still. I get up to go to the bathroom, plagued by nausea and a general feeling of regret.

I remember getting drunk with Greta in our last few months at school, when we were first dating and telling each other we were in love. She was always much better at it than I was, downing drinks like they were Diet Cokes (a thing Greta would never, ever put in her body). She’d spike her health food smoothies with gin when we went out. She’d wear expensive diamond jewelry with sweatpants.

I loved all of these little things she did, so silly, so entirely her. Now, in the bathroom of the bar, staring at my reflection in the dirty mirror, they begin to feel very stupid. This feels like progress to me, and I promptly vomit in the sink.



dear lehna,

I’m sorry about last night, I shouldn’t have lashed out. I know you were only trying to help. it’s just that sometimes your love feels like it’s beyond me. we’re both only human. i’ll be home early tonight and we can talk about it more.




It’s been a month. One month. Cara tells me, “Don’t look to your right.” I look to my right, at the woman putting dried fruits in her grocery cart. It’s Sara.

“What?” I try to play innocent, like I don’t know who she is. As if I hadn’t bought her book and read every poem and tried to work out which ones were about Greta and when they were written and how long were they together before Greta decided to clue me in. There was one poem that particularly irked me because I think it was about me. And it was bad, which is frustrating because if I’m going to be written about I would like it to be done well. The entire collection was sort of awful, though. Most of the pages were more blank space than words. The longest poem must have been 75 words. I think most of them are about Greta, even the ones about waterfalls or the ones about Sara’s mother or about being gay. The one about me was short and cloying and pitying.


do you notice

                her halting touch

               is your intimacy still intimate?

                                             you must see her lips,

         smell me on her,

                   but you still refuse to


             what you will not admit is there.


I have no idea how Sara got published. There’s a poem in the book that is literally just the word “poem” over and over again in the shape of an infinity sign. The poem that is ostensibly about me is accompanied by a rudimentary drawing of a sink with the faucet on, which probably means something to Sara but means absolutely nothing to me, because I didn’t minor in poetry at Reed College.

I watch Sara pull down the lever on the machine that grinds nuts into butter right in front of you. Almond butter. Greta loves almond butter on whole grain toast with honey drizzled on top. Sara has it all in her cart. Cara and I get flats of blueberries and enormous mangoes, and I pretend that I am unfazed as we go through self-checkout. At home I eat the mango and suck on the flat pit and contemplate burning Sara’s poetry book in the fireplace.


dear lehna,

there’s something up with the kitchen sink, I couldn’t figure it out on my own so I called the landlord to call whoever, and someone needs to be here between five and seven but I really really can’t so could you do it please?



It’s been three months since, and Cara has just set me up on a date. I told her several times that I would be unpleasant but she insisted that three months of moping was too long, so I’m sitting across from this girl, Noor, in this awful coffee shop where you sit on sacks of beans instead of chairs. I drink tea. She’s really beautiful, but I’m distracted. I’m thinking of what Greta would think of this place, if she’s been here before, what she would have ordered. Almond milk latte with extra foam. The thought comes before I know it. Noor ordered a latte, too. I try to remember if she asked for regular milk or another kind. I wonder if she drinks a lot of coffee or if this is just a convenient date location. I wonder if she likes cloudy weather, or if she wears a lot of dresses like the one she’s wearing now. Does she listen to The Smiths? Maybe she writes poetry, or drives a motorcycle. Does she have a bed frame? 

“I don’t know, I just think that persimmons are an entirely underrated fruit! The kind of tall round ones are mediocre, yeah, but the little flat donut ones? Amazing!” I look up. Noor and I are talking about fruit, for some reason. I remember letting the persimmons Greta picked go rotten in the fruit bowl. 

 “Yeah,” I say, but I’m really noticing how she has strangely beautiful knees. 

“They taste kind of like sunshine.”

“I was going to say honey,” I say, “but I totally get what you mean.” She twists her hair with her hands and puts it up in a bun on top of her head.

“I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I don’t really like strawberries,” I can’t stop looking at her. I think of dried persimmons and cream cheese and a pair of hands I can’t quite place. She raises her eyebrows in disbelief.

“No way. You’re lying.” I tell her I’m not lying, and she laughs. She’s got a hiccupping sort of laugh, and I think of all of the places that I might hear it in the future. I imagine all of the ways we are going to hurt one another.

 dear lehna,

when I come home we really need to talk.


The Scary Guy didn’t plan to be an anti-hate speaker covered head-to-toe in tattoos, but that is unmistakably who he is. He travels the world speaking about discrimination and prejudice, and, having been discriminated against for his unusual appearance, he speaks from experience. Tattoos cover his entire face, neck, and head. He has bar piercings through the bridge of his nose. And he also happens to be one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

I didn’t know what to expect when I scheduled an interview with him. Could I call him “Scary,” or would he demand to be called by his full title? Part of my nervousness probably stemmed from the fact that he looks very much like the type of guy your parents told you to avoid on the street. Before talking to him, I visited http://thescaryguy.com, which, yes, is his website. The site opens with a vibrant photo montage of Scary speaking at various events, shaking people’s hands, always smiling and laughing. In between clips, snippets of his message pop up in aggressive fonts accompanied by loud music: “outlawed in two U.S. cities,” “an agent for change,” “the NEW face of love.” The montage ends with the words “ignorance is not bliss” in large print. Its general message is somehow both loving and very aggressive. The website is elegant and well maintained, though its effect is somewhat dampened by numerous close-ups of Scary’s tattooed eyelids and piercings. In each shot, he either looks frightening or jolly—or, more often, both at the same time.

I called him at 8 a.m. in Colorado Springs—3 p.m. in Manchester, England, where he lives and works. He picked up my video call and explained that he was stuck in traffic, so we rescheduled. This first call lasted about 60 seconds, but by the end of it I felt that we were friends. He talked with me the way you might expect an old friend to talk with you. Twenty years ago he started a seven day challenge to not say a single negative thing about another human for a full week, and he’s continued that challenge since. (I’m glad to report he’s kept his track record clean in interactions with me.) Scary just assumes he’s going to be friends with everyone, and apparently, he is. And that’s saying a lot for a guy who is so physically threatening that, twenty years ago, people used cross to the other side of the street to avoid him. These days, people cross to his side of the street to get his autograph. That’s what happens when you’re relentlessly friendly toward everyone you meet for a couple decades.

Scary isn’t exactly nice in the polite, Midwestern way. He’s very direct and doesn’t waste any words on superfluous niceties. When he’s working with children, he never does that thing I remember hating as a child, where adults would raise the pitch of their voices to talk to me, as though I were a pet. He’s not the sickly saccharine type of nice. He’s just no-bullshit. He recognizes that every other human is as fully human as he is.

The power of Scary’s reputation for kindness really can’t be overstated. Schools used to not let him in at all, much less pay him to give speeches. Even after he had gained some clout from touring, he wasn’t allowed to speak in some schools because teachers were afraid that the children would want to be like him. But Scary says the change in attitude isn’t just due to his fame. He believes the world is slowly warming up to people who choose to express themselves differently.


Now that I was kind of friends with the colorful, ever-earnest man named Scary, I planned to find out how exactly he ended up where he is now: receiving $6,500 from schools to spend an hour yelling emphatically at their children about the importance of being kind. When he Skyped me from his living room, I noticed his walls were decorated with his and his wife’s artwork. (Scary has drawn and painted since childhood.) Throughout his early adulthood, Scary worked as a computer salesman. He didn’t get a single tattoo until he was 30. As soon as he did, though, he fell in love with how personal and expressive the art form was. On the first weekend he got a tattoo, he got another four. 

He began living a full-on double life in his 30s and early 40s. He was a leather-clad, Harley-riding tattoo apprentice on the weekend, and a shirt-tucked-in computer salesman during the week. He got lots of tattoos from Suzanne Fauser, one of the few highly successful female tattoo artists around at the time. Through all of these sessions with Fauser, he learned her art without realizing he was learning it. When he went to the tattoo parlor, he found the same sort of release and self-expression that he had found in painting. In fact, he found tattooing an even more intimate art than painting because the tattoo artist’s canvas is skin itself. By the time Fauser had tattooed most of Scary’s body, they had developed a close friendship. He respected her as an artist and as a woman challenging the boundaries of a male-dominated industry. He saw that her love of the art form pushed her to break the gender norms and boundaries that restricted even such a freeing and creative industry.

Scary himself went on to push back against the norms of the tattooing industry. There is a tacit but strict rule in the tattooing community that one was not supposed to tattoo their face, neck, or hands. Every tattoo artist would persuade their customers that those areas were absolutely untouchable. So Scary proceeded to tattoo his face, neck, and hands. He had escaped into the tattoo community to be able to express himself and make his body look however he wanted, so he wasn’t about to be ordered around by restrictive rules.

Around the time Scary made that jump, he quit his job as a computer salesman and became fully rooted in the tattoo industry. He spent most of his 40s running three tattoo parlors in Tucson, Arizona, working on his art, and helping his clients express themselves on their own skin.

One morning, however, Scary opened the newspaper to an advertisement by one of his local competitors. The ad read, “Tired of working with scary guys with war-paint tattoos?” He says he slammed the paper down and, feeling something like a Disney villain, immediately started plotting his revenge. He knew the ad was aimed not only at his tattoo business, but also at his very mode of self-expression. Scary thought of running over the guy’s dog or enlisting the help of some of his buddies to strong-arm his competitor. The guy had wronged him first, Scary thought, so it was completely justified to hurt him back. (Scary had always thought of himself as a good guy—even if he had an unusual definition of “good.”)

Then, somewhere in the midst of all his anger, he realized that even though his “war paint tattoos” didn’t make him a bad guy, all his revenge-plotting and bad-mouthing was exactly the sort of thing that someone would expect from a guy who looked like him. He did have the right to express himself with whatever tattoos he wanted, but he was beginning to see that he didn’t have the right to stoop to the level of the guys he was taking revenge on. He realized he had been acting hypocritically his whole life. He had been bad-mouthed and stereotyped, and now he had to face the fact that he was no better than the man who had “libeled” him in the newspaper.

Scary divides his life into the time before that realization and the time after. He took a hard look at his behavior and noticed a cycle of hatred and negativity. He had been taking in other people’s negativity and casting it back out into the world. This problem was thorough and wide-reaching. Violence in schools was getting worse, he noticed, and suicides were becoming more common. So, with a new sense of purpose, Scary set out to change more than just himself. Just as quickly as he went from being a computer salesman to a motorcycle-riding tattoo artist, Scary went from salesman to something like an aspiring New Age religious leader. The first thing he did was to change his name to the very same lame insult his competitor had thrown at him: a scary guy. And not just a scary guy, but The Scary Guy.

Then he began his research. He started talking to people of all ages. He asked them whether they thought of themselves as nice people, whether they thought other people were nice to them, and whether they believed that world peace was possible. He quit his job as a tattoo shop owner and artist and began traveling the world to learn about the causes of violence and hatred. He found that kids started falling off of the “world peace wagon” around early middle school, so that’s the age group to which he started directing his message. 



The Scary Guy, as should now be clear, is a man of extremes. He painted nonstop as a child, then stopped painting and became a white collar computer salesman. When that started to feel suffocating, he got one tattoo on a Saturday, had four more by Monday, and was soon traveling to another city every week, getting tattooed from head to toe. A couple years later, he owned three tattoo parlors in Tucson and was about to run over a guy’s dog. Then, when he realized he had become the epitome of an overly proud and vengeful motorcycle-riding tattoo junkie, he had what he now calls a “total emotional death experience.” That’s when he changed his name, and began travelling to elementary schools to “train” students to advocate for world peace. Scary was determined to be so militantly nice that he would scare all traces of meanness out of his trainees.

The content of his trainings varies, but one of the central teachings is that no one should be judged for how they choose to express themselves. Specifically, Scary rejects the way people tend to look down on “body modifications” like tattoos and piercings because, from Scary’s perspective, something as simple as gaining weight or getting a haircut could be called body modification. He says he’s more concerned with personality. 

But for a guy ultimately concerned with what’s beneath the surface, Scary is pretty interested in how people decorate their skin. That’s because, unlike most other art forms, “you’re dealing with a living human body and their emotions.” As a tattoo artist, his materials are not just ink and skin, but also personality. The best designs, after all, are reflections of who a client is, or who they want to be. In that way, they bridge the gap between what’s underneath and what’s on the surface. He showed me the sketch of one of his favorite tattoos he’s given, an image of a client’s aunt’s ragdoll. He seems to remember every tattoo he’s given and the specific story behind each one.

Scary believes wholeheartedly that human relationships depend on what lies beneath appearance. Because his appearance is shocking, it causes people to look—then look away, guilty—and then look again. Once he has their attention, he teaches them to see beneath the surface. His plan was never to modify his body to shock people into listening to an anti-hate message, but it certainly works now.

I’m not usually one for self-help or motivational talks, but watching Scary’s speeches made me genuinely motivated to eradicate all malice from my life. He’s just up there on stage, screaming his painted head off about how much it sucks that people are mean to each other. He’s completely aware of how bizarre his presentation is, and he revels in it. His personality seems so strange that it could only be a performance, but he’s completely sincere. 

Scary could be easily categorized as one of those TED Talk motivational speakers who leaves you super enthused for about three hours, but unaffected in the long run. But I think Scary is onto something. Maybe we need less polite niceties and more strangeness. Then we could all follow Scary’s example: owning who we are, and unabashedly displaying our exact brand of weird.

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