Letter From the Editor

What the hell is Cipher?

We’re as unsure of how to answer this question as you are. On our quest to find articles to republish for this “Archival Issue,” we dug through the Publication House’s derelict old filing cabinets and through the depths of our website’s archive. What we found left us even more uncertain of what this magazine is than when we started. In this issue, we’re republishing some of the most interesting, moving, and timely articles that we could find.

Cipher got its start as an “Alternative News Magazine”—in other words, a vaguely socialist, decidedly left wing, cheaply printed newspaper littered with red raised fist logos in place of the much less ideological triangle you now see at the end of each article. After taking a sharp turn away from the political in the early 2000s, our content got a bit goofier. One year, we published “The Beer Issue.” On the cover was a caricature of a beer-bellied fellow named Beer Man and a handful of catchy bubble letter headlines, the type that you’d see on a tabloid. The Beer Issue now seems laughable to our relatively highbrow publication, in which we publish mostly long-form journalism and memoir pieces, aiming desperately to make every article New Yorker-ready.

Cipher’s been a little bit of everything and nothing at all in particular. With our ever fluid staff and transient student body, there hasn’t been anyone around long enough to nail down exactly what we’re doing. But I don’t think that’s bad. We, the editors and contributors, get to do pretty much whatever we want. Unlike The Catalyst or Leviathan, (not to drag either of them) we have no fixed format—we’re just a student magazine. Without the obligation of sticking to a pattern, the magazine becomes a close reflection of the people and era that produce it.

Take “Once Upon the Internet,” a satirical Shakespearean poem written in the wake of the Kanye West-Taylor Swift VMAs fiasco. The year was 2009 and the internet was a shiny new toy that hadn’t yet shown its ugly side. The music star conflict was a prehistoric meme that got everyone laughing—times were good and Cipher decided to publish an adequately written two-page joke. “Watchability” similarly reflects on the nature of the early internet, observing from 2013 how having a perpetual audience, in the form of a social media following, hinders our ability to know our “true” selves. Perhaps a bit more obvious now that we’ve been steeping in internet culture for an additional six years, the point the author made was revolutionary at its time.

“Apocalypse Right Now,” also from 2013, begins with another fun throwback, reminding us of the absurdity of 2012’s predicted armageddon. However, the article quickly turns to the more serious issue of suicide cults and the counterproductive ways that people react when faced with disaster. Its moral rings dismayingly true in light of our current descent toward an environmental meltdown.

Some articles in this issue are simply universal, and remind us of how unchanging relationships and experience can be. In “How to be Lonely,” an anonymous writer reaches out to us from across the years to tell us about their pervasive solitude—though no connection can be made in person, perhaps a modern reader can connect to the writer through their story. “The Domino Effect” also attempts to traverse the divide between one’s self and a stranger, coming to the timeless realization that making an honest connection is harder than you’d think.

In this issue, comprised entirely of articles published between 2006 and 2015, we invite you to dredge up some old memories and some enduring emotions and reflect on times gone by.  Students have been publishing out-there, compelling, thoughtful (or not-so-thoughtful) pieces in Cipher for decades. The pieces we chose reflect what Colorado College was, what Cipher was, and what the world was for young people in that era. They’re worth reading not only for their historical significance but also because they continue to resonate with us years later.

We tried to do our predecessors justice and relay what they thought was worth writing. Looking back, it seems like we mostly chose articles that reflect ourselves. This issue is less of a “best of” and more of a demonstration of what strikes us in 2019. I think that’s okay—I would want the 2029 Cipher staff to have the same mentality.

Yours then, now, and ten years from now,

Kat Snoddy (and the Cipher staff)

Archival Issue | March 2019

The Domino Effect

In this article, Nathan Davis attempts to bridge the spectator-spectated gap by inviting strangers to play dominoes with him. He spends the weekend sitting in Acacia park with a small stand and some dominoes, and finds that the game allows him to gain equal footing with his opponents.

Bones Issue 2015

I am sitting in a black folding chair that I’ve set up in Acacia Park on Tejon. I’m midway down the block, about five feet into the park from the sidewalk. I face the block of Tejon that features Jose Muldoon’s and Mountain Chalet. I’ve set up a small table littered with dominoes—bones, as they’re colloquially known—and a second folding chair facing me. Next to me is a piece of cardboard that features the invitation, “Play dominoes with me,” in black Sharpie.

I thought the phrasing “play dominoes with me” would come off as authoritative and confident. It doesn’t. The whole stand looks a little lonely and desperate. Nonetheless, the whole table is attention-grabbing.

I’ve been there not more than five minutes when a tall, bulky man walks into the park wearing cargo pants and a baggy gray T-shirt. He is accompanied by a small white dog—I’d guess a terrier or a bichon. The dog trots, determined; the man lumbers, dazed. He surveys the park, eyes resting on me for a few moments and then moving on. He isn’t paying attention to his dog, who slowly walks around him in a circle, taking a small shit every couple paces. Instead of making any intimations at cleaning up the sundial of shit surrounding him, the man lifts the dog, positions it squarely between his legs, pulls a handkerchief from his front pocket, leans over, and wipes the dog’s ass. He then confidently steps over the shit and continues walking his dog. In my head, I laugh. On my legal pad, I jot down a note.

I look back up and I see the man and his dog approaching me. He sits in the chair across from me. I ask if he’d like to play dominoes. He doesn’t seem to want to play dominoes. He also doesn’t seem to speak any English. Instead, he sits and looks at me for a few moments. We don’t have anything to say to one another, and even if we did, would have no way to convey it. The one thing I’m sure of is that I’m in the process of being observed. He is the spectator, I am the spectated. I watched him wipe his dog’s butt, it was clear that he was a jackass. But now, as he silently surveys me: my messy hair, my desperate sign, my pile of dominoes. I feel the tables turning. The inferiority is infuriating.

Then he and his dog leave. I wonder if he has a legal pad.

That’s the whole point of the dominoes: that playing a game equalizes. It doesn’t allow for the spectator-spectated gap. It forces conversation immediately: someone has to explain the rules, the other asks clarifying questions. Moreover, games are inherently active; they must be played. It doesn’t matter who is more skilled and who is less; what matters is that games are an interaction, a give and take. Offering myself to play bones with whoever is willing—it’s my attempt to descend from the rarified world of the spectator. If I submit myself to interact with anyone, I’m offering the chance to be interacted with.

It takes two hours to get another bite. After plenty of foot traffic and smirks, a blue Toyota minivan pulls up and a stocky man emerges with a thick but wiry black beard that extends about a foot from his chin. He is accompanied by a dog. A border collie, I’m pretty sure. Immediately he takes notice of me, and after tossing a stick with his dog once or twice, he comes over and sits across from me. His name is Robert. He speaks English with a thick, backwoods drawl and would like to play bones. (The dog is Maggie, who speaks no English and doesn’t mind sitting as we play.) Caught up in my excitement over this minor victory, my first game, I lose badly.

Either way, Robert is an exceedingly nice guy. We start with pleasantries: I’m 18, he’s 45.

“Or I might be 46… let’s see…class of ’69… that’d make me what?”

I ask what he’s been up to in Colorado Springs. He takes a pause, wonders aloud, “Since I got in town?” He takes another second and gestures to his minivan, “Just pulled in now.” This turns out to be particularly impressive as he is from Chattanooga, Tenn., a 27-hour drive from Colorado Springs.

“You’re the first person I’ve met out here,” he tells me.

I tell him I’m glad to be his welcoming committee. We chat for a while, telling each other more about ourselves, cracking jokes here and there.

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Robert used to hold work in Tennessee inspecting cranes.

“What was that like?”

“High.”

Eventually, he took a blow to the head on the job and hasn’t been employed for three years. He’d met a few people in Cañon City last year who he might be able to stay with, but if that fell through, he had hollowed out the back of his van and set up a bed for him and Maggie to sleep on. We chat for 10 minutes or so. Topics include weather (“Fuckin’ humid in Tennessee…. Pollen and shit”), pot (“They’ve got shit weed down in Alabama”), and jail (neither of us are interested in going). We never get too deep into anything, but we manage to get along well and make one another laugh. Eventually, Maggie starts tugging at the leash. He says thanks for playing, and they head for the van. I wish them good luck.

After two hours of doing little but watch a man wipe a dog’s ass, my game with Robert sets off a domino effect of sorts. I go on to spend about nine hours at the park that weekend, a few hours each day from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning. I play around 10 games and talk to scores of passersby.

I play with John Vincent, an emergency paramedic at the Pueblo County Jail. He wears a tight blue shirt and is built like a tank. He looks me in the eyes and laughs heartily at my jokes. His arms look like barrels. As he describes his work, I imagine his arms holding me down on a gurney while I go into anaphylactic shock after an overdose, or stitching up my side after a fight, or lifting me onto a stretcher as I fade in and out of consciousness. In an odd way, I feel comforted.

He asks me about myself and chuckles when I tell him I go to college.

“If they’re not drinkin’ beer they’re just playing fuckingvideo games,” he says of college students. “Pro’ly aren’t even drinkin’ beers these days,” he adds.

I assure him that we are.

We even get into a polite argument over his characterization of his patients as, “mostly junkies and gangbangers.” By the end of it, we’ve drawn two games and sat for a good 20 minutes. As he leaves, he tells me that I “don’t seem strung out,” and to check if he still has a Facebook because I’d be welcome to one of his barbecues.

I play with Nick and Elena, who had met one another at a coffee shop 20 minutes earlier. Both had gone out with no plans for the day, Nick struck up a conversation with Elena and now they were spending the day together. Both are in their mid-20s and they laugh at one another like old friends or an established couple. Elena is in school in Albany, N.Y., and Nick works at a piano shop downtown. After Nick wins, he builds a small tower of dominoes while I chat with Elena. After 10 minutes or so, they seem anxious to spend more time alone so I tell them to head on. They tell me the stand was cute and walk off together.

I play with Harold, a retired criminal informant. He tells me he was living with biker gangs, buying drugs from them, wearing a wire, and feeding the information to the police. It was his dad’s job as well, so Harold started this line of work young, busting high school drug dealers at age 14. Since quitting the force, he’s become a Jehovah’s Witness and is now five years clean. (He tells me that many C.I.’s develop habits on the job. He was no exception). I tell him that I would be terrible at that job.

“Easy money,” he tells me, which I find hard to believe. He offers me the names of a few people that work on the police department who I could contact for a job, and I respectfully decline. He beats me at bones, stays to talk a little longer and then decides to move along.

By the time the rain clouds threaten on Sunday, I’m packing my stand into my big yellow cart, preparing to push it back to campus. I feel content—I had been so terrible at bones that I only won one game. It seems beside the point.  

As I push my cart down Tejon, I think about all the people I met. The stories they shared with me and the ones that I shared with them. The equal footing we’d stood on, playing dominoes with one another. We were interacting, opening those parts of ourselves that most certainly would have stayed closed. It felt honest.

When I get back to my room I unpack my cart, pull out my bag and start leafing through my legal pad, looking for a sense of what tied the weekend together. As I leaf through the pages, I start to think about the whole thing differently. I’m confronted with the fact that I’d taken notes on everything: the weather, my opponents’ appearance and demeanor,and anything else that went on in the park. Maybe the purpose of the whole thing was to be a spectator, just in a more direct, interactive way. Sure, games had helped spark conversations, but they were conversations that, despite my participation in, I was also observing. The honest, genuine interactions I had were now ones I intended to write about, to catalogue.

As I sit and think about it from this angle, I feel conflicted. I feel a little idealistic and a little silly. More than anything, I feel like a bit of a jackass.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Old Ghosts Never Die

Rachel Johnson sits down with Colorado College students and staff to discuss their paranormal experiences in many of the major buildings around campus. Whether or not you buy into this compelling anecdotal evidence for the existence of ghosts, this article engages with figures of CC’s past, and suggests that they might endure in its present. Bemis Hall residents especially should give this one a read. 

Gossip Issue, 2006 

The darkness made me feel incredibly uneasy as I sat alone in Bemis Great Hall. The moonlight through the trees formed flickering silhouettes above the empty fireplace. Although many residents were sleeping upstairs, it felt as if not a living soul had ever entered the building. It was past midnight, and I had been waiting over two hours for someone I had never met to appear. I knew Debbie A. Dewitt, a nighttime custodian, would have to show up eventually, but as I sat in silence, I began to lose faith. Once I heard noises coming from the walls. I decided it would be better to try to contact Dewitt in the safety of daylight. As I stood up to leave, a shadow suddenly stretched across the hallway as Dewitt opened the door. Even though we had scheduled no meeting and I was basically waiting for a stranger, Dewitt walked toward me as if she knew why I was there. Tucking her long, black hair behind her ears, she placed her bags on the floor. I knew I was in for some good ghost stories. 

“Where to begin…?” Dewitt leaned up against the brick wall next to me. Her voice grew raspier with every word, as she told me tales from the dark side of Colorado College. 

Dewitt remembers her first ghost encounter well. She was cleaning the second floor of the Tutt Science Center sometime past midnight when, “Outta nowhere, bare female footprints appeared on the newly mopped floor.” She said, “They showed up one at a time, as if someone was walking down the hall after me—but there wasn’t anyone else in the building.” 

Dewitt has had innumerable supernatural encounters while working at CC. She has seen footprints appear more than once in Tutt. “I am up on the second floor of the Tutt Science Center a lot, mopping the tile floor, it gets all shiny and slick, ya know?” Dewitt said. “Every single time, I will be mopping and footprints will appear in the shiny mopped area, one at a time. Sometimes you can hear a girl giggling.” 

Throughout her years working at CC, Dewitt has gotten to see and speak with ghosts from all ages and eras. She claims that almost every building on campus is haunted. 

Dewitt is not alone in her experiences. Many professors, students, and guests have witnessed the lively paranormal community on campus. Two of the most social ghosts, Lady Bemis and Dorothea Cornick, were once in fact active members of the Colorado College community while alive. Although dead, the commitment they gave in life has been more than enough to bind them to the school from beyond the grave. 

Many women in Bemis can’t blame a roommate for any strange noises or feelings of being watched late at night—most rooms are singles. Yet, many residents do speak of such aberrations. Most often, those anomalies take the form of the building’s spectral overseer, Lady Bemis. 

Alice Cogswell Bemis was the wife of Judson Moss Bemis, who founded Bemis Hall in 1908. For many years it was the social center for women on campus. When the building was first created, 83 women lived there in total and men were not allowed to live in the building.

Lady Bemis died in 1942 and was buried next to her daughter Marjorie Delight. Although the cause of Marjorie’s death is unknown, local rumor states that a man snuck into her room at night and murdered her. Because of this, the Bemis family donated the all-female dorm in order to provide a safe haven for the women on campus. Apparently, the ghosts feel secure here too. Marjorie Delight is often heard by Bemis residents skipping down the halls and laughing late at night. 

Despite her daughter’s playful specter, Lady Bemis is the dorm’s truly constant companion, prowling the hallways and keeping watch over the building at all times. “I worked here over Christmas break last year. For the first week, Old Lady Bemis would be sitting right there on the piano every day,” said Dewitt. “Sometimes she would be sitting over there on that one couch in the corner, but she was always here.” 

“She wears the same dress as in that picture,” Dewitt continued, looking across the room at the large oil painting of Lady Bemis in a white dress. “I’ve seen her in a darker dress too. Sometimes I would say ‘Hi’ so not to offend her.”

The painting of Alice Cogswell Bemis and Marjorie Delight hangs above the mantel in Bemis Hall. The lights that illuminate her face and eyes never turn off. “I could feel her watching me. She had been watching me for awhile.” Dewitt said as she nodded her head, wide-eyed. 

Tom Lindblade, professor of drama and a CC ghost aficionado, notes that “Bemis is very weird—lots of strange things happen there.”

The answer is simple: it’s Alice.

The ghosts of Bemis Hall aren’t limited to physical manifestations; their haunting is largely electrical. “Go in the back by where the head resident lives. If you touch anything metal you get shocked,” Lindblade said, “There is a very large electrical current through the whole south side of Bemis. You can’t avoid it.” 

Whenever former RLC of Old Town and Bemis head resident, Renee Estes, grabbed the doorknob to the first floor HR apartment, “I, along with anyone who walks in this back hallway, gets shocked.” 

Like former HR Addison Diehl, who constantly experienced strange phenomena in the apartment, Estes had many brushes with the paranormal. Two years ago in late fall, Estes and her boyfriend were alone in the residence, packing up to leave for the weekend. “I went to turn off my stereo and the electrical message, ‘Goodbye’ appeared as it always does when you turn it off. It also says ‘Hello’ when you turn it on,” Estes said. 

Although off, the stereo clicked back on as Estes went to leave. Standing in the doorway, feet from the appliance, she could only watch as the stereo turned on and off incessantly, only saying ‘Goodbye’ and never ‘Hello’. After battling the stubborn radio for several minutes, Estes finally had to unplug it. 

The following spring, Estes had some friends over. It was late in the evening. “Everyone was hanging out in the living room. The bedroom, where the stereo was, was completely empty.”

“I think Mrs. Bemis really likes The Who” Estes laughed. “Because all of a sudden, The Who was blaring so loudly that I could physically walk into the room to turn it down.”

Estes shared feelings of being under surveillance with many of her Bemis residents. “I felt like I had been watched for awhile,” said sophomore Franny Frischkorn about her freshman year spent in Bemis. 

One night, before falling asleep, Frischkorn felt a very strong presence emanating from her closet. “I couldn’t close my eyes, no matter how hard I tried,” she said. 

Although paralyzed by the energy in the room, Frischkorn eventually freed herself and ran into the bathroom down the hall. There was a girl there that Frischkorn had never met before. 

“I did not know the girl. She did not introduce herself to me: she just looked at me. She asked if I felt a spiritual energy in the room.” Frischkorn said, “She asked me if the paralyzing energy was coming from the closet.”

Frischkorn later found out that the girl in the bathroom that night had previously lived in her room. One year earlier, she had experienced the same thing. 

Although the basement of Cossitt Hall hosts a cadaver lab, the bodies are not the only departed inhabitants of the building. Late at night, some dancers say they can see Dorothea Cornick’s ghost quietly watching them from the balcony as they move across her studio. 

In the early 1950s, Dorothea Cornick attended a summer dance session at CC. There, she met her husband and fellow dancer, Norman Cornick. Dorothea eventually took a position as a seamstress and company dancer. For nearly 30 years, until her death in the 1980s, Dorothea was a department fixture, floating about the studio in her characteristic long, white dress. The Cossitt dance studio was dedicated in her memory.

Until 12 years ago, Dorothea’s ghost was a minor nuisance, occasioning strange sounds and the rare appearance. Then, one night, two construction workers were staying late, removing asbestos from a basement crawl space. As the late evening approached, they heard drums in the distance. The dance studios were completely empty; the students had left for break. The drumbeats grew closer and closer when, suddenly, the dark crawlspace grew light, and the stairwell above them was illuminated. There, at the top, a woman loomed overhead. She was wearing a dress with a full flowing skirt. Her long, red hair covered her face. The workers glanced away, thinking it was a freakish trick of the light. When they looked back, the woman was hovering above them. As she slowly turned towards the workers, her face was dark and sunken in, the skull easily revealed. 

“Both of the workers had seen her. Both were chilled to the bone,” said Lindblade, whose personal curiosity about Dorothea’s ghost led him to investigate the story. 

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The following morning, Lindblade said, the workers told the CC staff that they could no longer work in Cossitt for personal reasons. As they were leaving, a member of the janitorial staff approached them, describing their encounter exactly despite never having met them. 

The workers were astonished that other people had experienced the same thing they had: the drums and especially the woman with the long red hair and skeletal face. “Some members of the janitorial staff still refuse to work there,” Lindblade said. Lindblade is convinced that Dorothea haunts Cossitt because she wants to maintain the studio as strictly a space for artists. She appears to intruders such as construction workers in order to ensure that Cossitt is used for nothing outside of her beloved dance. 

“When I heard the story, I wanted to find out more about Dorothea and her spirit,” said Lindblade. When Lindblade talked with some of her previous students, he learned that Dorothea had died of sinus cancer that ate away at her face, desiccating the skin and revealing the bones underneath. 

Lindblade claims that she still walks the studio. “When I am in the dance studio at night, I feel her around. You feel someone’s watching you,” he said. A construction worker quit this year because of his encounter with a ghost in Cossitt. Although security guard Jason Goss has had numerous encounters with poltergeists in the studio, he has chosen to remain at his job, collecting audio recordings and photos of Dorothea or one of her friends. Goss has even had physical encounters with the ghosts. “I was in the room with the old spiral staircase as it was being renovated,” he said. “As I was on my way out, I felt a shove in the mid-lower back of me. It was enough force to knock me on my tiptoes and push me forward.”

My eyes trailed Dewitt as she collected her things and disappeared down the stairs and into the shadowy basement. I found myself sitting straight up, my clammy hands tightly clenched around my pen, the hair on my arms stiff with fear. As I got up to make the long, cold walk home, I looked over my shoulder to make sure no one was following me. Just as I was turning my head back in the state of relief, Lady Bemis’ portrait caught my eye and I knew that although I was the only person in the room, I was not the only one listening to Dewitt’s stories.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Consuming Heroes

At the end of this piece, the author, Sarah Ross makes a curious plea to readers: “We must tell men’s stories.” This might sound passé at best and dangerous at worst, given that recent discourse has mostly called to de-center masculine narratives. But the key to Ross’s plea is in what kind of stories she wants us to tell: “the real, full, uncomfortable ones.” The author of this piece is urging us to come to terms with the hidden suffering that many men face, unable to be vulnerable. And Ross follows her own call to action in the course of writing: Ross describes the stories of three men who were, in her view, “consumed” by Americans’ cultural expectations of masculinity. Post #MeToo, as we attempt to grapple with cultural misogyny and shift the narrative of what masculinity means, hearing the tragedy of these stories in detail is all the more important.

Uncomfortable Issue, 2013

On Feb. 14, 2006, Wyoming resident Colton Bryant fell from an oil rig in Sublette County, Wyo., and died the next day. The rig didn’t meet minimum safety requirements.

On Feb. 17, 2011, Dave Duerson, defensive back and safety for the Chicago Bears, sent a text to his family that read, “Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank,” before he shot himself in the chest.

On Nov. 20, 2010, Nic DeNinno, twenty-five-year old veteran of the Iraq War, lay in a bed in a psychiatric facility in Pueblo, Colorado with the doors and windows bolted to prevent him and other patients from jumping off of the six-story building. 

These men and the tragedies they endured are different. However, a thread links their lives and, in two of the cases, their deaths. Each individual provided something to satiate a societal appetite: Bryant provided oil, Duerson provided entertainment, and DeNinno provided security, and they were each damaged while providing their respective resources. They also all represent some idealized version of American masculinity: Bryant was a cowboy, Duerson an athlete and DeNinno a soldier. These romanticized versions of male American heroes are venerated to justify exploitation and to ignore how damaged many supposed “heroes” are. As consumers, we are complicit in this exploitation by remaining numb or conveniently ignorant to the repercussions of our appetites. 

The Cowboy 

Colton Bryant grew up in flinty-soiled, big-skied Wyoming. He tamed horses and went hunting and loved his truck. When he was 20, he went to work on the oil fields as his father had before him. He died in the middle of a windy, frostbitten winter when he slipped and fell off an Ultra Petroleum oil rig. Despite a yearly revenue of $592 million, Ultra Petroleum neglected to install the $2,000 safety railing that could have saved Bryant’s life. After his death, the governor sent a plaque to Bryant’s mother, thanking her son for his service and the sacrifice he made. 

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Driving through Wyoming is like driving on the bridge between what America is and what it is supposed to be. Out one window, there are wild horses running through sagebrush and small towns that smell like smoke and leather. Out the other is the Wyoming of quick fixes and fast food, of trailer parks where men working on oil rigs sleep. This Wyoming has towns devoted to refineries and oil pumps kicking into the night; it reflects a cultural insatiability for cheap and quick oil and natural gas.

In between Rawlins (home to the men’s penitentiary) and Laramie (home to the state’s only University) there is a town called Wamsutter, population 461, elevation 6,772 feet. Wamsutter sits on the uncharitable, rocky soil characteristic of Wyoming. The earth there feels like a crusty, thin shell, with a massive sky overhead. It is a shock, then, to realize what lies below this inhospitable, flaky land: oil and natural gas, the reason for Wamsutter’s existence. 

 Since the most recent natural gas industry boom in 2000, there has been a sharp decline in the quality of life in boomtowns and a spike in the loss of human life. When it comes to extracting resources from the earth quickly, the men who are doing the work are treated as expendable. Bryant was not an anomaly on the oil fields; his death was the third in six months on rigs contracted by Ultra Petroleum, and as the natural gas boom flares, Wyoming remains at or near the top of the national on-the-job death toll.

All Wyoming boomtowns have experienced an increase in crime, domestic violence, and drug use—meth use in boomtowns has increased 300 percent since 2000. In the past decade, 3,000 oil workers have moved to boomtowns in Sublette County to work on the rigs. The work is hard, the time off isolating, and many of the men have turned to some cocktail of violence and drugs to remedy exhaustion and loneliness. As one Wamsutter citizen once said to my family when we stopped there for gas, “We’re not supposed to do meth, and we’re not supposed to hit each other. If we can’t do that, at least give us a titty bar.” 

Some try to justify the presence and impact of extraction industries by evoking the tradition of the American West, calling the men who work in these industries the “new cowboys” and glorifying those who have died like fallen soldiers. The reality is that these men are treated as cogs in a machine to produce resources that America is addicted to. It is a comforting image to think that the men providing these resources are hard workers in a tough environment, but this image justifies our insatiable demand for resources. We are not breeding a new generation of cowboys (or heroes) on the oil fields, but one of broken, addicted men in broken, stopgap towns. To treat Bryant as a martyr for some greater cause is to ignore the corporate irresponsibility that caused his death and to diminish the damaging impacts the oil rigs are having on Wyoming boomtowns and the men who work there.  

The Athlete   

David Duerson is one of many National Football League (NFL) players to have committed suicide in recent years. Their deaths seem mysterious: why would some of the most successful, celebrated and wealthy men in the country kill themselves? And why would they kill themselves in such chilling ways: by drinking antifreeze or driving their cars into tanker trucks at 100 miles per hour? 

 As Mark Fainaru-Wada, the author of "League of Denial," explained in a recent NPR interview, these men suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a form of traumatic brain injury that occurs after multiple concussions or brain trauma from repeated pounding on the football field (the trauma is not unlike that experienced by soldiers shaken by bombs). Athletes who suffer from CTE can lose their memory or experience personality changes. The former center of the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Webster, was a local hero and key to the Steelers victory in four Super Bowls during the 1970s. It was shocking when, according to Fainaru-Wada, Webster “lost all his money, his marriage, and ended up spending nights in a bus terminal in Pittsburgh.” When he died in 2002, an autopsy revealed that he had CTE. 

Duerson’s suicide note reads, “My mind slips. Thoughts get crossed. Cannot find words … feel really alone. Thinking of other NFL players with brain injuries … I think something is seriously damaged in my brain.” He was right—he was also found to have had CTE. Despite this disturbing letter and the fact that more and more football players are dying or undergoing extreme personality changes, the NFL vehemently denies that football is at all related to brain damage. In fact, after Webster killed himself, the NFL formed its own committee to research brain trauma. Unsurprisingly, the committee claimed that that there is no connection between football and traumatic brain damage. In fact, “the NFL went so far as to suggest that professional football players do not suffer from repetitive hits to the head in football games,” Fainaru-Wada said. 

 For a $10 billion industry like the NFL, maintaining a positive image is key to its success. The league doesn’t want public perception to change, and it is possible that the public may not want the perception to change, either. As Fainaru-Wada said, football is “a collision sport and its violence is loved by all of us who love the game.” According to Brian Phillips, a contributor to the sports blog “Grantland,” NFL players are talked about like “soldiers in the trenches.” He argues that there is so much pressure to be a “warrior” that vulnerability or a “lack of heroism” is punished. This is evident in the most recent NFL scandal which has developed throughout the fall of 2013: Richie Incognito has been accused of bullying fellow Dolphins player Martin Johnson after threatening Johnson’s family, leaving racist voicemails, and sending homophobic texts. Johnson left the team to seek emotional support, and reactions from athletes, fans and commentators have ranged from disdain to cruelty. Johnson has been called “soft,” a “grown-ass man who needs to deal” and a “coward.” In this hyper-masculinized sport with rhetoric that compares athletes to warriors, there is no room for the reality, which is that there is desperation beneath the guise of impenetrability that can lead to suicide. 

One of the most stereotypically masculine and American sports appears to be inextricably linked with the destruction of its players for our entertainment. An increasing number of men in the NFL are unable to drive, declare bankruptcy, and lose their families due to brain injuries sustained during their time playing professional football. As passive audience members, it is important to understand exactly what we are consuming and whom it is damaging when we recline on a couch to watch football.  

The Soldier

The dissonance between the myth and actuality of the American male hero is perhaps nowhere more pronounced than in the military, where rhetoric rarely matches action or reality. According to David Morris, Vietnam veteran and author, “Even as most Americans seem to agree that wars can be devastating to the people who fight them and their loved ones, the poor state of the Veterans Affairs system indicates that, as a society, we don’t feel much responsibility for such costs.” 

Men in the military are different than, for example, men on oil rigs. They don’t provide a tangible resource like oil workers do, and consumption does not fit into the equation as neatly as in the other examples. In the NFL and in the oil and gas industry, corporations’ best interests are served by sacrificing the lives and well-being of the men who sustain their industries. While soldiers are not working in the same industrial worlds, I would argue that it shares the blind desire for security and protection and a dearth of awareness surrounding the consequences of these desires that is having devastating effects on soldiers. In America, there is an ethos of protection at all costs, and the United States is very willing to engage in attacks against perceived and real threats (see: America’s decade long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama’s near-intervention in Syria). This feeling of entitlement to security-on-demand can only exist when we are at least somewhat unaware of the consequences of our demands. One of the many consequences are the soldiers returning to the United States with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Nic DeNinno is one of two million Americans to have fought in America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also one of the 20 to 30 percent of veterans with PTSD. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of veterans have PTSD, there is still a stigma surrounding those whose battle wounds are internal. According to a New York Times article by David Finkel, an author and military expert, “many soldiers with psychological injuries envy those with physical injuries, because those soldiers can see that something is really wrong with them.” Facilities like the one DeNinno stayed in are attempting to help veterans with traumatic brain injuries, but one in three homeless people is a veteran (96 percent of them men), many of whom suffer from PTSD or some other mental illness. 

During his stay in the Colorado psychiatric facility, Nic DeNinno wrote in his journal, “I FEEL SO FUCKING VIOLENT RIGHT NOW.” Another veteran at the facility wrote, “I still see the bombs, I see bombs all the time … make it stop … make the bombs go away. I don’t want to see them anymore. How do I become normal? How can I stop seeing bombs?” These men see dead babies and bleeding soldiers when they sleep. Some of them are unrecognizable to their families and friends, some of them are afraid of what they might do to themselves or others. 

There are two versions of the American soldier most often represented in the media and talked about. Both are represented as heroes and neither is the man writing about having war flashbacks. The first is the Army Strong soldier who is broad-shouldered, healthy looking and used to advertise for the military. The second is the soldier being mourned. It is a tragedy when soldiers die, and they should be grieved over. However, using soldiers’ deaths as an opportunity to promote a myth about the “heroic soldier” does a disservice both to the dead and to veterans. As a result, other soldiers, namely those who return with PTSD, are virtually ignored. 

It is easier to take responsibility for and mythologize the ideal of the hero soldier than to recognize that these damaged and ill men are an inevitable consequence of our demands for security. In other words, it is easier to mourn the fallen or celebrate a myth than to engage with those whose pain is our responsibility.   

The Consumer 

These three men were exploited for what they could provide. As consumers, we are complicit in this exploitation. Like the bumper sticker reads, “freedom is not free.” Our satiation is not free. As author Alexandra Fuller writes in her book "The Legend of Colton H. Bryant," “Boys like Colton Bryant are the beating hearts at the other end of every light switch we flick, every car journey we make.” 

Each of these men and their colleagues have been lauded as “heroes.” Calling these men heroes is to put them on a pedestal and disengage with their realities. In reality, society’s demands damaged them. This myth of the hero is inextricably linked with the way that American masculinity is constructed. According to Michael Kimmel, author of "Manhood in America," the stories of American men are not told: “American men have no history…we have libraries filled with words of men about the works of men … we have portraits of athletes, scientists, and soldiers … but such works do not explore how the experience of being a man, of manhood, structured the lives of the men who are their subjects.” 

If we call them heroes, the stories of Bryant, DeNinno and Duerson are not really being told; this myth justifies their continued exploitation by systemic structures that do not care about individuals. While this country is happy to claim the oil and gas production that makes our rate of consumption possible, our superlative military and the potently American NFL, we do not acknowledge the pain that is stifled and ignored behind the screens of our expectations of American masculinity. It is far simpler to not tell the stories of the men whose bodies and minds we are using for entertainment or convenience. By not telling their stories, we can talk about them as one-dimensional mythical creatures of masculinity that are impervious. 

The first step towards halting the violence and damage occurring in these explored areas is to open our eyes as consumers and engage directly with the pain we are causing and with the expectations and spaces we are leaving for masculinity in America. We must tell men’s stories—the real, full, uncomfortable ones.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Letter from Iowa

In the 1960 debate between then-presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, JFK’s picture of perfect health compared to the sweaty, fumbling Nixon was a major factor that pushed JFK ahead to win the race. Though the content of politicians’ speech matters, their body language and physical appearance makes a difference in voters’ minds and opinions when election day comes. As we look ahead to the primaries, it’s valuable to reflect on the political landscape of 2007; though it seems romanticized given the current administration, the familiar faces remind us of the flexibility and evolution of the political game. Johanna Kasimow takes us back to the presidential debates in Iowa and analyzes the subtle physical tactics of the candidates—giving readers a framework through which to judge our past and future leaders.

Language Issue, 2007

In a meeting in Grinnell, Iowa, Democratic candidate Joe Biden said, in a matter of minutes, that “our economy is on the balls of its heels,” that he will “free us from the iron grip of the oligarchs of oil” and that the world is in “the palm of our hands.” 

The spoken language of candidates, which draws extensively from body metaphors, reinforces the importance of body language in a political campaign. In their book The Definitive Book of Body Language Allan and Barbara Pease point out that an important component of our everyday speech derives from our concept of the body. In the weeks leading up to the Iowa Caucus, each candidate is “standing up for” or “taking a stand against” something—universal health care, the war in Iraq, abortion—you name it. And in no uncertain terms the candidates are saying to the Iowa voters “stand up for me” on January 3. 

Perhaps body language speaks louder than words, and candidates send the strongest message to voters through movement, posture, tone of voice, and facial expressions. “Those are the cues we use to judge people in everyday life, and while voters may or may not be confident of what they think about policy, they are more confident they know how to size a person up,” explained John Neffinger, a partner with a Washington-based consulting firm, KNP Communications, that works to prepare speakers for public audiences. 

Bruce Gronbeck, Professor of Media Studies and Political Culture at the University of Iowa, said that the average person is clueless about what the military should do in Iraq. “We can’t judge that, so we have to put an awful lot of faith on our assessment of the quality of the human that is talking to us,” an assessment that is largely unconscious. According to Gronbeck, the candidates may have very different styles, but above all, their voice quality and body language must be consistent with their verbal message. Neffinger agrees, “Candidates whose non-verbals are in sync with what they are talking about are viewed as trustworthy and ‘authentic’—even when they are not.” 

Gronbeck noted how Joe Biden aggressively leans forward, uses his fists in a “podium pounding” gesture, and often stands with one leg in front of the other when he speaks. “His voice, his words, and his stance are all coordinated to leave the image of somebody who is mad and disgusted with where the country is and who is demanding serious reform that is going to take very aggressive action.” 

Biden’s tough bearing of body may be in sync with his words, but he and Republican Mitt Romney often move into risky territory with an ill-timed smile. Neffinger noted, “They have great smiles, but they sometimes smile even when they are talking about unhappy topics like war. Some people may follow their point, but many will instinctively ask, ‘What the hell is wrong with him?’” 

An ill-timed smile may result in an ill-fated presidential run. “Candidates whose non-verbals are out of sync with what they are saying will not only fail to get their message across, they’ll raise serious questions about whether they mean what they say, or are just saying what they want people to hear,” Neffinger said. For example, former Vice President Al Gore may have been stiffed in the 2000 presidential election, but he would have helped himself if he had loosened up. His stiff, upright posture stood in stark contrast to his verbal message, and also to the ease of movement of George W. Bush. 

In the Brown and Black Forum in Des Moines, Iowa on December 1, Democrat John Edwards blinked his eyes rapidly and continuously. It was distracting, but did it also detract from the populist, son of a mill-worker image that he cultivates? Tonja Olive, Colorado College Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies, explained that people form impressions of honesty, moral character, and intelligence based on eye contact. Lack of eye contact, like frequent blinking, is often interpreted as “a message that a person is not as moral or as good” as someone with a steady gaze she said. Frequent blinking plays into previously existing doubts about Edwards’s character as a slick trial-lawyer or a high-priced-haircut hypocrite. When it comes down to it, Olive said, people intuitively trust the body. “We can see incongruity in the message and the non-verbal implication of that message.” Olive was quick to point out that reading into body language such as blinking does not necessarily reflect the intent of the sender, in this case John Edwards, but rather the perception of the receiver, or voter. She took a step back. “It could also be dry eyes.” 

Neffinger said, “The key to successful body language for politicians is to project the two most important traits of a leader: strength and warmth.” And they have to project them at the same time. This may be a unique challenge for Hillary Clinton, the first serious female presidential candidate. Body language is often interpreted differently for men and women. For example, Olive explains that direct eye contact for men is perceived as a statement of power and dominance, whereas for women direct eye contact is perceived as sexual or aggressive.

Clinton’s body language must communicate a balance of the feminine and masculine, and also remain loyal to an already conceived image of Clinton. Neffinger says Clinton has been “very consistently very strong, so she has managed to offset any gender-based impressions of relative weakness. If anything, she has seemed less warm than voters might prefer.” At an event in Ankeny, Iowa, Clinton did a masterful balancing act. She gave a formal health care policy speech behind a podium and then sat down next to two women on the stage whom Clinton had brought with her and who had struggled with their health and the cost of health insurance. As the women told their devastating stories, Clinton sat next to them nodding, looking as if she was on the brink of tears, but never letting one drop. A minute later she stood up again to answer detailed health care policy questions. In a matter of minutes, Clinton projected strength, compassion, and competence. 

This was no accident. Neffinger says that almost all the candidates receive formal coaching to some extent, especially before the debates. He notes that Republican Rudy Giuliani has had a noticeable shift in demeanor “from a tough-talking mayor to a smiley jokester, reportedly with the help of a fulltime aide who focuses on his delivery.” 

In a presidential race where the leading contenders are neck and neck in polls, candidates are wise to pay close attention to their, well, neck—and hands and eyes and legs. The voters certainly will.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Race and Racism at Colorado College

In this 2014 piece, Han Sayles (then Editor-in-Chief of Cipher) reflects on the state of racism at CC and interviews a number of knowledgeable community members on the topic. Reading it now, we can reflect on what has changed in the past five years and what has remained the same. Some debates mentioned in Sayles' interviews, like the debate over name of the Butler Center, have faded into the past. Others, like the dedication of faculty members to the cause of antiracism, remain pressing, to say the least.

Beginnings and Endings Issue, 2014

Here’s the truth: At Colorado College, I’ve never been discriminated against, treated differently or even felt mildly uncomfortable because of my race.

Yet, this isn’t because CC is the paradisiacal “camp college” that we want to believe it is, a post-racial haven for progressive intellectuals where diversity is embraced. If CC was this place, then your response to my statement might be, “Of course you haven’t experienced racism—not here!” But let’s be real. The reason my declaration is true is because I look white, not because CC has achieved the harmonious racial utopia that we advertise on our brochures.

Here’s another truth: I’m half Mexican, on my mother’s side, though you wouldn’t know it if you saw me. I pass. I pass spectacularly into the homogeneity of whiteness on our campus, and I reap all the privilege of being a white-looking student. However, I strongly identify with my Mexican roots—at home, I listen to my relatives speak in Spanish on the phone, my mom and I dance to mariachis and we make tamales during Christmas. I don’t question my cultural authenticity. But part of navigating my racial identity at CC has been realizing that it’s only a walk in the park due to my skin color; I have the ability to engage in my cultural heritage conscientiously. Even though I and another minority student look the same on paper to the Financial Aid Office, the discrepancies between my experience and theirs is likely enormous—namely, I don’t encounter any form of racism here. That’s not a surprise, but it’s problematic because there are students of color on this campus who struggle every day with their experiences at CC, which are often determined, warped and characterized entirely by their race. This is not a new problem, and it’s not one that will be fixed by a single article or action. It does, however, demand all of our immediate and indefinite attention. I stand behind every honest faculty member and student who has said it, many times over, before me: students of color at CC have been systematically marginalized and are forced to encounter daily racist microaggressions. What’s more, even after they have continued to reiterate their experiences to the institution, their voices have fallen onto seemingly deaf ears. That being said, I can’t and have no desire to speak on behalf of students and faculty of color on the issue, which is why I asked. I asked with no intent to enforce a blanket narrative, since every student’s perspective and experience is different—a web of intersectionalities. What's more, their individual responses do not represent the realities of all students of color at CC. To preserve these nuances, and in an attempt to resist modifying their voices, I have compiled transcripts from the conversations and stories they relayed to me about their lives on campus. Across the board, they spoke about the daily subtleties of indirect comments, dismissive interactions and the often unspoken tones in communication with peers, faculty, and staff that culminate in a new language—a silent, adverse language that can be understood clearly by those who are subject to its discrimination and those who choose to hear it.

It becomes apparent in these interviews that what we are saying about race on a platform at CC is antithetical to what is being said implicitly in our actions. What we are really saying about race isn’t necessarily verbalized, but it’s definitely institutionalized and proliferated to maintain the same message. All these interviews articulate in various ways what that message is, and although I didn’t search for a connecting strand, there was agreement throughout the interviews that CC is failing to support students of color. Clearly, our unwillingness to engage in conversations openly about race is perpetuating this failure, and as a community, if that’s what we are, we have to stop feigning ignorance to these experiences. We can, we must, do more than just listen, but listening is the first step.

Beza Taddess ’15, Black Student Union (BSU) member

HS: What has been your experience with race at CC?

BT: Let’s see—the other day I overheard a conversation in Benji’s that “all the black kids hang out together.” Have you ever asked why that is? Imagine being the only one at lunch who can’t relate to skiing that weekend or going to your friends’ cabin in the woods ... you would feel like an outsider and that’s what it’s like. I’m lucky—I have friends who care about minority issues, but I also have friends who don’t know anything. It’s heartbreaking that at an elite liberal arts college there are people who honestly believe racism is over. The truth is, it’s somebody’s lived reality every day and, as we stand now, it absolutely sucks for minorities on this campus.

HS: What are some of those daily experiences?

BT: You can see people’s thoughts when they walk by like, “Oh, there’s a black person.” Or how everyone mistakes one [minority] person for another, I mean there’s not a lot of us on this campus, the least you could do is learn our names. Also, one thing that really turned me off to house parties forever was seventh block of my freshman year. I went out to a house party with a friend and we were dancing with a bunch of these guys for a while when one guy says to me, “Oh, you’re really nice, but I’m not attracted to black girls.” It was so incredibly racist.

HS: Do you think that white CC students are aware of what it’s like?

BT: No. I don’t think it’s a question of blame either. If it’s not who you are, you tend to think it doesn’t exist. Yes, you might not be a minority, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an effort to understand them. It just takes stopping for a moment to realize, “Oh shit, there are some people on this campus who can’t just walk into a party and expect to hook up with whoever they want.” It’s the privilege to do that. It’s realizing that someone’s college experience is different. It doesn’t take intense sociology classes to foster your ability to sympathize with others. Especially on a campus this small when your experience is so influenced by everyone around you, I think we could all make a little more effort to understand each other’s experiences.

HS: Do you think it’s possible for college campuses to actually address racial tensions, and if so, in what way?

BT: Absolutely. To start: train faculty and staff as to how to interact with minority students, how to frame questions. [It’s important] for minorities, to be able to speak about their experiences and to have those experiences valued, the faculty needs training to address the sensitivities. Take NSO as another opportunity. We talk about drugs, sex, and alcohol over and over during orientation. But are you really going to teach these 18 year-old kids, who are maybe interacting with other minority students for the first time in their lives, about gender equality and race issues in 30 minutes? No. I think if we truly value diversity on this campus then we would make sure that the experience of diverse students is just as exciting, as intellectually stimulating and as great as any other student’. Come on.

HS: Have you had a class with a minority professor at CC?

BT: No ... I took a half block with Mario Montano ... holy shit. I think that’s a lot of people’s experience.

HS: Do you think that prompting these difficult conversations about race is something that the administration should provoke?

BT: I think the Office of Minority and International Students (OMIS), BSU, and SOMOS provide that environment but clearly the majority of the campus doesn’t want that. BSU puts on an event, SOMOS puts on an event, but the people who come to those things are the people who already live that experience. It’s great to create community within the group, but the majority of CC students don’t care.

Aurora-Maria Bamba ’14, member of BSU, past Chair for SOMOS

HS: What has been your experience as a student of color at CC?

AB: I’m skeptical and saddened by the racial relationships on campus. I’m Mexican-American and my family is Chamorro, from Guam. I’m one of the only Pacific Islanders on campus. My first year was really hard because I was having trouble understanding: Why am I here? Especially when I was in classes—I couldn’t form my thoughts or write as well as my peers—I felt so behind. At the time, I didn’t understand institutional or structural racism, and I thought these inequalities were normal, so I didn’t question it. My first sociology course blasted me out of the water and changed what I wanted for myself, my family, and my community. My problem with race on campus right now: OMIS, which is now being called the Butler Center, caters to the white majority population here, but students of color don’t need to cater to the majority population. We bring so much to this campus and we don’t get much back. There are already so few resources for diversity of any kind, not only racial. These OMIS groups are safe spaces for minority students and if other people want to come and learn, cool. But I’m not going to be encouraging SOMOS leaders to say at the campus activities fair: “You don’t have to be Latino/a to join!” Instead, we should just say, “We celebrate Latino/a culture; we empower each other and learn.”

HS: How was your transition from freshman year to now?

AB: Freshman year, I didn’t join OMIS groups, but sophomore year, my best friend and I were invited to BSU. I felt like BSU provided a safe space where I could just be myself. It’s a family. It’s the one thing that kept me mentally healthy on campus because all that goes on with these microaggressions is so bad.

HS: Can you explain what microaggressions are?

AB: [Microaggressions are] comments or actions that are commonplace and may not seem prejudiced, but they are. It’s asking, “Where are you from?” [therefore] automatically assuming you don’t belong. Stuff like that has really affected me. It's when someone looks at you and expects you to answer a question when they’re talking about (in my case) Mexicans in class. Or even bigger stuff; my sophomore year, I was woken by four guys in my hallway screaming, “N*****, N*****, N*****” I was so scared, and I thought: Did I lock my door? I shouldn’t have to feel like that on campus. If it wasn’t for [BSU] or other connections that I had established, I wouldn’t have made it through college.

HS: Would you talk about your research for your Race and Ethnic Studies minor?

AB: My capstone looked at microaggressions. I have been working on collecting them since junior year and they were very easy to collect. CC Confessions was one of my data polls and I asked people to email me their experiences. Microaggressions are very small actions that are extremely hurtful. These same insults happen to the exact same group of people every single day. It’s when you hear a student say, like I heard the other day: “The only reason you bring diversity on campus is for the brochure.” It struck me, and I thought: what are students of color doing on this campus? Why should we have to feel like that? Why should we have to think like that? How I see it, at every event that OMIS groups host the only people who go are the only people who care about it. Going back to my capstone, my big question was: “How do minorities deal with microaggressions?” I took my own experience of BSU and SOMOS and talked about how that space became a pocket of resistance because of how myself and others felt during these groups. There’s not many spaces like that on campus. It’s unfair for only OMIS groups to be those spaces because students are doing all the work for themselves. There should be more mentorship, more support. There is a problem institutionally; I’m tired of CC having these token policies of diversity. They say, “We like diversity,” but in practice, it’s nothing; there is no substance here.

HS: What do you think of OMIS changing its name to Butler Center?

AB: It’s problematic. How dare they strip us of our fucking name. Who’s going to know? As a minority student, I’m glad they’re restructuring it, but calling it Butler Center, it’s a shame. The CC institution is constantly stripping OMIS with a lack of funding. We need the to go to conferences, we need to bring speakers. We need to start doing things for ourselves. There is little to no funding for OMIS groups. OMIS didn’t even provide senior stoles this year. They left it up to the groups because, with the time and the money, they thought it wasn’t worth the stoles. But I remember being a sophomore seeing seniors get their stoles and feeling like it was something to work towards. Those stoles mean something to students because it says, “I did contribute to CC.” You can see from just this micro event, OMIS groups having a hard time getting stoles for seniors, how the institution does not care about diversity on campus.

Chris Johnson, Riley Scholar-in-Residence of Race and Ethnic Studies (RES)

Heidi Lewis, Assistant Professor of Feminist and Gender Studies (FGS)

From CC’s webpage: Since 1988, CC has attracted minority scholars to teach on campus through its Riley Scholars program; it sponsors an average of four Ph.D. candidates or post-doctoral students each year, each of whom works and teaches part-time on campus.

HS: What do you think of the Riley Scholar Program?

CJ: Well, the Riley Scholars are through the Consortium for Faculty Diversity, which is designed to place minority faculty into tenure track positions. As far as what I think about the Riley Scholarship position here: CC is failing in that regard. It seems that the program is becoming more casual. There are several faculty members at CC who started as Rileys and have eventually gotten a tenure track job, but in my case, I was initially denied a second-year fellowship because the Deans said that there was only a certain amount allocated … and historically, that’s unprecedented. Eventually RES and FGS faculty appealed the Deans’ decision and Jill intervened on my behalf. But by then, I had been offered a tenure-track position elsewhere. The Riley program seems like a very expensive, casualized labor source for CC.

HS: Is it just a revolving door right now?

CJ: That’s what it seems like. I haven’t been here very long, but I have observed, and I have heard from other faculty that, for whatever reason, the college cannot retain faculty of color, whether they’re not choosing to keep them on or folks are moving on for their own reasons. I’ve had a great time teaching, it’s been a good experience, but I was brought here thinking there would be a greater opportunity for me to stick around.

HS: I’ve heard from a lot of students that you’re a mentor, and they are sad to see you go. Have your students in your classes talked about their experiences at CC on a whole, specifically students of color?

CJ: In my classes, I invite students to theorize through personal narrative and life history, and encourage them to apply texts and concepts to their present moment. I’ve met with the BSU a couple of times and heard their various perspectives. From what I’ve heard, it seems like students are very traumatized here. It seems like they just don’t have support from the institution. It seems like they’re called upon, and not just students of color but FemCo too, to educate their racist and heterosexist peers. They carry that burden of not only being in an oppressive environment but also having to create safe spaces for the hate of other students. I told them at one event: they don’t owe CC anything—CC owes them everything. They are called upon to educate their peers inside and outside the classroom. The liberal arts model depends on the sharing of experiences and they are actively decolonizing this college and democratizing it, and in doing so, it seems to be a very painful process. The clearest thing that I see is that the college has abandoned them.

HS: What are other campuses doing to provide mentorship or support for students of color?

CJ: Mentorship is one thing. If the college is not retaining and recruiting faculty to mentor, or even driving out faculty of color, that’s one issue. Pedagogically, there also is a larger issue. I teach black history. Black history hasn’t been taught here in at least five years, so we’ve already had more than one full class of students that has not studied black history. I’m teaching a class that should have prerequisites, but there are literally no prerequisites available. Students are underserved here if there are no courses in black history. For students in any liberal arts discipline to graduate without knowing W.E.B. Du Bois seems to me that they need to get their money back from the college. So, pedagogically, CC is, quite frankly, teaching a white supremacist system. How do students feel welcome if their history is neither taught nor respected? CC considers the history, culture, and theorizing of minority populations as marginal to the liberal arts. Students tell me that there are few trustworthy faculty across the college. And it seems that the kind of marginalization that happens to interdisciplinary fields, like RES and FGS, reflects hostility within the college to prioritize whiteness studies without calling it that. CC celebrates white subjects as knowledge producers, and white students as knowledge makers.

HS: Is it possible to have an environment on college campuses that is better, or freer from racial tensions in a society that is persistently racist?

CJ: Certainly, though you know one of the major problems with peer institutions I’ve been to, and I assume is the same here, is the faculty. These folks aren’t required to take—or if they are, they skip out of—diversity training. The most steadfast and resistant people are the faculty that have the most power. Until the college says conversations about race and class, colonialism, and patriarchy belong in every course on Shakespeare, instead of just every RES or FGS class, then we haven’t begun educating. As long as you marginalize racial and feminist subjects to the ID house and to the Glass House, we are under-serving every student here. All we are doing is perpetuating this institution’s historical white supremacy, what we’re calling “an education” here.

HS: What does training for faculty look like at the other institutions you’ve been to? I mean how can we help, a lot of students have mentioned it would be helpful.

CJ: It’s so much deeper than that. Academia insulates these kinds of abuses; you can’t go a week without news of another Title IX violation at an institution of higher education. Academic bureaucracies hide or even reward sexual harassment, racism, rape and rape culture. Faculty can opt out of diversity and sexual harassment training without repercussion. Unless there is some kind of vigorous enforcement it ... [Heidi Lewis joins]

HL: Can I just say that it’s problematic that faculty of color are almost always asked to communicate a solution-based narrative about race. I don’t know what you need to do! You know, I don’t ask my gay friends how NOT to be a heterosexist, because I know that long bodies of literature, speeches, and manifestos have been in existence decades, and I could go find them myself if I wanted to. I’m teaching a black feminist theory course this block, and these women have been saying almost the same thing since the 1890s. I mean, go do your homework! It’s not the same kind of expectation on both sides. I don’t know what white folks need to do; I mean white folks need to stop acting like black folks haven’t already been telling them this for decades! Sometimes I wonder if some academics have ever read Martin Luther King, JR. or W.E.B. Du Bois or all these people they claim to admire and appreciate.

CJ: See, this is also what’s being asked of students. Freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year students are sitting there racking their brains about how they can fix the racism. They are getting little to no help, and they don’t owe anybody anything.

HL: Fixing CC’s race problem is really above my pay grade.

CJ: Yes, if we are being asked to educate our peers and the faculty to be human beings—then what the hell is this liberal arts thing about? How are they teaching liberal arts here? I had to go through a faculty colloquium here at CC about pedagogy and the function of the liberal arts as learning to be human. Yet we were required to read stuff that was explicitly racist. Critics saying that anything other than Shakespeare wasn’t knowledge, and that ethnic studies in particular wasn’t knowledge. As if Shakespeare had nothing to say about class and race, sexism, and patriarchy. These are fantasies of many faculty here who have positions of power. What they count as knowledge and count as the liberal arts perpetuates colonial violence. And Shakespeare had plenty to say about colonialism.

HL: It’s purposeful and strategic to keep us preoccupied with this. I can’t do the work I do for the public, my communities who don’t have access to this space, and I can’t do the work in my classrooms if I’m taking all my time and energy to keep white people from being racist. You know how time-consuming that is? This is why faculty of color write texts like “Presumed Incompetent” and “The Imperial University,” because the kinds of work we are expected to do is not recognized, nor is it appreciated in the ways we need it to be. The minute we raise a critique we are often pinned as ungrateful or ignorant to the ways in which the entire Academy is racist. Sometimes I wonder if some people really do want to know how not to be racist. If you are racist in 2014, it’s because you want to be. In all honesty, I work on a campus that is less than two percent black on the faculty side, and I’m black and I work in a program that has one contractually-committed faculty member in it. What kind of message does that send?

CJ: It’s really obvious that FGS has one full-time faculty member and RES has none. The people who are asked to do all this educating are junior faculty for the most part. There is one person in these departments. How does interdisciplinary work fall on the shoulders of one faculty member? It’s all about the exploitation and the overburden and the lack of commitment from the institution. They won’t be able to recruit anyone else to come in because it’s so blatant that CC is hostile to interdisciplinary and intersectional work. Another important thing: The students of color here are also invested in building something for the future. They are racking their brains and troubling their hearts to try and figure out how future students can have a better experience. To me, that’s another tragic situation they are in. They have to have the burden of protecting and caring for generations that aren’t even here yet.

HL: You know, there is a supposed genuine investment in figuring out how to fix these problems. Part of my suggestion—as much as I may resent this—is that faculty in power—namely white faculty with tenure—visibly increase their investment in doing so. What I mean is that some of this work is supposedly happening behind the curtain, so let’s open the curtain.

CJ: All senior faculty on this campus need to teach anti-racism and anti-sexism. Until they are doing that work and mentoring students of color, until their syllabi reflect a knowledge of and commitment to subjects other than bourgeois white men, until the Econ. Department trains students in social inequalities ... that welfare isn’t wealth redistribution ... CC will continue to defraud students and cultivate inhumanity. Another way that CC has fallen behind with its peer institutions is with financial aid. It’s not even trying to pretend to be need-blind and one hundred percent need met. It’s embarrassing, but it’s more than that, it’s unjust. I’ll be perfectly honest with you—it has felt like blood money having this Riley here. For being able to have such a lucrative fellowship, but to know I wouldn’t be able to afford to go here myself, to know that my body, my research, my teaching and my work aren’t welcome.

Esther Chan ’16, Mentor for the Bridge Program

HS: What is the objective of the Bridge Program?

EC: In my perspective, the point of Bridge is to help first-generation, minority and underrepresented students better acclimate to the CC environment. The transition is a huge culture shock—it’s trying to level the playing field a little bit more. A lot of students come from impoverished areas, where schooling was not the same caliber, and because CC is so predominately white, upper middle class, Bridge is supposed to bridge that gap. Is it successful? I don’t know.

HS: What has been your experience with it?

ES: When I was a freshman, I loved it and it has defined my experience at CC. I thought for two weeks that CC would be diverse [for the two weeks before other students got here]. We have a lot of programming. We also have conversations about diversity on campus. One day, I was a commentator for a Bridge class and our professors weren’t there for the day, so I was leading a discussion, and it got onto the topic of affirmative action. The majority of the students in the class believed that they were here to fill a quota. It made me so sad, because when I came here, I thought the same thing … for these Bridgies to start out thinking they are only a number to make CC look good, totally suppresses their aspiration. I don’t think we emphasize enough the problems minorities face here. HS: What do you think those problems are?

ES: Coming here is just tough. You have to navigate far more pressures than your peers. Students come here with far more issues at home, with place, and identity. They weren’t taught to reach out and to ask questions, to feel validated in being vulnerable or to ask for help. The difference in cultural capital is a huge thing here. Admissions wants to fill a quota to promote diversity—I get it. They have the best intentions and they see the potential in these students. Bridge is supposed to be the link that helps them acclimate to campus, but Bridge can’t do all that. There is a lack of mentor training and too many Bridgies—63 kids, 6 mentors, and no training. This year they are improving on that. We’ll see how it goes. Helping students on campus takes more than just two weeks. It needs to be continual support, a process. There are so many factors that go into a minority’s place at CC. It’s a whole slew of shit that is just piled on you. They are trying to improve on it, but I don’t know.

HS: With your experience, what do you think would help students?

ES: We need to not only work on the Bridgies, but to educate the rest of campus, and that is faculty and administration—that’s what’s missing! There needs to be a force from the other side. They are trying hard and having focus groups, but it’s a process. Sometimes, especially this year, it was so hard for Bridge. I got a ton of students saying, “Esther, I want to transfer.” They aren’t able to branch out of their Bridge group and they have given up on campus life. I don’t know if any institution can ever solve diversity issues … but I think I have hope. The most that we can do with the growing number of students of color is to adapt to it. We have to continue to find passionate individuals on campus who care. Who care about us. We need discussion where everyone is involved and we aren’t just preaching to the choir. We already know that shit. We know there is low diversity, that there is racism on campus. It’s about communicating and connecting with other people. We need to sustain and educate our campus somehow. BSU, SOMOS, Asian Student Union (ASU) and the Chinese Student Association are all very fragmented right now. We need to cultivate the connection between these groups in order to have a place to jump off of. But damn it, why is it these groups’ job to educate the rest of campus?

Gianina Horton ’14, Bridge Mentor, past co-Chair for SOMOS, Member of BSU

HS: How has your experience been at CC? What is you perception of racial relations on campus?

GH: As a senior, I’m torn. I feel like I’ve wasted my time for the past two years because there is such a dominant catering to the white student population in the OMIS groups. We are trying to invite you guys to our table to have this discussion. It’s us coming to you, and it’s our responsibility to educate our white, wealthy peers. I’ve been struggling with this for the longest time, but recently I’ve felt like it might be a waste of time and energy for minority students. It should be our peers coming to us. Half of the freshmen that were part of the Bridge program thought about transferring. What does that say about the actual support of everyday operations of CC not providing a foundation of minority students? As an upperclassman minority who has been able to mentor some amazing individuals in these past few years, I ask, “Have we failed ourselves as a minority community in establishing a platform of solidarity and unity?” I think we haven’t done that. There’s not a manifesto of objectives and no direct advocacy. On one hand, I understand the value of having allies and educating our white peers and I get it—I’ve done that for two years. But at the same time, why the fuck should we care? It doesn’t have to be on the shoulders of minority students.

HS: The pressure is so intense. How are you supposed to do all those things? It kind of seems like a lot of minority students are ushered into an activist position—does that seem true?

GH: Yes, but I do want to clarify that not all American minorities feel this way. There are some who are perfectly comfortable never going to an OMIS meeting. Some of the most interesting debates I have about wanting to be inclusive versus wanting to be exclusive are conversations I’m having with other minority peers. And I’m still passionate about global issues too, but because of my minority status, my inferior position already as a student, I didn’t feel like I had the opportunity to focus on global inequalities when I was seeing the everyday inequalities happening in my own life. For me, there was eventually a lack of choice.

HS: One thing Heidi said is that we expect the minority students of color to have the solution, to help us not be racist.

GH: It’s a love-hate relationship with CC. Just talking to my friends, we are so grateful for the education we have been able to acquire here. I’m blown away by the discussions I’ve had; I’m going to miss it. But at the same time I’m so discontent with its treatment of minority students. CC is a joke when it comes to being supportive of minority students. I had a Board of Trustees member tell me one time, “You know, we’re not here to provide rudimentary education for incoming ethnic minority students.” I wasn’t even talking about that! It’s such an insult to minority students, this myth of meritocracy. Because there is such a huge focus on establishing relationships with our white peers, we lose a sense of unity amongst ourselves. I think it’s so key that the focus shifts for OMIS groups. I want to see what programs we can establish or what programs we can improve that can increase the positive experiences of minority students on this campus. It’s not about getting them to go hiking. They don’t need to try and assimilate. I have hope that one day the minority student population will be more of a unit, a team, across OMIS groups.

HS: To go back a little bit, many students don’t know what it means to be in a racist environment. How does that manifest itself ?

GH: It’s those small everyday slights that build up over time. By the time students are ready to graduate these students feel like, “Fuck you, CC.” The experience is not that our peers are intentionally being racist. It’s about the basis that they don’t recognize that we see everyday because of our status as minority students. It makes a lot of my friends who are seniors say, “I cannot wait until the day I graduate.”

HS: I think part of it is that students shouldn’t be expected to have all the answers if the administration were to take integration seriously, right? It’s so much work for students to do.

GH: Our faculty and staff are some of the worst people who perpetuate racism on this campus, regardless of if they do this on purpose or not. It’s also extremely important to qualify that question of integration. Is it really what minority students need? Really? I think that’s the million-dollar question. What does that mean? Who is integrating and how is that integration going to occur?

HS: What advice would you give to another student of color coming onto this campus?

GH: Be ready. I’ve had students ask me from home. I tell them if I know they are a first-generation minority student … They’re going to have to confront their race and their class. You are entering a unique environment that is mostly white and mostly wealthy. You just gotta be ready for it.

HS: Anything else you want to add?

GH: I think it's extremely key to note two different avenues of thinking (which there is a lot of gray area in): being able to Kumbaya with our white peers and, on the other side, flipping them off and saying, “We’re gonna do us.” We go back and forth all the time and it is extremely difficult to plant our feet in which ideology of how we, as racial minorities, should be on this campus. It’s always at the back of our minds, “How exactly do we want to do this?”

This article clearly isn’t the beginning or the end of racism on our campus. But we have to take the interviews, the experiences, and this issue seriously. Maybe, in the right hands, these transcripts can be the beginning of knowledge for those (myself included) who had never realized how deeply we are creating and sustaining a hostile culture—not by directly being racist, but by politely saying nothing. It’s the lack of words and the presence of glances, the fabric of our day-to-day interactions, the way we carry ourselves or the way we refuse to reach out to each other. All in all, this marks at least one definite beginning: Cipher will now include an article every block focusing on or exploring the experiences of minority students on this campus. That means featuring the work these OMIS groups are doing or writing about the culture of different ethnicities; it means there will be follow-up every single block to ask professors why reading material on their syllabi are all white men and how we can work together to remedy it; it means hearing the things that minority students and faculty have been saying on this campus for decades and publishing it. Cipher is going to pursue and highlight our campus culture, and that “culture” doesn’t constitute a single entity. That said, we have to move beyond “awareness,” and beyond reading an article in this magazine. Now we need the motivation for action on an individual and institutional level. I’m talking to my white peers, my white professors and the vast majority of the administration when I say: it’s our problem. Let’s stop asking minority students and faculty how we can fix it, and instead listen and act to re-create trust on this campus. Only then, as Johnson said during our interview, can we “start being honest, start being real and start really teaching.”

Archival Issue | March 2019

Selling Sex in the Springs

In “Selling Sex in the Springs,” an anonymous CC student reveals her first-hand experience finding a sugar daddy, and her ensuing feelings of commodification and empowerment. It’s an uncomfortable, honest examination of the complexities in sex work that is surprisingly relatable. Whether or not you’ve had experience as a ‘sugar baby,’ this piece hits on the universal experience of awkward encounters and the eagerness of wanting to make a connection.

Hot N’ Heavy Issue, 2013

My foray into the world of sex work began with vegetarianism. After eating chickpeas and lettuce for six years, I lapsed back into my old omnivorous ways. My good friend Tess criticized me, pulling faces every time she saw me take a bite of something fleshy. I explained to her that I was simply being an opportunist. My menu was composed of anything I could find for free. I was too poor to be picky about what I consumed. Always the third-wave feminist, Tess proposed an untraditional solution to my poverty: “Why don’t you get a sugar daddy? There are lots of websites where you can find one.” I promised her that once I found someone to pay the bills, I’d go back to salad munching.

Finding a sugar daddy is easier than you would think as long as you don’t mind the sketchiness of the internet. I logged onto a sugar daddy dating website and made a profile.  Within days, I had more than 50 messages in my inbox. After weeding out the crazies and those who live far away (one man wanted to fly me to New York every weekend), I found one sugar daddy who looked promising. He said his name was Eggbert (name has been changed), he was married and he worked in manufacturing. Eggbert and I made plans to have lunch to get to know each other.

When the appointed day came, I glued on some false eyelashes and marched downtown.  I was the first to arrive at the restaurant where we had agreed to meet, so I sat down at a table to wait. While Eggbert had emailed me a photo, the picture was blurry, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I scanned every new arrival. Did they look like a rich old sugar daddy? Finally, I saw him. Eggbert looked exactly the way I pictured a sugar daddy would look. Dressed in slacks and a blue dress shirt, he was middle aged, chubby, and a little red in the face. We made our introductions and ordered lunch. Eggbert ordered a sandwich, and I chose a pasta dish. I giggled when the meal arrived and Eggbert asked why. I told him that I’d just realized pasta is a messy food to eat on a date. Eggbert said he liked it messy.

The meal that ensued was one of the most awkward of my life. I usually try to ask lots of questions when I’m on a first date. I couldn’t ask Eggbert too many. He was going to break the law by paying me to have sex with him, and I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable by prying. I also didn’t want him to know the real me, so I lied about myself.  Figuring that a Feminist and Gender Studies major would intimidate a conservative sugar daddy, I told him I was an English major writing my thesis on Shakespeare. Unsure of what to say to each other, we spent the meal looking at each other across the table and laughing uncomfortably. In spite of our awkward lunch, we made plans to meet the next week to have drinks and hash out the details of our arrangement.

While I believe that sex work is a legitimate choice for women, I know many disagree.  Second-wave feminist Catherine MacKinnon writes, "In prostitution, women have sex with men they would never otherwise have sex with. The money thus acts as a form of force, not as a measure of consent. It acts like physical force does in rape” (2009). Prostitution is coercive when the prostitute has no other options. But what if she’s a girl like me, a girl with a college education who chooses to engage in sex work as a way to make some extra cash? One of my friends criticized me for making a commodity of myself. I did not make a commodity of my self; I was simply selling a sex act. Sex is a marketable skill I possess, much like word processing. I believe the real moral dilemma of sex work is not the selling of sex, but selling the illusion of friendship and romance. Pretending to be someone’s friend when you actually find them repulsive is more problematic.

Sex work is not inherently exploitative; the way we do sex work in patriarchal America is exploitative. Prostitution abolitionists argue that sex work encourages violence toward women. One study on sex workers shows 82 percent of respondents had been physically assaulted since entering prostitution, 55 percent of those by patrons (Farley and Barkan 1998). But these statistics alone don’t show that sex work actually causes violence toward its workers. Yet the real root of the violence is the social stigma against sex work. Many sex-positive feminists assert that stigmatizing sex workers by perpetuating myths of prostitute inferiority is what leads to the violence. Men are socialized to believe sex workers deserve violence because they are fallen women and therefore subhuman.

Eggbert was having a midlife crisis. He enjoyed slumming and pretending to be younger than he was. He had been a high school quarterback, but years spent on the couch had since taken their toll. Eggbert wanted to relive his glory days. In light of his desires, we reconvened our business dealings at a dive bar. I sipped my gin and tonic and listened to Eggbert talk while the bearded and mohawked men at the bar cast questioning looks in our direction. Eggbert told me people are only poor out of laziness. To get rich you simply have to do the jobs no one else wants. I wanted to laugh and say, “What do you think I’m doing right now, Eggbert?” Instead, I smiled and nodded politely. Eventually, he asked me what I was looking for. Seeing as how we met through a sugar daddy dating website, I was unsure why my motivations weren’t already clear to him. “Well, I’m a student, and I’d like some help paying the bills.” He told me he wanted to help me, but he didn’t want a simple sex for money exchange. Eggbert wanted sex, sure, but he also wanted to be with a girl who wanted him. So I lied through my teeth. “Don’t worry. I really like you. It’s refreshing to talk to someone with different political views after being at CC all day.” He bought my bullshit, and we agreed that we’d be, in his words, “physically intimate,” and meet once a week. Eggbert would pay me $200 per encounter.

We left the bar to seal the deal. Eggbert was one of those city guys who drives big, shiny pickup trucks for no apparent reason. In the truck, with empty energy drinks rolling on the floor was the first time we were alone together. I clutched my pepper spray through my coat pocket during the ride to the motel. I explained to Eggbert that, while he was a friend of mine, I was in a delicate situation. I’d require the money up front. He agreed I was being reasonable, and pulled into the litter-strewn parking lot of the motel.

“I’ve never had to pay before,” Eggbert said. I told him I’d never been paid. We stood in the motel room with its cheap art prints and hypoallergenic pillows and looked at each other. I decided to take matters into my own hands and kissed him. We sat down on the bed and made out. I’d be lying if I said the kissing wasn’t gross. I always thought that sex work would be great. I love sex, so why not get paid to get laid? Unfortunately, Eggbert was old enough to be my father—and flabby. He took off my clothes, struggling with the zipper on my dress, and proceeded to eat me out. I was confused. Wasn’t I being paid to pleasure him? It feels less personal just to get some guy’s rocks off. The reciprocity made me uncomfortable, so I laid him back and took off his pants. His penis was short and broad; his scrotum, hairless. On some level, I was touched. Did he manscape for me? I took his dick in my cold hands and sucked it, making sure not to let him come too quickly. After he came, we lay back on the bed while he stroked my flank. I made sure to get up and get dressed quickly. We weren’t dating. I didn’t want to cuddle.  He got dressed as well and drove me back to campus.

As I walked from where Eggbert dropped me off to my apartment, I was surprised by how thrilled I was. Wasn’t I supposed to feel ashamed? I had never held a $100 bill before, let alone two. I couldn’t believe they were real, and so easy to make. I showed them to my roommate and we jumped up and down screaming. We threw the bills off of our stairs at each other and pretended we were wildly wealthy. I could afford a steak, or a fancy salad. I could have anything I wanted.

I haven’t seen Eggbert since the first time in the motel. My parents came to visit the week after I saw him. Hilariously enough, they stayed in the same motel where Eggbert and I had sex. I told Eggbert I would be too busy to see him that week. He had to go on a business trip the week after that, and then I came down with the flu. A month passed with multiple missed opportunities to increase my savings account, and then I heard from Eggbert. He wanted to see me again, but now I’m not sure if I want to. While I only have nine dollars to my name, I want to devote the remainder of my senior year to spending time with my friends, not with some patriarchal sugar daddy.

Where did my initial jubilation go? I want to have sex with people I care about, not with a repulsive old dude. While my current partner is an enlightened sort of guy, on some level I would still feel like I was cheating if I were to have sex with sugar daddies. The money is good. I didn’t feel ashamed of myself for what I did; but, life is short, and I want more pleasant experiences in my life. While I’m not sure whether I should see Eggbert again, sex work sure beats the hell out of word processing.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Apocalypse Right Now

Who doesn't love a good 2012 apocalypse throwback? In this article, we invite you to revisit that collective sigh of relief that humanity shared when we realized we were safe from the end of the world. 

But don't dwell on relief for too long. Phoebe Parker-Shames argues that  we get into much more danger when we allow our fantasies about the apocalypse or lack thereof to get out of hand. Faced with the imminent end of the world, some people allowed their apocalyptic convictions  to incentivize them to end their lives, while others fell victim to their fear of death and denied  mortality entirely. Either way, it seems like humans are pretty illogical when faced with the end.

Though our conception of armageddon is perhaps less cartoonish today than it was when this article was written, our awareness of the end of the world is equally present—most of us know that we're running out of time to save ourselves from climate change. Maybe we can learn a lesson about environmental action from the hypocrisy of doomsday cults.

Inevitable Issue, 2013

Almost exactly a month ago, I stood in the middle of an ancient Mayan city. I stared at the pyramidal platforms that once held wooden houses and the wide city square that had been laid and leveled stone-by-stone over hundreds of years of physical labor. Despite my friends’ Facebook jokes about the impending apocalypse scheduled for December 21, I had survived to see the New Year and had made it to Belize.

I first heard about the Mayan calendar when I was in middle school. One of my friends told me that someone discovered a part of the calendar that predicted the 9/11 terrorist attacks (supposedly, it said that metal birds would fall out of the sky in a city to the north and bring destruction, but this was also around the same time that my friends believed that if you folded a $20 bill correctly, it provided evidence that the U.S. government had actually orchestrated the attacks). I didn’t hear much else about it until a few years ago when my friends started talking about December 21, 2012 as the end of the world.

As with many Internet-based phenomena, it’s hard to trace the origins of the doomsday theory to its roots. According to KnowYourMeme.com, a website that investigates the origins of online trends, web searches for the phrases “2012 doomsday,” “2012 maya,” “age of aquarius,” and “nibiru” (the last two tie into New Age interpretations of the Mayan apocalypse myth that posit the Earth would collide with an alien planet on that date) began to increase in 2005, with spikes at the end of 2009, January 2012 and, of course, December 2012. The website traced the origin of the apocalypse myth to Michael D. Coe’s 1966 book, "The Maya," which claimed that the Mayan calendar predicted Armageddon would occur at the end of the ~5000 year calendar, on the nal day of the 13th Baktun.

Most Mayan scholars do not agree with this interpretation. Some critics of the theory (including Randall Munroe in his webcomic "xkcd") argue that it is as ludicrous as if someone looked at one of our wall calendars, noticed that it ended on Dec. 31, and declared it the end of the world instead of simply going out and buying a new calendar.

Nonetheless, the concept gained wide interest. On New Year’s Eve 2012, some of my friends were still saying that we’d better enjoy ourselves because it was our last chance. The Colorado College class of 2013 shirt is emblazoned with a Mayan-themed logo and the words “Party like they were right, hope that they were wrong.”

The phenomenon wasn’t limited to the United States either. The breakdown of related web searches shows a high online interest in Sri Lanka, India, the Philippines, Norway, Canada, Malaysia and many others (though, interestingly, almost none from Central or South America). The Mayan apocalypse theories were also very popular in China. According to The Guardian, the Chinese government arrested 500 apocalypse believers from the Church of the Almighty God, and Wikipedia claims the number could be up to a thousand.

The end of the Mayan Long Count calendar meant something else entirely to the Maya themselves, however.

Aurora Saquí is a renowned Mayan healer and one of few women to hold such a position. She learned how to find medicinal plants in the jungle from her uncle and how to shoot a cigar off a clothesline from her father when she was little. I met her in Cockscomb Wildlife Basin, Belize, when she came to speak with our Tropical Ecology block abroad. She told us about her background, including her spiritual and political beliefs. She said that she did believe that the end of the Mayan calendar was a significant event, but that no one in Belize had ever thought it would be the end of the world. Instead, she viewed it as a positive transition that heralded a new era of equality between men and women.

Aurora’s husband, Ernesto Saquí, who used to be the manager of Cockscomb and still helps run the reserve, also had something to say about the Mayan apocalypse. On our very first night in Belize, he told us that there had been some giant parties at various Mayan ruins on Dec. 21 and that many of the ancient cities had been damaged.

Fox Latino, The Huffington Post and New York Daily News reported that tourists in Guatemala irreparably damaged one of the most iconic Mayan archeological ruins and a UNESCO world heritage site, Tikal National Park. Numerous Mayan ruins across Central America opened their sites to partying doomsdayers in order to make a little money off of the apocalypse craze. The International Business Times reported that tourists (including Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla) disrespected many traditional restrictions at Tikal: they flew private helicopters onto the site, placed lights on the temples for better illumination, used the plaza as an auditorium and illegally climbed the two main temples. The New York Daily News quoted Carla Molina, president of Guatemala City-based Ecotourism & Adventure Specialists, who said that they “hijacked the park and made it their own private event.” Additionally, the indigenous Maya people in the area who were attempting to hold a ceremony at the ruins were refused entry, and protested outside the park.

Regardless of whether or not the partygoers were “true believers” in the Mayan apocalypse, they got caught up in the moment. In the end, they caused permanent damage to an ancient historical site that is of great archeological and cultural importance to a large number of people.

As shameful as I find the results of the Dec. 21 revelry to be, especially after meeting a few of the remaining Maya descendants in Belize and seeing how much they value such sites, I still think it could’ve been a lot worse. 

Doomsday cults—groups that believe in a prophesied end of the world—are not new, and some of the most infamous examples have done much more harm than damage ancient ruins. In 1978, 907 people committed “revolutionary suicide” by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the cult community of Jonestown, Guyana at the urging of their leader Jim Jones (many, including the few survivors, consider the deaths a mass murder rather than suicide). Jones used apocalyptic images to encourage his followers to not fear death; on the infamous “death tape” that recorded the event, Jones tells his followers that, “Death is a million times preferable to 10 more days of this life. If you knew what was ahead of you—if you knew what was ahead of you, you’d be glad to be stepping over tonight.

In 2000, the leaders of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God blew up their church in Uganda on the day they predicted to be the apocalypse. For 530 of its followers, the world really did end that day.

Another group is the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph), which bases its doctrines off of an end of the world scenario inspired by ideas of nuclear holocaust, Christianity, Nostradamus and strange interpretations of Yoga philosophy. In 1995, they used a volatile nerve agent, sarin gas, to attack the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 people, injuring 50, and causing temporary vision problems for almost a thousand more.

A group called Heaven’s Gate from San Diego, Calif. believed that the Earth was going to be destroyed and the only way to escape the destruction was to give up the trappings of their everyday lives (such as families, jobs and possessions) in order to be prepared to leave Earth at the proper time. That time came on March 20, 1997, with the passing of comet Hale-Bopp, which they believed was accompanied by an alien spacecraft. However, they believed that only their souls could board the craft. Thirty-seven members committed suicide by ingesting cyanide, arsenic, Phenobarbital and vodka and tying plastic bags around their heads. Their bodies were discovered six days later with $5.75 in each of their pockets for the interplanetary toll.

These examples stretch far back into history as well. “The apocalyptic vision is quite old,” CC psychology professor John Horner said. “If you read Revelations you see it there, but also throughout much of history, different groups thought they were living in apocalyptic times, so I don’t think of it as anything new. Why people are so interested in it, I don’t know—probably the same reason why they’re interested in Survivor or football; it’s part of the social consciousness, and people pay attention to it.”

Psychologists, sociologists, and religious scholars have pointed to a number of different concepts such as cognitive dissonance and rationalization, or Terror Management Theory to try to make sense of apocalyptic beliefs. These theories primarily center on how someone might believe in something that they would ordinarily see as false or contradictory because of their fear of death and desire for social acceptance.

“We realize our own mortality,” Horner explained. “In surveys, older people tend to think about apocalyptic ideas more than younger people do, so maybe they’re projecting their own mortality onto other people or the planet in general.”

In 1956, social psychologists Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter conducted a study on a UFO cult before and after its predicted apocalypse failed to occur. Interestingly enough, they found that the group only got more fanatical after the failed doomsday. The three psychologists published a book on the subject, called "When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World" that outlines how these groups form and stay together, even when their prophecies do not come to fruition.

The psychologists outline five conditions under which followers usually show increased fervor and commitment after their beliefs are challenged: 1) The belief must be a strong one and must influence how the person behaves; 2) The person must have committed themselves in a way that is difficult to undo (often giving up personal possessions, jobs, family, etc); 3) The belief must be one that can actually be disproved (if the world does not end, for instance); 4) This “undeniable disconformity” must be recognized by the person; and 5) The person must have social support—a large part of why these groups often persist after the failure of the event.

“The church in which I grew up had been based on an apocalyptic prediction and when it didn’t happen there were different ways of dealing with it,” Horner said. “But it was to make up a story about why it didn’t happen: ‘By our righteousness we postponed it,’ or ‘We have only been given borrowed time.’”

What is interesting about the Mayan apocalypse theory is that, unlike so many other previous doomsday movements, it mostly existed online, rather than as part of a social group or cult. The Huffington Post interviewed Stephen Kent, a sociologist from the University of Alberta, about the potential fallout of the Mayan non-apocalypse for believers. “The isolated individuals who encounter these predictions on the Internet may be terribly alone,” he said. Kent tied the potential trauma for believers to the concept that doomsdays can help people cope with mortality. Many people who believe in doomsday scenarios also believe that their knowledge will help them survive the end, but when the end doesn’t come, they are forced to realize that they will die in the same way as everyone else.

Ultimately, despite how unbelievable doomsday cults may be, they are not wholly unrelatable. When people talk about how the Maya supposedly predicted the end of our world, part of the mystique lies in the fact that the Mayan civilization really did end. They were once a powerful, sophisticated society—with cities, a written language, sports, commerce, and travel—that was at its peak for 500 years. Yet, last month, I walked through the deserted city of Lubaantun: once a regional Mayan capital, now an ancient ruin in the middle of the jungle.

In his book "Collapse," Jared Diamond uses the Maya as a cautionary tale for our own society. “Lest anyone be misled into thinking that crashes are a risk only for small peripheral societies in fragile areas, the Maya warn us that crashes can also befall the most advanced and creative societies.” The Maya suffered from issues not unlike those we face in the United States and other countries as well: population density, environmental degradation, climate change, political corruption, and war.

On some level, we all know that human civilization will one day end. We have seen the rise and fall of so many societies and have seen how their collapses can be rapid and absolute. On a biological level, there are more species that have gone extinct than currently exist on Earth. Not only can we not hold on to the idea that the United States will continue in perpetuity, but we are also confronted with the fact that the human race itself is limited just like every other form of life.

“That’s an apocalyptic vision in and of itself,” Horner said. “We all know that most of the species that have ever existed on the planet have gone away, and it doesn’t take much extrapolation to believe that the same will happen to ourselves.”

None of that matters, however, because the whole universe has an expiration date, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics and our good friend entropy. This law of physics essentially states that isolated systems will always increase in entropy, moving towards thermodynamic equilibrium. Not only does this kill the possibility of perpetual motion machines, but it also may kill the universe itself. This is because when the entire universe reaches a state of thermodynamic equilibrium, there will be no more potential energy or really any energy at all, such that any processes that require work (life, for instance) would cease. This concept has been around since the 1850s and is called the Heat Death of the Universe. Of course, this will only occur after all black holes have decayed (so make sure you have all your affairs wrapped up in the next 10100 years). Nonetheless, a time limit on life itself is still a pretty big deal.

The point is, ultimately, that we all know that the end of the world isn’t as implausible as “doomsday crackpots” make it sound. In some ways, our reactions to real problems are often similarly illogical.

In the face of fires, hurricanes, and floods, there are almost always people who refuse to evacuate. This was the case with Hurricane Irene in 2011, the flooding of Vau i Dejes dam in Albania in 2010, California’s Gold Canyon Fire in 2009, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and even our own Waldo Canyon Fire last summer. Perhaps the most famous example, as Horner mentioned, was Harry R. Truman, the man who lived on the edge of Mt. St. Helens, who refused to leave and was killed when it erupted. “There are people who, for whatever reason, just keep going down the line when things are happening. The 2008 financial crisis is a perfect example, because there were people who knew they were making a mistake and yet they kept doing it,” Horner said.

On a larger scale, global climate change really does have the capacity to end our world as we know it and may severely impact humanity within our lifetime. Yet, the response from people so far has overwhelmingly been one of willful ignorance.

Why would some people make up visions of an apocalypse while others refuse to accept the destruction in front of them? I think it all ties in to our fear of death and the myriad ways we react and cope with that fear. But we still have a choice in our reaction.

Horner’s childhood church has changed its tone over time as well. “By the time I was a member of the church in the 1960s, they had developed a very wise approach to the end time,” Horner said. “They preached that no one knows when the end will come. So it is best not to worry about it.” The church focused instead on living a good life with honor and dignity.

It’s hard to know what we can take away from stories of suicide, mortality, insanity, doom and disappointment, but one positive lesson we can learn from the doomsday cults is the power we have as a social group to effect change.

The end of the Mayan calendar was not the end of the world. We know that now. But perhaps we can finally listen to the Maya themselves and take this year as a new beginning. Perhaps we can transform our fear of death into a productive tool to help us combat the real world-ending forces we face.

Archival Issue | March 2019

In Love With a Serial Killer

Charles Manson was put behind bars in 1970 and sentenced to life. In 2014, he was granted his marriage license, to wed 26-year-old Afton Elaine Burton—but turns out, Manson is not the only serial killer who married behind bars. “In Love With a Serial Killer” begins with the Manson Family, and relates other stories of those who have fallen in love with serial killers. The piece reveals a peculiar trend that continues today through our fascination with murderous narratives from Netflix documentaries to morbid podcasts (“In Love with a Serial Killer is even the most popular article on Cipher’s website). Though this article focuses on people’s romantic infatuation with murderers, it’s apparent that many of us participate in glamorizing gruesome deaths. This article tells a story of love and questions the romanticism and obsession our society has with serial killers and serial killer culture.

Cult Issue, 2014

Serial killers, both fictionalized and real, have always held a complex and not entirely fathomable hold on the public’s attention. 

In 1969, the Manson Family, perhaps some of the most well-known serial killers, committed a string of murders that were both brutal and shocking. The vague, unclarified goal behind the attacks, the viciousness of the murders, and the idea that a single man could drive others to kill so mercilessly all combined to fascinate and horrify the public as they watched the heavily publicized investigation and seven-month-long trial. Without inflicting a single wound on any of the victims, Charles Manson became one of the most famous serial killers in the world. He was so charismatic and manipulative that his cult “family” was easily convinced to do his murderous bidding. 

At his direction, five of Manson’s followers attacked the home of film director Roman Polanski, gruesomely murdering Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and four friends: writer Wojciech Frykowski, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring, and Steven Parent, a friend of the Polanski’s gardener.

That very next night, dissatisfied with the previous murders, Manson and several followers went for a ride in search of new victims. Arriving at the home of supermarket executive Leno LaBianca, four of Manson’s followers proceeded to kill LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. 

In 1970, Charles Manson was sentenced to death, though the sentence was reduced to life without parole when California banned capital punishment. Recently, the media erupted with the story of Manson’s plans to marry from behind bars. Twenty-six-year old Afton Elaine Burton, renamed Star by the 80-year-old Manson, eagerly declared herself Manson’s wife. The relationship between Manson and Burton is years in the making. When she was only 17, Burton started writing to Manson. Two years later, Burton left Mississippi and her family, taking all of her savings in order to rent an apartment near the local maximum security prison in Corcoran, California where Manson is imprisoned. For seven years, Burton visited Manson twice a week. In November 2014, the couple received a marriage license.

Burton adamantly believes in Manson’s innocence. When not holding hands with Manson over a table in a visitation room, Burton maintains multiple websites dedicated to clearing Manson’s name, like MansonDirect.com. The sparse site promises the “Charles Manson Truth.” Posts contain “evidence” supporting Manson’s innocence, promotions of Manson’s music, political and environmental links, and multiple pictures of Manson. The site wishes him a happy birthday every November 12th. Burton’s devotion to Manson is so absolute that she recently used a knife to scratch an X into her forehead, mimicking the self-inflicted wounds that Manson and three of his female followers donned during their murder trial.

The public has reacted with revulsion to the idea of a young woman tying herself to a vicious, unrepentant killer more than three times her age. And yet, Burton is not unique. In fact, Manson is not even the first of the Manson Family to marry since the 1970 convictions. Beating Manson to the altar by 35 years was Charles Denton “Tex” Watson who was convicted of seven counts of first degree murder in the Polanski/LaBianca killings. Watson married Kristin Joan Svege and the marriage produced four children before 1996, when the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation banned conjugal visits for lifers. The couple divorced in 2003. 

Next to marry in the Manson Family was Susan Atkins. Also serving a life sentence for her role in the Manson Family murders, Atkins was married not once, but twice, while behind bars. Her first marriage in 1981 was soon annulled after Atkins discovered that her husband, Donald Lee Laisure, was not the multi-millionaire he claimed to be and that he had been married 35 times previously. Six years later, Atkins was married again to Harvard law student James Whitehouse. Whitehouse was 15 years younger than Atkins. Atkins and Whitehouse remained married until her death in 2009.

InLoveSerialKillerKelseySkordal.png

It seems as if there is no crime horrendous enough to scare off potential suitors. Ted Bundy, the serial killer, rapist, and necrophile, who confessed to 30 homicides and is suspected of many more, also married while behind bars. Unlike the Manson Family marriages, Bundy actually knew his future spouse before his incarceration. Carol Anne Boone dated Bundy before his initial arrest, and her dedication led her to smuggle cash to him in 1977 to fund a prison escape attempt. They married in 1980 during the penalty phase of Bundy’s trial. Boone gave birth to a daughter two years later and claimed Bundy as the father. 

Smuggling is on the low end of the scale of crimes that have been committed in the name of love for a serial killer. A female admirer of Kenneth Bianchi, part of the Hillside Strangler duo, contacted him during his trial. Even though Bianchi was accused of raping and murdering multiple women and girls, including a 12-year-old, she gave falsified testimony in defense of Bianchi. She was later convicted of attempting to strangle a woman in order to make it appear that the Hillside Strangler was still at large. Despite these signs of her intense devotion, Bianchi did not marry his admirer. Instead, in 1989, he married his pen pal Shirlee Joyce Book. Bianchi’s new wife was, a serial killer aficionado—pursuing Ted Bundy before eventually moving on to Bianchi.

It’s not just single women who end up with convict spouses. Rosalie Martinez was married and a mother of four when she met Oscar Ray Bolin Jr., a.k.a. “Bolin the Butcher,” who was convicted of raping and murdering three Florida women. Bolin is currently on death row and Martinez was actually Bolin’s public defender. Martinez maintains that Bolin is innocent of the alleged murders. She admits that Bolin is a rapist, though she refuses to discuss it further. She married Bolin 30 days after her husband filed for divorce. Her ex-husband has custody of their four children. 

Not only is Martinez married to a convicted serial killer, she actually keeps the ashes of another murderer in her home, a man that Martinez refers to as Mr. Winkles. He raped and murdered several prostitutes, and his ashes went unclaimed after his execution. Though a box of ashes is an extreme example, there is a market for serial killer or murderer memorabilia, often called “murderabilia.” 

Murderabilia includes everything from serial killer’s autographed photos, letters, and artwork to the more disgusting, such as authenticated nail clippings, hair, and dirty socks. At one point, eBay allowed the sale of murderabilia on its site. Once eBay banned the sale of such items, websites dedicated exclusively to killer merchandise and souvenirs popped up to keep the market alive. On Murder Auction, the starting bid for a signed card by Charles Manson is $185. On Serial Killers Ink, collectors can search through specified categories like female killers, mass shooters, necrophiles and cannibals. Big name serial killers like Bundy and Manson get their own sections. 

By 2013, Alabama, California, Florida, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Utah, and Texas had passed “Notoriety for Profit” laws to prevent any of the killers from directly profiting from the sale of murderabilia or any other related merchandise. However, the actual sale of the items is not illegal in any way. 

The commercialization of murder is expansive. The scenes of grisly crimes become tourist spots. In Los Angeles, California, the Dearly Departed Tours company offers the Helter Skelter Tour, which chronicles the Manson Family murders. For $69, the three-and-a-half hour multi-media tour includes stops at both crime locations, audio of the killers’ voices describing the crimes, the driveway where the killers washed off and the hillside where the bloody clothes were found, and where the victims lived and worked. Also included with the ticket price is a piece of rock from the Polanski/Tate house fireplace. The company proudly announces that $5 of every ticket is donated to the Doris Tate Crime Victim Foundation. The reviews of the tours are incredibly positive. Many customers comment on how informative it was and mention taking the tour multiple times. 

This fascination with serial killers leaks into popular culture. The Investigation Discovery channel has made a business out of assuming that a large viewing audience wants to watch average people murder their spouses, family and friends. There is no crime too terrible to be made into a Lifetime movie. This month, the Lifetime Movie Network aired a new documentary titled “My Uncle is the Green River Killer.” The film features multiple interviews with family members of Gary L. Ridgway, who killed at least 49 women in Washington State before being arrested in 2001. 

Dozens of movies based on the lives and crimes of serial killers exist. Some movies, like the 2002 film “Dahmer,” attempt to psychologically analyze the killers. Jeffrey Dahmer was a serial rapist known for necrophilia and cannibalism who murdered 17 men and boys over the course of 13 years. But the film doesn’t focus on the gruesomeness of his acts. Instead, it attempts to explore the mental state behind Dahmer’s twisted behavior.  In contrast, “Gacy” (2003), based on John Wayne Gacy, the Killer Clown, who sexually assaulted and strangled at least 33 boys and then buried many of them beneath his house in a crawlspace, sells itself through horror and disgust. It is a difficult line to balance. Attempts to explain the killer can be seen as justifying their actions, while emphasizing the gore might be considered as an exploitation of the victims’ horrible final moments. 

With countless books, movies, and television shows, this “true crime” genre is unavoidable. The morbid curiosity invoked by serial killers seems to have had an effect on a majority of the population. They’re disturbing and horrible but we want to know about them. So, while “Star” Burton is labeled as crazy or brainwashed for her desire to marry Manson, she is just an example of a collective, perverse interest in those that commit incomprehensible atrocities.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Once Upon the Internet

One of the greatest pop culture feuds of our generation began on an unassuming September night, 10 or so years ago: the 2009 VMAs. The infamous Kanye-Taylor Swift debacle that started it all. Nobody thought it would lead us here, nobody thought we’d have to listen to “Look What You Made Me Do.” How did we get here? Emma Calabrese takes us back to the beginning. Readers will be transported to a time when the awe of viral videos was fresh and new, then thrust even further into the past, to a time when hot gossip was primarily transmitted in verse. The Shakespearean take on the iconic incident is, simply put, a work of history.

Pop Issue, 2009

In an age when YouTube, Hulu and Facebook give us access to a seemingly endless array of videos, it is strange to imagine that they have only been available for a few years. From legendary homemade YouTube videos (“Chah-lie bit me!”), to the dependable availability of television shows on Hulu, the internet has revolutionized our approach to spreading and consuming fiction and controversy.

MTV’s Video Music Awards (VMAs) on September 13 made me more aware than ever of the power of the internet to popularize specific cultural phenomena. It also brought me several days of amusement as I observed the online response to Kanye West’s VMA faux pas as he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to declare that Beyoncé Knowles had one of the “best music videos of all time.”

My Facebook News Feed was clogged with the statuses of morally outraged girls exclaiming, “Kanye, you’re dead to me!” I listened to President Obama’s response to the controversy as he deemed West “a jackass,” a hilarious gem that would never have reached my ears without the all-seeing, all-telling power of the internet.

Only ten years ago we didn’t have the capacity to collectively observe and popularize an event within hours of its occurrence; I can’t help but wonder how gossip and controversy spread centuries ago, before a Google search on “Kanye West VMAs 2009” could tell us everything we wanted to know. Would Anglo-Saxon minstrels have immortalized Swift’s despair orally, à la Beowulf? Years later, might William Shakespeare have written a banter-heavy comedy featuring a Swift-West-Knowles love triangle? Or would John Milton have written an epic poem condemning West’s arrogance? Let’s rewind to the 1600s and replace the Internet with some blank verse …

One chill September day, the VMAs
Were to be held, anticipated far
And wide by all. Whose video would be
The best? Impossible to say, and yet …
Young Taylor Swift, that sweet dear southern flow’r
Hoped that the honor would belong to her.
She knew not how to find that which she sought
But had the help of one good guide who was
Well-versed in all the matters of the screen,
Both big and small. He posed in years of old
As child and doctor rolled up into one,
Then smarmy sidekick, legendarily,
And after that he was another doc—
But Horrible, not Howser, this time round.
This Neil Patrick was to be her guide
Through hills of fandom and forests of fame
Until her quest was done, her award won.
She met a grand array of notables,
Surprised to find “young,” “innocent” Mile
So old, so un-Hannah Montana now,
And Lady GaGa, in a leotard,
Ambiguously sexed. All was wild:
P!nk hung half-nude from ceiling ropes o’erhead,
And then ill-mannered star Lil Mama charged
The stage of good Jay-Z and dear Miss Keys.
But Taylor thought of renownéd M.J.
And thus resolved to fight ‘longside the rest
For recognition and for fame, to prove
Her worth, her skill—to be a true pop star,
No longer just a country singer now.
But poor dear Taylor didn’t know to think
That here, there were those who would steal her prize.
And so, not foreseeing what came, alas
In innocence was glad to hear her name
As Neil Patrick granted trophy bright,
This silver astronaut indicative
Of Taylor’s rise to MTV stardom. 
The lovely Taylor did begin to weep 
Great tears of joy which in a moment would 
Betray—for joy turned suddenly to woe 
As villainous Lord Kanye swept toward her 
And snatched the mic and speech she’d rightf’lly won. 
“Fair maiden, I am glad on your behalf,” 
Lord Kanye spoke, “And I shall let you speak 
Your piece, but I declare for all to hear 
That there exists another music vid 
Better than thine, by Lady Beyoncé— 
It is among the best that e’er was made.” 
So sweet and lovely Taylor Swift did cry 
Until benevolent Beyoncé said, 
“O Taylor, please finish the speech ye earned,” 
And thus Lord Kanye, scorned and embarrassed 
Was driven from the kingdom to the cheers 
Of pre-teen fangirls all across the land.

Archival Issue | March 2019

How to be Lonely

After an unwelcome, careless slip of the tongue from a peer, an anonymous Colorado College student comes to the rather painful realization that their loneliness permeates past their inner world and is actually apparent to others. At times informative, at times anecdotal, at times reflective, this piece grapples with solitude: its pervasiveness, its weight, and the various ways it can move one to do peculiar things.

Anonymous Issue, 2015

Anne Hathaway once declared, “Loneliness is my least favorite thing about life.” Well said, Anne, well said. I reckon that true—incessant loneliness is a universally unpleasant experience, falling somewhere between not being able to find a misplaced wallet and anal fissures. As if the accompanying feelings of sadness and despair aren’t enough, loneliness also hits you with unwanted symptoms like disrupted sleep, higher blood pressure, weakened immunity and lower wellbeing. These realities are compounded by any quick Google search of the word “loneliness,” which yields article titles like “Loneliness More Likely than Obesity to Cause Premature Death” and stock photos of children crying. Maybe the Internet is not the greatest source of consolation. 

It is perhaps unsurprising that contemporary society has become preoccupied by its fear of loneliness and of disconnect and dissatisfaction with the surrounding world. From far too young an age, we are jabbed with pejorative reminders to evade loneliness and isolation at all costs, receiving warnings that we ought not end up a loner, a loser, or, for heaven’s sake, be perceived as an open “Battlestar Galactica” fan, whether we’ve even seen an episode of the show or not.

We are social creatures, so the theory goes, and any committed social Darwinist might point out that there’s something evolutionarily off about that “loner.” Experiencing loneliness indicates an unwanted isolation and displeasure with one’s social position. It assumes an element of rejection and difficulty in forging connections that we’re told are so critical and central to personal happiness. And herein lies the real tragedy: our fear of loneliness has made it so much more difficult to accept it as a possible reality and to take constructive steps towards alleviating it. When experiencing loneliness, we dance around any possible contributing factors, constructing excuses and loopholes in a feeble attempt to distract ourselves from thinking about the origins of the condition. What follows is my account of four years of loneliness on the Block Plan; the processes of trying and giving up, of understanding a thought process and the ongoing journey of coming to terms with loneliness. 

During the winter break of my junior year, a Colorado College classmate sat in my family’s living room before a group of my close high school friends in what turned out to be an unfortunate happenstance. The CC student hadn’t been invited, per se. Unfortunately, both of us happened to reside in the same suburban area, filling this boy’s apparent requirements for an impromptu visit. And so there he was, sitting across from my old friends—real friends—as I stood nervously between them. The two worlds stood in utter opposition. I imagine this general scene is familiar to plenty of CC students who, like me, were waiting in terror for that awfully trite set of questions about themselves. As if on cue, a particularly close high school friend asked the aforementioned CC classmate how people view me at college. Without giving his answer a second thought, my classmate simply replied that nobody at CC knows who I am, only to then go off about some sick ski line he’s recently slayed or whatever—I didn’t catch the last part.

It took a while to understand what exactly about the comment had cut so deeply. He spoke the truth, if in a careless fashion, as I was aware that I hadn’t found the sense of collegiate belonging that all bright-eyed freshmen seem to expect. As a statement of fact, the truth hadn’t bothered me. Nor did the conflicting nature of my CC and non-CC world and my different experiences of belonging in each. What hadn’t occurred to me—and had stung most—was that my loneliness and isolation was so noticeable that an apparent friend could, without thinking twice, point out my impotent cries on the CC social radar. I had been found out. What I’d believed to be a deeply personal and hidden feeling of loneliness was apparently in plain sight to those around me. I’d fooled no one, if only myself. What was already an ugly sense of self began to tumble out of control; if someone else could see my struggle, my case of loneliness must have been a conspicuous one.  To anyone else, there would seem two clear, logical responses:

  1. “Thank you, friend. I will take your comments in stride and will make more of an effort in the future.” 

  2. “Get some social awareness, you prick.” 

If either of these proved too difficult, I could always talk to a professional and work out the various social snags in the comfort of the Boettcher Health Center. But to this day, I have not taken such productive routes, and my available free counseling sessions at Boettcher remain at an untouched six. Doing something about my loneliness only seemed to confirm its presence, a fact that I hadn’t been able to admit. As I continue to experience loneliness, I have found it almost impossible to ground the feeling in logic or rationality. Every so often, I escape the inner confines of self-criticism, only to resume my latent Catholicism, turn my head to the sky and ask the good Lord what I have done to deserve such a fate. Surely some aspect of my personality or a set of actions triggered my isolation and needs to be corrected. Why does the kid with soft-serve dribbling down his shirt at Rastall have friends, and I don’t? 

That I had my loneliness pointed out by someone else brought immediate attention to my actions, the habits and quirks I had developed over a three-year period. And so began an ongoing attempt to shake complacency, and to at least approach the ridiculousness and illogic that accompanies loneliness and resultant social anxiety. 

College was going to be “the best four years of my life,” Suzie, my 60-year-old cigarette-smoking high school counselor, had told me. Only it didn’t really end up that way. My CC career began in typical fashion, starting with a ceremonial case of dengue fever contracted from a dreadlocked peer (he had returned from his gap-year in Nepal; it was really “eye-opening,” and he wanted everyone to know it). I put up with LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” at the Video Dance Party because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do. I sold out, creating a persona centered upon a newfound “fascination” with skiing, despite having been fairly indifferent about snow before. I even conditioned myself to nod and smile when prospective friends put on Skrillex. “The bass in this is very good. Skrillex is quite talented,” I’d say, fooling no one. I guess my idea of reaching out had been to construct a new personality, something agreeable to others. For reasons that elude me four years after the fact, my early freshman year friends left for greener pastures, while I was never “CC enough” for the others. Invites to Rastall (my barometer for social capital at the time) dwindled, and I responded, in turn, by limiting my own invitations to others out of concern of being bothersome. Sure, in order to make friends, you need to be a friend (or something), a fact pressed home in plenty of emails from my mother. Although, at the time, and even today, my reticence to reach out was based not in some form of vengeance, but rather in fear. I reasoned that if no one wanted to spend time with me, why burden some other poor unsuspecting CC classmate with my presence by inviting myself to dinner, risking further rejection and deepening my own isolation? It seemed that withdrawing was the safest bet. If I didn’t reach out, I couldn’t possibly bother anybody.

From the end of freshman year, loneliness had staked its claim. I was far more concerned about drawing negative attention than I was with forging positive connection. Consequently, things like eating became a complicated process. I’d only consider doing so in public if I had a big enough hardback book or my MacBook with me to serve as a sort of shield, a justification for my eating alone in the presence of the perceived judges of the CC social court. Eating with my friend, MacBook, was just one of many habitualized tactics employed to limit social risk. What Sun Tzu did for war I seemed to do for achieving isolation and loneliness. Such tactics include, but aren’t limited to:

  1. Never say hello first. If you don’t say hello, there’s no chance that you’ll say something stupid or, worse, that they won’t respond. 

  2. Take the long way to class (you know, that scary dark one by the ice rink). Sure, you have to get up a bit earlier and risk bumping into the odd strang(l)er, but that’s a risk you must be willing to take in order to avoid the far scarier CC student body. 

  3. Excessive yawning. I’ve found that I tend to release a big, 15-second yawn when I see someone approaching. I guess it’s a natural excuse to close your eyes, and who would dare interrupt someone that sleepy? Of course, the implication of yawning as somebody walks by is that you find the person boring or distasteful, so be careful. Use sparingly. 

  4. Make a beeline for your Worner Box when entering the mailroom. It buys a good 60 seconds, and, if you’re really good at it, you can fumble your combination to add another 30 seconds and look busy in the student center. 

  5. Avoid eye contact. Sure, it’s a sign of low social intelligence, but this way you’ll never know if the person’s scowling or giving you an approving once-over. 

It’s worse when I actually submit to conversations because it all becomes terribly perfunctory. The question “What Block are you in?” seems to be the go-to, a safe enough question to avoid any hate, if not boredom. I keep the focus squarely upon a conversational partner, asking questions as if to demonstrate a genuine interest, but really it’s just a stilted attempt to appear congenial and keep the conversation moving. When it finally wraps up, I flee. A little piece of me seems to disappear with each interaction, as I willingly sacrifice arcane thoughts and observations in order to be perceived as how I think I’m supposed to be. My inability to let go has led to the illusion of a normal and healthy life.  

My early struggles soon developed into a full-scale panic, culminating in late winter nights spent filling out transfer applications only to withdraw them after questioning whether or not a new environment or school would even make a difference. Everything became ordered around the analysis of each little social interaction as I overanalyzed the positive and negative aspects of every encounter. The grimacing face of a Worner desk assistant or the unreturned “Hello” of an acquaintance walking by were conceived as personal slights, indications that I wasn’t wanted and didn’t fit in. In reality, these people had likely paid little attention to their responses. Maybe they had been having an awful day or simply hadn’t heard me, but this is irrelevant in my limited and self-centered perspective. Ultimately, every interaction had to speak some greater truth about how others viewed me. 

Such is the nature of loneliness and its consequent feelings of social anxiety and insecurity. It is all-encompassing and tends to grow with neglect. Not unlike the suspicious lump that eventually develops into a cancerous tumor, loneliness, when ignored, expands, metastasizing to envelop its host. Sure enough, as loneliness sets in, the less adept individuals become at navigating social waters, owing to their avoidance of social situations and overwhelming concern of further rejection. While difficult to explain, each social setting that I enter I view through an unshakably negative lens, with a clear idea of everything that could go wrong. This happened recently at an off-campus coffee shop. Of course, the only open seat was situated directly across two students who I knew and who knew me. Normally, this wouldn’t have been an issue—that’s what my MacBook shield is for, after all—but I was on, at the very least, “Hello” terms with one of them. I knew what I had to do; all that this situation required was a “Hi,” maybe I could even get away with a simple nod before escaping back into the safe glow of my laptop. Regrettably, habit took over before I could take the appropriate step: I didn’t say hello and I avoided eye contact, opening my laptop and inserting headphones. Safe. Only I wasn’t safe, because people tend to talk amongst each other. 

Later that evening, a concerned friend questioned why I’d ignored a nice, approachable classmate for a full 30 minutes at a coffee shop, having been separated by all of three feet’s-worth of table. That the classmate might have appreciated a “Hello” hadn’t really occurred to me. If anything, I felt that I was performing a favor, avoiding being a nuisance. In my focus and obsession with what could have gone wrong, I’d managed to fulfill my own prophecy. Worse still, I am only ever able to recall the unreturned smiles, the imagined grumpy tones, the dinners I never received an invitation to. The negative memories manage to accompany me for every new encounter without the positive ones, leaving me little more than a nervous wreck.

I strategically developed on an affinity for pastimes that favor solitude. I became somewhat of a music connoisseur and an extremely strong student, since my great deal of spare time seemed to favor such activities. I compensated for my lack of human interaction through long and fruitful, if one-sided, relationships through a screen. I stepped into a mid-range paper supply company in Scranton, openly debating the merits of Pam or Karen on behalf of my good friend, Jim. Hell, every once in a while, I’d venture over to an all-women’s prison, typically very concerned with Piper’s behavior. Sometimes I’d even indulge in joining a certain misanthropic and curmudgeonly Jew in cursing the world and those around me. Television in particular affords an option to be around people and watch them without being watched myself. It became the ultimate anesthetic. I can’t possibly be socially burned by the TV, as the TV is not capable of making fun of me for “accidentally” turning on "Dance Moms." TV was a way to cope and has since been something to abuse. Just as sleep has become a temporary and intermittent escape from CC, TV allows me to live a much more interesting and fulfilling life, if only an episode at a time. 

“Nobody at CC knows who he is.” It hurt to hear, but I suppose it was sort of galvanizing in its own way. Granted, I didn’t do anything about it at the time, or in the months following, or in the years since that I’ve spent ruminating. I remain trapped in my ways. I still make sure I’m wearing headphones at all times, even if I’m not listening to music. I still stare at my shoes as I walk to and from class, recognizing that they don’t offer a way out, or any sort of relief.

Loneliness is illogical. The very fear it creates and insecurity it produces profligate in the mind, making the problem worse than it needs to be. It makes quick-fix behavior alluring at the expense of solutions. But if my experience with loneliness has offered anything comforting, it’s the reality that I lay at the center of the equation. Ultimately, it’s my perception and overconsumption of daily happenings that influence my feelings. I don’t think loneliness is done with me, but I suppose, if anything, I’m grateful to have begun grappling with it at all.

Archival Issue | March 2019

Watchability

Six years ago, you probably already had a Facebook. Look back at your photos from 2013, and try to see yourself as any of your several hundred friends might. Have you portrayed yourself honestly, or is it carefully curated? Millennials have grown up with the expectation that they should craft an image of themselves online that’s worth watching. We aren’t TV stars, but increasingly, we have an audience, and feel compelled to perform. Philosophy major and former Cipher editor Gracie Ramsdell questions as to whether our “true” selves are stifled by the social media age.

Horror Issue, 2013

I have a penchant for kitschy little phrases, one-liners waxing wise. I did not choose to be one of those people. In fact, I do not even like those people. Like most things in life, I thank (blame) my mother. Instead of saying, “Don’t take it personally,” my mom says, “Put on your raincoat,” the implication being that I ought to whip out my metaphorical poncho, down whose synthetic material cantankerous behavior would slide like droplets. Two of her other favorite idioms are “Speak your truth” and “Be the captain of your own ship.” They say the same thing in two ways: be yourself.

That is what this article is about. It is about that mightily cliché phrase that always urges us to “be ourselves.” The point is not that you should do this, but rather my very real fear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually do this. That sounds a little histrionic though. I admit that I have a flair for the dramatic when it comes to my writing (I experience phases in which I will only write in Andale Mono—only Andale Mono), but if you find that there is strength in numbers, perhaps you will reconsider your scoffing judgment when I tell you that others have expressed this same concern in various ways—others who write in all sorts of fonts.

The late David Foster Wallace is regarded as one of the most important American authors of the 20th and 21st century; he also happened to look pretty good in a do-rag. In his 1986 essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” Wallace bitches about a lot of things, including the emergence of a generation of young writers with a proclivity for ultra minimalism and the whiplash that has occurred in response to this style. A common narrative probably includes some combination of the following: hot young cosmopolitans living in emotionally stark luxury, biding their time on the credit cards of absent parents, rich-smelling sex and coke-induced nosebleeds, typically described by a narrator whose voice is as desolate as the lives he describes. In discussing the way in which this manner of writing has come about (referring to three categories that are as clever as they are cavalier: Neiman-Marcus Nihilism, Catatonic Realism and Workshop Hermeticism), Wallace posits that these writers and their work are naturally subject to the influence of pervasive 21st century popular culture and fashion.

It is in examining the nature of mass media culture that Wallace points out the underlying element that makes all television appealing to its varying audiences: the characters share the quality of being entertaining. He writes, “We, the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most significant feature of persons is watchableness.” Keep in mind that Wallace was writing this essay in 1986; imagine what he would have to say in 2013, when the primary objective of social media vehicles such as Facebook seem to be the experience of being seen, specifically as something worth seeing. Though social media certainly aids in the dissemination of information and keeps acquaintances “in touch” (however detached), I think that it is rapidly becoming a venue for ego affirmation more than anything else. Wallace describes the way in which the line between life as portrayed in television and life as lived becomes increasingly blurred to the average viewer, resulting in an expectation that our daily lives ought to be as interesting to watch as those of sitcom stars. In becoming absorbed in the lives of this fiction, Wallace refers to a “shift from an understanding of self as a character in a great drama whose end is meaning to an understanding of self as an actor at a great audition whose end is seeming, i.e., being seen.” Who are the people in your life: supporting roles, or audience members?

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And Wallace had yet to receive a Facebook notification, Tweet, or Instagram “like.” Fast-forward almost 30 years, and the advent of social media has raised the stakes even higher. Perhaps I should have warned you before that I am a philosophy major; I will now subject you to a taste of what I swim in. In his 1954 essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” philosopher Martin Heidegger defines technology in simple terms, consisting of two main qualities: its being a human activity and its being a means to an end. If this seems overly simplistic, I urge you to consider how narrow our conception of technology has become by only referring to it as that which we experience as virtual. Heidegger’s use of this broad definition makes room for all technologies, such as rakes, shoe racks, clotheslines, cars, windmills and so forth. In examining the nature of technology, Heidegger says that the use of technology is manifest in the act of “enframing,” wherein “everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.” It is through the process of enframing that objects are transformed into “standing reserves.”

Let us think of the example of a tree; when man chops down a tree to use for lumber, he renders that tree standing—reserve for man’s utility. At this point, the tree is no longer appreciated for its essence—its “treeness”—but rather for what it can do for man. The question, then, is whether or not this definition of technology applies to the modern technology of social media. I think that it does. And I think that, in a very real and very scary sense, it has rendered humans as standing-reserves for the approval and affirmation of the other. While we rely social media to tell us about our own personas, so too do other personas rely on us to tell us about them—in this way, social media pushes back on us, forcing us to respond as we sit by as standing reserves.

Not only has social media perpetuated the desire to be “watchable” and garner approval, but it has given us a universe in which we attempt to be entertaining to all types of observers simultaneously. In sociologist Joshua Meyrowitz’s book "No Sense of Place," Meyrowitz explores the concepts of “offstage” and “onstage.” Meyrowitz situates these ideas in the scenario of a play. When performing a play, there is the offstage world behind the privacy of the curtain in which the actors may simply be, and there is the onstage world exposed to the audience in which the actors must present. However, there are instances in which a “middle region” emerges—that is, when the audience sees an actor off-stage, perhaps when the curtain flutters and reveals backstage activities. 

This dynamic is not an uncommon occurrence when applied to real-life scenarios; consider a professor who sees one of her students at the grocery store. When taken out of the familiar setting, the professor may be confused as to whether she should re-assume the habitual role of a professor, or if she should act somehow differently, perhaps like a friend. Rather than adopt either persona, the professor may transition into a middle region in which she attempts to satisfy both identities. This can be hard to maneuver. The self becomes confused, unable to reconcile the two personas.

It is easy to relate this phenomenon to the experience of social media. When on a social networking site, a person must try to appeal to all of the roles implicit in his respective relationships with “friends” on that site, including family, classmates and professional relations. Furthermore, there is always the knowledge that one is being watched. Even when one is not accessing the site at a particular moment, there is the constant awareness that one’s profile is “live” and subject to the scrutiny of peers. The social media terrain can be hard to define—is it a place for the personal or the performative? Should I post my feelings and endless photos of my newborn niece (you know the ones), or should I make it a place for self-promotion and political posturing? As social media is neither fully onstage nor offstage, we are prone to the emergence of the middle region. It is clear that you are both someone’s friend and someone’s child—the distinction is that you assume these roles in particular environments. The world of social media is all environments at once. As a person attempts to appeal to all of the identities he possesses while online, it is my belief that the self runs the risk of becoming confused and fragmented.

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But in what does the true self exist? In his book The Maturational Processes, psychoanalyst David Winnicott writes about the True and False Self. The False Self is something of a superficial persona that takes over in situations in which the True Self feels threatened. It would be a long and arduous process to explain in full, but what it comes down to is this: The True Self seems to be found in spontaneity. I’m not talking about spontaneity in the way it is used in typical colloquial language, as impulsiveness; I’m not talking about waking up and deciding to have ice cream for breakfast. Rather, I’m talking about the manner in which one expresses oneself without filtration, without debate or consideration before words escape the mouth; it is the knee-jerk reaction, the response that seems so automatic as to have actually come from within us.

Consider, again, being on Facebook. When asked about an opinion on a particular matter, it is not necessarily that you would lie, but perhaps you might examine what you believe and then consider what kind of answer the other is hoping for, then customize your response in a manner that is honest, but measured. This capacity for careful consideration leaves little room for spontaneity and the True Self. Without the True Self, meaningful and authentic bonds are beyond one’s grasp.

There’s only so much academic chatter I can spew at you before we both wish I was talking about my mom again, so I’ll leave you with this: if you ever have an unnerving sense of not being quite “real” in certain circumstances, of experiencing a sickening sense of phoniness, perhaps you might ask yourself why. In an age in which we are increasingly self-conscious and hyper-aware of the way we are perceived by our peers, I think that there is real merit in being genuinely concerned about the survivability of the individual’s True Self.

Archival Issue | March 2019