Letter to the Editor: A Response to "Ute Prayer Trees"

by Tim J. Myers '75

As a CC grad, a working writer, and an academic, I have to applaud Nathan Goodman for the great energy, good will, and cultural respect he put into "Ute Prayer Trees," which I read on Cipher's website. But there's a lot of one-sidedness in his piece, a great deal of declaration without sufficient evidence, and some assumptions that manifest themselves in simplistic self-righteousness. 

Goodman's piece is basically an attack on John Anderson, former El Paso County sheriff, for Anderson's historical work on Ute "culturally modified trees" of the Pikes Peak Region and beyond. I contacted Anderson some time ago for a book I was working on, and am grateful to him for his generous support, as well as for connecting me with Ute elder Dr. Jefferson. I recently met Anderson face-to-face for the first time, and over the course of our intense five-hour discussion at Fox Run Park, I saw that many of Goodman's arguments are quite weak, or worse. Some are even mean-spirited.

"Anderson is essentially marketing the cultural knowledge of an oppressed group to a mainstream audience," Goodman writes. But the same could be said for any historian who works outside his or her own culture. Historians often write books, create videos, etc., which are then for sale; would Goodman object to, say, an Australian writing about East Indian history? (India, of course, was long subject to brutal imperialism.) Goodman goes on to say that Anderson's work is "problematic in and of itself because the sale of traditional practices to non-members has the potential to reveal 'taboo' knowledge and cheapen ancestral teachings by presenting over-simplified histories. Plus, it puts this knowledge in the hands of people who are unaware of its larger cultural context, and are therefore more liable to manipulate and distort what they learn." 

Whoa—isn't that potentially the case for any history? Human beings stereotype each other all the time, and misuse culture—but that's no reason to stop writing history. To improve relations between white and Native Americans, we should stop trying to understand Native Americans? What does the average American understand about the classical Greeks, for example? Is that reason enough to stop all non-Greeks from exploring that culture? And of course Anderson isn't "selling" Ute traditional practices.

Goodman also states flat out that scientific evidence doesn't back up Anderson's claims. During the five hours I spent with John, I heard a great deal of evidence—none of which made it into Goodman's article, despite the fact that John laid it out for him during the interview. If anyone wants to see the evidence, I suggest they contact John—he's more than willing to share, and he's got plenty. It's one thing to question someone's evidence; a big claim requires lots of it. It's another to suggest, as Goodman does, that Anderson has played fast and loose with evidence. That's a deeply damning charge—and simply not true.

Equally troubling is Goodman's assertion that Anderson misused FEMA funds for his work on the trees. I know for a fact that when Anderson and Goodman met, Anderson gave Goodman contact information for the El Paso County Parks official who could easily discount this charge. Goodman never made the call, since if he had, he wouldn't have printed this falsehood.

Another strange argument from Goodman concerns disagreements among the Utes about the prayer trees. Goodman says Anderson "and his ilk" are challenging "Indigenous political and cultural sovereignty." That's a very big claim.  He goes on to declare that it's "not our [white people's] place to decide 'which Indian knows more about their culture.'" And yet the whole point of his piece is to side with Utes who disagree with Anderson and Dr. Jefferson! This is an utter contradiction. Goodman wisely decries the terrible, centuries-old pattern of white people telling Native people what's what. But then he wades in too and opines on a Ute vs. Ute disagreement—even after he himself has said "it can be difficult to decide which Indigenous voice to listen to. The fear that Indigenous government officials do not accurately represent their people’s cultural history is entirely valid." He can't have it both ways.

And consider how odd this further contradiction is: "Taking the word of official tribal representatives is essential. They have been placed in those positions because they know their tribe’s history and traditions." The over-romanticizing of Native peoples is often part of racism against them—but Goodman somehow believes that politics in the Ute world are perfect? Would he apply the same standard to our national politics? We should follow everything Trump says, since he was "placed in that position" because he's so knowledgeable about our history and traditions? There's a sickening irony for you. I don't think Goodman thought this through. The essence of anti-racism is to recognize that the Other is just as human as you are, for good and ill.

Goodman even says, "The problem is that Jefferson is in no way an official representative of any Ute tribe." This plays directly into the old Euro-American error of treatying only with "chiefs" as sole representatives of tribes, when political decision-making in most Native groups was far more complicated than that. And here's a white guy telling a Ute elder he doesn't represent his own people. That's not interfering with Indigenous culture? Let's not forget either that Dr. Jefferson is also a linguistics Ph.D. who spent four years at the Smithsonian helping them catalogue their Native American collection. That detail didn't make the article either.

Consider too that Goodman asked Anderson to ask Dr. Jefferson for an interview, which Anderson procured—but when Goodman actually visited the reservation, he never contacted him.

Goodman's armchair-psychologist words about Anderson may apply more accurately to Goodman himself: "Underneath this general feeling … is a sense of pride—of feeling 'cultured' or living on the 'right side of history' … It provokes a feeling of exceptionalism, a feeling that can become addictive."  There's an air of self-congratulation here, and it may have caused Goodman to reach deeply negative conclusions about Anderson without due diligence.

Here's another surprising contradiction. Near the end of the piece we get the seeming humility of "Ultimately, I am no expert on Indigenous culture, nor am I a professional ethnographer. I researched this topic intensively over the summer, but I have no right to say whether anything is or is not culturally significant to a particular group." And yet the subtitle of the piece is "The revival of an Indigenous tradition that never existed." That's a pretty clear judgment. A sentence later he contradicts himself once more: "But the point at which those trees are forcibly inserted into another people’s culture and pasted into their history is when things have to stop." So he does believe in opining on what's culturally significant to the Utes. 

And the way Goodman tells it, Dr. Jefferson is utterly alone in asserting the historical importance of the trees. Somebody better tell the Native staff of the The Southern Ute Drum, a tribal community newspaper; they wrote positively about "spirit trees" in this issue.

Don't get me wrong. I share Goodman's horror at the long history of oppression and degradation of Indigenous peoples in what's now the US, not to mention around the world. And I think Goodman is highly commendable in his desire to be part of the solution—in his questioning of his own and others' privilege—in his keen sense of how power differentials have played such a destructive role in this history. As a white American, I'm ashamed of so much of what we've done, and I too want to be part of the solution. So does John Anderson, by the way, whose genuine commitment to Ute culture runs deep, as does his unbending habit of looking to the Utes themselves as the final arbiters and interpreters of their own traditions. 

I also understand that there's been a tremendous colonialist tendency to violate Native culture through misrepresentation. There absolutely is widespread cheapening of Indigenous culture, racist reduction of Indigenous religion, hucksterism when it comes to artifacts and cultural practices. At the same time, "cultural appropriation" is a very vague and loaded phrase to bring to bear. Do we really want a world in which cultures can't freely borrow from each other? Does Goodman believe that no cultural sharing whatsoever between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is ever legitimate?

He even brings up "intellectual property." Think of where that would take us, applied in this way. If you sell boomerangs, do you need to pay a license fee to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples? But there's a hitch: the oldest boomerang known was discovered in what's now Poland. So do Indigenous Australians have to pay the Poles? Intellectual property is, after all, a legal and commercial category; think of the endless court cases this would create! And although I'm the first to insist on respect for and knowledge of Native traditions, absolute condemnation of "cultural appropriation" is neither realistic nor fair. Would Goodman condemn, say, younger Utes for making original hip-hop recordings, since they're not African American? Of course he wouldn't. Cultural borrowing is usually a good thing, and it's also natural and inevitable.

I'm not a historian or archaeologist or forester or dendrochronologist. I'm a senior lecturer in English at Santa Clara University in Silicon Valley, and a widely published writer, with a deep interest in history, including that of the Utes, a great people who are far less-known than their many accomplishments warrant. I can't claim, on the basis of any scientific expertise, that John Anderson and Dr. Jefferson are right about the trees. However, I've been through a lot of their evidence, and I've heard John speak at length, and his historian bona fides impressed me as much as his openness to Ute culture did.  At this point, I think he's right about the trees. If I saw evidence to the contrary, I'd change my mind in a heartbeat.

I'm also a proud CC alum. And in my writing courses my professors insisted on backing claims with effective evidence, whether factual, analytical, or a combination of the two. I don't see that kind of evidence in Goodman's piece.

The writer is a lecturer at Santa Clara University and a 1975 Colorado College alumnus.

Cipher welcomes letters to the editor. Letters may be edited for length and adherence to our style guidelines. Submit to s_fleming@coloradocollege.edu.

Vinegar and Ash

Natasha and I share a history marked by white knuckles gripping wooden pews and dusty sunlight sliding through antiquated church windows and transubstantiated wine tasting of vinegar. For me, growing up in a Pentecostal church run by ex-Southern Baptists meant that my fight was “not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Twice weekly I confronted this evil by confessing lust for other women to a Cajun ex-convict pastor who ran a drug, alcohol, and sexuality rehabilitation facility out of a converted shack behind my church. She forbade me from receiving the body of Christ until I rebuked my wickedness and cast out the demons from my heart—but still, every week, I found myself tasting salty tears while solemn believers standing around me received Christ’s forgiveness in the sapidity of grape juice.

On the other side of the world, Russian Orthodoxy also asserted that the body and blood were for those with penitent spirits. Every Sunday, Natasha opened her mouth wide and Father Sergei placed the sacramental bread upon her tongue, but she tasted only ash. Each week she held this cinder under her tongue as her mamuchka crossed herself and bowed to the crucifix. Prepubescent Natasha sat in the shadow of her mother, a single woman raising a child in a society newly eclipsed by the fall of the Soviet Union. Picking at her skin, Natasha waited for the divine liturgy to come to an end. Bloody fingernails and patches of missing hair on her arms betrayed her anxiety. Have mercy upon us and save us, forasmuch as He is good and loveth mankind. She crossed herself and bowed to the icon. 

***

I am 13 and my own outstretched palms are bathed in sunlight streaming through opaque stained glass windows. The Bible says that if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord while knowing in your heart that He died for your sins, then you will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I pray the sinner’s prayer, begging Christ to remember me in His kingdom. I am 13 and, like the thief on the cross, I am being justly crucified for my sins. I wonder if I, too, can be with the Lord in Paradise even though my heart is contaminated with feelings for other women. At school, a student spreads a rumor about my homosexuality and people throw things at me and stop talking to me. At home, my father tells me that gays are unnatural and my brothers call homosexuality disgusting. Still, my thoughts are focused solely on Christ and His sacrifice. I ask myself if living an open life of sin is worth it. For what is a man profited, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?

Natasha is 14 and clothed in a white dress and white shoes. She stands at the font with her godmother. Do you renounce the Devil? She tilts her face up to the cross as the priest gathers water and begins to pour it over Natasha’s hands and head. The water reminds Natasha of her patron saint, Veronika, the woman who wiped the face of Christ as He carried the cross to Golgotha. As the service ends, Natasha thinks of the cross that she bears. A boy in her classroom calls her a faggot offhandedly and a gay man is murdered just outside Moscow and still Natasha wrestles with Christ’s redemption.   

Natasha and I are in our 20s when we first meet in April, when snow is no longer falling but sidewalks are coated in black ice and skies are still heavy with gray. The Moscow sun is falling just behind my friend Gosha’s apartment complex as I climb the stairs with my bookbag. Inside is a bottle of vodka and stray beers. When I enter the living room, I see Natasha and Gosha spreading kartoshki, pelmeni, and solyanka on a table while listening to Soviet-era music from the rebellious progressive rock band Akvarium. Natasha eats a pelmeni and tells Gosha that Pasha is coming with his grandmother’s pickled tomatoes, which the Amerikanka must try with the vodka. I laugh and take off my shoes as Natasha shows me a photo on her phone from the night she met Pasha. The phone’s brightness is dim but I see Pasha, eyes closed, with his foot on a stool and a guitar on his knee. Gosha is shirtless, sitting on the ground with his head next to Pasha’s foot on the chair. It isn’t until Natasha turns up the brightness that I see her in the background, face turned away from the camera and spine bent over babushka’s jar of pickled tomatoes.

I do not tell her I am gay. Instead, I let her teach me about ecology in the Kola Peninsula, transportation engineering in St. Petersburg, and Orthodoxy in a post-Soviet society—but it isn’t until a friend’s wedding that Natasha tells me about Christ and queerness. Cheeks flushed warm and red, she takes a shot and tells me that she is afraid of God. I watch as she follows with a large bite of pickled red tomato, hands nimble around the skin and juice dribbling down her chin. I am reminded of original sin, of Adam and Eve and the serpent, and I wonder if God damned woman because of the pain He first felt when His own new creation ate of the forbidden fruit.

Later, Natasha pours herself another shot and I reflect on Christ’s cry in the garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion: “Oh my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Jesus, knowing that He is to be sacrificed to atone for the sins of man, asks if God’s will can allow Him to escape the cross—but no. The disciples fall asleep in the garden and Natasha takes off her shoes and I confess barefoot before my pastor in Louisiana as I too ask if this cup can pass from me. I am 16 and going to prom with a boy who will bring me to the lake after the dance. We are sitting on the pier together and he puts his hands around my waist. I spend the next two years closing my eyes and gritting my teeth as his hands travel over my skin. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Natasha hides her shoes under the table and takes a seat next to me. We have eaten all the pickled tomatoes and the jar casts a small shadow over an empty plate. She turns and tells me that, years ago, she prayed for this cup to pass from her. She explains that, if God wills it, then temptation will pass and she can take communion, face the crucifix in peace. But the cup did not pass from Christ, and Judas kissed him and the soldiers came to Gethsemane and still Natasha works to reconcile her faith with her sexuality.

Natasha stopped taking communion at 17, when she told herself that walking in sin and continuing to take communion would lead only to weeping and gnashing of teeth. Sitting against the wall behind the bridal table, Natasha talks about those missed communions as if her voice is echoing in the empty chalice, trapped in the darkness created by the pre-communion pall. She pretends to have found peace with her decision, but her hands reveal her unrest. She first tugs at the bottom of her green dress but then begins picking at her skin and roving as though searching for a wooden church pew to hold. I look down at my own knuckles and remember white Sundays clutching at the wood, wondering if God saw my sins through the hymnal prayers. 

Natasha has no doubt that Christ sees her sins, which is why she abstains from communion, choosing to hide near choir stalls rather than brace the credence table. She spends her whole life navigating this balance between obscurity and light—navigation I’m learning, too. Russia is no different from Louisiana when all roads lead to Calvary. And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. Natasha—at Gosha’s apartment, and at the wedding, and each time I see her—mirrors Mary of Bethany. Mary of Bethany was the sister of Lazarus whom Christ raised from the dead. Later, she approached Jesus at the home of Simon, anointed His head with expensive perfume, and washed His feet with her hair. I imagine Natasha in that room, breaking the sealed jar of perfume on Christ’s head and watching the fragrance run down His body. Like Mary, she is desperate to empty herself and forfeit all in hopes of attaining Christ’s love.

I am back in Louisiana. It is March, almost a year since the wedding in Moscow, and I am sitting at the coffee shop where, two years ago, I ended my forced straight relationship. The boy was kind and I was restless and broken and felt as though I had failed Christ. I sat down and reflected on my pain, on two years of emotion and experience and body given to someone whom I knew I didn’t love. We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 

I order a coffee and ask myself why peace is so evasive, why I continue to struggle with peace and God as I live openly. I think of Natasha and fear that the peace of God, which should be righteous, will always evade us both. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. I take a sip of coffee and taste the chicory, smiling as I remember to celebrate all the milestones. After all, even through all the trauma in our adult lives, Natasha and I no longer taste ash and vinegar when we take the bread and wine from the father. θ

 

Lost Sheep

"Christian Evangelical people, ya know, never really interested me,” said a voice on the phone. “But,” said the voice, the Twelve Tribes members “weren’t like them. They lived together and loved God and loved one another with all their heart.”

The Twelve Tribes is an international confederation of 12 alternative Christian communities. One of their outposts is the Maté Factor Café in Manitou Springs, Colorado. It’s a cafe with a dark wood interior and murals of pastoral scenes on the walls. It’s open 24 hours every day except on the Sabbath, and nobody who works there receives a paycheck. Instead, their wages go to a collective fund supporting the entirety of the Twelve Tribes. They live and worship together in two big communal houses in Manitou Springs and love hosting visitors. I’ve heard them called many things: a cult, evangelical Dead Heads, and even “super-racist pagan witches.” Rumors abound, but it turns out they’re more than willing to tell you about their lifestyle if you just call them up and ask. 

One Sunday evening, I did just that. On the back of their pamphlet adorned with a picture of the Milky Way and the intriguing question “Do you wonder why you were created?” was the number 1-800-TWELVET. 

 

“Hello?” 

Andrew, the man on the other end of the line, was in upstate New York. He seemed quite surprised at my call—the 1-800 number was his cellphone—but he was happy to talk.

About 20 years ago, when he was a college student in Oneonta, New York, he went downtown to see a few Twelve Tribes members play folk music. When the performance ended, he went up to them and started a conversation. He was intrigued and, on a whim, asked if he could check out their home.

“So that was sorta crazy, and I was just like, ‘Alright!’ and just hopped in the car with them that night and took off to … I didn’t even know where I was going. It was about two hours away,” he said. “So I ended up getting there, and waking up in the morning on this beautiful farm with all these amazing people that were pretty humble, pretty down to earth—not weird and religious.”

This upstate New York settlement was (and still is) one of about 70 locations where members of the Twelve Tribes have taken root over the last half-century and run various businesses to support themselves. Founded in 1972 by a man named Elbert Eugene “Gene” Spriggs Jr. in Chattanooga, TN, the group picked up their fair share of disciples back in the day by following the Grateful Dead in what they still call a “peacemaker bus.”

“We were like paramedics and first-aid, and we just took glass out of people and made sure people didn’t kill themselves when they had too much acid,” recalls Ha Qinai, a Twelve Tribes resident in Manitou Springs. His Hebrew name, adopted when he joined the group, means “the zealot.” Wearing perfectly round wireframe glasses, he smiles and takes a sip of mate through a metal straw. “Made sure they got some mate and some good loving,” he says. He tells me that they take this approach often—following band tours, sending out pairs of missionaries, and chatting up the folks that come into the Maté Factor at 1 a.m. 

“We really believe that we want to reach people. We call them lost sheep,” says Kol Levah, a single mother who joined the Manitou Twelve Tribes just under a year ago. Her name means “whole-hearted friend.” She told me that living without a partner was very unfulfilling. Late at night, after working and putting her daughter to bed, she would come into the Maté Factor Café just to talk to someone who cared. 

And they would listen. After a while, they won her over. She now lives just up the road from the cafe in a communal home with her 4-year-old child. “You don’t realize how much you need people until you have them,” she explains.

So is it a cult? Unsurprisingly, Twelve Tribes members don’t use that term. Nobody decides to join a “cult”; they decide to join a “community.” And in the case of the Twelve Tribes, it’s a community that offers, as Andrew says, “a real hope for the restoration of humanity” through literal interpretations of scripture. The group attempts to recreate the first-century church from the Book of Acts, complete with preparing an army of 144,000 male virgins for the Second Coming of Christ (which, yes, really is in the Bible).

Plenty of outsiders express their dissatisfaction with the Twelve Tribes on the internet. A quick browse turns up posters of Gene Spriggs, who is “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” A host of alarming stories from former members and critics can be found on anti-Twelve Tribes blogs and forums. There are allegations of brainwashing, racism, child abuse, and corruption. Support organizations have been created for ex-members who have nowhere else to turn.

But members dismiss these criticisms as nonsense. “I was used to all kinds of negative things being said about every church that I went to,” says Ha Qinai. He had already embarked on his walk with Jesus (that is, a life of Christian faith) by the time he stumbled upon the Twelve Tribes. He says all the churches, gurus, and communities that he tried ended up the same: some charismatic leader who was “totally crazy, taking advantage of these people … making a lot of money.” But that didn’t happen in the Twelve Tribes. “We’re an open book,” he says. 

Ha Qinai’s account of his previous experiences is what experts on radical religious groups often see—all-powerful leaders tricking the suffering masses into drinking the Kool-Aid of their beliefs while actually funding their extravagant lifestyles. The flow of money within the group is obscured, and the leaders use isolation and absolute authority to effectively brainwash members. “Cults are usually started by very narcissistic leaders,” explains Dr. Daniel Trathen, a psychologist in Denver, Colorado who has studied cults extensively as an advisor for the New England Institute of Religious Research. “It starts out looking like it’s very orthodox, and shifts and changes with power, when the person gets power.” 

Gene Spriggs certainly is often accused of leading a cult, including rumors that he appropriates Twelve Tribes funds to live in a castle in Ireland. Kol Levah, however, tells me this isn’t true. According to her, he lives just as simply as other members and busses tables in newly established Twelve Tribes businesses. But, the group still considers Spriggs a prophet, and his teachings are a large part of daily worship.

“Lack of transparency is a real problem with money, especially with a group that takes in the levels of money that they do,” says David Clark, a cult expert who counsels those recovering from cults and contributed to the book “Recovery from Cults,” published by W.W. Norton. His stance is that once members buy into the ultimate authority of a leader such as Spriggs, outside institutions have no credibility at all in their minds, making cults a form of mind control. “It’s a human tragedy,” he says. 

Ha Qinai, on the other hand, tells me the Twelve Tribes members are constantly checking themselves and one another to make sure they practice what they preach. “We do not want,” Ha Qinai says, banging his fist on the table, “to become that which we hate—a bunch of religious people who are hypocrites. We want to be free from that kinda stuff, you know?” 

When I asked Dr. Trathen whether or not he thinks the Twelve Tribes is a cult, his answer was unequivocal—“no doubt about it.” No malicious intentions are required, just a self-isolating group that believes they possess absolute truth. They have what Clark calls a “no one else is the true church except us” mindset. Even if they are “an open book,” they are a cult by nature of their leadership and absolutist faith-based values.

“I think the biggest thing,” says Kol Levah, “is that [critics] are taking an outside perspective, and if they were able to come into our home, have conversation with us, and just see our hearts—then they would be able to dissipate that.”

She’s the only native Coloradan in the Manitou branch, and her four-year-old daughter is now homeschooled by Twelve Tribes members using their own curriculum (called “training”).

Kids growing up in the community do chores, attend community worships twice a day, and play like any other kid. They’re also, however, disciplined physically—a serious point of contention that has brought Child Protective Services to various Twelve Tribes communities throughout the years. Clark says that, from what he’s seen, the Twelve Tribes really do cross the line when it comes to the treatment of youth. “These children acted like little adults,” says Clark. “Why? Because they went through behavior modification training.” 

Clark’s view is that they homeschool children to avoid contamination by outside ideas. He explains that “critical thinking is a threat” to the Twelve Tribes. And on the subject of discipline—“they’re going to get a compliant child, and they have to use whatever physical means it takes to get to that goal.”

Ha Qinai explains their child-rearing methods with a metaphor. He tells me how everyone says their children are different, better behaved, more polite and attentive. “For us, we know—it produces good fruit. The way that our Father intended spanking was a whole package, and you gotta have all the right ingredients,” he says. “You’d never spank out of frustration, you’d never spank out of anger. You’d never spank without forgiveness and love and restoration.”

If you’re an adult, you’re free to leave the community as you please, though you’ll be completely broke upon entering the outside world. “When you lay [your personal possessions] at the apostle’s feet, they get control,” says Clark. People leave all the time, though Clark mentions how emotionally challenging this can be, especially for those who have grown up on the inside. According to a study done by Michael D. Langone, counseling psychologist and editor of “Recovery From Cults,” there is evidence that ex-cult members experience heightened anxiety, depression, confusion, and difficulty thinking critically—not to mention unfamiliarity with basic tasks like filing taxes or applying to schools and jobs. “There are a million people who go into cults every year and a million people who come out—and not the same million.”

To combat this, nations have put up legal barriers to living the way the Twelve Tribes members do. Ha Qinai tells me that they abide by the law until it contradicts the word of God, at which point they choose civil disobedience over damnation.

Law enforcement has come after Twelve Tribes communities more than a few times. But many members understand that a brief stint in jail or a midnight raid is nothing compared to what Jesus and his disciples went through, so they take this opposition in stride. “We’re not surprised by these things, because Yahshua was the example; he warned us,” says Ha Qinai. But in Manitou Springs, the surrounding community largely seems to welcome the presence of the Twelve Tribes. Though the Twelve Tribes’ beliefs are seriously at odds with those of a modern liberal audience, they’re skilled at public relations. When they ask “How are you?” they really want to know. That must be part of why so many people are on board. The community offers friendly faces and respite from the “void or emptiness inside your soul,” as Adam said on the phone. I found myself comfortable and at ease chatting with Ha Qinai and Kol Levah in the cafe, both of whom smoothly fielded any contentious questions I asked. After spending only an hour with Twelve Tribes members, I was far more sympathetic toward them than when I had entered, though I still don’t consider myself persuaded to join. 

According to Clark, certain circumstances cause individuals to be more receptive to groups like this. “In transitions,” says Clark, “You’re moving from one place to another, you’re emotionally needy.” People in need will latch on to the Twelve Tribes’ simple kindness, hippie aesthetic, and willingness to engage and forgive. “The indebtedness that comes from them helping you out of a crisis is a powerful tool in the hands of a cult,” says Clark. 

Not everything about cults is bad, according to Clark. But there’s a tradeoff: “What is the price you’re going to pay for the benefits you perceive are there?” He clearly doesn’t think it’s worth it. Since they take scripture literally,  the Twelve Tribes believe that homosexuality and premarital sex are sins. They also believe that women should be “homemakers.”

A life of modesty and worship as a barista, and working towards the goal of producing 144,000 male virgins to prepare for the Second Coming of Christ certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone. But, taking your drink with a grain of salt, the Maté Factor Café is certainly worth a visit for the tea and the conversation—they have no problem engaging with even the most godless of college students.

 “You should go over for Friday night celebration, for the Sabbath,” said Andrew. “You—and your whole class if you want—are invited.” So if you’re trying to have a dialogue with someone whose perspective is unorthodox, you’ll find that folks at the Maté Factor Café are far more willing to talk amiably than many far-right groups in El Paso County. It may only be Grateful Dead nostalgia, but you might be shocked to find you have something in common. θ

Fighting Words

These days, it seems acceptable to call anyone a fascist. Recently, for example, feminist scholars Mary Beard and Christina Hoff Sommers have both been labelled fascists by a number of American student groups, as reported in The New York Times. Both of them have no affiliation to fascism, yet the label seems to be sticking.

One would imagine that the legacy of fascism would have do with the millions of individuals whom it has persecuted, maimed, and killed. After all, that kind of knowledge is available in most textbooks on 20th century history—textbooks in which students learn about the atrocities committed by the Italians and the Germans and, ideally, form their own judgements as to how it happened and what must be done to prevent it from happening in the future. For many, facing the history of fascism forces us to confront the unsettling fact that the ability to do evil seems to exist in most, if not all, humans.

For the most part, students learn in these textbooks that fascism is now a thing of the past. They’re taught that this specific political philosophy must include the following elements: a totalitarian form of government, a glorification of the “citizen soldier,” an othering of a targeted group, a paramilitary and expansionist component, and a strong father-like leader in charge. (This definition of fascism comes in part from Alfred Stepan’s book, “The State and Society.” Stepan’s definition, unlike the short blurbs in dictionaries, begins to express the complexity of fascism.) But we don’t usually use the word “fascism” to refer to what I’ve just described. Instead, we often use it as an insult directed at American conservatives or leftists curtailing hate speech. The word is powerfully charged, so problems arise when we use it as a vague insult.

Based on the requirements I’ve just provided, one would have to look long and hard to find living individuals who directly supported a fascist government. They would have to be at least 80, if not 90, years old. Still, given the above definition, calling neo-Nazis fascists wouldn’t be so inaccurate as to raise a serious problem (though if we were splitting hairs, we would also differentiate between them and historical fascists).

While contemporary “pseudo-fascists” believe in many of the racist, homophobic, and sexist ideas that historical fascists held, most of them cannot truly be called fascists, since they believe in a limited, certainly not totalitarian form of government. An authoritarian form of government tends to be content as long as its citizens refrain from particular actions (like having a satellite dish), while a totalitarian state is hell-bent on impacting every aspect of their citizens lives. Take, for example, 20th-century China under Chairman Mao versus contemporary China under Xi Jinping. Though this is reductive, it’s fair to say that whereas Mao’s government was involved in every aspect of every citizen’s life (and killed tens of millions of people), Xi’s government wants to keep people in line and control their use of the internet.

But our use of the word “fascist” has spread far beyond applying it to neo-Nazis and illiberal nations. Our biggest problem is not that we use “fascist” to describe people who share a similarly oppressive but less radical ideology, but that we call people fascists simply because we disagree with them on political issues. 

Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, espouses views that are certainly conservative and debatably offensive. Perhaps for this reason, he is routinely characterized as a fascist. But Peterson’s political philosophy is a version of classical British liberalism, not fascism. Peterson has spent several decades studying the effects of totalitarianism, and has been trying to help people (though his audience is predominantly young men) transition away from such extremist views.George Orwell remarked in his essay “Politics and the English Language”  that “the word ‘fascism’ has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Orwell wrote this in 1946.

It is intellectually lazy to use the term “fascist” to characterize an individual that one disagrees with. Recall the last election cycle, when some were quite quick to characterize Trump as a fascist. While he did hold views reminiscent of the historical fascists, his thoughts were (and are) not organized into any sort of meaningful ideology or worldview. By calling Trump a fascist, people are writing him off, such that they don’t have to further engage with his ideas. And this attitude extends beyond Trump: since any so-called fascist is obviously a terrible person incapable of meaningful dialogue, calling someone a fascist seems to imply that one need not take the alleged fascist’s ideas seriously. Given the murderous history of real fascism, this must not be our attitude.

Ironically, our tendency to use the term “fascist” as a broad, pejorative term is exactly the kind of thing that historical fascists did. They used simple, evocative words to construct stereotypes and incite violence. The tendency to use a provocative insult to avoid substantive debate becomes especially pernicious when it’s used to justify actual violence. Neo-fascists often use provocative language to incite violence, but this is exactly what we’d expect from them. What’s less expected (and more ironic) is that members of Antifa, a group that brands itself as “anti-fascist,” often use the slogan “Punch a Nazi.” Exhorting people to “punch a Nazi” is, regardless of how evil a Nazi might be, the same kind of violence-based rhetoric that the historical fascists used. In trying to fight the contemporary bastardizations of fascism, advocates of violence against the “alt-right” only resuscitate its corpse.

This is not simply a matter of semantics, as Orwell reminds us in the aforementioned essay: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better.” Using the word “fascist” to characterize individuals with whom one disagrees is an impulsive action. What Orwell reminds us is that our usage of the word “fascist” creates a vicious cycle: our lazy use of language leads to laziness in thought, which then leads to greater laziness in language, and so on. Simply slapping the label “fascist” on a person will not solve unclear or shallow thinking; it will only disguise it, like a Band-Aid covering a festering wound. 

Even at Colorado College, we overuse the word “fascist” by applying it too broadly to any sort of bigot. This is not to say that we should pat racists, sexists, or homophobes on the back for exercising their free speech. We should, however, engage those people and try to understand their viewpoints. It might seem like too much of a burden to engage with people whose views are clearly outlandish and even hurtful, but on a college campus, we (or others for us) are paying to participate in an intellectually engaged community.

No one benefits from a culture of hushed whispers or brooding silence concerning an ever-increasing list of taboo topics. And if it seems like there aren’t any taboos, consider a question widely considered inappropriate like, “Why is CC committed to having international students on campus?” Is it just because we need more statistics and languages that President Tiefenthaler can mention when talking to donors? The person asking these questions might be dismissed because they don’t know the supposedly obvious reasons for including international students at CC. 

But rather than dismissing that person as ignorant, or as a fascist, we need to respond directly and substantively to this sort of question. Once we stop questioning what we take to be a basic truth, we grow complacent about it, and then we stop understanding how to defend it. And it is precisely when we cannot defend our beliefs that they are most vulnerable. When we reflexively dismiss people who question values like international diversity, we merely brush away the bigotry we perceive to be on the surface, while these beliefs remain unchanged. If we want to have any chance of affecting real change, we need to engage with all the ideas present in our community.

When I came to CC, I found an environment of engaged, motivated, and intelligent students. But even these intelligent students are too often wary to discuss uncomfortable questions. And, unfortunately, the uncomfortable issues seem to be the most important ones. Still, that shouldn’t be a reason to give up. It should make us more determined to try to change what we can.

Changing the way we engage in dialogue with each other on our campus—both in and outside of the classrooms—works to restore the primary purpose of a liberal arts education: learning how to navigate a complex and erratic world. Silence in the face of discomfort will get us nowhere, and will lead to greater resentment and hatred in our own community. 

I know that an essay like this one might anger students. But if that anger does not make us rethink our ideas, I hope it will at least push individuals to engage with an unusual opinion. Here on campus, we are so isolated from disagreement that we will have made progress even if we only interact with the other side of a debate in order to reaffirm our own beliefs. Exposing ourselves to others’ viewpoints and learning from that experience is a core part of a liberal arts education. We cannot embody CC’s “Mission and Vision,” “to develop those habits of intellect and imagination” if we are unwilling to interact with peers with whom we disagree. θ

It Cut Both Ways

Hey Callie, I’m here to talk to you about my penis.”

Out of context, this message sounds like the usual dick-centric message a woman might receive—it’s like a sales pitch, a virtual version of a solicitor at my door. Or maybe it’s a cringingly straightforward version of the classic “what r u doing 2nite” text. But thankfully, this time, no one was trying to sell me on their penis.

This message actually originated from a conversation with a female friend of mine. We’d been discussing penis appearance and circumcision when we realized that we knew very, very little about it. How common was it? Were there any proven benefits? Where does all the foreskin go? What even is a penis? In search of answers, I reached out to the Facebook community to ask for penis anecdotes and opinions surrounding circumcision. The post was basically an inverted version of that Jonah Hill scene in “Accepted” where he’s yelling “Ask me about my weiner!” I was yelling into the cybervoid for people to let me ask them about their weiners. As it turns out, people really want to talk about dicks because, believe it or not, no one ever actually asks.

 

Maybe you’re rolling your eyes at the suggestion that penises should be talked about more. We do seem to talk about them all the time, whether it’s a joke, a comment about the size of the president’s peen or some other masculinity-threatening insult. But the truth is, the United States has a penis problem—or rather, a penis discourse problem.

Most of us think about the penis a whole lot, whether it’s because we want dick or because we have a dick. But we don’t really think about the foreskin. That is, until we we have children ourselves. “Congratulations on your new baby! Now do you want to cut off its dick skin or not?”

There is a war being waged over the foreskin—the war on circumcision, as some see it. Circumcision has been an unquestioned norm in the United States for a long time. Only in the past couple decades have people started resisting the practice. Anti-circ and pro-circ folks are, shall we say, going head-to-head over circumcision: its benefits, frequency, ethicality and so on. People have a lot of cock-eyed opinions, and the debate is surprisingly complex. Thinking about circumcision as a decision of whether to snip is just the tip ... of the iceberg.

***

Whose opposed to circumcision deem it an act of violence. Circumcision of infants, they argue, is nonconsensual and cruel, as many infants are not given an anaesthetic for the operation. The leading group against circumcision, Intact America, considers circumcision akin to female genital mutilation. Groups like Intact America, which describe themselves in their mission statement as “passionate, professional, principled, and uncompromising,” hold the opinion that circumcision is an unnecessary and invasive surgery. They go as far as to support an all-out ban on circumcision. 

Reading Intact America’s website, I realized I didn’t actually know exactly what happens during a circumcision. In order to fully understand, I spent an hour watching different instructional videos on how to circumcise both adult and infantile penises. My personal favorite circumcision video was the one featuring “Blue Danube” by Richard Strauss. (Every good circumcision is accompanied by a full orchestra.) 

Now that I’m basically an expert, I can clear up some medical and anatomical confusion. A circumcision happens like this: first, you cut open the foreskin on the upper side of the penis with scissors, then slit the underside, peel it like a banana, and cut it off. Often, metal instruments are used to hold the foreskin open in order to ease the cutting process. The procedure sounds incredibly painful, though I can’t imagine a surgery that would sound pleasant when described in graphic detail. 

The World Health Organization estimates that about 30 percent of the world’s penis-owning population is circumcised. Most of this population is comprised of Muslim penis owners living in Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East—circumcision, or khitan in Arabic, is mentioned in the hadith and the sunnah. Circumcision is also mandated by most Jewish communities, a tradition which stems from a passage in Genesis 17. God tells Abraham, “This is My covenant, which ye shall keep, between Me and you and thy seed after thee: every male among you shall be circumcised.” God then goes on to explain that if Abraham doesn’t keep his people circumcised, their souls will be compromised and cut off from God. From what I gathered, this is where religiously-motivated circumcision began. But, in the New Testament, Paul basically argues that because Jesus was circumcised, no one else has to be. Jesus’ foreskin died for our sins, so circumcision fell out of Christian tradition.

In other predominately Christian countries, like France and England, non-religious circumcision will soon have disappeared. But circumcision rates in the United States are still high (around 80 percent of men aged 14 to 59 are circumcised) despite the fact that the majority of the United States is Christian. So how did we come to live in a foreskin-less nation?

There’s no one clear answer. It seems, however, that if God wasn’t the one telling you to circumcise your child, it was your box of cornflakes. Cereal namesake John Harvey Kellogg popularized the belief that circumcision was an effective method of stopping masturbation and keeping a person clean and chaste. That anti-masturbation, pro-hygiene argument became especially popular after the First World War, when the military was forced to discharge more than ten thousand men due to STDs. The proposed solution? Circumcision. 

Starting in the Second World War, soldiers were required to be circumcised before being deployed (this is all, of course, based on very little scientific evidence suggesting it would help prevent STDs). This meant a lot of grown-ass men were circumcised (without anesthetic) and were told that it was for their health. So later on, when given the decision to circumcise their own children, many couples decided it was better to do it early, when the memory wouldn’t be so painful (medical opinion at the time held that babies didn’t feel pain). During the postwar baby boom when hospital-births were the new standard, circumcision became the doctor-recommended option for parents. A slew of medical reports by Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose book “Baby and Child Care” remains one of the best-selling books of all time, claimed that circumcision was cleaner and safer for the child. (Spock, as it happens, rescinded these statements near the end of his life.) By the 1960s, nearly 90 percent of babies were circumcised. Couples in the 1960s saw their friends throwing their children off the proverbial dick-snipping bridge, and they decided to follow suit.

By the ‘60s, the argument for circumcision seemed to be that circumcision was cleaner, safer, and prettier than the alternative. The hygiene argument for circumcision has never really made sense to me. I understand it’s another part of your body you have to clean, but to recommend cutting it off so you don’t have to clean it? That’s kind of like saying you should cut off your hands since, if you don’t have hands, you don’t need to wash them after you go to the bathroom. 

The arguments of safety and STD transmission are contentious ones; look it up and you’ll find a hundred studies that say circumcision prevents STDs and another hundred that say it doesn’t. Neither argument has been proven. And the argument that circumcision makes penises more attractive is just a positive feedback loop of negative thought to justify a popular practice against its challengers. Apparently, if all scientific justification for something fails, the public resorts to “it just looks better that way.”

 

The online discussion about circumcision makes the isssue seem very black and white, so I wanted to know if people actually think about their penises the way the internet makes it seem they do. It was awesome to see the number of people willing to talk to me openly about their penises. People I hadn’t spoken to in years reached out—from old camp counselors to boys from my middle school. My friends from Colorado College messaged me; even my uncle sent me his opinions. I actually got catfished by a pretend med school student using a picture of Chelsea soccer player Eden Hazard to slide me fake medical advice about circumcision, which was cool in an inconvenient way. 

Most of the responses came from circumcised people, which is unsurprising given the high rate of circumcision in the United States. All of the responses I got were from penis-owning people who identified as men. In general, most were pretty nonchalant about circumcision—definitely not as heated as those vocal on the internet.

 Some of them hadn’t thought about it at all before, while others had several paragraphs of thoughts on the matter. Their opinions on the debate ended up boiling down to a few main contentions also made by circumcision scholars: religion, consent, cleanliness, pleasure, and appearance. (I granted all interviewees anonymity in the interest of getting frank, honest answers. Completely randomly generated names are used in lieu of given names.)

The question of consent and circumcision is at the heart of the debate. A lot of the responses I received were from Jewish men who had no issue with their parents making the decision to circumcise them. On the other hand, non-Jewish Richard (uncircumcised), found it an “imposition of religion.” He said it was a “consent violation if the person is too young to make an informed decision for themselves … and frankly abusive.” One of the few women who reached out for an interview said it was “pretty barbaric … it should be a choice that a penis owner makes when they’re old enough to do so, rather than a choice that’s made for them when they’re babies.” 

But others argued that as kids we had to do a whole bunch of shit we didn’t want to anyway. One guy called the consent argument “complete bullshit. I didn’t consent to if I could or could not go to preschool, eat veggies, grow up in USA, etc. The list is endless.” He reasoned that “it’s not like children can consent to orthodontic surgery (which is often cosmetic).” Those making the violation-of-consent argument were typically uncircumcised people, while circumcised folk tended to have a more relaxed attitude about it. Both sides make good points: I didn’t consent to my parents giving me horrible haircuts as a child, true, but my hair grew out, whereas growing foreskin back is much harder. But also, if a parent is following what their religion has dictated for years, what’s common with other new parents, or what they’re told is best for their child, then I’m not quite sure it’s abusive, either. Additionally, banning circumcision (like Intact America suggests) means preventing Jewish and Muslim practices and could lead to amateur circumcisions performed out of adherence to religion, which carry serious medical risks.

Pleasure is the one thing I found circumcised guys get bummed out about, as there are a good deal of rumors that having that ultrasensitive foreskin makes for better sex. The public seems to have  accepted this as fact, although there isn’t much actual scientific evidence because sexual pleasure is hard to quantify. As circumcised Paul put it, “I want a penis that is as sensitive as can be, because … sex is nice.” A lot of guys I talked to who had been circumcised for non-religious reasons found it pretty illogical—they said they definitely wouldn’t have been circumcised if they had been given the choice.

On the other hand, there’s the cleanliness argument. One girl I interviewed felt better knowing that guys she was hooking up with were circumcised because she found it cleaner. Several fraternity brothers made it clear to me that they thought uncircumcised penises were gross, but quickly backtracked to make it clear that they had never thought about any penises, ever. The cleanliness argument has spurred some pretty demoralizing conceptions of uncircumcised penises as “gross” or “dirty.” A friend of mine told me she had considered uncircumcised penises ugly and dirty before she saw one and realized they were just regular old penises with more skin. That experience wasn’t unique to her, either. Colorado College junior Richard II told me a story about his friend whose girlfriend wouldn’t go down on him specifically because he was uncircumcised, and several guys I attempted to interview for this article actually told me they thought uncircumcised penises were “disgusting.” It turns out that a lot of people get squeamish about the uncircumcised penis. 

There’s a lot of danger in the “ew” argument. Penises have become a sort of bodily indicator of power in addition to sexuality. Maybe the rhetoric surrounding penises is negative because they’re sometimes associated with male domination and toxic masculinity. With the recent increase in body positivity surrounding vaginas and their beauty, I’ve found that no one really ever calls penises beautiful or strong or anything like that. And I’m not hopping on some men’s rights bullshit train, but I do wonder how penis owners feel about having the general narrative remain, “All penises are gross, and some are even grosser, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” 

 I tried asking people I interviewed about penile body positivity. Some, like John and Peter, felt that this lack of conversation about the penis and the body was detrimental. According to uncircumcised John, the inclusion of penises in discussions of body positivity could “delegitimize the stigma and shame of differently shaped and sized penises” and “get men talking about their feelings around their bodies in general.” This body talk is important, too, because almost every guy I interviewed pointed out how they almost never see other people’s dicks. Most guys noted that they only see other penises in porn, and that, as a result, porn is what shaped their idea of how the “correct” penis looks and acts. On the other hand, Richard II pointed out that because of the penis’ association with sexuality and male power, any body positivity movement around the penis would end up feeling like a movement for male power.

 

We see how body shaming and lack of representation of bodies affects people all the time, but we seem to ignore the penis in a very counterintuitive way. We don’t talk about penis appearance because we don’t think that cisgender men belong to a faction of people that needs more attention or support. But this leads to internalized insecurities that can very quickly turn into aggression. If someone is ashamed of their penis, they might associate sex with embarrassment, and a supposed indicator of “power” might come to indicate their inadequacy. It’s easy to see, then, how guys can end up combating feelings of powerlessness with violence. The circumcision debate thus only exacerbates this issue—an incredibly vulnerable part of someone’s body is considered unattractive because of circumstances (and circumcisions) completely outside of their control.

Aggressively masculinizing the penis through our rhetoric has implications other than cis male shame, though. It further ostracizes trans women and perpetuates the dangerous idea that trans women are still male. We paint the penis as this solely sexual, male body part and it seems as if the only place we’re talking about the penis outside of sexuality is in the circumcision of infants, where it suddenly seems like the penis belongs to the argument and not the owner. The only arena where the penis is desexualized is one where it’s denigrated. To me, we seem to be focusing on the penis in all the wrong ways, and our rhetoric is creating a culture that kills people. Toxic masculinity thrives in a phallocentric society. Insulting the penis in any way (even by proxy, as in rejection of sexual advancement) becomes a dangerous action for all women but especially for trans women, whose penises are used as proof of their “fake” womanhood. This myth of the penis as inherently and aggressively male contributes to the transphobia of men who have killed at least six trans women in 2018 as of February 23, 2018 in the United States alone. 

So where do we go from here? One possible solution would be to start viewing and thinking of penises in a non-sexual way. Our country is weird as hell about nudity no matter how you cut it, but penises are often shut out of the whole “nudity isn’t inherently sexual” narrative. Of course, there are reasons for this—say, indecent exposure, which is something that crosses the line over body positivity into harassment. Though we maybe shouldn’t advocate for a universal “free the penis” movement, we should definitely rethink the strange place we’ve put the penis in our thoughts about the body.

 

In terms of being pro- or anti-circumcision, I am very much on the dick fence, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that when we take as rigid a stance on the circumcision debate as people tend to, we shame one kind of penis or another. Calling uncircumcised penises dirty and unsafe isn’t exactly uplifting, and calling circumcised penises mutilated (as groups like Intact America do) doesn’t do wonders for self-esteem either. Surely, there’s a way to have this discussion that doesn’t denigrate all penises and perpetuate a culture of body shame around a vulnerable body part. 

Peter seemed to nail this topic on the head (the metaphorical one, not the penis one, because ouch): “Masculinity standards are not talked about enough. Penises are a large part of being masculine and being comfortable in your own skin. Guys grow up watching porn and there are discrepancies of expectation and reality. I think that being able to love what you have, and understanding that what you see in the fiction world of porn can create a feeling of inadequacy. I think that this feeling leads to anger that targets women and other guys. So creating a culture of penis positivity is important.” 

We are so obsessed with the penis as an emblem of male sexuality that we don’t even know where would we be if we could break down these notions about the penis. The entire conversation just clearly indicates how strangely our culture thinks about bodies and sex and how they relate. It’s completely nonsensical to think the uncircumcised penis looks weird. If we think that, it’s because we were taught to. 

So, America, I think it’s time to quit dicking around about the dick. 

Open Source Sovereignty

Do you know why this is called La Casa Azul?” My classmate Nate and I shared a hesitant look.  “Well, aren’t all the walls blue?” I asked in reply.

Oliver Fröhling laughed. He knew that we were used to overanalyzing questions that professors asked, so he always had fun messing around with us. 

“Yeah!” he responded, grinning and moving right on to another joke. “We Germans have a special sense of humor. You do know how many Germans it takes to change a light bulb, right?” Nate and I looked at each other again, perplexed. “One!” he said, “we’re all really efficient and have no sense of humor!”

 We worked with Oliver over the next two weeks, and the jokes never stopped. Nate and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico for the field component of a class called “Development and Grassroots Resistance in Latin America.” Oliver looked like a hipster Indiana Jones in his weathered leather jacket, T-shirt with the logo of his organization, and felt fedora. After spending just a couple hours with Oliver, we realized that behind his lighthearted charm was an acute understanding of modern Mexican politics. He walked us through the crowded streets of Oaxaca, past markets selling huitlacoches, tortillas moradas, sopes, chapulines, and Oaxacan moles, and into the office of Servicios Universitarios y Redes de Conocimiento en Oaxaca (roughly translated as University Student Services and Meeting Networks in Oaxaca), also known as SURCO. 

SURCO is Oliver’s brainchild. He founded the organization after writing his PhD on indigenous political movements in southern Mexico. The small organization, which he runs with just a few other people, serves to educate and facilitate communication between different social movements in Mexico. SURCO provides information to both nongovernmental organizations and to municipios, local administrative entities in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the vast majority of municipios are run by indigenous people with their own governmental structures. SURCO’s research has created significant awareness around social issues and helped numerous up-and-coming movements overcome barriers to education, information, and infrastructure.

 

After the debt crisis in Mexico in the ‘80s, new neoliberal policies resulted in the removal of social services formerly provided by the state. Organizations like SURCO stepped in to provide assistance (and even education) in the state’s absence. While some organizations see the end goal as the filling the need created by the lack of a Mexican social safety net, Oliver says that the real goal is to topple capitalism, which, he thinks, is the power structure that created the lack of services in the first place.

One of SURCO’s ongoing projects works to preserve the indigenous Zapotec language. To encourage Zapotec speakers to engage with the language in a modern way, SURCO is developing open-source software in Zapotec. This would enable indigenous communities to use Geographical Information System (GIS) software, allowing them to impose demographic, resource, and cultural information onto maps. GIS can be used to prevent and monitor the spread of diseases, analyze the risk of an oncoming natural disaster, and help address the endless list of other problems. SURCO wants to use the software to aid indigenous groups in maintaining sovereignty over their lands.

Mapping software in Latin America has historically been used in ways that curtail political liberty and reinforce existing power structures. The first significant use of GIS mapping in Latin America was during the drug war in Colombia. According to Geoffrey Demorest, the U.S. military researcher in charge of this project, GIS was used “in both counter-narcotic [efforts] as well as the suppression of lawlessness.” He called the tool “an indispensible starting point” for the state as a tool of power, and this pattern of GIS usage has continued ever since. 

In 2006, geographers from the University of Kansas went to Oaxaca and completed a mapping project financed by the Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO). This was part of a larger effort to predict areas of potential unrest and perceived drug flow in southern Mexico. The mapped areas were home to social movements that the state saw as hostile. Oliver pointed out that the FMSO-funded expeditions were met with immense criticism from indigenous communities. These communities argued that the expeditions were potential threats to their liberty and sovereignty, due to the involvement of the U.S. military and the historically antagonistic relationship between the Zapotec people and the Mexican state. “Mapping has always been very close to [the] state and military, and basically just reflects state and power relations,” Oliver told me.

Military involvement was bad enough, but the issue has gotten more muddled as the private use of GIS has increased. (Think of Google Earth, for instance.) The private sector places yet another variable into the equation, one which makes the cultivation of data even more potentially detrimental to liberty. Mining companies, for example, will often use different geographical information systems in order locate the resources found within land granted to them by the federal government. Because around 80 percent of land in Oaxaca is held communally, government land grants tend to foment unrest. SURCO has been using another form of open-source GIS called Quantum GIS (QGIS) to inform communities how much of their communal land will be surveyed or potentially taken from them and offered to private companies. These are mostly Canadian-based mining companies that practice open-pit mining, a particularly destructive form of mineral extraction.

Aside from the outright infringement of destructive mining on indigenous lands, the use of GIS by private companies also creates what Oliver calls an “increased surveillance mechanism.” He explained, “If you’re growing organic coffee or you’re part of these kind of environmental carbon trading programs, then your land will be placed in these GIS programs in order to surveil or estimate the amount of carbon that is captured.” It is this combination of government surveillance and private investment that raises problems within communities. Open-source software allows SURCO and those who use it to analyze and manage their own resources, thus subverting the existing power structures—which, after all, was Oliver’s original goal. 

If the main point is basically “who gets to do the analysis and who gets to generate the data,” as Oliver put it, then QGIS is important because it allows anyone with a computer and an internet connection to democratize and improve data. “The reason why we use open-source is because it is free,” Oliver said. “But we also very much support [a] philosophy of [the] open-source movement because knowledge is not something that should be proprietary. It should be something that is created collectively; it should [be] out there in order to be improved.” Democratized data has given these marginalized communities a way to fight back.

 

mpowered by SURCO’s assistance, various Oaxacan communities are now using geographical mapping systems for resource management. In Capulalpam de Méndez, a forest community, people have warmly embraced QGIS and open-source technology, and other Oaxacan communities are now following suit. In fact, Oliver said that “forestry communities are using it [not only] for resource management [but also] to create community-protected areas.” QGIS has even been used to map out the effects of a hydroelectric dam and see what areas are now susceptible to flooding. These projects are what Oliver calls “capacity building,” meaning that they help develop a community’s capacity to resist exploitation, by giving them technologies that they need to generate and analyze their own data.

Here, Oliver claims that one way in which modern government exercises power is through big data and “dataism,” which is the idea that data is supremely valuable. Oliver takes his concept of big data from the prominent Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, one of the first to express concerns about the rise of dataism. Han writes, “Every click we make is registered, each word we introduce into search engines … Our digital footprint reveals an incredibly exact representation of our self, of our soul, perhaps even more precise or complete than the image we make of ourselves.” The internet has allowed for a complete registration of life into data. This becomes a huge problem when you factor in microtargeting, or the strategic use of data in order to manipulate potential clients (and in the case of the U.S. election, voters). Because our digital footprints are such complete and precise representations of our selves, companies are now capable of reaching, influencing, and predicting our psychological processes.

This field of study, called digital psychopolitics, poses a significant question to human liberty because it supplies governing bodies with more direct access to our “selves” than was ever previously possible. Han warns us that digital psychopolitics will usher in “the end of liberty.” 

Big data in Oaxaca, when viewed from Han’s perspective, is an attack on community liberty, privacy, and democratic procedures—and that’s before considering the potential for exploitation at the hands of private interests. “The big issue is security,” Oliver said, “but that’s not all of it. Oaxaca is … part of this extractive economy, so there are mining interests, energy interest[s], and then the whole flip side of the green economy [the forced expropriation of land so that companies can install windmills or solar panels].” Big data provides access to information that incentivizes private investment.

 Nonetheless, Oliver made it clear that “technology is certainly not always bad,” and that technology and mapping are only tools. “I like my cell phone,” he said, “but [I am] also not on the other side—that technology will free us all. It can only free us if our social and political structures are set up for technology to make us more free.” Oliver reiterates that “technologies are never neutral”—they are created for certain purposes. He also thinks they can “be appropriated by people for certain new and maybe positive ventures.”

 He added that there “are all kinds of barriers, the first one being language … you are talking about indigenous communities that might not even be that proficient in Spanish, and most of these software programs tend to work in English.” Additionally, access to decent computers and high speed internet can be quite costly. Data is not transparent—certain groups are barred from accessing and understanding it. SURCO’s aim is to provide and translate that data so that people can create a collective consciousness about projects that may be detrimental to communities. Open-source software is key to social movements because it democratizes data. Because, as Oliver notes, the questions that surround the use and cultivation of data are fundamentally questions of power.

Despite their promise to support community movements, QGIS and other forms of open-source software are only a means—a crutch for democracy—in what Oliver calls “the war.”  It’s the war against private and state use of GIS for exploitation, but it’s also a broader war against inequality. “Wealth is distributed in an uneven way so that, a lot of the time, communities have to accept projects that they don’t really want just because they don’t see any other option to survive.” He paused, gave a wry smile, and said, “So, I’m getting at this thing called capitalism.” 

Away

It has been eight months since Laura and Tim have had sex, and both of their children hate them, but no one is very surprised by either of these facts. Both Laura and Tim are not supposed to be on this earth. They are not the fittest, and therefore they should not have survived. Societies have rules, rules to which this couple fails to oblige. Laura drinks her milk with ice and Tim eats his Kit Kats whole; Laura pours the milk before the cereal and Tim lets his soak for too long. She dips her Oreos in water and he drinks orange juice after brushing his teeth. Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand; Laura is an interior designer who leaves her Christmas decorations hanging year-round. Laura and Tim kiss their family on the mouth—that is gross. Laura wears blue eyeshadow. Tim wears white after Labor Day. Tim never removes his sunglasses, a $5 pair of black aviators with a purple trim. Laura has the same glasses. She only wears hers on Thursdays.

They lead a life of blasphemy and it has put their children to shame. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are sent to school with wet cereal and watery milk and for this they are shunned. The children at school do not come close, for their parents have warned them that Little Tim and Tiny Laura come from a home that one cannot trust. Little Tim and Tiny Laura have explained to their parents that they must cease their sacrilegious behaviour, that the way they act is cruel. Little Tim and Tiny Laura want to live mundane lives. Days spent at the park and on the swing. They want slushies and ice cream on sticks. They want ham sandwiches and PB&Js; they want crayons and finger paints. They want to be invited to play. Little Tim and Tiny Laura are upset, so they send their progenitors to Away. Laura and Tim are now at Away, and in this place called Away, they are climbing on rocks.

“Reach!” Tim yells, plunging his pudgy finger into the sky.

“I’m trying, you stupid turd!” Laura yells down, fire raging in her eyes behind the tint of her shades—it was a Thursday.

 Laura likes calling Tim a stupid turd; she thinks it is an astonishingly accurate description. Tim does not like it when Laura calls him a stupid turd because he agrees that this is an astonishingly accurate description, and Tim does not like to think about his stupidity or his turd-like qualities.

 Laura’s body quivers as she clings to the crumbly rocks. Hot from the sun, her hands are clammy and wet. She struggles to find a grip. When she looks up, she sees a cockatoo fly across the sky. She drops her head and whispers to herself, “Bird.” Laura brings a hand to her face and feels a cloth on her eyes. Where did this blindfold come from, she thinks. I swear it was not there before, she thinks. She whispers to herself again, “Laura is confused.”

Tim, who is also confused, looks to his left and to his right and he sees that there are other couples around him. They are confused. Everyone is confused. A squat woman belays a lanky man. This man’s name is Steve: Tim knows this because the woman is screaming on repeat, “S-s-s-steve! D-d-d-don’t f-f-f-all!” When Tim looks at Steve he notices his arms. Tim thinks they look like wet noodles and soon he is sure: this man, his arms are not arms at all but noodles, moist noodles. Then there is Savanna, whose name Tim simply knows. Tim is creepy like this. Savanna is on the ground. The soil beneath her has turned to soap. How odd. Then there is Sasha, who is with Savanna. Sasha yells, “Anything but soap!” 

A voice booms from behind the group, its depth echoing off the cliffs around them.

“Couples! Please. Be calm. Please. Communication is key. As you guide your loved one across the rocky territory, use motivational speech. We are trying to work together.”

 Focus Tim, focus. He tears his eyes from the soapy earth and looks back at the wall of rock, then up at his wife. “Climb!” Tim yells with such force that his face turns red. Tim is unattractive when he does this—he is always unattractive, even when he does not do this.

 “I’m trying!” Laura replies. Saliva launches from her mouth as she spits the words toward the ground. Laura looks like a duck, but when she spits like this, she looks more like a cow. Laura is more attractive than Tim, but Tim is very ugly. Laura can sometimes be pretty. Today she is not pretty.

 The instructor, a tall man with large muscles, approaches Tim. Tim is a small man with small muscles covered in layers of fat. Tim is fat not because he eats Kit Kats but because he eats them whole—he deserves this misfortune. The instructor turns to Tim and begins to speak, but then decides otherwise. Shivers run down his spine and he steps back from Tim. Tim is not safe to be around, he thinks. He has an inkling, an inkling that tells him that Tim is a businessman who only shakes with his left hand. That is wrong, he thinks. This is a dangerous man, he thinks. He shudders and retreats.

Laura is frozen on the rocks, her body tense. She screams. Tim remains unphased.

Tim looks down at his shoes. His childhood flashes before his eyes—he watches himself eating soggy cereal, buying his first pair of glasses, kissing his mother and father on the lips. He returns his attention to Laura on the rocks.

 “Laura!” he yells.

 “Tim!” she yells.

 They are good at names.

 “Move your body up!” he yells.

 “Up, where?” she yells.

 They are good at yelling.

 Tim looks at his hands and sees that they are empty. But he was belaying Laura, he thinks to himself. Laura’s rope dangles down the rock’s face. It goes nowhere, and is held by no one. It is a magic rope. Laura does not know about her rope. Laura is instead thinking about her feet. Laura’s feet are bare and the rock’s surface gouges her skin, cutting deep into her flesh. This hurts Laura. Tim knows this hurts Laura.

 Tim is still confused. He does not know what to do or what to say or how to say it. “Just up!” he squawks, a twitch in his voice. Tim yodels insecurely. Tim does this when he feels insecure. Tim is a stupid turd.

 “Why, why do I have to go up?” Laura’s question is caught in the wind and Tim does not hear her.

 Tim is not paying attention. Tim is trying to remember how he got to where he is. How did I get here, he thinks. Where is here, he thinks. “Tim is confused,” he whispers as his eyes dart across the landscape.

 Laura tears the blindfold from her face and in rage, she throws it into the air. The cloth erupts in flames. It evaporates, leaving smoke in its wake.

 Laura broke the rules of the game. She cannot take the blindfold off once it is put on. Laura does not know this. This is not good news. This is in fact bad news. Tim and Laura do not know that they are in a game. But it is true that their life is just a game. And you see, when you break the rules of the game, you lose the game, and when you lose the game, you die.

 You do not want to be sent to Away.

 The rock Laura was holding onto turns into a snake, and she briefly reflects on the cliche qualities of the moment before letting go of the surface. She tumbles in the air and begins to fall. When she hits the ground, she plunges into the earth and disappears. Tim is standing next to the wall of rock until Tim, too, is sucked into the ground below his feet. He disappears.

Tim and Laura descend into a darkness. They hurtle through the air for eternity, a limbo they must endure. 

***

It is a sunny day, and Little Tim and Tiny Laura are at the park. Their legs dangle above the ground as they sit on the swings, holding ice cream on a stick and PB&J. They look at the playground—the seesaws and the slide. Across the field there is a game of soccer, and by the hopscotch, other kindergarten kids are waving at them to come play. Tiny Laura and Little Tim take a bite of their PB&Js. They turn to each other, feeling the the weight of their sandwiches in their right hands and their ice creams in their left. They look at each other and slowly smile. 

Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. The progenitors deserve this misfortune. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. These people are a disease in our communities. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They will suffer for their social violations. They will pay for their offenses in this world. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They have died. Yes, think Little Tim and Tiny Laura. They are dead. 

 

The Blinds Pulled Down

When Noah Green was three years old, a neighbor caught a whiff of rotting food coming from the apartment he shared with his mother, Eleanor. A couple of hours later, concerned policemen were knocking on their door. Eleanor refused to let them in at first. When she finally relented, the police entered to find the home in a horrific state of disorder. Cookware, moldy food, and knives littered the plastic rags that coated the floor. The police found Noah amidst the disarray. A few hours later, Noah was sitting in a police station, crying in his overalls. He spent a couple of weeks with his grandparents afterwards, occasionally visiting his mother in the hospital, but he never really understood what was going on. Years later, Noah shrugs it off with a laugh. He now knows that his mother is what most people would call a “hoarder,” though he doesn’t think the term fits. 

The label “hoarder” presents a strange incongruity. On the one hand, people use it so loosely that nearly anyone could be called a hoarder: those who have “too many” books, “too much” clothing, or “too much” of anything. On the other hand, our culture often sensationalizes and ostracizes those who hoard as if they’re rare outcasts with a strange illness. 

I’ve witnessed both of these extremes firsthand. I first heard the word “hoarder” sensationalized when I was in elementary school, watching TV. During a commercial break, dramatic opera music played as a hand slowly turned a door knob. The words “unbelievable,” “dramatic,” “unimaginable,” and “unnerving” flashed across the screen one by one. Then, the music intensified and the door opened on a shot of a child navigating through ten-foot-high piles of stuff. The screen went black momentarily before “HOARDERS” appeared. Years later, I experienced the other extreme when my disappointed mother walked past the empty “trash” and “donate” boxes outside of my room and called out, “Hoaaar-der!” 

A few weeks ago, confused about these two extremes (and subconsciously suspecting that I had hoarding tendencies of my own), I reached out to Jennifer Hanzlick, the founder of “Clutter Trucker,” a company that helps those with hoarding disorder remove the excess stuff from their homes.  

After helping her grandparents, who experience hoarding tendencies, clear out the clutter in their home, Jennifer realized how physically and emotionally taxing the process was for people with hoarding disorder. She was both surprised and troubled by the dearth of hoarding cleanup services. “Many people are overwhelmed with the amount of things in their homes,” Jennifer said. “They want to get rid of it, but don’t know where to start and need extra help. I started to do a little bit of research, because they always say, ‘If you want to start a business, solve a problem.’ I knew this was a problem, and I felt a strong pull to help out.” 

Jennifer began by explaining that hoarding goes beyond an unwillingness to let go of material possessions. “When I mention this word ‘hoarding,’ people begin to wonder if they have a problem, because, come to think of it, they can’t park their car in the garage because of the things piling up that haven’t been used for years. They might use it someday, so they don’t throw it out.” But Jennifer makes it clear that “hoarding disorder is a serious, complicated mental illness.” According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are four parts of the disorder, which Jennifer described for me: “an excessive accumulation of stuff; extreme difficulty in discarding your possessions and sometimes trash; living spaces cannot be used for their intended purpose; and lastly, it causes distress and impairment.” Plenty of people exhibit one of these tendencies, but, as Jennifer said, “unless you meet all four criteria, you’re not one of the fifteen million people in the United States who struggle with hoarding disorder.”

Since fifteen million people amounts to five percent of the population, hoarding can hardly be considered an obscure phenomenon. Still, its prevalence often goes unnoticed because many of those who struggle with it feel ashamed. “There are more people with hoarding disorder than with Alzheimer’s disease,” Jennifer said. “But you wouldn’t know it. They’re hiding, silently, behind closed doors. With the blinds pulled down, they’re afraid to come out, and they’re afraid to let you in.” 

As Jennifer went on, I only vaguely registered that, statistically speaking, I couldn’t have been very far removed from hoarding disorder. A few hours later, by some wild coincidence, I ran into Noah, a fellow Colorado College student. Still dazed by Jennifer’s story, I couldn’t help but share a bit of it with him. Noah told me that throughout his upbringing he had, at different times, tolerated, embraced, and resisted the hoarding tendencies of his mother.

Jennifer explained that hoarding behavior is often a symptom of trauma or other mental illness. One of Jennifer’s clients did not struggle with hoarding until the year after her husband’s death. Another client exclusively hoarded baby powder, which covered the floor of his apartment in a layer at least a foot high. Jennifer later found out that his last memory of his mother, who died when he was a baby, was of the baby powder she used when changing his diapers.

In the case of Noah’s mother, the hoarding manifested as a result of her history with OCD and anxiety. Before Noah was born, his mother, Eleanor, had lived alone in an apartment for 20 years. No one had ever come in, so it became a world of her own. She was a single mother and Noah was her first and only child, so he was the first person to see her world. During her pregnancy with Noah, the anxiety and OCD that she had struggled with since adolescence worsened and eventually became what Noah called a “horrible fear of the world.” And it didn’t get better once Noah was born. “The excess of things in our home,” he said, “became a kind of protective layer from the outside world, which was scary, uncertain, and out of control—a place where people were trying to get us.” 

Contrary to our culture’s stereotype of “hoarders,” not all individuals who struggle with hoarding disorder are deeply attached to their possessions. “The things around me and on the floor were not even very dear to my mother,” Noah said. “There was a mingled fear of throwing things away and a sense of empowerment or safety that came with my mother’s feeling of control over the seeming lack of control.” By letting everything land wherever it would and deliberately not dealing with it, Noah’s mother had been able to gain a sense of agency in her home environment.

Noah remembered not being allowed to clean any part of the house, or even to throw anything away, which would have meant taking away precious control from his mother. He chuckled, remembering how he used to try to sneak out of his room when he couldn’t sleep, but inevitably his feet would make a loud crunching noise as he tiptoed across the plastic on the floor. Only when his mother was asleep could he throw things away. “I remember this broken jar of mayonnaise on the floor of the dining area. It had been there for weeks, and it was growing mold. I remember that I could neither touch nor pick it up until she went to bed.” As for larger-scale clean-ups, like Noah’s room, for instance, there were points when Noah couldn’t really help himself. But cleaning his room would make his mother very upset. She would say things like: “Noah, now I’m going to have to look through all of the trash.”

Eleanor’s OCD extended to an extreme fear of heavy metals and chemicals, which meant that Noah was neither allowed to brush his teeth nor bathe on his own until he was 13 years old. Every morning and night was like a trip to the dentist. Noah’s mother would carefully brush his teeth before giving him a sponge bath. “Since my mother refused to use actual towels, after giving me a sponge bath, she just wrapped me up like a mummy, using paper towels,” Noah told me with a smile. He was also spoon-fed until he was 11. 

It was very important that the fate of the trash and everything in the home was in Eleanor’s hands. Even if she didn’t catch him throwing things away, she would still hold onto trash bags, hoping to comb through each and every article before deciding what to throw out. She often kept the trash bags for a very long time, saying that she was going to throw them away but that she needed to look through them “just one more time.” It was only when the layer of things strewn on the floor got too thick to wade through that she would throw things away. Noah emphasized that this would only happen once it reached a “critical mass.” Very quickly, though, things just went back to how they had been.

Concerned for Noah’s well-being, his extended family called the Department of Children and Family Services a number of times over the years. For a while, all he knew was that every now and then at school, kind yet serious adults in formal attire took Noah aside to talk to him. As a kid who wholeheartedly loved his mother and felt fiercely loyal to her, when Noah realized that those adults were being alerted by his family, he couldn’t help but think, Wow, my family is really just trying to get in the way of what we’re doing. When the phone rang and Caller ID revealed that extended family was calling, like a synchronized duet, Noah and his mother would pick up the phone at the same time. Eleanor would listen attentively and quietly scribble a script for Noah to cheerfully speak into the receiver. 

For a long time, Noah never told anyone what was going on inside of his home. After all, his family had attempted to change their way of life in such corrosive ways that anyone or anything that tried to intervene was seen as a threat. It wasn’t that Noah’s family was being malicious. But instead of trying to understand Eleanor and Noah, they saw an intractable problem and they ended up trying to separate a mother from her child.

“We put red big tags on [hoarders’] doors and we threaten them,” Jennifer said, exasperated. “We make fun of them and say they’re weird, lazy, dirty, and sad … This only perpetuates the issue and plunges them into an even deeper state of fear and shame—so much so that many of the few who do see therapists for other reasons are too afraid to even tell them about the hoarding.”

Therapy for hoarding disorder is a complicated resource, because while it’s often sorely needed, it’s inaccessible and rarely sought out. People with hoarding disorder often only feel comfortable reaching out for help once they are in a “better place.” It’s only then that they can reach out because, as Jennifer noted, “they aren’t comfortable with accepting help until they feel safe and not threatened.” In a vicious cycle, people often need the confidence that therapy provides in order to get better. But they often don’t even have the confidence to start therapy, much less sustain it. So they end up trapped, lacking not only the confidence they need to get better, but also the confidence they need to start trying.

Jennifer has seen this sort of trapped feeling more than a few times. “When I met Jim,” she told me, “he immediately began to tell me, ‘I don’t know how I let it get this bad … I’ve tried so many times to clean it up, but I can’t make any progress … I was going to see a therapist, but I stopped going … And I could never even tell her about the inside of my house.” At this point in their interaction, Jennifer was still standing outside of his porch. Jim was kind and apologetic, and it was obvious that he really didn’t want Jennifer to go beyond the door, which displayed a sign that read, “Danger: It is a crime to occupy this building or remove this sign.”

Finally, Jennifer gently told Jim that she had to go inside. “I go in, and it’s everything that you and I have, just a lot more of it.” But when she entered the bathroom, she saw several Ocean Spray cranberry juice bottles filled with yellow liquid and buckets filled with bulging, tied-up bags. The plumbing was broken. “Some people see this, and they think it’s dirty and disgusting, but it’s resourceful,” Jennifer told me. She went back out on the porch and sat with Jim as he cried. She told him, “It’s okay, we can clean this up. I do this every day. You’re not alone, and don’t feel bad.”

“The way that I see it,” Jennifer said, “we can either choose to judge Jim or we can choose compassion.” She emphasized that although hoarding disorder is a complicated mental illness, being a Clutter Trucker employee requires neither a psychology degree nor impressive cleaning skills. “There is no specific training. You just have to have compassion, and I really do believe that most people are compassionate by nature. I think that it’s just about allowing that to shine through. That’s really all it is. It’s about being human and allowing yourself to care for someone without judging them. It really shouldn’t be hard.”

When Noah was about 13, he became aware of the world outside of his home and realized how different those two worlds were. The world beyond the safe bubble of their home was, to Noah and his mother, an unfamiliar place teeming with unknown variables. Even when Noah went to school, he followed strict guidelines set by his mother. He carried a baggie with wet wipes, using each one in a very specific order. At lunch, he had to be careful not to touch anything besides his food. “People noticed, and they remarked,” Noah said. “But it’s not like I remained oblivious to how everyone else acted. I saw what other people were doing, and I knew that my mother and I strayed from much of what they did, but the idea was, ‘We’re different and it’s us against them.’” He paused for a second and tried to find the words to describe their relationship. “We were so intertwined and had become so profoundly enmeshed that, for a long time, it was really hard for me to tell the difference between us … There was no real divide between our personal or emotional space.” 

Noah had been his mother’s emotional rock from a very young age. She would tell him everything. Unlike most six-year-olds, Noah had to stay strong for and support his mother, not the other way around. In a reversal to the airline refrain, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs,” Noah had grown accustomed to taking care of his mother, in order for her to take care of him.

Things began to change as Noah approached his teenage years, and began to want more independence. “I was trying to see the world through my own eyes,” Noah said. “But my mother had created this very rigid, domineering, protective bubble around herself and had extended it to me.” As conflict emerged between him and his mother, so did a sense of intense internal conflict. Noah began to feel that he was betraying his mother and developed a deep self-hatred for failing to be there for her fully.

When tension between what Noah wanted for himself and what he had to do for his mother escalated, he began to push back on her attempts to keep them together all the time. Sometimes the guilt of that small defiance would force him to recite a kind of mantra. In his head and aloud, he would compulsively repeat, I am nothing; my mother is everything. I have failed you.

As Noah tried to juggle being a teenager and his mother’s mental health, he was also dealing with his own set of mental health issues. Noah’s anxiety and panic disorder heightened towards the end of sixth grade, leaving him unable to finish the school year. The next fall, Noah found that he could usually only manage to go to school for three days each week. Later on, there was a 10-month period during which Noah couldn’t bring himself to leave his house. It was only out of desperation that he finally asked his extended family for help and left home to enter a residential treatment program for eight months.

After leaving treatment, Noah went to boarding school. “I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to separate myself completely from my past persona. I’m going to be this new person that I know I can be, that I like—none of the mental health issues and none of the baggage from home,” Noah said. “And you see, when someone asks a question, like, ‘Where are you from? What’s your family like? What’s your history?’ You can only answer so much. So when you’re talking to someone, you create a history for yourself.” Noah created histories for himself that were very much distanced from what he grew up with. “But there were points when there was just so much cognitive dissonance that it would come firing back, and suddenly, I felt very much in this old reality.” 

As Noah has grown, he has learned to embrace a fuller and more honest sense of his experiences and history. For the last couple of years, Noah has been doing a thought experiment: “I go back and revisit all past iterations of self—my child, adolescent, and teenage selves—and I embrace all of those people because they are ultimately just one person,” he said with a smile. “These are all continuous parts of who I am. It took me a long time to realize that I can be who I am now with all the things that have come before.”

Noah’s mother is also doing much better now. Noah speculates that his presence catalyzed her recovery. “I demanded a certain way of life and started to clean more, which became a sort of exposure therapy … It’s painful, especially at first, but over an extended period of time, it’s possible… to become somewhat desensitized. It was a compromise that grew over several years, where she gradually let some of the hoarding behaviors go.”

Regardless of her mental health condition, Noah’s mother is always frank and apologetic about everything that has happened. “She’s fundamentally a very good and lovely person,” Noah said. “My mother knows the ways in which it hurt me and feels badly in almost every respect.”

“I think that just doing away completely with the label ‘hoarder’ would be a good direction to head in,” Noah said. It’s true that the label clumps dissimilar people under an overarching umbrella term in spite of the fact that different hoarding tendencies stem from different origins. “For my mother, instead of describing her as a ‘hoarder’ or ‘someone who suffers from hoarding disorder,’ I would prefer to say that she had a terror of the world and people around her. This fear presented itself in severely obsessive, compulsive thinking which manifested itself in how she built and managed her home environment … It’s a little longer, but it’s more holistic.”

Clearly, Noah has been able to do exactly what Jennifer exhorts us all to do: “Look beyond the clutter,” she told me. “They are people … I can’t stress this enough.” Whenever she first meets up with clients in their home, she focuses on the person, “on who they are, what they’ve done, what their passions are, what they want to accomplish … Are they grandparents? Do they have kids? Do they like to go out? What do they like to do?” Jennifer glowed as she told me, “I can’t tell you how creative, intelligent, resourceful, funny, successful, and kind my clients are.” She paused for a second, frowning slightly. “But nobody will tell you that. They’ll say, ‘My neighbor is so crazy; they have a yard full of stuff.’ And it’s frustrating because if they would just take the time to get to know them and understand the illness, then they could begin to see them as whole people.”

Noah, too, acknowledges that it’s much easier to say, “Oh, they’re just a hoarder,” rather than going through their whole life story. “But I think there’s an expectation incumbent on everyone, that they should recognize that there are many parts of the story. Many times, they really shouldn’t try to form any immediate conclusions, even if that means leaving a person unlabeled and uncategorized.” 

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

The back wall of Donna Shugrue’s office features a poster of Rose and Jack from “Titanic,” along with massive portraits of her two daughters with their husbands. A large board full of pictures of smiling couples hangs behind her desk, reminiscent of the thank-you letters and holiday cards that doctors sometimes show off in their offices. Only, instead of healthy patients, Donna has happily married clients.

Before I saw Donna’s ad hanging on the wall of the bathroom at Wooglin’s Deli in Colorado Springs, I didn’t know matchmaking existed outside of “Fiddler on the Roof.” After a tumultuous two-week experiment with Tinder over winter break, I was skeptical of the idea of finding love through any kind of formal dating program. But when I read that Donna had married over 700 clients in her 27 years of matchmaking, my curiosity was piqued. 

I went home and filled out a “dating profile test” on perfectlymatched-dating.com. I answered each of the 46 statements with a number from 1, “Clearly Agree,” to 5, “Clearly Disagree.” The statements varied from “My feelings are easily hurt” to out of left field statements like “Wearing designer clothes is worth the extra money,” “The nicest people attend religious services regularly,” “I rarely have headaches,” “I believe in the theory of evolution,” and “People who get sexually transmitted diseases deserve it.” Many of them didn’t seem to have anything to do with romantic compatibility. They challenged the belief that most people hold about love: that it happens as a result of some kind of inexplicable chemistry or spark. We romanticize love even more when it “doesn’t make sense”—think Romeo and Juliet. Love, in my mind, had nothing to do with religion, headaches, or designer clothes.

Donna called me with my results a few days later. Before I could tell her that I was seeking an interview and not just her service, Donna went straight to her explanation. She gave me a score from one to 10 in categories of temperament, sociability, conformity, affection, religion, and finance. 

A week later, I am sitting across from Donna at her office in downtown Colorado Springs as she explains the way her matchmaking process works. Within minutes she is rattling off client stories, peppering the memories with love advice. Her stories varied from sad to sweet to hilarious.

“Leroy,” she says, showing me his picture on the wall, “had the corniest sense of humor I’d ever experienced … after the interview I thought, God, I know I’m going to hear about this in feedback from his matches.” The first woman she set him up with told Donna he was nice and good-looking, but “cracked one corny joke after another.” The second and third matches went the same way. “But the fourth match was her,” Donna says, pointing at the woman smiling next to Leroy in his picture. “And when she called me with feedback the first thing she said was, ‘He’s so funny!’ I was like, ‘Yes! He is! If you think he is!’ And guess what? They’ve been married for years now.”

Donna’s service uses similarity to predict compatibility. Over and over, she tells me that the key to a successful and lasting relationship is to find someone who thinks the same way that you do. According to Donna, the saying “opposites attract” might be true in the short term, but usually fails to create a relationship that lasts. She says temperament is an exception, “because if you have the same temperament you’ll either butt heads and fight or avoid confrontation to the point of avoiding communication. Opposites in temperament can balance each other out.” 

Donna explains all this to me with so much confidence that I find myself immediately believing her, questioning my conviction that love stems from “chemistry.” I am surprised by how quickly Donna and I hit it off—our conversation lasts almost two hours longer than we’d intended. At the same time, I’m not surprised at all: Donna and I are similarly fascinated by personality and compatibility. We are both able to talk for hours about the way people relate to each other. But, unlike those of us who prefer to think of love as requiring nothing other than some mysterious ingredient, Donna takes a pragmatic approach to romance, emphasizing the importance of lifestyle factors, religion, social habits, and finance—all of which I’ve always considered of secondary importance. Donna looks at compatibility with one end goal in mind: stable, lasting romance. 

Personally, I am wary of approaching love with an “end goal” in mind. This is, at least partially, the source of my skepticism regarding dating services in general. There’s a danger in searching for love instead of just falling into it. With apps like Tinder, for example, you’re frantically looking for someone to fill some sort of role in your life, whether it be a hookup or a serious relationship. It’s almost as though the person is secondary to the role, and when you try to fit a person you meet into that role, you run the risk of not actually seeing them for who they are. Or worse, you end up marketing yourself for the kind of role you want to play for another person. 

In Donna’s service, all clients have the same general goal: they want a long-term partner. Donna makes it clear that her matchmaking services do not cater to people interested in hookups or casual dating. In her words, the people who come to her are “serious” about meeting someone. And Donn makes any variation of that goal (some clients want kids, some clients don’t want to get married, etc.) clear to each party from the beginning. 

The first thing Donna does for a client is identify potential matches with scores that are close to their own. “All my matches start with these scores. That’s how strongly I believe in them,” she says. She points again to the photos on the board behind her. “These are couples I’ve matched who are married or in relationships. If you look at where the scores are compared to each other, you’ll see that they’re pretty close.” 

After Donna finds matches with similar scores, she shares information from the “interview sheet” with each party. “Before you meet someone, you know where they were born, how many brothers and sisters they have, whether or not they own their homes, whether or not they have pets, what religion they are, if they go to church, what church they go to…” the list goes on. Donna does not share each party’s income with the other, though she does keep it in mind herself. “I definitely pay attention to it when I make a match,” she says, “because to some extent, income is a matter of lifestyle choices, and you want someone who can make similar lifestyle choices.” The question on her test about buying designer clothing makes more sense now.

After filling out an interest and activity sheet, Donna has her clients do a special exercise: they write down what their ideal relationship would be. “You sit down and you think, What would the right person for me be like? What kind of qualities would I want him or her to have? The best way to draw that out of yourself is to think about past relationships or marriages that you’ve had and what you’ve really liked about that person. And then think about what you didn’t like, and turn the negatives into positives and write it down.” She leans in. “And I’ll tell you a little secret that I don’t tell anyone until after they’ve written it: what they ultimately describe is themselves.”

Although Donna does screen for physical preferences, she encourages her clients to move beyond their assumptions about what physical characteristics they’re attracted to, unless those boundaries are “written in stone.” According to Donna, women tend to limit themselves according to height preference, while men limit themselves according to weight preference. “I’ll have a five-foot tall woman and I’ll say, ‘What’s the shortest you’ll go?’ And with no hesitation she’ll say, ‘Six feet.’ I’ll say, ‘Eliminate everybody below six feet, why would you do that?’ She’ll say, ‘Because I like tall men, they make me feel protected.’ Well, the reality is that you can feel safe and protected by somebody who is your own height or even shorter than you are.”

In fact, a picture is the only significant thing, apart from income, that Donna does not share with her newly-matched clients. She tells each party the eye color, hair color, height, and weight of their match, but does not provide photos. All first dates are literally “blind” dates. Her service stands in stark contrast to dating apps, where photos are the first (and sometimes only) thing you see. Online dating feels like an emotionally risky guessing game: participants try to gauge from photos how attractive, normal, nice, or interesting other participants are (often unsuccessfully, since it’s easy to lie, or at least skew the truth of who you are, through carefully selected photos). 

Unlike Tinder, Donna makes a match according to the scores first, and then hopes the two clients will be attracted to each other. For Donna, compatibility precedes attraction. Her pragmatism is surprising for someone whose entire career is based on helping people find love. But maybe Donna’s success rate just speaks to how easy it is to fall in love with someone once the practical factors are in place. “I can’t tell you how often someone will call me with feedback and say, ‘That’s somebody that I probably wouldn’t have picked for myself,’” she says, “but in a one-hour meeting they’re already feeling some kind of spark.” 

Even when Donna occasionally pairs people up who have a difference in one or two scores, she makes sure they both go into it knowing about that difference. She points to one of the photos. “Marsha was an eight in sociability and Jay was a five. He was a three in finance and she was a six. She was more outgoing than him, he was more budget-minded than her. And boy, was that reflected in their relationship from the beginning.” Donna tells me about a couple of money-related squabbles, and about how Marsha wanted everyone in her family to meet him on the second date. “I said, ‘No! He’s much more shy than you are. That will take him out of his comfort zone, and it’s too soon to bring your family into the picture anyway. You just met him!’”

Marsha and Jay, Donna tells me, married after only three months, contrary to one of the rules she prescribes to her clients to ensure that their relationships last. “I tell people, don’t even have sex for the first three months!” She explains that it takes most people that long to get relaxed enough to be themselves, which is when you can start to identify whether things are or aren’t working. “But once you’re physically involved you’re emotionally involved. It takes the focus off the friendship and puts it on the intimacy, and that’s not what you want to do when you don’t even know someone.” She tells me that the couples who wait for three months are the ones who are most likely to end up on her wall of success (Marsha and Jay are an exception). “I’ve seen relationships that I thought had potential end because they were intimate too quickly, and they didn’t know how to deal with it, because they didn’t know each other.”

The no-sex rule is one of Donna’s three big rules. Rule number two is “Don’t ask yourself where it’s going or how this person could fit into your life long-term for six months” because “you don’t have enough information to answer that question yet.” Rule three is “Don’t do anything as serious as getting engaged, married, or moving in until you’ve gone a full year” because “people can change with the seasons.” “And anyway,” Donna adds, “one year is not a long time to wait if you think that this is someone you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.” I ask Donna if she follows the relationship rules she gives to her clients. She bursts out laughing. “Hell no! Don’t ask me if I’ve not had sex in the first three months!” 

All of these rules are measures of precaution to ensure that the relationship progresses slowly, carefully, and based on mutual understanding between the two people. Donna goes to great lengths to avoid the problem articulated in a New York Times op-ed piece, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person”: people rarely delve into their complexities before committing to a long-term relationship, leading to some unpleasant surprises later on. A similar sentiment is articulated by this meme:

Donna blames internet dating services for exacerbating the problem of not knowing your partner, and the resulting high divorce rate. According to her, these websites are “time consuming, ineffective, and people aren’t honest. They lie about everything.” Donna considers her service a much-needed alternative to online dating; instead of advertising yourself to lure other people to you, you present your most honest self to Donna and she picks someone out for you based on that knowledge. Donna takes pride in her old-fashioned attitude towards her business; she never uses a computer, except for printing out the profile test. She calculates her scores manually, and keeps all her records from the past 27 years on paper. She even keeps her phone and answering machine in the other room of her office, separate from where she works and meets clients, so that she can answer and return calls at her leisure.

Her goal is to make her clients as prepared and informed as possible before they agree to meet with each other. Her position as middleman makes for honest, clear communication. “What they’re trying to do is help me help them,” she explains, “so they know that the more they share with me and the more honest they are with me, the better I can match them.” 

This three-way communication continues after the match, when Donna’s job becomes more about counseling and coaching. Donna prescribes a strict procedure for the newly matched pair: she exchanges names and phone numbers, and the man calls the woman—a rule made to ensure that there’s no misunderstanding about who calls first. The only purpose of the phone conversation is to set up the in-person meeting, which also should not be long. (“No lunch or dinner, just a cup of coffee, one hour.”)

The feedback continues after each date. “It takes all the pressure off the situation, doesn’t put anyone on the spot, and it allows the process to become more focused and fine-tuned.” She facilitates feedback after each of the next few dates, and, depending on the client, after a relationship is established. Until a pair of clients become intimate, they are encouraged to meet other matches. 

Unlike most matchmaking services, Donna charges based on matches rather than time. Her clients typically purchase 10 matches—although they sometimes find success before they end up meeting the other matches—for $1,800. When Donna can’t make 10 matches, she charges less. The unlimited relationship counseling is free of charge. She even provides coaching for people who have met significant others outside of her service.

I ask Donna what she does for queer clients. She says that, occasionally but increasingly frequently, she’ll get a call from someone asking to be matched with someone of the same gender. She tells whoever is calling that she doesn’t have matches for them in the system yet, but that they can be the first if they’d like. Since it’s obviously discouraging to have no potential matches, no one has been willing. So far, she’s been unsuccessful at starting a client base for queer matchmaking, though she hopes that this will change in the future. 

 

Donna became a matchmaker, ironically, after going through a divorce. She met her ex-husband just after she graduated from high school. Her father, a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, got her a job as a secretary in Scotland, where he was stationed. There she started going out with Herb, a boy in the Air Force. She moved back to the U.S., and they dated long-distance for a few months while she was in school at Memphis State University. Herb went home to Connecticut for a short period before he was to be relocated to Pakistan for 15 months. Donna decided to take a break from her studies and spend time with him and his family. 

Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. “Back when I got pregnant there was no [access to] birth control, no abortion. You had a baby,” she says. So they decided they would get married just 10 days before Herb left for Pakistan. By the time he came home, their first daughter was seven months old. 

Donna describes the beginning of marriage and motherhood as a challenging time. Suddenly she was a 19-year-old mother living away from her family, on the third floor of a house where she didn’t know the people downstairs. And the marriage was not a match Donna herself would have set up. “My ex-husband’s a great guy,” she assures me. “He was always good to me, he was always good to the girls. I just knew that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life in that marriage.” She stuck with it for 20 years until finally, at 40 years old and after two years of marriage counseling, she decided to go through with a divorce. 

During her marriage, Donna had held mostly part-time jobs. After the divorce she found herself newly single and in need of a career. “And never in a million years did I think it would be matchmaking,” she says, despite the fact that at her 25th high school reunion, after she had been a matchmaker for a few years, she got a reward for “most obvious career path.” She was known in high school and throughout her marriage for bringing couples together. “I probably had half a dozen weddings under my belt before I even thought about being a matchmaker,” she laughs. “It’s something that I feel like I have the talent for.”

Before Donna became her own boss, she worked for two dating services in Denver: Successful Singles International and Matchmaker International. The first service went out of business, and the second one put pressure on her to match clients quickly. Discouraged by the hard sell technique, she decided she wanted to start her own company. She opened “Perfectly Matched” on October 6, 1991. It was the first dating service with an office in Colorado Springs. 

Skeptical that an emerging dating service would have easy, immediate success, I ask Donna whether it was hard to build a client base at first. In response, she pulls out a large yellow pad. “This is my computer,” she says proudly. “I don’t share this with a lot of people: this is every sale from every client every day for 27 years.” The prices she started with were as low as $100-250, compared to the approximately $1,800 that she charges today. “And I was honest,” she adds. “I couldn’t come in and say I’d been doing this forever when nobody knew what a dating service was back then. So I told [my first clients], ‘You’re number one in the system, you’re number two.’”

It strikes me as funny that Donna considers matchmaking an up-and-coming service, when, to me, it feels like an antiquated alternative to apps like Tinder. It’s nearly impossible to calculate the success rate of any dating service, because of the difficulty of defining what a successful match is. Do you include casual relationships? Relationships that have broken up? Divorces?). But Donna’s thorough screening process and careful facilitation strikes me as more likely to be “successful” than Tinder’s mindless swiping. The other key difference between Tinder and Donna is that Donna is as much of a relationship “coach and counselor” as she is a matchmaker. “My job really starts when somebody gets into a relationship,” she says. “I do more counseling and coaching than I do matchmaking.”

This aspect of her work requires strong therapeutic skills and the ability to be a friend as well as a service. I ask Donna if she has to deal with a lot of heartbreak during her coaching sessions. She points to the corner of the desk. “Why do you think those Kleenex are sitting right there?”

Because of her role as a relationship counselor, Donna’s own involvement in her clients’ lives often extends into friendship. One couple she matched even came by her office on the way home from the hospital the day after their son was born. Donna is often invited her clients’ weddings. She always makes sure to ask if the other attendees know the couple met through her after an embarrassing wedding incident in which the groom told everyone that they’d met through Donna but the bride said they’d met through a friend. “I’m standing there at the wedding and one of [the groom’s] friends is saying, ‘He told me how they met through your service, that’s so great!’ And the bride’s sister looks at [the groom] and says, ‘You met her through a dating service? She told me you met her on the ski slope!’”

Donna’s approach to love is hard for me to relate to as a young person who isn’t looking for long-lasting romance. In a phone conversation after the interview, Donna and I speculate briefly about how her test and matching system might work for “millennials.” Regardless of the aspects of her process that aren’t relevant to my age group, the strategy of mediating a relationship so that each party is honest and knows about each other’s lifestyle and goals from the beginning seems to be universally valuable. “What I do is the opposite from what people do on their own,” Donna tells me. “I start with the things that matter.” Donna and I still have somewhat different ideas about what “matters” in a relationship. I still can’t imagine judging a potential significant other by their thoughts on designer clothing or the theory of evolution. But, thinking back to my Tinder experience, maybe I’ll have a bit more success if I make my goals and opinions clear from the beginning—and, of course, guess at my date’s temperament and affection scores (which I’ve already started doing).  

 

Letter From the Editor: Silent

Dear Reader,

Over Colorado College’s spring break, a lengthy white supremacist diatribe, which specifically targeted Deans Mike Edmonds and Rochelle Mason, was sent through an encrypted email service to a large portion of the CC community. In the weeks since, many have remarked that events like this are not isolated incidents, but are disturbingly common manifestations of the white privilege that underlies our country and our school. But what exactly is this privilege? Both the author of that email and many in our community have either misinterpreted or distorted the idea of white privilege as some sort of anti-white battlecry. I’d like to use this space to try to describe how exactly our community fits into the system of racism and privilege.

The sociologist Allan G. Johnson gave a lecture on privilege at the University of Wisconsin in which talked at length about Monopoly. Monopoly, he says, basically requires that you temporarily become a monster. The game only ends when one person has slowly sucked every ounce of money and property from every other player. The game encourages you to be greedy, such that if you’re not greedily snatching up properties and forcing other players into unfair trades, then, as Johnson puts it, “you’re not playing the game correctly.”

It’s an innocuous example, but even a board game can change our behavior. When I seize a friend’s property, I might say sorry, but I’m also silently thinking, hell yes, you’ll be broke in five turns. It would be a downright evil thought if it weren’t within a game. But of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m inherently a greedy human being. Because when I’m not playing Monopoly, I’m not like this. The game brings out particular qualities in me; the rules of the game establish what Johnson calls a “path of least resistance.” And the path of least resistance in Monopoly is unadulterated greed, which you’ve got to stick to even as the teary-eyed ten-year-olds you’re playing against are handing you stacks of cash. If you don’t, you won’t survive the game. 

Johnson has us consider white privilege as a sort of game—a game which, like Monopoly, presents us with a path of least resistance. What Johnson shows us is that, in our world, the path of least resistance is to accept and perpetuate white privilege.

The first aspect of white privilege that Johnson points to is that it is “white-dominated.” This means simply that as you look at the top tiers of any hierarchy in a society marked by white privilege, you’ll tend to see white people. And as you look at the lower tiers of the hierarchy, you’ll tend to see people of color. If you see someone of color in a position of control, you’ll notice it as an exception to the rule.

This is certainly true of CC. High-level administrative positions tend to be held by white people, and Deans Edmonds and Mason are exceptions to the rule. The author of the email targeted them precisely because their success threatens the continuance of white supremacy. That they have succeeded despite white privilege means we can be sure Edmonds and Mason had to be especially talented to get where they are—not the opposite, as the author claims. To recognize this, and to dismantle the racial patterns of power we’ve inherited, is to step off the path of least resistance.

Johnson says that a society in which white privilege operates will also be “white-identified.” This is to say that “white people are taken as the standard for human beings in general.” At CC, the white experience is taken to be the standard experience both numerically and culturally. The student body is nearly two thirds white, but the way we often portray CC makes it sound like the school is entirely white. Many of the school-advertised hallmarks of CC, like expensive ski trips, a rock climbing gym, our own music festivals, et cetera are historically white spaces.

We can see this white-identification clearly by looking at whose stories we choose to tell. The path of least resistance is, of course, to tell white people’s stories. And the vast majority of Cipher’s stories are, even in this issue, about white people. The system of white privilege has made white students feel entitled to tell their stories, so those are the stories we end up with. The path of least resistance here is to simply accept this fact, and keep telling the same stories.

How we choose to tell these stories is also important: stories by and about white people almost never refer to subjects’ or authors’ race. We don’t even think of them as stories about white people; we just think of them as stories. When there is an occasional story about someone of color, on the other hand, that fact is always mentioned, and almost always made integral to the story. This disparity doesn’t exist because white people’s race is irrelevant to their lives. The disparity exists because, as James Baldwin put it, “Being white means not having to think about it.” We can take a resistant path in this regard by thinking about it—by making explicit the ways race is a factor in stories about and/or by white people.

This system is a game we have all inherited, regardless of race, without anyone asking us for our permission. It’s a system in which we have to live, at least until we change it. So although to some degree it is inevitable that white people participate in the problem of white privilege, white people can also be part of the solution. For instance, the typical result of white privilege is that white people feel entitled to the power and attention that they’ve inherited, and threatened when that power and attention is challenged. But this doesn’t have to be the case: we can celebrate the fact that people of color are gaining power, and aid in shifting attention away from solely white stories.

Progress has already been made at CC. Seven years ago, 18% of CC students were people of color; this year, it’s almost 25 percent. The more students of color who are present, the more CC can resist white-domination. And, in part because of these changing numbers, white students’ experience at CC is becoming less central by the year. Some Cipher writers, for instance, have recently made a concerted effort to tell the kinds of stories that are usually silenced. (You can find a compilation of recent Cipher stories that address race and racism at ciphermagazine.com.) 

This school and this magazine can and must do better. I’m confident that Cipher’s staff, and especially our newest editors, will.

    Sincerely,

    Ethan Cutler, Editor-in-Chief

 

Smith Banner.jpg

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

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

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

As long as one and one is two

Ooh ooh

There could never be a father

Love his daughter more than I love you

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

“I’ve forgiven him,” I said to Mom.

 “Okay. Why?” she responded.

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

***

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

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

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

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

A Good Scare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Lehna

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t want anything.”

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

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

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

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

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

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

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

Progress.

 

dear lehna,

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

xo,

greta

 

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

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

 

do you notice

                her halting touch

               is your intimacy still intimate?

                                             you must see her lips,

         smell me on her,

                   but you still refuse to

see

             what you will not admit is there.

 

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

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

 

dear lehna,

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

greta

 

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

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

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

“They taste kind of like sunshine.”

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

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

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

 

 dear lehna,

when I come home we really need to talk.

greta

Life in the Rio Grande Valley

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The Rio Grande River, steel-gray and smooth, cuts into the land between Mexico and the United States just 100 yards away from where this pink-lace bra lies discarded in the backlot of an abandoned building. It doesn’t take long to wonder: who did the bra belong to? Was it a woman who crossed the cold waters, freeing herself of her heavy, soaked clothes to change into something dry before moving on? Where might she be now?

From 1993 to 2008, at least 500 women were murdered along the border. Many of the femicide victims lived on the Mexico side, working in maquiladoras, factories created when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed in 1994. They were often brutally murdered, mutilated, and left to rot. Their deaths underscore a dark, misogynistic reality of the borderlands.

But the borderland is also home to women who own businesses, go to university, and run for office—to young girls who aspire to be doctors. Mariam El-Haj acknowledges the machismo culture of the valley, but explains how that image is incomplete, “It’s extremely safe here, but there’s this misconception that it’s not. A lot of the media talks about this region being filled with drug dealers, and I guess just unsafe practices and ways of life. But I don’t see it when I’m walking down the street. I don’t feel necessarily scared when I’m going to my car at night. I don’t feel like I’m going to be kidnapped … those messages [are] put into the media by people who have never been here.”

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Hundreds gather to protest at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas, on January 27, 2018. A large blue-and-white striped tent sits at the edge of a tilled field that marks the boundary of the refuge, a tropical forest teeming with prickly pear cactus, bird calls, and paths that wind through 2,088 acres up to the banks of the Rio Grande River. Poets, journalists, musicians, students, mothers, undocumented immigrants, kids, generation-long residents of the valley, revolutionaries, and countless others all rallied to raise their voices against the construction of a border wall that would run directly through the wildlife refuge. At the demonstration, Martha Garcia said, “The whole park will be closed. It’s going to be demolished.”

On February 10, just two weeks after the protest, The New York Times reported that the federal government approved the construction of a three-mile wall through the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The Times article states, “Border Patrol officials have publicly said they would try to start wall construction in Santa Ana since it’s already government property.” Krista Schlyer, an award-winning photographer and writer invited to speak at the rally, directed her speech to government officials, saying, “We’re here today to make them listen. We’re here to tell them the borderland is not a bargaining chip. We’re here to tell them to pass a Clean Dream Act now. We’re here to tell them, ‘NO BORDER WALL.’ We’re here to tell them: ‘Don’t mess with Santa Ana.’”

Notes from the Neutral Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad Wallace Rolls On

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind Birthright

 

"In this day and age, we’re losing millions of Jews to assimilation. We have to save the Jews!” So declared Naftali Bennett, the Israeli minister of education and minister of diaspora affairs, in a speech livestreamed from Jerusalem last November. “A hundred years from now we will be asked: ‘You knew what was happening with the Jews in America, in Eastern Europe, in South America. What did you do?’” He continued, “I am effectively the minister of the Jews. I am your minister. Shalom.” Full of pride and urgency, the self-declared minister of the Jews went on (and on) about assimilation, the new disaster the Jewish people are facing. Following Bennett, other members of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, have expressed deep concern about the high percentages of Jews who marry non- Jews and shift away from Jewish traditions, which apparently include blind support of the Israeli state. Yisrael Eichler, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism alliance, has gone so far as to call assimilation in the United States “the destruction of Judaism” and “the silent Holocaust.”

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs has waged a defiant war against this purported “silent Holocaust,” and is determined to protect For years, the Birthright Israel project has offered young Jews free trips to Israel. The politics and funding behind the program are inextricably tied to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. “I March 2018 9 the Jews from “God-forbidden” potential non-Jewish partners and anti-Zionist propaganda (read: critiques of the Israeli occupation of Palestine). Naturally, all means of protection are kosher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Letter From the Editor: Neighbor

Dear Reader,

I think it was Jesus who said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

I grew up in a neighborhood where nobody really liked each other at all. My mother’s best attempts at creating a community were met with unanswered phone calls and empty promises. People, apparently, had more important things to do than show up to a block party once a year. So our neighborhood was much more an assemblage of houses than a congregation of people.

The man who lived next door was a brain surgeon. He never left the house without wearing bright blue latex gloves—even in his backyard, he was ready to operate. He bought a special vacuum to suck up pine needles off his driveway. After one vacuuming session, he decided it was so much work that it would be better to illegally clear-cut the whole property—a dozen douglas firs and western hemlocks, all probably older than he was. Once, he introduced my mom as “the owner’s wife,” because apparently only men can own houses. Last I heard, he was saying he regretted buying the house in the first place. That he wished he could burn it down. 

Everyone has had a weird neighbor—whether it’s the grumpy old man from down the street or the stoner on the fourth floor of Mathias. Our neighbors tell us a lot about our expectations of people—whether we see them as people like us or as intruders in a space we feel entitled to. And are we really obligated to like our neighbors, much less love them, just because Jesus said so? 

After my neighbor clear-cut his property, the county fined him over $10,000, and our neighborhood bonded over the mutual antipathy toward his behavior—it’s now a frequent conversation starter.

When we started brainstorming stories for this issue, we were inundated with stories about these kinds of crazy neighbors. Ultimately, though, we ended up with a fairly serious issue. 

The issue opens with Eden Lumerman’s story about Birthright, investigating the relationship between Jewish identity, Zionism, and Israel’s occupation of Palestine (pg. 8). Maggie O’Brien’s photo essay captures the unique culture and politics of the Rio Grande Valley (pg. 32); Megan Bott (pg. 30) and Tucker Smith (pg. 52) share memoirs of childhood in the South. Clare Ende interviews Mad Wallace, a former CC student band, just down the road in Denver (pg. 14), while back at CC, Monica Black and Rebecca Glazer look at how Bon Appetit’s claims of sourcing local, sustainable, and organic food products don’t hold up to scrutiny (pg. 18).

This issue travels widely: we begin in Israel, spend a couple stories in Colorado, take a pit-stop in Cincinnati, go south to the border, dash to New Orleans, and end, somehow, with a memoir in Kentucky.

Naturally, editing these stories had the staff reflecting on what it means to be a neighbor. Does someone become our neighbor because of their proximity to us, or because of our relationship to them? Are our neighbors the people closest to us, or the people closest to us?

Regardless, the writers of these stories took the time to get to know their neighbors—we hope you get to know them too. I’ll be on my porch, yelling at strangers.

I love you like I love myself,

Nathan Makela (& the Cipher staff)

Letter From The Editor

Dear Reader,

I last heard the phrase “the deep end” when my dad told me about finding his friend’s daughter motionless at the bottom of a pool. It was a summer afternoon a dozen years ago, and the adults had relaxed their child-watching attention. In the five-minutes-or-fewer that it takes most children to get into trouble, the two-year-old had stumbled into the pool and, unable to swim, sank into the deep end.

The phrase “go off the deep end” doesn’t usually mean sinking. Today we use it to mean going insane. If you think about it literally, it means jumping in and floating where your feet can no longer touch the bottom. It means disconnecting from a foundation or a frame of reference. It means losing your stability, your self-control.

The word “deep” comes from the Old English deop, meaning “profound,” “awful,” or “solemn,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Deop goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *dheub, the meaning of which grew from “bottom” to “foundation” to “earth” to “world.”

This issue’s stories emerged from our writers following their curiosities and concerns about everyday relationships with people, like Sara’s New Age aunt or a Basque man Ethan spilled beer on. From these foundations, we hope these stories will create a more informed, maybe even caring, world. 

This issue tells of people thrown into the depths of economies, governments, families, and cultures. These people and their circumstances often go unnoticed and unchallenged. In the United States, some people must go to extreme lengths to bring money home to their families, as Ethan Cutler shows us with a story about migrant sheepherders in Colorado, and as Andrew Braverman does with a report on America’s plasma market. Meanwhile, Emma Gonzalez reconciles her dreams of sustainable agriculture with the reality of its motivations in Cuba. Kat Snoddy remembers using dark humor to cope with a family member’s suicide. Montana Bass mixes a personal experience of sexual assault with an analysis of the culture that perpetuates it. 

When we dredge the depths, we find the heaviest stories, the ones that too often go unnoticed. But no matter how dark things may seem, sometimes they end well. At the end of the issue we leave you with Sara Fleming’s hilarious and hopeful (at least relatively) reflections on the Enneagram personality system. 

That two-year-old I started telling you about didn’t end up drowning. My dad pulled her out of the deep end, and she survived. These stories are here in your hands because people took the time to look beneath the surface. I hope you will feel inspired to do the same.

Profoundly,

Jackson Truesdale and the Cipher staff