Letter To The Editor: Bad

Dear Reader,

I’ve got good news and bad news, everyone. Following convention, the bad news first: the world we live in seems to be a never-ending cycle of bad events followed by more bad events. Every headline appears to be pulled from the pages of a particularly cruel child’s Mad Libs book, whether it’s a capital-B bad one, like impending mass extinctions, or a headline more quietly bad, like “Lonely Library Dog Was So Sad When Nobody Came To Read To Him.” From the unrelenting threat of gun violence to wildfires devouring our homes to voter suppression to breakups to burning your morning coffee, the universe seems to be tending towards particular shitty, neverending entropy.

The good news? It’s not all bad. In all truth, I’ve never been one to look on the bright side; it hurts my eyes. So, to break up the bad, some good news: Australia is well on its way to eradicating cervical cancer by 2028! Mondelez International (the company behind Oreos and other snacks) divested from palm oil corporations that contribute to deforestation. In the past 17 years, new cases of HIV dropped by 36 percent, while Antiretroviral Therapy saved nearly 11.4 million lives since 2000. This was also a month of historic firsts: Laguna Pueblo woman Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation became the first two Native American women to serve in Congress, 29 year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman to serve in Congress, and Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar the two first Muslim women to be elected.

So while there is some good left, this issue focuses on every breed of bad: Take Anna Hill’s musical exploration of the dichotomies within country music’s bad boy, Johnny Cash, or Lindsey Aronson’s fascinating photo essay on Colorado Springs’ history as a healing haven for tuberculosis patients. There’s the bad that gets better, like the state of being and transformation of identity that Nathan Goodman explores in his article, and the bad that still endures in unexpected ways, like the strict Catholic sexual norms that Emma Olsen explores in her piece. While all of the articles in this issue grapple with some sort of badness, they also unearth the silver linings that are sometimes hard to find.

It’s easy to split up the world into the good and the bad; it’s simpler, cleaner, and more reassuring than assessing the middle grounds that exist in everything going on around us. But nothing is quite that black and white. Take this Floridian headline from a few weeks ago: “Florida man breaks into restaurant, strips naked, eats noodles, plays bongos.” On one hand, public indecency. But on the other, free concert. Okay, maybe that’s not the best example. But we do spend a lot of time parsing the relative goodness or badness of certain events or people and arguing for varying levels of moral absolutism. We crave the clarity of the good/ bad dichotomy in order to definitively know on which side of the board we fall. When it comes down to it, I think we’re all secretly worrying the same thing: Am I a bad person?

And if you’re reading this, let me tell you—in all likelihood, if you’re asking the question, you aren’t. If you think that’s bull, if you’re bullying yourself for mistakes you’ve made in the past or that you’re inevitably going to make in the future, then I’ve got good news for you: There’s always time to make things better, always a way to forgive yourself and others and reconcile the good and bad parts of you. And for what it’s worth, I think you’re a good person.

All the best, but more importantly, all the worst,

Callie Zucker (and the rest of Cipher staff)

Thou Shalt Not

I was in the seventh grade, squirming and sweating from the top of my ill-advised middle part down to the pinched toes in my church shoes. I hadn’t sat down across from the priest in that little room and “forgive-me-father-for-I-have-sinned” since my ceremonial first confession in second grade. It was easy when I was seven. I told the priest that I had been mean to my brother and sometimes missed a week of mass, and he sent me on my way with a few Hail Mary’s and a clean new soul. I didn’t have any real sins then.

But now, according to the paper shaking in my clammy hands, I did. It was a list of common sins that my youth group leader had given us to inspire our confessions. Apparently, the commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” meant more than I thought it did. Apparently, thou also shalt not have sexual thoughts, kiss passionately, watch pornography, masturbate, engage in oral sex, premarital sex, or sex with a same-gendered partner, use birth control or contraception, or worst of all, get an abortion.

When I entered the confessional, I was shaking. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say it. To verbalize that I had had sexual thoughts, to say it out loud in front of a grown man and God himself, was just too shameful. So I thought my confession as hard as I could. God was all-knowing, after all; he would hear me. But because I didn’t verbalize my sin, I’m still not officially forgiven. This matters in the eyes of the church, and, for a long time, it mattered to me too.

From conversations I’ve had with Catholic friends, I know that this is not a unique experience. These rules have a way of getting into your head and staying there, even when you thought you were intellectually beyond believing them outright. Grappling with the Catholic faith, teachings, and belief system seems to be the consequence for almost everyone who grew up in a religious environment. In a sect known for its strict sexual rules, this experience inevitably overlaps with that of exploring and growing into one’s sexuality—a messy business in and of itself. There are individual stories embedded in that messiness, and I wanted to chart commonalities and recognize differences between my own personal experiences and those of an admittedly limited set of Catholic and ex-Catholic college students.

Their names are Flora*, Olivia*, and Mae. Flora goes to Colorado College, while Olivia and Mae are close friends from my hometown who attend other universities. Though our involvement with the church growing up differed slightly, a dissonance between ideology and emotion seems to run as a common thread across our experiences. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable with the strictness of Catholic sexual rules, but very difficult, especially as a middle or high schooler, to reflect on one’s own internalization of them. Flora described an experience of “feeling guilty without knowing why” whenever she thought or acted sexually. She realized that she “couldn’t trust” this feeling, so she tried not to let it impact her actions. But that wasn’t easy. As Flora put it, the Catholic doctrine is “beautifully written to the point of being really persuasive.” It required work and considerable stress for her to realize that “it is not actually more beautiful to abstain [from sex] or deny yourself.”

I never went to Catholic school; I never received these strict messages from my parents. As a straight, cisgender female in a loving and liberal home, I got a watered-down, minimally oppressive version of Catholic sexual education. But even that impacted me, filling my adolescent sexual world with guilt, shame, and anxiety—and guilt, shame, and anxiety about feeling that guilt, shame, and anxiety.

 It wasn’t that I feared going to hell; I wasn’t sure I even believed in hell. These feelings stemmed from my most basic desire to live as a good person, or at least my idea of one. My youth group leaders, who I deeply admired, framed abstinence as a form of the utmost respect for your body, your partner’s body, and God Himself. If you didn’t actively suppress sexual urges, you were physically and emotionally degrading yourself and the people you cared about most. In an appendix outlining the Church’s sexual rules, the Global Catholic Network uses terms such as “self-abuse” to describe masturbation and “infanticide” to characterize abortion and contraception. In their words, “When [LGBTQ+ persons] engage in homosexual activity, they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.” This language carries a heavy emotional and moral charge that is used to justify its oppressive and homophobic implications. In the eyes of the church, sexual intercourse is divinely designed to produce life; any activity that diverts from that goal is an attack upon the sanctity of life itself.

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Even as a malleable middle-schooler, I didn’t fully buy into these teachings. I believed, based on my own moral leanings and those of my parents, that homosexuality wasn’t sinful, that rights to contraception and abortion protected women, that people had sex because they wanted to and because it felt good—not just to have kids. But these ideas felt very far away from my personal experience. I wasn’t queer, I wasn’t pregnant, and I certainly wasn’t having sex.

It would be a cop-out and, quite frankly, an insult to my overall adolescent awkwardness to say that the Church was the only reason I didn’t date much in high school. Rather, the internal logic of abstinence and suppression worked in tandem with glossy media representations of women and relationships to unconsciously confirm my teenage growing pains and insecurities surrounding intimacy. Not only was I physically unworthy, according to the media, but I was told by a church I cared about that if I acted on society’s demands to be sexy, I was morally unworthy.

Thus, even though I wasn’t sexually active, I still experienced an unexplained feeling of guilt, an unconscious moral twisting of the stomach, whenever I made out or masturbated or watched porn or let my mind wander. Exploring my own sexuality made me feel immoral, so I simply didn’t. In the name of being careful and safe and good, I became the poster child of a repressed Catholic teenager.  

Unlike me, Olivia negotiated this guilt in the tumultuous world of high school dating, using it to strictly regulate the sexual terms of her relationships. We grew up together and attended the same church and schools since we were 7, so her interview echoed countless high school conversations questioning whether we truly had to wait for marriage. “I wasn’t comfortable doing more than kissing a boy for forever,” she said, explaining that she later decided that “everything but sex” was OK. This internal moral struggle came to a head when she finally had sex with her boyfriend. However, in Olivia’s words, “I didn’t regret it because I really loved him.”

It was a big deal for Olivia to love someone enough to be intimate with them. All three of the women I interviewed confirmed this sentiment; in their eyes (and the eyes of the Church), sex was placed on a pedestal. The idea of waiting until marriage elevates the act of intercourse by insisting that it belongs in a special institutional moment and purpose. Mae received this message from her Catholic school’s health curriculum (rather transparently called “wait training”). Though her family’s religion “bored and annoyed” her from an early age, and she described the class as somewhat laughable, she still came away with a lasting idea that sex was supposed to be special.

All of my interviewees paused when I asked what messages about sex they received at home, because it wasn’t talked about in any of our families. The importance of sex was therefore compounded by its hush-hushedness, its mystery—both within and outside of the Church.

However, when Flora and Olivia violated sexual mores and their families found out, these buried conversations were brought rather explosively to the surface. The first time sex was discussed in Flora’s home was when she lost her virginity at 15 and her mother discovered Plan B in her bedroom. Her parents not only denounced the fact that she had had premarital sex—saying that they themselves (conservative adult converts to the church) “regretted not waiting”—but also criticized her use of contraception. Whereas my youth group leaders’ logic about abstinence (or at least their rhetoric) had revolved around the sanctity of life, Flora’s parents played on the emotional and connective value of sex. They told her that the “union was more complete without a barrier.”

When Flora took communion at church that Sunday without first confessing her “sin” (a big no-no in the church), her mother was extremely upset, telling her that she was no longer allowed to attend mass with the family. This experience had a profound emotional effect on Flora, even though it didn’t deter her future sexual action. She described sobbing during a face-to-face confession with her priest and reflected, “I knew that what I did was wrong because of the way other people were treating me, but I had no real understanding of why it was a harmful thing to have done.”

Olivia described a similar conversation with her older brother after she started using birth control. He told her that he didn’t respect her decision and that abstinence was the only moral way to prevent pregnancy. Olivia remembers him citing biblical research as though it were fact, saying that he was “very worried about the direction [she] was going in.” He “was forcing [these lessons] on me in a way my family had never done before,” she said, in a way that implied that he “wanted to teach me, and wanted me to know what was true.” Olivia was extremely upset by her brother’s views, and the aggression and presumed objectivity with which he presented them. She believes that this still unresolved fight has put a significant rift in their otherwise close and loving relationship.

Flora, who identifies as gay, feels profoundly separated from her family because of their ideas of homosexuality. From our respective youth groups, Flora and I both received the message that non-heterosexual thoughts aren’t inherently damning, but that acting on those urges is. In the eyes of the church, the union between a homosexual couple isn’t real—it can never be validated by the Catholic institution, or by God. Therefore, though their sexual urges may be unconscious or inherent, all LGBTQ+ persons (though the church only acknowledges the existence of cisgendered people who identify as gay) are doomed to a life of suppression and unhappiness. Flora described herself as “super susceptible” to these ideas in middle school and early high school, taking them as “God’s decree.” Though she didn’t feel that her desires were wrong, she feared a world in which she wasn’t allowed to be happy—a world in which she couldn’t experience a “legitimate” union with a person she loved.

While the church’s logic is technically one of patronizing pity (“they were born this way, after all”), Flora characterized her father’s attitudes, expressed in conversations about homosexuality in general, as outright “homophobic and hateful.” When she resisted these views, a catastrophic fight ensued, in which her father was physically and verbally aggressive. This has not only irreparably damaged Flora’s relationship with her father but has also created an environment in which she does not feel safe to come out to her family “until [she] can be financially independent.” To come to terms with her sexuality, she had to grapple with both moral concerns and deep family conflict and divisions.

Mae, who also identifies as queer, was raised by a much more liberal single mother and grandmother. Though her grandma was “Catholic as fuck,” she did not express any hateful ideas about homosexuality. However, Mae was always very aware that those views existed, both in the church and in the outside world. At 10 years old, Mae asked her grandma what she thought about gay people. Her grandma said she felt “bad for what they had to go through in society.” Mae never came out to her grandmother, not for any fear of judgement, but because she “didn’t want her to worry” about her physical and emotional safety in an oppressive world. Though she never bought into the church’s teachings about homosexuality, Mae’s coming-out process was complicated by the awareness that these mores created a hostile environment. She said, “I never thought that I would go to hell for being gay, but I was in an environment where gay people were not treated well. I didn’t want to be gay because I didn’t want to deal with judgment or being treated poorly.”

 

Being a teenager and exploring one’s sexuality and identity, often for the first time, is a wobbly, unstable business that can be further complicated by oppressive religious ideologies. However, grappling with a faith-based identity did not stop there, not for me or anyone I interviewed. If anything, the highly sexualized and liberal world of college, isolated from the religious environments in which we grew up, made it even more complicated.

Personally, I didn’t even realize the effects that these mores had on me until I got to CC, where everyone seemed to be having sex all the time without a shred of the moral panic I had experienced in high school. Obviously, teenage repression and guilt is not the worst of the scars that the Catholic church has left on its children, not by a long shot. But I’m ashamed to say that recognizing the church’s complicity in the abuse and oppression of others hadn’t impacted my religious practices before college. I was horrified, but also distanced, from these injustices. What ultimately led me to stop going to mass was the personal realization that the church’s ideologies had impacted me, too. I have always defined my religious identity through a negotiation between what I believed on a sociopolitical level and what I believed spiritually. Only when I realized that the church had harmed me, even in its own small way, did I finally decide that its harm to others was something I couldn’t reconcile.

But I still identify as Catholic, even though I don’t currently practice. So does Flora, and so does Olivia (Mae never really did). It was the religion of our families, of our growing-up, even if we never completely agreed with it intellectually. And we all hold many aspects of Catholicism dear. I still believe in God. I still believe that sex and intimacy are special and important. I still draw comfort and home and happiness from the rituals and community of church. Catholic sexual education messed us all up, in ways both disparate and eerily similar, and it has harmed and confused countless others around the world. But it’s complicated, and it will continue to be complicated for a long time to come. Flora summed up this sense of nostalgia and moral melancholy: “Sometimes I feel like something is missing, and I know what’s missing. I should go to mass ... But I don’t know if the church is going to change for a long time, or even if it could, without becoming a different church.”

 

*Names have been changed for privacy.

Bad Issue | December 2018

The City of Sunshine

“Thousands Gladly Acknowledge That Health and Life Are Due to Colorado Springs,” reads a 19th-century pamphlet advertising the city. Colorado Springs’ roots lie in its purpose as a health and wellness city, as “The City of Sunshine,” where tuberculosis patients flocked in search of treatment in the late 19th century. In the era before antibiotic treatment for tuberculosis became available, fresh, dry, mountain air and sunshine was thought to rid the lungs of tubercular bacteria. It’s estimated that in the late 1800s, people afflicted with tuberculosis constituted at least one-third of the city’s population. Once the largest industry and economic driver in Colorado Springs, tuberculosis treatment shaped the city’s development and architecture in the years leading up to World War II.

Today, though the evidence of the city’s past with tuberculosis appears subdued, the infrastructure originally built to support treatment of the disease remains. Some of it even hides in plain sight, just steps away from Colorado College’s campus. This project emerged in response to my own curiosity about the city’s past as a nucleus of treatment, and is only a cursory glimpse into the history of tuberculosis in Colorado Springs.

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Colorado Springs was home to upwards of 15 tuberculosis sanatoriums—residential treatment centers for tubercular patients—during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sanatoriums housed common areas for dining and recreation, along with a score of offices and medical facilities. Each admitted patient would spend the day milling around these spaces and then would return to their personal eight-sided Gardiner tent (pictured above) at night. The Modern Woodmen of America Sanatorium, pictured here, was one of the largest sanatoriums in the region. Founded and operated by the fraternal benefit society of the same name, this sanatorium treated members of Modern Woodmen for free. Each sanatorium was known to have its own personality, patient profile, and level of accessibility—some facilities demanded higher payment and provided amenities, while others remained less costly and more bare-boned.

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This Gardiner tent now sits alongside a parking lot at Penrose St. Francis Hospital, a former sanatorium. The tent’s interior—which includes only a scant cot and dresser—has been reconstructed as a model of what a sanatorium patient’s living space looked like. Today, the former sanatoriums themselves have been repurposed: Glockner Sanatorium is now Penrose St. Francis Hospital, Cragmor Sanatorium constitutes academic buildings at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, and Montcalme Sanatorium operates as Miramont Castle, a local history museum in Manitou Springs. The structures that once configured these treatment centers, including Gardiner tents, now hide in the city’s crevices.

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Sanatorium patients often lived in Gardiner tents year-round, come sun or snow. The patients’ willingness to endure severe, cold weather conditions in poorly-insulated tents attested to the deep-rooted belief that fresh Colorado air killed the disease. Many of the people seeking treatment in Colorado Springs did improve, and sanatoriums claimed that about 60 percent of patients were cured of their tuberculosis. Most facilities, however, refused patients in highly-progressed stages of the disease. It’s now believed that, rather than “fresh air,” lower levels of oxygen were responsible for improvements in the health of tubercular patients. Less oxygen prevented tubercular bacteria from reproducing and surviving easily. This, coupled with the common sanatorium regimen of lots of rest and high-caloric diets to promote weight gain (tuberculosis was known to “consume” the body, or greatly diminish body weight) often promoted recovery in those affected by the disease.

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The invention of antibiotics during World War II presented a new and effective way to treat tuberculosis. By the late 1940s, with the need for sanatorium treatment quickly diminishing, the facilities began to disband. Gardiner tents assumed new roles as tool sheds and backyard storage units. In some cases, huts were repurposed to serve as homes for local businesses. Totally Nuts & Company in Manitou Springs operates today in two attached Gardiner huts.

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In both sanatorium and home treatment, heliotherapy (the therapeutic use of sunlight) was one of the most popular and utilized forms of treatment. Patients spent warm days sunbathing, and cooler days lounging behind the large glass windows of sleeping porches.

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Home treatment was also a popular method for those who could afford it. Families living with a tubercular patient often added sleeping porches to their houses, allowing for heliotherapy and exposure to fresh air within the home. These porches distinguish the Old North End neighborhood, where many houses still have fully-intact porches or structural skeletons of where the porches once were. This porch juts out of the second floor of a house now occupied by Colorado College students.

Today, Colorado Springs’ military presence stands in place of the tuberculosis treatment industry. The sanatoriums are gone, only a handful of Gardiner tents remain sprinkled around town, and little thought is given to the glass sleeping porches dotting the city. Still, the history of tuberculosis treatment lives on through these spaces. Colorado Springs is no longer commonly referred to as the “City of Sunshine,” but owes much of its infrastructure, large population, and position as a city on the map to its tuberculosis treatment history.

Bad Issue | December 2018

Becoming New Again

Have you ever imagined what it would be like to explode? To let all the things inside you erupt and shrivel into nothing? Let your baggage—painful and otherwise—be swept into a dustpan like the edges of a shattered snow globe? It is a way, maybe, of becoming new again, of becoming as close as you can to freshly-fallen snow before time and circumstances wreck it.

This idea has occupied an uncomfortable corner of my imagination for as long as I can remember, though not entirely by choice. The corrupting influence was a 10-minute long Canadian cartoon called “To Be,” which was broadcast as part of a programming block on Cartoon Network in the late ’90s. Pre-dating “Courage the Cowardly Dog,” the creepy (yet somehow cheerful) animation was the stuff of my early nightmares.

The basic synopsis is as follows: a visibly depressed woman receives an invitation to attend the unveiling of an eminent scientist’s newest experiment: a teleportation machine. As the scientist explains, the participant enters a chamber in which their molecular blueprint is copied and sent to a second chamber via radio waves. The matter in the second chamber is reassembled according to the exact pattern of the original. Lo and behold, exiting the second chamber is the participant, physically indistinguishable with memories intact. A small explosion goes off in the first chamber. The door opens to reveal smoke and—gasp!—the chamber is empty. The scientist explains how the copy, which has materialized in the desired location, is just as complete as the original, who has yet to move an inch. To the irreconcilable dilemma of having multiple copies of the same person running around, the scientist destroys the original.

The cartoon deals with an ontological thought experiment known as the “teletransport paradox.” The “Star Trek”-inspired technology begs the question of what constitutes identity—is it the body, which carries the physical memory of experience, or is it some coded sequence of memory that, like a blueprint, can be carbon copied onto a “blank disc” of matter? This paradox questions the morality of “terminating” what has, in the scientist’s mind, become a useless original. In the cartoon, the woman is aghast at the apparent act of murder. The scientist tries to explain the ethics of his device, divulging that he has used it on himself dozens of times and is still the same as he has always been, though his efforts at persuasion are largely in vain.

The woman suggests that if the scientist is so sure the copy is identical, why not delay destroying the original for five minutes to conduct a side-by-side appraisal (for science)? The scientist agrees and, suddenly, there are two of them, comparing each other’s birthmarks, likes and dislikes, library cards, and so forth. The warm mood is shattered, however, when the woman gives the all-too-real reminder, “Five minutes is up. Who is the original, who is the copy?” Panicked, the identical scientists argue over who has to die.

Chess is deemed the appropriate contest. The winner, they say (on totally arbitrary grounds) must be the original who, as the woman reminds the scientists by the end of the game, is ostensibly “useless.” The original must be destroyed. Screaming “I want to live,” one scientist pushes the other into the chamber and the cartoonishly stylized, blender death-machine is set to “pulverize.” Boom. Puff. The “original” scientist is dead. The copy, with sweat dripping down his brow, says he has to go. He runs away from his machines, his research, and his former self that he, just a moment ago, literally tore to shreds. The woman looks at the wreckage of the chess game. She picks up the losing king from the floor and sees the evil within herself. A murderer, she can’t go on. With a tear, she enters the first chamber. Her replica exits just in time to hear the anticipated explosion. Befuddled and having just entered the world, new and pure, “a guiltless copy,” the woman (version two) goes outside and sings a song about how wonderful it is to be. Songbirds circle her head and perch on her shoulder, singing:

 ———

Brand new me,

brand new day!

No more last month’s bills to pay.

They were owed by another me

and she has ceased to be!

Bluebird sitting on my head,

Aren't you glad my old one's dead?

Hello, brook! Good morning, tree!

I've just begun to be!

What’s this body I am using?

When I die will I be losing,

everything that I’m now choosing

to be, or not to be!

A simple fact, sad but true,

nothing’s fun unless it’s new.

That’s why we take turns to see,

what’s it like to be.

 ———

Like a fire that clears away oppressive undergrowth, conscientious self-destruction is a vehicle with which to create new life, a life without history. To live outside the shadow of all the bad you have ever done sounds appealing. The woman in the cartoon made the choice to become new again. I pause. I say the phrase out loud. “Becoming new again.”

For whatever reason, I think of snow; the radiant glare of inches-thick, fresh white that makes you feel like anything is possible. It’s like the world is new again, without stains, scars, or imperfections. You forget the potholes, nicks, and scratches. You forget you even have a car, let alone the dent in your left rear bumper, because it’s a relic from another world, from before the snow came. Gaseous vapor metamorphosizes into a liquid that hangs in the air, until cold and pressure transform it into a solid that, for now and eternity, exists in perpetual freefall, casting the sky in an opaque off-white.

The world stops and ends here, but could just as well go on forever—it makes no difference. Just as water and baptism symbolize new beginnings, snow creates a kind of blank slate. But the snow, in a strange contradiction, also helps me remember. It happens every year (fingers crossed on climate change) and falls in similar places. There is a kind of unchanging universality to the winter landscape. Just as much as a blizzard creates a fresh canvas, it is a scene remarkably similar to seasons past. It becomes a liminal space between worlds, a connection to places that we can no longer visit. The seeming incongruousness of snow, a tool to both remember and forget, opens the door to a series of questions. To what degree is the psychic dismantling of self and attachment to past experience possible? Are our identities a constant, comprised of the things that live only inside our heads? Or does the advancement of time transform our minds and bodies in an irreconcilable manner, changing who we are regardless of memory?

A few Sundays ago, I took my beaten-up Prius to my favorite spot on Gold Camp Road to check out the first big snowfall of the year. It’s a place where I’ve brought friends, cried, made love, tripped acid, and debated the existential tumult of personhood. A tree hangs over the side of the cliff, beaten into a sharp angle by the wind. I used to climb that tree and sit up top, trembling under the force of occasional gusts. For a while, there was a porcelain plaque underneath the tree memorializing “Bud,” who I’ve always assumed was someone’s dog. Since then, a few too many branches have fallen, making it risky to climb, and the burial stone has long since gone missing. The landscape has otherwise stayed the same. However, the body that occupies the space—the one sometimes called “Nathan”—has changed dramatically.

Sometimes I think of my child-self. I imagine my body as an old-fashioned Russian nesting doll, and each layer removed reveals a slightly smaller version inside. Digging closer to the center, I find the little three-year-old boy in blue overalls clutching an ever-smiling Buzz Lightyear toy, crying for his mother. The memory is from the first time I was taken away by the Chicago Department of Children and Family Services. Little child-me didn’t know where I was or why I was brought there. The Buzz Lightyear was my only friend when I was taken away, and it still sits on my dresser today. It is less a reminder of trauma, and more a way of bridging past and present, a physical manifestation of who I once was. I hold Buzz close to my chest, and I feel as if I can hold my child-self just a little bit closer, and tell him that everything is going to be OK. I envision calling out to my child-self, being transported across the linear chasm of time. I know for a fact, that I (as my present self) would be as unrecognizable as a stranger to that child.

Places and things bring back memories, but so too does the snow. “Mood-congruent memory” is a term in psychology that describes the phenomenon in which similar surroundings induce past feelings and memory (for instance, taking an exam in the same seat empirically improves test performance). It comes to mind when I walk through the student housing neighborhood east of Nevada. Surrounded by the ghosts of people I once knew, sitting on porches, drinking beer, laughing for a second, and very often doing nothing. I am shocked, and in many ways hurt, to remember that these ghosts feel all too real to be merely memories; time and my associations to space have become at odds.

——— 

Returning to Gold Camp Road, I begin my descent into a landscape that is a playful mixture of past and present. Joys and tragedies alike are recycled here. But the feeling, in the end, is mostly sad. My vision sweeps across the familiar milieu, as my mind’s eye inevitably journeys into the past. The voyage is bittersweet. Though it is the middle of the afternoon, I am shuttled back to a night in December 2016. The effervescence of stars lit the path ahead. I thought I was in love. We decided to stay up all night and forget about the next day and the day after. It almost worked.

I think back to the nesting dolls inside my body. Encapsulated by snow, they seem almost real. Each doll a person, a smaller version of me, whose thoughts and yearnings come through with a vibrancy that belies their age. But each one of them is dead.

 ———

My eyes are closed and the cold wind against my shoulders reminds me of that Thanksgiving at Standing Rock. I shudder and look down, realizing I’m still wearing the same jacket as I was then. My gut sinks in labored nostalgia. I regret everything.

White fluff becomes brown as slush meets mud. It freezes overnight and yellow streaks appear from where some drunk kid tried to spell his name.

Falling backwards, I am buried under the weight of snow. The freshly-fallen powder creates a deceptive warmth not unlike that morning after the blizzard. It was the day I rediscovered the childlike person sitting in my heart and watched, with wonder and amazement, as small drops of snow fell off the barren limbs of an overhead tree and onto my cheek. The snow soon dissolved and became translucent, dripping down my face like tears I had forgotten to cry. The sky was clear. I was 17, and it was the first time I knew peace.

I crush some snow in my hand. It is already hard-packed. Sometimes, I wish I could crush little parts of myself and let them be carried into nothing, like dust off a funeral pyre. I think back to that classic scene from “Citizen Kane,” of the dying mogul who, with his last words, whispers “Rosebud” and drops a snow globe, the last remaining token of his childhood. The audience watches as the world inside explodes.

Questions of my own identity come to mind often. I ask myself, “Am I who I was a year ago?” Sometimes, in moments of nostalgia, I try to become that person again, with all the loves, tribulations, successes, and defeats. As much as I resemble that person on the outside, I feel different. It is as though I entered the teleportation machine in a dream, and the copied-over body has become my new, similar-yet-distinct reality. It is an impossible task, to recreate the past in the present body. In the destructive impulses that seek to dismember those parts of ourselves that are no longer wanted, the teletransport paradox is a blessing and a curse. Wonderful yet terrifying, it gives light to the tug-of-war between continuity and change that is an inherent struggle of the human condition.

 ———

We see the dynamic play out in various facets and through a variety of mediums. The film “Another Earth” comes to mind. The heroine gets in a car crash that kills a mother and her young child, while the father in the car survives and is broken by grief. Responsible for their deaths, the heroine is ravaged by guilt until she discovers Another Earth, one that is identical in almost every way to the one she was inhabiting. This Other Earth is floating just outside orbit and is recognizable yet distinct; an alternate reality home to millions of forks in the road that lead to new futures.

In the movie, there’s a lottery in which the winner gets to take off in a spaceship and travel to the Other Earth. Against all odds, the heroine lands a ticket. She hopes, desperate beyond all measure, that she will find a world on the other end with the family she killed still intact. Traveling to Another Earth seems to be a way of leaving one’s history behind, a deliberate act of destruction that is also a kind of rebirth. Her hope to take off and escape the planet reminds me of the protagonist from “To Be,” entering the chamber and hoping to exit back into the world as something new, changed, and purified.

The heroine in the film, however, opts out and gives her ticket to the man whose life she helped destroy, thinking it is the best way to right her wrong. She smiles as she looks out the window at the other Earth, imagining a better world. Our bad deeds, however, are harder to escape than we think. The heroine returns home to find an identical copy of herself, staring from across the driveway. This copy is from the other Earth. The only difference between the worlds is that, in this one, the woman took the ticket instead of giving it away. There is no way to escape what she has done. The accident is for real. As much as she tries to shed her past, to hit the self-destruct key and run, she is ultimately forced to face herself. It’s like the scene from the cartoon when the two versions of the scientist examine each other. Staring into the eyes of a mirror image, their pupils leave a gaping hole and, lost, they fall.

When we die, or figuratively self-destruct, our memories wash away like tears in the shower. The water running over us signifies a kind of new becoming. As much as we either crave or despair the disassembly of physical and emotional memory, we are really left with very few choices. Apart from rare medical episodes, to metaphysically die and be rid of the past exists mostly as a thought experiment. As much as the concept intrigues us, we must be reminded that “teletransport” is unreal and likely impossible. We cannot simply press a “reset” button and be reborn. Even media around the sci-fi concept of memory erasure, like the movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” problematizes the idea. Whether it be through seeing an old lover seen on a train or feeling a thought creeping and nagging in the back of the mind, our past and who we were yesterday will find us eventually. We cannot simply gut ourselves of the nesting dolls inside our body and be done with it all. Regardless of our inclinations, they are the building blocks of who we are today. It is our burden, perhaps, to find ways of remembering a past self, while still letting the present evolve and become new, again and again.

I like to keep mementos. They are inanimate objects that create a window into a dead past. Most often, they reflect mixed feelings and memories of experiences that have changed me. Buzz is a great example. The batteries are gone; the buttons don’t work. I also have a dog-eared note from a friend saying how much I scared him this one time and a hospital wristband from the time I drunkenly fell asleep in the snow. Tapestries and art hang from friends hang on the wall I no longer talk to but still love without reservation. They are symbols of lament, of a past that I, at another point, may have willed into oblivion. Resisting self-destruction, I let my past hang in front of me. I see all the bad that I have done, but it has less power now than when I keep it bottled. There is a level of acceptance, a tacit agreement formed between me and the ghosts that shroud my wall. It is as if I took all the nesting dolls buried in my body and exhumed them—I feel lighter, and a part of me inevitably smiles. My body has grown and will continue to grow. I can live on without having to watch myself explode.

Whatever happened to the vision of the unalienable, non-changing self? I think back to the Tralfamadorians, a fictional alien race that Kurt Vonnegut created. They exist in four dimensions and live through all time concurrently. “Now” is just a snapshot of a movie playing forwards and backwards on the same channel. Our world, however, is linear—we pass from one moment to the next. The past is irretrievable, and the future can only exist once the present is over. The illusion of memory is the closest we come to playing the role of fourth dimensional time travelers. The connection is mostly weak. Like lived experiences of snow on a mountain drive, it comes and goes with the time of day. Now and then, the connection is stronger; the phenomenon is viscerally tied to place. Sometimes, the connection can be to a person you never really knew.

My cousin Cebrin died of a heroin overdose. My uncle found her body in the closet. It was February 11th, 2002. I was too young to remember much, though I think of her whenever I visit that house. This time, I’m alone. There are bedrooms, but I choose to sleep on the greenhouse floor; the humidity is a nice juxtaposition to the dryness of the New Mexican desert. The room where she died is maybe 100 feet away. I am alone. I never knew her, yet here I am. I feel close, as if I can reach back into the chasm of time and transcend the 16-and-a-half years that separate our lives. We are connected through space and driven apart by time. She was so young. As I count back doing the math, I realize that she was 23. I am 23. Our lives suddenly seem like overlapping mesh, with little pieces clearing the abyss-like space in between. I never knew her, but little pieces of her have stuck with me, like this poem she wrote. My uncle posted it on her memorial page years ago.

——— 

(time)

Every once in a while, it hits you hard. You start thinking about all the things

that have happened, all the people and all the places. Everything’s changed

now, but you can still remember, you can still feel the way it was before.

There’s usually some song on that you listened to a lot at some point and

you just want some arms

to hold you so you can close your eyes and bury your head and drain

yourself. Your body’s held tightly and you could be anywhere at any time

and you let yourself go. You let the memories fly out and pain comes hitting

you hard inside your chest and stomach. Your muscles ache. Moans escape

your throat and leave you empty, and

you can feel the time that has slipped away.

 ———

Change is hard, and resisting it is harder. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, there are said to be five bardos, or liminal passages, that frame our existence and reoccur in cycles. They are intermediate states, for which change is constant and unavoidable. Of those, the moment of death is critical. It is not so much that we ought to live in order to die, but that we ought to live in such a way that we are ready to move onto the next state, whenever that may be.

Thinking about what’s to come, I remember the snow. Just as my body has run through its share of physical manifestations, so too does the snow melt with the coming of spring. It falls again, but it does so inevitably changed. Our ephemeral nature is but snow. Seasons come and go, and we may not be the same people we were before. The cycles remain unchanged.

As attractive as exploding may sometimes appear, it is not the only way to let go. We can allow the good and bad of the past to become like snow and melt on a sunny day. In the same way that liquid water is transformed by heat into vapor, the ephemeral current of my cousin’s life has been recycled into the slowly churning cosmos, of which I too am a part. We can let go, though the things that matter have a way of staying with us forever. “To infinity and beyond,” as a friend would say.

Bad Issue | December 2018

The In-Between

The first time I learned about the in-between, I should have been sleeping. I should’ve been tucked into the trundle beneath Sylvie Hammond’s twin bed, dreaming of the purple-haired fairies decorating the sheets. I should have been sleeping.

“C’mon Sarah, wake up. Let’s go spy on them.” Sylvie reached over and shook me awake.

By “them,” Sylvie meant her older sister, Heidi, and all of her friends stationed in the basement. Heidi, seven years older than Sylvie, was celebrating her 18th birthday. We were in the fifth grade as Heidi was sailing into the limbo of legal, yet wholly un-adult, adulthood. All of those tall, sure bodies in the basement itched for lives in which they did not have to ask for a bathroom pass, while Sylvie and I were still enamored by recess and gold stars, not yet even wearing training bras. I only pretended to be asleep for a moment before abandoning those fairy sheets for my other favorite mythical creature: the teenager. With their full breasts and broad shoulders, their not-yet-grown, grown-up energy beat through the floorboards. Their presence terrified and comforted me; I was just as swept up by their delusions of invincibility as they were.

We sat at the top of the basement stairs as they fell on top of the couch and one another, succumbing to toxic liquids we’d never tasted. They laughed at everything and nothing, but I couldn’t see what was funny, even though I desperately wanted to. We watched the girls bend over with locked knees and toss their hair over their shoulders. Their ruddy red cheeks screamed words they felt were unnecessary to say, words like “touch,” “more,” and “yes,” words they would come to realize they needed now more than ever. We watched them wanting to be wanted. And, not knowing the implications, we wanted to be wanted, too.

Once they were all settled into the couch, Heidi swung her hips over to the DVD player and slid a disc into the machine. “American Pie Presents: Beta House.” The words slid across stock footage of a bucolic college campus, all greenery and backpacks and weathered brick buildings. We sat on the cold, wooden stairs and watched the boys on the screen pull at their groins beneath comforters and salivate over women with breasts larger than watermelons. We watched them drink beer until they couldn’t talk and call each other virgins like it was the worst thing they could be. I hadn’t known what a virgin was before that. I didn’t know I was one. Sylvie sat next to me, knocking her shoulders against mine at every dick joke and embarrassing moment.

“Should we really be watching this?” I whispered, keeping my head down.

“It’s fine, I’ve seen this a million times,” Sylvie dismissed me. “Don’t be such a wuss.”

I didn’t say anything for the rest of the movie.

We watched the girls in the movie romp around house parties in bras and underwear and let boys pour beer on their chests. We watched them be talked about, but never talked to. They shrieked and giggled and cried like those were the only things they could do. Like they were wind-up dolls with three-setting dials on their backs.

I didn’t realize when I was 10 that the girls were just props. They had long legs and hair and boys who would jump off rooftops for their attention. I wanted all of those things. I wanted to be a goal, something to achieve.

All of the boys in the movie were loud and mean, but no one cared. The older girls on the couch laughed at their cruelty, so I laughed too. It was just a joke, after all. It didn’t really matter.

I had never known the in-between before that night on the top of Sylvie Hammond’s stairs. I knew children, and I knew adults. I knew that I was young and taken care of and that eventually I would be older and have to take care of someone else. But I hadn’t known about the in-between; that there would be a time in my life when I wouldn’t be a child, but I would still be young: when I wouldn’t be taken care of, and I would have no one to take care of but myself. I met the in-between that night. I saw it in the movie and in Heidi’s low-cut top and in the pixelated boys’ curious hands. And now, even as I swim through the thick of it, this no man’s land, I’m still sitting on the top of those stairs. Trying to understand. Pretending that I do.

  ———

For the first month of college, I had no friends. Meeting your “friends for life” was not as easy as the movie made it seem that night eight years ago. My roommate didn’t speak any English, so our room was always overflowing with loneliness. Mine and hers both. I thought it might have begun to seep out from under the door frame, since I never saw anyone in the hall. All of my classes had hundreds of people in them, and I held my breath the entire time. I tried to sit next to someone new every day, but I couldn’t talk to anyone, so it didn’t really matter. I never even set foot in the dining hall.

As I walked to another class I couldn’t remember the name of, I realized I hadn’t spoken in two days. I had not said one word since I hung up the phone with my mother on Tuesday afternoon, and now it was Friday morning. I opened my mouth to speak, but I had no one to talk to, so I closed it again. I kept walking across the quad and past the student center. It was 10 a.m. and every square foot of the campus was covered in people. I watched the others and tried to figure out which screw or switch was missing in me that allowed them to breeze through their days flanked by laughter and words that hadn’t moved past my lips in 48 hours. I wondered if I had contracted a contagious disease, and the doctors had remembered to tell everyone except me.

Filing into the lecture hall between salmon streams of chatter, I sat down in the second to last row, farthest to the left. I told myself I sat there so I could easily slip out of the lecture early, but I never left early. I never had anything else to do. The real reason I sat there was because of the girls who sat in the last row: Genevieve Watkins and Thalia Bell. Girls named Genevieve and Thalia have parents with office jobs and SUVs and reason to think their daughters are destined for success. So they name them Genevieve and Thalia. Unforgettable names for girls not to be forgotten. Very different names than Sarah.

They did all the things I could not. I mean, so did all the others, but they seemed to do them better than anyone else. They spent every minute of class whispering about boys and drugs and which party they would say yes to tonight. They scoffed at the sorority girls with neon highlighters and matching travel mugs at the front of the room. Their eyes rolled to the back wall every time a boy even looked their direction. But the air grew tight and still whenever they walked into the room, like they were what we were all here for, even if the class had begun 45 minutes ago. Genevieve and Thalia were the main event. They always left early.

My crumbling Latvian grandmother always described my grandfather, who died before I was born, as having something called kvorka. Gasping between each word, she would say, “He wasn’t pretty or smart or rich or nice. But I couldn’t stop loving him.” Thalia and Genevieve had kvorka. They glided through their lives with the world wrapped around their pinky fingers for no good reason at all. Sure, they were pretty, but not showstoppers. Thalia’s eyes sunk deep into head and her cuticles were constantly bleeding. Genevieve couldn’t seem to find a way to wash the grease out of her hair and sometimes came to class in yesterday’s clothes. Yet, every girl still wanted to be them and every guy to be with them, like the girls in the movies who always end up covered in mud or without a prom date. We’re supposed to hate them, but we don’t. We liked the movie better when they were on top.

That day was like all other days. I listened to the professor drone on about things I already knew in a way that made me feel like I didn’t. Thalia and Genevieve snapped gum between their teeth with their feet on the seats in front of them. I typed mindless notes.

After about 40 minutes, Thalia sighed loudly enough to cause at least 12 people to turn their heads. Then she stood up and grabbed her things; Genevieve attempted to follow suit.

“I can’t find my phone,” Genevieve whispered to Thalia at a pitch louder than her normal speaking voice, dropping to her hands and knees. Thalia sighed again and tapped her foot. Then she looked at me. We caught eyes, and I couldn’t help but hold hers in mine for a second too long. She raised an eyebrow and pursed her lips, forcing my gaze back into my computer screen, mortified and childish. Then, before I could process what was happening, my computer was slid from under my palms, snapped shut by Thalia’s raw fingertips, and carted out the door.

I looked up and around and under the seat and at my lap. I wasn’t sure if I had just been just robbed or invited.

Either way, I had to get the computer back. I found Thalia perched on the concrete steps up to the building with Genevieve pacing in front her. They were both already halfway through a cigarette.

As I panted down the stairs, Thalia caught me with a glance over her shoulder.

“Listening to you pound on your keyboard like that was giving me a migraine.”

She greeted me with an outstretched cigarette between her bleeding hangnails. I had never smoked before. I took it anyway. So stealing my computer had been an invite, not a burglary, and I was in no place to reject invitations. I sat down next to Thalia and she held a lighter up to my face. I slipped the cigarette between my chapped lips and worried about setting my hair on fire.

“I’m Genevieve,” she said. I pretended not to know. Her legs were so much longer standing up. She took slow drags on her cigarette and blew the smoke out of her nose in thin wisps. I held it between my cheeks and swallowed every cough.

——— 

I don’t remember what they said after that, but I know I didn’t say anything. We worked like that from that moment forward. My girls with their queen names adopted me without a word. They told me my silence made me sexy, mysterious, like a woman with a secret. I told them I didn’t have a secret. They told me I’d find one soon. We went to parties with red wine-stained mouths and used them on boys whose names we couldn’t remember in the morning. We shopped for tiny clothes that made us feel what we were told was sexy. We smoked joints in the middle of the day and laid in the grass like we had nothing to do. I fell into the glory of the in-between, its nauseating current lulling me into a stupor.

“If I want to fuck, I’m gonna fuck. And I don’t give a shit what anybody has to say about it.”

We chanted these words, in their various forms, like a mantra. Each syllable took back the sting of boys’ grabbing, relentless hands and told us that liberation meant forgetting how to hurt. Our mantra erased nagging thoughts. It told us we were always in control and reminded us to forget the instances in which we were not. It was just a joke after all. It didn’t really matter.

One Sunday morning, Genevieve climbed into bed with Thalia and me, cradling her heels from the night before. She shook us awake and told us about the boy in whose bed she had slept. She remembered his name: Ricky Alvarez.

“It was the best lay of my life.” Her sleepless eyes were still bright despite mascara-stained dark circles. “He fucked me like he loved me.”

“But he doesn’t love you,” Thalia murmured, her eyes still closed. “They never do.” Then she rolled back over and we all fell asleep with the bitter taste of reality settling on our tongues.

Two days later, Genevieve started getting zits. And Genevieve never got zits. We knew because she told us every two minutes while furiously reapplying thick, pasty concealer. The angry, red bumps crowded the corners of her mouth like cold hands over a fire.

Five days later the zits kept coming. Getting angrier and angrier with every passing hour, they each developed crusty yellow peaks. Corks on volcanoes.

Six days later.

“Genevieve, you need to go to the fucking doctor. You look like you’ve got the clap. It’s embarrassing,” Thalia snapped one afternoon, replacing compassion with shame.

“I don’t have the clap, you idiot. It’s just a breakout.”

“Then prove it.”

Eight days later, drunk off cheap beer and empty stomachs, Genevieve told us the zits weren’t just on her face. She laid on the floor of Thalia’s windowless dorm room and spread her legs. We looked at the ferocious red between her thighs. The sea of leaking bumps coated her deepest parts, dripping blood and pus like hidden tears. Each bump stood as a painful reminder of the real world’s shadowy fist banging at the entranceway of our lives. I imagined what Genevieve felt when she walked. The chaffing of unwanted mistakes; the sting of regret with every step. It was the first time I saw her cry.

Nine days later, Thalia and I sat in the health center’s waiting room in chairs bolted to the ground. We stared at posters about mental health and sexual safety, refusing to actually read the words. We silently prayed that Genevieve was right.

She busted through the swinging, knobless door.

“Just impetigo, bitches! Not even sexually transmitted,” Genevieve shrieked, not caring who heard. “I told you! Don’t ever freak me out like that again.”

Thalia threw her head back and laughed at the paneled ceiling. “But it was sexually transmitted! There’s no way that guy didn’t give it to you.”

“But it’s not an STD! It’s totally curable. Just, like, a fluke accident. He’s so sexy. I knew he couldn’t have had an STD.”

I kept staring at the posters. My little sister had impetigo once. She got it from a toilet seat. Genevieve’s face and thighs were coated with an infection a public bathroom gave my little sister, and she was still calling that boy sexy. I thought about the girls in “American Pie.”

Once Genevieve’s topical cream dried up, any remnants of our fear and fragility did too. It was like nothing had ever happened. We partied and smoked and wore last night’s dress to breakfast. We lived our untethered lives uninterrupted.

One Friday night, when all of the music was bad and the boys uninterested, we surrendered early to Thalia’s room. Early as in 2 a.m.: our version of early. We sat on her floor and sipped whatever would put us to sleep. Someone banged on the door.

Genevieve got up to answer it, stumbling on her way there. She looked through the peephole and gasped.

“It’s Ricky Alvarez!” She whisper-screamed in a single breath, rushing over the mirror. She finger-combed her hair and wiped makeup from under her eyes.

“You’re still trying to fuck the guy who gave you an STD?” Thalia said, laughing with her whole mouth open. “Did you invite him here?”

“No. I don’t know what he’s doing here. And fuck you. You know it wasn’t an STD.” And with that Genevieve ripped open the door.

“Oh shit!” I heard a male voice belt from the threshold.

Genevieve feigned a sexy surprised face and threw her hair over her shoulder, immediately in character. “What are you doing here?” Her voice went up two octaves. She grabbed his hand and pulled him into the room.

He was short and dirty and drunk. His greasy, dark hair fell into his eyes; he looked like he hadn’t slept in weeks. He was holding a bottle of Captain Morgan.

“Well, this was my room last year, and I just wanted to make sure the current owners knew how to party.” He snaked a hand around Genevieve’s waist. “But I already know they do.”

I could taste his thick, alcoholic breath all the way across the room and wondered how it felt on Genevieve’s neck. It couldn’t be good.

Thalia invited him to sit and pass the rum. Genevieve, Thalia, and the boy chatted about how much he drank last night, and his fraternity, and how he didn’t have to worry about getting a job thanks to his “unbelievable trust fund.” They laughed when nothing was funny.

 ———

And so I found myself back on the top of the stairs. Watching and never knowing. I didn’t understand Genevieve. I didn’t understand Thalia. I didn’t understand this boy. And I didn’t know why everyone was laughing. He said it would be hot if the two of them made out, so they did. They moaned artificially into each other’s mouths and grabbed at the other’s breasts. They rolled around on the floor, pretending to want. They made good props, even with the dirty hair and fuck-you attitudes. And I did too, staring with an open mouth and hollow eyes.

It was about us, but it wasn’t. Nothing really was. We acted like we did what we wanted when we wanted; like we governed our own in-between. But nothing we did was on our terms. We didn’t even have terms. We had what they told us and showed us. We had American Pie.

Bad Issue | December 2018

I Bet You Lie on Tinder

So I’m on Tinder, and this guy messages me: “Mmm.” Not sure what that’s supposed to mean, but I go ahead and respond, asking him if the cat in one of his pictures belongs to him. He responds that yes, it is his cat, and then follows with, “You dtf?” (“Dtf” meaning “down to *expletive.”) Ah. Hm. I do have to give him props for being so direct, but I don’t know of many people who would respond positively to that inquiry. Still, I decide to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I attempt to revive our pathetic conversation. I ask him about the dog that is featured in one of his other pictures. Apparently laughing at my question (extrapolated from his use of the acronym “lol”), he responds that yes, it is his dog, and then proceeds to ask me AGAIN if I was “dtf.” This time, I don’t bother responding.

Now, I would like to explain something—this didn’t happen to me. It happened to Cass.

Enter Cassandra. According to her profile, Cass (as she likes to be called) moved from Georgia to Colorado, enjoys listening to the Beatles, and is “looking for an adventure.” Exactly what type of adventure Cass is looking for remains to be seen however, as we really don’t know much else about her besides her physical appearance: pink hair, average height, blue eyes.

I created Cass. She was born out of a conversation with a friend about what it means to be a stranger, and how online dating is just a streamlined form of interacting with strangers. I decided that I wanted to make a Tinder account to explore this phenomenon, but I didn’t want the person in the profile to be me. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I just didn’t want myself and my life advertised online in that way. I also wanted to see how feasible it would be to create a completely fake person, and use that fake account to interact with (supposedly) real people. So, hello Cassandra! I wanted to know how authenticity plays into creating relationships, specifically romantic relationships. And for this particular endeavor, I wanted to delve into online dating. So, I decided to use the application known as “Tinder.”

Unknown.jpg

Thus began the Cass Project. After acquiring a bubblegum-colored wig and borrowing some of my housemate’s clothes, Tucker (my profound, beautiful, and devoted editor for this article) and I staged the pictures that we were going to use for Cass’s profile. We wanted to make it look like the pictures were from different places and times, so we experimented with flash/no flash, outside versus inside, and costume changes. Tucker, being the dedicated editor that she is, even made a guest appearance in one of the pictures that shows us holding drinks and sitting on a sofa, seemingly at a birthday party. We added a bio, and ta-da! We were live.

Popular folklore asserts that Tinder was created as a way to facilitate easy hookups between desperate (or not-so-desperate) single (or not-so-single) people who live near each other. Keeping this in mind, I wasn’t too surprised to discover that Tinder is often served hot, with a strong peppering of sexual flavor. This is evident in people’s bios, pictures (so much skin!), and messages. One guy advertised: “I may not go down in history, but I will go down on you” front and center on his bio, while another reminded us that: “You can’t choose your father, but you can choose your daddy.” One man even offered free healthcare: “Not a gynecologist, but I’ll take a look,” while another asked the question that has been plaguing us all: “On Tinder, why can women say ‘I only swiped right for your dog,’ but I can’t say ‘I only swiped right for your pussy?’” Another fine sir suggested: “Wanna play Barbie? I can be Ken and you can be the box I come in … I’m a sweetheart.” Thank goodness he redeemed himself with that last part. Another guy displayed his knack for fatherhood: “I’m a father of 2 beautiful kids so you know … 1) I’ll pull out 2) My pull out game is weak af 3) If you act like a spoiled brat, we will mostly likely get ice cream afterwards.” I send my condolences to those two children.

As I became more familiar with navigating the app, I wanted to know more about how Tinder actually worked. After a quick Google search, I discovered something called the “desirability score.” Basically, Tinder scores the “desirability” of people and then tries to match up people with similar “desirability scores.” How do they make these scores? Based off of what? It seems like this scoring system is meant to display “attractive people” to other “attractive people,” and “ugly people” to other “ugly people.” Not only is Tinder deciding who is attractive and who is not, but they then use that information to manipulate and influence their users.

 ———

One particular evening I was sitting at my dining room table, focused on a jigsaw puzzle. While I puzzled, Tucker sat across from me, holding my phone and concocting messages to send to random boys on Tinder. She was concentrating on formulating exactly the right thing to say, and we were laughing as she sent the same message to multiple guys: “Just made some homemade dumplings!” Never mind that it was really my housemate who had just cooked dumplings, the Tinder boys were impressed!

A few days later, I received the following message: “Soo you tryna swallow my kids?? [tongue emoji].” Suffice to say, I was thoroughly shook. My first instinct was to ignore this repulsive toad, but then I decided to respond. I asked him about the success rate of that line, and he responded, “Bout 80 percent tbh [shrug emoji].” It seems quite apparent to me that he was bluffing, but I humored him anyway. The conversation didn’t progress very much from there and ended with him asking, “So you don’t wanna?” No response from Cass.

What struck me the most was the sheer amount of confidence that oozed from the men on Tinder. Just for some examples of some of the disgustingly egotistical bios that I saw: “Heard that the world’s bee population is declining, so I hopped on here to snatch all the honey”; “Thicker than a bowl of oatmeal … The size of my calves say it all … Looking for a snack”; “Spend Fitties, Pet Kitties, Suck Titties”; “A 6’5, funny guy with good dick and conversation skills”; and there was even one suitor who documented the size of his penis with “Packing 13 inches … check me out on Snapchat ‘stallion13inch’ if you don’t believe the size.” Another guy informed us: “I’m unstoppable. I like my friends. I work hard and play hard. I like women. If you can cook you can be my friend. Don’t be a dumb bitch and all is well :) my confidence is high and I come across as arrogant … after all I am God’s gift to women.” Why is the default character trait for Tinder boys overconfident douchery? I doubt most of them would say any of this in person, yet it’s the norm in the online world. Why does the disconnect of a screen allow for such distasteful and (seemingly) shameless behavior?

——— 

Occasionally my time spent on Tinder elicited a few laughs. One guy’s profile said, “Bio? Nah I’m more of a physics guy.” Other humor was less deliberate: “Yes i know, Im in the Army, but no im not an douche.” Maybe this means I’m a literary snob, but to me, such blatant grammatical errors are hilarious. He really did try though, I’ll give him that. Another guy announced: “I’m ready to stepdad the fuck out of you and your little shitty kids.” I don’t know if his intention was one of comedic relief, but it had Tucker and I laughing for a good few minutes.

The majority of the time however, I felt pretty frustrated about the sheer number of shirtless pictures, douchey bios, and misogynistic attitudes, so I would just go into left-swiping-default-mode. But once, in the middle of my swiping frenzy, I paused and took a second to read this bio: “Have a kid. Was married but my wife just recently passed so I guess you could say I’m just looking for a friend.” I was so taken aback that I almost swiped right. Then I remembered that I had created an entirely fake person for my profile and realized that no matter how bad I felt for this man, there was no way that I ———could swipe right on him. I swiped left. I hope he found a friend.

This guy made me wonder, with the rise of social media, is it becoming harder to make friends in person? Are people turning to apps like Tinder to compensate for a lack of face-to-face friendships? Another man’s bio read, “I’m mostly very comfortable by myself but I’ve been pretty lonely lately. Thought I’d put myself out there …” This honesty also startled me. It’s not even a question or invitation, he simply shares that he feels lonely and that this is his way of putting himself out there. This guy, unlike the others, seemed to be truly searching for a connection. It made me question why I was there.

 ———

I would like to preface what I am about to say with this: I have never been catfished. Therefore, I don’t truly understand that particular feeling of deception. In spite of my slightly questionable actions, I never intended to hurt anyone. Nor do most people who catfish—usually they are simply people who are looking for a connection. When we first created the profile, Tucker and I attempted to swipe right on guys that we thought Cass would be interested in (kind of athletic, slightly basic, maybe a little boring). But as the experiment progressed, I began to feel guilty about deceiving (some) sweet boys, and I felt myself start to swipe right only on guys that seemed like jackasses. With their overblown egos and cocky attitudes, they were already slightly delusional and duping them didn’t really seem immoral.

So am I a catfish? I guess I am—a pink-haired catfish. I’m okay with that. Most of those guys seemed like assholes anyway, but maybe they’re just insecure. Can we catfish in the name of art? The pursuit of something more? Maybe the answer is yes.

I didn’t actually ever go on a date. I was so ready to, and I had done all the prep work for going out as Cassandra with some random Tinder boy. By this time, I had even created a whole list of information about Cass to make her believable: she’s from Marietta, Georgia; she worked at Chick-fil-A during high school, she is in her third year at CC (molecular bio major); she has a younger brother named George (nickname Georgie), he’s 17 years old and looking at UGA for college, go Bulldogs! Cass loves pigs and herself, she’s a low-key Christian, loves the Beatles, has had no significant relationships in the past (but had a high school sweetheart) and is experimenting—pink hair, no rules; she has a good sense of humor and an aggressive laugh.

But in the end, I lost my nerve. Thinking about going on a date, wearing a wig, trying to make my voice sound different; all of those thoughts mashed together in my head and left me feeling too guilty. Guilty for thinking I was hot shit, for making a fake Tinder and laughing about it with Tucker. Cass may have been ready to go on a date, but Clare was not. Even though Tinder itself may be inauthentic and deceptive, I still felt bad playing into its games.

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Once I actually sat down to begin writing this piece, I immediately asked Tucker if I could delete my Tinder profile. By this point I felt pretty skeevy about the whole thing and was very ready to remove the evidence of my sins (although if I’m being honest, we all know that Cass and her lies are permanently etched into the Tinder data files; deleting my profile is only a thinly veiled attempt at forgetting that disturbing fact). Although now very prevalent in our society, online dating still gives me the heebie-jeebies, and the fact that I had not just a normal profile, but a completely fictional one, was not making me feel any better about the situation.

Tucker laughed and told me to keep it around, in case I needed some inspiration during the writing process. By this time, Cass had been on Tinder for about a month and a half. I really have no idea how many people saw my profile during that time but I guess we can assume that quite a few did. I wonder how many of those men saw right through my facade. I mean, it was just me wearing a pink wig. Even a few of my friends at CC have come up to me, questioning me and laughing at Cass after seeing her profile on Tinder.

Although Cass didn’t have anything remotely resembling a romantic relationship during this Tinder extravaganza, the exchanges she had reminded me of some of my own dismal romances. If I had to categorize my own romantic relationships, I would say that they have been brief. This experience with Cass only served to reinforce my feelings of romantic transience. I couldn’t even have a simple conversation with the boys on Tinder without wanting to rip off my own fingernails, fry them with coconut oil, and then grind them down with my back molars. While messaging the Tinder boys, I was either disgusted or bored. Many of the messages that Cass received were either vulgar pick-up lines or a “hey” and then nothing else. Even if I did respond to the “hey,” usually the responses were never anything more exciting than a “whats up.” No apostrophe, no question mark. Pursuing any semblance of a conversation felt like pulling teeth.

There was one point amidst all of the mindless swiping on random boys that I had a feeling that I still wanted them to swipe right on me, knowing full well that I had portrayed myself as a completely different person. Even though Cass is not me, not Clare, I couldn’t quite separate her from myself. We did share the same body, after all. Even as a completely different person, I wondered why I still wanted people to swipe right on me? It gave me a glimpse into the feelings of affirmation and being wanted that attract people to Tinder and keep them addicted to it. If you “match” with someone, then surely you’re worth something, right? In a way, programs like Tinder depend on those feelings to secure that they have enough users and that those users stay on the app.

Before this whole experiment began, I assumed that Tinder would be some sort of platform for people to meet and for an easy hookup. But amid the overt and offensive sexual offers, I saw profiles of men looking for friendship, someone to drink beers with, someone to hike with, someone to cook with, really anything. Somehow, Tinder has become a platform for people to find companionship. I thought that online dating would be pretty heavily focused on physical need, but it seems to me that it’s really more about the small intimacies that come from any kind of human relationship. People may create a Tinder profile because they haven’t hooked up with anyone in a while and want to “put themselves back out there,” but people also create Tinder profiles because they are missing the feeling of holding hands with someone on a chilly night and the way that cooking for two is always so much more satisfying than just cooking for one. Online dating isn’t simply the gross sex pot that I had previously imagined.

——— 

So then what? Where do we go from here? Is this type of loneliness new or are we just seeing it more because of access to technology and social media? It seems that we are so overwhelmed with images of love and romance and companionship and happiness and sex (in the movies, tv, etc.), and we want it—we want it badly—but are too caught up in our own worlds and our own lives that we go home each night, feeling lonely and wanting more. But nothing ever happens so we turn to other options, like these dating apps, and we give them a go.

Ultimately, the Cass Project was inconclusive because it’s clearly a mixed bag—there are people on Tinder like the schmucks just looking for sex, there are people on Tinder looking for a friend, and there are people that you’ll see on there that you know and respect in person. In the end, maybe I was, in a certain way, authentic on Tinder, because I didn’t actually end up going on a date. I felt too guilty to deceive even the shitty guys. So, yes, maybe people aren’t as authentic online as they are in real life, but is that really so bad? Maybe it doesn’t matter if we are authentic or not when meeting someone, because perhaps people really just want to talk to other people. If that makes people feel less alone, then maybe the end justifies the means.

Final thoughts: “You can be the hot thing of the week or my everything. It’s up to you ;)”

 

Bad Issue | December 2018

Coming Down With Johnny Cash

“Sunday Morning Coming Down”

 

When my dad played Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” for me as a kid, I envisioned the singer’s Sunday morning as some sort of fog descending from the sky onto the city. I laughed along with my dad, who was laughing about having a beer for breakfast and another for dessert. I pretended I knew what was so funny about that. There were pictures of Cash on the CD cases we had, but I either didn’t like them or didn’t ever connect them to his music. Instead, Johnny Cash became a man in my head, a figment of my imagination. The image of my Johnny Cash, his foggy morning coming down onto his body as he walked around, stayed in my head for years. I saw it every time I listened to the song, before I got older and realized that maybe the morning wasn’t the one doing the coming down after all. I still envision the morning descending on the earth and the streets, but now I also see the fog of the come-down and the hangover surrounding Cash’s body in the mist as he walked. I see the outside cloud making its way into people’s heads as they “stumble down the stairs / to meet the day.” When I was young, I was the Sunday school kid Cash walked past after his breakfast beer. Here I am now, some 15 years later, head pounding just like his, wishing to the Lord that I was stoned. Johnny Cash isn’t just a musician to me—he formed the world as I see it.

Cash’s work is forever on the line, in his music and in his life. But he hasn’t always fascinated me. For a while, he was just another country music artist: he loved Jesus, America, and his wife. He liked to sing about guns, about freedom, about trains and sinners and grace and the farm. But there’s also something to him that transcends genre. He’s been inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z are featured in one of his later music videos. My friends who didn’t grow up with a soundtrack of people like Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe have still managed to find Cash and love him. I’ve started to realize that these dichotomies might be both the source of his discography’s seemingly eternal relevance, as well as my fixation and fascination with him. His albums don’t fit together to make a cogent whole, and sometimes neither do verses within the same song. But somehow it works, and somehow I still continue to accept the contradictions.  

 

“I Walk the Line”

 

In high school, I became infatuated—with people in my life, celebrities, pieces of art—very easily. I would indulge myself in my fixations on the walk home from school, my head clouded with moments replaying over and over. Cash, at one point, was one of these fixations. He spoke to the obsessive nature of life and love better than almost anyone. “I Walk the Line” was an integral part of the soundtrack to my walk home, my breath catching with the depth of his voice on the first line. “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.” Cash wrote the song about his then-wife, Vivian Liberto, promising to be true to her while he was touring and she remained at home. He sings, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds / Because you’re mine / I walk the line.” The simple phrases are what had such an effect on me. After the song is released, Cash will meet his second wife, his proclaimed love of his life, June Carter, while on tour. Later, Liberto would divorce Cash and raise their children on her own. Even without knowing this, the way Cash sings evokes a sort of resignation to the possessiveness of love, almost a dire warning to both others and the object of his desire.

 

“Hurt”

 

Johnny Cash’s most popular song on Apple Music is “Hurt.” It’s a cover of the Nine Inch Nails original, and Cash’s version is unexpectedly beautiful. A friend once told me that some people are made for just writing songs and some people are made for just singing them. He suggested that maybe Cash was one of the latter; the last five albums he recorded were, for the most part, covers or renditions of folk songs, and they revitalized his career. Maybe he can cover songs so well because he can be (and is) so many different people. “Hurt” seems like one of the more straightforward examples: one famous musician covers a famous band’s song. The band’s lead singer was skeptical at first but cried when he heard Cash’s “different, but every bit as pure” version of the song. His covers make me wonder about the songs he did write. In both the songs he covers and the songs he writes, he is contradictory: an outlaw and devoted husband, a sinner and a Christian, a lover and a prisoner. He transcends time periods and socioeconomic classes and identity. His music, at first glance, has almost nothing to do with his own life experiences. Whether it’s a song he wrote or not, it’s kind of like he’s singing covers of other people’s lives.

 

“Greystone Chapel (Live at Folsom Prison)”

 

At the end of Johnny Cash’s 1968 performance in the Folsom Prison in California, he announced that he was going to perform “Greystone Chapel” by Glen Sherley, a prisoner who was standing in the first row. The song hadn’t been recorded yet, but, unbeknownst to Sherley, a minister who worked in the prison had shown Cash the song. Later, after Sherley was released from prison, he made his own recording, which he begins by saying, “I’d like to try and do one for you now that some of you may have heard already, ‘cause the Man took it and made it his.’” It’s hard to tell whether Sherley is talking about the “Man in Black” (as people called Johnny Cash) or “the Man” as in the authorities with the power to oppress. Maybe Cash singing Sherley’s song about being in prison is exploiting the power he had as a famous musician who never spent more than one night in jail himself, or maybe the song deserved to be listened to and at the time Cash was the only one for the job. It’s difficult to say whether Cash’s use of the song was ultimately good for Sherley; after Sherley’s release, his career as a country music singer was inseparable from Cash’s. Cash eventually stopped allowing him to tour and perform with him because of his violent tendencies and threats. After that, Sherley died in a murder-suicide. Sherley’s song was a contribution to the canon of work (by himself and others) contemplating what it means to be imprisoned in America, what it means to be an outlaw, what it means to be bad, to be a sinner, to be an unfree man.

I’m not going to argue for the beauty of Cash’s version over Sherley’s. Both versions are live, but Cash’s is grand. Maybe it’s because June Carter, his new wife, is singing with him, and you can almost feel the love that exists between them. But there’s a yearning in the way Cash sings that I’m drawn to, and I can’t help but feel deeply.

 

“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

 

 “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is a traditional folk song whose original writer is unknown. It’s been covered by artists across genres, but Cash’s rendition stands out. It’s ominous. It’s rhythm follows in the tradition of “Walk the Line” and “Ride This Train.” Cash’s version, however, stands apart from other renditions in its power and strength. Elvis’ cover, in comparison, seems almost juvenile next to Cash’s, whose somber interpretation is only strengthened by his voice, which is old, cracking, and fragile. He doesn’t attempt to hide his age. “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” is on one of the last albums Cash recorded, and over the course of the song, Cash seems to cross the line from life into death with the shift in narration. The song’s first verse begins in first person, implying that he himself is the narrator of the song. This narrator is testifying as to his own encounters with God, but in the second verse turns to warn others. Cash sings, “Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand / Workin' in the dark against your fellow man / But as sure as God made black and white / What's down in the dark will be brought to the light.” It’s as if he’s denouncing, warning, and judging the man he once so convincingly embodied, the man whose enticing outlaw aura is at the core of so much of his work, the man who he appeared to be just a verse before. But the shift from testimony to warning and judgement—from the one living to the one judging the lives of others—placed on his last album next to songs like “Further On Up the Road” and “I’m Free From the Chain Gang Now.”

  

“Do Lord”

 

I had been singing “Do Lord” for as long as I can remember before I heard Cash’s version. For a long time, I believed that there were certain melodies that I was born knowing. I couldn’t conceive of a time in my life in which I did not know certain sequences of notes (some of them not even formal enough for me to consider them songs), and “Do Lord” was one of them. I remember telling this to a friend, maybe in middle school, to her great confusion. I said something along the lines of, “You know how there are those songs that you’ve just always known? Like, you never had to learn the words or the music or anything because they are just ingrained in your brain and memory since you came out of the womb and always will be?” She did not know.

Of course now I know that logically this isn’t true, but parts of me haven’t accepted it yet. The songs, but especially “Do Lord,” seem too close and sacred to me to have ever not been part of my life. The first time I listened to Cash’s version of “My Mother’s Hymn Book,” I was caught off guard when it started to play, when I heard the deeply familiar melody accompanied by Cash’s smooth voice. I was in high school, it was night, I was driving home, and I started to cry. His was the first recorded version that I’d ever registered listening to, and now that I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard another.

 

“A Cup of Coffee”  

 

Without including something from Cash’s quasi-comedic albums, he might seem like some dark, sorrowful, and somber figure even in his joyful moments. I can’t decide whether I think his lighter albums (he also recorded children’s music) actually provide a counter to his heavier material, or serve to emphasize the humanity in the sorrow that pervades so much of his work. Probably both; his persona develops over time. The song is also a good example of the spoken word he uses in his concept albums: he’s telling a story, a story that is happening every night in diners around the country. Throughout the song he chuckles drunkenly, and throughout many of his live and comedy albums, he seems to be genuinely laughing at his own jokes; he’s endearing.

The sequence of songs on “Everybody Loves A Nut” makes me laugh. “A Cup of Coffee” is a drunken, half-spoken ode to the beauty of a cup of coffee before a drunken sleep. Following is “Austin Prison,” a song about being sentenced to death, and afterwards the languid “Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog,” in which Cash threatens (humorously) to shoot the dog on the farm that bothers the hens. The order, taken as a representation of Cash’s world, leaves me in awe, partly because someone can remain genuine as he moves through topics as varied as he does, and partly because he had the nerve to do so. And maybe this is why Cash can last: he can be everything and anything, and he dares to. And so, as I drink coffee before I go to sleep on a Saturday night, as I wake up on Sunday morning and stumble down the stairs to meet the day, I can see the beauty—and humor and sorrow—in my world because I can see the beauty in Cash’s.

Bad Issue | December 2018

Between a Rock and a Queer Space

Four years after I came out to both my family and my school, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to attend Milwaukee’s Pride Parade. It was the end of my junior year of high school, shortly before the ritual of signing yearbooks and taking finals. It was also the middle of my athletic season. That spring and summer, I captained both the rugby and baseball teams. In response to my friend’s invitation, I said, “No, of course not. Those aren’t my people. I don’t belong there; the queer community doesn’t accept me anyway. Besides, I’ve got a game that day.” And I didn’t go. I’ve thought about going every year since, and every year since, I’ve stayed home. But something changed last semester. I’ve spent years only bringing up my sexuality when I thought it most mattered, and I often used it as an excuse to remove myself from uncomfortable situations. I wondered why I couldn’t be gay and look straight at the same time. I questioned the conflict between my queer identity and my straight appearance in the spaces where I felt most comfortable, among those who saw me first for who I am and after that, if at all, for my sexuality.

The air in the climbing gym is always thick with chalk. I work there, I train there, I know people there. For all intents and purposes, I belong there. And yet I hear things like, “I’ll suck your dick if you stick this move.” Not an overtly homophobic thing to say, but when I’m there climbing with those people, it brings me out of that space and reminds me that I’m not quite like them. I’m not able to make comments about male intimacy and have them land as jokes. If it makes any difference, the guy climbing didn’t stick the move, and the other definitely didn’t suck his dick.

Scenes like this are not uncommon in the outdoor spaces at Colorado College. While in Moab on a climbing trip with a couple of friends, we were at the base of a climb and the two people I was with were trading attempts at sending it. There’s a certain amount of pride associated with climbing; it’s a race to prove strength, which they believe translates to masculinity, as if the two are inextricably tied. The words “that’s gay” came out of one of their mouths. I don’t remember the context. I don’t remember what he thought was gay. In truth, the only gay part of the trip was me. Those words don’t get tossed around as freely as they once did. I haven’t heard the words in passing like I did in middle school and early high school. People would often slip up around me like when a friend my sophomore year of high school playfully said, “you’re homo,” before he quickly realized what he had said and apologized. Another instance more recent was a friend saying, “fag.” Although both of these friends had no mal-intent and quickly apologized, these memories stick with me. Invasions of comfort. Reminders that I’m not like them. It was only when this friend in Moab said “that’s gay” that I realized he didn’t know my sexuality.

“That’s gay, and I know that’s not the politically correct thing to say anymore, but this is the desert, we’re three dudes in the desert. I’ll try to curb my incorrectness on campus, but out here …”

I see, I thought, He doesn’t know I’m gay. And I sure as shit won’t tell him, I’d rather get on with the climbing than bring that up out here.

I still see that climber around, but the trip ended any chance of us becoming friends outside of climbing. He became too focused on climbing hard and not focused enough on the people he was climbing with. I became too aware of our differences.

In all honesty, I don’t know how many people that occupy the outdoor spaces on campus know that I’m gay. It’s something that I want people to know, but I don’t want to tell them. I’ve had to come out in every new space I’ve entered because of how I appear to the world, and sometimes it feels better to not come out right away. It feels better to keep quiet about my sexuality for a time in those spaces because it means I can hold onto that feeling of belonging. But I don’t want silence to be what makes me feel most comfortable, and that’s why it needs to change. In fact, I feel most comfortable around climbers. I speak their language. I understand them. But for every hour I spend as a climber, I spend an hour being reminded that I don’t fully fit in there.

I even cancelled my Seventh Block Break plans last year, because I didn’t want to spend the weekend in the desert with people I considered my closest friends but who make me feel uncomfortable. For as much as I love the desert, males feel pressure to assert their toxic masculinity in these spaces, and it disgusts me. I stayed home drinking and watching movies with my roommate instead.

Being at CC, I’ve realized that my sexuality feels at odds with my passion for climbing, so in order to better understand my role as a queer man in the outdoor community, I felt like I needed to engage with the queer community.

This past spring, I walked into a queer space on campus. I was nervous. So nervous that shortly before I walked up the steps, I texted my roommate: I don’t know how this is going to go. I’m actually super nervous, can we talk after if this doesn’t go well? The only image I had of the queer community up to that point were the people in my high school that were queer and flaunted their queerness as the defining feature of their personalities, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that openness made me feel out of place. I built my life around the idea that being queer wasn’t at the forefront of my identity; that many things like my interest in sports, film, and literature preceded my queerness. In the years since high school, I’ve come to realize that I had repressed my sexual orientation and had never given myself the opportunity to figure out how my queerness informed other parts of my identity.

Associating myself with the queer community felt like a defeat. For a long time, I wanted to keep my queerness hidden to fit into the way the world treats me: as a straight, white male. I recognize that I am white and male, and for the purposes of saving myself from homophobic conversations I didn’t want to have in high school and in many spaces since, I exploit those first. However, on that night last semester when I walked up the stairs of a house I wasn’t aware existed, I knew I needed to try. I knew that in order to reconcile the gap between my appearance and my sexuality, I needed to reach out to the queer community.

I entered the house that night and had no idea where to go. No idea who I should look for, where we were supposed to meet, or what we were going to do. I felt lost. I realized too late that I was wearing “straight clothes”—khaki pants, plaid flannel, Osprey trucker hat. I also hadn’t shaved in about a week, so my beard felt and probably looked unruly. I wished I had just worn a t-shirt, I wished I’d showered and put on deodorant. But there I was, a straight-passing gay man looking for answers.

In the living room of the house, three sets of eyes turned on me, and looked me up and down. Someone finally said, “Hi, can we help you?”

“I hope so,” I said, “I’m here for the group?” I won’t name the group. I will say however that I found it on a list of queer resources on campus that described the group as an established, weekly gathering for members of the queer community. I hoped it would be open and welcoming to all.

“For the group?” they said.

“Yeah, is this the right place?”

It felt like I had walked into a queer shrine and dragged mud all over the floor.

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As we did introductions, one of the get-to-know-you things was to ask everyone the gayest thing they did over spring break. I said, “Tinder in Kentucky.” I felt them trying to figure out if I meant gay Tinder or straight Tinder, or God forbid, both Tinders. I felt them flinch with the understanding that they weren’t going to get it out of me that easy. In all honesty, that was my best answer. I spent my spring break climbing with friends. I didn’t go to any gay bars (not that there are many in Kentucky) nor did I do anything that I could point to and say, “Yes. That’s a very gay thing I did.” So I said the only gay-esque thing I could think of: the 10 minutes I spent swiping on Tinder while eating pizza in a climber’s bar.

I felt their uneasiness as they figured they might actually have to ask me how I identify. They didn’t want to ask, “Are you gay?” because I might not be. But they wanted to know. And if I wasn’t, they needed to know why I was there. But to be honest, I also needed to know why I was there.

I wanted someone to tell me how to fit into this straight-passing body. I wanted someone to tell me that it would all be alright and that someday my gayness and apparent straightness would just be.

I sat through an hour or so of conversation, trying my hardest to be gay enough for them without losing sense of myself. In truth, I do that every day. Every day, I look in the mirror, or in my dresser, or catch my reflection in the window of a building, and I hear a voice in the back of my head asking, “Are you too gay right now? Wait, are you too straight? That girl you just passed definitely felt uncomfortable next to you. Don’t look this girl in the eye, don’t smile, don’t let her think you’re checking her out.” It’s constant. But as I sat in that living room listening to people talk about being gay, how gay they are, asking me if Tinder in Kentucky is as repressed as it sounds (it is). For the first time in my life, I had to worry about not being gay enough.

It didn’t feel good to be pressured into forcing my gayness to the forefront of my personal expression. I wanted to talk about sexuality in the context of what it means to be me, not in how it makes me me.

Toward the end of the meeting, they invited me to go to queer prom that weekend. I said I’d think about it, and I meant that, but I very quickly I decided not to go. Not for lack of wanting to familiarize myself with CC’s queer community, but because of the looks on their faces when I walked in and told them I was there for the meeting. I don’t think I will ever enter a queer space unquestioned. I have to prove my queerness.

When I left the house, I texted my roommate: It didn’t go terribly, I think I’m alright, I won’t go back but I’m not super upset.

My roommate is straight. His girlfriend has stayed at our house many times. We’ve hiked mountains together. We’ve camped in the desert together. We’ve cooked together, eaten together, smoked together. I’ve cried on his shoulder. We’ve lived together and done all of that without judgement, without needing to point out our differences. I can tell him about the guy I’m interested in without needing to defend myself or remind him I’m gay. My sexuality doesn’t come up because it just is with him. It’s why we get along, because he sees me first as a friend and only peripherally as gay. He sees me how I see myself, and how I want outdoor spaces to see me. He is an example of the masculinity and type of friendship those spaces need, because the climbing community must recognize that people bring other identities into the gym or to the crags. Climbers need to treat other climbers first as people and then as climbers and look past the power screams and the try-hard faces. Around campfires in the desert, beers in hand, tired and excited, when their toxic masculinity starts to surface, an acceptance needs to also surface, an acceptance of differences and values.

Partly, I need to change how I approach the climbing community. It starts with an openness and willingness to bring my queerness into those spaces. I walked into that group with the hopes that I could reconcile my straight-passing body with my sexuality. But I didn’t find answers there. And that’s fine. I found answers from my roommate and other friends like him. Through those people, I figured out how I could be both straight-passing and gay. But there remains a barrier. When I walk into a climbing space on campus, I revert back to separating those parts of my identity. To change how people approach me in those spaces, I need to walk into them comfortable being gay and being a climber.

In short, we need to climb with friends instead of being friends with climbers.

———

Recently, Outdoor Education started planning a retreat for members of the Outdoor Education community aimed specifically at having a conversation about sexuality in the outdoors at CC. As I write this, it is still in its early stages and the details haven’t been finalized, but it is a step in the right direction. I am excited that Outdoor Education realizes the need to have this discussion and is willing to expand its reach to include people like me, people that want to exist fully and openly in all spaces.

 

Bad Issue | December 2018

Playing Doubles

On the night of September 8th, 2018, boos created a deafening roar throughout the stadium at the Billie Jean Tennis Center in New York City. Naomi Osaka had just won the U.S. Open over her long-time idol Serena Williams, denying Williams what would have been a historic 24th Grand Slam title. Osaka stood with tears streaming down her face, head in her hands. She had just become the first Japanese person to win a Grand Slam title. In the following weeks, the media focused more on the controversy between Williams and the umpire, Carlos Ramos. Williams had accused Ramos of sexism after he had penalized her for various code violations. However, beyond that dispute lies another controversy: Osaka’s win highlights the complex nature of race and diversity in Japan and how Japanese identity is evolving.

I first read a discussion about Naomi Osaka and the Japanese media’s varied attitudes towards her biracial identity in a New York Times article by Motoko Rich. The issue stood out to me because, while the world was fixated on the controversy between Williams and Ramos, there was another, lesser-known conversation happening.

Japan is often perceived as utopian. The country is ranked the fifth-best country in the world by U.S. News, which bases rankings on a variety of factors such as literacy rate, infant mortality rate, and life expectancy. Japan also boasts a successful universal healthcare system that takes up only 6.6 percent of the national gross domestic product (compared to the 13.4 percent that the U.S. GDP spends). In 2018, the crime rate fell for the ninth consecutive year to the lowest level in the postwar era. The murder rate is 0.3 per 100,000 people, making it among the lowest in the world. However, beneath the surface of this healthy, utopian society is a country rooted in deep xenophobia and racism.

On the outside, Japan seems to embrace its diversity and changing identity. The day after Osaka’s victory, Sankei Shimbun, one of Japan’s largest newspapers, ran the headline: “The First Japanese Achievement.” Many Japanese people woke up at dawn to watch the match live. “I subscribed to satellite TV to see the match, and I got goosebumps when she won,” said one viewer quoted in the Japan Times. In Tokyo, more than 100 employees gathered around to watch the match at the headquarters of Nissin Foods, one of Osaka’s biggest sponsors. After the match, Kei Nishikori, Japan’s most famous tennis player and one of the country’s biggest athletes, congratulated Osaka on Twitter with a series of emojis. Osaka’s 73-year-old grandfather told reporters at his home in Hokkaido that he and his wife were ecstatic after watching their granddaughter’s victory over 23-time Grand Slam Champion Williams on television.

——— 

In Japan, Osaka is considered to be “hafu,” the term for any child with one parent who is not fully Japanese. The term is considered controversial because of its negative connotations and association with the term “half-breed.”  Although the word hafu didn’t emerge until the 1970s, discrimination against biracial Japanese people has existed since the 1940s. Despite its negative connotations, however, many mixed-race Japanese people self-identify as hafu. Today, the term hafu projects an image of a person with English ability, foreign cultural experience, and western physical features.

Nevertheless, there are still many traditionalists who cling to a narrow definition of Japanese identity. Stereotyping of and discrimination against mixed-race people occurs based on how their identities, behaviors, and appearances differ from that of a traditional Japanese person. Even certain magazines and news sources carry some level of this traditionalism.

Following Osaka’s win, the Japanese tabloid Nikkan Gendai ran the headline “Harvesting Hafu Athletes.” The opening paragraph remarks, “Is it that we must now rely on the blood of foreigners? … Tennis queen Naomi Osaka has a Japanese mother; her father is Haitian American. She was born in Osaka [Japan] but moved to America when she was three. Now she has dual nationality and can only speak a smattering of Japanese. She is half-black. When [Japanese people] watch her pound out a 200 kilometer per hour serve with her 180-centimeter big-body [and hear her described as] ‘Japan’s first,’ there are probably not too few of us who think that’s weird.” These blatantly racist and offensive characterizations of Osaka illustrate the reluctance of some Japanese people to change their conception of Japanese identity.

——— 

Japan is a historically insulated society due to its geographical remoteness and self-imposed seclusion. For 220 years, Japan’s isolationist foreign policy of “Sakoku” essentially cut Japan off from the rest of the world. Foreigners were barred from entering the country, while Japanese people were not allowed to leave. During its post-war economic boom, Japan was able to rely on its own domestic labor force. However, a recession in the ’80s caused the country to revise their isolationist policies. In the ’90s, Japan began exporting labor to foreign countries such as Brazil and Thailand in order to reduce its dependency on imported labor.

 ———

Since 1988, Japan’s Ministry of Labor has accepted a small number of foreigners into the country who have “high skills and qualifications.” In response to a growing labor shortage in the 1990s, the country began to encourage the return of people of Japanese descent, under a special visa program.

The only foreign-employment opportunity the government offers is a heavily criticized program in which foreign workers, predominantly from China and Southeast Asia, travel to Japan to work in the agriculture and manufacturing industries. The program, which allows workers to stay for three years, is advertised as providing laborers with new skills they can use when they return home. Many experts say the program is used to exploit workers, giving them menial jobs instead of ones where they actually learn technical skills. A Vice News report from 2015 found that a group of workers from China had been stripped of their freedom and forced to stay in Japan to work for more than three years.

Although Japan was ranked the fourth biggest contributor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2016, it has long been closed to immigration and reluctant to accept refugees. Immigrants make up 1 percent of the population, with most from Korea or China. According to a report by the Guardian, in the entirety of 2017, Japan accepted 20 asylum seekers out of 20,000 applicants—a 0.1 percent acceptance rate. Recently, Japan has been getting even tougher in its immigration policies. In an attempt to reduce the number of “bogus” applications from people who are simply seeking work, the government started limiting the right to work to those regarded as genuine asylum seekers. The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe controversially stated in 2015 that Japan should improve the lives of its own people—namely women and the elderly—before accepting Syrian refugees (only 12 were accepted into the country last year). Steve Bannon once praised Abe as “Trump before Trump.”

Japan’s resistance to immigration could have serious consequences for its own labor force. According to a projection by the Japanese Health Ministry, by 2060, the country's population is expected to plummet by more than 40 million. This year, Japan faced the largest labor shortage since the ’70s. Instead of opening Japan’s doors, Abe has shifted his focus to increase the number of women in the workforce, but to little avail. Economic growth has remained stagnant and numerous scandals involving sexism and discrimination in the workplace have marred Abe’s effort.

 ———

In an article by Chiaki Ogihara for the Asahi Shimbun, the public was asked about their personal opinions on Osaka’s identity as Japanese. Naomi Iwazawa, a 23-year-old university student, said she is unsupportive of the celebratory response many had towards Osaka’s win. Jun Soejima, a 34-year-old entertainer, said that he was not upset by the celebratory reactions, but felt uncomfortable by the racist remarks he heard. After Osaka’s win, Soejima overhead a man at a bar say, “Frankly speaking, a genuine Japanese would have been better, if anybody were to become the first Japanese champion.” Soejima said the man used the term “100 percent Japanese” to explain his reservations about Osaka’s triumph. Soejima is discomforted by the thought that many Japanese people probably feel a similar reluctance. Despite the mainstream media painting a picture that Japan has embraced Osaka with open arms, there are still objections among the public.

Osaka grew up in New York and she considers herself Japanese. Despite her rudimentary knowledge of the language, Osaka feels connected to the culture; a fact well-received by the Japanese media. After winning the U.S. Open, a Japanese reporter asked Osaka what she thought about her racial identity, setting off a heated debate about whether the question was appropriate. Osaka replied: “I’m just me.”

The generally positive reaction to Osaka’s win and the mainstream embrace of her mixed identity shows that Japan is starting to broaden its view on Japanese identity. Although this evolution will likely have a positive impact on Japanese society and economy, there are certainly those opposed to this change. Many conservatives still cling to a very narrow definition of what it means to be Japanese, but Osaka’s win and her exploding popularity in Japan brings hope to the multiracial Japanese community. As a biracial woman in an overwhelmingly homogenous country, Osaka’s success establishes her as a role model to current and future generations. The largely positive reaction to Osaka’s win and the acceptance of her identity as a Japanese woman might indicate that Japan is developing a more inclusive conception of what it means to be Japanese.

 

Bad Issue | December 2018

Bad IDs

Bad Issue | December 2018

Hot Pot

For some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to include a staff-wide Hot Seat in this issue. To do so, we sequestered ourselves in Sacred Grounds one evening and recorded an erratic hour of conversation, taking turns berating a single person with (varyingly unintelligent) questions. In the following pages we’ve included our debatably comical dialogue.

Callie copy.jpg

Kat: Would you rather have no eyes or be covered in functional eyes?

Callie: I don't want either of those things! ... I'd rather have no eyes because I already feel like I see too much, and I get really stressed out about it, so I feel like if I had eyes all over my body it would hurt me.

Megan:  On a scale of one to 10 how excited are you about life right now?

Callie: Ha. I'm at like a constant below 5.5 at all times. I'm at like 5.5.

Sara: So right now is a good time for you?

Callie: It's ... a 5.5

Sara: What's your ideal sandwich?

Callie: On sourdough, on like sprouted sourdough bread. That's pretty much all I know about it at this point. I just want toast. No, I just want peanut butter toast with hemp seeds on it.

Jenny: What's something that most people enjoy to do that you don't like to do?

Callie: Uh, talking to people sober. Like at parties. Like talking to people. At parties. It came out wrong.

Yumiko: What is the most absurd thing that's ever happened to you?

Callie: Being born. No, I don't know. A lot of absurd things have happened to me, but a lot of them are mostly just sad when I think about them. Like I thought I told a really funny story about how one time a cat caller spat on me from above and I was laughing and the person I was with was like, that's really awful.

Kat: What do you feel most guilty about?

Callie: I don't think I'm a very good friend or family member or person

Kat: [quietly] Don't we all.

Megan: You're making dinner for three people, any three people, who are they?

Callie: Uhh, fuck. I don't know. Babe Ruth? He'd be like, good conversation. Cameron Diaz and Michel Foucault. I think they'd make a good group. They're offering really different things to the table.

Jenny: What is something that you've been rejected for that you're still bitter about?

Callie: Oh, like a lot. Friend groups in middle school. There was one mean group of friends and I sat down for lunch and they all stood up and walked away and sat somewhere else. I could see the comedy even then.

Maddie: How did they organize that?

Callie: With clearly a lot of discussion.

Caroline

Megan: In 40 years, what will you feel nostalgic about?

Caroline: I mean, probably this. Cipher being an all girls staff. We just get to fuck around and do whatever we want.

Megan: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in someone’s house?

Caroline: At Sara’s house, they have a whole pot of dead flies.

Callie: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

Caroline: When I was younger, I used to suck my thumb a lot and then I would eat dandelions and then my thumb would taste like dandelions and it would be really bad but I still did it.

Megan: What’s the trashiest thing someone could do on a date?

Caroline: You have to be a pretty shitty person to scare me away, because people are very awkward and I’m very awkward and I like that.

Caroline: When I was in ninth grade it was my first time going out to a club with my friends and I was dressed as Pikachu, but like … Sexy Pikachu. And then I went home and slept by the elevator because my parents thought I was at a sleepover but I wasn’t.

Jenny copy.jpg

Sara: Would you rather be hairy or bald?

Jenny: Hairy.

Sara: Why?

Jenny: I already am hairy.

Callie: If a person is bald, do they have no forehead, or never-ending forehead?

Jenny: I think they’re the same as the rest of us. They have a scalp and a forehead.

Everyone: Aww.

Callie: What is your most irrational fear?

Jenny: I don’t have any irrational fears.

Callie: What is your most rational fear?

Jenny: Breast cancer.

Callie: What is a food you didn’t like when you were younger, but you really like now?

Jenny: Um, alcohol.

Sara: What’s been your favorite age to be so far in your life?

Jenny: Probably 17.

Sara: Why? Because you were smokin’ hot?

Jenny: Because I was smokin’ hot. There were no rules. I had a car, I was in high school.

Callie: Wow, you are so fucking cool. I can’t believe I’m friends with you.

Megan: What is the most imaginative insult you can come up with?

Jenny: The other night I had a dream that I was insulting a Zionist in Hebrew with real-life Hebrew vocabulary, and I just called him an ugly big-head. Well, how I said it was “not-pretty big-head.”

Sara: Can you pronounce that in Hebrew?

Jenny: Yeah, uh, um, לא די גדול הראש.

Callie: Worst job?

Callie: This one.

[Sara, the boss, looks internally wounded.]

Jenny: I’ve loved all of my jobs.

Callie: Whatever.

Sara: Do you think falling in love is a choice or an accident?

Kat: I think … that you can choose to continue to associate with someone. [laughter] Yeah … I’ll end it there.

Jenny: What’s your dream block break?

Kat: I’ve always dreamed of having a block break where I just drink and sleep for five days.

Callie: So like a big bender?

Kat: Yeah, but it’s just me.

Callie: Do you think it’s cruel to have children?

Kat: Yes, I actually very much think it’s cruel, but I’ll still do it because I don’t care … I want to replicate my relationship with my mother.

Megan: You’re 16 years old, you’re a virgin, you get pregnant: who do you tell?

[After some discussion everyone understands that Megan is referring to a Virgin-Mary-carrying-the-Messiah situation]

Kat: Planned Parenthood.

Megan: You would kill the Messiah!

Callie: Worst color of light?

Kat: You know when it’s cool light and it’s blue, not warm light, that never fails to make me anxious.

Yumiko: If you could feel one emotion for the rest of your life what would it be?

Kat: I guess … slightly better than average?

Megan: What’s a book that everyone should read?

Kat: Tao of Pooh.

Callie: What’s a book no one should read?

Kat: Te of Piglet?

Jenny: When was the last time you tripped?

Kat: [Does not realize that Jenny is referring to physically tripping and falling, tells story that won’t be included in this issue.]

Kat: What’s the last question you would want to be asked? Like the worst question we could ask.

Megan: What was the worst thing you did in middle school?

Kat: What was the worst thing you did in middle school?

Megan: Y’all, I am really not going to answer this question.

Callie: What’s one of your interests that’s sort niche or weird that you know a lot about?

Megan: Oil. Production. In Siberia.

Lo: We have to put periods after all those words … Oil! Production! In! Siberia!

Jenny: What’s your favorite spot in your hometown?

Megan: Ohmigod, anywhere along the Mississippi River or Lake Pontchartrain.

Callie: What’s your favorite spot in Colorado Springs?

Megan: The first pull off by the parking lot at Garden of the Gods. Sometimes my friends and I go there at night and look at the stars or [whispered] smoke.

Sara: What was your favorite age to be?

Megan: Oh … I’m pretty happy at 20. 19 was pretty good.

Sara: Nice!

Everyone: That’s positive

Sara: I always answer I’d go back to 10. [Everyone looks sad.]

Megan: What’s something everybody looks stupid doing?

Maddie: Like if you’re not a good dancer, you can’t dance. But everyone dances, so is dancing really all that good?

Callie: If you had to give an organ to somebody right now? Which organ would you choose (and you can’t say blood)?

Maddie: I would give a kidney. Because I only need one.

Callie: What if it was someone you hated?

Maddie: If I could be a hero, if I was the last person available, and everyone would be like, “That was a really nice thing you did,” I would absolutely do it.

Yumiko: What is something you always lie about?

Maddie: When I notice a change in someone’s appearance, I always compliment it, even if I think it’s bad.

Sara: That’s good to know.

Maddie: But sometimes I actually like it.

Sara: Where do you hope to be in your life when you are 57 years old?

Maddie: I don’t know. Like alive. And maybe not really poor.

Megan: What is something you really liked in your adolescence that is something you are now really embarrassed about?

Maddie: I had a Green Day phase, and my mom got me Green Day Rock Band, and we had the whole set, but my sister was like five and I was 15, and that wasn’t something my friends and I would do together, so I would play the drums, and then I tied the microphone to my face so I could do both things at once.

Sara

Megan: What kind of cult do you want to start?

Sara: One where we follow the philosophical teachings of one philosopher a year. So every year we switch.

Callie: What kind of dad would you be?

Sara: I would be … I am a dad. I would just be like … God, I would be the kind of dad my dad is: very compassionate and guiding and supportive. My dad is great!

Megan: Do you miss Wi of the Tiger?

Sara: Yes, because it was called Wi of the Tiger.

Caroline: Favorite kind of wine?

Sara: Uh … white?

Callie: What was the first thing you got too drunk on?

Sara: Whiskey.

Kat: Most embarrassing really drunk story?

Sara: In Cuba, I passed out in a bar and had to be driven home by the cousin of the owner of the bar—I don’t remember this, because I was passed out, but the person I was with told me that like six guys picked me up and carried me to his car.

Lo: What’s the trashiest sex you’ve ever had?

Sara: [tells story of trashiest sex] But we’re not going to put that in the issue.

Trio copy.jpg

Yumiko

Callie: Since your body is more bacteria than it is you, what do you name all of the collected bacteria in your body?

Yumiko: Germie!!

Kat: Do you think that they are you? Or are they someone else?

Yumiko: I don’t know who I am.

Callie: Could they be you?

Yumiko: They could be! They could be more me than even me.

Callie: What do you think God looks like?

Yumiko: I think he could look like a little guppy.

Callie: If you had to kill somebody right now, who would it be? And alive right now.

Yumiko: I …

Callie: … but that you’ve met.

Yumiko: Yikes.

Kat: It’s good that Yumiko’s having trouble with this.

Yumiko: I think this lady who yelled at me … No, just kidding.

[uncomfortable laughter]

Megan: Can we extend this killing to anyone, because I feel like this is a very hard question to answer.

Callie: Anyone in the world.

Maddie: And you wouldn’t be held responsible for it.

Megan: Also, no guilt.

Callie: Well, maybe some guilt?

Sara: Yumiko can’t answer this question.

Yumiko: I just have a deep … love? for humanity? I just don’t …

Jenny: Do you like sea lions or seals?

Yumiko: I’m … kind of stupid. I have no idea what those are.

Callie: What’s your weirdest late-night purchase?

Yumiko: This wasn’t really a purchase, but late at night, I get into these strange internet rabbit holes. Hence, the clinical trial I’m in with the mysterious prebiotics, and hence, my sugar daddies.

Sara: What is the most corrupt thing you’ve ever done? Or against the rules?

Yumiko: Against the rules … I mean, I do a lot of weird things … (accidentally overshares and launches into an embarrassingly strange story)

Lo copy.jpg

Megan: Stairs or elevator?

Lo: Oh man … you know, when my legs aren’t broken, I really like the stairs.

Sara: [incredulously] When your legs aren’t broken?

Callie: [also incredulously] So like most of the time?

Callie: Most irrational fear.

Lo: That I won’t live in Chicago.

Kat: What would you do if society collapsed due to like, environmental decline and it’s just anarchy, like where would you go?

Lo: Chicago.

Sara: Chicago’s gonna be underwater! Actually, that’s not a sea. It’s a lake.

Callie: If you could turn into an animal what would you turn into?

Lo: I would turn into a bunny.

Everyone: Aww.

Callie: I see that.

Megan: What’s a smell that you have a specific memory of?

Lo: Uh … Casinos. Like nothing says home like getting off the airplane and smelling the smoke and hearing slot machines.

Jenny: Wait, there’s a casino in the airport?

Callie: [urgently, for some reason] What was the first thing you ever smoked?

Lo: So it was 3 a.m., and I was in my pajamas on the Las Vegas strip and this 21-year-old bought me a cigar and, I was just smokin’ it.

Jenny: How old were you?

Lo: I was 15. And I had cut open my arm earlier, and we couldn’t find a bandage, so I had a sanitary pad wrapped around my arm to stop the bleeding, and I was smokin’ this cigar in these pajamas.

Sara: What would’ve been your middle school clique’s lunch table label?

Lo: Y’know, I kind of floated around a lot.

Sara: [wisely] You were a floater.

Megan: Song that you can listen to on repeat.

Lo: Oh, I’ve been listening to “Primadonna Girl” by Marina and the Diamonds nonstop recently.

Jenny: That’s my dad’s favorite song.

Yumiko: Do you have a secret talent?

Lo: You know, I can make a really good dying swine sound.

Callie: Go!

Lo: HUEHUEHUEHHUEHUEH

Everyone: Oh my god!

Lo: HUEHUEHEHUEHEUEH

Everyone: Wow.

Lo: So, anyways.

Maddie: How are we gonna transcribe that?

Callie: Asterisk, dying swine noise. And then HUEHUEH.

Sara: Everyone else, Wow.

Kat: What food would you be?

Lo: You know… I wouldn’t be yeast, that’s for sure.

Sara: That’s an ingredient!

Kat: [with stereotypical Italian accent] That’s an ingredient!

Callie: [mocking Kat’s stereotypical Italian accent] That’s a spicy meat-a-ball!

Lo: I feel like you can’t go wrong with a bowl of rice.

Megan: White rice, brown rice, what kind of rice are we talking? Fried rice?

Callie: Forbidden rice? Jasmine rice?

Lo: You know I think I would be wild rice ‘cause I’m kind of like … edgy.

Sara: You’re rice, but you’re wild rice.

Callie: She’s wild.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018

Letter to the Editor: Heat

Dear Reader,

I am from a place where heat is aggressive. I would say it enters with vengeance but honestly, it never really leaves. It makes home on the Mississippi River and may fall dormant for Mardi Gras week in February, a foggy morning in October, or even a night in December, but it is never gone.

When my family and I evacuated for Hurricane Gustav in 2008, a mere three years after Katrina made landfall on our homeland, the air conditioner in our car was broken. We sat on the I-55 swampland between Lake Maurepas and Lake Ponchartrain dripping in sweat, the heat in the car more potent than the encroaching hurricane. The heat was aggressive and unbearable against the leather seats. My youngest brother said enduring the hurricane at home would have been better.

On our second day in Ponchatoula, the electricity went out, and we slept on the wooden floor while cicadas screeched and frogs entered through the open front door. My father kept taking the frogs outside, but they entered the house in droves, looking for the same thing we were—relief from the debilitating, wet air outside. At night, my brothers and I were eaten alive by mosquitos. We lay in pools of our own sweat, bodies swollen from all the bites. Our skin burned red even after we returned to New Orleans days later.

I tell this story because heat always wins. My brothers and I would climb a gate and break into a hotel pool for temporary relief, but our bare feet would blister on the concrete as we walk back home. My friends and I would suck on ice when we walked to school, but even that would melt into warm water before we arrived. The breeze I would feel biking home from work brought not relief, but heat.

This kind of omnipresent heat manifests itself in all of our pieces. In some, it’s the heat of political tension: Sara Fleming discusses the heat of leftist revolution and the delusion of leftist sympathizers; David Eik shares a narrative of immigrant detention haunted by the heat of San Diego and Guatemala; Emma Gorsuch interrogates the heat of the polarizing political climate of the United States.

Editing this issue has affected each of us personally; for me, however, it has affected my understanding of heat and thus my understanding of my own identity. I carry Louisiana heat inside me; it wakes with me and it sleeps with me no matter the Colorado weather. This issue taught me that all of us carry some manifestation of our own heat. Callie Zucker’s piece on meat and masculinity is a reflection of the knack she has for making connections between gender, food, and society. Sophia Skelly’s narrative about living with a woman named Debbie reveals a deeper desire to reflect on human connection and relations. Becca Stine’s interview with Cecelia Gonzales shows how the groundskeeper and chef connects the heat in her chili to her family, homeland, and identity. All of us are just trying to understand our own heat.

Heat hangs heavy on the skin. It cannot be dealt with in the same way that cold can. You can apply layers and layers of clothes in anticipation of cold—but heat? Heat gets inside of the body with no release. Peeling away layers of clothes provides no relief when the heat gets trapped beneath your skin, in your lungs, inside of you. The dance with heat never ends, but this issue helps me realize that’s okay—because heat will keep changing you and me and the world around us for a long time.

Warmly,

Megan (and the Cipher Staff)  

Heat Issue | November 2018

Santiago

As Santiago pulled his car into the lot, he was almost blinded by the low sun. He parked next to a few other cars and rolled down the windows, allowing the salty air to enter. He tuned the radio to his favorite classic rock station, cracking a grin as Jimi Hendrix’s instrumental solo began to build up to the climactic percussive beats, colorful riffs, and vocal melodies he loved. He watched the gentle waves crashing back and forth on the shoreline in front of him as two people tossed a frisbee that cut through the soft breeze. This was exactly what Santiago needed at the end of a tough week of work and school. He felt a sense of relief watching the sunset over the expansive Pacific waters in San Diego. To him, this was home. He took a deep breath and let his shoulders sink into the back of his seat.

But Santiago’s moment of peace was quickly interrupted by an authoritative knock on his window. He looked out and his chest tightened with a deep anxiety—standing outside of his car was a police officer motioning for him to get out. Santiago held his breath as he reached for the handle and cracked open the door. The hinges on the side of the door creaked as he stepped out of the car. The officer looked Santiago up and down before informing him in a stern voice that he was parked on private property; he then demanded identification. Santiago felt a lump form in his throat as he reached into his pocket for the small, flimsy card that he had received a week earlier. He pulled out his new driver’s license, provided under a new California law (AB60, Chapter 524) that allows undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license without proving status as a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident. The officer glanced down at the license and then back at Santiago several times. He held the card to his face, examining it so closely that it seemed he could have memorized every word. When he finally looked up from the card, he told Santiago that he was going to check his record. As the officer walked back to his patrol car, Santiago’s mind raced—What was going to happen? Could this go on his record? Why didn’t the cop call out any of the other cars in the area for being on private property? Where was the sign that said it was private property?

Before Santiago could answer any of the questions racing through his mind, three more government cars pulled up to the lot at the beach, one of which flaunted three letters that no one in Santiago’s position would ever wish to see:

I C E

As the immigration officials stepped out of the car, a deep fear swelled in Santiago’s heart—what would come of his future in the United States, his home for the past five years? Law AB60, which permits the distribution of licenses like Santiago’s, explicitly prohibits officers from reporting permit or license recipients to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—but Santiago didn’t know that at the time. His eyes widened and his body froze as two men in blue jackets approached him. They asked him for formal immigration documentation, like a visa or a green card. Santiago told them that he didn’t have any identification with him aside from his license. He tried to plead with the officers, saying that he was still studying and working and needed to stay in San Diego. His entire family was there—but nothing he said seemed to matter. He was arrested on the spot.

Before Santiago knew it, he found himself caught in a twisted game of hopscotch, shipped around an intricate network of immigrant detention centers spread across the country. But this game of hopscotch lacked direction. Santiago wasn’t moving toward something; he was free-falling in a state of limbo with no hope of grounding himself. He was one of thousands of bodies lost in a complex and arbitrary sea of centers, cells, officers, and inmates stuck in the same contorted madness. Santiago spent his first two days at a detention facility in Arizona, and was then moved to Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia for 20 days before being transferred to Folkston Processing Center in southern Georgia for five and a half months. After that, he landed at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia. At the center, he wore an orange jumpsuit, appeared at immigration court hearings, and had extremely restricted contact with his loved ones. In a single moment, everything Santiago had—his classes, his job, and, most importantly his family—was stripped away from him as he entered a system designed to oppress and dehumanize.

 ———

Santiago left his home in Guatemala in 2013, a decision he wishes he hadn’t had to make. A 15-year-old at the time, he was in high school when gang members from the Mara Salvatrucha (more commonly known as MS-13) arrived at his school to recruit him. His job would be to help them kidnap, steal from, and kill community members—Santiago’s neighbors, friends, and family. The men in the gang told Santiago that if he chose not to join, he would have to pay $700. If he didn’t pay, they would take his life.

Threats like these are not uncommon in many urban regions of Guatemala. A report from 2013 indicates that close to 40 percent of Guatemalans express fear that they will be victims of crime in their own neighborhood and nearly a third of Guatemalans indicate that their neighborhoods are impacted by gang activity.

When Santiago began to receive threats from the MS-13 members, he knew he had to make a decision. He wanted to continue his studies but quickly realized he didn’t have the money to pay the gang and ensure his safety. With the threat of violence so close, Santiago decided to escape to the only other place he had family—San Diego. He embarked alone on the long, arduous journey through Mexico, staying in locals’ homes and shelters along the way. Although the travel was tough, Santiago fondly remembers the support he received from people throughout Mexico. The people in the towns he passed through were warm to him, helping him and other migrants by providing floors to sleep on and meals to eat.

When Santiago finally arrived in the U.S., he united with his aunt, uncle, and cousins in California. Connecting with his loved ones after the long trek through Mexico filled Santiago with hope for his uncertain future. Despite the language and cultural barriers he faced as an immigrant, he felt unconditionally supported by his family, who helped him find a job and integrate into American culture. Despite the forced circumstances of his migration, Santiago decided to move forward and make a future for himself in the United States. He enrolled in an English as a Second Language (ESL) program at the local community college and began working at his family friend’s contracting company. He found comfort in his network of coworkers and ESL classmates, who were largely Central Americans like Santiago. Santiago’s brothers and father joined him in San Diego soon after he arrived, since they had begun receiving similar threats from MS-13. Now, Santiago’s whole family is in the U.S.

 ———    

Sitting in his cell in the Irwin County Detention Center, Santiago felt stagnated and isolated from his normal way of life. He struggled to maintain the usual positivity so central to his identity. Here, he had no family, no emotional support, and no outlet for physical activity. He simply lived day-to-day in a body he felt unattached to, wandering through the cold halls of the facility without purpose. He wasn’t allowed to spend much time outside and hadn’t seen a sunset in months. He often wondered how he could be detained for so long when he had never been charged with a crime. Over the course of his seven-month stay, he saw countless other people with extensive criminal histories come and go, while he remained locked up. It seemed his existence was his crime.  

All Santiago wanted was to go home, so he could continue his studies and be with his family. In this time of confusion, frustration, and emptiness, Santiago found one form of support amid the isolating environment of his imprisonment: the legal help of the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative (SIFI). SIFI, a pro bono initiative of the Southern Poverty Law Center that represents immigrants in detention centers across the Deep South, was the only place he could turn to for support during those dark months. The group applies for bond motions which, if granted, conditionally release the detainee if they agree to pay a certain amount of money, attend all their court hearings, and comply with deportation orders. Not only did SIFI’s attorneys and volunteers help him with his legal immigration application, but they also gave him valuable moments of genuine human connection that he rarely found with others in the centers.

Working as a volunteer legal assistant with SIFI this past summer, I connected with Santiago on both a professional and emotional level. As I sat in the attorney visitation room with Santiago, I saw my reflection in the thick glass pane that separated me from Santiago. Santiago’s positivity radiated through the cold glass and contradicted the bleak situation he found himself in. His smile was powerful in the stagnant air that filled the visitation room, and his laugh challenged the narrow white walls that confined us. He filled the space with an intense human energy that contradicted the very design of the room.

In between our logistical conversations about his legal case, we shared our ambitions, favorite activities, and stories from our lives. We were the same age and from the same state. We were both enrolled in higher education programs and were ambitious about the future that lay ahead. We both had families that we deeply cared about, families that would sacrifice everything to protect us. And despite the frustrations we’d encountered in society, we were both optimists. I saw so much of myself in Santiago, and that was the most painful part. What did he do wrong that I didn’t? Why does he deserve to be on that side of the glass as I leave the facility to return home at the end of the day? As I searched for answers to these questions, my mind went numb.

Since November, several private prison corporations have profited from detaining Santiago and those like him, including LaSalle Corrections, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), and GEO Group. Today, companies like these operate 62 percent of all immigrant detention centers and run nine out of the 10 largest centers, all to maintain a profit. Daily quotas that require 34,000 beds to be filled in these centers have caused both immigrant detention and corporate profit to skyrocket over the last decade. In the past seven years, CCA’s profits have increased from $133,373,000 to $195,022,000, while GEO’s profits increased 224 percent. These companies use Santiago’s detainment as a tactic to ensure their own continued economic gain.

 ———

Santiago dreams of becoming an architect. Before his arrest, he was five classes away from receiving his ESL diploma. He was excited to start taking art and architecture classes the following year. Now, he’s behind on his program and doesn’t know if he’ll even get the chance to pursue his career goals if he doesn’t gain legal status.

 ———

My meetings with Santiago were a small part of the larger effort of the SIFI team to fight for the release of detained immigrants from the Irwin County Detention Center. During my time in Ocilla, the small team of lawyers I worked with filed a bond motion for Santiago, hoping to release him from detention within the month so that he could continue fighting his immigration case outside of the detention facility. This bond motion succeeded, and Santiago has since been released from detention. His family worked together to pay the steep bond price, a price eerily similar to the monetary ultimatum he received from MS-13 almost six years ago. He is now fighting his immigration case back home in San Diego, where he can once again enjoy the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean.

Many others like Santiago who haven’t been lucky enough to be released on bond from these facilities. As I write this sentence, thousands of people are losing themselves in the directionless hopscotch game that profits from forcefully removing them from their lives, aspirations, and families.  

When I asked what message he wants the world to know, Santiago replied, “They aren’t holding up justice as they should be.” Immigrant detention outlasts the fleeting bursts of national media attention that the issue gets. It has been stripping people of their dignity, their rights, and their lives for years, and will continue to do so until it is stopped. Santiago may be safe now, but if the justice that he so desperately wants to see will come to fruition here in the United States, then we need to recognize that our freedoms are bound together. We will not know justice until the thousands of wrongfully detained immigrants turning profit for large corporations are liberated.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018 

Arms Outstretched

Debbie’s hair is long and white, with curls that double in size on humid Vermont days. When it’s wet, it snakes down her back in matted waves, and she wrings it out like a towel.

I watched her do this one night as we came giggling into the house. Our noses dripped with water, and we stripped in silent unison, faced in opposite directions. It was the first big rain in months, and we had both just skipped through dark puddles and wriggled our toes against the still-hot asphalt outside. I thought of the berry farmers south of Burlington and of all the parched soil in the Champlain Valley. I thought of the foil boats my brothers and I used to race in the street gutters during Houston floods. As I watched Debbie stare up at the sky, arms outstretched, I didn’t think once that it might be odd that I was rain-dancing with a 60-year-old librarian I met on the internet.

Debbie and I met in May when I moved into her house for the summer. After posting on a handful of public forums and chatting with Debbie on the phone, we agreed on an arrangement: I was to pay $150 per month, cook two meals a week for her, and clean the house.

During the 30-hour drive to Vermont, I didn’t think much about Debbie. From my phone calls with her, she seemed like the archetypical librarian: lives alone, has two cats, loves audiobooks and long walks. I imagined her as the perfect housemate and quasi-employer. I boasted to my friends about what an amazing deal I had found. It wasn’t until I was on her doorstep that I felt a flurry of butterflies in my stomach.

When I arrived, she was gone for the weekend. I groped around in the dark garage and found the spare keys hidden inside a pair of gardening gloves. I realized for a moment how bizarre it was that this woman was willing to let me into her house before even meeting me. I swung the door open and two cats peered up at me. I took a tentative step into the house and they scattered, disappearing up the stairs.

The living room smelled like patchouli, and there were plants and books on every shelf. I remember squatting next to the bookshelf, fumbling around for some sense of who this woman was. It was a strange and wonderful feeling to look at what makes up a life: her kitchen magnets, her calendar notes, the vegan butter and fresh produce in the fridge.

As I fell asleep thinking of Debbie, my mind leapt to anxious extremes the way that it does when I’m slipping into unconsciousness. I had an intense fear that I might annoy her, that she didn’t know what she was getting into, and that she would perhaps hate the whole deal and ask me to leave after a couple of days.

I woke up to her footsteps the next morning and had a disoriented moment where I had no idea where I was or how I got there. I looked across the room at the armoire of homemade remedies and tinctures, realizing that Debbie must be home. I got dressed and wandered up the stairs from my basement room. Debbie was in the kitchen, putting groceries away. Her hair was pulled back in a low ponytail, and she wore a loose cotton dress. Her cheeks were round and her whole face seemed joyous. I was immediately at ease and offered my hand in introduction. Instead of shaking it, she spread her arms out and hugged me.

I learned that Debbie was more than just a librarian. Debbie and her ex-husband were once true Vermont homesteaders. They pickled all of their produce, made their own cheese, and even constructed a dehydrator out of Christmas lights, a fan, and chicken wire. Debbie had owned a garlic farm and home-schooled her two sons. She was also a trained herbalist who mapped invasive species in the area on the weekends. She also exercised diligently, recording the time and type of workout in a little notebook in the kitchen. She was kind and thoughtful. I made a passing comment that I couldn’t get into any of my heavy nonfiction books that I had brought for the summer. The next day, Debbie came home with a stack of novels and a sticky note description on each of them.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Debbie and I slipped into a pattern. In the mornings, we would skirt around each other, grabbing bread from the toaster and snapping the stove off when the kettle whistled. On Mondays, I got home and vacuumed the house from top to bottom. On others, I cooked her dinner and wiped the mirrors and windows. While I was at work, she would text me different ideas for dinner and I would spend my day thinking of what to cook for her.

Our relationship teetered between business-like and friendly. In the beginning, I would dart up the stairs to the shower, giving her a closed mouth smile, and tightening the towel around my chest. I carved out a space for myself in the house and tried not to get in her way. I felt that I was there to cook and clean for her and was hesitant to make it anything more. But then, slowly, she started to offer up little morsels of her life to me.

One time, Debbie called me over as I was making tea. “Skelly, would you like to see pictures of my sons?” she asked, her voice faltering as if she regretted offering in the first place.

I walked into the living room and she scooted over on the couch, drawing a leather photo album from below the coffee table. I folded into the crook of the cushions and took the album into my lap. She watched me eagerly as I flipped through photos of her as a young mom with her two boys. There were ones of them rosy cheeked and bundled on gray winter days. In others, the boys peeked from behind curtains of drying garlic, the purple bulbs resting against their shoulders.

“I used to be a garlic farmer,” Debbie said. “Have you ever tasted fresh garlic? Oh, gosh it’s the best! I’ll have to make you dilly beans before you go.” I felt flattered by her shy glee.

Another day, I asked her how she slept and she sighed loudly. “Oh, really horribly actually. I dreamt about my dad and it made me miss him. He died 12 years ago and I don’t miss him that often, but I woke up thinking about his voice and …” She trailed off. Her eyes were shiny, and I wondered if I was allowed to hug her, or if that would be weird. It was in these moments that I wondered if Debbie thought of me as a friend. I scrubbed her toilet and baked her sourdough, but she was also my buddy. It was the first time in my life that my days were structured around serving somebody else. Although it was technically for monetary reasons, it rarely felt that way.

Actively thinking about someone else’s happiness felt like an antidote to the toxic mindset often developed at Colorado College. Here, my days are dictated by stress and the weeks that lead up to fourth-week’s sleepless crescendo. I, as many people do, handle the Block Plan by thinking about myself constantly. We go into survival mode during tough blocks and become meticulous about stress management. The structure essentially demands self-absorption; it forces us to lean into the stress with our whole selves, and so much of the richness in life is lost in these tornadoes. With Debbie, each day passed like the one before; living with her brought a measured cadence into my life. By reversing the feeling of self-absorption, my sense of urgency deflated too. The dissolution of manic CC energy felt like a huge exhale, something I haven’t felt in a long time.

Towards the end of the summer, Debbie was offered a new job at a library in Waterbury, 20 minutes east of Burlington. For months, I had watched as she flung herself into the application process. I looked over her resumes and helped her prepare for interviews. When she got the job, we went for a celebratory sail with Mary and Joanna, Debbie’s friends from her full moon women’s circle.

It was a Friday night and the sky was cereal-milk blue. I sat in the passenger seat of Debbie’s car with Japanese takeout; the Styrofoam boxes squeaked in unison as Debbie turned onto Pine Street. We were driving to the marina to meet up with Mary and Joanna. Joanna is in her 70s but womans the ship with ease and humor. She eats a sundae and orders me around—which I love—unclipping the sail cover and fetching the wench from below the seats. Once we’re on the open water of Lake Champlain, Debbie reveals a bottle of prosecco from her Jansport backpack. The three women exchange devilish grins and Mary says, “Everyone should go around and say the last time they drank champagne.”

Mary recounts a beautiful Indian wedding that she just attended in Boston: the detail on the saris and the crispness of the wine, the joy on the groom’s face. The three of them turn to me and I describe the morning of Llamapalooza, hungover and drinking warm champagne from a mug at 10 a.m. They nodded politely at this image.

It was moments like this that I reveled in the differences between Debbie and me. Who I am at CC felt infinitely far from myself in that moment. I was grateful to be with people who didn’t know or care about my accomplishments or relationships or anxieties. I could think of nothing better than to float in metallic water with three older women who were wiser, kinder, and more patient than I ever am. Wasabi tingled on my tongue and the champagne felt warm in my stomach. As I looked around the small sailboat, I felt intensely connected to these women, despite having met only weeks before. My unlikely friendship with Debbie was more fulfilling than anything else I had done that summer. As Joanna yelled, “Coming about!” in her raspy voice, Debbie and I exchanged a warm-eyed smile and clinked our plastic cups of prosecco.

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 Heat Issue | November 2018

Another World Is Possible

I. The Road to Oventic

The drive to Oventic is nauseating for the same reason it’s beautiful. The road winds through the dramatic green hills of Los Altos de Chiapas, a region of Mexico’s southernmost state known for extreme poverty and a revolutionary history. Rocky bluffs rise above farms scattered on impossibly steep hillsides, as the road occasionally passes small villages populated by Tzotzil and Tzeltal indigenous communities. At almost every turn, inconveniently placed speed bumps cause the taxi driver to slam on the brakes.

Oventic is one of five caracoles: political centers of the Zapatista movement, one of the most successful and notorious anti-capitalist movements in the world. In 1994, the Zapatistas, then an unknown bunch of indigenous campesinos (rural farmers), staged an armed uprising against the Mexican state. They didn’t topple the Mexican government, clearly, but they did gain effective autonomy from it. Since then, they have been living in communities in the remote hills and jungles of Chiapas under a radically egalitarian political system.

The Zapatistas are shrouded in mystery and known to be suspicious of outsiders. But with a little bit of googling in Spanish, you can figure out how to get to Oventic by taxi from San Cristóbal de las Casas, the nearest city. That’s what my friend Ethan Cutler and I did one sweltering afternoon in late May. As we climbed out of the taxi to get our first glance of Oventic, we suffered a strange vertigo, a combination of leftover nausea from the drive and shock from arriving at the place we’d been wondering about for months. Mostly, we felt profoundly uncomfortable. Here we were, two white kids from the United States, left on the side of the road to figure out the world of the compas (comrades) and the juntas de buen gobierno (councils of good government). “What are we doing here?” I wondered.

From the road, Oventic appeared quiet and empty—almost suspiciously so. Other than the colorful murals, it didn’t look any different from the other villages we’d passed. But a sign on the side of the road proclaimed, “Está usted en territorio zapatista. Aquí, manda el pueblo y el gobierno obedece.” (“You are in Zapatista territory. Here, the people command and the government obeys.”)

II. Is There No Alternative?

Ethan and I are both philosophy majors who loosely, somewhat hesitantly, and often self-consciously call ourselves anti-capitalists. We’ve spent the past few years in classrooms learning about the innumerable injustices that plague the world. Like many college students who’ve read a few pages of Foucault or Marx, we’ve come to realize that cases of injustice are not isolated incidents. Rather, their immediate cause is the structure of political and economic policies that proliferate across the globe—policies that privilege private property as the inalienable foundation of everything in our social world.

 The basic anti-capitalist critiques are not all that complicated to understand: capitalism rests upon the exploitation of a lower class, and it’s inextricably tied to racism and colonialism. It also alienates us from ourselves, our communities, and our relationships with the natural world. Ethan and I were swayed, at least intellectually, by the revolutionary lingo that promised a way out of all that. But, like many other young idealists eager to take action against the system, we were dismayed by how distant any alternative to capitalism seemed. Theorists critique capitalism ruthlessly and convincingly, but rarely offer viable solutions.

For all our gusto, Ethan and I still hadn’t figured out a way to dismiss the most basic pro-capitalist argument: all attempts in history to topple capitalism have either failed embarrassingly, been stopped almost immediately, or devolved into totalitarianism and oppression. The argument, as neoliberal icon Margaret Thatcher put it, is that “there is no alternative.” That prospect had left Ethan and I in an intellectual and practical bind. If nothing else is feasible, what’s the point of even trying to work towards overthrowing the system?

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The Zapatista movement seemed to counter that pessimism. As if in direct response to Thatcher, one of their rallying cries is, “Another world is possible.” We read dispatches that the Zapatistas issued from the jungles of Chiapas, in which they outline their fight for basic demands. They write that they “do not seek the victory of one party or another.” Rather, they seek “justice, freedom, and democracy,” and “to fight along with everyone who [is] humble and simple.” To the ears of a political realist, these words seem far too simple to be honest. But from everything we read, it seemed they really did fight for those ideals. And they won.

 Leftist intellectuals around the world extol the Zapatistas’ political system as the best living example of “anarcho-communism” or “libertarian Marxism” or “collectivist democracy,” or whatever that particular commentator’s favorite ideology happens to be. Leftists closer to the movement tend to avoid categorizing it with an ideological label, but they still portray it as a shining beacon of revolutionary light in a world of neoliberal darkness. Tom Hayden, a longtime Zapatista scholar, writes that, “In their actions and writings, the Zapatistas are inspiring a new generation to join the struggle for a better world.” Hayden adds, “It’s our world too!” Commentators like Hayden appeal to the supposedly universal character of the movement’s ideals, sometimes suggesting that anyone can be a part of the Zapatista movement, other times suggesting that it could be replicated elsewhere.

We had come to Chiapas thinking that if we could better understand the Zapatistas’ ideology, we could return with a real-world example to wave in the Thatcherites’ faces and somehow apply to our own political situation. If the Zapatistas had done it—stood up to capitalism and found something else that works—then there had to be hope for us, too. Maybe, we thought, there’s some key to successful anti-capitalism that we just aren’t seeing. Maybe another world is possible.

III. The Revolution Begins

In December 1993, just before their initial uprising, the Zapatistas issued their “First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle,” also called the “Zapatista Manifesto.” The first line is, “We are a product of 500 years of struggle,” referring to the start of colonialism in the sixteenth century. Spanish colonizers nearly wiped out the indigenous population of Chiapas with diseases, wars, and the systematic expulsion of the native people from their homelands. They conscripted surviving indigenous people to serfdom and slavery. The ensuing centuries were a constant struggle between indigenous people fighting for their land and dignity, and rich landowners backed by the state.

As Mexico’s economy grew in the twentieth century, the north radically urbanized, elites prospered, and campesinos in Chiapas continued to lose hold on what had once been their land. The population of Chiapas became the least educated and the poorest in Mexico. Indigenous people either remained conscripted to labor on ranches or were forced to migrate to the cities to find work in spite of a fierce racism that limited their opportunities.

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) staged their initial uprising on January 1, 1994—the same date that the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) went into effect. NAFTA symbolized the worst of neoliberalism: it called for privatization of state-owned enterprises, and abolished legal protections for land-holdings called ejidos. The ejidos had allowed poor farmers to collectively own land that could not be bought or sold. The Zapatistas believed NAFTA would exacerbate inequality and open the gates for multinational corporations to buy off what little land indigenous people had left.

So, with an army of 3,000 indigenous campesinos-turned-combatants, they marched in from the hills and took control of several towns throughout Chiapas. The Zapatistas freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristóbal and set fire to police and military buildings in other small cities. In the campo (countryside), they destroyed ranch-houses and reclaimed large expanses of land. They took land from the rich and gave to the poor.

The Zapatistas were certainly an unconventional guerilla army—some didn’t even carry real guns, but instead, fake rifles carved out of wood. Up to one third of the fighters were women. They had no formal leader, just a mestizo spokesperson known only by his nom de guerre Subcomandante Marcos. He spoke in riddles and was never seen without a balaclava over his face and a pipe in his mouth.

The media characterized them as ominous, dangerous, clandestine guerillas ready to attack and destroy. The Mexican government treated them as a violent enemy of the state, sending military forces that attacked without restraint, killing 145 indigenous compas. The initial fighting lasted only 12 days—the Zapatistas were fighting a losing battle. But they were not to be filed away on the dusty shelves of the world’s many forgotten leftist movements.

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In 1996, the government and the EZLN reached an agreement called the San Andrés Accords, which stipulated that the government would recognize a bill of indigenous rights. The Zapatistas would be allowed to retain most of the territory they had gained in the uprising and would be granted the ability to govern it according to their own rules and customs. But when the time came to push the new accords through Congress, the ruling party failed to pass them. Since then, the Zapatistas have maintained de facto autonomy, despite years of violent threats from government-backed paramilitary groups.

Despite the continued onslaughts, the Zapatistas have retained their land. And today, 24 years after the uprising, they govern that expanse of territory with a political system based on a radically horizontal power structure. The territory is divided into five zones called caracoles, each of which is led by a body of rotating elected representatives called a junta de buen gobierno (council of good government). Though this intensely communicative form of democracy often moves at a snail's pace (it involves representatives travelling back and forth to multiple communities on a regular basis to talk with individual families before decisions are made), it has allowed the Zapatistas to constructed their own unique systems of education, health, and justice.

They have also devised a system of trade based on agricultural cooperatives, which grant their farmers relative independence from the demands of the global market. All of this depends on the people holding their representatives accountable—they can vote people out at any time—a concept the Zapatistas call mandar obedeciendo (govern by obeying). After a century of suffering the damages of broken political promises under a system that claimed to be a democracy, the Zapatistas are wary of the corruption of modern politics. They believe that it takes more than votes to make democracy—it takes community.

IV. A Glimpse into Another World

Ethan and I stood at the gates of Oventic, nauseous and self-conscious, hoping to get a glimpse into this leftist dream. Two unarmed guards in black balaclavas sat behind a tiny wooden booth to the left of a metal gate. One of them was wearing a New York Yankees hat, which struck us as somewhat ironic considering that the Zapatista movement opposes American imperialism.

The guards at the gate spoke sparingly. They eyed us up and down for a few moments, then one disappeared and brought back two women, also clad in balaclavas. After explaining that we were students who wanted to learn about the movement, we filled out some paperwork on a clipboard. They went back into the village, deliberated, and apparently decided we were acceptable.

A Zapatista named Compañero Antonio opened the gate. He showed us the buildings and briefly explained their functions—the clinic that served everyone in the Oventic region, the primary schools, the buildings where committees from various villages gathered to meet, the church where families prayed together on the pew-less, pine-needle-covered floor. When we tried to ask more about how the junta functioned, about who the people in the village were, and how they related to the outside world, Compañero Antonio said that we’d have to ask the junta. We tried some less sensitive questions, but he answered us with silence. Unsure of what else to do, we left Oventic after a half hour or so.

Although our visit was even more brief than we had imagined it would be, we weren’t exactly surprised—we had already learned that the movement and the people surrounding it were highly suspicious of outsiders, especially those from the United States (and for good reason). From what we’d read online and heard in town, we knew the visit to Oventic would probably be a brief, guided tour. We were grateful to have the chance to see it, but we still didn’t have any answers to our questions about how the Zapatistas’ daily lives actually worked. Nor could we draw any conclusions about how we were supposed to respond to calls to join the struggle. The Zapatistas did seem to exist in another world, but it was a world so different and closed-off that we weren’t sure how it could possibly relate to the one we knew.

V. The Sympathizer’s Dilemma

It was this confusion that brought us to the living room table of a nondescript building in San Cristóbal, drinking tea with a middle-aged French woman named Marina Pagés. Marina works as the coordinator for SíPaz, an NGO that has done “solidarity work” with the Zapatistas since the uprising. By that time, we had been in Mexico for about a week, and we’d been scrolling through the SíPaz website pages for months. However, we still hadn’t quite figured out what “solidarity work” meant beyond, as Naomi Klein put it, “guilty lefties with a Latin American fetish” caravaning down to Chiapas to try to see the movement for themselves.

We asked Marina one question: what, exactly, did organizations like SíPaz do? Like a typical French Marxist, she answered that question with an hour-long history of how international political economy influenced the Zapatistas and the leftists they’ve interacted with.

By the mid-’90s, leftists around the world had watched the Berlin Wall fall, symbolizing the end of Soviet-style communism and its totalitarian horrors. “The international world was disenchanted with the left,” Marina explained. “Supposedly, we were at the end of history, and capitalism had won.” Only a resolute few remained committed to anti-capitalism. They saw that neoliberal ideology was taking hold of nearly every world power, and they were yearning for some other model of how to oppose it. Historical happenstance and good strategy came together to ensure that the Zapatista movement would resonate with lost leftists around the world, and even recruit some new ones.

Marina painted Subcomandante Marcos as a brilliant politician, a leader who used his rhetorical gifts to market himself and his movement to the global left, in order to appeal to egalitarian sympathies and thereby protect his cause. It paid off, considering that it was the pressure from international sympathizers and humanitarian groups that kept the Mexican government from trampling the movement in the first place. In framing it this way, Marina wasn’t implying that the Zapatistas were disingenuous in their support for other struggles. Marina was merely pointing out the naivety of treating the phrase “We are all Zapatistas” literally, rather than a rhetorical device they use to recruit sympathizers and make them feel part of the movement. While dialogue with the outside world remains important to them, the Zapatistas are rarely willing to let the outside in.

The NGOs most involved with Zapatistas today recognize the continued importance of international awareness, and employ it to the benefit of the Zapatistas and other indigenous communities. A handful of dedicated researchers working for SíPaz document events in Chiapas which threaten the autonomy and safety of indigenous people living in the region—paramilitary violence, threats to their land, and violations of their rights. They publish information on those events, and sympathizers use that information to help make the public case for ensuring the continued autonomy of Zapatistas.

Another NGO we spoke with, FrayBa, organizes brigados civiles de observación (civil observation bricades) composed of international sympathizers live in indigenous communities for a few weeks or months at a time and to document violent action against the communities. Because the people who do that work are usually white or white-passing, their presence often effectively deters military and paramilitary violence in the first place—groups who would otherwise threaten the safety of communities refrain, because they know that the media will go nuts if a foreigner is harmed. In FrayBa’s view, the best way for people like us to support the movement was to leverage our privilege—an admirable, although perhaps less exhilarating, goal. Marina from SíPaz was also sober about that: she knew that her role was to provide what the Zapatistas said they needed, not to tell them what to do.

Some of the leftist sympathizers we met hanging out in San Cristóbal—mostly Europeans and South Americans —were like us: initially naive about how close to the movement they could get, but willing to listen and sober up to reality. But others were apt to say things like “I am a Zapatista,” and to carry themselves with an air that they were close to the inner workings of the movement. These leftists seemed to believe that by declaring support for the Zapatistas, they were freeing themselves from the worries of privilege once and for all, even if they weren’t actually doing anything besides stewing in their revolutionary dreams.

VI. A Crack in the System

We found such leftists at a place called CIDECI, an education center on the outskirts of San Cristóbal. CIDECI stands for Indigenous Center for Integrative Training. The locals also call it La Universidad de la Tierra, or “University of the Earth.”

The center is the brainchild of a man known as Dr. Raymundo. He started the center in 1989 in order to educate indigenous youth, many of whom never had the chance to go to school. He believed that the subjects taught in traditional Mexican schools don’t serve indigenous students unless they plan to leave their communities and begin a long climb up the social ladder of the neoliberal economy. Dr. Raymundo, a close supporter of the Zapatista movement, wanted to give them another option. So CIDECI teaches crafts that young people can use to serve their communities, like carpentry, painting, auto repair, cooking, and farming.

CIDECI serves indigenous students between the ages of 12 and 24 (sometimes even younger, if they come with an older sibling) from around San Cristóbal and smaller communities throughout Mexico and Central America. The only admission requirement is a letter of recommendation from the student’s community. Students can choose what they want to learn, stay at the campus for however long they like, and receive room and board, completely free. In exchange, the furniture they build, the murals they paint, the livestock they raise, and the bread they bake in their classes goes back to CIDECI.

Dr. Raymundo conceives of CIDECI as more than a trade school. He told us that he believes CIDECI is a “crack” in the capitalist system, a place where alternative ways of communal living can flourish, and, little by little, work to split the system open. To this end, CIDECI holds an open seminar every Thursday, where indigenous students, community members, and a gaggle of unaffiliated sympathizers gather to discuss oppression and resistance around the world.

         The seminars we went to usually attracted at least 30 to 40 participants who would filter in and out over the course of three hours or more. The seminars always started with a summary of the week’s readings in Tzotzil, then Spanish. It takes almost an hour to recite the readings, which are essentially a list of recent atrocities in Chiapas and around the world: a news article about a group that was trying to take Zapatista territory, a message from “water defenders” in the neighboring state of Oaxaca, news about the latest genocides around the world.

         After the summary, participants are invited to join in a discussion of the readings. Ethan and I quickly learned, however, that “discussion” mostly meant long, impassioned speeches affirming one’s commitment to the fight against capitalism. Dramatic indictments like, “Genocide hides amidst the many heads of the capitalist hydra,” were not uncommon.

Originally, Ethan and I thought the seminars would help us understand the movement theoretically. We expected that they might help us think about how Zapatista ideology could apply to our political situation. But although the seminars were extremely powerful, they weren’t really about theory. They were about recognizing the continued prevalence of injustice. Around those hand-carved wooden tables and chairs, emotions ran deep.

There was one indigenous woman who went to every seminar we attended. She had the kind of quiet, elderly frailty that made me worry she might topple over at any moment. But it was this same quality that gave her an air of wisdom, like she knew the path to hell and back. During the discussion portion of one seminar, she stood up and introduced herself as Compañera Maria. The room fell completely silent. She recounted growing up before the Zapatistas had risen, and how she had felt there was no hope for her community’s future. She had since committed her whole life to the movement and her people. She spoke about how she felt her ancestors behind her. She talked about how she felt the lucha, the fight against the oppressors, in her heart. The fight itself gave her people dignity, she said.

Compañera Maria’s speech brought to me the verge of tears. She was describing the empowering force of the struggle itself. She, like all Zapatistas, had not only recognized her right to a dignified life, but had taken it by force and defended it with her whole being.

At the same time, I realized I would never feel the lucha in my heart in the same way she had. The raw power of Compañera Maria’s words made sympathetic leftists’ attempts to replicate the spirit of her speech seem disingenuous. Marina, of SíPaz, had identified this phenomenon for us. “So many different people feel that they can just insert themselves into the movement,” she explained. German anarchists, or French Marxists, or, say, American college students look at the movement and see themselves in it. They romanticize the way that people who have been truly oppressed feel the struggle.

But the fact that we were all together at the same table, calling each other compa, obscured the enormous cultural and economic divide that we would never bridge. Seated on one side were indigenous people from rural Chiapas, fighting to put food on the table and to keep their culture alive. We could get a glimpse into this struggle, but it would never be our own. After the seminar, we would pile into a car with a bunch of French Marxists and drive back to the center of San Cristóbal, a tourist hub where we could buy organic vegetables and fresh-made pasta at bourgeois restaurants. Compañera Maria, needless to say, would not.

Most Zapatistas have only seen the world of constant commodification and consumerism from afar. Prior to the uprising, they were the ones breaking their backs in factories or farms in order to provide for the consumer class. They weren’t getting any of the benefits of capitalism. So it wasn’t all that hard for the EZLN to convince poor indigenous campesinos that capitalism—the system under which their land and life had been torn from them—was unjust. But for we who reap the comforts of the capitalist system, the injustice is hard to feel on a personal level, and even when we know it exists, it’s easy to brush aside.

While the Zapatista movement has inspired other disenfranchised groups to take back their land and defend their dignity themselves, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that they don’t have some theoretical brilliance to offer Americans like me and Ethan. While we can certainly support the Zapatistas, we have no pre-existing anti-capitalist framework to work off of, no villages in the mountains where we can find a communal spirit that runs deep in a centuries-old tradition. The Zapatistas, rightly, fight back against systems of oppression in part by retreating from them. But we have no such option: we have to confront the mess of the modern world.

That mess hit us immediately after the French Marxists dropped us off in San Cristóbal, where an indigenous boy, probably eight or nine years old, walked up to us on the street with his hands outstretched, silently. It was a scene we had been accustomed to by that point—over 3,500 indigenous villagers have been displaced to the city, where many live in poverty, selling souvenirs to tourists or begging on the street to survive. The best response I could come up with was to smile and give the boy some of my spare change. Maybe he ate that day. But he would spend the next day, and the day after that, wandering around the streets, getting shoved off by locals and ignored by tourists. That boy did not get the chance to reclaim his right to a dignified life, and the balaclava-clad revolutionaries up in the hills weren’t going to bring it to him.

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VII. The Corn Guy

The story of my attempt to reconcile the contradictions of this ill-fated journey begins on another sweltering day in the remote foothills of Chiapas. I was nauseous once again (street food, weak American stomach, etc.). But, embarrassed of my typical tourists’ condition, I didn’t want to show any weakness. Even though I was on the verge of passing out, I continued to hike through the thorny bush, alongside Ethan and a small, weathered man named Martín López López.

When Ethan and I first told our professor Alberto Hernández-Lemus that we were interested in researching the Zapatista movement, he rattled off a list of people he knew in Chiapas, none of whom, to our confusion, seemed to have anything to do with the Zapatistas. “And oh! You have to talk to Martín,” Alberto said. “He used to work with the Bishop Samuel Ruíz, and now he grows corn.” Ethan wrote down in his notes: “Martín: corn guy.”

We knew almost nothing else about Martín when we called him one day from San Cristóbal and told him we were friends of Alberto. Immediately, Martín invited us to his house for breakfast and said we were welcome to spend the day following him around. He ended up giving us a tour of his small farm, formerly part of a communally-owned ejido. He showed us around his land, pointing out each crop with a sense of wonder and pride.

“Y aquí, el maíz,” Martín said. “And here’s the corn.”

Ethan and I exchanged a glance that said, Ohhh. The corn guy.

Martín is not a Zapatista. He’s actually not indigenous, and he’s not even from Chiapas—he’s a transplant from a central Mexican province who came to San Cristóbal because he could see that here, political struggle was alive. We quickly discovered that Martín was much more than “the corn guy.” Calling Martin “the corn guy” is kind of like calling Karl Marx “the beard guy.” It’s a side project he’s proud of, but it’s definitely not his main gig.

Martín has been a community activist and educator for most of his life, albeit through different forms. He grew up a devout Catholic and believed in God fiercely. He renounced marriage, promising himself to God. In his twenties, he joined the church as a missionary and was sent to the campo of Chiapas to Catholicize indigenous communities. It was there that, one day, he woke up and realized that God did not exist.

Martín’s revelation was a crisis that he faced completely alone. After spending years telling people that God would save them, he knew he couldn’t tell them that God didn’t exist. It wasn’t his job, he explained to me later. So instead of resolving himself to nihilism, he stayed in his position as a missionary and taught himself to read the entire Bible from a humanist perspective. Sure, the story of Jesus walking on water is likely a myth, but the stories of Jesus talking to people and giving bread to the poor could be entirely real. He was surprised to find that the Biblical verses he had grown up thinking were divine didn’t cease to amaze him once he realized that they were only the work of human beings. In fact, the stories began to strike him even more. If humans could create an entire theology that pointed toward a message of love and forgiveness, maybe someday they might be able to follow it.

In that way, Martín is not unlike Subcomandante Marcos. As the story goes, Marcos was once a philosophy professor in Mexico City. When he arrived in the jungles of Chiapas in the ‘80s, he was a hardline communist who intended to organize the indigenous poor into a Leninist “vanguard party” that could overthrow the state. But when he got there, he found a fledgling army composed of campesinos teaching themselves survival tactics, community organizing, and Mexican history. Marcos realized that the indigenous people might have more to teach them than vice versa. Marcos and his mestizo friends set out to help the campesinos do what they were already doing. They organized a recruitment campaign, convincing villagers who were already engaged in civil resistance to join their clandestine camps in the jungle.

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Their parallel stories took place at the same time, too. In fact, Martín told us that before the Zapatista movement went public, he did missionary work with some of the communities in what would soon become rebel territory. He talked with them about organizing and defending their dignity, inadvertently telling them they should rise up. Moreover, Catholic liberation theology was a key factor in helping indigenous people recognize their rights, paving the way for them to organize. Bishop Samuel Ruíz, under whom Martín worked, was a fierce defender of indigenous autonomy, and the principal mediator of the peace talks between the EZLN and the government.

Martín eventually left his position as a missionary, but he didn’t stop working for the good of others. He left Chiapas to study education. In one of his classes, he met a woman named Silvia, whom he would later marry. Silvia and Martín agreed that the way they’d been taught to teach didn’t allow students to raise real, radical questions or think critically about the world. They had been told that their job as teachers was essentially to deposit important information in the empty vaults of students’ minds. But Martín was skeptical. He had learned more about life from illiterate campesinos than his professors at university. He didn’t feel that his formal education qualified him to be an authoritative source of knowledge in the first place, so when he and Silvia moved back to Chiapas and began teaching, they did it their own way.

Influenced by Paulo Freire’s landmark book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” they wanted to teach in a way that acknowledged that truth was not dispensed by an authority, but rather something students and teachers alike had to reason out, even create, for themselves. On a basic level, this meant that instead of telling elementary school students that Coca Cola is bad for them and pozol, the traditional drink of the region, is healthy, Martín would ask them to make a list of the differences between Coca Cola and pozol and decide for themselves. On a more serious level, this meant that instead of yelling at religious conservatives about tolerance, he would ask them what Jesus wanted: love or hatred?

 Now, Silvia and Martín have retired from their classrooms and run an NGO called Educreando, in which they teach this pedagogy to other educators from all backgrounds—priests, public school teachers, private tutors, and politicians from any side of the spectrum. Martín is willing to work with anyone.

To show us how it worked, Martín took Ethan and me to an elementary school classroom in a small city outside of San Cristóbal called Teopisca, where he had been working with a dedicated teacher named Hugo. The public school system in these majority-indigenous areas is extremely underfunded. But Hugo, with Martín’s help, was going beyond the resources of the classroom to give his students the education he felt they deserved. He had helped the students build an oven in the courtyard, taught them indigenous languages, and organized musical performances that reflected their cultural roots. It was easy see that Hugo was changing these students’ lives.

VIII. Mandar obedeciendo

Ethan and I had thought our day with Martín would be a distraction from the main task—we were, after all, supposedly conducting a historical and philosophical investigation into the Zapatista movement. It was difficult to see how an ex-Catholic missionary who runs a nonprofit would fit into all of this. But Martín gave us a sense of hope, a possible antidote to our previous confusion about how the Zapatista movement was supposed to inspire anything for our political system. It wasn’t that Martin was doing something better than what the Zapatistas had accomplished. But he was doing something more effective than the French Marxist at the CIDECI seminar stewing in resentment at the bourgeoisie and returning to town to chow down organic pasta. In a weird way, Martín action aligned more with the ideals of the Zapatista movement than many of those leftists did. Rather than searching in vain for a way out of the world we inhabit, Martín was working within his own community to transform it.

While Mexican politics has been plagued by corruption for most of this century, local politics in Chiapas are increasingly active. Martín has helped his neighborhood organize, recruit participants for the neighborhood council, and lead efforts to clean up the river that runs through San Cristóbal. I went with Martín to a community meeting that he organized. He knew everybody—the politicians, the abuela concerned about her grandchildren playing in the river, the businessman who remembered days when you could drink straight from the source. And they all deeply respected Martín. He had somehow brought this group of people together, not to plead with the city government to clean up the river, but to figure out how to do it themselves.

Martín explained that in the U.S., and even in most of Mexico, we tend to believe that the government’s job is to grant us what we think we deserve: build us roads, give us social programs, care for the sick and the poor. But Martín and his compañeros see this as essentially contrary to the idea of autonomy. Both Martín and the Zapatistas believe the people should be empowered to do things for their own communities, and that the government’s job is to respect and enable that. At one point, Martín even invoked the principle of mandar obedeciendo (govern by obeying), the Zapatista aphorism that we had encountered outside of Oventic’s gates.

It’s not that Martín is free from apparent contradiction. He too, enjoys organic pasta in the touristy center of San Cristóbal. He and Silvia live a modest life, but they own plenty of comforts that depend on capitalism. And for all his talk about avoiding dogma, Martín has strong opinions. I think Martín is aware of these contradictions, but he seems to have reconciled with them. Perhaps that’s because his life’s work isn’t to realize the creation of the perfect society, or to ensure his own moral purity, but to walk with and learn from others.

He explained this perspective to us on the day we met him: “With our pedagogy, I help you look, help you see. But it's not about what I see; it’s about what you see. And in what you see, you confront the other,” Martín explained to me. “This, for me, is the most interesting thing: to create a dialogue between what you know and what others know, and afterwards you decide [what to believe]. And it could be that you decide something different than me. That's OK. The important thing is that you’ve thought about it.”

I tried to imagine Martín asking some ultra-conservative party politician whether Jesus wanted love or hatred. I was skeptical that his method would actually work. “When you’ve done this dialogue with really religious people, maybe with really conservative people, how does it go?” I asked him.

Martín replied quickly and calmly. “They change a little bit,” he said.

In the heat of the day, I felt chills down my spine. There was a powerful optimism in Martin’s words. Martín’s radical politics didn’t consist of blindly idealizing the Zapatista movement and fuming about the capitalist system we may never be able to change. Instead, Martín showed us a path to another world: working to change people’s perspectives, a little bit at a time, knowing that we could never have all the answers. Martín knew from his own experience that people could change. That was enough to fuel his work, and that was his way of making another world possible.

 Smiling, he repeated, “They change a little bit. That’s why we keep doing the work.”



Heat Issue | November 2018

Images courtesy of Dane Strom at https://danestrom.com/

Will This Madness Ever End?

The heat was bad, sure, but there was something thicker in the air this time. A haze was everywhere; it consumed everything. The windows of the Hansen and Third corner store fogged up so much you could only see the silhouettes of the men behind the counter—every window in the adjacent building was either open or housing an AC unit. Sounds of all kinds cut through the stranglehold of the heat and poured out into the street: the occasional shout, the clang of a dish, the voice of a DJ coming and going from a passing car radio. “This next one’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ but this Ju-ly—goddamn!”

——— 

1.     The Balcony

Todd Greenbaum, premature balder, had decided to brave the haze. Todd owned no AC or fan for fear of a follicle-tugging breeze, so his apartment felt more like a sauna than a studio. He sprawled across the balcony wearing nothing but a white tank top and tattered boxers, not even his toupee—an act of sheer desperation. Todd had been sensitive about his hair condition since the seventh grade, when he slow-danced with the already-five-foot-eight Suzy Henderson at the Spring Fling. A full head taller than Todd, Suzy had a direct view of his scalp, where the signs of hair loss were already showing. She made this known to the whole seventh grade class. After this, he wore a baseball cap every day until he graduated, then purchased an expensive, jet-black hairpiece to start college as a new man. In 14 years, he hadn’t so much as looked out a window without it.

The toupee’s absence was noticed. Mrs. Kazan, the tiny 81-year-old widow who lived across the hall, wearily lumbered across Third Avenue with a small bag of groceries tucked into the wire basket of her walker. Condensation from a carton of milk threatened the durability of the brown paper bag.

As she got closer, Mrs. Kazan grew more and more suspicious of the strange man on the balcony. Her eyes were going, but she had memorized a blurry approximation of every single person who came and went from her building, and this guy wasn’t in her mental registry.

“HEY!” she shouted up at the figure while swatting away a swarm of gnats. “What’s the big idea, hot shot? Who the hell are you?” She steadied herself—shouting in the dizzying heat had thrown her already precarious stance off balance.

Todd, ever conscious of his head’s appearance, knowingly replied, “Mrs. Kazan, I know I look different, but it’s me, Todd. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Squinting with her whole body, Mrs. Kazan grumbled, “Todd? Todd, what happened to you? I can’t keep anything straight anymore. I tell you, I’ve never seen a summer like this. Something has to be done about this, this godforsaken place…” She trailed off as she sluggishly entered the building. A gnat whizzed its way through the door just as it swung shut. Todd sighed, wiping sweat off his waxy scalp.

 ———

2.     The Hall

Mrs. Kazan paused in the entrance to catch her breath. The confines of the building were hardly a respite from the suffocating air—inside it was hot and stale, like no one had opened a window in weeks. Every crease in her face held a layer of sweat; walking any distance in the heat was no easy task, and it had taken all her energy to yell at Todd. Unfortunately, Leslie Dratch, her overly-attentive neighbor, waltzed into the hall to check his mailbox at that exact moment.

“Not this loon,” Mrs. Kazan mumbled under her breath. Leslie didn’t miss a beat.

“Mrs. Kazan, you poor thing!” he exclaimed, rushing over, scanning his beloved neighbor’s body for mysterious bruises or swollen joints.

Forcing a smile, she replied, “Really nothing to worry about. It’s a disaster out there, but I’m fine.” Mrs. Kazan summoned her remaining strength and tried to forge onward through the hot vacuum of a hallway, keeping her head down and avoiding eye contact. Leslie was not dissuaded in the slightest—Mrs. Kazan’s limp attempted escape only made him want to help her even more. He stood up straight, pulled his damp button-down taught, and pushed his sweat-drenched bangs to either side of his forehead. With the determination of a superhero, he said, “Let’s get those groceries into your apartment.”

Mrs. Kazan had had it. She edged her walker around to stare up at Leslie. “You know how they say the murder rate is at a record high?” she asked flatly. “No problem making it go higher. None. Catch my drift?”

They stared at each other until Leslie laughed uneasily. “You’re something else, Mrs. Kazan, you know that? You go ahead on your own this time, but don’t hesitate to ask me for help later! You know where I live!” Mrs. Kazan tried to block out his grating voice as she hobbled over to the elevator.

“Uh huh,” she said, “I sure do.” She did not bother to turn herself around—the elevator doors shut with her back to them.   

It was unlike Leslie to accept that someone could do something on their own, but the haze had gotten to even the most abrasively neighborly of neighbors. Sweating from every pore, Leslie reluctantly accepted defeat—surely there would be a better time to flaunt his helpfulness, when he could operate at 100 percent. Leslie smiled to himself as he sauntered back over to the mailboxes. His was empty.

——— 

3.     The Dratch Home

“Nothing today, honey,” Leslie cooed. He swung the door shut behind him, infusing the first-floor apartment with the hot muck of the unventilated hallway. He wiped sweat from his forehead, smearing his sopping wet bangs across his brow.

“Thanks for checking, sweets,” his wife, Lesley, said without looking up from the TV. Even with their AC blasting, the room was stuffy. Lesley had covered herself with as many frozen things as she could find: an ice pack was nestled in each armpit, a bag of frozen green beans was tucked under her tank top, and a frozen ribeye laid across her bare thighs. A fan was trained directly on her, no oscillation.

Leslie grabbed a canned lemonade out of their fridge before walking over to join Lesley on the couch. Lesley gingerly placed the ribeye on her husband’s legs, gazing up at him dotingly. They each puckered their lips and kissed the air between them before turning back to the TV. “That’s right, Elaine, we’re talking 45 percent of these United States dry as a bone,” said a crisp-suited news anchor. “Both the Fox and Wisconsin Rivers are dried up completely—we’re coming to the point where we’re gonna have to just sit back and watch the fish die. Now let’s go to Scott with this week’s forecast.”

“Oh no, those poor fish,” garbled Leslie while taking a gulp from the lemonade can. Lesley silently patted his thigh. “I like fish, you know? All kinds. Cod, bass, trout, salmon, tuna, yellowfin tuna,” after a gasp of air Leslie continued, “tilapia, catfish, swordfish—”

“I know honey, I know,” Lesley delicately interrupted him. On a regular day she would’ve had the patience, and even some enthusiasm, to absorb Leslie’s every thought, but the heat had reduced her to a mere regular level of courtesy. “You always order fish when we go out. I’ve never once seen you order a pasta or a chicken breast.”

“Exactly,” Leslie said. “These poor guys are probably just flopping around in the dirt. They don’t stand a chance.” He pouted, crossing his arms over his chest. Lesley tried to comfort him. “Don’t get so broken up about this, honey bunch. There are plenty of fish in the sea.”

Lesley smiled timidly, suppressing a chuckle at her own joke. She reached under her shirt, grabbed the bag of green beans, and playfully whacked Leslie with it. He smiled.

“Okay, okay,” Leslie said. “But I’m serious! An entire river drying up, fish dying by the thousands? Doesn’t that sound bad to you? Like ‘end of days’-type bad? Isn’t there anything we can do about it?” Leslie visualized himself single-handedly replenishing the river, pouring in thousands of gallons of water by hand. The couple’s smoke alarm cut the fantasy short.  “Oh!” exclaimed Lesley, “That damned thing is going off again. Would you shut that off, honey?” Just as Leslie rose from the couch, the building’s fire alarm started blaring.

“... record-breaking temperatures. 1988 is just inches away from clinching the title of the hottest year in history. Stay cool, folks,” the weatherman signed off, drowned out in the cacophony of beeps and bells.

——— 

4.     Leslie’s Rescue

Leslie and Lesley shared a brief look of panic until Leslie sprung into action. “Mrs. Kazan,” he whispered to himself, before leaping over the couch and running across the apartment. “Go outside!” he yelled to Lesley over his shoulder. Lesley’s “Where are you going?!” didn’t register.

As soon as Leslie opened the door, he was overcome with a smothering wave of smoke and heat that nearly knocked him over. He staggered backwards, reaching out to the wall for support, then using it for leverage, pushing off the wall and propelling himself towards the stairs. He clumsily lurched and stumbled to the stairwell, feeling like he had been shot out of a cannon. The superhero resolve returned to his face.

Leslie ran up to the third floor as fast as his legs could carry him. He arrived at Mrs. Kazan’s apartment, panting and coughing, just as she was shutting her door. “Mrs. Kazan,” he said hoarsely, his hands on his knees, “I’m here to help!” He fell into a violent coughing fit.

“Oh Christ,” Mrs. Kazan rolled her eyes. “Let’s get this over with.” With a huff, she let go of her walker and held out her arms, knowing that allowing Leslie to help her was her only choice. Her feeble body trembled as sweat rolled down the bridge of her nose. The fire alarm persisted. The smoke from the first floor started to creep up the stairs.

Leslie hadn’t thought this far into his rescue operation—he had envisioned a heroic entrance and nothing else. There was no way he would be able to carry Mrs. Kazan on his own. She was small, but he had expended all his energy getting to this point and his lungs were filled with smoke. His mind was racing trying to think of a solution when a man with hair slightly askew hastily exited his apartment.

“Todd!” Leslie wheezed. Todd jumped, startled, jostling his toupee so much it slid to the back of his head. His hands shot up to protect the hairpiece—one holding it in place, the other covering his exposed scalp. “Please, we need to get Mrs. Kazan down those stairs.” Leslie, nearly keeled over, gestured towards the barely-visible exit route. Todd nodded, wide-eyed, and took in the fear on his neighbors’ faces. He allowed the toupee to fall to the floor.

“Let’s go already!” Mrs. Kazan barked, choking down a cough. The two men hurried over, both dripping in sweat and coughing. They shakily lifted her, each supporting an arm and a leg, but looked at each other doubtfully as they gingerly walked toward the staircase. Just as they began their descent, they heard something in the distance, slowly getting louder and louder, cutting through the continuous ringing. Suddenly, Lesley appeared through the haze, fighting her way up the stairs like a football player emerging through a fog-machined tunnel.

 ———

5.     Lesley’s Rescue

Nobody had time to think. Lesley, running on pure adrenaline, swept Mrs. Kazan up in her arms and immediately pivoted with ballerina-like precision to turn and run back down the stairs. Eyes bloodshot, vision blurred, and arms quaking with the weight of old woman, Lesley held her breath as she battled her way to the building’s exit. After a moment of brief, stunned silence the two men snapped back to reality and followed suit. Down the stairs, through the hall, and out the front door, they burst out onto the street and were met with chaos. The residents swarmed the sidewalk. Red-faced and completely beside themselves, they cried and yelled as fear and complete shock collided under a canopy of sweat.

“I know it’s that bitch in 4C! She’s always forgetting her oven is on! Always!”

“I got takeout from Sakura tonight, asshole!”

“I bet the landlord did it for the insurance money—that shifty motherfucker!”

“Whiskers?! Where are you kitty, where are you?”

“Will this madness ever end?!”

“Well, that’s a little dramatic,” mumbled Mrs. Kazan. She stood off to the side, surveying the commotion, leaning on Lesley for support. Todd and Leslie jogged over to where the women were standing. Leslie wrapped himself around his wife, nearly breathless; Mrs. Kazan shifted her weight to Todd. Lesley stood tall; Leslie looked like a crumpled piece of paper. Todd held his bald head high as Mrs. Kazan’s rigid body clung to his. Though the heat was still unbearable, the mayhem before them was a temporary distraction. They all turned to look up at their building churning out black smoke, engulfed in flames. Sirens clamored through alleys and around corners until the fire trucks finally pulled up to Hansen and Third.

Skylar029.jpg

6.     The Aftermath

The next day was filled with seemingly endless news coverage.

“The first calls came in at 8:37 p.m., and within a minute, several units were rolling. The first units arrived on the scene in six minutes to enter a battle that would last three hours and 42 minutes from start to finish. The fight and the fire escalated quickly. There was no underestimating the size and potential of this fire,” the news anchor said with fervor from behind a slick, glass-topped desk. “There were 40 people inside of the building when the fire broke out. Some got out on their own, after frightening experiences.”

Helicopter footage of the building ablaze cut to an on-site interview. Leslie, Lesley, Todd, and Mrs. Kazan stood in front of the camera. Leslie spoke with pride, his bangs pushed up off his forehead at a 90-degree angle. “I could barely see the stairs, or the exit, because of the smoke. I feared for my life, but I always put the needs of others before my own. Luckily we were able to work as a team to save our beloved neighbor Mrs. Kazan and carry her to safety.” Todd and Mrs. Kazan looked at him incredulously. Lesley’s face was blank.

The anchor appeared on screen again. “The fire's origin has been attributed to an overload of the building's electrical system, but the precise source of ignition was not determined—the fire department can only conclude that its cause was spontaneous combustion. Almost too hard to believe, but there it is. Back to you, Elaine.”

 ———

After a few days, the news coverage stopped. The heat persisted a while longer, but it eventually broke. The wiring in the building was repaired, a sprinkler system was installed. Furniture that had been destroyed was replaced. Todd bought a new, even more expensive toupee. Mrs. Kazan started to pretend to be deaf so she could ignore people more easily. Leslie formed the Anti-Hazard Coalition of Hansen and Third and appointed himself president. Lesley stayed home. Everyone forgot what it was like beneath the haze, and couldn’t bear trying to remember.

Heat Issue | November 2018

On the Other End of the Line

I sat back in my chair, silently listening to a man yelling on the other end of the line. At this point, I had stopped taking notes. The notepad in front of me already contained 20 minutes of notes from the ongoing rant, all centered on one topic: Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I instantly regretted telling the caller my first name, which he felt the need to utilize as frequently as possible.

He addressed all of his concerns to a girl he had never met: “Emma, if this Dr. Ford is really telling the truth, why didn’t she come out earlier?” He told me that I sounded “young” before launching into personal questions. Was I a coward? Would I report a case of sexual assault if it happened to me? He left no space for me to answer, just reasserted that only a coward would wait to come forward about their sexual assault. If he realized how inappropriate his questions were, he didn’t seem to care. With little regard for my emotions, experience, or history, the caller continued his rant.

Kavanaugh supporters and protesters alike phoned their senators’ offices en masse during the hearings this September. As an intern for Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, I answered aggressive calls from both sides of the aisle.

The partisanship I experienced as an intern was not new to me. When my father, Neil Gorsuch, was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year, I learned how quickly emotionally-charged politics can undermine basic human decency. Many people were supportive, but there were a handful of individuals who prioritized politics over long-standing friendships. My background has made me both more sensitive and outraged by the negative effects of polarized protests. However, that year took an emotional toll on my family, and I am not comfortable making that part of my life public. Instead, I want to describe my experience as an intern during Kavanaugh’s confirmation process to bring to light the risks of poorly executed protest.

Martin Luther King Jr. outlined how to effectively protest in his speech “The Quest for Peace and Justice.” He explained, “Nonviolence is a good starting point. Those of us who believe in this method can be voices of reason, sanity, and understanding amid the voices of violence, hatred, and emotion. We can very well set a mood of peace out of which a system of peace can be built.” King didn’t believe in taking the teeth out of protest, but he urged people to be aware of the consequences of their actions. There is a place for emotion—maybe even a place for violence and hatred—when protesting grave injustices, but it ought to be accompanied by reason, sanity, and understanding to be an effective, or ethical, protest.

Ethical protest does not mean eliminating outrage or accepting the government’s actions in blind faith. Ethical protest simply means being thoughtful. It means being aware of all the effects, intentional and otherwise, of your behavior. Ethical protest is a careful response to a situation, not a reaction or an indiscriminate form of lashing out. Ethical protest shapes history. Unethical protest merely heightens partisanship and increases conflict. It gives each side an excuse to isolate themselves from the other party, avoid discussion and shut down disagreements. Unethical protest rarely incites positive change.

 ———

Kavanaugh’s confirmation provides ample examples of unethical protest. Even before Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault charges were made public, people were upset because they feared Kavanaugh would overturn Roe v. Wade if confirmed. Under that fear, a constituent threatened a young woman on Senator Susan Collins’ staff. He said he wanted to rape her so that she could get pregnant and see what it is like not to have access to an abortion.

Take that in for a minute. A man advocating for women’s rights did so by threatening to violate a woman’s physical safety. This man’s violent language was not a tool he used to advocate for his cause. He did not further women’s rights through protest. Instead, he undermined the values he advocated for by creating an unsafe environment for Republican women. There was no utilitarian outcome either. The news story was well-publicized on the Hill, and, if it had any effect, appeared to push Republican senators into a more partisan stance. No senator wants to feel strong-armed into a vote because someone threatened to “track down” their staffers.

Less extreme examples were prominent throughout the Senate. A week before the vote, a man stormed behind my desk and leaned over my face. I was physically blocked from standing up as he yelled at me to “tell Senator Corker not to put that bastard on the Court.” I nodded and took notes until he walked away. Even though I did not believe the situation would escalate to physical violence, I felt cornered. That man did not channel his anger to make his voice heard. He was simply looking for an outlet to vent his frustration, and I was an easy target.

At various times I’ve been told that I should “Be scared … Get up and run … Be very careful … ” or threatened that “everyone working with a Republican will be tracked down … Shame, shame, shame … ” Other times, callers have made moral judgments about my own life: “You will never achieve your potential if you work for Republicans … You deserve to have that happen to you … If you ever have a daughter, you are responsible for when this happens to her.” Most of these callers have some goal: to prevent Kavanaugh’s confirmation, change the culture around sexual assault, or punish people they believe to be responsible for Kavanaugh’s success. However, yelling at an intern achieves none of their goals. It becomes hostility simply for the sake of hostility.

A demonized view of the other party has led a few callers to absurd conclusions. One woman began by telling me I didn’t deserve access to birth control because I work for a Republican senator. Throughout the call, she continued to suggest my right to birth control was tied to my political party. She told me I would be stuck in an abusive relationship and only have myself to blame. Her assertion was that any relationship with a Republican would be abusive, and since I work for a Republican, I was bound to marry one.

Her assumption that all Republican men are abusive is objectively false. I was concerned by how quickly she caricatured men from my party. I was equally concerned that her negative view of Republicans extended far enough for her to preclude me from basic rights. Most of our callers would never say a woman was “asking for” poor treatment because of how she was dressed or where she spent her time, but this woman told me I was “asking for” abuse because of who I was working for.  

Sitting in an office for hours, listening to people attack my character and interrogate me about graphic hypotheticals, was emotionally draining. I was lumped into the generalized class of “evil Republicans” by callers who knew nothing about me. This problem reflects more the widespread polarization in our country.

Having spent time with both Republicans and Democrats, I genuinely believe neither party is trying to destroy our country. There are very few people in the world who aim to create discrimination, pollution, authoritarianism, or poverty. Often the parties’ aims are similar—creating a free, just, and safe society. People simply have different beliefs about how to achieve these goals. Polarization occurs when protesters conflate disagreement into an existential battle between good and evil. Once that happens, the other side becomes “the enemy,” and “the enemy” is not treated as human.

——— 

Demonization often stems from poor communication. Hate evolves from fear, and fear, in turn, evolves from ignorance. To stop the kind of unproductive aggression directed at our Senate office, the public needs a better understanding of what a senator’s office does.

To start, a call to a senator is almost always answered by interns or low-level staff. Given the nature of an internship position, it should be clear that anger or ad hominem attacks are not appropriate. These young adults in their late teens and early 20s have moved away from family and friends to learn about their government. They record information and answer questions. They do not make decisions, and no amount of shouting or cursing will change that.

Interns are not accountable for the position of their senator, nor do they even necessarily share their senator’s ideology. The internship position helps young people learn how the government functions and how a senator’s office works. Some people put aside party preferences for the learning opportunities involved in an internship.

Even interns who align with their office’s political party still don’t agree with their senator on every issue. Everything in D.C. is in motion—when I applied to my job, Justice Kennedy hadn’t even announced his retirement. There is no way to know in advance of your boss will decide and quitting over a vote is not always the right option.

Protesters are often frustrated when they don’t understand the limitations of our government. Uninformed callers with an opinion on Kavanaugh frequently ask our office to do things which are beyond the scope of Congress or our office. Many people don’t know who is on the Judiciary Committee, how FBI requests work, or which senators are up for re-election. When we cannot help someone due to the nature of their request, they frequently escalate to anger.

The most effective advocates don’t just stay up to date with current events, but are also aware of the Congressional procedures and make demands that are realistic for a senator. Not everyone has the time to delve deeper in their civic education, but as Colorado College students, we certainly have the resources to better understand our government and share that information with others.

A common cause of frustration is non-constituent callers. Passionate Texans and Californians often called Corker’s office in an attempt to swing the vote of a Tennessee senator. The truth is, Corker does not represent them, and their voice is not as powerful to us as it could be to their home-state representatives. Out-of-state messages are rarely passed along, or recorded at all.

Senators are aware of the broad impact of legislation and nominations, but they also have a duty to their constituents. Phone calls are how senators get a read on the unique issues his or her state faces. When out of state residents call, constituents are the ones who suffer. Constituents end up on hold and don’t receive the time and attention they deserve. Every voice should be heard, but the only way that can happen, given our limited resources, is if people go through their respective representatives.

Though you’ve all probably heard that you should “call your senator” about hot-button issues, no one really explains what “calling your senator” entails. Often, callers don’t expect to hear an actual person on the other end of the line. Every letter, email, voicemail, and phone call (to your senator) is in some way seen or heard. It does make a difference.

It is also important to know the type of information that we pass along. Senator Corker’s office has three interns and staff answering calls and entering the overall position of the caller into a computer system (the same kind used by all the other Senate offices). At the end of the day, an email is sent to the senator and the entire office with call statistics.

The computer system records general sentiment en masse, which means the woman who spends 20 minutes on the phone insulting me and my life decisions will be recorded in the same way as the caller who makes a two-line statement that ends with a “Thank you, have a nice day.” Both are put down as “Delay vote on Supreme Court nominee until after midterm elections—Pro.” Phone calls are valuable as a general read on public opinion, but a phone call is not the most effective median for detailed narratives.

This is especially true regarding sensitive topics. Dr. Ford’s allegations prompted men and women across the country to come out and share their experiences of sexual assault. Coming forward takes courage, but there is an appropriate time and place to share these powerful stories; recounting trauma for the first time should take place in a secure setting with people who are trained to provide the best support. A senator’s front office is not that setting.

When constituents speak to an intern, they don’t know that person’s background, and they don’t know what might be triggering. There was one woman that stood out to me—she was hurt, angry, and frustrated. She gave me an in-depth account of the trauma that she experienced as a kid and the effect it had on her life. Her story was moving and ended with the usual request. In strongly worded language, she asked that I ensure Kavanaugh not be confirmed. I told her I would pass her message along, and I appreciated her courage.

At the end of the call, I said something insensitive. In a mindless slip of the tongue, I told her to “Have a nice day.” She was furious. She explained that what I had said was incredibly inappropriate. There was no way she could “have a nice day” after sharing something like that. And she was right. What I said was inappropriate. The truth is, I don’t know if there is an appropriate response to stories of sexual assault.

I wish I could have communicated that I saw her pain, that I recognized how much this impacted her life, that I knew how triggering Dr. Ford’s allegations were. I simply didn’t know how, and I was not prepared to emotionally help the survivors who called our office. I was shaken up after the call, and I ended up taking a break to sit and cry in the bathroom before returning to the phones.

Her call was incredibly emotional for me, but it was still ineffective in making the kind of change she wanted to see. There are so many narratives like hers. Eventually, everyone in the office hit a point where we simply could not process any more cases of sexual assault. There was nothing I could do to help her. Nothing I could do to alleviate her pain and trauma. Nothing I could do but pass her message along in a distilled Pro/Con computer system.

For people who want their full story to be heard, details included, I’d recommend a different avenue, such as a local newspaper, an interview, or even a blog. Senators are updated on stories mentioning their name and receive articles from their local newspapers, so there is a good chance those stories will get back to the senator. But nothing positive resulted from these emotionally tense calls. The survivors who shared their stories did not receive emotional support or feel heard. The intern who answered almost always ended the call in distress.

 ———

People have the right to reach out and criticize their representatives, but it is important to be conscious of how that message is delivered. It doesn’t take a great understanding of American politics to know that another divisive controversy will inevitably spill over into the headline, and the issues that have come up with the Kavanaugh protests will not go away with a Senate floor vote. There will be some injustice great enough to move you to action—as you should be. Protest, but as you defend a moral standpoint, be careful that you honor those morals in the way you behave.

Michelle Obama urged Democrats to respond to right-wing behavior with civility: “When they go low, we go high.” Following this motto goes beyond just modeling “the high road,” but extends to taking responsibility for those in the party who do not. There were several disgruntled Republicans whose support of Kavanaugh was harmful, and in many other areas, Republican protests undermine their own message. My party is flawed, but I have a responsibility to do my part in informing other Republicans how to be respectful in expressing their views.

Most of you, as CC students, fall on the other side of the aisle, but you face the same challenge. There are people in your party who undermine your message. Some people claim to care about women’s rights while verbally abusing a woman in the next sentence. These people talk about tolerance but refuse to treat the other party with any degree of tolerance. They fight under the same banner as you—protecting rights—but some quickly limit those rights to only the people who agree with them.

I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, as a Republican surrounded by Democrats. I chose to go to a left-leaning school because I value having people I respect challenge my beliefs. Although I rarely agree with the platform, I respect the Democratic Party. It is full of intelligent, good-hearted individuals who are passionate about improving the world around them, and CC is proof of that. I know Democrats can be so much more than the type of people who called our office with nothing but unproductive anger and insults.

Even if you are not personally responsible for these aggressive protests, it is up to you to protect the type of Democratic Party you want to be a part of. It is easy to criticize someone on the other side of the aisle. It is harder to look at the people around you and criticize individuals who are supporting your cause. However, the best way to practice your values is to make sure your own party doesn’t fall into hypocrisy. Model how to protest ethically and encourage others to follow suit. When you talk to someone who agrees with your political opinion but does so in a way that seems violent, hypocritical or inappropriate, don’t let the opportunity for conversation pass.

It is up to you to point out logical flaws out when you see them in the fringes of your party. It is the role of a good Democrat to inform others that a female Republican deserves access to her basic human rights as much as any other woman. A Republican survivor deserves to be respected just as much as any other survivor. A person of the other party is still a person. Each party needs to do their part to move past this wave of partisanship. That starts internally, by learning to express disagreement in a way that is respectful to the person on the other end of the line.


Heat Issue | November 2018

The Secret's in the Spice

Cecelia Gonzales, our local horticulturist, has worked in grounds at Colorado College since August 1995. From the plants decorating the sidewalks to the perennial gardens beautifully constructed around campus, Cecelia has brought artistry and vivacity to campus for the past 23 years. She is originally from Trinidad, which sits on the border of Colorado and New Mexico, “right on the southern tip.” I sat across from Cecelia in a booth in Wooglins on a snowy Thursday morning and asked her to share her story of chili. Not only did she inaugurate the annual chili cook-off at CC, but she also wins it every single year, with her green chili recipe. As Cecelia ate a big breakfast, she talked about the flavors she could taste: the egg, the sweetness of the syrup; flavors she had lost the ability to distinguish while she underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. We spent the morning talking about Cecelia’s process of making green chili, and how spice was the flavor she never lost the taste of.

——— 

Becca Stine: So, tell me about the annual chili cook-off.

Cecelia Gonzales: It’s an annual Grounds chili cook-off. I believe we started in ’96 or ’97, and it’s been going ever since. We started having a chili cook-off right before Christmas break, and then it interfered with the president's party, and the facilities party, so we decided to move it up to the New Year, which would give us something to kind of look forward to. We’d have something to come back to in January.

We usually have a green chili, a red chili, and an “other.” The other could be a vegetarian, or a white chili, or what have you.

And everyone has to make one of each?

Whatever they want, they can make one or the other. I’m a green chili champion.

Are there separate awards for each kind of chili?

Yeah, what we normally do is get gift certificates to give out to the winners. It was more of a trying to get everybody together. We always had plenty of beer, and we always got fresh tortillas from La Casita to go with it.

Where did you learn how to make chili?

I learned from my mother when I was little, and over the years I just have kind of added my own twist to it. My green chili is more of a stew, it’s real meaty. So I put a lot of green peppers in it. I make it with pork. It has a lot of green chili. I get my chilis from Pueblo, but last year I bought my chilis from a little place, a little garden shop that had chilis from New Mexico, which I think are a little better chili, they’re a little fatter. The taste is so much better.

You mean spicier?

You’ve got different types of green you know, like Big Jim, Anaheim, and then you have hot. A lot of times I’ll take a mild green and mix it in with a hotter green. Last year mine came out pretty warm, but I won.

We usually try and get judges from outside, or we’ve had Chef Ed [from Bon Appetit]. I’ve had Stewy, the lacrosse coach, she’s judged a couple of times.

How many people usually take part?

It was a lot bigger in the past. We used to get easily 100 people that would come to it. Last year there was maybe 50 or 60 people that showed up. The most we’ve had is about 17 entries.

What are the main components of a good chili?

A good chili? Good green peppers, good pork, onions, garlic, a little bit of tomato, just a little bit, and bouillon, chicken bouillon, really makes a good green chili. I also make a roux for it. I make a roux out of butter and olive oil, and add it to the chili to thicken it up just a little bit.

Is that something your mother taught you?

No, it’s something I probably learned on the food channel or something [laughs]. I know growing up my mom didn’t make roux, but they used corn starch … I hate cornstarch, it’s awful. I don’t use cornstarch in anything. Who knows what’s in corn starch!

I know, my mom says the same thing.

Right!?

Growing up, I remember there were meals that my mom would make that were quintessentially her dishes.

It was chili. Back then too, when we’d make chili, they didn't have the big roasters that you see today … they have these big roasters made out of big drums and they use propane and they spin, so they cook the chili pretty quick. That's how it’s done today. Back in the day, we used to roast it in the oven. It would take you all day. You would roast it and then freeze it. I grew up with a New Mexico style chili.

Do you associate memories with chili?

I do with my grandmother. My grandmother made this awesome red chili that to this day I can’t duplicate. She used to make a chili paste. I still can’t find anything like it today. Whenever I was going to come over, she’d make a pot of red chili for me.

Was this your idea? Did you start the chili competition tradition at CC?

It was me and my old supervisor. We both liked green chili, we both loved it. So we thought “let’s do a chili cook-off!” So we started it, and it was a hit. The spoons that I have [the winning prize], the carpenters make every year. So you get a gift certificate if you win, plus a really cool spoon [laughs].

How does it work on the day?

We usually try and get the judging done by 2 or 3 o’clock so that people can start drinking beer and eating chili!

What is your favorite part of the whole competition? What makes it so special?

Being able to see other colleagues that you don’t really get to see throughout the year, you know. They’ll come down, and you’ll sit down and talk to them for a while. Just getting together with people.

Of all the flavors (spice, sweet, sour, etc) is spice the most compelling to you? And why?

Spice is the most compelling, especially after I went through chemo. I found that anything that was spicy, I could eat. It wouldn’t affect my taste buds. Even before that, I loved anything spicy. I like curry, you know, something that has a good bite to it. Savory and spice.

Even eggs, I’m eating eggs today, I couldn’t eat eggs for months. They were awful. I remember taking a bite of a boiled egg and I spit it out, it was so bad. I thought, “Oh no, I’m not going to be able to eat this, I love eggs!” So after I was done [with chemo] I went and I got eggs benedict, and it was so good [laughs].

Taste is something I feel like we take for granted, and it’s things like that hardship that remind you how important it is to taste your food.

Yeah it is. And you know, green chili is loaded with vitamin C. It has more vitamin C than an orange. There are so many types of peppers, it’s crazy.

What else is there to know about your chili making process?

When you’re working with green chili, especially if it’s hot, you don’t want to rub your eyes for a while, because that hurts. I’ve done it a couple of times. After two times, you remember.

I’ve had a couple vegetarian friends that will eat my chili with the pork in it. One time I made green chili for my vegetarian friends with tofu … it was awful!

I’ve tried to teach people how to make it, but it just doesn’t come out the same.

Have you ever read “Like Water For Chocolate?”

No, I’ve heard about it though.

You’re making me think about scenes in that book where, when one of the characters cooks a meal, her emotions go into the food as well. So when people eat what she makes, they feel the way she did when she made it.

You know, that makes a lot of sense. Because I do the same thing when I’m making my chili.

Really?

Yes, I’ve noticed that sometimes when I’ve made it, it’s like uugh, but sometimes when I’m really, really into it, it comes out awesome.

When I cook my green chili, it usually takes about three to four hours, because I slow cook my pork in a dutch oven. When that’s cooking, I clean my chili and dice it up. I throw that in another pot, add some water to it, just a little small can of whole peeled tomatoes, and let that start cooking down. Even though the chilis are already cooked, I cook them down even more. Once the pork is done, then I add onions and garlic. Then, I add everything into the green chili, with the bouillon and let that cook a little longer.

Oh, you’re sharing your secrets?

Ah, that’s okay. I don’t think anybody could make it as good as me. I challenge them to make it.

You should teach a class!

Yes! Give me some good wine, and we’ll start cooking!

 

 Heat Issue | November 2018

Receding Floodwaters

August heat in New Orleans is a heat felt inside the body. It is the heat of a city 12 feet below sea level, where feet drag on blistering concrete and the breeze carries nothing but the smell of the lake and river. New Orleans always moves slowly, but in August it comes to a halt. The summer is marked by wet air, sticky skin, and an insatiable lethargy. At night, screeching cicadas are the only way to tell that time moves at all.

But water is quiet, and even the cicadas fell silent for the weeks that brackish waves lapped at shotgun house porches in the aftermath of Katrina. Spray-painted X-codes identified which rescue squad had come to survey the house, the time and date that the team arrived, the hazards within the house, and the number of people (or bodies) found. In one house, a gaping hole in a roof cast shadows of a family using an axe to escape.        

As floodwaters finally receded back into Bayou Sauvage and Lake Borgne in late August of 2005, they left only a shell of New Orleans in the crescent of the Mississippi River. This new, post-Katrina New Orleans was bleak. New Orleanian refugees marooned throughout the United States wondered what awaited them in southeast Louisiana. Images of corpses swollen with water and the Superdome crowded with people dominated the news cycle.

But in the Village de l’Est community of New Orleans East, something different was happening. In mid-October of 2005, only a little more than a month after Katrina made landfall and days after the floodwaters receded, a group of Vietnamese-Americans arrived en masse to the East. By early November, the community had even successfully pressured the city to turn on the utilities for home use. While the majority of New Orleanians were still stranded across the country, the residents of Village de l’Est were planning church services, discussing reconstruction plans, and opening their homes to the refugees who had been trapped during the storm.    

The story of Vietnamese resilience post-Katrina was quickly hijacked by anti-black media outlets that transformed the incredible endurance of Village de l’Est to fit their racist narrative which pit southeast Louisiana’s poor black communities against their Vietnamese neighbors. The speedy organization and activism of the Vietnamese community was juxtaposed with the lack of activity in the Lower Ninth Ward in order to exacerbate the pre-existing racial tensions between the two communities, both of whom were disproportionately affected by the storm. The government and media outlets alike underscored Vietnamese self-reliance by framing them against the “government-dependent” black communities of their neighborhoods.

This narrative failed to address the complex history of the Vietnamese in New Orleans, which played a vital role in forging their identity borne out of communal and intergenerational trauma. The first Vietnamese refugees arrived in Louisiana in the wake of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. had finally renounced support for the Vietnam War, and North Vietnamese troops had invaded South Vietnam as a result of the withdrawal of American combat troops from the area. Around 2,100 of the estimated 130,000 Vietnamese people that fled that spring settled in New Orleans. By 1985, an estimated 12,000 Vietnamese residents were living in Orleans Parish and Jefferson Parish, with almost 6,000 concentrated in the Versailles neighborhood alone.

The Vietnamese resettlement process was spearheaded by the Associated Catholic Charities, an organization that the New Orleans Archdiocese worked through in order to sponsor the first resettlement of 1,000 Vietnamese families in New Orleans East. Catholicism, which plays an important role in the cultural identity of New Orleanians, worked as the foundation upon which the New Orleanian Vietnamese society was built. In August of 1978, a mere three years after the Vietnamese began immigrating from South Vietnam to New Orleans, a Vietnamese Catholic chapel was opened to fully service the neighborhood. This chapel would expand in the early ‘80s to become Mary Queen of Vietnam Church (MQVC), which was instrumental in the organization of the community after Katrina and today serves as the center of Vietnamese culture in New Orleans East.  

As the only former French colony in the United States, New Orleans was a popular destination for Vietnamese refugees who hoped for an easy transition and re-creation of the lifestyles and culture from their old towns. French cultural influence, as well as the city’s proximity to the coast, also attracted immigrants who did not speak English or wanted to continue their lives as fishermen. Dzuyet Hoang, a Vietnamese immigrant who fled Saigon in 1975, reflected on his resettlement process with the Times-Picayune reporter Gayle Ashton in 1985. He explained, “They ask us where we want to settle … maybe in Washington, what do you want? They say New Orleans is a city on the coast, the climate is warm and have many seafood. And we say, ‘Oh yeah, oh yeah.’ And we choose New Orleans. Because of the warm weather, the seafood available, the people who speak French sometimes. But we choose it.”

Despite various cultural and environmental similarities, however, the Vietnamese transition into the city was anything but smooth. The majority of the Vietnamese refugees settled in the Versailles community of the Village de l’Est neighborhood, an area that was approximately 90 percent black at the time. Race relations intensified as the marginalized black communities began to feel as though the Vietnamese presence was negatively impacting the city and the neighborhood. Various black community leaders expressed concerns that the resettlement program worsened the city’s already depressed economy by increasing both taxes and competition among the poor for limited housing and jobs.

Cheryl Wilson Cramer, head of a city task force that studied the effect of the Southeast Asian refugee population on New Orleans, explained in 1985 that resentment towards the Vietnamese spread throughout portions of the black communities as a result of the special programs that assisted in helping the Vietnamese of New Orleans East prosper. The $800,000 spent by the Associated Catholic Charities, in partnership with the Archdiocese of New Orleans, to buy housing for 1,000 Vietnamese families in a low-income black neighborhood was seen as an investment into foreigners instead of the community. Other programs that were exclusive to Vietnamese immigrants were various tax breaks, welfare (even though only 20.4 percent of Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans collected welfare in the 1980s, as compared to the 54 percent nationwide as reported by Gayle Ashton in The Times-Picayune), and even small plots of lands to grow crops to sell at the markets.

The conflicts between New Orleans residents and the Vietnamese immigrant communities, however, were not purely economic. New Orleans, though popular among various immigrant groups, had never before had a substantial Asian population. The appearance of these newcomers shocked white and black locals alike and the cultural differences intensified the strain surrounding the resettlement process. “The Vietnamese would dry fish or shrimp in 90-degree heat on their balcony and their American neighbors would come home and get a whiff,” recounted the Versailles Arms apartment manager Melanie Ottaway in 1985. Farther south, in coastal towns throughout Plaquemines Parish, fishing communities also felt the impacts of resettlement as Louisiana fisherman began to compete with the Vietnamese in overcrowded waters throughout the Louisiana coast. Louisiana shrimpers oftentimes felt that the Vietnamese were not respecting Southern shrimping and fishing customs, which caused strife between the two communities.

Despite the intense racial divide, heightened economic hardships, and their limited ability to speak English and thus communicate with the majority of their neighbors, the Vietnamese refugee communities were painted by the public as communities with a “bootstrap ethic” in the face of their many grievances. The Vietnamese quickly found employment and often began paying their own rent after the first month of resettlement. Michael Haddad, who was head of the Associated Catholic Charities at the time of the resettlement and thus in charge of the $800,000 housing expenses, explained that “I was scared … [but] they took a lot of jobs nobody else wanted, menial low-wage jobs. The advantage they had was a tight family unit. And when all of them were working at minimum-wage jobs, they were basically able to swing the rent.” The “bootstrap” narrative imposed onto the Vietnamese was only strengthened by the fact that the refugees were fleeing a communist country. Rather than attributing the dedication of the Vietnamese to the survival tactics imposed on them as refugees and necessary for survival, Americans instead created the narrative that capitalism empowered the Vietnamese to make a new homeland for themselves.

In 1985, The Times-Picayune even published an article titled “Refugees Showed They Are Survivors” with an entire section titled “A bootstrap ethic.” In this section, the journalist Gayle Ashton reports, “Although some refugees may have escaped Vietnam with jewelry or gold, many—especially those who were attacked by pirates as they escaped by boat—arrived with nothing. What may amaze or confound native-born Americans is a difference in Vietnamese values and lifestyle that is reflected in their quick economic process.” Later in the article, Ashton further supports her claim of Vietnamese “bootstrap ethic” by quoting a personnel director for a major New Orleans hotel. The director explains, “I find they tend to be industrious entrepreneurs. I wish more people had the same work ethic.” The hotel director and Ashton both clearly value the work ethic of the Vietnamese refugees, but hidden in their words is an understanding that the Vietnamese are prosperous in capitalist United States in a way that they would not be in newly communist Vietnam. Though this article, published as part of a four-day series celebrating a decade of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans, was written in 1985, it exhibits how the early perceptions of the Vietnamese would manifest into the later characterization of Vietnamese resiliency and how this understanding glorifies capitalism as the economic system which empowered these refugees to flourish.

However, Vietnamese New Orleanians themselves also identify in part with this “bootstrap” narrative, especially in how it relates to anti-communism. Cyndi Nguyen, current city councilwoman for District E (the district where Village de l’Est is located and which took the brunt of the Katrina damage), writes in her campaign biography that she was five years old when she and her family left Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen’s website explains that “they escaped from the Communists because her parents wanted their children to have access to opportunities and most importantly to have freedom.” Later, Nguyen cites her immigration to New Orleans as the key motivating factor that fuels her “work ethic, her integrity, and her audacity of hope.” Nguyen believes that capitalism and the United States afforded her the opportunities to be where she is today and to empower her district, comprised of both Vietnamese and black communities. She does not criticize capitalism even though capitalism plays a huge role in the poverty, violence, and destruction in her own district. However, she also governs on a promise of unity: unlike the post-Katrina media focus that sought to polarize the Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans, Nguyen promised to utilize the strengths of each community so that together post-Katrina New Orleans East could prosper.   

This “bootstrap ethic” narrative played an integral role in the outside perception of post-Katrina Vietnamese organization in New Orleans. Nguyen’s City Council District E was the area most heavily impacted by the storm; when over 50 levees failed on August 29, 2005, Village de l’Est and the Lower Ninth Ward took on over 20 feet of water. This area flooded along with 80 percent of the city as thousands of homes were destroyed and the Vietnamese community was once again displaced.

However, this destruction did not delay the return of the Vietnamese to Village de l’Est. The Vietnamese, emboldened once again by the MQVC and the head priest Father Vien Nguyen, returned to New Orleans East in droves, ready to reclaim and rebuild their new homeland. In mid-October of 2005, less than two weeks after Mayor C. Ray Nagin had declared the city safe for return, the Vietnamese took the first steps towards the re-creation of normal life by creating a petition that successfully persuaded the utility companies to restore power in New Orleans East, which became the first neighborhood to receive power in the city after the storm. By early December of 2005, an estimated 600 Vietnamese individuals had returned and begun cleaning and repairing Vietnamese American homes and businesses in the area. Over 90 percent of the Vietnamese community was once again living in New Orleans East by the spring of 2007, compared to the less than 50 percent of black residents that once resided in the neighborhood.

During the immediate post-Katrina rebuilding effort, the Vietnamese were lauded as the first community to return to the city and begin the restoration process without significant government assistance. Instead of celebrating this astounding example of exemplary community organization and impressive resiliency, the city and state political climate quickly shifted towards anti-black rhetoric. The Vietnamese and black communities of New Orleans East both endured the brunt of the Katrina damage, but the quick Vietnamese return laid the groundwork for victim-blaming against the black communities that was perpetuated both politically and in general by white elites.

This victim-blaming is preserved in a news segment by Al Jazeera English, an English-language news and current affairs TV station headquartered in Doha, Qatar. In the segment, Rob Reynolds follows Father Luke Nguyen through New Orleans East as Nguyen regales the tale of the last year. However, much of Nguyen’s speech is voiced over as Reynolds uses the resiliency of Vietnamese New Orleanians to shame the black communities (though they remain unmentioned). He explains, “After Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese community decided not to wait for the government or insurance companies to help. They returned to their neighborhood immediately and started rebuilding.” This kind of reporting dismisses the violence and fear that the black communities experienced at the hands of the police during and immediately after Katrina, stereotypes the black communities as lazy, and dismisses the actual voices of the Vietnamese communities. Reynolds spends a large part of the segment talking over Father Nguyen’s speech, erasing the voice of the community in favor of the voice of white elites.

Shockingly, however, for the first time in city history, the Vietnamese and the black communities forged a united front. In solidarity, they organized to hold government officials accountable and prevent the continued marginalization of their communities. The strongest display of unity was presented in the form of a coalition between the black and Vietnamese communities when, in February of 2006, Mayor C. Ray Nagin announced that a toxic waste landfill would be opened less than two miles from the Versailles Arms Apartments in Village de l’Est. MQVC once again stepped in by developing the MQVC Community Development Corporation, whose mission is “to preserve and promote our unique diversity and improving the quality of life of residents in the Greater New Orleans area, beginning in New Orleans East.” The MQVC Community Development Corporation united the two communities under the same goal: to prevent the opening of the Katrina landfill, which would in essence serve as a dumping ground for all of the toxic waste that was left in the city by the receded floodwaters and result in the further marginalization of the communities in the area.

On the anniversary of Katrina, Vietnamese and black citizens alike from all over the Greater New Orleans Area stood at the gates of the proposed landfill as they awaited the arrival of dump trucks. With the eyes of the nation watching, the two united communities understood that the landfill was bigger than themselves. They were fighting for all of New Orleans and for everyone that would come after them. The demonstration was successful, for the dump trucks never arrived and the proposed landfill was never opened. The Vietnamese and black communities, who had been so segregated and divided for the past three decades, had come together to rise up against the powers that had oppressed them.

“We are a suffering people,” Father Luke Nguyen remarked to Reynolds in the 2007 interview. “We endure a lot of pains in the history of our development as a culture. And the war—the war in our land—kills a lot of people. And so Katrina here … is only a twist to us. It’s only a twist.” Father Nguyen’s words, which came less than two years after the storm, epitomize the Vietnamese outlook on disaster and destruction. He considers his people to be a people born of pain; people who must endure deep anguish in order to persevere. South Vietnam and the capitalist haven that it could have been must live on within Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans. His words resonate with those of Jane Foley, who was the resettlement director for the Associated Catholic Charities. “Survivors, that’s what they are. They don’t give up. They do what they have to do.” The Vietnamese response to Katrina and their rebuilding of a post-Katrina society is contingent on their identities as war refugees. The suffering and trauma that they endured in their home country at the hands of their own government gave them the strength to endure anything.

“The war changed the face of the Earth,” Trancong, former magazine director and Vietnamese immigrant to New Orleans, remarked to Ashton in 1985. “The war changed the values of Americans. The war changed a lot of things.” Trancong’s words here haunt the post-Katrina Vietnamese population of New Orleans, a population that has already once been traumatized by the loss of a homeland. Determined not to lose their “second homeland,” the Vietnamese returned, rebuilt, and made sure to lift up their neighbors to do the same. There was no more racial divide or jealousy or pain between the two groups because the Vietnamese saw in the black communities where they themselves had been 30 years prior. Even store owner Mike Tran, who returned to his looted grocery store in Mid-City New Orleans a mere six weeks after Katrina, showed no animosity towards those who robbed him. Proudly, he explained that his store, which was built on an elevated slab, must have served as a safe haven for those who had stayed behind to weather Katrina. He pointed out the large pieces of cardboard that were scattered throughout his store and remarked that they probably served as temporary sleeping mats for those stranded there. “Cash, liquor, and cigarettes—yeah, they stole everything. But, you know, not everyone was there to steal. Some people were just finding a way to survive.”

November is a time of of celebration. The sweltering August heat is a hazy memory as the sun starts to dip below the Mississippi River and ushers in a cool breeze. We remember that we have survived another hurricane season. We remember that, somehow, we always survive—though not all of us. But the Natchez in the port will play her dirge, and the people in the streets will sing of the cypress trees, and we will remember that our communities—born of floodwaters, of X-codes, and of war—will fight for one another. People fall in love with New Orleans not for the oppressive heat, but for the people that come out of it. And my people will always, always come out of it.

Heat Issue | November 2018

Of Meat and Men

If you’re wondering if we gender food, google “man eating.” Cool, dudes shoving burgers down their throats. Now google “woman eating.” Salads abound. From these stock images, one would think that women pretty much eat only cubes of fruit and iceberg lettuce while laughing into their forks.

On one level, these search results might seem more indicative of female diet culture than of men’s diets; we’re more likely to view a diet of solely salad as a trendy fad than we would a diet that largely consists of meat (looking at you, keto fiends). That’s because we already assume that eating massive quantities of meat is the norm—the average American ate 198 pounds of meat in the year 2014 compared to the world average of about 91 pounds. We are a meat-centric society and, despite the growing number of very vocal plant-based folk, meat consumption is soaring (annual meat consumption per person in the U.S. was predicted to be to 222 pounds for the year of 2018). America is increasingly meat-obsessed, and when you take a closer look at our country (the “steak of the union,” if I may) it’s hardly surprising. Whether it’s Hungry-Man Frozen Dinners TV commercials or the not so wholesome not so family farm Perdue chickens, America loves meat. So why aren’t both women and men on Google Images chowing down steaks? Why is meat so connected to masculinity?

We could, of course, approach it from a naïve “first humans” perspective: men are hunters, women are gatherers. But even if that perspective is anthropologically accurate, it’s strange that the association has lived on considering the only spears most men wield now are the sticks inside their corn dogs. According to a study done by the Vegan Society, 63 percent of vegans identify as female, while 37 percent identify as male. This divide is slightly more even but still apparent in vegetarians, with 41 percent of vegetarians in the U.S. identifying as male. Men aren’t hunting animals as a means to survive anymore, but there still seems to be an inextricable link between meat consumption and manhood.

We seem to think that meat reinforces this idealized conception of manhood, that we are the number one predator. But ironically, in today's corporate capitalist world, this sentiment has only allowed men to be targeted by meat corporations. Take Burger King’s “I Am Man” commercial from 2007: a man leaves his date at a restaurant because he doesn’t want to “settle for chick food.” The commercial ends with the statement “Eat like a man, man.” Basically, the message is that maleness is predicated on consuming a meat manufactured by a corporation (Burger King). In the same way that beauty narratives tell women they need x product to be truly beautiful, our society has posed meat consumption as something integral to manhood. It also sets up yet another way to pit women against one another, as some women use misogynist food narratives to their favor by asserting they’re not like “typical women.” The girl who gets a burger on the first date is a cool, one-of-the-guys kind of girl, while the girl who eats a salad is overly concerned with her figure or too girly. If there’s anything more American than meat, it’s misogyny!

Thinking of meat as synonymous with strength isn’t solely capitalism’s fault, but colonialism as well (although those are both just dressed-up words for the exploitation of poor people. You say tomato, I say subjugation of millions). In postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi’s book Affective Communities, she highlights how the meat-eating English used meat as a colonialist means of control over India; meat was seen as food of the strong and “intelligent” colonizer, the diet of “civilized” English society. She argues that the English used meat consumption as an “ideological tactic” against the more plant-based Indians: if meat meant strength and superiority, a vegetarian diet meant inferiority, illness, and weakness.

I wanted to see what masculine people had to say about meat. Did they notice the emphasis on meat eating in America or was I driving myself crazy over nothing? To George, who I knew in high school and struggle to call a man rather than a boy, “meat means protein and gains that’s about all that comes to mind.” From what I gathered during our brief conversation, George seems to work out a lot now, which was why he described himself as “particularly masculine.” He and his frat brothers apparently all eat a lot of meat and work out together; to them, the protein they get from meat translates directly into masculine “gains” and enormous pulsing man muscles. Meat means gains, gains mean masculinity, so by transitive property of frattiness, meat means ... masculinity, I guess.

Although George’s brief, no-nonsense answers were helpful, I was able to pull a lot more out of Joe, a fellow CC student. He pointed out that “when male-identifying people grow up, we learn that eating meat makes you strong and tough, and we’re eating all these mostly female animals.” This was another aspect of gendering meat I hadn’t even considered... There isn’t exactly a huge number of bulls or roosters on farms, and they don’t produce milk or eggs. Why? (Upon further investigation, I learned that bull meat apparently grows tougher than cow meat, hence the popularity of veal, which is made from infant bulls.) Joe also noticed a lot of coded meat messages growing up, like the “associations you see on TV and commercials with meat and ‘manliness’ and being a ‘big tough man’” or how “eating my first Big Mac definitely felt like a weird male rite of passage.”

Joe and another former high school classmate of mine, Patrick*, noticed the ways in which meat-related slang is tied to masculinity. There are a lot of typically masculine meat-related idioms: two people in a fight have “beef;” if you “beat your meat” you’re masturbating a penis; if you get wild you’re “going ham;” the list goes on and on. Joe and Patrick recalled a few more good ones, like “sausage fest” and “beef up.” Joe got on a roll once he started, sending me multiple messages:

1:39 PM: "choke the chicken" as a euphemism for masturbation
3:22 PM: I've also heard a woman’s butt referred to as "booty meat"
9:35 PM: I just remembered the term "meathead," I hear that a lot to refer to a muscular male who is unintelligent.

So yeah, there’s a lot of slang, although Patrick told me, “I've always thought that meat as a euphemism for dick was kind of unsettling, because meat is something that gets bitten off, chewed, and digested, and I want exactly none of that associated with my dick.” I thought that was pretty fair.

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But I was unsettled by something else: when we associate meat with the penis and muscle, where does that leave vegetarian and vegan men? Are they stripped of “manhood” because of their dietary choices? Can you be manly without meat?

There’s increasing evidence that you can. Notable manly vegans include famed quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick, “Jackass” stuntman Steve-O, and NFL star Tony Gonzalez. If male athletes are beefing up sans beef, then how are they asserting their masculinity outside of our consumer emphasis that meat is male? I asked professional vegan bodybuilder, health coach, and master fitness trainer Korin Sutton. Korin isn’t just fit; he’s built. A recent photo he posted on Instagram claims he has five percent body fat, and that’s not hard to believe at all. He’s a typical Adonis, the last person you’d want to start a fight with in a bar. An ex-military man, he turned vegan when he realized “that all the medals that I earned in the military didn’t serve any justice in what my heart was desiring.” That desire, in Korin’s eyes, was saving animal lives through a vegan diet. He believes that men eat more meat than women only because they’re raised to believe that men eat more meat, thus creating a cycle in which men eat meat to uphold a norm. Since going vegan, Sutton says he’s “glad that my mindset has changed and realized that food has no gender roles.”

Sutton is stereotypically masculine, but, overall, the men I talked to fell in varying places along the scale of masculinity. There’s George with his gains and frat brothers, Joe with his boyish ebullience and love of music, and Patrick, whose most memorable attribute during high school was the trench coat and fez he wore every day, and his assertion that he was building an authentic World War II enigma machine. You don’t have to be a typical “man” to fall prey to our society’s fixation on meat. Whether you’re a little masculine or a lot masculine, you’re still subject to masculinity standards.

But where does this association become fuel for toxic masculinity and male aggression? Considering that very few people kill the food they eat, men are more likely hunting for Tyson coupons than hunting for wooly mammoths. But all it takes is a glance at the evening news to confirm that male aggression is alive and well. To be clear, I’m not blaming meat for this; male violence has been excused and upheld by our society for hundreds of years, and it’s not as if plant-based men are removed from that structure. Male aggression isn’t based on meat but dominance. Meat consumption is also based on that same notion of dominance. That they sometimes intersect is hardly surprising; after all, society has long been obsessed with both the superiority of men over women and humans over other animals.

How do we begin to break down this view? Is it, as some vegetarians might suggest, by not eating meat at all? Is the problem meat itself, or how we eat it? I promised myself to steer clear of vegan moralizing in this article, so I’m not going to yell about switching to a plant-based diet. But I also wonder if we changed the way we consume meat, then some of those man/beast dichotomies would start to fall apart. If we don’t think about the way food informs our decisions and attitudes, then we fail to notice how we perpetuate toxic ideals in our culture.

Can we even really separate our food from the society that produces it? For a country so obsessed with eating food, we don’t seem to actually think about food that much. We’re constantly inundated with food advertisements and Tasty videos and pictures on Instagram, but we fail to seriously acknowledge issues like the obesity epidemic or cardiac arrest-related deaths or eating disorders. We cling to labels like “free-range” or “cage-free” without learning what they really mean, or fixate on “clean” or “cruelty-free” eating.

The ethical food movement may urge us to stop eating so much meat, but it is still wrapped up in the stereotypes that characterize the way we masculinize meat. Labelling some foods as “clean” implies others are “dirty,” which is not only classist and shamey, but dangerous. Once we use our food as a way to inform and fill out our identities, it becomes a fixed element in our lifestyle. Treating foods as central to our identity is fine and healthy when it comes to cultural foods and ethnic culinary traditions, but using meat-eating to boost our identity in terms of fitness, gender, or sexuality by over-emphasizing it as a necessary staple is the antithesis of sustainability. Not only have we made it normal to eat way too much meat, and emasculated men who refuse to do so, but we’ve also tossed out the human habit of an incredibly varied and ever-changing diet that our bodies need to thrive.

We’ve twisted one of the most basic parts of humanity into a way we abuse ourselves and others. If we can’t examine what sustains us physically, how the hell are we supposed to examine what sustains us mentally, emotionally, or spiritually? Taking a closer look at not just what we eat, but how we eat and why we eat what we do is crucial to living that Socratic examined life. So how do we convince people to pay attention to what they eat without conflating certain foods with certain characteristics in a way that upholds the same toxic standards that pit people against each other and the planet?

I don’t know, but it’s certainly something to chew on.

 

Heat Issue | November 2018