There was a small pond in the woods at the back of my middle school. Some people referred to it as “The Pond” and others called it “The Toxic Puddle.” Most commonly, it was “the shithole by the A-Building.” The whole place stunk of sulfur and the water was slick with oil, so the pejorative names were well earned.
One spring afternoon toward the end of eighth grade, my friends and I were walking by the pond and arguing about its origin. Being a fourteen-year-old boy, I turned to my friend Jack and said, “ten bucks to stick your head in the shit.” It only took 30 seconds of calling Jack a pussy to get him to dunk his head. I gave him an extra five bucks to let me take a photo of his mud-caked face and stick it on Facebook. Afterwards, we began to think Jack would grow another head or get cancer, or at the very least, get really bad acne. Jack was fine (more or less), but the episode stuck with us. We came to call it “The Dunking.”
The Dunking was the first thing that came to mind when I heard Rebecca Twinney was going to sample water quality from all over CC and compare it to Monument Creek (p. 22). I won’t spoil the results, but I can assure you none of the water here is half as bad as the Toxic Puddle was. Hopefully.
But there were other forces lurking by that pond, too. There was an undercurrent of masculine anxiety fueling that dare, and many dares to follow. We were all trying to prove our manliness by emasculating someone else—by daring someone to stick their face in a nasty puddle, “if you’ve got the balls.” Fiki MacFadden examines this masculinity and reveals its influence on much more than middle school antics (p. 18).
We four boys were about to experience four years of misery, drugs and sexual discovery: high school. In fact we became a kind of cult, the weirdness of which rivaled the Christian cult Anna Cain investigates here (p. 30). Unsurprisingly, depression and drugs were always in the background, often felt but rarely discussed. Nathan Makela talks openly and honestly about the intersections between depression, drugs and sexuality (p. 44).
Putting that photo of Jack’s face on Facebook marked our induction to the thrills and horrors of social media. We spent countless hours of high school scouring our friends’ Facebook profiles. We were lonely zealots always either worshipping other people’s virtual shrines or tending to our own. Tess Gruenberg examines the strange ways we worship others, and how technology makes it dangerously easy to do so (p. 24).
As much as I’d like to keep putting off the orange blob of hatred who runs this country, I can’t. Trump re-ignited the bigotries on which this country is founded. He’s poisoned the institutions many of us hold dear. But he has also imbued journalists with a new urgency. He has given new weight to words often attributed to George Orwell: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
Truth is not a thing of the past for Cipher or its writers. We still believe that an honest, well-told story can change you for the better. Though those stories are increasingly rare, you’ll certainly find some here.
God help us all,
Ethan Cutler and the Cipher Editors
Part of the Toxic issue