Dear Reader,

Not too long from now, the San Andreas Fault will cause a shitstorm of prodigious proportions—earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.—that will cosmically screw over millions and millions of people living in sunny California. The West Coast of the U.S. will drop off the edge of this flat world into the (ironically named) “Pacific” unknown. And there’s not too much we can do about that. Just, for the love of God, don’t live in L.A. 

But not all faults are cause for such fear. I want to explore those less terrifying faults in these final words I write for Cipher—an epilogue to a notably inauspicious four years of writing and editing for the magazine. 

Like many sentient graduating seniors, my impending departure from Colorado College has been cause to search for an echo of validation for spending four years and a lot of money here. The theme of this final issue has reminded me of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned at CC: how to look honestly at my own faults.

During my sophomore year, some CC acquaintances and I visited a high school friend of mine at the University of Denver. After my high school friend made one particularly lewd comment, a friend of mine from CC pulled me aside and asked incredulously, “Is that what you used to be like?”

In many ways, yes. I fancied myself a “good guy,” but didn’t go too far out of my way to be or do good. My general apathy applied to Cipher as much as it did to most other parts of my life. I spent the first 500 or so days of my tenure here unconvinced that working for the magazine held any inherent value—that is, any kind of transcendent, capital-V Value that that would go beyond tossing the experience on my resume. I stumbled through the first two years of my employment at Cipher writing vapid, lazy, and ignorant articles. But spending four years at CC offered me an opportunity to grow beyond that story and beyond who I used to be.

Here, I’ve met some of the most compassionate, empathetic people I’ve met anywhere. Bright, brave, people. Understated geniuses. People who devote more time and energy to those around them than they do to themselves. Years ago, a close friend eloquently captured the selflessness of many CC students. We were discussing a combative and rude friend of ours when my friend sighed and reminded me, “At the end of the day, everybody’s got their demons. You really can’t come at him with anything but compassion.”

Even small comments like this one helped me grow in a certain way. They forced me to reflect, and I don’t think you can grow without serious and exhaustive self-reflection. This manifested in Cipher as my decision to stop writing articles that literally parody CC students, and to start covering things that matter to me. Very slowly, I came to realize how writing and editing for the magazine teaches us new ways of thinking. Love letters, hate letters, drug deals, drug deals gone awry, arrests, job applications, explanations in job applications of why you got arrested, and so on: all of these require an adroit use of language and an ability to write. Cipher helps students do this. 

I really tried to avoid getting cheesy and self-congratulatory in this letter, but it seems that I’ve failed. (One of the faults I’ve unearthed is what one might kindly call “excessive self-importance.”) To clarify, I’m very ready to leave CC. But that’s just because all good things must end, and if they don’t, they eventually become bad things. 

So, enough of me. In the following pages, look forward to nine splendidly unique articles on all sorts of other faults. Read Kelan Nee’s brilliant article on the faults (and triumphs) of his hands—a reflection on his relationship with his father. Enjoy Sonya Padden’s dissection of the American psyche and Costcophilia. Skip my piece about the mistakes we’ve made addressing the issue of homelessness in America and how we can fix them (just kidding, read it, it’s important stuff). Learn about Title IX at CC in Noah Shuster and Anna Hill’s illuminating attempts to grapple with the contentious law. 

It’s been a genuine privilege to work with the wordsmiths at Cipher, and the humans I’ve been around at CC. Now, Reader, I hope you enjoy the issue, and have a wonderful, excellent, no-bad, very good rest of your life.

Relax—it probably wasn’t your fault,

Andrew Braverman and the Cipher staff

The epoxy is starting to set and I’ve got blood in my eyes. All the raw, untrimmed fiberglass hulls around me have cured sharp and thin at the edges, and each time I pass one I find small, clean cuts in the backs of my hands and fingers. This stuff’s got a cure time of about eight hours and I’ve been working for seven. My palms are starting to get tacky and stiff as the glue sets. I ran out of gloves hours ago, and didn’t have the time to restock. 

I’ve got to smooth the epoxy out, the fiberglass saturated with glue spilling over like an overwatered plant. Keep smoothing, clean the excess out from the keel of this baby blue canoe, get it under the vacuum press and into the oven to sit for the night.

I’m moving fast, swiping a squeegee over the thin wet fiberglass. It’s too hot—the hottest week of the year. I need to finish the boat before I leave for college 2000 miles away. I’m moving fast and I’ve sweat through my shirt, my pants, and the second layer of thick canvas at my knees. My face is pink and slippery with blood. I don’t know if it’s from my bleeding hands wiping at my face or if the stitches on my forehead have opened up and released red from the small gash. Maybe both. Either way, my right eye is stinging, blinded by blood and salt, but my hands are still fast. Deliberate and fast.

They’ve been deliberate for years now, ever since the day that they weren’t, the day that they grasped so desperately at bed sheets and shirtsleeves. Pathetic. Open and closed. The day that he was gone. Deliberate since then—moving pen to transfer the things in my head to things on paper. Moving the bodies of others, keeping them close or holding them away. Breaking, bending. I didn’t know my hands could strike through drywall. I didn’t know that broken knuckles heal in different shapes and sizes. That dislocated fingers really do “pop” back into place, the warm, sick onomatopoeia to a story you’ve written. These hands have been deliberate clasped around kitchen knives, a pair of metronomes, bell peppers on a cutting board. They’ve been deliberate at the filter ends of cigarettes and joints. Deliberate, wrapped around aluminum cans and the long glass necks of liquor bottles, praying, willing joy to some center of control. They’ve lifted my weight countless times. They’ve held my ribs as I gasped for air, bones cracked and floating in my chest. They’ve put things together. Put beauty where it was not. They’ve made mistakes, been ashamed, made up for most of them, and rest now, pink and white and gnarled, at my sides. These hands have moved in so many ways since they first begged to move, to be used, to make better that early morning August heat when all they could do was thrash at her words.

The boat is done in the morning when I pop it out of the mold. Well, most of it. I was able to finish all the glassing in time, got it into the oven before it hardened up. Now I’ve only got sawing and pushing left, destroying wood, fragrant western red cedar, to shape and bend the grain. It takes so many broken parts to make something that floats.

The day my father died was beautiful. Warm, not too hot, humidity cooled off for an August day in New England. I’d always imagined mourning in the rain, but it was so bright.

My mother was having an asthma attack. That’s what woke me up. I found her in the dining room, leaning against the big white wall, little hands clutching her chest. There’s a ledge that runs the perimeter of that room about seven feet up. It’s lined with Happy Meal Toys and plush animals, a collection of little nothings to look at from when I was young. These toys peered over me as I rifled through her purse and grabbed the inhaler, panicked and fumbling. Back in that doorway, tie-dye T-shirt, awake with fear, my hand on her shoulder, the other hanging limp. She wouldn’t use the little red canister of medicine. Albuterol makes her depressed. When she could finally gasp it out, croaking that my father was gone, that it was suicide, a stuffed purple dragon from some movie came crashing down from the ledge. And then it was a storm of plastic snakes and plush dogs as she made herself brave and I made the walls tremble, shrieking, balled fists pounding on plaster.

I have never known courage like a mother holding her son’s eyes, their son’s eyes, and giving him ugly honesty before he shook the house. She’d moved to the bathroom, where I found her later, on her knees crumpled by the baby blue bath mat, her hand in the toilet, pink and peach from the 50s. And then she rose like a giant and took me up, calmed me, and let us catch our breath.

Shaping wood by hand is so different from running wood through a power tool, which is difficult in its own right, but much less personal. A mistake with a power tool is still the fault of the hands behind it, but with distance. When you run a spoke shave, a two-handled blade that you draw toward yourself, too deep or at the wrong angle, you experience the mistake up close, eyes fearful and a feeling of pressure in your arms. And then you learn to adapt, to make the mistake something intentional, shaping the wood to fit the error. When you’re shaping wood by hand, you learn just how powerful your hands are. You learn how easy it is to be too strong, to push too hard, how simple it is to break everything in an instant. And then, if you’re lucky, you learn to rebuild, to use your hands and make something that floats.

“Stop crying Kelan. This is good,” he told me. “I’d take you with me if I could, but your mother …” He looked away. My mother was right. She wouldn’t even consider thinking about letting me move with him, nervous of me even being around him, fiddling at home with her beads and wire watching the phone. He had only been clean for a couple weeks, maybe a month.

“Stop crying, she needs someone strong around.” I knew that he meant someone to carry us, and that he knew it couldn’t be him. He probably knew that it had to be her, that she was strong enough for the both of us, working early mornings and late nights to pay the bills. He knew that he couldn’t carry us if he tried. That bottles break under pressure and that he was always a bottle when things started piling up.

“Stop crying,” he told me, looking away to keep from feeling the weight.

We left the car and headed for the supermarket. He pulled me close as we got to the double doors, just in range of things breakable, watermelons and ceramic planters, before he pushed me away. The game began. I was shoving him and hopping on my feet to avoid his pushing, making a scene at the automatic sliding doors of the supermarket. An elderly woman tried to sneak by, all Sunday pink and shuffling feet, yelling as my father’s big shoulder clipped her wing and she began to fall. Suddenly, he was a boy again, well-mannered and gentle, as he caught her softly, big hands on her shoulders. He guided her into the brick building, broad back curved down to hear the things she said. Chuckling now, she told him she’d thought he was trying to steal her purse. He laughed, pulling a cart for her from the silver masses, before looking down at her, earnest and smiling to say, “Ma’am, if I’d been trying to steal your purse, I would’ve knocked you over.” And they were both all white teeth and shaking as she gasped jokingly and slapped his chest before walking away, swinging her head in laughter.

He had that way about him, making us laugh, whatever it took, kind and sharp always. He was doing it to me now in the cereal aisle, with Barry White oozing from the speakers, rolling his fists at his chin, leaning his body back and side-to-side. It was a motion reserved only for boxers and disco dancers, and he was both. That day he was feeling the music, sliding across tile, eyes closed, calling to me, “There’s a dancer trapped inside my body!” And I was laughing, red in the face, nervous of the crowd he was attracting as he yelped “Oooooooh! Man!” past the wall of stiff cardboard boxes, long and short and low- and high-pitched, looking for my smile. And of course, before I felt it happen, I was moving my feet, banging the quick bag with my dad, our shoulders swaying and our audience growing from Captain Crunch and Toucan Sam to more than a dozen Stop & Shop patrons. Their clapping and laughter rang out against the cardboard boxes, but eventually, they moved on as Barry faded out and our chests heaved with exhaustion. He drove me home to my mother, who threw her arms around me and told him “Good luck.” Neither he nor I said a thing.

He had pills swimming in him when he died. Two weeks before, he had wrapped his car around a tree and his chest around the steering wheel. After the crash, doctors gave him small white opiates for his broken ribs, which he washed down with whiskey and water before his hands tied knots in rope. My hands were tying knots now too, almost five years later. The rope was run bow to stern, a knot every three feet, over the wood I carved to run the perimeter of the boat, the gunwale, to make it float, the final step to make this thing really work. Underneath the boat, I pulled tight on the cord, bathed in glue and wood shavings, tying taut bowlines.

Pills make you black out, or at least that’s what happened to me when I took them, half a year after he was gone. I did it the same way, a couple sips, and then a quick toss of the head, and a gulp or two more, chasing white chalk with liquor. I haven’t needed anything yet, the way that he needed numbness, the way most of us need water. I wonder if it felt good, if only for a moment, when his lips met the glass mouth of a bottle again. The room would spin, and I would sink into a hole on my couch, head swirling with questions I should’ve asked and things I should’ve said. My mind focused on the phone call I should’ve answered, my birthday, how I should’ve asked him if he was okay. My mind asked him what it felt like to be so afraid of something inside of himself, told him that I’d been angry and scared too, until the edges of my vision blurred. Then I’d let the world drift away and come back hours later, always in the same place, or maybe in some place new, alone and dazed and drinking water from plastic cups.

I couldn’t seem to ruin anything, not like he did. Everything that I did was fine. Good grades, good athlete, actually improving in almost all categories once he died, once I stopped caring. I wasn’t losing anything except my mind and small circles of skin where cigarettes went out. Nobody knew besides a few friends who only thought I was being wild. People thought I’d just made mistakes during the soccer games when I slid out the wrong way, letting some kid’s cleats catch my chest and send me into the air, or when another cleat clipped my head the night I lost most of the hearing in my left ear. Everyone was impressed by my tenacity, my will. I was mostly confused by it.

“Dennis,” my mother whispered, “What the hell happened?” I was young, maybe four years old, pajama-clad and holding the bars of the second floor banister in my hands. It could be my first memory. My mother had her hands on his face. My father. He was dead-eyed, hair a mess. He was wearing a white T-shirt, partly untucked from his blue jeans, always the same. “Dennis,” she said, “What the hell happened.” 

He was swaying a little, mouth closed tight, and there was blood all over his chest, a little on his thighs. Neither of them felt me there, seeing this thing I shouldn’t have seen, and it scared me to see them that way, unaware of me, wide-eyed and gaping through the banister. I was in bed quickly after, letting the soft pads of my feet pull me to my room and into my sheets so no one could hear my moving. He had red hair, brown and red, and red always looked good with the white T-shirt. In the morning, he woke me up, drinking coffee and smiling, telling me we had to take the dog out for a walk. There wasn’t a mark on him, smooth freckled face, but it was winter, and he was wearing his gloves inside.

I was 17 the first time I ever held a knife in my hand to carve a spoon. The spoon was awful, but it worked. My hands had made something that worked. They took off then, moving in and out of things, creating. They picked up a pen, so many tools, but left glass and plastic pill bottles behind. There was no cleaning up, no habit-breaking or urges, just a collecting of all things broken and put together again, some great mosaic of myself. I felt like I was moving again, like my head was on my neck and my neck was on my body, though maybe connected differently than before. I had broken so many things that I made, and the broken things became parts of the new things that moved and worked. There was an awareness of what my hands could do, the things they could build and break—especially of the things that they could break. It wasn’t until I wrote something I liked, or maybe it wasn’t until I made a spoon that was well-weighted and easily usable, that I regretted the broken knuckles and black spots in my memory. It was then that I became so afraid, that I felt like him. That every day I would wake up and see his face in the mirror and wonder when I would come home covered in someone else’s blood, so aware of the pain I could cause and wanting to run from it. Now it’s one day away from five years since he hanged himself, and my hands are tying knots in rope. 

The boat will float, but it isn’t finished. The wood will rot, and needs to be sealed. My dad died today, five years ago, at his own hands, and I’m going to finish the boat that I made with mine. I need to sand all the wood in-between coats of spar varnish, so the sealer can cling to something. Smooth surfaces don’t bond with smooth surfaces, and I need to rough things up for anything to hold. I’m painting the liquid on, and though the boat’s a translucent brown, the red cedar, a nice brown red, pops against the baby blue paint. It’s beautiful. I’ve cut up my hands making this thing. There was a day when I had worked so long and drank so little water that my knees buckled when I was done and I had to sit for an hour hydrating before driving home. I hadn’t seen much of anyone for awhile.

When it was done, my boat, my shirt was covered in clear varnish, a little brown. A little on my thighs. The cut on my head, above my right eye, was healed up. So much healing since the night I’d come home from work, and my mother had gasped, held my head in her hands and asked, “What the hell happened?” Now stitches out, only a soft pink memory above my brow. I said, “All right,” and felt my face smiling, kneading my knuckles in my hands and looking the canoe over. This thing floats. It works. It even looks pretty good. The mistakes, the scrapes in the hull, the scars in the wood, it’s something to be proud of for a little while. But in the car, driving home with the windows open, my hands are tight on the wheel, and always I’m afraid I’m going to crash.

"I just came here for chicken” said Patricia on a particularly empty Tuesday night in Costco. It was near closing time, and I had ventured once again to the glorious wholesale warehouse to continue my inquiry into its meaning.

“Have you had any interesting or memorable experiences in Costco?” I asked Patricia. 

“You mean like some stranger coming up to me randomly to ask questions about Costco?” 


“No. This would be a first.”

As Patricia made clear, Costco is not something people usually try to understand. It doesn’t even strike people as something that’s worth understanding. Even so, Costco has played a quiet and strangely omnipresent role in my life, so I need to make sense of it. Growing up, trips to Costco became a monthly event when one opened an hour and a half from my hometown. Costco was so much more affordable than the local grocery stores that the gas costs and the mandatory membership fee (it’s at least $60 per year) seemed justified. 

Weirdly enough, Costco became a space in which I could escape. Somehow, Costco’s therapeutic powers never failed to work their magic on my existential insecurities. I remember being in middle school, waiting for my first crush to text me back, nervously checking my small flip phone as my parents debated what type of cheese would be most popular with our extended family over the holidays. 

As a college freshman, I strolled the aisles aimlessly, usually hungover, finding solace from unfulfilling relationships in the vast expanse of bulk products. I would pause and see my puffy face reflected in the polished gray floor. As I grazed on samples, I marveled at the apparently infinite quantity and variety of products. Costco, after all, is the only place on the planet where you can buy both a 9-foot fishing pontoon boat and an extra-large bag of crème brûlée flavored almonds. You can sip green juice samples from the Vitamix guy, and as you wonder whether a two-person electrical sauna would fit in your dorm room, you realize what a difference the 240-mph blender blade can make in the flavor and texture of your smoothies. 

I found solace between the towering warehouse shelves, in the maze of shoppers who struggled with overflowing shopping carts and neither knew nor cared who I was. I muffled headaches with dollar-fifty pizza slices, and I calmed a fear of the future by letting the products on the shelves inspire thoughts on ways my life could improve. 

We Costco shoppers go to Costco not necessarily to acquire products we need, or even products we know we want. We go so that Costco can tell us what our needs should be. We go for subconscious advice. This advice, although subtle, informs us of the best ways to acquire what Costco shoppers call “value.” 

When I asked Patricia With The Chicken what the greatest part of Costco is, her meandering response ended with, “value in everything, really.” This feeling of value that Costco exudes, at its core, is the sense that we’re getting more than we’re giving up. The feeling depends on knowing that we’re getting a lot while paying a little, and that we’re getting the highest quality stuff at the lowest price.

Whether or not the calculation is correct—whether or not you’re actually getting more for less—is actually almost irrelevant. It doesn’t matter that, despite your best intentions, you won’t finish the 2-by-3 foot bag of spinach before it goes bad. The fact that you’re at Costco means you’re already economical; it means you waste your money efficiently. What matters in Costco is not actually the value of the products. What matters is the feeling of value that shopping there provides.

Costco’s mandatory membership distinguishes it from other stores. Forcing customers to pay for a membership before they can shop might seem like a bad business model, but the membership works magic. Because shoppers have already made a sacrifice by paying the membership fee, every purchase at Costco makes the membership more and more “worth it.” (The membership isn’t worth it if you only buy a couple things from Costco every month, so you better buy a ton of stuff to make sure you get your money’s worth.) 

What we forget is that if you’re buying stuff you don’t need in order to make your membership worth it, then you’re not really getting more out of your membership. But regardless, the more you buy, the less significant the fee you’ve already paid seems. The manifestation of getting a good deal is to acquire more, so at Costco, a loss in money feels like a gain in value. 

The Costco Member, myself included, constructs their identity around their purchases. In Costco, buying a lot is viewed not as excessive, but as smart and efficient. All the excess becomes pragmatic because you are, as the thinking goes, getting value. It eases the tension between our desire to accumulate stuff and our reservations about gluttony. Coming for some bagels and leaving with a paddleboard is not evidence of a tendency to succumb to temptation, but simply a #costcoproblem. 

The experience of being a Costco consumer seems like an individual activity, but is actually positioned within a kind of community. The community is united by the feeling of getting the best deal—that is, getting the best value. Just by being a Costco member, you’re already ahead of most other people—namely, everyone who’s not shopping at Costco. But the game also continues within Costco. Who is going to make the best purchase? Or find the thing that’s simply too cheap not to buy? The whole thing is much more like a recreational activity than a chore. What started as a means to buy what we need for other activities has become an activity in itself.

Take, for instance, a passing experience I had with a lady who sported a pixie cut, a pink headband, pink pants, pink lipstick, and sunglasses (perhaps to combat the strong fluorescent lighting). She had a motorized shopping cart, and her single crutch lay within her bin on top of her produce. We approached the sample stand together and she asked for the blueberry Go-Gurt. When the man behind her also chose the blueberry Go-Gurt, she raised the Go-Gurt into the air like she was making a toast and said, “Great minds think alike!” He reciprocated with the same motion, giving a slight nod as he raised his Go-Gurt in solidarity, as if to say, “Cheers!” 

In Costco, we feel like a part of something, part of a great game that is both enthralling and sickening. As I thought more about it, I began to wonder whether this value calculation game might be applied outside the confines of Costco. I’ve become convinced that this desire to get value is so deep in our psyche that I chose a college and might choose a life partner according to the same calculation: will I get out more than I put in?

You apply to college not knowing exactly how much it’ll give you; you send a flirty text hoping, but not knowing, that it will lead to something more. And because we don’t know how much we’ll gain, or whether we’ll gain at all, we minimize how much we sacrifice and risk. Usually, we’re thinking, “I shouldn’t give up too much, just in case this doesn’t pan out.” But unlike the rest of the world, once you’ve made your sacrifice by getting a Costco membership, you can make it pan out simply by buying more. Maybe this explains why Costco is so therapeutic. It’s the one place where we have control over the payoff.

Walking through the furniture aisle, I overheard a woman, one half of a short and plump couple in all gray, say to her partner, “I can’t wait till we have a house so we can buy all this stuff!” They were shuffling slowly, holding hands, and melting into each other’s grayness. 

Their way of being made me sad, not because of the gray, but because she seemed more excited about future consumption than she did about actually using the things they were planning on consuming. She was excited to have a house so that they could buy more stuff at Costco. 

Knowing you’re gaining at Costco only feels liberating because we think of our whole lives in terms of gain and loss. Maybe if we weren’t always so worried about whether or not something is going to pay off, Costco wouldn’t be the therapeutic recreational activity that it is. Maybe those samples wouldn’t taste so good. 

It’s sort of nauseating to think that buying unnecessary things is a respite from the usual anxiety of gain and loss. How dark and burdensome is my life, really, if going to Costco feels freeing? 

As I check out, I look to my fellow members and wonder, will I grow up to be one half of the gray couple shopping for furniture, part of the family debating diaper brands while their child cries, or the balding man wandering around in his pajamas at closing time with 24 donuts tucked under his arm? It’s not that I don’t want to be like them. They’re just people living lives of a variety as infinite as the products they consume. And most of them are seemingly pleasant lives, too. Even if they’re not content with their lives, at least they seem content here. They are, in the end, like me: little value calculators, engulfed in the shiny bright products, trying to decide which one will make their experience at Costco most joyous. 

The Tuesday night I met Patricia, I sat in the food court after finishing dinner, listening to the constant beeping of checkout lanes and the rattling of shopping carts as people left the store. It was closing time, and the emptiness of the aisles made the shelves seem even taller than normal. Amidst the awe of, “There is all this,” I find myself wondering, “Is this all there is?”

In the fall of 2013, Emily started her first year at Colorado College. She soon became involved in what she regarded as a serious relationship with a male student. At first it felt very comfortable; she liked the guy she was dating, and it was clear that he liked her. But some things didn’t feel right.

“He told me he loved me three weeks into the relationship,” recalls Emily, who asked that her real name not be published. That was when she started to suspect that something was off. 

They began to argue more and more frequently, and the relationship felt increasingly difficult to leave. In one argument over the phone during winter break, she remembers him saying, “If we ever break up, I’m going to make your life fucking hell.”

Emily took an extra month off after winter break to figure things out. She used the time to find the strength to break up with him. She says that when she broke up with him, “It felt like a million pounds had been lifted off my shoulders.”

She returned to campus confident with the decision she had made. The first weekend after spring break, however, her ex-boyfriend was back in her life with vengeance. She returned to her dorm room one night to find him waiting for her. They argued. He put her in a chokehold. Emily escaped without physical harm, but that encounter was only the beginning of an ongoing pattern of behavior that left Emily in a constant state of anxiety. “He would show up at my dorm, yell at me from across campus, and try to grab me at parties,” she explains. She had frequent panic attacks, lost significant weight, and struggled to concentrate in class.

Emily decided to seek a no-contact order through the CC Title IX office, which would prohibit him from interacting with her in person, online, through writing, or even through a third party. According to Emily, he immediately broke the no-contact order. She then filed a formal Title IX complaint to Gail Murphy-Geiss, the College’s Title IX coordinator. Two trained CC employees were assigned to investigate the case.

 Emily was asked to write a page describing what happened to her and what she wanted to happen to her ex-boyfriend. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend, per the Title IX Policy, was asked to write a one-page rebuttal. He wrote five pages, and also gave the investigators “character references” from some of their mutual friends, arguing that he wasn’t capable of what he was accused of doing, despite the fact that Title IX policy prohibits the consideration of these references. Emily recalls that although the investigators did not formally consider these letters as evidence for the case, they purportedly read them. Tara Misra, the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator (SARC) at the time, recommended that Emily read them in the event that they became relevant in the case. Emily says that they made her out to be untrustworthy, dependent on alcohol, and incapable of handling herself. After reading the letters, Emily says, “I felt like it was in my best interest to at least say something about them. I didn’t know if [the investigators] were going to factor them in or not”—even though the investigators never should have considered the letters in the first place.

The Title IX hearings did not make things easier. Emily says that Misra “started criticizing me because I wasn’t showing enough emotion,” as if tears would have legitimized her case. Emily describes the whole investigative process as “the worst months of my life.” She felt attacked for speaking out and seeking justice—she says her ex-boyfriend’s mom started sending her texts such as, “You are ruining my son’s life.” The investigators tried to be accommodating throughout the process, but they only work during weekday hours. “Every weekend, my life was put on hold,” she says. Eventually her ex-boyfriend was found responsible and suspended from campus for a semester. Though he could have returned to CC, he never did. “I feel like he should’ve been kicked off campus or suspended for at least a year,” she says.

Emily’s case illustrates the complexities that exist throughout formal Title IX proceedings. For Emily, the anxiety caused by the Title IX investigation she went through outweighed the meager sense of closure that resulted from the investigation.

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According to Murphy-Geiss, one in four female students experience some form of sexual harassment during their time at CC. According to the College’s website, CC is an institution that prides itself on responding to sexual violence “through education, outreach, dialogue, and supportive services.” But these stories illustrate that CC’s response to sexual misconduct has left many survivors and their advocates dissatisfied with the Title IX response protocol.

Part of the difficulty that survivors encounter stems from the fact that Title IX often deals with abuses and violations that are intimate and difficult to clearly define. Emotional abuse, for example, is a form of assault, as recognized by Title IX Policy. However, it is not always easily recognizable, and gathering evidence of violations in formal proceedings is difficult. The survivors of other Title IX violations, such as sexual assault, often confront similar challenges that make it difficult to tell anyone about their experience. Finding closure becomes even more evasive when the process seeks objectivity in such an emotionally distressing situation.

While CC has made efforts to teach students how to respond to sexual violence, the college hasn’t addressed the difficulty of the Title IX process. Students still overwhelmingly avoid reporting. Murphy-Geiss acknowledges that this is in part due to “the painfulness of the process.” Though formal reporting could empower survivors to seek justice through the punishment of their assailants, many survivors choose to avoid the pain of revisiting their trauma.

However, some believe school administrations don’t necessarily want more students to come forward with Title IX complaints. As of 2012, 45 percent of colleges reported zero sexual assaults—an obviously incorrect figure. According to Josh Keehne, Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, some schools may not want to know the true numbers; they want their statistics as low as possible. No school wants to be recognized as the school with rampant sexual assault and intimate partner abuse. Handling sexual violence cases internally via the Title IX process can actually keep the negative reality of assault and abuse quiet, as opposed to having law enforcement handle the situation, thus placing it in the public eye. 

Nonetheless, Heather Horton, CC’s Wellness Resource Coordinator, is proud of the changes the institution has made over the years, such as the installation of practices that help the administration better stand with survivors. “I feel like we have stood [with], for instance, trauma informed practices,” she says.

While CC and other schools may be genuinely working to improve their policies on Title IX related issues, several of the administration’s programs to combat sexual assault on campus have backfired. The “Consent is Sexy” campaign, presented to students during the 2015 New Student Orientation, for example, seemed to convey the message that explicit consent could enhance sexual encounters. The message troubled many students; because consent is the most critical part of sex, these students felt it shouldn’t be sexualized by a slogan. Students responded by wearing shirts around campus that had the word “sexy” crossed out and replaced by something more emphatic: “Consent is mandatory.”

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Sara Colombo, who graduated from CC in 2017, had been seeing another female CC student for roughly a year before she realized she was in an abusive relationship. Colombo experienced signs of abuse, such as isolation from her friends and from the rest of campus. It felt like she was “essentially entering into a suicide pact” with her partner, she recalls.

Colombo decided to go to the SARC, Tara Misra at the time. Colombo explained to Misra that her significant other had been emotionally abusing her. Like Emily, Colombo says that in an emotionally abusive relationship, “leaving is scarier than staying.” Colombo felt that she had been manipulated into developing an unhealthy dependence. During her explanation to Misra, the first name of her abuser slipped out. According to Colombo, “Tara got very surprised and asked for the initial of the last name [of the perpetrator], and then said ‘You have to get away from this person.’”

 At this point, Colombo had stopped seeing her partner. Colombo eventually learned that her ex had been accused of a Title IX violation against another individual on campus. Along with more than 10 others, Colombo ended up participating as a witness in a Title IX investigation of her ex.

The role of a witness is to answer questions about times they have observed the respondent abusing the complainant. As a witness, Colombo was asked, “Do you have anything else to add?” The Title IX investigative team asks every witness this question at the end of their hearing, allowing the witnesses to elaborate on their own experiences with the alleged abuser. Colombo used this opportunity to provide investigators with her own account of emotional abuse.

Her ex-girlfriend was found responsible and dismissed from campus at the very end of her senior year. However, she was approved to take off-campus courses to still earn a Colorado College degree. Although the official complainant had been notified of this decision, Colombo and the other witnesses were not informed. 

Colombo was frustrated because the decision did not feel like a sufficient consequence of emotional abuse and sexual assault. Moreover, the Title IX violations wouldn’t show up on her ex’s criminal record, and workplaces would not see her disciplinary record unless they specifically requested it. “She could go through her entire life without facing any consequences,” Colombo says. 

Some survivors feel that the formal Title IX process isn’t an option. Elizabeth Reece was just a few weeks into her first year at CC when she was sexually assaulted. According to Reece, a guy she had been seeing on and off, “verbally manipulated me to feel like I could not leave.” Later that night, he pressured her into sexual acts to which she had not consented. That night ended up changing Reece’s outlook on relationships, sex, and intimacy. Looking back, she now knows what happened that night was assault, but at the time she was not sure how to distinguish this experience from what she thought the hookup culture at CC was supposed to be. “I just didn’t understand,” Reece recalls. 

When describing her initial response to the assault, Reece says, “I didn’t deal with it. I put it into a little box.” She also doubted her interpretation of events and reproached herself. She questioned if the perpetrator even knew he’d committed assault and asked herself, “Am I lying? Am I making this up?” 

Reece, like Colombo, went to Misra to discuss what happened to her. Misra asked her how she felt when she saw her abuser on campus. Reece then realized that “this fear and discomfort I felt when seeing him on campus was not normal at all, and indicative of actual sexual assault, rather than just a gross experience I wanted to ignore.” However, Reece did not want to make a formal complaint, partly because of the emotional weight of the experience. 

Two years after her assault, Reece still found herself struggling with intimacy. She realized she had to take action, but not necessarily through the Title IX reporting process. Reece says that she had heard stories from friends who had similar experiences with sexual violence. She started thinking about others who might feel vulnerable and unsure of how to deal with these situations. “I was worried about people getting assaulted and not having the language to describe what happened, or not knowing what happened to them,” she says. “[It’s] fucked up that he lives a normal life, friends love him, and he could still be ruining other peoples’ lives,” she says.

Upon her graduation last fall, Reece made her story public by posting about her experience on Facebook. “I had spent the past four years trying to recognize, validate, and accept what happened to me. Now, almost five years later, I am sadly still working on the ‘validation’ and ‘acceptance’ portions of this journey,” she wrote in the post. Making her story public and using it to spread awareness to other students has helped Reece find closure as a survivor of sexual assault.

Spencer Spotts, a 2017 CC graduate, had a relationship with a male CC student. Throughout the relationship, Spotts (who uses the pronouns they/them/theirs) was victim to both emotional abuse and sexual assault. The sexual assault involved alcohol: “getting me blackout drunk,” Spotts says. However, Spotts was hesitant to file a Title IX complaint against the perpetrator because they previously had a negative experience with the Title IX office—Spotts, along with two other students, had filed a previous case against a CC employee for multiple violations, including having sex with a current student. But the employee was found not responsible of any violation. Essentially, the employee was only given a “slap on the wrist” by the administration.

This was when Spotts first felt that the Title IX process had some major flaws.

Before filing any complaint again, Spotts sought a no-contact agreement with their ex, who had graduated in 2015. Murphy-Geiss advised Spotts to go forward with a formal Title IX complaint, which could potentially keep their ex off campus indefinitely. Both Spotts and Murphy-Geiss felt that pursuing a formal investigation would be safer for Spotts in the event that their ex were to return to campus.

They went forward with the complaint, only to experience what Spotts calls a “very sloppy” process. The primary problem was that during this investigation, CC didn’t have a SARC—Tara Misra had left the school, and Maria Mendez, Misra’s replacement, would not start working until the following semester. This left Spotts without a formal ally in the Title IX process until they pointed out the problem and the office assigned an employee to serve as a temporary ally for Spotts. Heather Horton expresses that “students lost a lot of trust” in the administration that semester due to the absence of a SARC on campus. Furthermore, “There were multiple questions asked about our identities and how much I knew about his ‘coming out’ experience that were not relevant whatsoever,” Spotts says of the actual investigation process itself.

Throughout the investigation, Spotts had been active on social media, using the platform to talk publicly about the extensive healing process a survivor must go through. Murphy-Geiss repeatedly told Spotts that she believes this kind of activism complicates the Title IX investigation and discouraged them from continuing it. 

According to Spotts, Murphy-Geiss then sent an email out to both Spotts and their ex, asking them both to stay away from social media. Spotts had two major problems with this. First, since Murphy-Geiss had known about Spotts’s activism, the email seemed to inadvertently side with their ex. Second, by sending the same email to both the complainant and the respondent, Murphy-Geiss had made it easier for the respondent to violate the no-contact agreement, by giving him Spotts’s email address. 

Spotts’s ex was found not responsible. The Title IX Coordinators told Spotts that they could not reach 51 percent certainty about the guilt of the perpetrator because of the contradiction between Spotts’ and their ex’s accounts. According to the coordinators, the case was a classic “he said, she said,” situation. Spotts remembers that “his retelling of certain details were the exact opposite of mine.” To Spotts, the decision indicated a “lack of training” on how to properly consider the evidence they had brought to the table, including “records of dates and witnesses who spoke to what I was like after the assault.” An appeal of the case went nowhere, despite what Spotts believed to be strong evidence of guilt; President Jill Tiefenthaler emailed Spotts personally to affirm that the decision had been upheld. 

Spotts believed that the outcome of the case was a major injustice that needed to be made public. Spotts decided to carry a sign reading “CC is protecting my rapist,” including the number of days since the rapist was found “not responsible.” Spotts used their sign to raise awareness of the flawed system of Title IX investigations at CC beyond their specific case.

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Murphy-Geiss believes that cases often go in two directions: “the ones that are not close, and the ones that are.” That is, decisions about responsibility and sanctions are easier to make when there is either overwhelming evidence or not nearly enough. According to Murphy-Geiss, there are, however, cases where it is truly a 50/50, “he said, she said” situation. Those are the cases that tend to leave the complainant feeling that justice has not been served. 

Murphy-Geiss notes that the Title IX process is not necessarily built to provide justice. It is built to, one, stop the harm immediately, and two, address the harm over the long term. These goals are defined to ensure that students have fair, uninterrupted access to education. This is partly why, Murphy-Geiss explains, the role of Title IX coordinator is so difficult: the policy is not always concerned with “justice” in the same sense that survivors of sexual assault may conceptualize it.

She has, however, come under scrutiny for other reasons, in part due to her tendency to be explicit in discussing sexual assault, often without trigger warnings. John Henry Williams was a Residential Advisor (RA) his sophomore year. During RA training, Williams recalls Murphy-Geiss explaining inappropriate and triggering material to the RAs. He says that Murphy-Geiss essentially explained “what a sexual assault abuser can get away with,” although Murphy-Geiss disputes that she used that language. According to Williams, she told the RAs, “rape is only considered rape if its penetrative,” referencing the legal definition of rape. However, some RAs who had experienced sexual assault themselves were so alarmed by the unexpected statement that they had to leave the room, prompting emails from their bosses, the Residential Life Coordinators, who offered support. 

 Two years ago, CC held a screening of “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary emphasizing the controversies of sexual assault on college campuses. Murphy-Geiss was on a panel of speakers. When asked about ways in which students can combat the culture of rape on college campuses, Murphy-Geiss responded by essentially saying that if women only dated women and avoided men, there would be less sexual assault on campus. Although it was a joke, many students felt that this statement implied that sexual violence did not exist within queer relationships. (Murphy-Geiss explained that the College did not have a big enough sample size of queer students to accurately include information about sexual violence in queer relationships.) 

Murphy-Geiss says she openly uses humor as the Title IX coordinator and fully embraces her tendency to speak explicitly about sexual assault, acknowledging that it may offend some. 

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Emily felt her abuser should have been suspended for longer, if not expelled. Still, it was a relief to end the Title IX process, which Emily found to be both tedious and humiliating. Two years later, when Emily was a senior, she went out one weekend night and woke up in the middle of the night without remembering anything, lying next to a male CC student. She believes she was raped. But Emily decided it was not worth going through the emotional exhaustion of the Title IX process again. Instead, she confronted him herself, and it was not easy. “It was super hard to look him in the eyes and say, ‘You violated every part of me,’” she says. 

Emily’s story is just one example of a survivor feeling let down by an administrative process that is supposed to ensure safety and the ability to live and learn comfortably. Instead, too many survivors experience emotional turmoil in going through Title IX, leaving them to feel like a victim to the process in addition to being a victim of sexual violence. These stories point to the need for Title IX investigations at CC to better help survivors find closure.

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I remember now, our first kiss was in the pantry at your friend Nicole’s, between a box of Oreos and a bag of Cheetos. Secret and squeezed. It was dark, and I couldn’t see you.

We all have monsters—you especially. Your monsters didn’t keep you up at night; they dragged you to sleep and wouldn’t let you wake in the morning. A bottle of wine in the fridge, a handle of vodka under your bed. The days without them, seventy-two hours straight, awake. You kept them close. In your room, upstairs, fugitives between the clothes, books, the lipstick and blush containers. Some monsters I wouldn’t know about until later. You liked to hide things for no reason. Your weed on the top shelf of your closet, in your old grey running shoes that you never used because you never ran and because “why the hell would you wear running shoes if you’re not going to run?”

At school, you would point out every pair. “Hope your run was good,” to a jean-clad kid in Asics. “Check how fast he looks,” to another. If your style opinions were truly based on practicality, then the clothes you wore yourself reached for social, or perhaps just sexual, utility—never sweatpants, always eyeliner and lipstick, two showers a day. Hair straightened, laced with perfume. The image you projected outside of your room was an expertly developed photograph, makeup and clothes stolen from Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, your rich aunt’s house. Never caught. You had a model’s wardrobe inside a nine-by-nine foot room, curated by you, a seventeen-year-old. For how little you seemed to take care of yourself, you took care of yourself more than anyone I ever knew.

That Friday happened like any other. Eighty-one square feet for us to do as we pleased: to witness each other, draw chalk on your one black wall, listen to music and drink and smoke until Monday came. It was morning, but too late to be late for school, so we didn’t go, pretending you weren’t graduating that spring and leaving me. Both of us ignorant of the fact that I would break up with you before then anyway. You had that Justin Bieber poster on your wall, “but ironically.” You said you were only dating me because I looked like him.

I remember how you’d always dip the cross on your necklace in the shot glass before taking your vodka. “Baptism,” you would say, knock it back, and laugh. Cuddled in bed until we both had to pee so badly we couldn’t lie there any longer. By that point I had a toothbrush at your house.

“You know Tristan is into you,” you told me, while I was inside of you, only our third time.

“I’m into you. Like, literally.” We didn’t stop having sex as we talked; we didn’t slow down.

“You should hook up with him. Would you?”

“He’s just a fag.” I wasn’t thinking about him. I wasn’t going to last long.

You forgot. My birthday, for one. Dates we’d planned for weeks. I thought it might be the weed. You showed me a lot I thought you would have hid, but you still hid a lot. I didn’t know Xanax until I knew you. Now I’m too familiar.

“I’m glad I met you when I did,” you would say later. “People will come up to me and talk about hanging out senior year of high school and I won’t even remember who they are. I lost a year. I lost people.”

I wonder how you can say something is saving your life when it has almost taken it three times.

“I’m so bad at dying,” you used to say, frowning, but expecting a laugh. “And just awful at living.”

I wonder if you remember things the way I do—if you remember them at all. I wonder, then, if you would trust the things I write. I wonder if our relationship is just mine now, kept alive only by the words I put on this page. Do you blame me for where you are now? 

Neuropsychologists—you know, the ones you say you hate—claim that every time you retrieve a memory, you alter the original. That whatever you are experiencing when you retrieve that memory will affect how you will remember it the next time you retrieve it. Less authentic. Perhaps I should have written this down a long time ago. 

You didn’t have a driver’s license. Your mom, Jane, had a habit of getting pulled over drunk, sloppy, and solipsistic. One of those people who gets a police cam video uploaded online because they cuss out a cop, absolutely trashed but somehow still managing to recite the alphabet backwards. Jane’s ‘99 Acura had a breathalyzer installed in it after her second DUI. She had to blow into it, sober, to unlock the ignition. Because Jane was often drunk most days of the week, and very often drunk on Fridays, you were usually the one to blow into it.

“Eve! I need you!” Jane shouted from downstairs.

The light through the tall pines outside cast the room in green.

“I don’t want to get older,” you told me, ignoring your mom.

“I don’t think I’d like you if you weren’t older,” I said. “All I can ever think of is growing up.” Jane shouted again from downstairs.

You rolled out of bed. “I’m sorry for this,” you said softly, slurring. It was one of those times I thought you should cry but you didn’t. You never cried in front of me, even though you always talked about how much you cried. That day, you knew you were drunk—so was I. Your mom was drunker. I sat upstairs waiting, listening to silence, then yelling, then silence. Your mom biked to work that day.

The door slammed, and then you were back upstairs, vomiting over the toilet, me holding your hair.

“I’ve never been so happy over a toilet,” you said to me, eyes closed, cheek against the seat, smiling, still slurring. “So happy it hurts. My mouth hurt this week from smiling so much.”

You fell asleep on the floor and I carried you to bed. I biked home before Jane got back from work. The sun was out, but the light was lonely.

Do you remember the day we broke up? It wasn’t a normal argument, this one so trite and definitive. Usually we could argue for hours.

You seemed shy, for the first time, sitting on the step outside your front door.


You wore your bright blue footie pajamas and I thought they were hideous. I loved you so much I had to lie down.

Do you remember the white van always parked on the street outside your house? We never saw it leave. We thought it might kidnap kids in the middle of the night.

Do you remember, after you’d gone off to college, when I came out to you?

I hope you don’t. 

About 8 miles south of downtown Colorado Springs stands the suburban subdivision of Security-Widefield. The suburb is unremarkable in every way, except, perhaps, for its name—and for one strange day in its otherwise uneventful history. 

About 30,000 people live in Security-Widefield, mostly in cookie-cutter houses with wide lawns. There is a mall, a recreation center, and half a dozen elementary schools. The main drag, Fontaine Boulevard, divides the town into two principal neighborhoods: Security and Widefield. Along Fontaine Boulevard is Widefield Park, a charmingly average suburban greenspace with a playground, disc golf course, tennis courts, and a lot of poorly manicured grass. A lethargic stream runs through the middle of the park on its way to Monument Creek, passing through a grove of ash trees within sight of several two-story brick apartment buildings. It was here, where a paved footpath crosses over the stream, that a Boeing 737 crashed on the morning of March 3, 1991. 

 Earlier that morning, a Boeing 737—registration N999UA, operating that day as United flight 585—began boarding in Peoria, Illinois. The plane was nine years old and in fair condition; United Airlines had purchased it secondhand in 1986. The plane had seats for 136 passengers, but United used it to serve smaller cities, so it often operated at less than half capacity. 

At the controls that day were Captain Harold Green and First Officer Patricia Eidson. Three flight attendants rounded out the crew. Captain Green, 52 years old and a highly experienced pilot, was known for being a stickler for the rules. March 3 was to be his last day of flying before a two-week vacation, and he was looking forward to going home to see his wife and young daughter.

First Officer Eidson, 42 years old, was also no rookie. She had been among United’s first female pilots, and had made impressive headway in a male-dominated industry. She had not been scheduled to fly flight 585, but a vacancy opened up, so she volunteered. Eidson found herself unexpectedly paired with Green, who she had flown with for three days back in February. They had apparently gotten along well.

Eidson and Green flew the plane together, switching who was at the controls for each segment: first to Moline, Illinois, then on to Stapleton International Airport in Denver. (Stapleton was decommissioned and turned into a suburban neighborhood after Denver International Airport was built in 1995.) At Stapleton, the plane boarded just 20 passengers, leaving over 100 seats empty on the final leg of its journey to Colorado Springs. The passengers included a U.S. Olympic cycling coach, as well as two employees of the U.S. Olympic Committee. One of the flight attendants was a model and aspiring actress who had recently appeared in a hip-hop music video. Most of the passengers were from Colorado Springs, but a few were from other parts of the U.S. There was also one passenger from Canada, one from Ireland, one from Poland, and one from Japan. Also on board was a corpse on its way to Colorado Springs for burial. In total, 25 people (and one dead body) were on the plane when it took off from Denver at 9:23 a.m.

The flight was scheduled to take just 23 minutes, after which it would turn around and go back to Denver. Captain Green joked to a customer service agent that they would “be back in a few minutes.” Shortly thereafter, flight 585 took to the air. 

The plane flew for 14 minutes before First Officer Eidson opened communications with an air traffic controller at Colorado Springs Airport. At 9:37 a.m., the controller cleared flight 585 to approach runway 35 from the south, directing the pilots to make a wide loop past the airport and over Security-Widefield. The published transcript of the cockpit voice recording begins somewhere around this time. A bout of light turbulence jostled the plane, prompting Captain Green to remark, “I’ve never driven to Colorado Springs and not gotten sick!” 

The pilots had already put the plane into its landing configuration when the controller informed them to wait on the runway after landing to make way for another plane that would taxi across their path. First Officer Eidson noted that the taxiing aircraft would cross the far end of the runway, assuring that it was nothing to worry about. About a minute later, Eidson noted a change in the plane’s speed, presumably connected to swirling winds that they had expected to encounter near the airport. After another 30 seconds, Eidson commented on another change in speed, accompanied by a barely audible “Wow.” “We’re at a thousand feet,” she added. The plane would be on the runway in two minutes and 30 seconds.

Four seconds after her mysterious “Wow,” the plane rolled hard to the right. First Officer Eidson yelled, and Captain Green called for “flaps fifteen,” referring to the angle of the adjustable wing flaps. Both pilots hammered on the rudder pedals, trying to steer the aircraft back to level flight, but their efforts seemed to have no effect. The plane kept rolling to the right until it was upside-down, at which point it entered a dive straight toward the ground. Captain Green uttered an expletive while one of them tried to move the position of the flaps. The plane began to pull up out of the dive, but there wasn’t enough height left. It continued to roll inexplicably to the right. The pilots’ grunts of exertion turned into screams of panic. Green yelled “No!” even as he continued his futile attempts to adjust the flaps against the right roll. 

“Oh my God!” Eidson shouted. “Oh my God!”

The last sound on the cockpit voice recorder is Eidson’s final ear-splitting scream. Just nine seconds had elapsed from the beginning of the roll until the moment of impact.

Flight 585 plunged almost straight down toward Widefield Park at 245 mph. According to news reports, nearby residents watched in horror as the plane narrowly missed the Widefield Apartments, passing so close that one witness claimed to see terrified passengers clawing at the windows. Another swore the plane clipped her roof (it didn’t). A split second later, flight 585 slammed into the ground, obliterating a grove of trees. An explosion engulfed the park, shattering windows in the nearby apartment complex. The force and angle of the impact were so great that most of the wreckage crumpled like an accordion into a 10-foot deep crater, while tiny burning pieces rained down on the surrounding area. Residents hurried to the crash site, hoping to find survivors, but the destruction was so complete that they could hardly even find the plane. 

“I saw this huge ball of black smoke and flame, so I ran as fast as I could to help,” said Robert Allen, who worked at the Air Force Academy and lived in Widefield at the time. “But when I got there, I could see that I wasn’t going to be of any help. It was all over.”

“It was obvious that the airplane was a total loss, and that there were no survivors,” Louis Matthews, a firefighter who arrived at the scene, recalled 20 years later. “But people held out hope in spite of what they were witnessing.”

Those hopes would be in vain. Within minutes, first responders confirmed that none of the 25 passengers or crew had survived. On the ground, only one person sustained an injury—an 8-year-old girl who was knocked down a flight of stairs by the blast wave. Other than her, the ambulances went home empty.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and reporters alike arrived several hours after the crash. On March 4, the New York Times published a haunting description of the scene: “Firefighters and volunteers surveyed the eerie, incongruous site. The wreckage, like so many shreds of blackened paper, was strewn about singed grass near bare oak and elm trees, in the jagged shadow of the snow-topped Rocky Mountains. Purses and suitcases that looked as if they had hardly been touched mingled with airplane parts burned almost beyond recognition.”

A crew of volunteers was sent to walk a grid pattern to search for any human remains. They found little more than tiny pieces of bone scattered by the explosion. Investigators, meanwhile, set about digging the wreckage out of the ground with manpower and heavy machinery, searching for the black box flight recorders that would have recorded data about the plane’s performance as well as cockpit conversations. Both were found the following day and sent to a lab for analysis.

The investigators expected that finding out what happened would be a challenge. “My first sense that it was going to take some time to investigate the accident was the damage we saw on the parts,” said investigator Greg Phillips. “When they’re burned and broken, the process always takes longer.” None of them, however, expected the investigation into the crash of United flight 585 to drag on until 2001, making it the longest crash investigation in U.S. history.

The first suspected cause of the crash was wind. Colorado Springs Airport was notorious for a wind phenomenon known as a “rotor,” in which air rushing down off the mountains loops back on itself and creates powerful vortices like sideways tornadoes. Sudden changes in wind direction had been reported in the area around the time of the crash. Some witnesses also said they encountered freak gusts of wind up to 90 mph. But the NTSB’s analysis of the plane’s flight path, pressure data from the black box, and cross-examination of the witness accounts revealed that the plane could not have encountered a rotor vortex. 

Pilot error also seemed unlikely. Both pilots were highly experienced with good safety records, and the black boxes showed no indication that they had failed to properly perform landing preparations or other in-flight tasks. Lacking any clear evidence of pilot error, investigators’ suspicions increasingly turned to some kind of mechanical failure. 

The NTSB eventually narrowed in on the plane’s rudder. If the rudder had suddenly deflected all the way to one side, it could explain why the plane rolled so sharply to the right. The primary suspect became the Power Control Unit, a complex piece of machinery that translates pilot inputs into actual movement of the rudder. Unfortunately for the NTSB, the Power Control Unit was completely destroyed in the crash, leaving them unable to determine if it had malfunctioned.

Three years after United flight 585 slammed into Widefield Park, the NTSB was still unable to explain how the Power Control Unit might have failed. They made the unusual move of publishing an accident report that did not establish a cause. The case was closed, but it remained unsolved.

Then, on September 8, 1994, USAir flight 427, another Boeing 737, was approaching Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when it suddenly rolled hard to the left and plunged straight into the ground. All 132 passengers and crew were killed in the crash, which was remarkably similar to that of United flight 585. Investigators immediately wondered if the mysterious culprit of the smaller crash in Colorado Springs had struck again. Experts began to worry that the Boeing 737, the world’s most popular passenger jet, had a hidden fatal flaw.

Miraculously, the Power Control Unit was among the few parts that remained intact after the crash of USAir flight 427. The unit was taken to a lab for testing, and the NTSB began an analysis of a critical valve that they believed may have played a role in both crashes. To their surprise, the valve showed no physical signs of having jammed or otherwise failed. Determined to prove their theory, however, investigators began trying to replicate what might have happened to the valve while the plane was in the air. They put the valve through a thermal shock test, in which it was supercooled and then commanded to pump hot hydraulic fluid. Sure enough, the valve jammed—and the process left no trace. But the jam lasted for only one second. The rudder wouldn’t have deflected for long enough to cause a crash unless the pilots made some kind of error. Suspicion again turned to the pilots, but just like in the case of flight 585, the investigators could find nothing to indicate that either of them had made a mistake.

Whatever it was that killed a combined 157 people in two separate crashes continued to pose a threat. On June 9, 1996, Eastwind Airlines flight 517—another Boeing 737—was on final approach into Richmond, Virginia, when it suddenly rolled to the right. The pilots reacted quickly, holding the plane in a precarious 90-degree bank for 30 seconds. Then, the terrifying sideways flight ended as mysteriously as it had begun, and the plane made an emergency landing minutes later. One flight attendant was injured, but everyone survived. Now, with a living pilot to give testimony and a perfectly intact aircraft, the NTSB was finally able to draw substantial conclusions.  

It turned out there was an entirely unexpected side effect of a jam in this particular valve. It would not only push the rudder all the way to one side, but also cause “rudder reversal,” an almost unheard-of phenomenon in which the pilots’ steering inputs have the opposite of their intended effect. The reversal caught the pilots of flight 585 and flight 427 completely off guard, so they never had time to figure out what was wrong. Desperate to level their respective planes, they tried to steer against the roll, but they had no way of knowing they were actually steering their aircraft straight into the ground. Flight 517 only survived because the failure occurred at a higher altitude where the plane was moving faster and there was more room for recovery, allowing the jam to clear before the pilots lost control.

On March 27, 2001, the National Transportation Safety Board issued its final revised report on what had happened in the skies over Colorado Springs 10 years earlier. But even after the final report, questions remained. The NTSB was never able to demonstrate how the jam could occur under normal flight conditions. They couldn’t explain how the Power Control Unit could have become cold enough, nor the hydraulic fluid hot enough, to cause a jam. Nevertheless, because the jam would explain all three incidents, the report concluded that a jam was the most probable cause. The NTSB ordered Boeing to redesign the valve, which it did, and the new valves were installed on all 737s. But Boeing continued to dispute the official findings, claiming that the failure was impossible. It blamed the crash of USAir flight 427 on a pilot having a panic attack, and pinned responsibility for United flight 585 on wind. 

Even stranger theories circled during the intervening years. One particularly salacious rumor insinuated that Captain Green and First Officer Eidson had been engaged in an adulterous relationship. According to the rumor, during the approach to Colorado Springs, Eidson demanded that the relationship end. Green, distraught, then split her head open with a fire axe and deliberately crashed the plane. Needless to say, the rumor had no basis in reality, and not even the seediest tabloids took the story seriously. Gail Dunham, the widow of Captain Green, believes that Boeing was responsible for the allegations. “They don’t want to say they were wrong,” she told Westword in 1999. “They want to push it off on someone else. They don’t want to be responsible.”

 Regardless of whether a jammed valve actually caused the crashes, there has not been another similar incident on a Boeing 737 since the valve was redesigned.

Following the long trail of fallout from flight 585 across 10 years and several states inevitably leads back to Colorado Springs on March 3, 1991. But strangely enough, the crash was not the only major tragedy in Colorado Springs on that day. That very same day, a fire broke out at a nursing home in the Hillside neighborhood, killing nine senior citizens. As a result, the city made major changes to Colorado Springs’ firefighting procedures and building codes. In contrast, the crash of flight 585 in Colorado Springs did not produce changes quickly enough to save the 132 passengers and crew of flight 427 in Pittsburgh. But perhaps the twin accidents can serve as a reminder of why it is so important to uncover the cause of every disaster, no matter the cost.

Today, Widefield Park once again looks like any other suburban park in America. Over time, collective memory of the crash has faded as people move in and out of Colorado Springs, and new generations grow up and old generations die. But in Widefield Park, amid a grove of 26 ash trees (one for each victim, plus the dead body in the hold), a gazebo shelters two plaques. One reads, “This memorial grove and sitting shelter is dedicated in fond memory of the passengers and air crew of United Airlines #585 which crashed on this site, March 3rd, 1991.” The logo of El Paso County Parks runs along the bottom. The other plaque contains the names of the 25 people who perished in the crash:


Bonnie Bachman, AZ

Dan Birkholz, CO

Andy Bodnar, Toronto, Canada;

Mildred Brown, TX

Dr. Bill Crabb, CO

Clay Crawford, CO

Jo Crawford, CO

Robert Geissbuhler, CO

Pam Gerdts, CO

Fred Hoffman, CO

Herald Holding, CO

Maurice Jenks, CO

Michael Kavanagh, Barna, Ireland;

Kevin Kodalen, CO

Dr. Andrzej Komor, Warsaw, Poland;

Paula McGilvar, CO

Vincent Riga, CO

Lester Ross, GA

Dr. Peter Van Handel, CO

Takashi Yoshida, Fukushima, Japan; 

Flight Attendant Anita Lucero, CA

Flight Attendant Lisa Church, NY

Flight Attendant Monica Smiley, NY

Captain Harold “Hal” Green, CA;

First Officer Patricia “Trish” Eidson, CA

Though Colorado Springs is forgetting about flight 585, people still occasionally come by to leave flowers at the memorial, and relatives of the victims meet on important anniversaries at the gazebo in Widefield Park. On the twentieth anniversary of the crash, a dozen family members, as well as two first responders, came back to the site and exchanged stories about the friends and relatives they lost. They read letters to the deceased and thanked the firefighters for their service. Perhaps the most striking feature of the somber meeting was a letter placed in the gazebo by one of the volunteers who scoured the site in the aftermath of the crash. “I was one of the young searchers helping collect the remains of your loved ones,” the letter said. “Please find solace in the fact that your loved ones’ remains were treated with respect while we collected them. They will never be forgotten.” 

But most of the time, the gazebo is empty. It sits there through the passing years, seldom visited, commemorating a loss that most people don’t remember. The neighborhood moves on, the grass grows again over what once was blackened earth, and the ash trees stand watch over the spot where 25 lives were so suddenly lost.

All details and information regarding the crashes were found on news reports, NTSB Accident Reports, published cockpit recordings, and documentaries. 

National Transportation Safety Board. “National Transportation Safety Board Aircraft Accident Report: Uncontrolled Descent and Collision with Terrain, United Airlines Flight 585, Boeing 737-200, N999UA, 4 Miles South of Colorado Springs Municipal Airport, Colorado Springs, Colorado, March 3rd, 1991.” 27 March, 2001.
Wikipedia. “United Airlines Flight 585.” Last updated 22 April 2018, Accessed 18 April 2018,
Air Crash Investigation, Season 4 episode 5, “Hidden Danger,” Cineflix, aired 13 May 2007, on National Geographic.
“United 585 CVR Transcript,” Cockpit Voice Recorder Database, Tailstrike, Accessed 18 April 2018,
KOAA News First 5, “United Flight 585 - 20 Years Later,” 4 March 2011.
Berton, Justin, “Flight Diversions,” Westword, 1 April, 1999.
Leicht, Jessica, “25th Anniversary Of United Flight 585 Crash That Killed 25, Neighbors Remember Day Vividly,” KKTV 11 News, 3 March 2016,
Benzel, Lance, and Steiner, Matt, “20 years ago: El Paso County had its 24 hours of hell,” Colorado Springs Gazette, 26 February 2011,
Johnson, Dirk, “Jetliner Crash in Colorado Kills All 25 Aboard,” The New York Times, 3 March 1991,
“List of Victims of Airliner Crash,” The Los Angeles Times, 5 March 1991,

“I Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepsen

My dorm room is right next to the stairwell of Loomis, a residential hall at Colorado College and my neighbors play music with the bass turned all the way up but the volume down, so all I can ever hear is the rhythmic thump thump thump of some song I don’t want to hear. I enter my room to the gentle unce-unce-unce of techno vibrating the walls and place my shoes neatly by the door. My rug doesn’t have one of those sticky beige grips underneath it to keep it in place, so I shouldn’t be surprised when I slip and hit my face on my desk. My weak nose loves to bleed. I don’t have tissues in my room and don’t want to go get any, so I just sniff the blood back down into my throat until the bleeding stops.

It’s been a long day, like most days, and I’m miserable, like most days. I’ve got what my therapist calls “low frustration tolerance,” meaning I’m a massive baby who breaks down easily. I haven’t wiped the blood off of my face yet. It’s gross, but I’m suspicious that my nose is waiting until I’ve cleaned it to start flowing again. 

I open Spotify. My mom is a singer-songwriter, so I’ve listened to years of complaints about how little Spotify pays artists. (They basically get a Jamba Juice bagel voucher and a pat on the back for every 100,000 plays.) The little green logo still makes me feel guilty. 

But I need Spotify. I am a meticulous creator of playlists. It’s a convenient outlet for neuroticism, as I learned from my older sister. She was my first dance partner and still my favorite, even if the days of jumping on the bed to Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes” with our stuffed animals are gone. I hover over one of several “my day has been bad” playlists, ranging from the vaguely melancholy “misty mountain hops” (Sufjan Stevens, Nick Drake, etc.) to the aptly named “uh oh” (Radiohead, Julien Baker, Flatsound). It’s easy to fall down the deep, dark, spiral of indie doom. How much Elliott Smith can I listen to before I should call a doctor?

So instead of listening to Radiohead for three hours and not leaving my room for three days, I put on the playlist “let me live.” If you’ve never seen the music video for “I Really Like You” by Carly Rae Jepsen, do yourself a favor and look it up now. (It’s Tom Hanks lip-syncing the entire song.) It’s been a bad day, sure, but if I take off my pants and dance to some bubblegum pop, I think I can get through it.




“I Wanna Get Better” by Bleachers

Jack Antonoff, lead singer of Bleachers, has wiped his greasy little fingers all over mainstream pop music and I could not be happier about it. There is no better modern producer of pop. His song “I Wanna Get Better” is made for new beginnings—it’s upbeat and noisy and full of happy piano riffs, guitar solos, and encouragingly clichéd lyrics like “I didn’t know I was broken ‘til I wanted to change / I wanna get better.” The song is optimistic in a way I could not be (and probably would not want to be) on my own. 

I play Bleachers on my way to my post-breakup haircut. My ex once told me he thought music was an emotional crutch. I don’t know if I agree, but even if it is, I’m going to need crutches until I stop breaking my own legs. I ask the hairdresser to give me bangs. He refuses, calling me “unstable.” This is a fair assessment. I only cut one inch off my hair, because I’m not confident enough to get a drastic haircut anyway.

Jack Antonoff also produced Lorde’s latest album. There is not a single song on that album that isn’t genius, and I will fight to the death defending that opinion. “Hard Feelings” is one of the best breakup songs made in the last 10 years. It’s a song you turn up too loud when you drive too fast at night. The song is punctuated by industrial noises that sort of sound like distorted recordings of metal corroding and crashing to the ground. It’s a breakdown song that breaks down with you. It’s accessible because it sounds like how I feel, but is satisfying instead of terrifying. It’s the difference between being pushed into the deep end and jumping in on your own. I play “I Wanna Get Better” again on my way back to campus and feel a shaky sort of better, one that makes me think better is an actual possibility and not just a word.


“We Built This City” by Starship

Pop music has a lot of feminine associations, so I avoided it at all costs growing up because my internalized misogyny won out over my desire to enjoy myself. I felt a strong desire to be “chill” in my early teens, which made me anything but chill. Chill was shoegaze on vinyl, not 2000s pop music on a CD I burned at age 8. It wasn’t until fairly recently that I realized I’m the least chill person I know. Unless what’s hip now is caffeine-induced hand tremors, bleeding nail beds and Final Fantasy, I will never be the kind of effortlessly cool girl I saw on Tumblr at age 13. But at least I’ve stopped lying to myself about it. Now I can lie to myself in ways that make me feel happier instead of inadequate!

In addition to early 2000s pop, I am a notorious lover of bad ‘80s music. Not good-bad ‘80s music like Blondie, but bands like A Flock of Seagulls or Eurythmics, bands that leaned hard on the Juno-6 synthesizer to mass produce electro-pop bangers. Despite the fact that Starship’s song, “We Built This City” has been repeatedly voted one of the worst songs of all time, they’re probably still my favorite ‘80s band. The gated reverb in the hit song is the cure for any and all mental ailments. I know that I’m falling into the trap of the song, the easy satisfaction. Maybe music shouldn’t be an escape. But it isn’t always an escape; sometimes it’s a mood enhancer, a unifier, even a tool. (I once played an entire Foreigner album to get a guy to leave my room.) 

Despite my strong insistence that pop music is real music, I still feel embarrassed about the volume at which I blast it. I’m working on it, though. Throughout high school I learned that fun things were not cool, so I only listened to Wham! in secret. It was like I was cheating on Julian Casablancas with George Michael. It feels strange to pretend that I don’t get hyped over Cher sometimes just because it’s cooler to love Nico. When I play “Believe,” for four and a half minutes, I can forget the ice bath of malaise I live in and shake off reality. Maybe it’s harmful to lie and tell myself pop can make everything okay. But if the truth will set me free, I’ll stay dancing in my go-go cage of a life.


“Dancing on My Own” by Robyn

I lie belly-down on my bedroom floor. I’m in one of those moods where I feel bad and want to make other people feel worse, so I’ve turned my phone off and put it in my closet to keep myself from digging up the past or acknowledging the present. I close my eyes and think about people reading this article and laughing at me and my melodrama. 

I stare at myself in the streaky Target mirror resting against my wall and verbally self-flagellate a little longer until I’ve convinced myself I am both a) a terrible, histrionic Teen Girl Writer™ and b) a fugazi pile of bird shit roughly molded into the shape of a human. I don’t want to make it sound like pop music literally cures my depression. Pop music isn’t fixing my problems, it’s just helping me forget about them for a little. The world is a dark place, and happy-go-lucky music gives me a way to laugh it off. 

Once I’ve gotten myself adequately worked up, I fetch my phone from beside my hamper and type out a text to my editor calling the whole thing a bust, but switch my phone back off before I hit send. I put my hand on my heart to count the beats (heartmath, my therapist calls it) and try to empty my mind.

My mind is hard to calm, so I press play and let Robyn’s soprano clear my brain as I wriggle-dance on the floor like the back half of a bisected earthworm. It’s a start. And tomorrow when I wake up with the weight of my problems sitting on my chest like a small, sadistic gargoyle, I will try to start again. Lying on the ground, I wonder if there really is some sort of higher being watching over me. If there is, the cruel bastard is laughing their ass off. 


“Issues” by Julia Michaels

I call all the conflicting voices in my head “the collective.” This sounds crazier than it actually is. I sometimes picture my brain as a very crowded car with a locked steering wheel. It makes sense, then, that generally pleasing music like pop can calm the collective. If I let one person control the aux, then the rest of the collective will freak—but if I just turn on the radio, no one can complain. Obviously there’s music the collective would rather listen to, but if the collective can’t decide between Erik Satie and Yoko Ono, all hell breaks loose. So we settle for something made to shut us up and sing along to (this is the collective speaking.) Life is a series of middle grounds and compromises—this is what my mind does to get through the day sometimes. It pleases the whole crowd. Our minds don’t need to be going a hundred miles per hour all the time, right? 

Julia Michaels isn’t on the cover of FADER for “Issues,” but the song is simple and appealing. Everyone has “issues” and the song is a reminder of that. But not a reminder in the “Hey, you’ll never be satisfied” way, but in this cutesy, girly-ass song way where problems are solved in four minutes. It’s a comfort in knowing carefree joy exists somewhere, even if in a silly song. It’s sort of like musical novocaine. Sure, it’ll wear off and hurt, but for now I can’t feel the pain. 

But also, when I can finally ignore the collective, I can actually … feel things. Dancing like a fool makes me focus on my body and how I feel instead of letting my thoughts attack me. Lead with the body and it feels a little easier. And what better music to listen to? Nobody can fully resist something made for dancing. When the song ends and the collective starts up again, it’s a little quieter. All the passengers have a song stuck in their head.


“Run Away With Me” by Carly Rae Jepsen

It takes a stupid amount of energy to hate something that was literally made to be loved. As for my escapist approach to music, it doesn’t feel dishonest to dodge reality and expectation with pop songs. It feels human. I’m doing my best, and I have to let that be enough. So if bubblegum pop is a mindless lie, then just let me live in my synth-filled unreality.

August 2017, Chatham, Massachusetts  

I place the heavy, dusty gray bin carefully on the freshly polished deck. Sunlight seeps through the tree’s dime-sized leaves, making the house look like it’s covered in glitter. Wind chimes sound in the distance. Mike walks over and hands me a Sierra Nevada. The condensation drips down the body of the brown bottle, pooling together with my sweat in the palm of my hand. I glance at my watch: 11 a.m. I smile and take a swig from the glass, watching Mike as he shuffles through layers of forgotten belongings: a blank notebook, a yellowed fishing permit, five small plastic boxes, three reels, a wrinkled vest and a wooden net. 

“Ah, shit—some of this stuff is covered in mildew,” Mike says, resting a net and a vest on the deck. “Here, hold this,” he says, placing a box of beautifully tied flies in my hands. The bright color of their feathers pop out from inside the clear plastic case, demanding my attention. “Pete never washed this off,” he sighs, pulling out a reel. Its case is coated with thick, white speckles. “You should always rinse your stuff off after going out on the boat. The salt made the zipper stuck. I’m going to get fresh water to soak it in, be right back.” I sit and stare at the fly box in my hands, unlatching its corners and opening it slowly as if disarming a bomb. The boldest fly catches my eye. Turning it over, I examine the pink of its feathers; the clumsy, childlike stitching, the ridiculous strings of silver glitter running over its body. A laugh escapes as I watch the fly dance over the web of my fingers. My brow furrows at the distant familiarity of the thing and, shaking my head, I let it topple back into the box.


August 2000, Chatham 

Her fingertips pinch the bright pink feathers, carefully avoiding the silver prick of the hook. This is her second fly-tying lesson. She turns and watches him as his strong, calloused hands gently weave the small threads back and forth underneath the bright light of the lamp. He looks down at her, giving an encouraging smile. The dimly lit wooden cottage smells of salt, and the crisp summer breeze drifts in through the screen door; the hour is beginning to turn golden. He hums along with the radio, singing “Scarlet Begonias.” She’ll remember this as one of those untouchable moments. Bright, pure, and fleeting—dusk itself.


May 1989, Adirondacks, New York

“Peter, you’re not being photographed for American Angler, make the fucking cast already!”

Peter knew the way he casted drove Mike crazy, because it was so different from his process: three perfectly timed, algorithmic loops—eyes on the fish ahead. Peter, on the other hand, would take several minutes to cast his line, hypnotized by perfecting the lasso of his own cast. He was obsessed with the consistent looping, allowing his wrist to fall into a rhythmic pattern, just like the ebb and flow of the river itself. He was transfixed by the fluid movement between his forearm and wrist, the grip his hand had around the cork at the base of the rod. The bright yellow line moved with a soft familiarity through his left hand. One, two, three, four, okay two more, five, six—look at that one, one more and then let the line go. Seven, eight, one more. Nine—shit—let’s make it even, ten. Release. Land, plunk. Pull. Easy, wait. Pull. Bite, easier still—snag—fish on, baby! Adrenaline coursed through his veins and, suddenly, the day seemed a little brighter. This was his process—and the cast was the most artistic part of it, begging to glow with an utter remarkability, just as much as the fish it snared.


July 1997, Chatham

There’s this picture on her bookshelf, encased by a fogged glass and a fading green wooden frame. Every time the photo catches her eye, she’s brought back to that weathered back porch where he kneels in the confines of this frozen image. His hat is crinkled white from summers spent battling sea spray and his large sunglasses with protective leather sides swing from his neck. He proudly hoists up the huge bass, pushing it away from his chest, like a trophy. He isn’t looking ahead, or even down at the fish, whose yellow eye is locked on the camera lens. He isn’t looking at his dog either, whose velvet black snout is angled up toward his grin. Instead, his gaze rests on his little, 3-year-old girl. Her sun-bleached white curls frame her innocent face. She grins, partially toothless. Her brown eyes glow with the same intensity of her father’s.

Looking at the photo years later, she would try to blur the image from her mind, closing her eyes and turning away from her reflection in the glass. The young girl in the photo now hears faint whispers floating through that thick, warm air; telling her that in that exact moment, the man who looked down at her believed her to be every good part of himself he ever knew.


August 2013, Chatham

There’s an incessant buzzing near my ear. I reach to snooze my alarm, but realize the sound is an incoming call: my grandfather, Popi. I blink my eyes open. My watch reads 10 a.m. I pick up the phone but clear my throat before I answer, hoping to avoid judgement for waking up at such a late hour.

 “Hi Popi, how’s it going?” I croak. “Jesus, you just waking up?” Shit, I think to myself. I’ve been made. “Are you interested in doing anything today?” he asks condescendingly. My ears perk at his question and I sit upright in my bed. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I look out my window to see the clear sky beckoning a promising afternoon. “Of course I am,” I answer defensively, “What did you have in mind?” He answers with a rumbling laugh that creeps through the phone, “Get on that bike of yours and be over here in 30 minutes. I’m bringing what I’ve caught this morning over to the fish market, and then we’re going back out on the boat. Can you handle that?” “Way ahead of you!” I shout, yanking on a pair of dirty jean shorts and a wrinkled T-shirt from my bedroom floor.


“So how many were out there?” I eagerly stumble after Popi down to the beach where his boat is anchored, my rod bouncing on my shoulder. He continues down the path, thoughtfully crafting his response. “You’re going to be catching so many fish today, you’ll be begging to go home because your arms will be so tired.” I pick up my speed until I catch up to him. I fire back, “There’s no way! You’re lying.” He shakes his head and laughs. “I swear, T. I haven’t seen this many fish in years.” “Hey, Popi … ” I ask tentatively, chewing the inside of my cheek. “How about we take one of your fly rods out with us today and you teach me how to cast? Seems like a good day for it.” Without a pause, his response snaps through the air. “Agh, c’mon kid. Not today. Today is not the day. Maybe next time.” I know better than to keep trying to convince him. His words float away in the air, weightless. I blink away the hurt bubbling up from my chest, letting the sun’s rays beam down at my unprotected eyes. We walk in silence down the sandy path. His boat waits in the water, bobbing back and forth in the surf.

The waves slosh against the sides of the boat, spraying our faces with a playful mist. My sides cramp with a delightful exhaustion and the muscles in my face ache from grinning. Popi was right—there were too many of them. I throw back my line for one last lousy cast, and land a fish just as my lure hits the water. I laugh in disbelief—Popi has one on his line too. We’ve been catching fish every time we cast. Bass are jumping out of the water like popcorn kernels. 

I reel my fish in and hold him by his lower jaw, clasping him between my thumb and forefinger. His mouth is sandpapery and wears down the inside of my thumb, causing my skin to fray. My fish is small—with charcoal stripes glistening down his side, shimmering scales reflecting shades of blues, purples, and greens. I’m careful not to touch the sharp spines along the fan of his back, knowing it will set my nerves on fire. I watch his eye as it darts back and forth, the pulse of his body wiggling under the pressure of my grip. I unhook him and watch as he swims down into the ocean. Popi turns to me with a knowing grin. “Had enough?!” he shouts. I sit on the edge of the boat, lifting my hands in surrender. “Popi, I can barely move my arms. I think … I think we need to head in.” He chuckles and releases the fish from his hook, setting his rod aside. “Alright,” he says, laughing still. I move to the back of the boat and open the cooler, where our keepers lay motionless. “Do you think we’ll have enough for dinner?” I ask teasingly. Popi lets out a holler and revs up the engine. As he plots what masterpiece he will cook tonight, I wonder how I’ll muster enough energy to hold up my fork.


August 2017, Chatham  

“The key is to get a perfect loop—just like a lasso. Watch it go back, then forward. See how you can make it snap? Not too big, don’t let it die out. That’s what you want.” Mike stands in front of me in the side yard, rod in hand, moving the line in one perfect, fluid motion. He releases it and the fly drops right next to our target: my fluorescent pink running sneaker. “Okay, now try again.” He hands me the rod and I take a breath. Either my cast falls too short, doesn’t fall at all, or I lose the loop. It takes me a few tries to get into a rhythm. Finally, I stop thinking. My body wavers as I look up and see the perfect, sideways 8 that the bright yellow line makes as it streaks against the blue sky. I think I have enough line out and, finally, I let it go. The cast feels right. I open my eyes and see the fly land in the grass with an utter softness, right next to the shoe. “Yes!” I shout in excitement, looking around, only to realize I was the sole witness. Smiling to myself, I pull the line back in.

“God, you’re just like your dad.” Mike watches me from the porch, his coffee pumping steam into the air. “I can see how it’s addicting,” I say, watching my line go back and forth in the air, hypnotizing me. “It is,” Mike chuckles, “But you’re holding onto the line too long. Peter did the same thing. I’d have already caught a fish when we’d go out, and I’d look over and he’d still be making his first cast. I think it was that brief modeling gig he did when he was younger. It’s like he thought the whole world was watching.” He squints up at me, then looks down into the black of his mug, answered only by the sound of the line whistling through the air. A smile steals its way across my face as I watch it bound back and forth over my shoulder. I let it go, watching as the fly lands farther this time.

The shells in the driveway crunch, announcing a visitor. I don’t move my head to see. Each cast I get closer to my target, and I move it forward a foot for every five satisfying casts I get. I can feel myself getting better at it. I hear a harsh, familiar bark come from behind me. “T., what are you doing? Have you even been up to the garden yet? You know it’s your father’s birthday, right?” Idiot, I whispers to myself. Why does he have to be like this? “Hey, Popi,” I say calmly, “Yeah, I’m aware. I’m going up soon. Mike has been teaching me how to fly fish.” His boots thud up the steps, and a loud scoff escapes his mouth. “Hey, hey, hey—slow down, you’re going too fast.” I keep my eyes locked on the line streaking against the sky. “Mike said I was doing fine,” I respond, not making eye contact. “Give me that,” Popi growls, reaching for the rod. “No!” I snap, and stop casting. “I have asked you so many times to teach me, and I’m so tired of waiting. I’m sorry you aren’t ready, but I have been.” I turn my back to him and force myself to continue casting, biting my lower lip to distract from the guilt crawling beneath my skin. Like a wounded animal, he retreats to the house, muttering to himself as he walks away.   

I stop casting and begin to take the rod apart, remembering how Mike so carefully constructed it that same afternoon, releasing it from the cold, steel case it sat in for two decades. He attached each piece so delicately that it felt like watching him put pieces of his own heart back together. I couldn’t help but think that no matter what any of us did, we would always be as fragile as the fiber rod I held in my hand, broken in places the naked eye couldn’t see—made up of tiny shards waiting to splinter off at any moment. We were all made up of these delicate pieces—constantly breaking down, pretending we could be so easily put back together again. I tightened the cap on top of the case and put the items back into the box, saving them for another day, one that wouldn’t be remind me how broken we all were.


October 2017, Colorado Springs, Colorado

“When are you going to break your fishing stuff out?” my friend asks me. I blink up into the sky. “Not sure,” I answer. “Just waiting for my waders in the mail. You guys going out today?” He takes a sip from his water bottle. “Yeah,” he says. “You should come. I think the gear house on campus rents out waders, if you’re missing some stuff. Just let me know.”

I nod. “Okay, I will.” I wave goodbye, feeling the lie stick to the back of my teeth like stale bubblegum.


November 2017, Colorado Springs

The case hides in the corner of my room, gathering the chill of the air as fall fades to winter. Sometimes I think it’s hissing at me, watching as I guiltily avoid eye contact every time I enter  the room. I hope my father wouldn’t be mad at me if he knew I was keeping his rod hostage from experiencing Coloradan waterways. “Soon,” I whisper to it. “I promise. Just … not today.”  I don’t expect anyone to understand. Hell, even I don’t understand.

I have this recurring dream that I’m on the river and I make a cast and then I’m him, Peter, my father. I’m casting in the Adirondacks in my wedding tux. I’m casting with Mike, telling him about how great it’s going to be when I can get my daughter out here with me. Then I’m out on the rips fishing in Chatham with my father-in-law and he’s telling me that my daughter, his granddaughter, caught five striped bass earlier that day. Then I’m me again. I’m pulling a trout on a river he may have never even heard of before. And my friends are excited because it’s my first fish on the fly. They’re cheering and laughing, and I’m smiling and shouting because I’m excited, too. Suddenly, I drop down to my knees and start to cry, letting the rush of the water fill up my waders, soak through my shirt, run across my skin, wishing it could wash away everything I ever knew.

I wake up. I look at my rod, his rod, in the back corner of my room. I brush my teeth and tie my shoes and  grab my books and this time I let my rod, his rod, our rod, look back at me. We both kind of laugh at each other, and I swear, it’s like the thing knows. And it knows I know. I guess we have this mutual understanding that it may not be today, or tomorrow, but we’ll get out there. If we fall into the water, we’ll roll around in it, get up again. If we cry, fuck, we’ll cry a whole lot. And if our cast is too fast or too loopy, we’ll think a little less and feel a little more.


Five Months Later

I’m out there—on a river that shares my name. The intense pulse of the water does try and knock me down, succeeding at times. I finish my Sierra Nevada. Hours go by and the day shifts, the light gets softer, darker. I hear my friends drag their feet up the bank in defeat. I pull in our line and take the small box out from the vest I wear. It is not mine. I hold the fly that my hands did not make, yet love every fiber of it. I take apart our rod, one that I have only used twice. My dad: thousands of times. And just when that painful twinge of unsuspecting sadness strikes hard against my chest, I see something out of the corner of my eye. A big, beautiful rainbow trout glides beneath the dark pockets of the water. He slowly turns his body so that his eye meets mine, and it feels like he’s looking through me. And I could’ve sworn he winked at me—just like that. I head up to the road, grinning so wide that my friends cock their heads in confusion. They wonder why or how anyone could ever be so happy about spending hours on some cold river in the dark, catching no fish at all. 

"I think Venmo is plotting to use their platform to eventually control all the money in the world,” wrote one anonymous respondent in an open feedback section of a survey I sent out about Venmo, a mobile app that allows users to pay other users with the tap of a screen. “I’m not quite sure how it’s gonna happen, but I just have this feeling.”

This respondent gave no elaboration on the sources of her Venmo conspiracy. But my informal survey wasn’t intended to invite rigorous responses, so much as to get a feel for how the 121 people who happened to see the link I posted to my Facebook page felt about Venmo. Other respondents indicated similar suspicions: as one put it, “[Venmo] is a little too easy.” Another called it “dumb but convenient.” Still another told me, “I want to know why you are asking these questions. Is there something I should be worried about Venmo?” 

Venmo has become a near-essential component of millennial culture nationwide. It has an estimated 7 million users, three quarters of whom, according to a 2017 survey by Verto Analytics, are under the age of 35. We know Venmo is significant (at least for the moment) because we have successfully “verbed” it. You probably don’t say, “Can you pay me for that coffee on Venmo?” You say, “Just Venmo me.” 

When you sign up for Venmo, you create an account which you can then link to a funding source such as a bank account or credit card. Venmo syncs to your phone contacts to connect you with anyone else who has a Venmo, and can also be synced with your Facebook contacts.  You can then electronically pay or request payment from other Venmo users (Venmo calls these person-to-person, or P2P, transactions). These transactions mostly consist of the repayment of small debts—a few dollars for a friend who bought you coffee, money for gas on the ride to the airport. However, if you verify your identity with Venmo, you can theoretically transfer up to $2,999 at a time. 

When I first heard about Venmo, it sounded kind of suspicious to link my bank account to a third-party app.  But after my attempts to buy used clothes from the “Free and for Sale” page resulted in needless haggling in cash with exasperated peers, I gave in. My fears regarding data privacy and bank theft were quickly replaced by an appreciation of Venmo’s convenience. That one friend who is definitely paying for their weed with the unpaid latte debts they owe you no longer has an excuse.

While 98 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Venmo is convenient,” Venmo goes beyond providing a convenient way to pay off debts. In fact, personal transactions aren’t even the first thing that pop up when you open Venmo. It’s actually your “social feed.” 

The social feed consists of short blurbs in the form “Person X paid Person Y, z minutes ago,” accompanied by a comment describing what the transaction was for. You do not see how much money was involved. To many people’s distaste, the accompanying comment is mandatory, and since Venmo automatically suggests emoji correspondents to your words, the social feed is often filled with cartoon images of pizza and beer. You also have the option to “like” or comment on any transaction. And just like with Facebook, if you click on one of your friends’ names, you’re taken to their personal Venmo profile, where you can see their own transaction history. 

There is nothing in Venmo’s terms of service that mentions the social feed—it’s implicit that you accept this part of the app. You can’t turn your social feed off, and the default setting is for all transactions to be made public, not just among your friends, but with the entire Venmoing world. And while you can make your own transactions private so that they don’t appear on others’ social feeds, not many people do—90 percent of Venmo transactions are public. 

I didn’t give Venmo’s social feed much thought until I got rid of all my other social media accounts for five months. Occasionally, I still found myself yearning for a mindless scroll through menial information that might give me a glimpse into the lives of people I hadn’t talked to in years. So I turned to Venmo. And in terms of fulfilling that social media obsession, I found Venmo surprisingly rich. 

One survey respondent described Venmo as “the last frontier of uncensored social media.” Unlike Facebook and Instagram, Venmo uses no algorithm based on previous likes, comments, and views to determine what you see—it’s just a list of transactions in sequential order. And since you have to pay someone to post, Venmo is notably unburdened by unsolicited selfies and political posts. It turns out that transaction-based social media provides an ostensibly unfiltered representation of what people are actually doing and who they are interacting with (or maybe just who they’re getting drugs from).  

Thus, Venmo has become somewhat sarcastically infamous for being the best social media to dig up intimate details on others. One survey respondent wrote that they had used Venmo to confirm “that certain couples were dating.” 29.35 percent of survey respondents had, at least once, used Venmo to search specifically for a person they were not making a transaction with, purely in order to view their personal feed in search of specific information. I call this “Venmo-stalking.” Several people told me they “stalk” their crushes on Venmo. Somewhat shamefully, I myself can confess to having “Venmo-stalked” multiple people.

Then there are examples of less conventional Venmo payments. 27.43 percent of survey respondents who had Venmo said they had used it to send charitable donations; 7.08 percent had used it for “sending money to members of oppressed communities” (for example, there was a recent movement within CC to Venmo students of color for the unpaid labor they do to oppose racism). Two people had even used the app for “trolling political enemies”—for example, after former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s public Venmo account was unearthed last year, people requested him for stuff like “anxiety meds because your boss is a lunatic.” Of course, people also use Venmo just to joke around. One friend told me that a guy she had hooked up with the previous night Venmoed her (for gas money) the requested $5, plus an additional $0.69. 

But behind its humorous gems and nascent political uses, the prevalence of profile-viewing and Venmo-stalking has a more self-absorbed implication. Specifically, it gives diligent, socially self-conscious users the opportunity to curate their public posts. Once start using something as a tool to glean an impression of other people, you become at least subconsciously aware that other people may be using that platform to form an impression of you.

Hence the pact I have made with my sister to “keep our Venmo game strong.” This means that all of our transactions must be labelled with clever, obscure captions, often references to something barely relevant to the transaction itself, or deliberately indecipherable inside jokes. If someone Venmos us for something straightforward and normal like “gas money,” they’ve disrupted our “game.” The implicit goal is to create the impression that whatever fun was behind this monetary transaction was so unique and special that no one else could possibly understand it—but they should all know about it, and feel jealous that they didn’t get to pay me three dollars for that life-changing mango smoothie.

To some degree, my obsession with my “Venmo game” is still just a joke. But I know that other Venmo users abide by these unspoken rules, too. Curating my Venmo profile lets me co-opt what seems to be a straightforward public record of P2P exchanges into yet another digital tool that advances my own social status. I didn’t plan for it to happen this way, and I’m sure other Venmo users didn’t either, but I still can’t bring myself to write “gas money” in the transaction feed. To do so would be to admit that all I was doing was driving, not having the time of my life. 

And lest you think I’m a self-obsessed exception, my survey did support the conclusion that people care about Venmo as a social media. 35.92 percent of survey respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I am conscious of what appears on my Venmo feed, as I would be with other social media (i.e. Facebook, Instagram).” Though that’s not a majority, it’s still an indicator that many users are susceptible to Venmo’s ploy to integrate transactions into a social network. You may have never thought you cared what other people thought of the small debts you owed. But everything changes when these interactions become public. When the stakes involve social reputation, it’s easy to convince people to start caring. 

This brings us to the question of why Venmo even has a social feed in the first place. Venmo’s social feed has motives beyond merely capitalizing on millennials’ apparent desire to share every previously private part of their lives. The social feed is actually a keystone in Venmo’s plan to make money—that is, if it can facilitate a shift the way its users think about the privacy of commercial transactions.

Venmo is owned by PayPal, the online payment company worth approximately $13 billion. (eBay owned it for 13 years, but it is now an independent publicly-traded company.) During the 2016 election, liberals started movements to boycott PayPal, mostly because co-founder Peter Thiel donated $1.25 million to the Trump campaign. PayPal has also been the target of several class-action lawsuits against company practices that purportedly allow the company to freeze accounts at will, and is still accused of political bias because it has repeatedly blocked the accounts of human rights groups that support political prisoners in countries like Iran and Russia. But since people don’t seem to know that Venmo is owned by PayPal, Venmo seems to have escaped that public scrutiny unscathed, though it is very much under the jurisdiction of its parent company. 

Until recently, Venmo generated almost no revenue for PayPal—although surplus funds from P2P transactions (what you see in Venmo as your “Venmo balance,”) are held collectively in Venmo bank accounts, the company neither trades those funds nor invests them for profit (although the terms of user agreement do waive your right to profits from invested funds). 

In the fall of 2017, Venmo announced its intentions to introduce merchant transactions, opening its platform to more than 2 million businesses in the U.S. Essentially, the idea is that you can go to a participating merchant’s website or physical location (stores like Forever 21, Target, and Urban Outfitters are already on the list), pay with a tap instead of a card or cash, and easily split the bill amongst your friends. It’s easy to imagine Venmo becoming the primary, most convenient method of payment—a world in which cash and credit cards become obsolete.  

Venmo then takes standard 2.9 percent cut of the merchant’s profit for every merchant transaction, in contrast to P2P exchanges, for which it charges no transaction fees. According to Venmo, even with that cut, businesses have an incentive to sign up for the service. Partially, it’s in the interest of publicity. Let’s say I, a hypothetical basic rich girl, buy a new pair of yoga pants online from Lululemon using Venmo (Lululemon does in fact allow Venmo payments). Both Lululemon and Venmo then encourage me to share this interaction on my social feed, perhaps with an enthusiastic comment related to the purchase, so that all of my friends can share in my excitement and become jealous that they themselves haven’t bought new yoga pants today. 

At first glance, this business model might appear to bet on an unrealistic level of shameless consumerism. Venmo’s plans seem to depend on the assumption that consumers feel the need to flaunt their purchases of name-brand purchases to their friends. As of now, Venmo’s social media strategy seems oblivious to the mostly ironic way that college-aged Venmo users interact with the social feed. This disconnect is evident in Venmo’s pitch to potential business partners, which includes a hilariously fake Venmo post, “Bryan paid Clothing Co, gonna look fresh (100 emoji symbol),” followed by a comment thread between Bryan and his friend Steve, who asks what type and size of pants Bryan has acquired. One can hardly imagine millennials commenting on each other’s transaction posts in such a lame and straightforward way. 

While Venmo seems to recognize that users won’t be as willing to share merchant transactions (unlike P2P transactions, merchant transactions aren’t currently public by default), Venmo’s sales pitch to businesses trusts that users will be enticed by the potential social “connections” of publicizing their purchases. Given the unlikely popularity of the P2P social feed, the idea that we might someday want our merchant transactions to be a primary feature of our social identities is not too far out of the question. A virtual public record of which brands we choose to buy might just be a natural extension of our eagerness to wear clothes that display a brand (the prevalence of Patagonia on campus comes to mind). 

And top PayPal executives have voiced vague plans to further develop the social appeal of merchant transactions. PayPal Chief Operating Officer Bill Ready told Barron’s, “You’ll start to see us, over the coming months and quarters, continuing to expand places where you can use Venmo, and you’ll find social aspects will be ... what’s most attractive to our users.” 

So although it’s in its early stages, Venmo’s business model appears promising. Between 2015 and 2017, as Venmo payments rose from 2 percent to 8 percent of PayPal’s total payment volume, PayPal’s stock value also rose (as did its revenue, growing a remarkable 17 percent). As PayPal CEO Dan Schulman told Fortune, the transition from peer-to-peer to merchant transactions is “how we monetized PayPal, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do with Venmo.” That is, merchants were willing to partner with PayPal even though the company took a cut, because it made the online shopping experience easy for the consumer and stress-free for the merchant, who didn’t have to create their own secure payment platform. The publicity benefits promised to businesses who partner with Venmo are just the cherry-on-top, a further incentive to sign on. But there’s an aspect of the social feed that may be even more lucrative than publicity. 

With every transaction you post to the social feed, you create a public financial record. And companies are itching to get their hands on information about where consumers spend their money, so that they can correlate these transactions with other interests and past purchases, and better target their advertising. Richard Crone, who runs a payments-focused firm called Crone Consulting, told The Atlantic that, “The real value [in Venmo] is in the data, and the ability to render customized ads and offers, and generate a revenue stream from that.” 

This seems relatively harmless, but if you’ve been following the news lately, Crone’s comment about the perceived “value of data” might strike a disconcerting cord. The exploitation of Facebook data assisted the Trump campaign during the 2016 election, allowing them to  “identify the personalities of American voters and influence their behavior,” according to a report from The New York Times, which broke the scandal. 

It’s easy to accuse Facebook and other social media networks of enabling data breaches. For example, during a Senate hearing, Rep. Larry Buschon R—I.N. accused Facebook of “listening to us on the phone” after his son, who likes suits, saw an ad on Facebook for suits. But while the potential for such obvious invasions of privacy is real (and perhaps even higher with Venmo, since it connects to bank account information), it’s not the scariest thing about social media’s relationship to data. 

As The New York Times tech writer Kevin Roose told Michael Barbaro in a podcast, the companies that run social media, and the people who control them, are potentially much more powerful than a legislative body like the U.S. Senate. “[Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg by himself controls a sort of supranational entity that is 2.2 billion people,” Roose said. “He can’t launch a nuclear weapon or start a war or collect taxes, but he can shape the behaviors and the information diets of many more people around the world.”

This observation points to the undemocratic nature of social media: while it does purport to give everyone equal access to platforms, the rules that govern these platforms are, for the most part, subject to corporate whims. Consider, then, this statement made by Dan Schulman, PayPal’s CEO: “Our mission is a very inclusive one. It’s to democratize financial services. Managing and moving money should be a right for all citizens, not a privilege for the affluent. It’s all citizens, all types.” But in terms of who controls the way this money is managed, Venmo is no different than Facebook. If it can figure out a way to make people buy into the idea of publicizing their financial transactions, it has near-complete control over the regulations that govern information about what we buy. Given that our purchases are a core part of what “shapes our behaviors,” this is a lot of power for a company to have.

The basic lesson from the recent Facebook scandal is that there need not be some sort of nefarious setup that allows Venmo or other corporations to “steal” users’ data in order to establish its control over it. That is, Venmo doesn’t have to take your data without your consent. All it has to do is convince you to willingly share your merchant transactions in the first place. Its success at doing so depends on shifting our conflation of social status with consumer identity into the virtual sphere. And the patterns for making this shift have long been in place. 

In his book “The Society of the Spectacle,” French philosopher Guy Debord theorizes that capitalism has created a society that is nothing more than “an immense accumulation of spectacles,” where we are inundated with “images” that merely represent what used to be directly lived. These images begin to construct our social relationships, until we can no longer distinguish the image from the real. 

Debord published “The Society of the Spectacle” in 1967, when “world of images” merely referred to technology like newspapers and TV advertising. I imagine that if he walked into 2018 and saw how obsessed we are with uploading images of ourselves on online platforms, he would flip shit. 

A key part of Debord’s theory is the idea that capitalistic values create a “vicious circle of isolation.” According to Debord, while modernity has drastically increased leisure time, the notion that this leisure time gives us freedom from work is hopelessly deluded. Take Facebook and Venmo as examples: both platforms claim to help people connect to one another. But Debord would say that by spending our leisure time on Facebook (and now Venmo), rather than connecting with each other, we are merely connecting to capital itself. As Debord states, “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point that it becomes images.” 

This statement prompted me to open the Venmo app. I scrolled through the social feed. “Molly T. paid Sam F., you know what it’s for. David P. paid Carl W., (pizza emoji).” I reflected nostalgically on my first days in the world of Venmo, when these posts seemed somewhat boring and harmless. Now, they seem like an insidious realization of Debord’s prophecy: an endless feed with images that reduce people’s identities to their monetary transactions. 

I was reminded of what caused this whole Venmo obsession—I deleted Facebook for five months because I found it increasingly difficult to separate the impressions of people I gleaned from Facebook from the connections I had formed in real life. I started to feel like I was living in a world of mere representation, conflating “likes” with who I was as a person.

I took out a couple of dollar bills. Debord would say that these dollar bills were mere representations of reality that isolate us from our social connections by mediating them with a representational value. Compared to the Venmo feed, though, they almost seemed old-fashioned. Maybe I should delete my Venmo, I thought. Go back to the good old days of unbalanced debts, with no way to see if the guy I like is Venmoing some other girl for suspiciously romantic activities. 

But I haven’t deleted the app, for the same reason that I have Facebook again—once you start blurring the lines between lived experience and social media profiles, you lose the ability to recognize the difference, and you become dependent on the latter. I want to settle my debts instantly, and I want to be able to send out scientifically-questionable surveys allowing me to make conclusions about peoples’ Venmo opinions without interacting with them. As technology reporter Ben Hammersley wrote in Wired, “The internet is where we live. It’s where we do business, where we meet, where we fall in love. It is the central platform for business, culture, and personal relationships. There’s not much else left … The internet isn’t a luxury addition to life; for most people, knowingly or not, it is life.” 

Hopefully, some level of external regulation will stop Venmo from controlling all the money in the world. But there is little in place in our culture or government to prevent it from reducing people to representations in monetary terms. Thus, Venmo may be able to control us. And that reality may be closer to the present than we’d like to admit.

So, if you have any questions about what I’ve said in this article, please, don’t approach me in person. And actually, refrain from even commenting on my inevitable Facebook share of this article—where’s the money and the fun in that? Venmo request me instead. Throw some emojis in the comment section—I’ll get the message. 

Homeward Pikes Peak’s office is tucked into a drab, nondescript brick building just south of downtown Colorado Springs. The inside of HPP, a nonprofit that provides counseling and housing services to homeless people and substance addicts, is unassuming. There are six cubicles that serve as workspaces for case managers. Baskets filled with a hodgepodge of travel-sized toiletries sit on small tables throughout the office. Filling the rest of the empty space are dozens of brochures and posters advertising government welfare programs and homelessness resources throughout Colorado Springs.

I meet Jessica, a client of HPP, in the office on a snowy day in April. Jessica comes in wearing a T-shirt and shorts, rubbing her hands for warmth and joking about how stupid she must look for being so underdressed. I talk to her in the basement, which holds a few racks of clothing for the clients, as well as a large wooden table. She peppered many of her responses with caveats of uncertainty, often asking questions like, “Did I answer that right?” Still, she answered all my questions with remarkable verve, often falling back on an arsenal of witty aphorisms. 

Jessica is 25 years old and has spent nearly a fifth of her life in prison. Prior to incarceration, she cared for her two children, but admits that she “pretty much sucked” as a parent. “I was a menace,” she says. Jessica is currently on parole and probation. May 28 will mark one year of sobriety for her. Pregnant in prison, she sought out a source of housing stability and sobriety for once she got out, with the help of a lawyer her mother paid for. He helped Jessica find Bloom Recovery Home, HPP’s sobriety house for mothers and children.

Bloom teaches newly-sober mothers basic life skills. They offer cooking classes and psychological training classes, which, Jessica explains, teach you to use your “brain in ways that you couldn’t before.” As with most organizations that offer housing-first solutions to homelessness, Bloom and HPP have a set of basic conditions that clients must meet to keep their place in the program. They must stay sober, maintain a basic level of cleanliness, and always meet their curfew.

These requirements speak to an idea that appeared throughout my time with HPP employees and clients. Executive Director Beth Roalstad and case manager Rachel Brown both explicitly debunked the idea that housing-first approaches to homelessness are “handouts”—that they gift people something that they should have to earn. This line of logic is characteristic of a different approach to the homelessness crisis, known as the “work-first” approach, in which a person is offered a job, not a home, as a means of achieving health and stability. The thinking is that holding down a job is a necessary lesson in the importance of self-sufficiency. Likewise, an advocate of work-first might argue that someone who is given something they did not earn will be unable to learn the tough lesson: you must earn what you get. They are deprived, supposedly, of the connection between cause and effect, work and reward. 

Beth brings up El Paso County Commissioner Stan Vanderwerf as an example of a staunch supporter of “work-first” ideals. She did add, though, that after many prolonged conversations with him, she was able to help him see the value of housing-first approaches.

Homelessness in the U.S. was on the rise in the 1980s, in part because of cuts to social services. Many cities were staring down quickly increasing rents and costs of living (a trend that has only worsened since). In the face of public pressure, President Reagan signed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987, which allocated money to build homeless shelters around the country. 

One year later, entrepreneur Tanya Tull initiated a starkly different approach: the first significant housing-first program, organized by Beyond Shelter in Los Angeles. The idea remained fairly unpopular until the early 2000s, when stubbornly high homelessness numbers forced advocates and policymakers to realize that while it was necessary to respond to the symptoms of homelessness (by offering shelters, soup kitchens, and counseling), these kind of “quick fixes” weren’t solving the problem. 

Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows that in 1970, there were 6.5 million low-cost housing units nationwide and 6.2 million low-income renters. But 40 years later, there were 9.9 million low-income renters battling for only 4.8 million affordable units. No number of shelters and soup kitchens were going to solve that problem, especially because median rent in the United States has risen in sync: $571 in 1990, $602 in 2000, and $934 in 2014. While policymakers may be slow to notice the value of housing-first projects, it’s become clear that housing-first is the best shot at a stable living situation for the three million Americans who spend nights without shelter every year, and especially the 1.3 million children among them.

Advocates of housing-first, like HPP, consider a home to be the primary building block for leading a responsible and healthy life. Proponents argue that providing a home to the homeless is not only the right thing to do but also the pragmatic solution because it lightens the financial burden that a large homeless population exerts on a community. In fact, HPP claims that its services can save taxpayers over $2 million a year in emergency room visits, 911 calls, and detox stays. 

Perhaps in recognition of these potential cost reductions, the Bush administration started housing-first programs in over 60 cities. These programs uncovered the yearly cost of a typical homeless individual on the U.S. as a whole: between $35,000 and $150,000. They also discovered that those homeless individuals could be housed at a yearly cost to the government and taxpayers of $13,000 to $25,000 per person.

Beth shrugs off work-first proposals, explaining that they betray an insufficient understanding of the issues. She believes it is entirely wrong to think that “if we give everyone a job, that will solve their problems” because, according to Beth, you can’t pay rent in Colorado Springs with a job that pays less than $21 an hour. “So [that] model doesn’t work,” she said. Beth situates anti-homeless sentiment in Colorado Springs as part of a classism in America that “we’ve had forever—we love simple answers.” 

But complex problems rarely have simple solutions, and the questions surrounding homelessness are no exception. Looking for better answers, Beth pointed to a 1998 investigation called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. It analyzed some of the more insidious, cyclical patterns of homelessness and health instability. The study looked at unpropitious childhood circumstances, like the presence of substance or physical abuse in the home, and found a remarkably strong correlation between the existence of these variables early in life and low levels of wellbeing later in life. 

Many Americans might think that homeless people, convicts, or addicts condemn themselves to a dire situation out of which no one should help them but themselves. But the truth is that a range of external variables exert significant pressure on a homeless person’s ability to be healthy and happy. Sometimes assistance, like that which HPP provides, is a necessary catalyst for addressing and compensating for those variables. 

Inextricably intertwined with those adverse childhood experiences is mental health. Beth told me that “if [she] had a magic wand,” she would create “as many mental health and substance treatment places as we have Starbucks … Let’s normalize it.” She acknowledged the pervasiveness of mental health problems everywhere. “Even for those with a roof over their head and three meals a day, it’s hard to take care of their mental illness. Imagine if you’re doing that when you don’t know where you’re going to sleep and you don’t know if you can pay the copay for your medication. It’s really hard stuff.”

Contrary to what many expect, people’s ability to identify the importance of earning—of working for what they need and want—does not just disintegrate when you give them a home where they can build a life. In my conversation with Jessica, I bring up work-first ideas—widely considered a counterpoint to housing-first. I am surprised when she, herself a client and benefactor of housing-first, agrees wholeheartedly with the idea that people should work first before they can obtain basic necessities like shelter. She repeatedly brings up the necessity for someone in her position to take the initiative, do the work, and pull oneself forward. “To not would be insanity,” she adds unequivocally. “I don’t think anyone should get handed [anything] for free.” People should get a “hand up but not a hand out.”  

Jessica’s case reveals that housing-first doesn’t absolve its beneficiaries of responsibility or the need to earn a living. On the contrary, having a house is what enabled Jessica to start taking control of her life. She mentions that she’s started to utilize welfare and childcare programs, and that she looks forward to continuing to take advantage of opportunities that avail themselves to her. She’s stayed sober, and started being a responsible parent—all of which she attributes to “having a stable place.” 

It seems inconceivable that HPP has nothing to do with Jessica’s turnaround, given her transition from being a woman whose only idea of how to get by was to “sell some drugs, do some drugs,” to being a sober, responsible parent. Jessica dreams of one day playing the clarinet for her child, supporting her family just by herself, and maybe even helping pay for her mother’s bone cancer treatment. When I ask her if she’s optimistic about reaching these goals, she responds quickly, “yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I’m going to complete this program because there’s no other option … Normal life isn’t hard, you know. It’s simple.”

At points, our conversation seems like a recollection of the string of horrible events that threw Jessica’s life off track: the ways in which someone or something had failed her or she had failed herself. So, what strikes me most about our conversation is the unfailing positivity she projects. As we talk casually about the weather, Jessica remarks that I look a lot like her brother. He’s been on her mind a lot; just recently, at a party, he walked into a room alone and hung himself with his shoelaces. She shares her brother’s suicide as she does every other part of her story: it might be sad, but it’s in the past.

Jessica doesn’t take for granted the “hand ups” she’s been offered; there is no doubt in her mind that a home and a happy, healthy life must be earned. That conviction did not evaporate once she discovered support systems like HPP. In fact, that very discovery enabled her to change her perspective and gather momentum toward a new kind of life. She became a client at HPP and found a bedrock on which she can build that life. “Every day, I can go home and …” Jessica trails off and then meets my eyes. “And go home,” she says, before letting her eyes drift to the floor once more.