Hazlitt Magazine

The Hazards of Carpooling

This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you.

The Keeper of the Bees

I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things.

'I Don't Think the Artist Longs For the Emergency': An Interview with Olivia Laing

The author of Funny Weather on publishing a book during a global pandemic, the eternal appeal of outsider artists, and living with an oncoming sense of catastrophe.


‘Misremembering is Productive’: An Interview with Harry Dodge

The author of My Meteorite on interconnectedness, chaos, and a sense of magic.

There’s a theory in quantum physics that two particles can affect one another no matter what distance you put between them. This is referred to as entanglement, or what Albert Einstein once dismissed as “spooky action at a distance.” Though we can’t see the mysterious links, parallel dimensions and communication channels, that interconnectedness extends beyond the quantum realm. The proof is in the little particles that have recently forced us into a collective stillness, maintaining a safe distance between ourselves. In his new memoir, My Meteorite, Or Without the Random There Can be No New Thing (Penguin Books), multidisciplinary artist Harry Dodge explores the tiny links that influence the rhythm of our lives. Here, the connections are built around the ways we cull meaning from repetitions and coincidences. But the book’s catalyst is randomness—the way we’re initially shielded from the attachments, completely awestruck by the universe before we start to reason it. I talked to Dodge just before California instituted a lockdown in March. We discussed his book, but also how this pandemic has drawn attention to our interconnectedness. Sara Black McCulloch: I wanted to start by talking about memory and forgetting, especially how they play out in the book. Memory isn’t stable, and when people remember something, it’s reactivated in many ways. How does that tie in with virtual reality? Harry Dodge: Historically, whenever anyone has announced to me, “Hey, the work is about memory,” it would put me off—ugh—like everything is going to be sepia-toned photos on cross-dissolve, you know. But I read some science writing on memory and consciousness a couple years ago and that was when I started to think about it differently, as biological, as constitutive of intelligence, all that. Everything we know and do—even, or especially, our intelligence—is built on memory and recall. Mental and physical habits both qualify as memory—walking, putting on a pair of pants, all that. Identity, who we understand ourselves to be, is obviously built from things we remember consciously or unconsciously. When my dad got sick, his memory was in decline, I was surprised and fascinated by the deterioration. I don’t know what I expected, something purely physical I guess, some faltering with speech, or inability to walk, but the manifestation of the illness—the part I could see—was this ghostiness behind the eyes, his selfhood, was, in my estimation, more diaphanous, if you know what I mean. I started thinking about the nature of the relationship between one’s memory and one’s ability to feel and/or project a sense of self.  Simultaneously, I was reading on matter, materiality and interconnectedness, quantum particles, and trying to think through this concept of the plural subject, the idea that we’re more permeable than we know and are formed by pressures we can’t even imagine, a plurality of forming forces. I wondered if this biding theoretical interest—the “melty self,” as it were—could map onto observations I was making about my dad. There’s that. But maybe you’re talking about something else, this weird way that misremembering is productive? The text certainly revolves around the idea of misremembering and the idea that that is generative. And there is the hovering related question of what exactly constitutes reality—is it something material, mental (virtual), or several things at once. I’m really interested in mental worlds and the imaginary—and the question of how, qualitatively, that can rhyme with, more or less, this idea of a virtual world. Your sculpture focuses on how we pair words with the use of an object, and if someone no longer has the ability to recall that function breaks down. So if I have a broom that is normally used for sweeping, and I can no longer remember that, then now this object has lost that intended use for me. That opens up a new realm of possibilities. Yes! There's a kind of surreality provoked in some of the sculptures, perhaps caused by a kind of refusal of the original purpose. You know, many years ago, someone said to me, “your work looks figurative, but it's actually really abstract.” Right? I try to defamiliarize objects—which suggests they were familiar in the first place. I am not what you call me. And my sculpture definitely does that—if it's functioning the way I want it to. Though the familiar, or nameable, is less and less a part of the set of terms that comprise my sculpture, it still occurs; I take bits of lumber or buckets especially or other planes, scrap wood, and kind of smash them into the space of strangeness. And, you know, a mode of defamiliarization in order to puncture holes into the banal is definitely important to me, though I think I handle it really differently in the book. The book, as I'm sure you noticed, once in a while, ascends into a poetic space, becomes poetic. (And by poetic I mean something so specific that it is still moving and therefore uncaught, or untamed.) The book is a long sculpture and, as such, builds on itself. There's a bunch of objects and fragments and pieces laid end to end. The book isn’t excerptable, it’s not a memoir, there are no slices that function as representative of the whole, one must read it all if one wants to experience the project. Things—by which I mean themes or say structural forms or word play—are repeated, slightly off-register, and they land in piles, eventually generate shapes like temporal diagrams of chaos almost repeat. Aperiodicity. (I have also, alternately, referred to the structure of the book as a fugue, a musical term describing a composition that adds novel maneuvers section-by-section, and—bit by bit—abandons phrases.) So the end song is a different song than the one we began, but there are connecting rods, linkages, segues and those obviously vary. The idea that there's something unspoken and unwritten starts to resonate: the figure emerges, but as anti-matter, this content I'm trying to evoke. Prose is a tool defined almost exclusively by an expectation of legibility. And I’m into that, but I’m also interested in one-to-oneness in an experience of language, prosody, poetics, specificity, unmastery and defamiliarization, like some 3-D sculpture, or a poem. It happens a lot faster in a sculpture, obviously, a viewer is like, “I know what that is—a bucket, and then the longer they stand there, maybe a minute and a half, it stops being a bucket. Now it has dimension, color, it’s no longer a bucket, it’s this weird thing. The comfort of mastery—this experience we crave—is only unmade at length...or reconfigured. Touching on that: no defined chronology in the book either, but a repetition of scenes. Is that right to say? Does that help us build into it? Because I think there's a lot more of an emotional register to these scenes the more we come back to them. Was that intentional?  I have some favourite colours, in sculpture, for example—I use red, orange, yellow, and black a lot, gray too. If I bring in a colour, like blue or green, it's for a reason, an accent, some percussive conceptual messaging, a divider. And I also have emotional modalities, things I deploy again and again, in my videos, the time-based work. I am aware that those modes have been employed in the book too! I often open with something disorienting, a kind of survey—in media res, jumping into this weird spot. Hopefully you're drawn in by something, a kind of allure, you know, whether it's sentence structure or some image, and then you sort of read on into things that are sad or funny. Or gripping somehow. I think as a reader spends time with the work, trust builds, the idea is that a reader will allow the text to bring them into a very deep emotional place. The refrains help with that. I think they convey a sense of artistic intent. [Laughs] I don't ever want to get operatic or melodramatic or anything. I’m trying to let the reader, you know, find the emotional pockets—understated, unexpected and powerful. A kind of surprise, “Oh, for some reason that just killed me.” I'm into giving people space, whether I’m teaching, or parenting, or making art, you know. I’m trying to bring people to very deep places but with a light hand. From my understanding, you were working on User while you were writing the book, and there’s a short film in the exhibit called “Late Heavy Bombardment.” I watched it after reading the book and I don't know if I'm reading into this, but a lot of the things that you touched on in My Meteorite — transhumanism, AI and cyborgs — come up in both the book and the film.  Were they influencing each other?   When I'm making artwork, I am trying to—whether it's a book or a movie—I'm trying to find something hot inside myself, these pockets of interest, places where it's hot, you know, like a fever of sadness, or a fever of confusion. I believe in hanging around with confusion. Any sort of cognitive dissonance, apparent paradoxes in my thinking, are always great places to burrow into, for example. I just try to find those pockets and write from them, make from them no matter what I’m making. I think I was still finishing My Meteorite when I went to write this little short video last spring. It’s a great short animation with all these 3-D virtual characters in this lecture room trying to figure stuff out, share tips on bullying or whatever. So of course, while writing the script for this, all of these things are still hot for me and they're still on my mind, and they're still things that I'm wrestling with. Absolutely. And I'm glad that that's legible and it's because I'm telling the truth about my interests, my bewilderment; I’m scraping up or manifesting real-life thought processes, problems I’m working on. Trying to make meaning. As I see it, I’m lifting figures from the primal ooze. I always think that good artwork comes from that kind of hot confusion. [Laughs]  Hence the volcano at the end of the short film. Yeah, exactly! Now we're in that volcano, we’re clinging to the side of the cone! [Laughs] The volcano at the end of that was symbolic of, like, the stress-testing of democracy, one, and climate change, two. I mean, right now, this pandemic, we’re at the beginning of it, it’s awful. Sad—should have been dealt with better. But also here we are again needing to balance our desire for safety with a preservation of our civil rights, and by that I’m talking about deep extreme surveillance, apps on phones that take our biological stats on the hour, track our whereabouts. Stuff like this is always a trade-off; we want measures to be temporary and they might turn out to be, but note that authoritarian regimes have plans ready for just such times and are all too happy to pull the trigger on some mind-shattering executive powers. Not to be a downer. Also Trump’s obviously planning on revving up hate and scapegoating—repurposing fear to amplify dischord. That's a big problem.  Yeah. And it's still weird to me, that Bernie Sanders’s idea of universal health care, especially in a pandemic, is still being referred to as something radical, as opposed to something necessary. Yeah, I mean, you know, it's kind of crazy, but these ideas are flexible, and subject to transformation just by force of labeling or contextualization. Lamar Alexander blocked a bill suggesting taxpayers should pay furloughed workers, not the private sector, which may or may not be a good point, but what is that? Socialism. Not a stereotypically GOP modality. I’m into one-for-all. There needs to be more socialization, obviously, which is partially what the book is about: interconnectedness. We’ve got this sudden clear feeling of it, as we apprehend that a particle has travelled around the globe in a few months, the magnitude of the spread is overwhelming. And there’s aspects: some are affirmative like emergence and creativity, but also the awesome, sort of sublime part, which is our shared vulnerability. Navigating our vulnerability, our porousness, or “impressionability” is what gives life meaning—it’s some essential component from which a sense of meaning issues. Were you ever tempted to write My Meteorite from a different point of view? When I was writing My Meteorite, no, I mean, it was not something that I was tempted to do. The first person was enough! But moving forward yes. I am writing a book now where there are a few different characters, like a poetic short fiction.  I just read Olivia Laing’s Crudo this summer, and it blew me away. I just loved the way she lightly pretended the whole time—the character of the author—that she was Kathy Acker. Have you read that book? Someone actually recommended it to me earlier this week. It blew my mind off! She also kind of flips from the first person to the third person really quickly—in one sentence sometimes!—it's super awkward on page one, but by the time it’s page two or three, turns out it’s a super beautiful magic trick. I’m very inspired by the way she flouts convention in the most unassuming way in the course of that short novel.  Were you trying to challenge your reader in a similar way? Your book doesn't have a set chronology and we're used to that in a book, right? Were you ever also thinking about how readers interact with books and their expectations? I was saying to people, “I'm pretending to write a book,” which meant that I was taking notes on experiences through 2016 around the time my dad decided to move to California. I started writing in earnest at the moment he died. I understand the chronology of the book to be that 2016 and 2017 are intercut and generally in a forward progression, so my dad dies at the beginning and also at the end. I think that if the book is at all legible and easy to read, it's because there are a few stories, if you could say such a thing, that progress in linear fashion, which maybe is how most of us experience time. I don’t know. [Laughs]. I was trying to write something I would like to read and I don’t enjoy things that are straightforward really at all. I suppose I expect my readers to want the same thing: space to think in, a lot to think about, you know, fodder. Have you ever watched True Detective? Matthew McConaughey’s character says that “time is a flat circle.” [Laughs] Exactly—a flat circle. Not a linear progression, some kind of pooling of time, or sedimentary situation, and the book is about that, how we’re always deploying things we’ve learned, the past arrives into the present, constitutes it; deforms it, pluralizes it. Also there's these other things in the book, slipped in, that are out of time, that punctuate, for sure—things I always think of as “ugly legs.” They kind of hang off. And to tell you the truth, I didn't worry too much about that, it's just the way my brain works. Writing, finding form, there was something sculptural, about dimension, and motifs. That did seem like it was going to make the book better and more interesting, not necessarily super complex, more just a book I would like to read. We adapt. I think we underestimate how much we can adapt. We're not as hardwired or stubborn as we think. We're not that stubborn! A book teaches us how to read it and, you know, I believe in that. I trust the reader. I try to give people a reason to stay with any work of art that I offer. I'm a social being, my strategies oscillate between disorientation and familiarity or comfort, and I think of it as social—all the work I do. I’m interested in how you title your work because, with a book especially, it’s your first encounter, that’s not the right word—it can be a guiding principle sometimes? How does that come about? Is that something that you have in your mind? Or are you avoiding it until you’re finished writing? When I make a body of work, say sculpture and video, I'm usually reading a lot of theory and thinking about a lot of philosophy and even if the sculptures aren't diagrams or even rhyming structural messaging systems, and usually they’re not, I was still thinking about something when I made each one. So when I finish a body of work, I will sit for two or three or four days and do all the titles at once. And those range from weird theoretical allusions to low brow — I can't think of the word —cuss words just kind of staccato things. All the titles in the show taken together will also make a kind of text or texture. While writing My Meteorite, a lot of titles were coming to mind and they showed up at the beginning of the document. Sometimes there were up to 10 or 11 of them honestly. And so, as the first draft was winding down, I started to pare them down, canvassed a few people. Initially, I thought that My Meteorite was maybe too simple a title for me but it stuck. Working title during the intial draft was Without the Random There Can be No New Thing, a Gregory Bateson quotation by the way, and of course that was eventually relegated to subtitle. The short title, it can be thrown around, you know, like, “Have you read My Meteorite?” [Laughs] rather than this complicated mouthful. So again, something more legible and palpable, paired with something that's a bit more abstract.  Throughout the book, there is magic in randomness, more specifically coincidences. Science works to dispel that magic; to explain it with logic. We're humans, so we seek out patterns, and not randomness. And that kind of takes the magic, I would say, from coincidences. What is your relationship to coincidences now? [Laughs] Science can be a bummer sometimes? Yeah. You know, in the book I was trying to evoke in readers a sense of the magic, of these natural constants even, the habits of matter—matter has stuff it likes to do! Amazing. I mean, if you've ever seen a documentary about gravity or the magnetic field that surrounds the earth, who cares if it’s measurable or knowable. It's still crazy. It's mind boggling. “Marvel” and “what is scientifically knowable” are not mutually exclusive. I wanted to crack that open, you know, re-enchant the material world, not necessarily peel away the magical from the palpable, but to just sort of like, smash open a sense of astonishment in the everyday.  But there are these words that circulate in the book: this idea of the random, which could create a new thing versus this idea of pattern. The patterns, I write, are postulated to be the results of the habits of matter, which if they are absolute, would suggest a kind of predetermined—if unimaginably complex—world, and this scenario also sort of precludes free will. Right? It would mean that humans are just bags of vital particles and the particles have their own agenda. Philosophically this also does away with ethics and on and on, it’s pretty extreme. There’s a lot there let’s say. Too much for an interview like this. Some people think the book is a pro-randomness manifesto [laughs] but I don't feel that I've come down on one side or the other. Although I am pretty convinced by Bateson’s idea of the stochastic processes. He wrote that he thinks there are nonrandom elements that preserve this or that random event or flow. And according to him the dynamic is relevant not only to like genetic variation, but also macro-things like learning. Secretly just between you and I—I do feel that these natural habits of matter are more in charge than anybody is comfortable believing.  I mean we’re freaked out by our own replacements and we made them—uncanny valley? It’s bizarre because it’s not quite right but it’s also too on the nose. And I think that in some ways, children do notice a lot of things in the world that we grow out of as adults. I'm really interested in amazement, this idea of marvelling. I reject the notion of a direct correlation between knowledge and mundanity. Édouard Glissant wrote, you know, that though we can't know everything it would be foolish not to try to know and that there's a kind of poetics—like a feverish poetics—we practice that is actually that, striking out into the unknown trying feverishly to know.  When you were writing the book, because you do talk about events in your life, were you at all worried about the truth, or skewing it a little bit to test those theories out? Yeah, that was part of what I was doing. I'm aware that by all of these framing devices and word choices, juxtapositions, that I'm constructing something. And so there is an adjacency or a proximity or a rhyming with my life, rather than some presentation of facts, facticity—that was something I intoned—some broth I sipped while writing—but I wasn’t fretting about it, no. I was interested in being just a little surreal, which was why I didn't look consult the internet continually, and part of why I sometimes paraphrase or misquote this or that. The fact checkers—God bless them!—they would find things and query me, “You know, that wasn't really how many rings the tree had—the oldest tree in the world.” Because I well, yeah, I know, I’m doing this from memory. That was important to me, the fecundity of imagination. I didn't go back to look at the article I read about the guy cutting down the oldest tree in the world. I thought I was writing fiction, and just using the details of my life as ready spirited fodder. [Laughs] There were definitely a few things I corrected. And there were a couple things I didn't correct because the book is obviously about the misremembered sculpture, the rippling maw of possibility related to the figure of the birth mother. I just was trying to make a little space for this idea of the virtual, to try to tease some thoughts out about the virtual. You also unpack quite a bit of Blade Runner 2049 at the end of the book. I don’t want to give the ending of the book away, but with the movie, everyone went into it expecting some questions would be answered, but that doesn’t happen. It left us asking more questions. I wanted to know what you thought about legacy and how that connects to lineage. I was really moved by Agent K’s sudden strong desire to be Deckard’s son. He was like, “Oh my God. I'm actually born and you're actually…” you know, he went there! You’re kind of rooting for him, Yeah, it is true! You were born and you’re real! [Laughs] And so we felt awful when the facts started to bear out other realities, the fantasy started to fade...I write this all out in the book, but I did find it very moving. Watching this intense psychic world rev up, you know, once it was launched in his head, Agent K, he was like, “You’re my dad,” and he felt it, and after that, well, facts on the ground didn’t matter much. Love had happened and you know, the changes it wrought in him were unretractable. He was like, “Well I felt it man, and it filled me up for good.” In what way?  Experiencing the joy of belonging, even if it’s illusory—or was it love. Even misapprehensions change things, have effects. I find that so fascinating. The idea is that this love—it budded in him, right? and regardless of facts on the ground, this love—the effects of it, the joy?—were already in motion, were not particularly flimsy or quenchable. My Meteorite is, in large part, a meditation on love, this thing that draws us into relation, and it’s about interconnectedness. In the book I’m puzzling through all manner of connection: touch; the fabric made by discourse; genetic linkages that evolve over decades without regard to time and space; in-person meetings which are constituted by the amplitude of risk; family bonds constituted by repetition, time and attention; the incredible remote connectedness of quantum fields which also do not heed the logics of the local; and even reverberating gravitational waves—centuries old—made by black holes colliding. It’s wild to be talking to you at the front end of this big, awful pandemic: a world in which everyone is suddenly flung into hyperawareness of how interconnected we are. A virus spread by touch, creature to creature, over the globe in a few months is breath-taking, because we can comprehend some part of it, the durational aspect of it, and the figure—a sometimes lethal virus—is frightening. I’m trying to put together thoughts right now, but it’s just so odd the way we want (and need) to disconnect physically but it’s also a kind of grand experiment in socializing remotely, by screen.  For the technoparanoid, I think we’re going to be surprised at what’s possible. And, aside from the obvious, and though most of the results of this—economically-speaking—are a hazard for anyone living paycheck to paycheck, you know, something about the manifest failures might work as negative space around modalities that are promising for the future. Certain images cannot be unseen. Which is to say that we might batter open some new doors of relation, we might learn something amazing about what matters in our relationships, in the conveyance of our relationships, by this awful dress rehearsal and that is a hopeful tendril I’m trying to hang onto. There are choices about how to respond to the fact of interconnectedness, there are lots of ways to go, shame is one place to land, or fear, but balancing that with courage and service and the ecstasy of permeability is another—as is finding the affirmative possibilities of our bodies and our world as interdependent and co-constituting.
‘A Little More Like a Career and Less Like a Stunt’: An Interview with Robert Kolker

The author of Hidden Valley Road on true crime reporting, family secrets, and finding stories. 

Robert Kolker's first book, Lost Girls, is a heartbreaking and methodical account of women whose bodies were found on an isolated Long Island beach. It's a true-crime book, but one where the violence is not the point. There is a tremendous amount of heart in Kolker’s writing and reporting: he makes you care about the people whose lives are destroyed by violence. In his new book, Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family (Random House Canada), Kolker takes on a difficult subject and once again infuses it with heart and analyzes it with his characteristic perspicuity. The book revolves around the Galvin family of Colorado. Don Galvin, a rising star in the Air Force, and his wife, Mimi, a dedicated homemaker, had twelve children starting in 1945. Then, tragedy began to dismember the Galvin family, and six of the Galvins's sons were diagnosed with schizophrenia. The compassion Kolker brought to Lost Girls is also evident here, now an Oprah's Book Club pick, which is a penetrating story about how mental illness affects families.  Lisa Levy: The book is fantastic. What's happening with the book is fantastic. You must be over the moon. Robert Kolker: I am, it's really mind-blowing, and especially great for the family, who put themselves on the line by going public this way. To get this kind of response is a wonderful thing for them as well, so I'm really happy for them.  How many of the kids are still around?  There are nine living siblings, three of whom are mentally ill. The other six are all involved in the book. This wasn’t my first question but it seems natural to ask now. How did you convince them to do the book?  Well, the sisters were ready. They had been talking for decades about the best way to let the world know about their family, and they were also curious about any sort of scientific contributions the family could make. Finally, they decided to ask an outsider to come in and report on it independently. By the time they called me, they were energized and excited to be talking to me, and so there was this funny disconnect in that first conversation where they were talking about these horrible, horrible things that had happened to them and to their entire family over many, many decades and yet, they were so pleased to be talking about it at all. It just seemed curious to me. I was like, wow this is such a sad story and they are so happy to be talking about it. You must have had that feeling a little bit with Lost Girls. Some of those families also seemed like they were on a crusade to get the story out.  That’s true. In Lost Girls, the families had a lot of fatigue from media attention by the time I was working on the book, and they did not necessarily see the value in a book. It was me saying it's worth it for the world to get to know your lost loved ones in a way that's more detailed and more realistic than what's out there already. It took a lot of pushing on my part and a great leap of faith by all of them. But in this case, the family was really ready from the very beginning and it was I who had to try to get my arms around the story and understand exactly what it was and how to tell it. Well, let's talk about that a little bit. How did you meet them? How did you come to the story? Lindsey, the youngest of the 12 siblings, went to high school with an old friend of mine who edited me at New York Magazine for 10 years. His name is Jon Gluck. And among many other stories we worked on together, we worked on the story that was expanded into Lost Girls, so he understood that I had a lot of experience writing about people in crisis, people facing adversity, people who had been through difficult situations. So, when Lindsey contacted him in 2015, she said that she and her sister had been talking for years about this, that now they thought it best to ask a journalist to work independently and take the story wherever it went. He thought of me and thought I would be a good match, and so he connected us by email. I took it from there. Were you looking for another book or did this come along and you said, I have to do this? I was very much looking for another book, but I also was very happily fully employed at the time at Bloomberg Businessweek as an investigative reporter. When I first got to know the Galvins my thought was, well, obviously, I wanted to write more books one day. Nothing happens overnight with books, so why not take this very, very slowly, get on the phone with everybody in the family over a number of weeks just to make sure that people were as enthusiastic about this as the two sisters were, because there are medical privacy laws in America and all it would take is one family member to stand up and push back and suddenly it would be less feasible. It only takes one person to yell HIPPA [the primary medical privacy act in the US]. Exactly, right. I was very skeptical, but at the same time, I knew that it's a slow-burner, these book projects. So why not give it a shot? I was amazed and pleased to see how enthusiastic they were about talking to me. Others were ready to do it because they respected the sisters’ wishes and believe the sisters had really been through some of the worst of it and deserved to have their story told. And Mimi was on board, which was a bigger deal than I realized at the time. She was very pleased to be speaking with me, but I learned later that she was not always interested in a book or public attention, and so it was a relatively new thing for her to be into it, so it was good timing, that way too. Well, she's a fascinating character. Over the course of the book, she's more and more willing to talk to people and accept help. At first, she definitely feels like a very closed ranks, family business kind of person, but as things sort of disintegrate, she realizes that she needs help. Exactly. The best way I think I can put it is that the children's view of both their parents changed over time and so does the book’s. Readers may feel one way about Mimi in part one and start to feel a different way about her in part two.  She reminded me of my grandmother and that generation. Something like mental illness is not something you were going to talk to even your friends about.  She reminded me of my grandmother too, in that she always had a sunny disposition and was not necessarily interested in talking about unpleasant subjects and had become very good at deflecting unpleasant subjects. That much they shared for sure. How long did you work on the book? About two and a half years, but you could add an additional year of really going full-time on conversations and meetings with the Galvins before I came up with the book proposal. By the time I started I was really up and running because I had a whole year of prep work beforehand. Was this easier because you had done Lost Girls and you were used to this sort of blanket reporting, where you had to keep a lot of narratives in your head at the same time?  It was a little easier. I definitely still had huge dead ends and weird conundrums I had to deal with where I would sit there and go, now what? Or, how do I handle this? But the big way that it was different is my attitude. Lost Girls was my first book, so I had all kinds of stress and impostor syndrome and doubt and self-doubt. And because of that I kept a lot of the work to myself and didn't really share bits and pieces of it with friends. I just tried to keep a happy face on while, privately, I was really sweating it. I decided this time that I was going to take really active steps to have a life while I worked on it. I said to myself that if I'm going to write more books in my career, they can't all be these soul-crushing seismic difficult events. It should be a little bit more like a career and less like a stunt.  Jumping from one trauma into another. Right. I created some balance. I shared large parts of the book with lots of friends, and I took a cooking class and because I was at home all the time, it was the right time for our family to get a dog. So we got a dog, and that was life changing.  Every writer should have a dog, I think. Exactly. I had never been a dog owner before, so it was all new to me. But just to be able to have a well-rounded life while working on it was important to me. I also should say that there is more hope in this story than there was in Lost Girls, even though it's a terribly dreadful story for the family. There are little bits of hope. I kind of held on to that too as I was working on it.  What were the main things you had to learn so that you could report the book? The book was a really good mix for me of work, the sort of work I had done before, which is talking to vulnerable people about difficult situations they faced, and something entirely new, which was the science of schizophrenia. One reason why I got into this line of work was to learn new things. It was intimidating, but I was really, really excited to have the chance to learn something from scratch, and I really was starting at zero. And I had lots of incorrect notions about it. The biggest misconception I had was that I thought that the drugs that people were using to treat schizophrenia every day were as miraculous as the drugs that treat depression or bipolar disorder. I learned that they really weren't, that they were certainly helping in some ways, but they weren't really working toward a cure and that was a big eye opener for me. Then just being able to look at the science of schizophrenia as a narrative, to see how it changed and evolved in the different debates over the years was really, really a terrific process for me. I really learned a lot. Brain research in particular is fascinating because it's so primitive. They are constantly finding out new things by accident. That’s the way a lot of drugs were developed: it turned out that the drug didn't work for one thing but it worked pretty well for something else. It's like throwing darts blindly and then if you're lucky, something happens that you aren't expecting.  It certainly is like that for a lot of mental illness drugs as well. It was something that was developed for something else. Lost Girls was about abuse and trauma and the things that we take away from our families that are negative. So even though the family is, I think, generally trying to help the brothers who are ill, there's still a stigma attached to what's happening to them. The subject of abuse and childhood trauma is an interesting one for me because I really don't wake up in the morning thinking, “What next story about trauma and abuse should I tell?” It isn't the thing that is driving it for me. And yet, these two books both have it, have a lot of it. Perhaps it's simply because I'm drawn to stories about people facing adversity. It's certainly not out of anything in my life personally that I'm resolving. More families are like that than not. Certainly, that's true. The things I really like to write about best are intimate personal stories. I'm not a pundit and while I've done investigative reporting, it's usually because I'm motivated by the people in it. I'm not an essayist or ideas writer, and I don't do first-person stuff. I really want to do narratives about people so the people are going to be going through something tough and this is as tough as it gets. Yeah, when I was comparing your two books, that's where I landed. I landed on trauma, I landed on marginalized people. The mentally ill are marginalized, much in the way that the women of Lost Girls were, some of whom were probably also mentally ill. I am purely operating out of an established playbook by idols of mine. Alex Kotlowitz or Katherine Boo or Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is amazing. Or David Simon, using these amazing nonfiction narratives that are about marginalized people or people who we might overlook even if they aren't officially marginalized. I'm trying to do what they're doing. Well, you're doing what they're doing. What's interesting is that the writers you just mentioned all have written really incredible books that somehow tell a universal story, even though they’re about marginalized people. And I hope to do that too, for sure. To me, that's one of the things that journalism can do. It can make the world smaller, and help you relate to people who you've never thought you'd have anything in common with. These are some of the amazing things that good non-fiction can do. One of the other similarities I felt in these stories is a lot of them break down to be stories about mothering. I think we both blame and venerate mothers. When people have troubled lives we still look at mothers and think, well, what's going on there?  I was alarmed by that with this book. I was worried because, god knows there are enough family stories out there, fiction and non-fiction, where the mother really takes it on the chin. And I was not interested in that trope. In conversations with all the children, I learned that they were re-evaluating both parents as life went on, and so fixated on that and decided to make that a big part of the story. Well, it's hard because Don sort of drops out of the story because he becomes ill. That's exactly right. By the time it came to make some really serious decisions about his sons, he was no longer the decision maker. [Mimi] has sole power. Once one son died in 1973, there was no way she was going to be overruled on any decision. It would have been an interesting and different story if there were two parents there continuing to work on this issue, but it just wasn't that way. Why do you think they had so many children? It was unusual for them and their families. There were other large families in Colorado Springs at the time but the Galvins were the first to do it. Not all the Galvins have large families. So even their own families were wondering why this was happening. I think I arrived at two ways of looking at it. One is that the Gavins like having a life of distinction. Don liked being the guy who flew the falcons and they liked being known as this large family, this model family. Mimi, who had given up the life she had wanted, could build a life that was more interesting to her and made her feel special. I think she also was filling a hole in her life. I think she had some losses that she was trying to gloss over, like the loss of her father who left the family in scandal and the loss of her husband who became more of an absentee parent and the loss of the future she thought she could have. And so here was a way to create a lot of new company for herself to stave off abandonment. I think it worked for her in a lot of ways, and not just because she wanted people to look up to [them] as a model family. The Oprah’s Book Club people are starting to read the book and some of the commenters there are interested in the idea that she was competing with Don, which isn't something I really explored, but it's an interesting idea. She's this very intelligent woman who is going through what a lot of women in that generation are going through. She's relegated to a homemaker role when she could have gone to college. Her husband is this big shot who's really accomplishing everything professionally and she's at his mercy in terms of what kind of money they make, where they live, everything that happens. And so maybe she is doing what she can do to accomplish something too. It’s hard not to think about how, in the beginning, he is the star and as the book goes on, she takes the reins. But where he gets to be this fun, larger than life public figure, she's just trying to keep it together privately. Yes, and she's adjacent to his public life. She's on his arm at these events and stuff, but it's not really her life, it's his life.  Do you think in a different era she would have made different choices? Did her daughters talk about that at all? Yes, I think as kids, they grew up saying, Why on earth is my mother neglecting me and choosing the six sons over me? Why did she put me in harm's way? The two sisters now look at her and think, What were her choices? Now that they are both married and have children of their own, and have been able to make lots of decisions about their lives, they realize that Mimi’s choices were limited, her tools were limited, the understanding of the illness is limited. She may have made some colossal errors of judgment but she also was operating with real limitations. At this point, the sisters are filling the role that she had to and making decisions about their brothers’ care, I would imagine. Yes, and we see two different ways of dealing with that in the two sisters because they are not alike. Lindsay is aggressively trying to do what her mother did in terms of caring for the brothers and there's a price for that, which is that she has a certain amount of mania about it and ends up having some difficulties with the people around her because of it. Margaret goes the other direction where she feels that it's a bottomless pit dealing with the family issues, and so she creates some boundaries. But there's a price for that as well because then others begin to resent her.  I would think the resentment started when [Margaret] went away. This is actually something else I think will be interesting with the book club readers: what do you make of a mother who sends a daughter to a family that they're not super close to? It's very unusual but actually a very shrewd thing for her to do. I think there's so many ways of looking at that. In the beginning, I looked at it as something out of Charles Dickens, like this mysterious wealthy benefactor pulling one of the children out and it just seemed so larger than life. But as you said, there's the resentment of the people left behind. Then there's Margaret’s own feelings of alienation and abandonment, being sent away when it was really the brothers who she thought maybe ought to be sent away. She feels penalized and deprived of her family for reasons that she doesn't understand. There's the culture clash of her being in this wealthy family, and then looking back at her family. The sisters’ lives are different from then on because they aren't together, but they are both cursed with a certain hypervigilance, like they're walking on egg shells, because they're ready for the worst to happen at any time, and that plays into every decision they each make. Still? Still, absolutely. If you were to meet Lindsey or Margaret today on a ski slope or at the Whole Foods they would seem like anyone else. Perfectly congenial, nice, intelligent, friendly people. But in their emotional lives and the legacy of their childhood, there's a certain walking on egg shells feeling that they both have and will continue to deal with. And I'm sure the brothers feel that way too. I mean, as kids, they all woke up every day wondering if they were going to go insane like their brothers. I don't think you ever really get away from that.  What do you want from your next book? You reported these two very intense, very moving stories, which are also very bleak in some ways. But I don't imagine you’re going to turn it all around and do Mary Poppins. But you're obviously drawn to a certain kind of story. How would you define that? What kind of stories do you like to tell?   I love non-fiction narratives, and I prefer to tell stories about ordinary people who are going through something extraordinary so that readers can sort of follow along and put themselves in their shoes. And as an added bonus, it would be nice also to be able to learn about a completely unfamiliar world while experiencing this narrative in the way that one does when reading Katherine Boo.  I'm happy to write another true crime book, but it doesn't have to be true crime. I'd be happy to write another book about mental illness. Really, the priority would be human stories that lift a veil on something that you may not understand immediately. Do you think you'll continue to write about families or is that sort of incidental?  I think it's incidental. If there were an amazing story about someone where the family didn't come into it, I wouldn't shy away from it, but I will say that for years and years and years, I wanted to find some way to report on a family that had a estrangement because I am interested in the subject of family estrangement. If you talk to my [former] co-workers at New York Magazine, my close friends there from years ago, they would all say, oh yes, Bob said that he wanted to do that a long time ago. How amazing [is it that] this presented that chance?  Do you have another book in mind or you just sort of like sitting back and taking all of this in? I have nothing right now. I have a couple of ideas that might end up being shorter things, but I really don't know. No big promising book project at the moment. And that's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I think it would be nice to have the promise of something new to work on, while promoting something that exists. But on the other hand, in the middle of a global pandemic, it's probably nice that I'm not feeling overworked. I have one job right now and that's to support this book and also keep the family feeling okay during the quarantine.
The Keeper of the Bees

I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things.

I’ve been obsessed with animals since childhood. Though I grew up in a rural-ish area and was a bona fide horse girl, it wasn’t enough. I tormented my parents by keeping outside fauna in my room for companionable observation. A common housefly? My friendly pet. A caterpillar? Temporary roommate. I kept it in a jar and provided milkweed until it formed into a chrysalis and later a monarch butterfly, at which point it was released into the backyard to expend its little life. During a farm visit, I was gifted a fertilized chicken egg which I then kept inside a mitten and warmed under a desk lamp until my father turned the light off, probably due to mounting hydro costs. A chick was on its way, the weight of the egg a telltale sign. One more pet opportunity lost. Though to be fair, I doubt I had much of a plan beyond the egg hatching. The thing is, these creatures would’ve gone through natural, preprogrammed, yet seemingly impossible processes with or without my interference. I recall aptitude test results as I wrapped up secondary school that put me in the ninety-ninth percentile for a future in both the arts and agriculture. I chose books, but a deep curiosity about that other path remained.  Last year, after a few seasons of reading about homesteads and honeybees, I signed up for the Beekeeping 101 course at the University of Guelph, which has become so popular that people set alarms and join waitlists to vie for a space in two spring sessions. It taught components of biology, apiculture, and hands-on skills. The curriculum was geared toward hobbyists. The stress of farming for income did not factor in. Our instructor, a beekeeper with some thirty years’ experience, told the class that if we wish to keep bees in order to “save the bees,” not to bother. However, if we want to keep bees because we’re interested and wish to learn about and care for them, great. A line was drawn between the endeavours of animal husbandry and conservation.   *** Honeybees are not native to North America, but were imported by European settlers in the seventeenth century. The most popular breeds for honey production are Italian (the archetype honeybee: yellow and black) and Carniolan (a hardier, Eastern European honeybee). Where I’m writing this, in Canada, any wild honeybees are feral descendants of those that have escaped from domesticated hives. Wild, native bee species that do not produce honey are less recognizable but vital pollinators. Emerald-green sweat bees (often mistaken for flies), carpenter and leaf cutter bees, and bumblebees get overlooked. By keeping a honeybee hive, I learned, backyard beekeepers are not necessarily contributing to the strength of local bee populations, but potentially creating more competition for wild pollinators where sources are scarce.  It is honeybees rather than native bees that have become symbols of conservation. Perhaps because they’re undeniably fascinating, the intricate combs and social structure, the miraculous honey. Perhaps because we’re terrified: there is no single accepted cause for colony collapse disorder, and we’re agriculturally dependent on honeybees for current farming practices. Bees, trucked across the continent to pollinate monocrops, like almonds in California or blueberries in Atlantic Canada, face unfamiliar environmental conditions, travel stress, and a lack of variety in their food sources which wreaks havoc on their digestive and immune systems. As a University of Guelph honeybee biologist explained by comparison, it might be like eating only applesauce for your entire life. Will you live? Yes, but you will not thrive. *** In the university bee yard, the honeybees seemed unperturbed as students fumbled through implementing our lessons with hive inspections (this is the term that’s used: inspection). Intentional movement and smoke work best. Bees probably don’t “smell fear,” which relieved the anxious in the group, but they do take aim at dark, shiny things, like sunglasses. No posturing while beekeeping. After taking the course, and reading all the materials I could access, I volunteered to help load spring nucs at a beekeeping supply store. A nuc, or nucleus colony, is a small colony of a few thousand bees and a queen. Around two-hundred nucs came to the shop on pallets, in ventilated cardboard boxes. The storage area hummed and grew humid with their unique, warm, waxy scent. Because the boxes weren’t sealed tightly, thousands of bees began to escape inside the warehouse, barreling toward the light of the loading dock. Beekeepers arrived to pick up their orders, unphased by the swarms. One farmer teased me for wearing a hat and veil as I Tetris’d twenty-five nucs into his Toyota Yaris and bees pinged against the windows inside. When I asked if he’d be alright on an hourlong drive, he responded: What are they gonna do, sting me? Beekeeping needs patience. It’s not a practice of instant gratification. The best time to inspect a hive does not often align with one’s own schedule. Weather conditions should be ideal so that many of the workers are out foraging and the bees remaining inside are disturbed as little as possible; it’s easier to see brood, find the queen, and statistically avoid stings. So, sunny. Not windy. Not about to rain. Warm. I installed my own hive on an agreeable family member’s property, nearby enough that I could check on it weekly. I didn’t sleep the first night after I left my hive. Something to do with the idea that I suddenly had sixty-thousand lives on my hands. After two weeks of letting the colony situate in its new surroundings, I lit my smoker and opened the hive. I held the brood frame up into the sunlight and saw the queen’s eggs, like tiny grains of rice in the comb. I’m fairly certain I said, She’s laying! out loud, proudly, to no one. As I replaced the frames, bees crawled over my hands and were gentle. I felt completely vulnerable, my inadequacies on display as I was forced to learn by doing. I learned procedures, but caring for bees meant observing. I would have no words: nothing fully explained. With beekeeping, one is mostly deducing. Inevitably, I would make mistakes. I would have to trust myself and my instincts, and this alone was frightening. And isn’t it so terribly human, to immediately think of how animals make us feel?  Protective: when a large wasp aimed for the hive entrance and guard bees sacrificed themselves to kill it. Guilty: when half the hive swarmed. Astonished: when the bees raised a new queen and she, too, began laying healthy brood.  ***  If I think about it too hard, I balk at the idea that we engineer how animals may respond to us, and what they give or provide us. In the narrative of optional, hobbyist animal guardianship, there are motivations that are elided, mysterious even to those who act upon them. Did I take on beekeeping because my apartment won’t allow dogs? Did I cave to some latent need to nurture? I hope that I followed a desire to witness, but not control, the inner workings of living things. One flawless August day I performed an inspection. Some frames were heavy with capped honey, in others the comb held nectar, shimmering wet in the light. Nurse bees attended to larvae. There was no evidence of mites, but I applied preventative treatment. The harshness of the medicated strip results in some bee mortality, which I had to come to terms with. Opening a hive, even briefly on a good day, creates a lot of disorder for the bees. It is rather exposing to realize how out of tune one can be with nature. To notice how dull certain senses are to complement my quotidian life. Weeks later, I had to remove the mite treatment, but the conditions were terrible. It was humid, overcast, one of those swollen Ontario afternoons that bursts into thunder. Because of my procrastination, moving slowly and carefully wasn’t possible. I rushed through the removal of the mite strip, and as I replaced the box lid, I felt a sting on my ankle—my first of the season. I started to trust that I had learned something. What does it mean to care for an animal that isn’t a pet? As a hobby, maybe it means to ascribe value without expectation. To focus on what is visible, objective, rather than sketching out interiority. Is the queen laying? Are the foragers active and providing? Staring at bees who act for their collective benefit, their wellbeing has evidence. This, a counterpoint to the emotional logic I’d imposed about my own shortcomings and self-absorption. Maybe domestication should remain strange. According to my 101 instructors, novice beekeepers, or even well-meaning conservationists, occasionally install hives in their yards as though they’re birdfeeders: to enjoy and observe. And it is wonderful to watch a healthy hive on a summer day, bees returning with pollen packed onto their legs like pants in the colour of whatever flower they’ve attended. I think of sheep, across generations barn-raised, shorn, and attended to by veterinarians. An Australian merino ram escaped from his paddock and was rediscovered five years later. Such domestic sheep are bred not to lose their coat and need to be shorn regularly, so his mobility was impaired as a result of the five-year weight of his fleece. Domesticated bees shouldn’t simply be left to their own devices without human intervention and care. Honeybees are vulnerable to predators, pests, and diseases, and if left unattended, infections have the potential to be spread to feral colonies. Good intentions can leave us with nothing to look forward to. *** As autumn leaves dropped and mornings frosted over, my bees become cranky and retreated. In these winter months, bees cluster—shiver around the queen to keep warm. As the temperature rises and falls, the cluster expands and contracts. Undertaker bees carry out the dead. I wonder if my bees will survive the winter, if I provided the best conditions. When the temperature creeps to spring-like in January, bees fly, dopey and confused as we all are from the climate change flux. I remember, back in the full blooming summer, I added a super to the hive to make space for more honey storage. After, I took off my veil and long sleeve and lay down in the grass a few steps away to feel the sun heat my skin. A bee bumped into my head and rebounded on her way. Another landed on my arm for a minute, maybe regarded me but probably not, cleaned her antennae, and took off again. I watched their flight patterns zip across the sky and tried to trace them; it was impossible.
The Hazards of Carpooling

This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you.

“I found one,” Rory said, rubbing soft, grey pills of skin up from between her eyebrows, loading them against her thumb pad and flicking them into oblivion. She looked younger in the glow of the computer screen, sweetened by absolute trust in the machine. “Can you not please?” Simon asked, nodding at her projectiles. It didn’t actually bother him, but he was feeling particularly clean and self-righteous tonight, freshly showered, good, tight socks on his feet. “It’s Korean,” she said in defense. “Look,” she squirted a jewel of product into her palm from a small white tube. “You rub it on your face like this.” She unhinged her jaw, skin stretched tight as canvas over her cheekbones, and rubbed firm circles just below her eye. “And it pulls up all the dead skin, see?” She launched another pebble into the air. “No, I get it, I get what you’re doing. That’s exactly why I’m asking you to stop. It’s gross. Can’t you just sprinkle them into a tissue or something? It’s like flinging your toe nails around.” “Okay it is not like toe nails.” “It’s close.” “If you got down on your hands and knees you’d find a toenail, probably one of your toenails, way before you’d find any of my little pods. It’s dead skin, Simon, it’s already everywhere, it’s like being annoyed by the air.” “Fine,” he said, “just shower our whole house in it then.” “I will. And you will too. And so will Audrey because it’s just what bodies do.” Simon pinched the bridge of his nose, amazed at Rory’s ability to be defensive about something so objectively foul. He’d always found her physical habits disgusting: the way she zoned out on the couch and futzed with her body hair; how she let her razors decompose in the shower, scummy heads bristling with quills, constantly in the way, demanding to be handled. When she was younger it struck Simon as good disgusting: bohemian, radical, defiantly unfeminine. Now it was just regular disgusting. “All right, show me what you found,” he exhaled. “This guy, Ben, works in in the same office park as you. He lives a few blocks away, leaves at seven in the morning every weekday.” Simon crouched into the aureole of Ben’s profile. The light flung a shadow of false rage from his glasses. He and Ben were the same age. Both of them married with young daughters. Ben worked in sales at some kind of environmental start-up. Simon worked in legal at a bank, proofing the deliberately boring documents people sign without reading. “I don’t know,” said Simon, standing up. The shadows retreated back into his eyewear. “I don’t want to make small talk.” “Talk isn’t small forever. It gets bigger.” “I still don’t know.” “Why don’t you just try it? What’s the alternative, you drive an hour and a half each way on your own? Every day? It’s bad for the environment, first of all, and secondly, this’ll be nice. Imagine we make a new friend out of it. Just down the street, too, someone to check on the house if we ever go on vacation again, someone to watch Audrey or pick her up from school if we need it.” After over a decade in The City, Audrey’s birth and all of its demands on their money and space and time finally expelled them to The Burbs. They’d said goodbye to their friends, swearing they’d be back in town often, making them all promise to come visit, seducing them with vast yardage, for bocce ball and barbecues and margaritas, hanging by their pits over the plastic lip of a modest aboveground pool eventually, once Audrey learned to swim. But of course everyone is busy and everyone understands and the threads of a relationship over text are just strong enough to get you through weeks and then months of not seeing someone’s face or hearing their voice and it’ll always be the same when you see each other because you get hammered and it’s fine. But it would be nice to have friends here in town, Simon agreed, so he clicked the blue message box just below Ben’s profile picture: smiling, holding a beer at the end of a long dock over some glittering northern lake. Simon’s picture was almost identical, but his was staged, modelled secretly, shamefully, after a Bud Light ad. Ben is the un-staged version of me, Simon thought, and he turned the pulsing cursor into a friendly introduction. They scheduled their first carpool for Monday morning. Ben said he’d be by at 7:15. Simon had been ready since 7, nose pressed to his front door’s decorative glass insert. He could hear Rory upstairs, singing to Audrey, blowing raspberries into her unfathomable softness. He and Rory had bickered this morning. Simon had locked the bathroom door so he could masturbate in the shower, exorcize a few gobs of nervous energy before sitting in a car with a perfect stranger for an hour and a half and as a result she’d missed her only opportunity to take a shit all day. Usually he left the door unlocked so she could go while he showered, a routine he loathed but couldn’t really argue with. Rory, bunged up and furious, tried to make him late with her arguing, but he’d refused to engage. Imagine being late for a carpool. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself. If this all worked out, it would be proof that people really were decent, that they could do nice things for one another, work together towards a greater good, maybe even fix the planet. This drop of positivity rippled across his face and down through his body, spine straight, stomach firm. A climate change hero. An action figure in fashionably plain frames and a Banana Republic pea coat. At exactly 7:15, Ben pulled up in a sensible grey hybrid. He rolled down the passenger side window as he slowed to a stop, smiling as he had in his picture, wide and genuine. Simon was impressed he could summon that same summer day smile on a Monday morning in February. It was infectious. Made Simon feel satisfied. Mighty. A trace of the warmth he felt on his first day back at work after Audrey was born, happy to be able to provide for his small family. “Howdy,” said Ben, and pushed open the passenger side door. “Hi,” said Simon. The car was comfortable inside. Warm. Fabric interiors, heated seats, the dashboard a crown of interlocking rings and neon data. It wasn’t a fancy car, but it was tasteful. Simon began to dread next week when Ben would be seated in the 2006 Ford Escape he’d moved himself to The City in way back when, which had, since Audrey, always smelled slightly like a refrigerator’s crisper drawer. He’d tidy it up before next Monday, vacuum the creases, spray the seats with air freshener. “I call it The Italian Job,” he’d joke on Monday when Ben sat down into the unmistakable fug of a frenzied, half-assed cleaning—a mostly self-deprecating, slightly racist reference to a generational touchstone (an Italian shower… for your car), and Ben would find it funny because Simon found it funny, because weren’t they, profile-wise, basically the same person? “Wasn’t sure what you took in your coffee,” Ben gestured at the cup holder with his elbow as he turned right toward the main road. A take-out coffee cup, waxy brown bag of cream and sugar on top. “Oh wow, thanks. You really didn’t have to do that.” “Happy to. You have no idea how glad I am to finally have some company for this drive.” “I have some idea,” Simon laughed. “Oh right, ha, you’ve been doing it too. It’s a fucking bummer, right?” For some reason Simon found himself thrilled by the curse word, not that he cared one way or the other about swearing, he and Rory did their fair share, but to drop it so immediately. Thrilling was the only word for it. He noticed too that Ben was a very good driver. Confident. Intentional. Clear, without being pushy or aggressive. His fists travelled the wheel easily, his foot fluid on the gas. Simon felt momentarily overcome with the sensation that the road was moving beneath them as opposed to the other way around. “I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone before, but you’re a very fine driver.” “Stingy with compliments, are you?” “What? No!” This was something Rory had accused him of, trying to appear more competent by withholding praise. “I’m just kidding,” said Ben. “Thank you. I’m glad you feel that way. Because I was actually going to say, I really don’t mind driving every day. In fact, I’d prefer it if it’s all the same to you.” “No, really? I couldn’t—” “Really. I would prefer it,” he glanced at Simon. “I’m just looking for the company. You don’t even have to kick in for gas if you don’t want.” “Well I’m going to kick in for gas.” “Honestly, I’m heading in this direction anyway.” “Your profile really should have just said, free ride with coffee, just, you know, from an advertising standpoint. You wouldn’t have had to wait so long for a response.” “That’s true. Except maybe that sounds too good to be true.” “Well I’ll supply the coffee. Then it’s just good enough.” “Deal,” Ben grinned. “So you just don’t like being a passenger?” Simon snapped the tab back on his coffee, blew a buxom swirl of steam to smithereens and took a sip. It was too hot, too bitter. He normally took it with cream and sugar but he was nervous to perform such a dexterous operation in the car. “Nah, not really. My dad and I got into an accident when I was a kid. I was fine and everything, but his back was destroyed. Three operations, then he got hooked on painkillers. It was ugly. Anyway, now I get really agitated when other people are driving. I hope that’s okay.” “Shit, of course. I’m so sorry.” “Ah it’s okay, didn’t mean to bring all of this up,” he laughed, sipped from his coffee. “I usually don’t. Guess it might be too early in the morning for company after all.” “The hazards of carpooling. How is your dad now?” “Oh he’s a mess. Still an addict. Qualifies for disability at least.” “Shit. I’ve never met an addict before.” “You may have. A lot of them are good at hiding it. Not my dad of course. He looks like he haunts fucking bridges.” Simon snorted. “Oh, I’m sorry.” “No, it’s okay,” said Ben. “It’s funny. He’s fucked.” Ben merged into the left lane to pass a pickup truck loaded with dubiously secured wood. “I still see him sometimes. Because it’s not their fault, right? That’s what they say.” “That is what they say.” “And it’s not their fault. I can see now that it’s not. It’s a disease. I acted like I believed that before, just because, you know, it’s the kind of thing someone like me believes: addiction is a disease, corporations are a scourge, immigration will save the post-industrial world. But I could just never really wrap my head around it, that you could choose your disease every day, that you could cure yourself by just not choosing the disease. But it’s not like that, I know that now, I see the way it gets its hooks in people, the exact same way a virus gets its hooks in your cells.” “I know what you mean.” Simon realized he was about to open up to Ben, reveal a way in which his personal experience conflicted with the way he presented politically, or, more accurately, he was ashamed to admit, the way he presented aesthetically. He didn’t even do this with Rory, in front of whom he was an aggressive and unwavering liberal: wiry, bespectacled, armored in raw denim, leather boots, lavish perversions of iconic labor-wear. The way he policed her innocent slips of ignorance so mercilessly, knowing deep down he was punishing her, jealously, for a year off work with Audrey. The price she’d pay on the other side of her mat leave would be a feeling of total alienation from the civilized world. “My mom’s ex-husband, before I was born, I never met him, apparently he was addicted to gambling. He spent all of their money, every last dime and then some. It took my mother half a decade to crawl out from under the debt, then he left her. But the way she talks about him, it’s like, he’s the victim. Like he was sick. And I would agree with her, the way she explained it to me, it did make sense, and I know I’m supposed to feel that way, but I still can’t help hating the fucking prick. And I could never really understand how she didn’t hate him too.” Ben nodded as he merged onto the next highway and settled safely into the center lane. “People are complicated animals,” he said, and Simon hummed in agreement. They enjoyed a miraculously comfortable silence, considering they’d just met, sipping their coffees, knocking knuckles when they both went to deposit their cups into their holders at the same time, which kick-started the next conversation, about how things used to be. Roomier. Better. When chips overflowed from bags and rock stars never showered. Ben recalled an incident from those days, a time he’d forgotten a freshman in the shower after force-feeding him Jell-O shots till he shit himself. The next morning the kid emerged from the bathroom pale as chalk, curled beneath a crusty towel. I could have died, he said to Ben, and then the two of them laughed till they cried. Still friends today. Ben spoke warmly, awed by the strangeness of hazing: humiliations executed carefully as spells, with the promise of being made real. Bona fide. Part of something. Unless it killed you instead. Simon admitted he didn’t have much experience with things like that, but he was sure Ben did. Ben shrugged, confessed, jokingly, to having the perfect physique for all sports, to being on every team, including debate, because even his brain was ripped. Simon watched Ben’s car pull out of his office parking lot. A connection. The kind he used to make easily as a child: 4 a.m., bloated and delirious at a sleepover, laughing hysterically, relieving yourself of yourself, easily, into someone else. A friend. Which he realized now he didn’t actually have anymore. He had people he’d known in The City, those people he got blind drunk with then didn’t see again for months. He had people he texted with a lot but never saw. He had people he cared about but couldn’t stand; people he wished he saw more but didn’t. This was a real friend. Like old times—better times. When your chip bags spilled over and your idols reeked and all your friends tried to kill you. * At 5:09 Simon stared out at the office parking lot, his breath appearing and disappearing with increasing frequency on the glass. Hadn’t they planned to meet here at exactly 5 p.m.? Simon checked his phone, refreshed his inbox, thumb triggered tic-like, involuntarily, he confirmed, re-confirmed, 5 p.m. was the plan, in writing, in the carpool app’s message center. The thicknesses of his chest and throat merging, manic, resisting the pacifying effects of his shallow breaths. His cheeks, he could see in the glass, were red. Rosy, for Christ’s sake. And then there he was, Ben and his car, one sleek entity prowling the lot for a spot. Simon exited the building, gulping cold air. As he got closer to the car Ben honked the horn, launching Simon in a spasm of terror which, once done, left him completely calm, as though it had ejected every bit of built-up cortisol from his body. Ben was laughing as he opened the door. “The look on your face,” he managed to spit. And Simon, depleted, rubbery, burst out laughing too. “You asshole,” he said, and Ben shrugged, thumbed a tear from his eye, and entered the rush hour crawl from the lot. On the long ride home, they talked about their firsts: drinking and drugs and sex, details Simon hadn’t thought about in a long time. The slope of his high school girlfriend’s breasts, her tough grip on his penis, smooth, dry, because neither of them really understood or could commit to the true mess of good sex in their parent’s basement or pressed against the laundry room door while a party thumped in the background (though Simon had made that last one up—he was rarely invited to parties in high school and wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the nucleus of one for sex in one of its furthest rings of energy). Ben had alcohol poisoning twice in college. He’d loved mushrooms, ate them constantly, preferably laced with MDMA when he could get it: a hippie flip, he called it. “Remember that?” Simon admitted he’d never tried it before. Ben said, “We’ll have to fix that.” When Simon walked through the front door, Rory shoved a soft, sweet potato encrusted Audrey in his face. “Take her,” she demanded, and ran up the stairs. He heard the thud and spatter of the shower and to the empty room he said, “Well, hello to you too.” Audrey looked at him, smiling, slow, probing starfish fists along his cheek and he was overcome with a painful, breathtaking love for her, buried his face in the pressed flesh that hid her neck to her wild, screaming delight. He ran a cloth under hot water, rubbed the sweet potato from her skin, changed her diaper, buttoned her into a striped onesie. Rory didn’t like the button-up onesies because they were harder to fight with during middle-of-the-night diaper changes. Simon didn’t care. This one was his favorite and today he’d been reminded that he was still a human being. Rory trotted back down the steps, soaked strips of hair leaking into a towel over her shoulders. She’d restored to her wardrobe a particularly unsightly nursing nightie that he hoped he’d seen the last of when Audrey tagged it in a spray of seedy, yellow feces. “Thought that one was trashed.” “Nah. Somehow the gross stuff that comes out of babies doesn’t really stain.” “Small miracles.” “You hungry?” “Yeah.” “There’s Kraft Dinner in the cupboard. We ate…” she hunched forward, stared at Audrey, infecting her with wide-eyed anticipation, then swooped in and stole her from Simon’s arms, “… sweet potatoes!” Audrey, grinning, flung her arms above her head. “That’s it? You’re just gonna eat sweet potatoes for dinner?” He felt Audrey’s sudden departure from his arms as plainly as a burn. “I had some other stuff too.” Simon nodded. “What is it, Simon.” Exasperated. Annoyed already. “Nothing, just, I don’t know. Don’t really feel like Kraft Dinner.” “Right,” she replied. “Well, I’m sure you can figure something out. How was the guy? Ben?” “Yeah, Ben. He was really cool actually. Sort of excited to see him again tomorrow.” “That’s great! What’s his wife’s name?” “He didn’t mention.” “His kid?” “Didn’t mention her either.” “Did you talk about us?” “I don’t remember, Rory, Jesus.” “I’m just asking.” “Yeah, I think I did—I think I mentioned that Audrey’s made our whole car smell like a refrigerator drawer.” “She haaaaaas,” said Rory, kissing Audrey’s nose. “Somehow she really has. All right, well, I’m going to put her to bed and hit the sack myself.” “Already?” “Yeah, I’m tired.” “Night.” “Night Simon. Love you.” And she padded off to bed, up the stairs, Audrey’s face over her shoulder staring into Simon’s eyes till she disappeared into the ceiling. I’m sure you can figure something out. As though he’d been asking for her help. As though he were a child. As though he’d starve to death without her. As though she were the only one who did anything around here. How far that was from reality, but of course this is the way it is in a marriage, the way it’d been in his parents’ marriage too: shared delusion the key to co-existence, destroyed when exposed to the cruel light of truth. Babies brought light. Truth. And sometimes it was wonderful but other times it was very bad. Right now things were very bad. Rory and Audrey retreating into dark delusion together, leaving Simon out in the light. Suddenly it was 11:30 and Simon was staring into the patchy dregs of an empty wine bottle, too drunk from forgetting to have fixed himself dinner. * The next morning Simon waited, hands full with steaming travel mugs, while Ben once again pushed open the door from the driver’s seat. He deposited the mugs in the holders, relieved that they fit. “Thanks man! That smells fucking great.” Ben lifted the travel mug to his lips, sucked steam into his nose and took a sip. “It’s pretty good stuff,” bragged Simon, rubbing his coffee-warm hands into his thighs. He cleared his throat, shivered. “What’s wrong,” asked Ben. “What? Nothing’s wrong.” “I can tell something’s wrong,” said Ben, pulling out into the street. Simon and Rory had bickered again that morning, more or less a continuation of the fight from yesterday. It was annoying of course, got his blood boiling, but he didn’t think it’d had such an obvious effect on him. “Rory and I got into it this morning. Usual stuff.” “What’s your usual stuff?” “Oh, I don’t know. Who does what, I guess, who’s more tired, whose back is more fucked up.” “Sounds like me and Paige.” “Does it?” “Oh yeah. Kids, man, you’re just so beat, so frustrated sometimes, the work never ends. It gets better though, they say, when they’re older. And if it doesn’t then you get a heater for the garage.” Simon laughed. “Right.” He’d never imagined himself as one of those guys. One of those man-cave guys. One of those bloated sacks of loneliness, pacing the perimeters of their yards and basements and garages, moaning about everyone else’s incompetence until they fell asleep in a sopping easy chair, haunting their families like some ogling ghost, dispensing twenty-dollar bills, occasionally used for heavy lifting (but not too heavy) or running errands (so long as they weren’t too complicated). But right now he couldn’t deny the allure of a warm garage, a man-cave, so like a womb. So like the womb he’d found for himself in Rory, if you believed that kind of thing, evicted from it by Audrey, which was fine, but of course now he had to figure something else out and maybe that would be the shoddily heated garage. Nothing wrong with that, really. A womb of one’s own. “I found this playlist last night,” said Simon, scrolling through his phone at a red light, Eddie Vedder beginning to bray from the speakers. Simon smiled. “I haven’t heard this in forever.” “Now this man never showered.” “Hell no.” Simon closed his eyes, pictured the walls of his warmed garage, plastered in posters. Eddie Vedder crouched in work boots, spray of hair, cut off at the ends by the paper’s edge; Chris Cornell, may he rest, staring into a fisheye lens. A Clerks poster. A still from Pulp Fiction: Jules and Vincent, side-by-side, guns drawn. His heater, bright orange, sitting on top of a mini-fridge next to that greasy old easy chair. A vision both nightmare and salve. The heater spits a wayward ember, the chair goes up in flames with him in it. He opened his eyes. Distance from Rory, even though it brought him closer to work, felt good. More than that, though, it was this good conversation with Ben. Simon had to remember that he was entitled to this kind of connection, a perk of the species, to really connect with another human being. Like your life depended on it. Because your life did depend on it, relationships proving time and time again to be the key to a long and healthy existence. And Simon had never really had this before. He’d belonged to a group of friends in college, but he was more a peripheral character. He had a way of simply being around, like a vine, careful to look enough like them, speak enough like them, move enough like them, but never actually be close with any of them. With Ben it was different. With Ben he was alive. Alive. And he carried this beating, bloody feeling with him into work, which, despite its excruciating dullness, seemed briefly as though it mattered. For the first time in god knows how long the morning flew by. He looked up at the clock only when his stomach rumbled. One o’ clock, a late lunch! Usually he was counting down the minutes till he could sit quietly with a sandwich in another, slightly less depressing setting. At 5 p.m. Ben was waiting. Simon opened the car door, got in, a flash of something in Ben’s lap, formless, aquatic. It took Simon a moment to realize it was his nut sack oozing from his unzipped pants. “Jesus!” Simon shrieked, pinning himself against the door. Ben burst out laughing and Simon did too, the both of them in tears, wheezing, a brief lull to catch their breath until eye contract triggered another eruption. “What the hell is the matter with you?” Simon finally managed. “Thought it would make you feel better. Worked didn’t it?” “You’re fucking sick.” “I know.” He hit play on his phone, resumed the playlist from this morning. “I used to know what all my friends’ dicks looked like. Remember that?” Simon couldn’t fathom why he’d know what anyone else’s dick looked like, but didn’t want to seem prudish or as though he hadn’t had a full and enriching childhood full of casual nudity. He opened his mouth to say something like, “Oh yeah,” but was saved when Ben continued talking. “We really grew up in the sack whapping renaissance, wouldn’t you say? With Jackass and all that. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, to know that he’s your friend, you know what I mean? Nowadays I don’t know whose sack I could whap. I don’t think anybody’s.” “You could whap my sack, if you wanted. I mean, don’t. But you could.” “Well, thanks buddy. You’re gonna regret that.” “Your balls are a deathly white, did you realize that? They look terrified.” “Your balls aren’t that white?” “Not even close.” “Really? Let’s see.” “I’m not gonna show you my balls.” “Why not? I showed you my balls.” Simon was silent for a minute, and then surprised himself by saying, “Honestly, I hate my balls.” He gulped and glanced over at Ben. “Well I’m sorry to hear that. Balls are a very special part of the male anatomy.” “Mine are too coarse. Like avocados,” he pulled off his glasses, cleaned them with the bottom of his shirt to avoid eye contact. “Lots of balls look like avocados. See, if you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like, you wouldn’t be worried about your avocado nuts.” “That’s true.” “Simon, nothing about men’s bodies is supposed to be beautiful. This is why we’re so fucking lucky.” Simon nodded. Thought of bones. Perfect bones. Heaped in so much nastiness. He often wished he were just a skeleton. A nice, simple, nut sack-less skeleton. Ben reached over, touched his arm. “Are you okay?” “Yeah,” said Simon. “Listen, those avocado balls produced a beautiful baby girl, didn’t they? Can’t be too mad at them.” And just then a pregnant woman walked in front of the car, arched and waddling, hands flat against her lower back. “Can you imagine having that happen to your body? And then, not only that, being told that it’s beautiful?” Simon laughed. “Honestly, you saw it. It’s not beautiful. It’s fucking animal. It’s insane. But they have to walk around with this idea that what’s happening to them is some gorgeous miracle. We’re lucky to have our ugly nut sacks and our hideous dicks.” “It would be nice though, wouldn’t it? To have the reproductive biological function of your body be praised instead of shamed?” “Please, give up your seat for this masturbating man.” “Make way, man masturbating here, hold the door for the masturbating man.” “Look at him,” Simon pulled his chin into his chest. “He’s glowing.” * That night after Rory and Audrey were asleep, Simon dug one of the Polaroid cameras out of the crawl space. Rory’s friends had bought them for her baby shower, the idea being that people could take pictures, tape them into an oversized scrapbook alongside well wishes and words of wisdom. When he got home that night he and Rory hadn’t fought, but they hadn’t really spoken either, handing Audrey off to one another while they finished up the myriad chores and duties of home ownership, readying the space for the next day’s chaos. This disinterest, it was worse than a fight, Simon knew, but he hustled it out of his mind, removed the shade from a bright desk lamp in the basement, and took a photograph of his dick. He waited patiently as the black square became his soft, squidgy mass. The angle was all wrong, it seemed too small, more coral than penis and balls. He pulled it out more, didn’t want it to seem hard or anything, this wasn’t sexual, but it could use a little something. He tried his methods of bringing it to attention, only just, so it knew it was being photographed. Consent. He wanted it to look as though it was giving consent to this. He took another photo. Better, but still not perfect. Another. Good. Funny. Made you want to rest a pair of sunglasses on top. This might be the one. Another and another and another until the camera wheezed, empty. He inspected the photos, found the one he liked, and buried the rest in the crawl space with the empty camera. The next morning when Ben came to pick him up, Simon said, “Oh, I got you something,” and very casually handed him the best dick pic. “Jesus Christ!” Ben shrieked, laughing, but Simon could hear it, unmistakable: confusion, disgust. It seemed so obvious now: showing your friend your balls was funny, but taking a picture of your dick and giving it to your friend was not. Something he would have known if he’d ever had any real goddamn friends. “Oh fuck, is this fucking weird? It’s weird isn’t it.” Simon reached over to pluck the picture from Ben’s hands, but Ben pulled it away. “Listen,” Ben said solemnly. “Those avocados have gone bad.” He flung the picture back at Simon, who fumbled it to his chest, then bent over and growled, his embarrassment physically painful. “Okay thanks yes, I get it, I’m going to kill myself now.” Ben laughed as he made his way to the highway. “Don’t do that. It was funny!” Simon’s face red. Rosy: “You’re lying, you thought it was fucking weird.” “Well it was fucking weird. Doesn’t mean it’s not funny.” Ben leaned over and turned the music up, exactly too loud to keep talking. Simon winced at the familiar riffs, lyrics as intimate to his mouth as a prayer, knowing that in this moment Ben was quietly processing his complete and irreparable revulsion; formulating strategies for ridding himself of the rosy-cheeked pervert squirming in his passenger seat. Ben would endure one last ride with him after work, get Simon home safe because that’s the kind of guy he was, then later, after dinner, he’d send a text, saying simply that this wasn’t working out, or more likely make up a lie, his hours are changing, he’s switching jobs. He’s accepted a carpool companion who specifically does not hand him dick pics at 7 a.m. At the end of the day Simon swayed forlornly in his office window, his mood black and dangerously low. When he saw Ben’s car he swallowed a deep, steadying breath, stepped outside, and got in. To his shocked delight, Ben immediately asked him whether he had any plans tonight, being as it was Friday and all. “No!” said Simon, too loud. “Never,” he added, and wished he hadn’t. Ben grinned, glanced down into his lap where just yesterday his deathly white balls had pooled. Now there was a brown bag, paper, what Ben might pack Audrey’s lunches in one day. “What’s that?” asked Simon. “See for yourself,” said Ben, leaning back. Simon cocked an eyebrow, reached into the bag, felt something smooth, squeaky between his fingers. Plastic. A Ziploc bag. He pulled it out. Squeezed its contents. A substance both dry and pulpy, shavings and knobs; the inside of the bag coated in brown dust. “What’s this?” he asked. “Keep digging,” said Ben. “All shall be revealed.” Simon laughed and reached in again. Something warm, pliable, alive. “Oh my GOD,” Simon shrieked, realizing what it was. He yanked his hand back, held it out as though it were coated in Anthrax. “You fucking sicko! You fucked up fucking sicko!” Laughing, exhilarated, pranked back by Ben, his friend, the fucking asshole! And this meant that the dick pic wasn’t too much, it was bang on, the exact right thing to do, because here Ben was fucking with him back, upping the ante like friends, real friends, do. It’s nice to whap another man’s sack, Ben had said, to know that he’s your friend. Back when you knew what all your friends’ junk looked like. A better time. One that Simon had missed once but wouldn’t again, because he’d been lucky enough to answer a random carpool query late one night. Life, man. You had to laugh. That’s what people said, and it was true. Ben, laughing, muttering, “Ah, you dummy,” plucked the bag off his pants, offered Simon a glimpse as to how he’d altered it, and zipped back up. “Those,” he said, nodding at the Ziploc, “are for hippie flipping.” “What? No. I can’t do that,” said Simon. He tried to force the Ziploc back into Ben’s lap but was deftly blocked. “Sure you can. You know how to eat, don’t you? It’s the same idea. Put them in your mouth. Chew. You’ll figure it out.” Simon started to drive out of the parking lot. “Ha, ha. No. I seriously can’t. Rory will murder me.” “So don’t tell her.” “I think she might know if I walk in high on mushrooms.” “And MDMA, don’t forget. That’s the dust. But it’s cool, we’re gonna go to the park first, we’re gonna hang out. You’ll be fine by the time you get home.” “I can’t. I’m sorry.” “Simon, come on.” “What?” “Live a little, you ever hear that expression?” “Of course.” “Honestly, I like you, I think you’re cool as hell. I want us to get fucked up together and have a kick-ass fucking Friday night, don’t you?” Desperately. More than anything. There was nothing Simon wanted more in the world than to be hippie flipping in the park with Ben. “Fuck it,” he said. “She’s not going to divorce me.” “Probably not.” “I’ll just text her. I’ll text her and tell her we’re hanging out. I’m sure she’ll be happy to have the house to herself.” “Of course she will. Dig in,” said Ben, nodding at the mushrooms. Simon reached into the bag, procured a fat pinch of damp, sickening softness, shoved it in his mouth and gagged. “These taste,” he gagged again, eyes watering, “worse than actual shit.” “I know,” said Ben, procuring his own wad, chewing and swallowing easily. “They’re really good. Eat more.” So Simon did, shoveled gobs of rancid organics into his mouth and smiled. I’ll get you back, Ben, he thought to himself. Just you wait. * An empty lot, the car parked in a dark hourglass between two pools of light. Ben’s dick in Simon’s mouth, and he’s sucking him off exactly the way he always wished Rory would suck him off, really huge mouthfuls of dick, really soaking wet, and he’s got both hands going too, a real performance, the drugs have him firing on all cylinders so it’s as though his mouth and each hand are being operated by totally separate brains, like getting a blow job from three different people at once, and Ben is fucking loving it, moaning till his lungs empty and only groans are left. Simon’s brain functions in flashes: his high school girlfriend, her body, his own body. Ben’s body, the coolest fucking guy he’s ever met in his life, standing at the end of that dock like a beer ad come to life, and Rory smiling, when they first met, adventurous and hilarious and adorable and he’s fucking alive again, the meaning of prime finally clear to him, he’s in his PRIME and this is how it feels to be in your fucking prime, this dick in his mouth and these hands going and this is so fucked and incredible and he’s not gay of course he’s not gay but he’s alive and open to everything. Experiences. These are experiences, THIS IS FUCKING LIFE RIGHT NOW. And Audrey little Audrey with her perfect chin and cheeks and gums, her smile, her soft fleshy face, a whole lifetime of experiences ahead of her to mar it. To mar it. Tomarit. And then everything turned: he was nauseous, tangled up, his hands and brain, not working the same way they just had, he’d lost it. He didn’t want to be sucking a dick. Sucking Ben’s dick in this park, he didn’t want this, he didn’t want this, he never wanted this, “Don’t stop,” Ben muttered, “I’m close,” and so Simon, despite desperately wanting to stop, needing to stop, didn’t stop, he kept going. But this wasn’t his idea, none of this had been his idea: you know, men don’t really get to have self-esteem problems. Not like that. You can’t sort of, wallow in it. Or feel bad for yourself. Or even really talk about it. Because if you do you’re a pussy and you should feel like shit, you know, for being a pussy. The world thinks that’s a good reason to punish you. Pussies get punished. But maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know. What’s wrong with being a pussy, you know? It would feel good to be a pussy I think, to just let go and be a fucking pussy and do all that pussy shit and not give a shit. It’s like, this is the perk of getting older right? You stop giving a shit, you just do what you want to do. Simon’s head, rhythmic, the hair on Ben’s stomach crawling like bugs until he wailed, filling Simon’s mouth with a piping hot gush and Simon jumped, startled, and spat it into his travel mug. “That was fucking, holy shit Simon, that was the best blow job I’ve ever had in my fucking life, that was incredible, honestly, holy shit.” Ben yanked on his seat lever and fell backwards, staring through the sun roof at the stars. He started to laugh. “Look,” he said. “They’re screaming.” Simon looked up, adjusted his crooked glasses and launched his own seat back. “They are screaming,” he whispered. Like machinery. Like lice. Like people trapped in a burning house. His eyes filled with tears. “They are screaming, Ben, so why are you laughing?” * He finally got home at 3 a.m., hours after he’d promised Rory, who, asleep now upstairs, had left several of his penis portraits strewn across the kitchen table. Simon’s eyes and mouth went wide, the mushrooms making it difficult for him to process what he was seeing. His own dick. Looking like a monkey wearing board shorts; like a Groucho Marx mask on a dead body; like a senile old man caught shitting in a centerpiece; like an adult who needs help getting off a horse. The mushrooms were poison, they were killing him, and the sight of his own dick, captured within the four white walls of the Polaroid, that was killing him too. His pubic hair, thick and serious. Orthodox somehow. A laugh hijacked his chest. Look what you’ve done to your poor, serious dick, Simon. And he laughed again. This was funny, he’d been right, this picture was fucking hilarious. No wonder Ben liked him so much, how well he’d fit in. Because he’s doing it right, the whole thing, a real hazing! Ben getting him to suck his dick, the ultimate, what a legend! And now they were friends, best friends. He’d just one-upped him, that motherfucker. This is just how it was done among men. He’s testing you, Simon, challenging you for maybe the first time in your life, to step up, to rise to the occasion, to get him back and be a man. He got you good, he got you so fucking good, you should be grateful to have found such a gladiator to spar with. He opened his laptop, which was vibrating irresistibly, hot whirring breath somehow mirroring his own, the mushrooms, he kept forgetting that this wasn’t real, none of this was real life. So bright. Too bright. He opened the carpool site. Good one, he was going to write. Ha ha ha. He clicked the search field, typed in Ben’s name, but nothing came up. Mushrooms. He steadied his fingers, checked every letter before hitting enter. NO RESULTS. Which wasn’t true, stupid fucking website. He checked the message center, where they’d first exchanged information, where that picture of beer ad Ben in front of the glittering lake would have the most calming, perfect effect on him, if he were any man at all, it would, and he was, so it would. But the space where their exchange had been now said USER REMOVED. Ha ha he typed into nothing. Ha ha ha. Hilarious prank Ben, so funny, hazed, me, Simon, a hazed person! Hazed so hard! And he laughed some more, out loud this time. The sound hollow. Strange. A cadaver whose joy synapse was being stimulated by an electric prod. Audrey whimpered upstairs. Simon pulled his head into his shoulders, stared up at the ceiling in hallucinogen-amplified alarm. He carefully placed his laptop on the floor, pulled his knees into his chest, listened to the hallway wince beneath Rory’s tired feet. And with absolute horror it dawned on him: tomorrow, on top of everything else, he’d have to tell her that he lost their two best travel mugs.
‘I Don’t Think the Artist Longs For the Emergency’: An Interview with Olivia Laing

The author of Funny Weather on publishing a book during a global pandemic, the eternal appeal of outsider artists, and living with an oncoming sense of catastrophe.

When Olivia Laing was putting together the manuscript for her fifth book, Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency (W.W. Norton & Company), a manifold collection of her columns for art magazine Frieze and original essays, she was imagining the possibilities of art as a soothing balm for an era riddled with gun violence, political turmoil, and the oncoming threat of climate change. That was before the plague. As COVID-19 raged around the globe and rearranged present-day life in a matter of weeks, Funny Weather became a prescient and strangely even more relevant book. Charting the lives of itinerant artists like David Wojnarowicz, Agnes Martin and Arthur Russell, Laing explores the generative power of art through biography. Rather than directly answer the question, “What is the purpose of art in an emergency?,” Laing provides all the tools for the reader to come to their own conclusion—examples of resistance are embedded throughout like the titular character in a Where’s Waldo book. Like much of Laing’s work, Funny Weather functions as an exquisite, erudite fan letter to the artists who have influenced her the most, seeking to present innate truths through the medium of biography. The quality I most associate with Laing’s writing is a melodic contemplativeness. Her first novel, Crudo, which fictionalized the itchy experience of absorbing bad news online, felt markedly different from her nonfiction work. Crudo was the literary equivalent of picking a scab; urgent, weird, and painful but compelling. Funny Weather is a return to form, holding it’s own against the languid prose of To The River and the somnolent emptiness of The Lonely City. Each sentence is entrancing, intoxicating and rewarding, like taking a dip in an Olympic-sized pool and emerging utterly refreshed. In the chapter memorializing Georgia O’Keeffe, she writes of the artist’s cow-skull portraits, “Bones were beautiful, with their apertures and cavities, their bleached resilience,” a tumbling masterpiece of adjectives and subject. Laing writes the adult version of I Spy books, lush tableauxs crammed with so many objects the eye doesn’t quite know where to look. But a dedication to combing through the pages is always rewarded with a painstaking view of the exact thingamajig one was searching for. Ultimately, what emerges is a generous portrait of artists not merely functioning but thriving amidst difficult circumstances—and a potential answer to Sheila Heti’s prodigal question, “How Should a Person Be?”  Isabel Slone: The fact that Funny Weather happens to be about how art can soothe in an emergency makes it all the more prescient. How do you think the current social conditions will affect the reading of the book? Olivia Laing: The sort of conditions that I was writing into five years ago that seemed distressing at the time now seem like, “Wow, that was a nice nostalgic time.” I think people are existing at the moment in conditions of intense anxiety and isolation, and also that they’re thinking about how the world is and how they want it to be in a very open and unguarded way. I wrote this book for times like this, and though I wish we weren’t going through a pandemic I do think the message of art as a tool for clarity and for imagining other possibilities still holds firm. Has climate change has taken a back seat to other concerns during the pandemic? How do we weigh those concerns equally? Everything’s taken a backseat during the pandemic, which is understandable. But the thing that gives me hope is that we've been told for years that the kind of drastic changes needed to deal with climate change were impossible, and yet in the space of a few weeks the world has changed utterly. People have found that they can work without flying around the world, and we’ve all had to reconsider things like global supply chains and where our food comes from. I hope that when we emerge from this particular crisis we can pivot and feel energised to face the far greater challenge ahead, which imperils not just human life but the natural world too.  We’re experiencing this time of extreme distress and yet ironically there’s been a lot of suggestion that it’s a good time to do creative work, like we’re all theoretically supposed be writing the next King Lear or whatever. How do you approach maintaining creativity when doing just about anything feels insurmountable? I saw you’ve already filed a draft of your next book.  I was really lucky, timing-wise, in that I was right at the end of Everybody. Five years in, I’ve built up a huge amount of momentum and it’s easier to go to my desk, lock down and spend those hours writing than to do anything else. It’s really a huge luxury to be able to escape day-to-day reality like that. Even though I’m writing about very dark material, it still feels like an escape hatch. As for the pressure around creativity, I think there’s something sadistic about the pressure for people suddenly to be very creative when they’re clearly terrified. People are anxious about themselves and their families, they’re cut off from their support systems. Yes, we have got an unprecedented amount of time and that does feel very freeing in a funny way, but at the same time we’re also under extraordinary pressures. I think most people probably feel the opposite of creative, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Do you usually write two books at a time? I never used to, but I’ve been working on Everybody, the book about bodies that I’ve just finished, for about five years and it has been very, very difficult. I wrote Crudo as a sort of explosive reaction to it, as a way of expressing some of the fears that confronting violence and the body were bringing up in me. And then I put Funny Weather together at the very beginning of 2019, while I was still slogging away at Everybody. It was really a way of just having something else to do while writing this very difficult, recalcitrant book. My publishers are always saying, “Why are you giving us this? We didn’t ask for it!” I have a history of turning in unexpected books.  Funny Weather feels like the opposite of Crudo, in a way. I’d say they're a funny sort of pair. Crudo was written in a frenzy, over six weeks, and is basically unedited. I wanted to preserve the raw texture of what seemed at the time like a very disturbing political moment. The idea for Funny Weather came to me about six months after Crudo was published. It struck me that many of the essays I’d written over the years were about art as a force for resistance and repair, and I wanted to put them together and make them available, as a kind of antidote to the fear and anxiety I’d been documenting. I’d like to ask about your research methods. You always manage to unlodge these incredible historical facts, like the delightful mise en scène where Joseph Cornell and Yayoi Kusama are having a youthful romance and Cornell’s mother finds them kissing in the backyard and dumps a bucket of water on them. Where do these arcane historical tidbits come from?  I spend a huge amount of time in the archives, reading my way around things. Sometimes I’ve read a line or found something so brilliant that I’ve yelped out loud in the library because I’m so excited. That anecdote came from Kusama’s memoir, Infinity Net—a gripping book in its own right. I stumbled across those lines and thought, “Well, that absolutely sums it up.” What I’m doing as a researcher really is prowling around, going through lots of material, both to understand chronology and how things happen, but also on the lookout for scenes that encapsulate something, that I can use. I love it when I’m writing a book that has multiple characters and I find somewhere where they intersect. Or sometimes it’s just a line that’s so beautiful, or when the subject expresses something very purely in their own voice. I like people speaking in their own voice. How much time do you spend researching versus writing? If I’m working on a book there could be a year or two, maybe more of archival work. Then I write a draft that is really shitty. At the beginning, I care much more about trying to get the information down than particularly attractive writing. There comes a point where I feel free enough with my understanding and then I can move very quickly in terms of writing. That work in the archives is really what propels everything for me. I spend lots of time looking at the work, reading catalogues and biographies, turning up letters and diaries. That sounds kind of nerdy, but I find that sort of work ecstatically enjoyable. It’s like being a detective, following up hunches and leads.  The one quality that seems to unite all of the artists you write about in Funny Weather is this sense of being an outsider, being too weird to belong. Is that something you were conscious of while writing?  People keep pointing it out so I am becoming deeply conscious of it, yes! That’s the kind of person I am, and it’s also the kind of artist I’m drawn to. I’m not Googling "outsider artists" or "weirdo artists" and going, "Right, that one next." It’s more that I’m drawn to them by way of some sort of subterranean pulse in their work. I’m interested in finding out why they felt that way and how they’ve resisted it or responded to it by way of their own artmaking or community building. It’s interesting, to go back to your first question about the book coming out in this particular strange and frightening moment. People don’t have their friends around them, they haven’t got their family and I feel like right now this aspect of Funny Weather seems to be particularly appealing. Here’s this group of people who have struggled, presented with quite a lot of intimacy. I think people are quite open and vulnerable at the moment in how they’re responding to it. We’re all outsiders now because we’re all unable to connect with the people we usually connect with. Also we’re not being reassured and built back up by our friends and our communities. It’s a frightening experience to be stuck with your own resources and nothing else. Although the book is centered on the ways art can soothe in an emergency, I got the sense that the emergency is almost irrelevant and it’s just as important to find pleasure in art during times of stability as well as unrest.  I think that’s true. I’m probably not so personally familiar with times of stability, but yes, I believe they exist! Absolutely, art can emerge from stability, art can emerge from calm, art can emerge from happiness, art can emerge from love. All of those things are possible. In this book, I was slightly more interested in people who have been adrift in some way and are trying to create that feeling of stability when it isn’t available in their personal life. For example, Agnes Martin, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and had complicated personal relationships, is at the same time making work that testifies to joy, love and stability. She doesn’t necessarily possess those thing, but she can still make work that testifies to their existence.  But is difficulty a necessary component of artmaking?  You don’t need to be depressed or traumatised to make work, and often those states prohibit doing anything at all. At the same time art is for many people a way of making something coherent or whole out of a sense of fracture or loss. It certainly is for me, as well as a way of reinforcing love and joy. That kind of reminds me of the time after Donald Trump was elected in 2016, when some people’s response was, "Well, this is bad but think of the art it will elicit." I’m disgusted by that. I hate it. That makes art feel so rarefied, like the suffering of immigrant and impoverished people is worth it because somebody who has more wealth can create great art. To wish ill on the world in order to make good art feels pretty gross. I don’t think the artist longs for the emergency. I think the artist wants a better world, and art is a way to get there. But to be longing for the emergency in order to make good art feels like the equation is backwards. Every time I read your work, the essay you wrote in 2011 about your experience living outside for The Guardian is always at the back of my mind. As an environmental activist, you’ve always been attuned to the world as being in some sort of emergency. How do you think those experiences inform your work now?  There are two things. There’s growing up in a gay family during a very homophobic era in British history, and there’s having this terror about climate change and environmental despoliation and deciding to become an activist at a very young age. That sense of oncoming catastrophe has stayed with me through the decades, as I’ve shifted from becoming an activist to an artist. It’s still with me, the sense that we’re heading towards crisis, and I still feel compelled to do something about that. I do have a sense that the artist has duties and responsibilities. I know that’s a very old fashioned and in some ways unfashionable thing to say, but I believe it very strongly. Artists have to bear witness, both to what is happening in the world and to reality as they see it. But does that sense of catastrophe ever feel like too much to bear? Do you ever just feel like you’re ready to ignore it?  I mean, sure! But what’s happening to the environment is unignorable. It’s like a background hum that’s slowly become so loud it’s painful. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate pleasure, but I am aware of the cost. One quote in the book that absolutely stopped me in my tracks was Georgia O’Keeffe saying, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every single moment of my life and I’ve never let it stop me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” What sort of truth do you feel she was getting at with that? I feel like that quote is really at the heart of the book. You exist in adverse conditions, but you bloody do it anyway. Push over the border, take risks with your work. Invent what you need. I’m not a massive fan of O’Keeffe’s art but her life story knocked me out. When Hilary Mantel told you, “The best weapon against the devil is ridicule,” some other weapons I gleaned from the book are positivity, generosity, reflection, disruption… Very good! I did the reading! What weapon do you find to be most useful?  Alertness and generosity are the two that feel the most powerful to me personally. I loved Hilary saying ridicule. It’s so fierce. But ridicule isn’t a weapon I use very often at all. The idea of being generous, the idea of giving things freely, of sharing resources feels to me like the most radical possibility, especially in this moment of selfishness and individualism.
Mommy Queerest

Mom wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner

"Don’t bother me, I’m meditating!” Growing up, I knew that if Mom was lying upside down, I was not to disturb her. She would strap her feet under a belt at the top of a black vinyl reclining board and lie back at a forty-five-degree slant. This was her version of meditating. Mom first dipped her toes into spiritual waters in the early '80s, after I was born. While working on her master’s of education, she signed up for a Transcendental Meditation class. She would leave the house with fruit and flowers (offerings for some deity) and come home with a secret mantra. Mom said she became interested in meditation because her fight-or-flight signals were constantly spiking. “I was always on the defensive. I needed to slow down,” she told me. But she was soon turned off by TM’s hierarchical structure, so she moved on to Zen meditation—and then found it too restrictive. “They made me sit cross-legged on the floor!” she complained. Mom eventually settled on Vipassanā, which is all about seeing things as they really are: “I took to it like an anxious duck to clear water.” She was also into Iyengar yoga when I was little. Mom was always folding herself into various poses around the house—doing a more comfortable version of downward dog, for example, where she’d bend forward and rest her outstretched hands on the kitchen table. Or she’d drop down on the living room carpet and kick her legs up into a shoulder stand. There are baby pictures of me climbing up on her, mid-pose, as if she were a human jungle gym. Mom’s proclivity for meditation and yoga was considered odd back then. We lived in the mostly Jewish, upper-middle-class Cedarvale neighbourhood, where head-to-toe Lululemon and an over-the-shoulder yoga mat were still decades away from becoming de rigueur. Mom was a teacher. We lived in a nice house with a pool. We certainly passed as normal. But I always had a feeling that Mom wasn’t like other moms. Case in point: I remember in senior kindergarten coming home and announcing that I needed a Halloween costume for school the next day. After a few minutes of scrounging, Mom’s face lit up with an idea. “You’ll be garbage!” she proclaimed. She got a black garbage bag from under the kitchen sink, threw it over my five-year-old body, and used her hands to tear holes for my arms and head. It was her next move that was really inspired, though. She started fishing through the actual garbage bin for dry pieces of authentic trash that we then threaded together with string before festooning me from top to bottom. As a Jewish kid, it was as close as I ever got to trimming a Christmas tree. The next day, I couldn’t have been more embarrassed, surrounded by My Little Ponies, He-Men, witches, and ghosts. How on earth did Mom think this was a good idea? There I was, with an empty box of our dog’s Milk-Bones dangling around my neck. My teacher, Mrs. Winemaker, looked me up and down before making a concerted decision to declare—a little too enthusiastically—that next year she wanted to be garbage for Halloween. Goddess bless. Mom was very caring and loving in her own inimitable way, but she wasn’t much of a capital M Mommy. As a joke, she would sometimes refer to herself as “Mommy” when she’d catch herself performing something quintessentially motherly. But it was always said in self-reflexive jest. She didn’t bake cookies. She didn’t brush my hair. She didn’t put sweet notes in my lunch box. In fact, Mom never even packed my lunches. I distinctly remember when she said to me, “You’re in senior kindergarten now. It’s time you made your own lunch.” We were standing in front of the fridge. I looked up at the towering shelves of food with utter confusion. “What should I bring?” I asked. “Your cousin Sarah brings a yogurt,” Mom replied. For much of elementary school I’d pack a cappuccino yogurt and a box of Smarties; when lunchtime came I’d pour the latter into the former and stir until the dye bled into a colourful swirl. Sometimes I’d bring mini pitas stuffed with Nutella. I usually rounded things off with a Mini Babybel, a Coke, and a Caramilk bar (for dessert). I was very popular in the lunchroom. But even more than I enjoyed my signature concoction, I loved going to my friend Alimah’s for lunch. Her mom, Barbara, was a stay-at-home mother, so Alimah could go home every day for chicken noodle soup, tuna sandwiches, and sliced-up carrot and celery sticks. Seeing Barbara in action was fascinating. She was more like the moms on TV: aware of Alimah’s school assignments, making sure she did her homework, limiting how much TV she could watch. Their home was an oasis of routine and predictability. Barbara even assigned meals to days of the week. Wednesday was spaghetti night. Friday was pizza.  There wasn’t much cooking going on at our house. Much later Mom would insist she’d been “chained to a stove for eighteen years,” but the rest of us remember differently. For dinner we’d usually go out to restaurants, order in, or Mom would pick something up on her way home from work. Every so often Mom would courageously attempt to concoct something interesting, like Greek fish or chocolate pasta. But it would be more of a performance than a bona fide meal. “Mommy made supper!” she’d sing.[[{"fid":"6706766","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]][[{"fid":"6706771","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]][[{"fid":"6706786","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"3":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"3"}}]] [[{"fid":"6706796","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"4":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]] She certainly wasn’t interested in being the type of mother—or wife—who put her own life on the back burner, but she’d also made a conscious decision to not be “too overinvolved.” She’d felt smothered by her mother growing up and was afraid of even coming close with me. Literally. Sometimes she’d look over at me lovingly and pet the top of my head. “Pat, pat,” she’d say, careful to never intrude on my physical space. Mom had had a list of things she’d do differently when she had a daughter one day. She would never tell me what to do with my hair. She would never make me feel guilty for choosing to do my own thing. Above all, she would never lean on me. “I never want you to feel like you have to take care of me,” she’d say. Mom believed it was important to teach me things. She explained how her mother always wanted to do everything for her when she was little, which she interpreted as a power play to make her extra dependent. With me, the pendulum swung. Mom wanted me to be independent. Ultra independent. I was often left at home alone, and was the only seven-year-old allowed to walk up to Eglinton—one of Toronto’s major arteries—on my own. I routinely made that six-block trip to do my errands. I’d go to my favourite candy store, The Wiz, and fill up a large bowl with Pop Rocks, Fun Dip, and Bonkers, and then head across the street to Videoflicks to rent a comedy like Heathers or Ruthless People. On the way home I’d stop off at China House for a bowl of wonton soup. At first the waiters were a little weirded out by a child dining solo, but they soon came to recognize me as a regular—who paid in quarters and dimes from her piggy bank. When I inquired about Mom’s free-range approach to parenting years later, she happily defended herself. “I taught you how to look both ways and cross the street, and you were very good at it. So I let you go off on your own!” I was allowed to eat as much Häagen-Dazs, watch as much TV, and stay up as late as I liked (I even had a TV in my room). Mom treated me like a mini adult. When I wasn’t in school, I could do whatever I wanted with my time. I relished my freedom—I wouldn’t have had it any other way—but there were times when I’d fantasize about having some authority at home. Time to take your medicine, I’d say to myself as I popped my daily Flintstone vitamin, imagining an adult was forcing me. To fit in with the other kids at school, when I’d get grass stains or rips in my pants I’d pretend to be afraid of Mom’s wrath. “Man, my mom’s going to kill me!” I’d say, mimicking what I’d heard on the field. I knew Mom couldn’t care less. (If anything she was proud of me getting rough and dirty.) I loved Mom so much, but I’d sometimes wish she was more like Barbara. Once when I was sick and she didn’t offer to bring me anything, I admonished her: “When other kids are sick, their moms bring them orange juice!” (“You don’t want one of those other moms,” she’d snap back. “I’m more fun!”)  Mom may not have been like other moms, but the truth was I wasn’t like other daughters. As I grew up, people mistook me for a boy. I was a tomboy—or what Larry David would later call “pre-gay.” I had short moppy hair, wore only jeans and T-shirts, and felt a profound sense of disappointment with the girls’ shoe section. I was pretty happy in general—I had friends and did well at school—but I always had a feeling of being on the outside. I didn’t feel like one of the girls, and I knew I wasn’t really one of the boys. The only other kid who reflected my gender was Casey from Mr. Dressup. And Casey was a puppet. Once, when I was six, Mom attempted to put me in a dress for shul. I resisted. We struggled. She even tried to sit on me. “Please, Rachel! It’s the High Holidays!” she begged. “I don’t want to!” I yelled back, squirming my way out from beneath her. Back then Mom still cared a little about what people thought and didn’t get that it was actually humiliating for me to wear feminine clothes. Thankfully, she quickly gave up, and I emerged triumphant in ripped jeans and high-tops as we left the house. Staying true to the list of things she would do differently from her mother, it was the last time Mom ever tried to dictate my sartorial choices (or any of my choices for that matter). When I was seven, I told my parents that I wanted to join the local Forest Hill hockey league. Back then there were only boys in the league, so the organizers were apprehensive. But no one said no. Even when I got two penalties in one game, Mom was so proud of me for being the only girl in the league. Her little girl being called a “goon”? She couldn’t have been more pleased. She loved it when the other mothers would tell her that their sons were intimidated by me. “Way to knock ’em dead, sweetie!” she’d cheer. Mom was an out and proud feminist, and she wanted me to be one too. She’d order children’s books from the Toronto Women’s Bookstore featuring strong female characters. (There were only a handful at the time; my favourite was Molly Whuppie, about a clever girl who fearlessly outwits a giant.) I was fully on board with being a baby feminist. I remember Mom teaching me the word “assertive,” although I didn’t need lessons in how to embody it. Mom recalled how, when I was three years old, she tried to scare me into submission. “I’m counting to three!” she warned. “One . . . two . . . three . . .” Apparently I just stood there, unimpressed. “What are you going to do?” I asked. Mom laughed and gave up after that. “I learned I had to go at things slant with you,” she explained yearsl ater. “I couldn’t go head to head. You’d win.” When I was eight, I decided to switch schools. I was bored at my neighbourhood elementary school. I was already able to multiply in parts and do long division, so grade two math just wasn’t doing it for me. “I’m sick of counting animals!” I complained. One day I went to checkout an alternative school called Cherrywood with Barbara and Alimah, who was considering transferring there. What I saw amazed me. There were no walls, teachers were called by their first names, and students could work at their own grade level. Their system made perfect sense to me. That day I came home having made my decision: “I’ve found a better school and I’m going there,” I declared. Mom was totally supportive. She didn’t want me to feel held back, and besides, she was an alternative school teacher herself. On PD days Mom would bring me along to City School, where she taught English and drama. There were posters on the walls with slogans like stop racism and being gay is not a crime, bashing is. I’d stare wide-eyed at the older students with their rainbow mohawks, lip piercings, and knee-high Doc Martens. Teenagers didn’t look like that in Cedarvale. They fascinated me. And they all loved my mom, their rebellious role model. Elaine was an unconventional teacher, even by alternative school standards. She taught a course called “Nature Writing as a Spiritual Path” and got her students to meditate and hug trees. She’d take her writer’s craft class out to cafés to work and encourage them to write freely about whatever was going on in their lives, pushing them to go further than they thought they could go as writers. Mom thought it was important for students to own their education, to be involved, and to have a lot demanded of them. She was incredibly supportive of her students and treated them with more respect than adults usually did. “I wish your mom was my mom,” they’d say to me. I’d roll my eyes, even though deep down I knew how lucky I was. To Mom’s credit, whenever I seriously asked her to change her behaviour, she listened. Unlike her mother, she wanted to be able to hear us. She stopped reading books during my hockey games after I told her I wanted her to watch; she refrained from gossiping about me to her friends when I asked her not to; and she even started bringing me juice when I got sick. “Mommy brought you orange juice!” she’d sing.  But the learning curve sometimes seemed like a gentle slope. I didn’t always feel heard. When I was really upset with Mom, I had to find creative ways of getting her attention. On one occasion when I was about seven, angry about who knows what, I took a pad of paper and wrote “Fuck” on every single sheet. Then, while Mom was out, I went around the house taping up my expletive art—on the walls and furniture, inside drawers and cupboards. There must have been a hundred sheets. I didn’t want to be cruel—I considerately used masking tape so as not to peel paint off the walls—but I did want to get my message across. She’ll see how mad I am, I thought. She’d open the front door and be greeted with “Fuck.” She’d walk into the hallway and see “Fuck.” She’d open the fridge, “Fuck” again. I didn’t get the response I was imagining. I sat at the top of the stairs and watched as she stopped in her tracks, gazed around with wide eyes, and burst out laughing. “Get the camera!” Mom shouted. I came downstairs and joined in the laughter, cheekily posing next to my “Fucks.” I was satisfied to at least get her attention. Like goys finding Easter eggs well into May, mom continued to discover my four-letter treasures for weeks. “I found a ‘Fuck’!” Mom yelled out as she opened the china cabinet to get the Shabbat candles.   My parents weren’t religious, but we still lit candles on Friday night and kept kosher in the house. I resented not being allowed to have Lucky Charms—the marshmallows were considered treif. When Mom actually did make rules, they seemed so arbitrary. I can eat all the sugary cereals I want except the one that’s magically delicious?  By the same lazy logic, I was sent to Hebrew school every Sunday: apparently it was “what Jewish kids do.” I hated it. The idea of God was preposterous to me, the stories were way too far-fetched, and I definitely wasn’t into all the male pronouns. Mom would bribe us with a bacon-fuelled pit stop at McDonald’s on the way (she wasn’t one to care for Commandments of any kind). Mom went along with the kosher thing at home. But when we were out of the house, it was a different story. She’d sometimes buy delicate slices of prosciutto before picking me up from one of my extracurriculars, and on the way home we’d park the car and dangle the mouth-watering strips of meat into our mouths, laughing like criminals. [[{"fid":"6706801","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"5":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]] In an effort to get my parents to allow me to quit Hebrew School, I emerged from my bedroom one Sunday morning having taped crucifixes all over my clothes (I was crafty with the masking tape). I walked up to Mom and said, “If you don’t let me quit, I’ll marry a Christian!” “So what?” she said, unfazed. “Okay, well then I’ll marry a Nazi!” I shouted. Mom burst out laughing. I’d won her over! They eventually acquiesced, but not without warning me that I wouldn’t be allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah. That was more than fine by me. I wasn’t interested in selling out for some gold bling with my initials on it. And I certainly wasn’t interested in becoming a woman. Although Mom exposed me to sophisticated culture—art galleries, museums, libraries, and culinary adventures—my interests veered more toward puzzles, riddles, and logic games. My teachers thought I might even become a mathematician. But if there was one game that defined me, it was chess. (One of the best parts about going to Cherrywood was that playing chess counted as math.) I started competing in tournaments when I was ten, and would regularly spend my weekends in hotel conference rooms playing with nerdy boys. I was consistently ranked fourth in Ontario in my age group. What I liked most about chess was that chance had nothing to do with it. No need for lucky cards or dice or troll dolls. It was up to me to use everything in my arsenal—logic, calculation, memory, even psychology. Mom would remark on how I never got flustered when I was down. “You don’t give up. You become even more focused,” she’d say with great admiration. I learned to rely on my strategic-thinking skills on and off the board, believing I could think my way out of any problem. In our family, if I argued my case well enough, I could get whatever I wanted. I remember saying to my parents, “If you guys can have coffee in the morning for your caffeine, I can have a Coke.” For some reason, that one worked. “You’re going to make a fine lawyer one day” was a familiar refrain. Mom spent most of her time at home reading. I can still picture her sitting in the living room by the fireplace, a book in one hand and a pink Nat Sherman Fantasia in the other. She wouldn’t even inhale—the thin, pastel-coloured cigarettes with gold filters were just props in her one-woman performance of “I am a Parisian.” She’d put on one ofher French records—Serge Gainsbourg or Edith Piaf—and escape into her French fantasy world. I can still hear Georges Moustaki singing “Ma Liberté.” She played that one a lot.  *** When I was thirteen, my parents divorced, and Mom moved into a bachelor pad she’d inherited from a fellow divorcé. It had one tiny spare room, which became my room. When I stayed with Mom, it was just us. She was now living on only her teacher’s salary, but we’d still go out to restaurants in the neighbourhood. At home we did ear-candling treatments for each other and played a card game that featured feminist writers like Louisa May Alcott, Phillis Wheatley, and Emily Dickinson (Gertrude Stein was the wild card). While I’d be focused on collecting sets of four, Mom would tell me about her literary heroines: “Little Women is really the story of Louisa and her family. Louisa was Jo . . .” Often we’d just talk. More than anything else, talking was our thing. To this day there’s no one in the world I’ve ever had an easier time talking to. What I liked most about Mom’s new place was that we didn’t have to keep kosher. For breakfast I’d often heat up a can of Chunky clam chowder, although most mornings Mom would go out to the corner and bring me back McDonald’s Hotcakes. She’d plop the golden Styrofoam container down on the kitchen table and sing “Mommy made breakfast!” To most people’s surprise, the divorce wasn’t initially that distressing for me. It only really started to hit me once my parents began dating. Just as I was entering adolescence, the two of them began behaving like full-blown teenagers. Mom fell madly in love with a man who was about to move to Albany to be the director of the New York State Museum. She took a sabbatical to study holistic ways of teaching and began a long-distance relationship with him, regularly leaving town for weeks at a time. I missed Mom like crazy when she was gone. It was hard being without her. I would often call her crying, pleading with her to come home. She’d listen to me and lovingly calm me down, but she wasn’t about to get in the car and drive back. She explained to me how important it was for her to have a full life of her own. “I’m not just a mother,” she would tell me. “I need passionate love too.” As gross as it was to hear her say that, I understood that Mom had her own needs. I tried my best to respect her wishes, but there were times when I needed her to be there for me and she wasn’t.  *** It was during those three and a half years while Mom lived part-time in Albany that her journey of self-discovery really took off. The northeastern United States is a hotbed of spiritual retreat centres. Mom began frequenting New Age havens like Kripalu, Omega Center, Zen Mountain Monastery, Insight Meditation Society, and Elat Chayyim, a Jewish renewal retreat in the Catskills. (There, she told me, they’d sit in a circle, with their index fingers touching their thumbs, and chant “Shal-Ommm, Shal-Ommm.”) She often slept in dorm rooms and chopped vegetables alongside college students in exchange for what would otherwise be a thousand-dollar yoga vacation. Mom didn’t need a large income in order to have a large life. Her retreats gave her time and space to work out her issues. She still had a lot of childhood resentment, even though by then she was getting along well enough with her own mother. She was proud that she’d taught her mother to treat her more respectfully. “It’s important to set boundaries,” Mom told me. Before her father died, he’d apologized to her in his Polish-Jewish accent for having not acknowledged her feelings enough. I know that meant a lot to her. But still, Mom was desperate to free herself from her family patterns. She would write unsent letters to her parents as well as responses from the perspective of her ideal mother or father. I was happy that Mom was working out her shit, but sometimes I felt like I had to compete with her inner child. My heart would break every time she drove off in her cappuccino-coloured Honda with its one nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day bumper sticker. I spent a lot of time crying on my own, until one day I decided I wouldn’t cry anymore. I’m not sure if it was due to my natural temperament, my gender identity, or my parents not being fully attuned to my emotional world, but I resolved to toughen up and be a little man. Throughout junior high, I kept a busy schedule with sports and chess. I was on all my school’s sports teams, including the boys’ hockey team, and played competitive hockey, soccer, and softball on the side. I was the city’s school chess champion two years running. [[{"fid":"6706806","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"6":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"6"}}]] It was also in junior high that I experimented with being a girl, albeit only part-time. I was invited to friends’ Bar and Bat Mitzvahs almost every weekend and could no longer get away with wearing pants to shul. When Saturday rolled around, I’d trade in my jeans and T-shirts for pantyhose and a dress. My friend Jane helped me pick out girl party attire at the mall and taught me about shaving my legs. My friend Sarah gave me a nudge when she’d catch me manspreading in a skirt in synagogue. Being a girl didn’t come naturally to me, but I passed well enough. Boys liked me, and I even had crushes on them. Though, looking back, I think my attraction was probably more about me wanting to be one of them (or because at that age they looked like cute little baby dykes, with their short hair and smooth cheeks, like little Justin Biebers). Mom brought me along with her to Albany a couple of times. On our last trip there she took me hiking in the Adirondacks. We climbed a steep, rocky trail up Crane Mountain, scrambling our way to the summit. We both felt a great sense of accomplishment as we looked out over the forest-covered mountains below. Mom was proud that she’d taken me, at thirteen, hiking up a three-thousand-plus-foot mountain. “When I was thirteen my mother took me discount shopping for our bonding time,” she told me. On the way down we came to a large pristine pond where we decided to take a break, sitting next to each other on a giant boulder in the shade. Mom pulled out a watercolour set along with some paper. Together, both painting quietly, we stared out at the glistening water and tall beech trees in the distance. It was a serene moment we would often look back on fondly.  A couple of days later Mom broke up with her boyfriend. She’d felt increasingly torn between being with him and being with me in Toronto. I vividly remember seeing her break down in tears as we got in the car to drive home. She was always so conscious never to lean on me that she rarely showed any vulnerability around me at all. Years later, Mom would admit that although she’d wanted a great love, she was scared. “I had a strong feeling that if I married him, I would be happy for a year and miserable for the rest of my life.” When I was fourteen, I decided to live with Mom full-time. By then Mom had moved into the Hemingway. She made a concerted effort to make me feel welcome. This time, she gave me the bigger room. It was during this period, in the mid-'90s, that Mom’s alternative lifestyle began to rub off on me. I went to yoga classes with her and wore a crystal aromatherapy necklace she’d given me as a gift. She took me on road trips to Buddhist monasteries and silent meditation retreats. In the car, we’d take turns listening to her folk music (Joni Mitchell, Phil Ochs, the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt) and my Ani DiFranco, Tracy Chapman, and Indigo Girls tapes. We visited the Kushi Institute for Macrobiotics in Massachusetts, where we sipped twig tea and learned how to cut a carrot properly (from tip to stem) so as not to kill its life force. My teenage curiosity and idealism latched onto these alternative doctrines. I was drawn to the rules and guidance they provided. But for Mom, soul searching was more than just a teenage phase. She was always trying out something new. Trance dancing, magnets, meridian tapping, past-life regression therapy, colour therapy, cranial sacral therapy, chakras, crystals, rolfing, reiki—she would embrace each fad with the same enthusiastic yet noncommittal curiosity every time. Her perspective was, Why not try everything? It doesn’t hurt, and it might lead to unexpected wisdom. And hey, if they kept her looking younger, all the better! She regularly did these Tibetan exercises called “The Fountain of Youth,” where she’d spin around with her arms outstretched. (Mom said that when she first saw “spinning” classes pop up in New York City, she mistakenly thought her exercises were taking off.) I saw the marvel in her New Age dalliances, but I definitely took them with a big grain of Himalayan salt. For Mom, spirituality was like a buffet where she was free to pick and choose what she wanted—she could create her own narrative blend that suited her personality and her needs. It was all about knowing herself better, being able to laugh more about her frailties, and becoming as real as possible. As a feminist, she wanted to own her spirituality without giving herself over to dogmatic ideas or practices. Mom was a badass Buddhist. Of course, she believed that rules were optional, even the ones the yogis wrote. Her Four Noble Truths were coffee, wine, reading, and talking, or what Buddha might call “contraband.” When she was supposed to be staying silent on her meditation retreats, she’d leave me hushed, long-winded voicemail messages: “Hi darling, I’m not supposedto be talking, but I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. Um, it’s so weird to be speaking. . .” She would smuggle in novels and escape to nearby villages to get The New York Times and a cappuccino. When she did a work exchange at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in the south of France, she led a group of fellow volunteers through the surrounding vineyards on a wine-tasting tour. “I was like the pied piper,” she told me. “They all followed!”   *** On my seventeenth birthday I set out on my own journey of self-discovery. My best friend Syd had lent me her copy of The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. Essentially a recipe for teenage anarchy, the book became our bible. The Good News? Rather than being confined to classroom walls, teens could reclaim their natural ability to teach themselves by following their own curiosity and having real-world experiences. I had seen the light! After reading a few more books on “unschooling,” I knew what I had to do. That January, I finished my last exam of the semester and flew to San Francisco. There, Syd and I hung out with an older anarchist couple we’d met who took us around to protests with their giant papier-mâché puppets. Like Mom, I learned to live large on not much. We couch-surfed at intentional communities in Santa Cruz and Palo Alto and travelled up the west coast of the U.S. on a backpacker bus called the Green Tortoise. We hitchhiked across B.C., working on organic farms in return for accommodation and three wholesome meals a day. As a city kid, it blew my mind to see what broccoli looked like in its natural habitat. To say that I was self-righteous about my decision would be the understatement of the decade. If anyone ever said I was “dropping out of school,” I’d diligently correct them. “I’m not dropping out,” I’d say. “I’m rising out.” I’d always gotten good grades, but I didn’t want to learn that way. I wanted to see the world and have adventures. Mom was a little anxious, but she understood where I was coming from. She was ultimately very supportive, even seeing me off at the airport. “You have guts,” she told me. For the next two and a half years I travelled around the world to hippie hotspots with Syd and some of our other “unschooled” friends. I took silver jewellery–making lessons in Mexico, learned Spanish and taught English in Guatemala, trekked the twenty-day Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, and attended talks by the Dalai Lama at his temple in Dharamsala, India. I was living the teenage dream. I would come home in between my long excursions and stay with Mom just long enough to make the money to go back out again. I worked at a bohemian gift store in Kensington Market that specialized in Ecuadorian sweaters and Circle of Friends pottery. Sure, I’d quit school. But it wasn’t like I was doing drugs—I was mainlining brown rice and Spirulina Sunrise bars. My form of teenage rebellion was being a hippie fundamentalist. I was a strict vegetarian. I used only “natural” body products. I refused to take any pharmaceuticals (not even Tylenol). I hung out at the health-food store as if it were the mall. My uniform consisted of second-hand jeans with colourful patches, striped Guatemalan shirts, and hiking boots—even in the city. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, the surest sign of my hippie cult status? Dreadlocks. It hurts to admit it, but I had ’em. In my meagre defence, it was the late ‘90s, when they were “in style” (and before I learned about cultural appropriation). I also theorize that my Manic Panic–dyed dreads were an expression of my dormant queerness—a gateway to the short dyke-y haircut I subconsciously knew I was moving toward.  ***  One of the biggest perks to ditching high school was that I didn’t have to deal with normal teenage things, like dating. I could totally avoid it. And I did, even if I couldn’t avoid the subject altogether. The first spring after I quit school, Syd and I found ourselves pitching in at a women-only community near Nelson, B.C. This lesbian idyll was on a mountainside, up an old logging road, entirely off the grid. Even their bathtub was wood-fired. One evening a bunch of short-haired wimmin arrived in their trucks, giddy with excitement. One of them had a VHS tape in her hands that she was cradling like some sort of Holy Grail. Our host let us in on the commotion: they were congregating to watch the “Coming Out” episode of Ellen. It was essentially the lesbian moon landing of 1997. They all rushed into action. One of them peeled back a macramé tapestry to reveal a hidden TV in the corner of the livingroom. Another got the generator going. Everyone gathered around for the momentous—if pre-recorded—occasion. For one night only, we would plug back into civilization for the sake of Ellen DeGeneres. I watched as Ellen finally got up the courage to say to Laura Dern’s character “I’m gay,” only to accidentally blurt the words into the airport P.A. system. I laughed out loud, but on the inside I was freaking out. It was the first time I remember seriously thinking, I think that’s what I am. I was a vegetarian who played competitive hockey and softball, who in that moment “happened” to find herself in a room full of lesbian separatists. How many more hints did I need?   *** After many months on the road, bouncing from place to place, the idea of staying put and going to university started to seem appealing—an exciting new adventure in itself. I had some older hippie friends who went to Trent, a lefty liberal arts university just over an hour’s drive from Toronto, and would sometimes visit them there. Their courses in feminist philosophy and alternative media sounded way more interesting than high school. Emboldened by my “bible,” I booked a meeting with the dean and presented my case for why my self-education was just as valuable, if not more, than a high school diploma. He listened to my arguments and asked, “What if we said that if you go back to high school and get your senior year English credit, we will then consider your application?” I shook my head. “I’m not going back,” I said. “It would be compromising my beliefs.”  I was cocky, stubborn, and defiant. I told him that if he wanted to know whether I could read and write I’d be happy to provide some samples of my work. He agreed, and a couple of months later, in the spring after my nineteenth birthday, I received a letter of acceptance. Mom was impressed with how I’d subverted the system, but she was even more in awe of my steadfast—if not insufferable—confidence in myself. “You have a strong centre,” she told me.   *** In stereotypical Sapphic fashion, I met my first girlfriend in my freshman women’s studies class. Anya had short red hair and a wallet chain, and she rode a skateboard. I liked that she was five years older and didn’t seem to give a shit what anyone thought of her. We flirted for several weeks before we finally kissed. I was building up the nerve to tell Mom about Anya when I was home one weekend in December. I knew she’d be accepting, but I was still terrified to come out to her. I was only just starting to come to terms with my sexuality. Besides Ellen and k.d. lang, there weren’t many celesbian role models back then. This was pre–L Word; it wasn’t yet cool to be gay. Same-sex marriage hadn’t been legalized. Matthew Shepard had just been beaten to death. As good as I had it, I was still scared. Mom and I talked about a lot of things, but we’d never spoken about my dating life, or lack thereof. Afraid of prying, she never asked me overtly personal questions, and I never offered up what was actually going on inside my head. At one point that weekend, we were sitting in her sunroom when I finally blurted out, “I’m dating someone.” Before I could even mention Anya’s name, or her pronoun, Mom replied, “Wonderful! Invite her to Solstice!” She didn’t even flinch. Sometimes Mom was too cool.    *** Mom had been planning an intergenerational women’s winter solstice party, which that year happened to fall on a full moon. It would be the first time I’d be introducing my new girlfriend—essentially announcing “Yep, I’m gay!”—to twenty of our closest friends. I didn’t think it would come as a big surprise to anyone, but I still felt nervous and self-conscious. In any case, it soon became clear that I needn’t have worried about being the odd one. When our guests arrived, Mom led everyone through a series of activities. First she got us each to light a candle and share our intentions for the next year. Then she got us all to hold hands, walk around in a circle, and chant, over and over, “Freedom comes from not hanging on, you gotta let go, let go-oh-oh!” (She explained that a witch named Sophia had taught her the chant.) Next she got us all to stand in a circle and make a human web by tossing balls of yarn to one another. We ended up tangled in a big stringy mess. Anya couldn’t stop giggling. Mom thought she was high. I imagine Anya thought the same about Mom. For the pièce de résistance, Mom ushered us all outside into the back parking lot. “It’s time to howl at the full moon,” she announced. We huddled around in our parkas and stared up at the night sky. “Aaah- woooooh, aah-woooooh!” Mom led the group in a series of loud howls. A neighbour soon yelled down: “Shut the fuck up!” “It’s just me! Elaine!” Mom reassured him cheerfully. Anya and I stood on the sidelines howling with laughter. I could see, from Anya’s point of view, how this party, and my mom, might seem a little bizarre. I’d always written Mom off as quirky or eccentric—until I came to realize that she was just as queer as me, if not more. Considering the word’s traditional meaning—“strange, peculiar, off-centre”—I’d say Mom managed to outqueer me at what was ostensibly my own coming-out party.  When I look back on everything now, as someone who’s more comfortable in their genderqueer skin, I remember feeling confident and self-assured about so many things and yet totally strange and unknown to myself. I didn’t quite fit in with either gender or in a world where people just followed the script handed down to them. But Mom’s out-there-ness made it okay for me to be myself and to live life on my own terms, just as she did. I’m immensely grateful to her for that. But in the end, the pendulum may have swung too far—in her approach to me, and more consequentially, to herself.     Excerpted from Dead Mom Walking by Rachel Matlow, available now from Viking. 
Entering the House

Prepared for every situation, even pandemic, mothers should be the ones on TV when our nation is under attack by terrorists or viruses.

Angel of the Pearly Gates My mother has strict ideas about what needs to happen when one enters the house. One should remove one’s shoes and place them on one of two shoe racks, the short-term shoe rack for shoes in daily circulation or the long-term shoe rack for shoes in lower rotation. But do not leave shoes in front of the door. After removing one’s shoes, one should put on slippers to cross the tiled floor of the entryway because concrete emits toxins that your feet absorb over time. Then one should hang up one’s coat in the coat closet, place scarves on the hook behind the door, if applicable, place gloves in the appropriate basket above the coats, if applicable. Toques can stay in pockets, unless wet. These elaborate rules have gone from restrictions to choreography. I can do the dance, even with four full grocery bags in my hands. There are balletic variations as well, for entering certain rooms. Slippers should be worn on tile but not carpet. Certain doors should remain open and certain doors should be half open and certain doors should rest lightly on the jamb and other doors should be shut tightly. Got it? And 5, 6, ready, dance. Angel of Caution When my mother calls me, she enters the conversation by saying, Yes, Ian, then launches into whatever’s on her mind. Whether I answer or she leaves a message, she always begins the same way, Yes, Ian, which is odd, because she says no to so many other things. I don’t think that the automatic conjuring of all negative possibilities is a reflex unique to my mother. She is the angel of caution, trepidation, warning, hesitation, be carefuls, why are you going to Greece? Did you floss your teeth tonight? Don’t talk to people without a mask, remember to wash the lids of canned goods—rat pee. She predicted that COVID-19 would become a pandemic when it was still in Wuhan. With prophetic acumen, she advised me to cancel all my travel. But before that she said, Why are you going to Italy? The angel of caution also means that mothers’ handbags, glove compartments, and pantries are reliable sources of Band-Aids and juice boxes, emergency granola bars, lip balm, hand lotion. Prepared for every situation, even pandemic, they should be the ones on TV when our nation is under attack by terrorists or viruses. My mother would advise the nation to eat more garlic. Guardian Angel There were steep concrete stairs at the side of my grandparents’ house. When my brother and I were little, my mother must have had sweaty dreams about us tumbling down those stairs. The fact that she still mentions them from time to time means that they’ve inflicted a deep psychic wound. As boys, danger was a concept that my brother and I acquired late. I remember the heat of my mother’s hands hovering around our waists or inches from our backs. My mother does not advocate for learning the hard way or for natural consequences. If she’s doling out a consequence, fine, but if the consequence of, say, irresponsible spending by an older brother during college means that he’ll eat only cereal for a while, then no, her boy need not suffer that consequence. She’ll send him more money. When we were learning to walk, she insisted that children didn’t need to fall. Those stairs are really the only part of the house that I remember and I remember them as a kind of monster with a mouth and a long ridged tail like the spine of a dragon. Angel of Security The opposite of fear, in my mother’s case, is not courage but security. Like many Boomer parents, she falls into the job-car-house-retirement-with-a-pension pipeline of dreams. When I bought my tiny, overpriced place in Vancouver, she said both, Congratulations and Ow, you poor thing, recognizing the necessity and injustice of home ownership in that city. Again, like many people, she spent her working years qualifying for a mortgage then responsibly paying for it. Our houses became larger and more detached in stages, from townhouse to semi-detached to fully detached. Soon it will hover above the earth in truly detached radiance. She had a list of requirements for that final house, a literal list: at least three bedrooms, double garage, walking distance to a bus route, though everyone drove everywhere in the suburbs. Importantly, the list included a proper entrance. A good entrance comprises a procession up a path, a few steps up toward the front door, no more than five, a porch, a step into the house, then a step from the foyer into the front hallway. Houses were disqualified for having too many or too few steps. Another thing on my mother’s list of requirements was multiple exits. Front door, rear patio door, large upstairs windows, and ideally a side entrance/exit from the basement. In the event of fire, one should have options, like on an airplane, I guess. But I sense something more: that a woman should be able to leave places easily, even her own home, that a black woman in North America, meaning a descendent of formerly enslaved people, should be able to leave her situation, her marriage, her mind, if she wants, at will. It all sounds extraordinarily fussy, doesn’t it? The concrete rules, the step up from the foyer. I could offer plausible explanations but the older I get the more I feel that my mother resists any coherent interpretation. My mother retains an inexplicability, an unpredictability of temper and reaction, even in her very predictable actions. I know her well, probably better than anybody on the planet, but she cannot be fixed by my knowing. It’s not so much that she’s expanding in new directions but that she’s digging a hole in the basement and spending more time down there. I’m upstairs near the door. I hear CNN on loop down there. The light is a bare bulb. I’m not sure why she’s digging down there. What’s the hole for? Who? Angel of Death My mother’s oldest friend lost two of her adult sons. One was a police officer who was shot in his driveway, the other one drowned with his wife a few months after their wedding. She has one son left. A woman at church, same thing, lost two children in adulthood. Another of my mom’s friends lost her adult child to stomach cancer. Another woman at church lost her son, her baby, she calls him, to violence. All these mothers go forward with their rounds of grocery shopping and oil changes, and it’s impossible to know exactly if they break down at home when they crush garlic and remember how their child used to smell the skin before tossing it into the garbage. To keep another human being alive for decades is no small thing. The childless can opt for a cactus or a fern, depending on their time and instincts for caregiving. One could party in Ibiza for months and come back and the cactus will still be fine. By contrast, knowing that a child is not a cactus, how does a mother ever lift her attention from her child? Just today my mother texted me to remind me to drink water. Angel of War Here’s Zadie Smith in the childhood section of Swing Time: What do we want from our mothers when we are children? Complete submission. Oh, it’s very nice and rational and respectable to say that a woman has every right to her life, to her ambitions, to her needs, and so on—it’s what I’ve always demanded myself—but as a child, no, the truth is it’s a war of attrition, rationality doesn’t come into it, not one bit, all you want from your mother is that she once and for all admit that she is your mother and only your mother, and that her battle with the rest of life is over. What do we want from our mothers when we’re adults? I’ll take the occasional juice box, sure. But I think the real question is not from but for. What do we want for our mothers when we’re adults? A golden harp, a golden rule: That she would do unto herself as she did unto me.
‘The Rebelliousness of the Body’: An Interview with Rufi Thorpe

The author of The Knockout Queen on craftsmanship, sexuality, and strength. 

“You can know a lot about someone if you know who they were in high school,” Rufi Thorpe says. That’s one of the reasons her books tend to circle adolescence, she continues: because it’s the time when you are most authentically and unbearably your own self. Thorpe’s first novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, follows a pair of childhood best friends into adulthoods that neither of them could have predicted; it was long-listed for both the 2014 International Dylan Thomas Prize and 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Her second, Dear Fang, With Love, tracks a mostly-estranged father and his teenage daughter on a trip to Lithuania, his family’s homeland. Now Thorpe has written The Knockout Queen (Knopf), about an intense, life-altering friendship between two outcasts stuck in the southern California suburbs. Michael and Bunny have been next-door neighbors for years, but they don’t start talking until one afternoon in the tenth grade, when she discovers him smoking cigarettes in her side-yard. “One thing Bunny and I had in common,” Michael explains, “was an unusual lack of adult supervision.” Their relationship becomes something both can depend on in the absence of parental involvement and care. Bunny’s father is a successful real-estate agent and a serious alcoholic; Michael is living with his aunt and hiding the fact that he’s gay from his family as best he can. The Knockout Queen is about sex and violence and shame, and how utterly, impossibly commonplace they are. The book outlines how the secrets we keep begin to keep us, or, as Michael puts it, describing his relationships with men he meets on Craigslist, the “lives strange to me that turned my life strange.” Thorpe and I spoke by phone several weeks into our respective Coronavirus isolations, on a beautiful southern California day when neither of us could go outside. Her children interrupted occasionally to ask for dispute mediation, or help with the iPad. Their contributions to the conversation aren’t included below, but it feels right to note that, as Thorpe is a working mother, of course they were part of her day.  Zan Romanoff: Four years ago, you wrote an essay called "Mother, Writer, Monster, Maid" for Vela that got a lot of traction. You've said since then that you sometimes think about writing a follow-up about being the parent of slightly older kids, and how that’s a different experience from when they’re very young and everything feels acutely terrible. Is that something you’re still interested in, or working on?  Rufi Thorpe: I sort of was trying to write it this go-round of publicity, but I wasn't able to produce anything satisfactory. Part of the roadblock to trying to write a similar thing about parenting older kids is the recognition that, when you're still in the baby part of it, nothing can help you. What happens is not that you figure out how to do it; it's that the experience hardens you and matures you, and then all of a sudden in this new honed form you can just slice through it, and it's like butter. It's not hard anymore. But you can't do that to yourself voluntarily. There's no mental position you can find that will allow you to skip that part. It just sucks. I will say, as someone without kids, I do wish there was a little more writing about the easier or more manageable parts of it— because it feels sometimes like most of the pieces I read are from people who are in the worst of it, and then it’s hard not to conclude that the consensus from women writers is: if you have kids it will completely ruin your life. But I can also imagine that, like, if that’s your reality all day, of course you want your work to take you somewhere else. To be writing about other things. I know some writers decide to write a book because they think such a book will sell, and is a compelling market opportunity. I have never been able to do that, because to me the compulsion to spend thousands and thousands of hours thinking and then writing about imaginary people… money, especially uncertain, speculative money, is not enough. I have to be really, really interested in whatever it's about. And you're not able to control what you're interested in very well.  You wrote a book between your second novel, Dear Fang, With Love, and The Knockout Queen that you didn’t end up selling. Tell me about that experience, and how it kind of led you to The Knockout Queen. Oh yeah, my big failure! I was in a really dark period. The Girls from Corona del Mar had gotten published, and it all felt really magical. I got pregnant with my second baby and I had this really positive birth experience that was really different than my first birth. And then we decided to move back to California, and I was so happy to be close to friends and family. And then my husband got a job where he had to work really long hours, and he was driving 100 miles a day in LA traffic. Then my youngest baby got sick with RSV and was in the hospital for five days. I don't think he was in danger of dying; however, it was still terrifying. So, I had a period where I felt like I was being consumed by the children, and I was never gonna write again. Then we hired my husband's cousin to come live with us. She would watch the baby for two hours a day, and in these hours, I wrote this book. I think there was just too much pressure on it. I was writing it more hoping it was good than trying to say something. I just was exhausted. It wasn't good. I don't think the book is unsalvageable, but once I finished it and understood what was wrong with it, I had no idea how to fix it. And no interest in fixing it! So I was like, maybe I'll come back to it, but now I want to write something that's just like... the way I phrased it to myself was, “fun.” I wanted it to be for me. I wanted to write something that was what I wanted to write, instead of what I thought anyone else wanted me to write. There was a weird defiance to the energy with which I started the book. I was feeling very, fuck everybody! I had written a book titled Bunny Lampert like ten years ago. It didn't have this plot, but it was about Bunny Lampert. I've been thinking about this character for years and years and years, so returning to her felt kind of like getting in touch with that original high school part of myself, that part of yourself that you learn to be embarrassed of, and then later when you're much older, you learn you never should have been embarrassed of. I think in some sense that's what allowed the book to be as direct and honest as it is. It's a very me book. It's not posing as anything. It's very frank and genuine. It definitely has a fuck you energy—but in a delightful way, not an angry way. It feels sometimes like authors now are very careful around our books in this too-cautious way, like, can anyone, anywhere, for any reason, get mad at me about this? And I loved that there was stuff in there where it's palpable that you're not thinking about what anyone else is going to think, and just getting weird. Along those lines, I am curious about your thought process around deciding to narrate the book from the perspective of a gay man. I thought deeply about it. We've all been watching through various think-pieces of better and worse quality about cultural appropriation and how that affects fiction, and I have all sorts of conflicted feelings. Growing up as a woman reading literature and watching men write female consciousness, the idea that I wouldn't be allowed to do that to someone else, when all of literature was doing it to me seemed like, well then, what are we doing? I thought there was this understanding that Anna Karenina is not a woman; she's a fantasy of Tolstoy's. And Michael is not a young gay man; he’s a fantasy of mine. You will learn a lot more about me than you will learn about young gay men by reading it.  When I got the idea for Michael it was very much like, he just appeared, and had a super strong voice and a specific backstory right from the beginning. It was one of those times when you feel like the character's writing itself. Now, in my experience, that's because the character is a deeply repressed aspect of yourself. So soon enough, he started to narrate things from my own life, things I was really uncomfortable with. Throughout my 20s, I would meet women from the internet to have sex with them, because I couldn't deal with the fact that I was bi. I had this whole weird doublethink world where I just liked to do that because it was fun, and really, I was straight. The very same thing that made me write Michael is also what gives me no right to write about him. I've been a horrible member of the gay community—I never officially came out! I have not contributed to that community. I'm just a fucked up person, writing about how I'm fucked up. How do you say whether that kind of material is authentic?   The book is about the rebelliousness of the body—the way the body can want something almost against your will. The whole book is about that, so it makes sense that I found a way to hook it to these experiences that I had. It makes sense that I brought them up. But why not, once I realized that, make the character female, so that it was a true direct autobiographical thing? And the answer's really simple. It's that I love writing as a man, because then I don't have to deal with all the bullshit. I didn't want to deal with Michael and "is his behavior slutty?" If I had a female character doing that, there would be all of this cultural baggage I'd have to deal with.  Those kinds of workmanlike craftsmanship concerns, they feel so petty to bring up when you're trying to talk about the real big true sins of cultural appropriation, the ways that it can be damaging to people, the ways that it can be hurtful— and yet, every fiction writer is making very workmanlike, craftsman decisions, where they're thinking about characters' gender not based on, can I authentically do this, but like, what works better for my plot?  Is a craftsmanly excuse good enough? I don't know.  There's a lot of physical violence in this novel. It feels like you're working to situate violence in the ordinary—not in a David Lynch, “ahh this is so surreal” way, but just like, horrible things are happening all around us, often in the most mundane ways possible. I was a gigantic child. I've been this height since I was 10 years old, so I had this belief that I was going to be a giantess. In part because I didn't know my dad, it felt like maybe it was possible. And then I just never grew again, but I've always been densely muscled and really strong. So I wasn't tall—so what? I still felt really physically powerful. And then I was in a relationship that was physically abusive. It wasn't just getting decked a bunch; it was a lot more physically grappling, or being thrown, or struggling to get away. The realization of how much stronger he was, and how truly helpless I was, was like, a thing that I couldn't get over. So the dream of a woman that is physically powerful—the dream of a woman that could pick up a man and throw him—is very compelling. It's a wish-fulfillment. I think Bunny comes from those set of fantasies, inspired both by cultural narratives and my own autobiographical reasons. There's a line in there where Michael says, "The people I have the most sympathy for were almost never the ones anyone else felt sympathy for." And that feels like exactly the project of the book—to take characters who, when you describe them as types, sound unsympathetic, and be like, these are the people you're going to spend time with, and come to care about. My instinct to do that is one of my core—like, you can't help it if Ray Lampert's your dad! You gotta deal with it one way or the other. He is shitty, and there's good things about him. In some ways he's a great dad; in other ways he's a terrible dad. People are really flawed. And you have to deal with them anyway.  Yeah. I also love the way you write about class and aesthetics. A lot of the houses in Knockout Queen are kind of suburban and unremarkable—not like, luxe and thrilling, but also not poverty porn. Just the house you buy because you need a house, and this is the amount of money you have, so that’s that. I feel like you’re really good at writing places that feel like places, instead of like, Backdrops for a Novel. I am of a family that's maybe what would be called the fallen aristocracy. We still have the carpets; we don't have anything else. I have lived in-between classes in a lot of ways. My background is still one of unfathomable privilege; I'm just saying, we've never owned a nice car or something.  I think there is a tendency to present attractive, opulent settings without any nuance or suspicion of them, and they're almost just the standard backdrop settings of the people who can afford to have the kinds of problems that you want to write about. There’s not that many novels written about trying to figure out how to pay your rent. I also love houses—maybe that's part of it. I'm addicted to looking at house listings, and I'm very crafty. I wonder if that's a Californian thing? I don’t care that much about real estate in my real life, but in my writing I'm obsessed with houses, and what's going on in all of them. So much of the history of the novel is about the development of these metropolitan centers, and this Balzacian sense that the city is an entire world, and every kind of person is living there—that you could somehow peek into each of their lives. I think that is very much the part of the novel that I'm drawn to and fell in love with. I'm a nosy, nosy bitch.  I think that's every novelist. You have to be!  You’re eavesdropping, asking people invasive questions about their moms. How does that make you feel? You're like a therapist with no morals, and no obligation to help. That is damning, and true. You said earlier that this book is about the ways that your body betrays you. One of the notes that I took while reading just says SHAME, in all capitals. So I'd love it if you could talk more about how that force functions in the book. I think that shame comes with the territory of all the other things, ‘cause I think that there's a lot of doublethink, especially around violence. Is it a natural primate-y kind of thing that we do sometimes, or is it evil? We do a lot of similar doublethink around sex. There's every fucked up part of the thinking life of modernity in those questions. It's all gotten just jammed together into a bunch of conflicted feelings about our most basic activities. And so, anytime you're gonna talk about sex or violence, you're going to talk about shame, because none of us can figure out how we're supposed to feel about sex or violence.   I also think that shame is just interesting. Because sometimes I'm not ashamed of the things that I should be ashamed of, but I'm ashamed of some things so intensely that I know they're occupying—it's like a storage unit you can't get rid of. You know you don't need all that stuff, but you can't let go of it. I know there are vast interior spaces that are occupied by holding onto shame for things that I can't go back and undo.  People say "forgive yourself," and you're like, all right. How? Tell me, physically, what should I do?   I have always been puzzled by the phrases "love yourself" and "forgive yourself," because I'm like, all right. Literally, I have had to—the love yourself one, I've broken down into steps. But forgiving yourself I think is a lot harder, because sometimes you just… don't. It's really hard to forgive yourself if you don't. As I was reading through the book, I was thinking about how the characters do all kinds of things, some of them good, some of them bad. But it fees like the true warping force, the thing that really actually fucks them up, is shame—is that no one feels like they're allowed to be the person that they are. I think what I'm circling around here is that the book is, in so many ways, about how we are just at the mercy of each other. We want to be loved and accepted and cared for so badly, and no matter how much we want it for ourselves, we so often do not give it to other people! It's heartbreaking!  There's also the problem of how to contain the psychos. What do you do with Ray Lampert? That's the problem with prison, is that it's such a clumsy and stupid solution to what is a much bigger problem, which is: what do you do when individuals in the group begin harming the group?  Prison is this weird form of shunning where it's like, you have to go live alone in this box with the other bad boys. It doesn't work very well; it is completely metaphysically without meaning, and it actually fucks everybody up more. Prison doesn't help anything get any better.  But people are really at a loss as to how we could do anything else. We don't have another framework, even for imagining what else we could do. Or even just on a personal level, in your life. What do you do with family members who are toxically fucked up? What do you do when your kid is a drug addict or an alcoholic and you don't want to keep enabling them? Where do you draw those lines? How do you deal with people who are starting to hurt other people? Yeah, and that feels related to one of the big questions that sort of haunts your work, which is: who gets out? Who survives these messed-up childhoods and gets to go on and thrive? It’s a big question between Mia and Lorrie Ann in Girls from Corona del Mar, and it recurs again in Knockout Queen.   For Mia and Lorrie Ann, Lorrie Ann is being inexplicably punished. She is actively good, and Mia can't figure out why life is punishing her. In the case of Bunny and Michael, she is being punished for something she did. And he cannot decide if she deserves the punishment or not. If she's not being punished enough, then he starts to think that she should be punished more. Then when she's being punished, he thinks she shouldn't be and it's unfair and there's been a miscarriage of justice. He's not really sure. And then she is made strange to him through her punishment. You can tell what interests me! They're very similar books in lots of ways. They're both about friendship, and they're both about trying to reconcile who you were in high school with who you are as an adult.   There's nothing more embarrassing than writing more than one book, because it becomes apparent that you only have like, a limited set of obsessions.  There's a very wonderful book—The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. It's a book about writing from an editor and agent's perspective, the lion tamer's tale if you will—a lion tamer's book about lions. She's like, “Listen, I'll tell you exactly what kind of creatures you are.”  It's very comforting. She's like, “You don't get to choose what your material is. You get the things that obsess you. There's going to be three or four if you're lucky; probably just one or two. And then you're gonna write the same book over and over again, exploring those themes. Some of the books will be good, and some of them won't be. That's what you're gonna do for the rest of your life. Giddyup.” I was like, Oh my god, that's such a relief! There's this moment at the end of the book where Michael says, of Bunny, "I wanted her tragedy to belong to me." And that felt sort of like what authors are always doing—putting our characters through horrible things for our own selfish reasons, or like, telling other people’s stories as a way of telling our own. I'm a reckless and irresponsible god to my characters. I don't really worry about their anguish. I take care to love them. I feel like that's my job, is to see them and record all that is beautiful and awful about them. I feel like it's my job to put them into the most extreme positions possible, so that they can fully reveal themselves. Yeah, totally. I guess this felt, to me, related to the question of, what right do we have to tell the stories of people from groups we aren’t a part of? In this case it's just, what right do we have to write at all? The answer is: we don't! But we do it anyway.  There's a great quote by Zadie Smith. She's talking about how women have felt really connected to these fake, man-made women in literature, and that it's perverse but it's the kind of thing that's possible in fiction. It's morally irresponsible, but that fiction is, at root, irresponsible. It's not able to be morally accountable in that way; it's not interested in it. That's not what it's about.  But there's also ways in which fiction is enriching. If I hadn't found ways of feeling seen and understood by books, I think I probably would have committed suicide. That was how I figured out that there were other people that I could commune with. I wasn't good at understanding how to do it with other people when I was a baby monster. So I do still have this devotion to it as this transcendent medium that allows minds to be in communion with one another throughout space and time.
What Were Sports?

A perfect engine of meaningless data creation; an otherworldly space-place where people could depressurize and sometimes succumb to madness; good even when they were bad.

Once, there were sports. Spencer Hall and Jason Kirk try to remember what that was like. Spencer Hall: I remember there were … expensive commercials. I definitely remember expensive commercials being a part of live sports. I only noticed this when sports on replay happened. Before, in an NBA game happening in real time, there would be LeBron selling me a Kia or James Harden selling me insurance. For the record, I don’t think James Harden and risk management should ever appear in the same sentence, much less be the foundation for an insurance ad campaign. The ads for replay games are cheap and very sad: Home generators, car warranties, bootleg tactical gear for things that shouldn’t be tactical like car visors and hearing aids. I like high-dollar advertising during sports because it lies to me, and doesn’t come right out and try and sell me on blatant fraud. Make my frauds expensive and pretty, please. Jason Kirk: Before, when there were sports, we did have some Diesel-Powered Combat Mode Frying Pan (Sovereign Citizen Edition) commercials, but mostly for college basketball games that tipped off around midnight ET. Mainly there was a commercial about a breakaway theocracy named after Dr Pepper, a place we all wanted to live. But now it’s just the frying pans. Fansville is now our paradise lost. I also seem to recall the University of Nebraska playing men’s basketball, but no one ever figured out why. Do you remember how long sports took, back when there were sports? I remember one football game as being three-plus hours of commitment, and that’s if we were just sitting at home and waiting for the next game after it. Going to a game could mean budgeting between eight hours and three days. Of course, this was back when there were not just sports, but also days. SH: I recall this: Different sports digested time differently. Football hours worked like an interval runner. Sometimes an hour took an hour, and then sometimes an hour took fifteen minutes, depending on who was playing. We watch college football. That means watching service academies running the triple option, and sometimes that means fifteen minutes on the clock taking something actually close to an actual fifteen minutes. Soccer was basically a sitcom and took 22 minutes. Every NBA game felt like exactly 90 minutes, even the important ones. Hockey felt normal in the regular season, but in the playoffs? It was like being in a car crash or an animal attack, in that I know the important parts happened in ten seconds or so, but in my brain each second felt like hours. When I watched golf, I forgot whether I had ever done or lived anything outside of watching seemingly endless golf. JK: So the post-sports world we live in is GOLF WORLD. The thing I remember most about sports: all the spreadsheets, piling longer and longer forever. Spreadsheets of injuries and transactions, each line sliding across the bottom of a TV screen’s spreadsheet. This happened during a game in which the period-by-period scoreboard looked like a spreadsheet. The results went into a different spreadsheet for the season as a whole. That season went into a historical archive spreadsheet. Nerds pored over all of them to create their own spreadsheets, which they sold to people who looked at Las Vegas’s spreadsheets. Sports were a perfect engine of meaningless data creation. I like all the old spreadsheets, but I would’ve preferred for the new ones to continue. I do not like that most of them halted and some will be forever incomplete. So I thank the NFL for continuing to fill its transaction spreadsheets as if all is normal, whether it gets around to filling out its actual game spreadsheets ever again or not. Do you remember how, back when there were sports, each person had a list of teams they strongly preferred to win? Like, if the Portland Trail Blazers and Memphis Grizzlies squared off, you and I would be a little bit happier about life if the Grizzlies were the team that won. What was all that about? SH: Remembering that would involve remembering different places. I have only ever been in Atlanta. Its teams are all I have ever known. Its championships are the only triumphs I have ever felt. I now realize I have experienced very few triumphs in life, Jason. This feeling is horrible. It kind of makes me want to die, Jason, or at least avoid saying “I watched Trae Young play basketball before he started winning things with another team somewhere else.” I would like to remember other places with other teams. Please help me do that. JK: Our sweet lad Trae Young has already expressed interest in rooting for Tampa because that’s where Tom Brady lives now, due to spreadsheets. Trae is lost to us. We already miss him. One cool thing I remember about sports is watching people run fast in one direction. It was fun to watch someone do this when unimpeded, such as when Usain Bolt walked into a mall in church shoes or whatever and ran as fast as the fastest NFL player ever had, but it was ten times as fun when someone was able to run really far while other people were trying to stop that person from running far. Remember watching De’Anthony Thomas, who has been posting GOOD TWEETS since the year 2012, run free at the Rose Bowl? That was good. Remember the Rose Bowl? That was good. Even more fun than watching someone run in one direction: watching someone run in a series of different directions, perhaps while also doing something else, like bouncing a ball with their hands, feet, or head. Some sports didn’t have this, but I think most of them did. Back when sports existed, you were also very good at pointing out which big people were good at stopping little people from running. That was also fun to watch. SH: Thank you for the kind words. I remember another thing I was very good at: Pointing out perfectly normal, wonderful people living their best lives in the stands. I miss that as much as any game, I think, because it is not often that normal people end up on television without committing a crime or being the victim of one. I miss seeing normal people getting to be abnormal for fun in the context of a sporting game. I remember otherwise respectable people punching each other in the face ineffectively during college football games. I remember otherwise responsible members of society obviously on their seventh beer caught sleeping in the stands of an afternoon game. I remember seeing Philly fans doing literally anything but being normal for anyone but a Philly fan. Some of them even had jobs and families, and still did things like accosting Russell Westbrook from the stands like that was something a person would do! I remember sports being a cool, otherworldly space-place where people could completely depressurize for several hours, and sometimes even succumb to space madness along the way. Do you remember that part? The part that was like Apollo 13, but for your team’s secondary after their starting safety went out with an injury and they had to figure out how to play with ten defenders and one guy who should have been going to law school instead of covering the other team’s best receiver? The part that was a problem, but a fun one to solve? JK: And/or problems that very much belonged to someone else, despite us getting to invest feelings in whether they solved these problems or not. Caring about whether a mediocre general manager could finally figure out how to do sports budgets: this was kinda like politics, but in a fake world in which we didn’t have to acknowledge politics can kill us. That was nice! Watching a four-hour game and walking away with one GIF-worthy moment, a drunk fan or a trick play or a coach falling over, felt like a version of sifting for gold, but a version in which the dirt itself was also valuable. The best parts of sports, as I think you agree, were these times when something went wrong. Nothing is more interesting than something breaking, especially when corporate champions have invested billions of dollars in them going right. Like the time this happened: [tweet_embed]https://twitter.com/ConnorNewcomb_/status/1160651681148915712[/tweet_embed] Sports were little chemistry labs designed to run for hours, months, and centuries, along the way producing countless things nobody could’ve predicted from the outset. SH: That makes sports sound a lot like the Miller-Urey experiment. That’s the one where scientists took the basic elements present on early Earth—water, methane, hydrogen, and ammonia—bottled them up in a closed system that allowed for evaporation and condensation, and ran some sparking electricity through the part holding the evaporated gases to simulate lightning. Miller and Urey wanted to see if, over time, they could cook up a little bit of the primordial soup of simple amino acids forming the building blocks of what would become life. It worked. Eventually, out of nothing, they created the start of what could be a world. That exact thing happens in sports all the time. There are inert things like stadium, arenas, courts—nothing too special by themselves. There are people, perfectly normal people, in the stands, and games with simple rules to play. Put them together, add in lightning in the form of brilliant athletes competing, and let it cycle for a while. I watched Atlanta become a soccer town in a year, and a championship soccer town in two. There was nothing before that. Then someone decided to run a little electricity through the whole system. Then there was a team, and full stadiums, and supporters clubs, and banners and drums and all the rest of the accoutrements every other real-deal soccer team has. Atlanta United doesn’t just feel like they’ve worked. They somehow feel like they’ve always been here. At the end, that kind of experiment can feel like its own little planet, if everything’s going right. It can feel like its own little planet even if it’s going wrong, actually. Like, not a good planet, right? One of the foreclosed ones with a huge tax lien on it. There should be more shows about this kind of future, where people get evicted from Ganymede to make way for luxury space colonies funded by world barons gentrifying the planet. There are no sports and I am obviously going mad, but maybe selling a script is a pretty good idea right now, no? JK: A stage is set, conditions are negotiated, and then things just happen. That’s very cool, especially within the context of the greater world, where no conditions are negotiated to any real degree. I might never forget the last two sports things I got to attend before sports went away. One was Army-Navy in Philadelphia, America’s true spiritual capital, where the difference between the two essentially identical programs was that one (Navy) had future Miami Dolphins spreadsheet member Malcolm Perry, and one (Army) did not. Also a president was there beneath a gray sky, which I assume he hated as much as he hates everything. The other sports thing was Oklahoma getting torched by LSU in the Peach Bowl, the most ruthless obliteration I’ve ever seen in person. In the third quarter, after Joe Burrow had already scored eight touchdowns, I got to stand next to LSU’s band while drunk Tigers fans begged for the chance to shout obscenities along with the song “Neck.” They all agreed so many people had vacated OU’s sections, very few enemies would even hear these obscenities, but it was the spirit of the thing. For me, the thing that mattered most about sports is how they, by design, did not matter. We built industrial complexes around them, but at heart, they were about discovering which side had earned the right to shout the cooler obscenities on any given day. And then the following day, we would rediscover. Do you have any thoughts about some of the last sports you got to witness, back when there were sports? SH: The last thing I saw live before this happened was the national title game between LSU and Clemson in New Orleans. I killed time getting over to the Superdome by going to an oyster bar and ordering a dozen oysters. When they were gone I ordered another dozen, and then ordered another twelve. Me and thirty-six oysters and three beers in my stomach walked over to the game and didn’t fight or disagree once. It was the perfect kind of clammy, cool January night in New Orleans where the river breathes just enough of a breeze through the streets to keep things hospitable. I don’t remember anyone fighting. I don’t remember anyone yelling too much. I got a high-five from three LSU fans who had no clue who I was but were just happy about being alive at the same time as prime Joe Burrow. They were so, so drunk. Joe Burrow blazed. Clyde Edwards-Helaire played with one good hamstring and still looked like one man playing the part of three brilliant, different football players, and did it brilliantly. Trump came out. He didn’t matter and never does. Alvin Kamara got up on a table to take a free drink from Saints fans in the box next to ours. LSU hit the afterburners and Clemson lost them somewhere over Metairie. Odell Beckham was hammered when the game started and got so rowdy a cop tried to arrest him in the locker room when Odell slapped him on the ass. The Tigers won. That’s like three feast days in one: Watching LSU win, doing it in New Orleans, and capping it by stuffing myself to the point of foundering on either side. I spent $120 on lunch by myself the next day at Peche. A friend I hadn’t seen in eight years walked over from his house and sat down and we just bullshitted and talked about football sitting about three feet apart from each other. Do you hear all the beats of an impossible world playing there? I do. I feel every little ping of a world I’ve only missed for forty-five days at this point like cactus needles just pressing into the skin of a hovering hand. In 24 hours I got to do everything that now seems like a litany of impossible irresponsibilities. I didn’t regret spending that money on lunch at the time. I definitely don’t regret it now. JK: As for the original question, I think the answer to what sports were is that sports were good. Especially when they were bad. But what about when they were neither? What is the most average, boring, mediocre demonstration of sports you would be delighted to sit through the entirety of right now, having been immersed in a post-sports world? I think I would watch an entire San Diego Padres game, dealer’s choice as to which season. SH: I just want you and me and everyone on the planet to know that when and if things get back to something like normal: The Indiana Pacers will be playing basketball. No one will remember anything about it, not even when they lose. I can’t wait to not remember watching them play again. No one misses the mid, until the dealer’s sold out of mid. And the mid will be so wonderfully forgettable when it gets back in stock.
Get Fat, Don’t Die

Beowulf Thorne’s cooking column for people with AIDS claimed the right to pleasure, but in each recipe was embedded an urgent appeal.

In his inaugural food column, Beowulf Thorne included recipes for gingerbread pudding, Thai chicken curry, and vanilla poached pears, plus a photo of a naked blond man spread-eagled in a pan of paella. Eat your cereal with whipping cream, he advised readers, and ladle extra gravy onto your dinner plate. “Not only does being undernourished reduce your chances of getting lucky at that next orgy, it can make you much more susceptible to illness, and we'll have none of that,” Wulf wrote.  “Get Fat, Don’t Die,” the first cooking column for people with AIDS, ran in every issue of Diseased Pariah News, the AIDS humor zine that Wulf started and edited from 1990 to 1999. Under the byline “Biffy Mae,” he passed along reader recipes, mocked nutritional supplements marketed to people with AIDS, and leaned into Bisquick, his tastes alternately cosmopolitan and straight-from-the-box comforting. Telling readers with T-cell counts in the double digits to lard their food with Paula Deen-ian levels of cream sounds like nutritional heresy. Yet Wulf’s advice echoed the recommendations that doctors and nutritionists were giving patients with AIDS wasting syndrome. “The famous expression ‘You can’t be too thin or too rich’ was obviously coined before the AIDS epidemic,” Wulf wrote. As the paella nude signaled, his column claimed the right to pleasure, but in each recipe was embedded an urgent appeal that recipe writing of the 1990s had dispensed with: Eat so you can survive. I came across “Get Fat, Don’t Die” in a queer library in Minnesota in 1991, the summer after my sophomore year in college, and its raw, punk camp electrified me. The memory erupted out of some dark pool several years ago, and I eventually traced the column to the archives of the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, which had accepted Wulf’s papers as he was dying. The organization had digitized all eleven issues of Diseased Pariah News, they told me, and emailed the link. It electrified me all over again.  ***  According to his friends, Jack Foster’s arrival in the Bay Area in 1983 was as much an escape as a pilgrimage to the West Coast’s gay sanctuary. Escape from the denunciations of his father, a military contractor in Southern California. But also escape from the older gay men who’d taken him in several years before as their underage sex pet. He moved to Palo Alto and began attending the Stanford Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which was open to nonstudents. He was eighteen, and already infected. Jack soon moved into a household whose inhabitants and visitors—Stanford grad students, activists, budding software engineers—called it “Listing Shambles.” Birth names at Listing Shambles were shucked as readily as the sheets at their toga sex parties. Jack Foster re-christened himself Beowulf Johan Heinrich Thorne, or when the camp flared particularly hot, Biffy Mae. Tall and lean, striking or anonymous depending on the angle, Wulf had a slim face whose stern, L-shaped nose fought against the sensuousness of his bottom lip. He wore round wire-rim glasses with lenses thick enough to form a white ring and moussed his blond bangs into a studied flop. He considered himself a perennial twink. Or, really, a nerd, his friend Kira Od said, whose big feet always seemed to be in his way. And yet, she added, he was naughty. [[{"fid":"6706506","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Paper merit badges for DPN buttons, Thorne (Beowulf) Papers, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. “He had a deep and abiding sense of black humor,” agreed Arion Stone, his roommate at Listing Shambles. Friends remembered that Wulf gardened masterfully, but only toxic plants, and burrowed into esoterica like tillandsias or Russian noun declensions. He cooked and cartooned and wrote and gardened with what Arion called a “sublime self-assurance about his abilities.” After a year or two in Palo Alto, Wulf earned a scholarship to study bioscience at UC Santa Cruz, working on safe-sex education causes with the Stanford crew in his spare time. But as his senior year approached, the virus began making sorties in his system, and Wulf realized he wasn’t going to live long enough to earn an advanced degree. He dropped out of school and took up graphic design, just as desktop publishing software supplanted pasteup boards and typesetters. A job at Addison Wesley designing scientific textbooks allowed him to move to San Francisco in the late 1980s. There, his roommate was Tom Shearer, a technical writer with an acerbic wit and a lower T-cell count. Inspired by ACT UP but too introverted to join its protests, the two came up with their own way to fight the stigmatization and mawkishness of the epidemic: humor.  ***  Twenty-four years after protease inhibitors and combination antiretroviral therapy (the “cocktail”) brought the immune systems of millions of HIV-positive people back into healthy ranges, it’s hard not to read Diseased Pariah News without straining for a happy ending. Hang in there for a few more years! the brain shouts at each page. The same thinking that collapses World War II into a moral victory and the Civil Rights Movement into a triumph has recast the plague years as a self-contained tragedy.  Yet to laugh at Wulf and Tom’s jokes—to take in the full spectrum of the rage and grief coded into each shocked laugh he drags up from your chest—requires you to strip away the safety of history. In 1990, the cocktail was an untested theory; on the market was nothing but death and toxic drugs. Despite the rising numbers of infected women and children, and the devastation the plague wreaked on the trans community (with little mention in the press), AIDS in North America was twisted up with gay identities. When U.S. scientists first observed a cluster of strange illnesses and deaths they dubbed Gay-Related Immune Deficiency in 1981, the LGBT movement had only asserted itself publicly for a decade or so. It was still so fragile, so niche, that most people outside major cities had never encountered LGBT people before they saw photos of young queer men with sunken faces, covered in purple lesions, in the news. It confirmed to some that God was punishing this aberration the moment it denied its sinfulness. For many older gay men and trans folks, AIDS snatched away everything they’d made of their lives and poisoned the raucous liberation of the 1970s. To children like me, only ten when GRID appeared, coming out into the plague meant love and rejection and sex and hideous death would knot themselves up so tightly we could never tease the strands apart.  By the time DPN published its first issue in 1990, four people were dying of AIDS every hour, and the U.S. death count was rocketing up to 100,000. According to David France’s How to Survive a Plague, by then at least 20 U.S. states had considered quarantining people with HIV in camps, arresting them for having sex, or even tattooing their status on their bodies. Hate crimes spiked across the country, to the indifference of many police departments. For all the services—hospital wards, pet care, volunteer housecleaning, support groups, hotlines, meals—that community groups constructed in the absence of government support, the first generation of helpers were burning out and the death rate wasn’t slowing down. That year, many say, marked the darkest period of the epidemic. For Wulf and Tom, turning the plague into a sick joke was a radical act of self-love.   ***  “A few years before I had seen a bitter little cartoon,” Tom wrote in the introduction to the first issue. “An airline had refused passage to a person with AIDS, and there was a big stink about it. The cartoon showed a man at an airline counter, and the clerk was saying ‘And would you like the smoking, non-smoking, or diseased pariah section?’ Mr. Tom was much impressed by this terminology and began to refer to himself as a diseased pariah, to much dismayed fluttering from his friends. At the time, remember, the only acceptable role for an infected person was Languishing Saint and Hug Object.” Tom wrote half of the text, Wulf the other half, under such pseudonyms as “Serene Editor” (Tom) and “Cranky Editor” (Wulf). Wulf repurposed the “Captain Condom” comic he had invented in the course of his safe-sex education work and laid out the issue on legal paper, folded in half and stapled. They filled Diseased Pariah News with stunts, porn reviews, comics, naked centerfolds, erotic anecdotes from a well-known sex worker titled “How I Got AIDS,” and personals. [[{"fid":"6706511","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] # 11, Thorne (Beowulf) Papers, Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. The recipes in the second issue, printed alongside recommendations for eating when you had diarrhea, ranged from the ambitious to gluttonous convenience: Biffy Mae’s Totally Amazing Gumbo. Marcus Mae’s Roast Chicken of the Ages. Danny Mae’s Fat Boy Shake, which combined Ovaltine and instant breakfast powder and could be powered up with two scoops of ice cream. Wulf tested every recipe, nudging them into shape. He took the column’s blunt title in earnest. The jokey names and camp flourishes kept his earnestness at a safe distance; too close, and the fear and physical discomfort and bitterness could smother. *** As Biffy Mae wrote in that second issue, “One of the most exciting aspects of the HIV Early Retirement Plan is what it may do to your innards.” Wasting syndrome, which one third of all people with AIDS experienced then, wasn’t just one of the most common effects of HIV. It was the look of AIDS: Arms devoid of muscle and fat, the humerus, radius, and ulna so exposed that you could read the knobby topography of the joints that connected them. Hips that were no longer hips, legs no more fleshy than a water bird’s. Faces whose skin draped lightly over bones and hollows, faces made unrecognizable by the obliteration of fat and muscle. You could go back to work after a case of pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) and pretend it was a regular illness, or cover Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) lesions with clothing if they were in the right places. There was no disguise for wasting. And yet the most prominent memoirists and fiction writers who chronicled the plague years—Harold Brodkey, Larry Kramer, Paul Monette, Hervé Guibert, David Wojnarowicz, Adam Mars-Jones, Allen Barnett—barely invoked its horrors. So many of the narratives of the time circled around two themes: memorializing the terror and adulterated sweetness of being alive as everyone they knew was dying, and shearing through the cordon of dehumanizing indifference that the public had erected around plague-struck communities. The experience of daily diarrhea or constant nausea may have been too visceral, too private, or simply too grinding to fit into the arc of a plot. And so, for all the poignancy that lingers in the public's understanding of the plague era, the lived experience of wasting has faded out, vivid only in the memories of survivors and medical researchers who had tried to halt its progress. Wasting only appeared when the body’s CD4, or T-cell, count dropped from over 600 per cubic microliter of blood to under 200, Mark Jacobson, a physician and researcher who worked at San Francisco General Hospital in the 1980s and 1990s, told me. People weren’t only dying of opportunistic infections. They were dying of sheer malnutrition. “Loss of lean body mass was one of the most powerful predictors of when people were going to die,” he said. As the body’s immunological systems shut down, bizarre symptoms seemed to pile up. Diarrhea could last months, the intestines gleaning whatever nutrients they could catch as the food luged through them. The diarrhea could be caused by mycobacterium avium-intracellulare or by parasitic infections like cryptosporidium and microsporidia that wouldn’t respond to drugs. HIV alone could cause the entire gut to become inflamed. But diarrhea was only one of the factors that caused wasting, said Kathleen Mulligan, a retired faculty member in the UC San Francisco endocrinology department who studied wasting in the 1990s. “It turns out the main factor contributing to wasting was the inability to eat enough food to cover their energy needs,” she said. Even people never given a formal diagnosis of wasting syndrome struggled to eat. “It’s striking how rapidly eating becomes a chore when it ceases to be pleasurable,” she explained. “The drugs made the food taste bad or different. People had painful ulcers or sores in their mouths, so it was difficult to tolerate food. Couple that with stress and depression, nausea from both the disease and the drugs to treat the disease—it was easy to tell people to eat more, but not that easy to find a way to motivate people to get the food they needed.” Any relief was worth trying. Anabolic steroids. Human growth hormone. Testosterone. Megace, a drug that exchanged weight gain for sexual desire. Heaps of vitamins. Wheatgrass juice. Kombucha. Pau d’Arco. Synthetic THC. Homeopathic drugs. Macrobiotics.  If the scientific consensus was that high-calorie food was the best treatment, sometimes improbable measures brought relief. Vince Cristostomo, who now leads the San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s network of long-term survivors, was diagnosed with wasting in 1989, when his weight plummeted from 145 to 119 pounds. He felt as if his body was eating itself alive. He wore baggy clothes to cover his too-thin limbs, but his skin turned gray.  With an immune system so dysfunctional, everything made him sick. “I learned that if I ate certain processed foods I’d get chemical burns in my mouth,” he said. “I drank white rice and it turned to alcohol in my stomach.” Hosts of food allergies appeared. A friend helped him attend an “instinctive eating” program in Europe that put him on a raw-foods diet, and that infusion of nutrients, he said, made a massive difference. For months at a time all he could eat was macrobiotic broccoli and brown rice. He had grown up in Guam, where the food was highly flavorful, and he thought to himself, well, if this is how I have to eat for the rest of my life, I will do it. The weight returned, and stayed with him long enough for the cocktail to come along. *** Between the publication of issue two and three of Diseased Pariah News, two significant events occurred. Surprising its editors, the zine got famous. In 1991 SF Weekly, New Republic, Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek all wrote about the shocking notion that people could make fun of the disease killing them. In the contact sheet from DPN’s first publicity shoot, which provided photos for some of these articles, a healthy Wulf and a cavernous Tom posed on Tom’s hospital bed. They played it straight for a few frames, then Tom lolled on his bed like a 1930s pinup girl, two wrist-thick thighs emerging from his gown. Wulf joined for another frame to strangle Tom with his oxygen tube.  Tom, whose dementia had made a begrudging caregiver of his roommate, died a few weeks afterward. Before, though, he used his credit cards to charge thousands of dollars of equipment for Wulf to use on the magazine. With Tom’s creditors harassing him daily and more symptoms appearing, Wulf left San Francisco to return to Listing Shambles in Palo Alto. “Darn! One of our editors is dead!” Wulf titled Tom’s obituary, and promoted him to “Deaditor.” Daniel Bao, one of Wulf’s best friends who took charge of the magazine’s operations, said their circle of friends sprinkled some of Tom’s ashes into plastic resin to make nightlights. A newcomer named Tom Ace, a computer engineer who had first encountered Wulf through his personal ads, stepped in as the publication’s Humpy Editor. What drew him to DPN, Ace says, was a stance no other publication dared take on. “No denial,” Ace said. “No pretending it isn’t the way it is.” No spiritual balms, no stigma, no shame, no sentimental bravery. They were people dealing with an illness, not the victim-perpetrators the media made them out to be. They were still having sex, and watching porn, and posing for nude centerfolds that ran with their T-cell counts and list of meds.  "We think that if you're going to croak sooner than you'd like, at least you can live while you're alive,” Wulf told the LA Times. ***  Ned: Why are you eating this shit? Twinkies, potato chips ... You know how important it is to watch your nutrition. You’re supposed to eat right. Felix: I have a life expectancy of ten more minutes. I’m going to eat what I want to eat. — Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart *** Paul Monette wrote in Borrowed Time, a memoir about his partner’s 1985 death, “It turns out a home-cooked meal offers a double dose of magic. At the same time you’re making somebody strong again—eat, eat—you are providing an anchor and a forum for the everyday.” Sometimes cooking, like black humor, could save the life of the cook, too. Fernando Castillo, whose recipes formed the culinary backbone of Project Open Hand in San Francisco, said that cooking for the organization in the 1990s was the only thing that assuaged the pain of a decade of horror.  After his lover died of AIDS in the very first wave, Fernando had moved into a large Victorian flat in the Mission, San Francisco’s Latino neighborhood, with his closest friends. But death chased him. One by one, his “babies”—his brothers, his sisters, his chosen family—got sick. So did the landlord upstairs. The Polk Street Mexican restaurant where he was chef closed in 1986, and he was too busy caring for his babies to look for another job. He became the building’s main caregiver, bringing in more friends after others died. He would go from one bedroom, where one of his babies was vomiting, to the next, where another’s fever was spiking. He would take them in taxi cabs to the hospital so frequently the nurses knew his name. And, from morning to night, he cooked. “I learned that I had to give them something not too heavy, but at the same time nutritious,” Fernando said. That meant chicken soup loaded with vegetables, stews made with the best meat he could afford, rich stocks with bones or fish heads. A lot of rice, and a lot of beans. Some of his babies had such bad cases of thrush—an overgrowth of yeast that coated throats and tongues in irritated white fur—that he had to puree the stews. Others, who were taking AZT by the fistful, developed weird allergies or lost the ability to digest dairy or beans. There were few social services for people with AIDS in those days, but people in the Mission found out about what he was doing. They would pass along some money. Markets would slip in extra meat, or charge him less. He took care of his seven friends until they died. In 1991, the last of his babies gone, he was considering whether to accept his sister’s offer of a plane ticket back to their hometown in Mexico. Then Ruth Brinker, the founder of a San Francisco meal service called Project Open Hand, asked him to come in to the kitchen help her out. “Instead of being in mourning in an empty apartment, I joined Project Open Hand,” he said. He adapted all the dishes he had written down in a tiny booklet so they fed thousands of people a day. *** In the middle years of Diseased Pariah News’s run, Wulf and Tom Ace were joined by a Sleazy Editor, Michael Botkin, a journalist famous in the Bay Area LGBT community for his “AIDS Dispatches” column and equally dark sense of humor (“dead meat specials,” he once called people with AIDS). The zine’s circulation rose to three thousand, sold at LGBT bookstores and Tower Records around the country. Tom now recalls that people would stumble across an issue, write to the editors, and order the entire back run. The editors always intended to publish four issues a year, but only managed two or three. They’d call in their friends for assembly parties, Wulf fretting over the placement of each “Not Sanitized for Your Protection” paper band they wrapped around the zine, scaring off casual browsers. Any idea that would double the editors over with laughter made it into the magazine. They recorded parody songs on a flexible vinyl single and stapled it into the zine. Wulf devoted a number of spreads to AIDS Barbie and KS Ken, wasting away so attractively, their lesions courtesy of a blowtorch. “Kiss me, I’m a diseased pariah!” T-shirts and buttons sold by the hundreds, helping to cover the production costs. They also marketed “AIDS Merit Badges,” each depicting an opportunistic infection or alarming T-cell count (achievement unlocked!), for people to wear on a sash to their medical appointments. Readers sent in poetry and essays they hoped DPN would run, not to mention dozens of recipes, each of which Wulf would retest: Calorie-Packer Hash. Mysterious Cheese and Nut Loaf. Hard-Hearted Hannah’s Pecan Buttercrunch. It was food for when you weren't sure you wanted to eat, food that might just keep you alive. But Wulf wanted it to offer pleasure, too—and whether the appeal was trashy or refined didn't matter. Larding a zine about AIDS with recipes didn't just add a note of domestic camp that Biffy Mae, toxic-plant aficionado, clearly delighted in, the recipes interrupted the zine's dark humor, visually as well as psychically. You may be dying. Fuck. Buy yourself a box of Bisquick and make this berry dessert. Alongside the recipes, “Get Fat, Don’t Die!” covered avoiding possible parasites in sushi, eating when you had nausea, shopping on food stamps, and compensating for the taste perversions caused by drugs like AZT. (“Some liken it to a metallic taste, sort of like having a bloody nose all the time,” Wulf wrote.) DPN may have been the first AIDS-related publication to instruct readers on making pot butter to bake into brownies to combat nausea and lack of appetite. The medical marijuana movement took off in San Francisco in the early 1990s, when Brownie Mary delivered edibles to AIDS wards and activists set up smoking lounges for the chronically ill.   In my favorite column, Michael and Wulf, who had “AZT butt” themselves, tasted every chocolate dietary-supplement shake doctors were pushing people with wasting to drink. Every one of them was chalky and tasteless, they concluded, and ran a recipe for mole poblano alongside.  These were the issues I must have encountered in Minnesota, and I remember flipping through them with a mix of awe and shame. Was it worry that someone might see me reading an AIDS zine and think I was HIV-positive? The sense that I had stepped into a room that wasn’t built for me? The constant guilt I felt, as a healthy 20-year-old, as if I was skipping across my elders’ graveyard? All of those, most likely.  Now that I am decades older than Wulf was then, the gall of the magazine—to mock death, and shame, and governmental neglect, and all the squeamish attempts at empathy AIDS occasioned —strikes me as a form of redemption. And to snicker at Wulf’s jokes, each laugh tinged with the grief and horror I thought long buried, feels like the best way to honor him. ***  As neuropathy—probably from the fistfuls of AZT—made walking harder and cytomegalovirus retinitis ate away his field of vision, Wulf secured disability leave from his day job in the mid-1990s and retreated to a house he shared with Arion. DPN remained one of his main pursuits, along with gardening and fighting with his insurance company, but it took longer and longer to put out a new issue. Six months. A year. Two. Michael Botkin, the Sleazy Editor, died in 1996. Tom Ace, Humpy Editor, left the Bay Area for the California desert. Protease inhibitors appeared, but Wulf’s body was too worn out by then to benefit from them. When Wulf died in 1999, at the age of thirty-four, he had readied the eleventh and last issue of Diseased Pariah News, complete with a years-old obituary for Michael (“He had looked like death warmed over for so long, we never thought he’d really die!”) and a parody ad for AZT Lite. Tom Ace and Wulf’s friends added a tribute to Wulf and sent it out, secretly sprinkling Michael’s ashes into a few copies.  They played around with the idea of turning Wulf into a snow globe, but they couldn’t figure out how to make cremains float in a viscous mix of Astroglide lube and water, and they didn’t want to offend his mother, who had come up from Southern California to tend him in his last few weeks. At the “celebration of his extinction,” she surprised them by wrapping the box of her son in shiny gold paper. “I think he might appreciate it,” she said.
Where Are You From?

Race-based data has been collected in North America as far back as 1790. But what happens if you don’t fit the categories society is trying to nudge you into?

When I was a kid, I took a lot of Scantron exams, the ones with the empty ovals that you fill in with a pencil. They were a common feature of my public-school education, as they are for millions of students all over the world. I grew to dread them, but not for the usual reasons, like the long rows of desks lined up in the gym, the ticking clocks or even the performance anxiety. The exam booklets always had a section devoted to the harvest of personal and statistical information where I’d find this question: What is your racial background? Always the same one, or versions of it, followed by a list of acceptably compartmentalized ethnic groups: white, black, Asian, etc. I couldn’t reply accurately because only one response was allowed, and I didn’t have just one answer. I looked around at my mostly white classmates and felt confused, but there was no box for that. So, I usually just checked “Other,” which at the time felt about right. I’ve continued to furnish similar answers on adult applications and forms of every kind, including the Canadian census, which I last completed in 2016, as I’m required to do by law. My answers were dispersed into a galaxy of population statistics, which are gathered in accordance with the Employment Equity Act “to support programs that promote equal opportunity for everyone to share in the social, cultural and economic life of Canada.” The census asked, “Is this person:” followed by a selection of appropriate replies: White South Asian (e.g., East Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, etc.) Chinese Black Filipino Latin American Arab Southeast Asian (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian, Thai, etc.) West Asian (e.g., Iranian, Afghan, etc.) Korean Japanese Other — specify The question seems to want to skirt trouble. It avoids explicit mention of “race” or “visible minority.” Ethnicity is hard to measure and even define, a fuzziness that Statistics Canada acknowledged with a query about the “ethnic or cultural origins” of one’s ancestors, followed by a lengthy list of suggestions: “Canadian, English, Chinese, French, East Indian, Italian, German, Scottish, Cree, Mi'kmaq, Salish, Métis, Inuit, Filipino, Irish, Dutch, Ukrainian, Polish, Portuguese, Vietnamese, Korean, Jamaican, Greek, Iranian, Lebanese, Mexican, Somali, Colombian, etc.” The word immigrant appears, but separately and higher up on the form. Indigenous peoples must answer a different fraught question: “Is this person a Status Indian (Registered or Treaty Indian as defined by the Indian Act of Canada)?” Indigeneity is addressed in four different ways. The most recent U.S. census posed similar questions in illuminatingly different ways. In America, the race question is explicit, although the responses vary: -White -Black, African Am., or Negro -American Indian or Alaska Native -Asian Indian -Chinese -Filipino -Other Asian -Japanese -Korean -Vietnamese -Native Hawaiian -Guamanian or Chamorro -Samoan -Other Pacific Islander The use of the word “Negro” was controversial, but the Census Bureau argued that older African Americans still used the term. (It was announced in 2013 that it will be removed on future forms.) On both the Canadian and American forms it’s now possible to claim more than one identity, though this open-endedness brings new kinds of confusion. In the 2010 U.S. census, about three per cent of respondents said they belonged to two or more racial categories. As many as 6.2 per cent said they belonged to “some other race,” but those numbers skew depending on how race is defined. Hispanic or Latin American identities are not enumerated here. That’s a separate ask, even though, according to a Pew Research Centre survey, two-thirds of Hispanics say their ethnicity is, in part, their race. There is no entry at all for individuals of Middle Eastern or North African descent—according to the Census Bureau, they are white even if they don’t identify that way. The next Canadian census rolls out in 2021. StatsCan has revised the race question many times, and it’s now “compatible” with a United Nations report recommending subjective expressions of ethnocultural identity encompassing language and religion (as well as multiple entries). But demographics aside, what does it mean to declare one’s race and ethnicity? Why are we asked this most personal of questions? What is the ancestral material from which I’ve been biologically fabricated? And who wants to know? Even the project itself implies a conceptual order in which ethnicities are most usefully perceived as unblended, consolidated or pure. *** My father is brown. His eyes are so dark you can’t tell the pupils from the irises. His hair was also black, but now it’s white—at least it is when he forgets to colour it. He was born in the Punjab, and his family is Sikh, although he isn’t what I’d call religious. And neither am I, which pleases him immensely, especially since my mother has become more churchgoing with time. In this way, if not elsewhere, I’m a fulfilment of his design. Even back in the ’70s when I was born, he knew that the rigidly faithful, and the unassimilated, pay an extra toll for taking up space in the western world. That’s why my first name, which he chose expressly, isn’t Harpreet or Jatinder but that of a dead British queen. My father no longer wears a turban or a ceremonial dagger. My cousins call him, with a certain affectionate irony, “Silk Singh.” I live in a small Canadian town where a common men’s uniform is Carhartts, a logger’s sweater, and a ball cap with sunglasses perched on the brim. The last time my father came to visit me, he got off the plane wearing a pink shirt and a cream-coloured suit with a magenta pocket square, looking like Tom Wolfe at his most sartorially florid. My father is a New World man. He lives in Texas and is proud to be an American citizen. Not a landed immigrant, not a legal alien—an American. My mother is white. She’s English, or at least that’s where she was born and raised. Like my father, she’ll never go back to where she came from, even if she’s never received this as a directive. She’s North American now. She’s also Catholic. She has grey eyes, grey hair and is one of the most fair-skinned people I know. She’s also one of the most colour blind. Raising me, she never really mentioned skin colour—hers, ours or my dad’s—nor concerned herself with my appearance beyond presentability and basic cleanliness, which I consider a gift even today, despite the existence of dozens of childhood photos featuring me in plaid pants with floral shirts, or many other visually painful ensembles that I chose for myself. She comes from a tall family. On her side, I’m one of the shortest at 5’10”. I also inherited her long, thin face. One thing I didn’t inherit is her skin. She’s very fair, with a fine-pored complexion. I have never once seen her with a pimple or a blemish, whereas my skin is shiny, irritable, in frequent need of depilation. When women say they regret over-tweezing their brows, I have no idea what they mean. My hair is Indian—for each one I pull or thread or wax, another two fight their way back to the surface. In the middle of winter, my face is beige with an olive undertone, and in summer it deepens to tawny brown, even beneath SPF 50. Nothing can stop it from tanning, as if it’s been yearning all winter beneath sweaters and scarves for the sun. I have freckles and moles that neither of my parents have. But when I was a child, I didn’t realize I wasn’t the same colour as my mother until I started playing with her makeup. In her bathroom, she kept bottles and pans labeled ivory, porcelain, and buff, but when I applied her liquids and powders, they gave me the look of an ashen corpse. Even now, when we go places together people occasionally ask if I am her “friend,” which tells me what they’re thinking even if they don’t say it aloud: we couldn’t possibly be related. My parents met in London when they were both in medical school. I often wonder about the kismet that brought them together, why a bearded, turban-wearing foreigner with a thick Indo-Kenyan accent found the daughter of an English bank clerk so appealing, and vice versa. Maybe attraction is an involuntary impulse, our genes exerting themselves upon us, seeking hybridity, even if it’s the opposite of what our parents say we should want, which often enough is to stick to our own kind. Or maybe it was the ’60s—in many ways, a rebellious time. By my parents’ reports, London was a groovy place back then. But a stubborn conservatism lurked beneath all the progress. The culture was barely prepared for its first waves of reverse colonization let alone to claim chicken tikka masala as a national dish. It was definitely not ready to accept a white woman married to a very brown man from a country whose independence had been granted just a dozen years before. But my mother never worried about what people thought. She became an anaesthesiologist when it was conceptually freaky, even transgressive, for a woman to do so. She married my father when interracial relationships were uncommon.  But I think she got a crash course in intolerance in those early days. When she walked with my dad in the streets, she’d get elbowed in the chest and shoved off the sidewalk. She learned there’s a special variety of prejudice reserved for an Indian cocky enough to marry an Englishwoman. And for a white woman who steps out of line. When my mother announced she was marrying a Sikh man, the shock of it just about made her parents’ hair fall out. But my grandfather had spent years in the Merchant Navy, much of it with Indian crew, albeit as their superior. If he disapproved of the union, it didn’t last forever. He wasn’t about to sacrifice his relationship with this daughter by clinging to the idea of the proper English bloke she should have married. But I’ll bet my grandmother had a hell of a time with it. I remember her as an unaffectionate woman with a helmet of butterscotch curls and the comportment of a duchess gone down to the gutter. Not a whiff of grandmotherly love exists in my memory of her. Out in the world, my mother received plenty of unsolicited advice. Think of the children, people said. Mixed-race offspring, they told my mother, would suffer nothing but disadvantage due to the reckless nuptial choices of their parents. Of course, when my twin brother and I were born, there was nothing wrong with us. We were healthy, rotund infants with dark hair and brown eyes. We looked nothing like our mother. She’d get stopped on the street by strangers as she pushed us around in a stroller. “How good of you,” they’d say, “to adopt those little brown babies.” *** The word melanin is derived from the Greek melas, meaning dark or black. Melanin is an ancient polymer, a group of practical molecules that appears in mammalian hair and fur, bird feathers, insects, fungi, and squid ink, to name just a few of its applications. In humans, melanin presents in three forms. Pheomelanin gives red hair its distinctive hue. Neuromelanin is found in the brain. Eumelanin, the most common type, is found in skin, hair and the iris of the eye. This is the visible kind that gives humanity its broad palette of flesh tones, but also a ton of inequity. Melanin is a super-efficient sunscreen. In the body it absorbs damaging ultraviolet rays, dissipating their energy by ninety-nine per cent. People with moderately pigmented skin have a natural SPF of 2.5, and those with dark skin have an SPF of 10-15. Melanin doesn’t just block UVR—a chemical transformation occurs as melanin absorbs photons. It scavenges the free radicals created when UV radiation interacts with lipids in the skin—the biochemical reactions that cause DNA damage and ultimately skin cancer. Melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. Everyone has them no matter their shade, including individuals with albinism, a genetic condition that causes reduced pigment production or none at all. Melanocytes are distributed all over the skin with generally greater concentrations on the face and limbs, fewer on the torso, and most in the groin area. Children have fewer active melanocytes but they develop more after the onset of puberty. This makes sense, since melanin protects folate, a nutrient critical to reproduction in both males and females. When you go out in the sun, your melanocytes are activated, and if you possess a reasonable number of specialized organelles—melanosomes—you tan. This self-adjusting photoprotection, your “facultative” hue, might change with the seasons, but we’re all born with a genetically “constitutive” skin tone—it’s the shade on the inside of your bicep. Both categories make up the huge spectrum of skin tones in the world, and together they tell an old story—perhaps the oldest one there is—about our travels as a species on Earth. Many competing beliefs exist about how we began on the planet, but scientifically accepted hypotheses agree that the birthplace of humanity was Africa. First migrations off the continent into Eurasia occurred as early as 210,000 years ago. No one knows exactly the pattern and timing of later dispersals. Humans reached Australia by 65,000 years ago and established in Europe less than 55,000 years ago. As Homo sapiens migrated north, they acclimatized to life at higher latitudes—new food sources, colder winters, a weaker sun. Evidence suggests that early humans had sweat glands for efficient cooling, long limbs for distance walking and running, and darkly pigmented skin adapted to high levels of UVR. But as much as cells need protection from solar radiation, they also needed Vitamin D, which, like melanin, is synthesized in the skin during sun exposure. Vitamin D is a hormone, essential for calcium and phosphorus metabolism as well as bone formation. It’s vital to our cardiovascular, immune and endocrine systems, and it plays a critical role during pregnancy and lactation. Rickets, a once-widespread disease, caused soft, malformed bones in people with poor diets or little sun exposure until the Vitamin D link was discovered in the early 1900s. Today, higher levels of Vitamin D are thought to prevent conditions such as cancer, autoimmune disease and diabetes. One of the genes responsible for human skin pigment can be traced back to an ancient ancestor that swam in the seas over 400 million years ago. Before the diaspora out of Africa, Homo sapiens possessed a “G” allele of this gene, expressed as dark skin, which provided protection from the harsh equatorial rays of the sun. As people began migrating out of Africa, the tiniest mutation occurred. The “A” allele, as the mutation is known, produced lighter skin with less melanin, an advantage in low-UV environments, allowing the body to produce more Vitamin D with less light. Through natural selection, the “A” allele proliferated. Colour in northern populations gradually faded through a process called “depigmentation.” This understanding of human skin tone is complicated by the recent discovery of the "golden gene" in some contemporary African populations as well, an influence of millennia of migratory flows and counterflows. It’s not known precisely how long it takes for constitutive skin tone to equalize with the environment. Emerging genomic evidence suggests depigmentation is a fairly recent adaptation that occurred less than 10,000 years ago. This mutation produces light, European skin today, and its discovery reinforces a notion that for several centuries was considered blasphemous, insurrectionary or scientifically impossible. It’s an idea that’s still unthinkable, even today, for believers in white supremacy: human skin was originally brown, and whiteness is just a variation on that theme. *** My paternal grandfather left his village in the Punjab for Kenya when he was just a teenager. He returned to the homeland as a young man, married my grandmother, and when my father was born in the 1930s, they went back to Africa. Ever since then my family has been on the move. My father was born in India but grew up in Nairobi, and when he came of age, my grandfather sent him to medical school in London with the idea that he would return to Kenya, credentialed and possibly ready to make good on the customary Sikh marriage arrangement. Instead, my dad met my mother. He went back to Kenya a couple of times, but he knew his future lay elsewhere. He never returned to the Punjab, either. In fact, I have spent more time in India than he has, despite the fact that he was born there, and for a long time carried an Indian passport. If India had never been a British colony, I doubt my grandfather would have left his natal village. If Kenya wasn’t also a colony in need of subordinate staffing, my grandfather might not have sailed there in a dhow. And if England wasn’t considered the educational apex of the empire, I doubt my father would have gone there at all. But to be honest, I don’t know why my grandfather decided to pack up and ship out in the first place. I never got the chance to ask. My father chose a white bride, which is key to the shape of his life, my mother’s, and our entire branch of the family tree. He was the first-born son. Traditionally, a prodigal Indian man returns to his father’s house on the understanding he will marry and continue to live with his parents, plowing whatever investment has been made in his education back into the household. To escape, to buck convention, to follow one’s individualized dreams is perfectly reasonable in the West, even recommended. But in Indian culture it’s a bit like embezzling your parents’ retirement savings to buy a red Mercedes convertible, which by the way is the car my father still drives, pretty unstoppably, at the age of 83. My father and my grandfather didn’t speak for decades, not until my grandfather was very frail and, as it turned out, on his deathbed. In the intervening years, I never met either of my paternal grandparents. That’s the point where the family cracked, broke off from the past and began its drift across the ocean. *** A “colour” question first appeared on the Canadian census in 1901, and respondents had these choices: W (White, Caucasian), R (Red, Native), B (Black, African), Y (Yellow, Asian). The U.S. Census Bureau has collected similar data as far back as 1790. But the race classification project is even older than that. History is full of cross-cultural encounters, some peaceable, some violent, stories of travellers stumbling upon foreign strangers who look dark, different or other. The most notorious of these involved Christopher Columbus who, upon arrival in the Americas, was convinced he’d struck upon “the Indies”—then, the European conflation of China, Japan and India—an event with devastating after-effects, including the colonial reduction of Indigenous populations by as much as ninety per cent due to genocide and European disease, followed by centuries of oppression. More subtly, this collision of the Old World and New dented a pre-existing and arguably benign hypothesis about skin pigment. Ancient Egyptians had no language to classify themselves by colour that we know of. The Greeks and Romans were well acquainted with human diversity, given their empire-building skills, yet they tended to measure difference according to sociocultural factors, such as citizenship, politics and geographic provenance. They explained the vast range of human phenotypes, from northern freckles to deep Moorish skin, by pointing to climate and weather. Ptolemy, for instance, associated the dark skin and tightly curled hair of sub-Saharan Africans to the intense sun and heat of the “torrid zone,” as it was called by Aristotle and other scholars of his time. By the time Columbus made his third voyage, first to Trinidad then on to South America, the prior wisdom was beginning to fall apart. In the Caribbean, Columbus encountered people with comparatively light skin relative to the residents of Sierra Leone, who lived at almost exactly the same latitude across the ocean. Brown people, it seemed, showed up all over the place with little adherence to the old heuristic. Early race theories continued to wobble with the rise of colonialism, and the European obsession with complexion intensified. Scientists and doctors poked and prodded the bodies of people of colour, performing dissections in the cases of the deceased, in search of definitive physiological differences between white and dark skin. They were motivated, to great degree, by a desire to reconcile science with the Bible. They wished to reinforce the Great Chain of Being as decreed by God, a hierarchy that granted man—especially white man—dominion over all of Creation. The Book of Genesis received special highlight, as did the story of Noah. In Genesis, Noah cursed one of his sons, damning the rest of his progeny to eternal servitude. The son was named Ham, and from him, it was argued, the black race had descended. Both ideas served as justification for the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement of African peoples. Racial science, or scientific racism as it is now called, was underwritten by a pernicious concept known as polygenism, the belief that humans are descended from separate biological lineages. Proponents included Voltaire, David Hume and Thomas Jefferson. Many believed whiteness was the primary condition of humanity as descended from Adam, and that Black or dark races descended independently from primates—a prescient irony considering later developments in evolutionary theory. The inquiry into race variation gathered steam during the Enlightenment, with its endless predilection for measurement and hierarchical rankings. During this period, Carolus Linnaeus, father of binomial nomenclature (the system we still use to name the planet’s fauna and flora) reduced Homo sapiens to four colour-coded categories: Americanus, Europeanus, Asiaticus, and Africanus—red, white, yellow and black, respectively. Less than forty years later, Immanuel Kant also divided humanity into four classes: white, “Negro,” “Hun,” and “Hindu.” In 1775, physician and naturalist Johann Blumenbach wrote his own treatise on the matter, On the Natural Variety of Mankind, whose several editions made him what American historian Nell Irvin Painter called a “star” of the German Enlightenment. Blumenbach’s human classification system allowed five colour groupings: “Yellow” for East Asia, “Copper” for Indigenous Americans, “Tawny” for “Malay,” a category that included South Pacific islanders and Aboriginal Australians, and “Black,” for those of sub-Saharan African descent. White appeared, as it often did, at the top: “The white colour holds the first place,” Blumenbach wrote, “such as is that of most European peoples.” As the Enlightenment gave way to the Romantic period, the race discussion took on a more subjective tone. Blumenbach and his peers wrote about “beautiful” and “ugly” races, with light-skinned people ascending the aesthetic ladder, and their duskier cousins drifting towards the bottom. Blumenbach defined his ideal: “I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighborhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men...” The modern meaning of the term Caucasian—literally natives of the Caucasus mountains, now generally understood to mean white people—was born. For all his study of the world’s people, Blumenbach travelled little. He relied on a “cloud of eye witnesses” to bolster his research, including the testimony of seventeenth century French explorer Jean Chardin, who praised Georgians, especially Georgian women, for their attractiveness. Blumenbach also admired the symmetry of Caucasian facial architecture, an impression he’d gathered firsthand. He collected roughly 250 human skulls over his lifetime, much of which was spent measuring foreheads, eye sockets, and nasal cavities in the hopes of cataloguing the design discrepancies between races. In retrospect, Blumenbach wrote with a blithe, xenophobic confidence, as did many of his predecessors and contemporaries, some of whom probably never met any of the people they so casually consigned to the bottom rungs of existence. To his credit, Blumenbach thought Homo sapiens was one species—against the prevailing intellectual winds—whose physical differences faded into one another without any distinguishable dividing lines. But he was also a man of his time. To Blumenbach, humanity in its “primeval” condition was white; all other skin tones had darkened and deepened away from this primary instantiation over time. To him, the Caucasian race was first. This idea meshed with a common belief that Noah’s ark had made landfall, after the receding of the Biblical floodwaters, in the Caucasus mountains. In this case, Caucasians were related to Noah, chosen by God to perpetuate the human race. Blumenbach couldn’t have known the historic reverberations of his discipline, racial anthropology, whose method presumed ethnic identity could be observed, classified and objectively appointed without any input at all from the subjects—an approach whose attendant horrors would push deep into the 20th century. Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection wouldn’t be published for close to a century after Blumenbach’s work first appeared. Darwin claimed no special immunity to the biases of his day. But as he observed, the racial classification project fell apart entirely in the margins, or rather the in-between. And according to Darwin, racial delineations (like skin tone) furnished no real survival advantage and therefore were not subject to natural selection. In other words, if there was a universal biological perk to being white, then the world would be full of white people, which by any rough estimate it is not. Like Blumenbach, Darwin was a proponent of monogenism. In The Descent of Man and Selection and Relation to Sex, Darwin argued that all Homo sapiens derive from a common primate ancestor, the idea from which modern evolutionary theory sprung. This idea that Homo sapiens is a unified species, grown from a single root of the tree of life, is still science’s best answer to the question: where are we from? But even today, if you don’t believe in evolution, it’s all just fake news. *** My father is an anglophile. He loves marmalade and English tea and table manners and the Queen’s grammar and generally most kinds of fusty British pomp except the royal family, whom he quietly dislikes. He sprinkles his sentences with “bloody well” and “bloody hell” when he’s grumpy. From time to time, he still defends Great Britain as the height of civilized achievement, which I sometimes think is a form of internalized prejudice. But he also hated the UK, especially what he considered the British talent for obsequious smackdowns. “Those bloody bastards,” he says even now. When he worked in England, his hospital colleagues would kill him with kindness and then laugh behind his back, or maybe stab him there if he got too ambitious. Or they’d flip the joke right out in the open, as I have experienced myself with embarrassing recency, when I was called “a colonial” to my face by a stranger at a family wedding—the English side—and no one in earshot, except my brother, even blinked. Soon after their marriage, my parents decided to leave the United Kingdom, which for them was only ever united in theory. When I was born my father was still wearing a turban, although he untied it and cut his hair not long after our immigration to Canada, when I was still a baby. Traditionally, Sikhs don’t cut their hair as a sign of respect for the way God made them. Back then, that was the price of entry to the promised land—your lifetime, measured out in inches of hair. For a long time, my mother kept my father’s shorn locks, though now they are divorced. Back then, Canada wasn’t exactly a brown man’s Valhalla, an observation made by the late author Bharati Mukherjee, who wrote a famously blistering essay titled “An Invisible Woman” in which she described the barrage of racial slurs and harassment she received upon moving to Toronto, including false accusations of shoplifting and demands she go “back to Africa.” By the time the essay was published in 1981, Mukherjee had already decamped to San Francisco. Fortyish years ago, my father was a newly arrived immigrant with a young family, and Toronto was no rainbow utopia for him either. My parents chose an all-white neighbourhood, not knowing any better, because it was close to work. Nobody invited them over for barbecues, and nobody wanted their kids to play with my brother and me. Canada was too cold for my dad, in more ways than one. And so, in the late ’70s we moved again to New York state, where the same options were available to immigrants—embrace your turmeric-stained, heavily accented brown side, or slide yourself into a softball jersey and a pair of Nikes and hope to get away with faking it. For my dad, who needed a job, and for his kids set loose in the land of milk and honey, there was really only one choice. Whiten up or die trying. *** But what are you? Where did your family come from before? I’m not offended by these questions, not really, since mostly they come from a place of curiosity. But the answer is personal, and so race, to me, has always been an uneasy topic. Sometimes the question comes out of nowhere, without any conversational warm-up. Sometimes people supply guesses without waiting for my reply: Indigenous, Spanish, Mexican, Middle Eastern, or sometimes they just compliment my tan. Is this not like asking someone how much money they make or how they vote? It’s not a secret, but could I get a handshake first? What does it mean to be brown? And where does this racial compartment cleave to whiteness? Sometimes I am told: “But I don’t think of you as a brown person,” which leads to fruit metaphors for the mismatch of skin tone and cultural fidelity: coconuts, bananas, etc. I don’t speak Punjabi. I have a lot of cousins, and some of them don’t speak Punjabi either. They don’t have sing-song accents or delightful head wobbles or any other mango-adjacent idiosyncrasies often attributed to Indians. But still I wonder in return: Why must it be up to you what I am? Who gets to decide if not the person wearing the skin?   When you are of mixed race, identity is often contextually decided, either contested or confirmed by others, as demonstrated in the case of Barack Obama, the world’s most famous biracial man. In 2010 Obama identified as African-American on his census form, though he had the choice to indicate more than one response. Just a year before, according to a Pew Research Center survey, the perception of Obama’s racial identity varied widely among Americans depending on their own ethnic affiliations. Most white respondents claimed the president was multiracial, whereas most African-American respondents said he was Black. Among Hispanics, sixty-one per cent said Obama was mixed. Halfsie, mixie, mongrel, mutt. If I’m among light-skinned people, I’m closer to white than brown. If I’m in India, I’m same-same but different—brown but westernized. With my family, I’m just my father’s daughter. It’s less about skin than blood. Still, it’s illuminating to be almost brown, or somewhat white, or just ambiguous enough that people let it all hang out; they feel completely free to be themselves. Whenever I hear someone begin a sentence with, “I’m not racist but…” I wish I could say I’m surprised. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone drop the words “towelhead” or “Paki,” or gripe about the curry smells, or bitch about the bhangra in the taxi, or express the open wish that immigrants just go back to their shithole countries, I’d be rich, which currently I am not. One of my racial affiliations is “South Asian,” a category that’s almost meaningless given it fits a billion-plus people of varying ethnicities who speak dozens of languages and practice many religions. Nevertheless, my diasporic group is often economically advantaged, with the benefits of family support and high post-secondary education rates, illustrated by the Class of 2023 at Harvard College, which is twenty-five per cent Asian American, the largest racialized group on campus. I might be half-brown but I’m also middle-class, straight, cis, a settler, an assimilated one at that. I’ve never been incarcerated. Never been put on a no-fly list. Never been the victim of a hate crime. Never been told to go back to where I came from—not to my face, not yet anyway. I’ve never been hungry, never been shot at or trafficked or stripped from my family or any of the innumerable onslaughts suffered by the people of the global south every day. So, when writers and activists of colour suggest white-passing people voluntarily step back from their spaces of discourse, I hear it. Yet I can’t help wondering what “colour” means, if anything at all, in a language of ethnicity we didn’t invent, that shrink-wraps billions of people together in their shared non-whiteness, whose crude simplicity can’t ever reflect their huge Venn diagram of overlapping underdog circumstances. It fails to address tensions within race groups including blood quantum and colourism, despite existing at the root of those conflicts. After centuries, it’s the painful, dusty language we’re somehow still stuck with—the legacy of some dead white men’s unscientific guesses about human diversity, whose mind-blowing biological complexity is still revealing itself, even now. “Colour” seems like brutish code for a much more nuanced conversation we might be having, that we might still have, about who we are and where we belong. *** Ethnicity is brilliantly messy. So is genomic diversity, which we all share regardless of skin tone, thanks to two million years of natural selection. Melanin is just the top coat, the long-lingering trace of a history that exceeds living memory, that survives long after the bonds of language, culture, kinship and religion have been stretched or maintained, broken or cast away. A more layered, ancient story lies beneath the skin. The simplified version is available to practically anyone willing slap down a credit card, spit into a test tube, and wait a few weeks for the secrets of their DNA to be revealed. My own ancestral stew is nineteen per cent British, twenty-two per cent French and German, plus a slice of “broadly European” DNA, as reported by 23andMe, one of several companies offering consumer genetic testing. The latter influences were a surprise to me, given my mother’s family has lived in the UK for as long as anyone can remember. According to my report, this might be due to various sacking and plundering forays by the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes into Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries. My dad’s DNA shows up monolithically as forty-eight per cent “Northern Indian & Pakistani,” even though his genes are possibly more heterogeneous than my mother’s considering the Punjab was invaded countless times throughout history by Aryans, Persians, Alexander the Great, Turks, Mughals, and Afghans. “Northern Indian & Pakistani” is actually an improvement on a test my brother took a few years ago that pegged him as forty-seven per cent “South Asian,” an even bigger ethnic repository that, according to my test provider, accounts for about a quarter of the world’s population yet is grossly underrepresented in genetic studies. Racial categorization has always been a dodgy business, especially when the search for genetic ethnicity beats a short path back to Blumenbach and his essentialist craniometry. According to some models, populations do shake out into “genetic clusters,” i.e. groups of people who share similarities in their DNA. Over time, clustering is believed to occur due to geographic isolation (because of obstacles like mountain ranges) and also cultural factors such as language or religion. In the last twenty years, researchers have crunched global datasets in order to isolate population types, but these results vary greatly depending on whose DNA is sampled, how many people and from where, not to mention the constraints placed upon algorithms by the researchers themselves. And as Darwin noticed, attempts to partition one human pod from the next are thwarted by the fact that we fade into one another, a phenomenon known to population geneticists as “clinal variation.” Homo sapiens have 99.9 per cent of their DNA in common, as affirmed by the American Anthropological Association’s position on race: “Evidence from the analysis of genetics (e.g., DNA) indicates that most physical variation, about 94 per cent, lies within so-called racial groups. Conventional geographic ‘racial’ groupings differ from one another only in about 6 per cent of their genes.” In other words, there’s more variation within race groups than there is difference between them. Even the concept of a “gene” is slippery. Genes express variation—diversity, to be simple about it. If we were all the same, theoretically speaking, genes wouldn’t even exist. I’m reminded of that optical illusion, the Troxler effect, the one with the blurry pink dots on a grey background. The harder I stare, the more inscrutable it all becomes. My two paternal grandparents produced eight offspring who, in turn, produced dozens of grandchildren—the family tree. And yet the genetic process that made me is also subject to an opposite and backward branching through time. I’m not simply slices of ancestral DNA. Each chromosomal pairing is a permutation, a roll of the dice. Genes are one thing but ethnicity is something else, an identity that’s partly about blood, but also home and place, a helix of cultural and personal forces that can’t really be clipped apart. It’s a story that belongs to me, but only partially. It belongs to others, too. 23andMe may not have revealed all the complexities of my provenance, but it’s nailed one thing with perfect, koan-like accuracy. According to their blog: “At the end of the day, identity is determined by many things…”
‘A Trace of That Darker History’: An Interview with Amina Cain

The author of Indelicacy on elitism, inspiration, and cleaning. 

Amina Cain is an artist alive in her senses. What she sees, reads, hears, and touches gently permeates her writing, implying its presence with the subtlety of a loved one’s perfume on the neckband of an old sweater. You know it’s there, but you can’t quite find it. Her first novel, Indelicacy (Strange Light), is a study of a woman, Vitória, who seems at times to be drawn through the world by her senses and the satisfaction they demand. Vitória, as she transitions from impoverished cleaner to mistress of a grand house, pursues art, and her art, with a solitary but insistent ambition. The conflict is as discreet as the novel’s tone: left alone with her writing, Cain suggests an instability beneath Vitória’s fantasy, a 21st century künstlerroman in miniature that questions the artist’s way while pushing forward on it. There is a precision to Cain’s first-person voice that invites possession, which in this new period of isolation and distance provides a momentary sense of escape (to those of us with that privilege). Re-reading Indelicacy, I find myself wandering around the house as if in a museum, picking things up and putting them down, reorganizing bookshelves, and—in deference to the various women who populate the novel—cleaning.  Earlier this year, Cain and I met in person to discuss Indelicacy, and the vast world that underpins its aberrantly delicate sentences. Naomi Skwarna: Indelicacy reads a bit like a meditation on what it takes to live as—or—like, an artist. Sometimes it feels like fantasy, and other times like you’re satirizing that fantasy a little bit. But I was really drawn to Vitória’s peace and solitude! Her access to museums and art and dance and music. Is it a fantasy, or is it a critical perspective on that fantasy? Amina Cain: I seem to have a tendency in my writing, and especially in Indelicacy, to go towards different things at the same time. Combining time periods and places, in a certain way. I see Indelicacy as taking place in a combination of Chicago, London, and then some imagined place. In order to write it, I had to go into this place of fantasy. The criticalness comes partly from Vitória, the narrator, in terms of how she criticizes others, men and women—often rich women. But then there’s the other layer of me, the writer, where I like to kind of… not, make fun of my characters? But sort of poke fun at them sometimes. I was thinking a lot about the flawed self while writing it, of getting towards her blind spots. It came from me being intensely in my imagination, but also intensely [desiring] a certain place, or some kind of nostalgia. Setting it atmospherically in the late 1800s, but it being more of a fantasy of that time. When you were writing Indelicacy, did you consciously steep yourself in different kinds of art? Dance and music and performance and art are all really important for me to experience in my own life. I think that’s how inspiration works, you know? I can’t help but be inspired by so much art and music. There’s a good chance that if I experience something and like it, it’s going to put me in a space where I want to write, too. My favorite books, but also artists or works that I connect to, can send me off into this place. I had a realization at a certain point that it’s because of those works and how much I feel towards them that I may be a writer in the first place. Like, if I had never experienced them maybe I wouldn’t write? I don’t know if that’s true!  Immersion in/intense perception of art certainly seems inseparable from Vitória’s journey as an artist. Thinking about your short story, “Delicately Feeling,” in Creature, as well—there’s this action that stems from being an audience member in both of them. In Indelicacy there are so many instances of Vitória watching performances, observing people, observing art, observing herself observing art. Are there any pieces of art or writing that feel important to this book, or to your writing in general?  When I lived in Chicago, there was a performance group called Goat Island. What they did was like dance—maybe more like strange movements—that to me had this really addictive quality. They would also use text from books, and music, and when I left their performances, I would always feel so excited. They were super formative for me! It’s been maybe fifteen years since I’ve seen them, but I can’t stop thinking about them. They really affected what I’m writing about now, in a way, or what I feel like I want to get close to in writing. Another artist is Bill Viola. I once saw a retrospective of his work at the Art Institute of Chicago. That too—I just walked around, looking at all these video installations and feeling like I loved experiencing it. But again, it sent me into this place of wanting to write.  I also have a friend, Laida Lertxundi, whose short films I really love, and Indelicacy is partly dedicated to her. She makes short films that are mostly set in the Southern California landscape. Her work is very different than what I do, but seeing them over the last few years and just being very excited by them…I love being the viewer and the one experiencing work, but it’s definitely a kind of thing where if I get too excited by something, I don’t know how to just take it in. I have to somehow respond. It’s not a direct response, but it’s like those works open up the space for me that I wouldn’t have access to otherwise. And then from that space, I want to write.  I’ve always found it kind of funny—getting that good energy from looking at the work of another and then not necessarily wanting to answer it, or react to it critically...it almost makes me want to leave? I’ll feel so excited by something that my instinct is to get out as quickly as I can to go and be private with the feeling. I know what you mean. I have that experience sometimes where I’ll be reading something that I really love and I won’t know whether to put it down and start writing or keep reading. Coming back to the sense of timelessness in Indelicacy. Maybe because the novel begins and so often comes back to the context of the museum, where all these different historical periods exist together and you kind of move through them from room to room, Indelicacy’s sense of period seemed like that to me. I kept feeling as if my knowledge of what rooms and clothing looked like changed from section to section in a way that was sort of chromatic. I like thinking about the museum as holding all these different time periods. That’s what your book feels like! Okay, on the subject of rooms: I wanted to ask you about the act of cleaning as practiced by the different women in Indelicacy. All of them have very different relationships to cleaning, and it also ties them to their homes and workspaces, all of them cleaning in different ways, with different cleaning styles. I was wondering what drew you to cleaning?  I definitely have a relationship to cleaning! [I also wrote about] cleaning and maids in Creature, and when it emerged in this novel, I thought, okay I’m not done with it. My grandmother cleaned hotel rooms in Daytona Beach when I was little—that’s what she did for work. So some of this comes out of my own relationship to class, my family being more working class. Some of the people in my extended family were super-wealthy and some were very poor, and so I thought about it a lot—the elitism within my own family. It’s so strange when one family represents different class groups. It’s a different kind of fragmentation.   I don’t carry that with me like I did when I was younger, when I was ready to argue with people I perceived as wealthy—not for no reason, but like, somehow if I had to defend myself. I spent a summer, about twelve years ago now, at the Sōtō Zen Buddhist monastery in Carmel Valley, California. I was there doing a work practice. The monastery opens itself up to visitors, and the rest of the year it’s just the monks and people practicing quietly. I was put on the cleaning crew, and a lot of the people who came there that summer I perceived to be wealthy, since it’s pretty expensive to stay there. So I was put on the cleaning crew, and I think somehow [I was] there because I had issues to work through, there. I spent the summer just intensely cleaning, every day. So many toilets. I think I was somehow working through class issues while cleaning. I periodically do a form of silent retreat where the only thing you’re allowed to do beyond meditating is to clean, and that’s your act of service. Before I started doing these retreats, I always associated cleaning with gender; being told by men in my life to clean, do laundry, dust—so I resented it. But then in a space that was all women, where activities are limited and silent, I found pleasure in cleaning and connecting with people through cleaning. Right, which changes it, when you’re doing it silently. Our work practice was also silent.  Yes. It can actually feel kind of graceful to mop with another person. So when I was reading this, I was really moved by the descriptions of cleaning, which seem so humble within the context of the book. The people who clean in Indelicacy are women, and I do think about the gender aspect of it too, but for me, I was thinking about class. Jean Genet’s The Maids also has a significant presence in the book. What’s your relationship to that play? I actually wrote an essay about The Maids that came out recently in The Paris Review. In a little bit of synchronicity—I don’t really know anyone in Toronto except for one person who I saw last night, an old friend I haven’t seen for many years. Once when she came to visit me in LA, I asked her to record passages from The Maids with me. It’s a play that’s stuck with me for some obvious reasons—maids and cleaning. It’s based loosely on the Papin sisters in France who murdered their employer in 1933. It explores class warfare in the domestic space, which I felt like I was doing a little bit in Indelicacy, but subtly and sort of quietly. I named my four female characters after characters in other books, and Solange comes from The Maids. I wasn’t rewriting any of those characters, but I wanted there to be some trace of each of them in the book in some way. Thinking about a trace of a character, a trace of a certain kind of a violence or oppression; a trace of that darker history. I liked the specter of feminine violence it brought to the novel. Indelicacy feels very much like it’s from the perspective of someone who has lived as a woman in the world—if there is such a thing. Have you had the experience of discussing the book with people who aren’t women, or don’t identify as women?   I don’t want to set up binaries in the way I talk or think about the feminine and the masculine, like men and women, but I do know that I’ve written a book that’s very grounded in a feminine way, or in female characters. I wasn’t thinking about that a lot when I was writing it, but it’s something I definitely think about now. And I’m not sure how to feel about it, because I don’t know that I want to be writing along those lines. Someone once asked me to write an essay about “female solitude,” and that’s when I started thinking about those binaries.  I don’t want to exclude people who are trans or between genders, so it’s become something that I think about. I didn’t want or need an essay about female solitude, because I don’t want to essentialize women and solitude from too much of a heteronormative perspective. None of Indelicacy’s characters have to be cisgender women. They are people who live as women, in roles that we identify as feminine. Much like you don’t define a clear time or place, the gender representation also feels shaped by art. These are roles that women can play, and it does feel quite theatrical. I also wonder how a man might feel reading it! This was the first time I ever wrote something where I thought, will men like this book? It seems like there have been some men who can relate to it, like they could still read it, but Vitória makes fun of men a lot, and the male characters are pretty flat. That’s an interesting thing because there are plenty of men I’m close to who aren’t flat! But what I wanted to write about has often been the relationships between women. I have some close male friends, but I’ve had some beautiful, close female friendships, and I think that’s been something I’ve wanted to write about. I feel like sometimes there’s an interest in the toxic female friendship, which I’ve never quite understood. I understand the complexity of friendship between women, or distance, or how things can be hard like any relationship.  But I was just interested exploring female friendship. Something that I keep coming back to is the moment where Vitória is describing having Antoinette, her co-cleaner at the museum, over to her house for tea. And when Antoinette does the dishes, that’s when Vitória starts to love her. It makes so much sense, the affection that comes when someone does something small that they didn’t have to do. It was so lovely and unusual to show how women fall in love with each other as friends.  I feel like I’ve been in love with many of my female friends. Me too! Those little details feel so tender to me.