Hazlitt Magazine

Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

All Saints' Mountain

I asked about the children we were to study: who were they, why were they to undergo the test, what was the purpose of our program? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business.

'It's the Anti-Meet-Cute': An Interview with Ian Williams

The author of Reproduction on “grammatical cathedrals,” moods that linger, and how fiction talks.

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Walk the Line

On the ground during the historic LA teachers’ strike.

There comes this moment when you’re standing in the piss-pouring rain, huddled under the four inches of overhang you can fit beneath without your feet edging onto school property, when you feel yourself failing. The morning light is gray and asthmatic through the thick rain clouds. The spokes on your drug-store umbrella have bent. Your jeans are wet and clinging to the long johns underneath. Your sneakers are soaked through for the fourth day in a row, because you live in Los Angeles and have never owned a pair of rain boots. You’ve been up since 5:30 a.m., marching and chanting and trying to rally everyone. But this morning, your heart’s not in it. That’s when one of your co-workers turns to you, face peeking out from her parka, and says, “We need a pep talk.” All the other heads nod. And you see that it’s not just you who’s struggling this morning—everyone is tired, aching, beaten-down. As union chapter chair of your school, it’s your job to pep them up, remind them why they’re out here, say something that will reinvigorate and inspire them. But when you open your mouth, nothing comes out. It’s then, on the fourth day of the LA teacher strike that’s being billed as historic, monumental, game-changing, that you feel wholly inadequate for the task at hand. * It started eight months ago. Really, it started 41 years ago, before you were born—when California passed Proposition 13 and slowly started to bleed its public schools of funding, stripping support staff like nurses, counselors, librarians; slashing arts and enrichment programs; and raising class sizes to some of the largest in the country. But for you, it started in May. Your union, United Teachers Los Angeles, had been in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified School District for a year. Your school didn’t have a union representative, so you heard about the UTLA rally through an email blast. You grew up in a union family, your mom a teacher, your dad a firefighter. Stopping downtown for an hour after school seemed the least you could do. When you arrived at Grand Park, a sea of red-clad teachers swarmed in the shadow of City Hall. They were holding hand-made signs, chanting, playing drums, dancing. A palpable energy radiated off the crowd of 12,000. It was strength and unity, yes, but also a collective power bigger than the sum of its parts. I wanted in. * After the presidential election, I was despondent. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what or how. I kept hearing that people had to find their place, their cause, their group—and act. So I tried. I went to local political and community organization meetings that ran the gamut, but nothing quiet jibed. When I became my school’s chapter chair and attended the UTLA leadership conference that July, I felt like I’d finally found my tribe. People of all stripes filled the conference rooms, a rarity in a city as diverse but deeply segregated as Los Angeles (and a quality distinct to LAUSD, where teaching staff more closely resemble their students than most cities). You had old Brown Berets sitting next to wide-eyed 20-somethings fresh out of their credentialing program. You had white ladies translating the Spanish-language presentations to dudes with dreads in “Danger: Educated Black Man” shirts. The diversity wasn’t labored or self-congratulatory; it was fluid, unpretentious and united by the stone-hard conviction that our public schools were worth fighting for. This unity of vision didn’t mean we always agreed, or that subsequent meetings were always enjoyable. When the school year began, I attended area meetings in the cold cafeteria of Roosevelt High School and the reality of union work sank in. People argued, hogged the mic, asked endless rounds of repetitive questions. After a full day of teaching, the meetings could feel downright tedious. Sometimes I’d zone out while I nibbled on Costco pizza and counted the minutes until I could go home. Through the course of these meetings, I learned the context for the current negotiations. The fight was about more than a raise, more than even class sizes and support staff and over-testing and charter co-location. It was about saving the soul of public education. Perhaps that sounds grandiose, but the stakes were that high. Our pro-charter school board had appointed as our new superintendent Austin Beutner, an investment banker with no prior education experience (think DeVos 2.0) who ran with a pro-privatization LA billionaire crew, fronted by Eli Broad. Beutner had brought on as his chief of staff Rebecca Kockler, the woman responsible for dismantling public schools in New Orleans—a city where, as of this school year, there are no remaining public schools. (Kockler has since resigned.) Beutner was toying with restructuring LAUSD using the portfolio model that has decimated other public schools districts. In short, Beutner wanted to break LAUSD and break the union. The plan was ambitious, UTLA leadership told us, but not impossible. School districts in smaller cities—Newark, Detroit, New Orleans—had been driven to near extinction by the same contingent of pro-charter reformers. Now they wanted to try their hand in the nation’s second-largest school district. We couldn’t just be on the defensive, UTLA officers told us. We had to have a plan that was as equally ambitious and visionary. You want to get a room full of teachers fired up? Ask them to imagine schools with full-time nurses and librarians; where counselors and psychologist social workers have time to actually meet with students; where teachers don’t have to waste days of instruction showing movies while they administer one-on-one standardized tests in the back of the classroom; where instead of random stop-and-frisk searches, restorative justice practices guide school discipline. Ask them to imagine fully funded schools where teachers can actually meet their students’ needs. A strange feeling rises when asked to imagine something so far from reality. As teachers, we spend so much time in the trenches that we sometimes forget just how bad things are. Class sizes of forty start to seem normal. Taking home six hours of grading over the weekend does too. There aren’t funds to build a classroom library, so we spend hours creating a DonorsChoose project. We stock our own supplies of granola bars for the kids we know are always hungry. A student starts coming to class high and stops engaging with the work. We try home calls and one-on-ones and restorative conversations, but the student needs more than that. We can hear the cry for help, but there’s no help to be given. When one stops and really thinks about it all, the feeling that comes isn’t one of sadness or hopelessness or even rage. It’s the feeling that comes after that, the feeling of we’ve had enough. Some folks might just throw up their hands and go home, or else change careers. And a lot of teachers do that. The ones who stay, though, are a special breed, possessed of a mix of dedication and grit. You can say a lot of thing about schoolteachers—we’re unpolished, unsophisticated, exhausted—but one thing you can’t do is mess with us. If the system doesn’t break us—if the years of crushing workloads and the heart-breaking inability to meet our students’ needs don’t turn us cynical and hard—nothing will. Certainly not the threat of weeks of no pay. Certainly not hand-wringing over inflated budget deficits. Certainly not an investment banker and his billionaire cronies. Certainly not, it would turn out, the biggest rainstorm of the season. In every area meeting, there’d be at least one moment when that feeling of fight was palpable. Some salty old teacher would go on a tirade about students sitting on stools in classrooms crammed past capacity, and people would nod and mmm-hmm. “Strike,” someone would start chanting. “Strike, strike.” People would stand, pound tables, clap their hands, stomp their feet. “Strike, strike, strike.” The room would be electric. Our voices would vibrate off the walls. We’d sound bigger than a room of educators, bigger than all the bullshit and billionaires. We’d sound like a force, like thunder. This superintendent doesn’t know who he’s messing with, I’d think. * The lead-up to the strike lasted months. There were lunch meetings, after-school meetings, student meetings, before-school leafleting, strike authorization voting, phone banking, email writing, question fielding, planning and organizing and logisticizing. All of this was unpaid, in addition to a regular workday. It was good work, important work, but it was definitely work. Just as I had come to learn that most of teaching isn’t revelatory moments of enlightenment but rather the mundanity of unjamming copy machines and confiscating cell phones, I came to realize that a lot of striking isn’t rallying hearts and souls, but staple-gunning signs to picket sticks, and trying to secure a reliable restroom. In a lot of ways, I’m a strange choice for a chapter chair, but no one else at my school wanted to step up. Located in East LA, we’re a small pilot school, an LAUSD model in which schools receive additional funding and autonomy in exchange for added work hours and responsibilities for teachers. The additional work meant folks were already stretched past capacity; no one was jumping at the chance to go to more afterschool meetings. So we were stuck with me. I’m good at the parts of union work that involve organization. I can write one hell of a bulleted and sub-head-ed email, but I’m not a rile-you-up kind of person. I feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. I don’t possess natural leadership abilities, like anticipating people’s needs and giving inspirational speeches. I’m the same way in the classroom: I can write a good curriculum and blaze through a stack of essays, but I’m not the teacher you go talk about your problems with. As in teaching as in union work as in life, it’s the people part I struggle with. As far as being a chapter chair, I was lucky—my school’s administration was supportive, and all the teachers and counselors were committed to striking. Because we receive extra funding, our school already has the resources other LAUSD schools lack, resources that were key demands of the contract—a full-time nurse and librarian, English Language Arts class sizes as low as 24, and two full-time counselors and a psychologist social worker for a student body of 400. (In contrast, 80 percent of LAUSD schools lack a full-time nurse; class sizes are as large as 48 on some secondary campuses; and the counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 945.) Because our school has those extra resources, our teachers understand first-hand their importance. “We’re fighting so that all LAUSD students can have what you guys have here,” I told students in our pre-strike lunch meetings. The school year crept on, the strike looming like a rainstorm on the horizon. The backseat of my car overflowed with flyers and signs as the district pulled one tricky maneuver after another, stalling the Fact Finding process and filing last-minute court injunctions. “They’re trying to break our momentum,” UTLA leadership told us. At times, it seemed like it was working. “Can we just get this over with?” my co-workers would ask. We had to follow every step of the bargaining process in order for the strike to be legal, but we were all frustrated. Originally scheduled for early October, the strike was pushed back to January 10, then at the last minute, January 14. That rainstorm on the horizon—it was finally here. Figuratively and literally. * The night before the first strike day, I slept four hours. I kept waking up from nightmares in which no one showed up, or I lost all our supplies, or my phone died. My stomach crunched and my mind raced as I drove to school in the pre-dawn dark, rain coming down in sheets. Amidst all the preparation, I’d forgotten that I was actually in charge of the picket line. I wasn’t just taking notes and sending emails anymore. Puddles pooled on sidewalks and gutters overflowed as my co-workers started arriving. I ran through my checklist: take attendance, distribute signs, make sure all the gates and entrances were covered. I kept trying to text the chapter chairs from the other schools on our shared campus, but no one was replying. We must have been a sorry sight, marching in a slow circle in the pouring rain. We should start chanting, I knew, but I was too awkward and stressed to get a word out. The first few cars honked as the passed, almost pityingly. Finally F raised his voice: “When our schools are under attack, what do we do?” And we answered, “Stand up, fight back!” He kept us chanting, even as our signs soaked through and turned to mush in our hands. Students and teaching assistants (who aren’t part of our union) joined us. The more rain came down, the more cars honked, a little blast of validation each time. We cheered, jumped, raised our fists. After morning picketing, we headed downtown for the first-day march, where teachers from across the 700-square-mile district gathered in front of City Hall. A sea of red umbrellas and ponchos filled the four-block length of the park—red for UTLA, but also #RedForEd, the official color of educator resistance since the wave of wildcat strikes in 2018. The color was a symbol—we were now part of that bigger fight. I’d never seen so many Angelenos in the rain. “We don’t do this here,” I kept saying, wondering if people in other parts of the country would grasp the significance. Teachers beat drums, banged tambourines, blew whistles and horns. Helicopters pulsed in the air above us; news vans surrounded us. We were on the national stage, and we knew it. In every pocket of people, a chant bellowed. A voice would start: Everywhere we go, people want to know. And other voices would answer, Who we are, so we tell them. Every face you saw looked familiar, even if you didn’t know the person. We are the teachers, the mighty, mighty teachers. It was a face that was lit up with conviction and ready to fight. Fighting for justice, and for education. It was a face you knew, it was your face, and you were part of that fight. I had no sense of how large the crowd was. I just knew I felt like an ant in a huge swarming line. Umbrellas bumped and snagged as we moved painstakingly slow, so crowded we had to stop every couple of steps. “Wow, seeing the pictures on the news, impressive!” a friend texted. But all I could see were the shoulders in front of me. When we came to the Second Street tunnel, we put our umbrellas down for the first time that day. I craned my neck around, finally able to see the crowd. We were massive. We filled the tunnel side-to-side, and as far forward and back as I could see. Our voices boomed and echoed against the concrete walls. One person shouted into a megaphone, “UT,” and we all answered, “LA!” We chanted it again and again, the name of our union, but also something else, something bigger and more powerful. Our voices grew stronger with every chant. Suddenly I didn’t feel like an ant anymore. I didn’t even really feel like me. I felt like a part of a movement. When the rally ended, we had a couple hours to rest before afternoon picketing. I stopped at my apartment, changed my wet socks, put on a dry sweater. I laid on my bed and felt the pangs in my legs from walking, rested just enough to be able to return to school for another round picketing. By the end of the day, I’d walked ten miles. My shoes were soaked and my feet ached. My voice was hoarse from chanting. I was more tired than I could remember being. But I’d done it. We’d done it. We had held a picket line for a day. * No one warns you how a strike will take over your life. Seven a.m. picketing, mid-morning rallies, a short rest, then more picketing until 4 p.m. By the time you’re done, your body’s toast. Your brain is fried. Your voice is shot. It’s all you can do to crawl home, peel off your wet layers, and scroll through the union emails and texts that need replies. The scenes that remain from those first days are a blur of drudgery and exaltation: a fellow teacher blasting salsa from a massive speaker and barking into a microphone like a street hawker, “Viva la huelga! We are East LA! We are fighting for our schools, we are fighting for our community!”; doing the have-to-pee dance while waiting to use the Jack-In-The-Box bathroom; eating pan dulce that had gone soggy from the rain; line-dancing in the cross-walks during red lights, while the marching band played under a tarp, instruments wrapped in trash bags; the blast of horns from garbage trucks and public buses and delivery vans and sheriff patrols and damn near every sedan that passed; the thick deep sleep I’d fall into during my afternoon power naps; the throb in my lower back the day my period came; the tide of red flowing from the Little Tokyo metro stop and into the street like a blood trail, all the cars honking around us; the East Area rally turning into a block party where people danced under their umbrellas to “Jump Around” and “Killing In The Name Of” and every other song on the soundtrack of 1990s middle school dances. As chapter chair, I kept my head down and focused on what needed to get done. I organized donations and bought supplies. I sent texts and emails to keep people updated. I picked up supplies at 6 a.m. and delivered them to nearby campuses. The only thing keeping me together was the afternoon break, in which I could go home and dry off for an hour. Luckily, other folks stepped up. F stood in the rain with no umbrella and led chants until his voice went hoarse. Then M would take over. P danced in the crosswalks until all the cars honked. R showed up even though he’d had surgery the week before. On the picket line, you got to see a different side of your co-workers, who for most of the work day stay hidden behind their classroom doors. You got to see who rolled hard, who the ride-or-dies were, and you got to do it together. As the rain hammered on, the community rose up around us. A restaurant brought hot soup one morning. Local unions brought coffee and donuts. Parents brought tamales and papusas, and the teaching assistants who weren’t striking brought breakfast burritos. The neighbors carried over an outdoor heater. The raspados shop across the street gave us free coffee and let us use their bathroom. A neighborhood dude unloaded a truck-bed full of bottled water. Even our students brought us food, of the endearingly teenage variety: boxes of Jack-In-The-Box french fries. You always hear about how people love teachers, but when you actually see them show up and demonstrate that love, especially when you’re soaking wet and bone tired, it’s enough to make you cry. * At the end of every day, I’d lay my wet clothes on my furnace to dry, crawl into my bed, and scroll through the news coverage. Before the strike, even progressive outlets like the LA Times and KCRW focused their coverage on pay. Now their reporters were on the line, talking to teachers. Stories led with interviews and personal anecdotes from classrooms, followed by descriptions of lively picket lines and powerful rallies. Finally, news coverage focused on the reality of our teaching conditions, which were our students’ learning conditions, which is what we were fighting to improve. They said we were making history, but I was too close and too tired to have much perspective on the impact of what we were doing. I’d scroll through images of teachers in red ponchos and aerial shots of huge crowds, and hardly believe that I was a part of it all. It felt like being a dot in an impressionist painting.   “Do you think this is what it was like in the Civil Rights Movement?” someone asked while we were Lyfting back to campus. I wondered the same thing—whether the people making history ever know they’re making history, or if they’re just a bunch of tired, fist-raising bodies in a crowd, with a vague sense of society’s gears changing around them? Other people reflected back to me the enormity of what we were doing. Friends from all over the country messaged and texted. Teachers across the US posted solidarity photos. A public school from New York City “adopted” my school and donated funds for food and transportation. “We’re fighting similar forces out here,” they wrote. Restaurants all over LA were providing free or discounted meals to striking teachers, but I was too tired to take advantage of any of them. After a day on the picket line, I was too shot to do much of anything. All I could do was ladle out some soup, answer emails, and then turn off the light by 9 p.m. * When the alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. Thursday morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was black outside, and I could hear rain thundering down. But I couldn’t bail—I was in charge. I sighed, tugged on my still-damp layers and laced up my still-soggy sneakers. I didn’t bother to put on make-up or fix my bedhead—there was no point. It was the fourth day of the strike and the worst rain yet. All of our signs were beaten and wrinkled. No one chanted. No one marched. Hardly anyone spoke. We wanted to be back in our classrooms, warm and dry and with our kids—fist bumps at the door, learning objectives on the projector, Pair-Shares and Turn-and-Talks and stacks of Do Nows and Exit Slips piled in trays near the classroom entrance. “We’re tired,” G said. “We need a pep talk.” I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I was beaten too. “Some of us live too far to go home in the middle of the day,” S added. “We’ve been out here all week, without any place to rest up and get dry.” I looked at their wet, exhausted faces, and realized I’d been so wrapped up in organizing the logistics of the picket line that I’d forgotten about the most important part: the people. I’d been going home every day to nap, and it was the only thing keeping me together. How could I have overlooked the fact that not everyone had that? I hadn’t felt so inadequate since my first year teaching, another high-stakes, high-emotion situation when you struggle to keep your head above water. You do your best, but you feel yourself screwing up all the time, and feel the weight of all the people you’re letting down in the process. What could I do in that moment? Stutter a shit, sorry, and kick myself for my lack of care and thought. But the right words still wouldn’t come. They needed inspiration, and I couldn’t give it to them. Just then, a station wagon plastered in the logo for local radio station 97.9 La Raza pulled up, music blasting from inside. A mustachioed DJ in a windbreaker jumped out. “You guys hungry?” he asked, his arms outstretched. Before we could answer, he opened the hatchback. The entire back of the car was filled with taco fixings. “We support you! 97.9 La Raza supports you!” he exclaimed as we gathered around. The tacos were still warm and the bowls of guacamole plentiful. The DJ took pictures with us. It was the edible pep talk we needed. When the rain let up later that afternoon, I gathered all of us together. What did you say, you want to know. I wish I could tell you, but I was too tired and nervous to have any idea, let alone remember. I might have acknowledged how rough the day had been and how whipped we all were. I might have said that the district was waiting for this moment, to see if we’d break—if we’d roll hard for three days, then get tired and give up. Whether we’d give up on our kids. I like to think I said that this moment was when it counted, when we had to show the district, the community, the country and our kids that we really meant it. “We’ve come this far,” I like to think I said. “We’ve showed up every single day, like fucking soldiers, and we can’t stop now. Everyone is looking to us. We’ve become something bigger than a single school or strike, bigger than an ‘I’ and ‘you.’ We’ve truly become a ‘we,’ and I’ve never felt more a part of something important than right now, right here, with you guys.” Maybe I said that. But probably I stood there red-faced and mumbled something about sticking together and staying strong, then left us all to go home. * The next week, on the sixth day of the strike, we sat in a nearby park eating chile relleno burritos. We’d had so many donations from our adopted school and from individuals that our lunch was paid for. The rain had finally broken, and it was back to a typical 65-degree LA winter day. We were relieved but anxious. UTLA had just announced victory—a tentative agreement with the district. It seemed the fight was almost over. “Let’s wait until we see the agreement,” R said. So we did. We hunched over our phones while we ate, reading aloud the summary and trying to make sense of the 47-page document we were to vote on in a couple of hours. The summary sounded good. LAUSD had finally agreed to drop a contentious article in our contract that allowed for unequivocal raising of class sizes. Within two year’s time, every school would have a full-time nurse and librarian. The counselor to student ratio would be reduced to 1 to 500. “1 to 500?!” M asked. “That’s still too high.” “It’s the state average,” I answered. “The district probably wouldn’t offer better than that.” “We’re the biggest school district in the state,” M replied. “We should leading the way. I mean, what have we been striking for?” The more we dug through the contract, the more thorns appeared. Class size reductions in most content areas would occur at a rate of one student per year for three years, leaving most teachers with only slightly less painful class sizes. Meanwhile, Special Education and TK-third grade didn’t see any reductions. While we’d gained counselors, there was no additional funding for mental health services, such as psychologist social workers. “They’re the single most important thing in keeping students from dropping out,” F said. I looked around at people’s faces. They were disappointed. “We can do better than this,” some said. “This is crumbs,” others said. I tried to remind them who were dealing with—a pro-charter board and a billionaire superintendent who had been hired to decimate our school district. Previous contract offers included raises contingent on additional work hours and health care cuts to new employees, and no offers of our other demands. The fact that we’d gotten this much was huge. “This isn’t what we stood out in the rain for,” F said. The more we talked, the more I understood their perspective. We’d come out more unified and forceful than even the union predicted. We were a movement. UTLA had been stoking the flames of a smoldering fire, the burn for something better that existed in all of us. Now that it had been unleashed, people didn’t want to concede. They didn’t want to settle for the status quo. They wanted that vision of fully funded schools. Or at least class sizes below 30. “I’m voting no,” M said, her face set in stone. “It’s gonna look so bad if we vote it down,” I said. The agreement had already been announced to the media as a victory. Would parents stand behind us if we voted it down? Would teachers start crossing the line? If that happened, the district would likely come back with a worse offer. We felt like our hands were tied. We had to vote in four hours. I wrote down people’s questions as I headed to a last-minute meeting, but when I returned to campus to administer the vote, I only had an answer to one. People were pissed, and as the chapter chair, I was the one receiving the piss. “We’re being forced to vote on a document we’ve barely read,” F said. It felt like the tax reform bill. “This isn’t good enough,” M said as she filled in the bubble for “no.” I wished I could disagree. * The agreement did pass. UTLA announced it that night on Facebook Live. I watched the storm of angry-face reactions float up the screen and felt my heart sink. We’d been so united, and now we were breaking apart. I was relieved the agreement passed, but only because I thought the scenario of it not passing was worse. I wasn’t excited about the agreement, and in all my messaging that evening, I hadn’t talked to a single person who was. But I couldn’t dwell for too long. After all, I had to lesson plan. I had to be back in my classroom in less than twelve hours. * I wish I could say our staff rode back into school the next day in red shirts, on a wave of victory chants, high-fiving students in the hallways and basking in pride over what we’d achieved. As it was, we mostly kept our doors closed. We nodded at each other in the halls, greeted our students, said hello to the office staff. But the disappointment was thick. “What happens when the revolution fails you?” someone asked in a Facebook post. But had we been a revolution? We were a union in contract negotiations. We were going to have to compromise. We weren’t going to change public education in six days. But, watching the footage and reading the coverage, I began to zoom out of my individual perspective. In a single week, we’d shifted the narrative around education. We’d opened the public’s eyes to the real conditions of our schools. We’d taken the focus off teacher pay and onto school resources; we’d connected the issue to funding and taxes at the state level; we’d demonstrated the power of organized labor; we’d inspired teachers in other cities who were experiencing the same conditions. We’d stood in the rain, danced on the picket lines, and filled the streets. UTLA hadn’t done that. We had. The teachers had. Maybe we were something close to a revolution. I think the real victory of the LA teacher strike will be the shift it has inspired. Already, coverage of the Denver, Oakland and Virginia strikes is different. There’s less talk about “greedy teachers,” and more explicitly connecting school conditions to corporate tax breaks and charter growth. Even in Denver, where the main dispute is over pay, coverage is contextualized and includes teacher interviews. LA teachers created momentum for a broader movement to reinvestment in public education. I wish that were enough for my co-workers, and I wish it were enough for our kids. The fact is, most of our students returned on January 23 to the same conditions they’d left on January 11. So what do you do when you’ve envisioned something transformative, then been asked to settle? When you’ve felt a movement growing, only to have it yanked from your fingers? When you’ve marched 49 miles in a week and messed up and let people down and kept showing up anyway? You do what you always do. You get up and keep teaching.
‘It’s the Anti-Meet-Cute’: An Interview with Ian Williams

The author of Reproduction on “grammatical cathedrals,” moods that linger, and how fiction talks.

Ian Williams’s first novel, Reproduction (Random House Canada), is an unconventional love story that begins in Brampton and Toronto in the Seventies when two people meet in a hospital, where “both of their mothers were dying in the background.” Felicia is a recent immigrant from an island nation that she refuses to name. Edgar is also an immigrant to Canada, though he moved from Germany when he was a child. They have a child named Armistice, or “Army,” a humourous and versatile boy whose mind is set on making money from a young age. Williams has written an award-winning book of stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, and You Know Who You Are, his debut book of poetry, but he is likely known for Personals, his second book of poems, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013. In Personals, he mines the language of personal ads to reveal lonely, tender, and perverse voices, many of which fall into patterns that become traps, caught in their own echoes. Shazia Hafiz Ramji: Reproduction feels like a natural follow-up to your last book, Personals, a book of poems which gives voice to those who are looking for love and seeking connection. How did Reproduction begin?  Ian Williams: You’re right to make that connection (har). After Personals, I wasn’t sitting around wondering, "What next? What next?," but its themes are subterraneous nutrients for Reproduction. Just as there is a natural physical maturation from childhood through puberty into adulthood, I think there is a natural thematic progression over our lives. The things that concerned me at eighteen (school, the future) didn’t concern me at twenty-five (job, money) and the concerns of thirty (can I be with this person for the rest of my life? Can I be with anyone?) had evolved by the time I was thirty-six (what are children?), and already I’m thinking of middle age (disappointment, the next novel). Really, I was asking myself, "What are children? What material are they made from? Will I always be someone’s child even if I’m not a child?" Reproduction is a very grown-up answer to the question, "Where do babies come from?" Is the scientific word "reproduction" a grown-up understanding of the accidental or deliberate baby-outcomes of love, sex, hook-ups?   Nicely put. There is something clinical about the structure of the book and I needed that to offset the chaos, unpredictability, and emotional mush of relationships in it. The word “reproduction” is a sturdy undergarment for a voluptuous body. The back-up title was The Sex Talk¸which is the title of the interludes in the book, but I never grew dissatisfied with Reproduction. Second point: The word “reproduction” lends a purposeful and puritanical directive to sex—you know, it becomes a kind of duty rather than a pleasure. And, for sure, the whole enterprise isn’t all pleasure. On one end of the business, there’s the booty-shaking and on the other end there’s the transmission of one’s DNA in an attempt at immortality. But Reproduction is a love story at heart. The opening chapters alternate between the perspectives of "XX" and "XY,” which are also the names for the chromosomes that determine the sex of a foetus. (If XX, then female; if XY, then male.) What was it like to write the perspectives of XX and XY? People assume that because I’m a dude, I write most naturally in the voice of a man. I mean, I can. I do. I have. I will. But I really do like writing women—not writing with any appropriative intent, only artistic curiosity. It makes me listen more carefully to the women in my life, to attend more thoughtfully to the women in the news and media. It also attunes me to a part of myself that gets beat up by another part of myself. I think of part one as a boy-meets-girl story. It’s the anti-meet-cute; it happens in a hospital. There’s phlegm. It’s a highly specific story with specific characters but tagging them as XX and XY universalizes them to the level of biology. Part one is structured as a series of 23 paired chapters, just as we are all made of 23 paired chromosomes. It’s a kind of gestation toward a new character in second part. The second part is my favourite, because it’s set in the mid-Nineties and we enter the world of Armistice, Felicia and Edgar’s child. He learns to make money from a young age by opening a barbershop in a garage his mom doesn’t own! It strikes me that the roles of caregiving are switched right from the start of the book, when Felicia and Edgar are caring for their parents. Even though Army's money-making schemes are funny, I felt such a tenderness towards him as he took on the responsibility of trying to make money from such a young age.  Agreed. The best gift that Felicia and Edgar gave him was their failure. He grew in an environment where he could be himself, hustle, try something else. He starts talking before he’s even born. I really feel a lot of affection for Army. Same with the landlord’s children, Heather and Hendrix. I was in a grocery store recently and I thought, Hendrix would love these fish heads. Why does Reproduction begin in the Seventies?  I don’t really like the word "multigenerational"—usually that word sounds dull to me—but, alas, Reproduction is a multigenerational story and I needed forty years to tell it. I couldn’t go farther back into the past. I guess I was alive, technically, in the Seventies. Barely. But it’s funny how the mood of the decade lingered, so that by the time I was conscious in the Eighties I could still catch a whiff of it. When I look at my parents in albums from the Seventies, I see them at their freest and most beautiful without any thought or desire for me or my brother. Your books so far have alternated between poetry and prose with each publication. Do you write both regularly?  I spent most of 2018 writing poetry and it was probably the happiest year of my life to this point. Probably for other reasons too. I mean, I also played a lot of tennis. The years I spent writing fiction were like a complex, tortuous, involved conversation with someone who kept demanding details. My interactions with poetry are largely pleasant, efficient, sparkling, and fun. Poetry is not really surly or frightening. Fiction talks so much! It’s exhausting.  There is a lot of dialogue in Reproduction. The dialogue doesn't use the conventions we’re familiar with, such as quotation marks or em-dashes. It feels closer to the way lines of poetry are set, where speech flows with the rest of the narrative and breaks in speech are conveyed.   It’s funny—my short story collection uses quotation marks, so, in that way, it extends a conventional courtesy and convenience to the reader. With Reproduction, I didn’t go through the novel and delete all the quotation marks. They were never there at any point, in any draft, and yet the book is readable. Their absence indicates to me the fluidity between our language and our thoughts or between our language and our being. We tend to think of language as something that’s intended for the outside but really language is constantly running inside of us. It’s hard to know exactly where a sentence starts. Even the most rash utterance needs breath to be conveyed. I don’t know. I was collapsing a boundary between the inside and the outside, between the self and the presentation of the self, and rejoining dialogue to the soup of prose. Felicia speaks in English whose grammar and syntax is different from the English taught at school in Canada. Felicia’s not from Canada and she won’t tell you where she’s from. Stop asking her. She’s capable of moving back and forth between public English and intimate English. Edgar at one point says that she writes grammatical cathedrals but speaks in shacks (he didn’t say the last part but he was thinking it, trust me). For sure, there are other Englishes that are as flexible as the North American version, more colourful, inventive, pliable, expanding, open-minded. Felicia has to deal with common questions among immigrants: Why does this accent mark me so significantly to the people of this country? Is my grammar incorrect even if it follows predictable patterns that happen not to be the Queen’s? And beneath the confusion is a sense of inferiority or shame, of the immigrant’s patterns struggling against the majority’s. The battle over language, grammar, and pronunciation is just a microcosm of the aggressions faced by immigrants. One of the tricks of Reproduction, and novels generally, is to have all of this understood without pausing the narrative to say it explicitly. When asked where she's from, Felicia admits that she comes from "the islands," but she doesn't specify where. Yeah, it’s a bit of a running joke throughout the book. A joke that turns into an irritation. She refuses to be pinned to a place to satisfy anybody’s curiosity. My theory is that when people ask about your place of birth they only seek to confirm an assumption they have about you and by consequence to reinforce an assumption they have about who gets to be from Canada. She insists on speaking the way she does, even when Edgar points out her "grammatical cathedrals." She insists on speaking the way she does because it’s natural for her. What do you think novels can do?  I can only try to answer this question. One of the things a novel does because of its length is give us slow, sustained time with ourselves. As unpleasant as that may be, slow time with ourselves is the antidote to cheap stimulation, the entertainment mindset, the anxiety of being alone, the need to check our phones for comfort. Sure, reading a novel can be (ought to be?) entertaining (ideally) but it also offers ancillary benefits. When I look up from a novel, I feel a kind of achievement in saying, "Hey, I was quiet for two hours." It’s like the visible part of me disappears for a while and I get to be with the infrared part of myself, the part I see only under certain conditions, such as silence and solitude. In a slogan, books taste great and they’re good for you. Like granola. Jonathan Franzen seems acutely aware of the need for "slow time." Last fall, he shared "10 Rules for Novelists" at Lit Hub. Rule #8 says: "It's doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction."  Personally, I think the novel died with the fax machine. No, really, is it even possible to downgrade to dial-up anymore? You're working on another novel called Disappointment. Did Reproduction lead to Disappointment?  Haha, yes. They were originally the same project then Reproduction forked one way and all the other stuff went into a Disappointment folder. But since then Disappointment has really grown into itself. Can you tell us about Disappointment? Are there more babies? At the moment, Disappointment involves no babies, no dying, no marriages—just adults, living, alone.
All Saints’ Mountain

I asked about the children we were to study: who were they, why were they to undergo the test, what was the purpose of our program? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business.

Translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. The plane arrived over Zurich when it was supposed to, but for a long time it was obliged to circle the city, since snow had covered the airport, and we had to wait until the slow yet effective machines had managed to clear that snow. Just as it landed, the snow clouds parted, and against the orange blazing sky there were contrails in tangles that transformed the firmament into a gigantic grid—almost as though God were extending an invitation to play a round of tic-tac-toe. The driver who was supposed to pick me up and who was waiting with my last name written out on the lid of a cardboard shoebox was quick to state facts: “I’m supposed to take you to the pension—the road up to the Institute is completely snowed under. We won’t make it to there.” But his dialect was so strange I could barely understand him. I also felt like I had missed something. It was May, after all, the eighth of May. “The world’s turned on its head. Just take a look at that.” He placed my luggage in the car and then pointed to the darkening sky. “I’ve heard they’re poisoning us with it, airplane fumes altering our subconscious.” I nodded. The grated horizon really did trigger unease. We reached our destination late at night, traffic jams everywhere, cars’ wheels spinning in place, all of us moving at a snail’s pace—at best—in the wet snow. Gray slush arose along the roadsides. In town the snowplows were in full force, but farther along, in the mountains, which we began to climb, very carefully, it turned out there was no one clearing the roads. My driver clung to the steering wheel, leaning in; his ample aquiline nose pointed out our direction like the bow of a ship pulling us through a murky sea towards some port. The reason I was here was that I’d signed a contract to come. I was supposed to administer a test to a group of teenagers. It was a test I had come up with myself, and for more than thirty years, it had remained the only one of its kind, enjoying considerable renown among my fellow developmental psychologists. The honorarium they had offered me was very large. When I saw it in the agreement, I was sure they had made a mistake. I was also bound, however, by the strictest secrecy. The company that was conducting the analysis had its headquarters in Zurich, but I hadn’t recognized its name. I can’t say it was only the money that convinced me. There were other reasons, too. I got a shock when I found out that the “pension” my driver had mentioned was in fact a few guest rooms in a dark ancient convent at the mountain’s base. An outpouring of dense light from the soda lanterns just outside it displayed chestnuts suffering on account of the snow, already flowering; now, white and muffled under little frozen pillows, they looked like subjects of some incomprehensible, absurd oppression. The driver led me to a side entrance and carried my suitcase upstairs. There was a key sticking out of the door to my room. “All the official procedures have been dealt with. You just rest. I’ll come back for you tomorrow,” said the driver with the big nose. “You’ll find your breakfast in the fridge. And the sisters will have you down for coffee at ten.” Not until I took my medication did I fall asleep—after I had found myself back inside my treasured time hole, into which I and my body were both happy to fall as though into a fully feather-lined nest. Since my illness had come, I had been training for this mode of non-existence every night. * At nine, I watched the strangest coffee ritual I had ever encountered. I was in an enormous space, in the center of which stood a massive wooden table that bore the traces of many centuries’ use, and around it sat six old women in religious habits. They glanced up at me when I entered the room. There were three of them on either side; their identical habits made their facial features also look alike. A seventh sister, bustling about, bursting with energy, wearing a striped apron over her nun’s clothes, had just set out on the table a sizeable coffee pot and, wiping her hands on her apron, she now came up to me, holding those bony hands out before her. Welcoming me, she was a little on the loud side, though this, too—as I’d soon understand—had its explanation: most of these old ladies were fairly hard of hearing. She introduced me to the rest by my first name and rattled off the nuns’ names, which were odd. The eldest was called Beatrix. There was also Ingeborg, Tamar and Charlotte, as well as Izydora and Cezarina. Tamar’s stillness made you want to watch her. She looked like a statuette of a primeval goddess. She sat atop a wheelchair, her body round, her face pale and beautiful emerging from her body’s habit. I felt as though she were looking through me, as though she glimpsed—beyond me—some expanse. By now, I thought, she would have joined that valiant tribe that inwardly ranges over the alpine meadows of memory; to that tribe’s members, we are but pesky specks on the surface of the eye. Taken aback by the whole, I made a closer inspection of the vast bright space, which was divided into dining room and kitchen, the latter containing powerful multi-burner gas stoves with ovens as well as a bread oven, while its walls were crowded with huge hanging pans and shelves stacked with pots. Sinks unfurled under the window, one after the other, like in the back of an industrial canteen. The counters were covered in sheet metal, and metal, too, were all the fixtures, not one of artificial materials, all linked by bulbous tubes as though straight off Captain Nemo’s ship. The sterile purity that predominated here also immediately brought to mind old-fashioned laboratories, Dr. Frankenstein and his frightening experiments. The only modern additions to the room took the form of the colored recycling bins in the corner. Sister Charlotte explained the colossal kitchen had not in fact been used in years, and that now the sisters cooked for themselves on a small gas stove or ordered the catering services offered by one of the local restaurants. Sister Anna, the woman wearing the apron—the prioress, as it turned out—added that back in the sixties, when she had first arrived, the convent had held some sixty sisters from all over Europe. “Once, bread was baked here. We would make cheeses, thirty-five pounds each. But there’s no sense now in making cheese or baking bread for seven of us…” Sister Charlotte said, sounding like she was just getting started on a much longer story. But Sister Anna interjected: “Eight of us! For eight,” she cried brightly. “And please come and see us once you’re up there.” With her chin, she indicated a direction I could not yet know. “The Institute belongs to us, as well. There’s a shortcut through the pastures, which makes it a half-hour walk.” The coffee pot was being passed from hand to hand now, coffee streaming darkly into cups, releasing steam. Next the nuns’ hands seized upon the cream containers, elderly fingers meticulously peeling back the tinfoil of their covers, pouring the cream into their coffees. Then they were tearing the tinfoil clean off, and then it traveled to their tongues, like an aluminum host. In a single lick, their tongues had restored that host’s unadulterated glisten, its cleanliness. After a while, those scrupulous tongues went into the containers, too, to rid them of whatever remained there, and they did eliminate even the tiniest droplets of cream. The sisters seemed pleased to lick the cream up, and they did so with the practiced expertise of people who had gone through those same motions hundreds of times. Now it fell to them to shell the plastic container, removing the paper band it had been swathed in. The sisters’ fingernails found out the glue with sensitivity, tearing off the bands in triumph. As a result of all these operations, every sister ended up behind a little pile of plastic, paper and aluminum, those three raw materials. “We care very much about the environment. We humans are an exceptional species, but we risk extinction if things keep going as they are,” said Sister Anna, giving me a knowing wink. One of the sisters giggled. “You’re right, sister, it’s one a year, like clockwork.” Consumed by the repetition of their activities, I hadn’t noticed an eighth woman coming into the kitchen, seemingly silently, and sitting down next to me. It wasn’t until she made a very small movement that I turned to her and saw a very young girl wearing exactly the same habit as the older nuns. She had dark skin, its vivid tint standing out against the pale backdrop of the others, as though for this portrait inside this painting she had just been touched up with fresh paints. “That’s our Swati,” announced the prioress with evident pride. The girl smiled impersonally, stood and began to collect the recycling, already separated into the appropriate categories, and to deposit it inside the colored bins. I was grateful to the prioress for receiving me as though I were an old friend. When her cell phone started ringing, she hurried to remove from her pockets all sorts of items: keys, pastilles, a little notebook, a sheet of pills… The phone turned out to be an old Nokia—an antediluvian artefact. “Yes,” she said into the phone in that strange dialect. “Thank you.” And then, to me: “Your driver is here, my child.” I let myself be led through the labyrinths of the old building to the exit, lamenting my undrunk coffee. Outside I was blinded by the May sun; just before I got into the car, I overheard for one moment that concert of everything melting, fat drops splashing down from all sides, drumming against the roof, the stairs, the windowpanes, the leaves of trees. A lively river already rushed beneath our feet, transforming the eccentricity of snow into the banality of water and carrying it down and away, into the lake. I don’t know why it struck me in that moment that all those old ladies in habits were prepared for death, awaiting it with dignity. And here I was flailing in its face. * “You’ll have excellent working conditions here, please have a look,” said Dani, the program’s director, when I arrived at the Institute that day. She spoke English with an Italian accent, although her face suggested Native American, maybe even East Asian, ancestry. “This is your office, so you won’t even need to go outside to get to work.” She smiled. Next to her stood a man in a plaid button-down shirt that strained over his paunch. “This is Victor, our program manager.” She said that not far from here there was a trail for tourists, and that without too much effort—some three hours’ or so—you could reach the top of the monumental mountain, visible from everywhere, which tended to give one the impression one was still in the lowlands, even where we were. The Institute was a modern concrete building in which straight lines reigned supreme. Aluminum bands supported enormous panes, the glass reflecting the irregular shapes of the natural world, which lessened somewhat the severity of the block. Behind this there was another large edifice, that looked to have been built in the early part of the twentieth century. It was almost indistinguishable from a school, especially since I caught a glimpse of a field out in front of it where a group of teenagers was playing soccer. I was overcome by fatigue, no doubt because of the altitude, although also perhaps just because lately I had felt fatigued more or less all the time. I asked to be taken to the room where I was to stay over the next few weeks. In my condition, taking an afternoon rest is always a good idea. My exhaustion tended to arrive around two, when I’d get sleepy and sluggish. I’d have the sense then that the day was breaking down, that it was getting depressed and that it might not be able to pull itself together by the evening. But it would drag itself towards seven, often not dropping until midnight. I didn’t start a family, didn’t make a home, did not ever plant a tree. I dedicated all my time to work, to ceaseless research, submitting my results to the complex statistical procedures I always trusted more than my own instincts. My achievement in life was a psychological test that enables the researcher to detect psychological characteristics in statu nascendi, meaning those characteristics that have not yet fully crystalized, not yet taken hold in the system that is the mature personality of an adult. My Developmental Tendencies Test earned rapid recognition around the world and was almost universally implemented. Thanks to it I became well known, got tenure at my university and lived a peaceful life, always working to perfect the details of the procedure. Time showed that my DTT had very high predictive powers, and that by administering it, you could in most cases foresee what a given person would become, what direction his or her development would take. I never thought I’d dedicate my life to just one thing, doing the same thing over and over again. I used to think I was a restless soul, often taken by fervent passing fancies. If I’d been able to take my own test as a child, I wonder whether it would have shown I would become industrious, the tireless rhapsode of a single idea, refiner of a single chased design. * That evening, the three of us went into town for dinner at a restaurant where great slates of glass overlooked the lake directly, ensuring guests a soothing view of that black water, sparkling with the lights of the town. This quivering abyss drew my gaze relentlessly, away from my companions as they spoke. We had pears with honey and gorgonzola, then truffle risotto—the most expensive dishes on offer. The white wine was also among the best on the menu. Victor spoke the most, and his low-pitched voice drowned out—thankfully—the music, mechanical and cold, coming insistently from somewhere. He complained that these days we lacked people with charisma, that in our age people were so ordinary that they didn’t have the strength to change the world for good. His plaid-clad belly polished the table’s edge. Dani spoke to me with polite respect, in a confiding tone I liked. She leaned over the table to me, the fringe of her scarf dipping dangerously close to her plate, threatening submersion in melted gorgonzola. Of course I asked them questions about the children we were to study. Who were they, and why were they to undergo the test? What was the purpose of “our program”? Though I also knew it wasn’t any of my business, really. We did converse, but I was focused above all on the taste of the tiny slivers of truffle, no bigger than a match head. The children were brought here for a three-month period, which they would spend in a so-called alpine school. There, as they learned and played, their abilities would be monitored and studied. All were adopted, they said, and the purpose of the program was to analyze the flow of social capital into the development of the individual (he said) and/or the impact of the whole range of environmental variables on future professional success (she said). My task was simple: I was to conduct my test in its widest-ranging version. They wanted precise profiles and future projections. The research was for private enterprise. The sponsors had all the permits and permissions they could possibly acquire; the program had been going on for years but was still being kept under wraps, for now. I nodded, pretending I was listening and taking all this in, though the entire time all I was doing was relishing the truffles. I had the feeling that since I had been ill, my sense of taste had layered, or splintered, meaning that every element of food would be interpolated on its own: mushrooms, bites of wheat pasta, olive oil, parmesan, tender bits of garlic… I had the feeling, in other words, that there were no longer dishes, just loose confederations of ingredients. “We’re so grateful that a megastar like you was willing to come here in person,” said Dani, and our glasses met in a toast. We talked politely and at leisure, enjoying dinner, until the wine had loosened our tongues a little bit more. I told them how any hint of predicting the future inspires fascination in people, but also strong, irrational resistance. It also leads to a claustrophobic unease, which is likely the same fear of fate with which humanity has been struggling since the time of Oedipus. In our hearts of hearts, we never want to know the future. I told them, too, that good psychometrics are like brilliantly constructed traps. Once the psyche has fallen into them, the more it flails, the more it struggles, the more it betrays about itself, the more evidence it leaves behind. Today we know that a person is born as a kind of ticking time bomb of different potentials, and that the process of growing up is not at all one of enrichment and learning—it is instead the elimination of one possibility after the next. In the end, out of a wild, lush plant, we become something more along the lines of a bonsai—stunted, cut down to size, just a stiff miniature of all our possible selves. My test differs from the others in that it shows not what we gain in maturation, but rather what we lose. Our gamut of possibilities gets slimmer and slimmer—but it is also this that makes it relatively easy to predict what we’ll become. My whole academic career was inextricably connected with ridicule, deprecation, accusations of parapsychology and even of falsifying results. Without a doubt it’s because of this that I became such a suspicious person, quick to get defensive. First I would attack and provoke, and then, troubled by what I’d done, I would retreat. What angered me the most was the accusation of irrationality. Scientific discoveries often seem irrational in the beginning, because it’s rationality that delimits knowing; in order to cross the border into the unknown, we must frequently set aside rationality, throw ourselves into the darkest depths of the untested, precisely so that bit by bit we can make it into something rational—so that we can comprehend it. When I was still traveling the world giving talks about my test, I would start each one by saying, “Yes—although I know this will upset you—a person’s life can be predicted. The tools to do it exist.” Invariably these words would meet with a tense silence. * When we entered the common room, the children were playing some game that consisted of acting out scenes. Already from the hallway we had heard bursts of laughter. Then it was hard for them to acquire the seriousness they needed to greet me. I would have been around the same age as their grandmothers, which instantly generated between us something like a warm reserve. They weren’t attempting any liberties. One brave little girl, petite and very resolute, asked me several questions. Where was I from? What language did my mother speak? Was this my first time in Switzerland? How bad is the pollution in the place where I live? Do I have a cat or a dog? And what kind of test would it be? Would it be boring? I’m Polish, I began, answering each question in order. My mom spoke Polish. I’ve been to Switzerland several times and have many friends at the university here in Berne. The pollution is significant, though still significantly less than in the place I moved from. Especially in the winter, when our northern hemisphere increases the production of smog many times over. In the country, where I live, you don’t have to wear masks over your face. The test will be quite pleasant. You’ll have to fill out a couple of quizzes on a computer about very ordinary matters—for example, what you like and what you don’t, and so on. You’ll also look over some strange three-dimensional blocks and tell me what they mean. Parts of the test will be conducted with the aid of an innovative new machine, which won’t hurt—at most it may tickle a little. You will certainly not be bored. For several nights you’ll sleep in a special cap that will monitor your sleep. Some of the questions may seem very personal, but we promise complete confidentiality. So I will always be asking for your utmost frankness. Some of the test will be tasks you’ll get to do, which will seem to you like games. I can assure you that our time together will be enjoyable. Yes, I did have a dog, but a few years ago he passed away, and since then I have not wished to have pets. “Didn’t you want to clone him?” asked a clever little girl who, as it would turn out, was called Miri. I didn’t know what to say. I had not considered it. “They say they do it all the time in China,” said a tall boy with an elongated olive face. The dog question engendered a brief, chaotic discussion, but then the introductory niceties were evidently seen to have been performed, and the children returned to their play. They let us join in—it was, I understood, a version of our game of Ambassador, in which the players must communicate some piece of information through body language alone, without a word. We played without splitting up into teams, all playing on behalf of ourselves alone. I wasn’t able to guess anything correctly. The children did snippets of games of some sort, films I didn’t know. They were from another planet, and they thought fast, in shortcuts that led to worlds that were, to me, altogether unknown. I observed them with the pleasure with which one looks at something that is smooth, young, springy, nice, connected directly to life’s sources. The wonderful timidity of that which did not yet have established boundaries. Nothing in them had been destroyed yet, nor anything ossified, nor anything encysted—they were just organisms, gleefully striving, clambering up and up and up in the thrill of the awareness of a summit. Now, when I reach back into the memory of that scene, I can see clearly that the ones who stayed in my mind were Thierry and Miri. Thierry, tall, darker-complexioned, with heavy eyelids, as though always bored, not even fully conscious. And Miri—petite, concentrated inwards like a spring. I did also examine the twins. When one enters a room where there is more than a single set of identical twins, one immediately has a strange sense of unreality. Here, too, I had it. The first set: boys sitting far away from one another—their names were Julian and Max, both stocky, with dark eyes and dark curly hair and big hands. Then, two tall blond girls, Amelia and Julia: identically attired, focused and polite, sitting close together—so close their shoulders touched. I watched them in fascination, involuntarily searching for details that might differentiate them from one another. Others, like Vito and Otto, did everything they could in order to lessen the resemblance: one with a buzz cut, the other with long hair, one dressed in a dark shirt and dark pants, the other in shorts and a rainbow-colored t-shirt. It took me a moment to realize they were twins, and then I caught myself staring at them in amazement. They smiled at me, probably accustomed by now to looks like the one I had given them. Next to Miri sat Hanna, a tall seventeen-year-old with the figure of a model and an androgynous charm. She barely took part in the game, smiling only slightly, as though her mind were somewhere else. Tall, slim Adrian—nervous, hyperactive, tending to take charge—would leap to guessing first, spoiling the others’ fun. And Eva, who in a somewhat maternal tone would quiet him, trying to restore some order to the room. They were the types of children that made up any summer camp. * The next day I started the first part of my inquiry, which was dedicated to psychoneurological parameters—a largely mechanical segment. Simple memory and perception tests. Blocks arranged in the appropriate order, reading strange drawings, one eye, the other eye. As I had promised, they had a good time. In the evening, as I put the data through my computer, Victor came to see me. “I just wanted to remind you of the secrecy clause you signed,” he said. “Save files only to our internal storage systems. Don’t use any of your own.” This irritated me. It struck me as disrespectful. Later, when I was smoking my daily joint on the terrace, an uneasy Victor popped into my room once again. “It’s legal, I have a prescription for it,” I clarified. I handed him the joint, and he inhaled deeply, expertly. He kept the smoke in his mouth, narrowing his eyes as though preparing himself for a completely different sense of sharpness, a vision in which everything would be defined by wonderfully soft contours. “Did you hire me just because I don’t have much longer to live? Was that the point? That’s the best guarantee of secrecy, right? The silence of the grave.” He emitted a little bit of smoke, swallowed the rest. For a moment he stared at the floor like I had caught him in a lie he’d only just come up with. He changed the subject. He told me that predicting a person’s future on the basis of some test was an affront, in his opinion, to sound reason. But he was a loyal employee at the Institute, and he represented the test’s commissioner, and so he would not publicly express such reservations. “What’s the test for?” I asked. “Even if I knew, I couldn’t tell you. That’s not going to change. I suggest you make your peace with it. You just do your thing, and get some fresh Swiss air. It might do you good.” I sensed this was his way of acknowledging he had known about my illness. Afterwards he said nothing, just focused on smoking. “How do I get to the convent from here?” I asked him after a while. Without a word, he took out a notepad and drew me a sketch of the shortcut. * It was true: the way down to the convent was an excellent shortcut, some twenty minutes walking quickly, zigzagging between pastures. You had to pass through a couple of cattle gates and, several times, squeeze in alongside the fences’ electrical cables. It took me a moment to say hello to the horses, who, stunned by the spring sun, stood motionless in the melting snow, as though contemplating that climatic contradiction and trying to find in their big slow brains some sort of synthesis. [[{"fid":"6704756","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"}}]] Sister Anna let me in wearing a white apron—she and Swati had been cleaning. There were boxes of documents lying on the pews in the hallway. The sisters were dusting them off and then transferring them to a cart so that they could be taken downstairs. The prioress seemed eager to abandon this task and to take me on a ride in the brand new elevator. We went up and down several times, covering a distance of one floor between the residential part of the convent and the chapel. I found the two illuminated buttons—up and down—soothing: there are never as many options as we think there are, and an awareness of that fact should bring relief. Next Sister Anna showed me the cloister, and, spreading out her hands, the old course of the latticework that once stood as the border between the two worlds. “We would sit here, and visitors would sit over there. The priest would even take our confessions through that grating, and we’d talk with guests through it—can you believe that? As late as the sixties. We felt as though we were animals in God’s zoo. Each year a photographer would come to take our picture—through the screen.” She showed me the photographs, displayed in thin little frames that hung tightly packed together, one after the next, all featuring a group of women wearing habits, posing. Some sat, while others stood behind them. In the center was the mother superior, who always, by some miracle, looked a little bigger, a little more solid, than the rest. The latticework cut across some of their bodies, though it seemed the photographer always tried to prevent it from passing over their faces. The farther back in time I went, going down the hall, the more nuns there were in the pictures, the more distinct their habits and veils became. They took over the space in such a way that by the end the women’s faces were like grains of rice scattered over a graphite-colored tablecloth. I examined up close those faces that no longer existed and envied them the fact that every single one of these women had had one particular day in her life when God had spoken to her, had told her that he wanted her all to himself. I had never been religious and had never felt—even remotely—the metaphysical presence of God. The convent was founded in 1611, when two Capuchin nuns from the north had arrived in this mountain valley that was near a small village. They had secured safe conduct from the pope, and they had adherents among the wealthy. Over the course of two years, they managed to raise the money, and in the spring of 1613, construction began. First there was a small building with cells for the sisters and an administrative section, though this latter expanded at a dizzying pace. A hundred years later, the whole area—the valley and the forests around it—belonged to the nuns. A small town grew up around the convent, partially dependent upon the convent’s economy. A fine location on the lake, along the road, meant that trade flourished and local residents got rich. The rules allowed some of the nuns, called external sisters, to maintain even intensive contact with the world; the rest, the internal sisters, did not leave the cloister and only very rarely appeared behind the latticework like the unpredictable, mystical force behind that eternal game of tic-tac-toe. Huddled under their cornettes, those cloistered sisters stayed in a state of never-ending prayer, their lips continually moving, their bodies clinging slavishly to the wooden floor of the chapel, sprawled out in the shape of the cross. They were defenseless against the stream of grace that ensured that alpine place uninterrupted good fortune in commerce and the nuns perpetual growth of the convent’s holdings. Perhaps it was upon these devout interns that God’s eye rested, inside that triangular crack in the heavens that would later wind up on the one-dollar bill. The externs conducted the convent’s business, their fingers stained from the ink in which they dipped their pens as they entered into their books the latest deliveries of eggs, meat or linen, or as they broke down payments made to the construction workers building the new shelter for the elderly and indigent or to the cobblers who made the orphans shoes. Sister Anna told me about all this as one narrates a family—attached and affectionate, forgiving her ancestresses their sins of small-mindedness, their exaggerated interest in making deals. The convent expanded like a fantastically prosperous commercial enterprise and came into the possession of the entire terrain below it, all the way to the lake. The fall of that religious family didn’t occur until the twentieth century, after the war. The town was bulging at the seams, increasingly in need of more land for villas and public buildings, and people were losing their faith. Since 1968, the convent had seen no new nuns, with the obvious exception of Swati. When Sister Anna had become prioress in 1990, there had been thirty-seven of them. As a result of sales intended to shore up the diminishing finances of the convent, its huge holdings dwindled, and as of today, they consisted exclusively of the one building where the sisters lived. The rest of their land had been leased to several farmers, with cows grazing it now. Their garden was tended by the owner of a health food store; in return for vegetables and milk, the sisters permitted the use of the convent’s name on the products he sold. It turned out, too, that they recognized only too late the possibilities arising from the mercantile blessing that was convent recipes. That pie had long since been divided between the Benedictines, the Cistercians, the Fatebenefratelli and others, who, sensing potential competition from the nuns, banded together in masculine solidarity and made sure the sisters had no share there. They also failed to transform the convent into a profitable co-op. The separate building next to the church was surrendered to an elementary school, while the littler building by the garden now contained a hostel overseen by the town. It was thanks to the monies paid to them in rent that the sisters were able, the previous year, to install the glass elevator to the second floor, since it was harder and harder for them to get up and down the narrow stone stairs. Now, several times a day, they could be seen crowding into that glass box, covering the yards that separated first from second floor. As she recounted all this, the prioress also showed me around the convent, omitting no nook. I followed her, inhaling the fragrance of her habit—it smelled of the inside of a wardrobe that for many years had hosted lavender sachets. In the pleasant sense of security she gave, I was ready to be convinced to just stay here for the time I had left, instead of sticking electrodes to children’s skulls. It felt as though the air around Sister Anna was vibrating, like she might be ringed by some warm halo. If only she could catch it and distribute it into jars—they’d no doubt make a fortune that way. She led me briskly down squeaky-clean hallways redolent of floor polish, crowded with doors and mezzanines and alcoves holding shiny saintly statuettes. I got lost fast in that labyrinth. I made sure to remember the galleries of ancestral portraits, the prioresses who looked so much alike they might as well have been clones, and the inscription over the entrance to the inner chapel, hewn in thick Schwabacher: “Wie geschrieben stehet: Der erste Mensch Adam ist gemacht mit einer Seele die dem Leib ein thierlich leben gibt: und der letzte Adam mit deinem Geist der da lebendig macht.”111 Corinthians 15:45, in the Bible’s New International Version: “So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” The floor creaked beneath our feet as our fingers slid over the smoothed spins of handrails and handles become, over time, the inverses of palms. Suddenly we were on the second floor, in something like a large loft space. The wooden floor was worn to the bone, though then I wondered if it had ever been painted. This was where their laundry dried; amidst the racks draped in sheets and covers, I caught sight of Sister Beatrix and Sister Ingeborg. They were sitting with needles in their hands, reattaching buttons lost in the wash. Their arthritically gnarled fingers struggled nobly with the buttons’ holes. “Salve, girls,” she said to them. “What do you say, is she ready to meet Oxi?” At this the old nuns livened up considerably. Frail Sister Anna even squealed like a little girl. Sister Anna went up to a little white curtain that looked innocuous enough, and in one practiced swoop had shoved it over and revealed the thing inside. “Ta-da!” she cried. A moderately sized recess was revealed, and in it, a figure, its shape unmistakably human, though shrunken and somehow inhuman at the same time. Scared, I took a step backwards. Sister Anna laughed, pleased with the effect she had achieved. She was clearly used to reactions like mine, and clearly amused by them, as well. “Meet Oxi,” she said, gazing at me watchfully but wearing an expression of triumph on her face. “My God,” I said heavily, in Polish. The expression on my face must have been a strange one: all the other sisters now burst into laughter, too. I saw the body of a human being—more precisely, a human being’s dead body, a skeleton, or maybe a mummy, sat straight up and elegantly decorated. Following my momentary terror, I began to perceive it more precisely, while behind me the sisters kept on chuckling. The entirety of the skeleton was covered in hand-knit, braided adornments. Sticking out of the eye sockets were great semi-precious stones; resting atop the bare skull, a decorative cap, beaded yarn crocheted. Around his neck there was an embroidered stock tie of thin batiste, which must have been snow white once, now sullied, like a tuft of filthy autumn fog. Here and there his desiccated skin showed through from underneath the fabric of the clothes he wore, though these were mostly covered by a mercifully long and exceptionally ornate eighteenth-century jacket, with ashen-silver patterns that looked like the scribblings of frost on a window pane. Lace cuffs stuck out from sleeves, almost concealing the curved and clawing hands in their arm warmers of disintegrating yarn. Arm warmers! Twisted legs encased in white stockings jammed into wrinkled slippers with metal buckles, also adorned with semi-precious stones. * We always strove to follow the recommendation that researchers not become emotionally involved in their relationships with the subjects of their research. That principle suited me just fine. I would only see the children during testing. The young people followed their instructions scrupulously. They were well-behaved kids. It was only during the projective part of the test, where they had to use their imaginations, that several of them had trouble understanding what to do. Then the brainwave tracking session began, and because we were also keeping track of them while the children were sleeping, each of their rooms had to be equipped with the appropriate device, which would in each instance also need to be set up. For over a week I went nowhere, only glimpsing summer’s efflorescence from my terrace as I breathed in the herb that brought me such relief. On a fairly regular basis, Victor started joining me, which meant that my medicinal supplies were running out at an ever-higher rate. Victor told me during one of our many talks that the convent was facing closure “for biological reasons,” and he told me the story of Swati. In her wonderful, childlike naiveté, Sister Anna had read somewhere that the presence of the sacred had not diminished in India, whence the winds of history and the smoke over Auschwitz had not yet carried it away. We were sitting on the balcony of my room, resting after moving around all our devices. Victor gazed at the glowing tip of the joint and suddenly felt guilty: “I can’t keep smoking up your stash, I really can’t. This is part of your treatment. It’s pure pleasure for me.” I shrugged. “Why India? Where did she get that idea?” “Well, if you must know, I’m the one who put it in her head,” he said after a moment. “I told her that if there was any real spirituality left anywhere in the world, then it must be in India. That God had relocated there.” “Do you really believe that?” I said without thinking. The smoke that came out of my mouth formed a beautiful sphere. “Of course not. I just wanted to give her something nice to think about, to calm her down. What I didn’t take into account is that she would always rather act than think. And just like that, all by herself, at the age of seventy-whatever, Sister Anna set out for India, on a recruitment trip for the convent.” I could well imagine it—Sister Anna in her gray summer habit standing before a Delhi mosque, amidst the rickshaws’ uproar, amongst the stray dogs, the holy cows, in the dust, in the mud. It wasn’t a vision that cracked me up, exactly—marijuana had long since ceased to make me laugh—but Victor was guffawing. “She went from convent to convent, hundreds of miles, trying to find novitiates to bring back with her to Europe. And all she could poach was Swati. Can you imagine? She went hunting for nuns, in India!” * The next day I got their files on my desk. They were neat, economical and professional. They contained all the data about the children we were testing, which I had requested from Victor. Right away they struck me as strange. Instead of names, the files were labeled with symbols written on Post-Its: “Tr 1.2.2” or “JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1,” and on in the same vein. I looked over them, astonished—I was sure they had not been intended for my eyes, that Victor had brought me these files by mistake. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the code. Apart from the tables of biological parameters, there were genome tables and charts that I also couldn’t even begin to comprehend. I tried to glean from those analyses the identities of the kids under my care, but the graphs and tables made no sense to me at all—they must have been descriptive of some other, more abstract plane of truth. That must be it, I thought, Victor must have just gotten mixed up, giving me not the documents I was expecting, but rather something else. As I carried the files to his office, however, a sudden impulse brought me back, and I recorded those strange designations in the margins of an old newspaper. Then I thought I might as well take note of dates of birth. Victor’s office was empty when I set the files down on his desk. The wind in the open window rustled the slats of the blind, and it sounded like a chorus of cicadas. The following morning, I received on the internal server the information I had been requesting for so long—the interviews on environmental variables and the biographical data. Each file was now under last and first name only. Thierry B. Birthdate: 12/2/2000. Legal guardians: Swiss. Location: small town. He was a school teacher, she was a librarian. Allergies. A detailed layout of his brain studies, with mild epilepsy detected. Blood type. Basic psychological tests. A journal kept by his adoptive parents: methodical but fairly uninteresting. Dyslexia. A detailed layout of his braces. Writing samples. Photos. Schoolwork. A normal kid, being subjected to constant, thorough medical exams. Nothing about his biological parents. Miri C., 3/21/2001: same. Precise charts of her weight and height. Some sort of skin ailment—pictures, diagnoses, et cetera. Adoptive parents: middle-class, he a small business owner, she a painter. Childhood drawings. Numerous references to some other documents, meticulously numbered, classified. The twins Jules and Max, birthdate 9/9/2001. Birthplace: Bavaria. Adoptive parents: businesspeople, owners of some textile factories, upper middle class. Mention made of certain perinatal complications, hence the low Apgar score in both. Jules had a superb musical ear, was attending music school. Max had been in a traffic accident when he was seven—hit by a car, complicated leg fractures, average musical abilities. Before I could think about what I was doing, my hand had reached out for the previous day’s notes around the edges of the newspaper. I found the twins’ birthdate under the codes Fr 1.1.2 and Fr 1.1.1., and from there it was easy enough. Adrian T., born 5/29/2000, code—based on that date—Jn 1.2.1. From Lausanne. Adoptive parents: officials. The boy had had problems with the law. Background and environment interview. Police report. The incident had involved breaking into a swimming pool, some property destruction. Several siblings. Eva H., code Tr 1.1.1. Adoptive parents divorced when she was nine years old. She was brought up by her mother, a teacher. Great student, on the basketball team. Interested in film. Writes poetry. Musical abilities. Treated for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. I scanned, amazed by the level of detail in the reports, X-rays of ordinary adolescent lives from so many angles it almost seemed as though these people were being groomed to become spies, or geniuses—or the ones who would start the revolution. * Sister Anna gave me lease to photograph Oxi—every little element of him immortalized in his ongoing process of decay. I had the pictures developed at the drugstore in the little town, and I put some of them up over my desk. Now all I had to do was glance up in order to admire the artistry of many generations of nuns who had, with the buoyancy of children, colonized every square centimeter of the corpse, striving to conceal the threat of death. A button. Some lace. Drawn thread work. Decorative stitching, appliqué, tiny pom-pom, cuff, little collar, some ruffles at the neck, a sequin, a bead. Desperate proofs of life. [[{"fid":"6704761","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"}}]] I was told at the pharmacy I would need to wait a few days to get more of my medicine, so I quietly figured out a way to find a local dealer, from whom I purchased several portions. They were strong, powerful—I had to mix them with tobacco. Since the chemo, the pains had all but disappeared, but there remained my fear of them, twisted up somewhere inside me like metal springs that might at any moment burst forth and rip apart my body, leaving it in shreds. When I was smoking, they metamorphosed into paper snakes, and the world got full of signs, and things distantly removed from one another seemed to be sending one another information, particular signals, linking meanings together, tying up relationships. Everything gave everything a knowing wink. It was a very satiating state for the world to be in—you could take your fill of that world. I went through two rounds of chemotherapy, and I couldn’t sleep. I could not regain control over my own body—the only strength I had left was the strength of my fear. The doctor said: from three months to three years. I knew it would do me good to concentrate on something, and that’s why I came here; not only because of the money, although in my situation, that kind of money might turn out to be the thing that could extend my life. Conducting my tests didn’t require I be in especially great shape. I could do it almost automatically. Now, every morning, while the children took their classes, I would get up early and head down to the convent. On one such day, towards the end of May, I saw, sitting alone at the edge of the soccer field, Miri. She told me she had gotten her period, and that she’d been dismissed from PE. I noticed she was wearing blue—light blue jeans, a light blue shirt and light blue sneakers. She was the color of the sky. I didn’t know what to say. I simply took a step towards her. “You seem sad,” she said, a touch of combat in her tone. “All the time, even when you’re smiling.” She had caught me in the act, as in solitude I had been dismantling my face’s usual expression of self-confidence. I looked at her small, light, almost avian body, which slipped nimbly off the fence, almost giving the impression of weightlessness. She said she wished she could go home now. That she missed her parents and her dog. There she had her own room, and here she had to share a room with Eva. She had always yearned for siblings, but now she saw she found other people to be a nuisance. “You’re looking for something when you test us. We’re also trying to figure out why it is we’re here. I’m smart enough, I can put two and two together. I suspect it has something to do with the fact we are adopted. Maybe we’re carrying some type of gene. What is it you see when you look at us? You really see something so strange about us? What could I have in common with the others? Nothing.” She walked with me a while, and we started talking about school. She was going to music school, she played the violin. She also told me something interesting: she liked days of mourning—and these were coming more and more often now, with environmental disasters and attacks—because then the media would play only mournful music. Often everything irritated her, and she felt the world was too big, so those gloomy days were a kind of respite. People ought to dedicate a little bit of thought to themselves. She loved Handel, particularly his “Largo,” which Lisa Gerard had once sung. And Mahler, most of all what he wrote when his children died. I smiled without thinking. Such a melancholy girl. “Isn’t that why you’re drawn to me?” She walked with me until we reached the place where the horses grazed. Along the way she ripped off dandelion heads and scattered the still-soft seeds, premature, into the air. “You wear a wig, right?” she said suddenly, not looking at me. “You’re sick. You’re dying.” Her words hit me square in the chest. I could feel my eyes filling with tears, so I turned and started walking faster, by myself now, down to the convent. * My late mornings in the convent, when the children had their classes, tended to soothe me. I would feel good in the company of these women, who were both conciliatory and reconciled to life. Over coffee, the sisters’ inefficient fingers separating out their miniature waste restored order. So it would be, too, with me: soon fingers would strip me down to my primary components, and all that had comprised me would now be put back in its own place—a kind of final recycling. Of the cream for the coffee, following this ritual of absolution, there would be parts that no longer had anything to do with one another, becoming separate, falling under different categories now. Gone were taste and consistence. Gone where? Where was that thing that just a moment ago they had still made up together, harmonious? We would sit in the kitchen, where Sister Anna—often vanishing into digressions, only to emerge again elsewhere—would respond to my somewhat prying inquiries. I never knew where the braided locks of her memory would lead us. In those moments, she would remind me of my mother, who talked in the same way—meandering, weaving together many strands; this was a wonderful malady of old women, covering the world in one vast quilt of stories within stories. The silent presence of some of the other sisters, always occupied with some small task, caused me to take these nuns as guarantors of truth, time’s accountants. All of Oxi’s information was recorded in the convent’s chronicles. At my request, Sister Anna finally agreed to seek out the corresponding volume. Now she splayed it atop the table in the kitchen where we drank coffee. She found the exact date: February 28, 1629. That day, the sisters and all their denizens crowded down the southern road into town, awaiting the return of the envoys from Rome. Just before dark, a modest retinue of men on horses appeared from beyond the mountain, behind the retinue a wooden wagon fitted out with colorful, if somewhat soiled and soaked material, beneath which, attached with leather straps, lay a coffin. What was left of wreaths trailed behind the wagon in the snow; the men were frozen and exhausted. The crowd, led by the Bürgermeister and a bishop invited expressly for this purpose, symbolically presented the saint with a key to the city. Boys in white surplices sang an endlessly practiced welcome song and—since this all took place in a disgusting winter month, and there were no flowers to properly honor and receive such an extraordinary gift—spruce branches were thrown under the wagon’s wheels. That same evening a solemn mass took place. Then came the announcement: Saint Auxentius would be put on display after mass on the following Sunday—in other words, in three days’ time. Until then, the sisters’ task would be to tidy and ready the relics, to put them in order after their long, hard trip. The sisters were eager to peer inside the coffin. But the sight that greeted them was one of horror. Instinctively, they recoiled. What had they expected? In what sorts of wonderments had their imagination attired this martyr whom they had never even heard of before? What could they have expected to see, these poor Capuchins, freezing in their cells without heating, in arm warmers tugged down to cover parts of their chapped hands, in thick wool stockings underneath their habits? A muffled sigh of disappointment escaped up to the chapel’s ceiling. Saint Auxentius was just an ordinary corpse, albeit quite dried out by now, sort of neat, and slick somehow, although his bared teeth and empty eye sockets were certainly sources of terror, or, at the very least, revulsion. Sister Anna said three days turned out not to be enough. Since that time the subsequent sisters had tended to the body of the deceased for over three hundred years. They’d tamed its terror with affectionate nicknames, little jokes and decorations. She herself had crocheted him cuffs when she was young still, since the ones he’d had had all but disintegrated with age. That was the last time the saint’s outfit had been altered. Swati, in spite of her vow of obedience, refused to refresh the mummy’s wardrobe, and Sister Anna had been unable to fault her for this. Once I was back in my room, I got online and stayed on for a while. I learned that when in the sixteenth century Rome had begun to be intensively expanded, digging the foundations of new homes had often revealed Roman catacombs, and in them, human remains. It turned out, of course, that like any old city, Rome had been built upon graves; now the workers’ pickaxes broke through the tops of tombs, letting daylight seep into them for the first time in many hundreds of years. People also began breaking into the catacombs, their inflamed imaginations shrouding them in mysterious tales. Though who but Christian martyrs could it be, buried there? Evenly distributed along the shelves, the dead were reminiscent of some valuable good, bottles of the finest wine, maturing over years in order to attain its particular qualities. The dead were no longer bothered by time’s acts of entropy, the destructive part of it that turned human faces into skulls and human bodies into skeletons. Quite the opposite: once bodies had shriveled and rotted, they moved on to a higher order, getting more delicate, no longer causing the disgust of a corpse in the midst of its disintegration, but rather, as mummies, inspiring admiration and respect. The newly discovered necropolises posed a problem. There were efforts to rebury the remains that had been removed from them, but their numbers were too great—all lovely, well-preserved mummified bodies and elegant skeletons, complete, arranged in graceful poses. The eyes soon grew accustomed to their sight, and then—as was usual in humans—started to differentiate and distinguish the most special among them, the most beautiful, the most harmonious, the best preserved, and from the revelation of their particular beauty it wasn’t much of a leap to their acquiring, on account of the same, exceptional value. In one letter, the stern and gloomy Pope Gregory XIII deliberated over this unexpected abundance of the dead: “We feel as though this whole army has arisen from the ground in these challenging times, and we, instead of repaying it this service, shove it back down into the darkness of the grave. In today’s times, terrible for the true faith, as apostasy closes on us from every side, and of no use are fire and sword against the hideous heresy of Lutheranism, the dead, too, could go to battle…” These words in mind, one of the papal officials (which of them exactly is not known; there is talk of a Father Verdiani, much-trusted by the pope, and with a pretty good nose for profit) found employment for thousands of the dead. Soon a special office was established; gathered in it were highly promising, highly capable and highly imaginative clerics. Also brought in were special task forces of nuns, silent, hunched over, who patiently cleaned off the corpses of all that had settled upon them over the centuries. All this work was kept under the strictest confidence. And then the saints were ready to make their public debuts, carefully arranged in modest coffins, cleansed of dust and spider webs, of weeds and clumps of earth, neatly covered in swathes of clean fabric. Each came with a registry book that contained its name and origins, a thoroughly transcribed biography and the circumstances of the martyrdom, as well as attributes and the range of the martyr’s posthumous acts to indicate what type of intercession one might request of it, what types of prayers to send its way. Every saint had his own attributes, his own domain, just like the protagonists of video games today. This one provided courage, that one luck. This one interceded on behalf of drunkards, that one combatted rodents… Orders from all across Europe poured in. Every supplication sent to the pope and every appeal to his supreme sacred power quickly tied into a request for a holy relic to be sent, in exchange for some reasonable offering. To the plundered churches, which were trying to get back off the ground after their rape by the Protestants, such a relic lent immediate prestige, brought the crowds in under the sanctuary’s roof and enabled them to immerse themselves in the glow of long-lost holy martyrdom, reminding them that this early world is nothing in comparison with the Kingdom of the Lord. And that memento mori. The process of rehoming holy Roman martyrs was one that lasted many years. The office-workers, those capable, imaginative clerics, went out into the world and became nuncios and cardinals, while the hunched-over nuns died off with quiet sighs. Popes changed, all falling into the past like the pages of a calendar: Sixtus, Urban, Gregory, Innocent, Clement, Leo, Paul and Gregory again, all the way up until Pope Urban VIII. In 1629 the office for rehoming saints still existed, and in an effort to improve their work, the scribes had made up cheat sheets in the form of tables and inventories. Their purpose was not to repeat too often the same torture methods, causes of death, circumstances, last names or attributes. [[{"fid":"6704766","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"}}]] The next day, Sister Anna told me that she had once been amazed to hear the story of a saint from a church at some several hundred miles’ remove from the convent here. All of a sudden she felt awful: that other saint, whose name was Rius, had a life story and a martyrdom strikingly similar to their own Auxentius’. Evidently the authors of the registry books had run out of ideas. She said, too, that she had once come across a certain work, written later, in the twentieth century, that had discussed the phenomenon of Holy Roman martyrs in a scholarly way, and from reading it she had learned that over the course of all those decades certain trends—if the term could be permitted—had come and gone, some coming back into fashion again and again. For example, towards the end of the sixteenth century, there were a lot of saints impaled in just a few years, and each time the description of the torment was so vivid and juicy, the literary talent of the anonymous office-worker so great, that any reader would experience pangs of horror as they read. At the same time, the female saints tended to mostly suffer the same fate of having their breasts cut off, these then turning into their attributes. In general, they held them out before their bodies on a tray. In the second decade of the seventeenth century, decapitations were popular. Severed heads would miraculously seek out headless bodies, and miraculously they’d unite. “You’re a psychologist, after all,” she said to me, “so you must understand them perfectly, these inventors of martyrdoms. Even in coming up with the worst kinds of horrors, there must be a little bit of pleasure to be found for the writer, right?” I said I thought the mere awareness of the existence of this whole realm of the world that was worse than the lot that had fallen to us could be healing. “That itself ought to inspire out greatest, inexpressible gratitude towards our Creator,” she replied. With time, the names became increasingly eccentric—of course the reserves of the more popular, more common names had long since been exhausted. Now there were women saints like Ossiana, Magdentia, Hamartia, Angustia or Violanta, and among the men there were Abhorentius, Milruppo and Quintilian, as well as Saint Auxentius, who, early on in the spring of 1629, made his way to the convent. * “Do you know what they’re doing up there?” I asked Sister Anna the next time I went down to the convent, pointing to the Institute, visible through the window as a high-up speck. They had heard they were doing some important research. But that was it. We were folding bedding, using a technique well known around the world, wherever there were duvet covers, pillowcases and sheets—we stood opposite one another and stretched out at a diagonal those great rectangles of linen and cotton so that they’d regain their shapes after washing. Rapidly, in tandem, we established a whole ritual: diagonal at first, then creases at the sides and smoothing them out with short, fast tugs, followed by folding them in half and then diagonally again, in order to finally take a couple of steps towards each other and thus put the bedding into an elegant package. And then again. “We have a hunch about what’s going on, but that’s not the same as knowing,” she said. She always spoke of herself in the plural. After all these years, her identity was monastic, collective. “Be easy, child,” she added, and it sounded almost tender. “The church always wants what’s best.” Oxi gazed at us with his eyes that were semi-precious stones sticking out of his sockets, padded with completely faded silk meant to resemble eyelids. His crimson eyebrows, made of gems, were raised in a cool surprise that was verging on suspicion. * By night, the internet led me down other, even more garish paths, whether I wanted it to or not. The posthumous histories of the saints, or rather, that of their earthly remains—the adoration of fingers, bones, locks of hair, hearts ripped out of bodies, severed heads. The quartered Adalbert of Prague, distributed in relic form amongst churches and monasteries and convents. The blood of Saint Januarius, which regularly underwent enigmatic chemical transformations, altering its state and properties. And also thefts of holy bodies, parceling out corpses as relics, miraculously multiplying hearts, hands, even the foreskins of a tiny Jesus—sacrum preputium. Archived pages of an auction site were offering pieces of the bodies of saints. The first one that really jumped out at me was a reliquary with the remains of John of Capistrano, which were available on Allegro for the price of 680 zlotys. Finally, I found our hero from the attic drying room. Saint Auxentius the martyr had been a lion coach whose lions had been fed Christians under Nero. One night one of the lions spoke to him in a human voice. And the voice was that of Jesus Christ himself. It wasn’t written what the lion said in the voice of Christ, but by morning Auxentius had converted to the Christian faith, released the lions into a forest outside of town, though he himself was captured. The former executioner was now the one condemned to death. The lions were all caught again, and Auxentius, along with other Christians, was thrown to them to be devoured. But the lions wouldn’t lay their paws upon their former master, so in the end he died by dagger, at the hands of an assassin of Nero’s, while the lions were slain with swords. After his death, Auxentius’ body was spirited away by Christians and buried in secret in the catacombs. * “I just stood in front of the hotel, afraid to take another step,” said Sister Anna. We were sitting in the big empty kitchen. The other nuns had already gone out of the room, and gone, too, were the meticulously separated remains of their morning coffee. She’d perched on the windowsill and looked remarkably young. “It was steamy and hot—about what you’d expect for India. My light traveling habit stuck to my body. I felt like I was paralyzed, because what I saw was terrifying me.” For a moment she was silent, searching for the words. “The enormity of that poverty, that desperate struggle to survive, that cruelty. Dogs, cows, people, the rickshaw drivers with their fierce dark faces, the crippled beggars. It all seemed to be endowed with life by force, against the will of those creatures who were condemned to life, as though that variety of life were a downfall, a punishment.” She turned to the window, and then she said, without looking at me: “I think I committed the greatest sin there, and I’m not sure whether or not it’s been forgiven, although I’ve done penance for it, of course. The priest who heard my confession evidently didn’t understand what it was I’d told him.” She looked out the window. “The sacred that had been promised me was not present there. I found nothing that might justify all of that pain. What I beheld was a mechanical world, a biological world, like an anthill organized into established orders that were dumb and inert. I discovered something terrible there. May God forgive me.” Only now did she look at me, and it was as though she were seeking affirmation. “I went back to the hotel and just sat there the whole day. I couldn’t even pray. The next day, in keeping with the plan, some sisters from a convent outside of town came in to get me, and then they took me to their place. We drove through a dried-out orange space filled with trash and shriveled, dried-up trees. We kept silent, and I think the sisters understood what I was going through. Perhaps they had been through it, as well. Somewhere along the road I noticed some little hills going along the horizon, each fifteen yards or so from the next. The sisters told me it was a cemetery for holy cows, but I didn’t get what they meant. I asked them to repeat it. They said that there the untouchables brought the corpses of holy cows so that they wouldn’t pollute the city. They would simply leave them in the scorching sun and let nature do its thing. I asked if we could stop, and I went up in amazement to these mounds that I expected to be remains, skin and bones dried by the sun. From up close, however, you saw something else entirely: twisted, half-digested plastic bags, brand names still legible, shoelaces, rubber bands, screw-tops, containers. No organic digestive fluid could take on advanced human chemistry. The cows ate trash, and unable to digest it, they carried it around in their stomachs. That’s all that’s left of the cows, I was told. The body disappears, eaten by insects and scavengers. What’s left is what’s eternal. Trash.” * I went to say goodbye to the sisters a few days before my departure. I still needed to sort through some papers, pack up the equipment and make my final calculations. The last image I made sure to retain from the convent was the sight of the old women pressed into the glass box of the elevator heading up for mass—Bosch’s lady denizens of paradise making the journey into the beyond, the ends of time. Returning to the Institute, walking in the balks as I made my way uphill, I got an idea, clear and simple, a matter-of-fact response to the questions that had been plaguing me since my arrival, the questions no one had been willing to answer, which all boiled down to: what was this testing I was participating in like an obedient, well-paid soldier? And my thought was at once simple and insane, which made me believe it might actually be correct. I remembered the innocent question Miri had asked that first day, when I had gone to meet them: “Didn’t you want to clone him? They say they do it all the time in China.” I spread out the children’s folders in front of me and lit my joint. I looked at their birthdates, provided with hour and place, as though part of the test involved giving them their horoscope. Who knows, maybe that was part of the plan as well. I added, in pencil, those mysterious codes to each date, each last name. All the testing itself had already been done, and I’d already sketched out their profiles. I was just waiting on the final data, which I usually received in graphic form as a dozen or so prognostic lines, more or less similar to one another. The computer would calculate all the characteristics and then crystalize them around the axes it created for them. The basic graph was thus a kind of tree with branches of differing widths. The fattest, most fully realized branches were the most probable ones. In my time I had seen trees that looked like sprawling baobabs with hundreds of twig-possibilities. I had also seen those that were dominated by a single thick branch. But it was always children—fine, bright, human children—transformed into vegetable forms. I flipped through the files, sorting out the data groups, when suddenly I was seized by pain—the pain I knew well by now, that reminded of itself from time to time, like a kind of guard overseeing things, keeping them in order. Then, on the verge of pain, just before the arrival of the relief I anticipated, the files and symbols, dates and labels used to designate the tested teenagers, and the inscription in the convent over the door, and Dani’s smile, the black bit of truffle, and Miri’s eyes filled with concern when she asked me about my dead dog—all of it started to roll in my mind like a ball of sticky snow, and everything it picked up on its way made it get even bigger, even more tightly packed. The matter was becoming clear. I just wasn’t sure what the numbers after the letters meant, maybe the number of the trial or some versions of the experiment. Miri was Cl 1.2.1, Jules Fr 1.1.1 and Max Fr 1.1.2. Hannah was Chl 1.1.1, Amelia and Julia Hd 1.2.2 and Hd 1.2.1, Eva Tr 1.1.1, Vito and Otto JHC 1.1.2/JHC 1.1.1, Adrian Jn 1.2.1. Thierry JC 1.1.1. So it was simple. Saint Clare of Assisi, a body with no traces of decay, exhibited since the late nineteenth century in a glass cabinet in the Basilica of Saint Clare. A wide range of relics, well-preserved light hair. Saint Francis, a skeleton in good shape, in the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Saint Hedwig of Silesia, another skeleton in fine shape, relics distributed by the Krakow diocese, a bone from the ring finger in a church in western Poland. A piece of a bone of Saint Hildegarde. Bits of the body of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, known as the Little Flower, who never quit making pilgrimages all over the world. And three more I didn’t recognize, but all three could be deduced quite quickly, with just a few clicks. I felt as though, in the game of tic-tac-toe, I was completing my drawing of a small, beautiful circle inside the crucial box. * I was packed and ready in the morning, and I had called the same cab that had brought me here over a month before. Awaiting it in front of the school, I saw Miri sitting on the fence. She smiled, and I went up to her. I didn’t say anything because I was too moved to. I just looked at her concerned, innocent child’s face, at her blush. “Clare?” I finally said, almost inaudibly. She didn’t seem surprised at all when after a moment’s hesitation I took her hand and laid it on my forehead. It took her a few seconds to fully understand, and then she also touched my eyes and ears, and then she put both of her hands upon my heart, exactly where I needed them the most. Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Cullman, Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell and NEA grants and fellowships, as well as the inaugural Michael Henry Heim Prize for Translation, the 2018 Found in Translation Award, the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and a Tin House Scholarship for her novel Homesick, originally written in Spanish, forthcoming in English from Unnamed Press in September and in Spanish from Entropía in 2020. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literary Studies from Northwestern University and an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Iowa.
The Year in Gritty: Birth of a New God

We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Gritty is the dumb and ugly hockey mascot revealed by the Philadelphia Flyers on September 24 of this cursed year. Nothing was expected of it (of him?), beyond some local news coverage, some local outrage on Sports Twitter. But the world took notice, because Gritty is the visual and physical embodiment of the epic troll: weird on purpose, both frightening and idiotic, at turns lovable and violent, so “on brand” as to be stubbornly memorable even when you’d rather forget. At seven feet tall and with a head made of wild orange hair dotted with googly eyes, Gritty is an epic troll. The Era picks its heroes and icons, and the people tasked with typing these “The Year In …” think pieces are left to come up with excuses for our society’s failings, the rapid de-evolution of Western Civilization, the lowness of our culture. And it doesn’t matter. Gritty will win because Gritty already won. That feeling you had when you first saw Gritty? That’s what it felt like when people first saw Elvis Presley on TV, or Darth Vader in a movie theater, or Joan of Arc leading the charge on Orléans in 1429, or when a sin-jowled Nixon punched his stubby V-sign fingers into the air before a helicopter hauled him away from the White House. Dread, love, fear, wonder, disgust. Whatever the emotion, it comes with the mark of things forever changed. Does Gritty look and act like the meth-lab offspring of Doug Ford and Donald Trump? Yes, this is undeniably true. Is Gritty vulgar and foul-tempered? Watch the monster in ecstasy as he fondles his huge belly, or driven into a rage by a Mites On Ice child player during intermission. (Gritty picked up that kid and threw him in the penalty box, the same penalty box that Gritty destroyed in a separate fury on October 23.) With each wantonly fireable offense—viciously bodychecking the goalies, shooting Flyers’ promotions staff in the back with the T-shirt gun, beating up Rangers fans after dumping popcorn in their hair, threatening to murder the Pittsburgh Penguins’ mascot—Gritty’s fame and influence grows. It is here where the Ford Nation/Deplorables parallels are impossible to deny. Yet Gritty’s vile behavior is evidence not of privilege or fake populism, but of True Grit. It doesn’t matter that he’s the mascot for a $750-million NHL franchise. Gritty immediately transcended his late-capitalism brand origins. As the socialist quarterly Jacobin announced just days after the mascot’s debut: “Gritty is a worker.” The inevitable Philadelphia protests timed for Trump’s visit on October 2 witnessed the birth of Gritty as an anti-billionaire working-class street brawler. If Trump finally allowed the racists and nationalists to start saying the quiet parts loud, Gritty gave the New Left permission to wear guillotine T-shirts they’d previously only “liked” on @dasharez0ne's Twitter feed, and the gall to demand and fight for a Green New Deal, to free the American left from asking permission anymore. Not for health care, not for good-paying jobs, not for free college, not for justice. Of course Gritty can take down the soft boys of the Alt-Right, but his ultimate goal (beyond eating Zamboni snow) is a joyfully chaotic destruction of Late Capitalism and its long-protected vulture class. Of course the mascot belongs to Philadelphia, the monster’s personality being the beloved stereotype of the chip-on-the-shoulder loud-mouth drunken Flyers’ fan (or player) living off Fireball Cinnamon Whiskey and cheese steaks and pills stolen from grandma. Brian Allen, a commercial artist and Penn State alumnus with a retro comic-book style, was contracted to come up with the mascot and presented 20 sketches. Flyers’ management “picked a big dumpy monster I had drawn as the starting point,” Allen said. Of course it was the starting point. Gritty was born of a Jungian vision. The artist is the weapon of the muse. And, as designed and intended, the instant revulsion shown for this “ghastly empty-eyed muppet” on global social media made him instantly and forever embraced by his hometown, a city where the trash is never picked up, a city that bombed itself, a city that calls itself the birthplace of liberty. Within weeks of his birth, or unearthing, there was an official proclamation from the Philadelphia City Council: “WHEREAS, Gritty may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster.” The tattoo parlors were already doing a brisk business in garish Gritty designs. The jack o’lanterns hurled by Philadelphia’s street urchins this past Halloween were mostly carved with variations of Gritty’s death grin. But the city now shares their deranged hockey monster with the world, with the rise of the new global left. The faux-populist horrors of recent years have seen occasional calls for the leftist and socialist opposition to adopt Trumpian behavior, to elevate cretins and scumbags to positions of leadership. Human disasters such as Michael Avenatti—who insanely believed his legal representation of one of Trump’s adult-actress mistresses made him eligible for the Democratic presidential nomination—are evidence of why out-Trumping Trump or out-Fording the Fords never works when your cause is the Good Cause, the moral one, the one that will prevail if we as a species will continue our civilization here on this landfill-covered melting planet. Gritty gives us an out: We don’t have to be monsters, but we can have a monster as our god. A god of justice, a god of righteous vengeance, a god of fire and fury, a god of Saturnalian fun. This is why Gritty stirs something deep within the souls of people long divorced from the old religions, which have weakened and splintered into identity camps of mealy-mouthed do-gooders or dumb extremists, a realm where nobody actually believes any of it. Gritty asks for nothing but Total Faith, faith that this spirit of chaos and working-class strength and wild ceremony can be channeled into action, everywhere. You can’t say you want to see Trump on the block without having bad-faith fascists getting you banned on Twitter, but you can get a tattoo with Gritty throwing Trump in the penalty box (which contains a guillotine). You can put a laughing, manic, fist-waving Gritty on your protest signs and then use those signs (in self-defense!) to smash the neo-Nazis on the street and the Koch brothers at the ballot box. Like the Viking berserkers of old giving themselves over to the Mystic Bear Warrior before fearlessly going to battle, for all of those today fighting the Oppressor, the spirit of Gritty is there. [[{"fid":"6704711","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"}}]] *** Thank you, as always, for reading. Hazlitt will return in January.
The Year in Thrift

As I moved into a house where I hope to stay forever, I spent a lot of time with things other people left behind. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I spent four years working in retail for a fast-fashion chain that, at the time, employed a program colloquially known as “rip shifts,” processing items no longer in sellable condition. Sometimes unsellable meant returned purchases sodden with sweat and cigarette smoke. Sometimes it meant a decision passed on from management about a shipment of 89 mustard yellow polo shirts seven months out of season. Once or twice a week, an employee would spend six hours in the stock room with a pair of high-quality garden shears, shredding nylon puffer jackets and cheap sandals into unusable bits of material that couldn’t be fished out of a dumpster somewhere and, god forbid, given a second life. Depending on a lot of things—your mood that day, your relationship to this employer, your inclination towards human interaction—it was the best shift to take, so long as you didn’t think too hard about what was actually going on. After working a rip shift, I’d have muscle-memory dreams. Of the particular, putty-like give of pulling spandex apart. Of finding the right pocket to split the side seam of a pair of jeans in one smooth cut. Of nests of useless fibres growing taller, forever. Now, ten years later, once or twice a week, on my way home from work, I’ll stop at the thrift shop down the block from where I live. I pick a section—denim, knits, toddlers’ clothing—and run two fingers along the hangers’ shoulders while going up and down the aisles. I let texture direct my attention. The plastic pull of acrylic? Pass. Polyester? Any smells or stains will never leave; keep walking. The brush of cotton or wool is good. The tractionless slip of silk, better. Cupro is soft and heavy and indicative of contemporary technology: recycled strands of cotton blended with copper oxide and favoured by manufacturers and designers who value environmental economy, or at least the semblance of such. Since this is a second-hand purchase, I tell myself, I don’t have to worry about the distinction. If the colour suits and the size is right, I take it off the rack to think about whether or not to take it home. These days, the ritual doesn’t take long. Maybe ten minutes or so. Not too long ago, it used to take hours. I started thrifting in earnest last year for a few reasons. My second pregnancy permanently swelled my feet up by nearly a whole size, and no pair of shoes I owned still fit. I was on a parental leave salary, and on parental leave time. I told myself it was an ethical choice. Commercial garment production is notorious for its use and pollution of water, inefficient textile use and exploitative labour practices. Perhaps this could be one easy way to feel better about the consumption choices I make, I thought. This choice quickly ceased to be remotely about ethics or being economical. On my first trip to that neighbourhood thrift store, thirty seconds after walking past the shelves of mismatched tea cups and silverware and mounted Scarface posters, I spotted a white garment tag still hanging from the hip of a pair of pants, Missoni’s trademark boldface "M." A $700 pair of brand new unworn wool slacks just sitting on the rack, priced at $5.99. “What idiot would throw something like this away?” I thought, at once re-living that one Simpsons episode and finally, truly, turning into my father. I spent the next hour flipping through every hanger on that rack. I loved, it turned out, wandering among the purged possessions of others. I also loved bringing them home.  My family moved into our most recent, and hopefully permanent, home last Christmas. It was my sixth move in ten years. Nine, if you count a few three-month interstitials spent at my nonna-in-law’s home while we looked for places in a city with one of the most polarized affordability and vacancy rates in Canada. Our first stay at my nonna-in-law’s home in between apartments was in the year after her husband died. We spent those months helping her bag up his suits, ties and shoes and ensuring they were on the porch for various charity programs to pick up, programs that likely carted them to the same types of thrift stores I’ve spent the last year ambling about in.  That Christmas, we opened and giggled over every bottle of homemade grappa that nonno would distill and store in the basement, left forgotten for years. Most of it was undrinkable—bottles stuffed with deconstructed raspberries and raisins left to bloat into fuzzy, grey balloons—but she insisted everyone take some home. It was the beginning of an ongoing purge that has little to do with KonMari method ideas about minimalist purity. It feels more like a wind-down, one that instills a kind of gratitude and pre-emptive grief whenever I experience it. At one point, she pulled some clothes out of her closet, three plaid skirts she’d cut and sewn for herself shortly after moving to Canada in the 1960s, and gave one each to her two granddaughters and me. She worked most of her life as a tailor, and these skirts are expertly made. Every hem is perfectly even, every line of the fabric’s pattern book-matched at the seams. I’ve seen such garments while thrifting—handmade clothes, clearly meant for a particular person—and gravitate towards them now. Never to buy them; just to look. After we’d settled this most recent move, my father started leaving old belongings around our home without telling us. Baby clothes. A bicycle helmet. I know what he thinks he is doing. I want to believe it’s too early for it. I don’t yet have it in me to tell him to stop. 
The Year in Chores

This year, time flew marked by dishes, laundry, trash, repeat. Occasionally I was seized with the worry that I was not doing the correct things.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Entropy is often explained, simplistically, as a measure of disorder. It’s a rule of the universe: everything tends toward disorder. A party will not clean up after itself, because entropy. A broken glass won’t heal itself, because entropy. My friend Kate, a poet and physicist, says that simply by existing, we are fighting entropy. To be alive is to be ordered. What I’d wanted was for this to be a quiet year. I’d wanted to rebuild my life and the routines in it. The year before had been nuts, albeit in the good way: I’d gotten married. I’d had two books released within three months of each other, and gone on two book tours. I’d met innumerable new people and eaten alone in innumerable restaurants—not unhappily. It seemed a sustained reward for the previous year, during which I worked constantly, during which I debated about whether or not to leave a job that was making me miserable, despite the fact that I loved the work itself. What I wound up doing more of, this year, more than anything else, was chores. Even writing often felt like a chore—a small act that created order, temporarily, but seemingly amounted to nothing. I say seemingly, but maybe it’s actually—the jury is still out. The jury hasn’t even been summoned. Writing pieces of a thing that I didn’t have any great plans for, I felt less like an architect of some grand thing. I felt more like a custodian.  My plans had not exactly been the best laid. I had given myself responsibilities—probably too many: In December I signed a commercial real-estate lease for the arts-and-letters space I’d wanted to open; in January, we were off to the races. This brought new people and meaning to my life, and also chores. In June we adopted a kitten, which added love to our lives, and also chores. All year, my husband Eli was working in Los Angeles, back for visits to San Francisco roughly every other weekend. Suddenly the chores that we had divided, at home, became mostly mine. Nobody washed the dishes after I cooked. Cooking, which ordinarily I love, became difficult. One weekend, while Eli was home, I took a sausage out of the fridge, peeled the wrapper off, and started to eat it, the way I might have fed myself, alone. “Give me that,” he said, horrified. He pried the cold, naked sausage out of my hands, sliced it, put it on a plate, and microwaved it. He finished it with a decorative swirling of Sriracha. After I was done, he washed the dish. Was that so hard? It sort of was. Early in the year a librarian told me about Kanopy, the online streaming service connected to public libraries. They had The Great Courses, she said! This excited me. I proceeded to stream “The Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time,” taught by Sean Carroll, a CalTech professor. Time moves only in one direction, and disorder is always increasing. One can mix cream into coffee but one cannot easily unmix it. One can scramble an egg but not unscramble it. (Scientists apparently have figured out a very complicated way of un-boiling eggs.) Entropy, in our universe, had been lower in the past. Entropy is always increasing. There is no end to chores. Time flies like an arrow, and time flew marked by chores: dishes, laundry, trash, repeat. It seemed like it was always time to swap out the litter in the litter box, and litter is so goddamn heavy. The chores not only seemed interminable, they were; they are. The average person loses a third of an ounce of skin per week. The weight of a “car key,” according to Hughes Environmental. Our cat Bunny has a tortoiseshell coat, so it’s three colors of fur she sheds everywhere. Then there is my hair, that seems to be falling out at a rate that defies logic. And each of us losing car keys of skin every week, though I guess it’s probably less for cats, and Eli is here only part of the time.  Every week I’m having to contend with a car key and a half of my family’s skin, let’s say. This year I washed out the sponge-y filter in my vacuum for the first time! I’d never known this was a thing you should do until I Googled it. I washed it with soap and water and watched the water run out when I squeezed it, blackened. Once, tiredly, doing a load of laundry, I forgot the detergent. It seemed like every other week I was scooping molding hummus and salsa from out of their tubs, and rinsing the tubs, and putting them in the recycling bin. The mold was living its best life, and was I? Occasionally I was seized with the worry that I was not doing the correct things. In less charitable moments I thought: I’ve given myself reasons to feel useful, but what was I doing, really? The feeling sometimes crept in, insidious: I wasn’t building anything solid, or real, or permanent. I was writing pages and pages, and despite all this time spent, I still couldn’t understand where the book was going, or what the point of it was. I’d wash the dishes and take out the recycling, and a moment later there was another dish to be washed or more junk mail in the mail slot. From time to time I wondered, I still wonder, if it had been a mistake to arrange my life the way I had. In an alternate universe I moved to Los Angeles with my husband and I’ve been writing my masterpiece—my masterpiece I have an outline for—and my burden of chores is shared, and minimal. Yet I had the loveliest year, and it unfolded in quiet, impermanent, perfect moments: in good people gathered to talk and laugh together for an hour or two; in a little cat purring, its body draped over mine, while I read. These were things that happened, and vanished. Not without a trace—there are always traces. The trash would need taking out and there would be furniture to be put back in to place, and dishes to wash, and surfaces to wipe, and pants to go over with the lint roller. It’s occurring to me now that chores, as acts that momentarily bring order to our universes, are important human stuff. Or at least human stuff. Anyway, they’re not nothing. Last night, reading a poem by Ada Limon, I copied part of it down: “I took to my hands and knees. I was thinking about the novel / I was writing. The great heavy chest of live animals / I had been dragging around for years;/ what’s life?/ I made the house so clean (shine and shine and shine).”
The Year Inside My Brain

I stood up and the top of my skull slammed hard into the ceiling. Weird, I thought, and then I stopped thinking at all.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. If there's one thing I know about recovering from a concussion, it's that nobody thinks they could possibly ever do it. I know this because it's what every single person has said to me every single time I’ve told them the big long list of stuff you're not supposed to do during your initial period of "brain rest,” which for most people lasts about a week, but can take months for those with more severe injuries. The goal of this period is essentially to get both the amount of sensory input going into your brain and the amount of interaction you have with yourself down to zero for as long as you possibly can. You are trying to divert one hundred percent of your brain’s energy back to the recovery process, which means you can't listen to music or podcasts or audiobooks. You can't read, or watch TV or look at your phone. You can't cook at all, or clean without taking many breaks. You can't really go out anywhere, because all sensory input makes your eyeballs feel like they’re inflating in their sockets. You can't really talk to anyone for very long, or about anything of consequence. You absolutely can't drink or smoke weed, and you shouldn’t take CBD oil or any kind of painkillers or naps if you can help it. You can eat right and drink a lot of water and wake up at the same time every morning and go for short walks until you feel dizzy and besides that, basically, your options are to sit on the couch and stare at the wall, or to sit on the couch and see if you’re somehow any better at meditating than you were the last time you tried it. (Surprise! You’re not.) Years ago, I had this friend—not super close, more of an acquaintance, really. We lived in Montreal at the same time, except that while I was drinking comically oversized bottles of 50 in the city's dumbest bars and writing poems about my complex emotional landscape, he was getting a degree in physics, and then a job at the school, and then one day on his way to work, into a horrific bike accident where he smashed his (helmeted!) head so hard on the pavement that the resulting brain injury lasted for literally years. I saw him when he was just emerging from the darkest part of his recovery—the black hole at the centre, the big rest—and when I asked him what he’d been doing since the accident, he just shrugged. Light jogs around the neighbourhood, petting a strip off the cat. I asked him whether he could at least catch up on his reading and he reeled off that long list of things he wasn’t allowed to do, and then I said the same thing that everyone says: Wow, I could never do that. Hubris! I didn’t get my concussion in a bike accident, though when my brand-new manager at my brand-new job told all my new coworkers I had, I did not correct him. I got my concussion in the basement of my house, on a hot day in late August, while trying to locate the origin of the cat pee smell that had been lingering down there for weeks. I was bending down to check behind a box full of copies of the poetry collection I’d published in the spring, thinking about how funny and sad it would be if the cat had pissed all over them, and then when I stood up the top of my skull slammed hard into the corner of the concrete bulkhead that jutted out from the low ceiling. I braced myself for pain, but felt something completely different instead: a powerful, shimmering nausea unlike anything I’d ever felt before, sweeping through my body in one intense wave from the top of my head right down into the arches of my feet. Like a natural disaster. I’m not sure how long I stood there, just letting the wave move through me in diminishing intervals like that, but I’m convinced that if you were watching me you could have seen my body cutting in and out like a bad signal. (Funnily enough, I had used this exact image often in that poetry collection, as a representation of an idea, and now it felt like it was actually happening to me. Hubris?) Weird, I thought, and then I stopped thinking at all. Another thing they tell you at the clinic is that anxiety and memory both burn brain-energy at about three times the rate of regular thought, stimulating the exact parts of the organ you are trying to keep still for recovery purposes, and as such you should really try to avoid them wherever you can. So, okay: just sit on the couch for twelve hours a day with no distractions and a brain injury and do your best not to feel anxious, because feeling anxious will make your brain injury worse. Also don’t remember anything. No problem, right? I could never do that is the only logical response to this, even though it doesn’t matter whether you think you can, because you have to. The only people who think they can do it are nuns and monks and yoga people and the brainwashed; people tapped into some mystical dimension that requires total, rigorous, daily, full-body commitment to reach.  Concussion makes your relationship with your own mind hyperliteral, then turns it inside out. A few days into my initial recovery, I noticed this spot on the back left quadrant of my skull, about the size of a toonie. Most of the time the spot tingled in an ambient, white-noise kind of way, but if I tried to do anything too challenging—like, say, reading the IKEA catalogue for longer than four minutes, or thinking for ten seconds about all the money that was literally draining out of my bank account minute by minute as I sat there not working or moving or thinking—the tingling would flare into a hot pins-and-needles sensation that increased in volume until it burned so bright I would be literally forced to stop thinking at all until it died down. When I described all of this to my doctor he just sat there nodding patiently, waiting for me to finish. That's blood rushing to the part of your brain you're trying to think with, he told me. Cool. You can use it as a guide, he said. If I felt a little tingling, I was doing something good for me, pushing myself just enough. Too much, and I knew to back off. Soon, this spot inside my skull became my only reliable metric for how much I should be thinking, whether I should stop. Recently, I’ve stopped being able to feel it; soon it will be entirely gone. I think I might miss it, though “miss” is also entirely the wrong word. A friend once told me about this video he was obsessed with—specifically, the part where you can see the inner workings of the MTA control centre. The antique 1930s control panel, all those ancient levers and switches and wires. I like the part where the guy emphasizes that the whole thing is completely safe, just very, very old. That control centre, it turns out, is an excellent thing to picture when you’re picturing the inside of your brain. Idiosyncratically constructed, at once impossibly strong and idiotically precarious. As long as I’ve been a depressed person, I have understood my depression primarily as an issue of crossed wires, chemical imbalance. My brain and my body are connected, and that’s why both of them feel better if I exercise and eat and sleep and drink water and take my pills at the same time every day. No big mystery. I say this all the time, and most of the time I believe it. Still, though, I've never been able to completely let go of the secret conviction that some part of my emotional life operates completely outside of my body, and therefore completely outside my control. My most intense episodes of depression or anxiety can feel so full-body that when I am in their grip, it’s impossible to conceive of them as a glitch in my own chemical processing. In these moments, my emotions feel like truths about the world outside my body that have worked their way into my nervous system. It feels not just inadequate but foolish to presume they begin and end inside my body. They are not petty or small. They are a natural disaster. But lately I’ve wondering whether there’s a third option: something bigger than my body that fits perfectly inside it. Like, okay: there’s this weird trick I can do with my memory. It’s been four months now since I hit my head in the basement, and though many of my symptoms have dissolved, I can still conjure those initial waves of strange, glittering nausea from the moment I hit my head in the first place. All I have to do is describe it—to myself or someone else—and suddenly, there they are, pulling all the way through me again, like nothing else I’ve ever felt before. I am one hundred percent certain that what I experience in these moments is not the memory of a feeling or the idea of it or a watered-down version cut with time and distance, but the actual exact same sensation I felt a whole four months ago, coming down through my body again. Is this a glitch in my brain or is it time travel? Does it matter? Doesn’t trauma sear itself into your circuitry, and is that maybe a kind of magic too? Since I discovered I could do this, conjure the past into the present, I’ve found myself testing it out every couple of days—at my day job, in conversations, on the streetcar, in my bed alone—just to see. It feels perverse and queasy and inexplicably satisfying. It’s not a metaphor for anything. You never know all the things that your body can do, even when you’re sure you’ve felt each one. There’s always something new for you to learn from the interior.
The Year in Dog

Days have become generally unmanageable, and for some people it helps a bit to have a dog around, which I encourage. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Maintaining a dog is mostly not that difficult. The worst part is the constant fear you’ll kill it, particularly in a way that lets everyone else know the death was your fault. The second-worst part is knowing that, even if you don’t kill it, it’s definitely going to die. And from then on you’ll carry around the weight of your beloved dead dog that you won’t be able to talk about as much as you want to, because it’s just a dog, not a human, and the humans you know will also be dying. Otherwise it’s really good. This year I had the pleasure of pep-talking a few friends into getting dogs of their own. Days have become generally unmanageable, and for some people it helps a bit to have a dog around, which I encourage. My friends’ concerns were mainly like this: Will I kill it? Will it be too expensive? Am I going to be able to deal with taking it outside to do its business multiple times per day for twelve whole years, or however long it lives? Will it ruin my social life? Will it hate me for not being good enough? It’s difficult, I know. It’s a big decision. I’ll tell you what the answers are, though, in case you’re also curious: Probably not; sort of; yes, but if you adopt an older one you’ll have it for fewer years than that; yes, but that’s a positive; and maybe. But mostly you’ll just love the dog and the rest is nothing.  This isn’t to say I think everyone should have a dog. Even though maintaining one is non-difficult, like I said, there are many non-difficult things that some people are just not equipped to manage. For example, I once dated (this is none of your business) a guy who thought dishwashers came with soap already inside of them. Like, a supply of soap that was distributed throughout each wash, already there, inside the dishwasher that came with his apartment. That guy should not have a dog. (He’s a doctor now.)  Anyway, this was my first full year as a dog owner. I adopted my dog, Peter, in May of last year from a Brooklyn rescue that saved him from a kill shelter in Georgia. In case you’re unfamiliar with my number one Pete-man, the tiny Peterita, I’ll tell you what to picture when you think of him: He’s a mix of several dogs, mainly black lab and chihuahua, and the mix lends him the appearance of some sort of very shiny puppy. He’s got wide-spread, noticeably large eyes, and a really intense pee stare when he needs to go out. His head is a bit too small for his body, which is not aided by the fact that he’s a little too fat. I don’t mean this to be rude. Truly it’s only just a tiny bit, and I think he’s very handsome, obviously—a young Leonardo DiCaprio type, if I had to cast him—but it just so happens that he deserves treats at a rate that slightly outpaces the amount of exercise city living allows. It’s neither of our faults, really, but we’re working on it. This year together cemented a rhythm with us—dogs sort of require the rhythm and train you to respond accordingly. Mornings are always the same. The alarm goes off and if it’s before 6:30 a.m., Peter will stay in bed a bit longer, literally groaning like a teenager when I hug him and tell him that I love him so much it makes me want to die, before I go off to do whatever morning chores there are to do. After 7 a.m. usually means I don’t want to get out of bed at all, which forces Peter to put his tiny little face right in mine, giving me his intense pee stare until I relent.   For whatever reason, he presses his body flat against the door to assist in my putting on his collar to go outside. It’s no more helpful than if he just stood still, not pressed against the door, but I appreciate the effort nontheless. He trots down the stairs, bow-legged and funny, and we head off to the nearby park. For the most part I dread meeting other dog owners on our walks—trying to be polite as dogs tug at your arms, neither of you exactly sure when to cut the conversation off and say, “okay [dog] let’s keep walking!”—but I had an exceptional meeting in January that has stuck with me, if you’d like to hear about it. Peter and I were stopped by an older man getting out of his truck, who asked if he could say hello. Yes, he could. He cupped Peter’s face in his hands explained that he loved dogs, and that his dogs had died. He wiped the boogers out of the corners of Peter’s eyes and said, “You spoil them, you know?” The man kept dog treats he got from the bank in the cup holders of his truck in case he had the opportunity to meet any new dogs, and he gave one to Peter. (Peter, sadly, doesn’t take well to treats when he’s nervous, which he tends to be. He took it gingerly in his mouth and placed it on the ground. I picked it up and said he’d be excited about it when we got home, but it still felt a little cruel and I feel bad that it happened the way it did.) Before parting ways he stopped me to ask what my dog’s name was. “Peter,” I said. He gasped. “—My name is Peter!”   After the walk comes his feeding and our various work day formations. If I sit in my chair, he’ll lie at my chair’s side. If I sit on the yoga mat, he’ll sit up directly beside me as if we are both using the computer. If I lie on the bed, which I must admit is what I usually do, he’ll lie with me, either under the covers, at my feet, or right by my side, with his head on my shoulder. Obviously I feel guilt about the boring day he must have while I’m looking at my stupid computer (and what must he think I’m doing? I hope he doesn’t know about Twitter) so I’ll usually sing him a lot of high-pitched songs about the body parts he has, to entertain him. (For example: “Are you my little puppy guy / Do you have little puppy eyes / Are you sweet / And are you small / And do you have a face?”) (For another: “Who is this little puppy guy / Why is he so sweet? / He is tiny and he is small / And he has got four feet!”) At night we sleep together in my bed, a disgusting habit that I would not alter for even a significant sum of money. (And I would love a significant sum of money.) Then I listen to him breathe until I fall asleep. The year was solidly this. Maintaining my dog, being with my dog, holding my dog’s face in my hands and telling him I love him while he tells me stop holding my face. The days slipped together, racing past in a blur of unspeakable horror, but there was at least always this. My number one Pete-man. The tiny Peterita.
The Year in Rebuilding

That’s the thing with emotional abuse. You stop trusting yourself, which makes it hard to be alone, so you stay and you listen to someone else’s version of your shared story.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. A male friend recently told me he'd just looked up the definition of gaslighting. “I'm still not sure I know what it means,” he said. “It's basically what Trump's doing to the whole world,” I said, and then I laughed. Not because it was funny. Because I couldn't imagine what it's like not to know.  Gaslighting was the tactic most commonly used by my ex-boyfriend, Ryan*, when we were together in 2017. It was part of a pattern of emotional abuse that made me believe I was as crazy as he insisted I was. He argued with every thought I spoke out loud. He discredited every feeling, including those he asked me to share. He told me he didn’t hold me against the wall by my throat that one night, when his eyes came down on me like an avalanche and I believed I deserved it. “Mate, you’ve lost the plot.” He said it all the time when I pointed out his behaviour. He had as many different ways of calling me crazy as he had reasons to do it. He’d say it with an edge of affection for his crazy girlfriend who wanted to run ultramarathons. He’d say it with a heavy dose of pity for his crazy girlfriend who didn’t want kids. He’d say it, drunk in the middle of the night, because his crazy girlfriend was crying again. If he voiced jealousy over someone smiling at me on the street, he blamed his outburst on my having given a flirty look. If we went to the gym together, and he was angry he’d spent $7 on admission rather than a beer, he’d say we wouldn’t be fighting if I hadn’t forced him to exercise. If I said I was frustrated by being constantly cast as the crazy girlfriend, the issue was never his treatment of me, it was my sensitivity. Reframing an incident was easier than taking responsibility for it, at least, for him. This is part of what makes it hard to identify gaslighting. It can be disguised as a different perspective. After we broke up, I spent 2018 re-learning how to trust myself—my thoughts, my feelings, things that happened right in front of me. If you’ve never been with someone who negates your experience of the world, it’s hard to imagine how it starts. It’s like a brainwashing you agree to. At first, I kept notes like life preservers around me, reading them behind the locked door of the bathroom when I felt reality washing away on his words. Eventually though, worried he’d find them, I shredded them. I deleted the whispered voice memos from my phone because they seemed like evidence he was right. They seemed like the sort of thing a crazy person would keep.   For a long time, I didn’t call it abuse. Living in the Yukon, where rates of violence against women are three times higher than the national average (and those rates are even higher for Indigenous women), if felt like there was always something worse happening. As a journalist, I was often covering it. My nose wasn't broken like the woman I interviewed about her domestic assault. Ryan hadn't threatened "'til death do us part" like the ex in the harassment trial I covered. Besides, I was a lippy feminist who talked back to catcallers and told her friends to ditch partners who were leeches, or alcoholics, or simply mean. I wasn't the kind of person who landed in an abusive relationship, let alone stayed in one for a year. Still, somehow, I did. * It was my first winter in Whitehorse. My long-term partner was still in Ontario, and we stayed together at first, eventually deciding on an open relationship, and then no relationship. I moved north to cover crime for a local newspaper while I wrote a novel about a family of outfitters that fractures when one member goes missing. I remember being overwhelmed by the number of charges of harassment and assault there were to cover—so many that a co-worker suggested I quit reporting on it altogether. “We can’t cover them all,” he said. “How do you decide which ones are bad enough?” I stopped trying to keep up and focussed my spare time on the novel, which is how I met Ryan. He was in Canada, working as a carpenter and a horse wrangler for an outfitter I was interviewing. He had hazel eyes and an Australian accent. He was gentle with horses and he smelled like hay and engine oil. We met at a wild game banquet. He told me, later, that when I'd walked up to him that night, wearing a dress printed with images of deer and foxes and black bears, he didn’t know whether to kiss me or shoot me. If you’d asked me, then, to describe him in a word, I would have used joyful. He'd pick me up after work and yank me across the bench seat of his truck so he could sing Elton John songs in my ear as he drove the Alaska Highway north to his cabin, where we built bonfires in the snow and looked for northern lights. Falling in love with him was like falling in love with a character I’d written, even as I was already involved with other, very non-fictional people. Ryan knew about the partner back in Ontario and had no reservations about continuing our relationship. We never discussed exclusivity. He reminded me often that his plans included long stretches leaving the Yukon to travel to Alaska, Alberta and Ontario before returning to Australia. I told him I was happy to enjoy each other as much as possible until that time came. I don’t know if we were so intense so early because, or in spite, of our built-in expiry date. That was the arrangement, when, months later, he found out that the same week we’d met, I’d been sleeping with a single dad from Vancouver—one I saw again after meeting Ryan, and one I intentionally didn’t mention. Ryan had a meltdown. He called me a cheater. He said we’d never been casual and, in fact, he’d been thinking about cancelling his travel plans, extending his visa, marrying me, and having kids (though I was clear I didn’t want the latter two with anyone). At first, I defended myself (can you technically cheat on someone if you aren’t actually a couple?), but my defense felt like weaselling out of responsibility. I didn’t want to dismiss his pain or perspective, so I agreed with him. I believed I was a cheater. I still believe that. The difference now is that I also believe that didn’t justify Ryan’s treatment of me, before or after he found out. * At first, it was the way romance is, halcyon and singular. Whitehorse was quiet and cold and dark. We ignored it, staying in bed until the winter sun set, then eating bacon in the silver afternoon light of my small, slanted cottage. We drove everywhere because, in minus 40, our breath froze our eyelashes to crystals if we walked. He talked about flying me home to meet his family in Australia where I could finally take off my parka and get a tan. Mornings, he rolled over and gave me a look like he was discovering galaxies in bed beside him. “Fuck, I love you.” He sounded shocked every day. “You know?” I did know. It’s why I didn’t mind that he was jealous. Instead, I learned to recognize the look he’d get when jealousy kicked in. The way his forehead fell like a shelf, shadowing his eyes. The way his cheek twitched.   "You know that guy?" he'd ask, pointing at a singer in a bar. "Did you fuck that guy? Why does he keep looking at you?" One night, someone I’d never seen before told Ryan to watch out for me. That I looked like trouble. Ryan spent the rest of the night trying to get me to admit I was sleeping with the stranger. We were thrown out of a bar after a man walked by us and said I should go home with him. Ryan grabbed him by the collar, pushed him through the dense crowd, and punched a bouncer in the process. After that, I told him a dozen different times that I wouldn’t be around him when he was drinking. "Amy," he always said. "The problem isn't that we're drinking. It's what we're drinking." His drunkenness, and the fights that followed, were my fault because I liked whisky. He was just trying to keep up. We’d be fine if we stuck to beer, or cocktails, or took "nights off." That’s how he characterized the evenings we stayed in to watch movies and split a bottle of wine. He wasn’t even 30. Already he had the thin spidery veins around his nose that you see in career alcoholics. * He found out about the single dad in the spring, while he was working a stint as a carpenter in Calgary. I flew there to apologize. He picked me up at the airport and told me he’d considered driving me into the flat, dark Alberta countryside and leaving me on the side of the highway.  "If I take you back," he said. "You can't break up with me. You can't cheat on me and then break up with me." I promised not to. * As the snow melted, his moods were like mountain weather. He loved me and called me regularly from his job in Calgary to remind me I was a piece of shit. I accepted it as part of the process of being forgiven. I agreed with him. I hated myself as much as he did. When Ryan came back at spring’s end, there were friends I avoided. He didn’t demand it. It was just easier that way. Anyone he knew had met the single dad triggered a terrible mood. Likewise, anyone from Vancouver, where the single dad lived, or anyone who acknowledged Vancouver even existed. Same with anyone who spoke freely and openly about sex—that reminded him I'd had it with people other than him—and with vegetarian meals. The single dad was vegetarian. Ryan’s outrage over a falafel could last days.     I bought new bedsheets because he didn't like the thought of the old ones. A new coffee mug because he wanted to know he was the only one who’d ever used it. He was corrective in explicit ways, discouraging me from taking a course in personal training because I’d “be terrible at it,” and implicit ways, by immediately changing the song every time I put music on. He shit-talked my education (he'd dropped out of high school) and the granting system for Canadian artists (until I got one for my novel—then he was furious when I wouldn’t use it to visit him in Australia after his visa expired). He made derogatory comments about every woman we knew and a sizeable number we didn’t. They were stupid, or sluts, or liars. He openly pitied me for not wanting kids (wasting my life, he called it), while at the same time pressuring me to have them. “I should just get you pregnant.” He said it often. Once, he tried, coming inside me and denying I'd told him not to. It was careless, but I didn’t believe it was intentional until, hours later, drunk at a bar, he got angry with me for taking Plan B. He held his visa extension over my head. When he was happy, he’d tell me he’d been talking to immigration officers about staying in Canada. When he was angry, he’d give me a look of disappointment and tell me he would be trying harder to make it happen if only I hadn’t been such a shit person. “I would have changed my whole life for you,” he’d say, and though I knew it wasn’t true (he wouldn’t even have changed his drinking plans for me), I said nothing. I felt I’d lost the right to dispute him on anything, including drinking, which he started some days at noon.  He brought friends home from the bar at 3 a.m. and berated me after I’d asked them, from bed, to keep their drunk cheering to a minimum. “You should have been a better host,” he said, drunk again, bringing it up two months later.     Sometimes when my dog howled at him, Ryan screamed back, like an animal, without words. “You can’t treat him that way,” I said. On the rare occasion I said that about myself, Ryan told me I was sensitive. Crazy. That I needed to look at things from his perspective, which felt like all I ever did. The closest he came to acknowledging any wrongdoing of his own was to tell me I’d made him the way he was. That my mistake was responsible for the choices he made. * Summer came. I wrote about a program (now defunct due to lack of funding) that tracks cases of violence and sexual assault against women in the north. Someone I interviewed told me about the time her ex broke her nose on the lawn in front of her kids. He was one in a long line of men to treat her that way, but the first she pressed charges against. The whole community turned against her. In the end, he was found guilty of unlawfully being in her home. Still, she said, the trial changed things. Some people seemed ashamed of the way they’d treated her. They told her they were proud of her. She felt stronger, she said, for having spoken about it. Ryan went to work at a hunting outfit and I followed, to work as a cook. I didn’t go to be with him, not entirely. When he’d asked me, months earlier, to take the job, I’d declined. Once he found out about the cheating, though, I felt I owed it to him to go. Moreover, it would be good research for the book I was writing. I’d also be able to quit the part-time job I’d been working as a communications analyst, which made me feel like a professional gaslighter myself. This was a way out. It was a bonus that Ryan might ease off me, knowing I was isolated in a cabin just south of the Arctic Circle, rather than in town, sleeping around. “I’m glad you’re out here so I’m not jealous of you and other guys,” he wrote in letters he sent back to camp when his hunters came in from the mountains. Sometimes he said he loved me. Sometimes he said he’d never forgive me. Always, he reminded me how crazy I was. How dramatic. How lucky to have him. * His visa expired that fall. We broke up. He told me I’d always be the best sex he’d ever had and I watched him get on a plane and wondered how that could be the one thing about me that was worth remembering. Still, we talked regularly. I was deeply depressed. He was annoyed by it. For months, he alternated between begging me to move to Australia and have his kids, and reminding me I was trash, and the reason he was going to be miserable, broken even, for the rest of his life. Eventually, I mentioned the night he held me to the wall. I thought he'd excuse it—tell me it wasn't as bad as I was making it out to be, or that it was the only way to calm me down, or that we both knew I liked rough sex and it was foreplay. Instead he erased it. He said, self-righteously, that he’d never touch a woman. Then he told me never to contact him again. The memory of that night is the most vivid I have of us. Still, his denial made me feel ashamed. It made me feel like a liar.   * I kissed him when he did it. We'd been drinking beer at a softball tournament all afternoon. When it ended at 9 p.m., the sun still high in the summer Yukon sky, we were laughing and holding hands. It seemed like a good opportunity to be drunk and happy instead of drunk and fighting so we went to the same bar we’d been thrown out of months earlier. At some point, he started getting the tiny twitch over his right lip that meant he was upset. In the street, he shoved me. Not hard enough that I fell down, but hard enough that I nearly did. Hard enough that, if it had been accidental, he would have apologized instead of glaring at me. At home, he reminded me it was my fault he treated me like shit. I said I knew and I asked if he was ever going to stop punishing me for it.       At some point, he crossed the room, lifted me up, pressed me against the wall and put a hand on my throat. I remember wondering if he was going to hit me and hoping so, because, if he did, I could break up with him. At the same time, I remember hoping it would cancel out my cheating so we could start over and everything could be as good as I knew it had the potential to be. He didn't hit me, though. Instead, I put my hands up to his face and I kissed him and I thought please make this normal. It didn’t, but he did let me go.   I don’t remember whether we fell asleep that night with our backs to each other, me crying, him blacked-out and snoring. That happened frequently. It’s just as likely, though, that was one of the nights we went to bed furled into each other like fiddleheads, apologizing until we fell asleep.  * He’d ask, if he was so bad, why did I stay? Maybe I’d say it was guilt. That I felt I owed it to him after cheating on him. Maybe I'd say nothing. Explanations got his back up. "I'm just a simple carpenter," he’d say, sarcastic, malicious, when he didn’t understand something. "I dropped out of high school, remember? I’m not the one with the master’s degree."  Or maybe I’d ask him to think about the night we were at the hunting outfit, when I messaged him over the satellite phone to tell him I’d witnessed our boss take his adult daughter out on the porch in the pouring rain, slap her, throw her against the wall, spit in her face, and call her a slut because she’d forgotten to send an extra saddle on a hunt.   I stood up to our boss on that. He told me to mind my own business. Said his daughter was difficult. “You don’t know what a liar she can be,” he said. “She’s manipulative. She’s crazy.” I remember him casually telling me it had never happened, and I remember the shrillness of my own voice over his. “It happened right in front of me!” Ryan believed me then. So did the daughter’s boyfriend, a guide, who quit when he heard about it. Everyone else—wranglers, guides, guests—ignored it. Eventually the daughter did too. Within a week, her dad was calling her honey and she was calling him daddy and they were a team again. As a team, they fired me.  * After Ryan’s visa expired and we broke up, he spent four months sailing the Atlantic with his rich father and living on a catamaran in the Caribbean. I spent that time hating myself. I fell apart, mentally and physically. My focus was so shot that, when I was writing, I had to copy and paste as few as four words to move them around the page because I couldn’t remember them well enough to re-write them in the proper order. I developed debilitating stomach pain. For two months, I was too nauseous to eat. I dropped weight. My hair fell out. My hairdresser was the only person I talked to about it, and then only in vague terms. “Lots of women stay in bad relationships here,” she said. “Especially in the winter.” I went to doctors who ran tests for everything from pregnancy to ulcers.   “Are you depressed?” one asked. “Do you know why that might be?” I saw therapists, but stopped after a few sessions with each. They were all too nice. It felt like they were making excuses for my behaviour when I wanted them to punish me. It wasn’t my idea, but I didn’t have a better one. That’s the thing with emotional abuse. You stop trusting yourself, which makes it hard to be alone, so you stay and you listen to someone else's version of your shared story. Then, when they’re gone, thinking your own thoughts is like being buried alive. It’s easier to keep thinking theirs.   * I remember being on the phone with Ryan one night. I’d just been evicted from my apartment, in a city with low vacancy, in the middle of winter. I was measured when I told him I was worried about being homeless in the Arctic. He told me I needed to relax. That I was unhinged without him there to temper my moods. That I was, as usual, overreacting. But I wasn’t, it occurred to me. Not only was I not overreacting, I was barely reacting. In fact, I was flat and mechanical most days, especially when talking to him. It hit me then that no matter whether I was calm or hysterical, laying blame or claiming it, crying or not, he’d say the same thing: Calm down. Relax. You’re crazy. Those three things, he’d repeated like a rosary, by rote, the whole time we’d been together. “You’re fucking gaslighting me,” I said, out loud, to myself. “What does that mean?” I tried to explain. He cut me off and called me crazy. I hung up. I wish I’d stopped answering the phone after that, but I didn’t. Calling it what it was only made me feel more insane. If I could identify it, why was I putting up with it? That month, it was because I didn’t have the energy to fight with him when I was also fighting with my landlords for one more month in my place before moving into the only available apartment I could afford. But in general, I had no energy for anything. That’s how I slid into a new relationship I didn’t leave though I wanted to. It was the opposite of what I’d had with Ryan in that it was devoid of physical or emotional contact, but similar in that it was with a self-admitted misogynist whose complete lack of regard or respect for me reiterated every day how worthless I was. * What’s the point of writing this? Of putting it someplace it can be dismissed just as I've come to trust it? At points, writing it made me doubt whether it was even that bad, though I know those aren’t my thoughts, they’re Ryan’s. My thoughts are about the number of days and weeks and months I hated myself so much, not just for cheating, but for everything else in me he criticized, that it was unbearable to wake up every day and still be me. It’s worth saying something about what caused that. Reading other writers’ accounts of similar events is what helped me get through it, and it means something to be able to put it someplace it can stand and not be shouted down. I don’t have any delusions that it would convince Ryan, or anyone like him, that this all happened. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Maybe he’d read it and reflect and reckon with himself. He’s done it before. One night in bed, he told me he thought he’d sexually assaulted a former girlfriend. She’d cheated. He’d taken her back. During sex, he’d suggested something she said no to. He did it anyway, telling her it was her punishment.  “Did I?” he asked me with genuine concern. “Assault her?” “Yep,” I stared at the ceiling. “You did.” I don't know whether he ever apologized to her. I doubt it, same as I doubt he'll ever apologize to me. It took years for him to admit what he did to her. Maybe in a decade, some other woman will hear how he treated me. Maybe she'll have the good sense to kick him out of bed before she has to spend a year re-building her sense of self. If not, I hope she has people around her who believe her. Because I only started to trust myself again when I told a handful of friends and they didn’t question me. They didn’t correct me, or suggest that I look at it from his perspective, or tell me it was my fault, or remind me that other people had it worse. They acknowledged the situation was fucked up ("keep kicking losers to the curb,” my hairdresser said. “It’s great for your hair”) and they believed me until, eventually, I did too.
The Year in How Things Seem

I thought giving generously would mean, when I needed it, I’d receive help without asking. I am learning that life is not a mind reader. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Things are not what they seem is a common leitmotif of film; the eeriness of a suburban family against the backdrop of pristine Americanism. In Blue Velvet, a young, cherub-faced Kyle MacLachlan finds a severed human ear in the gladed green grass. In American Beauty, an idyllic family life thinly veils a marriage falling apart, betrayal, greed and Lolita-esque seduction. In Ordinary People, a family in mourning tries to remain stoic in the face of sadness. The darkness of mundanity is just beneath the quaint surface, stewing, bubbling, wanting and waiting to erupt. I’ve always related to the facade of togetherness. When I was younger, I was good at telling stories. Generally, I told them to create a familial fantasy, some strange fiction that I had concocted about the very normal, and very loving, life that I led. I lied gratuitously about my mother, who worked as an artist and as a part-time daycare worker; about my father, a lecturer (later a professor), because I wanted to make believe that we had money and grandeur. I wanted to make believe that my mother wasn’t crazy, and that she loved me—and that the bruises on my arms, the cuts on my back, weren’t from her, that I was a silly clumsy kid who walked into chairs and walls, a kid who played on trees too often, the wounding branches and leaves macerating my fragile exterior.  Messy little thing that I was, it was easy to believe. After a while even I began to believe that narrative, too. Believing that I was, in fact, worthless—too worthless to look after myself, thinking that’s why my mother didn’t, either. I convinced myself that I was undeserving of the love I saw other children bask in. There was always a constant, heady part of me that wanted to self-immolate, thinking that the answer to my prayers was death; I was suicidal at ten. Outwardly, though, I seemed confident, alive like a current, seeking approval from friends, teachers, acquaintances, needing to be absolved of my sins. Friendly, and hungry, wildly—I’ve always been well liked. *  My father very slyly sent me an article a few years back that detailed how millennials (and, strangely, genXers as well) are more historically depressed because of—get this—Facebook. Zuckerberg, creating everlasting divides. The piece detailed a rise in our collective frustration that lives were being led without us that looked so much better than our own. The stories we tell of ourselves are rooted in some hopeful imagination about what we wish we had, or what we think we deserve.  How many times have I looked towards a friend, and been happy for all their accomplishments, only to feel utterly terrible about myself shortly after? Jealousy, I’ve been told, is a good fuel—but what happens when it becomes toxic, like a sugar plum rotting in the sun, turned sour? What happens when you can’t alchemize it, and it, instead, becomes weaponized against you?  I’m rarely jealous, but often sad. Sad at my feelings of invisibility (feelings I understand are ridiculous), sad that I feel like my career has been slow to build—I’m 28, and have been freelancing patiently, regularly, for eight years, and yet my career as a writer sometimes feels like it’s somewhat plateaued. Sometimes, I feel bitter.  Yet, there are moments, cherished moments, of visibility that feel like a reminder that I’m on the right path. There have been moments of resoluteness, where things have felt like they’re making sense. In these moments, the gaps feel less all-encompassing. Writing is generally how I feel sedated, but in this past just-over-a-year, there have been moments where it felt purposeful. Social media has a way of validating things that don’t necessarily need to be validated. Like a singular, pithy line, or a glorious magic-hour selfie. Such things, up until now, were done in relative obscurity, with a scrawl in one’s journal, or on a manual Canon SLR, and then forgotten. These moments of recognition made me challenge how we measure success, in relation to how we measure self-worth. * In January of last year, a few days after my birthday, I found my mother in her room, slumped at the edge of her bed, immobile from a suicide attempt. She was crumpled like a non-human, and when I saw her, something kicked in. I wasn’t her daughter, I was her caretaker. I have always been my mother’s that, I just never wanted the job. For days, I nursed her, and for nights on end she would come to my door, screaming, knocking, at 2 a.m., at 3 a.m., needing the solace of someone who she hopes loves her. I would have to pull her out of her anxiety, her depression, massage her swollen feet, whisper her prayers, and remind her that she would be alright. I had done this my whole life. It’s wild how in those moments time is endless, circular. It was like a replay of every single time I’ve come to her aid, a cycle of violence, continued. A few days after her attempt, I got an email from the publisher I was working with on my first book to find out that they were going under. A week later, the Muslim ban happened, just as I was planning to move back to the United States to start a new, fruitful life. As all of this was going on, I was interviewed by Vogue about visibility and style. I shared it on social media, and friends congratulated me. It felt strange to encourage a certain perspective of my togetherness, of my “success,” at this moment. I didn’t know how to say that things are never as they seem. The alternative, though, sounded like a petty defense, so, for the most part, I stayed quiet, not knowing how to describe the fact that in moments of life and death, career highlights (big or small) are strangely arbitrary. On social media, how do you describe your unhappiness—the devastating reality of depression, your mother’s illness, usurping you like a black cloud? How do you detail sadness, without seeming maniacal, or obsessed with pain? * The thing is, some people have a natural shield, a presence of togetherness; a semblance of strength. Some people can be ruptured and still maintain a composure that borders on sociopathic. Some people don’t know how to turn to a friend, a lover, and say: I’m tired, please help me; or: I’m exhausted, let me rest.   I am one of these odd, incongruent humans who doesn’t know how to ask any old soul for help. I thought giving a lot, with kindness, would mean, when it was my turn, like karma, I would receive it without asking. I am learning, though, rather indelicately, that life isn’t a mind-reader. Women are not taught to seek help, at least we are not conditioned to it. I was always preened for a man, for birthing, or wifedom, but never for myself; my needs. Even to myself, what I want is oh so very secondary. It becomes such a naturalized waltz of picking up laundry, and cooking meals, and hurling myself towards caring for another human with such sedated eagerness, openness. Brutalizing my own comfort, I will always  genuflect at the altar of somebody else. Conveying not a glimpse of shattering pain, or interior misery and sadness. Instead friends closest to me have always been surprised that I might suffer from depression, saying, “But, you always look so happy.” * I’ve recently become friends with a young poet that I deeply admire. Their career is one of those rare gems of overwhelming accomplishment—a New York Times Best Seller in their early twenties, millions of copies of their book sold worldwide. Before knowing them it would have been easy to create a narrative of their quiet luck. Oh, how nice it must be to be known! To be read! To be that idolized! Talking to them, however, has been deeply humbling. I’ve found out the opposite, learning all the ways in which they have been attacked online and how they’ve both surreptitiously, and publically, been hurt by people close to them, how they’ve lost friends. It made me realize how often we put people on pedestals of invincibility. How it’s so easy to misjudge and create interpretations of somebody’s life, just because of the supposed “virtue” of fame. It also showed me how deeply divided we are, and how we’re unwilling to accept others’ successes, because so often it feels like an attack on us, as if their accomplishment is a reflection of our own demise. It’s scarcity mentality 101, and in fact the system (white supremacy) functions on this divide; the more time we’re focusing on hating each other, the less time we’re focusing on a revolution.  *  Life isn’t a mind reader, and neither are people. There’s an important lesson to be learnt as we move forward in this age of over-information, when everyone’s lives are available to us in formatted, clickable views. The old adage of never assuming anyone’s baggage continuously plays in my head, like a song, as I’m learning, in turn, how to intuit that sometimes asking for help is a revolutionary choice. I’m realizing that they’re linked. That they’re both about expecting more from humankind, and knowing what you deserve is a powerful, resonating thing. But, there’s also something to be considered about putting people on untouchable platforms, only to pull them off, a knife to the back. How do we function as a society, if we’re unwilling to appreciate people’s foibles, their tacky flaws, how do we evolve if there’s no place to fall? There’s a dark side of everyone, shadows unseen. Yet, despite it all, I’m learning that a good reminder is this: growing older is not jumping to conclusions about people. It is assuming less, and allowing people to surprise me, in the most earnest of ways. It’s about nurturing the idea of being nurtured, and understanding that it’s two-fold: to be and to nurture are a part of the same device. It’s about knowing everyone has baggage, and that most human things are never truly as they seem. My good friend Gleb explained to me once that in Eastern European Jewish tradition, bad things come in threes, only to make room for positive things to occur. He assured me that brighter days were coming. He told me I’d be okay.
The Year in Broth

My memories of these meals carried me, unwaveringly, from month to wretched month—attempting to re-conjure them gave me something to do at my most desperate.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Honestly, who knows how many hours I’ve spent watching broth on the stove. Watching it simmer. Watching it boil. Sprinkling chiles before I stirred the minced garlic, but only after I’d already spooned in some watered-down doenjang. Or, on other days, I’d whisk whole cans of coconut milk in the pot, entirely unperturbed, setting the base for a blistering heat. I’d sip a teaspoon and dash the rest towards the fridge. Or I’d ladle a thimble, and then a palmful, until curiosity evolved into gluttony, spilling down my chin, and the serving I was taste-testing entirely overwhelmed me, and the front of my hoodie was drenched. But I knew, no matter what, the resulting liquid would always add up to failure; I was doomed (I am doomed) to chase a proverbial, soup-y dragon. No matter the recipe. Forever and onwards. Which makes sense, probably, since, more often than not, I was only chasing the memory of a taste, or maybe the memory of the thought of taste, and also the color it’d left on my tongue. Throughout 2018, the present was brusque and gauche. The absolute fucking worst. And while I had neither the desire nor the resources to requisition the past for comfort, the remembrance of it—of how it tasted, specifically—was inescapable, so that’s what I yearned for: in the emergency room, at the bank, or just posted up in bed, scrolling through Tumblr on my phone. Because the mindset, I guess, went as follows: this year, I wanted comfort. And I find comfort in broth. In the bowls I grew up with, and the ones that have since blessed my stomach along the way. So, for months, this is what I tried recreating at the stove, with my timer on the counter and my back on the sofa and my ass on the wall, letting the blood rush to my head. It makes less sense to try deducing how much broth I drank (too much), or how much I cooked (threefold), than to tell you which hues I tried finessing into reality: one of the most elusive iterations came from this trip I took as a kid. I’d been visiting family in Jamaica. We stood around this pit in thoroughly wooded country. My cousins slurped from styrofoam cups of soup absentmindedly, having warned me that my stomach wouldn’t (couldn’t!) handle the heat. The lanky stranger ladling the broth was older than me, but not absurdly so, and when he asked if I wanted a Scotch bonnet in my bowl, I stuttered, since I knew that I shouldn’t—but also, fuck it. And I accepted one nonetheless. Maybe I thought he was cute. Maybe I wanted to impress him. The dude grinned, pouring me a few mouthfuls of the murky liquid, and I’d only taken half a sip before realizing there are some mistakes you can’t walk back from. I could’ve screamed. Could’ve popped. This was the most explosive thing I’ve ever tasted. The broth felt like the color orange. I spit it out immediately; the ladler stood unimpressed, but entirely unsurprised. That dalliance put me in bed for the day, and one day became three. Three days gelled into a week. But I’d spend the next decade pining for that same punch, dreaming about that shock in the back of my throat. In another iteration, years later, a guy I was dating and me hit the sack after an argument. I was unreasonably upset, pissed off over some now unrecoverable thing. When I woke up, hours later, I found my dude hunched over a whole chicken, beside onions and fish sauce and white pepper and ginger knobs. We both had a habit of eating at all hours. We cooked to cool off. And his soup simmered in a pot on his single space burner, bubbling a familiar croon under the space heater. So I was pissed as my guy stirred the liquid, and I was pissed as he poured some in a chipped blue bowl, but, after the first sip, I was no longer upset: I wasn’t anything. It was the clearest broth I’ve ever tasted. The absolute purest. When I asked him what it was, my guy called it Just Something My Grandmother Showed Me. The recipe was in her hands. Now, he was trying to figure it out, too. We ladled noodles in the broth, sipping from Tupperware on a busted futon, dipping shredded chicken in the bowl between us with our fingers. My memories of these meals carried me, unwaveringly, from month to wretched month. Attempting to re-conjure them gave me something to do at my most desperate. And broth has always intimidated me. Maybe it always will. The liquid grounds you. You’re gauging its temperature. You’re tasting it deeply, and now you’re taking a breath, and then you’re picking up the bowl, and you’re inhaling it, slowly, fully, and then you are gone. Sometimes, rarely, I found what I was looking for in my kitchen, after hours (days) of simmering. Usually, my chances were better out in the world. On a shotgun trip to New Orleans this summer—to figure out some paperwork for my car—I hit up the Mexican restaurant I always pass through on Carrolton. One of the waiters, a guy named Jesús, sat beside me, something he’d never done. As the guy next in line to inherit the place, he usually ate at the counter. But today, he savored a bowl of menudo, steaming by the spoonful, and the aroma had me holding my breath, biting my gums, toying with the chips and salsa. When Jesús finally asked what I wanted, after I’d watched him for what felt like eons (if not five long minutes), I told him the same thing he had, he could even just pass his bowl, and before he brought back my own serving of warmth, he grinned, and we shared that moment, the same taste on our tongues. Or when, a few months earlier, at another counter, this time in Chiyoda, a lady in a train station’s ramen shop watched me watch her eat some tsukemen. When my bowls finally came, at about half the size of hers, she actually flagged our server down to tell him something I couldn’t catch. It was another thirty seconds before I was given another batch, with twice as much broth. I beamed. I blushed. The broth was entirely delicious. And that’s when this lady—texting in one hand, tanking noodles in the other—waved her chopsticks at me, laughing, before turning back to her phone, main-lining her own bowl. When I stir my broth, I am trying to bring all of that back. Which means that I’m bringing none of it back. Which means that this will be a lifelong pursuit. How fucking impossible. How fucking perfect. A boundless banality. * But can you end a year on a positive note by saying you couldn’t accomplish a thing? That its ambition was too much for you? Entirely unattainable? And, even worse, that you knew that going in, from the very beginning, so this lack of accomplishment isn’t a bummer or even bittersweet—it just is? A few months back, my mother and I hit up this phở spot out in the suburbs, just outside of Houston. A bunch of groups huddled around us, with too many stories of their own to count: a black lady and a Latino dude that could’ve been on their very first date. Two young men chatting with the waiter in Vietnamese, with their hair dyed blonde, legs crossed and giggling. A mother with three children, who addressed all of them sharply, without looking up from her meal, but they immediately responded to everything she said, cheesing all the while, and there was warmth in her voice, and everyone in the restaurant could feel it. In our usual way of ordering out, my mother asked what I thought might be good. When I gave my recommendation, she ordered something else. I ordered the first thing. We shared. Both dishes were delicious. But when my mother finished with her bowl, she watched me eat another batch of noodles, and then a third, before she told me that the phở ga’s broth reminded her of another soup, cow foot in a broth that she used to cook back home, ladled beside rice and beans, and when I asked her what entwined them together , my mom started to tell me, after a pause, describing the holidays she’d cooked it on, and the mundane evenings too, with the pots crowded with greens, in the midst of friends and family, some since jailed or dead or relocated or just gone, until my mom’s telling waned into the silence that recollection can sometimes give you, because the thing about something that gives you comfort is that its absence can rip you from it, too. (And this was hardly a rare occurrence: once, during my crazy boi years, on a rare visit home, my mom made ackee and codfish alongside what were basically scallion pancakes, and after a minute or two of my absolute shock, my mother, entirely exasperated, unendingly gracious, told the story of the Chinese market in her childhood town, and the recipes her family lifted from the owners, including her now-fabled steamed bok choy, before that narration, too, drifted back into memory, and my mom reiterated that migration worked in mysterious ways, to stop being ridiculous, to look up from my books and towards the world they were actually talking about.) At the end of our meal, we hummed over our bowls. My mother looked at the meals of the group of women beside us. And she said, I see oxtail, pointing at the slab steaming over some rice. We’ll have to come and try that, said my mother. We’ll have to come back soon. But we still haven’t made it back. I still haven’t made the broth I’ve been searching for. Not an ounce of it. And I’ll probably never reach it, since what I’m chasing are memories, and memories are fleeting, so every pot with be full of failure—but there will always be another pot. That is, I guess, the tradeoff we make. Because here is a true thing: a good broth tastes like community. Whatever that looks like to you. When it tastes like that, it’s done. And, if home is a place and a taste and a time, what could be more difficult than conjuring it from your hands—sipping it incrementally, smashing time and space until you’ve gotten it just right. So here is how I’ll continue to chronicle the passage of time: one day, my mom and I will go back to that restaurant. Eventually, we’ll try the phở đuôi bò. That’s my internal clock. And, despite the forces working against that wish, I’ll do my best to stick around until we do, until there is another pot of broth to try, a broth that tastes like home.
The Year in the Meat Crime

Terrace House makes reality TV engrossing, ensuring a long-maligned medium and its most maligned genre are streaming their way into hearts around the world.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2018? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Uchi’s mad. First came the news that his roommates had eaten his pricey hidagyu beef. Then came a shocking discovery: the instigator of this sinister “Meat Crime” was his girlfriend Minori. We watch, our watering mouths agape, as a deliciously marbled cut of beef drives a wedge through their Tokyo group house. Relationships crumble, life trajectories nosedive and poor Uchi still can’t get a bite of that luscious ruby red steak.   [[{"fid":"6704606","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":{"7":{"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":"7"}}]] For legions of Japanese followers, and a growing Western fanbase, the Meat Crime is a legendary event in the annals of Terrace House, a reality series now closing its third season on Netflix and fourth season overall. Even as this year’s latest edition introduced us to a charming new cast in the snowy resort town of Karuizawa, Uchi’s meltdown in the first Netflix season remained the show’s gateway drug, luring North American neophytes into the swelling ranks of its #TerraceHouse-repping obsessives. Thanks to an exceptionally tender, tear-spattered slab of beef, 2018 was the year I finally convinced friends and family to experience one of the most emotionally fulfilling shows on television—the year I finally convinced myself that reality TV could be more than a guilty pleasure. [[{"fid":"6704581","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"}}]] The premise is similar to shows like Jersey Shore and The Real World: six young people, ranging anywhere from their late teens to early thirties, live in a communal home and experience life lessons amid sexual intrigue. But Terrace House is subtler, and more cerebral, than its Western counterparts, unsullied by post-dated interviews, frenetic editing and other stylistic bludgeons. As the producers calmly observe their affable young cast and the stunningly appointed modernist home in which their pheromones mingle, the show blends the perky melodrama of a ‘90s rom-com with the intimate realism of a good documentary. It’s an irresistible combination, enhanced by one of the great spectacles in the Netflix canon: a panel of Japanese celebrities which cuts in three times an episode to break down the latest scenes. This Tokyo-based dream team is filled with colourful characters but dominated by three performers: Tokui, a genial comedian who revels in the on-screen romances; You, a wisecracking actress with the voice of a raspy baby; and Yamasato, a bespectacled comic who delights in mocking the Terrace House residents. Because the cast members change, making way for new residents at a time of their own choosing, the unvarying panelists and their Haute Normcore outfits become a familiar bedrock. They build the kind of sassy commentary we’d normally enjoy on Twitter into the structure of every episode. [[{"fid":"6704586","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"}}]] Pair this narrative ingenuity with a visual aesthetic as crisp and elegant as the best works of Japanese cinema, and you have a show that is elevating reality television to new creative heights. Ply me with enough of the fruity Merlot that boozy cast member Seina guzzles on cold nights in Karuizawa, and I’ll even argue that Terrace House is the realization of a prophecy from 1973—the year the anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote an article for TV Guide on American Family, the PBS series widely considered the progenitor of reality television. Praising the show for its innovative union of TV and documentary film, Mead declared the emerging format “a new kind of art form,” a development “as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel.” [[{"fid":"6704591","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"}}]]  For much of the past forty-five years, this seemed like a laughable assertion; reality TV has become a bastion of low culture—“the television of television,” as The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh quipped in a 2011 essay. But Mead looked increasingly prescient this year. David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, Amy Poehler’s Making It and the new season of Queer Eye upgraded the genre’s timeworn formulas with rich production values and expertly plotted storylines. “Docu-series” like Liz Garbus’s The Fourth Estate and Steve James’ America to Me offered gripping, densely layered portraits of American institutions. And then there was Terrace House, looming above them all, a rising sun in a newly fertile field. After another year with Tokui, You, Yamasato and the house members, reality TV seems every bit as engrossing as my favourite HBO dramas, every bit as ambitious as the theatrical docs that received such high praise this summer, with every kitchen clash and domestic love triangle, every spirited yelp of “kawaii!”11Terrace House’s unofficial motto: the Japanese word for “cute.” As a “Cuteness Studies” scholar at Tokyo’s Gakugei University explained in a recent CNN article, “[kawaii] communicates the unabashed joy found in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.” *  When Netflix launched Terrace House in the fall of 2015, the show coincided with a disturbing spectacle: the rising popularity of the former host of The Apprentice. Three years and countless traumas later, the “Reality TV Presidency” is one of the hottest buzz phrases in politics, summoned by New York Times reporters, cable news pundits and high-level government officials as they struggle to make sense of his dysfunctional White House. In this climate, Terrace House flips the script, inverting the traditional dynamic between reality TV and escapism. Instead of offering a voyeuristic window onto dumpster fire behaviour, the show serves as a blissful respite from a news cycle in which that behaviour is everywhere. Some viewers compare the show to watching ASMR videos. I always think about hygge, that Danish concept of cozy well-being beloved to readers of Kinfolk. Whether we’re in the cedar-paneled corridors of the house in Karuizawa or the homey confines of the panel’s studio, Terrace House feels like a safe space. [[{"fid":"6704646","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":{"10":{"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":"10"}}]] That’s because it’s a place where kindness reigns and earnest emotion is cherished. Cast member Taishi strides into Terrace House: Aloha State, the show’s season in Hawaii, with the goal of finding “a love worth dying for.” Seina arrives in Karuizawa determined to “find [her] last love.” The incredibly formal courting rituals feel dated in the age of Tinder but it’s hard not to succumb to these gentle heartthrobs and the delight the panelists take in them. When was the last time you watched reality TV and felt as Tokui did after this season’s ice-skating date between Shion, a down-to-earth model, and Tsubasa, his hockey-playing crush: “It cleansed my soul”?  [[{"fid":"6704636","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":{"8":{"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":"8"}}]] On dark nights, clouded by Trumpian gloom, Terrace House can almost seem utopian, a hope-restoring lifeline to a world of communal goodwill. It’s not a show without conflict and beef—literally, in the case of the Meat Crime—but there’s something deeply reassuring about watching best buddies set common goals and frenemies talk out their differences. “It’s really great we can inspire each other,” an R&B singer named Shohei gushed on a recent episode, proudly informing his housemates that his band was topping the charts. As the cast members cheered in the Japanese dusk, it was hard not to agree. In a year spent lurching from headline to headline, struggling to channel my rage, the show’s celebration of friendship and love was a joy and an escape.  *  The cast of Terrace House started 2018 with a venerable Japanese tradition: the late-night slurping of noodles, meant to signify long life at the dawn of a new year. The shots of glistening soba were verses in a thrilling new language: the lip-smacking esperanto of global reality TV. Japan’s edible rituals have always been part of the show’s cross-cultural appeal but they’ve never received more loving attention than they have in Karuizawa. The sniffing of an onion was an early season sight gag; a bowl of purple curry spawned a multi-episode meme. When an aspiring chef named Yuudai underseasoned a soup, and made the hunt for mediocre bagels the centrepiece of a date, the hapless nineteen-year-old was cooked. He had insulted the twin pillars of the Terrace House community: the relentless pursuit of personal improvement, and the bonding of friends and lovers through cooking, eating and drinking. The dinnertime meals improved after Yuudai departed the show, but his early exit dashed our hopes for a sequel to the Meat Crime. [[{"fid":"6704596","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"}}]] Three years after it first aired on Netflix, that burst of domestic mayhem still has the power to shock; it’s one of the few moments in the Terrace House saga where the communal backbone wobbles. But it doesn’t break—not even close. With the help of Minori’s sister and a well-timed batch of Valentine’s cookies, Uchi and Minori patch things up and leave the show a couple. Like virtually every resident that has passed through the halls of Terrace House—even the feckless Yuudai—they are sent off with a proper meal.   [[{"fid":"6704601","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"}}]] If their Instagram accounts are any indication, the show’s former cast members still do this from time to time, meeting in Tokyo bars for food, beer and friendship. With the obvious caveat that these are reality performers, skillfully crafting their personal brands, they continue to project the authentic sense that life on Terrace House was nourishing; that for them as much as us at home, it was more than empty calories. That’s not how most of us perceive reality television. That’s not how I perceived it before I watched this show. I saw the genre much as forty London-area women did in a 2008 study by British media scholars: when asked to describe their feelings while watching shows like Big Brother and Extreme Makeover, the most prominent phrase in their transcripts was “sad.” They used the word in its melancholic sense but also in the judgmental way we’ve been hearing it under Trump. The people on screen seemed pathetic to them: sad with an exclamation point. As Terrace House wraps up this winter, I’m shedding that judgment and cynicism. I’m embracing the sort of buoyant, earnest sentiment you see on New Age social media. #TerraceHouse makes me feel #gratitude. The #MeatCrime makes me feel #blessed. When the last cast members leave the throbbing quiet of the house in Karuizawa, I will feel as Tsubasa did during one of this season’s hankie-ravaging farewells: “I’m so glad to have met you all.”  [[{"fid":"6704641","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":{"9":{"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":"9"}}]]