Hazlitt Magazine

The Year in 5

The standard explanations for why things have happened this year have turned out to be as useless as the most far-out conspiracy theories.

The Year Inside My Car

I don’t have a title sitting in the car. There is anonymity in that moment, a complete lack of pressure. I’m just the driver, caught in a free, smooth space between eddies.

The Year in Healing

When I finally managed to get out of bed and return to my life, I was determined to be an expert on how to grieve. I was going to fuck grief up so hard.

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The Year in 5

The standard explanations for why things have happened this year have turned out to be as useless as the most far-out conspiracy theories.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. Saved on my phone is a photo that is one of my most treasured possessions. Whenever I need to laugh, or to take a load off and just reflect on what kind of a place this life is, and there is nothing in my immediate physical vicinity presenting itself for inspection, I take out my phone and there it is: the best and most hilarious thing. The photo is of a laptop screen showing my friend Ben’s Facebook feed. Taking up most of the frame is a faintly shimmering grey block with some wiggly lines going around in the middle. It has a certain Magic Eye quality to it, the grey block, but more dreary. At the top of the grey block it says “Write the number ‘5’ in the comments and watch what happens!” You are maybe nodding in recognition by this point. It’s possible you have seen this rubbish grey block and the instruction at the top and thought: No thanks. I don’t need to see what happens when I press “5.” It’s not important to me. I can feel in my spirit that I don’t need or want to press “5” and watch what happens. I’m finished with this idea. If you are even more wise to the ways of the world, what you thought was, I am not the type of mark who will press “5,” because what will happen when I do that is nothing. Even if you have never seen this shitty grey block, you are at least nodding in assent at either of these responses. Who would want to press “5”? Eight hundred eighty-eight thousand people is who. What the screenshot plainly shows is that 888,000 people saw that shitty grey block and thought, Now hang on just one moment. What’s this “write ‘5’” business—intriguing. I’m not too proud to admit, even just here quietly to myself, that I’d like to see what happens with this unpromising-looking grey block when I write “5.” The world is full of wonders, even now, and I am not the kind of cynic who turns coldly away from the opportunity to write “5” and watch what happens. [[{"fid":"6706241","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":{"width":"300","style":"float: right; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]Eight hundred eighty-eight thousand people did that, according to the screenshot. I only know who one of those people is, though: my mum. You can see her there, under the grey block, writing “5.” Waiting. Watching. “5.” It’s obviously just the way the algorithm works, showing Facebook users only the commenters that they’re friends with, etc., but the way it appears on Ben’s feed makes it look like my mother is the only person in the world who has done it. Just my mum sitting there in her office, on the computer, maybe with the ceiling fan whirring away, no one around, thinking, What harm can it do. It seems like what they’re saying is the picture is going to swirl around a bit, and maybe that would be nice for me. Well, here goes: 5. Let’s see, now. Ben caught this perfect moment during one of his bi-monthly Facebook trawls and sent it to me immediately, knowing that I would fall to pieces with mirth. There is something so pure about it, so lovable. “5.” I sent the screenshot to my brother, whose reaction was identical to mine: great shouts of laughter and then a great wave of love for our mum, as he imagined her sitting at the computer with her finger hovering over the 5 key. Pressing it. Nothing happening. Looking. Staring. Pressing it again. “5.” Nothing. I sent the photo to all my friends who know and therefore love my mum, and they fell to pieces too, and we all had a great morning discussing “5,” the very idea of it, and the idea of our parents on Facebook, thinking no one can see what they get up to on there. “5.” All of our parents, in their different ways, all sitting at the computer and pressing “5.” Replying to a message in their inbox by writing on their own Facebook wall, and then underneath that saying, “Sorry, I thought I was replying to Irene.” Writing “Happy Birthday Chris. !!” with the weird spacing that the dads love to do now on, again, their own wall and then phoning their daughter and asking how do they send it to Chris, this birthday message. How does Chris get it. Being vulnerable to clickbait in a way that is more touching, somehow, than our generation’s same apparently infinite capacity to be gulled into clicking on stupid bullshit. Getting harvested for their likes right there in the open. “5.” I knew I shouldn’t send the photo to my mum, because she would of course be mortified by the information that she had gone viral among my friends simply for the act of typing “5,” simply for having an open and curious mind and the generosity of spirit that allows you to believe that pressing “5” will yield gratifying results. At some point, however, I could take it no longer, and sent her the photo, needing to know what had made her do it, how did she feel when nothing happened, and so on. She talked me through it, the process of pressing “5”: “I typed ‘5’ even though I thought: this is stupid—I shouldn’t be doing this. Then I stared at the shimmering image expecting a five to miraculously appear (I think). Then when nothing happened, I thought I must have done it wrong and tried again. Stared long and hard again. Nothing.” She handled the ensuing barrage of questions very well, I thought. How would you type the number 5 “wrong”? How long did it take you to realise that nothing was going to happen? Did you stand up so you could get a better look from farther away? Do you know that this is insanely, indelibly funny? Etc. She is one of those people who is properly able to laugh at herself, and to handle being teased, and so she was less embarrassed than I’d worried she would be. She was more suspicious, though. It was all new to her, the knowledge that Ben or anyone else could see her typing “5,” and she took it hard. “I knew I was being had,” she said, “even as I typed it. I knew it was a trick.” I asked her what she meant by a “trick,” and she said that she believed that she had been the “victim” of “a scam to make people laugh at you.” “You type ‘5,’ and it shows up on everyone’s feed, and then everyone knows that you are the kind of idiot who presses ‘5.’” It was at this point that my understanding of the meaning of “5” began to expand and contract, and I started to feel the powerful metaphor in it, the unassailable mystery, the way it said something, surely, about the internet and our relationship to it here in 2019. About The Way We Live Now, even. “5.” Impossible not to imagine an anthropologist of religion writing about it in 1000 years’ time, in a version of the future that allows for the continuing existence of such things as anthropology departments. An academic whose area of focus is highly ritualistic cults, striving to make some kind of logic out of it, or situate it within an already existing theory of religious behaviour. Probing vainly, trying and failing to devise a methodologically sound explanation for what it was that compelled all these people to write 5 and watch what happens, one after the other, 5 after 5. Pressing “5.” Sitting. Looking. Nothing happening. “5.” Nothing. As I explained to my mum that she was not the victim of “a scam to make people laugh at you” (which, as an aside, is easily, easily the best definition of clickbait I have ever heard), but a “victim” of this thing called “like farming,” whereby someone “harvests likes” in order to “up their profile,” I realised that this explanation was no more satisfactory than the one she had come up with. I debated briefly whether to send her a very sassy article I had found about the whole “5” business, where the writer repeatedly describes it as a scam and says stuff like, “By creating one of these silly posts, sad and desperate little Facebook users can trick a lot of people into liking, sharing, and commenting on their material, thereby promoting their Facebook Page or Profile across the network.” I decided against it, and not only because my mum doesn’t need that kind of negative energy in her life. This wasn’t a scam scam, it didn’t seem like. After you press “5,” the only thing that happens is nothing. You are not being ripped off, not really. All that is being taken from you is the extremely dubious pleasure of seeing swirly lines on a grey block move around and maybe the number 5 appearing. That’s not what a scam is. She asked me what the point of it was, “other than to make fools of us,” and I said more about algorithms and “harvests” and then I kind of trailed off, because while she was wrong in the specifics, she was headed in the right kind of direction, and any explanation I could give her did not in any way account for the true mystery of “5,” and why she pressed it, why anyone did, and what actually is going on. There is no sense to be made of it, no logic to be derived, no sophisticated or intelligent interpretation. “A scam to make people laugh at you” is no more or less bizarre than a description of “like-farming” that I found, which says, “The ultimate dream of every like-farmer is for his post to go viral by accumulating as many likes and shares as possible from all over the world.” That sentence has the aura of a curse, like if you read it too many times or even think about it for too long you will die or go blind or start to hear horses speaking to you in English. There’s just something fundamentally unsound about it, something scary and weird and emblematic of these scary and weird times. “The ultimate dream of every like-farmer.” “5.” In many ways, this has been the year of “5,” a year when the standard explanations for why a thing happens turn out to be equally as useless as the most far-out conspiracy theories, when it comes to making sense of what has transpired. The Epstein saga had a powerful energy of “5” about it, for example. The straightforward or official explanation is stupid and inadequate and doesn’t actually hold water, not really. The explanations put forward by people with a suspicious cast of mind are risible at first, and then less so the more you think about it. There’s been an air of “5” around for a while now, this feeling that there is no good way to arrive at a nuanced and robust analysis of what is happening, whatever the fuck that thing might be. Even the most boring explanations are taking on a slightly otherworldly tinge. Why is Boris Johnson lying to reporters about doing maths at night? “Because he thinks the punters will love it” seems like a straightforward answer, but is it really, and is that what’s actually going on, and why does he have to be so unsettlingly peculiar on top of being so transparently evil? Can we find a way to answer these questions? We cannot. “5.” Why did Elon Musk call a cave diver a “pedo guy” and then lie about it, over and over, and then hire a private investigator with an almost over-the-top air of fraudulence about him and task him with the mission of “proving” his ridiculous, baseless allegations. “Because Elon Musk is a malicious person with incredibly bad impulse control, as well as being not too sharp” is the answer that immediately springs to mind, but is there not more to it than that? What kind of life is it that someone can just behave in that fashion? You don’t know. “5.” Prince Andrew off-roading in a BBC interview, talking gibberish about not being able to sweat after the Falklands War? “Idiot, ultimate upwards-failing weirdo, no one brave enough to let him in on the truth about how vastly he has overestimated his ability to charm his way out of a jam,” sounds okay, but then you mull it over and it’s just not good enough. You need more information, and you are not getting it, and you cannot be sure of whether that information even exists. “5.” Why is Donald Trump talking about “other elements of bathrooms” like that now, what does it mean, what is the purpose, who is in charge, what is all this in aid of. You don’t know. “5.” The sense of “5” hangs in the air like smoke, these days, and you are finding yourself on increasingly shaky ground when you try to come up with a good and coherent interpretation of the situation. Each explanation is as bad as the next, and you’ve got nothing. You are just sitting there, thinking about “5,” wondering if maybe something would happen if you pressed it a few more times, maybe. “5.”
The Year Inside My Car

I don’t have a title sitting in the car. There is anonymity in that moment, a complete lack of pressure. I’m just the driver, caught in a free, smooth space between eddies.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I have come to love sitting in the car. Sitting in the car might be the best state of being. It’s not exactly a here, because heres in my brain at least are places to be, places where I have a nameplate with a defined role listed underneath it. At home, I am Dad (subtitle: Dadding, sleeping). At work, wherever that is, the nameplate reads College Football Writer (subtitle: Charitably recounting the work of underpaid athletes, mild Photoshop work). I don’t have a title sitting in the car. There is anonymity in that moment, a complete lack of pressure. I’m just the driver, caught in a free, smooth space between eddies. I can inhabit all those things sitting in the car, but I’m also not useless. In fact, if I’m getting into the car, there’s a good chance I’m going to something necessary I’m supposed to do, or coming back from something important I’ve just done. I’ve just dropped the kids off and am about to go to the gym, or I’ve just gone to the gym and am on the way to work. This is me between my best adult things—not failing at them or worrying about them, but somewhere between one and doing another. It’s heaven. I can—and do—sit there for much, much longer than I should some days. I can play Allen Toussaint on my phone, and listen to “Last Train” three, maybe four times in a row if I need to do so. The drummer’s name is Ziggy Modeliste, and he’s a god in drumming who also happens to have the only name any drummer from New Orleans should ever have. He makes the hardest things sound effortless, floating along while keeping the kick-drum thumping along in unison with the weird left-hand patterns of Toussaint, who as a piano player is channeling Professor Longhair, who as a broke-ass kid from Bogalusa, Louisiana, learned to play on a piano missing several keys his hands never bothered to find on other, more complete pianos. I sit there and let my brain loop over that and sometimes notice how much the Recaro racing seats of my extremely stupid but wonderful car hug me into place. It’s a Ford Focus ST, an overpowered hot hatch. It isn’t the last of its kind, like muscle cars are now, dying out before the great culling of gas-swilling beasts who’ll die in the automotive ice age. The asteroid takes the big SUVs and Hellcats first. My car will sit around as the earth turns cold. Maybe it’ll poke at them a little before looking up at the big gray and wondering what’s next. It is a late-stage version of its car, for sure, not the penultimate in its class but definitely a character making a solid cameo in the final act. It has an amplifier to make the four-stroke engine sound louder than it is, and little nifty gauges across the dash showing the turbo turbo-ing. When it pulls away at a light it shoves me back into the seat a little like the hand of a gentle god, and on gravel it gets sideways and plants itself sliding with the confidence of a short-track speed skater. When the right music is playing and the sunroof is down, it feels like running a rally stage in the middle of an average day. Her name is Buttercup. She is the only car I have ever driven that gives me pure irresponsible joy, and I have to get rid of her soon. That will happen this year, sooner rather than later. A dad car is somewhere out there with my name on it. It will be something big, something hybrid, something more responsible, sober, and adult than Buttercup. The kids used to be able to swing their feet out of their car seats and straight into my lumbar in the space between the front seats and the back bench. Their knees press into the backs of the seats now, and when the younger one gets upset he can kick clear to the front seat from the back. (And does, mostly when I tell him he cannot have a milkshake with every meal.) They will keep growing until their shoulders crack the windows. Their heads will pop through the sunroof. That’s all coming. For now, if I sit in her between 8:05 and 8:20 a.m., she is a flower floating on the waters of a stream I can’t control. I don’t want to look around the bend. This may be the last flower on the water, and I am definitely a doomed ant riding her downriver. When I pull back, I try not to think about all that. If I did, I’d never want to be anything but this—here, in between things getting done, between toting babies and confronting a future of huge sons, captain’s chairs, and modestly appreciating retirement accounts extending toward but coming up just short of reaching the horizon. I could drive past every exit I am supposed to take. I could fill her tank with the dinosaur ghosts of the past and put the future on pause forever.
The Year in Healing

When I finally managed to get out of bed and return to my life, I was determined to be an expert on how to grieve. I was going to fuck grief up so hard.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt's writers reflect on the issues, big and small. We are living out the worst timeline and in this iteration of the universe, I have become a full-blown Vancouver wellness basic bitch. I quit Diet Coke and I've only had three alcoholic beverages this year. My current drink of choice is green juice. I do Pilates. To prevent foot cramps and alleviate tension in my jaw, I take a lemon raspberry flavoured magnesium supplement called Natural Calm. (So tranquil!) Wherever I go, I carry a stainless steel bottle as if the zombie apocalypse has hit and I need to guard my water source with my life. When I can't sleep, I lay on an acupressure mat and listen to true crime podcasts. I have seen every single vegan propaganda documentary available on Netflix, though this does not stop me from eating the occasional Totoro gingerbread at Liberty Bakery. This past July, I had to confess my wellness basic bitch shame to my friend Liz who was about to visit me from New York at my writing residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House. Liz knew me when I could drink five bourbons in a night and still make it the next morning to my job in children's publishing, where I would sit in my cubicle and eat processed fortified cereal in an attempt to absorb enough vitamins and minerals to offset all the alcohol coursing through my veins. This was before I read Michael Pollan's New York Times Magazine essay "Unhappy Meals" and realized all the scientifically engineered food I'd grown up believing to be oh-so-healthy was not as nutritious as eating copious amounts of fruits and vegetables. "Can it be true that we haven't hung out since Breaking Bad was still on the air?" Liz wrote to me in an email. (I did a fact check—we last saw each other one year after the finale of the TV show, when I was on book tour.) Then she recalled the time I'd tried to walk out of a bar in Brooklyn with a glass of whiskey in my purse because I could not finish it right then but I did not want to waste it. What can I say? I'm Chinese. We thrive on thrift. The bouncer was not pleased, but Liz found this turn of events very amusing. "You are such a legendary badass!" she wrote. I was about to disabuse Liz of my legendary badass status. After a prolonged bout of illness in 2015, I had succumbed to performing late-stage capitalist wellness routines to maintain my health. If I were to record what I eat each day, it would read like a budget version of the infamous Amanda Chantal Bacon food diary for Elle. (I own the Moon Juice cookbook. The recipes are delicious, unlike some vegetarian broccoli-forward offerings that taste like corporal punishment and smell like farts.) When it is warm out, my days start with smoothies that have no fruit and a fuckton of organic kale, raw cacao powder, soaked flaxseeds, almond milk, frozen avocado, and moringa powder. I discovered that two parts cacao to one part maca with a dash of vanilla tastes like a Wendy's frosted malt. I avoid refined sugar when possible, sweetening beverages instead with the plant extract stevia. Before I developed allergies to a long list of foods, I didn't care how much refined sugar I ingested. Now I carry a bottle of alternative sweetener in my bag, swag. How and why had I entered wellness basic bitchdom? This past January, I had endured an entire year without my father, who died on December 26, 2017, less than a month after he received a diagnosis of stage four cancer. On my dad's last day, I was lying in bed even though it was nearing two in the afternoon, wearing sushi-patterned pajamas, when I heard my mom screaming. I ran downstairs to the study, saw that Dad was convulsing, pulled my mouthguard out, slapped it on the desk (a true emergency—I'm a germaphobe and I would never put something that goes in my mouth on an unsanitized surface), and called 9-1-1. The dispatcher asked if I knew CPR. I'd taken first aid at work so I began the compressions, following the dispatcher's count. Time seemed to move so slowly as I pressed as hard as I could, but not so hard that I would break ribs. I was so certain that my dad was going to live and broken bones would really suck on top of having cancer, so I was careful. My arms were getting tired, but the overachiever in me was going to get this right. The dispatcher told me to keep going, the first responders were almost there, and I pushed through my exhaustion knowing that I was keeping my dad alive. I had a purpose. Nothing I had ever done in my life before this moment was important. I hadn't gone to med school—I'd only worked as an admissions clerk at the Faculty of Medicine at UBC right after I graduated from an MFA program—but maybe, even without fancy credentials, I could save a life. To my relief, a group of firemen showed up and took over CPR before I developed rhabdomyolysis from over-exertion. My brother arrived. At some point I changed, and my mom handed me an apple, so I was eating as I spoke to the paramedics. (My friend Lisa assured me later that first responders have seen it all and it isn't sociopathic to stop and eat during an emergency.) Before they gave my dad drugs to sedate him for the ambulance ride, they let me have a moment to tell him that I loved him and we were going to the hospital and my brother would accompany him. After this point, nothing I did made very much sense. I packed a bag, thinking we'd be staying overnight, but all I took was cashew nuts, a bottle of water, an iPad, and giant block of black tourmaline instead of toiletries or a change of clothing. Then, because I wanted air, I decided to walk to the hospital. I realize now my dad could have died in this fifteen-minute span, but lucky for me, when I arrived the ER doctor was working to stabilize him. We waited. I drank water. I did not put that fist-sized chunk of black tourmaline to use. A few hours later, the doctor informed us of my dad's options and we decided to end his suffering and let him go. What I had not learned during the first aid course, where we practiced on a mannequin known as "Rescue Annie," is that performing CPR on a dying loved one can be a traumatizing experience. This took a few days to register because I am the kind of person who is calm to the point of reptilian in an emergency (you want me on your apocalypse team during the first seventy-two hours—my will to survive is so strong that I once hiked eight hours with chicken pox while carrying a thirty-pound backpack before my parents drove 164 kilometres to bring me home). Then I crashed, binge-watched episodes of a satirical show about the British royal family called The Windsors—even though everyone was telling me to watch The Crown—and wondered how the Queen and Prince Philip were still alive. Last year in January, when I managed to get out of bed and return to my life, I was determined to be an expert on how to grieve. I was going to fuck grief up so hard. I went on a tour of all my friends who had beloved dead dads, read The End of Eve by Ariel Gore and Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala while listening to Mount Eerie's album A Crow Looked at Me on repeat. For the first time since graduate school, I was writing poetry; I needed a place to put my emotions and to understand grief. By June of that year, I gathered friends to work at a soup kitchen organized by Enspire Foundation as a memorial for my dad. There was a pain in my left shoulder whenever I felt sad. My right ankle hurt on long walks. I went to see my dentist, massage therapist, naturopath, osteopath. What I couldn't do for my mind, I was determined to do for my body—though I would have to remind myself the two were not separate. What I most wanted was to let go of all the suffering, to figure out how to live without my excellent father. At the beginning of this year, the grief was ebbing. I had come to the understanding that I did not have to define myself by sadness. I was not my emotions. I was certainly not grief's bitch. All I needed was to choose a path, any path, and do small things that would add up to one big thing: life. But then in February, my mom received a diagnosis: stage three cancer. From there, the year became a blur of activity. I accompanied my mom to day surgery thirty-six hours before I gave a talk called "Healing is a Political Act," during which I discussed how one way to heal is to tell stories, to take control of our own narratives. During Mom's chemo sessions, I read books for the Amazon First Novel Award (I was on the jury) and prepared for a writing residency at the University of British Columbia. One day, Mom mentioned in passing I should write about her life, but I said, "You can write about your own life." She was hurt by this response. What I meant was, "You are going to live." But did I really know that? No one, not even her doctors, could make such a pronouncement, but I needed to believe. Around this time, my naturopath recommended Gabor Maté's When the Body Says No. At the beginning of the book, Maté writes: "This is not a book of prescriptions, but I do hope it will serve its readers as a catalyst for personal transformation. Prescriptions come from the outside, transformation occurs within. There are many books of simple prescription of one sort of another—physical, emotional, spiritual—that appear each year. It was not my intention to write yet one more. Prescriptions assume that something needs to be fixed; transformation brings forth the healing—the coming to integrity, to wholeness—of what is already there. While advice and prescriptions may be useful, even more valuable to us is insight into ourselves and the workings of our minds and bodies. Insight, when inspired by the quest for truth, can promote transformation." I wanted to come to wholeness, to transform, but this seemed just out of my grasp. After I read When the Body Says No, I did some research into Somatic Experiencing. I went to see a therapist who instructed me to lay on the ground and thrash out my trauma. The entire process seemed strange and almost comical, but it worked. I had less pain. Spring wore on. My mom had two additional day surgeries. Then, to our surprise, the doctors cleared her to have major surgery a month earlier than expected. Her surgeon called me as soon as she was out of the theatre; he was very pleased with the results. The nursing staff said she was the most cheerful patient they had seen recover from her particular surgery. She was doing stairs at the hospital and demanding solid food, so they discharged her in under a week. At home, she had complications, during which time her pain made it seem like she was suffering from demonic possession. I swear, it was like The Exorcist. She kept telling me it felt like there was a knife in her back, that maybe the epidural had hit a nerve. I ran up and down the stairs of the house, fulfilling her many demands. I wondered if this was how the rest of our lives was going to play out, suffering and caretaking. When she was no longer able to get out of bed, we admitted her back to the hospital for more tests and interventions. For six weeks, I was unable to sleep well or work due to distress; finally, in August, I began to prepare to teach a graduate fiction class at UBC and edit a friend's novel. Liz came to visit, during which time I had one Old Fashioned before swearing off drinking once again. On a bright Friday in November, before a session with my writing group, I went with Mom to the Cancer Centre. We thought she still had six rounds of chemo to complete, but during this appointment one of her doctors said the word I had been waiting for: remission. Perhaps we weren't on the worst timeline after all. At that moment, some other Doretta in the multiverse had probably gotten horrible news and was stress-eating a bag of Doritos from a vending machine, but not me: I was already planning on having a celebratory almond matcha latte sweetened with stevia. Mom was puzzled though, unsure whether this was a moment for celebration. What happens when a months-long near-death experience comes to an end? There should be a ticker tape parade that lasts hours, but it just feels like a return to regular life. After the appointment, we got off on the wrong floor of the parking structure, something we'd done several times before. We may have even discussed what vacuum cleaner she should buy. We were embracing the mundane like champions. As we drove from darkness into sunlight, I understood for the first time that choosing to heal, to take the time to do a hundred little tasks along the path to embracing wholeness, is another way to become a legendary badass.
The Year in Video Gaming

In the aftermath of a video game, I find myself ready to emerge into 2020 afresh, anew, and aglow from a screen of pixels and a well-rested body crusted with mineral.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I am fantastical—and I don’t mean to enrich myself with the positive connotations of such an adjective in naming myself as such, but rather I mean to say that I am one who conjures fantasies, a mesmer of a man, illusionist. My counsellor told me this during one of my sessions this summer, that in order to heal from the mental processes I was undertaking I must learn to “tame my illusions.” To say I survived the year of all my years would be an understatement: 2019 was a ruination for me in all semblances of the noun. I lost a relationship, I encountered many deaths within my family, and the many diagnoses of sickness or disease that accompanied such a wake. I encountered sexual assault, plunged into a deep depression which brought about anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, and a brief encounter with suicidal thoughts. I was lost, perhaps I still am, but I exist in the muck of signification and crack Roman Orthography in half in order to climb out—like how an “A,” when spliced, becomes a ladder, and I am simply climbing out of the abyss of signs. I strongly believe that during the latter half of this decade, with our move towards global apocalypse, Indigenous displacement, queer and, more specifically, trans dehumanizations, the TPL, Trump, Alberta’s Conservative Party and their cuts towards education, the TRC, UNDRIP, Standing Rock, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline, wave after wave of negative affect, I broke and yolked into nuclei. I am a person with privilege, such that I have a steady income, I have kin, family, and dear friends, I have access to mental health services, I have shelter, food, clothing, clean drinking water, and electricity. In 2016, my maternal family lost a great matriarch after years of living paraplegically. With such a loss, my mother and father permanently took in two of her children, now my cousin-siblings, both of whom we have caretaken for since they were babies to ease our wounded matriarch’s responsibilities. I have such fervor for those two, both of whom came from trauma and survived it against all odds as a baby and a toddler. They are now in their adolescent and teenage years, respectively, but I see the negative impacts on their mental health: one with social phobias and another with anxiety and panic attacks. Both have clung to video games as a medium for escapism, entertainment, and social enrichment. Their medium of choice? Fortnite. Released by Epic Games in 2017, Fortnite is a massively multiplayer shooter-survival video game in which upwards of 100 players are enmeshed in a hyper-comical world wherein a battle royale ensues until it is only you who remains (albeit alone, in a duo, or as a squad of up to four players). Fortnite has been ranked among the most popular games of all time, with an estimated 250 million online registered players. Both my cousin-kin, and many other folks in my life, have attached themselves to this game, playing with friends both near and far into the wee hours of the night to win that battle royale. How I saw them cheer, laugh, scream in anger, and create strong social bonds regionally and globally with players they grew attached to, talked to online, and made community with. On October 13 of this year, Fortnite, now in its tenth season, got sucked into a black hole, unannounced. This, of course, was a marketing ploy executed by Epic Games in order to usher in the game’s new season. Fortnite stayed offline for two days, but what I surveyed in my cousin-kin was how this was almost apocalyptic. I witnessed how their mental health issues crept back up onto them, their most relied upon tool stolen from beneath their very analogs. I wondered: could such an act be felt as a violence? It surely seemed that way. My cousin-kin and many others mourned, their lovely secondary livelihood swept up into a rapture, a digital cleansing. A popular hashtag emerged: #TheEnd. I speak upon this if only to preface our, and even more so the younger generation’s, reliance upon escapism through the throes of fantasy. With the inclusion of “gaming disorder” in the 11th revision of the World Health Organization’s International Statistical Classification of Diseases, I do pay attention to the ways in which video games as escapism become coping mechanisms for bubbling or buried valences of mental health, primarily anxiety and depression. Like my cousin-kin, these were mechanisms I have used and use throughout my life in order to escape the damning efforts of being zippered into a body, here a physical but also a cultural, racialized, sexualized, and Indigenized one, that the world often likes to disengage with. As a youth I would flock to the local library for access to the internet where I would engage in online arenas of gaming and socializing through such websites as Pogo.com and Neopets. Keenly, I’d check back every day or two to continue with and stay alongside the communities I had built in these pockets of pixels. As a teenager I incessantly played the MMORPG Lineage II, in which I made an avatar, an Orc named Zoa (here the progenitor of the protagonist of my book, full-metal indigiqueer), and fostered a beautiful ring of kinship with folks. I played across North America in a “clan” system; together we would hunt for treasure, level up (aka “grind”), go on large scale raids, and often lounge around in the digital pastures of the game’s idylls taking pictures, talking about our personal lives, and sharing stories. This, to me, was a sovereign way of owning a body I had been taught to distrust, because I was queer, Indigenous, and fat, through the fantastical recreation of my imagined embodiment into those of pixels: here I was a muscle queen, a femme Orc with a red mohawk, a monk (often a “brawler” class) who wielded round, sharpened chakrams in both of her fists. I was powerful, haughty, righteous in my beings—though I never really learned to take that much further than the computer screen, at least until adulthood. This, too, came to an abrupt halt when I was no longer able to afford the monthly fee to play the game and thus had to foreclose my account indefinitely—it was a tremendous period of mourning as I lost the kinships I had fostered in those worlds. I think there are healthy benefits to gaming inasmuch as with moderation, one can learn how to become socially and healthily adept in the worlds we inhabit beyond the realms of coding and to find solace to deal with and unpack mental health and its traumas. This summer, I relied heavily upon video games in order to rejuvenate and heal the central tenets of my being out of, perhaps, a type of stasis. In my experience, gaming is much like charging: the body becomes a console, plugged into its outlet. It recharges while the mind is removed—from the webbing cracks in its exoskeleton that have been formed from the showering of rocks that are thrown at us in our daily lives—and placed into a realm of our wildest imaginations. It’s funny how the mind can be transplanted and live vicariously through a body foreign to its own, how we can inhabit a Strife, a Redfield, or a Croft, and exist simultaneously within two worlds—a lesson I am learning from my own nêhiyâw ways of being within multiplicities of oralities, temporalities, and continuums of worlds in a single moment. I spent much of my summer playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses, made by Koei Tecmo Games, which released on July 26 of this year. The Fire Emblem series is a highly popular JRPG (Japanese role-playing game) in which you take control of an often-amnesiac protagonist who is the saviour of the world, plunged into a space rife with political strife and warfare. In Three Houses, you can play either as a female or male protagonist named Byleth, within the Kingdom of Fódlan, which is divided into three rival nations at peace after a period of warfare brought about by the archbishop of the Garreg Mach Monastery, a central hub between all three nations. You begin as a mercenary in training under your father and are quickly hired as a professor within the Monastery, which is also an academy full of students from all three nations. You begin the game by picking a nation to ally with and become the head teacher of their class, though you are able to enroll students whom you impress from other nations as you progress. The important processes of this game, though, are tied to its support system—you form friendships and rivalries with your students as you unlock their backstories and connect on an emotional and personal level with their development. Midway through the game, a timeskip happens; your character is plunged into a liminal space and your students age into adulthood. You reemerge and find your students again only to partake in the now global warfare that is taking place between all three nations and a fallen Monastery—here you can side with your nation or the Monastery to help rebuild (though I often chose to forgo the religiosity of the monastery in order to practice a campy form of digital decolonization). Now, as you are no longer a teacher but a colleague of your previous students, your supports with them can rank up so you can eventually woo, romance, and marry them. The game features an allowance for queer romance within its storylines, a singular one for male players, and several for female players. I played as the male Byleth (who I too renamed Zoa) and enjoyed the narrative of the game, but in my despondency of mental health and the rupturing of some of my relations, I felt it imperative to utilize the game as a medicinal tool. Here, I spent countless hours first teaching, gift-giving, and chatting with the only male-romance option, Linhardt, a genius researcher and scholar who flutters between academic interests and is privy to exhaustion—he will doze off if you bore him—and adamantly schedules nap times (a very astute grad school tactic if you ask me). He consistently ponders ethics and moral decisions around his research (a decolonialist, again, if you ask me) and its applications beyond and within the ivory tower of his academia. Much of my free time was me logging onto the game to see Linhardt, an AI, to talk about reading, fishing, sweets, sleep, and research. Post-timeskip, he is twenty-one and you are of a similar age, and it’s here where I spent my time wooing him. We would chat on the battlefield and in refuges about the state of affairs and academia’s role in global warfare. Linhardt is a romantic, and after the war is won, proposes to you if you have a high enough support role, which I did. On September 8, 2019, I posted to my Instagram story that after 70 hours I had found a digital nicimos (lover/partner) when he asked, “Would you spend [your] time with me? I want to know more about you, I want to solve the mysteries that surround you, I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone more intoxicating than yourself.” While filming this touching scene, I audibly aw’d. After you accept his proposal you are given a still of Linhardt lying in the grass, subtly staring at you, noting, “It may be sometime until we can nap beneath a tree, peaceful sunlight filtering through the branches, but when that day comes, to have you there lying by my side? Paradise. And we will have made it so.” While the politics, mechanics, and animations of the game may sound mundane, this game became a fundamental practice in self-reflection, queer desire, embodiment (digital and physical), and mental health. I say this because, one, it allowed my body to rest while I played and refocused the energies of my whirling mind, one wracked with anxiety, depression, mourning, and loss, to channel its energies into something constructive and enriching: into narrative, plot, metaphor, and agency; and two, the game also asked me to reflect on my own desires, what it is I want and need from the world as a Two-Spirit Oji-nêhiyaw nâpew. Overtly romantic—as a writer, academic, editor, grad student, and one who often travels for community engagement—it’s a pipe dream to think that I’d have the luxury of an entire day, if not an afternoon, to lounge around napping beneath a tree in total solace with any future nicimos. That said, the idea of stasis, a moment of cathartic encapsulation within the spaces of our relations, that is, the biosphere, askîy, mistikak, or what you may call the “idyll,” seem wholeheartedly akin to how we would think about relationalities through nêhiyâwewin. That is, to love, sâkihitin, is in fact a summoning of a being, perhaps one of braids, into the world that we animate and are accountable to—it becomes more than simply a Western speech act, it is in fact a sacred animation. Furthermore, such a summoning of sâkihitin into orality within the spaces of askîy could be considered an act of wâhkôhtowin—or, enacting relationality within a world, here the land, that asks for us all to humble ourselves from the hierarchy of being wherein “human” is crowned in the ladder of hierarchal verticalities and instead we link hand-in-hand as a rhizome, a plurality of linkages that come together horizontally—“all my relations.” All of this, done together through sâkhitin and wâhkôhtowin would be what I would consider miyopimatisowin, or, “the good life,” an act of being in ethical, respectful, and reciprocal relations with all those we hold as animations (beyond what Western epistemologies would consider inanimate such as trees, rivers, rocks, sky). The game doesn’t imply this, but isn’t that the beauty of literature or narrative? That it’s all a type of virtual play, on the page or on the screen, much to the point that we, as readers or gamers, plug into a world ripe with possibilities and seed our subjectivities into the carefully crafted vantage points that plot always leaves for us? As Fire Emblem: Three Houses taught me to question my own desires in terms of relations, it mended my body, soothed my razing mind, and corrected my blurred perspectives into clearer optics, freer prairies. Perhaps, yes, fantasy and gaming are coping mechanisms, but what I’ve come to learn through this is that the entirety of pimâtisowin, or the act of living, is, in a sense, a coming to and into an embodied world that acts much like a virtual one. We are always butting up against the coping mechanisms of others: how they perform, their speech acts, how they respond to us, inquire about us, answer us, ignore us, treat us, respect us. I would say that video games taught me to think ethically about engagement, how to converse properly with someone who houses traumas that have been taught, or self-taught, to act, reply, or respond in certain ways from particular cues—much like how I had to select correct and respectful answers when wooing and romancing Linhardt. Lastly, it asked me personal questions about how I want to navigate the world of queerness as an Indigenous person who is trying to root themselves into nêhiyaw epistemologies, to treat sex, gender, and sexuality as sacred beings, much like sâkihitin, so as not to become fungible, disposable, useable, or coopted into the maw of settler sexualities—i.e., to become pixelated into appropriation on Grindr and its tribologies, to become fetishized as nobly savage, to avoid becoming missing or murdered, and to forgo sexual violence. Recently, on a trip home from Saskatoon’s ânskohk Indigenous Writers Festival, I revelled in the glory of #NDNJoy with Indigenous women and queers. Flying back to Calgary, I sat with my dear kin Billy-Ray Belcourt and we haughtily, unabashedly, and noisily discussed the politics and livelihoods of surviving and living as queer Indigenous nâpewak amongst an audience of mostly non-Indigenous men (one of whom, behind us on the plane, leaned in to listen). We talked about sex, sexualities, partners, desire, and joy—it was marvellous and truly one of the most medicinal conversations I’ve had the privilege of having. Here, and this is also what Fire Emblem inquired of me, we asked: “Am I queer enough to be queer?” While my embodiment as Byleth/Zoa wooing the napping genius, Linhardt, was one of thinking about relationality, it was also one of pondering futurities and boundaries (both of which are bound up and hyperbolized by anxiety which can be read as an incessant fear of or distrust in the lack of a visible future). I wanted the monogamy, solitude, and static of a moment unencumbered by either past or future, a moment, beneath a tree, wholeheartedly embraced by the plethora of relations blossoming into being around us in a land sovereign to its own found families—an Indigiqueer utopia, perhaps, if we think of the biosphere as a cavalcade of families made from native and invasive species living in relative harmony, so least of all for a singular moment. Linhardt and Byleth—the simplicity of a nap turned paradise churned into continuums crafted by two in a synchronized relation to one another and to their surrounding others. You may criticize this as homonormativity, which, perhaps, it is, to strive towards heterosexual traditions, but I then think that “queerness” is not a word we know in nêhiyâwewin, and while surely we had polyamory and what we would now consider queer couplings, we did so as to continue the bounty of community and the reciprocal care that it took to remain within the tenets of miyopimatisowin. And I recognize the importance of queer bars, the ease of access to and for “hook-up culture,” the fleetingness of living emerging from the trauma of HIV/AIDS and into a sustainable way of relating, and the shifting dynamics of found families. But I want and need more than that from this noun and verb, queer; I envision myself, perhaps, as a queer kokom, one who maintains the rigidity of a family, queer or not, singular and communal, through the foundational frameworks of a relationship turned bedrock. So I return to Linhardt, to Billy-Ray, and ask again: am I queer enough to be queer? Perhaps the answer is no, but also, perhaps the answer is yes, we are making strides, strategically planning our next move set, and emerging into a world(s) that were ripped from the hands of Two-Spiritedness since 1492 inasmuch that the future of Indigiqueerness is ours for the making, we define it, on our terms, sovereignly, singularily, and sharedly. What I need to survive, least of all right now, is for queerness to mean something more than consumption and hierarchal climbing—I need for it to be like Byleth and Linhardt, a horizon ripe with conditions of possibilities for the future, however that may look or feel for my kin to root into being. And in moving forward, all I can say is kiyâm, “let it be, it’s okay, let’s go then,” which is also a root for “quietly,” so as to mean to listen, avoid making noise, a quietness of being which asks for us to listen fiercely and to respond, in whatever way the body so chooses, in a way that is endowed with respect and reciprocity. For me, this is kiyâm, the quietness of being in my living room, bear root tea in hand, the body healing, the mind solidified, and the spirit of me braided into the zeitgeist of digularity. In the aftermath of a video game, by which I too mean this essay, I find myself ready to emerge into 2020 afreshed, anew, and aglow from a screen of pixels and a well-rested body crusted with mineral.
The Year in Naps

The days go so fast, you have to steal the nights, and when all the nights slip away, that’s it. I’m not ready.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I’ll only be alive a short time, feels like I ought to hit it hard. That being said, this year I took a lot of naps. My day job was at a petrochemical plant, welding, heavy rigging, and repairing machinery. I got up before dawn, drove in, labored away in work boots, hardhat, and coveralls. On my lunch break, I ate quickly, and then spent the rest of the time writing stories on my cellphone. Each night, I sat down, like this, and wrote some more. I like working with my hands. But the labor is hard on my body. I’m always climbing up and down ladders and stairs, hundreds of feet in the air, or crawling through the oil and filth. When I’d get back to my apartment in the city at four thirty, I was always too tired to concentrate on sentences and squiggly marks and make believe right away, so I went to the couch and laid down for a while, took one of my famous catnaps. It was loud outside. The school crossing guard was always outside my window, blowing her whistle. There were police sirens, stereos, screams of all varieties. I’d leave my deaf ear up, place my good ear on the pillow. And while I slept the world ended. The rivers dried up, the bullets rang out and ricocheted, the bombs went off and triggered other bombs all down the line, churches burned to ash and that was that, the Black Rhinoceros disappeared forever. Whenever I opened my eyes I was always surprised to part the venetian blinds and find John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Jersey City still there, same as I’d left them, but now in darkness. I’d move to my bamboo desk, refreshed, work on my writing until Rae came home. This year, my coworker Pat had a routine like mine. After eight years of gathering the parts, he was ready to rebuild a hot rod in his garage. 1928 Ford Model A. At night he’d read his daughter a bedtime story, close his eyes next to her, sleep. Two hours later, he’d get up, go out in his detached garage, get to work. Sparks flew, arc light flashed, smoke rolled. His neighbors might not like him. But I do. Why not build a hot rod in your garage? Why not write a novel? You’re a lot of things. You’re not your day job. The stars rise and fall, the constellations shift, week by week, season by season. We do what we can, while we still can. The moon fell. The sun began to rise. I dragged myself out of bed, kissed Rae goodbye, walked out the door. Over the barbed wire gates of the refinery, I saw for the first time that it would be a beautiful day. No rain clouds in sight. I punched in, smiling. Dawn was nice and ripe. “I’m tired as shit, man,” Pat said as we walked to the machine shop. “Up late.” “Same here. How’s the car coming along?” He pulled out his phone, showed me a picture. There were wheels on the Model A now. “That looks so good, man.” We opened the door. It was 6:58 a.m. In two minutes a hundred of us would salute the flag, recite the pledge of allegiance. In three minutes, the safety guy would lead us in our morning stretches: bend over touch your toes, arm circles forward, neck rolls all around. I took out my own phone and called Rae: “Time to get up and go to work.” She sounded groggy, could barely talk. She yawned, stretched. Her day began. On her way home from work, she’d call me and wake me up on our couch while she treaded to the train. I would sound groggy. I would barely be able to talk. I would stretch, yawn, my night would begin. This year, like last year, and the year before, and the year before that, I had two lives. I worked construction, and I made up stories. I stole whatever minutes I could from lunch breaks and made art one day at a time. I stole minutes from the evenings too, but first, like I said, I took another nap. Another nap. Another nap. Another nap. I’m always paranoid that I’m running out of time. It feels like time speeds up when you get older. When you’re twenty-five a year is reduced to only ten months. When you turn forty, that year is only nine months. By the time you retire, if you do, a year is only three months or so. The day before you die, a year happens every fifteen minutes. I checked the calendar and January was already over, the buzzer went off and it was time to go downstairs and get the laundry, and do the dishes, and get a haircut and get my suit cleaned so I could go to someone’s funeral. * The alarm clock went off. I looked out the window. A foot of snow had dumped down on the cars on my block. I dressed for the weather and went out searching and couldn’t remember where I’d parked. Which block. The cars all looked the same. White. Buried. With my hand, I cleared snow off a hood, saw red paint. I was looking for black. I tried another. And another. I was an hour late for work by the time I got there. But a lot of the other guys hadn’t made it in, so they canceled the job for the day. I just had to sit there till 9 a.m., but then I was free, without pay, but free. I could’ve kicked and screamed and thrashed around and made a million snow angels. There is nothing I like more than unexpected time to write. Nothing is more glorious. Mid-afternoon, home, and warm, and just as I was getting somewhere in the book, my boss called. I was being sent to night shift, for twelve weeks. I lived on the first floor of my apartment building, I might have jumped out the window if I were any higher. The third week in February the general foreman had to take off, so my foreman moved up, became the general. I put my welding hood away, stuck my gloves in my pocket, picked up a clipboard and became the foreman, temporarily, of a five-person crew of welders, high up, repairing ductwork and tubes inside a massive furnace. I didn’t want to be the boss. But I had to be. I got the permit, filled out the paperwork, did my best to sound convincing. Second night of that detail, the drug dogs were out at the gates, so half the crew turned their pickup trucks around and went home, rather than risk getting searched. You never can tell when one of those pooches might freak out because you spilled beer on your pants at the bar the night before, or whatever your problem was. My problem was, halfway through the shift, I did a head count and found one of the workers missing. I checked the paperwork. At the start of each shift we had to fill out a JSA, a job safety analysis sheet, which broke down the job step-by-step, identifying a hazard for each step, and then offering a way to mitigate the hazard. Task Hazard Mitigation Weld Fire, Explosion Firehose Grind Sparks Containment Climb Ladders Slips, Falls Safety Harness Write Novel Ennui See Friends Edit Novel Existential Crisis Get Laid I checked the list of signatures at the bottom of the worksheet. Seven signatures, six guys working. One missing, for sure. I panicked. It was the middle of the night and the guy could’ve fallen down to the ground far below. My fear wasn’t uncalled for. As job site legend goes, years before, a guy on night shift had fallen to his death from a nearby tower. When day shift came in they found him broken on the ground. He hadn’t died on impact. He’d crawled out to the road, left a trail of blood. The tower had scratch marks where his nails had dug in as he tried to stop his fall. (Another job site legend I hear every year, and heard again just the other day, was the paper mill incident. In the ’90s before the mill closed, there was a small crew that maintained it. One of the guys was going through a nasty divorce. His coworkers saw him living in his car in the lot. One of them suggested a fully furnished trailer park, cheap, ten minutes down the road. It was believed that the divorced man had moved there. He was no longer found sleeping in the lot. On Thanksgiving, the boss of the paper mill received a phone call from security. There’d been a fatality. A body had been spotted on camera, up on the roof of the mill. The boss pushed the turkey and potatoes to the side and rushed to the mill, went to the roof with the guard and they saw what they thought was a corpse, flat on its back. It was hot up there, and loud. The whole structure shook violently. You had to wear earmuffs. They walked to the corpse and it was the divorced man. But he wasn’t dead, either. He was dead drunk, unconscious. Newspapers, cans of soup, a sleeping bag, bottles of booze all around him. He’d been camping up there. They shook him awake. They screamed, and he screamed. It was Thanksgiving. Most everybody was thankful.) I went welder to welder, had them point to their names on the JSA. A lot of them were travelers from other parts of the country. The missing man was from Arkansas or Alabama. Nobody quite remembered. Even his name on the list was odd, he went by a nickname. A lot of them do. I’ve worked with countless Cowboys, and Spikes, and Rambos, or whatever. Nobody with the name John was ever called John on the job site. I hustled down the stairs, searched the base of the structure with a flashlight. He wasn’t down there and I breathed relief. I went inside the furnace and checked all the scaffolding but didn’t find him. I found him on a higher catwalk, tucked under a section of ductwork we weren’t repairing. I saw his boots sticking out like the Wicked Witch of the East. I knelt down and saw he was breathing. Sleeping. Rip Van Winkle. I called his name and he sat up quick and hit his head, and then, rubbing his head, he realized he was in New Jersey, and he begged me not to fire him and I laughed and I said it was fine and I laughed again and then he laughed, and who the fuck was I to fire anybody? It was just so nice he was alive. And I felt so nice that I was alive. If he hadn’t been alive, I would’ve had to deal with the paramedics, the plant manager, but worse than all that, I would’ve had to talk to the man’s wife, girlfriend, significant other, kids, or his mother, maybe I’d have had to explain it to his dog, “Your master is never coming home. Throw your own stick. Fetch your own stick, too.” Instead, he got to his feet, walked down the stairs, went back to work. Someone did get injured on that night shift. Towards the end, we were sending the crane hook down between the high steel and the signal man with the radio was talking to the crane operator and I said, “Oh my god look at that beautiful moon.” It was at its apex, fat and strawberry in the dark sky. The signal man looked up at the moon, and somehow threw his back out, fell to his knees in pain. I took the radio and finished the crane pick. Men driven to their knees by the full moon, this is one of the things I know most about. * Sometime in March, I opened my eyes on the couch and I didn’t know what day it was. My living room was dark. I thought I was late for work. I jumped up, grabbed my keys, put my shoes on, rushed to my car, found it, started it up. Saw it was six o’clock. I’d be late to day shift, I thought. But then I realized it was 6 p.m. and I’d already worked my shift. I shut the car off, walked down Duncan Avenue into my apartment building. Showered. Got dressed. Sat at my bamboo desk, wrote a story, best I could, until Rae came home. We made tacos. I like to write because when I’m doing it, it’s just me, out there alone. I don’t have a boss when I’m writing. And I don’t have to worry about being anybody’s boss. I can handle being responsible for fictional characters. I can handle being responsible for this essay. Not much else. I don’t want to bring flowers to yet another funeral. I don’t want to Google Map Antarctica and find it gone. I don’t like reality as much as dream, as much as hallucination. In April, I got high as a kite and everything looked like a cartoon for five hours, I wasn’t even responsible for my own body. When the sun came up, I closed my eyes and fell into a sleep, deep and free. And my bank account sank to the center of the earth and burnt up in the lava for eight glorious hours. Maybe I like writing so much because it’s the worst way to go into business for myself. The most worthless. The most fun. Speaking of bosses, when I was eighteen, and all the cherry blossoms were fat and happy, I had a job with a shovel. I dug ditches, holes in the ground for minimum wage. Moved block. Planted trees. Got a suntan, got clean in the rain. I’ve always worked outside. When I die I don’t even want a grave. Just leave me on the grass. I’m a claustrophobic man, on paper. I don’t want an office job, or a coffin. No cubicle. No pine box. My shovel boss then was a bearded, potbellied man, always exhausted and worried. Probably some cocaine problem. He couldn’t keep up with the bookkeeping, and estimates, plus he tried to work with us, too. Our paychecks were often days late, sometimes a week. I didn’t like that guy. Neither did my shovel-wielding coworker. But once, I took the work truck to get me and my coworker donuts and coffee and I found the boss at some random convenience store nearby, passed out, head on the steering wheel. I stood outside the truck and looked in at the boss. First, I thought I would pound on the window and scare the shit out of him. But the more I looked at him, the more he just looked so pathetic. Strung out, but childlike, too. I couldn’t help but feel bad for him. I went inside the store and got the donuts and the coffee and left him alone, went back to the job. Let him sleep. A few days later, lunchtime at some rich person’s house, the boss put his shovel down and lay in the shade. Me and my coworker ate our lunch, watched him sleep. When our lunch was up, instead of going back to work, we shrugged and picked our own spots of shade, laid down too, bored as shit, pretended to sleep for hours. The minutes slipped off. I stared up at the blue sky. There were no clouds. But then I saw some drift in as if I’d willed them. I liked that feeling. Soon I heard the boss snoring. There’s nothing funnier than hearing your boss snore. At 2 p.m., he cursed me and my coworker. We sat up, rubbed our eyes. “Oh no! We all dozed off.” When I lost that job, I found another. It’ll always be that way. This year, beginning of summer, I lost my construction job. It happens. I’m gonna lose a lot of jobs. So I was home, with more time to write. I liked it. I had this yellow rolling cart that I would drag over to the couch, and I would work on my story for the morning, and at 9 a.m. I would pretend I still had a job, and I would take a coffee break like I was still on a construction site, and then I would write until noon, when I’d take lunch. It was nice. I liked not having a job. Out of habit, in the late afternoon, I would try to take a nap on the couch but it hardly ever worked, because I was so rested. Some people say writing is exhausting. Maybe. But writing alone never drove me to an afternoon nap, I’ll say that. And sometimes in the evening I found I had so much energy I couldn’t sleep. I bought a portable book light and clipped it to Mrs. Dalloway, and then Madame Bovary, and then Giovanni’s Room. Sometime after midnight, even Rae would begin to snore. Pat sent me a new picture of his hot rod. He’d rebuilt the chassis, set the ride height. It looked good. He was just about to drop the motor back in, the transmission after that. I asked him what he was gonna do with the car when it was done. He said, “Drive to work on a nice day.” What am I going do with my novel when it’s done? Nothing. Drive it nowhere. Let a friend read it on a nice day. In July I put up a post on Twitter saying I had a lot of free time if anybody wanted me to edit some of their stories. I got a few hits, but I also got an email from a producer putting together a podcast about sleep. They’d read some of my writing about working night shift at the plant. I was invited to write a small script about my experiences. When I sent it to the producer, it was rejected because I had told that gruesome story about the guy falling and the scratch marks on the tower. The podcast wanted less gore, less blood, less guts. They didn’t want to hear about sleepy men falling to their deaths, fireball explosions lighting up the night, I made my edits, resubmitted. But I did get to tell the story about when I was driving home from my night shift and I was stuck in traffic and fell asleep on the George Washington Bridge, and was woken up by a cop at my window, who pulled me out of the car and made me take a sobriety test just as the sun was beginning to come up over the New York City skyline. The first week of August, the producer had me travel to a studio in the city where I heard him in my headphones and I talked into the mic about nighttime in industrial hellholes, the need for sleep masks, and earplugs to combat city sirens, and firetrucks, and the light streaming into the window, and the crossing guard and her whistle. I even mentioned the man driven to his knees by the moon, but I don’t know if it made it in the podcast. I can’t listen to myself talk. At the end of August, my friend Joey began updating his Twitter feed, upon waking, “8/23/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/24/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/25/19: woke up, not dead.” “8/26/19: woke up, not dead.” And so on. In October, I got my job back. I punched in for work and learned that someone we had worked with for five years had died in bed of a heart attack. At coffee break we all sat together in our trailer and discussed. Someone said the man had said his chest hurt on Friday, his arm was numb. They told the man with the pain to go to the hospital, leave work now, but the man shook his head and lit a Marlboro instead. We wanted to know if he had woken up, or if he really did die in his sleep. If it was even possible to actually die in your sleep, painlessly. Or if there was pain, it was just pain felt in a dream, and you don’t even know it’s happening, or believe it. That’s what we all want: our pain just to be in a dream. It didn’t seem possible. Had his wife been beside him in the bed, had she slept through it too, had she rolled over and found him in the morning, cold and lifeless? Heart attack. Keyword: attack. Thrash around, gasp, fight. No one could sleep through an attack. If so, maybe get a better word for what it really was. “10/22/19: woke up, not dead.” “10/23/19: woke up, not dead.” “10/24/19: woke up, not dead.” And so on. One morning, people stood out at the gate with buckets, and a photo of the man who’d died in bed was taped on the buckets. We slipped green bills inside the buckets. I opened my eyes on the couch, and we’d come to the end of the year. I looked out the window and I saw 2020 get off the bus, begin to walk slowly down the sidewalk. I closed the blinds. I sat down at my typewriter. The intercom buzzed. 2020 was outside the building, wanted in. I shut off all the lights. I could hear 2020 outside calling my name. Screaming my name. I attached the portable book light to this sheet of paper, typed faster. The days go so fast, you have to steal the nights, and when all the nights slip away, that’s it. I’m not ready. All year, time was running out, and I didn’t have much of it. I closed my eyes and slept a catnap, and when I woke up, I did the best I could towards midnight. When the blue sky had not a cloud, I imagined them. They came drifting in, shaped as what I wanted. Maybe nothing much mattered to me when I was 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, well we’ll see about next year, but I think I already know.
The Year in Mysterious West Virginia

These people, these murder victims—the only thing separating their fate and mine is a thin hair of the intangible.

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. “I’ve got something new for us to watch,” my husband Scott told me. The algorithm knew he lived in West Virginia, but not I, apparently. YouTube had suggested Mysterious WV, a channel about unsolved cases—disappearances and murders, mostly—in our state. It felt thrilling to watch the first few episodes. I’ve been obsessed with true crime shows, and cold cases in particular, for the better part of my life. I love West Virginia, where I’ve lived for the past five years—its weirdness and its wildness. It is a deeply creepy state, that feels unsupervised, bleak, and also beautiful, like the mountains and rivers are thinly masking some shadowy secret. Here was a YouTube show that tied these two interests together in a neat bow. Mysterious WV takes cues from Unsolved Mysteries, the show that terrified me as a child. There is eerie instrumental background music, a grave-sounding voiceover. The production is cheap but not low quality; yes, the episodes sometimes rely on laughably bad stock images, but the stories are extensively researched, by combing through state archives, property histories, geological surveys, police files, and old maps and newspapers. Original interviews are conducted with police, witnesses, and friends and family members of the victims. The creators travel to the sites of the murders, showing current-day footage of the part of the river where the body was found, the gas station where the woman was seen with a strange man in her car, the side of the interstate where the body was dumped. We watched the majority of the episodes over a single weekend, in the back bedroom of my in-laws’ house, after the children and grandparents had gone to sleep. My in-laws live in Rainelle, a small town that is now full of abandoned buildings, old people, and drug addicts. The street they live on, though, is quiet, away from the abandoned buildings, lined with well-maintained houses and neat lawns. Their property ends at a patch of woods, and sometimes you hear things in it at night. Usually, it is deer. During hunting season, it is hunters and their ATVs. That weekend, after watching all these stories about local murders, I became convinced that the noises weren’t deer or hunters, but a killer. I lay in bed, frozen in a fear I had not felt since childhood, convinced that the boogeyman was lurking in the hallway. I reasoned with myself: The house was guarded by an overly-sensitive alarm system. The dog would bark. But the alarm could have been disabled. Maybe the dog was in a deep sleep. The cumulative effect of all the death had clearly gotten to me, aided by the creepy music and the fact that the settings of these murders were so familiar. A girl was found strangled and stuffed in the crawlspace of an apartment building near where Scott had lived in grad school, in a city I would visit in a few weeks to speak to a college writing class. A housewife was shot in her home, just a mile from my own. A body was dumped on the side of the road that I take to get to my favorite bookstore and my psychiatrist. Even the places that weren’t familiar looked familiar; a lot of West Virginia looks the same: green plants, thick trees, muddy rivers. As we watched the episodes, oldest to newest, we saw the progression of the show and the hosts themselves. The earliest episodes are credited to both Carrie Kirk and Sean Patrick McCracken, a married couple living in Charleston, West Virginia’s state capital. They alternated hosting the show, with Kirk appearing much more comfortable in front of the camera. In these early episodes, McCracken is stiff and awkward, doing things like leaning against a tree in a way that is probably meant to look natural but doesn’t. Eventually, he becomes more relaxed. About a year in, Kirk stops appearing in the credits and episodes. There is an eight-month lull in episodes. I grew curious about the lapse, and, after some intense creepy Google searching, discovered that McCracken and Kirk had gotten a divorce. Kirk evidently was the expert when it came to production, and with her absence the show loses the original recreations, which were always shot super close up—a foot tapping the ground, a hand flicking a lighter—and gave the show an abstract, dreamy feeling, fitting because so many of the cases are so old. After the divorce, McCracken started wearing an awesome vintage orange corduroy trench coat in the videos, that he tells me via email was once his grandfather’s. [[{"fid":"6706176","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":"Sean P. McCracken","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]":"Sean P. McCracken","field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"alt":"Sean P. McCracken","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]] Later, he started a Patreon page. I immediately signed up, my first Patreon ever. Shortly after, McCracken started to be invited to radio shows, press conferences, and a grave exhumation. He is fascinating to watch, for both his wardrobe choices (a recent episode featured him in a red suit, polka-dot tie, and striped shirt), and his vocabulary and delivery. He talks with a strange inflection, like he’s the lead in some Victorian play—which makes sense, given that a local paper reported he’s involved in community theater. His manner and antiquated word choices don’t seem put on for the show, however. This appears to be the true McCracken, the pipe-smoking amateur detective, the YouTube generation’s heir to Robert Stack. He is incredibly endearing, doing things like posting a four-minute monologue of him sitting in his car, citing The Goonies quote “Always separate the drugs” as an apology for accidentally referring to crystal meth as “hillbilly heroin” in a recent episode. His face is pudgy, he wears glasses and is balding, and there is something baby-like and sweet about him. The nosy part of me wishes I could follow him around for a day, observe his behavior as he does routine things like buying groceries and pumping gas. At the very least, I’d like to have him over for dinner. As I continued to watch the episodes, they started to fall into categories of reasons why they were scary, illustrations of the different ways it is terrifying to be a human in the world. There are the “bad decision” deaths, where a person slipped into addiction or started hanging out with the wrong people and wound up dead. Something about these deaths feels inevitable, cautionary tales like a grown-up version of an afterschool special. But they also feel personally scary; I have made each of these bad decisions. I’ve gotten too deep in drugs and alcohol. I’ve fallen in love and hung out with criminals. After a decade sober, I’ve watched former friends and boyfriends die or get put in jail, and it has often occurred to me how lucky I am to have made it out. It has also often occurred to me that there is no logical reason for this. These people, these murder victims—the only thing separating their fate and mine is a thin hair of the intangible. And then there are the random deaths, the ones where the victim ended up dead not through a life lived on the margins but by simply existing. The one that sticks with me most is the murder of a nun, twenty-six-year-old Roberta Elam. Actually, she was technically a “pre-novitiate candidate,” a nun-in-training. In June 1977, she was living at the motherhouse of the Mount Saint Joseph convent in Wheeling, West Virginia. One morning, June 13, she went for a run, got a snack from the kitchen, and headed to a nearby field to pray. A couple hours later, her body was discovered in that same field, strangled to death, underwear and jeans pushed down. The police pursued several leads, including a serial rapist and murderer in nearby Pennsylvania, but the killer was never found. The strongest lead involved a “shady”-looking man who was seen near the grounds that day, in a Chevy Impala with a couple religious bumper stickers on the back. A police sketch of him was released, one of those haunting ones, with thick eyebrows and a beard, but it never went anywhere. Nobody was even able to determine a motive for the killing—if this was a crime of opportunity or if she was targeted. The fact that she was a nun particularly bothered me, as though this innocent decision, to marry Christ and try to lead a sinless life, ultimately caused her to die. Other senseless deaths: a young couple disappeared after a date at a popular nightclub. A man bludgeoned at his job at a gas station, having arrived earlier than scheduled so the neighborhood children would have a warm place to wait for the bus. A man abducted, just sitting in his home. A woman beaten to death, just sitting in her home. A woman shot, just sitting in her home. The most troubling cases, though, are the John and Jane Does. The recreations of their faces are, of course, terrifying—humanlike but not human, with empty eyes and expressionless mouths. And then there is the reality of their deaths, the cold truth that not only is it possible to get murdered, and not only is it possible to get murdered and for the killer to get away with it, but it is possible for this to happen and for law enforcement to not even be able to identify your body. One case that stands out begins with a body discovered by two children in a cistern in 1981. This was in Lawrence County, Ohio, across the river from Huntington, West Virginia. After the mostly-skeletonized remains were examined by a coroner, it was determined that they’d found a Caucasian female of indeterminate age who’d been strangled to death. She was dressed for winter, with three layers on top, two pairs of socks on her feet, and a third pair on her hands. Found with the body was a three-year-old bus ticket and a key for a locker at the Huntington Greyhound bus station. In the locker, they found a duffle bag that held more clothes, family photos, and a souvenir coin from a Jerry Falwell revival. Eventually, her body and bag were buried in an unmarked grave. She was dubbed the Belle in the Well. [[{"fid":"6706191","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":{"width":"300","style":"float: right; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"4"}}]]Thirty years later, her body and property were disinterred, because of advances in DNA and facial reconstruction technology. The resulting reconstruction was especially creepy, the dead eyes looking both passive and forlorn. The extracted DNA suggested she was from West Virginia. Years later—this year, in fact—the DNA was traced to her estranged daughter. The Belle’s name was Louise Virginia Peterson, and she’d been around sixty-five at the time of her death. McCracken attended and then uploaded the footage of the press conference where this information was announced. The only locatable photo came from Peterson’s high school yearbook. [[{"fid":"6706196","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":{"width":"300","style":"float: left; margin: 25px;","class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"5"}}]]The details of her life are sparse. Officials were able to piece together that she’d been married and then divorced, that she’d had three children, and that perhaps she was mentally ill—and that’s about it. The murder is, unsurprisingly, still unsolved. It is terrifying at both a practical and an existential level that a mother of three could disappear and not be missed, that her life could be such a faint series of dots. It is terrifying that the eventual success in this case was simply identifying her body, rather than finding out what happened to her. It is terrifying that what enabled her identification was not recognition from a friend or a family member, but because a distant relative uploaded their DNA profile to GEDmatch (the same database used to identify the Golden State Killer). There are still so many unknowns: we don’t know when she disappeared, where she was going on that bus, why nobody noticed she was gone, and, of course, we don’t know who strangled her or for what reason. The case points to a mostly unspoken fear that nags at me on my most depressed days: What if life really is lonely and senseless? What if some lives do truly matter more than others? A search for a remedy to these bleak questions seems to point to Mysterious WV’s higher purpose: it exists not because of a desire to create profitable content, or achieve local fame, or even to satisfy the itch of curiosity, but to give these lives and deaths some meaning. Each episode ends with a brief summary of a description of the person at the time of their disappearance or death, and information with who to contact if a viewer has any knowledge regarding the case. Maybe somebody will remember something. Maybe somebody will finally report what they saw or heard. After five or thirty or fifty years, these maybes seem unlikely, if not impossible—but there they are, the brazen existence of a slim crack of hope. Photo of Jane Doe bust via the Ohio Attorney General's Office; photo of Louise Virginia Peterson via the Lawrence Country Coroner's Office.
The Year in Canine Curatives

A dog could serve as another guard against the depression that I finally couldn’t ignore. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I fell apart in February. They used to call it a nervous breakdown, but that antiquated term has been replaced by the equally vague but more medically correct “mental health crisis.” It was a long time coming, but that’s as precise as I can be. My depression goes back farther than my memories, long before I had a name for it. It was something I kept to myself, tried to keep inside, but it infiltrated my thoughts and behaviour until its corruption was no longer an obscuring of my true self but simply part of who I was. I wrestled with my mental health privately, never revealing my struggles to anyone or seeking appropriate help. I told myself I was fine, I had the strength to manage alone, and I certainly didn’t need medication. Instead, I self-medicated with booze or drugs or sex to escape myself, which only led to unhealthy dependencies, which worsened the depression, requiring more self-medication.  In February, two weeks before my thirty-fourth birthday, the cycle finally broke. Which is to say, I broke. The particular catalysts involved aren’t as relevant as the intensity of the experience. I’d had bad episodes before, but this was different, and I knew it. Not only could I never hope to keep this hidden, the stakes felt frighteningly high. It seemed a question of survival. In twenty-four hours, I told my family and close friends, started antidepressants, and booked an appointment with a counselor. I quit all intoxicants, and spoke publicly and openly about my mental health for the first time. These were all actions that had long seemed terrifying, but now they came to me with the easy instinctiveness of breathing to stay alive. Unable to eat or sleep much, I lost eight per cent of my body weight the first week. But after a few weeks the antidepressants kicked in and everything changed. I’d always feared they would dull my mind, but instead they brought something like a stable floor for me to stand on. The surety of being emotionally level astounded me. Correcting the chemical imbalance in my brain with a simple pill enabled me to be fully myself, somewhat akin to how recovering from a bad cold restores one’s sense of being fully present.  Except, as my doctor pointed out, the fact that my depression dates to childhood means that I was feeling like myself for the first time in memory. At age thirty-four, I would have to figure out who that man was. Swimming back to shore from deepest waters was a long process, but weekly therapy sessions along with the medication helped me make slow but steady progress. I don’t remember exactly where the idea of getting a dog came from. I think it was my counsellor, or my doctor, or perhaps I who suggested it. I’d wanted a dog all my life, but my mother was too allergic for us to have one, and as a child I swore that I would get my own dog as soon as I moved out on my own. I spent my twenties bouncing around the world for work and travel, and the time never seemed right. But now a dog could serve as another guard against depression: as a freelance journalist, I spend many solitary hours in my apartment each day, often sacrificing my evenings to the fickle gods of work. Both my counsellor and doctor agreed that a companion who would be both a source of and outlet for affection was worth considering. After convincing my landlord to make an exception for the building’s no-pets rule, I began researching rescue dogs online. I found a four-month-old Jack Russell-Chihuahua who was a street dog in Mexico before being rescued and brought to Calgary by a local agency. Our first meeting was the morning after he’d arrived, and within an hour he was heading home with me. I named him Spätzle after the delicious noodles I’d loved since childhood. He was incredibly well-tempered and calm for a puppy, but also goofy, playful, endearing. *** After two months Spätzle began exhibiting some strange symptoms: coughing, throwing up, and trance-like episodes where his lips and jaw muscles seemed to go haywire. The trances increased in frequency and severity, and the vet confirmed they were what they looked like: seizures. He was prescribed anticonvulsants; I filled the prescription two blocks from the vet’s office, and before I could give him his first pill, he had a violent, full-body seizure that lasted several minutes. I rushed him back to the vet, and they gave him a hefty dose of valium to get him through the day. The likely culprit was canine distemper, a highly contagious virus that causes neurological damage and has an 80% mortality rate for puppies; there is no cure. Waiting more than a week for the blood test results while trying not to get further attached to an adorably romping puppy who might be dying was emotionally exhausting. But at least the anticonvulsants quickly reduced the seizures, first in severity then in frequency, until they stopped entirely after a few days. The blood tests came back negative for everything, including distemper. The next diagnostic step would have been taking him to a neurologist and a series of expensive tests. Given that the seizures had been eliminated and Spätzle seemed fine and not in any distress, the vet and I agreed that it was reasonable to take a wait-and-see approach and simply watch for any changes. [[{"fid":"6706106","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"}}]] Spätzle and I fell into a comfortable rhythm. His tiny bladder requires my rising early, which helped me return to my pre-breakdown routine. Our pill bottles stand together on a kitchen shelf, same translucent green, filled by the same pharmacy. With his breakfast comes the first of his three pills each day, hidden among the similarly-sized kibble to subvert his ability to find the medication in whatever food I’ve hidden it and leave it untouched while he devours the rest. As he eats, I take my two pills, both antidepressants, and then we are ready for the day. I’ve never consciously held any stigma against those with mental illness or the medications they require. But such stigmas are prevalent in our society, and, in hindsight, I had no doubt internalized them and applied them to myself. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want antidepressants, but that I didn’t want to need antidepressants. I took pride in finding the strength to slog through dark swamps on my own, a terribly foolish approach that cost me dearly. Feeling the effects of the medication changed my perspective. But sharing that daily ritual with a companion whose need for pharmaceuticals is a matter of life or death helps tether me to that perspective. I see no weakness in either of our conditions, nor in our reliance on little chemical tablets; we’re simply trying to find a way to live. Spätzle was supposed to help me keep my broken self together. He turned out to be broken, too. After spending decades resisting antidepressants and wanting a dog, I now have both. Neither was what I expected, but both helped save my life.
The Year in Martinis

The protests wound their way into the fabric of our days. Political struggle emerged naturally and sustained itself naturally. 

What were we obsessed with, invested in and plagued by in 2019? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the issues, big and small. I drank martinis during a revolution. I drank martinis stirred by a be-suited barman in a Buenos Aires speakeasy. I drank martinis in France’s Cognac region, the night before I vomited from food poisoning on a train to Paris, and at the oyster bar in my hometown on Long Island. I drank martinis so much I got the outline of one, with an olive, tattooed on my right ring finger knuckle. I drank martinis so much, and so famously, I came to expect them when I sat down at bars, and it felt strange to give my preferred specs: half gin (any), half dry vermouth, olive—as many olives as the bartender would like to spear or plop. I drank martinis so much that a bartender friend once served me a coupe glass filled with clear liquid, before I could ask for one, and when I sipped it, I tasted water as he laughed hysterically to himself. The martini era of my life happened gradually. Quietly at first, they came in to pair with oysters, but quickly became an obsession. As a cocktail writer drinking in as many cities as people will pay for me to visit, I often feel assaulted by flavor, tired of making selections from house cocktail lists that mainly boast twists on the classics. On a gin martini, with an olive, I could sip slowly, feel the burn grow, and then have a snack. Sometimes I would offer no specifications and be given a lemon peel twist, and while the citrus made sense, it would be disappointing to have no gin-soaked gift at the end. A lemon peel isn’t something to gnaw on. I would ask bartenders why they chose their specific number of olives. Often, there would only be one—these were those who were minimally familiar with my tastes and my profession. Sometimes, two, and friends would be scandalized: “Two olives is bad luck!” they’d say. “It needs to be an odd number.” On an Instagram post, Houston bar owner Bobby Huegel explained in a comment that two actually makes sense: One for the beginning, one for the end. But three always feels right: One for the beginning, the middle, the end. The bartender who loves me, though—he gives me five, an overwhelming amount for a shocking and overwhelming love, one that began during that revolution I mentioned, the revolution that found me officially moving away from New York for the first time in my nearly thirty-four years. It started as a month. Just a month. A little break. The decision came almost exactly four years after I went to Puerto Rico as a reporter for the first time; since, I’d been back multiple times a year, formed friendships, become comfortable. My grandmother was born here, but she left in the ’40s for New York City during an exodus. There was nowhere else in the world that it made as much sense for me to go. Where else would I know the streets, feel safe walking alone, be connected enough not to feel lonely? I booked the flights and the apartment; I broke free from relationships, and broke a heart. It all felt predetermined. And my first two weeks in San Juan went as planned: I drank with friends; I ate the food I love most; I went to intense Ashtanga yoga classes almost daily and wrote on my balcony, fulfilling a longtime dream of re-creating a scene from Before Night Falls where the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas types, types, types with the sea in view. Finally, the Caribbean was mine, for longer than a quick trip. Then there was the breaking news: A transcript of chats between government officials, including then-governor Ricky Rosselló, in which misogynist, transphobic, classist, and corrupt behavior was revealed. These officials mocked the 4645 deaths that had occurred after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. Protests began, and from my balcony near the sea I heard how they were growing. Flyers were passed to me through Instagram DM, and I wondered whether I should go—whether my presence at the intersection of Calle Fortaleza and Calle de Cristo in Old San Juan would be in solidarity or self-serving. But with the bartender I would come to love, I went into the fray for the first time on Monday, July 15. The atmosphere was festive, jovial, charged. After hours of chanting for Ricky’s resignation, we took off to meet friends at a bar. In the car on our way out of Old San Juan, the news and videos began coming in of tear gas shot into the crowd. That was the first night of tear gas, and despite my mother’s own protest staged in my text messages, I went back the next day. On Wednesday, I saw the first canister shot into the sky. The protests grew. There was a massive general strike the following Monday, and, finally, on a Wednesday night when I’d already had two martinis and watched a queer collective joyfully dance perreo on the steps of the cathedral where they’d taped a trans pride flag, Ricky heeded the call to resign. I stepped into that same corner, filled with Puerto Rican flags of every sort and people chanting, “Ricky Renuncia!,” to find dancing and joy like I’d never seen before. In that moment, I knew I wouldn’t be moving back home. For those who’ve only briefly visited Puerto Rico, maybe off a plane or maybe off a cruise ship, or maybe for those who only watched David Begnaud on the news during the protests, it may have seemed like life otherwise stopped on the island. But for many, myself included, the protests wove themselves into the fabric of our days. Political struggle emerged naturally and sustained itself naturally, swelling and ebbing depending on the hour and the day. I remember a Tuesday afternoon of drinking Gruner and snacking on a cheese plate in Old San Juan and then walking over into the fray. I remember taking selfies with my pharmacy-bought bandana around my neck, prepared for that tear gas, which I ran from twice as cops blocked off streets in military formation and protesters were carried out, their eyes closed and swollen, faces red, bodies limp. Despite the tone of revelry and togetherness that permeated the days of protest and the continuation of life, once night fell, the air took on a charge because we all knew that soon, there would be a fight. But that didn’t change the resolve: both to fight and to enjoy whenever, whatever possible—corrupt government and colonial status be damned. And so, I choose not just to remember the chanting, the marching, and the horrors of tear gas, but the martinis served in coupes or Nick and Noras or sometimes even plastic cups. They kept me going, providing a trail of gin from my old life to this new one that formed to my own surprise. Martini in hand, I learned how the most powerful political action can weave seamlessly into the everyday.
‘It Shows the Many Different Forms Depression Can Take’: An Interview with Morgan Parker

The author of Who Put This Song On? on emo, mental health, and the Obama years. 

Morgan Parker has published three poetry collections in a row to critical acclaim. Her debut, Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, was selected by Eileen Myles as the winner of the 2013 Gatewood Prize. There are Things More Beautiful Than Beyoncé was named one of Time Magazine's best books of 2017. Magical Negro, published by Tin House earlier this year, has already received accolades from Vogue and the Washington Post. She's achieved the mainstream success so rare for poets, while refusing to gloss over the visceral experience of her verse. And so, while at the top of her literary game, she decided to do something different with her next book and publish a young adult novel. Who Put This Song On? (Delacorte Press) follows a music-obsessed seventeen-year-old girl, also named Morgan Parker, trying to survive a semester of high school in her hyper-white Southern California town after the apex of a depressive episode. Though the novel takes a different form than Parker's previous work, the subject matter it tackles is familiar: the experience of existing as Black and female in white supremacist America, art and pop culture as an interactive experience, humour and trauma as close cousins. Parker spoke to me on the phone from her home in LA, where she's been living after spending a decade in New York; she had a short break in between an extensive book tour. She is easygoing and quick to laugh at herself and at the process of writing this book, while also recognizing the gravity of her subject matter, and taking seriously the feelings of teen girls. Anna Fitzpatrick: I've been aware of your work for years as a poet. Who Put This Song On? is obviously a departure from that. What was it like to transition from one format to a completely different one? Morgan Parker: It was hard. [laughs] It was hard! I never took a fiction class. I had edited fiction books, so that was one thing, but it's very different to write fiction. I had to write a lot of drafts to figure out what the form could do for me, and to figure out how I wanted to use the form, and I guess to give myself permission to put my voice that I had developed in other forms into that rather than feeling like I'm not doing it right when it comes to figuring out plot points or structure or narrative. For me it was more exploring the form generally. You play with the format, with diary entries and notebook entries throughout. Was writing in prose easier in any way? [Pauses] No. [laughs] I mean, I love sentences, but they're so malleable and flexible. The thing about poems is, you can say a lot of things at once. With linear sentence structure you kind of can't do that, or you have to figure out ways to do that that aren't necessarily grammar or language based. That part is hard because I'm used to not being held to sentences. It feels very different to write something very plainly, to write, I don't know, "I want to die," rather than making a poem that essentially leads up to "I want to die." It's scarier, I think, and it was harder for me to develop these characters and to let go from the original story that I was starting from, and let the story that this book wanted to tell come out. It was more fun, often. I got to just make jokes, which was a departure—well, no, not really. But it was a different experience than writing humour into poetry. Being able to write in this voice of the main character was fun, and there was a little bit of levity involved in that, even though it was so vulnerable at the same time. You're writing a character who shares so many biographical similarities to you and is also named Morgan Parker. I didn't do that as a thing. Honestly, originally I was thinking about what to name her, and I feel like I was spending way too much time thinking about it. I really was stuck on that. I figured, maybe that's not the best way for me to spend my time when I have to write this whole book, so let me just put my name in as a placeholder. It just stayed. I wasn't expecting it to be part of the story, to have the character have my name, but it has been kind of a cool thing to talk about, and it is kind of an interesting way to interact with the reader, to take a step away from the fictional part and to speak directly to the reader. There's something, especially for a story like this that's dealing with suicidal ideation, I think it's kind of cool that the big thing about this book is that she survives. And having the character's name be my name, there's a little bit of hopefulness at that. It's not, "Here's this story about these people." It's, here's a real story, and, actually, the character lives on. But that's not stuff I was thinking about before the book was finished. There are two afterwords to your book. One is a practical resource on how to find a therapist, but there's also one where you're addressing the reader directly, and you talk about how today you're thirty and thriving with this writing career. But you also talk about the ways in which your own high school experience was different. What was it like, revisiting high school but being able to control the narrative? It was really emotional. I was doing it at the same time that I was moving across the country and back into my parents' house. I moved in with them before I found an apartment in LA. I was in my childhood bedroom writing the end of the book, having just done my decade in my New York, and returning home where everything's different. I used a lot of the diaries, and I spent a lot of time going back and just like, getting in the spirit of that time. It was really emotionally trying, and I was not kind to myself about it. But it did feel like, if I was going to write this story for young people, I needed it to not be how I remember it or looking back from the perspective of an adult. I really did need to go back to those things that I was writing in real time, and have a really deep understanding of what the feelings were. The actions, the plot points, the little stories that happened to the characters, those are the things that could be fictionalized, but the feelings part couldn't. That was something where I had to go direct to the source. It was really personally challenging coming to terms with who I was then, and forgiving that person and being ashamed of that person and loving that person. I had to go through all these different stages of interacting with that version of me, or that time in my life, and that changed so much throughout the writing of the book. Morgan the character is younger than you, right? She's in high school in 2008. Yeah, I was in college then. Is there a reason why you bumped it up? I really wanted to use the [2008 presidential] election as a catalyst in the book to explore race and politics and religion. I felt that was a really good way to show how this town this town reacts to all of those things. I wanted to play around with that. At the time I made that choice, it was toward the end of the Obama administration. It was kind of interesting in the writing to think about, what was life right before that? It was something that I felt worthy to be explored. It's not that long ago, but it still somehow feels like historical fiction or something. I think especially for kids that were a little bit too young at that time, it could be interesting to really think about how that election went. Like, we know what happens after. It's an interesting thing to look back at. I was in New York when Obama was elected, so I was in the streets at Columbia. Everyone was happy. But it wasn't like that in my hometown. I wanted to be able to show rather than tell what these folks's politics were and what they care about. Using the election allowed for that. I was impressed by how hyper-specific the 2008 pop culture references were. I knew it was close to your own high school period, but certain album releases or TV episodes referenced— Oh dude, I had to research! I had a list of months albums came out, so that I could actually try to be accurate about that. I couldn't just be like, "Oh I remember this album." I was literally like, "OK, what would they be listening to that's new." If they're listening to a new Death Cab album in September, how does that check out? Even just like, the movies that are playing, things like that. When was the Sarah Palin thing on SNL to make sure it's lining up with the school year. It was kind of fun, but it was weirdly a lot to keep track of. I had two calendars at the time, one for the book and one for my life. It really got—for the most part it was like, "OK, homecoming is not for me, that's the other Morgan Parker." But there was one day where it said, "Morgan-therapy," and I was like, "Wait, I don't have therapy on Fridays?" I would get them confused. Holding both of those worlds in my head at the same time was funny. Did you revisit a lot of the music and things from your own high school years when you were working on this? Oh, yeah. When I finished I was like, "Thank goodness I can listen to something else." I made a playlist for the book, but I also have like a way longer one that I would just throw on while I was writing. It was all of the stuff. [laughs] Like, all of the stuff. The corny stuff to the deeply sad to what we would listen to in the car to what I would listen to in my bedroom crying. So, I had this huge running playlist that I would listen to as I was writing, which was intense. I was very much in a particular time and mood. It was really interesting to just sit there for quite a while. [dog yaps in background] Shirley! Come! Sorry. That's my dog. All the musical references had this cinematic sense, the way that in movies and TV shows the composer will give certain characters their own musical cues. You have the specific emo Morgan listens to, and she calls out her best friend for listening to "fake emo." Good Charlotte and stuff. And her therapist likes Bon Jovi, and she gets two different boys making her mixes which are similar but— But not. It's so interesting getting reception about the book because you don't hear enough from young people. You hear a lot from older middle aged white women. They're all just like, "I didn't recognize the references!" or "Who makes mixed CDs in 2008?" All of that stuff is like, Dude, get out of the way. We know. Anyone reading that who has ever felt, not only if you've been into emo music but if you've understood the importance of music as a teenager and the significance of mixed CDs, you're going to be looking at that and saying, "Oh, I can see how they're kind of different, kind of the same," you know? And that is important and notable. That is something that is really steeped in that time and that age. It's been funny, because I'm like, you maybe don't remember, but this was serious. And I'm pretty sure folks can relate to that. I've got mixed CDs from 2008 with TV On The Radio and Sonic Youth and some of the exact track listings that she has. Certain voices really do dominate YA conversations online. But the teens are still out there reading them. It's true. It's true! They're there. They're just not making as much noise. Exactly. Who are you hoping finds this book? Honestly... obviously, I'm putting this out there for some people, and part of that is, I needed this book so desperately. Like I said, it was super hard to write this, and the reason I finished was because I needed to do it for age-fifteen Morgan Parker because I didn't have that. To be able to have the power to make that thing, to correct that lack in my life, is an honour. I don't know. It felt kind of healing in a way. Not just to give it to teens now who are feeling the same way, but also for those of us who didn't have that and still need it in a lot of ways, whether or not we've moved past that time in our lives. We still need that representation and encouragement and validation. So first and foremost, teens that are struggling with mental health, or struggling with feeling isolated. Struggling with racism, with their identity and how they feel about themselves, and all of that. Specifically Black girls. It's so interesting because my books are really hyper-specific, and I want them to find those specific—like, someone in my hometown who is wearing Doc Martens and listens to Sonic Youth and has depression. But there's a kind of wider net that grows from that. Generally, I want it to find those specific folks, but I also want it to find people who feel alone and isolated and confused and not powerful. I also want adults who have been through that and who maybe didn't have the kind of support they needed. And lastly, parents and friends of people who are feeling alone and who are feeling afraid of what is next. Part of writing this book has been sharing something that nobody really knew around me. In the book she writes a piece for the yearbook, and that's what I did. When I published it, it was my senior yearbook, I was like, "I'm moving across the country, who cares." But one thing that I found is that people were so shocked. They were like, "Oh my god, I never would have guessed, you're always laughing, you get straight As." And that was... hurtful, you know? Like, damn, really no one saw this and no one knew how to see it because everyone's just expecting depression to equal crying uncontrollably and that's just the way it looks. Another part of this book is just showing what depression looks like for real, and the many forms that it can take, just so that people are aware and people can pay attention and not be dismissive and be understanding. I think to be able to give credit to those feelings is important to me. One last thing I wanted to ask you was, again, because I knew your work first as a poet, there's this running bit in the book where teenage Morgan just hates poetry. Was that an accurate reflection of your high school self, or— Yup. I honestly did not like poetry. At all. I hated it. And it was because they were giving us poems about cabins and the earth or whatever. To be able to put that in was actually really fun for me. People always laugh if they know. It's also a dig, because I have three poetry books now. I almost did not write poetry because of the educational system. Little things like that were cool to write in because like, "Damn, even she hated it." I didn't get into writing poetry until halfway through college and I wasn't even taking it serious at that time. I'm weirdly kind of new to poetry.
‘Masculinity is in Pieces’: An Interview with Deborah Levy

The author of The Man Who Saw Everything on modernist structure, novelistic characters, and David Lynch. 

Deborah Levy knows what she is doing. The British novelist and playwright's most recent book, The Man Who Saw Everything (Hamish Hamilton), was longlisted for the Booker Prize. It's the third novel of hers to be up for the award, after 2012's Swimming Home and 2016's Hot Milk. These books join the some several dozen other novels, short story collections, memoirs, and plays that have shaped her career since the early Eighties, a constellation of work that examines the reaches of what language can do. The Man Who Saw Everything is a tight, dense novel that opens in 1988. Saul Adler, a young, beautiful historian, is preparing a research trip to East Germany. In London, he suffers a minor accident after a car grazes him at the iconic Abbey Road crosswalk. Suffering only a few scratches, he goes over to his girlfriend's house, a photographer named Jennifer Moreau, who sleeps with him and promptly dumps him. These opening few chapters are filled with small, seemingly inconsequential details that Levy riffs on in the first half of the book, only to turn the story on its head midway as she thrusts the narrative nearly thirty years into the future, on the heels of 2016's Brexit vote, to probe what has changed, what has stayed the same, and how we misremember the past. Levy and I meet at a cafe in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood on the first snowy day of the season. She is a confident but soft speaker, and her voice is often drowned out by the sound of the Backstreet Boys and Beyoncé coming from a pop radio station on blast. She is a deliberate writer, able to speak at length about every choice that appears in her novel. Anna Fitzpatrick: How has the tour been going? Deborah Levy: I love touring. For the Americas, I've just come back from Santa Fe, then to New York, now I'm in Toronto. Before that I was doing the British Tour. That was really something. Liverpool, we launched the book there, because there's a Liverpool theme in the book. That's where the Beatles obviously grew up. They got a choir of 35 people to sing "Penny Lane" in German and in English. It's a book with so many cities featured prominently. You have Berlin, the two Berlins, and Cape Cod. I do. I'm a swimmer. So, I like to swim across the ponds in Cape Cod. There's Berlin 1988, London 1988, Berlin further on, and America. You open with a quote from Susan Sontag's On Photography. She says to photograph someone is to violate them. She's writing that in '77, but your book takes place under the surveillance of the GDR in 1988, and then in 2016 with a level of technology that brings another kind of surveillance. How does that quote work in these contexts? So, there's Saul Adler, when the book opens he is twenty-eight. He is a freakishly beautiful man. Described as "more a rockstar than a historian." He's a minor historian, he always says. His girlfriend, Jennifer Moreau, is an art student, and the thing is that Saul is such a slippery man. She can't ever really possess him because everyone wants a piece of him, and he's so ambivalent about attachment anyway. The only way that she can really get hold of him is through the lens of her camera. I had written this, and then I read the Sontag quote and I thought, "Oh yeah, maybe I'm doing something right." She's talking about how it's a certain possession. It's usually women who are gazed upon and sexualized and objectified, and I flip and have it happen to Saul, and he reports back through the reader on what that's like. And then to talk about surveillance, we go to communist East Berlin, where there's quite a lot of paranoia about who is looking at who because everyone is spying on everybody else. I'm looking at the way the state looks at us in an authoritarian regime, the way Jennifer Moreau looks at Saul, the way Walter Müller—that's Saul's translater in East Berlin who he sort of falls in love with at some point—Saul says of Walter, "I think he saw everything there was to see in me, everything that was mad and bad and sad." The title should trigger all different kinds of looking, ways we look to each other. Going to the gendered aspect of this, Jennifer Moreau forbids Saul from observing her the way she does him through photography, but she forbids him from even using language to describe her. She does, and she says, "I don't want you to ever describe my beauty or my body, to me or to anyone else." And he says, "Why?" And she says, "You've only got old words to describe me." You'll notice that Jennifer, I never describe Jennifer in the book. You know she's got silver hair by the end, because Saul tells us, and she starts the book twenty-three, she's fifty-one by the time the book ends. We know how she smells. She likes to use ylang-ylang oil. She's the only character I've ever written who I haven't described, and whom, I hope, readers nevertheless get a sense of: her and her interior life and that purpose in life. I'm really interested in this question of how we might describe women's bodies in a way that isn't objectifying. What kind of language, new language, would we use as writers to do that? But Saul keeps his side of the bargain, and I the writer keep it with him, because he's writing in the first person. I mean, did you get a sense of Jennifer Moreau? My idea of what she looked like changed over the course of the book, but I did picture her as a counterpart to Saul's glamorous dandyism. She wears that cap at the beginning, pulled down, and I figured her as someone with a certain chicness. But I didn't have a physical sense of her. You sort of had an art student idea of her. Which I liked. It's tempting, talking to you, I have this urge that I have to fight, to ask you to fill in all the ambiguities of the book, but those ambiguities make the experience of reading the book stronger. As an author writing someone from such an unreliable point of view, do you have a definitive sequence of events that you're writing against? Do you know what Jennifer Moreau looks like? Yes, I do. Because I think if you're going to play around with time zones like I do, it actually has to be a very plotted and mapped out book. It might surprise you, but it's probably my most plotted book. One of the themes in the book is how history is told. If you think about yourself, if you tell your own personal history, and I do, we are likely to tell it in our favour. We're going to leave out quite a lot of stuff we feel we come up bad in. And then there are other people who can fill in that part of our history. That's what happens in my book. Saul gives his version of events, and Jack and other characters step in. Saul describes Jack as a minor character, but he's really not so minor in Saul's life. It was heartbreaking to read the story from Jack's point of view. In some ways Jack is a completely new character for me, because how do you make somebody who's really important in someone else's life embody that importance, given that the main narrator is always pushing him away? Jennifer steps in to fill in some of the missing history, so does the driver who runs him over. Writing in the first person is always a bit claustrophobic. I have to find techniques and strategies to let in other subjectivities. Open the window and let in some fresh air. It's not really that Saul is unreliable. I know what you mean, obviously. That's a phrase that's used a lot, isn't it? But he's a man that's been knocked over by a car. He's coming in and out of consciousness in various ways, no spoilers. He's got time messed up a bit in his mind, but he's not unreliable. What he can't do is, he can't feel things. As the book develops, he begins to feel, which is always painful. It's always painful to begin to feel. There's all this stuff around about how we should feel things all the time, but actually we spend quite a lot of energy in our lives trying not to feel things. It's overwhelming and uncomfortable to feel things. There's this one part of the book where Saul's in the hospital, Jennifer Morreau's at his side. He takes her hand and places her hand under his pajamas, and he's hard, and his heart's going berserk, and he says, "I didn't know how to be the man you wanted me to be. I'm only just starting to feel things. I can't bear it." I don't want any unbelievable moral resolutions to things. I don't want any unbelievable massive changes in the human psyche that I write about. I want small changes. I'm very interested in, what is strength and what is fragility? What's a strong character and what's a weak character. I don't super believe in that way of looking at things because on Monday, we can feel really powerful, and on Tuesday, we can feel fragile. We live, and we live with those contradictions. In the novels I write, I want characters not to be novelistic characters. I want them to also live with those sorts of complexities. What do you view as a novelistic character? That's a very big question. I'm going to answer it another way. In my novels, it's very possible for a character to have two contradictory thoughts at the same time. You tell me anyone you know who doesn't have those sorts of thoughts. I want to scoop all that up psychologically, because it interests me, and have that in my novels. What you won't find in my novels on the whole are grand narrators. Wise and all-seeing. No, I don't want them in my book. There is that common misconception that history is an objective series of facts when so often it's subjective. There's a parallel you draw with photography, where you've taken an image of things as they are, but you see with Jennifer and the way she develops film in a dark room, or the way in which she displays her images, she has another way of seeing. Can you speak to that parallel? She's captured Saul, age twenty-eight, and she calls her exhibition "A Man in Pieces." We learn that sometimes she just photographs parts of him, in fragments. He is a sort of a man in pieces. The book is also looking at masculinity, which is in pieces at this time in our century. Our history is speaking to this. I'm looking at authoritarian regimes and the rise of nationalism. None of those things are connected to any rigid ideas of masculinity. But Saul hasn't constructed himself in a very—he's not the kind of man his father wanted to be. He's bisexual, his father's embarrassed by what he perceives as his son's femininity, so when Saul goes to communist Eastern Europe in 1988, the GDR, he's sort of really experienced an authoritarian regime because his father was so authoritarian, and the GDR is described as the fatherland. I draw parallels between the micro and the macro. It's another way of saying the personal and the political have to find new language for everything. And Jennifer, she says—there's quite a lot about spectres and ghosts, isn't there, in The Man Who Saw Everything?—she says, "There's a spectre lurking in every one of my paragraphs." What she means is, in a work of art, something is always hidden. All art is about what you reveal and what you conceal. Or it's about making something invisible visible, so when somebody looks at a Rothko painting which is an abstract, they can nevertheless find something in it of their mood perhaps. You can place yourself in that abstract image because Rothko has put paint on canvases with huge emotion. The idea that things are hidden in art, or the idea that we have contradictory thoughts, or the idea that sometimes we are delighted by our thoughts and sometimes we are tormented by them, or the idea that we can actually allow ourselves to think of this thought, which might be an uncomfortable thought, without censoring it, that kind of freedom which art offers is a very precious place at this point in our history. The way that it's written, the form in which this book is written, the sort of behaviour in writing values all those things which I've just said. When you say it's precious at this point in our history, do you think it is at this point more than any other point? No, I couldn't possibly ever say that, could I? It seems to me very valuable to be able to think freely. There's quite a lot about Walter Müller in the GDR. Saul says about Walter, "He never speaks his first thought." It's almost like he censors himself and speaks his third thought. It's not so much a case, says Saul about Walter, of him finding a flow of conversation. It's stopping the flow of conversation. There's so much surveillance in the GDR at that time. There were a few books and movies that came to mind reading this, stylistically. Susan Choi's Trust Exercise, which would've come out after you finished writing yours, but it's a book where the midpoint makes you reconsider what you've read so far. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, in that there's so many scattered pieces that when you rewatch or reread, these little details become keynotes. I was wondering what works of art you were looking at when writing this? All of Lynch's films are a big influence on me. The way he structures his films, the way they are so utterly character-led. Lynch spends a lot of time building a character. So does the costume department in his films. Once we can follow the characters, he does all sorts of stuff. Strange ruptures in time, he works with the unconscious and the conscious all happening at the same time. I love his storylines. Other than Mulholland Drive, which of his do you like? I think Blue Velvet is a favourite of mine. I watched a lot of Fassbinder movies. Fear Eats the Soul. I listened to some punk bands from 1988, I listened to the Beatles, I spent a lot time sitting out on the wall near my studio in London on Abbey Road, watching tourists cross that zebra crossing. I thought, "Oh yeah, they're enacting a piece of history in a very playful way." I read the historian Tony Judt's amazing book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, a favourite film of mine because that's actually got aerial shots of East Berlin divided by the wall. I taught writing at the Royal College of Art in London the animation department for some years, and I think that I write very visually and think cinematically. You can see that at the top of all my books is sort of a filmic device. If you turn to the book here... [reading] "Abbey Road, London, September 1988." That's something a film would do. I do it in my novel Swimming Home, "A mountain road, south of France, midnight." I do it in my novel Hot Milk. There are a quite a few devices from film that I use in my book. With something so subtly plotted, how much of that revealed itself during edits and rewrites? A lot of rewrites. It really takes me a long time, any novel I'm writing, to create the beginning, like the first twelve pages, because I put a lot of information into the first fifteen pages. That's going to develop and unfold a bit like a photograph later on. But The Man Who Saw Everything didn't take me quite as long as Swimming Home. With Swimming Home, I introduce something like eight characters to readers in the first twelve pages. If one of my writing students talked to me about writing that, I'd say, "Why don't you try three?" But I knew it was very important. I had to do it. This book, I did very long writing sessions on it because I had to know, as you can imagine, what was happening on page seventeen when I was writing page twenty-seven, and on page 193 what was happening on page three, because everything is reflecting and mirroring everything else. There's a Jaguar on Abbey Road, the car, and there's a jaguar, a cat, in East Berlin. They're both important. The cat is inside Luna Müller's head because she's got a phobia about cats. But also the Jaguar is inside Saul's head, because the car mirror exploded and shards of that mirror are inside his too. So they're thought experiments, or extended ideas like that. You will find that there is nothing in my books really that is there as a gimmick. There's a reason for everything to be there. That requires quite a lot of plotting and quite a lot of rewrites. I've read that you're attracted to modernist writers. As a writer with such an apparent style, with what you're doing with form, how do you handle that formal tension against a narrative, and not let one overwhelm the other? It feels like a modernist sensibility. I guess that the modernism that I'm influenced by is a very spare and economic sort of prose. Quite simple. Quite apparently simple, with a real depth underneath it. The writers that I love are Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, the French writer. Her novel The Lover is one of my favourites. I learned so much about writing and how to structure time from Marguerite Duras. Kafka is good. Katherine Mansfield. Virginia Woolf is so beloved to me, because she's so subversive in this delicate way, you know? Actually, I think modernist novels, or the ones that I'm thinking about, do tend to be quite short. I'm thinking about the British-Scottish writer Muriel Spark as well. I love her prose style. But it's not just modernism. I like novels for all sorts of reasons. My favourite British writer is J.G. Ballard, and he's just a novelist of ideas. He writes terrible dialogue. They all sound like 1950s BBC broadcasts, but I've sort of even become fond of that. It's always like a real intellectual rollercoaster of a ride with J.G. Ballard, and an entertainment because in my view novels have to be a work of art, and they have to be an entertainment. You have to put in the hours to reach that sort of desire in one's self to make that kind of thing. What about the novel specifically do you love? Which novel? Just, the novel. Which one do I love? No, the novel as a form. What draws you to it? Oh! Because you can do inner space, and you can do outer space. You can embody ideas, you can unfold arguments via the avatars of characters. You can go to any place and sort of stroll around, and you can take people at the margins of society and walk them right into the centre of your book. You can make them the centre of the world. When I first started writing, my female narrators who I walked into the centres of the fictional worlds that I was creating didn't have those rights in society, but you can give it to them in a book. You can put words into people's mouths. You can have a go at reaching impossible ideas, and see if you can land them. And most of all, the novel is a very good home for the reach of the human mind, and the mind can go anywhere. Does it make you feel powerful? It does make me feel powerful to write. When I started writing, I was a playwright. As a playwright, you're quite literally putting words into characters' mouths, and I learned to edit very quickly as a playwright, because if you write a bad line, that line sort of dies in their mouth, you quickly rewrite it and it begins to work. The pleasure of the novel is really the pleasure and entertainment of ideas and language.
‘Works of Art Are Made Out of Patterns’: An Interview with Ben Lerner

The author of The Topeka School on finishing a trilogy, maternal linguistic influence, and psychology. 

When Dr. Harriet Lerner, clinical psychologist and bestselling feminist author of The Dance of Anger, appeared on Oprah in the ’90s, there were no online platforms through which viewers could conveniently deliver their abuse. Instead, Lerner experienced it more intimately: through her home phone. In his acclaimed new novel The Topeka School (McClelland & Stewart), writer (and son of Harriet) Ben Lerner introduces us to Jane Gordon—a Kansas-dwelling clinical psychologist, bestselling writer, and mom of teenaged debate champion, Adam. She too receives disturbing phone calls to the family home, many transferred to her from an adjoining extension by her son. Jane manages the calls ingeniously. Pretending that she can’t hear, she asks the caller to repeat himself, to which he, somewhat bewildered, tries again. Jane repeats the tactic, apologizing for the poor connection. Eventually, the frustrated pervert/menace hangs up, threats ringing in his own ears.  In The Topeka School, Lerner tracks the variegated human voice through a series of intimate dynamics—anonymous phone calls, pleasure craft confessionals, clinical therapy, adult friendship, competitive high school debate, basement freestyle rapping. Sensitive but pitiless, Lerner dissects the language of misogyny, psychotherapy, extemporaneous speech, poetry, family, and most cuttingly, the shifting vernaculars of masculine rage. Within all that—and it is in the best sense all that—he produces a loving homage to parents and the adults who play them, and the radical process by which a mother makes a son. Periodically interrupted by the hissings of hot milk, I met with Lerner (Ben), who spoke extensively, analytically, and beautifully about The Topeka School, which concludes the trilogy of books that began with Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. Naomi Skwarna: Having completed this trilogy, do you think you might leave some of this territory behind? Ben Lerner: I think so. [Brief pause] I mean, I don’t totally. You know how this book is kind of about familial prehistory and political prehistory? I also wanted to write the prehistory of the other two novels. I think of The Topeka School as the unconscious of the other two books, and that if you’ve read Leaving the Atocha Station or if you read it after this one, then something like Adam’s lie about his mom being dead takes on a different resonance. When I finish any book, I feel like I’m never going to be able to write anything again. [Terrified chuckle.] But I think it’s done. When I was in Topeka recently, in part for this New York Times Magazine profile, my family—my brother and my parents—went to the Menninger Foundation campus [where Lerner’s parents had been psychologists]. They’d razed it. There’s nothing there except the clock tower, which was one of the central buildings. Everything else was gone and it’s all covered in prairie grass. I had this weird feeling of like... I was always working towards my Topeka book. Topeka’s mentioned to a certain degree in the other novels, and it’s still my hometown, but [The Topeka School] kind of exorcised this place for me. There was something about standing at that really important site, now overgrown with prairie that was like, very, very—a sense of satisfying completion and totally uncanny bizarre, weird, elegiac… You’re either going back before it ever existed, or the reality—that it’s gone. Which connects to what you said about it being the unconscious of the trilogy. You draw on a number of different discourses in your writing—poetry, politics, aesthetics—but in line with the idea of the unconscious, has psychotherapy and analysis played a role in your development as an artist?   Growing up, my parents didn’t act like experts. They didn’t claim any kind of authority about relationships. But there was a language about, you know, people would come over and they would end up drawing genograms, where you map out family relationships. So I do think there was a discourse about family patterns, and about the way patterns recur or don’t recur. There was a big belief in talk. Part of this book is about different regimes of talk. The Menninger Foundation and the household culture were all about talk, and then the masculinist culture outside the house, where if you’re talking—unless you’re talking shit—it’s a sign of emasculation. There are two really fundamental ways where therapy just being in the air—not even therapy as a practice but having that attuned-ness to family pattern and to language in the air—was really important. One was that, you know, works of art are made out of patterns and the recognition of certain kinds of patterning that can give the art object meaning. That’s very similar, in a way, to the work of a family systems therapist that’s looking for intergenerational patterns, and how and what meanings they open up for you.  The other thing is, the kind of listening that good therapists learn, that pressurized silence of therapy, is somewhat related to the pressurized silence of poetry. The idea that white space matters; the idea that real omission is significant. So I think [my parents] were influences in terms of thinking about language and even aesthetic form.  I guess you have no alternative. You didn’t live another life. I didn’t live another life. It’s funny, because if you would have asked me that question before I’d written any fiction? I think I would have said that language was really primary in the household. Now that I write fiction, kind of despite myself, parents started mattering in the fiction, whether it’s Adam Gordon’s lie about his mom, or in 10:04, how he thinks about being a parent as his friend’s mom is dying. The novels do think about the intergenerational, each book thinking about the intergenerational more. The Topeka School is really intergenerational in its perspective and concern with prehistory. The therapeutic focus on how parents replicate or break patterns that they’ve inherited from their parents has become more and more of a key concern. And that’s a traditional novelistic concern, so it’s a traditional novelistic meeting place between family systems therapy and that mode. It also feels like you’re writing about that traditional concern.   Yeah. Also, the therapy in The Topeka School is very celebrated in a certain way, like Jane’s different strategies of listening is a counter to a certain kind of weaponized masculine discourse. But it’s also messy and complicated, like the blurred boundaries— —Yes, between Jane and Sima. Also, I wouldn’t have written this book if I hadn’t become a father. It’s very much about remembering your childhood from your parents’ perspective, so in a way, it’s also about having to be the grown up, and the realization that there are no grown ups. The book thinks through regression—in a family, but also regression in collective life, and what happens when you don’t have a loving discourse. What happens in the absence of those sources of meaning? That’s a question that therapists care about historically; psychoanalysis applied to the collective level is what gives people a theory of authoritarian personalities: Trump is a bad father figure. If you look at American politics now, it’s like the Trump/Biden… it’s like a debate between which of the father figures—one is worse than the other—but it is a kind of collective regression about what kind of dad the country needs. They’re both nostalgia for a spectacularized image of the 1950s, right? One is a fascist libidinal discharge and the other is supposed to be a better version of that. The questions about family therapy scale to political issues, too. An act like writing as a version of the mother or a version of the father, it’s a process of identification. I’m really imagining what it’s like to be that parent, and also dis-identification because you’re no longer imagining those people just as your mom or dad, you’re imagining adults in the world.  Like Jonathan transitioning directly from meeting with Sima to visit Adam in the hospital after his concussion. It’s like these parallel worlds are converging—something that you don’t typically experience as a person, that level of omniscience. What you said about the pressurized silences—I noticed in your acknowledgments that you had thanked [the playwright] Annie Baker. She’s someone who I think of as using silence in a very significant way.  Yeah, I think that’s right. I have a funny kind of relationship to Annie’s work because I read it more than I see it. She’s an artist that I respect who has a very different way of thinking about language and silence, but a related way, so she was a good interlocutor for this book. You’re such different writers, of course, but when I saw that acknowledgement, I felt some shared psychological concerns. I don’t know Annie super well, but her mom is a psychotherapist and we’re the same age, so I think there are a lot of affinities and plenty of differences. I’m not very fluent in theatre discourse, I think that comes more from poetry for me, where tactical omission and the backdrop of silence is something that I think we share, as opposed to a certain kind of novelist that’s all about eloquence filling out a whole narrative. I’m much more episodic and interested in a different sense of duration, which probably does have more in common with somebody like Annie. She’s a really interesting writer.  Coming back to family patterns: Klaus seems like such an enigma. He’s a very real figure, but he also has this enormous past as told by Jonathan. He’s very much defined in the present by his past, while also playing important roles in Jane, Jonathan, Sima, and Adam’s lives. Something that made the real Menninger Foundation really fascinating, and what makes the Foundation in the book, I hope, interesting is that on the one hand it’s this big psychiatric institute in the middle of Kansas. But it also gathered all these Holocaust survivors and displaced Jewish analysts and psychotherapists who had arrived by whatever circuitous route from the disaster of Europe. Klaus represents the surpassing disasters of modernity, the historical trauma. He links the fascist disasters of Europe with the vacuity at the heart of these young boys in Topeka. Jonathan and Jane are displaced coastal Jews, so they are part of the history that involves somebody like Klaus, and also psychoanalysis and psychology, generally. Like, they used to refer to psychoanalysis as the “Jewish science.” So, Klaus is a figure of European history, Jewish history, and then he’s also a father and grandfather figure. He’s one of the voices in Adam’s head that he tries to access in distinction to his own grandfather’s voice. Klaus isn’t there to say, oh fucked up Midwestern men are the same as fucked up German men in 1939, but he is there as a figure of continuity with a certain history and thinking about authority and regression. The way that collective trauma is inseparable from the history of psychoanalysis as a practice, and psychology as a practice. Is Klaus based on a real person?  He’s a composite, but there were these Europeans in Topeka. Karl Menninger was really good at recruiting people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. There was a real man, Heinz Graumann, who only vaguely resembles Klaus, but had a similar experience in the Holocaust, and I would just see him around. He had been neighbors with Einstein and friendly with Jung and knew Freud a little. But remember, one of the book’s obsessions is this discourse in the ’90s about the end of history. Klaus is there as a figure of historical trauma, and a kind of ongoing historical trauma, which is about the regression to fascist unreason in these moments of a certain kind of identity vacuum. You can’t always see Klaus. He haunts a little bit.  He does haunt, even in the very different visual aesthetic you give him. He wears linen suits; he’s tall and sort of angular; he gives Adam this box with a secret compartment. There’s a kind of beauty and craftsmanship that he carries with him physically that the other characters, in ball caps and hoodies, don’t have access to. He has an old-world poise. And a nimbleness—like, he’s always acting and never acting. He’s a figure of a very ambiguous pronouncement. Yes, like the scene where he does the little performance with the paintings in the cafeteria. He’s an interesting counterpoint to Darren, another haunting character. Darren interests me because he does have this defined voice, but it’s so different from the other characters you’ve written. He’s imbued with your authorial insight, but he’s also himself—a character who seems deficient in understanding. You quite delicately establish his intellectual capacity as being less than his peers. The characters in your novels are always extremely intelligent and educated, and Darren seems quite decisively to be an exception to that. I wondered if he might be seen as a variation of Adam, without parents who care for him, and lacking the merits that allow him to leave Topeka. I imagine two Adams in this book. There’s the younger Adam in high school, talked about in the third person. Then there’s the older Adam who’s writing the book and ventriloquizing all these other characters. The Darren passages that are very hyper-literary in a certain way. They’re “more Faulknerian” as people keep saying, with a high level of artifice. I think that I was trying to acknowledge the limits of the older Adam’s access to Darren’s interiority. He’s trying to imagine Darren’s perspective, but the book wants to go out of its way to make you remember that those are passages written by Adam. They don’t pretend to have unmediated access to Adam’s interiority or to Darren’s interiority, because I think a lot of fiction isn’t just about being able to imagine other minds—it’s about confronting the limit of your ability to imagine other minds.  Darren doesn’t exactly speak. He quotes some shit talking and at the end of the book he’s mutely holding a sign. There’s some internal language, but it’s very much Adam’s imagination of it. One of the things the book wants to do is structurally acknowledge the degree to which Darren is a bit of a black box for Adam. And yet, they have all these similarities despite their radical difference in linguistic ability and privilege, because they’re both totally disfigured by this desire to pass as real men. They’re also linked in other ways that they’re not fully aware of, like Adam doesn’t know that Darren is Jonathan’s patient at the foundation, so there’s this way in which they’re kind of like brothers, although with radically different circumstances and capacities. So the older Adam is thinking about his similarities with Darren, in addition to their extreme differences. Adam has all these privileges and modes of support that Darren doesn’t have, and Adam has a lot of guilt about it. Darren is this man-child figure; no community can help them. He can’t be hospitalized—nobody can pay for it—and he can’t quite hold down a job. Then there’s the mock inclusion of him in the social scene, which goes horribly awry. The only family that will have him by the end of the book are the Phelpses, who are these extreme homophobes. He becomes an almost parodic image of masculine terror. He is, to a certain degree, a figure of white surplus rage. The only way to pass as a real man in his estimation is to become this homophobic, violent—it’s random violence, right, in this moment of terrified rage—outsider. But he’s also somebody to whom Adam is really intensely linked.  A defining image that you created for Darren is his moving back and forth through the banner that divides reality and, well, not-reality. Gradually, the divisions fade. It made me think of a line in 10:04, where the narrator, after behaving in an unusual way, thinks “how many out-of-character things did I need to do, I wondered, before the world rearranged itself around me.” Darren’s choices are less conscious, but he seems molded by them. He speaks these lines that he’s borrowed from other people, and they sort of become his truth. The Topeka School, perhaps more than your first two novels, see you going “out-of-character” as a writer. So I guess my question is, do you ever feel like the art, the choices you make in your writing, has the power to rearrange you in some way? Yeah, it’s a kind of scary thing, actually. Novels are really good at showing how social language circulates through us, the degree to which when we speak, we’re quoting—even in our most intimate moments. That doesn’t mean we have no selves, it just means that’s how language works. We have to make life out of testing this language that’s always already found. Sometimes that’s like poetry, like how in 10:04, the book ends with a combination of Ronald Reagan and Walt Whitman, but hopefully the language has been changed by the experience of the novel. Adolescence, which is what, to a certain degree, Adam and Darren are both in, isn’t just about coming into a body. It’s about coming into a language and trying to figure out what your voice is. In policy debate and freestyle, Adam is using this language that has basically no application to his experience—talking about how this health care plan is going to lead to nuclear holocaust, or rhyming about the spectacularized image of African American violence he’s gotten from hip hop. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous, and on the other hand, it’s an extreme case of what everybody is always doing, which is trying to make an identity out of collaging in the social materials of language. Both Darren and Adam are involved in that project, and they’re both failing at it in different ways because of the available cultural materials: misogynistic, racist, and evacuated in a lot of ways. Adam has a lot more resources. He has Jane’s voice in his head. He has Klaus’s voice in his head. He has more material to work with than Darren.  Part of what novels are about is showing how individuals are constituted out of these contradictory discourses that are coming from all these different places. This book is very much a genealogy of the voice that’s writing it. How did the adult Adam, who’s writing this book, get his voice? It’s impure and it’s entangled, and at the end in the playground scene, it’s not like he has it figured out. He still has all kinds of busted discourses of masculinity coursing through him. And in part, the recognition that he arrives at is not having figured it out, it’s I have a kind of emptiness and need to learn to speak again. I need to learn to listen again. I’m trying to write in other voices, [which introduces] a different set of risks for me. It’s intense to write in a version of your mother’s voice about a version of her abusive father. It’s mentally disorganizing. But I felt like I needed to risk that a little more for the trilogy to work. And it’s not like I really knew what I was doing, too. There’s that writing cliché, “write what you know,” but really you have to write in order to discover what you have to write. Did writing first-person versions of your parents’ voices make you consider or relate to them differently? Mothers are huge vocal influences. A lot of our voice does come from our parents—not only from your parents—but my mom’s voice has been very influential for me. It’s probably as influential a voice as I’ve had.  Did you read your mother’s writing when you were young?  Not when I was young, but I have read all her books since. We were just kind of similar, like we were more talk-y and similar in a way, and we were both worriers—and talkers about worrying. Writing in that version of my mom’s voice is kind of a midpoint between our voices. It wasn’t about imagining something radically different from me so much as recognizing how much of my voice has come from her. Writing as a version of your parents is also a kind of forensics investigation into your own voice. It’s not about forgetting your voice. Having kids really changed my relationship to my parents, in the sense that it made me admire and honor them more. Like, wow, they really did their best, but it also made me see them as—now that I’m my parents’ age when I was my girls’ age—it put me more in touch with the fact that they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, you know? Just like me! They’re doing their best and repeating patterns they only kind of understood, and they were caught up in stuff at work and in their relationships. They weren’t perfect calm adults. There’s more empathy but less idealization; admiration, but also thinking about them not as my mom and dad but as two people with histories and complexity. And doing that in conversation with them about the book. I didn’t write the book and then show it to them and get their blessing. I talked to them about it at every stage. It’s an homage, but real homage means you have to de-idealize. See these people as fucked up and complicated, too. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
‘We Put Extra Emphasis on the Sexy Stuff Because That Was His Shit’: An Interview with Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma

Talking to the editors of We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan about trans representation, the process of editing private writing, and why history is gay.

"I was surprised + truly delighted to find the display of affections + feelings going on in these reputed dens of anonymous sex," Lou Sullivan reflected to his diary in 1981. "Somehow those brief displays of tenderness between two men mean more to me than I can say." Sullivan was living as a gay trans man back when few people understood it to be a possibility, and in those journals, published this fall as We Both Laughed in Pleasure (Nightboat Books), he lingers over each passing loveliness: the glitter braided through a boy's hair, the jewelry brushing against his chest. The prose is both frisky and funny, even before he'd discovered Bryan Ferry or Jean Genet. "Mom said to me that it's 'improper' to wave at motorcycles," tween Lou wrote, already mastering the camp flourish. "I'm sure I care!!" When Sullivan moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s, people like him were barred from medical transition. He campaigned to abolish such rules, a sharpening political focus that led him to gather support groups, piece together archival history, and finally work with other men stricken by AIDS. Doctors scrutinize him; boyfriends capriciously abuse his devotion. But the last entries in We Both Laughed in Pleasure still shiver with joy, a grinning disbelief at remaining alive. One passage describes Sullivan's visit to a gay porn theatre, where a man sidles out from the empty darkness. Not until leaving does he realize that stranger was the ticket-taker—an encounter made lucid only as it ends, like the other side of a dream. I recently spoke with Zach Ozma and Ellis Martin, the editors of Lou's journals, about their process, their interpretations, and why history is gay. [[{"fid":"6706021","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"}}]] Chris Randle: How did you guys first learn about Lou Sullivan's work? Zach Ozma: I took this really great class when I was an undergrad and went to California College of the Arts. The class was at Mills College, we had a cross-registration thing—it was with Rebekah Edwards, who's this amazing queer-studies, critical-studies person. The class was on trans poetics, and one week she assigned us two essays about Lou Sullivan, one by Julian Carter that was more theoretical that was called "Embracing Transition, or Dancing in the Folds of Time." And then one was this biographical piece by Susan Stryker that's called, uh— Ellis Martin: "Portrait of a Trans Fag Drag Hag: The Activist Life of Lou Sullivan," or something like that. ZO: Something like that, yeah. So that's how I found out about him. EM: I think I just had a baseline understanding of Lou from being a trans person, and it wasn't until I got invited to do the project that I developed a more in-depth picture of Lou. How did that develop into this whole project? I had already seen... there's this little mini-documentary about Lou, where he has the bird on his shoulder, but I had never seen the diaries at all. ZO: After I took that class, I realized that the archive was located in San Francisco, and I was living in Oakland. At the time, it was on a long-term loan to the San Francisco Public Library, so you could just, like, show up, downtown San Francisco, sixth floor, go to the history room, sign in, and look at and touch the actual diaries. So I did a bunch of work about Lou as an undergrad, and then after I left school in 2015 I was talking to my dear friend Zoe Tuck, who's a poet, and at the time she was working with Timeless, Infinite Light, which was a small art-freak poetry press, also in the Bay Area. I actually found the first email about it the other day, and she was half telling me about her day, like, something totally unrelated, then went, "By the way, I'm serious about this book thing, I think you should edit the diaries and Timeless should put it out." And then we didn't do anything for, like, a year, because everyone had a million projects. Then we came back around and started working on it. I was talking with Emji Saint Spero, who's one of the main people at Timeless, and they were like, how much work do you think this is actually going to be? I was having trouble trying to explain that. I was like, we have to transcribe it, it's all the original diaries, it's not scanned, nothing's happened. I need an intern! So we put out a call for an unpaid intern, paid in book swag and T-shirts, and through that same teacher Rebekah Edwards, who initially introduced me to Lou, I was introduced to Ellis. Rebekah was like, "This student I have is absolutely the right person to do this." And Ellis ended up being the only person who submitted a cover letter. One other person applied, and then she disappeared off the face of the earth. Ellis's cover letter was really good, we met up, he was wearing a little Rush pin on his lapel, and the rest is history. Like, Rush as in the band? EM: No, Rush as in poppers [laughter]. One thing I'll say about that story, which I love hearing Zach tell, is that the initial call said something about being able to hang out with weirdos in the library, and asking for a more nuanced understanding of the evolution of queer language. I was interested in that because I went to Mills [College], and being in a place where I was surrounded by a lot of very young, vigilant queers, it felt good to be receiving this call from someone hoping to look at language in a little more flexible way. ZO: It became clear really quickly that Ellis had the other half of the set of skills that I needed. Like, I had a lot of ideas about the narrative structure and what parts of the diaries I was interested in working with, what type of look and feel I wanted to have the book at, but I had no idea how to get there ... Then Ellis came and made all these systems and spreadsheets and workflows that gave us a way to actually do the project, and we just did, for a really long time [laughs]. Timeless, Infinite Light closed earlier this year, and they looked at a few potential presses to finish the project—this book was their last unfinished one, and they ended up working with Nightboat. There were so many moments when things could have gone wrong, and instead they went really right. Timeless did everything up through the graphic design, which is great, because they were very strong on beautiful books, and then Nightboat has been working with us ever since. In the editors' note you mention that both of your visual-art practices shaped the book, and I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, like, how did you go about organizing all these disparate entries into a narrative? I was especially struck by how you removed all the dates from everything, I feel like that emphasizes some ephemeral quality... EM: I will say that we didn't remove all the dates, the chapters are organized [by time period]. Oh right, sorry, I meant the individual entries. EM: We wanted to give a sense of time, but maybe not one where you read one entry and then you read the next entry and you're comparing the time between the two, you know, as more of a linear timeline. At some point we realized that we just wanted to tell Lou's story in his own words, and all of his early writerly impulses were about telling a good story. ZO: There was sort of a formal aesthetic reasoning and then also a very practical reasoning that we ended up with, the practical reasoning being that it's a long book, and we got to have more of the actual content if we didn't put the date and "dear diary" every single place where they were originally. I remember this conversation in your apartment in Philly, we were trying to get the page count down, and you were like: "Oh, this is actually useless information that's taking up a whole bunch of line breaks, let's take it out and see how it reads." It was important to me from the beginning to end up with something novelistic. I've been thinking about that the past few days. As far as my art practice—I studied community arts in school, I do social-practice stuff, and a big focus of that is how to successfully convey information to people who are not in your discipline. I think by removing the date it just reads more smoothly, it's a more fun, accessible book. I know, Ellis, you've had a couple of archival history people miss the dates in the text, and I see that too, but I think it was one of those things where you're like, "This is what our project is and this is what our project is not," and we came down on that side of it. EM: Our hands are very much on this book, this is not a direct transcription of every diary entry that Lou Sullivan ever had, and the temptation to read it as such with the dates would be even greater. That's related to the graphic design too. We could've given it a boring-ass cover and made it look more formal, but we didn't do that because one of the main audiences we wanted to invite to Lou's world with us were the youths. ZO: Both of us having art backgrounds, working a lot with combined text and image in our practices, I think that also made some of the design decisions really clear to us. Like including the sort of modified plus-sign / ampersand that Lou uses. Joel Gregory at Timeless made that character, because that's how Lou writes "and." It made me think of the Prince symbol. EM: We made a sort of style guide for ourselves while we were transcribing— ZO: Don't say "we," because it was you [laughter]. EM: I just like order and structure! It feels appropriate, too, because he was such an aesthete, you know? There's all those descriptions of boys covered in jewels and bracelets. Strict chronology feels inadequate with a lot of his writing. ZO: At the moment I was getting into the archive, Lou was having this weird time on the internet—there was a little bit about him, he had a shorter Wikipedia page than he has now. I think the Rhys Ernst Grindr video, "Dear Lou Sullivan," was out, and then I think the mini-biography that he did was just coming out, but mostly there was a lot of the Lou Sullivan / Ira Pauly interviews that Megan Rohrer uploaded to YouTube. If you go to YouTube and type in "Lou Sullivan," you'll get maybe seven of them. Ira Pauly was this psychologist who did a bunch of interviews with Lou when he was sick, just recording his life history and transition history and illness. There's a bunch more at the GLBT Historical Society, but there's maybe forty minutes total in short clips on YouTube, and I just watched the hell out of those. The Lou that you see in there is really goofy and businessy. He's in a bad suit, he's having a weird hair moment, the lighting is crappy and it's like a thrown-together studio, probably in a medical school. And then I would go read the diaries that were really sexy, with a few pictures of him taped in, and you're like, "Oh, wait, this guy was actually a freak, who was really into leather and jewelry and being beautiful." Obviously if you're going to go get interviewed at a medical school and you're a serious guy, you're probably going to put on your suit and try to look regular, but it was important to me that we un-flattened Lou. I think we put an extra emphasis on the sexy stuff because it's so readable, but also because that was his shit, that was what Lou was about! After I first got the book, I went to Jacob Riis beach, and I remember reading it aloud to my companion that day. It had... a resonant effect [laughs], in the same way. They were like, "This is so hot." ZO: It's so hot! I was thinking of the other piece I sent you guys, that essay by Harron [Walker] about the history of the trans memoir, where she says, "it's barely treated like literature—instead, the trans memoir is usually treated as a litmus test for an imagined narrative of progress." And then she cites these writers who are doing more than that, like Janet Mock, Thomas Page McBee, T. Fleischmann. I feel like this book is also many things—it's erotica, it's social history, it's kind of a rock & roll book. Was that on your minds, the weight of these older memoirs shaped by cis agents and publishers and audiences? ZO: At times, I think. I think it honestly came up the most related to his illness, and to his surgeries, especially his bottom surgery, where he had a lot of complications. We cut down those sections a lot. He was a guy who, if he had a doctor's appointment, he was gonna write down everything that was discussed, the numbers and everything. And we cut a lot of that out, because it started to feel both potentially painful to one audience and too voyeuristic for another. So we definitely drew some lines in that way, but I also think that Lou's writing made it easy to not worry too much about it. What do you think, Ellis? EM: Yeah, I think absolutely that—like those Ira Pauly videos, we have many examples of cis people interrogating trans people like "here be my freaky pet," or something like that. Since we got to work directly with his materials as trans people, it felt important to preserve all his experiences, but it also felt important to trust our readers, and I think this has been coming up a lot in our conversations. From his fights with his bad boyfriends to his surgery complications, there's definitely moments where we trusted that readers would catch on to the pattern—instead of having this trauma-porn situation of putting too much focus on those things just because they are so weighted, we got to zoom out and retain the idea of pleasure. We've been talking about that word for so long. Part of what we were striving towards for ourselves, and for readers too, is to have something interesting and historical and funny and sexy, which has real interactions that trans people have that are maybe unfavorable or unsavory, but also to circumvent those opportunities for voyeurism. ZO: One example that I remember making the edit on in the text is, after Lou's first bottom surgery, one of his testicular implants rejected, and there's a lot of detail in the diaries, I would say literally a nauseating amount of detail about what is physically happening to him over the course of several days. And we truncated almost all of that to him, like—he's talking about how good it's going to feel when surgery is done, and how much he wants somebody to play with his balls, and then he goes, "well, ball now." We put in a little bit about him going to the doctor to get another implant put in, but we cut several pages of really detailed personal medical information that I don't necessarily know Lou Sullivan would've been all the way cool with revealing. In some ways you can tell he's writing for an audience, but it's also like, oh, you're literally keeping notes so you can go tell your doctor what happened and when. That's one moment where I think you're able to tell the story, get it across in his words, but you can do it in one sentence instead of five pages. EM: You also made the decision, I remember, to keep the phrase just as a single "ouch." That was another thing where it was our priority to show Lou having his experience of being in the world and his feelings, those internal moments that are why people read diaries. Or at least why I read diaries, I guess [laughs]. Taking out his documentation and refocusing it on his internal experience. One vital aspect of the book tracks the change in the medical-industrial complex and its approach to transness, which Lou was instrumental in. My understanding from his own writing and from other historical narratives is that all of these doctors were like, well, gender non-conformity is wrong, and being gay is wrong—but we can square the circle by recommending certain people for transition! ZO: Right. So Lou Sullivan showing up and saying, "Yeah, I'm a gay man, I want to align my body with my experience of the world," all of these doctors' klaxons were going off, like, what the fuck is happening, we can't allow this! Do you feel like some of that pathologizing attitude still remains in the medical system? ZO: In terms of the confluence of gayness and transness? Yeah. Or transness in general, really. ZO: Yeah. Short answer, yes [laughter]. I mean, it's not a contra-indication in the DSM anymore, to be gay and to be trans, but I think that there's still a degree of randomness about what clinician you end up with—like, are they super-chill, or are they going to be paternalistic? People still have weird insurance issues all the time. I think part of it is individual practitioners or bureaucrats that have a bee in their bonnet about gender, and part of it is a real failing in those actual systems, that just don't account for the trans subject. You know what I mean? There isn't actually a sanctioned, straightforward way to update your name and your gender marker on U.S. passports. There's things people have figured out where it's like, if you just fill out this form it's good enough, and probably if you get the right person who knows what you mean, most of the time it goes fine, but there's literally no path there. Much like when Lou Sullivan showed up at the gender clinic, there's no box to check that's like, "Are you still going to want to suck dick when you're done?" [laughter] I think there's still a degree of homophobia in a lot of medicine, especially around what your doctor asks you about your sexual practices. And I think there's an added layer of awkwardness and confusion, and a lack of real medical research too, when you stack transness on top of it ... There still haven't ever been any clinical trials around long-term effects of hormones. There's just a bunch of stuff that nobody's really researched. Anyway, that's my soapbox about subjectivity and the machine of bureaucratic medicine. I mentioned social history before, and San Francisco in the era that he's writing from there is pretty exhaustively documented, but I was fascinated in that sense by the Milwaukee sections, because it's kind of not. I know that Ellis is from Ohio, but there aren't too many gay memoirs from the Midwest in that era—and Lou had such an eye for social ritual, like, I love the entry where they go to a leather bar, "we're all girls pretending we're bigshot boys." ZO: Oh, it's so good. I don't even know if this is a question, but was all that a revelation for you guys in the same way? EM: Well, growing up in Ohio, I'm pretty aware of the lack of examples [laughter]. It's just something that, for me at least, I have to be constantly reminded how damn persistent the homosexual world is, the scope and timeline. We did a lot of research on early gay bars at the end of the project, to write the glossary, and seeing that there were thriving businesses in Milwaukee starting in the '50s, that's just what Lou encountered in his life, you know? Who knows how long this has actually been going on. It was just a good reminder that there have been weirdos doing weirdo things for a long time. ZO: I don't know why I wasn't surprised, but I don't think I was. I think it may be because I have hippie parents, so I'm like, probably everyone's gay everywhere [laughter]. That reminds me of a line I keep thinking about, which was said by a star of the official We Both Laughed in Pleasure book launch, Wayne Koestenbaum. He was speaking at, it was the launch for Max Fox's translation of that Guy Hocquenghem book, The Amphitheater of the Dead. And at one point he mused, in a very Wayne K. deadpan, "The past is... kind of gay, isn't it?" Which is really funny, but increasingly profound to me as well [laughter]. Like, the accretion of detail, the search for something desired in these coded passages... "Fellas, is it gay to dwell on a vanished time?" ZO: I'll send you that Julian Carter essay [on Lou Sullivan], you're gonna jam out on it. He's going into all the root words and talking about being enfleshed in unfolding time. EM: Something I will never get over about working with Lou, which you touched on before, is that it's kind of a rock & roll book. And I think rock & roll is an interesting example of one of those things that's also in the past and kind of gay. Queen is one of the biggest bands that you hear at sports venues—I mean, I haven't been to a sports venue ever [laughs], but still. Music can simultaneously be really visible and coded in different ways, different circumstances. I think it's something that Lou started to dig into even at an early age, he was obsessed with the Beatles, and then there was Bob Dylan, that's when he started shortening all the words in his diaries. His life shifted every time he found a new, supposedly straight rock & roll role model. One of my favourite recurring bits is when he's busting out Genet quotes on some glam-rock himbo. It might be overkill, but... ZO: Lou Sullivan was all about excess, especially verbally [laughter]. He's bringing, like, that Swinburne poem to the friend he has a crush on. I also think, to take it in a sad, bleak direction, we're also seeing the vision of a gay world at this moment, right before the time when so many people died. And it's like, the past is gay in a San Francisco full of alive gay people, when he first gets there. In these theaters and porn stores that are gone. All the gay bars, too. It's a special window that we often get in the big story, the big myth of San Francisco, that day-to-day life. Have you been in contact with any of Lou's old lovers or family about the book? This is half me wanting to yell at J. vicariously. ZO: We tried to find both J. and T. real hard, because their full names are in the original diaries. We abbreviated them because we couldn't find them. EM: In terms of family, his sister Maryellen, who was the person who actually delivered his materials to the [GLBT] Historical Society, one of his closest friends throughout his life, and was with him when he passed—she passed herself right as we were starting this project. ZO: Like, by the time we went to look her up, we found Maryellen's obituary. And two of his siblings died before him. ZO: Yeah. Yeah. Flame [one of Sullivan's brothers] is around, he talked with Brice Smith for the biography that came out a couple of years ago, and we had this moment when we were like... "Do we get in touch with the family?" But we weren't writing a biography, we were editing Lou's diaries, I think that it ended up feeling like it was on the other side of the project. Like, we're only working with these 24 diaries that he donated, that's bountiful source enough. EM: It was really special, because we had this contract with Timeless, so we got to work with our expectation that this would actually turn into a book, we didn't have to worry about shopping it around, or any intense expectations from publishers. We realized that we could work at our own pace, just the two of us and Lou, and that felt really generative. I was talking about J. with someone, actually the same person I read this book to at the beach, and we kind of assumed that he's deeply closeted with a family somewhere? Those are definitely the most depressing parts of the book to me, almost moreso than when Lou is really sick, because J. is just so... fickle and manipulative. ZO: And it lasts for ten years! Yeah, Lou basically detransitions temporarily for him. Like, J. is pretty clearly at least bi, and as much as I love some self-hating-bisexual representation, it's just so fucked up. It seems like, as long as Lou hadn't medically transitioned, when he could still read Lou as existing in some imagined interzone, he didn't freak out, but as soon as he escapes J's eye in that way it's all over. EM: Yeah, J. sucks [laughter]. ZO: Yeah. Although I also want to advocate a little bit for the beginning of their relationship—like, they really should've broken up after 1974, call it quits, but there is some sort of intense, beautiful, adolescent exploration that they do together. When he's dressing up J. and imagining that they would go to an event with J. in mink and Lou in leather, or that Valentine's Day where he buys roses for J. and M. and he's like, "I bought flowers for my two ladies." I think there was this moment where they aligned in the same place, that allowed Lou to crack something open. I think you're totally right, and J. couldn't handle it, he couldn't deal with the implications of that. EM: Because Lou was really trying to build a world. ZO: Yeah. J. was okay with having a bounded fantasy. EM: Sorry J., if you're out there [laughter]. Yeah, what if he finds this and yells at me? EM: He's not going to yell at you! Well, maybe he's still hot [laughter]. EM: That's all you can hope for. Do you know if Lily Tomlin [who was apparently familiar with Sullivan's writing] knows about this book? ZO: Okay, this is what I've been saying, we have to get her a copy! I don't know where to start. But if you know how to get in touch with Lily Tomlin, I really want her to read this, I'm a huge fan. There's a retrospective of her movies going on here right now, I wish I'd gone to the opening night and just, like, thrown a copy of the book onstage. Maybe that's a little extra. EM: Like the rose! ZO: At one point when we were working on this, Ellis was staying with me for a little bit, and we were just watching Grace and Frankie all the way through, so by the time we got to the part where Lou talks about Lily Tomlin we both were extremely excited. EM: There's a few [celebrity cameos], like, there's an excerpt I just reread where he sees Christine Jorgensen speak with J., and also goes to see Lou Reed for the first time in the same week. Those are superstars! Really particular in a trancestors way, and otherwise in a freaky-weirdo-baby way. The poignancy of those young interactions with famous people that he has, it's interesting to see it turn around towards the end of his life, he's getting recognized—not at all by the mainstream, but by these few select people. I always think about this—wait, Zach, can I talk about our birth years? ZO: Yeah, that's fine. I'm young! EM: So, Lou died in '91, Zach was born in '92, and I was born in '93. It feels like this wild crossing of paths, holding a piece of the people who are no longer with us. Part of them is alive because you have access to their presence, or have had it in the past. Or the fact that Lou Sullivan died on Lou Reed's birthday. There's all these layered interpretations of experience. ZO: My fantasy now is that Lou gets to become a style model figure, for some kiddo who's piecing together the things. Is there anything else that you guys want to say about the book, or maybe about the reaction you've gotten to the book? EM: Copies of the book are going out, people are getting to respond to it in ways that feel a little bit less solicited than with galleys, because that's a more formal interaction. And I had a really nice conversation with Marlo Longley, who we're working with on one of our events; he was just saying that one of his big takeaways from the book... is that people who might be a little less knowledgeable get to see a real-ass trans person from the past. And also specifically cis gay men interacting with gay trans men, there's some cis gay men who have just been in their own bubble, they get to see how hard Lou worked, how welcomed he was in his way, and also sort of not fully visible or present in the world. Getting to that moment where hopefully more gay trans people will get laid [laughter]. ZO: I think Lou Sullivan's already been important to a lot of people, and I'm hearing from a lot of people who are so excited to have this thing you couldn't get unless you went to the archive. And then I also have been hearing from people who are new to him, friends and acquaintances, people have texted me photos of the books they just got in the mail, who I didn't think would even be interested. Someone I know from a totally different context came out to me as stealth trans, and I won't say more about that for their privacy, but we had a really sweet hangout talking about the book. So far it's been this beautiful response. I got a nice email the other day and had a little cry, because I just think that if Lou were alive, he would be very excited and flattered and also handling it so gracefully. I think he was a little bit born ready to be known. That's part of why he's so good at self-documentation. I'm excited for him to be known, I'm excited for him to be unforgettable, when I think he was really afraid that he would be forgotten, both as an individual and an example of a type of person. Photo of Ellis Martin and Zach Ozma by Amos Mac.